Hurt clouded her features for a split second before she hid it. He hated that she hid it, even though the blame sat squarely on his shoulders. She closed into herself then, in a way that would be imperceptible to anyone but himself. The man who knew her inside and out. With a chuckle, she straightened her clothing and marched into the kitchen, spine so rigid, he feared she might crack. “At least take a potpie with you. No reason to starve while you’re out saving the whole damn world, Lieutenant.” Her movements briskly efficient, she drew a pie out of the oven and snapped it into some Tupperware. When she handed it to him, she didn’t quite meet his eyes.
“What is it?” she burst out. “You got exactly what you came home for. What else is there to say?”
A voice shouted in his head, ordering him to pull her into his arms. Demand she hand over her burden, even though he couldn’t make a fair trade with his own. He wanted to reassure her, but couldn’t. The longer the silence stretched, the easier it was to read disappointment in her eyes. She’d never looked at him that way before and it slayed him.
“Go to work, Derek.”
He watched her turn and shut herself into the bedroom before he left, loathing every step that took him farther away from her. All the while knowing it didn’t even compare to the distance he’d just created.
Ginger accepted cash from the customer and handed him his receipt. “Is the chest a gift for your wife or did you just make her mad?”
He laughed as he tucked the slip of paper into his leather wallet. “It’s a gift. Although I make her mad often enough that I’ll definitely be back.”
“Good.” She winked at him. “I’ll set aside the matching bureau.”
“Consider it a sale.” His eyes twinkled. “For when she finds out I bought those Cubs season tickets.”
Her smile was a little wistful as she watched the older gentleman, with the help of his eager-to-please son-in-law, carry out the French two-drawer chest. She always felt this way watching one of her favorite pieces walk out the door, but it bolstered her mood knowing it was going to a good home. Not to mention the hefty price tag.
Two young mothers walked into the store chatting animatedly, their respective children entering behind them like hurricanes hell-bent on destroying her shop. Both dressed as Captain America, they skidded to a stop in front of the cash register and held out their pillowcases to her, toothy smiles a mile wide.
“Trick or treat!”
Ginger shared a laugh with the mothers as she reached under the counter to retrieve her bowl of mini Snickers bars. Wicker Park, the neighborhood in which she’d chosen to open her store, was full of young families, unique shops, and experimental restaurants. She loved it here. The unique, funky sensibility of the locals layered over a strong foundation of family. The more she witnessed those unbreakable bonds of mother-child, husband-wife, even pet-to-owner, the more she understood it. Somewhere along the line, the foreign concept of unconditional love had started making sense to her. It hadn’t seemed so impossible anymore. Maybe, just maybe, she could have that for herself. With Derek.
How that careful building of confidence and hope could shatter so quickly, she didn’t honestly know. Five nights ago, waiting for Derek to come home, she’d been so damn sure of his reaction to the news that she was pregnant. The entire day, she’d become more and more convinced that a new life could be a good thing. An amazing thing. She’d tell him she was carrying their baby. He would pull her close and share in her joy.
Never, not once, in the thousand scenarios she’d created in her head, did Derek walk away before she could share the news. He’d never actually been there to begin with, she’d realized afterward. Sitting in the bedroom, hearing the front door close, she’d replayed the scene in her head. Derek coming home, giving her an unbelievable sexual experience, yet withholding that final part of himself. Pleasuring himself without the use of her body. He’d been distant. Something had been missing. But she’d still kept her faith, her hard-won faith, because this was Derek. And he loved her.
Then he’d shut her down. She could still feel that cold, empty feeling. A feeling she’d never expected to associate with her lover. Her best friend. Her everything.
“Two Captain Americas?” Ginger forced a smile. “Are you planning on catching lots of bad guys tonight? You boys have certainly got your work cut out for you. I’ve seen quite a few questionable characters lurking around outside my shop.”
“We’ll get them for you!” One boy raised his shield proudly into the air. When the other boy tried to imitate his friend, his shield clattered to the ground. They both tried to pick it up and bumped heads. Ginger wanted to laugh with the mothers, but instead she felt suspiciously like crying.
Quickly, she shoveled a handful of Snickers into each bag. “I feel much safer now. Now, you listen to your mamas. Don’t eat too much candy or you won’t be able to fly.”
“We won’t. Thank you!”
Seconds later, they’d run out of the store, already moving on to their next candy conquest. Trying to distract herself, she rearranged the furniture to account for the hole left by the just-bought piece. Time had moved at an odd pace that week. Slow at times and fast at others. She still couldn’t manage to wrap her mind around the fact that Derek hadn’t come home in five whole days. Sure, he’d called and texted, but his tone had been stiff, businesslike. He’d clearly been rushing to get off the phone. Since the day he’d walked out, she’d existed in a kind of dreamlike state, every day flowing into the next. The longer she went without seeing him, the more she was convinced something was wrong between them. She just had no idea what it could be.
Tonight, she and Derek were supposed to attend a Halloween party at an ex-police dispatcher’s house. Patti, a grandmotherly-type, had been Derek’s right-hand lady during her days working at the station. She’d retired earlier this year, but still made it a point to issue them invites to her many themed get-togethers. They always had a theme. Hawaiian night. Brad Pitt night. Speakeasy night. Patti was a beloved member of the department, so officers and their wives, new recruits all the way up to senior law enforcement, showed up. Even Ginger, who’d seen her fair share of parties, had to admit they were a good time.
Thankfully her costume for tonight didn’t have to revolve around a specific theme. She’d picked up a gypsy costume from the seasonal costume shop down the block during her lunch break. Since she’d waited until the very last minute, her choices had boiled down to gypsy and nun. Which, in Ginger’s thinking, hadn’t really been a choice at all. Besides, sheer crop tops and low-riding skirts would be off-limits once her belly started to grow.
Might as well get her kicks before the baby started to kick.
Derek would normally hate the costume on sight, but she didn’t know what to expect when she saw him tonight. Perhaps he’d be back to his normal self, his odd behavior a mere blip on the radar caused by too many hours at work. God, she hoped it was the case.
Her cell phone buzzed on her desk, signaling an incoming text message. Before Ginger even glanced at the screen, she knew. Deep down, she knew what it would say.
Can’t make it tonight. Have fun. Be safe. Derek.
Slowly, she replaced the phone on the counter. Could she actually be losing him? Had she been so caught up in her newfound happiness that she’d missed some invisible warning sign? Was fate playing a cruel joke on her? Derek couldn’t be pulling away now. Not when she was carrying his child. For the first time in a long time, she felt…alone. So alone. Abandoned.
That old fear, the long-buried insecurity about becoming her mother, snuck up on her. It threatened to drag her down into its churning depths, but she determinedly scared it back into its cage. Nothing, not even the soul-shattering possibility of losing Derek, could turn her into that. Into a mother who left her children to fend for themselves for weeks on end while she played house with her latest boyfriend. Drinking, getting high. Until she’d fulfilled he
r worth and he kicked her out. No. Ginger had already accepted responsibility for the baby in her belly and she would be the best goddamn mother her limited knowledge allowed.
A group of laughing kids running past the shop brought her back to the present. Moving on shaky legs, she locked the store’s entrance and turned the sign to closed. She went to the back office, threw herself down into the leather swivel chair, and stared at the risqué gypsy costume hanging on the back door. Briefly, she wondered if she could return it and get her money back. Then she thought, what the hell for? So Derek had decided to skip the party. Didn’t mean she had to, right?
Ginger welcomed the blast of her familiar spirit, could practically feel her tough exterior moving into place over her skin, locking together. Armoring her against the ability to feel anything. She’d worked long and hard to drop that armor, but right now, it felt smooth as a second skin. So Derek had written her off? He’d rather work than spend time with her or listen to what she had to say? Fine with her. She wasn’t dead. She’d go to the party, drink nonalcoholic beverages, and have a grand time without his big, bossy ass.
She shot to her feet and snagged the costume off the door.
Derek sat across the street, parked in his black SUV, waiting for Ginger to walk out of Sneaky Peet’s. He’d taken a longer route than necessary on his drive back from a meeting with the commissioner, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. She usually left at six, but tonight she’d worked late. It was now well past eight. More often than not, he would be waiting for her at the curb to take her home. Not today. If he spent five minutes in her presence and saw a hint of uncertainty or doubt on her face, he’d spill everything. They’d received information that the raid would go down tonight. He’d anticipated the news, already having predicted the meeting would go down on Halloween, when the police department was distracted elsewhere. Just one more night and he could put the case behind him. Firmly in his past where it wouldn’t continue to haunt him. One more night and he could hold her again, knowing he was giving her, giving them, everything.
Damn, he missed her. It had been five miserable days, and he felt hollow without her. Such a short period of time, yet for them, five days felt like a lifetime. He missed the way she perched on the bathroom sink while he shaved and talked about her plans for the day. He missed the way she put her hands on her hips when she cooked, muttering under her breath that she had to be missing something. He missed waking up with her sweet-smelling hair in his face. Her feet tucked between his legs.
He’d forgone all those privileges by sleeping, showering, eating at the station. Practically working around the clock with hour-long naps when he could take them. He couldn’t go home and look her in the eye. See the confusion, the hurt on her face.
She hadn’t responded to his earlier text. While Derek honestly hadn’t expected one, he hadn’t seen her moving around in the store for long minutes. Had she already left and he’d missed her? Not a chance in hell. Maybe I’ll just go check. He wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything until he saw her now. Derek placed his hand on the door handle, intending to exit the car, just as Ginger left the shop.
Derek’s mouth went dry at the sight of her. The rest of his body reacted just as swiftly, every inch of him tensing. Preparing. His cock felt ready to burst from behind his fly, the swiftness of it causing his vision to blur. And that was before she even turned around.
Her purple velvet skirt flared out from her hips, over her pert little ass. Then it ended. No. It was too short. Her thighs were too exposed. If she bent over…fuck. He couldn’t think about her bending over. He’d need immediate fulfillment and she was out of his reach right now. His growl of frustration echoed in the car’s interior.
Ginger finished locking the door of the shop and turned in his direction, seemingly unaware of the reaction she’d just caused. His attention became arrested on her face. Her full, red lips, darkly made-up eyes. She looked exotic. Ripe. Sensual. Even more gorgeous than usual. Hand gripping the steering wheel so hard the leather groaned under the pressure, Derek’s gaze dropped helplessly to her breasts. Pressing snugly against the white ruffle serving as a goddamn shirt, they looked fucking delectable. He wanted her straddling him at that moment in the car so he could suck her nipples until she peaked. He wouldn’t allow her to remove the top either. He would suck her right through that sorry excuse for clothing.
A yellow cab pulled to a stop at the curb and Derek shook his head, even knowing she couldn’t see him. She wasn’t going anywhere dressed like that. Not without him. After casting an absent glance to determine there was no oncoming traffic, he flung the car door open.
She jerked to a stop in the act of climbing into the cab, eyes wide in surprise as they landed on him forty yards away. Based on her visible reaction, Derek had an idea of the look on his face. Fucking pissed. Possibly a little deranged. A whole lot of aroused. He couldn’t care less. His objective was to stop her from getting into the cab. Going somewhere and being around other men who would look at his woman.
“Come over here,” he called, his voice deep and purposeful.
For a minute, she simply stared. Then her chin went up. “No.”
The challenge burned in his gut and frankly, turned him on even more. “No?”
She tossed her purse into the backseat and sent him a wink. “Have a good night, darlin’. Don’t work too hard.”
“I swear to God, Ginger—”
“Oh, you do? Well, as long as you’re chatting with God, can you ask him what happened to my boyfriend?” When words failed him, she shrugged, hazel eyes shining. “Because I’m damn tired of wondering.”
Her words pelted him like stones, but Derek wasn’t giving up the fight. He waited for a car to pass, then stalked toward her, intending to bodily place her in his passenger seat, drive her home, and fuck her silly in their bed. It couldn’t be helped any longer. His need was a drumming, aching pain. Ginger was the only one who could cure him.
He could cure her, too. He could fix this. It wasn’t just about sex anymore for him, although he wouldn’t deny the insane need thickening with each passing moment.
Something in her expression, her rigid demeanor, alarmed him. What he’d done, the manner in which he’d left that day, had somehow set them back. So much further than he’d originally thought. She didn’t just appear confused. There was fear and finality there. It pummeled him. What the fuck?
She moved too fast, ducking into the cab, slamming the door, and signaling the driver to go. With a growled curse, he sprinted back to his SUV and followed.
Letting the cool October breeze wash over her through the open taxi window, Ginger watched the familiar residential neighborhood pass by in a blur. Costumed children raced up and down the sidewalks, their exasperated parents attempting to keep up, reminding them to say please and thank you. Bare trees and dead leaves decorating the ground called to mind her first month in Chicago late last fall. She remembered the fear of striking out on her own. Wondering if she was doing the right thing. Somehow, she’d circled back to the beginning, but couldn’t remember taking a wrong turn.
A memory rose unbidden to her mind, blindsiding Ginger in her current state. Derek surprising her on a Friday afternoon last spring, showing up at Sneaky Peet’s to take her to lunch. They’d driven to the Lincoln Park Lagoon, sat in the grass, and watched students paddle by in kayaks. Talked about their mornings. She’d laid her head in his lap and drifted off to sleep in her newfound happiness while Derek stroked her hair. Not knowing how long she’d been asleep, she’d woken with a start to find Derek watching her. His expression had stolen her breath. Derek didn’t express himself the way most men did. He didn’t use flowery language or buy the typical gifts men bought women. That day by the lagoon, however, she’d caught him off guard. His expression had been such a stunning mix of tenderness and awe, she’d been unable to do anything bu
t stare back.
He’d brushed his thumb over her bottom lip, throat working with emotion. “Sometimes I look at you…and I can’t breathe around these feelings.” She’d started to speak, but he put his hand over her mouth. A move that, coming from Derek, wasn’t meant to be offensive. It only meant he wasn’t finished. “If you ever want anything in this world, promise me right now you’ll tell me what it is. I want the honor of killing myself to make it happen. Promise.”
She’d nodded vigorously and the second he removed his hand, she’d thrown herself into his arms. Neither one of them had returned to work that day. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to separate.
Valiantly, Ginger tried to stop thinking about Derek, about the sweet memory and the ugly scene outside her shop moments ago. Instead, she focused on regaining the attitude she’d had in her office. She wouldn’t allow herself to feel anything. Her other option was to curl up in a ball of self-doubt and anxiety over what the future held. She refused to be that person. So, for tonight, she’d be the girl who hid everything behind her smile. Again.
The cab pulled to a stop in front of Patti’s home, a three-story clapboard house painted bright robin’s-egg blue. Judging from the crowd spilling out onto the front lawn, the party was in full swing. Immediately, Ginger spotted a few of Derek’s detectives on the porch. Noticing they weren’t wearing costumes, but their uniforms instead, she frowned. They looked tense. None of them were holding drinks.
The cab driver cleared his throat, demanding her attention. She handed him her fare through the partition and exited onto the sidewalk.
Several people called out greetings to her as she walked up the path to Patti’s house. People she genuinely liked whom she’d met at similar parties, or Derek’s work functions over the past year. She gave them her biggest, bravest smile, waving at them as she passed. Behind her, she heard a vehicle screech to a stop at the curb. Without turning around, she knew it was Derek. An unconscious part of her had known he would follow. Whether or not he’d decided to move on from their relationship, he still desired her physically. Would still consider her his until he’d stated otherwise. A man like Derek didn’t relinquish control so easily. Half of her hated him for it. The other half was thankful he’d come. It confirmed he still felt something for her.