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The Temptation of Savannah O'Neill Molly O Keefe 2022/8/3 13:52:54

MATT DIDN’T KNOW WHAT time it was. The sky was bruised, but pink touched the eastern clouds so he figured it was close enough to day to get to work.

He rose from the chair he’d spent the night in and pulled on the clean clothes that Margot laundered for him at the end of each day. He barely felt the denim and cotton. Or the sting of his blistered palms. He was dimly aware of an ache in his stomach, but food, he’d learned, wasn’t going down so well these days.

He filled his thermos with water in the bathroom and stepped outside into the hot liquid kiss of a Louisiana summer morning.

All of it, the burn of his tired and sore muscles, the heat of the day, the buzz of insects, seemed somehow removed, disconnected from him.

Instead, his ears roared with the screams of metal and the thundering splinter of wood.

Everything went silent at the sound of Savannah’s voice. He turned looking for her in the shadows, wondering if this was another figment of his imagination.

Another ghost coming to get a piece of him.

He glanced down and realized he was standing right next to her. Savannah sat on the steps, her bare legs, honey-colored and long as the horizon, curled up to her chest.

Her eyes, wide and liquid in the dark, looked up at him. Right through him.

She knows. The thought was like a gong in his empty chest. It made sense, of course—she was a researcher and his crimes were hardly hidden.

“I brought coffee,” she said, holding out a mug.

It smelled good, bitter and dark. His body practically screamed for the caffeine.

“No thanks,” he said, stepping past her toward the courtyard. She brought the coffee because she wanted to talk. And he wanted to start digging trenches for the box hedge maze.

“Matt,” she said, that Southern accent winding through the courtyard to curl around in and around him, like smoke from some internal fire. “I know about the accident.”

He didn’t answer, just opened the shed and started taking out his tools. Dawn was approaching and the dark night was turning gray.

“Did you know?” she asked from a few feet away. “About the floors?”

Did I know? Strange that everyone thought that knowledge meant guilt. Or that lack of knowledge meant innocence. As if it were that easy.

“Does it matter?” he asked, kicking a clod of dirt off the sharp edge of his shovel then throwing it on the ground.

“I don’t want to talk about this, Savannah.” He gave her a hard look.

“Well, if you want to keep punishing yourself in my courtyard, you’re going to have to talk.”

He ducked farther into the shed, grabbing the hand tools.

“I’m not going to leave this alone,” she said, from the doorway.

Of course not. Of course she’d make this hard.

“It’s none of your business.” He growled the words, stomping past her to the cypress.

“You’re right,” she said. “It’s not. But Jack—”

“How about we talk about Katie’s father?” he asked, shifting to offense, his temper lit. “Where is he?” She went pale and he arched his eyebrows, waiting. Feeling relentless, he wanted to hammer on her like the ghosts hammered on him.

A mourning dove cooed and a dog barked someplace close by and he waited. He waited and he watched her, remembering the way she tasted. Wanting suddenly, ferociously, to taste her again. To lose himself in all the promised heat that still lingered between them.

Hotter now, this moment, her lips a trembling bow, than ever.

“Go to hell, Matt,” she snapped. She spun on her heel and left.

I already am, he thought, and started digging holes.

NINE HOURS LATER, Matt put the tools away, his work for the day done. The heat had been relentless today. So thick, so heavy it dragged at his limbs, sucked at his head. Katie’s midafternoon water balloon shower had been a fantastic relief. He’d thanked her, which got him the scowling of a lifetime.

He shut the door to the shed and his vision swam, the earth dipped under his feet. Luckily, the shed was there to hold him up.

“You’re eating with us tonight.”

He forced the world to right itself and his vision to clear. When he was sure he wouldn’t fall over, he turned.