Sam’s arms were resting on the solid tabletop, the left one bent so he could support his head on his palm. He watched the faint shadows shift over her face with her every movement. Watched her mouth form the words that described her job. Watched the slight actions of her hands that indicated she was inclined to talk with them but not this time.
“What?” she prompted, and he realized she’d quit talking a moment ago but he hadn’t quit watching her, and the smile he wore, he was pretty sure, was as goofy as Poppy’s.
“I like listening to you.”
Even in the dim light, he saw the flush return to her cheeks. “I—I don’t usually talk a lot.”
“I know. And that’s fine. Usually at work, I have so many people talking at me all at the same time that I have to hide in my office with the door locked to get just one moment of silence. But you’re different. I actually want to hear what you have to say.”
She didn’t know how to react to that. She uncrossed her legs. Crossed them back the other way. Rested her hands on the table, loosely clasped. Let them go to brush at her bangs. “I…”
Poppy trotted to her side, and Mila gratefully turned her attention to her, rubbing the spot between her shoulders, and gave up looking for a response. There was something sweet about the image they made, big yellow dog and slender dark-haired woman, but something sad, too: a grown woman needing comfort from a dog.
Somberly he scooted his chair back and stood up. “I should go.”
The look she gave him was tinged with relief, which also made him sad. But there was something more, wistfulness or maybe even regret, and he shared that.
They walked to the front door, the three of them. Realizing the door was going to open at any moment, Poppy lunged forward, the swish of her tail wiping the table there clean. Mila scolded her in a voice that was so sweet of course it negated the words coming out of her mouth while Sam bent to scoop up the fallen items: an ink pen, a spiral notebook, a stack of magazines and a book. The dust jacket was familiar, since the same book sat on his coffee table at home. The Unlucky Ones by Jane Gama.
“I wouldn’t have figured you for crime stories.” Granted, she’d probably bought it before Carlyle’s death, and it had probably sat there waiting its turn to be read. It had that sort of pristine stiffness unread books had.
Was that a shudder ricocheting through her, or merely the strain of holding back her excited dog? “I read everything.”
“I have it at home but haven’t started it yet. Lois said she had to quit halfway through. It gave her nightmares.” He paused. “Have you had any more?”
She shook her head, her lower lip caught between her teeth.
He glanced at the book again, its stark cover declaring it the true story of a girl’s life with serial killer parents. The name was a pseudonym, the author’s real identity well hidden, which had created a buzz regarding its real truth that was, according to Lois, better publicity than the publisher could have paid for. She hadn’t decided for herself before having to give it up.
Shrugging it off, he set the book and everything else back on the table and fixed his gaze on Mila. “Well.”
She was still biting her lip, stirring the need for him to brush his fingertip across it, to ease her teeth apart and then, oh, hell, maybe she could bite his lip.
He was in a damn pitiful state.
“Thank you for dinner.”
“You’re welcome.” He opened the door, and she pulled so hard against Poppy’s force that she would lose her balance and fall on her butt if the dog suddenly relaxed.
“I—I’ll see you…?”
He grinned to ease her uncertainty and to express his own relief. “Absolutely.” Then, because he couldn’t kiss her good-night or squeeze her hand or anything like that, not yet, he did the next best thing. “Sweet dreams, Mila.”
The storm was violent. The power flickered and went off, but there was no peace in the darkness. He had anticipated this, had lit lanterns all around the barn. The rafters shook under the force of the winds, bits of straw and dust sprinkling onto us from the loft above. My mother, trusting I wouldn’t flee, slowly walked toward the victim, a look of such ecstasy on her face. Her gaze moved over her like a caress. It was the first time I’d ever seen a remotely happy expression on her, and the fact that it was caused by the sight of a bound woman about to die sickened me.