Authors: CeeCee James
?” Cassie blinked at his words.
“No.” Luke glared at the pendant. “Tell me exactly where you found this.” He slid forward to the edge of the chair. His leg jiggled up and down, causing his shoe to squeak against the floor.
Cassie sat back on the couch, trying to take in the implications. “I—in the kitchen area, I think.”
“Tomorrow I want you to show me the spot where you found it. I’ll pick you up at noon.”
Cassie eyed the whiskey bottle already halfway to his mouth. “How about I drive this time?”
romptly at noon
, Cassie pulled into the parking garage at the apartment building. She hurried up the stairwell. This time, the hallway smelled of boiled cabbage. Wrinkling her nose, she knocked on Luke’s door. With her other hand, she tapped a package of guitar strings against her leg.
She knocked harder, and got only silence as a response. Dread rolled in a wave in Cassie’s stomach.
Where the heck is he?
Her third try resulted in a thud of footsteps, and then the door creaked open a sliver. Luke’s face appeared at the crack. Two bruise-like smudges spread out from under his eyes.
He looks like death.
“Are you okay?” The anxious wave continued to roll inside her. Luke stepped away from the door, leaving Cassie to push it all the way open. The door stopped with a jerk. Looking down, she saw a twisted mess of clothing jammed underneath it. Shoving her weight against it, she snowplowed the pile until the crack was wide enough for her to squeeze through.
Luke had already stumbled down the hall and lay sprawled out on the couch. The blinds were drawn; the apartment felt like a cave. Alcohol fumes permeated the air.
“What have you done, Luke?”
His hand covered his eyes, fingers squeezing lightly at the temples. “Sorry, Cassie. Not feeling too good.”
“Are you going to be sick?” She set down the guitar strings and hurried over.
“If this room doesn’t quit spinning.” His face was pale and clammy.
Cassie took a deep breath. “Come on. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”
Luke nodded weakly. His breathing became more rapid as he struggled to stand. She pulled his arm over her shoulders and lifted, staggering under his weight. “Dear God,” she groaned, before looping her fingers under his belt and pulling him along.
In the bathroom he stumbled forward, hands landing on the counter for balance and leaned over to retch into the toilet.
“I’ll just be a sec.” Cassie patted his shoulder before running to the kitchen. After grabbing a dish towel, she quickly wet it with cold water.
When she returned, Luke was resting his forehead against the side of the porcelain bowl. “How you doing, buddy?” she asked as she laid the towel against his neck. Trying to hide a grimace, she quickly flushed the toilet.
“Never better, Principessa,” he murmured. Sweat beaded the white strip of skin visible on the back of his neck. A long shudder ran through his body as he exhaled.
Cassie crouched behind him and rubbed his shoulders in small circles. The tension in his back was like steel. “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay,” she whispered, carefully kneading into the muscle.
With a groan, he pushed away from the toilet and leaned into her arms. His weight forced her against the wall, and they awkwardly sat together. Luke rested his head against her shoulder. Moving the washcloth from his neck, she held it against his forehead. “Better?”
Another groan answered her question as his eyes fluttered closed.
“Why do you do this? Why do you drink like this?” she asked.
“Drink like what?”
“Until you puke,” she answered dryly.
“Last night was hard. The memories. Sometimes it’s just easier to drink than to live.”
“I’m worried now. Where’s your gun?”
“I don’t have a gun.”
Cassie’s hands trembled as she grabbed his arm. “Don’t lie to me. Where is it?”
“You don’t need to worry about my gun. The force made me return my service pistol. I’ve never replaced it.” He shook his head almost imperceptibly. “That thing was as familiar to me as my own hands.”
Relaxing, Cassie stroked his wrist. “You know, there are programs to help people out when they need it.”
“Wait. You think I’m an alcoholic, don’t you?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” Her eyebrow arched sarcastically. Cassie gently wiped his face again. His cheeks slowly grew some color.
Luke snorted. Pushing his hips back, he sat more upright against her. “I’m no alcoholic. I just can’t face myself anymore. When I look like this….” He gestured to his sweaty face, eyes hidden in dark pockets. “I can stand it. This is how I should look.”
Cassie’s stomach clenched at his words. A tear ran down her cheek, and she ducked her head. Sniffing, she wiped it away before squeezing Luke even tighter. “Are you telling me you try to make yourself look like a drunken bum because you think you deserve it? How can you even think that? That’s horrible, and it isn’t true. Not even a little bit.”
His turned his head and watched her carefully, taking in her every expression. “I wish I could see the world through your eyes, remember what it was like when everything was so simple. So good. But you don’t know me.”
Cassie touched his cheek, turning his face upward. Her gaze locked on to his. “You don’t know me, either.”
The energy in the room intensified. “Tell me,” he whispered.
“You think you’re the only one with regrets, Luke?” Cassie shuffled him in her arms to get more comfortable. “Really? You can’t honestly think that.” She leaned her head against the wall and studied the cabinet in front of her. “Everyone has regrets.”
“What could a little girl like you have regrets about?”
“I have lots. And if you call me little girl again, one of my regrets will be strangling you with this towel.” Cassie wrapped the towel around his neck jokingly. “Don’t make me punch a sick man.”
He rolled his eyes. “You got an answer then, tough girl?”
She sucked in her breath, as memories spun in her mind. “I don’t even know where to begin. Where I
I want to begin.” Her hands twisted the towel before tossing it up into the sink.
“Leif,” she said. “I feel guilty that I can’t remember what he looks like. I try. It’s like who he was dissolved into waves of color and emotions after he died. I remember the warmth of his hand squeezing mine, and his sharp laugh, how it startled me every time he thought something was really funny. I see flashes of him, his red hair. Us lying on the hood of his car looking up at the clouds. But everything is fading.” She paused. “I feel guilty, you know? We both changed during those years apart. He—”
This hurts so much! Luke’s going to hate me after I tell him this.
“I think I was falling out of love. I didn’t want to admit it. And I think Leif could tell.” Cassie took another deep breath. “A year before he left, we were expecting a baby together. But the baby died. Our son died. And, three years later, here I am left alone. The little family I thought I was so lucky to have is gone. And it’s my fault for falling out of love. Why was I chosen to continue to live? How is that fair?” She licked a tear that had fallen on her bottom lip. “And now I don’t know what to do. If I go on with my life, and let him go like everyone is telling me to, then I’m the worst person ever.”
No,” she blurted at his protest. “You don’t realize how ultimately selfish I am. Because I have a fear now. Will people let me go and forget me when I die?”
Luke’s hand rose up her arm, warm and soothing. “Shhhhh, shhh. I get it. I understand.” He turned his cheek into her neck. “It’s not your fault he died. No one is going to forget Leif, and no one is going to forget you. I think we are eternal, and it’s the eternal part of Leif you are remembering. But he’s moved on. It isn’t easy for those of us left behind to move forward, but you will.”
“Me? What about you?”
His hand paused on its downward stroke to her wrist. “I have a different kind of guilt. You asked me once why I go to the house.” Raising his head, he arched his eyebrow at her, looking like he was waiting to see what she would say.
“You said you try to talk to Jennifer.”
His last words fell from his lips, light but dangerously like the edge of a knife blade. A response was needed—the right response.
“Does she listen?”
“She says I failed. That I thought I was some big-shot cop sent to protect the people, when I couldn’t even protect her.”
Again, that knife blade, its edge against the skin. Cassie massaged his bicep softly, trying to think of how to begin. “From everything you’ve said before, Jennifer sounded like she was a happy woman. And that voice sounds loud and condemning, not like you’ve described her at all. Are you sure that voice isn’t your own guilt?”
“Everyone has their demons.”
“But you can refuse them, once you recognize what they are. You don’t have to embrace the guilt.”
“Look who’s talking.”
She impatiently brushed her curly hair away from her face. Her earring snagged the cuff of her shirt sleeve. A squeal slipped out of her mouth as the earring yanked on her earlobe. “Mother of—”
A look of concern crossed his face. “What’d you do?”
“Help! I’m stuck!” She reached for the earring to untangle it from the delicate threads of the seam.
Luke sat up away from her and twisted around to face her. “Hold on. Quit squirming. Move your fingers out of the way.” His hands tucked her hair away. Slowly, he started to untangle it.
“Hold still. Almost have it.” With a snap, the earring came free. A small grin flickered across his mouth. “Like I said, demons.”
“Shut up. Being clumsy is a terrible example. I was talking about believing lies.”
“Well, you already know how I keep the demons out of my head.” He gestured toward the living room. “My friends Jim Beam and Jack Daniels.”
“And how’s that been working out for you, hmm?”
He let out a small chuckle. “Not well, not well at all. I think maybe it’s time for me to rejoin the living. Find some friends who don’t mind threatening me with bodily harm.”
“That’s the job description? I think I’ve got that covered.”
ecause of how
sick Luke had been, they took the next few days slowly, instead of rushing to scavenge through the memories and ruins at the house. They spent time at the park again and explored the neighborhood. Twice, they met for coffee. Cassie talked Luke into restringing his guitar.
Tonight, he played a song that he’d written while she made dinner. Taco salad, her specialty. His fingers slid along the strings, his foot lightly tapping to the beat. Cutting the lettuce, she looked over her shoulder at him as he played, enjoying the new confident smile stretching across his face.
Luke looked up and caught her staring. “You know, Principessa, you have the bluest eyes.”
Cassie smiled and glanced down.
The lettuce pile was enormous. She’d diced the entire head, listening to him. “Why do you call me that?”
His dark eyebrows raised.
“Principessa. You called me that when you first met me.”
“It means princess. You looked like a princess that day. The mist clinging to your body. The highlights in your hair somehow catching that one single ray of sunlight that broke through the clouds. So brave, royal.”
She couldn’t help the laugh that slipped out. “Royal… that’s probably the first time anyone’s called me that. But I like it.”
After dinner, she gave him a thumbs up, ignoring his shaking hands as he emptied the last of the bottles of alcohol down the sink.
“Is it safe?” She came up behind him, resting her hand on his back.
His eyebrows crinkled. “Safe?”
“I mean, I heard it can be dangerous to quit cold turkey.”
He set the bottle with the others in the trash and started to tie the bag. “Yeah, it’s safe. But thanks for checking on me.” His arm draped across her shoulders and drew her into a hug.
She settled against his chest as a flurry of emotions battled through her. Broad shoulders, strong—he smelled like beechwood and cinnamon. His heartbeat thumped under her ear. So wonderful. A stab of guilt. So different from Leif.
She played with one of the buttons on his shirt. “Luke, who else can we call?”
“Hmmm?” His voice vibrated through his chest.
“To help support you. It can’t just be me.”
His hand, warm against her back, slid down to her waist. “I’ll call Trevor. Let him know.”
“Yeah. My old partner.”
“You going to be okay when I leave tonight?”
“I’ll be fine. You okay staying at the hotel?”
“Yeah, home away from home. Can’t beat the coffee, and they have a Belgian waffle maker.”
“You still planning to stay for a while?”
“You need a friend. I need a friend. I’m in this for the long haul.”
“Great. Because I’m all about waffles.”
er cell phone
rang at eight the next morning. “Rise and shine. I’m needing a waffle!”
“Why are you so chipper in the morning?” Cassie groaned. “It’s evil, I swear.”
“Aww, so sweet. You had me at evil. Now get up, because we’ve got some stuff to do today.”
Half an hour later, Cassie met him in the lobby. Today, he wore a black fitted t-shirt and jeans. Keeping an eye on the front desk clerk, Cassie led him into the continental breakfast bar.
“What are you looking so guilty for? Sneaking me in?” His eyebrow rose at her nod. “You’re practically a desperado.” True to his word, he headed straight for the waffle maker. “First time I’ve had a hot breakfast in over a year.”
After they ate, he slipped the crucifix from his pocket. “Time to figure out what this is all about.”
Their first stop was at Werner Jewelers. “The owner is Darrell,” Luke mentioned as they climbed out of the Camaro. “I used to work with him from time to time years back.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Identifying jewelry, investigations, stuff like that.” Luke removed the necklace from his pocket and tossed it into the air. Catching it, he continued. “He loves a good mystery.”
The bell over the door jangled as they walked in.
Cassie blinked under the bright lights. “If they put any more lightbulbs in this place the power plant’s going to have a brown-out,” she whispered to Luke.
Situated in a u-shape around the edges of the room, the glass display cases sparkled like they held ice-fire.
“Hello!” a male voice called from the office area of the building. Cassie tore her gaze away from a diamond tiara sitting front and center on a red velvet stand.
“Hey, Darrell,” Luke said, resting his hands on the counter.
A short man walked behind the counter. His bald spot shone under the lights, and a bit of graying hair grew from ear to ear across the back of his head. He adjusted small round glasses higher on his nose to study them. His mouth dropped. “Luke?” Darrell chuckled. “Young man! Long time no see! How are you doing?”
“I’m hanging in there.” Drawing an arm around Cassie, Luke continued. “This is my friend, Cassie.”
“Ohh.” Darrell glanced at Cassie before shooting a knowing grin at Luke. “What are we here for, today, hmmm?”
“Uh, sorry to disappoint you. But it’s not for us. We’re hoping you can help identify a piece of jewelry.” Luke slid the necklace across the counter to the jeweler.
“Oh,” Darrell glanced down before gingerly picking up the tangled chain. “What happened here?”
“A fire.” Luke cleared his throat.
Darrell studied Luke’s face for a moment before turning his attention back to the necklace. “I see.” He pulled out his loupe from under the counter and began to examine it.
Holding it close, he turned the cross over in his hands. “Hmmm,” he hummed.
Cassie twisted the back of her earring impatiently. “Well?” she finally asked.
Luke gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Give him a minute.”
The jeweler clinked the loupe against the counter. “Well, young man. You brought me a treasure this time. This isn’t an ordinary crucifix. It’s a rosary. Once, there were scored wood beads on this chain. The fire must have burned them away.” He turned it over, staring hard it again. “Let me look something up, I’ll be right back.” He scurried to the office and a few minutes later they heard him give a triumphant yell. Darrel returned in a fluster to the counter. His face flushed with excitement as he pointed to an engraving on the back. Handing the loupe to Luke, he continued. “You see that carving there? It tells me this was blessed by Pope Pius VII, after he was taken by Napoleon. This rosary belongs in a museum. How did you get this? You have something very special in your hands, Luke. Something very rare.”
Luke’s jaw clenched. “It’s a family heirloom. Thank you, Darrell.”
“What?” Darrell expression fell with confusion. “That’s the scoop? Tell me there’s more to the story than that.”
Taking Cassie’s hand, Luke led her to the exit. “That’s the story, Darrell. I’ll see you soon. Thanks again.”
He waved, as he hurried out the door, dragging Cassie behind him.
“Do you have an idea who this belongs to?”
“Yep. Time to go to the house.”
the car at the top of the driveway. He cracked his neck and took a couple deep breaths before getting out. Cassie watched him through the passenger window. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the house from under lowered eyebrows. The thick overcast clouds brought a gray gloom. The sky looked ready to open up and grieve with him.
Cassie grabbed her jacket from the back seat and followed him. When she got next to him, she laid her hand on his arm, hoping to give him strength. He gave her a small smile, and they slowly started through the thick grass.
From next door, the dog’s barking began in a fevered pitch. “My old friend,” Cassie said with a wry grin at the dog. Turning, she gestured to where the screen still sat tilted against a remaining block of foundation. “That’s where I found it.”
The rain had caused the remaining dirt to cake on the surface of the screen like adobe. Cracks lined the mud from where it had dried out. She picked off a corner of the mud and crumbled it softly in her hand.
Biting her lip, she watched Luke carefully. His forehead creased and his eyes shifted quickly as if in fear of what he might see. He took a deep breath and reached for her hand.
“This is the first time I’ve been back here sober.” He swallowed, his gaze holding hers as the silence between them grew. Cassie nodded. The silence was filled with words only two grieving hearts could hear.
Softly, she stroked the back of his hand. “I’m here.”
His hand, so much bigger than her own, gave hers a gentle squeeze. “I know, Principessa.” Releasing her, Luke wandered into the remains of the house, until he stood where the kitchen had once been. “Ahh, Jennifer.” The word came in a low whisper. He laced his fingers against the back of his neck and squeezed his eyes tight. “I want to cuss so bad, to tear every remaining piece of this building apart,” he whispered in a strangled voice. “But I can’t. Because that would disrespect her. Be disrespectful to her love for me. To what happened here that day.”
The clouds let loose a light rain, making the forest leaves rustle around them. Cold drops hit her bare legs below her shorts. Cassie pulled up her hood and tucked her hands deep into her pockets. She could barely speak around the lump in her throat. She shifted uncomfortably, her emotions warring between wanting to make it better for him, and the sharp way that his pain nipped at the heels of her own gnawing grief. “I’m so sorry, Luke.”
“I’m okay.” His red-rimmed eyes caught hers again. “I’ll be okay.” With a deep sigh, he rolled his shoulders to release tension. After a moment, he rubbed his hand over his face, pulling at his jaw line. When he looked up again, his face was emotionless.
Cassie knew it was a lie. She’d hidden behind that mask so many times herself. She wanted to reach out and touch him, but knew just a touch could crumble the whole facade.
“I get the mess of emotions.” Cassie paused to take a breath. “For the longest time, there’s been a hollow spot where Leif was. Empty, like I can’t take in enough air. Sometimes, even now, I still suck in a big lungful of air to see if I can fill it.”
“I understand.” He hung his head before pointing to the blackest part of the ash. “They found her over there.” He stiffened as he spoke. “The fire was so intense that I know her death was quick.” He pushed over a piece of lumber over with his foot. “Seems like yesterday. Seems like an eternity ago. When Jennifer died, I swore to myself I’d never forget. It was my job to protect her. I wanted to die too.”
“You came awful close to succeeding.”
“And now I owe you one.”
Cassie tried to lighten the mood. “Don’t worry, I’ll figure out a payment plan.”
Luke studied the backyard, his gaze taking in the old barn and surrounding trees. “One of the last times I saw her, she was telling me to uproot the entire lawn.” A hint of a smile played at the corner of his mouth. “She had some big idea to plant a garden and be self-sufficient. Poor thing couldn’t even keep a house plant alive.”
“Sounds like we had something in common because I’ve got the same green thumb.” She zipped up her jacket against the rising breeze. “Funny how powerful those last memories are, that seem kind of meaningless at the time. One of the last times I saw Leif, he was challenging me to a polar bear dive. I mean, really? It was twenty degrees that day. Do I look like someone who likes to get cold to you?” Cassie burrowed her face into her jacket. “I should have taken him up on it. Made him go first, and then just declared him the winner.”
“Yeah, that sounds like my cuz.” Luke gave a small smile back. “He was always a knucklehead.”
Cassie laughed out loud, and the sound startled her. Her smile slipped. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I’m here to support you, but I’m not being that much help.”
“You’re allowed to have memories too, you know. You don’t need my permission. I’m sure as hell not going to tell you to get over it.” He wiped his face clear of the drops of rain. “Ah, Jennifer. I’ve got the rosary now. I don’t know how, but I’m going to figure out what happened here that day. And I’m going to make them pay.”
Sunlight broke through the clouds, shining a brilliant shaft through the blackened trees and wreckage. The burned house sparkled all around them with a million points of light as the raindrops caught the sun’s reflection.
“Luke, do you see that?”
“I think that might be your sign, buddy. I think she’s saying she’s doing all right.” Cassie turned to smile at him. “I think she’s saying,
Now it’s your turn.
” Luke’s breath hitched as she continued. “Your turn to be all right.”
His eyes drew her in as he walked toward her until he was by her side, towering over her. Swallowing, she broke the eye contact.
What am I doing? Don’t open your heart up! Cass, tell me it’s not too late.
Luke cleared his throat. “You keep saying all the right stuff. It’s disarming.”
Together they turned and headed back to the car. He unlocked the car door for her before gently caressing her arm. “Come here.” His voice was low. Her warning alarms fired, soon silenced by excitement ricocheting inside like a couple of wild racquet balls. She slowly leaned toward him.
The rain lightly sprinkled their faces, but neither let it break their eye contact. He tipped her chin up, resting his forehead against hers. He paused, his lips a hairsbreadth from her own. Gently, he breathed out. The warm air brushed her lips and sent shivers down her back.
“Do you feel that?” he asked.
Her pulse raced.
“That empty space inside of you filling?” Softly, he pressed his lips against hers. Her heart jumped even as she melted into him. Slowly pulling away, he whispered, “We’re both going to be all right.”