Rey held up a pink dress with a fluffy rabbit appliquéd on the white collar and tried to imagine it on his six-year old. All he could picture was a riot of black curls coming loose from ribbons, sparkling dark eyes and grubby knees. He sighed.
Rey turned around and stared at the woman who had called his name. It took him a moment to place her.
"Ms. Ross," he said, and his embarrassment at the pause must have shown, because she smiled in acknowledgement.
"It has been a long time," she said.
He returned her smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't recognize you without your..."
Her smile widened as his voice trailed away awkwardly and his eyes took in her pale blue summer dress that left her shoulders bare, a far cry from the business suits she had favored while working in the DA's office. "Change of uniform does that," she agreed.
He looked down at his own white T-shirt and faded jeans, and nodded.
"How are you?" he asked, trying to recall what he had heard of her reason for resigning from her job as Assistant District Attorney.
"Good," she said. "I get a chance to spend time with my daughter instead of criminals and I do some pro bono work when I get tired of the Bernstein Bears. What about you?"
"No such luck, I'm afraid. I still have to spend time with them." He grinned. "The criminals that is, not the Bears."
Jaime looked at the dress he was holding. "Not today though."
He pushed the dress back on the rack. "Mila's starting school on Monday, and she needs some new clothes, so I volunteered to go shopping."
She remembered hearing that he had left the Two-Seven because of his wife's illness. What was it? Parkinson's? No, multiple sclerosis. Jaime knew MS was a disabling disease of the central nervous system that could even lead to paralysis or loss of vision, and that took its toll not only on the person suffering from it but also on the caregivers.
She saw lines of weariness on his face that had not been there when they had worked together three years ago. He had been attractive in a quiet understated way, but now tiredness had blurred the good looks, making him thinner, more drawn. She remembered, too, his expression as he had stared at the pink dress. Totally out of depth.
"What a coincidence," she said. "I'm here for the same reason. Do you need help deciding?"
Rey hesitated. He had been on duty for fourteen hours and then up all night. He didn't know whether he was up to maintaining social graces with someone he hardly knew. Although he and Jaime Ross had worked on several cases together, they had never really engaged in personal chitchat and if she hadn't recognized him he probably would not have noticed her.
He looked at the rack full of dresses around him and saw only confusing choices. Decision made, he gave her a smile that had weakened many women's knees. "Thanks. I have a list here, if you can make sense of it."
Jaime took the slip of paper from him. "Fine. Let's do the school clothes first, and then we'll tackle the pajamas and underwear."
Rey stepped aside. "Lead the way."
"You wife hasn't written the size, so you'll have to tell me whether you think the clothes will fit."
"Sure, no prob. I can do that."
"And," said Jaime, smiling up at him. "You'll have to tell me about your daughter. Six-year olds can be pretty fussy. You don't want to get stripes when they want checks."
He laughed. "Voice of experience?"
Jaime nodded, "Katie knows what she wants and knows how to get it. She's like her father that way."
Her eyes clouded for a moment as she thought of the latest run-in with Neil over schools.
Rey looked down at her. "Oh, I don't know about that. I didn't figure you for a doormat."
Jaime felt his brown gaze on her, and for a split instant -- an insane instant -- it was if those chocolate eyes rolled off her skin in a smooth caress.
Shaken, Jaime stepped back. She saw his bewildered look and with an effort she said, "Sorry, lost my balance there."
If he noticed that her explanation was as weak as her supposed ankle, he didn't say anything. She continued, "You were telling me about your daughter."
He fell in step with her again. "Mila's like Deb. Small and bright. She's...she's not girly though."
He made a gesture with his hands. "Not delicate. No bows or lace or anything. She's sturdy."
"All right," said Jaime. "We'll try and find something sturdy and spunky."
"She likes to build things...and she likes cars. She wants a fire truck for Christmas."
"She sounds as if she knows her mind too," said Jaime. "Why didn't you bring her along? It would have helped you."
"The kids are at their grandmother's for the week. They come home tomorrow and then I won't have any off days before school starts."
He left unsaid why his wife couldn't take her shopping and Jaime felt a rush of compassion for the man in front of her. Their gaze touched for a moment and she looked away, her color rising as if she had been caught prying into someone' s private letters.
She stopped in front of a rack with denim pinafores with scalloped edges. They looked sturdy and spunky. She held up one for Rey, "What do you think?"
He took it from her and as their fingers brushed, once again Jaime felt as if she was losing her balance. She swallowed and quickly turned to the T-shirts hanging next to the pinafores.
As she felt the smoothness of the cotton fabric under her fingers she saw another T-shirt in her mind -- white and washed often enough that it was stretched taut over muscular shoulders. She groaned inwardly. He was a cop. He was married. He wasn't even her type. So why was she behaving like a schoolgirl with her first crush?
Hoping he wouldn't catch the strain in her voice, she said, "If you get these in different colors, and maybe another skirt or a pair of shorts she could mix and match them."
"Fine," said Rey. "Let's just get them."
Jaime picked all three color choices available in what Rey guessed was Mila's size.
"Shorts next," she said.
They selected the rest of the clothes in what would have been in polite silence if they hadn't needed to confer on color and size. As it was, Jaime made sure she held the hangers carefully so there would be no contact.
It took them almost an hour to go through the whole list, and as she walked behind him towards the service desk, trying hard not to be aware of the way his jeans clung to his hips, Jaime let her breath escape. It would be over soon, and she could go back to her organized life, away from these upsetting, uncomfortable ripples.
Immersed in her own thoughts, she did not see that Rey had stopped in front of a display of toys and she walked into him.
"Whoa!" he called, swiftly turning to catch her as she stumbled.
Jaime felt as if someone had punched the air out of her as his hands burnt her shoulders. She looked up at him, exposed and vulnerable, and their eyes clung. She saw the color drain out of his face and he snatched his hands away as if he had touched fire.
He bent to pick up the object that he had been looking at before she bumped into him, and Jaime saw that it was a doll in a glittering ball gown with long golden curls.
A large round-faced woman wearing a blue and red apron and a nametag looked at them from the other side of the display. She said, "Oh I see you have our last Mandy. If you want the accessories, they're just down the aisle."
Rey held it up towards Jaime. "What do you think? Shall I get it for Mila?"
Jaime looked at the doll with the perfect oval face and for some reason thought of David, her ex-fiancé. He had been made of plastic as well.
"I don't think she'll appreciate it. Remember she wants a fire truck for Christmas."
"Maybe she should play with dolls. After all she is a girl."
"That's Victorian, Rey. Next you'll be wanting her to play with a tea set."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Look, if you want to get her a gift for starting school, why don't you get her a book?"
Rey hesitated, still looking at the doll, and the woman in the store uniform laughed. "You'll be better off listening to your wife, sir. Young girls aren't what they once were."
Rey put the doll back on the shelf and avoided Jaime's eyes. "Let's just leave. It's getting late."
After Rey paid the cashier, Jaime said carefully, "I hope Mila likes the clothes."
"I'm sure she will." He looked at the bags she was holding. "You didn't get anything for Katie."
Jaime shrugged, "I'll get them another day."
He reached out for the bags. "Thanks. It would have taken me hours without you."
"Glad I could help," she said, and Rey knew that in spite of the unexpected ...strain... between them, she meant it.
As they walked down the central hallway of the mall towards the parking lot, Rey knew that he should make some excuse and move away in another direction, but it was as if his mouth had a will of its own that stopped it from reacting to what his mind was ordering.
"Would you like to have some coffee before you go?"
He saw her hesitate, and felt a strange disappointment, and then an immense sense of relief when she nodded.
They found a coffee shop of a chain well known for its flavored coffees. Rey indicated that Jaime should get a table while he stood in line to get their lattes.
Carrying the cups, he scanned the room for Jaime. The sunlight streaming through the window turned her hair into a shiny brown cap and the pearls in her ears to iridescent drops. His gaze hungrily skimmed the gleaming gold of her shoulders, and his stomach tightened instinctively. His hands still tingled from where they had touched her smooth skin. An image of a frail body with pain clouded eyes in an ashen face came into his mind and he was filled with an almost uncontainable rage at Fate -- and at Jaime for being vibrantly, temptingly, healthy. He clenched his hands till the heat from the cups scorched his palms, bringing him back to reality. Asking her for coffee had not been a good idea.
She smiled up her thanks as he placed the cup in front of her and slid into the seat opposite. They were silent for a while in which Rey became increasingly conscious that her delicate perfume was making him lightheaded.
"What news of McCoy?" he asked unevenly, in an effort to suppress his anger at himself with small talk.
He saw her frown, eyes concerned, but she said, "He's fine. I run into him from time to time in the courthouse though luckily I haven't had to go up against him. I've heard my replacement Abbie Carmichael has taken a job with the U.S. Attorney's office, so he's in for a new Assistant."
Rey looked up from stirring his coffee. "So he gets another McCoy Toy."
She looked at him steadily. "Is that what they called us?"
"He has a rep." Rey returned her gaze without embarrassment. "But I don't think you were ever on the list."
"Sweet of you to say so," she said, her voice biting.
"Now I've offended you."
Jaime sighed. "Never mind. It was a long time ago, and anyway Jack is a big boy. He doesn't need me to defend him."
"You like him, don't you?"
"You seem surprised."
Rey remembered the time McCoy had resorted to legal shenanigans to convict a cold-blooded cop-killer and had put him in the unsavory position of giving a testimony a hairbreadth shy of perjury. "Not my business, but I always thought he cut corners to win a case, and you don't seem like the sort to sit back and take things like that."
"You'd be surprised, Detective. I've mangled the truth in my time." She stared into her coffee cup. "Of the eight cases I tried as a defense lawyer I got seven acquittals. Neil and I even got a walk for a killer named James Carper despite the fact that his DNA was all over the crime scene. Three months later, he committed another vicious murder."
He looked at her curiously. "Is that why you gave up private practice to join the DA's office?"
"Among other things." She didn't want to go into the nightmare her divorce had wrought. "So, what about you? Do you miss the streets?"
Rey shook his head. "I thought I would, but I don't. I get more time to spend wi th my family and that more than makes up for any excitement of being on the scene. Here let me show you the girls."
He leaned forward, taking out his wallet and flipping it open to a photograph of three dark-haired girls laughing into the camera. Jaime looked at it with interest. It was probably taken at some summer picnic because all three of them were in swimming costumes. A vision of their father similarly clad came into her mind, and Jaime felt her color rise. She had obviously been without a man too long.
Her eyes shifted to another photograph; a younger happier Rey with a small dark haired woman, obviously pregnant and obviously glowing with health and happiness.
Her entire being focused on the woman that Rey was holding proprietarily against his side. Neither Neil nor David had ever held her like that, and for the first time she acknowledged the void in her heart. At least she had been smart enough to break off with David before she entered another ornamental marriage.
Jaime heard him as if he was speaking through a wall of glass. "That was taken just before Mila was born," he said almost inaudibly. " Deb fell down our front steps and Mila was born premature. The doctors said she wouldn't make it, but she was a born fighter. We named her Milagro, our miracle."
To distract herself from her inner turmoil, she rummaged into her handbag and drew out her own wallet. She showed him a picture of Katie. Unlike the one of his daughters, she carried a studio portrait. Jaime wondered idly if that said something about their personalities.
"She's beautiful," he said softly.
Jaime looked at the picture of her daughter smiling with the poise of an adult. "She gets that from her father as well."
"I would have said she got it from you."
Jaime's startled eyes flew to his face. He sounded... angry?
He avoided her gaze by looking down into his swirling coffee.
She glanced at her watch.
"Getting late?" he asked, and it seemed as if he was hoping she was.
She shook her head, then wished she had used that as an excuse to leave. She rushed into an explanation. " Katie is with Neil this weekend. I was just wondering what she would be doing?"
"Does she like being with him?"
Jaime shrugged. "When she's with him, she's his little princess. It gets a bit difficult to deal with w hen she gets home, but we manage."
They lapsed into silence again and it grew so heavy that Jaime found it difficult to breathe. She pushed back her cup. "I...I think I' d better leave. Thanks for the coffee."
He nodded, and stood up as well, gathering the shopping bags.
There was a bookstore by the entrance of the mall and Rey' s stopped in front of a large display window. He turned to Jaime. "What do you think she'll like?"
"I don't know. Maybe a story about another spunky girl. Katie likes Chester's Way."
"Really? I used to read that to Elena at bedtime when she was young."
Jaime looked at him curiously, "I'm surprised you found the time."
"Whenever the beat roster allowed. Elena and Isobel thought it was a treat for them when Daddy told them a story, but the truth is it was a treat for me."
He stared at the books but Jaime knew he wasn't really seeing them. "I miss not giving as much time to Mila. Things have changed since Deborah..." He stopped.
"I heard about her illness," she said gently. "How is she?"
He looked at her strangely, as if weighing her words for sincerity, and Jaime saw a flame leap in his eyes. He turned away immediately and his voice was distant as he said, "There are good days and there are bad days."
Jaime was silent, wanting to offer him comfort. She laid a hand on his arm and felt the muscles tense under her fingers.
His eyes darkened as he looked at her hand on his arm. "I love her, Jaime," he said.
"I know," she said, her heart twisting. She wondered what it would be like to inspire such fidelity. "I know."
Their eyes clung, and along with desire and confusion, Jaime saw the question that was torturing him.
She said carefully, "Sometimes...sometimes when travelers get lost in a desert, they see an oasis. It's peaceful and perfect and...tempting." She swallowed, her eyes holding his. "But when the travelers try to touch it, it turns out to be a mirage. It's not real, just a trick played by a tired mind."
His eyelids lowered, hiding his expression. For a long while they just stood there as if suspended in time. Then he picked up the hand that still rested on his arm and brought it to his lips in an oddly old-fashioned gesture that made Jaime want to cry.
"You have a wise and giving heart, Jaime Ross," he said quietly, letting go of her hand.
Without looking back, he walked out of the main door overlooking the parking lot.
Jaime's steps slowed as she saw a man in a white tee-shirt and jeans, leaning against her car in the mall parking lot, talking into his cell phone. He snapped his phone shut and straightened as she approached.
"How did you know which one was my car?" she asked.
"I called in a favor at the License Bureau."
"Oh," she said, tightly clutching the bag she was holding against her chest. The action reminded her what it was. She held it out to him. "I got you the book for Mila. I was going to...I was going to mail it you."
He took the bag from her, staring at the package as if it contained an answer to his dilemma before placing it on the car. Turning around, almost reluctantly, he faced her squarely. "Deborah was killed in a car crash eight months ago," he said quietly.
Jaime gasped, stunned at his words. He continued, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier." He looked away at the rows of cars parked behind her for a long moment, then swung his gaze back to where she was standing rooted to the spot. "I still find it hard to talk about it."
Jaime swallowed to ease the dryness in her mouth. "Why are you telling me now?" she asked.
She tried to read what was in his eyes as he stared down at her, but all she saw was wariness, uncertainty. He finally let out a deep breath, and his shoulders slumped as if he had settled some lingering inner battle. Still holding her gaze, he lightly brushed a thumb against her mouth, then let his hand slide down the side of her neck, resting his thumb against the hammering pulse at the base of her throat.
"Because," he said slowly, bending his head towards her, "sometimes when the lost travelers see an oasis, it really is an oasis."