Some people were having just a little bit too much fun, courtesy of one particular bowl of punch. The groom had doctored that bowl with a generous pour from a silver flask, making sure everyone knew which punch was now adults-only. Andie had been standing guard ever since.
Which she likely would be for another few hours yet. She smothered a yawn. Her shift started before dawn today, and it wouldn’t be over until the last wedding guest stumbled home and tumbled into bed, safe and sound.
She blinked to clear the exhaustion from her vision, and when she forced her eyes open, her heart slammed into her throat.
It was him.
Sam Brennan loomed across the picnic table, his tall, muscular form haloed in the golden glow of the twinkle lights. His face was cast in shadow, but even when she’d had him under the direct glare of the sheriff’s office fluorescent lights, Andie hadn’t been able to get a good read on him.
Because of the beard, she told herself, straightening automatically as she studied the close-cropped brown bristles darkening his jaw—but deep inside, Andie knew it was something more.
“You should go home, Sheriff,” he said abruptly, the low rumble of his voice vibrating through her like the roll of distant thunder. “You look like hell.”
Better than a zap of lightning to the seat of the pants. Andie braced her feet and pulled herself upright, gritting her teeth against the urge to snap back at him. She schooled her features to cool, composed professionalism and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not here in a decorative capacity, Mr. Brennan.”
Sam lifted one of the folding chairs as if it were a made of construction paper, and turned it so he could straddle it backwards and prop his folded arms on the backrest. He smoldered up at her through unfairly long lashes. When he tilted his head, Andie caught glints of copper in his arched brows. The flickering light of the votive candles clustered on the picnic tables somehow accentuated his rough, masculine charm.
“Don’t tell me,” he rumbled, “you came to make sure Ben and Merry had a wedding license, signed in triplicate. Or no—I bet Jo needed a permit to host a party like this in a public park.”
“Good thing Jo got her permit in a week ago.” Andie stared him down, unwilling to apologize for the fact that she cared about her job.
Trust the rules, her father used to say. They’ll keep you on the right path when your emotions try to send you off in the wrong direction. Hearts can be misled, but the law is constant.
Sam Brennan shook his shaggy head and squinted into the distance as if he couldn’t imagine following such a silly, pointless regulation—and there it was. The reason Andie had a hard time getting a read on Sam.
He met her gaze squarely, an odd light glinting in the depths of eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate. “Waste of paper, if you ask me. If people want to get together to celebrate a wedding, they ought to be able to. No regulations, no restrictions.”
Sam Brennan was a throwback to another time, when the rule of law held no sway and a man had to come up with his own personal moral code to guide his actions.
The thrill that ran across her nerves the moment she met him, the jumpy, unsettled, twitchiness she battled every time their stares clashed, was because she recognized the essential danger of Sam Brennan.
He had the heart of an outlaw.
“I don’t make the regulations,” Andie said, her voice sharper than she wished. “I just enforce them.”
She was used to the way most people kept her at arms’ length—the khaki Sheriff’s uniform tended to make civilians nervous, even the ones who’d never committed a crime. Andie accepted that distance, even though it was lonely at times, and she had real hopes of one day being accepted by this crazy little town as one of their own.
But when Sam’s mouth flattened into a tight line, nearly hidden by the beard, Andie caught her breath at the intensity of his expression.
I’m more than the badge, she thought with an ache, but even the idea of saying it aloud flipped her stomach and singed the tips of her ears with embarrassed heat. Would such a sentiment ever even have occurred to her father, or his father, or any of the long line of law-enforcement officers she’d sprung from? No way.
Pulling herself together, Andie kept her voice calm and firm. “In this case, what I’m enforcing is the law about not driving while intoxicated. Some of these folks are going to need a ride home, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Sanctuary Island is a little too small to support a cab company.”
Sam’s brows winged up, as if she’s surprised him again. Blowing out a breath and shaking his head, he plastered on what looked like a very determined smile. “Believe it or not, I didn’t come over here to pick a fight with you.”
No, you came over here to tell me I look like hell, Andie’s wounded vanity grumbled, but out loud, all she said was, “What can I do for you, Mr. Brennan?”
A muscle ticked in his rough jaw. “You can accept my apology, and my thanks,” he gritted out, the words grinding over each other like gravel under truck tires. “My cousin told me the judge decided to sentence the kids to community service, nothing on their permanent record.”
“That was the judge’s decision,” Andie pointed out cautiously. “You should thank him.”
Sam grimaced, palming the back of his neck. “I did. He told me you called him up and argued for Matt and Taylor, since it was a first offense for Matt and both of them are minors…I mean, it’s ridiculous they were charged with trespassing at all, but you didn’t have to speak up for them. So thank you.”
“Don’t strain yourself,” Andie said sharply, causing Sam’s gaze to fly to hers, surprised. “I didn’t do it as a favor to you.”
His eyes narrowed. “I never thought you did.”
“I only put in a good word,” Andie insisted, leaning in to make her point. And it was true. After Sam’s nephew had been caught trespassing and drinking underage with the bank manager’s daughter, Andie felt for the kids. The boy wasn’t a troublemaker, and the girl had worked hard to turn over a new leaf. There was nothing to be gained by saddling either of them with a criminal record.
“You’ve actually got a heart underneath that uniform, don’t you?” Sam said slowly, his deep brown eyes studying her face with disconcerting sharpness.
“Of course I do,” Andie said over the thud of her heart in her ears. “I’m a firm believer that people need other people. That’s one reason I take this job so seriously—we all need each other’s help sometimes.”
“Unless you’re used to going it alone.” The darkness in his gaze expanded like a black hole, sucking in all the light and air around them. Andie’s heart rate jumped as adrenaline sluiced through her veins on a tidal wave of need. The need to know more, to find out what turned Sam Brennan into a loner who believed in nothing and no one, the need to make him leave Sanctuary Island before she did something really crazy…like kiss him to see if that would make him smile.
Sam blinked and shook his head like a big, shaggy dog. The tension between them splintered, changed, as he met her eyes once more. Only this time, his gaze was shuttered, the black fire there banked and smoldering.
“The look on your face,” he said, sardonic amusement quirking his lips. “Don’t worry, Sheriff Shepard, remember I’m not a permanent member of your flock. Just passing through, looking after Matt while his mom bangs around Europe on her honeymoon. She’ll be back in a couple of days, so I won’t be here long enough to cause any trouble on Sanctuary Island, I promise.”
Thank God for that, was all Andie could think. She wasn’t sure she could deal with the disruption and chaos Sam Brennan caused in her psyche for longer than a few weeks.
“While you’re here, I’d appreciate it if you’d at least pretend to respect the laws of the island,” she said stiffly.
Slapping both big hands on his denim-clad thighs, Sam swung up from the chair and replaced it neatly under the table. “Sure thing, Sheriff. As a special favor to you.”
“Not breaking the law is not a favor.”
He held up his hands in surrender. “No, of course. You’re right. Just a little joke. Or is it against the rules to even joke about breaking the law?”
Now that he was standing, Andie was uncomfortably aware that she had to lift her chin to meet his gaze. At just shy of six feet in her beloved cowboy boots, Andie was used to towering over people but Sam Brennan still had at least five inches on her.
A warm breeze stirred the flames of the votive candles and made the twinkle lights dance in the branches. Staring up into Sam’s watchful brown eyes, Andie became abruptly aware that their table had been abandoned as the other guests crowded around the impromptu dance floor. No one was nearby or even looking their way, everyone apparently having too much fun to glance back toward the edge of the party.
Adrenaline poured through her, slowing time to a crawl even as her own movements got sharper, stronger, more deliberate. Andie stepped around the table, going toe to toe with Sam Brennan without ever dropping her stare.
“It’s not against the law to joke,” she answered. “But that doesn’t make it funny.”
His low laugh was a husky growl on the breeze. “Haven’t you ever heard of doing the wrong thing for the right reason?”
Andie firmed her jaw and shook her head at the infuriating man, and Sam shocked her by reaching out one of his huge hands to glance along her cheek. For such a giant guy, his touch was surprisingly gentle, almost tender.
“Never mind,” he said softly, his melting chocolate gaze holding her spellbound in this oddly private, silent moment. “I hope you never have to make a choice like that, Sheriff.”
Andie blinked, momentarily spellbound by the wistful twist to Sam’s lips as he continued, “That’s part of what I love about visiting this place. Everything seems simpler here, clearer. People say what they mean and mean what they say. Out there in the real world…well.”
“You could stay,” Andie heard herself saying. She blinked again, the twinkle lights dazzling at the edges of her vision.
For a moment, Andie glimpsed the unguarded truth of Sam’s reaction, the raw regret that crossed his handsome face in a spasm. “I wish I could. But I can’t.”
Andie ducked her head, appalled at the disappointment shafting through her. It was for the best, she lectured herself severely. Sam Brennan got to her in a way she’d never experienced. In a way that felt dangerous.
That shiver of danger squeezed her chest again as Sam dropped his hand, curling it into a big fist at his side.
“Small towns and me? We just don’t mix. Besides, I have responsibilities of my own,” he said, as if he were reminding himself. “I can’t afford to get distracted.”
Andie jerked her head up, tilting her chin. “Who’s distracting you? I’m only trying to be hospitable.”
“Sheriff Andrea Shepard,” Sam breathed, his gravelly voice thick with an emotion she was afraid to examine. “You have no idea how distracting you are, do you?”
The feeling is mutual, mister. “My friends call me Andie.”
Sam smiled, brief and almost tender. “Andie.”
Tension filled the space between them again, but this time it felt warm and enveloping, like stepping out of the air conditioning and into the humid heat of a summer afternoon. The moment spun out for the length of a breath, a heartbeat, and then the song that had been playing ended and the couples on the dance floor applauded, sending up a loud cheer.
Stepping back, Sam tucked his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. His green flannel shirtsleeves were rolled to the elbow, exposing the corded strength of his tanned forearms. “Sounds like the party’s over,” he said. “If I take a load in my truck and you take the rest in your SUV, I bet we can get all these partygoers home in one trip.”
Andie nodded. “Good idea. I’ll start rounding people up.”
She was proud of how steady her voice was, considering she had no idea what the hell just happened.
“Send your overflow to me—I’m parked in front of Hackley’s Hardware.” Sam jerked a thumb over his shoulder and gave her a half smile. “See you around, Sheriff.”
Sheriff again, not Andie, she noted with a pang. She didn’t let it show, though. Instead, she nodded and held out her hand, saying, “Thanks for the help. I appreciate it.”
“I owed you.”
Before she could shake her head in denial, he said, “Oh, don’t worry. We’re not even yet. But it’s a start.”
He clasped her hand for a single heartbeat before dropping it and striding away, leaving Andie’s palm burning with the brief contact. She closed her fingers around the tingle, keeping it safe, and watched Sam Brennan walk out of her life. The image of his mile-wide shoulders and muscular back tapering to his trim waist and endless legs carved itself onto her brain, and Andie didn’t even try to stop it.
“It’s for the best,” Andie murmured to herself. Sam Brennan was too much of a threat to her hard-won peace and serenity.
Thank goodness he was leaving Sanctuary Island. She could only hope he wouldn’t be back anytime soon…