Authors: Debra Webb,Regan Black
“Both,” he said, grinning.
“Good boy.” Mrs. Wilks beamed up at him, her steel-gray hair swinging as she turned to the chief. “Which do you prefer, Abby dear?”
Mrs. Wilks arched a brow and gave a soft, speculating hum. “Your stomach must be a bother with all this extra stress.”
When a blush crept into the chief’s cheeks, Riley tried to distract Mrs. Wilks. “Have a seat,” he encouraged, pulling out the nearest chair. Mrs. Wilks claimed the seat. Riley reached for the next chair and smiled at the chief.
“No, thanks,” she said, obviously in police chief mode. “Mind if I look around?”
“Abby,” Mrs. Wilks scolded, “at least have a cookie before you go investigating.”
Riley smothered a laugh while he filled three glasses with milk. “Aside from a suitcase and my laptop, I promise you it’s just the way the Hamiltons left it.”
“I’ve told her everything they told me,” Mrs. Wilks said. She arrowed Abby a knowing look. “She just doesn’t know how to relax.”
Abby threw up her hands in surrender and took a seat.
Riley joined them, taking the one remaining chair and being careful not to bump Abby’s knee with his.
“A body gets tired of the cold,” Mrs. Wilks was saying. “If I had family in Florida, I might do the very same thing.”
“I’m not sure I could let you do that,” Abby said, choosing a cookie. “Who would bake for me?”
“You know your way around a kitchen, young lady, don’t even pretend. What about you?” She turned a sharp eye his way. “Do you need me to bring over a casserole?”
He grinned at the older woman again. “I can manage. Thanks.”
“More than beer and chips, I hope.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He broke a cookie in two and stuffed one half into his mouth. As he chewed, he watched the way Abby dunked her cookie in her milk glass. Deliberate and methodical, he found it oddly endearing. “The cookies are perfect, Mrs. Wilks. Thanks for bringing them by.”
“Good company makes everything better.” She looked around the kitchen. “What did the Hamiltons want you to do here?”
“A little of this and that,” he replied. “There’s some minor repair work I’ll take care of first.”
“That rotted wood under the sink, I hope. Abby, do you remember what a mess that was?”
Abby bobbed her chin, her mouth full of cookie. Riley smothered a laugh. “I was just debating tile or vinyl. Any thoughts, ladies?”
As Mrs. Wilks launched into a full report of which families on the street had made which type of upgrade, Riley caught the chief watching him.
He arched his eyebrows and her gaze abruptly returned to the glass of milk in front of her. “Another cookie?” He nudged the plate her way.
She shook her head and pushed back from the table.
“You don’t have a preference on the flooring?” he asked.
The look she sent him was cool at best. “No. You should go with whatever the owners want,” she replied, taking her glass to the sink and rinsing it.
“True,” he admitted. “I’ll work up a few ideas for them to consider. If it were my place I’d go with tile.”
“Hard on the knees,” Mrs. Wilks interjected. “Then you just end up with rugs and mats everywhere.”
He mentioned the reclaimed hardwood and Mrs. Wilks offered an exuberant opinion on the value of that idea. He pretended not to notice Abby slipping away from the kitchen.
Mrs. Wilks had no such problem. She motioned for him to lean in closer. “That girl is suspicious of everyone these days. Don’t let it bother you.”
“I hear she has cause.”
“That she does,” Mrs. Wilks agreed. “Go with the reclaimed floor. Better all around.”
“All right,” he said, listening to the stair treads creak. He grinned at Mrs. Wilks. “I promise I’m not here to cause more trouble.”
“Oh, I could tell that first thing,” she said. “She’ll relax. Personally, I’m glad to have a strapping young man so close. Makes me feel safe.” She got up, put her glass in the sink and walked to the door. “She cooks when she’s upset. Based on the groceries she hauled in the other day, there’s at least one lasagna in her freezer and another in the oven. You could do worse than get yourself invited to dinner.”
Startled by the older woman’s suggestion, he didn’t have a chance to reply before she was gone. The older woman was a matchmaker. He’d stake his skill with a weapon on it.
He was putting the glasses in the dishwasher when the chief reappeared.
“Where’s Mrs. Wilks?”
“Home,” he replied, drying his hands. “She said something about dinner in the oven.”
“I’m the one with dinner baking,” she muttered. She’d been watching his hands with an odd expression, but those blue eyes abruptly locked on to his face.
He looped the towel through the bar on the front of the dishwasher and tucked his hands into his pockets. She tempted him, her dark, snug jeans hugging her curves and her soft gray cable-knit sweater emphasizing the storms in her eyes. “Are you satisfied now?”
She scowled at him. “With what?”
“Your search,” he reminded her. “You were kind of obvious. Whatever you think I am, you’re wrong.” It was one of the few things he could say with absolute certainty.
“You have no idea what I think about you.”
He pushed away from the counter, pleased when she held her ground. Maybe she wasn’t seeing him as a threat after all. “Enlighten me,” he suggested as he covered the plate of cookies.
“I’m still assessing,” she said, reaching for the coat she’d draped over the chair back.
“What’s so funny?” She paused, her hands going still on the second toggle of her coat.
“Sorry.” He held up his hands. “Just the two of us tiptoeing around the facts.”
“We’re neighbors. The whole welcome thing reminds me of something my mom used to say.”
“Not really appropriate.” And nonexistent. “Is there anything I could do or say to put you at ease?”
“Tell me what your mom said.”
“Maybe another time.” He grabbed his beer, taking a long pull from the bottle while he watched her.
“You seem legit,” she admitted reluctantly.
“Thanks.” He returned the beer to the counter. “I could raise a little hell if it would make you feel better.”
“I’d feel better if you stayed at one of the long-term hotels like the rest of the crews.”
“Ah. But that’s not happening.”
“What did your mother say?”
He shook his head. She was tenacious, a trait that must serve her well. “It had to do with snooping and gossip, but it doesn’t really apply in this case.”
A telltale blush crept into her cheeks. “Why not?”
“Because you were checking the closets for bodies or stolen goods, right?”
He shrugged. “That’s your job,” he replied. “And why should I get offended if I’m not hiding anything.” Not where she could find it, anyway.
She pursed those full, rose-colored lips, pushing his thoughts into dangerous territory. “Coming over here was Mrs. Wilks’s idea.”
“I believe you,” he said with a smile. “And you made the most of the opportunity. Considering recent events, I would’ve been more concerned if you hadn’t taken a look around.”
She pushed back her sleeve and checked her watch. “Still haven’t seen the basement,” she pointed out.
He gave her a mock grimace. “It’s musty and more than a little spooky down there.”
“Then you can go first.”
“That’s a big risk. What’ll you give me in return?”
“If we survive, you mean?”
He nodded, liking this playful side of her. “Let’s assume the positive.”
She checked her watch again. “If we survive, I’ll share dinner at my house.”
“What’s on the menu?”
“What a guy question.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s lasagna—homemade—and more than enough for two.”
“Sounds great. Follow me.” He led her into the hallway and opened the door to the basement. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Just move,” she said at his back.
He hit the switch and the fluorescent light at the bottom of the stairs slowly brightened.
Riley started down, hearing her footsteps on the wooden stairs echo a half beat after his. Reaching the cement floor, he moved aside so she could examine the space.
She hesitated on the last step, studying him closely while she held a brief height advantage.
Wondering how she saw him, he let her look her fill. It gave him time to return the favor. Her wide blue eyes made him hate the threats that had her wary of everyone around her.
He’d done his homework; he knew what she’d looked like before the drug bust. The new, perpetual scowl was a telltale sign of the damage to her confidence. She’d probably always been cautious, but now she didn’t trust anyone. Except maybe Mrs. Wilks.
As she finally moved past him, he caught a whiff of her shampoo again. He cleared his throat. “Storage and laundry to the left—”
“Pinball to the right,” she finished for him. “Mr. Hamilton’s hobby.”
“So you have been down here.”
“Not recently.” She turned a slow circle. “It’s like a time capsule.”
It was a valid assessment. “Fortunately they left decent appliances.”
“That’s a plus.” She walked over to the first pinball machine on the short wall.
“Want to play a game or two? It works great.”
“No, thanks. I’m obsessive. If I start I won’t want to quit and dinner will burn.”
“In that case, allow me to see you safely up the stairs.”
Her smile chased away the shadows haunting his thoughts. “Thanks for indulging my curiosity.”
“My pleasure.” He gestured for her to go up first, immediately regretting the chivalry as it put the shapely curve of her hips and backside right at eye level. No one could fault her fitness. Thinking of Director Casey’s reaction if such an unprofessional observation showed up in his report cooled him right down.
She didn’t seem to pick up on his wayward thoughts, waiting patiently while he locked up and followed her across the driveway and into her kitchen. The houses were similar Cape Cod floor plans, but her decor reflected a more modern sense of style. He liked it.
“How are the knees?” He pointed to the large ceramic tiles under her feet.
“Just fine,” she replied as the oven timer went off.
So much for asking for a tour of her place.
“My biggest adjustment was the cold,” she said, pulling the large pan out of the oven.
“I didn’t think of that.”
“No one does. Go for the reclaimed hardwood.”
He nodded in agreement. The remodeling ideas were coming to him almost as quickly as questions regarding the drug bust. But he hesitated to wreck the momentum by quizzing her about that case. “Man, that smells good.”
“It tastes better.”
She put him to work tossing a salad while she pulled the lasagna out of the oven, letting it stand while she set the table.
He hadn’t been hungry until he’d walked in. The rich aroma of sausage, cheese, tomato sauce and oregano had his mouth watering in anticipation by the time she served.
“Whoa,” he said, setting down his fork after the first bite. “That’s amazing.”
“Thanks. It’s the sauce.”
“Here I thought it was the company.”
She rolled her eyes. “Do you always come on so strong?”
He shrugged, taking another bite and giving himself time to think of a reasonable reply. “Call me a doer,” he said, keeping it light. “All my life I’ve seen people waste time and effort waffling about what they want and how to get it.”
“Are you saying you want me?” Her eyebrows arched, silently daring him to reply honestly.
He grinned at her. “I’m saying I decided to live my life differently. Focused on the moment.”
“It’s working so far.” They ate in silence for a few minutes more. “Looking at you, Madam Police Chief, I’d say that’s pretty close to your philosophy, too.”
She raised her water glass in a toast. “Close enough.” She sipped, returned the glass to the table. “And my friends call me Abby.”
“I’ve moved up from suspicious stranger to friend?”
She chuckled. “It’s a long ladder, but you’re on your way. You were nice to Mrs. Wilks.”
“Remember that when she starts asking the personal questions.”
“I’m an open book.”
She snorted. “I think Danny is infatuated with you, but he’s a fair judge of character.”
“Danny’s impressionable,” Riley said with a laugh. “He’ll be a good neighborhood cop one day.”
“He needs experience. Have you remodeled many old homes?”
He recognized a diversionary topic when he heard one, but if it kept her at ease, kept him close enough to protect her, it worked for him. “A few. I’ve been swinging a hammer since I was about eight.”
He thought about those early days in the orphanage garden. “I guess so. A completed job, done well, is a reward in itself,” he replied, echoing the teachers who’d raised him.
“Another phrase from your mother?”
He nodded, letting her make the assumptions that supported his cover story. “Do you need help with anything around here?”
“Say the word if you change your mind. What about your calling? Have you always been interested in criminal justice?”
“My uncle was a cop and I thought he was the coolest thing going,” she said. “Whenever I got the chance, I’d go down to the station and hang out. Talk about impressionable.”
“Doesn’t sound like a place for a kid.”
“My parents worried, but I’ve always thought it depends on the kid.”
“There’s some truth to that,” he agreed. “Are you thinking kids trashed the sign?”
“I’d like it to be.”
“Meaning?” He leaned back in his chair, debating another serving. He was full, but he wanted to keep her talking. Danny had given him some insight about the community, but Abby would have a better overall picture.
“I’ve been thinking kids wouldn’t have been so careful.”
“I’m not following. It looked like a fast and dirty tag to me.”
“I think it was supposed to look that way,” she agreed. “But how many kids, moving fast enough to not be seen by traffic, would think to cover their footprints?”