He laughed at the memory, and it was good to be able to remember it, and talk about it, and actually have a smile about it.

Sorrow held his gaze with a warm, open look. She didn’t say anything, didn’t scramble to come up with any of the standard-issue condolences, and he was glad of it.

Talking about his wife like that, it was impossible not to note the differences between the two women. They were physical opposites—Keri’s chin-length black hair and bangs were such a contrast to Sorrow’s feminine dishevelment. This woman seemed like she’d be most at home in a long, flowing skirt and flip-flops, while his wife had been all about power suits and heels.

He’d adored his wife, and man, she’d been something to see. Especially in the courtroom. A snapshot memory came to him—polished nails, quick retorts, strong stride, and confident delivery. It stabbed him. What a loss, what a waste.

He realized he’d been staring at Sorrow. She had such kindness in her eyes. Soft where Keri had been hard. The sort of woman who might twine her fingers through his hair, pull him to her, and make him forget his troubles.

A barking dog broke the moment. It was a relief. He’d put women out of his mind. Best to keep them out.

“I didn’t know you had a dog,” he said.

She tensed, looking in the direction of the den. “No. We don’t.”

It was an odd reaction. “Not a fan?”

“What?” Sorrow caught his eye again. “Of course not. I love dogs. I just…I think I know who that is.”

The animal burst into the kitchen. He was friendly and high-energy, with a lean, medium-sized body and short, white fur covered with cartoon-cute brown spots. He looked like he might’ve come from central casting for a Hollywood dog movie.

Billy squatted to call him over. “Hey, little guy. Who do you belong to?” He glanced up, and Sorrow was stiff as a board.

The owner strolled in, and the dog forgot about Billy, galloping back to his master’s side.

It was Damien Simmons. The boyfriend.

“Hey, Bailey. You look great.” Damien stepped in close.

Sorrow fought the urge to flinch away, self-conscious of Billy standing right there next to her. She and Damien had a thing. He was her boyfriend. So why was this situation stressing her out? She tipped her head so Damien could brush a kiss on her cheek—she wasn’t about to give him a full-on mouth kiss with the sheriff standing right there.

The two men gripped hands, and if the white knuckles were any indication, it looked like a squeezing contest was going on.

“Hey, Sheriff. Good to see you.” Damien’s smile was wide and easy, Sierra Falls poster boy. “Thanks for taking care of our Edith today. The woman does love her meetings.”

Our Edith. Sorrow felt her back go rigid. What was up with that? Helping out around the lodge was one thing, but laying claim to her mother was entirely another. She bit her tongue. Boundaries, Damien.

“My pleasure,” Billy said. “That’s a cute dog. What kind is he?”

“Just a bird dog. Aren’t ya, Coop?” Damien scratched between the dog’s ears, then smoothed his hand back to give a firm, affectionate pat to Cooper’s side. “He was a rescue mutt…a pointer, most likely. He loves to hunt, don’t you, boy?”

The dog wagged furiously. That creature sure did love Damien…he could get in line with the rest of the town.

Damien’s clothes finally registered. He was wearing his top-of-the-line gray and white camouflage jacket. “You went hunting?”

“You were out hunting in this weather?” Billy asked at the same time.

“I did and I was.” Damien directed his smile at her. “Quail season doesn’t end till February.”

“Oh.” So that was the important meeting that couldn’t be interrupted? “You held all your calls so you could hunt?”

The sheriff laughed. Good that someone found it amusing. “Isn’t it kind of wet for that?”

She must’ve been scowling because Damien chucked her chin, telling her, “Don’t look so bummed. I brought you a few quail in the cooler—you can cook us up one of your gourmet feasts.”

Damien wandered back into the den, and they followed. His sudden presence had her feeling a little smothered. She told herself she was glad he’d had a good day. But it would’ve been nice if he’d at least fielded her call, instead of ignoring her and then showing up unannounced for dinner.

Billy went to the window and pulled back the curtain. It was full dark, and the snow glowed like a white blanket in the moonlight. “I still can’t get over that you were hunting in this weather.”

“Not a hunter, Sheriff?” Damien settled on the couch. She sat stiffly on the end, and he scooted closer.

Billy seemed to be taking in every detail of their interaction, and it made her intensely uncomfortable. “Sure, I’ve hunted,” he said. “I still have some venison in my freezer from the fall. And I love the snow…skiing, snowshoeing, it’s all good. But choosing to sit in it? All day? Not my thing.”

Sorrow had to agree. If anyone was asking. Which they weren’t.

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” said Damien. “We hike around, it’s good exercise. I’ll take you sometime.”

This whole exchange had her feeling peevish. “You never offered to take me.”

Damien faced her full-on, asking earnestly, “Would you like to go hunting with me tomorrow?”

“A-ha! There you go.” He addressed the whole room, saying, “I tell you, it’s more fun in the snow. More of a challenge.”

“That’s big for quail,” her dad grunted from his recliner.

Damien turned to face him, not missing a beat. “Mister Bailey, when it comes to shooting, Rhett Akins gets it right.” He warbled out the lyrics, “‘A gun’s like a woman…it’s all how you hold her.’”

Her father’s laugh was explosive. He nodded sagely, his eyes brimming with warmth.

Maybe Bear should be the one dating Damien. She stood. “Boy talk. I’m outta here.”

But Damien snagged his hand in her jeans pocket, catching her before she could escape. The gesture embarrassed her.

He tugged her back to the couch. “What’s eating at you, babe?”

She shifted out from his grip. That was the thing—she wasn’t exactly sure what was eating at her. “I thought you were supposed to have a big meeting with your dad today.”

With a gusty exhale, Damien flopped back on the couch. “Oh, that. Yeah, we tabled it for another day. It was the old man who convinced me to go hunting instead. What was I supposed to do? He’s the boss.”

Of course Dabney could convince his son to get out of the office—the world could be ending, and Damien would still jump at the chance to spend a day outdoors. The Simmons men had been butting heads over environmental issues, and Damien had been gaining support in the company. But the Simmons employees adored his dad, and Dabney probably wanted to buy time to remind them of that fact.

“He’s just trying to distract you,” she said.

Looking at Billy, Damien explained, “My dad and I have a long-running argument when it comes to how much we should cut down and where.” He paused, mimicking his dad’s booming voice, “‘People need paper, son.’ But there’s a way to do it mindful of the native habitat, you know? That’s just good PR. And hell, it’s good for the wildlife, too.”

The men got to talking about the logging business, and she took that as her excuse to finally make her escape.

Her mom followed her into the kitchen, her voice a frantic whisper. “Sorrow Ann Bailey.”

Sorrow stopped. “Uh-oh. The middle name—I must be in trouble now. What is it, Mom?”

“You be a good hostess and ask that boyfriend of yours to eat with us.”

“He knows he can eat with us.”

“I didn’t hear you invite him. A man needs to hear you say it.”

She rolled her eyes. “What is this, 1950?”

“Hey, Bailey.” Damien appeared in the doorway. “Got enough food for one more?”

Her mother gave her a pointed look before scurrying from the room. Something about this whole situation put Sorrow out of joint. She turned on Damien. “Do you have to call me Bailey?”

“I’ve been calling you Bailey since junior high.” He reached for her hair, twirling a wave around his finger. “Sorrow’s just such a…I don’t know…a mopey name.”

He pulled her close, nestling her body against his. “C’mon, mopey. Give me a proper hello.”

It was nice having a man who cared. Nice not to be alone. Wonderful how he’d gotten her out of so many jams. Was she taking him for granted? She should want him around when she didn’t need his help.

She tried to put herself into the moment. That hard body of his felt good. She glanced up. Damien sure looked good, too. So why did she feel so put-upon? Shouldn’t she feel all melty at his touch? It was nice, but shouldn’t it be electrifying, too?

She gauged the talk in the other room. Billy’s deep voice, her mother chatting away, and Dad’s occasional humph. They were deep in conversation. It didn’t seem like anyone would come in and catch them kissing.

As she stood on her toes, she wondered why she was feeling so self-conscious. She told herself it was just polite. It was a considerate thing, not kissing one’s boyfriend in front of one’s dinner guest.

Damien’s hands were warm and sure, sweeping down her back to cup her bottom. “Shorty,” he teased. “I need to pull you up to reach me.”