Part One: Van

The sun was setting over Evergreen, casting waves of purple across the cloudless sky. The man in the tuxedo idly watched the sky from the front steps, pausing now and then to take another sip of milk. Occasionally he looked back through the screen door into the little house behind him. Finally, he called out "What's taking you so long?"

"I'm just slicing the pie!" an exasperated voice snapped back. "You do want to try it, don't you?"

"Yeah, I guess," Van said doubtfully.

"I think you'll like it," the girl called back. "I added extra spice." He just grunted and took another sip of milk. He turned back to watch the horizon again, but the sun had slipped below the horizon, leaving only a purple- red glow. Up above, a star twinkled. He eyed it thoughtfully.

"If you don't hurry up," he warned, "It'll be too dark to sit outside any longer."

"I LIKE sitting in the dark," the girl inside retorted. "It's the best way to enjoy a summer evening, don't you think?"

"Oh, yeah?" He had never really thought about how to enjoy a summer evening, but he wouldn't have thought that sitting in the dark was the best thing to do.

"Here you are," the voice said. He looked up to see a young woman with red hair, green eyes, and a ready smile. The corners of his own mouth curled up slightly in response as she settled down on the steps beside him. He took the dessert plate she offered him, and reluctantly pulled his eyes away from Wendy's face.

"What is this?" he asked.

"I told you, didn't I? It's a strawberry apple pie, but I made it with extra spice just for you." She laughed. "It's probably too strong to serve in the restaurant, but if this one is good, I can always tone down the recipe a little."

"So, is it good?"

"I haven't tried it yet. I wanted you to have the first slice!"

"Ah," he grunted. He picked up his fork and dutifully took a bite. He was already planning on asking for honey to drizzle across the dessert, but that first bite changed his mind. "Sweet!" he yelled appreciatively. Wendy winced.

"Not so loud! People will hear!" she hissed.

"Let 'em hear," he said ruthlessly. "This is good." She smiled again, and her whole face lit up. He paused with his fork in mid-air, momentarily arrested by the sight. He had been back in Evergreen for more than a month now, and he still couldn't get enough of Wendy's smile. He had missed it so much all the years that they'd been apart. He had always hoped to see her again, but he had never realized how good it would be simply to have her by his side, close enough to touch.

He had not yet touched her, much as he wanted to. Since the moment when he came crashing through her door looking for a meal, he had wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and kiss her until they were both breathless, but he hadn't dared to do it. There was too much at stake for him to risk it yet. He had a pretty good idea of how she felt about him, but they had never yet talked about where their friendship was headed, and he did not want to act on an assumption. Besides, he did not want to rush her into anything. Much as she had matured in the years they'd been apart, Wendy was still in many ways a very young woman, ready to blush at the slightest crudeness . . . or at an accidental bump in a crowded hallway, which told him that she was as aware of his body as he was of hers.

"So, what did the sheriff want?" Wendy's question drew his wandering mind backā€”probably for the best, given what he'd been thinking about.

He'd forgotten that he hadn't even told her the news yet. "He offered me a job," he explained. Her eyes widened.

"A job? Doing what?"

"Dunno," he said with a shrug. "Kicking ass, probably." He took another bite of the pie. Damn, it really was good. How did she manage to keep surprising him?

"Van!" Wendy narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her forehead in one of her potent glares. "What did he really say?"

"He wants me to sign on as some kind of special deputy ," he explained. "I wouldn't have to work all the time. I'd just be called in when there was a problem too big for them to handle." That meant a problem that required the use of armor, most likely. Evergreen was fairly prosperous these days, but the sheriff's department still couldn't afford expensive weapons.

"What did you tell him?"

He shrugged. "I told him I'd have to think about it."

"Well . . ." Wendy began, but her voice trailed off.

"Well what?"

"Well, what are you thinking?"

"Huh." He took another bite of pie and thought about the question. "You think I should take it?" he asked her, slanting a glance in her direction. She bowed her head so that he couldn't see her eyes.

"I think it's your decision."

"You don't care what I do?"

"Of course I care!" she retorted quickly, "but I don't have the right to tell you what to do!"

"What are you talking about?" he asked. "You tell me what to do all the time." She turned her head to face him, her eyes flashing.

"I do NOT!" she snapped. "I mean . . . not all the time. Only when you're doing the wrong thing. Or not doing the right thing. Or . . ."

"Seems like all the time to me," he muttered.

"Look, I'm sorry . . ."

"'S all right," he assured her. "It's not like I really listen, anyway."

"Van!" The glare came back in full force. Time to think of a distraction, he decided.

"Here," he said, scooping up a piece of the pie with his fork. "Take a taste of this." She took the fork from his hand and took a bite. Her eyes widened.

"Wow, that's spicy," she commented. "Maybe I overdid it with the cinnamon."

"No, I like it that way," he assured her. "And it's sweet enough as it is." She frowned thoughtfully, as if she weren't certain. He opened his mouth to ask if she thought there was something wrong with the recipe, then paused, realizing that there was a smudge of pie filling on the corner of her mouth. "Hey, you've got something here . . ." he tapped his own face to indicate.

"Got what?" she said, looking puzzled.

"There," he said, and reached out to wipe it away his thumb. She blushed at his touch, and he froze, realizing that he had just stepped over the boundary that he had been so careful to observe these past few weeks. Then he felt her smile, her lips curving up against his touch. And, to his shock, she turned her head just slightly to print a kiss on his hand, her lips brushing his thumb so lightly that he would have thought that he had imagined it, if not for the way her blush deepened.

His heart gave a lurch. She had kissed his hand. What did that mean? He put down the pie plate and tried to think, but thinking had never been his strong suit. So he did what he did best: he acted on impulse. He cupped Wendy's chin in one hand, leaned forward, and gave Wendy her first kiss. It was just the merest brush of his lips against hers, lasting only a second, but it set his heart pounding so frantically that he was sure that she would be able to hear it. So he leaned away from her, lounging against the door frame as casually as if the kiss had never happened.

But when he spoke, his voice betrayed his emotion. "So," he asked gruffly, "was that sweet enough for you?"