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Bright as a Kentucky spring

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Rachel poured another shot of vodka into her glass, then topped it up with a splash of orange juice. She was precisely where she wanted to be right now--nicely buzzed, just a little closer to bone-dry sober than sloppy drunk. She prided herself on being able to get to exactly the point she wanted to be at, and then staying there the rest of the night. It was just a matter of pacing yourself properly. And not forgetting to add the orange juice.

Fresh drink in hand, she swung her legs onto the bed and leaned back against the headboard. She hadn't bothered turning on the TV, which left her with only the motel room's peeling paint and a rather odd painting of a ship at sea to look at. Why a ship in landlocked Tennessee?

Apart from the ship, the room was typical of the kind deputy marshals usually got. Double bed. A tiny, but clean, bathroom. A bar fridge, which she was currently using to keep her orange juice cold. And a desk, perfect for storing the assorted paperwork one might bring with one on a business trip.

She sipped at her drink, warmth spreading through her like golden Kentucky sunshine. Spring sunshine. The best season in Kentucky, as far as Rachel was concerned. Some people preferred fall, for the color, but fall was...well, fall. With all that the word implied. Death. Dying. Things falling apart.

Endings.

She didn't look at the desk.

Rachel was glad they'd handed off their prisoner late enough in the day to justify spending another night in Memphis before heading back to Lexington. She hadn't been sure she could face going back to that shiny, new, still-not-quite-home house. Not tonight. She was also glad--for once--for the paucity of women in the Marshal Service, which had necessitated two rooms tonight, enabling her to drink in peaceful solitude.

Further musings were interrupted by a knock on the door.

"Damn," Rachel said. She set down her glass and stood up carefully. She was pleased to see that her legs were steady and the world didn't spin at all. She was managing, just like she always did. Mission Stay In Control was a success.

It was Tim, of course. Who else would be knocking on her motel door at eleven-thirty at night?

He held up a bottle of bourbon. "Thought I'd see if you wanted a nightcap," he said. He glanced past her, eyes drifting toward the vodka on the nightstand. "I guess you've already started."

Rachel considered for a moment. Okay, solitude was nice, but there was something to be said for company too. She was veering dangerously close to maudlin with all this spring and fall stuff. A distraction--a little conversation between drinks--could be a good thing. And it wasn't like Tim was going to be blabbing all her secrets at the office. If there was one thing Tim could be relied on to do, it was keep a secret if you asked him to. It was one of Rachel's favorite things about him.

"Sure," she said, stepping aside to let Tim--and his whiskey--in.

He eyed the vodka bottle when he got in the room, but didn't say a word about the decent amount she'd already had from it. He just pulled up the chair from the desk and grabbed one of the plastic cups from the bathroom. "What are we drinking to?"

Rachel weighed possible responses, then decided to go with honesty. "The end of my marriage. Got the final paperwork this morning."

"Oh, yeah?" Tim poured himself a couple of fingers of whiskey and set his bottle down next to hers. "Does that call for congratulations or commiseration?"

"A little of both, I guess," Rachel said. She let him swallow down half of his drink in one smooth gulp before she took another sip from her own cup. She was ahead in drinks, after all. "I thought I'd feel...free, knowing it was all done, but..." She wasn't quite sure how to describe how she felt. Adrift, maybe. It was amazing what it meant to your identity, going from spouse to non-spouse. Even if it had been a couple of years since she'd really embraced the role of wife.

Tim nodded understandingly. "I think you get used to it eventually."

"Maybe I'll start enjoying it once I do," Rachel said. There was a lot to enjoy, really. No more cleaning up her ex's messes, for one. And no more dealing with difficult in-laws. Just her and her own family and her own problems, for once. Well, plus whatever problems the office--and Raylan, who had a special talent for these things--produced for her.

Her ex was a lot like Raylan, actually. All tall good looks and deceptively attractive cockiness, and so much charm when he apologized for whatever trouble he'd gotten into this time that she couldn't help but forgive him. Until one day she realized she just couldn't dig up any more forgiveness, no matter how prettily he smiled.

"What about you?" Rachel asked, topping up her drink. "I want to hear stories about your love life." She wondered if he'd answer. Tim generally talked even less about himself than he did about other people. She'd once run into him with a woman in a restaurant--she assumed it had been a date--but she hadn't seen that woman or any other since.

Tim shook his head. "Nothing to talk about."

"Nothing?" she prodded.

"Lexington's not that big."

"And you've already dated every girl in it."

Tim shrugged and looked away. Rachel let it go. He was right; Lexington wasn't that big, and their office was even smaller. She could appreciate a desire to keep his personal life out of that vicious gossip mill.

The silence that followed was comfortable. She was used to sitting in silence with Tim. They'd shared hundreds of hours of stake-outs and prisoner transfers and driving to meet with assorted witnesses and chase down fugitives. It was kind of nice sitting silently when all they had to do was sit and drink, not be on alert for possible escapes or the right person finally showing up.

She looked down at her drink. Her cup was somehow empty again. She thought maybe she'd let her pacing slip a bit. She shrugged mentally and reached for the vodka, then changed her mind and poured herself some of Tim's whiskey instead. Tim could drive tomorrow. He hadn't had that much, and he wouldn't mind, not after tonight.

"I felt that way after leaving the army," Tim said suddenly. "I was dying to get out--counting down the days--and then the separation papers came through and I was back to being a civilian and I realized I kind of missed it. I mean, it was hell, but it was what I knew."

"But it got better," Rachel said. She didn't mention the nightmares she knew he still had. Or Art's unofficial diagnosis of PTSD. Actually, thinking about it, it did sound a lot like the tail end of her marriage.

Tim nodded. "It got better. It helps when you find something new to focus on, so you're not always thinking about what you don't have anymore."

Rachel gave a sharp, bitter laugh. Funny how he could stumble across one of her sore spots like that. "You know what I worry about there? If I'm ever going to find someone to replace him. I know it's stupid. I'm the one who left him. But I still wonder where I'm going to find someone else who will put up with this." She gestured vaguely around the anonymous motel room, trying to capture the travel and the hours and the boredom and the danger all at once. Including the danger of having attractive coworkers drinking in your room late at night. "And it's not like I'm twenty-five anymore. I know there are men out there, but they aren't exactly crawling over each other to get to me when I walk into a bar."

She had to be further gone than she'd thought, to say something like that out loud. She'd barely even let herself think about it, summoning as it did all her mother's warnings about the shiftlessness and unreliability of men, and her own mild guilt over not feeling complete on her own. Of course she didn't need someone--and really, she wasn't sure she'd be ready to make herself vulnerable like that again anytime soon--but the idea of spending the next forty or fifty years coming home to an empty house...it wasn't the vision she'd had for her life, once upon a time.

"I would," Tim said.

Rachel cocked a skeptical eyebrow at him. "What? Crawl over other men to reach me?"

"Sure," Tim said. "Knock 'em down and keep going."

Rachel laughed, amused at the mental picture he painted, and then stopped as she saw his face. He was wearing his usual deadpan expression, but beneath it there was something almost...hopeful. She was still processing what that meant--the alcohol was slowing her down--when the hope gave way to embarrassment.

"Sorry. I probably shouldn't say things like that to my future boss."

Which confirmed it. Tim wouldn't bother apologizing for a joke. So the question was, what--if anything--did she want to do about it?

She imagined leaning over and kissing him, just to see what happened, and a flush of warmth spread through her. Maybe she should have skipped the vodka and gone with fantasizing instead.

"I haven't gotten the promotion yet," Rachel said practically. A delaying tactic. "And I'm not going to as long as Art's around."

It occurred to her that she was curious about what Tim was like in bed. Was he as quiet there as he was everywhere else? Did he know how to use his hands for something other than guns and handcuffs?

"Yeah, but Art's retiring soon," Tim said. "And we all know who he's picked as his successor."

"That's still a ways off," Rachel said. "A lot could happen between then and now." She glanced at the whiskey bottle. And the vodka. The two of them had made good dents in both. Regardless of what she decided she wanted, tonight probably wasn't the night. She looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand, turning her head to make it obvious. "We probably ought to get some sleep soon. If we get started too late tomorrow, Art's going to start worrying that something happened to us."

Tim nodded and stood up. No argument, no objection. He really was nothing like her ex. He picked up the bourbon bottle and the cup he'd been using, and tossed the cup in the garbage. Definitely nothing like her ex.

Rachel walked him to the door, still steady on her feet even if her tongue was loose. Tim was walking steady too, but she was glad he was only going next door and not across town. He transferred the bottle to his left hand, and reached out to open the door. On impulse, Rachel touched his arm to stop him. Tim turned and gave her a querying look. Feeling a little out of body, like she was watching the scene rather than acting in it, Rachel stood up on her tip-toes and leaned in to kiss him lightly. She stepped back before the shock had disappeared from his face.

"Goodnight, Tim."

"'Night." He left without another word, and she marveled again at the wonder of a man who didn't question everything she did.

It could be an interesting trip home tomorrow.