* * * *
The next morning, Guthrie volunteered to drive Jess to the big outlet stores a few miles from town. He wanted to keep the boy busy, his mind occupied. Jess hadn't packed much, in his hurry to leave Madison. He'd taken two weeks of vacation from work and hit the road.
They were in a discount jeans store when Lindsay came in.
"Guthrie!" She came to greet him. "How did your supper turn out?"
Right then, Jess stepped out of a fitting room with two pairs of jeans slung over his arm. Lindsay looked at him, and words died on her lips. She gaped.
Guthrie smiled. The boy was a looker, and it was fun to see Lindsay speechless. It rarely happened. "Lindsay, this is Jeannie's stepson, Jess. He can brag about the steaks I made for him as much as he wants."
Jess caught the drift of their conversation and grinned. "He made us a mean supper. Awesome."
Lindsay was lost in Jess' dimples. Guthrie added, "He's staying in Emerald Hills for a while, so we might run into each other again."
Lindsay shook herself. She was a short, sturdy, no-nonsense girl in her late twenties. "I own the winery on the edge of town," she told Jess. "If you decide to stay and need a job, I'm expanding my operation, and I'm short-staffed."
Jess hesitated. "I'm used to long hours. If things work out, I'd like to move here. I miss Jeannie."
She grinned. "I can teach you anything about wine and grape plants that you don't know. If you stay, stop in and see me." She pinched her lips together, flustered. "That didn't sound right. I meant…"
Jess smiled. "You'll be the first person I hand an application to."
Lindsay gazed at him a minute more before she laughed. "I don't know what I'm thinking. I have to grab a few things and get back to the winery." She turned to Guthrie. "Nice meeting you."
When he raised an eyebrow, she sighed. "Nice seeing you," she corrected. A blush crept up to color her cheeks. "Sorry. I must be stupid today. Gotta go."
Guthrie watched her hurry away. Interesting. He turned to see the same befuddled expression on Jess's face. Holy hormones. He'd just witnessed instant attraction at its finest. He gripped Jess's arm and led him to a rack of shirts. A few long tees later, they paid, grabbed their bags, and headed back toward Emerald Hills. On the drive, Jess eventually brought the conversation around to Lindsay.
"I didn't see a ring on her finger," he said. "Is she single?"
"Single and nice. She's just been so busy running the winery after her dad died that she hasn't had a chance to meet anyone."
The answer seemed to please Jess. The boy looked happy for the first time since Guthrie had met him. Guthrie didn't talk about the case. Might as well let the kid's mind dwell on pleasant things for as long as possible.
When they got back to Jeannie's place, she invited Guthrie to a late lunch. "I know you work tonight. Might as well get something hot in your belly before you start your shift."
She'd made a big pot of chili. Guthrie loved chili. He had to force himself to eat only one bowl. At the rate he was going, he'd have to diet so that he could make it up and down the stairs to their apartments. Did that count as exercise? Maybe he could have a second bowl, but he pushed that thought away.
Cheese Nip wanted to follow him home, but Guthrie patted the cat's head. "I'm on duty tonight. My place will be empty."
The cat went to Jeannie's rocking chair with the pillow on the seat and curled into a ball.
"I swear he understands us," Jeannie said. She scooped leftovers into a plastic container to send home with Guthrie.
On his drive to work, Guthrie did his usual swing through town to check on things. When he got to the station, he settled behind his desk with a contented sigh. He was sifting through paperwork when the door opened and a man in uniform walked toward him.
Guthrie knew who he was before Ferguson introduced himself.
Guthrie glared. "I thought you'd call before you came."
"Wouldn't work. Jess called Alex, and Alex told me where to find him."
Guthrie's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Alex turned Jess in?"
Ferguson's gaze never left his. "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
Guthrie let out a long breath. "This is going to crush Jess."
"I know. Madison's a small town, like this. I know the people." Ferguson didn't sound happy. "I'd rather you went with me to pick him up."
Guthrie gave a grim nod. This wasn't Ferguson's fault. It was Alex's doing. And Guthrie thought the only reason Alex would turn in his best friend was to save his own skin. He had a pretty good idea who took Jess's car that night.
Ferguson drove. When Guthrie knocked on the door of Jeannie's apartment, and she saw the two men together, she blinked back tears. She stared at Guthrie. "I thought you were trying to help Jess."
"I am. So is Ferguson. If you invite us for coffee, we can explain."
Jess looked like someone had knocked the air out of him when Guthrie and Ferguson motioned for him to join them at the kitchen table.
Ferguson let out a sigh. "I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but when you called Alex, he called me."
Color drained from Jess's face. He shook his head. "No, Alex wouldn't do that."
"He did." Ferguson leaned forward, trying to make his point. "And there has to be a reason why. Think, Jess. How much had Alex had to drink when you fell asleep on the couch?"
Jess frowned. He glanced at Guthrie. "What are you getting at?"
Ferguson danced around the question. "Was he sober enough to know that you hadn't had that much to drink? That you were in okay shape when you crashed on the couch?"
Jess took a minute to answer. "Alex was tipsy, but that was all. He laughed a little too much, and he was a little too loud, but he wasn't sloppy drunk. Megan doesn't like it when he gets sloppy."
Guthrie thought a minute. He'd made a false assumption early on, that Alex and his girlfriend were wasted when the cops came to their door. But now, he wondered. "Were Alex and Megan passed out when the cops came to talk to you?"
"From being too tired, sure, but they never drink that much. They're like me. We know when to quit."
Guthrie and Ferguson locked gazes. "Is there someone who was at that party that Alex would lie to protect?"
"Alex wouldn't…." The words died on Jess's lips. He gripped the tabletop, fighting for control. "Alex's older brother has been in and out of trouble for years."
Ferguson leaned back in his chair. He nodded. He looked like a man where all of the puzzle pieces had just fallen into place. "He stops by his parents' home a lot, doesn't he? To see Alex?"
Jess took a deep breath. "He only comes when his parents are in Florida for the winter. He likes to hit up Alex for a little money here and there. His parents won't loan him any anymore. They say it only goes to booze and drugs."
"How does Alex feel about his brother?" Ferguson asked.
"He knows, we all do, that Travis is in bad shape. Alex wouldn't turn me in to protect him."
Ferguson looked downright pleased with himself. "No, he wouldn't. But anyone can pick up a cell phone and make a call to our station, stating he's Alex Linter."
Jess's shoulders relaxed. "Alex didn't turn me in?"
"I'm guessing his brother overheard your call to Alex and then he called us. It shouldn't be that hard to prove. There are phone records. No one's going to like how this turns out, though." Ferguson shrugged. "Not exactly true. But I don't give a rat's ass about Alex's brother…or Heather. They don't care about anyone or anything, including themselves."
Guthrie knew the type. Every law officer did.
"Heather?" Jeannie asked.
Ferguson shrugged. "A young woman called in the accident and gave us Jess's license plate number. Someone took the spare keys out of Roy's canister and met Travis at the party. Who would you bet money on?"
A fierce gleam shone in Jeannie's eyes. Guthrie liked that she could be scrappy when someone she loved was in trouble.
Ferguson looked at Jess. "You need to come back to Madison with me. We need to wrap up this problem. You ready?"
Jess squared his shoulders and stood. "Dad's going to hate me after this."
"He didn't like you that much to begin with." Ferguson nodded toward Jeannie. "There's the person who'll always be in your corner." He nodded to Guthrie, too. "And I think you might have another supporter. He was ready to arm wrestle me at the station to keep you safe."
Jeannie's gaze turned to Guthrie. "Is that true?"
Ferguson answered. "If I was in trouble, I'd be happy to have this guy in my corner."
Jeannie smiled at Guthrie, and he felt like his heart expanded in his chest. She locked gazes with him. "I'm going with Jess until this is finished, but when I get home, I owe you a big thank you supper." She nodded toward the cat. "Cheese Nip's yours until I get back. Can you handle that?"
Guthrie met her gaze head-on. He tended to be a private person, but right now, he didn't care. "I can handle more than you give me credit for. And when you get back, we're going to talk about more than suppers."
Her blue eyes went wide. "You've been a bachelor how long?"
"Too long. Things change, and Jess should move in with you for a while after this is settled. He has a job offer here."
Jess looked uncertain. "I haven't been anything but a bother for you."
"Not your fault. But maybe something good will come of it. Maybe you and Jeannie were sent here for a reason. Emerald Hills is full of magic, you know."
Jess laughed. "Like Tinkerbell and magic dust?"
Guthrie smiled. "No witches' wands or happy ever afters, but Emerald Hills takes care of its own. You'll see." He wasn't about to tell them more. No one would believe him.
When Jess and Jeannie were packed and ready to leave, Guthrie scooped up Cheese Nip and followed them down the stairs. They'd be back, he knew. Jess helped Jeannie into his rented car, then pulled out behind Ferguson. Guthrie liked that man. Madison was lucky to have him.
The next two weeks dragged. Guthrie's mind kept turning to Jess, Alex, and Alex's brother. When he pulled into the lot behind his apartment after what seemed a long day, he was relieved to see a new car parked next to Jeannie's SUV. Jess's car? He'd bet money on it.
He stormed up the steps to his apartment, grabbed Cheese Nip, and hurried to Jeannie's. The door opened before he knocked.
Jeannie threw herself against Guthrie's chest, wrapping him in her arms. Damn, she felt good. "It's done. Jess's name is cleared."
They hurried into the kitchen and Jess smiled when he saw Guthrie. Another little zing of joy raced through him.
The boy looked tired. "I don't know if things would have turned out the same if I hadn't met you. Thank you."
"Tell me what happened." Guthrie set the cat down, and Cheese Nip went to jump on Jeannie's lap. He'd missed her.
"You and Ferguson had everything pretty much right," Jess told him. "Heather knew that Travis would be at the party that night. She called him and told him to let her know when it was safe for them to get together. She took my spare keys from Dad's canister, and Travis drove them out to the cemetery, and they killed a bottle of tequila and a dozen beers between them. He'd already had plenty to drink at the party, so he was in bad shape when he drove back."
Guthrie shook his head. "She let him drive?"
Jess sighed. "I guess he insisted, and she didn't really care. He remembered hitting the woman, but said it was like a dream, like it wasn't real. Heather was in better shape, though, and wiped everything clean before she left."
Guthrie frowned. "Your dad didn't wake up when she got home?"
Jess let out a slow breath. "Yes, he did."
Guthrie glanced at Jeannie. "He guessed and didn't say anything?"
Jeannie's face took on a pinched expression. "I told you that I couldn't satisfy Roy. He likes his women."
"And he'd rather keep his young bedmate than protect his son?"
Jeannie sighed. "Even for Roy, he reached a new low."
"And the spare keys?"
"Heather couldn't put them back with Roy standing there, watching her. Roy found them in her jeans pocket when he did the laundry."
"He put them back, but by then, Ferguson had already questioned him and knew they'd been missing."
Sad. But Guthrie didn't care if Travis, Heather, or Roy crashed and burned. All he cared about was Jeannie and Jess. "Maybe it's time for both of you to have a fresh start," he said. "Emerald Hills can give you that."
"And you?" Jeannie held his gaze. "Are you ready for something new in your life? It seems to me that you've been pretty comfortable for a long time."
Guthrie shrugged. "A cat changed that. You have to go to the store to buy tuna for it. The next thing you know, you're buying it shredded cheese and cat nip. And you like it."
Guthrie went on. "And then there's the food. A wise woman once told me that food can tame the savage beast. I don’t consider myself savage, but…."
"You do like food," Jess said.
Jeannie reached for Guthrie's hand, and Jess looked flustered.
"I gotta go. I'll be back later."
Jeannie frowned. "Where are you off to?"
"A woman offered me a job. I'm going to apply for it."
Guthrie grinned. He had an idea that someday soon, Jess would be doing a lot more than pruning vines and helping with remodeling. They'd better enjoy him while they could.
When Jess left the apartment, Jeannie turned to Guthrie. "You wanted to talk?"
"I'm not a bit romantic or suave. I work odd hours, and I can be a bit gruff. But I like you, and…."
That's as far as he got. Redheads didn't just have tempers. They were passionate. Jeannie's hands were in his hair, her lips on his lips. She might be older, like him, but there was still a fire in her furnace. Guthrie knew he was lost. The two of them might be going gray and fighting wrinkles, but none of that mattered. Jeannie was everything he'd ever wanted, and if she felt the same way, he couldn't wait for his Golden Years. Old age was going to be damned fun.