That incessant racket was making it increasingly difficult to sleep. Ethan rolled onto his chest, burying his head under the covers. The sound aggravating his ears stopped causing a groan of relief to slip out of the detective. With a sigh, he settled back into the heat of his cocoon and closed his eyes. The noise came again, shrill, loud and this time he reconciled it with the annoying ringtone he’d chosen for his cell phone.
Fumbling out of the fog of sleep and web of blankets covering him, Ethan reached for his cell on the nightstand beside his bed. “McDowell,” he mumbled incoherently into the mouthpiece.
“Detective Ethan McDowell,” a voice asked.
“I used to be,” he responded, waking up a bit. He refrained from admitting that now he was just a glorified pencil pusher with a badge. White Pine hardly needed cops, what use did they have for a detective? Even if they had hired one.
“Detective,” the voice continued on, as if he hadn’t even spoken, “I’m Captain Larry Michaels of the City of Minden Lake Police Department. I’ve taken over your old division at the fifty-third precinct.”
This news caused Ethan to bolt upright in bed. “What do you mean by ‘taken over’? What happened to Captain Burke?”
“I regret to inform you,” Captain Michaels reported in a voice that carried anything but regret, “that Captain Burke has been removed from his position within the department.”
Interesting. “Really, sir? Did he finally retire?” Ethan had rather hoped the old codger would be taken out by a sniper while picnicking in the park, but that didn’t matter much at the moment.
A deep belly laugh filled the phone line. “Retire? Oh, no, not willingly,” the captain announced. “He was forcibly removed from his position once it was determined that he had been in business with his son.”
So it had been the captain after all. Ethan and his partner had made the connection between the murders and a drug dealer – a drug dealer that had turned out to be Captain Michaels’ oldest son, Douglas. Extraneous evidence had pointed to an accomplice, but try as they might, they couldn’t pin it on anyone. It had been evident to Ethan that Douglas Michaels’ accomplice had been his father, but his partner had refused to pursue that line of investigation to the point where he had reported Ethan to their captain. His partner had lied and accused Ethan of planting evidence to make Douglas look guilty. Only by the grace of God had he been able to avoid a jail term. His willingness to leave Minden Lake was the only thing that had saved his hide.
“Question, Captain Burke.” He really shouldn’t even ask this, some things were better left unknown, but the need for the truth nagged at him fiercely.
“Shoot, McDowell.” He could hear the other man tapping a pencil against something on the other end.
“What about Detective Andrew Murray? I never did find out what happened to him after I was forced to leave the department.” Ethan could hear a bunch of shuffling going on and he waited patiently for it to finish.
“My perceptive Detective McDowell,” Burke cooed into the phone. “I was beginning to think you weren’t going to ask about your old partner.”
“I almost didn’t,” he admitted. “Sometimes, you’re better off not knowing.”
“That is the truth, son. Are you sure you want to know now?” The tapping had resumed.
“Yes sir,” he acknowledged, sitting up and fully awake.
“Your ex-partner’s fate is the reason for my call to you this morning. It has come to light the he, as well, had been involved in the drug smuggling operation your ex-captain and his son had been operating under the department’s nose.”
And that would explain it all. How could he have been so blind that he missed something so major? “I don’t understand, sir. Andrew Murray was smuggling drugs?”
“Not exactly, but he was… enabling contact between those that were buying and those that were selling.”
“I see.” He crossed his legs before him on the bed, one pant leg shoved up to mid-calf. “So, pardon my bluntness but, what does this have to do with me?”
“Right to the point, I like that. I’ve been told it’s what made you such a fine detective. What this has to do with you is this.”
Ethan braced himself for the news that the case was being reopened and he was going to be reinvestigated. That his life was about to be turned even more upside down that it had been. What would Travis think of him when this came out? Would he even want to be seen around a man suspected of throwing a case? One that had been investigated for being a dirty cop? His stomach felt as if it were filled with lead.
“The mayor has cleared you of any wrongdoing in this case, as should have been done months ago. There wasn’t ever any evidence to support what your partner claimed. Your partner’s involvement should have been further investigated at the time of the Michaels’ arrests, but it wasn’t. No one even considered it until it came up during the trial. I’m here to offer you your job back.”
Ethan blinked twice, not believing the words he’d heard. “My job back,” he repeated, testing the words out as he said them. He’d never dreamed of being a cop in a big city again, thought his chances of making detective a second time impossible. “As a beat cop?”
“As a what? No, of course not. You’d be reinstated at your prior rank, plus back pay for the time you’ve been off. Full benefits, too.”
He was more than stunned, he was floored beyond comprehension. White Pine had been good to him, and he liked it here, but to go back to his old life in the city… until this moment, he hadn’t even known how badly he’d wanted it all back. Had believed he’d put it all behind him.
But what about Travis? Going back would mean leaving him behind. Could he do that?
“McDowell, you still there? What do you say, you want to leave the boondocks and come back to the real city?” A hearty chuckle followed his declaration.
Something squeezed at his heart briefly before letting go. Travis would understand. He had to understand, right? The drive from the city to White Pine was a little over an hour, easy enough to make frequent weekend trips down and back. That decided his fate right there. “Yes, sir. I am absolutely ready to come back.”
“I knew you would be, son. I’ll see you tomorrow when you report for duty.” The line went dead.
Shit. Tomorrow? Ethan sighed and looked around. He hadn’t really settled in during his time in White Pine so packing wasn’t an issue. But leaving his post at the station would be. And telling Travis, too. He’d hoped to give it some time, let it sink in first, before he had to leave. Now, Travis was going to think he was doing a cut and run.
Snap out of it, he scolded himself. This is your chance to go back to doing what you love. Dispensing justice and keeping the peace. Things that aren’t needed here.
He could make Travis understand.
Travis squinted through the peephole, grinning when he saw his favorite law enforcement officer standing on the other side. Opening the door, he greeted him warmly. “Ethan! What are you doing here? Did we have a date planned?”
“No,” Ethan said, moving past him into the house, pressing a quick kiss to his cheek as he passed by. “Nope, got some news today and I wanted to stop by.”
“Whew. Deadlines always make me a bit crazy and I was terrified I had forgotten. C’mere, gimme a hug.” Ethan complied with Travis’ demands, allowing the other man to wrap him warmly in his embrace. “I know it’s only been a day but I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too, which is why I’m here.” Ethan took a seat in what had quickly become known as ‘his chair’.
“Right, your news. Lay it on me, baby.” He beamed, excited to share in whatever had his lover’s eyes dancing with delight.
“I’ve been reinstated.” He looked to Travis, expectation plain on his face.
“Reinstated? What do you mean?” He had a sinking feeling in his gut that told him he already knew.
As Ethan related the story of his early morning phone call, Travis’ hope dissipated. Judging by the look of excitement on Ethan’s face, he was thrilled to be offered his job back. Good lord and he was leaving in the morning. He wasn’t even being given enough time to properly say goodbye.
“So, you’re leaving?” Travis tried to keep the hurt out of his voice, but feared he wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped.
“Yep, in the morning,” he chirped. “I’ll be back over the weekend though. I don’t have much, but there’s no way I can get it all packed and moved in one day. Might take a few weeks, but I’ll get it all moved eventually. Hey, when I’m here, we’ll have to have dinner and…”
Travis cut him off, surprising even himself. “No.”
“No? No, what?” Ethan leaned forward and took Travis’ hand in his own.
“No, we won’t have dinner,” he clarified, taking his hand out of Ethan’s. “You said it yourself, your life up in Minden Lake was too busy to allow a social life. You might come back for your stuff, but you won’t have time for me.”
“Not true, you I will make time for,” he corrected.
Travis stood, shaking his head. “I think you need to go. This is – it’s too much for me. Goodbye Ethan.”
Ethan shot to his feet, stepping to within inches of Travis’ face. “What are you doing? I didn’t realize it, but this is what I’ve wanted for the last six months. That thing that’s been missing from my life. How can you not be happy for me?”
“How can you not be happy with the life you have now? Last time you were here, you told me you’d never been happier. So why leave?”
“You are the reason I’m happy,” he seethed. “I will still be happy there as long as I know you’re here.”
Travis knew it wouldn’t work. It never did, even when the distances were short and easily traveled. Ethan wouldn’t ever come back to White Pine and when Travis could make the trip up, Ethan would always be too busy to spend any time with him. Their relationship would slowly and painfully fall apart. This, what they were doing right now, might hurt more, but it’d heal more quickly in the end.
“It’s just not the same and you know it. I can’t do distance, Ethan. I don’t want you to go, but if you feel you have to, I’m not going to stop you.” He fought the anger and frustration and hurt that were battling for control of him and lost to all three. Tears threatened and he damn near gave in.
“I can’t believe you feel this way. You think you’ve finally gotten to know someone and they let you down,” he spat. “Goodbye Travis, been nice knowing you.”
Travis gave a sad smile. “Yeah, ditto pal.”
Ethan stormed to the door, pausing long enough to glance back at Travis one last time. The words were on the tip of his tongue and Travis knew that, if he could only get them out, spit them into the silence between them, everything would change. The words alone wouldn’t give Ethan a reason to stay, but they would give him a reason to return. But Travis couldn’t find the strength to say them, not out loud anyway. What had already gone between them had hurt him too much, made him too afraid to make himself vulnerable again, so he kept his mouth shut and let the love of his life walk out into the night.
He prayed that Ethan knew, that he could hear the words Travis’ heart was whispering to his own in the dark of night when no one else was awake. Travis had to believe that what they’d shared had convinced the jaded detective that he was loved beyond the shadow of a doubt. Even if Travis was too chicken to tell him as much.