Sealed With A Kiss
Lilly's pen danced across the crisp white sheet of paper, one of the dozen or so necessary forms related to Bridget Sorenson's confession. Normally, the scribbled choreography was a soothing ritual; a compulsory task that nonetheless provided a sense of completion on a job. A sense of closure.
But on this occasion, her pen performed the steps without its usual partner, because Lilly's mind was still reeling from the loss of her own. Still processing the words her boss had spoken an hour before. Their conversation clanged around in her head, grotesque echoes of a nightmare beyond her worst imaginings.
Scotty? Boss…you took Scotty?
Wasn't my decision, Lil. He volunteered.
You'll have to ask him. All he told me was he's taking one for the team.
Those words sounded like something Scotty would say, but the fact that he'd leave, just like that…it still didn't seem real. It couldn't be. His desk was still just as he'd left it yesterday. Papers. Pens. The dark blue PPD coffee mug he always used. Everything. If she closed her eyes, Lilly could still sense the warmth and confidence of her partner's presence. Still hear his deep, strong voice. Still catch a whiff of his musky aftershave. He couldn't be gone. He couldn't.
Because if he'd really left, if he'd really taken that job in Northwest, then…wouldn't he have taken everything with him?
He would have. Of course he would. He wouldn't have left anything behind.
So the mysterious absence from work, her conversation with Stillman, the hole in the center of her that felt like she'd taken a cannonball to the gut...it all had to be just a bad dream. A cruel hoax. Any moment now, she'd wake up, or he'd pop out from behind a corner, that boyish, dimpled grin lighting his features, and all this would be forgotten.
Because Scotty promised her. He promised her he'd never leave. He said he'd always be there.
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.
So he couldn't have left. He couldn't have. Not Scotty.
It simply wasn't real.
All she needed to do now was focus on her paperwork…and wait until she woke up.
"And sixty-two cents makes five." Cold coins landed in Kat's outstretched hand, followed by a warm, steaming cardboard cup. Normally, she couldn't justify the expense of going down to the coffee wagon on the corner. Four bucks for a nasty-ass latte, when there was nasty-ass regular coffee available free of charge in the office? Not to mention central heating?
But sometimes, it didn't matter what it cost. Didn't matter how cold it was outside. Because sometimes Mama needed a latte. And this was one of those times.
Pocketing her change, Kat turned to head back inside, and that's when she saw Nick hurrying toward her. A smile crept across her face at the sight of him. This was definitely a nice surprise.
But as he got closer, she saw the urgency in his eyes. He looked like he was about to explode with news, though whether it was good or bad she couldn't tell.
"Hey." Her stomach churned as he stopped in front of her. With a tentative grin, he glanced around briefly, then leaned in to press a quick kiss to her cheek.
"Hey, glad I caught you," he said. "Did you hear?"
"We're all off the hook." Nick's excited words puffed up around his face in a cloud of vapor. "Just got a call from a buddy of mine who works in Northwest. Scotty took the job over there. Started bright and early this morning."
Kat nearly dropped her precious latte. "Scotty?"
"Guess Boss is waitin' to make the official announcement 'til we're all back in the office, but I heard he told Rush already." Nick looked like he was still reeling from the news.
"Damn," she said, then fell into a stunned silence. Of all the people the lieutenant could've plucked from their ranks, Valens was about the last. He was Lil's partner. Half of the dynamic duo. And Stillman wouldn't have picked Lil, not in a million years. So Kat had assumed Lil's partner was similarly safe.
Slipping her left hand from the warmth of her pocket, she threaded her fingers between Nick's. "I'm sorry." She gave his hand a sympathetic squeeze. "I know he's your best friend. Gotta be tough on you."
"Well, yeah." Nick glanced toward her with just a hint of mischief. "Without him for you to pick on, I'm gonna get your undivided attention."
"Damn straight." Kat lifted her latte to her lips.
Next to her, Vera cleared his throat. "So are you…okay 'bout all this? I know you were thinkin', y'know…maybe we shouldn't work together…"
Kat stopped on the sidewalk, her shock over Scotty taking a momentary backseat to searching Nick's eyes. "I panicked, Nick. I got scared. About…a lot of things."
He took her free hand in both of his. Caressed her with his gaze. "You still scared?"
She looked into those warm, caring hazel eyes, eyes that revealed the beautiful soul beneath that uncouth, unkempt exterior, and considered his question.
"Be lyin' if I said I wasn't," she said at length. "But not enough to let it stop me."
He grinned, a definite twinkle in his eyes. "Well, all right then." Lifting her hand to his lips, he pressed a brief kiss to the back of it, then stuffed his left hand back in his pocket and turned toward Headquarters. His right hand still held hers, their fingers lightly laced together.
"You get that we probably oughta tell the boss, right? Dot all our I's and whatnot?" Nick's voice was light, but not quite light enough to hide his apprehension.
Kat nodded. "I know."
"Are you okay with that?" He cut her a searching glance.
Kat smiled as they prepared to round the corner to Headquarters. "Yeah, Nick. I'm okay."
"So…we're good?" He sounded like he couldn't quite believe it, so she shot him a wicked glance.
"Oh, we're better than good."
Nick let out a quiet groan. "Don't look at me like that. Not here."
Kat stretched up to feather a kiss to his cheek. "I'm sorry." She was. Sort of.
"Yeah, right," he grumbled.
"Make it up to you later?" Another wicked grin.
Nick's face split into a wide smile. "Y'know, I'm gonna hold you to that."
"Damn well better."
As they rounded the corner and the steel and glass of Headquarters loomed into view, Nick started to turn loose of her hand and create a little space between them, the way they always did when they were within sight of work. But this time, she didn't let his hand go.
He paused, questions written in his eyes, before smiling the biggest smile she'd ever seen from him, one that sent waves of love washing through her heart.
She hadn't intended to do this. She never intended to fall for anyone again. The risk was too great, especially with Veronica to think about.
But the gentle way his hand wrapped hers in its warm, steady embrace gave her the reassurance she needed. The quiet confidence to know that Nick Vera was different. He was solid. Trustworthy. And he made her happier than she'd ever been.
On sudden impulse, she stopped, right there on the sidewalk in front of Headquarters, where dozens of people streamed past. "Nick..."
Vera's brow furrowed. "You okay?"
Kat opened her mouth, but the words wouldn't come. She'd always been intensely protective of her heart. Kept it under lock and key. And now here she was, past thirty, for God's sake, these three little words on the tip of her tongue, and she'd never said them to a guy before. Frankly, she wasn't even sure how it was done. Did one just blurt it out? Was there a speech involved?
Oh, fuck it. Closing the distance between them, she cupped the back of Nick's head with her free hand and captured his lips in a kiss. He seemed surprised at first, but responded quickly, drawing her close.
The kiss lasted but a moment, and then she pulled away from him, blinking expectantly, hoping he'd gotten the message.
"What was that for?" he asked. "I mean, not that I didn't enjoy it..."
She responded with her trademark, withering, I can't believe you're this much of an idiot look. It wasn't exactly how she wanted to tell him, but it was a form of communication she was pretty sure he'd understand.
A frown danced over his brow, and then his eyes widened. "Oh." A grin began to creep across his face. "Oh. Wait. Are you—are you sure?"
Still incapable of speech, she merely nodded.
That full-fledged, blinding Nick Vera smile, and she felt like she was melting.
"Well, then. I love you, too, Miller."
They stood there, smiling at each other like simpletons, and then Nick seemed to snap to attention and realize where they were. With a sly grin he turned toward the glass doors of Headquarters, offering her his arm in an uncharacteristic dapper gesture. She took it, the warmth in her heart more than enough to ward off the chill in the mid-morning air.
The latte didn't hurt anything, either.
She took another grateful sip, relishing the sweetness on her tongue, then lowered the cup and raised questioning eyes in Nick's direction. "So how come Boss picked Scotty?"
"He didn't," Nick replied. "Scotty volunteered."
Kat's eyebrows shot halfway up her forehead. "He volunteered?"
"What I heard."
She considered this for a moment over the rim of her cardboard cup. "Damn. Rush musta really done a number on him."
Nick shot her another mischievous grin. "Pretty sure I know the feeling."
"Well, here we are." Scotty's new partner, the short, stocky, sharp-tongued Detective Victoria Mendoza pulled the Crown Vic up in the circle drive of a palatial pile of stone and brickwork in Chestnut Hill. He was no stranger to the exclusive neighborhood, having worked a few murder cases along its posh, tree-lined streets, but this…well, he supposed it was still a house…was ostentatious even by Chestnut Hill's generous standards. How many times would his apartment fit into this monstrosity, anyway? Thirty? Forty? He was powerless to speculate. But speculate was about all he could do, since Mendoza had insisted on driving.
"New guy doesn't drive, Valens," she'd informed him crisply, much to his chagrin. He hated being the passenger. Never knew what to do with his hands.
As they climbed from the car, Mendoza's eyes raked over him in a critical, appraising look. "You ready for your first job?"
Scotty almost laughed. Six years chasing down murderers, and now he was working a jewelry theft? Massive though the loss apparently was, he could handle this.
With a wry grin, he shut his car door. "I was born ready, Mendoza."
Mendoza didn't crack a smile. In fact, Scotty idly wondered whether the woman was capable of such an expression. Two hours in her company, and despite his best efforts, he hadn't seen so much of a hint of one. Hell, even Lil had smiled the first time he—
The slam of Mendoza's car door mercifully guillotined those thoughts. "Yeah, we'll see about that." One more critical glance, then she led them up the seemingly endless sidewalk to a mess of columns and arches that presumably contained a front door.
So it had come to this. This was his life's work now. Where Scotty had once found justice for long-dead murder victims, now he was just trying to make sure Mr. and Ms. High Society got their two-thousand-inch five-dimension uber-def TV back in one piece.
But here there could be happy endings. Stolen property could be returned. Peace of mind could be restored. Lives could be made…well, if not whole again, damn close to it. The best he could hope for in Homicide? Closure. That elusive thing everyone who'd ever lost anyone was forever trying to chase.
Like he was. Right now.
The glut of uniformed officers and CSUs started clogging the walk about halfway between the street and the front door. Flashing her badge, Mendoza elbowed her way through them, none-too-politely, while Scotty followed in her wake.
A shrill, nearly-hysterical female voice reached his ears before he even got inside the vast, marble-columned foyer. "And oh, for the love of all things holy, be careful with that vase! Careful, I said. It's a family heirloom!"
Scotty pulled up short when the woman's bleached blonde hair, surgically crafted profile, and artificially-inflated bosom came into full view.
"Well, now I know why we're supposed to work this job like it's one of our own," was Mendoza's grim assessment, an echo of what his new boss had told them both before sending them out. Sergeant Beckett hadn't elaborated, but now she didn't have to.
"Is that Gina Newman?" Scotty asked.
Mendoza's sharp dark eyes darted toward him. "Yeah. Why? You know her?"
He was just about to reply when realization dawned on Mendoza's face…and finally his new partner smiled. A wickedly amused curving of the lips, with a mischievous gleam in those previously-stony dark eyes.
"Wait a minute," she said. "You're that pretty boy murder cop who's all up in her business at the Blue Ball every year, aren't you?"
"Well, I wouldn't put it quite tha—"
Mendoza's fleshy elbow met his ribs. "Nice work, guapo."
Just then, a uniformed officer approached them. In his hand was a clear plastic bag containing a flash drive. "You the lead detectives on this one?"
Mendoza nodded. "Mendoza and Valens, Northwest."
"We got the footage off the Newmans' surveillance cameras. Picture's pretty grainy, but we should be able to get it enhanced."
"Thanks." Mendoza took the bag, and the officer disappeared back into the throng.
Scotty glanced down at his new partner. "So where do we start? Want me to talk to Gina?"
"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Her eyes sparking with amusement, Mendoza thumped the bag softly into Scotty's chest. "Nope. I got it. You take this back to Headquarters and get it up to the lab."
Scotty frowned. "Ain't you got someone else who can do that?" While he didn't relish the idea of Gina Newman crying on his shoulder over her stolen jewelry, it was slightly more appealing than the alternative. Besides, he was used to doing interviews in pairs.
Apparently, Mendoza wasn't interested in that. "New guy gets the grunt work." She pulled her notebook from her pocket and seemed to dismiss him from her mind.
Scotty looked down at the bag with a rueful grin and a shake of his head. "What, yesterday I'm Homicide, and now I'm a glorified go-fer?"
"Nothin' glorified about it, guapo. Now go."
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Scotty slid the bag into his coat pocket and started back toward the street. He wasn't thrilled about being relegated to grunt status. Even less thrilled about his first assignment taking him back to Headquarters. The kind of luck he was having today, he'd run into one of his old co-workers—or worse, Lilly herself.
But this was what he'd chosen. This was the path he'd decided to take. And things were bound to get better. Sooner or later, he'd figure out how to explain his decision to the squad. The gaping hole Lilly had left in his heart might start to fill in at some point. And he'd get on Mendoza's good side eventually. He had to. He couldn't be the New Guy forever.
Even if he was? He didn't have to spend every waking moment playing second fiddle to Eddie Saccardo. And for that, he'd take everything Mendoza cared to throw at him.
Besides, there was one silver lining to being the not-so-glorified go-fer.
He'd get to drive the car.