Page 35 of Bayou Hero

“Was she—?”

Alia could guess the question from the reluctance suddenly radiating from him and the certainty, sharp and electric, that he didn’t want to know, but she figured he had to ask. No matter how he hated it, how totally comfortably he could live the rest of his life without hearing the answer, he forced the words out.

“Was she alive when she was put there?” The last few words stuck in his throat, and he swallowed hard, as if they’d created a huge blockage nothing more than air could get around.

She answered, her voice only a little louder than the rain plopping outside the door. “Yes.” Please don’t ask how we know, she prayed. Please don’t make me tell you that her fingernails were broken and bloodied from trying to claw her way out. She didn’t want those nightmares in her head, and she damn sure didn’t want to put them in his.

His mouth fixed again in a narrow line, he stood, his chair scraping loudly, handed the tequila off to the waitress and headed out the door. Alia swung her jacket on as she followed. Instead of turning left, toward the entrance to his apartment, he went right, and she matched pace with him, grateful she’d chosen sturdy sandals that would dry in an hour, with thick straps that kept them from slipping and sliding on her feet.

Halfway down the block, he glanced at her. Rain dripped from his hair, forcing it flat against his head, catching on his lashes, leaving him to squint to bring her into focus. “So this is the career you’ve chosen for yourself.”

She pushed her hands into her pockets, the bulges of her badge, her weapon and her Taser pressing back comfortably. If not for those items, she’d be in shirtsleeves, like him, and enjoying the rain more. “The job’s not all about making notifications.”

“Or seeing dead bodies. Or interviewing people who do awful things to other people because they can. But that’s a lot of it.”

She gave him the answer that, right out of college, she had given her mother. “As long as there are criminals in the world, there’s got to be someone to catch them.”

And he responded with her mother’s retort. “Why does that someone have to be you?”

Smiling thinly, she swiped a stream of water from her face. “I love my job. It gives me a sense of satisfaction. I know I do something that matters.”

“It doesn’t give you nightmares?”

“On occasion. But so does late-night TV.”

“Do you ever turn it off?”

They stopped at a corner to let a cab pass. The rain formed halos around the streetlights ahead, muted the music and conversation coming through open doors and turned the few people other than tourists on the street into huddling, hustling figures, keeping to the building sides in an effort to minimize the soaking. Even the tourists hurried, dashing and laughing from one bar to the next. Only she and Landry took their time.

“I have a life outside of work,” she said evenly.

“Though present circumstances might argue the opposite. Your day should have ended three or four hours ago, and yet here you are.”

It was the perfect statement to ignore. That was her intention, but all on its own, her mouth opened and words she shouldn’t be thinking, much less speaking aloud, found their way out. “Work was just the excuse. I wondered how you were doing.”

He looked at her—just that—and heat began rising from deep inside. If she were in the habit of lying to herself, she would have said it was due to the slicker, too heavy and too waterproof for a warm wet night. But she didn’t lie to herself. Though the slicker was uncomfortable, it wasn’t responsible for her increasing temperature.

After a long time, he looked away, as physical a feeling as removing his hand from hers would have been, and they began walking again. “It’s been a tough five days.” He gazed ahead as if the drenched scene bore watching.

Recalling his words in the bar—I’ve been better. I’ve been worse, too—she said, “Please don’t say you’ve had worse.”

The bit of his mouth she could see curved up in a sardonic smile. “No, of course not. What could be worse?”

Scowling, she bumped her shoulder against his. “Now I know you’re lying, and I’ll have to wonder—”

“Don’t.” His voice was barely audible, his gaze narrowed, his mouth thinned again. It was the last he spoke for more than a block.

Lies and secrets. A hell of a legacy for Jeremiah and Camilla Jackson to have left their children, compared to Alia’s own parents, who’d wanted nothing more than for her to be happy, healthy and loved. If she were an overly emotional person, the difference would make her misty-eyed. She would hurt for the children Landry and Mary Ellen had been, for the people they had become, for the people they would be once all this ugliness was sorted out.

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