"You look beautiful, Lil."
Scotty's words cut through the quiet strains of the music as they swayed in slow circles at the center of the Blue Ball dance floor, and Lilly beamed. She hadn't gone to quite as much trouble as she had last year, with that elaborate crimson ballgown. This year, she'd opted for something a little less fluffy and skirt-intensive, but still red. Scotty had always liked her in red.
"Thanks." She slid her fingers up the sleeves of his tux jacket and trailed them along the edge where stiff fabric met warm, soft skin. "And you look…"
Grinning, Scotty quirked a brow while she scanned her mental list of adjectives for one that would do justice to Scotty Valens in a tuxedo. She hadn't quite been able to fully appreciate the sight at last year's Blue Ball and had been waiting twelve months to get another glimpse. She'd hoped for a chance when Kat and Vera got married in September, but in keeping with the no-muss, no-fuss nature of their relationship, the two of them had tied the knot in a quick lunchtime jaunt to the courthouse.
Over Scotty's shoulder, Lilly spied the happy newlyweds, a sober and radiant Kat clad in a form-fitting black dress and Vera looking surprisingly dapper in a rented tux his wife had no doubt picked out for him. Acknowledging them with a cheerful wiggle of her fingers, Lilly then turned her attention back to Scotty and the way the sharp, clean lines of his tux accentuated his lean, sculpted form.
"Edible." She whispered the word into Scotty's left ear and relished the slight shudder she got in response.
Scotty pulled her close enough that she could feel the effect she was having on him. "Good thing I booked us a room here tonight, then."
Lilly's eyes widened. "You got us a room? Here? Scotty, that's…" She had no idea how much a room in this swanky hotel would cost, but she knew it was probably beyond anything either of them could sensibly afford.
"Expensive?" His lips curved in a knowing grin. "C'mon. We only get all dolled up once a year. Figure…go big or go home, right?"
"Right." There was something there, some current running just beneath the surface of the man she knew so well, but she couldn't quite place it. Nor did she have time to dwell on it, because a familiar silver-haired figure had just laid a weathered hand on Scotty's shoulder, blue eyes sparkling behind his glasses.
"Pardon the interruption, Detective Valens. Detective Rush," Rodgers said with exaggerated formality as Lilly and Scotty created some space. "I hadn't had a chance to say hello to either of you yet this evening."
Lilly and Scotty both shook the hand of the renowned author, a now-familiar presence in the squad room thanks to the research required for his new novel. Though not privy to many details, Lilly knew the book focused a cold case unit much like their own. The lead detective, Lizzie Ice, was none other than the daughter of Kathryn Ice, the heroine who first inspired Lilly all those years ago. Lilly suspected there was more of herself in Lizzie Ice than she might have liked, but Rodgers had staunchly refused to let her read any of his drafts, saying only that he knew she'd love the finished product.
"Rick. Good to see you." This from Deputy Commissioner Hudson, who paused in his latest sweep of the room to pump Rodgers' hand enthusiastically. Lilly had to smile. In addition to becoming a frequent visitor to Headquarters, Rick Rodgers had also become quite a generous donor. The Department's budget woes had eased considerably since this time last year.
"Always a pleasure." Rodgers returned the handshake, then turned back toward Scotty. "Detective, may I borrow your partner for a moment?"
"Sure. I'll just go grab a drink." Scotty brushed a kiss to Lilly's cheek, then headed off toward the bar, while Rodgers offered Lilly his arm and led her toward the doors to the balcony.
"I must say, my dear Detective Rush, that you look positively ravishing this evening."
"Thank you. And you look quite dashing yourself." She played along the overly formal ruse as he pushed open the door and escorted her out into unseasonably mild November air. As Lilly took in the view from the top floor, she couldn't help but think about the last time she looked out on the lights and the traffic from this spot. Blinking back tears, straining to see the taillights of a departing Maserati, shivering in the evening's chill…
…and then Scotty came out onto the balcony, offered her his jacket, and changed her world forever.
"I wanted to give you this." A grin spread across Rodgers' face as he produced a brown paper gift bag, from which he drew a wrapped package festooned with a dazzling abundance of curling ribbon.
"Lexie went a little crazy with the ribbon," he explained, and Lilly grinned at the thought of his eager strawberry blonde assistant as she took the bag from him.
"Should I open it now?"
Like a child on Christmas morning, Lilly tore off the paper to reveal a thick hardcover book. Dark blue, with silver embossed letters on the cover, and the silhouette of a female detective in the background.
Cold As Ice
Lilly gasped. "It's out? I thought it wasn't being released until January."
"Publisher bumped up the date," a beaming Rodgers explained. "Pre-release buzz was through the roof; they wanted the book out in time for Christmas. It hits stores two weeks from Tuesday, but I got my author copies earlier this week. Thought tonight would be the perfect opportunity to give you yours."
"Oh, thank you." An uncharacteristic squeal escaped Lilly's lips as she cracked open the cover and inhaled that hot-off-the-presses book smell. "It's here. I can't believe it's here. Oh, Rick, I can't wait to read this."
"I can't remember the last time I had so much fun writing a damn book," Rodgers said. "The research used to drive me crazy, but with you and your squad it's an absolute joy. You've all become like family."
Tears stung Lilly's eyes as she reached forward and enveloped the aged author into a warm embrace. "That's what they are. And you, too."
"Good thing Queenswell wants to make this a series, then," Rodgers said with a decidedly impish grin as they pulled apart.
"Signed a five-book contract yesterday."
Lilly's eyes widened. "Five books? That's fantastic."
"Oh, there you are, Rick." A clear, strident female voice cut through the mild night air, and Lilly followed the sound to a statuesque brunette, resplendent in a shimmery gold floor-length gown. It took her a moment to place the woman, and when she did, her jaw dropped.
"Sergeant Beckett. Almost didn't recognize you."
Beckett smiled warmly as she sidled up next to Rodgers. "Yeah, I've been getting that a lot tonight."
"Kate," Rodgers breathed, devouring her with his eyes. "My God. You are a vision."
"You think so?" Beckett's green-gold eyes sparkled, and Lilly thought she could see a hint of color creeping into the sergeant's cheeks.
Well. It didn't take a detective to figure out what was going on here, though Lilly was stunned at how deep the feelings apparently ran. Rodgers had been embedded with the squad when they worked with Beckett on an old murder in her precinct back in August. Lilly wasn't aware they'd kept in touch, but based on the kiss Rodgers pressed to the back of Beckett's hand, it appeared they had done exactly that, and then some.
"Detective Rush, if you'll excuse me." Rodgers glanced back at her, his eyes twinkling once again.
"Of course." Lilly smiled back at him. "Thanks for the book."
"It's the least I could do. You enjoy the rest of your evening."
"I will," she called after him. "You, too."
"Nice seeing you, Detective Rush. Say hi to Valens for me," Beckett said over her shoulder by way of farewell as the pair disappeared back into the brilliantly-lit ballroom.
Lilly chuckled at the romance that was very obviously blooming. She wouldn't necessarily have put Beckett and Rodgers together, especially given their age difference, but they both seemed happy. And after all the years he'd pined for Ellie? Rick Rodgers deserved happy.
With a contented sigh, Lilly cracked open the book, savoring the crisp paper between her fingers and the white of the page under the dim lights of the balcony.
Her heart warmed when she read the dedication.
To the extraordinary Detective Lilly Rush and the rest of the real cold case unit of the Philadelphia Police Department: Detectives Will Jeffries, Kat Miller, Scotty Valens, Nick Vera, and their long-suffering boss, Lieutenant John Stillman. With my deepest thanks and devotion.
She'd just turned the first page when she sensed an eerie, yet oddly familiar presence. Glancing up, she saw Ellie King leaning against the rail of the balcony, a copy of the same book in her hand, her eyes drinking in each word on the page. After a moment, Ellie looked up, peered at Lilly over the edge of the novel, and broke into a sweet, dimple- framed smile. The apparition lasted but a moment, then faded into the night, and Lilly breathed the contented sigh of knowing a long-departed soul had finally found its peace.
The small square napkin arrived, followed immediately by the glass of scotch Scotty had requested. He downed half of it, his fingertips drumming on the surface of the bar. This time last year, he sat in this exact spot, flirting with Frankie Rafferty so he could keep his mind off Lilly and Saccardo.
This year, Saccardo was nowhere to be seen. Back undercover, Scotty assumed. Frankie was here, though, getting up close and personal with...wait, was that Mendoza? Huh. Looked like Rafferty batted for both teams. Mendoza, too. Didn't see that coming.
It seemed Gina Newman had found a new target as well. Though she had of course been thrilled to see Scotty, Lilly's presence seemed to have motivated her to direct most of her flirting elsewhere. In fact, there she was now, on the other side of the room, sinking her claws into some new guy who'd just transferred into Homicide from NYPD. Amaro? Was that the guy's name? Couldn't remember for sure, but it looked like Gina would.
A hand on Scotty's shoulder made his heart leap into his throat. Rick Rodgers stood to his left, mirth shimmering in pale blue eyes. "It's go time, Detective."
"You give it to her?"
"Yep." Rodgers winked and headed back toward the dance floor. "She's all yours."
"Let's hope so," Scotty muttered. Stomach churning, he downed the rest of his scotch, crossed the room on tense, twitchy legs, and pushed open the door to the balcony.
The cool air kissing his face was a welcome relief after that overly stuffy ballroom, and it took the edge off the adrenaline sluicing through his body. And there was Lilly, leaning against the railing, just as she'd been last year. A gift bag sat at her feet, out of which peeked a wad of crumpled wrapping paper and a crap-ton of curling ribbon. Her eyes caressed the back cover of the book she held in her hands.
The all-important book.
His heart hammering, Scotty took a deep breath and started toward her. She turned at the sound of his footsteps; the dazzling smile with which she rewarded him stole what little air he had left.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey." His mouth felt stuffed with cotton. Sidling up next to her, he slid his arm around her slender waist. "Have I told you yet how beautiful you look tonight?"
Lilly's grin widened as she leaned her head on his shoulder. "Couple times, I think."
He feathered a kiss against her hair. "Then I ain't said it enough."
"Mmm. I don't think I've spent enough time telling you how good you look tonight, either." Turning toward him, she claimed his lips. He gave in to the insistent desire for a moment, then stepped back. His fingertips slid down her arms to the book she still held in her hands.
"What's that?" he asked.
She looked blank for a moment, then glanced down, almost as if she'd forgotten the book entirely. "Oh. Rick's publisher bumped up the release date, so he got his author copies early." Beaming, she handed Scotty the book. "Hope we like this one, 'cause he just signed a deal for five more."
"Five more, huh?" Scotty flipped absently through the pages, just to make sure everything was as it should be. "So I guess that means he's still gonna be hangin' around the office all the time." This was a welcome development. During the course of his research, Rick Rodgers had practically become one of the squad.
"Guess so," she replied. "But I think he'll probably be spending just as much time over in Northwest."
Grinning, Scotty handed the book back. "What makes you say that?"
Mischief sparkled in Lilly's eyes. "I think he's sweet on your old sergeant."
"Looks like she's just as sweet on him, too."
Scotty nodded his approval. "Wow. Go, Rick."
"What? Beckett's hot."
Lilly arched a brow.
"Well, okay, she's not you hot. But she is hot."
"Mm-hm."Lilly rolled her eyes, and Scotty gave a nervous chuckle, then tried to clear the anxiety from his throat.
"So…Rodgers sign the book?"
"Y'know, I didn't think to look." Lilly opened the book, turned a couple pages, and smiled. "Yeah, here it is. 'To Lilly: Inspiration has come full circle. Once again, all my gratitude. Yours, Rick Rodgers. P. S. I'm nowhere near the detective you are, but I suspect chapter fourteen will be your favorite.' Wow." She closed the book. "That was really sweet of him."
Scotty arched a brow. "You ain't gonna check out chapter fourteen? See what he's talkin' about?"
She looked at him as though he'd suddenly sprouted an extra head. "No."
"C'mon. You're not even a little bit curious?"
"No." Lilly hugged the book to her chest. "This is Rick Rodgers's first new book in seven years. I want to read it slowly. Beginning to end. I want to savor each and every word. No skipping around."
Scotty had to chuckle. "You mean you wanna see if you can crack the case before Lizzie Ice does."
A sheepish grin curved Lilly's lips. "Maybe."
"You get that she's you, right?"
"A fictionalized version of me."
"You're still just competin' with yourself."
"Yeah. So what?" Lilly studied him with narrow-eyed suspicion. "Wait, do you know something?"
Scotty wasn't entirely sure how to answer that question. "Well, there's somethin' in chapter fourteen that I think you'll—"
"No no no, don't tell me. I don't even want a hint."
"But if you'd just—"
"But, Lil, I—"
"I mean it, Scotty," she snapped, looking slightly hurt. "No spoilers."
Scotty stepped back and ran a hand through his hair. This was the one thing he didn't think about. Somehow, in all his scheming, it hadn't occurred to him that Lil might not immediately skip to the good part of the book. And because he had overlooked that one critical detail, the plan that had seemed so brilliant on Thursday was now unraveling faster than a twenty-year-old T-shirt.
"Look," he said, trying like hell to keep his frustration out of his voice. "Just…flip to chapter fourteen, all right?"
Lilly stared at him. "Flip?"
"Flip." He pantomimed the motion.
"Dammit, Lil." The words exploded from his lips, and he pulled in a breath to calm himself. "Just do it. Please. For me. You'll—you'll understand why. "
Frowning, Lilly tilted her head to the side and studied him. "Are you okay, Scotty?"
No. He wasn't okay. His skin was bathed in cold sweat. His heart pounded so fast he wondered if he might need an ER visit before this was all over. His mouth tasted like scotch and terror. And she, the best detective he'd ever known, the person who knew him better than almost anyone, was just now noticing something was off with him? If it weren't for the seriousness of the situation, he'd have laughed.
For a moment, he contemplated spilling the whole thing, but decided instead to drop back and heave one last Hail Mary pass. "Look, Lil. Just flip through chapter fourteen. You don't need to look at the words. It's got nothin' to do with the story. It's just…there's somethin' in there you need to see."
"Okay…" Her brow still creased in an adorably puzzled frown, Lilly slowly opened the book and flipped the pages. Scotty was melting with adrenaline as she got closer and closer to the fateful chapter.
And then she stopped. Slammed the book shut. Took a few rapid, shallow breaths. Looked up at him. Looked back down at the book. Opened it. Flipped the pages again, frantic this time. Turned too far. Had to turn back. Then she slowed. Stopped. Stared. Her hands shook.
God. She was killing him. Killing him. He hadn't been a fraction this terrified with Elisa. He couldn't have been. Because if he had, he would've signed an oath, in his own blood if necessary, to never, ever do this to himself again.
Slowly, agonizingly slowly, she reached down into the page and withdrew the glittering diamond ring he'd purchased two weeks back and wedged deep into the pages of Rick Rodgers's book. It had been Scotty's idea to pop the question at the Blue Ball, out on the balcony, almost a year to the day since everything started.
It had been Rodgers' idea to hide the ring in the book.
"Scotty?" She held up the ring in her trembling fingers. "Is this…?"
He swallowed hard. "Yeah, Lil. It is."
She made a noise that sounded like a mix between a laugh and a sob and clapped her hand to her mouth. Her other hand, the one that was still holding the book, shook so violently that Scotty took pity on her and slid the novel from her tenuous grasp, laying it to the side as he dropped to one knee in front of her and clasped her newly-free hand in his.
"Lil." The name stuck in his throat. He had to clear it and start over. "Lil…we've been partners for a long time. And the last year, we've been, well, partners. And I told you when we got together that I'd do whatever it took to prove that I was gonna be there for you, no matter what. And—and if I've done that okay, if you believe me, if you know, deep in your heart, how much I love you, and how I'd—I'd walk through fire for you…then…will you marry me?"
Tears filled her eyes. She nodded her head several times before she could get the word out. "Yes." It was muffled by the hand still clasped over her mouth, but it was clearly, definitely, a yes. Her hand still shaking, she held the ring out to him.
He slid it onto her finger. Instantly, it nestled into place, as though it had always been there. Light from the ballroom bounced off the diamond in a dazzling array of color. It was over. She'd said yes. She was wearing the ring.
Finally, he could breathe.
Except he couldn't, because she'd helped him stand up and had engulfed him in an impassioned kiss. His cheeks felt wet, though he couldn't tell whether it was from her tears or his.
At length, she ended the kiss and leaned her forehead against his. Her glistening lashes were glued together; a tender smile curved her lips. "I love you, Scotty."
"Lil." He pulled her close. "I love you, too. So goddamn much."
Another shy kiss, then a happy sigh. "We're getting married."
"We are." It'd probably take a couple days to fully wrap his head around it.
"Think we should tell everyone?"
Scotty shrugged. "Probably."
Grinning wickedly, Lilly took him by the hand and started to lead him toward the entrance to the back stairwell of the hotel. "Let's tell them tomorrow."
"Oh?" He arched a brow.
She glanced back at him over her shoulder. "I'm starting to get a nasty bobby pin headache."
All-too familiar desire ignited. "Are you?"
"Oh, yeah. The worst." The gleam in her eyes told him she wasn't in any pain. Not that kind, anyway.
"You…want me to help you with that when we get to our room?" His own grin turned slightly mischievous.
"If you would."
There wasn't anything in the world he'd like better.
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