Try as I might, I can’t get her alone long enough to talk to her. She ditches out half an hour early, perhaps anticipating my plan to waylay her on her way out the door, and she doesn’t answer her cell when I call.

Gretchen and Stella leave with smoking glares aimed in my direction, and I can’t blame them. I’ve mowed down their fair-haired girl, and they’re a united feminine front.  And then I’m alone with Malia, who comes into my office hesitantly.

“I’m sorry, Sam. I couldn’t shut Brenda up fast enough. I thought we could…decide what we’re going to do about this before everyone found out.”

“Not your fault.”  I rub a hand over my tired eyes, and wish I could time-travel back two days and not get on that damned plane to Las Vegas. I shouldn’t have gone. I should have stayed here with Frannie and forgotten about appeasing the Top Man in order to get a transfer. Belatedly I realize they would have transferred me anyway with no more than a verbal reprimand for becoming involved with a subordinate. If there were eight ways to be screwed over by sundown, I’d have found them all.

“Will…will she talk to you again, do you think?”

I shake my head. “You didn’t see her eyes. It’s done. Over. Finito.” Over before it had even begun. I think that’s probably the fastest I’ve ever screwed up a relationship—screwed it up before I’d even officially started it.

“Are you in love with her?”

I take a deep breath. My mind is in turmoil. I don’t think I could even tell someone my phone number at this point, let alone the depth of my feelings for Francesca Freeman.

“I don’t know what I feel,” I say.

She’s silent for a long time, and then she replies in a quiet voice, “Then maybe we should consider making a real attempt at this.”

I lift my head, pinning her with a surprised look. She flushes and shifts her weight to her other foot.

“Just a suggestion.”

And there’s something in her eyes that cries out for some kind of connection, and I wonder for the first time in the four years I’ve worked with her just what Malia Moreno’s story is. It’s as though she’s afraid I’ll agree to it and at the same time is desperately afraid that I won’t.  Perhaps it’s that desolation in her eyes, desolation I can’t recall ever seeing before, and my own abyss of despair looming before me, that makes me consider her proposal.

“Maybe we could.”

And down I go for the last time.

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