“Hold up, Jared. Let me give you a hand.” Sheriff Richard Davis slammed his truck door and hurried toward Jared McFarland, who was holding a tall stack of produce boxes. “Big bounty this week.” He took half the boxes.
“Been a good season.” Jared nodded. “Thanks.”
“These going to Jesse’s Diner?” Richard asked. The fruit and vegetables from Jared’s organic farm on the outskirts of Hope, Arizona, were served in five-star Beverly Hills restaurants. And in their own small town diner.
“Yes. Tanner is expanding the menu. All day breakfast.”
They walked side by side to the diner’s back door. “I don’t think of breakfast as being heavy on vegetables,” Richard said, mentally going over his favorite morning meals.
“There’s fruit salad, and he said something about a vegetable tomato egg bake.” Jared shrugged. “I just grow the food. Don’t know a thing about cooking it.”
“If Tanner’s making it, I’m sure it’ll be good.” They walked through the propped open back door, and Jared set his boxes on a rustic wood table. Richard followed suit. “You staying for dinner?” Richard didn’t mind cooking, but doing it only for himself seemed pointless, so he ate at Jesse’s several evenings a week.
“Yes. It’ll give Lucas a break.” Jared stepped back toward the door rather than walking through the busy kitchen.
“How do you get him to do all the cooking?”
“He volunteered.” Jared smiled. “Lucas isn’t fond of eating things that come in a frozen cardboard box.”
Chuckling at the image of impeccably clothed, silver-spoon-raised Lucas Reika eating frozen meals, Richard said, “Where is your fancy boy?”
“He ran down the street to pick up milk and eggs at Smitty’s. Probably got caught up jabbering with Todd.”
Still tensing at the sound of his ex’s name after six months was pathetic. Typical, but pathetic. “Rumor has it those two don’t get along.” Probing for information about that ex was even more pathetic. “You sure it’s safe for them to be alone together?”
In a town with a population of barely three thousand, gossip traveled quickly, which was how a few years earlier, Richard had heard about the feud involving the man who, at that time, shared his bed. Apparently, Lucas had not taken kindly to Todd putting the moves on Jared. Richard would have told them not to put much stock in Todd’s come-ons—he handed them out more easily than the paper bags with the store logo—but instead, he had followed his normal course of action when it came to Todd’s extracurricular activities and tried to put the whole thing out of his mind. Besides, letting folks know their new sheriff was the grocery boy’s booty call was no way to gain respect. He had a hard enough time respecting himself when he thought about what he was doing.
“Lucas and Todd buried the hatchet a long time ago,” Jared said. “Todd doesn’t always think things through before he acts, so he said a lot of nonsense the first time they met, but he’s a good guy and he was just being loyal.” Jared shrugged. “They have a lot in common. They figured that out when they spent more time together.”
“Oh.” The effort he had put into giving Todd space had clearly worked because his intel was outdated.
Having enlisted in the army straight out of high school, Richard had never been able to have the kind of personal life he craved. He had enjoyed his career and he had been good at it. But for most of his two decades serving his country, he couldn’t be open about being gay, let alone openly date anyone. With the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a door had opened, but when he looked through it, he still didn’t see the type of relationship he wanted on the other side. A quiet life, a warm home he returned to every night, and a man who needed him, wanted him, and belonged just to him.
It was the drive to build that stable life, to plant those roots, to find that permanent man, that had motivated him to retire from service and take a law enforcement job in a quaint, friendly town. Todd was too young to be serious about anything, let alone a relationship, so Richard had categorized their hookup as a bit of fun not to be taken seriously. Except it turned out to be more than one hookup. And he had taken it seriously. Too seriously.
“So they’re friends now?” Why was he continuing this conversation? Who Todd did or did not associate with was no longer his business. Or more accurately, it had never been his business.
“Yes. And if the two of them really get rolling, they won’t stop chatting and then I’m liable to miss dinner.” They turned the corner and neared the front of the diner. “It’s enchilada night. You want to sit and eat with us?”
If the only thing bothering Jared about his partner spending time with Todd was a skipped meal, the friendship probably didn’t have a physical element; Jared didn’t strike him as the type of man who would be comfortable sharing. Then again, neither was Richard, and he had done just that for three years.
“There’s Lucas.” A smile taking over his face, Jared looked toward the grocery store. “Looks like he’s bringing Todd with him.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Richard confirmed that assessment. The last thing he wanted to do was sit across a table from Todd Smitty. His downfall had always been those clear blue eyes that perpetually looked a little bit sleepy, as if Todd was satisfied from good sex and ready to be held. When Richard looked into those eyes, all he could think about was fulfilling that need by folding Todd into his arms. But as good as Todd would feel pressed up against him, Richard knew that he’d be nothing special; he’d merely fill the role of any available set of arms. And if he confessed to what he truly wanted, his arms would transform into a straitjacket to Todd.
“Better hold off on dinner for now. I have a pile of paperwork I need to get through before I can go home tonight.” Richard tipped his hat and stepped away. “Save some enchiladas for the rest of the town.”
A walk in the crisp evening air would do him good, so Richard left his truck behind Jesse’s Diner and headed to the small sheriff station. Usually when thoughts of Todd invaded his mind, he ruthlessly shoved them away, but maybe that was the reason he couldn’t completely move on. Maybe he needed to accept the fact that the man he had spent three years nurturing, guiding, and loving hadn’t been a meaningless fling.
The first time Richard had come to Hope, he’d met Todd, and he had felt like the cartoon cat who got smacked with a frying pan. His friend and colleague Leanne Smitty had invited him to Thanksgiving with her family—her too large, always bothering her about not being married family. Richard had had the holiday off, and he’d missed Leanne, so he’d agreed to join her. As soon as her relatives had realized he was a friend and not a future husband, they’d lost interest in him. All but one member of her family, that was.
Sassy, stubborn, and barely twenty years old, Leanne’s younger brother, Todd, had stuck to then thirty-seven-year-old Richard’s side like glue. He had told himself that Todd was too young to know what he wanted, too young to settle down, too young to build a life around. He had told Todd a shorter version of the same thing. But saying no to Todd on that trip had proven to be impossible. And when Richard had moved to Hope almost a year later, he hadn’t done a thing to build up his resistance to the sleepy blue eyes, plump lips, and just on the right side of messy hair. He would have and did give Todd anything he wanted. Until he finally realized that loving Todd made him hate himself.
By the time Richard hung his hat on the peg on his office door, he was a mix of relieved that he had taken the necessary steps to build a real home and a meaningful personal life and frustrated that he couldn’t fully move on from his fixation on Todd Smitty. He had just sat at his desk when his phone rang.
A smile reflexively spread across his face. No matter what had happened with her brother, Leanne Smitty would always be a dear friend. “Hey, hey, Sparky. Long time no talk. How are things?” He leaned back in his chair and settled the phone against his shoulder.
“Good. Busy.” She sighed deeply and, voice cracking, said, “That’s actually only half true.”
He had met Leanne when she’d been assigned to his army unit at age eighteen. Far from home, baby-faced, and one of only a handful of women in a testosterone-filled new world, she had immediately impressed him with her calm demeanor and inner strength. In the eighteen years that had passed since then, he had seen Leanne take on dozens of challenges without losing her spirit, her drive, or her optimism. The sad, scared tone was completely out of character.
“Are you okay? Is Molly?” Gripping the phone tightly, Richard sat up straight. “Do you need help?”
“We’ll be fine, but, yeah, Molly and I need help.” Another deep breath and then, in typical Leanne fashion, she got straight to the point. “I’m going TDY. Three months.”
Leanne had always wanted kids, but she valued her independence. So when she announced she was going to have a child on her own, Richard hadn’t been surprised. If anyone could juggle a demanding military career and a family, it was tough-as-nails Leanne Smitty. Molly was nine months old and, by all accounts, an easy baby. But easy or not, raising a child was, from what Richard had heard, tremendously time-consuming and difficult. Doing it alone, more so. But choosing to become a single parent while serving in the military had an extra challenge—finding someone to care for your child if you were assigned a Temporary Duty Assignment or got deployed to a place you couldn’t take family. When Leanne had asked him to be the care provider on her daughter’s family care plan, he had agreed without question. It seemed that chicken had come home to roost.
“Where do you need me and when?”
“I’m leaving in a month.” She sounded relieved. “I’ll bring Molly to you. That’ll work?”
“Of course.” The last thing a soldier facing a stint away from home needed was more stress. “Molly will be in good hands. You can count on me.”
“Thanks, D.” Her voice cracked. “That means a lot to me. I know it won’t be easy for you to spend so much time with my brother.”
Thinking back to the details in the family care plan, Richard remembered that Todd was listed alongside him. That made sense because when Leanne had learned she was pregnant, he and Todd had still been…doing whatever it was they had been doing and, with his profession, he couldn’t take care of a child full time.
“I know how busy you are with work, so I wouldn’t put this on you, but my other brothers and sisters are spread out all over, and between their jobs, their kids, and their personal dramas, they can’t take on someone else’s baby.” The Smittys were a quirky family, maybe even fun, but Leanne was the most put together and responsible of the bunch. “And as much as Todd loves Molly, there’s no way he’s responsible enough to handle a baby all by himself.”
At twenty-four, Todd was the youngest of the Smitty brood, and he struggled to take care of himself. Reminding Todd to wear a jacket when the temperature dropped in the evenings, go to sleep when he was caught up in a Netflix marathon, or do his laundry before he ran out of socks and underwear had made Richard feel useful and necessary. But while he found those qualities endearing, they didn’t speak to a man reliable enough to handle a child on his own.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure Molly has everything she needs while you’re gone.”