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09 May 2008 @ 01:52 pm
The Nick of Time 2/8 FRM (Heroes/Slither) Claire/Bill  
Disclaimers, etc. in Part 1.
Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8.

**Part Two***
Word Count: 6,657
 

Claire gave a frustrated groan when her cell phone rang. She was on her hands and knees in her closet, looking for the left shoe of the pair she wanted to wear out tonight. If it wasn't in the back of the closet stuck behind something that would mean Lucky took it. It wouldn't surprise Claire, the dog seemed to have impeccable taste when it came to the things he chose to chew on and how much they were worth.

"Shit," she said into the phone, having stumbled over the dog in question. He was so stealthy sometimes, she hadn't heard him come into the room!

"Wow, that was some greeting. Did I catch you at a bad time?"

She couldn't help but smile. "No, well kind of, I'm getting ready to go out and can't find a shoe," she said, glancing at her ankle twisted at an odd angle.

"Ah. And I suppose they're the shoes you just have to wear tonight."

"Well, yes," she said, realizing it probably sounded stupid to him. Then again, maybe not given who his mother was.

"And that's deserving of answering the phone like that? It could have been your mother."

"Well, it's not my mother. It's you."

"Being that I am your biological father I'm not sure if I should take that as an insult or not."

"And I twisted my ankle," she said, running her hand over the twisted spot.

"Oh, well, if I made you twist your ankle I suppose I should apologize."

"Apology accepted," she said, watching as her ankle melded and formed back to its original shape. It was kind of gross, but certainly very cool. Going anywhere but the hospital would have been out of the question without her ability.

"So, who are you going out with?"

"A guy."

"When isn't it a guy?"

"Well, why'd you ask then?"

"My, you're getting ornery in your old age."

"I'm not that old," she said defensively.

He chuckled.

"You should never mention a girl's age, Nathan. Hasn't your mother or Heidi taught you anything?"

"They both have taught me plenty."

It was her turn to chuckle.

"So, to what do I owe the honor of a phone call from Nathan Petrelli on a Friday night?"

"I'm actually stuck in Midtown traffic on my way to pick up Peter and the boys for a ball game. I thought I'd call you. Check in. See how you're fairing down there."

"Here in the sticks you mean?"

"Yeah."

"I'm doing all right."

"The job?"

"Going well."

"Making friends?"

"I am."

"Good. Anyone I have to have a talk with?"

"No," she said after a moment's pause.

"Uh huh, I'll ask again maybe in a few weeks."

"How are Heidi and the boys?" She decided a subject change was in order, particularly since she really had no idea what she and Bill were even doing. She was getting dressed up as if it was a date. He'd said it was a date. On the other hand, they worked together and he might get second thoughts about dating her.

"They're fine."

"Your mom?"

"Fine, too. Peter is, too, since that's who you wanted to ask about first."

"Good," she said, relieved to hear that.

"I'm sorry you have to live down there."

"It's not so bad," she said with a shrug. "Definitely a different way of life, but it's not like Odessa was a hub of activity either."

"True enough."

Her doorbell rang then.

"I've got to go, Nathan. My date is here," she said, realizing she still hadn't found her other shoe. Just as she thought it, she saw the heel peaking out from under one of her boots.

"All right, I just wanted to say hello."

"I'm glad you did. Tell everyone I say hi."

"I will. Good night, Claire."

"Good night, Nathan. Thanks for calling."

"Be careful."

"I always am," she said before disconnecting, sliding both shoes on. He'd assured her he was not taking her bowling. So, she'd worn a dress and with it a pair of Monola's Angela had bought her as a graduation present. Claire had seen the dress and bought it knowing it would go with the shoes. She stopped briefly in front of her full-length mirror and spun around, glad to know she had been right. She hadn't had the chance to wear them until now. Not much call for designer shoes when you work at a sheriff's office.

Lucky followed her out of her bedroom and down the stairs. He gave a soft growl when he realized someone was standing on the porch. She threw the lock and opened the door after glancing out the window to be sure it was Bill. After the rose on her porch yesterday, she was feeling a little cautious.

"Hey," Bill said his back toward her. "I was beginning to think I had the wrong house."

"Nope, right place, just had trouble finding a shoe."

"A shoe?" He turned to look at her then. He started with the shoes in question and worked his way up. It was pretty apparent by the time he got to her face he didn't mind what he saw at all. "Wow, don't you look nice."

"I love any excuse to wear my favorite pair of shoes."

"Right," he said, glancing at the referenced footwear. He probably had no idea how expensive they were. She'd practically fainted when she saw the total before Angela put them on her credit card. He hadn't dressed up as she had, but he wasn't wearing blue jeans either. So, he'd gone to some effort to look nice.

"You look nice, too."

"Well, normally I'd say thank you, but compared to you I look like a ruffian."

"I could change."

"Don't you dare," he said quickly. "I'm not saying I don’t like it."

"Just wasn't expecting me to clean up so nice?"

"Well, no, I figured you'd clean up darn nice. I just wasn't expecting…"

"Me to be stylish?"

"Well, that's one way of putting it, yeah."

"The dress is local, the shoes aren't." She'd found the dress at a thrift store. She went there looking for some old men's shirts to wear while painting and working on her house. She'd seen the dress and had fallen in love with it.

"Have you worn them here before?"

"No," she said.

"Well, let's go let them get a feel for Wheelsy." He glanced at Lucky then. "He ain't comin' along, is he?"

"No," she said, giving Lucky a pat on the head before shutting and locking her door.

"Oh, hey, I forgot to say, this was on the railing here when I came up to ring the bell," he said, gesturing to the rose.

"Just leave it," she said, trying not to show how much seeing a second rose bothered her.

"Secret admirer again?"

"I guess so."

"You don't want to take it inside? Put it in water?"

"No, I threw yesterday's away."

"You kept the flowers, though?"

"I didn't know what to do with them. And that was before the first rose was at my house. If it's Jimmy or someone, they need to rethink their strategy."

"I'd tell him that, except I guess I'm the competition now so I'm not sure I want to offer advice."

"You are, huh?"

"I'm taking you out, aren't I?"

"I guess you are," she said, taking the couple of stairs that led from the porch to her yard. She wasn't going to deal with the rose. "So, did Kylie get to her friend's house all right?"

"Yup, I dropped her off on my way here. They don't live too far from you actually, so it worked out."

"Good. She seemed pretty excited."

"It's the first thing like this she's wanted to do, so I'm taking that as a good sign."

"I can imagine."

He opened her door for her, which surprised her a little. She wasn't sure why, just that he didn't seem like the type.

"My mother," he said with a shrug by way of explanation as he shut the door.

The restaurant wasn't much to see, but the all-you-can-eat crab legs were to die for. As well as everything that came with it.

Their conversation flowed pretty easily, which she was happy about. She wasn't sure away from the office if they'd have anything to really talk about that wasn't work related. Or about Kylie.

Next door to the restaurant was a bar, which they walked to when done eating. They walked practically smack dab into Jimmy Draper just inside the entrance.

"Sheriff," Jimmy said simply.

"Jimmy," Bill had said in response.

"Hi Jimmy," Claire said, hoping she wasn't as obviously uncomfortable as she felt. She hadn't meant to lead him on. She hadn't even gone on a date with him. The band had been good, he'd asked her to dance and she'd accepted. She'd gone home afterward and while remembering his name didn't think anything of him until Bill mentioned the possibility the flowers might be from him.

"Hi Claire. I didn't know you'd be here tonight."

"I didn't either."

"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked. Maybe he didn't understand that she was dressed for a date? A date with Bill.

"I'll buy her drinks tonight, Jimmy, thanks for offering though."

"Oh," he said simply, looking a little confused.

Bill settled his hand at the small of her back and walked with her away from the entrance and Jimmy toward a table that was unoccupied.

"Sorry, I should have known he'd be here on Friday."

"It's okay," she said. "I feel kind of bad, especially from what you said yesterday about him."

"He'll get over it."

She smirked. "Pretty confident I won't be dancing with him again."

"Again? I thought you just met up with him by chance."

"You know what I mean."

"Well, compared to him I've got charm like Carey Grant, so I'm hoping I can be smooth enough to earn a second date."

"You are, huh?"

"Yes."

"And the fact we work together?"

He shrugged as the waitress came over and took their order.

"Want I should fire you?"

"No!"

"Well then."

Jimmy looked as though he was coming toward their table. Evidently, Bill noticed, too, because he stood, taking Claire's hand and leading her to the small dance floor that was already full. It was a Garth Brooks song, one of his slower ones. Country wasn't exactly popular in Costa Verde or New York, but Odessa it was. So, she had some knowledge of artists. And Garth was pretty standard. Claire was glad the floor was full because while she'd gotten better at dancing to this type of music, she certainly wasn't an expert. And most of the places around here seemed to play country and western. No hip-hop to be found, that she heard of anyway.

She liked the way he danced. He didn't try and hold her too close and he didn't try to lead her forcefully as the singer went on about tomorrow never coming. He just let them move as they wanted to on the floor. Of course, it was so full that there wasn't really anywhere for them to go but the tiny circle of the floor they occupied.

"You know how to two-step?" he asked as Garth segued into something else.

"Kind of."

"Kind of is better than a flat out no," he said, not really giving her a chance to say no as he led her right into the next dance.

He did know what he was doing, that was easy to tell. And that made it fun for her, which seemed to make it fun for him, too. They must have walked in just as the band slowed things down, because the next few songs were all fast. Bill definitely kept Claire on her toes and glad that she'd taken the time to dance with people before him. She'd definitely be outclassed by him if she hadn't done any before tonight.

"You having a good time?" he asked finally taking a break back at their table.

"I saw you two dancing and figured I'd wait to bring your drinks when you were done, Sheriff," the waitress said, setting their ordered pitcher and two frosty mugs on the table.

"Thank you, Donna, that was nice of you," he said, giving Claire a wink that Donna wouldn't see.

"You're welcome. I'll be back to check on you in a bit."

"No rush, we're good for now," Bill said, taking a seat on the stool next to Claire instead of across from her as he'd done when they first walked in.

"All right," she said, moving on to the next table.

"That's because you're the sheriff, isn't it?" She gestured to the frosted mugs. He hadn't asked for them. It was more than that, though. Donna didn't seem to care about leaving full pitchers of beer at other empty tables.

"Yes, it has its advantages once in a while."

"Like when you don't want to drink warm beer."

"Like then," he said, pouring a glass first for her and then for him before setting the pitcher down. "You dance pretty well."

"So do you."

"Had to do something to keep me occupied. And I wasn't always sheriff."

"Spend a lot of time in bars?"

"My fair share, ensuring peace was kept of course."

"Of course," she said, taking a sip of beer. She'd never really been overly fond of beer, but it seemed to be what everyone drank in Wheelsy. She didn't hate it as she knew some people did, but she'd much rather have a good glass of wine or a rum and Coke. The only bad thing about rum and Coke was that unless she made it the strength was difficult to regulate not just from bar to bar and bartender to bartender but from drink to drink even with the same bartender.

***

"Is Jimmy staring at us?" he asked casually. He didn't have a sixth sense or anything, but he had no doubts by the way Jimmy looked at Claire when they came in that the young man had designs on Claire Baxter.

"You more precisely, but yes."

"Should I be worried he's going to put a target on my back when I go to the men's room?"

She laughed. "I don't know. I think he looks more confused than mad."

"Good to know."

"You don't seem that much different than him anyway."

He laughed then, brushing his mouth with the back of his hand. "Whatever do you mean? I couldn't be any more different than him. I realize compared to some of the people you may have rubbed elbows with out in LA and up in New York…"

"That's not what I meant," she said, cutting him off.

"What did you mean then?"

"I mean, I get the impression you don't go out on dates often."

"Well, I told you my social calendar…"

"Yeah, yeah. I know the infestation and Kylie, but I think it goes before that. And it wasn't solely because of Mrs. Grant."

"Go on," he said, more curious now than anything. Because she was right in a way. He didn't go out much. Not that he didn't have opportunities. His infatuation with Starla aside, he just wasn't one to give the townspeople something to gossip about. Even before he was sheriff, because he'd had designs on being more than a beat cop all along.

She shrugged. "I just get the impression by the way everyone's looking at us that you coming out with women isn't exactly common."

"You're right, it ain't. A lot of times we'll go somewhere else if I do have a date. Myrtle Beach is just down the road a spell."

"Ah," she said. "Why didn't you take me there?"

He shrugged, not sure how to explain it. He wasn't even sure he could. There was something about Claire Baxter he'd liked the moment she'd stepped into the sheriff's station in response to the ad he'd run once Starla had decided Wheelsy wasn't where she needed to be now that Grant was gone. He couldn't blame her. Having to pull the trigger on the man you'd been married to, no matter what feelings were involved in the marriage, was bound to do something to someone. Starla was strong, but everyone had their limits. And Grant had been good to her through the years, giving her everything her heart desired while being able to stay right here in Wheelsy.

He took another sip of beer, setting the mug down and running a fingertip along the outline of the coaster on the table. It was beyond legible now, no doubt many a mug had been set on it in its lifetime.

He leaned toward her then, sliding a fingertip along the back of her hand and up her arm. "Probably the same reason I'm about to do this in front of everyone here," he said softly before leaning in further to kiss her, sliding his hand so his arm was around her waist.

He hadn't really planned on doing it. Oh, maybe there was a part of him that wanted to make sure Jimmy got the picture. And anyone else there who had their eye on her. He wasn't blind, he knew more than just Jimmy had eyed her with interest when they came in.

It wasn't like the kiss on his couch. He lingered a bit, but didn't want to turn it into something too intense here in the middle of a bar. She seemed to be inline with that as she drew away the same time he did.

"Throwing caution to the wind, Sheriff?"

"Something like that," he said, aware of more than a few people looking at them. That was one drawback of being sheriff in addition to a lifelong resident of the town; he couldn't kiss a girl on a date without the whole town knowing about it faster than a brush fire spread.

"Why me?"

"I don't know."

She smiled then, tossed her hair back and laughed. "There's flattery at its best."

"Now, I didn't mean it like that. You asked a question I'm not sure I have the answer to."

"It's not just because Jimmy's here and you think he likes me?"

"Jimmy wasn't in my living room last night."

"No, he certainly wasn't," she said.

He wished he could answer her question the way she seemed to want him to. He hadn't expected to become interested in anyone so soon after Starla moved from Wheelsy. She'd been on his mind for years, married or not. He guessed the fact he could be interested in Claire was proof that what he felt for Starla wasn't much more than wanting something he couldn't have.

Oh, they'd tried. She'd come to his house a few times and he'd gone to where she was staying. She refused to sleep in the house she'd lived in with Grant. That was probably the first big tip off to Bill that she wasn't going to stick around Wheelsy.

Things just weren't right between them no matter how hard they tried. Too much water under the bridge. He was reminded of their brief conversation when things started to happen with Grant. He'd always thought it was the mutual attraction making things uncomfortable between them. Evidently, it was just neither of them being able to put the past where it belonged. He was pretty sure she liked knowing Bill still liked her even married to someone else. Someone who was able to give her things Bill never could, unless he'd become a corrupt cop. He wasn't even sure if he could then.

"Let's get out of here," he said softly.

"We haven't finished," she replied, glancing at the pitcher.

"You feel the need to finish it?"

"No, I just wasn't sure."

"I don't like being stared at."

"No one's really staring. So, ignore whoever is looking at you," she offered. "I don't want to let them run us off, Bill. You dance well, which means we do together. Let's have fun and just not care who's watching."

"You sure? I'm not the one on the receiving end of anonymous flowers."

She shrugged. "I've made no commitment or promise to anyone, so if someone likes me that's not my problem."

"I suppose not. All right," he said. "And you timed that perfectly since the band seems to be coming back from their break."

He didn't speak of leaving again. They were among the crowd that helped close the place down. He'd had to step in a time or two to break up altercations, but most everyone behaved knowing he was right there to haul them in if necessary. He had to admit, he'd had fun, too, as they walked to his pickup truck. It wasn't as nice as her car. Come to think of it, she had nice things in general. And it made him wonder what she was doing in Wheelsy, and why she'd be interested in a guy like him at all.

He didn't know a damned thing about fashion, but he knew enough about it to know the pair of shoes she wore weren't cheap. The dress, on the other hand, wasn't particularly special. It looked nice on her, but most anything did he'd noticed in her short time working for him.

He almost hadn't hired her. She was fresh out of college. Young and pretty with her whole life ahead of her, not exactly the type to stick around. But she was persistent and no one was beating down his door to take the job. So, left with little choice he'd hired her.

He backed her up against the side of his pickup once he'd unlocked her door. His truck was old and pretty badly beaten, but it was his and he kept it locked to keep curious people out. It hauled ass, which wasn't usually necessary but it had come in handy a time or two. Especially a couple of months ago.

"You had fun," he asked, brushing some hair away the wind had blown into her face.

"Yes," she said simply.

"Me, too. Better than I'd expected."

"So, dates in Wheelsy are okay?"

"I guess so."

"Enough to do it again?"

"You asking?"

"I guess I am."

"Then yes," he said. He slid an arm around her waist, drawing her into him. He was intent on kissing her when George McNamara walked by and greeted him with a polite, "Howdy, Sheriff."

"George," Bill said simply without looking away from Claire, recognizing the man's voice. Bill had been good friends with George's son growing up so the voice was permanently etched in his mind.

"Does it ever bother you?"

"What?"

"You can't go anywhere without someone knowing who you are or what you're doing."

"You get used to it, and it'd be that way sheriff or not."

"Mm, somehow I doubt it'd be like this. You were about to kiss me, weren't you."

He chuckled then. "Maybe."

"Well, if you'd just been Bill Pardy, George wouldn't have said one word to you."

"I'll have to tell him to refrain from saying hello next time he sees me."

She laughed then. "That's not what I meant."

"I know, and you might be right, but the town is pretty friendly. And I've known him most of my life. I grew up with his son. So, he probably would have said hi."

"Even if you were kissing someone?"

"I wasn't kissing you," he said, tugging her closer intent on rectifying that here and now. "Yet," he murmured before doing just that, sliding his other arm around her in the process.

Their kiss earlier in the bar hadn't been much, certainly nothing for him to be able to judge whether the pleasure he'd gotten from kissing her last night was real. Out here on the street probably wasn't much of a place to be doing that type of kissing either. Perhaps it was the beer, the way she felt pressed against him. She was so much smaller than he was. Last night on the couch he hadn't noticed it as much. Standing here, though, it was hard to ignore he was at least a foot taller than she was.

He slid his hand closest to her door free, opening the handle. The dome light didn't come on, not entirely surprising. It was temperamental and seemed to take it upon itself to decide whether it was worth coming on for.

Her lips parted just as he moved his arm around her again. He let out a soft groan as she found his tongue. She wasn't all gung ho about it, acting more as if she was curious, inquisitive. He liked inquisitive. A lot, he realized. She broke the kiss as he expected she would when he lifted her into his arms.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Just setting you where this will be a little easier," he said, sliding her onto the bench seat of his truck, facing where he was standing. "Difference in height makes it a little…"

"Awkward? Yeah, I know, sorry," she said with a shrug. Evidently, he hadn't been the first man to comment on it.

"No reason to apologize, sweetheart," he said, stepping between her legs so he could kiss her again.

"Um," she said, settling a hand against his chest which prevented him from getting closer.

"Yes?" Had he done something wrong?

"I'm no expert or anything, but given that you're kind of held in high esteem here and all."

"Uh huh," he said, wondering where she was going with that.

"Maybe we should go back to my place rather than sit here like this. Someone's going to walk by and think we're doing more than kissing."

"You've got your clothes on."

"I'm wearing a dress and you'd be in the way of them seeing it's still at my knees like it's supposed to be."

"It is a nice dress," he said, running a fingertip along the exposed portion of her thigh. It wasn't enough as far as he was concerned. She had a nice body, fit, toned, and tan. He'd become curious where her tan lines might be while they were dancing earlier.

"Thank you, but that still doesn't change the fact that we're in public and since you're supposed to uphold the law against public indecency…"

"Kissing my date is hardly indecent."

"Perception may indicate otherwise."

He smirked then, settling both hands at the top of the doorframe of his truck. "All right, Miss Baxter, you drive a hard bargain, but you win."

"Being invited back to my place is a hardship?"

"I didn't say that," he said. He wished he knew what it was about her that got under his skin. In the good kind of way. Hell, last night on the couch if he hadn't heard Kylie walking around above them he had been of the mind - and certainly the mood - to take her right there on the couch. He hadn't even had a condom.

He'd rectified that problem, going to a discount store in a neighboring town earlier. He wasn't planning on things going that far this quickly. Something told him she wasn't the type to sleep with a guy on the first date, but at least he'd be prepared if and when it did happen.

He leaned in, hands firmly in place on the truck and kissed her. "Let them see me kissing a pretty woman," he said with a wink as he drew away. He shut the door once she'd moved to be sitting the right way.

They rode in silence to her place. She did move a bit to sit closer to him, near enough their thighs touched. Once he got the old pickup into gear, he set his hand over hers. They sat like that the entire way to her house. Well, not just like that, she scooted a little closer once he'd been driving a few minutes. He liked it, both the feel of her sitting closer and the fact she wanted to do so. Once they got out of the city limits, she even moved their joined hands to rest on his thigh, her little finger tracing along his thigh. She didn't pull her hand away once they'd gotten to her house either and he had to move his hand away from hers to put the truck in park.

And it was her house. She owned it, outright in fact. He knew that much through gossip, though he tried not to pay much attention to that sort of thing. She'd been the talk of Wheelsy before she'd even moved here because the closing was done via fax and overnight service. Bets had been placed on just who the mysterious new owner of the old McCormick place was. Being that she was out of town a ways, some had speculated she was a little old lady. The type with a houseful of cats, therefore, needing the room the lot the house sat on offered.

She certainly wasn't old or ugly or anything else that had been speculated about her. And he hadn't seen a single cat earlier.

He shut off the truck and sat there for a minute, neither saying anything. He draped an arm over her shoulders and drew her to him. She tilted her face up in perfect time with him moving in for a kiss. Finally, he was able to kiss her the way he'd wanted to most of the night. The one or two at the bar had mostly been for show. He wasn't afraid to admit he was staking his claim in a manner of speaking. Jimmy Draper wasn't the only one interested in her.

He broke the kiss, smoothing down her hair a little.

"So, do you want to come in?" she asked.

"Isn't that why we came here?"

"Well, yeah, but I wasn't sure I guess. Maybe that was a good night kiss."

"No, not yet."

"All right," she said and slid away from him. He felt the absence of her body's warmth almost right away.

He joined her outside in front of his pickup, offering her his hand. Not that they had far to walk or anything, he just wanted to hold it.

"Wasn't sure? Did I do something to make you think I'd lost interest between town and here?"

"No, it's just I don't usually do this."

"Do what?"

"Bring a guy home."

"Well, you're not bringing me home. I'm taking you home after a date. A proper one even. There was eating dinner involved and everything. It's not as if you picked me up at the bar or anything."

"I know, I just…"

He released her hand, sliding his arm around her so he could draw her to him. She came willingly he noticed. "Just don't want me to get the wrong idea," he whispered, kissing the top of her head. She smelled nice. Flowery. Shampoo he imagined. Whatever it was, he'd noticed it all night and liked it.

"Yeah."

"I don't," he said simply.

"You sure, because if you think Jimmy or…"

"I said I don't, Claire, and I don't. I don't want to have any other names to go with your dates. Jimmy's bad enough."

"Bad enough, huh?"

"Well, yeah, no one likes having faces to go with their competition."

She tilted her head up to look at him then. "Okay." The way she looked at him just then made him think that maybe there was no competition. He'd won, not that she was a thing to win or that he'd really set out to even do that. It could have been a trick of the moonlight, though.

He planted a kiss on her lips, a quick one really meant to assure her he spoke the truth. "Now did you have standing out here for the rest of the evening in mind?"

"No," she said and if he didn't know better he thought she was blushing. It was hard to tell because there was almost no light out here. She had a yard light, but it was on the other side of the house so it didn't do much where they were standing.

They walked to the house, his arm still around her until they got to the porch step. He held the screen door open for her as she unlocked the other one. Her dog was out the door like a bolt.

"I guess he has some business to take care of," he said with a chuckle.

"I guess so," she said, looking a little perplexed.

"Something wrong?"

"No, just he doesn't usually do that."

"Maybe he drank more water than you thought."

"Probably," she said, leaving the front door open after he followed her inside. "Do you want anything?"

"No, I'm good," he said, letting her lead him to the living room. He'd been in here before, but not since she'd moved in. Mrs. McCormick wasn't afraid to call the sheriff's office for the most trivial of things. It seemed to be part of his job description to take pies out of the oven when she'd been taken to the hospital, forgetting about the dessert baking away.

Claire hadn't done too much with the place yet. It was clear she was still unpacking and organizing. Mostly she was at the organizing stage.

"You paint?" he asked, noticing the walls in the dining room were a different color than they used to be.

"Yes," she said simply. "Do you like it," she asked.

"Yeah. I don't think old Mrs. McCormick had done much updating."

"No, I knew that coming down here, but I figured it would give me the opportunity to do whatever I wanted at my pace."

"Sounds like a plan." A plan that seemed to indicate she'd be sticking around town for a while if not the long-term. He wondered what that was about. She was college educated, attractive, and seemed to have a decent head on her shoulders. He'd yet to have to explain something to her more than once at work. And his files were more organized than he'd ever seen them. Not to mention when he asked her to do something it got done the first time. And the right way, too.

"So, music, TV, or a movie?"

"Whatever you want."

"How long do you plan on staying?"

"I'm not sure that's up to me."

"How long did you want to stay?"

"As long as you'll have me I reckon."

"All right. Well, I'm going to go change."

"Oh?"

"I'll be right back."

"Okay then."

He wandered around, looking at the little improvements she'd already made, and the personal touches she'd added. Mrs. McCormick had been a widow for years and the house always had that quality to it. That was no longer the case. The mementoes Claire had displayed were very much in the present, alive, evidence she had her whole life ahead of her. He saw one or two family photographs that he imagined were her parents and brother.

There was one of her in her black cap and gown with a man. They were both smiling at the camera and looked happy. They made an attractive couple and he couldn't help but wonder who the man in the photo was. Her college graduation wasn't that long ago. He supposed it could be an ex-boyfriend except he looked to be a bit older. So was he, he reminded himself.

He turned, hearing her come down the stairs. She'd changed into a pair of jeans that were pretty tight. The top she wore left her shoulders bare, just a couple bits of fabric on her upper arms kept it in place. She had no shoes or socks on and he noticed that her toenails were painted a deep shade of red.

She looked nice, but the lack of shoes surprised him for some reason until he saw her holding a rose in her right hand. The look on her face told him it wasn't meant as a gift for him.

"Something wrong?"

"This was on my bed," she said simply, extending her hand to offer him the rose.

He walked past her without taking it, returning to the porch. The rose she'd left on the railing earlier was gone. He went back to the living room. She looked visibly shaken, which was good. That meant she was scared, realized there was something amiss. Anonymous flowers was one thing, but finding flowers in your bed after being out for the night was another matter altogether.

"Jimmy was at the bar pretty much all night. Can't account for his whereabouts while we were at dinner, but from the looks of him when we walked in he'd been there a while."

"I agree," she said simply, tossing the rose to the floor as if she couldn't stand to hold it any longer.

"Any ideas?"

"Not really," she said.

"You'd mentioned not feeling safe before…"

"He can't possibly know where I am. We were all so careful this time."

"He who?"

She sighed softly. "I can't tell you," she looked away from him. "I need to talk to my mother." She glanced at the photo on the wall. "And my friend."

"I see," he said, though he didn't really. Not at all. "You do realize, Claire, that I am the police around here? Not your mother or your friend?"

"Yes, Bill, I do," she said, glancing at the painted toes he'd admired only a few minutes ago.

Apparently she wasn't going to say more. He didn't like it, not at all, but he couldn't force her to talk. And there wasn't much he could do at this point as a cop anyway. Maybe she'd been in an abusive relationship or something. It was the only thing he could think of that would have her this scared.

"You aren't staying here tonight."

Her eyes shot up to meet his then. "What?"

"Claire, he got through your locked doors and past your dog."

"Makes me wonder if he was given something and that's why he had to go out so bad when we got back. That's not normal for him."

"Maybe. Anyway, you can stay with me because I repeat you ain't spending the night here."

"Let me grab a few things," she said.

"All right, I'll be here. Is there someplace else you'd feel better about staying?"

"I don't really know anyone else well enough to ask them." She glanced over her shoulder at him as she was about to leave the room. "Except Jimmy."

"That was a joke, right?" She didn't answer, but he heard her give a soft laugh as she walked up the stairs.

That she could joke was a good thing. And then he suddenly wondered what he was going to do with her once he'd gotten her home.

She came back downstairs in about fifteen minutes with an overnight bag. She wore the same shirt and jeans, but had, disappointingly, added shoes.

"I can bring Lucky?"

"Of course, I hadn't forgot about him."

"Thanks, this goes above and beyond your responsibilities."

He walked up to her then, grabbing the overnight bag from her. It wasn't heavy, she was perfectly capable of carrying it herself but it was inbred in him to do such things. He brought his other hand to her cheek.

"Is that what you think?"

"What?" she asked, sounding confused by his question?

"Darlin', I'm not inviting you to stay with me because I'm the sheriff. If I were advising you as sheriff, I'd tell you to check into a hotel room or go visit a relative. I don't invite people to stay with me commonly, Kylie excluded."

"Oh," she said simply.

"Just needed to get that straight."