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Sneak Preview -- Born to Sin

Sneak Preview -- Born to Sin

Book 4: Sinful, Montana

Available now in ebook, paperback, and audio!

 

1 – Boris and Natasha

Beckett Hughes wasn’t expecting the crows.

“Nah, it’ll be good,” he was saying to his five-year-old son, Troy, as they walked across the courthouse square in Sinful, Montana. “Same as in Oz, and you liked school there. You’re here in time to start kindergarten, like all the other kids. Playing,” he continued, somewhat lamely. “Learning things. All that.”

Troy, whose hand Beckett was holding, didn’t answer, just took another lick of his ice cream, which was melting all over his hand. Beckett had finally realized that you had to grab an extra serviette every time, though, so he was marginally prepared.

As for Janey, she’d finished eating her own ice cream—tidily, especially considering that it didn’t come in a neat block here and was instead mashed messily into a dripping cone—and was walking a step ahead, possibly because Beckett and Troy weren’t cool. There were other kids hanging about on this hot August day, and some of them might presumably be going to her school in a few weeks. God forbid they’d think Janey had a parent instead of being hatched from an egg.

Beckett had never assumed he was cool, but he’d never assumed he wasn’t, either. Dads didn’t get to be cool, apparently.

“How do you know it’ll be the same?” Janey asked, forgetting to ignore him. “It’s not the same. It’s a whole different country. Troy and I don’t exactly have friends here, either.”

“You have me,” Beckett said.

“It’s not the same thing,” she said.

“Go with what you’ve got,” Beckett said. “Which is me.” They were strolling back to the car after that stop for ice cream, but he was clearly going to have to think of something else fun to do, now that he’d taken a half-day off that he couldn’t afford in order to enroll the kids in school. In the heat of summer with a body of water nearby, any self-respecting Aussie knew what that would be. You went to the beach. Unfortunately, with Troy, that was out. What else did you do in a small town? He was coming up blank.

There was so much about this decision that he hadn’t thought through well enough.

“If we got a dog,” Troy said, “I wouldn’t be lonely even if I never have any friends again in my whole life. Dogs are friends already.”

“You mean ‘automatically,’” Janey said. “And Dad told you. We don’t even have our own house, and there’s nobody at home to take care of a dog during the day anyway. It’s not like before Mum died, when she was there when we got home. It’s going to be like last year, except we have to go to Mrs. Hobarts’ house instead of Tillie’s. Mrs. Hobarts isn’t going to want to take care of a dog. Simply not possible.”

She pulled out the “simply not possible” as if she’d read it in a book, which she probably had, and Beckett thought somewhat guiltily about Mrs. Hobarts. He wouldn’t have been rapt to spend many hours in that fussy little house, and she was older than God. She was also just down the road from the place that Brett Hunter, his boss, had loaned him until the new house was ready, and it wasn’t easy to find childcare in the States. Mrs. Hobarts was going to have to be it.

Troy said, “I know. I just wanted a dog,” in a sad little voice, and Beckett gripped his hand tighter and thought, I’m not doing enough here. He didn’t think, Was this a mistake? because there was no point in thinking that. It was done, and this was their new start. All their worldly possessions were loaded into a container on a ship that was currently in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hunter had offered the post as construction manager on his upscale new ski resort, and had said he’d put him to work on the next job when that came up. Beckett had accepted, because he’d had to do something, and here he was.

He stopped thinking about it, because Janey said, “Those birds are attacking that lady, Dad!”

Troy said, “They’re swooping at her! They’re going to peck her!” He was off, then, wrenching his hand from Beckett’s and running as fast as his legs would carry him toward the woman. His ice cream fell from the cone onto the footpath, and he didn’t even notice.

The woman was striding along toward the building’s entrance, long-limbed and purposeful, in a sleeveless black dress that reached her knees. As Beckett picked up the pace, he realized she was … talking? to the big black birds, who were definitely swooping around her, cawing in their harsh croaks. Those were crows, and she certainly looked like she was having a conversation with them.

Odd.

The crows cawed some more and flew patterns over her head, and Troy jumped up and down at them, waving his arms and screaming. The crows began swooping at him, then, and the woman called out and ran toward him.

Beckett was a second behind, with Janey bringing up the rear. He’d have collided with the woman, in fact, if he hadn’t skidded to a stop just in time. Troy was sobbing in fear, his arms over his head, and a half-second after the woman reached to pull him in, Beckett scooped him up in his arms and held him close. The crows, meanwhile, cawed and swooped some more.

Somebody had made a film about this once, hadn’t they? It hadn’t ended well.

Janey said, “Dad!” and Beckett took one hand off Troy and put it on her, feeling as if he’d stepped into some surreal alternate universe, or possibly that film. And they said Australia had aggressive wildlife.

The woman was telling Troy, “They’re harmless. They’re my friends. Boris and Natasha. They thought you were attacking me, that’s all.”

Beckett said, “You’ve got ice cream on you now, sorry.” Because she did. Either she’d grabbed at Troy or he’d grabbed at her, because there was a glob of chunky brown on her dress. To be precise, on her breast. He stopped looking, pulled that extra serviette out of his pocket, handed it to her, and made a vague gesture in the general vicinity.

She wasn’t as fussed as he’d have expected. She looked down at her breast, said, “Ugh,” and began wiping the stuff off. And Beckett did not watch.

It was a simple dress. It was also what you’d call a slim dress, and she filled it out nicely, from his point of view. Australian style, he’d call that body, long and lean and athletic, like a surfer. But he wasn’t watching.

She said, “I wasn’t expecting an adventure today. You never know, I guess.”

Janey asked, “Are you trying to be a witch?”

“What?” the woman asked, and finally stopped massaging her breast, which was a relief.

“A witch,” Janey said. “You’re wearing a black dress and you have black hair like witches generally do. You also have weird animal friends, and all the stories about witches are from the States. It would be a logical assumption. Witches aren’t real, of course, but you could think you were one anyway. People think all sorts of illogical things, probably because they want to make their life more exciting, and they think science and things in the real world are dull. Wicca is a religion, for one thing, and that’s about witches.”

“I may agree with you about people and their logic skills,” the woman said, “and also that science is more exciting than fantasy, but there are stories about witches in most cultures.”

“No, there aren’t,” Janey insisted. “In all the movies about witches, they talk like Americans. I’ve never seen any movies about witches where people have a regular accent.”

“Why do you think witches would have American accents in the movies?” the woman asked.

“Because they do,” Janey said. “Because they’re American.”

“Where are movies made?” the woman asked.

“Oh.” Janey considered. “Most of them are made in the States, I guess.”

“There you go,” the woman said. “The idea of witches has come from everywhere, though. Europe. The Americas. Africa. They’re not about where you live, they’re more about men’s fear of powerful women, and of the Other. And, of course, everybody’s fear of random harm. We’d all like to make sense of that.” She pulled a plastic bag from her purse as she spoke and tossed a handful of something on the ground a couple of meters away. Peanuts in the shell, that was. The crows, who’d backed off but were still circling, gave some final caws, settled on the ground, cocked their heads, examined Beckett and the kids suspiciously as if expecting trouble, then picked up their peanuts and flew away.

The woman was still looking at the kids, especially Troy, who’d stopped crying but was still sniffing hard and leaning into Beckett. Beckett tensed, ready to hear something about his kid’s timidity, or possibly ready to fight about it.

What she said, though, she said to Troy. “Have you seen birds do something that seemed scary before?”

Troy nodded vigorously, and she asked, “What did they do?” Sounding truly interested.

This was a bizarre conversation. The woman was … well, hot, even in that plain black dress. Her arms were fiercely toned and golden brown, her cheekbones high, her nose long and straight, her eyes a deep brown, her short, wavy hair shining as black as a … well, as a crow’s wing. It was a strong face, an uncompromising face, and she wasn’t quite pretty. Her beauty ran too deep for that, down to the bone structure. Down to the personality, maybe, because she moved like a woman who knew exactly where she was going and how to get there.

Confidence. Purpose. Passion. He didn’t get many lustful shots straight to the groin anymore, but he was getting one now.

Troy said, “They swoop at you, and they can scratch you and knock you off your bike so you fall in front of a car and you die. You have to wear a special helmet with plastic things sticking out so you’re scary and they won’t swoop at you as much, but you don’t even have a helmet.”

Beckett said, “Magpies. In nesting season.”

“Oh.” The woman considered that. “I wouldn’t like a crow dive-bombing me, but Boris and Natasha don’t. They just come for peanuts. Sometimes they bring me presents, too. I have a whole collection of crow-provided small change. Also a few buttons and a screw.” She looked at her watch. “I have to go.” With that, she headed into the building, her calf muscles flexing as she took the steps two at a time. She left with not so much as a flick of her hair, because it settled into place perfectly around her head as if it knew what was good for it.

Beckett set Troy down, and the boy grabbed his leg and said, “Carry me.”

“I’ll hold your hand,” Beckett said. “No worries, though. If the birds come back, I’m taller. They’ll swoop on me first.”

“But I don’t want them to swoop on you,” Troy said.

“They’re not swooping on anybody,” Janey said. “They’re up in the tree. Though you were brave, I think,” she added fairly, “running at them, if you were scared.”

“Too right,” Beckett said.

“I’m not brave,” Troy said. “I asked you to pick me up.”

“Everybody’s scared afterward, once they think,” Beckett said. “The brave part is what you do before you think.”

“Oh.” Troy considered. “Then maybe I was brave.”

“Dad,” Janey said. “Your shirt.”

Beckett glanced down. Well, bugger. His once-white T-shirt was smeared with brown goo and bits of sugary cone. Even as he watched, a messy glob fell off onto the footpath with a plop.

Janey said, “It’s on your face, too.” He put a hand up. Yes, it was, right there on his chin, and he didn’t even have a clean serviette anymore. Also, he couldn’t help but notice that he was almost the only youngish bloke in this town wearing shorts, even on a hot summer day. Apparently the only acceptable uniform in Montana was jeans. Seemed daft to him, and uncomfortable, too, but there you were. He wouldn’t even mention the thongs. Didn’t everybody wear thongs in summer? Socks were hot.

Back in the day, he’d been a fit, sporty Aussie with a surfboard, an endless tan, a cocky grin, and a bulletproof belief in himself. If he’d run up to rescue some girl being attacked by birds, she’d have been grateful, and she’d probably have given him her number, too. Now? He was weirdly dressed and covered with mashed ice-cream cone, his kid had a fear problem, his other kid had a criticism problem, there was some gray amongst the whiskers when he shaved, and the Bird Whisperer had run away from him like she’d seen enough.

He still knew how to surf. He knew how to manage a project, too. He could drive any vehicle and fix most things that broke. He wasn’t a completely rubbish cook, and he wasn’t half bad at sex, at least he hadn’t been back when he was actually having it.

But he did not know how to be single.

 

2 – Monkey-Dog in a Rubbish Bag

The first day of school started with the monkey-dog. After that, it got stranger.

Beckett had been called cocky in the past. Also arrogant. And an arsehole. The first thing was what women who fancied him said, or they’d used to. The second was what those women had said when they didn’t fancy him anymore. The third was what he heard on a jobsite, but when you were a construction manager with an owner who never raised his voice but expected the job to be done right the first time anyway, a contractor and subs who always thought they knew better, and a ridiculous number of millions on the line, you had to expect that. He wasn’t fussed.

The thing he wasn’t used to? Having a good-looking woman let him know he was incompetent. In front of his children.

Again.

He really had lost it, then.

No crows today, and the non-witch—because, yes, it was her—was in a swim costume. That was because they were at the beach. Not a proper beach, with seashells and surfers and white sand so fine, it squeaked, but there was sand here, and there was water. Specifically, a lake. They weren’t very close to the lake, of course, because of Troy, but it was out there.  

The bird-woman’s swim costume was red, but it wasn’t anything close to a bikini. It was a tank of the kind generally seen on swimmers crouched on starting blocks. A Speedo, in fact, and not a sexy one. She was also wearing a bright-yellow neoprene swim cap and had goggles on top of her head and the goggle rings around her eyes to match.

So why had he kept looking when she’d started wading out of the water? Because he’d recognized her, and because of the body inside the costume.

He couldn’t help it. He was Australian, which meant he liked sport and people who did it. Some men went for the “display model” type who didn’t like to get her hair wet, and the skinnier the better. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but tall, confident women with muscular shoulders and bloody fantastic legs turned his crank, especially when they wore red, and most especially when they reached back and snapped that red tank down over the curves of their arse.

He didn’t quite watch, of course, just like he hadn’t watched last time, with the ice cream. Because he wasn’t an arsehole, he had a daughter, and he was married. Not actually married, but he felt married, still, at crunch moments like this. Attracted like he wasn’t married, but guilty like he was. It was confusing.

Also, school started in fifteen minutes. The second new school year he’d handled by himself since Abby died, which should’ve made it easier. That other first day hadn’t been in Montana, though, and Troy had woken crying with a nightmare again last night and ended up in Beckett’s bed. Beckett had told him, “We all have to be strong now,” and Troy had wailed, “But I’m not s-s-strong. I’m a little kid.” Obviously, it had been the wrong thing to say, and never mind that his own dad would’ve said worse.

Kindergarten could be hard, though, he guessed. Kindergarten in a new country, without your mum, was probably worse.  

The Swimming Bird-Woman said again, “You should check for a phone number.”

“Cheers,” he said. “Got that.” And continued his attempts to read the muddy, scratched tag as the filthy little dog squirmed in his arms. He’d pulled into the beach carpark on his way to (A) his kids’ first day of school, and (B) his own very important next day at his new job, in order to rescue it. The dog didn’t seem to agree on the necessity.

It should’ve been a fat little thing. It was that kind of dog. Fawn body, black face with a wrinkled brow, and huge black eyes like either a monkey or a pug, not to mention skinny legs and tail like no pug ever. The dog wasn’t fat, though. His ribs showed, in fact, and when Troy had spotted him and yelled at Beckett to stop the car, the dog had been half inside a ripped-apart rubbish bag. Beckett had thought at first that he was an American-sized rat.

There should be another word besides “dog” for animals like this. A dog was a border collie, out with the sheep. A Labrador, going after a duck. A bloodhound, on the scent. Those were dogs. They could do a job. They could look halfway dignified. They couldn’t fit in a purse.

The rat-dog squirmed hard again, then licked Beckett’s hand. Beckett rubbed one soft, floppy ear between his fingers and said, “Mixed signals, I’d call that. Never mind, little fella. We’ll get you back home.”

Troy said, “He wants to get down.”

“We can’t let him down,” Janey said. “He could run away again.”

“If I ran back to the car and got my lunch,” Troy said, “we could give him a sandwich. Then he’d want to stay. Dogs like sandwiches. You drop pieces of it along like a trail and it makes the dog tame. I saw it on telly.”

“Maybe,” the bird-woman said. “But he could also take the sandwich and run off. Don’t put him down,” she told Beckett.

“No worries,” he said. Clearly, she thought he was an idiot.

“You can give him to me to hold,” she said. “Since you’re having trouble holding him and reading his tags.”

He was starting to understand why people called him those things, because he was getting a little stroppy at her continued vote of no confidence. “You can dial for me,” he told her, then handed over his phone, since she hadn’t even stopped for her belongings before hurrying over on those long legs to join them, just about the minute he’d picked up the dog. He’d thought, Nice, but I don’t have time, completely forgetting about his new non-appeal.

“Read out the number,” she said in a businesslike way, not even looking at him, because, yes, he clearly was that arrogant, and she wasn’t impressed.

He did, and when she said, “It’s ringing,” he took it from her hand. She made a little protest-noise, and he glanced at her, then put the phone on speaker. Fine. Everybody could listen. He still wanted to know why she thought the dog was her problem, though. He was handling it.

Three rings, and the person on the other end of the line said, “If you want to sell me something, fu—”

Beckett talked over him. The speakerphone had been a bad idea. “Did you lose a dog?”

“Wait a sec,” the bloke said. After that, there was the sound of footsteps.

Troy said, “He doesn’t sound nice.”

Beckett said, “No, he doesn’t.”

The bloke said, “I heard that. What, I’m supposed to be happy the little turd ran off again? Yeah, he’s not out there. Must’ve gone through the hole in the fence again.”

Beckett said, “Ah. Cheers.”

“What? Cheers? We having a beer or something? Hey, you’re obviously out running around, so swing by and drop him off for me, will you? I have to get to work.”

“Yeah,” Beckett said. “I’ll definitely do that.”

“Wait. Let me give you the address,” the man said, completely missing the sarcasm. “If I’m not there, just dump him over the fence. Don’t take him to the shelter. They’ll charge me out the ass to get him back, since he’s not neutered. Like I shouldn’t be able to decide that for my own dog.”

“Sounds like he’d be better off in the house, then,” Beckett said, testing the waters.

“He’s an outside dog,” the man said. “Belonged to my ex, and now that she’s gone, he’s a watchdog, because he yaps like crazy. About all he’s good for. Not that it’s any of your business.”

When Beckett rang off, the woman said, “That didn’t sound good, but the dog is the property of the owner. You might want to take him to the shelter instead and report what the owner said. If his living situation isn’t acceptable, Animal Control may act. He seems like a pretty small dog to be living outside, though he looks happy.”

Since the animal was standing on his hind legs and licking Beckett’s cheek at the moment, you could say that. He lifted the dog off him, stroked the wrinkled forehead with a thumb while the dog kicked its legs in a comical way, and said, “I doubt the SWAT team is going to be swooping in based on my report.”

“Dad,” Troy said. “You can’t take him back to that man! He was running away! He was trying to escape.”

Janey said, her ponytail all but quivering. “Look how dirty he is, Dad. Look how skinny he is. We have to rescue him.”

“Yeah. I know.” His hand could practically encircle the dog’s midsection. He had big hands, but still. “I’ll ask around and find somebody who wants him,” he decided. “That way, the bloke can’t get him back. There’s bound to be somebody. Not like he’d eat you out of house and home. He can’t weigh more than four kilograms. He’s a bit ugly, but …”

“Dad,” Troy said. More like a wail.

“Why can’t we keep him?” Janey asked.

“It’s not really finders keepers,” the woman said. “You should at least check out his living situation for yourself instead of assuming.”

“No,” he said.

“That’s—” she began.

“Sorry,” he said. “Kids will be late to school. Come on. Let’s go.”

Why was she giving him stick about this? He was doing the right thing. An outside dog? Yeah, no. It was August. It was hot. He’d have bet money the dog’s water bowl was empty half the time.

What was he going to do all day with a dog, though? A day he was meant to spend on the jobsite?

Also—they were going to be late. First day of school. Late. First the rest of it, and now this.

They’d started out fine this morning. Heaps of time, but Janey had said, when he’d told her to get in the car, “You can’t let Troy go to school with those pieces of hair sticking up.”

“He’s five,” Beckett had said. “It’s interesting, maybe. It’s a style.”

“Dad,” she’d said. “You have to fix it. He’ll be bullied!”

“What, over his hair? Nah. He’ll be fine. He’s not bad at sport, and that’s what counts.”

“Excuse me,” Janey said, “it’s the States? How do you know what counts?”

“It’s always what counts,” he said. “Trust me.”

Janey sighed. Pityingly. “They have bullying all the time here. I read about it. You can’t just send Troy in there like you’re putting him into a … a bullfighting ring. You have to prepare him.”

“I did prepare him,” he said. “I prepared you both. School supplies, lunchboxes, all that.”

“Mum would say to fix his hair,” Janey said. “The first day is your first impression.”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll do it. The teacher may bully him if he’s late, though.”

“Teachers don’t bully,” Janey said, even as Troy said, “I don’t want the teacher to bully me! We have to hurry!”

Yeah, he was acing the whole single father thing.

* * *

Four minutes until school started. Never mind. Nearly there.

Troy said, from his booster seat in the back, “Will you cuddle the dog heaps today, Dad? He’ll probably be scared, because he won’t be at home. And you should feed him something nice, like lollies. He already ate my sandwich, so he can have pudding now. Maybe he should have an ice cream, so he can get cooler.”

“You can’t feed a dog sweets,” Janey said. She was holding the dog, who was licking her face now. If it had worms, Beckett was in trouble. “It’s bad for them. I could take him with me, Dad. I could put him in my backpack and just let him down to go potty.”

“That’ll be an excellent way to make an impression on your teachers,” he said. “No, you’re not taking him. I’ll take him. I’ll put him in a box or something in the trailer.”

“Don’t leave him in the car,” Janey said. “Cars are too hot for dogs. They can die.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I do know that, OK?”

Getting close now. They’d make it. Just.

That was when the lights started to flash red on the railroad crossing just as the car ahead of him went over the track. There were no trains as long as U.S. trains, especially the coal trains that ran through Montana. Those were endless.

He was already looking fast to the left. Nothing. Looking to the right. Yes, a train, sitting still down there, stopped.

The white arms waggled and jerked, about to start their descent. He put his foot down and  followed the other car over the crossing.

“Dad,” Janey said. “The lights were flashing!”

“I know,” he said, the school in his sights. “Cutting it a bit fine. Don’t do that when you’re old enough to drive.” There was still no sound of a train coming behind him, though. Perfectly safe, like going through a yellow light. Not reckless and stupid.

Well, possibly reckless and stupid.

No, definitely reckless and stupid. He’d sit the kids down tonight and tell them …

A white SUV followed him into the school carpark.

With its lights flashing.

And a blip of its siren.

Brilliant.

 

 

3 – A Flamin’ Galah

On a Thursday in mid-September, with the tamaracks turning yellow on the mountain, Quinn McLaughlin looked at her watch and headed out her office door and toward the courtroom. Susanne, one of the deputies, was telling Andrea, the bailiff, “Yeah, that’s him. Just as hot as they say, too. Kind of a hardass, I hear.”

“Really?” Andrea asked. “He looks like a surfer dude. Never mind, hardass works too. No wife, right?” She saw Quinn and jumped a little. “Ready, Judge?”

“Ready,” Quinn said.

Andrea went through the door first and called out, “All rise,” and Quinn spared a moment to wonder who they’d been talking about. Somebody in her court, which told a story all by itself. She could wonder why smart women could be so stupid about men, but she’d given up trying to figure that out a long time ago. She walked to the bench, sat down in her high-backed chair, settled her black robe around her, adjusted the microphone, and got ready to begin. Traffic court. That would make an easy morning, unlike this afternoon, when she had preliminary hearings covering just about every disgusting felony under the sun. Being a judge wasn’t always good for your faith in humanity.   

The bailiff prepared to call the first case, and she looked up. And got distracted for a moment.

Well, yeah. There, in the second row. Surfer-dude looks, check. Slightly weathered face, almost-shaggy sun-streaked hair, casual, confident demeanor, and a whole lot of long, lean muscle. And, she happened to know, an accent that was more of a knowing drawl. English, she thought, but not the upper-crust kind. Wherever that accent was from, it must be the hot-guy place.

He was with his kids again. That was weird. She tore her gaze away and focused on the seventeen-year-old kid who was standing before her now, pleading Not Guilty to a charge of speeding in a school zone and excessive noise, explaining that his tires had been low, which was why they’d squealed, and he hadn’t meant to accelerate that much. Quinn said, “You peeled out hard and fast from a stop sign. In a school zone. Not too many ways to slice that. You’re impulsive enough to do something like that, and you’re seventeen. How much more impulsive is a seven-year-old going to be when she sees her mom across the street? Do you want to find out how it feels to hit a little kid?”

The boy’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “No, ma’am.”

“Keep that image in mind,” she said. “It’ll help. Bad things don’t just happen to other people. Guilty. Fine is eighty dollars plus court costs. Next case.”

Surfer dude was the eighth case. When the bailiff called his name and he walked forward, all confident, loose-limbed grace in dark jeans and a buttoned white shirt, she read the charge and took his plea. Guilty, so why hadn’t he just paid the fine and avoided this? Maybe he didn’t know he could.

But—the charge. She looked at him in astonishment. “Mr. Hughes. You tried to outrun a train?”

“I did.” There was that accent again. He wasn’t flushed, and he wasn’t rattled. Casual still.

She folded her hands on the bench and leaned forward a little. “This was on August twenty-fifth. In other words, the first day of school. Ten minutes after I saw you at the lake.”

“Yes,” he said.

“I’m guessing,” she said, “that you had your kids in the car. That you were taking them to school while you disregarded the warning signals of an approaching freight train.”

“Yes,” he said again. “Not my finest moment.”

“I told him.” That was the girl, who was probably eleven or twelve and had the kind of flaxen curls and blue eyes you usually saw on Christmas angels. 

Quinn leveled her gaze on her. “Hello again. What’s your name?”

The girl did flush, but she said, stoutly enough, “Janey Hughes. I’m his kid.”

“Well, Janey,” Quinn said, “much as I agree with your assessment, I’m on record here. That means the court reporter is typing everything we say, and it means nobody talks except the defendant—your dad—and me. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” Janey said, then burst out, “But he is careful about us being safe. It was just because we were late, because of Bacon.”

Beckett said, “The dog.” Looking resigned.

“Yes. Well—” Quinn began.

“And anyway,” Janey rushed on, “Dad’s not really used to doing things like the first day of school yet. He only started after our mum died. He didn’t even fix my brother’s hair until I told him. That was the first thing that made us late. He was starting kindergarten.”

“I’m very sorry about your mom,” Quinn said, “but you need to stop talking now, because you’re in court.”

The little boy, who was as blond as the rest of them and maybe five, looked apprehensive, the same way he had with the crows. He stage-whispered to his sister, “Shhh. We could go to jail. Plus, she does look like a witch. She might be one.”

Janey said, “She’s not a witch! There are no witches. She’s wearing a big black dress, that’s all.”

The defendant—Beckett Hughes—said, “Quiet. The judge told you. We’re in court.”

“Oh, OK,” Janey said. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”

Quinn said, “Nobody’s going to jail. I just need to talk on the record to your dad.” She ignored the part about the witch—she’d been called worse—and turned her attention back to Mr. Hughes. Beckett Hughes. He even had a surfer-dude name. “You brought your kids to court today. Why?”

“Teacher work day. No school. I reckoned it’d do them good to see the consequences of my actions. Life lesson.”

“Where are you from, Mr. Hughes?”

“Australia.” It came out like “Aus-STRYL-ya,” exactly like it should have, and she should’ve known. She’d known enough Australians, but that had been her past life. Her other life. You didn’t run into a lot of Australians in Sinful, Montana. Except … here he was.

It had only been one word, but spoken in long, slow drawl by a tall, fit guy with a thumb hooked in his belt loop. Like a cowboy fantasy, but better.

Her thoughts were way out of line here. Time to get it together. “Is disregarding train crossing signals typical?” she asked. “In Australia? Or does the color red mean ‘go for it’ over there?”

He offered her a half-smile, the kind men gave you when they knew it worked. “Only if you’re a flamin’ galah. Which I was.”

She was not attracted to people in court. Especially not defendants in court. Most especially not if they were trying to charm the judge. She needed to get hold of herself. “Eight hundred ninety-one people were killed last year in accidents with trains in the United States,” she told him. “Most of them in cars. I’m sure you’d rather that you and your family don’t become a statistic.”

“No,” he said. “I’d rather not.”

“Me too.” She rapped the bench with her gavel. “Guilty. Fine of one hundred fifty dollars. Next case.”

Her mother was right. She needed to get out more. Meet new people. Harder than it sounded when you were a judge. You couldn’t exactly go dancing and pick up some guy in a bar. If she even knew how to do that. Maybe across the county line? After a personality transplant?

She was a problem-solver. She obviously had a problem. She’d just … solve it.

Somehow.

 

 

4 – An Effort for Love

At five-ten that afternoon, Quinn was in the judges’ restroom in the courthouse lacing up her running shoes, preparing to meet the group up on the mountain. She swam in the mornings, in the lake when she could and in the pool when the water got too cold even with a wetsuit. And twice a week, on Thursday evenings and very early Sunday mornings, she ran with the group. The BlisterSisters, they’d named themselves when they’d first come together to train for a half-marathon.

When she’d signed up on a whim at the running store last spring and had driven to the trailhead for the first time, she’d felt like she was stepping all the way out of her comfort zone. She’d never been much of a runner, and she hadn’t been part of a team in fifteen years. Now, she couldn’t believe she’d waited this long.

“Hey,” Roxanne Farnsworth said when Quinn got out of the car. “We’re the first. As usual.” Roxanne was an attorney, which might have been a conflict of interest in a bigger town, but you drew boundaries, that was all. Otherwise, Quinn would have no friends at all. “You look a little rough,” Roxanne said now. “Bad day?”

“Nope,” Quinn said, trying for unconcerned cheer. “Just a long one. Got a meeting for ChildBridge after this. Getting my head clear for it.”

“Kids in foster care … that’s tough,” Roxanne said. “There’s a reason I went into property law. Do you ever do anything that’s not a Certified Good Work? Or, you know, relax?”

“Sure I do,” Quinn said.

“Like what?”

Quinn said, “I’m here, aren’t I? I’m recreating.”

“Marginally,” Roxanne said. “Real recreating tends to involve less sweat. Unless you’re in the Bahamas or … you know. Having some real fun.”

 Three more cars pulled in at that moment, fortunately, saving Quinn from answering. Five runners spilled out, and they started up the trail, taking it slow, getting loose. Terrell Bradford, marketing genius, and Ezra Hamill, local vet, two of the BlisterMisters they’d added over the summer, because why not? ran up front with Quinn and Roxanne, while Martin Avondale, personal assistant to the stars and Ezra’s husband, ran in back with the slower group, no doubt complaining all the way, at least until the conversation got interesting enough to distract him. Martin, he liked to inform them, was “only here for love.”

Terrell waited until the point of maximum puff, after that first half-mile straight up when you thought, Too hard. I’ll just walk it today, and didn’t, because life was about pushing through, to say over his shoulder, “Rumor has it that Mr. Aussie McHotPants was in your traffic court this morning.”

“How do you know that?” Quinn asked, upping her pace some to run right behind Terrell. “It was barely eight hours ago. You’ve been at work all day!”

“Can’t help it,” Terrell said. “I hear things. All right, actually Roxanne’s law clerk told her and she told me.”

“Yep,” Roxanne said. “The mysterious Beckett Hughes was in traffic court, after being a bad boy. Not that he couldn’t have some edge to him, and isn’t that a delicious thought. Did he break a sweat at last? Maggie told me that Martin says he’s about the coolest guy he’s ever met. Well, except for Brett Hunter himself, but the boss always has to be out in front, I guess.” Maggie Holcomb was Roxanne’s law partner, and currently running in the back. She’d only joined the group recently, and was probably complaining as much as Martin.

Boundaries, Quinn reminded herself. She was not discussing Beckett Hughes’ time in court. She wasn’t explaining about the train, she definitely wasn’t explaining about the dog, and she most definitely wasn’t telling them how Beckett had stared at her about the crows as if she were off her rocker, or how he’d seemed like he couldn’t wait to get away from her at the beach, when she’d just been trying to help. Also, possibly, how she may have got a little sarcastic with him in court today, which, if it was just to keep the upper hand, in an environment where she already had every bit of the upper hand, was beneath her. So instead, she asked, “How does Martin know?”

“Because of Lily’s shop, of course,” Roxanne said. Oh. Martin helped out Lily Blackstone on occasion in Sinful Desires, her lingerie store. Which made sense, because Lily was married to Rafe Blackstone, resident Australian movie star and Martin’s employer.  “Maggie went in there at lunchtime to buy something very sexy—she showed me, and whoosh, they have some new stuff that is fire. She bought this black lace set—bra, panty, garter belt—that’s got strings of pearls all over. Straight down the front of the panty, down the garters, around the cups of the bra, and everything. Like you could grab them. Not sure I’ve got the guts to wear that in the bedroom—Bram would probably laugh—but anyway, Martin was in there helping Lily out, and he told her. Maggie, I mean.”

Quinn said, “Seriously? That’s exciting news? That somebody went to traffic court?”

Terrell said, “It’s exciting news to me. I’m a single gay Black man in small-town Montana. I take my entertainment where I find it. If Martin knows, you must know, Ezra. Tell more.”

“I’ve been castrating dogs all day,” Ezra objected. “Not collecting village gossip.”

“He doesn’t want to tell, he means,” Roxanne said. She turned around and yelled, “Martin! Catch up! Slow down, you guys. I want to hear more.”

Martin came up, puffing hard, and said, “Have I mentioned that I hate running? Why are Montana mountains so steep?”

“Because they’re the Rockies,” Ezra said. “It’s good for your heart, and I want to keep your heart beating.”

“I hate you,” Martin said, and Ezra laughed.

“Distract yourself,” Roxanne said. “Tell us about Beckett Hughes in traffic court. How did you keep a straight face?” she asked Quinn.

Quinn didn’t answer, but she didn’t have to, because Martin said, “He brought his kids. Much cuteness. They talked, and the judge here had to shut them up.”

“Aw,” Terrell said, “you’re no fun, Quinn. What else?”

“Nothing else,” Quinn said. “He came in, he paid his fine, case closed.”

“Not what I heard,” Martin said.

“Ooh,” Roxanne said. “What?”

“I heard,” Martin said, “that the judge had met him before. On the very day he got pulled over. She met him, and she met the kids, isn’t that right?”

“Yes.” Quinn knew she sounded stiff. She couldn’t help it. “Briefly. They were rescuing a dog.” She wasn’t mentioning the crows, or how she’d pretty much bolted for the exits there. Losing her nerve, which she didn’t permit, just because she’d met an attractive man.

“Even better,” Martin said. “Meet cute. You bonded over a dog. Sexy widower. Sexy Australian widower. Could be just what you need. Of course, you sentenced him, so …”

Ezra said, “Maybe she doesn’t want a sexy Australian widower. Maybe she’s sufficient unto herself.”

“Yeah, right,” Martin said. “Like you were? Surviving by yourself isn’t sufficient unto yourself, however terrifyingly accomplished you are. People, people who need people, are the luckiest—”

“No singing,” Quinn said. “Just no.”

Martin sighed. “So tell. Did sparks fly?”

She knew Martin. He wouldn’t stop unless she told him straight out to stop, and did she want to do that? She’d had the best conversations of her life, at least since she’d stopped swimming competitively and ceased having actual bonding moments, since joining this group. People bonded by sharing, they said, not just by suffering together. Weird, but that meant she needed to share. She said, “Not in the way you mean. He and his kids found this dog. Not a homeless dog. A neglected one, though, I’d say. And I guess they kept it.”

“Bacon,” Ezra said.

“Bacon?” Quinn asked.

“The dog’s name,” Ezra said. “Cute. The kids named it. It’s a chug. Chihuahua-pug mix. Designer dog, actually.”

“So you have a dog that can’t breathe right and barks like a maniac and tries to bite your ankles?” Roxanne asked. “And people pay extra for that? I’ll pass.”

“So why didn’t sparks fly?” Martin asked, clearly un-distractible.

“I was probably bossy,” Quinn said reluctantly. “About the dog.”

Roxanne said, “We should strike that word from the lexicon. Does a man ever get described as bossy? No, he does not. Why is that? Because he’s supposed to be bossy. We call it assertive. Decisive. Manly. You were assertive, is that right?”

It doesn’t matter what you call it, Quinn thought, if every straight man hates it. She wasn’t going to say anything, but somehow, she was saying it anyway. “Do I want to go on keeping myself under wraps? Turning off the judge as soon as I leave the courthouse, and telling a guy he’s so smart and he has such good ideas, when I know I’ve got something to say? Something to add? Even if it’s challenging?”

“No,” Martin said. “You just have to find a guy with an ego strong enough to take it. And who can fight back if he needs to. Call each other on your stuff, that’s the idea.”

“Yeah,” Quinn said, “but there aren’t enough men like that.”

“How do you know?” That wasn’t Martin. It was Ezra. He said it quietly, the way Ezra usually said things, but still. She was surprised.

“Because—” she said, and stopped.

“How much have you tried?” he asked. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I never hear any gossip about you.”

“I’m a judge,” she said. “A single, female, thirty-eight-year-old judge. Who’s bossy. I wouldn’t even know where to start to explain. Also, I can’t afford gossip. If I wore black lingerie with ropes of pearls on it …”

“You have to trust the guy, that’s all,” Roxanne said. “You must have once. How long did you go out with Dr. Craig? OB/GYN,” she told Martin.

“Ick,” Martin said. “All that room for comparison.”

“Three years,” Quinn said, still stiffly. “Which isn’t quite the achievement you seem to think. Let’s just say it didn’t end well.”

“Very cryptic,” Martin said, “but also familiar, sadly, pour moi. So we just need to find somebody who’s not threatened by your power and who doesn’t say he’s not threatened while actually secretly being threatened. If I’m guessing right.”

“And who isn’t a conflict of interest,” Roxanne said. “No lawyers.”

“So,” Martin said. “Matchmaking.”

“Absolutely not,” Quinn said. 

“Seriously?” Martin said. “Or is this, ‘That sounds uncomfortable, and I may not be happy right now, but I’m also not uncomfortable, so I think I’ll stay here in my airless little box’?”

Ezra said, “You sure know how to go for the jugular.”

“All right,” Quinn said, “maybe it’s that, but it’s … to tell the truth, I probably didn’t really burn to be with Craig, either. Maybe I am meant to be alone. I don’t want drama. I don’t want upheaval. I don’t want somebody bursting through my …”

“Boundaries,” Ezra said. “Spoken like a lonely person. A bruised person. Which I’d know. So do you really want to stay that way? Or do you want to step out of that box?”

Quinn said, “Oh, good. Heading downhill again. Yay. I’m going to stretch out and go for it now.”

Terrell kept up with her, because Terrell was about six-three, and after a few flying minutes, he said, “This is what happens when you invite gay men into your running group. We know all about being vulnerable and having men take advantage of that, but we also keep looking. Are gay men the biggest fools in the world, or the biggest optimists? Getting involved again: the triumph of hope over experience.”

Quinn said, “Can’t talk. I’m running.” And did, stretching out and letting her legs eat up the ground, stepping deftly over rocks and roots, strong and fast and free.

They were in the parking lot, stretching out, when Ezra, Martin, and Roxanne came into view. Martin panted out, bending over from the waist and blowing out a breath, “I only … marginally kept up because I’m not done talking to Quinn. I may be sick. Ugh. Am I fit yet?”

“All right,” Quinn said, for no reason she could discern. “I’ll try. I won’t keep trying if it’s horrible,” she added hastily, “but I’ll try. It’s self-improvement, right? Self-improvement is important. But who’s going to be doing this setting up? You?”

“Yes,” Martin said. “Who knows everybody? I know everybody—well, Lily and I do. I’m more cynical than she is, which is better, and Ezra knows if they treat their pets well. Character test. Shall we say one date a week? Saturday nights?”

“I could be busy,” Quinn said.

“Doing what?” Martin asked.

“Uh … having dinner with my parents?”

Martin made a “wrong answer” noise, like “blatt,” and said, “Excuse rejected. Next?”

“Hey,” she said, “I like my parents. You like my parents.”

“Because their store is like Aladdin’s cave for Montanans,” Martin said, “and your mom’s never met a stranger. That’ll make it easier when you bring the lucky guy home to meet them. Have dinner with them on Sunday instead. So: Saturday nights. Starting … two days from now.”

“If you can talk some guy into going out with me that fast. Also, I don’t have the wardrobe,” Quinn tried next. “Although everything I have is from Ministry of Supply, which is pretty high quality, and they say it’s athleisure, so maybe …”

“No,” Martin said. “Your capsule wardrobe of comfortable, interchangeable, work-ready gray, navy, and oatmeal is not going to do it. It’s one outfit, though. I’ll come over Saturday morning and go through your closet. Surely we can find one first-date outfit.”

“That’s not very optimistic,” she said. “You’re assuming I won’t have any second dates. Also, I have my swim clinic on Saturday mornings at ten-thirty.”

“Right,” Martin said. “Saturday at one. Want to find some other objection, or can I get in the car so I can whine at Ezra the way I want to? Six dates,” he went on when she started to talk some more. “Six weeks. Give me six weeks, and if nothing’s worked, I won’t bug you anymore. But you have to promise to try.”

“All right,” she said. “Six weeks. I’ll try. But if the date’s horrible, I’m telling you so. No disregarding my feedback.”

“Done,” Martin said. “I’m staggering to the car now. Sweat is sexy on Ezra. Too bad it doesn’t feel sexy on me. But see? I’m doing it anyway. I’m making an effort for love.”

 

Available now in ebook, paperback, and audio!

 

 

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