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“No, no, you made those for you!”

“And I’ll make some more. Go on, eat. They’ll just get cold while I make the next set.”

I use the butter and syrup set out on the table, and when he says it’s fine, I pour myself a cup of coffee from the pot that’s on the warmer. It’s strong, and I add a swirl of sugar.

I’m halfway through the pancakes—and damn they are warm, fluffy, and tasty, with sweet/tart bursts of flavor from the fresh blueberries—when he pulls up a chair across from me and gets his own coffee. “They’re okay?” he asks.

I swallow the bite I’ve taken and say, “Where the hell did you learn to cook? These are amazing.”

He shrugs. “My mom taught me. I was the oldest, and she needed the help.” Something comes across his face when he says that, but he’s looking down at the pancakes, and I can’t tell if it’s wistfulness, or a sign that he misses her, or something else entirely.

Then the moment’s gone, and he digs in with real appetite.

Works with his hands, loves to cook, decent to look at . . . I start to wonder why he’s on his own out here at the lake. But then, not everybody conforms to the love/marriage/baby life path. I don’t regret my kids. I only regret the marriage that produced them. Still, I can understand the lonely, solitary life better than most.

And how harshly others can judge it.

We eat in companionable silence for the most part, though he asks me about the budget for the roof and discusses the possibility of putting a nice deck on the back of the house, which is something I’ve been thinking of in my rich fantasy life. It’s a big step—not just repairing the house, but actually improving it. It sounds suspiciously like putting down real roots. We haggle easily over the roof repair pricing, and I balk at the deck.

Commitment is not my strong suit. Nor, I suspect, is it Sam Cade’s, because when I ask how long he’s going to be around, he says, “Not sure. My lease is up in November. I might be heading on. Depends on how I feel. I like the place, though, so we’ll see.”

I wonder if he’s including me in the place. I scan him for signs of flirting, but I don’t read any. He seems like a human dealing with a human, not a man sniffing around after a maybe-available woman. Good. I’m not looking for a relationship, and I can’t stand pickup artists.

I finish my pancakes before him and, without asking, take my sticky plate and fork and cup to the sink, where I hand-wash them squeaky clean and put them on the drain board. There’s no automatic dishwasher. He doesn’t say anything until I reach for the cooled pan and the batter bowl.

“No need,” he says. “I’ll take care of that, but thanks.”

I take him at his word and turn to look at him as I dry my hands on a lemon-yellow dishtowel. He seems perfectly at ease, focused on his pancakes, which are on the verge of disappearing.

I say, “What are you really doing here, Sam?”

He arrests the motion of his fork and leaves the pancake bite dripping syrup in the air for a few seconds, then deliberately finishes the journey to his mouth. He chews, swallows, takes a deep swig of coffee, and then puts his fork down to push back in his chair and meet my gaze.

He looks honest. And a little pissed.

“Writing. A. Book. I think the question is, what are you?” he asks me. “Because damn if I don’t think you’ve got a hell of a lot of secrets, Ms. Proctor. And maybe I shouldn’t get involved, even if it’s just climbing all over your roof for money. Your neighbors don’t know much about you, you know. Old Mr. Claremont ’round the lake, he says you’re skittish. A little standoffish. I can’t say I disagree with him, even if you did sit like a good guest and eat my pancakes and make decent conversation.”

His response, I think, is a marvel of deflection. I feel defensive, when just an instant ago I was on offense, hoping to score some kind of telling reaction in the event that Sam Cade isn’t who he claims to be. Instead, he’s turned the mirror on me and put me on my back foot, and I . . . admire that. Don’t trust it, per se, but oddly enough I give him points for it.

I’m almost amused as I say, “Oh, I’m standoffish, all right. And as to why I’m here, I guess it’s none of your business, Mr. Cade.”

“Then let’s just keep our mysteries, Ms. Proctor.” He scrapes up some syrup and sucks it off the fork, then carries his dishes toward the sink. “Excuse me.”

I step aside. He washes things with efficient motions, takes on the batter bowl and the pan and spatula. I let the running water fill the silence, cross my arms, and wait until he shuts the tap off, slots items in the drain board, and picks up the dish towel to dry off. Then I say, “Fair enough. I’ll see you tomorrow about the roof. Nine in the morning all right?”

His expression, still calm and mobile and unreadable, doesn’t shift much when he smiles. “Sure,” he says. “Nine it is. Cash the end of every day until I’m done?”

“Sure.”

I nod. He doesn’t make an effort to shake my hand, so I don’t offer, and I let myself out. I walk down the steps of his cabin and pause on the downhill winding path to take in a slow breath of thick lake air. It’s muggy and heavy out here in the slow Tennessee heat. When I let my breath out, I still smell the pancakes.

He really is an amazing cook.

The kids only have another week of school left, which brings with it the stress of last-minute tests. Connor stresses, that is. Lanny doesn’t. I see them off on the bus at 8:00 a.m., and by nine I’ve made some coffee and put out a box of store-bought pastries, since I can’t hope to compete with Cade’s pancakes. He knocks promptly on the hour, and I let him in for coffee and crullers, and we work out what he’ll need to do the repairs. He takes cash up front to get supplies, and heads back up to his cabin; I see him go past fifteen minutes later in an old but powerfully built pickup whose primary color is Bondo gray, with patches of faded green.

I check the Sicko Patrol while he’s gone. Nothing new presents itself. I count the number of posts, and it’s down again . . . I keep a frequency chart in Excel, tracking the interest our names have online, and I’m pleased to find that as Melvin’s atrocities are outdone by others—by lust killers, spree killers, fanatics with a cause, jihadists—some of our stalkers seem to be losing interest. I hate to use the phrase getting a life, but it’s possible they are. That they’re moving on.

Maybe, someday, we can, too. It’s a faint hope, but any hope at all is a new feeling for me.

Cade returns just as I’m printing off the slender list of new stuff and filing it away; I have to leave a couple queued to the printer, which always worries me, but there’s no choice. I close and lock my office door and go out to meet him.

He’s already setting up a ladder against the roof, making sure it’s safely anchored in the grass. He’s got a load of tar paper, shingles, and a tool belt that he’s securing around his waist, dangling tack hammers and bags of nails. He’s even got a battered trucker hat on to keep the sun off, and a bandanna trailing out the back to cover his neck.

“Here.” I hand him a closed aluminum water bottle with a carabiner clip. “Ice water. You need any help?”

“Nope,” he says, looking up at the rise. “I should be able to get this side finished before dark. I’ll take a break around one.”

“I’ll have lunch for you,” I tell him. “Then . . . I’ll leave you to it?”

“Sounds good.” He clips the water bottle to his belt and picks up the first load, which he’s fitted with a rope carry that he fits over his shoulders like a bulky backpack. I hold the ladder as he swarms up it, moving as if he’s carrying a load of feathers, and step back to make sure he’s surefooted up there. He is. The pitch of the roof hardly seems to faze him at all.

Sam waves, and I wave back, and as I turn to go back inside I see a police car cruising by, moving slow with tires crunching gravel. It’s driven by Officer Graham, who nods to me when I lift a hand in greeting and speeds up to head up toward the Johansens’ cutoff, toward where his place sits farther back. I remember that he sort of half invited me to join him one evening for shooting practice, but I also think about the fact he’s going to have his kids with him . . . and I don’t want to bring mine. So I make myself a mental promise to drop by with a tin of cookies or something that makes me seem more . . . peaceful. But not interested.

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