of his rant and he turned to find Melissaâs face buried in her hands, shoulders quaking. He moved back over to her bed and sat on the edge. âIâm sorry. I shouldnât have saidâ Mel, donât cry.â
She shook her head firmly. âNo, Iâm sorry. Iâm just so sorry. If I could only changeââ
âWhat?â he murmured. âNone of us knew. Iâm a lawman and didnât suspect Joe could do something like that. But itâll be all right. Everything will be all right,â he soothed, even though they both knew good and well it could go either way. Just like it had with her mother.
Please, God, please donât take her, too.
Hal pulled his daughter into his arms and held her for a while, rocked her back and forth on the bed like he had when she was little and sheâd had a bad dream.
After a bit Mel pulled herself together and he kissed the top of her head, then gently pushed her away from him with his hands at her shoulders. Once she relaxed against her pillow, he grabbed a tissue from the box by her bed and handed it to her.
âDry your eyes and blow your nose. Iâm going to go heat up some of those dumplings for us.â
She did as she was told, sniffling. Silent. But he could see her mind working. See her remembering. âNo more worries, Mel. Iâll take care of Joe Brody.â
Because if he ever comes near you again, Iâll kill him myself.
O NCE THE WORST of the water was off the floor, Ashley continued to mop and dry the aged wood while Joe got to work under the sink. He welcomed the task since it gave him the opportunity to distance himself from his memories of Josie.
He knew he should speak up then and there, tell Ashley the truth before she found out some other way, but something held him back. Maybe it was the expression on the old manâs face that warned him to remain quiet until they could finish their conversation. Maybe it was the fear of losing the only job someone had been willing to give him.
Or maybe it was Max himself.
Joe shifted beneath the sink, the damp towels beneath his back bunching at his neck as Maxâs and Josieâs faces blended.
Josie had been younger than Max when she died. Only two months, and so tiny since sheâd been born premature, but in Maxâs face he saw his little girl. Big, soulful eyes surrounded by a sweetness and innocence that drew him in and reminded him of all the good in the world.
âDo you, um, need anything?â
The wrench slipped from his fingers and landed in the center of his chest with a painful thud.
âSorry. I didnât mean to startle you.â
Joe angled his head until he could see Ashleyâs anxious face outside the cabinet. âNo problem. Itâs hard to keep a good grip when itâs wet.â
He thought he heard her mutter âDonât I know itâ under her breath. She hesitated, then squatted down next to his hips as he lay with his head and upper body under the sink. His blood heated, began to pool where it had no business, but her nearness and the image of her in the wet T-shirt flashed through his mind and obliterated all attempt at control. Where was her husband?
She must be the one in charge of restoring the house, but he wouldnât be having such a difficult time if he could see them together.
âYou look like you know what youâre doing.â
âNo.â He caught himself, and smiled wryly. âI mean, yes, I doâand no, thanks, I donât need anything.â
Her tongue swept out over her full lower lip and drew his gaze there. Wet, moist, she had lips made to be kissed. Sort of like that actress Angel or Angeline. What was her name?
âItâs past lunch time. Nearly two-thirty. You want to take a break and eat a sandwich?â
His stomach rumbled at the suggestion, but that reaction was nothing compared to what he felt when she smiled at his loud response.
Get a grip,