Erik Toleffson hated the Dew Drop Inn in downtown Konigsburg, Texas, with a loathing that was deep and abiding. It wasn’t just because he didn’t drink—he could tolerate most bars without any problem. But the Dew Drop wasn’t most bars.
It was so dark it reminded him of a cave—he half-expected to see bats hanging from the rafters. And bats might have been an improvement over some of the bar’s customers, particularly considering that Erik, one of Konigsburg’s limited supply of cops, had had professional interactions with several of them. There was Otto Friedrich, the high school football coach, whom he’d decked a couple of years ago for attempting to assault Erik’s future sister-in-law. And Billy Jo Slidell, who’d had a couple of DUIs in the last month that ended with Erik tossing him into what passed for a drunk tank in the Konigsburg jail. And Brendan Fowler, who’d had to bail out Mrs. Fowler, Marlene, after she’d thrown a punch at Ethel Overmeyer. Erik wasn’t sure what the origin of the fight had been, but Ethel outweighed Marlene by about fifty pounds and was just getting ready to throw her own punch when he intervened, so he figured Marlene was lucky to have gotten off with a fine.
Given his choice, he’d have hung out at the Coffee Corral or even Brenner’s Restaurant down the street, although he couldn’t afford to eat much more than a couple of dinner rolls there. But his brothers liked the Dew Drop, and Erik wasn’t ready to complain about it now that they’d started including him in their five o’clock get-togethers. It hadn’t been all that long ago they’d have been running in the other direction if they saw him coming, given his standard practice of beating the crap out of them until they’d been old enough to fight him off singly and in a group.
Not that he blamed them for that. In their place, he would have done the same thing. He’d even be willing to let them beat him to a bloody pulp now if they’d like to take him on, assuming it might help to even the score from their childhood.
Erik watched as his brother Pete tried to flag down a barmaid from their booth in the corner. All four brothers were about the same size, with the same brown hair and eyes, but Pete was maybe an inch or two shorter than the others. Which meant he was around six-three. Lars and Cal were scrunched into the other side of the booth, trying to find room for their feet in the limited space. It was best to be the last one to arrive at these get-togethers. Being late meant you got the outside seat, which meant being able to extend your legs out into the floor space instead of trying to reduce yourself to booth-size.
With other people the customers might have objected, but nobody made much of a fuss about the Toleffsons, and not just because they were bigger than most of the men in the bar. With the exception of Erik, all the Toleffsons were popular people in Konigsburg. Nice guys, upstanding citizens, a veterinarian, an accountant and an assistant county attorney. All of them well-liked, with the exception of him. But then he’d often been the exception in cases like that. “Nice” and “upstanding” weren’t words that anybody had ever used to describe him.
Pete scowled toward the bar, where the owner, Ingstrom, was ignoring him. Both barmaids were at the other end of the room, giggling with a couple of cowboy wannabes whose Stetsons looked brand new.
Time was when the barmaids would have been hanging around the Toleffson booth, but now three out of the four brothers were married, and Erik figured nobody thought of him as worth flirting with. The only reason the four of them could get together at all was that the Toleffson wives had a girls-only dinner on Wednesday. Knowing his sisters-in-law, Erik assumed they were probably trading war stories or plotting battle strategy. Not that any of his brothers stood a chance against their wives, either singly or in concert, strategy or no strategy.
“What the hell does it take to get served around here anymore,” Pete growled, “divine intervention?”
“Forget it.” Lars pushed himself to his feet. “I’ll go to the bar myself.”
“I’ll help.” Cal glanced at Erik. “Dr. Pepper okay? Ingstrom switched distributors.”
Pete glanced his way as the other two headed toward Ingstrom. “What do you hear about the chief’s job?”
Erik sighed. If he’d had any glimmer of a good mood, it promptly vaporized. “City council meeting tomorrow afternoon. They’re supposed to announce their decision then.”
“Any hope it won’t be Ham Linklatter?”
Erik shrugged. “Anything’s possible. But Mayor Pittman wants Linklatter and the council’s not famous for standing up to him.”
“Linklatter’s an idiot. I’ve seen cheese with a higher IQ.”
“Ham’s a little…unfocused. He’s got seniority, though. And he’s the only full-time cop in town.”
Pete grimaced. “He was hired by a psychopath and promoted by a screwup. That doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation.”
Erik sighed again. Konigsburg’s former police chief, Claude Olema, had been fired a couple of months ago for gross incompetence after a high-risk prisoner had escaped from the jail. Erik hadn’t been impressed with Olema’s skills, but at least the chief had been reasonably honest. The chief before Olema, Brody, had tried to kill Cal’s wife, Docia, but that had been before Erik’s time. Good thing, too, considering what Erik would have felt like doing to Brody himself if he’d known him then. “The town hasn’t been all that lucky in terms of police chiefs. I’ll grant you that.”
“What have you been doing for a chief since Olema left?”
“Sheriff Friesenhahn’s sent over a couple of his deputies to keep an eye on things. Pittman wanted to make Ham acting chief, but the council wouldn’t back him on it.”
Pete grinned. “You mean Horace wouldn’t. Thank god we’ve got one hard-ass who isn’t afraid of the mayor.”
Horace Rankin was Cal’s partner in the veterinary clinic. He was also president of the city council and currently Erik’s only hope. If anybody could come up with an alternative to Ham Linklatter, it would be Horace.
“Did you apply for the job?”
“Sure.” Erik’s mouth twisted slightly. “We all did—me and Nando and Curtis Peavey. Won’t mean anything, though. Pittman’s already chosen the next chief.”
Pete leaned back against the booth. “What will you do if they promote Linklatter to chief? Could you work for him?”
Erik shrugged again. “I’ll figure something out.”
Actually, he’d already figured out there was no way he’d work for Ham Linklatter, although he wasn’t ready to discuss it with the family yet. He’d worked for incompetents before—he’d gotten along with Olema, even though he didn’t hold his skills in much regard. But he’d never yet worked for a moron, and he wasn’t eager to try.
He liked Konigsburg, Texas, and he didn’t really want to stick around to watch what happened when Ham started screwing up. Which made it doubly hard—he’d have to leave the town he’d grown to like and his family just when it seemed they might actually be willing to forgive him. That forgiveness hadn’t come easily, and he still wondered sometimes if he deserved it.
Cal slid into the booth opposite, pushing a glass of soda across the table to Erik and a bottle of Lonestar to Pete. “Have you seen Wonder? I need to tell him about dinner on Friday.” He raised an eyebrow at Erik. “You’re coming, right?”
“For an hour or so. I’m on duty at eight. I’ll bring the soda.”
Pete gestured across the room. “Wonder’s over there at the booth with Allie and Morgan.”
Erik glanced at a booth at the other end of the row. Cal’s friend Steve Kleinschmidt, aka Wonder Dentist, sat opposite his fiancée Allie Maldonado, a buxom brunette baker who made the best scones on the planet. On Allie’s other side, a woman cradled her head in her arms on the tabletop. Erik sighed. Probably another drunk, not that he was going to do anything about it as long as she stayed quiet. With only a few available jail cells, the law in Konigsburg had to be discriminating about who got swept up. On the other hand, she’d probably be a more pleasant cell occupant than somebody like Terrell Biedermeier, currently knocking back boilermakers at the bar and long overdue for a trip to the drunk tank.
The woman raised her head, and Erik felt as if he’d been kicked in the gut.
Her eyes were huge, liquid brown. Like melted chocolate. Like coffee beans. Like Bambi.
Erik swiveled back to the table and grabbed his Dr. Pepper. Like Bambi? Jesus, Toleffson, get a grip.
Morgan Barrett just needed some sleep. That was all. She tried to remember how long she’d slept last night. Four hours? Maybe. She hadn’t expected the truck with the grapes from Lubbock to show up at three in the morning, that’s for sure.
The good news was that the truck was ahead of schedule, which meant they could start the crush a few days early, according to Ciro. The bad news was, well, it was freakin’ three in the morning and she had to stay down there until all the grapes were unloaded.
She’d spent the rest of the day helping Ciro and Esteban run the destemmer and the crusher, draining the juice and pulp off into the holding tank. At least it was a cabernet franc so they didn’t have to filter off the skins, as they did with the viognier.
Over the course of the past year, she’d discovered that white wine was a total nightmare.
Next week they’d have to start picking the sauvignon blanc grapes in their own vineyard, even though it was early, because the heat had made the grapes ripen before her father and Ciro had originally figured they would. And Dad was pissed because he wouldn’t be there to oversee the crush. And Ciro was pissed because he hated using volunteer pickers. And Morgan promised herself she’d find something to be pissed about too, as soon as she got a spare millisecond.
Actually, she could always be pissed about the way her existence had been gobbled up by Cedar Creek Winery. It had all seemed so simple when she’d agreed to take over for Dad after his accident. She’d go to the winery, learn what she needed to learn about wine production and put together a marketing plan on the side. And when she was through with all that, she’d start making plans to get the winery the recognition it deserved.
Simple. Right. And Hurricane Rita was a bad rainstorm. She probably shouldn’t be wasting time in the Dew Drop instead of reviewing the barrel room records, but she wanted to at least pretend she had a social life.
If she could just hold everything together until next weekend, maybe Dad… Morgan felt her head droop. Just five minutes. She’d put her head down on the table for five minutes and then she’d be good to go. Power-napping. The mark of a successful businesswoman. And she was a successful…business…woman…
“Morgan.” Someone shook her shoulder, gently. “Morgan, honey.”
“Mom?” Morgan murmured. And then felt like a moron. She was seated in the Dew Drop Inn in downtown Konigsburg. Her mother had better taste.
“Morgan?” Allie Maldonado gave her a slightly concerned look, eyebrows raised. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” Morgan groaned, pushing her hair out of her eyes. Just five minutes of sleep. That’s all she needed, honestly.
A man across the room scowled at her.
She blinked. What had she done now? Was putting your head down on a table to grab five minutes of shut-eye some kind of honky-tonk faux pas? Had she violated the health code, assuming the Dew Drop had a health code to violate?
The man turned away quickly. She had an impression of dark hair and eyes, broad shoulders, a face that looked like he’d lived through a lot, not all of it pleasant.
“Who’s that?” Morgan turned to Allie. Allie always knew everything. Except that Allie was slightly distracted these days. Not that Morgan blamed her. Trying to arrange a wedding to Wonder Dentist would try anybody’s patience.
Allie looked up from Wonder briefly and checked the booth at the far end of the room. “Toleffsons. All four of them. Did you have a particular one in mind?”
“Oh. I couldn’t see that far.” Morgan leaned back against the booth, trying to get another look at the men across the room without being too obvious about it. “Which one is the one on the end?”
“Erik.” Allie took a swallow of wine. “The cop. You might not have seen him as much as the others. He’s always working. They all look alike, though, more or less.”
Morgan narrowed her eyes, surreptitiously studying the back of Erik Toleffson’s head. “Maybe. He doesn’t look much like Cal, though. He needs to smile.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Wonder set down his bottle of beer. “When Erik smiles it means he’s getting ready to tear somebody a new one. Scariest sucker I’ve ever known.”
Allie grinned and put her hand over his on the table. “You’re such a poetic SOB. Tell them to join us. I need to give Cal a message for Docia.”
Wonder grimaced, pushing himself to his feet. “Okay, but if the Toleffsons are joining us, we’re getting a table. I’m not letting those elephants scrunch me up against the wall again.”
Wonder Dentist was one of the least formidable-looking men Erik had ever met. He stood maybe five-eight, with a slightly concave chest, horn-rims and thinning hair. Combined with his habitually smart-assed personality, he was not someone Erik would consider a great catch. Yet he’d somehow managed to snare one of the best cooks in town for his bride-to-be. Just another example of how the universe didn’t always play fair.
Cal and Lars pulled a couple of tables together, while he helped Pete corral chairs, ignoring Ingstrom’s scowl as they rearranged his floor space.
“Have a seat, Erik. There’s room over here beside us.” Allie Maldonado put a hand on the shoulder of the woman next to her, Ms. Bambi-Eyes.
A set-up? Allie Maldonado actually thought he was worthy of a setup? Erik almost felt like shaking his head to clear it. Nobody wanted to hook up with him.
“This is Morgan Barrett. I don’t know if you’ve met. Her dad’s a partner in the Cedar Creek Winery outside town.”
Morgan Barrett raised those remarkable eyes once again. Erik’s jaw tightened. Aside from the eyes she looked a little like she’d been dragged through a knothole. Rumpled clothes, mussed hair. Very sexy mussed hair.
If she wasn’t a drunk, she was one of the tiredest individuals he’d ever seen.
“Pleased to meet you.” She yawned in his face. Well, okay then, not a drunk.
“I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “We got a shipment of grapes last night. I’m usually more alert than this. I need to go home and sleep until the next load comes in, preferably in another week.”
Allie nodded. “Harvest season. I remember. You going to have a new wine for the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival?”
“Yes.” Morgan paused, then shook her head. “No. Maybe.”
“Well, that seems to take care of the possibilities.” Cal grinned.
Morgan sighed. “Esteban’s got one ready to go, but ATF hasn’t approved the label yet. We’ve been waiting on it for weeks now, but with Homeland Security it takes forever.”
“Homeland Security?” Erik set his Dr. Pepper down on the table and pulled up his chair. “Wine is now considered a lethal weapon?”
“You haven’t tasted the wine from Castleberry’s, have you?” Morgan shook her head. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be dissing the truly lousy wine being produced by our competitors. ATF, which is now part of Homeland Security, has to approve the text on wine labels and wine labels are not high on their list of priorities.”
“So what are you going to call it?” Allie asked. “Is it red or white?”
“Red. It’s Esteban Avrogado’s first blend. He asked me for some advice, and I came up with a new name so we can market it.”
Erik couldn’t tell for sure in the gloom of the Dew Drop, but it almost looked like she was blushing.
“It’s a Bordeaux blend—cabernet, merlot and cabernet franc. Only we can’t call it Bordeaux because of the EU rules since it’s not from Bordeaux.”
“So you’re calling it…” Allie gave her an encouraging smile.
“Bored Ducks.” Morgan looked around the table expectantly.
Six faces stared blankly back.
“Well, because it’s… I mean, people don’t always know how to pronounce…” Morgan’s lips thinned to a taut line. For a moment, she looked close to tears.
Erik had a sudden, unaccountable urge to get that look off her face. “That’s funny,” he said, pushing his lips into something that was in the neighborhood of a grin. “Bordeaux, Bored Ducks. Funny.”
Wonder narrowed his eyes. “Funny?”
Allie gave him an elbow to the ribs. Wonder winced and settled back in his chair.
“Bored ducks.” Cal grinned. “Sorry. Took me a minute. Now I see it.”
Lars nodded. “We Toleffsons may not be swift, but we usually get there eventually. I think it’s funny too.”
Allie reached for her glass. “Novelty wine labels are a good marketing tool. It’ll get the browsers’ attention.”
“It will indeed,” Wonder intoned. “All across the state, the aisles of the wine sections will be clogged with shoppers muttering ‘What the hell?’”
He winced again. For a small woman, Allie Maldonado appeared to wield a mighty elbow.
“I like it. And I’ll bet the wine tastes terrific. All the Cedar Creek wines are good, Morgan.”
Morgan grimaced. “I just hope it doesn’t take people so long to figure out the name that they forget to buy the wine.”
“Steve will buy a case.” Allie turned narrowed eyes on Wonder. “Won’t you, sweetie?”
“Sure,” Wonder croaked, rubbing his side. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Morgan yawned again. “I need to go back home and get some sleep before the next crisis.”
“Morgan, you shouldn’t drive.” Cal’s face was serious. “You’re too tired. Stay over with us.”
She shook her head. “It’s okay, I’m not driving. Ciro is having dinner with Nando. He said he’d give me a ride back if I hike over to the station.”
Erik blinked at her. The police station? Where he’d just left? What the hell was going on there now? The last thing the Konigsburg PD needed was another crisis. “I can give you a ride to the station. I need to check on a few things before I go home.”
Not exactly true, but close enough. If people were dining at the station, Erik figured he should know about it. Nando Avrogado was another of the part-time officers, and the only Konigsburg cop Erik would depend on to be able to find the keys to the cruiser in less than ten minutes. If anything happened that got Nando thrown off the force, Erik would be on the first thing heading out of town.
“Oh.” Morgan Barrett gave him a slightly dazed look, as if she were trying to remember just who he was. Then she nodded. “Okay. Thanks.”