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Hot afternoons and hot heads made for some blistering combinations on the roadways, as far as Joe Rossetti was concerned. So, with the steamiest July day so far in the forecast, his anxiety was already building, and he wasn't out on patrol yet.
"Hey, Trooper Rossetti."
Joe stopped just as he pushed open the heavy steel door at the Michigan State Police, Brighton Post, and a wall of humidity reached out to steal his breath.
He glanced back over his shoulder. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
"Someone's out there to see you." Lieutenant Matt Dawson paused on the path to his office and looked at Joe over the top of the glasses he probably only wore to make him look older. He indicated the radio room with a tilt of his head.
Joe groaned under his breath, but he nodded and let the door close again. "Be right there."
Patting along his black duty belt and brushing a hand over his holstered weapon to make sure everything was in place, he straightened his shoulders and headed to the radio room that separated the visitor area from the squad room.
A little excitement to start his day. Strange, how he used to secretly hope for diversions to break up a shift's monotony. Nowadays he preferred to pull eight uneventful hours patrolling the highways of Detroit's western suburbs. To him, excitement had come to mean having to tell another set of parents that their kid was never coming home.
"Are you Trooper Rossetti?"
The pretty redhead peering at him from across the counter didn't strike him as familiar, but that didn't surprise him. He came across a lot of people every day, more out in the community than he'd ever cuffed and put in his patrol car.
"That's me. May I help you?"
She settled something beneath the ledge and leaned against it, gripping her hands together on the countertop. "You won't remember me ."
Strange, but as soon as she'd said it, Joe had the unsettling sense that he did remember her. Through his work, he'd learned to trust his instincts, so he took a good look at her. Something did look familiar, but he couldn't pinpoint it. Was it her mass of red hair, with all of the colors of fire in it, her almost translucent skin, or the dusting of freckles across her nose? When she looked up at him again, though, he realized that it was none of those things that tickled at the fringes of his memory.
It was her eyes. The same pale blue eyes that had filled his nightmares for the last six months. The eyes that had begged him for the kind of help he couldn't give. At once a memory of the accident and the fire covered his thoughts like a shower of metal fragments and charred upholstery, as his failed attempt to complete a one-officer rescue burned through his memory. A bungled job of protecting and serving.
Joe blinked but couldn't look away from her. He felt trapped by the intensity of her stare, convicted by the accusation in it. Recognition had to be written all over his face, but she must have missed it, because she cleared her throat and tried again.
"I'm sorry. I'm really nervous. My name is Lindsay Collins, and I "
It was all he could do to avoid saying "I know who you are." He could even fill in the details. Age twenty-eight. A Wixom address. She was the woman he'd hovered over for hours as she'd lay in that hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. Staying with a victim too long to avoid becoming personally involved in the tragedy was a mistake but far from the only one he'd made that night. All of the mistakes demonstrated how he'd forfeited his professional distance and his edge as a police officerall on one stormy night.
Had he consciously chosen which of the victims would survive when he'd pulled the driver out of the car, even as she'd begged him to help her unconscious sister first? Had he really believed that he had time to assist both victims before the car burst into flames, or had his oversize ego made him think he could pull off some superhuman feat? Was he to blame for a woman's death?
The poem. He swallowed, remembering yet another mistake he'd made the night of the accident. It was just a poem about God that a friend had included inside his birthday card last February. Joe didn't even know why he'd started carrying it around inside his trooper's hat. If someone had told him that one day he would pass it along to someone in crisis, he would have laughed out loud. He wasn't even one of those God people.
And then that night he'd done it. Lindsay Collins had looked so alone, lying in that hospital bed. Even her parents were down the hall on their cell phones, notifying relatives and preparing for a funeral. Joe had felt so helpless, watching her, that before he'd thought better of it he'd pulled the piece of paper out of his hat and tucked it in her hands. As if some poem that told her she was a child of God could make up for all she'd lost that night. As if anything could.
When Lindsay cleared her throat, Joe straightened. What was he doing, losing his focus like that?
"Here, let me buzz you back," Clara Morrison, the secretary, said. "You can have a private conversation at one of the desks in the squad room."
Clara, the youngest sixty-year-old Joe knew, and the go-to gal for Brighton Post gossip, pretended to miss it when Joe shook his head. She turned back to the redhead.
"I'm sure Trooper Rossetti will help you in any way he can." Clara's lips twitched as she reached for a button at the side of her desk.
Joe took a deep breath. Couldn't the people around this post mind their own business just once? Nothing usually ruffled him, but he was more than unsettled lately. He wasn't used to failure either, and Lindsay Collins represented the biggest failure of his career so far.
Lindsay bent to retrieve the item she'd rested below the counter and shifted when she heard the buzz. She stepped through the door with the aid of a tortoiseshell cane.
"Right this way," he said, covering his surprise.
He started toward one of the open desks in the squad room, but had to slow himself to her pace. He didn't realize he was staring at her cane until she waved it off the floor.
"Oh, this? The doctors said I won't always need it, but I'm still healing. Broken pelvis and broken right femur. I crushed my whole hip socket joint. It's taken a while to recover."
"Sometimes it does take a while."
He already knew about the two months she'd spent at Meadows Rehabilitation Center, thanks to updates from his nurse friends. He could only imagine how tough her recovery had been, given the extent of her injuries. She'd had so much internal bleeding from the pelvis fracture, that the doctors said she was lucky to have survived.
Just as they reached the desk, the door to the locker room swung wide and Trooper Angela Vincent emerged in uniform, still adjusting the knot on her light blue tie. Trooper Garrett Taylor pushed through the opposite door, brushing his fingers across his silver badge, as if to make sure it was straight. Neither bothered hiding their curiosity about the woman who maneuvered herself into a chair and propped her cane next to it.
So much for life in a fishbowl. Joe almost wished he'd led her into the interview room instead, but then his coworkers would have been watching them through the one-way glass window.
As he sat in the seat opposite hers, Joe studied the woman he'd only seen one time before, on what had to be the worst day of her life. Her hair was tied back, not flowing past her shoulders the way it had been the night of the accident. Not matted with blood. He couldn't help but notice the small pink scars just beneath her jawline, and another that peeked out from the ruffled edge of her white, sleeveless blouse.
Even with those tiny imperfections, Lindsay Collins was one of the prettiest women he'd ever seen. And one of the saddest. Those blue eyes had an empty quality to them, like a tranquil swimming pool where no one swam anymore.
"Now, how may I help you?"
She pressed her full red lips together and then spoke. "I saw your name on the report for the auto accident I was involved in six months ago."
Joe cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I do a lot of accident reports."
He hated pretending he couldn't remember, but he doubted it would be helpful to tell her that, though many accident reports blurred together, he could still see hers in bold print.
"This one involved a fire and two fatalities, a man and a woman."
Joe could only nod. He might have told her that he'd investigated half a dozen fatalities in the past yearvictims related only by the stretch of highway where their lives met with tragic endsbut she set a copy of the police report on the desk in front of him. Staring down at it for several seconds, he finally picked it up.
The strange sound of her voice had him watching her more carefully. Maybe she couldn't picture that awful scene as clearly as he could.
"I was the first responder."
She turned her head to the side, blinking a few times. When she looked back at him, her lashes were damp.
"I can't remember anything about the accident," she admitted. She glanced down at the report, dragging her front teeth over her bottom lip. "The woman who died Delia Banks was my sister."
He already knew that, too, but he didn't tell her so, as the raw sound of her voice cut through the detachment he was trying so hard to maintain. But then he'd failed at keeping a personal distance in this case from the moment he'd arrived on the scene.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
He hated to offer her platitudes, but he refused to tell her he was sorry she couldn't remember the accident. He wouldn't wish pictures like that to be painted on anyone's memory, in a gruesome palette of blood and twisted metal. Her subconscious had taken pity on her, allowing her to forget things that would be too hard to bear.
"Were you the only officer on the scene?"
"No, just the first. Why do you ask?" He tried to look calm, resting his forearms on the edge of the desk, but his thoughts were spinning. Was she putting together information for a lawsuit? Sure, he'd failed to get both women out of the vehicle before it burst into flames, but had he given anyone grounds to sue?
"My sister.she was my best friend."
Lindsay brushed her index finger reflexively along the line of a jagged, pink scar on the back of her left hand. Probably from the glass. She didn't seem to be speaking to him, so Joe didn't try to answer. What would he say? He'd already told her he was sorry for her loss. He just hadn't said how much.
"We were having the best day," she continued. "We just didn't realize it would be our last one together."
"I really am sorry."
The words sounded empty to him. Impotent. As incapable of providing comfort as those that had been spoken on that day so long ago, when he'd worn his first grown-up suit, with a tie that strangled his tiny neck. Joe wiped a sweaty hand on his blue uniform trousers, leaving a mark.
He refused to allow his thoughts to travel that far back through history, especially when he was beginning to wonder just what Lindsay Collins wanted from her visit. Complaints were easier to handle. He would try tactful discussion first, and if that didn't work, he had his sergeant for backup. But what was he supposed to do now? He'd never been good with women when they cried. If Lindsay started, he might say anything to get her to stop.
"I wish there was something I could do," he began, not knowing what else to say.
"There is something." She looked up from the desk, an intensity that had been missing before now filling her eyes. "You could answer a few questions for me about that day. Fill in some of the blanks."
"Are you sure you want to know?"
Her gaze narrowed at him. "Of course I am."
Was it reflex or just plain cowardice that made him look at his watch then? So much for the Rossetti legacy of bravery on the force. Still, he had a job to do, and he already should have been out on patrol, discouraging drivers from turning Interstate 96 into the Autobahn.
"I'm late right now, but we could set up an appointment " He let his words trail away as he gestured toward the radio room.
"That's fine." With jerky movements, she stood and grabbed her cane for balance. "But if it wouldn't be too much trouble, could I ask just one question now?"
Technically, she was already asking one, and another would make it two. Joe didn't point that out, but he didn't sit again, either. Instead, he reached out a hand to her, signaling that their meeting was ending.
Lindsay traded the cane to her left hand and leaned on it for balance as they shook hands. Small. Fragile. She pulled her hand away quickly, as if she refused to let him see her vulnerability, and she trapped him in her steady gaze. At a willowy five-feet-nine, she barely had to tilt her head up to look him in the eye.
He cleared his throat. "Your question?"
Her bravado must have faltered, because she stared at her hands before looking up at him again.
"Why did you save me instead of her?"