Can't Help Falling In Love
The clatter of Lilly's phone as she dropped it back into its cradle was the perfect soundtrack to her frustration. "Well, that's another dead end."
"Yeah. Here, too." Scotty sounded just as exasperated as she was.
"Witness remembers less now than she did in '62. Which isn't saying much." Lilly picked up her pen and scratched through the latest name on her list of potential witnesses.
"Least you got to talk to yours. Mine died eight years ago." Glancing up, he flashed a wry grin as he crossed off a line on his own list. "So, y'know, like you said. Dead end."
She smiled back at him, then switched her gaze to the windows behind him, where the darkened cityscape and twinkling lights served as a stark reminder of just how long it had been since she'd eaten.
"I'm gonna take a break." She pushed back her chair and stood up. "Wanna grab some dinner?"
An odd look crept across her partner's chiseled features. "Nah. Still got half a dozen names to get through." Avoiding her eyes, he picked up the phone and glanced toward the scribbled sheet of paper to his left.
Well, that was different. Usually she was the one who had to be pried away from her desk with a crowbar.
"Want me to bring you something, then?"
His index finger jabbed at the keypad. "Too beat to think about food." He glanced up with a small smile. "Thanks, though."
"Okay." Slowly, she removed her overcoat from the back of her chair and shrugged into it, swallowing disappointment that felt like a golf ball going down her throat. They'd done remarkably well today, considering what had happened less than twenty-four hours ago. She supposed under normal circumstances she'd count it as a win and be willing to be patient, to allow their relationship to restore itself naturally. But now, thanks to the budget cuts, there was change in the air. Huge, disconcerting, terrifying change. Adrift in a sea of chaos, she longed for the life preserver that was her friendship with Scotty.
Lilly jerked her ponytail free from the neck of her coat, suddenly irritated with herself. With him. With the whole damn situation. Why had she let herself drink so much last night? Why had she let herself give in to something so…base? So unprofessional? So unlike her?
Watching him sit at his desk, the phone to his ear, his pen tapping against its surface as he waited for someone to answer, she ached to press the rewind button. To go back twenty-four hours and do her drinking in her hotel room instead. If she'd never gone down to the bar last night, she'd never have run into Scotty. They'd never have kissed. And she now she wouldn't be standing here, needing the cozy, reassuring warmth of his friendship and getting instead the emotional equivalent of his voice mail.
With an angry sigh, Scotty banged the receiver back down into the cradle. "No one home."
She knew the feeling.
Stillman's door clanked open then, and Lilly's stomach lurched at the sight of him. The weary lines in his face; the grim set of his mouth. He looked like he'd aged five years in the past five hours. Part of her wanted to race over to him, protocol be damned, and give him a hug, while the other part nearly vibrated with impatience. Had anyone volunteered yet? Was his decision made? Did he know who he was sending to Northwest if no one stepped forward? Would he tell her if he had?
"Hey, Boss," she said as lightly as she could.
He stopped in front of her, and his expression softened. "I was pretty sure you'd still be out here."
Her heart squeezing painfully, she gave a slow, sad smile. "Where else would I be?"
Stillman looked from her to Scotty and back again. He seemed about to say something, then gave his head a brief shake. "Just got an interesting phone call."
"Yeah?" she asked. "Interesting how?"
"An anonymous tip called in on the King job." Stillman rested his briefcase on the edge of the desk. "Guy says he remembers somethin' about Ellie, wants to meet you in front of the Museum of Art in half an hour."
"What, now?" Scotty looked up from his desk, the receiver wedged once more between his ear and his shoulder. "They got somethin' to say, why not come in to Homicide tomorrow and say it?"
What the hell was his problem? They had a tip, a real tip, and he was nit-picking the timing? The location?
"Some witnesses aren't as comfortable here," she said, trying unsuccessfully to keep the annoyance out of her voice. "You know that as well as I do."
"Well, I don't like it." He graced her with a sulky glance, then started to dial another number.
"You don't have to like it," she snapped. "I'll go check it out."
"You got a better idea?"
"Well, yeah." He looked at her for a moment as though the solution were obvious, then hung up the phone and grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. "I'm comin' with you."
"You don't have to come look out for me, Scotty. I'm a big girl." She threw a glance toward the lieutenant, hoping he'd back her up, only to find him peering over the rims of his glasses in that quasi-fatherly way he sometimes had about him.
"Might not be a bad idea, Lil," he said. "Never know what you might run into out there."
Lilly sighed. Apparently, for however long she and Scotty worked together, this was how it was going to be. Their beautiful friendship, the one that had made her partner's over-protectiveness something she could put up with, seemed to have been ruined by that moment of weakness in New York.
Oh, she was tired. So damn tired of everything. The frustration, the tension between them, the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the squad, and her own helplessness to do anything about any of it. She just wanted everything back the way it was. Back to normal.
But normal seemed to have spread its wings and flown away, leaving her with—with this.
Well, then. She was just going to have to make the best of this.
Lilly set her jaw and flung her scarf around her neck. "Fine. Come on, Scotty. Let's get this over with."
Scotty watched his partner complete another lap of the street corner in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on that chilly, mist-shrouded evening. Looking around with ill-disguised impatience, Lilly then glanced at her watch for at least the fifth time since they arrived at their supposed meeting place. If her watch said anything close to what his did, their witness—if there even was one—was almost twenty minutes late.
A few feet away, Scotty retraced his own steps, every sense on high alert as he watched the passersby. An older woman in a knit cap tried valiantly to keep up with an enthusiastic Labradoodle. A small group of hoodie-clad teenagers walked together, though their eyes were glued to their phones and their ears were plugged with earbuds. And, of course, even at this late hour, a glut of Asian tourists clustered on the steps Sylvester Stallone made famous, chattering excitedly and taking pictures of each other.
So many things weren't adding up. Their witness had left no name. No contact number. No identifying details. That plus the fact that they'd been waiting for nearly half an hour now led Scotty to conclude that they weren't really waiting for a witness. Not tonight. No, tonight it was just some crackpot who'd seen the story about Ellie King's case on the six o'clock news and thought it the height of hilarity to yank the strings and watch a couple of murder cops dance.
Considering the alternatives, though, a deranged TV news addict with too much free time was probably one of the better-case scenarios. Best case, of course, would be if there were an actual witness with actual helpful information. But when compared to all the other possibilities Scotty's runaway imagination had managed to construct during their wait here in front of the museum, a wild goose chase seemed like second best.
He could live with second best.
"You can leave if you want." Lilly gave her watch another pointed glance. "I know you're tired and all."
There was a knife-edge to her voice, one that Scotty didn't miss, and one he was pretty sure he knew the source of. She'd acted cold and snippy toward him ever since he turned down her dinner invitation. He supposed she had a right to. He'd never begged off a shared meal like that, at least, not with such a flimsy excuse.
And it wasn't that he didn't want to go with her. He did. Oh, how he did. The idea of sitting across a table from her, watching the sparkles in her eyes, talking, sharing a few laughs…that sounded like heaven. But he was pretty sure she was just asking in the spirit of innocent companionship, in an attempt to restore their pre-kiss friendship. To make everything go back to the way it was.
But he couldn't do that. Not with her. Not anymore. Not with all these feelings whirling and churning and slopping around inside him.
And especially not with the announcement the boss had made that afternoon. A cut in the unit. One detective. Gone. Scotty was still having a hard time accepting it as reality, but the look he'd glimpsed in Lilly's eyes told him she wasn't. She was devastated. This squad was a family, and tearing it apart would hurt like hell no matter who left. But this was Lil's only family. As painful as it was for him to think about, it had to be even worse for her.
He'd wanted so badly to comfort her that afternoon, to reach across the desk and take her hand; to wrap his arms around her and pull her close. But even if those things weren't against every rule in the book, doing so would've tattered what little remained of his resolve. She'd have looked up at him with those big blue eyes, just like she did last night in New York. And, just like last night, he'd have let himself go places he shouldn't go. Feel things he shouldn't feel. Especially since Lilly had made it perfectly clear that kissing him was nice, but meaningless.
He supposed he should offer some sort of explanation. Try to clear the air.
"Look, Lil, about dinner..."
Startled blue eyes flickered in his direction. "Forget it."
"I didn't mean—"
"It's fine, Scotty," she said, in a tone of voice that meant it was anything but. "We don't have to talk about it."
That was what her lips said, but those beautiful eyes begged to differ. They searched his face, seeking an explanation. Seeking reassurance that they were okay, that nothing had changed between them, that everything could go back to normal.
Reassurance he couldn't give.
"Sorry." She broke their gaze with a frustrated sigh and fixed her attention on some distant point down the street. "I guess I'm just…the budget cuts, y'know?"
"I know." Her hand was just a few inches from his. He could reach out and grab it. Feel its softness against his palm, stroke the back of it with his thumb…
"Can't picture comin' to work and not seein' one of 'em." Lilly turned away and started pacing the street corner again, her steps quick and agitated. "But Will's thinkin' about retiring anyway—"
"And Miller might take the job in Northwest 'cause of Veronica—"
"Wait, what?" What else had Scotty missed when he escaped the squad room to tell James Fleming he was free to go?
"And I can't picture one of 'em bein' gone, can't imagine anyone actually wanting to leave, but if no one does…" Lilly broke off with a bitter, humorless laugh. "Boss is gonna have to just—just pick someone, and I can't hope it's any of 'em, but if I hope it's not anyone, then...I gotta hope it's me."
"You really think he'd pick you?" That was about as likely as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.
"Well, he's gotta take someone." One shoulder lifted in a slight shrug. "Why not me?"
"'Cause you're our heart and soul, and you know it. Hell, without you, there wouldn't even be a cold case unit." Her wide-eyed, trusting expression was another dagger to the scant remains of Scotty's defenses. He tried to hide behind a chuckle. "It's the rest of us who's gotta worry."
"Pretty sure you're safe," she countered. "Boss wouldn't break us up. I mean…look how great we are together."
She'd said are. Not were. But he heard the uncertainty in her voice all the same.
He nodded. "We make a good team."
Lilly stepped toward him, clear by her expression that she wasn't going to let him brush it off that easily. "Scotty, I wouldn't be half the detective I am without you."
"Bet you wouldn't have said that six years ago." He grinned. "Saddled with that know-it-all kid from Narc who thought he was too good for the cold jobs?"
"Oh, you came around." Her lips curved as she reached forward and gave the end of his scarf a gentle tug. "Eventually."
The soft golden light of the street lamp they stood under made the mist sparkle on her hair and gave her skin an almost ethereal glow. The chill in the air had turned her nose and cheeks pink. The blue woolen scarf she wore made her eyes shine like sapphires. Scotty's heart swelled at the sight of her. God, she was beautiful. So beautiful it hurt.
Breaking their gaze with a short, quiet sigh that puffed up clouds of vapor around her face, she stepped back, and Scotty could breathe again.
"I don't know, it's just…everything's changing. With the squad, and with our jobs, and—and…" She looked back up at him then, and he gulped. The memory of their kiss was swirling in the oceans of her eyes. "And everything, Scotty."
Out of the maelstrom of his emotions, he managed to pluck a little guilt. "I'm sorry, Lil."
"Yeah. Me, too."
That was what her words said, anyway. But she wasn't looking at him with guilt or regret, like she wished they'd never kissed. In fact...it was the opposite. Her eyes were blue flames, unmistakably flitting down to his lips. Unconsciously, he licked them, remembering what she felt like, what she tasted like.
Scotty gritted his teeth at the fire that shot the length of his body. He longed to trace a fingertip over the ridge of her delicate cheekbone and into the hollow beneath it, then follow it with his lips. He didn't want to stop there, either. He wanted to trail kisses down her neck. Her shoulders. Her arms. Every last inch of her, right here in front of the goddamn Rocky steps.
Madre de Dios, he was out of his mind. His heart hammered like he'd gone ten rounds with the punching bag. His mouth felt stuffed with cotton. He was hot all over despite the evening's chill. He—he hadn't felt like this since…Elisa.
And suddenly, with crystal clarity, Scotty knew. Those feelings that had been swirling and simmering inside of him since Saturday finally had a name.
He was in love with Lilly. He loved her. Wholly. Completely. Everything about her, from the silken wisps of blonde hair dancing around her cheeks to her beautiful mind to her battle-scarred heart.
When the hell had this happened? A week ago, she was just Lil. His partner. His friend. And yet she wasn't 'just' either of those things. She couldn't have been. This love, this precious, painful love he'd just discovered must have been waiting there like the craftiest of thieves, sneaking in to steal what little remained of sanity and common sense. And now, now that it was here, out in the daylight, Scotty wasn't sure how he was standing up under it.
Lilly was still looking at him, though the desire in her eyes was now mingled with more than a hint of curiosity. Her brow was slightly creased, that beautiful half-smile suspended on her face.
Scotty blew out a breath and offered what he hoped was a reassuring grin. He had to tell her. Needed to tell her. Maybe she'd flip out. Maybe she'd try to let him down easy. Maybe she'd tell him she felt the same, and ask what the hell took him so long. He didn't know. But whatever happened, he needed to get it out in the open. He needed to be honest with her.
He had to tell her, or he'd explode.
Swallowing hard, he reached for her hand. "Lil, I—"
The throaty purr of a Ferrari just behind him and off to his left stole the words he was about to say. Bursting through the mist, it pulled up to the curb, the window slid down…and a familiar voice called from the darkness within.
And suddenly everything shattered.