"Unit 12, this is Base. Sheriff, I've got a message for you."
Grady thumbed the button on the radio. "Base, 12. What's doing, Sanchez?"
"All quiet on the western front. How was the council meeting?"
Grady thought about all the people who could be listening in to the sheriff's department radio. "It is what it is, bud." Civilian speak for the military's FUBAR. He had listened to forty-five minutes of discussion about enforcing the assigned parking spots for city council members at City Hall. When Grady had finally had enough of the whining and complaints, he suggested they had more critical issues to discuss, and proposed repeat parking offenders be drawn and quartered during the Thursday evening concert series. The council members had not been amused. Grady thought he would have to work a little harder to curb his irritation with the people who funded his department.
"I got a message for you, Boss. Some dude said to tell you book club's cancelled for tonight."
Grady frowned at the radio. "10-4, Base. Out." Cancelled? What the hell? Damn cheese farmer. Didn't he know you don't blow somebody off before the first date? He grabbed the radio again. "Sanchez, I'm taking lunch."
"Boss, it's ten thirty."
"Um, nothing. Out."
Sanchez was a good guy. They were in the same National Guard unit and had only been back from Afghanistan and out of uniform about six weeks. Sanchez had two babies at home, and to hear him tell it, there would be another bun in the oven any day now.
Grady drove his cruiser along one of the back roads in Canyon County, Idaho. This was farm country, full of hard-working people, and his job was to keep them safe. He turned onto the road that lead to Edward's little dairy farm.
Edward Clayton had fifty fat Jersey cows, a ramshackle barn, a milking shed, a tiny creamery, and a run-down little house. They had met the week before at the library in Melba. After Edward had left, the librarian, Miss Middlesex, had given Grady the rest of the story. "I don't know what that man's doing here," she'd said. "He used to be some big-shot lawyer with the ACLU. Does he strike you as the back-to-the earth type? I think he's in hiding."
Grady didn't know what the back-to-the earth type looked like. Compost under the fingernails? Maybe some loose alfalfa hay somewhere about their person? Edward was handsome, with long, slender fingers and a bony, elegant face. He had kind gray eyes, and Grady immediately wanted to see him in a silver-gray cashmere turtleneck. Or a cashmere robe, open at the neck. Grady spent all his time with men in uniform--Army National Guard, Sheriff's Department. The high and tight was the haircut of choice. None of them had chestnut curls on the back of their necks, and Grady suspected this was the reason he kept reaching for Edward Clayton's curls in his mind every time he closed his eyes.
He pulled into the farm, left his cruiser next to the house, and walked out to the barn. This time of day a busy farmer would be with his cows, or in the creamery making cheese. Most of the cows were already in the pasture next to the barn, their sweet brown faces turned up to the sun.
"I know you're scared, but I'll take care of you. Just take this in your mouth and suck on it a tiny bit." Grady raised his eyebrows, watched Edward with the damp newborn calf in his lap. The baby was not interested in taking the bottle. He kept rooting around at Edward's lap, covered now in a bright red apron with the words Curds and Whey in script.
"He's looking for his mama, not some bony ACLU lawyer with a bottle."
Edward looked up, and Grady felt a moment of dizziness, like he was falling into deep cool water. "I'm sorry about book club, Grady. I've had a death."
"Cow, not human, right? Because I haven't been informed of any human deaths."
Edward gave him a crooked smile, hitched the baby up in his arms. "Cow," he confirmed. "This baby's mother died in childbirth, because I didn't know what to do. And if I don't get him to take his bottle, I'm going to lose him too."
A woman came into the barn, drying her hands off on her apron. She had a worried, time-worn face, and she wore her thick dark hair bundled up at the nape of her neck. "Edward, there's a Sheriff's Department car at the house."
Edward stood up quickly. "Mrs. Rodriguez." Grady saw the alarm on her face, the quick blanch when she caught sight of him. "Sheriff Sullivan, this is Mrs. Rodriguez, my housekeeper. Temporary housekeeper. Emilia, this is Sheriff Grady Sullivan."
Grady reached out and shook her hand. She was still pale, her dark eyes darting nervously from his face to his gun belt, and her hand was shaking slightly. "I'm sorry if I startled you. I just came to assist Edward in feeding the orphan."
Mrs. Rodriguez and Edward studied him carefully from the tips of his polished black boots, up the knife creased khaki trousers, to the sturdy gun belt and the shiny badge pinned to his breast pocket. Edward was laughing, but Mrs. Rodriguez turned away with a sniff. "I hope whoever does your laundry knows how to get out milk stains," she said, and she disappeared around the corner of the barn.
Grady shrugged. "I don't think she likes my looks. Or maybe the cops are a little bit scarier wherever she's from."
Edward was next to him now, smelling of sweet buttermilk and smiling with those kind eyes. "Maybe we should have a don't ask, don't tell policy regarding the immigration status of my farm workers."
Grady narrowed his eyes. "I am very familiar with that policy, being as I served four years on active duty in the Army. I would have to say such a policy sucks. But I don't plan on rousting your temporary housekeeper. Whatever that means."
"What are you doing out here, Grady?"
"I took my lunch break to come out here and kick your ass for blowing me off."
"Your lunch break? Then the least I can do is feed you." He put the little calf down in some straw.
Grady gestured to the door of the barn. Three pairs of brown eyes were peeking at him from around the corner of the big door. "Looks like you've got some more temporary housekeepers come to help."
Edward gave him a look but waved the children in. The oldest was a girl, about eight, and she kept her two little brothers behind her. Edward gave her the bottle. "See if you can get the baby to take some of this milk," he said, and when they left, the children were kneeling next to the calf, petting it and talking to it in soft Spanish voices.
Edward pushed open the door to the little creamery, and Grady followed him in. "How're the elections going? Every time I go to town, seems like there's a fight about to break out in the diner over the sheriff's election. I'm not from around here, though, so nobody tells me anything."
"I was elected six years ago," Grady said, sliding onto a stool. Edward opened a big stainless Sub-Zero fridge and pulled out a couple of plates of cheese. "Then our National Guard unit was deployed to Afghanistan. We were gone with one thing or another for almost four years. About half of us were members of the unit. The ones that weren't were left to run things. They hired some temp workers to fill in. When we came back, the maneuvering started. The temps claimed discrimination when the vets went back to their old jobs. There isn't very much work out here, so the scramble for jobs was deadly serious, you know?"
"Did they do a good job while you were gone?"
Grady felt his jaw harden, and a muscle twitched along his temple. Edward had instincts like a shark. "No. They did not. The changes I'd made in the first two years disappeared, and the man chosen to be acting sheriff ran the county like an old fashioned mobster. Favors, threats, bribes. He's managed to get a lot of people in debt to him or obligated to him in some way. And now he's pulling in favors with both hands. I don't know if he was counting on my not coming back, or maybe he thought I would come back too banged up to fight him. But I did come back, and I kicked his ass out of my chair and started to clean up."
"That's Devlin Barry?"
"Yeah. So he went back to his old job at dispatch and started shaking the trees. He convinced the city council to hold special elections, and he's running for sheriff against me. He may win too. Maybe this place likes his way better than mine."
"What's your way?"
"I follow the rules. The laws. If they're unfair, or unjust, the right thing to do is change them. There're too many dangers to people when we live in the gray areas, adjusting the rules for every new situation. My job is the safety and security of the people of this county."
Edward washed a bunch of red grapes in the sink and set them on one of the plates of cheese. "I think of the law as all gray areas, like it's something alive, and it's always evolving from this to that, depending on our understanding and interpretation. But that's the way a lawyer is trained to see the law: open for interpretation. I get what you mean. For those charged with enforcing the law, you can't waffle. The line you walk can't change with every person."
"What did you do with the ACLU?"
"GLBT rights projects and some immigrant rights." He put a knife on one of the plates, and reached into a cabinet for a zip lock bag of crackers. "Try this fresh ricotta first," he said, dipping the knife into a fluffy mound of white cheese. "I just made it this morning."
Grady bit down into the cheese- it was light and sweet and rich, with a tiny hint of lemon. Like cheese ice cream. "Hey, that's good!"
"I'm going to toast a couple of pieces of bread," Edward said. He slid one of the plates closer to Grady. "That hard cheese there, that's Manchego. Usually it's a sheep's milk cheese, but I made this version with the cow's milk. I really like it. So nutty and rich."
Grady tasted a piece of the cheese, and then reached for another. Edward was right: nutty, salty, and rich, but mild at the same time. "That's really good. I probably don't have the vocabulary to describe it properly."
"I'm a fairly new cheesehead myself." Edward leaned across the counter, rested on his elbows, and took his sweet time watching Grady eat.
Grady popped a grape into his mouth and looked back. Edward was just the sort of man he kept hoping to find. Hoping, trying, being disappointed by. He had a long list now of the things he didn't want in a friend--he didn't want a drama queen. Jealous was out. He wanted a man, not a leech, not some pretty boy looking for an easy berth. And smart. He needed smart. He was a lot more lonely for someone to talk to than he was for someone to warm his bed. And he needed someone who would respect his job. Respect the work he did and understand he didn't take his responsibilities lightly. "So what's your story? Miss Middlesex at the library thinks you're in hiding."
Edward grinned and turned to pick up the toast. "What, from the mob? I'm from San Francisco. We do have the Lavender Mob out there, but I don't think I've pissed off any of the old queens. Here, try some of this one." He scooped some runny-looking cheese with a white rind onto a piece of toast and handed it over. "I'm more partial to the hard Italian cheeses myself, and the fresh soft ones, but lots of people like French-style cheese."
It was ripe and tangy with a lingering smoothness. Grady was having a hard time choosing his favorites. Edward handed him a glass of water, and then turned away to put some coffee on. "Can you drink a cup? I usually take a break about this time of the morning to have some cheese and coffee and toast."
"I can drink a cup," Grady said. "So, what's your story?"
Edward glanced at him, smiling. "I wasn't trying to blow off your question. I just haven't figured out how to describe what I'm doing out here without sounding like some sort of weirdo cow-milking flake!"
Grady cut off another little piece of the Manchego. "That's really good. If you're growing pot out on the back forty, you better tell me now."
"I guess that wouldn't look good with the sheriff's elections, what, three weeks away? No, two weeks."
"No, it wouldn't."
"I'm not growing pot. These cows eat everything that grows, and there isn't a fence they can't get through. You'll never find livestock on a pot farm."
"That's a good tip, thanks," Grady said. "Now stop fussing around and sit down."
Edward slid a cup of coffee across the table and took a stool. Grady broke off a bunch of the grapes, put them on Edward's plate, and scooted the cheese wedges across the counter. The coffee was rich and black, and just for a moment Grady took this memory, the smells of coffee and cheese and toast, the man's beautiful face and elegant fingers, his smile, and he tucked it away in his heart. The way he felt right now, this moment, he might need to remember this one day when he was cold, or lonely, or in a tough spot.
"I felt like I was getting farther and farther all the time from things that were real." Edward was toying with one of the pieces of toast. "I knew the work I was doing was important, but I was so very far away from seeing any change. I mean, you don't close your computer down with a hearty sigh and think, there, I just saved somebody's life. At least, I didn't. I just wanted to get out of the law library and see some real people. Do some real work."
Grady thought about this. "So you went from immigrant rights with the ACLU to a farm? Cheesemaking? I understand what you're saying perfectly. And you can make a mean wheel of cheese." He was silent for a moment, adding up the things that didn't make sense. He glanced up, and Edward wasn't meeting his eyes. There was a faint flush on his cheeks. "So how's it going?"
Edward looked at him now. "It's good. It's work that feels real and strong and needs to be done."
Grady wondered for a moment if he should just let it go. The man wasn't talking about cows. But he was sitting here in his uniform eating Edward's cheese, with a couple of little brown kids in the barn trying to feed the baby cow. "Edward, is there anything you need to tell me? Anything I should know? I promise I'm not the bad guy."
Edward shook his head, reaching across the table with a grateful smile. "No, Grady. But thank you for asking."