He made as if to pour, and she automatically covered the top of her mug with her hand.
“I don’t drink.”
He hesitated, then poured a small amount for himself. “I got some apple juice this morning. Or I could get you some water?”
“Juice would be great.”
He got up and headed for the fridge. “Can I ask? AA or a religious preference?”
“Safety. I haven’t touched anything that might cloud my perception in four years.”
He returned and poured her a mugful of juice before sitting opposite her. His face was carefully nonchalant.
“Didn’t you start running just three years ago?”
“Yes. But once it really sank in that someone might try to kill me at any moment, it was hard to think about much else. I couldn’t afford to be distracted. I could miss something. I did miss something, I guess. If I’d really been on my toes, Barnaby might still be alive. We shouldn’t have waited.”
“You don’t feel safe here?”
She looked up at him, surprised by the question. The answer was so obvious. “No.”
“Because I was stupid this morning?”
She shook her head. “No, not at all. I never feel safe anywhere.”
She heard how blasé the words sounded, the way the words of course seemed to be embedded in her answer, and watched his face fall a little in response.
“Hey, but I probably have PTSD. It doesn’t have to be like that. I’m sure another person could handle things better.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Yes, Kevin seems completely normal.”
They laughed again. She hadn’t laughed this much in the past three years put together.
He lifted his fork. “Shall we?”
o, I’m not exaggerating. I am fairly certain this is the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Granted, I’m generally a fast-food girl, so I’m not a very sophisticated judge, but I also mean what I say.”
“Well, that’s a lovely compliment. Thank you.”
“What is this again?” She poked her fork at the dessert on her plate, wishing she had a tiny bit more space in her stomach. She’d eaten herself nearly sick, but still she craved just one more bite.
“Bananas Foster butter cake.”
“I mean…” She went for it, ignoring her stomach and savoring a small forkful. “Where did you learn to do this?”
“I took a few culinary courses in college. I watch a lot of the Food Network on the weekends, and I practice when I can afford to.”
“Time amazingly well spent. I think you might have missed your calling, though.”
“I worked in a few restaurants back in the day. It wasn’t conducive to a social life. When I was dating my ex… well, she wasn’t a big fan of the schedule. My day job gave us more time together.”
“Not everyone would make the sacrifice.”
“It wasn’t one, really. Working with the kids always felt most important. I loved it. And it wasn’t like I couldn’t cook at home. So I got both for a while.”
“Then you stopped?”
He sighed. “Well, when Lainey left… I didn’t want to fight. I let her have whatever she wanted.”
Alex could easily picture how that had worked. She’d seen Daniel’s postdivorce bank account. “She cleaned you out.”
“Pretty much. Hence the ramen diet.”
“That is a crime.” She looked longingly at what was left of the butter cake.
“Life,” he said. “You’ve had your share of heartbreak.”
“Honestly, though it all went down with a little too much terror and tragedy, I was ready to quit anyway. It was never what I wanted to do with my life; it’s just what I was really good at.” She shrugged. “The job took a toll.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine. But I meant… romantically.”
She stared at him, uncomprehending. “Romantically?”
“Well, as you said, it ended in tragedy.”
“My life, sure. But…?”
“I just figured, from the way you talk about him, it must have been devastating to lose… Dr. Barnaby the way you did. You never said what his first name was?”
“It was Joseph. But I always called him Barnaby.”
She took a sip of her juice.
“And were you in love with him… from the very beginning?”
Her shocked gasp pulled a mouthful of juice into her lungs, and she spluttered and choked. Daniel jumped up and pounded her on the back while she tried to regain control of her breathing. After a minute, she waved him off.
“I’m okay,” she coughed out. “Sit.”
He stayed by her, one hand half extended. “Are you sure?”
“Just. Caught by surprise. With Barnaby?”
“I thought you said yesterday…”
She took a deep breath, then coughed one more time. “That I loved him.” She shuddered. “Sorry, I’m just having some seriously squicky incest reflexes right now. Barnaby was like my father. He was a good father – the only one I ever knew. It was really hard knowing how he died, and I miss him like hell. So, yes, definitely devastating. But not like that.”
Daniel returned slowly to his seat. He thought for a moment, and then he asked, “Who else did you have to cut ties with when you disappeared?”