10 Sep

Excerpt: What Comes After Dessert (Part 1)

WhatComesAfterDessertThe following is the first excerpt from the small-town, second-chance romance What Comes After Dessert, Copyright © 2015 by Ren Benton, available November 3, 2015.




Chapter 1

Acker’s Serv-N-Go began holding down the corner of Main and Magnolia in 1958. Since opening day, a seventeen-foot cowboy by the name of Howdy Hank had welcomed arrivals to Westard and waved off the departing after they’d stocked up on sufficient gasoline, Cheetos, and Mountain Dew to get far, far away.

Now, an expanse of cracked concrete landscaped with knee-high thistle greeted arrivals with You should have stopped for gas back in Sterling, buckaroo.

Because every kid who grew up in Westard knew nothing ever changed in Westard, Ben had zoomed through Sterling without glancing at its lone service station, and the needle on the rented Buick’s gas gauge was getting to second base with E.

Because the Serv-N-Go had Servd-N-Gone, it looked like the happy couple would be going all the way before the night was over.

He was standing in Howdy Hank’s abandoned footsteps when a police cruiser stopped nose to nose with the rental.

The door of the cruiser opened, and a booted foot landed on the pavement. “Put your hands in the air.”

Rural cops spent much of their time interacting with rural folk who felt a strong attachment to their guns. Rural cops consequently possessed a reasonable distrust of poorly visualized hands.

Ben raised his to prove he was harmless.

The lawman stepped out of his car. The last of the sun’s rays glinted off his mirrored shades and his high forehead. “Now wave ’em like you just don’t care.”

Ben’s hands dropped to his sides. “Fuck you, Officer Beaver.”

Shane smacked him on the shoulder, a broad grin splitting his face. “I’m flattered, Fielder, but I can do better than you.”

Ben had run into Shane five or six times in the past dozen years. Every time, they had slipped into the rhythm of friends who’d known each other since their diaper days, as if he’d never left town. “I almost didn’t recognize you. Did you do something new with your hair?”

Shane ran a hand over his buzz cut and a lot of scalp that no longer required shearing. “This is what real men look like.”

“Real old men.”

“Jude Law has this hairline.”

“Jude Law works out.”

Shane hitched his belt up over the beginning of a paunch. “He’s obviously insecure in his masculinity and compensating for having a little dick.”

When they were young and immature, Ben would have commended Shane for accepting his own diminutive penis. Shane would have responded by dropping his pants, challenging his accuser to a duel, and declaring himself the victor when the invitation to do a head-to-head dick comparison was declined.

The fact that they were having this conversation — again — suggested the ensuing years hadn’t come bundled with maturity, and neither of them had invested in the upgrade.

That was their rhythm.

To protect himself from exposure to Beaver junk, which the girls of South Marion High had avoided like it was radioactive, Ben sacrificed the perfect comeback in favor of being the bigger man, so to speak.

He inclined his head to indicate the razed lot. “What happened here?”

“Same thing that’s happening all over. Bunch of bankers got in trouble for their gambling problem, and people who never had any money to gamble with had to pick up the tab so the world didn’t end, or some bullshit to that effect. How long has it been since you’ve been back?”

Ben missed his last annual visit due to a previous engagement with a judge, a couple of lawyers, and his now-ex-wife. The year before that, he’d convinced his mother to let him take her on a real vacation to get acquainted with his then-new wife. “About three years.”

“You’re in for a shock, then. How close to empty are you?”

“Too close to get back to Sterling.” Funny he should ask. “Does this happen a lot?”

“Often enough the station in Sterling ought to put up a sign. Bitching about how nothing ever changes is the official sport of Westard and everyone’s all-pro, so it’s a kick in the nuts every time you come home and something else is missing.”

In the days after Ellen moved out, Ben came home from work at night and played a few rounds of What Did She Take While I Was Out? He’d expected her to keep nibbling away at his property until he came home to an empty lot like this one, but on the fifth day, she took the last thing she wanted from their life together and left her key in the mailbox. No note.

Coming home to find his net worth further diminished had been a hand job compared to coming home to find he had nothing else worth taking.

He had recovered enough to quip about it now, to the kind of friend he saw five or six times every dozen years. “Sounds like my divorce.”

The twinge in his gut when he spoke of that failure had downgraded from the twisting, red-hot poker it was a few months ago.

“Mine, too. My dog is living with the Prius-driving asshole who’s banging my ex.”

Shane’s overt disgust distracted Ben from the remnant of his ulcer. “Which part are you more broken up about?”

“That dog deserves a man with a truck. You staying at your mom’s?”

If she would let him in. If not, the Back Seat Inn had a vacancy and required no reservation. “That’s the plan, such as it is.”

“I’ll bring by a gallon in the morning. Lock your car so it doesn’t wander off, and I’ll give you the guided tour.”

“Aren’t you on duty?”

“I could flip a coin, stroll to the other side of town, and be back here before it hits the ground. You’re the worst thing likely to happen in the meantime.”

Except, apparently, grand theft auto. Ben pressed the lock button on the key fob like a good city boy and followed his tour guide. Anything to postpone the reunion with his mother.

Westard proper consisted of four streets and four avenues. With the exception of Main Street, all were residential. Night life on the strip had never been wild, but there were always men jawing in front of the hardware store and women dragging cranky kids into the market on a quest for the fastest food available in a town lacking a drive-through.

Ben had never seen Main Street deserted. With no cars angled into the parking slots on either side of the street, the gray stripe through the center of town looked as wide as the highway that brought him here from the airport.

He used to do odd jobs for Jed Bartlett around the hardware store: sweeping, running to the post office, washing the big plate glass windows. Judging by the grime concentrated in the corners and fanning across the glass like brown frost, the dark, empty space beyond the windows wasn’t a recent development. The cramped aisles, limited selection of inventory, and waiting two weeks for an off-stock part to be special ordered made that forty-mile trip to the nearest Home Depot seem like a day at the amusement park. Sentiment couldn’t compete with bulk pricing and a garden center.

Shane caught the direction of his gaze and nodded toward the adjacent building. “The clinic, too.”

Ben’s first nineteen years of cuts, breaks, burns, and coughs had been treated in that office. “I’m not surprised. Grady was nine million years old.”

“He would have gone on for another nine million if he could afford the staff to handle all the insurance crap. He tried to get a replacement in here before he retired, but the medical needs of this whole town don’t generate enough revenue to make it a ‘viable business opportunity.'”

The natives of this cable-forsaken region hadn’t been brainwashed by nonstop commercials to believe every sniffle, ache, and bad mood required a prescription. They prided themselves on being hardy and resisted going to a doctor unless bones were poking through the skin.

Now that the nearest doctor was an hour’s drive away, they’d put a Band-Aid on that wound, too.

Ben’s mother believed complaining was for weaklings. If anything ailed her, she needed a doctor who would bump into her outside of the appointment she would never schedule and knew her well enough to ask the right questions to unearth the diagnosis. In the absence of such a relationship, Ben would be happier if she lived less than an hour away from the nearest emergency room.

How many other services had she been doing without? “Is Sheila still doing hair in her kitchen?”

“Sure is.” Shane smoothed a hand over his coif. “But she sold her house to Julie Acker and her new husband and moved in with Norma after Doug died, so her kitchen is across the street now, should you decide to get a manly haircut while you’re in town.”

“Nah, I’m good.” Ben was overdue for a trim, as usual, but he preferred a style that didn’t begin with buzz or bowl, the only two manly haircuts he’d ever seen emerge from Sheila’s salon.

The sidewalk dipped in front of the market, the better to ease the passage of shopping carts and skateboards. His feet took root at the sight of those windows covered with plywood. How many times had he been one of the cranky kids dragged through that door three minutes before closing time because his mom had to work late and choose between feeding him dinner from a box and keeping him up until midnight cooking a dinner grandma would approve of?

He’d always hated those trips to the store, but now that the option was missing, he saw what a blessing it had been to not have to go all the way to Sterling to get milk for his Cocoa Puffs. “Jesus, is anything left?”

“The bar is still open. Doing such a booming business, they expanded into the firehouse.”

“Tell me you mean you can report a fire and get wings and beer delivered with the same phone call.” The negative jerk of Shane’s head restored some heat to Ben’s twinge. “How the hell do you close a volunteer fire department?”

“The town owned the building and the truck and needed some cash. For what it’s worth, the volunteers will still come and point a garden hose at your fire.”

Worth about as much as pissing on it. No doctor, no food, no fire rescue. The town hadn’t been upwardly mobile from the day its foundering father misjudged where the railroad would be coming through by twenty miles and broke ground in the wrong spot, but its current state was tumbling toward third-world conditions. “I’m surprised we still have a cop.”

“I’ll be the next to go.”

Shane’s only career had been as the law in Westard, and he’d called dibs on the job in fourth grade. “That’s shit. What will you do?”

“Go to the troopers and try to get Westard on my beat so these folks don’t have a stranger pulling in the driveway to separate them from their booze and guns.”

A responding officer who could reminisce about eating meatloaf at the kitchen table, playing ball with a son, or dating a sister had a chance of talking through a conflict, but no one discussed family business with outsiders. An outsider with a badge and a bunch of questions had a better chance of getting a tragic reception. “No wonder the bar’s still open. I’ve only been in town ten minutes, and getting wasted seems like the natural solution.”

“That goes around like a virus, but it’s not all bad.”

Bad enough. Throughout his childhood, like every other kid in Westard, Ben dreamed of escaping, but the town had been paradise then compared to this cluster of abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere.

The only bright side was that his mother couldn’t possibly look him in the eye and claim there was anything to keep her here now.

The streetlight overhead buzzed to life in response to the darkening sky. Only half its counterparts did likewise, casting cones of jaundiced light that staggered from one side of the street to the other in a testament to municipal penny pinching.

The only well-illuminated establishment currently open for business was the bar.

Shane checked his watch. “If we’re lucky, we can get some free cookies.”

Ben perked up at the first good news he’d heard since discovering Howdy Hank had gone AWOL. “The bakery’s still open?”

“Don’t ask me how, but yeah.”

Ben didn’t need to ask. Stella Hood wasn’t a Westard institution because of her pretty face. The woman was a wizard in the kitchen. “Stella always gave me free cookies.”

Shane snorted as they crossed the intersection where Oak fell across Main like a bridge leading to one of the shady parts of the street. “Rumor has it almost every female in town gave you free cookies.”


In a town with a population of just over two hundred, every female of their approximate age amounted to ten. Any boy who hadn’t made the complete circuit had been blacklisted after being a shit to one of them. The girl friend pool was every bit as shallow as the girlfriend pool, and those girls kept no secrets from each other.

“Nobody ever got their hands in Tally Castle’s cookie jar.”

The twinge grew spurs and twisted.

Ben hadn’t thought about Tally since the last time he came to town, where memories of her were embedded everywhere he looked. The front steps of the school, where he’d laid eyes on her for the first time. The lightning-split tree in the woods between their houses, where he’d carved their initials in the dead wood and, years later, kissed her for the second time. The boathouse at the lodge, where he’d asked her to marry him and she’d said no.

He went back to Seattle after that trip down memory lane and bought a ring for Ellen. She said yes.

But Shane didn’t know any of that. Only two people knew, and the other one had left and never looked back at what she’d left in her dust. He’d never had to endure sympathy from all sides for that failure. He kept it private and close to his heart, as he’d done with his love.

Shane pushed open the bakery door, releasing a whirlwind of yeasty perfume that made Ben’s mouth water. Stella would have her own kind of Band-Aid for that twelve-year-old wound.

The buzzer over the door stuck, competing with the greeting Shane called out.

A voice that was not Stella’s smoker’s rasp answered from the depths of the kitchen. “Swat that buzzer, will you?”

Shane said, “Sure thing.”

Ben, standing just inside the door, stretched an arm overhead and smacked the buzzer into silence. Which sucker had the old slave driver gotten to work the late shift so she could go home early and watch the game?

The sucker stepped through the doorway separating the storefront from the kitchen. A loose braid of dark hair dangled over her shoulder, ending in a curl that rested high on her chest. An oversized flannel shirt committed the crime of concealing what Ben knew to be a body wet dreams were made of.

Scents from memories wiped out eau de bakery. Her flowery shampoo. Cherry lip gloss. All the warm, sweet, hidden places of her skin.

Or almost all of them.

Wide hazel eyes, at the moment dominated by mossy green, stared at him.

He returned the favor, searching for imperfections to use as armor against her. Short, fine hairs formed sweaty curlicues against her temples. A gray smudge angled across a forehead crimped with tension. Violet shadows, stark against the paleness of her skin, punctuated the delicate space between her nose and the inner corners of her eyes like outward-facing parentheses. A red spot marked her lower lip where she bit it when she worried, which had to be kissed extra gently because it was always tender.

Dammit, she was still perfect, and he was still defenseless against her.

That was their rhythm.

Tally Castle wasn’t the first or the last girl he’d been a fool for, but she was the only one who made it happen by burning up all the oxygen so he couldn’t breathe around her, leaving him lightheaded and incapable of intelligent speech or action.

He made his lungs inflate with the empty air, deflate, repeat in a facsimile of respiration that kept his affliction private and close to his heart.

Why did his weakness to The Fortress have to be the one thing immune to change?

Chapter 2

Stella left behind an iPod containing the assortment of country and American classic rock one would expect to find in the possession of a woman of her generation in Westard — as well as an eyebrow-raising collection of Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Wayne. Either Stella had a secret life moonlighting as a DJ at a strip club, or pole dancers weren’t the only workforce to whom Weezy signified time to get that ass to work.

Tally couldn’t tolerate a soundtrack of grinding music for an entire shift, but when her energy was gone at the end of the day, the beat prodded her to go through the motions, just like old times.

She kept the volume low so the thump of bass was the only distinct sound emitting from the speakers. Instead of scraping up the last sweaty dollar bills from a tapped-out audience, she scraped the day’s accumulation of flour from the seams where the floor met the walls and base cabinets. Every day for two years, she’d thought if she was tidier, every surface in the bakery wouldn’t be coated with flour at the end of the day. Every day for two years, no matter how tidy she tried to be, every surface in the bakery was coated with flour at the end of the day. Every night before she left, she cleaned from top to bottom, waging a futile battle against the inevitable.

Stella’s cleaning instructions were to keep the counters clean and wet-mop the floor once a week. She said flour flew and Tally should be worried about how much of it she’d sucked into her lungs rather than how much settled into cracks in the linoleum.

Tally couldn’t care less about the condition of her lungs. No one was judging the cleanliness of her alveoli.

Most of the town thought she had taken advantage of a sick old lady on her way to a nursing home. There was no rational explanation for Stella to entrust a professional screwup with her business, her money, and her reputation.

Tally couldn’t argue with her detractors. Even if she had a talent for defending herself, the truth was against her. She hadn’t lied about her qualifications or lack thereof, but she also hadn’t protested against the obviously poor judgment on Stella’s part. Competition was stiff for uneducated, unskilled labor. Every other employer within a fifty-mile radius had the sense to laugh her off the premises, and she desperately needed the income for big-city luxuries to which she had become accustomed during her decade away from Westard.

Luxuries such as food and toilet paper.

If they gave up the former, they could do without the latter, but when she pitched the idea to her dad, he used the receipts from her mother’s funeral to bat it down. In the short term, at least, living was marginally more frugal than starving to death.

Starvation remained an option, however, if Stella came to her senses and fired her. The books were perpetually in the red. Most of the customers looked at her as if they’d rather lick the bottom of a garbage can than eat food she had prepared if she wasn’t selling it at a loss.

Stella cackled at the weekly progress reports. Someday, her doctors would adjust her meds, she’d be less entertained by the ruin of her life’s work, and Tally would be out on her ass.

She scrubbed harder. Nothing was as motivating as a reminder that no matter how shitty things were at any given moment, they could always get worse. When rock bottom arrived and the whole town was atwitter about how she’d finally gotten what she deserved, at least nobody would be able to say she was a slob.

She’s a disgraceful excuse for a human being, but you could feed your baby off that floor between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

She wadded the pyramid of grungy paper towels into a ball and sank it into the bag slouched by the back door. The only dirt that hadn’t made it into the garbage was on her clothes, in her hair, and glued to her skin. When she took out the trash, the place would be spotless until she returned in the morning and started spewing flour again.

The door buzzer alerted her in its customary fashion to the arrival of business up front, sticking as if annoyance had ever enhanced the provision of customer service. The buzzer had been on her list of things to fix for two years, but something else always took priority. She could live with a noisy nuisance, but a leaky pipe under the sink or a broken belt in the mixer stopped production and had to be addressed right away. The crisis-free day when the buzzer rose to the top of the list had yet to occur.

She arched her back and squeezed the ache there down to her knees, which expressed their thanks with audible pops as she stood. Coming back to her hometown with her tail tucked between her legs had prompted her body to begin aging in dog years.

If only Howdy Hank had been there to give her the heads-up. Welcome home, pardner! Saddle up for premature joint degeneration and frown lines! Yee-haw!

Skedaddling hadn’t been an option, but she could have eased into decrepitude with dignity instead of throwing a tantrum when the cowboy’s prophecy came to pass.

She glimpsed a uniform-beige shoulder through the doorway and nudged at the frown lines with the back of her hand. She was too tired and grubby to endure being flirted with by Westard’s only semi-eligible bachelor under the age of seventy, but Shane deserved a reasonable facsimile of a smile. He got points for being one of a select few who had made no rude comments to her face since her inglorious return.

The back of her hand sported a dark smudge, either picked up from or transferred to her forehead. She gave her hands a quick soap at the sink and swiped her face with the paper towel she used to dry them. It wasn’t worth finding a reflective surface to check her work when Shane wouldn’t notice if she had chocolate chips stuck to her cheeks. Like most men, his gaze seldom ventured above her clavicle.

Her clenched teeth forced her lower jaw forward, which didn’t improve the quality of the smile she was trying to fake. She needed five more seconds to rehearse. “Swat that buzzer, will you?”

“Sure thing.”

She worked her mouth back and forth to loosen her bite, and the pop of her TMJ was masked by a businesslike smack, followed by blessed quiet.

Another point for Shane — what little she asked him to do, he came through.

Her molded smile softened to something a little more genuine by the time she stepped through the doorway. “Thanks.”

“Any time.” Shane jerked his thumb toward another body she hadn’t seen from the kitchen — the body standing underneath the buzzer. “Remember this guy?”

She seized like mistreated chocolate, becoming stiff, dry, crumbling. Someone would have to chisel her away, throw her out, and start over from scratch because she’d be no good for anything now.

He had aged, too, but in the good way, filling out that rangy adolescent torso to better suit the height he’d shot up to in tenth grade, picking up a couple of laugh lines around eyes that remained the same hot summer sky blue. The pecan-colored hair was as adorably shaggy as ever and messy, as though fingers had recently used it as reins to steer him into a kiss. The panty-incinerating smile that provoked such attentions hadn’t cooled by even one degree.

Yeah, she remembered Ben Fielder.

Dammit, she remembered his taste.

For twelve years, she strove to transcend embarrassment through immersion therapy, putting herself in one situation after another that allowed her to advance through every phase of humiliation and shame. For the past two of those years, she’d had overwhelming community support in the form of daily dirty looks, snide remarks, and crude witticisms written in the dirt on her truck. She had achieved a level of low at which, thirty seconds previously, she had no fucks to give about being seen even knowing she had grime on her face.

Had she thought she was the master of her degradation? Such hubris.

To prove she hadn’t yet succeeded in digging her way to bedrock, life brought in a backhoe to excavate new depths.

She should have washed her face instead of baseboards no one ever studied as if there would be a test on the flaws. And her hair. Put on some lip gloss. And a clean shirt she hadn’t borrowed from her dad’s closet because she hadn’t made time in the last week to launder her own meager wardrobe.

The silence grew too long and sharp edged to pretend she didn’t recognize him, so she did what she’d done every time Ben Fielder sucker punched her: she put on the stage smile cultivated to make the audience believe she was having a great time, wanted to be nowhere else, and wasn’t miserable at all. “Who doesn’t remember Ben? Everybody who gets out of Westard is legendary.”

For one brief, brilliant moment, she allowed herself to hope he wouldn’t remember her. She was far from the only girl in town who’d had her tongue on him, and she hadn’t practiced on anyone else before fumbling her way around him — even then, she’d been the uneducated, unskilled labor.

If she had any money, she’d bet it all she was the only girl in town pleading to be unmemorable.

The backhoe roared back to life and excavated a grave in which to bury that hope. “You left long before I did, Tally.”

Not long before. He’d been destined for training camp soon after graduation. She left the day before so she didn’t spoil her streak of missing every school event since kindergarten.

But if he could forget historical details, she could pretend to do the same. “Did I?”

She was a legend, as well, but the stories told about her were cautionary tales to frighten children into respectable behavior: Learn a trade or get some scholarships, or you’ll end up naked on a stage like that Castle girl, and don’t think I’ll let you move back to this house when your tits start to sag.

She cranked up the corners of her smile until it threatened to crack her face. “What can I get for you gentlemen this evening?”

Shane ogled the triple rows of cookies displayed in the case. “Got any cookies left?”

She bent her head to inspect the inventory she knew was there as an excuse to move her face out of the scorching twin beams of Ben’s regard. “All of them, in fact. I shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Slow day?”

Someone had been away long enough to forget the days in Westard had only one speed. “Same traffic as usual, but just about everybody’s on the same pay cycle. This far from last payday, bread is the responsible thing to buy. And eggs. Lots of people wanted eggs today.”

The menu for the rest of the week would have to be adjusted to account for the egg shortage, but she would figure that out on the drive home.

God forbid she ever got to use those five minutes to relax.

Ben scanned the paltry selection of produce that had taken over one of the display cases. “This is the market now.”

“She’ll even deliver you a pizza if it’s on her way home.”

The hot spot on her face let her know she had Ben’s attention again. She ignored him while she made sandwiches out of pairs of cookies with fat marshmallows in the middle and popped them in the microwave for ten seconds. Sorry, pardner! Casa Fielder is a good four hundred yards off my route. Buy a tomato and a loaf of bread and use your imagination.

The microwave beeped. She pressed a hand down on each cookie sandwich so the softened marshmallow squished to the edges, wrapped each in a parchment diaper, and placed them on the counter. “Knock yourselves out.”

Shane grabbed one and retreated to his corner. The cookie vanished in two bites, accompanied by vague, appreciative noises.

That’s what the sex would be like. One, two, grunt, done.

Pressure built behind her sternum, a giggle or whine or perhaps a scream trying to escape over the wall. She had considered the possibility, if Shane’s divorce was ever final and if he asked and if she had enough heart left at that point to try, that they might get together, but she had never given any thought to what that would actually be like.

Until now, when he was in range for a side-by-side comparison with Ben.

The standard against which all men would forever be judged stepped up to the counter. She backed away until the metal storage rack behind her dug into her thighs. If she’d thought this through, she would have thrown the damn cookie at him. Her arm was shit, but it would have been a short pass with no interference. He’d been an all-state wide receiver and punt returner with a spot on the good-hands team. If he could catch an onside kick, he could grab a cookie out of the air without getting anywhere near her.

But she hadn’t thought quickly enough, so there he was, and he didn’t retreat, so she had a close-up view when he ran his thumb around the edge of the cookies to line them up, sucked a bit of marshmallow goo off his thumb, and took a slow, precise bite, perfect white upper teeth sinking into the warm, pillowy treat as if he didn’t want to bruise it.

His eyes narrowed. His focus homed in on her.

A chill rippled through her from top to bottom, leaving the territory marked by its passing uncomfortably warm by comparison. She knew that look, had seen it many times in response to less-PG pleasures. That look let her know she’d done something good, but not quite good enough to make him close his eyes and forget where he was and with whom. Not good enough that he’d fail to notice her next, inevitable mistake.

That degree of good required more spit, tongue, suction, and hand action than she was comfortable deploying in the presence of a witness, so she remained as trapped by his stare as the scream — yup, definitely a scream — in her chest.

Grains of sugar glittered on his upper lip. He ought to lick them off before she did something catastrophic to get rid of them.

Like lick them off.

He’d always had the most beautiful mouth. So pretty it made her stupid, and that had been before she knew how soft his lips felt against her skin. So stupid her thighs clenched together because of a few grains of sugar on his lip, as if lousy table manners were a turn-on.

Just lick it, already!

He grinned as if he knew precisely how bothered she was and why. “These aren’t Stella’s gingersnaps.”

Stella’s were tasty but thin and crisp, as the name implied. Tally modified the recipe to maintain the molasses-and-spice flavor in a puffy, chewy form. In the great marketing tradition of sexing up everything, she renamed them Ginger Unsnaps, though she hadn’t shared the new handle with the fine people of Westard lest the whole town be overcome by a mass fit of the vapors. “Stella isn’t here.”

“Then she won’t be jealous when I ask you to run away with me.”

That cavalier remark lopped the legs off the imprisoned scream, forcing it to subside into a compact ball behind her heart. Her yearning to run away, to be with him anywhere he’d let her, had always been just a silly, childish dream that could never be.

At least this time the wake-up call hadn’t included a proposal. The current offer wasn’t such an agony to refuse. “I can get a better deal for my coconut-pecan brownies.”

Shane snorted. “You can’t get anybody to take you up on an offer today, can you, Ben?”

“At least I have my hair to console me.”

Of course she wouldn’t be the first one he’d made an offer to today, either. She never had been. He always saved her for dead last. “How many other women have you propositioned since you got back to town?”

“Just Shania here, and I swear she means nothing to me.”

“That’s not what you said when you were trying to get in my pants.” Shane swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, although Tally hadn’t noticed anything clinging to his lips. Then again, she hadn’t really noticed that he had lips. “Thanks for the cookie. Time to get back to defending upstanding citizens from unsavories.”

Ben waved the remaining half of his cookie. “Thanks for the tour.”

Shane headed for the door alone.

Ben stayed planted on the other side of the counter, not more than four feet away from her. Blue eyes watching her. Sugar clinging to his lip. Unbudging.

Her voice came out high-pitched and strangled. “Don’t you have to arrest him for something?”

“Not yet. Probably by morning.” Shane opened the door. The buzzer issued one muted bleat. “See you then with that gas, Fielder.”

He walked out the door, and her heart accelerated as if he’d left her alone with a known serial killer.

Click to read Chapters 3 and 4.

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