“Yeah. You bet.” Damien pulled off his fleece jacket, his movements stiff. “Though why do I get the sense that this isn’t a friendly visit?”
Because we’re not friends? But instead of speaking his mind, Billy just laughed a carefree, rolling laugh. “Shall we get some drinks?”
Damien’s posture loosened a bit, and with a nod, he headed toward an open stool at the bar.
But Billy headed him off, anxious for a little privacy. “How about a booth instead? That way we can kick back.”
Damien’s gaze skittered to the booth and back. “Whatever you say, Sheriff. How about I snag us a couple of beers first?” He laughed nervously. “I hope by drinks you didn’t mean diet sodas.”
The Simmons boy had always struck Billy as an entitled jackass, and nothing got a jackass’s jaw flapping like a sit-down with his pal, Johnny Walker. He gave Damien a broad smile. “Why mess around? I’m off duty. How about a couple of shots with a beer back? My treat.” He caught the bartender’s eye. “My tab, Helen.”
By the time Damien returned with the drinks, his features had hardened, his nerves under wraps. Apparently the guy knew the best defense was a good offense. He settled into the booth, leaning forward and sliding Billy’s shot and beer across the table. “Cut the shit, Sheriff. Why am I here? Don’t tell me it’s because you need a new drinking buddy.”
Billy raised his glass. “Points for the brass balls, Simmons.” He tossed back his shot. “You’re right. I’m not looking for a friend.”
He continued, “Just want to make sure it’s all cool, this situation with me and Sorrow.”
Damien’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits. He threw back his own shot, then said, “Yeah, sure. It’s cool.”
“Good,” he said, remaining as emotionless as possible. “Sorrow has enough on her mind without worrying about any bad blood. You’ll have heard about the accident, I guess.”
The guy’s face was like stone. His head moved in the slightest of nods. “Tough break.”
Simmons was going to be harder to crack than he’d anticipated. Time to bring out the big guns. “Hey, Helen,” Billy called. “Why don’t you just bring over the bottle?”
Damien raised his brows, like he was expecting a trick.
“Don’t sweat it,” Billy said easily. “My buddy Scott is coming by later. He’ll drive us home.”
“You’re the sheriff,” Damien said, his voice flat. He stared at his beer bottle, peeling and fraying the label. “So, she okay? Laura, I mean?”
Helen brought over the bottle of Scotch and her eyes lingered overlong on Damien. “I hear you’re single now.”
He didn’t miss a beat before responding, “And I hear you’re still married.” As she walked away, Simmons pulled the bottle closer, tipping a solid slug into his shot glass. “Women,” he grumbled.
Watching the amber liquid glug into the glass, Billy said, “That’s the way,” all the while thinking, that’s right, kid, time to get nice and loose. He slid his own glass over for a pour. “I don’t know how you and Sorrow left it,” he said slowly. “She’s no gossip, and what happened between you two is none of my business anyhow. But, as far as I can tell, there’s no reason two men can’t have a friendly drink.”
Damien met his eyes and held them silently as he tipped the entire glass down his throat. “Or five.”
Billy laughed. “Whoa, cowboy.” Either the guy was more upset about the breakup than Sorrow knew, or he had something heavy on his mind. Guilt, maybe.
As sheriff, he knew that, if he wanted cred with the guy, he’d need to match him drink for drink, and so tipped his own shot back then slammed his glass down, exhaling hard. “Don’t think you can drink an old man under the table.”
Simmons actually cocked a half smile at that. Progress. “I bet I can, old man.” He stared in challenge. “Speaking of old, don’t you think you’re maybe a little too old for our Bailey?”
Damien was quick to wave the comment away with a brittle laugh. “Okay, you’re right. Foul ball.” He sighed, and the twenty-something guy suddenly sounded much older. “Hell, I don’t know anymore.” He poured himself another and raised it in a toast. “It pains me, Sheriff”—he clutched playfully at his heart, but there was truth in the jest—“pains me to say it.” He grew oddly serious. “But I say this for her sake. I’ve known Bailey all my life. She’s good people, and any friend of hers is a friend of mine.”
That was unexpected. He ran it through his head, searching for some hidden edge or agenda, but it rang true. In his mind, he upgraded the kid from evil to just plain jerk. He clinked his glass with Damien’s and tossed it back. They’d never be best buds, but Billy knew he had to keep his mind open to possibilities. Law enforcement’s first lesson was that sometimes things weren’t at all what they seemed.
Still, he reminded himself that it wouldn’t do any good to trust too easily. Which meant it was time to bring it back to the matter at hand. He was nonchalant, not even looking at Damien as he said, “So I hear the accident happened close to Simmons land. Hope that doesn’t bring any bad publicity.”
“Dad told me once, no publicity is bad publicity.”
“Your father must know what he’s talking about. He’s successful enough.”
“You’re lucky,” Billy added, “having such an experienced man as a mentor.”
“Do you work closely with him? I imagine he treats you like his protégé. You’ll be the one to inherit Simmons Timber, after all.”
Damien guzzled his beer, downing the second half of the bottle in one drink. “Sometimes I think Dad just wants me to be a suit.”
Billy poured them each another, smaller drink, and then kept the bottle. The kid was pounding them too hard for his tastes. “A suit?” he repeated, encouraging Damien to say more.
“Yeah. A good old boy in a suit. He says it’s the lynchpin of a business like ours. Hunting trips with the boys, that sort of thing. I have ideas, though.” He snatched the bottle back, helping himself. “I try to be a good guy, a responsible guy.”
“Responsible how?” Like by running Laura Bailey off the road?
Damien caught and held his gaze. “Newsflash, Sheriff: logging isn’t exactly the most PC thing these days. I drive into the city and mention I’m in timber? Girls can’t run away fast enough.” He threw back his drink, and damn, the kid could hold his liquor—Billy would need to watch himself. But although the guy might not be slurring, the words were flowing more freely. He rambled on, “These days, all women wanna talk about is composting. Vegetarian food. Stuff like that. You’d think I was clubbing baby seals out there. Like cutting down trees is the devil’s work.”
Billy saw the kid in a new light. He was vulnerable, maybe even lonely. Sorrow probably had hurt him more than she’d realized. It was easy enough to imagine. If Sorrow were to leave him, he’d be shattered.
He’d need to tread carefully. “Seems to me, Damien, the ladies would love things like, well, let’s be honest, like that car you drive.”
“Yeah,” Simmons said flatly. He caught Helen’s eye and silently raised his empty bottle, requesting another beer. “Girls go for the money.”
The kid sounded more jaded than the young, rich scion of a successful business should. He clearly didn’t want the kind of girls who chased money. So then what was Damien’s story? Seemed like there might be more to him than Billy had suspected. But why should that discovery surprise him? He had to give Sorrow a little credit—she wouldn’t go out with a total numbskull.
When Billy spoke again, it was more as a fellow guy than as sheriff. “Have you tried to talk to your dad? I don’t know much about running a big company, but it seems to me that change happens from within. Hell, I think sometimes environmental initiatives can be lucrative. Good press and all.”
“I tried, man. I went to the Simmons board once, all I did was say the word sustainability, and they laughed me out of the boardroom. Like I was some kind of idiot. I know people need paper. Paper’s not going anywhere…yet. I know that. I get it—I’m not stupid. But Dad, all he wants is to build, build, build.” Damien laughed evilly, kicking back and peering out the window. “I think it drives him fucking nuts that Bear’s sitting on so much prime land. I love it.”
Billy froze. The Baileys were struggling—all this time, he’d just assumed that the only things they had were the tavern and the roof over their heads. “Are you saying that Bear owns land? And that it borders Simmons Timber?”
Damien laughed again, but this time he just sounded weary. “Yessir, Sheriff. Old Dabney Simmons calls it green gold.”
The lunch crowd was thinning, and Sorrow heard the tavern door whoosh open and shut as she stood at the bar, refilling the salt shakers. She glanced over her shoulder and held her breath. It was Damien, and he was making a beeline straight for her.
He came up beside her to lean against the bar. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Hello to you, too.” Her heart went to her throat. Billy and her ex had met for a couple of drinks the other night, and although Billy didn’t come out of it as the biggest Damien fan, he no longer thought the guy capable of doing harm to her sister. According to his report, things were “all cool” among them. So then why this visit?
“I’m not doing a look,” she said.
“Sure you are. You’re doing your deer in the headlights thing.” He laughed, surely seeing how flustered she was. “Relax, Bailey. I know you’re off the market. I had a little powwow with your new boyfriend. Didn’t he tell you?”