“Mo-om!” Mitchell wailed, embarrassed.
“Got it,” a rough male voice said behind her.
She turned, her face already hot. Maddox Palmer stood in line behind her, his hands steadying the box of candy dispensers and his hooded eyes amused.
Her mouth dried. Oh, no, she thought. She didn’t want to recognize the speeding of her heart or the flutter in her stomach. Feelings like that could turn on you. Men could turn on you.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted.
“No problem,” he said.
Mitchell was watching, his green eyes guarded. Growing up with the echoes and bumps-in-the-night that marked his parents’ marriage had made him sensitive to undertones.
She touched his forearm, hiding her own misgivings to reassure him. “My son, Mitchell. Mitchell, this is Mr. Palmer. He... I...” He shot that boy and the department fired him. “We went to school together,” she finished weakly.
Maddox nodded. “Hey.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mitchell mumbled politely.
Ann lifted a plastic gallon of milk onto the moving belt. “What are you doing here?”
Maddox grinned at her, that rare, invitation-to-trouble grin he’d turned on her in seventh grade, and she almost forgot to be afraid. “In the grocery store? Buying groceries.”
She glanced back at his cart. Beer, bread and cigarettes humped together with a roll of paper towels and a carton of orange juice. “You don’t eat much,” she observed.
“I can’t cook much.”
She smiled faintly. “That would explain the cereal and peanut butter.”
“I eat out a lot,” he said defensively.
“I imagine you have to.”
He shrugged. “Don’t you? Working in a restaurant and all.”
Val encouraged Ann to take her meals at Wild Thymes, but she resisted accepting charity. And she couldn’t afford anything else. She shook her head, letting her hair veil her expression. “I don’t work dinners very often. And I like to cook.”
“Yeah? What does she make?” he asked Mitchell.
Put on the spot, Mitchell shuffled. “Well...” R
ob would have snapped at her son to speak up. Maddox just waited, like one of those Catholic priests. Or a cop.
“Tacos,” Mitchell managed to say at last. “She makes good tacos. And spaghetti and hot dogs and stuff like that.”
Cheap meals. A far cry from the beef and three sides Rob had expected on the table every night. She waited for Maddox to make some disparaging comment.
“Sounds good. Maybe I should come to your house for dinner.”
Was he angling for an invitation? Was he—Ann stumbled over the thought—could he be lonely? She had a sudden memory of him at ten, his cool pose a front for his desperate longing to be noticed. She remembered his quick flush of gratification when she’d offered him a stick of gum, and the time he’d beat up Billy Ward for calling her “Chicken Legs.”
She concentrated on unloading her squashables from the cart, aware that the checkout girl had stopped snapping her gum to listen. What was a nice person supposed to do? “Oh, my dinners are nothing fancy. Nothing you would want.”
“Try me,” Maddox said softly.
His eyes met hers, hot and hooded and intense, and her insides constricted like they did when she was afraid, only this time it wasn’t with fear.
* * *
Hope your holidays are full of wonderful reading!