Cord Rawlings lifted the bottle of cheap whiskey to his lips and drained the last drops. He wouldn’t say he was drunk, simply numb to everything around him.
He’d spent all evening in Rockford, Illinois, holed up in a room at a roadside motel, drinking, and still the pain hurt as if someone had plunged a knife deep into his chest.
Would the troubling memories ever fade—like the face of his partner Vincent Diaglo had?
He forced himself to swallow past the burning in his throat as he slammed his fist into the lumpy bed mattress. His self-contempt was all consuming. He blamed himself for Vince’s death. He should have been the one in the car that exploded, not his partner. Now, all Cord pictured when he thought about his friend was his charred remains—not the strong, dedicated cop he’d been.
The image in itself made Cord feel dead inside.
Maybe he should just end it all. Right here, right now.
He shook his head. That would be taking the coward’s way out. Something Vince would never have done.
Cord flung the empty bottle. The container landed with a dull thud onto the stained carpet.
Vincent would have been disgusted with what he’d become, and that bothered Cord more than anything. Vince and his wife had been like family.
God, he could still see Grace’s pale, tear-streaked face at the funeral as the graveside attendants lowered the shiny silver casket into the ground, her hands white-knuckling the American flag that had draped it only moments before.
He hadn’t been able to face her that day. Guilt had eaten at him with a vengeance. He’d watched from a distance, afraid she’d blame him for not being there to save her husband—to save the only friend he’d ever had.
The morning of the funeral, he’d envisioned Grace’s misty green eyes filled with loathing, eyes that had haunted him from the moment he’d met her, and known facing her would be impossible. Burying his partner and losing her respect, all in the same day. No way could he have dealt with that.
Instead, he’d run away and buried himself in a bottle.
Shaking off his alcohol-induced buzz, Cord forced the images from his mind. He refused to think about Grace any longer. Every time he did, his stomach knotted. What he needed was another bottle of whiskey. Maybe then he’d pass out.
Loud banging on the motel door had him going for his gun, instinct from years on the force.
Who the hell could that be? No one knew he was there.
He stuffed the .38 into the back waistband of his pants, then stumbled to the door. “Yeah?” When he got no answer, he shouted, “What do you want?”
“I was wondering if you needed some company?” a female voice asked. “The desk clerk said you were alone.”
Cord finger combed his shaggy blond hair and rolled his eyes. He’d have a little talk with the man later since it was unethical and illegal for a man in the clerk’s position to give out that kind of information, especially to a hooker. Eight years in the line of duty taught him that.
“Come on, mister. I’m just looking for someone to spend some time with.”
He unlatched the chain and opened the door, not surprised to find a scantily dressed young woman leaning against the wall, studying her long, hot pink nails. A face caked with makeup peeked out from under stringy blonde hair—a cheap synthetic wig from the looks of it—the whole getup worn to conceal her age. Cord had worked Vice, knew all about prostitution rings and how they preyed on young runaways.
“So, would you like some company?” She purposely tugged at her tube top, revealing more of her creamy white breasts.
“How old are you?” Cord was sure she’d lie. He’d seen it all too often. Most of the girls walking the streets today were fifteen or sixteen-year-olds with no means of support other than selling their bodies.
“I’m twenty-two. So, what do you say? How about a date?”
He looked her up and down, angry when his body responded to the offer. It had been a long time since he’d indulged in some gratuitous sex, and with a bottle of whiskey in him, she didn’t look all that bad. Would almost be pretty, if she’d lose some of the makeup. What color was the hair under that hideous wig?
She licked her bright pink lips, then made a suggestive play with her tongue.
Cord swallowed hard. The erotic gesture spoke volumes of her sexual experience, but it still didn’t make her legal. “You wouldn’t happen to have any ID?”
Her black-outlined eyes narrowed. “No. Why?”
He leaned on the doorframe and crossed his arms over his bare chest. “Because I’m not sure you’re as old as you say you are.”
Her eyes widened, a sure giveaway he was right.
She wasn’t twenty-two, but just how young was she?
“Why does my age have to do with anything? If you’re looking for someone your own, I could always call my mother.”
Cord scrubbed at the three days worth of stubble on his jaw and smiled at her insult. Hell, he probably did look older than his thirty-two years. All he’d done for the past six months was drink. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Tammy. So, what do you say? I’ll give you a quick blow for twenty.”
The offer sounded tempting, but it didn’t sit well with Cord, especially in light of his past profession.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Tammy, I think you should reconsider your line of work. I’m going to give you twenty bucks. Go get something to eat, my treat.”
“You mean, you don’t want anything in return?” A deep line creased her forehead. From the looks of it, he’d surprised her. She was clearly not used to getting something for nothing.
He stuffed the money in her hand. “No. Just promise you’ll think about what I said.”
“Sure, whatever.” She turned and sashayed down to the end of the hallway, knocking on another door.
Cord shook his head, stepped inside his room, and closed the door behind him.
That patron would probably take her up on her offer. Nothing surprised him. Tammy’s actions were as clear as day. She wasn’t planning to go home until money and bodily fluids were exchanged.
Dropping onto the bed, Cord was determined not to think about Tammy and her next trick, or Grace Diaglo, for that matter. He knew what he had to do.
Tomorrow, after he sobered up, he’d go back to Chicago. It was time to face his demons.
* * * *
“Grace Diaglo, would you please stop worrying about everyone else for a change?” Emily pointed toward a full-length mirror hanging on the wall. “Look at yourself. You’ve lost more than ten pounds. Have you heard the word anorexia?”
Grace hung half a dozen dresses they’d priced on a rack in front of her, trying to ignore her sister. Emily had become a broken record the last few weeks. “Are you planning to do any work today?”
She stared at Emily, hoping she’d stop hounding her and help her restock the inventory. Her sister’s ragging was hardly positive reinforcement. Her weight had become a moot point after the umpteenth time she’d heard about it.
Emily’s gaze pierced hers. “Since Vincent’s death, all you’ve done is volunteer—from baking cookies for the annual policemen’s fundraisers, to feeding the homeless. Anything to keep yourself out of the house. You need to put Vincent to rest, Grace, and move on with your life. If you don’t, and soon, I’m afraid you never will. Do you want to end up all alone, your only company a houseful of stray cats?”
Grace needed to put a stop to this. Her sister would go on and on if she didn’t. “I’m fine, Em. Please don’t worry about me.”
“How can I not? You look sickly.”
“Thanks. I appreciate the kind words.” Grace tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, hair that had become as dull and lifeless as everything else seemed.
Emily wasn’t the only one who didn’t like what she saw. Grace hated the way she looked. But Vincent’s death had sent her into a deep depression. Even antidepressants hadn’t helped. Her husband had been her life for three years. She’d loved him with all her heart, and since his death, she’d had no appetite. All she wanted to do was go to sleep and wake up from this awful nightmare. Have Vincent back. But that wasn’t going to happen. He was gone, and her unconscious fasting wouldn’t change that. Nothing would, no matter how hard she prayed.
She had to start eating again or she’d get sick. Something she couldn’t afford when she had a shop to run. Emily would be out on maternity leave soon. That would leave no one to run things if they were both in the hospital.
Grace inhaled, the scent of lavender and rose sachets from a basket on top the stand inundating her senses. The late morning sun streamed in through the long, wall-length windows, helping to dispel the chill her thoughts had brought on.
She glanced around. Lightly Seasoned was all she had left. Thank God it was making a profit, not an easy feat for a newly opened business. It was hard to believe that she and Emily had turned their dreams into a reality. They’d made the consignment shop bright and welcoming to everyone who came in, working long hours to give it a personal touch, which had obviously paid off.
Grace sighed. Time to get back to work.
She picked up a few navy blue dresses in different styles from a box on the floor and placed them together on the revolving rack.
She glanced toward her sister and smiled. “I know you’re worried about me, Em, and I love you for that. But I’ll be fine. I just need to stay busy.”
“You need to do the opposite and slow down, Grace. And for God’s sake, eat something.”
“If I promise to gain some weight, will you lay off awhile?”
“It’s a start, but you need to pace yourself, too. Chicago PD can do without your brownies for one event.”
Grace’s hands unconsciously clenched at her sides. “But that’s the only way I can keep in touch with Vincent’s friends. I don’t want to lose them, too.”
“I hate to say this, Grace, but perhaps letting go of those people will allow you to move on.”
Grace’s patience slipped. “I can’t do that. Vincent wouldn’t like it. He was such a dedicated police officer. He’d want me to stay involved.”
Emily shook her head again, her strawberry blonde bob swinging in her face. Grace’s hair used to be the same vibrant shade before Vincent had passed away.
“I thought you wanted to have children. You can’t do that with a ghost.”
Grace didn’t understand why her sister wanted her to lose more than she’d already lost. What was wrong with helping out at the police functions? Wasn’t that a good thing? Weren’t people supposed to get involved, help wherever they could? Emily acted as if she was doing something wrong.
Heck, she could have gone in another direction after Vincent died. She could have picked up a bottle the way his partner had. Everyone knew how far he’d fallen. Made a point of telling her that little tidbit. She hadn’t seen Cord in months. He hadn’t even bothered to pay his respects at the funeral.
That in itself still hurt and made her angry.
When she’d heard Cord resigned from the force two weeks after Vincent’s death, she’d been shocked.
Why hadn’t he told her he was leaving? He had become family when he’d been partnered with her husband. For two years, Cord and Vincent had been inseparable, at work and off duty. But for whatever reason, Cord had disappeared without saying a word to her. Another painful blow. First losing her husband, then him. He should have stuck around to help her through the months of missing Vincent with every breath she took. But Cord hadn’t cared enough about her to do that.
“When are you going to bury Vincent, Grace?”
Emily’s question drew Grace back to their conversation. One she was putting an end to right now.
“What is this? Why all the sudden resentment for Vincent?”
“I don’t resent him, Grace. I just think it’s time for you to let go.”
Grace held onto her temper. “I’ll decide when it’s time to pack Vince’s things and say goodbye. Until I do, I want you to respect my wishes and let me deal with this in my own way, all right?”
Emily walked over and hugged her. “Okay. But promise me you’ll take better care of yourself.”
Grace pulled back, smiling. “I promise. Can we get the last of these dresses hung now, so we can go have lunch?”
Her sister’s round face lit up as she patted her oversized belly. “Now that’s music to my ears.”
* * * *
Cord sat slumped in his car, watching the front door to Striker’s Grill. This was the first time since Vincent’s death he’d been back.
Jack Neil was inside. How the man had the nerve to show his face in a cop hangout was beyond him. Was he there to meet with one of their officers? To offer money under the table?
Frustrated, he threaded his hands through his hair and turned away. The man made him sick. Neil ran Chicago’s biggest car chop outfit in the area and was known to bribe cops to look away. Before Vince died, Cord had really wanted to nail the creep.
He glanced back at the café and noticed a woman walking into Striker’s entrance. She looked familiar.
Behind her stood a pregnant woman.
He squinted to get a better look.
That meant the woman in front of her had to be Grace. Cord’s heart revved like a wide-open boat motor.
What had happened to her? She looked rail thin.
He swallowed, watching through the restaurant window as she made her way down the aisle to a booth.
It was Grace. He’d know that profile anywhere. He’d memorized it the first time Vince introduced them. No woman had ever looked so enticing. The day he’d met her, her blonde hair had been pulled back, emphasizing her incredible cheekbones. She had the face of an angel, eyes that captured the soul, and full, pouty lips made for hours and hours of kissing.
Hell, she’d been the only woman to make him even notice that about a woman. He desired her even now—even when guilt ate at him for doing so.
How many nights had he laid in bed thinking about those lips, about her striking, light green eyes beckoning him, only to be reminded that she was his partner’s wife?
Maybe deep down he’d willed Vincent to die to have her.
The recrimination ate at Cord’s gut. He was the one who’d deserved to die.
He closed his eyes.
Before he could allow his self-destructive ways to get the better of him again, he had a job to do. He had to uncover the dirty little secrets buried deep inside Chicago’s Ninth Precinct and find out who killed his partner.