DISCLAIMER: Nikki & Nora are the property of Nancylee Myatt and Warner Bros. Television. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is the sequel to "Trial by Fire." You don't have to read that story to follow this one, but it might help. Thanks to darandkerry for the wonderful beta and title!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Playing with Fire
By Inspector Boxer
The door closed with a barely discernable click in the stillness of the hour. Thunder rumbled along at a leisurely, muted pace outside the open windows as the scent of rain washed in with a breeze that blew back the pale yellow sheers. Nora leaned against the wood, her whole body sagging against it as if she would drop to her knees without its strength to hold her up.
Dripping from head to toe, Nora could hear the big fat drops striking the rug under her feet. Ruefully, she looked at her cast and watched the water sluice down it. She thought it rather looked like a first grader's art project now. Her doctor was going to give her hell. Not to mention what her mother, a registered nurse, would say.
As if to punctuate that fact, a clap of thunder sounded outside the window with a flash of lightning, illuminating the darkened room. Nora jumped a little and watched, bemused, as her cat Reba came streaking by.
The detective took a slow, measured breath to calm her still drumming heart and slid wearily to the floor. Nora drew her knees to her chest and set her chin on them, watching the storm beyond her windows.
She'd kissed Nikki Beaumont.
Nora closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the door. She groaned and a shiver worked its way through her when she remembered the heat of Nikki's mouth, the taste of her. Nora knew she'd made a huge mistake kissing Nikki, but now she couldn't stop thinking about how much she wanted to do it again. How much she wanted to press Nikki up against the nearest flat surface and and
"Stop, stop, stop," Nora whispered into the darkness. "You can't," she hissed at herself.
The only thing that had stopped the kiss from progressing had been the onset of the sudden storm. It had rushed over them, opening up and unleashing a torrent of wind and water. Nikki had grabbed Nora's hand, leading her expertly through the perfumed gardens and into the house where the other guests had been smart enough to take cover long before the first drops fell from the sky.
Nora had quickly and pathetically made excuses before running for the hills, or at least her apartment. She prayed Nikki wouldn't follow. If her partner came to her tonight after what they'd just shared
Another shiver wracked Nora's wet frame. With a sigh, she eased back to her feet and headed for her claw foot tub. Her guts and head were churning, neither sure what to feel about the events of the last few hours.
A short time later, she submerged herself in warm water, careful to keep her cast perched on the tub's edge. Leaning her head back against the cool porcelain, Nora watched the candlelight flicker off the ceiling. It was hypnotic, almost as entrancing as Nikki's face had been when the lamplight had played over her features.
"What in the hell are you doing, Delaney?" Nora growled at herself. "She's your partner, dammit." There was a moment's pause. "She's a woman," Nora added in a softer voice.
A woman with beautiful curves, temptingly soft skin, and a mouth that
Nora groaned out loud before sliding completely under the water in a lame attempt to drown her unwanted thoughts.
"And hello to you, too, Nik," Darius greeted with a chuckle. He glanced at his watch.
"Aren't you supposed to be at your big, fancy schmancy dinner party?"
Nikki shifted her cell phone from one ear to the other as she moved away from the windows in her father's parlor. She noted with little surprise that her hands were shaking. "Darius, I think I did something really, really stupid."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Did you ?"
"I did. Oh did I ever." Nikki continued to pace. A towel was draped around her neck, but it was the only concession she'd made for her dripping appearance. She was thankfully alone. The other guests had mingled about on the covered porch and had finally settled in the kitchen to eat and cheerfully wait out the storm.
"Don't keep a man in suspense. Was it a good kiss?" Darius teased, figuring his friend needed to calm down before they could really talk.
Nikki stopped pacing and put her forehead against the nearest available wall. "Oh shit, Darius," she breathed.
His eyebrows elevated. "That good, huh?"
"It's just I can't I " Nikki stuttered. The detective was terrified she'd ruined everything with Nora, and yet, her body still felt like it was carrying an electric current.
"Hey now," Darius said a little more seriously. "Calm down. Where are you? I can come get you."
Nikki felt relief so keenly it brought tears to her eyes. "I'm still at my daddy's," she breathed.
"I'm on my way, sugar."
An hour later, they sat side by side in a small coffee shop. The scent of mocha and pastries hung enticingly in the air as Nikki brought her cup to her lips and took a sip. The coffee was too hot, and it burned all the way down, but it was just what she needed to shock her back into the present. "What in the hell did I go and do?" she finally asked, her first words since Darius had picked her up, cold and shivering, outside her father's house.
Darius ran his tongue over his teeth as he tried to decide how best to proceed. "Let's start with you telling me what happened."
So Nikki did, in a halting voice, sharing her memories of kissing Nora and her partner's subsequent flight from the scene.
"She's a little freaked," Darius easily surmised from Nikki's surprisingly detailed description.
"She didn't like it. I forced myself I ."
Darius smiled. "She liked it, Nik. Too much. That's the problem."
The detective looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup before she took another sip. "You really think so?"
Darius chuckled. "Sugar, since when do you not have confidence in yourself about these things?"
Nikki rubbed her forehead, her hand warm from holding her coffee. "That's just it, Darius. I can't get my head on straight with her."
"No pun intended?"
Nikki glared at him, before swatting his arm as Darius merely continued to laugh. "This is serious!" she whined. "I can't think clearly about this. I don't know what she's thinking, what she wants "
"What do you want?" Darius asked as his amusement faded. "Is this physical or something more?"
It was a question she'd been asking herself ever since she'd felt her first heavy stirrings of attraction for the blonde. Nikki wasn't sure, and the uncertainty had been driving her crazy. "I've known her for a handful of weeks."
"Soul mates have known each other lifetime after lifetime," Darius countered.
Nikki's head came up sharply as she looked at him. "Oh come on."
The informant held up his hands. "I'm just saying. It's not all that unusual for two people to connect as fast as you have. The Archer case was a tough one. It figures you'd bond."
The thought gave Nikki a measure of comfort and easy denial. "True."
"But that must have been one helluva kiss to mess with your head like this."
The detective shot him a look that only made him chuckle again. "It was," she confessed finally. "Even now, I just "
"Want to go to her apartment and tear all her clothes off?" Darius teased and was rewarded with Nikki's prominent blush. It was another telling sign. Nikki rarely got embarrassed when it came to frank talk about sex. "You two need to talk."
"It's just physical," Nikki replied, not sure she believed that. "We make great partners. We can't screw this up with sex."
"You really like working with her, don't you?"
Slowly, Nikki nodded. "I can learn a lot from her, Darius. I trust her to have my back."
"Is the job worth more than what you two could have?"
Nikki swallowed. "What we can have?" She shook her head. "The longest relationship I've ever had is with a leather jacket, and Nora has never even been with a woman. We'd be doomed to failure." The thought was supposed to buoy her spirits, but it had the opposite effect, making her eyes burn with tears.
Darius noticed but knew better than to comment. "Nik "
"I just we can't, Darius."
"You remember what I said about ignoring an itch?"
The detective took a deep breath and looked at him. "As I recall, that advice got me in a lot of trouble."
Darius didn't smile. "This isn't going to go away. The more you two try to pretend like you don't want this, the harder it's going to be to deny it."
"We'll see." Nikki leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "I have to go. I'm turning into a prune under these clothes."
Watching her leave and flag down a taxi just outside the door, Darius sighed audibly as Nikki slid inside and was whisked away. "How much are you gonna meddle in this, my man?" he asked himself, already suspecting the answer.
Nora glanced up from her desk to find Nikki standing in front of her, dressed in jeans and a button-down blue shirt. The blonde's heart lurched at the sight of the other detective, even though she'd been preparing for this moment all weekend.
"Hey," Nora greeted, only to clear her throat when her voice cracked.
Nikki's lips quirked on one side, but she didn't comment. She jerked her chin at Nora's cast. "You got a new one. Everything all right?" The dark-haired woman sat down at her desk as her heart felt like it was trying to beat out of her chest. Nora was wearing a dark brown t-shirt that was tucked into a pair of old, faded jeans. Her leather jacket was slung over the back of her chair. She looked so damn good Nikki wanted to pull her own hair out.
Nora held up her cast. "Yeah. The other one got " She trailed off when a flash of the circumstances that had ruined her last cast flickered across her mind's eye in Technicolor.
Licking her lips, Nikki nodded. "So are we still on desk duty or do we have an assignment?"
Nora didn't know whether to be grateful or hurt that Nikki had chosen not to talk about the kiss. "I haven't heard, yet."
As if on cue, Dan stepped out of his office and bellowed at them both.
"Guess that answers that question," Nikki drawled as she got to her feet and waited for Nora to join her.
Careful to leave some distance between them, they made their way to Dan's office and settled in the chairs on the other side of their superior's desk.
"What's up?" Nora asked.
"How's the arm?" Dan wanted to know.
"Healing well," Nora answered. "I'm cleared to be out on the streets."
"So I've heard." Dan glanced at Nikki before picking up a file off his desk and handing it to her. "You know Charles Wentworth?"
Nikki accepted the file and flipped it open. "He works in textiles. He's in his late seventies, I think. Crotchety old thing." She glanced at Nora and was pleased to see a slight grin shape her partner's lips.
"Not anymore," Dan replied. "He was found dead last night, floating face down in his slip at the pier."
The crime scene photos made Nikki wince as she got a look at the bloated man in evidence. "Time of death?" She handed the file to her partner, careful to keep their fingers from touching.
"Coroner thinks it was around seven Saturday night. Someone weighted the guy down, but it looks like the currents shook him loose. Good thing, too." Dan leaned back in his chair.
"Why is that?" Nora asked.
"He would have been chum if someone had started his boat. Someone wanted him sliced to ribbons by the propeller."
Both detectives grimaced at the imagery.
"Well that sounds personal," Nikki drawled. "Why are we just hearing about it now?"
"Georgia and Radek originally caught the case, but I want you two to handle it."
Nora glanced up from the photographs. "They aren't going to like having their case yanked out from under them."
"I'll deal with that. You two handle Wentworth. And close it fast. I don't want the press to latch onto another high profile death. They're still salivating on all the lurid details of the Archer killings."
The partners exchanged a look, nodding in silent agreement.
"We'll start with his ex," Nikki suggested as they left Dan's office. "Marjorie had good reason for wanting Charles dead."
"Yeah?" Nora asked as she dropped the file on her desk and slipped her jacket on.
"He cheated on her for four years and still managed to win almost everything in the divorce settlement."
"Ouch," Nora hissed. They stared at each other for a beat, their thoughts shifting back to the tension between them. "Listen," Nora started hesitantly.
"Nothing to listen to," Nikki cut her off firmly, but gently. "It was just a kiss, Nora."
She kept her voice low and light in case someone was listening.
"It's not like we're going to do it again." Nikki managed to dredge up a smile by sheer force of will.
They were the words Nora wanted to hear, but hearing them strangely hurt. "Right. I just thought we should clear the air is all."
"The air is all clear." Nikki grabbed her own jacket and headed for the parking lot, hoping she could get the tears she could feel threatening under control before Nora noticed them.
Nora watched her walk away, feeling a nameless emotion gripping her so hard she could barely breathe.
They opted to run by the marina first since it was on the way to Marjorie Wentworth's penthouse apartment. Nora parked the El Camino in the lot, grateful to be able to get out and move. The ride over had been tense and silent, as Nikki had thumbed through the file while Nora drove. Their only snatches of conversation had been about the case.
Nora slipped out of the car and stood in the late morning sun, taking in a deep breath and smelling the scents of fish, wood, and water assaulting her senses. She put her sunglasses on and waited for Nikki to join her before they headed down the ramp and toward the marina below.
There were no small boats in any of the slips, unless they were attached to much, much larger versions of themselves. Nora slipped a little on the wet wood and felt Nikki's hand wrap around her bicep to steady her.
"Don't want to get another cast wet," Nikki joked faintly.
Nora smiled at the attempt at humor. She glanced down at the post-it note in her hand. "Slip 362."
Nikki squinted into the sun as she glanced around. "Woof," she muttered suddenly as she pointed at one of the largest boats in the marina. "Wentworth could have given Noah a run for his money."
The blonde's eyebrows hiked to her hairline as she whistled. The boat was obscenely enormous, as big as her parents' house two times over. "Was he living on that thing?"
The detectives made their way across the docks until they came abreast of the boat. Crime scene tape still fluttered in the faint breeze, and they both ducked under it before making their way to the end of the small pier and taking measure of the craft up close.
Nora glanced where Nikki was pointing. They were staring at a ship called the "Fat Cat." "That is what we call excess," Nora muttered.
Nikki snorted. She leaned over and looked into the water, comparing what she was seeing to the crime scene photos now imprinted on her memory. "So the killer had to know the depth to give Wentworth enough rope to float at even height with the propeller."
Nora shivered a little at the thought. "That is just sick."
Nikki glanced at her and smiled. "No argument from me there. Wonder who was supposed to take the boat out next?"
"I bet that will wind up being important."
"Because the killer purposefully didn't turn on the boat him or herself."
Nikki nodded, understanding the logic. "Wanted someone else to live with the knowledge they shredded ole Wenty."
Shrugging, Nikki started for the small gangplank that would take them on-board. "That's what my daddy always called him. I don't think it was a nickname Wentworth particularly liked."
"Does your father make friends with anyone?" Nora asked as they stepped on-board and glanced around.
"Only people he has use for," Nikki admitted. She put her hands on her hips, doing her best to ignore the scent of Nora's perfume as it washed over her on a gentle breeze. Waves pushed against the boat, making it rock in a soothing side-to-side sway. "You want the top or the bottom?"
Nora sighed. "Crime scene techs and Georgia and Radek have been all over it." She noted the black fingerprint dust everywhere that had yet to blow away in the wind.
"I doubt we'll find much, if anything."
"Just the measure of the man and his money," Nikki agreed.
Nora pointed up and Nikki nodded. They moved off, splitting up as they entered the living area. Nora clamored up the steps to the top, while Nikki went below.
Two hours later, they emerged both hungry and empty-handed.
"The measure of this particular man is that he had too much money and didn't know what to do with it," Nora huffed as she climbed back into the car. "Think about the good he could have done with that cash, instead of spending it on something like that."
Nikki said nothing as she punched in Darius' number.
Nora watched her, aching a little for the friendly familiarity that was missing between them this morning. She started the car. "If you're calling Darius, have him meet us at Sweeny's. I'm starving."
Darius whistled into the quiet, earning a glare from Nikki and a sideways glance from Nora. They were all gathered in a booth at Sweeny's, eating their lunches in silence. He could see now why Nikki had freaked out over what had happened with Nora, but the tension between them also told him a hell of a lot about the nature of the feelings they shared.
He never thought he'd live to see the day when he would watch Nikki Beaumont finally fall in love. The thought made him smile as he chomped on a French fry and
Nora looked at him suspiciously.
"Something funny?" the blonde detective inquired.
Darius shook his head, his dreadlocks swaying. "Not at all, Detective." He smiled at her, and Nora narrowed her eyes in reaction.
Nikki wiped her mouth on her napkin and pushed her plate away. "All right. Tell us what you've got."
"I've got plenty," Darius promised, before sipping his soda.
"We plan to interview the ex-wife when we're done here," Nikki told him.
"She's a good place to start," Darius agreed. "I'm sure you know all about their nasty divorce."
"Only what I'd heard at parties and read in the gossip columns," Nikki replied.
"You read gossip columns?" Nora asked in surprise.
Nikki hesitated. "It's sort of required reading when you're dealing with New Orleans rich and famous." She sounded both embarrassed and slightly defensive. "You know, if Dan keeps slapping these kinds of cases on us, you might want to start reading them, too."
Nora looked appalled by the notion as she stuffed a fry into her mouth. Inwardly, she thought Nikki had a point, and she liked that Nikki seemed to think they could still work together. Nora had been privately worrying all weekend that their moment of weakness had destroyed their ability to be partners.
Nikki chuckled at the expression on her partner's face, and some of the tension in the booth eased.
"So fill me in," Nora told them. "Me being a public servant and from the wrong side of the tracks and all."
"Some would argue I'm the one from the wrong side of the tracks," Nikki countered with a slight grin. "Marjorie and Charles," she finally began. "A match made in hell if there ever was one."
"Amen," Darius agreed.
"They used to have these legendary fights at parties," Nikki went on. "I remember one where Marjorie brained her husband with a champagne glass she threw from the other side of the room. The woman has impressive aim."
Nora smiled and tried not to laugh as she stirred another fry in some ketchup. Nikki continued to fill her in on the former Wentworths, and Nora found herself enjoying the timbre of Nikki's voice, the accent that would thicken on some words and fade into nothing on others.
Darius nudged the blonde who blinked and looked at him. "What?"
"Earth to Nora," Darius drawled, suspecting where the woman's mind had been.
Green eyes shifted to Nikki who was smiling a little bashfully at her. "I just asked you if you were ready to go."
Nora glanced at her watch and realized she'd gotten lost in her thoughts of Nikki Beaumont for five full minutes. Her stomach fluttered, and she cleared her throat.
"Yeah. Sorry. I was just thinking about the angles of the case," she added when her brain unhelpfully called forth other angles it was far more interested in exploring. A blush roared onto her cheeks, and Nora drained the rest of her drink, crunching on the crushed ice left behind.
Nikki tilted her head, wishing like hell she could read Nora's mind right now. "If you say so, sugar. Did you even hear what Darius said about Charles' business partner?"
"Uh " Nora glanced at Darius as her brain frantically tried to recall words she'd heard, but not processed. "He sounds worth looking into." She was proud of herself for the response. It sounded like she knew what she was talking about.
Nikki nodded slowly, and Nora wondered if she'd guessed wrong.
"Ex-wife first, though," Nikki said as she shouldered her purse.
"Maybe Charlie will have the autopsy results for us by the end of the day," Nikki added as they slid out of the booth.
"Something to look forward to," Darius said with a sly grin. "You lovely ladies enjoy the rest of your day." The informant watched them leave together, captivated by their matching gaits and the sway of their hips.
"You thinking nasty thoughts?"
Darius chuckled as Syd slid into the booth, pocketing the money the detectives had left behind on the table. The owner of Sweeny's waggled a finger at him.
"Those two only got eyes for each other," Syd continued. "You don't got a chance in hell."
Taking a sip of his soda first, Darius gave Syd's statement some thought before replying. "They're clueless, Syd."
"This a blind man could see," the owner agreed. "But it's true and right."
Darius hesitated. "For real, man? You think those two ?" The informant wondered about Syd's seemingly psychic ability to know what customers wanted for lunch before they did. Did he know what the heart wanted as well as the stomach?
Syd winked at one of his best customers. "You wait and watch."
Darius smiled as he popped another fry into his mouth. "Now that's a show I'd pay admission to see," he admitted.
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