Josh felt like a fool. His new partner had said “masquerade party” and “wear whatever,” so he’d worn a cheap eye mask and his usual suit. Rebecca had failed to mention that it was a full-on costume party.
The upper floor of the townhouse throbbed with princesses, devils, cats, doctors, firefighters, and Pennywises. With a sigh, he flipped through the pages of the guest book on a table at the top of the stairs. In the spirit of anonymity, everyone had listed only their costumes.
He scribbled “Dumb Ass” on the next blank line and entered the living room.
After fortifying himself with a beer from the open bar, he wandered along the periphery of the crowd, his headache pounding in time with the music. Why had he agreed to this again?
Thirty minutes. If he just stayed for half an hour, Rebecca couldn’t complain, and he could go home.
He spotted her across the room, dressed as Wonder Woman. Fitting, since she had plenty of experience dodging bullets from her days working undercover. As he pushed through the throng with feigned patience, a woman’s voice stopped him cold.
“Darren, don’t,” she said, the words low and anxious.
Pretending to take a drink, Josh surreptitiously scanned the people around him, locking in on a mermaid with dark natural curls floating around her head and lots of gleaming bronze skin exposed by her shimmery bodysuit.
His attention narrowed to the beefy hand gripping her upper arm.
“Come on, baby,” the douche in pirate garb crooned, holding her captive. “You don’t have to play hard to get.”
She tugged away unsuccessfully. “I’m not your baby, and I’m not playing hard to get. You’re drunk and I’m not interested. Let. Me. Go.”
The man’s mouth curled into a sneer and Josh tensed. Should he step in?
The woman grabbed Darren’s crotch hard enough to make him gasp and release her, his face going bright red as it crumpled in pain. “If I see you again,” she said quietly, “I’m going to the cops.”
“Score one for Atlantis,” Josh said under his breath.
The mermaid let go and wiped her hand on a glittery green hip.
Darren snarled, eyes full of daggers. “Dumb bitch, I am a cop.”
“What a coincidence, so am I,” Josh said, stepping up behind the woman, but not touching her. He liked his balls just the way they were, thank you very much. “Which means if you don’t walk away now, I can arrest you for assault.”
She’d been handling things, but this guy looked too stupid and too drunk to take a hint for long. Better to cut him off now before his behavior escalated.
“Josh?” The woman he hadn’t seen in nearly two years gazed up at him, her brown eyes wide behind the green sash across her face. “What are you doing here?”
His heart bounced in his chest and he blinked. Carly. He flushed from head to toe, but gave her an easy smile. “Surprise. I wrapped up the Sanchez case early.” Just go with it.
“Oh.” A quick study, she wrapped her silky arm around his and smiled back, making him a little breathless. Glaring at Darren, she ordered him to leave the party, and then turned her back on the asshole and led Josh through the throng, out the back slider onto the balcony.
The air was crisp but not cold, tinged with the scent of all the fires raging around southern California. “What are you really doing here?” She closed the door, muting the pulsing music and cacophony of conversation.
“Rebecca invited me.”
Carly shook her head as if he were speaking another language.
“Rebecca. My new partner, the host, and I presume the owner—or renter—of this house.”
Carly’s lush lips parted. “Josh, this is my house.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You could’ve just called, you know.”
“What?” He was starting to sound like an idiot now. “I didn’t even know you were in LA,” he stammered. God, he hated being on the defensive. “Last I heard you’d moved to DC.”
Something flickered in her eyes and she shrugged. “I missed the ocean.”
I missed you. He managed not to say it out loud, but maybe she could see it in his eyes, because her body stiffened. Swallowing a sigh, he pulled up the address he’d entered in his contacts for Rebecca and held it out his phone show Carly. “Is this where I am? Am I at 700 south instead of north?”
She grudgingly glanced at the screen. “No, that’s here.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, more to himself than to her.
Her shrewd gaze could’ve cut steel. “Are you stalking me?”
“No. Jesus, Carly.” He rubbed his throbbing forehead. The headache had returned with full vengeance. “I swear. This is the address Rebecca gave me on Monday.” He opened the door, forcing himself to take a step toward the pulsating crush. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. It was good to see you again, though. I’m glad you’re doing well.”
She was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever known. Maybe not in the classical sense, but he’d found her captivating since the day he’d met her at her sister’s—his late partner’s—thirtieth birthday party.
When her sister was killed, Carly had blamed him, even though—or maybe because—he hadn’t been with his partner that day. Hell, he’d blamed himself too.
Or maybe the danger of his job had suddenly become too real for her to handle. Either way, he didn’t take it well when she pulled away, and they’d been estranged when they needed each other most. By the time Carly overcame her grief enough to seek him out, he was dating someone else, his pride too stung to give them another chance.
Biggest mistake of his life.
He turned back to her, his stomach churning with ill-advised hope.
“You have a headache.” She could always tell.
“Come here,” she whispered, gesturing him to shut the door.
He did as asked, following her deeper into the shadows of the balcony, out of sight. He’d follow her anywhere for a second chance.
Sliding the mask from his face, she let it drop to the floor, then did the same with hers, revealing all of her lovely features. Soft, cool hands skimmed along his temples as her fingers slid into his hair.
He bit back a moan. How many times had he dreamt of her touch since their breakup?
When she began massaging his forehead with her thumbs, a groan rumbled from his throat, unstoppable as the ocean. She was the only one who’d ever been able to ease the pain. Don’t stop, don’t stop.
Closing his eyes, he gripped the railing so he wouldn’t fall to his knees as his muscles turned slack.
After several minutes, she stopped, but didn’t remove her hands. The pain had receded to a minor annoyance.
He opened his eyes.
Carly stared up at him, lights from inside the house flickering in her warm brown gaze.
Something in his chest twisted. “Thank you,” he said, the words light enough to float away on the cool breeze.
For a moment, he was lost in her, lost in the memories. Holding hands on the beach, riding bikes on The Strand, strolling the grounds of Huntington Library, spending a Sunday morning in bed, eating Italian food in West Hollywood when she landed her first design client.
Buying a ring he’d never get a chance to offer.
The old hurt pricked at his chest and he tried to step back, but she didn’t release him.
“Who is she?” Carly asked.
“Who?” His voice was gravel and sand.
Her eyes searched his. “The one who makes you pull away.”
“It’s you.” He laid his hands over hers and moved them gently from his face. “The memory of everything we had and lost. It’s too much.” His throat tightened.
“I’m sorry.” Her pretty face pinched as she gripped his fingers. “I’m so sorry.”
He just stared at her, trying to understand.
“What about…?” Her nose wrinkled.
“Julia?” He winced and took a deep breath. Man up, Josh. “She finally realized I was still in love with my ex.”
Carly’s eyes widened and she went perfectly still. Then she tugged him toward her, slowly closing the gap, seconds ticking by like hours until their lips finally, finally touched.
Everything in his body turned warm and liquid. Just like before, they clicked together like two pieces broken from a whole.
And then like a film reel running at triple speed, they surged together, lips, hands, bodies touching, exploring in a frenzy of ache and need. So much lost time to make up for. So many regrets.
She parted from him long enough to say, “Stay with me.”
“If I have my way, I’m never leaving you again.”
On Friday morning, Josh strode into work on a high. Carly was back in his life, in his arms, and this time he was never going to let her go.
He found Rebecca leaning against his desk with a Cheshire grin. “How was the party?”
He’d forgotten all about her role in last night’s reunion. He was beyond grateful, but… “How’d you know?” he asked, shoving his lunch bag into a drawer.
She shrugged, her look smug.
Sawyer walked by then. “Hey, Josh. My husband made pumpkin scones. They’re in the break room.”
“Nice. But, c’mon, don’t be rude.”
Sawyer’s eyebrow rose. “What do you mean?”
“It wouldn’t kill you to talk to her.” He gestured to Rebecca, but she was no longer there.
“To who?” Sawyer glanced around.
“Rebecca.” He scanned the office. How had she snuck off like that? “Where’d she go?”
Sawyer gave him a funny look. “Dude, you’ve been standing there by yourself this whole time.”
“Who’s Rebecca? Your latest girlfriend?”
“No, my latest partner. She was here all last week. How did you not meet her?”
Sawyer frowned. “You feeling okay?”
“What do you mean?”
She put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a concerned look. “Josh, there’s no one named Rebecca working in the precinct. As far as I know, there never has been.” Sawyer studied him like he was a key piece of evidence. “Are you getting enough sleep?”
His head felt thick. What the hell was going on?
Something over Sawyer’s shoulder caught his eye. Rebecca stood in the background, smiling and waving.
Before his eyes, his partner shimmered like a mirage and disappeared.