Cops And ...Lovers?(5)

By: Linda Castillo

On the surface, her answer seemed adequate. To the point. Acceptable. Just the way she'd planned, Nick thought. But he was observant enough to notice the other signs that weren't quite as apparent. He didn't miss her white-knuckled grip on her purse. The slight tremor in her hand. The tight clench of her jaw. All signs of stress; all signs that the shooting had affected her much more profoundly than she was letting on. Just like a cop, he thought, and inwardly groaned. He knew intimately the signs of personal baggage—he was an expert on the subject, after all—and bet his bottom dollar the woman across from him had a truckload sitting on those rigid shoulders.

"Frank said you were lucky to get out of that warehouse alive," he said.

She looked as though she wanted to argue for a moment, but didn't. "I was very lucky."

Her partner, Danny Perrine, hadn't been as lucky. The thought sent a flare of irritation through Nick. He wondered if she was going to come clean with the entire story, or if he was going to have to squeeze it out of her one question at a time.

"Did you spend any time with the department shrink afterward?" he asked casually.

Her gaze snapped to his. He could tell from her expression she knew it wasn't a casual question. Though she tried to shutter her reaction, Nick saw the flash of emotion in the depths of her gaze.

"I saw Dr. Ferguson for a couple of months. It's department regulation for any cop involved in a shooting. She gave me a clean bill of health."

"So if the shrink gave you a clean bill of health, why did Frank fire you?"

"Frank didn't fire me. I resigned."

"On paper maybe. It's obvious you were on your way out. Only you knew a resignation would look better than a termination on your résumé, didn't you?" Nick didn't look up, but rather felt the rise of tension. He let the silence work for a moment, then met her gaze. "You didn't think I wouldn't ask you about the shooting, did you?"

Erin stared at him, her expression guarded. "Of course not."

"I have your complete file," he pointed out. "I was wondering if you wanted to give me your take on what happened."

"Frank said—"

"Why don't you stop wondering how much of this Frank has already told me, and just lay it out?"

For the first time, her composure wavered. She blinked, then looked down at her hands, twisting in her lap. Quickly, she relaxed them. "He had no right to give you my entire file. Some of it's confidential."

"You don't think he's going to let you waltz in and dazzle me with your test scores and solve rate when we both know you've had some serious problems in the last six months, do you?"

"Frank knows I'm a good cop."

"He also knows you're wobbly on your feet. You were involved in a shooting. There are repercussions to that sort of thing whether we like to admit it or not. Frank didn't expect me to walk in blind. Not after what happened to Danny Perrine."

She flinched. "I'm not wobbly. I made a mistake—"

"A very serious one that nearly cost a man his life."

"I'm fully aware—"

Nick's throat squeezed out a short, incredulous laugh designed to let her know just how he felt about cops and mistakes. "Just because you're aware, Ms. McNeal, doesn't mean it's going to go away or that it won't happen again."

"I screwed up," she said. "I went back to work too soon after … Danny. But I'm better now—"

"Ah, I'll feel a hell of lot better going through a door with you, knowing you're all better."

Her eyes heated. "I can do without the sarcasm."

Ignoring her anger, maybe even enjoying it a little, Nick continued, "This isn't personal, McNeal. I'm just trying to decide if you're still suitable for police work."

"Why don't you give me the chance to prove it?"

"Because I'm afraid you'll freeze up when I need you. I can do without a bullet in my back."

She stared at him, her eyes wide, nostrils flaring slightly. "I'm solid."

"If that was the case you'd still be in Chicago."

"Frank's assessment of me was incorrect."

Nick leaned forward. "You mean he lied? Why would he do that?"

"I'm his niece. He's overprotective. He thinks I ought to be home baking cookies, for Pete's sake."

"Maybe you should have considered administrative work when he offered it."

"I'm a police officer. I don't want to sit behind a desk."

"You'd rather play Rambo, and freeze up on your partner."

"That's not how any of this happened."

Nick knew he was being hard on her, but he figured since this was his town he had every right to put her on the hot seat.

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