Sunday, November 7, 2010

Untitled I: Part 13

Eileen was lying on her bed, face buried in her pillow, when Mike came into the room.

“Hanging in there?” he asked, lightly rubbing her back.

“I don’t know. This whole thing is so surreal. Someone came into my house. Someone who wasn’t invited.” She shuddered. “Someone who wants to hurt me. Someone who’s already hurt other women and tried to hurt me once before. What am I supposed to do? I don’t think I can keep going on like this. I’m tough, but not that tough. My home is supposed to be my sanctuary, and now it’s been invaded.”

Mike sat on the edge of the bed and she scooted over, laying her head in his lap. He stroked her hair. “I’m going to help you through this.”

“I don’t want anyone to help me though this. I want to catch this guy and just get him the hell out of my life.”

“You can’t do it alone.”

“I know that,” she said angrily, sitting up. “I know I can’t do it alone. And I hate it.” She lunged off the bed and stood in front of her bureau. Grabbing a hairbrush, she yanked out her ponytail and began brushing her hair with savage strokes. “I’m not going to be a prisoner. I’ve got to get my day started.” She disappeared into her closet, emerging a minute later with a light gray skirt and short sleeved pink blouse draped over her arm. She tossed them onto the bed and dug through her drawers looking for a clean pair of nylons. She found a pair and tossed them on the bed with her clothes, then dug into another drawer and pulled out a pink satin bra.

She grinned over her shoulder at him as she kicked off the sweatpants. “I thought I’d keep up with the color you chose.” Mike couldn’t help but stare when she took off her sweatshirt, revealing her high, firm breasts. She snapped on the bra then wiggled into her pantyhose. “I swear, a man must have invented these things. A woman wouldn’t do this to one of her own.”

Five minutes later, she was dressed and ready to go. Her dark hair was pulled up into a black barrette and she had dotted some concealer under her eyes, applied a hint of blush and finished it off with a light dusting of face powder. She swept a sheer rosy gloss over her lips as she slipped her feet into a pair of black loafers.

“How do I look?” she asked, striking a pose.

“Honestly? You look like you just spent a week at a spa. How do women do that?”

“Makeup. A little concealer can go a long way.” She put on her holster, checked her gun, then grabbed a black blazer that was draped over the bed post. “I’m ready to go. Want to walk me out to my car?”

“You’re going to leave while the guys are still here?”

“Yeah. There’s nothing else I can do right now. I’m going to start my day and carry on like I always do. The earlier I start, the earlier I can get home and clean up the mess from the investigation.”

“Eileen, let me drive you to work. I don’t want you off by yourself today.”

“I won’t be by myself. Ryan will be with me. And you’ll be here when I get home, right?” She looked at him expectantly.

“If you want me here when you get home, I’ll be here. But I’d prefer it if you would stay with me all day. I really don’t want you to go to work today.” He slid his arms around her waist, looking at their reflection in her dresser mirror. She was putting on a pair of diamond studs and he could see that her hands were shaking. He grasped them in his own, feeling how cold they were. “Eileen, it may not be the worst thing in the world to take some time off. You never take time off and this would be a perfect opportunity. I’ve got a load of vacation time accrued. I never really wanted to take time off before. I didn’t have a reason. I’d go visit my folks every now and then, but that’s it. Taking time off just meant being home alone, thinking about the past. I’m beyond that now. Let’s get out of here, huh? We’ll take Scott and we’ll go somewhere. We can go to the Dells. Hell, let’s take a cruise or go to Disney World. If you’re worried about money, don’t. I’ve got more saved than I know what to do with and nothing would make me happier than spending it on you. Let’s just get out of here. Please.”

Eileen turned to face him and carefully rested her cheek on his shoulder, not wanting to smear makeup on him. “Mike, I’m not going anywhere. Your offer is incredibly sweet and one I will definitely take you up on somewhere down the road, especially since I’ve never been on a real vacation.” She smiled up at him and gave him a soft kiss on his lips. “Going away with you would be heaven for me, but I can’t run away from this. I appreciate what you’re trying to do and it’s sweet that you want to protect me. The thing is, I’m not going to feel safe until this guy is caught. You could whisk me halfway around the world, but if this guy can get into my house while I’m home, he can find me anywhere. At least if I’m here, I have a home field advantage.”

“Eileen, I just need you to be okay. Let me help you with this.”

Pulling back, she looked him square in the eyes. “You are helping. Just being here with me helps.” She hesitated, obviously wanting to say more, but having difficulty with it. “Mike, I don’t like admitting that I’m afraid, okay? But I am. I am really afraid. I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want to be here alone, either. Will you stay with me for a while? Just until things blow over?”

“I’ll stay for however long you want me to. I can arrange my schedule so that I’m here every night. I’ve got the most seniority at the station, and even with Rodriguez out with his busted leg, I know I can work it out. I want to be here with you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, kissing him again.

Mike pulled away from her, grasping her hands hard in his own. “Baby, there’s one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I think that you should keep Scott away from here for a while. I know it kills you not to see him on the weekends, but maybe we can go up there instead of him coming here. I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to get caught up in this.”

She sighed, obviously upset, but knew he was right. “We’ll talk about it, okay? Deep down, I know you’re right. I’m also guessing that Ryan put you up this. He loves Scotty and he has the advantage of being at least a little removed from the situation. Sometimes he can think a little more clearly than I can, but I’m the first to admit that I’m not always very receptive to his suggestions.”

Mike felt relieved that she was going to at least consider it. “So you’re not mad?”

“No, not at all. I mean, I’m mad at the situation, but not mad at you or anyone else. Just pissed off that this asshole is dictating how I get to live my life.” Picking up her purse from the floor, she rummaged through it, making sure she had everything. “I’m ready to go. I know you offered to drive me to work, and I said I was going to drive myself, but maybe I shouldn’t be alone this morning. Ryan’s already here so I’ll just go with him. We’ll have to stop off at his place so he can change, but then we’ll be on our way. I have a meeting at ten-thirty and I have to be at the courthouse at two to testify on a case. Plus, anything else that comes up during my shift. A detective’s work is never done, you know? Anyway, I’ll have Ryan drive me home. I should be back around six-thirty tonight.” She playfully punched his arm. “You can stick around if you’d like. Hang out. Watch television, do whatever. But have dinner ready for me when I get back.”

He kissed her, slow and deep, tasting her strawberry lip gloss. “I’ll have dinner ready for you. And dessert, too.”

“I can hardly wait.” She gave him another quick kiss. “See you tonight.”

“I’ll be here.”

He watched her walk out of the room, still concerned for her safety. He knew she was a big girl, capable of handling her own problems, but for the first time in a very long time, he felt his protective side emerging. Nothing would make him happier than taking her away from this nightmare, but he respected her feelings. And even though he didn’t want to admit it, she was right about having a home field advantage. He had a better idea now of what they were working with and there was no way he was going to let anyone get that close to hurting her ever again. He’d lost his wife to a monster that he couldn’t stop. He wasn’t about to lose another person that he loved.
* * *

After being assured that the investigative team was going to be there for a while, Mike drove to his apartment and packed some clothes and toiletries that he thought he might need. Anything he didn’t have could be bought later. He’d also called the station and talked to his boss, Dave Helm. Word of what had happened to Eileen had traveled fast, and all the guys were genuinely concerned for her safety. Mike explained the situation and casually informed him of his relationship with Eileen.

Mike could hear Dave laughing on the other end. “Mike, everybody knows you and Eileen are together. You two do a pretty decent job of trying to hide it, but there are some pretty obvious signs that you’re involved with her. Like the fact that you get all googly-eyed which, by the way, is very unmanly, but kind of cute. It’s none of my business, I know, but I’m happy for you. And happy for her, too. Listen, just do what you have to do. We’ll make do here.”

“Thanks for understanding,” Mike said, sincere with his words.

“It’s no problem. Really. I’m glad you’re taking some time off. I wish it was under better circumstances, but it’s still good to get away for a while. Besides, if you were trying to work with all this going on, it would take a toll on you. The last thing we need is you burning out or being so distracted that you make a mistake. The department needs you too much. Take whatever time you need. Just keep me posted, okay?”

“You know I will. And thanks again.”

“No prob. Take care and I’ll talk to you soon.”

They both hung up and Mike did a quick survey of his apartment. He didn’t think there was anything else he needed to do. Grabbing his bag off the couch and the picture he’d purchased for Eileen weeks earlier, he headed out. As he locked the deadbolt behind him, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was going to happen. Something big. And bad. He shuddered, just praying that he would be around to protect Eileen from whatever it was.

He got back to Eileen’s house at eleven-thirty, just as the guys were wrapping up. His heart sank when he saw mess in the living room. There was fingerprint dust on everything. Trevor gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry about this. We wanted to be thorough.”

“Did it pay off?”

“Not really. We couldn’t find anything inside. Not a hair, not a fingerprint. And trust me, we looked. We dusted for prints on every surface in this house. We did a visual sweep of the attic and basement, too, but we came up empty-handed. We got a partial print from the wrapping on the newspaper. That was a good find, by the way, and it was thanks to you remembering that you didn’t bring in the paper. We’ll see if we can match it to anything in the database, but it’s pretty unlikely. Worth a shot, though. And the security company is supposed to be faxing over a report to us at some point. They need to get Riley’s signature on some form authorizing them to release the information. We did find something outside, though.”

Mike was immediately hopeful. “Something you can use?”

Trevor looked pained. “We’re not sure yet. We found a dark, wet spot on the bricks of Eileen’s patio. I didn’t want to believe it when I saw it, because it was too gross to think about.”

“What was it?”

“It was, um…it appeared to be some kind of body fluid.”

Mike shrugged. “Okay, body fluid. What’s so gross about that? Did the guy take a dump out there or something?”

Trevor looked down. “Not quite. Honestly, it looked like bloody ejaculate. It was partially dried, but the appearance was consistent with that substance. The lab guy got a sample and is bringing it in to test it. If we’re lucky, and that’s really what it is, we can probably get a DNA sample from it. It’s only going to be helpful if it belongs to our guy.”

“Who else would it belong to? Is there some other pervert who would jack off in Eileen’s yard?”

“Well, probably not. But the blood is concerning. I’m guessing it’s not our guy’s blood.”

“Whose blood do you think it is?”

“Look Mike, I know Ryan told you about Matt Tucker. We think it may be from Matt.”

Mike was incredulous. “You think Matt was jacking off in Eileen’s yard and the perp cut him there? That's nasty.”

Trevor shook his head. “No, that’s not what I think. I think maybe Matt was forced into doing it in order to leave something that could be viewed as evidence that would throw us off for a while. Or the perp was jacking off and Matt surprised him. Something must have gone wrong, though. Why would this bastard leave Matt’s body so close to the scene? You’d think he would have taken him somewhere else. He had the squad, so nobody would have suspected anything.” He shrugged and rubbed his eyes. “Who knows? Why do people do anything?”

Mike felt bad for the veteran detective. He was obviously frustrated and tired. “So, what happens now?”

Trevor rolled his shoulders and turned his head side to side, trying to ease out the tension that had been building all morning. “We wait on the DNA and then take it from there. We were originally treating this as a breaking and entering, but with a human leg on the couch and what happened to Matt, we’re treating it as a homicide investigation. A double homicide, really. Speaking of which, I’ve got to go. I’m the lucky one to pay a visit to Mrs. Tucker. Shit. I hate having to break bad news.”

Mike’s heart went out to him. “I guess it’s a job hazard.”

Trevor nodded. “Yeah, yeah it is. I can handle it when it’s just part of the job, some random victim that becomes part of my day. But this is different.” His eyes watered briefly as he tried to compose himself. “Matt was just a kid, got married a few months ago. His wife’s going to be devastated. And she knows something’s up. She’s been calling around looking for him. He was supposed to be home at nine this morning. I’m going to head over there now.” He sighed heavily, obviously not wanting to do it. “I better go. Call if you need anything. And tell Eileen the same.”

“You know I will. Take care.”

Mike watched as they all left, feeling grateful that Eileen was okay. They had averted disaster this time around. He could only pray that they would continue to be so lucky. When everyone had cleared out, he went into the kitchen and sat down at the table, closing his eyes. What a morning. Getting up, he rummaged in the refrigerator, pulling out some leftovers for lunch. He had just sat back down to eat when the phone rang. He checked the caller ID and saw Eileen’s cell phone number.
He answered immediately. “Eileen?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Trevor just called and said that the guys are finished. How bad is it?”

Mike looked at the kitchen and down the hall past the dining room into the living room. It was filthy. “Not so bad,” he said.

Relief was evident in her voice. “Good. I was afraid I was going to have to spend the next three days trying to get it cleaned up. I just wanted to check in, see how things were going.”

“Everything is fine. Really. Don’t worry about things here, I’ve honestly got it under control.”

“I believe you. Listen, I was wondering if you’d be willing to do something for me this afternoon.”

“Sure, just name it.”

“Will you run out to the grocery store for me? There’s money in a shot glass that I keep in the cookie jar next to the stove. There’s a spare key in there, too. It’s only for the deadbolt for the back door, but you can set the alarm, too.”

Mike peeked inside and sure enough, it was there. He grabbed the key, but put the lid back on the jar without taking the money. “What do you want me to get?”

“Just some odds and ends. Some fruit and vegetables, some milk. I’ve got meat in the freezer and a ton of stuff in the pantry. I just started thinking that this creep was in my house, and the thought that he may have touched something that was open is making me feel sick.”

Mike, remembering the leftovers he was going to eat, suddenly lost his appetite. “That’s a good idea. I hadn’t even thought about that. I’ll take care of it, don’t worry, okay?”

“I’m trying not to. It was stupid for me to come into work today. I can’t concentrate at all. I’m going to grab lunch with Ryan now and then I have some files to go through before I head to the courthouse to testify. I may actually head out early today. I’m not much use to anybody right now.”

“Whatever you want to do, Eileen. I’ll be here. Do me a favor and give me a call when you’re on your way, okay? I’ll have food ready when you get home.”

“Sounds good. I can hardly wait. I was planning on being late today, but that idea has been pushed to the outer recesses of my brain. I’m going to try to get back there by five. Oh and before I forget, here’s the code for the alarm.” She rattled off a series of numbers, which Mike jotted down on a piece of paper that was next to the phone. He repeated the numbers back to her to make sure he got them right.

“That’s it. I have to go, but I’ll see you tonight.”

“I’ll be waiting. Be careful.”

“I will. You too. Talk to you later.”

“Okay. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Mike hung up the phone and stared at it for a minute. He didn’t want Eileen to have to deal with this mess when she got home. He dumped his plate of food, then hurried to empty the refrigerator of anything that had been opened and also did the same for the pantry. Fortunately, Eileen used most of what she opened, so there wasn’t too much to get rid of. He jotted down a quick list of items that he threw away so he could re-stock them for her, then grabbed the garbage so he could dump it in the outside can before he went to the store.

There was a grocery store ten minutes from her house, and he hurried through the aisles, crossing things off his list as he went. He had just finished getting all the necessary items when it occurred to him that he had no idea what kind of cleaning products she had at home. He zipped back through the store, grabbing a handful of multi-purpose cleaning items and several rolls of paper towels. As an afterthought, he went into the liquor section and grabbed a bottle of white wine. Eileen would need to sit back and relax after the day she’d had.

On the way back to her house, he pulled into a plaza with a floral shop and picked up two dozen roses. Driving back, he hoped he would have enough time to pull things together. Mike wasn’t completely sure what kind of dietary restrictions she had, but he knew her cholesterol was a problem, so he had settled on a vegetarian dish for dinner. He rushed to put the groceries away, being sure to leave out the items he would need for later, then set to the task of getting the house cleaned up.

Ten minutes later, armed with a bucket of hot water, glass cleaner, dusting spray and a roll of paper towels, he decided to work in the living room first. He didn’t want Eileen coming home to the mess that had been left behind. As he cleaned, he noticed things he hadn’t really paid attention to before today, including a grouping of books dedicated to art history, another to military history, and a small collection of porcelain elephants on a corner shelf. He lifted each item carefully, dusted away the fingerprint powder and meticulously wiped away the dust from the shelves before replacing each item in its exact spot. Afterward, he cleaned all the windows and ran the vacuum cleaner, whisking away the last bits of dust remaining on the carpet. He did the dining room next, following the same procedure, pausing in his cleaning only long enough to hang the picture he’d brought for her. Admiring his handiwork, he hoped that Eileen would like it as much as he did.

It was easy to clean the bathroom, Scotty’s room and Eileen’s room, as the guys hadn’t done much in those areas. He saved the kitchen for last, wanting to make sure it was spotless. Starting at one end of the countertops, he carefully bleached everything, ensuring it was all completely sanitized. Silently cursing himself for cleaning after he shopped, he pulled everything out of the refrigerator and sanitized the inside of it before putting everything back. After mopping the floors, he carefully bagged up the soiled paper towels and the yellow latex gloves he’d worn to protect his hands and brought the trash outside. Checking the clock when he got back in, he saw that it was almost four o’clock. The afternoon had certainly gone by fast.

Mike grabbed a change of clothes and his razor and headed into the sparkling clean bathroom. He shaved at the sink and rinsed away all the hairs before he got in the shower, then shampooed and soaped up and was done in less than ten minutes. He pulled on a pair of khaki slacks and a white tab-front shirt and splashed on aftershave. Giving himself a quick glance in the mirror, he was surprised at his own reflection. The shadows that had been under his eyes and the tension lines in his forehead and around his mouth that had been there only a few weeks earlier, were gone. He smiled to himself, thinking how much of that had to do with Eileen. Just being with her and feeding off her energy and positive attitude made him feel years younger.

Donning one of Eileen’s striped aprons, he began the task of making dinner. He was carefully peeling and slicing eggplant when the phone rang. He saw that it was Eileen and answered on the second ring.

“Hello?”

He could hear the tiredness in her voice through the phone. “Hey Mike. I’m just wrapping up here. I should be home shortly before five. I’ve got a nasty headache and I’m exhausted.”

“Well, you’ve got me here tonight, and I’m going to take excellent care of you.” He cradled the phone between his shoulder and his ear as he brushed the eggplant with an eggwhite wash and flour mixture. “I’m starting dinner now. I thought we could eat early and then either take a walk or zone out in front of the television.”

“I vote for the television,” she said. “I seriously don’t think I have the energy to take a walk. Hang on a second.” Mike could hear muffled voices in the background before she came back onto the line. “Listen, I have to go, but I’ll be home soon. Ryan is dropping me off.”

“Does he want to stay for dinner? I can easily make extra.”

“Nah. I told him I was sick of looking at him and he said the view wasn’t too pretty from his end, either. He knows you’re staying with me tonight, so he’ll just get me inside and then be on his way.”

“All right. I’ll see you soon.”

“Bye Mike.”

She hung up and Mike returned his attention to the eggplant. He pre-heated the oven and turned on the flame under a large skillet, heating up a few tablespoons of olive oil while he diced tomatoes and spinach. When the oil was hot, he carefully cooked the pieces of eggplant, using caution not to splatter the oil. He then layered the eggplant, tomatoes and spinach with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce in a baking dish and put it all in the oven, setting the timer for thirty minutes. Turning his attention to a ready-made pie crust, he carefully layered frozen peaches, stuffing the pie crust and bringing up the ends and pinching them together, leaving a gap at the top for steam to escape. It was four forty-five when he put the peach tart in the oven next to the eggplant.

Taking off the apron, he suddenly remembered the roses he had bought. Eileen had a crystal vase in her dining room, which he filled with water. He arranged the roses and set them in the middle of the table. Next, he went into the bathroom to run a hot, deep bath for her. The tub had just finished filling when he heard the back door.

“Mike?” she called out.

“I’m in the bathroom. Come on in.”

“In the bathroom? You’re not stinking it up, are you?” she asked as she appeared in the doorway. Her mouth dropped open when she saw him kneeling next to the tub. “What’s this for?”

He gathered her into his arms, kissing her forehead and holding her body tightly against his chest. “I know it was a hellish day for you. I thought you might like to relax.”

“This is amazing,” she said, smiling in appreciation.

“Go ahead and get undressed and get in. I’ll be right back.”

He went to Eileen’s room and selected a pair of pale gray cotton panties, lightweight yoga pants and a white tee shirt, no bra. On the way back to the bathroom, he poured her a glass of wine and brought it to her. She took it from him and sighed.

“If I’m going to get this kind of treatment from you, I just may have to hijack you and keep you here permanently.”

“I’m not opposed,” he said, as he sat on the edge of the tub, and gently began washing her hair, massaging her scalp as he did.

She relaxed under his touch, enjoying the pampering. “This is so nice. I would never do anything like this for myself. And what are you cooking? It smells heavenly.”

Smiling at the compliment, he began to soap her up, using a rich bath creme. “Eggplant. I’m actually a decent cook, but I haven’t gotten to show off my mad skills in the kitchen since you usually do the cooking. I thought you might enjoy being on the receiving end of the royal treatment for a change.”
She looked up at him gratefully. “I do appreciate it. You have no idea how much.”

He lavished her skin with the moisturizing wash, stroking her skin and lightly massaging her muscles. She leaned against the back of the tub, the water up to her chin as he stroked her legs. He couldn’t help becoming aroused. Her body was so smooth and inviting and just looking at her and touching her was incredibly erotic. When he was through, he rinsed the suds off her then got up and dried off his hands. “You can go ahead and finish up. Take your time. I’m going to set the table and get the food out. Would you like another glass of wine with dinner?”

“I would,” she said as she handed him her glass. She stood up and stretched, water running down her body. Mike stared at her, amazed at how stunning she was.

She winked at him as she toweled off. “Didn’t I tell you this morning that it wasn’t polite to stare?”
He laughed at her, then pulled her into a tight hug, running his hands down her body. “You did. But it’s hard not to. You finish up so I can get dinner out for us.”

Leaving the bathroom, he could hear her softly laughing as she slathered on lotion before getting dressed. When she emerged a few minutes later, she looked like a new woman, fresh and pink-faced. He was pleased to see that she was wearing the clothes he had picked out for her, and had also gone sans bra. Her breasts jutted against the fabric and she smiled at his obvious pleasure.

“You picked out a nice outfit for me. It’s very comfortable.”

“I’m glad you like it,” he said lightly brushing his fingertips across the front of the shirt, grazing her nipples. “Now get out of my kitchen.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me? Your kitchen?”

“Yes, my kitchen. I cooked up an amazing dinner for you, and your job is just to enjoy it. That automatically makes it my kitchen today. So go sit down at the table. Your glass of wine is waiting for you.”

“Fine. I’ll go into the dining room, but not because you told me to. Just because I want that glass of wine.” He gave her a light pinch as she turned on her heel and skipped out to the dining room.
He was arranging food on their plates when he heard her shriek of delight. She came running back into the kitchen, barreling into him so hard he almost dropped their dinner.

“That picture! Where did you get it? It’s perfect!” She was squealing and clapping her hands like a little girl who had just gotten a new bicycle for Christmas. “I love it, love it, love it! And did I mention that I love it?” She threw her arms around him and kissed him with wild abandon. When she finally released him, he was short of breath.

“Wow. If that’s the reaction I’m going to get every time I get you a present, I may have to do it more often.”

Eileen was still smiling and clapping her hands, doing a crazy little dance around him. “No, you don’t understand. I’ve been looking for something for that wall for so long and just couldn’t find anything. Nothing seemed to be a good fit. And then bam,” she snapped her fingers as she said it, “I leave you here alone for one day, and you magically transform my dining room.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her that he’d had the picture for weeks already, and figured it didn’t really matter when he got it. All that mattered was that it was up now, and she really liked it. And given the sudden glow about her, he was pretty sure that she really, really liked it.

He gave her a gentle nudge. “What do you say we go into the dining room so you can look at the picture while you eat this fantabulous dinner I made for you?”

“Fantabulous? That’s not a word!”

“Yes it is,” he replied, carefully setting their steaming plates on the table. “It is a word and I use it all the time.”

“Just because you use it all the time doesn’t automatically make it a word,” she said as she tossed her hair back over her shoulder.

“I’m telling you, it’s a word,” he insisted as he dug into his eggplant. “In fact, I’d even make a bet with you that it’s a real word.”

“Hey! This is really good!” Eileen exclaimed as she chewed her food. She swallowed it down, savoring the flavors left on her tongue. “Okay, you win. This is fantabulous. Where did you learn to cook like this?”

Mike couldn’t help but feel proud that dinner had turned out so well. He really wanted to show her that he was capable of playing an equal role in their relationship when it came to cooking and cleaning. “It’s a recipe I picked up down at the station house. One of our guys there is a fantastic cook, and I’ve mooched some recipes from him over the years. I don’t get to use them very often since I live alone. I usually horde the recipes, then cook them up all at once for family parties.”

“Your family must love having you around during the holidays if you do the cooking.”

“They do,” he said quietly, eyes downcast.

Eileen could see that she’d hit a nerve with him. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No. It’s just that, well,” he shrugged. “The holidays just aren’t what they used to be, you know?”

She could hear the sadness in his voice and her heart ached for him. “It must be difficult getting through what’s supposed to be a happy time when you don’t have your wife with you.”

He nodded. “It’s hard, but it’s not just that. Obviously I miss Tina more around the holidays. But I miss her family, too.” Eileen continued to eat as he spoke, her eyes glued to his face. “We were godparents to two of her nieces, and since she died, the family has sort of cut me out of their lives. I don’t think it’s anything they really do on purpose. I know her dad was pretty angry with me for a long while. He thought that since I was a doctor, or,” he lowered his voice in a good imitation of his father-in-law, “a doctor who couldn’t cut it and took a few steps down to being a paramedic,” he changed his voice back to normal and continued, “I should have caught on to the cancer earlier. There was no way I could have caught it. She didn’t have any symptoms. When she started complaining about headaches and an achy abdomen, I thought she was pregnant and was secretly thinking about names. I had no idea that it was cancer. But then her dad told me that she’d been complaining to him and her mom for months about not feeling well.”

Eileen reached across the table and squeezed his hands in both of her own. “Mike, there’s no way you could have known, doctor or not. You’re human. And you were her husband, not her physician. If she was complaining to her parents, that was their business, not yours. You weren’t her keeper. Tina was an adult, same as you. If she chose not to take care of her health, you couldn’t make her.”

She realized that her words had come out harsher than she intended and immediately softened her tone. “What I mean is, Tina probably complained to her parents because she didn’t want to worry you. And she must have not been too worried herself to put off telling you and going to the doctor. I’m sure she thought it was nothing. Or maybe she was hoping she was pregnant, same as you were hoping.”

“Could be,” he said, finally looking up and meeting her gaze. “Oh man, listen to me. I’m such a turkey. Here I made this nice dinner and planned a relaxing evening for you, and I’m sitting here boo-hooing over the past. Sorry about that.”

“Mike, there’s no need to apologize. I can’t really understand how hard it is for you, because I haven’t lost a spouse. I hope I never have to deal with something like that. And truth be told, I think you’re coping amazingly well.”

“Thanks Eileen. You’re a peach. Peach! Oh man!” He slapped his forehead then jumped up and ran into the kitchen.

“Mike?” she called out. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just give me a minute.” She could hear him opening and closing the oven door and rifling through the silverware drawer. Curious what he was up to, she tried to peer into the kitchen, but all she could see was his back. And his firm rear end. Suppressing an impish grin, she returned to her dinner, happily devouring the eggplant in front of her, instead of trying to figure out what he was doing.

Mike emerged a few minutes later, carrying the peach tart and a tub of Lite Cool Whip. Eileen was eyeing it hungrily. “Is that for dessert?”

“You bet it is. I know better than to try to get through a meal with you and not satisfy your sweet tooth. But it’s also relatively healthy, so you can indulge to your heart’s content.”

“Good. Now finish your dinner so you can indulge with me.”

They finished the rest of their meal in comfortable silence, just enjoying being together and sharing the space at the table. When they were through, Eileen leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms high over her head. Mike felt some stirrings below as her breasts pressed against the front of her shirt, clearly outlining what lay just beneath the soft fabric. She caught him looking and gave a little shake, which made him blush.

She couldn’t help but laugh at him. “Mike, how did you manage as an emergency room doctor? How do you manage as a paramedic? You must see naked, or at least half-naked women every single day.”

“That’s different! That’s all job-related. It’s easy to be professional when it’s a stranger. You have a different kind of effect on me.”

“Well, I’ll assume that’s a good thing,” she said as she reached for the peach tart and a knife. “How do I cut this thing? It looks like if I stick the knife in it, it’ll fall apart.”

“It probably would since you have no idea how to properly cut anything.” He sliced through it and handed her a piece.

She eyed it warily. “This looks like it might be too healthy to be a dessert. Is this some kind of trick?”
“No tricks, I swear.”

She took a cautious bite, rolling the tangy peaches on her tongue before giving a nod of approval. “Pretty good, Mike. I think I could get used to this.”

“I think I could handle being employed as your personal chef. Just so long as you don’t get too demanding.”

“I’m not demanding!”

“I didn’t say you were. I said as long as you don’t get too demanding.”

“Hmmmmm.” She chewed her dessert, trying to think of a good comeback. “I like to drink the brine from pickled pigs’ feet.”

Mike nearly choked on his mouthful of food. “What? What do you mean you like to drink the brine from pickled pigs’ feet? That’s disgusting.”

“It is disgusting. And I really don’t like it. Actually, I don’t know if I would like it or not. I’ve never had pickled pigs’ feet, let alone drank the brine from them. I just couldn’t come up with a spur-of-the-moment comeback for your smart aleck comment about me being demanding. So, I figured I’d just say something dumb instead.”

“Eileen, you’re an enigma. You really are. Where do you come up with stuff like that?”

“I guess I’m just talented.” She stood up to start clearing the dishes, but he waved her back into her seat.

“Sit. Let me clean up.”

“You did all the cooking, so the least I can do is help with the cleanup. And I see that you cleaned my house, too. I don’t know what it looked like when everyone left, but I’m sure it was a disaster. You did a heck of a job. Everything looks clean and smells clean. Like hospital clean. And it was just nice and really thoughtful. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Having to take care of it after work would have been horrible for me and it’s sweet that you want to help me out.”

They loaded the dishwasher together, Eileen chatting about her day and being in court that afternoon, taking a few verbal jabs at the defense lawyer in the case she had testified at. Mike listened to her, grateful that she appeared to be far less shaken up than she was that morning. Afterward, they relaxed together in the living room, Eileen propped up on several pillows, flipping through a magazine, and Mike absent-mindedly watching Wheel of Fortune. Her legs were stretched out over him and he was rubbing her ankles.

Mike didn’t realize it, but Eileen had been staring at the same page of her magazine for over twenty minutes, thinking back to the horror of earlier that morning. Even worse, she’d had to deal with the stares and whispers from some of the guys she worked with. There was speculation that she’d engineered the whole thing as some sort of ploy to get attention. Ryan was enraged when he’d heard the talk in the squad room and had completely gone off on two of them. Eileen chose to take the high road, not wanting to feed into the gossip. Her life was complicated enough already. She didn’t need anymore drama. And she was worried about Scotty, too. And Mike. What was she supposed to do? Just stop her daily living until the crazy bastard who was terrorizing got caught? She couldn’t do that. Could. Not. Do. It.

Suddenly angry, she threw the magazine on the floor, causing Mike to jump. “Hey, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“Mike, I can’t do this. I can’t drag you into this mess. You need to go. Now.” She got up and grabbed his overnight bag, which he’d left propped against the overstuffed chair next to the couch.

His eyes widened as she tried to hand him the bag. “What? Why? I’m not going anywhere.”

“No. You have to go.” Since he wouldn’t take the bag from her, she started dragging it toward the door. “I’m not going to risk you getting hurt. I care too much about you to let anything happen to you. I’d never forgive myself. It’s bad enough that I’m in this position and that I’m pretty well stuck. You don’t have to stay here. You shouldn’t stay here. I need to just deal with this on my own. There are uniforms outside and there’s no way that anybody is going to get in here. Hell, I’m not going to be able to get out until tomorrow morning when I leave for work. The damn department issued a curfew for me. Can you believe that? They issued a curfew to a thirty-year-old homicide detective. I’m stuck here, no doubt, but you deserve to be out doing stuff. Having fun.”

Mike was completely dumbfounded. He pulled her to him, fighting her as she struggled against him, until she finally relented and let him hold her, though she remained stiff and unyielding in his arms. “Eileen, I’m not going anywhere. If you want me to leave, you’re going to have to figure out how to pick me up and carry me. I’m taking vacation time right now because I want to be here with you. And I don’t know what you mean when you say I should be out doing stuff. Do you have any idea how much overtime I racked up with the department? I never wanted to go home. Other than hanging out at Charlie’s with you or Ryan sometimes, I didn’t go anywhere. You think I should be out having fun. Hello?” he asked, gently rapping her on the forehead. “This is the most fun I’ve had in years. Getting to see your face in the mornings, cuddling with you at night, tickling you, just talking, or walking and holding hands. I feel like I’ve lived a whole lifetime in these past few weeks. So, you can’t just get rid of me, okay? I get that you’re worried about bringing me into the insanity of your life right now, but if I was going to bolt, don’t you think I would have done it already? If I wasn’t scared off by the sight of you first thing in the morning before you’ve showered and brushed your teeth, and had your two cups of coffee, what do you think it would take?”

Eileen pulled back and shot him a dirty look. “You were making me feel better until you got to the end there. I’m not that bad in the mornings.”

Mike sniffed at her. “Oh really? You’re a crabby pants. I swear you’re allergic to mornings. You have to be. But I’d rather be around and have to deal with you being crabby for an hour after you wake up than not be around at all. What’s it going to take for you to believe that?”

“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I don’t know what it’s going to take. I do know it’s nothing you can give me, though. I’m going to have to figure it out on my own. I’ve been conditioned to protect others and not let them get too close to me.”

“I respect that, Eileen. But like it or not, I’m part of your life now, and I want to be close to you.”

“How close?”

“This close,” he said as he lowered his head to hers.

His lips were warm and soft against her own, and she could feel his tongue probing against her mouth. She let him in, running her own tongue over the slightly uneven ridge of his bottom teeth. They stayed that way for a while, kissing, touching each other, building up to what they both knew they wanted. After a while, he took her hand and led her down the hall to her room, where they spent the evening falling into the ecstasy that they knew so well how to create.