The alcohol had dulled his senses, but he still take in how good she looked in that low-cut tank top. Looking down the length of the bar, it was clear a few other men had noticed too.
She held the bottle, tipping it toward the glass. “Another one, Luke?”
He slapped his hand over the mouth of the glass, looking up at her through glassy eyes. “Something different this time.”
“Don’t know.” He shrugged. “Let me think about it.”
The shirt plunged lower when she leaned forward, elbows on the bar, as she waited for his decision.
Her finger under his chin lifted his eyes back to hers. “Up here, buddy.”
He grinned. “Got any whiskey? That stuff from Tennessee I like?”
She snatched up the bottle from the collection behind her, poured, watching the glass, then him, then the glass again.
He winced as it hit his tongue. It burned all the way down, making him cough hard.
By the time he could speak again, she was pouring a drink for the next guy. When she didn’t look his way again after she was done, he brushed a hand against hers.
“You look good tonight, Lily.”
She kept her eye on the drink she was pouring. “You look drunk tonight.”
He grinned. “And good, right?”
She walked away without ever looking at him.
If he hadn’t been so drunk, he would have enjoyed the way she ordered him to get up a few minutes later when he slid off the stool and hit the floor. He always did like a forceful woman.
Orange streetlights streaking by in a haze of rippled patterns constituted his last memory until he woke up face down on an unmade bed, the smell of vomit thick in his nostrils. Sunlight burned his retinas and for a moment he thought he’d gone blind. Blind drunk. That was the saying and maybe it had happened to him. Pain exploded in his temples and through the back of his head. He groaned as he sat up. The world came into focus again and he didn’t like what he saw. And overflowing laundry basket, crumpled sections of a newspaper, a half -eaten banana and an empty carton of cigarettes littered the bedroom floor.
The clanking of dishes brought him to the kitchen reluctantly, his feet shuffling, as if lifting them would make his head hurt worse.
Standing straight wasn’t an option this morning. He leaned a shoulder against the doorframe for support. “You been here all night?”
She flipped a pancake onto a plate. “Didn’t think you should be alone, old man. You’d probably trip over that ugly dog and hit your head on the toilet.”
Pete, the basset hound, let out an indignant huff.
He rubbed the dog’s head in comfort. “Who you callin’ old? They, whoever they is, say you’re only as old as you feel. I don’t feel a day over sixty.”
He winced as he sat in a hardwood chair at the kitchen table, using the table to buffer his weight, knowing sitting too fast would send more pain shooting through creaking joints.
She scoffed. “Well, that’s not good. You’re only fifty-five.”
He rubbed his hand across the stubble along his chin. “Fifty-four.”
She slid a plate of eggs with a side of unbuttered toast and two slices of crispy bacon across the table next to the plate of pancakes.
“You turned fifty-five last week.” She scowled. “You were probably too drunk to remember.”
He grimaced. “Not sure I can stomach that this morning.”
“The food or the truth?”
She leaned back against the counter, folded her arms across her chest. “You’re going to have to start taking care of yourself. I won’t be around the bar anymore to keep an eye on you.”
He looked up from his pancakes, one eyebrow raised questioningly. “What do you mean?”
She tossed the pan into the sink. It clattered, metal on metal. He groaned at the pain radiating in his skull.
“I quit.” The words clipped out of her sharp, like the pan in the sink. “Tired of seeing people drink themselves into an early grave. Not exactly what the honorable Rev. James Fields wanted for his baby girl.”
He snorted a laugh, a piece of bacon pinched between a thumb and forefinger, hovering a few inches from his mouth. “Funny you’d use that word to describe him.”
She stopped mid-pour, slammed the pot down. Coffee splashed onto the table. “Get yourself cleaned up, Luke. You’re pathetic.”
The slam of the door reverberated in his head.
He thought of her that night when he methodically slid the bullets in the chamber, one by one by one by one, and held the gun in a trembling hand.
He thought of her when he tipped the bullets out fifteen minutes later, placed them in the drawer by the bed, the empty gun in its box on the top shelf in the closet.
He thought of her as liquid swirled down the sink like melted caramel two days later.
He thought of her a week later during the meeting in the stale-smelling basement of the old Baptist church.
For two months, the phone didn’t ring; the knock didn’t come.
When she finally walked up the sidewalk he stood in the doorway, hands in his front jean pockets, one side of his body propped against the doorframe, eyes narrowed in bright sunlight that caught the blond highlights in her hair. Fresh from the shower, he was clean shaven, his hair wet, but combed.
She stopped a few feet away, one hand resting on a slender hip encased in faded blue jeans. His gaze stayed on her eyes, didn’t stray, even though he wanted it to wander down the length of her, across the curves his hands wanted to touch.
“You should have left me when you had the chance.”
She smirked. “I did.”
A smile tilted one side of his mouth up. “You should have stayed left then.”
“I should have done a lot of things.”
He pushed off the doorframe and stood straight, fully blocking the doorway. “I could fall off the wagon, you know.”
She squinted back at him, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “You could. “
Her perfume, like lilacs blooming in spring, was intoxicating, the kind of intoxication that heightened his senses instead of dulled them. She stepped up to him, tilted her face up toward his.
His fingertips grazed her cheek, trailed along her jawline. “You’re better than whiskey, Lily. Always have been. I was just too messed up to see it.”
He traced her bottom lip with the edge of his thumb. She closed her eyes.
Pressing his forehead against hers, his voice faded to a whisper. “You sure you want to take a chance on me again?”
The answer came with her mouth warm and soft on his. Sliding one arm across her lower back, he pulled her gently against him and moved his other hand behind her head, his fingers clutching at her hair. She wound her arms around his neck as the kiss deepened. The taste of her lips sent adrenaline crashing through his veins, chasing away logic and reason.
They stayed pressed together, clutching each other, even when their lips parted. They didn’t speak for a long time; simply looked into each other’s eyes, relearning.
Sunlight glinted off the diamond when she raised her hand. “For better or for worse. Right?”
He shook his head. “All I’ve ever given you is worse.”
She smiled. “Then it’s time for the better.”