Let Her Go
Coffee sloshed from the office carafe into Scotty's mug, but the rich, aromatic steam failed to perk him up as effectively as it usually did. Moving as though programmed, he added his usual cream and sugar, stirred the coffee, and raised it to his lips without appreciation or enthusiasm. His first two cups, downed quickly in the fifteen or so minutes he'd been at work, hadn't done shit. Maybe this third one would be the charm.
He wasn't betting on it.
He'd driven back to his apartment last night in a blind rage, damn lucky not to get a speeding ticket on the way. Cop-to-cop courtesy only went so far, and the numbers his speedometer reached would've likely gone way beyond that point. The universe, it seemed, was willing to extend him at least that small kindness.
Once home, he'd changed his clothes, shoved his furniture back against the walls, and gone an untold number of rounds with the punching bag. When his exhausted arms screamed their protest, he got out the jump rope and decided to abuse his legs for a while. He welcomed the quivering tightness in his muscles. The sharp pain in the ball of his left foot. The stinging sweat that streamed into his eyes. The searing ache in his lungs. Because all those physical discomforts might take his mind off the bigger, larger agony: while he was here, alone, in his apartment, Lilly was with Saccardo.
But no matter how hard Scotty pushed his body, he couldn't escape the images that insisted on flinging themselves against the walls of his brain. Lilly and Saccardo kissing. Saccardo running those thick, clumsy fingers through Lilly's beautiful hair. Lilly moaning Saccardo's name as she pressed her body against his, the indigo haze of desire in her eyes. Saccardo kissing down the center of Lilly's throat, reclaiming his territory, and not having to stop when he reached that goddamn diamond necklace.
That was when Scotty tossed the rope to the side, stumbled through a shower, and sank into bed with a bottle of bourbon and a litany of what-ifs. What if he'd said something sooner? What if he hadn't just stood there and let Lilly ride off into the sunset with Saccardo?
What if, in that empty hotel hallway in New York…what if he'd just kept kissing her?
Now, blinking against the too-bright fluorescent lights of the office kitchen, still waiting for his coffee to kick in, he tossed the stirrer into the trash, turned around…and found himself face to face with the very person whose image had haunted him all night.
"Hey," she said.
With a small, cautious smile, Lilly brushed past on her way to the coffee machine, leaving the barest hint of salt and sunshine in her wake. She was wearing different clothes than she had been yesterday, but it was clear she hadn't spent much, if any, time at home. Her blonde hair looked ruffled and windblown, and her face was etched with the exhaustion he knew must be showing on his own.
But her fatigue looked happy. Content. His was most decidedly not.
As she reached for the carafe, she glanced over her shoulder at him. Blue eyes darted up toward his, met them for the briefest of instants, then flitted away again, like a shy butterfly.
"Listen, Scotty, I'm, uh…I'm sorry about last night."
His stomach lurched. What was she sorry for, exactly, and why?
"Didn't mean to waste your time like that." Another tentative glance over her shoulder as she poured herself a cup of coffee.
Scotty swallowed hard against a sudden thickness in his throat. "It's okay. You didn't know it was…you didn't know. Besides…partners, right?" It was a lame attempt to recapture the magic. He knew that as soon as he said it.
"Right." Her smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "Anyway…hope you got some sleep."
He clenched his teeth, setting loose a mighty pounding in his temples. "Yeah. I did."
Lilly gave him that look that told him in no uncertain terms that she knew he was full of shit, but she also wasn't planning to press the issue.
"Doesn't look like you did, though." This from his masochistic side, which blurted out the words over the rim of his coffee mug before his brain had a chance to censor them.
"We went to the shore." She hesitated, as though deciding how much she wanted to share, then gave a noncommittal shrug. "Kinda turned into a late night."
The shore. Perfect.
"Listen, Scotty…Eddie's thinkin' about makin' this his last undercover job."
Scotty's brows lifted as he lowered his mug. "No kiddin'."
"He says he…wants to be around more. To give us a real shot."
Her words were like a giant, Timberland-footed boot stomping on his chest, squashing all the air from his lungs. Saccardo. Around more. For Lilly. To give them a real shot.
"That's good, right?"
He looked up at her, fighting to keep his shattered heart from showing on his face. "Yeah, that's…that's great, Lil."
Another uncertain smile, and then she started to leave the kitchen, but paused at the doorway and turned toward him, one delicate hand resting on the frame. "Thanks, Scotty. For what you said. About me…y'know...deserving more."
The boot dug its heel into Scotty's heart and ground it to pulp. Resisting the urge to double over with the pain, he forced a sad smile. "It's the truth." At least that much was honest.
Lilly replied with a small smile, the expression in her eyes maddeningly unreadable. But before he could even hazard a guess, she drew a quick breath and dropped the veil of professionalism over whatever she was feeling.
"Finally tracked down Big Ed from the pawn shop." She gave the door frame a gentle pat. "Nicky and I are gonna have a chat with him in a few. See if he can tell us where he got that hood ornament."
Without waiting for a response—which was good, because he wasn't capable of one at the moment—she turned and headed back into the office. The noticeable bounce in her step caused her ponytail to swing back and forth as she walked. Taunting him. Not on purpose, or to be cruel. She wasn't cruel. But the situation was.
Saccardo. Around more. For Lilly.
To give us a real shot.
What was left of Scotty's heart gave a painful twinge as he tore his eyes from her and took another mindless sip of coffee. Despite the cream and sugar he'd dumped into it, it still tasted as bitter as he felt. Wincing, he set it aside, filled with a sudden urge to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. The air in here was too thick. Too close. It smelled too much like Lilly.
Feeling suffocated, he fled the kitchen and hurried through the office to the glass door that led to the balcony.
Coffee in hand, Lilly strode into the bullpen, stopping by her desk to pick up the manila folder containing the necessary information for their interview with Big Ed. She flipped it open to jog her memory, make sure she was prepared…but that conversation just now with Scotty was making it impossible for her to concentrate.
She wasn't even sure why. It wasn't as though he'd made some big dramatic scene. Hell, he'd practically given her his blessing. And that was just it. That was the piece of the puzzle that just didn't fit.
She'd expected him to throw out an unflattering comment or two about Saccardo; to come up with some other objection to their relationship. She'd steeled herself for a return to the sarcastic remarks and chilly distance between them. But Scotty hadn't gone there. He'd barely said anything. She should be glad about that, she supposed. But she wasn't.
Something seemed off about her partner. Something she couldn't place. She wasn't even sure where he was at the moment. She'd told him about the interview with Big Ed, expected him to follow her into the office, to engage her in rapid-fire conversation about the case as he usually did, but he hadn't. She glanced back toward the kitchen, wondering if he was still doctoring his coffee or perhaps searching the fridge for a snack, but he was nowhere to be seen.
"You ready?" Vera's voice was close at her left. He tapped his yellow legal pad on her desk a couple times, and she snapped to attention.
Vera eyed her quizzically. "Everything okay?"
Lilly dropped a mask over the exhausted confusion she knew Vera could read on her face and instead forced a bright smile. "I'm fine."
Nick's eyes slid toward the door to the balcony, then back to her. "Yeah, right."
Why was he looking on the balcony? Was that where Scotty had gotten to? She glanced over her shoulder on the way to the conference room, but couldn't get a good look.
Setting her jaw and forcing Scotty from her mind, she gripped the file tightly and followed Vera down the hall and into the conference room. A balding, heavyset man in coveralls glanced up from the table as they entered.
"You're a hard man to track down, Big Ed," Vera said.
"Well, when the IRS is up my ass 24/7, I try to make myself scarce." Ed's leering gaze landed on Lilly, roaming over her from head to toe and missing nothing in between. "But if I knew a cop could look like her, I'd have come in a lot sooner."
Lilly ignored him, though she was fairly certain Vera gave the leg of Big Ed's chair a swift kick as he settled into the seat next to her.
"Lucky for you, we ain't interested in your back taxes," Vera said. "Just a hood ornament."
"A hood ornament?" Big Ed's bushy graying brows lifted. "You got any idea how many of those things come in and out of my shop every day?"
Lilly flipped open the file and slid the photo of Ellie's hood ornament across the table. "We're interested in this one in particular. Came off a 1962 Fleming Eagle."
Big Ed picked up the photo and studied it for a moment. "Oh, yeah. Yeah." A meaty finger tapped the photo. "I remember this one. Bought it in…'72, I think. Yeah, summer of '72. Right around the time of…whatever that thing was with Nixon. Water…something."
Lilly arched a brow. "Watergate?"
"Yeah, Watergate. That's it."
Watergate. June of 1972. Exactly ten years after Ellie's disappearance. That was probably not a coincidence.
"Don't suppose you remember anything about who you bought it from, do you?" Vera asked.
Big Ed's eyes lit up. "Oh, yeah. The redhead."
"A redhead." Lilly looked up in surprise. "A woman?"
"Real pretty one, too. Said she found the hood ornament by the side of the road and wondered how much it was worth." He grinned. "Typical female, had no idea what she was dealing with. I gave her ten bucks for it, then held on to it for a while. Figured it'd be valuable someday, and I was right. Sold it for over five hundred."
"Well, you came out ahead," Vera remarked, with a not-too-subtle withering glance.
On a hunch, Lilly pulled a photo of Ellie's ginger-haired sister, Bridget Sorenson, from the file. "Is this who you bought it from?"
Big Ed regarded the photo with interest, then nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, that's her." He leered up at Lilly. "Hard to forget a face like that."
Vera snorted. "Face. Right."
"Thanks. You've been a big help." Lilly slid the photo back into the file and stood up. As always after an interview like this, she wanted nothing more than a long shower.
"You're free to go, Big Ed." Vera rose to his feet and tapped his notebook on the table. "Good luck with the IRS."
The door clicking shut behind them, Vera turned to Lilly. "So Bridget Sorenson sold that hood ornament exactly ten years after Ellie disappeared?"
"Looks that way."
"No way is that a coincidence," Vera muttered. "And I ain't buyin' her 'found it by the side of the road' story for a second."
"Nope," Lilly agreed.
"Do we think she held onto it all that time?" Vera asked.
"I don't know," Lilly replied as they rounded the corner into the office. "But that timing? That sure sounds like a guilty conscience to me."
A few fat snowflakes drifted lazily from the sky, as though forced into activity before being fully awake. They melted as soon as they hit the railing of the balcony where Scotty leaned his forearms, twirling between thumb and forefinger the lone bobby pin that remained in the pocket of his overcoat. He thought he'd gotten rid of them all last night, but to his unpleasant surprise, there was one stubborn pin left, still stuck in a crevice at the bottom of his pocket. It was fitting, really, that this bobby pin was still there. Because Lilly was still there, too, lodged inextricably in his heart.
Fitting, too, that there was only one bobby pin left from the dozens that had once been there, because all he had now were the remnants. A few magical days. More than a few scorching kisses. A handful of moments when it seemed like she might be feeling something, too, when he thought maybe the love that had ignited in his heart was also starting to burn in hers.
He guessed not. Not if she was going to give it a serious go with Saccardo. Never mind all the things they'd shared, all the things they'd talked about. Never mind the way she smiled at him like he was the only man in the world. Never mind that they'd kissed. Looked like he was just the guy she wanted to be with only when the guy she really wanted to be with wasn't available. If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. Wasn't that how the song went?
Well. It wouldn't be like that anymore. Not if Saccardo followed through with his plan to quit going undercover. If he was around, then the small advantage Scotty had once held would be ripped to shreds.
So what the hell was he supposed to do now? How could he go on as her partner, pretending that would be enough? How could he be around her without wanting things, feeling things, aching—literally aching—for what he couldn't have? How could he possibly stand to see the woman who owned his heart give hers to someone else?
He—he couldn't. It was just that simple. He knew from his past the pain of watching, helpless, while his dreams died one by one. And he also knew he couldn't hide his feelings forever. Not from Lil. She knew him too well. Sooner or later, she'd call him out. Demand to know what the hell was going on with him. At that point, he could lie and put up a wall between them…or he could tell the truth, and ruin their friendship for good.
Not that it wasn't ruined already.
Goddammit. His grip on the bobby pin tightened to the point of pain. One unguarded moment in New York had changed everything. Permanently. There was no going back. Only forward, in a murky, muddled mess of his own making.
No. No. He couldn't do that.
No. He couldn't. That would be going too far.
But maybe…maybe it wouldn't. Because maybe the words he'd said to Lilly when she questioned him about his disapproval of Saccardo, back before he'd sussed out the real reason he couldn't stand the guy…maybe they applied to him as well. Maybe Lilly was settling for less than she deserved…but that didn't mean he had to. He didn't have to stand around like some lovesick fool, watching the woman he adored moon over Eddie Fucking Saccardo. He didn't have to spend the next few weeks, months, years waiting for the relationship to fail and knowing that the best he could hope for was being her consolation prize.
And there was a way he wouldn't have to. A way that was presented to him on a gleaming silver platter.
His logical side tried to wave a red flag. It was pretty drastic, what he was considering. It was a big change, with far-reaching implications. It was the kind of thing he should think over, at least, lest he regret it in the morning. But the oceans of pain crashing through him silenced even the most convincing arguments. It was drastic, yes. But it was also a cure.
Right now, he needed a cure.
His heart hammering, Scotty drew a few shaky breaths and laid the bobby pin on the concrete railing. He gazed at it for a moment, blinked back tears he tried to convince himself were due only to the frigid morning air, then turned and walked back into the warmth of the squad room and straight toward the lieutenant's office. One more deep breath, a hard swallow, and then he tugged on the door. The boss looked up at the sound.
"Hey, Boss…can I talk to you for a second?"
Stillman slipped off his glasses and laid them on the desk. "Sure thing, Scotty. Come on in."