Page 23 of Killer Secrets

“No, but I always thought I’d be good at it. I do like to be prepared for any circumstance.”

Between them, he noticed, Mila was trying not to smile. He fixed his gaze on her. “What’s her secret?”

It was the wrong question to ask. Her lips went flat, the light faded from her eyes, and the muscles in her jaw clenched so tight that he expected to hear her teeth grinding. After a moment and a helpless look at Jessica, her wariness—almost fear—changed to panic. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—I wasn’t—”

Jessica reached across and gripped her granddaughter’s hand tightly in hers. “Aw, there’s no secret,” she said, sounding almost as natural as before. “I do like to be prepared for everything, and that includes knowing where to buy the best home-style ribs and potato salad—at Reasor’s and that new little deli across from the courthouse—plus always having a crop of fresh cherry tomatoes in my roof garden and keeping the ingredients for sauerkraut salad on hand. That’s the way we host in this family, isn’t it, Mila?”

Mila’s response was unconvincing, but Sam pretended, like her grandmother, that he didn’t notice anything unusual. “Sauerkraut salad,” he repeated, forking it apart. “Is it like coleslaw?”

“Were you a detective before you became police chief?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then detect. Take a bite.”

He obeyed, tasting sauerkraut, sugar and vinegar, bell pepper, onion, and pimiento. “Wow. Way better than coleslaw.” He complimented everything else as he tasted it, keeping up with his end of the conversation while some part of his mind stayed locked on the episode with Mila. Whose secrets had she been conditioned to keep, and how bad had the punishment for letting them slip been?

He couldn’t imagine Jessica Ramirez ever mistreating her granddaughter. Instinct never led him wrong, and it said Jessica loved Mila dearly and would protect her with her life. What was it Mila had said about her yesterday? She’ll come. She always comes. And with such intense affection.

So the next likely person for forcing secret keeping would be Mila’s mother or father. There’d been no mention of them, and honestly Sam hadn’t thought anything of it. His family was extraordinarily close, all ten or twelve dozen of them, but of course, others weren’t so blessed—or cursed. Things had gone sour between Lois and her side of the family after she’d become a cop. Ben Little Bear hadn’t heard from his younger brother in ten years. There was nothing unusual about Mila being close to her grandmother while her parents were out of the picture.

The only thing that would make it unusual was why her parents were out of the picture. Had they abandoned her? Had she abandoned them? Had they died when she was too young to live on her own? Were they in jail, in a hospital, out of the country, out of touch?

An inquisitive nature was a requirement for his job. He couldn’t be satisfied with the normal flow of information between people. He had to be curious, spot questions that might never come up, find inconsistencies in stories, recognize lies, know when reactions didn’t match stimuli and be just damn nosy about everything and everyone. He was snoopy, his mom said. Terminally curious, his grandfather called it.

Mila’s reaction had been odd, and of course he’d like to know what had caused it, but in the overall scheme of things, it was okay to let it go. It was perfectly okay to forget it, to focus on the good food, the good company and the small things that drew her out—talking about flowers, her grandmother and, of course, Poppy.

He was off duty tonight. No cop-ly intuition, no inherent need to arrange everything in neat facts. He was having dinner with a woman he liked a lot and her granddaughter, whom he thought he might also like a lot in whole other ways, and he was going to enjoy it.

There was always time to wonder later.

* * *

Mila had learned the hopefulness in writing during a ninth-grade assignment in her online school. “Write your best vacation experience,” the teacher had said, in a thousand words. Mila had never actually been on a vacation, so she’d created one out of thin air. It wasn’t much, just the kind of getaway that she and Gramma might have taken if they’d had the money and Gramma hadn’t worked two jobs most of the time to support them. She’d researched cabins for rent in the state parks, picked one and created a fantasy weekend of boating, fishing and hiking in the woods. The paper had earned an A and a comment of “lovely” from the instructor.