Protecting What's His Page 14

Shit. He’d known that artless move would come back to bite him in the ass. Even if he’d only given his detectives an unprecedented night off with the suggestion they try Sensation for a drink or two. The promise to transfer anyone who made a pass at Ginger to a precinct somewhere in Appalachia had merely been implied.

Derek knew the most expedient way to deal with this situation. She would probably hate him for it tonight, maybe even tomorrow. But he’d reached his limit of arguing in the hallway while her legs were exposed for everyone to see. And letting her leave the building wasn’t a viable option.

“It’s three in the morning. Are you planning on taking Willa out in the cold, soaked head to toe, to find a hotel at this time of night? That would be dangerous and could end up with you or Willa sick.”

Over Ginger’s shoulder, Willa’s eyes widened in horror. “Not cool,” she whispered.

Confused by Willa’s reaction, Derek’s eyes swung back to Ginger. Instead of the anger he expected over his blatant manipulation, her pretty features were stricken with guilt. Derek felt hollow inside just seeing the transformation. Had he actually put that look on her face to avoid a stupid argument?

Ginger turned to face Willa, who looked desperate for the earth to open and swallow her whole. “Of course. I wasn’t thinking, Willa. I’m sorry.”

The girl was already shaking her head. “Ginger, don’t listen to him. We’ll do whatever you think is best. You always do what’s best.”

Her smile looked sad. “No, I don’t. And he’s…right. We’ll figure something else out tomorrow, but tonight we’ll stay here. With Derek.”

Ginger turned to him expectantly, but didn’t meet his eyes. At a loss, Derek cleared his throat and gestured for her to precede him down the hallway to his apartment, which she did. As Willa passed, she waved toward the giant statue.

“Be careful with Dolly.”

Half an hour later, Derek sank heavily onto the end of his bed and ran irritated hands over his cropped hair. He stripped off his shirt and tossed it in the vicinity of his hamper, then collapsed back onto the mattress with a heavy sigh. The last half hour had been an exercise in frustration, with Ginger refusing to meet his eyes and Willa sending him constant death stares as he showed them to his guest room and gave them linens to make up the queen-size bed. He couldn’t shake the feeling he deserved Ginger’s cold shoulder, but with her refusal to acknowledge him, there wasn’t a hope in hell of getting her to talk.

Deciding sleep would prove impossible tonight, and knowing he was due at work in mere hours anyway, Derek grabbed the laptop off his side table and began scanning through crime scene reports. Halfway through the second one, he heard the bathroom door connecting to the living room open and shut. A minute later, the shower started to run. He tried to focus on work and block the image of Ginger naked twenty yards away, but the sound of muffled sobs drew him up short.

Knowing he might somehow be responsible for those tears mobilized Derek and before he knew it, he’d left his bedroom and stood in front of the bathroom door, rapping gently with his knuckles. The hushed sounds of her crying ceased at the sudden noise.


A beat of silence. “Yes?”

Derek sighed at the sound of her hoarse voice. Coming to an important decision, he pushed open the bathroom door without waiting for permission.

Ginger sat perched on the marble counter with her bare legs dangling, looking so impossibly young, his heart clenched. She’d shed his fleece and once again wore only the translucent nightshirt that stopped mid-thigh. Drying hair curled wildly around her face, falling forward to partially obscure her expression.

Then her head whipped toward him, puffy eyes widening at his presence in the bathroom, and her beauty punched him in the gut like an iron fist. Although her shoulders sagged under the weight of whatever had upset her, she somehow retained the stubborn set to her chin, the challenge in her eyes. It humbled him, seeing her like this.

As Derek turned to close the door, he took a moment to gather his scattered thoughts, then moved toward her. When he stood directly in front of Ginger, they watched each other for one long, silent moment before her face crumpled. Without hesitation, he came forward and put his arms around her, holding her tight as she shook. To his utter shock, she wrapped her slight arms around his neck and pulled him closer, sobbing brokenly into his neck.

In Derek’s line of work, it was difficult to avoid crying females. They were frequently present at crime scenes. Mothers, wives, daughters of the deceased. He’d hardened himself against it long ago. He wouldn’t be able to perform his job otherwise. But every so often, a loved one reached a deeply hidden part of him. A child who’d lost her father, unusually stoic, watching the coroner drive away. A mother, days after her son’s murder, still refusing to accept his death. If such tragedies ever left him completely untouched, it would be time to retire.

But as Derek watched himself holding Ginger in the mirror over the sink, her smaller, trembling body engulfed by his naked arms and chest, he felt the furthest thing from unaffected. Every sob or shudder that moved through her robbed him of breath. Derek wanted to decimate her sadness and anything causing it. Feeling powerless, he rubbed circles on her back with one hand.

“I’m not good at this,” she mumbled against his neck. He barely heard her over the drone of the still-running shower.

“Good at what, baby?”

Ginger pulled away, wiping her tears away with shaking hands. He let her go, even though he wanted to crush her back to his chest.

“Everything. Being responsible for my sister. Making decisions for us.”

“Listen, Ginger, what I said earlier about you taking Willa out in the cold—”

“No. No, that’s not it. But it’s one example.” She took a deep, fortifying breath. “That ceiling would have crushed me to death tonight. Five seconds later, I’d have been a goner and that would’ve left Willa completely alone in a strange city. Oh God, what was I thinking?”

Certain he’d gone white at her revelation about the ceiling, Derek did his best to talk around the giant knot in his throat. “You couldn’t have known the ceiling was going to fall, Ginger.”

She shook her head. “You don’t understand.”

“Help me, then.”

“Coming to Chicago was my decision.” She scrubbed a hand over her face. “I thought we would be better here. Willa would have more opportunities. But, oh God, I’m in completely over my head, aren’t I? I don’t know how to repair a flooded apartment or cook a decent potpie or even talk to my sister about what’s bothering her. I’m not qualified for any of it.”

He stroked her hair out of her face. “Listen to me. You’ve had a long night so everything seems a little worse than it really is. You and Willa weren’t hurt. The rest of it you’ll handle, because you don’t have a choice. Chicago or some other town, the same problems will follow you.”

Ginger choked on a disbelieving laugh. “Jesus. Your bedside manner needs serious work.”

“Sorry, but how bad can someone really f**k up a chicken potpie? I’m sure yours are fine.”

Laughter bubbled from her throat. “I can’t believe I actually feel better after that locker room pep talk. But gee, thanks coach. I guess I’ll get back out on the field and show them whose house it is.”

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