Merice Boynton is a professional, in her late forties. Never married, she is understandably set in her ways.

Sheriff Richard Hayes is a fifty-year-old widower. Still handsome, he has not been interested in another woman since his wife passed away.

But when mutual friends introduce the two, sparks soon fly. Can the sheriff change her ways? Can Merice mend his broken heart?

Danger is around every corner, though, as Richard works a secret case. Will they survive it to finally find the happiness they both deserve?

Publisher’s Note: This sweet romance about seasoned lovers and second chances contains a mild theme of power exchange.

Amazon

When they were introduced, he was immediately reminded of that line by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “He saw her before he saw anything else in the room.” For him, his friends melted away—even Jake, who was standing right next to him—the party, the house, the neighborhood, everything. There was nothing in his vision, nothing on his mind, but her.

The attraction he felt was overwhelming and thus more than slightly unsettling. Richard didn’t react to things—or people—that way. His choice of career dictated that he be as level headed and unflappable as possible, and he prided himself on being both down to the bone.

But, when she gave him a small, somewhat awkward looking smile and shook his hand, he was smitten. It was an old-fashioned word, but there was no other more modern equivalent for it that really fit how he felt.

Suddenly he realized that he was just standing there like a lunk, staring at her while holding her hand, and he knew that was likely to weird her out more so than others, so he said hastily, “It’s nice to meet you, Merice.”

She retrieved her hand from his very quickly in a move that might have been considered almost impolite, but he could see that she was nervous and put it down to the fact that he knew she wasn’t at all comfortable meeting new people.

Still, she did reply softly, those startling, stormy gray eyes fixed on some point near his collarbone, “It’s nice to meet you, too, Richard,” before giving him another smaller, even stiffer smile, if that was possible, while mumbling, “Excuse me, I have to…”

He didn’t hear what she had to do, but he suspected that she’d just trailed off as she made her way through the throng of people, most of whom acknowledged her in one way or the other. He was interested to note that she looked just as uncomfortable with them as she had with him as she was touched on the arm, grabbed by the wrist, and—in one case—full-body hugged by some of the people she walked past.

It surprised him that the hug was the only thing she’d looked okay with as she disappeared into the kitchen.

“I told you she’s a little socially awkward.”

Richard nodded, saying absently as his eyes continued to follower her around the room, until she disappeared into what he knew was the kitchen, “I remember.”

“Try not to judge her on that. She’s really a great person once you get to know her.”

“I won’t.” Now he was the one who was uncomfortable. He’d never agreed to be set up with this woman. Jake—and the rest of his friends—had decided, all on their own, that he needed to get back into the game, that it was time for him to start dating again after the loss of his wife.

And, although he’d never considered relationships to be a game, he had to concede that they weren’t wrong. He’d been a widower for two years, during which he’d lived a very monk-like existence. He’d barely ever been able to keep his hands off his wife the whole time they were together—almost twenty-five years—but he could honestly say that, since she died, the only sexual experience he’d had had been the occasional wet dream that always starred her and left him feeling unsettled in the extreme.

Hell, he’d never reacted to Anita the way he was to Merice, and that felt more than a little disloyal.

Luckily, his friend interrupted his thoughts before they could go down that dark path. “Wanna beer? I brought some Smiling Irish Bastard and tucked it into the back of the beer fridge. Hopefully that’ll keep these voracious drinkers away from it.”

Richard chuckled, holding up one of his contributions to the pot luck dinner—a growler full of that, plus another of what he knew his host liked best, Dad’s Oatmeal Stout. “Great minds and all.”

“You are the man!” His friend slapped him on the shoulder, then leaned back to give him an expectant look. “You did bring your beer cheese, right? Jenny will have your head if you didn’t. You know how much she loves that stuff.”

Richard hefted a shopping bag. “Beer cheese and Scoops. I know who cooks the meals I eat when I come over here, and it isn’t you. Did you really think I’d forget her?”

“No, man. Damn, I have to get you married off or you’re going to steal her away from me—you’re makin’ me look bad, man.”

“Please. You can do that all by yourself; you don’t need any help from me.”

After he put his snacks on the over-laden dining room table, they headed for the beer fridge, which unfortunately wasn’t in the kitchen, but rather Jake’s garage, so Richard didn’t get a chance to see Merice again.

But, even as he circulated around, bumping fists with some, shaking hands with others, hugging or being hugged by lots of his friends, male and female, his eyes kept wandering to the door behind which she had disappeared, but from which she reappeared with gratifying regularity.

She flitted in and out and seemed to have appointed herself as a one woman cleanup crew as she wove her way in and out of the small clusters of people who were chatting and drinking and munching, but doing none of that herself, he noticed.

Eventually, after politely extracting himself from a conversation he wasn’t following anyway, he followed her there, then decided that he shouldn’t arrive empty handed. So he picked up an empty tray from the snack table, holding it balanced on his fingertips like the experienced waiter he had been in his youth, while circulating around the room and filling it with the empty solo cups, dead soldiers, and other party detritus before making his way there. It was a swinging door, and he was able to enter silently and observe her for a long moment without her noticing his presence.

She was standing about fifteen feet away from him at the kitchen counter, in front of the sink, elbow deep in sudsy water. She was wearing a pair of those pink rubber gloves that had turned down cuffs that were flowery in complimentary colors, a loose t-shirt of some sort, and jeans that he wished were tighter. She’d obviously dressed for comfort, and, he intuited, in a way that revealed very little about her body—not that what she was wearing mattered to him in the least. If anything, it was what she had not been wearing when they had been introduced earlier that meant something to him—a wedding ring.

He could hear the dishwasher humming next to her, but it was the music that was coming through the house’s wide speakers that was the predominant sound in the room, and she was obviously enjoying it, and he was thoroughly enjoying her enjoyment, on just about as many levels as was possible.

She was rocking out to The Maverick’s song, All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down, singing—and she had a decent voice—as well as dancing in place to the catchy tune, wiggling her hips and moving her feet in time to the music as she hand washed the dishes that were piled up around her.

He became instantly hard at the sight, and it was a bit of a wakeup call for him. It had been a very long time since he’d reacted to any woman in that way, and it made him realize, at the same time, quite starkly, that he was acting like a creeper. He heard his wife—Anita—chiding him about it as clearly as if she had been standing next to him.

So he strode towards her, announcing his presence as he did so. “I noticed you were being a clean-up fairy, and I hope you don’t mind, but I brought some contributions.”

She started a bit at the sound of his voice but recovered quickly, he was glad to see.

“Thank you. All contributions are gratefully accepted.” Her smile was shy and barely there, but he found that very endearing.

“Would you like some help?” he asked. “I’d be glad to dry.”

***

He was being disgustingly nice, and as hard as she tried, Merice wasn’t able to come up with a reason why he shouldn’t, dammit. “Sure! Thanks!” she answered, with what she hoped was an appropriate amount of gratitude and enthusiasm.

In truth, she would have been much happier to have continued doing what she was always did—skirting around on the edges of being social and finding something to do to keep her busy, which helped keep her social anxiety tamped down to a dull roar. Merice had long since learned that most people were only too happy to have someone else pitch in with the cleaning, and although she knew her friends considered her to be an odd duck for doing so, she had long since begun the habit of always trying to do that, even while the get together was ongoing. She’d found that it kept others from trying to draw her into conversations when she floated around the room with her hands perpetually full of things that needed throwing away or washing up, knowing that they silently worried that she was going to draft them into helping, which was really the very last impulse on her mind. It was a habit that she’d chosen because it specifically let itself to being done alone, and yet here he was, being annoyingly helpful.

“Jenny told me that you’re a painter. Do you have a gallery at which your works are displayed?” he asked, leaning back against the counter so he could look at her occasionally while he spoke, careful not to stare at her, and consciously making his deep voice—which could easily trend into an intimidating tone—sound as friendly and interested as possible.

She chuckled softly, and he loved the tinkling sound of it. “I’m not so much a painter as a dabbler. It’s a hobby rather than a profession, as I have the bad habit of liking to, you know, eat and pay rent.”

He laughed, too. “Do you enter the craft fairs and such around town?”

“Occasionally—some of the entry fees are relatively steep.”

“It’s got to be worth it, though, right? That would offset the fee?”

“It would if I’d sold anything.”

***

Well, this wasn’t going very well, but then, he was so far out of practice as to be ridiculous. He was managing to put his foot into it at every turn. She wasn’t a professional painter and she hadn’t been able to sell anything. Strike one and two already, and he’d barely begun to talk to her!

“Oh dear. Obviously, the citizens of Hampton Falls have no taste in art.”

She laughed again, although he wasn’t sure why. “You’ve never seen my stuff—how would you know that? It could be full of stick figures that look like mutants.”

“I’ve heard both Jake and Jenny rhapsodize about your talent, and I trust their opinions,” he replied smoothly.

She didn’t look as if she found his comment to be reassuring in the least and fell silent.

***

Meanwhile, Merice was desperately trying to come up with something to say, not wanting to stand there like a bump on a log. Why she cared about what this man—this stranger—thought about her, she would never know. It wasn’t like her to, frankly. She would have said that she’d long since gotten past worrying about that kind of thing. Long before she should have, she knew her mother—who was always hoping she’d get married—had thought. But apparently not, considering how nervous he was making her feel.

“You’re a sheriff if I remember correctly?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“I’ll have to watch my speed from now on then, I suppose.”

***

He didn’t know why, but his response was nothing shy of purely and instinctively dominant—deeply scolding in tone and words. “You should always watch your speed, Merice.”

Now, if she hadn’t been a stranger to him, he might not have felt this way, but considering that they’d just met, and despite how distinctly not dominant the impulse might have seemed, he dearly wished that he could have retracted those words as soon as he said them.

Although he felt a little better when it caused her to look at him straight on for the first time, even though it made him even more erect than he had been before. Her eyes were wide, she was biting her lip, and she was blushing as if she’d just realized the error of her ways. It was quite a telling response, and one he found extremely intriguing.

He watched her open her mouth, then close it again, then open it, then close it again before returning her attention to the dishes she was working on.

Merice knew that she should take him to task for having the audacity to say something like that to her, especially in that blatantly chastising way. But since hearing something like that, particularly from a man like him, was something she’d fantasized about for her entire life but never experienced, she couldn’t quite bring herself to do that, despite the fact that it was probably setting a very bad precedent with him. Still, she likely would never see him again, so she didn’t feel as if she had much too worry about along those lines, either.

Knowing he was pushing his luck, Richard took one of the bowls from the washed pile and began to dry it with a towel, unable to stop himself from pushing just a bit further, despite the fact that his brain was screaming at him not to. But he carefully made certain that the question was a quiet inquiry, with no judgment attached. “Do you have a lead foot, Merice?”

He looked down at her feet, which were impossibly small and encased in pink sneakers, which was an unexpectedly whimsical detail about her that he definitely liked.

“Sometimes,” she allowed, rinsing off a nine by thirteen glass pan before handing it to him directly. Searching for something that would change the subject, she began to do what she’d learned to do in situations like this. People loved to talk about themselves, so she began to ask him questions about himself. “Why did you become a sheriff?”

“Well, I did a twenty year hitch in the military—”

“Which branch, if you don’t mind me asking?” she interrupted.

“Air Force.”

Merice nodded.

“And came back to town looking for something to do. There was an opening in the sheriff’s department, and I applied and got the job. I’d been Security Police while I was in the service, so I had some experience.”

“Where were you stationed?”

“Lots of places. Davis-Monthan, which is in Tucson, Wright-Patt in Ohio, Turkey, Germany, Elmendorf, in Alaska…”

“Wow! You’ve been all over everywhere!”

“Yeah.” He snorted softly. “It was so long ago that I was stationed at bases that no longer exist.”

“Where was your favorite place?”

“To live?”

“Yes.”

She sounded actually interested in his reply for the first time.

“Alaska. I’d go back there in a heartbeat if I got the chance.”

Merice nodded. “I imagine it’s beautiful.”

“It is. Cold as a witch’s tit, but breathtakingly beautiful.”

She was pretty much done with the dishes, but he was lagging behind, so she grabbed a towel and started in without a word.

“Have you ever lived anywhere else but Vermont?”

“No, I haven’t,” she said, continuing wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to travel, but it wasn’t in the cards. I’m an only child, and I ended up taking care of my parents.” And she probably wouldn’t be very comfortable traveling, anyways. Not that he needed to know that. And she did like to daydream about going sometimes.

“Oh dear. I’m sorry.”

To his surprise, she smiled up at him. “Don’t be. I was very lucky to have had great parents, and I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to take care of them. By the time they were both gone, I was deep into my actual work and didn’t feel that I could spend the money to travel, plus I didn’t have anyone who could really go with me, since I didn’t have a boyfriend at that point, and everyone else was busy with their husbands and children.”

Richard nodded.

“Perhaps I’ll start traveling now, though. I’m an office manager, which is boring as all get out, but I’m at the point where I’m okay financially, so I might well.” As much as she wanted to, though, Merice realized that she liked the idea of traveling more than she’d probably like the reality of it.

“You should definitely pick a place—like Alaska—and go. Why not?”

“If I do, I’ll call you and ask for advice about where I should go and what I should see.”

She was dumbfounded when he put his hand out to her, until he explained, “If you want, I’ll put my number in your phone. You don’t have to give me yours, but I’d be only too glad to help if you decide to travel somewhere I know anything about.”

Merice had never once ever handed her phone over to a stranger, and she hesitated in doing so this time, too.

Richard immediately withdrew his hand. “Only if you’re comfortable with my doing that, of course.”

She put in her pass code, brought up contacts, then handed it to him.

He quickly and efficiently did just that, handing the phone back seconds later. “Don’t feel obligated, but like I said, I’d be glad to help.”

“Thank you.”

Richard knew he’d stepped on her comfort zone, and he decided that this would probably be the best time to execute a strategic retreat. He didn’t want to overstay what little welcome she’d given him, which, luckily, didn’t deter him, either. “It’s been great talking to you, Merice. I’m going to annoy Jake.”

“It’s been nice talking to you, too, Richard,” she agreed, realizing with a start that she wasn’t just mouthing the expected platitude, which was how it usually was for her.

He paused at the door. “Watch your speed when you’re driving, honey,” he cautioned, deliberately using that chiding tone before ducking back into the living room.

When he was gone, Merice breathed a sigh of relief, but his parting shot had her more wound up than she wanted to be, and she was horrified to realize that she could feel her recalcitrant body’s involuntary reaction to him dripping onto her panties. She didn’t want to be attracted to him—she didn’t want to be attracted to anyone, much less a distinctly dominant cop. She had a nice, quiet life by herself, with everything arranged exactly to her liking, and despite her friend’s continued, dedicated efforts to set her up with every Tom, Dick, and Harry, she didn’t intend to go upsetting the applecart this late in her life.

For his part, Richard found himself watching for her during the rest of the evening, no matter who he was talking to, from a stranger to his best friends, none of them held all of his attention. Parts of him were always scanning the crowd for her, his eyes returning to the kitchen door frequently, and if he was able to spot her, trying not to get caught watching her—by her, or anyone else, for that matter.

As the evening was winding down and people were leaving, he deliberately hung around longer than he might have normally, because she was still here. He would’ve thought that with her social anxiety, she would have been one of the first to leave, but instead, she threw herself into helping Jenny set the house to rights as he and Jake sat on the couch and talked.

He wasn’t waiting for her, exactly, although he could tell that that was what his friend thought he was doing, so he forced himself to get up. “Well, I’m going to head home,” he announced, standing and draining his beer.

Jake rose, too, saying with a knowing grin, “Are you sure? I’d be willing to bet she’s going to leave shortly, too.”

Richard frowned, managing a reasonably believable, “Who?”

“Who?” Jake parroted. “Merice. You’ve been half listening to everyone you’ve talked to all night, and you went in there to talk to her for a while early on, too.”

He didn’t look happy that his friend had noticed those details.

“Oh, c’mon. It’s a good thing that you’re getting back into the swing of things. Anita would have wanted you to do that long before this.”

“How would you know that?”

“How do I know anything about anybody—Jenny told me that Anita told her.”

“Well, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”

Jake put his hands up. “I’m just sayin’.”

At that moment, Jenny and Merice both came out of the kitchen.

“Are you leaving? Not without kissing me goodbye, I hope,” Jenny commented accusatorily, walking up to Richard and wrapping her arms around his thick neck.

“Of course not!” He hugged the woman who had been his wife’s best friend, and who had been there unfailingly for him throughout both her long illness and his bereavement afterwards.

“Merice is leaving, too, so you guys can walk out together,” Jenny suggested slyly.

Richard gave her a cautionary look that had Merice’s heart flip-flopping in her chest, happy that it wasn’t aimed at her, although Jenny didn’t look as if she’d even noticed it.

But then, Jenny wasn’t a submissive, either.

“Yes, yenta.”

Merice hugged Jenny, and even Jake. He was one of the few men she’d allow to do that. It wasn’t that she hated men—she didn’t. She liked men and she was attracted to men—some men.

She was just really fussy about who she let touch her. She was just as discriminating about the women she let hug her as she was the men, but Jenny was one of her oldest friends, and she insisted on parting hugs. It was a habit that she’d not been able to train her out of, so she’d long ago just given up and let it happen, even learning to like it—eventually.

As with Richard and his wife, Jenny had been an incredible support when she’d been taking care of her parents, helping make sure not only that they were getting the best care possible, but also making certain that, during those trying, stressful times, that Merice was also taking care of herself and getting respite care.

As if Jenny had preordained it, they ended up walking to their cars together where they were parked on the street, which was a testament to just how popular Jenny and Jake were, since neither of them had been late. And Richard was doing exactly as their mutual friend had wanted him to—walking her to her car.

“You really don’t have to, you know. I’m fine on my own.”

“I’m sure you are,” he answered, voice very low. “But how could I consider myself a gentleman if I didn’t see a lady safely to her car?”

It was an unusual word for a man to use to describe himself, especially nowadays.

She might have been very skittish about him accompanying her, but he remained a respectful distance away from her the entire time. When they got there, he heard her unlock the doors—noting that it likely was only the driver’s side door, which was smart of her in regards to her personal security.

He was standing in front of the car when he asked, “Would you like to go get a cup of coffee? I know Classy’s is still open twenty-four hours.” Richard mentioned the name of a twenty-four hour diner—really, the only one in the state.

It was on the tip of her tongue to say no. She should definitely say no, her mind was demanding. She didn’t know this man, and the fact that he was a sheriff didn’t cut him any slack, as far as she was concerned. There were definitely bad sheriffs, too.

But, for once in her life, her body overrode her mind’s common sense, and before she could do anything to stop it, she heard herself say, “Okay.”

He grinned, and it was a devastating sight to her. She would swear that her heart dropped to her feet, and she felt a little lightheaded.

“Good. I’ll follow you.”

“Oh, hell no! You’ll be clocking my speed and present me with a ticket when we get there!” She was only half-teasing.

He grinned. “Not that I couldn’t, but I’m off duty.”

“Way to reassure a girl, officer.”

Sensing that she was waffling and leaning towards not accepting his offer, he said, “C’mon. I’ll tell you more about my illustrious military career.”

“Illustrious, huh?” A big vocabulary was much more enticing to her than the size of a man’s equipment. After all, there were many replacements for a dick, but there really weren’t any for the lack of a decent vocabulary.

“Yeah. I went from a non-com to an officer.”

“From a who to a what? I don’t speak military.”

“Well, come with me and I’ll teach you.”

Damn. She should have just told him no outright, but again, she found herself unable to just shut him down, like she’d done with a reasonable number of men over the years. Then she found herself saying, “All right, but I can’t stay out too late.”

“Why? Do you turn into a pumpkin after midnight?”

“No, but I’m quite likely to fall asleep on you. I’m an early riser.”

“Ah. Understood. Well, I’ll do my best to get you home before that happens.”

Richard was thinking that he wouldn’t mind her falling asleep on him at all—but in bed, exhausted and thoroughly sated, of course.

“After you,” he said, turning towards where his car was parked.

“No,” she said pointedly, “after you.”

The Classy Joint—or just the Classy, as it was known to natives—was, indeed, the only thing open. It was on route 4, just outside of the west part of town, where it could attract tourists who were just arriving from the city as well as folks who lived there year ’round.

Merice followed him at a safe distance, noting that he followed every posted speed limit, but she supposed that strict adherence like that was a remnant of being a cop. She’d rather that than him speeding all the time, like a hypocrite.

They each ordered coffee, and he had a slice of their famous chocolate cream pie, which was the size of a head and easily four inches tall, covered in real whipped cream.

“Have some with me?” he invited, pushing the plate towards her.

“I couldn’t,” she demurred. “I’m too full from the party.”

“Liar,” he accused softly.

“I’m sorry, what?” Merice didn’t bother keeping the indignation out of her voice.

“Unless you stopped eating the moment I arrived, I watched you throughout the evening, and I never saw you touch any of the food.”

Merice wasn’t sure what to say. He was right, of course, but she certainly hadn’t expected that he had kept such close tabs on her.

He nudged the plate towards her again. “Have some. It’ll alleviate the guilt I feel at ordering it, knowing that your doctor is likely to lecture you about eating it, too.”

She didn’t want to, but she both laughed at that remark and took a small bite of the pie, which was a definite weakness of hers.

“I have to admit that I find myself more than a bit disconcerted by you admitting that you watched me all night.” Her eyes found his deliberately, and he didn’t flinch away.

“Point taken. But you must’ve heard from our mutual friends that I’m harmless, and cop habits die hard.” He took a man-sized forkful of the pie, then put his fork down before clearing his throat. Was that nervously? she wondered, before saying, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in any woman who wasn’t my wife.”

Well, that short sentence told her a lot about him if he was telling her the truth, and she thought he probably was. He’d been married for a while, he’d not cheated on his wife, and he was attracted to her. It was the latter thing that caused her heart to skip a beat, making her feel a bit breathless, and it had nothing to do with her benign arrhythmia.

She put her fork down, too, even though there was still a ton of pie left, and it was as if he could feel her physically and emotionally withdrawing from him.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. Jenny and Jake told me about your social anxiety.”

She surprised him by smiling, if a bit ruefully. “Yeah, and talking about my social anxiety makes me socially anxious.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” He sounded appalled at himself, and although she appreciated that he cared about not making her feel awkward, she said, “I’m teasing—although it is true. I just don’t do well in social situations.”

“Hence the straightening up,” he thoughtfully deduced, pushing the plate towards her again as a hint.

“Bingo.”

“Have some more, please,” he asked, but she got the distinct feeling because of how he said it that, despite the “please”, he wasn’t really asking. “That’s a great trick—you can be at the party, and join whatever conversation you want, or not, but you’re doing something most people, guests and hosts included, hate, so it’s a great contribution, and you’re keeping yourself busy, which, I’ll bet, helps you feel less nervous.”

Again, although she didn’t like the idea of setting a bad precedent with him, she did as he asked, but took a much smaller bite of it for herself before she tipped her head to one side, swirling the sweet, dark chocolate around in her mouth. “Thank you. That’s a very thoughtful deduction. I’m not in any way normal—and not just about social situations—and it’s helped me a lot. Frankly, it’s allowed me to go to parties when I used to just automatically say no, to the point that my friends stopped inviting me.”

Richard saw what she was doing with the pie and wished that it was him instead. “Well, I’m very glad you were there tonight.”

“So am I,” she agreed without a trace of sarcasm.

“I’m a pretty straightforward guy.”

She was obviously suppressing a grin when she commented, “I think I’ve already gotten that idea.”

He actually colored a little at that. “Well, at least you—everyone always knows where they stand with me.”

Merice raised her eyebrows but nodded at the same time.

“I-I’d like to take you out on a date, Merice.”

“Because Jake and Jenny asked you to?”

He laughed, and it was a low, deep rumble that went straight to her clit and purred slowly over it. “They did not, to their credit, although they did tell me a little about you—that you’re a painter, and shy, and nice. I think they know better than to push me quite that far.” He took a good sized piece, then said, “Have the rest, honey.”

By then, her addiction had set in, and she was going to eat the rest of it whether he wanted her to or not.

“So, did they tell you about me?”

She shrugged. “The bare bones—that you’re a widower, and a stand-up guy, and smart and nice.”

“That’s very good of them to say about me.”

“It is.”

She was licking the fork, and he was totally distracted by her incredible attention to detail, not to mention how adept she was with her tongue.

He had to drag his gaze away from her. “So? Will you go out with me?”

Her eyes met his, and he could feel her tensing at his question.

“We’ll go wherever you want—it doesn’t have to be a sit down dinner date—and do whatever you want.”

That got him a tiny smile. “Oh dear. You’re very brave. What if I wanted you to spend the afternoon basket weaving or bungee jumping?”

Richard laughed. “I have a feeling those are things I’m likely to choose as things for us to do, not you.”

She looked chagrinned. “You’re not wrong.”

“So, would this Saturday work for you?”

Her eyes flitted to his, then back to the pie. “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Merice drew a breath and gave him the answer she’d known she was going to give him all along. “Yes.”

There was that thousand watt smile of his. “Thank you. I’ll get in touch with you about the particulars later in the week.” Then he glanced at his watch. “It’s eleven-forty-five. We’d better leave if you’re to get home before midnight, Cinderelly.”

She had to smile at that. Merice pulled out her wallet, but he’d already thrown a twenty onto the table, which paid their bill twice over, easily.

“You sure you don’t want a contribution?”

Richard caught her eye, stating steadily, “If I want one, I’ll ask for one, I promise.” He stood and put his hand out to her, knowing she might well refuse it just on principle.

But she didn’t, and he felt an inordinate thrill when she put her small hand in his.

He didn’t leave it there, though, tucking it into the crook of his arm. “Thanks for the pie, Rachel!” he called to the waitress.

“You’re welcome, Sheriff.”

She hadn’t thought about him knowing everyone at the diners and dives around the area, due to his occupation. At least he tipped generously.

Richard walked her to her car, amazed at just how reluctant he was to let her go. “I don’t suppose you’d consider having a nightcap with me, at my place?” he asked, voice full of hope, regardless.

The automatic “no” was on the tip of her tongue even before he finished the question, and he knew it.

“I-I…” Inside, her brain was screaming, “Just say no!” Why she couldn’t get it out, she would never know.

He took a step towards her, which—because he was doing his best to be respectful of her—still left several feet between them, giving her a deliberately serious look. “Did you know that your inspection is out of date, Ms. Boynton?”

Damn, he should have been an actor, with his innate ability to adjust his voice from light and friendly one moment to scolding headmaster the next. She actually looked worried, whipping around to look at the sticker on her windshield. He was right. “Fuck. I’ll get that taken care of right away.” She was tempted to call him “Sheriff Hayes” but didn’t.

His “See that you do” gave her no quarter as he held her eyes for a long moment, then asked with a much friendlier demeanor, “Nightcap, yes or no?”

Biting the inside of her lip nervously, she nonetheless asked, “Are you going to give me a ticket if I don’t?”

His scowl was something to behold, and if she could have taken a step back at the sight of it, she would have.

“No. I realize that you don’t know me, and all you have to go on are Jake and Jenny’s opinions, which are likely to be somewhat biased, but I’m not that kind of man. There is no quid pro quo going on here, and I’m not trying to strong arm you in any way. That is very much not my style. If you don’t want a nightcap, just say so, and I’ll see you on Saturday.”

Merice drew a deep breath as she searched his eyes. Her instincts had always proven very accurate about men, and she had a feeling that they were right about him, too. And the fact that her friends had lavished praise on him didn’t hurt, either. Apparently, they considered him to be just beneath a saint for how wonderful he was to his wife—both before and during her illness, as well as how devoted he’d been to her even in death. He thought the sun rose and set on her and didn’t care who knew it.

Those were all big points in his favor that played into an answer she hadn’t given very many men when they’d asked her the same question.

“Yes, please.”

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