Page 63 of Bayou Hero

“I’d like to think he had some sort of feelings for her that wouldn’t let him do that,” he said regretfully. “They were married more than thirty years. They had children, grandchildren. But he traded his kids to his friends for sex, so hell, what do I know?”

After a few more moments, he removed the food from the grill, and they settled at the small kitchen table to eat. Much as he liked sunshine and heat, air-conditioning had a lot going for it.

Everything was smoky, the chicken tender, the corn buttery, the tomatoes tangy. He’d cooked enough for three, and all the plates were empty when they finished. Where did she put it all?

She gave a satisfied sigh. “If I married you, would you grill dinner every night?”

He stilled in the act of reaching for dishes to carry to the sink. It was a silly question, based on her affection for food rather than her fondness for him. But it touched the part of him that had found intimacy a problem. It made him feel normal. “Maybe every other night. Odd nights we grill. Even nights we get Vietnamese.”

“Excellent compromise.” She moved the beers to the countertop, then got a pop-up wipe to clean the table. “With beignets on Sunday mornings and oysters on the half shell every Friday night.”

His hands in sudsy water, Landry studied her. While prepping dinner, he’d seen all the candy dishes, had found a cabinet full of potato chips and cereal. There hadn’t been much else in the way of food besides canned and frozen vegetables and six half gallons of almond milk. “Your father starved you as a child, didn’t he?” he teased.

She stuck out her tongue. “He brought me a scooter pie home from work every single day. When he was deployed, he mailed them to me every day...though now that I think of it, my mom may have just told me to make me happy because they were never crushed or melty.”

“And I’m sure your mother fed you as often and as much as possible.”

Alia rinsed the first dish he’d washed, then dried and put it away. “Mom says every Vietnamese mother needs a village to feed. I was hers.” She gave the towel a warning wave in his direction. “I know what you’re doing. Jimmy teased me about how much I ate every single day we were married. You’re just a little more tactful than him. He was always saying, ‘Damn, girl, you eat a lot.’ I do. I always have. Mom says I begged for extra bottles of formula when I was six months old. Jimmy says one day my metabolism is going to fail and my ass is going to explode to two ax handles’ wide.”

Landry handed the last dish to her. “I like your ass just fine.”

After putting the plate away, she swatted him with the towel. “I wasn’t fishing for a compliment, but thank you.”

Still teasing, he said, “Now you say something nice about me.”

“Oh, you are fishing for compliments.” She hung up the towel, smoothed it neatly, then looked up. “I like you—” After a moment, she changed the inflection and simply, quietly repeated it. “I like you.”

* * *

It was nearly ten when Landry rose from the couch and stretched. “I should go.”

Yes, you should, Alia thought, but she didn’t want him to. Which was exactly why he should. She had already spent way more time with him than she could justify, doing things far better suited to boyfriend/girlfriend than special agent/subject. The only claim she could make with a clear conscience was that things hadn’t gotten physical. Yet.

She slid to her feet, turned off the music and walked barefoot with him to the door and outside. Nocturnal insects sang in a chorus of buzzes. A soft breeze carried fragrances from a neighbor’s garden, and somewhere distant a train whistle sounded.

They stopped at the edge of the steps, the boards warm and worn smooth against her feet by generations of feet traveling across them. He was near enough for her to feel the energy radiating from him, to touch if she swayed just the tiniest bit to her left. She could lay her head on his shoulder, feel his warmth and strength and breathe in the scent of him. She could then lift her head from his shoulder and find herself exactly where she wanted to be.

Wrapped in intimacy with him.

He gazed at her a long time in the dim glow of the porch light, and she knew—not wishful thinking but knew as sure as she stood there that he was thinking the same thing. He wanted intimacy, and he wanted it with her.

Confirming her thought, he leaned closer, a slow encroaching that gave her plenty of time to step back. She didn’t. His mouth was only an inch away, almost near enough to kiss, to taste, but before she closed the distance between them, he spoke.

“I like you, too,” he murmured in a raspy voice. “So what do we do about it?”