Blundering his way forward in his relationship with Nevada Agent Nick O'Malley, Riverside Detective Brandon Carr brings his daughter, Shayna, to Las Vegas to meet Nick. Nick has his own reasons for pushing Brandon toward a deeper commitment. But when the unthinkable happens, what every cop knows ends in tragedy, can Brandon hold it together long enough to solve the crime? As Brandon spirals into the hell of being a cop and a distraught parent will his love of Nick, and Nick's love for him, be enough to see them through? It's all or nothing and they can't afford to lose.
Nick eyed the baby-blue, slope-hooded, four-wheeled box taking up the end of his driveway with unbridled suspicion. Drawling out, "What the fuck is that?" as he glared at Brandon, Nick looped one arm across his chest and cocked his hip.
He"d told Brandon just to come over and let himself in with his key when he hit town'the key Nick had made for Brandon back in October. Still, Nick expected to hit home and find the Harley parked out front, not a blue minivan.
Between the vehicle and a pile of luggage, Nick's driveway bordered on impassible. Nick parked his Kawasaki on the lip of the cement, by the back bumper. Just as soon as Brandon's luggage got stowed, the bike went into the garage. No way was he leaving his bike out all night. Especially not in Vegas. Especially not in Vegas in December; not with the cold wind carrying the hint of rain in its touch. A winter thundershower and the bike would be toast. If no one stole it. Nick didn't live in the best part of town.
Brandon snagged a duffle from the rear seat, stepped back and slid the door shut. "What?" he mumbled as he turned.
Pointing, like it wasn't the huge, hulking and completely obvious monstrosity that it was, Nick hissed. "The thing in my driveway." Although, scarily enough, the van fit the neighborhood quite well: one time suburbia sliding into inner city disrepair.
Brandon looked at the minivan then looked back at Nick. "It's a car, Nicky." He tossed the bag on a pile of suitcases that looked like it might do for a month instead of the week they"d had planned. And since most of the cases were pink leopard print, Nick figured those must belong to Brandon's daughter, Shayna.
While he might be gay, Brandon certainly wasn't swish.
Brandon's daughter and her luggage were part of the plan. Not the best plan, but the only feasible one under the circumstances. Nick"d been the one prodding Brandon, since August, to step up to the responsibility plate and spend more time with his daughter. He couldn't very well bitch when Brandon's ex asked him to take Shayna for the week between Christmas and New Year's. Well, he could bitch, but not to Brandon's face. And it was either have Brandon and his daughter come to Vegas or not see Brandon for yet another month.
There were a lot of reasons why not seeing Brandon wouldn't work.
"It's a minivan," Nick drawled out the correction. "Four doors of soccer-mom hell." Shifting his weight to the other hip, Nick asked what seemed to be the obvious question. "Why?" He had suspicions about the reason, but he wanted to hear it out of Brandon's mouth.
"I bought the thing off my stepbrother, Jacob, for fifteen hundred." Brandon shrugged. "It belonged to his wife, Carol."
Nick shook his head. Trust Brandon to sidestep the question. "I didn't ask how"but why? What compelled you to go out and buy a Yuppie mobile?" Nick stepped back and considered the whole picture. Brandon stood in his typical attire: jeans, biker boots, T-shirt and black leather jacket. The tips from the pattern of his full back tribal tattoo were visible at the collar of his shirt. A series of rings strung through the edge of his left ear matched the bar in his left eyebrow. Behind Brandon hulked the ten-year-old minivan. It was probably the most discordant set of images Nick could imagine.
"You," he drew out the word as he pointed first at Brandon then the vehicle, "are as far from Yuppie as a Goth cop can be. Your tattoos alone should bar you from ever owning a car like this." Rolling his eyes for emphasis, he added, "Didn't it like blow a fuse when you tossed Everything Dies, Black Number One or, hell, just about anything you"ve downloaded from Type-O Negative on the CD."
"Why did I buy a piece of crap that I can't stand?" As Brandon crossed his arms over his chest he snorted and shook his head. "Dian's exact words, "You put my daughter on the back of that damn bike of yours and ride to Vegas, I will hunt you down, cut your balls off and feed "em to the dog." So Carol just got a new station wagon and I offered to buy this off Jacob."
"You baby your bike." Not quite understanding the thought process of Brandon's ex, Nick shook his head. "You could eat off the goddamn engine it's so clean. This thing's, what, ten, twelve years old?" He kicked a tire and was surprised when the van didn't collapse into a pile of rust and spare parts. "Gotta have at least sixty thousand miles on it""
Brandon interjected, "Close to one hundred."
"A hundred thousand miles on it." Holy crap that was a lot of mileage for an American built tank. "It's beat up as all hell. How many accidents has it been in?" Dings and nicks dotted the paint and the front driver's side bumper was crumpled up. "Your ex would rather have you take some junker you don't care about across the desert than your bike?"
With a snort, Brandon leaned against the side of the van. "Look, one thing you never do is get between a Jewish mom and what she believes is right by her kids." He laughed. "Don't ever doubt that if I defied her, Dian would castrate me and when she did it, the blade would be dull."
Looking around, Nick asked the obvious question. "Ah, so where's the little demon spawn?" Evidence of Shayna's existence littered his driveway, but so far he hadn't seen her.
"Inside," Brandon waved at the house, 'somewhere."
"You know," Nick stepped up close, almost nose to nose, and teased, "I don't see you as Jewish."
Brandon bumped Nick's knee with his own. "I don't see you as Catholic."
"Point taken." God, Brandon smelled good: cloves, leather, and a faded hint of cologne. Nick leaned into his body just a hair more, not quite touching but close. "We"re both lapsed former whatevers." Maybe he should just pin Brandon to the van and give him a real Vegas welcome. Make sure Brandon's ex hadn't already cut off his balls"at least literally. She seemed to have done a fine job on the mental end. Unfortunately, a hard-core make out session would probably have to wait. The whole kid-lurking-about-somewhere put a damper on his hormones.
Nick stepped back and ran one hand through his hair, trying to put his thoughts into words. "Which brings up another point. I haven't, like, bought anything special. I mean, you mentioned, you know, last night," he groused, 'thank you so much for the advance warning 'that Dian is a lot more, ah, into the whole cultural/religious life. Are we going to get in trouble with, like, food and stuff?"
"Naw," Brandon shrugged like it didn't matter. "Dian's observant, but not completely Frum." Apparently that meant something, but Nick was clueless as to what. "She ain't gonna freak if the milk's in the same fridge as the meat."
There were rules about refrigerators? "Huh?"
"She don't expect me to keep kosher." Another shrug, then Brandon stuffed his hands in his back pockets. "I got some rules," his tone sounded like he"d gotten an earful beyond some rules, "written out: beef franks, no cheeseburgers, and the dishwasher's good enough for sanitizing. Dian says Shayna's practically a vegetarian anyway, doesn't like meat much. Don't worry, we're good."
"Okay," Nick grumbled. "I'll take your word on it, but I'm going to be so completely freaked out on this." He wished he could be mad at Brandon for putting him in this position, but it was his own damn fault. Step up to the plate; be more responsible, he kept prodding. And Brandon"d been making little baby steps toward that. Then Dian got hit with training at the same time as her new husband had to go back to New York for business"and for the first time she"d actually thought of Brandon to help out.
Nick's own damn fault and he"d have to live with it. Still, it was hard enough knowing he had to play their relationship down because of his pint-sized houseguest. The whole kosher thing added another layer of stress to the whole visit. "I mean, maybe we should just stick to paper plates or something?"
"Look, Nicky." Brandon reached out and gripped his shoulder. After a squeeze, he used the touch to pull Nick in closer. Almost whispering, he reassured, "I'm the complete and utter fuck-up of the ex-husband." One of his come-hither smiles flashed and Nick's annoyance faded under the onslaught. "I get Shayna back to Grover Beach with brushed hair, bathed more than twice and in one piece-we could feed Princess ham and cheese sandwiches the entire week and Dian would consider it a roaring success."
Any effort was better than no effort. Dian probably gave Brandon more leeway than she might if he"d been around more. Most likely she didn't want to scare him off of his tentative steps to reconnect with his daughter. Nick had never met the woman, but since Brandon never trashed talked her and she seemed enthusiastic about the attempt, she possibly was a reasonable person.
Even with the van thing.
"You know," Nick grinned, "the van kinda suits you."
Brandon choked, "What?"
"Yeah," with two fingers, Nick goosed Brandon in the ribs, "matches your baby blue eyes there."
Brandon jumped. "Get over here, Nicky." With his hand already on Nick's shoulder, he managed to twist around and wrap his arm around Nick's neck. "I'm going to kill you ," he taunted as they wrestled a bit.
Brandon's body was warm in the cold afternoon. "Getting rough with me?" Nick taunted. He didn't, however, resist much. "You know I like that." Stepping back a little, Nick managed to push his ass against Brandon's hip. He ground into the touch. "I sure as hell know you like that."
Brandon pushed him away. "Quit it, Nicky."
"You started it." Nick pointed out the obvious as he straightened his winter-weight street-style motorcycle jacket. As a concession to high desert cold, matching overpants covered his business slacks. Wasn't quite the slick, crotch rocket biker look he"d prefer, but Brandon had seen him in far worse shape. At least he"d been able to score a set in black and red to match the jacket with the red demon face on the back. Wouldn't want to trash the look completely.
"Fuckhead." Brandon thumped the back of Nick's head as he backed away.
"Okay, I can fuck you with my head." Nick tugged off his riding gloves before shoving them in his pocket. "And the rest of my cock, too." He grinned.
"Stop." It was Brandon's turn to growl. His came off more threatening than gruff. "Last thing I want is for Shayna to overhear something like that and go spouting off to her mom."
"Sooner or later," Nick grabbed one of the bags and slung it over his shoulder. His helmet, resting on top of the baggage, got tucked under his arm. Then he reached for the handle on a wheeled suitcase. "You're probably going to have to say something to Dian, you know about you and me? Didn't she ask about why you were spending a week in Vegas with another guy?"
"I don't think she even thought to ask about that. I mean, I told her we"d planned this trip a while back and you"re one of my best law enforcement buds." He shrugged. "And, you know, Shayna apparently started bitching about getting left with her two baby brothers and her aunt Marion. Marion treats her like she's still four. I think Dian was just relieved to give Shayna an option and stop the whining." Somehow Brandon managed to tuck a duffle and a rolled up matching sleeping bag under his arms while toting his own leather backpack and another one of Shayna's bags toward the back door. "And on the whole coming out to Dian? Maybe, someday," Brandon hedged. "But when she finds out, I want it coming out of my mouth not Princess-Phone-Stuck-In-Her-Ear in there." Nick just shook his head and followed.
Once inside, Nick asked about the new nickname, "Phone in her ear?" He hooked the small bag he carried on the handle of the suitcase before plunking his helmet on the counter. Shucking his jacket, he tossed that over one of his high backed kitchen chairs. "What do you mean?"
"Shit," Brandon dumped the luggage in the center of the kitchen and leaned against the table. "Dian brought her down yesterday, on her way to San Diego." With his other hand he made a swooshing motion down and out. "Shayna breezes past me, flops on the couch, flips on cartoons, grabs the cordless and says, "I got to call my friend Beth." An hour later, I'm like, "get the fuck off the phone." I mean, I didn't use that word, but what the hell can two nine-year-olds talk about for an hour? They"re like watching the same cartoon and telling each other about it. I didn't think that started until they were sixteen or something."
"Don't look at me on that." Nick laughed and dropped into one of the chairs. As he stripped off the overpants, he pointed out, "You, at least, are a dad. I don't even got the title."
"Well, expect your phone bill to be like triple." Brandon hooked another chair with his boot and pulled it out. As he sat down, backwards, he hooked his arms over the back and rested his chin on the spine. "I'll try and keep her off, but you know, she's nine and she's addicted."
"Where is she now?"
"I think, in the living room." Brandon jerked his head, indicating the room through the door at his back. "Playing your video games and, probably, on the phone."
As long as she wasn't digging through his closet and finding the fun toys, Nick would deal with a long distance bill. "I guess your road trip went all right?" He added as he jerked off his tie. Man, time to ditch the monkey suit and put on some proper clothes.
Brandon grinned. "Yep, except I had to listen to pre-teen pop for four hours."
"Hey." Nick pooled the tie on the table. "Can I say one thing?"
Rocking the chair onto the back legs, Brandon teased, "You can say more than one thing."
"Asshat." Nick picked up the tie and tossed it at him. Not much of a threat. It kinda drifted down to the floor into a pile of Escher print jumbles. "No, I mean thanks."
"For putting it on the line like this."
Brandon honestly looked confused. "I don't get you." Trust him to be obtuse in the relationship arena.
Nick shrugged. "Bringing Shayna out here." He wanted to tell Brandon how he felt, but didn't want to scare him off. "I mean, this a big step for you, and for you and me."
Brandon dropped his gaze to the floor and chewed on his bottom lip for a bit. Finally, he looked back up and smiled. "Yeah, it is." For agreeing with him, Nick thought that smile was awfully forced.
"Thanks for trusting me." He tried to ease it a bit.
"Hey, you know, it's," Brandon fell silent for a moment, then the rest of his thought came pouring out in a rush, "well it's not easy and I thought a lot about it. But, if you"re going to be around, it should happen."
That was as close as a declaration of, well something, as Brandon had ever got. Shit, the only times he"d ever said I love you was after he shot his wad. "I intend to be around." Even with all the other crap, Nick did intend to be around. That is, if things went well in the next few days and if Brandon didn't freak with what Nick needed to talk to him about. The reason that the whole trip couldn't wait. Now wasn't the right time to broach it, though. He needed things to settle down a bit, get Brandon relaxed and then they could talk.
Brandon shot him one of his thousand watt smiles, then twisted in the chair and yelled through the doorway into the living room, "Princess, get off the phone and come here, I want you to meet someone."
"I'm busy," floated back to them.
As darkness dropped into Brandon's expression, he yelled again, "Get off the phone before I shove it down your throat."
"Fine," she snapped back. They heard the rattle of a remote or controller hitting the floor and small feet stomping toward them. "Beth, Brandon says I have to go," came from the other side of the bar style doors leading out of Nick's kitchen.
"She calls you Brandon?" Nick hissed the question. "What does she call her stepfather?"
Brandon looked at him funny, like he wasn't sure what Nick asked. "Daddy."
The hem of a floral skirt, pink leggings and a set of glittery sneakers became visible under the bottom half of the door. "Yeah, it's so lame. Bye." She added as she pushed through the door. "What?"
Shayna"Nick had only ever seen pictures of her and most were not terribly recent. A sharp face with bright blue eyes was framed by masses of curly brown hair. Gangly knees and elbows seemed at odds with the more feminine clothes. Well, fem for a little girl, Nick supposed. He"d never call himself an expert on kids" duds or women's for that matter. A long sleeve T-shirt stuck out under a baby-doll short skirt, but with leggings. It all looked almost hip, like Shayna fought for stylish against a heavy hand of a mom. He remembered similar battles with his folks over things like: "boys don't wear eye-liner."
"Shayna," Brandon stood and held his hand out indicating Nick, 'this is my best friend, Nick O"Malley."
"Hi, Mr. O"Malley," Shayna drawled it out as though she were supremely pissed that Brandon interrupted a scintillating discussion so that she could meet an adult.
Well, okay, new situation for everyone, Nick let the tone pass. "Why don't you call me Nick?" In three days, if she kept up that snot attitude, then he"d have a discussion with Brandon. Right now he could live with it. It had to be difficult for her, too; stuck for a week with a dad she didn't know well and dragged off to visit one of his friends. "Less of a mouthful."
"Mommy says," those two words dropped Shayna's speech into the smug, look at me, I'm listening to my mom mode, "I shouldn't call adults by their first name."
"It's okay." Nick smiled, reminding himself that baby steps were needed to win Brandon over, why should it be any different with his daughter? "Otherwise it's going to be weird all week hearing Mr. O"Malley." Then he pointed out, "Besides, you call your dad, Brandon."
"I guess," Shayna huffed and rolled her eyes. Okay, maybe Nick wouldn't wait three days for that discussion.
"Okay, hey." Like he was trying to break the tension before someone cracked, Brandon dove into his duffle. After a little bit of searching, he stood up and shoved a bundle wrapped in holiday paper at Nick. "Look I got you something."
A for the thought, B- for the wrapping effort, and D+ for timing; Nick took the package. "I was thinking we could open Christmas presents over at Miri's. She wants us to come for breakfast day after tomorrow."
Again the superior tone out of a yard-ape's mouth, "We don't celebrate Christmas."
Fuck the discussion with her dad. "Great then," Nick snapped, "I'll just take the stuff I bought for you back. Maybe take the things to the alliance center, someone there will appreciate it."
"Play nice," Brandon glared down at his daughter, "it ain't going to corrupt you to open a couple gifts." Taking a deep breath, Brandon turned to Nick and smiled. His voice sounded strained, "Open it, now please."
"Why?" Oh shit, he sounded as snotty as the kid. Nick figured a deep, relaxing breath wouldn't hurt him either. A little calmer, he asked a more reasonable question, "Sure you don't want to wait?"
"Now. Please." Brandon's smile grew so tight it threatened to rip his face apart.
Try and be nice and what do you get? With a huff, Nick ripped open the paper. "Hey, skull camouflage lounge pants." Why would Brandon buy him something like that? Commando all the way, Nick couldn't stand to sleep with something between him and the sheets. To be polite, he smiled and tried to sound appreciative, "Just what I needed." Wadding them back up into the paper, he added, "I don't usually wear stuff like this to bed."
"I know." The way Brandon said it, both words getting separate, slow emphasis, spoke volumes. Not so subtly, Brandon rolled his eyes toward where his daughter stood bouncing the phone handset against her knee. "But you have a nine-year-old house guest'so wear "em."
"What does Nick normally wear to bed?" Out of everything else going on, how did she pick that one comment out?
"Really ratty stuff." Brandon shot Nick a glare like he was daring Nick to contradict him. "Why don't you get a soda, snack or something? Take it in to the TV." Apparently, that was all she needed. Shayna hit the refrigerator like she"d been starved. Maybe her mom kept the sweets on a leash, too.
Nick looked at the present in his hands and then over at the pint sized Diva raiding his refrigerator. "Only for you," he hissed, low enough so only Brandon would hear, "you know that, right?"
They both watched as Shayna dashed out of the room cradling a Coke.
"Thanks man." When he turned his attention back to Nick, Brandon managed a rueful smile. "I owe you."
Nick tossed the bundle on the table and then pinched the bridge of his nose. "If this is how the week is going to go"yeah, you do, "cause I don't, like, sleep well with anything between me and the sheets."
"Okay, well," Brandon grabbed the luggage off the floor, "you said you had one of those cots you could put up?"
"Yeah." Still trying to rub the tension out of his forehead, Nick stood. "Borrowed it off Miri, it's in the front room."
"Let's go get it set up." Backing out of the room, Brandon added, "It"ll be okay, really. I promise."
Nick would withhold judgment on that.