“She has a certain enthusiasm for life,” she admitted.
“That must be where you get it from.”
She lifted her hand back to the table and picked up her hamburger, slowly chewing a bite. “What makes you think I even got it?”
“Look at this place.” He tilted his head to indicate the house. “Well, outside more than inside, but you’ve made it gorgeous. My dad would be jealous of your yard, and he’s used to being the king of beautiful yards. You’re a big part of your gramma’s life, and you adopted Poppy because she needed somebody in her life. You love life, too. You just love it more quietly than Jessica and the baby do.”
His words pleased her. That was easy to see in the depths of her eyes. They also made her uncomfortable, easy to see in the sudden awkwardness of her movements. She wasn’t used to compliments. Or having dinner alone with a man in her house. Or letting anyone get close. Or sharing her space with anyone besides the dog—certainly not with someone who really wanted to invade her space.
Wanted to be invited to invade it.
He shifted the conversation to an inane discussion of the weather and the town and bits of information about people she’d come into contact with in the past week. Still, he wondered about her parents—how they died, how traumatic it had been for her, what the eleven years of her life with them had been like. Had she loved them even more dearly than Jessica? Had they spoiled her rotten and doted on her the way little kids should be doted on? Had their deaths devastated her?
But then there was that meltdown last week, and the flat, stiff way she’d said, “Discipline is overrated.”
Though the happy-loving-precious family was a pretty picture, something about it just felt wrong.
And there was a deeply ingrained, vital part of him that needed very much to put things right for everyone. That was why he’d joined the army. That was why he’d become a cop.
It wasn’t why he was so drawn to Mila. Oh, it was part of it. She was vulnerable, and he was protective. But she was more than that, and he felt more than that. He was looking forward to finding out what.
They finished their dinner, sharing bits and pieces with Poppy. When Mila gathered the wrappers and showed her there really was nothing left, the dog slunk into the kitchen and ate the dry food she’d apparently reserved as a last resort. Sam drank iced tea, brewed in a canning jar, and Mila drank iced coffee, brewed in a second glass jar, turned caramel by the cream she stirred in, smelling strong and sweet.
For a while, they just sat, listening to the quiet broken by Poppy’s snores and the occasional car passing outside. Night had fallen, and the only light on in the house was in the kitchen, white rays tinged with yellow that gleamed off the old oak table and gave the dining room a sense of intimacy.
After a time, Mila yawned. She flushed, and one of her quick, barely there smiles flashed. “Sorry. I’m usually up by five.”
“That’s way too early in the morning.”
“What time do you get up?”
He shrugged with a smile. “Five, if I’m going to run. Five forty-five if I’m not. I try to be in the office by seven thirty, but it seems to take me longer with each passing year.”
“You don’t run morning and evening.” She raised one brow to provide the question mark that escaped her voice.
“Oh, no. I only go at night if I’ve missed a couple of mornings. You know, if you slack off one day, it’s harder to get back out the next.”
Scooting her chair back a few inches, she crossed her legs. “I don’t run.”
“No, you just do hard work twelve hours a day in hundred-degree heat.”
“When your work is seasonal, you do it when it comes.”
“So spring’s busy because you’re planting and fertilizing and seeding. Summer’s busy because all your spring work is coming to fruition. In fall, you plant more, seed more, fertilize more, rake and get ready for winter. Then do you get to take winter off?”
“Part of it. Happy Grass lets most of its people go for the coldest months, but we’re still getting ready in November, and we start working on gardens in January or February—planning, layouts, ordering. I do whatever work is needed with the crew, but the gardens and shrubs are my primary job.”