“I’m so sorry, Landry! I don’t know what got into me. I’m just so tired and sad, and the doctors have me taking so much medicine, and I just feel like things are never going to be normal again! Please don’t go away mad! I didn’t mean to upset you. I just...” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “Oh, God, things have gone so wrong, Landry.”
He held himself stiff a moment, two, before his muscles relaxed of their own accord, his arms pulling her closer, his hand patting her back. “It’s okay,” he murmured over and over until her tears stopped and her trembling eased. “I’m not mad. I’ve never been mad at you.”
Her snort was unexpected, a response he could easily imagine from Alia but never from Mary Ellen. “Bull,” she whispered, followed by a hiccup of a laugh. “You’ve been mad at me dozens of times. You just can’t stay mad because I’m so sweet and you love me so much.” She lifted her head, wiped her eyes with her little finger, drying them without smearing her makeup, then gave another shaky laugh. “I love you, too. I couldn’t live without you.”
Under normal circumstances, though they were close, they weren’t touchy-feely with each other. Her words made him feel a little of the old comfortably familiar awkwardness. He hid it with a grin. “I plan to be around a long time.”
Pulling out of his arms, she took his hand in both of hers. “Stay longer now. Geneva can reheat our lunch, and she made a fabulous cobbler with peaches picked from her own trees, and there’s vanilla ice cream, too. Please? I promise, no more talk about Mama and Daddy and the house.”
Because he knew she wouldn’t likely keep her word—how could she avoid talking about the biggest tragedies in her life?—he was reluctant to say yes, but leaving would only hurt her feelings. He was a grown man. He could listen to her, could bite his tongue if necessary.
And Geneva’s peach cobbler was a thing of wonder.
“Lead the way back to the table.” As he followed Mary Ellen down the hall again, he realized he was starting to think about food the way Alia did. The thought made him smile.
The rest of the meal passed pleasantly enough. Landry and Mary Ellen talked about the kids, how Scott was taking them to Baton Rouge after work that afternoon, where they would stay with his parents until the Sunday after Camilla’s funeral. They discussed mutual acquaintances and the weather and how lucky Mary Ellen was to have Geneva, who, along with Mama Trahn, was the best cook in the city. He would have to snag a dinner invitation for him and Alia with this same menu. She would fall in love with Geneva after the first bite and be wanting to marry her once she tasted the peach cobbler.
It gave Landry pause, imagining his sister and her family, Alia and him gathered around the dinner table. He’d never brought a woman to any family get-together—had always kept his love life separate from his family life. But Alia fit perfectly into that image. Mary Ellen would like her because he did, Scott because she was so damn likable, and the girls would love her and want to be just like her when they grew up.
It felt very right.
After dessert, he and Mary Ellen took glasses of iced tea onto the gallery, sat under the protection of the broad roof and watched the rain for a while. It had settled to little more than a sprinkle, a fine rinse that washed everything clean and made it gleam. Tiny drops beaded on the grass blades and the flower petals and made him feel lazy, as if all he wanted to do was sit here until Alia got off work, then go to her house and sit on that porch with her.
Or just take her straight to bed.
He was considering that, his body temperature rising, his muscles getting twitchy, when Mary Ellen broke the silence.
“I know I said I wouldn’t...”
He bit back a sigh.
Staring into the distance, she heaved her own sigh, heavy and reluctant. “Yesterday you asked if I ever thought about what happened when we were kids. What were you talking about?”
The question hung between them in the air, as if the humidity had caught it and wouldn’t let it fade away. He shifted to look at her, but she continued to stare off, her expression stark, her body absolutely motionless. For just an instant, skin pale, unmoving, distant look, she reminded him more of a statue than a living, breathing person. Then she met his gaze. Hers was filled with shadows and emotion that scraped her raw, that scraped him raw, too.
He didn’t want to tell her. Didn’t want to uncover memories she’d buried more than half a lifetime ago. Didn’t want to tarnish that love and respect for their parents that had irritated him so a few hours ago.