The sun sank low in the sky late that Saturday afternoon as Lilly looked into her bedroom mirror and studied her reflection.
She almost didn't recognize the woman staring back at her.
The gorgeous crimson gown she had to be coaxed into even trying on. The effortless-looking professionally-created hairstyle requiring an untold number of bobby pins and enough hair spray to make her whisper a silent apology to the ozone layer. The unplanned mani-pedi. The darker, smokier eyeshadow; the brighter shade of lipstick.
She'd really gone all out for the Blue Ball, an event to which she normally just slipped into her standard, years-old little black dress, curled her hair, and called it a day. But from what few things she'd managed to pin down about Eddie Saccardo, she was pretty sure he wasn't just going to show up in a canvas rice bag. The twinkles in his eyes and the grins that tugged at his lips these last couple days told her he was taking advantage of a lame, corporate-optional event to create something special. Something magical. So she'd decided to be prepared.
Now, looking into the mirror, joyful anticipation bubbled up in her chest. All the effort had paid off. She looked like a million bucks. And she couldn't wait to see his reaction.
Tripod and Olivia perched on the bed behind her, eyeing the woman in the mirror with such suspicion that Lilly had to laugh.
"Don't worry, girls." She gave each cat a reassuring scratch behind the ears. "It's just me."
Tripod stared back at her, still unconvinced, while Olivia, in that oddly prescient way she had about her, leaped from the bed and positioned herself by the window. Seconds later, a car roared to a stop just outside. The sound of its engine, a far cry from the usual rice rockets and city buses that paraded past her house, drew Lilly's attention. She nudged the sheer white curtain aside to get a better look at…wait, was that a Maserati?
She stared, then smiled as the sleek burgundy sedan shuddered into silence and a tuxedo-clad Saccardo climbed out. Butterflies zooming up and down the length of her body in a way they hadn't since high school, Lilly grabbed her clutch and scratched both her pets behind the ears.
"I'll be back before sunup." Maybe, she added with a grin as she picked up her skirts and carefully descended the stairs.
Halfway down, a firm, decisive knock came to the door, and her hammering heart leaped into her throat. "It's open."
"You kiddin' me?" The door creaked. "What kinda cop leaves their door op…"
The rest of the word died on his lips, forever unuttered, as Saccardo stepped into her living room and stopped dead in his tracks.
"Hey, Saccardo." Lilly's gaze traveled over him from head to toe. His brown eyes sparkled; his lips curved in an eager smile. The sharp, clean lines of his tux made him look even taller and stronger than normal. Every detail of his appearance spoke of extravagance. What she didn't know about men's fashion could fill the Schuylkill, but this tux had clearly cost him some serious dough.
Saccardo, meanwhile, seemed to have recovered from his shock. Crossing the room, he gently grasped her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes, his own dark with desire.
"You look…" he pressed a quick kiss to her lips. "Smokin' hot."
Lilly grinned. She'd take that.
"Thank you." She stepped back and laid the sparkly silver clutch on an end table. "And you were right, y'know. You do clean up pretty damn good."
"Well, I knew you had somethin' better than a gunny sack in that closet of yours. Figured I'd better represent."
Chuckling, she trailed a finger over his lapel. "So the car's what, just showin' off?"
Dark brows lifted. "You already saw the car?"
"From the upstairs window, yeah."
His mouth formed a tight line of mock disappointment. "Damn. I was hopin' to surprise you."
"Good thing I got a backup plan." With a mischievous grin, he reached into the breast pocket of his tux and pulled out a slender black velvet box.
Lilly's eyes grew huge; the lungful of air she was in the process of taking in stayed suspended in her chest. "Eddie…"
"Might wanna open it before you go all goggle-eyed, Rush." He placed the box in fingertips that were suddenly incapable of movement on their own. "For all you know, it's just an empty box."
With a self-deprecating grin, Lilly snapped the box open to reveal a sparkling diamond pendant nestled on a bed of white satin. The lights of her living room split the stone into thousands of tiny prisms; flashes of red, blue and green danced before her eyes as the box jiggled in her suddenly shaking hands.
"I was hopin' you'd say that." The ever-confident Saccardo suddenly sounded a little husky. "'Cause…unlike the car, it's not a rental."
Lilly glanced up in surprise. Though not the largest diamond in the world, it was still far bigger than anything she'd have ever imagined receiving from a fellow detective. "How'd you ever afford this?"
His broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I know a guy."
"You 'know a guy?'" She arched a brow. "C'mon. I know what you make."
He chuckled. "Y'know, most girls'd ask a lot fewer questions."
She tossed him a flirty smile. "I'm not most girls."
"I know." Gently, he lifted her chin and brushed her lips with a soft, reverent kiss that brought a quiet stirring to her heart. He was a perpetual mystery; every question for which she found an answer led to three more. But here, right now, she suddenly sensed a glimpse into the real person behind all the razzle-dazzle.
"So, uh…" he cleared his throat. "You gonna put this thing on, or what?"
It took her a moment to remember the necklace she held in her hands. Grinning, she fished it out of its satiny nest, handed him the box, and undid the clasp.
He laid the box on the back of the couch. "Want some help?"
Lowering the necklace into his outstretched palm, she smiled and turned around. He fumbled with the clasp for a moment; his fingertips tickled the sensitive skin of her neck and sent shivers throughout her whole body.
"There;" He sounded satisfied, and Lilly looked down to find the pendant resting on her chest, as though it had always belonged there. Her breath caught when she glimpsed herself in the mirror. The delicate gold chain highlighted her collarbones; the sparkling diamond made her eyes look brighter, her smile bigger. Behind her, Saccardo's hands rested on her shoulders, his normally-cocky grin now warm and tender.
"Thank you." She turned and kissed him again. "It's beautiful."
"You're welcome." He allowed one more quick kiss, then stepped back, answering her silent question with a lopsided grin. "You got no idea how much I wish this thing wasn't corporate-optional."
Excitement zinged through her at that. Any other year, she'd jump at the chance to ditch the Blue Ball and enjoy a night in with Saccardo, but this night meant far more to her than just putting in an appearance at a required schmooze-fest. Magic, if such a thing truly existed, had always been in short supply for Lilly. Now, though, a trail of it seemed to shimmer and dance in the air around them, and she wanted to follow it where it led.
"C'mon, Saccardo. The night is young." She picked up her clutch, then grabbed his hand and started for the door. "Let's see how fast that car can go."
Music mingled with the clinks of glasses and the cacophony of the crowd, bright lights glinted off the ballroom's marble columns and crystal chandeliers, and Scotty leaned against the bar, waiting for the scotch he'd ordered upon arrival at the gala. If he was going to spend the evening sucking up to overly-perfumed Chestnut Hill housewives with delusions of youth and more money than they knew what to do with, he was damn well going to have a little booze in his system first.
As he waited, he scanned the ballroom, taking in the swirl of dark tuxedoes and colorful dresses, each more dazzling than the last. And, sure enough, not twenty feet away from him, her artificially enhanced assets spilling out the top of a skin-tight silver evening gown, was Gina Newman. The wife of one of Philly's wealthiest real estate moguls, she'd spent the vast majority of last year's Blue Ball flirting openly with Scotty. He'd flirted back to a point; his interest in Gina was strictly financial, but apparently it had been enough. After spending her evening flaunting her enormous bosom, she'd written an even larger check to the department.
Gina spotted him and waggled coy, manicured fingers in his direction. Pasting a smile onto his face, Scotty tossed her a cheerful wave, then grabbed the scotch that had just arrived in front of him, downed about half of it, and looked around for someplace to hide. He wasn't ready for Gina Newman and her implants. Not yet.
To his relief, tucked away in a corner not far from the bar, Vera and Kat stood near a tall table. Both were uncharacteristically spit-and-polished, though Nick's brown hair was slightly mussed and his tie was already loose. And Scotty had never seen Kat Miller dressed up before, but in that short, sparkly, deep purple number, she looked…actually, she looked good. Really good.
She'd also just burst into uproarious laughter at something Vera had said. That was…also unusual.
"Hey," Scotty greeted his friends.
"Hey, baby, you made it!" Beaming, Kat wobbled toward him on a dangerous-looking pair of high heels and swallowed him up in an enthusiastic embrace.
As they pulled apart, Scotty eyed the glass in her hand, empty but for a few ice cubes. "How much have you had to drink?"
"This is my first. 'Bout to be my second." Giggling, she lurched off toward the bar.
Scotty arched a brow and leaned toward Vera. "Might be her first one here…but it ain't her first."
"I think she's just thrilled to have a night out," Vera raised his glass and clinked it against Scotty's. "I'll keep an eye on her."
Nodding his satisfaction, Scotty sipped his drink and looked around the room again, trying to figure out where to start. Stillman was in a corner, chatting up some of the brass, Will was just arriving…
…and all the way across the room, a flash of blonde hair and ruby-red satin. Instantly captivated, Scotty craned his neck as much as he dared. With the crowds pressing in all around the woman, who had her back to him to begin with, it was impossible for him to see who she was, or whether she'd been here last year, or whether she'd come with anyone. But even the quick glimpses he caught of her long neck, her delicate shoulder blades, and the graceful sweep of slender hips were enough to pique his interest.
Soon, the sea of humanity engulfed her entirely; he thought he might still see a sliver of her left elbow, but he wasn't sure. Damn. That was someone he wouldn't mind schmoozing with later, Chestnut Hill housewife or no.
"Everything all right, Scotty?"
He snapped to attention almost audibly. Jeffries stood just to his right; dark eyes raked over him with unabashed curiosity.
"Yeah." Scotty smoothed his tie and raised his scotch to his lips. "Just…thought I saw someone."
"I'm back!" Kat crowed, raising her glass in triumph. "Miss me?"
Scotty chuckled at the surprised look on Will's face, one that must've mirrored his own upon first encountering an inebriated Kat Miller.
"You plannin' to use this as blackmail, Nick?" Jeffries asked.
Vera grinned over the rim of a bottled beer. "Maybe."
"You do and I'll cut you," Kat snarled.
At Vera's questioning expression, she narrowed her dark, unnaturally long-lashed eyes. "A stiletto heel can be used as a murder weapon. Known fact."
"And here I was thinkin' you'd go for poison," Scotty joked, then took another slow-burning sip of scotch. Mmm. Not bad for something the department threw together. Wasn't top shelf, but it was good. Smooth, easy-drinking. He closed his eyes to relish the buttery warmth on his tongue, to steel himself for what was bound to be a long evening, and—
The familiar voice spoke up amid the unfamiliar swish of skirts, and Scotty opened his eyes and prepared to greet his partner.
But whatever words he would've said tumbled back down his throat at the sight of her. His lungs froze mid-breath, not quite able to expel the air already in them, but equally unable to take in more.
He'd always known his partner was attractive; he'd have to have been blind not to. But she'd never hit the beautiful mark until now.
No, that wasn't quite right. She'd peeled past the beautiful mark with a squeal of tires and a cloud of smoke, leaving it a barely visible dot in her rear-view mirror. Her blonde hair was neatly piled up on top of her head; a few artful tendrils danced about her cheekbones. Sapphire eyes sparkled in tandem with a glittery pair of earrings. Deep scarlet lips curved in a hopeful smile. Scotty's gaze traveled over the slender column of her neck, accented by a delicate—and expensive-looking—diamond pendant, her creamy shoulders, and that lithe body perfectly encased in a gorgeous crimson satin dress. The same dress, the same body, he realized, that he'd spied across the crowded ballroom a few minutes back. That woman, the one who'd so easily enchanted him, and Lilly—his friend, his partner—they were one and the same.
It was almost more than his brain could handle.
"Lookin' good, Valens." The vision spoke, and, after a delay, Scotty realized the need to formulate some kind of response.
"Yeah." The word came out thick and garbled; he cleared his throat. "Thanks. You look—"
He paused. There was a word out there, he was sure of it. But everything he could come up with—unbelievable, breathtaking, elegant, hot—all failed to accurately encompass her beauty. He flitted through his mental catalog of Spanish adjectives; maybe one of those would—
"There you are, gorgeous." Scotty's blood pressure skyrocketed as the perfect word, and a glass of champagne for Lilly, both arrived courtesy of an Armani-clad Eddie Saccardo. Clamping his back teeth together, Scotty forced his lips into a smile.
"Valens," Saccardo replied with a smirk and a nod.
"Damn," an overloud female voice spoke up next to him. "You two look amazing."
Amazing. That would've been another good word.
"Fucking amazing," Kat repeated, swirling the drink in her glass.
Lilly's earrings danced with her surprised flinch; long-lashed blue eyes darted suspiciously toward Vera. "She drunk?"
"Lil' bit," Vera replied.
"So'd you two try to one-up each other tonight, or what?" Jeffries asked.
Lilly and Saccardo exchanged one of those insider, couple-y looks over the rims of their champagne flutes. "Well, I think the Maserati pushes you over the top," she said.
"Maserati?" Scotty hadn't thought he could dislike Eddie Saccardo any more than he already did. He was wrong.
"I dunno, Rush; this is pretty stiff competition." Saccardo's thick fingers toyed with the delicate pendant around Lilly's neck in an almost proprietary way.
"Damn." Miller's drunken vocabulary appeared to have shrunk to that single syllable, though Scotty had to admit his wasn't much larger, even with nowhere near the amount of alcohol in his system that Kat had.
"Yeah, that looks real," Vera muttered.
"But you gave it to me." Lilly smiled up at Saccardo. "So I think you still win."
"I think we both win." Saccardo's eyes traveled up and down Lilly's body with the air of a king surveying newly-conquered territory, and Scotty rocketed his attention back to his scotch glass, which was suddenly and inexplicably empty.
"I think I'm gonna be sick," Kat spoke up next to him, hand clapped over her mouth, eyes darting frantically this way and that as Vera jumped back faster than Scotty had ever seen the man move.
"Yeah," Scotty grumbled into his empty glass. "Me too."
"Wait…Nope!" Kat chirped after a beat. "Nope! False alarm! I'm okay!" Practically tossing her empty glass onto the silver tray of the waiter who happened to be passing by, she looked around the circle, her heavy mass of twisted ebony hair aquiver, eyes semi-wild. "Who wants to dance?"
"That sounds like a great idea." Saccardo gently took Lilly's champagne glass and placed both it and his own empty flute on the passing tray, all without ever tearing his gaze from her.
She dimpled her delight. "All right, Saccardo. Let's see what you got."
"Later, gents. Lady," Saccardo called to the group with a cheerful wave over his shoulder as Lilly slipped her arm into his.
"C'mon, Nicky." Kat grabbed the hand of a startled Vera and hauled him toward the dance floor with a strength Scotty wasn't aware she possessed. "Mama needs to move."
Jeffries fumbled in his coat pocket for his phone, then held it up in the direction of the gyrating Kat and the bemused Vera. "Now there's blackmail material if I ever saw it." Grinning, Will strode forward to get a better angle.
With a chuckle that didn't even sound like it came from him, Scotty glanced down at his empty glass, the glass that had somehow completely missed the passing trays, and strode purposefully toward the bar. He was pretty sure that no amount of alcohol he could consume would be able to get him through this night.
But damned if he wasn't going to try.