“I can’t cry, I can’t scream, and I can’t lose my shit because my best friend needs me to be the strong one, but hey, I’m fine. And really, it’s not like I’d actually cry over that asshole, but I’d at least like to have that option and maybe have someone checking to make sure I’m doing okay. But noooooooooooo, you just looked the other way all day and made sure everyone else was okay and didn’t say one word to me because I didn’t fucking recognize you when I first saw you and I didn’t apologize right away for that or for using the name Liquid Crack or for whatever the hell else I did to make you act like I don’t exist and DIDN’T JUST SEE MY FIRST DEAD BODY!” I rant in one long, run-on sentence without taking a breath.

I finally stop pacing when I see Leo get up from the couch and move toward me. Scratch that, he’s not just moving in my direction, he’s stalking across the carpet with his hands fisted tightly at his sides and a muscle ticking in his jaw. I take a step back when he gets right up in front of me, a little freaked out by the serious look in his eyes, but he quickly leans down and wraps one of his arms around me, yanking my body to his.

“What are you doing?” I whisper in a garbled voice while I stare up at his face and his arm tightens around me, pulling me up on my tip-toes and as close to him as possible until my breasts are pressed against the rock-hard wall of his chest.

He doesn’t answer me as his eyes trail slowly down over my face and his free hand comes up between us. I swallow thickly and let out a shaky breath when the tips of his fingers ever-so-lightly feather across the skin of my throat, right where the red mark Jed’s choking hold left behind last night.

“Do you have any idea how hard it was to remember I’m an officer of the law and I couldn’t just shoot that fucker when I saw him put his hands on you?” Leo asks in a rough, low voice. “I’ve never had to shoot my gun in the line of duty, and I’ve never wanted to as badly as I did last night.”

I can’t speak, I can’t think, and I can’t move. I don’t know what’s happening right now. All I know is that there is nothing hotter than Leo Hudson holding me against him, saying all the things I needed to hear from him and then some.

“I’ve spent years sitting on the sidelines, knowing what that asshole was doing to Emma Jo and not being able to do anything about it because she refused to admit it. All of those years feeling helpless, but it was nothing compared to walking up to that porch and seeing him hurting you,” he admits as he continues to stare down at my neck and graze his fingertips over the still-tender skin.

He flattens his palm lightly against my throat, then slides his hand up to my jaw, holding my face while he brushes the pad of his thumb back and forth across my cheek.

“I’m sorry I didn’t make sure you were okay today. You were always the strongest person I’ve ever known, and I made the mistake of assuming you didn’t need or want anyone to take care of you.”

I finally remember how to speak, swallowing a few times before I open my mouth to make sure my words don’t come out with on a high-pitched squeak to echo my nerves.

“So, you avoided me today just because you thought I could take care of myself?” I ask, meeting his eyes when he finally looks away from my throat to look at my face.

“No, not just because of that. Mostly, because twelve years is a really fucking long time to have the same fantasy playing in your head over and over again.”

My eyes narrow in confusion and he brings his face closer, pausing when his lips are hovering right over mine, almost touching but not quite.

“I didn’t talk to you today and I didn’t come near you today because I was in uniform and I was working, and I knew if I saw the slightest hint that you were going to crumble or I got close enough to touch you, I’d never be able to stop myself from doing what I’ve been dreaming about for twelve fucking years,” he says softly, his breath skating across my lips.

“And what’s that?” I whisper, thinking I know the answer, but wanting to hear him say it after making me feel like a bitchy, jealous shrew all day. And also, because at this point, I only have the ability to use about five percent of my brain and I’d like verbal confirmation from him before I say or do something else stupid in front of this man.

I have a few fleeting seconds before he answers me to remind myself that this is Leo Hudson. The same Leo Hudson who was the biggest nerd in the history of Bald Knob, weighed eighty pounds soaking wet, snorted at his own jokes, and was a member of Future Farmers of America. You know, one of the kids who walked around all the time in those short navy blue, velvet jackets and would talk about how to inseminate a cow over lunch. I feel a hysterical giggle bubbling up in my throat at the idea that I’m standing here in Leo Hudson’s arms and he may or may not be getting ready to kiss me. Something about this entire situation feels hilarious to me, and I know now isn’t the best time to laugh, but I honestly don’t know if I can help it.

“Kiss you until you forget about any other man who ever kissed you before, and ruin you for any man that comes after me,” Leo mutters, answering my question and putting an end to any desire I might have had to laugh when he tips his head to the side and crashes his lips against mine.


Recorded Interview

June 3, 2016

Bald Knob, KY Police Department

Deputy Lloyd: So, how’s it going?

Emma Jo Jackson: Um, fine, I guess.

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