Page 68 of Bayou Hero

Better yet, she’d beg Evie for the recipe and persuade Landry to make them.

Though the temperature was hovering somewhere around broil when she stepped out of the building, the mere thought of how she might persuade Landry was enough to make her shiver.

* * *

Mondays were slow nights in the bar, though slow was a matter of perception. If it was located anywhere besides Bourbon Street, Landry would say they had a good crowd. Given that they were on Bourbon, it was slow.

It was nearly seven o’clock, not even halfway through his shift, when Alia walked in the door. He wasn’t the only one who noticed her, glancing about as a dozen male heads swiveled in her direction. They watched her stride across the room, admired her as she easily slid onto a stool, then went back to whatever had occupied them before.

Except him. He leaned on the bar in front of her, separated from her by her purse—tiny—and a plastic bag—huge. He didn’t need the whiff of warm bread, spicy meats and olives to know the bag contained food.

Folding her hands together, she smiled. The strength of it hit him in the midsection like a fist. “Hi.”

“Hey. Is that smile for me or the food?”

“It’s a toss-up. I’ve got muffalettas from Frank’s. Plus potato salad, tabouli and extra olive salad.”

“That’s worth smiling about.” He popped the top from an icy beer and set the bottle in front of her. “You look like you had a good day.”

“It had its moments. How was yours?”

He shrugged. “I went back to visit the Cadillac man. Camilla’s service is set for Thursday.”

Though he’d expected her smile to fade, he was sorry when it did. She was beautiful no matter what her expression, but she actually glowed when she smiled, as if life couldn’t possibly get any better.

He wasn’t sure when or if he’d ever smiled like that.

“I saw Mary Ellen and the kids afterward. She’s doing better.”

“Good. Great. I can only imagine how hard this is for her.”

It was the same for him. Somehow, after everything, Mary Ellen had stayed close to their parents. She had truly loved them, and now she truly mourned them, while Landry couldn’t summon any grief. Only regret.

“Did you talk to DiBiase and Murphy?” He didn’t want to ask the question, didn’t want to know the answer. Admitting that he’d been a victim was hard enough. Admitting that he’d been a victim of rape... His face flushed hot with shame. Men rarely reported sexual assaults, Dr. Granville had told him, just for that reason, because they found it humiliating, emasculating. It was neither, she’d insisted. He’d been a child, a victim, in no way responsible for what had happened to him. He’d had nothing to be ashamed of.

After a long time, he’d learned to believe her. But sometimes old habits were easy to slip back into.

Though he was avoiding looking at Alia, he sensed when she moved, laying her hand over his. “I told them everything. They’ll handle it with all the sensitivity it calls for.”

He snorted. “Sensitivity? DiBiase?”

“Jimmy used to be a sex crimes detective. His cases were primarily rapes, and he was very, very good with the victims.” Her voice lightened a fraction. “I know, I know. Surprised the hell out of me, too.”

Landry studied her hand on top of his, her fingers bare of jewelry, her nails neatly curved and painted with pale pink tips. Her watch emphasized the delicacy of her wrist, its gold gleaming against her brown skin.

He’d done a lot of hand-holding in his life, first with Camilla, then with Mary Ellen. He liked that Alia was strong enough to not need it, strong enough to offer it to others, yet soft enough to accept it if she’d wanted it.

He had to pull away to wait on a customer. When he returned, he asked, “Are you just going to let your sandwich sit there and get cold?”

She glanced at the bag, and that familiar gleam came into her eyes. “I was hoping you’d get a dinner break at a decent hour. I brought plenty to share.”

He didn’t normally eat dinner until closer to ten...but normally he didn’t have a muffaletta and Alia waiting for him. Catching the attention of the other bartender, he said, “I’m taking my break. I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”

Circling the bar, he picked up the food, gave Alia a hand down from the stool, then led her outside and through the gate into the courtyard. Her flip-flops punctuated their steps as they climbed the stairs.

“I envy your commute.”

“It comes in handy, but it limits the excuses when you’re late to work.”

“Ah, yes, no matter where I live, I can always claim traffic as an excuse. Well, unless they send me to a ship.”