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The woman was too damned gorgeous for his good. When he was with her, he couldn't focus on anything else. Including the reasons why he, Columbus Police Detective Ryan Mercedesone of the city's youngest and newest special victim detectiveswas not going to get romantically involved with anyone anytime in the near future.
Most particularly, he was mesmerized by her laughter had been since he'd first met her six months before at the adoption of an incest victim he'd rescued. The young girl had been Audrey's client.
"What?" Audrey Lincoln asked, glancing over at him in the small living room of his one-bedroom loft condominium.
On the TV BruceJim Carreyhad just been endowed with God's powers and had single-handedly taken on the gang of thugs who'd earlier beaten him up. The scene involved a birth-worthy monkey and cracked Ryan up every time he saw it.
"Nothing," he said, maintaining eye contact with the woman sitting next to him. They'd started hanging out a few months ago. Catching an occasional movie or meeting for a cup of coffee.
"I thought you liked this movie."
Bruce Almighty. He'd seen it so many times the lines randomly popped into his head. "I do."
"You said it was your favorite."
"Then why aren't you watching it?"
Her brown eyes narrowed in a way that made him hungry. She stared at him a second longer, then turned back to the large screen television across from them.
They weren't dating. Weren't on a date. They were just friends. Watching a movie on a Saturday night.
So what if, the week before, they'd moved their watching from a generic theater to his home?
This was where the old movies were.
They'd watched her favorite movie, The Mirror Has Two Faces, the previous week. She'd said she related to the main character, Barbra Streisand's version of a university sociology professor. The woman had struggled with being ugly. Undesirable.
Audrey Lincoln had no such worries.
"What?" She was looking at him again.
Sorry, Jim, Ryan silently apologized to the actor who'd given him more hours of hilarious entertainment mixed with just a bit of life lesson than he could count. "You thirsty?" he asked his guest.
He stood. Delilah, the cat, opened one eye from her perch on the back of the recliner. "Wine, beer or diet soda?"
"A glass of wine would be great."
He thought so, too. It meant she'd have to stay around a while. Or he'd be forced to arrest her for DUI, and they certainly couldn't have that.
Audrey couldn't remember ever laughing so hard. And she'd seen most of Jim Carrey's movies more than once. Was familiar with his brand of humor. Enjoyed it. Just never this much.
Or perhapsshe glanced over at the handsome detective sitting on the other end of the couch finishing off his glass of wineit was the company?
Credits rolled. She didn't want the evening to end. Tomorrow it was back to workno matter that the calendar read Sunday. Audrey hadn't had a day off in longer than she could remember.
She didn't really want one.
Days off led to introspection, which led to
Nothing that she needed to be concerned about tonight.
"Okay, so tell me why that's your favorite movie," she said, smiling at her companion.
He shrugged, leaving the remote on the table beside him, the DVD flashing its welcome screen. "It's funny."
"How do you know there's more?" His glance was intense againjust as it had been during the movie. Her stomach tightened, whether from reaction or dread, she wasn't sure.
For a thirty-five-year-old woman who spent her days trying to protect the hearts of damaged children, she was embarrassingly inexperienced when it came to matters of her own heart.
"I may have known you only a few months, Mercedes, but for a cop who's been around long enough to make detective, you're surprisingly empathetic. That's an amazing feat. One that only a man with some depth could manage. So, show me the depth. Why's that your favorite movie?"
The wine was talking. Ordinarily, Audrey would never be so bold. Especially not with a man she actually liked. More than as just an acquaintance. A peer.
Were they actually becoming friends?
She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a personal friend.
"I don't know." Ryan didn't look away as many men would have when faced with a touchy-feely question. "Maybe because I'm a control freak and the idea of having God's power is so compelling I have to keep coming back for more?"
She studied him. Thought about what he said. Shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Because you aren't power-hungry."
"How do you know?"
"You let me handle the Markovich kid."
"You're his guardian ad litem. He knows you. Trusts you."
"And you were the arresting officer. Jurisdiction was yours. Most cops I know would not have stepped back."
"I still arrested him."
"You took him to the station to keep him safe."
"I charged him."
"He beat up his stepfather. He had to know there were consequences for that."
Scott Markovich was safe now. For now. He was one of her "jobs" for tomorrow. She was making a visit to the fifteen-year-old in detention.
"How do you do it?" Ryan's gaze was piercing. Personal.
A combination that was dangerous to her budding sense of awareness around him. The tight jeans he was wearing and close-fitting polo shirt, stretching across the breadth of his shoulders, didn't help.
Or maybe it was just that she'd always been a sucker for light hair and green eyes.
"How do I do what?" She wanted a little more wine, but didn't want to be too forward.
And she needed to go. Get home to her house. To her nice big pillow-top mattress and down pillows and lose herself in rejuvenating oblivion for a few hours so that she could get up tomorrow and start all over again.
"How do you see all the stuff you dokids like Markovich who've been sexually abused by people in positions of authority over themand be able to get close to them? To suffer with them? How do you even get up in the morning, knowing that's what you're going to face?"
How could she not? was the better question.
"How do you?"
"I don't get close. I see them for a few minutes and my job is done. And I'm not always dealing with the little ones. I work with adult victims, too." The room's dim light cast shadows over his frown.
"Still, why do you do what you do? Face danger every daydealing with the toughest to handle crimes."
He seemed to give her question serious consideration. "I don't have a good answer for you. I've wanted to be a cop since I was a kid, never asked myself why. I just know that if I can make a difference, I have to try."
There was more to his story. Audrey didn't succeed at her job without being able to read between the lines, to read people, to hear what they weren't saying as much or more than what they were. And she didn't succeed without knowing when not to push.
Ryan Mercedes was a private man. An intriguing man. A man who had the looks of Adonis and the heart of Cupid.
A man who was occupying her thoughts so often he was making her uncomfortable.
"How about you?" he asked. "Why do you do the work you do?"
For maybe the first time ever, she considered telling someone the whole truth. Considered.
"In 2003, in Ohio alone, there were 47,444 substantiated cases of child abuse and or neglect. More than seven thousand of them required the services of a guardian ad litem." Hide behind the facts. It had always been her way. People couldn't argue with facts. And win.
"I understand the need for child advocates," Ryan said. "Remember, I see the results of child abuse and know full well that there are far too many children in this city who need someone on their side, someone looking out only for them and their best interests. But that's not what I asked. I asked, why you?"
His perception surprised her. Or maybe not. Maybe her heart already knew that this man was good for her. That he was personal. In a life that was anything but.
She opened her mouth to tell him about the volunteer guardian ad litem program. The hours of training it took for one qualified ad litem to emerge. The need for legal advocates sitting alongside children in court to help clear up the confusion that stole childhoods.
And about the few of them, the paid lawyer ad litems who, in addition to looking out for the child's best interests and supporting the child, also offered legal advocacy.
She opened her mouth and said, "I had a rough childhood." And in spite of the heat in her cheeks, the discomfort attacking her from the inside out, she couldn't seem to stop. "Other than my parents' divorce, things looked fine on the surface. Middle-class, well-dressed mom with a college education and respectable job. No one could see the things that went on underneath the surface, behind the closed doors of our home. And trying to get anyone to listen, when things looked so picture perfect, proved impossible."
His frown deepened. "She hit you?" He sounded as though he'd like to hit her mother back, and Audrey almost smiled. Too many years had passed, the wounds had healed, and still it felt good to have someone come to her rescue.
She was falling for this man.
"No," she said. "She suffers from depression, though she refused counseling and has never been treated. Sometimes she's fine, but when the darkness descends, watch out. She'll turn on me without warning. Her way of loving is to control. If you do something to displease her, she'll take away her love. And anything else she's providing that she knows you want."
"When I turned sixteen, she gave me a car. I needed it to get to the university where I was attending class as part of a special high-school-student program. From that point on, she used that car to control me. From the classes I took, the people I chose as friends, the jobs I applied for, the clothes I wore, the church I attended, even the boys I dated. If I didn't do as she suggested, she'd take away my car. Or my college-tuition money. Or the roof over my head. She'd tell me what to think, how to act, who to love. She used to write these horrible letters, telling me how stupid I was, how I never came to the table, as she called it, or that I came late. Anytime anything went wrong, it was because I'd screwed up again."
"Where was your dad through all of this?"
"I'm not sure. They divorced before I was a year old. Mom told him he wasn't my real father, but there's never been anyone else in her life that I'm aware of."
"You didn't get tested, to find out if the man was your father?"
Audrey kept thinking that she'd stop the conversation. Right after the next sentence.
But something about Detective Ryan Mercedes compelled her to talk to him. She'd never met anyone like him. Such a mixture of idealism and rigid determination. He was a man you could count on to protect the tribe. But one with a heart, as well.
"He wasn't interested in proving anything," she said.
"Did you ever see him?"
"Nope. I don't even know what he looks like. I wrote to him once, when I was in high school, but the letter came back with a big ‘return to sender' on the front. My mother said it was his handwriting."
"And she never told you who your father really was?"
It did sound rather fantastic, now that she heard her story aloud. Audrey was so used to that part of her circumstances, it seemed normal to her. And in her line of work, representing children whose rights were in jeopardy, she regularly saw familial situations that were much more dysfunctional than hers had ever been.
"I've always assumed that the man listed on my birth certificate, the man she was married to, was my father. My mother has a way of changing the truth to suit her in the moment. She uses words to lash out and hurt when she's hurting, but I don't think she'd have been unfaithful to her marriage vows."
"He must have known that."
"Probably. But she uses people's vulnerabilities against them until she breaks them down to the point where they'll agree with her just to get some peace. I'm guessing she hit him where it counts one too many times."
Audrey sat forward. She'd said too much. Far too much.
"Nice guy, to leave his kid all alone with that woman."
"He paid child support, every single month, until I turned eighteen."
"Like money was going to make you happy? Protect you?"
Life was black and white to Ryan. There was right and wrong. Good and bad. You chose the right. Righted the wrongs. Served good and obliterated the bad.
A characteristic that had drawn her to him from the beginning. The world needed more of his kind of passion.
She just didn't want to need it. Not on a personal level.
"Maybe he thought, since I was a girl, her daughter, that there'd be some kind of motherly instinct that would come out in her, protect me from the emotional abuse he must have suffered."
"Or maybe he sucked as a father."
Ryan's words made her smile.
"You never did answer my question." Ryan wished he'd brought the wine bottle in with him. Wished he could pour another glass for both of them. Keep her on his couch with him.
At least for a time.
Long enough to get to know her well enough to get her out of his system. To dispel the strange and uncomfortable hold she had on him.
Ryan was used to being his own man. He'd been hearing the beat of his own drummer for most of his life. And walked to it alone.
He liked it that way.
He had things to do with his lifelives to save and evils to conquerand he couldn't do that if he gave his heart away.
Or at least that was the story he'd been telling himself. If there was another reason, some deep-seated something that prevented him from living the normal life of wife and kids and family, he didn't want to know about it.