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The thought flashed through Detective Bridget Cavelli's mind at the same time that she glanced up to verify that the movement she'd detected out of the corner of her eye was her partner and no one else. She'd been waiting for her sexier-than-should-be-legallyallowed partner, Detective Joshua Youngblood, to walk into the squad room for the last half hour. This was precisely the amount of time she'd been going over the notes she had taken a year ago this month.
Her partner wasn't late. He was on time. She was the one who was early, but that didn't help to assuage her impatience. She needed to share this with him.
She struggled to rein in her impatience. It could have been worse. He could have been coming off a fortyeight-hour marathon date and running late rather than coming in right on time.
"He's back," Bridget announced to her partner, raising her voice in order to catch his attention.
Detective Joshua Youngblood said nothing in response as he continued walking to his desk. His green eyes were hidden behind exceptionally dark sunglasses. His measured, rhythmic gait brought him to the desk that had been assigned to him for the last three years.
After setting down the extra large container of ink-black coffee, Josh set himself down as well. His chair groaned. It needed oiling.
Once he was seated opposite her did he even acknowledge that he'd heard what Bridget had said by asking in a monotone voice, "Who's back?"
Bridget, who'd been his partner for as long as he'd been at this desk, leaned back slightly in her chair as she studied his expressionless face. The fact that Josh was still partially hidden behind the sunglasses told her all she needed to know. It was Monday and more likely than not, Josh hadn't amassed enough sleep over the weekend to keep a squirrel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed or even moderately functioning.
Temporarily forgetting the very cold chill that had gone zigzagging down her spine when the new acting lieutenant had told her the news earlier, Bridget asked her zombie-channeling partner a personal question, taking care not to show the slight spike of jealousy she suddenly experienced. "So, what's this one's name?"
For the time being, Josh left his sunglasses on. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
He was focused on removing the lid from the newly purchased, life-affirming black liquid. Josh absolutely
hated tasting plastic when he drank his coffee and no matter how careful he tried to be, if he left the lid on, he could taste plastic with each sip.
This morning his hands felt like clumsy bear paws. This was what he got for going to bed ninety minutes before he was due in to work, he silently upbraided himself.
With a suppressed sigh, Bridget rose from her desk and made her way around to his. With a flick of her wrist, she made quick work of the coffee lid, tossing it into his waste paper basket. A thin plume of steam rose up from the inky sea.
"So, this one evaporated your brain as well as your energy?" she asked glibly, deliberately sounding chipper as she commented, "Busy little bee."
"I was up with a sick friend," Josh informed her after he had taken an incredibly long sip of his coffee. He could feel it winding through his system. Ever so slowly, he began to feel human again.
"I've never known you to make a woman sick, Josh. A little nauseous maybe, but not sick." Leaning her hip against his desk, Bridget crossed her arms before her and shook her head as she pinned him with a penetrating look. "Don't you think you should start acting your age, Youngblood? Partying and staying out all night all weekend is great when you're in college or in your early twenties, but all that's supposed to be out of your system by the time you start approaching thirty."
Josh appeared not to be paying any attention to her. Then he surprised her by sighing. "If you're going to lecture me" he began.
She pretended to hang on his every word. "Yes?"
He took in a huge fortifying breath before warning her, "Don't."
A thousand little devils with tiny hammers pounded and danced around in his head. He was in no mood to listen to a lecture or any so-called words of wisdom his overly talkative partner might want to impart. From the first moment he'd seen her, he'd been of the opinion that she was exceptionally easy on the eyes, but definitely not always so easy on the ears.
"I'm just trying to look out for you, Partner," Bridget told him, deliberately smiling brightly at him. "Because whatever you do reflects on me." With that, she removed the black sunglasses from his face and gingerly placed them on his desk next to his computer. She did a quick assessment of his face. The last three days had left their mark. She couldn't remember ever seeing him this exhausted, and that included the time they had pulled a double surveillance shift.
Bridget told herself that it shouldn't bother her that he spent all his free time with women whose bust sizes were higher than their IQsbut it did.
Just sisterly concern, nothing more, she silently insisted.
"I suppose you don't look so badfor a hungover Peter Pan," she commented.
"I'm not hungover," Josh protested, although without much verve. "For your information, I had the flu this weekend and I'm trying to get over it."
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. That hadn't taken long. She'd caught him in a lie already. "I thought you said you were up with a sick friend."
Josh never hesitated or wavered. "Where do you think I got the flu?"
He sounded almost indignant, but she wasn't buying it, not for a second. She knew him too well. Joshua Youngblood, second-generation cop and handsomer than sin, was a consummate ladies' man from the word go. The verb was also his rule of thumb whenever things began to look even remotely serious. The second a woman stopped viewing him less as a good time and more as husband material, Josh was gone. To his credit, he made no secret of it, made no promises that took in a month from now, much less "forever."
"You know," Bridget said glibly, "you might think about becoming a writer. I hear a lot of cops with a gift for fantasy start spinning stories on paper in their free time. Who knows? You might find your name on the binding of a book someday."
A third big gulp came precariously close to draining his container despite its large size. Josh set the cup down and did his best to focus his attention on Bridget. The woman was smart as well as a damn good detective. There was no one who he would rather have watching his back than her, but at times he could easily strangle her as well.
All he wanted was to have his coffee in peace and then slowly ease into his day. Hopefully accomplishing both with a minimum of noise and pain until he could focus not just his mind but his eyes.
Didn't look as if that would happen. What he needed to do since he couldn't strangle herat least not in a building full of copswas deflect Bridget's attention away from him.
"You said something about someone being back," he reminded her. The coffee, strong enough to be used as a substitute for asphalt in a pinch, was beginning to finally work its magic. All he needed was another half hour or so before last night, Ivy Potter and the now empty bottle of Southern Comfort were all securely behind him. "Yes, I did."
He sighed. Obviously she was going to make him work for this. "Okay, who's back?" he repeated.
"Who do you think?" Bridget crossed back to her desk and, for the moment, sat down. Or rather, she perched on the edge of her chair, too much tension dancing through her body for her to sit down properly.
"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking, would I?" Josh retorted with more than a trace of irritability in his voice.
As he spoke, he began to go through his drawers, opening one after another and rifling through them. He was searching for a bottle of desperately needed aspirin. If he didn't find it soon, he was damn near certain that the top of his head would come off.
Instead of answering him, Bridget asked, "What month is it?"
Frustrated, Josh raised his eyes to hers for a moment. "More tough questions?" he quipped. When she didn't say anything, he sighed, clearly exasperated as he continued with his up to this point fruitless search.
Damn it, there'd been a huge bottle of aspirin here just the other day. It couldn't have just disappeared. Where is it? he silently demanded.
"February," Josh bit off. "What does that have to do with" And then he stopped and raised his eyes to hers again. The answer came crashing back to him. He fervently hoped he was wrong. Very fervently. "February," he repeated.
"February," Bridget echoed grimly with a nod of her head.
On her feet again, she went back to his desk. Moving him out of the way, she opened the bottom drawer, which was deeper than the rest, and, reaching in, she pushed aside several folders. Extracting the white and green bottle she knew he was looking for, she placed it on Josh's blotter in front of him without a word. She didn't need to talk. Her meaning was clear. Even though he was a great detective, there were times when the man had trouble finding his face when he was looking into the mirror.
What went unsaid, and she would have gone to her grave denying it, was that the trait was somewhat endearing to her.
Grabbing the bottle the second she'd produced it for him, Josh twisted off the top, shook out two rectangular pills and popped them into his mouth. He downed them with the last few drops of coffee lingering on the bottom of the giant container. Now all he could do was wait for the aspirin to take effect.
With a deep breath, he leaned back in his chair and fixed his partner with an incredulous look. "I was really hoping he was dead."
Bridget nodded. "Weren't we all," she readily agreed.
"You sure it was him?" Josh asked grimly. Before her eyes, he seemed to transform from the exceptionally handsome playboy who thought a long-term relationship meant one that lasted from one weekend to the next, into the razor-sharp investigator with keen instincts she both enjoyed and looked forward to working with.
Bridget answered him by reciting the details she'd just read of the latest victim's description. "Pretty redhead in her early twenties. Her hands were neatly folded just above her abdomen and she had a big, gaping hole in her chest where her heart used to be. Yeah, I'm sure."
She sighed, shaking her head as she picked up the folder the lieutenant had given her and brought it over to Josh for his examination. After his last spree, the serial killer, whimsically dubbed the Lady Killer by a label-hungry media, had disappeared for almost a year and they had all nursed the hope that this time it was because he was dead and not because he seemed to have a quirk about the month when Cupid was celebrated.
"You know, I'm really beginning to hate Februar-ies," she told him.
Preoccupied with scanning the report submitted by the initial officer on the scene, Josh read that the policeman had found the body laid out in an alley behind a popular night club. Belatedly, Bridget's words registered in his head.
He glanced up and spared her an amused, knowing look. "I bet you were the little girl in elementary school who always got the most valentines dropped off at her desk on Valentine's Day." Bridget was the kind of woman the label "hot" had been coined for and there were times that he had to stop and remind himself that she was his partner and that he couldn't cross the lines that he ordinarily stepped over without a second thought. There would be consequences and he liked working with her too much to risk them.
"Then you would have lost that bet," Bridget told him matter-of-factly. "I was the girl in elementary school who never got any." She could vividly remember hating the approach of the holiday each year, her feelings of inadequacy ballooning to giant proportions every February fourteenth.
Josh looked up from the folder, surprised. "None?" he questioned suspiciously.
Bridget had to be pulling his leg for some strange reason of her own. Blond, with incredibly vivid blue eyes and a killer figure that not even a burlap sack could disguise, she had to have legions of guys drooling over her since she had first emerged out of her crib.
And, he thought again, he would have been among them if fate hadn't made them partners in the field.
"None," Bridget confirmed with a sharp nod of her head. It was still painful to recall those days and the way she'd felt. There were times now, when she looked into the mirror, that she felt as if that insecure little girl were still alive and well inside her. "I was a real ugly duckling as a kid," she told him. "I absolutely hated Valentine's Day back then. It always made me feel awkward, like everyone was looking at me and knew that I didn't get a single card from anyone. I thought it was a horrible holiday."
"Maybe that's it," Josh said, closing the sparse report and watching her.
Bridget looked at him, curious. She'd obviously missed something. "What's 'it'?"
"Maybe the killer is some psycho getting even," he suggested. As he spoke, it began to make more and more sense to him. "Our guy asked this redheaded goddess out on a date for Valentine's Day and she turned him down, maybe even laughed at him for daring to ask her." As he spoke, Josh's voice grew louder and more resonant. "His pride wounded, he doesn't step aside and lick his wounds like most guys, he gets even. Really gets even.
"Now, every February, he's relives thator maybe relives what he wanted to do but didn't at the timeand takes out his revenge on girls who look like the one who rejected him."
Bridget turned what Josh had just said over in her head, studying it. "So what are you telling me? That you think our killer is Charlie Brown?" she asked him, amused despite the gruesome details of the case.
It seemed almost absurdexcept for the fact that it did keep on happening. In the last two years, nine redheads, their hearts very neatly cut out, had been found in alleys throughout Aurora.
Josh surprised her by explaining why her tongue-in-cheek theory didn't hold. "No, Charlie Brown never got his nerve up to ask the little redheaded girl out, so she couldn't reject him. She's just his eternal dream."
His eternal dream. That was almost poetic, she thought.