“Nah, it wasn’t like that,” Billy said. “She gave me a few slices of her apple cinnamon bread before I went on patrol.”
The comment had been grumpy, but instead of annoying Billy, it gave him a laugh. “I like donuts, too, sir. I just like Sorrow’s bread more. Have you tried it? You put it on the menu, I guarantee it’d make you a small fortune. Best bread I’ve had in some time.”
Bear only grunted hmph in reply. He seemed to be formulating a fervent reply, but when he turned in his stool to deliver it, his foot caught and he stumbled sideways off his seat.
Billy reached out, catching his elbow to steady him. “Easy, sir.”
The man flinched away, impatience wrenching his features. “I had a stroke. I’m not an invalid, boy.”
He understood the flare of anger. He guessed Bear had once been as fierce as his name—such a man wouldn’t appreciate growing feeble.
But the behavior also worried him. The man had tottered on his feet. Was Billy witnessing one too many Budweisers or something else? He was well-versed in first aid—all sheriffs were—and he was particularly on alert where a history of stroke was concerned.
He decided to keep the man talking to assess. “What’s on her mind then?”
“Huh?” Bear settled back on his stool, leaning both elbows on the bar.
The man had a startled look on his face, and Billy knew a wave of sympathy. He kept his voice light and easy. “You said your daughter has things on her mind. What’s got her so preoccupied she was forced to retreat into the kitchen?”
The man sniffed. “She found some letters and has it in her head we’re all related to Buck Larsen.”
The unexpected turn in the conversation took a moment to register. “Pardon?”
“Yeah. Who knows with that girl?” Bear’s expression softened. He spun his bottle around and around on the counter, shaking his head. “She found some old letters in the attic, and now has a bee in her bonnet about the whole thing. Says my great-granddad was the natural child of Buck Larsen.”
Bear shrugged, but the faint smile on his face said maybe, just maybe, there was indeed something about Sorrow that made him proud. “She’s at the house, doing her stirring and chopping. Go see for yourself.”
She dried her prized butcher knife till it gleamed. It was German, used by professional chefs, and had cost her a pretty penny. She hated when even the most minor of water spots marred the surface. Sorrow tilted it up to the light, wondering if it could use a sharpening. After all, a chef was only as good as his—or her—sharpest blade.
“Remind me not to cross you.”
The voice in the doorway startled her. Her knife froze, midair.
Sheriff. The man filled the doorway, those broad shoulders making her pounding heart skip a beat.
She darted her eyes back to her task, giving it her whole focus. The sauce was simmering, and she’d taken a moment to clean up. A dirty kitchen was one of her pet peeves. “You know better than to surprise a woman wielding a big knife.”
“It’s safer than a woman…” His eyes flicked in the direction of the tavern as he made a funny, frightened sort of face. “Well, never mind that.”
She smirked. “Been at the bar, have you?”
She shrugged, sliding her tools back into the knife block. She knew what he’d been about to say. Helen worked as their part-time waitress and part-time bartender, but she was a full-time flirt. Billy Preston was a fine man—the woman had probably been on him like white on rice. The thing with Helen was, most men seemed to run to her. All except for her husband. And that, Sorrow guessed, was the crux of the issue. But it wasn’t her place to gossip.
Although she did file in the back of her mind the fact that Billy appeared the sort of man who ran away from such a woman.
He wandered closer and gave her knives an appreciative nod. “Nice.”
She loved her knives and had to temper her smile as she thanked him.
He glanced around the kitchen, quietly taking it all in, and Sorrow wondered what he might be thinking. “Your mother let me in,” he said after a moment. “I hope you don’t mind me showing up so late in the day.”
“On the contrary.” The sound of a rapid boil startled her from her thoughts, and she jumped to turn down the burner. She stirred her sauce, relieved it hadn’t burned. She used an arm to brush the hair from her brow. “Your timing is perfect. You’re just in time to clean out that dish for me.”
He gamely jumped into action, shrugging out of his coat and rolling up his sleeves. “What are we making?”
He scraped bits of onion and bacon fat from the casserole into the sink. “Don’t you mean boeuf?”
With a laugh, she tapped her spoon clean. “Impressive.”
She wiped her hands on her apron then grabbed a sieve from a cabinet under the island. “So that means you won’t complain if I ask you to hold this for me?” It was time to strain the sauce into the casserole dish, and balancing everything always gave her arms a workout.
“I’ll do you one better.” He took up both sieve and saucepan with an easy confidence that surprised her. “I’ve got this, you just scrape.”
She couldn’t help but think of Damien, who was so powerful and in control in other aspects of his life, but magically turned useless whenever he got near a kitchen.
Billy added, “I’ll only complain if you don’t let me eat it when it’s done.”
She raised a brow. Taken aback, but not in a bad way. “Sorry, Sheriff. If you saw that movie, you’ll know this sucker doesn’t go in the oven till tomorrow.”
He inhaled deeply. Straining the sauce had spread the rich aroma into the air even more than before. “Well, I’ll just have to take a rain check. I’d cross an ocean for a good beef bourguignon.”
Sorrow paused at that. “Would you really?”
He gave a hearty nod. “I love Sierra Falls, but…good restaurants? That’s the one thing I miss about living in the city. No offense to your tavern,” he added quickly.
She laughed. “Believe me, no offense taken. I’d rather…I don’t know…set my hair on fire than eat Sully’s ‘Prospector’s Pie’ one more time.”
Billy’s laugh was loud and deep. “What on earth is that?”
“Meat pie,” she said, scrunching her face.
“Hey, sounds good to me. What kind of meat?”
He laughed at that. “Just how many kinds can there be?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” She brought the casserole dish to the refrigerator.
He jumped to open the door for her. “Is that why you learned to cook? An aversion to mystery meats?”
She bumped the fridge door shut with her hip. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” But as she washed the dirty sieve, she found herself giving him a real answer. “If I can’t whisk myself off to another country, well, cooking is a way to bring other countries to me. It lets me travel to other places in my head.”
Wiping her hands, she turned around, and her smile faded. He stood so close, his body a commanding physical presence suddenly so near, in her private space, the kitchen.
She racked her brain for words and automatically asked, “Can I get you something to eat?”
“I…I think…” His stomach took the opportunity to rumble, and they both laughed, the awkward moment passed.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Sorrow.
“If your apple bread and the smell of that sauce are any indication, I must confess, I’d love a taste of what you’re serving.” A look washed over his face, and it gave his words a double meaning. “I mean…if you’re sure you don’t mind. I don’t want to be an inconvenience.”
“Not at all. I have to eat, too.” She ducked back into the fridge, rifling more than was strictly necessary. The cool air was a relief on her warm cheeks. What was wrong with her? “How do you feel about pasta?”
She smiled. Finally a man who didn’t shy away from carbs. “I can pull together a quickie Aglio e Olio.”
She grabbed the olive oil and made sure there was enough garlic. “It’s just Italian for ‘garlic and oil.’ Nothing to it.”
Billy reached up to grab her colander and big spaghetti pot from their hooks. He held them up in silent question.
“Perfect,” she said, a little surprised. “Thanks.”
He began to fill the pot with water. “While the pasta’s boiling, you can tell me about those letters.”
She froze for the merest second. “You know about the letters?”
And he was interested in hearing more about them? Disbelieving, she poured olive oil in a saucepan and added a decent glug of a Pinot Grigio she’d had in the fridge. Her arm hovered in the air a moment. What the hell? She showed him the bottle. “Do you want a glass of wine?”
“Why not.” He seemed surprised he’d said it. And a little uncomfortable, too.
She gave him an extra glug for good measure. She knew she needed one herself. She was feeling a little uncomfortable, too, but in an excited-uncomfortable way. Because she kind of liked having the sheriff in her kitchen.
The sauce was reducing, the water put up to boil, and it was time to wait. As she joined him at the table, he put a careful fingertip atop the small stack of letters. “Are these the ones?”
“They are,” she said. “Dated from the 1850s, from my three-times great-grandmother.”
He shook his head at that, marveling. “When I see something that old, it’s impossible not to imagine the person who owned it. Them picking up this paper—it probably cost a lot back then. And then taking their pen in hand.”