Midnight Bayou Page 24

"It's okay. I'll be okay." His ears were ringing. The minute he got out of the room, he headed for the steps, then just sank down and put his head between his knees. "Jesus.”

"There now, sweetheart." She stroked his hair.

"Close that door, would you? Just close it.”

She hurried back, slammed it shut. "You get your breath back, then we'll get you down and into bed.”

"I've been wanting to hear you say that since the first time I laid eyes on you.”

The clutching in her belly eased a bit. "You're coming back, aren't you?”

"Better." He could breathe again, and the nausea was fading. "I'll just have to go beat someone up, or shoot some small mammal so I can regain my manhood.”

"Let me see your face." She tipped his head back, studied him. "Still a little pale, but you got some color again. I bet Grandmama's right. You don't eat. What'd you eat today, cher?”

"Wheaties. Breakfast of champions." He managed a wan smile. "Doesn't seem to have worked.”

"I'm going to fix you a sandwich.”

"Really?" The simple pleasure of the idea trickled through him. "You're going to cook for me?”

"A sandwich isn't cooking.”

"In my world it is. Lena, that room …”

"We'll talk about that-after you get something in your stomach.”

The pickings were sparse. One look in the secondhand refrigerator currently gracing the dining room had Lena sending Declan one long, pitying look. "How old are you? Twelve?”

"I'm a guy." He replied with a shrug. "Guys' grocery habits never age. I've got peanut butter to go with that jelly." He glanced around the room. "Somewhere.”

He also had one lonely slice of deli ham, two eggs, some anemic-looking cheese and a half bag of pre-cut salad. "Looks like I'm going to cook for you after all. Where's the stove?”

"Right here." He tapped the top of a microwave.

"Well, we'll make do. Bowl? Knife? Fork?”

"Ah …" He rooted through the box of his current kitchen supplies and came up with the plastic ware.

"Honey, this is just sad. Sit yourself down, and Lena'll take care of you. This one time," she added.

He hitched onto a sawhorse and watched her beat some eggs, shred in the ham, the cheese, sprinkle in some of the contents of the salad bag.

"You got any herbs, cher? Any spices?”

"I got salt and pepper. That counts," he muttered when she sighed. "Explorers discovered whole continents for salt.”

"Grew up with a cook, didn't you?”

"Yeah. So?”

"What did you do when you moved out on your own?”

"Takeout, delivery and the microwave. With those three things, no man need starve.”

She set the bowl in the microwave, programmed it, then turned back to him. "Living out here, you'd best hire yourself another cook.”

"Name your price.”

"You're a funny man, Declan." His color was good now, his eyes clear. The knot that had been in her belly since he'd pitched over loosened. "How come you don't have a woman?”

"I had one, but it turned out I didn't really want her."

"That so?" She opened the oven when it beeped, whisked the egg mixture around, then programmed it again. "What happened?”

"Remy didn't tell you?”

"He doesn't tell me everything.”

"I was engaged. I called it off three weeks before the wedding, which makes me, you know, a cad. A lot of people in Boston are still cursing my name.”

He was trying to make it a joke, she thought, but wasn't quite pulling it off. "Is that why you left?”

"No, it's why I realized I could leave.”

"You didn't love her.”

"No, I didn't love her.”

"It makes you sad to say that." She drew out the bowl, got a fresh plastic fork, then handed it to him. His eyes were stormy again, she noted. With regret. "She love you?”

"No. We looked good together. We were used to each other. She thought we wanted the same things.”

"But you didn't.”

"We never did. And the closer it got to D-Day, the more I saw my life just … narrowing down until I was squeezed into this tiny slot. No room, no air. No light. I realized I felt the same way about marrying Jessica as I did about practicing corporate law, and if that was going to be the rest of my life, I could jump off a bridge or get out of the slot while I had the chance.”

She brushed the hair from his forehead. "It was braver to get out than to jump.”

"Maybe. This is good," he said as he scooped up more egg. "Why don't you have a man?”

She cocked her head. "Who says I don't?”

He grabbed her hand before she could turn away. "I need to know if you do.”

She looked down at his hand, back to his face. "Why is that?”

"Because I can't stop thinking about you. I can't get you out of my head, from under my skin. Because every time I see you, my heart kicks in my chest.”

"You're good at that, too. At saying things that stir a woman up." If it had just been that, just a matter of being stirred by him, she might have eased in between those long legs and satisfied them both. But this wasn't a simple man, she thought.

Being with him wouldn't be simple.

"Eat your eggs," she told him, and slid her hand free of his. "Why are you starting with the kitchen if you eat peanut butter and don't have a single dish to your name?”

"I've got dishes, just not the kind you wash. The kitchen's the heart of a house. The house where I grew up-this big, old wonderful house with big, wonderful rooms. We had that cook, but it was the kitchen where we ended up if there was a crisis or a celebration, or just something to talk over. I guess I want that here.”

"That's nice." She leaned back on a cabinet to study him. "You want to have sex with me, cher?”

His pulse lurched, but he managed to hop nimbly off the sawhorse. "Sure. Just let me kick the plumber out." He loved the way she laughed. "Oh, you didn't mean right this minute. That was, what, like a true or false type of question. Let me check." He laid his fingers on his wrist. "Yeah, I'm still alive, so the answer is true.”

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