Theodore was at work for all of an hour before Russell walked in through the doors. His chest tightened, gaze following the detective as he headed back to the children’s section of the store. He hated that seeing Russell put him on edge, but he couldn’t help it. There had been a time when Shane would ‘drop by’ the bookstore to make sure Theodore wasn’t speaking to Gina too much or hanging out with too many male customers.
Eventually, Russell came up to the counter and set a puzzle and a picture book on it. Theodore took in the detective’s shaking hands, flushed cheeks, tense jaw, and watery eyes. “My God, Russell. Are you okay?”
Russell pulled his bottom lip between his teeth, nodding. “Yeah. I’m good. J-just doin’ my job.” He tapped his fingers to the puzzle box. “Need something at the station to distract Vince’s granddaughter so I can talk to her mom.”
Theodore rang up both items and tucked them into a bag. “Do you wanna come over tonight?”
“Vera doesn’t feel well. You shouldn’t have to worry about me, too.”
“I think I’m capable of worrying about two people at the same time,” Theodore said. “I’ll worry about you whether or not you’re at the house, Russell.”
Russell sniffled, looking down as he passed his debit card through the scanner. “I know. I-I just… don’t want you to feel crushed or pressured by me being there so much.”
“So long as this case is ongoing, I feel nothing but good about you being at the house. Not only does your presence there make me feel safe, but I also get the benefit of getting to comfort someone else. That’s… that’s pretty darn nice.”
Russell offered a shaky smile. “I’ll probably come over. I-I just don’t know what time it’ll be when I get there.”
“That’s okay. Just text or call, let me know.” Theodore handed over the bag, grabbing Russell’s hand as soon as the detective took it. “I have my phone on me. My boss thinks I’m talking to my parents or my daughter if I’m on my phone. Text me if you need to talk.”
“I’ll be okay. But thank you,” Russell whispered.
Theodore gave his hand a tight squeeze before releasing it. “This is hard for you, Russell. Take care of yourself.”
“Thank you. I-I’ll do my best.” Russell took a step back, offering a smile. “Keep up the good work, Theo. You’re very calming to at least one of your customers.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I appreciate the stellar review.”
Russell’s smile was a bit more genuine that time. At least, Theodore was pretty sure of it. “I-I’ll see you tonight, Theo. Take care.”
“You, too, Russell.”
Theodore took his lunch break in the small cafe area of the bookstore with Gina. He checked his phone for what felt like the millionth time that day before sticking a forkful of salad into his mouth.
“I saw your detective in here earlier,” Gina said.
“Well, he’s not my detective.”
“You’re dating him. It’s not, like… a property thing. You’re not being Shane to him. It’s kinda like me saying he’s your boyfriend. I’m just using his job title.” Gina took a sip of her pop. “Does it make you uncomfortable? I won’t do it if it does.”
“I think it’s kinda cute,” Theodore said after a moment.
She smiled. “Awesome. So, what’d he want?”
“He just needed to buy some stuff for work.”
“At the book store?”
Theodore lifted his head. “Yes? What’re you getting at?”
Gina held up both hands. “I don’t want to get in the way of your relationship. I stand by the fact that he seems like an incredible guy, and he’s done absolutely nothing to make me feel otherwise. But because of everything that happened with Shane, I just… I just wanna make sure it stays that way.”
“Russell’s great to me and to Vera. H-he called her sweetheart this morning and then apologized in case I was uncomfortable with that. He’s good to me.” Theodore cleared his throat. “But I do appreciate you looking out for me. Lord knows I’m cautious, too.”
“You have every right to be,” Gina said. She folded a fry into her mouth. “His car’s parked outside your house a lot.”
“How do you know that?” Theodore asked.
“How do you think?”
“Stop driving by my house in the middle of the night, you creep.”
Gina laughed. “Hey, if I need to go for a drive, I’m gonna make sure you’re okay in the process.”
“Oddly appreciated.” Theodore cleared his throat, looking down as he stirred his salad. “He’s spending the night a lot. I feel safe when he’s in the house.”
“Even though… he’s a man?”
“Yeah. I think it’s the badge. H-he’s the one who found Shane, too.”
“Makes sense. I’d probably take comfort in both of those things, too.”
“So it’s not stupid?”
“God, of course not. A man that makes you feel safe and comfortable? That’s not stupid. The reasons he makes you feel safe and comfortable are not stupid. From what you’ve told me so far, he seems incredibly kind and respectful, too.” Gina shook her head. “You aren’t an idiot, Theo. You’re doing great with him.”
“Thank you,” Theodore whispered. He took another bite of his salad before tapping his fork against the bowl. “How’re things going with the new dog?”
“Oh, gosh, I love her. She doesn’t like her crate yet, but that’s understandable. I still need to work on getting her used to it and comfortable with it. She’s not potty-trained yet, either, but she already knows what door to go to for outside time.” Gina smiled. “She’s perfect.”
“Good. How’s she like Boyd?”
“She loves that little shit, oh, my God. I was a little worried about him tugging on her ears or her getting too rowdy with him, but they fell asleep on the living room floor together last night. He used her like a pillow, and she seemed pretty okay with it.” Gina shook her head. “You and Vera should come over some time. I-it’s been a while, and Boyd would love the playdate.”
Boyd, Gina’s son, had been yet another relationship that had been a casualty of Theodore’s marriage to Shane. He hadn’t liked the idea of Vera hanging out with Boyd, even though Shane refused to claim Vera as his own. Theodore hadn’t liked it but he hadn’t seen much of a choice in the matter. Shane had waited to drop the bomb of that particular requirement until after they had gotten married, until after Theodore was already well within his clutches.
“It… would be nice to pick up playdates again,” Theodore said quietly.
“You think so?”
“Yeah. I think Vera would be happy for it, too.”
“Great. I-I don’t wanna force you into that too quickly, so if you feel uncomfortable with it or if it makes you nervous, just let me know. We’ll postpone it, okay?” Gina asked.
“Thanks, Gina. I appreciate that.” Theodore smiled. “Hopefully things will go well enough that there isn’t a reason for fear or nervousness on my end.”
“I’ve been hoping for the same damn thing since day one. It takes time, but you’ll… you’ll get close to being who you used to be.”
“That’s the hope.” Theodore cleared his throat. “I guess I don’t want to be who I used to be. Not exactly.”
Theodore nodded. “Old me never would’ve dared take the risk of dating Russell.”
“You took the risk of dating Shane.”
“Shane was a barista when I met him. Or… he told me he was. He was a businessman, but I guess he knew that wasn’t my type. But something as dangerous as a cop? A detective? I never would’ve dared associate myself or Vera with someone we could… we could lose. New me is braver, and I don’t want to lose that as I get ‘better’.”
Gina smiled. “I like brave you, too. He dates very attractive men.”
Theodore snorted. “You’re such a shit.”
“You love me.”
“Thank God, or we’d both be totally screwed.”
Gina chuckled. “Yeah.” The smile came back to her face. “I love you, too.”
“I know. Thank you.”
“No problem, Theo. No problem at all.”
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