Almost Like You Mean It


Rated: M, and I do mean it

SummaryIt would be madness, of course. Complete lunacy. They very definitely should not have sex.

Chapter One

These days, McCall felt a little like a 1960s Italian roadster – pretty to look at, but difficult to maintain, to the point where you started to wonder if it was worth the trouble. In addition to the usual roster of medical professionals most women her age availed themselves of, she saw a rape trauma specialist, a psychiatrist to manage her anxiety medication, and now finally a sex therapist. Anita had recommended Mary David months ago, but it was only McCall's disastrous date with the new assistant district attorney that had prompted her to book an appointment.

Poor Simon Cantor tried to kiss her goodnight, and she'd had to fight off the urge to twist his arm behind his back and bend him over the hood of the car. Not surprisingly, there had been no second date.

She did not really want to date, Simon Cantor or anyone else for that matter, but she did miss sex, and she dimly recalled that dating was the usual way one went about having that. Mostly, she missed being married, when she could have all the sex she wanted without having to make tedious dinner table conversation or explain why there was a large surgical scar next to her third vertebra. Of course, back then, there had been no scars, psychic or otherwise.

It had been nineteen months now since she'd been with anyone – the longest dry spell of her adult life – and getting back to that place seemed more impossible with every passing day. She had needed six months after the rape and a really large margarita to get through it the first time, but that was before Lloyd Fredericks showed up and reminded her that she could never really be safe. Now it was a year later and she couldn't make her mind and body agree on the idea of sex, let alone the act itself. The lonely prospect of spending the rest of her life like this was what drove her to seek out yet another mental health professional.

I've been shrunk so much I'm practically invisible, she thought with a sigh, as she took her usual seat in Mary David's office.

She liked Mary because she recognized her as a similar type; they were both thirty-something professional women used to dealing with subjects that made the vast majority of people really uncomfortable. Mary had kind hazel eyes but a direct approach that made her easy to talk to; one had the sense she had heard it all before and did not judge. Still, McCall could think of approximately three hundred other places she would rather be on her lunch hour than sitting there discussing her non-existent sex life.

"Tell me some more about Andrew," Mary was saying.

Andrew was the blond firefighter who had been the beneficiary of her jumbo-sized margarita three years earlier. They'd had dinner one night, drinks the next, and then mediocre sex at his apartment. She had left nearly immediately and never returned his calls after that. Mostly, she'd been relieved to get it done.

She felt herself flush a little in embarrassment at the memory. "There is not much to say. We had two dates and then I never saw him again."

"By your own design, as I recall. I'm curious - did you plan not to see him again when you decided to go to bed with him?"

McCall searched herself for the truth but couldn't place a definitive answer. "I don't know. Maybe. Mostly I was monitoring my anxiety levels so that I didn't have any flashbacks." This mental surveillance kept terrible memories at bay, but it also prevented her from enjoying the present. "It did help just to go through with it," she said. "The next time – with someone else – was much easier."

Mary consulted her notes. "That was… Alex?"

McCall nodded. Alex Parker. It seemed like a lifetime ago now.

"What happened with him?" Mary asked.

McCall gave a rueful smile and looked at her hands. "I accused him of murder," she said. "That pretty much sunk the relationship right there."

Mary blinked behind her wire-rimmed glasses. "I hope he wasn't guilty."

"No, but it hardly mattered anymore," McCall said with a sigh. "It's hard to walk that sort of thing back, you know?"

"Can't say that I've had the experience, but I can well imagine." McCall wondered, not for the first time, what Mary's experiences actually were. Mary did not wear a wedding ring or keep any sort of personal photos in her office. She might be single but she might also not be interested in exposing her personal life to clients. McCall could imagine that you might not want your significant other on display while you talked about sexual deviancies all day long.

"Anyway, I've thought about trying it again," McCall said, and Mary raised her eyebrows.

"Accusing a man of murder?"

"What? Oh, no, I do that all the time. I just don't usually date them first." Mary smiled, and McCall continued. "No, I meant just finding someone random and forcing myself to go through with it."

"It. You mean sex."

See? She couldn't even say the word. There was no way this could work. "Yes. That."

"So what's stopping you?" Mary asked, putting down her pen to listen carefully for the answer.

McCall took a deep breath as she considered. "A lot of things, I guess. As much of a relief it was last time, I didn't feel good about the way it all went down. I don't like…I don't like using people. Then there is the fact that my body literally won't relax when I'm near a man I don't know well. And finally, well…I don't even know where I'd find a suitable man at this point. Most nights, I barely have the energy to feed my fish."

"That's a lot of good reasons," Mary agreed. "Have you considered that maybe you haven't had sex recently because there is just no one right now you'd like to have it with? Some of these issues sound like they might be resolved if there were an actual person attached to the possibility."

"Maybe. But that's the point – there isn't any actual person."

"Where do you usually find the men you date?"

"I don't know. I suppose I meet them in a professional context most of the time."

"Ah. Hence the would-be murderer," Mary said with a smile. "As a homicide detective, I imagine you must work with a lot of men – those on the right side of the law, I mean."

"Sure, but…"


McCall ticked off the percentages on her fingers. "Half of them are ranked below me and therefore off limits by regulation, even if I were interested – which I am not." The fresh-faced crop of rookies looked younger every year. It would be like hitting on a high school student. "Another quarter rank above me, and therefore are also off limits – not to mention old, in many cases."

"And the last quarter?"

"Half of them are married. The other half are generally weird or obnoxious, which I suppose is why they are not married."

Mary smiled. "Okay, okay. I get it. I will have to take your word for it that there is not a single eligible male in the entire LA police department. Let me go back to something else you said – the part about not being able to relax around men you don't know well. What about men you do know well?"

"That's not a problem." Hunter had wrestled her clear between the couch cushions in their last battle for the TV remote, and it had not bothered her one iota.

"And what about when you're alone? Who do you fantasize about?"

A faint blush tinged her cheeks. They'd established last time that there was nothing physically wrong with her because she could reach orgasm by herself, but discussing it in detail was a bit more uncomfortable. "Um…no one in particular, I suppose. Celebrities sometimes. Maybe a character from a steamy book. That sort of thing."

"No real people?"

"Well, they're fantasies, right? The whole point is that they're not real."

"Of course. We fantasize about things that can't come true all the time – even about things we don't want to come true. I'm just trying to get a sense of whether you can even imagine being with someone live and in the flesh."

McCall studied her hands and considered. "Sometimes… sometimes I think about past experiences, you know, back when it was good." These days, these memories aroused her but also made her cry. It was almost not worth the effort to conjure them up. She took a shuddering breath and closed her eyes. "And I guess – very occasionally – I think about Hunter." She was willing to admit this private detail only if it made her seem less hopeless.

Mary frowned a little and looked at her notes. "Hunter?"

"My partner."

"Oh, at work," Mary said as realization dawned. Then she smiled. "Is he in the off-limits category, or in the weird and obnoxious category?"

"Maybe all three," McCall said with a laugh. "We've worked together for more than five years now, and we're good friends. Best friends. The fact that I am functional at all after what's happened to me is in large part thanks to Hunter. He moved in with me after the rape and did not leave until I felt safe again."

Mary leaned back and regarded her with curiosity. "That's a pretty big deal. I'm surprised you haven't mentioned him before."

McCall was surprised at her surprise. "We're talking about my sex life. Hunter and I don't have sex."

"Would you like to?"

McCall made a choked sound and sat up in her chair. "No. It's not that kind of relationship."

Mary shrugged. "Figured it was worth asking. I mean, he sounds like a safe person for you, and if you've considered it…"

"No, I haven't considered it – not for real. I mean, I've wondered, from time to time, what it might be like, but that's as far as it goes."

"And when you imagine it, what is it like?"

She felt trapped now and regretted even mentioning Hunter's name. Her fantasies about him were deeply private and a little embarrassing. It was illicit even when it was just her alone in her bedroom – after all, he was her partner, they shouldn't – and she was not sure she could ever detail them out loud. I mean, where to start? The one where they were in a staff meeting but he had his hand under her skirt beneath the table? Or the one where she finally acknowledged the fact that she noticed his occasional erections by leaning over on stakeout and helping him out? Pardon her ironic language, but no fucking way.

"I guess…I guess I can say this much," she said at last. "We had been working together about a year, and his car was in the shop. It's pretty much always in the shop, actually. In any case, I went to pick him up, and as I was going up to his house, this blonde woman came running out, like she was late or something. Only her hair was all messed up, and her shirt was buttoned wrong. When I got inside, Hunter was in the shower, but I could tell I'd almost walked in on them." The couch cushions had been askew, and the scent of sex had been thick in the air. McCall took a deep breath. "That woman I saw… well, let's say she looked pretty happy to be running late."

Sometimes, in her fantasies, she showed up a little bit early and got an eyeful – Hunter naked on the couch, his face contorted in pleasure as the blonde was busy on her knees in front of him. Her face flushed hot, just thinking of it.

"Well, I can understand how that little incident might pique your curiosity," Mary said as she close her notebook. "But speaking of running late, our time is up. I'm away next week, unfortunately. Can you do the 27th?"

"Sure, why not," McCall said with a sigh. It wasn't like she was going to be getting any in the meantime.


Hunter's chair was vacant when she returned to the precinct, but McCall barely had time to sit down herself before he was back and waving a folder at her. "Don't get comfortable," he said. "We've got to get over to UCLA to talk to Celia Henry. Plus, we got the lab report back on Brenda Keltner."

Brenda Keltner was a graduate student who had been found strangled in her apartment last week. Thus far, their only suspect was her on-again, off-again boyfriend Ken, who had supposedly been at the library studying at the time of the murder, but no one could seem to remember he'd been there. You take one long lunch hour, and you miss everything, she thought as she got up again. "Who is Celia Henry?"

"Secretary in the history department. She called a little bit ago and said she wanted to talk to us about Brenda and Mark Madison."

"Madison – that's her academic advisor, right?" She followed him into the elevator and the doors slid closed behind them.

"The very same. I have a hunch what Celia Henry wants to talk about, too." He handed her the folder. "Check out the semen analysis."

She scanned the pages until she found the requisite information, and then raised her eyebrows. "Two samples, both within twenty-four hours of death? Brenda was a busy girl." She paused to read further. "I see one is Type AB blood. That's pretty rare."

"Yeah, the type O sample is probably a match the boyfriend, Ken Winstead," he said. "But now I'm wondering about the good professor and what his blood type might be."

"I doubt he's going to just up and tell us." She closed the file with a sigh and leaned against the cold elevator wall.

The doors slid open with a ding, and Hunter moved to leave. He turned back with a frown when he noticed she was not following. "Are you coming?"

"Yeah, I'm coming," she said as she shoved herself away from the wall. These days, it seemed like even the dead people were having more sex than she was.

As it turned out, Hunter's hunch was right on the money. Celia Henry turned out to be a pretty young thing, probably not much older than poor dead Brenda, but it was clear the secretary had no use for her. She fetched coffee for Hunter and McCall as though she were long used to the task and then sat down to dish about her boss and Brenda. "I caught them kissing last month," she said, with a glance over her shoulder to make sure no one else heard. "Professor Madison is chairmen of the department, so he has two offices, one right behind me. I usually eat at my desk, but that day, I was going to have lunch with a friend, so I left just before noon. Only I got to the parking lot and realized I didn't have my keys. When I came back up here, there they were, practically up against the filing cabinets."

All three of them turned to look at the cabinets, as if conjuring the moment. McCall pinched her temples with one hand. "Did they know you saw them?" she asked.

"Oh yeah. They tried to pretend nothing was going on, like they'd just been talking or whatever, but I know what I saw. He's married, you know. He's got two little kids. There's pictures of them all over his office, so it's not like Brenda didn't know the situation."

"Do you think his wife knew about them?" Hunter asked.

"God, poor Kimmy. She called here sometimes, and I'd have to talk to her. My phone rings when he doesn't pick up. I felt so bad, but what could I say? By the way, your husband is running around on you, would you like to leave a message?"

"That must have been hard for you," Hunter said sympathetically, and McCall tried not to roll her eyes. Let's not forget who ended up dead here, she thought.

"It was hard," Celia said, her blue eyes watering. "I felt cheap… like I was part of it."

Okay, now she saw Hunter fighting a smile. This girl was over the top.

"I mean, who knows how many times they were in here together?" Celia continued. "This whole place is tainted with their dirty sex."

"Let's not dwell on all the sordid details," said Hunter. "Who else might have known about the affair?"

Celia sniffed. "I don't know. Brenda's roommate, Jennifer Griffin, maybe. They were pretty close."

Jennifer had found the body, McCall remembered. If she knew about the affair, she certainly hadn't said anything during her initial interview, but she had been extremely traumatized at the time.

"Jennifer Griffin," Hunter murmured as he made a note. "We'll talk to her, thanks. In the meantime, please don't mention our little talk to Professor Madison, okay?"

"Are you going to arrest him?"

"Do you think I should?" Hunter asked, feigning grave concern.

"Well, he was sleeping with her."

"That's not against the law," McCall pointed out.

"I know that. But if he would cheat on his wife and those poor little kids, who knows what else he might do?"

"You can be sure we'll look into it," Hunter said as they stood to go.

Outside, she regarded him as he put on his sunglasses. "I'm not sure which sin is worse in her mind – adultery or murder," she said. "If Madison has an alibi, we might want to check her out instead."

He grinned. "How about that fruit loop, huh?" he said, opening his car door. "Can you imagine if everyone who cheated on their spouse was also a murderer? We'd never get any sleep at all."

She buckled her seatbelt as he started the engine. Most of the time, she deliberately looked the other way when it came to Hunter's sex life, but she had noticed married women slip him their numbers a time or two, and curiosity got the better of her. "Would you ever do it?" she asked. "Have an affair with a married woman?"

"No," he said, without thinking. Then he paused. "Well, okay, one time."


He shrugged. "You asked."

In for a penny, in for a pound. "Anyone I know?"

"No," he said, drawing out the word. "It was long before your time, McCall."

She waited but he did not say anything further. "You're not going to tell me," she said finally. "Are you."

He shot her an amused glance. "I'll tell you. But first you have to buy me dinner."

"It's two-thirty in the afternoon," she said, checking her watch.

"Well, then. I guess you'll just have to wait."

So this was how she found herself with him at Stella's, a cozy Italian restaurant with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, imitation candles, and home-made ravioli. "Okay, you have your food," she said as he sprinkled Parmesan cheese over his steaming plate of clams linguini. "Now spill."

"Well, like I said, it was a really long time ago – the summer I turned sixteen."

She froze with her fork in midair. "Sixteen? You hooked up with a married woman at sixteen?"

"I think it would be more accurate to say that she hooked up with me," he said as he broke apart their shared garlic bread. "It was shortly after my father died. The insurance money hadn't kicked in, and Mom and I had to move into this tiny apartment in Reseda. We were only there for a few months, but I swear they were some of the hottest on record, and our tiny busted air conditioner just could not keep up. I had managed to get an under-the-table job doing construction during the day, and at night, I sat out by the pool. That's where I met Angela."

"Angela," McCall repeated, trying out the name on her tongue. "Just how much older was she?"

Hunter paused and then grinned. "I don't know. I never asked. Probably in her mid-twenties, I would guess. She'd married her high school sweetheart, a guy whose name I don't even remember. She was a hairdresser and he worked nights as cook someplace, so they never saw each other. When he was home, they mostly fought. Their apartment was right above us, and we could hear the yelling."

McCall had lived in one of those apartments in college. If the refrigerator upstairs kicked in, her walls started to hum.

"Anyway," he continued. "She used to come down for an evening swim in this little white bikini, and believe me, I wasn't the only guy who paid attention. She had long, honey-blond hair that went halfway down her back, and when she got out of the pool, it would cling and create these little rivers of water that dripped down her body."

"I get the picture, thanks."

"We got to talking one night, and she turned out to be a Dodger fan," he said as he topped off his glass of house wine. "So after that, we started listening to the games on the radio, down by the side of the pool. I guess I was feeling pretty grown-up about the whole thing, you know? I was working a man's job, and here was this beautiful woman who seemed to want my attention. Still, it's not like I thought I had a shot with her. She was married, and I was barely out of the tenth grade."

She could imagine him back then, blonder but already tall and strong. Probably tan from working construction under the hot California sun. With a recently deceased father and a mother to support, he'd had to grow up quick, and she would bet his little married friend had been able to sense that about him. Hunter's hard exterior hid a caretaker's heart.

"So one night, the game went into extra innings," he said. "It was one in the morning when the Dodgers finally won on a suicide squeeze. I was packing it up when Angela suggested we take one last swim. It was dark by then but easily still over eighty degrees. So we got in – there was no one else around – and had our usual fun splashing one another. But the next thing I know, she's got her arms around me. Before I could figure out what do to about that little development, she wrapped her legs around me."

McCall had stopped eating. There was no way she could chew and concentrate on this story at the same time. "What did you do?" she asked softly.

His eyes had darkened with the memory. "I did the only thing I could do – I kissed her." He reached for his wine and took a long swallow. "Then I backed her up against the edge of the pool and did more than kiss her."

Her face flushed and she lowered her eyes. This was probably the frankest talk they had ever had about sex. It had been her idea, but now she was stuck with these images in her head of Hunter, naked in the pool, making love to some woman…

"I'd like to say I distinguished myself, but, well…the first time is never perfect, right?"

"Wait, the first time? As in your first time?"

He grinned. "Everyone's got to start somewhere, McCall."

"Right, of course," she muttered. "I just didn't realize it was that kind of story." She picked up her fork again and moved a ravioli around on her plate. "So what happened then? Between you and Angela."

He frowned and leaned back in the booth, one arm spread expansively across the back. "It didn't end well. Her husband took a swing at her one night during one of their more spectacular arguments. Left her with a giant bruise right here." He touched his cheek. "When I saw it, I tracked the guy down at his restaurant and confronted him. We had it out in the alley behind the kitchen, right there with the rotting produce and old newspapers. By the time I was finished with him, his face was worse than Angela's."

"Sounds like he deserved it."

"I was pretty happy with myself at the time, but Angela was furious when she found out. She was angry at me for interfering and that was the end of it. She stopped coming down to the pool and wouldn't answer her door when I knocked. Mom and I moved away a few weeks after that, and I never saw her again."

"I can see why you might have sworn off married women after that," she said dryly.

"Easier all around," he agreed. He eyed her with interest. "What about you? Ever participated in any extracurricular activities?"

She snorted a laugh. "The only married man I've been with was my husband."

"Come on, Sergeant. You must have some tale of indiscretion in your past somewhere." Purposefully, he pushed his plate out of the way so that he could stretch across the table towards her. He looked around and lowered his voice. "You could tell me your first time."

The words vibrated all the way through to her toes. Robby Marlow, she remembered. Under the stars with their jeans wadded together at the edge of the blanket. She had not thought of him in years.

Hunter was looking at her with dark eyes, his half-smile rich with invitation. She opened her mouth as if to speak and then closed it again. She shook her head. "Maybe some other time," she said, and smiled a little herself. "If you buy me dinner."

"It's a date," he murmured, and pulled back slowly, his gaze never leaving hers.

After she paid the bill, he walked her to her car in the parking lot, where they bid goodnight with the driver's side door open and standing between them. "Be careful driving home," he said, stroking the top of her door in a possessive fashion. She felt each pass of his hand like he was running it down her body. "And remember - don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"I believe that leaves the night wide open," she replied.

"Cheeky," he said, leaning down a bit. "I like that in a woman."

"Oh yeah? What else do you like?" They'd been here before, flirty and sharing about six square inches of space, but this time it felt more dangerous. All that talk about sex, she thought, gripping her side of the door.

"I could tell you," he said as he trailed his fingertips down her window. "But I think you've gotten your money's worth out of me tonight." He pushed back with a grin. "Good night, Sergeant."

"Night." She hung onto the door and watched him walk across the dark parking lot to his car. Only when he disappeared behind the wheel did she get in and start the engine. She drove home with the image of teenage Hunter in the pool with the woman in the white bikini.

That night, when the fantasies came, she wasn't walking in on Hunter and the blonde; no, this time the blonde got to walk in on them.


"Hot enough for you?" Hunter asked when she walked into the precinct the next morning. "The weather guy practically cackled this morning as he assured me we might hit a hundred. It's going to be a long summer, McCall. Mark my words."

She had trouble making eye contact with him at first. It wasn't his fault she couldn't seem to keep her thoughts under control. She cleared her throat and forced herself to focus. "So, uh, what is our plan for today? You want to go rattle Mark Madison's cage?"

He tucked a pen into his shirt pocket. "I think one of us should talk to him, and the other should talk to Brenda's roommate again – Jennifer Griffin. You know, confront her about the affair and see what she knew."

"I'll take her if you take him," she said with a sigh as he got up to leave. He tapped the back of her chair on his way past.

"Meet you back at the ranch later. Stay cool."

Her notes said that Jennifer Griffin was staying with her boyfriend, Evan Marcus, which McCall supposed made sense. The apartment Jennifer and Brenda had shared was still a crime scene, and even so, McCall was pretty sure that Jennifer would not want to go back there after finding her roommate beaten and strangled on the living room floor.

She found Evan Marcus's apartment building with no difficulty and bypassed the main door by entering as one resident was leaving. At the door of 5C, she listened for a few seconds before knocking. She heard the sound of a TV or radio on, and someone moving around the house, so perhaps Jennifer was even home. She knocked and waited.

The TV or radio snapped off but no one came to the door. She waited another minute and then knocked again. At last, the door cracked open, chain still attached, and a young man with shaggy brown hair regarded her suspiciously. "Can I help you?"

"Evan Marcus?"

"Who wants to know?"

"I'm Sergeant McCall," she said, showing off her ID. "And I'm investigating the death of Brenda Keltner. I need to speak with Jennifer Griffin. Is she here?"

She could tell by the way he glanced behind him that the answer was yes. "She's not talking to anyone right now," he said to McCall. "She's still shook up."

"I can understand that, but I really need to speak with her. It won't take much time."

He shut the door on her and she heard some sort of tense exchange on the other side. She was debating whether to knock one more time, when Jennifer Griffin opened the door. She wore a high-necked black sweater that made her seem paler than before, and her eyes were rimmed with red. "Sorry about that," she said in a near whisper. "This…this hasn't been an easy time."

"I'm sure it hasn't," McCall replied with sympathy. "Can I come in to talk with you a minute?"

Jennifer looked uneasy. "It would be better if we could talk here."

McCall hesitated a moment, but there was no one else in the hallway. "Okay," she said slowly. "I wanted to ask you about Brenda's relationship with her advisor, Mark Madison."

"They were having an affair."

Well, that was easier than expected, McCall thought. "How long had it been going on?"

"Around six months? She broke it off around Christmas, but then he invited her to go to Chicago with him for a conference, and when they got back, they were seeing each other again." She glanced off to the side and then looked back to McCall. "She was going to end it, though."

"Really." This was an important tidbit. If the affair had destabilized, then Madison might have a motive for murder. "How did you know this?"

Jennifer bit her lip. "We talked about it," she whispered. "We were…she was going to tell him soon."

"Soon? How soon?"

"By the end of the semester. By summer, it was supposed to be over." She shifted from one foot to the other. "But if you're thinking he killed her, you're wrong. Brenda wasn't the first student he'd been with, and I'm sure she wouldn't have been the last. If she broke up with him, he'd just find someone else to take her place."

"What about her boyfriend, Ken? Did he know about Brenda and Mark?"

"Brenda didn't think so."

"What do you think?"

She shrugged. "I didn't talk to Ken much."

Evan Marcus appeared behind her, and he widened the door a bit more. "Is this almost over? We're supposed to be meeting my brother for lunch."

"Sorry," Jennifer said, "I wish I could help you." She squeezed her eyes shut and tears slid down her cheeks.

"You have helped," McCall assured her. She pulled out her card. "If you think of anything else, please give me a call."

Evan took the card. "She'll do that," he said, and then he shut the door with a firm click.

McCall blinked at the door for a minute before starting back down the hall. Jennifer and Brenda sure could pick 'em, she thought. She sent a silent thank-you to her mother for raising her with enough self-esteem that she would rather be alone than with a man who mistreated her.

Outside, the sun sizzled in the sky. It was only April but the temperature was already over eighty degrees. She undid the buttons at her cuffs as her radio crackled to life in the car. "L-57, please meet L-56 on tack two." McCall reached in through her open window to retrieve the handset.

"This is L-57. Go ahead."

"McCall? Madison crumbled like crackers into alphabet soup. He admitted to the affair but swears he didn't kill her."

"Yeah, I got the same story from Jennifer Griffin. She says Brenda was going to break it off, though."

"Oh yeah? That's interesting timing. The only problem is that Madison swears he has an alibi. He was lecturing in front of two hundred students at the time Brenda was killed. I checked it out, and he was there."


"Listen, I'm sitting here frying in the parking lot. I'll meet you in fifteen minutes, okay? We can figure out where to go next."

She hung up with Hunter and opened her car door. Heat radiated out as if from a furnace, and she stepped backward to let it cool, waving her hand in front of her face. It was too damn hot to be wearing nylons and a suit jacket. She started to remove the jacket when a sudden thought struck her. Instead of getting into the car, she closed it up again and went back into the apartment building.

She listened as usual outside of 5C but did not hear any sound on the other side. She knocked anyway. When there was no answer, she knocked again and called, "Jennifer? It's Sergeant McCall again. I'd like to ask you one last question."

For a long moment, there was nothing. Then she heard footsteps, and the door yanked open to reveal Evan Marcus again. "Jenny is done talking to you," he said. "She has told you everything, so leave her alone."

"I'd like to speak to Jennifer," she said, her tone making it clear that it wasn't really a request.

"I know my rights," he said. "We don't have to talk to you."

He tried to shut the door but she blocked him. "One question," she said, "and I am gone."

She could see him weighing whether it was worth the argument, but at last, he backed off enough to let Jennifer in front of him. There it was, just as she had remembered: a high-necked thick black sweater. Not the kind of outfit a pretty college student typically wore during the season's first heat wave.

Jennifer's voice quavered. "What…what do you want to know?"

"I want you to step out into the hall with me."

The girl looked frightened. "I can't do that."

"Yes, you can," McCall said, reaching for her.

"She said no," Evan said, and tried for the door again. McCall withdrew her gun but did not point it at them.

"No one asked you," she told him. "Jennifer? Please step into the hall."

Tears slid down her cheeks as she shook her head. "He has a knife," she whispered.

"Shut up!" Evan roared from behind her. She jumped as he tried to yank her back into the apartment.

This time, McCall did raise the gun. "Back up now," she said steadily, "or I will shoot you."

"Evan, please." Jennifer was sobbing now. "Just stop."

"Shut up!" he yelled again. "I can't think when you whine at me like that."

"Let her go," McCall repeated. "I am not going to ask again."

He scowled as he considered his options, but at last, he shoved Jennifer forward into freedom. "Fine, get out. Get out and don't come back, you fucking little bitch." Jennifer crumpled against the wall, sobbing as she sank to the floor. He spat in her direction but he dropped the kitchen knife he was holding.

"Get down on the ground," McCall ordered the man. "Face down, hands behind your head, fingers interlaced."

He was slow, but he cooperated. McCall kicked the knife away. "Are you okay?" she asked Jennifer.

"He killed her," she said, curling herself into a ball. "He killed Brenda. I was going to leave him and she was going to leave Mark…We were going to get a different place, just the two of us. But Evan found out and he killed her." She broke off into sobs again.

Much later, when the black and whites had arrived, and the EMTs were there to check out Jennifer, McCall got to see the bruises she'd guessed were under that sweater. The handprints on Jennifer's neck were a near exact match to those on her dead roommate.

She leaned against the wall near the mailboxes of Jennifer's apartment building as the adrenaline slowly wore off. Hunter materialized at her side with two cans of Coke. He offered her one in wordless support, which she accepted gratefully. "You come over here to do a routine witness interview and wind up solving the case," he said. "I'm feeling a little redundant."

"It wasn't purposeful. He was essentially holding her hostage up there and we had no idea." She shook her head and sighed, leaning her head back and closing her eyes.

"You okay?" He sounded concerned.

"Yeah." She paused. "I just get tired of it sometimes. Two capable young women, university students who have everything going for them, and this one guy… this animal…he gets to take it all away. We can lock him up but it's too late. The damage is already done."

"Hey now, it's not that as bad as all that. Jennifer survived."

"Yeah." She gave a heavy sigh as she pushed away from the wall. "You know, Hunter, I am starting to think that merely surviving is not the victory we all hoped it would be." She put her hand on his arm a moment and then let it drop. "Thanks for the soda."


The heat wave ended as abruptly as it had started, and two days later they were treated to an equally unusual spring rain shower. Water sleeted delicately against the windows, almost a whisper, as though it was embarrassed to be seen out of season. They were at her house drinking wine and eating Chinese food while the fire crackled across the room. She felt warm, a little buzzed, and definitely reckless. Mary's questions chased themselves around in her brain, and some of the thoughts she usually kept in her head started slipping out loud.

"Have you ever thought about the possibility of having sex?"

Hunter lounged against the other end of her sofa, his head back on the cushion and his eyes closed. The flickering light from the fire played over his features. He smiled but did not open his eyes. "McCall, I hate to break it to you, but I moved beyond 'possible' about a quarter century ago. I believe we covered that little story recently in some detail, as you might remember."

She colored at the memory. "Not… not generally. I mean you and me."

"I'm fairly sure it's possible for you, too."

Either he was being deliberately obtuse or he's had more wine than she has. But he was also wrong. It's not possible, or at least it doesn't seem that way anymore. That's why she had ended up in this dangerous conversation. Quit now, she told herself, while you still can.

"Wait a sec," he said suddenly, sitting upright and looking at her with a shocked expression. "You mean… you and me? Like, together?"

God, it was too late. Maybe she could feign ignorance. "Never mind," she said, curling further away from him on her end of the couch. "Forget it."

"No, no," he said, wagging a finger at her. "Uh-uh. You can't just drop that kind of conversational bomb and move on like you never said anything. Why are you asking?"

She closed her eyes and prayed he would just change the subject.

"All this food. The wine and the fire – Sergeant McCall, are you trying to seduce me?" He was teasing her now, but she was not in a place where she could laugh about it.

"Please just leave it alone," she said through gritted teeth.

"I mean after all these years," he continued as though she hadn't spoken, "I suppose some cheap take-out and a bottle of house wine is enough to do the trick. No need for frills, right?"

A hot tear slipped out from behind her eyes and she quickly swiped it away. But not fast enough that he didn't notice.

"Oh," he said, sounding both confused and contrite. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"

"Please. I shouldn't have said anything." She opened her eyes and looked at him. "Just forget it."

"I'm not sure I can," he said softly. He shifted to sit a bit closer to her. "What's going on?"

She shook her head. There might have been a way to do this if she had kept it light and breezy. Hey, you wanna? Could be fun. But to spill the whole story meant revealing a level of dysfunction and pain that she worked very hard to keep to herself. Just saying the words out loud to him would change their relationship forever, even if they never so much as kissed.

They sat in terrible silence for a few minutes, and then finally, he spoke. "Of course I've thought about it," he murmured. "I've even come close to acting on those thoughts a time or two."

This confession made her open her eyes. She needed to be able to see his face.

"You remember Ed Flaherty's retirement party two years ago?" he asked. "You were wearing that little blue thing that I swear was spray painted on you."

She smiled in spite of herself. "I remember."

"The after party ended up at that karaoke bar in Koreatown, and we all found out that Ed sings like he looks – sort of like a whale in distress." His eyes crinkled as he smiled. "But you. Well, you brought the house down. Everyone stopped to listen to you sing. I remember you winked at me from the stage, and Ambrose poked me in the ribs for it, but I didn't care. I knew when it was over, that you were leaving with me, and I would have gladly followed you inside that night."

"You dropped me off and never said a word."

"In my head, I said plenty. Believe me." He hesitated a long moment and then nudged her leg with the back of one hand. "But… you too?"

"Yes." She forced the word out and then nodded. "Yes, of course I've wondered. I guess we'd be crazy not to, right?"

"Right," he said with some relief as he leaned back against the cushions. "It's completely normal."

The word normal made her seize up once more. Oh, to be normal again for just a few hours.

He must have felt her tension, because he turned his head to look at her. "What?"

"Nothing. I'm just trying to remember what normal felt like." Off his puzzled look, she sighed. "It's been a long time for me," she said finally.

He scratched the back of his head. "Yeah? Like – how long?" She saw him trying to remember any of her recent dating history and coming up as empty as she had.

"Nineteen months."

To his credit, he didn't flinch. "That's, uh, that's a while."

She shifted to hug her knees to her chest. "Since before the Bigfoot case," she said, and she watched as his expression turned from confused to grieved on her behalf. That he hurt for her, and with her, was perhaps at the foundation of their trust. She knew on an elemental level that he would never use her pain against her.

"I'm assuming there's a connection," he said in a low voice.

She nodded, her head bowed. "It took me a while to go through with it again after I was raped," she said at length. "I basically forced myself the first time – with a guy I didn't know very well. Then I never saw him again."

He took her hand and squeezed tightly.

"It was better after that, for a while," she continued. "But then with another close call…" She shuddered. "I just can't make myself do it this time."

He tugged until she leaned against him. "Nor should you have to," he said. "And anyone who pushes you is the lowest kind of scumball."

"No, it's not like that. The guys, it's not their fault. It's me. I know I could be more honest about what's happened to me, but truthfully, that's almost worse. Rape is not exactly a romantic topic of conversation. It's also…personal. I don't like having to tell the story all the time and letting it define me." Of course, by not telling anyone, it was also defining her, at least in one respect, which just made her angry all over again.

"Yeah, I know." He gave her a sympathetic squeeze, and they sat quietly for a long minute. "So then what you said about you and me," he said eventually, "that was the same kind of thing? Forcing yourself to go through with it?"

She pulled away from him. "I thought we were not going to talk about it anymore." He said nothing, but looked at her, expectant. She threw her hands in the air. "Fine. Yes. I guess I had a passing thought that maybe if it was with you, it would be okay." She couldn't even believe she was having this conversation. "I wouldn't have to explain anything because you already know exactly what's happened, and…"


She hesitated. "And I trust you." She swallowed and rubbed her face with both hands. "But I realize it's crazy. We're friends, we work together. Hell, it's been almost six years now and it hasn't happened yet, so there's got to be a good reason, right?"

"Plenty of them," he agreed.

"Right. So there you go. Forget I said anything at all." She got up to start clearing the food away and made a point of turning on the lights. The alcohol was starting to wear off just as the reality of what she'd confessed sank in. She was ready to be alone now.

She left him sitting on the sofa and went to the kitchen to start rinsing off the dishes. Over the running tap, she didn't hear his approach, and she jumped when he touched her. Without a word, he turned her around and hugged her close. She resisted a moment because her hands were full of suds. But then she returned the embrace awkwardly, squeezing him with her elbows and holding her wet hands away from him. Tense, she waited for him to say something that made her feel even more awful.

I'm sorry.

It'll happen for you eventually.

Thanks for a great offer, but…

But Hunter did not say anything at all. He simply held her until she finally relaxed and laid her cheek against his chest. His heartbeat was slow and reassuring beneath her ear. She was afraid to start hugging him back because she might not be able to let go. Finally, he pulled back and took her face in both hands. She closed her eyes as he pressed a lingering kiss to her forehead. "Thanks for dinner," he said, as though this had been just any other evening.

Her eyes watered but she managed a nod. "You're welcome."

He gave her a last squeeze and then was gone. She stood alone in the kitchen with a sink full of dishes, the water growing cold as she finally allowed herself to cry.


It was fortunate that he knew the way home from her house without having to think about it because he drove without even a passing thought about the scenery. Every so often, the wipers chased away the raindrops, jarring him back into the present. He felt strange and alien, the way he always did when some new aspect of the rape cropped up between them. It had been so long now that he barely ever thought about it, and he realized now that she did not have the same luxury.

She couldn't have known – he'd breathed not a word, ever, to anyone – but she had hit upon one of his most private fantasies. Not about taking her to bed in general. Jesus, he'd had about a thousand of those moments, most of them fleeting and easy to ignore. He'd told her of one sparking moment of attraction, but it was nothing compared to what he had felt after she'd been raped. The urge to lay her down and kiss her, hold her, touch her until she gasped with pleasure instead of pain, had been so overpowering and primal that it shook him to his core.Just what the hell is wrong with me?

On one level, he kind of knew where the feelings came from – he had wanted so desperately to fix it, erase it somehow, as if such a thing were possible. But still he felt sick and wrong. She'd needed a friend, and there he was imagining what it would feel like to put his mouth to her breast. He had redirected his emotions at Mariano and never looked back.

Now here she was nearly four years later essentially asking him to do what he'd imagined. It did not seem real.

It's not real, he told himself as he idled at a red light. She never actually offered. In fact, she explicitly said to forget it.

He was never going to forget it. Never, ever. As much as she seemed to read his mind sometimes, she clearly didn't understand how this was going to work. It didn't matter if they ever spoke of it again: he would not forget.

It would be madness, of course. Complete lunacy. They very definitely should not have sex.

He found the PCH and let his car loose around the curves. Not too much. The pavement was slick, wet and dark. Dangerous. He dared to let himself imagine it just a little, not so much a fantasy as thought experiment: what would it be like? Most of his sexual thoughts about McCall were not grounded in reality, but this time he pictured her in her usual clothes and smelled her familiar perfume. They started kissing on her couch, and within no time at all, he had her open and sighing in his arms.

He gripped the wheel a little tighter. She wants it, the voice inside him said. She practically said so herself.

She had said a lot of things, including some pretty scary stuff about how difficult the whole thing was for her. He had no experience in this area whatsoever. All he had was a deep affection for her and a long-simmering attraction, and those two together might not be enough. He could volunteer his services and wind up traumatizing them both. Best to keep his distance.

He parked the car and got out to enter his beach house. The rain had turned to a chilly mist, mixing with the salty sea air to sting his cheeks and eyes. He went straight to the bedroom, intent on taking a long, hot shower. In the dark, he reached behind his head to yank off his T-shirt, but he stopped when it slid over his face. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He could smell her on his clothes.

He stood there a moment and then suddenly, there he was putting his shirt back on. He got into his car again and retraced the same route in reverse, a little bit terrified but also unwilling to turn around. Her house was entirely dark when he stopped outside. He rang the bell and folded his arms within his leather jacket, trying to look – what? Casual? Serious? He suspected from the way his knee was twitching that mostly he looked nervous.

She answered in her pajamas and robe, clearly surprised to see him. He pushed past her without an invitation and paced once around her living room. "Did you forget something?" she asked, her brow furrowed in concern.

"No," he said. "And I won't forget…I can't forget what you said."


"And if you want, if you really mean it, then I'm in."

Chapter Two

He stood well clear of her, about as far apart as they could get and still be in the same room. They certainly didn't seem like two people considering having sex, but his offer was hanging out there between them. If you want to, I'm in.

She folded her arms, hugging herself. Twice she seemed about to speak but then said nothing. The grandfather clock in the corner ticked off each agonizing second. Finally, she drew a shuddering breath and looked at the ceiling. "I—I want to," she said at last, and the words sent a prickle down the back of his neck.

He waited a beat for the qualifier, for the reason it shouldn't happen, but she said nothing further. Slowly, he took a step toward her. They eyed each other warily. He took another step.

"Wait," she said, holding up a hand, and he felt the moment shatter. She swallowed twice in quick succession. "Not now, not like this."

It was past one in the morning, and he had been up since five. The tension in him was bound tightly with a healthy dose of exhaustion. But it had taken years for them to reach this point, and he wasn't sure they could find it again if he left her now. "Then how?" he asked her in a low voice.

"Somewhere…somewhere else," she said. "Not here, where we are all the time. A hotel, maybe."

Yes, of course, he thought. She was always the careful one in their partnership. He had not really considered much of anything beyond sex, yes, but she was already looking past that moment to the point where they would have to make eye contact and solve cases again. Better to keep the images of making love on her couch restricted to the realm of fantasy.

"Okay, yeah," he said. "A hotel. You want me to…"

"I'll do it," she said quickly. She hesitated. "How about next Friday?"

Gee, let me check my social calendar, he thought. "Friday's fine." He shoved his hands in his coat pockets. This was beginning to seem like scheduling a trip to the dentist. "Wait a second," he said as a new thought occurred to him. "I have that continuing education thing starting on Saturday." He was scheduled for four days of seminars in the desert – part of their periodic mandatory training.

"That's fine," she said. "I imagine we'll be, um, done by the time you need to leave."

He blinked. "You want it one and done, is that it?"

"Isn't that how you usually do it with other women?" She looked genuinely surprised.

He blew out a frustrated breath and walked over until they had their usual minimum amount of personal space. "First of all, no, I do not usually get up in the wee hours of the morning and leave for four days. Second of all, you are not 'other women'."

"Oh," she said, sounding a little pleased. She looked at his feet. "I'm sorry. I just meant that it might be good to have some built-in space afterward…you know, to regroup."

He had to admit that this didn't sound like the worst idea in the world. He felt a surge of affection for her that she was so concerned about making sure they emerged okay on the other side. It really hadn't occurred to him to worry; he took it for granted that their essential connection would remain in perpetuity. "Okay, then," he said, inhaling deeply. "Friday."

"Friday," she said with a nod.

Should they shake on it? Kiss? He looked down at the top of her head. She wasn't even making eye contact with him at the moment, so it was safe to say she probably didn't want him kissing her. "I'll just get going then," he said, and she walked him to the door.

He paused on her stoop and turned around. She was leaning against the door, her expression unreadable. He reached out and cupped her cheek with one hand, his thumb grazing the tender skin beneath her eye. "Good night," he murmured.

She leaned into his touch briefly before pulling away. "Night."

It was going to be a long seven days.


She spent the week either startling or freezing every time he opened his mouth, sure he was going to call it off. Part of her desperately wanted him to change his mind and let her off the hook; but the other part felt like if she said no at this point she might as well give up and resign herself to a life of celibacy. So she kept her doubts to herself and mentally checked off the days of the week as they went past. On Wednesday, she gave him a slip of paper with the hotel name on it. He saw what was written and looked at her for a long time before tucking it away.

All he said was, "Got it. Thanks."

By Friday, she was a tangled mess of nerves and it was just as well she had to spend the day in court. She was quite sure she would not have been able to sit calmly across their desks from him, given what was on the agenda for the evening. Instead, she spent the day in an uncomfortable wooden chair, playing out the possibilities that lay ahead. He might not show. She still didn't really understand why he'd said yes in the first place, and she was a little afraid to ask. But if he did show, they would get a room together, a room with a big bed where they could be alone and touch one another in all sorts of new ways. Her belly quivered at the thought.

She went straight to the hotel dressed in her court clothes – a black skirt and cranberry colored blouse. The only tiny gesture she'd made towards her evening plans was to pin her hair up, but even this was not hugely unusual. It could have been any other Friday night. She parked in the hotel garage and checked her expression once in the rearview mirror. Time's up, she thought.

Apparently, Hunter did not chicken out either. She found him in the lobby reading the front section of the LA Times, clad in his usual workday attire of jeans, button-down shirt and sports coat. It was actually a relief to see him looking so ordinary. She cleared her throat to get his attention, and he peeked over the edge of the paper. "Hi," he said as he folded it up. "How was court?"

"Mind-numbing," she said as he stood up. "I had to listen to three hours of testimony on the tax-code implications for Henderson Enterprises if Alan Henderson's updated will had ever been notarized."

He gave an exaggerated yawn. "I would have pulled out my piece and shot someone after twenty minutes. I guess we're lucky that Esther prefers your testimony to mine."

This was true. If given the choice between Hunter and McCall, Esther picked McCall every day and twice on Sundays. For one thing, she was less likely to have manhandled the suspect during the arrest. Today, however, she had spent the entire afternoon ignoring the proceedings in favor of the running commentary in her head. It was just as well she had never been called to the stand.

They stared at each other for a few minutes until McCall cleared her throat. "I already checked in," she said, determined not to blush.

He gave a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. "Then by all means, lead the way."

They eyed each other from opposite sides of the otherwise empty elevator. She had a black leather tote bag with her that contained a toothbrush and change of clothes, whereas Hunter had seemingly packed only his police-issue 9mm. Maybe he's not planning on staying long,she thought.

At the room, she tried the electronic keycard first one way and then the other, but the door did not open. Hunter took it from her fumbling fingers and slipped it in easily. The green light flashed on and the door clicked open. Inside, the room was spacious and quiet, save for the faint hum of the air conditioning. Golden afternoon sunlight suffused the room through the gauzy curtains, illuminating the impossibly huge bed in the middle.

Her mouth went dry as she studied it, and she noticed Hunter gave it a wide berth as he stalked to the window. "Nice view," he said as he parted the curtains.

She set down her bag but remained fixed in her position by the door. This whole enterprise was starting to feel like a really bad idea.

Hunter turned and looked her up and down. "Well? What now? You want to get something to eat?"

There was no way she could choke down food at this point. "I'm not hungry," she said, hugging herself around the waist. "But if you want something…"

He waved her off. "I'm fine."

They lapsed into terrible silence again, and she looked at the floor, trying to figure out how to tell him this was all a huge mistake. He would probably be relieved. "Hunter…" She felt him move, and her head jerked up in anticipation of his approach, but he was only going to take a seat in the wing-backed chair near the window. He unholstered his weapon and left it on the nearby desk.

"Having second thoughts?" he asked after a moment.

"Maybe a few, yeah."

"Come here a minute." He held out one hand, and she hesitated. He waggled his fingers. "I'm not going to bite you," he said, and she repressed a shiver.

Slowly, she crossed the room and put her hand in his. He tugged her to sit on his lap. She felt tense and awkward, unable to really look at him.

"Ow, you are cutting off the circulation to my fingers," he said, twisting his hand in her grip.

"Sorry," she said as she released him.

He was quiet a moment. "If you've changed your mind, that's okay," he said. His hand smoothed the length of her spine. "We can order room service and watch a movie. Or we can just turn around and leave, and it's like this never happened."

Like it never happened. She ached at the words and she didn't even know why.

"I don't know what I want anymore. I… it's just…" She blinked hard as tears stung her eyes.Damn it, do not cry, she ordered herself.

"It's just what?" He was still rubbing her back.

"I am tired of feeling this way. Like I'm stuck, or in limbo." She covered her face with both hands. "Or broken."

"You're not broken." He tugged at one of her hands until she let go, and then he pressed his face to hers as he pulled her deeper into his lap. Her hand slipped inside his jacket. He nuzzled her cheek, his lips just near the edge of hers. She kept her eyes closed as the air between them grew warm and thick. He shifted his whole body slightly, until their lips were almost touching. She leaned in and closed the last bit of distance, and then stiffened at the contact.

It felt odd and a little wrong. It was as chaste a kiss as they had ever shared, but still - she was not supposed to be sitting on his lap and kissing him. Her hands moved to his shoulders as she prepared to pull away. The movement caused their lips to brush, and she stopped again, breath caught in her throat. That bit felt…interesting.

His hand moved to the side of her head as he kissed her gently, over and over, until gradually her body relaxed its rigid posture. She tilted slightly so their mouths could meet more fully, kissing him for real now as warmth started to spread across her face. The room faded away and there was nothing but the feel of his hands on her body and his lips moving against hers. Her palm slipped down the front of his shirt, and she opened for him, inviting the touch of his tongue.

He did not accept right away, instead teasing her with lighter kisses as his thumb started a slow, maddening sweep over her cheekbone. Her senses were filled with the taste of him and the heightened sound of their breathing. Finally, his lips parted enough so that she could slide her tongue in to find his. His hands clenched around her and he dragged her even closer. They kissed deeply for long minutes, until she actually started to tremble.

He pulled back and leaned his head against the chair. "See? Not broken." His voice was low and rough in a way she had never heard before.

She put the back of her hand to her swollen mouth and closed her eyes. "Oh my God," she murmured, turning her head away. It was almost too much.

His hand slid to her waist, where he worked the hem of her blouse free from her skirt so that he could touch the bare skin above her hip. "More?" he asked her softly. "Or stop?"

She regarded him in the fading daylight. His mouth was wet and full from their kisses, and his blue eyes had gone dark as night. "I need to know this isn't pity," she said at last.

In answer, he took her hand and brought it down between them to the hot bulge in his well-worn jeans. She shuddered at the intimate contact but did not break his gaze. He looked deeply into her eyes as he used her hand to rub himself. "Does that feel like pity to you?"


He sat up again, keeping her hand where it was, and leaned in to kiss her. It was sweet and hot and over much too fast. He brushed a kiss against her cheek and then rested his forehead against hers. She shifted so she could hang onto him with both hands. "This might go better if you can tell me what part has you apprehensive," he murmured.

All of it. She swallowed with difficulty but couldn't summon words.

He traced one finger down the side of her face and pressed a kiss near her ear. "I don't want to do anything to hurt you or scare you."

"I'm not scared of you." She hugged him tight and buried her face in his neck. "The problem is in me, not with you."

"What problem?" He rubbed her back with slow, long strokes.

Anxiety. Flashbacks. The complete inability to just let go. None of it she wants to talk about right now with him. She pulled back to look at him and held his face in her hands. He deserved some sort of answer. "I no longer like to be touched by someone I don't know," she said softly.

He gave her a slow, knowing smile. "Well. You know me."

She smiled back, a little shyly. "Yeah, I do."

They kissed some more, easy and practiced at it now after only a few tries, and then he slid her off his lap. "C'mon, let's get more comfortable." He peeled off his jacket and removed his tie while she slipped out of her shoes. It was not often she stood next to him in her stocking feet; he had grown another three inches.

He hugged her from behind, his fingertips just edging below the waistband of her skirt. She stroked the soft, springy hair on his arm and let her head fall back against his chest. They held each other that way for a long moment before he nudged her onto the bed. When he followed her down onto the top of the crisp white comforter, her nerves started sparking again, and not entirely in a good way. The kissing was one thing, but now they were horizontal on top of a mattress and there was no mistaking where this was headed.

This was Hunter, her partner, and they were going to have sex. Pretty soon, if the hard ridge against her thigh was any indication. Although it had been her idea, she now felt anxiety nibbling at her edges. What if it was awful? What if she panicked and ruined everything?

It was feeling pretty good so far, though, with his mouth on hers and his fingertips worrying the pins out of her hair. She decided to let things go a little further. She yanked out the tail of his shirt so that she could reach under to his bare skin. Her palms moved with his muscles as he shifted, and she marveled at the power and strength contained with him. He groaned a little as she stroked him, and the sound vibrated to her very toes.

He slipped one hand up the back of her calf, bending her leg at the knee so that her skirt rose up between them and he could lie between her legs. They kissed some more and she placed her hand along his face, feeling the beginnings of sandpapery stubble. Her thumb slid over to find her favorite spot, the one where his dimple resided, and he obliged her by smiling against her mouth.

Then he pressed her deeper into the mattress, and she felt herself sinking away.


They had been making out like teenagers for nearly an hour now, wearing off her lipstick and making his hair stand on-end. He was not sure whether they were reluctant to cross the last line or whether it was just because this part felt too damn good. This was supposed to be a lark, a favor, a satisfaction to a long-running curiosity, but now he could not stop kissing her.

He was hard, so hard it was almost unbearable, especially at that moment. She was draped over him, holding his head while they kissed, her skirt bunched up around her thighs by the presence of his leg between hers. He kissed her slow and deep, stroking her sides through the slippery silk of her blouse. He had expected to enjoy this but he was unprepared for how desperate his need had become.

He rolled her onto the bed to get some space between them but it was only slightly less painful due to the tight confines of his jeans. Softly, he kissed her, intending to lighten the contact, but she pulled him closer and slid her hot little tongue into his mouth. He broke the kiss but maintained their positions by resting his forehead against hers. "I'm not trying to push," he said, "I just need a little room here." With one hand, he unbuttoned and unzipped his fly, groaning as his erection surged forward within his loosened jeans. He was determined to let her set the pace even if it killed him. Which it very well might.

Her lips were smudged and her dark hair was mussed against the pillow as she regarded him with wide eyes. Her breathing was light and quick, whether from fear or desire he did not know. He kissed her temple. "Nothing that makes you uncomfortable," he promised.

She rubbed her cheek against him and closed her eyes as she hugged him to her. "Just to warn you…that might not be possible. The whole point is to do it anyway."

"Just promise me you'll say stop if you need to."

"I don't want to stop." She kissed him again, and he was lost.

Eventually, they got up long enough so that he could yank down the covers to expose the clean white sheets. Then he sat at the edge of the bed and tugged her to stand between his legs. In this position, she was just fractionally taller, and he nipped at her chin, rubbing his nose against her fragrant neck. She sighed and caressed the back of his head.

Maybe she wanted just to get it over with, but he was determined to remember every little detail.

One by one, he opened the buttons on her blouse but did not take it off of her. He merely parted slightly it with both hands, slipping inside to hold her while he pressed open-mouthed kisses to her collarbone. She murmured her approval and pressed closer to him so he had even more access. He mapped every delicate ridge of her with his hands and mouth. Eventually, he reached around to undo the clasp of her bra, which sagged slightly to expose more of her soft skin. He nosed around until he located one peak, and she jerked in his arms when his mouth made contact. She swayed slightly, her hands sifting through his hair as he sucked each breast in turn, gently at first but then with growing pressure.

They were still mostly clothed but were making love for real now. Even if they stopped here, he would always know her taste, her smell, and the way her fingernails pricked his scalp as she made an incoherent sound of pleasure somewhere above his head. He could hardly believe he was doing this to her, that it had been her idea.

His hand slid under the hem of her skirt. He felt her shiver has he raised his palm up the inside of her leg. Getting the nylons off would require her cooperation. He was just about to mention this when his fingertips grazed bare skin at her thigh. They were not nylons but stockings of some sort, and he grinned against the slope of her breasts. How often has she been dressed like this and he'd had no idea?

He let his hand creep higher to the soft, humid space between her thighs. She gasped as his fingertips reached her underwear, and he tried an experimental stroke at her center. She was wet and swollen, the thin material clinging to her body, and he nearly went weak with relief. She wanted him too. A lot. He caressed her gently until her nails were raking at his shoulders. "Hunter…"

"Hmm?" He didn't stop his ministrations. She felt too damn good.

"Rick, please. I can't stand up anymore."

He laughed and hugged her against him. "It's only fair," he said as she traced the shell of his ear. "I'm supposed to be keeping my wits about me, but you are making that damn near impossible."

She gave a slow, sexy smile – one he had never seen before, and he'd thought he'd seen them all. "I am?"

"Oh, you am," he said. He helped her out of her blouse, bra and skirt and then drew her against him once more. They kissed with less precision as his hands roamed down her naked back.

She pulled away, breathless. "You're now way overdressed." Her nimble fingers make quick work of his shirt buttons, and he yanked the T-shirt off with one smooth motion. She tugged at the denim waistband until he rose enough to let her slip the jeans down his legs and off. The briefs are pointless now; he has never felt this huge before. He was a little afraid he might go off just from lying on top of her.

Back on the bed, they kissed some more as she lay with her head in the crook of his arm. His free hand stroked the heavy fullness of her breasts before sliding down her body and between her legs again. He heard her breath catch and was not what the sound meant. "Okay?" he murmured against her cheek.

She nodded quickly and arched into his hand. Her eyes were shut but the edges of her mouth were turned up. She was happy, aroused. He bit back a groan of delight against her shoulder.

He touched her gently through her underwear for another minute or so until she started squirming. "Off?" He was teasing now.

She nodded, clutching him. He tugged off the offending undergarment and returned his hand between her legs. They weren't going to have time for him to learn her completely, so he asked for help. "Show me," he murmured to her, taking her hand and guiding it to his. Based on what little she'd said to him, he was unsure that orgasm was even possible for her, but he wanted to try.

She shifted his hand higher and to the left, guiding him until he found the right spot and correct level of pressure. He could tell he had located it when she stiffened and gasped into their kiss. He rubbed her in slow circles and she started moving against his hand. Her pleasure became his pleasure; he had never been so turned on from this small amount of touching. He matched her rhythm, rubbing himself on her thigh as the blood roared in his ears. She rolled her head first one way and then the other, her body tensing as their movements quickened. She seemed to be fighting it.

"I—I…" she said, breathless.

He gritted his teeth and hid his face in her hair. "Yes," he told her. "Yes."

"I…stop." She shuddered and closed her legs around his hand.

His eyes watered from the effort, but he stopped. She rolled away a bit, and he lay there, breathing hard, trying to calm the freight train running through him. Finally, he reached for her. "You okay?"

She burrowed into the pillows, hiding her face. "Yes." A pause. "Sorry."

He wasn't sure if she would even want him too close, especially with his erection still heavy between them. He stroked the smooth plane of her back several times as he tried to think of what to say. "You want to tell me about it?"

The pillow rustled as she shook her head.

"Did I… did I hurt you?"

This made her turn around to face him again. "No. No, nothing like that. I…it was just too much."

"Too much." His muzzy brain couldn't really process this information, but at least she was talking to him. He gathered her back into his arms, and she came willingly. Her embrace was apologetic.

"I'm sorry," she said again, sounding sad.

He kissed the bridge of her nose and left his head pressed against hers. They were breathing the same air. "You don't have to be sorry."

Her shoulders heaved with her sigh, and she began tracing a random pattern across his back. "You know how when you're in danger, your heart speeds up and your muscles tense – everything seems magnified, like the slightest movement or noise could be the end of you?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"That happens to me sometimes, even when I am not in any danger." He hugged her and she held on tight, curled into him completely now. "And a minute ago, when you were touching me, it felt a little bit the same way. I guess my body got confused."

The French didn't call it le petit mort for nothing. He stroked her warm head and kissed her brow. "It's okay," he said. His body was practically vibrating with unmet sexual need, and it was hard to think. He forced himself to stay still when she shifted against him, stretching up to place gentle kisses on his cheek, his jaw. Only when he felt her reach his shoulder, her lips grazing the raised ridge of his old bullet wound, did he open his eyes. He found her looking back at him with a small, sad smile.

Mariano had scarred them both for life; only his wounds were on the outside.

He curled one hand around the back of her neck and brought her head down to his so he could kiss her once more. They kissed gently at first, but then her tongue caught his bottom lip and he could not hold back a moan. He tried to show her with lips and hands how sorry he was and how much he cared. It felt like he was bleeding into her. She made a choked sound as their faces became wet with her tears.

He held her tightly, his erection trapped between them against the soft skin of her stomach. Arousal fogged up his brain. She shifted her legs restlessly against him, and he urged her thigh over his hip, drawing them even closer. His hand brushed between her legs in the process and she gave a sharp cry of pleasure. He reached down to try it again, a silent question, and she hid her face in his neck. She was clutching him like he was a safety bar on the Pacific Park roller coaster, breathing high and fast against his skin.

When she didn't pull away, he touched her some more, searching out the tender place she had shown him earlier. It seemed to take only minute or so before she was tensing in his arms again. He was stiff and slippery and tight against her belly. They rocked together in rhythm, sweet delicious friction, and he felt rational thought slipping away.

"Oh," she said, sounding distressed.

"I've got you," he managed to reply. One finger slipped inside her and she cried out again, trembling right on the edge. "Just let it happen."

"I can't, I can't," she said as he rubbed her faster.

"Let go," he said. "I'll catch you." She sobbed against his chest and he repeated it like a mantra: Let go, let go, let go.

At last, finally, she did, her startled gasp a hot burst at his neck, and then a high, keening cry that was a mix of joy and anguish. The feel of her desperate release as she shook herself to pieces in his arms was more than he could stand. Orgasm was no longer a choice. He surged against her as they jerked together in near painful mutual surrender.

Awareness came back slowly, and he unclenched each muscle group as his vision returned. McCall was still wrapped around him, but her grip had slackened. He knew he should say something, anything, but he could not find the words. He had imagined a sweet, hot encounter that left them both sighing with satisfaction – instead, it'd been dark, raw and a little bit terrifying. He'd come on her stomach like a fifteen year-old boy. The complete loss of control left him feeling split open and spent.

McCall shivered against him, and he closed his arms around her automatically. "That was, um…"

"Yes," he agreed. "Very." She hugged him, and at least this part felt familiar. He took a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, uh…get you."

He felt her smile against his ribs as she curled into him. "It's okay."

He stroked her hair back from her face, and it felt so good that he did it again. She relaxed under his touch and he tried to figure out what to say next. Then her stomach growled – loudly. He laughed, a different kind of release, and she poked him playfully.

"What? I didn't get any dinner."

"Hey, I offered. You said you weren't hungry."

"Well, I guess I've worked up an appetite."


They ordered room service and took turns in the shower, some of their usual reserve returning as the lights came on. She stood under the hot spray for a long time, not because she felt unclean, but because she wanted some time to process their encounter in private. It wasn't the prettiest coupling in history, but it seemed appropriate for them – unorthodox, powerful, and a little bit messy. Orgasm had been more of a relief than a release, and she was surprised to find the ache so intense still inside her. She wondered if Hunter would be interested in another round or whether that would seem greedy.

Dinner had arrived by the time she emerged from the shower. They sat using the desk as a table and ate wearing the two fluffy white robes provided by the hotel; hers fit normally and his stopped well above the knee. He devoured a Cobb salad while she ate her way through a row of sliders.

"I don't get the concept," he said as he eyed her meal. "Does it really taste different if you eat three small hamburgers as opposed to one big one?"

"Smaller ones are cuter," she informed him as she popped the last of the second one into her mouth. It had just the right balance of pickles and mustard.

"Maybe that's my problem," he replied. "I don't evaluate my food on any sort of cuteness scale. Do you suppose they make them from little tiny cows?"

He reached across for one of her French fries, and she pulled her plate back. "Mock my food and then try to steal it? I don't think so."

"Just because it's fussy doesn't mean it doesn't taste good." He dodged her hand as she tried to smack him and came away with a fry, triumphant. "You know, I do believe you still owe me a certain story."

She didn't pretend to misunderstand him. "Uh, no," she said as she took a fry for herself. "The deal was you had to buy me dinner first. This is all on my credit card."

He pretended to pat himself down, and the robe slid up to his mid-thigh. "Damn, I left my wallet in my other pants."

She had a flash of shucking those pants off him, and reached for her water. "I think you may overestimate how interesting the story is," she said after she had taken a sip. "Most of us don't take up with a Mrs. Robinson our first time out."

His brow furrowed, and she rolled her eyes.

"You're trying to remember Angela's last name, aren't you?"

"Maracas? No, that's not right. Markakis?" He shook his head. "Regardless, if it's not an interesting story, then I think I should get a discounted rate here." He stretched out to nudge her leg with his toes, and the robe gaped to reveal his naked chest. "I'll buy dessert."

"Fine." She sighed and threw down her napkin. "Then I at least want the triple scoop hot fudge sundae."

He leaned toward her with a dangerous smile. "With a cherry on top."

"His name was Robby Marlow," she began, and he sat back with a scoff.

"Robby? No self-respecting guy over the age of six goes by the name Robby."

"You want to hear this or not?"

He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, but the smirk was still in place. "Sorry. Please continue this not-very-interesting story about you and…Robby."

"It was the summer before I started college, and I was working as a cashier in the local supermarket. Robby had the register two aisles over. We would chat sometimes, and I thought he was cute, but he also had a girlfriend. Anyway, it probably wouldn't have amounted to anything except that – for reasons that are still not clear to me at all – the break room had an old upright piano. Robby, he could play. I mean he had a real gift. Any song he heard, he could play it back to you within a few minutes. So we used to play duets together sometimes, you know, just messing around."

"Messing around," he interrupted. "Uh-huh."

"With music," she told him. "That's all. Except then one day he kissed me." She touched her lips, remembering. "I spent a whole twenty-four hours in agony because I knew he still had a girlfriend. But the next day, he showed up with two tickets to Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 3. He said, 'I got these with her but I'd rather take you.'" She shrugged. "And that was that. We were inseparable for the rest of the summer. But we went to different universities in the fall, and there was no real way to continue the relationship. It died a natural death."

"No way that's that. You skipped the important part."

"Fine. At some point, we had sex. Are you satisfied?"

He eyed her for a long moment. "Not hardly."

She swallowed and ducked his gaze. "It was outside at night on a blanket. We both still lived at home so it was difficult to get any privacy. We had…we had been heading in that direction for a while, but that night we took off more clothes than usual, and it just sort of happened."

She had his complete and utter attention now. "Was it good?" he asked.

"Sure, I guess," she said after a moment. "As first times go, it was sweet." She took another sip of water and regarded him over the rim of her glass. "It got better later, though."

The chair creaked as he leaned forward. "Oh yeah? How much better?"

She considered her various memories, escapades she has not thought upon in years, and tried to decide which one he might like to hear. "Well, the first time he made me… you know…we were in the twin bed I had slept in since I was five. My whole family was downstairs outside in the backyard for a barbeque, and Robby and I were supposed to be chopping up the watermelon. I remember the bedroom window was open right next to us and so we couldn't make any noise."

The memory was pleasant but the real thrill was telling Hunter the story. In the story, she was in bed with Robby, but it was Hunter's hands she imagined on her body. "That was very, very naughty of you," he said in a low voice. His breathing had deepened and a fresh erection tented the front of his robe.

She laughed as he hooked one foot around the post of her rolling chair and dragged her closer to him. The throbbing between her legs grew stronger as he leaned down to brush his lips against her cheek. "Very naughty indeed," he said again, and she shifted so she could kiss him.

They exchanged deep, open-mouthed kisses until she was about ready to climb onto his lap. "You want to… the bed?" She was not even coherent.

"Yes," he said immediately.

They didn't pause to turn out the lights, so when he shed his robe, she got to see all of him for the first time – the finely sculpted abdomen, the downy trail of blond hair descending downward, like an arrow pointing to his enlarged cock. She sucked in her breath at the sight, and he gave her a satisfied smile as he climbed onto the bed and over her. "You like?"

"Mmm," was all she could manage as she stroked her palms over his chest, down his stomach, down, down further until she could hold him warm and solid in her hand. He arched his neck back at her touch, his eyes drifting closed as she caressed him gently from root to tip. She kissed the underside of his jaw, the salt of his skin against her lips, and borrowed his earlier phrase. "Show me…"

He did, guiding her hand with his until she learned the rhythm. "Jesus," he breathed after a minute. He jerked in her palm. "Stop… stop."

Grudgingly, she let go. He put his hot mouth to her neck as his hand brushed her inner thigh. She opened further and his erection settled between her legs. She held her breath, almost unable to bear it as he rubbed himself against her over and over again, until they were both panting like long distance runners. "I want you," he said thickly.

"Yes," she said, arching into him. "Please…"

But instead of coming into her, he pulled back. "Just a sec," he murmured as he rolled off the bed in search of his pants.

She blinked when she realized what he was doing. "It's okay," she said as he retrieved a foil-wrapped condom from his pants. "I mean, I've got it covered." She had never stopped taking the birth control pills, even when the nightly ritual seemed to mock her.

He had already put it on. "Can't be too careful, right?"

She curled into the sheets, confused and a little stung. "Do you mean? I've been tested…" Lloyd Fredericks hadn't even been inside her, but they'd repeated the full medical panel anyway just for her peace of mind.

He looked horrified as he rejoined her on the bed. "No, I'm not suggesting anything about you. It's just…you know, one method can fail, so I like to make sure. It's not that I don't trust you."

He gathered her against him, but she could not relax again. The earlier bubble had burst.

"Hey," he said gently, resting his head on hers. "It's not personal, I swear."

"No, I know." It was actually very sweet that he wanted to protect them both this way. But shame was a chip she carried inside her now, and it didn't take much to reactivate it. "Sorry," she said for what felt like the millionth time. "You must think I'm ridiculous."

He trailed his fingertips over her shoulder and down her arm. "I think you're beautiful," he said softly.

"Hunter…" She rolled onto her back and closed her eyes.


"Really, it's okay. You don't have to make this something it's not." She risked a glance at him. "You don't need to say this stuff to me."

He frowned. "Well, what if I want to say it? You seem to think you can just schedule this little encounter and I won't have any feelings on the matter at all. I get that this is a big deal for you, but it's not like it's nothing for me." The condom had become unnecessary as the air went out of his sails as well.

"I'm sorry," she said as she rolled back to face him. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant…I don't want you to think I need pretty words or heartfelt promises."

"And I don't want you to think you don't deserve them."

She took one of his hands and held it loosely between hers, and they were quiet for a long moment. "Hunter?" she asked, still looking at their joined hands.


"Why did you agree do to this? I mean, we know why I brought it up, but why did you say yes?"

"I was trying to tell you but you wouldn't let me." His tone was a mix of affection and exasperation.

"Because… because you think I'm pretty?"

He smiled and broke free so that he could touch his palm to the side of her face. "I don't think we'd be here if I didn't find you attractive, no." He tugged her closer. "But that's not why."

"Why then?"

He rested his cheek on her hair. "I like knowing you," he murmured eventually. "I have watched you handle incredibly difficult situations with dignity and grace, and only hoped that maybe some of that could wear off on me. The chance to be here with you like this, the chance to know you all over again in a new way…well, I couldn't walk away from that." He stroked her arm, her hip. "I didn't want to."

She hugged him tightly, her eyes shut as she tried to memorize the feel of him in her arms. "You give me too much credit. There were many times I've been able to keep going only because you believed I could."

He made a noise of disbelief, and she propped herself on one elbow so she could look down at him.

"No, it's true." She laid her palm on the center of his chest and considered how much to tell him. Finally, she took a deep breath and just started talking. "Twice in my life I've had to totally readjust my way of being. The first was after Steve died. It was so awful and unexpected, and the entire life I thought I had before me was just…gone. I missed him so, so much."

Hunter cupped the side of her face. "I know."

"But as terrible as it was, losing him, I still had me. Inside, I was the same person. I don't think I realized how important that was until I didn't have it anymore." She lay down next to him and he sheltered her in his arms. "After the rape, it was like I didn't even know how to exist as myself. How could I be this person it had happened to? How was I supposed to wear the same clothes and eat the same food and walk around in the same body…the one he had…" Her throat closed up with sudden tears, but she forced the words out. "The one he had raped."

He hugged her fiercely, tighter than he ever could have in the aftermath, when she had been bruised and broken.

"You were the only thing that still made sense," she said, sniffing against him. "You were as steady and calm as you ever were…always so certain that things would get better. It felt like…" She searched herself for the words. "It felt like maybe the world couldn't be completely terrible, because you were still in it."

"I would have done anything," he said, his voice rough with emotion. He stroked her hair from her face in an almost desperate gesture.

She caught his hand and held it. "You did everything," she said, looking into his eyes so that he could see that she meant it. "I would not be here if it weren't for you."

He kissed her softly, tenderly, and their shared history of despair started fading away. These kisses were a different kind of dangerous for them. This wasn't about erasing fear or getting each other off. She felt warm and connected and filled with love for him; her eyes watered, because she knew eventually it would have to be over.

Gradually, the flavor of the kisses changed as their bodies shifted against one another and arousal flared up between them once more. He teased her with his tongue as his fingers sought one pebbled nipple, worrying it into a stiff peak, and she opened her legs to make room for him between them. Oh, yes, more of that, she thought. He slowly hardened against her inner thigh and she had to stop herself from rubbing on him like a cat. "I…oh. I don't suppose you have another one of those in your pockets," she said, arching her neck so he could have better access.

"Always bring a backup, McCall," he said against her throat. "Did you learn nothing at the Academy?" He got up briefly to remedy the situation, and then he was back in her arms. "I want to know you some more," he said as he positioned himself between her thighs.

Her reply was lost when he started to slide into her. "Oh, God."

He froze, only an inch or so in. "Hurt?"

"No, no. Don't stop." She could feel him watching her but she couldn't open her eyes. This was really happening at last. There was no pain, no fear – only an amazing heat and fullness. She listened to the sound of his ragged breathing as he slowly pushed in deeper.

He dropped his forehead to hers, his head bowed. "Hi," he whispered when he was all the way inside.

She smiled slowly and opened her eyes. "Hi." 

"Everything okay?"

"Perfect." She stroked his face with both hands and he started to move gently inside her. They watched each other as the pleasure mounted. "You feel so good," she murmured, eyes drifting shut against the power of it all. Big and hard, satisfaction so intense it was right up against the edge of pain. She started rocking her hips with him, and he groaned against the side of her face.

They loved each other slowly for as long as they could, but gradually his thrusts picked up pace. She raised her knees to change the angle and cried out sharply when he hit a particularly good place. She couldn't quite believe this was actually real. How had they missed this between them? He was hard for her, deep inside her body, making her tremble with pure sexual need. Orgasm felt like a shared goal this time – not a yawning cavern for her alone but a hot bright light bathed over both of them.

He was braced on his forearms, his neck arched as he drove into her with short quick strokes. She rubbed her hands over him everywhere, absorbing the tension. "Let go," she said as she felt climax about to take her. "I'll ca—" She broke off in a gasp as she came, and he thrust sharply twice before holding himself deep inside as he spasmed in release.

"God," she said when she could talk again.

"No, it's still just me," he replied against her neck, and she laughed, feeling lighter than she had in a long time.

Later, they lay curled together under the covers in the dark. She had deliberately positioned herself so that she could not see the alarm clock on the nightstand, counting down the remaining hours. He had to be in Palm Springs by noon, and she wasn't sure how she was supposed to let him go. Suddenly, her trick of scheduling time apart didn't seem like such a great idea – which, she supposed, made it all the more important that he left.

She tried to stay awake so that she could remember holding him, the sound of his steady heartbeat beneath her ear, but exhaustion overtook her the minute she closed her eyes. When she woke, the gray light of dawn was just beginning to filter in through the curtains. They were a tangle of limbs under the warm blankets, and she felt him hard again between her legs. Without speaking, they started kissing and making love. She was slightly sore but this was their last chance. She bit her lip as she felt him probe against her. Wait, she thought. No condom.

She pulled her lips from his. "What about being careful?" she whispered.

"Need you," he muttered as he slipped inside, and she let out a long sigh of relief. It was an unhurried and gentle coupling. Pleasure did not so much climax as float her along on a blissful, unending wave.

When she awakened next, they were separate again, and he was nuzzling her temple. "I've got to get going," he murmured, and she was instantly alert.

"Right," she said, her voice scratchy from lack of sleep. "Of course."

"You should stay, get some more rest." He kissed her forehead and started to pull away.

"Hunter, wait…" She grabbed his arm loosely, and he shifted to lie near her again.


"I just wanted to say…I mean, I feel…"

He rested his head against hers with a contented sigh. "I know," he said eventually. "Me too." He kissed her gently and then got out of bed. "I'll see you Wednesday morning. In the meantime, don't catch all the bad guys without me."

"I make no promises." She watched in the half-light as he dressed and retrieved his gun. One night, she had offered him, and now it was over.

Fully clothed once more, he leaned down next to her, his mouth brushing hers one last time. "See you soon."

"Bye," she murmured, and then he left.

She curled into the warm space he had vacated on the bed, closing her eyes and breathing in his scent. She lay there, drifting in memory, until the sky brightened outside and sun started slanting in through the crack in the drapes. There was no more denying it: morning had come.

Chapter Three

On Tuesday during lunch, McCall went to Mary David's office and said aloud the words that had been flashing through her head like a neon sign in Times Square for the past four days. "So I slept with Hunter."

Mary froze with her Diet Coke halfway to her lips. "Wait - slept with as in you had sex with him?"

McCall nodded. "Friday, at a hotel," she said, as if the time and date were the important variables in this revelation.

"Well, that is certainly an interesting turn of events. I'm pretty sure the last time you were sitting in that chair, you told me quite convincingly that you did not want to have sex with him, that it wasn't that kind of relationship."

McCall had the grace to look embarrassed. "I guess it is now?" she said helplessly. "Or it was, at least, for a few hours. I don't know."

"Okay, let's back up a bit," said Mary, bemused. "You left here two weeks ago and you were definitely not going to have sex with him. Please catch me up on what I missed since then."

"Well, I was thinking about what you said regarding the plan to just get it over with, and how Hunter might be a good person to pick because—"

Mary held up one hand. "Oh, no," she said with a smile. "Do not try to hide behind me on this one. I merely asked whether you were interested in having sex with him. Which again, you answered by saying…"

She waited until McCall sighed. "No."

"So this latest development was all your idea," Mary said. "I'm not saying it was a bad one. I just think it's important that you recognize it was yours."

"Okay, fine – I thought he could be a good person to…to start over with because we've known each other for so long and I already trust him." She took a deep breath. "So I suggested as much to him, and he accepted." God, she made it sound like she'd been offering him a breath mint or something.

"And? How was it?"

She couldn't stop her blush or her stupid smile as the memories came flooding back. "Actually, really good."

Mary smiled too and reached over to touch her arm. "I'm so glad."

"I mean, it was a little awkward in places, but overall…really good."

"How many margaritas did it take this time?" Mary asked, teasing a little, but also back to taking notes.

"None. I was stone cold sober. No alcohol, no pills."

Mary regarded her over the rims of her glasses. "Wow, good for you. This sounds like big progress."

"So maybe I'm cured?" McCall asked hopefully.

Mary put down her notebook. "Do you feel cured?"

McCall searched herself for the answer, but her nerves and emotions were all over the place. She had spent the last few days alternating between wonder and terror. Hunter was due back the next morning and she had no idea what to say to him. "Maybe… maybe not quite yet," she admitted finally.

"I think that's probably to be expected," Mary said gently. "These things take time." She shifted in her seat and took up her notebook again. "Tell me about one of these awkward places you mentioned from your night with Hunter."

"Well, the first time we…we did it…"

"The first time? You did it more than once?"

"Um, yes. It was one night - but, uh, three times." Great, now she sounded like a sex maniac. In her defense, it had been a really, really long time.

Mary grinned. "Three times! Okay, then. I guess it must have been really good – either that or you two are sticklers for the old 'practice makes perfect' maxim."

Personally, McCall thought they'd been pretty good at it the first time. She gave Mary a brief recitation of the evening's events, including her momentary panic, and Mary interjected with questions as she saw fit.

"And intercourse? How did that go?"

McCall looked at her hands and tried to figure out what to say. She didn't really have words for what it felt like to look in Hunter's eyes as he came inside her the first time. The sheer intensity of the feeling, even now, rendered her speechless. "I, um…"

Mary apparently saw her struggling because she touched her arm to get her attention. "It's perfectly okay to keep some things private," she said. "I was just curious whether you had any trouble with anxiety or flashbacks."

"Oh – no. Nothing like that."

"Good." Mary sat back with a gentle smile. "It sounds like it was a wonderful experience, Dee Dee. I'm so very pleased for you. How do you feel about it all?"

"Well, uh, obviously I enjoyed it a lot." She considered. "I guess the thing that surprised me…Hunter has been with a lot of different women, so I expected he was, um, practiced – you know?" Mary nodded. McCall took a deep breath. "But he moves on quickly and doesn't usually seem to have much emotional attachment to the women he dates. I think that was one reason I thought it would be fine to be with him just for one night." She felt embarrassment creep up on her again. "I guess I thought there might be a somewhat…perfunctory…feel. Skilled but…" What was the word she was seeking? "Detached."

"And was there?"

She paused, lost in the memory of him nudging his way inside her that third time. Need you. "No," she whispered, and then righted herself in her seat. "Not at all."

"I can't imagine this is news, but I will say it anyway: people don't generally have sex three times in one night unless there is a genuine underlying hunger there."

McCall drew in a sharp breath. "It doesn't matter," she said. "There won't be a fourth time."

"Why not?"

"As I mentioned, Hunter tends to move on quickly. I…I wouldn't want to be left standing there when he does." She looked at her lap. "Plus, we want different things from a romantic relationship – I want to get married again someday. He has no interest." She sighed. "And then there's the part where we work together. God knows I do not want to have to be breaking in a new partner because we screwed up our working relationship. No, it's best to leave it at one night."

"I see. And Hunter agrees?"

"Of course. Those were the terms of the deal." She was back to making it sound like a business transaction again. Mary was thinking along a similar line.

"Well, that's nice that you have an agreement, but even people who have sex for a living will tell you it doesn't always turn out so nice and tidy. Humans are complicated creatures."

Not Hunter, she thought. He was many things – loyal, funny, fierce and strong – but complicated, he was not. They had a rhythm to their partnership now that was almost instinctual. He would show up and make bad jokes; she would laugh. He would flirt; she would hold him back. In between, they would solve a few murders. Eventually, it would be like nothing had ever happened.


Normally she worked the snooze button on her alarm with the skilled timing of an air traffic controller; she knew just how many minutes of sleep she could squeeze out before she would be late to work. But Tuesday night's anticipation turned into Wednesday morning's jitters, and she had been wide awake since five-thirty. By seven, she was at her desk, trying not to watch the door for the moment when he would walk through it.

The station slowly filled up with noise and people around her as the 8am shift rotated on duty. She kept her head down to avoid making too much eye contact. Probably half the precinct thought she and Hunter had already had sex years ago, but the rumors never bothered her because she knew the truth. Now that it really was the truth, she feared the rest of her colleagues would take one look at her and just know. It would kill her if the story got out. Hunter would get high-fives and she would get leering invitations, because this is how it ever was: sexuality was viewed as a source of strength for men and a sign of weakness for women. Never mind that she had been the one to proposition him.

She was just starting to feel alone and uneasy when he came strolling through the door at eight-oh-three. He had a small stack of mail, an armful of binders and a powdered donut held between his teeth. For some reason, his anti-junk-food rule never seemed to apply to donuts, especially if they were consumed on the precinct premises. He set the binders down on his desk and took a bite of the donut. "Morning," he said, looking her up and down.

He had powdered sugar on his mouth, and she licked her own lips as if to taste it. "Hi," she said. "Welcome back."

He hadn't actually sat down yet, so she was stuck looking up at him. "Thanks. Did I miss anything good?"

"Jewelry store heist over on Century. One of the customers was an off-duty security guard who went for the gun and ended up with a bullet to the chest for his efforts. His family took him off life support yesterday afternoon, so it's officially a homicide."

"Poor bastard," Hunter said. "Any other witnesses?"

"Two in addition to the owner. He is going to need reinterviewing because he was too shook up to say much the day of the robbery." She handed across a folder with the various statements, which he accepted without comment – and without touching her. "So how was the desert?"

"Hot. Dry. The usual." He scrutinized the reports for a long minute and then looked up. Their eyes held a moment as he seemed to be considering what to say. "I got you something," he said at last, and dug out a tiny toy palm tree whose fronds danced as if it were a bobble-head doll. He set it on the edge of her desk and backed away again.

"Gee, thanks." She noticed he had still not sat down.

"Hunter? McCall?" Captain Devane appeared with a sheet of paper and a frown. "I've got a live one here that is going to take a delicate touch. Margaret DeBerandini was found shot to death this morning – apparently the maid found her in the bedroom."

"Any relationship to Roger DeBerandini?" Hunter asked. McCall recognized the name of one of the city's more popular ambulance-chasing attorneys. He had billboards up all over town.

"Yeah, she's his wife," Charlie said. "I gather he's still at the scene, raising hell. Hunter, I want you to get down there immediately. But tread real lightly on this one until we have all the facts, okay? McCall, I need you to stay on the jewelry heist. The Armin Ernst's family was on TV today, live outside the hospital after they pulled the plug, and the Chief was watching. He's going to call back later today, and I'd love to have something – anything – to tell him."

Having dispensed the marching orders, the Captain returned to his office. Hunter adjusted the knot on his tie. "Did you hear that?" he asked. "The case calls for a light touch, and he picked me."

"Yeah, well, I already caught the jewelry heist."

"Positively dexterous," he said, wiggling his fingers at her.

She frowned. If this was supposed to be some sideways reference to their night together, she wasn't amused. "I'm sure you'll do fine."

"Of course I will. You handle one slimy lawyer, you've handled them all. I just hope I don't get any on me. I had this jacket cleaned last week." He flashed her a quick smile. "Catch you later."

"Yeah, later." She watched him disappear again, leaving her behind like his half-eaten donut.This is what you wanted, she reminded herself. To go on just as you were before.

And so, on she went. She figured there would be plenty of opportunity to talk to Hunter later when they weren't surrounded by thirty-five other cops. So she spent the day going over witness statements and then comparing notes with Bob Daniels from Robbery; he had a similar case three weeks earlier, and it was possible the same guy had hit both stores. By the time she got back to her desk, it was after six, and Hunter had returned.

"Well?" she asked as she took her seat. "Are you going to have to have your jacket cleaned again?"

"Oh, he did it," Hunter replied. "I can't prove it yet, but he did it."

"I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't pull the trigger himself," she said. "Bet some of his clientele would be all too happy to make payment in the form of a murder."

"You've been reading my mind again," he said, hefting some folders to show them off. "I have pulled all the violent crime cases from the last six months in which DeBendarini was the defense."

She smiled, pleased that they could share this small connection, at least. "Hey, it's past quitting time," she said. "You want to grab something to eat?" She hoped the invitation sounded casual, but the effort might have been undercut by her complete inability to look at him.

"Uh, that sounds nice, but do you mind if I take a rain check? I did not get back until after midnight last night, and I am used up like an empty toothpaste tube."

"Sure, of course." He'd turned her down for similar reasons in the past, right? She hesitated as he gathered his stuff to leave. "Hunter…"

"Hmm?" He paused and looked at her. No recognition there or hint of shared memory.

"Nothing. Get some rest."

Be careful what you ask for, she thought as she drove home. Because you just might get it.

The next two days passed in similar fashion, working parallel cases with a periodic rendez-vous at their desks here and there. She was always acutely aware of his physical presence, even when she wasn't looking at him. He sat six feet away, going about his business, while she tried desperately not to imagine him naked. After nineteen months of nothing, her body had decided it was interested in sex again in a big way, and now it recognized Hunter as a viable target. At one point, she found herself staring at his hands until she was startled loose by the ringing of her phone.

She could not very well say anything personal to him with Miller and Sullivan sitting across the aisle, and Hunter seemed determined not say anything personal at all. It wasn't as though she wanted him to sweep her into his arms or bring her flowers or anything like that. Definitely not. No, all she wanted was some glimmer of remembrance so that she could know it hadn't happened to her alone.

Friday afternoon faded into Friday evening, and she could not help but remember where they had been just one week earlier: alone in the hotel room, teetering on the brink of a physical relationship. Today, however, they were working in silence with a wall of file folders between them. At six, he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed deeply. "DeBendarini's clients are as slimy as he is. I've got at least four here who might be interested in a little murder-for-hire, and I will be happy to track them all down on Monday, after I have had a long, long shower."

She ignored that remark. "Exciting weekend plans?" God, now practically everything she said sounded like she was propositioning him.

He raised his eyebrows. "Not a one. You?"

"Nope." She sure as hell wasn't going to invite him out just to be rejected again. There was an awkward moment while she waited for him to say something else, but he did not.

He fished his jacket free from the back of his chair. "I'll see you on Monday, then. Good night."

"Night," she muttered, her head bowed over her work once more. The words on the page swam before her eyes. All the things she'd said to him. The things he'd done to her. And now they could no longer carry on a simple conversation. Why had she ever thought it would be easy?

Dejected, she sat there and pretended to work for another few hours. It was preferable to look industrious rather than lonely, and she did not want to spend the rest of her Friday night alone at home with her memories. Finally, around nine, she thought it might be late enough to justify going home to a big glass of wine – big enough to send her into a dreamless sleep. But when she got behind the wheel of her car, she found herself driving instead toward the beach, to his house. He might refuse her entrance. He might not want to talk to her. But then at least she'd know: he remembered too.


He was standing barefoot in the kitchen, finishing up his dishes, when there was a knock at his door. He carried the plate and dishrag with him as he went to see who it was. Her. Of course. He hesitated only a second before letting her inside. "If this is an official police visit," he said, "you should know I won't talk outside the presence of my attorney."

She laughed without humor. "Ha, well, that would explain a few things."

"What do you mean?" He went back to his kitchen and she followed behind him.

"You've barely said 'boo' to me for the past three days," she said, sounding annoyed. She folded her arms and leaned against his cabinets. He wondered if she realized she was wearing the same black skirt he had slipped off of her a week ago.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he told her as he put his plate on the drying rack. "I've said plenty to you."

"Yeah – hand me that file, would you? Or some joke about your dry cleaning."

He leaned back against the sink and rubbed his eyes with one hand. Every word out of his mouth had been carefully modulated for days. It was exhausting. "What is it you want me to say?"

"I don't want you to say any particular thing! I just want you to talk to me like a human…like we're still friends."

"We're friends, okay?"

She looked at the floor. "It doesn't really feel that way." The room fell silent, except for the occasional drip from the faucet behind him. When she spoke at last, he could barely hear her. "Is it…is it that you have regrets?"


"What?" Her head snapped up and he walked out of the kitchen.

"I thought you didn't want to do this," he called back over his shoulder as he stalked into the living room. There was no way to put enough distance between them within his apartment. "I'm just doing what I thought you wanted – it's like it never happened, right?"

She stood far away, in the doorway of his kitchen, and regarded him with teary eyes. She wasn't coming after him this time. "And I guess that's so easy for you," she said.

"Of course it isn't easy!" His shoulders sank and he closed his eyes. "You didn't tell me," he said with a hint of accusation. "You didn't tell me it would be like that."

"Like what?"

"So…" He didn't have the words. "So much."

She wiped her eyes. "I didn't know."

He rubbed his face with both hands and blew out a long, shaky breath. "The thing is…I can't do both. I can't have this conversation and also hit the rewind button – you asked me to put the genie back in the bottle, and this is the only way I know how to do it."

She took several slow steps toward him. "I don't understand."

"I barely passed the training course," he said with a shudder. He lowered himself down onto the sofa and sighed. "I probably heard only about a third of what was said during the lectures. My notes make no sense at all."

She gave a choked laugh and covered her mouth with one hand. "I guess I won't ask to borrow them, then." She cleared her throat. "I, uh, I lost my sponge this week," she confessed. "I found it this morning in my freezer." She paused. "Along with my hairbrush."

He chuffed a laugh. "What a pair, huh? Probably a good thing we're stopping at one night or we wouldn't be able to solve cases anymore. Or do our hair, apparently."

She tossed a throw pillow at his head, and he grinned as he caught it. Then he turned serious. "Sorry," he murmured. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"It's okay," she said as she took a careful seat on the other end of the couch. "You're right that I wanted everything to go back to normal. I did. I do." She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry for pushing you to talk about it when you clearly don't want to."

She still didn't get it. "It's not about want," he said in a low voice. She was near enough now that he could smell her. "It's that I can't. I can sit across a desk from you and not talk about it ever again, or I can take you upstairs to bed and pick up where we left off. There is no in-between space for me."

"You…you would want to? Again?" Her eyes were huge in the low light.

"God yes." He stretched out a hand toward her, not quite touching her thigh. "It's all I've thought about for a week. But there are lots of reasons why we shouldn't."

"Right." Her hand crept over to find his, and his fingers tightened around hers immediately.

"And really only one good reason why we should," he continued.


He brought her hand up to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. Her eyes closed at the touch of his lips, and he couldn't help himself: he started raining tiny kisses back and forth across her hand. "Because," he murmured against the salt of her skin. His tongue came out to taste her, and she gasped. "Because it turns out…" Kiss. "We're really good at it."

She laughed and crumpled toward him with amusement, hiding her face in the couch cushions. He leaned over so that he could breathe in the scent of her hair, his hands running the length of her back as he nuzzled closer until he found the tender skin at her nape. She went completely still as he placed an experimental kiss there. This was the problem. Once he started kissing her, he just couldn't stop. He opened his mouth, his breath stirring the tiny hairs on her neck, and then pressed his teeth lightly into her flesh.

She yelped and quivered. "Hunter…" She twisted under him until she was facing upward again, albeit upside down from his perspective. He had her curled on his couch in her stocking feet, breathing hard as she waited to see what he would do next.

He kissed her cheek, her chin and then finally, her mouth. Warmth spread across his face, up his neck to the tips of his ears. He felt nothing but the tickle of her breath on his cheek and gentle movement of her lips under his. They kissed for a long moment, and he was shaking slightly as he pulled back. He rested his head on hers as she reached back to caress his neck. He was already fully erect, just from the kissing. He was not well. "If we're stopping," he said hoarsely, "it needs to be now."

His eyes were closed but he felt her shake her head. He sat back to let her up, and she climbed over the cushions to sit on her knees next to him. "What's one more time?" she asked against his mouth.

"Right," he muttered. "It's just one more time."

They kissed some more, his tongue stroking hungrily against hers, and his fingers made quick work of the buttons on her blouse. It felt like ages since they'd been together, instead of one short week. Where last time was slow, this was fast - desire flared quick and hot as they used their newfound knowledge of each other's pleasure spots. In no time at all, his pants were open and his eager cock sat heavy in her hand. Various parts of her clothing were scattered across his floor, but the blasted skirt was still in the way. He felt around blindly, still kissing her, until he could work his hand up between her warm thighs. Her head dropped to his shoulder as he started touching her, her hips taking up a rhythm against his hand. "Bedroom," he managed, wondering if he could even find it at this point.

"Wait," she said against his neck as he started to get up.

Oh, God, please don't say stop. "What?" He hoped he didn't sound too desperate.

She kissed him again, warm and soft and open. "There's something I've wanted to do to you…"

Just the words made him twitch. Surely, she didn't mean… Oh, yes she did, he realized as she slid down his body. There she was on her knees between his spread legs and he inhaled sharply at the first brush of her mouth. His head lolled back against the cushions as she started to take him in. "God." He watched through hazy eyes as her head bobbed between his thighs. Pleasure dripped down his insides like tree sap, heavy and thick, centering at the root where her mouth was so busy. He stretched out a hand to her and found the ends of her hair, the curls soft and silky as they slipped through his fingers. In a flash, he was right on the edge, his teeth bared and his hips starting to come off the couch. "Gah, stop," he groaned. "Stop…"

He froze as she released him and the impending orgasm receded slightly back inside him. He dragged her from the floor and kissed her thoroughly. When he broke it off, they were both breathing unsteadily. "You are killing me," he muttered, and he felt her smile.

"You said something about a bedroom…"

Somehow, they made it there in time, leaving the remains of their clothing en route. He was inside her almost as soon as they hit the bed. She wrapped her legs around him and he interlaced their fingers, holding her hands on either side of her head. Within minutes, she started shaking and tensing, muttering "no" against his cheek, but this time he knew what to do. "It's me," he murmured. "I'm here."

The words had no sooner left his lips than she hid her face in his neck and came with a sharp cry. He felt it coming for him too, white-hot pleasure building until he went off like a steam kettle inside her.

He lay on top of her as awareness came back, and gradually he became aware she was shaking – with laughter. "Care to share with the rest of the class?" he asked.

She was incoherent for another minute. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said when she could breathe again. "I was just thinking – Mary, my therapist – first I told her we were definitely never going to have sex. Then I told her we certainly were not going to have it again." She took a deep breath. "That woman is never going to believe another word I say."

"Mary?" he said as he rolled to lie next to her. "I thought her name was Anita."

"Oh, I'm collecting a full set now," she said with a resigned sigh.

The words troubled him - how could she need so many doctors this many years later? - but before he could figure out what to say, her stomach growled, and it was his turn to laugh. "I am sensing a trend here…"

"I skipped dinner," she explained. "Again."

"You know, at some point, you're going to have to learn to eat beforehand," he said, dropping an affectionate kiss on the top of her head. "Come on, Sergeant, let's see what other appetites I can satisfy for you."

Sodas and sandwiches turned into the midnight monster movie in bed, which turned into sleepy cuddling and then, finally, rest. They made love again in the morning, her on top this time, stroking each other slowly, letting it build gradually until they shuddered together in mutual release.

Fortunately, she carried a change of clothes in her car, so there was no reason for her to leave. Breakfast led to napping, and then he took her with him to the local farmer's market. She wrinkled her nose as he waved various vegetables at her, but she did not pull away when he held her hand. They spent the weekend together without planning or discussion, as if they had a silent understanding that any talk of the future – even two hours worth – would shatter the whole experience.

They watched half of the afternoon Dodger game together, his head in her lap, but somewhere around the fifth inning, he raised her sweater to find her breasts with his mouth, and the Giants had won 6-2 by the time they came up for air again.

Sunday they went out for pancakes and strong coffee, sharing the paper in companionable silence under the bright morning sunshine. Later he made love to her in her own bed, a place he still vaguely considered The Scene of the Crime. He took his time, ignoring his own need, desperate to kiss her everywhere.

But when he reached her stomach, she tried to pull him back up again. "You don't have to do that," she murmured.

"I want to."

"No, really." She tensed, and not in a good way, so he did not push. Instead he held her close as he rocked inside her body, muttering love words, sex words until she shook and gasped in his arms.

Sunset faded into dusk, casting long purple shadows over her bedroom wall. If they had any prayer of functioning normally the next morning, he was going to have to go home and clear his head. He ran a hand down the length of her arm and tried to prepare himself for good-bye. "I know," she said, as if she could feel it in his caress. "You should get going."

She sounded teary and it made him well up too. Their weekend had been a rare and precious gift, but long-term, they were not a romantic match. He knew it but the truth still stung. "I wish I didn't have to," he said against her temple.

She rolled to hold him tightly. "Me too."

"I apologize in advance if I am a dick tomorrow," he said, and she laughed slightly.

"It's okay. Might be easier that way."

He hesitated. "But you never have to wonder, okay? Whether I remember or treasure this. Treasure you."

"Stop," she said, crying for real now.

"I can't," he replied as he kissed her eye, her cheek, her mouth. "I can't."


On Tuesday, Mary was totally not surprised by her latest confession. "How many times did you do it this time?" she asked with a smile.

McCall flushed. "I lost count." She twisted her hands together in her lap. "But it's definitely over now," she said. "I realize I've lost all credibility on this point, but we really agreed this time. It has to stop." She was resolute. The ache inside would have to go away at some point, right?

"You've said that a few times," Mary replied. "But actually stopping seems to be a problem. Maybe…maybe you're in love."

McCall closed her eyes against the words. "No," she said tightly. Then with more certainty: "No."

"Would that be so bad?" Mary asked gently.

"Well, it wouldn't be good. But it doesn't matter. I'm… I'm…" God damn it, what was the word? "I'm in sex with him," she said at last. "That's all."

"Infatuated?" Mary said.

"Yes, thank you. Infatuated. But that wears off, and I'm sure it will this time. We just have to be careful around one another for a while."

"So you are going to stop having sex with Hunter and go back to seeking out other men," Mary said, sounding skeptical.

McCall blinked. She had exactly no interest in other men. "Uh, right. Eventually." Just the idea of it made her feel lonely and empty inside. She hadn't even considered the future when she might have to watch Hunter bedding another string of women.

Tears pricked her eyes and she tilted her head back to prevent them from falling. Mary pressed a tissue into her hands and gave her a sympathetic squeeze. "Okay," she said kindly. "Tell me some more about how you're not in love with him."

Chapter Four

His dirty little secret, the part he could barely admit to himself most days, was that he knew he was mostly to blame for the rumors spread about them. He had spent five years touching in her small ways that meant nothing individually but collectively pretty much screamed out "mine." A squeeze of the shoulder here; a hand on her back there. At one completely crazy point, he had even kissed her right there at their desks in front of God and everyone. It was a quick peck on the lips, nothing more, but still: most detectives did not go around kissing one another in the precinct bullpen, if indeed they kissed at all. He was the driver in their extremely physical friendship, and it was at the heart of the all whispered speculation. You might want her, his touches said, but she belongs to me.

Now he kept his hands to himself. It wasn't that he feared he would start groping her in the break room; he had more self-control than that. But now the touching wasn't an act for fun or just to push her buttons – he meant it for real and was afraid that it would show. And while he was perfectly happy to let everyone witness their teasing, his true feelings for her were deep and private - no onlookers allowed.

They were eight days out from their last encounter and behaving themselves so far. Usually the women he bedded just went home, but this one was his home, at least in some senses of the word. She was a soft, safe place for him, maybe the only one he really had, and he was not about to lose that over a few nights of amazing sex.

The intensity of their physical connection was an electric buzz in his brain that he tried mostly to ignore. If he probed the memory at all, it zapped him, made his lips part and his pulse skitter. Usually he could keep it to a low hum, but every so often, she would arch her neck, stretching, and then he would be back in the bed with her, feeling his body on hers and hearing her sighs as he coaxed her to orgasm.

"…you want anything?" she asked.

"Hmm?" He jerked back to the present and found her looking down at him. He hadn't even noticed her get up from the desk.

"I'm making an emergency chocolate run to the vending machine," she said, rattling some coins in her hand. "Do you want anything?"

"Oh. No, thanks."

She hadn't gotten more than a few feet when Charlie hollered at them from across the floor. "Hunter, McCall, can I please see you a minute?"

"No chocolate fix for me," she said with a sigh as she tucked the money in her jacket pocket.

He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a Hershey's kiss from his stash. "Here," he said holding it above her hand. She held out her palm, and he placed the chocolate in the middle. "Have a kiss," he said as his fingers closed over her hand, the candy trapped between them.

Pink tinged her cheeks as she avoided his gaze. "Thanks."

Across the room, Charlie folded his arms. "Will you two be joining me any time soon?"

McCall unwrapped the chocolate as they walked, and he was careful to let her pass through the Captain's door without touching her. Charlie looked more grim than usual as he motioned for them to sit down. "And shut the door behind you," he said.

"What's going on?" McCall asked as she took a seat.

"We've got a doozy," Charlie replied. "Have you heard of Jillian Ray?"

Hunter shook his head. McCall frowned. "She's an actress, right? Or at least she used to be…"

"Yeah, she was in that movie as a kid, the one about the girl who posed as a boy to join the little league time and pitched her way to the kiddie world series."

"Oh, yeah," said Hunter. "And then she developed a cocaine problem at like, age twelve, right?"

"I think it was a bit later than that," Charlie said.

"Okay, age fourteen."

"No, she was on some teen series first," McCall said. "Mulberry Street?"

"Mulberry Road," Charlie corrected. "She played Liana, the Sheriff's daughter." They both looked at him. "What?" he said. "I have a niece. She was a fan."

"Well, if the tabloids are to be believed, she's not someone I would want my niece looking up to these days," McCall said. "Hunter's not wrong about the drug habit, and wasn't she caught shoplifting not too long ago?"

"That case is still pending, but it's going to disappear in a hurry now. Jillian Ray apparently hanged herself sometime last night or early this morning."

"You said 'apparently'," Hunter said. "There's some question about the suicide?"

"Her ex-husband—" He paused to check his notes. "Cyrus Neal, the rock star. He found the body. The two had an extremely stormy relationship and an even stormier divorce. If McCall reads the tabloids, she can fill you in."

Hunter looked over at her, and she shrugged. "I think they actually had an honest-to-goodness bar fight once," she said.

"Look," Charlie said, "I need calm and discreet on this one, okay? The press is already crawling all over the place. Talk to them, confirm the death, and just say we're investigating further. Nothing about the method or the possibility of suicide just yet. Try to question the husband before his seventy-three attorneys show up. If we're lucky, this will all turn out to be just what it looks like."

"Got it," Hunter said as they prepared to go. He held the door for her. "You take the press, I'll take the husband."

"Why do I always have to talk to the press?"

"They're nicer to you."

She snorted a laugh. "That's because I'm nicer to them." And he had to admit, she could be very nice indeed.


At another time and place, it could have been a movie set spread out beneath an indigo sky, ready for the starlet to make her entrance. Cameras were everywhere, a herd of reporters and spectators held back by police tape and stone-faced uniformed officers. The stucco walls of Jillian Ray's Beverly Hills mansion glowed with a golden tint under the warm, setting sun. McCall took in the ornate stone pathway and intricate topiaries as she walked with Hunter up to the front door.

Inside, they found another couple of uniforms milling around the two-story entryway, scuffing up the black-and-white marble floor. They were directed up the grand staircase and down a long hall to the bedroom suite. The feminine anteroom was clogged with men: another pair of cops, a couple of Hollywood types she did not recognize but could peg from their sandals and expensive jeans, and Cyrus Neal. He sat on a long lavender-colored bench, his head in his hands.

"Mr. Neal?" Hunter asked. "I'm Detective-Sergeant Rick Hunter, and this is Sergeant McCall. We're very sorry to hear about your wife."

He looked up and she saw his famous green eyes were red from tears. "Detectives. You're investigating?"

"Yes, sir. It's standard in cases like this."

"Good," he said as he stood up. "I can tell you who killed her."

She exchanged a look with Hunter. "And who is that?" Hunter asked.

"Tony Philbin."

"Cy, maybe you should just take it easy right now." One of the Hollywood guys tugged on Cyrus's arm, but he shook it off.

"Maybe you can go to hell." He took a step closer to them, and McCall could smell that he'd been drinking. "Tony Philbin," he said again, his voice desperate. "He killed her."

"Okay," said Hunter. "I got it: Tony Philbin. We're just going to just go have a quick look around right now, and then you can tell me all about it."

They stepped inside the bedroom and McCall caught her breath at the sight. Jillian Ray hung from the wooden crossbeam of her huge four-poster bed, her knees bent slightly and her feet caught in the covers. She wore a red silk robe and blonde hair obscured her face.

McCall did a slow circle around the edges of the room but saw nothing out of place. "I don't see a note anywhere," she said.

Hunter was crouched by the nightstand. "I've got four different prescription pill bottles here. The only one I recognize is Valium. Amitriptyline? Alprazolam?"

"Antidepressant and an anti-anxiety medication," she told him, still studying the room. On the dresser, there was silver-framed photo of Jillian Ray, Cyrus and what were apparently their twin boys. "Cute kids," she said. "I wonder where they are."

Hunter was studying the body. "I don't see any bruising on her arms, but the ME will have to give us the full story once we cut her down. Odd that she would hang herself, don't you think, if she has all these pills at her disposal?"

McCall joined him by the bed. "What was she – twenty-three? Twenty-four? Murder or suicide, it's such a waste." She looked up at the body. "You know, that's a four hundred dollar scarf around her neck," she said.

He shook his head and took out his notebook to write down the details. "The rich – they are different from you and me."

"I'll go smile for the cameras," she said with a sigh.

"And I'll get the untold story of Tony Philbin. Maybe the guy is right, and he did do it. We could all be home by dinnertime."

Outside, the sun had slipped into the ocean, turning the sky a mix of orange and purple. She mentally rehearsed her short statement as she retraced her steps back down to where the throngs of reporters gathered. Almost immediately, the high intensity lights rose up to greet her as the cameras started rolling again. A bouquet of microphones was thrust in front of her, and she tried not to squint. There was no way to talk over the questions that were shouted at her.

"Is Jillian Ray dead?"

"Is Cyrus Neal in the house now?"

"All I can tell you," McCall said loudly, straining to be heard, and the crowd quieted down. She took a breath. "All I can tell you is that, yes, Jillian Ray is dead, and an investigation is ongoing. We obviously just got here, so we have many more questions than answers at this point."

"Was she murdered?" someone yelled from the back.

"Cause of death has not been determined. There will be a full autopsy."

She stood there for another ten minutes, answering their questions without really saying anything, until they put the cameras down and gave up. As she turned to leave, David Casey from channel four fell into step beside her. "Dee Dee McCall," he said. "It's been a while since you turned up at one of my crime scenes."

She halted to look at him, amused. "I believe this is my crime scene, actually."

"Ah, so you're admitting there's a crime."

She closed her eyes, kicking herself mentally. "I meant…"

"Relax," he said, waving her off. "I'm just yanking your chain. I'm not even over here angling for an exclusive."

"Oh yeah? Then what are you angling for?"

He gave her a slow smile that showed off his perfect TV-white teeth. "Well, I wouldn't mind that dinner you promised me last year." He had helpfully provided crowd footage from a mall shooting she and Hunter had worked the year before. They had exchanged numbers afterward and he had called once to invite her out – three days before the Bigfoot case landed in her lap.

"I don't think I'm going to get dinner at all tonight," she said as she surveyed the controlled chaos of the scene. "In fact, I should get back inside…"

"Wait," he said, touching her arm. "I actually did come over here with a purpose. I don't know if it will help your case at all, but we had Jillian Ray at our studio for an interview just a few weeks ago. I wasn't there but my colleague Amanda Jenkins did the interview. She said Jillian showed up drunk or high, slurring her words and basically just acting like a hot mess."

"Yeah, that fits with what we've heard," McCall said softly.

"Her publicist showed up and called the whole thing off, made us promise not to run anything about the story. But Amanda said before the publicist carted her away, Jillian said something about losing her kids. She said that Cyrus could have them 'over her dead body' – and that's a direct quote."

McCall had a flash of the lifeless young woman hanging in the bedroom. "Interesting," she murmured. "Thanks."

"See? Look at me being a responsible citizen and sharing information. I'm not even demanding quid pro quo here. However…" He slipped her a business card. "That's my new number. If there is anything you'd ever like to discuss – about this case or otherwise – give me a call."

"I'll take that under advisement," she said as she tucked the card in her pocket.


Hunter found Cyrus Neal sitting in the living room, bent over and frozen in grief. Cyrus was the singer, not the actor, in his marriage, so Hunter figured the man really was as shook-up as he seemed. He had his hands over his face, and Hunter noted the Rolex around his left wrist. Cyrus also wore leather boots, designer jeans, and a T-shirt that looked like any of the dozen in Hunter's closet, but he was sure it somehow cost hundreds of dollars more. All that money for carefully tailored clothes but tragedy hung on him just the same as it did anyone else.

"My lawyer says not to talk to you," he said, sitting back as Hunter took a chair opposite him.

"The only reason not to talk to me is if you killed your wife. Did you kill your wife?"

Cyrus disappeared inside his grief again. Finally, he shook his head slowly. "No," he said hoarsely. "She killed herself."

Hunter looked up from his notebook. "Earlier you said Tony Philbin did it."

The other man drew a long, shaky breath. "He's responsible. He's the one who… who made her this way. But no, he didn't physically end her life. I think he's actually in Greece right now."

"Who is he?"

"You don't know?" Cyrus's green eyes filled with disbelief. "He's a producer. The producer, according some people. Jill met him when she was a kid, on the set of All American. He was really nice to her back then – gave her posters of the movie, lent her family his limo and driver to go to Disneyland, that sort of thing. Then later he helped get her cast in Mulberry Road. You see all of this?" He gestured around at the white leather furniture, the red baby grand piano, the fifteen-foot ceiling. "She owed it all to Tony – at least that's what he told her later."

Cyrus stopped talking, his mouth set in a hard line. Hunter tried to figure out where to go next with the narrative. "When you said he 'made her this way' – what did you mean?"

Cyrus just shook his head. "I wish you could have known her before. No one remembers anymore. Sometimes not even me. God, she was sweet. She was the star of the show onMulberry Road, but you never would have known it to talk to her. She was too busy taking care of everyone else on set – need someone to run lines with you? She was there. Want someone to rub your shoulders? She would do it. She had a trailer like everyone else but she was hardly ever in it, she was always so busy chatting up the crew. I think everyone was a little bit in love with her back then."

"Mr. Neal…"

"He raped her." The sharp words stopped Hunter cold. Cyrus clenched his fists and shut his eyes. "Four years ago. She went to his office because he said he had another project for her. The series had ended and she was a little lost, you know? Here was Tony, her old friend, her mentor, the guy who had helped her so many times before. We were both excited for her."

The notebook sagged in Hunter's hand. "What happened?" he asked softly, even though he already knew too well how this particular script played out.

"She went over there to talk to him one night – she'd been there a hundred times before and nothing ever happened. I still don't know why…" He broke off and shook his head. "He raped her. I was touring at the time, in Phoenix. I wasn't here. I didn't know." He stopped and scrubbed his face. "She didn't tell me until much, much later."

"Did she report the rape?"

He shook his head sadly. "She didn't want to. She was afraid no one would believe her. She was afraid she would never work again." He sat back against the couch cushions and stared at the ceiling. "She kept the secret until it ate her alive from the inside out."

Hunter cast a look behind him. McCall was somewhere on the premises and he wasn't sure he wanted her to hear this. "You couldn't… you couldn't get her help?"

Cyrus gave a painful laugh. "God, we tried. We all tried. Even Jilly, especially after the babies were born. We tried pills and therapy and rehab and sometimes it even seemed to help for a short time. She didn't want to be like – like how she was. I know she didn't. She would do these things, these angry stupid things in front of the cameras and then she would hate herself some more the next day when she saw the papers." Tears rolled down his face. "She hated herself so much at the end. It was like this thing, this hard metal wall inside her that I couldn't touch."

Hunter felt himself tearing up and he blinked hard, clearing his throat to regain control. "So you think she committed suicide," he said finally.

"She'd tried it once before. There are medical records. I think…I think when I took the boys from her, that might have been the end of things. But I had to do it. They weren't safe here anymore." He rolled his head and looked at Hunter, almost through him. "Can you arrest him? Is there anything at all you can do to him now?"

"I don't know." It didn't seem likely.

"He killed her," he said, his voice now devoid of emotion. "She just took four years to die."

Later, Hunter would look at his notebook and discover just one word written there: raped. It was the barest shorthand for a life blown to pieces. He gave McCall a short version of what Cyrus Neal had told him and watched as her brown eyes darkened with sympathy.

"So that's it, then," she said. "She killed herself."

"Looks that way. The ME will have to confirm."

She ran one hand over the back of an expensive leather chair. "I saw her in a movie last year – an indie flick about a pair of sisters who decide to kill the one's abusive husband." She paused. "She was really good."

"Yeah," he said, although he had never seen Jillian Ray in anything. Cyrus's words came back to him: I wish you could have known her before.


That night, Hunter woke up with a gasp, cold sweat over his whole body. He had been down in the morgue for the report on Jillian Ray's body. But when Barney opened the drawer, McCall was lying cold inside. A dream, he knew it was a dream, but still he reached for the phone.

She answered just before the machine would have kicked in. "Hello?"

He fell back against the pillows in relief. "Hey," he said. "It's me."

"Hunter? It's…one twenty-two in the morning. What's going on?"

He stroked the other side of the bed, the place where she had lain so recently. "Nothing. I just needed to know you're okay."

"I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"

"No reason." He was starting to feel really stupid. "I'm sorry I woke you."

He heard rustling on the other end. "It's no bother. Are you okay?"

The words made tears prick his eyes. I'm fine, he thought. But when he went to say it, it came out, "I don't know." Her death still felt so real.

"You want to…you want to come over?"

Maybe that would do it. He could see her, touch her, and the cold feeling inside him would go away. "Maybe just for a few minutes," he said. "If you don't mind."

Her voice was warm, tender. "I don't mind at all."


She meant to get up before he got there, maybe make some coffee, but ended up dozing off again instead. She woke when he entered her bedroom, momentarily on high alert until she recognized the shape of his shadow. "It's me," he said as she sat up against the pillows. She scooted over to make room for him on one side, and he came to sit next to her.

She took his hand in hers. "You all right?"

"Yeah," he said, giving her a squeeze. "I am now."

She leaned her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. "I've missed you," she said softly, even though they have seen each other every day. He shifted to wrap an arm around her, and she snuggled closer. "You want to tell me what's going on?"

He was quiet for a long moment. "It was just a dream," he said finally.

She is familiar with how real dreams can feel in the middle of the night. "What kind of dream?"

"It doesn't matter now."

She felt the tension still inside him. "Might help to tell me about it," she said against his T-shirt.

He sighed and told her briefly of a scenario that featured her dead in the city morgue in place of Jillian Ray. She did not need a clinical psychology degree to understand the parallel. "I'm okay," she said as she hugged him. "I'm not suicidal, Hunter. I promise."

"No, I know that." He sounded tense and distracted.

"What?" she asked him at length. "Whatever it is, just tell me."

"Those pills she had," he said eventually. "How did you know what they were?"

Ah, she thought. So that's what this is. The answer probably wasn't going to make him feel any better. "Because they're sitting in my medicine cabinet," she said with a sigh. "But it still doesn't mean anything."

"How can you say that?" he asked as he pulled away.

"Because it's the truth. I have the pills, yes, but I don't even take most of them anymore. But even if I did, the point still stands: I am not Jillian Ray."

They sat in the dark, not touching, for a long time. At last, he shook his head. "It scares me," he murmured at last, "all this stuff I didn't know. The pills, the extra doctors…the difficulties about sex."

She closed her eyes in embarrassment. There was a reason she had never told him any of it.

"It scares me how big it all seems even four years later," he continued, sounding amazed and a little horrified.

She shifted to hug her knees to her chest. "It scares me too sometimes." He looked at her in the low light, and she nodded to show she meant it. "I'm thirty-four years old," she said. "That's a decent amount of time to have spent on the planet. Mariano was in my house maybe…maybe twenty minutes. I can't believe sometimes how much that tiny slice of time can control."

He wrapped both arms around her and pulled her against him. "I just don't want to lose you," he said, and she felt her eyes water. The words had so many different layers of meaning for them these days.

"I'm right here," she said, stroking his arms as they held her. They rocked each other gently for a few minutes, and then he kissed the top of her head.

"After…after it happened," he said, "you stopped laughing." She went still in his embrace but he kept talking, almost as if she weren't even there. "Life got so…quiet. I was used to you finding the funny in just about any situation, dissolving into these helpless giggles. And then suddenly, nothing."

He gathered her closer and she turned so that she could hug him too.

"You got better," he continued. "The bruises went away, you came back to work. You even smiled again. But your laugh was still gone, and I missed it so much. I remember thinking it might never come back. I was so…so angry. This wonderful part of you, maybe my favorite part, and he just took it. How could that even happen? How could someone just come in here and steal…who you were."

She was crying now, and she felt him snuffle into her hair. "I'm sorry," she said. For all of it.

"Shh," he said, his hand heavy on her head as he stroked her. "You have nothing to be sorry about." He paused to hug her fiercely. "It's just…when finally, you laughed again, I guess I thought it was over. I'm now realizing that maybe it won't ever be. Jillian Ray was four years out and it didn't matter at all…"

"Stop," she said through her tears. "I told you, I am not her. I might not ever be exactly the same again, but I am okay. Truly." She realized that weeping against him probably wasn't helping her to make her case, so she tried to pull herself together. "It's all right," she said. "I promise."

Heads together, they soothed each other with slow hands and gentle murmurs. He kissed the tears from her cheek. She had spent the last eight days wishing to be back in his arms and now here they were again, conveniently in bed. She turned her head so that his lips met hers, and he kissed her eagerly, groaning into her mouth as his hands slipped under the back of her pajama top. "I didn't come here for this," he said as he rolled on top of her.

"I don't care. You're here." They kissed openly, with growing abandon, as the rough denim of jeans started a slow rock between her legs. She just wanted to feel, to claim again this part of her that had been missing for so long. Jillian might have died but she had made it out alive, and she was determined to celebrate that fact with him.

She removed his T-shirt and touched him everywhere, from the fuzz on his chest to the broad muscles of his back. The feel of his mouth on her neck made her hot and restless. Slowly, he moved downward, opening each button on her pajama top as he went. As the buttons came free, he rewarded her with an open-mouthed kiss against her skin: her collarbone, the side of one breast, the slope where her ribs ended. By the time he reached her navel, she was quivering with need.

His teeth took the edge of her pajama bottoms and nudged them lower so that he could kiss her some more. She reached down to rub his head and neck, and he murmured something unintelligible against her belly. The ache grew between her legs as he stroked her inner thigh through her pajamas, encouraging her to open for him.

"Let me," he breathed.

She screwed her eyes shut. She had not done this with anyone since before the rape, back when it made her feel beautiful and amazing, rather than vulnerable and dirty. Her pulse quickened as he slipped her pajama bottoms even lower, his tongue leaving a hot trail on her skin. His hand crept up between her legs, his fingers stroking through her clothes, and an involuntary sound of pleasure escaped her.

He groaned an answer and started kissing her sex through her pajamas, his breath hot and wild. Her heels dug into the mattress as she arched against him. "Let me," he muttered again.

"Mmm, yes, okay," she said quickly before she could change her mind. One more part she could try to take back, if only she could go through with it.

He yanked down her pants and underwear in one smooth motion and settled his face between her thighs. She covered her flaming cheeks with both hands but let him open her legs. He kissed the sensitive skin on her inner thighs first, starting midway and creeping ever higher. She felt her body unfurling, waiting for him. It was ready, whether she was or not.

"Oh, God." She tensed and inhaled sharply at the first touch of his mouth on her.

He hummed a reply as he started kissing her between her legs just as thoroughly as he ever had her mouth. She shut her eyes so tight she saw stars. It felt good but also a little wrong. After everything, how could he really want this? She gasped as he shifted the position of his tongue. "Okay, maybe…maybe that's enough. You don't have to do this."

He kissed her once more and then moved up over her body so that he could rest his forehead against hers. "I like to," he murmured, and he took her hand and brought it to his body. "Feel what you do to me."

She stroked his impressive length, feeling how hard and hot he had become. "I'm ready," she said. "Please…"

"One sec," he said, moving downward again. "I'm not finished yet."

"Oh!" Her hips jerked totally off the bed and he held her in place so that he could lick her some more. He must really want this, she thought dimly. Maybe it was okay to enjoy it herself. Tentatively, she gave herself permission to stop thinking and just feel for a few seconds. Immediately, extreme pleasure sucked her under, blocking out everything but his hands on her legs and his mouth between her thighs. The sensation just got stronger and stronger until she went rigid in his hands. "Oh, yes. Don't stop…please don't stop."

He redoubled his efforts, licking her firmly now and slipping a couple of fingers deep inside her body. Moments later, she came, arching into him as she cried out his name in a cracked voice. He climbed back over her and she clutched him, completely non-verbal. He was laughing and hugging her, she realized. If her laugh was easy, his was difficult to produce, especially one this unguarded. She curled into him with a smile.

"That was amazing," he murmured against her hair. "You're amazing. So beautiful."

She shook her head.

"Yes," he told her, holding her face in his hands. "Why is this so hard to believe?"

She shrugged and tried to extricate herself a bit, but he held her fast. Emotions were all at the surface now, and she didn't want to end up crying again. "It's nothing, forget it."

He frowned as he caressed her cheek with his thumb. "Is this…is this another part that doesn't go away?"

She squeezed her eyes closed, tired of disappointing him. "Really, it's fine."

"No, I want to know. I want to understand." He held his face against hers.

"Hunter," she said, winding her arms around him. "It's fine." They rested together for a few minutes, and he slowly trailed his fingers over her shoulder, down her back to her hip and then up again. She took a shuddering breath and hugged him tightly. "He told me I was beautiful," she said finally, and Hunter pulled back to look down at her. "First at the consulate, and then later at my house…right before he raped me."

"God," he said, dropping his head to hers. "I'm sorry. That's awful."

She nodded to show she'd heard him and closed her eyes. "S'okay."

"You are, though," he murmured, nuzzling her. "So very pretty. And nothing he said or did can ever change that."

She smiled sadly and kissed his cheek, her hands in his hair. His lips moved to find hers, and then he was holding her close, urging her leg over his hip as his tongue began a slow thrust in and out of her mouth. She felt his erection seeking her center and she wriggled to help him along. He hesitated as always – sometimes they bothered with the condom, sometimes not. This was apparently a "not" time because he started edging inside of her.

She had told Mary that she was not in love with him, but she could not deny that they were making love. There was too much history, too much emotion between them for it to be anything but. She held him close and warm, whispering how good it was, how he made her feel when he moved inside her. He was hovering close to orgasm in her arms and it made her feel powerful and tender all at once. "It's okay," she murmured. "I've got you."

He came with a roar and a long hiss, collapsing on top of her while she teased the soft, sweaty hairs on the back of his neck. "That's one way to chase the nightmares away," he said finally as he rolled off of her. He yawned. "Doubt I will have any trouble sleeping now."

She curled up next to him, already very sleepy herself. "Happy to be of service," she murmured, and dozed off to the sound of his laugh.

The next morning, they were in her kitchen drinking coffee, when he turned around the business card she had put there the evening before. "David Casey," he read. "The reporter at Channel Four?"

"He was at the scene last night."

He eyed her. "He had kind of a thing for you last year, if I remember correctly."

She avoided his gaze and snatched the card away. "I wouldn't go that far. He asked me out to dinner, that's all."

"Last year? Or last night?"

The air became charged as she hesitated with her answer. "Well, both, I guess…"

"And what did you say?"

"Last year? Yes. Last night? No."

He relaxed. "Good," he said, before taking a sip from his mug.

She put hers down on the counter and waited a beat. Good, he said. She had no idea how to read that. "Hunter…what are we doing here?"

"Drinking coffee."

"You know what I mean."

He sighed and put his mug next to hers. "The hell if I know." He took a deep breath. "I care about you very much, and I don't want this to stop. But…"


"Long-term, I can't be what you want." He raised his eyebrows with a hopeful look. "Unless maybe you've changed your position on marriage and kids…"

"No." She shook her head slowly. "No."

His shoulders slumped. "Yeah, me either."

They stood together in quiet devastation. "So where does that leave us?" she asked in a small voice.

He took up his mug with a heavy sigh. "Drinking coffee."


Mary was starting to get a little impatient with her. "I think it's a good thing, a wonderful thing that you have this relationship going with Rick. I just wish you would recognize it as such."

"Of course we have a relationship. We have several of them. We're partners, we're friends, we're…" She trailed off as she realized she couldn't complete that last one.

"You're…" Mary said, prompting her. When McCall didn't answer, Mary sighed. "You're in a committed romantic relationship, is what you are."

McCall squirmed. "No, I don't think so."

"You care about each other. You share your lives with each other. You aren't seeing other people, and you're having a lot of sex. I think that's a pretty tidy summary right there, don't you?"

"Sure, if you just look at part of the picture."

"What part would you like me to look at? You're going out on a date with him this weekend, for goodness sake."

"It's not a date," McCall protested. "I agreed ages ago to go with him to his cousin's wedding. I've done it before, and it's no big deal. We're going as friends."

"I see," Mary replied skeptically. "And will these two friends be going to bed together afterward?"

McCall flushed a little. Given their recent track record, she couldn't exactly say no. Truth be told, it did feel somewhat like anticipating a date. She was planning on wearing the blue dress from Ed Flaherty's retirement party, the one he'd said he liked so much. It had been a very long time since she had put on clothes with the intent of pleasing a man, and she was surprised to find how much she was looking forward to it. He thought she was pretty, and when he looked at her, she felt that way too.

"Is it so wrong to want to have a little fun?" she asked finally.

"Of course not. Not at all. But this is not some sort of fuck-buddy relationship you have going on here, and pretending otherwise is not going to help you sort it out in the long run."


Of course he recognized the dress. When he picked her up, he leaned down as he opened the passenger-side car door for her, close enough to smell her perfume and feel her smile. "You are just trying to get me in trouble," he muttered, and shut the door to the sound of her delighted laughter.

The wedding ceremony was outdoors, and a hundred-plus guests lingered around the white folding chairs as they waited for the appropriate hour to arrive. His mother, looking much younger than her sixty-two years with a new frosted blonde hairdo and soft coral pantsuit, spotted them immediately.

"Dee Dee!" she said, swooping in to hug McCall. "I was so tickled when I heard you were coming." Sometimes he felt like she was his human credential as far as his mother was concerned. Her son couldn't be totally hopeless if he managed to convince Dee Dee McCall to come home with him.

"Patricia, how are you?" McCall replied with equal affection. "You look amazing."

"Only if I don't stand too close to you," his mother said, backing away so she could study McCall's dress.

"Hi, Mom," Hunter interjected pointedly. "Nice to see you too."

"Oh, Ricky," she said, reaching for him. She kissed his cheek. "I'm so glad you came. I don't see near enough of your face these days." She pinched it for emphasis.

"So tell me – who's this guy that Barbara is marrying?" He squinted across the lawn to where the groom was taking his place at the altar.

"Allan Grayson," his mother replied. "He's a banker in San Francisco and he owns a yacht. That's all I know. Barbara looks happy, though, so that's enough for me." She turned her attention back to McCall, slipping an arm around her as they walked to their seats. "Speaking of romance," she said, "are you seeing anyone?"

Hunter trailed behind the women, close enough that he caught the pause before McCall's answer: "No one special."

McCall sniffled during the ceremony like she always did. Normally, he would have reached over to squeeze her hand because this was one of his favorite things about her, the way she wore her heart on her sleeve. But given their current situation, the gesture would be too loaded, and so he kept his hands to himself.

Dinner was under a huge tent on the back lawn, twinkling lights overhead like artificial starlight. The other benefit to taking McCall with him to these events was that he didn't have to make conversation because she did it for him. She talked gossip magazines with his cousin Rita, baseball with Rita's husband Tom, and sports cars with their fourteen-year old son Andy. At one point, his other cousin Danny pulled her away for a dance, and he lost sight of her in the crowd. He could track her by her laughter, though, and caught up with her on the other side of the tent just as she was coming off the dance floor with Andy, looking breathless and bright-eyed. For his part, Andy looked in love. "Would you like a drink, Dee Dee?" he asked her anxiously. "I can get you one."

"I would love some water, sweetie, thank you." She touched his arm and he went practically skipping off to the bar.

"You are going to break his little heart," Hunter told her as she came to stand next to him. In her heels, she almost reached his shoulder.

"Oh, stop. He's a nice kid."

"A nice kid whose hormones have just come into season." He looked her up and down. "So is your dance card all full or do I get a turn?"

"You want to dance?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at him.

He held out his hand, and after a moment's hesitation, she took it. "I think I can manage this one," he said as the band shifted into a slower song. He twirled her gently once around and she smiled as she came into his arms.

"As always, the Hunter family throws a heck of a party," she said.

He made a non-committal noise. Weddings didn't do much for him in general, but this part was pretty nice. She followed his lead so expertly that it made him look better in the process. As usual, he thought, and slid his thumb along her hand in a slow caress. She swallowed visibly and ducked his gaze. Several tendrils of dark hair had escaped their pins to curl at the back of her neck. It took every ounce of control he had not to nudge them out of the way and kiss her there.

He drew her a little closer and slowed the dance a bit more, until they were more holding each other and swaying than anything else. "Hunter…"

He nuzzled her temple. "Hmm?"

"We can't do this here."

"Then where?" He was ready to pack up and go home with her, but the bride and groom had yet to cut the cake.


He did not get her reply because Andy appeared next to them with a bottle of water. "Here it is," he said as they broke apart. "I hope you like it."

It's water, Hunter thought, annoyed. What's there to like?

"Thank you," McCall said, ever gracious, and he caught the merriment in her eyes.

"Do you maybe want to dance again?" Andy asked hopefully. The band had started an up-tempo number once more.

"I think I'm going to sit this one out," McCall told him. "But thanks."

"Okay." Andy left with a sigh, and Hunter elbowed her.

"I bet I can upgrade that for you," he said.

"Oh? Go ahead then – impress me."

He cast an eye around and then leaned down to murmur in her ear. "Meet me outside the tent in five minutes." He pilfered a small plate of strawberries from the buffet table and then ordered a couple of glasses of champagne at the bar. After noting his mother suitably engaged in conversation across the tent, he slipped out the side and found McCall waiting in the warm evening breeze.

"That is an upgrade," she said when she saw what he was holding.

He handed her one of the glasses. "This way."

He followed the scent of roses to the garden, where paper lanterns spread a gentle glow around the perimeter. Behind them in the distance, music and laughter overflowed from the huge tent. They found a wooden bench and sat with the plate of strawberries between them. "It's so pretty here," she said with a contented sigh.

"That it is," he agreed, but he wasn't looking at the flowers.

She noticed and flushed, but for once, did not correct him. He counted this as progress. "My wedding was a lot smaller than this," she said before taking a sip. "We had a church ceremony and a reception at our favorite Italian restaurant."

"Big poofy white dress?" It occurred to him he must have seen pictures at one point, but they did not register.

She laughed. "Let's say it's not a fashion choice I would make again."

"I like this number right here," he said. The hem has risen up to mid-thigh and he can see she is not wearing any stockings.

"I recollect that, yes. What exactly is it that you like about it?"

"You know, I'm not sure. I may need a closer look." He took the champagne glass from her hand and tugged her until she was sitting on one of his knees, her legs between his own. He ran one finger lightly over the scalloped neckline. "I like this bit right here," he murmured.

She put her arms around him, shifting them closer together. His hand rested on her bare knee. "Are you sure?" she asked, stroking the side of his face. "Maybe you need to see a bit more."

"Mmm, yes," he said, eyeing the shadowy hollow between her breasts. "Definitely could use…more…inspection." They kissed softly and his hand crept under the hem of her skirt.Can't let this go too far, he thought, as the band played on across the way. He stroked just a little higher as her mouth opened for the touch of his tongue.

"Ricky? Oh, there you are! They're getting ready to cut the-"

They jerked apart at the arrival of his mother behind them, but it wasn't fast enough for her to miss what was going on.

"Oh!" she said, looking shocked. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…I'm sorry," she said again as she hurried away.

"Oh dear," McCall said, closing her eyes. "That was unfortunate."

He hugged her. "It's okay, she's walked in on worse. I'll talk to her. Meet you back at the tent?"

She nodded and started collecting their glasses as he went in search of his mother. He found her at the bar, ordering a glass of white wine. "Mom," he said in a low voice, in case others were listening. "About what you saw…"

"None of my business!" Then she scrunched up in delight and tickled her fingers against his chest. "But I am so happy for you."

"No, Mom. It's not what it looked like."

She frowned. "I know what I saw."

"Come with me." Hunter ushered her back out of the tent as the band wound down and people started to gather for the cake-cutting.

She folded her arms across her chest and looked at him expectantly. "So then," she said, "Explain to me how my eyes went wrong."

"It's not that you didn't see…what you thought you saw," he said. "It just doesn't mean what you think it means."

"Ricky, please. I am very tired. What is it you are trying to say here?"

"She's wonderful," he said. "Of course she is. I mean, look at her. Half the family wants to take her home. But she wants…she wants all this," he said with a gesture around them. "Marriage, kids, the whole shebang. You know I have never wanted any of it."

"Yes, I know," she said, sounding as displeased as ever. "You have been quite clear on that point with me. Did you also tell Dee Dee?"

"Mom! Of course she knows."

His mother was silent for a long time. Then she sighed. "Ricky, you know I love you to the moon and stars and back. I don't always understand you, but I love you. And Dee Dee is a charming, special girl. I like her, and what is more, I like who you are when you are with her. But if what you are saying is true, then you need to let her go. It's not fair to her otherwise."

"She is a grown woman who makes her own choices. I don't think she is mine to take or leave."

"If you care for her like you say you do, and you want to keep her in your life, then you need to step back and leave her be. If she were my daughter standing here, I would tell her the same thing. No good can come of this."

"I think that might be a little unfair," he said, but his mother cut him off.

"You love her - yes or no?" She waited, expectant.

"Yes," he muttered uncomfortably.

"You want to marry her and raise a family - yes or no?"

His chest ached as his heart burst apart at the seams. "No."

"Then that's that." Ever practical, his mother. Daughter of a butcher, she knew just how to cut to the bone. She softened the blow with a kiss to his cheek. "Let's go have some cake then, hmm?"

He stood outside for a long moment, surrounded by the scent of fresh cut grass and leftover hors d'oeuvres. Inside the tent, a cheer went up as the new couple sliced into the cake. The caterers brushed past him with their bags and over-sized food containers. "Excuse us," said one as they trampled by. Hunter sighed deeply and watched them go. Finally, he had to admit it: the party was just about over.


They were quiet on the car ride back to her place, each alone with their thoughts. His were sharp and painful, and he kept shifting in his seat, as if he could physically avoid them. Outside her house, he walked her to her front door, where she gave him a hesitant smile. "Would you like to come inside, or…?"

He took a deep breath. "Let's sit down a second," he said, lowering himself to sit on her top stair. The bricks were rough against his trousers, but he didn't see any other way.

McCall frowned. "Here? We could just go in…"

"Here," he said, and something in his voice made her stop arguing and sit next to him.

They sat in silence a moment as he tried to figure out what to say. "So what's up?" she asked finally.

"I can't come inside," he said, looking straight ahead rather than right at her. "I want to, but I can't. Not tonight and probably not for a good long while."

"What do you mean?"

"We can't do this anymore," he said softly, turning to her at last. She looked at him with pain and confusion in her eyes.

"I don't understand."

"I love you." His voice was thick with emotion. It was the first time he'd said the words out loud to her, and the confession stirred his soul. "I love you so much," he said. "But I can't be what you need, so we have to stop this now, before…before it gets ugly. Because I can't lose you." Her face crumpled and he gathered her tight against him as a small sob escaped her. "I'm sorry," he said as he rocked her. "I'm so, so sorry. The last thing I would ever want to do is hurt you."

"Don't I… don't I get a say in this too?" She pulled back to look at him.

"No." He said it gently but firmly. "I'm sorry. I need this to stop."

She turned away from him and covered her face with her hands, weeping quietly. He wiped at his own eyes quickly. "I feel so stupid," she said finally, "for ever suggesting this in the first place."

"No, never that." He leaned over her and laid his head against her spine. "It's a mess right now, but I am not sorry for being with you. I will never be sorry."

This just made her cry harder. He wrapped his arms around her as best he could, his pounding heart pressed against her rigid back, but for the first time ever, their embrace did nothing to ease the pain.

Chapter Five

McCall mourned the way she always did – with music. Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Annie Lennox, Wagner or Mozart – the content did not matter as much as the volume. Her pictures rattled and her walls hummed as the stereo drowned the noise inside her with other people's voices. At one point, the shrill call of her telephone joined the chorus, and she yanked the cord from the wall, silencing the intrusion. She didn't think it was him on the other end; he had been clear that he wanted less interaction, not more. But she did not feel like carrying on a conversation with anyone.

She did laundry, repaired a broken kitchen cabinet and rearranged her living room furniture - twice. She did not cry or allow herself to think about anything but the chores in front of her. By Saturday night she was exhausted, having been awake for thirty-six hours, but she was afraid to hold still and let the pain find her again.

She stood in her bathroom and looked at the mirror without really seeing her reflection. She was thinking instead about the pills on the other side, specifically the benzodiazepines. They had been prescribed to stop the middle-of-the-night panic attacks, something she had not experienced in months. But she knew from the dark days that one pill would quiet her racing heart and two would shut off her brain. The little yellow tablets had not been able to change the reality of her rape but they had let her not care, at least long enough to steal a few hours of sleep.

She opened the cabinet and took out the short orange bottle, pills rattling as her hand trembled slightly. She had been pharmacy-free for so long now that it was scary to contemplate going back. It had been hard enough to pull herself away the first time, to make sure that she was in control and not the drugs. She wrapped her fingers around the bottle tightly and blinked back tears. Maybe it was okay to swallow yourself into oblivion when you had been violated in your own home for the second time in three years, but this was a simple breakup, the kind people all over the world handled every day.

You wanted to be normal, she told herself. This is normal.

She took a deep breath and put the pills back in the cabinet. The house was dark and quiet now, and she climbed into bed, surrounding herself with pillows so she didn't feel quite so alone. She lay there with wet eyes and waited a long time for sleep to come.

Tuesday afternoon, she sat across from Mary David and braced herself for the lecture. "This is the part where you get to say you told me so," she said.

But Mary looked sympathetic, not triumphant. "Oh, no. Did something happen?"

McCall considered the short, brutal conversation on her front steps and the six hours of crying that had followed. "Hunter broke it off. I am pretty sure he means it too." Her eyes watered again and she squeezed the tears back, determined not to fall apart once more. "And I guess…I guess you were right. Maybe it's love. That's the only reason I can imagine that it would hurt so much."

"I am so sorry," Mary replied as she retrieved a box of tissues. "What happened?"

McCall drew a deep breath. "I'm not sure exactly. We went to the wedding on Saturday as planned, and everything seemed to be fine until his mother…well, she caught us kissing."

Mary raised her eyebrows. "Mothers always seem to have a sixth sense for that, don't they?"

McCall tried to smile but failed. "I think…I think maybe it made it seem real to him – you know, that she saw us. He had to admit it was actually happening."

"And what about you?" Mary asked. "Did it make it seem real to you too?"

"When he said we had to stop, it did." She bowed her head and was quiet for a long time. "I haven't seen him in three days," she said. "I've called in sick to work twice because I have no idea what to say to him. This was never what he agreed to in the first place, and it hardly seems fair." He'd thought he was getting a night of no-strings sex, and instead she'd ended up sobbing on her porch in front of him.

"It takes two to tango," Mary countered. "He was right there with you. I don't think you owe him any apologies." She paused. "Do you think he has regrets?"

McCall's throat tightened as she remembered the desperate feel of him wrapped around her as they sat on her steps. "He says not," she murmured at last.

"And you?" Mary asked gently. "Do you wish it hadn't happened?"

One hot tear slid down her face and she swiped it away. "I can't believe I've gone through all of this just to end up right back where I started," she said finally.

"Oh, that's not true at all," Mary said, leaning forward to try to meet her eyes. "When you first came here, you didn't think you were ever going to open yourself up to sex or love again. I believe the word you used was 'impossible'. But you figured out what you needed and went after it, despite your fear, and it turned into something really wonderful. No matter what happens with Hunter going forward, you get to keep those feelings, Dee Dee. You don't ever have to give them back."

A million little moments flooded over her: her hands on his face, his laugh against her neck, the feel of her legs wrapped around him as they rolled beneath the sheets. McCall covered her eyes as if this would staunch the flow. She couldn't imagine giving the memories back, but neither could she see how she was supposed to walk around with them inside her.


He sat at his desk, rearranging files and paper clips, glancing every few seconds at the door to see if she was walking through it. He was not sure what he would do if she failed to show for a third straight day. When the clock ticked past eight and she was still not there, he had a flash of panic that maybe she was really sick and not just avoiding him. Maybe he should call to find out.

Just then, she appeared at her desk, looking tired but whole and dressed in a gray color that seemed to fit the mood. "Hi," she said quietly as she took her seat.

"Hi." He frowned and looked around to see if anyone was watching them, but everyone else was wrapped up in the start of the day. "I, uh, I wasn't sure if you were coming back," he said finally.

She met his gaze a moment and then closed her eyes in regret. "Yeah, sorry about that. I just needed some time to think. I didn't mean to..." She broke off with a shake of her head. "I would never just walk away like that. I promise."

How would you walk away, he wondered. But aloud, he said, "It's okay. I'm just glad you're not sick."

"No, I'm not sick." She put both hands on her desk, as if bracing herself. "Hunter, I just wanted to say..." He waited for a long moment. "Thank you."

He froze, his ears growing warm. Thank you for sleeping with her? Or thank you for being the one to stop it? He didn't feel he deserved congratulations on either point, really, given how selfish he felt in both regards. Both decisions had felt essential for his existence.

She stood up before he could reply and hesitated near her chair. "I am in serious need of a cup of coffee," she said. "Can I bring you one?"

He didn't really want any coffee but it seemed important that he find some way to say yes to her. "Sure, that would be great."

She returned a minute later with two steaming paper cups. She walked around their desks to set his down in front of him, a move that brought her breasts close to eye level as she paused to deposit his coffee. He felt his hands clenching as if to reach for her, and he wrapped them around the coffee cup instead. She went back to her seat as he took an experimental sip: just a trace of milk and two spoons of sugar. She knew exactly how he liked it.

He looked over to where her dark head was bent over her work as emotion thickened his tongue. "McCall?"

"Hmm?" She glanced up, expectant.

He swallowed. "Thanks."

Her smile didn't reach her eyes, but she nodded a little in understanding. It was the only thing they said to one another all morning, but it was a start.

They were careful and quiet with one another for the next two weeks. Her laugh was gone again, but this time he had only himself to blame. Not that he was cracking a lot of jokes on his end, either. He reminded himself they had been in dark uncertain places before and come out okay on the other side. As long as they both kept showing up to work every day, things would settle down again. He was relieved she did not seem angry with him, just sad, although sometimes he thought this was almost worse.

"Hunter? McCall?" Lisa Alvarez leaned over their desks. "Captain wants to see you."

As they crossed the station floor, he considered how her name had become linked to his - Hunter and McCall. He heard one and expected the other to follow. If she ever did make good on her promise to get married and leave the job, they'd both have to change their names; she would be Dee Dee something-or-other, and he would be Hunter-and-somebody-else.

She took her usual chair in Charlie's office and he took his. Small engrained habits like this were the only thing keeping them going.

"I've got a hot one for you," Charlie said, handing McCall a slip of paper. "Ferdinand Bloom, CEO of Plutarch Aeronautics, was found shot dead in his driveway about a half hour ago. He was apparently out there in his bathrobe, collecting the morning paper, and someone took him down."

"I always said nothing good comes from reading the paper," Hunter said, and McCall rewarded him with a ghost of a smile.

"The coroner is already en route," Charlie said. "Make sure he understands this one will be a priority, okay?"

Barney had been on the job for thirty-five years now. No one dictated his priorities, especially not a pair of homicide detectives. "Sure thing," Hunter said as they rose to leave.

He reached the closed door at the same time she did, and they both grabbed for the handle. "Sorry," he said, jerking back as their hands touched, but she withdrew as well.

"Please go ahead," she said.

"No, after you."

"I insist."

"Somebody open the God-damned door already," Charlie snapped from behind them. "You aren't going to catch the killer standing around in here."

He opened the door, giving her a wide berth, and they left without another word.

Ferdinand Bloom lay face down on his driveway in his paisley bathrobe. The newspaper he had been ostensibly out there to get was trapped beneath his considerable girth and taking on blood. "If it bleeds, it leads," Hunter said as he circled the body.

Bloom was shot to the left of a big white Cadillac that had been buffed to shine in the sun. McCall walked around the back of it until she was on the other side. "If the killer was waiting over on this side – say in those bushes over there – it's possible Bloom never saw it coming."

The Bloom estate was modest for someone of his means, but it was still set well in from the road, courtesy of a long, winding driveway. Tall bushes obscured the front of the house from the street. Whoever had murdered Ferdinand had come looking for him in particular, and unless the killer just happened to be born with a lucky horseshoe up his ass, he'd probably had to wait around for Bloom to come out and get the paper. McCall was already over inspecting the bushes. "There are a couple of shoe prints here," she called back.

"Great." Hunter squinted down the driveway as Barney trudged up it. "Hey, Barney, we heard you were already on the scene here."

The ME let out a heavy sigh as he reached the body. "I got held up on Ventura."

"Yeah, traffic's murder this time of day." After a dozen years on the force, he was allowed to say this stuff even when standing over a dead man. It wasn't like Bloom was going to object.

"No, I mean I literally got held up. Bastard took my wallet and everything." He knelt down as McCall rejoined them. "You want to help me roll him?"

Hunter crouched down to help Barney turn Ferdinand right side up. He had a broken nose and abrasions on his chin and forehead, presumably from hitting the pavement face-first. His robe gaped open to reveal two bullet wounds, center mass. "Cause of death," Barney said. He blew out a breath. "Well, that's going to be a head-scratcher."

"Looks professional, maybe," Hunter said from where he was still kneeling next to the body.

"No muss, no fuss," McCall agreed. "Let's go talk to the family – see if they know anything."

Unfortunately, Ferdinand's wife Maria and two teenage children were terrified and useless. They had not heard the shots nor witnessed any strange men skulking about the property. "If it was a hit," McCall said as they walked back down the driveway, "I think it must have been about his business, not his family. None of those people strikes me as the contract-killer type."

"Yeah, the wife kept talking about him in the present tense, like he was still alive." He paused briefly at the bloodstain sitting next to that shiny white Caddy. The body itself had gone with Barney to the morgue, so the ME could tell them what they already knew: Ferdinand Bloom had been dead before he knew what hit him.

Their car was parked on the street, and a familiar figure was parked on the hood. "It's your not-so-secret admirer from Channel Four," Hunter said as he put his sunglasses on.

"David," McCall said. "I don't see your camera crew around here anywhere."

David Casey slid his expensive jeans off their inexpensive Dodge. "Believe it or not, I'm on vacation. I was out getting a latte when I heard the scanner."

Hunter turned to McCall. "Did you hear that? He listens to the police scanner on his day off. I don't even listen to the police scanner on my day off."

"I recognized the address," David continued. "And then I recognized your car. This is Ferdinand Bloom's place, and given that you two are here, I am guessing he's dead."

"We can't comment on that one way or another right now," McCall said.

"That's okay, I have other sources." He grinned at her. "But if he is dead – and I mean dead in the way that warrants attention from homicide detectives – then you may have a long list of suspects."

"Why is that?" McCall asked.

He feigned a wounded look. "You know, Dee Dee, I am beginning to suspect you don't watch my show at all."

"You are on past my usual bedtime," she said. "Why don't you just give us the recap?"

"You remember that jetliner that went down outside of Miami last year? The FAA has finally completed their investigation, and word has it that they will be fingering Plutarch Aeronautics for the crash. The company stock has lost half its value in the last two days. I interviewed Ferdinand Bloom about six weeks ago, when rumors first started circulating that Plutarch was responsible for the plane going down. He tried to play it cool but you could tell he was sweating bullets."

"Maybe it was from all those lights you guys have in the studio," Hunter said.

McCall rolled her eyes. "Do you think you could get us a copy of that interview?" she asked David.

"For you?" He touched her arm. "Anything."

Hunter turned his head away, glad to hide behind his sunglasses. Men hit on her in front of him all the time, and usually he found their overtures clueless or classless. This was the first time he knew personally what the other guy was after, and it took every bit of restraint he had not to step between the two of them and order David to back off. Not yours, he reminded himself as McCall chatted with the reporter a moment longer.

David said something he didn't catch, and McCall laughed. The sound made Hunter seize up momentarily. When he looked again, they were standing perhaps eighteen inches apart, but she was still smiling.

"We've got to get going," he said, and McCall nodded and opened her door.

"I'll have the tape sent over right away," David promised them. He gave them a little wave as Hunter pulled the car back out into traffic.

He hunched over the wheel, not looking at her. "He ask you out again?"

"What? No."

He set his mouth in a grim line. "He will."

She said nothing, and he knew she couldn't argue. Not that it mattered. If it wasn't David Casey, it would be someone else. Eventually, she was going to have to say yes.

Later that day, when David Casey himself strolled into the precinct with VHS tape in hand, Hunter gave her a meaningful look from across their desks. She narrowed her eyes at him but forced a smile for David. "Your vacation includes running errands for the LAPD?" she asked as he held up the tape.

"Not for the PD," he said. "For you. And for you," he added, as if just remembering Hunter was there. He handed the tape to Hunter. "I hope it helps."

"Thanks," Hunter said flatly.

"My pleasure." He turned back to McCall. "These are also for you," he said as he gave her a small bouquet of red spray roses.

"Oh," she said, surprised and clearly a little embarrassed. "Thank you."

Hunter's chest tightened as he watched her try to figure out what to do with the flowers. It wasn't the guy's fault, he couldn't have known, but red roses had disappeared from her desk for good following the incident with Mariano. Hunter still remembered the opulent bouquets he had thrown into her trash, one after another, until the bin overflowed with silky red petals. That he had this memory and David Casey did not was just one more reason he wanted to run the guy away.

I no longer like to be touched by someone I don't know, she had said.

The problem was, he no longer liked it either.

But David was still standing there, smiling down at her. "I was hoping maybe we could finally have that dinner. Maybe Friday? It would give me at least something mildly interesting to write in my 'what I did on my summer vacation' essay."

"That is a lovely offer," she said, and glanced at Hunter. He kept his gaze neutral. "But I'm afraid I can't. With this case and all, we're going to be pretty busy over the next couple of days."

David's smile faded, and he nodded a little. "Okay, then. Another time." Hunter could tell he wouldn't be asking again. The man might be terminally handsome, but he wasn't stupid; McCall had said no to enough specific invitations now that he understood it just was never going to happen. "I'll see you around, Dee Dee."

"See you – and thanks for the tape."

After he had gone, they screened the video he'd given them in a small, airless room that barely held two chairs and the TV/VCR unit. Ferdinand Bloom was alive again on screen, claiming that his company would be vindicated in the final FAA report, but the relentless close-up of the camera caught the fear in his dark eyes. Hunter paused the interview midway through, when the camera had turned back to Casey. The reporter froze on the TV in front of them.

"You don't have to turn him down on my account," he said without looking at her.

"I didn't," she said.

"Because if you want to go out with him, you should do it."

"I don't want to go out with him." She tried to get the remote from him, but he held it away from her grasp.

"You said yes to him once."

"That was a long time ago," she replied, sinking back in her chair. In the blue light of the TV, she looked as tired as he felt.

He studied her a minute, his brow furrowed. "I think you should go out with him."


"Him or someone else. I don't care." He rubbed a hand over his face. It had occurred to him that he could be the one to force the matter; he could easily go pick up some young thing at the local bar. The carefree twenty-somethings of LA were mostly out to bag a celebrity, but when there were no glittering movie stars available, a homicide cop was a decent fall-back option. Just sex. Nothing special.

His throat closed over as he remembered that this was how he had ended up in the current situation in the first place. No, she needed to make the first move. It was the only way they were going to survive this.

"I don't want someone else," she said finally.

The VCR hummed, still on pause. David's picture flickered every so often on the screen. "I know," Hunter said. "But you will."

She shook her head against his words, but he kept talking.

"And…and I will. Eventually." He swallowed. "And so I think we have to pretend like we're already there, because the only way around this thing is straight through."

She tilted her head back and blinked at the ceiling. "I'm tired of pretending." There was a long silence, and then she sighed. "Okay," she said at last. "Okay, fine. If you really think this is what needs to happen, then I will have one dinner with him."

Relief and terror mixed within him. "Great."

"But Hunter – any other date, with him or anyone else, has to come from me. Not you."

He held up his palms. "Of course."

He clicked the remote to set the tape rolling again, but he was no longer listening to the interview. David Casey's face blurred before his eyes as he considered what terrible plan he had set in motion. I can't be what you need, he'd told her, and he was only just realizing…that meant someone else would be.


"It's two minutes past the last time you looked," Hunter said, sounding irritated, and she lowered the arm with her wristwatch on it. David Casey was meeting her at six o'clock, and that was only - she checked again - five minutes away.

She had arranged to meet David at work, in part to set a pretty firm boundary for the evening - there would be no lingering at her front door at the end of the night - and in part to let Hunter watch. He wanted her to start dating again and seemed to think it would make things easier; but to her it was hard, and if she had to suffer through it, then by all means, he would too.

At Mary's suggestion, she was trying to go into this date with David with an open mind. She didn't expect it would lead anywhere, but assuming she really wanted the future she said she did, she was going to have to start dating again sometime. So she had dressed in her nicer work clothes and spent the day reminding herself that this was supposedly what she wanted.One dinner, she thought. That's it.

David showed up right on time, as though he thought she might change her mind again if he was even two minutes late. "You look lovely, as always," he said with a smile. He nodded at Hunter, who was pouring over family records of the people killed in the Miami jetliner crash. "Evening, Hunter. You catch Ferdinand Bloom's killer yet?"

"Yes," Hunter replied, "but we gave the scoop to Channel Five."

She suppressed a twinge of guilt at leaving him with the dirty work, but after all, this was his idea. "Ignore him," she said to David as she gathered her purse. "Unsolved murders make him cranky."

Hunter scowled as if to prove her point, but his expression softened when their eyes met. "Have a…have a nice time," he said, seeming sincere.

Regret washed over her again, so powerful she could not speak. David took her arm gently. "We will," he answered for her, and he treated Hunter to a little wave. "Don't wait up."

She did not turn around to get his reaction. If she looked back now, there was no going forward.

They had dinner in Marina del Rey, outside in the warm evening air as the sun went down around them. David was both attentive and amusing, and she was reminded why she had agreed to go out with him the year before. "Do you have brothers and sisters?" he asked as he refreshed her wine glass.

"One older brother," she said. "He lives in New York so I don't see him as much as I would like. What about you?"

He chuckled. "Ah, I have four older brothers, and I see them everywhere. You would think one of us might have moved beyond the borders of Los Angeles at some point, but you'd be wrong. Twelve million people in the city, but damned if I don't run into a Casey about twice a week."

"Five boys? Your poor mother must have been run ragged."

"Mom took no nonsense from any of us. She ran the place like it was military school because it was the only way to make it through the day. But yeah, Dad was busy keeping food on the table and Mom was busy making sure we didn't start throwing it at each other. You can see why I needed to go into television to finally get the attention I deserved."

"Yes, you seem starved for recognition," she said dryly.

"What about you? Did you dream of the glamorous world of homicide growing up?"

"Glamorous," she repeated. "Right." She took a deep breath. "No, I guess not. I mean, I always liked detective stories – figuring out the puzzle was interesting to me. But I didn't really think about law enforcement much one way or another until high school, when a man with a machete came into grocery store I was working in at the time."

"Oh my God," he said. "What happened?"

"He was clearly mentally ill, talking to himself and waving the knife around. No one could get near him. He scared one little old lady so bad that she fell over right at the end of my checkout line. The manager called the cops, and I was just amazed when they got there. I thought they would come in and just tackle the guy – or shoot him. But instead this one officer started talking to him, really calmly. He knew his name and his background – I guess the man was a schizophrenic who had wandered away from his group home. Anyway, the more the officer talked, the quieter the man became. And while all this was going on, another officer ducked in behind him and started performing CPR on the old woman. Twenty minutes later, we all got out alive."


"Yeah," she agreed. "I thought how amazing it would be to know what to do in those kinds of situations, to be able to help instead of just standing around in fear like everyone else."

"Well, thank goodness for that. I, for one, will stop worrying that a man with a machete is going to show up and hack us all to pieces now that I'm sitting here with you."

She laughed. "Thankfully, I've never had to put that particular kind of training to the test."

"So then…homicide? You were looking to clean up after the men with machetes?"

"No," she said with a sigh. "I decided to pursue homicide when everyone told me I couldn't. There was exactly one other female detective in homicide in all of L.A. when I took the exam. Everyone just knew women couldn't handle it. No way, too young, too female, it just was never going to happen. Well, about the surest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't." She took a sip of wine and smiled. "So I did."

"Well, then you should very definitely never go out with me again," he said. "Ever."

She hid her fading smile behind the glass and said nothing.

After dinner, he took her to the studio and let her sit behind the news desk. She blinked under the bright lights and regarded the different cameras in the shadows. "How do you know which one to look at?" she asked, turning to where he was seated in a neighboring chair.

"It's in the script whether it's a two-shot or not."

"You script the news?"

"Sure – see?" He got up and turned on the camera and teleprompter, and she could see words on the glass now. The camera shot right through them. "We use paper as a backup," he said as he switched off the camera and rejoined her behind the desk. He stretched a hand toward her. "You look like a natural back here."

"Uh, no thank you. I'm nervous enough just sitting here with the cameras off."

"Says the woman who hunts murderers for a living…"

At that moment, the shadowy form of a woman walked through the studio and stopped somewhere behind the cameras. "Trying to impress the ladies with your journalistic prowess again, Buzz?" she asked.

David gave a heavy sigh. "Dee Dee, this is Sharon Allsworth, my producer. Sharon, Dee Dee McCall."

McCall eyed him. "Buzz?"

From the darkness, Sharon laughed. "You haven't told her yet?"

"Aren't you late for the 9:30 rundown?"

"I'm going, I'm going. See you later – Buzz." The door shut behind her, and McCall folded her arms and waited.

David sat back in his chair. "I ate a fly," he muttered finally.

"You what?"

"I ate a fly – on camera. It was about six years ago, and I was doing a live shot outside on a street corner when all of a sudden this bug flew into my mouth as I was talking. We were live! There was nothing I could do. I had no choice but to swallow it and just keep going."

She covered her smile with one hand. "Oh my."

"Danny, my cameraman, wasn't so professional. The shot started to shake because he was laughing so hard."

"See, I knew I was right to stick with homicide. We hardly ever have to eat insects on the job."

"Wasn't bad, actually. Tastes like chicken."

She wrinkled her nose. "Really?"

"God no, it was awful," he said, and they both laughed.

He asked her out for coffee and dessert, and she said yes because the alternative was going home to her empty house and the emotional wreck that was her life these days. David was fun and easy to talk to, and she was enjoying herself more than she had anticipated. It was nice not to think about anything serious for a few hours. Still, she was acutely aware that she was playing a part – this Dee Dee McCall was the one who had traded flirtatious banter with him the year before, a version she could still summon but a person she no longer was.

After coffee, they strolled around the area a bit, sharing memories about growing up in Los Angeles. "It seems everyone else is from someplace else," he remarked. "At the station, we have two transplants from Texas, one from Washington, and three from New York."

"Well, I'm a Valley girl, born and raised," she replied.

He grinned and stopped walking. "Far out!" She laughed and he stepped in a little closer. "I don't know what made you change your mind and say yes to dinner," he murmured. "But I'm very glad you did."

"Me too," she allowed, and dropped her gaze as she tried to figure out what to say next. When she raised her eyes, his face was right there, ready for the kiss. She stiffened and pulled away with a jerk. He looked surprised, and she bit her lip. "Sorry…"

"It's all right," he said easily. He reached out and squeezed her hand. "There's a bench over there – do you want to sit?"

"Maybe I should just get going…"

"Humor me a minute."

She hesitated but then nodded and followed him to the bench. It was dark but the ocean was not far away; she could smell the salt as the humid summer breeze stirred her hair. David took a seat close to her but not touching, and he angled himself slightly so that he was facing her. "I wasn't sure if I should say anything or not," he began, "but I figure you must have run my name through the system at least once."

She raised her eyebrows. This was not where she had expected the conversation to go.

"It's okay," he assured her. "I mean, we're both investigators of a sort, right? And I have nothing to hide."

"Except three unpaid parking tickets," she said, and he smiled.

"Hey, I don't always have time to feed the meter when I'm on the job." He hesitated. "As a journalist, I have access to LexisNexis too. Last year, when we met, I got curious…"

Oh, she realized, and pulled away a bit. Of course he would have read the stories. There had been at least three. Police officer raped, no charges can be filed.

"I am not trying to pry into your private life. Not at all. I just wanted to you know I'd seen them, and…and I'm sorry."

She closed her eyes tightly, willing him to stop talking. She was tired of being sorry. "It's okay," she said tightly. "It was…it was a long time ago."

"Of course," he said quickly. "It's just, back there, I didn't mean to push you into anything you're not comfortable with."

"No," she said, facing him again. "No, it's not that." She shook her head. "I probably just should have kept saying no to your invitations – as lovely as they were. I'm…well, I'm not seeing anyone, but I don't think I'm really available at the moment."

"Oh." He sat back and scanned the horizon. "Bad breakup?"

A breakup implied she had actually been in a relationship with Hunter, but somehow that sounded better than "we had to stop having so much sex because it was fucking with our emotions, literally."

"In a way," she told David.

He nodded slightly. "This relationship," he said. "It wouldn't happen to have been with Sergeant Hunter, would it?"

She went wide-eyed and looked down at her clothes, as if the truth were written there. "What – why would you say that?"

He gestured down the street with his chin. "Because I'm pretty sure that's him parked in the car over there."

"What?" She stood up to look, and sure enough, there was his car about fifty yards away. He turned it on when he realized he'd been spotted, and the glare from the headlights caught her eyes. Heat washed over her, a mix of embarrassment and anger. How could he do this, and how could she not even have noticed? Way to miss your tail, McCall.

Hunter did a U-turn down the road and disappeared into the night. She bit back a curse and sank down onto the bench again. "I'm going to take that as a yes," David said as he tilted his head back and looked at the night sky.

She sighed. "I'm sorry."

He waved her off. "No, this is actually easier - at least you weren't turning me down because of me."

"I'm going to kill him," she said, more to herself than to David.

He looked sideways at her and gave her a wan smile. "Well, if you do, please look me up. Otherwise, I think it's time I took you home."


It was after eleven when she got to Hunter's condo and the place was completely dark. His car was there, though, so she knocked – loudly. When he didn't answer, she knocked again. "I know you're in there," she yelled through the door. "And you're going to have to talk to me eventually!"

"What are you doing? You're going to wake the whole neighborhood." He appeared out of the dark behind her.

"Good." She was mad, and at that point, she didn't care who was mad with her. "Maybe they can explain your little stunt from this evening, because I sure as hell don't understand it."

"That makes two of us," he muttered, scrubbing his face with his hands.

"I cannot believe you were following me. I can't believe it! The whole thing was your idea! Was it some set-up? You wanted to follow me to…to what? See if I would sleep with him too?"

"No," he said, looking horrified. A light switched on in the unit next door, and Hunter glanced at it. "Let's go inside, okay?" he said as he started up the steps.

"Not okay." It was apparently never going to be okay again.

"I'm sorry," he said in a low voice as he stood over her. She had her arms folded, still furious. "Really, it was a stupid thing to do, and I apologize."

"It was humiliating."

He winced. "Sorry," he said again. He opened the door. "Are you coming?"

"I thought you didn't want to be alone with me anymore," she said petulantly.

"I'm making an exception this one time," he replied as he tugged her inside. He went to the living room and turned on a floor lamp before sinking onto the couch.

She did not sit down. "God, Hunter. What in the hell got into you tonight? I am trying, really trying to understand this. You wanted me to go out with him. You practically arranged the date yourself. It was so important to you for moving on, remember?"

"Yes, I know what I said." He sat forward with his head in his hands. "I meant it at the time. I really did."

"Then what? What happened?"

He didn't say anything.

"The continued success of our partnership may depend on your answer," she said evenly, and he looked up. She read the confusion in his eyes but it was not enough to sway her. "I'm waiting."

"I was just going to check," he said finally. "I didn't intend to follow you."

"Check what, exactly?"

"I don't know. That you were okay? I mean, like you said – I pushed you into it, and what you said to me before about not wanting to be touched by people you don't know…"

She stiffened as her earlier confession came back to haunt her, but she couldn't object. It was still true.

"I don't know," he said again, sounding helpless. "Maybe I also wanted to force myself to look – so it seemed more real."

If he had found them on the bench by the coffee shop, he had been following them for hours. "That was no quick look," she said. "I can't believe you were watching us the whole time!"

"I know," he said as if he couldn't believe it either. "I just…I couldn't stop. I went to see that you were okay—"

"I was," she cut in hotly.

"I know that now. I could see it. You were laughing with him and having a good time."

"I thought that's what you wanted," she said, feeling some of the fight drain out of her.

"I did. But…I don't know. It's like, you know how we tell victims 'don't let him move you to another crime scene' because that's when it gets serious. Well, your date changed scenes three times! I just couldn't believe it kept going, and I was sitting there in my car wondering why the hell I had ever opened my mouth in the first place."

"Ah," she said. "So I was supposed to go out with him – I just wasn't supposed to enjoy it."

He looked apologetic. "Well, yeah. Basically."

She drew a deep shuddering breath and went to sit at the other end of the couch. "At least you're honest about it, I guess."

"I'm sorry," he said with feeling. "I don't know what came over me. It won't happen again."

She laughed without humor. "I believe we've said that to one another too many times before."

"Yeah," he agreed softly. He reached over and took her hand, and she gripped him back tightly. "I don't want what you want," he said after a moment. "But I want you, and I don't know how to make it stop."

His thumb caressed her inner wrist in a slow circle, and she felt the sensation travel over her entire body. "Hunter…"

"Tell me how to make it stop." His voice was low, desperate.

She squeezed her eyes shut. "I don't know." The couch shifted with his weight as he moved closer, and then he was holding her. It took so much energy to be angry with him, and so after a moment, she let go and held him too.

"I'm sorry," he said against her temple, rocking her as she held on for dear life.

"Me, too," she whispered. But for her actions, they would be sitting in Homicide, talking and joking the way they usually did. They would not be here like this with his lips pressing tiny kisses against her skin, making her cheek tingle wherever he touched.

Her mouth was already open by the time he reached it, and they kissed each other with a gentleness they couldn't seem to manage any other way. She moaned softly when his tongue slipped inside. It had been nearly three weeks with no contact, and she could not stop kissing him. She was hungry and desperate, ready to shed all her promises along with her clothes. Her hands crept under his T-shirt to find the smooth, warm skin of his back. He had been out on the beach when she'd arrived, and he smelled like the sand and sea.

Somehow she ended up on her back on the couch, her skirt bunched up and her knees spread wide so he could lie between them. She stroked his face while they kissed, feeling his prickly cheek, the delicate shell of his ear, the way his jaw hinged open to admit her tongue. They kissed and kissed until she felt like she was melting into the cushions. His hand swept up over her bare thigh to hold her bottom, rocking her against him. All that separated them now were his jeans and her underwear.

This was crazy. They were crazy. But she had never wanted it this bad.

No, no, she thought, must stop this.

But he was hard and insistent between her legs, deepening the ache there, making her incoherent with need. She couldn't even find the coordination to kiss him anymore. They clutched each other tightly, and she panted against his neck. She had become so wet that the barrier of her panties nearly vanished entirely. She felt every slide of his cock and the rough denim of his jeans. He was basically fucking her outright now, if only they had bothered to get undressed. "Oh," she said, her eyes clenched as tight as the rest of her. "Oh, no." Not because she didn't want the orgasm but because she did. "Stop."

Too late. She stiffened and arched into him, coming so hard it took her breath away.

Her orgasm seemed to jolt him back to the present. He lay on top of her, no longer moving, his breathing unsteady. "I can't…I can't keep doing this," she said. Hot tears pricked her eyes.

"I know. I know." He dropped is head to hers and they hugged each other for a moment. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I say no more, and then I turn around and do this. I…I have no excuse. I promise that I am not trying to screw with you."

Despite everything, this was funny. Hilarious, even. She laughed through her tears and cupped the side of his face. "I have evidence to the contrary," she said. He was still hard between her legs.

Eventually, he gave a rueful smile. "Okay, maybe just a little."

He rolled off of her and she sat up, still a little shaky from their charged encounter. "Seems you were right," she said, "about the no-coming-inside rule."

"At least not anywhere near the furniture," he agreed, rubbing his face.

"I should go."

He nodded. "I apologize again," he said, "about tonight." He looked her up and down. Her hair was a mess and her mouth was swollen, but at least she had righted her clothing. "Are you going to see him again?"

"David? No." She risked a smile. "Even if I wanted to, he doesn't want to hear from me unless I've disposed of your body first."

He gave a mirthless chuckle. "That would be one way out of this mess." He walked her to his shadowed doorway, but when she tried to leave, he caught her hand and pulled her tight against him. "Thanks," he said, "for not actually killing me."

Her response was muffled against his shirt: "Yet."


Wednesday night found Hunter alone at his desk, typing in slow motion as the precinct dimmed and quieted around him. The wee small hours of the late shift suited him fine these days. When she was gone, he could breathe again. He had angled himself away from her desk, where he could not see the little vase with David's roses in it or the black cardigan sweater that she had left on the back of her chair.

He paused to rub his aching head, and when he looked up, the Captain was standing over him. "You look like hell," he observed, but his tone was kind.

"What are you still doing here?" Hunter asked.

Charlie hefted a briefcase. "Performance reviews," he said grimly. "The real question is what are you still doing here?"

Hunter considered the question but could not generate a good excuse. He waved vaguely at the typewriter in front of him. "This," he said.

"Uh huh. Come on, let's get out of here. I'll buy you a beer."

"Thanks, Charlie, but I have work to do."

Charlie clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Not if I say you don't. Listen, this is a limited time offer – you'd better act now."

Hunter sighed and grabbed his jacket. He left the report sitting inside the typewriter in the vain hope that perhaps someone else would find it and finish it for him. Gremlins, maybe. Or fairies. Or Det-Sgt. Rob Granger from two desks over. Hunter was open to anything.

He followed Charlie a few miles away to a bar called, of all things, Bar. Hunter appreciated both the straightforward nomenclature and the fifteen varieties of beer on tap. The place was quiet, nearly empty, and he and Charlie took side-by-side stools at the bar. "Okay, you were right," he said as he took a sip of cold, smooth lager. "This is a whole lot better than paperwork."

Charlie had unbuttoned his vest and loosened his tie. "Nothing like a cold beer on a hot night," he agreed.

Hunter glanced idly at the TV, where the Dodgers were demolishing the Braves, 10 to 2, in late innings.

Charlie's shoulders heaved with his sigh. "Look, I asked you out like this because it's clear that something is wrong. I don't know what's going on, but if you told me what's up, maybe there is something I can do to help."

"Going on? Nothing is going on."

Charlie frowned. "Oh, don't try to feed me that crap. You look like someone shot your dog, and the other night as I was leaving, I am pretty sure I saw McCall crying in her car. I haven't said anything before because your work is fine - not great, but fine. However, I would prefer to fix things now, if possible, before I do have to intervene in a more professional capacity."

"You can't fix it," Hunter replied. He hesitated a moment. "It's personal."

"Personal," Charlie repeated, and Hunter could see him turning the word around in his brain. His eyes widened as realization dawned. "Oh. You mean that kind of personal. As in you and McCall..."

Hunter barely managed a short nod.

"Oh, wow." Charlie blew out a long breath. "I didn't know."

"There wasn't anything to know until recently. Now there isn't anything to know again."

Charlie was quiet as he absorbed this news. "I'm sorry," he said at length.

"Don't worry, we'll figure it out," Hunter said, because he needed it to be true. "Things will get back to normal eventually." He took a sip of beer. "Until then, however, there may be some crying in cars."

Charlie turned his beer glass around and around in his hands. "If you two need some time apart..."

"No," Hunter broke in forcefully. That was the last thing he needed right now. He'd broken off their sexual relationship, and if she thought he went to Devane and asked for a professional separation as well, they would never recover any of what they'd had. "No, that's okay. We'll be all right, I promise. We'll make sure the work doesn't suffer."

"I'm not concerned about the work right now. I'm just...sorry. And maybe a little confused." Hunter glanced at him, and Charlie shrugged. "I'm not trying to pry, and this is purely an outsider's perspective, but I'd always figured that if you two wanted to take your relationship in that direction that it would be...good. Between you, I mean," he said, and then colored a deep red.

Unbidden, the memories rose up to tease him again: his mouth on her, her sounds of pleasure in the dark, the hot, tight feel as he slid inside her. He took a long swallow of beer. "Good was not the problem," he said.

"Then what?"

"We have different ideas about relationships. She wants marriage and kids one day. I do not. It's nobody's fault. It just is."

"So then you just give up and just let her go?"

"No," he said hoarsely. "Never. You don't understand. Walking away right now is the only way I can see to keep her, at least in some form."

They drank in silence for a few minutes, and then Charlie reached down the bar for a handful of corn chips. "God knows I am no expert in this area," he said as he ate. "My marriage lasted only twelve years. I thought it was a pretty good run at the time - more than a decade. We both tried, right? It just didn't work out." He shook his head and looked down at the bar. "Wish I'd tried harder."


"I don't know if it would have mattered, if maybe we would still be together." He swallowed. "If she would still be alive."

Hunter felt a stab of sympathy. Sarah Devane had been gone more than a year now, and they'd been divorced for ten times longer than that, but her picture still sat on Charlie's desk. McCall displayed a small black-and-white shot of Steve on hers. This, to Hunter, was one of the terrifying possibilities about marriage - that you said the magic words and the other person owned your soul. Death, near as he could tell from his colleagues, did not so much part as leave you alone in limbo forever.

"But at least I'd know I'd done everything I could," Charlie continued.

Hunter couldn't exactly miss the message here. "There is nothing we can try," he said. "I can't change her mind and she can't change mine."

Charlie nodded slowly and then reached for his wallet. He withdrew several bills and laid them on the bar. "The thing is, Hunter," he said, "from where I sit, you two have been married for years."

Hunter did not turn to see him go. Instead, he drained the last of his beer and watched the Dodgers shake hands on the field, the game finished. In Little League, the winners had to shake hands with the losers at the end of the game, but the big boys knew the field belonged only to the victors.

He left then, but sat in the parking lot idling for a few moments. He was probably going to have to find a way to tell McCall that he had blabbed their little secret. She might really make good on the promise to kill him. With a sigh, he put the car in gear and headed for home.

He had just pulled out into the street when he noticed a pair of headlights bearing down on him that seemed brighter than usual – and too fast for the road. Oh, shit, he thought as the other car swerved across the center line.

Metal shearing. Glass breaking. Pain.

And then, finally, nothing at all.

Chapter Six

Her phone ringing in the middle of the night nearly always meant that someone was dead somewhere. People died all the time on her watch but somehow it always seemed worse in the night, when the world was supposed to be sleeping. "Hello?" she said, still curled under the covers with her eyes closed.

"McCall, it's Charlie Devane."

Her eyes opened and she sat upright. The Captain almost never made the calls himself, not at this hour, and she could tell from his voice it was bad. "Captain," she said. "What's up?"

"I'm sorry to be calling you so late like this, but I figured you would want to know - Hunter's been in a car accident."

"What?" She gripped the phone tighter.

"He's going to be okay," Charlie assured her quickly. "But they are checking him out at the hospital. I'm here waiting."

She was already out of bed, fumbling around for clothes. "Where? What hospital?"

"Wilshire Memorial."

"I'm on my way."

Twenty minutes later, McCall ran through the emergency room doors, her keys still in her fist, and then drew up short to study the room full of characters. Various members of L.A.'s underclass sat huddled in quiet agony – a little old lady in a wheelchair, an obese man with a swollen, purple foot, and a pair of Hispanic young women, one of them heavily pregnant, and both looking utterly terrified. She spotted Charlie Devane near the back, seated next to a pile of his own clothes: gray overcoat, vest, and tie lay in a neat bundle on the orange plastic chair.

"Hi," he said, sitting up when he saw her. "You made good time."

"Ran the siren," she confessed as she took the seat not covered in his laundry. "What's going on?"

He looked pained as he ran a hand through his hair. "I got to talk to him a little while ago. His knee is messed up and he has a cut over his eye that will probably need stitches, but otherwise he seems okay. They are checking for internal bleeding now just to be sure, but the doctor seemed to think it's really just precautionary."

She sat back in relief. "Thank God. What happened?"

"Businessman from Denver with a love of Long Island Ice Teas. He downed about six of 'em and then tried to drive on unfamiliar streets. Crossed the center line and never even slowed down. Fortunately, Hunter had just pulled out into the road so he wasn't going very fast. The impact was lessened." He took a deep breath. "The driver was arrested at the scene, completely unharmed. I guess he was sober enough to remember his seatbelt."

She had seen Hunter's green Dodge folded up like Origami enough times to be able to picture the damage in living color. Like a cat, he always seemed to land on his feet. But she worried he might be running out of lives.

"It was my fault," Charlie said quietly, looking at his shoes. She shifted to look at him, but he would not meet her eyes. "I asked him – no, I ordered him – to come out there with me for a beer. He never would have been driving down that street if it weren't for me and my big mouth."

"Charlie, it's not your fault. You didn't get loaded up on booze and drive into Hunter's car."

Charlie held his hands over his face for a long moment. "When I heard the call come in, I was six blocks away, so I just turned around again. I had no idea it would be Hunter in the middle of the wreck." He sat back, slumping a little in his chair, and glanced at her. "You know, he told me," he said gruffly. "He told me a little bit about what's been going on with you two."

She looked at the floor and scratched behind her ear to hide her face. "Oh yeah? Do I even want to know?"

"He didn't say much, and I had to pry it out of him." He paused. "I told him he was being an idiot." She looked over at him, and he gave a small shrug. "Well, not in so many words, but that was the general idea."

She closed her eyes a moment and then shook her head. "No, he's just being honest," she said at last. "And that can't change. If he starts lying to himself about what he wants, the next thing you know he'll be lying to me, and then both of us will be miserable."

Just then, a young woman in purple scrubs threaded her way through the rows of chairs and stopped in front of Charlie. "Captain," she said, "your friend is through with radiology and back in room three. You can see him now if you like."

McCall was on her feet immediately. "Do you mind if I…?"

"Go," he told her as he gathered up his clothes. "He's all yours."

She'd spent so much time at Wilshire Memorial that she had once considered having her mail forwarded there, so she was able to find Hunter's room easily. The door was open and he sat propped up in bed, his ribs taped, stitches over his right eye, and his jeans cut off mid-thigh on the right side. He had an ice pack pressed against his knee. "Well," she said from just inside the doorway, "I've seen you look worse."

He gave her a slow, crooked smile that she recognized as the result of really good drugs. "You should see the other guy," he said, and she walked over for a closer look.

"I heard he walked away unharmed," she said, wincing in sympathy as she surveyed the cut over his eye.

He took her hand in his. "Yeah, but of all the cars in Los Angeles, he ran into a cop – that arrest is going to stick. Trust me when I say his hangover is going to be worse than mine."

"So what's the damage?" she asked.

"The car is completely totaled. I think they took it directly to the junk yard."

She rolled her eyes, but the knot in her stomach relaxed at last. Clearly, he was fine. "Not the car – you."

"Oh, I've got a couple of cracked ribs and a dislocated kneecap. Nothing too serious."

Right, she thought, nothing at all like the world nearly ended. She had seen enough car wrecks – and endured a few herself – to know too well the sickening moment right before impact when you know it's coming but you can't get out of the way. Violence so sudden and loud it was almost like a gunshot. It was easy to forget sometimes that cars ended more lives every day than the weapons they carried around with them.

She shivered and squeezed his hand. "I'm just glad you're all right."

He ran his thumb slowly over her knuckles. "Did Charlie call you?"

She nodded, not meeting his eyes. "He said the two of you had talked."

"Yeah, he figured something was up, and I figured the truth was probably better than his imagination." He tugged her a bit closer. "He thinks I'm being an idiot."

"Funny, he mentioned that to me too." She looked at him then, and their eyes held.

"Sergeant Hunter, I see your insides checked out!" A cheerful female voice startled them from their private moment, and McCall jerked her hand loose from his.

Hunter leaned against the pillows and closed his eyes. "McCall, this is Nina van der Camp, my orthopedist and new best friend. Doctor, my partner, Dee Dee McCall."

The woman in the loose ponytail and white lab coat didn't look old enough to have graduated medical school. "Hi," she said to McCall, and then turned back to Hunter. "I have the brace for your knee ready now, and someone will be along with crutches in a few minutes."

"No, I don't need any crutches."

"You want to move around for the next four to six weeks? You need crutches."

"It doesn't seem that bad," he protested, and she grinned as she checked out his knee.

"That's the opiates talking. Believe me, it's going to hurt like a sonofabitch in the morning. My advice? Embrace the pain. At least it means you wound up on the right side of the grass."

"Thanks," Hunter said dryly as she fitted him with the brace. "I'll keep that in mind. But I still don't think I need crutches."

She looked up from her work to smile at McCall. "Is he always this way?"

"No," she said, folding her arms. "Sometimes he's worse."

An hour and a half later, she managed with the help of an orderly to wrestle Hunter – and his crutches – into her car. Even with the seat back all the way, he couldn't fully extend his banged-up knee, and she could see the pain etched on his face. "Home," he said, his eyes closed. "And watch out for drunks."

Traffic was minimal at three in the morning, and soon she was helping him up the steps of his condo. "Maybe you should crash on the couch tonight," she suggested, but he shook his head.

"After everything I've been through, I am sleeping in my own bed," he muttered, limping for the stairs. There wasn't much help she could offer, so she trailed nervously behind as he slowly mounted the steps, leaning heavily on the railing the entire way up.

She turned on the light as he lowered himself with a groan to the unmade bed. She hesitated a moment before going to sit near his feet and removing his shoes. He had one arm over his eyes and his breathing was a bit unsteady. It hurt just to look at him. She placed her palm on the naked shin of his injured leg and nearly jerked away again from the heat of his body. "Do you…do you want anything? Water? Pillow? IV heroin?"

He craned his neck up to look at her for that last one, and she shrugged. "Just wanted to see if you were paying attention."

"Tease," he murmured, sinking back into the pillow again.

She sighed and rose from the bed. "You should get some rest."

"You're leaving?"

"Oh." She paused. "Not if—not if you don't want me to."

"I don't want you to." His eyes were closed again, so he didn't see the rush of relief that went through her.

She went to his dresser and fished out an old blue LAPD T-shirt, which she traded for her clothes. As she pulled her hair free and the shirt fell into place, she caught him watching her from across the room. His gaze was warm and sleepy. "What?" she asked.

He shook his head. "They say your life is supposed to flash before your eyes when this sort of thing happens. I saw only headlights." He looked at her again. "But I must have done something right with my life if I have you here with me, dressed like that."

She allowed herself to smile as she climbed in next to him. "You realize we have once again broken the no-coming-inside rule – and we're in a bed, no less."

"Mmm," he said, his voice a painful hum. "I think you're safe for tonight. Tomorrow, though…look out…"

She turned out the light and curled as close to him as she dared, careful not to brush any of his tender spots. He groped around until he found her hand, and she kissed his knuckles in the darkness. They slept.

In the dream, the man was on top of her, pinning her down and choking her so she couldn't breathe. Unlike reality, there was no pain, but the terror was worse because she knew how the incident ended. He forced her legs apart – she couldn't stop it – and she knew she had lost the fight again.

She sat up with a gasp, her heart pounding wildly, a cold sweat down her back. Where the hell was she? Get out. Get out now. She scrambled free just as she heard his voice. "Dee Dee?" But she had no breath to answer him. It felt like she was going out of her skin.

She ran down the stairs and kept going until she reached the outside and the cold dark air. Shaking, she took deep, gulping breaths and tried to stop the spiraling panic. You're okay, you're okay, she coached herself. All her pills were back home in her medicine cabinet.

She paced a short path, head down, and reasoned with herself. You're at Hunter's. He is fine.

It had been months since she had woken like this, but she understood immediately why it had happened. She recognized the pounding fear from earlier, when she had driven to Wilshire Memorial with her heart lodged squarely in her throat. But asleep, her brain took every bit of fear about anything and channeled it right back into the rape. Don't forget, it told her, about the worst thing that's ever happened to you.

The wind whipped against her bare legs and she realized what a picture she must make, standing around practically naked on the stoop. She was still trembling as she wiped her damp palms on the T-shirt and headed back inside. A few slow breaths later, she was ready to face Hunter again. She found him with the light on, trying to get out of bed. "What are you doing?," she said, hurrying to his side. "You're going to hurt yourself."

"I was coming to find you." He refused to let her push him back down. "You okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine. Get back in bed."

"What was that about?" he said, his gaze searching her face.

She sighed and sat next to him. "A dream. Nothing more."

He leaned down until he could rest his forehead against hers, and she carefully laid her arms around his neck. He felt warm and whole and she did not want to let go, no matter how much he ought to be horizontal. "Tell me," he murmured, and she shook her head slightly.

"It doesn't matter," she whispered. Still he waited. "I was so scared for you," she said at last. "But asleep, my body only knows one fear."

He hugged her as tightly as possible, his bruised face buried in her hair. She soaked in the moment as her heartbeat finally slowed. Then he yawned into her shoulder, and she pushed him back down. "You need rest," she said as she pulled the covers back up over him.

"I need you," he said, catching her hand.

So she braved her side of the bed again, gingerly drawing up the sheets as though they might guard against the night demons. He scooted over until they were sharing a single pillow, and she felt his lips brush her cheek.

"No more dreams," he said.

"No," she agreed, taking his hand. But it was a long time until she slept.


The following Tuesday, she caught Mary up on all of her latest adventures, from Hunter's accident to the disastrous end to her date with David Casey. "Thank goodness Hunter is okay," said Mary. "How utterly terrifying."

McCall's terror was beginning to ebb as last Friday receded into history. Hunter was grouchy and annoying, just as he always was when incapacitated for any length of time, but she was willing to put up with it because it meant he was getting better. "Yeah, it was pretty scary," she said aloud. "I saw a picture of the car in the accident report – the front end was folded up like an accordion. I guess that's the point, right? The car smushes up so you don't have to."

"And Hunter? He is less smushed these days?"

"Getting better, yes. It will be several weeks yet before he can come back to work."

"Have you two talked any more about what happened after your date?"

McCall flushed as she recalled their frantic little session on his couch. "Not really. There doesn't seem to be much left to say. Nothing has changed."

Mary sighed and took off her glasses. "I would like to take this opportunity to point out to you that – even when you go out on a date with another man – you somehow end up having sex with Hunter."

"This has not escaped me," McCall said. "But short of never being alone with him again, I'm not sure what to do about it."

"Maybe don't do anything," Mary suggested.

McCall regarded her with confusion. "I don't understand."

"We've talked some about your physical connection with Hunter, and I certainly won't deny that it seems powerful. But it's your communication that continually surprises and impresses me as something special. You knew what you wanted from him, and you asked for it. When he was confused, he told you so. His behavior with regard to your date made you angry, and you went immediately to confront him about it. As difficult as this whole thing has been sometimes, you two never seem to stop talking. I have couples who have worked years on communication and aren't anywhere close to what you have with Hunter."

McCall blinked. "Well," she said, taking a breath, "I guess you could say our lives depend on it. We have to be able to talk to each other."

Mary was quiet for a long moment. "So if he wanted to marry you – what then?"

"I…I don't know. But he doesn't."

"Say for a moment that he did."

Just the words made her pulse pick up. "I don't know. I guess…maybe."

"Okay, so you're married then," Mary said. "Only it turns out he can't have kids."


Mary shrugged. "Happens all the time. Maybe he can't have kids. Maybe you can't. Have you ever thought about that?"

Her head was starting to swim. "I could always adopt."

"Sure, of course. So you adopt some kids. Life is great for five years, and then one day you get hit by the drunk driver."

Her eyes went wide and she clenched her hands together. "That's a pretty grim crystal ball you have there."

Mary's expression softened. "I don't have a crystal ball. Neither do you." She paused. "I wish I could promise you that it always works out, that life always gives us exactly what's coming to us, but I'm afraid it doesn't happen that way."

"I know that," she said tightly, looking at her lap. She had a dead husband to prove it.

"I know you do," Mary replied gently. "And of course life goes on. You have proven to yourself that you aren't broken. You could find someone else – I'm sure of it. You could have love and marriage and as many children as you desire. But," she added, "you would not have Hunter."


It was a perfect late Friday afternoon at the beach, the sun just starting its slow descent into the sky-blue ocean. Gulls rode the warm, salty breeze with wild cries as he sat with his book on one of his lounge chairs on the deck, his injured leg stretched out in front of him. A lazy sailboat drifted along in the distance and the waves rolled gently against the shore. It was hard to be mad at the world when it presented him with a view like this.

"Hey," said a familiar voice to his right, and the view improved some more.

He shielded his eyes against the sun and grinned up at her. She was dressed for work, not the beach, in a navy skirt and pin-striped blouse. "Playing hooky?" he asked.

"I left a little early," she said as she walked around and sat on the other lounge chair. "But I deserved it." She gave him a smug smile. "I solved the Ferdinand Bloom murder."

"Get out," he said, righting himself as best he could. She looked delighted. "Well, don't make me guess here. Who killed him?"

"He killed himself," she said. "Or rather, he hired someone else to do it. That missing fifty thousand we found in his account was for a hit, all right – his own."

"So the killer didn't just happen to catch him out on the driveway in his bathrobe."

"Nope, he was tipped by the victim himself," she said, sighing with the satisfaction of a job well done. "We arrested the trigger man this morning."

Irritation at his current predicament niggled at him once more. She was out there busting punks while he sat around like a cripple. "Congrats," he said grudgingly, "on figuring it out. Did you come all this way to gloat?"

Her expression changed to one he could not read. "No," she said at length. "I wanted to talk to you." She dragged her chair closer to his.

"Sounds serious," he said, putting aside his book.

She slipped off her shoes and hugged her knees to her chest. For a moment, she looked out at the ocean and did not say anything. She's quitting, he thought suddenly. Not that he could blame her. She probably should have walked away a long time ago. But if she was waiting for him to hold open the door… well, he just couldn't.

She squinted a bit, her gaze still on the water. "I love you," she said finally.

The words were so unexpected they stole his breath away.

"Being with you makes me happy," she continued, smiling at him a little. "Not being with you makes me unhappy." She sighed. "And I'm tired of being unhappy."

"Dee Dee…"

She held up a hand. "Let me finish, okay?" She took a deep breath and curled her legs under her. "I really enjoyed being married," she said. "I loved Steve with my whole heart, and I was so sure we were going to be together forever. But of course, it didn't work out that way. I think…I think on some level I've always hoped to get back to that place, and in my head, that meant marriage – because that's what I had before. But it wasn't the marriage that made me so happy. It was Steve."

He remembered the way Steve McCall had lit up when he talked about her. The feelings had been mutual.

"Maybe I could get married again one day," she said, and his heart froze. She shrugged. "Or maybe not. Maybe I spend the rest of my life waiting for this perfect opportunity to come along, and it never does. So for now, no more waiting." She reached over and took his hand. "Marriage, kids, the whole thing – it's off the table."

"What? I can't ask you to do that."

"You're not asking," she said, giving him a squeeze. "It's my decision." She hesitated. "I just want to be with you. If…if that's what you want too."

"Of course," he murmured, and tugged her over to him. She sat by his hip, looking shy, and he kissed her hand. He could barely speak. "Of course it's what I want," he said. "But this is a huge thing you're suggesting. You have always been clear about wanting a husband and children, and I can't believe you would just…give that up."

There were tears in her eyes, but she nodded. "For today, yeah, that's what I want."

"What about tomorrow?" He swallowed hard. "What if you change your mind and then hate me?"

"No," she murmured, and cupped the side of his face. "I would never hate you." She stroked his cheek with her thumb. "But I can't say about tomorrow – no one knows what it will bring. Maybe tomorrow I will change my mind again."

He stiffened and she pulled back a bit. She sighed.

"You don't want to make me any promises, Rick, and I'm really okay with that. I'm not making any either. Today, I want to be happy. Tomorrow can take care of itself."

It was all he ever wanted, but somehow it still made his heart hurt. He looked at their joined hands. "This isn't because…this isn't about you being afraid to find someone else, is it?"

"No," she said. He risked a glance at her, and her eyes were clear. She shook her head. "No, I'm not afraid. Not—not anymore."

He reached around and ran his hand over the length of her back, a gesture of comfort he had done so many times before. But then he added subtle pressure, urging her down closer to him, closer still, until finally he could lift his face and kiss her. They kissed slowly and thoroughly, her hands braced on either side of his head and her warm hair blocking the sun like a curtain.

He pulled his mouth from hers and held her face in his hands. "I love you," he whispered as they leaned heads together. "And that's a promise."

He felt her smile and he shifted himself over to make room for her. "Your ribs," she protested as he tried to bring her down next to him.

"I'll risk it," he said, gathering her into his arms. She was careful, but still he grimaced when she made contact. He was glad she couldn't see. The pain receded as they lay together quietly, and he pressed periodic kisses to the top of her head. "Stay," he said eventually.

"For dinner?"

"Dinner. Dessert. The rest of your life."

She laughed and kissed the underside of his chin. "How about we start with just dinner?"

Much later, after dinner and another round of painkillers, he was trying to behave himself in bed. But she was wearing one of his T-shirts again and little else. Unfortunately, between his ribs and the brace on his leg, there was not much he could do without her full cooperation. Fortunately, she had always been an excellent partner.

She lay next to his good leg, one arm gentle over his ribs, holding her weight away from him as they kissed. There was nothing wrong with his hands, and he made good use of them, one at her nape and the other under the shirt, resting on her firm bottom. "I take it all back," he said between kisses. "I want to be alone with you all the time now."

She laughed and bit his neck lightly. "We should stop."

"We've never been very good at that," he reminded her. He let his fingers drift between her thighs.

"Oh," she said, "That's…that's right." She drew her knee up to give him greater access and kissed him harder, moaning into his mouth as he started caressing her in earnest. His erection was so complete that he was pretty sure there was no blood left in his brain.

Her hand smoothed over his chest, down his abdomen, lower still to where his penis threatened to split the seam of his boxers. She rubbed him gently, teasingly, and there was nothing he could do about it. His injured leg and cracked ribs meant he could not lift his hips or roll her over. He was left to lie there and let her have her wicked way with him.

His breath escaped in a hiss when she drew his erection free. After only a few strokes, he was close to seeing stars. He slipped his hand inside her underwear and was rewarded with a gasp. She was wet, so ready for him. He kissed her hotly as he slid first one finger, then two, inside. It had the desired effect as she stopped caressing him and instead started moving with his hand. "Oh," she said against his neck, sounding frustrated. "I want you."

"Then take me."

She looked up, her face flushed. "It won't hurt?"

"I don't care if it does." Right now, his dick could cut glass. There was pain, all right. She still looked concerned. "I trust you to be gentle with me," he told her as he tried to wriggle out of his boxers.

She hesitated a moment longer before helping him. Then he was back inside her panties, caressing her with his whole hand until her thighs started to tremble. He yanked off her underwear, but when she went to lift his shirt over her head, he stopped her. "Leave it," he said in a gruff voice.

She grinned. "The old, baggy T-shirts really do it for you, huh?"

"Mmm." When it was his shirt and she was wearing it, yes it did. He did his best to urge her into position over him, but she would not be rushed.

She kissed him again, her tongue in his mouth as she moved to sit astride him. He jerked slightly as his erection settled between her thighs. "Careful," she whispered, her hands on either side of his head. "Don't want to hurt yourself."

"You are killing me," he muttered, his hands slipping under the shirt to find her breasts. She rocked her hips slowly, back and forth, until he was hot and dizzy. "Please?" he said, feeling a little desperate now and totally at her mercy. He couldn't move his hips at all in this position without sending lancing pain through his body. So he forced himself to lie still.

She widened her legs and this time when she rocked forward, he caught at the entrance to her body. She braced herself upward so she could look into his eyes as his erection started to slide inside her. He only got a couple of inches in before she stopped with a whimper. Her eyes were closed now, her expression a mix of pleasure and intense concentration. She shifted again, moving him out and then back to the same spot.

"You like that?" he asked, his breathing ragged.

She shook her head and nodded at the same time, apparently unable to answer. She repeated the same movement several more times. The shallow penetration was slowly driving him mad, but it was also fascinating to watch her. If he'd been driving, he would have been up to his elbows inside her by now, but apparently this angle was really working for her. He tried to pay attention so he could find it again.

"Oh, oh, yes," she murmured, rocking herself closer to orgasm. "Oh my God." Then she lost the ability to form words altogether as she started to pant, trembling on the edge. She dropped her forehead to the pillow, and he turned so he could whisper in her ear.

"Come for me."

She did, with a choked sob, pushing him all the way inside as the spasms went through her. He stroked and petted her for a few moments while she recovered. "Did I hurt you?" she asked, her voice still muffled by the pillow.

"Hurt me some more," he said. "Please."

She smiled against his neck and lifted her weight from him again. They did it his way this time, full and deep, the bed bouncing and covers sliding to the floor. He held back as long as he could, teeth tight against his lip and the faint trace of blood in his mouth. She cried out again, trembling around him, and he let go with a long, deep groan.

He gathered folds of her T-shirt in his fists and pulled her down on top of him. Pain be damned. He never wanted to be separate again. She tolerated this for a few minutes before returning to her side of the bed. Always looking out for his own best interests, she was, even when he wasn't.

She curled next to him and took his hand, pressing a kiss to his bicep. He stroked her hair back from her face and kissed her head. "I think when my leg is healed we should go away together for a few days," he said.

"Oh yeah? Where?" She yawned and cuddled closer.

"I don't care. Anywhere I am allowed to be in love with you between the hours of eight and six."

She laughed gently. "I'm sold. But you know when we ask Charlie for joint time off, he's going to exactly what it's for."

"It's not like he'll be surprised." He paused as he considered the terms of their new arrangement. No promises. "Of course, he's probably still going to think I'm an idiot."

"Hmm, yes," she said, nearly asleep. "But you're my idiot."

"For as long as you'll have me," he replied, and then went to sleep himself.

Chapter Seven

His life did not transform so much as warm around the edges. He had not realized how much he disliked eating alone until she was there to share meals with him. Where his house had once been quiet, there was now the sound of her singing along with the radio when she was happy, or her clear crystal laughter on the beach when he chased her into the edge of the surf. Periodically, he would start itching for time alone and she would grant it easily, but without fail, he would be calling her up within four hours: So… whatcha doing?

At her house, there was cold lemonade in the hot, overgrown backyard, playing footsie under the table while their dinner sizzled on the grill. It was the way she always had the coffee ready in the morning, or how he could doze on her sofa on a Sunday afternoon, listening to her play the piano. When fall came at last and the night air grew nippy, he got to fulfill his fantasy of making love to her in front of the fireplace, the warm light flickering over her pale skin.

It wasn't always perfect. You did not live alone as long as they had without developing some ingrained habits or blind spots seemingly designed to drive the other person mad. They could not agree on the correct way to organize a kitchen and thus were hopelessly frustrated every time they tried to put away dishes together. He could not believe the sheer amount of beauty products that had moved into his bathroom. He mourned for the lost days of his simple razor and shaving cream. For her part, he was pretty sure she might actually shoot him if he left a wet towel on the bathroom floor again.

And always, there were scars. You would think he would have learned by now, but this was apparently going to be a lifelong lesson for him: no matter how far away it seemed, the rape – and attempted rape – lived with them forever. He had relaxed again when she dropped the sex therapist. The pills sat untouched in her medicine cabinet, long enough that he didn't even see them anymore when he reached in for a couple of ibuprofen. She slept so soundly at his place now that occasionally they missed the alarm. So perhaps it was forgivable, understandable even, that he got carried away in bed one evening – a night they wanted each other more than they wanted dinner. They were half dressed and frantic, her fingertips stroking behind his ears as they kissed. She had learned that he liked this without him ever mentioning it, how it made him hot hot hot, and the words were out of his mouth before he thought them through: "I want to tie you down and take you."

He had the silk scarf free from around her neck and was rubbing it against her bare arm. Another fantasy that could maybe become real…

But instead she froze under him, breaking their kiss. "I…no. I can't."

He realized then what he had said and how it probably sounded. "Wait," he said as she tried to pull away from him. "Wait, I'm sorry."

"No, I'm sorry," she said, still resisting his embrace.

He hugged her tightly from behind and kissed her shoulder, pressing his face there. He could feel her heart hammering inside her and kicked himself again for his big, stupid mouth. "It was wrong of me to even say it," he murmured. "I just forgot for a minute. I would never want to do anything that made you uncomfortable. I would never hurt you."

She wiped her eyes and turned in his embrace. "I know that. Of course I know that. It's not you, it's me… and I just can't do that." She curled into him, her voice almost lost. "I wish I didn't…I'm sorry to disappoint you."

"Oh, honey, you haven't." It was both a tiny lie and a big truth. He stroked her hair and the long smooth plane of her back, soothing her and trying to bring her closer to him at the same time. He felt the fantasy slipping away from him and knew it was gone forever. He'd played mild bondage games with past partners and truthfully enjoyed the hell out of the experience. So there was a touch of regret as he realized suddenly that he might never get to do that sort of thing again. Even if she somehow agreed now, he couldn't imagine enjoying it anymore, knowing how deeply troubling she found the idea.

But he even welcomed the regret, this tiny prick of loss in his new, full life. She had given up so much more, and he lived every day with the knowledge she might eventually want to take it back.

"I love you," he said against her cheek, and she tensed again at the words, as if she didn't want them to be true. "I love you just as you are." His lips trailed across her face until he found her soft, full mouth. "It's okay," he whispered before he kissed her – slowly, gently – until she relaxed beneath him and returned his kisses.

"It's just that I want…I want to make you happy," she said when they parted.

"You do," he said. "So much." He held his face against her neck so she could feel his broad smile. "So very, very much," he repeated as ran his hand up the back of her naked leg. "I like this spot in particular," he said, his fingertips pausing just above her knee.

She giggled and squirmed, and his heart started repairing itself, now that she was happy again. For today, at least, she was not leaving him.


Los Angeles ignored the calendar as the days crept into December; the daytime temperatures still stretched into the high 70s. The city redoubled its efforts at seasonal cheer with tinsel wreathes and long strings of brightly colored lights. Santa's image was everywhere - he looked out of place in his furry red suit, but his surfboard fit right in.

Tragedy found them on a bright, sunny Tuesday morning when a neighbor called to say she was concerned about the non-stop barking in the house next door. Arthur Fieldman had butchered his mother, his wife, and his two small children but somehow spared the family Schnauzer. The little girl, just two, was found in her bloodied crib, still wearing her footie pajamas. Fieldman had a twenty-four-hour head start, but when the horrific news broke, every one of the 15 million citizens in the greater L.A. area was going to be on the lookout for him. They wouldn't need the FBI to make him a most-wanted man.

The night after they found the bodies, they went home together to her place. It was the kind of night that cops often did something stupid involving alcohol, drugs or a screaming fight with a civilian spouse who was just never going to understand what it was like to watch the coroner disengage a tiny hand from a stuffed dinosaur in order to take the body. He sat slumped on her couch with his eyes closed, unsure whether he was going to be able to handle the night in his own company, let alone hers.

She apparently felt the same, however, because she disappeared into the bathroom with a large glass of wine. He heard the tub running but did not see her again for another hour. They did not sit down for dinner, instead standing around in her kitchen picking at the leftover remnants of yesterday's Chinese food straight from the carton.

In bed, in the dark, they stared at the ceiling together. "Do you think they saw it coming?" she asked eventually. "Not the kids – but his wife and mother."

He considered the rivers of blood from the house. "I hope not."

She curled toward him without touching. "If they had any clue he could do this, maybe there might have been some way to stop it."

This was the place where she was stuck, he knew. She wanted to believe that you could recognize evil if you were paying close enough attention. It was the reason she still blamed herself on some level for ever letting Raul Mariano in the front door. "There's no meaning to be had here," he told her. "The only thing left is stop him before he can do it to someone else."

He had tried to show her this in Curaguay but she had failed to absorb the lesson. He was coming to recognize that maybe changing this part of her would alter the rest, so that she – like he – no longer trusted anyone. The fact that he did not want to destroy her tenderhearted center, even though it meant she endured a greater chance for failure and pain, told him that he, too, needed to see good in people, even if it was only the one across the pillow from him.

"Did you see the crayon drawing on the refrigerator?" she said.

It was a moment before he could answer. "I saw it," he said hoarsely. My family, drawn with huge red smiles – just like the knife wounds they would later have across their necks.

He reached for her and she held on tightly. She was focused on the victims while his mind was tracking the killer, but on this night, when they wept, it was for the same reason.

Mercifully, Arthur Fieldman was apprehended just thirty-six hours after the bodies were discovered. They had to live another good week with the evidence until all of it had been processed and catalogued for the ages. Charlie rewarded them with an extra day off, a long weekend to dislodge the horror so they could go back to the usual parade of mundane murders. Hunter did what he usually did when he needed to shake off his present – he went back to his past. This time, he took her with him.

His mother greeted them at the door with open arms and loud kisses. "I hope you brought your appetites because I have been cooking all day."

"I could eat," McCall said.

"That's pretty much her personal credo, right there," Hunter agreed, and she elbowed him in the ribs.

"That is what a cook lives for," his mother said. "Someone to appreciate the fruits of her labor."

They sat at one end of the big oak table he remembered from childhood. As usual, his mother had prepared enough food for thirty people, not three. There was a plate of antipasti, a large bowl of pasta salad, lasagna, and a pork roast seasoned in rosemary and garlic. "I am beginning to see how you got so big," McCall said to him as his mother handed her a heaping plate of food.

His mother laughed. "Oh, Ricky came out that way – nearly ten pounds at birth!"

"She never lets me forget it either," he said.

"Listen, you – I could have died giving birth to you. Twice! First on the way to the hospital with your father driving all over the road like a crazy person, and then again in the delivery room when you got stuck." She turned to McCall. "They had to use forceps to get him out."

"Mom! We're eating here."

"That's why his head is like that," his mother explained as if he hadn't spoken, and McCall hid a smile.

"What the hell does that mean? My head is just fine, thank you!" He touched it self-consciously.

"It's adorable," his mother told him, in a soothing voice. She leaned over to kiss it as if for emphasis. "It's just a little dented on one side."

McCall lost it then, and he threw his napkin at her. "Patricia, this pork is delicious," she said when she had recovered. "Can I persuade you to give me your recipe?"

His mother beamed. "I will get it right now!"

Hunter nudged McCall under the table while his mother was gone. "You are terrible," he said in a low voice, "leading on an old woman like that. The day you cook a pork roast is the day I jump naked into the L.A. River."

She smiled at him over the rim of her wine glass. "You never know," she replied. "I might make one some day. In the meantime, it makes your mom happy to pass on the knowledge."

Of course she was right. McCall was really good at making people happy – maybe too good sometimes. Initially wary of the relationship, his mother had now embraced Dee Dee like the daughter she'd never had. Half the time when his mother called the house, she talked longer to McCall than she did to him.

"Here it is!" His mother returned with an index card and handed it to McCall.

"Thank you," she replied. "I appreciate it."

"It's nice to be appreciated," his mother sighed, and McCall raised her eyebrows at him.

They finished the meal with coffee and cannoli in the living room. The navy sofa with tiny white polka dots was the same one from his childhood but it was still in mint condition – mainly because he had never been allowed to sit on it as a kid. "I thought this couch was just for company," he said to his mother as they ate. "Does this mean I've been kicked out of the family?"

"No, it means I trust you not to wipe your nose on it or some similarly awful thing." She put down her plate. "Oh, wait here one moment. I have something for you." She returned a moment later with two wrapped presents.

"Mom, Christmas isn't for a week yet."

"Yes, but I'll be at Aunt Jackie's this year, remember? My flight is Sunday." She sat forward in her chair and regarded them eagerly. "Go ahead, open them!"

McCall went first and found a soft white shawl inside that was flecked with tiny hints of gold. "This is beautiful," she said. "Did you make this?"

His mother nodded proudly. "Yes."

"Thank you. It's gorgeous." She gave his mother a warm hug and went back to admiring the shawl.

He tore into his gift. "A pocket watch," he said when he opened it. The back was dated 1903.

"It was your grandfather's," his mother said. "My father. I used to play with it when I was little and I sat on his lap."

He had no memories of his grandfather, who had died two years before Hunter was born. He knew gregarious, strong-willed Guiseppe D'Amico only through his mother's stories – tales he had taken to heart as he tried to figure out how to be a man. "I love it," he said to his mother, and leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Thank you."

"My sweet boy," she said, hugging him tight. "Merry Christmas." When they parted, she pinched his cheeks. "It's from him you get your height, you know, and your dimples."

He knew this. She had told him a hundred times.

"Do you have any pictures?" McCall asked.

"I have an album over here," his mother replied, and pulled an old leather-bound book from the shelf. She sat between them and leafed through the pages. "This was my dad outside his butcher shop," she said, pointing. "And over here is my mother."

They went through the full family history because his mother had documented it all – even the bad years near the end. His father had been dead at thirty-nine, the same age Hunter was now. He looked at the last photograph they had of the man, taken at a backyard barbeque just months before his murder. He had an apron on and a grill fork in one hand. A cigarette hung from his lips and he had managed an ironic smile for the camera. At this point, he had already double-crossed Luther Della Costa, the man who would sign his death warrant.

"Your father loved to make the fire," his mother said when she saw him looking, "but he always ended up burning the food to bits."

Yep, Hunter thought. That was dear old Dad. Aloud he said, "I think we should be going."

McCall stood up and raised her sleeves. "Not before we help clean up," she said, and headed back to the kitchen.

His mother sat with the album on her lap, the pages flipped back to his baby pictures. She rubbed one affectionately and smiled. "Mom," he said as he moved to sit next to her, "did you really mean it when you said you could have died when I was born?"

She fingered the edge of his picture. "Yes," she said at length. "I lost a lot of blood. There were…there were complications when they took you. I lived of course, but they told me you would be my only baby."

He sat back, stunned. He had always figured his parents' ugly marriage was the reason he had no siblings. The house had been a warzone by the time he was two.

"I wish I could have given you a brother or a sister," she murmured. "Someone to be your family when I am gone."

"Mom, you act like you've got one foot in the grave here."

"I have no exit scheduled," she said, taking his and giving him a squeeze. "I just mean…someday."

"I didn't need anyone else when I was growing up," he said, kissing her cheek again. "I had you." She smiled and he stood up. "I should go help Dee Dee," he said.

"Rick..." His mother caught his hand again and held it. "I hope you know what you're doing."

He was not going to take the bait. "I have done dishes before, Mom."

"Don't play with me here. It's not just your heart and not just hers. I hardly ever dared to hope …" She broke off and gave him a final squeeze. "Don't screw it up."

His mother sent them on their way with huge hugs and a metric ton of food. McCall fell asleep on the way home, leaning against the door. He glanced at her and considered his mother's words. She did not understand. He was not the one with the power to walk away.

As Christmas approached, he figured he could get her some jewelry – something pretty and sparkly but nothing that came in a small, square velvet box. No need for awkwardness on Christmas morning. The problem was that he really had no idea what she liked in terms of jewelry. He knew she wore it, but this was where his knowledge stopped. When he looked at her, he wasn't exactly paying a lot of attention to her earrings.

So he went on a little reconnaissance mission one morning while she was in the shower, poking around in her jewelry box to determine what she might like. It was this way that he stumbled across her wedding band.

She had removed it before they were partners and so he had never seen it before. He drew it out and held it in his palm for study. Slim and gold, nothing fancy. He was surprised at how slight it felt in his hand. He looked again and saw there was another ring very like it, only slightly larger. Steve's. In the time he knew Steve McCall, he must have seen this one before but he certainly had never registered it. He knew Steve was married because he wouldn't shut up about her; no need to look for a ring.

He imagined McCall sliding it onto Steve's finger - a tiny little talisman that must have seemed so important at the time. Less than three years later, the M.E. had taken it off. 'Til death do us part.

He knew on some level that she still loved Steve, and probably always would. It wasn't like they had fallen out of love. Steve simply wasn't there anymore. Maybe it was like having a phantom limb - - the physical part was gone but the sensation still remained.

He tucked the rings back in the box and gently closed the lid. He wondered, if he died, what she might keep. What some future lover might stumble upon and then know: this is how it was between them.


Even as an adult, she always woke up early on Christmas morning, excited to begin the day. This particular Christmas also brought a bit of anxiety because she was taking Hunter home with her for dinner at her parents's house. They had met before, of course, and made polite conversation. Her parents had never quite understood why, in the aftermath of her rape, she had refused their gentle insistence to come home and let them take care of her, and instead opted to stay with Hunter in the house where she'd been violated. Their confusion led to suspicion that had thinned somewhat with the passing years when he didn't go away. But he was still the man she had chosen over them, for reasons they could not work out.

"I'm bringing Hunter with me for dinner," she had told her mother last week.

Judy Stanton's mother had raised a gracious daughter. "Oh, that's nice," she said, almost sounding like she meant it. "Does he have any dietary restrictions?"

McCall had rolled her eyes. "Not unless you count an unnatural appreciation for kale."

She was counting on her family to rally and not make the day completely awkward. At least her two nephews would be there to create plenty of noise – you could hide a lot of familial weirdness under a layer of fart jokes. She stretched and curled up against Hunter, who gave her a sleepy hug. "Merry Christmas," he murmured into her hair.

"Mmm, merry Christmas yourself," she said. No matter what her family said or did, it wasn't going to ruin her good mood today.

"Think Santa was here?" he asked.

"I'm not sure I can claim to have been good this year," she said, and he laughed lightly.

"Oh, see now that's not true at all." He kissed her head and slid out from the covers to fetch a small wrapped package that had materialized on the dresser sometime during the night. Santa had game. "This one seems to have your name on it," he said, holding it up.

She sat up against the headboard and rubbed her hands together. "I love Christmas," she confessed as he got back in bed and gave her the present.

"Yes, the fifteen ceramic trees in the house rather give that away," he remarked dryly.

"Five," she corrected him.

"Are you sure? Feels like more."

"Are you going to let me open this, or not?"

He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "I'm not stopping you."

She ripped off the paper and found a long black velvet box. Inside was a gold necklace with a diamond and emerald pendant. "Oh," she said. "It's beautiful."

"You like it?" He actually seemed unsure.

"I love it," she said hugging him tightly. "It's perfect." She made him put it on her, holding her hair up for an eternity as he fumbled with the delicate clasp. Finally, it fell into place. "Thank you," she said, reaching for his hand and weaving their fingers together.

He kissed the side of her neck. "Merry Christmas."

"I have something for you too," she said, pulling free. She went downstairs to retrieve his present from where it had been hidden in the hall closet. It wasn't wrapped, so he grinned when he saw her coming.

"You got me a fishing pole?"

"I did," she said, laying it on the bed in front of him.

He fingered the red silk bow. "A nice one too," he said as he studied it. "You must have done your homework."

"I didn't go to detective school for nothing," she told him.

He reached an arm around her and kissed her stomach, which was about mouth-level at that point. "Thank you," he said against her. Then he kissed her again, slower this time, and she held his head. His lips were trying to part the sides of her pajamas enough so he could reach her skin.

"Wait a second," she said. "That's only half of the present."

He jerked back. "You mean there's more?"

She went back around the corner and fetched a second pole. "This one is for me," she said. "I figured maybe this spring you could teach me."

He regarded her with a furrowed brow. "You want to go fishing? With me?"

She walked back to the bed and set her pole next to his. "Sure, why not? It could be fun." She hoped she sounded sincere. Mostly, she was interested in the nights together in front of the fire, but she was willing to be convinced that there were other merits.

He grabbed her so fiercely around the waist she lost her balance, laughing as he pressed his face into her middle. "You want to go fishing," he said, still sounding amazed. "In the spring."

"Yes," she said, stroking his head.

"That's three months from now."

"I have worked out the math, yes." She sat by his hip. There were tears in his eyes. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, yeah," he said, pulling her closer and grinning like an idiot. "You see, we're going fishing," he said. "In the spring."

Later, when they arrived at her parents' house, Hunter hung back behind her at the door. "Relax," she told him, "you've met nearly everyone here at one point or another."

"That was before," he muttered.

"Before what?"

"Before I had seen you naked. How am I supposed to look your father in the eyes?"

She gave it some thought. "Well…he's seen me naked at one point too – granted it was many years ago at this point. But you could consider it something you have in common."

"Ha ha," he said, not at all amused.

She didn't have time to tease him further because the front door flung open and two small boys launched themselves at her legs. "Aunt Dee Dee!"

She laughed and ruffled their heads. "Merry Christmas, munchkins. When did you get so tall?"

Mark, the seven year-old, drew himself up to full height. "I'm tall," he said. "He's still a shrimp."

"Am not!" Evan shot back. He grabbed her leg as he caught sight of the man standing behind her. "Whoa."

"Evan, Mark, this is my friend, Rick Hunter."

Evan peered up at him. "Are you a giant? 'Cause some giants like to eat little kids."

Mark scoffed. "There's no such thing as giants, doofus. That's only in fairy tales. You're so dumb."

"Mark," she said, nudging him.

But Hunter had always had a soft spot for the underdog. He crouched down behind her and spoke gently to Evan. "Actually, I met a giant once, and you know what he told me?" Evan shook his head, his eyes wide. "It turns out they only eat the oldest child. More meat on the bones."

"Right." Evan gave a solemn nod as if he knew it all along. "They need lots of energy."

"That's ridiculous," Mark said, but he didn't sound too sure.

"Hey, what are you two doing out here with the door hanging…" Her brother Jonathan stopped when he saw her and grinned. "Finally!" He stepped around his children to hug her so hard she came off her feet.

"Good to see you, too," she said laughing. "Do you think we might get all the way inside now?"

They managed to make it over the threshold, the boys chattering at her again as John got reacquainted with Hunter. The men shook hands and John gave him the side-eye. "As the big brother, I feel like it's incumbent on me to make some sort of idle threat here, but I just have the feeling you might not take me seriously."

McCall smothered her smile. John was taller than she was, but Hunter had eight inches on him easily – not to mention a gun and hand-to-hand combat training. He would snap her brother like a twig.

"I take threats very seriously," Hunter said, deadpan.

"Well then, if you hurt my sister, I will, um…ensure your financial ruin."

"Jonathan!" she protested. He was an investment banker in New York.

But Hunter just grinned. "I think the tax payers of Los Angeles beat you to that one."

"Aw, hell, then," John said with a heavy sigh. "Guess we'll just have to get a drink."

"That was easy," Hunter remarked as he moved to follow.

John shrugged. "She's pretty much always looked out for herself anyway."

McCall found she need not have worried too much about Hunter fitting in. Her parents were cordial and welcoming. John's wife, Marta, grew up in Germany as a daughter of a diplomat, so she could make conversation with anyone. But it was the boys who really staked a claim to him. They showed off all their Christmas presents and then dragged Hunter into the backyard to throw a football around. When she glanced out the window to make sure he was okay, she saw he had both boys upside down at the same time as they shrieked with joy and laughter.

She folded her arms, smiling as she watched them play. How he could not want this for himself, she did not understand, but she would never push. Fathers and sons was a topic she treaded on lightly with Hunter.

Her mother came up behind her and touched her shoulder. "Care to help me in the kitchen for a minute?"

"Sure," she said. "What do you need?"

"Ten minutes alone with my daughter," her mother said, smiling gently as she smoothed McCall's hair from her shoulder. "And twenty-five potatoes peeled."


"Uncle George is coming."

The women worked in silence for a few minutes, and then her mother took a breath. "So, your father and I will be in town next month for a symphony concert. We'd love to take you to dinner. You and Rick." She had not even looked up from chopping carrots.

"Uh, sure. That would be nice," McCall replied cautiously.

Her mother nodded, almost to herself. "We would like to get to know him better."

Now she did stop peeling. "Really," she said, not convinced. "You and Dad?"

Her mother hesitated, the knife sagging a bit in her hands. "He's coming around," she said as she resumed slicing with quick, precise movements. Her mother had tried so many times to teach her cooking and sewing or other womanly arts, but none of it stuck. She would rather have been out on the tennis courts trying to beat her father or John.

I had two children, and he got both of them, her mother used to say when Dee Dee was growing up. McCall knew her life was basically a long string of puzzling choices as far as her mother was concerned.

"Do you mind if ask," she said to her mother, "why the change of heart?"

"No change," her mother replied. "He is…well, he's an intense man. He's eight feet tall and doesn't say much. Your father is used to people who will make conversation even when it isn't necessary." She stopped her work and looked right at McCall. "But even the night we met Rick, as awful as that was, I recognized it in him then."

She didn't like to think of that night her parents appeared on her doorstep with suitcases, ready to bring her home. She'd been bruised both inside and out and could barely find the strength to articulate what she needed once, let alone have a fight about it. But once was all Hunter had needed. She needs to rest now, he had said, stepping between her and the people who had raised her. She'll call when she's ready.

"I never would have left you," her mother said now, "if I hadn't known."

"Known what?"

"He loves you as much as I do."


She found Hunter standing in a shadowed hallway, looking at family photographs on the wall. "Hiding out?" she asked him, and he looked a bit chagrined.

"Maybe a little, yeah." He leaned in to peer at one of the pictures. "Is this you? This little thing with pigtails?"

"Yeah, that's me."

"See, this is why I agreed to come – you don't show me this kind of stuff."

"You've never asked." She took his hand. "You want to see my old room?"


She laughed and led him down the hall and around the corner to the back of the house. "I warn you, it doesn't look the same. My mother took down all the posters and made it into a sewing room years ago."

As promised, there was a table with a sewing machine on it in one corner, and a seamstress's mannequin by the far window. But the twin bed was still there in the same spot, and the collection of ribbons she had won horseback riding hung on the wall. Hunter looked around with naked curiosity. "Imagine it with candy pink walls and covered from one side to the other with teenage girl clothing," she told him.

"Good to know some things haven't changed," he muttered.

"Hey, look at the size of that tiny closet. What was I supposed to do?" She sat on the edge of the bed, and he joined her.

"So this is the bed?" he asked.

"It was mine, yes."

"No, I mean the one from your story. The one with… what was his name? Oh, yeah. Robby."

She felt herself go pink. "Oh, that story. Well, yes. I guess it is the same bed."

"Hmm, interesting." He leaned down to nuzzle her. "Maybe you'd like to tell the story again. You know, now that I can visualize it properly."

"I don't think you need to hear it again," she said, closing her eyes as he started kissing her neck. "I'm pretty sure you got it all the first time."

"I don't know." His breath tickled her skin, sending a shiver down her spine. "There might be details that I missed."

"Such as?"

He kissed her mouth gently, drawing back only millimeters to speak again. "Such as…did he kiss you?"

"Yes." He rewarded her with another, longer kiss. Her mouth parted and he teased her with just the tip of his tongue before pulling away again.

"Did he touch you?"

She gasped as his hand slipped inside her blouse. When had those buttons come undone? She held him in place so she could kiss him some more as he stroked her nipple through the thin material of her bra.

"Well?" he asked, breaking free from her kiss.

She could barely remember the question. "Yeah. Yes."

"Where? Where did he touch you?" His hand was still moving inside her shirt.

She glanced at the door. It was closed but there was no lock. "I…oh." He had tugged the bra aside so he could touch her bare skin. "It was…it was…" It was more than fifteen years ago, is what it was. But Hunter wanted details. She figured what she couldn't remember, she could just make up. "It was the first time we'd been alone together for a week."

This part was true. Robby had been trapped in Texas with his grandmother for what seemed like a year but was probably five days.

"Wanted it pretty bad, did you?" He had the bra all the way open now. She pressed her hot face to his shoulder and rubbed the length of his thigh.

"We had only done it a handful of times before," she said, and he lowered her back onto the mattress. They kissed openly now, his hands roaming her body, and she forgot all about the story.

Hunter did not. "So you snuck back here with him when you were supposed to be chopping watermelon." His hand caressed her stomach in a rhythmic circle.

"See, I knew you didn't need to hear it again."

He ignored her. "Did you know you were going to do it?"

She licked her lips and arched her neck for his kisses. "No. It was too risky. We were just going to mess around."

"Mmm," he said, his fingertips just sliding under the waistband of her pants. "Then what?"

"We were…we were on the bed, making out. He touched me – there."


Her pants were unbuttoned and his hand was down between her legs. "Oh, God," she breathed. "Yes."

"Careful," he murmured against her cheek. "Must be quiet."

She screwed her eyes shut as he began touching her through her underwear. This was madness, but she couldn't seem to stop. Going home did make you sixteen again. She stroked the side of his face to show him the rhythm she liked and he caught it immediately. When she tried to kiss him, he stopped, his lips hovering just above hers.

"What next?"

"I, oh, I don't know." How the hell could he expect her to narrate at a time like this?

His fingers stopped. "You know," he said, his breath ragged on her face. "He touched you. Were you wet?"


"Just like this?" His fingers started caressing her again, this time from inside her underwear.

"Yeah, yeah, like that." She wriggled to help him find the best spot. "Just like that."

They kissed again, wild and deep. She was hot and needy, and a little bit scared again. God, if they got caught like this… "So naughty," he murmured against her mouth, but his voice was full of approval.

"Please," she whispered. If he just increased the pressure a little bit, it would all be over.

"Tell me more," he said as he eased off, teasing her lightly now.

She bit back a groan. "He had a condom, so we decided to risk it," she said.

"Were you naked?"

"Not…not all the way." He had started to increase the tempo and pressure again, and she arched into his hand.

"So when you came, he was inside you?" Two long fingers pushed inside her body.

Oh, God. Yes. She tried to say the word out loud but his tongue was in her mouth again. Almost. Almost there. "Yes, yes," she said frantically when he pulled his lips away.

"Shh," he said, but he sounded as desperate as she was.

His hips were grinding against her leg and she could feel the erection pressing against his wool pants. The memory he conjured for her was all tangled up with the present. Robby's penis, finally finding the right angle. Hunter's hands on her, in her, everywhere at once. She felt it rising in her faster and faster. There was no way she could keep quiet.

"Kiss me," he said urgently, his mouth just barely touching hers. "Kiss me when you come."

He said the words and she was there, capturing his lips in a brutal kiss as she climaxed around his fingers. He groaned softly into her mouth and rubbed her slowly as the tremors eased. Her heart was pounding and she had his sweater bunched around his midsection.

"I like that story," he said in a gruff voice, and she laughed quietly.

"It has a happy ending," she agreed. "At least for one of us." There was no way to go any further without the entire household catching onto their actions, so Hunter was going to have to wait.

"Give me a minute."

"Take your time. Dinner isn't for an hour yet." She petted his head as they rested, and eventually, he laid his hand on her bare stomach.

"So, that question you asked yourself," he said, "about whether you would trade today's happiness for tomorrow's unknown possibility. Do you still ask it every day?"

She toyed with his hair. "I suppose on some level." She paused to hug him. "But obviously, I get the same answer every time."

"For now," he said.

"For now," she agreed, snuggling in. He still felt tense. Poor man. She would have to make it up to him when they got home.

"What if…what if we reopened the marriage discussion?" he asked, and she froze.

"What do you mean?"

He rolled away a bit. "I mean maybe I want to talk about it."

"Marriage in general, or you and me?"

He shot her a look in the fading light. "Of course you and me."

"Oh." She righted her clothes and curled up next to him, her head on her arm. "What did you want to talk about?"

He was quiet for a long moment. "I don't want you asking that question. I want you to know the answer already. I want…" He swallowed. "I want to be the one who makes you happy."

Her heart caught in throat. "You do," she said, reaching out to stroke his chest. "So much." He caught her hand and kissed it. "But Hunter, we can't get married just to make me happy."

"I can think of worse reasons."

She smiled and blinked back tears. "You," she said fondly, "are full of surprises. But no. I don't want you committing to something that you don't want just because you're afraid I might leave."

"What if I do want it?"

She went completely still. "I…do you?"

He gave a half-shrug. "Weddings," he said, "give me the hives. I have no interest in any of that crap." He gave her a worried look. "No offense."

"None taken," she replied dryly.

"But," he said, drawing a deep breath, "marriage – well, that's kind of like agreeing to be partners forever, right?"

She nodded tightly. "Right."

"That part sounds pretty good." He took her hand and tugged her against him. She looped her arms around him and held him close, too overwhelmed to speak. "Plus," he said into her hair, "You'd have to sign a paper that says you can't leave me. That part is also appealing."

She gave a watery laugh. "I think you may be fuzzy on some of the details."

"That's what it would say," he informed her. "I'd make sure of it." He threaded his fingers through her hair and she rubbed her cheek against his sweater, listening to his heart. When he spoke again, his voice was a low rumble beneath her ear. "And as long as we're on the subject - how would you feel about keeping your name?" he asked.

She blinked and then craned to look at him. "I can honestly say I haven't given it any thought. Why?"

"Because the fewer things that change, the happier I would be. Besides, what would I call you? We can't both of us be Hunter."

Yes, this would be weird, she had to agree. "I guess...I guess I would be just as happy not to have to change it all again," she said, and he relaxed under her once more. "But you realize it would raise a few eyebrows," she continued, "keeping another man's name." Just another 'lifestyle choice' for her mother to fret about.

"I have never given a rat's ass what other people think," he said, and she smiled because she knew it to be fact. "In any case," he went on, "Steve McCall wasn't some 'other man' - you loved him. I would never ask you to pretend that wasn't true."

"Yes, I loved him," she said, and hugged Hunter around the middle. "As much as I love you."

He kissed the top of her head. "See?" he said, "I don't mind sharing."

They lay together quietly for a long minute. "I can't even believe we're having this conversation," she said finally.

He chuffed a laugh. "That makes two of us." He squeezed her. "It's just something I've been thinking about, and I wanted to let you know."

"I appreciate the heads up."

"The kids part, though… I really just don't know. I can't imagine changing my mind on that one, but I guess I can't completely rule it out." He rolled her over to look into her eyes. "I don't want to make promises I can't keep."

"I know," she said tenderly. She stroked his face with her fingertips.

"So you should think about it," he said as he settled closer to her. "See how you feel. Because maybe I'll want to ask you one day… you know, for real."

"I'll make sure to have some remarks prepared."

"Oh yeah? Anything you want to try out now?" His voice was low and rich in the dark.

She smiled against his mouth. "Yes," she told him. "Yes."

The End.

Author's notes: Alternate but discarded title - "Sex and Crying." Short but accurate! If you made to the end, I'd love to know what you thought. Was there a plot? Sometimes I was not so sure. ;-)

Thanks very much to my long-suffering beta reader, Maybe_Amanda, for catching my mistakes. Any remaining errors are mine alone.

© syntax6 2015