"Okay, I got a provolone cheesesteak with chips." The crinkly rustle of paper tore Lilly's attention away from her paperwork to where Jeffries stood in front of their little cluster of desks, up to his elbows in a large sack from Geno's.
"That's mine." Her mouth already watering, she fished a couple bills out of her desk drawer and handed them to her colleague in exchange for the paper-wrapped sandwich, along with a bag of chips and a bottle of water.
"Scotty. Heads up." Will lofted another torpedo-shaped sandwich into the air, which Scotty caught easily.
"Pay you back."
"Yeah, right." Jeffries sat down at his desk and unwrapped his own sandwich, while Lilly took a greedy bite of hers and Scotty headed for the kitchen.
"Oh, hell, no." Will's disgusted-sounding exclamation drew Lilly's gaze to where Scotty was reaching up onto the shelf in for the can of spray cheese he kept there. "Hey, Scotty. I'll cancel your debt if you don't desecrate that sandwich."
"Sorry, man." Grinning, Scotty strode into the squad room and placed the can on his desk. He dug around in his pocket for his money clip, extracted a couple of bills, and handed them to Will, who rolled his eyes. A moment later came the telltale pressurized hiss of cheese-in-a-can.
Will shook his head and stuffed the bills into his shirt pocket. "It's like peeing on the Liberty Bell."
"Hey," Scotty protested around his first mouthful of spray cheese and sandwich. "Don't knock it 'til you try it."
Don't knock good. Lilly heard the words as clearly as if Saccardo were standing right there speaking them. With a bittersweet pang, she pulled open her bag of chips and wondered just how Eddie was faring. Where was he? What was he doing? Was he okay?
And on the heels of that, the questions that hadn't left her alone since her talk with Scotty last night. Was Saccardo thinking about her at all? Did he miss her? Was this what 'normal' would look like for their relationship? Was that really what she wanted?
Well. Right now, what she wanted was to finish her lunch.
"Afternoon, kids." Vera and Kat entered the office and deposited their things onto their desks.
"You two get lucky this mornin'?" Scotty asked.
Nick and Kat both froze, visibly startled.
"Y'know, with the sister," Scotty continued around a mouthful of cheesesteak. "Someone's gotta get some kinda lead besides this damn hood ornament."
Lilly couldn't have said it better herself. She and Will had visited Big Ed's Big Pawn in Willingboro that morning, only to find the seedy-looking establishment closed due to non-payment of taxes. All calls to the numbers they had for Big Ed, or any of his presumably normal-sized associates, had gone unanswered.
"Oh, that? That, my friends, is wide open." The relief on Vera's face, coupled with the way he and Kat staunchly avoided eye contact as they settled into their desks, confirmed Lilly's suspicions. Something was definitely percolating between the two of them. She cut an instinctive glance at Scotty, but he was too busy with his sandwich to notice.
"We got not one, but two leads," Kat said with a smile. "According to Bridget, James Fleming wasn't the only man in Ellie's life."
"She was two-timin' him with one of the lawyers at the firm she worked for." Vera draped his coat over the back of his chair.
Lilly glanced toward Scotty again to find him looking back at her as he reached for his soda. "No kiddin'," he said.
"She says Ellie broke it off toward the end," Vera continued. "Went back to James."
"Even so," Will mused, leaning back in his chair, "if I found out my fiancee was steppin' out on me right before the wedding? Think I'd take exception."
"Or this other guy at the firm," Scotty suggested. "Maybe he ain't a fan of gettin' dumped."
"The fiancée and the boyfriend." Lilly reached into her bag for another chip. "There's our two leads."
"I didn't even get to the best part." Kat's eyes took on an eager shine. "The guy she was cheating with? Rick Rodgers."
"Rick Rodgers?" Jeffries repeated. "The mystery writer?"
Lilly froze, her potato chip still half in the bag. "Wait, the Rick Rodgers?"
"The one and only." Kat looked extremely proud of herself. "Looks like before he started writin' murder mysteries, he was a a low-level attorney with the DA's office."
Lilly tilted her head to the side. "Kinda remember reading that on a book jacket somewhere, now that you mention it. Didn't remember it bein' here in Philly."
"He still in town?" Jeffries inquired.
Vera shook his head. "Tracked him down through his publisher. Lives in SoHo."
Stillman who had emerged from his office a few moments before, nodded in Kat and Vera's direction. "Good work, you two. Guess the question now is, who's up for a trip to New York?"
"I'll go." Even Lilly was amazed at how quickly the words leaped from her mouth.
"That was fast." The boss's blue-gray eyes twinkled their amusement. "You a Rodgers fan?"
Lilly grinned. "Maybe a little."
"All right. Who's headed for the Big Apple with Lil?" Stillman looked around the group.
"Wish I could." Kat looked genuinely disappointed. "V has a ballet recital tonight, though. Can't miss it."
The boss nodded. "Fair enough."
"Yeah, I've got a—" Vera paused, reeling under an inexplicably scathing glare from Kat. "Poker game. Also tonight. Which I can't miss."
"I've got a thing," Jeffries replied without looking up.
"A thing?" Vera frowned at his partner. "What kinda thing?"
Will still didn't look up. "A thing, all right?"
"Guess that leaves me." The crumpling of foil and paper filled the air as Scotty wadded up the sandwich and stuffed it into the empty sack.
Lilly's heart filled with a strange excitement. "Road trip!"
Scotty flashed a guarded grin. "Least we won't have to listen to country music this time."
The swish of traffic, the occasional honk of a horn, and the rhythmic thump of tires on asphalt were the only background noise to this car trip. No radio to ease the awkwardness this time, because there was no awkwardness to ease. So, as uncertain as Scotty felt about what being in close proximity to Lilly outside the boundaries of the office might do to him, at least there was that.
He glanced her way to find her looking back at him, eyes twinkling with mysterious mirth.
"What?" he asked.
"Okay. Kat and Nick. What the hell? Do you know somethin' I don't?"
Scotty grinned. "Well, I know they ain't as good at hidin' whatever it is as they think they are."
"What have I been missing?" The detective in her was clearly irritated at potentially having overlooked important clues.
"Well, he was bein' all chivalrous at the Blue Ball Saturday." Scotty changed lanes, processing the few non-Lilly-related memories he had of the evening. "Never left her side the whole night. Insisted on drivin' her home, even after I offered."
"I'm glad he gave her a ride." Her voice held a tender smile.
"Yeah. Me, too."
Wait, was she just glad Kat had been seen safely home? Or was she glad Nick had been the one to do it, leaving Scotty to come to her aid? Something in the softness of her tone made him think, to his astonishment, that it just might be the latter.
Quickly, before those stirrings could start up again, Scotty changed the subject to what he hoped was safe territory. "So you're a Rick Rodgers fan, huh?"
"I…might've read everything he's ever written."
Scotty glanced over at her in surprise. "That's, like, what, thirty? Forty books?"
He chuckled. "Just when you think you know someone."
"You ever read any of his books?"
"Couple of 'em." He paused to think. "Rifles and Rings was pretty good."
She gave a quiet gasp. "My favorite Rodgers novel of all time."
"What about Death of a Homecoming Queen?"
"I never read that one."
"Oh, that one was amazing, too. Even I didn't have a clue who the killer was until—" she stopped and shook her head. "Well, I won't spoil it for you. But you can borrow my copy when we get back."
His lips curved at this adorably enthusiastic side of Lil he couldn't recall ever seeing before."Okay."
"What other ones of his have you read?" Her eager blue eyes sparkled like the ocean in the mid-afternoon sun.
"Well, Lil, to be honest, murder mysteries ain't my thing when I'm not at work. I mean, they're great and all, but…I just need a break sometimes, y'know?"
"Sure, I get that," she said, her tone free of judgment. "So what do you like to read?"
He looked over with a sheepish grin as traffic slowed to a crawl. "Car and Driver. SI. Bill Conlin's columns for the Inquirer."
A dazzling, dimpled smile. "Not much of a reader, huh?"
"Got nothin' against books, I was just always too busy runnin' around breakin' stuff as a kid to really get into 'em." He stole a teasing glance in her direction. "Figure I'll read more when I'm old and slow."
Scotty offered an innocent, boyish grin, the kind that had always gotten him out of trouble when he was a kid. She burst out laughing, and his heart soared. Lilly didn't laugh often, but when she did, and as the result of something he'd said? He felt like he'd just won the lottery.
"How is it we've never talked about this stuff?" Turning slightly toward him, she leaned her elbow on the armrest attached to the car door and rested her right cheek lightly atop her knuckles.
That same question had just crossed his mind. Six years they'd been partners. Six years of swapped theories and shared lunches and late nights spent chasing down justice, and he couldn't recall ever discussing something so mundane as favorite reading material.
Inching closer to the bumper of the Chevy in front of him, he chuckled. "Too busy savin' the world, I guess."
"So let's throw it all out there." She glanced toward the seemingly endless parade of taillights in front of them. "Looks like we got some time to kill."
Here she was again. This open, unguarded, guileless Lilly, the same one he'd seen on his rooftop Saturday night. She made his heart hurt, but in a good way. A way that made him want to feel it again and again.
Alarm bells clanged in his head at that. He ignored them.
"All right," he said. "Let's go."
"Okay." She shifted in her seat again, eyes gleaming with eagerness. "First thing that comes to mind. Favorite color."
"Red. Well, and black. Your turn."
Scotty grinned. "Coulda guessed." She frowned for a moment, then looked down at deep blue blouse she wore fairly often, the one that made her eyes look even bluer than normal.
"Yeah, me too," she said. He followed her smile to his tie. Red. With black stripes.
"Let's go for somethin' a little less obvious," he suggested, switching his attention back to the line of cars in front of him. "Favorite TV show."
"Law & Order."
"Original recipe? SVU?"
"Well, I like 'em all, but...Criminal Intent. I like to know the why."
Yeah, that was the Lilly he knew.
"What about you?" she asked.
"SportsCenter," he said with a grin.
"Well, naturally. Anything besides that?"
"The Shield. All time favorite show."
She tilted her head to the side. "Thought you didn't like thinkin' about work when you weren't at work."
"Said I don't like to read about it." The lane to his left was moving faster. Glancing over his shoulder, he switched on his turn signal. "Watchin' it? Totally different."
Gunning the accelerator, he took advantage of a minuscule break in traffic and slid into the next lane, much to the horn-honking annoyance of the BMW behind him. "Your turn, Rush. Grill me."
"Easy. My mom's arroz con gandules."
"Oye, chico." Her voice was as light and teasing as the grin he knew was on her lips. "Gringa."
Scotty's heart gave a strange thump at the sound of his mother tongue on his partner's lips. He was seized with a sudden desire to find out what other words she might know. What the lyrical language might sound like encased in her adorable, if a bit clunky, Philly accent.
Glancing her way, he realized by the expectant, and slightly confused, look on her face that she was still waiting for a translation. "It's gonna sound way better in Spanish than English."
"Well, arroz is rice, and gandules are these little peas. Pigeon peas, I think they're called."
"Rice with peas?" She sounded as incredulous as he'd expected. "Your favorite food is rice with peas?"
"It's more than just the peas," he protested around a chuckle. "It's got some tocino in it; that's kinda like bacon. Olives, capers, and the spices…I'm droolin' just thinkin' about it."
"Yeah, well, drool the other way, Valens."
He had to laugh. "Let's see…" Once more, he pondered the line of cars out the windshield, although thankfully they were moving a bit faster now. "Oh. Here's one. How'd you decide to become a cop?"
That gorgeous smile froze on her face, then wilted like a flower that dared to bloom too early. "Oh. Okay, uh…you first."
"Okay…" Suddenly, she seemed a million miles away. Had he said something to upset her? Done something? Maybe he should turn on the radio after all.
But Lilly didn't seem upset. In fact, she still had that expectant look in her eyes, the one that told him he wasn't going to get off the hook that easy, so he plunged ahead.
"Well, for the longest time I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. Easiest ticket outta my neighborhood was sports, and I was pretty good, but not good enough for a scholarship. So college ball was a no go." A grin tugged at his lips at the memory of his eighteen-year-old self. "And my grades were crap, so they weren't gonna get me anywhere, either. But I had to get some kinda job, 'cause Elisa's papi already thought I was a perezoso, y'know. Lazy."
"Right," Lilly replied. She was following the conversation, but still firmly encased in whatever bubble she'd just retreated into.
"So I talked to my coach, and he said a lot of the things that made me a good QB would also make me a good cop. I'd never even thought about that before, but I went for a ride-along, and that was it. I was hooked."
"Your coach was right." Lilly smiled, then paused and blew out a breath. "Well, guess it's my turn."
The artificial brightness in her voice wrenched his heart. "Lil, if you don't wanna talk about this, you don't—"
"No, no." She brushed away his concern with a flutter of her hand. "I want to. Really. I've just…never really told anyone before. Not on my own terms, anyway." Shadows flitted across her face, the reasons for which he couldn't even begin to guess at. "But…it's you, Scotty. And I—I think part of me wants you to know."
Her words wrapped his heart in a gentle embrace.
"Anyway." A quick breath, and then she plunged ahead. "One night when I was ten, my mom ran outta hooch and sent me to the corner store. It was late; we lived in a bad neighborhood…."
Icy dread poured into Scotty's stomach.
"And this guy just...came outta nowhere. Took my money. Beat me up pretty good, too; broke my jaw, knocked out some teeth…"
The trapdoor beneath Scotty's heart opened with a nearly-audible snap and sent it freefalling down to somewhere near the gas pedal. He'd known Lil had a four-nine report. Known for years. But knowing she had one and knowing the awful truth it contained were two very, very different things.
He ached for her, in a way he couldn't put into words. Not that she'd hear them, anyway, so deep was she in her own pain. He settled for whispering a quiet "Jeez, Lil," lurching forward in traffic, and, after a brief hesitation, reaching over and resting his hand on top of hers.
He was pleasantly surprised when she didn't immediately jerk her hand away. Even more so when the slender, balled-up fist beneath his palm loosened slightly.
"My mom didn't want to press charges." Lilly gave a bitter chuckle. "Guess she didn't want the world to know what a mess she was. But the detective on the case? He wouldn't let it go."
"Good." Scotty felt a twinge of pride at that.
"And one day, this detective calls me down to the station. Says they've got a lineup they want me to see. My mom said it wouldn't matter, that it was too late, that there was no way I'd remember, but…" Lilly lifted her chin, a bit defiantly. "I picked the bastard out right away."
"Course you did." Scotty tossed her the most reassuring glance he could, given the traffic. Her hand flexed beneath his, then opened. His fingers slipped into hers, squeezed in a fierce, yet gentle embrace.
"And the detective…he told me how brave I was." She bit her lip, her face shining with the pride of that long-ago moment. "No one had ever said that about me before, y'know? Brave."
Lilly sat up a little straighter in her seat, wrapped her fingers around his a little tighter. "And I told him my mother had said it was too late, and that detective told me somethin' I've never forgotten."
Scotty smiled. "Yeah? What's that?"
"As long as you ask the right questions, it's never too late."
Despite the heartrending heaviness of what she'd just told him, Scotty suddenly felt like he was floating ten feet above the driver's seat. She'd let him in, to one of the darkest, most hidden parts of her past. From the sound of it, he was the first who'd been welcomed there.
And now, now that she'd shared the reason she did this job, it was as though he'd finally caught the smoking gun in the case of Lilly Rush. Why she was so tireless. Why the old jobs had such a hold on her. Why she was so determined and stubborn and smart and all the other things that made her who she was. After six years of trying, Scotty finally felt like he understood her.
Well, as much as anyone could understand a woman like Lil.
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Sounds like a smart guy, that detective."
"Yeah." Was that a hint of mischief in her voice? "Detective Stillman. He was great."
Scotty's eyebrows shot halfway up his forehead. "Stillman? As in our boss, Stillman?"
"Yeah." The tiny hint of amusement flew away on the wings of her sigh. "So…now you know why I never told anyone. Why I don't like to talk about it." Her grip on his fingers tightened. "Well, lots of reasons, but…I don't want people to get the wrong idea of why I'm in Homicide. 'Poor little Lilly Rush, she got attacked when she was ten and John Stillman's got a soft spot for her.'"
"No one thinks that about you, Lil. No one who's been around you for more than five minutes, anyway." Scotty's thumb stroked the back of her hand. It was delicate, but strong.
Just like her.
She drew in a shaky breath."Yeah?"
"You're more than brave, Lil, you're—you're fearless." He floundered for words, cursing the fact that he had to keep his eyes, and at least some of his attention, on the road. "You're brilliant. You never give up. And you took this horrible, shitty thing that happened to you, this thing that some bastard did to make you weak, and you turned it into a strength."
"You think so?"
"Yeah." The word came out a husky half-whisper. "You amaze me."
Scotty had never in his life been so thankful for a red light, because it he could finally look into her eyes. They were wide and shining and hopeful, overlaid with a thin film of tears, and so depthless he could drown in them.
Or maybe he already was. The undertow of those blue eyes pulled him down, deeper and deeper, and then his gaze wandered to her lips, and—
The long, irritated blare of a car horn startled Scotty into reality, where the light was green and the guy behind him was getting seriously pissed. Growling an obscenity under his breath, Scotty pulled back from Lilly and returned his attention to the road. They released their hands, and he instantly regretted the absence of her soft, warm skin. That chilly air rushing to fill the space was nowhere near the same.
"So, uh…" he cleared his throat, forcing his eyes onto the road and his bereft right hand back to the cold hardness of the steering wheel. "We know where we're headed?"
Lilly tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her ear and scrolled through something on her phone. "Grand Central Station, actually."
"Nope." Fabric rustled as she stashed her phone back in her pocket. "Just got a text from Boss; Rick Rodgers is doing a book signing at a store there."
"Hope he's still signin' by the time we get there and find a place to park." Scotty braked to avoid a taxi and swore again, muttering under his breath about the idiocy of bringing the car.
"Gotta have some way to bring the guy back with us if he's guilty," she remarked. She was right; he knew that. But rush-hour traffic in Manhattan had never been his idea of a good time.
Now, though, the insanity of too many cars in too small a space would be a welcome distraction from all the feelings that were zooming around his still-pounding heart.
He'd almost kissed her.
Lilly. His partner. His friend. He'd almost kissed her.
And it scared the hell out of him how much he wished that 'almost' had been an 'actual.' Another few inches, another few seconds, and he'd know how it felt to have her lips pressed against his. Know whether they were as silky soft as her hand. Her hair. He wouldn't be sitting here wondering. Trying not to wonder. He'd know.
He'd almost kissed her. And from the fidgety, tremulous way she kept glancing over at him, it seemed that, incredibly, she might not have been opposed to the idea.
That was the most exhilarating—and terrifying—thought of all.