Protecting What's His Page 30

Ginger’s mind reeled. Her little sister, who to the best of her knowledge avoided human contact at all costs, had agreed to attend a dance? Remembering Willa’s reaction to her barb about attending the school basketball game, Ginger refrained from relaying her thoughts aloud.

Did this mean coming to Chicago had been the right thing for Willa? She scrutinized the blush staining her sister’s cheeks, the glimmer of humor in her eye. Ginger’s heart swelled.

She quickly tried to hide her proud-mama reaction by ducking her head, but her smile must have shown because Willa snickered into her coffee cup.

“Well, that’s fantastic, Willa,” Ginger said, attempting casual. “I assume you’ll need a dress?”

“I might.”

“Then I might be able to help pick it out?”

Willa laughed. “Ginger, I know f**k-all about dresses. You’re hired.”

Unable to restrain herself, Ginger clapped her hands twice. “Great. Just give me a little direction. Short, long, strapless…?”

Her sister gave a lopsided smile. “Just make me look better than Evan’s ex-girlfriend, Natalie. The blond, pom-pom-toting femme-bot.”

Ah, so this is what had been bothering Willa. She felt a rush of relief. Normal teenage problems. “Girl, when I’m done, she’ll have nothing on you.”

They passed the next hour going through Willa’s photographs and pulling out their favorites, deciding where to place them. Ginger even managed to weasel a few more details about Evan out of her sister—enough to get the sense that she really liked the boy. Which was shocking, to say the least. When Willa eventually left for school, Ginger dragged herself from the floor and went to make a fresh pot of coffee.

As she waited for it to brew, she tried to comprehend the last hour. Instead of reticent and moody, Willa had been practically jovial as they worked on the joint project. She’d had to force herself to act normal and not gape at the changes taking place in her sister. Her signature snark and foul mouth hadn’t gone anywhere, which Ginger found herself oddly thankful for. She loved the old Willa just as much as the new one.

Sipping at her fresh cup, Ginger found herself torn between joy over Willa’s transformation and confusion over her own inability to transform herself. Perhaps it had to do with age. Willa was still young and able to learn new tricks, so to speak. Ginger chose to take it as a sign that in some small way, she might have actually managed to shield Willa from the worst of their upbringing before it caused any permanent damage.

As for herself, she’d lacked any type of shield or voice of reason. Her life had been molded into a shape and left to harden in the sun. It was too late for her to change now.

Chapter Seventeen

After knocking one final time on Ginger’s door and not getting an answer, Derek turned to leave with a frustrated curse. She wouldn’t answer his phone calls and he didn’t have time to sit and wait for her to get back from wherever she’d gone.

With the situation at work rapidly coming to a head, the last place he should’ve been was trying to track down an AWOL Ginger, but goddammit, he couldn’t concentrate on the upcoming operation after the way they’d left things. She’d looked so shaken up leaving his apartment. If he could just talk to her, touch her, he would find a way to reassure her.

He’d walked into Sensation last night with every intention of humbling himself. He’d f**ked up by allowing two days to pass with radio silence between them. Ginger might not admit it, but she’d needed him to make her feel wanted. And not just for one night. Instead, he’d gone off to work like an arrogant jackass, thinking she’d still be there playing house when he finally made it home. Sidling up to the bar, he’d been desperate to lay eyes on her after two days of missing her like hell.

The way she tilted her head when she back-talked him in that sexy accent. The way she pronounced his name. Her body fitting against his perfectly. Her scent. Her smile. He missed it all.

Then he’d seen that bastard’s hands on her. Little flashes of light had sparked in front of his eyes before it all went red. He couldn’t remember anything after that. Exiting the club and driving home was still a blur in his memory. With his blood still hot and pumping from the fight, he’d almost lost his control back at his apartment when she’d tried to seduce him. He still couldn’t believe he’d walked away from that level of temptation.

Jesus, the things she’d said…

He released a shuddering breath.

Unfortunately, he now had a reason to be concerned about more than just their tenuous relationship. He’d uncovered something this weekend that had him actively worrying about her safety. In addition to the mountain of bureaucratic bullshit he’d shoveled through this week, he’d fit in some calls to Nashville and filled in some gaps about Valerie Peet. The word around Nashville was that she owed a large sum of money to heavy hitter, Haywood Devon.

Derek’s sixth sense had started ticking once he received that information. Pieces were finally beginning to fall into place. Ginger leaving Nashville seemingly out of the blue, uprooting Willa so close to the end of her senior year. Her ability to afford an apartment well outside her means. The way she changed the subject whenever the past reared its head.

Ginger was in possession of the money.

She’d seen an opportunity to escape and taken it. Derek didn’t blame her. In fact, he was grateful for her actions because they had brought her to Chicago. To him. But as their relationship stood now, he couldn’t tell her he knew. She would panic and disappear, and he’d never see her again. The very prospect froze the blood in his veins.

Derek’s pacing came to a halt when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs, hoping like hell for it to be Ginger. Instead, he saw Willa, shoulders hunched, looking completely distraught.

He cleared his throat to alert Willa of his presence and her head jerked up to reveal puffy, red-rimmed eyes. Embarrassment quickly followed, but then her chin went up a notch. Derek knew false bravado when he saw it. He also knew that if he showed her any kind of sympathy, she’d eat him alive. Apparently it ran in the family.

“Shouldn’t you be at school?”

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

Derek shrugged. “Lunch break.”

“Bullshit. Is Ginger not at home or is she just ignoring you?”

“Is ditching school a regular thing for you?”

“No. Maybe.” She glared at him. “Why the hell do you care? You’re a homicide cop, not a truancy officer.”

“Just a concerned citizen is all.”

Willa rolled her eyes and pushed past him. “If you’re looking for a way to score points with my sister, try not being an epic douche bag.”

Christ, this kid didn’t pull any punches. He kind of admired it. “Okay, I deserve that.”

He’d surprised her, but she hid it well. She kept her eyes down and dug around for her keys in her backpack. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“You can tell me why you look like shit.”

She barked out a sarcastic laugh. “Oh, now I know what Ginger sees in you.”

At least he’d gotten her to laugh. That counted for something. Without Ginger there to deal with her sister, he felt the need to fix it. Only one problem: he had very little experience comforting teenagers. Best to stick with his tried and true good cop/bad cop method. “Listen”—he checked his watch—“I don’t have time to watch some teenager cry and snot all over herself, but if you need to talk, I can pretend that I give a crap for a few minutes.”

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