He pulled her higher onto her toes, and she wrapped her arms around his neck for a slow kiss. She tried to forget herself, but remained overly aware of the hum of conversation in the other room. She wanted to push the voices out of her mind, but they weren’t to be ignored.
Damien must’ve sensed it, because he broke the kiss to nip along her jaw, nuzzling in behind her ear. “C’mon, gorgeous” was a hot whisper in her ear.
A shiver rippled across her skin. The man definitely had some good moves.
That was the problem—nothing was burning at the moment. Putting her hands on Damien’s arms, she pulled away, and they both sighed.
“Mom won’t want to keep hungry men waiting,” she told him.
He touched his forehead to hers. “Are you saying you’re blowing me off again?”
“Me cooking dinner is hardly blowing you off.” Though she did find she was anxious to get back to her cooking, for more than one reason.
He gave her shoulders a squeeze. “It’s okay. I’m a patient man.”
Her mom bustled into the kitchen to toss a couple of empty bottles into the recycling bin. “I set another place, Damien. You’ll be sitting right across from the sheriff.”
Not what she’d pictured for the evening. Though why that was so troublesome to her, she had no idea.
Billy studied the man across from him. If he had to be honest with himself, he might say he was a little jealous of Damien Simmons. Not the guy’s looks, which were good, and not even his bank account, which seemed sizeable. It was the guy’s ease, that nonchalant way he carried himself through the world.
Billy had lost his ease when he’d lost his wife.
But Damien was young, eager to take life by the horns. He was the sort of guy who flirted with every waitress and cracked jokes with strangers. As though he were a friend to all.
Which made Billy wonder how much anybody really knew the guy.
“So, this is actual bamboo?” Damien studied the food speared on the end of his fork. “Does that make me a panda?” He gave the table a cheeky smile before shoving a hearty bite in his mouth.
Bear chewed and swallowed, frowning all the while. “Why you didn’t just toss the fish on the grill is beyond me. Some butter, a little salt, there’s a good meal right there. Takes a lot less time, too.”
“You seem to be enjoying it well enough,” Sorrow said, not looking up from her plate.
Billy had to agree. The man complained a lot, but he sure did seem to be clearing his plate. He watched her father bristle, and jumped in to defray the tension. “Well, I’m impressed.”
“Me, too,” Damien chimed in, not to be outdone. “Totally.”
The compliment seemed rote, so Billy added, “I used to eat a lot of Thai, and this is as good as any I got in the Bay Area.”
“Thank you, Sheriff.” Sorrow put her fork down, seeming genuinely touched.
He leaned back in his chair, overcome by a feeling of contentment. It must’ve been a combination of good food, a cold beer, and general conviviality. And, he realized, it was because of Sorrow, too.
That she’d asked about Keri had somehow drawn an invisible thread, connecting the two of them. His grief set him apart from other people, but Sorrow’s openness had offered him a bridge back. He waited for the guilt to hit, but oddly, it didn’t come.
The thought was interrupted when the dog exploded into frantic barking.
“I’ll go check it out.” Damien scooted away from the table, nodding an apology. “Hey, quiet, Coop,” he said, his voice carrying to them as he walked into the foyer. When he returned, he had a pretty blonde by his side. “Look who I found.”
Edith jumped up from the table with a squeal, and a smile finally cracked Bear’s surly expression. Sorrow, though, her shoulders tensed. It was almost imperceptible, but Billy had been trained to spot such subtle cues.
Edith hugged the woman over and over, exclaiming, “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you call to say you were coming? You didn’t drive all the way from San Francisco in this weather? Billy! You have to meet our Laura.”
He pushed away from the table to stand.
“My older sister,” Sorrow said, and he noticed she didn’t jump out of her seat as quickly as her mother had.
She slipped a tiny hand into his, smiling wide. “Ooh, you’re much cuter than the last sheriff.”
The comment took him aback. The sisters weren’t just different, they were very different, and women like this put him on his guard. He wanted to come off as friendly, but not too much like he was taking her bait, and he fumbled for an appropriate reply. “I’m glad to oblige. Though I hear your last sheriff was a good man.”
Laura shrugged and wandered to the table. She poked at the curried salmon, swishing it around with the serving spoon. “Is that hard-ass deputy still there?”
Billy chuckled at that. “Who, McGinn? He’s a lamb, once you get to know him.”
“No thanks,” Laura said. She dropped the spoon into the serving dish, and it landed in the sauce with a plop.
Billy’s smile turned speculative. If first impressions meant anything, this girl was a handful. It made him appreciate Sorrow all the more. He stole a look at her as she watched Laura with guarded eyes.
“Sit down, sit down.” Edith shooed her eldest daughter to an empty seat, helping her out of her coat. It was a short, puffy thing that looked like it belonged in a magazine spread.
“You can eat bamboo with us,” Damien said as he emerged from the kitchen carrying a fresh plate, napkin, and cutlery.
Billy had to give the guy props for being Boyfriend of the Year material.
They all returned to their seats, and Damien reached over to spoon some food onto Laura’s plate, but she put a hand up to stop him. “I ate already.”
“You’re missing out,” Billy said, using the opportunity to study her. Light from the wrought-iron chandelier caught her profile, and he saw the family resemblance. But although she had the same blond hair and delicate features as Sorrow, the similarities ended there.
Unlike her sister, Laura didn’t have a hair out of place. Everything from her designer snow boots, to her skinny jeans, to the fake fur of her jacket collar spoke to urban-professional-goes-snow-bunny. She had a gym body, too, all taut lines to match her taut demeanor.
Not like Sorrow, who had the body of a real woman. He much preferred a girl with something to hold on to.
Damn, what was his problem? He took a big swig of his beer. He barely knew these people, and he was a guest in their home, for God’s sake.
“So I guess this means the road is open again,” said Bear.
“Thanks to the sheriff and his efforts,” Sorrow said.
Laura’s face lit, and she looked from her sister to him, and Billy sensed the female cogs turning. Had she read his thoughts? The possibility there might be a connection between him and Sorrow that was that obvious made him a little queasy.
They might’ve had a friendly spark, but no way could it ever be more than that. She had a boyfriend—who was sitting right there—and even if she didn’t, he’d sworn off relationships. He’d learned the hard way how all the clichés were right. Love hurt, and he’d never put himself through it again.
“A man tries.” He made his voice as bland as he could.
“Tries and succeeds, apparently.” She reached over and tweaked her father’s ear. “It takes a lot to get a compliment out of grumpy old Bear Bailey.”
Her dad did his darnedest to bite back a smile. Billy made a mental note: apparently a statement of fact followed by a noncommittal grunt could be counted as a compliment where Bear was concerned.
Laura continued her assessment, and Billy polished his beer off too quickly, nervous under the scrutiny. “I see you’re not just strapping,” she said, “you’re also a can-do man.” She looked to Sorrow with teasing eyes. “I’ll bet Helen at the bar is all over him.”
Sorrow looked as uncomfortable as Billy felt. She steered the conversation to another topic, her voice absent of emotion. “What brings you back to Sierra Falls?”
Laura’s reaction was subtle, but it was immediate. A cloud crossed her features, dimming the light in her eyes. “I thought I’d take a vacation.”
Sorrow sipped her beer slowly, and Billy felt tension crackle between them. “What about your job?” she asked.
“Sounds like a nun thing,” said Bear. He was following the conversation, even though he mostly remained focused on his plate of food.
Sorrow ignored her father. “Isn’t that just for…I don’t know…professors?”
“It was…it is a very high-stress job. You have no idea how cutthroat it is in Silicon Valley these days. Especially in Marketing.”
Edith turned to Billy and beamed. “Laura is vice president of her department.”
Laura looked down as she twirled her napkin. She’d gone from bubbly to cagey, and Billy half wondered if maybe she hadn’t lost her job and was just too scared to tell her folks.
“How good you can take a vacation then.” Sorrow kept talking, but seemed either unwilling or unable to meet her sister’s eyes. “I don’t suppose you’ll be able to help around the lodge this time. I know you were too busy on your last visit. Reno, Tahoe…I understand there’s a lot to do when you’re on vacation.”
Edith chimed in, “Now, that won’t be necessary. We’ve got everything under control, don’t we, Sorrow?”
Billy hadn’t been coming to the lodge for long, but if this was under control, he’d hate to see when things got out of hand.