Sunday, October 31, 2010

Late One Halloween Night

Late one night, while I sat eating
I thought I heard the sound of breathing.

Up from the kitchen chair I stood,
Turned about and spilled my food.

Right before my very eyes
a human spider heaving sighs!

Eight black arms and a tummy of yellow
I was too scared to even bellow.

This Baby Everett on the loose
All he wanted was some juice!


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mind Whispers

I have no idea if I posted this before...I was digging through some computer files and found it and it stirred up some nice memories.


When I close my eyes, I can still see the two of them standing there. Two men, two friends, arms casually draped over each other as they smiled for my camera. Two men, so different in every way…one quiet, loyal and dependable, sharp-witted, dark in his features, but glowing with an internal light, a gentle soul longing for the soothing balm of true love; the other strong and burly, wild in appearance, overflowing with artistic passion, long hair, piercing eyes, and a stance that would have been frightening had I not known the gentle being within. Eight years ago [actually, as of today, it's been eleven and a half years]…not so long, but still what seems to be a small eternity in this world. The photo needn’t be in my hand for me to remember. The picture is etched into my brain, the edges razor cut so sharp that I’m afraid if I blink, the corners may slash the recesses of my memory and make the colors and feelings of that time bleed and fade away into nothingness. Two men. This is how I will always remember them…

He stood there looking at me, the air slightly damp, not quite warm, though we were in the throes of Spring. His dark brown eyes were limpid, mirrored pools of my own and he was searching my face, the corners of his mouth slowly tugging upward. I knew what he was thinking. He was waiting patiently (so hard to be patient, why can’t she see that I’m crazy about her?) for me to answer his question. I had no idea what he had asked me. Some inane question about politics and my thoughts on government reform. I didn’t know. Didn’t care. But I could see the near frantic desperation in his face, even though he was smiling (keep a smile on your face, don’t let her see how badly you want to grab her and crush her lips with your own, finally know what it’s like to feel their warmth and taste their sweet softness).

I grinned and shrugged, nothing more than a slight twitch of my shoulder as I tossed my hair to the side. When I saw his hand coming toward me, I thought he was going to touch my face. My heart fluttered in my chest as I anticipated his fingers caressing my skin. Instead, he delicately extracted a piece of a cherry blossom from my hair. I smiled at him as he handed it to me. Our fingers brushed (what would she do if I took her hand and folded it into my own and never let go?) and I felt warm. I wanted to tell him in that moment (I have the same feelings for you, just give me a little more time to admit it! Touch my hair, my face, wake up the woman that I know is lurking somewhere in here!) that he could have left it in my hair. It was, after all, just a cherry blossom.

Our moment was shattered a second later. Loud laughter as the other one unintentionally intruded on the moment. Time to meet our group of friends for dinner. I sat between them that night, the air heavy over us, their silent battle being waged around me. Two men silently competing with each other, mutual respect preventing what could have been an ugly scene. I was cautious in the conversations, wanting to devote equal time to each. The other one leaned in close to me, whispering about the history of the town. His long hair brushed against my arm and I felt him shudder slightly (what would it feel like for my hair to be loose around her, her warm skin pressed against my own?). I smiled as color flooded his face. He wanted to know more about me, what I’m passionate about (could she ever be as passionate about me as I am about her?), my plans for the future.

I politely answered his questions, sharing what I wanted to do with my life (is he able to read my thoughts right now and know that part of what I want to do with my life is be with him?). He sat with his left elbow on the table, chin propped on his fist as he used his right hand to swirl the wine in his glass. His eyes bored into mine and he tilted his head casually to the right (does she know that I’m thinking that maybe someday, I’ll be swirling champagne in my glass as I toast our love at our wedding reception?) waiting on me to continue speaking. I smile and look away. The meal is finally, blessedly over.

Long after midnight, I lie alone in the stillness, counting cracks in the ceiling, mulling over the day’s events. Two men, both kind, both solid, both wanting so much from me. I cannot choose between them. Both are gracious, and if I did choose, the other would smile and wish us luck. I want both of them. I can have neither of them. It simply would not be right.

The next morning, and every single day after that for over a year, I balance my time with them. Neither knows how my heart races when I see them. I can hear their minds whisper to me, gently cajoling (pick me, give me a chance and I’ll give you a lifetime of love and passion, stability, a family, more, anything you want, just pick me and I swear I’ll take care of you for the rest of my life) but I always pretend that I am unaware of how much they care.

One of them gave me unconditional support and confidence (you’re an amazing woman and in a way, I envy you. I hope someday you’ll discover just how wonderful and beautiful you are, that you’ll be able to see yourself the way I see you. I want you to want me and feel these same feelings, but I love you enough to let you go) to just be me. His kindness never wavered, he never faltered in his quest to bring me closer to loving him…until the very end when there was no denying that I would not allow myself to fully welcome him into the most secret parts of my soul. I still feel the strength in his arms as he held me for a moment in what would turn out to be our farewell embrace. I feel the warmth and gentleness in his touch as he brushed his work-roughened thumb over my knuckles before he released my hand and walked away...

The other gave me Paris. A beautiful nighttime sky, a gentle rain falling over the city, the backdrop for what could be a passionate love story…for what could be our passionate love story. I close my eyes and I still see it, can still feel the heat of his body in the coat that he wrapped around me (the Eiffel Tower is beautiful at night, isn’t it? I’ve been there. I want to go again, but this time with you. We could spend our lives there, getting to know each other better than two people ever have. I can race you around the streets of France during the day and make sweet love to you at night). I can still feel his neatly trimmed beard resting on top of my head as he pulls me to him and we gaze at the photograph, almost able to hear the passing cars and feel the breeze blowing over the city…

Two men. So different from each other, yet each being exactly what I wanted in a life partner. Particles of dust dancing on the winds of time in this universe. How very fortunate that I got to know and love both of them in this lifetime.

Years crept by, time slowly chipping away at the foundation of our friendship as each realized that I would never pick one of them. As painful as it was, I knew the time would come to make a choice. I did make a choice, a choice that was practical and simple and agonizing. But I never told them that the only reason I chose someone else was because I couldn’t bring myself to choose between the two of them.

I never told them that I loved them (so much that I thought my heart would burst…so much that there were days I could barely focus…so much that I ultimately punished not only them, but myself, too). But I did love them, as deeply and profoundly and completely as is possible to love someone.

And somehow, despite years and time and distance, I still do.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Devil You Know

Did he think that I wouldn't recognize him yesterday? It was the same intersection for goodness sake! And even though he wasn't standing at the same corner, and he was wearing different clothes, I could tell in a moment that it was him. A black knit hat, and loose, baggy clothes in mismatched black--as if he could pass for some sort of gang banger type slouched against the streetlight! But the glance of the devil does not go unnoticed.

The light stayed green and I drove right past him this time. He glanced up at me and I clenched my teeth as I went through. What is he hoping for? If it requires him to be in disguise, he's terrible at it. I didn't bother to look back.

But he wasn't satisfied.

Not much later, when I had to stop--first in line--for a red light, there he was. New outfit, shiny black car, and big, gleaming smile directed right at me as he sat waiting to turn left off of the street with moving cars. I could almost roll my eyes in annoyance. But I wonder--why?

So, today, he sent me a coat in the guise of an error. Beautiful, expensive, and something from a dream. In black. I was almost strong enough to leave it in the box, but I tried it on. It fit like a glove.

I pulled it off and packed it back up since I see it for what it is.

The devil can keep his coat.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Untitled 1: Part 12

The week passed uneventfully, which had its pros and cons. On the one hand, it meant that there weren’t any murders. On the other hand, it also meant that they weren’t any closer to solving their case. Eileen and Ryan were getting on each other’s nerves, and both were having trouble concentrating on anything except finding the killer that had infiltrated their lives.

Mike and Eileen opted not to go away for the weekend, deciding to wait until work settled down for both of them. They were both working long hours, and by the end of the week, Mike was crazy with wanting. Saturday, they had gone fishing, bringing Scotty along. It had been fun walking along the lake and teaching him how to cast a line. Eileen had turned out to be a natural and had caught more fish than Mike and Scotty and combined. After a fish fry back at Eileen’s house, Scotty had piped up, asking if he could go back to the group home.

Eileen didn’t want to take him back, but he’d insisted. “Please mom? They’re having movie night tonight. And the girls from next door are coming over. Melanie’s new there and I told her maybe I could see her tonight if you took me back. She’s real pretty, mom. I like her.”

Mike smiled as Eileen relented. Challenged or not, Scotty still had the raging hormones of a teen-aged boy. They drove out to Lake Zurich in Mike’s car, Scotty chatting the whole way about Melanie, who was new to the program. Scotty prattled on and on about her, obviously smitten and experiencing his first real crush. Eileen was barely able to get in a hug and kiss before Scotty took off out of the car.

Mike couldn’t help but notice the wistful look on her face. “Why don’t you go get him settled and I’ll wait in the car for you.”

“Okay. It’ll be just a few minutes.” Eileen smiled as she walked after Scott, thinking about how fast her boy was growing up. It seemed like only yesterday he was a happy-go-lucky kid, picking dandelions and handing them to her like they were some long-lost treasure.

Tiffany, the residential lead on the weekends, was just cleaning up from dinner. “Miss Riley! It’s good to see you. Bringing Scotty back early this weekend?”

Eileen nodded. “Yeah, he was begging me to come back. Something about movie night and a young woman named Melanie. I didn’t have the heart to keep him away.”

Tiffany laughed out loud. “Those two are so cute together. Melanie was terrified when she got here, but Scotty took right to her, and they’ve practically been inseparable. She follows him everywhere and he completely dotes on her.”

They chatted easily for a few minutes about Scott and Melanie and the rest of the activities for the weekend. Tiffany admired Eileen and the devotion she showed for her son. Scotty was one of the few residents who went home every weekend and she had the utmost respect for his mother. They continued to make small talk until Scotty came barreling through the kitchen, appearing shocked at seeing his mother still there.

“Mom? Are you staying here tonight, too?”

“No, sweetie. Mike’s waiting outside for me.”

Scotty looked relieved. “Good. It wouldn’t be as much fun if you were here during the movie. Now I can sit by Melanie instead of by you.”

Eileen gave him a playful swat as he ran toward the living room. “Goofy kid.” She smiled at Tiffany. “Thanks for taking such great care of my son. It makes me feel good to know that he actually enjoys being here. Have a great weekend,” she called out as she headed for the door.

On the way back, Mike held her hand and she leaned over to rest her head on his shoulder, falling asleep before they hit the highway. Mike stroked her cheek, thinking to himself that life was good. Every now and then he would glance down at her, amazed at the intense look she had, even in sleep. He knew she was exhausted and felt guilty waking her up when they got back.

“Sorry for falling asleep,” she mumbled. “I seem to making a habit out of that when you’re around.”

Mike stroked her face. “No problem, honey. You sleep as much as you need to.”

He guided her into her bedroom, where she undressed and fell asleep again. Mike crawled in next to her, pulled her over and held her close, her skin warm against his own. When they woke up the next morning, Eileen was her usual cranky self. “What time is it?” she muttered.

“Just a little after eight. You can go back to sleep if you want.”

“No, I’m up. I may as well stay up.” She had a scowl on her face that reminded Mike vaguely of an annoyed Chihuahua.

He laughed a little bit, and though he tried to muffle it, Eileen heard it and was not amused. “What are you laughing at?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. Would you like me to make some coffee for you?”

Still scowling, she got out of bed and grabbed her robe. “Yeah, if you don’t mind. Maybe some caffeine will get me going.”

She headed to the shower and Mike got up, trying to stifle the smile that kept coming across his lips. Mornings definitely were not Eileen’s forte. Calling her crabby would be too kind.

Half an hour later, showered and dressed, Eileen seemed a little more energized, but remained unusually quiet. Mike made an offer to cut her grass and trim the hedges under her front window, which she accepted. While he busied himself outside with the lawn mower and clippers, Eileen dusted and vacuumed in the house. When Mike was through and came back inside, she was waiting with a sandwich a glass of lemonade for him. After lunch, she challenged him to a game of Scrabble.

“Scrabble?” he asked. “I kick butt at Scrabble. You better watch out.”

Eileen grinned. “I don’t think so.”

An hour later, Mike sat completely dumbfounded, searching the dictionary for yet another word that Eileen had put out. Sure enough, it was there. He tossed the dictionary aside, completely disgusted.

“Eileen, is there anything you’re not good at?”

She smirked. “Of course. But I’m not going to tell you what. I guess I should have told you, though, that I won the school spelling bee every year from sixth grade through my senior year in high school.”

He shook his head. “You’re a nerd.”

“Yes, I am. And I’m okay with that. Tell you what. How about if you relax for a while and watch the game and I’ll get dinner started.”

“You sure? I can help.”

“Nah. You cut my grass for me. The least I can do is whip something up to show my appreciation.”

Mike was soon absorbed in the Cubs game as Eileen puttered around the kitchen. Before he knew it, she was gently shaking his shoulder, waking him for dinner.

“I can’t believe I fell asleep,” he said over a yawn, stretching his arms and legs.

“It’s the weather,” Eileen commented as she led him into the dining room. “Any work outside in warm weather tends to suck people dry.” She waved him into a chair. “I made something simple tonight. Roasted chicken and mashed potatoes with zucchini. I’ve got fruit salad and a light sponge cake for dessert.”

Mike rolled his eyes at her. “Sure. A simple dinner. To you, one step below a seven-course meal is simple.”

She smiled at the compliment, but said nothing. Mike noticed that Eileen was quiet during dinner, none of the usual cheerful chatter that he had come to enjoy so much. He was missing the musical lilt of her voice and the usual sparkle that always surrounded her. Tonight, she was sitting quietly, shifting the food on her plate, breaking her chicken into smaller and smaller pieces and designing her mashed potatoes into some type of architectural wonder. He’d been done eating for almost ten minutes, but he didn’t think Eileen ever even put her fork in her mouth.

“You know,” he said quietly, “it really isn’t nice to play with your food. Especially food that you made and most especially food that tastes this good.”

She was momentarily startled by the interrupted silence. “What? Oh yeah.” She jammed a forkful of potatoes in her mouth, then hurriedly spit them into her napkin when she realized they were cold. Mike couldn’t help but laugh at her sour expression as she wiped her tongue on the napkin.

“Not funny,” she said.

“You’re right. It’s not funny. It’s very funny.” When she didn’t respond, he cut the laughter and reached across the table to tuck her hair behind her ears. He cupped her face in his hands, seeing the pale lavender shadows under her eyes, wishing he could kiss away whatever was troubling her. “Eileen, you look so upset. Do you need some time to yourself? I can go.”

She shook her head free from his gentle touch. “No. I’m just feeling lousy today. There’s so much going on.” She took in a deep breath, closing her eyes as she exhaled. “I’ve got too much on my mind, not enough time to work through it, and certainly not enough emotional energy to keep going on like this.”

Mike heard the catch in her throat. “I guess I haven’t been too helpful to you in that area.”

“It’s not that. It’s really nothing to do with us. It’s work stress. I’ve been feeling a little burned out. I would love to take a few days off, just for some mental R and R, but I know I wouldn’t be able to rest. No. I’d just be wasting my hard-earned vacation time. Ryan and I need to solve this case first. Maybe then I can relax.”

“Are you and Ryan getting any closer to figuring it out?”

“Not really. It’s like a damn puzzle. I guess every crime is. It’s our job to put the puzzle together. The problem this time around is that it’s like trying to put together a puzzle without the benefit of the cover picture. But we’ll figure it out.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Actually, yes.” She stood up and began clearing their plates. “You can help me load the dishwasher and then take a long walk with me. I’m just about overcome with cabin fever and I think the fresh air would do me some good.”

“I’d like that very much,” he replied as he gathered the serving dishes. “In fact, I’ll even throw in a free backrub when we get back.”

“Really?” There was a hint of happiness in her voice and Mike even caught a little glint in her eyes. “A real backrub? Like with massage lotion and candle light?”

“Absolutely. So how about that walk?”

“Let’s go,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck.

He hugged her back, enjoying the feel of her body pressed against his. “What’s this for?”

She shrugged. “Just because.”

Leaning in closer, she softly kissed his lips. Mike ran his fingers through her hair, feeling himself grow hard. “If we’re going to get that walk in, we should really go now.”

“Okay,” she whispered back, pressing herself against him, feeling his erection against her hip. She kissed him again, longer and slower, seductively running her tongue along his lower lip. He parted his lips and their tongues did a slow dance.

“Do you want to wait on that walk?” he whispered hoarsely.

“I think so,” she murmured against his neck.

He lifted her onto the kitchen table, snaking his hand up under her skirt. He moaned when he felt her damp panties. Deftly moving the fabric aside, he plunged a finger into the wetness, causing her to gasp.

“Would you also like to wait on loading the dishwasher?” He slid his finger back and forth, teasing her into a near frenzy.

“Yes,” she moaned. “Everything can wait until later.”

He continued to tease her until she began pumping her hips and arching her back. Her nipples were hard, poking through her tank top, aching to be touched. He playfully bit them through the fabric, feeling her body shudder with barely contained pleasure.

Mike lazily kissed her neck, nibbled on her ears, getting harder every second. He leaned his face close, pressing his forehead against hers. “Want to go to the bedroom?”

“Not particularly,” she replied, gazing into his eyes. He looked confused until she shamelessly undid his jeans and tugged them down, along with his boxer briefs. A knowing look crossed his face and he winked at her.

“Whatever you say.”

She scooted closer to the edge of the table, hiking up her skirt around her waist. “More like wherever I say.”

“Okay,” he said, eyes glittering as he watched her slip off her panties.

“Okay then.” She scooted forward a little more, pulling him closer, closer, until he hit home.

Half an hour later, Mike sat in a kitchen chair, Eileen naked on his lap with her arms and legs wrapped around him. She was smiling, her head resting on his shoulder.

“It’s good that I don’t have company too often. I’ll never be able to let anyone sit at the kitchen table again.”

“Sure you can,” he laughed, gently massaging her lower back. “You can let them sit at it. Just not on it. And you probably shouldn’t let anyone sit in this chair.”

She let out a lusty laugh, scooting her way higher on his lap and lightly nipping at his shoulder. “Yeah. This chair is definitely reserved for you and me. And you know what? I’m actually hungry now.”

He grinned at her, gently tugging on her hair. “See? I knew a little workout would bring back your appetite.”

She gave him a playful pinch as she stood up. “You did give me a workout.” She pulled on her tank top and stepped into her skirt, then twirled her panties around her finger. “Want to take that walk with me? There’s a seasonal ice-cream place a few blocks away where we can get tuna sandwiches and root beer floats. I’m not in the mood for what I cooked tonight.”

“Sure,” he said, zipping and buttoning his jeans. “Do you want to go now?”

“Yup.”

He eyed her suspiciously as she casually tossed her panties into her bedroom as they made their way to the front door.

“What are you doing?”

She gave him a wide-eyed, innocent stare. “Why, whatever do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

Eileen gave her skirt a quick flick, briefly flashing him. “Don’t worry. It’s not windy today.”

“Are you joking?”

“Nope.” She slipped her feet into a pair of flip-flops and stepped out onto the front porch. Mike stood in the doorway staring at her. She looked back at him, her eyes locking with his. “Are you coming?”

A slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he met her on the porch, pulling the door shut behind him. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m coming.”

A sly look crossed over her as she leaned forward and whispered, “Not yet you’re not. But maybe later.”

Color seeped into his face and he felt his cheeks get warm. He couldn’t believe how good she made him feel. “Eileen, you are really bold, aren’t you?”

“Sometimes. Especially when it comes to getting something I really want.” She took his hand and kissed it. “And I really want you. But I also really want to eat.”

He kissed her full on the mouth. “Let’s get you fed so you don’t get all cranky on me.”

“Me? Cranky? How could I be cranky after the action I just got?”

He smiled at her, holding her hand, but didn’t respond. They strolled together in the summer air, enjoying each other’s company. They were quiet for several minutes.

A quarter block from Tastee Time, Mike finally broke the silence. “So, are we okay?”

Eileen looked at him but didn’t reply.

“No, Eileen. Seriously.” He stopped walking and placed his hands on her shoulders, trying to get her to look at him.

She avoided his gaze. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re okay, but I’d like to hear it from you. You’re tough to read. I’m still feeling badly about how I treated you. I’d like to make it up to you, prove to you that nothing like that will ever happen again.”

“Mike, you don’t need to make anything up to me. I brought it upon myself. I think the bigger question is, are you okay? Okay with me? Okay with us?”

He pulled her into a tight embrace, squeezing her so hard it made her ribs ache. “I’m very okay with you. And very, very okay with us.” He slid his hands down her back, gently squeezing her behind, getting a thrill out of knowing that she was naked underneath her skirt.

“Okay then,” she said, wriggling away from him. “Let’s get moving so we can eat and go home.”

Mike nodded, too unsure of himself to speak, but definitely liking the way that sounded. Home. As he watched Eileen sidle up to the window to order, he realized it didn’t matter where he was. As long as they were together, he would always be home.

They sat outside, a warm breeze blowing over them as Eileen ate her sandwich and Mike fiddled with the straw in the root beer float they were sharing. In the fading light of sunset, Eileen’s hair gleamed a stunning myriad of brown and red, with golden highlights peeking through the darker strands. Her green eyes were intently fixed on him.

“You look like you’re lost in thought, Mr. O’Brien.”

He smiled at her, his heart swelling in his chest. “I am. Sorry. I didn’t mean to get distracted.”

“What were you thinking about?”

“Nothing. Everything. I don’t know.”

Eileen crumpled the wrapping from her sandwich and tossed it into a nearby trash can. “You can’t be thinking about everything and nothing. The human brain doesn’t work like that.”

“Mine does. Really.”

She snatched the root beer float from him and slurped down the last of it. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she playfully tapped him on the forehead. “Nope. No, it doesn’t work that way. So, what were you thinking about?”

He smiled and shrugged. “Nothing really.”

She gave him a dubious look. “I don’t think I should believe you.”

Her serious expression made him laugh. “Okay, okay, you caught me.” He grasped her hand and held it tightly as they began walking back toward her house. Inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly, he thought about what he wanted to tell her. They had walked several blocks and she looked at him expectantly, but kept quiet, not wanting to push too hard.

After a few long moments of silence, he said, “Do you want to see other people?”

Shock registered immediately on her face and she averted her gaze away from his face. So that’s what he’d been thinking about. Trying not to let him hear the hurt in her voice, she choked out a reply. “What? Why? Do you want to see other people?”

Suddenly realizing that what he’d said had come out wrong, he hurriedly tried to explain. “No, no that’s not what I meant. That came out completely wrong. I, um, what I mean is, it’s just that,” he stuttered for another few seconds before finally stopping to catch his breath. “No, I don’t mean that I want to see other people. And I don’t mean that I want you to see other people, either.”

Still wary, but looking at least a little relieved, Eileen squeezed his hand. “Well, good, because I don’t want to see other people.”

“Okay. Good. That’s good.” He seemed flustered and Eileen was curious about what had him so anxious.

“Mike, is everything okay? You’re scaring me a little.”

Despite the air that was turning a little bit cooler, he’d suddenly begun to sweat and he wiped his forehead on his shirt sleeve. “I’m sorry. This is coming out all wrong.” He stopped when they reached Eileen’s house and faced her, looking deep into her eyes. “Look, Eileen. I’m kind of an old-fashioned guy. I don’t mind being labeled a fuddy-duddy, because I guess I am. What I’m asking you is this. Can we be exclusive?”

She was puzzled by his choice of words. “Exclusive?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Exclusive. Like going steady. Will you be my girl?”

Touched by his request, Eileen jumped up, throwing her arms around his neck and wrapping her legs around his waist. “I would love to be your girl.”

His eyes actually sparkled. “Really? I mean really really?”

“Yes, really.” She gave him a light head-butt. “Don’t be such a knucklehead. Maybe you didn’t realize it, but I already was exclusive with you. You’re the only person I’ve ever been exclusive with. Other than the whole Derek situation, I haven’t been with anyone. You know?”

“You mean you were a virgin?”

“Well, no, not technically. Derek got that part of me. But I guess in a lot of ways, especially from an emotional standpoint, I was a virgin.”

Mike looked deep into her green eyes. “I was your first? I mean, willingly your first?”

She smiled at him. “Yeah. I never understood how people could have casual sex. I was never into that. It’s not like I ever dated much anyway, but to me, this is beyond just dating and sex. Don’t you think?”

“Yes,” he agreed. “I do think this is far beyond just dating. We haven’t been ‘together’ per se for very long, but I think we’ve covered more ground as a couple in the past few weeks than most people cover in the course of their whole relationship.” Wrapping his arms around her, his hands suddenly made contact with the bare skin on her bottom. He groaned, having forgotten that she was naked underneath. He immediately felt himself rising. Eileen felt it too and pressed a little harder against him.

He groaned again. “Woman, you’re like kryptonite to Super Man. One touch and I go weak in the knees.”

Nuzzling his ear, she whispered, “You are my Super Man. Maybe I can be your Lois Lane.”

She was pressing harder against him, sending little stabs of pleasure through his loins as he headed up the sidewalk to her door. “Eileen, you can be whatever and whoever you want to be, as long as it’s with me.”

“Um, Mike?”

“Yes?” he asked, distracted by her warm skin and the sensations he was feeling from below the border.

“Now that we’re in agreement that we’re exclusive, and I’m your one and only girl, is there some kind of ritual? Do I get a class ring or a pin or something to make it official the way they do in high school?”

“Oh, you’re going to get pinned all right,” he growled as he reached the front door. “There will definitely be an official pinning ceremony.”

Her soft giggles turned into barely audible moans as he trailed kisses down her neck. She fumbled with her keys until Mike took them from her and unlocked the door, carrying her inside and kicking the door shut behind him. Her hands were working the front of his pants open and he was sinking himself into her before they even made it to the living room. Balancing her against the door, he filled her with long, hard thrusts, his body pressing hard against hers.

Gripping his back for support, she kissed his neck and bucked against him, passion building and flowing over until she erupted in climax. A jagged cry came from the back of his throat as his own hot juices spurted forth. Not missing a beat, he turned her and knelt down with her, laying her on the floor, continuing to move in and out of her with a steady rhythm that she seemed to be enjoying. Her eyes were closed and her head was moving back and forth, soft sighs of pleasure escaping her lips. She dug her heels into the backs of his thighs and Mike groaned as she came again. He could feel her tight muscles contracting around him and he smiled as he kissed her hard on the lips.

She opened her eyes and met his gaze. “I think I like this. Can we have pinning ceremonies more often?”

Smiling as he rolled her on top, he nodded. “Honey, we can have as many pinning ceremonies as you want. It’s allowed now that we’re official.”

“Good,” she whispered, gently biting his lips. “I think I’m going to like this whole ‘official’ thing.”

“Me too,” he said as she began a slow, easy ride. “Me too.”

* * *

Later in the evening, after a long, hot shower together, as promised, Mike massaged Eileen’s back. She lay on the bed with a towel draped over her lower half as his hands kneaded her sore muscles. The air conditioning was turned off and the bedroom window was open, letting the summer breeze drift in and billow the curtains. Mike decided to light two candles on her dresser and the soft flickering gave her skin an ethereal glow. Mike’s touch was firm, but gentle as he worked out the knots and stiffness, first in her neck, then in her back. More than once she found herself nodding off as she relaxed under the magic of his touch. He massaged her arms and legs until she felt as limp as cooked spaghetti, and he was glad to finally see some of her tension melting away. They were both quiet and afterward, she cuddled in his arms, not really wanting him to leave, but afraid of asking him to stay.

Mike desperately wanted to stay, but was afraid of overstaying his welcome. He really didn’t want to intrude on her personal time or space, and figured she could use both right about now. Carefully disentangling himself from her embrace, he slid off the bed and stood to get dressed.

“Are you leaving?” she asked, sadness evident in her voice.

“I should. You need your rest. And since Scotty’s back in Lake Zurich already, you can sleep in a little bit tomorrow morning. I’ll let you get some peace and quiet.”

She was genuinely disappointed and it was evident in her voice. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” he said as he pulled on his tan polo shirt and tucked it into his faded blue jeans.

“Do you want to go?”

Momentarily taken aback, he didn’t respond.

“Well?”

“Actually, no, I don’t. The thought of going back to my apartment is kind of depressing. I’d rather be with you, but I thought you might want some down time. You do so much cooking and entertaining when I’m here, I figured you’d like the night off. I don’t want to wear out my welcome, either.”

She shook her head at him. “You’re not wearing out your welcome, I promise. I can take the night off with you here. If you’d like to stay the night, I’d love to have you here. Besides, it’s late.” She looked at him hopefully.

Unable to resist—not that he wanted to—he pulled his shirt and jeans back off and slid into bed next to her. “It’s really not that late, but I’d love to stay. You’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” She sat up and looked at him, her green eyes fixed on his face. “I know we’re still early in our relationship and that we jumped into things pretty quickly. But the truth is, I really like having you here. I like holding you and being held. I like being able to cook for us. And it’s not just because I’m secretly a domestic diva and I enjoy doing the whole Suzy Homemaker thing. I really like seeing your face first thing in the morning when I wake up. Scotty and I have lived here for five years, but to me, it was always just a house, a place to crash at night.” Sincerity was obvious in her voice. “It’s only been recently that it’s really started to feel like a home to me.”

Touched by her words, he reached out and traced her face with his index finger. “I have a confession.”

“What?”

“Earlier this evening when you commented about going home, it occurred to me that just being with you feels like home. That’s why I hate going back to my place. It’s because you’re not there. It’s just an apartment to me. That’s all it’s ever been. I couldn’t bear the thought of being in my old house without Tina, because after she died, it was just a house. It wasn’t my home anymore. Now, when I think about you, I start getting that easy feeling again. That feeling that says I’m home.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. I’m that comfortable with you. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because you don’t judge me or because you’re so easy going. I don’t know what it is. I just know that I’ve never been this comfortable with anyone else before.”

Eileen suddenly looked upset and hurriedly turned her face away from him. Startled by her response, alarmed that he’d somehow upset her, Mike gently tugged her hair until she looked back at him. Tears were bulging in her eyes, threatening to spill over.

“Eileen, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

She shrugged as she swiped away the tears. “I don’t know. I’m feeling so much right now. I still feel guilty about not telling you about Scotty. I’m confused and scared…but happy, too. And I’m worried that I’m going to say or do something stupid to drive you away. Or that I’m going to wake up in the morning and this will all be gone, like some kind of crazy dream.”

Mike took her hand and kissed her palm before placing it over his heart. She could feel the steady thump, thump, thump in his chest. “Eileen, this is not a dream. I’m flesh and blood, and my heart is beating away. Every beat right now is for you. I know you feel guilty, but don’t. In a strange way, things worked out exactly as they should have. We may have taken a winding road to get here, but we’re here now. And I believe with every fiber of my being that we are carrying out God’s plan for us.”

“I guess I’m kind of a fraidy cat. I think it’s been burned into me that good things can’t last.”

“Let me help you get rid of that feeling. Good things do last, Eileen. They last for as long as God wants them to. Sometimes His timeline is a little different than our own, but that’s okay. For a long while after Tina died, I felt cheated and I was angry with God for taking her from me. But you know what? If not for that tragedy—and if not for the tragedies leading up to that tragedy—I never would have found this kind of happiness.” He paused, waiting for Eileen to absorb his words. When she said nothing, he continued to speak. “You are an amazing person. I don’t feel less for you because I lost Tina. That loss created a deep hole in me, a hole that I thought would never be filled again. Eileen, it’s overflowing now. I never would have guessed that I was capable of this kind of emotion. I feel so much for you, I’m not even sure how to begin describing it. You’ve re-introduced me to parts of myself that I thought were long gone. And you’ve introduced me to parts of myself that I never knew existed. I want to do the same for you.”

Eileen was holding back tears and her voice quivered. “You’re already doing that for me,” she choked out. “I never knew that I wanted to be with another person. It never occurred to me that there was someone out there for me and I thought I was fine just being alone. I’ve been on my own for a long time and I was just used to it. That’s the way things were. Now, I’m finding that I don’t want to be alone anymore. I want to be with you.”

Mike held her tight. “Good, because I want to be with you, too. I don’t know what the future holds for us. All we have is right now, and I want to make the most of it. I learned the hard way that life is too short. I know that I want to live every minute to the fullest. Yes, we will probably hit some bumps along the way. We already have and we made it through. I’m guessing we’ll hit a few snags every now and then, but I’m ready for that. I know you’re not perfect, but I wouldn’t want you to be. I’m not perfect either. Tina pointed that out to me often.” He suddenly gave a hearty belly laugh and blurted out, “She used to complain that I farted in my sleep. I think she was making it up.”

Eileen laughed too before pulling away from him. “Oh Mike. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but she wasn’t making it up.”

Mike’s face flooded with embarrassment as he tried to calm his laughing. “Okay. See? I’m not perfect. I also have a bad habit of leaving my socks laying around and forgetting to rinse out the sink after I shave. It’s worse now that I’ve been living on my own the past few years and I don’t have anyone around to remind me not to be a slob. Sometimes I get pretty distracted, and it isn’t until the sink in my apartment looks a clone of a porcupine that I finally clean it up. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to not be messy when I’m around you.”

“I’d rather have you around and messy than not around at all.”

He snorted at her. “You say that now, but after you find nine pairs of socks shoved under your bed, you might change your mind.”

“I think I’ll take my chances.”

“Okay, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

They lay together after that, Mike sharing stories about him and Tina and Eileen sharing stories about her and Scotty. As darkness closed further in, Eileen found that she was getting hungry again.

“Would you like something to eat?”
Mike considered it. “You know, I think I would. What would you like? I can run out and get something for you.”

“Don’t be silly. I’ve got leftovers from dinner tonight and a whole variety of stuff in my fridge and cabinets.” She pulled on a short silk robe while Mike slid into his boxers and tugged on one of Eileen’s many oversized t-shirts.

Looking her up and down appreciatively, he said, “You know, that robe is really pretty. Maybe you should part with these old men’s t-shirts and let me replace them with something else.” He ran his fingers over the delicate embroidery on the sash.

She looked amused as they made their way to the kitchen. “And what exactly did you have in mind?” she asked as she rummaged in the refrigerator.

Mike filled two glasses with ice and water. “I was thinking something a little gentler. Maybe a little sassier. T-shirts are good, but…”

“They are good,” she interjected. “And comfortable, too.”

“I know they’re comfortable. But you have a gorgeous figure and these old shirts don’t do it justice. If you trust me, I can go shopping for you. I’ve got impeccable taste. Really. I just need to know your size. I’m not a fan of going up to sales people and saying,” he spread his hands about six inches apart, “she’s about this big. I need something more concrete to work with.”

“Depends” she replied as she sliced the cake she’d prepared for dessert. “Number sizes, I usually wear an eight or a ten, depending on the cut, especially in pants. My hips are kind of wide, so I usually need a bigger size to get them on, but then they’re really baggy in the waist. And they need to be tall sizes, because regular pants look like cropped pants on me.”

Mike gave her an admiring smile. “That’s because you’ve got such long, sexy legs.” He stroked her thigh under the robe, causing her to shiver. “I’d like to see more of these legs.”

“That could be arranged,” she said as she piled fruit on their plates. “In fact, I think it could be arranged right now.” She hiked up the robe as she sat at the kitchen table, revealing her right leg up to her hip. “How’s that?”

Mike took his plate from her. “Very nice. Very nice, indeed. What about other sizes?”

Eileen bit into a large strawberry, using a napkin to wipe the juice dribbling down her chin. “Like small, medium, and large? Usually, I’m a medium, but I wear sweaters in a large because I like them loose.”

“I wasn’t talking about sweaters, sweetie. I was thinking, ah, more intimate sizes.”

Eileen flushed. “I wear a 34C. Is that what you mean?”

“Yes,” he said mischievously, “that’s exactly what I mean.”

Although it didn’t seem possible, she flushed an even deeper shade of crimson. “What exactly are you planning on getting for me? And do I get a say in it?”

“I’m not telling and no. I want to surprise you. Let’s just say you’ll be putting the Victoria’s Secret models to shame.” He gave her an impish grin. “And I can hardly wait to be your audience. What are you doing next weekend?”

“Probably the same thing I do every weekend. Getting Scotty, getting stuff done around here. Fooling around with you.”

He playfully threw a slice of banana at her, which she successfully dodged. “I’m being serious, Eileen. Would you like to go away next weekend? Scotty could come along. I have no problem with that. I thought we could hit a bed and breakfast in Galena or something. We can get Scotty his own room. Or he could share a room with us. It doesn’t have to be just about you and me.”

Eileen thought about what he said. “If we’re going to go away, it should be just us for the first trip. Besides,” she said with a wistful smile, “I think I’m going to have trouble getting Scotty to come home anyway. He seems pretty enthralled with the young woman he was telling us about. Melanie. She’s a cute thing. A tiny blonde pixie with Down’s syndrome. If your schedule works out, we could leave Friday night, stop and take Scotty out for dinner, then bring him back and head up to Galena. And maybe we could stop again on Sunday and take him out for lunch?”

“Of course. Eileen, I never want to take away time from your son. I know that he’s your priority.”

“You’re a priority too, though. The two of you are different priorities, but still priorities. Very important priorities. I want the three of us to spend time together, but it’s probably good for you and I to get some alone time, too. I want you to know me as a woman and a mother. Not just one or the other.”

“I know you as a person. I know you as Eileen. And I like what I know. Nothing’s going to change that.”

They finished their cake and fruit and Mike hurried to rinse the plates before Eileen could do it. He led her into the living room and she curled up against him.

She snuggled into his chest, feeling warm and safe. “Want to watch a movie?”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “I don’t think so. Last time I agreed to that, it was a kid’s movie. And you agreed that next time it would be a movie at my place. A movie that I would get to pick.”

“You’re right. But you know what?”

“What?” he asked as she shifted her weight and sat on his lap.

“Kids’ movies are a good thing. Don’t you remember the outcome when we watched it?” She untied her robe, letting it slide down her shoulders and onto the floor.

“I remember the outcome,” he whispered as he ran his hands over her smooth skin, tracing her collar bone and running his fingertips down across her belly and outer thighs.

She tugged his shirt over his head and trailed kisses down his neck and chest, working her way farther down. “Well then,” she said with a sly look, “maybe you shouldn’t complain.” She nipped playfully at the waistband of his shorts and he sighed.

“I’m not complaining. Really. Movies with G-ratings are fine with me. Especially when they lead to things that aren’t G-rated.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s very good. Now hush.” She continued to kiss her way down his body. Moments later, her mouth hit its target and there wasn’t another word from him.

* * *

Eileen’s eyes opened slowly. It couldn’t be Monday already, could it? The weekend had gone by so fast. Too fast. She stretched out in her bed, luxuriating in being able to sleep in until seven o’clock. It was rare that she got to sleep in on Mondays with Scotty’s schedule. It was rare for her to sleep in any day since she always started early to make up for having most of her weekends off. She pulled the covers back over her head, not wanting to face the day. Suddenly, she yanked them back, in a panic. Where was Mike?

She heard faint sounds from the kitchen, and she made her way down the hall, tying her robe as she went. He was standing in front of the stove, cooking something that smelled of warm cinnamon and vanilla.

“Mmmmm. What are you making?” She nuzzled against his back, stifling a yawn.

“French toast. I hope you like it.”

“Have you ever known me to pass up food?”

She couldn’t see his face, but she could hear the smile. “No. I know how important it is to keep you fed. Ryan has warned me that you’re quite a bear when you’re hungry. And apparently, that’s pretty often.”

“Don’t listen to Ryan. He’s just trying to cause trouble.”

Mike turned and gave her a peck on the lips before turning his attention back to the stove. “I don’t think so. I’ve seen what happens when you get hungry.”

She snaked her arms around his waist, hugging him hard from behind. “Hungry in what way?” she asked in a sultry voice, letting her robe fall partially open.

“Oh my, my. I mean food hungry. Not the kind of hungry you’re talking about. And even if you are hungry that way, I’m afraid I can’t accommodate you this morning.”

Putting on a pout, Eileen sat down at the kitchen table where there was a glass of juice waiting for her. “Why can’t you accommodate me?”

Mike slid two slices of French toast onto her plate and handed her a bowl of fruit. “Honey, you’ve been giving me quite a workout lately. I can barely walk.” A big smile spread across his face. “I’m not complaining, mind you. I can’t think of a better way to get my exercise in. However, certain areas of me are, well, they’re a bit overworked right now. I think I just need a day off to recover.”

She smiled back at him over her glass of juice. “Probably a good idea. We can treat it like your rotations at work. Twenty-four on, forty-eight off.”

“Not quite,” he said as he sat down to eat. “I don’t think I could stand being without you for forty-eight hours. I enjoy your company too much to do that.”

“Are you sure it’s only my company you enjoy?” She winked at him suggestively.

“Of course it’s your company.” He stabbed a piece of French toast and chewed thoughtfully for a minute. “Well, your company and maybe a few other things, too.”

They both laughed at their silliness before settling down into a routine that was intimate and familiar. They split up the newspaper, Mike reading the headline section and Eileen delving into the sports section as she happily wolfed down her breakfast. She was reading about plans for the upcoming football season when she was suddenly aware of the heavy silence in the kitchen. Looking up, she saw that Mike’s normally ruddy complexion was stark white.

“Mike, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Eileen, just stay put.” He wasn’t looking at her, but past her. From where they were sitting, he had a clear view of the couch in the living room. He slid out of his chair and she made a move to follow him, but he held his arm out. “Wait.”

“Mike, you’re scaring me. What the hell is the matter?”

Slowly, cautiously, he made his way to the living room. “Eileen, call the police.”

She brushed past him, swatting his arm away as he tried to block her. “I am the police. What are you looking at?”

Bile rose in the back of her throat. Propped neatly on her couch was a human leg, which had been cleanly severed at the knee. On the outer ankle was a tattoo of an ace of spades.

Moving in a trance-like state, her feet carried her into the room, though she felt like she hadn’t even left the kitchen. A moment later, she was standing in front of her comfortable plaid couch, which was now in a desecrated state. She reached out for leg, but Mike held her back. “Don’t touch it. Baby, don’t look at it.”

It was almost magnetic, pulling her eyes toward it. Upon closer inspection, Eileen saw that it was a very feminine looking leg with pretty, pale pink polish on the toenails. Not wanting to look, but knowing she had to, she squatted and looked at the bottom of the foot. The calling card was there.

Whirling back to look at Mike, she didn’t speak at first. Her lips moved, but nothing came out. Her eyes were wide and her lips began to quiver. “Mike, he was here. He was in my house,” she whispered hoarsely. “How the hell did he get in my house? I have an alarm. Squads are driving by day and night.” She was starting to cry and trying not to. “We were both here. How did he get in? Why didn’t we hear him? When did he do this?” She began to hyperventilate.

Mike guided her back to the kitchen and sat her down in a chair. “Stop. Just sit there. I’ll take care of this.” Grabbing Eileen’s phone, he punched in Ryan’s cell number.

He answered on the second ring, his voice thick with sleep. “Riley, it’s not even seven-fifteen. What are you doing calling me so damn early?”

“Ryan, it’s Mike. I’m at Eileen’s and we need help.”

On the other end, Ryan came fully awake. “Mike? Is Eileen okay? What’s going on?”

“Look, we got up this morning and there’s a…there’s a human leg on her couch.”

“A what?” His stomach sank and he prayed he hadn’t heard correctly, though in his gut, he knew he had.

“There’s a leg on her couch. A woman’s leg. It’s got a tattoo. And a carving on the bottom of the foot.”

“Did you touch it?”

“No, neither of us touched it. Can you get over here?”

“I’m on my way. I’m going to call ahead for some help. Is Eileen okay?”

“She’s shaken up, but I’ll get her together before you get here.”

“Give me five minutes.”

“Okay. We’ll be here.”

Cradling the phone back into the receiver, Mike took a deep breath, then gently pulled Eileen to her feet. “Come on, sweetie. Let’s get you into some clothes. Ryan’s on his way and he’s calling ahead to get some help over here.”

She didn’t respond, but obediently followed him.

Mike guided her back to her bedroom. She stood numbly, staring into space as he hurriedly changed into his clothes. “Eileen, sweetie, we need to get you dressed.” She nodded, but stayed rooted where she was at, not even budging when the doorbell rang. Mike ran to the front door, peeking out the side window before swinging it open. Ryan was standing there in navy sweatpants and an undershirt, old Adidas beach sandals on his feet. It was a far cry from his usual, polished look.

“Is she okay?” he asked as he brushed past Mike.

“She’s in her room. I wanted to get her into some regular clothes, but she’s just standing there, not moving, not talking. Maybe you can get through to her.”

Ryan nodded and hurried to her room, talking to Mike over his shoulder. “Look, the team is going to be here shortly. I told them not to come with lights or sirens since everyone is fine and I don’t want a big spectacle in the neighborhood. Eileen’s feeling like she’s in a fishbowl as it is. I don’t want to create any additional chaos. And I want to know where the hell the marked squad is at. He was supposed to be cruising the neighborhood or parked in front of her house and I don’t see him anywhere.”

“He’s got to be nearby, Ryan. I woke up around four-thirty to go to the bathroom and I saw the car. It was parked right out front and your man was standing right outside of the car having a cigarette.”

Ryan froze just as he put his hand on the doorknob to Eileen’s room. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. I looked out the window and he was leaning up against the passenger door smoking a cigarette.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “Matt Tucker was on last night. He doesn’t smoke.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that he doesn’t smoke. I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t Tucker. Look, we’ll figure it out later. Let’s just focus on getting Eileen together.”

Eileen was standing in the same spot Mike had left her. Ryan took her hand and it was ice cold.

“Eileen, honey, we need to get you dressed.”

She made no movement, didn’t blink. Ryan couldn’t even tell if she was breathing.

“Eileen? Honey? Mike and I are going to help you.” Eileen nodded but still didn’t respond.

“Ryan, tell me what you want me to do to help her.”

“Go start water in the tub. Not hot, but hotter than just warm.”

Mike did as he was told as Ryan stripped off Eileen’s robe and picked her up. He carried her to the bathroom and placed her in the rapidly filling tub. The water seemed to do something for Eileen, and she let out a long, low wail before completely breaking into tears. Ryan leaned over the tub and Eileen clung to him, crying so hard that she was coughing. Mike stood awkwardly to the side, feeling like an intruder.

Several minutes passed before her tears began to subside. “Ryan, he got in the house. How did he get into my house? I’m a cop. Why didn’t I hear him? Why is he doing this? What am I supposed to do?”

Ryan stroked her wet back, holding her close. He ached down to his soul. He couldn’t stand to see her cry. Watching this strong, vibrant woman come completely undone was almost more than he could take. “Baby, I don’t know. But I’m here, Mike’s here, and I swear we’ll protect you. The bastard won’t ever get to you again.” Turning to look up at Mike, he asked, “Can you get some clothes for her? She keeps a few sweat suits in her bottom right drawer.”

Mike did as he was asked, but felt a tug of resentment. He should be the one taking care of Eileen. And how did Ryan know where Eileen kept her sweat suits? That was odd. He and Tina had been married, and he didn’t know where she kept her sweats. When he got back to the bathroom, Ryan had already soaped her up and was sponging the suds off of her. When he was through, he lifted her out of the tub, wrapped her in a large bath sheet and started rubbing her arms. She was starting to get some color back in her face, and though her eyes were red and puffy from crying, she was looking more like herself again. Mike handed her the sweats.

“Eileen, do you need me to get anything for you?”

She shook her head. “No, thanks. Wait. Can you get me a cup of coffee? I’m freezing.”

“I can do that. Ryan, you want coffee, too?”

“Yeah, that would be great. I’ll help you out. The guys will probably want coffee, too.” He gave Eileen a quick kiss on the cheek. “Get yourself dressed. Mike and I will be in the kitchen.” The doorbell rang and Eileen jumped.

They heard the front door opening, then, “Maxwell! You in here?” The booming voice of Trevor Fuller echoed through Eileen’s house.

“Yeah! We’re getting Eileen squared away. We’ll be out in a minute.” He turned to Eileen then. “See, it’s okay. It’s just the rest of the guys getting here. Meet us in the living room. We’ll have coffee for you.”

Her teeth were chattering as she nodded. “Okay. Just give me a few minutes.” She swooned for a second, and both Mike and Ryan reached out to steady her. “I’m fine. Just a little too much excitement for a Monday morning.” She gave them both a wan smile. “Really. I’ll be fine.” She unwrapped herself from the towel and hung it on the bar next to the tub before pulling the sweatshirt over her head, seemingly unbothered by her nakedness. As she stepped into the pink cotton panties that Mike had included with her clothes, she realized that they were both watching her.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, she couldn’t help but give a small laugh. “Look guys. You act like you’ve never seen a naked woman before. I realize I’m drop-dead gorgeous and all, but it’s really not polite to stare.”

Mike blushed and had the decency to look away, but Ryan just rolled his eyes. “You’re not all that, so don’t pretend you are. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to fall over on us.”

Eileen stuck out her tongue before hitching up the sweat pants. “Whatever. At least Mike appreciates what he sees.” She looked pointedly at him and he blushed even harder. “Mike, it’s okay. It’s not like our relationship is a secret. And Ryan and I have been partners for six years. We’ve gotten into some odd situations. He’s seen me naked more than a few times.”

“Yeah,” Ryan sneered. “But unlike Mike, I haven’t had the luxury of getting any action from you.”

Eileen flipped him off before gathering her hair into a ponytail. “That’s not my fault. You had plenty of opportunity and you blew it.”

Mike shook his head, not really understanding how Ryan and Eileen could banter back and forth like that, when only ten minutes earlier, she’d been practically catatonic. He supposed that working in law enforcement did strange things to people, and maybe this was just one of those strange things. Heading toward the kitchen, he just couldn’t shake the feeling of dread he’d had since he first saw the leg on Eileen’s couch. Something was wrong. He and Eileen were both in the house all night. The leg wasn’t there at four-thirty, but it was there three hours later. Less than that, probably, because he’d gotten up at six-thirty to make Eileen breakfast, and if someone had come in the house after that, he would have heard it. He was certain of that much. So, the bastard had gotten in during a two-hour time frame.

Mike arranged six cups on one of Eileen’s serving trays and poured steaming coffee into each one. By the time he made it into the living room, Eileen and Ryan were sitting on the large ottoman. Three officers were busying themselves with organizing the scene and Trevor Fuller was taking Eileen’s statement. Mike could see that she was agitated and her voice had a steely edge to it.

“No, I didn’t see who put the leg on my couch. If I saw someone in my house carrying a human leg, don’t you think I would do something about it? Give me a break, Trevor!” She flopped back on the couch, folding her arms across her chest.

The detective was nonplussed by her outburst. “Look Eileen, you can get as mad as you want, but you know as well as I do that I’m asking you standard questions.” He looked to Mike for help. “Can you tell me anything?”

Mike shook his head. “Sorry, but no. I got up a little bit before Eileen to start breakfast. I didn’t look in the living room before going into the kitchen, so I don’t know if it was there already. But I can tell you that I didn’t hear anything between the time I got up and when Eileen got up.”

“Ryan said you told him you got up early this morning?”

“Yeah, I got up at four-thirty to use the john.”

“It was exactly four-thirty?”

Mike shrugged. “Either four twenty-four or four twenty-nine. My eyes were a little bleary when I looked at the digital clock in the bathroom. It was close to four-thirty, though.”

“And what were you doing at that time?”

Mike bristled at Trevor’s tone. “I already told you, I got up to go to the bathroom.”

Trevor nodded. “Yes, you did. Ryan also said you looked out the window?”

Not liking where the conversation was heading, Mike stiffened. “Yeah, I did. When I was walking back to the bedroom, I saw headlights out front. It seemed strange since this is a pretty quiet residential neighborhood, so I went to the living room and looked out the window. I saw the squad parked out front. It was running, and the cop was leaning up against the door smoking a cigarette.”

“You’re sure it was a cop?”

“I didn’t get a good look at him, but he was wearing a uniform.”

“Did you go out and talk to him? Wave to him from the window? Anything?”

Mike could feel his blood pressure rising. Forcing himself to take a deep breath and relax, he replied, “No. I did not talk to him. I did not wave to him. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t put on a light, didn’t even move the curtain. I saw him, saw the squad, and went back to bed. I went back to sleep, and then I got up just after six-thirty and made French toast. There are leftovers if you want to check. We sat down for breakfast and were reading the paper. I looked up to give her a hard time about reading the sports section and that’s when I saw it. I thought I was mistaken at first, but I wasn’t. As soon as I was sure, I called up Ryan and he came right over.”

Trevor could hear the hostility building in Mike’s voice. “Mike, I’m not trying to bust your balls, okay? I’m trying to figure out what the hell happened. This guy is a killer. A serial killer. And he’s got his sights set on Eileen. I don’t know why, but he does. We’re doing everything we can to keep her safe, and that includes checking out the people who are closest to her. Unfortunately, that means you. And Ryan, too.”

Ryan looked surprised. “Me? I’m her partner!”

Trevor held up his hand to silence Ryan. “I know that. But that also means you’re probably closer to her than anyone else and you know the layout of her property. And I’m curious. This is now twice that you and Mike have miraculously been on the scene to save Eileen from this crazed lunatic. How did you get here so fast this time?”

Ryan’s face flooded with color. Trying not to shake with the rage he was feeling, he said through clenched teeth, “Mike called my cell phone from Eileen’s house phone. I went to the ballgame yesterday. I was out late last night with friends and had too much to drink. I crashed with a buddy who lives a few blocks from here.”

“What’s his name?”

“Edward Abbott. He was with me at the game.”

“Mind if I check out your story?”

“Hell yes, I mind! I mind because Eileen is my best friend and I would never do anything to hurt her. I resent the fact that you’re implicating anything otherwise. But I can give you Ed’s number right now and you can call him. I woke him up before I left so he would know that I didn’t head out last night while I was still smashed.”

Eileen piped up. “Trevor, cut it out. It wasn’t Ryan, okay? And I know Ed. He’s a good guy. If Ryan says they were at the ballgame, that’s where they were. And if you ask any of the guys at the station, they can tell you that it was all Ryan was yammering about last week.” Eileen masterfully left out the fact that Ed was also Ryan’s occasional lover. Ryan shot her a grateful look, obviously appreciating her discretion.

Trevor ran his hands over his face. “Okay, okay. Look, I’m just covering all my bases. It must suck to be giving a statement instead of taking one, huh?”

Eileen nodded. “Yes, it does suck. So, can we finish up here? Is there anything else you need from me?”

Trevor shook his head. “Not right now. We’re going to have to dust for prints and nose around outside and inside a bit, see if we can’t figure out how the bastard got in. Eileen, I’m going to need the number to your security company so I can see if they got any hits on the silent alarm.”

“Sure. Actually, let me call them and I’ll turn the phone over to you.” She picked up the receiver in the living room, punching in a series of numbers before getting an operator. She briefly explained the situation and then handed the phone to Trevor. “Need anything else?” When Trevor shook his head, she stood up and gave his hand a quick shake. “Okay then. You and your guys get to work, and let me get to mine. Thank you for getting here so quickly. Let me get dressed.” She looked down at her sweats sheepishly. “Or, at least more appropriately dressed for work so we can get things moving along here.”

Mike’s eyes followed her as she walked to her bedroom. Ryan nudged him in the ribs. “Go check on her.”

“Why? She seems okay and I don’t want to bug her.”

“Just check on her, okay? I’ve known her longer than you have and she’s putting up one hell of a brave front, but she’s terrified. After the crying she did, she won’t talk to me about this because she doesn’t want me to think she’s a wimp. I make fun of her a lot because she’s one of the only women on the force. None of it is serious, but she tries to act macho because she really wants to fit in and have the guys accept her. Just make sure she’s okay and that she knows she’s not alone in this. She’s not going to ask us for help or even hint that she’s less than okay. The little meltdown she had in the tub was nothing. Anyone else would have completely fallen apart, but good old Eileen is being stubborn and strong, just like always.” He sighed heavily. “She needs other people to be strong for her and she’s got to know we’re here and we’re going to be here no matter what.”

“I’ll see how she’s doing. Can you do something for me?”

“Sure, what do you need?”

Mike swallowed hard. “If it wasn’t your guy, Matt Tucker, out there early this morning, who did I see? Can you find out? And can you find out if Matt’s okay?”

Ryan hesitated, then nodded, but Mike caught the disturbed expression on his face.

“Is there something I should know? Something you’re not telling me about Matt?”

Gesturing for Mike to follow him, Ryan went into the dining room. He spoke in a low voice so nobody else could hear.

“Look, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I’m going to. Just please don’t mention it to Eileen. You definitely did not see Matt. We’re guessing that you saw the guy we’ve been after since the murder in the brownstone last month. Trevor’s going to ask you about what happened this morning again, because he wants to try and get some kind of description so we can try and figure out what the hell this guy looks like.”

“But I already told you, I didn’t get a good look at him. I really don’t think I can do anything else to help.”

“That’s fine. Just answer his questions, okay?”

“You know I will. I just don’t think…” His voice trailed off and color drained out of his face. For the briefest of moments, he was afraid he was going to vomit on Ryan.

Ryan instantly noticed the change in Mike’s pallor. “Are you okay, buddy?”

“I just thought of something. The newspaper. It was the Chicago Tribune. Today’s edition.”

Ryan was perplexed. “What does today’s paper have to do with any of this?”

Mike realized he wasn’t being clear. “It was today’s paper, Ryan. How did today’s paper get on the kitchen table? I didn’t go out to the front porch to get it. And Eileen didn’t get up at all. Not until she came in for breakfast. I know she didn’t get out of bed because she bounces like crazy when she gets up. There’s nothing subtle in her movements. It’s like Earthquake Eileen. I know that would have woken me up. I’m sure of it.”

Ryan slapped Mike on the back. “It’s good you remembered that. Maybe we can check the plastic wrapper for prints. See? You thought you weren’t going to be helpful. You may have just opened a door to our biggest clue in this case so far.” He waved for Trevor Fuller to come into the dining room, wanting to keep him apprised of the situation. “Just one more thing, Mike.” Ryan dropped the volume of his voice even more, so that Mike had to strain to hear him. “Trevor’s guys found Matt. He was in the alley two doors down, stuffed between two garbage cans. He was naked and his throat was cut. His uniform, badge, wallet, gun, car, everything…just gone. We’ve got one crazy bastard out there. And he’s a crazy bastard with a cop’s uniform and a gun.”

Mike shivered. “Is there anything the department can do for Eileen?”

“We’re going to have sentries here at the house and we’ll increase the number of cruisers in the neighborhood. I wanted her followed twenty-four seven, but the department won’t approve it because she hasn’t been threatened and I’m with her most of the day anyway.”

“Are you kidding me? After the bee incident? And now a human leg in her house?”

Ryan shrugged. “It’s politics, my man. What can I say?”

Mike’s face sagged and his stomach churned. “I guess nothing. I’ll do what I can and be here as often as I can. I don’t like the idea of her being alone.”

“Me neither. Maybe we can work something out so one of us is always here with her. And one other thing. Maybe you can talk to her, too, about not having Scotty home until things blow over.”

“You know she won’t agree to that. She was heartbroken on Saturday when Scotty wanted to leave and go back to the group home early.”

“Make her agree to it. It’s for her safety and his. She won’t put her son in any danger. Just make her listen.”

“I’ll do my best. Let me know if you need anything. I’m going to check on her now.”

Ryan nodded, feeling guilty for not telling Mike one other piece of information. They’d found the girl that the leg belonged to.

And there’d been a message left on the body, scrawled in blood across her chest. I’m getting closer.