Break It To Me Gently
"Thanks so much for your time," Lilly said into the phone, then replaced the receiver into its cradle on her desk, grateful for more than one reason that the call had come to an end. It wasn't every day she had an awkward conversation with a sixty-eight year-old former call girl. Especially not one who'd gone one to marry a city councilman.
But despite the discomfort, Lilly had the answers she needed. James Fleming's admittedly squicky alibi checked out. And as gratifying as it was to put someone away for murder, there was also a definite sense of satisfaction in drawing a bold, confident strike mark through a name on her mental list of suspects.
"That sounded like a fun conversation." This from Scotty, whose pen dashed impatiently through some paperwork.
"Oh, yeah. Call girl turned councilman's wife." Lilly reached for her coffee mug. "You can imagine how eager she was to revisit that part of her life."
"Councilman's wife?" Vera's head jerked toward them with an almost audible snap. "Which councilman?"
"The one you'd least suspect," Lilly replied over the rim of her mug.
A frown creased Vera's brow as he mentally flipped through the city council roster. "Wait…McCracken? The one who raised a stink about that nude sculpture in the park?"
Lilly grinned and turned her attention back to her paperwork. "Didn't hear it from me."
"Amazing the secrets people manage to keep," Jeffries mused from his desk.
An entirely new sort of discomfort rising in her chest, Lilly cast an inadvertent glance toward Scotty. Those chocolate eyes met hers only briefly before darting away again. Clearing his throat, he turned a pointed gaze in Vera's direction. "Yeah, no kiddin'."
"You got that right." Vera refused to look up from the grease-splotched cardboard Chinese takeout container from which he was rapidly slurping some beef lo mein.
"Where's my—?" Storming in from the kitchen, Kat stopped mid-sentence. Her withering glare landed on Vera's mostly-finished afternoon snack.
"Your leftovers?" Nick looked back with what Lilly was sure was his most innocent smile. "Consider it payback for that potato skin at the bar last week."
Muttering colorful insults under her breath, Kat plopped down at her desk, and Lilly couldn't help but chuckle as she turned a page in her notes. She'd decided long ago that this must be what a happy, functional family was like. Had to be. The five of them bickered and argued and didn't always see eye to eye, but they all had each other's backs, no questions asked.
Even now, even after the misstep with Scotty in New York…things between them would get back to normal. She was sure of it. She just had to stop remembering that kiss, stop thinking about the heat of his lips on hers, the fevered passage of his fingers through her hair…and the alarming fact that, though she knew it was wrong for at least a dozen reasons, she wouldn't mind at all if it happened again.
The door to the lieutenant's office opened, and Lilly shook away the memories and dove back into the relative safety of their murder case.
"Fleming's not the doer, Boss," she was all too happy to report. "I talked to the call girl. She remembers him."
Stillman gave a distracted-looking nod. "Good work, Lil."
"So it ain't the fiancé." Vera stuck the chopsticks into the remainder of the noodles and slid the container in Kat's direction. "And it ain't the boyfriend, either."
Looking first surprised, then pleased, Kat grabbed the chopsticks and dug into her leftovers.
"Guess we're back to square one." Scotty leaned back in his chair. "The hood ornament."
"Where are we on that?" Stillman asked.
"Still spinnin' our wheels." There was a slight undercurrent of frustration in Will's voice. "Shop's still closed, Big Ed still ain't callin' us back, and no one we've talked to has a clue how to reach him."
"'Bout the only thing we can do is what we've been doin'," Kat piped up. "Go through these dusty old interview reports and try to track down the original witnesses. Maybe someone remembers somethin' they didn't back in '62."
"Well, just keep digging. Right now, it's all we've got." Something about the lieutenant's demeanor seemed a little off. Glancing up, Lilly caught him looking around the room, a thoughtful gaze resting on each of them in turn.
Her brows lifted. "Everything all right, Boss?"
With a heavy sigh, Stillman rubbed a hand over the top of his head. "I need everyone's attention, please."
Dread coiled in Lilly's stomach as she watched the boss slip off his glasses and gently toss them onto a nearby desk.
"There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just say it." Stillman took a deep breath. "I've been informed by the deputy commissioner that we have to make a cut in this unit. One salary has to be eliminated."
His words were a punch to the gut. For a moment, all Lilly could do was absorb the blow. Her colleagues seemed to be in a similar state of slack-jawed shock.
Scotty was the first to break the stunned silence, though his voice sounded a million miles away. "So that's it? Just like that, one of us is outta here?"
"I'm afraid so, Scotty. If there was any other way, we'd be pursuing it."
They all spoke at once then, short, guttural exclamations of disbelief and outrage. Lilly tried to join the chorus, but no words would come.
Stillman held up a hand to quiet the din. "There's a silver lining, should you choose to look at it that way. Northwest Detectives has an immediate opening, and I'm told the one who leaves here will be offered that spot."
"Northwest?" Vera scoffed. "You mean someone's gotta go from Homicide to solvin' break-ins in Chestnut Hill? How's that a silver lining?"
Stillman arched a brow. "Better than havin' to turn in the badge altogether, Nicky."
"So who is it, John?" Jeffries finally gave voice to the question that darkened every eye, tightened every jaw. "Who's the one?"
"I have to submit my decision by the end of the day tomorrow. If anyone wants to volunteer, that'd make this a little easier." The boss gave a small, tight smile.
"You serious, Boss?" Kat blinked up toward the lieutenant. "You'd take a volunteer?"
"Gotta take someone, Miller." Stillman glanced around the room again. "Think it over. If anyone's willing to transfer voluntarily, I'll need to hear from you by noon tomorrow." With that, he retreated back into his office, his relief evident even in the clatter of the blinds against the glass door.
Lilly stared at her desk, her vision of its smooth, paper-covered surface blurred through scalding tears. Her colleagues. Her family. This—this couldn't be happening. It couldn't. Whose absence wouldn't be noticed? Whose departure wouldn't gouge a hole in the hearts of the rest of the squad? Will, another in a series of father figures, the calm, seasoned, steadying presence in the group. Kat, whose maternal instinct bled into her job, as much as she tried to fight it. Nick, whose humor, inappropriate as it sometimes was, kept them all from taking life too seriously. And Scotty…oh, God. She felt sick. Gutted. No matter which of them left, she'd feel like someone had taken a swipe at her midsection. A piece of her heart.
She glanced around, lanced by fresh pain at the stunned expressions on all her colleagues' faces. She wanted to cling to each one of them, to pull them all into a bubble where nothing could get to them and threaten what they'd built together. It was too painful to think about the fact that soon, she'd be looking around their little cluster of desks, and one of these faces wouldn't be looking back at her.
Unless…unless she was the one the boss chose to take.
No. No. Stillman wouldn't do that, would he? She'd never wanted special treatment, never wanted to be the lieutenant's pet, but she couldn't imagine him sending her away. Not after everything they'd been through.
But who would he take instead?
Scotty's chair scraped against the floor as he stood up from his desk. The muscle in his jaw twitched in rapid rhythm; his eyes were dark as coal.
"I'm gonna go cut Fleming loose." Grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair, her partner made a beeline for the interview room, clear by his actions that he wanted out of here. Away from it all.
Lilly didn't blame him.
"This is bullshit!" Vera's explosion gave voice to all their thoughts.
"Oh, I don't know," Jeffries said slowly, his eyes still on the interview report he was filling out. "Might be the kick in the ass I need."
Lilly frowned in his direction. "Thinkin' about takin' Boss up on his offer?"
"Nah. Thinkin' about hangin' it up for good."
"You serious, Will?" Kat's furrowed brow was a mirror image of Lilly's.
"I'm not gettin' any younger." Will's smile was melancholy, but still warm. "And this job's not gettin' any easier. Maybe I oughta pack it in. Do some travelin' while I still can."
"Don't book that beach house just yet." Kat's quiet comment was punctuated by the click of her computer keyboard. "Maybe I should be the one to go."
"What?" Vera's exclamation drew Lilly's attention to where he was staring at Kat, eyes wide.
Kat remained focused on her computer. "Might be better hours. More time with V."
Vera looked stung, and Lilly fought back a wave of fresh tears. He'd been right earlier. This was bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.
Maybe Scotty was on to something. Getting away from all this. Flinging himself headlong into the job while they all still had it. And so Lilly did the only thing she knew to do. Retracting her tears, she stuffed her emotions down deep where they couldn't bother her, grabbed another file from the box, flipped it open, and kept digging.
Nick Vera waited approximately sixteen nanoseconds after Kat left her seat, coffee mug in hand, before following her into the kitchen. He didn't care that they were still at work. That someone might overhear their conversation. She'd tossed out that verbal hand grenade, the one about maybe volunteering to leave the squad, and he wanted to know what the hell was up with that.
Kat had her back to him as she stood at the coffeemaker, pouring her refill, and he took advantage of a few quick seconds to gather his composure. Being combative wasn't likely to get any answers out of her. He'd learned that the hard way.
"So you're really thinkin' about it?" Dammit. That came out sounding a little more desperate than he'd have liked.
Avoiding his eyes, she turned, grabbed a coffee stirrer and swirled it around in her cup. Pointlessly, since he knew she took her coffee black. "Might be a better move than stayin' here."
"Not career-wise." His stomach churned with suspicion. "Unless…this ain't really about havin' more time with Veronica."
The look on her face told him all he needed to know.
"Wait, is this…" he glanced around the office and lowered his voice. "About me? About us?"
Kat's head snapped up in horror at that last word. "Not here," she hissed.
Abandoning her coffee, she headed toward the exit. A glance over her shoulder indicated that he should follow, which he did, the churning in his gut growing faster and less comfortable with each footstep. He felt like he was on his way to his own execution.
By the time they reached the conference room, Nick had managed to install his defenses. Shutting the door behind them, he turned to face Kat. "So's this your way of callin' it quits? Adios? Sayonara?"
"'Cause I thought we had a good thing goin'."
Her eyes widened. "What? Nick, no. It's—it's because we have a good thing goin'."
"It's goin' so well we can't work together anymore, is that it?" Shit, this woman was confusing.
Kat sighed and leaned on the conference table for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was thick and quiet. "I didn't wanna do this, all right? I didn't wanna get involved with anyone from work. Especially after Jarrod, I just…couldn't afford any more screwups."
"Great. So this is a screwup. Thanks."
The flash of hurt across her face let him know he'd gone a step too far. "Goddammit, Nick, will you shut up and let me explain?"
Wise enough by now to remain silent, Vera just spread his hands.
"You're not the screwup, all right?" She fixed him with that wide-eyed look he could never resist. "It's me. The first time we're out together, in public, around our friends, as a couple, and I—I was so nervous I got drunk and sang along with Aretha Goddamn Franklin. On a table."
"No one thinks less of you for that," Vera said quietly. "Hell, I thought it was adorable. And hot."
She tossed him a brief glare.
"And I don't know much about music," he continued, "but…I love your voice."
For once, he'd come up with the right thing to say, as there was that wide-eyed hopeful look again. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Slowly, he came around to the other side of the conference table and gently grasped Kat's wrist. "And I kept an eye on you. We didn't blow our cover."
"How can you be sure?" she asked. "I wasn't so drunk I didn't notice you chuggin' Jack and Cokes all night."
"Then you mighta been drunker than you thought." Vera flashed a proud grin. "I had one beer when we got there. The rest was just Coke. No Jack. Scout's honor."
Kat smiled, then lowered her head, her gaze landing where his hand rested on hers. His eyes fell there, too. He marveled at the stark contrast between his thick, rough, pale beige fingers and her delicate, smooth hand, the color of a cup of coffee with just the right amount of cream. Skin was only the beginning of their differences, the opening salvo in the litany of reasons why they shouldn't work, why they couldn't work. And yet here they were. Working.
"It was sweet of you to keep an eye on me," she said quietly. "But you shouldn't have to. "
"I don't mind."
"I know. And it's not you I don't trust, all right?" She took a deep, shuddering breath, then glanced up, her expression sheepish. "I—I have a real hard time bein' professional around you, y'know?"
Whoa. That was unexpected. Her admission hanging in the air above them, shimmering and delicate, Vera waited, unsure whether now was when he should attempt to say something, or whether she still wanted to say more.
Sliding her hand from beneath his, she took a couple steps back and turned away from him, shaking her head. "I didn't wanna fall for anyone. Not again. Veronica and I…we made a life together, and it worked. I thought it did, anyway." She turned to face him. "And you were the last person I thought I'd fall for."
"Overweight, underpaid white guy, right?"
That beautiful smile bloomed on her face. "Right."
"Hey, I never thought I'd fall for you, either."
"Broke single mom, pain-in-the-ass kid?"Another smile, but this one was overlaid with a touch of fear. "But I did. And I fell harder than I ever thought I could. Harder than I ever wanted to."
Each thing she said touched him more deeply than the last. He swallowed hard. "Me, too."
"But my track record, Nick? It's crap. Yours ain't much better."
He couldn't argue.
"And if we screw this up, if this doesn't work, I—I don't know how I'd be able to come in and see you every day." Kat shook her head again. Her heavy mass of hair swished against her blouse; the words tumbled out of her mouth in a terrified rush. "I don't know how I could come back from that."
Her words landed square in the center of Vera's heart, in a place where he couldn't recall anyone else ever being. Kat Miller was scared. Miller. The badass who wasn't afraid of anything. Or so he'd once thought. But now that he knew her better, now that she'd let him in, he knew that this thing between them, this precious, precious thing they hadn't quite figured out how to name…this thing scared her more than any jacked-up gangbanger or soulless serial killer ever could.
Coming up behind her, he laid his hand on her shoulder as gently as he knew how. Her head snapped up, then she turned toward him. "I'm terrified, Nick."
"I know," he whispered, rubbing his hands lightly over her upper arms. "Me, too, all right? Dunno if that helps."
Without a word, she leaned forward slightly and rested her forehead against his shoulder. His heart melting into a puddle of goo, he wrapped her in an embrace and laid his chin on top of her head.
"Hey. Look. If you're this freaked out about it, y'know, then…hell, I'll be the one to transfer out."
She pulled back to look at him. "You'd do that?"
The way she was looking at him right now? He'd do just about anything.
"Well, yeah. I mean…I've been in Homicide nine years. Pretty much seen it all. But you? You just got here, and I know how much it means to you. And as long as I've got you, and as long as I've still got my badge, I'm good." A corner of his mouth quirked. "Even if it is just solvin' break-ins in Chestnut Hill."
Kat stepped back, looking stunned. "Nick…"
"Think about it, all right? 'Cause I think we can make it work either way. It's been fine this far." He brushed his thumb across her velvety cheek. "But if you still think we've got a better shot if we don't work together, then you just say the word and I'm gone."
Her eyes went wide again.
"From the squad, I mean. Not from you." Smiling, he looked deep into those never-ending dark eyes and shook his head. "Never from you."
Kat looked to and fro, then stretched up for a quick kiss. At least, she probably intended it to be quick. But, just like that first hesitant, half-drunk kiss from two months back, this one rapidly melted into another, longer kiss. And another. And another, until he couldn't tell the end of one from the beginning of the next.
If he'd had his way, they'd never end at all. But he sensed her pulling back, and he let her go. Reluctantly.
He may have released her from their kiss, but there was one thing Nick Vera was suddenly crystal-clear about. He wasn't letting her go for real. Not anytime soon.
Maybe not ever.