The early morning sun peeked between the window curtains, casting an orange light on the bedroom door and a little rainbow of color across the bed, where the sunshine cut through the fish tank on the computer desk.
The door to the bedroom creaked open, and a little girl walked through the doorway, one hand on the knob, the other clutching a teddy bear to her chest. She padded across the room, hugging the toy as she stared at the man on the bed. Tentatively, she reached out with one hand and poked his arm. He groaned, rolling onto his stomach. “Daddy?”
“I had a bad dream.”
Theodore Eckart cleared his throat, turning his head to the side to look at the little girl. “You did?” She nodded, bottom lip pulled into his mouth. “I’m sorry, baby girl.” He tugged the covers back, holding them up in the air. “Get your butt up here.” The fair-skinned, red-headed girl climbed onto her father’s bed, snuggling up against his side as he dropped the covers again. “What was your bad dream about?”
“That Father came back.”
“That’s never happening.” Clearing his throat again, Theodore rolled onto his side, tugging the girl, Vera, to his chest.
“How do you know?”
“Because he’s in jail.”
“ ‘Cause he hurt you?”
Theodore closed his eyes. “Yeah, baby, because he hurt me.” He lifted a hand and rubbed at his eyes. “What time is it?”
“I dunno. I saw a four on the clock.”
Theodore cracked open an eye to peer at the analog alarm clock on his nightstand. Six forty-six. “Yep. Definitely a four in there. Good job, baby.” Theodore smoothed a hand over Vera’s hair. “How about you try to get some sleep? I’ll make breakfast for us in another hour or so. Till then, I’ll keep you safe, and I’ll scare all the bad dreams away.”
Vera stuck a pinky finger up between them. “Promise?”
Theodore wrapped his own around it. “Promise.”
With Vera at school, Theodore had gone to work and headed straight over to the in-house cafe part of the bookstore.
“Theo! Oh, my God, I didn’t know you were coming in today,” the woman behind the counter said.
Theodore smiled. “Had to come back eventually, right?”
“Of course. I’m just so happy to see you.” She stuck out both hands, bangle bracelets jangling against each other. Theodore leaned a little heavier on his cane and grabbed one of her hands. She immediately laid the second hand over his. “How’re you doing? How’s Vera?”
“I’m better, and she’s… handling everything well, save for the fear that he’s coming back.”
“He’s in jail. Fucker got a decade.”
“I know. You, uh, you should come over and see her. She misses you, and maybe having someone else at the house for a couple hours would help,” Theodore suggested.
“I would love to. Tell her I’ll be over… tonight?”
“Sounds perfect, Gina.”
Gina Beckett smiled. “Great.” She let go of his hand. “So… what can I getcha?”
“Just, uh, just one of the caramel cappuccinos.”
“Can do. Back in a jiff.” She patted the counter before pushing away from it. Theodore stared down at the floor as she went about making his coffee. Gina was one of the few people in his life that he had allowed to see him when his ex-husband had landed him in the hospital. With God only knew how many scratches and bruises and a broken hip–among a few other sprains and fractures–Theodore had looked awful and weak. He hadn’t wanted his co-workers to see him that way. He hadn’t wanted his boss to see him that way.
Hell, it had taken Gina two days to convince him that his parents deserved to see him, even if it upset them to see their baby boy like that. In the end, Gina and his parents had helped take care of Vera while he was in the hospital, and the first week back home, they had taken turns taking care of him, too.
He’d have to take Vera out to see his parents, too. They hadn’t seen him since the bruises had faded, and he figured they deserved to see him in better shape again.
Gina set the cup down on the counter. “On me,” she said as Theodore reached for his wallet.
“Gina, come on.”
“Theo, you haven’t worked in over a month. Let me pay for your damn coffee. Please.”
After a moment, Theodore managed to swallow his pride, and he offered a nod. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Can you get it back to the book counter okay?”
“Oh, yeah. Just a cane, no crutches.” He held up his free hand, wiggling the fingers. “This one’s all good for carrying things.”
Gina snorted, pushing the cup a little closer to him. “What time do you want me to meet you at your house?”
“Depends. Do you wanna help me make supper? I’ve just been ordering pizza and takeout. She’s been real good about it, but she deserves so much more.”
Gina nodded. “Of course I wanna help. I’ll even get groceries if you let me know what you want before my shift’s over.”
“I will. Thank you, Gina.” He grabbed the coffee cup. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“My pleasure, Theo.”
“Did you find everything you were looking for today?” Theodore asked, lifting his eyes to the customer’s face as he set a small stack of books on the counter.
“Oh, I think so,” the relatively cute and oddly familiar man said. He crossed his arms over the counter as Theodore started ringing up the books.
Theodore rang up the second book in the Beautiful Creatures series. “Have you read the first one yet? Or preparing for when you read it?”
“Nah, my niece. She loved the first one, and her parents only buy her new books for her birthday. I’m switching it up and getting her one just for being willing to read books,” the man said.
Theodore chuckled. “A darn good thing to be rewarded for, if you ask me.”
“I thought so.”
Theodore couldn’t help but think just how familiar the man looked to him. “Well, she’ll love book two, promise.”
“I sure hope so.” The man cocked his head to the side. “I’m sorry to ask, but… is there any chance I know you? You just look real familiar to me.”
“I don’t know.” Theodore chuckled. “I kinda thought the same about you.” As he rang up another book, his eyes caught the badge pinned to the man’s belt. Steel. “Oh. I know where we know each other from.”
Theodore nodded. “You, uh, you were the one who arrested my ex.”
The man glanced off to the side before it dawned on him. “Theodore. Pardon me, your last name escapes me.”
“That’s okay. It, uh, it’s changed since then anyway. Back to Eckart, now.”
“Russell Steel. How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been okay. Better than when you saw me last.” Theodore offered a chuckle, packing the books into a bag. “I never saw you after you talked to me in the hospital.”
“It wasn’t my case. I’m a homicide detective. I just happened to see the guy walking after the warrant for his arrest went out. I only went to the hospital to make sure the news got back to you as quickly as possible. I knew safety and comfort would be hard for you to feel. I just wanted to give you at least some sense of peace of mind,” Russell said.
“It was appreciated. Still is.”
Russell nodded. “And I’m glad you’re mostly healed up.”
Theodore smiled. “Me, too.” He set the bag on the counter and gave the price to Russell. After the detective paid, Theodore tucked the receipt into the bag and held it out to him. “Your niece will love that book.”
Russell smiled back at him. “Thank you.” He took a step away from the counter, bag of books in hand. He glanced to the side, seemingly making sure no one else was in line. “You have a daughter, don’t you?”
“How’s she doing?”
“Great. Couple, umm, couple nightmares here and there, but she’s doing great.”
“Great,” Russell whispered. “Is she a reader?”
“She likes being read to and pretending she can read at a seventh grade level.”
Russell chuckled. “Kids are the best.” He touched a hand to the counter, eyes locking with Theodore’s. “I’m glad you’re both doing better, really.”
The detective nodded. “Enjoy your day, Mister Eckart.”
“You, too, Detective.”
Theodore let out a slow breath once the door closed behind Russell. Seeing the detective hadn’t exactly brought anything bad to the forefront of his mind, but it certainly hadn’t been what he had expected his first day back at work to bring.
If nothing else, he found himself thankful that seeing Russell hadn’t brought back memories of his ex-husband. He found himself thankful that the cop he saw was the man who had arrested his ex rather than any of the ones that worked his case or the lab tech that had taken pictures of his bruises. He had a feeling he wouldn’t have been able to escape bad memories if it had been one of them instead.
At least that was finding a way to look on the bright side. That was something.
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