True Confessions

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There were two universal truths in Gospel, Idaho. First, God had done His best work when He’d created the Sawtooth Wilderness Area. Except for the unfortunate incident of ‘95, Gospel had always been heaven on earth.

Second--a truth just as adamantly believed as the first-–every sin known to heaven and earth was California’s fault. California got the blame for everything, from the hole in the ozone, to the marijuana plant found growing in the Widow Fairfield’s tomato garden. After all, her teenage grandson had visited relatives in L.A. just last fall.

There was a third truth--although it was viewed more as an absolute fact--and that was come every summer fools from the flatlands were bound to get lost amid the granite peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains.

This summer, the number of rescued hikers was already up to three. If the count stayed at three, plus one more fracture, and two more cases of altitude sickness, then Stanley Caldwell would win the Missing Flatlander Betting Pool. But everyone knew Stanley was an optimistic fool. No one, not even his wife–-who’d put her money on eight missing, seven fractures, and had thrown in a few cases of poison oak just for excitement–-expected Stanley to win the kitty.

Almost everyone in town played the pool, each trying to out do the other and win the sizeable pot. The betting pool gave the people of Gospel something to think about besides cattle, sheep and logging. It gave them something to talk about besides tree hugging environmentalists, and something to speculate over besides the possible paternity of Rita McCall’s brand new baby boy. After all, Rita and Roy had been divorced going on three years now. But mostly, the pool was a harmless way for the locals to pass the hot summer months while they pulled in tourist money and waited for the relative calm of winter.

Around the beer case at the M & S Market, conversation centered around fly-fishing versus live bait fishing, bow hunting versus “real” hunting, and of course, the twelve point buck the owner of the market, Stanley, had shot back in ’79. The huge varnished antlers hung behind the battered cash register where they’d been on display for more than twenty years.

The citizens of Gospel lived and breathed the latest gossip. At the Curl Up and Dye Hair Studio, the favorite topic of conversation was always the sheriff of Pearl County, Dylan Taber, usually because the owner herself, Dixie Howe, dropped his name while chatting over a shampoo and set. She’d cast her line in his direction and planned to reel him in like a prized trout.

With a Virginia Slim clamped between two fingers, the light catching on her blood red nails, Dixie settled back in one of the two black vinyl salon chairs and waited for her two o’clock cut and color.

A thin stream of smoke curled from her lips as she thought of her favorite subject. It wasn’t just that Dylan was about the only eligible man over the age of twenty-five and under fifty within seventy miles. No, he had a way of looking at a woman. A way of tilting his head back a fraction and gazing through those deep green eyes of his that made her tingle in all the right places. And when his lips slid into a slow easy smile, all those tingling places just pooled and melted.

Dylan was thirty-seven, the sheriff of Pearl County, and he had a son to raise. He was respectable, but Dixie would bet her last bottle of blond hair dye, that beneath the uniform, he was as wild as ever. Dylan Taber was a big man in the community now, and the rumor around town was that he was big where it counted, too. It was time she found out for herself.

While Dixie schemed, the object of her fantasies pulled his black Stetson low on his forehead and stepped off the warped porch of the sheriff’s office. Heat rose in waves from the black asphalt and the hoods of vehicles parked up and down Main Street. The smell of it filled his nostrils.

“The hikers were last sighted about halfway up Mount Regan,” Dylan informed his second in command, Deputy Captain Lewis Plummer, as they moved to the brown and white sheriff’s Blazer.

“A trek into the wilderness just isn’t how I wanted to spend my day,” Lewis complained. “It’s to damn hot.”

Usually, Dylan didn’t mind helping in the search for missing backpackers. It got him out of the office and away from the paperwork he hated, but it wasn’t even noon yet and his cotton uniform was already stuck to his back. Shit.

“What in the hell is that?”

Dylan glanced across the top of the Chevy at Lewis then turned his attention to the silver sports car driving toward him.

“He must have taken a wrong turn before he hit Sun Valley,” Lewis guessed. “Must be lost.”

In Gospel, where the color of a man’s neck favored the color red and where pick up trucks and power rigs ruled the roads, a Porsche was about as inconspicuous as a gay rights parade marching toward the pearly gates. “If he’s lost, someone will tell him,” Dylan said as he shoved his hand into his pant’s pocket and found his keys. “Sooner of later,” he added. In Sun Valley, a Porsche wasn’t that rare a sight, but in the wilderness area, it was damn unusual.

The car rolled slowly past, its tinted windows concealing whomever was inside. Dylan dropped his gaze to the iridescent vanity license plate and the seven blue letters spelling out MZBHAVN. If that weren’t bad enough, splashed across the top of the plate like a neon kick-me sign was the word California painted in red. Dylan hoped like hell the car pulled an illegal U and headed right back out of town.

Instead the Porsche pulled into a space in front of the Blazer and the engine died. The driver’s door swung open. One turquoise silver-toed Tony Lama hit the pavement and a slender bare arm reached out to grasp the top of the door frame. Glimmers of light caught on a thin gold watch wrapped around a slim wrist. Then MZBHAVN stood, looking for all the world like she was stepping out of one of those women’s glamour magazines that gave beauty tips.

“Holy shit,” Lewis uttered.

Like her watch, sunlight shimmered like gold in her straight blond hair. From a side part, her glossy hair fell to her shoulders without so much as one unruly wave or curl. The ends so blunt they might have been cut with a carpenter’s level. A pair of black cat-eye sunglasses covered her eyes, but couldn’t conceal the arch of her blond brows or her smooth creamy complexion.

The car door shut, and Dylan watched MZBHAVN walk toward him. There was absolutely no overlooking those full lips. Her dewy red mouth drew his attention like a bee to the brightest flower in the garden, and he wondered if she’d had fat injected into her lips.

Even if he hadn’t seen the woman’s California plates, and she was dressed in a potato sack, he’d know she was big-city. It was all in the way she moved, straight forward, with purpose, and in a hurry. Big-city women where always in such a hurry. She looked like she belonged strolling down Rodeo Drive instead of the Idaho wilderness. A stretchy white tank top covered the full curves of her breasts and a pair of equally tight jeans bonded to her like she was a seal-a-meal.

“Excuse me,” she said as she came to stand by the hood of the Blazer. “I was hoping you might be able to help me.” Her voice was as smooth as the rest of her, but impatient as hell.

“Are you lost, ma’am?” Lewis asked.

She blew out a breath through those deep red lips that on closer inspection appeared to be completely natural. “I’m looking for Timberline Road.”

Dylan touched the brim of his hat with the tip of his forefinger and pushed the Stetson to his hairline. “Are you a friend of Shelly Aberdeen’s?”

“No.”

“Well now, there isn’t anything out on Timberline but Paul and Shelly’s place.” He took his mirrored sunglasses from his breast pocket and slipped them up the bridge of his nose. Then he folded his arms over his chest, rested his weight on one foot, and lowered his gaze down the slim column of her throat to her full rounded breasts and smiled. Very nice.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

Was he sure? Paul and Shelly had lived in that same house since they’d first got married, about eighteen years ago. He chuckled and raised his gaze to her face once more. “Fairly sure, I was just out there this morning, ma’am.”

“I was told Number Two Timberline was on Timberline Road.”

“Are you sure about that?” Lewis asked as he glanced across the light bar at Dylan.

“Yes,” the woman answered. “I just picked up the key from the realtor in Sun Valley, and that’s the address he gave me.”

Just the mention of that house conjured up some wild memories in people’s minds. Dylan had heard the house finally sold to a real estate property manager, and apparently the company had finally found a sucker.

“Are you sure you want Number Two Timberline?” Lewis clarified then turned his attention to the woman in front of him. “That’s the old Donnelly place.”

“That’s right. I leased it for the next six months.”

Dylan pulled his hat back down his forehead. “No one’s lived there for a while.”

“Really? The realtor never told me that. How long has it been empty?”

Lewis Plummer was a true gentleman, and one of the few people in town who didn’t out right lie to flatlanders, Lewis had also been born and raised in Gospel, where prevarication was considered an art form. He shrugged. “A year or two.”

“Oh, a year or two isn’t too bad if the property has been maintained.”

Maintained hell. The last time Dylan had been in the Donnelly house, thick dust covered everything. Even the blood stain on the living room floor. MZBHAVN was in for a rude shock.

“Do I just follow this road?” She turned and pointed down Main Street where it curved along the natural outline of Gospel Lake. Her fingernails had that two-tone French manicure that Dylan had always thought was kind of sexy.

“That’s right,” he answered. From behind his mirrored glasses, he slid his gaze to the natural curves of her slim hips and thighs, down her long legs to her feet. One corner of his mouth turned up, and he fought to keep from laughing outright at the peacocks painted on her silver-toed boots. He’d never seen anything like them this side of a rodeo queen. “Keep driving about four miles until you come to a big white house with petunias in the window boxes and a swing set in the yard.”

“I love petunias.”

“Uh-huh. Turn left at the house with the petunias. The Donnelly place is right across the street. You can’t miss it.”

“I was told the house was gray and brown. Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s how I’d describe. What do you think Lewis?”

“Yep. It’s brown and gray all right.”

“Great, thanks for your help.” She turned to leave but Dylan’s next question stopped her.

“You’re welcome, Ms.--?”

From behind her dark glasses she stared at him for a prolonged moment before she answered, “Spencer.”

“Well now, Ms. Spencer, what are you planning out there on Timberline Road?” Dylan figured everyone had a right to privacy, but he also figured he had to right to ask.

“Nothing.”

“You lease a house for six months and you plan to do nothing?”

“That’s right, Gospel seemed like a nice place to vacation.”

Dylan had a doubt or two about her statement. Women who drove fancy sports cars and wore designer jeans vacationed in “nice” places with room service and pool boys, like Club Med, not in the wilderness of Idaho. Hell, the closest thing Gospel had to a spa was the Peterman’s hot tub.

“Did the realtor mention old Sheriff Donnelly?” Lewis asked.

“Who?” Her brows scrunched together and dipped below the bridge of her sunglasses. She tapped an impatient hand three times on her thigh before she said, “Well, thank you gentlemen for your help.” Then she turned on her fancy boots and marched back to her sports car.

“Do you believe her?” Lewis wanted to know.

“That she’s here on vacation?” Dylan shrugged. He didn’t care what she did as long as she stayed out of trouble.

“She doesn’t look like a back packer.”

Dylan’s gaze settled on her behind in those tight jeans. “Nope.” The thing about trouble was, it always had a way of showing itself sooner or later. No reason to go looking for it when he had better things to do.

“Makes you wonder why a woman like here leased that old house,” Lewis said as Ms. Spencer opened her car door and climbed inside. “I haven’t seen anything like her in a long time. Maybe never.”

“You don’t get out of Pearl County enough.” Dylan slid behind the wheel of the Blazer and shut the door behind him. He shoved the key in the ignition and watched the Porsche drive away.

“Did you get a load of those Tony Lama’s?” Lewis asked as he slid into the passenger’s seat.

“Couldn’t miss those boots.” Once Lewis shut his door, Dylan put the vehicle into drive and pulled away from the curb. “She won’t last six minutes let alone six months.”

“Do you want to bet?”

“Even you aren’t that big a sucker, Lewis.” Dylan cranked the wheel and headed out of town. “She’s going to take one look at the old Donnelly place and keep right on driving.”

“Maybe, but I got a ten in my wallet that says she lasts a week.”

He thought of MZBHAVN strolling toward him, all smooth and shiny and expensive. “You’re on, my friend,” he said.