He catches me staring at his knuckles and he curses softly under his breath, rubbing his left hand over the scrapes while he stares down at what he’s doing and doesn’t meet my eyes.
“There was a minor incident after I left here with Jed the other night and things got a little heated between us, but you already know that,” Leo begins, his cheeks puffing out as he blows out a frustrated breath of air.
Actually, I didn’t know that. Not exactly. I was just getting all fired up over Bald Knob gossip and letting it mess with my head and second-guessing what’s going on between us, but now that he’s talking, I’m not about to correct him. Especially if it gets Emma Jo and I off the hook. I mean, it’s not like I want Leo to go down for murdering Jed, but he’d clearly be the better choice to lead a gang in prison. I’m a delicate flower, dammit! I’d never survive the first hour.
“I know you were pissed when I got Jed away from here by agreeing to go to the bar with him and talk about my reelection,” Leo continues, pausing to glance up at me from under his dark eyelashes.
Son of a bitch if it isn’t yet another adorable thing he does that makes me want to take back what I said about his lips and re-add him to my call list, STAT, because this strong, gorgeous hunk of a man that could crush me like a nut suddenly looks nervous and worried.
I stay strong, keeping my legs rooted in place a few feet away from him, lacing the fingers of my hands together down in front of me. Hopefully to Leo, it looks like I’m as calm as a cucumber when what I’m really doing is praying as close to my vagina as possible so she doesn’t betray me and make me fall for whatever bullshit he’s going to spew.
“Anyway, I know we haven’t seen each other in over a decade, and everything you know about me is left over from when we were teenagers, but please believe me when I tell you that I would never, ever jeopardize my career or put anyone in this town at risk because some pompous asshole with a God complex thinks he can blackmail me,” Leo says, his voice getting deeper and angrier as he speaks. “I told you I had an idea of what he’d been doing to Emma Jo, and I told you that it killed me I couldn’t do anything about it. I wasn’t lying to you when I said that, Payton. I swear to God.”
I nod in understanding, losing the will to argue with him when I see the look of conviction in his eyes and hear the truth in his words when he talks about being helpless with Emma Jo for so long. I’ve only spent a few days with Emma Jo after finding out what Jed did to her, and I’ve wanted to scream and cry and bang my head against the wall with all the guilt I’ve been feeling and what-ifs I’ve been asking myself. I can’t imagine how I would feel right now if I’d kept in touch with her all these years and knew what was going on, but couldn’t stop it. I don’t want to think about how horrible Leo must have felt, being the sheriff of Bald Knob, sworn to protect everyone in this town and not being able to do a damn thing to save one of his friends.
Suddenly, the idea that I made out with a maybe-murderer last night doesn’t seem like a bad thing at all. And not just because it would let me and Emma Jo off the hook, but because I’ve tasted a small bite of that anger and frustration and it only took a few hours for me to start plotting Jed’s death, threaten to choke him with his own balls and then bake him a poisoned blueberry pie.
For twelve years Leo has stood on the sidelines feeling like this every single time he got a tip that Emma Jo was in the hospital, or ran into her on the street in her dark sunglasses and caked on make-up, or listened to her give some sort of excuse about the bruises on her arms or the split in her lip. I suddenly don’t care if he turned up the charm to stop me from asking any questions. I don’t care if he kissed me so I’d forget about being pissed at him for acting like he was Jed’s pal and shooting the shit with him over beers after he’d assaulted me. The only thing I care about now is making sure Leo and I are on the same page: No matter what happened that night, we will make sure Emma Jo stays as far away from accusations as possible and can finally have the happy, peaceful life she’s always deserved.
“Stop. You don’t have to say anything else,” I whisper, moving quickly to stand in front of him, placing my hand over top of his to stop him from nervously rubbing the battered skin of his knuckles. “I don’t care what you did with Jed when you left here, and I don’t care what happened later that night. No matter what happens, I just want Emma Jo safe and left completely out of this. I promise I won’t say anything to anyone.”
He finally lifts his head to look at me, shaking it slowly with a low chuckle.
“And you honestly thought it wasn’t possible for me to have a thing for you after all this time?” he asks softly, sliding his hands around my waist to rest against my lower back, pulling me closer until I can smell him again and feel the heat from. “This is why, Payton. Because you put your life on hold to fly home and help out a friend you hadn’t seen since high school after one phone call. Because you’d do anything to protect her, including let this town rip you to shreds. Because you were always nice to me in school and stuck up for me when most of the guys thought it would be fun to pick on the dorky FFA kid who knew too much about cows. But mostly, because you didn’t hesitate to offer your help to me, too. The nerdy guy from high school who followed you around like a pathetic puppy dog, just trying to get a whiff of your hair or a smile in my direction, and who acted like a nerd all over again when I let it slip that I haven’t been able to get you off my mind for twelve years, no matter how hard I tried.”