RASPBERRY VODKA by MAYSON1230 - CHAPTER ONE Olivia stuck the end of the thick, red straw between her lips, sucking until the artificially sweetened iced tea flowed into her mouth. She rolled the liquid between her cheeks, savoring it before pushing it down her throat with a swallow. Sitting the plastic, fifty-two ounce cup on the floor, she dived headfirst into the linen closet. It had been on her ‘to do’ list since… She couldn’t remember how long. To clean out the linen closet that, for months that had accumulated into years, had become a catch all for old bills, clothes that were missing buttons or had somehow gotten torn, mementos that she would rather keep hidden than display, and odds and ends that didn’t serve any real relevance in her life, but that, for a multitude of useless reasons, she hadn’t been able to part with yet. She backed up against the open door, her shoulders hunched forward and elbows digging into the sides of her thighs as she propped the white-cover book on her lap. She dragged her hand down the length of it, her fingers lingering for an absent second on the puffed, pink letters that decorated the center of it. Baby Book. Lifting the cover, breathing out as she saw the familiar handwriting on the first page, she ran the tips of her fingers over the faded, blue ink. Olivia. She pulled the shallow breath she had exhaled back into her lungs, studying her mother’s distinct script. The way Serena had written the ‘O’ wide and fat, the way she had made the following letters so much smaller, as if they were almost insignificant in comparison. She studied the way her mother had written her name, the name she had chosen for the child she had never wanted, the child she hadn’t asked for, but the child she had, for reasons that almost forty years later were still more unclear than clear to Olivia, had kept and raised and tried like hell to love. She flipped through the remaining pages of the book, met only by blank line after blank line. Nothing else had been written, no milestones had been documented, no memories had been detailed. There was only her name etched in her mother’s sloppy, slanted writing. Her mother had marked the beginning; she had acknowledged it. But whether because of the haze of alcohol that dictated the remaining years of her life or the race she had continued to run to try and stay ahead of indistinct memories, Serena hadn’t taken the time, or possibly been sober enough to, or maybe hadn’t wanted to, chronicle any other moments in her daughter’s life. Maybe in Serena’s mind giving her child--his child—life at all, acknowledging her enough to give her a name, meant she had done more than enough. And sure as hell more than anyone expected her to do. Whether out of responsibility, or pressure from her own family, or in an attempt to right someone else’s wrong, Serena had given her child a home. But throughout the remaining years of her life, she had never been able to fully give her lonely daughter a family. I first smiled at ____________________. I took my first step at age ____________________. My first word was ____________________. Olivia traced the blank lines, the answers her mother had either ignored or forgotten or been too drunk to take notice of, with her fingertip. She smiled, acknowledging with the faint gesture the irony of the lack of information in the book. After all, she wasn’t anything but a blank. There weren’t any answers as to who she was or where she had come from. So it only stood to reason, it only seemed laughably right, that the earliest moments of her life would remain blank, also. She was startled out of her empty thoughts at the feel of the vibration in her back pocket. Digging her hand behind her, she pulled out the cell phone and read over the illuminated screen. Elliot. At eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning. Damn. “What’s up?” She steadied the phone between her face and shoulder, closing the baby book and tossing it back inside the linen closet. With a roll of her eyes, she turned away from the years’ worth of clutter, conceding defeat to completing her planned task of hauling half of the closet’s contents out to the dumpster by the end of the day even before Elliot’s voice drifted across the line. “Fin and Munch got called to a scene last night. They’re on their way back to the house, Cap wants us to meet ‘em.” “If it’s their case, why do we have to go in?” She pulled herself up off of the floor with the aid of the doorknob, and then closed the barrier on what little memories she had accumulated throughout her life. “Because Cragen said we have to,” Elliot returned, his tone mocking, hinting at laughter. “It’s Sunday.” “And you’re in the middle of…” His voice trailed off accusingly, making it clear that he knew how empty her hours at home were. He knew if she stayed locked inside her apartment for too long, she began to crawl up the walls. Out of boredom. From disinterest in relaxation. Because of a lack of anything to do or anyone to spend her free time with. And he also knew, and made it evident by the taunting in his husky voice, that she was relieved to have her forty-eight hours of free time interrupted by work. Olivia pushed off of the door, taking the few short steps into her bedroom. “See you in fifteen minutes,” she said, snapping the phone closed before Elliot answered. +++ “Raspberry Vodka,” Donald Cragen announced as the two detectives entered his office, completing the foursome he had called an early end to the weekend by assembling. Elliot arched an eyebrow, shoving the door closed after Olivia followed him into the room. “Thanks. But we’re on duty now, aren’t we?” “Funny, Elliot,” Cragen growled, standing behind his desk. He sank his hands into the front pockets of his blue trousers, waiting until Elliot and Olivia had staked out their spots in the room before continuing. “A waitress was raped and murdered at the Raspberry Vodka last night. A janitor found her stuffed in a closet a little after four o’clock this morning.” “Raspberry Vodka,” Olivia repeated, leaning one shoulder into the clutter-topped file cabinet. “Nightclub in upper Manhattan, right?” “Hell of a nightclub,” Fin snarled, reclining in one of the two straight-back chairs in front of the captain’s desk. He crossed one leg over the other, balancing his ankle above his bent knee. “They almost didn’t let us in even after we flashed our shields.” He frowned, grumbling under his breath, “Didn’t meet the crazy ass dress code.” “It’s an exclusive clientele,” Munch added, snaking the tips of his index fingers beneath the thick lenses of his glasses and rubbing a streak from one corner of his eyes to the other. “The rules for being allowed access are fairly simple, really. As long as you’re filthy rich and your life is regularly chronicled in the society pages of The Times, you get the VIP treatment.” “Everyone else stands outside like the sidewalk is a damn red carpet,” Fin said. “Salivating, no doubt,” Munch said. “And wishing like hell they were special enough to be let inside. But… Few are. Very few.” “But the vic,” Elliot said, leaning against the darkened, two-way mirror with his arms folded across his chest and face pointed downward, “was an employee, right?” “Jenna March,” Munch answered. “Ever so reluctantly, the manager admitted that she had worked for him about eleven months. And, of course, he swore on his mother’s grave that she was one of the best employees he’d ever had.” He made a roll of his eyes, groaning. “Anyone willing to bet that his mother is alive and well and living in Hoboken?” “So, what do we know about her?” Olivia asked, slouching and resting her upper back against the cool cabinet behind her. “Our vic?” Munch pulled a rectangular-shaped, small sized Steno pad out of the breast pocket of his jacket. He opened the cover, staring over the tops of his glasses as he flipped through scribbled-on pages until coming to a stop near the end of the pad. “Jenna March,” he began after clearing his throat. “We haven’t conducted a complete interview of the Raspberry’s employees, but based on the information we got out of her file, date of birth was January of seventy—” “Seventy?” Olivia asked quickly, straightening. She glanced at each of the faces in the room, her gaze finally settling on Elliot. “That would’ve made her, what? Thirty-seven? Kind of old to be a cocktail waitress, isn’t it? Most nightclubs I’ve been to have a younger staff. Helps with aesthetics, you know?” “The younger the waitresses, the more dirty old men you’ll pull in off of the street,” Munch said, glancing back over his shoulder at Olivia. “But we’ve now entered the world of posh, Detective. According to the Raspberry’s manager, a, uh…” He scanned his notes again before announcing, “Wyatt McGrath, most of the staff—including waitresses—are over the age of thirty. Typical age, in fact, is thirty-five. Of course our very P.C. Mr. McGrath didn’t admit to any type of discrimination, but he said the club’s owner prefers an older staff.” He ginned, slamming the notebook shut. “They’re more reliable employees. And according to McGrath, the owner is willing to pay for what he wants.” “March was divorced, raising two kids on her own,” Fin added. “Manager said she had a good record, never missed much work.” “Tough way to get off of the payroll,” Olivia sighed, sinking back against the cabinet again. “No witnesses that saw anything? I mean, it was a Saturday night. Most clubs are packed on the weekends.” Munch lifted a folded sheet of paper into the air, waving it first in Olivia’s direction and then in Elliot’s. “Guest list from last night. Anyone care to join my partner and me in reaching out and touching a couple hundred very elite someones?” “Phone calls,” Elliot grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb. “This is why Liv and I had to give up our Sunday, to help make phone calls?” He shook his head, his fingers still clamped against his nose as he glanced up at the captain. “C’mon, Cap. The weekend shift could’ve handled—” “You’re not here to make calls,” Cragen interrupted, dropping down in his chair. He leaned into his desk, propping his elbows on top. “The weekend shift will handle the preliminary interviews.” “Okay,” Olivia said, relief detectable in her voice. Even though she had remained quiet, she hadn’t been anymore excited to think she had lost the remainder of her weekend to make calls, to try and drag information out of clamp-lipped, hung over, social snobs who wouldn’t be anymore excited to talk to her than she would be to talk to them. “So, why are Elliot and I here? What do you need from us?” Fin grinned, dipping his face downward and shielding his mouth with his hand as Olivia whispered a questioning, and even more suspicious, “What?” from her corner of the room. “How do you feel about undercover work?” Munch asked, smirking. “Who?” Elliot and Olivia asked in unison, their gazes locking on each other before switching to the other three men in the room. “Ever done any waitressing, Liv?” Fin asked, still smiling. “Me?” Olivia walked toward the captain’s desk, shaking her head, silently disagreeing even though the captain’s stern expression made it clear any argument she presented would be made in vain. “A cocktail waitress? Captain, c’mon!” “This wasn’t an isolated attack, Olivia,” Cragen interrupted, his hand raised to silence the fight that he could tell Olivia was anxious to unleash. “Fin talked to another waitress. She didn’t want the manager to know she was talking, but she said March’s rape wasn’t the first. Seems it’s the fourth in less than two months.” “Fourth?” Elliot asked, following Olivia’s lead and taking a step closer to the captain’s desk. “Why are we just now hearing about ‘em?” “That, my friend, is the million dollar question,” Munch replied. “And one the Raspberry’s owner, Jordan Kingsley, could easily afford to answer several times over.” +++ “You don’t look too happy,” Elliot said, chuckling lowly as Olivia dropped down into her chair. His laughter intensified slightly as she rolled her eyes and moved her chair closer to her desk. “C’mon. It won’t be that bad.” “Being a cocktail waitress?” Olivia half-barked, making a fist around her ballpoint pen. “If you don’t think it’ll be that bad, Elliot, why don’t you shove your size eleven feet into a pair of Stiletto’s and head on down to the Raspberry?” “Your feet are size eleven?” he asked, his heavy brows scrunching. She sighed, tossing her ink pen down onto a stack of unfinished paperwork. “I haven’t done any kind of waitress work since…” As Elliot’s head popped up, his expression screaming out interest and the glint in his eyes making it clear he was prepared to chronicle information that could be used later for merciless teasing, she shook her head, mumbling, “Never mind.” “You’ve waitressed before?” “I said never mind.” He grinned crookedly, sliding his chair beneath his desk until the curved ends of the arms bumped into the smooth metal. “When were you a waitress?” She sifted through the files that littered her desktop, shrugging. “Had to make money to pay for college somehow.” “Where’d you work? A nightclub, a—” “Drop it, Elliot.” “Tell me and I will.” “Bullshit.” She reshuffled files, stacking the ones that were on the left side of her desk onto the right side. “It was just a job, okay? I needed a job, and at that time it was all I could find. And it sucked.” “What?” he prodded, dropping his chin into the palm of his hand. “Couldn’t handle it, actually being nice to the public? You probably got fired, didn’t you?” She snickered sarcastically in conjunction with Elliot, before muttering, “Wiseass,” and tossing another stack of files from one side of her desk to the other. “No, I didn’t get fired. Worked there for a couple of years. Even got Employee of the Month a few times.” She cocked an eyebrow as Elliot’s laughter faded. “See, I can be nice, Elliot. I just choose not to be nice to you.” “Nice to me, right,” he said, focusing on the papers in front of him. Still chuckling, finding, surprisingly, that he was enjoying his long, unplanned for afternoon in the precinct. It was the last place he had wanted to be when Cragen called at ten forty-five that morning, and he had bitched and grumbled throughout the entire twenty minutes of driving and six stoplights he’d had to wait through between his apartment and the one-six. He had trudged through the precinct with heavy steps, making it evident to anyone nearby that he was unhappy about giving up a rarely gotten weekend. And he had entered into the squad room with a scowl that announced his foul mood before he ever had to utter a word. But now taking in his partner’s unusually relaxed appearance as she sat across from him nearly swallowed whole in the extra large gray sweatshirt that hid the figure he could picture in his mind even without seeing clear details of it and wearing skin tight, faded blue jeans with frayed holes in both knees, he couldn’t think of anywhere else he would rather be. Sure as hell not in his nearly barren apartment trying to decide which of the two channels his television set actually picked up had the least static, or which single serving frozen dinner sounded the most appetizing. “You don’t think I can handle this job?” Olivia asked, disrupting his thoughts, still with an eyebrow tautly arched and her lips fixed crookedly and presenting a so far unspoken challenge. “Never said that,” he returned, shaking his head, his gaze still shifted downward. “You don’t think I can handle it,” she accused, laughing. “Christ, Elliot, I’m gonna be serving a bunch of pompous asses drinks.” She rolled her eyes, sighing. “It can’t be that tough to learn the difference between a Dirty Martini and Lemontini. Think I can handle it.” “Sure you can.” She glanced at him with upturned, narrowed eyes. “I can. And I can be nice while I’m doing it.” “So…” He shrugged a shoulder, nibbling on the tooth-marked end of his pen. “You’re really gonna wear Stiletto’s?” +++ Elliot slumped on the sofa, his clasped hands hanging between his legs and toes of his black, polished shoes tapping impatiently against the beige carpet. Lifting his left arm and staring at the white face of his watch, he sighed. Thirty-seven minutes. He had shown up at her door thirty-seven—no, thirty-eight—minutes earlier with her promise that she would be ready. And thirty-eight—thirty-nine—minutes later he was still waiting, listening to her curse behind her closed bedroom door, hearing her slam unidentifiable objects, cringing each time she berated their captain for the undercover assignment he had arranged for her. “Iím supposed to walk around all night in these?” Olivia seethed, barging out of her bedroom, letting the door slam into the wall as she stomped up to the sofa, wide-eyed and with a pair of black heels swaying back-and-forth on the tips of her fingers. Elliot’s gaze roamed over the seven inch, narrow heels before lowering to Olivia’s feet. He forced down a swallow, a breath, the damn hard on that he felt springing to life between his legs, as he studied the fishnet stockings that clung to her legs, the black skirt that reached her mid-thighs and adhered to her hips and upper thighs like a second layer of skin, the wide, silver buckle belt that cupped her waist, and the shirt… He swallowed again, draping his hands over his crotch as he studied the row of buttons that lined the center of the sheer, see-through blouse, the row of buttons that ended abruptly just below her breasts, allowing the two sides of the white shirt to fall open and curtain the black, lace-trimmed, push up bra. “Jesus,” he croaked. “This is… Someone thinks this is a uniform? I have boxers that cover more than that.” “Swear to God, one prick sticks a dollar bill anywhere on me and I’m outta there.” She dropped the Stiletto’s to the floor, her deadpan stare never leaving Elliot’s flushed face as she wedged her feet inside the high-heeled shoes. “That son of a bitch owner—“ She growled, stomping across the room and stopping in front of a black-trimmed, rectangular-shaped mirror that hung on the wall. “Kingsley. Had the balls to actually say this outfit is dignified. Dignified.” She spun around, an open tube of lipstick clutched in her right hand. “I look like a hooker.” “You look…” He gulped down only air, his mouth suddenly too dry to swallow, and his brain too consumed by the shape of her legs, the curve of her hips, the golden-tinted skin of her breasts that rose above the material of the silky bra, to form any coherent or encouraging words. Because, Jesus Christ, if one prick even waved a dollar bill in Olivia’s direction Elliot knew he would take the bastard out long before Olivia could tell the chauvinistic manager of Raspberry Vodka to go to hell. “Like a hooker,” Olivia huffed, turning back toward the mirror and swiping the lipstick across her upper lip and then her bottom one. “What the hell was Cragen thinking?” Elliot cleared his throat, sliding to the edge of the sofa. “I’m gonna be there, too. Undercover.” “Don’t even compare what we’re doing!” she yelped, glaring at his flush-faced reflection in the mirror. “You have a pocket full of the city’s money in your rented, double breasted suit!” She redirected her wide-eyed glare over her shoulder at him. “I don’t even have one full piece to this outfit! The bra is a size too small, and the skirt—” She glanced down, shaking her head. “I’m not gonna be able to sit down all night! And I’ve got— Underneath this thing, I have a garter belt! A garter belt! I’d like to see Wyatt McGrath or Jordan Kingsley make it even thirty seconds in this contraption, let alone work an eight hour shift wearing one!” “A garter belt?” he asked. He lowered his head, closing his eyes and breathing. In, out, in, out— Shit. There had to be something he could do to get rid of the image Olivia’s announcement had not only brought to life in his mind, but once again in his sensitive crotch. A fucking garter belt. A barely there, covering nothing, not even qualifying as clothing, garter belt. On Olivia. Beneath the skintight skirt, and attached to the tops of the black, fishnet stockings. Oh, Christ. He was a pervert. His years in SVU had turned him into a full-fledged, full-blown, clear-cut pervert. A degenerate who was getting turned on by the last person who should turn him on, but— Damn it. He had never seen her look like that before. He had never thought about her looking like that— Okay, that was a lie. A bold-faced lie that he needed to keep hanging at the edge of his mind to repeat the next time he cleared his schedule long enough to make it to Confession. He would tell Father Mike. He wouldn’t mince words or beat around the bush or try to make himself seem any less immoral than he obviously was. He had sinned, blatantly. And as long as his partner stayed in her so-called uniform, he would continue to sin. And God help him, he would enjoy it. “Elliot?” He looked up quickly, resembling a deer caught in headlights far more than a concerned and understanding partner who was supposed to be unaffected and uninterested. A partner who was supposed to have her back while she was undercover, but who had already undressed her in his mind—sans the garter belt—and was guilty of being as big of a prick as they both knew she would come in contact with once she stepped into Raspberry Vodka. “Jesus,” she scoffed. “What’s up with you tonight?” She rifled her fingers through the soft spirals in her hair, sighing. “I know this isn’t exactly your type of thing, hanging out in a club, but c’mon. Out of the two of us, you’ve gotta admit you got the easy assignment. Pretending to be some rich guy in town for a conference? You get to sit back, take it all in.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll have your back, Liv.” She nodded, licking at the corner of her bottom lip. “Yeah. You’ll have my back.” She walked toward him, the subtle scent of her perfume reaching him before she did. “Just like you always do. You think I have any doubts about that?” “No,” he mumbled, shaking his head. And he would have her back. He would have more than that if he thought there was a chance in hell she would let him. “El, it’s just a job,” she said, the anger sifting out of her voice and giving way to the relaxed tone he heard in her on only rare occasions. “I’m not worried. I mean, yeah, if I have to chase some creep I’m gonna have to kick off these shoes first, but—” “Don’t be a hero tonight, huh?” he warned. “You, uh, obviously…” He motioned toward her, his hand floating downward from her chest to her knees. “There’s not exactly anywhere for you to hide a gun. So, if you see something, if you’re worried about anything, signal me.” “Like I said, I’m not worried.” She flashed a quick smile before smacking her lips together and blotting her lipstick. “Except about my feet. Jesus, five minutes in these shoes and my feet are already killing me. How am I supposed to make it all night?” “For the record?” he said, climbing off of the sofa and straightening his black, double-breasted suit jacket. “Even though I know you hate the outfit, it, uh—you look…” She rolled her eyes. “Like a hooker. Yeah, I know.” She turned away from him, grabbing her purse as she headed toward the door. “I was gonna say incredible,” he whispered, pulling the car keys out of his pocket and following her out of the apartment. +++ Jordan Kingsley settled back in his leather chair, his fingers laced across his midsection and elbows propped on the rigid arms of the chair. ìNo one knows who you are, Detective Benson,î he announced, his brusque voice marked by a faint English accent. ìAnd Iíd like to keep it that way.î ìWorks for me,î Olivia responded dryly, her eyes narrowing as Kingsleyís gaze settled, for a brief second, on her half-exposed chest. ìBeing undercover works best that way, Mr. Kingsley. When no one else actually knows youíre undercover.î She raised her hands to apologize as Kingsleyís eyes shifted from her chest to her face; his expression having hardened by the time the transfer was completed. If she managed to get herself fired even before beginning the job, Elliot would never let her hear the end of it. And from what Munch had told her about Jordan Kingsley, he was an upper class infiltrator who had worked for every penny of the millions of dollars he had, and he didnít have time or patience for anyone whose paycheck amounted to anything less than six figures. And that sure as hell meant he didnít have either for her, both as a cop and scantily clad cocktail waitress. Kingsley cleared his throat, rubbing the palm of his thumb across his pointed chin. ìIíve lost four employees recently, Detective. Do you have any idea what that kind of turnover does to my overhead? Itís the only reason I agreed to let an undercover officer come into my club, because itís costly every time I have to replace and train someone newóì ìItís costly?î Olivia asked quickly, her tone relaying the pain that was coursing up her legs from her throbbing feet. ìYou know, Iím willing to bet that all of the women who were raped while working in your club would rather you not have to train anyone new, either. And Iím more than positive that Jenna March would rather be alive right now so sheíd have the opportunity watch her children grow up.î ìIím allowing you to be here, Detective Bensonóì ìYou can either do it this way or we can close down the club until this is all straightened out. Your choice, Mr. Kingsley.î She cocked her hips to the side, no longer concerned about her clothesóor lack ofóor aching feet, or the twinge of pain that had begun to radiate from the base of her spine in her lower back. What she cared about were the four women who were proving to be far more of an inconvenience for Jordan Kingsley than a concern. Four women who had been brutalized in his nightclub while wearing the barely sewn together threads he tried to pass off as an actual uniform, and making more money for him to add to his already fat bank account. ìI suppose you have me over a barrel,î he said, conceding to her foul moodóand the threat that accompanied itówith a bow of his head. ìAs I said, none of the employees know who you are. I havenít even informed my manager. I submitted your application to Mr. McGrath and told him I personally handled hiring you. I didnít give him any background on you, though. Nothing other than what you indicated on your paperwork.î Olivia nodded. ìRachel Martin,î she announced. ìItís the name I wrote on the application, the name Iíll be using while Iím here. If you donít want your employees to know who I am, I suggest you remember it. If you keep referring to me as Detective Benson, itís gonna make everyone a little suspicious, donít you think?î ìRachel Martin,î he repeated, his upper lip rolling as he snarled, not trying to hide his dislike for the bold woman in front of him. ìWe have two hours until we open. If you go out front, Mr. McGrath can get you oriented with our rules.î ìIím not one of your employees, keep that in mind,î Olivia said sharply, raising an eyebrow and situating her hands over her hips. ìTo tell you the truth, with these so-called uniformsóì She took in a breath, glancing down at the tight, crisply pressed skirt. ìYou hire older women, more mature women, so why not let them dress their ages?î ìI pay my employees very well. In fact, every day I have people coming through the door begging me to give them a job. And most donít seem to mind the uniform, not in comparison to what they get from working for me.î He leaned into the desk, dragging one hand through his thick, shortly cropped gray hair. ìAnd what they get is a bigger salary than any other waitresses in this city make, better benefits, full insurance coverage, and that doesnít even include the tips the type of clientele who come to my club are generous enough to pay.î He shrugged, looking her up and down. ìYou know, Detective, Iím willing to bet you could make far more money as my employee than you do as a civil servant.î Olivia chuckled, shrugging off what Kingsley had intended, she could tell, to be a hit below the belt. ìI could make more money than I do now working almost any other job. And in the majority of those other jobs, Iíd actually be allowed to wear clothes to do them.î ìStill.î He shrugged again, a wry smile curving his thin lips. ìA few days at Raspberry Vodka, a few days making more money than you probably ever imagined yourself making, and I have a feeling you might just be inclined to put your Meter Maid days behind you in order to work for me fulltime.î ìMeteróì Olivia chuckled. ìFirst of all, Iím still on the cityís payroll. And secondly, after just a few days working in this place Iíll probably have to go on disability because of these shoes.î She turned away from the long, polished, mahogany desk, making her way across the spacious office toward the door. Pulling the barrier open, she glanced back at the pinch-faced man, scowling. ìYou may pay your employees more than any other club in Manhattan does, but it still isnít enough. Because how can you put a price on someoneís dignity, Mr. Kingsley? And every time you require one of your well paid employees to prance around your high-priced nightclub in one of these so-called uniforms, thatís exactly what youíre doing. Tearing away a piece of her dignity.î ìYou donít have to be here, Detective Benson.î She shook her head, stepping into the tiled hallway. ìYeah, I do. Because your employees are my first concern, and I intend to find out what happened to them. Thatís my job, Mr. Kingsley. Itís the job you can damn well bet Iím gonna do.î +++ ìYouíll have a lot of guys hit on you,î the woman announced, her blue eyes dropping downward as a smile crossed her lips that had been painted a deep shade of red. ìIf you flirt back, the tips are better. The guys that come in here, theyíre willing to pay just for a smile, you know?î Olivia took a white, square-shaped napkin off of the stack that sat in the center of the granite-topped table, beginning to fold it edge-to-edge. ìTheyíre willing to pay for a smile?î she asked. ìThey ever offer to pay for anything else?î ìLikeÖî The woman shrugged, her tone filled with forced confusion, making it seem as if she didnít understand Oliviaís question. But the frantic shift of her eyes made it clear that she did. ìItís no secret in the city that this is the place to work,î Olivia continued, pulling another napkin off of the stack. ìA good paycheck, great tipsóì ìLook, uh, Rachel?î The blue eyes rose quickly, filled with knowledge. ìJust keep delivering the drinks to the old bastards, laugh at their dirty jokes, when you talk to them make yourself sound like youíre one notch below stupid, and shake your ass a lot.î She chuckled, shaking her head. ìNo matter what ridiculous rules McGrath gives you, or helpful hints he shares for making better tips, if you remember what I told you, youíll do just fine. Youíll make more money than you ever thought you could in this type of shitty job.î Olivia arched her brows, nodding. ìSounds like you know what youíre talking about.î ìI do know.î She reached across the table, her fingers curving around Oliviaís palm as their hands latched. ìHarley Jacobson. Lead waitress. Iíve been here for five years.î ìFive years?î Olivia blew out a quiet breath from between her pursed lips, conveying that she was impressed. ìIíve gotta tell you, I had trouble making it through my first five minutes in these shoes. Iím not sure I could make it five years.î Harley chuckled, shrugging a shoulder. ìThe uniforms are crap, I know. But you get used to them. And, seriously, Iíve seen worse. At least weíre not locked in cages hanging from the ceiling and dancing to too loud of music that doesnít have a beat.î ìNo. Instead we walk around on stilts and pretend weíre stupid,î Olivia deadpanned. ìSo, whatís the trade off?î ìCould be a thousand dollars a night, could be more.î She slid a stack of crisp, folded napkins toward the outer edge of the table. ìItís up to you.î ìUp to me, huh?î ìYouíve got a good look,î Harley complimented with a stern nod. ìAnd youíve got an ass. Keep it in clear view of all the sick sons of bitches, and youíll do just fine.î She leaned back in the straight-back, leather chair, crossing one thin, fishnet-covered leg over the other. ìMy husband walked out on me eight years ago. He decided his much younger secretary was more fun than his wife of ten years. I spent almost three years moving from job to job just trying to make ends meet. And let me tell you, with four kids, making ends meet can be impossible to do. I was working in a deli barely making minimum wage, the electricity in my apartment was about to be shut offÖî She sighed, shaking her head. ìThen one day Wyatt McGrath came in and ordered a pastrami on rye. And he also offered me a job. I havenít had a problem since making those ends meet. The work is mindless, the customers are jerks, and, yeah, the outfit is ridiculous, but the money makes it all bearable.î ìBeing able to make ends meet, sounds like a dream come true.î ìOh, it can come true. Trust me.î Harley leaned into the table, balancing herself on her elbows. ìSo. Rachel. Whatís your story?î Olivia chuckled softly, with a hint of nervousness. ìDo I have to have one?î ìLook, the women around here arenít working their way through college or waiting for that first big break on Broadway. Take a look around. Most are divorced, almost everyone has kids, and all of us need a good paying job but arenít qualified to get one where we can actually wear real clothes. So, yeah, I think you have to have a story. Everyone around here has one.î Oliviaís gaze moved around the spacious room, only fleetingly dissecting each of the faces that bore the same battle scars that hers did. Laugh lines that shot out from the corners of their eyes, bodies that werenít quite as toned as they once had been, highlighted or dyed hair that concealed the truth about their ages. She didnít see a face that looked to be younger than thirty, and didnít see a pair of eyes that held within them any less desperation than Harley Jacobsonís did. ìSo if the sons of bitches come in here to look, why not fill this place with younger women?î Olivia asked, her attention once again settled on Harley. ìThatís what older men like, right? I mean, you said yourself itís why your husband left you.î ìWeíre more reliable,î Harley answered, running the tip of her tongue across her bottom lip. ìThatís what McGrath always says, with age comes reliability. But you want to know what I think?î She glanced to her left and then right before meeting Oliviaís stare head-on. ìWe donít have anywhere else to go. Get a divorcee in here who has bills to pay and kids to support; sheíd be crazy to give up this kind of money. And I think thatís why Mr. Kingsley likes his waitress more, uh, mature. Once he gets us, he knows damn well we wonít ever leave. We canít afford to.î Olivia shook her head, adding another neatly folded napkin to the stack. ìI thought it was illegal to have indentured slaves in this country.î Harley slid out of her chair, straightening her jet-black skirt as she stood. ìYeah? Well, you just might want to think again. Because now youíre in Jordan Kingsleyís country.î She spun around on her heels, muttering as she left Olivia alone at the table, ìWelcome to the monarchy known as Raspberry Vodka.î +++ ìRule number one, be nice to the clientele.î Wyatt McGrath tapped the leather seat of the barstool beside him, motioning with a nod of his head for Olivia to sit down. He watched as she slid onto the even seat, his eyes tracking her long legs as she slid the right one over the left. ìNormally Iím in charge of hiring. Want to tell me just where Mr. Kingsley found you?î Olivia cleared her throat, watching as McGrathís gaze traveled up the length of her torso until coming to rest on her chest. She cleared her throat again, louder, and flashed a tight smile as he made eye contact with her. ìI just got a lucky break, I guess,î she said, tapping the tips of her French manicured nails against the granite-topped bar. McGrath picked up a piece of scribbled-on paper, scanning the information on it, seeming far more disinterested than interested as he asked, ìYouíre divorced?î ìThree years,î Olivia lied. ìAny kids?î ìDoes it make a difference if there are?î He shrugged a broad shoulder, letting the paper drop onto the bar. ìI just like to know what my girls are dealing with at home, thatís all.î Olivia bit into her lower lip, mentally commanding her sarcastic tone to soften before saying, ìYour girls? Is that what we are?î ìOkayÖî He chuckled, running his hand over his bearded chin. ìWhat? Youíre one of those feminists, right? Okay, okay. Before you call up Gloria Steinem, I didnít mean it in a derogatory way. My girlsÖmy employeesÖI consider us to be a family here, Rachel.î She took in a breath, trying to squelch her frustration and impatience and over all bad mood. It wasnít Wyatt McGrath she was angry with. All in all, he seemed nice. He had been nice. But Olivia could tell by the way his eyes had seemed to glaze over, to become glassy and indifferent, that she was teetering on the verge of ruining any hope for a benevolent management-employee relationship. ìSorry,î she said, lowering her gaze and hiding from his smile as he offered one. ìThe last three years, since my divorce, things have been kind of rough. My husband took off, hasnít ever paid child support, hasnít helped out at allóì ìSo, I was right. There are kids.î She nodded once, biting into her lip again. She was digging a hole that didnít need to be dug. She was making Rachel Martin more personalóthree-dimensionalóthan she had ever been before. In the past, her alter ego had been only a name, one to give when it was too risky to use her own. But Olivia hadnít ever before connected anything human or real to the moniker. She had never created a past to go along with it. Rachel Martinís existence had begun exactly like her creatorís, with far more blanks marking her beginning than facts or knowing. She was an empty slate that Olivia had never before bothered to decorate or embellish, and she wondered, as a feeling of uneasiness filled her, if it was dangerous to humanize what should remain pretend? If it was wiseómaybe even fairóto give Rachel Martin something that she didnít have, something she would never have. A life that was full and comfortable, one that was marred only by normal regrets, not abnormal ones. ìUh.î She shrugged, her mind suddenly whirling as she searched for answers to the questions that werenít easing in Wyatt McGrathís suddenly interested brown eyes. ìTwins. Twelve-years-old. Elizabeth and Dickie.î ìDickie?î McGrath asked, one corner of his mouth curving downward. ìInteresting name.î ìItís Richard.î She smiled as he did. ìMy ex-husband chose it, also stuck him with the nickname.î ìEx-husband,î McGrath said, leaning closer to her, his nostrils flaring as he took in a whiff of her perfume. ìAnd he left you?î Olivia scooted back in the chair, unable to ignore the powerful, fresh scent that her perfume combined with McGrathís aftershave created. ìWe had problems,î she admitted. ìHe decided to leave, and I wasnít exactly sorry to see him go. I just wish the son of a bitch would help out a little, you know? I am raising his kids.î ìWellÖî He slid his hand along the countertop, bringing it to rest in front of her. ìYou do a good job for me, Rachel, and I promise to make that job of raising his kids a little easier.î ìCanít be too tough to serve drinks,î she said, flashing a shy smile. ìIíve waitressed before.î ìYouíre not just waitressing at Raspberry Vodka,î he said, dragging his arm back across the counter. ìYouíre entertaining.î In response to her groan, her obvious disagreement and disapproval, he raised his hand, quieting her. ìOur clientele is mainly men, wealthy, lonely, old men whose wives chased them out of their beds years ago. Now, no one here would ever suggest you do anything illegal, and Mr. Kingsley and I donít ever want you to do anything youíre uncomfortable with. But if youíre nice to these men, Rachel, if you smile a lot, maybe bend over a little more than you actually have to when you set their drinks on the table, if you make small talk, compliment them, act interested in them, it can prove to be very beneficial for you.î ìBeneficialÖî She whispered, nodding. It could prove to be beneficial, and for almost a year, maybe it had been beneficial for Jenna March. At least until. What? Had her smile started to fade, or had she stopped bending over far enough to give Raspberry Vodkaís exclusive clients a better view than was already visible of her chest? Had she become disinterested in stories that pertained to a lifestyle she would never have, or had she forgotten to give an empty compliment to the wrong person at the wrong time? Whatever Jenna Marchís mistake had been, it hadnít proven to be beneficial at all. In the end, it had proven to be fatal. ìCan I ask you something?î Olivia said. ìI was wondering, I mean, I heard aboutÖwell, letís just say Iím aware why there was an open position here. One of your girls was attacked, wasnít she? She was killed?î She watched McGrathís stare shift, saw a look of remorse filter across his rugged face, and noticed as his posture became rigid, losing all traces of the relaxation that had settled with him into the inflexible, metal-back barstool moments earlier. Running the tips of her nails through the spiraled ends of her hair, she shrugged as his darkened gaze met hers. ìLike I said, I have kids. I just wanna make sure things are safe around hereóì ìSecurity has been beefed up,î McGrath responded curtly, his tone making it clear that she was asking questions about something that she didnít, in his opinion, have a need to know about. ìStay on the floor at all times and in sight of the security guards, and youíll be fine. There isnít anything to worry about.î ìButÖ She was attacked here, right? In the club?î ìShe was careless,î he said, climbing off of the stool and grabbing Oliviaís application, her outline of a life that didnít exist, off of the bar. ìAnd as long as you donít get careless, thereís nothing to worry about.î He folded his arms across his chest, his stare becoming critical as he scanned her from head to toe. ìThirty minutes until we open. Why donít you go in the back and put on a little more make-up? Our clients like our girls to look pretty; itís what they pay for. So, donít disappoint them, Rachel. Because if you disappoint them, you disappoint me, and thatís never a good thing to have happen” CHAPTER TWO “You took my table.” Olivia turned, balancing herself on one tall heel. She cocked her other knee, letting her throbbing foot hover above the floor as she the met the hardened stare of the woman she had heard referred to as ‘Tristan,’ but who hadn’t, throughout the first two hours of their shift, uttered a single word in Olivia’s direction. “Your table?” Olivia asked, glancing toward the bar as two drinks were placed in the center of her silver, metal tray. She stared at the bartender, her painted lips hanging open and announcing her confusion before she mumbled questioningly, “These are both scotch, right?” “Thought you’d waitressed before?” Tristan scoffed, leaning against the bar with her empty tray balanced on top of one arm. “And even if you lied on your application to get the job, you sure as hell look old enough to have slammed back a fair amount of scotch.” “I know it’s scotch,” Olivia sighed, massaging beneath her heavily made-up eyes with the tips of her index fingers. “What I don’t know is which one has soda in it.” Tristan snickered, tapping her finger on the rim of one glass. “You really are a virgin, aren’t you?” Olivia dipped her brows, her expression falling. “Excuse me?” “A virgin,” Tristan repeated with a shrug of her shoulders. “You’ve never done this before. You say you have, but it’s easy to tell you haven’t.” She turned, her back becoming flush with the smooth edge of the bar. “So, how’d you convince Kingsley to give you a chance? Was it a blow job, the full deal, or are you just a damn good liar?” “A—“ Olivia glanced back over her shoulder, taking stock of anyone she considered to be within earshot before dipping her head closer to the other woman’s. “Why the hell would I give him a blow job? What, is that normally part of the interviewing process?” “Only sometimes,” Tristan said, her admission intermeshed with a heavy breath, one that seemed to foretell boredom. “And only with the girls who don’t have a chance of landing the job any other way. I mean, just because you don’t have a talent for serving drinks and making small talk doesn’t mean you don’t have any talent at all.” She arched her overly plucked, colored-in eyebrows, smirking. “Know what I mean?” Olivia rolled her eyes, giving a slow shake of her head. “Not really, no.” “Oh, come on,” Tristan said, chuckling as she turned into the bar again. As the bartender placed four shot glasses, filled to their brims, on her silver tray, she nodded her thanks. “I had you pegged the minute you walked through the door.” “Had me pegged, huh?” Olivia asked dryly. “Mind telling me as what?” “Maybe you can wear the uniform,” Tristan said, lifting her tray off of the countertop, “but you sure as hell don’t belong in it. So, that takes me back to my original question. How’d you get Kingsley to hire you? Blow job, the full deal, or did you just lie your ass off?” She chuckled, stepping away from the bar. “Personally, my bet’s on the full deal. You don’t look like the type who’d be any more comfortable down on your knees than you do wearing those shoes.” +++ “Warren Jenkins, table seven, said you messed up his order,” Wyatt McGrath whispered into Olivia’s ear, grabbing her arm as she tried to pass by him. “You took him a scotch and soda, he drinks it straight. Always. Every girl in here knows that.” Olivia wrenched her arm out of his hand. “It’s just a drink.” “It’s his usual, the only drink he ever has when he comes in here. And he’s been coming here every Thursday and Saturday nights for over two years. Never misses a night, never orders anything but scotch on the rocks.” Olivia nodded, sighing, trying to ease the burn in her swollen feet as she shifted from foot to foot. “’kay, so, uh…” She dropped her arm to her side, the empty, silver tray banging against the side of her knee. “Tell me again which one is table seven, and I’ll apologize to, uh, to—“ She scrunched her eyelids closed, adding through a tired whisper, “What’s the guy’s name again?” “Jenkins. Warren Jenkins. He is Wall Street, Rachel, so don’t fuck with him.” “Hey, I made a mistake,” Olivia snapped. “And I asked, all right, I asked which drink—“ Her narrowed stare found Tristan, sidled up to the bar and smiling in Olivia’s direction. Smirking. Looking like the damn cat who had devoured the clueless canary in one gulp. Fuck. She had been set up, and she had never seen it coming. Her first days as a new recruit on the police force would prove to be a walk in the park compared to this shitty assignment. “I’ll take him a new drink,” she said with a mixture of defeat and exhaustion. “Scotch, right? Straight?” “On the rocks, only three ice cubes,” McGrath returned sharply. “Don’t fuck it up again.” “I wouldn’t think of it,” Olivia half-groaned, half-sighed, turning away from McGrath. She was stopped again as his hand latched around her arm, and spun back toward him wearing a mask of impatience. “You have another table asking for you,” McGrath announced, tilting his head and motioning toward the far corner of the room. “Table twelve. The guy picked you out, said he wants you to wait on him.” “Perfect.” Olivia ran her hand up the length of her arm as McGrath released his hold on her, following his stare to the dimly lit corner. She would have smiled if she had the strength left to lift her lips, at the sight of Elliot looking as uncomfortable in his pressed, gray suit and polished dress shoes as she felt in the sham of a uniform that she was dressed in. A darkened cell phone sat in front of him on the table, and his fingers tapped consistently on the granite surface. But his eyes never stopped, never stopped roaming and watching and studying. He was, from his isolated vantage point, observing every interaction, every conversation, every movement. But most of all, most assiduously, he was observing her. McGrath pulled a business card out of the breast pocket of his suit jacket, studying it for a moment before saying, “Elliot Anderson. Oil man from Texas.” He stuffed the card back in his pocket, his gaze locking onto Olivia’s in warning. “Be nice to him. He’s in town on business for the next couple of weeks, and he picked you out special.” “Let me guess. This is where that bending over a little further than I need to comes into play, right?” She shifted her weight onto her left leg. “Or does your idea of ‘being nice’ include more than giving the pervert a free peek at what little of my breasts he can’t already see?” “Just be nice. Because I really don’t give a damn who hired you, you fuck up again and I’ll throw your ass out on the sidewalk. And if that happens, you won’t ever work in another club anywhere in this city.” He wrapped his fingers around her chin, smiling as she jerked away. “Think about your kids, Rachel. You need this job, right? So, do what I tell you and I’ll let you keep it.” +++ “Swear to God, Elliot, if you complain about this drink I’ll kick your ass,” Olivia whispered, a smile having become frozen on her blood red lips as she leaned over the table, dipped her chest tantalizingly in Elliot’s eyeshot, and slid the heavy, crystal glass in front of him. “Tonic water with a twist of lime. Three ice cubes so it doesn’t get too watered down. Anything else?” “Tough night?” Elliot asked, watching breathlessly, with a hint of sweat beading across his exposed forehead, as she straightened and the soft flesh of her breasts jiggled with her fluid movements. The tips of his fingers curved into the tabletop, gripping, maybe groping, and for the second time that night he felt a warmth—hell, a searing heat—radiate from between his legs. If the assignment dragged on very long, if he had to continue to sit idly by and watch Olivia sway and bend and tease in her nearly non-existent uniform, in the sheer blouse and lacy bra and second layer of skin that masqueraded as a skirt, he would have to go further undercover than she had. Because if she leaned over his table again, he would be outed. Noticeably. “I get the feeling that McGrath isn’t too happy about not having a say in hiring me,” Olivia answered, still smiling, swaying her hips to the left and then right. “He has a lot of control over these women, and he likes it.” Elliot lifted his glass, sucking the liquid through his clenched lips. “Think he could’ve had something to do with what happened to Jenna March?” “Wouldn’t surprise me. When I tried to ask him about her, he shut me down. But I haven’t had a chance to talk to any of the women yet.” “I saw the guy grabbing you over there,” he said, motioning toward the long bar with a nod of his head. “Doesn’t seem like he has a problem getting physical.” “Don’t go macho on me, Elliot,” she responded tiredly, with a roll of her eyes. “I can handle a prick like McGrath.” “You can handle him,” he agreed, nodding. He lifted his right arm, flexing his wrist. “Just so you know, I’m wired. Fin and Munch are outside.” “Well, don’t call Batman and Robin in just yet,” she said, winking. “Everything is fine.” She tapped a finger against the tabletop, giving another teasing sway of her hips. “I’m supposed to be extra nice to you, so if McGrath asks tell him I was.” “And if I don’t?” he asked, chuckling. “I’ll hurt you. Bad.” She glanced back over her shoulder, spotting the manager across the room. Watching her. “The guy has it out for me.” Turning back, smiling broadly, flirtatiously, she added, “Oh, and by the way, the twins are mine now. If you feel like getting personal with anyone, don’t mention Liz and Dickie.” “You told ‘em you have kids?” “I didn’t plan to,” she answered, her smile fading slightly. “McGrath put me on the spot. And it seems like that’s the leverage they use to keep most of the women here. All of the waitresses I’ve talked to so far are divorced, single parents, and they need a good paying job. And McGrath has already used the kids against me once tonight; my guess is he uses ‘em against the women a lot.” “Jenna March was a single mom.” “And now so is Rachel Martin,” Olivia responded, arching her dark brows. “If this assignment goes on long enough, I’m gonna claim the twins on my taxes.” She chuckled, glancing back at a still spying McGrath. “That guy gives me the creeps, Elliot, and he knows a helluva lot more about what happened to March than he’s said so far.” “Hey.” Elliot locked his fingers around her wrist, pulling her attention back to him. “You’re not on this case alone, remember that. I’m gonna be sitting right here every night, and Fin and Munch are gonna be outside.” “They get these women in here, and then make it impossible for them to leave.” “So, what? You think more than just waitressing is going on?” She shrugged a shoulder, glancing down, watching as his fingers slid away from her arm. “I know McGrath’s been pounding it into my head all night about being nice. He went so far as to say it could be beneficial, but he was careful not to say anything incriminating.” She took a step away from the table, wincing as her numb toes sprang back to life with electrifying tingles. “Guess now I need to find out just how nice we’re really expected to be.” +++ “How’s it going with table twelve?” Wyatt McGrath asked, looking up from his seat at the end of the bar, twirling the thin, red straw around the wide mouth of his glass. His gaze bypassed Olivia, landing on Elliot in the far corner of the room. “You keeping our oil tycoon happy?” Olivia glanced back, shrugging, looking as disinterested in Elliot’s happiness as she was in answering McGrath’s question. “He’s on his third tonic water, been sitting in the same spot for the last three hours. Yeah, I guess I’m keeping him happy.” She turned back toward the bar and awaiting bartender, mumbling a semi-confused, “Uh, one vodka tonic and, uh…” Closing her eyes and digging her fingers into the edge of the smooth counter, she added, “One Jack and coke. Big surprise, the guy says he wants a cherry in it.” “I’ve gotten compliments on you tonight,” McGrath said, dragging Olivia’s attention away from behind the bar. “That’s good.” “Great,” she sighed, nodding. “But let me guess, no one’s mentioned my skill for making conversation, have they?” “Warren Jenkins has,” McGrath answered, taking a drink of the brown liquid that filled his glass. He swished the alcohol in his mouth, letting it puff his right cheek and then left one before swallowing. “You’ve grabbed his interest.” “I’ve grabbed his interest,” Olivia deadpanned. “And what of mine does he want to grab?” “He just wants to get to know you better. Where’s the harm in that?” She laughed, leaning into the bar. “C’mon, McGrath. That guy isn’t interested in having a conversation with me or any of the other women in this place. Every time I serve him a drink I have to stay a step ahead of his hands.” “Mr. Jenkins is friendly.” “Mr. Jenkins is a dirty old man.” She rolled her eyes, nodding her thanks as the requested drinks were placed in front of her. “And he may be interested, but I’m not.” “Thought we talked about being nice?” “I am being nice,” she said sternly, lifting the silver tray off of the bar. “Normally, I’d slug a prick like Jenkins. But I haven’t done that yet. So, see? I’m being very nice.” +++ “Make it good,” Elliot said, his warning barely audible as it slid out between his clenched lips. “Looks like we have an audience.” Olivia dipped forward, sliding Elliot’s drink onto the table as she snuck a peek over her shoulder, eyeing Wyatt McGrath two tables away where he was straining to listen over the continuous drone of music and multiple conversations that echoed throughout the dimly lit room. But even in the obscure lighting, she could tell that he was observing each of her movements, counting every one of her smiles, every flutter of her eyelashes, every time her hips moved from the left to the right. He was sizing her up, and the suspicion that had crept over his tense expression made it clear he hadn’t yet decided if she was worthy of the opportunity she had been given. “So, you’re Rachel?” Elliot asked, staring past Olivia as McGrath made an inconspicuous move closer toward them. “That’s me,” Olivia returned, a seductive edge to her voice. “Anything else I can get you? Maybe something stronger than tonic water?” “The tonic water’s fine, thanks,” Elliot said, smiling, his eyes shifting and alerting her that McGrath had moved even closer. “Have business meetings tomorrow. Don’t wanna lose my edge, you know?” “You don’t look like the type who has to worry about that,” she said, blinking slowly, teasingly. “Losing your edge.” She leaned over the table again, bracing herself on one stiffened arm and smoothing the shoulder of Elliot’s suit jacket with her other hand. She licked her lips, dragging her tongue from one side of her mouth to the other, as she slid her fingers over the top of the starched collar of his white shirt, the rounded tips of her nails tickling across his skin. “Well.” He smiled sheepishly, raising his shoulder and brushing away the lingering sensation she had left on his neck. “You need anything else, just let me know. ‘kay? I’m here all night.” “All night?” Elliot asked, his heavy brows arching. He nodded, to the untrained eye in response to her statement, but to his partner merely as another signal that they were still being watched. “Well, come to think of it, there is something else I could use.” “Yeah?” she asked, straightening, leaving the silver tray behind on the table and steadying her hands on her hips. She ran her tongue across her lips again, wetting them and adding a shimmer to the red lipstick that covered them. “What’s that?” He shrugged a shoulder. “Well, I’m from out of town. It’s my first time in New York. I could use a little company, if you know what I mean.” He raised his hands quickly, creating a barrier between them. “Don’t get the wrong idea. It’d just be nice, you know, to have someone who could show me the sights.” “The sights, uh huh. I bet you’d like to see them.” Her gaze followed Elliot’s to her chest and the lace-trimmed rim of the black bra that rested against her breasts. “But I don’t think that’d be such a great idea.” “I’m just talking about someone to have dinner with. Nothing else.” Olivia nodded in conjunction with Elliot, slowly and methodically, and understanding by the absence of playfulness in his eyes that they still held the suspicious attention of a one- man audience. “Is there anything else I can get for you right now, Mr. Anderson?” “It’s Elliot, and, uh…” He slid the white, square shaped napkin across the table in her direction, shrugging toward it. “How about your phone number?” “I thought we’d decided—“ “Mr. Anderson,” Wyatt McGrath interrupted, stepping up beside Olivia. “Is there a problem here?” He shot a tense glance in Olivia’s direction, one of warning. “It’s Rachel’s first night. I don’t think she quite understands how firmly we believe at Raspberry Vodka that the customer is always right.” He leaned closer to Olivia, pressing his dry lips against her ear and whispering, “Give the man what he wants, or get the hell out of my club.” “My number…” Olivia whispered, forcing a smile as she retrieved both the tray and napkin off of the table. “Maybe I could show you the sights after all.” She took the ink pen McGrath shoved in her direction, scribbling across the napkin. Folding it, still holding her anger-backed smile, she dropped the napkin back onto the table in front of Elliot. “Don’t call too early. I work late hours here.” “Not too early,” Elliot agreed smugly, unfolding the thin paper as Olivia and McGrath walked away from the table. He chuckled lowly; his humorless stare finding his partner where she had sidled up to the end of the long bar, looking both exhausted and annoyed. Glancing down, studying Olivia’s messy script, his laughter became more sincere as he read over the message she had written. 555-YOU’RE-AN-ASS. +++ “Hey.” Harley Jacobson flashed a tense smile past Olivia rather than at her as the two women came to a stop at the end of the bar. “How’s it going tonight?” Olivia groaned under her breath, digging the tips of her fingers into her lower back. “I’d kill for a pair of flats right now.” “You’ll get used to the shoes.” “Yeah?” Olivia asked, releasing a breath, wishing it was potent enough to take with it every ache and pain she had acquired throughout the first five hours of her shift. “Anything else I need to get used to, or are the shoes it?” Harley propped an elbow on the bar, nestling her cheek into the palm of her hand. “Hey, look, no one puts any demands on us here, okay? It’s a good job, Rachel. You’re lucky to have it, keep that in mind.” Olivia nodded, scanning the noisy, primarily drunk crowd before turning back toward the fidgeting blonde beside her. “But? There is a ‘but’ to that testimonial, right?” “It’s the truth,” Harley said quickly. “For what we’re doing, there’s no better place to work than Raspberry Vodka.” “Well, I’ve gotta say I have over five hundred dollars in tips that’s making it kind of hard for me to disagree with you. Just one shift, and I’ve already paid off a couple of bills.” Harley teetered from side-to-side, propped on the heels of her shoes, scraping her teeth across her lower lip. “Why just pay off a couple? Why not pay off all of ‘em?” “If Warren Jenkins keeps drinking his scotch straight, I just might be able to.” “Warren Jenkins…yeah…” She bit at her lip again, shrugging shyly, with a hint of reluctance, as Olivia’s stare turned quizzical. “He usually asks for Tristan. So, watch out for her, okay? She’s not too happy that he’s paying more attention to you tonight.” Olivia laughed brusquely. “Tristan can have him back. I’m not gonna fight her for him.” “He’s generous with his money.” The announcement was made without emotion, simply made. As if it should be understood the meaning it held and the purpose for it being said at all. “Yeah,” Olivia said, preoccupied with loading her tray down with drinks. “The five hundred dollars in tips proves that.” “No, I, uh.” Harley shrugged, glancing past Olivia again to the opposite side of the crowded room. She took in a breath, her gaze dropping away from McGrath’s, as she whispered, “I mean he can be really generous with his money.” Olivia nodded slowly, with the beginning of understanding. “Okay…” she said, dragging out the word, hanging onto each syllable questioningly. “So, he’s generous. Are you suggesting something, Harley? Something I’m not getting here?” She shrugged again, more shyly. “Wyatt said you should take your break now. There are, uh, there’re a couple of rooms in the back, rooms where you can relax. And if you want, I mean, if it’s what you feel like doing, you can take someone back there with you. Just to, you know, relax with.” “I can…” Olivia flipped her head around, catching McGrath’s leering stare a second before he lowered it. Her gaze traveled instinctively to Elliot’s table, topped with an empty glass and with her partner’s attention fixated outside of the frosted window and his cell phone pressed against the side of his face. Jesus Christ. He had her back, all she had to do was signal him. It was a good theory, until Elliot had become numb to the chaos in the room after struggling through six tonic waters and not budging from the round, granite-topped table that he had claimed temporary ownership of five hours earlier. “Someone?” Olivia asked, her voice dipping harshly, no longer in questioning but overflowing with both an accusation and disapproval. “You mean Warren Jenkins, right?” “I said ‘someone.’” “Oh, come on, Harley. It may be my first night here, but I’m not stupid.” “No, you’re not,” Harley returned sternly. “And that’s why Wyatt wanted me to tell you about the back rooms. Because you’re not stupid, Rachel. You seem like the type of girl who can spot a good opportunity when it comes your way. Maybe even the type of girl who’s smart enough to take advantage of that opportunity.” “And let me guess…” Olivia dropped her head forward, chuckling. But far from amused. “It’s either a blow job or the full deal? That’s what’ll make Jenkins feel the most generous with his money, right? At least that’s the impression I got from Tristan earlier.” “Hey,” Harley said, backing up a step. “It’s not what you’re thinking.” “Like I said, I’m not stupid,” Olivia said with a roll of her eyes. “And just because Kingsley is making me dress like a hooker doesn’t mean I am one.” She leaned in closer to the blonde that stood at least two inches shorter than her, tilting her face downward. “You don’t seem stupid to me, either. But if you’re taking men like Jenkins into the back, Harley, that’s exactly what you are being. Stupid.” “How old are you?” Harley snapped, balancing one hand on her hip. “Getting close to forty at least, right? Well, unless you’ve got a title after your name or a degree that you earned from some high dollar college, just where do you expect to be able to go and make the type of money Kingsley pays us? You’re a single mom, Rachel, and you said you’ve been struggling to make ends meet. So, all you have to do is be a little extra nice to a couple of these jerks each night and, voila, you don’t have to worry about struggling anymore.” She smiled with a hint of righteousness, folding her arms across her chest. “When I started here I was barely making the rent on a two bedroom apartment. Now, my kids and I are in a five-bedroom brownstone. For the first time in my life I own a car, my kids are going to a private school—“ “And that makes it right, what you do to be able to afford all of that?” “Maybe not right,” Harley said, sliding her loaded tray off of the bar, “but it sure as hell makes it worth my while.” +++ “I don’t think you should go back,” Elliot said, following Olivia into her apartment. He caught the door as she swung it backwards in his direction and pushed it closed behind him. “I’m gonna talk to Cragen, tell him—“ “An offer was made, Elliot, nothing was forced on me.” She dropped down onto the edge of the sofa, groaning as she lifted her left foot and pulled off her shoe. “Jesus. My feet are swollen.” “An offer was made, yeah,” he said, coming to a stop on the opposite side of the coffee table. He dropped his hands into the front pockets of his gray slacks, his expression tensing as he watched her wriggle out of her right shoe. “And you were also given pretty clear cut instructions about what you’re expected to do.” “Harley said it’s my choice.” “No, it’s a prostitution ring.” “Yeah. And we could break it wide open if we give it a little more time.” He took a quick step backwards, a jittery hop, never taking his narrow-eyed stare off of her. “And what’s gonna happen if the same guy who decided it wasn’t Jenna March’s decision decides it isn’t yours, either? What’re you gonna do then, Olivia?” She fell back against the sofa, lifting her feet and propping them on top of the coffee table. Sighing, dragging her fingers down the length of her made-up face, she shook her head. Conceding through exhaustion to the fight that she could tell Elliot was charged up to have. “You’re in that club without a wire or weapon, Liv. You get dragged out of the main room and I won’t have any idea where you are. And all we’ve got outside backing us up is Fin and Munch. It’s too risky. Now that we know what’s going on—“ “We can stop it,” she said through a yawn, her hands disappearing beneath her hair as she ruffled the spirals that had begun to unravel limply. “I’m telling you, El, Kingsley targets every woman he hires. He picks her for a reason. They’re all older, none of them went to college, most got married young, and all are either divorced or widowed now. They have kids who they can barely support, and they’ve spent most of their lives struggling. So, Kingsley lures them in with the promise of a fat paycheck, even fatter tips, and better benefits than they’ve ever gotten before.” She dropped her arms to her sides, her eyelids drifting closed. “They don’t see it as prostitution. They see it as a way to finally get ahead.” “So, what?” he asked, stepping around the coffee table and sitting down beside her. “You think it’s okay, what’s going on there?” She forced her eyes open, squinting. Frowning. “Of course not. But I understand their reasons for thinking it’s okay.” She smiled sleepily as Elliot grabbed her ankles and pulled her feet onto his lap. Lying back against the short stack of pillows that was propped against the arm of the sofa, she muttered a throaty, “Oh,” as his fingers began to knead her swollen, sore feet. “You know, I’ve gotta admit there’s a certain temptation there. I mean, in one eight hour shift, Elliot, I made almost nine hundred dollars in tips.” “No, the NYPD made almost nine hundred dollars. What you got out of it was a bunch of blisters on your feet.” Her frown deepened, turning into a pout. “Yeah. But what if it was my money to keep? And what if there was the promise—the guarantee—that I could double that money?” She shrugged one shoulder, closing her eyes again. “If I really was a single parent, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted.” Elliot settled into the soft cushions behind him, running the palm of his hand up the length of her foot. He smiled, only vaguely, as she groaned, the sound deep and rattling in the back of her throat. “It’s wrong, Liv. No matter who’s promoting it and who’s agreeing to sell a part of themselves.” “I know it’s wrong,” she said, her voice beginning to slur with the onset of sleep. “I’m just saying…” She nestled further into the pillows as his fingers dug into her throbbing muscles. “Oh, God. Elliot. That feels good.” “This?” he asked, his intimation of a smile exploding into a wide grin as he pressed his knuckles into the ball of her foot. “And you wouldn’t be tempted, not for a second?” “Sure as hell not with an ass like Warren Jenkins. But.” He cocked an eyebrow, his fingers still massaging her sore flesh as he stared at her through the corners of his eyes. But? What the hell did that mean, but? But if it was anyone other than a pompous, conceited jackass like Warren Jenkins, she would be tempted? Maybe if it was someone who was a little less thick across his middle, had a little more on top of his head, and had something between his ears that was capable of constructing a thought about anyone other than himself, she could be tempted? “But?” he asked, the sleepy growl that had overtaken his voice seeping through the stillness in the apartment, the quiet that, in his mind, was synonymous with his partner. She moved quietly, her steps light and almost undetectable. Her breaths, unless she had to make an unexpected sprint down a crowded city street, were quiet and shallow; making her seem almost serene, as if her mind didn’t harbor the dark thoughts that he knew regularly plagued her. Her voice was quiet, melodious, and held the power within its softness to soothe like none other he had ever heard. Her words seemed to float, to enter into the air unobtrusively and delicately, lulling the recipient of them into a state of trust. And her demeanor, while able to transform into something threatening when that was how she needed to appear, was normally quiet and unassuming and gentle. “No but,” she said, slurred, her eyelids fluttering but eyes never fully opening. “You said but.” She shook her head, her cheek scraping against the sofa cushion. “I said I couldn’t be tempted by someone like Warren Jenkins.” He nodded once, crossing her left ankle over her right one, and repeating the steps of the massage that had made her melt into the sofa cushions. “But.” “But, what?” “You said—“ She groaned, resituating her head on the pillows, tilting her chin upward and then lowering it toward her chest. “There’s no but. I understand the spot Harley and the others are in, that’s all.” She opened her left eye slowly, only halfway, straining to focus on him. “Think about what you make as a cop. You think there’s anyway you could take care of your kids and expenses if Kathy didn’t work, too? And every woman I worked with tonight is on her own, all have kids to raise, and they’ve struggled for years trying to do it all. Kingsley is like some kind of god to them.” “And as shitty as all of that is, it doesn’t—“ “Make what they’re doing right,” she agreed. “But sometimes, you know, just surviving is more important than doing what’s right.” “That still doesn’t tell me what the ‘but’ meant.” She chuckled, cupping her hand loosely over her lips and wiping away the last trace of her red lipstick. “It didn’t mean anything.” “No?” He raised an eyebrow, following it with a smirk. “It didn’t mean anything?” “Not a thing.” She closed her left eye, sighing. “Just keep rubbing, will you? Swear to God, El, I’m dying here. My feet are never gonna be the same again.” He nodded, not agreeing to her request, but acknowledging the word that had become stuck in his head. But. What the hell did it mean? And what—if anything—could make her act on it? She couldn’t be bought; he knew that much after the time they had spent together, both side-to-side and nose-to-nose, arguing as often as agreeing throughout the past eight years. But she distinctly said she understood, that if she were in the same predicament as the waitresses at Raspberry Vodka— What? Could she be bought if the price was attractive enough? Could she be swayed with promises of interest, with assurances of something more? She sure as hell couldn’t be intimidated, not Olivia. But was there anything that could make her, for even one second, reevaluate her standards and morals and possibly dismiss them all together? Olivia pushed her head further into the pillows, understanding his sullen silence. “Let it go, Elliot. The ‘but.’” He chuckled silently, the backs of his shoulders pressing into the sofa, tilting his head downward and attempting to focus his blurry eyes on her. “Forget the ‘but,’” he muttered as she nodded sleepily. “Okay. But you’ve gotta give me something.” He chuckled again as she pried open her blood shot eyes. “Where’d you waitress when you were in college?” “Doesn’t matter. It was just a stupid, college job.” “Uh huh. A stupid, college job where?” “None of your business.” She struggled to lift her shoulders off of the pillows, conceding to failure with a deep, seemingly pained groan as she nestled backwards again. “No matter what you think, you don’t have to know everything about me.” “Then tell me about the ‘but.’” She pressed her hand over her mouth, yawning. “’kay, fine. If it’ll shut you up.” “It’ll shut me up.” She nodded, clearing her throat. “But.” Arching her eyebrows, she shrugged. “But, you know, if it was the right guy, maybe. A different kind of guy than Jenkins or Wyatt McGrath—“ “That’d make a difference?” Elliot asked, his fingers falling still against her warmed feet. Olivia jerked her legs, flexing her feet until he began rubbing again. “It might make a difference. I mean, not as far as the money went. You ask me, any guy who even offers to pay for sex is a jerk.” She sighed, shaking her head. “But if there was a nice guy who I felt I had a connection with, someone who didn’t want money involved—“ “Liv, if there isn’t money involved then it isn’t prostitution.” “Really?” she asked, her eyes widening. “Thanks. I think I was absent the day they went over that at the academy.” She pressed her shoulders into the pillows, folding her arms across her lightly shielded stomach. “That’s all the ‘but’ meant, Elliot. If I worked at Raspberry Vodka and met a nice guy, I might be tempted to take him in one of the backrooms. McGrath wouldn’t have to know if I was getting paid, would he? But.” “Another but?” Elliot asked, frowning. “Another but. Because I can understand why these women do what they do. It makes me sick, yeah. But when you don’t have anyone else to turn to or depend on, when you’re alone—“ She flashed a slight, crooked smile, breathing out deeply. “When you’re alone…what?” “Just. Maybe you do things you never thought you’d do. So, maybe it’s understandable how these women have gotten caught up in it all. Because when you’re alone, it’s tough. It can be really tough, you know. That’s all there was to the ‘but.’” He sank into the cushions behind him; her feet still propped in his lap, and watched as sleep claimed her. Her shoulders drooped and relaxed, her breathing deepened, and her chest began to rise and fall slowly and evenly. Her chest. Her half-exposed, full, tanned— He pushed her feet off of his lap, scooting to the opposite end of the sofa. What the hell was his problem? She had just made a confession about understanding loneliness and being alone, about compromising her morals, and all he could think about was her breasts. His gaze jumped to her legs, bent at the knees with the left one on top of the right. He tracked their length—their damn perfect shape—to her feet, red toenails peeking out at him—taunting him—from beneath the diaphanous shroud of the fishnet hose. Christ. He really was a pervert. Her damned toes were turning him on. Toes that he wasn’t ever supposed to see much less rub the swelling out of. The swelling… He gulped down a swallow, pushing what little saliva had trickled down from his dry mouth as far into the pit of his stomach as he could, forcing down with it every perverted thought that had begun to clutter his mind. About the swelling. His glassy-eyed gaze jumped to her breasts, to the soft flesh that rose above the curved tops of the lace-covered cups. She took in a breath, deep and sleep-filled, her chest inflating and threatening to get more of a rise out of Elliot than he felt able to contain any longer. He had expended over eight hours of willpower, thinking about anything—everything—other than his partner as she pranced around the nightclub with her flirtatious smile obediently in place, her hips swaying more rhythmically than he had ever seen them move before, and her breasts jiggling with every step and turn and bend. But fucking willpower could only go so far. As Olivia rolled onto her side, drawing her legs up toward her stomach, Elliot jumped off of the sofa. He hurried around the coffee table, coming to an abrupt stop as her gravelly voice chased after him. Mercilessly. “It’s late. Why don’t you just sleep here for what’s left of the night?” She turned her head to the side, her face becoming partially hidden by a beige-colored pillow. “I can’t move. Go ahead and take the bed, ‘kay?” He shook his head, both words and thoughts lost, as he watched her once again fade into much needed sleep. The sheer blouse had fallen away from her body, no longer even a façade of any type of cover, and she stretched out her fishnet-covered legs, straightening them and wriggling her polished toes before drawing her knees back up toward her stomach. The skirt wrinkled across her thighs, rising further, exposing a glimpse of the black belts that connected her hose to— What? Elliot forced down a nonexistent breath, realizing he was leaning halfway over the coffee table. Straightening quickly, embarrassedly, his hands fell protectively across his crotch. In the dim lighting of the apartment, the black straps of the garter seemed to melt into Olivia’s skin, making it difficult for Elliot to tell where they began and ended. No. He knew where they began. He could see where they connected to the stretched tops of her hose. But where they ended, where they attached beneath the close-fitting skirt, what held them in place… What in the hell was happening to him? What was he letting happen? And, Jesus, why was he suddenly so unconcerned about risking everything? Their partnership, Olivia’s trust, their friendship— Was it because of a skintight skirt and fishnet hose and painted toenails and a bra that was far too small? Was he that narrow-minded? Or was it the age-old war that he had spent the better part of his life fighting? He had first heard the battle cry in the sixth grade, only two days before summer break began. It was a Thursday, the day that Sister Mary Agnes had managed to break a twelve-year-old Elliot for the very first time. He had felt as perverted that hot, summer afternoon as he did standing in Olivia’s shadowy living room with his shins flush against the edge of the coffee table. He had felt completely consumed by sin when a twenty-something Sister Mary Agnes, the fresh-faced, energetic, captivating, newest addition to the school had joined in an impromptu Four Square game on the playground. Elliot had stood across from her, intent only on knocking her out of the game, until Sister Mary Agnes began to laugh. Until she began to giggle, high-pitched and without inhibition, as she dove toward the corner of her square and palmed the white ball back in Elliot’s direction. And that’s when he saw it, peeking out from beneath the edge of her habit, a wispy strand of blonde hair. Delicate. Dampened by sweat. Stuck to her pasty white skin and curving perfectly around her temple. And that was the exact moment when his body had entered into war with his mind and taken on a life of its own. Standing in the center of his square, a jagged crack in the concrete running between his black Converse tennis shoes, he felt the first stirrings of mutiny as his navy blue trousers became unusually tight, and felt undeniable shame as a sidelined Christy Ellison pointed a finger toward his inflated crotch and yelped in her grating and scratchy voice, “Look, Sister Mary Agnes! Something’s wrong with Elliot!” And earlier that evening when Olivia had walked out of her bedroom only barely dressed in the required uniform for Raspberry Vodka’s waitresses, he felt as if he had been transported back to that uncertain time in his life when his penis and mind had regularly squared off in no-holds-barred battles for control. As had happened during his younger years, as had happened more than once as he tried to remain inconspicuous in the mutedly lit corner of the extravagant club, and as was happening while he stood partially bent over Olivia’s polished coffee table, his mind was proving to be the weaker opponent. “I’d better, uh.” He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the closed door, clearing his throat. Trying to come up with a viable explanation for his departure even though Olivia was far too out of it to know whether or not he stayed or left. “I should head home.” Head. Everything inside of him was coming to a head, from between his legs to the fuzzy core of his brain. He should stay, she was right. It was late. By the time he got home and into bed, time would only tease him with a few hours of sleep. Sleep. Who was he kidding? Olivia had completely taken that option away from him. He wouldn’t be able to sleep; he would spend what few hours were left of the night drowning himself in a cold shower. And he didn’t know if that would be strong enough to lessen the hard-on that had reshaped the front of his trousers. Inching backwards, his gaze still fixated on the portions of the black straps that clung to the fronts of her thighs, he reached behind him until his hand fell against the doorknob. Groping the smooth metal, envisioning in his mind that his fingers weren’t roaming over brass but silky skin, he took a jerky step backwards as Olivia once again repositioned herself on the sofa. Her legs separated, pulling the black material of the skirt until Elliot was positive it would rip up the center, falling off of her, exposing his newest enemy of war, and he hated himself for not moving, not looking away, but continuing to stare and wish like hell that it would happen. Just as he had wished every day during his remaining years in middle school that the damn wisp of blonde hair would somehow find its way out of Sister Mary Agnes’ habit again. CHAPTER THREE “Where’d you go last night?” Olivia asked, looking up from her desk as Elliot dragged himself into the squad room. She lifted the Styrofoam cup, cradling it in one hand and twirling the thin string connected to the tea bag with the fingers of her other hand. Chuckling as Elliot slid into his chair, she tilted the rim of the cup against her lips, muttering around it, “You look like hell.” “How is it that you don’t?” Elliot returned, studying her. Damn it. How was it that she didn’t look like hell, that she looked relatively fresh and rested and… Great. “You haven’t seen me walk yet,” Olivia groaned, depositing the cup on her desk. “If there’re any foot pursuits today, you’re on your own. I practically had to crawl to the shower this morning.” He nodded, his gaze dropping to the paperwork on his desk. She’d had to crawl to the shower this morning, and he had limped to his barely six hours earlier. After an hour-and-a-half of dancing around in the ice-cold stream of water, once every inch of his body had become shriveled and numb, he finally limped back out. His body cleansed of feeling, but his mind still whirling. And his disjointed thoughts had wrapped themselves so tightly together—so fucking tightly around her—that he hadn’t even attempted to sleep. He had spent what few hours remained before he had to report to the precinct at ten o’clock that morning nursing a pot of coal black coffee and staring at a jagged crack that had just become noticeable in his kitchen ceiling. The crack wasn’t deep, only barely there, and he had traced its beginning to the corner where the top of the wall and ceiling met. Where they connected, their white color overlapping and making it nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other. Except for the crack, the barely there crack that, if ignored and not repaired, had the potential to become a deep chasm that could possibly—would eventually—shatter the brace that held them together. And, Jesus Christ, he had spent his three hours in the dark kitchen downing cup after cup of strong coffee trying to figure out how in the hell to erase the crack that he had only just noticed, but knew in the back of his mind had been there for longer than he wanted to admit. All he knew was that by the time he had drained the coffee pot, he felt like he was standing on one side of the fucking Grand Canyon, floundering and confused, and Olivia was on the other side, clueless, unaware, and still not having noticed the damn crack at all. “El? That okay with you?” Elliot looked up, his eyes shifting as quickly as the soft shade of red spread across his checks. He cleared his throat, dragging his hands across his face. “Is, uh.” With a shake of his head, sighing, he mumbled, “What? Is what okay?” She shook her head, swiping her Styrofoam cup off of her desk and taking a quick drink. “Maybe you should crash in the crib for a while, get some sleep before tonight.” “No, I’m okay. Just tell me what I missed.” Olivia chuckled, reclining in the chair with the cup clutched in one hand and propped on a leather-wrapped arm. “We need to come up with a story, something in case McGrath asks if we spent any time together today.” She tilted the wide mouth of the cup toward her, staring down at the brown liquid inside. “So, where’d we go? What’d we see?” He arched an eyebrow. “From the sounds of it, McGrath would like to hear that you saw the inside of my hotel room.” She nodded, chuckling again but only half-heartedly. “How about the Empire State Building?” “Empire State Building? That’s kind of predictable, isn’t it?” “You said you’ve never been here before. The Empire State Building is a predictable tourist spot.” She bounced forward, landing against her desk on her elbows. “What about Ground Zero?” How about St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Elliot thought. I could sure as hell stand to light a few hundred candles and spend a couple of hours in confession. “If Anderson is supposed to be as big of an ass as the rest of those pricks who spend their time at Raspberry Vodka, he’s not gonna be interested in seeing Ground Zero.” She shrugged, dropping her nearly empty cup into the trashcan beside her desk. “Trump Tower? Tiffany’s?” “The hotel room.” She shook her head. “I don’t think McGrath would buy it. It’s too quick, especially as much as I fought ‘em all last night on the idea of taking someone to a backroom. It might make McGrath more suspicious.” Elliot grinned, just faintly, more disapprovingly than amused. “Or he might make you employee of the month.” “Not interested, thanks,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. “Not interested…” He repeated, his chin jutted downward, as if he had suddenly become lost in the ugly details and cryptic clues of a case, but his eyes upturned and staring, dissecting each of her tired movements, seeing the trace of worry that added the slightest highlight to her brown eyes. The worry, that he knew, she was trying like hell to make as unnoticeable as the crack in his kitchen that he had only discovered a few hours earlier. “You have a plan of action?” he asked. “What’re you gonna do tonight if McGrath tells you to get interested?” “Tell him to go to hell,” she answered simply. He shook his head, his fingers tightening around the thin body of a silver ink pen. “Maybe that’s what Jenna March did, too.” “What’s up with you all of a sudden?” she asked, her dark brows lowering, adding a touch of confusion to her already worry-filled eyes. “You sound like you don’t think I can handle a jerk like McGrath.” She took in a breath, holding in the air as she watched Elliot disagree with her assumption with a quick shake of his head. “I’m saying that March was raped and murdered while that club was packed with customers,” he said, twirling the pen between his index and middle fingers. “And three other women were apparently raped under the same circumstances. And all four of ‘em, I’m willing to bet, were being pressured by McGrath to be ‘nice.’ Just like he was pressuring you last night.” “And tonight he’s gonna think I spent my day being nice to you. So, that’ll take some of the pressure off of me, right?” She took in another breath, one that was deeper and bearing the signs of impatience, as Cragen’s office door opened and the stern-faced captain shuffled into the room. “Interviews,” Cragen announced, tossing a closed file onto Elliot’s desk and a second onto Olivia’s. “John has already talked to one of Raspberry Vodka’s rape victims, the other two are on their way in.” “They agreed to talk?” Olivia asked, sliding the file Cragen had dropped in front of her to the center of her desk and opening it. “A little reluctantly,” Cragen admitted. “But they agreed to talk.” “Isabel Duncan,” Elliot said, his case file open and steadied in front of his face. “Thirty-nine, worked for Jordan Kingsley a little over six months—“ “Divorced, has kids, needed the money,” Olivia murmured through a sigh. Glancing over the top of her open file and catching Elliot’s stare, she said, “Right? Same profile?” “Divorced, two kids,” Elliot said, nodding. “What about yours?” “Anna Wright. Widow. Five kids, looks like she’d spent about two years on public assistance before Kingsley hired her. Was even homeless for a while.” “Someone who definitely needed the fat paycheck Kingsley was dangling in front of her,” Elliot said. “And like you said last night, she’d probably gotten to a point where surviving was a helluva lot more important to her than doing what was right.” “Do the interviews,” Cragen said, burying his hands in the front pockets of his tan-colored trousers. “And then both of you get out of here, get some rest before you have to go back to the Raspberry tonight. You look like you could use it.” He turned his back to them, taking a few steps before stopping and looking back. “And tonight, Olivia, you don’t make a move without Elliot knowing what that move is. Understand?” “Captain, I’ve got it under control—“ “Not a move,” Cragen repeated, dipping his head, looking more like a father on the verge of scolding a child instead of a superior issuing an order. “Sounds like this McGrath has a hard-on for you already. Let’s not take any chances.” As the captain walked away, leaving both detectives to study the limited and hard luck histories of their reluctant interviewees, Elliot muttered from behind his file, “We took a carriage ride through Central Park and then went back to my hotel room. Just in case McGrath asks.” “A carriage ride?” Olivia asked, hidden behind her file. “What, is that your idea of foreplay?” “Sounds like it’s a helluva lot more than most of these women get.” As she agreed through a throaty grunt, Elliot lowered his gaze, once again looking over the information that had been accumulated on Isabel Duncan, but with Olivia’s voice still ringing in his ears. “Is that your idea of foreplay?” Foreplay. With Olivia. The last person he should want to—or ever should—play with in any capacity. Especially when it was in the context of before. Be-fucking-fore. Jesus Christ. He needed another shower. +++ “Like I told the other cop, I wasn’t raped.” Anna Wright sat inflexibly in the metal-based chair, her hands crossed over each other on the tabletop, and gray-colored eyes down-turned, ignoring the questioning brown eyes across from her. “We believe that you were,” Olivia disagreed, leaning her upper torso over the table and lessening the distance between the openly apprehensive woman and her. “Look, Anna, I’m a detective in Special Victims, not Vice. We know what goes on at Raspberry Vodka, what the waitresses do—are expected to do—with the customers, and I promise you we’re not going to arrest you or anyone else. It’s not what we’re interested in right now. We just want to catch the bastard who raped you.” “I, um.” Anna dug her teeth into her bottom lip, pinching and crinkling the soft, pink skin. She shook her head, appearing close to tears, but with too strong of a wall built up around herself to allow them to fall. “You didn’t deserve to have this happen,” Olivia said, sliding her hand halfway across the table, the tips of her fingers pointed in the direction of Anna’s crossed hands, but never letting skin make contact with skin. “No matter what you had done before with customers in the club, you didn’t deserve to be raped.” She shrugged, a strand of strawberry-blonde hair falling across her shoulder. “I didn’t see…him. I don’t know who it was.” “You didn’t see him?” Olivia asked quickly, leaning further into the table. Anna shook her head. “I’d been on break…alone…and I was in the hallway heading back towards the main room. Someone came up behind me, he, uh, he put something over my head. It was, I don’t know, a pillowcase or something. And then he dragged me into the supply closet. The, uh, the same closet that, that they found Jenna in.” “Okay,” Olivia said, dragging out the word, giving herself time to think and Anna time to compose herself. “You didn’t see his face. Did you hear his voice? Did he say anything to you?” Anna shook her head, the thin strands of reddish blonde hair ruffling across the puffed shoulder of her red shirt. “When we got into the closet, he pushed me down on the floor. And then he…I didn’t…” She shrugged, a shade of crimson creeping across her face. “I didn’t have any underwear on. It was just, I mean, it was easier that way. With the other men, you know, it made things…easier. Faster. And the clients, they seemed to like that. Mr. McGrath usually suggests to the girls that they don’t wear underwear.” “So, you’re saying once you were in the closet, your rapist didn’t have to take the time to undress you?” Olivia responded, her tone far more clinical than compassionate. “He just pushed up my skirt,” Anna confirmed, nodding. “And then he…” She took in a breath, one with the hint of wetness, as if her tears were dangerously close to finally erupting. “When he was finished, he knotted the opening of the pillowcase around my neck. And then he left. It took me a few minutes, you know, to get it untied so I could take off the pillowcase.” “Jenna March was strangled,” Olivia announced. “Do you think he was trying to strangle you?” She shook her head, her light-colored brows lowering. “He tied the knot tight, but not that tight.” “So, maybe it was just to give him enough time to get back into the club before you got out of the closet and could see him?” “Maybe.” “Anna, you said that McGrath made the suggestion about not wearing underwear?” “After I’d…after I’d taken my first customer to the back during a break, Mr. McGrath suggested it. He said if the customers knew I didn’t wear underwear, it’d make them more interested and increase my tips.” She smiled faintly, embarrassedly. “He was right. My tips tripled.” “But how did they know?” Olivia asked. “How many men did you…regularly…” “I only had a couple of regulars,” Anna said, sounding almost desperate, glancing up with widened eyes. “I didn’t…it’s not something I did all of the time. It’s not something I even wanted to do. I just, I needed the money.” “So, what? Did McGrath talk you up to the customers?” “He talks up all of the girls. It’s part of his job, I guess. The money we get, you know, for taking someone in the back, it doesn’t all go to us. Mr. McGrath gets ten percent of it; Mr. Kingsley gets fifteen percent. So, yeah, Mr. McGrath wanted the men to be interested. The more interest there was, the more everyone benefited.” “Everyone,” Olivia said, falling back in her chair. She crossed one leg over the other, tapping her nails against the scuffed tabletop. “McGrath and Kingsley are pimping the women in the club, Anna. That’s what pimps do. They get men interested, they let the women do the work, and then they take a share of the profit.” “No,” Anna said, her voice trembling. “No, they didn’t, they never— It was my choice. No one forced me—“ “Maybe they didn’t force you,” Olivia returned sternly. “But they still sold you. They knew you needed the money, and they convinced you to earn it not only for yourself but also for them.” “But they didn’t force me to do anything.” “They said they weren’t forcing you, but how many times did McGrath threaten to fire you if you weren’t ‘nice’ to the customers?” Anna pulled her head and shoulders back, instantly looking confused, as if she were trying to figure out how Olivia had managed to worm her way into her thoughts and memories. “You aren’t the only woman who was raped,” Olivia announced, instinctively giving a professional reason for her insight versus admitting to there being a personal reason and risking the cover of Rachel Martin, single mother that she knew was still far from being foolproof. “There’ve been others, Anna. Other women who McGrath made suggestions to about not wearing underwear and being nice to customers, other women who were guaranteed extra tips if they compromised themselves and their beliefs.” “But…no one…” Anna sighed, running the tips of her long, manicured fingernails beneath her eyes. “I worked there for over a year. And we talked, you know, the other girls and me. Maybe suggestions were made, but no one was forced to do anything.” “Except when you were dragged into the supply closet,” Olivia responded brusquely. “You were forced then, weren’t you? And I’m willing to bet the son of a bitch didn’t leave a tip for you that time.” +++ “We didn’t have time to talk after the interviews,” Olivia said, her voice traveling from the bathroom, through the narrow slit between the door and frame, into the living room where Elliot waited wearing another rented, pressed suit. “Did you get anything out of Isabel Duncan?” “I read over your notes from Anna Wright’s interview,” Elliot said, moving around the living room, his hands hidden inside the front pockets of his navy blue trousers as he studied knickknacks and framed photographs that he had looked at a thousand times before, but felt as if he were seeing for the very first time. A snow globe on top of the television set, one with a frozen mountain scene. He tapped on the glass dome, his heavy brows scrunched as he studied the cheaply made interior. Mountains? He had never before heard Olivia mention going to the mountains, or even having a penchant for them. She jogged, sure, and worked out like a maniac at times. But he had always attributed that more to her need to alleviate stress. She had never before talked about hiking, not through nature or anywhere else. And sure as hell not across snow-capped mountains like the ones trapped within the glass confines of the globe. “And?” Olivia asked, peeking out of the doorway, one side of her hair held in place at the top of her head by a brown, plastic clip and the other side hanging in loose spirals. “You read over my notes from the Wright interview…and?” “Same M.O.,” he said, shrugging a shoulder as she disappeared into the bathroom again. “Someone snuck up on Duncan from behind, put a pillowcase over her head, and dragged her into the supply closet.” “Has to be the same perp.” “Probably is. But since none of the women had rape kits done, it’s gonna be tough to prove the same guy that raped March raped them, too.” “The guy tied pillowcases around all of their necks,” Olivia said, peering out of the opening again. “And March had a pillowcase over her head when she was found.” “Which could mean the murder wasn’t premeditated,” Elliot said, turning his back to the bathroom door after Olivia disappeared again. “None of the other women were killed. Looks like our perp got carried away with March, tied the case too tight.” He continued to amble through the room, coming to a stop beside a polished, wood table that sat to the side of the bathroom door. A row of pictures lined the top, most of Olivia and her mother, always smiling, looking speciously normal and happy and comfortable in their own skin. Looking comfortable with each other. At the end of the row, half-hidden behind a black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired, smiling child—a child who Elliot decided, purely by guesswork, was his partner—was a picture of Olivia and him. Taken at a time he no longer remembered and in a location he could no longer identify. They looked relaxed, but still guarded. As if both realized—had been taught through one grueling lesson after another—that the world as they knew it at that particular moment could fall apart without warning. “This you?” Elliot asked, grabbing the silver-framed, black-and-white photograph and holding it near the crack in the bathroom doorway. As Olivia answered with a preoccupied, “Mm-hmm,” he brought the picture closer to his face. Studying the wide-eyed, seeming to be laughing child who had been captured in what he could only assume was a fleeting moment of happiness in her life. “I was around three, I think,” Olivia said, chuckling with a hint of embarrassment. “I don’t know why I keep it out, the picture. It’s just…it’s the only one I have. Of me when I was a kid, I mean. My mom wasn’t too big on pictures.” “Cute,” Elliot mumbled, returning the photograph to its spot on the cluttered tabletop, to where it was once again half-hidden behind other photos—the false images—of an Olivia who looked content to be in her mother’s presence and a Serena who appeared to be sober enough to remain upright until the camera flashed. He once again sank his hands into his pockets, feeling the folded wad of bills that lay at the bottoms of both. Just shy of a thousand dollars in his right pocket, a little over eight hundred dollars in his left. Crisp one hundred and fifty and twenty-dollar bills. The city’s money, money that Cragen had requested and had had to give reason after reason and suspicion after suspicion as to why it should be turned over to his detective. Money that Elliot had already decided, if Wyatt McGrath’s push turned into a shove against Olivia, he would willingly spend every penny of to make sure his partner didn’t end up in an isolated backroom because of McGrath’s mantra of ‘be nice’ and with a high-class john expecting her to be just that. As he passed in front of the bathroom door, he caught a whiff of the musky air inside the room. It was heavy, still with a tinge of heat to it from the shower Olivia had taken shortly before he arrived thirty minutes earlier, and mixed with a myriad of other scents that Elliot couldn’t identify the source of, but knew exactly where on Olivia they could be found. He detected floating in the thick air the smell that was attached to every strand of her shoulder-length hair, hair that had grown and changed in style as much as she had during the five weeks that she had spent undercover in Oregon. The smell was fresh and clean with only a hint of perfume to it, not overpowering, but strong enough to be noticeable at times when she leaned in close to him to share a whisper, a barely spoken thought about a suspect, galling defense attorney, or plans gone wrong in a stressful case. The aroma of her body lotion lingered around him, the subtle scent of vanilla that invaded him whenever her arm brushed against his or they were locked together in their police-issue car with the windows rolled up to block out the stench of the city. It was soothing and smooth, soft. Unlike the hard ass persona she worked so damn hard to make everyone else believe. And there was the familiar scent of her perfume, the fresh, crisp smell that he had imagined more times than he could count tasting if his lips ever came in contact with the pulse points on her neck. It was the brisk fragrance that attacked his senses first whenever she stepped close to him, when she tilted her head to the side allowing the skin on her neck to become even more exposed, and once again whispered muffled, private words for only him to hear. And he tried to listen. He tried like hell to concentrate on what she was saying versus the scent that always poured off of her and onto him. He tried to ignore it, and successfully had for eight years. But fucking willpower had its limits. And he knew not only had he reached his limit, but he was just one nudge away from being pushed over it completely. “I just need five more minutes, okay?” He turned quickly, too quickly not to appear eager, and felt the final, fucking nudge that Olivia delivered. “What?” she asked, looking as embarrassed as she did quizzical. She ran the palms of her hands down the sides of her black skirt, rounding them over her hips and outlining the outsides of her thighs. “Something wrong? Christ, there aren’t enough buttons on this get-up for me to forget one—“ “You look great,” Elliot said, halfway stammered, nodding, choking down a mouthful of saliva that the sight of her once again poured into the black skirt and bra and sheer, white blouse produced. “Really, Liv. You look…great.” She chuckled, still with a touch of embarrassment but with even more disbelief, and dismissed his stuttered compliment by turning her back on him and heading toward her bedroom. “Be careful tonight,” he warned, taking a step toward the bedroom but stopping short as he watched, through the open doorway, as she opened the top drawer of her dresser and pulled out a pair of jet black, fishnet hose. The wispy ends trailed behind her in the air as she walked across the room toward the bed, and as he spied the black belts of the puzzle-like garter laid out on the cream-colored bedspread, he spun back around. Once again attempting to swallow, attempting to think, trying like hell just to keep breathing. “Son of a…” Olivia muttered, her voice low and filled with impatience. “This thing is… God, what I wouldn’t give for a thick pair of socks and my black boots right now.” He peeked back over his shoulder, catching only a glimpse of one foot becoming wedged into the shapeless end of the hose. “Just a couple more nights,” he stammered. “Hopefully we’ll have this case closed by then.” “Be careful?” Olivia questioned from behind the partition of her half-closed bedroom door. “’Bout what?” Elliot hurried to the opposite side of the living room, his back to her room, but his mind clearly seeing the image of the fishnet stockings devouring her tanned legs. “Uh, McGrath. Tonight. Once you feed him the story about you and me, he might get more pushy. Remember what Cap said, about letting me know what’s going on.” “Elliot, I know how to work undercover,” she said, stepping out of the bedroom. She smiled slightly, with an overriding look of tiredness, as she slid a silver bangle bracelet over her left hand and onto her wrist. “You know,” he said, nodding. Hell, yes, she knew how to work undercover, but it wouldn’t be long before his cover was blown completely. Christ, one more night of being forced to stare at her in her almost nonexistent uniform and he would have to don a suit of armor just to keep himself from being unmistakably found out. As he watched her snag her purse off the end of the sofa and hook the leather strap over her shoulder, he asked, “That the right purse?” He stepped up behind her and took the door out of her hand, holding it open. “The right purse?” she asked, glancing down at the black leather pouch and then up at him. “It has the right ID in it? Everything in it has the name Rachel Martin? Because what if McGrath or someone goes through it—“ Olivia stepped into the hallway, spinning around on her pointed heels to face him. Her expression tensed, silently questioning him, before it crinkled with confusion. “Elliot, what the hell is going on with you? You’ve been acting weird since Cragen put us on this case.” “I haven’t been—“ “Yeah, you have.” She pushed his hand off of the doorknob, pulling the door closed and twisting the knob twice to make sure it had locked. “Just lighten up, okay? I know what I’m doing, and I’m sure as hell not gonna take any chances or do anything stupid around McGrath.” “Look, Liv, uh.” He straightened his double-breasted jacket, becoming still as Olivia smoothed and dusted the collar. “If McGrath starts pressuring you about going in the back, come get me. Okay? We’ll, uh, we’ll…” He shrugged, the words necessary to convey his thoughts, his idea for duping everyone else just as much as he was trying to dupe himself, suddenly lost. “We’ll…what?” She fought a grin, the corners of her heavily decorated lips twitching. Stepping up to him, running the tip of her finger up the row of pearl buttons that lined the center of his shirt, she tilted her head into his, forcing on him a whiff of the perfume that had all but obliterated his willpower. “Don’t forget the carriage ride through Central Park, Elliot. I like a little foreplay, keep that in mind.” He swallowed, goose bumps taking root on and rising off of his skin as her warm breath washed across the side of his face. Jesus H. Christ. He could tell by the flirtatious smile that hung on her lips she was enjoying her own teasing, even if it was obvious that he wasn’t. Misery loved company was the philosophy she had temporarily adopted, at least while her feet were stuffed into the too narrow, too high of shoes and her body was more than half-exposed to every ogling pair of eyes that didn’t even try to hide the fact that half-undressed wasn’t good enough; she had been completely undressed in a hundred different perverted minds. Including his. She slapped her hand against his chest, almost causing him to lose his balance. Raising the strap of the purse further up on her shoulder, she turned, her laughter resonating in the quiet corridor and perfume lingering as she set off ahead of him. +++ “A carriage ride, huh?” Tristan asked, her overly penciled-in eyebrows hooked into arches as her gaze roamed over Olivia from head to toe. “How’d you wrangle that out of the guy? You ask me, he doesn’t look like the romantic type.” She glanced toward the corner of the room, toward the small, isolated table where Elliot sat alone. “He looks like the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am type who’d get right down to business.” Olivia took in a breath, studying the four drinks that sat on her tray. Jack and Coke. The house special; raspberry vodka and sprite with a twist of lime. Bourbon, straight up. And… Shit. What was the fourth one? She had already messed up more orders than she had gotten right, and she didn’t have the strength or patience left to listen to another lecture or threat from McGrath. And asking Tristan for help would be useless. The other waitress had steered Olivia in the wrong direction almost as many times as Olivia had single-handedly messed up orders. “So, how’d you swing it?” Tristan prodded, balancing one elbow on the edge of the bar. “He’s from out of town,” Olivia said, sighing, conceding to one more mess up, as the identity of the fourth drink on her tray remained lost. “I think he’s new at this. Said he’s newly divorced, was married for over twenty years to his high school sweetheart.” She made a quick, inconspicuous glance toward Elliot, her insides cringing. Being undercover was one thing, and inventing a bogus identity and life for herself was part of the game. But did she have the right to give details about Elliot’s real life to someone with as little interest and empathy as Tristan seemed to have? “Looks like you won the lottery,” Tristan said, a twinge of jealousy in her husky voice. “A lonely guy who has too much money in his pocket. It’s what we’re all looking for, so hang onto him.” “Hang onto him…” Olivia repeated, her whispery voice lost to the noise that cluttered the spacious room. Her gaze found Elliot again, still alone at the table and with a grimace having tightened his rugged features. He looked like a fish out of water in his high-dollar suit, polished shoes, and the Rolex strapped around his left wrist. He looked uncomfortable, and even more suspicious with his narrow-eyed gaze traveling around the room, studying every face and movement and watching every doorway. “Hang onto him,” Tristan said, her tone lowering sternly. “Because if you don’t, someone else will steal him right out from under you.” She chuckled, turning toward the bar as her ordered drinks were placed on her tray. “I just might try to steal him. It’d be kind of fair, don’t you think?” “Fair?” Tristan took in a breath, her eyes narrowing with a flash of anger. “Warren Jenkins. He’s definitely interested in you.” “Look, about that—“ “Don’t flatter yourself,” Tristan said, her husky voice deepening even more. “I don’t give a fuck, because no one will ever be able to take care of Warren like I can. But. Well.” She shrugged a squared shoulder, her painted lips drooping downward. “Warren is special around here; he gets special treatment. And he always calls the shots. Let’s just say that when he and I go in the back, a lot of times he likes it if…” She arched a thinly plucked eyebrow, pursing her lips. “We bring company with us.” Olivia pushed the edge of her tray shakily against her hip, not noticing as a splash of brown liquid from the still unidentified drink sloshed over the rim of the glass. “Company?” “Company,” Tristan repeated, nodding slowly. “Don’t act naïve, Rachel. Especially when everyone here knows you spent the entire day flat on your back with your legs spread for Mr. Texas. If you can do that with him, you can sure as hell do what Warren wants.” Olivia took a slight step backwards, clearing her throat as she once again searched out Elliot in the room. “So, uh. Why don’t you tell me what exactly it is that Warren wants? And, uh, and why in the hell does he want it from me?” “You’re the newest flavor,” Tristan responded with a hint of boredom in her voice, “and Warren always likes to sample the new flavors. Don’t get your hopes up, though, because he just needs a sampling. In the end, he always sticks with the tried and true favorite. Me.” “Yeah? Well, if he likes you so much, why does he want me to join in?” Tristan leaned into the bar, hooking her arm on top of the smooth surface. “Look, this is the way it works with Warren. He has, uh; I guess you could say he sometimes has performance anxiety. He needs, you know, a little something to get him revved up. So. He picks another girl, she goes in the back with us, and he likes to watch her dance. Then when she’s through, I fuck him.” She raised a shoulder, boredom still prevalent on her heavily made-up face. “It’s pretty simple, really.” Olivia choked out a laugh, her eyes widening. “He wants me to… Dance?” Tristan nodded, just once, the sternness that had overtaken her face causing Olivia’s amused smile to instantly fade. “You can’t waitress worth shit, but surely you can dance, can’t you?” “Uh…” Olivia shook her head, rubbing the tip of her thumb across her forehead. “I can stumble my way through the Electric Slide, but I’ve got the feeling that’s not what Jenkins is interested in seeing.” Tristan rolled her eyes, sighing. “Shake your tits and take off your clothes,” she said, grabbing her loaded tray off of the bar. “That’s what gets him worked up. And then after I’m done with him, I’ll give you a cut of the tip. That’s how we do it. So, don’t fuck it up. Warren hates it when the new flavors fuck up.” +++ “He wants you to dance?” Elliot asked, his gaping lips hovering above the smooth rim of his glass, and widened eyes narrowing as Olivia answered with a half-nod, half-shrug of her head. “He wants me to dance,” Olivia said, her arms straightened over the silver tray and fingers tightened around the outer edge. “According to Tristan, Jenkins needs a warm-up act.” She glanced back over her shoulder, finding the perverted subject of Elliot’s and her hushed conversation slumped at his table to the right of the long, winding bar. Warren Jenkins seemed exhausted just from sitting, with his broad chest inflating noticeably with each breath, and the dim-watted track lighting that lined the ceiling causing a kaleidoscope of colors to reflect off of the top of his sweaty, baldhead. “So, what’d you tell the waitress from hell?” Elliot grumbled, slurping his lime-flavored water through clenched lips. Olivia shook her head, staring down at the tray that bore the truth about her inept waitressing skills, tiny puddles and wet streaks of liquor that had been spilled as she attempted to make her way gracefully, in too tight and too high of shoes, from the bar to a designated table. “Not a move without me,” Elliot lectured around the smooth glass. “Captain’s orders.” “I’m standing right here,” Olivia said. “But you’re thinking about it, aren’t you?” Elliot asked insightfully, disapprovingly, and swallowed her surprised stare with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Christ, Olivia. You are thinking about—“ “For God’s sake, Elliot, don’t blow this whole thing right now! It’s Rachel! If you can’t remember a simple detail like that—“ She took in a breath, watching as his bulging Adam’s apple plummeted to the base of his throat where it quivered and vibrated before rising again. She was thinking about it, okay. Maybe. Maybe she was at least entertaining the thought. But shouldn’t she? Her job was about sacrifice; it epitomized sacrifice. She had long ago sacrificed her personal life because of the grueling and unpredictable hours she was expected to work. She regularly sacrificed free time in order to claim back time for an abducted child, a missing person, victims who suddenly found themselves stuck in one horrifying moment in time. She had for years sacrificed sleep because of long hours and haunting dreams that chased her through each night. And if it came down to it, she was expected to sacrifice her partner’s life for that of a victim. She was expected to sacrifice her own life, or accept that her partner would choose to sacrifice her. So couldn’t she—shouldn’t she—make the one sacrifice that would give her an edge in the case? The winning edge, possibly, that would put her one step closer to finding out how Jenna March had ended up dead in a supply closet with a pillowcase tied over her head and the impermeable knot having choked the last breath out of her body? It would be the step that might, hopefully, keep a fifth woman from being dragged into the secluded closet at the back of the building and brutalized and frightened. Once sacrifice by her could mean the difference between walking away from Raspberry Vodka without any answers, or putting a sick bastard behind bars where he belonged. One sacrifice. By her. And wasn’t it what was expected of her? Wasn’t it what she had promised to do when she took her oath and accepted her badge? Not to weigh consequences, or personal conflicts, or differentiate. But to sacrifice. No matter how weighty that sacrifice might be. “It’s just…a dance,” she mumbled, shrugging, hoping to hell she looked at least somewhat calm, not as nervous—as completely disgusted—as she actually felt. “Just a dance.” Elliot dropped his glass heavily onto the tabletop, not noticing as the clear liquid sloshed over the rim and puddled at the thick base of the crystal. “I can pull it off,” she whispered, the tray steadied against her waist and her fingers making consistent swipes around the smooth, rounded edge. “Maybe if I just, I don’t know. Move around a little. It might be good enough for Jenkins. His blood alcohol level has to be through the roof anyway. He won’t be able to focus on me, much less tell if I’m actually dancing…or…stripping.” She shifted her weight from her aching left foot to her equally sore right one, conceding to her idea being a bad one with a shake of her head. “I need to get closer to Tristan somehow. I’ve got a feeling about her. There’s something…different…there. Maybe she knows something about the attacks, and if I can get her to trust me—” She arched her dark brows, taking in a breath. “Right now, she sure as hell doesn’t like me. So, maybe if I go in the back with her I can get her to talk.“ “Maybe if you go in the back you’ll find out Jenkins isn’t as drunk as you think he is.” “There has to be someway—“ “Not by yourself. It’s too risky.” “It’s my job, what I’m here to do.” “No,” he said adamantly. “You stay in the main room where I can see you. That was Cragen’s order, remember? And if you disappear, I’ll have to call in Fin and Munch. If I do that, what happens to our case?” She groaned softly, angrily, and tightened her fingers around the tray. He had her beat; they both knew it. And she hated Elliot for looking so sanctimonious about his underhanded win. “Rachel, is there a problem here?” Olivia groaned again, more with impatience, and shot a warning glare at Elliot before turning to face Wyatt McGrath. She shook her head, seeing over the man’s shoulder Tristan bent over Warren Jenkins’ table, talking, flirting, laughing, and continuously motioning toward the opening of the hallway that led to the mysterious backrooms that Olivia hadn’t yet had the opportunity to investigate, and that Elliot was making sure she wouldn’t take the opportunity—the risk—to explore. “Tristan said she talked to you about Mr. Jenkins’ request,” McGrath said, eyeing Elliot. “I’m sure Mr. Anderson understands that you have other customers to take care of. Besides, the two of you spent the entire day together, right?” Olivia nodded, watching as Tristan’s stare shifted in her direction. “Yeah, well. I told Tristan I wasn’t sure, that, uh, I didn’t know if I was ready—“ McGrath took her by the arm, pulling her a step away from Elliot, out of his earshot. He dropped his face in front of hers, pressing his bristly cheek against hers as he hissed, “Then get ready. Warren Jenkins is an impatient man.” “I thought there wasn’t any pressure?” Olivia snapped, yanking her arm out of McGrath’s pinching hold as she heard Elliot climb out of his chair behind her. “Isn’t that what you said, what I do is up to me?” “No,” McGrath returned. “I said you’re on thin ice around here. I’m not getting compliments about you tonight, Rachel. And when I don’t get compliments, I can only assume the customers aren’t happy with the service you’re providing.” “Or more to the point, the service I’m not providing?” Olivia asked with a tired roll of her eyes. “What’re you saying, either I strip for Warren Jenkins or I lose my job?” “You’re the only one who said that.” He moved his face away from hers, an emotionless smile in place as their eyes met. “All I’m saying is, maybe you should think a little more about those twins you have at home and not so much about what you think you aren’t ready for.” “The twins…” Olivia whispered. “They’re who I have been thinking about, and that’s why I already promised Mr. Anderson that I’d spend my first break with him.” McGrath glanced back over his shoulder, shrugging off Elliot’s tense stance. “You’re taking him in the back?” She took in a breath, hearing the shuffle of Elliot’s slick soled shoes against the tile floor, but not attempting to look at him. “It is my break time, isn’t it?” McGrath nodded slowly, with more disbelief than agreement. “Okay, listen. Room three is open. There’s a box of condoms in the table beside the bed. If things go that far, make sure he uses one. We have a reputation to maintain. The men who come in here know our girls are clean, so let’s keep it that way.” “You’re good at this,” Olivia said, a faint, angry smile causing her lips to tremble. “Being a pimp. How long have you been doing it?” “No one’s paying you to be a smartass. You’re getting paid to be nice.” “Then get out of my way and let me do my job,” Olivia huffed, slapping her shoulder against McGrath’s and shoving the water marked tray against his stomach. She grabbed Elliot’s hand roughly in hers, yanking him forward. “Let’s go, Mr. Anderson. Looks like there’s a room open in the back for us after all.” CHAPTER FOUR “Huh,” Elliot mumbled, stumbling through the doorway from the force of Olivia’s shove against his back. “Guess this is another perk of being one of Raspberry Vodka’s high-priced hookers. The accommodations aren’t bad at all.” He grinned crookedly, looking like a scheming teenager about to make his first, highly anticipated score, as he studied the seductively lit room. When Olivia closed the heavy door, the noise from the main room became a jumbled muffle, the melodic voice of Harry Connick, Jr. becoming indecipherable and blending into the slow beat of the music, and the conversations of the club’s occupants becoming an inaudible drone. Elliot walked to the far side of the room, stopping at the edge of the neatly made bed. The brass headboard sat flush against the crimson-colored wall, and a pair of white fur-lined handcuffs were clasped around both outer bars of the headboard, the other bracelet of both dangling and open, ready to be snapped onto awaiting wrists. Multi-colored, silk scarves were draped across the top of the metal bed frame, their intended use, Elliot assumed, to be left up to the imagination of the room’s temporary occupants. A brass-bodied lamp burned on a white-washed bedside table, its shade hidden beneath a sheer, pink scarf that muted the light and cast indistinct shadows across the deep red walls of the chamber. “Wow,” Olivia whispered, stepping up to the foot of the bed and running the tips of her fingers across the pale pink, crushed velvet bedspread. “Handcuffs and everything. These women really do earn their money.” “Look at this,” Elliot said, turning away from the top, open drawer of the nightstand and lifting into Olivia’s view a leather whip. He arched his eyebrows, his smile still thriving as he slapped the end of the short strap across the palm of his hand. “Guess they want to make sure no one gets bored back here.” Olivia nodded, her eyes tracking the thin strap as Elliot popped it against his hand again. “Guess so,” she whispered, turning away from him and taking stock of the room again. It was expensively decorated, and gaudy as hell. And the warm air in the room made her chest burn and stomach flip. Or maybe it was just the knowledge of what happened whenever the heavy door shut out the façade of normalcy from the main room. Twenty minutes of a life were sold, and an eternity of regret was the price. “So, this is…the…back…” Elliot said, dropping the whip back onto the nightstand. “The back.” “Not much room to dance in here,” Olivia muttered, sinking down on the corner of the bed. “Sure as hell couldn’t do the Electric Slide.” “McGrath has made sure no one’s gonna need anything,” Elliot mumbled, sifting through the scattered contents of the drawer. “We’ve got it all. Condoms, lubricants, even vibrators…” “Just what I wanna do,” Olivia groused, falling back onto her stiffened arms, “use a community vibrator.” “You must not be the only one who feels that way.” Elliot chuckled, his head tilted downward as he lifted a black package into her view. “Antiseptic wipes.” She arched her dark eyebrows, mumbling a throaty, “Hmm,” before saying, “I guess cleanliness is next to Godliness. Even when it comes to the world’s oldest profession.” “Yeah, I guess—“ He spun around, his right foot getting stuck behind his left one as he tried to tackle the dual tasks of coming to a standstill and remaining upright, while adding in the objective of not looking like an uncoordinated idiot while he attempted to master them. But, Christ. She was killing him. It was fucking Murder One. Maybe it was premeditated on her part; maybe it wasn’t. But he was only one out of sync palpitation away from having a heart attack, just one second away from every blood vessel in his overwrought body completely restricting due to sheer anxiety—hell, pent up tension—and causing him to stroke out. And it was because of her. His watery eyes roamed over her relaxed frame where she had slumped on the bed, resting back on her straightened arms, her feet propped up on the spiked heels of her shoes and legs separated. A tunnel had been created between her legs, the opening darkened by the taut material of the black shirt, and from his vantage point, he could clearly see the tan skin of her thighs that peeked teasingly over the tops of the fishnet hose. He could see the clasps of the garter belt where they hooked to the nylons; if he strained, he could see the beginnings of the black straps— Christ. What was he thinking? What in the hell was his perverted mind thinking? They were on the clock, damn it, and he had a wire strapped to his wrist that gave Fin and Munch—grumpy and hidden somewhere on the dark block downing their umpteenth cups of coffee—first row seats complete with Dolby Surround Sound to the show his sick fantasies were playing out in High Definition in his twisted mind. Olivia glanced back, looking over the polished, brass headboard and fur-lined cuffs hooked to it. “Handcuffs,” she mumbled, a soft smile fluttering across her lips. “With, uh, with fur,” Elliot added, chuckling lowly. Nervously. He took a step backwards, a step further away from her. Not far enough to escape the damn, suffocating aroma of her perfume, but far enough that he could no longer clearly see the tormenting sliver of darkness between her legs. “You, uh.” He motioned toward the handcuffs with a tilt of his head. “Ever tried ‘em?” Olivia turned towards him, her soft smile transforming to one of playfulness. “Are you asking because you have?” “I’m just…I don’t know…” He ran his hand across the top of his short hair, taking in a breath that was one hundred percent her. “We’re stuck in here for a few more minutes at least, right? Might as well make conversation.” “About handcuffs?” She chuckled, straightening, sliding her legs together and bringing an abrupt end to the peep show that Elliot was fighting like hell not to let her know he was enjoying. “I had a guy ask me once, if he could, you know.” She shrugged toward the headboard. “But I, I don’t know. It made it seem more like a case than fun, I guess. He, um, he took my cuffs, and he put one of the bracelets on me, but…” “But?” Elliot asked, knowing by the look of unease that had suddenly hardened her features that he was invading an area of her life that she didn’t feel he deserved to know about, but not caring. The playful smile had disappeared from her lips, and her eyes had darkened. And Elliot had to know whether or not an evening she had entered into thinking it would be ‘fun’ had turned out to be anything but. “I didn’t like it,” she said, her answer far simpler than his rigid stance made it apparent he was anticipating. “It was just, you know, I didn’t have any control. So, I, uh.” She shrugged, running her fingers through the sides of her hair, disrupting the shoulder-length strands and dispersing them across her hunched shoulders. “I made him take ‘em off, and then I kicked him out of my apartment. I probably overreacted. I mean, he was a nice guy. I just, God.” She dropped her head forward, sighing, admitting with the weighty breath a thousand different secrets that she couldn’t say, but knew that Elliot shared with her. That there was far too thin of a line separating normal and abnormal, and more people than they had ever expected had crossed over that line. That it was hard for mundane conversations to be held once their professions were divulged, because even the normal had abnormal thoughts and curiosities, and knowing that their lives, day in and day out, were immersed in sex somehow gave those seemingly normal people a feeling of ease to discuss things they wouldn’t discuss with anyone else. It was as if, once they were found out, Elliot and she became the perverts simply by a disgusted association with the immoral criminals they pursued. The pedophiles’ and rapists’ and degenerates’ lifestyles and beliefs and urges were forced onto them, and it was assumed—even by the normal—that the perverse acts they regularly persecuted were also the ones they secretly enjoyed. “I understand,” Elliot whispered, backing up to the wall. The fitted coat of the suit bunched around his shoulders as he buried his hands in the side, squared pockets. As he dug his hands deeper, the tips of his fingers scraped against the folded bills that had become wedged into the bottoms of the deep pouches. Eighteen hundred dollars And, Christ, as he stared at her, her knees wedged together and feet separated, hunched over in her uniform that was too small and with the mask of make-up unable to hide her sudden look of sadness, he knew she was worth so much more. More than the percentage of a tip that Tristan had offered if Olivia—Rachel—would make the leap over that thinly drawn line into the abnormal by giving Warren Jenkins more than his money should ever be able to buy. Her. Her heart and soul and dignity; the sense of self-worth that she had spent a lifetime building, and that Elliot knew, even though Olivia would kick his ass if he ever said it out loud, wasn’t strong enough to withstand the shame that would consume her if she removed even her shoes for the anomalous prick. He cleared his throat, her eyes shifting upward towards him, as both sound and air were suddenly sucked out from within the confines of the four crimson-colored walls. “Why were you thinking about doing it?” he asked. “What Jenkins wanted?” “Elliot—“ “You were thinking about it,” he accused, one eyebrow arched and jaws clenched. “Coming back here…dancing…” “I was thinking about Jenna March and Anna Wright, about Isabel Duncan—“ “Bullshit. You were thinking about a collar.” He pushed off of the wall with his shoulders, watching as the size of her eyes fluctuated, widening first with disbelief before narrowing with obvious anger. “And it’s not worth it to make a fucking collar, Liv, to do what that ass wipe wanted you to do.” She straightened her back and squared her shoulders, her posture becoming rigid. “That’s my call to make, don’t you think? How big of a risk I’m willing to take?” He shook his head, his lips hooked into a frown. “You aren’t coming back here with anyone else. Force me to, and I’ll go to Cragen.” “You’re threatening me?” “Making a promise.” She laughed softly, abruptly. Angrily. “You aren’t my superior, Elliot. You’re my partner, my equal. We’re supposed to be working this case together, remember?” “And we are. But solving a case isn’t worth—“ “Hey,” she said quickly. “Don’t push your ideas onto me about how much it’s worth to solve this case. I’m the one walking around out there for eight hours straight, remember? I’m the one bending over just far enough to give those bastards hard-ons, and I’m the one getting squeezed and pinched and hit on. I know what these women are dealing with on a daily basis, not to mention the pressure McGrath puts on them!” “On them, Olivia! Not on you!” He pointed a rigid finger in her direction, his expression as stiff as his body had become. “You don’t have to take any of his threats! He tries to force you to do something you’re uncomfortable with then you walk away from this assignment! That’s your job, to keep your head on straight and stay focused, not to let a dirt bag like Wyatt McGrath intimidate you!” “Intimidate me? That’s what you think—“ She cupped the bedspread in her palms, tugging on the soft material, twisting it between her fingers, strangling it. “Go to hell, Elliot.” “And you start working this case like you’re supposed to,” he warned, his voice having lowered, becoming authoritative and lecturing. “You’re not Rachel Martin. You don’t have a deadbeat ex-husband and twelve-year-old twins. None of this is real, Olivia, and it’s dangerous to start pretending it is. Because if you let yourself fall into that trap, you’re gonna get hit in the face with more reality than you’re prepared for.” She shook her head, jumping up from the bed. “Don’t lecture me,” she hissed, running her hands down the length of her thighs and smoothing the material of her skirt. She stomped toward the door, her steps heavy and the sharp heels of her shoes creating echoes against the tile floor. Stopping, her hand tightened around the doorknob, fingers floating over the metal as if she hadn’t yet decided if she wanted to leave or not, she dropped her head forward. “You know, even if you’re having trouble admitting it, I know exactly what the reality of this situation is. I’m a cop, too, Elliot, and a damn good one. And I went through the same training to become a detective that you went through.” She lifted her head, glancing back at him, outing him unquestionably with accusing eyes. “That means, just like you, I’ve been trained to see things that other people don’t always want me to see. And that includes everything you think you’re doing such a damn good job of hiding.” +++ “Where’s the money?” Olivia came to an abrupt stop at the opening of the hallway, staring past Wyatt McGrath as she watched Elliot stomp across the empty dance floor toward his isolated, corner table. As he yanked the metal-framed chair backwards, falling into it with only the back two legs steadied on the floor, she cringed. Openly. Outwardly. But without regret. She shook her head, exhaling. Trying like hell, through the heavy breath, to rid herself of Elliot, the uncharacteristic awkwardness that had plagued him throughout the last two days, the stares she saw from him that ran deeper than normal, the over protectiveness that she wasn’t used to him smothering her with, his unsubstantiated anger, his threats against her, and his aberrant air of authority. “The money, Rachel,” McGrath continued, snapping his fingers in front of her face and dragging her heated attention back from the sullen man in the corner of the room. “Where is it?” “The—“ She released another breath, turning to face McGrath. “I didn’t, when we were done, I—“ “You didn’t get the fucking cash upfront?” McGrath spit, his stubble-covered cheeks reddening. “It’s not like I’m used to doing this kind of thing,” Olivia returned, watching cautiously as McGrath’s normally pale face became completely discolored. “You wanna give me a break? Anderson said, he, uh, he said he’d add it onto his bill when he tabbed out at the end of the night.” “He’s gonna add an extra five hundred bucks onto his drink tab,” McGrath seethed through a slow nod. “And then what’s he gonna do? What, is he gonna claim it as a medical expense on his income taxes? Jesus Christ! You really are clueless, aren’t you?” “Hey, you told me to take him in the back! You never bothered to explain protocol! You want the money upfront, fine! Next time I’ll get it upfront!” He stepped up to her, standing just tall enough for his hot, shallow breaths to douse her face. “Next time will be during your eleven thirty break, and it’ll be with Warren Jenkins.” He moved closer, smirking, looking almost impressed as she continued to hold her ground. “I don’t care if you do the Electric Slide, the Hokey Pokey, or the fucking Chicken Dance, but Mr. Jenkins wants you to dance for him. So at eleven thirty you’d better have your ass in room one, and you’d better have that old man ready to pop by the time Tristan gets back there at eleven forty-five.” Olivia took a step back, out of the range of his stale breaths, and shot a wary glance past him toward a still sulking Elliot. “I, uh.” She swallowed hard, stalling, feeling the first sting delivered by reality’s harsh slap that Elliot had tried to warn her about. “Look, what about tomorrow night? I already, I promised Anderson—“ “Then break your promise,” McGrath commanded. “Besides, you could’ve already lost us five hundred bucks because of him. You need to do something to make up the money. If you don’t, Mr. Kingsley isn’t gonna be too happy.” Olivia backed up to the wall, her shoulders becoming flush with the cool, even plaster. She forced down a breath, one of calming, one that she hoped to hell would help her think straight, and would keep her doubled fists from removing the arrogant expression from McGrath’s face. “Look, Elliot—I mean, Mr. Anderson—is only gonna be in town for a couple of more days. And he’s gonna pay, I know he is. You checked him out, right? He has the money—“ “Elliot?” McGrath asked, a callous smile rolling across his thick lips. “Elliot? What the hell is going on here, Rachel? Now you’re on a first name basis with this guy?” He chuckled, his liquor-sodden breath filling her nose. As she turned away, he grasped her chin, yanking her face back towards his. “Just how stupid are you? What do you think is gonna happen with this guy, huh? You think he’s actually gonna fall for someone like you? Because you know what? He won’t. No matter what bullshit lines he’s feeding you, you’re nothing special to him. You’re just a piece of New York pussy, and I can guarantee you that’s the only reason he’s hanging around right now. Because you’re an easy score, a lonely, desperate woman who hasn’t realized yet that the only thing she has to offer is a decent fuck.” He took a step back, looking her up and down, his cold eyes filling with disgust. “Women like you aren’t the type these men marry. Especially someone like Elliot. And as soon as you start to understand that, the better off you’ll be.” +++ “Where’s Rachel?” Elliot asked, taking only a moment to glance into the darkened, emotionless eyes of the blonde who had come to a stop beside his table. He looked beyond the seductive smile her blood red lips had hooked into, past the hips that weren’t as curvaceous as the ones he would rather see, and ignored the mounds of flesh that threatened to topple out of her lace-trimmed bra when she bent over his table to deliver his fifth tonic water of the long night. “Who cares?” Tristan asked, batting her false, jet-black eyelashes. “You’ve given her enough attention, don’t you think? Why not give someone else a little, too?” “Someone else…” Elliot muttered, his blue eyes shifting slowly, cautiously, to the blonde’s face. She was attractive, he decided. Not exactly pretty, at least not naturally so like Olivia was, but she was eye-catching. Noticeable. Or she would be if her overly made-up face wasn’t so prematurely aged. “Someone else,” Tristan said, nodding, wetting her lips with her tongue. “Like, say, me. I’ve been here for a long time, Mr. Anderson. Trust me, if you give me the chance, I can make you forget all about Rachel.” She forced a smile, slowly blinking her long, curved lashes. “I can do things for you that Rachel won’t ever be able to do. Let’s just say I can open your eyes to a whole new way of life.” “Well.” He cleared his throat, his back becoming flush with the inflexible metal of the chair as Tristan made a tickling pass down his arm with her pointed fingernails. “As tempting as that sounds, I already made plans with Rachel.” “You know what they say. Plans are made to be broken.” “But I was kind of…” He nodded, making another hasty search of the room for his partner. “Looking forward to it.” Come to think of it, he had only seen Olivia a couple of times since she had stormed out of the backroom, leaving him alone and half-crazed wondering which of his secrets had been so demonstrably—maybe even grotesquely, at least in Olivia’s viewpoint—exposed. And the few times she had passed by his table, her steps light from the blisters the Stiletto’s had worn on her feet, she hadn’t offered him so much as a glance or, “Go to hell.” She had merely paraded past him with her smile directed at someone else, her hips swaying for the benefit of some other drooling ass wipe, and with each bend she made over a table becoming more pronounced. And she had done it all to piss him off, just as he had pissed her off. And, damn it. It had worked. “Well, now you can look forward to spending time with me,” Tristan said, dragging the tip of her fingernail around the outer edge of his ear. “Haven’t you ever heard the old saying, blondes have more fun?” She leaned down, the tip of her nose brushing across his cheek and the tops of her breasts pressing into his arm. “And you know what? Not only do I have more fun, but I know how to make sure you have more fun, too.” He leaned to the side, away from her, away from her face and breasts that he, God help him, would devour between his lips right there without caring who saw or watched or found them out. If. If it was Olivia standing that close to him. If it was Olivia’s face next to his, and Olivia’s moist lips teasing him with the promise of a kiss. If it was Olivia’s breasts pressing against him, lifting and falling with every breath, rubbing him, and dangerously close to falling out of the laughable excuse for a bra. “What?” she asked, her rasping voice rolling off of her tongue as a growl. “Don’t try to tell me I’m not your type.” She smiled, only partially, flirtatiously. “I’m everyone’s type.” “I bet you are,” Elliot said, tracking the fluid movement of her hand, the rehearsed movement that was made casually, as she pressed her palm against the center of his chest and knotted the material of his silk shirt with the tips of her razor-sharp fingernails. “But.” “But?” She arched an eyebrow, licking at the corner of her mouth, first her lower lip and then the upper one. “You can’t honestly prefer brunettes, someone like Rachel.” “Brunettes, well.” He winced as her nails broke through the material of his shirt and scraped against his chest. “Yeah, I like brunettes.” Tristan straightened, her hand falling away from him and lips drooping into a pout. “You like brunettes, okay. Then give me a chance to convert you. Trust me, it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget.” He shook his head, smiling fleetingly, with unease. “Actually, I’ve already tried my luck with a blonde. It didn’t work out too well.” “No?” Tristan asked, her pout deepening. “So, tell me about her. How she broke your heart.” She moved her hips from left to right, bracing her hands on the tabletop and leaning into him. “What was her name?” “Her name? Alimony and child support.” “Alimony and— That’s a good one.” “It’s not as good as you,” Elliot returned, lifting his empty glass and shaking it in her direction. “I could use another one.” Tristan pushed off of the table, rolling her eyes. “If tonic water was lethal, sweetheart, you’d be dead. How about I get you something stronger, something that’ll loosen you up a little?” “How about just another tonic water?” As Tristan took the glass out of his hand, spinning around on her tall heels, Elliot grabbed her arm. He held his smile as she glanced back, adding in a wink as he said, “Maybe you’re right. I could use a change.” “Now you’re talking,” Tristan said, her long lashes fluttering. He nodded toward the glass gripped loosely in her hand. “Forget the lime this time. I think I’ll try it with a slice of lemon.” +++ “You’re an easy score, a lonely, desperate woman who hasn’t realized yet that the only thing she has to offer is a decent fuck. Women like you aren’t the type these men marry. Especially someone like Elliot. And as soon as you start to understand that, the better off you’ll be.” Olivia remained at the opening of the hallway, the darkness that filled the narrow corridor offering enough of a shield to hide her. From Wyatt McGrath’s intimidating stare, Warren Jenkins expectant one, Tristan’s look of victory, and Elliot’s roaming eyes. His damn blue eyes that she had seen searching for her, but hadn’t moved out of the shadows so that she could be seen. By him. Someone who, in Wyatt McGrath’s experienced opinion, saw her as an easy score. Lonely. Desperate. A decent fuck. If there was a list of things that she had perfected beyond the point of merely being ‘decent,’ sex would definitely be at the top of it. She had spent years perfecting it, with men she went to college with, men she went to the academy with, men she worked with, men she met in bars whose names she never asked, men she didn’t care about, and men she had thought, at least for a fleeting second, that she might be able to care about. But that was all it ever amounted to, caring. She cared often, but never seemed to fall in love. But that was B.D. Before the divorce, before her life was completely and unexpectedly turned upside down by a piece of paper that bore two signatures, neither being hers. It was when, after years of convincing herself that her promiscuity was justified, that she was old enough and experienced enough—that she had seen enough—to make educated, careless decisions, every lie she had taught herself to overlook suddenly became a roadblock that prevented her from moving forward. She stopped dating for the most part, stopped shopping for sex in bars and at work, and stopped telling herself that being alone, uncommitted, was what she wanted. It was when she stopped lying, finally. On the day that Elliot had told her the papers had been signed and that he had returned them to Kathy. The day she took him out for drinks after their shift ended, when they stayed out until they were the last people in the bar, both almost horizontal in the vinyl-covered seats of the booth with the scuffed table that had become cluttered with too many empty shot glasses and beer bottles to count separating them. She had seen him for the first time that night, through blurry eyes that had been a struggle to keep open. But in her mind’s eye, her vision had never been clearer, even though she had wished like hell it would have been as impaired by alcohol as the rest of her had been. And she had worked like hell since that night to blame the unfamiliar feelings that she couldn’t seem to rid herself of on too much alcohol, and had done her best to keep Elliot as separated as much as possible from those feelings. “Jesus, don’t fall for him.” Harley stepped up beside her, nudging Olivia’s shoulder with her own. “That’s the surest way to get your heart broken in a place like this, by falling for some sweet talker with a fat wallet.” She smiled as Olivia glanced at her. “The guys who come in here only want to make you feel special for a minute, Rachel. Don’t buy into any of their lines.” Olivia tightened her arms across her chest, shaking her head. “I’m not falling for anyone.” “Not even Mr. Texas?” She shook her head more diligently, praying that Harley would buy into her display of resoluteness. Because she sure as hell wasn’t buying into it herself. She cleared her throat, nodding, her gaze settling across the room on Elliot. “Especially not him.” Harley took in a breath, one that was thick and revealed her disbelief. “Tristan said you’re going to, um.” She shrugged, twisting her full lips to the side and nibbling on the lower one. “I’m going to?” Olivia asked, shooting a sideways glance in the openly apprehensive woman’s direction. “What?” “Go in the back,” Harley answered, her voice having dropped to just above a whisper. “With Warren and her.” She smiled sheepishly, her upper teeth once again sinking into her plump lower lip. “McGrath told me to do it,” Olivia admitted, her words intermeshed with a strong breath. “But I haven’t decided if I’m going to.” “It’s easy money. I’ve done it a couple of times. I mean, all you’ve gotta do is dance.” She lowered her head, giggling softly. “Correction. All you really have to do is get naked. Warren could care less if you have an ounce of rhythm.” “So, you’ve danced for him?” “A couple of times. It’s not a big deal, really. And I can guarantee you that Warren won’t touch you. Women scare him, I think. Well, every woman except Tristan, that is. She’s the only one who’s ever, you know, with him.” She hooked her arms across her chest, shivering, rubbing warmth into her goose bump-layered skin with the palms of her hands. “Tristan hit on your guy earlier, on Mr. Texas.” Turning toward Olivia, her eyes darkened noticeably. “Want some advice? Let her have him. He’ll be gone in a few days anyway, right? So, maybe it’ll save you a broken heart.” “What makes you think my heart will get broken?” “Because I can tell,” Harley responded simply. “You like him. You’ve stopped seeing him as a customer, Rachel, and that’s dangerous. The girls who start doing that, who forget what this place is really about and what all the guys really want, they’re the ones who get hurt. Because they start thinking there could be more than this, more than twenty minutes here or there in a backroom.” “And you’ve never done that?” Olivia asked, pushing the miserable-looking man across the room out of her thoughts and allowing Jenna March and Anna Wright to once again consume them. “You’ve never fallen for someone?” “Around here?” Harley asked, chuckling. “Never. Once you go into the backroom the first time, everyone starts to look at you differently. I mean, it’s no secret what goes on here. And I know what I am now. I know what people see me as. It’s not who I ever expected to be, but sometimes you run out of options. And all the women here—including you—ran out of options.” “So. What about Jenna March?” Olivia asked, turning her back to the main room, to the lull of chatter that filled it, and stepping in front of Harley. “I know what happened to her, Harley. And I thought, I mean, McGrath keeps telling me this is a safe place to work. So, if that’s true, what happened to Jenna?” Harley answered first with a shrug, glancing around Olivia’s shoulder into the congested room. “She fell for someone, and she was stupid enough to start believing she could be more than this. And like I said, it’s dangerous to start thinking that way.” “But maybe she could’ve been more.” Harley shook her head. “The minute you accepted the job, Rachel, you sold yourself to Jordan Kingsley. We all did. And it doesn’t matter if we only work here for a week or five years; people will always know what we are and who we belong to. In this city, Kingsley has enough money and influence to keep this kind of place running. And the women who work here aren’t supposed to get tired of it, at least not until Kingsley gets tired of them.” Olivia nodded, urging her to continue, feeling a stirring of excitement over the possibility of getting her first break in the seemingly unbreakable case. “What if you do get tired of it? Is that what happened with Jenna, she got tired of working at Raspberry Vodka? Did she want to quit, Harley?” “This guy that she fell for,” Harley began, giving only a quick glance in Olivia’s direction before returning her attention to the main room. “She said he wanted to marry her. She was gonna talk to Mr. Kingsley. You know, give him her notice. Mr. Wonderful promised to take care of her kids and her, and she bought into everything he said. Hook, line and sinker.” “So, what? You don’t think the guy was on the up and up?” “Doesn’t seem like men are ever sincere,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “But from the minute Jenna walked into this place, he was all about her. He hated her going in the back with other guys. It used to really piss him off when she’d do it. So, finally she told him that either he married her, or he needed to shut up about the back. She needed the money, you know? Had kids to take care of.” “So, he was the jealous type?” “Oh, yeah. Real jealous.” “And?” Olivia prodded, her eyes widened, begging for more information. “Does this guy have a name?” Harley squinted her eyes, hooking her lips to the side. “Why all the questions about Jenna? Mr. Kingsley said the cops were looking into what happened. In the meantime, though, we’re safe. There’s nothing to worry about.” “The guy’s name, Harley,” Olivia said, forcing on the other woman the same authoritative tone that Elliot had used with her earlier. “What is it?” Harley shrugged, sighing. “It’s Wyatt. Everyone knows it, that he had a thing for Jenna.” “Wy—“ Olivia took a step back, whipping her head around, her eyes narrowing as she attempted to cut through the dim lighting and thick crowd to find Elliot. “Hey, look. There’s nothing to worry about. I mean, Wyatt never would’ve hurt Jenna. As crazy as the guy can act, I really do think he cared about her.” She curved her fingers around Olivia’s elbow, pulling back her attention. “He did care about her, Rachel. So much so that, finally, she did stop taking guys in the back. The only thing Wyatt was okay with her doing was dancing for Warren. And he was okay with that because everyone knows Warren is harmless. Hell, most of the time he can’t even get it up. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what Tristan and he do in the back all the time. There’s a pool going on among the waitresses—“ She leaned in closer, winking. “Honestly? We think they play naked Twister.” +++ Olivia stood at the end of granite-topped bar, her elbows propped on the surface and the empty, silver tray wedged between them. And she watched him. Elliot. Sitting in the same chair he had sat in for two nights, looking uncomfortable in his Armani suit, looking out of place—far too sober—among the flushed faced, boisterous men who filled the club. He looked different, noticeably. Not at all like the other men who were willing—and quick to—issue idle compliments and flirt insincerely and dole out a handful of cash just for twenty minutes of any one of the women’s time, women whose names most of the disingenuous men wouldn’t remember in the morning. Elliot looked sincere, and far too much like he actually cared. “Mr. Jenkins is waiting for you,” Wyatt McGrath announced, his face lowered next to Olivia’s and husky voice startling her out of her thoughts. “In the back, room one. He wants to see you, Rachel. Now.” Olivia straightened, dragging her hands along the smooth edge of the tray. “You know, I left my tap shoes at home. It’s gonna be hard to dance without ‘em. What do you say we reschedule this for tomorrow night?” “I say get your ass to the back,” McGrath hissed, pulling the tray out of her hands. He tossed it at the unaware man behind the bar, muttering a disgruntled, “Hang onto that for her, Louie,” before turning his attention back on Olivia. “Tristan said she gave you the run down of how it works. You go in, do a little dance, take off some clothes, and Warren’ll let you know when he’s ready for Tristan. He’s not interested in anything more from you, so there’s nothing to worry about.” “Nothing to worry about?” Olivia asked, licking nervously at her lips. “You ever notice that the people who say that are the ones who aren’t doing anything to feel nervous about?” She made a sweeping glance around the room, scowling. “Just how many men around here have you screwed, McGrath? Because I think until you start heading in the back with some of these guys, you really don’t have any right to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be worried about.” “You have a smart mouth.” “And you have rotten leadership skills,” she returned, her eyebrows arched, daring him to push her further. “You even sold the girl you claimed to want to marry. Sold her to Warren Jenkins, didn’t you?” She shook her head, grunting with disgust. “You’re so low you make the bottom feeders look good, McGrath.” He grabbed her arm, pulling her away from the bar. “Shut the fuck up and get in the back! No one’s paying you to think around here! And if for one second you got that impression, take a look at what you’re wearing! You’re dressed like a whore because that’s exactly what you are!” He shoved her forward a step, chasing after her as she headed toward the dark hallway. “Get your ass back there now and don’t come out until you give Mr. Jenkins exactly what he’s paying for!” +++ “You wanna tell me where in the hell you’re going?” Olivia skidded to a stop, Elliot’s tight grip around her arm causing her to spin on her heels until she was facing him. She yanked her arm back, her expression hardened. Pissed. “I’m getting tired of being grabbed and pushed and told what to do, Elliot! Why in the hell are you following me? What, are you trying to blow this thing?” “You didn’t answer my question!” he hissed, pulling her closer until their faces almost touched, until hot breath was exchanged for hot breath. “Where in the hell are you going, Rachel?” Olivia gave another jerk of her arm in conjunction with Elliot releasing his hold, causing her to stagger backwards a step, off balance, until her back flattened against the wall. “I’m doing my job! The job I was sent in here to do, that I’m the only one competent to do! What in the hell are you doing, besides trying like hell to blow both our covers?” “You were sent in here to serve drinks and get information! Not to— Jesus Christ!” She ran her hands shakily down the sides of her skirt, her chest heaving as she tried to slow her breathing. To calm down. To not kill Elliot. “Just let me do this,” she said, her voice having lowered cautiously. “I have gotten a lot of information, okay, and I think if I go back there with Jenkins, if I do this and gain McGrath’s and Tristan’s trust, I can get even more information.” She watched as Elliot took a jerky step backwards, his angry glare focused on the opening of the hallway and the dance floor beyond it that had become cluttered with prestigious-looking men and waitresses who were only half-dressed and completely out of options. “Let you do what?” Elliot asked, his gaze shifting slowly to her. “Ruin your career? Ruin—“ He took another step back, increasing the distance between them, widening the damn crack that, if she continued down the hallway to room one, would no longer be repairable. “I know you. You can’t do this. You’re just letting them mess with your head. For whatever reason, you’re letting McGrath and these women get to you. And we both know you can’t do that, identify too closely—“ “Jenna March was left in a supply closet with a pillowcase tied over her head,” Olivia hissed, balling her trembling hands at her sides. “And she was McGrath’s girlfriend, Elliot. And three other women were dragged into the same closet and raped, three. Kingsley didn’t report any of the attacks, and he paid the women not to report them, either. And I think the son of a bitch needs to be stopped.” She rifled her fingers through her messed hair, banging the back of her head against the wall. “Just because a woman’s on her own, just because she doesn’t have a man around, doesn’t mean she’s lonely or desperate. But that’s what Kingsley and McGrath—and bastards like Warren Jenkins—are making these women believe, that they’ve reached an age where they’ve run out of options. That they only have one thing left to offer.” “And all of that is awful, yeah,” Elliot agreed, nodding, the muscles in his jaws clenching and relaxing with each slow bob of his head. “But it’s no worse than anything else we’ve ever seen.” “These women are being bought and sold!” She rushed up to him, her chest grazing his. But neither moving, neither backing down. “And it’s happening right under our noses, Elliot! So, what? We’re expected to find out who killed March and then just walk away? We’re supposed to shut our eyes like the rest of this fucking city has been doing for God knows how long? And why’s that? Because Kingsley’s a man, or because he’s rich?” “What’re you gonna do?” he spit. “Single-handedly take down Kingsley’s operation? And how’re you planning to do that, by performing a strip tease for every pervert who asks for one?” “I didn’t say I was gonna strip for Jenkins!” “Then why in the hell are you going in the back to meet him?” “To get information! That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? It’s our job, Elliot, even if all those hard-ons you’ve had since we’ve walked into this place have made you forget it!” She took in a trembling breath as he did, both of their nostrils flaring, both sets of eyes darkening, and both wills disinclined to concede. Elliot laughed, the sound harsh, rasping, and working its way up from his gut. He turned, walking to the other side of the hallway, separating himself from Olivia even further. The music boomed through the opening of the corridor, washing over them, Michael Buble’s smooth voice drowning out their heavy breaths, but doing little to soothe the tension that had settled, blatantly, between them. “Hard-ons?” he asked, his voice thick, angry. “Armani may be expensive,” she returned coolly, “but it sure as hell isn’t foolproof. Maybe you should rent something in camouflage before you come back tomorrow night.” “Camouflage,” Elliot repeated, chuckling. “Go to hell.” “Screw you.” “Screw me?” he asked, wide-eyed and with the tip of his thumb stuck to the center of his chest. She nodded, the exposed skin of her breasts seeming to quiver each time she managed to pull in a ragged breath. “Screw you. And screw your fucking, rented Armani suits and your flat shoes, and screw every second during the last two nights that you’ve sat on your ass while I got fucking bruise after bruise from being manhandled by all the pricks out there.” “Now you’re pissed about my cover?” he laughed, taking a quick step towards her. He motioned with his hand down the length of her curvaceous body, shaking his head as he stopped in front of her. “I’d be a little obvious in that get up, don’t you think?” “I think you’d still be a prick.” “And you’d still be a bitch.” “Fuck off.” “Is that the best you’ve got?” He lowered his face in front of hers, sucking her rushed, heavy breaths into his mouth, tasting each peppermint-scented one, swirling each in his mouth, tasting her. “You’re losing your edge, Elliot,” she whispered, her dark eyes sweeping downward and her gaze fixating on his protruding crotch. “Can’t even work an undercover detail anymore. What’s that mean? You getting rusty?” He outstretched his arms, connecting his palms to the wall on either side of her head. “Fuck you, Olivia,” he growled, his eyes narrowing. “Fuck. You.” She pressed her back against the wall, flattening, her hands instinctively shooting upwards and becoming flush against his chest. She couldn’t say it back to him, because she could tell it had become more of a challenge to him than merely angry words to pass back-and-forth. There was something different about him, in the way he stood, the way he stared, in the way he breathed. Deeply, loudly, like each breath might be his last, or possibly it was that he was searching for his first. “Nothing to say?” he taunted, a smirk infecting one side of his mouth, lifting his lips. “That doesn’t happen too often, that you don’t have something to say.” Jesus. What was she supposed to say? Did he expect her to keep their fucking match alive by throwing the words back at him? Or should she address the issue that neither of them could deny at that moment trapped in the shadows of the hallway? The issue that was being acknowledged only through intermittent winces that tensed Elliot’s face each time his erection, the one she could tell he wished like hell he didn’t have, jammed into her inner thigh. He was practically on top of her, his arms entrapping her, stopping her from running, and his eyes daring her to accept the challenge—the offer—he had cryptically delivered. “Say something,” he demanded, tilting his face downward, his lips moving dangerously close to hers, hovering in front of her mouth, teasing her with kisses that weren’t given. “Say it, Olivia. All you have to do is say it.” She swallowed hard, groaning softly as the rigid tip of his penis roamed up her thigh. Closing her eyes, dropping her head forward, she realized that she had stopped breathing. Or maybe it was that she was waiting for Elliot to take his first breath so that she could take her first one, too. “Say it,” he repeated, his voice low, barely audible as Michael Buble crooned about too much time spent away from home and separations and love letters and hearts breaking. “McGrath’s gonna see us,” she choked. “Cragen’ll be pissed if we blow this thing.” “Say it.” “Elliot.” “Say. It.” She looked up, her gaze rising slowly, hesitantly, until her stare locked onto his. His pupils were dilated, wide and black and offering her a clear view into his soul, into his wants and desires, into his beliefs about her, about him, about them. She felt the words form in her throat and fought them. She didn’t want to say them, to admit to Elliot that she could be so easily bought, not with money, but with the same promise of interest that the other women at Raspberry Vodka sought. But she didn’t want him to see her as lonely or desperate, or for him to think that she could give in so easily. She didn’t want Wyatt McGrath to be right about them, that Elliot saw her only as an easy score, a decent fuck, but nothing else. Nothing more. She wanted Elliot to see her. But she needed even more to see him. She nuzzled her mouth against his, biting into his lower lip, tugging on his skin, tasting the tart lemon left behind from his last drink, and feeling him stiffen even more against her. “Fuck me, Elliot. Here. Now. Fuck me.” CHAPTER FIVE “Fuck me, Elliot. Here. Now. Fuck me.” Elliot snaked his hands down Olivia’s torso, his mouth covering hers and groans rattling in his throat as his palms curved around her buttocks. He pulled her against him, muttering a throaty, “Jesus,” as the tip of his penis jammed against the material of her skirt where it had become taut between her separated thighs. Tightening his grip around her bottom and pulling her sideways, their steps faltering in sync, he shoved her through the doorway into the ladies’ room. Stumbling across the tile floor with Olivia working frantically to rip the double-breasted suit jacket off of his broad shoulders, he guided her into the corner cubicle, pushing the slatted door closed with a kick of his foot in conjunction with flattening her back against the wooden wall. Olivia’s head popped backwards, slamming against the wall, and she muttered a husky, “Damn it!” before answering his unspoken question with a nod of her head. “I’m okay. Just— Hurry up, Elliot. I only have ten minutes left of my break.” She lunged at him, yanking the jacket down his arms and letting it fall to the floor. And even before the coat landed, heaped and wrinkled, her hands had become wrapped around his belt buckle. “Ten minutes?” Elliot panted, his hands disappearing beneath the hem of her skirt. The tips of his fingers slid across the smooth material of the garter belt, and he let it act as his guide. Upwards to the tops of her thighs, over her hips, snaked beneath her navel, all he could feel on either side of the belt and beneath it was flesh, warm, sweaty— “No underwear?” he asked, his voice barely more than a hot breath that filled her mouth. He pulled his head back, unhooking his lips from hers, and raised an eyebrow. Jesus Christ. No underwear. She wasn’t fucking wearing underwear. Just like she never did in any of the perverted and X-rated fantasy he’d had about her. “In this thing?” she asked, her hands moving away from the unlatched belt buckle and quickly unhooking his pants. Lowering his zipper, her eyes took in the sight of him. She could see the bulge that had stretched his boxers, and she rocked forward on the toes of her pointy-heeled shoes, an ache beginning between her legs. Elliot wouldn’t even have to go inside of her for her to come. Just one rub, one fucking rub even with his striped boxers still pulled tightly across him was all it would take to drop her to her knees. “Oh, my God,” she groaned, dropping her forehead against his shoulder. “Oh, shit, Elliot. You’re wired. Fuck. You’ve got a mic—“ “Took it off.” He lifted his wrist, giving her a view of the reddened patch left on his skin from the tape he had ripped off just moments before following her into the hallway. He had known what she was going to do, what she had been thinking about doing with Warren Jenkins, and he had known what it would do to her career if she let it happen. And so he had ripped off the mic, making sure there wouldn’t be any possibility of their conversation, her admission, being overheard or recorded. She was dedicated; he admired the hell out of her loyalty to the job and victims, and he wasn’t going to let her ruin herself because she had become blinded by that dedication and lost sight of her common sense. “Thank God,” she murmured, her hands latching around the waistband of his trousers. She pushed them down around his hips, her eyes widening as the bulge beneath his boxers became completely exposed. Panting, her hands shaking, she reached for the elastic band of the striped shorts, stopping before her fingers sank beneath it. Her gaze rose jumpily, nervously, and she bit into her lower lip. What in the hell were they doing? What in the hell were they about to do? If she made the final move, if she pulled down his shorts, it wouldn’t only be Elliot who would become exposed. Their relationship would change, immediately, irreversibly, perpetually. Words that they had spent eight years forcing themselves to articulate, and failing to do so more often than succeeding, would become buried even deeper. Beneath spontaneity that neither of them were used to falling victim to, possibly beneath embarrassment, maybe beneath regret, or even worse, beneath a want for more of what they shouldn’t have ever allowed themselves to have. They would change. They would be changed. Immediately. Irreversibly. Perpetually. And if she if took the initiative and lowered his shorts, their change would be intentional. “Is this what you want?” Elliot asked, his hands frozen against her skin, his right hand cupped around her hip and left flattened beneath her navel. He could feel her stomach quivering, could see the uneasy shift of her eyes as she looked everywhere in the narrow bathroom stall except at him. “Because if it’s not, Liv—“ If it wasn’t, he would explode, fucking combust right in front of her, wedged between the closed, wooden door and the porcelain toilet. But he would respect her decision. And he would understand it even more. Olivia willed herself to look at him, to see the way his down-turned lips had tightened, the way his nostrils flared with each heavy breath, the way sweat had begun to glisten above his upper lip, the way his eyes were locked onto hers. Not attempting to look away, but willing to see her. Completely. Just as she had wished that he could. She shoved her hands beneath the waistband of his shorts, pushing them down quickly. Fuck being changed. Fuck being lonely and desperate. Fuck not being the type of woman a man like Elliot would marry. Sometimes settling was okay. Sometimes, Jesus Christ, it was necessary. And as the material slid over Elliot’s erection, as he groaned and dug his fingers into her clammy skin, as he became exposed—hard and large and already wet—she decided that being a decent fuck was enough. At least for the next eight minutes. “Shut up,” she whispered, her lips leaving a wet trail down the side of his face. “Don’t treat me like a school girl, Elliot. I know what I want, and I wouldn’t be in a fucking bathroom stall with you right now if I didn’t want this.” She chuckled into his bristly skin, half with embarrassment over her apparent eagerness, but even more with disbelief. She was about to— With Elliot. Her partner. Her other half. The exhale to every one of her inhales. Not her fucking soul mate, but her intuition. He was her sixth sense. He made her see things she might not see otherwise; sometimes he forced her to see things that she didn’t want to see. He made her think about things that her mind couldn’t conceive of on its own, or that it sometimes refused to conceive of. In most situations, at least once a day, he made her better. He made her strive harder, dig deeper, think more acutely, and see more clearly. He made her a better cop, a better— Everything. And now she was going to fuck him. Because she wanted to; because he wanted to. Because life had suddenly, unexpectedly, spun so far out of control that she didn’t know how to make sense out of it anymore. And she didn’t even know if she wanted to. For the first time in her life she felt almost fucking giddy, unsure and sure all at the same time. Knowing that she would regret her decision in the morning, but not caring that she would. Because it wasn’t really spontaneity she was working off of. What she was about to do—what they were about to do—had been eight years in the planning. Even if neither of them had ever realized that the groundwork was being laid. By both of them. By circumstances. By a job that brought with it far more disgust and disappointment than feelings of accomplishment. By secrets kept hidden and those that were occasionally shared. By him. By her. By them. Locked together in the tiny stall, the tension was thick between them. It had replaced the air, becoming pure oxygen and carbon monoxide all in one. Olivia could smell it; she could taste it. She could see it throbbing between Elliot’s legs, and could feel it aching between her own. It had turned into nothing less than pain for both of them, crippling one second, empowering the next. “I want this too,” Elliot growled, nuzzling his mouth against her neck. He kissed up to her jaw line before moving downwards to her collarbone, whispering, “I want you.” Olivia nodded, her glassy-eyed stare taking in every inch of his penis. He could have her. Every inch of him could have every part of her. But if he didn’t hurry up and take what she was so readily offering, it would be too late. She could feel the moisture and heat between her legs, the tingling that was making it impossible for her to stand still, that was causing her hips to sway from left to right and involuntarily buck when he made even the slightest move in her direction. Jesus Christ. She was going to come just standing there, just from the sight of him, the fucking thought about how he would feel inside of her. She was going to come and crush every idea Elliot had about her impermeable willpower that she had worked like hell to make him believe over the last eight years that she possessed. “Elliot, I need to— I have to—“ He pushed up her skirt, wrinkling it above her hips. His eyes widened, clouded, as the culprit of two nights lost sleep confronted him. Black lace with golden-tinted skin peeking through the indistinct, flower-shaped designs on the material, teasing him just as had happened during the few minutes of sleep he had managed to grab during the past forty-eight hours before spending the rest of his nights submerged in frigid showers. The lace lay flush against her abdomen and stretched over both hips, it was pulled tight, not leaving enough slack for a single wrinkle or an inch for his imagination to wander. Black belts were clasped to the patterned border, running down the length of her thighs where they connected to the tops of her black, fishnet hose. Beneath the decorative hem, barely visible, completely noticeable, causing Elliot’s mouth to begin to water until he thought he would choke, was a strip of hair, short and thin. Shit. It was Olivia; this was Olivia. Olivia fucking Benson, Detective First Grade, his partner. Waxed. A Brazilian, was that what it was called? Hell, it didn’t matter. She was strapped into a garter belt—without panties—and looking as natural in it as she looked strapped into her holster at work. Elliot grabbed the back of her thigh, pulling her leg up against his, the side of her knee sliding across his hip. She fell into him, rising up onto her toes and then lowering herself, leaving a damp trail against his prickly skin. He dipped his head closer to hers, jamming his tongue into her mouth even before their lips touched. She tasted like peppermint; it was the same noticeable aroma he had smelled on her breath every time she leaned over his corner table, her breasts rolling towards the tops of her bra but never giving him the all-inclusive peek his forty-eight hour hard-on had begged to see. The sharp flavor stung the tip of his tongue as he swept it over the insides of her cheeks and circled her tongue, as he absorbed her entire taste, searching beyond the identifiable peppermint to find only her. To consume only her, with her wet center pressed up against his skin, rubbing against him, causing moans to rattle impulsively in her throat. Olivia slid her exposed bottom across the sleek wood behind her, suddenly pulling away from Elliot as her gaze shifted downwards. “Hafta get out of these shoes,” she groaned, sliding out of the left one and then right one. She glanced up quickly, a look of shyness sweeping fleetingly, almost imperceptibly, through her darkened eyes. Propping her left foot on the slick rim of the toilet seat, she pushed against him until his erection slid between her legs, the top of his penis dragging slowly across her swollen clit. “Oh, Christ…” Her voice deepened with each syllable until it was nothing more than a moan. She bit into her lower lip as Elliot moved against her again, adding more pressure, prolonging the seconds of their touch, grinning calculatedly as he watched her squirm and fight to maintain control. “You wanna come, Liv?” he whispered, his voice thick and unrecognizable. “Tell me if it’s what you want. Tell me what I need to do to make you come.” “I need—“ She pressed the back of her head against the wall, arching her neck and lifting her chin upward. Her right knee buckled as his lips burned against the skin of her neck, and her left foot jerked, slipping and plopping into the cold water that half-filled the shiny toilet bowl. “Shit!” she muttered, shaking her soggy foot and teetering as she yanked it out of the cold water. As Elliot’s hands hooked around her hips, his fingers becoming wedged beneath the tight lace of the garter, she dropped her foot onto the floor, the soaked hose having become adhered to her foot and ankle. “You okay?” Elliot asked, finally steadying her. Her response came in the form of her hands latching behind his neck as she pulled his face against hers again. This time her tongue was the most forceful, outlining his mouth before snaking between his lips and soaking up the residue of lemon and lime and tonic water, soaking up him. Elliot tightened his hold around her hips, the lace of the garter stretched across the backs of his hands. He spun her around, pressing her front side into the wall. Grabbing her wrists, he lifted her arms, extending them above her head and flattening her palms against the wall. He pushed his leg between hers, lifting his thigh, the smooth, cool material of his trousers gliding over her clitoris, causing her to scream out and press her forehead against the air-chilled wood. His hands roamed across her buttocks, his soft touches shielded by the taut lace that only partially covered her. “You haven’t told me,” he growled, reaching between her legs, his fingers becoming wet and warm as she lowered herself into the palm of his hand. “Tell me what to do, Liv, to make you come.” She shook her head, stifling a second scream as she slid back-and-forth on his hand. Jesus Christ. He wanted her to give him directions, to think that coherently? She was fucking on fire, couldn’t he see that? All thoughts had ceased, thoughts about undercover assignments, identities that didn’t belong to them, rapists, victims, and drinks that she couldn’t tell apart. Her mind had been taken over by desires and needs and an ache inside of her that was more intense than she had ever before felt. And Elliot wanted her to think. He wanted her to issue demands and give instructions. Elliot wrapped his arm around her waist, the ball of his palm rubbing against the lace of her garter. Holy Christ. He had never felt anything like it, anything that turned him on so fast and made him so fucking hard. His fingers became immersed in moisture—in her—as he separated her and brushed the pads of his fingers across her clit. She was inflated and hot, and he lightened his touches, making her rock into the wall and tilt her hips backwards into him. Stepping up against her, his front side flush with her backside, he moved slowly, deliberately, and slid inside of her. “Oh, God… Elliot…” She grabbed his hand in hers, pressing his fingers more firmly against her, directing his strokes as he thrust inside of her. The wall was cool against her stomach, his skin was hot against her back, and she could have sworn that his fingers had burst into flames between her quivering legs. She curved the fingers from her raised hand around a brass coat hook, pulling, feeling the metal dig into her skin as intensely as Elliot was digging inside of her. Tugging on the hook, her forehead flattened against the wall, eyes clenched closed, breaths deep and sporadic, and Elliot burning her from the inside out, she let out a throaty whimper. Closing her legs around both Elliot’s hand and penis, she swayed forward before thrusting her hips backwards, producing from him the same hoarse, uncontrolled sound that she had released. “…Fuck…” Olivia groaned, the metal hook pulling away from the wall and causing her to lose her balance. She sidestepped to the right, Elliot moaning as he moved with her, and reached behind her, looping both arms around his waist and digging the tips of her fingers into his buttocks. She fell into sync with him, swaying forward, gliding backwards, his fingers caressing her, her fingers threatening to break through his skin as she guided his fluid movements. “Oh, Jesus, Elliot. I can’t wait.” She dropped her head backwards, resting against his shoulder. Moving her arms jerkily, she hooked them around his neck, lacing her fingers. Holding on. Relying on him to keep her stable—upright—as her body began to slowly release. She felt the tingles erupt in her soaked center, and turned her face into Elliot’s neck as the breath-stealing currents spread downwards into her toes and upwards to her chest. Arching her back, she pulled away from him until the intensity had consumed her completely, and then slammed back against him. “Oh— Fuck!” Elliot half-shouted, digging his teeth into the sheer material that was bunched around her shoulder. The gauzy fabric ripped from the strength of his gnawing teeth, offering him a taste of her sweat-laden skin beneath it as he dragged his tongue across her shoulder. He was going to die, without a rational thought in his mind, without a breath left in his lungs, drenched in both his sweat and Olivia’s, with his dick still inside of her, with his tongue drowning in the flavor of her, he was going to die. And he couldn’t think of a better way to go. +++ It had seemed so natural, almost too natural, to feel Elliot inside of her. To feel his arms around her, his fingers exploring her, his hot breaths against the back of her neck and side of her face; it had felt natural to let him feel her. To let him see her so entirely, so exposed, so defenseless. So, how could something that had felt so natural only a few short minutes earlier feel so damn awkward now? Two minutes—one hundred and twenty seconds—the first unbearable minutes after sex—shouldn’t be powerful enough to turn her world, the world she was used to and comfortable in, completely upside down. But they had. One hundred and twenty seconds had changed everything. Including her. “You okay?” Olivia glanced back over her shoulder, her back to Elliot with her skirt still hiked up around her waist and her body still exposed. She nodded, smiling fleetingly, awkwardly, and wiggled her hips as she shimmied the tight material across her bottom and onto her thighs. “Yeah, I’m okay.” She reached beneath the hem of the skirt, shifting the garter belt, resituating it. “Of course I’m okay.” Damn it. She hated the first one hundred and twenty seconds after sex, the first uncomfortable minutes that, inevitably, dragged into more. Minutes she stumbled through trying to think of a viable excuse that would aid her in making a quick escape out of someone else’s bed, or that would send someone else out of hers just as quickly. Minutes that were filled with forced conversation, insincere smiles, sometimes initial introductions. She hated the awkward minutes because they were consumed by so much honesty, brutal honesty that exposed her more fully than the act of sex ever could. It exposed her casualness, her reluctance to commit, and her ingrained indifference. And she couldn’t help but wonder if the unsavory combination in some way cheapened her, if it made her seem unethical, maybe even easy. But the one hundred and twenty awkward seconds that had fallen between Elliot and her in the narrow bathroom stall, the confined area that before those awkward seconds began had seemed as spacious as the universe with her groans and his moans and their combined cries echoing between its thin walls, had come to a screeching standstill. Time had stopped, trapping her in a place she no longer wanted to be with an uncomfortable wetness still between her legs, with the phantom stings of Elliot’s touches still alive on her skin, and with the feel of him inside of her still vivid. And she feared, as she remained wedged between the porcelain toilet and wall, as far away from Elliot as she could get, that he would interpret her feelings of awkwardness as the indifference that had once been the extent of herself that she was willing to give. “Liv, I, uh.” As she glanced back again, no longer even attempting to smile, he shrugged, tucking the bottom of his shirt into his unzipped pants. “I don’t want you to think, I mean, what just happened, I don’t want you to think I planned it.” She shook her head, sliding her feet into her shoes. “Things just happen sometimes.” “They just happen,” he muttered before clearing his throat and nodding downward toward her left foot. “Did your foot dry off?” She lowered her gaze, wriggling her toes that the nylon material had become adhered to. “It’s okay.” “It’s okay,” he said, attempting a smile as she turned towards him. “Everything’s okay.” She backed up against the wall, watching him. He looked pathetically guilty with his shirt tucked crookedly into his rented, tailored pants, short hair messed around his still reddened ears, and narrowed eyes shifting from side-to-side instead of rising to meet her stare. He was the epitome of awkward stuffed into the corner. But he was even more familiar, as familiar as if she were looking into a mirror. She knew where every line on his face began and ended, and where every scar and mole and freckle discolored his skin. She knew that the left side of his mouth rose higher than the right side when he smiled, but that he rarely smiled out of amusement or just plain, deserved happiness. His smiles were generally tainted by sarcasm or disbelief or disgust, just as hers were. Outwardly, she knew him perfectly; she knew his movements, could identify his footsteps, and smelled his familiar aftershave lotion before he ever got close enough for it to infiltrate her senses. But she didn’t know if she had ever really known him. Of course she knew his passions; she shared most with him. She knew his temper was stronger than he could usually control, and she knew that he loved more deeply than he could understand much less express to anyone else. But even after eight years of friendship—of the strongest partnership Manhattan SVU had ever seen—she knew that she hadn’t yet begun to scratch the surface to be able to see inside of him. Maybe that was her fault, or maybe it was how he wanted it. She didn’t know which it was, or who should be blamed when best friends finally figured out that they were little more than acquaintances. She just knew that she wished it were different. She wished that what they had experienced together, what they had felt wrapped inside of each other’s arms, with Elliot wrapped completely inside of her, hadn’t been followed by awkwardness. Because that made it seem too simple, as if they didn’t need to really know each other, or maybe it was that they never would. “You know, I, um.” She pointed toward the closed door, silently announcing her departure. Her dark eyes locked onto his for the brief second before his gaze lowered, and she took her first step across the small space. She took her second step, and tiptoed through her third. And her breath finally came back to her as he moved in front of her and stopped her exit. Because she wanted him to stop her, she wanted to feel him inside of her again. She wanted to know him. She just didn’t know how to tell him. As they stumbled over the threshold into another one hundred and twenty seconds of awkward silence, she could hear the ticking of time in her head. And through each agonizing second, each second that he refused to look at her, she wondered if Wyatt McGrath was actually more insightful than the typical chauvinistic asshole. “Yeah, um.” She pulled her lips into her mouth, sucking off the last, lingering taste of lemon that Elliot had left on her. “I need to get back out there. McGrath is gonna be pissed as hell when he finds out I didn’t go in the back with Jenkins.” “You were gonna do it, weren’t you?” She shook her head, taking a step backwards. A step further away. She wanted to be angry with him again for being perceptive enough to guess her moves and intentions, and she wanted just as much to be angry with herself because when he had stopped her in the hallway, she had felt relieved. She wasn’t a damsel in distress who needed to be rescued, and damn it, Elliot knew that as well as she did. So, why in the hell then had she felt so thankful that he had cast himself in the role of Dudley Do-Right and charged in on his trusty steed to stop her from making a mistake that they both knew would end up haunting her? “Liv. Answer me.” She gave another shake of her head, sifting her fingers through her hair, scattering her long bangs messily across her forehead. “Don’t make this into a bigger deal than it is. I just wanted to try and get some information out of Jenkins, that’s all. Believe me, taking off my clothes for him was the last thing I intended to do.” “You were just gonna try and get information?” Elliot asked, one eyebrow cocked with suspicion. He backed up against the door, folding his arms across his chest, jutting his chin downward and staring at her with upturned eyes that revealed more disbelief than belief. She sighed, loudly, weightily, making it clear that she had interpreted his thoughts of blame. “Screw you, Elliot.” “Oh. We’re gonna start that again?” She immediately felt the wetness seep between her legs again, and pressed her thighs together as the echo of his husky voice filled her still ringing ears. “Fuck. You. Say it, Olivia. All you have to do is say it.” Not only had she said it, as he had told her to do, but she had done so sounding even more desperate than Wyatt McGrath had accused her of being. She had said it, she had said it with desperation, and it was exactly what she had wanted Elliot to do. Desperately. It was what she wanted him to do again. She wanted to feel him inside of her, to feel his fingers rubbing her, just to feel him. She wanted more time with him, and it didn’t matter if the time was comprised of awkwardness or desperation; she didn’t even care if Elliot only wanted her again because she was a decent fuck. All she knew was that she wanted more of him. God help her, she wanted all of him. But she still didn’t know how to tell him. She stepped up to the door, pushing his hand off of the knob. “I have to get back to work. McGrath has to be pissed.” “So am I.” She turned her head slowly, deliberately, flinching as Elliot’s fingers latched around hers. Both hands curved around the gold doorknob, his larger fingers covering hers, pressing her flesh against the smooth metal, making it impossible—again—for her to run. And Jesus Christ, suddenly all she could think about was running. “I have a job to do, Elliot. Let me do it.” “Tell me how you’re gonna do it first. When you walk out of here, Olivia, where’re you going?” She shook her head, laughing softly, with a hint of tears that she couldn’t yet understand wetting her voice. “You didn’t plan it?” she asked, her gaze focused on the doorknob, on their twisted fingers. “Then why’d you take off the mic? If none of this was planned, if you didn’t plan to… Why’d you take it off before you came back here?” “I did it to save your ass,” he answered lowly, brusquely. “I didn’t know what you were gonna do, but if it was what I thought, I didn’t think it’d be the best thing for our conversation to be recorded.” “I didn’t ask you to save my ass, Elliot,” she said, bucking her hand upward and peeling his clammy skin off of hers. “Maybe not, but it’s exactly what you needed me to do.” “This—“ She motioned toward the back of the stall, to the toilet with water droplets from her soaked foot still marking the seat, and with the brass coat hook lying forgotten on the floor. “This is what I needed?” She turned toward him, facing him, making it impossible for him to run as her stare cut through him. As she tried to see him again just as clearly as she had before time suddenly became awkward. “You really believe it’s what I needed, Elliot, or was it what you needed?” “It wasn’t what I needed,” he said, dropping his head forward, shuffling his feet back-and-forth. He looked up, shrugging, looking shy. “It’s what I wanted. I didn’t plan it, Liv, but I wouldn’t change it, either.” He wouldn’t change it. Jesus. She wished she knew him well enough to believe that. “I wouldn’t change it,” Elliot repeated, wrapping his hand around hers again where it was still curved around the doorknob. “You were right. I’ve been…one big…hard-on…since Cragen put us on this case.” He grinned, displaying the crooked smile that she was familiar with, that she had spent eight years acquainting herself with. “Big?” she teased, one dark brow arching. “Giving yourself a lot of credit there, aren’t you?” He chuckled, his cheeks reddening. “Maybe I deserve that.” She shook her head. “No, you don’t.” “No?” he asked, stepping away from the door. He reached behind him, pushing in the button lock on the doorknob, grinning as Olivia tracked his slow movements. “It’s a little late to worry about someone walking in on us, isn’t it?” she asked, flattening her shoulders against the smooth wood behind her as he continued towards her. “Elliot, what’re you…” She took in a breath as he stopped in front of her, shifting her hips, hoping the ache that had once again come to life between her legs wasn’t evident in her eyes. Because she feared it was written across her face, blatantly. That it had become scrawled into every fine wrinkle that crept out from the corners of her eyes, that it could be clearly seen across her lips that had become far too dry for her own tongue to be able to wet anymore, but that she knew his could drench, that it was noticeable in the way she shifted in her too tall, too high shoes, and the way sweat had become a second layer of clothing beneath her nearly non-existent sham of a uniform. “I didn’t plan it, Olivia,” he said, winding his finger inside a loose spiral of hair that lay over her shoulder. “What happened, I didn’t plan it. But now…this…it’s all I can think about.” He slid his hands down her arms, grasping her clammy hands in his for only a second before cupping his fingers around either side of her waist. He stared into her eyes, watching them darken, seeing within their completeness the desire she was fighting like hell to hide. Lowering his gaze, following the path of her long legs to where her feet disappeared inside the black shoes, he continued to slide his hands downward. His fingers pinched at her, each light squeeze causing a moan to reverberate in her throat, and once he reached the hem of her short skirt, he dropped down onto his knees. Lifting the material, raising it slowly, torturously, he could see as the fabric passed over the tops of her nylons a rash of goose bumps erupt on the skin of her thighs. He tracked, again, the paths created by the straps of the garter belt, how they rested against her golden-tinted skin, pressing firmly enough to hold barely there garments into place, but not firm enough to mark her skin. “Jesus Christ, Liv…” he growled, running the tips of his fingers up the length of the straps, stopping as he reached the patterned bottom of the black lace that stretched around her hips. Olivia pressed the back of her head against the wall, tilting her face upward, biting into her lower lip as his fingers tickled around and traced the rounded flower petal designs in the lace. She didn’t even know him; she had decided that much while immersed in suffocating awkwardness. The man on his knees in front of her, who was touching her more gently than she had ever before imagined that she could be touched, was a familiar stranger, as common to her as she was to herself, but as foreign as the majority of men who she had invited into her bed throughout the years. But there was something different with Elliot, something expected and predictable and known. Trust. It was a depth of trust she had never before felt, and one that she knew, instinctively, would never be broken. Her fingers dug into the sides of his hair, sliding through the short strands. Feeling his hot breaths ricocheting off of her inner thighs, she separated her legs, whimpering in concession as his fingers became submerged in her wet center. She should be embarrassed for being so obvious, for being so eager and ready. But she wasn’t. Because if she couldn’t tell Elliot with words that she wanted more of him, all of him, she would let her body speak for her. And, Jesus Christ, it was ready to start screaming. Elliot slid his hand behind her thigh, directing her as she obediently lifted her leg and snaked her calf over his shoulder. He watched as her hips swayed left and then right, and the goose bumps multiplied on her soft skin. Her foot glided up his back, the back of her shoe rubbing across his spine as she moved her leg upward and the spiky heel scraping along the material of his shirt as she moved it downward. He grabbed her hips, pulling her toward him, leaving her balanced precariously on one foot with her shoulders pressed into the wall and her hips captured in his strong hands. He exhaled, adding unneeded warmth to her heated center. “You still want this?” he asked, his husky voice resonating off of the walls. “I never figured you for a talker,” she groaned, sinking her hands into the sides of her hair, ruffling the shoulder length strands and digging the tips of her fingers into her scalp. He chuckled, his fingers roaming over her thin path of hair. “And I never figured you for the type who’d have a Brazilian.” “Guess even after eight years we can still surprise each other.” She peeked down at him, her chest heaving as she struggled to steady her breathing. “When the hell have you seen a Brazilian?” Never. At least not up close and personal, the way he was inspecting hers. But now that he had seen one—and on her—he would never be able to get the image out of his head. And he knew then and there, kneeling on the cold, tile floor with Olivia’s leg hooked over his shoulder and the damned, mind blowing garter belt in full view, that he would never sleep again, and he would have to get a second job just to pay the exorbitant water bill he was already anticipating. “I might be Catholic,” he growled. “But that doesn’t mean I’m dead.” She pulled in a sharp breath as his fingers roamed below the lace, stopping above her wet folds, tickling downward and then back upward, but never sliding inside to offer a much needed stroke to her throbbing clit. “Just shut the fuck up, Elliot,” she moaned. “You wanna talk, we’ll go out for coffee later.” “You stopped drinking coffee,” he teased, making another pass along her crotch. “Oh, Christ. I’ll start again if you’ll just shut up.” “You’d do that? For me?” he asked, glancing at her with upturned eyes. A smile spread slowly across his lips, one of enjoyment. “Or you gonna do it because of this?” He slithered his finger into her, pushing, teasing, as her stiffened knee buckled and she began to fall. He steadied her with his free hand, flattening his palm across her bottom, and brought his face into her. He found her ready, hot and damp and before his tongue made a complete circle around her, she came. Her muscles quivered beneath his fingers, jumping and shaking, and her breathing deepened and then stopped, becoming intermixed with whimpers and groans. “What the fuck are you doing to me?” she whispered, her hands flattened across her face, shielding her clenched eyes. “What’re you doing to us, Elliot?” But she didn’t need to ask; it had already been done. He had exposed them. Not physically, but he had, in one moment that he claimed was impromptu, managed to fully expose them. He had torn away the wrapping from their carefully guarded emotions and insecurities, making it painfully easy for him, finally, to see hers, and for her to see his. And then he had pushed even further; he had pushed her by forcing her to reveal her vulnerabilities. He had stripped her of her defenses, and had managed to do so as effortlessly as she had allowed him to strip her of her clothing. She hadn’t fought him or argued; she had let him. Maybe out of loneliness, maybe desperation, or maybe just pure and simple want. But she had let him, and she wished to hell she regretted it. At least she wished that she could just long enough to know whether or not Elliot would. Elliot guided her leg off of his shoulder, his hand steadied around her calf until her foot was once again flat on the floor. He rubbed up the length of her leg to the back of her knee, still feeling the intermittent quivers of her muscles. What had he done? It was what she wanted—needed—to hear him explain, and it was something that he didn’t have an explanation for. Other than he had done what he wanted to do, what he had wanted to do for a length of time that now seemed far longer than eternity. Because he had realized while locked in the tiny stall with her, inhaling her, touching her, feeling her, inside of her, that his eternity now reached only as far back as eight years. He stood up, his hands gloving hers as he helped her pull down her skirt. He smoothed the material against her legs, watching intently as it fell across and accentuated her hips. She was beautiful, and she didn’t even know it. And that was why he had done what he had. Because she was just as beautiful on the outside as he had always known her to be on the inside, and that combination of beauty could only be ignored for so long. And as he watched her stomp away from the bar, her expression hardened and anger directed at Wyatt McGrath as much as it was at him, he knew he couldn’t spend another second pretending that he didn’t see the obvious. “I’m sorry, Liv,” he whispered, nuzzling his lips against the clammy skin of her cheek, inhaling a final taste of her before leaving behind a soft kiss. “Sorry…” she murmured, lowering her face, turning away from the sincerity in Elliot’s eyes as Wyatt McGrath’s grating voice infiltrated her hazy thoughts, “Just how stupid are you? What do you think is gonna happen with this guy, huh? You think he’s actually gonna fall for someone like you? Because you know what? He won’t. No matter what bullshit lines he’s feeding you, you’re nothing special to him. You’re an easy score, a lonely, desperate woman who hasn’t realized yet that the only thing she has to offer is a decent fuck. Women like you aren’t the type these men marry. Especially someone like Elliot. And as soon as you start to understand that, the better off you’ll be.” She slid her back along the wall, moving away from Elliot and towards the locked door. “You’re sorry, yeah,” she said, her fingers combing through her messed hair. “Well, don’t worry about it. Like I said before, I’m okay. I’m a big girl, right? I can handle this.” “Olivia.” He turned towards her, facing her. “What I meant was—“ “You don’t have to explain,” she interrupted, tugging on the doorknob. “I understand. I mean, we’re in this crazy environment; crazy things are going on around us, and sometimes… I guess we got caught up in it.” She forced a smile, her lips trembling. “But don’t think this is gonna be a regular thing. Just because we spend all of our time together, because we’re both single, it doesn’t mean this is what our relationship is gonna turn into.” Crack. Elliot heard it deafeningly, the damn, once unnoticeable crack had suddenly, unexpectedly, become a canyon. The crack that he had only just learned existed, that he prayed would remain as small and insignificant as it appeared in his kitchen ceiling, but that Olivia had now planted herself firmly on one side of, and had left him floundering on the other side. Olivia stared at him, silently begging him to say something, to tell her that she was wrong. Damn it. She knew the difference between sex and love, even if it was a secret that she had never shared with Elliot, it was still something she had experienced. And she wanted him to tell her that what had happened was more than just sex. Maybe it wasn’t love, but she needed it to at least be something more than damn, physical urges. But when he answered her silent begging with only silence of his own, with the brutal honesty that only Elliot was capable of giving her, she turned away. Not with the broken heart that Harley had warned her she would end up with, but with embarrassment. “Can we still go for that cup of coffee after we’re done here?” Elliot asked as she pulled the door open. She shook her head, stepping into the room that had become tainted with the muffled sounds of laughter and music and propositions and empty promises. “I don’t think it’s such a good idea, El. When I get done here, I’m just gonna go home.” She continued across the room, not looking back even though his rushed footsteps were almost on top of her, and headed into the mutedly lit corridor. Spinning around to face him as the music, Dean Martin’s velvety voice as he mocked her with, That’s Amore, floated around them and the empty conversations in the main room became deafening roars, she whispered a pleading, “Just leave it alone, Elliot. Please. We both knew what we were doing. There’s no reason to hash it all out now.” “I just want to buy you a cup of coffee.” She laughed softly, disagreeably. “Go back to your table, okay? I’ll bring you a fresh drink in a minute.” “I don’t want a drink. I want to talk.” “Elliot.” She took in a breath, wishing it was him filling her instead of the stale air that so thickly consumed the nightclub. “Don’t worry. We’re okay. I just, I’m tired, you know? It’s been a long couple of days.” He stared past her, past the sudden hurt that was noticeable in her eyes, and began to wallow in his deserved guilt for putting it there. What a schmuck. She had already convinced herself of reasons that had never been his, and that meant she would never believe the ones that had sent him speeding down the dark hallway twenty minutes earlier feeling desperate to catch up with her. She would never believe him, no matter how much of the truth he worked up enough courage to give her. “Olivia, look, I—“ He stopped, eyeing Wyatt McGrath in the center of the crowded room. The burly, impatient-looking man started toward them, and Elliot dipped his hand into the side pocket of his rented jacket. Pulling out a folded stack of bills, he grabbed Olivia’s hand in his and slapped them across her palm. Olivia’s lips parted, gaped, and her mouth instantly dried as she studied the stacked one hundred-dollar bills that had begun to burn her skin. She didn’t hear Elliot whisper his good-bye, didn’t hear his hurried footsteps as he left her alone in the shadows, didn’t notice as McGrath filled his spot in front of her, and didn’t feel the erratic, pounding beats of her heart. She only saw the money, crisp, folded bills that represented compensation for services rendered. For time that she had willingly—desirably—given him, and that she had hoped he had given her for the same reasons. “…Son of a bitch…” she whispered, her voice lost to McGrath’s impatient grunts as he ripped the money out of her outstretched hand. “Holy fuck, Rachel, where in the hell have you been? Have you been with Anderson this whole time?” She looked up, her lips once again parted, her mind reeling. He had paid her. The son of a bitch had paid her. And whether it was because of a nearly cold case or a guilty conscience or simply a nervousness that stopped him from knowing what else to do, the cool bills that he had slapped into her hand stung as harshly as if he had slapped her across the face. “Jenkins is pissed!” McGrath seethed, counting through the bills. “One of our best customers— You’re lucky Harley agreed to go in the back with him! She saved your ass from ending up on the sidewalk!” He thrust a wad of the money into the front pocket of his trousers and then slammed the remaining bills against her chest. “I’m taking a bigger cut than normal, fifty percent. I think Harley deserves part of this, don’t you?” She raised her hand to her chest, closing her fingers around the smooth papers as McGrath released his hold. It was her cut. What Elliot had paid her for ten minutes of her time, what he felt she had earned. Maybe it was what he thought a decent fuck was worth. CHAPTER SIX Three hundred dollars. Olivia folded the one hundred-dollar bills into thirds, shoving the paper into the cup of her bra, settling it beneath her left breast, feeling it vibrate against her clammy skin with each thundering beat of her heart. Three hundred dollars. It was laughable, especially when she had accumulated triple that amount the night before just from bending over further than necessary when she delivered drinks to nameless men who wanted to ogle her breasts and cop a feel, but nothing more. But out of the six hundred-dollars that Elliot had left singeing the palm of her hand, McGrath had taken three hundred to split between Kingsley, Harley and him, and had left her with the remainder. The reminder. And she wished he had taken all of it, no matter how much fast-talking it would mean Elliot and she would have to do to explain where the money went. At least she wouldn’t have it; she wouldn’t have any reminders at all. None that that were tangible, at least. Olivia took in a breath, pulling in the stale air of the club through her nose, almost choking on it. Wanting to choke on it and expel it from her lungs as she realized that all she had breathed in, all that she had been able to breathe in for the last thirty-eight minutes, was Elliot. And she wanted him out of her. No. Jesus, no. She wanted him back inside of her, just as fully as he had been during the eight minutes when they had lost all reasoning and rationality. When they had lost themselves in a way they weren’t ever supposed to, in a way they hadn’t ever expected to. He to her, and she to him. And when she had delivered his drink to his table as promised, a tonic water with three ice cubes and a twist of lime, she understood just how completely lost they had become in such a short and unexpected amount of time that had been devoured by awkwardness. She had smiled when she slid the heavy glass across the granite-topped table, and he had smiled in return. But they were the smiles of acquaintances, smiles given when you didn’t know someone well enough to say what you really wanted to say. When you didn’t know how to say what needed to be said. And so they hadn’t said anything at all. “Harley hasn’t come out of the back yet,” Wyatt McGrath said, sidling up beside her at the end of the bar. “I need you to take table ten’s drinks to them for her.” Olivia nodded, not even attempting to identify the drinks that were placed on her tray, and not worried enough about messing up the order to ask McGrath what they were. She slid the silver tray off of the bar, steadying it in her arms. Turning, she stopped quickly, jerkily, as McGrath stepped in front of her. She muttered an impatient, “Damn it,” as brown and clear liquids sloshed over the rims of the glasses, before adding, “You wanna stay out of my way? I’m trying to do what you asked, okay?” “I’m done with you, Rachel,” he said, his lips lifting in a lopsided smile. “I’m gonna talk to Kingsley. I want you out of here.” “Good luck with that,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You don’t think Mr. Kingsley will listen to me?” McGrath asked, the pitch of his voice rising. “I’m the fucking manager here. Just what in the hell are you?” “Tired,” she announced, the tips of her fingers whitening as she tightened her grip around the edge of the tray. “So, get the hell out of my way and let me deliver these drinks.” “If you’re so tired of things around here, why don’t you make things easier for everyone and leave on your own?” She laughed softly, annoyed, and shook her head. Suddenly, the tray and four glasses that sat on top of it felt like a ton of bricks in her arms. Heavy. Daunting. And if she hadn’t known Elliot and she already had enough explaining to do when they met Cragen in the morning to give him an update on the case, she would have dropped it at McGrath’s feet. She would have walked away like he suggested, left on her own accord. Dragging behind her what small amount of dignity she could scrape together. “Just go,” McGrath taunted. “You don’t have what it takes to work here. You’re a loser, Rachel, a waste of my time. It’s no wonder your husband left you.” “And what’re you, McGrath?” she said, her tone cool, calm, and her darkened eyes screaming out contempt. “You sent your own girlfriend in the back to strip for a bastard like Warren Jenkins. You didn’t care about her, did you, about Jenna? Because if you had, you never would’ve made her feel so worthless.” “Stay the fuck out of my business!” he hissed, poking the tip of his finger into the center of her chest, whitening a circular patch of her skin with the force of the jab. “You don’t know anything about Jenna! And you have no idea in hell how I felt about her! So, just keep your mouth shut and finish out your shift! When you’re done, you and I are going upstairs to talk to Kingsley!” He took a step backwards, his heavy, uncontrolled breaths seeming to propel him. “You ass is outta here, got it? So, if I were you, I’d drag every bastard I could into the back over the next couple of hours. Looks like you’re gonna need the extra money to take care of those pathetic little twins of yours. How do you think they’re gonna feel, huh, when they find out what a loser their mama is?” “Don’t threaten me,” Olivia warned, giving another, more pronounced, roll of her eyes. “Just because I hit a nerve with you, McGrath, don’t make the mistake of thinking I have any nerves that you can hit.” “Not going for any nerves, just being truthful. Think about the kiddies, Rachel. Think about welfare and how humiliated the precious twins will be when all of their little friends find out they’re living off of it. It’ll be embarrassing, don’t you think? But, uh.” His grin widened, becoming more crooked, and completely sinister. “It’ll be even more embarrassing if they find out—if their friends find out—what all Mama has done to put food on the table.” “You don’t know anything about me or what I’ve done.” He chuckled, nodding, pointing over his shoulder with his stubby thumb toward the shadowy hallway at the back of the room. “Why do you think Harley’s with Jenkins right now instead of you? Because both Tristan and she went into the bathroom while you were in there with Anderson. And they sure as hell didn’t have to see anything to know just what was going on. Tristan said you were giving Mr. Texas the ride of his life.” Olivia stepped up to him, one side of the tray pressed against her stomach and the opposite side pressed into McGrath’s. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, praying her voice didn’t sound nearly as frantic as she suddenly felt. Shit. What had Elliot and she been thinking? When had they stopped thinking? If they ever got that lucky break and a suspect was apprehended, if statements were actually made, if stories were recounted, if interviews were conducted, just how much information would Tristan and McGrath expose? And if Vice got involved, how many names would be given? Because if Rachel Martin’s name made the list and was linked to Elliot Anderson’s, all hell would break loose. And the folded bills that were scratching the underside of her left breast reminded Olivia whose fault that would be. “Fuck me, Elliot. Here. Now. Fuck me.” Olivia shook her head, biting into her lower lip until she swore she tasted blood. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she whispered, not raising her gaze to meet the smug-looking man’s. “No? Then what’s this—“ He shoved his hand down the front of her bra, his rough fingers sliding over her breast, grazing her nipple, as he grabbed hold of the folded bills and pulled them into view. He smiled, looking disgusted as Olivia’s face paled. Not from fear or even intimidation, as McGrath had learned to expect from the other waitresses, but with the same disgust that he displayed. “I’m sick of your high and mighty attitude, Rachel. You’ve been walking around here for the last two nights acting like you’re so much better than everyone else, so much better than this.” He shook the money in front of her face, and then dropped it onto the center of the water-marked tray. “But you’re not, are you? You’re just another whore.” Stay away, Elliot. She tracked the money as it fell onto the tray, feeling the sting of Elliot’s glare from across the room as it dug into her back. She could picture him in her mind, one leg moved out from beneath the table, both feet directed toward her, hands balled into fists, ready to advance. To attack. Even without looking back at him, she knew that Dudley Do-Right had once again mounted his trusty steed, and the last thing she needed—that she wanted—was for him to feel like he had to rescue her again. Because she still hadn’t decided whether or not his last rescue attempt had been successful or if he had failed miserably. She could handle herself, and she could sure as hell handle a prick like Wyatt McGrath. She just needed to stay calm, she needed to think— Breathe. One, two, three, four— Screw counting to ten. Screw dropping the tray at McGrath’s feet. She’d rather shove it in his face just so she wouldn’t have to see his pompous expression any longer. He wanted her to beg him to let her keep something that she hadn’t wanted in the first place. He wanted her to apologize, maybe even break down in tears, and make promises that he would sure as hell hold her to. He wanted her to react—to act—like every other woman in Raspberry Vodka who he had managed to beat down, every woman who poured her body into the humiliating uniform and sold herself for the sake of her children and the promise of a richer lifestyle than she had ever before imagined living. McGrath wanted her to break, just as Jenna March and Anna Wright and Isabel Duncan had, and just as Harley and Tristan had. He wanted her to willingly become less by believing his lies that he could make her more. “You really wanna talk to Kingsley?” she snapped, sliding the loaded tray onto the top of the bar. The liquid inside of the glassed rolled over the sides, completely wetting the bottom of the tray and soaking the once crisp bills that lay in the center of it. “Then let’s go, you and me. We’ll talk to him together.” McGrath took a step back, looking perplexed. Cornered. Looking surprised by a defiance that he wasn’t used to being confronted with. “What’s the matter?” Olivia pushed, unable to stifle her smile. Her lips flickered lopsidedly, victoriously, making it clear that his intimidation tactics could be damned as far as she was concerned. She had been pushed—and poked and pinched and grabbed—one too many times. “C’mon, McGrath. Let’s go upstairs and talk to Kingsley. I have a few things I wanna tell him, too.” He shook his head, clearing his throat. Stalling. “Just, uh.” He motioned behind him at the soaked tray hanging halfway off of the bar. “Clean up this mess and then get a fresh order over to table ten. They’ve been waiting for their drinks.” “But what about going upstairs?” “Kingsley doesn’t, he doesn’t like the girls to bother him during business hours.” Olivia gave an almost imperceptible shrug of her shoulder, the ripped section of material that Elliot’s teeth had gnawed through bunching and rising higher than the rest of the sheer fabric. “Oh, I don’t think he’ll having a problem seeing me. In fact, I’m willing to bet the three hundred-dollars of my tip that you were so generous to let me keep that he won’t.” “Hey,” McGrath hissed, locking his fingers around her arm and pulling her closer. “You do what I say, got it? Down here, in this room, I’m in charge. Harley’s already covering your ass with Jenkins, so you need to get to work and take care of her tables for her.” “And you need to keep your hands off of me!” Olivia barked, ripping her arm out of his claw-like grasp. “Don’t touch me again, you son of a bitch! This isn’t the job I agreed to do! I was lied to, right from the start! So, it makes me wonder, you know, how many of the other women here took this job thinking the only thing that was expected of them was to serve drinks?” “You’ve got a big, fucking mouth, Rachel! Why don’t you just get the hell outta my club?” “Why don’t you go to hell!” She rubbed her fingers across the stinging patch of skin where his hand had been clamped seconds earlier. “Or better yet, wait until after we have our little meeting with Kingsley. Then you can go to hell.” +++ There were things about her life that Elliot knew Olivia didn’t think he could ever understand. Loneliness. A past that was far darker, far more scarred, than his was. Not actually being a part of…anything. And freedom, complete and total freedom from the responsibilities that came along with marriage and children and commitment. It was the type of freedom that allowed her to stay out until two AM on any given night, any night following a particularly tough day, the freedom to sleep in as late as she wanted on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the freedom to rename empty calorie foods like Cheeto’s and Pringles and Ding Dongs dinner, and the freedom to view casual sex as an actual relationship, just one where anniversaries and milestones occurred every ten to fifteen minutes versus annually. Because, Elliot knew, ten to fifteen minutes was a generous amount of her time for Olivia to give the men who traveled in and out of her life through a continuously revolving door. She was a private person, even with him. Her secrets were hers, held onto tightly and rarely shared. She protected them just as vigorously as he protected cherished memories of each of his children’s births, their first steps, their first words— Okay, so he didn’t actually remember any of their first steps, and he didn’t have a clue in hell which word was the first that any articulated to the point that it had actually been considered a word, but he had shelved enough other memories—good memories—to make up for the ones that he had either forgotten or had allowed the NYPD to steal from him. But Olivia’s secrets were kept hidden for her own self-preservation. On rare occasions, locked together in a quiet, dark car during a lengthy stake out, co-existing through an uncommon moment of silence over a cup of coffee, or while submerged in shock following a devastating case, she would offer him a tidbit of information. She would offer one more morsel of herself. And he had learned through the years to take in each of her secrets when they were given and hold onto them as tightly as she did. Too cherish them as if they were precious gems. Because it was a little more of her, and he hoped—had hoped for eight years—that eventually ‘a little’ would add up to everything. And then he would finally know her, completely. But he also knew, when she looked past the job, past the daily grind, past the ugliness that comprised their hours away from home and their nightly dreams even more, that she saw him as naïve compared to her. He could understand abuse and destructive lies and rape with the empathy of an outsider, of someone who believed he understood but never really did. Because they weren’t discernable parts of his life, but they were of hers. They were real. They were her. “I’ve been alone my whole life.” She had said it to him with tears in her voice, with tears in her eyes, and with visions burning in her mind of a brother she had only learned existed being a part of what she had always wanted to belong to most. A family. And Elliot had felt his emotions shift the moment he reached across the seat of the car that night, the moment his fingers curved around her shoulder in comforting, and the moment he assured her that she wasn’t whining. He had felt himself change. And he had wanted more than anything to take her in his arms and assure her that she could have what she wanted. He wanted to tell her that he would give it to her, what she needed. And he would give it to her for selfish reasons, because of his own wants and needs. But he hadn’t said it or promised it or even suggested it. Because he knew that Olivia didn’t understand him any more than he understood her. He hadn’t let her understand him, but had always, whether or not intentionally, pointed out their differences. He had always pointed out the things that she couldn’t understand about his life. He had told what he felt were sympathy worthy stories about a brusque relationship with a father he had never really gotten to know, even though he knew every infinitesimal detail compared to what Olivia knew about her father. He had repeatedly belittled her compassion as far as cases and children went with insensitive blows to her lonely heart. “Wait until you have kids…” “You’d feel different if you had kids…” “If you were a parent you’d understand…” He had made biting remarks about her failed relationships, her inability to be a part of a lasting relationship, and her fear of letting anyone get close. And each time he saw the hurt in her that she masked with anger. But he continued to deliver blow after blow, one stinging slap to her psyche after another, and had drawn the line between them that had now turned into the crack—the canyon of misunderstanding and misconceptions—that he wondered if there were enough ‘I’m sorry’s,’ and explanations to repair. To make solid ground between them that they could cross and connect over instead of remain on opposite sides of. +++ Olivia slinked into the bathroom, the scene of the crime, diverting her gaze from the corner stall whose door was still ajar. She couldn’t help but wonder, as she fought the overwhelming urges to both cringe and smile, if Elliot and she had left any reminders behind in the tiny cubicle. An echo of one of his throaty moans, the lingering scent of her perfume, the frenetic energy that they had both found themselves consumed with and had taken from the other at the same time. She stepped up to the vanity, surprised by the reflection that greeted her. The skin beneath her eyes held a faint tint of purple, and her decorated lips hung limply downwards. Her hair was disheveled, the loose, shoulder-length spirals more unraveled than actual curls, and the thick make-up had settled into the fine lines that crept out from the corners of her eyes. She smiled, even though, damn it, she didn’t want to. Her gaze shifted slowly, hesitantly, as if the ghosts that now haunted the room would catch her sneaking another peek at the corner stall. In her mind, through the sliver of space between the door and wooden frame, she saw Elliot. His hands touching her, roaming over her, and his eyes filled with approval. With want. She stiffened her arms, her shoulders sagging as she hunched over the vanity. She didn’t fall in love. She wouldn’t fall in love, and sure as hell not with Elliot Stabler. He was her best friend, okay. She wouldn’t deny that to anyone. But he was also the biggest pain in her ass. He was moody and quick-tempered and opinionated. He liked to point out her mistakes to her. No, not just point them out; he liked to harp on them. He liked to pry into her personal life, even when she told him to back off, and he liked to tell her what was missing. Even when he could tell she was trying like hell to convince herself that she was fulfilled and content and had everything she needed. He pushed her to the brink of insanity. But. She could always count on him to pull her back from it. Christ. What in the hell was happening to her? What had she let Elliot do to her? She had become Pavlov’s trained dog. Suddenly, just the thought of Elliot, a glimpse of him in her still hazy imagination, hearing his name whispered in her mind, made the dampness accumulate between her legs. Like the fucking, salivating dog. “Well, well, well. Looks like the prodigal slut has returned.” Olivia dropped her head down between her shoulders, pulling in a ragged breath. She closed her eyes, attempting to count to ten again just as she had done to stop herself from slugging Wyatt McGrath. But like with McGrath, her feeble attempt was halted before she reached halfway. “You know,” Tristan said, sliding up beside Olivia and jutting one slim hip into the counter, “no one around here thinks you’re the saint you’re trying to play yourself off as being.” She dipped her face downward, watching as Olivia repeatedly clenched and relaxed her jaw. “And after what I heard in here a little while ago, there’s no way in hell you’ll ever be able to convince me you’re any different than I am. I can smell a whore from a mile away, Rachel. And, honey, the stench is thick on you.” She arched a thin, overly plucked eyebrow, smiling with a look of victory. “Welcome to Raspberry Vodka.” “I thought you were in the back with Jenkins,” Olivia whispered, her words emerging more as a wish. “I can only listen to Hey Big Spender so many times,” Tristan growled, rolling her eyes. “It’s Warren’s theme song. He always makes the girls dance to it.” Olivia straightened, brushing the palms of her hands across her skirt. “Hey Big Spender?” “Yeah, you know…the minute you walked in the room, I could tell you were a man of distinction, a real big spender?” She made another, more pronounced roll of her eyes, sighing. “Warren’s a little on the crazy side. He thinks the song was written about him. So, whenever we’re in the back, we have to play it.” “Yeah…” Olivia whispered, flipping on the faucet and submerging her hands in the cool stream of water. “It’d be a little hard to do the Electric Slide to.” Tristan chuckled, the sound gravelly, resonating in the base of her thin neck. “You’re funny. That’s good. Around here it helps if you have a sense of humor.” Olivia glanced up, staring at Tristan’s haggard, overly made-up reflection beside hers in the mirror. “I think you’re confusing sarcasm with humor.” “And I think you’re confusing yourself with someone who’s better than me.” “Tristan, I don’t—“ She leaned in closer, chuckling. “I heard you, sweetheart, every moan and groan and pathetic little whimper.” She pulled her head back, running her finger across Olivia’s shoulder, sticking the tip of her pointed fingernail into the tiny slit that Elliot’s teeth had torn. “So is it true what they say? Is everything really bigger in Texas?” Olivia turned her back to her, grabbing a folded, white towel out of a wire basket and drying her hands. She let the terry cloth rag fall onto the counter, staring down at her hands, noticing that they were shaking. Shaking. Her hands didn’t shake, not even when they had every reason to. She had taught herself to become removed from situations that were too frightening to face with a rational mind, situations involving children, unimaginable acts of brutality, and the possibility of death. Her nerves, at some point over the past forty years, had turned to steel. Or at least she tried to convince herself that they had, that she could remain sympathetic and compassionate without becoming too involved. Some would call her jaded, she knew, but she preferred to think of herself as being cautious. Careful. And she prided herself on having become cautious enough, careful enough, that her nerves rarely got the better of her. She could keep her focus and continue to prioritize without missing a beat. Or she had been able to, at least, until an hour earlier when she had thrown away the forty years’ worth of caution that she had always maintained such a death grip on. But she couldn’t hold on anymore. Not when her damn hands were shaking so badly. “What’re you doing?” Olivia asked, glancing back at the leggy blonde. Tristan had one knee cocked and her hands buried beneath the hem of her skirt. As the material shifted and billowed with each of Tristan’s quick movements, Olivia saw flashes of black against the other woman’s slender thigh, the same black strips of fabric that Elliot’s fingers had explored and played with and tickled beneath on her legs. She saw the rounded corner of a leather bag and a strip of white— “Money pouch,” Tristan said, chuckling. She flicked her finger against the leather bag, shrugging. “You might want to invest in one. Once you start giving some of the other men a taste of what you’ve been giving Mr. Texas, that stupid excuse for a bra that you’re wearing won’t be big enough to hold all of your tips.” “You tape it to your leg?” Olivia asked as Tristan straightened, smoothing her skirt. “Have to keep things in place somehow, don’t I?” “Tape, great,” Olivia groused. “Just what I need, to have to strap something else to my body.” Tristan kissed into the air with pursed lips, glancing back at the closed door. “I should get back to Warren. He’s feeling…interested…tonight.” She poked a fingernail into Olivia’s upper arm, tickling quickly to her elbow. “And when Warren’s interested, well.” “Well? What if Warren is interested?” Tristan shrugged, turning away slowly. “When he’s interested, he expects a lot. He wants a lot, but he also pays a lot.” As she reached the door, she glanced back, smiling. “I bet he pays a helluva lot more than Mr. Texas does. You blew it, Rachel. It could’ve been you tonight dancing for Warren instead of Harley. It could’ve been you getting that fat tip. Because no matter what Warren asks you to do, he always makes sure you’re well compensated when it’s over. And after everything you obviously gave Mr. Texas, did he compensate you well enough?” Olivia licked at her lower lip, a specter-like sting erupting across the palm of her hand. Elliot had compensated her, and even though she knew why, even though she knew that he had been trying to protect their covers, it didn’t lessen the burn against her skin. “You know,” Tristan continued, “from what I heard, you were giving him damn near everything, and that’s not a smart thing to do. Believe me, I know how men think. I know a helluva lot better than I wish I did. And your Mr. Texas, he’s about as smooth as they come.” Olivia backed up to the vanity, knotting her arms across her chest. Suddenly feeling cold, all traces of the sweatiness that she had become immersed in just an hour earlier in the tiny, confined stall with Elliot lost to Tristan’s harsh words. Words born from experiences that Olivia wished she didn’t share with the hardened woman. Or maybe it was that Olivia was the one who had become hardened, and Tristan had merely become enlightened by reality. “What about everything you give Warren Jenkins?” she asked. “You don’t consider it a lot?” “It’s a lot,” Tristan agreed, pulling the door open, allowing Frank Sinatra and his testimonial about doing things—living life—his way infiltrate their conversation. “Maybe it’s even everything. But it’s still different between Warren and me than it is between Mr. Texas and you. You didn’t hold back with him; I could hear it in your voice. And that’s dangerous, you know, to forget to keep something for yourself. Because when you give it all away, it’s like selling your soul to the devil. Trust me, I know. I sold my soul a long time ago.” +++ Twelve minutes and nineteen seconds. Elliot watched the gold second hand move steadily around the circular face of his rented Rolex. Olivia had disappeared down the dark hallway over twelve minutes earlier. And he had followed her. Again. But when he saw her slam her hand against the heavy bathroom door, when he heard her loud steps reverberating off of the white tile floor, he knew his company was the last that she wanted. Especially since she had returned to the scene of their crime. So, he had returned to his isolated table in the corner, at least physically he had. But his mind had remained in the bathroom with Olivia, and, damn it, every other part of him wanted to be in there with her, too. “I never figured you for a talker.” “And I never figured you for the type who’d have a Brazilian.” “Guess even after eight years we can still surprise each other.” She had surprised him, from her eagerness, to how uninhibited she had been, to the damn Brazilian wax. And he had surprised her. She had never expected a move to be made at all, much less one initiated by him. He knew how she saw him, that she thought he was as committed to the wedding band he had taken off the day he signed his divorce papers as he had been to it the day Kathy slid it onto his finger. She saw him as being too loyal to promises and memories and religion to ever be able to move on from what he believed was right and move toward what he wanted. And she was far too modest, too damn insecure, to ever believe that what he wanted was her. He tore his gaze away from the opening of the hallway as his cell phone began to vibrate on the tabletop. Glancing over both shoulders, eavesdropping for a brief second on conversations to assure that no one would eavesdrop on his, he grabbed the phone and flipped it open, whispering an annoyed, “Yeah?” “Did you know that the bitter flavor in tonic water is due to the fact that it has quinine in it?” Elliot groaned softly, directly into the phone. “What do you want, John?” “Quinine was originally added as a prophylactic against malaria, intended to be used primarily in tropical areas where the disease once ran rampant. And even though the ever- trustworthy FDA now limits how much quinine is added to tonic water, it’s still a lethal drug if taken in large quantities. And throughout the last forty-eight hours, you, my friend, have ingested enough to drop a horse.” “John.” Elliot braced his forehead in his upturned palm, sending another impatient groan through the phone line. He couldn’t stop from wondering, somewhat hopefully, just how toxic quinine was, and how large of an amount had to be consumed for it to be lethal? It seemed like an easy out, the best solution to his problem, and death—by any method—would be a helluva lot easier than facing Olivia again. Munch cleared his throat, hesitating through a dragging moment that he knew Elliot was using to contemplate the deadly effects of quinine. “We thought you should know,” he finally said, disrupting the static-filled silence that had settled over the line, “Jordan Kingsley has disappeared.” “Disappeared?” Elliot asked quickly, his head popping up out of his hand. “What the hell does that mean?” “Do you want Webster’s definition of the word, or my own, less formal version?” Elliot leaned into the stiff back of the chair. “Just tell me what in the hell is going on.” “Looks like he had it planned, this apparent relocation he’s made. We’re figuring he decided it was the best thing to do even before Liv and you went undercover. And why wouldn’t he? He’s shrewd enough to know that once Liv began working in the club, it wouldn’t take long for us to realize that Raspberry Vodka’s popularity doesn’t have much to do with its trademark drink.” “So, he’s gone? Just like that?” “Two bank accounts in Manhattan have been cleaned out, over a million dollars withdrawn.” Elliot glanced toward the plate glass window to his left, searching the dark, car-filled street for a sign of the other two detectives. “What about international accounts? Someone with as much money as Kingsley has has to have accounts—“ “It’s already been checked into,” Munch said quickly, with a tinge of boredom in his voice. “The day after Jenna March was killed transfers were made into two accounts, one in Switzerland, the other in Brazil—“ “When the hell have you seen a Brazilian?” “I might be Catholic, but that doesn’t mean I’m dead.” Maybe he wasn’t dead, but he wished to hell he was. He gripped his glass in his hand, emptying its bitter contents into his suddenly dry mouth, praying with each arduous swallow that it would be his last. As the tartness of the tonic water overpowered him, causing him to cringe, he scrunched his eyes closed. And saw only her. Olivia. His partner. Backed up against the wooden wall, one leg draped over his shoulder as if there was a groove in his skin that it fit perfectly into, writhing beneath his touch, begging through the huskiness in her voice for him to continue touching her, the damn strip of hair thin and tantalizing and taking command of his curiosity— “Undercovers are watching both JFK and LaGuardia,” Munch continued. “But there haven’t been any sightings so far. My personal opinion? We won’t find him. Kingsley is too smart to get caught. He was long gone before we ever realized we wanted him to stay put.” Elliot sighed into the phone, pinching the bridge of his nose with shaky fingers. “I’ll, uh. Next time I have the chance, I’ll let Liv know.” “Liv, uh huh,” Munch said leadingly. Knowingly. “Elliot.” Elliot shook his head, cupping his hand over his mouth and dragging his fingers down to his chin. “Don’t say it. Just…don’t.” “We have thirty-four minutes of dead air time. Fin and I have checked over things on our end; there wasn’t a malfunction.” “Must’ve been on this end then.” “Why don’t I rephrase that? You need to tell me why I have thirty-four minutes of dead air time so I’ll know what to tell the captain when he asks.” “Christ,” Elliot mumbled. “You know…” Munch hesitated, allowing another minute of silence to elapse in order to garner Elliot’s full attention. “My partner and I were discussing earlier how hard it is to hire competent employees these days. Some of the women in the club, I can only assume they’re more than a little clumsy. I mean, wearing those ungodly heels, those skirts—“ “What’s your point?” Elliot interrupted brusquely. “Accidents happen, probably more than they should,” Munch replied simply. “Drinks get spilled. Sometimes they even get spilled on patrons. And if a drink were to get spilled, it stands to reason it would leave a stain. Especially on Armani.” Elliot took in a breath, staring down at his right wrist. It would stand to reason. If there was an accident, if something unintentional and unplanned happened, a stain would result in its wake. One that, if treated quickly, might be erasable, but if left alone and ignored, would always be noticeable. “Elliot?” “What’re you suggesting, John? Are you saying I should lie?” “Lie? Now, that would be unethical. I’m merely saying… You sound thirsty, Elliot. Maybe you should order another drink.” +++ Elliot settled back in the metal-frame chair as Olivia dropped the crystal glass onto the table. He watched, with heavy brows creased and lips pursed, as half of the water inside of the container spilled over the sides, his narrowed eyes following the lime slice as it bobbed and twirled with each roll the liquid made toward the smooth rim. Clearing his throat, not acknowledging the piercing stare that was being directed at him, he asked, “Everything okay? Earlier, it, uh, it looked like McGrath was getting a little free with his hands.” “Seems to be a lot of that going around,” Olivia grumbled, dragging the tip of her finger through the puddle of standing water on the tabletop. She shrugged a shoulder, whispering an imperceptible, “I didn’t mean that,” as Elliot’s gaze slowly rose. “Liv.” He shook his head, sighing, wondering if she had managed to spill the final dose of quinine he would need to remove him from the misery he had created. “What happened earlier—“ “You’ve got a mic, Elliot.” He shook his head, tugging at the sleeve of his suit jacket. “Took it off again. Took it off for good.” He released a breath, shaking his head, making Olivia wonder through his second, heavier exhale if he was working as hard to empty himself of her as she had been working to empty herself of him. And she hoped, God help her, that he was failing as miserably as she was. She glanced down at her closed, left hand, breathing in sync with Elliot, exhaling, inhaling, and finding only him at the end of each deep breath. Straightening her fingers, exposing her palm, she slowly rolled her wrist until the soggy one hundred-dollar bills slid off of her skin and fell onto the table between them. Elliot looked up as the bills fell, watching as she licked her lips, first the upper one and then lower one, as the size of her eyes fluctuated, widening just a fraction, a negligible amount that he saw so clearly—that he understood as a sign of nervousness—but knew that the rest of the world would never even notice. “Olivia, I…” He pressed the tense muscles of his lower back into the inflexible back of the chair. “This…the money…” “McGrath took three hundred of it,” she said softly. “You’re gonna have to explain it to Cragen, where the money went.” “You think I—“ “You weren’t thinking,” she said quickly, moistening her lips again with a roll of her tongue. “Neither was I. And now you can figure out a way to explain why you’re short three hundred-dollars of the city’s money. Tell Cragen the truth, tell him…whatever you want. It doesn’t matter to me.” “Jesus Christ, Olivia,” Elliot whispered, grabbing the money off of the table and shoving it into the breast pocket of his jacket. “McGrath was right there, coming towards us. What’d you want me to do?” “I didn’t want you to follow me down the hall to begin with.” He grinned, the faint gesture backed by anger, not amusement. He jutted out his lower lip, scraping his teeth across the soft skin on the inside of his mouth. Shaking his head, concentrating on the feel of the wetness as it transferred from the soggy money onto his silk shirt, he chuckled. Still angry. “You didn’t want me to— Then you should’ve said so.” “I did.” “No.” He chuckled again, biting down on the inside of his lower lip. “I distinctly remember you saying—“ “Oh, God, Elliot,” Olivia groaned tiredly, rolling her eyes. “Shut up.” “I will as soon as you stop lying. Stop lying to me and stop lying to yourself.” “I’m not lying to anyone.” “Bullshit.” “God. You’re pompous.” “And you’re a rotten liar.” She shook her head, cocking her hips in his direction. “Go to hell.” He raised an eyebrow, looking as smug as she had accused him of being. “That the best you’ve got?” She leaned over the table, flattening her palms on the dampened top, her breasts rolling to the edge of the bra cups, once again teasing him. Deliberately. Mercilessly. Deservedly. “Stop trying to pick a fight with me, Stabler. I know what I said earlier.” “And?” Elliot asked, his eyebrow still arched, teeth still puncturing the throbbing skin inside his lower lip, and eyes glued to the golden-tinted flesh that had pooled at the tops of the lace-trimmed cups. And? How could such a simple word become such a loaded question? “Talk to me, Liv,” Elliot said, his stern voice one hundred percent Detective Stabler, her pushy, irritating, pain in the ass partner, and zero percent annoying sex talker who had caused her to climb the walls in the narrow bathroom stall an hour earlier. “What happened, you wanted it as much as I did. I know you—“ “No, you don’t,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper that blended into the melodic music that swirled around them as Tony Bennett sang about leaving his heart in a foreign city. Jesus, at least he had picked a city to leave his in. Olivia’s was still pounding out of rhythm somewhere in the corner stall in the ladies’ room. “You aren’t pissed about the money,” Elliot said. “You know why I gave it to you.” “I know why,” she admitted, pushing up from the table and running the tips of her fingers beneath the wire-stuffed bottom of the left cup of her bra. Where she had hidden the three hundred-dollars after Wyatt McGrath had shoved the bills against her chest, and where McGrath’s harsh fingers had poked and pinched as he retrieved them. Elliot dropped his elbows onto the tabletop, leaning closer. “Then tell me what’s going on. Christ, I’ve been sitting in this corner for the last hour feeling like a pervert. At least tell me that’s not what you think I am.” “Elliot.” She shook her head, sighing, pulling the air back into her lungs almost as quickly as she released it. Pulling him back in. To her. Because as long as it was Elliot’s fingers that she remembered touching her, as long as it was him who was filling her in her hazy memories and with his smell, then she was still different. Different from Harley and Tristan and the other women who forced their smiles and tried to convince themselves that they had been given the break of a lifetime when Jordan Kingsley hired them. As long as it was still Elliot, she wasn’t lonely or desperate. And as long as it was him, as long as it continued to be him, maybe she even still had options. “I know why you gave me the money,” she said. “I knew McGrath was there. But it was, when you did it, it made it feel so…real. Too real. I mean, if I really was this Rachel Martin, if I had a deadbeat ex-husband and kids to take care of—“ “You aren’t and you don’t,” Elliot broke in sternly, warningly. “Don’t get lost in this case, Liv. Don’t let yourself get lost among these women.” She nodded, understanding his advice, his mandate, but not fully hearing it. “I just want to stop these sons of bitches. McGrath and Kingsley, I want to stop what they’re doing to these women. And I want to do that more than I want to find out who raped and murdered Jenna March.” She looked up, a look of failure prevalent in her dark eyes. “How can I want that more? Four women were raped, Elliot, and one was murdered. And I want to stop McGrath from continuing to do to these women exactly what they’re letting him do more than I want to solve this case.” “We’re gonna solve the case,” he said, nodding, sounding assured. “And we’re gonna stop Kingsley and McGrath, too.” “And if we do that, what happens to these women? They need this money. They need it to stay off of welfare and to put food on the table for their kids. So, if we close this place down, what happens to them?” “They’ll get regular jobs,” Elliot responded simply, ignoring the disagreeing shake of her head. “It’s wrong. Whether or not you understand the ‘why’ of what’s happening, it’s still wrong. And once we wrap up our portion of the case, Vice’ll take over—“ “Vice’ll take over,” Olivia repeated, her voice lowering, dropping away even more with each reluctantly spoken syllable. “It’s prostitution. Vice’ll have to get involved.” She nodded. “And that means we’ll be involved too, and not just as the officers who uncovered this whole mess.” She moved closer to the table again, checking over her right shoulder and then left until she found Wyatt McGrath across the room. He was laughing, schmoozing, with his broad hands slapping against shoulders and grating voice interrupting the smooth music being pumped through the high-dollar speaker system. “Tristan walked into the bathroom while…” She shrugged, clearing her throat. Stalling. Waiting before admitting the obvious, the embarrassing. Before bringing back into their conversation the only topic that could still make her react like Pavlov’s damned dog. “Let’s put it this way, McGrath and Tristan don’t have any doubts that I earned the money you gave me.” “Well, they’re wrong.” “No, they’re not. And we could lose our jobs because of it.” She leaned over the table again, watching as Elliot’s eyes began to jerk in their sockets. He was fighting like hell, she could tell, to continue looking at her face. His juvenile behavior made her want to laugh, partly. But it also made her stomach turn, because she knew it was what the other women faced nightly. Men who didn’t see them, who never saw them, and who never would. Men who didn’t want to see them, at least as nothing more than an easy score, a piece of New York pussy, a decent fuck. She glanced down as Elliot’s hand slid over hers. He curved his fingers loosely around her index and middle fingers, giving a gentle squeeze. One of encouragement, possibly, or one with which he accepted responsibility for his actions, his insistence, or maybe just for the fact that he knew, without a doubt, he had joined the rank of pervert. At least around her. “I’ll take care of Cragen,” he said. “And I’ll think of a way to explain the missing money.” “And what about the wire? You took it off. There’ll be a time lapse—“ He grinned crookedly, glancing out of the plate glass window before moving his hand off of hers and wrapping it around his glass. With a shake of his head, he tilted the wide mouth toward his right wrist, pouring the remaining liquid over his hand and the hem of his sleeve. “Elliot!” she said quickly, reaching across the table for a napkin. “What in the hell are you doing?” “Something someone suggested,” he said, shaking out his arm. “Got a call from the Batmobile. Batman and Robin had some advice for me.” “Christ,” she groaned, dabbing at his arm with the scrunched napkins. “I knew they’d figure it out. They’re never gonna let it go, you know. They live for this sort of thing.” “Relax. We’re okay.” “Okay?” she repeated, chuckling. She wadded the napkins into a tight ball, tossing it down onto the center of the table. “This is your idea of okay?” “This is my idea of…getting there, back to being okay.” She nodded, silently accepting the lie he had suggested, the lie he had already acted on. But his actions weren’t for the reason she had expected, that he wanted to forget. She could tell by the determination that had filled his eyes, eyes that were finally staring directly into hers, that lies would be told so that he could remember. And he wanted her to remember, too. “Oh, God! Someone help me, please! Help me!” Elliot jumped up from the table as Olivia spun around, both becoming frozen as the room fell silent, as all eyes settled questioningly on the form that crumpled at the opening of the hallway. Harley’s pale face was streaked with both make-up and tears, black lines of mascara haphazardly splashed down her cheeks, and her hose were shredded against her legs. She curled into a limp ball, a stark streak of blood visible behind her on the white tile floor. “Oh, my God,” Olivia croaked, jarred into action as Elliot’s hand landed against the small of her back, pushing her forward. They skidded to stops as Harley raised her head, tilting her face toward the ceiling and pressing her fists against her chest. She clutched a pillowcase in her left hand, suddenly hurling it toward the empty dance floor in front of her. “I think he’s…oh, God…” She buried her face in her hands as her shrill voice seeped out from behind her trembling fingers. “He tried to… Please! Someone help! I think I killed him!” CHAPTER SEVEN Throughout her years on the force, the one thing that had always managed to disgust Olivia even more than the crimes she investigated was the apathetic attitudes of other people. The uninvolved. The ones who made it their mission to remain uninvolved. The ones who didn’t want to get involved. When she approached them for information or clues, for just a single hint that might lead her in the direction of an answer, she found herself, in most instances, banging her head against a brick wall that she had, over the years, become all too familiar with. The bystanders, the witnesses, the answer holders, worked like hell to make it her sole responsibility. To care. As if the gold shield that she had worked like hell to possess somehow added the responsibility to her already large list of taking over the simple task for everyone else of being compassionate. And standing at the back of the room in Raspberry Vodka made it clear to her that she was once again surrounded by the uninvolved. And it made her hate the arrogant and insensible men even more. The bodies remained frozen throughout the club, shadowed in the hazy overhead lights. Some stood, eyes never shifting from the deflated form on the floor while others remained seated at their tables with drinks still in hands and passing intermittent, insignificant conversation back-and-forth. But no one offered the help that Harley pleaded tearfully for; no one reached for a cell phone or headed towards the front door to search the busy street outside for a police car or ambulance or even a fire truck. They remained unmoving, a look of disappointment sweeping collectively over the group as each semi to completely drunken man realized, begrudgingly, that his night at Raspberry Vodka was going to be cut short. It’s a marvelous night for a Moondance… The music crashed down around Olivia as deafeningly as the men’s unsympathetic silence had begun to. Van Morrison’s tuneful voice blared out of the speaker-system, crooning confessions about whimsical love, fantabulous nights in October, and leaves falling from trees. He sang about making love, about hearts waiting, and touches eliciting trembles. He sang about magic, the magic of love, the magic that was supposed to come hand-in-hand with making love. All while the elite patrons of Raspberry Vodka continued to stare at the hysterical woman crumpled on the floor. But still no one attempted to help her, and all made it clear that they didn’t have any intention to. One more woman had been broken, what did it matter? Jordan Kingsley could easily—too easily—find another one to take her place. Someone who was just as desperate and equally as lonely, one more woman who had run out of options. They had barely made it halfway across the dance floor when Olivia heard Elliot’s voice behind her as he barked into his phone, “We need a bus! And get back-up in here now!” His footsteps fell out of sync with the droning drumbeats of the music, and then quickly stopped all together. But she didn’t slow her pace or look back as she heard him scream above the song’s chorus, “No one leaves! Everyone stay put!” As Olivia approached Harley, kneeling on the floor beside her, reaching out to her without making unexpected contact, she whispered a soothing, “Everything’s gonna be okay,” as Wyatt McGrath’s brusque voice interrupted Elliot’s repetitive commands about doors being locked and the nervous men remaining where they were. Inside. Within the suddenly suffocating confines of the club. As trapped as every woman who had ever donned Jordan Kingsley’s ridiculous excuse for a uniform had been. “You need to go back to your table, Mr. Anderson,” McGrath instructed, hurrying onto the center of the dance floor and making a jerky motion towards Elliot’s still open phone. “No need to make any calls. I’ll take care of everything.” “You need to get out of my way,” Elliot responded coolly, a like smile forming on his lips. “That woman needs help.” “And I’ll get it for her,” McGrath said, nodding, a layer of sweat becoming visible on his forehead. “But first, I need you to—“ “Step out of my way,” Elliot said, articulating each word and placing importance on each slowly spoken syllable. “Or I’ll move you out of the way if I have to.” “Just who in the hell do you think you are?” McGrath barked, barreling up to Elliot. He stepped threateningly into the center of Elliot’s path, the two men sidestepping in the same directions as Elliot tried to get around him, making them look like two overly anxious wrestlers who were both ready to attack as soon as the okay was given. Elliot held his stiff smile, slamming his cell phone closed and dropping it into the breast pocket of his jacket. “You don’t wanna know who I am,” he hissed, planting one hand firmly on McGrath’s shoulder and giving him a shove. “Trust me. When you find out, you’re gonna wish to hell you’d never seen me before.” Olivia ran her hand down the length of Harley’s wavy hair, nodding, attempting a smile, as the other woman’s tear-filled eyes rose to meet hers. “What happened?” she whispered. “Harley, where’re you hurt?” Harley glanced down at her wrinkled clothes, whimpering. “I don’t think… I’m not. He pushed my head against the wall, but I’m, other than that, I think I’m…I’m okay.” Olivia tracked the stripe of blood from Harley’s shaking frame down the dimly lit hallway, continuing a slow, steady stroke against the other woman’s hair. “You’re bleeding. We’ve called an ambulance, okay?” “No, I’m…” Harley glanced down, her brows furrowing as she saw the blood. “I…it’s…his. I kicked him, and I…the heel of my shoe, it, I think I stabbed him with it. In his, I think I hit him in the…” She shrugged, looking far more apologetic than vindicated. “I got him between the legs.” Olivia heard Elliot pull in a sudden, sharp breath behind her, as a communal grumble swept throughout the room. “Good for you,” she whispered, forcing a smile as Harley responded with more tears. Harley shook her head, sniffling, folding her shaky legs to the side. She dropped her hand over a jagged rip in her fishnet hose, still staring down at the white floor that had become mottled with blood. “I didn’t…I couldn’t— Oh, God, Rachel. Tristan.” She raised her trembling hands, cupping her fingers over her pale, tear dampened cheeks. “Tristan?” Olivia asked quickly, glancing up as Elliot knelt beside her. “What about—“ “I saw her!” Harley sobbed. “In the closet! When I was running out, I saw her! He must’ve dragged her in there, too! But I don’t, I don’t think she came out when I did!” She grabbed Olivia’s wrist, tugging at her arm. “I heard her scream. I know it was Tristan. Oh, God. What if he, what if—“ “It’s okay,” Olivia said, wrenching her arm out Harley’s restrictive hold. “We’ll find her. You wait here.” Her eyes found Elliot’s, and his husky voice accompanied her as she rose to her feet. “You don’t have a weapon. You need to stay here, too.” She shook her head, rebuking his attempt at authority as impatiently as she had when they had locked themselves in the backroom with fur-lined handcuffs and sex toys and drowning in insinuations that hadn’t yet reached fruition. “Tristan’s back there. I’m going with you.” “What the fuck is going on!” McGrath interrupted, shuffling behind them from one heavy soled shoe to the other. “Christ, Harley, get up off the floor and get into the bathroom! Clean yourself up! And, Rachel, get back to work! We have customers waiting for drinks—” “You need to lock this place down!” Olivia snapped, charging up to McGrath, her chest slamming into his. “No one leaves until the police get here! And if any of your customers are thirsty, McGrath, tell ‘em to get off of their lazy asses and fix their own drinks!” “What the—” McGrath laughed, taking a cautious step backwards as Elliot walked up behind Olivia. He looked from one stern face to the other, his lips trembling noticeably as his smile faded. “What in the hell is up with you two?” He shook his head, chuckling again, his rasping voice enfolded in nervousness. “You know what I’m gonna do? Have the bouncers throw the two of you outta my club!” “Yeah, good luck with that,” Olivia groused, feeling the front of Elliot’s shoulder press up against the back of hers. Not in warning, not even in an attempt to tell her to be careful or to back down, but in support. He had her back, as always. Hurt feelings and undefined emotions and spontaneous sex be damned. They were still a team. They could still be a team. No matter what secrets Raspberry Vodka had claimed from them, and no matter how many regrets it might have replaced those secrets with. Olivia didn’t notice Elliot move away, heading toward the darkness at the back of the hall that hid from view the doors to the four rooms where dignity was regularly—and expected to be—sold. For a price that McGrath and Kingsley saw as being fair, that all of the men who frequented Raspberry Vodka saw as being fair. But what they were so eagerly buying couldn’t be tagged with a price, especially one that could ever be considered ‘fair.’ And as Olivia stared down at Harley, as she saw the woman’s tears re-emerge more powerfully, with guilt for reacting to a forcefulness that Wyatt McGrath clearly felt she should have given in to instead of fought, she wondered if there was anyway to ever convince the blinded women who worked in the club that they were worth more than the defined price that they had been labeled with. Or if they had all accepted that they had willingly sold their souls to the devil, just as Tristan had professed to doing. She heard a commotion at the front of the main room, her attention falling on the open front doors as Fin and Munch bustled inside with gold shields held up in the air. The assembled group shifted nervously, causing Olivia to smile. Finally—possibly—the weightiness of their actions—their disregard for the women—would be felt. Not in regret, as she wished to hell they would be, but through embarrassment as names and pictures and personal stories were detailed through the media. They would be exposed, each of them, and just as hideously as every woman in the club had been. They would be seen for what they really were, johns. And it only seemed fair. If judgment was so easily passed on the waitresses of Raspberry Vodka, it should be passed on the men who continued to make those women into something none of them had ever expected to become. She spun around on her heels, whispering a commanding, “Stay here,” to Harley that became lost to the noise that had erupted from the suddenly frantic clientele, drowning out Fin and Munch’s impatient orders, McGrath’s incensed rambling, and the harmonious voice of Doris Day as she preached about things being what they would be and the future not being clear enough for anyone to see and decipher. “…Que sera sera…Whatever will be, will be…” She had made it halfway down the hallway, letting Elliot’s heavy, rushed steps guide her, when she felt the steel-like fingers clamp around her arm. Feeling her balance waver, she instinctively reached to her right hip, fingering only air as her hand curved around the phantom butt of the gun that was under lock and key in her apartment. She stumbled sideways, McGrath’s tight hold the only thing keeping her upright, and made a half-turn before her back slammed into the wall and McGrath released his hold. “You son of a—” She flattened her palms against the wall behind her, pushing herself forward. “This isn’t any of your fucking business!” McGrath hissed, dropping his reddened face in front of hers. “And people who try to make Mr. Kingsley’s business theirs only end up getting hurt! So, if I were you—” “You need to get out of my way!” Olivia barked, scooting out from between McGrath and the wall. “And you need to get Harley in the bathroom and help her clean up! Stupid bitch, did you see who just walked in here? Fucking cops!” He followed her through two more steps, skidding to a stop as she did. “If we go down, Rachel, we all go together! And what happens to your pathetic little twins then, huh? What happens to them when Mommy ends up in jail?” Olivia closed her hands around McGrath’s broad shoulders, shoving him back against the wall. She rose onto the toes of her constrictive, too narrow, too high shoes, dousing his sweat-layered face with a hot breath and sticking the tip of her finger into the center of his chest, poking and jabbing as he had done earlier to her. “You haven’t figured it out yet, have you? I’m not just a piece of New York pussy, you son of a bitch. I’m NYPD pussy. And that means you’re not going down; you’re already so far down there’s not a chance in hell you’ll ever get up again.” McGrath choked on a breath, his eyes narrowing as she spun around and headed down the hallway again. “What the hell…” he muttered, banging the back of his head against the wall behind him. He flung himself forward, Munch and Fin’s chants becoming louder as they neared the hallway, and Harley’s frightened sobs nothing more than an irritant in his crazed mind. He broke into a jog, catching up to Olivia as she approached the closed doors of the supply closet and Elliot waiting outside of them. “What the fuck are you talking about?” McGrath seethed, once again entrapping Olivia’s arm. “You’re a fucking cop?” He spun her around, his free hand balled into a fist. As he dragged his arm backwards, the tense air between Olivia and him serving as adrenaline-powered fuel to strengthen his intended punch, the barrel of Elliot’s glock became wedged between them. “You really want to add assaulting an officer to the list of charges we’ve already got on you?” Elliot asked, his tone flat but darkened eyes filled with warning. Slowly, tauntingly, his lips lifted into a conquering smile. “The name’s Detective Stabler, and I’ve never even been to Texas.” Olivia maintained her rigid stance in front of McGrath as Elliot turned away and slowly peeled open the door of the closet. As she heard him whisper a guarded, “Olivia,” she jerked away from a pale-faced McGrath and headed toward her partner. Elliot was stuffed halfway, cautiously, inside of the doorway, his gun steadied in front of him. As she stepped up beside him, he nodded, announcing, “I hear something. Sounds like someone’s crying.” “Tristan,” Olivia deduced. “Let me go in there, Elliot. If she’s hurt—” “The guy might still be in there. Harley didn’t see anyone come out, right?” She nodded, ignoring him and sliding past him. Stopping quickly, with an annoyed grunt, as Elliot grasped her arm, she jerked out of one more restrictive hold. “Swear to God, Elliot, someone else puts his hands on me—” “You’re not armed,” Elliot returned, not making another attempt to stop her as she stepped into the room. “You’re not planning to go anywhere, are you?” Shrugging, looking unworried, she added, “So, make sure nothing happens.” She walked into the cluttered room, her gaze traveling slowly to the right and then left, quickly analyzing every sealed, cardboard box, every metal shelf that lined the walls, every crack and stain on the concrete floor. In the corner, stuffed between two large boxes, one with its flaps open and standing upright at attention and the other closed tightly, she saw a huddled body. Tristan’s face was hidden, her forehead wedged into the corner, her arms stuffed between her legs, and her thin frame shaking with low, almost inaudible sobs. Olivia cleared her throat, the unobtrusive sound causing the other waitress to immediately stiffen. “Tristan? Tristan, it’s Oliv— It’s Rachel.” She took another step, reaching the center of the room. “Tristan, I need to know if anyone else is in here. Is someone else in the room with you?” Tristan released a throaty sob, wedging herself further into the corner. She teetered on her haunches, her pointy-heeled shoes propped up on their toes. “Leave me alone…” she cried, shaking her head as Olivia moved behind her. “Just tell me if anyone else is in here,” Olivia persisted. “I want to help you, but first I need to know if you’re alone.” “No…” She balled tighter, the tops of her shoulders pressing into the wall. “No one else is in here. It just, oh, God. It…hurts.” Olivia glanced back at Elliot, nodding, silently relaying her movements before they were made. She knew that he would understand, that he had already mentally envisioned each of her steps and actions even though she hadn’t yet decided what they would be. Because it was Elliot. And even if she wasn’t sure that she always knew him, she knew he believed that he knew her. And maybe that was enough; maybe it was all that was needed to keep them faltering in sync. Just for one of them to believe. “Medics are out front,” Elliot said, receiving only a nod in response from his partner. “You’re hurt?” Olivia asked, bending forward, trying to peek around Tristan’s hunched form to catch a glimpse of her face. “Do you know who hurt you? Did you see…” She took a jittery step backwards, stumbling, landing against a tall, taped box marked This side up, as Tristan rolled her shoulders and upper back against the wall and turned towards her. “That…bitch…” Tristan groaned, her legs flattening across the cool, hard floor. “Fucking…bitch…” She rolled her head from side to side, her shoulder-length strands of blonde hair bunching over her shoulders. Panting, her left, bloodied hand cupped between her legs, she raised her tear-filled eyes slowly as a derisive smile settled on her lipstick-smeared lips. “Oh…” Olivia stared, her dark brows lowered, flattened, above her widened eyes. “Wow.” She shook her head as Elliot whispered her name, asking if everything was all right, and then motioned with a shaky wave of her hand for him to come inside. She didn’t tear her gaze away from Tristan as Elliot sidled up beside her, but merely nodded in reply to the throaty, surprised grunt he made in conjunction with lowering his gun until the barrel was aimed at the steel gray-colored floor. God. She felt like a rookie again, standing in the center of the room, gawking. It could have been her first SVU case partnered with a younger, less volatile Elliot Stabler. She continued to wait silently for Elliot to say something—to stop his incessant grunting—and offer her some type of understanding for what she hadn’t spent even one second suspecting throughout the past forty-eight hours. Not when she noticed how obsessed Tristan was with reapplying already thickly adhered make-up, or how compulsively the other waitress checked her clothing or re-checked the white tape that held her leather money pouch in place against her leg, or how she was so much more selective about the men she flirted with and offered to spend her break time with. Olivia had let her sympathy become stronger than her suspicion. She had allowed herself to be blinded to what now, as she stared, unblinking and unmoving at an injured and somewhat smug-looking Tristan, seemed so glaringly obvious. The faintest bulge at the base of Tristan’s neck that indicated an almost unnoticeable Adam’s apple, a jaw line that was more squared than soft, fingers that were wider and blunter than short and delicate, legs that were long, but not necessarily shapely, hips that were straight… “Huh,” Elliot mumbled, shifting his weight from his left foot to his right one. He snuck a peek at his silent partner, muttering, “I don’t think it’s such a good idea for all of the waitresses to go without underwear.” Shuffling backwards a step, he holstered his gun and continued to stare. Tristan’s chest heaved with shallow, labored breaths, sweat had intermixed with the heavy make-up that was caked on her face in an attempt to soften her features, the skintight, black skirt was ripped up the center, and her long legs were extended and separated into a V-shape. Blood dripped onto the floor beneath her, seeping out from between her whitened fingers as she loosely cradled her penis that hung limply and had become purplish in color. “What the fuck are you staring at?” Tristan growled. “I’m bleeding to death here!” Olivia motioned toward Tristan’s bloody crotch, her mouth gaping as she turned toward Elliot. “No clue,” she whispered, giving a shuddering shake of her head. “She, uh…he…” She shrugged, attempting a smile but managing only a grimace. “No idea, Elliot. I didn’t pick up any kind of vibe on this one.” “No idea,” Elliot responded, nodding stiffly. “She, uh, a little while ago…” He cleared his throat, his eyes narrowing as he continued to dissect the woman crumpled against the wall. “She hit on me. Said she wanted to take me in the back.” He shook his head, stifling a smile as Olivia struggled to do the same. “I thought we were talking about a backroom.” Olivia groaned, running her hands down the length of her face. “So, you gonna handle the paperwork on this one, or you want me to do it?” “Wyatt!” Tristan bellowed, tilting her face upwards and screaming into the warm air that hovered in the tiny, crowded room. “Damn you! Get me some help! These morons are gonna let me die in here!” A raucous broke out in the hallway and raised voice drifted into the walk-in closet. “Oh, well…hello…” was spoken behind the detectives, causing them to divert their attention to the doorway and the lighted corridor beyond it. Munch stood in the center of the metal frame, his sarcastic smile fixed lopsidedly on his thin lips and heavy brows arched. “Well, well. This certainly presents us with an unexpected twist, doesn’t it?” “Christ!” Tristan seethed, shifting slowly and stiffly on the blood-soaked floor. “What the hell do you assholes think this is, a free peep show? You wanna see something, get out your fucking wallets first!” “Mm-hmm,” Munch mumbled, joining his colleagues in the center of the room. “And to complete this unusual package, we have a lovely disposition.” He nodded in Tristan’s direction, sinking his hands into the front pockets of his slacks. “I completely understand your antipathy, my friend. My own people were persecuted for thousands of years.” Fin appeared in the doorway, coming to an ungainly stop as his expression crinkled and upper lip rolled into a snarl. “Ah, hell. Why didn’t somebody warn me? I didn’t need to see this.” Olivia raised her hand to quiet the three men, as she moved to the far wall and knelt in front of a writhing Tristan. She reached out hesitantly, dragging her hand down the length of Tristan’s arm from her elbow to her wrist, and nodded toward the blood pooled on the floor. “You’ve gotta talk to me, Tristan. What happened in here? What happened to Harley…to you?” Tristan moaned, her eyes closing and long, fake lashes fluttering across the tops of her pale cheeks. “The bitch kicked me, that’s what happened. Put the fucking heel of her shoe right through—“ She laughed hoarsely, opening her eyes. “I’ve been screwing Warren Jenkins for over a year just trying to save up enough money to get rid of this thing.” She shrugged a shoulder, staring down at her exposed, completely purple penis. “Damn. Fuck surgery. All I needed was a Stiletto.” “Get rid of it?” Olivia asked. Tristan laughed again, a tinge of sadness filtering into her husky voice. “You’re not that fucking naïve, are you? After what I heard in the bathroom, I know you’ve seen one of these before.” She took in a raspy breath, groaning softly. “You think I actually enjoy having to tape this thing down every night? It’s a pain in my ass.” She smiled sleepily, her head dipping to the side. “Literally.” “C’mon, stay with me,” Olivia said, pressing her hand against the side of Tristan’s head. “The paramedics are here. Just stay awake. Talk to me.” “Talk to you…” Tristan whispered. “What the hell do we have in common to talk about?” “We have Harley in common,” Olivia answered. “What happened tonight? How’d you get hurt?” “Jesus. What is it with you? Are you really that stupid, or do you just not listen? Or are you one of those visual types of people? You need to see the hole in my dick to understand how I’m hurt?” “So?” Munch asked, folding his lanky arms across his chest. “We have a transgender rapist?” He shook his head, biting down on the corner of his lower lip. “The media’s going to have a field day with this one.” “All Harley Jacobson could tell us was that she kicked someone,” Elliot responded, mirroring Munch’s stance as he crossed his arms over his chest. “She stabbed the, uh, the guy with the heel of her shoe. Our perp put a pillowcase over her head, though, so she never got a look at his face.” “May I present Exhibits A and B?” Munch said, his hand floating in Tristan’s direction. “One penis, one hole.” He shrugged a bony shoulder. “Let’s have a show of hands as to how many here believe the DNA sample taken from Jenna March will match this lovely person’s.” “Tristan, did you drag Harley in here?” Olivia asked, dropping her face in front of Tristan’s half-closed eyes. “Earlier tonight—“ “It was supposed to be you!” Tristan snapped, running the palm of her hand across her sweat-soaked forehead. “Damn it!” “Me?” Olivia asked, glancing back at Elliot and Munch. “You were supposed to dance,” Tristan said, gasping as she kneaded her blood-drenched fingers into her skin. “You’re just a new flavor, and Warren never gets turned on by the new flavors. At least not enough to… But Harley. He’s always liked Harley.” She sighed, her shoulders slumping as her eyelids fell closed. “Where’re the medics?” Olivia shouted, bracing Tristan’s limp body in her arms. “She needs to get to the hospital now!” +++ “Just to make sure we have our facts straight,” Munch said, glancing around the brightly lit room, his gaze lingering for only a disgust-filled second at a time on each befuddled face of the patrons and uniformed officers who filled the spacious area from wall to wall. “What we have is a transgender waitress with a bad attitude who also happens to be an alleged rapist and murderer, a proven prostitution ring, and one corrupt millionaire who is probably lounging on a beach in Brazil right now completely carefree and out of our jurisdiction.” He rolled his eyes behind the dark lenses of his glasses. “This should be a fun trial. Novak is gonna love us when we hit her with this one.” “Still no sightings of Kingsley?” Elliot asked, his gaze fixed on the bar, on the far end where Olivia was situated between two uniforms. She looked tired, the skin beneath her heavy eyes having become tinted with a mixture of black and purple, and her skin, even though still masked by a thick layer of make-up, had paled. Once the club had begun filling with officers, Elliot had offered her his Armani suit jacket, and now she was partially hidden beneath it. It hung loosely on her shoulders and around her upper torso, and the sleeves—one still revealing the lingering stain left behind from their time spent in Raspberry Vodka—rolled up past her wrists. But at least the rented coat shielded her from the wide-eyed cops who were stumbling their way through interviews and collecting clues, attempting to appear professional, but failing miserably as their attention was continually stolen by one pair of exposed, jiggling breasts after another. Including Olivia’s. He watched Olivia nod and shrug and shake her head, answering questions that she was too exhausted to formulate accurate and articulate answers for. The questioning should wait until morning, but Elliot knew it wouldn’t. Their covers had been blown, Jordan Kingsley had disappeared, Wyatt McGrath had clammed up, both Tristan and Harley had been transported to the hospital, and the NYPD had been left with a room full of prestigious, nervous, cantankerous men who knew it was imperative that they made it home with as little fanfare as possible to ensure their pictures wouldn’t be splashed across the front page of The Times’ morning edition. And there were the half-dressed, completely scandalized, frightened women who bore an identifiable combination of relief, regret, and resentment on their faces. None uttered a word, not an explanation or offer of repentance or excuse. They merely stood frozen, grouped together at the back of the room waiting to be told that they had once again run out of options. “Liv looks exhausted,” Munch deduced. Elliot sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingertips. “Yeah,” he mumbled, unwilling to announce—give into—his own exhaustion. “I should get her out of here.” “Why don’t you let Fin drive her to the house,” Munch said, nodding once, sternly, as Elliot looked up. “He’ll drive her. I’ll drive you.” “It’s my car out front, not yours.” “It’s an NYPD rental. That makes it ours, Brother in Blue.” He grinned tensely, the calculated gesture slowly turning into a grimace. “We still have dead air time to explain. And not only do we have to explain it, but we also have to explain Liv’s whereabouts at the time someone was attempting to rape Harley Jacobson.” “You’re gonna blame this on Liv?” Elliot asked quickly, with the beginning insinuation of anger raising the pitch of his voice. “Harley went in the back on her own, John—“ “No one’s disputing that,” Munch broke in, far more clinically than with understanding. “But the questions will be asked, Elliot. Where was Liv at the time of the attack? Did she see or hear anything, and if she didn’t, why not?” “Christ,” Elliot whispered, sinking his hands into the front pockets of his trousers. His fingertips grazed across the folded ends of the three one hundred-dollar bills, causing his stomach to make a slow, nauseating flip. “What do you want me to say?” Munch gave a quick shake of his head, holding his frown. “Not a thing.” Keeping his stare locked onto Olivia across the room, he ignored Elliot’s quizzical glance. “I’m not going to lie to anyone for you, Elliot, and I’d prefer not to have to tell the truth, either. So, don’t tell me anything. The less I know, the less I can say.” “Harley would’ve been attacked no matter what. It’s not Olivia’s fault.” “Harley would’ve still been attacked,” Munch agreed, dragging the tip of his thumb across his chin. “And Liv and you are still going to have to explain what you were doing at the time she was attacked.” He shot a stern glance in Elliot’s direction, watching as Elliot’s narrowed eyes cut through the activity in the room and found Olivia. “No matter what.” +++ The city’s lights had dimmed and traffic had lessened, allowing a much needed quiet—a deceiving calm—to settle and make it possible for the day’s chaos to be temporarily forgotten. Elliot directed the brown sedan through a deserted intersection, never letting his sleepy gaze waver from the street. The fingers from his right hand were curled around the steering wheel, continuing to strangle the rounded band even though his hand had begun to cramp five blocks earlier. But the pain gave him something to concentrate on, to focus on, other than his somber partner at the other end of the long, front seat. The space between them, that separated them, had become suffocating. The crack had finally reached irreparable dimensions, guilt and misunderstanding and awkwardness continuing to chip away at it. Deepening it. Widening it. Making it too noticeable to ignore any longer. “I’m not gonna let you take the fall for this,” Olivia announced into the rolled up, passenger’s side window. She ran her hand through one side of her limp hair, releasing a breath that temporarily fogged the thick glass. “You weren’t working this case alone.” “But the responsibility to know where every waitress was at all times was mine. It was mine alone, Elliot. Your responsibility was to know where I was, to have my back. And you did that. You did what you were sent into this assignment to do. I’m the one who messed up, so I’m the one who’ll take the blame.” “The blame…” The words were spoken intermeshed with a heavy, guilt-ridden breath. “Harley wasn’t raped. Keep that in mind.” “Because she saved herself. If she hadn’t injured Tristan, we still wouldn’t know anything. And we wouldn’t know because I lost my focus.” I stole your focus. Elliot shook his head, frowning. “We’ll take the blame together.” Olivia turned her head quickly, swallowing him with a wide-eyed stare. “I take the blame, Elliot, and I’ll get a reprimand. Cragen’ll mark it in my jacket. But if we go in there together and tell Cragen what was really going on—“ She shook her head. “We’ll be looking at suspension or termination. Both of us, not just one of us.” “We’ll take the blame together.” She laughed softly, with incredulity, sinking her fingers into the sides of her hair. “Jesus Christ, Elliot. Don’t try to be the fucking hero in this, okay? You did your job. You followed me down that hall and stopped me from doing something stupid. And I would’ve done it, you’re right. If I’d thought I could’ve gotten something out of Jenkins, I would’ve done what he wanted.” She dropped her head backwards against the headrest, her neck going limp. “And I don’t even know why I would’ve done it. I don’t know why I thought about doing it. I just wanted to catch the bastards. I wanted to stop them because I let myself get too wrapped up in what was going on in that place, instead of keeping my focus on what had happened there. What had happened to Jenna and Anna and—“ “You wouldn’t have done it,” Elliot disagreed, his fingers beginning to throb as he maintained his death grip on the steering wheel. “Yeah, I would’ve. But because you were there and you did your job, I didn’t do it. But I didn’t do my job, Elliot. I didn’t do the job I was sent in there to do. So, if someone has to take the fall for this, it should be me.” “No one’s gonna take a fall for anything. The case is closed—“ “Harley can’t identify her attacker. She kicked Tristan, we know that much, but that doesn’t mean Tristan dragged her into the closet.” “We’ll figure it out,” Elliot said lowly, with more uncertainty than assuredness. “Jenkins and McGrath were both taken to the station. Once we start questioning them—“ “McGrath is gonna talk!” Olivia barked, slamming her hands down onto the seat on either side of her. “In case you hadn’t noticed, the guy’s not a fan of mine. He knows exactly what happened between us, and you don’t think he’s going to use that information against us? He’s gonna tell everyone what he knows if he thinks it’ll help him out.” “Then we’ll—“ He stopped himself, sucking back in his impromptu idea. To lie. It was something neither of them had ever done before. They had dodged pointed questions, refused to give answers, and played dumb when they thought there was a chance in hell they could get away with it, but they had never blatantly lied. And Elliot knew Olivia never would, just as she knew he never would either. “I’ll take the blame,” Olivia whispered. “I’ll tell Cragen the truth, that I went on break.” She smiled softly, her gaze lowering to the hem of her skirt, how it rested crookedly against her legs, lying higher across her right thigh than on her left one. “Is this what you want?” She could hear Elliot’s voice in her mind, husky and pleading as his hands had pressed against her skin, his right hand cupped around her hip and left flattened beneath her navel. “Because if it’s not, Liv—“ He had given her an out, a chance to run. He had given her an option, something that none of the other women at Raspberry Vodka had ever been given. He had given her the chance to say no. And she had done exactly what she wanted to do. She had let him do what he seemed to want to do. And she hadn’t—didn’t—regret it. God help her, she knew that she never would. Because no matter what it cost her, she had already gained so much more. For a few rushed and inconceivable minutes, she’d had Elliot. Not as a partner or sounding board or opponent, but she’d had him. In a way she had never imagined that she would, and wondered if she ever would again. “At the club…” She hesitated, clearing her throat, watching through the corners of her eyes as his knuckles turned a stark shade of white around the steering wheel. “I did what I wanted to do. I just…don’t ever think that I didn’t.” “You did what you wanted,” he said, nodding, tearing his gaze away from the empty street and finding her still staring from her side of the car. “And I did what I wanted.” The corners of her mouth twitched as she fought a smile. “And I did what I wanted.” He had done what he wanted. With her. To her. Because of her. For her. Why in the hell did that make her feel better? In five minutes she would walk into the one-six and face down Cragen and interrogation rooms filled with people who knew Elliot’s and her secret. But she didn’t care. For the first time in eight years, for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint or identify, she didn’t care more about the job than anything—something—else. She cared about the unfamiliar feelings that had begun to tighten her chest and make her stomach do flip after flip and were making it difficult to take in a full breath. The feelings that were Elliot, the last person who should be responsible for them. “What?” Elliot asked, his own smile shuddering on his lips. She shrugged, too embarrassed to admit her schoolgirl feelings. She was a forty-year-old woman, for God’s sake. What in the hell was happening to her? If Elliot and she were found out, chances were they would both lose their jobs. But she didn’t care, at least not like she should. She cared more about committing to memory every touch he had given, the feeling of him inside of her, and the sound of his voice—how it had deepened and been more seductive than she had ever imagined it could sound—as he was asking her if she was going to come. And, Jesus, that shouldn’t be more important than what they were sent into Raspberry Vodka to accomplish. It shouldn’t be, damn it. But it was. She shook her head, turning back towards the rolled up window. “Nothing.” “Nothing?” His smile broadened, more with embarrassment than amusement. “Nothing,” she repeated. She took in a breath, filling her lungs with him—his scent and strength and constancy—and turned back towards him. “Let me do this, Elliot. Okay? Let me talk to Cragen and explain what happened. I don’t want you involved.” “I am involved.” “You’re…involved,” she agreed with an abrupt nod. “But I’m going to handle it. Okay? Please, Elliot. Let me do this.” “Why?” he asked, his heavy brows creasing. He spun the steering wheel to the left as he released the pressure on the gas pedal and coasted to a stop beside the curb. Shifting the gear into ‘park,’ he let the engine idle, low and rumbling, and remained settled in the seat, not moving, not turning off the car, not offering her another glance. “Why?” she asked, sounding more curious about his question than as if she had a valid answer for it. “Why?” he repeated, nodding. “We’ve always had each other’s back with Cragen before. We’ve gone through psychological testing, question and answer sessions with the brass; we’ve dealt with it all. And we’ve always done it together, as a team. So, why are you making this time different?” “I’m— Elliot, I’m not.” She sank back in the hard, leather seat, sighing. But she was. Because this time was different, undeniably. Questions couldn’t be so easily answered this time; they couldn’t be cast off through anger or indifference or an insinuation of stupidity. This time there was something real and viable behind their unacceptable actions. There were feelings. Feelings that she hadn’t expected, hadn’t even sought, but that were more real than she had ever felt before. “Elliot, I don’t—“ She shook her head, biting down on her lower lip and holding in the confession she had almost given too easily. “Never mind.” “Don’t give me that,” he said, running his hand around the circumference of the steering wheel. “Christ, Liv, talk to me. For once, just talk to me.” She reached for the door handle, her fingers curving around the smooth metal. “We don’t talk, Elliot,” she said, her admission followed by an almost imperceptible, sad laugh. “We do things like we did tonight, without thinking them through first. We just…act. And maybe that’s why we’ve always been a good team, I don’t know. Or maybe it’ll finally be our downfall.” She leaned toward him, staring him down, facing him only with honesty. “I trust you, and now I need you to trust me.” He nodded, staring at her shoulder that was still hidden beneath his rented suit jacket as it came closer to him, only teasing him with the promise of a touch before she straightened and moved away again. “I trust you.” “Then let me handle Cragen.” “Let you handle Cragen.” He shrugged, his eyes shifting downward toward the silver door handle as she tugged on it, cracking open the door a sliver and causing the dome light to bathe them in a soft glow. “Why you? Why alone?” “Because…” She slid one foot onto the curb, pulling the bottom flaps of the jacket together around her waist. She shivered as the cool night air attacked her, Elliot’s voice once again consuming her overly tired mind, Liv, talk to me. For once, just talk to me. Pushing the door the rest of the way open and dropping her other foot outside, she didn’t notice the ache in her heels or numbness in her toes for the first time in over forty-eight hours. All that she noticed, all that she was aware of, was how blue his eyes looked in the muted light of the car. She noticed how his stare never wavered, his almost non-existent smile didn’t diminish, and how hopeful he looked. “Because I don’t regret it,” she whispered, her voice lost to the silence that had overtaken the city. “But I know you don’t believe that. So, maybe this’ll prove it to you. Maybe it’ll show you, finally, that there is more to me than this job. And I don’t mind being that person I was with you tonight, Elliot. For the right reasons…the right person…I don’t mind being her.” She turned her face away from his, flashing an embarrassed smile that he didn’t see as she climbed out of the car. Pushing the door closed behind her, once again submerging him in darkness that was haunted more with questions than solace, she hurried towards the precinct. Elliot switched off the car, pulling the silver key out of the ignition. Because I don’t regret it. He smiled, watching her disappear through the doorway of the one-six, the black skirt clinging to the backs of her thighs, excess material of his suit jacket bunched around her upper back, and too long of sleeves rolled up above her wrists. Even after she was out of sight, he could clearly see the flesh that rose above the cups of her black bra and the skin that had been visible beneath the stretched lace of her garter. And suddenly, surprisingly, it seemed normal to have seen so much of her, to know so much of her, to have touched and tasted and consumed so much. And he didn’t regret it, either. Not one second of time or single touch or unforgettable taste. Of her. And he’d be damned if she took on the responsibility for that alone. CHAPTER EIGHT The day her mother died, as Olivia had stood in Captain Cragen’s office losing her battle to tears, she had never felt more alone. She only had one connection in the world, and that connection had drunk herself into a stupor and taken a head dive down a flight of concrete stairs. Leaving Olivia alone. And as much as she hadn’t wanted to cry for her mother, she had. On her drive home from the precinct that afternoon, alone in her apartment with the lights turned off and all external sounds removed, and at the funeral home when she first saw her mother’s lifeless face with the bruises that the heavy, cake-like make-up couldn’t hide. At that moment, standing above Serena’s open coffin, staring down at a face that still after so many years seemed more like a stranger’s than one she knew, Olivia had never wished harder that she had a father. Someone who would wrap his arms around her, let her cry on his shoulder, and assure her—promise her—that everything would be okay. But she hadn’t had a father, at least not at that lonely point in her life. Joseph Hollister’s name wasn’t one she had yet conceived of in her mind; it wasn’t one that had been confirmed as belonging to anyone who could hold any significance in her life. She hadn’t yet seen the color photograph of the man who looked far kinder, more normal, than he had ever looked in her nightmares. She hadn’t had a father. She no longer had a mother. But she’d had Elliot. The one consistency in her life that she hadn’t realized until the moment she stood alone in the double doors that opened into the viewing room at the funeral home, as she stood by herself shaking hands and receiving hugs and accepting words of condolence, how much she depended on him. Not just at work, but in her life. And when he stepped up beside her in the doorway, when he fielded comments and answered questions and gave explanations that she had become too exhausted to respond to any longer, she realized he had become much more to her than a co-worker. He had, in so many senses of the word, become her partner. And then, lost in the craziness that was Raspberry Vodka, they had defined the word even further. Its meaning in their lives, its definition as far as their relationship went, and how it characterized them to each other. Partners. On the job, to keep each other company over a cold beer on lonely nights, to watch each other’s back, to protect each other, and for some reason—a reason neither of them had ever considered before—the right to explore each other at a time when an overwhelming and confusing amount of freedom and inhibitions had become interwoven with each breath they had dared to take while locked inside the tiny, corner bathroom stall. Partners. Through the good and bad, the expected and unexpected, the truth and semi-truth. “I lost track of Harley Jacobson,” Olivia admitted, situated stiffly in the inflexible chair in front of Captain Cragen’s desk. She pulled the sides of the suit jacket across her chest, hiding the guilty parties that had first captured Elliot’s attention. She had seen the change in him as soon as she walked out of her bedroom on the first night of their assignment. The change had been palpable, almost laughable, as he fidgeted like a teenager while trying to stare anywhere but the most noticeable—most exposed—place. Her chest. Of course he knew she had breasts. Olivia just wasn’t sure how often he had thought about them before she stuffed them into the black band-aid that masqueraded as a bra. During the first year of their partnership she had tried so hard to be seen only as a cop, competent and perceptive and fearless. She had tried to be seen as anything other than a woman. But into the second year of their partnership, at a time when she felt she had gained the respect of her colleagues, that she had gained Elliot’s respect, she let her style reflect her newly found sense of security. Her hair was cut shorter and shirts worn tighter. She was more confident, at least as far as her professional life went. And her style showed that. And even though she noticed Elliot’s eyebrows arch on more than one occasion when she wore a particularly tight shirt, his gaze had never lingered—devoured her—as it had when she walked out of her bedroom for the first time in her Raspberry Vodka uniform. But giving Elliot an uncensored view of her body was different—somehow more comfortable—than allowing Captain Cragen access to the same free peep show. And so she pulled on the sides of the jacket until they overlapped across her chest and stomach. “Lost track of her?” Cragen asked, his eyes down-turned, studying a maroon-colored ink pen that was balanced between the index finger and thumb of his right hand. “There weren’t that many waitresses working, were there?” “Um.” She cleared her throat, shoving the tip of her finger through the buttonhole on the dark blue lapel of the jacket. “Ten. I think.” “You think?” Cragen asked, glancing up, his brows raised. “It was…ten. I’m sure.” “Okay, you’re sure,” he said with a slow nod, reclining in his chair, the hinges squeaking as he shifted his weight. “So, what happened? You didn’t see Harley Jacobson leave the main room?” “I, um.” Olivia took in a breath, mentally weighing her options, the choices she had been left with. That Elliot and she had left themselves with. Lie. Tell the truth. Or combine the two. Which wouldn’t actually be lying, would it, if she was merely selective about which portions of the truth she told? “It was my break time. McGrath had, uh, he had told me to take my break. I went toward the back, but got, um, got detoured. Had to go into the restroom. I was in there for probably, I don’t know. Maybe ten minutes.” “Hurry up, Elliot. I only have ten minutes left of my break.” She cleared her throat, shifting her weight from her left hip to her right one in the uncomfortable chair. Christ. It felt like she had taken the witness stand, and Cragen was acting as both her judge and jury. He expected her to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But if she did, could he handle it? Or more to the point, would he be able to accept it? Elliot and she had pushed harder in the past year than they ever had before, both having their own breakdowns, both working beyond the rules and regulations, both fucking up in one way or another. And the captain had been as patient as Olivia knew he was willing to be, maybe even as patient as he was capable of being. Sentiment and work records and years of service be damned. Cragen still had a department to run, and he would, in good conscience, rid his department of anyone who couldn’t carry out their job in the manner he saw fit. But just as Elliot had supported her in the drafty doorway of the funeral home, she would support him now. He hadn’t let her fall that time, when the weight of death had settled on her shoulders and left her feeling more alone than she had ever before felt. And she wouldn’t let him fall now. She wouldn’t make him face anything alone. “When I came out of the bathroom, McGrath told me that Harley had gone with Tristan and Warren Jenkins. I couldn’t get to the back, though. I, um…” She sighed, pulling her finger out of the slender buttonhole. “McGrath was up in my face. We argued a little, and then I headed to Elliot’s table. We were talking about, uh.” She rifled her fingers through the sides of her hair, scattering the spiraled strands across her shoulders. “That’s when we heard Harley scream, while I was at Elliot’s table.” “We lost over thirty minutes of air time with the wire,” Cragen said, beginning a quick, grating tap against his desktop with the blunt end of the pen. He stared, not at her chest as she had sadly and in a short amount of time gotten used to men doing when they talked to her, but into her eyes. Unblinking. Unwavering. Dead on. Stared. “Oh, my God. Oh, shit, Elliot. You’re wired. Fuck. You’ve got a mic—” “Took it off.” Olivia nodded, unable to break her gaze from the blue eyes across the desk that were challenging her. To tell the truth. And to lie even more. “Elliot spilled a drink,” she said. “On himself. On his, um, his arm.” “Elliot spilled a drink,” Cragen repeated, each word accompanied by a slow, restrained nod of his head. He made two consecutive taps against the desk with his pen before releasing his hold and letting it fall onto a stack of papers. “But Elliot and you were in contact the entire time? There was never a breakdown in communication between the two of you?” “Say it, Olivia. All you have to do is say it.” “Fuck me, Elliot. Here. Now. Fuck me.” Olivia gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. “No. There wasn’t a breakdown in communication.” “Good,” Cragen said, folding his arms across his midsection. “So, even though we lost the wire and Fin and Munch were out of the loop, Elliot was aware of your movements inside the club? You were able to keep him abreast of things?” “Abreast…” Olivia fought a smile; one that she feared would take life on her lips looking far too frivolous. “Yeah. Elliot knew what was going on. We, um, had everything under control.” “You wanna come, Liv? Tell me if it’s what you want. Tell me what I need to do to make you come.” “I need—” “Tell me what to do, Liv, to make you come.” She dipped her face downward, her playful smile materializing as a flicker across her lips. “He had my back,” she whispered. Glancing up, the playfulness having drained from her face by the time she made eye contact with the captain, she added, “I knew Harley had gone into the back, but McGrath told me that she was with Tristan Merrick and Warren Jenkins. So, I didn’t think there was any threat. Tristan…” She sighed, her dark brows arching, conveying as much confusion as shock. “She…he…slid right under my radar. I didn’t suspect anything, not as far as she went. So, if anyone is to blame for what happened tonight, it’s me. I didn’t pay as close of attention to the things I should’ve been paying attention to.” “Don’t treat me like a school girl, Elliot. I know what I want, and I wouldn’t be in a fucking bathroom stall with you right now if I didn’t want this.” “Didn’t pay attention—” Cragen’s voice broke, interrupted by two abrupt knocks against his closed office door. His gaze shifted to the barrier as Elliot trailed behind it, entering the room. “Nice of you to join us for this briefing, Detective.” Elliot nodded, mumbling an indecipherable, “Sorry,” as he walked up to the edge of the desk and dropped the crisp, folded one hundred-dollar bills in front of the captain. “I had some…things…that needed done.” He nodded towards the money as Cragen picked up the stack. “The eighteen hundred-dollars.” Cragen didn’t bother to shuffle through the bills or count them, merely deposited them into the top, middle drawer of his desk. “How much did you use?” “Olivia, this…the money…” “McGrath took three hundred of it. You’re gonna have to explain it to Cragen, where the money went.” “I spent…” Elliot shrugged, sinking his hands into the front pockets of his trousers, wiping his sweaty palms across the material that lined the insides of the deep pouches. “There should be around fifty dollars missing. It’s what my drink tabs totaled, but I have receipts.” “Just fifty?” Cragen asked. “You’re a cheap date, Elliot. The city’s gonna like that.” Olivia dropped her head forward, sinking her teeth into her bottom lip. Fifty dollars missing. Christ. What had Elliot done? Was he going to stand in front of Cragen and lie to his face? Was he going to hope to hell someone couldn’t count? If he would have just stayed out of the room and let her handle things like she had asked him to do— “Olivia, why don’t Elliot and you take care of that?” She lifted her head quickly, her wide-eyed gaze resting briefly on Elliot before making a slow, reluctant shift to the captain’s tense face. “Sorry. I, uh.” She shook her head, sinking down into the straight-back chair. “I didn’t…hear…” Cragen cleared his throat, settling one hand on top of the desk and beginning a slow, persistent rap with his fingertips. “We need to turn Raspberry Vodka’s employee files over to Vice. They’ll take care of interviewing the waitresses and determining what charges should be filed against them. As far as that part of this whole mess goes, we’re out of it.” “Vice’ll take over.” “It’s prostitution. Vice’ll have to get involved.” “And that means we’ll be involved too. Let’s put it this way, McGrath and Tristan don’t have any doubts that I earned the money you gave me.” “Vice…” she repeated, stumbling over the word. She felt Elliot’s stare on her, felt it burn against her skin just as authentically as his hands and hot breaths had when he shoved her against the smooth wall in the bathroom. When Tristan had been listening outside of the door they hadn’t even bothered to lock. When she had become, without thought or regret, Rachel Martin, Raspberry Vodka employee, instead of staying focused on who she really was. Who she was supposed to be. “I think we should worry about our case first,” Elliot said, his hands still lost in his pockets but shoulders straight and squared. “After we’re finished with our interviews, I’ll get a list of employee names over to Vice.” Cragen nodded, his pale lips twisting to the side. “Fin and Munch can talk to Wyatt McGrath—” “I’d like to talk to McGrath,” Elliot broke in, a hint of desperation detectable in his voice. “And I think Liv should talk to Tristan Merrick. Merrick trusts her more than anyone else at this point.” Cragen hesitated, mulling over Elliot’s suggestion before agreeing with a nod. “Before we talk to Merrick, we have someone else who needs questioned.” He tilted his head in Olivia’s direction. “Jessica Wolf, our first known rape victim. She’s here. So, you talk to her, Olivia, while your partner is talking to McGrath. Then the two of you can head over to the hospital and see what Merrick has to say.” He rolled his eyes, sighing, suddenly looking as drained as his detectives did. “It’s cases like these that make me wonder why in the hell I ever put down the bottle.” +++ “Fifty dollars is missing?” Olivia questioned, her voice low, bordering on accusatory as she leaned over Elliot’s desk, flattening her hands on the cluttered top, the sides of the oversized jacket falling away from her scantily clad body. “You got something to change into?” Elliot asked, not tearing his gaze away from the stack of papers situated between his outstretched arms. “Guys from every department are walking by here just to get a look at you.” An intimation of a smile played on his full lips. “It’s not a free peep show, isn’t that what Tristan said?” “You lied to Cragen.” “No, I didn’t.” “You said only fifty dollars is missing,” she hissed, her heated words emerging as slurs. “And that’s what is missing. He gave me eighteen hundred dollars when this thing started, and I gave him seventeen hundred and fifty dollars back.” He glanced up, one heavy eyebrow arched. “Minus some change, I guess. But my math isn’t off by that much. It’s pretty simple subtraction, really.” “Elliot—” “Olivia.” He said her name in reprimand, glancing back over both shoulders, assuring that the other officers in the room were too preoccupied to eavesdrop on their conversation. “I gave him seventeen hundred and fifty dollars, and what’s missing is accounted for on my drink tabs.” She watched him, her eyes narrowing as his did, the same muscles tensing in her face as were in his, and shook her head. The son of a bitch had lied. “You handed me six hundred dollars outside of the bathroom, and McGrath took three hundred of it. So, what? You want me to believe you walked up to the guy, asked for it back, and he just handed it over?” She shook her head, looking more disgusted than angry. “Where’d you get the money?” He flopped back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind the back of his head. “Let’s say I…” He shrugged, an ornery grin lifting one corner of his mouth. “Dipped into my Brazilian account. I keep it around in case any unexpected surprises come up.” “Your Brazil—” She groaned softly, annoyed. “Christ, Elliot, it’s a wax job, okay? I’m not the only woman in Manhattan who gets it done. Can we drop it now, please?” He felt his eyes jerk in their sockets, and silently cursed them for taking on minds of their own. But in a few minutes she would head into the women’s locker room and peel off her uniform for the last time, the lace-trimmed bra, the see-through blouse, the body-hugging skirt, and the fucking, mind-blowing garter belt and fishnet hose. And he couldn’t stop himself from stealing one more glance and taking advantage of one last opportunity to commit every exposed—and what little remained unexposed—inch of her to his zealous memory. “You’re a sick son of a bitch, Stabler,” Olivia snapped, straightening and pulling the flaps of the jacket across her chest. She watched his gaze shift jerkily off of her, first moving downward to his desktop before lifting as he focused across the room on two uniforms as they led a sullen-looking Wyatt McGrath towards the interrogation room. “Looks like my party guest is here,” Elliot said, straightening in the chair. “What about yours?” “Answer my question, Elliot.” He took in a breath, curving his fingers around the arms of the chair and pushing himself up. “Which question? Can we forget about the…” He glanced behind him again before turning back toward her and mouthing, “Brazilian?” He nabbed an ink pen off of the corner of his desk, punching his thumb repeatedly against its silver end, causing it to click each time the inked tip emerged outside of the plastic casing. “We can try, I guess.” She cocked her hips to the side, knotting her arms across her chest. “Don’t be an ass. Tell me where you got the extra three hundred dollars.” He stepped away from his desk, frowning. “My bank account might not compare to Jordan Kingsley’s, but I do have some money put back. And like I said, I hang onto it for emergencies.” He shrugged a shoulder, leaning closer, watching as the anger faded from her face. “I think this constitutes an emergency. Don’t you?” +++ She looked as beaten down—as used—as every other woman that Olivia had encountered during the past forty-eight hours; she looked as worn out as Olivia could only imagine that she looked. But Jessica Wolf’s haggard appearance possessed an unsavory quality that Olivia hadn’t seen in any of the other brainwashed waitresses. Shame. “How long did you work at Raspberry Vodka?” Olivia asked, her soft voice slicing through the uncomfortable silence that had settled over the interrogation room. She traced with her fingertip a thin, jagged crack that marred the top of the wooden table, her perceptive stare never wavering from the other woman’s face. Jessica took in a long, stalling breath, hunching over the table with her shoulders raised and tightened around her thin neck and hands closed into fists. “About three years. I started out as a bartender, got moved to waitressing a couple of years ago. That’s when, uh, it’s when…” She shrugged a gaunt shoulder, dropping her gaze. “Things changed.” “You mean it’s when Kingsley started having his waitresses have sex with the customers?” She looked up, her lips fluttering between a smile and frown before finally collapsing. “I did okay as a bartender. I mean, I wasn’t going to become a millionaire or anything, but I did okay. I was working two jobs, and I was able to make ends meet most of the time.” “Then…why? Olivia asked, leaning into the table, her finger frozen in the center of the narrow crack. “How’d Kingsley convince you to start selling yourself?” “Selling my—” Jessica chuckled softly, sadly. “Like I said, I was working two jobs. I have two kids by two different men who both promised to marry me, but neither did. I’ve never gotten child support, don’t have any family to speak of…” She sighed, dropping her forehead into the palm of her upturned hand. “It seemed like I was always struggling. And then…one day…Mr. Kingsley called me up to his office. There was a guy in the club. Not a regular, some guy from out of town. Pittsburgh, I think.” Olivia nodded, silently urging the apprehensive woman to continue. To confess. To admit to a crime that Olivia could understand her being so willing to commit. “Did this guy from Pittsburgh proposition you?” “Through Mr. Kingsley, I guess.” She licked at her pale lips, shrugging. “The guy had seen me behind the bar. He was interested, liked his women older, he said. More mature. So, he made an offer to Mr. Kingsley, and the offer was passed on to me.” “Had you ever done anything like that before?” “Prostitution?” Jessica asked, lifting her head, her eyes widened. “I know what I did, Detective Benson. I know what it’s called, and I knew it was wrong even before I told Mr. Kingsley that I would do it.” “Then why’d you agree to it?” “Like I said, I have two kids and no man. I was working eighteen hours a day trying to keep up with two different jobs. And I was tired. The guy from Pittsburgh, he paid me what I made in one day working both jobs, and I only had to give him twenty minutes. So, why the hell not? What was so wrong with making my life a little easier?” +++ Elliot stepped away from the closed door of the interrogation room, his bulky arms crossed, chin jutted downward towards his chest, and steps slow and heavy as he made his way to the opposite side of the room. A smile hung crookedly on his lips, one that screamed out impatience and anger, and as he reached the wall, turning slowly, the emotions were just as clearly visible in his darkened eyes as his stare engulfed a fidgeting Wyatt McGrath. “You really are a piece of crap,” Elliot said, his voice low, resonating in the nearly barren room. “But you already know that, don’t you?” “I want a lawyer,” McGrath said, remaining stiff and rigid in the hardback chair. “You can have one,” Elliot said, nodding. “But don’t expect your boss to foot the bill.” His grin broadened, becoming laced with complacency, as McGrath turned toward him. “He bailed, McGrath. Took off. And he left you behind to take the fall for him.” His eyes sparkled in the dim lighting of the room, giving him a sinister appearance. “You wanna talk to me, there might be a slim chance in hell that you’ll be able to save your own ass. Just like Kingsley decided to save his.” “Hey, look, all I do is follow orders—” “No,” Elliot broke in with a quick shake of his head. “What you do is pimp. And you know what, dick wad? No matter how much money you’ve got, that’s still against the law.” “It’s my job!” McGrath seethed, slamming his fist down on top of the table. “It’s what Kingsley tells me to do!” Elliot charged to the table, falling against it on stiffened arms and lowering his reddened face in front of McGrath’s pale one. “You sorry prick! What you do is pimp the women in that club so you can fatten your own bank account!” “It’s the way Kingsley wants things done! I’m just the middleman! He’s in charge!” “So…” Elliot nodded, pushing himself up from the table. “You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re just the middleman. You’ve just been following orders.” He slammed his palms down against the table, shoving his face in front of McGrath’s again. “You’re fucking weak, McGrath! And that makes me sick! And you know what? It makes you worse than Kingsley, because you not only let him use those women; you let him use you too! Every time one of those women goes into a backroom with a paying customer, you take one up the ass for your boss!” +++ “I was the first one,” Jessica admitted. “The, uh, first one who…” She smiled sheepishly. “Harley was the second. And after her first time, that’s when Kingsley decided to go with an older staff.” She settled back in the chair, crossing one long, thin leg over the other. “It was mainly younger girls waitressing then. Harley and I were the oldest. Like I said, I worked behind the bar, she was the hostess. But after…well, Mr. Kingsley found out that a lot of the customers actually preferred older women. And the younger girls…” Her smile widened, just briefly, tinged with embarrassment. “They didn’t want to do it, at least most of ‘em. But women like Harley and me, what’d we have to lose?” Dignity, Olivia’s darkened eyes screamed, but she remained silent, meeting Jessica’s look of discomfiture with one of empathy. Jessica shrugged, staring down at the chipped nail of her extended pinky finger. “The way we saw it, Harley and me, we only stood to gain something. And we got exactly what we needed. Money.” “You got what you needed,” Olivia returned, nodding slowly, contemplatively. Somberly. “But what’d you lose?” Jessica chuckled softly, abruptly, shaking her head. “In the end? Not a damn thing, not really.” “You were raped.” “I was…” She sighed, running her fingers through the ends of her short, auburn-shaded hair. “Yeah, I was. And you know what? Mr. Kingsley compensated me for it, for every miserable second I suffered through.” “Compensated you?” Olivia asked. “How?” She raised her sculpted eyebrows, fighting a smile. “More money. Mr. Kingsley promised to take care of me if I’d promise to take care of him.” “If you’d keep your mouth shut, right? He offered you blood money?” “Call it what you want,” Jessica returned brusquely. “But the way I saw it, he owed me every penny of it.” “It,” Olivia repeated, folding her hands on the tabletop and lacing her long fingers. “How much of it are we talking about?” “Twenty grand a month,” Jessica answered, her tone sharp, clinical, void of remorse. “Mr. Kingsley promised me twenty thousand dollars every month as long as I didn’t go to the cops. And why would I pass up an offer like that?” “Oh, I don’t know,” Olivia said. “Maybe because if you had, Jenna March would still be alive. If you had, two other women wouldn’t have been raped—” “Isabel and Anna?” She chuckled, shaking her head. “They got the same offer. Why do you think they never reported their rapes?” She leaned into the table, her expression hardening. “None of us reported it because we’re not stupid, Detective Benson. And if things hadn’t worked out the way they did for Jenna, she never would’ve reported it either.” +++ “I’m telling you, El, Kingsley targets every woman he hires. He picks her for a reason. They’re all older, none of them went to college, most got married young, and all are either divorced or widowed now. They have kids who they can barely support, and they’ve spent most of their lives struggling. So, Kingsley lures them in with the promise of a fat paycheck, even fatter tips, and better benefits than they’ve ever gotten before. They don’t see it as prostitution. They see it as a way to finally get ahead.” “So, what? You think it’s okay, what’s going on there?” “Of course not. But I understand their reasons for thinking it’s okay. When you don’t have anyone else to turn to or depend on, when you’re alone—” “You make it impossible for them to leave, don’t you?” Elliot accused, propped on the end of the table with one foot flat on the floor and the other dangling in the air. He stared down at McGrath, his calculating smile held in place by the thick layer of sweat that glistened on McGrath’s pasty skin. “The women. If you can’t keep ‘em there because of the money, you start threatening them.” “Threat—” McGrath gave a quick shake of his head, grunting his disagreement. “It’s a fucking job, not slavery.” “Not slavery, good one,” Elliot said, chuckling humorlessly. He scooted off of the table, landing flat-footed and with a thud. Walking up behind McGrath’s chair, he curved his hands around the stiff back, leaning over the other man until his lips were steadied beside McGrath’s ear. “You’re a predator. You prey on women who are alone, who don’t have anywhere to turn for help or support, and then you threaten to expose them for being what you made them into if they try to leave. You.” He stood up, dropping his hands over McGrath’s broad shoulders. “Are a sick...manipulative…bastard.” “What’re you complaining about?” McGrath asked, sneaking a sideways glance at Elliot. “What, did Rachel turn out to be a disappointment? Because according to the story I got—” Elliot tightened his hands around the back of the chair, yanking and sending McGrath toppling to the floor. He towered above a stunned McGrath, arms bowed at his sides and knuckles whitened as he clenched his fists. As McGrath struggled to sit up, Elliot slammed the sole of his rented, polished shoe into his chest, knocking him onto his back. “Hey!” McGrath yelped, wrapping his hands around Elliot’s ankle. “Get the fuck off me! You didn’t like the whore you bought it’s not my problem! Talk to the NY-fucking-PD if you want a refund!” Elliot stepped down on McGrath’s chest, grinding the sole of his shoe between the other man’s ribs. Each pain-filled grunt that McGrath made caused Elliot’s angry smile to broaden, to harden, and for him to apply more pressure. “You put your hands on her, you son of a bitch!” he hissed, pushing against McGrath’s chest, not hearing the other man begin to gasp for each raspy breath. “Every time I saw you around her, you had your fucking hands on her! And it’s what you do to the rest of ‘em, isn’t it? Maybe you do even more, is that it? What the hell did you do to Jenna March?” “Mother—” McGrath choked out a cough, his hands tightening around Elliot’s ankle as he tried to lift his foot. “Fucker!” “What’d you do to her, you piece of shit! Did you rape her? What went wrong, McGrath, huh? Did she know it was you, is that it? Did she threaten to turn you in?” “I didn’t rape anybody! Jesus Christ! I was planning to marry Jenna! We were engaged, you asshole!” “Then who raped her?” Elliot bellowed. “If you didn’t do it, you sure as hell know who did! You know everything that goes on inside that stink hole! You make sure Kingsley’s fucked up rules are followed, isn’t that right? So, who did it? Who raped your fiancé and Isabel Duncan and Anna Wright? Who raped Jessica Wolf?” McGrath’s throaty grunts echoed in the room in conjunction with the door slamming open. As Cragen called out a stern, “Detective, outside,” Elliot didn’t lessen his weight against McGrath’s brawny chest. His nostrils flared with each intake of air, and saliva sprayed out from between his trembling lips with each thunderous exhale. And each step that Cragen took across the room only caused Elliot to dig the hard sole of his shoe deeper into McGrath’s skin. “Now,” Cragen said, coming to a stop in front of Elliot, McGrath sprawled on the floor between them. “Outside.” Elliot choked down a breath, nodding as his expression turned to one of surprise, reflecting his shock as he, seemingly and for the first time, noticed McGrath laid out on the floor. He ran the back of his hand across his moist lips, tearing his wide-eyed gaze away from McGrath’s face as he stepped over the man and headed out of the room. +++ “So, how does Tristan Merrick fit into all of this?” Olivia asked, sliding a cup filled with murky, day-old coffee across the table in Jessica’s direction. Jessica chuckled, wrapping her hand around the Styrofoam cup and pulling it in front of her. “Maybe you should talk to Tristan about that.” “I’m talking to you.” Jessica’s dark eyes rose slowly, suspiciously, and she tilted her head to the side. “Looks to me like you already know how Tristan fits into it.” “I know part of it,” Olivia said. “But what I don’t know is, did Tristan Merrick rape you two months ago at Raspberry Vodka?” She shook her head, pulling her lips into her mouth. Shutting down. “Hey, look, Jessica, there’s not gonna be any more money.” Olivia nodded as Jessica’s gaze shifted upward jerkily, locking onto hers. “Kingsley’s gone. Cleaned out his bank accounts and disappeared. So, it doesn’t matter whether or not you talk to me now. There aren’t going to be any more checks for twenty thousand dollars.” “Son of a bitch…” “Yeah,” Olivia agreed. “He is. So, why don’t you stop protecting him?” She leaned into the table, stretching out her arms across the scuffed, wooden top. “You were raped. And no matter what you’d agreed to do in that club before, no one had the right to force you to do anything. So, if you know what happened, if you know who’s responsible, you need to tell me. Otherwise, chances are it’ll happen again. Because if we can’t get someone to talk, we can’t charge anyone.” “Where’s, uh.” Jessica shrugged, tapping the tip of her manicured fingernail against the rim of the cup. “You said Kingsley’s gone, but where’s McGrath?” “He’s down the hall talking to my partner. He can’t hurt you.” Jessica nodded, looking hesitant. Anxious. “I didn’t see who raped me. He put a pillowcase over my head. All I know for sure is that when he dragged me into the supply closet, we weren’t in there alone. Someone was in there with us, and he, uh, he was giving the guy directions. Telling him what to do to me, you know? And he sounded excited. Really excited, like he was having a good time watching.” “Someone else…” Olivia responded. “Okay, so you heard his voice. Did you recognize it? Was it McGrath?” Jessica took in a breath, holding onto the air, refusing to release it until Olivia knocked against the tabletop, jarring her. “Yeah,” she whispered. “I knew who it was. And it wasn’t McGrath. It, uh, it was Warren. Warren Jenkins.” +++ “You want to get yourself under control, Detective?” Cragen spit, situating himself between the closed door to the interrogation room and a rigid Elliot. “Why don’t you tell me what in the hell is going on? Tell me what went on!” Elliot shook his head, blowing out a deep, calming breath. He could see Olivia in his mind, with one foot hanging outside of the car door and the other still inside. And he could hear her voice, determined and making it clear that her mind was made up. If someone had to fall, it would be her. And, damn it, he had promised her that it would be neither of them. He had promised her because he was to blame, but he had promised even more because she had promised that she didn’t have any regrets. “Christ, Liv, talk to me. For once, just talk to me.” “I don’t regret it. But I know you don’t believe that. So, maybe this’ll prove it to you. Maybe it’ll show you, finally, that there is more to me than this job. And I don’t mind being that person I was with you tonight, Elliot. For the right reasons…the right person…I don’t mind being her.” “We did the job you told us to do,” Elliot panted. “That’s what went on. And now we’ve got three guys—Merrick, Jenkins and McGrath—and we know one of ‘em is responsible. So, why’d you yank me out of there? If you’d given me five more minutes, I could’ve gotten the information out of that prick that we need.” “If I’d given you five more minutes, that prick would have a hole the size of your shoe in his chest right now.” Cragen arched an eyebrow, not looking amused or relieved or even somewhat understanding. “That’d give us even more to explain to the brass, don’t you think?” “Even more…” Elliot backed up to the two-way mirror, his shoulders becoming flush with the smooth surface. “What’s that mean?” “I’m not sure,” Cragen responded with a slow shake of his head. “And to tell you the truth, Elliot, I don’t want to know. I just need this case to get wrapped up, and I need that to happen with as few people as possible getting dragged through the mud in the process.” Elliot ran the tip of his thumb beneath his nose, wiping away a thin sheet of sweat. Christ. Would he ever learn? Why in the hell couldn’t he hold it together better? Why couldn’t he have just done what Olivia had asked and let her handle it? She would have kept her cool, would have known how to answer Cragen’s questions without giving him the truth while not lying, either. She sure as hell wouldn’t have tried to crush some lowlife, motherfucker’s chest with her rented shoe. He shrugged a shoulder, the silky material of his shirt gliding across the glass behind him. “What do you want me to say, Cap?” Cragen stepped away from the door, his hand falling slowly, hesitantly, off of the rounded knob. “Nothing,” he returned sternly. “I want you to get your partner and head to the hospital, and when you get there, I want you to question Tristan Merrick. After that, drive Olivia home. She looks like hell; she needs some sleep.” He walked past a still heaving Elliot, stopping before entering the bullpen, keeping his back to the detective. “When you get her home, Elliot, you drop her off. Don’t even walk her to the door. And then you go home. Alone.” He sank his hands into the front pockets of his gray trousers, nodding once. Soberly. “As long as you can do that, I don’t see any reason why we can’t start fresh tomorrow.” +++ Stripped of make-up and false eyelashes, shrouded in a formless hospital gown, and with an ice pack situated between her legs and making what had remained so well hidden all too noticeable, Tristan Merrick didn’t look like she belonged in the scanty Raspberry Vodka uniform any more than Olivia did. “The name’s Detective Benson,” Olivia announced, sidling up to the thin, metal-framed hospital bed. She stared down at the sullen occupant of the bed, the spirals she had twisted her hair into before the night began now combed out and the shoulder-length strands hooked into a ponytail at the back of her head. Her breasts had become hidden beneath a pale blue sweater, and her fishnet hose had been exchanged for a pair of blue jeans. Both women had been transformed, and both transformations had been extensive enough to rid the other of any previous illusions. “Vice?” Tristan asked, her sculpted brows arching with more expectance than wondering. “Special Victims.” Tristan sank back into the stack of pillows behind her, touching one hand to her left breast and gently fingering the ice pack between her legs with the other hand. “You handle the crazy cases, right? Sexual assaults, those kinds of things?” “Those kinds of things,” Olivia confirmed, nodding. “I still need answers, Tristan. What happened in the supply closet with Harley?” Tristan chuckled lowly, leading Olivia’s gaze with her own to the icy bulge between her legs. “Seventeen stitches, that’s what fucking happened. Doc said if Harley had hit just a little to the left…” She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, frowning. “Just my luck, huh? Can’t even give the family jewels away.” “You’re, uh.” Olivia motioned toward Tristan’s ample chest, shrugging. “Those are…real?” Tristan cupped one hand beneath each of her breasts, jiggling first the right one as she mumbled, “Meet Estinyl,” and the left as she added, “And Provera.” Her smile faded, her narrowed stare remaining fixated on her chest. “Hormones. Been on ‘em for a couple of years now.” She looked up, winking. “One more perk of the job. Warren always tipped enough that I never had a problem affording my prescriptions.” “So, you’re—” “Transgender,” Tristan announced, sounding bored, as if she had been through the story too many times to become enthused about the details any longer. “Half and half, he-she, freak of nature, whatever you want to call it. I’ve heard it all.” “What about rapist?” Olivia asked, leaning her hip into the side of the sturdy mattress. “Ever been called that before?” “First time,” Tristan returned, rolling her unadorned eyes. “But, hey, in my line of work, there’s always a first time for everything. Never say never, you know?” “We have DNA, Tristan. There was plenty of it at the club, and there’s plenty at the hospital. So, why don’t you go ahead and tell me what I’m gonna find when your DNA is ran against what was found inside of Jenna March?” “Why don’t you tell me?” Tristan responded, smiling. “You are the cop, right?” She groaned softly, shifting stiffly in the bed. “I knew something wasn’t right with you the second I saw you. You don’t look like the type who ends up at Raspberry Vodka. Your nose is stuck too damn high in the air.” “I was sent there to do a job.” “Yeah? That’s why I go there every night too, to do a job. And for at least one night, we were more alike than you probably want to admit.” “Look, what you heard—” “Was you fucking Mr. Texas in the bathroom,” Tristan broke in, her tone sharp, accusatory. “And now you have the nerve to come in here and try to read me my rights? Shit. You really are one sanctimonious bitch.” Olivia took a step back, watching Tristan once again reposition herself in the bed. “I’m here to ask questions. Four women were raped inside the club, and there was an attempted rape on a fifth woman tonight. Every answer I’ve been given so far is leading me straight to you, so why don’t you start talking? Tell me what I need to know so I can find out who killed Jenna March.” “Jenna…” Tristan grumbled. “Did you know Warren was a Boy Scout? Funny, huh?” “A Boy Scout?” Olivia asked, shaking her head. “Yeah, stuck with it until he was in his teens. Learned all the tricks, how to start a campfire using two sticks, how to find his way out of the woods just by following the sun, and, uh, how to tie all sorts of knots.” “So, are you saying Jenkins tied the pillowcases around the women’s necks so you could rape them?” “I’m saying…” Tristan dug the backs of her shoulders into the pillows, a look of resignation overtaking her make-up free face. “How much time does someone get for rape?” Olivia shrugged a shoulder, stepping closer to the bed again. “That’s up to the judge. But I can tell you it’ll be better for you if you confess, if you help us bring down everyone who’s responsible for what’s happened.” “Everyone, yeah.” Tristan shook her head, for the first time a look of guilt filling her normally cold eyes. “I just wanted the surgery, you know. I should’ve been a woman from the start. It’s not my fault nature fucked up and gave me a dick.” “The surgery,” Olivia repeated. She reached behind her, grabbing the wooden arm of the straight-back chair and pulling it up beside the bed. Sitting down, keeping her hands locked around the metal side-rail of the bed, she leaned into the mattress. “Sex reassignment?” “It’s the only reason I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half screwing Warren Jenkins. Every penny he’s given me I’ve put back, saved it so I could get enough to have the surgery done. At first, it was just…you know…sex.” She smiled softly, still with an underlying look of guilt, possibly even a hint of regret. “Kingsley brought me into the club specifically for Warren. He’s always had trouble with women, with, uh, performing with them. But with me, he didn’t have to perform. I took care of him, and he liked that.” “Why have the women dance for him then, if he was having sex with you?” “Because…Warren does like women. He likes to look at them, touch them—” “Watch them get raped?” Olivia asked, her tone flat, filled with disgust. “That is what happened, Tristan, isn’t it? Warren would pick a woman, and then he’d watch you rape her?” “And Kingsley made sure every one of ‘em was compensated for Warren being a pervert.” “They were still raped.” “They’re fucking hookers. Whores.” “So, they deserved to be raped?” “I don’t know if they deserved it or not, but they sure as hell didn’t have the right to whine about it. It was just another shitty night at Raspberry Vodka, you know?” “No,” Olivia said sternly. “I don’t know. Explain it to me.” “Warren likes to watch,” Tristan said, her tone blunt, unapologetic, as the guilt faded from her face as quickly as it had appeared. “He likes it to be rough. What can I say? He really is a perv. But. He’s a rich, fucking perv. He tripled my tip every time I agreed to…do…one of the other waitresses.” “So, he paid you extra to rape?” “He paid for it. He picked the women, he decided when the time was right, and he told me what to do to ‘em. I was just his fucking puppet, but I didn’t care. I was getting damn close to being able to afford that surgery.” “And what happened with Jenna? How’d she end up dead?” Tristan took in a breath, her chest rising as her lungs inflated. She laughed softly, once again hinting at feelings of regret that had become buried, possibly even forgotten all together. “She was a fighter, fought more than the others did. And she almost got the pillowcase off. Warren was pissed. I mean, he was just about ready to pop and Jenna was holding things up. Guess he got impatient, tied the neck of the case a little too tight. Neither of us even realized anything was wrong until, you know. After. We thought she’d just finally given up, stopped fighting. But Warren had strangled her.” She looked up quickly, her azure-shaded eyes widened. “Before Jenna, no one ever got hurt. We all just made a helluva lot of money. And Kingsley would’ve compensated her too.” “If she hadn’t ended up dead on the floor in the supply closet?” “Yeah,” Tristan whispered. “And what about McGrath?” Olivia pressed. “How does he fit into all of this?” “We called him the doorman, Warren and me.” She shrugged a shoulder, her left hand once again falling across her iced-down crotch. “We let him know which night it was going to happen…the…whatever you wanna call it. And he made sure no one went down the hall or into the supply closet until we gave him the all clear. Guess he fucked up with Harley, though. Forgot to watch.” Olivia shook her head, taking in a breath. “But Jenna… I thought, I mean the two of them were—” “Supposed to get married,” Tristan confirmed. “I said Wyatt watched the door for us, but that doesn’t mean he always knew who was behind the door. No one ever knew who was gonna get picked. No one ever knew what night it’d happen. It was all up to Warren, and he didn’t say anything until he was ready. Until it had to happen then. And let me tell you, he’s one impatient son of a bitch.” Her expression fell, her full lips curving downward and eyes narrowing. “So, where do they send someone like me? Will I end up in a men’s prison, or women’s?” Olivia flattened her hand over the corner of the mattress, pressing against the crisp, white sheet. Where would someone like Tristan end up? Being used for free, no longer compensated by Warren Jenkins’s or Jordan Kingsley’s fat bank accounts. She would be thrown into G.P. and left to fend for herself, the task of surviving—however long that might be possible—left only to her. And while she fought her way through hell, Warren Jenkins would be pampered and protected in a private cell in a smaller prison that would offer him the same luxuries as a high-priced country club rather than strip him of the comforts in life that he was used to having. “I’ll do what I can for you,” Olivia said, rising slowly to her feet. “I’ll let the ADA know that you cooperated, answered my questions.” “And you think that’ll make a difference?” Olivia smiled sadly. No. It wouldn’t make a difference, and she didn’t even know if she wanted it to or if it should. All she knew was that she felt sorry for the confused woman laying in the bed who had built such a strong wall around her emotions that she had forgotten how to feel. How to regret. And Olivia knew Tristan wasn’t solely responsible for that. The responsibility belonged just as much to Jordan Kingsley and Wyatt McGrath and Warren Jenkins. It belonged to all of the men who visited the club with extra cash in their pockets, the men who knew, without a doubt, that their money was powerful enough to buy whatever—whomever—they wanted once they passed through the doors of Raspberry Vodka. “I don’t regret it. But I know you don’t believe that. So, maybe this’ll prove it to you. Maybe it’ll show you, finally, that there is more to me than this job. And I don’t mind being that person I was with you tonight, Elliot. For the right reasons…the right person…I don’t mind being her.” She wondered, as she walked out of the tiny room leaving Tristan alone to search for her conscience, if anyone really knew exactly whom they were or who they were capable of becoming when they were presented with the right temptation. There weren’t any right or wrong reasons to base decisions on, there was only want and need. And those things didn’t hold the same definition for any two people. Maybe regret came hand-in-hand with every decision. Or maybe, sometimes, want and need became so strong that regret no longer mattered. CHAPTER NINE Olivia sat propped against the open linen closet door, two-and-a-half hours deep into the job that, after years of ignoring, she had allowed to go uncompleted for another week. A week that included forty-eight hours of pretending, ten minutes of shock, and an undetermined amount of guilt. Surrounding her, thrown into an unsystematic pile, were old bills, clothes that were missing buttons or had somehow gotten torn, mementos that weren’t important enough to display, and odds and ends that didn’t—hadn’t ever—served any real relevance in her life, but, for a multitude of useless reasons, she hadn’t been able to part with yet. She reached behind her, grabbing a condensation-coated glass of ice water. Staring through the clear barrier of the glass, she dug out a sharp piece of ice and plopped it into her mouth. Swirling the cube between her cheeks, letting it melt and drip slowly down her throat, she couldn’t seem to silence the voice that was only a few hours into being a memory in her life. “I tried to be your friend, and you lied to me.” Olivia banged the back of her head against the closet door as Harley Jacobson’s voice filled her mind, sounding hurt, betrayed, and even more angry. Her own voice overlapped the clear memory of Harley’s, not offering excuses, but quoting the law. A reason that, somehow, was supposed to override—be seen as more important than—an honest attempt at friendship. “My name is Olivia. I’m a detective with Manhattan SVU.” Harley didn’t look up from where she sat on the edge of the thin bed nestled in the back room of the hospital ER. She stared at her clasped hands in her lap, methodically twisting the gold bands that decorated each of her fingers. “Call yourself whatever you want, but you’re still a liar.” Olivia stood at the door, the barrier ajar, allowing the noise from the waiting room and PA system to fill the tiny cubicle. “I had a job to do, Harley, and that job was to find out who raped and murdered Jenna March. To find out who’d raped three other waitresses at Raspberry Vodka. I didn’t… I didn’t want to deceive anyone, but I couldn’t tell anyone why I was really there. Obviously, I couldn’t tell you who I really am—” “Who you are?” Harley lifted her head quickly, her eyes widening as she snorted a disgruntled laugh. “You’re just as much a Raspberry Vodka employee as I’ve ever been. But I bet you didn’t tell that to the police, did you?” “Harley, what’s been happening at that club needed to be stopped.” “Do you even have kids, or are those twins you talked about a lie, too?” Olivia leaned into the doorjamb, knotting her arms across her chest. “No,” she admitted. “I don’t have kids.” “Never been married either, have you?” She shook her head, answering her own pointed question. “I should’ve known. You don’t seem the type.” “You, uh, you need to know that Vice’ll get involved now. There’ll be questions, maybe even charges filed.” Harley laughed softly, sounding close to tears. “You have any idea how many lives you’ve ruined? I’m gonna lose my kids now, and they’re the only things that kept me sane through all of this. They gave me a reason, you know? Somehow, doing it for them made it seem okay.” Olivia took a small step further inside the room, sinking her hands into the roomy pockets of Elliot’s rented Armani jacket. “Your kids don’t want you to use them as a reason to do something like this, Harley.” “Yeah? And just what in the hell do you know about kids? What my kids want is a roof over their heads and clothes that look just as nice as the ones the other kids at school are wearing. They wanna know there’s enough food in the fridge, and they sure as hell don’t want to have to worry about being evicted from their home because I can’t afford to pay the rent.” She shook her head, sliding one gold ring over the knuckle of her index finger. “They don’t wanna have to worry about being taken away from me, Detective. I’m the only security they’ve ever had. So, just where in the hell do you get off ruining my children’s lives when I’ve worked like hell to try and make them better?” Olivia folded her legs in front of her, unburying the aged, scuffed book from the bottom of the pile and balancing it on her lap. She opened the cover, once again tracing over the faded, blue ink; scrawled letters that looked as if they had been constructed hastily to form the only word written in the book. Olivia. The rest of the pages, the remaining lines, were blank, but she had accepted each blank line years ago, understanding that they truthfully depicted who she was. A blank. An unanswered question. Nothing less than an enigma. And maybe that’s how she wished she had remained. Even though her father now had a name and face in her mind, he was still as much of a mystery as she would continue to be. Part of her craved information about him, but another part of her, the part that felt an unwavering loyalty towards her mother, wished she had never seen his picture or learned his name or been told that he had known about her. And as much as she wanted to know more, she didn’t think it would be fair to acquaint herself with him further. After all, hadn’t her mother spent her entire adult life drowning in the bottom of one booze bottle after another just trying to forget him? She would continue to try and convince herself that she didn’t need to know more than she already did about her father. And she would convince herself, or at least pretend that she had, because if there was one thing Olivia knew how to do better than anything else, it was pretend. She had done it throughout her childhood, creating fanciful tales about a father she would never know, and told lie after lie for a mother who wasn’t ever sober enough to lie herself. As an adult, she could push cases far enough out of her mind to pretend that they didn’t affect her as much as they actually did, and had perfected pretending that coming home night after night and year after year to an empty apartment didn’t bother her. She enjoyed her solitude, or at least she pretended like hell that she did. And for the past twenty-four hours, she had tried to pretend that every second of the ten-plus minutes she had spent in the bathroom stall with Elliot hadn’t become ingrained in her mind. She closed her eyes as a soft knock resounded on the outside of her bolted door. Damn it. She had spent the last two-and-a-half hours since Elliot dropped her off at her apartment, when he basically kicked her to the curb without so much as muttering good-bye, anticipating his knock. When they had pulled up outside of her building, he hadn’t seemed anymore confident than a teenager, squirming in his seat as the car idled soothingly and not making eye contact as she whispered, “See ya later,” and climbed out of the car. She knew that he hadn’t wanted to leave. But even though she had known it, she hadn’t asked him to stay. And she had wanted to. She closed the baby book, dropping it onto the top of the lopsided pile and hooked one hand around the doorknob of the closet door and the other around her slippery, half-empty glass of water, and pulled herself to her feet. The gray sweat pants she wore fell loosely around her hips and legs, not accentuating any of the curves that had been so openly displayed over the past two days, and the pale pink, wide neck shirt hung off of one shoulder, exposing her golden-tinted skin. Stepping over the pile and making her way down the hallway, she stopped in front of the bolted front door as two more taps reverberated from the outside. Tugging on the deadbolt, flipping the gold latch until it lay vertically, she pulled open the door. “You know, I just cost a lot of people their jobs,” she said, stuffing herself into the opening between the edge of the door and wooden frame. “I don’t wanna be responsible for you losing yours, too. And if Cragen finds out you’re here, that’s exactly what’ll happen.” “What Cragen doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Elliot said, not waiting for her to issue an invitation, but pushing against the door until the edge pulled away from her grasp. He walked past her, ignoring her soft grunts of protest, and dropped onto the sofa. “What’re you doing here, Elliot?” Olivia asked, her back flush against the closed door and hands hooked behind her. “Besides trying to get us both fired?” He shrugged a shoulder, crossing his left ankle over his right knee. Settling in. “Thought you might need another foot rub.” She shook her head, pushing off of the door and making her way across the room. “My feet are fine, thanks.” Grabbing a square-shaped, beige-colored pillow off of the end of the sofa, she flopped down beside him. “It’s only seven o’clock in the morning. What’re you really doing here?” “Why aren’t you getting some sleep?” She hugged the pillow closer, her brows dipping over her sleepy eyes. “Answer my question first.” He nodded slowly, with effort, relaying as much exhaustion as was evident on Olivia’s face. “You were quiet on the drive home. I just thought…” He shrugged again, raising both shoulders, still with noticeable effort. “Thought maybe you needed to talk.” “About…” She blew out a strong breath from between her pursed lips, dropping her chin down onto the malleable edge of the pillow. Of course she knew what he had come to talk about. Guilt. Maybe even pretending. About a case that, although viewed by superiors as having been successfully closed, both Elliot and she knew they had failed miserably. “I know you saw Harley Jacobson before we left the hospital,” Elliot continued, crossing his bulky arms across his chest and jutting his chin downward. “But you never said how she was doing.” Olivia pressed the pillow further into her chin, sighing into the suede material. “She requested a different officer to give her statement to. Didn’t feel like talking to me.” She arched her dark brows, lifting her head. “Guess I can’t blame her.” “You can blame her,” Elliot disagreed, frowning. “You had a job to do, Liv.” “And as far as Harley and the other women are concerned, that job ruined their lives.” “You broke up a prostitution ring.” “I took their jobs, Elliot. Some of them might end up in jail, and who knows how many of them will lose their kids.” “Hey.” He reached out, brushing a strand of hair away from her face. “No matter what excuse they give now, all of those women knew what they were doing was wrong.” “But none of them saw it as wrong. They saw it as a way to survive.” “Don’t forget that four women were raped and one was murdered just trying to survive in that place.” She took in a breath, digesting his words, words that she knew were far more right than the guilt-inflicting ones that Harley had unleashed on her. Tossing the pillow behind her, she turned towards him. Drawing her legs up in front of her, she wedged her bare toes beneath his thigh, scraping her French manicured toenails against the coarse material of his blue jeans. As his gaze shifted from her feet that had become buried beneath him to her, she smiled. “The, um, the answer to your question,” she began, motioning towards the hallway with a nod of her head. “I was going through some things, and I, uh, I started looking at my baby book.” “Baby book?” Elliot asked, diverting his gaze for only a second towards the dimly lit opening of the hall. As his eyes made contact with hers again, traces of smiles lingering on both of their lips, he slid his hand around her ankle. “And that’s why you haven’t gotten any sleep yet?” Olivia propped her elbow on her knee, dropping her chin into her upturned palm. “The only thing my mom wrote in it was my name. Nothing else. Maybe it was because she didn’t know what to write in it, or… I don’t know. Maybe it was because she didn’t want to write anything.” He slid his index finger from the back of her heel to the bottom of her calf, caressing her smooth skin as he continued to swim in her unwavering stare. Not finding in her eyes any self-pity or sadness. Only honestly. It was something he was used to seeing in her, something that he knew was as much a part of her as each breath that she inhaled, but it wasn’t something he was used to seeing in her when she spoke about herself versus cases and victims and the chaos that was their professional lives. It wasn’t that he thought she had ever lied to him about any of the personal information she had shared over the years, but when their conversations did—on rare occasions—turn intimate, there was always far more sorrow detectable in her than the integrity that she never failed to possess in work-related matters. “There’s nothing in it,” Olivia continued. “She left all of the lines blank. And it, I guess it got me to thinking about the last couple of days.” She bit into her lower lip, dragging her teeth across her pale pink skin. “This is gonna sound crazy, I know, but… I kind of liked it. Being Rachel Martin.” She took in a breath, the rush of air intermixed with soft, self-conscious laughter. “Even though it was all pretend, even though I was pretending, it felt kind of nice to be like everyone else. I liked making up stories about my make-believe kids and deadbeat ex-husband. I liked pretending I had this crazy, full life that I’ve never had; a life I don’t know if I’ll ever have.” “You want a deadbeat ex-husband?” he asked, his lips quivering as he teased her with a smile. She pushed her shins into his side, scowling. “Shut up. You know what I mean. It just felt kind of… I guess it felt good to have a family for once, even if I was borrowing them from you.” “You had your mom.” “I had my mom,” she agreed, nodding, her chin sliding across the palm of her hand. “And things weren’t always horrible when I was growing up. They weren’t, and I don’t want anyone to think they were. But whether things were good or bad, I was still alone. She was always too busy or too drunk or too angry. And that meant I was always alone.” “Okay, but what about now? You found Simon, right?” She burrowed her feet further beneath him, hooking her arms through her raised, bent legs. “Simon and I.” She shook her head, her eyes darkening, filling with the look that Elliot had long ago identified as belonging to her mother. The undeniable look of someone who was lost. “If Simon and I are lucky, we’ll become friends. But we won’t ever be family. Joe Hollister will always be between us, just like he was always between my mom and me.” Elliot reached for her again, at first with hesitance, not with the boldness that had characterized his touches before when they were locked away inside of Raspberry Vodka with both having become lost to pseudo identities and make believe pasts that had, somehow, made it easier to act on feelings that they had never before expressed. Sliding his finger beneath another loose strand of her hair, he hooked it behind her ear as he whispered, “You’re not alone.” “Yeah, I am, and sometimes it scares me because I’ve gotten used to it. And I don’t want to be used to it. Even with a shitty job at Raspberry Vodka and some made up, loser ex-husband, part of me liked being Rachel more than I like being me.” Honesty was nothing short of pitiless, and Elliot saw Olivia’s unspoken agreement clearly as she tried to lessen the weight of her unrehearsed confession by quickly blinking away the tears that had only begun to glisten in her eyes. She didn’t want him to feel sorry for her, he knew her well enough to know that. Her life was what it was, and she had accepted it. She had learned long ago, and without any help from anyone else, to co-exist with her demons, with the reality that depicted who she was. “Don’t feel sorry for me, Elliot. I don’t want you to—” “I don’t.” And he didn’t; he never could. What he felt was admiration. Not for the reasons that he should, because of the ugliness that typified her beginning or so much of her past. He admired her because of who she had become, who she was, who she had grown, in so many more ways than age, to be. A damn good cop, a loyal friend, a trustworthy confidant, a selfless person, and someone who wouldn’t allow self-pity to occupy any space in her life. She acknowledged her hard knocks, sometimes even cursed them, but she never spoke about them in relation to fairness. Because her adult life—the career path she had chosen to travel down, bumps and hurdles and all—had shown her time and again that life wasn’t fair to anyone. She hadn’t been picked specially out of the crowd. He dragged his fingers down the side of her neck, gliding them slowly across her collarbone. “I’ve never felt sorry for you.” “I know,” she said, a hint of relief filling her eyes anyway. “It’s just…” “Just? What?” She shrugged a shoulder, sighing, attempting to release the confusing tension and uneasiness that her forty-eight hours immersed in the world of Raspberry Vodka had filled her with. “I’ve never paid much attention to it, I guess. My personal life. I mean, yeah, I’ve dated and I have friends. But I can’t ever seem to connect with anyone outside of the job. It’s like there’s this wall, you know? And maybe I’m the one who built it; maybe I stop myself from getting close to anyone else. From letting anyone else get close to me.” “We’re all in the same spot,” he said, stroking the back of her leg again and tickling her skin. “When Kath and I were together, the times we did things with other couples, I never talked about work. How could I? I never even talked about it much with Kathy. It’s something other people can’t understand, Liv. What we deal with, and why we keep dealing with it.” He wedged his hand beneath her knee, gently holding onto her. “Whether or not Harley or any of the other waitresses can see it now, you helped them. You didn’t ruin any lives, Olivia. You saved them.” He cleared his throat, raising his right hip and shoving his hand into the back pocket of his jeans. An ornery grin flickered on his lips, disappearing for a fleeting second and reemerging as he brought his hand back into Olivia’s view, a pair of white fur-lined handcuffs dangling from his curved fingers. “Christ, Stabler,” Olivia groaned, a trace of laughter in her hoarse voice. “You really are a sick son of a bitch.” She grabbed the dangling bracelet, ripping the cuffs out of his hand. “You wanna tell me why in the hell you have these?” “Souvenir,” Elliot said, chuckling as he watched her inspect the handcuffs. She held them close to her face, her brows furrowed and lips wrinkled into a frown as she flicked at the silky fur that covered the metal with her index finger. “Cragen sent me back to the club to pick up the employee files for Vice—” “You lifted ‘em from a crime scene?” she barked, her eyes widening as she released her hold on the handcuffs, letting them drop into his lap. “You know how many of these things I found?” He shook his head, hooking his arms across his chest. “Had to be at least fifty pairs. I don’t think anyone will miss this one.” Olivia leaned forward, peeking over her bent knees at the furry cuffs lying across his legs. “I’m not putting those things on,” she said, shaking her head. “We had this conversation already, didn’t we?” “We had this conversation,” Elliot agreed, nodding. “And that’s why…” He picked up the cuffs, inspecting them as closely as Olivia had. “It’s why I took them. They, uh.” He shrugged, a tinge of red becoming visible on his cheeks. “Look, I don’t know for sure what happened last night. I don’t even know…why…it happened—” “Elliot,” she sighed, dropping her chin down on her knees. “I told you, it’s okay. Don’t worry—” “Don’t worry about it, yeah, I know. But would you just shut up for a minute?” He stacked one fuzzy bracelet on top of the other, hooking both over his fingers. “Like I was saying, I don’t know why it happened. I just know that… I’m glad it did. And the cuffs, when I saw them, they didn’t just remind me about…all…of that. They also reminded me about what we’d talked about when we first saw them in the backroom. Trust. And I don’t want to think there’s a chance that I’ve lost your trust because of what happened last night.” She studied him, the nervousness that had filled his eyes, the way his heavy brows lowered and then raised just a fraction, the way his lips twitched. She studied all of him as if she hadn’t seen him before. The scar on his forehead, the small mole in the center of his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes that hadn’t been noticeable when she had first met him, but that the years and cases and victims had deepened in his skin. She studied him; maybe even saw him for the first time. “You haven’t lost my trust, Elliot.” He moved his hand up her leg, curving his fingers around her inner thigh, the flesh hidden beneath her flimsy pants melding into his strong fingers. “I think you should know that it wasn’t the atmosphere that made me act the way I did. It was you.” “Me? Or the garter belt?” She smiled, her gaze dropping away from his stare. From his honesty. Because in that instant as she found herself swimming in his confession, she once again felt her need—her blatant want—becoming so much stronger than any sense of regret. And damn it, she needed to feel regret. For what they had done, and for what she wanted to do again. Elliot gave a quick pat against her leg. “That’s why I came by, and it’s why I brought the cuffs. It’s what I want them to be a reminder of, a souvenir of. How I felt last night.” Olivia watched his fingers slide off of her leg, her eyes down-turned and shifting inconspicuously to the side. But Elliot’s feelings were anything but inconspicuous. They were as obvious as hers. She could sense his awkwardness, and if it were twelve hours earlier, she would interpret it as his regret. Regret because he had acted so spontaneously, so recklessly, and so out of character. But it wasn’t twelve hours earlier; it was twelve hours after. After spontaneity, after recklessness, and after they had redefined themselves. And as much as she knew they needed to—that they should—forget about what had happened, she didn’t want to go backwards. She wanted to remain in the after with the spontaneous, reckless and redefined Elliot. Leaning into him, her shins becoming flush with his chest, she ran her hand along his jaw line. She could feel the muscles in his face tense and release beneath her fingers and heard his breathing deepen as he moved his face closer towards hers. Her eyes remained open, seeing clearly, as his lips brushed against hers, and a smile fluttered on her pale lips as his tongue slid across and wetted her mouth. “What’re we doing, Elliot?” she whispered, her words warming his skin. “What do you want to do?” She shook her head, resting her forehead against his shoulder. “Should it be about what we want? Maybe it’s supposed to be about what’s right. I mean, think about it. There’re things we’d have to give up, both of us. And are we gonna be willing to do that, give something up when we’re not even sure we’re gonna get anything in return?” “It’s Saturday,” he said, dragging the tip of his finger down the side of her face, following her hairline. “It’s Saturday morning and Cragen gave us the weekend off. So, let’s start with that. Let’s start with giving up a Saturday, and then we’ll see what we’re ready for when Sunday gets here.” “Sunday…” She raised her head, leaning into his touch. “You’re pretty confident, are you? To think you’re still gonna be here in the morning? “Not confident. Just, I don’t know. I don’t even know why, but I guess I’m just hoping.” “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, not between us. You’re supposed to be with Kathy, living in Queens with your family. And I’m supposed to be…here. That’s who we are, Elliot. It’s who we’ve always been.” “It’s who we were,” he said, sinking his hand into her hair, his fingers becoming entangled in the silky strands. “But it’s been a long time since it’s who we actually were. I was supposed to be in Queens once, but now I’m here with you. So, what’re we gonna do about it? What do you want to do?” She pulled back from him, causing his hand to fall away from her. “Should it be about what we want? Maybe it’s supposed to be about what’s right.” She didn’t know if she had truly meant the words when she said them; she only knew that she should have. But as her gaze drifted to the opening of the hallway, to the pile that consisted of more trash than anything worthwhile, she caught sight of the baby book balanced on top. In her mind, she remembered one of the many undocumented milestones in her life, I took my first step at age _________________, and she wondered if her mother’s reason for leaving the line blank had been insightfulness rather than laziness or drunkenness or disinterest. Maybe Serena had known that her daughter, whose beginning was intermeshed with so much confusion and chaos, would one day have to find her own footing. That, eventually, Olivia would leave stumbling and faltering in her past, and would finally be strong enough—poised enough—to take her first step toward complete and total trust. In someone else. And, hopefully, in herself even more. He placed his hand over hers that was propped on her knee. And even though he had touched the same hand a thousand different times over the past eight years, even though she had touched him just as many times, something felt different. The earth didn’t shake and he didn’t see fireworks in the distance, but it felt right. And as his fingers laced with hers, as skin meshed with skin, it felt as if each of the thousand touches before had never happened. This one was the first, the one that would be remembered. The beginning. “You don’t have to be alone, Liv. You can have more. All you have to do is tell me that you want it.” “And you’re that something more? Are you making some type of promise, Elliot?” He tugged her hand off of her knee, pulling it onto his lap. “I’m promising you a Saturday, and that’s all I’m asking you to promise me.” She nodded, staring down at their interlocked hands, feeling the sweat from Elliot’s palm begin to coat her skin. “The, um, the reason I haven’t gone to sleep yet? It didn’t have anything to do with the baby book. It’s because… I knew you’d come back, because I wanted you to come back. But I don’t know why.” “You know why. So, tell me.” She shrugged, nibbling on her lip, wanting to give him the ‘why’ he wanted to hear, but not wanting to give it to him just as much. “Because… I want a Saturday, too. Even if we don’t get Sunday, I want a Saturday.” She cupped her hand around the back of his head, pulling him against her. Caressing his lips with hers, tickling him with her tongue, she slowly prodded his lips. She closed her eyes, seeing only him in the darkness that she surrounded herself in. She smelled only him, felt only him, breathed only him, wanted only him, and needed only him. And as her tongue slid inside of his mouth, finding him waiting for her, the words he needed to hear from her were felt strongly, tasted sweetly, and heard clearly. Make love to me, Elliot. Here. Now. Make love to me. +++ Elliot’s hands had never before felt so strong around hers as they did when he pulled her off of the sofa, urging her to her feet with gentle, persistent tugs. Her stomach flipped nervously as she rose up in front of him, watching every twitch of the muscles in his face as his eyes shifted downward and his fingers moved away from hers and to the drawstring looped through the waistband of her pants. As the thin material slid over her hips, falling effortlessly down her legs and pooling around her bare feet, she saw him smile, and heard his teasing whisper as he asked, “Do you ever wear underwear?” “You’re not going to start talking again, are you?” she groaned. “’Cause I’m gonna be honest, El, that’s annoying as hell.” He chuckled, directing her backwards through awkward steps until her legs were flush against the smooth edge of the polished coffee table. Grasping her hands in his, he guided her until her half-naked body was splayed across the cherry-colored wood. He lowered onto his knees between her poised legs, and reached to the floor, his heavy eyebrows bobbing flirtatiously as he lifted into her view one black, fishnet stocking. “I’m not putting those back on,” she argued, tilting her head to the side, her shoulder-length strands of hair fanning across the tabletop. “No, you’re not. I’m putting them on you.” He dangled the hose between her separated legs, letting the coarse material flutter against her center. As she flinched, gasping for a shallow breath, he slid the stocking over the toes of her right foot, dragging the material slowly, sensuously, to her ankle. She began to squirm as he directed the material over her calf, his fingers making short, forceful strokes against her skin as he slithered the nylon upwards to her knee. Leaning over her, he touched his lips to her inner thigh, his tongue creating a wet circle on her skin before he covered it with the fishnet hose. With the tip of his tongue, he produced a wet trail against her leg, following behind it, covering it lick by lick, with the material until reaching the top of her thigh. Releasing his hold on the elastic band and running his finger around the circumference of her leg, he shook his head. “Christ, Liv, you wear this thing all the time and our days of chasing perps are over.” He reached to the floor, retrieving the other nylon. “They’ll stop dead in their tracks when they see you.” She groaned softly, with a faint chuckle, as he slid the second nylon over her left foot. Through half-opened eyes, she watched him glide the hose slowly over her bent knee, and shifted her hips as his lips once again forged a trail on her inner thigh for the fishnet material to follow. Reaching to the floor again, he found tilted against one leg of the table the half-empty glass of water that she had been nursing when he arrived. He grinned, submerging his fingers in the cold liquid and pulling out a small chunk of ice. Sliding the narrow end of the uneven piece between his lips, not seeming to notice as icy droplets coated them, he pressed his hands against the insides of her upper thighs, holding her legs separated and still. Bending over her, his hot breath warming her already throbbing clitoris, he glided the smooth, watery edge of the ice cube across her inner leg. As she gasped, squirming and fighting his hands, he slithered the cube upwards to her hip, circling her protruding bone before sliding it slowly, torturously, to the top of her pubic bone. The water dripped from his mouth, wetting the thin strip of hair that lined her already damp center, and she lifted her hips, rocking as moans began to rattle hoarsely in her throat. Elliot smiled around the cube, ignoring Olivia’s unspoken pleas and moving upwards toward her bellybutton. He circled the indention, seeing her stomach quiver as the cold water stained her skin, and repositioned his hands across her hips. Olivia dug her fingertips into the backs of his shoulders, trying to say his name, to form words and thoughts that were at least remotely coherent, but only managing a whimper as Elliot began to move downward, the melting cube chilling her skin and leaving in its wake a wet, slippery trail from her bellybutton to pubic bone. As the smooth ice slid over her clit, she pulled in a raspy breath, curving her toes around the edge of the table. She shivered, the combination of Elliot’s hot breath and cold ice causing a rash of goose bumps to erupt across her skin, and sank her fingers into the sides of his short hair on either side of his head. Pulling him over her, she captured his wet lips with hers and slithered her tongue inside of his mouth. Searching his cold mouth, she found the nearly melted cube nestled on the center of his tongue and sucked it between her lips. Swirling it between her cheeks, removing from it both his taste and hers, she passed it back between his parted lips. Opening her eyes, she watched him swallow, his Adam’s apple rising and then falling as what remained of the cube slipped effortlessly down his throat. “Show me what you want,” Elliot growled, his lips fluttering against hers. “Show me what you need me to do, Liv.” She shook her head, her words and thoughts still lost. She needed… Him. Jesus, couldn’t Elliot see that? She could barely breathe much less lay still; each of his touches against her prickly skin as hot as fire. “Show me.” She took his hand in her trembling one, moving it to her center. Even before he touched her, she began to throb, to ache, and by the time he pushed inside of her, she could feel her release beginning. “Touch me,” she whispered, rising up and folding into him, laying her forehead against his shoulder. “That’s all I need, just touch me.” As the pad of his thumb skimmed across her swollen clit, moving in sync with his fingers as he pushed deeper inside of her, she felt herself let go. She pressed her eyes closed, concentrating on the combined feelings of his strokes against her and thrusts inside of her. She didn’t care how eager she looked as her hips convulsed and her buttocks bucked on the tabletop, but clutched his wrist more tightly and silently commanded him to drive deeper and rub harder. She wanted him to see her eagerness, to feel how eager she was, and to realize that he was the only one she trusted enough to become so vulnerable with. She scooted to the edge of the table, balancing her feet on his hips. As he lowered his pants, faster and more rushed than he had hers, she saw his erection beneath the shroud of his boxers. She watched as he lowered the shorts, the elastic waistband settling around his bulky thighs, and reached between his legs, gliding the tips of her fingers across the wet head of his penis. His legs began to shake, but she didn’t slow or stop her strokes, only smiled at seeing in him the same impatience she knew he had witnessed in her. “Your turn,” she whispered, curving her fingers around his hard penis. “Tell me what you need, Elliot.” “You haven’t figured it out yet?” he gasped, his hands tightening around her waist. “I figured it out. But I want you to tell me this time.” He wedged his hands beneath her bottom, pinching her skin and pulling her off of the table. Lying back on the floor, he drove his fingertips into her hips and pulled her down on top of him. Through clouded eyes, he took in the sight of her straddling him as his penis scraped across the front of her, wetting the skin around the mind-blowing strip of hair that had kept him mercilessly hard and erect since he first saw it. Lifting her, his steel-like fingers reddening her skin as he poked and pulled on her, he guided her down on top of him, their groans coinciding as their bodies connected. Olivia fell across him, her upper body blanketing his and her hips rocking in rhythm with each of his thrusts. “You don’t owe me a Sunday,” she whispered, her lips tickling the sensitive lobe of his ear. “I don’t expect anything because of this. You don’t owe me anything, Elliot.” He tried to answer, to give her the promises that she didn’t expect but that he had wanted to make since before she had become completely exposed to him in her Raspberry Vodka uniform. But his voice became entangled with a hoarse moan as he bucked into her, pushing himself further inside of her, claiming all of her. He held onto her hips, squeezing, holding her against him, and erased from between them all semblance of space. As he felt her tighten around him, her muscles shuddering and holding him inside of her, he saw in his hazy mind the crack that he had noticed in his kitchen during his first night of lost sleep. He felt a fear take root in his chest, only fleetingly, as he remembered the moment when he had thought it had become irreparable and would always divide them. And then, lying on the floor with the coarse carpet burning his back, the sides of Olivia’s fishnet shrouded knees pressing into his hips, and her sweaty inner thighs rubbing against the outsides of his stiffened legs, he saw it begin to fade. It once again became unnoticeable and unimportant, misunderstanding and awkwardness and unspoken feelings fusing and filling it until all that was left was them. On the same side, the only side. Elliot snaked his hands beneath her cotton shirt, goose bumps forming beneath his fingers on her skin. Closing his eyes, envisioning in his mind her full breasts as they had looked in the sham of a black bra each time she had bent further over his table than necessary, he curved his fingers around the objects that had commanded as much of his attention as the fishnet hose and her Brazilian waxed center had. He murmured a satisfied, “Mmm,” as she rocked her hips, causing a final jolt of electricity to course from his penis to his jumbled mind. Jesus. She felt good, not better than expected, but better than anything else he had ever had the luck of experiencing. She fit perfectly around him, on top of him, against him, and in his hands as he kneaded her breasts. Sensing his implicit want, Olivia raised her arms, smiling as Elliot opened his eyes and pulled the pale pink shirt off of her. She shivered as the garment slid over her skin, pulling herself forward, straddling him on hands and knees as he took her breast into his mouth. His tongue circled her rigid nipple, and she lowered her hips, rubbing against him. Forward. Backwards. Pressing her wet core against his sweat-covered stomach. “Jesus, Liv, you feel good—” Snap. The sound of metal connecting jarred his mind, and his gaze shifted to her chest and his hand still groping her breast. His eyes widened a fraction at the sight of the white fur-lined cuff hooked around his wrist, and his voice stalled as he watched her lock the second bracelet around her own arm. “What’re you…doing…” he muttered, his fingers tightening and then loosening around her breasts. “Trust,” she whispered, licking around the circumference of his parted lips with her tongue. “It’s what these mean, right? It’s why you brought them?” “It’s why…I, uh.” He forced down a swallow, lifting their conjoined arms and studying the metal that linked them. “It’s never been easy for me to give up control,” she continued, placing a soft kiss on the center of his mouth. “And I know it’s not easy for you, either. So, we’ll both give up a little. We’ll give a little to each other—” “I don’t have a key.” She froze, hovering above him with her breasts propped in the palms of his hands and her shallow breaths wafting between his gaping lips. Her stiffened arms trembled, threatening to collapse and send her crashing down on top of him, and her cloaked legs began to press more firmly into his sides, gripping him like a steel vice. Elliot winced through another dry swallow, watching as her eyes shifted jerkily towards the furry cuffs. “Breathe, Olivia. You’re not breathing—” “You…don’t…” She choked on the remainder of her words, her eyes widening as she tracked the sturdy chain that joined the bracelet locked around her arm to the one locked around his. “What the hell do you…” A smile quivered on her lips, never fully materializing even though she forced out a hoarse, disbelieving chuckle. “Bad joke, Elliot. Christ, don’t scare me like that.” “It’s not a… Liv, I don’t have a key.” She bolted upright, ignoring his grunts as she pressed her full weight into his stomach. Straightening her arm, pulling his upwards with hers, she yanked at the lined metal that encircled her wrist. “Shit!” she hissed, digging her fingers between the manacle and her skin, pulling, tugging, and groaning each time the lock refused to unlatch. “You brought— Why in the hell did you bring handcuffs but not keys?” He shrugged, the backs of his shoulders scraping against the carpet, the rustling of skin against fibers fading into the thick tension that had settled between them. “Well, Christ!” He rose up, causing her to topple off of him. “I didn’t think you’d use them! What happened to that speech you gave about not liking them, about not being able to handle losing control—” Olivia landed on her hip, one leg still across his lap. “I just told you I was willing to share control with you!” she hissed, yanking her arm, not seeming to notice—to care—as Elliot retaliated with a pain-filled moan as his arm was dragged behind hers. “You stole the handcuffs, so why didn’t you steal the fucking key, too?” “They were just supposed to be a visual aid!” Elliot argued, jerking their arms back in his direction. “Something to help make my point about the whole trust-issue. I thought you’d get a laugh out of them.” She tightened her lips into a frown, her features hardening as her eyes darkened, narrowed, and she made another forceful tug and pulled their arms towards her. “Do I look like I’m laughing, Elliot?” He shrugged a shoulder, wincing as she twisted their arms one direction and then the other. “You did. When I first showed them to you.” “That’s because I thought you had a key!” she barked, thrusting their arms downward until both of their hands slammed into the floor. She pulled her fishnet-shrouded legs up in front of her, hiding her exposed chest behind her raised knees. “So, do you have any other bright ideas? What’re we supposed to do now?” Elliot dipped his head forward, hiding his smile, stifling the laughter that he knew would only further enrage her. “Wear long sleeves to work on Monday?” “Not funny,” she groused, pressing her chest into her thighs, hiding herself. Suddenly wanting to. “We aren’t even supposed to see each other this weekend. That’s what Cragen said, right? Well, when he sees us handcuffed to each other it’s going to be a little tough to convince him we didn’t spend any time together.” He nodded, murmuring an agreeing, “Yeah,” that was enfolded in the laughter he was still battling. Lifting their hands and studying the impermeable chain that connected them, he nodded again. “Okay, we’ll just go back to the club. I found at least fifty pairs of these things there, right? So, they’ve gotta have at least fifty keys, too. We’ll go back and get—” “Go back?” she seethed, her eyes widening. She led his gaze over her naked body, grunting through humorless chuckles. “How do you expect me to get a shirt on, Elliot? And even if I manage to get clothes on, what about the cops who’re working the scene?” She pulled their arms upwards, steadying them between them. “How in the hell do we explain these?” He glanced back over one shoulder and then the other, shrugging. “You’ve got a coat. We’ll cut the sleeve—” “Ruin one of my coats? Why don’t we ruin your coat?” “Because I didn’t wear one.” She slumped forward, her shoulders rounding as she dug the tip of her chin into her knees. “I can’t believe you didn’t bring a fucking key.” “I didn’t tell you to put the handcuffs on us, you know. That was all your idea.” She rolled her eyes. “You had your mouth full at the time. I didn’t think you were up for having a conversation. Otherwise, I would’ve asked your opinion.” “No, you wouldn’t have,” he disagreed, moving his arm closer to him and causing hers to stretch and become taut. “It’s been a long time since you’ve asked my opinion about anything, Olivia. You get an idea in your head and you run with it. What I think doesn’t matter.” “Damn it,” she muttered, tugging their arms back in her direction, groaning softly as the metal dug into her skin. “You’re talking about Oregon again, aren’t you? Again, Elliot. How many times do you want me to say I’m sorry for leaving without telling you first?” “Have you said you’re sorry?” he asked, his dark brows scrunching above his eyes, causing an array of deep-set wrinkles to haphazardly crease his forehead. “Hmm. I must’ve missed all of those apologies.” “It was a job,” she hissed, bracing her arm, tightening her muscles, as Elliot tried to jerk their arms back towards him. “A fucking assignment from the feds. What’d you want me to do? It’s not like they gave me a stack of Change of Address cards to send out. They just told me to leave, period. They didn’t give me any other choice.” “It wasn’t Witness Protection. You could’ve called.” “And risked blowing my cover.” “You didn’t seem to mind taking that risk last night.” She fell still, brooding as she stared down at their locked arms. She had been willing to take the risk the night before, as willing as he had seemed to be. As soon as the words had left her mouth, “Fuck me, Elliot,” every objective they had entered into Raspberry Vodka with had taken a backseat to what they wanted. Each other. Ten minutes together in a semi-private stall. To somehow ease years of tension that had built up to the point that it had begun to override their better judgment. She risked everything for something she never expected to have, and she had been surprised at how eagerly Elliot had given it to her. As if he had wanted it just as much. She sighed, bringing an end to their argument with the weighty breath. “It was stupid not to bring a key.” “Yeah,” Elliot grumbled, running his free hand through his short, ruffled hair. “Guess it does seem kind of stupid now.” “Kind of?” she snapped. She closed her eyes, envisioning in her mind just how ridiculous they looked sitting face-to-face on her living room floor, Elliot half-undressed, and she completely naked except for the fishnet hose. And then she heard his voice. She took in a breath, filling herself with the sweaty scent that had become stuck to him as his words—his sincerity—once again filled her mind. “And the cuffs, when I saw them, they didn’t just remind me about…all…of that. They also reminded me about what we’d talked about when we first saw them in the backroom. Trust. And I don’t want to think there’s a chance that I’ve lost your trust because of what happened last night. That’s why I came by, and it’s why I brought the cuffs. It’s what I want them to be a reminder of, a souvenir of. How I felt last night.” “It wasn’t stupid,” she said, smiling softly as he glanced up. “Well, not bringing a key was stupid, but the reason you brought the cuffs wasn’t.” “So, you wanna go back to the club?” She rolled her eyes, lifting their arms. “We have handcuffs with fur stuck to them around our wrists. No, I don’t want to go back to the club. I already have enough explaining to do to Vice, don’t you think? I sure as hell don’t need anyone seeing these, especially since you’re hooked to the other end of them.” “Okay,” he said, sounding resigned to her decision, but making it clear that he had a back-up plan. “Then give me a quarter.” Her eyes narrowed questioningly, as her gaze once again swept over her nude form. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t exactly have anywhere to keep spare change right now. Besides, what’re you gonna do with a quarter, MacGyver? Melt it into a key?” “MacGyver,” he said, chuckling, jutting his chin upwards. “Funny. Just give me a quarter.” He climbed to his feet, pulling her up after him. “You don’t want to ruin a coat or go back to the club, so we’ll flip a coin. Heads we call Munch, tails we call Fin.” CHAPTER TEN “Heads we call Munch, tails we call Fin.” “The lesser of two evils?” Elliot asked, a tinge of hopefulness clinging to every syllable he spoke, as they stood side-by-side staring down at George Washington’s stone-faced expression in the center of Elliot’s open palm. Olivia cringed, tightening the fluffy, burgundy-colored towel around her chest as if it was a tourniquet. If she pulled the two sides tightly enough, maybe—if there truly was a God—it would completely restrict her air supply and she would pass out cold before Munch showed up. “The lesser of two evils,” she repeated, her tone void of the sanguinity that Elliot had forced into his. “That’s like trying to decide if you wanna take a bullet in the right knee or left one. Either way, you know it’s gonna hurt like hell.” She turned away from him, only managing two steps before the chain that linked them together became taut and caused her to stumble backwards. “Christ, Elliot. Think we can work out some type of system here? It should be pretty easy, really. When I move, you move, and vice versa.” “Vice versa, uh huh,” he muttered, dropping the quarter into his pocket as he conceded and followed her across the room. He waited until she flopped down on the sofa, her free hand locked in a death grip around the connected flaps of the towel, before sitting down beside her. Glancing down, a smirk twitching on his lips, he peeked over the edge of the sofa cushion and found her toes wiggling on the floor, still shrouded beneath the fishnet hose and barely visible out of the flared legs of her sweat pants. Olivia rested the back of her head against the sofa, staring up at the white, popcorn ceiling. “I don’t make decisions without thinking about you,” she said, her voice soft, evaporating into the silence that had begun to hang so thickly around them. “You have to let go of Oregon sooner or later. If you don’t…” She sighed, raising her hands, dragging his arm with hers, as she rifled her fingers through her tousled hair. “We can’t let it always be between us, Elliot. I did it. I made the choice to accept Star’s offer, but I didn’t do it to hurt you.” “The fact that you accepted the assignment didn’t hurt me,” he said, laying his head back on the sofa, his gaze following hers to the stark ceiling above. “It was that you never…” He folded his arms, ignoring her muffled grunts of protest as the back of her hand slapped against the center of his chest. “No one would tell me anything. Cragen finally admitted that you were on some kind of assignment for the feds, but other than that…” “Other than that?” she asked, turning her face towards him, her dark brows arched, urging him to continue. He shook his head, sighing. The feelings and admissions and fears he had held inside during the five weeks she had been gone were beginning to rumble inside of him, threatening to become a greater force than he could control any longer. “Tell me,” she whispered. He took in a breath, making one last attempt to once again bury the confession that he had fought since her return, but knowing even before the air reached his lungs that it was useless. Barriers had been broken down and self-protective layers had been stripped away, leaving behind only honesty. Truthfulness. Leaving only them. “For eight years I had your back,” he said. “For eight years, Olivia, I knew every day, seven days a week, that you were okay. And then… It was hard not to know.” Olivia twisted her arm, her wrist rolling inside of the furry bracelet as she placed her hand over his. Beneath her fingertips, she could feel his heart beating, thumping rhythmically, continuously, and it scared the hell out of her. Because she knew that any given day, any unplanned for minute, any cruel second, could silence the one thing she relied on more than anything else, the only thing she had ever been able to rely on without fear of getting disappointed or hurt. Him. “I’m sorry,” she said, wedging her fingers between his, their fingers lying side-by-side on top of his vibrating chest. “I couldn’t call you while I was gone, and the reason why didn’t have anything to do with the case or blowing my cover. It was because…” She lifted her head, drawing her legs up in front of her, her knees falling against him. “I was afraid if I talked to you, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Stay away.” “I needed to know that you were okay.” She nodded, just once, understanding. “I know, but I needed something too, Elliot. I needed to know that I could make it on my own. That if I had to… I could make it without you.” She lifted her head, finding his stare waiting for her, commanding her to give him more of the truth. To explain what had been left unexplained for far too long. Reasons for leaving, for losing contact, for refusing contact, and for leaving a void in his life that no one else was capable of filling. Olivia reached across his chest and skimmed the tips of her fingers through the silky fur that connected them. “After the Gitano case, you said the job and I were all you had. But we weren’t all you had, Elliot. You were all that I had. For almost nine years, you’re all I have had. And I was so scared of waking up one day and finding out you were gone, and not knowing how to be alone anymore.” “So, you left?” he asked, arching an eyebrow, blame seeming to cause the muscles on the left side of his face to clench and misunderstanding hardening those on the right side. His jaw tightened and eased repeatedly, disagreeably, as he felt her fingers curve through his and close around his hand. And as angry as he still wanted to be with her, as hurt as he still felt, he understood her reasons even more. “Did you prove to yourself what you needed to?” “I proved…” She lost her voice to a weighty breath, shrugging. What had her time in Oregon proved to her? That she could still handle a job on her own, of course. That her own instincts were reliable enough to keep her safe and help her, single-handedly, solve a seemingly unsolvable case, absolutely. And that everything, no matter if she was submerged in the chaos of New York City or the deafening quiet of Oregon, made her think about Elliot. That each of the fresh-faced kids who fought passionately for a cause they believed so fully in reminded her of Elliot, because they were so intent on saving, on protecting, and on righting wrongs. In each of them, she saw Elliot. Through their enthusiasm, she felt Elliot. And each time she stood side-by-side with them at a rally or protest—each time she fought alongside them—she missed Elliot even more. “I don’t know if I proved anything,” she lied. “But I did my job.” She had done her job. She had done it thoroughly and without lacking any of the intensity that she did it in New York. But she did it on edge. She remained on edge. And it wasn’t until she awoke in the hospital to Hope’s questions about the mysterious Elliot that she had mumbled about in her sleep, did she understand that vulnerability was what had kept her on edge. She felt vulnerable. Hell, she wouldn’t walk into a warehouse that a known perp had hidden inside of without a bulletproof vest to give her added protection, so what had made her willingly climb onto a plane and agree to become lost in a foreign world all alone and unprotected? She had done her job. She had done it successfully, for all intents and purposes. But she hadn’t done it as confidently as she normally did. Because she had left the biggest portion of her confidence in Manhattan. “Did you, uh…” He shrugged a shoulder, staring down at their interlocked hands that were trimmed in white fur. “Meet anyone?” “Met lots of people.” He nodded, concentrating on the fingers of her free hand as they weaved through the silky, white fur. He hadn’t thought about it before, not before settling in beside her with the handcuffs preventing either of them from running away from the truth and the burgundy-colored towel hiding from them the blatant reminder of just how drastically they had allowed life to change. How eagerly they had been willing for it to change. How uncharacteristically both of them had been willing to risk and sacrifice; how easily both had closed their eyes to consequences. It wasn’t them, how they acted or reacted. But when the transformation began, when they allowed it to, they hadn’t been themselves. And he found it surprising, maybe even humorous, how effortlessly two people who regularly found themselves knee-deep in facts and statistics and truths became entirely different people; people who didn’t think twice about breaking the rules that their alter egos worked tirelessly to enforce. And suddenly, he realized that an explanation as to why she had left wasn’t what he really needed to hear. What he needed was to know if she had fallen as easily into Persephone James’ life as she had fallen into Rachel Martin’s life? Because if Rachel Martin had been capable of freeing Olivia Benson as much as she had a few miles away in a bar in upper Manhattan, how much had Persephone James been able to change her thousands of miles away in Oregon? And why in the hell had wondering about her possible changes suddenly made him feel jealous? Throughout the years that he had known her, he had never felt jealous before. Olivia dated, and he generally knew about each one. At least the surface details. He knew where they went, out to dinner or the theater or out for drinks. He knew what Olivia’s opinion of the guy was and whether or not she was interested enough in him that a second date would occur. And, of course, he had always assumed—had known without it being asked or admitted—that she was sexually active. Sometimes, as their years as partners progressed and brought them closer, she would give him tidbits of information about intimate evenings, not that he was ever interested in hearing her confirm the obvious. But he trusted her judgment, clearly saw her strength, and respected her privacy. And for almost nine years, he had treated Olivia’s rarely spoken about sex life with the same hesitance—and sheer reluctance to acknowledge—that he treated his oldest daughters’. By pretending—hoping—like hell that it didn’t exist. Or at least he could pretend until Rachel Martin shocked him back into reality by showing him a side of Olivia Benson that he had never allowed himself to believe existed. A wild side, a throw caution to the fucking wind side, a completely unexpected—but thoroughly enjoyed—uninhibited side. And if Rachel Martin could bring all of that out of Olivia in forty-eight short hours, just what in the hell had Persephone James been able to do to her during five long weeks? Olivia dropped her head back against the sofa, nodding, her tangled hair creasing against the supple material behind her. “What is it about Oregon that’s really bothering you?” she asked, sounding far more accusatory than curious. Sounding assured. As if she already knew the answer to the question the Elliot had used anger to hide behind for so many weeks just to avoid asking, and even more to avoid hearing an answer to. “You wanted to know if I’d met anyone. But what you really want to know is… Did I get involved with anyone?” She shrugged her shoulders, displaying a half-smile, one that was glaringly non-committal. “What if I did?” Had she gotten involved with anyone? Was it what he meant? Hell, yes, it was exactly what he meant and she knew it. So, why did she have to answer the question he couldn’t ask with a fucking rhetorical question of her own? “Forget it,” he said quickly, trying to shake her fingers off of his. Trying like hell to shake off her honesty before she could give it to him, because he would rather continue to wonder about the answer than have her confirm his suspicions. Olivia tightened her hold on his hand, preventing him from pulling away. “No,” she said. “There wasn’t anyone. At least not in Oregon.” At least not in Oregon. There hadn’t been anyone in Oregon. No one in Oregon had been able to convince Persephone James to step outside of her defenses like Elliot Anderson had been able to convince Rachel Martin to step outside of hers. Like Elliot had been able to so effortlessly strip Olivia of hers. “But.” Her voice sliced smoothly through the silence that had settled around them, and seemed to land squarely between them. But. Three otherwise insignificant letters that, when combined, held the power to stop a beating heart. And as soon as they were spoken, Elliot’s heart began to thunder out of rhythm, threatening to stop all together. “But,” she repeated, saying it for the second time as enigmatically as she had the first night after they had barely survived their undercover assignments as she lay across the sofa with her fishnet-covered feet nestled in his lap. She made it clear that there was a hidden meaning behind it, that it held more meaning than such a tiny word should, and that it was a meaning she fully understood but didn’t expect him to. “I don’t know what’s going on between us right now, Elliot. I know that I’ve…liked…it; that I’ve enjoyed it. But I also know that I care too much about you for us to become something as casual as friends with benefits.” She glanced up, her dark eyes brimming with conviction. “It’s not how I want us to be.” He cleared his throat, taking another peek over the edge of the sofa and catching a glimpse of her shrouded feet. “That’s what you think this has been, casual?” “I don’t know.” She rolled her eyes before letting her lids droop closed. She pulled her hand off of his, dragging their arms away from his chest and letting them fall limply between them. “All I know is, it hasn’t even been twenty-four hours and we’ve… Twice. What’re we doing? We’re not kids and we’re sure as hell not irresponsible.” “You think we’ve been irresponsible?” She opened her eyes, narrowing them, widening them, letting the incredulity that filled them answer for her. Elliot propped his feet on the edge of the coffee table, the table that, if Olivia’s apartment was a crime scene, bore enough tale-tell evidence that even a rookie cop would be able to accurately determine what had taken place. Dried streaks of water across the grains of wood, smudges from sweat and skin that marred the polished surface, and Olivia’s crumpled, wrinkled shirt that hung haphazardly over one corner. “I don’t think we’ve been casual or irresponsible,” he said, rubbing at a watermark with his toe. “I think… People change. So, maybe that’s what’s happened. We’ve changed.” “In less than twenty-four hours?” she asked with a laugh. “That’s a helluva change for anyone to make. Or.” Or. A smaller word than ‘but,’ and one that was even more frightening. “Maybe…” She watched his toes move back-and-forth on the table, scrubbing, rubbing, but doing little to erase the water stains that, as the sun had begun to sneak in through the window and light the room, had become illuminated and noticeable. “You see me as a safe place to find something that’s missing in your life.” “Just like you thought Oregon would be a safe place to find what was missing in yours?” “It’s not the same,” she disagreed, tightening her hand around the thick, overlapped top of the towel. “It’s the same,” Elliot said, sliding his feet off of the table, the friction between skin and wood leaving behind further smudges of truth and honesty, two things that hadn’t yet been explored between them, at least not as fully as they should be. But. “You wanted to go to Oregon to prove you could work without me, okay. I’ll take that explanation if it’s the one you want to stick with. But I don’t believe it. So, what’re you really missing, Olivia? More importantly, what’re you looking for?” She stiffened her arm as Elliot attempted to drag it back onto his lap. “That’s the difference between us. I don’t let myself think about what I’m missing, because I don’t wanna know. But you already do know what you’re missing, and you’re trying to replace it.” She turned towards him, into him, the sides of her folded legs falling limply against his thigh. “And I’m not a replacement for Kathy. It’s not who I want to be.” “No,” he said, grinning as he traced the bend of her knee with his fingers. “You’re nothing like Kath. In twenty years of marriage, she never got a Brazilian.” He chuckled, pushing against her knees, lifting them off of him before dragging them back down against him. “If I wanted Kathy, I’d have tried harder to work out our problems. I’d be back home. But I’m not. I’m sitting on your sofa handcuffed to you after having the best almost twenty-four hours of my life.” She stared into his face, daring him to flinch or blink or take in a deeper than normal breath, waiting for him to expose his lie. But he didn’t. Instead, sitting beside her with his shirt buttoned only halfway, his jeans zipped but not clasped, a hint of a nascent hard-on stretching the denim that covered his crotch, his feet bare, and the sides of his short hair ruffled, he looked different. Like someone Olivia didn’t really know, although she knew that she should. Sitting beside her, an assured smile having found life on his lips, he didn’t resemble her partner or Kathy Stabler’s ex-husband or the brooding, impatient man that Olivia so often ridiculed him for being. For the first time Olivia could ever remember, he looked completely, from the inside out, relaxed. Maybe even content. And she couldn’t help but wonder, if only cautiously, if there was a possibility—no matter how faint—that she was responsible for that change in him. Was she capable of bringing that out of him? “Liv, it hasn’t been about the sex,” Elliot continued, understanding by the way her eyes had darkened and begun to question him that she needed more of an explanation. That she needed to be convinced. “Not that it hasn’t been, uh.” He grinned crookedly, with even more obvious contentment, and rubbed against her hand that was connected to his. “Last night in the club and today were…incredible. But if you’re telling me right now that I have to choose between your friendship and sex, then the choice is an easy one.” He lifted their hands to her face, tracing the length of her lower lip with his finger. “It’ll always be you. So, if you’re saying this is it, that you don’t want anything to happen between us again, then okay. We’ll figure out a way to put all of this behind us and move forward from here.” “And you think that’s possible?” God. She hoped it was. Because if this was it, if their almost twenty-four hours was the extent of their changing and redefining, she didn’t want them to get stuck stumbling backwards. To find themselves becoming lost to embarrassment and the damn after-sex awkwardness, and jealousies that they had never before given second thoughts to, much less exerted enough energy that amounted to first thoughts. “Hmm,” she grunted through a chuckle. “When did you become an optimist?” “I don’t know,” he said, tugging on the center of her lower lip before dropping his hand. “Sometime after eleven o’clock last night, I guess.” Her deep breaths were all that answered him, no laughter, not amused or cynical or downright pissed, just breaths. Breaths that told him she was waiting for more. Of him. Of the damned honesty and truth that he had initiated between them, and she was going to make sure he also finished. For the sake of a direction she wasn’t completely convinced they could move in together. Forward. “Since you and I have been partners,” he continued slowly, choosing each word carefully, twirling it around in his mind before letting it slip between them, “I’ve spent more of my wedding anniversaries with you than with Kathy. I’ve spent more of my kids’ birthdays with you than I have with them. And I always hated it, being away from them. I hated that I couldn’t be with them because someone else had gotten hurt. But I never hated that I was with you. You made it bearable for me, Liv, missing out on things with them. And after a while, I don’t even know when, but when I was with them, I started missing you.” “God,” she whispered. “You’re making me sound like the ‘other’ woman.” He nodded. “Maybe it’s who you became. You know things about me that Kathy has never known. You’ve gone through things with me—seen things—that Kathy can’t imagine. And maybe, I don’t know. Maybe in a way, I’ve always needed you more than I’ve needed her. And that’s nothing against Kath. It’s just, with her I always felt like I had to be someone different, someone stronger. But with you… I can be me. Because you understand me in a way she can’t. You’ll always understand me in a way no one else will ever be able to, and I’ll always understand you the same way.” “So, we understand each other,” she remarked, keeping his confession—his honesty—cautiously at arms’ length. “Does that mean we’re entitled to take from each other empty Saturdays until one of us gets tired of it or meets someone new? Is that what you want, Elliot? Just years full of empty Saturdays, or something else?” Not something else. He didn’t know if he could say it, or if he should. Add into their already confusing situation a word that held one more letter than the frightening two that comprised ‘or,’ or the heart-stopping three that made up the multi-meaning ‘but.’ It wasn’t a word Olivia was used to, he knew. Not in the sense of having, or daring herself to want, or dreaming that she would ever have… More. And how could he convince her it was what he wanted when it was something she had taught herself not to believe in? He lifted their conjoined hands, cupping his around hers and raising both to the top of the plush towel. Curving his fingers, forcing hers to bend beneath his, he used both of their hands to open the towel. As it fell away from her, as she whispered a breathless, “Elliot,” he moved their hands to her breast. “Tell me why you really went to Oregon, Liv,” he whispered, directing her finger around her rigid nipple, circling her sensitive skin, his senses heightened to the resistance that she didn’t put forth. “I told you.” She pressed the back of her head into the sofa, sucking on her lower lip, refusing to give him any more truth than she already had. “Tell me again,” Elliot demanded as he slid their joined hands down her stomach, lowering them beneath the loose waistband of her sweatpants until Olivia’s fingers brushed against her damp middle. “Tell me why you had to leave. It was because of me, wasn’t it?” She rolled the back of her head against the sofa, grunting her disagreement before mumbling, “You’re not playing fair.” “Is this how you spent your free time in Oregon?” he asked, guiding her fingers in circular motions around her hardened clit. She closed her eyes, trying to find her breath, as the silky fur that entrapped their wrists fluttered against her. “No,” she lied, sinking her teeth into her lip, focusing on the sting that erupted in her flesh, concentrating on it instead of the tickles across her center. Elliot pressed her fingers more firmly against her, each of her throaty moans that she tried to stifle causing him to hasten the strokes he was commanding. “When you did it, did you think about me?” She slid her nylon-covered feet across his lap, raising her knees. “I’ve spent almost nine years having to drag every fucking word out of you, Stabler. Jesus Christ. Sometimes you act like it hurts just to say ‘good morning.’ And now all of a sudden you can’t shut up?” “Tell me.” She sucked in a breath, arching her back. “It was quiet there. What about that would make me think about you?” Elliot narrowed his eyes, watching the flimsy material of her pants flutter and rise on top of their synchronized hands. He let her deepened breaths direct his movements, each heavy exhale and shallow inhale guiding their strokes. “You did, didn’t you? You thought about me.” “Yeah…” she whispered through a breath. “I thought about you back in New York brooding because you were pissed that I’d left without saying good-bye. It was a real turn on.” He lifted his hand off of hers, skin hovering above skin, and he watched her. He took her in, every inch, every flinch of her muscles, every subtle movement, as she absorbed each of the caresses that he had instigated and she was continuing. She moaned as the release took hold of her, gripped her just as strongly as Elliot’s hands had when they became lost in the vastness of the small cubicle in Raspberry Vodka’s ladies’ room. And then she realized, even before the tingles had stopped coursing through her, that he had moved his hand away. He had left her alone to finish what they had started together even after making a promise, through initiation and touches, that he would be with her until the end. She pulled her legs up from his lap, fighting to slide them over the edge of the sofa, as his hands, gripping and strong, once again latched around her waist. “Not again, Elliot,” she hissed as he laid her back across the sofa. She yanked against the cuff, causing both of them to wince as metal dug into flesh, and kicked softly at his legs as he stretched out on top of her. “Let me up.” His lips connected with hers, turning her protest into a throaty grumble. His hands burned against her body, his skin rough and hot on hers. He saw the tears, tears he knew she was trying like hell not to give him, slide out from between her closed eyelids, and tracked their haphazard paths as they glided down the sides of her flushed face. But instead of letting them stop him, they convinced him to push harder. To convince her. Of something more. Not something casual, but something that would force them to move forward. Towards something more, something undefined, something that didn’t have a real beginning or have to have an end. Something more that would deliver them to the same side of continuance. “What’re you afraid of?” he whispered, his words echoing inside of her mouth. She turned her head to the side, her lips escaping his. “I’m not afraid,” she whispered. “I’m just…” Fucking petrified. Of ruining them, of never being anything more than the ‘other’ woman, of Wyatt McGrath’s words being true, that guys like Elliot didn’t fall for women like her, of never being able to face another Saturday because it wasn’t this Saturday that was empty. If this was it, all either of them had to give the other, it would be every Saturday in the future that would be empty. But most of all, she was afraid of Sunday. And the thought—the realization—made her begin to chuckle beneath him. Jesus. Her fears had slammed headfirst into irony. Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em Olivia Benson was actually afraid of being left. Elliot pressed his free hand beneath her chin, turning her face back towards his. He placed his lips against hers, holding the touch, soaking in her taste, before delivering a soft, wet kiss. “If you’re afraid of this, then tell me to stop. If you tell me to, Liv, you know I will.” “I want you to—” She opened her eyes, losing herself in the hopefulness in his eyes that were staring back unblinking, unafraid, and searching hers as intently as she had begun to search his. And she understood that her fear wasn’t of being left. She had been left behind her entire life, and it was something she had become adept at surviving. What she was most afraid of were the blank lines that depicted and controlled both of their lives. The lines that, until filled in, left them both floundering in uncertainty. Lines that, if left vacant, would prevent them from moving forward. Her culprits taunted her from the baby book that had never been started and had been left for her to finish, and his mocked him from legal documents that, once he finally worked up the courage to acknowledge them, would change his entire life; they would change who he was and had always thought he was. Who he had pretended for so long to be. And what Olivia finally realized as she stared into Elliot’s flushed face with his hot, heavy breaths washing over her and drying her tears, was that the information needed from both of them was the same. I took my first step at age _________________. “Don’t stop,” she said. “I don’t want you to—” She gasped as cool air replaced the flimsy material of her pants against her hips. Kicking her legs beneath Elliot, she worked the sweats down her legs, leaving behind only the fishnet stockings. As she glanced down between their bodies, seeing the decorative nylons, she moved their conjoined arms to the top of her right thigh. “Without the hose. I have to know that it’s just us. Not some case, or a skimpy outfit, or because we’re good at pretending. I want to know it’s because of us.” He smiled slowly, convincingly, and dug his fingers between the nylons and her flesh. “When’re you gonna get it?” he asked as the hose rolled over her knee. “It’s always been because of us. Just us, Olivia. This never would’ve happened if it was something else.” +++ It had always fascinated and confused her, the sacrifice a woman was willing to make to bring a new life into the world. The sacrifice of time and goals and ambitions, the sacrifice of her body, of comfort, sometimes even her own health. And she wondered if she could be so selfless, and wondered even more why her mother had chosen to be. She wondered what it felt like, not only physically but also emotionally, as that new life separated from a woman’s body and became one of its own. Was it freeing, or far more lonely? Was it a feeling that memories wrapped around and refused to forget, or was it instantly forgotten through a haze of delirium and happiness and fear? Olivia pulled in a breath as she felt Elliot’s penis graze her center, and let the air completely fill her lungs before trapping it, holding onto it, and letting it pound against her chest until releasing it at the exact second that Elliot pushed inside of her. She could feel every inch of him; she could feel every throb of his muscles and the tightening of her own. They began to rock together, hips gliding forward and then backwards, him inside of her, she wrapped around him. His mouth closed around hers, and she felt the flutter of his tongue against the tip of hers, wet and hot and slippery. He pressed his half-exposed chest against hers that was completely exposed, sweat-stained skin fusing together and the vibrations of their heartbeats quickening, pulsating, until both fell into rhythm with their rocking hips. She felt him slide from side-to-side, rotating inside of her, the base of his penis rubbing against her clit as he pressed deeper. Elliot’s breath hitched, stopping suddenly, the silence ringing in Olivia’s ears. And as moans and murmurs that materialized into her name found their way into the quietness, she felt him release himself inside of her. Closing her eyes, she imagined the invasion of him, swirling around her cells, attaching to muscles and arteries, intermixing with her blood, part of him becoming her. And she knew, as he began to pull out of her, that even if she never experienced the physical aspect of giving life, she could fully understand the emotional attribute of it. It was lonely, not freeing, when you welcomed another life inside of your own body, when you nurtured it and willingly accepted the changes it imposed, and then it was gone. Suddenly. Swiftly. Leaving behind subtle reminders that it had been there, that it had been such a profuse part of you, but not leaving in its wake anything tangible to grasp hold of. Leaving you empty, no longer one half of two, but the sole part of one. It was a feeling that memories attempted to savor, to remember, but one that became jumbled in a haze of delirium and happiness and fear. One that became lost to the overwhelming, albeit temporary, aloneness that cruelly replaced the fullness of the bond that was created when two lives joined, existing on the same heartbeats, the same intakes and exhales of air, the same wants and needs. And as Elliot collapsed on top of her, panting, still whispering her name, holding her close, she knew that the sacrifice would forever fascinate her. But it no longer confused her. +++ “You think Munch is gonna tell Cragen?” Olivia asked, staring down at her bare toes at the end of her outstretched legs. She leaned into Elliot, her back flush against his chest, and closed her eyes as his fingers trailed back-and-forth across her skin above the hem of the towel. Elliot answered first with an unsure shake of his head, before saying, “Not if he doesn’t have to.” “And if he has to?” “He won’t lie,” Elliot answered. “And I don’t expect him to. I know you don’t expect him too, either.” She nodded, agreeing even though she wished to hell she could present a valid argument as to why Munch should lie. Their combined years of service, dependability, outstanding service records, number of successful collars… The list was endless, but also useless. Because if facts had to face off with regulations, they had—finally—broken more rules than possibly even Captain Cragen would be willing to overlook. “We could get suspended or fired,” she said. “Or worse yet, Cragen could break us up. Give us different partners.” “And you think that’d be the worst thing to happen, for us to get new partners?” She tilted her head backwards, meeting his lopsided smile with one of her own. “We’ve tried it before, working apart. And… I don’t know. The cases are harder to deal with when we don’t work them together.” “Okay,” he said pensively, with a slow nod. “So, we’ll hope Cragen kicks us to the curb.” “Well.” She took in a breath, settling her head beneath his chin. “I’d do okay. I mean, I can always fall back on my waitressing skills. But you… How many want ads have you seen lately for a brooding, hot tempered, Irish Catholic?” “Funny,” he said, twirling a piece of her messed hair around his finger and giving a gentle tug that produced a quiet, “Ouch,” from her. “You know, that reminds me. You never told me.” “Told you?” He nuzzled the top of her head with his lips, leaving a quick kiss against her scalp. “Your first waitressing job, the one you had in college. You never told me what it was.” “I never planned to tell you,” she laughed, drawing her legs up towards her stomach. Maybe she should feel embarrassed, with her fishnet hose wadded on the floor beneath the smudged coffee table, her sweatpants hooked crookedly over her hips, and the burgundy-colored towel wrapped loosely around her chest. But in that moment it all felt natural, the inhibitions and awkwardness and drowsiness that followed sex. As if it was how they had spent every Saturday in the past, and how they would spend every one in the future. “What?” he persisted, “Did you work in a strip club or something? Does your dark past include topless dancing?” She rolled her eyes, groaning. “Those are the kinds of jobs the NYPD sends me to do, not anything I look for on my own.” “So, it was worse than Raspberry Vodka?” “It was worse.” “How much worse?” She arched an eyebrow, leaning her head into Elliot’s hand as he tickled a path down her cheek. “It was a stupid job that helped pay my college tuition.” “Uh huh, a stupid job. Where?” She glared up at him, knocking his hand away from her face. “You’re not gonna let this go, are you?” He shook his head, gathering her hair into a ponytail in the palm of his hand, slowly threading the long strands through his fingers. “You might as well tell me.” She grumbled with the first inkling that she was close to conceding, and leaned back into his soft tugs on her hair. “Tell me something first. You said I made it bearable, the times you had to be away from Kathy and the kids. But you didn’t say how. How’d I make something bearable that should’ve been unbearable every time?” He took in a breath, mulling over her question even though there wasn’t any need to think it through. The answer was immediate and absolute. “Because… There came a point, and I don’t even know when for sure it was, that I felt like I belonged more with you than at home.” He rested the tip of his chin against the top of her head, releasing another, heavier breath that ruffled the stray hairs that lined her part. “You became my comfort zone, even though I knew it was still supposed to be Kathy. But when you weren’t around, it was tougher for me to relax. What happened between Kath and me wasn’t because of you. It wasn’t even because of Kathy. It was because of me. I started to feel more of a…commitment, in some ways…to our partnership than towards my marriage. Because when you think about it, you and I have been just as much like a married couple as Kathy and I ever were. The commitment was there—is still there—it was just made through an oath we took to do our jobs rather than with marriage vows.” “No wonder Kathy’s never liked me,” she said. “She’s always liked you.” She raised her eyebrows, her laughter deep and throaty. Disbelieving. “She’s tolerated me, Elliot, and that’s been pretty tough for her to do most of the time.” “’kay, so I answered your question. Now answer mine.” Olivia sighed, the heavy breath foretelling her expectance of his teasing. “Uncle Mack’s Crab Shack,” she announced, cringing as his chuckles caused his chest to vibrate. “It was a seafood restaurant, and we had to wear these hats.” She raised her free hand to her head, outlining an invisible circle. “They, uh, they were baseball caps with these red crabs stuck on top of them.” “Uncle Mack’s—” “Crab Shack,” she finished, wincing. “He was a nice enough guy. Mack. Just kind of out of touch. The slogan he used for the restaurant was, ‘If you want crabs, you can get ‘em at Uncle Mack’s.” She chuckled as he did, burrowing her shoulders into his strong chest behind her. “It wasn’t bad enough that I had a crab on my head, but the nametag I had to wear said, ‘Hi, I’m Olivia. Ask me about our crabs.’ She dropped her head forward as Elliot’s laughter surrounded them. “And guys are such jerks. I’d be at a party or something, and some guy who’d been to the restaurant would recognize me, ask me to tell him about my crabs. Who knows how many dates that job cost me?” Elliot’s laughter faded, becoming replaced by a deep, exaggerated frown as he tugged on what was left of her ponytail, pulling her head back until her face met his. “But you never had ‘em, right? Crabs?” She slapped at his hand, pulling their cuffed arms across her chest. “This is why I didn’t want to tell you.” She squeezed his hand inside of hers, feeling his strong fingers close around hers, trying to memorize the moment. To lock it away despite her haze of delirium so that the memory would remain fresh and clear even after the loneliness once again set in. “It happened for me, too,” she said, staring down at their interlocked hands. “I’ve felt the same way. Committed.” He nodded, just once, afraid to offer any type of acknowledgment towards her admission, but even more afraid not to. What if she took it as a sign of rejection? What if she assumed—as she was prone to do—that his feelings had changed, or worse yet, that he had lied? What if— Jesus. He had never before met anyone who forced his mind to conjure up more ‘what if’ scenarios than Olivia did. “Don’t analyze it,” Olivia intuitively warned. “For right now, let’s just let it be what it is.” “For right now…” He nodded again, more sternly, with understanding. It wasn’t his feelings he needed to worry about her misinterpreting; it was her reaction—her feelings in general—that he had to worry about interpreting at all. “For right now,” she whispered. “Neither of us made any promises, right? So, for right now, today, I don’t want to think about anything else.” “And after today?” She raised her face towards his, placing a kiss on his down-turned lips. “Is Sunday, and we don’t have to make any decisions until then.” +++ Olivia stood frozen behind the open door, feeling every letter of the word coward scorch her skin as it became branded across her forehead. It was what she had become as soon as the quarter landed, heads up, in Elliot’s palm over an hour earlier. And as he pulled open the door, with his shirt buttoned crookedly and pants only half-zipped, she felt the letters become permanently emblazoned across her head. She remained hidden behind the barrier, her free hand locked around the top of the towel, lungs paralyzed, voice lost, and her cuffed hand positioned firmly at her side to keep Elliot’s arm from being seen. “Just how I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon,” Munch grumbled, dropping the small, silver key into Elliot’s outstretched hand. “Digging through drawer after drawer of God knows how many sex toys and empty condom wrappers. It’s obvious the degenerates who frequent our newest favorite night spot are the rich and elite, none of them seem to have acquired the skill of cleaning up after themselves.” He knocked twice on the center of the door, grinning wryly. “Afternoon, Olivia.” Tilting his head toward the barrier, his heavy brows dipping in response to the silence that answered him, he muttered, “Seems the faux fur cat has our tongue.” Olivia cringed. Why in the hell hadn’t she insisted that they call Fin? His mood would have been worse, but he wouldn’t have been any more anxious to make small talk than Elliot and she were. “Leave it alone, John,” Elliot warned, his hand finding Olivia’s and wrapping around it. “Thanks for bringing the key.” “Ah, ah,” Munch said, planting his hand in the center of the door. “It was a long drive through weekend traffic. Is a little common courtesy too much to ask? Maybe a drink, some conversation—” “Go home,” Elliot demanded, his tone void of the humor that was so prevalent in Munch’s voice. “Go home, mm-hmm,” Munch replied, nodding slowly, pensively. “Before I go, I just have to ask, how many chambers have you gone through so far?” Elliot shook his head, exhaustion sweeping over his tense face as he leaned a shoulder into the door. “How many chambers have you tempted fate with in this injudicious game of Russian Roulette you’re playing?” Munch continued. “Because once you start feeling overly confident, my friend, that’s when you get hit with the big bang. And from what I understand, you never even see it coming.” “No one’s feeling overly confident,” Elliot remarked, raising his free hand to his temple and rubbing a circle around his suddenly throbbing pulse point. “And if that includes you too, then do what you have to do. Talk to Cragen—” “You’ve heard the old saying,” Munch said, placing his index finger and thumb around the outer edge of his glasses and lifting them further up his thin nose. “The only things any of us have to do are pay taxes and make that one-way trip to the Great Beyond.” “Look, John. Liv and I don’t expect you to get into any trouble—” “And why should I?” Munch responded, a faint, sardonic smile once again lifting his lips. “Quite frankly, even if my partner dressed up in that Raspberry Vodka get up, he still wouldn’t do anything for me, and how we spent our time during the undercover assignment is clearly documented. Trust me, no one can accuse us of so much as passing an improper glance in the other’s direction. And, unfortunately, the captain didn’t instruct me to stay away from Detective Tutuola during off hours.” He arched an eyebrow, his smile steadily drooping. “My advice to you? Check that not so hypothetical smoking gun before you pull the trigger one more time. Because when you lose at Russian Roulette, there are no do-overs. The outcome is undeviating.” “Undeviating, yeah,” Elliot grumbled, the door already in motion and headed towards the doorframe as he added, “Thanks for the advice.” Olivia stared down at their connected arms, her gaze shifting steadily, swiftly, between the white fur that she had gotten used to tickling her skin and the inflexible, silver key in Elliot’s hand. And she wondered exactly what would represent another careless discharge of the hypothetical smoking gun? Unhooking the cuffs, the only things that had, in almost nine years’ worth of silence, been strong enough to introduce sound into Elliot’s and her relationship, or to continue being irresponsible by hanging onto, exploring, something that neither of them had yet been brave enough to give a name to. Was it lust? Infatuation? Horniness? Or maybe something as simple as loneliness? Her dark eyes shifted again, rising and meeting Elliot’s. “Guess we should take these off,” she said, the corners of her mouth trembling as she attempted, and failed, to smile. As Elliot slid the key into the thin hole that was half-buried beneath fur and unlatched the bracelet that hung around her wrist, she felt it begin again. The rumbling deep in the pit of her stomach that was easily identifiable as the aloneness that accompanied separation and that, at least during the first seconds that it occurred, made it nearly impossible to breathe. Just as the first one hundred and twenty awkward seconds after sex did. “So…” Elliot said as the bracelet fell away from his wrist. “You wanna., um.” He shrugged a shoulder, juggling the cuffs from hand to hand. “Feel like grabbing something to eat?” He glanced up, his sudden shyness turning to orneriness as he smiled. “I know this place that has great crabs.” “You’re never gonna let this go, are you?” Olivia moaned with a roll of her eyes. “Stealing one of Munch’s infamous words, it’ll be undeviating.” He chuckled as she did, and as their laughter died away, more with uneasiness than the comfort they had both felt minutes earlier nestled on the sofa, he leaned his broad shoulders into the door. Stuffing his hands into the front pockets of his blue jeans, his face tilted downward and eyes sneaking glancing at her when he thought she wouldn’t notice, he whispered only to himself, “It’s still Saturday.” “It’s still… Yeah.” She backed up to the wall, her knuckles whitening as she clutched the fold of the towel. “I should probably…” She motioned towards the bathroom with a roll of her shoulder. “I could use a shower, maybe a little… Time. I mean, it’s just that maybe we should think about what Munch said. We’ve spent the entire day breaking orders—” “It’s not the first time we’ve broken ‘em,” Elliot said, a tinge of amusement seeping into his voice. “Liv, look, I—” “Don’t apologize,” she said sternly, pushing off of the wall. “I don’t want an apology, Elliot. I don’t want you to feel sorry or responsible for any of this. I just, there’s a lot to think about. We both need to think about what we could be risking, and we need to decide if we’re willing to risk it. Because like Munch said, once it’s all said and done, there won’t be any turning back.” He nodded, pulling the cuffs, the white fur having become limp and trodden, out of his pocket and dropping them in her hand that still bore the telltale signs of their reckless Saturday, a faint, red circle around her wrist. “I am sorry, Olivia,” he said, pulling open the door and staring into the quiet, deserted hallway, “if any of this wasn’t what you wanted.” She stepped up behind him, standing close enough that her warm breaths wafted over the collar of his shirt and glided across the rigid muscles of his upper back. “Maybe that’s the problem,” she whispered, her hand replacing his around the edge of the door as he walked into the hallway. “It is what I wanted. I’m just not so sure it’s what either of us need right now.” He turned around in the center of the dimly lit corridor, facing her, but with his gaze focused on the lantern hooked to the wall beside her door. A soft glow bled out from behind its frosted glass panels, creating a black halo on the wall behind it. A perfectly symmetrical circle that had no beginning or end, no defined connecting point, no weak spot that threatened to break the continuance of the shadow. It was solid, and would continue to be so as long as the light was allowed to burn. “You know,” he said, his hands once again becoming lost in the shallow pockets of his jeans, “I don’t know what’s going on here, either. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, Liv. And maybe, I don’t know. Maybe I don’t wanna know.” He caught her stare with his narrowed eyes. “I don’t wanna know because I think it is what we need, both of us. For whatever reason, whatever excuse you want to use, I think it’s exactly what we both need right now.” “Marathon sex?” Olivia asked, leaning her chest into the edge of the door. “That’s what we need? Might be easier if we go to the gym the next time we need to work off some stress.” “Might be,” he agreed, his chin dropping downward. “But the sex isn’t what I was talking about. Maybe what we need is…” He took in a breath, his eyes shifting upwards and catching the muted glow of the light. “I’m not asking for anything that you’re not ready to give. I’m just asking for the chance to talk, to figure all this out.” “Talk.” She bowed her head, hiding her smile, her confusion, and gripping the blunt edge of the door to stop herself from dragging him back inside her apartment. “Eight years being the strong, silent type, and now… What’s happened to you, Elliot? What, did you spend all of your time watching Doctor Phil while I was in Oregon?” He shrugged a shoulder. “Not quite as fun as how you spent your free time, but you’ve gotta admit the guy does give some good advice.” Olivia chuckled, closing the door a fraction and blocking from his sight the plush towel that had become slack around her chest. “And to think, it took a pair of fishnet hose to bring this side out of you.” “Not the hose themselves,” Elliot disagreed as he turned his back to her and headed towards the elevator at the far end of the hall. “It’s more like, what I finally saw once they took shape.” +++ Olivia sprawled out on the sofa, her sweatpants and towel having been replaced with jeans and a t-shirt and her hair hanging in damp waves around her shoulders. With a glass of wine cupped in one hand, the red liquid inside of it barely darker than the shade that circled her wrist, she reached beneath the still-smudged coffee table and retrieved the remote control that had been hastily discarded earlier. When exactly it fell onto the floor, she didn’t know. The day, the past twenty-four hours, had melted into a blur of touches and orgasms and unsettledness and wanting more, and she punched her thumb against the on/off button in an attempt to give her fuzzy mind something to focus on. At least something other than Elliot. She nestled the back of her head into the cushions, not feeling the supple, stuffed material, only feeling the rigidity of Elliot’s chest muscles that she had used for support hours earlier as they waited for Munch. After their third time of blindly pulling the trigger and hoping that their luck would hold and offer them the respite of one more empty chamber. Pressing her finger against the remote, she flipped aimlessly through channel after channel, not giving herself the time to identify or become interested in any of the programs that popped up on the screen. She groaned as her cell phone began to chime, and searched out the room until finding it lying beneath the table where she had found the remote. With a sigh, one that hindered her movements far more than fueled them, she grabbed at the floor until her fingers wrapped around the ringing culprit. Flipping open the top cover, releasing another heavy breath into the mouthpiece, she whispered a tired, “Benson,” as she settled back into the malleable cushions. “You know, I was thinking… It’s Sunday somewhere.” Olivia couldn’t stop herself from smiling, and agreed with a faint nod before saying, “Yeah, I guess it is.” “Got any plans tonight?” “Elliot.” She punched the remote again, the television screen fading to black. “I thought we decided—” “We’ve gotta eat, right? And that crab place I told you about, we could be there in an hour.” “An hour, uh huh. That’s if we actually make it out of my apartment.” “We’ll make it.” A beat of silence passed between them, his born from hopefulness and hers from fear-filled reluctance. “C’mon, Liv. Ask me about the crabs.” “Jerk,” she mumbled through chuckles, dropping her legs over the edge of the sofa. “If I go with you, I’m not wearing the hose.” “No hose, ‘kay. But, uh.” Another lapse of silence dictated their next few seconds, before Elliot asked, “What about the bra?” She took a drink of wine, closing her eyes as the warm liquid slid down her throat. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll wear it, or maybe I won’t. But don’t think you’re gonna get lucky enough to find out.” “I’d never think that.” Olivia gulped down another drink, her teeth sinking into her tongue as she forced down the liquid. “Okay. I’m asking. Tell me about the crabs.” “Pick you up in twenty minutes?” “Make it thirty.” She closed the phone, dropping it onto the coffee table and pulling herself off of the sofa. Heading down the hallway, she stepped over the pile of mementos and keepsakes and trash that still lay untouched. As she landed on the other side of it, the worn baby book, still balanced lopsidedly on top, caught her eye. Snatching it up, she opened the cover, letting her hand slide over the first sleek page before flipping hastily to the center of the book. She reached into the pile, digging out a nearly dried out ink pen whose casing was tooth-marked and scuffed. She dragged the tip across the glossy page, realizing for the first time how much like her mother’s handwriting hers actually looked. As if it had been done hurriedly, not without thought being applied to every curve and loop and line, but as if there was something more important that needed done other than recording milestones and feelings. And she finally understood, as her mother possibly always had, that first steps had to be taken alone, because they were always the hardest. They were both preceded and followed by faltering, maybe even falling all together. They were experimental, ones that held the potential to lead you in the right direction or headfirst into a wall. But they were ones that were necessary. And when the time was right, your footing would be found and walking could begin. Dropping the ballpoint back onto the heap, she stared down at the words—the first words, her own words—that chronicled a once undocumented life. I took my first step at age on a Saturday. +++ The End.