Stranger on the Shore
Scotty downed the last of his scotch, deposited his glass on the tray of a passing server, and swam through the sea of humanity toward the bar for a refill, grateful to escape the cloying perfume and prominently-displayed, unnaturally large bosom of Gina Newman.
She'd flirted outrageously, just like last year. And, just like last year, he'd feigned polite interest in her book club and her tennis matches and that police procedural she liked with the cute actor she thought looked like him and on and on and on and please dear God stop. But he knew the longer he sat there grinning and flirting back and inserting witty comments at the appropriate times, the larger the check would be. Which meant that maybe they could finally replace that temperamental fax machine, or upgrade those stone-age computers. Take one for the team, Valens. You're the only one in the squad who can schmooze.
Well. That wasn't entirely true. Will could, when he wasn't hiding out in the smoking lounge with a cigar and a handful of old-timers who didn't want to be there any more than he did. Lilly could, when she wasn't draped all over Saccardo like an ill-fitting coat. Even Nick could, when he shelved his chauvinistic humor and—good God, was someone dancing on a table? Even for the Blue Ball, this was a first.
A split second later, Scotty realized it was Kat perched up there, singing along with Ella Fitzgerald on the sound system, surrounded by a small, but appreciative, glut of onlookers. Bypassing the bar entirely, he hurried toward them, reaching the corner table just as Ella—and Kat, who, frankly, didn't sound half bad—reached the grand finale. As she finished with a triumphant flourish, her audience clapped and whistled. Kat took a bow, and that's when Scotty spied Vera standing in the front row. Not leering or making snide comments, as Scotty expected, but watching Kat with a peculiar mixture of awe, affection, and amusement.
"Come on," Nick said quietly to the drunken diva when the applause died down. "Let's get you down from there."
A couple of the bystanders groaned their disappointment. Scotty was about to tell them to piss off when a lethal glare from Vera accomplished the task for him.
"Easy," Nick was saying, and Scotty rushed to his aid. Together, the two of them eased a giggling Miller down from the tabletop to a wobbly halt on her too-high heels.
"You guys are the best," she enthused. "The best. I love you guys."
"Uh-huh." Vera gently unhooked her arms from around his neck. "Let's get you home."
"I can drive her." Scotty was already digging in his pocket for his keys.
Vera grinned. "That sick of this thing already, huh?"
Well, Scotty wouldn't lie; there were at least six dozen other things he'd rather be doing. Especially given those glimpses of Lilly and Saccardo that kept assaulting his vision, glimpses of red satin and a dazzling smile and that shit-eating that's right, fellas, she's all mine smirk plastered all over jackass Saccardo's face.
Scotty shrugged. "Unless you can think of a reason I need to stick around."
"Might be able to do that." Vera's grin shifted to a spot just over Scotty's left shoulder. "Brunette at the end of the bar; she's been givin' you the eye for the last five minutes. You gonna go talk to her or what?"
As subtly as he could, Scotty turned to look behind him. Sure enough, an attractive, little-black-dress-clad woman with a cascade of chestnut curls was perched on a barstool. When their eyes met, she offered a coy smile.
"Yeah, Scotty," Kat echoed, in what was patently not an indoor voice. "Go talk to her."
The brunette at the bar raised a manicured hand to red lips in an effort to stifle a giggle. Something about the amusement in her dark eyes looked familiar. Scotty couldn't place her, but he thought he'd seen her around Headquarters a time or two, which meant she probably wasn't some Chestnut Hill housewife. The thought filled him with eager relief.
Tossing a grin in her direction, he then turned back toward Vera. "You sure you got this?"
"Yeah. We're good." Slipping an arm around Kat's waist, Vera gently steered her toward the exit. "C'mon, sunshine. Let's get you home."
Scotty watched them go, puzzling over the strange dynamic between them. It seemed that a soused Kat brought out the sensitive side of Nick Vera, and Scotty would've been hard-pressed to put money on that particular idiosyncrasy of their generally-snarky friendship.
Well. He'd figure that one out that later. For now, there was an attractive woman to chat with. One who wouldn't require him to suck up or check his dignity at the door or watch as she made the do-me eyes at Eddie Saccardo. It was an opportunity for escape, right there on a gleaming silver platter, and he'd be an idiot not to take it.
Decision made, he smoothed his tie and headed for the bar.
"Scotty Valens, right?" the brunette asked as he slid onto the stool next to her. "From the cold case unit?"
Scotty grinned. "Depends on who's askin'."
"I am." Large, catlike eyes rose to meet his. "I'm Frankie Rafferty. From the lab. And I'd like to buy you a drink."
His eyebrows shot up; his lips curved. "Bold move."
"You think that's bold…" Her hand slid across the bar; slender fingers draped over his wrist. "I'm just getting warmed up."
Well, then. Maybe there was hope for the evening after all.
If someone had told Lilly Rush that one of the most romantic evenings of her life would feature, as part of its soundtrack, a song by Celine Dion, she would've laughed. She'd never quite forgiven the Canadian chanteuse for that god-awful song from Titanic. And yet here Lilly was, in the middle of a dance floor, illuminated by the starlight of crystal chandeliers, warm and secure in Saccardo's arms, and she was listening to Celine Dion, and it was oddly, wonderfully perfect. She felt like Cinderella at the ball.
"Gotta hand it to you, Saccardo." She grinned up at him as he led her in a turn. "You're not a bad dancer."
The gleam in his eyes was all the warning he gave her before he lowered her into a deep dip. She yelped in surprise, then laughed as he held her there, mere inches above the floor, safe in the muscled curve of his arm.
"Pretty soon, Rush, you're gonna quit underestimating me." His voice was husky, eyes glittering and intense as he looked deep into hers. He kissed her then, probably longer than was proper, though from the state some of her colleagues were in, she doubted anyone would even notice, let alone care.
Just as she started to get dizzy, Saccardo ended the kiss, then raised her to her feet and drew her close. With a happy murmur, she rested her chin on his broad shoulder and breathed deep of his cologne, of his warmth, of him.
A low humming sound rose up from his chest, and then, pulling her even closer, he began to sing along with Celine in a deep, rich baritone. The words tickled the sensitive shell of Lilly's outer ear. She couldn't help but laugh.
"What, you don't like my voice?"
"Just never figured you for much of a singer, Saccardo."
"There you go underestimatin' me again."
Lilly pulled back to search his eyes. "You're really pullin' out all the stops tonight."
Immediately, there was tension in his shoulders. A slight hesitation in his movements. A rapid melting-away of his self-assured swagger.
Her brow creased. "What?"
"I…kinda have to." He took a deep breath. "The boss called right after we got here."
The truth she read in his eyes made her heart sink to her shoes. "It's tonight, isn't it?"
He nodded. "And you got no idea how much I wish it wasn't." His hands tightened around her waist, as though she alone anchored him to the here and now, to the bright lights and sultry music, to the magic that shimmered in the air. To this one incredible, perfect evening.
"Dammit." Swallowing hard, she braced herself for the inevitable heartbreak. "When?"
"Gotta be there by midnight."
No amount of bracing would've prepared Lilly for that. The shock made her recoil backwards. "Midnight? Tonight? That—that's less than two hours away! Why didn't you tell me?"
Saccardo smiled, a sheepish, hopeful smile that was a mere shadow of his usual self-confident smirk. "Didn't wanna ruin your magical evening."
She felt the burn of tears at that. The dull ache in her heart, the numb, chilly emptiness that draped over her like a thick blanket her every time someone was about to walk out of her life.
She hadn't realized until this moment just how alone she was going to feel without him.
"I tried, Rush," he said low against her cheek. "Kept tryin' to stall it. Told him to take someone else."
Her heart gave a painful squeeze. "But it's you."
He was trying to make it better, but it was just getting worse. He was leaving. It didn't matter how hard he'd tried to avoid it, to delay it, to hold it off…he was still leaving.
The pain it brought was swift and sharp, like a knife thrust. Hastily, she tried to staunch the bleeding with the defense mechanisms that had served her so well for so long.
"So what does this mean? You're gonna…roll into town under cover of darkness?" Lilly flashed what she hoped was a flirtatious smile. "Leave me secret letters if I promise not to blow your cover?"
He grinned. "Hey, last time I checked, you kinda liked that idea."
She laughed despite herself. "I did. I do…."
"But I was kinda starting to like this, too."
"I know, Lilly." He traced the curve of her jaw with his forefinger. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Really. It is." She pasted on a smile to convince him. To convince herself.
"I got time for one last dance." Saccardo held his arms open to her, and she stepped into them, blinking away the tears that threatened. Pulling him close, she rested her chin on his shoulder, closed her eyes, and tried to absorb every molecule of him that she possibly could. To keep him here. Somehow. To make him stay. To be enough. To be someone he couldn't walk away from.
But she knew her efforts would be futile. They would have their dance, and he would kiss her goodbye, and then he would walk out of that ballroom and into his other world, his other life. Was his life undercover his real one? Or was it this one, here, with her? It was another mystery she'd never managed to solve.
So she just held him; soaked him up, breathed him in. Tried to hold onto as much of him as she could. All too soon, the tide would roll out, and she'd be left standing on the beach, staring out at the ocean.
She only hoped she could somehow get enough of him in these next few minutes to last her until the tide came in again.
"You missed first base, by the way."
She'd warned him she was bold, but Frankie's words startled Scotty anyway as he led her in slow circles, attempting, with only marginal success, to avoid watching Lilly and Saccardo sway at the center of the dance floor. It had been a long time since junior high, when baseball metaphors actually meant something. For the life of him Scotty couldn't remember whether first base was holding hands or kissing. Not that it mattered, because he was nowhere near trying to go for any of the bases with this woman.
Her smile turned impish at his confusion; he knew from the gleam in her chocolate brown eyes that she knew exactly where his mind had gone, and she'd led it there on purpose.
"At the softball game last Saturday." Her wide smile grew wider still. "Missed it by a foot; you were too busy admiring your home run."
He bristled at her teasing comment. That home run was a beauty, not to mention the game-winner. And he had touched the base. He always touched the base. He would never forget a fundamental like that. How would this Frankie person know, anyway? Was she there?
Scotty flitted through the scant recollections he had of the game, but he was only able to devote about ten percent of his brain to the task. The rest of it was glued to what was unfolding before him as he and Frankie circled around again.
Lilly and Saccardo had stopped dancing and were just standing there, looking at each other. She had her back to Scotty, so he had no hope of reading her expression, but he could see Saccardo gently lift her chin and look deep into her eyes with a sad smile.
"I played second base."
Frankie's words once again yanked Scotty back. He tried to concentrate. Tried to remember circling the bases amid the cheers of his teammates; the crunch of dust beneath his feet and the thud of the softball landing in a clump of grass on the other side of the chain link fence. He knew there'd been a woman on second, but he couldn't say for sure whether it was this one or not, because he hadn't been paying attention then, and he sure as hell wasn't paying attention now, now that Lilly and Saccardo were kissing.
"Yeah, that's right." He jerked his focus away from that and steered Frankie in a slightly faster circle. It was enough to know about Lil and that jackass; he didn't need to witness it. Instead, he looked into laughing brown eyes and that wide, red-lipped smile. "Y'know, I touched that base."
"Mmm." Frankie looked up at him, seeming pleased. "The saddest lies are the ones we tell ourselves."
At least, that was what he thought she'd said. But whatever focus he'd been able to devote to Frankie was lassoed back to the dance floor as they made another slow circle. Lilly still stood there...but now Saccardo was nowhere to be seen.
She looked like a statue. A beautiful, tragic statue; a woman turned to stone. Except stone couldn't shed tears. And Lilly looked like she was trying like hell to avoid doing exactly that.
That ground him to a halt. Because in all the years he'd been with her, everything they'd been through together, he'd never, not once, seen her cry. But now a lone tear on her cheek glistened in the light of the crystal chandelier.
Suddenly, the statue came to life; she blinked for a couple seconds, then seemed to remember where she was and what she was doing. Swiping at the tear, Lilly did an about-face and headed in the opposite direction, toward the doors to the balcony, the swish of her skirts and click of her heels audible over the music.
"Everything all right?"
Snapping to attention, Scotty looked down and saw Frankie frowning up at him, cherry lips pursed in confusion.
"Yeah." Gently, he disengaged his hands from where they'd rested at the small of her back. "Yeah, I just…I gotta go check on somethin'. Excuse me."
"Okay. Sure." Frankie's frown deepened as she slid her arms off his shoulders. "Call me."
But he was already halfway across the room.