Authors: Ruby McNally
Tags: #erotic romance;contemporary;the Berkshires;Western Massachusetts;cops;second chances;interracial;police
They have each other's backsâ¦until love pulls the trigger.
Lights and Sirens, Book 3
Great Barrington beat cops Jackson Ford and Marisol de la Espada enjoyed a seamless partnership for a decade, guarding each other's backs, predicting each other's moves. Until they sent it all to hell with a gesture of comfort that turned romantic. Not only was the sex awkwardâterrible, evenâit messed with their focus. And Jack was shot.
Four months later, Jack has been cleared for active duty, but beneath his barely mended body, he's barely holding it together. Because once the paramedics tore his blood-soaked body out from under Marisol's hands, she practically disappeared.
Since that day, Marisol has done nothing but replay every mistake she made over and over in her mind. As she and Jack grope through the pain, the guilt, and the fog of PTSD for the key to healing their partnership, they begin to wonder if love is enough to heal the trauma, or if they're destined to blow their partnershipâand any chance at loveâall to pieces.
Warning: This book contains two hot, effed-up cops, bad sex that turns good, good sex that turns bad, and some real-talk PTSD.
Jackson's first morning back on duty after the shooting is crisp and clear and sunny, that bite in the air that tempts fall. A handful of newly dropped leaves crunch under his uniform boots. His gut aches where the bullets passed through.
He stops by his regular grimy coffee place on the far side of Stockbridge, the bell jingling cheerily as he pushes through the door. Right away, it's clear he won't be flying under the radar like he hoped.
“Oh my God, hi,” says the barista. She's a local, a frizzy-haired college kid named Caitlin who Jackson's known as long as he's been on the force. “Welcome back, Officer. How you feeling?”
She heard about the shooting, then, obviously. Jackson doesn't know why he's surprised. “Never better,” he says, which is the kind of lie people like to hear four months after you get pumped full of rock salt. In reality, he still feels mostly like shit. “You?”
“Great.” She reaches for the stack of paper cups next to the coffeemaker, beaming at him like he's her own personal Jesus. When it first happened, Jack had no idea being shot in the back would make him so popularâwith nurses, with the news, with his own coworkers. He's still not used to it. “On me today. Same as always, two large, no cream?”
Jackson hesitates. The last time he was here was the day of the shooting, back when there were still Mother's Day chocolates in the window. He remembers wondering if it would be weird to buy Mari some, like,
Hi, sorry the sex sucked, let's celebrate your kid from another man
. Now the whiteboard menu is tricked out with a crude drawing of a pumpkin next to a long list of cinnamon-sugar-type drinks on special. It's like being a small-time Rip Van Winkle.
“Nah,” he says finally. “Just one today.” He tries to make it sound casual and not as if he just changed his order for the first time in a decade.
Caitlin has the grace not to comment. “Coming right up,” she says. When she sees him start counting out change, she shakes her head. “Really, Officer, I got this one.”
Right. Jackson stuffs the bills back in his wallet, but not before noticing he counted out enough for his regular order. Christ but he's a sad sack.
“Thanks.” He salutes Caitlin with his single cup. “Have a good one.” On the way out he's so used to nudging through the jingling door with his hip, hands full, that he actually goes ahead and does it, some kind of bizarre muscle memory kicking in.
Bad idea. The door handle jabs him right in the scar tissue.
“Fuck.” He curls an arm around his gut, immediately sloshing hot coffee all over his hand. “
,” he repeats, wiping it off on his jeans. He and Mari have always hated the shoddy lids at this place. They had been planning to go green this past summer with a pair of reusable mugs.
“You okay?” Caitlin calls from behind the counter.
“Yep,” Jack says, which is definitely a lie. He went cold-turkey on the painkillers two days ago and most of the time the pain is dull and itchy, but right now it feels like he got sucker punched by a cannon ball. “No damage done.” He grabs a handful of napkins on his way out, swearing under his breath.
Welcome back, Officer
. Yeah, sure.
The burn turns out to be the worst of his injuries, smarting the whole drive into work. At the precinct, Jackson parks his car in the lot around back and heads through the side door, straight for the locker room. He wants to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
No dice. “Ford!” hollers Mike Zales the second he steps inside, and just like that Jackson's got the attention of half a dozen police in various states of undress. “Dead man walking, how you been?”
“Oh, you know.” Jackson drops his bag on the bench and accepts their backslaps and catcalls. Gordy Punch, a heavyset guy in his forties, actually gives him a noogie. “Alive.” He's pretty sure there's a sour expression on his face. He forces a smile instead, shaking out of Punch's grip.
It's not that he isn't grateful. His parents live over an hour away in Worcester so it was mostly these guys who made sure he had a rotating parade of flowers and chocolates during his hospital stay, flowers and lasagnas once he was recouping at home. But it's been months now. Jackson is ready to stop being the guy who got shot.
Zales punches his arm on the way out. “Good to have you back, Ford. We missed you.”
“I sure as shit didn't miss you,” Jack calls after them. Zales flips him a double bird.
He waits 'til the room's mostly empty before he peels off his street clothes, moving as fast as his broken-ass body will allow. The bullet and surgical scars on his chest and his stomach are easy enough to cover with an undershirt, but the one near his collarbone is harder to hide. He hasn't worn a tie with his uniform since he was a rookie, way back in '03, but he does now, buttoning up all the way to the top. He fusses with the clip for a good three minutes before he's satisfied. By the time his boots are laced, it's nearly roll call.
He stands in the doorway for a second, staring down at his single cup of coffee. It's half-full.
Jackson chucks the whole mess in the garbage without taking another sip.
The day Jackson is recertified for duty, Marisol sleeps through her alarm.
“Mama,” Sonya cries at half-past, hoisting herself up onto the big bed and rolling across the mattress in a tangle. “Can I have Fruit Loops? Abuela says no.”
“Well, if Abuela says,” Marisol mumbles, rolling her cheek to the cool half of the pillow. She can smell Sonya's milky morning breath, her tangle-free conditioner from last night. For a moment they both just lie there, Sonya wiggling to get her legs under the blankets. Then Mari's eyes fly open. “Shit. What time is it?”
“Seven thirty,” sounds out Sonya, whose reading abilities extend to the digital clock on the nightstand, most board books and the occasional street sign. Then, “You said shit.”
“I did, baby.” Mari stands and hoists her daughter into her arms, kissing the hot skin of one shoulder. Sonya sleeps shirtless because that's how Andre sleeps, her round, puppy-fat belly poking out. She collects rocks like him too, cheers for the Boston Bruins as much as any four-year-old can. Some days it feels like Marisol never got divorced. “Come on, we gotta hustle now, we're late.”
“Okay,” Sonya agrees cheerfully, then gets completely distracted by her My Little Ponies the second Mari sets her on her bedroom floor.
Marisol's mother is down in the kitchen in her flowered nightgown, already baking something with cinnamon and cloves that will likely become dessert for tonight's dinner. The baking is new, a post-divorce development. “Why didn't you wake me?” Mari asks.
“Because you're thirty-three years old and not in high school?” Patricia replies in Spanish, lifting her eyebrows above the plastic frames of her reading glasses. When Patricia first moved in after Mari's father died, she made it abundantly clear that Mari was a grown-up and that she, Patricia, was ready for her dotage of holding grandbabies and reading true crime novels. That Mari's failed marriage has interfered with her plans is something of a sore spot. “Hey,” Patricia says, softening. “Isn't todayâ?”
Mari really, really doesn't want to talk about it. “Uh-huh,” she says, dropping a good-morning kiss on Patricia's cheek and reaching for the coffeepot. “Actually, could you do me a huge favor and get Sone dressed? I gotta shower.”
Patricia nods and wipes her floury hands on a dishtowel. Anything to do with her granddaughter delights her, even if it involves stuffing Sonya's unruly body into too-small play clothes. As soon as she's gone, Mari feels seedy and exploitive, a bad mother and daughter in equal amounts. She gulps her coffee and reminds herself to breathe.
She drops Sone off at preschool before speeding toward the stationâone advantage of being a cop in this town is that the odds of getting a traffic ticket drop pretty dramaticallyâmaking it to roll call just as Sergeant Leo says her name. “Officer de la Espada,” he intones. “Nice of you to join us.”
“Sorry, Sarge,” Marisol says, sliding into the nearest empty chair while still buttoning up her uniform. Her head feels fused to her spinal cord, like if she so much as glances around the room she'll turn into a pillar of salt. Of all the days to be late. “Here I am.”
The name after hers on the list, alphabetically? Jackson Ford.
“At last our lives can begin,” Leo drawls, turning back to his clipboard. A grin breaks across his face as he notices whose name is next. “Speaking of,” Leo says, looking up, and oh, here they go, Mari really thinks she might be about to barf. “Today I have the pleasure of welcoming back one of our ownâ”
Two rows over, Joe Bushur raises his fist and hoots. “Jackson.”
That does it. The rest of the Sarge's words are drowned out by deafening, foot-stamping applause. Mike Zales wolf whistles, Robyn Birk pounds her desk. Mari joins in automatically, clapping like a mechanical doll. She can see him now, Jackson, up in front beside Gordy Punch. She didn't recognize him from the back at first. He cut his hair army-issue short.
When the noise shows no signs of dying off, Jackson raises his hands. “All right, all right,” he calls. “Don't anybody hurt themselves.” He turns to face the room as he says it, and for a moment his eyes lock on Marisol's.
Then he looks away.
So. Mari swallows and tries not to remember how he looked lying on the pavement in the parking garage back at the beginning of the summer, his good solid body torn to pieces right in front of her. Tries not to remember what happened before that, either. She hasn't seen his face in four months.
“You've been missed, Ford,” Sarge says wryly. The whiteboard behind him reads,
No Cops Shot In 116 Days
Roll wraps up quickly after that. Sarge orders them all to come home safe and Mari heads for the back of the room to check the duty board. The past four months she's been riding with a rookie called Fitzgerald, an Irish girl who keeps her head down and doesn't ask too many questions.
Todayâand of course, of course, she should have been more preparedâtoday, she's riding with Jack.
“You and me again, huh?”
She whirls around and there he is, his expression the very theology of indifference. Mother of God, but she missed his face.
“Band's back together,” he continues flatly. He's got a swizzle stick from the Coffee Shack in his mouth but no coffee, and a look in his eyes like Mari's just another chink in the cinderblock.
Mari swallows. They were in the same Academy class, her and Jack. They've been partners more or less since they were twenty. That's ten years of riding eight-hour shifts together, day in, day out, but these past four months have apparently shot that history to hell.
Shot, Mari thinks stupidly, and immediately wants to throw up again.
Really, then, it's fitting that her first words to him after all this time are: “You cut your hair.”
“Yep.” Jackson rubs his buzzed neck. He hasn't had a crew cut since before Sonya was born, years and years ago now. Something about it leaves Mari absolutely stricken by his cheekbones. “So did you.”
Marisol touches her own neck, startled. “Oh. Yeah.” Two weeks after the shooting she lopped everything off into a short, unflattering bob, then started sobbing in the salon chair. The stylist thought she was nuts. “Needed a change.”
Jack nods. He's lost weight too, she notices, conducting a quick hungry inventory of his body. He's a different shape than she thinks of him as being. Mari gained fifteen pounds, herself, all her jeans gone tight and all her shirts gone slutty. “Looks good,” he says, meaning the hair.
Mari opens her mouth. All her apologies are right there, a snarl of words she's rehearsed in her head and in front of the mirror, loosely organized around her various transgressions. She fantasized about showing up today and just handing Jackson an itemized list, I am sorry because of A, B, C and D. She thought he might appreciate the efficiency.
“Ready to go?” is what comes out instead.
Jackson makes a face then, the quickest of eye-rolls like he both expected her bullshit and is disappointed by it. “Yup,” he says, turning and heading down the hallway toward the motor pool. He's wearing his tie, which is odd. “You wanna drive?”
Marisol shakes her head. “It's your turn,” she says. They've switched off every single shift since they were rookies and dying to get behind the wheel of a police cruiser. She was the one who was driving the morning of the shooting, was the one who suggested they stop for a snack at the convenience store to begin with. “I mean, if you want.”
Jackson doesn't look at her again, just scrawls his name in the log book and picks up the keys. “Sure,” he says over his shoulder, opening the door and striding out into the sunlight. “I want.”
Things Jackson doesn't ask Marisol in the cruiser, a selected list: why the fuck didn't she visit him in the hospital, did she miss him while he was pissing into a bag and trying to walk down the hallway without passing out, does she think about that night in his apartment before everything went to hell and if she does, what does she think?
Things he does ask her: “How's Sone?”
“Good.” Sonya always gets Mari's best smile, the broad one with all her teeth that inspires men of all ages and ethnicities to walk across bars and agree to traffic stops. Jackson used to be so intimidated by those men, by the way Mari seemed to be a beacon to every non-white dude in Western Mass. “Started pre-K last week. It's already gotten complicated with a little redheaded boy named George.”
Jackson nods. “Romantic?”
“Antagonistic. George is three and a biter.”
“Incompatible kinks, the death knell of any relationship.” As soon as he says it, Jackson winces, remembering their own incompatibility. “Want to stop for coffee?” he asks quickly, turning up South Street toward the split. There's a Starbucks around the corner up here they used to frequent if they were feeling too snooty for the Shack. “The good stuff?”