Just Desserts


Just Desserts

Rated M.

“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she had said, her eyes trained out the window.

He’d pushed his shades up his nose with one finger. “I’m not going to ask you to.”

Except he has asked, practically daily, always a joke because he knows very well the answer is no. “It would serve you right,” she says to him now, “It would serve you right if I called your bluff—just once.”


It is the summer of 1989, the last one of the decade, but on this mild night, it seems like time has slowed, bobbing along atop the gentle ocean waves, stretching out into the vast, dark night. The warm, humid breeze sticks her purple blouse to her like a second skin, and the moon is so bright it glows even behind her closed eyes. It’s late and they should be going because there is work to be done tomorrow, even for her, because her name has been officially cleared and she has her job back in full, thanks to him.

She has thanked him already with a meal of his choice, and now they are full of Italian food from the little place four blocks over, the one with the red plastic tablecloths and fake, non-flickering candles. Hunter had simple tastes, but he knows his Italian cuisine. The garlic bread came hot and buttery; the red sauce had a piquant, vibrant tomato flavor, and the pasta was cooked to tender perfection. Still, even adding in a bottle of house wine, the bill totaled less than thirty dollars, and she is getting off easy.

“You still owe me,” he says out of nowhere, like he’s in her head with her and not taking up the better half of their shared wooden bench. He’d left his jacket in the car and rolled up his shirtsleeves in deference to the warm night air.

“Owe you what, exactly? The deal was dinner, and I just watched you put away about a pound of pasta primavera.”

He shrugs one shoulder. “Take down a dangerous jewel thief…get you reinstated to full duty…I think I deserve some sugar.”

She snorts with amusement. “You had your chance for that, and you turned down dessert.”

“Not that kind of sugar,” he says and taps his cheek with one finger. “Come on. Bring it over here.”

She shakes her head with a smile, and then heaves a put-upon sigh. “Fine,” she says, sliding closer. “I suppose you’ve earned it.”

She places a lingering kiss on his cheek, long enough to feel the faint prickle of his evening stubble and smell the salt of his skin. When she backs away again, Hunter clears his throat and turns the other check toward her. “This one too,” he says.

“Really?” she asks in disbelief.

“Rules,” he replies. “It’s in the bible and stuff. ‘Turn the other cheek.’”

“I think you need a remedial religion course,” she says, but she leans over again anyway because what’s the harm. This time she has to stretch partway across his body, has to put her hand on his leg to keep her balance. She can feel the firm muscle of his thigh and the heat radiating from his skin through the thin material of his trousers. 

She brushes her lips against his cheeks, holding her breath as she does so, and backs away quickly, exhaling in relief. She has barely settled in again when Hunter taps his finger to his lips. “One more,” he says, his eyes glinting with mischief and invitation.

She narrows her eyes at him, but he holds her gaze, not taking it back. She remembers years ago when they first met, back in the days of the hooker outfits and junky cars, when she’d caught him eyeing the edge of her miniskirt as they’d idled at a corner light. “I’m not going to sleep with you,” she had said, her eyes trained out the window.

He’d pushed his shades up his nose with one finger. “I’m not going to ask you to.”

Except he has asked, practically daily, always a joke because he knows very well the answer is no. “It would serve you right,” she says to him now, “It would serve you right if I called your bluff—just once.”

He tilts his head at her. “Who’s bluffing?”

Oh, so that’s how he was going to play it? He thought she was going to be the one to back down? “Okay, then,” she says, shifting a little closer.

“Okay then,” he agrees, not budging an inch. His arm is spread out along the edge of the bench, creating a space for her next to him, but he makes no move to pull her in. He’s still waiting to see how far she’ll take it, and suddenly, she’s waiting to see, too.

She swallows as her pulse picks up with excitement and alarm. This is wicked, uncharted territory, but they wouldn’t be cops if they didn’t get off on a little bit of danger. She reaches behind his shoulder with one hand to gain purchase on the bench, and the movement brings their faces closer together. She can feel him breathing now. “Last chance to back out,” she murmurs, her gaze drifting downward to his full mouth.

“I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to,” he replies, gesturing to the fact that she has him caged between her body and the bench.

“Do you…want to?”

“Want to,” he repeats, sounding distracted. She checks and finds he is watching her mouth now, too. Her face grows hot and they drift closer, closer, until she isn’t sure whether she is feeling her heat or his. She gasps and starts at the first touch of his mouth, but the sound is quickly buried in the rush of their kiss. She keeps it light at first, intending to pull away in just a second, but his mouth is warm and hungry under hers, and so she keeps going back for more. By the time they are done, her lips are stinging, her body is throbbing in time with her heartbeat, and she’s pretty sure she’s left nail marks on the back of that bench.

She eases away, shaking a little, but he doesn’t let her get far. His hand comes down from the bench behind her and takes hers in a gentle hold, giving her an affectionate squeeze. “I, uh…you were supposed to say no,” she says with a rueful smile.

“That’s usually your job,” he points out.

She laughs. “Ah, well, there you go: I’m not back on the job until eight tomorrow morning.”

“That leaves you a lot of hours to kill,” he says, his tone conversational, but she can’t help noticing they are still holding hands.

“I didn’t think that would ever happen,” she says. Certainly not now. Not after all these years. 

“Yeah? I used to think that too.”

“What do you mean ‘used to’? You planned this?” She yanks her hand back.

“No, I didn’t plan this. You’re the one who winked at me and dragged me out of the station, remember?”

“I didn’t plan this either,” she replies, horrified. “I just asked you to dinner. You’re the one who…who…”


“Who insisted on dessert,” she finishes darkly.

Hunter gives a low chuckle. Obviously he is not as thrown by this new development as she is, but of course, he probably kisses random women all the time. “No,” he says, “I wasn’t implying any sort of actual plan. I just meant, you know, the idea used to be kinda tempting but not worth it. We’re friends, partners—why chance screwing that up for some brief physical connection we can get somewhere else?”

“Right,” she says automatically, although she hasn’t been seeing anyone else, not for months now, and she has no idea what his current situation is. No one serious, she supposes, which for Hunter usually amounts to three consecutive dates.

“It’s just that…I don’t know…a while ago, I guess, I realized it’s probably not true anymore.”

“What? Which part?”

“This. What we are together.” He reaches out and brushes his fingertips against her cheek, and her skin tingles wherever he touches. “I don’t think it’s possible to find it somewhere else.”

It’s true. They have between them been shattered and put back together so many times that surely they contain pieces of each other by now. Just the thought of taking that rich history to bed, to mingling their bodies the way they’ve shared their lives, makes her flush with excitement and a little bit of terror. It could be amazing. It could be awful. But Hunter was right—it would be unlike anything she would experience with anyone else.

“Don’t tell me you aren’t curious,” he says, giving her a slow smile. “Because I won’t believe it.”

“There’s a saying about curiosity,” she replies. “Something regarding a cat?”    

“Cats have nine lives,” he says. “This might be worth one of ‘em.”

He’s being flippant, but this is her fear, that it would kill her. Not literally, of course, but he’s had every other part of her—her blood, sweat and tears—if she gives him this, too, there might be nothing left of her when it’s over. And it would be over. Setting aside the part where they wanted different paths in life, she is simply playing the odds: every one of her romantic relationships has ended at some point, so it would be foolish to imagine he would be different. The end game could get…messy.

“Look,” he says because she’s been quiet for so long, “I didn’t mean—”

She does not find out what he didn’t mean, because she leans over and silences him with her mouth. One great kiss is not enough information to render a decision, so she’s gathering more evidence. Only when she feels him stiffen, hears the intake of his breath, she realizes she has called his bluff, that maybe his offer wasn’t genuine, but it’s too late now because they are already kissing again.

It’s just as good as the first time, maybe better, because she’s holding him instead of the bench and he keeps pulling her closer until his hands are in her hair while his tongue teases her mouth and oh shit this was never supposed to happen. “Wait.” She pulls back, breathless, and he instinctively chases her mouth with his own, not ready for it to be over yet. She stops him by pressing her fingers to his lips. 

“What?” he murmurs against her hand, and he kisses her fingertips, sending shivers down her back.

“This would never last,” she says, and he sags at her words. She ducks to try to meet his gaze. “It would have to be short.”

He perks up again when he realizes she hasn’t said the word “no.” “What do you mean?” He’s still holding her, rubbing her hip, making her crazy at a time when she has to think.

She can do this, she can. She can be like him, where sex is just a fun recreational thing two people do together. Maybe he’s the only one she could do this with, someone she likes and trusts already. It’s been so long and he feels so good, and she just has to be careful not to fall too far in, someplace he won’t follow.

“Just a fling,” she spells out for him. “Just to see.”

“A fling,” he repeats as he digests the proposal. “How long?”

She bites her lip in hesitation. It’s not like she has a plan. “One night?” That’s probably his standard, she reasons, but even as she says the words, they sound vaguely cheap and dirty.

Hunter shakes his head and squeezes her. “Not enough,” he says gruffly, and the rough edge of desire in his voice makes her belly quiver. 

“A weekend?”

He considers. “Three months,” he suggests after a beat, and punctuates the offer with a kiss to her collarbone, where he must be able to feel the rapid flutter of her pulse.

Three months is too long, too dangerous. Seasons change in that time. Houses are built, and hers could easily fall. “One month,” she counters, trailing her fingers down the back of his head to find the soft hairs at his neck.

He opens his mouth against her skin in a silent scream. “One month,” he agrees finally, the words muffled against her blouse. 

Before she can process what they’ve agreed to, before she fully comprehends her fate, he is kissing her again—a hot trail up the side of her neck and over to her ready mouth. They kiss for a long time, slow and deep, because there is no reason to stop now, even though it feels so illicit that she half expects to hear a siren. “This month,” he says when they pause for air, their foreheads leaned together, “when does it start?”

She touches his face with her fingers, stroking gently. “I think it already has.”

She feels him smile in the darkness. “In that case, you wanna come over?”


Despite the haste of their initial decision—seriously, they were just having pasta and discussing the terrible ending to Moonlighting and wasn’t that proof that friends and lovers weren’t a good mix and how the hell is she standing in his too-small kitchen while he makes coffee at 10:23 on a Tuesday night?— things slow down again when they reach Hunter’s beach condo. She is relieved to hear the porcelain clatter as he walks the cups back out to the living room; Hunter is nervous about this too. 

They manage a few sips of coffee but then it is left to cool on the low standing table because once they are sitting down, they are touching again, and where there is touching, the kissing now follows. It is polite necking until Hunter kills the lights, and they sink into the cushions with abandon, arms and legs entwined. Her shoes are left on the floor, and he peels off her nylons so that his large, warm hands can wander over her bare skin. He’s really good at this, she notes with some detachment as he feels every inch of her through her clothes, her body rising to his touch. Look at what you’ve been missing.

He sits up and hauls her with him, her pencil skirt crimped up around her waist as her legs fall open against his lap. “Maybe we should make a few more rules,” she says, holding his head as he sucks at her neck.

“What kind of rules?” he asks, and the words vibrate against her skin.

“Um, I don’t know.” What kind of deal with the devil could protect her here? “No kissing, no sleepovers, no I-love-yous, that sort of thing.”

He looks up, seeming amused. “The first one is already shot to hell,” he says, “and the rest of it—well, we were never very good with rules, right?”


“So no more rules,” he says.

“Okay, no more rules.”

As if to prove his point, he kisses her lightly once, then again, and again, deepening the contact each time, and her reservations pop like soap bubbles with each touch of his mouth on her skin. It is so dark in his living room; the only light is a shard of moon glinting off the distant ocean. She wishes she could see him better but the lack of sight magnifies all the other senses, and she is filled with the sounds of them—their breathing and murmurs, the clothing being eased aside, the scrape of his teeth against her plastic buttons as her blouse comes undone in his mouth. The man has skills, and she tries not to think about where he honed them, not when his tongue is tracing the outline of her bra as his hands slip down to her rear, urging her closer against him.

She strips off his shirt to play with the naked expanse of skin underneath, his taut, flat stomach, the fuzz of hair on his chest, the amazingly strong arms that are wrapping themselves around her. They kiss and kiss, still mostly dressed, but his hands are inside her underwear now, touching her bare ass, helping her find a rhythm on his lap. The friction makes her hot and dizzy, desperate for more. She is very wet and he could surely feel it, but she can’t be embarrassed, not when she is riding the enormous bulge at the front of his pants.

Hunter raises his face from the hollow of her breasts and nuzzles the side of her face. “I have a bed upstairs,” he says, his voice low and growly. “We could go there together if you want.”

The phrasing, making it sound like a joint decision, a partnership, warms her heart. She nods her agreement and starts to climb off his lap, but he simply grabs her around the waist and carries her. They exchange tiny, affectionate kisses during the journey, the kind she hasn’t known since Steve died, and she gets teary-eyed with happiness.

The bed is rumpled, unmade, and Hunter looks a little sheepish. “I wasn’t expecting company,” he murmurs as they cuddle up again on the sheets, but she is not there to assess the decor. 

They undress each other, clothing falling silent like snow, until she is the one with the last remaining stitch of attire, a pair of uneventful pink cotton panties she pulled on without thinking that morning, when she hadn’t been expecting company, either. He touches her there, back and front and all around, everywhere but in between, on and on, so that when he finally slips his fingers inside, it is such sweet relief that she moans into their kiss.

He grins against her mouth. “I want to make you do that again,” he says, tugging her underwear down and off with eager, clumsy hands. 

He does, and she does, over and over, as his mouth plays at her breast while his hand busies itself between her thighs. She gives herself over to the sensations, enjoying every touch, not thinking about anything but the fact that his long fingers seem to have found a place inside her she didn’t know existed. She lets him take her higher and higher, her palms restless against the sheets, and when she finally peeks down she realizes just how far she’s come. 

Release quivers nearby, ready for her, and she gulps in air as she trembles on the edge. This is unexpected and powerful—too soon. She does not orgasm with new people, not ever, not even Before. She realizes in that instant that sex with Hunter is not like bowling or beer night or an afternoon movie, whatever other recreational fun stuff they’ve done in the past. This is for serious.

“Oops,” she whispers, just as she shakes and the stars go off behind her eyes.

When she can breathe again a minute later, she finds there are sticky tears drying on her face and her skin is still sparking from head to toe. Hunter has cuddled her into his side and his lips are murmuring something at her hairline. She makes out the word, “Okay?” and she nods, her leaden tongue still unable to speak.

She shifts so she can kiss him, a benediction graced with new understanding. Of course it would be like this, of course. She wriggles down so she can stroke him, laying him hot and heavy in her hand. She kisses the underside of his chin and listens with pleasure as his breathing goes ragged and deep. He lets her play for only a short time before he finds the condom.

When he is ready, he doesn’t roll her under him as she might expect, but instead positions her on top. She grins because this is one thing she has always loved about Hunter: he doesn’t mind when she drives. Slowly, she takes him inside, closing her eyes so she doesn’t have to see him watching her as it happens. He is hard and full and wonderful.

She takes a moment to adjust, and Hunter uses this time to pull her down for kissing. She has to stretch to make it work but he cradles her face and kisses her tenderly, whispering her own name to her as an endearment, until she is teary again and has no choice but to admit this is happening, this huge new intimacy that feels like it might swallow her whole.  She pulls back and lays her cheek against his chest, listening to the thunder of his heart. He strokes her hair as she hugs him, and it doesn’t feel so overwhelming anymore. 

She sits up with a sniff and gently begins to move on him, watching his face to see what he likes the most. The rhythm is slow and steady at first, but builds as the sweat breaks out over Hunter’s brow. She strokes his chest and arms and he holds her hips, showing her what he needs. She gives it all to him until his jaw goes slack and he comes inside her with a deep groan. 

Later, when they have cleaned up a bit, she lies with him beneath the sheets, warm in the curve of his giant arms. She is sleepy but the ticking of his watch near her ear reminds her that it is very late. “I need to get going,” she whispers to him. 

He makes a distinctly grumpy noise that causes her to smile. “Just a little longer,” he says, pulling her in closer to his deliciously naked body.

“I can’t. It’s past midnight. We have work in a few hours.” Gingerly, she eases out from under his arm, but he catches her again in a gentle hug. She rubs his back and wishes she didn’t have to go, but she has no clothes and she’s sure as hell not wearing the same outfit back to work tomorrow. “Hunter…” 

His voice is fuzzy, somewhere over her head. “I do, you know,” he says, and she momentarily stops her struggling. “Love you.”

She squeezes her eyes closed and holds the words in tight, even though they already sound like regret.


They spend their lives taking down witness statements, but the way he looks at it, they are also witnesses, the pair of them, one to the other. He is with her almost always, often just the two of them, and half his memories he wouldn't know if they were true or not if she hadn't been there to see it when they happened. Like that time last year when they were in pursuit of a beat-up '67 Porche, and the guy cornered too fast and crashed the straight into a tree. Half a dozen chickens came fluttering out the busted window, and he'd looked over at her, that look they give each other when the wild stuff goes down.

Is this real? Did that just happen?

He wants to give her the look now, about last night, but they're sitting at their desks as usual and he dares not linger his gaze in her direction. She's got on some conservative dark suit with a red blouse, but it's no good because she was naked in his bed and now he can see through her clothes. He's looked her over before, sure, but now he knows.

So they take turns watching the clock and not each other, the painful minutes ticking by at a glacial pace. His leg bounces beneath his desk; it's crazy to be sitting here processing triplicates when time is running out. Her offer has a deadline, a failsafe, and he's agreed to it because this is what she wanted. It was smart, clear, clean. One and done.

He senses she put the plan in place to protect them, although he's not entirely sure from what.

He doesn't want to start a family, and she doesn't want to be a cop's wife, so any real romance is dead on arrival, but he's loved her for moons now and he's certain that one more month, one year, one decade is not going to make any difference. May as well have some fun in the meantime.

Of course he worries about losing her, because how could he not, not when he's been on the end of too many emergency calls involving her name or address. That one awful memory of her bleeding out, silent and still on her living room floor, that memory is his to carry alone but he knows it's true because he found the scar last night with his lips and kissed it a hundred times. All better. He has fought death for her and won, and now he's going to enjoy the spoils.

Around quitting time, they actually make eye contact. Yes, he can see on her face, yes, the sex happened and it could happen again soon. "You, um, you want to maybe grab some dinner?" He says the words and then looks around with a guilty flush to see if anyone might have heard. It's not like they don't have dinner together, but usually it's just dinner and not code for something else.

She leans back in her chair, apparently considering the offer as she toys with her pen. "What kind of dinner?"

The back of his neck heats up, and he checks again to see that they are alone with this conversation. Surely she's not going to make him spell it out? "Uh, my place?" He swallows. "I've got a couple of steaks that need grilling…"

"Big ones?"

His mouth almost falls open. Jesus, there are no steaks. Why are they talking about the steaks? He's just looking for a way to get her out of here. "Plenty big," he assures her.

"Okay, if you promise," she says, gathering up her things. She pauses to give him a significant look. "Because I have to warn you: I'm very…hungry."

He smirks in return, trying to play it cool—"Oh, I'll make sure you're satisfied"—but he's pretty sure he's never grabbed his jacket as fast in his life.

At his place, they bypass the kitchen entirely in favor of the bedroom, where there is warm, late afternoon sunshine and the cool kiss of air on his skin as she removes his clothes. He returns the favor, unzipping her skirt, fumbling with the tiny shiny buttons on that slippery red blouse he's been eyeing all day. Her clothes fall off all around her, strewn about his floor, and he knows he will think of this moment the next time he sees her wearing them.

In bed they do all the things new lovers do when they are alone together. They kiss and compare elbows. She nibbles his ear and whispers naughty things and he dives beneath the sheets to find the fleshy curve of her hip with his teeth. Later, he takes his mouth on a tour of her whole body, the sun going down just as he does, coaxing her open and upward so he can lick her properly. Usually he makes sure to trace the whole alphabet but she only seems to like I, I, I, until her hands are twisting in his hair and she comes undone in his mouth. When she returns the favor, he watches, heavy-lidded from desire, watches her red mouth in a perfect O that goes up and down, up and down, until he can longer bring it into focus.

It is dusk when they are recovering among the pillows, and she rolls to look at him. That happened. It's real. She takes his hand and kisses his knuckles, holding him close against her body. "So," she says, "you mentioned something about steaks."

"Oh. Well, about that. Sorry." He might have a frozen chicken breast or two. Maybe.

"Sorry?" She looks truly disappointed.

"It was a ruse," he explains. "You know—a cover."

She heaves a put-upon sigh and leans over the edge of the bed to pluck something from the floor. He sees it is his shirt, and she slips it over her head. "Where are you going?" he asks.

"To order a pizza. You can't eat a ruse."

He eyes her new outfit. "And now what am I supposed to wear?"

She lets her gaze trail over him as he lies there, naked and rumpled in the sheets. "That looks fine to me," she replies, and walks away before she can see his grin.

They share a pizza and his clothes, each taking one half. She sits on his counter and he lounges next to her in his jeans, and it takes longer than usual to kill the pizza because they keep getting distracted by the kissing. She does the few dishes, standing at his sink barefoot and half naked and he feels just a little guilty about how much he enjoys the show. He wraps her in a hug from behind. They have only thirty days but the night is still young and maybe they can steal another round.

She places a soapy hand on his arm and gives him a quick squeeze. "I should be going," she murmurs.

"What? Again?" He releases her in surprise.

She kisses him lightly and starts toward the bedroom. "It's a long drive back," she says over her shoulder. "And you may remember we didn't exactly get much sleep last night, either."

He watches from the doorway, leaning against the frame as she retrieves the rest of her clothes from his floor. "Yeah, but I thought…"

She straightens up and raises her eyebrows at him. "Thought what?"

"You know—that you could stay here tonight."

The look she gives him is fond but sad. "No," she says gently. "I can't. That's not what this is."

She disappears into the bathroom then, leaving him standing there with the dawning realization that just because they didn't agree to more rules between them, didn't mean she had no more for herself in her head. In that moment, suddenly he can see the end, the one she's already marked for them twenty-nine days into the future and gaining fast. On that day, she'll pick her clothes back up or he will and they'll kiss and she'll be gone.

It will be over just like that, fading into memory, and there'll be no one there to tell him. It was real.



“The thing is, he’s the one who kissed me,” Kitty is saying from across the booth in the bar. “I can tell when a guy is bullshitting me and when he’s sincerely interested, and this one was into me, no ifs, ands, or buts.”

“But,” her partner butts in pointedly, and Kitty replies with a sigh.

“But he didn’t call. He said he would—he said it twice, actually—but it’s been six days now, and nothing.”

A lot can change in six days, McCall thinks, because six days ago she had no intention of going to bed with Hunter, ever, and now they are having as much sex as humanly possible for two people still working full-time jobs. It’s such a surprise that she can’t quite believe it, not when it’s business as usual standing around inside a ring of crime scene tape, but off duty, they’re so eager that they’ve ruined a couple of shirts this week, buttons rolling away under the bed as they rolled together top of it.

“Maybe he’s just really busy,” she says to Kitty, trying to focus on the conversation even as Hunter’s fingertips start playing with the edge of her skirt under the table.

Kitty stirs her drink—some fruity thing that even arrived with a pink umbrella. “He’s a tax attorney and it’s not even April. How busy can he be?”

Brad flashes his devilish grin, the one that shows his even white teeth. “Maybe he’s married.”

“Oh, speaking from experience now, are we?” Kitty arches an eyebrow in his direction, and he has the grace to look embarrassed. 

Cheating never struck McCall as sexy. She’s seen the damage it can do, laid bare in the waste of Brad’s marriage and others, seen the tears and recriminations and sometimes the really dark places hearts can go, the kind that ends up with one lover or both dead in the same bedroom they’d once run to for pleasure. All her relationships have been above-board and ethical, even this…whatever it is…that she has going on with Hunter.  But it’s also secret. Private. Not illegal but illicit, transgressive and more than a little naughty. It makes her heart beat faster and her face grow warm just to think of it, and she understands now why people might go kind of crazy over the lure of really good sex—so good you can’t even talk about it, not just because it’s covert but because you can’t even find the words.

Last night Hunter had covered her from behind like a bull, thrusting gently and then faster and deeper until she’d come so hard she’d clawed the sheets off the mattress. Orgasms, she thinks, feel superfluous, right up until you start having them on the regular.

“Rick, you’re a guy,” Kitty says. “What do you think?”

“Hey, I’m a guy,” Brad protests, spreading his hands.

“You’re a cad,” Kitty informs him. “Entirely separate category.” She turns back to Hunter with an imploring look. “Explain it to me: why would a man have an objectively wonderful evening with a woman, promise from the bottom of his heart to call her, and then drop off the face of the earth?”

“Hmm?” Hunter has clearly not been paying attention to the conversation. He’s worked his whole hand under her skirt, and his fingertips are stroking the warm, intimate space of her inner thighs. She’s widened her legs to give him access, encouraging him when she knows she shouldn’t, but the sensations are like a drug, and she is totally hooked. It’s all she can do to keep from leaning back against the booth, her eyes from falling shut to block out everything but him.

“Men,” Kitty clarifies darkly. “Explain them to me. Why do they want you like crazy one moment and then—poof—disappear the next?”

“Hmm,” Hunter says again, more thoughtfully this time, like he’s contemplating a serious answer. Meanwhile, between her legs, his fingertips graze her panties. Instinctively, she sucks in a sharp breath and then reaches for her her water to cover it.

“Men are taught to act like we know what we’re doing,” he says finally, “even when we have no damn clue. Sometimes we do nothing because it seems smarter than taking a shot and doing the wrong thing.”

Kitty translates this perfectly. “So you’re too chicken to call,” she says, leaning back and folding her arms.

“You could call him,” Brad suggests as he steals a fry off of her plate. “It’s almost the nineties. You’re a modern woman. Seize your own future and all that jazz, right?” He grabs the air with both fists to illustrate the plan.

Kitty considers for a second and then bows her head. “Nah,” she says. “I don’t mind making the first move, but he said he’d call, and then he didn’t. There’s got to be a reason, even if it’s only that he’s too chicken-shit. Who’s got time for that?” She drains the last of her cocktail and sets the empty glass aside. “I’m going to get another one of these. Who’s with me—Dee Dee?”

“Pass, thank you.” One Cosmo and Hunter’s nimble fingers, and she’s already dizzy.

Abruptly, Hunter withdraws his hand from under her skirt and under the table. “Let me go and get it,” he says. “I could use another beer.”

Kitty gives him a delighted smile. “Be still my heart. There are some true gentlemen left in world.”

Hunter slides out of the booth, leaving McCall alone in the dim corner, cooler now without his presence. She takes up the water glass again to hide her flushed face.

“What about you?” Kitty asks her. “Are you seeing anyone lately?”

McCall’s gaze cuts immediately toward the bar, searching out Hunter’s form in the crowd, but she can’t find him. He hadn’t wanted to come tonight at all, hadn’t wanted to share one of their thirty night with Brad and Kitty, but they’d made these plans last week when they were all just friends and colleagues, and so McCall insisted they keep the date, if only to prove to herself they still could. In a few weeks, they will be back here, and Hunter will have his hands in his own lap again.  She clenches her hands at the thought.

“Dee Dee?”

McCall snaps back to attention to find Kitty and Brad both regarding her curiously. Kitty’s question was still hanging out there: are you seeing anyone? Right. “Oh…you know…” she says, clearing her throat and fiddling with her napkin. “Just Hunter. Day in, day out.”

It’s both the truth and a lie, and her wry tone sells it with just the right pitch. Kitty grins. “Honey, we need to find you a man,” she replies. “Someone just for fun. No one can work all the time.”

At the mention of work, her beeper goes off inside her purse, and Kitty makes a disappointed face. “Oh, no, you’re not on tonight, are you?”

“No, but of course that means exactly nothing.” McCall is disappointed too, feeling her night with Hunter slipping away. She pulls out the beeper and sees the callback number is not one she recognizes. “I’ll be back,” she says. “Hopefully.”

She finds the pay phones near the back of the bar and dials the number. “Hello?”

“I hear women like it when men call them,” Hunter says on the other end.

A laugh escapes her as the thrill of surprise goes up her spine. He is so bad. She turns to look in all directions but can’t see him anywhere. “You are crazy,” she says, still searching for him. “Where are you?”

“Outside,” he says, and she can just make out the sound of passing traffic in the background. “You’re a detective—come find me.”

The line clicks off, and she bites her lip, holding the receiver in a moment of indecision. She hangs up the phone and risks a quick look back at the booth, where Kitty and Brad are arguing playfully about something and not paying the least bit of attention to her. She slips into the crowd and weaves her way through to the door, escaping out into the warm summer night. A quick survey of the sidewalk shows no sign of Hunter, so she starts walking back down the block toward the pay lot where they left his Dodge a couple hours earlier. She vaguely remembers there were a couple of pay phones near the back.

It grows quieter outside as she walks away from the restaurants and the people and the streetlights, but inside she is noisy, as her pulse picks up and her stomach flutters at the thought of what they are doing, sneaking around in the dark. Sure enough, she finds him in the half-empty lot, lounging against the car, his blue eyes gone totally black in the night.

She walks right up to him but stops short of actually touching. “What are you doing out here?” she asks.

“Waiting for you,” he says, taking her hands and pulling in her the last few inches.

It’s dark and there’s no one around and she can’t pretend she doesn’t want this. She kisses him with an open mouth, lets his tongue inside as his hands slide up her skirt again—the back this time—and he cups her with two hands, filling himself with her as the thick heat of arousal rises like fog between them.

They kiss and touch until he has mapped every curve and she is breathing unsteadily in the private shadow of his neck.

“I want to take you home,” he says against her head, his hands still rubbing, persuading. 

She twists her fingers in his shirt. “We can’t. We have to go back.” They are going to have to go back.

More kisses. Her resolve weakens, flowing out of her like lava. “Ten more minutes,” he says as he trails hot fingertips up her outer thigh. “That’s all they get.”

“Deal,” she mutters, right before his mouth closes on hers again. 

He grips her tight, breaking their kiss. “But I want all night.”

“What?” Her heart is pounding, her body is on fire. It’s hard to think.

“You, me, all night. There is no work tomorrow.” He holds her fast, rocks against her gently as he says it, and she feels him pressing into belly, hard as a bone inside his jeans. 

“Rick, I…”

She still has some secrets, even from him. She can hear in his voice that he is asking for things she cannot give.

“There’s a place down the street from me that makes amazing pancakes,” he says. “Even the chocolate chip kind, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.”

It sounds amazing and he knows, of course, exactly what she’s into. 

She touches his mouth, which is wet from their kisses. “Let’s just see,” she says. “Let’s just see how it goes.”

They go back inside to the fevered, crowded bar, and eventually Hunter returns with Kitty’s tangerine-colored drink and a tall, foamy beer for himself. McCall licks her lips and knows she will be tasting it in just nine-minutes-and-counting. She grips his thigh under the table, her fingertips scoring his jeans, feels the heat of him there and in his gaze, this sizzle they are sharing, and she hopes the others don’t see the hunger in her eyes or the pounding of her heart or the lipstick smudge on Hunter’s mouth or the way that time’s up and they stumble out of the booth like it’s suddenly burst into flame and his beer sits beading up on the table, only half gone.


He blinks awake in the night, instantly alert because he knows something is not quite right, despite the deceptive quiet of his shadowy bedroom. Too quiet. He hears only his own breathing, and that’s when he remembers: Dee Dee. He gropes the other side of the bed even as he knows his search will come up empty. She is not there. 

She was with him a couple of hours ago, of this he is sure, because there is the scent of her perfume on his pillow and the tender ache of the love bites on his skin. The glowing red numbers on his bedside clock read 2:23 when he throws aside the sheets, tugs on his jeans, and goes to investigate.

He’s pretty good at convincing women to do things, finding the enticing words or imperative tone or the look that persuades them to go along with him, and sometimes he’s so inveigling that the woman thinks it was her idea in the first place. McCall isn’t immune to him on this score; he’s convinced her of a thing or two in their years together—to be his partner, just for starters. Last night, he finally convinced her to stay in the bed with him, warm and soft and naked in his arms. 

Or at least he thought he had. He remembers now as he looks for her that McCall has this vexing habit of agreeing with him in theory but then going right ahead and doing whatever she wants anyway.

He’s relieved to find she hasn’t fled the premises, at least; she’s curled up on one end of his sofa with an afghan and some sort of book. As he gets closer, he can hear music playing softly on his stereo, some classical station that definitely is not among his pre-sets, and he sees she’s got his shirt on again, the red-plaid one, and he feels a silly burst of affection at the sight, his favorite shirt and his favorite person, all wrapped up together.

She looks up at his approach with a chagrined expression. “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

“Nah.” His knees creak as he lowers himself down on the other end of the couch. “Whatcha reading?”

She hefts the book with both hands so he can read the cover, and it’s one from his shelves, a history book entitled In Search of the Trojan War. “I thought it might knock me out,” she says with a disappointed sigh.

“You mean I didn’t take care of that for you?” He acts all wounded, and pink tinges her cheeks as she nudges him playfully with one foot.

“I heard you snoring pretty good,” she replies, a little smug. “I guess I’m the one who took care of you.”

He grins and grabs her foot and she yelps with laughter as she goes off balance, the book sliding to the ground with a thud as he wraps them tightly all together, she and he and the afghan that is warm from the heat of her body. He has finally convinced her to stay and he’s got letting her go so easily. They hold each other for a long moment as their heartbeats slow, her head resting in the crook of his shoulder. He gives her a squeeze. “Seriously, though—can’t sleep?”

“Nope,” she says, resigned, as though this were a fact in a history book. “Can’t.”

He’s found the wrong words because she’s easing away from him again, back to her separate corner. He scratches his chin and contemplates the ceiling for a moment. “You want to tell me about it?” he says eventually.

She gives a half shrug as she picks a bit of fuzz off of the blanket. “There’s not a lot to tell. Sleep and I, we went our separate ways some time ago.”

“Oh yeah? When was that?”

She meets his eyes for a second, long enough that he knows the answer. Maybe he knew even before he asked the question. Hell, they train you in nursery school for this sort of thing. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.

She’s picked up the book, hugging it in her lap. “When you’re a kid, the only voice in your head is your own, you know? You can make your dreams any which way you want. It’s only later you get the other voices, some of them so loud you can’t hear the silence anymore. The days are fine but the nights…they can get long.”

He knows immediately what she’s saying. For at least a year after he came home from Vietnam, he slept on the couch with the TV blaring, flickering images just behind his eyes. Stick ‘em up, nobody move. You’ve won our grand prize! Next after these messages. All the noise on the outside made it possible for him to drift away, hiding for a few hours from the explosions in his memory.

He reaches over and grips her hand. “Look, come back to bed,” he says, his voice low and gruff. He can make it safe, he can show her the way. He’ll rub her back and tuck her in so the dreams will never find her. He’ll be the voice on the outside for as long as she wants. “It doesn’t have to be so bad,” he assures her. “We can put the radio on if you want”—he nods at the stereo with a smile—“assuming you can show me how to find that station.”

He sees the flash in her eyes, how she wants to say yes. Say yes, he thinks. It’s just one little word.

“I can’t,” she says, regretful as she pulls her hand away.

“You must sleep sometime.”

“Sure. Sometimes.”

“But just not here,” he concludes after a beat.

She stretches out to touch his knee, and her voice is gentle and kind. “Just not tonight.”

This is not a battle he is going to win, at least not now, so he nods and heaves himself to his feet. “I’ll make coffee,” he says.

“Rick, no…” She grabs his hand on the way by. “You should go back to bed. There’s no reason for us both to be up.”

“I’m up. There may as well be coffee.”

He brings back two mugs and she drinks hers with that ridiculous history tome while he settles into the nearby armchair with the mystery novel he’d been reading before they’d started having all the sex. It was having a hard time keeping his attention before, and the situation certainly hadn’t improved, not with her bare leg sticking out from one end of the afghan. He watched her with one eye and the page with the other, until he could keep neither of them open any longer. He goes to sleep, slack-jawed and filled with happy memories for a change.

When he wakes the next time, the sun is well into the sky and he sees his grandmother’s afghan has been folded and placed neatly on one end of the couch. There is fresh coffee brewing in the kitchen and a note on the table. Raincheck on the pancakes? I didn’t have the heart to wake you but I’ve got a bunch of errands to do today. —XX, D

He wanders the house aimlessly, as though he might still find her there, but the bed is remade and his bathroom is neat as a pin—hairbrush, make-up bag, she took all of it with her. If not for the wet concrete at the base of his shower, she might never have been there at all.

He pours himself a cup of her coffee and sits on a stool at the kitchen counter, squinting at the surf outside. He’s had a couple of dozen women through this place at least, but the only one he wants to stay always seems to have one foot out the door. Usually, he’s good at this, managing his romantic encounters so that all parties walk away satisfied. He’s honest and transparent, at least with the parts he is willing to let them see. Flowers, when he sends them, have messages penned by the florist but sentiments straight from him—warm, cordial and just a bit distant.

I had a wonderful time last night.

Thinking of you today.

One night, one day, pithy little slices of time with no promises about the future or the past and thus no one ever got hurt, at least no one he is ever willing to see. He sees McCall all the time, though, and thinks about her constantly—they are partners, how could he not?—so his usual tricks won’t work here, and he doesn’t even know what the hell would write on the little florist card, if he’s supposed to be romancing her or how that would even work at this late date. What’s the end game?

A different nursery rhyme comes unbidden out of the blue. Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.

Thirty days. They’re on six, twenty percent already gone by now. Time flies when you’re having fun, he thinks, and then suddenly he knows what to write to her. 

He finishes his coffee, jumps in the shower, and heads out in search of a flower stand. He picks out a large bouquet with raucous summer colors, cheery and fun.  He writes his own card because he doesn’t have time to waste, no patience for a middle-man to take down his feelings. He tucks the card inside the flowers and drives them to her house, where, true to her word, she is not home because she is off running her errands. Undeterred, he leaves the flowers on her doorstep in a shady spot and returns home, where he stretches out on the couch, in the place where she’d curled up the night before, and closes his eyes to nap.

The voice in his head repeats the words on the card. Time is short, so if the nights are long, we really ought to share them.

He’s jolted awake later by the ring of his telephone, and it’s her on the other end. “The flowers are beautiful,” she says, and he can hear the smile in her voice. “Thank you.”

But he holds his breath because she got the flowers, but did she get his message?

“I was wondering if you wanted to come over for dinner tonight,” she says.

He sits up cautiously. “Uh, sure. Yeah, I’d like that. You want me to bring anything?” 

There’s a hesitation. “No, that’s okay. Well, maybe.”


The smile has widened into a grin. “Maybe just your toothbrush.”

Eight. Ten. Eleven.

They’ve taken some risks together, but this is one of the bigger ones, given that they are actually parked on precinct property where anyone could see. He’s properly dressed on his side of the car and she’s on hers, but his hand had crossed over the border some time ago and now his fingertips have inched under the hem of her skirt in a lazy exploration. Outside, the orange sun hangs heavy over the city, lingering like a last reluctant party guest in the summer sky.

“So…am I coming over tonight?” he asks, even as his fingers take the answer as yes.

“Yeah, about that…” She squirms away with a grimace. It’s not that he’s presumptuous; they’ve seen each other every night for the past week. Back when they’d first made this arrangement, it was spontaneous and casual, and she never thought they would wind up here, in this place where she now has to have the conversation she’s been dreading all day long. “I’d like to, but I can’t tonight.”

“Why?” He retreats until he’s one-hundred-percent back on his side, draped over the steering wheel and regarding her with a slight frown. “You got a hot date or something?”

“Or something.” She closes her eyes with a sigh, leaning back against the headrest, waiting out the uncomfortable silence in the hopes it will just go away. “This one-month thing we agreed to,” she says finally, glancing at him. “It contains all the events of a month, you know what I’m saying?”

His frown deepens. “No.”

She gives him a significant look. “As in, that time of the month.”

It takes him a moment to catch on, and she sees the light dawn across his features, followed by a flash of horror that almost makes her giggle. “Oh! I didn’t…I’m not…” He shakes his head and gives her a tentative look. “Are you okay?”

Now she does laugh. “It’s my period, Hunter. Not ebola.”

“Right.” He winces, and she feels a bit of sympathy for him. He has no sisters, and his romantic relationships expire quicker than a carton of milk. This is probably deep, uncharted territory for him.

“So I can’t,” she says, rubbing his arm in commiseration. “Not for a few days.”

“How many days?”


“Five?” he echoes, aghast. 

Jeez, he must have taken high school biology at some point, right? He must have some idea of how this works. Maybe the boys just tune that stuff out—she probably would have, if she’d had a choice about it. She doesn’t feel sorry for him now, though, because at least he doesn’t have to suffer through their interregnum with cramps.

Hunter sighs and starts the car, pulling it out into the street without further comment. She waits until they are past the third light before asking, “Where are we going?”

“Your house.”

“But I just told you…”

“You still gotta eat, right?” She shuts her mouth, and he nods to himself, his eyes on the road. “I’m not giving up five whole days,” he says, still not looking at her. “No way.”

So they go to her place, where she gets to shower and change into comfortable shorts and a T-shirt while Hunter fixes her dinner. She is tired and a little achy, and she has to admit it’s really nice to just have food appear on the table without having to exert any extra effort. He’s down to his jeans and plain white T-shirt, so the view isn’t bad, either. 

He has grilled a couple of chicken breasts, prepared a salad, and created some form of pasta with green stuff all over it. Normally, she’d think it was just pesto sauce, but Hunter is always trying to sneak vegetables into her food like she’s a suspicious toddler. “It smells good,” she admits with grudging admiration. “What is it?” She prods at the pasta with her fork.

“It’s good for you.”

“Oh, so you mean it has spinach in it. Or asparagus.”

“A great chef never reveals his secrets,” he says as he pours the chilled white wine.

She takes the glass with a smile. “And what’s this, a bribe?”

“No, this is a 1986 bottle of chardonnay,” he says turning around the bottle so she can see the label, and she recognizes it wasn’t cheap. 

“Nice,” she says, emphasizing her praise with a sip. “You know, Hunter, I’m starting to think maybe you like me—just a little bit.”

“Hmm. Just eat your spinach.”

She makes a face. “I knew it,” she says, grousing for show, but she devours every bite.

After dinner, he won’t let her do the dishes. She stands with her hands on her hips and watches him stick his forearms into the bubbles. “I can handle scrubbing a couple of plates, Hunter. It’s not like I’m sick. This has been happening once a month for the past five years, you know.”

“I’ve actively tried not to know,” he replies, his back to her. “Go relax. Do whatever you usually do at this time.”

“Well, normally, I’m doing the dishes,” she says cheekily, but she is happy enough to go put her feet up and read a magazine while Hunter cleans the kitchen.

He seems in no hurry to leave afterward, and she wants nothing more than to put her PJs on and lie down, so they watch TV upstairs in her bedroom—a couple of sitcom reruns followed by the last half of the Dodger game. She takes advantage of a commercial break to fetch a pint of chocolate fudge brownie ice cream from the freezer, realizing that she is probably a walking cliche but not caring in the least. 

“I see,” he says as she brings it back to the bedroom. “Is this also part of the monthly routine?”

“No, this is to counteract the force of the spinach.” She sits cross-legged on the bed next to him and prepares to dig in. “Here,” she says, and hands him a second spoon. “Take a walk on the wild side.”

“Oh ho ho!” He slides closer, almost nuzzling her hair. “You’re sharing now? You know, McCall, I think maybe you like me—just a little bit.”

“A little bit is all you’re getting,” she replies. “The rest is mine.”

In an hour the game is into extra innings, but she’s exhausted and ready for bed. She drinks down a pair of ibuprofen with her water when she brushes her teeth and finds Hunter has shed his clothes on her floor. He’s under the sheets with his eyes on the game when she crawls into bed on the other side.

She curls up near the edge with her back to him and is surprised when Hunter comes up close behind her and takes her in his arms. She freezes momentarily because this was never part of the deal—sex, yes; snuggling and comfort, no. It’s been ages since anyone has held her like this, since she’s allowed a man to touch her when she wasn’t looking, when she was tired and soft and vulnerable.

It’s been so long she wasn’t sure it could happen again, like maybe she wouldn’t remember where to put her arms or how their knees fit together or how to relax and just let herself be. She had let a man or two into her bed since it had happened, men who were kind and generous and tender, but she did not sleep with them because they would never understand what it was like to have to lie down each night and try to surrender yourself in the very place you had nearly died. Where maybe a part of you did die.  She isn’t sure if it’s true, and she’s afraid to find out. She hadn’t risked it with anyone else and she is so scared to try with Hunter. If she couldn’t find that peace with him, the person she trusted most in the world, then there would be no one, and just the thought of it makes her lonely inside.

And then there’s the other fear: what if it’s wonderful? What if it’s warm and loving and perfect in the way she remembers sometimes in her dreams, from other beds long ago. What if she gets just a taste and then it’s over again? Hunter probably doesn’t know what they’re playing at here, doesn’t realize the stakes he has just raised. He doesn’t understand how painful and bewildering it is to be cut off. When Steve died, she felt like she’d been dropped in the middle of an endless maze with high concrete walls and no way to get out.

Hunter kisses the top of her head and gives her a gentle squeeze. His massive hand rests tentatively on her belly. “Does it hurt?” he asks.

She gives a wry smile he can’t see, even as her traitorous body lurches forward into his touch, seeking the warmth and pressure of his hand. “It’s not bad,” she says. “Really.”

He starts a hesitant massage, stroking softly, and she shudders with how good it feels, wriggling back against him in utter pleasure. “Yeah?” he says, sounding delighted and pleased with himself that he has hit upon this trick.

“Mmm-hmm.” She bites back a moan because that would be undignified. It feels good. Too good.  With the wine, the ice cream, the drugs kicking in, and safe, solid feel of him, her eyes start to drift closed. 

Just for a few minutes, she promises herself, but she doesn’t pull away, not when he kills the lights so that only the glow from the TV fills the room, not when the massage eases off and they start holding hands instead as the Dodgers come up in the bottom of the eleventh. When she opens her eyes again, the local news is on, and she realizes with amazement that she’s been sleeping, or at least nearly so, hovering in that netherworld of half-consciousness. 

Hunter’s still wrapped around her, maybe asleep, maybe catching the headlines, and this would be her opportunity to push away and crawl back inside her usual boundaries. Or she could try to find her way back into the warm, fuzzy place she’d just been, she could take a chance and risk the answer, yes or no. Maybe she could have this again, with him, just for a while. Maybe it’s gone forever. 

She closes her eyes to find out, takes her hand back within hers, forcing her body to relax again and be open to at least the possibility. And then she waits.


They are making out on her couch like teenagers whose parents aren’t home, going just a little farther than they really should, with her half-lying on top of him, her skirt around her waist, pins falling out of her hair as he holds her head so they can kiss and kiss and kiss. His tie is long gone, his shirt unbuttoned, and she finds the salty skin of his neck with her teeth. 

“We need to stop this,” he mutters, even as his hands sweep down her back.

“Mmm,” she agrees, but then they are kissing again, and he’s moaning a carnal song of lust into her open mouth. She starts a slow rock on top of him, trying to ease the ache between her legs, but the friction just builds the pressure more and more so that she forgets they aren’t supposed to be doing this. She cares only about his wandering hands and the thick ridge of his cock and the way he has unbuttoned her shirt so he can get at her breasts with his mouth.

She jerks as he bites her nipple through her bra, her body seized with pleasure. “Wait, wait,” she says in a breathless voice, talking to herself as much as him. He is slow to hear the words, buried as he is with his nose between her breasts. Reluctantly, she pushes his face away, and he falls back against the cushions, looking dazed. “Two more days,” she manages to say. She is still riding him, cowgirl style, and his hips buck beneath her.

“That’s forever,” he says. He strokes her face, her throat, letting his hand slide down inside her shirt once more, where her heart is still thudding with desire. Two short weeks ago, she would have slapped him if he’d tried to touch her like this and now she can’t get enough.

“It’s two days,” she replies, trying to sound reasonable. “We spent five years not doing this even once. How can two days be forever?”

“I don’t know,” he says, his voice raw and as desperate as she is, as confused at what’s become of them. “I don’t know.”

He draws her down for more kissing, and she relents, intending it to be chaste and soothing, stroking his brow, murmuring reassurance. They will survive this. But then his mouth opens under hers and she slides right in, melting on top of him once more. 

It’s only when she works a hand between them, her fingers mapping the curve of him through his trousers, that he pulls his mouth away, eyes rolling back in his head as he gasps like a drowning man. “Jesus,” he breathes as she rubs him, his voice full of shock and awe, the same naked appreciation he’d shown the first time he’d watched her bring down a man twice her size. It makes her feel powerful and wicked.

“We can’t do everything,” she murmurs against his neck. “But we can do some things.”

She is inching the zipper down, feels the sharp intake of his breath. “Ah,” he says as he reaches a hand down to stop her. “Wait.”

“Wait? Are you sure?” She wiggles her fingers suggestively, grinning when his hips surge into her hand.

“God. You. It’s…it’s not fair.”

She blows her hair out of her eyes with a frustrated breath. Of course it’s not fair. Not one thing about human reproduction is fair to women, but it’s what they’ve got for now.  “You can pay me back later,” she says as she resumes her stroking from inside his pants.

He grits his teeth, the tendons arching in his neck, but he pulls her hand away and holds it tight. “I want to be with you, not be serviced by you,” he says, but softens the words with a kiss to her palm. He laces their fingers together and rests his forehead against hers. “If you have to wait, then so do I.”

“So you’re a martyr.”

“I’m your partner.”

This reminder of their real relationship make her falter. Of course they can’t lose sight of it, can’t get too far from shore. They’re going to need the light to bring them home.


It is after eleven at night on the fourth day, and they are restless in her bed, turning this way and that, careful not to touch. She really should have suggested he sleep in his bed tonight, alone, but instead she’s torturing herself with his nearness, vibrating like a tuning fork with every move he makes. When his hand sweeps across the sheets, she feels it on her body. She smells the heat of his skin, shivers when his leg brushes hers.

“You asleep?” he asks in the dark.


“This is crazy.”

“I know, but—” Her words are cut off on a gasp as he rolls on top of her. He is naked, aroused, and she spreads her legs in welcome. His kiss starts off gentle but quickly grows more urgent.

“I don’t care anymore,” he says, prodding against the seam of her pajamas. His breath his warm on her face. “I need you.”


“I need you.” He is hard and insistent, persuasive as he draws back and forth between her thighs. She wraps her legs around him to urge him closer.

“I need you, too, but…oh!” He’s found a rhythm now, one that makes her hot and dizzy, and she picks it up with her hips, following the dance as he places tiny, sucking kisses along her neck.

“I want to make you wet,” he says against her throat, and his arms slide totally beneath her. Oh, God, the words alone…

“Hunter, what—?” She holds on tight in surprise as he lifts her off the bed and starts toward the bathroom.  “What are you doing?”

“Shower,” he says before kissing her again. “You. Me. No clothes. Yeah?”

Genius. Why hadn’t they thought of this earlier? She grins into their kiss. “Oh, yeah.”

He deposits her in the bathroom and gives her a last peck before leaning purposefully across her body to turn on the water. “Be right back,” he says, disappearing behind the door.

She uses the interlude to get ready, shedding her clothes and the tampon before stepping beneath the spray. Hunter doesn’t materialize immediately, and the delay makes her nervous, makes her aware of how very naked she is standing there alone. She hasn’t done this precise thing with anyone else, and now that he’s not in front of her, she is starting to question her judgment. 

Just then, he pokes his head in. “Room for one more?”

She nods, still a little shy, and moves over to let him inside the narrow shower stall. She sees from the orange packet in his hand that he has retrieved a condom, which he sets on the shelf next to her bath gel. She has a brief fantasy about soaping him up from head to toe, but it fades the minute he takes her face in his hands and begins kissing her again.

She stretches up, winding her arms around his neck as his hands reach down to cup her bottom. Their tongues tangle and the water beats down, invigorating her already-sensitized skin. His fingers edge between her thighs where she swollen, and yes, wet, sluicing water mingling with the pads of his fingertips as he rubs gently back and forth.

Her breathing becomes erratic and she reaches for his erection which is hot and hard against her belly. He lets her stroke him only for a moment before he groans and hauls her upward, bracing her against the wall. Her legs catch naturally around his hips as the thick head of his penis slips into place. They kiss deeply as he starts to nudge inside. “Shit,” he mutters, pulling back, his forehead dropped against her shoulder. “I forgot a sec.”

“Wait.” She catches his face with her fingers, turning him to look at her.  “It’s okay. It’s safe now, remember?” Maybe there is one side benefit to this little predicament. “I mean, if you want…”

“Oh, I want.” His eyes are dark and full of purpose. He thrusts forward, hard and strong, and she lets out a long moan of relief. “I want.” 

It takes a few tries to find the best angle, but soon he is moving his hips in a tight sort of circle while she grinds downward in counterpoint. Her heels are braced against his thighs and his fingers are digging into her ass with a heady pressure that is almost close to pain. They kiss once, twice, three times, and her head lolls back against the tile. Water comes down and falls into her open mouth, sweet like rain.

Hunter is watching her with dark, hungry eyes. “Are you going to come for me?” he asks.

She chokes out a sob.

“Are you? Hmm?” 

He’s huge and hard and everywhere inside her. Three days of sexual frustration are coming to a climax, any second now. “Y-yes,” she stammers.

“Let me see. I want to see.”

She tries to keep her eyes open, to let him watch as it takes her, her thighs trembling, her mouth going slack. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, mmm…”

He starts chanting, just like that, just like that, and the spasms start exactly in time with his words. She cries out sharply, clinging to him, trapped between his hard body and the harder wall, and he pushes even closer, thrusting madly and burying his face in her neck as he keeps repeating the same phrase in a desperate voice: just like that.

When she finally stops shuddering, she finds she is hanging on him limply like a rag doll, but he is still strong in holding her up. For a minute, the only sounds are the hissing of the running water and their heavy breathing. He raises his head to look at her, staring for several long moments before tracing his fingers lightly over her face, as if he was a blind man seeing her for the first time.

“What?” she finally asks.

“The water…the way it falls.” He chases the trickle down her cheek. “It almost looks like you’re crying.”

She hugs him close and hides her face in the damp curve his neck and the water rinses them clean.


It’s late in the afternoon of the fifteenth day when Hunter accepts a woman’s phone number. She’s young, maybe twenty-five at the most, an ice-cream treat of a girl, with frosted blonde hair and a pink sweater so snug it’s straining the pearl-white buttons at the front. She is the secretary in the medical office where they have come to find out more about Eva Suarez, about how many times Eva’s husband bent and broke her until she finally snapped for good. 

The most dangerous period in a relationship is when you’re trying to leave it.

The girl’s name is Marcy or Darcy or Tricia or something. McCall doesn't need to remember it because it is surely written on the card she’s given Hunter, right there next to her home phone number. McCall looks away at the point of exchange, instead fixing her gaze on the beachy landscape paintings on the wall. They’re rendered in muted pastels, nothing like the fierce blue of the nearby ocean and its stinging, hot sand. Maybe the prints are meant to be soothing, but to McCall, the soft focus and washed-out color just makes the beauty feel farther away.

Or maybe it was that they had just come from Eva Suarez’s apartment, where the triple locks on the door and the temporary restraining order from the courts had failed to keep out her soon-to-be ex-husband Hector Suarez. He’d sworn he would sooner kill her than divorce her, and Hector made good on that promise sometime early this morning. Murder-suicide. Eva had died with her eyes open. She had seen it coming, probably for way longer than anyone else had, and of course no one had been able to stop it.

Hunter thanks Marcy-Darcy-Tricia for her time and McCall gives her a tight smile as they leave. She’s seen dozens of women pull this move, smiling their widest smiles, offering Hunter a cup of coffee or a beer or…whatever. Steve got it too, sometimes, so she knew it happened even then. The uniform, the gun, the shining badge—maybe it’s the appearance of power that turns them on. Maybe it’s a longing for safety. McCall never says anything when the numbers change hands because this is a transaction that does not involve her, but days like this, when they were just wearing booties to protect themselves from the blood pooling on the floor of the Suarez apartment, days like this, she just wants to take the girls by the shoulders and say, “Honey, don’t kid yourself.”

They eat dinner late that night, after the reports are all filed, a take-out Thai supper at Hunter’s place. She orders her red curry extra spicy, and it burns on the way down. Her glass of iced tea, she notes, is exactly half full. Or is it half empty? She’s always been an optimistic person, but they are fifteen days into this thing and she’s wondering if she should be smart and get out while she still could.

“Do you see the glass as half full or half empty?” she asks him, nodding at her drink, thinking she already knows his answer. Hunter is always quick to fear the worst.

He frowns, just as she expected, and looks at the glass for a long moment. “It’s just half,” he replies with a shrug.

“Half what?” She persists, barely containing a roll of her eyes. He could be so contrary at times.

“Half,” he repeats. “It could be either, depending on how you look at it.”

“How do you look at it?”

He leans back in his chair, rocking it off its feet slightly. She can see he’s perplexed with her, but he’s considering an answer anyway. “Half full,” he says finally, bringing the chair back down.


“Sure. Why not? You’ve got something in there, right, and something’s better than nothing.” He reaches out for a cardboard carton and pokes around in it with his fork. “You want any more of this?”

“No, I’ve had plenty.” Her heart burns inside her chest, and all she can think is you got what you deserve.

Even without the emotional day and the acid reflux, she’s up in the night twice as often as not, so it’s no surprise when three a.m. finds her prowling his bookshelves for another victim. She finds a Danielle Steele novel and takes it back to the couch with her. It’s not Hunter’s book, she’s sure of that, but she can guess its origins. Whereas she’s been scrupulous about not leaving any pieces of herself behind, Hunter’s temporary women were not as careful. 

There’s the odd book or two on his shelves and an earring she discovered in the couch cushions while searching for the TV remote. Two days ago, she even found a copy of Modern Bride shoved in among his magazines and snickered softly to herself at the sight. Oh, honey, talk about kidding yourself. She even found he keeps a stash—a small drawer in the bedroom—filled with artifacts of conquests past. There is a delicate gold chain and a cheap-looking ring, a thin blue scarf and a worn black T-shirt with flames on it that reads “Hell Hath No Fury,” and she can’t really blame him for not tracking down the owner to return it. 

She touched all these things they left behind, reading them like tea leaves, wondering at what was ahead. She was used to being separate from them: Hunter’s women on one side, her on the other, but she supposed she was one of them now, a member of the not-so-secret club. Relationships are most dangerous when you’re trying to leave them. Maybe that is why Hunter never got all the way in.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

She startles when he appears like a phantom from the darkness, his huge form in half-shadow. As he moves into the light, she sees he’s wearing only boxers and his hair is standing delightfully on-end, making him look like a confused hedgehog. “Nope, no sleep,” she replies with a sigh as he lowers himself down on the other end of the couch. 

“What are you reading this time?” he asks.

She shows him the romance novel. “One from your collection,” she says, and she doesn’t mean the books.

“Oh, that,” he replies, leaning back against the couch cushions. 

She can’t resist niggling a little. “What did you think of it?” she inquires innocently.

“Hmm. Well, it started off okay, but to my mind, the hero and heroine didn’t really generate much heat,” he says, and she can’t help wondering if he’s talking about the book, or its owner.

It’s that same devilish impulse that makes her ask, “So what was her name?”

“The heroine? Damned if I know. You’re the one holding the book.”

“No, the secretary at the medical office today—the one who gave you her phone number.”

“She did?” He pats himself in surprise as though to feel the pocket, despite the fact that he’s sitting around in his underwear.

Her eyebrows shoot up. “You didn’t notice? Jeez, I think her heart might be breaking a little, Hunter.”

He looks pained. “No, I mean she gave me a card…”

“They always give you a card,” she says meaningfully. “And you always take it.”

“Sorry. It’s just habit, I guess.” When she doesn’t reply, he shifts closer and reaches for her hand, which he finds and squeezes. “Hey, I was never going to call her.”

“I know that.”

“I wasn’t trying to…I didn’t mean…” He blows out a frustrated breath and squeezes her again. “I would never do something like that to hurt you, not on purpose.”

The problem, she thinks, is that it still hurts even when you don’t mean it. In two weeks, he’ll be free to take as many numbers as he likes, and do whatever he wants with them. Hunter’s women, once again filling up his house with lost jewelry, CDs, and partially used-up tubes of lipstick. There would be nothing left of her here, nothing to say she is gone.

“I know,” she says aloud to him. “I’m not mad at you.” She returns the squeeze to show she means it, but Hunter does not quite relax. It’s her self-preservation she’s wondering about now, whether, like Eva Suarez, she has positioned herself on the wrong side of the locks.

Almost like he’s reading her mind, Hunter draws back to his corner with a frown. “Tough case today,” he says, and she hums a reply. She doesn’t really want to talk about it. But Hunter is in a chatty mood, it seems, because he keeps going. “When I was about five, I woke up in the middle of the night because I heard this awful thud. I went running into my parents’ bedroom and saw my mother lying there on the ground, holding the side of her face, and I knew from the way my father was standing over her that she was on the floor because he put her there. It was quiet—he was glaring at her and she was trying not to make a sound—but you could almost feel the force of his blow still hanging there in the air. She noticed me standing in the doorway and said my name, which I guess made my father snap out of it. He walked off without a word and Mom put me back in bed.”

“That’s awful,” she murmurs, shifting nearer to him. He slides an arm around her shoulders and pulls her in close.

“If he hit her again, I didn’t see it. But I became aware of how hard she was always working to avoid setting him off, making sure everything was perfect, cooking dinner just the way he liked, hustling me away before I could make too much noise or say the wrong thing. He wanted submission and she gave it to him, but eventually that wasn’t enough either because he left us and found another woman. I was too young then to realize it was a blessing.”

She hugs him. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” he murmurs in acknowledgment. He rests his cheek on the top of her head. “It was a long time ago.”

Maybe she isn’t leaving behind a hairbrush or some makeup. Maybe this is what they will keep when it is over, these pieces of themselves they share with each other and no one else.


It’s late and he is lying in bed alone with the television on but muted, flicking light somehow amplifying the silence in the room. McCall gave them the night off from one another so that they could enjoy their separate spaces for a change, but he figured this was mostly just a little experiment, a proof-of-principle to her that they could stop any time they wanted to, because after all, the deadline was looming closer with each passing day. The ending seems to trouble her more than it bothers him, possibly because he doesn’t dwell on it, possibly because he sees it as an artificial construction. His feelings for her aren’t going to change when the clock runs down to midnight on the last day. They will still be friends. They will still be partners. The way he figures it, they should be having as much fun as possible in the meantime.

So it’s partially for this reason and partially because he fears her doubts and silence might magnify with time, time they don’t have to spare, and she might put an early end to the experiment, that he calls her up so late at night.

“I’ve had an epiphany,” he says by way of greeting.

“Hunter. We weren’t supposed to see each other today,” she chides him, and he can tell by her voice that she wasn’t sleeping either.

“This isn’t seeing. It’s talking—and in ten more minutes it will be tomorrow anyway. You want me to call back in ten minutes?”

“No, I don’t want you to call back in ten minutes. What is this supposed epiphany that you’ve had at 11:50 on a Sunday night?”

“Psychic hotlines.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You know—these 1-800 numbers where you can call up and learn your future for 99 cents a minute. I think the next time we have an investigation that hits a wall, we just dial Ms. Cleo here and have her give us the killer’s name and address. Killer would be busted, we’d have a three-martini lunch, and there’d be high-fives all around.”

“You don’t even like martinis.”

For some reason, it makes him grin that she knows this. “I think you’re missing the big picture here, McCall. We could have our caseload solved in like five minutes, flat—all for the price of a quarter-pounder with fries.”

She laughs and he hears the bedclothes rustle. “I don’t think Ms. Cleo works that way, Hunter, and even if she did, are you sure you’d want to go that route? If the Department found out they could solve cases by consulting a hotline psychic, you and I would be out of a job before you could say, ‘That will be 99 cents for an additional minute.’”


“It could be our secret,” he replies. They have so many good ones these days. Without thinking, he reaches over and strokes the sheets where she usually lies.

“Wouldn’t work,” she says with a regretful sigh. “Even if she could name the bad guys, Ms. Cleo would never hold up in court, and you know it. No, I think we’re stuck with good old-fashioned police work, and Ms. Cleo can stick to lost loved ones and romantic prospects.”

The word “romantic” makes him hold the receiver closer to his ear. “So then what would you ask her?” he wants to know. “If you called?”

“I don’t consult psychics,” she says, as though he’s lost his mind. “All they do is take your money and then tell you want you want to hear.”

Ah, she’s put her finger on why he’s asking—what she wants to hear. “What if she were real? What if she did have some window to the future or something? You wouldn’t want to know what’s in store?”

There’s a pause as she considers. “No,” she says at last. “No, I don’t think so. What if she says that a meteor drops out of the sky in three days, killing you—would you really want to know? Sure, maybe you could run around saying good-bye or making amends or whatever, but you wouldn’t enjoy those last three days.”

“What if it’s the opposite? What if she says you live a long, happy life and pass away peacefully in your sleep at age 103?”

“That would be nice,” she concedes, a little wistful, “but the principle is the same. The greatest joys in life are the ones you discover for yourself. I can’t help but think that knowing they were guaranteed would somehow make them seem…less sweet.” He can hear the sheets again, can picture her in the bed so well now that he knows what it’s like to lie in it with her. “Why?” she asks after a beat. “What would you ask?”

“What are you wearing?” he blurts out.

“You want to know what she’s wearing? She’s probably a bored housewife in Topeka, Hunter.  We’re talking mom jeans and a home-style perm.”

“Not her. You.”

“Oh. Um...” God love her, she actually checks. “Pajamas.”

“What color?”

“Pink. Why?”


“I’m trying to set the scene here. Pink pajamas. You mean the shorty ones with the little satin buttons up the front?”

“You have a frighteningly good memory for my clothing,” she informs him dryly.

“I remember those buttons coming undone. It’s a very vivid memory.” He can call it up at will now, the feel of her clothes parting beneath his fingers and the soft, warm skin she keeps hidden underneath. “I could come over and show you if you want.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Are you sure? This time of night, I could be over there in twenty minutes. I could come upstairs in the dark, and I’d take apart those itty bitty buttons and kiss your neck and then I’d slip my hand inside your pajamas and do that thing you like…”


Her voice held a warning, but there was a pleading note in there too that made him press his luck. “Then I’d use my mouth. I’d work my way down from your neck to your shoulder and down further. I’d be kissing and sucking until you were pushing up into me asking for more, more, more.”

He’s done it enough times to know exactly how her body would rise under the touch of his mouth, how her skin would taste, the way her fingers would tighten in his hair as he sucked her more strongly.

“Hunter…Rick.” She sounds just as desperate as if he were there, doing the things he’s suggesting to her. “You gotta stop this. I’m not having phone sex with you.”

He’s on his back, his erection tenting the sheets in front of him. “Okay, I’ll have it and you can just listen,” he says as he reaches down and begins stroking.

“Oh my God,” she mutters. “You’re impossible.” But he notices that she doesn’t hang up the phone.

“Now where was I? Oh, right—my mouth is occupied, leaving my hands free for some exploring. I start stroking your knee, gradually working my fingers higher and higher, and my touch on your thighs makes you shiver. You’re moving against me, trying to get my hand inside your tiny little shorts, but I just keep on teasing.”

He teases himself as he imagines it—her, arching against him, his mouth on hers, tongues tangling as he lets his hands wander up and into the loose material of her shorts. On the other end of the phone, her breathing has gone unsteady.

“I’m inside your shorts now. I’m touching that sensitive area at the side of your underwear, stroking back and forth with one finger. If I put my finger inside your panties, what will I find?” He pauses. “Maybe you should check for me.”

She gasps. “Not…not going to happen,” she replies tightly.

“Okay, I’ll check. Mmm. Oh…oh, yeah. You’re ready for me, all right. You want this bad.” He makes a low noise in his throat as he touches her, feels how wet and swollen she has become. He kicks off the sheet and resumes pumping himself with purpose.

“I move my finger around, back and forth, until you’re squirming and panting, pushing yourself on me.” Is it his imagination, or is she panting right now? “Like this? You want it like this? I barely get the words out and suddenly you’re yanking your clothes off for me. Yeah, yeah, I say. Take ‘em off. Do it.”

She hums an uncertain reply, but she doesn’t say no.

Do it, he tells her silently. You want to. Do it.

“You’re so happy now that I can touch you everywhere. You’re clutching me, kissing me as I start slipping my fingers into you. God, you’re so wet.”

She makes some strangled noise on the other end of the line, and emboldened, he continues his verbal seduction. He describes how he would spread her legs wide and put his face between them, how he would lick her and suck her until she was shaking and crying out the holy trinity, at which point he would rise up and push into her with one great thrust. He’s moaning and she’s moaning and his language breaks down then, until he’s incoherent, just grunting “You, you, you,” with his hips rising from the bed as he pumps furiously into his own hand.

He comes hard and with a deep groan, contracting, splattering himself in the process. It’s at least a minute before he can form words again. McCall is still breathing heavily on her end.  “You…you have no shame,” she says finally.

“You were right there with me, partner.”

“Hmm. You never answered my question.”

“Whazzat?” His TV channel has gone to fuzz and his brain has done the same.

“What you would ask Ms. Cleo, if she were really psychic.”

How to keep you, he thinks, swallows to make sure he traps the words inside. How to make it so we want the same thing.

Out loud, he replies: “I’d ask her next week’s Lotto numbers, make sure I hit the big one.”

He figures, in the end, the odds of each are about the same.


They are going away for a long weekend together—his idea, because he’s not wasting more time on this let’s see if we can be apart nonsense—but that’s assuming they get Charlie to approve the day off for both of them. McCall makes her request first, and she returns to her desk with a satisfied smile. “Piece of cake,” she tells him as she takes her seat. 

Hunter glances at the office and sees the Captain is now on the phone—and he’s frowning. “Well, sure. You got him right after his mid-morning donut. He was still on a sugar high.”

“Just play it cool. Maybe soften him up first with a little personal talk or something.”

Oh, so that’s how operates? Everything becomes clear now. “What, you want me to compliment his shoes?”

She makes a face. “Of course not. Talk about something he likes—maybe the Dodgers. Oh!” Her eyes go wide. “Ask about his cat. He loves that thing.”

“I’m not going to make chit-chat with the Captain about his cat. He’d probably send me to the fifth floor for a psych eval.”

She shrugs and picks up her pen. “Guess I’ll go ‘way by myself this weekend.”

He frowns at her bent head and shoves backward from his desk. “I’ll just go in there and ask him, straight out. I have the time coming. How can he say no?”

McCall looks like she is barely repressing a smile. She gives him a curt nod instead. “Go get him, solider.”

Hunter adjusts the knot on his tie, muttering to himself as he approaches Charlie’s office. Just tell him like it is: Captain, I need Friday off. I trust this won’t be a problem.

As he reaches the door, Charlie’s frown deepens and his grip on the phone tightens to the point that his knuckles go completely white. “Yes, I got that, thank you. And you can tell Captain Mahoney that I hope the chair falls to pieces right from under him!”  He slams down the receiver and then notices Hunter standing in the doorway. “What do you want?”

Shit. What was that cat’s name again? Larry? Fairy? “Uh, I can come back later if this is a bad time…”

“No, it’s fine,” Charlie growls, waving him over the threshold. “What’s going on?”

“Uh, how’s it going? How’s…um…your cat?” Hunter carefully takes a seat in his usual chair.

As expected, Charlie looks at him like he’s lost all his marbles. “You came in here to ask me about my cat? Harry’s fine. Now, what the hell do you want?”

Harry. Or is it Hairy? He knows better than to pursue a clarification. Hunter takes a deep breath. “Well, if it’s okay with you, I was hoping to take Friday off. I have the time coming, and I want to go do a little fishing.”

“McCall’s taking Friday off,” Charlie replies, as though that settles everything. He’s picked up some file on his desk and is reading it over with one eye.

Hunter shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Yes. I was asking if I, too, could take Friday off.”

Charlie snaps to full attention. “The both of you? At the same time? What sort of scheme have the two of you cooked up now?”

“No scheme. I just want to catch some fish.”

Charlie’s eyes narrow as he considers this, and Hunter strives to keep his expression open and innocent. “I see. And you have to go catch these fish on Friday—the same time McCall requested off so that she could…” He trails off meaningfully, waiting for Hunter to supply the answer.

One day they would learn to get their stories straight. He sits up in his chair and scratches the back of his neck. “So she can visit her family?”

Charlie scowls. “Attend her class reunion,” he says, folding his arms.

“Right, yeah. Reunion—and family. That’s what she’s doing.” Hunter nods like he was sure of the answer all along, but Charlie just kind of tilts his head and studies him.

The two of them sit there like that for a long time.

Hunter spreads his hands. “So, can I? Take Friday off?”

“To go fishing,” Charlie says, sounding suspicious. “Right, you mentioned.” He sits forward with a frown. “Did I ever tell you about the time I went fishing with Tom, my brother-in-law?” He didn’t wait for Hunter to answer before continuing onward. “It was Tom and this other guy I didn’t know very well, and we rented a boat from this guy Tom knew—some wall-eyed Captain with an arm full of tattoos. He was willing to take us out all day for a hundred bucks and a cooler of beer. We’d been out on the water for hours, with modest success, and the Captain was drunk off his ass. All of a sudden, all the lines start tugging at once. Tom hauls one in and as it hits the deck we all realize it’s a barracuda.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“The thing starts flailing around and its teeth manage to rip open the Captain’s ankle. Meanwhile, Tom is screaming that it’s all barracuda on the lines and how the hell are we going to get them free? I’m just trying to stay clear of the one on the ground in front of us, when all of a sudden, the Captain reappears with a .44. He starts shooting the thing. He shoots it twice and it’s still twitching when he goes to the edge of the boat and starts firing into the water at the rest of the fish.”

“That’s crazy,” Hunter says. “What happened?”

“Place looked like a damn murder scene. Blood everywhere. Bullet holes in the boat. But we got the lines cleared and the Captain wrapped a T-shirt around his ankle, got another beer, and we went right on fishing.”

“Huh.” Hunter sat there, wondering what the hell he was supposed to say to this. “Uh, Captain—was there a particular point to this story?”

Charlie shakes his head as though he is suffering a fool, none too gladly. “You gotta be careful when you go fishing—and who you go fishing with. It’s easy to get hurt out there.” He eyes Hunter for a long moment and then sighs. “Enjoy your day off. You and McCall both.”

Hunter manages a thin smile. “Uh, okay. Thanks.”

He hightails it out of the office before Charlie can change his mind. Back at their desks, McCall raises her eyebrows at his return. “Well? How did it go?”

“Hmm, I got the day off.”

“That’s great!” she replies, breaking into a smile. “Did you compliment his shoes or his cat?”

“Neither. We just told each other a fish story.”


He rents a cabin in the mountains, a place he knows because he’s been there before—yes, on a fishing trip—and so he can swear to both its beauty and its privacy. And the fact that it has electricity and hot-and-cold running water.  There is a small kitchen that they stock with food, a comfortable couch for reading, and a large stone fireplace. Fire is available outside too, in the form of a small fire pit that sits surrounded by worn logs.

The afternoon is bright and sunny, and so they make a short hike to the nearby lake, which acts as a shining mirror to the intense blue sky. They set up in canvas chairs along the shore, he with his fishing rod and she with her book. She has on denim shorts that leave little to the imagination and a red gingham half-shirt that is knotted below her breasts. He keeps one eye on the lake and one eye on the knot, thinking how easily it could come undone with just a little tug.

The lake stretches out into the distance, framed by green mountains at the back. No one is around for miles. There is only the quiet lapping of the water and the occasional buzzing of an insect. They might as well be the only people on earth.

“You’re right,” she says after a time. “It’s beautiful up here.”

“Told you.”

She gives a happy sigh as she wiggles her bare toes deeper into the sand. “I could get used to this.”

A pang hits him straight in the chest, and he looks away, because he knows this is the one thing they can’t afford to do.

Later, they make dinner in the kitchen but eat it outside in the fresh air, and afterward, they start a fire in the pit as the sun slowly slips behind the mountains. She roasts marshmallows and he swears he doesn’t want one, but then hers melts to the point that it half sticks to her thumb, and he’s only too happy to hold her hand and lick that off.

When she’s less sticky, they sit together, her leaning back against him as he wraps his arms around her, and they watch the stars come out. They are dazzling, astonishing, so close now that they almost seem aggressive, glinting like tiny sharp teeth in an otherwise black maw. 

“Isn’t it amazing how they’re always out here but we never see them?” she asks. 

“Too much light back home,” he replies.

“You never really think of it that way—that you can have too much light. I guess sometimes a little darkness can be a good thing.”

When they retire to the bedroom, there is a large four-poster bed so sturdy it might have been carved from redwood. A decorative pair of fat white candles, partially melted, sits on a metal plate upon the dresser. She wants to light them, so they make themselves just enough light, a warm, flickering glow that plays hide-and-seek on the walls while they make love.

It’s slow and tender this time, with lots of kissing and holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. Her hair smells like smoke and pine. When at last he’s inside her, he doesn’t feel the drive to push for completion straight away. Instead, he draws her leg over his hip and holds her close, brushing the hair from her face so he can watch her. So he can see what she’s thinking as they are so intimately joined.

She puts her palm to his cheek, and the smile she gives him is sweet and serene, so pleased with him and how they are together in that moment. He leans into her touch, nestling closer until they can lean foreheads together. “I love you,” he murmurs, because he’s not sure he will get the chance to say it again, not like this, not ever.

She sniffs and strokes his face. “I love you too.”

He gathers her into a tight embrace, rocking her in a soothing motion that gradually turns to slow thrusting. She is kissing him when she comes, so he can feel the shock, her stolen breath, and the shudders that pass from her body into his.

After, he advises her on how to find the light switch for the en suite bathroom, and she gently ribs him about it as she returns to their bed. “You sure know your way around this place,” she tells him as he curves around her like a mountain road. “You must bring all your women up here.”

“No,” he says, finding her hand in the darkness—he knows exactly where to reach for her now. “I’ve never been here with anyone else.”


It is dark and ticking toward four a.m., quiet enough that she can hear the grandfather clock counting out the seconds. She cups her hands around her mug of tea and watches the fish swish back and forth in their tank, thinking how appropriate it was that she’d selected them years ago as pets since they, like she, never seem to sleep. She hears a noise on the stairs and turns to see him walking slowly down them, one hand on the rail, one hand rubbing the side of his face. It’s probably good that their month-long experiment is coming to an end, she thinks, so the poor man can get some rest.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you,” she says as he joins her on the couch.

“You didn’t,” he replies as he draws her into his arms. “Couldn’t sleep.”

She snuggles closer, rubbing her cheek against the warm cotton of his T-shirt, closing her eyes as she breathes him in, the now-familiar scent of his naked skin. Hunter is an excellent hugger. He has strong, protective arms, a broad chest, and an open heart—all of which he puts into each full-bodied hug, like he means to hold her and not let go. She knew this from before, from those times she had lost herself a little too long in his arms and then opened her eyes in surprise to find him still there, waiting her out. She is always the one to break away first.

Now, though, she tightens her hold even as she forces a lightness into her voice. “Just think,” she says, “tomorrow night you won’t have to worry about me roaming the halls. You can get a good night’s rest for a change.”

“Hmm.” His head is heavy as he rests it on hers. His chest rises and falls with his sigh. “I think I worry more when I can’t see you. When I don’t know where you are.”

She feels the truth of this immediately. It’s been entirely reassuring to wake up in the dead of night and feel him right there, his weight slanting the mattress. If he’s okay, then so is she.

Tomorrow her bed will be empty again.

She eases away from him and picks up her mug from the coffee table. “You’ll know where I am,” she says, indicating the well-worn corner of the couch. “I’ll be right here as usual.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m afraid of.”

She looks down into her mug, avoiding his eyes. This nighttime habit of hers is years old by now, but it’s new to him, one of the things he hadn’t known before and now will not forget. She has her own list of new facts, of tidbits and treasures: how his eyes have flecks of green in them that she hadn’t noticed until she was right up close; the way he notices things that need fixing, like the loose hinge on her kitchen door, and just fixes them, without asking or being asked; how he reads “Dear Abby” every morning in the paper while pretending not to; the way it feels to kiss him right after he’s shaved, when he’s all smooth and clean and spicy; the sound of his belt buckle coming undone in the dark, how just the clink of the metal makes her flush.

How he inexplicably has held onto all the remnants of his past relationships, keeping these women’s things even when he has no use for them anymore.

“I’ll be fine,” she says, testing out the words. “So will you.”

“Yeah,” he says, although it doesn’t feel much like agreement. He stretches over and tugs one of her hands free from the mug. “There’s no reason it has to end tomorrow, right on the nose. We’re the ones making this deal, right? We could renew the subscription another thirty days.”

He smiles, trying to get her to do the same, and squeezes her hand. “Hunter.” She shakes her head slowly. “It wouldn’t work. We’d be right back here in a month, facing the same decision.”

“Yeah, but think of all the fun we could have in the meantime.”

There would be fun, sure, with clinking glasses and couch canoodling, late nights and later mornings, but she would be waiting through all of it for the end to come. Maybe they’d make it another thirty days, maybe even thirty after that. Or maybe it would be day twenty-two when he tired of her, when he found something of hers he could stick in a drawer so he’d have a reminder down the line, after the next Vicki or Nicki or Amber had come and gone, and they’d all be mixed in there together, these women Rick Hunter had loved for an hour or two or ten. She’s seen the movie play out too many times. She knows the ending by her broken heart.

She pulls her hand free from his and swallows the lump that had formed in her throat. “No,” she says tightly. “If it’s hard now, it would just be harder then. We stick to the deal, okay?”

He says nothing for a long moment, a frown deepening his features. Then at length he gives a curt nod. “You want me to just go now then?”

The words make tears spring up in her eyes, and she blinks them back down. “N-no,” she says as she starts to reach for him but draws back before she makes contact. It’s hard to ask for what you want if you’re not sure it’s something the other person can give.  “Unless you want to go…” 

“No.” He says it quickly, forcefully. 

So instead they go to bed together one last time, not for sex and not for love, but maybe for comfort so they do not have to wait out the last dark hours alone. Hunter is asleep again quickly, his arm around her waist, his face snuffling in her hair. She strokes his long forearm, memorizing the feel of the soft, springy hairs. She knows, deep down, that she wouldn’t change him even if she could. A tiger in the zoo might be just as majestic as one in the wild, but it’s a beauty without any purpose—strong, speedy legs that don’t run, razor-like teeth that don’t hunt. No, she would not be the one to put a cage around him.

Besides, he has given her a precious gift. He’s reminded her why she keeps trying, that there’s a reason she bothers with all those blind dates with the mediocre, mid-level chain restaurant food and small talk so tiny she needs a microscope to parse it. When—if—you finally make that connection with another human being, there is nothing sweeter in the world. She had that once, but it was so long ago she was starting to wonder if maybe she’d imagined it, if maybe she was holding out for some impossible relationship that had never really existed.

But no. Now she knows for sure. 

She hugs his arm tighter around her, closing her eyes and giving herself up to this last embrace. In the morning he will leave, but she gets to keep the memories and the feelings, not in a drawer but in her heart, where he’ll be hers as much as he is anyone’s, for always.


She doesn’t talk much at work the next day, not because she's angry or regretful but because it seems to take so much emotional energy just to summon any words. She’s the chatty one in their relationship, so when she says less, Hunter says nothing at all. He seems fine whenever she looks in his direction, so mostly she decides not to look. He’s had a lot of practice ending affairs and showing up to work right as usual the next day, but she’s a bit less experienced in this department. She is tired and raw and sad. 

Normally, she loves her job, with its intensity and passion. She’s a giver and this job takes. Takes everything you’ve got, and then some, with the grief-stricken families and the panicked witnesses, the pimps and the perps, the voiceless and victims and everyone in-between, all of them with a story. Usually, she can’t wait to hear it, but not today. Today, she wishes she worked a typical office job where she could shut the door and not talk to anyone all day long.

No such luck. After lunch, they have a jumper—a twenty-something male who took a leap off a thirty-story building—at least that is what the witnesses say, and now it’s up to her and Hunter to verify the facts.

It’s hot out on the street, the summer sun high in the sky. Hunter’s hiding his pale eyes behind a set of shades, so she cannot read his expression.  “I’m going to talk to the building manager,” he says, maybe eager to be standing somewhere that isn’t next to her.

She finds the body easily enough; it’s been cordoned off with crime scene tape, and uniformed officers are protecting the scene. One of them graciously lifts the yellow tape to let her past. “Hot one today, huh?” he says, and she gives him a short nod.  He takes this as encouragement, apparently, because he just keeps going. “You could practically fry an egg on this pavement.”

Her gaze slides to the dead man lying sunny-side-up in the street. “You have any ID on the victim?”

“We have orders not to touch the body until the Coroner’s through with it.”

Barney isn’t yet on the scene, so there’s not much she can do where she’s standing, but she doesn’t exit the ring just yet. She squints up into the hazy sky, tilting her head all the way back until she can see the roofline. There are uniformed boys in blue up there, too. Probably a nice view from the top. That’s what everyone plans for when designing these skyscrapers, after all. No one ever imagines someone up there fighting for his life, his eyes not on the shimmering cityscape, but fixed on the ground below.

She looks again at the broken, nameless man who is stuck there on display until they can get someone to pronounce him officially gone. She’s read that jumpers who survive invariably report changing their minds on the way down. Poor bastard. She hopes he’s not left a family behind, but almost all of them do. No one manages to leave the world entirely clean.

Her eyes seek out Hunter, and she easily finds him, a head above the crowd. He’s talking to some guy in a suit, nodding and taking notes. It was stupid to fall in love with him, she knows that. She knew it even before they were partners, before they were friends. She definitely knew it before they went to bed together, but for some reason, she did it anyway. She jumped.

She looks at the victim again with renewed sympathy. They call them victims, always, even when they die by their own hands. She cranes her head once more to study the path he must have taken on his way down. It would have been just a few seconds through the air, but maybe it felt like a lifetime.  Free-fall.

She wonders suddenly why it’s called ‘falling in love.’ Falling isn’t actually a good thing, when you stop to think about it, as their dead man could surely attest. What’s that old joke? It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the ground when you stop. People don’t go around looking to fall on purpose, most of the time, because that would be detrimental to their health. About the only time people deliberately set themselves up to fall is when they leap out of airplanes and such…and then they are smart enough to take a parachute.

Hunter’s done talking to the man in the suit. He’s tucked his notebook back in his pocket, and he’s headed her way, which means she’s going to have to make conversation with him.

She ducks her head, looks away from him and the dead man. Stupid, she thinks. Should have packed a damn parachute.


Summer is drawing to a close, although Los Angeles is always slow to pick up on the signs, with midday temperatures stretching close to ninety degrees even as the sun slipped away a bit earlier with each passing evening. The fading light makes Hunter feel irritated and restless, like time is running out. It’s a downhill slide from here to December, closing out the decade, and he’ll be another year older but maybe none the wiser. There would be a new year to replace this one, of course. They seem to come up on him faster and faster now.

Across from him, McCall’s desk sits empty, albeit messier than usual, with a couple of dusty boxes at one end and a stack of folders so precarious it is beginning to resemble that famous leaning tower in Italy. Hunter has his own boxes and his own tower of cold cases, which he’s been sifting through for most of the day. Last year, new DNA technology had solved seven homicides—including one from 1950 in which an officer had been gunned down in the street— and led to the capture of a serial rapist whose victims numbered more than twenty. Emboldened by this success, the LAPD is contemplating starting a new unit devoted cold cases, and both Hunter and McCall have landed on the exploratory task force. Their job is to evaluate a chunk of old files to determine the potential that a full reanalysis might move the investigation forward.

Hunter blows out a long breath as he closes another file—a probable hit-and-run that killed a seventeen year-old black kid more than a decade ago. No witnesses, and unless they could get DNA from the car (a ’79 sky blue Pontiac Bonneville, if you could believe the paint chips found at the scene), this one isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. If the department does decide to establish a Cold Case Unit, Hunter will not be petitioning for that detail. Rooting around in the past, in his estimation, is like fighting quicksand: the more you struggle to make progress, the deeper you sink.

McCall has been gone a while, too long for someone making a vending machine run, so he looks around to see if he can spot her. He squints because she’s farther away than usual these days. Once he went on a date with an art student, a slim, young cutie with big eyes and dark hair that hung past her waist, and she took him to a gallery opening of modern art. The girl had gushed on and on about the artist’s use of “negative space,” which to Hunter, mostly looked like wasted pieces of canvas. These days, he’s beginning to understand negative space a little more. He and McCall might often be caught in the same frame, but there is a big white canvas between them.

She’s out of the picture completely now, he sees as he scans the precinct, gone off somewhere without him. Sometimes they look at each other too long without really meaning to, like when he’ll catch her eye at some boring debriefing or when they are stuck in the car together, idling at a red light. He can see in those moments that they are sharing the same memories, the same sense of loss, and it always makes him burn inside with an acrid feeling he cannot put a name to because he’s never experienced it before. His own words come back to haunt him: it will never be like this anyone else.

Thank God, he thinks often when he is alone. Another trip on this amusement ride might just kill him.

He takes another folder off the pile and opens it up, forcing himself to look at the words on the page in front him. He makes it to the second paragraph when he hears her, an unmistakable laugh coming from not too far away, and the sound is so foreign that it makes his head snap up. She hasn’t had much to laugh about these past few weeks.

He finds her easily this time, as she is standing perhaps thirty feet away, near the filing cabinets, talking to Detective Bart Atkins from Robbery. Bart is in animated conversation, his hands going as he’s in the middle of some involved story, and Dee Dee’s given him her full attention. She’s smiling, he sees. So is Bart. Bart is also encroaching on her personal space in a way that makes the hairs on Hunter’s neck rise up in shock because he totally recognizes this move: Bart is standing precisely where he used to be.

Hunter frowns and glances around to see if anyone else has noticed this shift in the universe, but no one else seems to be paying any mind. The conversation is winding down now but Bart is still smiling—grinning like he won the goddamn lottery, if you want to be accurate about it—and he squeezes her forearm before walking away. Hunter’s too busy scowling after the other detective that he doesn’t notice McCall has returned to her desk until she speaks to him.

“What’s with you?”

He jerks his attention back to the present. “Nothing’s with me. What do you mean?”

She nods in the direction Bart has vanished. “You were looking at the coffee pot over there like it keyed your car or something.”

“It’s nothing,” he says, picking up a pen to resume his work. “Forget it.”

She shrugs as she sits down. “I already have.”

He tries to focus on the file again but can’t make himself concentrate enough to string two words together. For her part, McCall seems to be scanning through her folder with no trouble at all. “So, uh, what was that about?” he asks her finally. “That chat with Atkins.”

She turns to look over her shoulder, like the answer is back near the coffee. Or maybe she’s just looking for him again. “Oh, nothing serious. He was telling me about a bust they made last week—a kid holding up a convenience store with a toy gun—and the kid gave them a fake name, only the name he made up turned out to have seven warrants out on it.”

“Funny story,” Hunter says, not smiling at all. “He looked real friendly telling it, too.”

She sort of hums a non-reply and bends over her work again, conversation closed. Hunter taps his pen against the blotter a few times, knowing he should let the matter go, but the devil wins out and he pushes his luck. “I can have a word with him if he’s too friendly,” he says, and she looks up sharply. Guys hit on her all the time, but he almost never steps in to say anything because he knows she prefers it that way. 

“No need,” she says, backing up her words with direct eye contact—their first in days.

“Because if he’s bothering you—”

“He’s not bothering me.”

“You shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of behavior, with him putting his hands—“

“We’re going out on Friday,” she says, cutting him off, slicing his argument as effectively as if she’d slit his throat. The words seem to surprise her too. She’s back to not looking at him, pink tinging her cheeks as she rearranges the folders on her desk. “It’s just dinner.”

He makes an effort to close his open, hanging mouth. “Dinner? With Atkins?” She says nothing. “But he’s a cop.”

“I noticed that, yes. The fact that we both work out of the same precinct was one of my first clues.”

“But—but you don’t date cops.”

She glances up and gives him a pointed look. “Sometimes, apparently, I do.”

Him? Does she mean him? Maybe he ought to be flattered: he was so good he’s made her change her no-cops dating policy. He couldn’t feel any less flattered, though. More like flattened. Like she’s dropped a giant stone. “I don’t get it. What makes Atkins so special?”

“I don’t know. That’s why we’re having dinner, so I can’t find out.” When he says nothing, just sits there staring at her like she’s a creature from space, she puts down her work and looks directly at him. “Do we have some sort of problem?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t think so. Now I’ve got to wonder.”

“Wonder what, exactly?”

Heat prickles the back of his neck. He’s aware that people are looking at them now, that their colleagues in blue who are so used to reading body language have picked up on the strange air around from their desks. “Can I see you in the conference room?” he says in a lowered voice. “Now?”

Her narrowed eyes tell him what she thinks of this idea, but clearly she has no wish to put on a show for their coworkers either because she follows him to room two without any protest. Once there, they stand on either side of the table, him with his hands shoved in his pockets, her with her arms folded. “What?” she asks. “Whatever it is about this that’s bugging you, just say it.”

“It’s not bugging me. I’m just surprised, is all. You’ve never dated a cop before.”

“Actually, I have. I even married one. And then there’s you—maybe you recall that part.”

“Yes,” he says. “Exactly.” If she’d had a rule, that made him the exception. Special. Now what—he’s just another Bart Atkins?

“I don’t know what you want me to say here, Hunter. Did you think I was going to stop dating now? Was that your plan, too—to never be with anyone else ever again?”

“No, of course not.” It had only been a month, give or take. He hadn’t had time to make a plan, but apparently she had revolutionized her whole romantic outlook. “I just thought, when you’d always been so clear about not mixing work and dating, that you didn’t want to be with a cop…I thought, you know, that’s why you didn’t want to keep going with our…uh, thing.”

“Our…thing,” she echoes, deadpan.

He feels heat flood his face. She was there with him so she has to know what he means, all those nights in bed together, the both of them intertwined like the strands of the damn DNA they’re always chasing. 

“You think we’re not together because you’re a cop?” she says. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“It’s just you’ve always been clear about that—about what you wanted.”

“So have you,” she counters, running her fingertips along the smooth surface of the table. “Lots of women. No commitment. No rules.”

He opens his mouth but he can’t object. No rules. This was his line.

“It was…fun.” She risks a look at him, and her mouth twitches in a small smile. “It was more than fun,” she admits, and he feels his skin tighten all over his body, as though he’s been put to a flame. “But I can’t live like that indefinitely, waiting for the day you decide you want to no-rules somewhere else.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Hunter.” She takes a deep breath. “You’ve got a definite M.O. here—and drawers full of evidence to support it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“All those things from the women you’ve been with—their books, their clothes, their make-up—it’s all over your house. Are you telling me you’ve never noticed?”

He rolls one of the chairs out from the table and then shoves it back in again. “I don’t really think about that stuff. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“It does,” she says gently. “Or you wouldn’t keep it.”

“You never said anything. I didn’t know it bothered you.”

She is quiet for a moment. “It wasn’t my place to say anything. It’s still not. And it didn’t bother me so much because I knew the terms going in—I didn’t expect to be different.”

“You’re different.” Or maybe it’s just that he’s different with her.

She gives mirthless chuckle in response. “Yeah, I walked away before I ended up in your drawer.”

He chews his lip and sucks in a breath. “Jeez, you don’t trust me at all, do you?”

“I trust you,” she says. “I trust you with my life.”

“Just nothing else.”

Her eyebrows knit together in a look of consternation. “I trust your actions, and your actions say you have no interest in a serious relationship. I trust your words: no rules. Well, I happen to like some rules. I like boundaries. I like knowing where I stand. For instance, I like knowing the man I love isn’t going to be accepting women’s phone numbers all day long, keeping his options open, just in case.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“You already did! You did and you didn’t even see it happening, that’s how engrained it is—how much of a part of who you are. I don’t want to make you change, Rick. I’m not even sure it’s possible. I’m just saying: on my side, there are rules, and I can’t change that part either.” She falters as emotion clogs her throat, and she grips the back of a chair for support. “Not—not even if sometimes I might want to.”

He turns his face away from her. “You didn’t even give me a chance.” If she’s into cops now, he should at least get the right of first refusal, shouldn’t he? Like Bart Atkins is going to be making her pretty promises of true love? The guy has at least one divorce behind him already.

Her response is raw. “You didn’t ask for one. Not for this. You asked for thirty more days, same as before.”

He shakes his head, even as he knows it’s true. “So…it’s marriage or bust for you, is that it? If I’d come with a ring in hand, you’d have given a different answer.”

She stiffens as if struck, and for a moment, there is only terrible silence between them. When he dares to look at her, he sees tears in her eyes. “Now who’s being unfair?” she says at last. “There’s a whole lot of territory between ‘hey, honey, can I make you that coffee to go’ and deciding to spend a life together. But I guess you wouldn’t know that, given that you’re the one stocking your cabinet with paper cups. Use once and throw away—how’s that for a metaphor?”

He slams his hand down on the table, louder than he intended. “Damn it, I didn’t use you!”

“That’s because I wouldn’t let you,” she fires back.

He straightens up, breathing hard. Her eyes are flashing mad, but she’s backed away from the table and is hugging herself protectively. The sight drains all the anger from him, fills him with regret. “I’m sorry, I…” He doesn’t even know what he’s sorry for anymore.

She tilts her head up toward the ceiling, as if willing the tears not to fall. “Forget it,” she says tightly. She sniffs a couple of times and then looks at him again, assessing him with a probing gaze. “If you don’t even know what it is that you’re asking for, how could I reasonably be expected to provide it?”

“I love you,” he replies with quiet determination. “I think you love me. Maybe all my lessons come from storybooks, but I was led to believe that actually meant something.”

“It does,” she conceded, softening again as she takes a single step toward him. “Just not everything. Say we do this…we do this and mean it. You don’t want children, and let’s say I go along with that.”

His heart is hammering now, part with hope, part with confusion. He can’t see where this tale is leading. “You would?”

“Let’s say for the moment I do. But birth control isn’t perfect. It fails, and I get pregnant. Then what?”

This is his nightmare, if he’s honest about it, and why he’s traditionally been one hundred percent insistent on condoms, every time. It’s even more of a relief when the women say they’re on the pill, but it’s not like he can trust them. He’s even thought of getting snipped on occasion, just to make the decision final, but the thought of a knife down there…he gives an involuntary shudder again at the image, and McCall answers with a humorless laugh, throwing her hands in the air. 

“There you go,” she says. “See what I mean?”

“No, I…” He blows out a frustrated breath. “I didn’t mean it like that. I was just trying to think about it for a second.”

“Yeah, and I can read every one of those thoughts like they’re on a billboard a mile away.” She shakes her head, her eyes sad again. “We’ve always been honest with each other, right? Let’s not stop now.”

Let’s not stop now. Oh, the irony, because those were the exact words he’d been seeking from her, not so long ago.

“Honesty,” he repeats dully. “Right.”

She swipes at her cheeks with her fingers, erasing the last of the tears. “We should get back to work before someone comes looking for us.”

Yes, he thinks as he trails her back out into the hall, it’s suitable work for them right now, all those old, dusty cases. Ancient history, and getting colder by the second.




He is sitting with his mother in some nouveau French bistro that has heavy tablecloths and low lighting. The roast chicken and haricots verts are perfectly adequate, but he’d rather be home eating a plate of his mom’s meatballs. It seemed wrong to make her cook on her birthday, though, so he’s taking her to dinner at her choice of restaurant.


“Is your food no good?” she asks him as he pokes again at the chicken.


“No, it’s fine. I guess I’m just not very hungry.”


“Is something wrong at work? I watch the papers, but I haven’t seen anything with your name in it in a couple of months now. I’ve been hoping that was good news.”


Hunter doesn’t wish to discuss work because his mother’s next line of inquiry will be Dee Dee, and he absolutely doesn’t want to talk about her right now. “Everything is fine at work,” he says as he makes a show of digging into his food. “How is Stan doing?” Stan is his mother’s boyfriend. It seems odd to apply that term to a sixty-four year old tax attorney with a bad toupee and a love of toy poodles, but his mother has been seeing the guy for years now and Hunter still hasn’t found any better word for him.


“Stan is good. Tina Marie is visiting next weekend and bringing the grandkids with her, so he’s over the moon right now. We’re all going to spend a day down at the beach—someplace we can bring the dogs. You should come with us.”


Hunter ignores this invitation the same way he has ignored the past four year’s worth. He’s glad his mother is happy, but he’s not in the market for a new family. “Mom,” he says instead, “how come you and Stan never got married?”


His mother’s blue eyes twinkle as she picks up her wine glass. “We prefer living in sin.”


“Ma, I’m being serious here. You never got married again after Dad. Why is that?”


A faint look of exasperation passes over her, and she takes a long sip of wine before replying. “I can’t believe I’m being quizzed on my matrimonial intentions by you, my forty year-old son who hasn’t brought home a girl since around the time man first set foot on the moon.”


Hunter imagines she’s making some sort of comparison there about the relative difficulty of each of these missions—one small step for man, and yet no girlfriend for Rick Hunter. After his talk with McCall in the conference room, he went home to take inventory, and he found all the things she’d mentioned, the scarves and the books and perfumes, remnants the women had left behind. He’d turned them over in his hands and held them up for study. A few brought back good memories; others called up unhappy endings, and many just drew a blank in his head. Still, he had kept them all, and he wasn’t sure why. Maybe initially he could have said he’d held onto the items in case the owners came looking for their lost goods, but the years in between belied that argument for the excuse it was.  He didn’t feel any sort of attachment to these things or the women who had left them, but as he spread them out across his dining table, scattered like jigsaw pieces, what he saw was a bunch of stuff that did not fit together. That red lipstick would never go with the orange scarf. Two mismatched earrings—one a diamond knockoff stud, the other some crazy dangling purple thing. Three separate hairbrushes, woven each with strands of three different kinds of hair. A spy novel. An Elton John cassette.  A rainbow of various hair ties, bobby pins, and a half-empty pink perfume spritzer.


He has pieces of a dozen women but they do not add up to one whole.


Back in their padded booth, his mother is considering her response further while the dark-vested young waiter refills their water glasses. “I married your father because I thought I didn’t have a choice. That’s what young girls did back then—got married as soon as possible and had a family. Then I stayed with him because I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t leave you with him, and he never would have let me take you.”


Her eyes darken with pain, even after all these years, and he feels like a clod for bringing it up. He reaches across for her hand and squeezes it. “Forget it. It’s none of my business anyway.”

She gives him a tight squeeze in return. “No, it’s okay. It was a long time ago—another lifetime. It was just that once I was free, I suddenly did have choices. Not always good ones, mind you, but they were mine to make alone. I got used to being in charge of my own life and I guess I’ve just never wanted to give that up.”

It is somewhat reassuring to hear his mother affirming this philosophy. Freedom. Choices. These are solid values, aren’t they? His mother sure seems happy enough. Still, one bit nags at him. He chews the inside of his cheek for a moment and then decides he would press the issue one last time. “Yeah, I get that,” he says, leaning forward. “It’s just…well, you and Stan have been together a long time now.”

Her smile is winsome, almost girlish. “Nine years this fall,” she agrees, and Hunter is amazed at how quickly time can fly.

“But what about choices?” he says. “What about keeping your options open?”

His mother considers a moment and then gives a small shrug. “Well, sure, honey, of course you want options. But it turns out they only matter when you choose one.”


He gets to her door at seven-fifteen, hoping it’s not too late. His heart picks up when he hears her moving around on the other side because he knows he probably gets only one shot at this. She opens the door, a happy, expectant look on her face, one that quickly falls when she seems it’s him standing on her stoop. “Hunter, what are you doing here? This isn’t a good time.”

“This’ll only take a second.” He pushes inside anyway because this is how it’s always worked with them. She has her hair pinned up and she’s wearing some sort of dark purple dress that hugs her curves like a mountain road. He’s not sure he’s ever seen this ensemble before, and it kills him that she is dressed like this for someone else.

“What?” she says, rubbing her head with one hand. She’s still standing there by the open door, as if hoping he’ll take the hint. “What do you want?”

“How many partners have you had?” he asks.

Shock colors her features and she tightens her hold on the door. “I don’t really think that’s any of your business.”

“Not like that,” he corrects her impatiently. “Police partners. How many?”

“Oh,” she says, and thinks a moment. “Four—no, five, before you. Why?”

“I’ve had eight.”

“Great, thanks for dropping by with that fascinating bit of information. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

“How long were you together? The longest time, I mean. I think my longest one was seven months.”

“I don’t know. Not long, I suppose. Do we really need to do this now?” She looks pointedly at her watch. “Bart is supposed to be here any second.”

“We’ve been together more than five years,” he continues, as if she hasn’t even spoken. “Five years, and I haven’t been bored at all—have you?”

She folds her arms. “No, it’s been a lot of things, but boring is definitely not one of them.”

He clears his throat and takes a step toward her. “We work together. I mean, not just like that we have the same job. I mean we make sense together. We fit. We fit like no one else.”

“Hunter.” She closes her eyes, blocking him out. “Do not do this to me. Not now.”

“You’re the one with the date. I could sit here and wait up, if you want.”

“No,” she says in alarm, her eyes flying open. “Definitely do not do that.” She takes a deep breath and holds up her hand as if to ward him off. “Look, I get that we…we stopped things before it felt over. I get that you’re usually the one who walks away, but—”

He steps closer, back inside her personal space, and she retreats until he has her trapped between his body and the door. “We would have it,” he says, his voice low and rough, and she freezes at sound, not looking at him. “The baby.”

She raises her head slowly, her eyes wide and questioning, and he answers with a short nod, not breaking his gaze. 

“I know you well enough to be sure you would have it,” he says. “Of course you would.” He reaches up to touch the side of her face but halts just before making contact. “And I would never leave you alone in that situation,” he continues as he drops his hand back.  “Not ever. If you don’t know that by now, about me, then I don’t know what I could say to convince you…” 

She’s still mute, but her eyes have welled with tears. Whether that’s good or bad, he doesn’t know. He waits for what feels like forever, and finally, her mouth opens, she’s just about to speak, when Bart Atkins materializes at the door. “Hi, Dee Dee—oh, hey, there, Hunter.”

“Hiya, Bart.” Hunter doesn’t even turn to greet him. He’s still looking at McCall, and she’s looking back at him, too. After a month of avoiding each other’s gaze as much as possible, they just stand there, drinking each other in.

Somewhere, off to the side, from a different lifetime, Bart is still talking. “I, uh, I made a reservation for eight at this great new Italian place I’ve been dying to try. I hope you like Italian.”

“I like Italian,” she says, still looking at Hunter.

“Oh, good.” Atkins sounds relieved, but then he gets tentative again. “Maybe we ought to get going? I don’t want to lose that reservation. I mean, unless you guys have…are you on call or something?”

“No,” Hunter says, finally snapping out of it. “I was just leaving.” He turns to Bart and claps him on the shoulder as he goes, maybe a little firmer than is strictly necessary. “Have a great time, but skip the veal, will ya? It’s needlessly cruel.”


It’s just past ten when she pulls to a stop next to Hunter’s beach condo. The lights are on, so she knows he’s awake. He opens the door for her and leans against the doorjamb, filling the entire space with his enormous frame. “That was a pretty quick date,” he observes, peering down at her with some amusement in his eyes.

“I decided to pass on dessert,” she replies.

“Oh, well, in that case, follow me.” 

He leads her to his kitchen, where he pulls out a pint of familiar chocolate fudge chunk ice cream, and then produces two spoons. She grins as she accepts one. “So you’ve been expecting me,” she says.

He tilts his head as he considers. “Not expecting,” he answers. “More like hoping.”

They each take a bite of ice cream, eyeing each other as they do so. It’s rich and sweet and she loves that it tastes the same amazing flavor every time. Chocolate never lets you down. 

“So tell me,” he says eventually, “about all these rules you like.”

She frowns. “I’m not going to draw you a contract,” she replies. “I told you—I just like knowing where I stand.”

Hunter looks her over from head to toe. “At the moment, you’re standing in my kitchen. Next to me. I guess I’m asking what it takes to keep you here.”

A quick grin escapes her, and she reins it back in. “This is a good start,” she says, holding up the spoon. She’s nervous, though, to be having this conversation, and she finds she can’t force down more than a few bites before she has to set aside her spoon. Hunter mirrors her and does the same. Suddenly, she doesn’t know what to do with her hands. “Look, it’s not like I have all the answers, you know?” she says, drawing in a shaky breath. “All of my relationships have ended in disaster of one form or another.”

He gives a ghostly smile. “Except this one,” he points out.

“Jury’s still out there,” she retorts, but there’s no malice in her tone. Still, she hesitates. “I’m not sure what you want.”

He shrugs. “To be with you.”

“For how long?”

“For as long as it takes.”

It’s such a crazy answer, she can’t help but laugh. But then she bites her lip. “I don’t know….”

He holds out a hand toward her. “Tell you what. Give me thirty days, and I’ll see if I can convince you.”

“Thirty days, no rules?”

He waggles his fingers at her in a beckoning fashion, impatient now. “As many rules as you like. We can get some stone and chisel ‘em out tomorrow.”

Cautiously, she puts her hand in his. Tomorrow. She likes the sound of that. “Just promise me we’ll stay honest with each other,” she says, even as she allows him to tug her closer.

“Honesty, yes,” he says, almost a growl. She yelps in surprise as he sets her on the counter and then laughs as he leans into her. “I honestly missed you,” he says, pulling her forward so her skirt rides up and he can stand between her legs. 

“Mmm,” she agrees, holding his head as they kiss. “Me too.”

His mouth is hot, hungry. “I honestly think this dress would look better on the floor,” he says when they part again.

“Mmm, me too.”

“So far, I’m liking this honesty plan.”

He takes her to the bedroom but the dress doesn’t make it all the way off. It bunches higher and higher at her waist while they roll around and kiss, but then somehow her underwear is gone and his jeans are undone and she’s letting out a long hiss of pleasure as he finds his way inside her. She doesn’t have another coherent thought for a good long while.

Later, she is cleaning up in his bathroom while he snores away in bed. She has her overnight bag from the car, filled with all the usual paraphernalia—clothes, toothbrush, make-up, her backup curling iron, and so forth—but she wants a Q-tip and has failed to bring one. She roots around in Hunter’s drawers and stops short when she finds the empty one. 

All the women’s things are gone. Did he throw them out? Have some sort of bonfire? Maybe he’s just moved them to another location. She reaches in and strokes the bottom of the drawer with her fingertips. He didn’t tell her that he did this, didn’t make it a big deal. The space is just there waiting for her if she wants it. No rules.

She hesitates a moment longer and then slides the drawer closed again. She thinks about it while she locates the Q-tip elsewhere and finishes her nightly routine. Considers it some more as she brushes her teeth. She was telling him the truth earlier, the scary part about how all of her relationships have come to a bad end, one way or another. She can’t pretend this one will be different. But maybe. Maybe.

What we are together, he’d said. We can’t get that anywhere else.

She takes the curling iron and lays it carefully in the drawer. It looks silly in there all by itself, but after all, they have a fresh thirty days now, and this is just the start.

The end. 

Did I tell you I once thought I was going to write this all in one day? Ha ha ha. Silly writers, thinking they can control where the story goes. It came out a lot different than I’d planned (don’t they always) because it was so much longer, but it was interesting to write, and I hope you enjoyed the read.

© syntax6 2015