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CHAPTER 17

“I didn’t do anything,” Trey said to the open door. My heart gave a thump when I realized it was Officer Leprechaun.

“He’s come to see me,” I said before realizing how that sounded. And that my voice had grown embarrassingly husky. What was wrong with me?

Willow Falls’ finest walked in, wearing tattered cargo shorts and an ancient Pink Floyd T-shirt. A few inches taller than me, he had a little middle-years paunch developing, but the surety of his steps told me he could move very quickly if need be.

“Oh, you’re gonna have to change,” he said when he took in my capris and sleeveless blouse. “Find your scuzziest clothes.”

Trey gave me a weird look and disappeared. I dashed upstairs to search for something else to wear. Before Jesse passed away, I would have had a difficult time finding something appropriate. But now, half of my wardrobe could be described as “skuzzy.” I shrugged on an old tank top and some shorts I’d been gardening in. I’d made them by hacking off the legs from a pair of khaki pants.

“Better,” he said when I entered the kitchen. He’d already begun setting up. I spotted a box full of mason jars on the kitchen table and three bags overflowing with tomatoes on the counter. A large steel pot sat tall on the stove, and he rinsed another at the sink.

“Do you wanna help or watch?” he said, laughing.

The simple components suddenly seemed overwhelming. “Where do I start?”

“Load up the dishwasher with mason jars. We need to sterilize them.”

“That makes it sound like we’re operating on something.”

He laughed again, and I realized how booming it was, how infectious. “We kind of are.” He hoisted the canner onto the stove. “This is the old-fashioned kind. I don’t have a pressure canner. This is yours now, though, old as it is.”

“Oh, I can’t take that.”

“Why?”

“What if you need to use it?”

He shrugged. “Then I’ll knock on your door and ask to borrow it.”

He was an easygoing man, Officer Leprechaun. It had been a while since anything felt easy. Still, having any man besides Jesse in the house felt vaguely like cheating, and I had to push away the urge to tell him to leave. I used the act of loading the dishwasher to distract me, but the good officer must have sensed my hesitancy because he said, “This isn’t a big deal. It’s actually not even a deal. I have no expectations.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. It had been so long since I had allowed myself to expect anything. The garden was the first thing since Jesse passed that I’d allowed myself to invest a little hope in.

I stood a little straighter. “My only expectation for today is that I learn how to can properly. That’s a reasonable one, right?”

He moved to touch my arm, thought better of it, and picked up a tomato instead. “We need to start by skinning these babies. You up for that?”

“Bring it on.”

“It looks like a murder scene in here.” Officer Leprechaun stood in the middle of my previously white kitchen. Tomato juice covered every surface, dripped down to the floor in bloodred stripes, and was even splattered on the ceiling.

“Have you actually seen one of those?” I asked. “Willow Falls isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime.”

He glanced down at his stained T-shirt. “I used to work in the city, so yeah. It’s boring out here, but sometimes boring is good.”

“I used to think I was boring,” I admitted.

“But not anymore?”

“I don’t know. Can someone who dug up her entire backyard still be boring? Crazy, yes. Boring? Not so much.”

Officer Leprechaun moved closer to me. He stopped before invading my personal space, but still, it felt like an advance. He reached around me and turned the sink on, and I breathed a sigh of . . . relief? Disappointment?

“It doesn’t look crazy out there,” he said while attacking the mess of utensils. “It looks like life. You’ll have something to can come end of summer. If you want, I’ll help you. But you don’t need my help.”

“I think I’ll need all the help I can get.”

“We could all use help, but need? That’s a different thing entirely.” He dried his hands on the one clean spot on a tomato-juice-covered towel. The air in the kitchen, already as humid as a Florida swamp, turned heavier. It’d been a long time since a man had looked at me the way Officer Leprechaun was eyeing me up, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

He slowly folded a paper towel, held it under the faucet for a moment, and pressed the excess water into the sink. “Come over here a minute.”

He wasn’t really asking or ordering; it was more like an offering. Officer Leprechaun had soft blue eyes, the kind that gave the appearance of thoughtfulness. I stared into them for a long moment, and then took one step forward, then another. When I’d moved close enough for him to reach me, he smiled.

“You’re a mess,” he said, and reached over to dab my forehead. I was still far enough away to lend the action some awkwardness, so I moved a little closer. He continued to gently rub the dried tomato juice from my cheek, my hairline, the side of my neck. I could hardly move, much less breathe, but I could feel his breath against my skin, and the soft weight of his fingertips as they pressed lightly on my cheek. I closed my eyes, no expectations but sensation, and when his lips touched mine, I gasped at the contact. He froze for a moment.

“Is this okay?”

Okay? I didn’t know what that meant anymore. Tears sprang to my eyes, grief, the ever-present emotion, waiting to take over from the amateurs—lust, shock, longing.

“I—I don’t know.”

He leaned back, face flushed with concern and hopefully not embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“So am I.”

We cleaned the kitchen together, making small talk, pretending the moment hadn’t happened. Afterward, I walked him outside. Day had turned to night, but the warmth had held on. I bit my tongue to prevent myself from saying something clichéd about the heat. “Thank you,” I said instead. “I learned a lot.”

“Well, that could be taken in a number of ways,” he said, and I was glad to hear some laughter in his voice. “But I’ll keep my mind out of the gutter and assume you meant the canning process.”

He opened the door but seemed to forget what he was meant to do afterward. “Would you consider seeing me again? I promise to dress nicer and stay relatively clean.”

“I’m not sure.”

He nodded. “I understand. You’re not ready.”

“Not exactly.” I smiled at him, sheepish. “I don’t know your first name. I’ve been calling you Officer Leprechaun in my head.”

He didn’t say anything at all for a moment, and I wondered if I’d insulted him. Then a baritone of a laugh rumbled from his chest. “We’ve spent half the day together, and you don’t know my first name?”

“You never said it. And then it had gone on for too long.”

He slid into the driver’s seat. “It’s Sean. Sean Doherty. And now that we’re more familiar, can I get another date?”

“This was a date?”

Laughing, he drove away, slowly and carefully, like a good cop should.

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