“You keep thinking that. I’m going to spend the night at Colin’s.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“Why? Don’t you want to have the house to yourself tonight?”
“That’s not fair.”
Trey shrugged and headed for the French doors. “Nothing is.”
After composing myself, I checked on the status of food and drinks and, once satisfied everyone was happy, tried to enjoy myself. The sun had gently moved from dusk to darkness, and the twinkling lights Jackie hung looked magical. Someone cranked up the music, some old Van Morrison that seemed perfectly appropriate. The smells from the garden were not overpowering but subtle and soothing, a perfect mix from nature.
“Those tomatoes are going to be amazing,” Sean said as he came up behind me. His words brushed against my ear, and I felt a shiver of anticipation. It was a foreign feeling, and I tried not to analyze it.
“I really hope so. I’ve been working pretty hard to keep them healthy.”
“A garden is hard work.” While he talked, he slipped one hand around my waist and took my hand in his other. “But dancing isn’t. Want to give it a whirl?”
We got a few raised eyebrows, but more smiles, as he spun me around the patio. Rhiannon and Byron soon joined us, followed by Seth and Glynnis, a very serious expression on her face as they held an intense conversation while swaying to the music. Her gaze kept straying toward Byron, and I watched heartache dull her eyes.
“You’re pretty good at this,” Sean said, but it was he who knew how to move. I’d never been very good at following someone’s lead, but he sensed that and effortlessly made adjustments. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said softly as he brought me up close.
I felt something cold on my shoulder. Sean’s eyes widened, but he didn’t step back, and held on as I turned to see . . .
Mr. Eckhardt. His face resembled one huge broken capillary—red, angry, expansive. He hooked one long finger under the strap of my dress.
“Hey,” Sean said. “Take your hand off her, sir.”
Mr. Eckhardt ignored him and tugged hard on the delicate material. “This isn’t yours! You stole it!”
The other partygoers drew closer, like bees to the dramapot.
Mr. Eckhardt’s glassy eyes held anger and confusion, but not the healthy dose of crazy I expected to find jumping up and down behind his irises. Instead, sadness put a film over them, tragedy’s glaucoma.
“I found it,” I said, voice shaky. “I found it in the backyard.”
Mr. Eckhardt stepped back and nearly lost his footing on the edge of the concrete. He shook my hand off when I tried to steady him. “You’re doing this on purpose. You want to torture me with it. Are you so angry with your lot in life that you have to make others feel badly? That’s a pathetic trait in a person. I don’t think much of you, but I did think you were better than that.”
I blanched. “Can we talk about this inside?”
Mr. Eckhardt glanced around at the others. “Why? Because you don’t want them to know that you’re a thief? That you steal from good, solid people?”
I crossed my arms over my chest protectively. The dress suddenly felt too flimsy, too exposing. “I didn’t steal anything from you.”
“No,” he spat. “But you did steal from someone.”
“Let’s sit down and have a talk,” Sean said as he ushered us into the kitchen. “I’ll get us some drinks, and we’ll pretend we’re all nice, civilized people.”
“I’m not sitting,” Mr. Eckhardt said as he leaned against my counter.
“But you’ll stay?” Sean asked.
Mr. Eckhardt’s eyes met Sean’s, and a silent, masculine agreement transpired between them. “I’ll stay for a few minutes.”
That was good enough for Sean. He dashed out to the bar, leaving me with my very surly neighbor.
I plucked at the collar of the dress. “You know where I found this, don’t you?”
“You should leave things as they are,” Mr. Eckhardt said. “Why can’t you do that? You’ve got some kind of sick obsession.”
“Are you sure it’s me who’s got something sick going on?”
Sean came back with three strawberry margaritas. I thought Mr. Eckhardt would refuse his, but he accepted a glass and took a healthy sip. “This is good.”
“Well, then we’ve found some common ground,” Sean said with a forced smile.
Sean remained standing. I thought maybe I should get up as well, but then, suddenly, I was exhausted. “Could we talk about the dress?”
“You took it with no regard for my feelings,” Mr. Eckhardt said. He sounded hurt. Was it an act?
“Took it from where?” Sean asked, confused. “Can we start at the beginning?”
Mr. Eckhardt didn’t offer any additional information, and I didn’t either. I tried to see how my digging up a dress and then actually wearing it might look to Sean. Would he find it charming or creepy?
Creepy. Definitely creepy.
“I would like it back,” Mr. Eckhardt said. “Along with an apology, and a promise from Paige that she will no longer take what’s not hers.”
“I didn’t steal it,” I said, sounding a bit too much like Trey.
“It’s my wife’s dress,” Mr. Eckhardt said, his voice pained.
“And where is your wife, sir?” Sean asked gently.
A thought pierced through my annoyance. What if she’d died, and he was still mourning her? How could I, of all people, have not thought of that possibility?
“She’s gone,” Mr. Eckhardt said, and my heart broke.
“Passed on?” Sean said.
Mr. Eckhardt rolled his eyes. “Nope. Just gone. Took off.”
I don’t blame her, I thought.
“Oh,” Sean said.
“I’m not going to get the whole story here, am I?” Sean asked.
Sean sighed. “Okay. Will you give the dress back, Paige?”
“Yes. I don’t want it anyway.” I stood.
They both stared at me as though I’d strip down right there. Mr. Eckhardt was horrified. Sean . . . not so much.
“I’ll be right down.” I dashed upstairs and tore off the dress. Maybe it was bad luck. If so, I’d counter it with a soft T-shirt and the jean shorts I seemed unable to take off lately.
When I returned to the kitchen, Mr. Eckhardt and Sean were talking companionably.
“Will you stay and enjoy the party, Bill?” Sean said, and I kind of wanted to kill him.
Mr. Eckhardt caught my expression. “No.” He snatched the dress from my arms. “I’ll be going as soon as I get my apology and a promise that it won’t happen again.”
I didn’t want to apologize. I didn’t want to promise him anything.
“It’s up to you,” Sean said mildly. He wasn’t coercing me in the least. It really was up to me. Perversely, that made me want to choose the safe route. Sean really was good at this cop thing. “I’m sorry,” I said robotically. “It won’t happen again.”
Mr. Eckhardt nodded, and then he was gone.
Sean stepped closer to me and ran his index finger along the collar of my T-shirt. “You look great in this, too. Actually, almost better.”
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