River Canyon, Connecticut.
The little slice of waterfront suburbia sat comfortably along the south shore, and if you squinted hard enough with a really great pair of binoculars, you could see the Orient Point lighthouse across the Sound. As a kid, I’d look out there, across the water, and wonder what it would be like to get the hell out of that town, away from historic Connecticut and old whaling ships. Away from Fall Harvest Festivals and Revolutionary War reenactments. Far away from tiny towns where everybody knows my name.
And then, I did get away. Reluctantly at first, until I had the motivation to stay away, and I was successful for all of ten years. Ten gloriously lonely years in which I forced all who wished to see my face to come down to Long Island. Holidays, birthdays, parties? They were on Long Island, or I didn’t go at all, and it wasn’t because I particularly loved Billy Joel and the Long Island Expressway. It wasn’t that I had an amazingly important job that required my undivided attention every waking moment of my day.
No, my reason was …
The voice was a contradiction of itself; graveled and smooth, like water over rock.
“So, the divorce was finalized today.”
My eyes rolled up from the cash register buttons to stare at the shiny badge pinned to the barrel chest, not exhuming the energy required to roll them up higher to stare him in the face. Screw that. He’d only assume I was flirting with him.
Hell, I didn’t need to do anything for him to assume I was flirting with him.
“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled, rolling them back down with a slow, impartial blink. I was overselling it, but there wasn’t much left to do after dealing with his relentless badgering for two years.
Even his name felt like peanut butter glued to the roof of my mouth. Those kay-sounds. If you said his name too fast, it all blended together into one word.
“Hey McKenna, throw these on too, would ya?” His partner Graham held up a bag of chips and waved them in the air for all of two seconds before taking the liberty of stuffing them into one of the paper bags.
“You got it,” I said, punching in the amount, and I added up the total. “Okay, that’ll be sixty-seven eighty.”
Patrick Kinney leaned his forearms down on the butcherblock countertop, taking himself down a couple notches from his precious pedestal. “Hey, I’m a free man now. I could take ya in the back and, y’know, maybe find a way to knock that total down by twenty bucks.”
Graham erupted in a laugh that managed to echo through the packed little shop. “Not sure a line like that’s gonna get you in her pants, man. Maybe you should try, oh, I don’t know, being nice for once?”
“Hey, I still have a few other lines I could try,” Patrick said with a cock of a brow, lowering his head to find the eyes I kept hidden with my down-turned face. “What d’ya say, Kinsey?”
I shook my head irritably with a hot blast of air through my nose, drumming my fingers against the counter.
“And you wonder why you’re single, dude,” Graham chuckled, smacking Patrick on the back.
“Only single until she finally marries me.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” his partner laughed, and turned to peruse the racks of cookies and packaged pastries.
With Graham’s eyes diverted, Patrick made a bold little move; he curled a finger under my chin and lifted my head to look in his eyes. I wished he hadn’t. I wished I hadn’t seen his eyes. They’re what always sucked me in, called me home …
“Kinsey, you know I’m just bein’ an arse,” he said in a low voice, his eyes sliding sideways to see where Graham was.
“Oh, are you capable of being anything else?”
I jerked my head backward, away from his callused-finger touch. I wanted him to flinch at my reaction, to feel my exaggerated disgust toward him, but he only dropped his hand to the counter and held his gaze with mine. I hated that I couldn’t look away, but once Patrick had his eyes on mine, I felt that welcome warmth, like returning from a long trip.
“Christine is movin’ back to Jersey.”
I blinked at the comment, slightly jarred, but only inwardly. He couldn’t know about the twisting in my stomach, or the way my hands suddenly felt a little clammy at the sound of her name.
“And … I thought you’d like to know.”
“Well, I don’t.”
He stood up, ripping his eyes away from my face, and reached into his back pocket for his wallet. The four twenties dropped under my nose, and I shuffled them into a neat pile. I pulled the lever on the antique machine, the cash drawer popping out with an obnoxious ding. The bills were laid with care under their weighted arm, and I went to grab his change.
Patrick shook his head. “Keep it.”
“We don’t accept tips,” I said, glaring at him. He knew this. He’d been coming to the deli since he was a kid, and every day for the past two years.
All the better to torment me.
Pursing his lips, he nodded slowly and held out an expectant hand. I slipped bills and coins from their designated spaces and recounted before dropping them in his hand, clinking coin onto coin, without our skin touching. I went to pull my hand away after the last of the change had been dropped, and he reached for me, flipping my palm over and stuffing the cash in, closing my hand around it.
“Hold onto it for me.”
“What? No,” I protested, shaking my head, shoving my clenched fist at him.
“You will,” he said with a nod and a smirk.
“Why?” My teeth clenched around the word, my eyes narrowing.
“Because I’m gonna need it tonight.”
My toes curled in my shoes at the mention of tonight, as though the word held some sexual connotation.
“We’re goin’ out. I’ll meet you here at seven?” I shook my head. “Oh, no? What time, then?”
“Oh, hell no. I’m not going out with you.”
Patrick snapped his head toward Graham, making sure he was still browsing, and he bent at the waist to lean against the counter again. His eyes sought mine, hunted them. An Irish lion hunting his prey. They danced within mine, those blue-green eyes glinting under the overhead light. The guy was good, holding my angry gaze. He was daring me, and he knew with just the right nudge, the perfect little shove, he’d get exactly what he wanted out of me.
Those fucking eyes.
“Come on, Kinsey.”
“No,” I hissed, feebly standing my ground. “When are you going to stop?”
“I’ll stop when you finally agree to go out with me.”
I considered the options, crossing my arms over my chest, money in my hand. “So, you’re saying that, if I go out with you once, you’ll give up?”
Slowly, almost reluctantly, he nodded. “Yes.”
The word dripped slowly from his mouth. His voice was graveled and sultry, like he had every intention of taking me in the bed of his pickup on that old dirty blanket, but his eyes were honest and sincere. They said he needed me to accept, once and for all. Maybe he even needed me as much as I had needed him once upon a time, and I swallowed the remnants of my pride.
“Fine.” I shoved the money into the pocket of my jeans in a huff.
It was my turn to nod slowly, almost reluctantly. “Yes.”
The door jingled open, and in walked Mayor Connie Fischer and her little toy poodle Baxter.
“Good afternoon, Mayor!” Graham exclaimed. I half-expected him to salute her.
“Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise!” she exclaimed, ignoring him, bounding over to the register.
“Connie, what did I tell you about bringing Baxter in here?” I sighed, looking down at the little dog, sporting a tiny tank top and flip-flop printed bows at the base of his ears. “It’s a health code vio—”
“Oh, never mind all that, Kinsey. Look at you two!” She slid her Prada sunglasses off, stuffed them in her bag, and looped a pudgy arm around Patrick’s waist. “He’s on the market again, you know. Now’s your chance, Kinsey. He’s quite the catch, but oh, you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“Y’hear that? I’m quite the catch.”
“Uh-huh, I heard.” I stifled a groan in the presence of Madam Mayor. “Patrick, don’t you have a department full of hungry cops, waiting for their lunch?”
“Darn, that’s right.”
Apologetically, Patrick Kinney drummed his hands against the counter and removed himself from the Mayor’s grasp, hoisting the bags of deli sandwiches and macaroni salad, chips and sodas, against his chest.
“You ready, Graham?” he called to the stocky officer at the other end of the deli.
“Oh, you done proposing already?”
“Yep. I was just tellin’ her how much I can’t wait for her to finally be Kinsey Kinney.”
He shot me a grin that emphasized the dimples beneath his stubble. It was the grin he’d flash before shoving me into the pool at his parents’ house, the grin he’d use before attacking me with tickling fingers. I saw that lanky boy standing in front of me in his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt and cargo shorts, and not the muscled man in his River Canyon Police Department uniform, and I felt it: my smile.
“Shut up,” I grumbled through my betraying lips. Traitors.
“Wait, have I missed something here? You’re getting married? Oh, my Lord, I had been hoping for a happily ever after, but so soon?”
Connie’s face lit up with surprise and hope, and my face screwed up with irritation at the smirking cop, walking away to leave me alone with the giddy woman and her little dog.
“See you later, Kins.”
It was a promise.
Their shiny shoes hit the wooden planks. The little copper bell above the door tinkled their departure. My elbows hit the counter once the squad car pulled away from the storefront, my fingertips dug into my scalp, and Madam Mayor began her excited ramble about flower arrangements and table settings.
I was so screwed.
River Canyon, Connecticut.