Her mouth opened, then closed again. She had a pat answer to that question: she loved being outside and taking care of plants. The few people who asked were perplexed by the idea of wanting to be out in triple-digit temperatures and high humidity or the thought of doing someone else’s menial work, or they were just grateful someone was willing to do the dirty work so they didn’t have to.
Gramma had never asked. She knew after eleven years of mostly indoor prisons, Mila needed the freedom of standing in the sun and the shade and the rain, of not having to hide if anyone came along, of not being forced to pretend she didn’t exist. It was far more than just a job to her. It was part of her sanity.
Which made her response sound incredibly lame. “I—I really like what I do.”
“But you could do it for someone a hell of a lot better than Ed Lawrence.”
And there was the untold reason she liked her job: she already had it. She’d made it through the application and the interview and the background check, shabby as they were. How did she know, if she went elsewhere, they wouldn’t have a more extensive application and interview and a more intensive background check? Who could guarantee they wouldn’t find out that her Social Security number was a sham, that her name was fake, that her life was made up out of whole cloth?
She fit as well at Happy Grass as she was ever going to, and Mr. Lawrence didn’t care about her past, future or present. He was less emotionally invested in her than he was in the other tools of his trade: the mowers, the trimmers, the trucks.
She hoped her shrug appeared casual, because it felt to her like spasmodic twitches. “As long as someone’s there to put my proper name on my paycheck, I’m fine. I work with my crew, Chief. They’re the important ones.”
A hawk soared across the sky, wings outstretched, needing virtually no effort to ride the currents, majestic and free. She had dreamed of freedom for so long that having it still sometimes felt like a dream. She still woke some nights, caught halfway between sleep and awareness, and went into a panic at the sight of the night-light or the open curtains where someone might see in. Those nights, when her heart stopped pounding, when her breathing slowed from laboring freight train to shallow and easy, she got out of bed, turned on other lights and stood at the window. Sometimes she even went outside and walked through the backyard, the mulch and pebbles dirtying the bottoms of her feet, and on very rare occasions, the little girl inside her wept with joy that she could do it without fear.
The chief watched the hawk, too, until the bird disappeared over the woods. Then he settled his gaze on her. “You can call me Sam.”
She’d discovered today that she could. She just didn’t think she should. Despite her freedom, there were still so many things she couldn’t do. “I don’t think so.”
“Why not? I’ve been to your house three times now. I met your grandmother—who, by the way, gave me permission to call her Gramma. I had dinner at your house.” He paused, then grinned. “Poppy likes me. You can’t ask for a better endorsement than that.”
Poppy and Gramma did like him, and their opinions meant more to her than anyone else’s. “But you’re the chief of police, and I’m…”
“A subject in a case?”
Sooner rather than later, she reminded herself, her heart kicking into high gear. Trembling started inside her, working its way out, tiny little tremors in fingers and muscles and—
“I said subject. Not suspect. A subject is just someone involved in a case in some manner—a witness, a friend, a coworker, a paramedic, a firefighter. Just because I’ve questioned you a couple times as a subject doesn’t mean we have to stay on formal terms. If it does, I’ll let Detective Little Bear or Officer Gideon ask any further questions.”
She considered it a long moment before saying, “All right.” It took another breath, another quick tightening of her nerves, for her to actually say it. “Sam.”
He grinned again, satisfied and authoritative and handsome, and she couldn’t help but think that she’d just taken a very big step.
She hoped it didn’t end in her falling on her face.