Bryson set his coffee cup in the stainless steel sink on his way to the front of the house, proud that his stride didn’t falter when he saw the sheriff and Sam waiting on the other side of the screen door.
“Sheriff Billings,” Bryson said, keeping his tone as level as possible as he opened the door. “This is a surprise.” He nodded to Deputy Sam LeClaire who stood just behind the sheriff, and then he flashed what he hoped was a calm, innocent smile at the both of them. Bryson thought he saw something in Sam’s expression, but the sheriff started talking and Bryson was forced to look away from him.
“Hopefully not a bad surprise,” Billings said. “How are things out here?”
Bryson shrugged. “Fine. I’ve been doing some fix up chores around the place, and I planted a vegetable garden out back. It’s kind of small, but I’m hoping to get at least one of the fields planted next year. Try and get some of the old Franklin magic back.”
“Just you here?” Billings asked.
Bryson nodded as the first twist of fear tightened within his gut. “Yep. Just me.” He pushed the door open wide. “Care to come in and see for yourself?”
“If it’s not an imposition,” Billings said. “Deputy LeClaire and I would surely love a cup of joe.”
“Oh, yeah, I could put on a fresh pot,” Bryson said as the men stepped past him into the house.
“No coffee for me, thanks,” Sam said with a smile that seemed genuine and maybe something more. Nervous? Bashful? Bryson tried to follow the train of thought, tried to find a moment to study the curve of his jaw, the pointed chin, the prominent Adam’s apple that begged to be kissed. But the sheriff kept talking, forcing Bryson to turn his attention to Billings as he walked along the hallway toward the kitchen.
“Well, if the deputy isn’t partaking, I can wait until we get back to town for a fresh cup, I guess,” Billings said. By then he had reached the kitchen and stood looking around the room as if inspecting the place.
“You sure?” Bryson asked. “It’s no trouble. I’ll probably end up making a fresh pot in a few hours anyway, just save me the trouble later.”
“Well, since you’re offering.” Billings smiled, showing small teeth that made Bryson think of those dolls from years ago that came with teeth, and he had to fight to suppress a shudder. Bryson got busy making the coffee and said over his shoulder, “So besides the coffee, what brings you out my way?”
“Sure it’s just you here in the house?” Billings asked.
Bryson frowned and faced the men. “What’s this about, sheriff?”
“Just us here?” Billings repeated.
“Yes, of course,” Bryson replied, the fear twisting inside him like hot barbed wire. “Who else were you expecting?”
“Not sure, to be honest,” Billings said and pulled out a chair at the table, then looked up at Bryson. “May I?”
“Please, of course.” Bryson started the coffee maker and faced the men. The sheriff was seated at the table, his hands folded before him and his small eyes locked on Bryson. Sam stood a few feet behind the sheriff, hat in hand, a sheepish, apologetic, expression on his handsome face that seemed, interestingly enough, still alert and watchful.
“You’re a fit young man, out here all alone,” Billings continued. “Shame to see you waste your youth in such isolation.”
“I’m not isolated. I’ve got Internet access here, and I get into town now and then for dinner or lunch and shopping. Meet some friends for drinks on occasion.”
“Friends?” Billings turned to look at Sam. “You hear of Bryson meeting anyone in town?”
“What?” Sam looked at Billings with wide eyes, as if the sheriff’s question had startled him out of some deep thoughts. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
Billings stared at Sam a moment in silence, then turned back to Bryson. “Well, I haven’t heard of you meeting anyone in town. Who might that be? These friends of yours?”
Bryson looked between the men, then focused his attention on the sheriff. “Am I in trouble for something?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Franklin, are you?” Billings asked.