“He was always a tough guy. But no, he’s gotten worse. Isn’t that what they say happens with age? Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and all that?”
“Maybe so.” Though Billy wasn’t entirely convinced. In fact, he thought he had the man pretty well figured. “Might be that he’s just frustrated he can’t get around like he did before.”
She nodded, letting the idea sink in. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about what you said before. It’s got to sting, letting go of so many responsibilities.” But then she laughed. “Either way, I thought his head was going to explode when he lost power to the TV.”
“Hey,” he said, “speaking of electricity, there sure were sparks flying between Laura and Eddie.”
“Laura? No way. You thought my dad was proud? My sister will gain twenty pounds, sprout wings, and fly before she hooks up with a Sierra Falls man.”
“I sure am glad you didn’t get that whole dieting gene. A man likes something to hold on to.” He reached across the car to squeeze her thigh. “And hey”—his fingers slid up to give that luscious rump a playful tweak—“what’s wrong with Sierra Falls men?”
She squirmed away with a squeak. “You know there is nothing wrong with Sierra Falls men. We attract only the finest.” It was her turn to reach across, resting her hand on his thigh, growing thoughtful. “Laura hightailed it out of here after high school and wants nothing to do with the place. I’m sure she pictures herself in some urban loft somewhere, shacked up with a dot-com bazillionaire.”
Billy cut his eyes from the road long enough to give her a perplexed look. “Then why is she still hanging around?”
“Now that’s the question.” Sorrow leaned back, kicking her feet up on the dash. “Maybe she’s hoping her dream bazillionaire will drop from the sky and check into the lodge.”
“Maybe there’s something else going on with her. Have you thought about just asking her?”
“I tried,” she said, dismissing it.
“I don’t mean in the middle of an argument. I mean, you could have a sisterly heart-to-heart.”
“Uhh, no thanks,” Sorrow said. “I’ve grown fond of my head and would prefer to keep it attached to my body.”
Billy let out a laugh. “It’s obvious she’s wound pretty tight, but…I don’t know…She was a pretty big help at Emerald’s memorial. Maybe you underestimate her.”
“I guess she has done a lot for the festival,” Sorrow admitted. “She asked if I’d cook a special gold rush dinner.”
“Yeah, I guess it kind of is.” She shrugged. “She’s constantly online, doing whatever she does. Some historical journal is even coming out next week to do a write-up on Buck Larsen and his days in Sierra Falls.”
“That’s cool,” Billy said enthusiastically. “That’s something. It’ll bring in more tourists. It does seem like you have more guests than usual.”
“So what’s the problem, then? The festival is coming together. You’re drawing more visitors. Your sister wants you to cook for everyone. She must be good for something.”
“All this buzz is great, sure. But I’m totally overwhelmed. The place is falling apart at the seams. Every time I fix one thing, something else breaks. Apparently, somebody may or may not be out to get me. Getting more visitors is all well and good, but it means more mouths to feed, more rooms to keep perfect, more things to stay on top of.”
“You’re overwhelmed, and it seems like Laura wants to help. It’s not like you love every aspect of running the business. Why don’t you let her have a crack at it?”
“Have a crack at it…” Sorrow’s feet slid from the dash, hitting the floor with a thump. “Guess who’s going to clean up the mess when her whole crack at it thing fails? Who’s going to pick up the pieces when Laura decides she’s done and takes off again?”
Alarms sounded in Billy’s head. There was some tricky history between the sisters—Sorrow had been more hurt than he’d realized, harboring it more deeply than he’d guessed.
He made a snap decision to broach a topic that maybe wasn’t ready for broaching. “Well,” he said gently, “if she decides to take off again, I think we might have some other help for you.”
“What do you mean?” Sorrow gave a rueful laugh. “First the Laura hard sell. You’re not going to foist Ruby and Pearl on me, are you?”
“Better than that. Bear’s hiring you an assistant. At least I think he will.” He waited, excited and anxious to see her response.
But she looked at him as though he’d just spoken in Greek. “Assistant? What kind of assistant?”
“The helpful kind,” he said. “The kind who’ll make the beds, and answer the phones, and do the grocery runs.”
“An assistant,” she said in a dreamy voice. “How fancy. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Well, you’ll need one. Because I’m taking you to Silver City.”
It took her a second to follow him. “You mean the freezer guy?”
“That’s the one. He’s arranged for you to shadow him for a night at his restaurant.”
“Get out! I’ll get to work under him like a sous-chef?”
“Something like that, yeah.” He stole a glance at her. The way her sweater clung to her curves gave him a good idea of what—and whom—he’d like to get under.
“Wow,” she marveled. “Working with a real chef. How can I ever thank you?”
He practically skidded into his driveway. “I’ve got some ideas.”
“Can’t sleep?” Billy asked, his voice low in the dark. He pulled her closer to cradle her body more snugly to his, and she felt him begin to rouse at her back. “I could try to take your mind off things.”
She chuckled and rolled around to face him. “If you take my mind off of it any more tonight, I’m afraid I might have trouble walking tomorrow.”
“Then stay in bed all day. My bed. I can protect and serve, and all that.” He tugged her closer to prove his point, but reading the anxiety on her face, his tone turned somber. “You know you’re safe here.”
“I know it. But…” Sorrow tried to relax—Billy was being so charming and sexy—but her mind was going a million miles an hour. Someone had been inside her house, probably even while she’d been at home. The idea chilled her. It was too much like something out of a horror movie. “It’s just…someone broke into our garage. While we were home. It feels so creepy. So personal.”
“This has been personal all along. But I will protect you. We will find the bastard.”
A sharp blade of moonlight shone through the slats in his blinds, illuminating him. She drew strength from those strong features—even in the shadows, she could see his resolve. She had every faith in him.
She couldn’t help but think about her father and mother still at home. It seemed like one day her father had been the strong daddy swinging her up on his shoulders, and then the next she was fretting over his ability to walk up and down the stairs unassisted. And now he was acting so stubborn, refusing to accept these were more than simple accidents. What would happen if someone broke in again? What if next time whoever was after them did something worse than just snip some wires? “I’m worried about them.”
“Your folks?” Of course he’d known exactly whom she meant, and at her nod, he told her firmly, “They’ll be fine. Eddie said he’d crash in one of your spare rooms. Those Jessup boys are tough—he can handle whatever comes up.” But then he laughed low. “The question is, will Eddie survive your sister? There are sparks between those two.”
She felt a smile flicker on her face. “Laura totally denies it.”
They both grew quiet, and when he spoke again, his tone was grave. “I hate to say it, but without you there, I don’t think anything else will happen tonight.”
She shivered, chilled to her bones. “Who’s doing this?”
“Whoever it is, I’ll find him and throw his ass in jail so fast his head will spin. If I don’t wring his neck first.”
Sorrow had to laugh at Billy’s vehemence. “Thanks. You know, I believe you will.”
They lay in the dark a while longer as he idly stroked his hand up and down her back. She sighed—she felt safe with Billy. Safe in his house. In his arms.
But she still couldn’t sleep.
“That’s it.” He slipped out of bed and pulled on his boxers. As he handed her his robe, he said, “You’re coming with me.” He grabbed an old pair of wool socks for her, too. “This time of night, you’ll want these.”
She swam in the green and navy plaid flannel robe, but there was nothing more intimate than the feeling of wearing her man’s clothes. They walked downstairs hand in hand, and when she spoke again, she couldn’t help the excited curiosity in her voice. “Where’re we going? It’s got to be past two.”
“I’m making you a cup of tea. And”—he snagged her purse from where she’d dropped it onto the dining room table—“we’ll need this.”
“We need what’s in your purse.”
“What’s in my—?” Her eyes lit, watching him extract the thick packet. “Ohh. The letters.” Ever since the fire, she’d been anxious to keep Sorrow Crabtree’s letters safe and carried them with her, tied in a neat bundle that she kept wrapped in a Ziploc bag.