Cops And ...Lovers?(10)

By: Linda Castillo


"Doesn't like you? What's not to like?" He tousled her hair, his hand lingering. "Just between you and me, Mrs. McClellan told me you're her favorite librarian."

The little girl looked at the coloring book spread out on the desk. "Can't I just stay here awhile? I brought my coloring book, see? I'll be quiet."

"Honey, I'd love to spend the day with you, but you can't miss any more school and I've got work to do." Digging in her backpack, he pulled out a box of colorful markers. "Who brought you here to the station?"

The little girl leaned over and shot Erin a less-than-friendly look over Nick's shoulder. "Who's that lady?"

Nick glanced at Erin, then turned back to the girl. "Her name's Erin. She's my new deputy—"

"That's a boy's name."

"Steph, I want you to tell me who brought you here."

"No one." She selected a marker and began to color. "I just left. Mr. Finn sent me to the office for talking to Kimmy Bunger during attendance. The hall monitor was in the bathroom, and nobody was paying any attention, so I just left."

Erin saw Nick's shoulders go rigid. "Wait a minute," he said firmly. "You just left? An adult didn't drive you here?"

"It's not that big a deal, Daddy. The school's only two blocks away."

"I'm afraid leaving school without permission is a big deal, Steph. You know I'm going to have to call the school and talk to the principal again, don't you?" Gently easing the marker from her fingers, he rounded her chair and pulled it back from the desk.

That was when Erin noticed the wheelchair. She stared, trying valiantly to curb the resulting shock.

"You know you're not allowed to leave school without permission," Nick said, picking up the phone and punching in numbers. "Why didn't you tell your teacher you wanted to go home? Why didn't you call me?"

In some small corner of her mind, Erin heard him ask for the principal. She stood frozen in place, telling herself the sight of the wheelchair hadn't upset her, hadn't made her remember.

Images from the night of the shooting burst forth in her mind's eye. She fought the flashback, but it pressed down on her, a solid weight of fear that stole her concentration and threatened her control. Danny lying on the floor in a pool of blood. The churning in her gut. The smell of gunpowder.

The folded uniform she'd been clutching slipped from her hands and fell to the floor in a heap. Nick looked up, his eyes narrowing. Terrified he would misinterpret her reaction, Erin quickly scooped up the fallen uniform, then backed into the relative safety of the hall. Her chest felt as if it was being squeezed by a giant vise, but she forced air into her lungs. She was going to be okay, she assured herself. It had been a while since she'd had a flashback, but they still came on occasion. Whenever a sound or smell or sight reminded her of the night she'd been shot, it all came rushing back…

Ordering herself to calm down, she smoothed the front of her uniform and watched Nick kneel to tie his daughter's shoe. The little girl wore a pink sweatshirt and matching pants, with polka-dot sneakers. It was a happy outfit, made for climbing trees and playing hopscotch. But Erin could plainly see by the look in this child's eyes that she wasn't happy. She certainly wasn't going to get up out of that wheelchair and play hopscotch anytime soon.

"Get your books and markers together, kiddo," he said. "I'm taking you home."

"I don't want to go home."

"It's either school or home," he said firmly. "I'll let you choose."

"Please, Daddy, I want to go with you."

Erin didn't miss the pain that knifed across Nick's features. Jaw clenched, he looked down at the floor, then slowly straightened, as if the effort cost him more energy than he had to spare. "Put your books and markers in your book bag, honeybunch. I'll take you home."

Huffing in displeasure, the little girl wheeled closer to the desk and started throwing markers one by one into her book bag.

Erin hadn't even known Nick Ryan had a family. He didn't wear a ring; she'd assumed he was unmarried. That his child was handicapped struck a chord within her. Pain broke open in her chest—a slow ache that burgeoned until it enveloped her entire body. And her heart silently wept when she remembered another wheelchair, and a man she'd sentenced to the kind of hell she could only imagine in her worst nightmares.

"McNeal."

She started at the sound of Nick's voice, and forced her gaze to his.

Standing at the end of the hall, he shot her a look cold enough to freeze acid. "In my office."

Pressing her hand against her stomach, she walked past him and into his office. Oh, Lord, she hadn't intended to react to the wheelchair. She couldn't imagine what he must think of her.

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