Protecting What's His Page 19

Ginger laughed, reaching forward to shake Barker’s hand. Derek gave a mental eye roll when Barker’s eyes practically glazed over at the contact. “And tonight’s cause, Mr. Barker?”

The rookie puffed up a little. “My uncle is leading a committee to organize after-school programs in the city’s worst neighborhoods. To help keep local kids from joining gangs and get into sports or academic pursuits instead.”

“Damn, Barker. Did you rehearse that in the mirror?” Alvarez joked, signaling the bartender.

Barker flushed. “Anyway, you’ll hear more about it at dinner, Ginger.”

She smiled broadly at him. “I look forward to it.”

Derek had seen quite enough of Ginger smiling at other men for one evening. He couldn’t recall her ever smiling at him like that. Sliding an arm around her bare shoulders, he excused them and led her toward their assigned seats. Already seated at the round, ten-person table was Patty, the dispatch operator responsible for his bringing Ginger in the first place. Also waiting for dinner to start was Kenny, his ex-partner, and Lisa, Derek’s ex-girlfriend, still an item apparently. Thankfully, they were across the table, blocked by an obscenely large centerpiece, saving him from having to make introductions.

Patty, however, stood to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. “Derek, you brought a date!”

Wanting to roll his eyes at Patty’s false shock, Derek placed a hand on Ginger’s back and guided her forward. “Ginger, this is Patty. She works dispatch and is unfortunately leaving us soon to terrorize her husband full-time.”

The older woman laughed in delight, and Derek couldn’t help but grin in response. Despite being her favorite target for practical jokes, he liked Patty quite a lot and would be sad to see her go.

“Oh, Lieutenant. You know you’re going to miss me like hell.”

“I think I might, Patty.”

Trying to hide her pleasure over his words, she turned to Ginger with a sly smile. “And how do you know this ass**le, honey?”

Ginger nearly choked on her wine. “Oh, um, Derek and I are roommates.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Roommates? Aren’t you a little old for a roommate, Derek?”

Ginger answered before he could. “It’s only temporary, actually. My apartment across the hall, where I live with my sister, flooded last night. Derek insisted we take his spare room. He was very heroic, actually.”

Patty snorted. “I’m sure it’s been a real hardship for him. But since you’re only roommates, maybe I can set Ginger up with my single nephew. He lives right here in Chicago.”

“I take it back, Patty,” Derek grumbled. “You can retire with my blessing.”

A man in a tuxedo approached the microphone and asked for the guests to take their seats. Derek held the chair next to Patty out for Ginger, then took the seat on the opposite side. Alvarez and a few other detectives joined them a minute later.

Dinner went smoothly, Ginger and Patty chatting happily while his and Alvarez’s discussion inevitably turned to work. His informant continued to balk about Modesto’s whereabouts, but Alvarez thought he’d found some leverage he could use.

His eyes continually met Ginger’s even though they didn’t speak during the meal. She’d quickly earned Patty’s admiration, and by the time dessert was brought out, Ginger had been inundated with pictures and stories about the woman’s grandson, which she smiled and cooed over dutifully. Derek marveled over how well she fit in among his peers. He usually found himself checking his watch obsessively during these functions, but watching Ginger giggle charmingly and sip wine made time move too quickly. He hadn’t expected tonight to feel so natural, even if he’d been forced to glare at a few passing suits ogling his date during the second course.

“Damn, Lieutenant. Do I have to put on a black dress and heels to keep your attention tonight?”

Derek dragged his eyes away from Ginger and turned back to Alvarez with a smirk. “I don’t think it comes in your size.”

“Ouch. I can’t help that I got a woman at home who can cook.”

“I hope you leave enough for the kids to eat.”

“Oh, he’s got jokes, does he? This girl is good for you, Lieutenant. I knew you had a sense of humor in there somewhere.”

The tuxedoed man approached the microphone once more, calling for the room’s attention. Conversation slowly came to a halt around them. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have the honor of bringing Councilman Barker to the stage. His charity, Chicago Takes the Lead, is the reason we are all here this evening. So without further ado, please welcome Councilman Leon Barker.”

As the audience clapped politely, the councilman, a distinguished-looking man in his early fifties, took the stage. A spotlight found him as he approached the podium, highlighting the silver streaks in his black hair. He surveyed the room winningly, like a man used to making speeches, and smiled his thanks for their applause. “Thank you for coming. I hope you’ll all remember how great that prime rib was come election time.”

The politicians laughed in response. “As you are aware, we began Chicago Takes the Lead thirteen years ago and have implemented several after-school programs throughout the inner city of Chicago, mainly in the district I’m honored to represent. What makes Chicago Takes the Lead unique is our boys in blue. In addition to teachers and social workers, Chicago’s finest have been kind enough to volunteer their time to become mentors to our youth. We couldn’t do it without them.”

When the applause died down once more, he went on to describe the inner workings of the charity and its day-to-day operations. He didn’t mention the fact that many of the youths they mentored went on to take the police department entrance exam, making the charity a glorified recruiting operation targeting inner-city children. Not only did it assist Chicago in strengthening police ranks year by year, but it also facilitated the early establishment of relationships between politicians and the police force—both facets of the system that didn’t sit well with Derek, and a sentiment he’d been sure to share with the councilman whenever he received an invitation to speak at a Takes the Lead event.

The lights dimmed and a slide show began, showing snapshots of youths playing soccer alongside local law enforcement or painting over graffiti in downtown Chicago. A series of shots depicted a Thanksgiving meal, catered by the councilman’s office no doubt, being served in a school gymnasium.

Glancing over to gauge Ginger’s reaction, he started in his seat at tears welling in her eyes. All at once the reason for her distress became apparent. Jesus. How could he have brought her here?

Chapter Twelve

Derek’s hand grasped her cold fingers under the table, startling her. Hand-holding didn’t seem like a typical Derek move and she reacted warily. But the warmth his much bigger hand offered felt good and right, so she slid her hand into his and squeezed. He squeezed back.

She shouldn’t be crying. If anyone saw her welling up over this puffed-up public service announcement, it would embarrass the hell out of her. And Derek, too.

Blinking furiously, Ginger tried to disengage herself from the images flashing across the screen. Hungry children thankfully receiving a turkey leg and some stuffing. A young girl smiling as someone handed her a shiny pink winter coat at a local coat drive. It brought back painful images of sending Willa out to school in thirty-degree weather wearing a threadbare sweatshirt. Or sharing a can of stolen pumpkin pie filling on Thanksgiving Day. These were things she tried not to think about anymore, but avoiding the past now proved impossible as images continued to play under a cheerful voiceover.

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