Authors: CeeCee James
he next night
found them standing outside the Freymere high school at nine o’clock in the evening. Cassie couldn’t wait to dig into the story behind the crucifix, but it would have to wait. There were more pressing issues they had to address.
Luke wanted to stay sober. And tonight there was an AA meeting being held at the school.
“I’m not sure I need to be here.” Luke’s lips tightened. His hands remained rammed in his jeans pockets rather than reaching for the door handle.
“Don’t go, then. I’m not going to make you. You need to do this for yourself,” Cassie answered, as she rummaged through her purse for her pack of Life Savers.
He leaned to peer through the rectangular window of the school entrance. Fluorescent light spilled out, making his face appear paler than it really was. His knuckles shown white as he grabbed the handle.
Time ticked quickly, marked by the pulse in her throat.
Is he going to do it? Is he ready for this? Come on, buddy, you’re worth it. Fight for yourself!
Rolling his neck, he cracked it on both sides before yanking open the door.
The bright light framed his silhouette as he looked back. “You coming?”
“You want me to?”
His lip curled at the corner. “Who else is going to kick me into gear if I’m not honest?”
Cassie glanced down at her feet, clad in run-down cowboy boots. “I do have the boots for the job.”
Luke opened the door wider. “Come on in then, tough girl.”
Slowly, he reached out with his other hand and grabbed hers. She wanted to tell him he’d be okay, but he had his take-no-crap face on. He’d be insulted if she said anything. So, instead, she curled her hand around his even more and squeezed gently. His response was immediate. The grip tightened until it felt like he was drowning in a sea and she was his lifeline to shore.
She loved the way it felt. Fear flickered inside.
This is starting to go too far. Pull back, Cass. You’re opening up too much, and you know what happens then.
Like one of those cartoon angels perched on her shoulder, she argued against herself.
He needs me. Maybe I need him?
They walked down the hallway, past a wall of peeling yellow lockers. The school’s smell brought her back to her high school years—a cross between antiseptic cleaner, old books, and dirty gym shoes.
The heels of her boots made confident thumps on the worn white linoleum. A mop bucket sat outside one of the rooms, alongside a trash cart. A janitor, rigged out in a green jumpsuit, emerged from the room. His gaze swept over them as they walked by, before he turned to lock the door with his giant ring of keys.
Luke gave the janitor a wary look before jutting his jaw forward. Cassie could feel his guarded attention at every doorway.
Once a cop, always a cop.
Taped to the wall at end of the hallway was a paper sign, emblazoned with the initials AA, a red arrow pointing to the right. Without hesitating, Luke dragged Cassie along.
Another sign indicated the room where the meeting was. After taking a deep breath, Luke flung open the door.
It slammed against the wall.
Conversation cut off inside the room at the sharp noise. At least twenty people waited in there, some sitting at the desks, others standing in small groups. All eyes turned in their direction, and Cassie felt her face heat. Luke cleared his throat before giving a small nod in the group’s general direction. He quietly shut the door behind them.
Gripping Cassie’s hand tighter, he led her to a pair of empty seats in front of a long table, its top scored with names, curse words, and hearts. Cassie sat down and grabbed her necklace, running the pendant across her lip. Her eyes itched to look around the room.
Where are you going to look, Cass? What if you catch someone’s eye?
She focused on her boots instead.
“Good evening, everyone! Welcome. My name is Dave,” a male announced from a few seats away. She guessed from his fading blond hair that he was in his early forties. His white Oxford shirt stretched tight over his round stomach, before being tucked into gray business pants. “There’s some coffee over there. I think we have creamer, too. Betty? Did you pack creamer?” He addressed a middle-aged brunette sitting across from him. She folded her hands in her lap and nodded.
Luke’s leg jittered under the table, and he reached for Cassie’s bare knee below her skirt. She jumped under his tight squeeze and shifted her leg to look. “Sorry,” he whispered. Seeing her leg, he cringed and rubbed at the red fingermarks.
“Also, we have some doughnuts that Cecily made. And they’re awesome. Not that I would know.” Dave patted his stomach and laughed. Light chuckles sprang out in the room.
“There you go, Luke. You like doughnuts, don’t you?” Cassie nudged his hand. “Don’t be shy. I’ve heard all about how cops like them.”
His eyebrows slowly raised, and he frowned at her.
Uh-oh. Have I gone too far with my teasing?
“Fine.” She held her hands up. “I’m just saying, I’ve watched Wreck-It Ralph. I know how it works.”
“Wreck it what?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t watch cartoons. You had a box of Cap’n Crunch sitting on your counter.”
“I’m not following the logic,” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
Dave loudly read from a bulletin.
“Everyone knows a big bowl of Cap’n Crunch can only be eaten in front of cartoons.”
Luke rolled his eyes and moved his hand, but not without giving her leg a little pinch first.
Cassie chanced a glance around the meeting. Several people held books. One woman sipped from a Starbucks cup, her slim form clad in a cream-colored tailored suit. She caught Cassie’s eye and smiled, crossing her leg and showcasing an expensive leather high heel.
Most of the people looked like soccer parents, including one fit man who could have been a clone of her old soccer team coach.
None of them looked like alcoholics.
Luke leaned back in his metal chair and entwined his fingers behind his head. He looked more relaxed already.
“All right, let’s call this meeting to order,” Dave said, as he crossed his legs. “I’ll go first.” His voice deepened. “Ready to pray?”
Dave took in the nods around the room before nodding back.
Cassie gulped and bowed her head, closing her eyes.
“Oh God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.”
t the end
of the meeting, Luke stood and stretched. He reached out a hand to help Cassie up, giving a fake grunt as he pulled her to her feet. She rolled her eyes. “Puh-lease. If you think I’m that heavy, the next stop is the gym.”
“I better do something, after the doughnut addiction you accused me of having.”
She smiled and ran her hand down his arm. “What did you think of the meeting?”
“It, uh.…”Across the room, one of the men caught Luke’s eye and waved. “Be right back,” Luke said as he walked over to him.
Cassie tried to be inconspicuous as she watched, smiling to herself when she saw a grin spread across Luke’s face. At the end of the men’s conversation, Luke shook the man’s hand warmly. When he returned, his eyes had lost their wariness.
“Who was that?” Cassie asked.
He grabbed her hand. “Let’s get out of here.” On the way out, he hooked one of the doughnuts off the tray.
“Bite?” He offered.
Cassie shook her head. “Did you know that guy?”
“How could you tell?” He crammed half the doughnut into his mouth.
“Usually you have your guard way up when you talk to people. You looked comfortable.”
He swallowed, their footsteps echoing in the hall. “Geez, I’m that easy of a read, huh? So much for my detective skills. Yeah, he’s a colleague. An old colleague. He offered to be my sponsor.” His face flickered with bemusement. “I never knew he used to drink. He was really glad to see me.”
“Luke, you’re a great guy. I have a feeling you’re going to be getting more of that reaction. I know people have missed you since you decided to become a cave-dweller.”
He opened the door that led outside, his hand resting on her back. The moon was brilliant in the clear night sky. “I’ve been checked out for a while, that’s for sure. Lost a few battles.”
Pulling her close, he kissed her. She ran her fingers through his hair as he deepened the kiss.
Let me have this. I don’t want to think any more.
“And you,” he murmured against her lips, the pad of his finger tracing along her cheek, “have reminded me that sometimes life isn’t about the battle we face. It’s how we win the war.”
7am no excuses
-ps I’ll bring the doughnuts.
Cassie read the texts from Luke one more time before falling back onto her pillow with a groan. She’d gotten the texts late last night, and had reluctantly set her alarm for six. A sober Luke was turning out to be a hyper Luke. A driven Luke.
Hello, the sun isn’t even up.
She rolled to face the hotel’s black-out curtains. They betrayed her by showing a brilliant strip of light.
She’d been awake until after two in the morning rushing to complete the next article set for Celebrity Blog. Patricia had been encouraging of the last two columns, sending Cassie a note: “Something’s changing! You’re turning the corner. I knew you could do it!”
Cassie’s eye lids grew heavy and slowly closed.
Just one more minute….
Her phone rang, blaring out
by Gnarls Barkley, the tune she’d assigned to Luke. Whimpering, she flapped her hand around the table for the phone.
“I’m up! I’m up!” she complained, forgoing the hello.
“You want glazed? Jelly-filled?”
“I want another hour of sleep. But I’ll take an old-fashioned instead.”
“Another hour? Please. It’s getting late!”
“Actually, I want three hours, but I’m willing to compromise.”
“Come on, Principessa. I’ll have a cup of coffee waiting to perk you up. Time to figure out where that rosary came from. Bad guys don’t wait.”
“See you in the lobby in an hour,” she grumbled, and rubbed at her eyes.
“Forty-five minutes. Hurry, or I’ll eat your doughnut.”
Cassie tossed her phone on the counter. The happy flutter inside faded into a wave of heaviness. Emotions were getting too real.
Cass, what are you doing with him, seriously?
she jumped in the shower. The shampoo bottle only had an inch left at the bottom, and even more disturbing was the empty conditioner container.
Beautiful. My hair is going to puff like a freaking dandelion.
Afterward, she eyed the hotel hair dryer before deciding against it. Instead, she quickly twisted her hair into a bun.
Cassie applied a thin coat of mascara and dabbed on her favorite lip gloss. She checked her phone for the time. Fifteen minutes left.
Hands on her hips, she surveyed her suitcase.
What do I have left to wear that Luke hasn’t seen yet?
Not much. With a sigh, she shook out the wrinkles in her blue t-shirt, and then reached for her jeans. Dressed, she shoved her feet into her cowboy boots, grabbed her purse, and searched for her pack of Life Savers.
Half of a pack left.
Too early for candy?
She peeled back the wrapper. Green. Frowning, she chucked it into the trash. “Ain’t nobody got time for lime.” After another glance at her phone, she snatched up her hoodie and her hotel key, and jetted out the door.
he two of
them sat on stools at the coffee bar. Luke took a sip from his cup and grimaced. He quickly snagged two packages of sugar. “Hey, I have a question. How have you been able to afford to stay so long at the hotel?”
Cassie grinned and bit into her doughnut. “I know people in high places.”
“My brother-in-law and sister are loaded. They’d rather help me stay in a hotel, where they think there’s some security, than have me sleeping in my car.”
“You’d sleep in your car?”
Cassie shifted uncomfortably. “I had to play all my cards, Luke. My sister was pretty concerned about me coming to find you. The whole ‘we worry,’ and stuff.”
“So? You’re an adult.”
“My sister’s been more of a mom to me than anything else when I was growing up. She’s doing better, but those mom-feels run strong.” She tore her doughnut into three pieces. “Plus I have some life insurance from my dad. And my job can be done pretty much anywhere. Or I hope I still have a job.” She popped a piece into her mouth.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Mmm,” She quickly swallowed. “My line of work is about describing love, falling in love. Kind of hard to do when all you want to do is run away from life.”
He studied her. “Leif died over a year ago. How long since you’ve last seen him?”
“Almost three years.” she whispered. “And you?”
“Principessa, my situation is completely different.”
“Two years, right? Two years, and you seem….”
“Like everything still hurts.” she finished.
“Yeah, I still hurt. But I’m learning that life is about not wasting any of the love we get.”
Grimacing, she held up the doughnut chunk. “Sorry for the depressing conversation. It’s what you get when you force me to wake up this early in the morning.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Luke smiled and reached out to cup her chin. “I’m glad you’re here.” He kissed her lightly.
Definitely better than a Life Saver.
“So, tell me why we had to wake up at this awful hour.”
“We’re meeting my old partner, Trevor, before his shift. I have an idea of who this necklace belongs to. I’ve been waiting to hear what he has to say.”
“You’ve been talking with your partner about other stuff besides supporting you?”
Luke licked his lips and spun his cup on the table. Raising his head, his eyes sought hers. “I have. My medical leave is nearly over. It’s been twelve months. Time for me to get back to work.”
“Are you serious? I mean, I’m happy for you, but… wow.”
“Yeah. I am. Tomorrow I’ll have a meeting with the Chief of Personnel. I have some hoops to jump through, and have to prove I’m of sound of mind and all of that. But I think it’s time for me to get my feet wet.” He grinned at her reaction. “Don’t look so shocked.”
Cassie felt her face heat. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be shocked. I just thought, with everything you’d been through, you’d never want to go back.”
“I had a job to do. I failed at it.”
He grabbed her hand, his thumb stroking the side of her palm. “Now I begin again.”
The bell over the coffee shop door rang as a police officer entered.
“Ah, there he is. Trevor! Over here!” Luke waved.
The police officer acknowledged them with a nod before heading for the cash register to order a coffee. Cassie took in his dark crew cut and clean-shaven face. Hard to guess how old he was, but he had the stocky dad-bod build of a man in his thirties. A few minutes later, he came over with a steaming cup.
“Luke.” Trevor smiled as he sat down. Looking at Cassie, he continued, “And?”
“This is Cassie, my girl.”
Cassie felt butterflies at the word.
She shifted, mentally trying out the word.
Weird? Nice? Yeah. Real nice.
“Pleased to meet you.” Trevor offered his hand, which Cassie shook. He pushed his chair to face Luke. “You’re looking good, buddy. You feeling okay?”
“I’ve never been better.”
Trevor nodded. “It’s been a long time coming. Now, let’s see this necklace.”
With a clatter, Luke dropped the rosary on the table. Trevor picked it up and held it close to examine it. “And what did Darrell say about this?”
“He knows the jeweler?” Cassie leaned to whisper to Luke.
“It’s a tight-knit community.” Luke winked at her before addressing Trevor. “He said it’s from the early 1800s. Very rare, and very valuable.”
“And very Catholic, I’m guessing?” Trevor added. “Only one person that I know of. The same mafia thug we tried to bust two years ago. Perfect.”
Luke looked at Trevor, his jaw tightening. “Nicholai.”
he car ride
back to the hotel was quiet. Luke had flipped the radio off earlier, and was staring out the windshield with apparent intense concentration. Cassie watched Luke for a moment from under lowered eyelashes. Absentmindedly, she twirled her pendant on its chain. “So, who’s Nicholai?”
“Bloody hell! You scared the crap out of me.” Luke scowled, his grip tightening on the steering wheel.
“Sorry to shake you up there, Detective. I thought you were supposed to have nerves of steel and all that.”
“Yeah, well, I was lost in thought. And I’m not ready to talk about Nicholai. I was thinking about my interview tomorrow. Needing to prepare for the agility test. To pass, I have to perform the 1.5 miles in 14:30.”
“Yikes. Well, you gave me a lot to think about too.”
“Your girl?” Cassie raised an eyebrow as she looked at him.
He grinned. “Yeah. My girl. You got a problem with that?” His bravado faded slightly. “Tell me you don’t have a problem with that. Because you’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. And I can’t let you go.”
“Aren’t you afraid? To have those feelings again?”
“Does hiding from how you feel bring back Leif?”
“We all hide from something.”
“Then, the question is, when are you going to be brave enough to look fear in the face and say,
Non mi sconfiggerai mai.
“What the heck does that mean?”
“It means ‘it’ll never defeat me.’ And I mean that. Never again.”