The timer sounded, and putting on the oven mitt, he pulled the pan out himself. “You’re cooking one night a week at the tavern—that’s a start. We’ll convince your dad to up it to two, then three.”
She molded aluminum foil into a tent over the lamb. “That’s all well and good, but then who’ll do my job?”
“Around the lodge? Get Laura to help.”
“Yeah, right.” She smirked. Even if she could get over her resentments, she still hadn’t gotten past the fact that her sister’s attempts at “help” felt like an intrusion. Around the lodge, planning the festival—it was like Laura had something to prove. That she had more experience, that she knew better. That she was smarter, older, superior.
“I’m being serious,” he said. “You need to ask people for help. You need to make people help.” He popped a prosciutto-wrapped melon ball into his mouth, sighing with pleasure. “Hell, I’ll help, if it gives you time to come up with more food like this.”
She had to laugh at that. “It’s sweet how you encourage me. My cooking is a dream, but it’s a pipe dream, Billy. I’ll never get help from Laura. Not any help I want, at any rate. I don’t even get why she’s here or for how long.”
His gaze bored into her. “Something’s been nagging me.”
“Uh-oh.” She looked away. How had her intended seduction turned into this?
He took her chin and tilted her face up to his. “I need you around me more, Sorrow.”
“I…you do?” She’d been ready to go on the defensive, and his bold statement had thrown her. Stolen her breath.
“I do. Why do you think I’ve been hanging around that lodge? It was for glimpses of you.”
Her heart soared till she thought her smile might split her face in two. “Really?”
“Really. But you’re so busy, and there was Damon.”
“Whatever his name is.” He shrugged playfully, barely concealing his smile. “All I’m saying is, I want to take you on a real date. You deserve the best. But you’re always running circles around that damned lodge. I hate the thought of you dealing with everything. Repairs, budget, food, staff, and the cleaning? It’s too much. We’re hiring you a cleaning service.”
“A cleaning service?” It was the last thing she’d expected to hear. She shook her head doubtfully. “In Sierra Falls?”
“I’ll find one for you. You won’t even have to think about it.”
The prospect tickled her. But she was a realist. “Not possible,” she said. “My dad would have a conniption.”
“Your dad can deal with it.” The steel in Billy’s tone gave her pause. “I’m serious,” he added. “If Bear gives you any trouble, tell him I’ll cite him for child endangerment. Forget that, I’ll tell him myself.”
“I get it, I get it.” She laughed. “I get your point.”
“It’s time to demand more help from your family. What do you have to lose?”
“You’re right.” She’d been accepting Damien’s sporadic favors for months, so why was she afraid to ask for help from the people she cared for most? She was thoughtful as she assembled their dinner on plates. “All right then. What the hell?”
Her next thought, one that remained unspoken, was why hadn’t Damien ever helped her get to that conclusion? How was it this new sheriff had come into her life, managing to turn it—and her—upside down in such a short time?
She raised a brow, feeling saucy. “If you help me, I’ll of course need to figure out a way to express my gratitude.” For the first time, she felt in control, felt how powerful she was in her femininity. She decided she’d make Billy wait, until he was crazy with wanting. She wouldn’t spend the night. Not tonight. But she knew it’d be soon. Her skin pulled tight at the thought, the blood pounding hot, just beneath the surface. “I’ll try to make your efforts worth your while.”
She looked up, expecting to see humor on his face, but Billy’s eyes were dark, pinned on her. She sucked in a breath, his intensity staggering. He was kind and thoughtful. But he was also a man’s man, desiring and demanding, and that was what she read in his gaze now.
Her pulse kicked as some essential part of her wakened to life. Billy Preston was a lawman, but he kissed like an outlaw. She was desperate to discover just how he went about other things, too.
Marlene assembled her guests in the sitting room. Facing west, it was the brightest and warmest spot in the house and had a comfortable seating area with antique occasional tables that made serving tea and finger sandwiches convenient.
It was also her mother’s favorite spot. And though the women had gathered to discuss historical society business, it was what to do about Ma that weighed most heavily on Marlene’s mind.
Emerald was having an off day, staring silently, and it worried Marlene. Usually, her mother looked more present, like she was in there somewhere, wearing an expression that was bland but pleasant. But not today. Today Ma just sat, blankly.
Marlene had made her mother’s favorite French toast, played her old music, and shepherded her into the TV room to watch one of her programs, but none of it had worked. Nothing engaged her.
Sorrow came to stand beside her, and Marlene remembered herself. She had guests who needed her attention. “Make yourselves at home,” she said.
“Thanks for having us.” Sorrow took off her hat and fluffed her hair, and it crackled with static.
“I thought a change of scenery would do us all good,” Marlene said. Truth was, they had business to tend to, and she’d wanted to meet on neutral ground. Though with the tension that flared between the two Bailey girls, sometimes it seemed that not even Switzerland would be neutral enough.
Her eyes returned to her mother, sitting like a statue in the corner. Bailey family tension aside, she was happy not having to shoehorn three elderly ladies into that blasted pickup.
Sorrow caught her line of sight—the change in Ma’s condition would soon be obvious to everyone, if it wasn’t already. She gave Marlene’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “I swear, this is the prettiest room. So cozy, especially with all that snow outside.”
She was a sweet girl, that Sorrow. Marlene gave her a heartfelt smile. Having a house full of women might be just the thing to take her mind off her troubles.
“Snow?” Laura flopped down on one of the wing chairs, stretching her feet in front of her. “Gray slush, you mean. I am so over this weather.”
“The spring festival will be here before we know it,” Edith said.
Sorrow cringed and went to the buffet. “Don’t remind me. There’s too much to do. I need food first.”
Marlene had assembled their favorites—sandwiches made with olives and cream cheese, pimento spread on triangles of thin white bread, mint Milano cookies, and those crispy chocolate tubes Aunt Pearl loved.
“Oh, yum,” Sorrow said, grabbing a plate. “I’m thinking we need to meet here more often.”
“That town hall is too chilly.” Pearl buttoned up her cardigan, as if the mere recollection made her cold, even though the gas fireplace had the sitting room downright balmy. “And Bear’s restaurant can be so gusty.”
Bear was a tightwad when it came to his heating bill. But then she smiled to herself, thinking how she never felt cold when that Sully was around.
“It’s a treat to get away from the tavern for the afternoon,” Edith agreed, ignoring the jab against her family business.
“Totally good to get away.” Laura caught her sister’s eye. “Did you see Dad this morning?”
That tidbit engaged Ruby’s attention at once. “Why was your father on a rampage?”
A broad smile lit Edith’s face. “We got a letter from my boy today.”
“That’s wonderful news, but…” Marlene frowned at the nonsensical connection. “I don’t understand. Why is Bear in a sour mood if you heard from BJ?”
“Hearing from him always does it,” Sorrow said.
“Thank God he hasn’t figured out how to Skype BJ over in Afghanistan,” Laura joked. “That’d really put Dad over the edge.”
The sisters shared an amused, understanding look. It was good to see them getting along. Hearing from Bear Junior sure had put the Bailey women in a good mood. But Bear’s inexplicable mood swings remained a mystery. “I still don’t see why it should make him so crotchety,” she said.
Laura raised a brow. “You mean more crotchety than usual?”
“BJ is spending more time near the front lines,” Sorrow explained. “His unit’s in Kabul now. I think it worries Dad.”
Laura grew serious. “He’s doing stuff like air reconnaissance and troop transport in that giant helicopter of his.”
The barrage of military words put Marlene in mind of Tom Sullivan. He’d shown Craig some of his Vietnam memorabilia. Not that Sully had told her about it—the man wasn’t exactly a big talker, and she’d had to hear the report from her grandson. According to Craig, Sully had a stack of medals.
She had no idea he’d been such a hero.
Apparently, there were other things in his collection, too. A few photos, something called a boonie hat—whatever that was—and his dress uniform. Her mind drifted. The man kept himself in great shape—she bet he could still fit himself into that uniform.
Marlene gave a shake to her head, clearing those thoughts. They were talking about BJ’s letter, not aging retired officers.
She began to pour the women tea from her great-granny’s old silver service. “Well, I’d just think Bear would be thrilled to hear from the boy.”