RETIRED AND ON THE ROCKS
by Karen Wiesner
© Karen Wiesner
The building McHart and Price Investigations used was at one time a small wedding dress shop, and had two window displays bracketing the front door. Den had never bothered with them on his own, but Sylvia turned into Martha Stewart after they became partners. She put two giant posters of their latest business advertisement in the windows, along with all the comforts of a waiting room and inviting touches of decoration throughout the office suite. Business had increased once she got done with it. They started to get people in off the street, looking for their particular brand of skills for all kinds of things. If the money was green and the venture legitimate, they considered it worth doing.
At the moment, the windows were patriotically decked out for the Fourth of July around the posters. Outside of that, nothing had changed. Their latest promotional posters featuring the two of them and the slogan “McHart and Price Investigations: You’ve got a problem? We’ll find the solution,” remained on display in the windows. Den’s name still preceded hers in gold lettering on the glass door.
Stepping inside for the first time in a month created a strange heaviness in his chest. A month ago, he’d been so disgusted with himself, he hadn’t looked back when he decided it was his time to retire. Now, being here again, a big part of him felt like he’d come home after being away far too long.
He inhaled the aroma of fresh coffee brewing on the welcome table and the cinnamon spice potpourri Sylvia set out around the office—something he’d complained about more than once. At the moment, even the scents he’d considered a sure-fire way to suffocation rendered him nostalgic.
The front room proved empty, but he knew Sylvia was around. The intoxicating, flowery perfume she wore lingered on the air. His heart tightened in anticipation of seeing her.
He’d met Sylvia five years ago, when she breezed through the door of McHart Investigations, still in her cop uniform, and told him without an ounce of compunction that he was going to show her the ropes of his business. In six months, she’d be his partner, she stated confidently.
Later, he found out she’d just been turned down a second time for the detective position she wanted badly on the Riverbend police force. They’d chosen her partner Orlando Bateman for that opening. Instead of taking it, Bateman had moved to Briar’s Point and took a job with their police force. Den had often wondered what made him do it.
Oh, Sylvia had all the right qualifications for that position. She claimed they’d denied her both times because she was a woman. At first, Den doubted her. Figured she didn’t have any sleuthing skills. But, in under a month of trying to charm her into his arms—dressed in the guise of “showing her the ropes”—he changed his mind. The lady was undeniably sharp as a tack, and she understood human nature as well as she understood the law. When Sylvia Price put two and two together, criminals got caught.
Den figured it went down that way in Riverbend because she was too beautiful for her own good. Her superiors probably decided they didn’t need the inevitable trouble of a honey like that complicating—and outdoing—a mostly male team. Bateman had implied her failure to gain detective status might be more than that, yet she’d never let Den in on exactly what.
Den had made Sylvia his partner in that first month, changed the business name to McHart and Price Investigations, and put Syl’s heart-stopping picture along with his on all the advertisements. Prior to that, he got a fair number of his cases from women. With Syl, he doubled his business in no time, and now they had an equal number of men looking for someone to solve their ails. And they had a near-perfect cases-solved rate. No denying they made a dream team.
Casting a longing glance toward the hall, he wondered where she was. They’d talked more than once about hiring a receptionist, but Sylvia seemed more than capable of handling those duties along with their cases. Like most women, she could juggle a dozen tasks to his two.
The phone at the front desk rang. Sylvia emerged from the back like a shot. She saw him and gave a little “hi-and-hold-on” wave before picking up the phone.
Den couldn’t imagine when she’d looked better to him. He took her in from the top of her shiny head to the sharply pointed toes of her suede, four-inch-heeled boots. The thing that’d always amazed him was she could run as fast as a track star in those endless varieties of spiked heels.
At thirty-something—the closest she’d come to admitting her age—she was in better shape than most twenty-year-olds. She worked out five times a week while he indulged in a long-time habit of watching her exercise. Hey, he could break a sweat just doing that. He’d learned from personal experience that her strength couldn’t be measured by the misleading sleekness of her delicate form.
White corduroy jeans followed her delectable figure. The rounded collar of her top with a matching crocheted overlay—and her requisite gun tucked in a shoulder holster—hugged her curves just as lovingly.
Den remembered suddenly that it’d taken him six months after meeting Sylvia to talk her into his arms—an unprecedented amount of time for him. He learned fast, though, that he was an all-or-nothing guy. Unfortunately, she wasn’t ready for “all” and he wasn’t interested in “something.” The combination led to “nothing.” Occasionally, he couldn’t prevent himself from trying to charm her back into “all”—love, marriage, the whole forever package—but when she started to withdraw the way she inevitably did each time, his eyes strayed in fury. And then she called it off again in a hurry.
They’d been off romantically for over a year now. A long, long year. In his solitude since, he couldn’t stop thinking about the look on her face when he told her he was retiring, that she could take over the business—he didn’t doubt their clients would barely notice his absence. Aggressive gal that she was, Sylvia nevertheless hadn’t looked happy about his self-enforced retirement.
The only thing his mind had the capability of reasoning out at the moment came down to the fact that he must have been crazy risking her life and ever letting her go—not necessarily in that order. Never mind that she’d been more than willing to tag along as well as adamant about letting their romance slide each time. So adamant, he hadn’t had the heart to fight her. Not that I’ll ever give up the chase when it comes to Sylvia. His only excuse for his temporary defeat could be that he took her refusals to confide in him personally. Maybe that’d changed this time.
She hung up, and he felt too immobilized watching her to move or speak. Like usual, Sylvia didn’t hesitate. She came to hug him. Den didn’t let her go when she eased back, her head tilted up to look at him. “How’s your leg, Den?” she asked.
“Lonely, sugar. So lonely.”
Her exotic, heavily-lashed eyes met his straight on. Then one of her eyebrows twitched up in a challenge. “Your injured leg has been lonely?”
He gave in to a grin that seemed to have the opposite affect on her. His charm made her wary instead of bone-weak.
“Hold on, Blue Eyes,” she said softly, drawing back from him in a way he assured himself had to be reluctant. “We’ve got a case.”
Thinking she joked, he chuckled. He limped forward to again close the distance between them she’d created. Surprisingly, she didn’t slip away like a wood sprite the way she usually did.
“Tell me you’ve missed me, too, sweetness.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “So it’s not just your leg that’s been lonely, lover boy?”
“You’re all I’ve thought about, Syl.” He curled his hand around the curve of her neck, leaning closer until their bodies met.
A knowing smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “I bet. I had the feeling your retirement was premature. All you need is a new mystery to cure what ails you.”
“I know exactly what I need to cure my ails.”
“Hmm,” she murmured doubtfully. She eased back to affectionately pinch his scruffy chin in her fingers. “Why don’t we see about that, my overzealous rogue?”
With that, she sashayed toward his office, which still sported his name on the frosted pane.
Oh yeah, his sweet Syl definitely had her mind running on the same track as his. Time to renew acquaintances and talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. She led him forward by an invisible chain that, at this particular time, he would have submitted to wearing for any reason at all.
Den crowded into his office behind her, made to put his arms around her and then he noticed they weren’t alone. His love-starved brain required a few seconds to fathom the situation while Sylvia had the nerve to introduce their unwanted guest as Naomi Deva.
Sylvia hadn’t called him in here because she missed him, Den realized. She’d taken his retirement as temporary by deciding it was high time he got his uncertain butt back to work.
Nevertheless, he decided to stand on principle. He hustled her back out to the front room without so much as an “Excuse us” to a client he didn’t have the slightest interest in taking on. “You called me for this, darlin’?”
The little wench had enough composure to look annoyed with him. “You and I both know you’ll shrivel up and die before you give up investigating. You’re restless, Den. Why else would you sprint here on an injured leg the way you did if you weren’t ready to come back?”
“You know why,” he muttered, not too happy about how well she pegged him.
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