I Can't Stop Loving You
Lilly lost track of how long she stood there, her eyes glued to the back of those wooden double doors. Staring. Reeling. Waiting.
Waiting…for what? For Scotty to come back?
Suddenly feeling ridiculous, she turned away. No one ever came back for her. Why should he? She certainly hadn't given him any reason to. She'd just stood there, mute, while he poured out his heart. Told her exactly why he'd left. Exactly how he felt about her. Exactly the choice she had in front of her.
A choice she hadn't known was hers to make. Scotty was in love with her. In love with her. She hadn't quite believed him before, but that kiss had damn sure convinced her. God. She wasn't even sure 'kiss' was the right word to describe it. It—it was an inferno. One that swept through every part of her and left her in smoldering ruins.
So many pieces of the puzzle were starting to fit together now. Scotty's grumbling about Saccardo for the last few months. His sweet, caring presence the night of the Blue Ball. His gentle insistence that she not be alone, his reluctance to say good night to her until she'd managed to convince him she wasn't going to dissolve into tears the moment she shut her front door.
His frustration at her willingness to settle for a part-time relationship with Saccardo when he felt she deserved so much more.
Lilly's bitter, self-deprecating chuckle bounced off the brick walls of the empty room. She was a detective, for God's sake, and a damn good one. She prided herself on reading people, on being able to suss out someone's secrets in a single glance. And yet the person she knew best, the person she felt closest to…he loved her, like that, and she hadn't had a clue.
Apparently, neither had he. That was at least a small comfort.
Her aimless pacing around the room had led her to a chair lying on its back. The chair Scotty had gripped in his fists and flung away during their fight. She gazed at it for a second, then bent down to pick it up. She might not be able to put her thoughts in any kind of order, but she could at least set the chair to rights.
Her hands lingered on the back of the chair as she straightened it. The same spot where the smooth wood last felt Scotty's white-knuckled grip. She could still smell his aftershave in the air. Still sense his presence. Feel his heat. Her lips still throbbed. Her heart still pounded.
And tears still pricked at her eyes, no matter how much she tried to force them away.
But try she must. Because she couldn't hide back here forever. Sooner or later, she was going to have to go back through the bar. No doubt she'd have to pass goddamn Scotty and his goddamn date, looking smug and seductive in that short leather skirt. What would Scotty do when she swept past? Would he even acknowledge her presence? Would there be any indication that what had transpired between them had affected him as much as it had her? Or would he play it cool? Be that smarmy jackass he'd been when she first encountered him this evening?
Oh, screw it. Maybe she'd just go out the back.
Lilly's fingers raked through her hair as she blew out a shaky breath. Just below the buzzing neon clock hung a mirror. It was so streaked, stained, and semi-obscured by an out-of-date Heineken logo that it was practically useless, but even in its dim surface she could see that Scotty's voracious attentions had done quite a number on her hair. Where the hell was that little elastic? She couldn't do much about her unruly mane without a hairbrush, but at the very least she could corral it back into the…
Oh. There it was. She spied it in a corner near the wall, to the right of the table Scotty had just bent her over. Resisting the urge to linger in her memories, to let the recollection of their passion swallow her whole, she stepped carefully around the table and retrieved the slender white circle from the wooden floor. Looping the elastic over her right wrist, she gathered her hair in her hands as best she could, then slid the glorified rubber band off with her left hand, slipped it around her hair, pulled it tight...
And that's when the elastic snapped, stinging the back of her neck and sailing through the air, where it landed on the table. That table.
As she stood there looking at it, remembering, the thin barrier of her control snapped, too. All she could do was sink down into a chair and sob.
Scotty burst out the back door of Jones's into the meager patch of pavement that passed for a parking lot. The frosty night air nipped at his overheated skin. His rapid, agitated breaths puffed up in a cloud that quickly chilled the sweat on his face. And his heart still hammered against the walls of his chest, demanding to be let out so it could run back in there and leap into the arms of the woman who'd tattooed her name across it.
Frustration getting the better of him, he smacked the building's rough brick exterior with an open hand. The scrape across his palm felt surprisingly good. Gave him something to focus on besides the burning, angry desire crackling through him. He gritted his teeth against its waves, tried to block out the memories, but it was all pointless. Minutes had passed. Whole minutes, and he could still taste her on his lips. Smell her on his clothes. Feel her hands' feverish passage over his back. His shoulders. His neck. His hair.
He'd done it to prove a point. She'd insisted the kiss in New York was a mistake, and up until a few minutes ago, he'd had little reason to doubt her. But just now, as she railed against Frankie, Scotty figured out the truth. Lilly was jealous. Jealous. She, the one who was in a relationship, the one whose damn diamond necklace had stopped him in his tracks, the one who'd come in smelling like sunshine and salt and Saccardo's cheap cologne, who'd dropped the bomb on him that she and Saccardo were going to give it a shot and then flitted off, oblivious to the fact that she'd shattered his heart…she was jealous.
Which meant there was a distinct possibility that the kiss in New York wasn't just some drunken, meaningless misstep.
So he put her to the test. Called her bluff. Poured every ounce of passion he felt for her into that one ferocious kiss. He'd never been that rough with anyone before, but never had he been so desperate to make someone see the truth. He wanted to show her how he felt, that much was true, but he also wanted to force her to see how she felt about him. To make her pull her head out of her pretty little ass and realize all that she was missing.
It was a snap decision; something he hadn't thought through at all. If he had, he'd have realized just how goddamn much restraint it would take on his part. That look on her face; dawning realization mixed with fear, overlaid with desperate need. Her swollen, trembling lips. Her flushed cheeks. Her pleading eyes. And when she scrabbled at his shoulders, grabbed his clothes, tried to pull him back to her…oh, God. Pride had won out over passion, but it had been a fierce, close battle. Even now he was shaking.
Scotty blew out a breath and dragged a hand through his hair. Passion must not have been prepared to concede just yet, because he still fought an aching urge to run back in there, grab her, and kiss her until they both saw stars. To bend her over the table again and give them both what they needed. To hell with self-respect. To hell with pride and dignity and everything he'd just said. He couldn't bear the thought that the kisses that still sizzled in his mouth and buzzed through his body were the last ones.
Snarling a series of epithets, he slammed his hand into the bricks all over again.
That was when the door banged open, and Scotty whirled around, heart in his throat, with a sudden surge of wild, irrational hope. Maybe Lilly had come to her senses. Maybe she'd decided she couldn't—
But it wasn't Lilly.
It was Frankie.
"There you are." Her delicate brow creased as she approached him. "Are you all right? I was getting worried."
"Yeah. Fine. Just a…y'know, work thing. It's all good."
"Very convincing, Scotty. I almost believe you. But…" With a low, throaty chuckle, she ran her thumb along his still-tender lower lip. "It's hard to be totally sold when you're wearing your partner's lipstick."
He supposed he should feel guilty, but instead he resented her touch. Resented the intrusion. Resented the fact that, in removing those traces of lipstick, Frankie was also taking away the last he had of Lil.
Frankie smiled sadly down at the rosy-red sheen on the pad of her thumb, then wiped it off on her skirt. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
"Look, Frankie. There's nothin' goin' on between me and Lil." Not for the last ten minutes, anyway. But the automatic protest rang false even to his own ears, and the look in Frankie's dark eyes suggested they hadn't rung much truer in hers. He supposed that should bother him, but right now, his heart was so full of Lilly there wasn't room to feel anything else.
Frankie tugged her coat more tightly around her, then reached up and caressed his cheek. "Like I said before…the saddest lies are the ones we tell ourselves."
Her receding footsteps mingled with Scotty's heavy sigh as he leaned against the rough brick wall and let his head fall back against it with a quiet thud. The cold had finally seeped through the leftover heat from the back room. His fingertips were starting to go numb.
With any luck at all, the rest of him would soon do the same.
The clock on Rick Rodgers' bookshelf ticked quietly as the aged author sat across from Lilly, his wrinkled, shaking hands in her steady grasp.
"Bridget. I'll be damned." Rodgers shook his head, and Lilly's heart gave a painful lurch at his struggle to absorb the news. As satisfying as it was to find closure, delivering it was sometimes gut-wrenching. But, difficult as this task was, it was still preferable to being caged in that office, staring at Scotty's empty desk, and knowing she was the cause. That was why, after a mostly-sleepless night, she'd hopped on the six AM train to New York. Now she was here, in Rodgers' study, surrounded by books and papers and dust motes that danced in the morning sunshine.
"Of all the people I would've…I never…it never crossed my mind that…" Rodgers trailed off, then looked up at Lilly. "Her own sister, for Chrissake. Why?"
Lilly paused, weighing her words. "She felt threatened by Ellie leaving for New York. She was afraid of being left behind. She thought Ellie was…throwing her away."
"She could've come with us. I told Ellie that. I didn't want to do anything to hurt her. Or Bridget. I just wanted us to be together."
"I'm sorry," Lilly said to the blurred, watery version of Rodgers sitting across the desk. It was all she could think of to say.
Rodgers cleared his throat. "So you found…"
A tear spilled down her cheek, and she hastily brushed it away before returning her hand to rest atop Rodgers'. God, what was wrong with her? Though feeling the families' pain wasn't unusual, she was normally able to keep her emotions in check. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Maybe it was hormones. Maybe Saccardo…Scotty…
"Yes," she managed. "We found her car. And her…her…"
"Her body. It's all right, Detective." Rodgers grabbed a Kleenex from the box on his desk and handed it to her.
"Thanks," Lilly replied with a sniffle. Dabbing at the fallen tears, she gave a sheepish, tremulous smile. "I'm not normally like this."
"I think it's beautiful," Rodgers said. "It means you care. That this is more than just a job to you. I find that inspiring."
"Thank you. I just…I wanted you to be able to write a happier ending, y'know?"
Lilly cleared her throat and tried to reassemble the remaining scraps of her professionalism. "If—if you'd like to see…Ellie's car, her belongings, or…I can make arrangements."
"No. Thank you, but no." Rodgers rose from his desk and turned to gaze at the small, black-and-white photo of Ellie on the shelf behind him. "I want to remember Ellie the way she was. The way she lives on in my heart. As my muse. That's how I need to remember her."
Lilly nodded. Closure looked different for everyone.
"I've been waiting for this day—and dreading this day—for forty-five years." Hands laced behind his back, he continued to gaze up at the photo, the finality evident in the set of his shoulders, the shuffle of his steps. "I always knew someday, some police officer would come and tell me Ellie was dead."
Rodgers turned to face her, a sad smile curving thin lips. "Because if she were alive, she'd have come to me. She never would've left me voluntarily. She tried once, early on. Tried to make a clean break. Be faithful to James. But she came back. She told me she couldn't leave me. She just—she couldn't."
Lilly's heart squeezed again, but this time the pain was more personal.
"And I couldn't leave her. Still can't. Even after all these years." Reaching up, he caressed the edge of the photo. "But I do think I can close the book now. I know the end of the story. So I can breathe that sigh you breathe when you reach the end of a book that put you through the emotional wringer, and I can let my gaze linger on the last page, maybe reread the final sentence a couple times. Then I can close it and put it on the shelf, and go on with my life."
"The way I always have. By writing." With a weary sigh, Rodgers lowered himself into the leather chair at his desk. "I've never stopped, really, but it's been a few years since I've finished anything. My publisher finally quit asking me when my next book would be ready."
"Well, you've written forty-five of them," Lilly said with a smile. "No one could blame you for retiring."
"But that's just it. I don't want to retire." Rodgers punctuated his declaration with an emphatic gesture toward his overstuffed bookshelves. "Writing is what I do. It's who I am. And yes, I'm seventy-two, but I'm a long way from dead, I can assure you." There was an almost roguish spark in his blue eyes. "There are a lot of ideas in this old noggin of mine. And now I think it's time to fling some of them at the paper and see if they stick."
"Whatever it is, I'll be first in line to read it."
"Thank you. And…thank you, Detective Rush." Rodgers extended a hand. "For finding Ellie. For coming all the way up here to tell me. Thank you for letting me finally write the ending. Even if it wasn't the ending I'd have liked."
Lilly took Rodgers' aged hand in both of hers. "It's an honor. That sounds strange, I guess. But it's true."
"I understand." The lines around Rodgers' eyes deepened as he rose from his desk. "And keep in touch, all right?"
"Absolutely. I'll see you at your next signing."
Rodgers grinned. "I'll be expecting you, Detective."