HAIL MARY

“Winifred, dear?  There’s a man on the front porch.  Perhaps you should comb your hair.”

Since she needed a man like she needed a hole in the head, Wynn ignored that rather pointed observation.  Never mind that she was trapped beneath the kitchen sink, wrestling with a crescent wrench, which made grooming impossible—and completely useless.

Stupid crescent wrench.

What she needed was a proper pipe wrench.  But she didn’t have a proper pipe wrench, and she didn’t have the money to purchase a proper pipe wrench. 

The crescent shouldwork.  Please?

“Wynn?”

Crap!

“I’m in the kitchen,” she yelled.  “Deal with it.”

“Should I let him in?”

“I don’t care!”

“Are you sure?  He appears quite…potent.”

Wynn fought with the wrench.

“I really think you should—”

“Esmeralda!”  For the love of Pete.  “He’s probably here for the room.”  She braced herself against the interior wall of the cabinet and cranked on the wrench.  “Just let him in.”

“If you say so, dear.  I daresay you’ll be sorry.”

The wrench moved—a quarter of an inch.  The musty scent of mildew filled Wynn’s senses and tickled her throat; sweat poured down her back. The tight space made it impossible to get any leverage, and the sad truth of it was, she was getting nowhere fast. 

Pipe 1, Wynn 0.

So it was only fitting that her new tenant would show up a day early.  Before the room was ready.  While she was ankle-deep in a DIY plumbing project at which she was failing miserably.  When she looked like she’d just crawled out of a city sewer.

Which, really, was just par for the course. 

Welcome!  Are you comfortable with disaster and chaos? Can you deal with nosy, forgetful, meddling housemates who rarely turn off lights and sometimes set fires?

She pulled desperately on the wrench.  Please come off, you stinking thing.

Because she couldn’t afford to hire someone to take it off.  Even with a new tenant and the extra cash the farm was producing, it was going to be tight this month.   Scraping by…also par for the course.

But it wasn’t anyone’s fault.  Certainly not poor Mr. Sanders, who obviously hadn’t meant to die.  He’d passed peacefully in his sleep over a month ago, and she could hardly blame him for having done so, no matter the financial hole it left her in.  That his death made her sad, and she mourned him, wasn’t something she much focused on.

There was always too much else to do.

She sighed and swiped her hand across her brow, leaving a streak of grime and several strands of sherry colored hair plastered to her forehead. Beowulf the Runt watched curiously from where he sat beside her, his head tilted in question.

“I’ve got this,” she told him.  “Really.”

She knew what she was doing; she had a plan.  She just needed to get the dumb thing apart—

“…a beautiful day, don’t you think?  Winifred is just through here…I’m afraid we’re having some trouble with the pipes.  But Winifred is very handy…and really, quite lovely.  Don’t let those manly overalls fool you.”

Wynn gripped the wrench, gritted her teeth and pulled.

      “Winifred?”

      Her hands slipped off the wrench and it gave, releasing from the pipe. It bounced off her ribcage and slid down to clatter against the floor of the cabinet.  “Aw, crap!”

Beowulf barked in agreement.

      “He’s…it’s the Sheriff, dear.”

      Wynn sat up automatically; her head slammed into the bottom of the porcelain sink, and she snarled.

“Winifred?”

The Sheriff! 

The beer-bellied, tin-star wearing, evil incarnate bastard who’d killed her mother over a decade ago.

Here, now.

Her heart stopped, and for a long, motionless moment, she didn’t move. 

Couldn’t move.     

“Did you hear me, dear?”

“I heard,” she whispered. 

She picked up the crescent wrench and stared at it.  Her heart burst to life and began a too-fast, too-hard tattoo; blood roared in her skull.  She felt sick. 

“Are you coming out, dear?”

It wasn’t a good idea.     

Because what was to stop her from beating the Sheriff to death with a crescent wrench?

Nothing.  Nothing at all.

She fought the surge of adrenaline that poured through her.

No.  It’s over. 

Done. 

You need to let it go.

But she never had and never would, no matter the futility of holding on.

Justice, Wynn had learned, was for the wealthy.  Not for people like her, or her mother, who’s life had been erased with the stroke of an official pen.

Seeking it now would only destroy all that she’d built.  All that she’d sacrificed for.

All that Fran had sacrificed for.

So she counted slowly to ten.  And prayed a little.

Beowulf whined softly, as if sensing her chaos.

You’re grown now.  He can’t hurt you anymore.

But it wasn’t herself with which she was concerned.

“Winifred?”  Esme sounded worried.  “Are you alright?”

No.  But she had responsibilities.  People who relied on her not to murder the local sheriff and end up on death row.

So she would have to deal.

Forward, not back.

“Stupid,” she muttered and forced herself to wiggle out of the cabinet, wrench in hand.  She told herself to put it down, but the child who’d watched her mother die refused to let go.

“Ms. Owens?”

The unknown voice made her blink, and she looked up, startled to find a stranger standing next to Esme.      

This was not the Sheriff.

The man who towered over her bore no resemblance whatsoever to Jasper Hatfield.  He wore no uniform, carried no obvious weapon and sported no tin star.  Just worn jeans, cowboy boots, and an obnoxiously bright Hawaiian print shirt that was so busy, she felt dizzy looking at it.

So she just sat there for a minute, staring at him.

“Are you Winifred Owens?” he demanded and stared back at her.

He looked…angry.  Dark and stormy and dangerous; the walking antithesis of his cheesy, cheerful shirt.

“Who wants to know?” she retorted, eyeballing him. 

Her hand flexed around the wrench, and his gaze—which was startling, brilliant lime green—caught the movement and narrowed.

“Beau Greystone,” he replied, his voice rough and deep and unmistakably grim.  “Sheriff of Superior County.”

Wynn could only arch a brow.  “Congratulations?”

He frowned, and it made him look even more sinister.  Which was kind of a shame.  Because he was beautiful in a rough, scary kind of way.  Like a mountain was beautiful.  Or a storm. 

Or a lightning bolt that shot from the sky and cooked you to a crisp.

Beowulf growled softly, his amber gaze narrow on the giant who hovered over them.  Wynn stroked a hand over his bony back.

Good boy.

“Winifred,” Esme admonished, her Mississippi accent gently scolding and ice sharp in a manner only Southerners ever accomplished.  “Don’t be rude, dear.”

“Where’s Hatfield?” Wynn demanded, ignoring her. 

The new Sheriff of Superior County had cold eyes, a hard mouth, and lines etched deep into the carved planes of his face.  He shifted as he stood there, the muscle that lined his jaw taut, and she realized abruptly that he was in pain.  Oh, you couldn’t see it, not unless you knew what it looked like.  But Wynn knew.  She’d lived with people in some form of pain her whole life. 

Sympathy should have stirred, but didn’t.  Probably because he was looking at her like she’d crawled out from under a rock.

“Jasper Hatfield is dead,” the new Sheriff said.

Again, Wynn blinked. A wild, chaotic mass of emotion burst within her, and she laughed.

“Oh, dear,” Esme said and shook her head.

“Dead,” Wynn repeated, smiling broadly.  She couldn’t help it.  Hatfield was dead and gone.  RIP—not.  “Hot damn!”

Beowulf’s odd little tail thumped against the linoleum.

The new Sheriff leaned down over her.  He looked like he ate nails for breakfast.  “Sheriff Hatfield died in the line of duty.”

Good. 

It almost escaped.  But a set of dog tags suddenly tumbled from the neckline of the new Sheriff’s horrific day wear and prevented the word.  The tags were dented and scarred, and he looked annoyed as he tucked them back into his shirt.

A soldier—then or now, didn’t much matter.  Wynn had been around veterans her whole life, too, and she respected them.  Hatfield’s death in the line of duty would mean something far different to him than it did to her.  And he clearly had no clue about her history with the former Sheriff—which was how it would stay.   

So she stuffed her euphoria and rage and grief away, and said only, “What can I do for you, new Sheriff?”

He stared down at her.  So she stared back.  Tension rose and crackled between them.  Heat flared through her—anger, annoyance, what the hell was he wearing?—and she did her best to ignore how directly he looked at her.

As if none of her barriers would stop him.

Esme cleared her throat delicately.  “Well.”  She moved toward the coffee pot with purpose.  “You’re Velma Greystone’s nephew, aren’t you?”

The new Sheriff scowled faintly.  “Yes, Ma’am.”

“You knew about him?” Wynn cut in, annoyed.

“Of course, dear,” Esme replied.  “I am an unashamed connoisseur of local gossip.”

“And you said nothing?”

Esme shrugged.  “I saw no need to upset you.  After all, I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep.”  She turned and looked at the new Sheriff.  “You came from Milwaukee, didn’t you?”

He spared her a brief glance.  “Miami.”

Well, that explained the shirt.

“What brought you to Wisconsin?”  

The new Sheriff said nothing.

Esme only eyed him speculatively, unfazed by his rudeness. She filled the coffee maker with water and coffee and turned it on. “Are you married, Sheriff?” 

If he’d been grave before, now he turned to stone.  “No, ma’am.”

“I have pipes to wrestle,” Wynn told them impatiently.  “What do you want, new Sheriff?”

Esme made a sound of censure, but again, Wynn ignored her.

“I need to speak with Winifred alone,” the new Sheriff said.    

An order, not a request.  A ripple of unease whispered down Wynn’s spine.  She held that brilliant, lime green gaze and tried to pretend dread wasn’t spilling through her chest. 

What could he possibly want?  She hadn’t broken any laws—at least, not lately—and she went out of her way to stay under the radar. 

So what was going on? 

Esme’s silver brows rose.  Her gaze moved between them.  “I don’t imagine I’d win an argument to stay?”

“No,” said the new Sheriff coldly, “I don’t imagine you would.”

Wynn considered smacking him with the wrench.

“Well, it’s been a pleasure.” Esme smiled, the picture of southern graciousness.  “I must say I’ve heard quite a lot about you.”

“I’m sure.”  A small, dark, and wholly unexpected smile touched his mouth.    “Please don’t believe any of it.” 

“You have a nice smile, Sheriff,” Esme told him.  “You should share it more often.” 

Red flushed his cheeks, and Wynn bit back a snicker. 

“Ma’am,” he said and nodded.

Definitely a soldier.

Esme sent Wynn a sharp look—behave yourself, young lady—and sauntered out.

“Now that you’ve run her off, can we cut to the chase?” Wynn asked him.

For a long moment, the new Sheriff was silent.  Studying her with that intent, probing gaze she didn’t at all appreciate.

“What?” she demanded, exasperated.

He looked at the wrench she held.  “That’s the wrong tool for the job.”

A fact to which my ribs can attest.  Thanks for nothing.

“What do you want?” she asked flatly.

He looked at Beowulf.  “Who’s this?”

Beowulf growled at him.

Good boy.

“Beowulf the Runt.”  She ran another hand down his back.  “Future sheep herder.”

The new Sheriff eyed him dubiously.  His gaze moved to her and for a long moment, he simply studied her.  But then he straightened, took a small step back and grimaced.  “We can do this at the table.”

He offered her his hand.  A strong, scarred hand, tanned and capable. 

One she wasn’t touching with a ten-foot pole.

“I’m good,” she said and ignored the offering.  “But you’re welcome to sit.”

The scowl returned.  “Ms. Owens—”

“Wynn,” she corrected. 

“We need to talk, Wynn.”

His face was dark, his expression grim, but beyond that she couldn’t read him worth a damn.

He’d come here, looking for her.  Demanding to speak with her alone.

Nothing good was going to come of this.   

Wynn sighed and pushed herself to her feet.  She set aside the wrench—but kept it within reach, just in case—and pulled two old coffee mugs from the cupboard.  Beowulf accompanied her, making sure he kept his scrawny little form between her and the new Sheriff.

Really, really good boy.

“Do you take milk or sugar, new Sheriff?” she asked.

“Black,” he replied tersely.

“Shocking,” she muttered.  She poured him a cup and made herself one as well—with plenty of milk and sugar—and set his down on the kitchen table. 

He hadn’t moved; he still stood in front of the sink, watching her.

“Sit.”  She waved a hand at him.  “Let’s get this show on the road.  I’ve got stuff.”

He went to the table where she’d set his coffee and slowly lowered himself into one of the old wooden chairs.

Definitely in pain.  Had he been to war?  He had the look. Or was there an accident?  Maybe—

Shut it down, woman.  Who cares?  Not your problem.

But he was her problem. Clearly.  Crap.

She leaned back against the counter and sighed.

The chair that sat across from the one he occupied was suddenly pushed out from beneath the table by his booted foot.  It slid smoothly across the worn linoleum floor in front of her.  “Sit with me.”

That bright green gaze double-dog-dared her. 

“I’m good,” she made herself say again.

“Sit,” he said softly.

She looked at the wrench.

“Don’t,” he warned.

“Stand down,” she told him.  “I’m just fantasizing.”

One of his brows rose and something sparked in his brilliant gaze and then was gone.  “Sit down, Wynn.”

She didn’t want to.  But the longer she argued, the longer he would remain.  So she sat down in the chair and drank her coffee and waited.

Beowulf took up residence beside her, his gaze alert on the new Sheriff.

Suspicious, she thought. 

Smart dog.

“What happened between you and Hatfield?” the new Sheriff asked.

“Ancient history.” She waved a hand.  “Why are you here?”

He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small notepad and slender silver pen.  “This is your residence?”

“Do I look like I fix other people’s pipes for fun?”

That earned her a dark look.  “This is a boarding house?”

“That’s what the sign says.”

His jaw hardened.  “How many residents?”

Wynn leaned toward him and said nothing until his gaze met hers.  “What do you want, new Sheriff?”

He surveyed her, silent.  Her unruly hair and filthy face; her stained overalls and worn t-shirt.  She felt like showing him her battered combat boots but the temptation to kick him might prove too much.

So she just let him look.

“There’s a vacancy sign in your window,” he said.

“Looking for a room?”  She arched a disbelieving brow.  “A man of your overwhelming charm and sweet disposition?”

That spark lit his eyes again and was gone.  “How many tenants do you currently have?”

She said nothing, watching him.  Alarm was worming its way through her. 

What was he getting at? 

“I can always talk to them instead,” he said.

“You leave them alone,” she warned.  “They’ve been through enough.”

“The woman who answered the door—Esme—said you’d lost one recently?”

A sudden, unexpected swell of emotion thickened her throat.  Damn it, Esme.  Always gossiping.  The woman simply couldn’t help herself.  “Mr. Sanders.”

In the hallway, the clock began to chime.

“I’m sorry,” the new Sheriff said quietly. 

Wynn only blinked at him.

He folded his arms on the table.  The muscle that roped his forearms shifted and flexed, and an awareness she didn’t at all appreciate flared deep within her.  Stupid man.  Like a mountain, alright.  Dwarfing her kitchen and sucking out all of the oxygen.

“How many tenants, Wynn?”

She regretted telling him to call her that.  She should have left it at Ms. Owens.  Because who was Ms. Owens?  No one she knew.  “Five.”

“And Esme mentioned your sister, Jenna?”

The dread turned to sharp, piercing fear.  “Spit it out, new Sheriff.”

“It seems like a lot of responsibility,” he continued.  “A younger sister, half a dozen elderly tenants. Leaking pipes.  Livestock.  A farm is a lot of work.  Running this place can’t be easy.”

Again, Wynn said nothing and stared at him.

He looked around the kitchen, taking in its battered white cupboards and scarred linoleum floor, the ancient appliances and ugly florescent lights.  He lingered on the cheerful, sunflower-strewn curtains—courtesy of seamstress Esme—and the pot of stew simmering on the stove before moving his gaze to the small disaster under the sink.  “Money must be tight.”

She didn’t like the opaque surface of his gaze; the cold expression on his face; the indecipherable, unspoken question he was asking.

“You have a tenant named Earl Barry,” he said.  “Is Earl here?”

She sipped her coffee with false calm. “Why?  Did he hit the Post Office sign again?”

“No.”  The new Sheriff scrawled something unknown into his notebook, his mouth a hard line, and she wanted to grab him by his ugly shirt and shake the stiff out of him.

What the hell was going on?

“You’re certain you don’t know where Mr. Barry is?”  he asked again, that brilliant gaze clashing with hers.

Wynn said nothing.  Of course she knew where Earl was; her boarders weren’t just tenants, they were family.  They didn’t go anywhere without telling her.  But she would eat her left boot before she spilled those beans.   

The back door suddenly flew open and smacked the wall.  Jenna breezed into the kitchen, clad in her soccer gear.    She stopped short when she caught sight of the new Sheriff.

“Holy shiny shirt,” she said.  “Who are you?”

He pushed himself to his feet, shifting his weight carefully, and Wynn found herself watching him closely.  Wondering what had happened.  How.

Silly goose; he’s the enemy.

“This is the new Sheriff,” she told her sister.  “He was just leaving.”

“The new Sheriff?”  Jenna eyed his shirt dubiously.  “Are you sure?”

Wynn only arched a brow.  The new Sheriff gave her a dark look and lifted the tail of his shirt; a shiny silver badge and a large black Glock decorated the belt he wore.

“I’m looking for Earl,” he told Jenna shortly.

“Earl’s gone,” she replied.  She bent down and rubbed Beowulf’s head; his tail wiggled in delight.  Thump, thump, thump.   “He went fishing up in Canada.”

Wynn was surprised by the sardonic look the new Sheriff shot her.  So a human being lurked in there, after all. 

“Canada,” she said.  “Huh.  Who knew?”

“When did he leave?” the new Sheriff wanted to know.

Jenna shrugged.  “Monday, I think.  He said he’d be back Thursday.  Griff went with him.”

 “You’re not respecting our tenant’s privacy,” Wynn chided. 

Another dark look.    

“Did he hit the Post Office sign again?” Jenna demanded. “Why do you want to talk to him?”

“Yes, new Sheriff,” Wynn added.  “Why do you want to talk to him?” 

“That’s Earl’s business,” was the new Sheriff’s brusque reply.

Jenna frowned. With her sleek, corn silk blonde hair, slender build and refined features she was the mirror image of their mother.  Sometimes the resemblance was so close it hurt to look at her.  “Did you tell him?”   

Wynn blinked.  “Tell who what?”

Jenna rolled her eyes toward the new Sheriff.  “You know what.”

Uncertainty flickered across her face, and Wynn realized abruptly what she was talking about.

“No,” Wynn said. 

The new Sheriff looked up to pin her with that glinting green gaze.  “Tell me what?”

“Nothing you need to worry your big surly self about, new Sheriff.”  She gave him a wide, phony, prom queen smile. “I’ll tell Earl you came by.”

“You’re sure?” Jenna asked doubtfully.

Wynn shot her sister a quelling glance.  “Tell the new Sheriff goodbye, Jen.”

He turned and set his gaze on Jenna.  “Tell me what?”

But Jenna just sighed.  “Nothing.”

“Buh-bye, new Sheriff,” Wynn said.  “It’s been real.”

Real crappy.

He made a sound like a growl.  Then he turned and looked at her.

She only lifted a hand and waved.  “Thanks for coming by.”

He leaned toward her, and her kitchen table suddenly felt like a school desk.  He was far too big.  Far too intense. And he smelled like…fresh cut cedar?

His gaze crashed into hers.  For a long moment, they just stared at each other.  Then he leaned closer and snarled, “Wynn.”

Beowulf made a surprisingly sinister sound in response, and something foreign and thrilling and terrifying rippled down Wynn’s spine.

This man was dangerous. 

In more ways than one.  She wanted him out of her house.

Now.

Jenna’s phone rang; she pulled it from her pocket and answered it.  A moment later, she was gone. 

But the new Sheriff didn’t move.

“You need to tell me what that was about,” he ordered softly, his gaze like green fire.

Wynn had assumed it was anger that he stirred; annoyance, fear, the history she couldn’t seem to bury.  But something deep within her shivered beneath that look, and it had nothing to do with anything other than the agitated, electric current that crackled between them.  Which was a shocking and unnerving revelation; one she didn’t at all welcome.

It just a made her want him even more gone.

“I need a lot of things,” she told him.  “An oil change. A pipe wrench.  But the new Sheriff sticking his big, fat nose into my business isn’t one of them.”

For an intractable moment, they stared at one another.  And then, abruptly, he straightened.  He shoved his notebook into his pocket, and pulled out a business card, which he held out to her.

      “For Earl,” he said.

“I’ll pass it along.”  Wynn reached out and took the card.  But as she moved to pull it away, he held on, until her gaze lifted to meet his.

“You do that,” he said. 

Something unspoken smashed into the space between them, and awareness licked through her, as hot and searing as any flame.

His lashes flickered, as if he felt it, too. 

“I’ll be back,” he warned.

Wynn pulled the card from him and crushed it in her palm.  “I’ll be waiting.”