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"Can there really be this many kinds of mac 'n cheese?" Lt. Sam Holland asked U.S. Senator Nick Cappuano.
Sam's normally unflappable husband looked somewhat flapped as he contemplated the wide array of choices. "How do we know which one to get?"
There were spirals and shapes and something called "Easy," but Sam was certain it would be easy for everyone but her. "Maybe we should wait until Scotty gets here and let him pick out his favorite kind."
"I want him to have what he likes in the house. How hard can it be?"
Sam scanned the shelves once again and decided it could be quite hard. "You don't suppose there's this many choices for chicken nuggets too, do you?"
The question seemed to suck the life out of Nick. Sam pushed the grocery cart aside and reached for him.
Surprised by her rare public display of affection, Nick returned the embrace. "How am I going to convince him to come live with us permanently if I can't even handle mac 'n cheese for a three-week visit?"
"He's not going to care about the food, Nick. He cares about being with you."
Sam took in the busy grocery store, overwhelmed by the task. Hunting down murderers was simple compared to this. "What're we even doing here?"
Chuckling, Nick kissed her cheek and stepped back from her. "We're doing what regular people do when they have a guest coming to stay with them."
"So we're regular people now, huh?"
"For a few more minutes anyway." Nick took the box that proclaimed to be easy off the shelf and put it in the carriage. "Let's hope for the best."
"If he doesn't like it, I'll tell him it was your call."
"That's good of you, babe," he said as he steered the cart toward the chicken nugget aisle. "So I've been thinking."
Sam was busy enjoying the view of his denim-clad ass as she followed him through the store. He had rich brown hair that curled at the ends, hazel eyes and a mouth that was made for sin. And he regularly made sinfully good use of it. "About?"
"We need some help."
"Let me rephrasewe need someone to run our lives, especially with Scotty coming to stay with us. What if we get caught at work or something comes up that we can't get out of?"
Sam thought about that. "He could go to my dad's."
"True, but your dad and Celia have lives too. If Scotty lives with us, he's our responsibility."
"What do you think we need?"
"Someone to keep tabs on him when we're not home. To drive him to practice if we can't do it. To make sure the house isn't a wreck, the dry cleaning gets picked up, the bills get paid, there's dinner at night and some sort of schedule."
Sam rolled her shoulders, already chafing at the thought of paying someone to boss her around. "I don't know about this
"Someone to buy the mac 'n cheese and chicken nuggets," he added with the charming smile that made her knees go weak. "You'd never have to step foot in a grocery store again."
"That's playing dirty, Senator."
"We need someone like Shelby." The tiny dynamo had put together their fairytale wedding in six short weeks. "Someone who can hold her own with you," he added, ducking as she took a playful swing at him. "Why does it have to be a her? I'm picturing a studly dude named Sven with muscles on top of his muscles."
Over his shoulder, Nick rolled his eyes at her. "It doesn't have to be a her. It has to be someone who can put up with you."
Even though he was absolutely right about that, she'd never tell him so. "You're skating on thin ice, my friend." She followed him up one freezer aisle and down another until he stopped the cart in front of a mind-boggling selection of chicken nuggets. "I wonder if Shelby would be up for a career change."
Laughing, Nick put his arm around Sam. "We could certainly ask her."
"She won't want to do it. She has a booming business."
"You never know. It's certainly worth asking. Maybe she knows someone who'd be interested."
"We're really doing this?"
"Let's ask around and see what transpires."
"You're sure this she of yours will know what chicken to buy?"
Nick opened the freezer door and withdrew a bag of breast tenders, studied them and put them back. "She can't screw it up any worse than we are."
"That's for sure." Sam's cell phone rang. "Saved by the bell."
He frowned at her. Their rare day off together had taken a tremendous amount of schedule juggling to pull off, and she hoped this call wouldn't ruin their plans. They'd even declined the standing invite to Sunday dinner at the Leesburg, Virginia, home of his adopted parents, retired Senator Graham O'Connor and his wife, Laine.
Sam flipped open the phone. "Holland."
While Sam took the call, Nick studied the chicken tender options. He'd been nervous about Scotty's pending arrival for days now. The three-week visit was actually a trial run for all of them. The boy Nick had met at a campaign stop at a Virginia home for children in Richmond had become their close friend. When Nick asked him to come live with them permanently, Scotty's hesitation had surprised him. With hindsight, Nick could understand the twelve-year-old boy's reluctance to leave the place that had become home to him.
He'd been elated when Scotty mentioned a baseball camp in the District and suggested he might stay with them while he attended. Nick wanted everything to be perfect for all of them, thus the knot of fear he'd been carrying around. Nothing about their life was ever perfect. Most of the time it was a bloody circusliterallywith Sam hunting down murderers while he campaigned for reelection.
They were lucky to get ten uninterrupted minutes together on a regular day. What business did they have bringing a child into that madness? But what choice did they have? He'd become essential to them, and now Nick could only hope they'd become essential to him too.
"What's the matter?" Sam asked.
Nick dragged his eyes from the chicken nuggets and turned to her. "Was that work?"
She shook her head. "Tracy had another huge fight with Brooke." Sam's sister had been locked in World War III with her teenage daughter for months now. "It keeps getting worse."
"Trace is a mess." She reached up to caress his face. "What has you looking so troubled?"
"I was thinking about Scotty."
"What about him?"
"What if this visit is a disaster? What if we blow our only chance with him?"
Sam stepped closer, placed her hands on his shoulders and looked up at him with potent blue eyes. "It won't be a disaster. It'll be reality. He needs to see what our life is really likethe good, the bad, the ugly. There's no sense sugar-coating it. If he comes to live with us, he needs to know what he'd be getting. He needs to know who he'd be getting."
Amused and touched by her efforts to bolster his spirits, he said, "And who would he be getting?"
"Two people who'd love him and care for him and support himalways."
"You're right. Of course you're right."
"I usually am," she said with a cocky grin that made him laugh.
"I refuse to dignify that with a response for fear of hearing about it for the rest of my life." Reaching into the freezer, he grabbed a bag of breast tenders and tossed it into the carriage. "Let's hope we got something he'll eat. If all else fails, there's always his favoritespaghetti."
"Even we can't screw that up."
"Don't jinx us."
She took his hand and linked their fingers. "It'll be great. I promise."
Since his gorgeous wife was, in fact, often right, Nick chose to believe her. For the first time in days, the knot in his stomach loosened a bit. Maybe, just maybe, it would all be fine.
After they stashed the groceries at home, Nick went looking for Sam and found her in the study in front of the computer. "Um, excuse me. Day off. Remember?"
"I need to check in, and then I'm all yours."
He wrapped his arms around her from behind and stopped short when he saw that she'd rearranged his deskagain. "Really, Samantha? Every time?"
The kisses he placed in the most ticklish areas on her neck made her laugh even harder.
He reached around her and pushed the power button on the monitor. "You're done." With more kisses to sweeten her up, he said, "What do you think about a trip to Georgetown? I bet our workaholic buddy Shelby is at her shop today. We can stop in and say hello. If she isn't there, we can grab some lunch and do some window shopping."
She curled an arm around his neck and brought him down for a real kiss. "Am I only allowed to window shop?"
"Whatever you want, my love."
"Ohhh, I like the sound of that."
"Then let's go."
They grabbed a cab to the swanky neighborhood where Shelby kept a storefront bridal boutique. "Damn it," Sam said when she saw the closed sign outside the main door. "It was too much to hope that she'd be open today."
"Look." Nick pointed to a pink Mini Cooper parked across the street. "Who else could that belong to?"
"Call her. Maybe she'll see us."
Sam pulled out her phone and placed the call.
"Did you already blow it with the sexy senator?" Shelby asked when she answered.
"Ha-ha, no, I didn't already blow it with him," Sam said with a smile for Nick. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, though. We're outside your store. Got time for a quick visit?"
"For you? Always!"
Sam slapped the phone closed. "She's coming."
A minute later, Shelby appeared at the door to let them in. The tiny blonde, dressed in a pink silk jogging suit, greeted them with hugs and squeals of delight, though her face was puffy and red. "You guys look fabulous! Married life is clearly agreeing with you. Are you here about the replacement dress? Vera promised it by the end of the month. I still can't believe someone actually slashed a Vera Wang original!"
"What's wrong, Shelby?" Sam asked. "Have you been crying?"
"Oh no, no. Allergies." She led them back to her office. "They're a bitch this time of year."
Behind Shelby's back, Sam grimaced at Nick, letting him know she didn't believe Shelby's explanation.
When they were seated in pink leather easy chairs and holding glasses of pink lemonade, Shelby clapped her hands and let out another giddy squeal. "It's so good to see you! I'm thrilled you came by. The dress should be in any time. Unfortunately, we caught Vera in the height of the spring wedding season."
"Actually, we're not here about the dress, even though we appreciate your help in replacing it," Nick said, glancing at Sam. "We have a bit of an ulterior motive."
"What's that?" Shelby asked.
"We're hoping you might know someone who'd be interested in a job."
"What kind of job?"
"Basically, we need someone to run our lives." He explained about Scotty coming to stay with them, how they were hoping to adopt him and how they needed someone to see to the day-to-day details. "Do you know anyone who might fit the bill?"
By the time he finished speaking, Shelby had tears running down her face.
Alarmed, Sam looked at him and then at her. "Shelby, what is it?"
"I'm so sorry." Shelby tried frantically to deal with the tears. "I'm a mess lately. It's the hormones. They're making me into a wreck. And the business. I'm trying to figure out what to do, and then here you come and you're looking for"
"We're looking for you," Sam said, "or someone exactly like you who is ruthlessly organized."
"And can handle her," Nick said, pointing a thumb at Sam.
As Sam scowled at her husband, Shelby laughed through her tears. "I should explain. I've been trying to have a baby. I know it might seem crazy, but I'm forty-two, and I'm tired of waiting for Mr. Right to show up. I really want a baby, you know?"
Nick reached for Sam's hand and squeezed. "Yes, we know." Thinking of the baby they'd lost in February was like reopening a still-raw wound.
"I see happy couples through the most wonderful day of their lives, wishing all the time that one of those happy days might be mine. Before you dropped by, I was sitting here by myself, mired in paperwork, weeping all over the place as I wondered how much longer I can do this. I was going to have to either give up on the baby dream or give up the business, because I can't continue to work with happy people while I'm crying my eyes out all the time."
Sam sat up a little straighter. "Does that mean you might"
"It would be an honor and a privilege to work with you bothand to help take care of your Scotty, who is absolutely adorable."
"Really?" Nick said. "What about your business?"
Shelby shrugged as if it were no big deal to step away from a successful business. "I have people who could run it for me. I'd keep half an eye on it from a distance."
"Are you sure about this?" Sam asked.
"Your visit here today was the sign I've been waiting for. I need a change, and working with you again would be wonderful. As long as you won't be put out by some occasional tears."
"Not at all," Nick said.
Sam nodded in agreement. "How soon could you start?"
"How about a week from Monday?"
"Wow, that'd be great," Nick said. "That's the day after Scotty gets here."
"I'll have to deal with the weekend weddings I've already committed to for a few months. I hope that's okay."
"Of course," Sam said, still not fully sold on this plan of Nick's, which had fallen into place rather easily. She also wasn't sure how she felt about being around another fertility-challenged woman when she'd had her own difficulties in that area. "One thing I should mention is the uniform."
Nick looked at Sam. "What uniform? We never talked about that."
Forcing a blank look, Sam said, "Absolutely no pink allowed. I'm afraid this is a deal breaker for me."
Nick and Shelby laughed, as Sam expected them to. "I can't believe this has happened," Shelby said with another squeal. "It's like an answer to a prayer."
"For us too," Nick said as Sam's phone rang. "Crap," she said with a regretful look for him. "It's Dispatch."
"There goes our day off," Nick said to Shelby. While Sam was occupied, he talked salary with Shelby.
In a state of shock, Sam listened to the rote recitation of details from Dispatch.
Nick glanced up at her. "What is it, babe?"
Her voice was little more than a whisper when she said, "Victoria Kavanaugh has been murdered."