A SHERIFF IN TENNESSEE

Luchetti Prequel

   “What do you mean there’s nothing I can do about it?”

   Sheriff Gabriel Klein leaned over the desk and scowled, but Malachai Smith, the mayor of Pleasant Ridge, Tennessee, was unimpressed.

   “I made this deal long before I hired you. Not that I’d have asked your opinion about it even then.’’ Chai tapped Klein’s big knuckles with what looked like a check. “Get off my desk and sit down. You don’t scare me, Sheriff.”

   And therein lay the problem with Mayor Smith. He wasn’t scared of much because he knew it all. Too young to be mayor and too pretty to be alive, Chai drove Klein to distraction, which was a pure pain in the behind when the man was his boss. Klein had been the sheriff of Pleasant Ridge for only a month and already he wanted to quit.

   He sighed heavily and sat the same.

   Chai put the check on his desk and pushed it across with one long finger. Even the man’s hands were handsome—manly, yet unmarked by strife. His golden hair was just a bit long, so he appealed to the younger crowd. But his seventy-five-watt smile and his trusty blue eyes had won him the elderly vote, and his runner’s physique had won over women of all ages. Or perhaps it was the running attire itself. Everyone knew the mayor jogged through town every morning at seven in skimpy running shorts.

   Malachai Smith was the chosen child of Pleasant Ridge. He’d received a track scholarship to the University of Tennessee, gotten a degree in business and come home to assume the job his father had held on to—until Chai returned.

   It was enough to make a grown man gag.

   Life just wasn’t fair. But men like Klein learned such truths at a very young age. Knowing them had made him a good cop. He expected the worst and he was rarely disappointed.

   “Take a gander at the check, Klein, and tell me I’m stupid.”

   Klein counted the zeros, then looked at Chai. “You’re stupid.”

   Chai blinked. The one thing he did not have was a sense of humor. So Klein couldn’t resist making jokes at the mayor’s expense—jokes the man rarely got.   Which made things all the more fun for Klein.

   Chai snatched up the check and tucked it into the inside pocket of his summer suit.

   The calendar might read April 21, but in southern Tennessee the thermometer ran the show and at ten a.m. it said seventy-seven degrees.

   Klein’s dirt-brown uniform was already damp beneath his gun belt. He was a big man, six feet four inches and nearly two hundred and fifty pounds, but having a belt around his middle that sported a side arm, ammunition, handcuffs, a nightstick and keys made stronger men than Klein break a sweat much earlier in the morning.

   From day one he’d refused to wear the hat that went with the uniform, not only because it made him resemble the sheriff in that seventies movie, Smoky and the Bandit, but because he couldn’t bear to add one ounce of unnecessary weight to his increasingly beleaguered body.

   Chai patted his pocket as though afraid the check might disappear if he didn’t keep his hand on it “Pleasant Ridge needs this money. The only profitable business left in town is the Smith and Son Winery.”

   “Convenient,’’ Klein murmured.

   Chai ignored him. He did that a lot.

   “With this check I can upgrade the schools, loan to new businesses and assist some of the old ones. Not only that, but the extra people in town will increase our revenue. It’s win-win all around.”

   “Not for me.” Klein had been through it all before. He’d come to Pleasant Ridge from Savannah, Georgia—a beautiful town, with far too many people. “More people, more trouble. For crying out loud, my police force consists of me and Barney Fife.”

   The mayor’s eyebrows drew together. “Virgil Gumm has been the deputy in Pleasant Ridge since he was my age.”

   “I’m sure he was as good at his job then as you are at yours now.”

   Chai opened his mouth, then shut it again. He wasn’t sure what to make of that comment.

Good.

   “I can handle things when it’s just us folks,” Klein continued, “but add Lord knows how many strangers, and California strangers to boot, well, then I don’t know. There’s gonna be trouble. Mark my words.”

   “What kind of trouble can there be with a television crew and some actors? They stay a while, get the flavor of the town, film their pilot and leave.”

   “You promise?”

   The mayor’s gaze slid away.

   Klein fought the urge to grab Chai’s perfect chin and force the man to look him in the eye. “What did you do?”

   “Well, uh.” The mayor stared at his desk as if it were the most fascinating piece of furniture on the planet. “There’s a clause in the contract.”

   “What kind of clause?”

   “If the show is a hit, they film here a few months out of every year.”

   Klein cursed. “What were you thinking?”

   The mayor's expression was as mulish as the set of his mouth. “I was thinking that we’d get another check with every year the show is renewed. With the money, we can improve. With the extra population, we can grow.”

   “Did you ever consider that the extra attention, the added publicity, the money might ruin this town?”

   “Why would they?”

   Klein couldn’t sit still any longer so he stood, and Chai leaped to his feet, too. They were nearly the same height, but the mayor was at least sixty pounds lighter. Klein could easily kick his ass, and right now he was having a hard time remembering why he shouldn’t.

   He moved to the large window behind Chai’s desk. This second-story office had the best view in town. From it Klein could see all of Pleasant Ridge and the mountains beyond.

   “Look at that and tell me we need fast-food hamburgers, pizza and tacos. Tell me we need a miniature golf course and a water park. Explain why a chain department store and hotel would be good things.”

   “They couldn’t hurt.”

   “Yes, they could!”

   With a sigh of disgust, Klein turned away from the window and the sight of the town he’d picked from a list of so many others. Pleasant Ridge could be the home he’d been searching for all his life— if the Mayor Wonder didn’t screw up the place first.

    “Pleasant Ridge is special. That’s why they want it. You said this show is a modern-day Mayberry RFD. When these people get through with us, we won’t be special anymore—we’ll be a joke on national television.”

   The mayor remained silent. Had Klein managed to get through that thick head?

Chai sat again at his desk with his back to the town. Maybe if he had to face the place and the people he worked for, the man wouldn’t be so quick to ruin everything.

   Klein toyed with the idea of sneaking into Chai’s office under dark of night and rearranging the furniture—then nailing it to the floor. The mayor was a little OCD. It would drive him bonkers.

   “One more thing about the contract.”

   The mayor now appeared fascinated with the gold-engraved pen his daddy had given him when he was elected.

   Klein sighed. “Am I going to have to hurt you, Chai?”

   “Maybe.” His thumb jabbed the top of the pen until the office sounded like the site of a Morse code jamboree. Click, click, click. “But it won’t change anything.”

   Klein growled and yanked the pen from Chai’s hand, then held it out of reach. He considered snapping the thing in two, just for the fun of it—but then he’d have to deal with Daddy. Anyone who thought Smith Jr. was a pain in the behind had not met Smith Sr.

   “Talk. And this time tell me all of it. What’s this show about?”

   “Just what you said.”

   “Then, why might I have to hurt you? Not that I mind, but I’d like to know why.”

   “Do you remember Mayberry RFD?”

   “Do you? You seem a little young for it.” For that matter, so was Klein.

   "Reruns are a wonderful thing. Mayberry, North Carolina, will become Pleasant Ridge, Tennessee.”

   “I got that.”

   “And Sheriff Andy Taylor will become . . .”

   Klein had a horrible idea. “Not me. Oh, no. Uh-uh.”

   “You?” Chai laughed. “On television? I don’t think so.”

   At thirty-five, Klein should be used to the way people looked at him, talked to him, as if he had no feelings, as if he didn’t care that he was not a handsome man. Klein knew what he was—tall, strong, smart, capable and kind. A regular Boy Scout. But handsome? Not even close.

   “Then, who’s the sheriff? That guy on Friends Again? Joe Something. He’d be good.”

   “It’s a new millennium, Klein. The television sheriff of Pleasant Ridge is Isabelle Ash.”

   “Never heard of her.”

   “You may not know her name, but I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of her.”

   What did that mean? He should have known Chai couldn’t wait to tell him.

   “She’s a model. Victoria’s Secret. Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition—she was on the cover last year.”

   “I never look at those things.”

   “We all look at those things.”

   Klein didn’t bother to explain the difference between twenty-three and thirty-five, between handsome as hell and plain as porridge. Age had given him insight; homeliness had given him a sarcastic view of life and a lot of the people in it.

   “This show sounds more like Baywatch comes to Mayberry, if you ask me.”

   Chai’s face went dreamy. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

   Klein stifled another sigh. This kid was his boss. This kid was the mayor. But Klein remembered

twenty-three very well, and while at that age he had already learned his lesson about women, lost his dreams, joined the marines and grown up, most of his buddies hadn’t. The twenties were a time for foolishness, bad choices, playing when you should be working, dreaming impossible dreams, because for kids that age there was still a chance dreams might come true.

   But a twenty-three-year-old mayor?

   Klein contemplated Chai’s expression and shook his head.

   There oughta be a law.

   “They’re giving the lead in a spanking-new television series to an underwear model?”

   The mayor blinked and fell back to earth. “Who better?”

   “Someone who can act?”

   “Who says she can’t act?’’

   True enough, and none of Klein’s concern, anyway. His concern was keeping the town and himself from going insane.

Klein headed for the door. “When can I expect the fun to begin?”

   “Tomorrow.”

   He rested his forehead on the scarred mahogany door and resisted the urge to bang it a few times.

   “The horde will descend tomorrow?”

   “Not the horde. Just Isabelle. Her being here early is supposed to be a secret. Though in Pleasant Ridge, I doubt she’ll stay a secret long. They don’t want any media following her while she’s having her lessons.”

   Klein wasn’t a good cop because he could shoot straight. He was a good cop because he knew people; he could hear every nuance in their voices, even when he wasn’t looking at them. Especially when he wasn’t looking at them. Right now he could tell, even before he turned around, that Chai was grinning.

   “What lessons?”

   “Did you forget the final contract clause we were discussing?”

   Klein had forgotten. And before he’d fully discovered what it was, too. Shame on him.

   “The one I might have to hurt you for?”

   Chai’s smile faded. “That would be the one.”

   “Spill it, pretty boy.”

   To the mayor’s credit he didn’t hesitate or try to shuffle around the issue, probably because he knew Klein was on the edge of reason and had no patience right now for bullshit.

   “According to the contract, you’ll be teaching Isabelle Ash how to act the part of a small-town sheriff.”

* * *

   Belle stared into the window of the bakery and contemplated everything chocolate. She couldn’t decide—cookie, brownie, cake or pie?

   What she should do is buy one of each. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford to.

   The thought of all that dessert, just for her, made Belle light-headed with hunger, or perhaps it was a sham sugar rush. What would people think if they saw a woman sitting alone eating all that she could grab? Since Belle was thin, people would probably figure she was just going to throw it up as soon as she finished.

   And they’d be right.

   No. They’d have been right several years ago, but not anymore. She was better now. In control of her life, her career, her health. She wouldn’t be throwing up all the desserts, because she wouldn’t be having all the desserts. She’d buy one and then she’d continue to explore the town.

   No one could ever learn her secret; no one could ever uncover the weakness beneath her show of strength. That would be worse than the weakness itself.

   Belle stepped back from the window and caught sight of her reflection. No wonder people on the street rarely recognized her. Amazing what a good hairstylist and makeup artist could do for a woman. With her long, artificially enhanced blond hair stuffed beneath a baseball cap, no concealer to cover the dark smudges beneath her eyes or blush to give her naturally pale complexion a hint of peach, the fine bones of her face appeared stark and strained.

   Her overalls were the smallest size she’d been able to find back in Memphis, and still they bagged at the seat and gaped at the waist. She loved them.

   Rarely did she get to wear clothes that were too loose. She’d come to loathe the tight belts, tight pants, tight shirts, the skimpy, confining everything of her profession. They made her feel like sausage stuffed into a casing. When she wore clothes like those, she could remember too well a childhood spent as the fat kid.

   She’d covered her ample breasts—yes, they were hers, thank you very much—with a loose, hot-pink tank top, and the heated spring breeze brushed her bare shoulders. For a moment the stresses of the past few months lifted, and she almost felt like herself again. Or what self she could remember from the time before she’d let them stuff her into the casing that was Isabelle Ash.

   To be honest, let wasn’t exactly the word she should use. She’d wanted this career; needed it, too. That hadn’t changed in the years since she’d left home. In fact, the wants and the needs had only become more pronounced.

Belle narrowed her choice to the brownie with cherries on top or the marble cheesecake with the chocolate icing.

   Decisions, decisions.

   She’d come to Pleasant Ridge early because she’d been too anxious to stay in California one more day. This show was her big chance, and could make or break her budding acting career. If she didn’t do well, she’d be back modeling thong bikinis in thirty-degree weather.

She could think of worse things. But being a model was probably not the best career choice for a bulimic. Even an undiagnosed, self-counseled, secret bulimic.

   “The brownie. Definitely.”

   A buzzer announced her entrance into the bakery. Seconds later an elderly woman bounced in from the back. Her spritely step belied the lines on her face and the gray in her hair.

   “Can I help you?’’ Her glance swept Belle from head to toe. “I’d say yes. You need a cake.”

   “A whole cake?”

   “Well, sure. Doesn’t everyone?”

   The accent made Belle nostalgic. It had been a long time since she’d heard the cadence of the South. She’d spent the past few years erasing it from her own voice. Ironic that she’d have to recover that accent for her very first part.

   “What if we start with one of the cherry-topped brownies I saw in the window?”

   “I'm sorry, sugar. Those are plastic. I’ve only got what you see in the display case right here.” She tapped a fingernail on the glass in front of her.

   “Why would you put plastic brownies in the window?”

   The woman’s shoulders sagged. “It’s no secret that business isn’t the best these days. Folks are having a hard time making ends meet in Pleasant Ridge, and when that happens the first things to go are the luxury items. Bakery, for instance.”

   One of the reasons this town had been picked out of so many others was that Pleasant Ridge was dying but not dead yet. The place still looked prosperous, but it could be bought.

   “There’s no point in baking all that I can and then throwing it out every night, now is there?” The woman indicated her display case with a regal tilt of her head. “So I have samples, and I only make certain things on certain days. Monday is brownie day.”

   “I’ll have to remember that.” Belle hunkered down and stared into the case. Wednesday appeared to be cake day.

Belle picked the chocolate cake with chocolate icing—as close to her original choice as she could get.

   The woman handed her a slice big enough to rival one of the mountains on the horizon, atop a plate the size of the moon.

Belle was treated to a smile of such expectation that she found she couldn’t ask for a smaller serving. What would be the point of asking, anyway? She wouldn’t eat all of a smaller piece, either.

   After paying a miniscule amount for such a large piece of cake, Belle headed toward the tiny apartment the production company had rented for her above the five-and-dime. Private stairs from alley level gave her access to a clean-but-sparse kitchenette, bath and living area. Her favorite part was the bed that pulled out of the wall. She’d always wanted one of those.

   Folks had been apologizing for the accommodations since she’d arrived, and while the apartment was much less than what she’d had in the past few years, it was much more than she’d had in the years before that. The important thing was the window through which she could watch the streets below. That had been her only requirement for a living space in Pleasant Ridge.

   Belle would immerse herself in the town, its people, her part. She would become Sheriff Janet Hayes. All she needed was some guidance from Gabriel Klein. Both her director and the producers had assured her she would get it. The man was new to Pleasant Ridge, but he’d been in law enforcement for a very long time.

   Belle paused on the sidewalk and popped a morsel of cake into her mouth. As she rolled the sweet around on her tongue, making one bite last before she took another, she considered what she knew about the sheriff.

   The Citadel for college, then eight years in the marines, where he’d been an MP. After his service, he’d worked in Atlanta, become a detective, then, oddly, taken a job in Savannah for less than two years before coming here. He was a fascinating man, and Belle couldn’t wait to meet him.

   She swallowed her last bite of cake and glanced at the paper plate. Without realizing it, she’d already picked the rest of the slice into tiny pieces and moved them about to appear as if she’d eaten more than she had. Old habits were hard to break.

   Before she could be tempted further, Belle tossed the remains into the nearest trash can and hurried away so she wouldn’t have to hear the thud as the great, big, beautiful treat hit the bottom of the barrel.

   She hadn’t gone three steps when a hand descended on her shoulder.

   “Hold it right there, missy.”

   A sun-leathered, sinewy old man scowled at her. The expression only deepened the myriad lines in his face. His grip slid from her shoulder to her elbow, as if afraid she might run. The sleeve of his rumpled and baggy brown uniform bore the insignia of the Pleasant Ridge Law Enforcement.

   This was Gabriel Klein? She’d thought him a younger man, but then she’d only heard the highlights of his career. Perhaps he’d worked in a dozen other cities as well as Atlanta and Savannah—two dozen by the looks of him.

   He was barely her height of five foot nine—didn’t the marines have some macho height requirement?—and she probably outweighed him, too. But his gaunt fingers were strong as they ground into the sensitive skin above her elbow. She tried to tug away, but he was having none of it.

   “Hello,” she began. “I’m—”

   “A 4-25,” he announced in a high-pitched, nasally voice she knew right off was going to be far too annoying to listen to for long.

   “What did I do?”

   His thin lips tightened and he jabbed a bony finger at the ground.

   Belle followed his direction and discovered her cake all over the sidewalk. “I must not have hit the trash can quite right. I’ll pick it up.”

She made a move toward the cake, but he yanked her back. For a skinny, little old guy he was incredibly agile.

   “Too late now, missy. We take littering seriously in this community.”

   Before she could ask how seriously, she learned. The sheriff pulled her hands behind her back and shackled them in handcuffs with an ease born of practice.

   “I said I’d pick it up.”

   “But you weren’t gonna until I caught you. You just marched right on and never glanced back. That cake is pure evil.”

   “Don’t I know it,” Belle muttered.

   “Didn’t you ever hear that chocolate is dog poison? What if I hadn’t been here and Miss Dubray’s Chihuahua ate that? Can you imagine what would happen if the yapping twit up and keeled over right here on Longstreet Avenue? While some days I wish he would, I’d rather not have to listen to his mama. Miss Dubray treats that Mex puppy like her baby. Even dresses it in baby clothes.”

   “There oughta be a law.”

   The sheriff scowled at her. “There is. Against people like you. Let’s go.”

   Belle could have argued. She could have told him who she was. She could have screamed for the mayor, a lawyer, her producer. But then she wouldn’t find out how it felt to be arrested like a common criminal, how extremely embarrassing it was to be dragged directly to jail. She’d never experience an arrest from the side of the arrested.

   But no sooner had they entered the police station than the sheriff’s shoulder mike crackled static.

He cursed and spoke into the contraption, which appeared to be as old as he was. “Ten-four. I’ll be there in five.”

   “You understood that?”

   “’Course. It’s a 10-91D.” At her blank expression, he continued. “Cow standing in the middle of Highway B, about seven miles outside town, tangled with a semi. Only known casualty the cow. We don’t get it off the pavement, there’s gonna be BBQ before sundown. I’ll have to put you in a cell and book you when I get back.”

   He was already forcibly encouraging her toward a gray cement-block hallway at the rear of the police station. There, a room opened off the hall, with two cells inside.

   “You’re just going to leave me here? Don’t I get a phone call?”

   “When I get back.”

   “Don’t you have a secretary or something?”

   He snorted. “Yeah, but she’s out havin’ lunch with my butler.”

   He twisted the key in the cell door, removed the cuffs and hustled her inside. The closing clank of the iron door made Belle flinch. This wasn’t so interesting anymore.

   “What you see is what you get, missy. This ain’t Memphis.”

   “I could sue you.”

   “You could?” He shrugged. “Go ahead.”

   The sheriff walked out. The outer door closed, then silence settled over the Pleasant Ridge police station.

   Belle didn’t mind being alone. She was alone a lot. As a child she’d had no friends; as an adult she didn’t have any, either.

   She sat on a surprisingly comfortable cot. She was starting to feel just a bit claustrophobic. Funny, she’d never known that about herself. A life of crime would not be her thing. If she had to stay in this small, locked room much longer she was going to scream—and if she started to scream, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop.

   A door opened somewhere, then closed.

   “Hey!” she shouted, the sound ricocheting around the cell.

   Footsteps approached.

   Belle geared up to give the sheriff a piece of her mind. But the man who stepped in wasn’t the sheriff.

   Belle couldn’t help it; she blinked and her mouth fell open. He was huge—at least six foot and then some of solid muscle—and the way he walked, confident and sure, with a hand on the butt of his pistol, the other swinging free and loose.

   She couldn’t stop staring at his large, capable hands. Belle had a thing for nice hands.

   She allowed her gaze to travel up his wide chest, over to a pair of great biceps, then up again to meet curious blue eyes. He had nice eyes, too—determined but kind, and intelligent. He wasn’t the handsomest man she’d ever seen; in fact, she’d bet most folks would call him downright homely. But Belle knew a thing or two about the value of a pretty face—a commodity, nothing more.

   His short salt-and-pepper hair gave her pause. As did his brown uniform.

   Huge. Muscular. Crew cut. Well, duh.

   “You’re—”

   “Gabriel Klein,” he said, his voice a sexy, Southern rumble from the depths of that incredible chest.

   Now, that’s more like it, Belle thought.

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