“While you finish up here, I’m going by your house to pick up Poppy. I don’t imagine she expected you to be gone this long.” He might run all the way there, leave the dog’s leash behind and do a loop around the city while holding on to her collar, just to burn off some of the excess energy inside him. “Is there anything she needs besides food?”
“No, that’s it.” She hesitated, biting her lower lip. “I… I would be okay at home, don’t you think?” The bravado she was going for lost out to the uncertainty both in her voice and in her eyes with those last words.
“We talked about this, Mila. He tried to drown you. He knows where you live.”
“I know, but…” Subconsciously, he thought, she raised her left arm to her chest in a protective manner. “I can’t let him scare me out of my house.”
She didn’t expect his question. It knitted her brows together, giving her a look of surprise. “It’s my home.”
“It’s a place where you live. You like it, you feel safe and comfortable there, though probably not so much in the last few days as before. But it’s just a place, Mila. I know you’ve lived a number of places, and you might have missed some, and you may have been happy to leave others, but in the end they’re all just places. They’re not worth putting yourself in danger.”
“You’re right.” She gave up quickly enough that it confirmed what he suspected: her attachment wasn’t to the house so much as the independence it represented. Whatever had happened in the past had given her a need to be brave and self-reliant, to stand alone in her world except for Jessica and to keep everyone else at bay. “Can you get me some clothes while you’re there? They’re mostly—”
“In the hall closet.” He grinned. “I listen. Anything else? Books, magazines, crochet, needlepoint, knitting?”
She feigned looking cross, then nodded to the door. “The towel’s coming off in five…four…three…”
“Not an incentive to leave,” he said with a laugh before ducking into the hall. He imagined he heard the damp cloth hit the floor the instant the door closed, and then he stopped imagining anything, because the last thing he wanted was to face her grandmother with a hard-on.
Jessica was fussing in the kitchen, wearing a pink-and-turquoise plaid outfit that could catch the attention of a blind man. He told her where he was going, and she handed over Mila’s keys. When he left the apartment, the door across the hall cracked open an inch before swinging wide.
“What happened to Jessica’s granddaughter?” Wynona asked, wearing her customary scowl.
“She was assaulted at Cedar Creek.”
“People shouldn’t be swimming in the creek. There’s a pool over by the high school, for heaven’s sake.”
“Aw, Miz Wynona, I know you used to swim in the creek. In fact, I heard you used to skinny-dip there and that’s how you met your husband.”
Her face turned as hot pink as Jessica’s outfit, and she sputtered for words before settling on slamming the door instead. Sam’s grin carried him down four flights of stairs and to the rear residents’ entrance.
“Chief.” Liam Bartlett, one of his most reliable officers, had pulled a chair from the building lobby to a point where he could easily see both entrances, the stairs and the elevator. He had a book open in his lap—The Unlucky Ones—held with his finger marking his place.
“Liam. How’s the book?”
“You think it’s true?”
“My gut says yes. Scary either way, though, because if she didn’t live through it, then she thought of it to write down. You read it?”
“I have a copy. Haven’t started it yet. I may wait until things settle down around here,” he added drily. “I’ll be back soon. Want me to bring you anything?”
“I’m fine, Chief. Mrs. Ramirez brought me some coffee and brownies.” He nodded to the wastebasket upended beside him for a makeshift table.
“Enjoy the brownies. They’re good.” Sam went through the back door and into the parking lot, where his pickup dwarfed Jessica’s Bug. The heat was like a slap across the face, leaching the coolness from his skin, hitching his breath. Even with its tinted windows, the interior of the truck was probably near 140 degrees, enough to make sweat pop out on his forehead.