Scotty's thumb pressed the worn-looking channel arrows on the hotel remote again and again, looking for something, anything, to hold his interest. He was tired, but nowhere near sleepy. Bored, but not quite to the point of restless. Getting there, though, especially since he'd just cycled through the same I Love Lucy marathon for the third time.
All right. That did it. If he was going to spend his night in New York watching TV, he at least deserved a drink. Maybe a snack, too. That got him up off the too-firm mattress and over to the mini-bar. Maybe he'd have a shot or two of something, just to help him unwind after a long, unsettling day. Or maybe he'd—
Oh, no way. Twelve bucks for a beer? Eight for a bag of chips? He put the items back where he'd found them, then reached across the bed for the remote and clicked Desi and Lucy into silence. If he had to spend half his per diem on overpriced snacks, he was at least going to do it someplace less pathetic than his hotel room.
Poking his feet back into his shoes, he re-did most of the buttons on his dress shirt, but opted to leave his tie where it lay draped across the corner of his suitcase. He slipped his room key and his phone into his shirt pocket and started for the elevator, but doubled back on sudden impulse and went the three doors in the opposite direction to Lilly's room. Maybe she'd feel like joining him.
He wasn't sure, though. Ever since their interview with Rick Rodgers, his partner had seemed a little distant. She'd barely said two words during the quick dinner they'd grabbed on the way to the hotel. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't a little apprehensive about the cause for that distance, but he knew pushing it would make things worse, so he'd decided to leave her alone. If Lil was pissed off at him, she'd let him know eventually.
But he could only leave her alone for so long.
After some hesitation, Scotty knocked on her door. No answer. He lingered for a moment, staring at the dark green painted surface and the gold numbers on the back of the door, before stuffing his hands in his pockets and heading back toward the elevator. Concern mingled with disappointment, but he stuffed it down. She was probably just tired. Turned in early. He couldn't blame her for that.
But he also couldn't help missing her a little as he hopped onto the elevator and pressed the button, considering his options as he zoomed toward the ground floor. There was a little pub a block or two over, one that kind of reminded him of Jones's. That seemed a promising place to start.
But as he strode through the lobby toward the double glass doors, something in the dim recesses of the mostly-empty hotel bar yanked at his attention. A waterfall of white-blonde hair, still curled at the ends and slightly crimped in the middle, as though it had recently been released from a ponytail.
Scotty stopped dead in his tracks. He'd know that blonde hair anywhere.
Cautiously, he entered the bar and slid onto the tool next to Lilly. Her hair curtained off her face; long, slender fingers toyed with a half-empty glass of amber liquid. Jack Daniels, maybe. Or a Crown.
At least it wasn't an appletini.
He nodded to the bartender, a portly man who was polishing a wine glass. "Bring me one of whatever she's having."
Lilly glanced up, her surprised expression melting into a tipsy smile. "Hey."
He grinned back at her. "You all right, Lil?"
"Getting there." She lifted her drink.
An identical glass appeared in front of him, and Scotty clinked it gently against hers, then raised it to his lips and took an experimental sip. Jack. Definitely Jack. He polished off the rest in a single scorching gulp.
As the fire faded, he sat in silence and studied his partner. She looked older than she had this morning. The fine lines around her eyes were more deeply etched, the set of her jaw a little more firm. Something had definitely gotten to her today. He flitted through a rather lengthy list of possibilities, unsure which one had pushed her over the edge. Even more unsure how—or even if—he should ask.
"He misses her," she said.
Scotty blinked his confusion.
"Rick Rodgers. He misses Ellie. Forty-five years, y'know? Forty. Five. Years. That's longer than I've been alive, Scotty. And he still misses her." Lilly picked up the glass, started swirling the contents again. "Did you see he has her picture up?"
Scotty nodded, in response to both Lilly's spoken question and the bartender's silent one.
"No wedding ring. No pictures of anyone else. No sign of anything in his life but his work and his memories."
"Yeah, but do you really think that's healthy? Locked away in a prison you made yourself?" Scotty leaned an elbow on the bar. "I don't think it'd cheapen what he had with Ellie if he'd found someone else."
"Maybe there was no someone else," Lilly argued. "Maybe she was it for him. His one shot."
He searched her expression as he picked up his freshly-arrived refill. "You really think people only get one shot?" He'd believed that years ago, after Elisa. But now he hoped to God it wasn't true.
"Well, not people like you." Lifting her drink, she looked him over and gave a bitter chuckle. "People like you get as many shots as they want."
His brow creased. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Come on, Scotty. You're smart, you're successful, you're loyal, you're funny, you're—you're fucking gorgeous—"
"Wait, how drunk are you?" He needed exactly zero fingers to count the number of times she'd made such a comment about his appearance.
Ignoring his question, she gestured toward him with her glass. "You, Scotty Valens, are the kind of person people stick around for." She punctuated her sentence by draining the last of her drink, then set the glass on the bar and looked around for the bartender. "Hit me again."
"Charge it to my room," Scotty told the bartender. "And bring her a water, too."
The bartender smiled, nodded, and bustled off to fill their requests.
"See?" Lilly turned toward him. "That's exactly what I'm talkin' about. You're one of the good guys, Scotty. You're worth stickin' around for."
"What, you think you ain't?" The thought filled him with alarm.
Her slight shrug was all the confirmation he needed.
"I've been thinkin' about what you said." Propping her chin in her left hand, she trailed the tip of her right index finger in the little circle of condensation her drink had left behind. "About how I deserve someone who can't even stand to be away from me for a day. An hour."
"Lil, I'm sure Eddie misses you. I—I know…" I know I would. That was what he'd stopped himself from saying. Their drinks arrived, and he washed the words down with another welcome sip.
"But he left, Scotty." She lifted her drink and regarded it with a bitter laugh. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised. They all do eventually."
"Who, Lil?" Dread coiled in the pit of his stomach. "Who's they?"
"My dad." She tossed a healthy portion of whiskey down her throat, then lowered the glass and stared into it. "He walked out when I was six. Took me until high school graduation to figure out he was never comin' back."
Unsure what to say, Scotty sat in silence on the barstool, quickly filling in the last pieces of the puzzle. He'd known Lil's dad hadn't been around much, but this was the first time she'd supplied the details.
"He can't have loved me that much," she told her whiskey. "Or he'd have tried. He'd have fucking tried."
His heart cracking down the center, Scotty leaned forward, seeking her gaze. "He should have, Lil. He should have. But it's his loss if he didn't. 'Cause he doesn't know how amazing you are. Doesn't know how smart and brave and beautiful and brilliant you are. And a guy like that? Guy who'd ditch his own daughter? He doesn't deserve to know you."
A slight twitch of the lips was the only response he got. He knew from what she'd told him in the car, from the shadows flitting across her face, the nature of the cross she'd been left to bear. And her father—if the son of a bitch even deserved the word—should've been there. To protect her. To shield her. To love her. To do all the things fathers are supposed to do for their kids. And he hadn't. He'd just walked away, and left Lilly to deal with the fallout.
Scotty's grip on the glass tightened as he watched the emotions on Lilly's face; the lines etched by too heavy a burden at too tender an age. His every instinct screamed at him to do something, to say something else, to keep trying until he fixed this. Except there wasn't a damn thing he could do to fix it. Wasn't a damn thing anyone could do.
As he sat in silence, helpless frustration burning in his chest, Scotty became dimly aware of some music being piped in from somewhere. At that, an odd, yet intriguing idea suddenly seemed to swoop down from the rafters and perch on his shoulder.
He tried shooing it away. It wouldn't solve anyone's problems, and had the potential to create a whole truckload of new ones. But the more he resisted, the more insistently it dug in its claws, so he finally summoned his courage, downed the rest of his drink, and pushed himself off the barstool.
Lilly tilted her head to the side, perplexed amusement flitting across that beautiful face. "What are you doing?"
"C'mon, Lil. Let's dance."
She gave a short, disbelieving chuckle. "Please tell me you're kidding."
"Then how drunk are you?"
He shook his head. "I can't fix this for you, Lil. I can't make it so your dad didn't leave, and your mom didn't screw you over. I can't make all the people who've turned their back on you, let you down, realize what a mistake they made. I want to, Lil. Believe me. You got no idea how bad."
Her expression, though still guarded, had softened a bit.
"But no matter how much I want to…I can't. So the next best thing is to show you that it ain't all bad. That maybe you don't have anyone else, maybe you don't have all the people you wish you had, but…you got me, Lil. For whatever it's worth, you got me."
She was still staring at him as he opened his arms to her, his heart hammering and a hopeful grin plastered across his face. He couldn't recall ever feeling like such a complete idiot, but there was at least a chance she was drunk enough she wouldn't remember this in the morning. Besides, he'd already gone this far down the crazy trail. It was too late to back down now.
"C'mon," he urged. "Dance with me."
Finally, with a self-deprecating smile and a shake of her head, she slid off the barstool and stepped into his outstretched arms. Her left hand found his shoulder, he slipped his around her slender waist, and something shifted and settled into place within him. He felt…oddly complete. Like some part of himself he wasn't even aware was missing had finally come home.
"You really think this'll help?" she asked.
"I got no idea, Lil." He smiled against her temple. "But I'm just nuts enough to wanna find out."
Several songs later, they were still there, swaying in time to the music. Approximate time, anyway. Lilly wasn't really paying attention to that. Hell, she wasn't even sure where the music was coming from. Maybe it was playing only in her head. Except that couldn't be it, because Scotty seemed to be hearing it, too.
Scotty. Her partner. Who'd have ever thought she'd be spending her evening in New York dancing with him? She wondered when he'd get bored with this crazy, alcohol-soaked idea of his, but he seemed to be enjoying himself almost as much as she was.
She smiled up at him, a lazy, loopy smile.
"What?" he asked with a grin.
"Never danced with a prom king before."
He looked skyward, his dimples deepening. "You're never gonna let me live that down, are you?"
"Hey. I said I wouldn't tell anyone." She wiggled teasing eyebrows at him. "I didn't promise not to give you crap about it."
He chuckled. "Okay, fair enough."
"Anyway. You're actually a pretty good dancer." He really was, and this surprised her a little. Oh, he was no expert; he was as raw and unpolished as she was. No flashy dance moves, no deep dips. He was just being fully himself, tapping into some innate natural rhythm she could feel in the sway of his hips and the gentle pressure of his hand on the small of her back.
"Now I know you're drunk," he was saying.
"Yeah?" She peered up into twinkling dark eyes. "How?"
"'Cause I've stepped on your toes at least five times in the last two minutes."
She laughed a little too loudly. "You have not."
"It's true. I counted. Five." A whisper of a shoe against her toes. "Make that six."
"Well, maybe it's me." She smiled. "I am a little drunk, after all."
Grinning, he shook his head. "Nah, Lil. You're…you're great."
He was lying through his teeth, but she didn't care. In fact, she didn't really care about much of anything right now. Ever since her partner coaxed her off the barstool and into his arms, her problems didn't seem quite so bad. And he was right, he couldn't fix them. Not that she needed, or even wanted him, to. Her problems were hers, and had been for as long as she could remember. But he could make her forget them. Make her realize she wasn't in this alone, and that he had her back. Just like he always had.
She'd been right about him earlier, too; he really was fucking gorgeous. Eyes the color of molten dark chocolate, fringed with decadent lashes and framed with dark, expressive brows. His dimpled smile, warm and inviting, with just a touch of amusement. That rich, glossy black hair, hair she suddenly wanted to feel between her fingers.
The song changed, melding seamlessly into a slower one, and she stepped closer to him. Slid her left hand up his shoulder to rest at his collar. Her right hand joined it a moment later; her fingers laced together at the back of his neck.
He looked surprised for half a second, but then he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her a step closer. Oh. As good as dancing with him felt already, this was better. She rested her chin on his shoulder, relishing his warmth and breathing in the sweet, spicy scent of his skin.
"Mmmm, Scotty." She gave him a gentle squeeze. "This is so nice. Thank you."
"You're welcome." His voice sounded strained.
She was teetering on the precipice, and she knew it. Over the years she and Scotty had been partners, the professional boundary between them had always remained firmly in place. But since the Blue Ball, that boundary had cracked and crumbled, eroding away to dust.
If, in fact, there was enough left to erode. Maybe it was already gone.
Boldly, recklessly, she snuggled even closer, wrapping her arms completely around him and pressing her cheek to his. It was surprisingly cool. Slightly stubbled. She felt the twitch of that muscle in his jaw as he responded in kind, drawing her flush against him and breathing a delicious, contented sigh.
Warning bells clanged in her head. There were at least a thousand reasons why they shouldn't be doing this. But the strength of his embrace, the way his hands cradled her, the way she felt him breathing her in, all made her staunchly resolve to ignore those bells.
"Y'know, for what it's worth? I think you're worth stickin' around for." His words tickled her ear, his husky voice vibrated against her chest.
She gave a low chuckle. "You already got me to dance with you, Scotty."
He pulled back to look her in the eyes. "No, Lil. I mean it. I think anyone who'd walk away from you is—is batshit, all right? I know I couldn't do it. Not in a million years. Can't even picture it, y'know? A life without you in it just—it wouldn't make sense."
He smiled, warm and tender, with a softness in his eyes she'd never seen before. "Still here, ain't I?"
He was. And he always had been. Through all the changes of the last few years, this cocksure, overeager, hotheaded, pain in the ass partner of hers had been the one constant. He'd seen her at her best. Her worst. Her strongest moments, and her weakest, And through it all, he'd stood beside her, quietly offering his friendship. His partnership. Anything and everything he had the power to offer was hers in a heartbeat.
Sometimes it was as simple as a smile. A hand on the shoulder. That look he got in his eyes, that quietly confident, you got this, Lil expression that buoyed her through some of her toughest moments. A laugh, if that was what she needed. The right words somehow always on his lips. I'm here for you, he'd told her on her darkest day. Anything. You know that.
And he was here now, holding her in his arms, trying to make it better. Doing everything he could to make her smile, make her laugh. To make her feel wanted. Needed.
Lilly wasn't sure when she decided to kiss him, or where the idea even came from, but it was suddenly there, demanding her attention. The same thought seemed to be circling around his head, too. His eyes were dark and swirling with emotion. His cheeks looked flushed. His breathing was shallow, through slightly parted lips.
He sounded a little scared. She didn't blame him. She was, too. Because this, what they were about to do, would change things. No way it wouldn't. And she could think of at least a dozen ways it could all come crashing down, how this one perfect moment could tumble from the air and slam into the ground in a ball of noise and flame. But right now, with the dim lights and the soft music and the booze in her blood and Scotty saying those beautiful things and looking at her in that beautiful way, kissing him was as certain as drawing her next breath.
He, too, must have felt the weight of the inevitable. His eyes fell closed; his mouth sought hers. They both paused, a hair's breadth from contact. Tremulous breaths tickled her skin; it seemed he was gathering his courage, just as she was gathering hers.
And then, finally, their lips met, and everything melted away.