“How come every time you think I’m in trouble, the number of hours you were in labor with me gets higher?” I ask, pushing up from the swing when she opens her arms and taps her slipper-covered foot.
“Don’t sass me, young lady,” she scolds when I lean into her and she wraps her arms around me. “You might be thirty-years-old and a big, fancy business owner, but I can still tan your hide.”
She tightens her hold on me and starts swaying us from side to side, letting me know that even if she’s irritated, she still loves me more than anything. I wrap my arms around her waist and take a deep breath of the Jovan Musk perfume she’s worn since before I was born, the smell reminding me of being a little girl, safe and loved and happy. My eyes get blurry with tears when I rest my head on her shoulder. Even though my parents just flew out to Chicago two months ago for my dad’s birthday, after everything that’s happened in the last few days, it seems like much longer, and I didn’t realize how much I needed a hug from my mom until right this minute. Standing in her arms while she rocks me gently and runs one of her hands down the back of my head, I forget about all the reasons why I never wanted to come home to visit and wish I’d done it much sooner.
“RUBY! DID YOU ASK HER IF IT WAS TRUE THAT SHE CAME BACK HERE BECAUSE SHE REALIZED SHE’D ALWAYS BEEN IN LOVE WITH SHERIFF HUDSON?” Starla shouts from her front yard.
“YEAH! I RAN INTO MAUREEN AT THE HUNGRY BEAR THIS MORNING AND SHE SAID SHE SAW THE TWO OF THEM STANDING REAL CLOSE TO EACH OTHER RIGHT THERE ON THE PORCH WHEN SHE DROVE BY EARLIER!” Another front-yard gawker shouts over to my mother.
“I hope he doesn’t plan on marrying her. You should have heard the way she spoke to Bo Jangles. Can you imagine how she’d treat a husband?” Starla says to no one in particular. She’s no longer yelling for the entire town to hear, but due to the close proximity of the houses, her voice carries just fine, unfortunately.
I hear a muffled laugh and pull out of my mother’s arms just in time to see Leo come around to the front yard, giving the group of gossiping idiots a wave before coming up the steps to greet my mother.
“Ruby, you’re looking beautiful as always,” he tells her, leaning down to give her a kiss on the cheek.
My mother, one who has never been at a loss for words in all of her sixty-five years, blushes, giggles, pats the curlers on her head self-consciously, and needs three attempts before she can remember how to speak without stuttering.
“Oh, Leo, stop it!” she admonishes him with a wave of her hand. “Has my daughter been giving you trouble this morning? What on earth is going on?”
Leo’s eyes flash to mine, then quickly down to my neck before he shields whatever I just saw on his face and smiles at my mother. I immediately bring my hand up and place it against my neck, forgetting about the red mark on my throat and knowing the only reason my mother didn’t see it as soon as I pulled away from her was because she was distracted by the annoying hot guy standing next to us. That’s just what I need is for her to see it, start shouting, and give the neighbors something else to blather about. I caught Leo looking at my neck several times this morning, and I waited for him to ask me if I was okay or how I was feeling, and each time he quickly looked away like he did just now, not saying a word.
Again, is it too much to ask for a little compassion? I was almost choked to death last night, and now a guy I threatened to choke with his own balls not more than twelve hours ago is dead a few hundred yards away.
“Payton has been giving me trouble for a lot longer than just this morning, Mrs. Lambert,” Leo confides with a wink, which makes my mother go all aflutter once again, giggling and blushing and acting like a fool.
“Don’t you have something else you should be doing instead of flirting with my mother?” I ask him irritably, realizing as soon as the words leave my mouth that the something else is figuring out why there’s a dead man in Emma Jo’s backyard. That we probably poisoned. With toilet bowl cleaner pie.
Leo leans in closer to me and I suddenly get a faint whiff of the cologne he’s wearing – something light and woodsy and so delicious that I lick my lips and hold my breath when he drops his head close to mine. He veers his face to the side of mine, so close that I can feel his warm breath against my cheek until he stops right by my ear. My heart starts beating faster and I smile to myself, realizing that he’s finally going to ask me if I’m okay. I don’t care if my mother is standing right here, I don’t care if half the town is watching from the next yard over, I’m so happy he’s finally realized I could use a little of the concern he’s been showing Emma Jo that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself from throwing my arms around him.
You know, to thank him for being nice to me and maybe butter him up a little so he doesn’t arrest me for murder, not to sniff him again or anything.
“Don’t tell your mom anything right now, at least not until Billy Ray is finished and I have a little more information. Oh, and don’t leave town. I’m gonna need you to come down to the station later and answer a few questions,” Leo whispers in my ear.
He pulls back, gives me a terse nod then gives my mother another kiss on the cheek before excusing himself to return to the backyard.
“He is such a nice young man,” my mother muses as she blatantly stares at Leo’s ass when he walks down the porch steps, giving another wave to the crowd of people and reassuring them that everything is fine and he’d come back and talk to them as soon as he could.