Page 77 of Bayou Hero

Bleakly he lowered his head, scrubbed his face with his hands. “She should have done more, but at least she tried that time.”

“She should have cut his genitals off years ago and fed them to the gators.”

He smiled faintly. “Not a bit bloodthirsty, are you?”

She smiled, too, just a little. “My job is to protect people who can’t protect themselves.”

“Your passion,” he clarified.

“Yes,” she agreed. Unfolding her legs, she slid to the edge of the bed, trailing the sheet behind her until it fell loose, and she went to stand in front of him. “That, and you.”

He laid his palm against her cheek, warm and callused, and for the longest time just looked down at her. Bringing his forehead to rest against hers, he gave a long, soft sigh as if releasing the tension inside him. “I’m a lucky man, Alia,” he whispered.

Alia wasn’t the girliest of girls. She’d been a rough-and-tumble kid, and not a lot had changed as an adult. She carried a gun. She ran like the wind. She lifted weights and subjected herself both to being tasered and pepper sprayed. She could hold her own in a physical confrontation against men who outweighed her two to one. She didn’t get all gooey-soft inside, didn’t have a sentimental bone in her body, and couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried.

At least—she sniffled and held tightly to Landry—until now.

* * *

Landry was still awake when the alarm on the opposite nightstand went off. Alia stirred in his arms, reaching blindly behind her, silencing it, then settling into even, steady breathing again. Her hair fell across her face, trailed across his shoulder and chest, shifting lightly with each exhalation.

Just a few hours ago, he’d told her that he didn’t have much trouble sleeping anymore, but since then he’d lain awake, one subject running through his mind: he should have gone to the police, the way Miss Viola had wanted, all those years ago. Maybe they wouldn’t have believed him, but at least the suspicion would have been planted. Word would have got out—the city loved its gossip—and maybe a few people would have kept their kids away from Jeremiah and his buddies. Maybe a few kids could have been spared. But no, he’d been selfish, afraid to try, concerned only with himself and Mary Ellen. He hadn’t given a damn—hadn’t even spared a thought—about anyone else involved.

The guilt was nagging, sharp edged, but he found a little comfort in Dr. Granville’s regular theme: You were a kid. A victim. You’re not responsible. He did bear part of the responsibility, but not as much as the men did. And maybe it wasn’t enough, but he could help stop them. They wouldn’t hurt any other kids.

The alarm beeped again, and with a groan, Alia shoved her hair back from her face, then slowly, sleepily smiled. Without makeup, her hair a tangle and weariness etching lines on her face, she was beautiful. Warm. Solid. Naked. “Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

She sat up, turned off the alarm, then stretched her arms high above her head. The movement gave him an incredible view of her back, spine straight, skin soft and caramel in color, muscles flexing, waist narrowing in, hips flaring out. Bending, she found her pajamas and pulled on the top, then shimmied into the shorts. “When did the storm stop?”

He glanced at the windows, hearing the rainfall but no thunder, seeing no lightning. “A while ago.” It was just a guess. He’d been too preoccupied to notice.

“Sorry about the alarm. I’ll be quiet getting ready so you can go back to sleep.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek, then shuffled out of the room.

He should put on his damp clothes, go home and sleep in his own bed, but the idea seemed entirely too much work when he was already naked and in bed and so damn tired. Besides, he liked the idea of sleeping in Alia’s bed, of smelling her scent on the pillow and sheets, of being surrounded by the feel and the thought and the memory of her.

His eyes drooped shut as he turned onto his side, one arm resting on her pillow. He was vaguely aware of water running, bare feet padding past the door, clothing swishing and heels tapping by again, the aroma of coffee drifting on still air. A sense of well-being seeped through him, of comfort and belonging and safety, as his mind finally shut down and he drifted to sleep.

It was hours before he woke up, still in the same position. The continuing rain cast the room in shadows, but he came alert with instant awareness of his surroundings. Alia’s house. Alia’s bed.

It took a moment to realize it was the cell phone that had awakened him. Sometime before leaving, she’d emptied his pockets on the night table—keys, wallet, fewer condoms than he’d left home with and the cell that was ringing again—and taken his damp shorts from the room. He stretched across to reach the phone, settling into the now-cooled sheets where she’d lain earlier, and said hello to Mary Ellen.