“Well,” she said softly. “You don’t qualify on any of those.”
Pathetic as it was, he thought it was a damn nice compliment. If she ever truly complimented him, he’d be as delighted as Poppy and act just as silly.
He looked forward to it.
* * *
Mila drew to a stop at the next intersection. The post office, a marvel of drab government construction, was catty-corner from them, and her house was a short block behind it. She didn’t mind walking farther, but her stomach was threatening to rumble, and Poppy was past her usual dinnertime, too.
It would be really easy to say, “You want to get something to eat?” At least, it should be. But there was little food in her house besides canned soup, ramen noodles and frozen dinners, so her invitation would have to mean ordering delivery or going out. She had never asked anyone besides Gramma to do either with her.
She looked down the street ahead—a fried-chicken place, an ice-cream shop with burgers and a Chinese buffet were the only offerings in sight—then glanced toward her house. It was quiet. She loved it for its quiet. It was her retreat from a world that was too much for her…but she’d retreated for far too long. Years ago, Dr. Fleischer had told her healing would come, and with it, she would find her way into the life she was meant to live. Even at eleven, she’d known the life she was meant to live: hidden away, left alone by anyone and everyone but Gramma. She’d wanted to be safe, and she had been.
But she was twenty-six years old, and she’d never had the chance to pull, run and jump. She hadn’t been too old, too tired, too creaky or too fat.
Just too afraid.
Sam didn’t question her stillness. He watched with patience and interest and a little hope on his face. He didn’t want to end the evening here, saying goodbye like casual acquaintances. She could see that as clearly as if they were acting in a scene and she held his script. Problem was, no one had provided her with a script. Could she really risk inviting him to have dinner with her? What if she was misreading him and he said no?
What if she wasn’t misreading him and he said yes? She could hold up her end of a conversation only in rare moments, and dinner would be committing to at least an hour more together. Could she count on Poppy to entertain him if she couldn’t?
She would never know if she never tried.
“Would you like—” Hearing an echo, she broke off. He’d spoken at the same time she had, said the same words. He stopped, too, a grin brightening his eyes, and gestured for her to go on. She shifted her feet uneasily, looked once more toward her house, her haven, her isolated retreat, then forced the best smile she could manage. “Would you like to get some dinner?”
His grin got bigger. “I don’t think they’ll want me looking and smelling like this, but we could pick up something to take to your house, or to my house if you want. I live a few blocks that way.” He pointed to the east. “Of course, if you don’t want to eat with me looking and smelling like this—”
She interrupted him with a shake of her head. If she gave him time to shower and clean up, she might lose her nerve. “Those places set their standards too high. They don’t want Poppy in there, either. Taking something back to the house—my house—is good.” She was already nervous over the idea of sharing a meal with him without Gramma as a buffer. Having that meal at his house, where he lived, slept, read, watched TV…that was one step farther than she could manage.
“Good.” He gestured ahead of them. “You choose.”
Her immediate impulse was to demur. What if she chose chicken and he wanted Chinese? What if he hated Chinese but ate it anyway because it was the first word to make it out of her mouth? What if indecision was one of the little things that drove him nuts?
“Hamburgers.” Her voice was less substantial than she would have liked. Quickly she cleared her throat and added, “Poppy loves ice cream on hot days.”
“A girl after my own heart,” he teased.
It was two and a half blocks to Braum’s, and Sam filled most of it with normal chatter, lamenting the ugly post office, remarking that it used to be in the beautiful old building downtown that now housed the police department, commenting on a lovely house and the busyness of the liquor store and the building that had once been the church home to dozens of Douglases before they’d moved into a newer—also uglier—facility on the edge of town. There wasn’t much for Mila to say besides hmm and nice, and it was easily the highlight of her week.