“I still don’t want to talk.”
Fine. He’d give her a few more minutes, but that was it because then he was going to talk.
And she would listen.
Hopefully. Because, actually, he hadn’t had a whole lot of luck in getting Ali to do anything that she didn’t want to do.
They walked another few streets, and then she pointed to a house just like all the others, this one pale yellow and nearly falling off its axis. “That one,” she said. “That’s where we lived with The Pincher.”
His chest squeezed hard, like maybe his heart was swelling and bumping up against his ribs. “I’d like a moment with him too,” he said grimly.
A minute later, they came to a deserted elementary school. Ali slipped in between a small gap in the linked fence, like she’d done it a hundred times.
Luke eyed the gap. Not nearly wide enough for his shoulders, even if he squeezed in sideways. With a sigh, he climbed the fence.
Ali had claimed a swing and was watching him. There was something new in her face now. She was more than just closed off to him. She was closed off period, disassociated from their surroundings. He’d seen this all too often on the job, so he knew exactly what it meant. It meant that being here had brought her memories that were hard—if not impossible—for her to deal with. “Talk to me, Ali.”
“Well…” Her gaze tipped upward to the corner of the structure supporting her swing. “There’s that web right there, and I’m wondering where the owner of it is.”
“Long gone,” Luke promised.
“And then there’s the fossilized dog poo just behind you. Don’t step in it.”
“I love getting to see my mom,” she said quietly. “And my sister.” She shook her head and kicked off gently to swing. “I just hate being here.”
He moved behind her and gave her a big push.
She sighed as she flew through the air, leaning back into the motion of the swing as if to savor the motion and the sun on her face.
“You went to school here,” he said, staying behind her, continuing to push her.
“I went to school here, yes. I also used to run away here. And hid away here too, when it was necessary.”
He’d stayed in back of her so that she wouldn’t have to look at him when she talked, sensing that she needed that. But now he was glad that she couldn’t see his face, because although he was good at hiding his feelings, he couldn’t seem to do it with her.
“I left here,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere new and be smart and independent. I wanted people to like me. I wanted a new life. I wanted to be happy.”
He stopped her motion, and from behind her, pressed his cheek to the top of her head. “You are all of those things,” he said, “and more. Smart and sweet and caring.” He twisted the swing so that she faced him. Squatting before her, he took the steel chains in his hands, caging her in between his arms. “I’m going to talk now,” he said.
She opened her mouth, but he leaned in and kissed her to shut her up. “What you heard me say to Edward,” he said, moving back just enough to speak, “I shouldn’t have said.”
“I shouldn’t have stood there as long as I did,” she said. “When I heard you two talking, I should’ve gone back inside.”
“Lots of should haves. But you overheard me talking out my ass, Ali. You’re not a job to me. Not even close.”
She leveled him with those big, hazel eyes. “Then why did you say it? Twice?”
He blew out a breath and tried to put it into words. “I guess I was just coming to grips with what’s going on between us and I wasn’t ready to discuss it.” He let out a low, pained laugh. “Hell, Ali, I’m not good at talking about this stuff, even when I am ready.”
“And you’re not,” she said, eyes on his. “Ready?”
It was a question, not a statement. And a fair one. “I didn’t think so,” he admitted. “And the thought of being yet another man who’s disappointed you or let you down—”
She pulled back a little more at that. “I’m not your responsibility, Luke. I won’t be your responsibility.”
“I know that. But I care about you.”
She nodded, and yet her face was still closed off. Luke knew she felt off balance. Their location wasn’t helping much, but that wasn’t the number-one problem. The number-one problem was him. Him and the stupid, idiotic words that he’d thrown out there to get his grandpa off his back. “You’re not just someone who needed help,” he said to her, leaning in so that her knees touched his chest. “I don’t think of you like that.”
She was looking at him but through him, and worse, she was tensed for flight. He was already losing her. He could feel it. He was losing her before he’d even realized the miracle that he’d had.
Because like Mimi had said—she was a miracle.
She’d brought him back to life. He wasn’t sure how, or what he was going to do about it, but he knew that he had to figure his shit out fast before it was too late.
“I don’t need help,” she said.
“I know. I’m the one who needs it.”
This brought him a very small smile. It would seem she agreed that yes, he needed help. “I love your determination,” he said. “You’re tough and resilient, Ali. And amazing.” And he wanted her. More than he’d wanted anyone before. That alone was enough to terrify him, but he was willing to put the terror aside to make this right between them.
“You’ve got to go,” she said. “It’s late. And your job’s on the line. You’re going to have to drive all night to make it for your review.”
He didn’t move, and she closed her eyes. “Please don’t look at me like that,” she whispered.
“Like you love me.”
His heart stopped. Just stopped. “I think I do,” he said.
He instantly knew his mistake. It was one of those big, life-altering bonehead moments that he couldn’t take back.
“You think you do,” Ali repeated softly. She sucked in some air, then shook her head with a low laugh. “You think…No. No, Luke, I’m here to tell you that you don’t. Because if you did love me, we’d have discussed like rational adults what would happen after you go back to San Francisco. Instead, we’re here, with you about to toss your cookies because you think it might be true that you feel something for me. God, the horror.”
“Oh, no. I’m not done.” She poked him in the chest. “The fact is, Luke, you don’t do love. You don’t because that would mean feeling, and you don’t like to do that either. I get it though. I really do. You think you let other people down, and now you’ve got it all mixed up in your head somehow, and you think you’re unworthy of love. And that’s just bullshit.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Ali—”
“You’ve closed yourself off to receiving love, which sucks, especially because that means you can’t give it either. I get that too. You’re a detective because you’re good at it and because it allows you to stand back and observe. And the biggie—you get to stay distant. Which, by the way? You’re freaking fantastic at.”
He wished like hell he wasn’t holding onto the chains of the swing so he could touch her. But if he let go, she’d spin.
And then she would walk.
He’d faced bullets and bad guys in his work, and yet he was still a coward. Ali Winters, floral designer and pottery artist, was the brave one. She was so brave that she was going to walk right out of his life because she knew she deserved better.
And indeed, she rose to her feet, bumped him back, and walked away.
Ali was still in White Center with her mom and sister at ten that night when she got a phone call from Aubrey.
“She’s gone off the deep end,” Aubrey said.
“Who?” Ali asked.
“You Know Who,” Aubrey said cryptically. Like it was She Who Shall Not Be Named. “I was working late, and she tried to sneak into Ted’s office. We scared the crap out of each other. She got irritated at me and left. I don’t know why I’m calling you with this.”
“Because even though you have perfect hair—which is annoying—you’re a good person.” Ali chewed on her lower lip, trying to imagine what Bree had wanted to do in Teddy’s office. Except she didn’t have to imagine. She knew.
Bree was going to put the money back. “Did she say where she was going next?” she asked Aubrey.
“Is Teddy still at his team-building fishing trip?”
“Yes. You think I should call him?”
“What would you say?”
There was a pause. “Good point,” Aubrey said. “I’m going home now. I put in my resignation today. I realize it’s a Sunday night, but the powers that be will get it in the morning.”
“Yeah. I’m switching gears. I don’t know what gear yet, but I’ll get there.”
“Wow,” Ali said. “Well, thanks for the call.”
“Yeah, and by the way, we’re even now.”
“Oh, not hardly,” Ali said.
“Really? How’s your hair?”
Ali looked in the mirror over her mom’s faux antique table. Smooth. Shiny. “Good,” she admitted.
“We’re completely even,” Aubrey said, and hung up.
Ali kissed her mom and sister goodbye and headed back to Lucky Harbor.
Bree was on the move with the money.
Ali was going on the move too, to catch her.
The highway was narrow and windy and took a lot of concentration to drive at night. This was good because it gave her no time to think about Luke. Or that he’d come to see her.