When Hutch found out he’d been up on the roof, he was gonna flip.
But damn it, he was tired of being treated like an invalid. Tired of spending a year watching Hutch and Huggy and their friends work on the house, doing all the hard stuff, while he was stuck with the painting, for Christ’s sake. Tired of Hutch having a coronary every time he so much as lifted a hammer. After a lot of arguing, he’d finally won the right to nail a few chair rails to the walls, but that was about it. Because eventually, he’d gotten tired of the arguing too, and given in to Hutch’s overactive maternal instinct.
After all, Hutch only had his best interests at heart. He knew that. He also knew that having almost lost him once Hutch was shit-scared of losing him again, and that the feeling had never completely gone away, even though Starsky was now in no more danger of dying than he was of joining the Bay City Ballet. But the worry in Hutch’s eyes, annoying as it was sometimes, was genuine. And so Starsky had put his annoyance and his frustration aside for the sake of banishing that fear, even when he knew there was no rational basis for it.
Unfortunately, the mother-hen routine extended into their work lives, making it practically inescapable. Take today, for instance: Hutch was off working a case for their fledgling PI business, the one they’d started up after retiring from the force last year. Hutch insisted on calling it an equal partnership, although he did ninety-nine percent of the legwork. Most times, Starsky was relegated to the role of a particularly airheaded secretary—paperwork, bills and filing. He was surprised some days when Hutch let him answer the phone.
Starsky rose to his feet on the low-pitched roof and surveyed their little property, filled now with cheerful shrubs and flowers. The landscaping was the brainchild of Kiko and Molly, who’d spent most of this past summer—their last before college—working on transforming the sad old yard into a garden paradise.
Starsky crouched down again and reached for a brick from the pile. Sometimes he felt like none of this place belonged to him. Well, today he was going to mark his territory.
Hutch or no Hutch.
Over the last four and a half years, on occasions too numerous to count, Kiko Ramos had been grateful he had a little sister.
This wasn’t one of those occasions.
“Molly, please,” he begged, flopping back onto his bed and closing his eyes. “Just don’t start again, okay?”
A pillow smacked him in the face, hard enough to startle him. He cursed, and another one followed suit.
“Get. Up.” Her low, strident tone brooked no argument. “You have a class in half an hour. And I’m not going to let you cut another one.”
Reluctantly he cracked an eye open and was treated to the sight of her standing over him, her fists balled on her hips like an avenging Amazon. He knew deep down that she was only trying to look out for his best interests, but the fact that she currently had a better grasp of those interests than he did angered him. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a pain in the ass?”
With startling rapidity, Molly’s face crumpled, then reassembled itself into the impassive mask it had been moments ago. Kiko replayed the insult in his head and realized he had never said such a thing to her. He knew better than to invoke the ghosts of her past. His home, the home that had expanded to include her, was a refuge from those kinds of hurts.
At least it had been until he’d turned into someone he no longer recognized.
“God, I’m sorry,” he mumbled, running a hand over his face. “That was a terrible thing to say.”
“’Sokay,” she muttered, flopping down on the bed beside him. “I am a pain in the ass.”
“No, you’re not,” he said fiercely, hating that he’d momentarily transformed her into the unhappy little girl she’d been. Taking her hand, he brought it to his lips. “You’re my best friend, and my sister, and I love you, querida.”
“But?” she enquired, arching an eyebrow.
“No ‘but,’” Kiko answered. “I just—don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“You do, though,” she pressed, more gently than he was used to from her. “You’ve known for a long time.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she squeezed his hand to silence him. “And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with you, either—you’ve got to stop thinking about it that way.”
Kiko felt his gut churn around a sickening mixture of terror and self-hatred. “Nine tenths of the world wouldn’t agree with you.”
She smiled wryly. “I think you’re exaggerating. It’s four fifths at the most.” Still holding his hand, she asked, “Have you talked to Hutch yet?”
He looked away. “No.”
“Don’t you think it might help?”
Yes, he thought it would help; that was what scared him. Because Hutch would not only understand, Hutch would convince him that being the—the way he was—was okay. And he didn’t know if he was ready for that yet.
Molly was tugging on his hand, pulling him to his feet. “Come on,” she said, the steel back in her voice. “College first, then Hutch.”
“Yes, Mother,” Kiko sighed, realizing that ready or not, the decision had just been made for him.
“Oh, so now you’re going to give me the silent treatment, is that it?”
Hutch sighed as he poured himself a glass of juice. “I’m not giving you the silent treatment. I’m trying to figure out why you would do such a thing when—”
“When what?” Starsky barked. “When I’m still a fuckin’ cripple?”
Hutch turned to face his partner, the shock he felt written on his features. “Don’t say that. I never said you were—that.”
Starsky’s expression softened. “Then show me you mean it. Let me do somethin’ for once, Hutch, without fightin’ me on it every step of the way.”
“Starsk, you were up on the roof alone! I wouldn’t go up there on my own—”
“—That’s just ‘cause you’re scared of heights,” Starsky murmured softly, eyes sparking. Hutch resisted a powerful urge to smack him silly.
“—and you were laying brick in eighty degree weather! What if you’d become dehydrated—”
“I woulda come down and drank some water—”
“I woulda laid down until I felt better—”
Starsky shrugged. “I woulda aimed for that boxwood Molly planted under the living room window. Probably makes for a pretty soft landing.”
“Jesus Christ,” Hutch exploded, running a frustrated hand through his hair. He set down the glass before he could fling it against the wall. “Don’t you take anything seriously?”
“I take plenty seriously,” Starsky said, voice lowering. “And there ain’t nothin’ I take more seriously than this partnership. It’s been seventeen months since the shooting, and I’m doin’ as good as I’m ever gonna do. No, I’m not back to the way I was—I won’t ever be that and we both know it. But I am in good enough shape to lay a few bricks and nail two pieces of wood together, and I’m in good enough shape to be your partner in the business. Fifty-fifty, like we said we would. Like you haven’t let me be since we started it.”
When Starsky was finished his quiet tirade, Hutch stared at him for a full minute, mind reluctantly processing everything he’d said. With equal reluctance, Hutch realized that everything he’d just said was absolutely true. Starsky was fully recovered, and while he’d never again be fit enough for active street duty, he was in better condition than most working slobs out there. He’d been going to physiotherapy for well over a year, and his progress had been slow but steady. He certainly wasn’t the fragile, helpless creature Hutch had been coddling all this time. For it dawned on him now that he had been doing just that, trying to protect Starsky from every possible hurt and harm, no matter how ridiculous it was to try. Treating him like a child, or an idiot incapable of knowing his own limits.
The knowledge felt like a blow to the gut.
“Starsk,” he grated, “I’m sorry. I had no right—”
“Hey,” Starsky said, moving forward and laying a hand on Hutch’s shoulder, “you always got a right. You’re just watchin’ my back, I know that. But you gotta let me watch it too, okay?”
Hutch nodded, shocked into silence as sudden, humiliating tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. I didn’t watch your back. I didn’t watch it when it counted the most. And you almost—
Starsky frowned as he studied Hutch’s face. “Hey,” he said softly, hand tightening. “What’s the—”
A knock sounded on the door, startling them both. They turned as one, Starsky’s hand still warm on Hutch’s shoulder, and saw Kiko and Molly standing in the doorway, their expressions apologetic.
“We just—” Molly began. “Uh. Hi, fellas.”
“This is a bad time,” Kiko murmured, his eyes on the floor. “We’ll—”
“No!” Hutch said, too loudly, moving toward them, beyond the range of Starsky’s too-knowing grasp. “Come in. We haven’t seen you in—God, it’s been weeks.”
Molly nodded. “College is a drag.”
“Awww, poor baby,” Starsky drawled.
Molly stuck out her tongue at him, reminding Hutch of the little girl they’d once known. He laughed in spite of himself.
“You got the keys to the shed?” Molly asked abruptly.
Hutch stared at her. “Uh, hanging inside the door there,” he said, pointing to the kitchen cabinets.
“Thanks. While I was here, I thought I’d do some weeding.”
“But—” Hutch began.
“You want some help?” Starsky asked nonchalantly.
“Sure,” Molly said. Hutch looked at Kiko in time to see him roll his eyes, but the boy remained silent. In moments, the girl and his partner had disappeared out the back door, chatting merrily, and Hutch was alone with an obviously tense Kiko.
“What the hell was that all about?” Hutch murmured, heading for the fridge.
Kiko shrugged. “Molly must’ve called him earlier. I just hope she didn’t…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
Hutch decided not to press the matter, reaching inside the fridge instead for a can of Coke and throwing
it to Kiko, who caught it deftly. Hesitating for a moment, he grabbed a beer for himself, then moved to join the young man on the couch.
Young man. That’s what Kiko Ramos was now, Hutch thought, wondering idly if he had spent the last year and a half sleepwalking through life, unaware of the changes taking place in the people around him. He’d been so focused on Starsky’s recovery, on renovating the house they’d bought together, on building the business they owned together, that he hadn’t taken notice of the truly important things.
Such as the fact that Starsky had recovered, and that Kiko had grown up. Molly, too. The only mystery that remained was how the hell Hutch had missed these noteworthy events.
You know how you missed them, Hutchinson, his inner voice jeered. You were too busy staring at your own navel again. But then why break the habit of a lifetime now?
“So,” Hutch said, taking a long sip of his beer, “how’s school?”
Kiko barked a short laugh. “It’s good. I hear it’s good, anyway.”
Hutch frowned. “You haven’t been cutting classes.”
Kiko stared at the can in his hands. “Yeah. Now and then. But Molly’s been kicking my butt.”
“Why should she have to?” Hutch asked. “You were even wilder about going to college than she was.” Both he and Molly had emerged from high school at the top of their classes, earning scholarships in their chosen fields. Molly was taking courses in computer programming, and Kiko was studying social work.
“Yeah,” Kiko admitted. “But in the last couple of months, things have kind of—changed.”
Hutch remained silent, and after a few seconds, the younger man filled the gap. “I guess if I want to be honest with myself, it’s not really a change. I just—I can’t deny it any more. And I don’t know what to do.” His eyes squeezed shut, and Hutch felt the shuddering sob when it tore from the boy’s throat as though it had come from his own.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Hutch crooned, laying down his can and taking Kiko’s, then gathering the shuddering body into his arms. “Whatever it is, we’ll help you figure it out, okay? We’re here for you—Molly and Starsk and your mom and I—”
Kiko struggled for his freedom. “Not Mama! Don’t tell her, Hutch, please! I don’t want her to know—you gotta promise me—”
“Okay, Kiko, okay,” Hutch soothed, patting the boy’s arms. “I promise I won’t tell her.” He treated Kiko to a reassuring smile. “But you can tell me. You know you can say anything to me, right?”
Kiko gulped and nodded. “Yeah, I—I know. You’re one of the few people I thought would understand.” He wiped at his eyes. “You and Starsky.”
Hutch raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t comment. Was Kiko considering a career change—possibly an enrolment in the police academy? But if so, why was he so concerned about Consuela finding out?
Pushing his own thoughts aside, he prompted gently, “So what is this great and terrible secret, huh?”
Kiko took a deep breath, then met Hutch’s gaze. “I—I met someone at school. And I think—I think I’m in love.”
Hutch stared at him for a few moments. “But—but that’s not terrible!” he exclaimed finally, laughing and punching Kiko playfully on the shoulder. “That’s wonderful news!” Hutch’s heart leapt in sympathetic joy for the young man. Honestly, teenagers made everything seem like such a tragedy nowadays. Whatever the reason Kiko wanted to keep the romance a secret from his mother, Hutch was sure it wouldn’t matter in the long run. “So when do we get to meet her? What’s her name?”
But Kiko’s doleful expression hadn’t altered. He opened his mouth, closed it without speaking, then opened it again.
“His name,” Kiko rasped, “is Frank.”
“You’re not getting it out of me, copper!”
“Talk or I shoot!” Starsky exclaimed, finger on the trigger of the hose, legs spread slightly in his best firing stance.
“Do your worst!” Molly yelled, all toughness and flashing eyes, though when the first spray of water leapt free she turned tail and dove behind the nearest rhododendron.
Laughing, Starsky shut off the hose and walked over to her hiding spot. “You still got good reflexes for a computer nerd.”
“Hey!” Molly said, brushing herself off and sitting up. “I resemble that remark.” Taking the offered hand, she allowed Starsky to pull her to her feet. It occurred to him that she’d never treated him any different after the shooting; no one understood better than their Molly the need to meet hardship with a brave front, as though staring down the fear would be all it took to vanquish it.
Their Molly. Although Kiko and his mother had taken her in, she’d spent a considerable amount of her adolescent years with Starsky and Hutch, whose role in her life was analogous to doting uncles. The streetwise toughness she wore when they’d first met had gradually faded, though never completely disappeared. The two men understood that toughness, that necessary protection, and along with Kiko and his mother had helped her to balance that with a vulnerability and openness she’d never allowed herself to display.
One night while he lay in the hospital thinking about life and death and all that jazz, it hit Starsky that Molly was probably the closest thing to a daughter he’d ever have. The idea didn’t sadden him the way he thought it might.
He looked into her eyes now and saw that she was wearing a curious, affectionate expression, then realized he was still holding her hand. “Sorry,” he said, letting go.
“Don’t be,” she said, cocking her head. “Something wrong?”
“Naw,” he assured her, slinging an arm around her shoulder. “Just—thinking about what great kids you turned out to be.”
“Oh, thank you, kind sir,” Molly drawled, leaning her head on his shoulder and batting her eyelashes at him.
“Brat,” Starsky muttered, giving her a hard squeeze. “So, you’re not gonna tell me about your boyfriends, huh?”
“Nothing to tell,” Molly said, shrugging. “All the guys in my class—well, I don’t think they’ve figured out whether I’m fish or fowl.”
Starsky frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I am one of three women in the entire class of Computer undergrads, and I’m sure the speculation is that we’re not interested in men.” She sighed. “Of course, most of these guys look like they wouldn’t know what do with a woman if one fell into their laps, so it’s not exactly like I’m pining for their masculine attentions.”
Starsky bit back an affectionate smile. Even grown up, Molly still tended to bandage her wounds with bravado and sarcasm. “Don’t worry, Pete,” he murmured, using the nickname only he still used. “They’ll come around. Or maybe you’ll wow the captain of the football team, huh?”
Molly stuck out her tongue. “Football—”
“—stinks,” they both chimed together. Molly burst out laughing and kissed him on the cheek.
“So what’s up with Kiko?” Starsky said, releasing her and bending to pick up the hose.
Molly shook her head. “He’s having a tough time. I’m hoping Hutch can help.” She paused, then ventured, “Well, the both of you, really.” She waved a hand. “You, uh, I mean I think you’ll do a better job of it than I have.”
Puzzled by her suddenly shy tone, Starsky began coiling the hose around his arm. “Oh, yeah? He got himself some guy trouble?”
Molly smiled enigmatically, an uncharacteristic blush appearing on her cheekbones. “Yeah. Guy trouble.”
When the silence stretched for more than a minute, Hutch realized he’d better say something.
Too bad he didn’t have the first goddamned idea of what to say.
“I, uh, I—” he floundered. Annoyed at himself, he took a deep breath and began again. “Are you and this Frank—seeing one another?”
Kiko shrugged. “Sort of. He—we’ve gone out a few times, just for burgers and that. He wants to go dancing this weekend, but I—I’ve never been to a club, and I’m—a little nervous.”
Of course he’d be nervous, Hutch thought, protective instincts slamming into gear. Besides being underage, Kiko was fairly innocent in the ways of the world. Chances were this Frank was a lot older than he was, and had picked him out of the crowd because of his perceived gullibility. What kind of sweet line had the poor kid been handed to make him think this Frank character cared about anything but getting his hands on—
Hutch blinked. “Sorry, buddy,” he said, putting on his most understanding smile. “What were you saying?”
“Well, I was saying that I’m nervous, ‘cause I’ve been—leading him on. See, he thinks I’m the experienced one, and I kind of let him think that, but the truth is I don’t know any more than he does, and what happens if I go to this club and—”
“Wait a minute.” Hutch frowned, trying to make sense of Kiko’s verbal diarrhea. “How old is this guy?”
“He’s eighteen, just like me,” Kiko said. “But he, well, I kind of let him think I was older—”
“Kiko,” Hutch murmured, rubbing the throbbing spot between his eyebrows with his thumb, “what exactly did you want me to help you with?”
“I, uh, I didn’t really—well, Molly said I should—that is—”
The throbbing increased in tempo; Hutch’s smile remained frozen on his face.
“I guess—I guess I’m just scared. I thought if I kept telling myself I wasn’t, that eventually I’d find a girl who—but then Frank—” Kiko’s face crumpled. “God, Hutch. When I’m with him, I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and when I’m not, it all comes crashing down on me. What Mama will say, what my friends in the barrio will think, how I’m going to live—” Unable to go on, he collapsed into tears.
Hutch pulled the boy into a comforting embrace, one hand making small circles on his back to ease his crying. “It’s gonna be okay,” he murmured. “I know it seems tough now, but it’s gonna be okay.”
After a couple of minutes, Kiko wiped his face with the back of his hand and gazed up at Hutch imploringly. “How did you—you and Starsky—manage it?”
Hutch’s hand stopped its motion as his brain absorbed the question. “How did we—what?”
Kiko gulped and sat up. “I’m sorry—I know it’s personal—”
“No, it’s not that,” Hutch said, shaking his head. “It’s only that I don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Being cops and being—together. How did you manage it?”
Hutch stared at him. His inner voice, normally no more inclined to strong profanity than he was, could only offer the uninspiring mantra holy shit. Holy shit. Holy fucking shit.
Kiko thinks that Starsk and I are a couple.
Aloud, he heard himself blather, “We, uh…we…That is, we—it’s not really the same as your situation.”
Kiko said nothing, merely continued to regard him with that mixture of shy hope and devastation that made Hutch want to do anything to ease that pain. But he couldn’t lie to the boy, couldn’t make up some fantasy of a relationship that didn’t exist.
No, you couldn’t ever compromise your principles and do something so underhanded as lie, his inner voice taunted, obviously having found its eloquence once again. You have to tell this boy right away that you and Starsky are straight, robbing him of any role models he might have constructed in his mind. You have to do whatever you can to make him feel even more abnormal than he already feels.
“Look, all I’m saying is that you shouldn’t look to us for an example of how you should feel or how you should be.” He suppressed a wince at the evasion and continued on. “What’s important is how you feel, Kiko. And if you’ve fallen in love, then it’s a precious gift, and you can’t give it up because you’re worried about what the rest of the world might think.”
Kiko drew a long, shuddering breath, then offered up a tentative smile. “Thanks, Hutch,” he said quietly. “You always know the right thing to say to make me feel better.”
Returning the smile, Hutch resolutely ignored the guilt churning in his stomach.
Starsky knew it was going to piss him off, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Dammit, quit laughing!” Hutch roared.
“I can’t help it!” Starsky returned, wiping at his eyes as he reached into the cupboard for the spaghetti. “Jesus, I thought you were gonna tell me somebody’d died. The look on your face—”
“You don’t think this is a serious situation?”
The reminder of their earlier conversation struck Starsky, sobering him instantly. “Yeah, it’s serious. Serious as a heart attack. Kiko’s got a rough road ahead of him. But it’s not like we didn’t already kinda know…” Starsky frowned at Hutch’s blank look. “Wait a minute. You didn’t know he was probably—”
Hutch folded his arms. “How could I have known when Kiko just told me half an hour ago?”
Measuring the pasta by hand, Starsky dropped the perfect quantity into the boiling water, then grabbed a wooden spoon to stir the sauce. “Aw, Hutch, c’mon. We been around the block enough times to spot—“
“He’s not some hustler trolling the Strip!” Hutch exclaimed.
Starsky sighed. When Hutch got himself worked up like this, carrying on a conversation was like walking through a minefield. You never knew what was going to set him off. “Look,” he said, deliberately gentling his voice, “all I’m sayin’ is that I had a hunch he was—that way. He never had any girlfriends, never even showed any interest in girls, and he was always—well, a big-hearted kid.”
“Are you saying you can’t be big-hearted and straight?”
Starsky rolled his eyes. “Do you even remember bein’ a teenage boy? Most of ‘em are self-centered pigs. I sure as hell was.” He placed the lid back on the pot of sauce and turned to face Hutch. “The bottom line is, it doesn’t change how we think of him. He’s still the same great kid he always was, right?”
“That’s not the point,” Hutch muttered, rubbing at his forehead. Great, thought Starsky. Hutch in a snit was bad enough, but Hutch in a snit with a headache was a hundred times worse.
“Then tell me what the point is so I can finish cookin’ dinner,” Starsky said, unable to keep some of the irritation he felt from creeping into his voice. He turned away to minister to the sauce again, the familiar routine restoring his equilibrium.
When Hutch didn’t answer right away, Starsky turned back to look at him. The mixture of regret and embarrassment in the other man’s expression surprised him. Reaching out instinctively, he laid a hand on Hutch’s arm, then waited for him to speak.
“I lied to him,” Hutch said heavily, expelling a breath. “Not directly, but I might as well have. And I don’t know how to tell him the truth.”
“O-kay,” Starsky said slowly, keeping his expression neutral, though this was not what he’d been expecting Hutch to say. When Hutch appeared frozen, he prompted, “The truth about…”
“Us,” said Hutch, eyes on the boiling pasta.
“Us. As in you-and-me us?”
Hutch nodded, but remained silent.
Starsky heaved a mental sigh. “So, tell me.”
Hutch’s gaze finally met Starsky’s. “We’re his role models, Starsk.”
“Oh,” Starsky said, relief washing over him. That was nothing new; they both knew the kids looked up to them. What was the big deal about that?
“Yeah. Oh,” Hutch parroted, eyebrows raised.
Starsky stared at him for a moment as realization dawned. “Oh. Shit. You mean he thinks we’re—” He pointed a finger at Hutch, then wagged it back and forth between himself and the other man.
“Yeah,” Hutch said, sagging back against the counter.
“Huh,” Starsky grunted. Now that he considered it, it wasn’t such a shocking revelation. “Well, it’s not like it’s the first time anybody’s thought that about us. There were rumors goin’ around the force for years…”
“That’s not the same!” snapped Hutch, propelling himself away from the counter. “None of the people spreading those rumors actually knew us, Starsk. This is Kiko we’re talking about.”
“And Molly,” Starsky blurted, snippets of their earlier conversation echoing in his head. I think you’ll do a better job of it than I have.
Hutch stared at him. “What?”
“S’not important,” Starsky murmured, waving a hand. “The thing is, it’s not so crazy for them to have figured it that way. I mean, it’s not like you and I ever talked to them about the stewardesses we bagged—” Hutch made a face “—or the relationships we were in. And whenever we came over to visit ‘em, it was always—”
“—just the two of us,” Hutch finished for him.
“Right. And after I was shot, you were with me practically every damned minute. Then we moved into this house, started the business together, and—hell, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck—”
“Yeah,” Hutch acknowledged, closing his eyes as if in pain.
“Hey, cheer up, blintz,” Starsky said, patting him on the cheek. “You could do worse.”
Hutch opened his eyes and fixed him with a glare. Starsky looked down, surveying his own chest.
“Okay, so my tits are a little hairy. But I make a mean arrabbiata sauce.”
Hutch stared at him for another moment, then burst out laughing. “Meathead,” he muttered, without rancor.
Starsky shrugged. “I know you’ve got your principles, but to be honest with you, who gives a shit about principles right now? Right now, the kid’s hurting. He thinks there’s somethin’ wrong with him, that he’s not normal, that being in love—the greatest feeling you can ever have—is something dirty. Telling him we’re not what he thinks we are will send him over the edge. You know that.”
“I know. That’s why I couldn’t do it.”
“Okay, then. Once he’s steadier on his feet, we can let him know the score. But for now—”
“For now, we keep our mouths shut,” Hutch finished. "All right. It’s not the best solution, but I guess we’ll have to go with it.”
“Good. That’s settled.” Turning toward the fridge, Starsky began rummaging for the Parmesan cheese. Hutch pulled open a drawer and took out the grater. Starsky straightened and tossed him the cheese, which Hutch caught one-handed.
They worked together in amiable silence for a couple of minutes before Hutch spoke again. “So there’s just one other thing,” he began, his eyes never leaving the block of cheese he was grating.
“Yeah?” Starsky said, taking out a piece of spaghetti and testing it. Still a little too al dente for Hutch’s white-bread palate. “Get the drainer, willya?”
Obediently, Hutch snagged the metal colander from the rack suspended above their heads. “We’ve got a job Saturday night.”
“Hm?” Starsky grunted absently as he lifted a spoonful of sauce to his mouth. “What kinda job?”
“Kiko said he’s going to a disco for the first time, and I want to keep an eye on him.” He arched an eyebrow at Starsky. “So polish your dancing shoes, lover.”
Starsky swallowed convulsively around the mouthful of sauce, then began choking. Hutch delivered a couple of sharp whacks to his back.
“Quit that!” Starsky yelled between coughs. “Kiko’s goin’ to a gay bar?”
“Where did you think he’d go on a date?” Hutch drawled. “A Junior League picnic?”
“Christ, he’s only eighteen!”
“And how old were you when you snuck into your first bar?”
Starsky shook his head. “That’s not the point.” Hutch fixed him with his best penetrating gaze, and Starsky colored, conceding the small victory. “Okay, okay. So we go there and do what? Spy on him from behind a potted palm?”
“I haven’t planned that far ahead,” Hutch admitted. “I only know I want to keep an eye on him. You know what some of those places are like. If they see a sweet young thing like Kiko—”
“—they’ll be all over him like white on rice,” Starsky finished. “Oh, man.” He ran a hand over his face. “And if he spots us? Then what?”
Hutch looked at him for a moment, then, lightning-quick, he yanked Starsky into his arms and spun him until all Starsky could see was the ceiling—and Hutch’s face, hovering a few inches above his own.
“Then,” said Hutch, affecting a sultry Spanish accent, “we dip. Like Ramòn.”
It was sad that this was the first time Hutch had been out dancing in a year and a half.
It was even sadder that he hadn’t really paid much attention to the extinction of his social life after the shooting. Oh, sure, he’d been aware of the fact that he rarely went out any more. Anyone who’d been as successful in the dating game as he had once been would notice the lack of feminine companionship. But between overseeing Starsky’s painful recovery, renovating the house and building the business, he’d barely had enough time to sleep, let alone see to his own sexual needs. And in the end, though it was crude to think of it in those terms, his right hand didn’t need wining, dining or foreplay to get it in the mood. For those reasons alone, it was a savings in time, energy and money, and all of those commodities had been in short supply lately.
Those hadn’t been the only reasons he’d been reluctant to get back into the dating game. Truth be told, the endless round of bars and nightclubs had been starting to bore him even before the shooting. The miasma of desperation that hung over the singles scene seemed to cling to him more tenaciously as time went on, a product of both the changing times and his advancing age. As much as it pained him to admit it, it was now accurate to say that he was ‘pushing forty.’ Add to that the disturbing prevalence of cocaine in the discos these days, and Hutch could safely say he had grown beyond the need for one-night-stands.
The problem was, he wasn’t having any more success at long-term relationships. The handful of women he’d met in the last couple of years who might eventually have led him to the for-better-or-for-worse stage weren’t interested in a man who had approximately five minutes a week to spare for them. Which left him at the end of each day with the one person who’d truly shared the best and worst moments of his life.
David Michael Starsky.
Hutch sighed as it occurred to him that apart from the sex, Kiko hadn’t been as far off the beam as he’d originally thought.
The man in question was currently standing beside him, bouncing on his heels and surveying the gyrating masses of male flesh on the disco floor below them as though he were watching a mildly interesting Rams game.
Shaking himself mentally, Hutch forced his mind away from his own troubles. Tonight was for Kiko, and he’d do well to remember that. Given their current surroundings, it was crucial that he also stay alert. They’d barely walked in the door when Starsky had received his first ass-pinching, and over by the bar there was a huge guy in leather chaps who was looking Hutch up and down like he was the Blue Plate Special at a truck stop.
“Geez,” Starsky said in his ear. “Didja catch the Midnight Cowboy over there?”
Hutch turned his head to speak in Starsky’s ear, the only way they could make themselves heard above the throbbing disco beat coming from the dance floor. “If you make eye contact with him, you may be fighting him for me later.”
“I thought he was lookin’ at me!” Starsky yelled back, grinning. It should have annoyed him that Starsky seemed so nonchalant in the bar, but seeing his partner back in action was heartening. Starsky had that mischievous twinkle in his eye that usually foreboded trouble. It surprised Hutch to realize he hadn’t seen that look on his friend’s face in a hell of a long time.
It surprised him even more to realize that he’d missed it.
Still, he felt compelled to play the role he’d carved for himself, and so he wrapped a hand around Starsky’s bicep when the other man made a move toward the bar. “Let’s remember why we’re here,” he admonished. Starsky made a face, but nodded.
“Okay. So how do we blend in, Blondie?”
Hutch surveyed the scene. Apart from the prevalence of same-sex couples, the layout was that of a standard disco, with a lighted dance floor below ringed by a raised catwalk. Several wide doorways led beyond that to smaller lounges equipped with bars and—no doubt—back rooms. They’d busted enough lowlifes preying on young kids in dives like this when they were rookies. The thought that Kiko might end up in one tonight made him cringe.
“Let’s take a slow walk around,” Hutch suggested, pointing toward the catwalk. “If we don’t spot him on the dance floor, we can try the lounges.”
Starsky’s gaze trained on one of the doorways and his face clouded; doubtless he’d had the same thought as Hutch. “Yeah. Sounds good. Lead the way, sweetheart.”
As Hutch turned toward the stairs, he yelped when a sharp pinch was delivered to his left ass cheek. Whirling around, he fixed Starsky with his best glare.
Maddeningly, Starsky parried the glare with his best devilish grin. “Fifty-fifty, partner,” he drawled in Hutch’s ear.
Hutch made an after-you gesture with the broad sweep of an arm. Still grinning, Starsky jogged up the stairs, his own ass wiggling provocatively.
Hutch sighed. This was going to be a long night.
Damn, it was good to be out of the house for a change.
Oh sure, he got out plenty of times in the run of a week. There was physio, and the bank, and maybe, if he was really lucky, they’d grab lunch at Huggy’s a couple of times when Hutch wasn’t running from pillar to post. But he hadn’t been out after dark in so long, he’d been starting to feel like a vampire in reverse. On the nights when Hutch did surveillance work, he’d insist that Starsky stay home. Like sitting around in a car drinking bad coffee would kill him. Okay, maybe he’d risk death from boredom, but that was about it.
Thank God Hutch was laying off on the mother hen routine tonight; he’d obviously taken Starsky’s earlier words to heart. Starsky felt kind of bad that he’d put it that bluntly, but he’d literally been at the end of his rope. He wasn’t ever going to be one hundred percent, but his seventy-five to eighty could still beat most of the guys his age.
And if he needed any proof of that, all he had to do was look around. He’d been on the receiving end of numerous appreciative looks, touches and—yeah, pinches—since walking into the club. Not bad for a place where most of the men were younger than him and there was more muscle on display than at Hutch’s gym. The fact that all the attention was male didn’t bug him as much as it would’ve a couple of years ago. Maybe his ego was so starved for a boost it didn’t care where it came from, or maybe he was mellowing as time went on.
Starsky shrugged. Whatever. There’d be plenty of time to psychoanalyze himself tomorrow; right now, they had a job to do.
And damn, but that felt good too. As much as he hated that the job involved Kiko’s safety, Starsky was high on the buzz of being—well, if not a cop, then at least one of the good guys again. His heart rate had ratcheted up a few notches, his spidey-senses were a-tinglin’, and he was…
Oh, shit. He was hard.
Eyes glued to the dance floor, he turned some of his mental energy inward, setting it to work on willing his rebellious erection away. Sure, he’d occasionally popped a boner in the heat of the chase. It was one of those primitive caveman instincts Hutch was always lecturing him about. His partner managed to make it sound like Starsky was the Neanderthal, the throwback, but Starsky knew from experience that Hutch’s—ah, instincts—could be just as primitive as his own now and then. Surreptitiously, he shot a glance at the front of Hutch’s jeans, but didn’t notice any visible swelling.
Jesus, Starsky thought, closing his eyes briefly before returning to his study of the dance floor, you’re fittin’ right in here, aren’t you? Hard as a rock and checkin’ out the competition besides.
“Hey, you with me?”
Starsky started guiltily as Hutch’s breath gusted across his ear, bringing him sharply back to reality. His rebellious cock twitched in his pants as if in sympathy.
“You’re not helpin’,” Starsky muttered to his dick.
“Nothin’.” He turned to Hutch, glad the dim lighting probably kept him from seeing the blush. “You see ‘em yet?”
Hutch shook his head. Starsky turned his attention from the dance floor to the tables arrayed in front of the bar. There was an open area here where people could sit and drink, and the music seemed less loud; there were probably sound deadening tiles installed in the ceiling, Starsky guessed. His detective’s gaze conducted a quick sweep of the scene, then refocused when his instincts told him something was out of kilter.
There. About fifty feet away and to their right. Big guy, lots of muscle, looming over a smaller man. The smaller one was backed right up against the wall, but he was in a corner and there was nowhere to go. His left hand shot out, made contact with the guy’s unyielding chest—
And in the next instant another body launched itself at the big guy’s back—
Starsky turned to Hutch, but he was already moving. Heart pounding, Starsky sprang to follow him.
Son of a bitch.
Hutch kept telling his feet faster, faster, faster, but they were trying to get him through a goddamned obstacle course of tables and chairs and people; it felt like swimming in molasses. Dimly, he registered a couple of outraged exclamations as he shoved objects—animate and inanimate—out of his way, but he couldn’t take the time to apologize.
Kiko was in trouble.
Or rather, the boy he assumed to be Frank was in trouble, and Kiko was coming to his defense, landing punches and kicks on the leviathan threatening Frank wherever he could. The only problem was, the larger man seemed as impervious to the assault as an elephant was to a bee sting. Hutch watched as the huge head turned and surveyed Kiko. The mouth moved in speech, and then a massive arm went around Kiko’s shoulders and reeled him in close.
Finally, finally the mass of debris parted, leaving Hutch a clear path. “Get your fucking hands off him!” he shouted, racing forward.
The big man turned again, bringing a struggling Kiko with him as he did. A puzzled frown knit his brow as he studied Hutch. Hutch’s hands clenched into fists while he contemplated his next move. If he launched himself at the man now, there was a good chance Kiko would be hurt. God, one twist from that massive hand and Kiko’s neck would snap like a twig—
“You heard the man.” Hutch heard Starsky’s voice, low and dangerous, at exactly the same instant he felt Starsky’s warmth at his left side.
The goon stared at them both for a moment, then looked at Kiko. “Friends of yours, chicken?” he asked mildly.
“Yeah, he’s our friend,” Hutch growled. “And if you know what’s good for you—”
“Oh, please,” the man sighed, releasing Kiko and raising his hands, “let’s not get dramatic. I didn’t realize they were taken. And I’m not interested in circle jerks tonight, so I’ll just seek greener pastures, shall I?” And with a smile and a wave, he turned to go.
Hutch felt Starsky take a step forward; instinctively, his arm shot out to stop him. “It’s okay,” he said, more to convince himself than his partner. He watched as Kiko visibly sagged in relief, then drew a shaking Frank into his arms.
“You all right?” Hutch asked, walking forward to clasp the younger man’s shoulder.
“Yeah, we will be,” Kiko said, still holding Frank. “Thanks, guys.” Then, seeming to realize his position, he loosened his hold on the other boy and stepped back. “Uh, this is Frank. Frank Tanner, my very good friends Starsky and Hutch.”
As Frank and Starsky shook hands, Hutch took the opportunity to take stock of Kiko’s friend. The kid was youngish looking and gangly with short, almost platinum blond hair and freckles. His grip was firm for someone who’d probably just had the wits scared out of him.
What kind of handshake did you think he’d have? Hutch’s conscience admonished. Limp as a wet noodle?
“So what’re you guys doing here?” Kiko asked. “I didn’t know you went dancing together.”
Hutch opened his mouth, but before any sound could emerge, he felt an arm go around his shoulders and squeeze. Startled, he turned to look into Starsky’s grinning visage.
“Yeah, well, we don’t tell you everything, young man,” Starsky said, eyes still on Hutch. As Hutch processed this extraordinary statement, Starsk shot him a wink that to anyone else would simply appear playful, but to Hutch said, Go with me on this one.
“Oh, right, you’re the guys Keek was telling me about,” Frank said, voice a little more confident now. “The cops—uh, pardon me, policemen.”
“Ex-cops,” Starsky corrected, arm still wrapped around Hutch. “I took a few too many in the chest to continue a career in law enforcement.” With his other hand, he deftly undid a couple of buttons on his shirt, fully baring the scars he’d always refused to hide.
Frank whistled lowly, earning him an elbow in the ribs from Kiko. The kid laughed and protested, “I didn’t mean it like that! I meant, wow, it’s amazing you survived.”
“Yeah,” Starsky agreed, “it was amazin’ all right.” He aimed a smile at Hutch, who felt his cheeks warm inexplicably. The night they’d settled into the house they’d both gotten roaring drunk, and Starsky had finally told him about his near-death experience. It seemed he’d dreamed that Hutch was running toward him, calling for him to come back, and wasn’t that the craziest thing you ever heard?
Hutch had started bawling then, and hadn’t been able to stop for a good twenty minutes. It still ranked as one of the most embarrassing moments of his entire life, including the time his mother walked in on him while he was masturbating.
“So you think you can keep up with us on the dance floor?” Kiko asked archly, an amused challenge in his eyes.
“Depends,” Starsky drawled. “They ever gonna play a polka?”
Both boys laughed at Starsky’s quip, and Hutch found himself joining in. His laugh caught in his throat, however, when the boys started to move toward the dance floor. He held up a hand and opened his mouth again, but once more Starsky beat him to the punch. The upraised hand was seized in Starsky’s strong grip, and then he was being towed forward.
Toward the stairs to the dance floor.
“Uh, Starsk,” he began, panic flooding his limbs with adrenaline.
Starsky pulled him close and placed his mouth close to Hutch’s ear. The vibration against his earlobe tickled. “You forgotten the Golden Rule, sweetheart?” he demanded. “Do Not Blow Thy Cover.”
Giving in, Hutch allowed himself to be dragged in the direction of the stairs.
He could do this. They could do this. There wasn’t another option.
The disco floor was packed, hard bodies swaying provocatively to a mindless beat. There was so much heat and sweat in the air it felt like a tropical fucking rainforest; Starsky half expected to look up and see Tarzan swinging from a vine. Only this time there’d be no Jane on his arm, just a really hunky guy in a leopard-print loincloth.
Gaze switching between Kiko and Frank and the rest of the dancers, Starsky didn’t have much time for Hutch, but he could tell the blond was balking at Starsky’s plan. Well, too damned bad. He’d gotten them into this mess, and he’d just have to go with the flow now that Kiko knew they were here.
He half suspected Hutch had been about to tell Kiko the truth right then and there after the Human Mount Everest had left with his dick between his legs. That would’ve been fabulous timing—Well, Keek, the thing is we didn’t think you could handle being out with the big boys, so we decided to spy on you. And by the way, did we happen to mention we’re really straight? Yeah, that would’ve gone over real well, especially with the boyfriend looking on. So the only thing to do was to maintain the cover, with all that entailed.
Well, maybe not all of it. But boogieing with Hutch was not going to kill either of them, and it was a lot less painful than breaking the news to Kiko. The kid had been through enough for one night.
He tugged a dazed-looking Hutch into his arms. “May I have this dance?” he asked, grinning in spite of his friend’s obvious discomfort.
“Do I have a choice?” Hutch retorted.
“Nope,” Starsky answered, one hand settling firmly on his hip. “Hey, try to look like you’re enjoyin’ yourself, willya? I’m not that bad a date.”
Hutch blew out a breath but obeyed, deliberately assuming a pleasant expression, if not a truly enthusiastic one. Few people knew that the agreeable exterior Hutch presented to the world masked a man who bore deep and lasting wounds. Even after all these years, Starsky wasn’t up on every one, though he’d been around for a lot of them.
Some of them had names: Vanessa, Gillian, others. Some were more abstract, and some he shared—the most lasting being their long struggle with the Powers That Be to be left to do their jobs as they saw fit. Not that they’d ever asked for special treatment, but it often seemed like their superiors were determined to block their every move, and to leave them high and dry at the first sign of trouble. There had been times long before Gunther’s bullets had ended Starsky’s career that they’d considered throwing it all away.
Being their own bosses had brought its own stresses, but it was a relief to finally have the freedom to make the rules for a change. To be themselves, without the need to make apologies.
Starsky smiled to himself. Not that we ever apologized much.
As Starsky negotiated the crowded dance floor, carrying Hutch with him, he watched the two boys dance together. Kiko looked so damned happy he was ready to burst, and the other kid seemed pretty caught up in him, too. Starsky could certainly see what anyone would see in Kiko—he was a great person, caring and compassionate. All of that had been inside him from day one, but for a while there it had been fifty-fifty odds whether or not the world would ever get to see it. Starsky firmly believed that having Hutch for a mentor had saved Kiko from a life on the mean streets, in more ways than one. Boys like Kiko who ran with the gangs usually ended up as victims rather than perps.
The song changed abruptly to a slow, sensuous love song, and abruptly the dancing slowed. Looking around, Starsky could see that the majority of the dancers were still plastered up against one another. Only now the bump-and-grind was even more—uh, pronounced. As in, some of them were practically dry-humping each other right there in public. He considered checking on Kiko and Frank, then decided he’d be better off not knowing.
“Jesus,” Hutch breathed. Apparently he’d noticed the change too.
“Easy does it, blondie,” Starsky gentled. He slid an arm around Hutch’s back to draw him tighter and felt the other man balk.
“What are you—”
“Gotta make it look at least partway real,” Starsky argued, “otherwise our cover’s blown.” Pulling back a little to look into Hutch’s eyes, he put on his most reassuring smile. Me ‘n thee. Trust me, partner.
Hutch held his gaze for a few anxious moments, then seemed to go boneless in Starsky’s arms. Without questioning it, Starsky pulled him close, wrapping both arms around him this time. Hutch’s big hands settled tentatively on Starsky’s waist, and his head dropped onto Starsky’s right shoulder.
Just like dancin’ in high school when the chaperone wasn’t lookin’. Slow and easy and romantic. Turning his head, Starsky was treated to a snootful of Hutch’s fine blond hair. He found he didn’t mind; Hutch’s hair smelled of that herbal shampoo he was always telling Starsky to try.
“Put your head on my shoul-derrr,” Starsky crooned in Hutch’s ear, pleased when he felt Hutch chuckle in response. One hand tightened on Starsky’s hip, then relaxed. Starsky began making slow circling motions on Hutch’s back with the palm of his hand. Man, it had been centuries since he’d been this close to a warm, living human body. Maybe next weekend they’d look at gettin’ out for a change, finding some female companionship.
At that moment Starsky glanced over Hutch’s head and caught Kiko watching him—no, watching the two of them together. Starsky was left reeling at the look in the kid’s eyes, a jumbled mix of affection, wistfulness and envy.
He wants what we got, Starsky thought, closing his eyes before Kiko could tell he’d been looking. What he thinks we got. And the next time he drops by for Sunday brunch and finds a blond stewardess sharing our toast, what’s he gonna think?
Pushing the confusing thought aside for now, Starsky concentrated on leading Hutch around the floor in their slow, shuffling dance.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty.”
Starsky’s soft words brought Hutch awake with a jolt. He wiped at his face and yawned, wincing as his jaw cracked. “Time ‘zit?” he slurred.
“Just past three a.m.”
“Hm,” Hutch grunted, shifting experimentally against the seat. Sudden pain shot through his lower back, making him gasp.
“You okay?” Starsky’s voice was full of concern.
“Yeah,” Hutch answered as steadily as he could manage. There was no point in telling Starsk that too many nights spent in the front seat of his LTD had aggravated his injury from that skiing accident back in ‘78. He’d just get flak for not sharing the load sooner—criticism he knew he deserved, and had already received in spades.
“Yeah,” Starsky drawled, that one word telling Hutch he hadn’t managed to fool his partner. “I think we might as well pack it in.”
Hutch blinked. “But he might—”
“Hutch,” Starsky said firmly, “he’s asleep. The house’s been dark for hours. I don’t think he’s gonna get up in the middle of the night and start doin’ calisthenics.”
Hutch sighed. “You’re right.” The insurance company that hired them on a regular basis had been sure this guy was faking his injuries from the car accident, but after nearly a week of surveillance Hutch was just about convinced the man was truly wheelchair-bound. Either that or he should be nominated for the Academy Award.
“I feel like a heel for spyin’ on him all this time,” Starsky murmured.
Hutch’s jaw clenched. “If he’s legit, he’d be the first one in nearly a year.”
Starsky blew out a breath. “I know that. I read alla your reports. It’s just—” He waved a hand when words failed him, but Hutch knew exactly what he was trying to say.
“It’s just not the kind of work for heroes, is it?” The sharp edge to his tone surprised him; he’d come to terms with the nature of private investigation work long ago. But despite reading Hutch’s reports of his activities, this was the first time Starsky had encountered it first-hand.
“Is that what we were?” Starsky asked, a sardonic twist to his mouth.
Hutch shook his head. “I don’t know. I never thought of us that way when we were actually doing it. But I have to admit that these days, I feel…smaller.”
Silence reigned in the car for a few seconds before Starsky said, “You didn’t have to quit.”
Hutch turned to look at Starsky. In the dim light, he couldn’t decipher the expression on his partner’s face.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I did.”
Starsky opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“Maybe we’re forgetting the way it was,” Hutch added. “There was a lot of grunt work, a lot of dime-store crooks. It wasn’t all high-profile cases.”
Starsk nodded. “Yeah. It was a lot of long nights waitin’. Like this. Only miss the times we were waiting for something more, y’know?” While Hutch pondered this, Starsky mused, “We hafta branch out. Maybe something more up our alley, like—I dunno, missing kids. People in trouble, not companies lookin’ to save money on an insurance payout.”
Hutch shifted in his seat toward Starsky, wincing a little when his back flared again. “Could get heartbreaking, Starsk.”
Starsky performed the opposite move so that they were facing one another. “We’re no strangers to heartbreak, that’s for sure,” he said quietly. “I just know I can’t keep doin’ this kinda thing for long.”
Hutch had a sudden flash of prescience, an image of Starsky at fifty-five or sixty, bifocals perched low on his generous nose. He’d look a lot like he did today, maybe a little grayer, with a few more wrinkles. But his eyes would still sparkle with that same fire they displayed today, and whatever he did, he’d still be doing his damnedest to save the world one person at a time. He didn’t know how to live any other way.
And do you? Hutch’s inner voice demanded.
“Okay,” Hutch said, smiling as the image of Starsky faded into the man sharing the car with him, “we’ll look at it in the morning, after we get some sleep.” Hutch did some figuring in his head. With the repairs to the house nearly complete, they finally had a little extra money this month. Maybe they could commission some new ads, put them in the paper.
Starsky’s face erupted into a grin. “Sounds good.” He settled back into his seat as Hutch reached for the key in the ignition.
“Waittaminute.” Hutch’s hand stilled on the key at Starsky’s bark. “His bedroom light just came on.”
Hutch grabbed for the binoculars but Starsk beat him to them. Hoisting them to his face, he trained them on the house.
After a few seconds, Starsky lowered the binoculars. “Shit.”
“What?” Hutch demanded.
“He just got up to go to the can.”
“Got up? As in—”
“On his own two perfectly fucking healthy legs,” Starsky finished for him. Hutch reached for the camera, but once again Starsky was faster.
As he focused in on his target and began snapping photos, Starsky muttered, “I’m tired of this dime store. Let’s get back to the Bat Cave.”
It amused Starsky no end that Huggy Bear Brown, tough veteran of the streets of Bay City, was scared of heights.
Just like Huggy, though, he never let anyone tell him what he could and couldn’t do, even himself. And so he squatted gingerly on the roof, spreading wet mortar over the edge of a brick with a trowel and handing it to Hutch for placement. He had an artistic way with the sticky goop that neither of the other men could match.
“Huggy, you’d make a terrific bricklayer,” Starsky said, as he took a short break from his own task of shingling the roof of the porch.
Huggy wrinkled his nose in disdain. “These hands were not meant for menial tasks, man.”
“Menial, schmenial,” Starsky muttered. “My uncle Morrie makes a pile as a mason.”
“Well, you know what they say, Starsky, my brother,” Huggy said, raising his eyebrows. “Once a Mason, always a Mason—”
“—but once a Knight’s enough,” Starsky and Hutch chimed in together.
Hutch shook his head as he carefully placed another brick. “That joke’s so old it’s decaying.”
“Yeah, well, it’s tough to be the soul of wit and brilliance around Philistines,” Huggy retorted.
Starsky chuckled at the comment, then promptly yelped when his lack of focus caused him to hit his thumb with the hammer. “Shit!” he exclaimed, sucking the mashed digit into his mouth.
“Man, we are some kinda home improvement team,” Huggy said. “How you’ve escaped having this place fall down around your ears, I’ll never know.”
“Speaking of teams, where’s the Dynamic Duo?” Hutch enquired, casting an eye on the street below them.
“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you,” Starsky said. “Kiko called earlier, said neither of ‘em would be able to make it. Molly’s got an exam Monday morning and he’s—well, he’s kind of under the weather.” Hutch’s head shot up at this, blue eyes filled with concern. Starsky shook his head in response; the call had come right before Huggy had arrived and so he hadn’t had a chance to tell Hutch about it. Not that they were trying to hide anything from Huggy, but there was no sense telling the whole world about Kiko, especially since he was still more than halfway in the closet.
“How’s Kiko doin’?” Huggy asked conversationally as he spread mortar on another brick.
“Great,” Starsky replied, too quickly. “He’s doin’ great.” It was only a partial lie; Kiko was doing great in the romance department, but his school marks hadn’t improved any in the three weeks since he’d come out to Hutch. In fact, he was perilously close to failing his first semester of college, which would sink his scholarship for sure. No matter what they said to him, there was still a deep-seated issue of self-esteem there that wouldn’t allow Kiko to be completely happy.
Not unless he could see that there was another way to be. Which was the other thing he had to talk to Hutch about.
“Mmm,” Huggy murmured, handing the brick to Hutch. “Yeah, well, my favorite drag queen LaTonya tells me he was out pretty late last night, shaking his groove thang with his boyfriend. Is that some kind of extra credit college course of which I was not aware?”
Starsky stared at him. “You—” he spluttered, then fell silent.
Huggy stared back. “I tutored that boy in math. He wouldn’t be in college now if I hadn’t helped him get that A. You think I’m not going to keep track of him?”
“Huggy,” Hutch began, voice low, “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you—”
Huggy shook his head and held up a hand. “Wasn’t your story to tell. But I do hope you’re going to kick his butt somehow. If not, I’m gonna have to. And you know my feet leave big prints.”
“We tried,” Hutch said, sighing, “but—”
“—that didn’t work out so good,” Starsky finished for him. “So we came up with another plan.”
Hutch raised his eyebrows in a look that clearly said we did? Starsky waggled his eyebrows in response and Hutch rolled his eyes.
“Oh, damn,” Huggy said, upending his canteen. “I’m out of water. Besides, I can tell you two want to be alone.” He made to rise, but wobbled alarmingly as he tried to gain his footing. Instantly, Hutch’s big hand shot out, gripping his arm to steady him.
Huggy closed his eyes briefly, then rose more confidently to his feet. With a silent nod to Hutch, he stepped free of the other man’s grasp and moved over to the ladder.
When Huggy had disappeared over the edge, Hutch shot Starsky a look. “What did you do now?” he hissed.
“Nothin’,” Starsky said defensively. “Just invited them over to dinner.”
“Them?” Hutch demanded.
Starsky waved a hand. “Them—Kiko and Frank. Next Saturday night. Nothin’ fancy, just a lasa—”
“Starsk.” Hutch was now pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. That was always a bad sign. “Kiko and Frank—they think we’re—together.”
“Yeah,” Starsky acknowledged. That was the part he knew Hutch wouldn’t like. “And I still don’t think we should tell them any different—at least not for now.”
“So you’re suggesting that when they come over for dinner—”
“Well, I thought we could start with a demonstration of the right way to give a blow job, then move on to the appetizers,” Starsky huffed, his patience fraying.
Hutch made a face. “Jesus.”
“Look, we don’t hafta act any different than we usually do,” Starsky argued. “I just wanted to show him two guys can have a good time without gettin’ hammered and dancin’ all night. That’s what he really wants—to see he can have that life someday, too.”
“The house, the yard and the white picket fence?” Hutch murmured.
“Well, we got it, ain’t we?”
Hutch looked down. “Fence still needs work. But it’s not—” he waved a hand in frustration “—Starsk, it’s still lying, no matter how you sugar-coat it.”
“I know, I know that,” Starsky sighed. “Only I can’t see any way out of it for now. For now, we gotta figure out a way to get him back on track. Otherwise, he could lose everything he’s been workin’ for.”
“We could also do something else.”
Starsky raised an eyebrow. “Let Huggy kick his ass?”
“No. Talk to Consuela.”
Starsky frowned. “I thought you said he didn’t want to tell her.”
“He doesn’t. But I think she’d understand. And having her approval would mean a lot to him.”
Starsky mulled this over. “She’s an amazing lady. But sometimes you don’t always know how people are gonna react to that kind of news. He’s her only son, and she’s a pretty devout Catholic. You’d still be risking making things worse.”
Hutch passed a hand over his eyes. “I know.”
“Would it really be that bad?” Starsky prodded gently, sensing Hutch was about to give in. “It’s what he needs, Hutch—when he’s stronger, well, he can deal with whatever we throw at him.”
“Even a lie as big as this one?”
“Way I see it, the damage has already been done. But telling him now is gonna be ten times worse.”
Hutch remained silent for what seemed like a decade. When he finally blew out a breath, Starsky knew he’d won. “Yeah. Okay,” he said heavily. “But you’re cookin’.”
Starsky grinned. “Of course I am. You think I’m gonna make them eat wheat germ and eye of newt?”
Hutch scowled and opened his mouth to reply, but before he could speak they heard Huggy’s voice drift up to them from the bottom of the ladder singing a loud and off-key rendition of Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag. Hutch traded glances with Starsky, who chuckled.
“Geez,” Starsky muttered, “it’s like he’s tryin’ to warn us he’s comin’ back.”
The realization slapped him in the face at the same time it did Hutch, judging by the sudden change in his partner’s expression.
“Nah,” Starsky protested weakly. “Not Huggy too.”
Hutch leaned forward until his forehead was resting against the new chimney, then slowly whacked it against the brick a few times.
“Don’t you dare show him that!” Kiko yelled, making a grab for the object in Starsky’s hands.
Starsky sidestepped Kiko’s lunge effortlessly as he held the photo album out of reach. “Aw, come on. It’s not like there’s baby pictures in here.”
Kiko stuck out his tongue. “I was such a geek when I was a teenager.”
“All those years ago,” Starsky drawled, earning another lunge and a laugh from Frank. “Oh, all right, all right, I’m not gonna embarrass you.” He winked at Frank. “Even though that’s what uncles are supposed to do. I read it in the manual.”
Hutch stood in the doorway to the kitchen watching the scene from a safe distance, a glass of Coke in his hand. He’d almost taken a beer from the fridge before stopping himself. They’d shared a bottle of wine with the boys over dinner, not wanting to appear completely square, but there was no need to go overboard. Besides, the one glass of chianti had gone directly to his head, and he felt somehow that he needed his wits about him tonight.
Starsky met his gaze with a curious expression, obviously wondering why Hutch was standing way the hell over there. Hutch shook his head minutely and looked away, though he could still feel the weight of Starsk’s gaze on him. He suppressed a shiver.
Even when Starsky wasn’t touching him, he was.
His partner had promised him they wouldn’t act any differently around one another, and yet for the past five days it seemed like he’d been all over Hutch, constantly standing near him, patting him, stroking him, breathing in his damned air. If he’d been trying to make Hutch crazy, he couldn’t have done a better job. All the contact had hypersensitized him to the point that whenever Starsk came near him tonight Hutch practically jumped out of his skin. He tried to hide his reactions, but if the other man didn’t quit it, Kiko and Frank were bound to notice something.
“Hey, Blondie.” Starsk’s gravelly voice interrupted his reverie. “You fallin’ asleep over there?”
Hutch shook himself like a wet dog. “I’m fine,” he said, a little more harshly than he’d intended. “I was going to make some coffee. Anyone want some?”
Both Kiko and Frank said ‘yes’ politely, and Hutch turned toward the kitchen.
“I’ll help ya.”
Hutch froze, his eyes slamming shut. He stood helpless as he felt Starsky draw nearer, until he felt the other man’s warmth at his back.
“Starsk,” he attempted weakly, “one of us should stay with our guests.”
“Nah,” Starsky said confidently. His breath ghosted across Hutch’s ear as he leaned in to whisper; Hutch bit back a gasp. “I think they need a little quiet time together.” A hand closed around Hutch’s bicep, guiding him deeper into the kitchen. “And so do we.”
Jesus, thought Hutch. He shuffled forward on lead-filled legs until Starsky judged they were a safe distance from the living room. They could still see and be seen through the archway, but were out of earshot provided they kept their voices low.
Starsky came around him and leaned back against the counter while Hutch set about retrieving the coffee pot and cups. “So, you wanna tell me what’s eatin’ you?” he asked quietly. “Keek asked me earlier if we were havin’ a fight. I didn’t know what the hell to tell him.”
“Nothing’s eating me,” Hutch answered. “I just don’t think we should be overplaying it this much, that’s all.”
“Overplaying?” Starsky parroted, clearly flabbergasted. “I’m overplaying? You look like you’re gonna kick me in the nuts every time I come near you.”
“I’m not—” Hutch began, then cut himself off when he realized Starsky’s assessment wasn’t far from the truth. “Look. I thought you said we wouldn’t have to act different—”
“Hutch,” Starsky murmured, taking a step forward, “I haven’t been acting any different. You’re the one who’s been weird.”
“How can you say that?” Hutch hissed, darting a glance toward the living room. Luckily, neither Kiko nor Frank were paying much attention to them; their eyes were only for one another at the moment. “You’ve been like this all week. Whenever I turn around, you’re always in my space.”
Starsky looked oddly hurt for a moment, then his expression changed to a pensive frown. “Think about it. Have I really been touchin’ you any more than I usually do? Than I been doin’ for the past—hell, the past decade?” He paused. “Or have you been touchin’ me less?”
Hutch opened his mouth to protest, but was silenced by Starsky’s expressive glare. Chastised, he devoted a few moments to thinking about it objectively—or at least to trying to. Had he been the one to pull back from Starsky, affected by his new awareness of their friends’ perceptions of them? Add to that the fact that playacting had never come easily to him—witness his disastrous brush with movie fame—and he had to concede that it was possible he’d blown things out of proportion.
Or does Starsky’s touch feel strange because you’re enjoying it?
Hutch blinked. Where the hell had that come from?
“Okay,” Hutch sighed, deciding to leave off thinking for the time being. “It’s a possibility. Maybe I’m just—on edge. I feel—guilty about what we’re doing.”
Starsky took another step toward him, and Hutch resisted the urge to back away from him. “What’ve we got to feel guilty about?” Starsk murmured. “We’re trying to show him that two guys can make a life together. That they can be happy together. What’s so wrong about that?”
“Nothing, when you put it that way,” Hutch allowed. “Only it’s not…” He trailed off.
It’s not true.
But it was true, on some level. He and Starsk had made a life together. And apart from the distinct lack of sex, those lives were happy ones, certainly a great deal happier than they’d been during their last days on the force.
“This is all about Kiko,” Starsky was saying, apparently unperturbed by Hutch’s tendency to random woolgathering. “Let’s not forget that.”
Hutch attempted a smile, though his face suddenly felt tight. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“That’s my boy,” Starsky said, patting Hutch’s arm. Hutch was proud of the fact he didn’t flinch at the contact, though he wanted to bristle at the patronizing tone.
Hutch turned to the stove, suddenly remembering why he’d come in here in the first place. “Coffee’s nearly done,” he observed, turning back toward the counter to gather the cups—
—only to find Starsky’s face barely a breath from his own.
“They’re lookin’ this way,” Starsky whispered. One long-fingered hand made contact with Hutch’s cheek, paralyzing him as surely as a tranquilizer dart. “Let’s show ‘em we made up, huh?”
“Wh—” The startled huff of air was all Hutch managed before Starsky’s mouth touched his.
He’s kissing me. Starsk is kissing me, Hutch thought inanely, as his overwrought brain processed the sensation of warm, dry lips pressing lightly, clinging for a moment, then retreating. It was only when he opened his eyes that he realized he’d shut them; when he managed to focus again, he noticed that Starsky looked slightly puzzled, as though he’d run across a candy machine that refused to give him his Snickers bar even after he’d fed it a quarter.
The puzzled look annoyed him—after all, the kiss had been Starsky’s damned idea, he didn’t have a right to react that way when it was over—so somehow it made perfect sense for Hutch to reach up, bury his hand in Starsky’s hair, and pull him into another kiss.
I’ll show you making up, Hutch thought triumphantly, as he swallowed Starsky’s startled gasp. The smaller man’s hand left Hutch’s face, landing on his chest and fisting in his shirt. At first Hutch figured he’d use the leverage to push him away, but he didn’t, just used the sturdy cotton to hold onto, like you might a strong rope in a hurricane. Meanwhile, Hutch’s hand glided around to the back of Starsky’s neck, holding him upright as he angled his own head to the side, seeking a better fit.
He found it with surprising ease when Starsky emitted a small, soft groan and began to return the kiss with abandon. When Starsk’s teeth nibbled on his lower lip, then soothed it with a tantalizing sweep of his tongue, Hutch lost all the strength in his knees. He sagged against Starsky’s wiry body, only to feel strong arms close around him.
Before Hutch could drown completely in the strange new sensations, the feeling of being held by his partner was comfortingly familiar, a lifeline keeping him above the waves. It should have brought him back to reality, to safety, but instead it fed the astonishing, frightening need that had sprung up in him, pushed him to dive deeper, to stay under longer.
Hutch’s mouth opened against Starsky’s as he surrendered to the undertow.
The soft click of the front door closing separated them as effectively as a gunshot. Springing apart, they turned together toward the living room.
The empty living room.
“What the—” Starsky managed, moving past Hutch, out of the kitchen. Hutch had an insane, nearly uncontrollable urge to yank him back into his arms before he returned to himself.
When he did, his knees gave way again. This time, however, he only had the counter for support.
“At least they left a note.” Hutch’s head snapped up to observe Starsky standing in the doorway, thin mouth reddened and swollen.
Dear God, he thought. I made him that way.
Starsky’s hand trembled a little as he held up the piece of paper.
“Thanks for a great night," he read, “but a good guest knows when to show himself out.”
Hutch remained silent, hands gripping the cold melamine as the waves rose around him.
Starsky lay in the dark, his brain chasing its tail like a rat on a wheel. He’d been awake for hours, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Across the hall, he heard Hutch shift in his bed, trying not to be too obvious about the fact he was awake, too.
Christ, they were a pair.
Navel-gazing was Hutch’s department, not his, so he didn’t hold out much hope for his solving this thing on his own. Hutch liked to look at all angles of something, turn it over and over in his hands like a diamond that showed you different colors depending on how you looked at it. Starsky liked to think about the angles after he’d kicked down a door or thrown somebody across the hood of the Torino.
This time, he had to admit that it probably would’ve been a better idea if he’d taken a few seconds to play with the fucking diamond first.
Not that that would’ve done any good, either. Both of them worked better with the other around to bounce ideas off of. He heard the soft sounds of Hutch’s restlessness again, and he thought he could just get up, just get up and walk across the hall, and—
Damn. There he was, running around that wheel again. What exactly are you gonna discuss with him, meathead? The question of whether or not you got hard kissing each other?
Which he had, dammit. At first he’d reasoned it away, telling himself it was because he hadn’t kissed anyone in so damned long, but it wasn’t only that. Because after the shock of kissing Hutch had worn off, he was left with the fact that kissing Hutch…was not such a shock. In fact, it felt…
…no. He wasn’t going to say right, because it wasn’t, not the way it had been with Terri. When he’d kissed Terri for the first time, there was that feeling of his whole future opening up wide before him, that sudden, crazy vision of the house and the yard and the two kids playing on the swings out back. He hadn’t had that feeling since, with anyone, and though he didn’t like to face it, he probably never would again.
So no, right wasn’t exactly the word he was looking for. But it felt…hell, the only way he could express it was in contradictions: right and wrong at the same time, weird and familiar, scary and safe, hot and…
Well, okay, it was pretty much just plain hot. Which brought him back to scary, because holy fuck, who would’ve thought Hutch could kiss like that?
Every woman he’s ever kissed who wasn’t related to him, dummy. You’re not blind, you’ve seen the Hutchinson technique in action.
But seeing it as an observer and experiencing it first hand were definitely two very different things. Hutch kissed like he did everything else; maybe he was more for thinking things through, but once he decided on a course of action he dove into it head first.
And boy, was that kiss some swan-dive. The look in Hutch’s eyes when he’d reached for Starsky—God, the memory of it still sent shivers up his spine. It was pissy and determined and—yeah, predatory—all rolled into one big blond package and coming at him with the force of a speeding freight train. He’d gotten a taste of that kind of look at the gay bar a few weeks ago, but the casual, low-level lust radiated by the patrons there didn’t come close to matching the heart-stopping magnetism of Ken Hutchinson when he wanted something.
Starsky still didn’t know exactly what Hutch had wanted when he first kissed him back, but he knew that somewhere along the way it’d changed. He felt it when Hutch’s mouth had angled against his, and suddenly there’d been this click, like something finally fit, finally made sense after all these months. Hutch must’ve felt it too, because his mouth had gentled, turned away from anger and toward something sweeter. Whatever token resistance Starsky’d been putting up crumbled to dust in the face of that sweetness.
Because Starsky had always been a sucker for Hutch’s heart. Hutch tried to protect it, fence it off sometimes, but he’d never been able to hide it from his partner. And on those rare occasions he laid it on the line, Starsky always kept watch over it, the same way he watched Hutch’s back on the street. Over the years, Hutch had slowly come to accept that Starsky could be trusted with it, could protect it, sometimes better than Hutch could himself. It was a heady responsibility to be the caretaker of something that precious.
For a few seconds in their kitchen, Starsky had felt like he’d been holding Hutch’s heart in his hands. And for that crazy, contradictory stretch of time, it wasn’t just his to guard, it was his to have—until the moment had dissolved as quickly as morning mist in midsummer. When it was gone, the fear had slammed into both of them, and by mutual agreement they’d hemmed and hawed their way through an awkward good night without ever talking about the elephant in the room. It was as though they hoped that if they just pretended nothing had changed, then nothing would change. Like playing a kids’ game where you could take it all back, return to square one, no harm, no foul.
But no matter what they might want to believe, everything had changed in that kitchen.
And God help him, but Starsky wanted that insane, achingly sweet moment back. He wanted it back something awful.
He thought again about getting up and walking to Hutch’s door. He’d open it up without even knocking—it wouldn’t matter anyway, Hutch would know he was there—and tell all of this to Hutch. Sure, he’d be a little less longwinded about it, but he wouldn’t need a lot of words. Him and Hutch had never needed to talk much to know what the other one was thinking.
But what about now? a nagging voice demanded. Can you really say you know what he’s thinking now?
Starsky froze as he realized he didn’t have a clue what was in his partner's head. Maybe he wanted to forget all about it. Maybe that look in his eyes hadn’t been what Starsky imagined it to be.
And maybe it was.
And it was that thought which finally kept him safely in his own room. Because deep down, he was as scared of taking that next step as Hutch probably was. And for the first time in his life, the thought of having Hutch at his side didn’t make it any less terrifying.
Because Hutch was the reason he was so damned scared.
With a frustrated groan, Starsky punched his pillow and rolled over to face the wall.
“What’s the matter with you, man? You look like your dog died and left you outta his will.”
Hutch sighed. He didn’t need anyone to tell him he looked like death warmed over. “We’re gonna need the back booth, Huggy,” he said, aware he sounded pissy and not caring. “Can you free it up?”
Huggy studied him for a moment, then leaned over the bar to look at the booth in question. “Yeah, they’re about finished. Give ‘em five minutes, they’ll be done. If they ain’t, I’ll bring ‘em the bill anyway.”
“Fine,” Hutch said, looking at his watch. They weren’t expecting their potential client for another fifteen. The woman had refused to identify herself on the phone, saying only that she would be wearing a red coat and that she would know them from their advertisements. She hadn’t given them any details of her case, either, only told them she wanted to meet in a discreet yet public place far from the Hills. Well, they could provide her with that; Huggy’s new place, while slightly more upscale than his old one, was about as far from the Hills as a restaurant could get.
It had been nearly two weeks since the event Hutch’s subconscious euphemistically called the Incident, and he and Starsk weren’t any closer to talking about it than they’d been right after it happened. Not that Hutch particularly wanted to talk about it, but he was starting to forget what it had been like to get more than three hours’ sleep a night, and that was starting to aggravate him. Judging from Starsky’s hangdog appearance, it wasn’t likely he was faring any better. He knew that it was only a matter of time before one or both of them simply exploded, venting into the silence that had sprung up between them.
The crazy thing was, he was almost looking forward to it.
“Where’s my man Starsky?”
Hutch blinked. “He’s, uh, he should be here soon. He was coming from physio.” No need to mention to Huggy that he and Starsk had been spending as little time as possible together the last few days.
“Listen,” Huggy said, leaning an elbow on the polished bar. “Far be it from me to be givin’ advice on relationships—”
Oh, Jesus, Hutch thought, shifting uncomfortably on his bar stool.
“—but exactly what the hell is up with you two? Starsky came in here yesterday for a burger.”
“Alone, man,” Huggy said, rolling his eyes. “You know the last time I saw one of you in here without the other? It’s like seein’ peanut butter walkin’ around without jelly.”
Hutch attempted a smile, knowing it would appear completely false to his friend. “Can’t a man buy a burger without it becoming an international incident?”
Huggy’s dark expression didn’t waver. “Fine. You don’t have to spill your guts to the Bear if you don’t want to. But remember you got a friend here. You both do. And I’ve seen it all and done most of it twice, so I ain’t so easy to shock.”
Hutch clenched his jaw. “There’s nothing shocking to tell about me and Starsk. We’re—everything’s fine. We’re just tired—we’ve been getting a lot of calls since the new ads went in the paper.” That last wasn’t a lie: their new advertising campaign had resulted in four new cases already and the potential for more, and they’d only appeared last Saturday. Three of them weren’t likely to be well-paying—the missing kids cases that Starsk had insisted they invite—but this one at least held out the hope of some sort of remuneration. One out of four wasn’t bad, he supposed, especially when you were trying to set yourselves up as the white knights of Bay City.
I thought those horses had ridden off without us, Hutch mused. But he couldn’t deny it felt good to be back in the saddle again.
“Hey.” Hutch jumped as a hand landed heavily on his shoulder. “You been here long?”
Painfully aware of Huggy’s searching gaze, Hutch shook his head. “Couple of minutes.” He tried his best not to shrink away from Starsky’s touch, but the other man must have felt some reluctance, because the hand disappeared.
Starsky shifted restlessly on the balls of his feet. “Any chance for that back booth?” he demanded abruptly.
Huggy raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Massa, ol’ Kunta Kiss My Black Ass Kinte was about to chase them folks off’n the plantation for ya.”
Starsky ducked his head as a blush bloomed on his high cheekbones. “Sorry, Hug.”
“Don’t mention it,” Huggy said, stepping out from behind the bar. “If you’ll excuse me, I must see to my valued customers.”
Hutch regarded Starsky out of the corner of his eye as the other man sat down heavily. Now that he was looking at him directly, he could tell there was something odd about the way Starsk was holding himself. “How’d your physio go?”
Starsky regarded the bottles arrayed behind the bar for a moment before answering. “Fine.”
A minute twitch of the shoulder warned Hutch that Starsky was on edge. “It didn’t go as good as it’s been goin’, but it’s not like it’s a major setback or nothin’. I’m just—”
“—exhausted,” Hutch finished for him. As soon as he’d said it, he regretted it.
“And you’re not?” Starsky shot back, his eyes still on the bar.
Hutch regarded his hands. Ignoring the pounding of his heart, he said, “That’s not the point. The point is, you shouldn’t let anything interfere with your progress.”
Hutch felt the weight of Starsky’s gaze fall on him like a ten-ton boulder. When he looked up, he was flattened by the unexpected combination of anger and hurt on his partner’s face.
“It’s that easy, huh?” Starsky demanded. “All I have to do is snap my fingers and I can forget about it?”
“Starsk, listen,” Hutch began, his voice suddenly pleading. The conversation he’d subconsciously wanted to precipitate was heading south before it had even begun, and this was about the worst time to be having it. “I’m not saying—”
“Save it,” Starsky snapped, looking away. He made a cutting motion with his hand, then winced as some muscle that had been abused during his physio session protested the sudden movement. “It’s fine. I just gotta get it through my thick skull, okay? And don’t worry, it’s not gonna change anything.” He took a deep breath, as though preparing for a deep dive. Then his gaze rose to Hutch’s face again, and Hutch sucked in a breath of his own.
“The problem is,” Starsky husked, “it’s kind of tough to forget when dreamin’ about it wakes me up every damned night.”
Hutch stared at his partner as though he’d just grown an extra head. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Mr. Starsky? Mr. Hutchinson?”
Hutch started at the sound of the throaty female voice. Spinning around, he came face to face with a woman as tall as Starsky. A long red cloak with a stylish faux fur hood covered her upper body and head. A couple of ash-blond strands of hair had escaped the hood, but there was no way to determine its length or style. Although she was making an effort to hide behind a pair of huge sunglasses, the lenses were light enough that he could make out a pair of almond-shaped eyes set in an aristocratic face. She regarded both of them with an air of detachment; underneath the veneer, however, Hutch could detect an undercurrent of fear.
This woman was afraid for her life. But there was more there, a strange buzz of familiarity in the back of Hutch’s brain. Had he met her somewhere before?
Peeling off her right glove, the woman extended a long-fingered hand first to Starsky, then to Hutch. Hutch cleared his throat awkwardly, trying to switch gears as quickly as possible.
“Our table should be ready any minute,” he told her, aware he sounded foolish. He cast a glance at Starsky, hoping the other man would rescue him, but Starsky was silently regarding her with what could only be called a fish eye. The woman appeared not to notice—or perhaps she was too polite to comment on Starsky’s rude behavior.
Luckily for all of them, Huggy returned at that moment and ushered them to the table in the back, now cleared of both dishes and inhabitants. As their friend led the way with their beautiful client on his arm, Starsky leaned in to Hutch and murmured, “What kinda mess you think Annika Sorenson’s in that she needs two workin’ stiffs like us to get her out of?”
“Annika…” Hutch began, but was immediately cut off by a sharp glare from Starsky. Idiot, he thought. Why don’t you tell the whole world that one of the hottest singers in pop music just walked into Huggy’s place? I’m sure the hood and the sunglasses mean she’s dying to start handing out autographs.
Starsk tempered his look with a brief grip of Hutch’s upper arm, a fleeting contact that steadied Hutch immediately. Despite the fact that a no doubt lucrative case was about to fall into their laps, a case that could give their fledgling business exactly the jump-start it needed, Hutch found himself wishing that Annika Sorenson would magically disappear so that he and Starsky could finish their earlier conversation. Something told him that the next time he brought it up, his partner wouldn’t be nearly so open about his feelings. And if ever he needed to know what Starsky was feeling, he needed to know it now.
Tomorrow, his instincts screamed at him, might be too late.
Annika Sorenson was just as beautiful in person as she was on TV.
Which shouldn’t have surprised him, he supposed—hell, she was only thirty or thirty-one, how bad could she look? But you always expected movie or music stars to be more—well, human in person than they were on the stage or screen. You expected to be able to see at least one or two flaws that would prove to you they were mortal, like everybody else.
But if Annika Sorenson had flaws, she was sure as hell good at hiding them. Starsky couldn’t find any.
When they were seated in the back booth, she took off the leopard-print hood, revealing hair the same white-blonde as Hutch’s. Usually she wore it loose, but today she had it tied back in a ponytail that made her look like she was still in college. She left the sunglasses on, though, hiding the eyes that would’ve given her away in an instant. She had the unearthly look of those perfect Nordic types you saw in the National Geographic with the reindeer—the Laplanders, right? They had slanted, wide-spaced eyes like they were part Oriental. Hutch told him once that it was some kind of genetic adaptation, like looking at all that snow or being exposed to that cold, cold wind would blind you if you had round eyes like everybody else.
They ordered lunch from Huggy—Starsk went with his usual cheeseburger, while Hutch chose a salad and Sorenson asked for a cup of tea and a fruit plate. Starsky noticed her nails perfectly matched her coat while he waited for Hutch to speak. He didn’t feel much like talking himself. In fact, life would’ve been a whole lot better if he’d just given up the day as a total loss and stayed in bed. First, his physio had been a total disaster—he’d even managed to piss off Reggie, the therapist who’d been with him from the beginning—and then he’d pissed off Huggy, and then he’d as good as spilled the beans to Hutch. Handing him a fucking valentine with a big red heart made of construction paper would have been only slightly less subtle than his earlier admission. Right now, with Hutch’s warmth burning along his right side, he wanted nothing so much as to start the whole lousy day all over again.
But there was a case to be considered in front of them, and somebody had to say something. Since Hutch seemed to be suffering from some kind of paralysis, Starsky got right to the point. “So, Miz Sorenson,” he began, smiling his best warm-yet-professional smile, “how can we help you?”
To her credit, she looked only mildly surprised at his directness, and she recovered quickly. “I’m not sure if you can,” she said, her voice cool despite its depth and resonance. “Now that I’m sitting here, the whole thing seems absurd.”
“Well, why don’t you start at the beginning,” Starsky said, “and we’ll see if we share that opinion.”
The young woman’s eyes flickered over his face, betraying a momentary amusement, and she nodded. “Fair enough.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but last month I filed for divorce.”
Starsky hadn’t heard, but he nodded encouragingly, and that seemed to be enough for her. “Chris and I—we’d been together since we were kids. High school sweethearts. And he was just that—a sweetheart—always supportive of me, of my career. That is, until I had my first hit two years ago. After that, he changed. Oh, he says I’m the one who’s changed, and I suppose that’s true to some extent, but he—well. The bottom line is, he didn’t like having a wife who was more successful than he was.”
“He’s a musician too, isn’t he?” Starsky turned to look at Hutch, who had obviously found his voice again. He tried to catch his attention, but Hutch was looking pointedly at the woman sitting across from them.
She nodded. “He’s a guitarist—was the lead guitarist in my band. And he co-wrote some of the songs on all three albums.” She looked at her hands. “None of them ended up becoming hits. He blamed me for that.” She laughed humorlessly. “Along with just about everything else he could think of.
“We separated six months ago, and I tried to get him to go to counseling with me. He refused. I asked him to move out, and he did, but he turned down any of my financial help. He’d spent a good chunk of the money we’d earned from the sales of the last album—on gambling, mostly.” Her mouth thinned. “Among other things. Drugs.” Her hands clenched into fists. “Women. Possibly. I don’t know. I don’t care anymore.”
“And you still offered to help him? That’s real generous of you,” Starsky said quietly.
The woman shrugged. “In spite of everything, I still loved him. And he had me half convinced that I owed my career to him. But since then, I’ve gotten a lot smarter. Or more cynical.” She smiled grimly. “Both, I suppose.”
One of her fine-boned hands rose to remove her sunglasses. Her eyes, Starsky noted, were that same pale blue as Hutch’s. A flicker of hesitation crossed those perfect features, and then her composure returned. Starsky was impressed—and he’d never been easily impressed by the rich and the famous. This woman had guts; it showed in the way she carried herself, in the way she avoided emotional appeals.
Maybe it was something in that Nordic upbringing, he mused, because she and Hutch were cut from the same cloth. Neither of them liked to give too much away right up front.
After a moment, the woman sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to ask for this.”
“It’s okay,” Starsky said. “It’s not like we haven’t heard it before. You want us to keep an eye on him, right? Gather some evidence of his—uh, activities.” He felt Hutch turn to look at him sharply, but ignored him. Hey, he was being discreet here.
“No. I don’t need anything like that. As I said, he’s not asking for money. Some days, he’s convinced that I’m just being foolish and that as soon as I come to my senses everything will be back to normal. Some days—” she looked Starsky right in the eye “—some days he calls me a whore and demands to know the name of the man who’s taken me away from him.” She sighed. “And before you ask, no. There is no man. Only me—finally sticking up for myself, finally having the guts to ask for a divorce. My problem is that he’s made it clear I’ll never divorce him.” Her jaw tightened. “In other words, I’ll never live to divorce him.”
Both men leaned forward at that. “Has he threatened you directly?” Hutch asked. His voice had that low, intense rasp that reminded Starsk of their days on the street. The fact that it also happened to turn him on didn’t help improve his mood.
“Never in front of witnesses,” the woman was saying. “And never on the phone. He’s not stupid.”
“I take it you haven’t filed a complaint with the police,” Hutch said.
“What would be the point?” she demanded coldly. “I had a friend back home who was being abused by her husband. She finally got up the courage to go to the police, and she had a restraining order put on him. Three weeks later she was dead.”
“We understand your frustration, Miz Sorenson,” Starsky said. “It’s small consolation, but we’ve been there as arresting officers. We know the system stinks. The question is, what do you think we can do to fix that? We’re not cops any longer.”
“Mr. Starsky. Mr. Hutchinson. I probably haven’t given this all the thought it deserves, but when I saw your ad I had the first hope of freeing myself from this nightmare. I looked into your records, what I could get from newspaper archives. You’re—well, you’re a little too good to believe. But I have no other recourse but to believe in you, you see, and so I did.”
Starsky and Hutch exchanged glances. There were two spots of red high on Hutch’s cheekbones; Starsky was suddenly reminded of the flush on his face the night they’d—oh, hell. Embarrassed now himself, he turned back to Sorenson as she continued. “That’s one reason I wanted to hire you. The other—well, let me show you a picture of Chris.”
She fished in her purse and produced a snapshot of an attractive man with shoulder-length blond hair and a sensual, arrogant smile. Except for the cockiness and the length of his haircut, Starsky saw immediately that he bore more than a passing resemblance to Hutch when they’d first met at the Academy.
He looked up at Annika Sorenson, who for the first time appeared unsure of herself. “I think the only way to end this is to get Chris mad enough to try something stupid. He’s already half convinced I’ve been unfaithful to him. And if he were to see me with a man—not just any man, but one who seemed to be a replacement for him—well...” She trailed off, seeming to have run out of steam.
“Jesus,” Starsky breathed after a few stunned seconds. “You’re talkin’ about setting up Hutch as bait.” If he thought he’d been impressed before, he was on the fucking floor now. This was chutzpah to the power of a hundred.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, her voice low and breathless. “I never should have…” She shook her head as if angry with herself. Starsky noticed her hands were trembling as she stuffed the photo back in her bag. Covering herself with the hood and the sunglasses, she began to slide out of the booth.
The voice was Hutch’s. Starsky and Sorenson both stopped and stared at him. Hutch’s mouth opened, and Starsky’s guts took a nose dive for his shoes.
“—let you know,” Starsky finished for him. Hutch whirled to face him, a pissy frown knitting his brows. Did I ruin your hero act, blintz? Starsky thought. Well, too damn bad, because there’s still two of us in this partnership. “We’ll let you know by nine o’clock tonight. That okay?”
The woman stared at him for a moment as though she no longer understood English. Then her whole body seemed to sag slightly, whether from relief or simple exhaustion, Starsky wasn’t sure. “That’s fine. That’s more than I hoped for.”
“Where can we reach you?”
Reaching into the bag again, she handed over a small cream-colored card. “The second number.”
“Okay,” Starsky said, and then she was moving as swiftly as a wild thing released from a trap. Within seconds, she’d left the restaurant.
Starsky took a few seconds digging out his wallet and finding a place for the card before he steeled himself to look at Hutch.
“We've got to talk,” Hutch told him.
“No shit,” Starsky retorted. “But not here.” He pulled a twenty from his wallet and left it on the table for Huggy. Hutch moved to stand, and Starsky felt the chill all along his side as he followed him.
There were times when Starsky made him so damned crazy he wanted to scream and stamp his feet like a petulant four-year-old throwing a tantrum. This was definitely one of those times.
But Hutch wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. He was going to be calm and logical about this.
“This is what you wanted,” he said, pleased with the even tone of his voice. He was sitting on the couch, hands folded in his lap, while Starsky paced the room like a caged tiger. “This is what we signed up for when we approved those new ads.”
Starsky snorted in disbelief. “Pardon me, but I don’t seem to remember ‘We’ll take a bullet for you’ as part of the advertising campaign.”
“You said you wanted to help people in trouble, Starsk. Well, she’s in trouble.”
“She’s also rich enough to hire somebody to die for her. Question is, is the price tag high enough for you?”
“This isn’t about that and you know it.”
“Yeah, I know it,” Starsky said, arms folded. “This is about bein’ a hero again.” Hutch felt his blood rise at that, but the other man was already holding up a placating hand. “No, hang on. I’m not sayin’ there’s anything wrong with that.” He looked at Hutch for a moment, then turned away, his hand rising to rub at the back of his neck. “Shit. I just—”
Hutch nodded. “Yeah.” It wasn’t the first time they’d had a moment of perfect mental communication. All Hutch had to do was put himself in Starsk’s shoes, and then he could read him like an open book.
I don’t want to go on any more ambulance rides with you either, buddy. I don’t ever want to sit at your bedside again, holding your hand and waiting. Watching. Wondering if this is going to be the time our luck runs out.
It no longer surprised him that he thought of their luck as a shared quantity.
“I guess,” Hutch began after a few moments, looking at his hands, “I guess what it comes down to is what you said that night in the car. What do we want this to be about? Not only the business we’re building, but our lives? Do we want to make it mean something, or do we want to just have a steady paycheck?”
Starsky came to rest against the wall. Leaning against it, he folded his arms and sighed. “I dunno. Can’t we manage to have fulfilling lives without having our asses shot off?”
Hutch laughed in spite of himself. “I don’t intend to make a habit of this, if that’s what you mean.”
Starsky shook his head, still fighting it. “There are other ways to get at this guy.”
“Maybe,” Hutch admitted. “Maybe not. If he’s as smart as she says he is, this might really be the best way to do it.”
Starsky regarded him for a long moment. Hutch met his clear blue gaze unflinchingly.
“If we’re gonna do this,” Starsky said finally, “we’re gonna do it as partners. That means I watch your back every minute. So we gotta clear those other cases off our roster first. Agreed?”
That last word hadn’t quite been a question, but Hutch treated it as such nevertheless. “Agreed,” he said, rising to his feet and walking over to Starsky. When he came within a couple of feet of the other man, he hesitated; between one step and the next, Starsky’s eyes had turned shadowed, wary. Hutch had intended a friendly clap on the shoulder, as if to seal the deal. Suddenly awkward, he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands.
He’d never been unsure of himself around this man, not from the first day, not from the first minute. It scared the hell out of him, even more than the kiss had.
“We’ll, uh, call her,” Hutch said, his voice sounding rusty to his own ears. “Tell her it’ll take us a couple of weeks. If she doesn’t want to accept us on those terms, no hard feelings.”
“She’ll accept,” Starsk said grimly. “She’s not gonna find anybody crazier’n you. Even in California.”
It ended up being close to three weeks before Starsky and Hutch could clear their desks of the outstanding cases. Besides a couple of insurance reports that had yet to be written, there were the three missing kid cases to take care of. The first one had practically fallen into their laps; turned out little Jenny had run off with her latest boyfriend and was staying at a Motel Six in Bakersfield. Luckily, the not-too-bright boyfriend had stolen his daddy’s credit card, and so had laid a nice, easy trail of breadcrumbs for them to follow.
The second one took a little more time, but a thorough investigation of Reggie Carter, high school junior, had led to a tearful family reunion a few days later. This kid had had a fight with his new stepfather and run off. When they found him, he was living in a hunting cabin in the hills owned by his best friend’s uncle. After a couple of emotional hours refereed by Hutch, the kid had agreed to go home.
The third kid—now that was a whole other world of trouble. Starsky had interviewed the parents and they’d given him some bullshit story about their son running off to a rock concert, but he could tell they were lying. Spurred by a desire to help the boy even more than his parents, he’d begun his search in Bay City, but quickly ruled out all his usual haunts. When Hutch wrapped the Carter case, he joined Starsky in hitting the streets. Eventually, they’d gone to Huggy, who had given them a lead—stretching all the way to San Francisco.
Six hours’ drive in the Torino made Hutch cranky and uncommunicative, and by the time they reached Frisco Starsky was ready to leap off the cliff at the base of the Golden Gate. Not that he wanted much communication either, mind you—he’d learned to keep his mouth shut lately when they weren’t actively working a case. When they were working, though, he found himself practically vibrating with the energy of their connection—as though the vibe they’d once shared on the beat had been ratcheted up a hundredfold. The low but steady voltage hummed through his veins and snapped, crackled and popped over the surface of his skin as he walked down the street to the bar Huggy had named. Hutch was at his back again, and for this brief span of time, at least, all was right with the world.
He didn’t even have to ask how Hutch wanted to play it. As soon as they walked in the door, his partner eased off, dropping back so he could observe Starsky’s interactions with the kid from a discreet distance.
It didn’t take long to find him, despite the fact he no longer resembled the smiling kid in the photo his parents had given them. All Starsky had to do was keep an eye out for the most cherry, scared-looking kid in the place.
Peter O’Halloran was staring around the bar as if something would come out of the shadows at any moment and bite him. Not that it wasn’t a distinct possibility in a rathole like this. It made the gay bar they’d been in back in LA look like the Russian Tea Room.
Starsky approached him with caution, but the kid’s hackles were raised so high he had the other man pegged from twenty feet away. The eyes that had at first been filled with terror grew shadowed and hard under the weight of another’s scrutiny. Starsky sucked in a breath at the abrupt transformation.
God. The kid had been missing less than a month.
Adopting his best non-threatening stance, the one he’d always used with young children and whacked-out junkies, he closed the remaining distance and settled into the chair opposite O’Halloran. The kid gave him a pathetically blatant once-over, and Starsky fought to keep the distaste off his face.
“Hey,” O’Halloran said, attempting a seductive smile.
“Hey,” Starsky echoed. “My name’s Dave. Dave Starsky.” He held out a hand. The kid stared at it, then took it reluctantly.
“My name’s whatever you want it to be,” the boy said, lips curling again.
Starsky nodded. “How about Peter O’Halloran? That works for me.”
The kid’s expression shifted back to terror. He tried to withdraw his hand from Starsky’s grasp, but Starsky held fast.
“Relax, kid. I’m not a cop, I’m a private investigator, hired by your family.” He released the fingers struggling in his own, and the kid looked up into his face. “Your mom and dad want you to come home, son.”
“Yeah,” O’Halloran spat, with startling vehemence. “I know they do. And I know what they want to do to me when I come home.” He made to rise from his chair.
“You see that big blond guy behind me?”
The kid halted for a moment, looked up. He nodded sullenly.
“He’s my partner.”
“What are you two gonna do?” O’Halloran sneered. “Drag me out of here kicking and screaming?”
“If we have to,” Starsky said calmly. “But what we really want to do is leave this shithole and go someplace where we can get a decent meal into you. If I’m guessing right, you haven’t been eating too many decent meals.”
“And then what?” the kid said warily, still poised for flight.
Starsky met his gaze. “Then you let us talk to you. We want to help you, Peter. That’s our only motive here.”
A brief outbreak of hope bloomed on O’Halloran’s face before it closed down again. “You want to help my parents,” he snarled. “It’s not the same thing.”
“If it isn’t, we’ll figure out something else,” Starsky said. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized he didn’t have a clue as to what the hell he was promising. But he couldn’t figure out how to care, because that tentative hope was making an appearance again. Whatever else he might be, this poor kid was desperate, and he needed someone on his side now or they’d lose him—maybe for good. “At least let us feed you. We’ll talk while you’re eating. Okay?”
O’ Halloran glanced up at Hutch again, then shrugged. “Okay. There’s a diner about two blocks from here, serves pretty good food.” His eyes darted away. “I’ve heard, anyway.”
When they got up to leave the bar, Hutch shot Starsky a questioning look, which he answered with a thinning of his lips and a brief shake of his head. Hutch nodded; message received. They still had an uphill battle ahead of them, but then they’d been expecting that. San Francisco was nothing but hills.
The problem was, would the brakes work on the way back down?
Four hours later, Hutch tucked the covers up around a sleeping Peter O’Halloran, then closed the door of the room behind him. Starsky was already standing outside in the cooling night air, his back propped up against the stuccoed wall of their motel.
“Man, I could do with a smoke,” Starsky sighed, head tipping back.
“When did you ever smoke?” Hutch demanded.
“Never. But I wanna start.” Starsky passed a hand over his eyes. “And don’t say it.”
“You told me it could get heartbreaking, remember?”
Hutch claimed the patch of wall beside Starsky and adopted a similar pose. They were at the outskirts of the city, but there were still only a few brave stars visible. “Could have been worse, I suppose,” he ventured.
Starsky snorted. “Yeah. He could've been fucking the guys for money instead of just blowin’ ‘em.”
Hutch shut his eyes against the image he hadn’t been able to dispel since walking into the bar, an image of Kiko sitting at that table instead of Peter, his clothes hanging off him because he’d lost so much weight his own mother would barely recognize him… “God,” he breathed. A moment later, he felt a reassuring warmth press against his arm.
Starsky had leaned closer so that their arms were touching gently from elbow to shoulder. Not demanding anything, merely offering support, offering the human connection they’d so often given one another. The one they’d always needed to survive the soul-eating mindfuck that wore down every street cop who gave a damn.
Christ, he’d missed that.
“We have to get him out of here,” Starsky was saying; Hutch forced himself to pay attention to something other than that longed-for touch.
“He hasn’t agreed to come with us,” Hutch responded.
“I know, I know, “ Starsky said impatiently. “The only reason he didn’t run earlier is that he was too fucking exhausted to move.”
“Do you think what he said about his parents is true?” Hutch asked. He’d never met with the O’Hallorans, but Starsky had.
“That they want to put him in a psych ward for being gay?” Starsky blew out a breath. “Maybe. They didn’t tell me the truth about why he ran, though that could just mean they didn’t want the help to know their dirty little secret.”
“It’s not dirty,” Hutch said automatically, prompting Starsky to step away from him.
“It is to them,” Starsky shot back with unexpected vehemence. “And that’s why that scared seventeen-year old pisher, who should be playing football on the senior team, has been sucking guys off for the last month!”
“Jesus, Starsk,” Hutch murmured, casting a glance around the empty courtyard.
“Sorry.” Starsky’s fury disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving him sagging against the wall once more. “I just—he made me think of—”
“Kiko,” Hutch finished for him, turning toward his partner. “Yeah. I know.” He looked up and was instantly caught by his partner’s gaze; in this light, the deep blue irises were shot through with silver. Silence permeated the air and hung between them like the imminent fog.
“You, uh,” Hutch ventured, his throat suddenly dry, “you think Consuela would want to do the same thing if she found out?”
“Hunh?” Starsky seemed transfixed, his eyes holding Hutch’s prisoner. “Nah. She’ll probably pray over him a lot, though.” The long lashes swept down, and Hutch realized Starsky was now staring at his mouth.
God. God. Just do it already, Hutch thought, uncertain whether he was talking to himself or to Starsky. He wasn’t sure which one of them leaned forward first, only sure that he could feel Starsky’s warm breath tickling his oversentitized lips, could see the barely-reined desire in the taut, graceless way the other man moved, so unlike his usual dancer’s fluidity. He was fighting it, but he was losing, they were both losing—
“There’s another option.”
It took Hutch a moment to realize he was the one who’d spoken. Starsky jerked back as though he were a puppet whose strings had been yanked. The spell shattered, he rasped, “What option? For what?”
“For Peter,” Hutch said, the words sounding as though they came from miles away. “There’s a gay and lesbian center in Bay City, down by the waterfront. They—uh, they have a youth support group.”
Starsky stared at him, though this time the look held none of its earlier hypnotic sensuality. Hutch shrugged and contemplated the wall. “I checked them out a few weeks ago, when I found out about Kiko,” he explained lamely. “I talked to one of the organizers about their—services.”
“They got legal aid? ‘Cause if this kid’s parents want him committed and he doesn’t have a lawyer, he could end up there whether he wants to or not.”
“I think they might,” Hutch answered. “I could call them in the morning.”
Starsky seemed to consider it for a moment, then nodded. “Kid’s gonna sleep until noon easy. We’ll try it.”
Hutch couldn’t stop a wry smile from appearing. “I don’t think we’re gonna earn our pay on this one, partner.”
A matching smile, one with an extra dollop of cockiness, adorned Starsky’s features. “Nope, I don’t suppose we are. And I know this makes me a real bad businessman, but I don’t much care.”
Hutch flashed a grin at that. “Neither do I.”
They regarded each other for another few moments, until Starsky inclined his head toward the door. “I’ll take the first watch in case the kid wakes up and decides to skip. Why dontcha take the other bed in there and catch a few z’s?”
Hutch frowned. “It’s going to get cold out here.”
Starsky looked away. “I’ll come in in a few minutes, mother.”
“Okay,” Hutch said softly, reaching for the door handle. “Good night.”
Hutch closed the door behind him as quietly as possible so as not to wake Peter, then leaned back against the solid wood and closed his eyes.
Of all the ridiculous times to realize you‘re head over heels in love with David Michael Starsky, he thought, this has got to be right in the top five.
Grunting under the weight of Frank’s old easel, Kiko walked past the young man standing idle in the middle of the room. For about the tenth time in an hour he bit his tongue to keep himself from saying what he really wanted to say to Peter O’Halloran. He tried to summon Hutch’s voice in his head, but the older man’s words were getting harder and harder to remember.
He needs a big brother, Keek. I need you to be that for him, if you’re willing to take it on.
At the time, he’d agreed eagerly, but then he’d also obviously forgotten what a pain in the butt he was as a teenager. Yeah, all those years ago, Starsky, he groused silently, as though the other man was still here in the room with them. The two men had filled him and Frank in on a little of this kid’s history, enough to give both of them fodder for a whole crop of nightmares. He reminded himself that it made sense that Peter would be suspicious of any displays of kindness, especially one as elaborate as this. His unenthusiastic participation in the afternoon’s activities was to be expected, if annoying. Besides, his only other option right now was Juvenile Hall, and Kiko had no desire to consign him to the hell Molly had known only too well.
“Okay, Peter,” Frank said cheerfully, hefting another box. “How about you grab the broom over there and sweep the floor so we can get this place set up for you?” The room they were currently cleaning had been used as storage space by Frank and his two housemates, but cleared of its clutter it would function as an adequate bedroom. Starsky and Hutch had dropped by earlier with a bed and a few of Peter’s clothes and other possessions. Frank had lent him an old chest of drawers, and they’d found a half-decent braided rug under the pile of boxes. Even with a couple of Frank’s oil paintings on the walls the room would still be fairly Spartan, but it would be livable.
Peter picked up the broom sullenly and began sweeping. His strokes, however, were too violent, and soon there was a growing cloud of dust in the little room.
“Here,” Kiko murmured, covering his mouth to keep from inhaling the dust. “Let me show you—”
“You think I don’t fucking know how to use a broom?” Peter snapped, the fury of his strokes increasing.
Kiko closed his eyes and tried to think of what Hutch would say, tried to distill the teachings from the Social Work 101 classes he’d attended. “I think you know how to use a broom. But you’re angry, and sometimes that—”
Peter rounded on him, his green eyes clouded with rage. “Don’t use that psychological bullshit on me!” he screamed, flinging the broom so that it clattered against the wall. “You think you can smile and pat me on the head and give me a fucking room to sleep in and I’m going to fall on my knees and kiss your dick? Is that what you think?”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Frank said, hurrying into the room. “What’s—” His question was cut off by a fit of coughing.
Kiko spread his hands in a non-threatening gesture. “Listen, muchacho,” he said, his voice growing low and soft, “we’re not shrinks, we’re not your parents, and we’re definitely not your tricks. We’re helping you for the same reason Starsky and Hutch are helping you: because you need help. Right now, maybe you don’t think you’re worth it. But you are.”
The kid stared at Kiko for a long moment. “What makes you so fucking sure?” he growled finally.
Kiko couldn’t help it; he laughed. “To tell you the truth, I’m not. Because some days, I feel the same damned way about myself.” He walked over to the broom, picked it up and handed it to a now-confused Peter. “Frank and I are gonna close this door now, and then you can sweep your heart out. When you get done, we’ll put this room together, and I’ll cook you the best tortillas you ever had.” He couldn’t resist giving Peter a gentle pat on the shoulder. “That, I’m sure of.”
After they had shut the door behind them, Frank turned to Kiko. “Keek—”
Kiko shook his head and held up a hand, his attention still on the closed door. Within moments, he heard Peter’s first gulping sobs. Alarm blooming on his face, Frank turned back toward the room, but Kiko wrapped a hand around his arm to stop him.
“No. He’ll come out when he’s ready. Give him some time.”
Frank turned back to Kiko and frowned. “What you said to him—” He trailed off, allowing Kiko to fill in the blank.
Kiko sighed. “Yeah,” he acknowledged heavily. He leaned forward until his forehead was touching Frank’s. “Less and less, though, these days.”
Frank’s hands bracketed his face and tipped his head up for a soft, tender kiss. “How do I convince you?”
Kiko smiled against his lover’s mouth. “Give me time, querido. Give me time.”
Hutch should’ve known he’d be back here someday.
Time stretched to infinity as he slammed back into the moment when everything went to hell. It was the sound of the impact that first drew his attention, but when the car kept coming despite the accident, he knew something was terribly wrong. Swiftly, he registered the malicious intent of the men wearing the uniforms that falsely identified them as friends, calculated the amount of time they had to a clear shot.
He yelled at Starsky to get down, thinking that would be enough, that once alerted Starsk would have enough time to find shelter. He hit the ground just before the shots tore through the air. When the blast died, he raised his head slowly…
…and realized he was alone.
He was alone here, in the safe place. He was safe, he was whole, he was—
and Starsky was—
move, move, move—
blood, so much blood, oh god oh Jesus oh please Christ no why did you why didn’t you —
why didn’t you—
didn’t cover you—
didn’t work the way we work—
so much fucking blood, I can’t make it stop, please god make it stop—
why didn’t you—
“Hey, hey, hey, it’s okay, it’s okay, c’mon, Hutch, c’mon, babe.”
Hutch broke the surface of consciousness abruptly, his lungs gulping air. As he returned to the present, he realized that he was sitting up in his bed while strong arms held him in an iron but comforting grip.
“You haven’t had that one in a while,” Starsky murmured, one hand stroking Hutch’s back with a gentleness that almost broke him.
Unable to stop himself, Hutch reached up to fist his hands in Starsky’s pajama top, blindly seeking a momentary anchor against the nausea. “Three months,” he whispered.
“Three months? I thought it was more’n five—”
Hutch started guiltily. “I fell asleep on a stakeout,” he admitted.
“You never told me,” Starsky said. Hutch read accusation in his tone, though he also recognized he wasn’t at his most objective, and so he bit back the hasty retort forming on his tongue.
Instead, he pushed himself free of Starsky’s grasp. “Doesn’t matter.”
“It does,” Starsky insisted. “Listen, Hutch, I know neither of us is big on shrinks…”
“No,” Hutch said abruptly.
“Hear me out. It’s been almost two years—”
“—and you’re still havin’ nightmares about the shooting.”
“I thought I’d—” killed you, Hutch almost said, cutting himself off just in time. “I thought you were dead, Starsk,” he grated, hands scrubbing at his face, “and then I spent days sure you were gonna die. Doesn’t that rate a few bad dreams?”
“It’s not like it was the only time,” Starsky murmured, a hint of—God— amusement in his voice. “Time was when every two-bit hood and crazy with a cross carved in his forehead was gunning for us. Some of them nearly made good on those threats.” Hutch felt that gentle hand connect with his arm. “So how come you don’t have nightmares about any of those times?”
Hutch knew perfectly well why this particular trauma was the one that haunted his sleep, but he wasn’t about to tell Starsky about his unreasoning guilt, not when he was doing his best during the daytime hours to give Starsk the free rein he’d asked for. He’d just have to take care of this one the way he’d always dealt with his deepest, darkest secrets.
Trying for a hearty tone, Hutch quipped, “Wasn’t aware I had to be an equal opportunity dreamer.”
“Starsk,” Hutch sighed, “I don’t know why, okay? Maybe my subconscious has decided this is the one I’m going to keep reliving—maybe it’s saving time and energy by serving up one nightmare to take the place of twenty. What difference does it make?”
For a few moments there was absolute silence. Hutch held his breath. Finally, Starsky sighed too, and Hutch knew he’d won. For now, at least.
“Okay," Starsky murmured. "Have it your way, Man of Steel.” He squeezed Hutch's arm, then released it. Hutch felt the mattress shift as Starsky rose to his feet.
“You still don’t remember, do you?”
There was a pause. “No.”
Hutch closed his eyes, knowing it was too dark for Starsky to see his reaction. Thank God, he thought. That knowledge was the only thing that kept him sane in this moment.
Because if Starsky ever remembered the truth, he’d hate him. And if Starsky hated him, there was no place in this world that would be worth living in.
Hating himself when the nightmares took over, when he was forced to watch the blood drain from Starsky’s limp body over and over again?
That, he could live with.
Starsky shook his head. “Not that one,” he said. Thinking back on their tortured progress through the store over the past half hour, he realized he’d been saying that a lot.
Hutch’s face twisted. “You’re driving me nuts. And you know you’re driving me nuts, and I know you know…”
Holding up his hands as though to fend off a blow, Starsky adopted his best look of long-suffering martyrdom—a look he’d stolen wholesale from his partner. “Forgive me for wanting to help you find somethin’ that isn’t gonna make you look like a refugee from Saturday Night Fever,” he intoned haughtily. “I just thought you’d like a little advice. You know, helpful, constructive advice like, ‘For Jesus’ sake, don’t buy that dumb-ass purple suit.’”
Frowning, Hutch peered at the suit he was holding. Man, not only was that shade of purple a color not found in Nature, Starsky wasn’t a hundred percent sure it belonged on planet Earth. Usually, his friend wouldn’t have looked twice at an abomination like this one, but since he’d arranged his first “date” with Annika Sorenson for tonight, he’d been acting weirder and weirder. And now the ultimate weirdness—Hutch dithering in a fancy clothing store about which fancy outfit to blow a couple of hundred bucks on. Not that they didn’t have the money—Ms. Sorenson, true to her word, had provided them with a generous advance, including expenses. But it was totally out of character for Kenneth Hutchinson to care about whether his clothes fit the latest trend. He picked something out, he liked it, he wore it. This was a guy who wore a serape with confidence, for Chrissakes.
This is a guy who’d even look good in that dumb-ass purple suit, Starsky admitted privately. At least, he mused further, the cut of the pants would show off those long legs—
Oh god, what the hell was he thinking? What the hell was happening to his brain?
“All right, then, Mr. Fashion,” Hutch drawled, replacing the suit on the rack and spreading his arms to encompass the hundreds of choices around them. “You find me something.”
Starsky’s mouth suddenly went dry. Because picking out something that suited Hutch would mean thinking about his legs again, and maybe other parts of him Starsky wasn’t so eager to contemplate in such a public place. Which implied that he wouldn’t mind contemplating Hutch’s—parts—in a more private place, and oh hell, why not just admit that having his arms wrapped around Hutch the other night had felt really, really good, in a way he’d half expected but that nevertheless had shocked him and thrilled him and knocked him flat on his ass?
Which besides being a major problem for obvious reasons seemed a little ghoulish, like somehow he’d gotten off on Hutch’s distress. Starsky had thought about that, but after careful deliberation he really didn’t think that was it. It was more the closeness he’d enjoyed, the emotional as well as the physical, the way they leaned on each other so easily when things got rough. Sure, he knew that for Hutch it wasn’t always that easy, and that maybe his friend was holding something back from him about those nightmares, but Starsky was confident he’d worm the problem out of him eventually. The next time it happened—
—the next time, Hutch’d cry out in his sleep, his body going rigid, but before the nightmare could get its hooks into him Starsky would roll over and take him in his arms—
“Hello? Have you left the planet, mushbrain?”
Starsky’s mind scattered in a hundred different directions like a frightened herd of antelope. He looked up at Hutch.
He opened his mouth, closed it again.
“Black,” he croaked finally.
Hutch goggled at him. “What?”
“You always look—I mean, you can’t go wrong with black.”
Hutch frowned. “You don’t think that’s too—”
“Listen,” Starsky cut in, gaze fixing on the purple suit where it hung neglected on its hanger, “I think I better spend some time runnin’ down that husband again. Do some more research. Maybe the Minnesota cops have gotten back to us with that background check. If not, I thought I’d give them a call, try to speed things up.”
There was a pause, and then Hutch murmured, “Sure. I mean, you don’t have to babysit me. I’ve been buying clothes for myself for a long time.”
“Yeah. Don’t want to be accused of layin’ down on the job, huh?” Shaking himself like a wet dog, Starsky risked a glance at Hutch. “Eight o’clock, Armando’s on Oceanside, right?”
“Yeah,” Hutch said, still frowning. “Starsk, you—”
“I’ll see you later,” Starsky said, turning on his heel and exiting the store with as much dignity as he could piece together.
In other words, he thought as Hutch’s gaze bored a hole in his back, not a whole hell of a lot.
Hutch could see Starsky’s reflection in the mirrored walls of Armando’s lavish dining room. The other man was sitting alone at his table with what looked to be a plate of clam linguine.
Be careful, buddy, Hutch thought. Remember what happened the last time one of us ordered that.
As though Starsky had heard him, the dark head rose at that moment. Hutch sucked in a breath as deep blue eyes bored into him, then looked away, scanning the restaurant for probably the hundredth time. And for the hundredth time, Hutch couldn’t help wondering what the hell had made his partner run like a scalded cat this afternoon. He’d been puzzling about it for hours, replaying the scene in his head, trying to figure out the source of the wild look in Starsky’s eyes just before he fled the store. If he didn’t know his best friend better, he’d have sworn it had to be panic.
They hadn’t had a chance to talk since then, so Hutch had no idea if Starsky’s hunt for more information on their client’s soon-to-be ex-husband had turned up anything relevant. Not that it mattered too much at this stage; tonight was all about being seen. Their client had told them this was a well-known watering hole for celebrities, and thus there were spies for news services and entertainment rags here practically every night. Their evening together would be hot news by the morning.
The sound of Annika’s husky voice snapped Hutch out of his reverie. Realizing he’d been woolgathering when he was supposed to be working, he remorsefully returned his gaze to his ‘date’ for the evening.
“Is everything okay?” Annika asked quietly.
Hutch shook his head. “No—I mean, everything’s fine. I’m sorry.”
“Do you and Mr. Starsky have some kind of system for communicating with one another?”
The question threw him until he realized that she must have deduced the object of his attention. “Uh—well, you might say that,” he hedged, thinking back on all the times their near-psychic bond had helped them work the streets, bust a perp, keep one another safe. Of course, he didn’t bother to mention to the woman that at the moment his partner’s thoughts were a complete mystery to him.
Annika raised her eyebrows. “Oh, really? What do you use? Winks?” She demonstrated with an exaggeratedly comical move that surprised him. “What about subtle facial tics?” Another demonstration, this time a twitch of her upper lip à la Elvis that startled a laugh out of him.
“Nothing quite that sophisticated,” he managed after he regained his breath.
“I’m sorry,” Annika said, her high cheekbones coloring slightly. “I always act like a clown when I’m nervous.”
Smiling, Hutch reached across the table to grip her hand. “You’re doing great.”
Annika returned the smile, albeit with less enthusiasm. “I haven’t been out on a date in so long I can barely remember how to behave. But then I remind myself I’m not really on a date and I haven’t got the first clue as to what to do.” She sighed. “Which is why I signed up for music class in high school and not drama.”
“Did you always want to be a singing star?”
Annika laughed. “God, no. I was the fat kid who played the trombone in the—”
Hutch held up a hand. “Wait a minute. The trombone?”
“I went to see The Glenn Miller Story when I was a little girl and got this huge crush on—” she winced “—and I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Hutch promised, a twinkle in his eye.
She gave him a baleful look. “It’d better be. It’s not in my press releases, so if it comes out, I’ll know you’re the one who leaked it.”
“And you’ll have to have me killed.”
The woman nodded at him solemnly. “Precisely.”
This time, they both laughed. Hutch realized he was still holding her hand, and released it with a final squeeze. Briefly, he glanced at Starsky. That dark blue gaze was now fixed on them.
Or rather, on the place where Hutch’s hand had lain atop Annika Sorenson’s.
The shiver that escaped him then had nothing to do with the temperature inside the restaurant. As he struggled to shift his attention completely to the task at hand, Hutch resolved to put aside any considerations as to exactly what it was about. Focus on the job, Hutch reminded himself sternly, returning his gaze once more to the woman in front of him.
“That’s a nice suit, by the way,” Annika was saying, indicating the clean-lined sports jacket and trousers he’d bought this afternoon. “Is it new?”
“Yeah,” Hutch answered, an ironic smile curving his lips. “A—friend helped me pick it out.”
“They’ve got good taste,” Annika told him. “Black sucks all the color out of my skin, but it looks good on you.”
The tape in Hutch’s head rewound and Starsky’s voice began to echo inside his skull. Suddenly, one aborted bit of dialogue that had previously confused him made a whole hell of a lot more sense.
You always look—I mean, you can’t go wrong with black.
The smile feeling as though it had frozen to his face, Hutch took a careful sip of his wine, then leaned forward.
“You’re trying to distract me,” he murmured. “Tell me more about the trombone.”
It was almost one a.m. when Starsky heard Hutch’s key turn in the lock. He called out a greeting so as not to startle Hutch when he opened the door and found Starsky still awake and sitting up on the couch.
“Hey,” Hutch returned, closing the door behind him and shrugging out of his new jacket, the one that fit his lanky frame like it was made for him.
Or made to torture the living shit out of Starsky. But then that had pretty much been the theme of the whole evening. Watching over Hutch and Annika tonight while they talked and laughed and ate was only slightly more entertaining than having his fingernails removed by red-hot tongs. They’d been the center of attention in the restaurant tonight, and not just because of who she was, but because with their radiant white-gold hair and flawless complexions and beautiful faces, they were—
—well. The perfect couple.
Which he and Hutch, on the other hand, most definitely were not.
Pushing his crazy thoughts aside, Starsky barked, “She ask you up for a nightcap?”
Hutch frowned at him for a moment, then shook his head. “Just stayed long enough to make sure there weren’t any estranged husbands lurking in the closets.”
“Anybody tail you?”
“Yeah. I called in the license plate to Joey when I got to her place. The car is leased to The Hollywood Reporter.”
“Hm,” Starsky grunted. “Thought they had more class than that.”
“The times, they are a-changin’,” Hutch quipped, heading for the kitchen. “Took me an hour and a half to lose the SOB after I left Annika’s.” He opened the fridge and peered in. “You want a beer?”
“Already had one.” Hutch’s head came up at this, and before he could censor it, Starsky snapped, “What?”
Hutch opened his mouth, closed it again. “Nothing,” he murmured, emerging from the kitchen with a Coke. Starsky noticed that when Hutch settled on the couch, there was a considerable distance between them. “You find out anything about darling Chris?”
Starsky gritted his teeth. “Not much. Out here, he’s never been charged with anything more serious than failing to pay a few parking tickets—but then they live up in the Hills, and you know they tend to take it kinda easy on the rich and famous up there.”
“Yeah, I know,” Hutch said tiredly, taking a sip of his Coke. “No leads from Minnesota?”
“Zip. I guess they come from this little pudknocker town—”
Starsky blinked at him; obviously the fair Annika's past had come up in conversation tonight. “Yeah. Vineland. Anyway, they had a fire in the town hall about five years ago, and a lot of their records got burnt up. So the cops in Duluth are going to have a hard time coming up with anything.”
“My grandfather had a cabin on Mille Lacs, about ten minutes’ drive from Vineland,” Hutch said, a wistful tone in his voice. “I haven’t been back to that part of Minnesota in twenty years.”
“So you don’t have any connections up there,” Starsky said.
Hutch thought about it for a moment. There was one old friend, but they’d lost touch with one another...He sighed, pushing away memories he wanted to keep buried, and leaned back against the couch. “Doesn’t matter anyway—if he’d done anything criminal back there, Annika would know about it. In small towns like that, everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
Starsky looked at Hutch. “That’s assuming she’d tell us.”
Hutch scowled. “Why wouldn’t she tell us?” He shifted on the couch so that he was facing Starsky full-on. Starsky glanced at the long, black-clad leg hiked up close to his own on the seat cushions, then looked away again. “Say, what’s going on with you, partner? You got any suspicions about our client I should know about?”
Starsky shrugged. “Nothing I can prove.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, he knew it was a ridiculous thing to say; he had no suspicions about Annika Sorenson, period. She was, by all accounts, one of the sweetest people anyone in the jaded California music business had ever worked with. If she weren’t also the most stunning example of cool Scandinavian beauty since Elke Sommer…
Jesus, Starsky thought abruptly, his gut plunging for his shoes. I’m acting like a jealous wife.
Before Hutch could speak, Starsky held up his hands. “Never mind, never mind,” he muttered. “I’m beat and I’m runnin’ off at the mouth. ‘M goin’ to bed.” He made to rise, but was stopped by a gentle hand on his cheek.
“Hey,” Hutch said, voice soothing. “Look at me, Starsk.”
Following the gentle guidance of that hand, Starsky tilted his head up, but not before he pasted on his best neutral expression. He wasn’t as good at hiding as Hutch was, but when called upon to do it he could assemble a passable mask that shielded his intentions from the rest of the world. He’d needed that to survive as a cop, but there was no reason the skill couldn’t come in handy again.
“Listen,” Hutch murmured, “maybe we should talk…” He trailed off, pale blue gaze searching Starsky’s face, looking for the weak points in his disguise.
Starsky pulled away from that hand and stood. “Nothing to talk about,” he insisted, in as steady a tone as he could manage considering that his heart was trying to pound its way out of his chest. “Like I said, I’m just tired.”
Hutch prodded at his defenses for another few seconds, then sighed. “Okay, Starsk. See you in the morning.”
Before Starsky turned to go, he remembered something he’d intended to tell Hutch earlier. “Oh, yeah. Consuela called earlier, left a message. We’re invited to Thanksgiving dinner next Thursday.”
Hutch scrubbed at his face. “Damn. I’d forgotten Thanksgiving was coming up.”
“We go every year,” Starsky bit out. God, he was doing it again.
“We’ll figure something out,” Hutch assured him.
Too fried to get into another debate with his partner, Starsky merely nodded and headed for the stairs.
The next couple of days were uneventful, at least from the standpoint of the case. From the standpoint of Hutch’s sudden brush with stardom, they were so eventful he wanted to crawl under a rock and never come out again. The constant phone calls had dried to a trickle after Hutch had made his unwillingness to speak about their 'relationship' clear, but he and Annika had been hounded everywhere they went. It had been all he and Starsk could do to keep a lookout for Chris Sorenson amid the sea of eager faces wanting a story to sell to the tabloids.
Starsky had taken to buying trade newspapers just to piss him off. This morning’s florid caption was plastered across the front page of Variety: Bay City Hero and America’s Singing Sweetheart—A Match Made in Heaven?
“Would you put those away,” Hutch growled, aware he was making it obvious that Starsky was getting to him. It wasn’t helping his mood to know that from now on, as the center of attention, he’d have to drive the damned Torino. There was simply no way that Starsky could manage discreet surveillance in the striped tomato. Besides, as his partner was fond of pointing out, driving around in his latest car—a five-year-old beige Olds—would only hurt his new “image.”
“Okay, okay,” Starsky said, grinning from ear to ear, “but I still say this is a gorgeous picture of you. Captures your best side.”
Hutch frowned at the paper Starsky held up for his approval. “My left?”
“No, dummy. Geez, and I thought only us southpaws were supposed to have problems with direction. Your right’s always been your best side.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Starsky seemed to realize what he’d said, because his eyes darted away from Hutch’s face and he flushed slightly. Hutch felt a curious warmth curl in his belly as he stared down at the top of his embarrassed partner’s bowed head.
Snatching the paper from him to dispel the awkward moment, Hutch rolled it up and whapped him over the head with it like a misbehaving dog. “Will you get your ass in gear? You need to head out at least half an hour ahead of me to get to Annika’s on time.”
“Okay, okay,” Starsky said again. Downing the last of his orange juice, he rose from the kitchen table and deposited the empty glass in the sink, along with his now bagel-less plate. It suddenly struck Hutch that Starsky had been eating a lot healthier this last year or so—sure, part of it had been the work of doctors insisting it was the only way to a speedy recovery. But Hutch liked to think that the most important part had been his own influence; there was certainly no way Starsk would be eating from all four food groups today if they hadn’t been living together.
“You wearing your wire?” Starsky was asking. Hutch shook his head to clear it, prompting a frown from his partner, but before he could speak again Hutch held up a hand.
“Yeah, I’m wearing it. You want to test it?”
“Yeah,” Starsky said. He flicked his eyes skyward. “Your turn.”
With a small groan of protest, Hutch headed for the stairs so that they could put a little distance between the wire and Starsky’s receiver. Thanks to the advance from Annika, they’d managed to replace the clunky old unit they’d bought second-hand over a year ago with one that was completely portable. It could easily fit in a gym bag, which meant the listener was no longer tied to their car. Since Hutch was planning to take Annika to the beach today, it also meant that Starsky could stay close to them if Hutch needed backup.
Hesitating at the top of the stairs, Hutch found his feet leading him into Starsky’s room instead of his own. Even though neither of them was paranoid about privacy, he still felt a small thrill at his intrusion. Starsky’s bedroom was about the same size and layout as his, the one notable exception being the placement of their beds. While Hutch’s bed was nestled in a corner as far from the door as possible, Starsky’s lay directly under one of the wide dormers they’d put in when they’d added the second storey to the house. Hutch had joked at the time about Starsky missing his mirror, wanting to replace them with the stars. Now that he could see the morning sun pouring in through the window and spilling over the neatly made bed, he had to admit it wasn’t such a bad idea.
Suddenly feeling uneasy, Hutch turned to go, but as he did a piece of paper on Starsky’s nightstand caught his eye. He reached down and picked it up, smiling when he recognized the plans they’d drawn up together while Starsk was still recovering in the hospital. It was Starsky who’d insisted on a huge white clawfoot tub for the upstairs bathroom, leading to a relentless search of every plumbing supply place in the county. Unfortunately, in late-twentieth century America, white bathroom fixtures seemed to have gone permanently out of style. They’d finally run across Starsky’s ideal in a junkyard, a beautiful turn-of-the-century example of functional art doubtless trashed in favor of the latest avocado horror. Hutch chuckled softly as he recalled renting the flatbed and recruiting about six of their strongest brother cops to haul the damned thing into the truck and up the narrow stairs. The swearing that was heard by these walls on that afternoon should have turned them blue.
“What was that?” Starsky’s yell from the bottom of the stairs snapped him out of his reminiscence. “I didn’t hear ya!”
“Can you hear me now, meathead?” Hutch said softly, his attention snagged by the piece of paper under the first one.
“Loud and clear,” Starsky called back. “’Kay, I’m headin’ out. See you there.”
“See you,” Hutch said absently in a normal voice, his hand reaching for the second drawing. This one was a copy of the ground floor layout, also a familiar sight. But Starsky’s chicken scratches adorned this plan. Hutch studied it carefully, his index finger tracing the inked lines. Their biggest priority regarding the house—apart from making it fit for human habitation—had been to create a space that would serve a small family or a couple should the two of them decide to sell the property down the line. Hence the second floor, the upgrading of the plumbing and electrical systems, and the general beautification of—well, of just about everything. The place had certainly needed a lot of that in the beginning.
Although they hadn’t talked about it, Hutch had assumed the house was a transitional phase for both of them, a convenient pooling of their resources, a way for Hutch to keep an eye on a convalescing Starsky, and an investment in the future. Inasmuch as he gave it any thought, he figured they’d eventually sell the house and reestablish their own separate territories.
Now Hutch realized that the exact opposite had happened, for as he stared at the plan of their little house, he was startled to feel a strong sense of ownership and a surge of deep affection for the home they’d built practically from nothing. The sketch brought home the fact, because just a few weeks ago they’d been pissing and moaning again about the lack of room for entertaining their friends—squeezing even six people around the kitchen table was next to impossible. Apparently Starsky had already planned out a solution to the problem, complete with the flagstone steps he loved so much, the wall of windows that Hutch had always looked for in the homes he'd chosen, and the pass-through they'd both come up with. For the first time it finally hit Hutch full in the face that they had never truly been focused on making the house fit for potential buyers, but fit for them.
For David Starsky and Ken Hutchinson. Together.
Forcing himself to put the plans back where he’d found them, Hutch allowed his gaze to drift around Starsky’s room, reasoning that he had to give his partner a few more minutes’ head start. Inevitably, he returned to the bed. He wondered what it would be like to lie there at night and gaze out at the stars, feeling their presence above you like a palpable thing. Or on nights when the moon was nearly as bright as this morning's sun—
—even Starsky’s dark skin would turn pale in that light, but his eyes would reflect their true color; a brilliant, searing blue, like the blue of powerful, compact stars. Hutch would reach out, expecting that flesh to be cool to the touch, but the heat would remain, inviting him to—
The next thing Hutch knew, he was plastered up against the wall outside Starsky’s room, his chest heaving as though he’d run a mile instead of ten feet.
Sometimes, he mused, finally having a few minutes to reflect on his life could be a real pain in the ass.
See notes for Chapter 1 for additional warnings.
Normally, sitting on a beach in late November was not Starsky’s idea of fun, but today was the end of a week of unseasonably warm temperatures. Even the stiff ocean breeze wasn’t enough to dispel the heat radiating from the land, and it certainly didn’t discourage the dozens of people enjoying the beach that day. That said, he still wasn’t having any fun, because he wasn’t there for a holiday. He was there to watch while his partner set himself up as a human target.
This was one of the less traveled, more private beaches down the coast from Bay City and so it offered the best of both worlds from the standpoint of surveillance: enough witnesses to afford some protection, but not enough to interfere with Starsky and Hutch keeping an eye out for trouble. Since the first date in the restaurant, one or the other of them had scoped out every location beforehand, rejecting it if the place was too crowded or if it afforded too much cover for a gunman. One of Annika’s favorite beaches had been vetoed because the high cliffs surrounding it would have made it an ideal location for a sniper to pick them off like ducks in a shooting gallery.
Even with the relatively open location, Starsky’s nerves were completely on edge. He’d had a funny feeling when he pulled up outside Annika’s place, a weird buzz he’d often tended to get before a big bust went down. After days of waiting for Chris Sorenson to make a move, Starsky had a hunch that something was going to break today. If Annika’s assessment of her husband was correct, all this press about the romance of the century had to be whipping him into a jealous rage. It was only a matter of time before he blew his stack and came after both her and Hutch.
If Starsky wanted to be honest with himself, he’d have to admit a little bit of that jealousy was rubbing off on him, too. Sitting around watching Annika and Hutch interact wouldn’t have been a problem for him a couple of months ago, but then a couple of months ago he hadn’t known what Hutch’s mouth tasted like. And he sure as hell hadn’t spent any sleepless nights wondering what it would be like to taste it again, along with his skin and his—
Down, boy, Starsky admonished himself. Hutch needs you watching his back, not mooning over him like a lovesick teenager.
To top it all off, the wind was making it difficult to hear both sides of the conversation, although Starsky could still pick up his partner’s voice loud and clear. That would make it tough to get Sorenson on tape if he bothered to show up. There had been a lot of laughing and joking going on lately; if he hadn’t known that Hutch was paying as close attention to the scene as he was, he’d swear his best friend was pouring on the charm.
Or maybe he just genuinely likes her. He’s allowed, isn’t he? It doesn’t mean he wants to—
Starsky froze in the middle of his surveillance as the thought entered his brain like an ice pick. What if Hutch did like the lady? What if when this case was over, they decided they wanted to keep seeing one another—only for real this time? What if—
“Aw, quit it,” Starsky muttered, shaking himself from his flight of fancy. There was no reason to believe that Hutch was falling for Annika Sorenson, or she for him. And if they were, well, that was no business of his.
Sure. And if you believe that, I got a real nice bridge in Brooklyn that’s going for a song.
Angrily returning to his assigned task, Starsky completed his sweep of the beach denizens and was about to open his bag to check on the recorder when he was bowled over by something about the size and weight of a Mack truck. The earpiece was yanked loose and he went ass over teakettle in the sand.
“Lucky! Lucky! Come here! Bad dog!”
Dog? Starsky thought incredulously. Elephant, more like. As though it had read his thoughts, the errant Lucky chose that moment to plant its paws on his chest and deliver a wet, sloppy lick to his right cheek.
“Get—offa—me!” Starsky growled, heaving against the leviathan with all his might. To his relief, Lucky toppled with a huffing whine, then tottered off down the beach, huge tail wagging. Starsky watched as a beautiful dark-haired girl in thigh-hugging shorts grabbed at the dog and strapped on a leash. As his gaze catalogued her considerable assets, assets he normally found very, very attractive in a woman, he wasn’t surprised to find that he felt—
—absolutely nothing. As in, nada. Zip. Bupkus. No action.
Starsky sighed and returned his attention to the receiver. The unit, thankfully, was untrampled and unlicked, but digging the earpiece out of the sand took some doing. As he brushed off the last flecks and re-inserted it into his ear, he immediately recognized the tension in Hutch’s voice, and realized he’d dropped the ball.
“Starsk. He’s here. Forty feet up the beach toward the lifeguard tower and closing.”
Desperately, Starsky’s eyes roamed the stretch of sand Hutch had identified. Sure enough, there was a man matching Sorenson’s description, striding slowly and purposefully toward the place where Annika and Hutch sat on the sand. That put a total of thirty yards between him and Sorenson—an easy distance for his revolver to cover if you knew what you were doing with it. Not that he’d open fire on a public beach—unless he had to, that was. At thirty yards, he never missed.
Hauling himself to his feet, he calmly folded his towel and stuffed it in the bag, then slung the bag over his shoulder and began walking casually toward the water—and, obliquely, toward his partner.
I’m coming, buddy, he promised silently. Whatever this guy’s dishing out, we’ll be ready.
If Hutch had had any doubts about Annika Sorenson’s story concerning her estranged husband, her reaction to his appearance served to dispel them. Seeing him seemed to make every muscle in her body go rigid, and her eyes…Hutch was shocked to see genuine, unreasoning fear in the gaze that he’d seen cool and self-possessed, charmingly sheepish, dancing with merriment—but never afraid. Unless she was as great an actress as she was a singing star, the other man terrified her.
“This was a terrible idea,” she breathed. Her turquoise gaze rose to meet his. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”
It was at that moment that Hutch realized Annika wasn’t afraid for herself. His respect for the lady, already having risen considerably over the past few days, went up another couple of notches.
“Don’t worry,” Hutch said, reaching out and grasping her forearm lightly. “It’s going to be okay.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he lifted his gaze and met the glance of yet another pair of blue eyes. Starsky was making his way along the beach, his progress lazy and natural—at least, that was how it would appear to an observer. As Hutch watched, he dug his toe in the loose, wet sand at the water’s edge, then allowed his attention to be captured by a pretty girl with a huge, galloping dog. But every few seconds, his eyes would stray back to Hutch and Annika, watching, protecting, so that he could be ready to jump in at a moment’s notice.
Hutch couldn’t even begin to describe how grateful he was that his partner was with him again.
“Annika!” The voice was low and deep, but without any of the warmth or resonance of Starsky’s. “I can’t believe it.”
“I can,” Annika muttered under her breath. Louder, she said, “I have nothing to say to you, Chris.”
Sorenson’s placid expression didn’t change at Annika’s verbal slap. Instead, the man turned to Hutch and stuck out a hand. “Hello, Ken. I’m the husband.”
Hutch didn’t move. “Not for much longer,” he said pleasantly.
The words had at least a small effect on Sorenson, because although his face otherwise remained neutral, his blue eyes went as cold as a glacier. “I wouldn’t be too sure of that. You make a fairly obvious replacement, but eventually she’s going to want the real thing again.”
Hutch sneered, falling into his role with enthusiasm. “The real thing, huh? Well, times have changed. Annika’s decided to switch to a real man.”
Hutch watched as Sorenson’s fists clenched convulsively. Sensing Starsky’s presence at the edge of his peripheral vision, he decided to kick the confrontation to the next level. With a reassuring smile for Annika, he leaned forward and brushed his mouth over hers. When she went along with the charade, he reached up to cup the back of her head gently and angled his own so that he could press more firmly against her lips.
It occurred to him that not only was this the first time he’d kissed a woman in months, but it was—like the kiss Starsky had given him—a complete sham, a show for the benefit of someone else. This time, however, there was no risk that it was going to develop into something more. Chris Sorenson’s furious presence made sure of that.
Come on, Hutch’s inner voice nagged him. Even if everyone else on this beach disappeared right now, nothing more would happen. Not like it did that night in the kitchen.
Pushing those distracting thoughts aside, Hutch ended the kiss and regarded Sorenson with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. Beside him, he could feel Annika’s fear like a palpable thing, although she was trying mightily to hide it. Sorenson’s face had gone as red as the Torino, and Hutch mentally calculated the time he needed to draw his gun. He and Starsky both had permits to carry concealed, though he’d long since turned in his 44-caliber hand cannon for a little snub-nosed .38. The revolver still had stopping power, but it wasn’t the deadly monster he’d wielded as a cop. With his legs bent in front of him, he could reach the ankle holster quickly. Luckily, Sorenson had chosen to stand closer to him than to Annika, allowing Hutch to shield her if necessary. Starsky, he could tell, had also placed himself in a clear line of fire.
Hutch’s cool, level gaze held Sorenson’s maddened one for a stretch of time that seemed to last eons. Slowly, putting the weight of authority behind every word, he said, “Let it go, Sorenson. Let it go before you land in serious trouble.”
It was Sorenson’s turn to sneer. “And where’s this trouble coming from? You?”
“The law—” Hutch began, only to be cut off by a sharp laugh from the man standing above him.
“The law is,” he ground out, ”that she made a vow to me.” His gaze shifted to Annika. “Remember, sweetheart? For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. ‘Til death do us part.” The last line was delivered in a tone that chilled Hutch’s blood. This was one twisted bastard. But then, he reminded himself, a lot of men felt the same way; he’d seen enough domestic abuse in his years on the force to convince him of that truth.
“You’re not the man I said those words to.” Annika’s voice surprised him with its strength. “I don’t know who you are any more, Chris.”
Sorenson leaned forward, his expression turning desperate, and Hutch’s hand crept toward his pants cuff. “I’m the man you belong to. The one you were meant to love forever.”
Hutch shook his head, forcing Sorenson’s attention back to him. “Annika doesn’t belong to you. She’s a human being, and she belongs only to herself. She’s made a decision and you’re going to have to learn to accept that, for your sake as much as hers.”
Sorenson’s jaw worked. “I’ll never accept that. Never.”
Hutch kept very, very still. “I’m very sorry to hear that. We have nothing more to say to one another.” Once again, Sorenson’s gaze locked with Hutch’s, but after a few breathless moments, it was the other man who blinked. With a final glare, he turned and stalked back up the beach toward the parking lot.
There were a few stunned seconds of silence, and then Annika slumped. “Oh God,” she gasped, holding her head in her hands. “Oh, God.”
Hutch laid a comforting hand on her back while he watched Sorenson disappear beyond a dune. He turned slightly to catch Starsky’s eye, only to find his partner already looking at him. When he read the expression on that well-known face, it was all he could do to bite back a gasp.
Starsk was furious. But not at Sorenson, although maybe that was a small part of it. No, Starsky was furious with him.
Hutch returned his attention to Annika. “It’s all right,” he said softly. “It’s all right.”
Now, all he had to do was to make himself believe it.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?”
Hutch continued rummaging around in his closet. “Would you please keep your voice down?”
“She’s in the back yard communing with the flowers,” Starsky growled. “She can’t hear me. Answer the damned question.”
Selecting a tan-colored jacket, Hutch threw it on the bed with the black turtleneck he’d already chosen and began stripping off his plaid shirt. “I thought I was doing my job,” he said irritably, finally turning to Starsky.
Starsky kept his eyes deliberately focused on Hutch’s face and off the smooth skin being revealed inch by inch. “Your job ain’t to take stupid chances like you did this morning,” he snapped. “You got that guy worked up so much he couldn’t see straight.” He flashed back to the scene on the beach while he allowed the anger to simmer inside him. Starsky had quickly abandoned the listening device, leaving it to record whatever it could, but not wanting it to slow him down if he needed to move. He had all the cues he’d needed from Sorenson’s body language and it had been full of hints that the other man was ready to explode. Starsky’s heart was only now coming down from the adrenaline rush that tense situation had produced in him.
Hutch shrugged out of the shirt. “That’s exactly what my job is,” he countered, his voice maddeningly calm. “And you knew that, and you agreed that we should take the case.”
Starsky opened his mouth to yell again, then shut it abruptly when he realized the only response he could come up with was a childish one. Yeah? Well, I take it back, so there. And I’m gonna hold my fuckin’ breath until I turn blue. And while we’re at it, yer mother wears army boots.
Hutch filled the gap in the conversation. Stepping forward, he gripped Starsky’s shoulders with his big hands and said earnestly, “Look, Starsk, I know you didn’t want us to take this case. But we can’t back down now. I know you didn’t hear everything the guy said, but trust me on this: he’s a psycho.”
“And that’s supposed to reassure me?” Starsky shot back. Hutch’s hands were burning a hole in his jacket clear through to his skin, and there seemed to be nothing but acres of golden, well-muscled flesh in his field of vision.
“Yes. Because it means we made the right decision. Annika needs us.”
“You never could say no to a damsel in distress,” Starsky muttered.
“It’s not about that,” Hutch protested. Shaking his head, he dropped his hands and turned away. Starsky was torn between relief and regret.
Annoyance followed in the wake of both as he realized Hutch had gotten around him again with appeals to his better nature. To feed it, he summoned the image of Hutch kissing Annika. Granted, he hadn’t seen much, since his attention had been riveted on Sorenson, but that split second had been enough to twist his guts into knots. “What?” he demanded, following Hutch as he headed for the bathroom. “That cut a little bit too close to home?”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Hutch murmured.
“Answer me,” Starsky insisted.
Hutch spun around in the bathroom doorway, his expression exasperated. “Answer what? What, exactly, are you trying to say?”
Starsky frowned. His brain was running in fruitless circles like a dog chasing its tail. He couldn’t exactly admit to his best friend that he was behaving like a jealous asshole because he couldn’t stand to see Hutch kissing anybody but him. But before he could piece together an acceptable response, Hutch sighed.
“Starsk, would you go to bed?”
“Hunh?” Starsky grunted. All he could understand was that a half-naked Hutch had just said bed to him, and he was instantly plunged into a lust-fogged stupor. He shook his head to clear it.
Hutch obviously took this as a negation, because his expression finally gave way to irritation. “We talked about this already. I’m going to have to shadow her twenty-four hours a day now, and I need you at my back at night. You agreed to rest up for tonight while I take her to the studio. She’ll be as safe there as—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know,” Starsky said, waving a hand. Hutch was distracting him, trying to keep him from sorting this out in his head, so that he’d agree to whatever Hutch wanted. What about what he wanted, huh?
Yeah, what about that? his subconscious mocked. You got the balls to go for what you want?
“Starsk…” Hutch sighed again, leaning back against the wall outside the bathroom. “I’m not attracted to Annika, all right?”
Starsky’s heart tried to leap out of his chest. Once again, Hutch had read his mind—though why he expected it to be any different after all these years, he didn’t know. Backpedaling furiously, he grated, “You’re nuts. She’s gorgeous.”
“Sure she is,” Hutch agreed. “She’s very attractive. But I’m not attracted to her.”
“You kissed her,” Starsky heard himself say, shocked to hear accusation in his tone. Shit, what was he doing, he had no right to—
“I did it to get Sorenson riled up,” Hutch said, and dear God, there was an apology in his tone, as though Starsky deserved one for some reason. “It didn’t—”
When Hutch trailed off, Starsky’s gaze dropped to his mouth. Okay, maybe it had strayed there before that. “Didn’t what?” he croaked.
Hutch’s voice was a husky murmur. “Didn’t mean anything. Didn’t do anything for me.”
She’s one of the most beautiful women on the planet, Starsky tried to say. She’s nice and sweet and talented and she’d be perfect for you. But that didn’t get said either, because before he could force the words to come out he’d grabbed a handful of Hutch’s hair, yanked his head down and kissed him. It was fast and hard and wet and even though it was over in a second Starsky could feel Hutch start to respond. His lips felt like they’d been wrapped around a live electrical wire; his lungs felt like he’d just run the hundred-yard dash.
“What about that?” Starsky growled against Hutch’s mouth. “That do anything for you?”
One of Hutch’s hands settled heavily on the juncture of Starsky’s neck and shoulder. “Oh, God, this is a bad idea,” he groaned, though considering the next thing he did was wrap his free arm around Starsky’s back and pull him into another kiss, it didn’t seem like he was too worried about that.
And if his partner didn’t think it was a problem, hell, neither did Starsky. Following the urging of that powerful arm, he surged upward, returning the kiss with all the pent-up longing he’d been feeling for weeks. Then Hutch released a soft, helpless sound and Starsky realized he was pressing his partner against the wall with all the strength in his body.
“Sorry,” Starsky breathed, breaking the kiss with reluctance and easing off slightly. “I hurt you?”
“Nooo…” Hutch moaned, leaning in and brushing his mouth against Starsky’s. With a groan, Starsky angled his head and ran the tip of his tongue along Hutch’s lower lip. Hutch’s response was to plunge his own tongue deep into Starsky’s mouth.
Oh hell yeah, Starsky’s addled brain cheered, as his body went back to grinding Hutch against the wall. One hand remained in Hutch’s hair, while the other decided to take up exploring. It confirmed Hutch’s skin was softer than silk, muscles hard yet supple. Gliding lower, it cupped the slight curve of Hutch’s hip, then slowly retraced its route.
The sudden bang of the back screen door sounded like a gunshot. “Ken?”
Jesus Christ, not again. Panting like a racehorse, Starsky broke away from Hutch. He tried to back up, but Hutch’s arm held him fast.
“Yes, Annika?” he called over Starsky’s shoulder, voice completely normal. Starsky was too brain dead to be envious of his control.
“I don’t mean to rush you…” she began tentatively.
Hutch leaned his forehead against Starsky’s. “No, it’s fine, I’m sorry. We’ll—I’ll be ready in five minutes.”
“Sure. Thank you.” The screen door banged again, and there was silence.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Starsky breathed. He tried to straighten up, but it felt too good to be this close to Hutch.
Hutch chuckled. “Yeah. You can say that again.”
“Shit, shit—” Hutch silenced him with a hard kiss, then gently set his unresisting body at arms’ length.
“Starsk, please go to bed,” he pleaded. The look in his eyes, a combination of exasperation, affection and unbridled want, nearly burned Starsky to a cinder on the spot.
“Yeah,” Starsky agreed reluctantly, rubbing at the back of his neck. His gaze shifted away from the dangerous territory of Hutch's body, contemplating the doorjamb of the bathroom instead. “Guess that would be the smart thing to do.”
“It’s the only thing to do,” Hutch affirmed. “For now.”
God. Starsky couldn’t look at him again, he couldn’t.
“When you want me to show up at the studio?”
“Uh, nine o’clock,” Hutch managed. “She said it’d go until at least that time, though, so don’t be surprised if we don’t come out right away.”
“Got it,” Starsky said. He turned away, only to feel a warm hand wrap around his arm.
Starsky shuddered with the force of a hundred emotions, all clamoring for his attention. “Yeah. I know. For now.” Hutch’s hand released him, and he walked the few feet to his bedroom.
Once he’d put a safe distance between them, he turned and met Hutch’s gaze one last time.
“Though if you think I’m gettin’ any sleep now,” he muttered, “you really are nuts.”
Hutch watched through the glass as the band ground to a halt. Blowing out a frustrated breath, Annika pushed the headphones from her ears. When she spoke, her voice sounded tinny in the studio’s PA system.
“I know, Brian—you don’t have to tell me.”
Beside Hutch, the producer held up his hands in a placating gesture and leaned into the mike hovering over the mixing board. “Did I say anything the last three times?” he asked.
Annika bowed her head. “No. I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” Brian told her gruffly. “You’re entitled to an off day.”
“I’ve been having ‘off’ days like this for over a year.” Annika sighed and stood. Laying aside the headphones, she shook out her arms and stretched. “Listen, I know it’s the company’s dime, but do you mind if we shut off the tape and the boys and I just jam for a little while?”
The producer snorted. “Considering all the dimes you’ve made for the company, I don’t mind at all. Rock out.” He straightened and turned away from the window, then looked at Hutch and jerked his head in the direction of the door. Nodding, Hutch followed him. As he left the engineer’s room, he could hear the loping beat of Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools start up in the studio. He paused for a moment, mildly surprised to hear Annika’s powerful voice rip into the song. Her usual repertoire was much folkier, more what he usually sang himself.
It’s definitely a day for the blues, Hutch reflected, the lingering anger at Sorenson’s behavior rising up and jabbing at him yet again. Annika’s estranged husband was too clever by half, and the fact that Hutch hadn’t been able to force the man’s hand quickly rankled him. He knew it was overly optimistic to hope that the situation would resolve itself so neatly, but watching Annika’s pain was hitting him harder than he’d anticipated. He wanted this nightmare to be over for her now, not at some nebulous time in the future.
It was fairly clear that the members of Annika’s band had sided with her and not with her husband, although they had all played together for years. Of course, the cynic would argue they’d chosen the more successful Sorenson, but after spending some time with them Hutch could see it was more than that. As he’d discovered himself, Annika was a genuinely likable person, and she inspired a fierce loyalty and affection in those who knew her.
Brian Morehouse was obviously one of her legion of supporters; over the past couple of hours, Hutch had watched the older man struggle with his frustration, keeping it out of his voice and his interactions with Annika. His respect for the paunchy record producer had gone up a notch when Morehouse had chewed out one of the recording engineers for swearing after she’d flubbed one of the better takes.
Now that he’d left the studio, however, Morehouse was free to vent his frustration, and the candy machine in the hallway was the chosen victim of his negative emotion. He was cursing and kicking the thing with vehement abandon. Hutch couldn’t help but smile as he was reminded of Captain Dobey’s frequent trips to the vending machines in the station, and of Starsky’s bad luck with the contraptions. His partner had developed this habit of bumping Metro’s recalcitrant beverage machine with his hip, as though he were boogieing with it instead of trying to make it give up a carton of milk…
Okay, let’s not go there, Hutch thought, as a vivid image of Starsky shimmying lasciviously appeared in his brain. God, when had he turned into a quivering mass of hormones where David Michael Starsky was concerned?
Right around the time he stuck his tongue down your throat and shoved you up against the wall, Hutch’s inner voice informed him. Not that you’re gonna go there right now, either.
“Christ! Motherfucker!” Morehouse whacked the front of the machine repeatedly with the palm of his hand, then crowed in victory when a Snickers bar finally dropped from its perch.
“Virtue is its own reward,” Hutch observed dryly, as the other man bent over to retrieve his prize.
“Go to hell,” Morehouse responded, the curse without rancor. He ripped the wrapper off the end of the bar, then bit into it with gusto. Still chewing, he spoke around a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts. “So. You’re the new bodyguard, huh?”
“Looks that way,” Hutch replied calmly. “At least for the foreseeable future. My work schedule’s clear for now.” Which was the truth, in the sense that Annika’s was their only official case at the moment. Unofficially, they were also keeping an eye on Peter O’Halloran, though they had a lot of help on that one: Perkowitz, Kiko, Frank, the staff of the Gay Youth Center, and a tough, understanding lawyer from Lambda Legal Defense who was representing Peter’s interests pro bono.
Morehouse raised an eyebrow at him. Everyone here knew that Hutch was a private investigator; there was no sense in lying, especially considering the details of his life, both real and fictional, were all over the papers and the TV. “You used to be a cop. Can’t they do something about Chris?”
Hutch pursed his lips. “They can, on the surface. But they can’t keep her safe twenty-four hours a day, can’t guarantee he’ll never hurt her.” He thought about the rapists and wife-beaters who’d walked because the women involved had been too scared to testify, and the ones who’d ended up dead for no other reason than that they were born women. Silently, he vowed that Annika would not be another such victim.
“I know how you can guarantee it,” Morehouse said grimly. “Put a bullet between his eyes.”
Hutch’s head snapped up at that. The producer immediately waved a pudgy hand. “Don’t worry. I’m a lover, not a fighter. But that doesn’t mean I like what that creep is doing to Anni.”
“How long ago did their marriage start to fall apart?” Hutch asked, trying to make the question sound conversational.
Morehouse blew out a breath. “Tough to say. Annika is good at putting on a happy face when she’d sooner be crying. But I noticed things were more strained after the last album came out nearly a year ago. It pissed Chris off that the company wasn’t releasing his compositions as singles. I had a couple of battles with him over that.”
“So he was jealous of her success?”
Morehouse shrugged. “He talked out of both sides of his mouth. He was supportive of her, sure, but then he’d turn around and make demands that ultimately weren’t good for her. She went along with him for a while, but as time went on it became clear even to her that he wasn’t making the best decisions. For instance, when she approved my choice for the album cover instead of his, he made it seem like she’d stabbed him in the heart.”
“He liked to be in control,” Hutch mused.
“Understatement of the century,” Morehouse huffed. “I guess I always thought there was something—well, kind of off about Chris. He’s a good guitarist, sure, but that’s all he is. Annika, on the other hand, is a star. This business is supposedly all about the miracle of success, but you know what? That’s bullshit. If you don’t have it to begin with, no miracle’s going to give it to you. Problem is, Chris doesn’t have the brains—or the guts—to recognize his own limitations and live with them.”
Hutch couldn’t think of anything else to add, so he remained silent. Having Morehouse confirm what he’d already deduced about Sorenson’s personality was reassuring, at least, but it didn’t make his job any easier. The producer took another generous bite of his chocolate bar, then used it to point at the studio door. “Why don’t you go in and hang out?” he suggested. “The more friends around Anni right now, the better.”
Hutch wasn’t going to argue with that, or pass up the chance to interact with Annika’s bandmates. With a smile and a nod, he opened the door to the studio, letting the wall of sound being generated blast him full in the face.
You told me to leave you alone
My father said come on home
My doctor said take it easy…
Hutch hovered at the edge of the circle of musicians, his foot tapping the slow funk beat of the song. Annika stood in the middle of them all, her body swaying as she belted out the melody. Hutch noticed she appeared much more relaxed now, her limbs looser, her posture less stiff. When she turned in his direction, her eyes lit up and she beckoned him into the middle of the circle. Hutch shook his head and raised his hands; with a mock-scowl, she strode over to him and dragged him back with her. Never losing track of the song, she smiled reassuringly at him and leaned toward him when the chorus started up again.
Chain chain chain—
She pointed at him and he jumped in, echoing the words.
Chain chain chain—
On the third line, their voices blended in harmony, Hutch slipping in under the melody. Annika nodded enthusiastically, and together they finished the song. When the last notes died, she grinned and pulled him into a brief hug. “You’re wonderful!” she exclaimed.
“How did you know I sang?” Hutch asked, more than a little flustered. He’d never mentioned his talent because he didn’t want to sound like one of those people who met a truly gifted person and talked endlessly about their own amateurish efforts. He had a fair voice, but telling Annika Sorenson about it was like a writer of greeting card verse regaling Shakespeare with his poetry.
Annika’s grin widened. “I saw the guitar at your place and I took a chance.” She turned to her fellow musicians. “What next?”
The burly drummer matched her smile. “How about some Janis?”
“Okay,” Annika agreed. “Try, in E.” She turned to Hutch with a playful look in her eyes. “Think you can keep up?”
Allowing himself to enjoy the respite from the morning’s tension, Hutch yielded to her infectious enthusiasm.
“Watch me,” he told her.
His hands gripping the steering wheel of Hutch’s latest bucket of bolts, Starsky tensed even more when the old green van turned another corner on the way to Annika’s. That made the fourth time the battered vehicle had changed direction to match its course with the Torino’s.
This was getting to be a little too much of a coincidence.
Starsky himself had been following the van ever since it had peeled out of the studio parking lot behind Hutch and Annika. The light hadn’t been great, but Starsky had seen enough of the driver before he got into the van to tell he was too heavyset to be Sorenson. He could also tell that Hutch was heading straight for Annika’s place, though that didn’t necessarily mean he hadn’t noticed the tail. Anyone with a connection to Chris Sorenson or the studio would be able to find out where Annika lived; it was pointless to try to shake someone when they knew your ultimate destination.
Starsky proceeded on that assumption as he parked the car around the corner from Annika’s and made his way toward the house. Keeping to the shadows of the broad, sheltering trees peppering the lawn, he crept closer.
Sure enough, the guy was there, cutting across the front of the lawn. He bypassed the door and went straight for one of the floor-to-ceiling living room windows, where he peered in, trying to see through a crack in the curtains. The light from the window silhouetted the big man, and Starsky went rigid as he watched one meaty hand dive into a pocket.
Cursing softly, he crouched and pulled his .38 from its ankle holster. There was a lot of target to hit, but he was still too far and it was too dark for him to be sure of a successful shot. Taking a deep breath, he sprinted for his next closest cover, a tree about twenty feet from the front window. When he reached it, he raised the gun, then emerged from behind the trunk.
“Freeze!” The other man spun toward Starsky, nearly toppling off his feet in his haste. “Take your hand out of your pocket nice and slow, sweetheart.”
Right at that moment, the curtains in the window flew open, and both he and Starsky jumped. Light poured through the window, illuminating Annika Sorenson’s outline like some kind of Viking angel. She waved madly at the man, then, pointing in the direction of the front door, beckoned him inside. When he didn’t move from his frozen contemplation of Starsky, Annika’s eyes followed the line of his gaze. Since he had to keep ninety-eight percent of his attention on the guy, he didn’t register her reaction.
“Relax, man, relax,” the man was saying nervously. “I’m a friend.”
“Take your hand out of your pocket,” Starsky repeated, every word deliberate, weighted.
“Okay, okay!” the man exclaimed, raising both hands. In the light, Starsky could see they were empty. “My hand was cold, so I put it in my pocket. That’s all, I swear!”
“Starsk! It’s all right!” Hutch’s voice rang out in the darkness. Starsky risked a glance toward the front and saw Hutch and Annika running toward them. “It’s okay, Starsk. He’s okay.”
Exhaling a slow breath, Starsky lowered his weapon.
Annika staggered to a halt beside the big man, laying a hand on his shoulder; even she had to reach up a ways to do it. “Are you all right?” she asked, breathless.
The man sagged under her fingers. “I think I almost had a heart attack, but yeah. I’m fine.”
“David Starsky,” Hutch murmured, “meet Lars Anderson. He’s Annika’s drummer.”
Jaw clenching, Starsky bent to holster his revolver. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he drawled. He wasn’t going to apologize to this slab of beef peeping tom for doing his job. Straightening, he added, “You mind telling me what you were doing pressin’ your nose up against Annika’s window pane at ten-thirty at night?”
Annika replied in Anderson’s place. “It was something we’ve done ever since we were kids.” She shook her head. “Silly games to try to scare each other.”
“Seems like a pretty stupid game to be playing considering all that’s been happening to you.” It was Hutch’s voice that spoke the words, and if Starsky hadn’t been sure he’d done the right thing, that low, barely controlled note in his partner's voice convinced him he had. Hutch was as pissed off at this guy as Starsky was. They were working in synch again.
Anderson’s wide face became stricken. “He’s right. I never thought…I’m sorry, Anni.”
“It’s all right, sweetie,” Annika told him soothingly, her hand still on his shoulder. “It reminded me of old times. Better times.” She gave his shoulder one last squeeze, then released him. “Come in, all of you. It’s getting cold out here.”
As Anderson followed behind her like a bear walking on two legs, Hutch walked in the opposite direction, toward Starsky. “What about you?” he asked softly, when Annika and Lars were out of earshot. Starsky’s gaze rose to take in his friend’s concerned expression. “Are you okay, Starsk?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?” The words were harsh, but the tone matched Hutch’s.
“Because that’s the first time you’ve pulled a piece since—” Hutch abruptly cut himself off, and Starsky realized what he’d been about to say. Since the day you were shot. And it was true; although he’d practiced with his new weapon plenty of times in the past few months to get the feel of it and to keep his aim sharp, it wasn’t the same as drawing it on the job, in the performance of your duty.
You’re back in the game, boy. Not the same one you left, but close enough. How does it feel?
Suddenly, every muscle in his body felt like it had turned to Jell-o.
“Shit,” he heard himself say, and then Hutch was there, warm arm circling his waist, supporting him, anchoring him.
“Yeah, I know,” Hutch murmured in his ear. “Let’s go get warm.”
“So Anni hired you to protect her,” Anderson said slowly, his watery blue eyes surveying Starsky and Hutch as they sat together in Annika’s living room.
“That’s right,” Hutch said evenly. He’d balked at letting the big man in on the deception, but Annika insisted on telling him about the situation, minus the plan to try to force Chris’ hand. He supposed she had a point—the drama outside would have been difficult to explain otherwise. She was convinced that she could trust Anderson, having known him since they were children growing up in Minnesota. Hutch thought it would be crass to point out the same could be said of her estranged husband.
To be fair, there was something about Anderson that told Hutch he wasn’t a threat. After observing him today, he saw that the man seemed to fit the description of a “gentle giant” – a man aware of his physical presence and capabilities, and therefore one who tended to be extra-careful around those weaker than himself. It was clear that the two had a vast affection for one another, and there was evidence that the emotion might well approach adoration on Anderson’s part. Whether or not that adoration was innocent or carnal was a question he hadn’t managed to answer yet.
Hutch risked a glance at Starsky, who was currently sitting in one of Annika’s white leather chairs drinking coffee. He wondered how much sleep Starsk had gotten, then shook off the protective thought. Sleep or no sleep, Starsky could handle the stakeout, just like he’d handled the potential threat to Annika earlier. Hutch was surprised at the strong feeling of pride he’d experienced at watching Starsky in action after such a long time. It wasn’t that he’d never felt pride in his partner’s achievements, but over the last year and a half Starsky’s victories over the legacy of Gunther’s bullets had been triumphs that Hutch had celebrated only on the outside. On the inside, he’d been wracked by guilt at every reminder—good and bad—of the shooting.
Tonight, though, had been different. Hutch knew himself too well to believe the guilt had miraculously disappeared, however. At best, it had gone into remission until it could spring to life again at a more inopportune time.
Starsky chose that moment to look over at him, and as though his doubts were painted on his face, the other man’s bushy eyebrows arched slightly in an unvoiced question. Not now, Hutch silently communicated; after a moment, Starsky seemed to receive the message, for he shrugged minutely and looked away.
“I didn’t know—things were that bad,” Anderson was saying. Annika had just spent a few minutes filling him in on some of Chris Sorenson’s latest stunts. It would seem that as close as they were, she hadn’t seen fit to keep him up to date on all the sordid events of her disintegrating marriage. Not that Hutch blamed her; like her, he preferred to keep his innermost secrets under lock and key, even from the people he loved the most.
“They are,” Starsky answered tersely. His bowed legs were spread as he sat in the chair; Hutch forced himself to refocus his attention on Anderson before he was caught staring at Starsky for a noticeable length of time.
“Anni didn’t tell me,” Anderson said, his voice betraying his hurt. Beside him, Annika covered his hand with her own.
“I didn’t want to worry you, Lars,” she said. “And I guess I hoped it would all sort itself out.”
“What’s your opinion of Chris?” Hutch asked Anderson. “You’ve known him for years. Does what Annika just told you surprise you?”
Anderson took a few moments to mull this over. “No,” he said finally. “I—well, I don’t want to say I never liked Chris, because I do.” He frowned. “Did. But since we moved to California, he’s been—different.” Another pause for thought. “Or maybe—he’s more like the way he really was.”
Starsky’s frown matched Anderson’s. “Whaddaya mean by that?”
Anderson pressed his lips together. “He always wanted to be rich and famous. Wanted to leave Minnesota as quick as he could. His dad was a farmer, but he wasn’t any good at it, and he ended up losing his land and working on my dad’s place.” His gaze flickered to Annika, then lowered to her hand still covering his. “That’s how she met him.”
The plot thickens, Hutch mused. Annika hadn’t mentioned any of this when talking about her early history with Chris, but then he supposed there was no reason why this particular detail would be significant to their case.
“Once we came out here and our first album was a hit, he still wasn’t happy,” Anderson continued. “I remember asking him once if anything would make him happy. He didn’t answer me.” The big man blinked. “A lot of times he pretends he doesn’t hear me.”
“Why’s that?” Hutch asked.
Anderson smiled sadly. “Because he’s smarter than I am, and he knows it. He thinks that makes him better than I am, see.”
“He’s not, sweetie,” Annika said, her hand squeezing his now. “He’s not.”
Anderson shrugged. “Doesn’t matter anyway.” He rose to his feet. “I better go. You had a bad day.”
Annika stood with him. Spreading her arms wide, she encompassed as much of him as she could in a hug. Hutch watched as the huge man hesitated for a moment, then returned the gesture, his broad, strong arms encircling her body as though it were made of the most fragile crystal. Something about the picture the two made caused a strange pressure to collect in Hutch’s chest.
“You coming home for Thanksgiving?” Anderson asked softly, when they parted.
Annika took a deep breath, then shook her head sadly. “I can’t. Chris is going home, too.” At Anderson’s scowl, she chuckled without mirth. “Yeah. Ironic, I know. But his dad is dying, and I think he asked to see him.”
Anderson turned toward Starsky and Hutch. “You take care of her.”
“We will,” Hutch answered solemnly. Annika tugged on Anderson’s arm, and the two of them left the room, headed for the front door.
There was a brief silence, and then Starsky murmured, “The plot thickens, huh?”
Hutch stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Hutch said, rising to his feet. “You’re just reading my mind again.”
“And that surprises you?” Starsky drawled. Hutch padded over to him, his feet sinking deep into the soft carpet. Starsky’s heavy-lidded gaze rose as he approached, his head tilting slightly to maintain eye contact with Hutch. He took another sip of his coffee, then laid it on the glass-topped table beside his chair.
Hutch hesitated for a moment, then stepped between Starsky’s wide-spread legs. Starsky’s eyes widened, then flickered to the archway opening onto the hall. Annika and Anderson were out of their line of vision, but Hutch could still hear muted voices.
“You gonna stay awake?” Hutch asked.
Starsky’s gaze returned to Hutch’s face. “Yeah. I’ll be good.”
Hutch couldn’t help himself. He reached down and glided one hand over Starsky’s left cheek, tracing a line from mole to chin with his thumb. Starsky closed his eyes and groaned.
“Christ,” he husked. “Go to bed, willya, blondie?”
Hutch tried to back up, but Starsky’s thighs clamped tightly around his knees, trapping him. In the same instant, a strong hand latched onto his wrist and yanked him down. Once his head was within range, Starsky’s other hand closed over the back of his skull and reeled him in the rest of the way.
Hutch closed his eyes as Starsky plunged his tongue into Hutch’s willing mouth. He tasted like coffee and too much sugar, and Hutch was lost, lost, lost.
As quickly as it had begun, Hutch found himself abruptly released. He licked swollen lips and tried to remember how to breathe.
“Don’t tempt me, Hutch,” Starsky rasped. Hutch’s eyes flew open at the warning, but one look at Starsky’s face showed him it was a plea rather than a threat. “I gotta keep my eye on the ball, here.”
“Yeah,” Hutch said slowly. “Me, too.”
“Okay, then,” Starsky managed. “Let’s put a lid on this until we get this guy.”
Hutch licked his lips again, and watched with grim satisfaction as Starsky followed the movement with his eyes. “Could take a while.”
“Not if I can help it,” Starsky grunted.
Hutch tried to smile, but didn’t quite make it. “Good night, then.”
“Yeah.” Starsky’s gaze was hot enough to scald Hutch’s skin. “Sweet dreams.”
Unable to speak another word, Hutch turned on his heel and left the room, the taste of Starsky’s mouth still heavy on his tongue.
Starsky awoke with a jolt. He was lying in the massive bed in one of Annika’s guest rooms, just as he’d done for the past five days, and it was dark, which meant it was probably close to the time the alarm would awaken him for his nightly guard duty. However, he didn’t move, didn’t turn his head toward the clock sitting on the nightstand.
Because he wasn’t alone.
Taking slow breaths, he tried to listen for the intruder, even as the blood pounded in his ears. The soft carpet muffled the sounds of feet approaching. He closed his eyes to slits, not that his sense of sight did him much good in the darkness. He’d been a little cold, so his arms were tucked beneath the blanket, useless. If that wasn’t bad enough, his revolver was in the drawer…
The low voice was as powerful as a blow to the gut, and Starsky released the breath he’d been holding. “Jesus, Hutch,” he groaned. “You almost gave me a heart attack.” He reached over and switched on the bedside lamp, revealing his partner’s long, lanky frame standing about ten feet from him. Looking up, he was startled to see a stricken expression on Hutch’s face.
Shit, Starsky thought. Shouldn’t have said that.
“I’m sorry,” Hutch murmured, turning away. “I’ll—”
“No, wait!” Starsky exclaimed, sitting upright. “What’d you want to tell me? S’it time to get up?” He looked over at the clock, the glowing numbers answering his second question in the negative.
Hutch was still half-turned. “Hey, c’mon,” Starsky said gently. “You can’t even look at me?” They hadn’t seen much of one another the past few days, what with Hutch taking the day shifts in their round-the-clock protection of Annika and Starsky taking the nights. Annika’s expensive West Hills home was all white carpets and stainless steel and glass and blond wood, the vaulted ceilings and open concept like something out of Architectural Digest. Walking around it in the dark made Starsky uneasy, and not only because he was waiting for Sorenson to spring out from behind a wall, but because the place felt…well, too perfect. His normal grace seemed to disappear in these surroundings, and instead of prowling stealthily through the night, he was too aware of his own body and its limitations.
Maybe it wasn’t the house that was doing it to him. Maybe it was his own uncertainty about whether or not he would be able to back Hutch up 100 percent when Sorenson did finally make his move. And maybe some of it was his own fear about the new landscape they were driving toward at breakneck speed. He hadn’t had sex in so long he used to wonder if he’d even know how to find his dick, let alone remember what to do with it. That wasn’t a problem any more, but now he had a new problem; now instead of soft curves and rounded breasts he was picturing hard sinews and big, square hands and…oh, hell. It was like he’d landed on Mars without remembering how he’d gotten in the space capsule in the first place.
Hutch turned toward him then, and Starsky promptly forgot about houses and worries and curves and space capsules, because Hutch was gazing at him in a way that set every square inch of his skin on fire.
“I can look at you,” Hutch was saying, his voice sounding small and broken. He took a step forward, then another, like a puppet controlled by an unseen master. “I want to look at you.” Reaching the bed, Hutch leaned over Starsky, then in a startling move grabbed the top of the blanket and flung it away.
“I’m dying to look at you,” Hutch groaned, diving down to capture Starsky’s mouth with his own.
Starsky had nothing to say to that, not that it mattered with Hutch kissing him like he really was dying and Starsky was the only source of air or heat or life for miles around. Responding with actions rather than words, Starsky surged up into the kiss, plunging his hands into the familiar silk of Hutch’s hair. When Hutch climbed on top of him and matched his long, lean body to the corresponding parts of Starsky’s, Starsky found his voice again in a low moan that vibrated through both of them.
He didn’t know how both of them ended up naked, but the next thing he knew he could feel Hutch’s smooth chest sliding against his own, feel Hutch’s hard cock pushing into his thigh. He felt a sudden onrush of panic, because Hutch had always had a slight physical advantage over him, and now the gap between them was even wider. But before he could make his feelings known, Hutch seemed to sense them, for he shifted the bulk of his weight off Starsky, raising himself on his hands while still keeping them connected lower down. Starsky looked up into Hutch’s eyes and beheld raw need and pure, unashamed love that was almost painful in its intensity.
“Never hurt you,” Hutch murmured throatily, pressing a gentle kiss to Starsky’s neck, then another one lower down, on his collarbone. Starsky held his breath as Hutch hovered over the scars, then gasped when Hutch’s mouth opened over the biggest one, bathing it in warm, wet heat.
“Oh, Christ,” Starsky gritted, taking Hutch’s head in both hands and guiding it over the landscape of his battered body.
The sound of a door closing catapulted Starsky from his sensual haze. His eyes flew open.
The room was dark.
He was alone.
Starsky’s eyes closed again as he realized the truth. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer, his skin was covered in a light film of sweat, and his pajama bottoms were…
Starsky flung an arm over his eyes and groaned. He hadn’t had a wet dream in twenty years, since he’d been a horny teenager imagining the way Rachel Weinstein’s lush breasts would fit in his hands.
The sound of muted conversation down the hall caused him to spring into action. Grabbing a couple of Kleenex from the nightstand, he stuffed them unceremoniously down his pants, then bounded off the bed, headed for the bathroom. A hot shower would remove the exterior evidence of the dream, but the remodeling of his interior topography wouldn’t be erased so easily. For better or for worse, he had arrived in that new country; the only thing he had to worry about now was whether or not Hutch would want to follow.
Kiko watched as his sister crushed the boiled potatoes with unconcealed glee. She plunged the masher into the bowl again and again, causing small flecks of tortured vegetable to fly out and land on her t-shirt.
“You know, Mol, venting your aggression can be a positive, healthy thing, but there’s such a thing as carrying it too far.”
“Fuck off,” Molly spat, renewing her assault on the potatoes.
Kiko sighed, allowing her to continue her rampage while he returned his attention to his own task of stirring the thickening gravy. For some reason, Mamma had always prepared a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner; while proud of her own culture, there was something about this particular holiday that turned her into Betty Crocker. Kiko couldn’t say he minded having the turkey and cranberry sauce once a year, especially since it was usually shared with Starsky and Hutch. This year would be no different, though Hutch had called earlier to ask if a friend could join them tonight. Mamma had agreed readily, of course; there were always nearly a dozen people at Thanksgiving dinner every year, friends and family. If they ran out of chairs, they borrowed from the neighbors or flowed into the living room, a warm tide of humanity and laughter.
Not for the first time, he couldn’t help wondering if the two men would still be welcome if she knew the truth about them. Just as he wondered the same thing about himself. Hardly a night went by that he didn’t try to imagine a world in which the love and understanding he’d always found in his mother’s house were denied him. Would he be able to live without it?
Night after night, the answer was no.
They worked in silence for a few more minutes, lost in their respective thoughts. Soon, though, the furor of Molly’s mashing abated. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
“S’okay,” Kiko said easily, banishing his own dark ruminations. “Want to talk about it?”
Molly shrugged in the self-deprecating way he knew so well. “Not really,” she said. “There’s just this guy at school, and I thought maybe we were—well, that maybe there was something…” She trailed off, her cheeks pinkening slightly. “I’ve been studying with him, and last night I thought he was going to ask me out, but—well, he didn’t.” Another shrug.
Kiko raised his eyebrows. “If you were so interested in him, why didn’t you ask him out?”
Molly stared at him. “What are you talking about? Girls don’t—”
“Girls don’t what? Play baseball? Study computer programming?”
Molly pursed her lips. “All right. You win. But those things are easier.”
Kiko opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again. It made perfect sense that putting her heart on the line would be harder for Molly to do than being a visible, in-your-face proponent of feminism. It wasn’t so long ago that she’d been a scared, hurt kid sure that she wasn’t worthy of love. Slowly, Kiko reached out a hand and stroked her short hair. “I know they are,” he said softly, the hand slipping around her shoulder and pulling her close. After a moment’s resistance, Molly gave in and leaned against him.
“How was it for you and Frank?” Molly whispered. They didn’t talk much about him in the house, and when they did it was only in whispers. Kiko hated that with a fierce passion. He had mentioned Frank to Mamma before, but only as a friend, so that she would not suspect him of keeping secrets if his lover should call or if Molly should let his name slip.
He hated that, too.
Fighting the feeling, he summoned happy memories of the day and smiled. “He was running to class with his portfolio and he ran right into me. Knocked me down and nearly split his latest canvas over my head.” Kiko shook his head. “I felt like an idiot even though he was the one who’d run into me. He thought I was sweet. I thought he had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen.”
Molly butted her head up against his shoulder. “That’s what I want.”
He kissed the top of her head fondly. “You’ll have it one day, querida. You will.”
“Molly? Are you all right?” Mamma’s concerned voice startled Kiko, and he felt a sudden rush of fear. How long had she been standing in the doorway to the kitchen?
“I’m fine,” Molly assured her, stepping away from Kiko with a last squeeze to his hand. “Just getting a little moral support from my big brother.”
Kiko snorted. They were three months apart in age, and for years Molly had railed against any attempts on his part to lord that advantage over her.
Mamma looked at him then, and for a moment her dark eyes seemed to see right through his skin, peeling it back effortlessly to reveal the naked secrets of his soul. She had always been able to do that, but lately he realized she hadn’t been looking that closely. Kiko felt his face heat as Mamma walked toward them. Her hand came up and touched his cheek with a gentleness that nearly stopped his breath.
“He has such kindness in him, my Kiko,” she said softly in Spanish, knowing both her children would understand her. “He has a heart bigger than all the world, no?”
“Mamma,” Kiko murmured, embarrassed. It was not the first time she had said such things to him, but there seemed to be a new weight behind them. Or perhaps the knowing look in her eyes was the child of his imagination and his overwhelming fear of discovery.
“There is no shame in the truth,” she countered simply, and for that Kiko had no reply at all.
Well, this was interesting.
To be honest, a few hours ago this had been the last place Hutch had wanted to be. Even though they were fairly certain Chris Sorenson had boarded a plane for Minnesota this morning, there was still a slight risk to Annika’s safety, and her home was the best place to protect her. On top of that, if they had been followed—not that Hutch figured that to be likely either—they could be putting Kiko, Molly, their mother and her guests in danger. Again, the chance was infinitesimal, but Hutch wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t consider the worst-case scenario.
But then he remembered that last Thanksgiving, Starsky’s recovery had still been an uncertain thing. He’d been able to attend the Ramos’ dinner, but he’d had to lie on the couch with his plate in his lap. He’d felt like an invalid—Hutch knew because he’d told him so—and they’d left early when Starsk had no longer been able to stand the pitying attention of Kiko’s relatives and friends.
This year, they had a great deal more to be thankful for. In the end, it seemed wrong not to celebrate it.
As he sat at the long wooden dining table, a table groaning under the weight of the food Consuela, Kiko and Molly had prepared, surrounded by conversation and laughter, he realized how much he’d missed those quantities over the past few tension-filled days. Even when Starsk and he had been awake at the same time, they’d been on a job, spending most of their time apart. Annika was dating Hutch, not the both of them, and so it wasn’t wise for them to be seen together in public. Anyway, Starsky was most effective surveying the scene from a distance as he’d done that day on the beach. Add to that the fact that they’d mutually agreed to cool down whatever the hell was being born between them, and Hutch was starting to have trouble remembering what his partner looked like.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true, either. Seemed like every time Hutch closed his eyes at night, he could see that long face, the generous nose, the cocky grin, the blue, blue eyes so much warmer than his own. Looking up from his plate now, he darted a glance across the table and sucked in a breath as his gaze was caught and held by those same eyes. Starsk looked away so quickly Hutch could almost believe he’d imagined the heat in them. Almost.
To their credit, Consuela and her guests had remained unruffled by the presence of America’s singing sensation in their midst—and Annika seemed thrilled at being treated like just another mortal for a change. Of course Kiko’s great-aunt and uncle, who spoke no English, didn’t have the slightest clue who she was. Annika’s facility in Spanish was about midway between Starsky and Hutch’s, but she gamely attempted to join in both the Spanish and English conversations. Once again, Hutch’s opinion of her rose. It hadn’t escaped him that if circumstances had been different, she might have been more than a client to him. She was certainly a beautiful person, both inside and out.
Risking another glance at his partner, who was talking animatedly with Molly, it also occurred to him that the loss of the opportunity to pursue a relationship with Annika held no particular regrets for him. Everything he’d known, everything he’d found attractive in the past was giving way to a new set of parameters.
Or was it so new? Had they been moving toward this since the first moment they laid eyes on one another at the Academy? The almost gravitational pull between the two young, idealistic cops had certainly been a kind of attraction, sublimated into acceptable channels by culture and conditioning, but attraction nevertheless. They had always been opposites on the superficial levels—cars, looks, eating habits—but closely matched on the deeper issues, united in their visions of what their careers and their lives should stand for. Wasn’t that the essence of a lasting relationship, a bond to endure a lifetime? It would be the supreme irony if what the two of them had been searching for all these years turned out to be as close as the neighboring seat in the damned Torino.
Starsky threw back his head and laughed at something Molly said then, and a tingling awareness coiled in Hutch’s gut at the deep, throaty sound. He couldn’t wait for this to be over, for Annika to finally be safe and for he and Starsk to finally have a chance to find out how far they could ride this roller coaster they’d found themselves on.
Taking a sip of his wine, he surveyed the table, hovering on the edges of conversations for a minute or two before moving on. At the moment, he was the lone observer at this party, everyone else engaged in discussion. Then his gaze wandered to Kiko and stopped dead. His little brother was eyeing Annika with a cold expression that was completely out of place on that normally compassionate face. It only took Hutch a split second to put two and two together and come up with oh, hell.
He couldn’t believe they’d been so stupid. In all the craziness of the past few days, they’d completely forgotten to tell Kiko about what was really happening.
Kiko’s gaze shifted to Hutch, and there was a hurt question in his eyes that tore at Hutch. Jerking his head toward the back door, he rose from the table. Picking up the hint, Kiko moved to join him.
The night air was cool but not biting. Still, Hutch shivered as Kiko stepped outside and closed the sliding glass door behind them. The boy folded his arms defensively.
“It’s not what you think it is,” Hutch said automatically, feeling foolish at explaining his romantic life—or lack thereof—to an eighteen-year-old, especially this one. That Kiko’s admission a few short weeks ago had served as a catalyst for his current state of emotional turmoil didn’t help him maintain his equilibrium.
“I don’t think anything,” Kiko said. “I know how it is sometimes.”
The statement was so blithe that Hutch was hard-pressed not to laugh aloud. “Oh, yeah? And how is it?”
Kiko shrugged and looked away. “Sometimes guys can be…casual about things. You know.”
Hutch leaned back against the house, taking a moment to marshal his thoughts. That was a little too close to the truth; God knew he and Starsk had had more than their share of casual relationships with women over the years, interspersed with the serious ones. “You think that’s the way things should be?”
Kiko made to shrug again, then stopped himself. His dark eyes rose to meet Hutch’s. “No.”
Hutch nodded, pleased at the young man’s response. “Neither do I, Keek.” Not anymore, he silently added. “What Starsk and I have—” whatever it is “—it’s anything but casual.” That, at least, was the truth. “Annika is a friend. That’s all.”
“That’s not what the papers say.”
Hutch smiled. “Since when do you believe everything you read in the papers?”
Kiko returned Hutch’s smile faintly. Encouraged, Hutch added, “I can’t tell you all the reasons why the papers are linking Annika and me. But—and this is just between you and me, all right?—“ Kiko nodded “—it’s not true.”
Kiko released a full-fledged smile now, and Hutch breathed a metaphorical sigh of relief. “I didn’t believe it at first, but when you showed up here with her…” He shook his head. “I didn’t know what to think. I’m sorry, Hutch.”
Hutch reached up to squeeze Kiko’s shoulder. “It’s all right. I don’t blame you for being confused. I can tell you she’s a friend, and she’s away from her family on Thanksgiving. I know you’ll do what you can to make her feel welcome in your home.”
Kiko ducked his head, and Hutch ruffled his hair affectionately. “Now that you’ve finished grilling me about my love life, how are things with you and Frank?”
Kiko grinned. “Good. You know he took Peter home with him for the weekend.”
“Yeah.” He paused. “His parents know—about him, don’t they?”
Kiko nodded. “They’re hippy artists from Carmel,” he said simply. “They don’t even believe in God—it’s not like they think he’s going to hell.”
Hutch froze. “You think your mom is going to consign you to hell, Kiko?” he asked softly. “She loves you more than her life.”
“I…” Kiko pressed his lips together and stared out at the night. “I don’t want to talk about it. Okay, Hutch? Not tonight.”
“Okay, Keek,” Hutch agreed, giving the boy's shoulder another squeeze as he joined him in his contemplation of the darkness—or what passed for darkness in Bay City. “Not tonight.”
When the phone rang in the middle of the night, Starsky was knocking on Annika’s bedroom door before the second ring. At her ‘come in’, he pushed it open; she was already sitting up, her arms locked protectively around her knees, her eyes regarding the jangling phone as though it were a rat.
Starsky strode over to the recorder and flipped it on, then reached for the second phone they’d hooked up to hers and nodded to her. She took a deep breath, and together they picked up at the same time.
“Hello?” she said, her voice small and hesitant.
“Anni? Anni, is that you?”
It was Sorenson. Starsky watched Annika’s body tense up. “Who else would it be?” she demanded. “It’s very late, Chris.”
Sorenson’s voice was slurred by alcohol, but the voice was the whine of a petulant child. “I know’tis. But I had to talk to ya, sweetheart.”
“Don’t call me that,” Annika shot back. Starsky looked up to see Hutch framed in the doorway; he shot a questioning glance at Starsky, who nodded slowly. As Hutch approached, Starsky held the phone away from his ear so that he could lean in and listen in on the conversation.
“’M home, Anni, and I fuckin’ hate it. ‘Cuz you’re not here. You were the only good thing about this stinkin’ place, y’know that?”
Annika didn’t answer right away, and Starsky heard Sorenson breathe into the silence. “Wanna go back to the way it was,” he murmured. “Remember? You were so perfect when we were together—everything I ever wanted. Firs’ time I held you, I knew nobody else would ever fit in my arms that way. Jus’ you. Perfect.”
“Chris, you have to stop thinking like that,” Annika said, in a surprisingly gentle voice. “We were never perfect. I was never perfect. You built me up so much in your mind that you—”
“Perfec’,” Sorenson interrupted, either ignoring her or not hearing her. “My golden girl.”
Annika closed her eyes.
“Shining—so beautiful. An’ I love you—more’n my life.”
Annika shuddered. “Please. Stop.”
Sorenson’s next words were clearer, and they chilled him to the bone. “I love you more’n your life, too.” A low chuckle sounded over the wire, as if Sorenson thought himself clever. “Tha’s how much I love you, sweetheart.”
Bingo, Starsky thought. He’s drunk, and he’s finally slipping. We almost got the bastard. If she can just keep him talking…
Annika’s eyes were wide with fear, but she had moxie, and she stuck to her role. “What are you saying, Chris?” she asked, her voice shaking only slightly.
“You know what’m sayin’,” Sorenson told her. Annika remained silent. The seconds ticked by; Starsky held his breath, wondering if they’d lost their opportunity, if Sorenson had regained what remained of his wits.
Finally, Sorenson filled the silence. “’Zat guy with you tonight? Is he there?”
“Ken?” Annika said casually. “What if he were?”
“Tell me!” Sorenson shouted, making Annika jump. “Is he there?”
Annika took a deep breath and regarded Hutch. “Yes, he’s here,” she confirmed.
“Fuckin’ WHORE!” Sorenson screamed, making Annika cringe. “Fuckin’ no-good whore! I’m gonna kill you! I’m gonna kill you when I get back! Kill both of you, you fuckin’ lyin’ slut—fuckin’ two-faced, lyin’—” Sorenson’s tirade dissolved into gasping sobs and whimpers, and Starsky felt a mixture of rage and relief shoot through him.
Hutch walked over to Annika where she sat shaking and clutching the receiver. Gently, he pried her fingers free and hung up; Starsky did the same with his phone, then reached over to shut off the recorder. He rewound a few feet of tape and played it back. Sorenson’s voice came through loud and clear; he shut it off quickly so as not to disturb Annika further.
Hutch was now sitting on the bed; Starsky watched as he gathered Annika’s shuddering body in his arms. Her hands flew to her ears and pressed tightly against the side of her head, as though she could shut out the rabid screams of the man she’d once loved. Hutch began to rock her and murmur soothing words to her while Starsky busied himself with rewinding the tape and removing it from the recorder.
“Shhh, it’s gonna be okay, we’ve got him, he can’t hurt you any more, we’ve got him,” Hutch crooned. He looked up at Starsky, blue eyes mirroring some of the referred pain of the woman in his arms; at the same moment, Annika’s hands dropped from her ears and she took a long, sighing breath. Hutch had an amazing ability to do that, as though his touch transferred a portion of another human being’s suffering onto those broad shoulders. Starsky had experienced the effect of that touch often enough to attest to its healing properties.
“Dobey’ll be on duty at eight,” Starsky said, holding up the tape. “We’ll take this to him in the morning. Meantime, I’ll call downtown and get them to start the paperwork.” Uttering death threats wasn’t as serious a charge as attempted murder, but the fact they had hard evidence on tape meant a conviction would be almost certain. One way or another, Hutch’s days as a moving target were over.
Hutch smiled and nodded, and Starsky left the room, determined to continue his nightly watch. Sorenson could have been lying about still being in Minnesota, or he could have made the call from the airport right before getting on a plane to Bay City. Annika wouldn’t be completely safe until Chris Sorenson was in custody and out of the picture for good.
Starsky turned the tape over in his hand and grinned broadly.
“Gotcha, you son of a bitch,” he murmured.
Starsky’s gaze met Hutch’s and his mouth twisted sardonically. “Somethin’ sounds familiar, huh?” he said with a wink. Hutch opened his mouth to speak, then shut it when he caught the expression on Dobey’s pudgy face as he thrust it through the doorway of his office at them.
The last time they’d visited the station about a month ago, Dobey had been pleased to see them, and ecstatic to see Starsky in such good condition. They joked about the two of them coming back to work, and the captain had extended the usual invitation to visit the Dobey household over the holidays. But this time, Dobey looked anything but happy to see them. His gaze traveled back and forth between the two men and Annika, who stood nearby, her own expression shuttered and tense. She’d had a difficult night, and Hutch had resolved to make this experience as easy as possible for her. Apparently he wasn’t going to be able to make good on that promise.
The three of them began to move toward Dobey’s office, but Dobey shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Sorenson,” he said, as gently as Dobey could, “but I need to speak with my—with Starsky and Hutch privately for a few moments.”
Starsky frowned but remained silent. Hutch turned toward Annika, who now looked confused as well as exhausted and emotionally drained, and said softly, indicating an empty desk, “Why don’t you have a seat over there? We won’t be long.”
“Yeah, and if anybody bugs you, just tell ‘em you’re with us,” Starsky added with an encouraging smile. Annika’s discomfort seemed to subside somewhat at that, and she nodded.
Once the door to Dobey’s office was shut behind them, Hutch gave his concerns free rein. “What’s going on, Captain?” he demanded. “Didn’t you get our message this morning?”
“I did,” Dobey shot back, moving behind his desk and settling himself into his chair. “I tried to call you before you left Miz Sorenson’s, but you were already on your way here. There’s no point in making those charges now.”
“Why not?” Starsky chimed in, feet planted firmly in a boxer’s stance. “And why does Annika have to stay out there?”
Dobey speared Starsky with one of his trademark glares before replying. “Because I thought you might want to be the ones to tell her her estranged husband was found dead early this morning at his father’s home in Minnesota,” he said tersely.
For a few moments, silence reigned in the room. Predictably, Starsky was the first one to break it. “What the fuck?” he demanded, trading a shocked glance with Hutch.
“What do the police know?” Hutch said. He was trying to remain as businesslike as possible while inside him his inner voice was shouting its relief like a gloating child. Dead, dead, he’s dead, he’s dead… It was terrible, he knew, to feel joy at the death of another, but at least now they could be certain that Annika would be safe. At least this one woman would be free of the constant fear that haunted so many they’d tried to help over the years.
“They know it’s probably not an accident,” Dobey said gruffly. “He was found by his father in a barn on the property around dawn, and they think he was dead about two hours by then. The body had some bruises and cuts on the face and chest, like he’d been in a fight. They found the father passed out drunk after he made the call, and he hasn’t come to yet for them to be able to question him.”
Hutch made the calculations, knowing Starsky was doing the same. The call had come at three-thirty, so Sorenson had died very soon afterward. “Do they have any suspects?”
“Not yet. He’s being taken to Brainerd for an autopsy, and they’re starting an investigation, tracing his activities last night.”
Starsky shot a glance at Hutch. “Annika got any big brothers?”
Hutch shook his head, knowing where Starsky was going with this. “No. And her dad died last year. But she does have…”
“Lars,” they both finished together. Like Sorenson, he had gone home for the Thanksgiving weekend. But could his devotion to Annika extend to the murder of a man he had called his friend?
“You two mind letting me in on your little psychic moment?” Dobey barked.
“Just gettin’ back in the groove, Cap,” Starsky drawled, his gaze holding Hutch’s. “S’been a while, but we still remember how to do this cop stuff.”
“Well, I hate to break this to you, Starsky, but you two aren’t cops any more. You’re civilians, and if you head on up to Minnesota jivin’ to your California groove, you’re not gonna get anywhere with the local boys anyway.”
“Maybe,” Hutch mused, “maybe not.” His mind cast back through the years, reluctantly delving into memories of summers at Mille Lacs. “I might know someone who’s a state trooper around there. One of the kids I used to spend time with when I visited my grandfather’s cottage.”
“That might help,” Dobey allowed. “You keep in touch with him over the years?”
“Not really,” Hutch admitted. “I’m not even sure she’s still on the force.” Hutch noted that Starsky raised an eyebrow at the change in pronoun, but said nothing.
“It’s worth a try,” Dobey told them. “In the meantime, I’ll call the troopers and let them know you’re coming. Try to put in a good word for you.”
“Thanks, Cap,” Starsky said. “Well, guess we’d better do what we have to do, huh?”
“Yeah,” Hutch said heavily, a leaden weight settling in his gut as he realized that he would be the one to break the news to Annika. He was not looking forward to the next few hours.
Starsky was on an adrenaline rush, and he didn’t see any end to it soon. Not that he really gave a damn, because for the first time in over a year, he felt completely, intensely alive.
He supposed he should feel guilty about that, and if he’d been Hutch, he would’ve. Annika had taken the news of Sorenson’s death much better than he’d expected, but it was a numb kind of acceptance, like she hadn’t processed it yet. After telling her Hutch had called Brian Morehouse, her record producer, and the guy had promptly gone into overdrive. Within an hour he’d arranged for a private jet to fly the three of them to Minnesota late this afternoon, and then he was knocking on Annika’s door, his big arms enfolding her in a hug as soon as he saw her. Annika had collapsed then, just sagged against him and started sobbing, and Starsky and Hutch had let themselves out quietly, figuring the cavalry had arrived.
They drove back to the house in near-silence, Starsky nosing the Torino through lunchtime traffic like the car was an extension of his own body, and he hadn’t felt that way in a hell of a long time, either. He felt like a pig when the thought started to make him hard, and then decided to go with it. What did it matter? It wasn’t like his reaction to finally having some kind of purpose again—beyond stark, bare survival—was going to make any difference to Annika. She didn’t know about it, and right now, she didn’t care. What mattered to him was that she was safe, and he and Hutch were on a case, a real fucking murder case, just like the old days.
Even though the air had a bite in it, Starsky still found himself rolling his window halfway down, enjoying the feel of the wind through his hair. It was like his senses had been sharpened to a fine edge, and he was experiencing everything in Technicolor, three-dimensional Smell-o-vision. Oh, yeah, and what was that fad where they vibrated the seats in the theater every time there was an explosion or a volcano erupting on the screen? He went to one of those movies once, but they couldn’t synchronize it, so the seats would shiver about a minute after the building blew up—
“Hey, mushbrain, this is us!”
Starsky’s foot slammed on the brake, throwing the both of them forward.
“You drove right by the house. What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Starsky looked over his shoulder; he’d gone about three lots too far. Checking the rear view mirror, he slammed the Torino into reverse. “Nothing. Just—daydreaming.”
Hutch sighed. “Yeah. We both had a long night.” He passed a hand over his eyes, and Starsky realized belatedly that his partner was exhausted.
“Maybe you should get a nap before we head out again,” he offered, feeling like a heel. He’d been so wrapped up in his own euphoria that he’d totally missed Hutch’s distress. His partner had been on an emotional rollercoaster with Annika since early this morning, and he was only now stepping off.
Hutch shook his head. “There isn’t time,” he muttered. “We have to pack and get a shower. I have to call Kiko and Peter’s lawyer to let them know we’re going away—”
“I can do that,” Starsky offered hastily. “I’m not as worn out as you are.”
Hutch’s gaze studied him. “You should be,” he said. “This is about the time you usually turn in.”
“I know, but—” Starsky flailed around for words to express his current state, but came up empty-handed. How the hell was he supposed to explain himself? Thanks, but I’m completely wired about this case? Oh, and did I mention I’m horny as a goat? Shrugging, he backed the car into the cobblestoned driveway and shut off the engine.
“Hey,” Hutch said, laying a hand on his arm, and suddenly that was it, that was all she wrote, Starsky was ready for action, he was sitting in the damned driveway right beside Mrs. Moreno’s house and he was ready to leap across the gearshift and jump Hutch’s bones right there in full view of God and everybody. “You okay?”
“M’fine,” Starsky grunted, unable to even look at Hutch. He reached for the door handle and wrenched it open. “Let’s get goin’.”
And he figured he’d be okay, he really did. They went to their separate bedrooms, Starsky walking stiffly, Hutch a little bemused, but still, he was able to dig his duffel bag out of the bottom of the closet and throw a few things into it. November in Minnesota meant he’d need his warmest sweaters; he went to the dresser and threw a couple of those in, too. He called Kiko and the lawyer, told them what was up, and that they’d be in touch soon with contact information. He heard Hutch go into the bathroom, heard the shower run and didn’t even flinch, didn’t even think about Hutch under the spray, naked and slippery with soap, didn’t think about how smooth the skin over his ribs had felt, Christ, had it only been a week ago? And how many times had Starsky seen his partner naked anyway, at the gym or in the showers at Metro? Why was it so different now?
Maybe because now he’d finally wised up to himself, finally come to understand that this had the potential to become everything he needed or wanted, and it’d been right under his nose all this time. Nobody had ever understood him the way Hutch did, and he’d never been so tuned to another human being as he was to the big blintz. Nobody else had ever been willing to die for him, or he for them. That was a kind of love that went so far beyond the ordinary it wasn’t even on the scale. It was almost criminal to let it lie around gathering dust like they’d been doing this past year and a half. Maybe now it was time to try taking it in a new direction, one neither of them had seriously considered before, but one that could lead them into—
Starsky blinked a few times, then realized he’d been standing in front of his closet for God knew how long, one of his shirts clutched in his left hand. He was about to stuff it in the bag when the bathroom door opened and a cloud of fragrant steam emerged, Hutch riding the crest of it.
Hutch. In a white towel like he’d worn a million other times, with his hair slicked back and droplets of water still clinging to his face and his mous—
No, not his moustache. Because Hutch had no moustache.
Hutch had just shaved off his moustache.
His partner’s ice-blue eyes rose to his then, and there was a glint of aching vulnerability in them that tore at something inside Starsky, ripped away whatever was left of his tattered self-control. Slowly, like he’d forgotten how to walk properly, he stumbled toward his partner. Hutch watched his approach, his gaze turning wary at whatever he read on Starsky’s face.
“You—you shaved it off,” Starsky said inanely. Hutch looked about five years younger, and the skin of his upper lip was pink and raw. Starsky’s fingers opened and the shirt fell from his hand to the floor. He couldn’t have stopped himself from reaching up then and running a finger over that tender, newly exposed flesh.
“I uh—I don’t know why,” Hutch mumbled. The vibration of his voice made Starsky’s fingers tingle. “I was lookin’ in the mirror, and then the next thing I knew I was picking up the razor and—oh God.” His words trailed off in a breathy moan when Starsky leaned forward and replaced his fingers with his lips. It wasn’t a kiss, not exactly, more a benediction, a balm. Starsky’s mouth ghosted over the vulnerable skin, offering something he didn’t know he still had in him, and then Hutch groaned and tilted his head up a fraction and their lips came together.
“Like it,” Starsky told him between kisses, one hand cupping the back of Hutch’s head and drawing him closer. “’Zit hurt?”
“It’s a little—sore,” Hutch admitted, his own lips clinging to Starsky’s, then parting, then clinging again in a slow dance. “But it’ll be okay in a day or two.”
Starsky hmmmed in sympathy as his hands roamed over Hutch’s broad back and down his ribs, losing himself in contemplation of that baby-smooth skin. If he had feet of clay, Hutch was fine porcelain, every line and surface bearing the hallmarks of expert craftsmanship.
His fingertips encountered the barrier of Hutch’s towel and hesitated only momentarily before digging into the material and tugging sharply. Hutch gasped into his mouth as the towel came free, and Starsky felt him jerk in his arms.
“Easy, baby blue,” Starsky crooned. “Gonna make you feel good. Just wanna make you feel good.” He started to back toward his room, pulling Hutch gently along with him. After a moment of frozen inertia, Hutch followed him, his own gait as uneven as Starsky’s had been. Starsky risked a glance down as they moved and saw that Hutch was far from indifferent to what they’d been doing. The reality of it hit him like a blow.
He’s hard, Starsky thought incredulously. He’s hard for me. Because of what I did to him, what we did together.
When Starsky had backed them all the way to the bed, he reversed their positions and gently but firmly pushed on Hutch’s shoulders. Hutch clued in quickly enough—or maybe his knees just decided to give out—because he collapsed like a felled tree. Suddenly there was about an acre of smooth, winter-pale skin, blond hair and reddening cock sprawled across Starsky’s dark quilt, and it was about the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. Not to mention the most terrifying. He felt a wave of panic rise up and wash over him. What the hell made him think he knew the first thing about pleasing a man?
Not just any man, Starsky corrected himself immediately. Not just any person, either. This is Hutch.
Still fully clothed, Starsky stretched out beside Hutch, determined to devote all his resources to giving his partner what he needed. He stroked his hair with his right hand while his left went exploring. Hutch looked up at him with pleading eyes, and Starsky obliged him with another kiss. Soon, Hutch’s own hands reached up to tangle in Starsky’s hair and hold him captive for Hutch’s plundering tongue. Starsky heard himself make a noise he didn’t even recognize; God, what would it be like when Hutch wasn’t exhausted and he could pin Starsky to the mattress?
He was startled when the thought only turned him on even more.
Starsky’s roving hand brushed over Hutch’s left nipple, and Hutch’s body bucked sharply.
“You like that?” Starsky murmured, grinning, into Hutch’s mouth. Hutch merely made a frustrated sound and bucked again, so Starsky obliged him, this time with additional pressure.
“Ohhh, Christ,” Hutch hissed. Encouraged by this turn of events—his own nipples weren’t all that sensitive, but he’d certainly met a lot of women who had them—Starsky leaned over Hutch’s straining body and licked experimentally at Hutch’s right nipple.
Hutch actually whimpered. Already addicted to Hutch’s need, Starsky laved the nipple with his tongue, then suckled at it. He was momentarily disappointed when he found he couldn’t get as firm a grip on it as he could on a woman’s, but there were other things—
When Starsky grazed his teeth over the tiny protrusion, Hutch screamed his name. His hips bucked and his hands clutched Starsky’s head desperately. Starsky, for his part, resisted the urge to grind his jeans-clad erection against Hutch’s leg like a dog in heat. He couldn’t remember ever getting so hot from simply kissing and giving pleasure to another person. Reaching up, he pried Hutch’s hands from his head, allowing him the freedom to trace a route down Hutch’s body with his mouth. He wasn’t quite sure where he was going to be able to end up, but he was game to give it a try. Anything that made Hutch keep yelling his name like that was worth the effort.
Despite his nearly altered state, even Hutch eventually managed to figure out where Starsky was going. “Starsk,” he rasped, when Starsky was somewhere in the vicinity of Hutch’s navel. “What’re you—”
Without thinking about it, Starsky took one hand and wrapped it solidly around the column of Hutch’s dick. Hutch’s power of speech rapidly left him, and he subsided into incoherent gasps and sighs. “Don’t interrupt me, blondie,” Starsky said, as nonchalantly as he could. “Can’t you see I’m tryin’ to work here?”
“S—sorry,” Hutch stuttered. “S—selfish of me.” Starsky tried a slow, cautious stroke—he wasn’t used to a foreskin—and Hutch groaned like he was dying. That seemed like approval, so Starsky fell into a slow, easy rhythm, laying his head on Hutch’s belly and getting used to the sight of another man’s cock in his fist. He became strangely fascinated with the repeated hide-and-go-seek of Hutch’s erection, so unlike his own. Gradually, he sped up the pace, and his nose filled with the extraordinary scent of Hutch’s arousal.
As Hutch approached the ragged edge of desperation, Starsky pushed himself up on one elbow. Laying a strong arm across Hutch’s hips to restrain him, he closed his eyes and—it’s now or never—bent to lick at the tip of Hutch’s cock. The explosion of flavor on his tongue was perfectly synchronized to the harsh, startled shout that rang in his ears. A few seconds later, Hutch’s body stiffened as though he’d been shot, and Starsky opened his eyes to watch the physical evidence of Hutch’s pleasure spill from his body.
When Starsky finally released him, he was surprised to see that his hand was shaking. He felt as drained as Hutch must feel, and he hadn’t even come.
Hutch’s head lolled to the side; Starsky looked up and met eyes half-lidded with exhaustion and satiation. “God, Starsk,” Hutch mumbled. “Can’t believe you did that.”
Starsky grabbed a couple of Kleenex from the box on the nightstand and wiped them both up. “I got hard evidence here,” he drawled, waving the tissues at him, and Hutch giggled.
“Nut,” he said affectionately. One hand rose, then flopped to the mattress. “You want me to—”
“Not now,” Starsky told him, leaning in for a soft, feather-light kiss. “You got about an hour to sack out before we gotta go.”
Hutch raised his head in a weak protest. “’M not packed—”
“Shh. I’ll pack for you.” Starsky delivered another kiss to his forehead, then pushed himself off the mattress. Deciding it would probably disturb Hutch too much to get him under the covers, he reached for the afghan slung over his rocking chair and draped it over the unresisting body.
“Starsk?” Hutch’s voice stopped Starsky just as he was walking out of the room.
“Yeah?” he asked, turning around. Hutch’s eyes were closed, but there was a small, private smile playing around his lips that tugged at Starsky’s heart.
“L’v you,” Hutch slurred, descending into sleep.
“Yeah,” Starsky murmured, his own smile finding its freedom. “L’v you, too.”
“Anni! My sweet Anni!”
Hutch hung back with Starsky on the shadowed front porch of the farmhouse as Annika’s mother flung open the door and enfolded her daughter in her sturdy arms. Beside him, Starsk shifted from foot to foot; Hutch was unsure whether the behavior was meant to express his discomfort with the emotional display or to stave off exhaustion. Probably a bit of both, Hutch figured.
Starsky looked over at him then, blue eyes sharp and observant. Their gazes caught and held, and Hutch sucked in a breath at the intensity of his partner’s regard.
Starsk jerked his head sideways. “How far’s your grandfather’s cabin from here?”
Hutch swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “Twenty minutes,” he croaked. The record company’s Lear jet had landed smoothly in Brainerd about an hour ago. They’d rented a car there, then driven Annika straight to her mother’s house. The events of the day were starting to crowd in on Hutch, clamoring for pride of place in his brain. Just when he was focused on sifting through the facts about Sorenson’s death, his thoughts would stray to memories of Starsky’s mouth on his skin and his nipples and his cock, and he’d be blushing and embarrassed and half turned on. It was like riding a roller coaster without ever knowing when the thing would come to a stop.
“You think that lady who keeps it up for you stocked the refrigerator?”
Hutch shook his head. He’d called Mrs. Williams from the Bay City airport before they left, and the woman had assured him that everything would be ready for his arrival, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember if he’d specifically asked her to buy groceries. He couldn’t remember much of anything that had happened in the past few hours, but then considering he’d had his brain blown clear out of his ears this afternoon, his addled condition wasn’t a surprise. “Don’t know,” he mumbled. “Maybe. But we should pick up something on the way—”
“Shoot a passing moose, maybe?” Starsky asked, his lips curling sardonically.
Hutch tried to swallow again, but all of the saliva had deserted his body. “There’s a pizza takeout place on the highway—”
Starsky shrugged. “S’okay,” he said equitably. “M’not really all that hungry for pizza anyway.” He gave Hutch a blatant look that told him exactly what he was hungry for, and Hutch felt his cheeks warm.
“Will. You. Quit. That,” he hissed from between clenched teeth. He flicked a glance at Annika and her mother, who luckily were still crying on one another, and totally oblivious to their low-voiced conversation. The palpable force of Starsky’s desire was enough to deal with, but the real problem here was Hutch’s own need. His frayed composure was unraveling rapidly; if Starsk kept this up, in another minute Hutch would be shoving him against the wall and kissing him stupid, to hell with Annika and her mother and their tender reunion. The thought shocked him, but it was undeniable.
Starsky ducked his head. “Sorry. I just—can’t stop thinkin’ about it,” he said quietly.
Hutch closed his eyes briefly. “Neither can I,” he admitted.
Those blue, blue eyes bored into him again. “Can’t wait to get you alone again. We got all night this time—”
“Starsk,” Hutch pleaded, voice breaking.
“Sorry, sorry,” Starsky muttered.
Hutch clenched his fists at his sides to keep from reaching for Starsky, then released them. “Just—not here,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” Starsky agreed. “So let’s get the hell out of here.” After a moment of tense silence, he bounced on the balls of his feet, then moved forward, yanking open the screen door. Hutch watched him lay a gentle hand on Annika’s shoulder.
“Hey, kiddo,” Starsk said softly. “We’re gonna head out, all right? We’ll call you in the morning.”
“Oh, Dave,” Annika gasped, turning from the haven of her mother’s arms, “I’m—I’m sorry. I completely—”
Starsk continued to rub soothing circles on her shoulder. “Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” He gave her a final pat and turned back toward Hutch.
“No, no.” Annika’s mother wiped at her eyes and smoothed her apron. “Please. You must stay.”
Starksy froze in mid-stride; only Hutch could see the pained look on his face. Hastily, he stepped into the spacious kitchen. “Mrs. Thorvald, we appreciate your offer, but I have a cabin nearby, and we’re—”
The older woman took Hutch’s hand in hers, then reached for one of Starsky’s with the other. “You have protected my Anni and brought her safely to me,” she said softly, earnestly. “Allow me to thank you in this small way. I have supper ready for you. You must eat with us—please.”
Now that Hutch was standing in the warm kitchen, his nose registered the tantalizing scent of roast beef and homemade biscuits. He glanced at Starsky, who gave him a look that—without revealing his disappointment to the women watching them—gave him tacit permission. Both of them knew that to refuse a mother’s offer of food was to trifle with powerful, ancient forces.
“Thank you,” Hutch said, smiling. “We’d love to stay.”
Starsky hated to admit it, but he was actually too tired for sex.
Make that too bloated, he thought, flopping onto the bed, his full belly protesting the jiggling motion as he came to rest. Annika’s mother was one hell of a cook, and he’d been hungrier than he first believed himself to be. That pot roast was like a little piece of heaven, and the vegetables and biscuits were perfectly done. He’d missed real, honest-to-God food the past few days. Wolfing down microwaved burritos at two in the morning just didn’t compare to a home-cooked meal with all the trimmings.
Despite his lethargy, Starsky couldn’t suppress a grin at that thought. Now that the case was wrapping up, they’d be able to return to their own house. He’d missed spending time with Hutch something awful, and their kitchen was home to some of his fondest memories. Maybe this year they’d be able to afford that addition he’d been planning—
“What’re you smiling at?”
Starsky opened his eyes slowly. Hutch’s face hovered over his own, expression fond. “Thinkin’ about the house,” he murmured.
Starsky smiled some more. “You. ‘N me. In the house. In the kitchen.”
Hutch smiled back at him, that wide-open smile that always pried Starsky’s heart right out of his chest. “It’s a good kitchen, but it’s kind of small for entertaining,” Hutch said thoughtfully, kneeing his way onto the mattress.
Starsky might be half-asleep, but he wasn’t stupid. “Yeah?” he drawled, his eyes narrowing.
Hutch leaned over him, braced his hands on either side of Starsky’s chest. “You know, it might be an idea to build a dining room on the back of the house.”
Starsky blinked, momentarily distracted by Hutch’s proximity. “You bastard,” he muttered. “You been peekin’ at my plans.”
Hutch lowered himself until Starsky could feel his breath against his mouth. “Was it a secret?” he husked.
“Wanted it to be a surprise,” Starsky told him, aware he sounded childish but too tired to give a damn. “Didn’t want you to see it ‘til we had enough money to pay for it.”
“Then why’d you leave them lying by your bed?” Hutch’s mouth brushed against his, and despite his exhaustion, Starsky felt himself responding. He lifted his head slightly and increased the pressure of Hutch’s lips against his own.
“I didn’t think you were gonna be anywhere near my bed.” Starsky’s hand reached up and stroked over Hutch’s fine, fine hair. The groan that escaped Hutch raised goosebumps on Starsky’s skin.
“You wanna be near my bed, blondie?” Starsky pressed, his other hand straying lower, gliding over Hutch’s belly, tracing the waistband of his jeans.
Hutch shook his head, nipping at Starsky’s lower lip sporadically as he did so. “No.”
Starsky frowned. That wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. “No?”
Suddenly, big hands captured his and pinned them to the mattress on either side of Starsky’s head. Starsky went from sleepy and half-aroused to wide awake and achingly hard in about two seconds flat.
“I want to be in your bed,” Hutch growled, pressing Starsky’s hands flat, grinding his groin against Starsky’s hip.
Holy shit, thought Starsky. The only audible response he could muster was a sound partway between a bleat and a whimper.
Hutch seemed to take that as encouragement, however, because he dove for Starsky’s mouth, plunging his tongue deep inside. Starsky could taste the sweet tea and a hint of the lemon cake Mrs. Sorenson had given them—
—and a wave of nausea swept over him.
“Hutch,” he panted against the other man’s mouth, “hey. Hold up.”
“I’m just—oh man, I’m such an idiot.” Hutch released his hands and sat up. When Starksy opened his eyes, Hutch was watching him with a mixture of worry and wariness.
“No, no, it’s nothin’ serious,” Starsky rushed to assure him. Lying flat on his back was no longer a smart idea, so he heaved himself to a sitting position. “I just—“ He waved a hand over his stomach. “I had a bit too much pot roast, y’know? And if we get to—” he caught himself before he made the appropriate hand gesture for that one “—see, I think the, ah, well, I mean the movement will—jeez, do I have to paint you a picture?”
Hutch stared at him, wide-eyed, for what seemed to Starsky like a century.
Then he burst out laughing.
“It’s not that funny,” Starsky protested weakly.
That only made Hutch laugh even harder. Wiping tears from the corners of his eyes, he gasped, “Starsk, you’re such a guy!”
“You noticed, huh?” Starsky drawled.
“I mean—I mean—” Hutch shook off the rest of the giggles, then took a few moments to regain his breath. “None of the women I’ve dated has ever had that particular problem.”
The words slammed into Starsky’s gut, bringing with them a fresh wave of nausea. He pushed himself off the bed and stood, legs trembling with adrenaline. “Well, maybe you oughta go back to what you’re happy with,” he spat, fists clenched.
Wait a minute. Where the hell had that come from?
Hutch rose to his feet swiftly and approached Starsky, a stricken look on his face. “God, Starsk,” he murmured, taking hold of Starsky’s upper arms, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Starsky sighed. “I know you didn’t. I’m just—worn out, I guess.”
Hutch ducked his head, forcing Starsky to meet his gaze. “You’re not the only one who’s thought that.”
“Thought what?” Starsky muttered.
Hutch squeezed his arms before releasing them. “Whether or not you’ll be enough.”
Starksy’s head snapped up at that. Hutch spread his hands.
“Let’s face it, Starsk. We’ve always been fairly fond of women.”
“Yeah,” Starsky said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I noticed.”
“So what’s changed?” Hutch persisted. “How can you suddenly be sure that I’m what you want?”
Starsky tried to marshal the half-formed thoughts that had been chasing themselves around and around in his brain for the past few weeks. Finally, he took a deep breath, let it out. “The way I see it,” he said slowly, “there’s not a lot of suddenly about it. Yeah, the wanting is pretty sudden, I guess. But the understanding and the needing and the—the loving—” Hutch’s eyes locked with his “—sometimes I feel like that’s been goin’ on forever.”
Hutch opened his mouth, then closed it again. He nodded jerkily. “Yeah,” he murmured. “For me, too.”
“As for the wanting,” Starsky continued, heartened by Hutch’s response, “that’s kinda scary, sure. But we gotta remember it’s us, Hutch. Maybe it’s a new part of us, but it’s not even close to being the most important part.” He took a step closer, then slowly leaned his forehead against Hutch’s. “The thing is, even when I’m eighty and can’t get it up anymore, I’m still gonna want to be with you.”
“Playing Monopoly,” Hutch murmured, a chuckle in his voice.
“Hell, by then I bet you’ll even have taught me to play chess,” Starsky said.
Hutch reached up to cradle Starsky’s face in the palms of his hands. “Let’s not wish for too many miracles, huh?” he said softly, leaning in for a heartstoppingly gentle kiss.
When Starsky could trust his voice again, he murmured, “You know what I want right now?”
Hutch tilted his head. “Bicarbonate of soda?”
Starsky flicked a finger against his forehead. “Dummy. After that.” Hutch grinned and shook his head. “I want to sleep with you. As in, sleep. With you. In this bed.” He placed his hands on Hutch’s hips, then kissed him with some of the same gentleness that still lingered on his own lips. “And if you have a nightmare—” he felt Hutch’s body stiffen under his hands “—I want to be right there, showin’ you I’m alive and whole and not goin’ anywhere without you.”
“Jesus, Starsk,” Hutch breathed, kissing him harder this time. Starksy’s arms slid around Hutch’s solid body, loving the feel of all that strength and power under his hands. And later, when they’d turned out the light and that long, lean body was wrapped around his, Starsky lay in the dark and felt Hutch's chest rise and fall against his back and wondered how the hell he’d ever lived without this.
Hutch should’ve known he’d be back here someday.
It was a warm summer day, and yet the chill crept up his spine and into his bones as his eyes took in the sight of the man lying sprawled on the ground. Sudden, violent emotion choked him as he raced forward and laid shaking hands on the beloved body. He tried to remember what he’d learned in school about checking for a pulse. Wrists, jugular—which side of the neck was the jugular on?
He looked up at the girl standing above him, a stunned expression on her face. “Go get help!” he yelled. “Now!”
She hesitated for another instant, then sprang into motion, her long coltish legs eating up the dirt road leading to the Andrews’ place. They at least had a phone—and maybe Mrs. Andrews would know what to—
—oh God, please don’t let him die—
—there’s no pulse, I can’t find it, it’s not—
— he’s not breathing, dear God, he’s not breathing—
“Hutch. Hutch, c’mon. Hutch.”
Hutch woke up gasping for air, his eyes open and staring in the darkness. As he returned slowly to reality, strong arms wrapped around him and held him tight.
“S’alright, it’s all right, I’m here,” Starsky crooned. “We’re safe.”
Hutch shook his head. He opened his mouth to offer an explanation, then shut it again. What would be the point of telling Starsk that the nightmare which had haunted him for the past year and a half had been supplanted by a much older one? Here, in this place shadowed by memories and the specter of his adolescent guilt, it felt sacrilegious to break the silence of twenty-odd years. And so instead, Hutch wrapped his own arms around Starsky’s back and buried his head in the crook of his shoulder until the tremors stopped. When they lay down again, Starsky seemed to understand Hutch’s need, because he asked no questions, merely stroked Hutch’s hair gently until sleep claimed him again.
They returned to Annika’s home in the morning, and after a huge breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and strong coffee, drove her to the scene of her husband’s death.
Annika’s beautiful face was hollow-eyed and pale as she walked along the rutted dirt road leading up to the Anderson house. Lars emerged from the farmhouse and swiftly took her in his arms, and they talked quietly for a few moments while Starsky and Hutch surveyed the scene. There was a piece of yellow tape attached to the door of the barn out back of the property, its broken ends flapping in the chill breeze. That was the only overt sign of a police presence.
“I want to go in there,” Starsky heard Annika say as he drew nearer to the house.
Lars shook his huge head slowly. “They don’t want us to go in there, Anni. It’s still a crime scene.” Starsky pricked up his ears at that. Either Lars was trying to protect her, or the cops here were totally incompetent. They should’ve gathered all the evidence they needed by now; if not, they’d still be here.
“I want to go in there,” Annika repeated.
Lars opened his mouth again to protest, then lowered his head. “Okay. But I’m coming with you.”
“That makes three of us,” Hutch said, falling into step with Annika and Lars. Starsky brought up the rear, his own gaze taking in the rest of the scene around them. The farmhouse was old but not ancient, probably about 1920’s vintage, and the barn was freshly painted and well-maintained. Further off down the property toward the lake stood a ramshackle trailer with a car out front that rivaled one of Hutch’s heaps. He figured that must be Sorenson’s father’s place.
Starsky moved to catch up with the rest of them. “How’s Sorenson, Senior?” he asked Lars.
“Still in the hospital,” Lars said gruffly. “They don’t know if he’s going to pull through.”
Starsky remembered what Annika had said about her father-in-law before Thanksgiving. “What’s he dyin’ of?”
Lars shot Starsky a look. “Hard livin’.”
Starsky looked over at Hutch, but the other man was absorbed in Annika’s predicament. She was shaking visibly as Lars stepped up to the door and held it open for her. After a few moments’ hesitation, she stepped through.
The barn was as well-kept inside as it was outside. There were five horses standing in their stalls; their tails swished over their massive rumps with serene indifference. A brief visual sweep of the interior didn’t reveal anything obvious, so he asked Lars, “Did you see anything that night?”
Lars sighed and folded his arms. “Not much. I was asleep when Mr. Sorenson found him, and I only woke up when the police arrived. They sealed off the barn and wouldn’t let anybody in.”
Annika walked slowly over to a low doorway that led to another room. When she reached it, she stiffened. Hutch caught up to her and took her by the shoulders. After a moment, he called, “Starsk.”
Starsky moved to join him, then followed the direction of Hutch’s solemn nod. There, on the floorboards near the far wall, was a definite bloodstain. Starsky squatted down, partly to get a better view, and partly to block Annika’s. He looked up and found a second, smaller stain, this time adorning a low crossbeam that ran the length of the room.
“There,” he murmured, voice pitched for Hutch’s ears. “Looks like he hit there first.”
Hutch stood in front of the crossbeam and straightened to his full height. The bottom of the beam was level with the bottom of his nose, and Sorenson was a couple of inches taller than Hutch. Starsky supposed it was possible that Sorenson had tripped, fallen against the beam and knocked himself out, then slipped into a coma exacerbated by alcohol. But it made more sense to figure that someone had helped him do it.
The fact that the prime candidate for the position was now standing in the room with his arm around Annika didn’t encourage Starsky to share his theories with Hutch. The two of them would have to observe what they could individually and save the jam session for later.
Behind him, he heard Annika suck in a breath. A few seconds later, she drew in another, then another, until she was breathing as though her lungs were going to burst.
“Get her out of here,” Starsky growled, still studying the stain on the floor. Lars murmured low, soothing sounds that rose above the heaving gasps, and then there was the scuffle of feet on the pine boards. And then there was silence, punctuated only by the occasional snort of one of the horses or the soft creak of the old barn around them.
“What do you think?”
Starsky passed a hand over his eyes. Rising from his crouch, he locked gazes with his partner. “I don’t think he managed this on his own.”
“Me, either,” Hutch murmured. One big hand reached up and pointed to the spot on the beam. “He was already hurt when he hit this. Blunt trauma wouldn’t make him bleed like that.”
Starsky grunted agreement. “So. You want to try your charm on your old friend?”
Hutch stiffened. “I don’t…” Then, to Starsky’s consternation, his shoulders sagged. “Yeah,” he said heavily. “I guess I have to give it a try.”
Hutch turned and walked out of the tack room without another word. Frowning, Starsky made to follow him.
Rebecca Martin hadn’t changed much in the twenty years since Hutch had last seen her. Even though she had to be in her mid-thirties, the willowy, athletic redhead was easily as beautiful as she’d been in her teens. Hutch watched her through the glass wall of her office as she took the call from the police station receptionist. He saw the exact moment that his name registered with her, about a half second after the woman spoke it into the receiver. Rebecca’s head jerked up and her piercing green gaze met his, as though pulled there by gravity.
Hutch breathed a mental sigh of relief as an expression of undiluted joy crossed her features.
Rebecca shot to her feet and yanked open the door to her office. “Oh. My. God,” she gasped, walking toward Hutch with slow, relentless strides. “Kenneth Hutchinson, as I live and breathe.”
“Rebecca Martin, in the flesh,” Hutch said as she wrapped her arms around him in a crushing bear hug.
“I’ll say,” murmured Starsky sotto voce from his place at Hutch’s side. Hutch ignored him and concentrated on returning the hug.
“It’s so great to see you,” Rebecca said, punctuating her words with a final hard squeeze that momentarily cut off Hutch’s blood flow. Pulling back, she treated him to a radiant grin. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d know where to find me.”
Hutch felt a sudden stab of guilt, but pushed it aside. Pasting on his best smile, he said, “I wasn’t sure. Had to do a little detective work to track you down.”
“No need to track you down,” she replied archly. “Everyone in the county knows you’re Annika’s new boyfriend.”
Starsky emitted a noise that might have been a cough, a snort or a gust of suppressed laughter. Rebecca arched her brows and cast a glance at him. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Hutch interjected. “Rebecca Martin, this is my partner, Dave Starsky.”
Rebecca reached out to shake Starsky’s hand in what Hutch knew to be a firm grip. “Pleased to meet you, though it’s Rebecca Gunderson now. So, are you up for the funeral?”
“Something like that,” Hutch admitted uneasily. “Listen, Rebecca—”
“Hutch, I know you wanted to spend some time with your friend, but can we save the reunion for later?” Hutch and Rebecca both turned to stare at him, and Starsky shrugged. “I’m sorry, Miz, ah, Gunderson, but the thing is, when Hutch mentioned he wanted to find an old friend of his who might be on the force, I figured you might be able to help us. He didn’t want to even bring it up with you—”
Rebecca was frowning by now. “Bring what up?”
“We’re private investigators hired by Annika Sorenson to investigate her husband’s death,” Starsky answered smoothly. “But before that, we were cops, too. Bay City PD. I’m hoping you might extend the good ol’ professional courtesy to us and share some of the wealth.”
“Starsk…” Hutch began, his addled brain finally catching up with Starsky’s fancy verbal footwork. Just like old times, his partner had effortlessly fallen into the bad guy role, freeing Hutch to play the white knight. Somehow, Starsk had picked up on his discomfort around Rebecca and decided to be the heel in this situation, when of course they both knew it was Hutch who was guilty of trying to use his former friend.
Rebecca regarded Starsky for a long, measuring moment, and then her gaze swiveled to Hutch. He took in shallow breaths and attempted to project an apologetic mien. Please forgive my partner for acting like the bastard I’m supposed to be, he told her silently.
Finally Rebecca nodded, the motion sharp. Her eyes never left Hutch as she answered Starsky’s request, and Hutch knew then that she had seen right through them both. “Okay. Yeah, I can do that. After all, what are old friends for?”
As she turned and led them toward the stairs, Hutch felt like twenty kinds of heel.
Their first stop was the morgue. Starsky wasn’t sure whether that meant Rebecca still liked Hutch or hated his guts.
A young guy that Starsky assumed had to be the coroner was stripping off his gloves when the three of them walked through the door into the frigid basement room. He looked up when they came in, and his boyish face lit in a goofy grin.
Jeez, was every guy in Minnesota as blond and gorgeous as Hutch? If so, Starsky was moving here when he retired.
He suppressed a chuckle at the thought. He’d stick out here worse than he would in Junior Jackson’s neighborhood.
“Hey, babe,” the man said to Rebecca, unbuttoning his lab coat.
“Ken Hutchinson, Dave Starsky,” she said, nodding at each of them, “this is the county coroner, Dr. Michael Gunderson.”
“I’m also lucky enough to be her husband,” the doc added, the goofy grin still in evidence.
“That’s lucky, all right,” Starsky agreed, offering the doctor his hand. The taller man’s hand encased Starsky’s like a catcher’s mitt. Man, how did the guy ever make all those delicate incisions and stitches? But then, Starsky guessed precision wasn’t quite as important on a dead guy.
“They’re here from Bay City, investigating the death of Chris Sorenson.” Starsky looked at her, expecting more, but she didn’t elaborate, and her expression remained neutral. She’d make a hell of a poker player, he mused.
“You’ve got perfect timing,” Gunderson said, nodding toward the sheet-covered body on the metal table. “I just finished.”
“What’s the verdict?” Rebecca asked. Gunderson’s eyes flickered from his wife to Starsky and Hutch. “It’s okay,” she added.
“I won’t be one hundred percent sure until I get the blood work and chemical analysis,” he said slowly, “but I don’t think we should rule out foul play.”
Starsky’s heart slammed into overdrive. “What’ve you got?” he couldn’t help asking.
Gunderson’s answer was to walk over to the body and lift the sheet. “See for yourself.”
Starsky could immediately see what Gunderson was talking about; Sorenson’s once-handsome face was mottled with bruises, the kind you got in a fight with somebody pretty damned strong. There was a nasty one ringing his left eye, and another purpling his high cheekbone. Against the bloodless white of his features, they were particularly noticeable.
“You think somebody beat him to death?” Hutch asked.
“He was in a fight a few hours before his death,” Gunderson said, “but not immediately before. The bruises wouldn’t have had time to appear if that were the case.”
Starsky studied Sorenson’s nose, which was slightly out of alignment. That could explain the blood on the wooden beam; a busted nose bled like a sonofabitch. “You got any ideas about the cause of death?”
“How about a broken neck?” Gunderson said shortly. Both Starsky and Hutch raised their heads at that. “His head was snapped backward with great force. My opinion is that he was dead before he hit the ground.”
“So probably not an accident, then, huh?”
Gunderson’s expression turned grim. “Let’s just say he would’ve had a hell of a time doing that to himself.”
“So how’s Annika holding up?”
Despite the fact that he was half-expecting the question, Hutch tensed anyway. He took another sip of his coffee and tried not to wince at the bitter taste. Apparently it was some kind of unwritten rule that cops had no skill in brewing the stuff. “She’s having a rough time.”
“I bet,” Rebecca said, leaning back in her chair. Hutch refused to be baited; she might be a detective, but she was nowhere near as good at this as he was.
“Listen, Rebecca, let’s get one thing straight. I was never dating Annika Sorenson. She hired Starsky and me to protect her from her husband, because she was trying to get a divorce from him and he was threatening her.”
Rebecca’s eyebrows arched. “Why the smoke screen?”
“She didn’t want the papers to get wind of her problems,” Starsky interjected smoothly, “and it explained why they were always together.” Taking his partner’s lead, Hutch decided not to fill in any of the details on Annika’s plan to goad Sorenson into a criminal act. That wouldn’t sit terribly well with most cops, let alone a small-town detective who was used to following the letter of the law.
Rebecca took a sip of her own coffee. “He ever hit her?”
Hutch shook his head. “Not that we’re aware of. Just verbal abuse.”
Rebecca pursed her lips. “No ‘just’ about it. That can be pretty damaging.” She paused. “Some people will go to great lengths to put an end to that kind of pain.”
“What are you saying?” Hutch said, startled at the turn of the conversation, and cursing himself that it surprised him.
Rebecca shrugged. “Nothing. Yet.”
Starsky snorted. “Come on. You sayin’ that Annika flew to Minnesota and broke her husband’s neck? Besides the fact that she was with us in Bay City that whole night—”
“You were with Annika the night Sorenson died?” Rebecca interrupted.
“Yeah,” Hutch answered. “We were doing twenty-four hour surveillance in her home.”
Rebecca leaned forward in her chair. “Did Sorenson get in touch with her at any point?”
Hutch nodded. “He called, yeah.”
She frowned at him, and Hutch couldn’t help feeling like a naughty schoolboy being questioned in the principal’s office. “Do you know where he was calling from?”
Hutch frowned back. “No.”
Rebecca’s expression grew hopeful. “I don’t suppose you have a tape of it?”
Hutch opened his mouth.
“No.” The voice was Starsky’s. “Annika had hung up by the time we got to her.”
Hutch deliberately avoided looking at his partner. Rebecca shook her head. “Damn. But at least it helps us to retrace his steps that night. Thanks.”
“So, you have any leads?” Starsky asked casually.
Rebecca looked at Hutch as though he were the one who’d spoken. “I’m sorry, Ken, but you know I can’t go any further with you on this. In fact, I’ve already probably gone too far.” She spread her hands. “This is turning into a murder investigation, and you guys are civilians. Involved civilians at that.”
Hutch nodded. “Yeah, I know.” Pushing himself to his feet, he extended his hand. “Thanks for the coffee, Detective.”
Rebecca’s face softened. “Oh, shut up,” she told him, stepping around her desk to enfold him in another hug. “Just don’t make it another twenty years before you’re back in Mille Lacs again.”
“I didn’t want to stay away,” he whispered in her ear. “It’s just that…” He trailed off as sudden, shocking tears pricked at the corners of his eyes.
“Shh, sweetie. I know. I know.” She held onto him for a moment longer, then released him. “You two keep out of trouble, you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Starsky said solemnly, his face the picture of innocence.
Rebecca rolled her eyes heavenward. Hutch wrapped a hand around Starsky’s arm and dragged him from her office.
If there was one thing Starsky had learned about Hutch in over a dozen years, it was when to leave him alone.
That wasn’t to say that he always listened to his own advice when it came to actually doing it, but Starsky knew. It was part of the way he could read Hutch’s thoughts, sometimes even before Hutch himself had thought them, if that made any sense. It was part of the way they knew one another, too, because like him Hutch knew when to push him and when not to, when to touch him and when to just stand close.
This was one of those stand-close moments. He’d picked up on Hutch’s reluctance to visit his old friend earlier, and after watching the interaction between his partner and Rebecca Martin, it was clear there was some past incident behind that reluctance, something that was very painful to Hutch. Starsky had read it in the taut lines of Hutch’s body as he hugged the other cop and in the soothing words Rebecca had said to him.
Despite their closeness all these years, Starsky still didn’t know a great deal about Hutch’s early life. He knew Hutch had grown up in Duluth, and that he was class valedictorian, and that he’d wanted to be a folk singer when he was in high school. His dad had died when he was nineteen, but that was about all Starsky’d ever heard about the man. When Hutch’s mother had died last year, he’d gone out to Minnesota alone, since Starsky was still too weak to travel. Although Starsky hadn’t seen Hutch’s behavior at the funeral, he’d watched Hutch closely before and after his trip, and he’d been surprised to note his friend’s lack of reaction to an event that would have traumatized Starsky had their roles been reversed. Although they never talked about it directly, Starsky could tell that for whatever reason Hutch and his parents had never been particularly close.
So what about Hutch and his grandfather? Starsky knew even less about Hutch’s relationship with this man; hell, until a few days ago he hadn’t even known Hutch still owned property in Minnesota. The cabin was in great shape for a place Hutch hadn’t visited in two decades, so it was obvious that he hired people to maintain it. The Mrs. Williams Hutch mentioned had done a great job of getting the place ready—when they arrived, the cabin had that piney-cleaner scent, the windows were practically transparent, and the fridge and pantry were stocked with all the necessities. She probably let him know when the roof needed new shingles or the exterior could do with a fresh coat of paint.
Still, it was strange that a guy who was as into the outdoors as Hutch hadn’t taken the opportunity to spend time here. Mille Lacs was beautiful country even in late November, the land largely wild and untouched. It was ideal for fishing or canoeing, the acreage surrounding the cabin perfect for long hikes in the woods contemplating the meaning of life. No doubt about it, this was Hutch’s kind of place. So why hadn’t he come back here more often?
The questions chased themselves in his head as Hutch drove them through town. Annika had gone with Lars and her mother to the funeral parlor to make the arrangements for her estranged husband’s burial. Starsky and Hutch had arranged to meet them at the hospital, where Sorenson’s father was still being held for observation. The last they’d heard, he was in stable condition yet still in a catatonic state.
“So,” Hutch said, the first word out of his mouth since they’d left the police station, “did you have a reason for not telling Rebecca about the tape?”
Starsky looked at Hutch, but there was nothing in his partner’s expression or tone of voice to indicate what he was thinking. “Dunno,” he shrugged. “She seemed a little too eager to see Annika as a suspect. I didn’t want to hand her anything on a silver platter.”
Hutch frowned. “It’s still withholding evidence.”
“Evidence of what? That Chris Sorenson was a bastard?” Starsky paused, considering. “You think Annika might’ve had him killed?”
“Of course not,” Hutch said irritably.
“Then let’s not get in a big uproar about it. It’s not gonna do anything to help Rebecca solve this case.”
“Fine,” Hutch snapped, turning the wheel of the rental car jerkily as they rounded a corner.
Starsky felt strangely bereft at the sight of Hutch’s closed-off profile. The absence of moustache was still new enough to catch his attention; a strong memory of touching and kissing that naked skin made him shiver. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d reached across the distance between them and laid a hand on Hutch’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said gently, the rest of his resolve to leave Hutch alone deserting him. “What’s up?”
Under his hand, Hutch tensed. The shoulder Starsky was holding shrugged, while the man remained silent.
Starsky hid his disappointment behind a wry smile. “S’complicated, huh?”
“Yeah,” Hutch said woodenly, eyes still staring at the road in front of them. “You could say that.”
“Okay.” Starsky released Hutch’s shoulder and pulled back his hand. He debated for a split second about whether to start the next sentence with ‘if’ or ‘when’, then plunged ahead. “When you wanna talk about it, just let me know.”
Hutch opened his mouth, shot Starsky a brief glance, closed it again. “Yeah,” he murmured, and this time there was the hint of an apology in the tone. “I’ll do that, Starsk.”
As they made the final turn up the long driveway of the local hospital, Starsky knew that one day Hutch would follow through on that promise, because Hutch always delivered on his promises.
He just hoped that the when would be sooner rather than later.
If Hutch had thought Annika’s beautiful face was pale in the barn this morning, it was ghostly as she absorbed the words of the man standing in front of her.
“Are you sure?”
The doctor, an older man with gray hair and a kindly expression, nodded solemnly. “I’m sure. The lawyer showed me the paperwork after he was admitted.”
Annika closed her eyes. “I can’t believe this. Chris’ father gave me power of attorney and made me executor of his will?” Lars stepped up behind her and silently took her shoulders between his huge hands.
“Technically, no,” the doctor answered. “He named Chris executor. But in the case of Chris’ death, the responsibility passed to you. I don’t imagine he ever expected he’d outlive his son.”
Annika sighed. “His sister—Chris’ aunt—” She trailed off, shaking her head. “Never mind. They haven’t spoken in over a year.”
“I wonder why he didn’t name Mama,” Lars mused.
“Maybe there was a bit of decency left in him,” Annika said. “She’s given him free room and board on that place since your father died, and he’s caused her nothing but trouble.”
“The prognosis is good, Annika,” the doctor told her. “There’s no reason why you should need to exercise your power of attorney at this time. There’s nothing physically wrong with him.” Lars snorted, and the doctor added, “Well, nothing related to his son’s death. He’s simply in shock.”
“But he’s also dying,” Annika said. “Isn’t he?”
The doctor hesitated, then nodded solemnly. “Yes. It’s his liver. It’s too late for a transplant; he vetoed that option when it was still a possibility.”
Annika closed her eyes. When she opened them again, they were bright with unshed tears. “I’m sorry, I know I sound horrible—but I don’t want this responsibility. The way he treated Chris growing up—I don’t want anything to do with him, especially now that Chris is gone.” She sighed again. “And I’m sorry—this isn’t your problem.”
The doctor smiled and took her hand. “Anni, I brought you into this world, set your broken leg and took out your tonsils,” he said gently. “You don’t have to apologize. But this is outside my area of expertise. You need a lawyer for this.”
Annika nodded. “Can we see him?”
The doctor’s gaze flickered over the foursome. “Certainly. But only two at a time, if you don’t mind.”
Hutch stepped forward, catching Annika’s eye. Silently, she nodded her assent, and he followed her into the room.
Hutch took in the pale, grizzled form lying on the bed. “How old is he?”
Annika thought about it. “He’d be in his mid-fifties.”
Hutch was reminded of what Lars had said about the elder Sorenson earlier. Dying of ‘hard living’, he’d said. As he studied the man’s features, it was clear that Martin Sorenson had indeed lived hard. He looked easily fifteen years older than Annika’s estimate.
Annika walked toward the bed, but stopped about three feet away from it. “Well, Martin,” she said softly, “it looks like you won and I lost.”
“How do you figure that?” Hutch asked, his voice as soft.
Annika wrapped her arms around herself as though she’d felt a chill. “I first met Chris when they moved here from up north. He was thirteen, and the toughest boy I’d ever met, on the surface, anyway. Later on, I found out that was mostly show, a way of protecting himself from his father. Martin was always telling Chris he was no good, that he was too much like his mother, that he’d never amount to anything.”
“What happened to Chris’ mother?”
“She left them when Chris was six,” Annika said. “At least that’s what Martin told him. Chris hated her for leaving, and I can’t say I understand how she could have left her son with that man, but perhaps she didn’t have a choice.” She hugged herself a bit more tightly. “Some days, though, I hate her too.”
“Did he ever—abuse Chris physically?”
Annika pursed her lips. “Not to the extent where they could lay charges against him. The people hereabouts—well, I don’t have to tell you what rural Minnesota is like, or any rural community. They believed that a parent had the right to ‘discipline’ his child—and nothing Martin ever did to him went beyond the boundaries of what would have been considered ‘discipline.’” She shook her head. “It was the verbal abuse that really hurt Chris anyway. The constant grinding down of his self-esteem—it marked him more than any spanking or slaps could ever do.”
“And you built it back up.”
Annika’s head snapped up. “Yes, I suppose so,” she said quietly. “I tried, anyway. Making music—that was important, too. It was everything to him—then.” Her gaze turned back to the sleeping man. “It feels strange talking about this in front of him.”
“He’s not aware of us. And if he is, would it matter?”
Annika considered this. “No, I guess it wouldn’t,” she admitted. “I don’ t care what Martin thinks of me. I never did.”
“What did he think of you?”
Annika pursed her lips. “He tolerated me,” she said shortly. “Barely. Said I was going to turn his son into a—well, I don’t even want to say it. When Chris and I got married, he showed up at the wedding staggering drunk. After we moved to California, Chris came back to see him now and then when we came home to visit Mom, but he never stayed long.”
“So why do you think he named you and Chris executors?”
Annika shrugged. “Because for better or for worse, we were his family. Chris was an only child, and the one woman who ever put up with him was Lars’ mother. He was a hand on the Anderson place for a long time, and when Lars’ father died he did keep the place running. But his drinking has only gotten worse over the past few years, and Mrs. Anderson has had to bail him out of jail more than once.”
“Why does she keep him on?” Hutch asked.
“Because he was a good worker, if nothing else,” she said heavily. “He was one of those men who had no understanding of love and family, but he did understand how to be a ‘man’. He always provided for Chris, and he was intensely proud of that fact.” She shook her head sadly. “He thought that was all he needed to give.”
Hutch nodded. His own family story was similar, if not nearly as dramatic. His father, a successful lawyer, had never had enough time for his family, and his mother had been so caught up in her committees and country club activities that she, too, had been a nebulous figure in the lives of Hutch and his sister. It wasn’t a surprise that they weren’t a particularly close-knit family. Even today, he only spoke to Sarah on their birthdays and at Christmas. They hadn’t seen one another in over—God, five years.
You’ve been more of a father to me than he ever was. Molly’s words, spoken so many years ago, still resonated in his head whenever he thought of his father. She was more like him than she would ever know.
Maybe one of these days you should tell her about it, his inner voice nagged, the way you should tell Starsk the reason why you haven’t been back to your grandfather’s land in twenty years.
He was abruptly pulled from his reverie by the sound of a choking cough from the man in the bed. Annika and he both moved swiftly to the older man’s side.
Martin Sorenson’s eyes flew open on his next hacking breath and stared sightlessly at the ceiling. After a few more gasps and wheezes, his coughing subsided, but his eyes remained open, the pupils fixed. Hutch watched as the wrinkled, balding head turned slowly so that the eyes could fix on Annika—or rather, stare right through her.
“Martin?” Annika’s voice was strong, if a little shaken. “Can you hear me?”
Sorenson’s face remained as expressionless as carved stone for several breathless seconds. Then, slowly it began to change, until a look of stark, unreasoning horror was painted on its pale surface.
“Can you hear me?” the man echoed, his voice a raspy whisper. “Chris? Can you hear me, son?”
“Oh, God, I have to get out of here,” Annika choked.
Hutch took her swiftly by the arm and guided her from the room. As the door closed behind them, he could still hear the dying man calling for his dead son in that paper-thin voice.
The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to retrace Chris Sorenson’s steps on the night of his death. Starsky and Hutch left Annika with her mother and Lars, then followed up on a couple of leads Annika had given them, old friends that Chris might have looked up while he was here. All of them had already been questioned by the police, and none of them was in the mood to have a couple of hotshots from California ask them more stupid questions. No, they hadn’t seen Chris. No, they hadn’t heard he was in town until he turned up dead. Yes, they’d like it very much if the two of them fucked off now.
After the third unsuccessful attempt, Starsky said, “Maybe I better stay in the car next time. Either that or peroxide my hair.”
They tried the first option the next time out, and Hutch had a little more luck on this one. The woman—a couple of years younger than Annika and Chris, she had been sweet on Sorenson in high school—hadn’t been questioned by the police yet. And she’d seen Chris on the night of the murder. How much of him she’d seen, she hadn’t said. But she did say he’d gone out drinking after she’d left his place, and he was half in the bag before that. She didn’t know where he’d ended up.
“So now we check out the bars?” Starsky suggested. “How many are there in the vicinity?”
“Probably a half dozen, max,” Hutch said wearily. “The problem is that we’re not going to get anywhere with the patrons.”
“We will if you go in alone,” Starsky said. “Worked like a charm the last time.”
Hutch sighed. “I don’t think so. The police have probably been all over the local bars. If they haven’t turned up anything…”
“Let’s try one, anyway,” Starsky persisted. “There’s gotta be one on a direct line from that girl’s place to the Anderson place.”
“Mmm,” Hutch agreed reluctantly. “Yeah, I think there’s one at the crossroads on the edge of town.”
There was indeed a bar at the edge of town, and it was appropriately named…Crossroads Bar and Grill. Starsky sighed as they pulled into the dirt parking lot.
“You want I should stay in the car?”
“Nah, come on,” Hutch said. “I’ll buy you a burger.”
“My hero,” Starsky breathed, clasping his hands together in front of his chest.
“Meathead,” Hutch said, a smile finally emerging. Starsky grinned back, feeling like a million bucks. It was the first time Hutch’d smiled all day.
They drew attention as soon as they walked into the bar, but then all strangers did in small towns. It wasn’t anything to get uptight about, yet Hutch felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle at some of the frank stares they received. They found themselves a table and sat down. After a few moments, the bartender, a man with biceps easily as wide as Hutch’s thighs, ambled up to their table and glared down at them.
“My waitress has the ‘flu,” he announced sullenly. “What’ll you have?”
“Uh, couple of beers, and a couple of burgers?” Hutch said.
“With cheese?” Starsky added. “And fries?”
The bartender nodded, then turned.
“You got any kosher dill pickles?” Starsky asked his retreating back.
“Nope,” the guy grunted over his shoulder.
Starsky shrugged at Hutch’s pained expression. “Can’t blame a guy for tryin’.”
“Oh, don't worry, Starsk," Hutch drawled. "You’re blending in fine."
A few minutes later, their meals arrived with little fanfare. Starsky found his appetite, which had been dampened by the depressing day, returning with a vengeance at the heavenly smell of grilled meat. He wolfed down his supper with gusto, then made a couple of lightning raids on Hutch’s fries.
“I’ll get you another order,” Hutch said around a mouthful of burger.
“Jeez, don’t make him come over here again,” Starsky muttered, casting an eye at the bartender.
Before Hutch could call for him, though, the burly man was back and looming over them. Starsky felt like Jack at the foot of the beanstalk.
“I know you,” the bartender growled, looking at Hutch.
Hutch pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. Holy crap, thought Starsky. Hutch was no midget, and this guy topped him by a good four inches. “Maybe you do,” Hutch said, sticking out a hand. Starsky sent up a silent prayer that the guy wasn’t hungry. “Kenneth Hutchinson.”
There was a brief, pregnant silence, and then the huge man’s face erupted in a wide, guileless smile.
Holy crap, thought Starsky again. It fit this situation too.
“Why sure! You’re Old Doc Hutchinson’s grandson! I remember you.” He grasped Hutch’s hand and—judging from the way Hutch’s eyes bulged—gave it a firm squeeze. “You used to come down here in the summers when you were a kid. I’m Eric Danvers’ son, Morty.”
“Morty—yeah, Morty,” Hutch said, voice a little strained. “Your dad ran the bait shop down the lake.”
“That’s right,” Morty said, finally releasing Hutch’s hand. Starsky saw him wiggle the fingers experimentally. “Haven’t seen you around in a long time.”
“I, uh, I moved to California. Became a cop.”
Morty nodded his boulder-sized head. “Cool. Just like C.H.I.P.S., huh?”
“Sort of,” Hutch said. “Uh, Morty Danvers, this is my partner, David Starsky.” Starsky suppressed a wince as his hand was also gripped by the Bear Paw of Death. He grinned his best grin and waited for it to be over.
“So you’re here looking out for Annika,” Morty said without preamble. Starsky was surprised for about a half second before he remembered one of the cardinal rules of small towns—everyone knew everybody else’s business. And when one of their own made it big, the gossip traveled even faster.
“We’re trying to help her, yeah,” Hutch agreed. “She’s had a pretty tough time.”
“Yeah. Chris Sorenson always was an asshole.”
“You knew him?” Starsky asked.
“Not real well. Well enough to know he was an asshole, though.”
Hutch nodded. “You, uh, seen him lately?”
Morty’s eyes suddenly grew shadowed. “Why do you want to know?”
“Like I said,” Hutch murmured, gentling his voice, “we’re trying to help Annika. And part of our job is trying to find out what happened to Chris Thursday night. We’ve been able to piece together some of the picture, but not all of it.”
“Why not just let the cops figure it out?”
“We used to be homicide detectives,” Starsky said, his voice equally quiet. “We think we can help everybody.”
Morty snorted. “You’re not gonna be helpin’ the guy that killed him.”
Starsky’s heart rate kicked up a notch. He knows it’s a murder—or is he just blowing smoke?
“Well, yeah,” Hutch was saying. “Everybody but him.”
“So if it turns out some guy had killed Chris,” Starsky said slowly, “who’s everybody gonna be rootin’ for?”
“Let’s just say there aren’t gonna be a lot of people throwin’ themselves on the casket,” Morty said stonily. “The only one in this town who ever saw any good in Chris Sorenson was Annika.”
“And Lars,” Hutch added.
The big man’s face became a hard, expressionless mask. “I gotta get back to work. Nice seein’ you again.” And without another word, he went back to the bar.
“Holy shit,” Starsky breathed, when the giant was out of earshot.
“Yeah,” Hutch agreed. “Who says small town life is boring?”
“Not me, baby blue,” Starsky said, nabbing another one of Hutch’s fries. “Not me.”
Starsky pulled into the driveway of the Thorvald place and guided it to a stop beside the house. He set the parking brake on the rental car and looked over at Hutch. “You sure about this?”
Hutch sighed. “No. But we’re not getting anywhere like this.”
Starsky shot him a brief, lightning grin that reminded him of old times. “You think we can take him?”
Hutch chuckled in spite of his mood, which had grown ever darker as they hit frustration after frustration in today’s investigation. “No.”
“All right, then,” Starsky said, nodding. “When I do this” –he laid a finger along the side of his nose— “we run like hell.”
Hutch shook his head, still chuckling. Only Starsky could lift his spirits after a day like this one. It wasn’t that they hadn’t had washouts like these while they were on the job, but the haze of nostalgia had dulled the memory of those jaw-clenching times, when nobody they talked to would tell them anything useful, when you started to wonder what the point of it all was. Now that they were investigating a murder again, in a place where they were seen as intruders, those memories were coming back as fresh as though they’d happened yesterday.
“You think Rebecca’s been over yet?” Starsky asked as they made their way to the front door.
“Probably,” Hutch answered. They’d known that Rebecca would be calling on Annika later that day with the results of the autopsy, and they’d agreed not to give her any details before that. Partly it was the courtesy that one cop owed another, although a large part, Hutch knew, was that he hadn’t wanted to shoulder that particular burden. He silenced the voice that whispered coward in his ear. Certainly, it would have been better for Annika to hear the news from a friend, but something told him that the news of her husband’s murder wouldn’t come as much of a shock to her.
He blinked, his pace slowing as the thought percolated through his consciousness. What was he considering? Where was that doubt coming from?
“What’s up?” Starsky was looking at him with concern, one of his hands reaching out to cup a shoulder.
“Nothing. It’s just getting—complicated.” Hutch blew out a breath. “What’s our position here, Starsk?”
“I mean we’re not cops any more. If we’re investigating this murder, it’s on Annika’s behalf, to give her some measure of peace. And if she’s a suspect, which is the way Rebecca seems to be going, it’s also to try to find some conclusive evidence that will clear her.”
“Yeah?” Starsky prompted, after a few moments of silence.
“Well, what if we find out that Lars is involved—worse, that he’s guilty? What do we do with that knowledge? And even if it turns out Annika had nothing to do with it, how do we ever exonerate her then?”
Starsky’s hand stayed on his shoulder, a warm, comforting presence. Finally, Starsk smiled. “It was easier when we were just dumb cops, huh?”
“Well, I was never dumb,” Hutch drawled. Starsky cuffed him playfully on the shoulder. “Yeah, it was.”
“Look, I know this is gonna sound—well, dumb, but…we gotta do what we gotta do.” Starsky shrugged. “We may not be cops any more, but we can’t let that part of us go, the part that says it’s important to find out the truth.”
“Why not?” Hutch demanded, suddenly angry and not quite knowing why.
Starsky’s answer was to tilt his head to one side, like a dog listening for a sound no one else could hear. Slowly, as though he were approaching a wild animal, he reached up and stroked Hutch’s cheek. His thumb strayed to Hutch’s upper lip, the pad catching against the fine sandpaper of stubble, and Hutch sucked in a breath.
“Been wantin’ to do that all day,” Starsky admitted softly. He jerked his head toward the house. “C’mon. Let’s do what we gotta do, huh?”
It took longer than Starsky had hoped for them to get Lars alone. Rebecca had shown up there just after supper, and Annika hadn’t taken the news too well. But then, she’d had a lot of pretty shitty news to take over the past couple of days, Starsky reminded himself. It was tough to fault her for her reactions – they sure seemed authentic enough.
He’d been keeping a close eye on Lars since they came in, but the big drummer wasn’t giving away anything either. Right at the moment, he was sitting beside Annika, close but not too close, watching her as though that action had some power to protect her from more pain. The only thing Starsky regretted was that they hadn’t been there when Rebecca came by, because it would’ve been worth their whole lousy afternoon to see Lars’ reaction. Right now, he was making like the Sphinx.
“But why?” Annika asked, while they all sat at the kitchen table drinking more of her mother’s strong black tea. Her beautiful eyes, he noted, were shadowed and haunted now, red-rimmed from too much crying. “I don’t understand. You were talking to Detective Gunderson; what did she think happened?”
“All they know is that he was in a fight,” Hutch told her softly, “a few hours before his death. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell us any more than that.”
“Who would want to fight with him?” Annika persisted. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Lots of people get into stupid fights when they’re drunk,” Starsky offered. He flicked a glance at Lars, but the other man’s gaze was still glued to Annika. “It doesn’t necessarily mean anyone planned to kill him.”
“As for what might’ve happened that night,” Hutch added, “we, uh, did a little investigating today around town.”
Starsky watched as Lars’ gaze shifted from Annika to Hutch.
“Did you find out where Chris was that night?” Annika asked.
Starsky kept his attention on Lars, knowing that’s what Hutch wanted him to do. “We have a couple of leads,” Hutch said easily, and Starsky suppressed a smile. It was good to know that Hutch could still bullshit when he needed to.
“Then who—” Annika began.
Hutch shook his head. “Nothing decisive yet,” he admitted. “But we’ll keep working on it tomorrow. Something will turn up. In the meantime, do either of you know of anyone in town who might have been holding a grudge against Chris?”
Annika took a few moments to think about it, while Lars shook his head immediately. “He didn’t have a lot of friends here,” he rumbled, “’cept us. But somebody who might want him dead?” Lars’ gaze swung to Starsky, then back to Hutch. “There’s nobody around here I can think of wanted him dead,” he said slowly.
“No,” agreed Annika. “I can’t think of anyone either.”
“So maybe it was an accident,” Hutch mused. “Just something that happened in the heat of the moment.”
Starsky watched Lars’ face, but there wasn’t even a twitch. He was either really good or innocent, but it was impossible to tell which one it was.
Annika took a deep breath, let it out. “I don’t know how I’m going to get to sleep tonight, but I’ve got to try,” she murmured. “Not even ten o’clock and I can barely hold my head up.”
Lars did touch her then, his huge arm wrapping around her shoulders and enfolding her in a hug. “Anni,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” she countered, smiling up at him. “You’ve been such a help to me today.” She favored Starsky and Hutch with the same smile. “All of you. I appreciate it so much.”
Lars took her hands in his and pulled her gently to her feet. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” he asked, almost shy, as though he didn’t know the answer.
“Yeah. Come by around lunchtime, okay?”
“Okay.” Lars deposited a chaste kiss to the top of her head, then drew away. Taking his cue from Hutch, Starsky rose to his feet as well.
As soon as he hit the chill night air, Starsky felt his muscles tense up in preparation for whatever was coming next. Lars took a few steps, then stopped, probably registering the fact that their rental had his truck boxed in.
To Starsky’s surprise, the big man seemed to sag a little. “Okay,” he said heavily. “What do you want?”
“To talk,” Hutch told him, keeping his distance from Anderson. “We were at the Crossroads today.”
Lars’ head snapped up. Bingo, thought Starsky. No need for Lars to know they had dug up exactly zip while they were there.
After the silence had stretched for a few moments, Starsky said, “If we made the connection, the cops will, too. It might make it easier to talk to us first.”
“Why?” Lars asked, scowling.
“Because we care about Annika,” Hutch said softly. “Almost as much as you do. And she loves you. We want to be on your side, as much as we can.”
Lars’ jaw clenched. “I hit him,” he ground out.
“You got into a fight with him?” Starsky asked.
Lars snorted. “He tried to pick a fight with me. I was there with a couple of old friends around nine, and he was sittin’ in a corner, already drunk. Came up to the table and told me he knew I was in love with his wife. Knew I’d always been in love with her.”
Hutch frowned. “How did he come to that conclusion?”
Lars cast a glance back toward the house, where the kitchen windows were now dark. “He must’ve figured it out a long time ago, ‘cause he’s been lordin’ that over me since he had his first date with her.” He took a deep breath, then to Starsky’s surprise emitted a low, self-deprecating chuckle. “Everybody ‘round here knows I’m in love with Annika—‘cept Annika.” His smile was fond and deeply sad and in that moment Starsky felt for the poor bastard. To be that close to perfection for half your life and not be allowed to touch it—
“So why did this time send you over the edge?” Hutch was asking.
Lars blinked, apparently startled by the question. “It didn’t. I told him to go home, to sleep it off. He kept at me and at me until Morty told him to get out. He started shoving Morty—”
“I knew that guy was dumb,” Starsky muttered under his breath.
“—and then I stood up, thinkin’ maybe he’d come out with me, and he took a swing at me. So I hit him.”
“Once?” Hutch asked.
Lars’ face was grim. “Three times. I tried to pull my first punch, but he didn’t go down so easy.”
That explains the bruising on his face, Starsky thought. “What happened then?”
“I drove him home,” Lars said simply.
“You drove him—” Hutch said, his tone incredulous. “Here?”
“As far as I could. He woke up right after I turned into the driveway and went for me again. I stopped the truck and tried to grab him, but he got away from me. When he got out of the truck, I just let him go. I threw the truck into reverse and drove back to the Crossroads.”
“When did you leave the bar the second time?” Hutch asked.
“Around midnight. I was feeling kinda down after that. I came home and went right to bed.”
“Anybody see you?”
Lars shook his head. “Mom was already asleep.”
“So you got no alibi for midnight to three,” Starsky mused.
“Alibi? I—oh, God.” Lars’ voice was shaking as he spoke the next words. “God, people are gonna think—but I, I never—oh Jesus, what am I gonna do?”
“Lars, did you kill Chris?” Hutch asked softly.
Lars hung his head. “No. I didn’t kill him, but I know what it looks like, oh man, what am I…”
“Hey,” Starsky heard himself say. “It’s gonna be okay. If you didn’t kill him, you got nothing to worry about, all right?” He winced a little as he felt the weight of Hutch’s gaze on him.
Lars nodded, but his head still hung down like a man defeated.
“In the meantime,” Starsky continued, “you start thinking. Hard. Try to think about anyone who might’ve had a reason to hate Chris. Think about anything you saw, or heard, at the bar that night. It might be something as simple as a drug connection gone bad, or a guy pissed off that Chris hit on his girlfriend. You lived in this town most of your life. Keep your ears open and let us know if you hear anything about Chris, even if you don’t think it sounds important.”
Lars nodded again. “I will.”
“Good,” Starsky said. He reached out and gave the drummer a pat on one massive bicep. He turned to go, but was stopped by Lars’ deep voice.
“The thing is,” he said slowly, “I would’ve.” Lars’ massive head rose and his gaze skewered each of them in turn. “If he’d been coming after Annika, trying to hurt her, I would’ve.”
“Do yourself—and Annika—a favor,” Hutch said grimly. “Don’t mention that little tidbit to the police.”
“You want the shower first?”
“Hm?” Hutch was awakened from his reverie by Starsky’s terse question. He looked up and was caught by that familiar deep blue gaze.
Mild exasperation showed in Starsky’s expression, though his tone was gentle. “We been over this a hundred times. It’s not gonna make any more sense tonight.”
Hutch rested his head against the back of the couch. “You still think he’s innocent.”
Starsky sighed. “I think if he isn’t, he’s putting on a hell of a show. And not to insult the guy, but I don’t think he’s that good of an actor.”
“Imagine what it must’ve been like for him, growing up, watching Sorenson marry the girl he wanted for himself. And then to find out he’d been threatening her…”
“But he didn’t see it like that,” Starsky said, sitting down beside Hutch, one leg bent and hitched onto the cushions so that he could face him. “See her like that, I mean. It’s like he knows she’s never gonna be his girl. He doesn’t see her as a possession the way Sorenson did.”
“He admitted he’d kill for her,” Hutch persisted. His focus was slipping, losing itself in the lateness of the hour and the nearness of Starsky. Outside, the wind had picked up; they’d heard on the car radio that snow was expected by dawn. Maybe there’d be a blizzard and they’d be cut off from the world, just the two of them for days on end—
“Hey. You listening?”
Starsky rolled his eyes. “I was saying that he strikes me as the kind of guy who’d own up to a thing like that, if he’d done it.”
Hutch’s lips curved. “Another Starsky hunch?”
Starsky cocked his head. “You makin’ fun of me, blondie?”
Without lifting his head from the back of the couch, Hutch raised a hand to stroke gently over Starsky’s forehead, then back into the tangle of his hair. “Not this time,” he said softly. “I missed your hunches, partner.”
“Yeah,” Starsky murmured. “Me, too. Missed workin’ like this. Missed us.”
“Us?” Hutch asked, surprised. “Hell, Starsk, we’ve been living together for over a year.”
“Yeah, but…” Starsky frowned. “It’s—you know. More like it used to be.”
Hutch straightened slowly, his gaze never leaving Starsky’s. The bright light pouring through the archway leading to the kitchen cast harsh shadows on Starsky’s face, leaving his left side in darkness.
“This like it used to be?” Hutch murmured, as his mouth closed over the dark and light halves of Starsky’s.
Starsky emitted a soft, low groan and his own mouth opened beneath Hutch’s, his tongue swiftly taking up the unspoken challenge. Starsky’s tongue, Hutch decided with the small part of his brain that was still functioning, ought to be classed as a restricted weapon. It was simultaneously as devastating as an H-bomb and as finely honed as a hand-forged Samurai sword. Hutch gave back as well as he could, knowing it probably wasn’t half as much as—
Starsky broke away, panting for breath like a racehorse after the Kentucky Derby. “Man,” he muttered, pausing to lick teasingly at the skin covering Hutch’s jugular. “You’re killing me here.”
Hutch grinned at the foolishness of his own insecurity. “That’s too bad. You’re a lot more fun alive.”
“You don’t want me to take that shower?”
“Why should I,” Hutch breathed against Starsky’ s ear, “when I’m just gonna mess you up again?”
“Oh, God,” Starsky groaned, fisting both hands in Hutch’s hair and pulling him roughly into another nuclear kiss.
Necking like teenagers on the couch had its own merits, Hutch admitted some time later, but eventually you remembered that being an adult meant you could get a lot more creative. So when Starsky finally tore his mouth away from Hutch’s with a frustrated growl, he knew exactly what to do about it. Grasping Starsk’s smaller hands firmly in both of his, Hutch yanked him to his feet. Starsky obediently flowed up from the couch like the boneless, graceful thing he was.
Within seconds they were tumbling onto the bed, Starsky laughing throatily under him, though Hutch noticed dimly that they also seemed to have lost some clothes along the way. Untroubled by this knowledge, he promptly set to work on getting rid of the rest of them. His hands found Starsky’s belt buckle; Starsky returned the favor with agile fingers on Hutch’s shirt buttons. Each new territory revealed slowed the process considerably, because there had to be time spent relearning the topography of each other’s skins, this time with touch, scent and taste instead of mere sight. It may have been nearly pitch dark in the small room, but Hutch was sure he would know Starsky’s body blindfolded. He’d long since unconsciously memorized every line, every muscle, every scar—
Don’t. Don’t think about—
“Jesus,” Starsky panted, breaking away from the orbit of Hutch’s hands to push himself up on one elbow. “Hold up a second, I can’t see a thing. And boy, do I want to see this.” He leaned back to fumble with the lamp beside the bed, and suddenly the room was illuminated by a soft, warm glow. Hutch looked up at Starsky, his appreciating gaze sliding from Starsk’s wicked grin, down his neck to his chest—
--and the memories slammed into him with full, brutal force. Twin horrors, so closely intertwined he could no longer tell where one left off and the other one began.
You were so still, so still, ohChristohgod there was so much blood, I could see it soaking into the pavement under you—
—didn’t get there fast enough didn’t—
—oh please, breathe, Grandpa, don’t leave me—
—Starsk, no, please, don’t leave, I'll give anything—
Hutch returned to the present with the realization he’d wrapped himself into a ball like a hysterical child trying to protect himself from the bogeyman. He felt Starsky’s warm hand making gentle, soothing circles on his bowed back.
Resting his head on his knees, he waited for the universe to stop spinning. Until it did, Starsk was there, quiet and patient. God, Starsk had put up with so much from him, and he didn’t deserve—
Stop it. You’re not helping anything.
Gathering his strength, Hutch raised his head and met his partner’s fond blue gaze.
“I don’t mean to rush you,” Starsky said slowly, nothing but kindness in that beloved voice, “but I think now might be a good time to talk about it.”
Starsky let Hutch take the lead, unsure of where they’d end up but willing to go regardless. Hutch had always been unpredictable when it came to the things that really hurt him; sometimes he’d let Starsky in, other times he’d push him away. Usually, Starsky found a way past Hutch’s defenses in either case, but he realized they’d never gone this long without getting it out in the open. Starsky only hoped that airing it now was the best course of action.
The two of them were now sitting up in the big bed, the pillows propped against the headboard. Taking his cue from Hutch, Starsky let their shoulders touch lightly, letting him know he was here without smothering him.
“When we were making the arrangements to come here,” Hutch began, his voice low and measured, “I almost booked us a room at one of the local motels. Then I told myself I was just being stupid; I had a perfectly good cabin I’d been paying to maintain all these years. We might as well use it.”
“You haven’t been back here in a long time,” Starsky ventured, the statement part question.
Hutch shook his head. “The last time was when I was eighteen. It was the summer before I was due to head off to college. I was, uh—” He trailed off abruptly and scrubbed at his face. “Christ, I don’t know how to do this.”
Starsky couldn’t resist laying a reassuring hand on Hutch’s thigh. “Maybe you should begin at the beginning,” he suggested. “How old were you when you started coming here?”
Hutch thought about it. “Probably when I was a baby. But the first time I remember, it was winter and I was learning to skate on the lake. Grandpa was holding my arms, but I was so small he had to bend down to hold me upright, and I had to reach my arms up like this—” He raised his arms above his head. “I remember feeling like I was going to fall; I wobbled around like a top. But he never let me go.”
Starsky smiled. “He was a big Viking like you, huh?”
“Taller,” Hutch said. “He wasn’t just big physically, though; he was a GP, practiced here for nearly forty years. He was the epitome of the country doctor, you know? A lot of times he’d take payment in kind, whatever people could give him; very few people in this county were what you’d call well off. Neither was he.”
“I always thought your family was—” Starsky waved a hand. “Uh. Comfortable.”
“Grandpa came from money.” Hutch’s mouth tightened. “And Dad did his best to revive the family tradition.”
Starsky grunted in what he hoped was an encouraging manner. That was a whole other nest of trouble, but it wasn’t the problem they were dealing with right now, so he let it drop.
“Anyway, I spent nearly all of my summers here from the time I was able to walk, and the rest of the family visited here on holidays too. After he lost Grandma, when I was about ten, Grandpa sold the house Dad grew up in and winterized this place so he could live here year round. It didn’t matter to me, since I’d spent most of my time with him here.
“That last summer, I almost didn’t come down. I had a girl back in Duluth, and she had a job and couldn’t get away, but I figured after this I’d be in college and I might not get another chance to spend a lot of time with him.” He stared sightlessly ahead of him. “I was right.”
Starsky didn’t comment, just gave Hutch his full attention and waited. Finally, Hutch continued. “He’d been having trouble with his heart for a couple of years, but he hadn’t told anyone about it. I just went on, oblivious, thinking he was in great shape, and he kept doing the same things we’d always done: fishing, hiking, playing chess long into the night.”
Starsky smiled. “I wondered who taught you.”
Hutch’s smile was a shadowy thing. “He was a better player than I could ever hope to be. He could see all the combinations, all the possibilities.” Hutch tipped his head back, gaze shifting to the ceiling. “He understood people and life and—he understood me. Grandpa was the one who taught me that we were put on this earth to help one another. When I told him I planned to attend the police academy, he told me he’d never been prouder of me.” He blinked rapidly. “At least I got a chance to tell him that.”
“What about your mom and dad?” Starsky asked.
Hutch snorted. “Dad was a bank manager. He didn’t want me to become a cop, insisted I go to college first. Mom—” He shook his head. “She never told me what she thought one way or the other.”
“She never told you she was proud of you?” Even though he knew he was straying off-topic, Starsky couldn’t help asking the question. The thought that Hutch’s mother hadn’t told her son how special he was made absolutely no sense to him.
“My being a cop—upset her,” Hutch murmured. “I kind of understood—her dad had been killed in the war. When I came home, we tried not to talk about it much.”
“Jeez,” Starsky breathed, leaning back himself. It was hard to fathom a family where people didn’t talk about what they were feeling; from the moment of his birth, Starsky had been telling the world exactly what he wanted from it. Granted, he didn’t always get what he wanted, but that didn’t stop him from bitching about it.
At least now you know where Hutch gets it from, Starsky mused. Not that Hutch hadn’t thoroughly learned the virtues of bitching from his partner, but when it came down to the deep, important stuff, Hutch still tended to keep his desires and needs hidden from view. It took a tenacious spirit like Starsky’s to drag those needs out into the light of day, but obviously there were still things inside Hutch that remained buried.
Hutch drew a long, shuddering breath, and for the first time, Starsky began to doubt whether this painful recitation was doing him any good. Everything he brought up seemed to dredge up something else, and pretty soon Hutch would have so many open wounds he’d bleed right out on the bed.
“Listen,” Starsky ventured, “if you want to take a break…”
Hutch shook his head. “No. If I don’t do this now I never will.” Still, he hesitated, and Starsky watched as Hutch’s struggle appeared in the strained lines of his face.
After a few moments’ indecision, Starsky spoke for him, his voice gentle. “Your granddad died that last summer.”
Hutch nodded jerkily. “It was the week before I was due to start at USC. We were out back, chopping wood for the winter. It was a cool day—Indian summer. I remember feeling the breeze on my face and thinking how much I’d miss Minnesota.
“Obviously, he shouldn’t have been chopping wood, but he was always physically active, and so I didn’t think anything of him taking on a job like that. I was doing the heavy splitting, but still, he—” Hutch sucked in a ragged breath, and Starsky, no longer able to resist, slid an arm around his shoulders.
“I picked up a load of the wood he’d chopped into kindling and carried it over to the pile we were stacking. When I turned around, he was already on the ground. He hadn’t said a word, hadn’t cried out—he just dropped—”
Even though he’d been expecting it, Starsky’s gut churned at the hollow despair in Hutch’s voice. It made him sick to see Hutch hurting like this, but he realized now that this was probably the first time Hutch had talked about it in such detail. To think that Hutch had carried this inside him for nearly twenty years was nearly unbearable.
Hutch continued to speak, the words coming faster now, still in that same lifeless tone. “I’d learned first aid, I knew what to do, but I—I hesitated at first. I mean, I’d never had to use CPR in a real-life situation, and this was—“ Hutch blinked furiously as tears began streaming down his cheeks “—I don’t, I don’t know how long I just sat there beside him, kneeling on the ground. Then Rebecca showed up—I’d completely forgotten we were going into town that afternoon—and I yelled at her to go get help. That got me going—I tried to resuscitate him, the best I knew how. But by then it was—it was—”
Starsky felt Hutch’s whole body stiffen and shudder. “Hey, hey, it’s okay, just let it go, let it go,” he soothed, caressing Hutch’s back and shoulder with gentle fingers, squeezing just enough to let Hutch know he was there. To his surprise, Hutch jerked his body forward, breaking the contact.
“Don’t you get it?” Hutch spat. “I don’t deserve to let it go! I killed him, Starsk, I hesitated and he died.” Hutch wiped savagely at his face with the back of one big hand. “He was—he had such a love for life, and I—oh, Jesus, I could have—”
“Could’ve what?” Starsky said, his voice low, the words welling up from some deep, dark place. “Could’ve saved a guy with a heart condition who was careless enough to go out and chop wood?”
Hutch twisted around to face him, his expression bewildered and angry. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Starsky held his ground. “I’m talking about how it’s time you stopped blaming yourself for something that wasn’t your fault. First of all, you’ll never know whether you could’ve saved him, no matter how fast you reacted. And you can’t be sure your reaction time was that slow. You know as well as I do your mind plays tricks on you when you’re in a situation like that. But besides all of that, you were a kid—”
“I was eighteen—“
“You were a kid, and he was an adult, and the bottom line is he made some bad decisions. Number one, he should’ve told you about his condition, and number two, he shouldn’t have been doing anything that strenuous. He was a doctor, for Chrissakes; he should’ve known better.”
“Don’t talk about him that way,” Hutch said, his voice low and shaking. “You didn’t know him.”
“And you know something? I don’t want to know him, not right now. Because right now all I can see is a guy who was selfish. He was selfish enough to go on living his life like he was invincible, without thinking of the consequences for the people who loved him, and the result is that you’ve been carrying this guilt on your shoulders since you were fucking eighteen.” Starsky took a deep breath; part of him was doing this on purpose, venting the anger Hutch couldn’t allow himself to express, but most of him was just mad as hell, and at some poor bastard he’d never even met.
“I’m sorry, babe,” Starsky murmured, feeling a twinge of remorse. “I can see how important he was to you, and I’m sure he was all those things you say he was. But when it comes right down to it, we’re each of us responsible for our own lives.”
“That’s bullshit,” Hutch snapped. “We’ve watched each other’s backs since the day we became partners. How can you say your life isn’t my responsibility?”
Starsky shook his head. “Because it’s not. Ultimately, I chose you, and I trust that choice. And if I ever go down, I’ll know with my dying breath you did everything you could to keep it from happening.”
At that, Hutch stared at him, his expression a mixture of anger, bewilderment and shock, as though Starsky had just punched him in the gut. His mouth worked soundlessly, like someone trying to breathe underwater.
Starsky tamped down the sudden wave of fear that assaulted him. “Hutch?”
“Oh,” Hutch whispered, simply, only it sounded like he was dying. His hands flew to his face to hide it from view, and his next breath was a harsh, guttural sob.
“Hutch, Jesus, what’s happening?” Starsky said urgently, his mind whirling as he tried to figure out what the hell to do next. Nice going, meathead, he admonished himself; he’d been trying to get Hutch to open up, but not like this. Something he’d said had obviously opened him up like a flensing knife—
“H-how can, how can you, you don’t remember, I didn’t, I wasn’t, oh Christ—” Every word sounded like it was ripped from him, like Hutch was bleeding out right here in front of him and there was nothing Starsky could do about it because he couldn’t find the goddamned wound “—fast enough, I yelled at you to get down but I was safe on the other side, I sh-should’ve been with you, it should’ve been me, you—there was s-so much—” The next word was more howl than speech “—blood—”
Oh, shit, Starsky thought, understanding slamming into him and almost knocking him flat, followed swiftly by a floodtide of memory that had been a year and a half in coming. He remembered it, remembered the dull crunch of metal and Hutch’s shout, remembered reaching for his piece but knowing he hadn't been fast enough when he felt the soft, sickening thud thud thud of bullets penetrating his flesh, their inertia seeming to push him almost gently against the car and hold him there for a timeless moment before he fell.
His eyes had been slits when he made out Hutch’s feet running around the Torino and stopping a few feet from him. Right before he surrendered to blackness, he remembered thinking, I’m glad it wasn’t you. God, I’m glad it wasn’t you.
“Should’ve been me—” Hutch was moaning, tears leaking their way past his hands now, and then Starsky was reaching for him, he didn’t care if it was the wrong thing to do, he just wrapped his arms around Hutch’s shuddering body and held on tight.
“It wasn’t your fault, I remember and it wasn’t your fault, I remember,” Starsky chanted, over and over, an idiotic litany he prayed would penetrate Hutch’s thick, beautiful, fucked-up skull. The words merged with Hutch’s broken babble, and eventually his tears mingled with Hutch’s where they touched and clung to one another, and after a long, long time, like two evenly matched, bone-weary combatants, they both toppled almost simultaneously into a deep, exhausted sleep.
Starsky’s last thought before he surrendered was, I wonder which one of us won.
Hutch awoke when the wind rattled the window. Opening his eyes, he peered across the room and saw that the glass was spattered with fat lumps of snow. At least one of his wishes had been granted.
Once he established that Starsky was still fast asleep, lying on his side facing Hutch with one hand curled possessively around Hutch’s bicep, he lifted his head cautiously to examine the bedside clock. God, it was past ten-thirty. Hutch attempted to feel guilty and then gave it up. Because of the threat of the storm, they hadn’t made any arrangements to meet Annika today, and there was no doubt they’d both needed the rest.
There was no doubt that Starsky loved him, either, he realized. Slowly but deliberately, he allowed his mind to retrace the events of last night, and he was surprised when he came away with a feeling of fragile but definite peace. It wasn’t exactly that he believed Starsky had the power to grant him absolution, or that he had given it fully to himself yet. But the simple act of sharing the burden, of finally admitting his shame and fear to the one person who had always understood and accepted his demons, had in and of itself released him from the worst of the guilt that had weighed him down all this time.
Hutch realized too that his sleep last night had been deep and dreamless. Part of it was due to sheer exhaustion—he’d literally cried himself to sleep—but he also knew the nightmares wouldn’t return, at least not with the same intensity or frequency. Starsky remembered the shooting, and he still loved him, was willing to forgive him—in fact, saw no need for forgiveness in the first place. It was like being granted a new lease on life after a long, protracted illness had sapped his strength and his spirit.
Gently, he lowered himself back to the mattress and lay facing Starsky. His heart warmed at the sight of Starsky’s beloved face mashed into the pillow, his hair sleep-tousled, his mouth slightly open and emitting the occasional soft snore. Only Starsk could look like a mess and still look that good, he reflected, knowing full well that most mornings he looked like complete and utter shit before a shower. He thought about slipping away to get one now, then vetoed it. Starsky was a pretty sound sleeper, but he would wake for sure at that, and besides, if the power went out in the storm Hutch didn’t want to use up all their hot water. Still, they needed to shower after the exertions of last night. Maybe, Hutch thought, they could shower together.
That thought sent a completely different kind of warmth racing through him, and Hutch felt his body responding to the imagined sensation of Starsky’s soap-smooth skin under his hands, and of Starsky’s hands exploring him. Without allowing himself time to think, and without breaking Starsky’s hold on his arm, he bent his head and pressed his mouth to the most heinous of Starsky’s scars, the one almost directly over his heart. So close, Hutch thought, his mouth worshipping the rough proof of Starsky’s ordeal, so close. But he’s alive, and he's here, and I'll follow him to Hell before I let anyone take him away from me.
Starsky groaned and shivered under him, then rolled to his back. Determined, Hutch followed him, levering himself up over Starsk’s chest. Blindly, Starsky’s hands scrabbled at Hutch’s shoulders, then stole upward into his hair, sinking in and holding Hutch in place.
“God,” Starsky breathed, “I dreamed of you doing that. M’I still dreamin’?”
“No,” Hutch murmured, lips brushing across Starsky’s nipple, “you’re not dreaming. This is real. As real as it gets.”
Starsky made a low, inarticulate sound deep in his throat that brought Hutch to full, aching arousal. Pushing back the covers, he shucked off his own clothes and reached down to free Starsky from his pajama bottoms, then promptly slid down Starsky’s body and wrapped his fingers around Starsky’s half-hard cock.
Starsky’s back bowed off the bed, stomach muscles twitching convulsively under Hutch’s cheek. “God!” he exclaimed, the word an explosion this time. “You don’t believe in taking the scenic route, do you?”
“Waited long enough for this,” Hutch told him. “We can do slow later.” He was fascinated by the feeling of Starsky completely at his mercy, completely his, impossibly smooth and hot and hard in his hand. Starsky’s hips tried to move, but Hutch’s weight was constraining his movement, so Hutch lifted his head and licked a wide, wet swath up the side of Starsky’s erection.
Starsky whimpered and thrashed, but the hand that settled on the curve of Hutch’s skull was gentle, stroking over his hair in a slightly uncoordinated caress. Encouraged, Hutch continued to lave Starsky’s cock as it swelled. He experimented with broad strokes, swift, teasing laps, and slow, wicked swirls around the head until the proud column was glistening and flushed and Starsky was practically crying his name. He looked up to see Starsky’s head raised, his face as red as his erection and his blue eyes blazing with an intensity that nearly pushed Hutch over the edge without so much as a touch to his own cock.
“What do you want?” Hutch heard himself rasp. He glided his free hand up the side of Starsky’s body; Starsky caught it in his and laced their fingers together, holding on tight.
“Get up here,” Starsky ordered, and it occurred to Hutch that his control was an illusion, that Starsky owned him as surely as he owned Starsky, and that maybe it had always been that way. It also occurred to him that the arrangement suited him just fine. Obediently, he swung a leg over Starsky’s sweat-dappled body and aligned their bodies as best he could before settling on top of him. As it turned out, while Hutch’s legs were longer, their torsos were fairly evenly matched. Hutch could dive in for a kiss while still using the motion of his hips to—
“Oh, man, you’re so damned good at that,” Starsky sighed into Hutch’s mouth.
Hutch angled his hips and tried another roll, grinning when he elicited another groan from Starsky.
“You sound surprised,” Hutch said, tongue licking its way back into Starsky’s mouth.
“Well,” Starsky managed when they broke apart to breathe, “All those chicks did seem pretty happy with you. But since you can’t dance for shit—”
--Hutch ground his hips almost savagely into Starsky’s—
“Ah! I figured it was all size and no finesse.”
“Yeah?” Hutch drawled. “So what’s the verdict now?”
Starsky’s hand snaked between them to enclose Hutch’s cock firmly. Hutch pressed his face into Starsky’s neck and savored the exquisite pressure, hips pumping in counterpoint to the rhythm Starsky set. When he could piece together enough brain cells to successfully complete the action, Hutch slid his hand down over Starsky’s belly and returned the favor.
“Both,” Starsky panted above him. “Definitely both.”
And after that, as if they’d come to some mutual agreement, there was no more talking, only jagged cries and harsh, open-mouthed kisses and low, rumbling moans until finally, finally Hutch was flung out into space, Starsky right behind him, soaring with no more certainty than that if they fell, they’d fall together.
“I—stand corrected,” Hutch sighed above him. “Slow is good, too.”
“Slow is very good,” Starsky agreed, turning the bar of soap over and over in his left hand to get up a good lather, loving the desperate look in Hutch’s eyes as he watched his fingers work.
“Where you want it this time?” Starsky asked him, feeling a wicked smile spread across his face. Hutch didn’t—or couldn’t—answer, just closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the tile and groaned. Kneeling like he was on the bottom of the unforgiving iron tub, Starsky knew he’d be sore for days, but right now, with Hutch trembling and so turned on he couldn’t even speak, he couldn’t be bothered to care. What were a couple of creaky knees, anyway?
Starsky was feeling pretty full of himself; he’d managed to keep Hutch on the edge for what felt like forever now, getting him revved up nearly to the red line, backing off, then starting all over again. It’s not like he’d had much of a plan when he started, but it turned out he seemed to have a natural ability to find Hutch’s sweet spots, kind of like the first time he’d laid hands on the Torino. Maybe it was just that he was a guy, and Hutch was a guy, and he was already familiar with the equipment, but he didn’t think it was that simple. In the same way that every girl was different, Hutch was a unique individual with his own wants and needs and hot buttons. And Starsky was having the time of his life pushing Hutch’s buttons.
Once again, instinct dictated his next move, though he took a second to consider this time before converting thought into action.
And then he slowly slid one soapy finger between the cheeks of Hutch’s ass.
“Oh, Jesus!” Hutch’s hand flew back and splayed against the tile to steady himself, but he ended up wobbling anyway.
Starsky grinned; another button successfully pushed. “You like that, huh?” he murmured, bestowing a soft kiss to the tip of Hutch’s cock.
Hutch only growled, frustration getting the better of him. He reached down and Starsky felt him tug roughly at a lock of his hair.
“You’re just a poor sport, that’s what you are,” Starsky crooned, matching the sweeping motion of his finger with the slow glide of his lips up and down Hutch’s erection. Now that Hutch was no longer blocking the spray from the showerhead the water was trickling down Starsky’s face, but he didn’t care, just closed his eyes and found his way to those buttons by touch alone.
Hutch’s hand eased, fingers spreading over the cap of his skull. “If this is a sport, it’s the best one I’ve ever played,” Hutch murmured.
“Think of it as a new kind of wrestling,” Starsky told him. His tongue slid around the head of Hutch’s cock right before he took it into his mouth. His free hand cupped Hutch’s balls gently, then wrapped around the base of Hutch’s cock as he went deeper.
Hutch cried out above him, his hips jerking spasmodically as Starsky pushed his finger farther in. “God, sorry, sorry,” Hutch panted, his body shuddering with the effort at control.
Starsky patted Hutch’s stomach soothingly, never breaking the rhythm of his sucking. He abandoned Hutch’s ass momentarily to gather more soap, then reached back and eased the tip of his finger past the barrier, without warning. Hutch seemed to give up after that, beginning a barely controlled, jerking motion that saw him arching helplessly, suspended between Starsky’s fingers and mouth.
Starsky had swiftly discovered that feeling Hutch come apart was nearly as good as experiencing it first hand. He’d always paid special attention to his bed partner’s satisfaction, been praised for it by many a lovely lady. But on the most basic level it had been a duty, something a gentleman was expected to do. With Hutch, though, it was much more than a duty—in those precious minutes when this amazing man was his to touch and stroke and love, it was the whole point of his entire fucking life.
“Please,” he heard Hutch begging, voice thready and barely audible above the sound of the shower, hips now describing shallow circles in unevenly timed rotations, “please, let me, I have to, Jesus, Starsk—”
Starsky’s finger slid all the way into Hutch before the last word faded from the air, and then Hutch was pouring himself into Starsky’s mouth, hips finally stilling as he surrendered to pleasure.
Ignoring the dull pain in his knees, Starsky surged to his feet, pressing his body against Hutch’s before he could collapse. He leaned into the bigger body, holding Hutch up, holding him close. Hutch let out a gust of air that turned into a rough chuckle, then wrapped one arm loosely around Starsky’s waist and buried his face in Starsky’s shoulder.
“You’re tryin’ to kill me, aren’t you?” Hutch asked, the words tickling Starsky’s skin. No, that was Hutch’s tongue. Starsky shuddered.
“Hell of a way to go, isn’t it?” Starsky asked, leaning in to bite Hutch’s ear.
“Oh yeah,” Hutch agreed, nipping at Starsky’s neck in retaliation. “We’d have a hell of a time explaining it to the cops, though.”
“Not if we go together,” Starsky said, nudging his full erection against Hutch’s thigh.
“Mmm,” Hutch said, shifting a bit, taking some of his weight off Starsky so he could put some space between them. He spent a few seconds with his head bowed, and at first Starsky was frustrated that Hutch wasn’t touching him now. Then he realized that Hutch was just—God—looking at him, and he nearly came right there.
“Fuck, Hutch,” Starsky panted, turning his head to lick water off the side of Hutch’s jaw, “s’never been this good with anybody.” Which was not what he’d been planning to say, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew they were true.
The realization didn’t scare him half as much as it should have.
“Yeah,” Hutch said, lifting his chin and gazing into Starsky’s eyes. “It’s the same for me. Crazy, huh?”
“Probably,” he agreed, kissing Hutch quick and hard. “But we always been a little crazy, right?”
Hutch chuckled and kissed him back. “Maybe we’ve always been a little in love, too.”
Starsky swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat and nodded. “Probably,” he husked, sliding one hand over Hutch’s wet hair and tugging at one of the strands before leaning in to taste him again.
And then he gave up thinking completely, because pretty soon Hutch’s tongue was hot and heavy in his mouth and Hutch’s hand was sure and strong on his cock and Hutch loved him and he loved Hutch and oh holy—
“—shit!” Starsky yelped as the water turned swiftly from pleasantly warm to ball-freezingly cold. He broke away from Hutch and fumbled for the taps, twisting them until the frigid downpour stopped.
“I was afraid that was gonna happen,” Hutch muttered, pushing wet hair out of his eyes.
“Thanks for warning me!” Starsky griped. He glanced down at his rapidly wilting erection and sighed. One of the drawbacks of being on the down side of thirty was that it didn’t take as much to ruin a mood.
“Well, what did you expect?” Hutch griped back. “When my grandfather was putting in the water tank, I don’t think he expected to be using the shower for—” Hutch cut himself off abruptly, and Starsky looked up to see him blushing.
Blushing. God, he was goofy and sweet and absolutely beautiful, standing there dripping wet and embarrassed…
On second thought, Starsky mused as his desire rallied, maybe this old body ain’t ready for the trash heap yet. He pushed back the curtain and reached for a towel, which he then used to begin drying Hutch. Hutch’s eyes widened, then darkened.
“So you don’t think your grandpa planned for me blowin’ you in his shower?” Starsky asked sweetly.
Hutch jerked under Starsky’s hands, then got even redder. “Jeez, Starsk,” he breathed.
“Think he would’ve been shocked?” Starsky persisted, rubbing at Hutch’s shoulders and chest, then licking his neck before drying that too.
Hutch yanked the towel away from him. “You’re depraved,” he said primly. He stepped out of the tub, then walked off, finishing the job that Starsky had started.
“Come on,” Starsky said, grabbing his own towel and slinging it around his shoulders. He got out of the tub and walked out of the bathroom, but Hutch was nowhere to be seen. “He was a doctor. Even in a little town like this, I’m sure the doctor’s heard of blow jobs.”
“Pretty proud of yourself, aren’t you?”
Starsky nearly jumped out of his skin. How the hell had Hutch gotten behind him? He tried to turn around, but Hutch’s hands gripped his shoulders, holding him fast. A lean, naked body pressed against his back, and he sucked in a breath.
“Yeah,” Starsky admitted, aware of the roughness of his voice but unable to fix it. “I like drivin’ you out of your mind. Like feeling you want me.”
Man. Every time he opened his mouth today, it seemed like he was going to be surprised.
Hutch’s hands glided smoothly from his shoulders down his sides until they were gripping his ass. Starsky couldn’t help it when a groan escaped his lips. Giving up, he leaned his head back until it rested against Hutch’s shoulder.
“The feeling’s mutual, buddy,” Hutch breathed into his ear. Starsky gasped as his cheeks were spread slightly to permit the intrusion of something hot and hard—
“Isn’t that what you were leading up to a few minutes ago?” Hutch asked, sucking at Starsky’s earlobe. Winding his arms around Starsky’s body to pull him even closer, he added, “We’ve been playing one-up since this started. I’m just making the next move.”
Starsky had seen Hutch being tough and unyielding a million times, but it had rarely if ever been turned directly on him. No, most of the time he got treated to the softer variations of Hutch: the caring man, the understanding man, the giving man. Only the bad guys got down-and-dirty, slam-you-up-against-a-wall Hutch.
Up until now, Starsky had never realized how much he envied the bad guys.
Every nerve ending in his body went on alert, leaving him shivering and dizzy and almost painfully aroused. “You want to fuck me?” he asked, annoyed when his voice came out sounding more like a squeak.
Hutch ground his cock against Starsky’s ass, its heat branding the sensitive skin between his cheeks. “If that’s what you want.”
Starsky opened his eyes. That wasn’t part of the fantasy, was it?
And who the hell knew he even had a fantasy where Hutch fucked him?
Experimentally, Starsky wiggled his ass against Hutch’s erection. Hutch let out a painful-sounding groan of his own. “Truth is, I hadn’t really thought about it ‘til now,” he said. “Give me a few seconds.”
“Keep doin’ that and a few seconds is all you’ll get,” Hutch gritted.
Starsky laughed. Hooking an arm around Hutch’s neck, he tried another gyration.
And in that moment, Starsky knew, the way you couldn’t begin to explain to anyone else, that this was it, that he was home here with Hutch’s arms wrapped tightly around him, Hutch’s heart beating fast and reckless near his own, Hutch’s breath stirring the fine hairs at the back of his neck.
He was home, and home was Kenneth Hutchinson.
But he also knew that it wasn’t quite time to prove it.
“Yeah, I want that,” Starsky told him, “but not today, okay? Call me old-fashioned, but I want that when we’re in our own home, in our own bed, and not halfway to falling asleep again.” He turned in Hutch’s arms as they loosened and looked into his eyes. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Hutch said warmly, kissing Starsky with his customary gentleness. “Sounds like a great idea.”
“Love you,” Starsky murmured.
“Me, too,” Hutch told him, lips roaming over his jaw and nose before returning to his mouth.
“And as for this one-up business,” Starsky told him, “how about we try for a little more…teamwork this time?”
Hutch’s brow arched wickedly. “What’s the play, Coach?”
Starsky slipped out of the circle of Hutch’s embrace, then slung a companionable arm over Hutch’s shoulders and began leading him to the bed. “Well, it’s like this. I figure that even though you got a couple of inches on me—heightwise—” Hutch snickered “—we’re about the same from here—” he tapped Hutch on the lip with his index finger “—to here.” His free hand strayed to Hutch’s groin, where it teased his full cock.
“Hm.” Hutch was a parody of thoughtful contemplation as they reached the bedroom. “You think we should look around for a yardstick to prove your theory?”
“Nah.” Starsky spun, shoved hard, and Hutch toppled onto the mattress. Grinning, Starsky followed him down. “I figure we can go right to a direct comparison.”
Hutch had always been an early riser, but this morning he made it all the way to eight without waking. He spent a few seconds berating himself before he remembered the reason for his fatigue, then rolled over carefully to get a better look at the reason.
Starsky lay curled up on his right side facing Hutch, one hand tucked under his head, the other half-open and lying carelessly on Hutch’s pillow. He wasn’t snoring, though Hutch had been awakened by a couple of prize explosions in the middle of the night. A gentle shove had prompted Starsk to move to another position, and from then on the snores had faded to a low level. Hutch knew he was prone to snore himself, especially after a couple of beers; one night in the future, he could count on a prod from Starsky as well.
Then again, maybe not, Hutch reflected as he continued to watch Starsky sleep on, oblivious to Hutch’s gaze. Starsk had never been what you’d call a light sleeper. When they were on nighttime stakeouts, he’d happily snore through anything short of a 747 taking off over his head.
“What’chu lookin’ at?” Starsky mumbled, eyes still closed.
“Sorta.” One blue eye cracked open. “Had a hard time sleeping. Wuz too quiet.”
Hutch propped himself up on an elbow. “It was too quiet?”
Starsky withdrew his hand from under his head and scratched his nose. “Yeah.”
Hutch felt a silly smile creep across his face. Starsky’s brows drew down. “What?”
“Nothing,” Hutch murmured, feeling that unique mix of exasperation, amusement and affection he’d come to associate with the man lying beside him. “I’m just happy.”
“I’m just happy, too,” Starsky returned with a slow smile that made Hutch’s heart race. When Starsky tried to shift in the bed, though, his smile was replaced by a painful wince. “And sore.” He lifted the covers and peered underneath. “Jeez, I think I broke somethin’ important yesterday.”
Hutch ducked his head for his own perusal. “Hope it’s not somethin’ I might want to use later.”
Starsky made a rude noise. “I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but is that all you ever think about?” He frowned. “How the hell do you get it up again so fast yesterday, anyway?”
“I was inspired,” Hutch growled, leaning in to nuzzle Starsky’s earlobe. Truth be told, he was pretty pleased with his performance yesterday, though he knew part of it was the fact that he hadn’t had sex in so long he’d almost forgotten that it was supposed to be a two-person activity. Doubtless his body would remember it was on the slippery slope to forty soon enough, but for now he was all for enjoying it while it lasted.
“Thought you were gonna say it was all that wheat germ and butterfly bones,” Starsky muttered, leaning in to the caress.
“That, too.” He licked Starsky’s neck under his ear, enjoying the way Starsky wriggled beneath him.
“Hey! That tickles.”
Hutch finished with a gentle bite, then sat up with a sigh.
“I didn’t say stop,” Starsky pouted.
Hutch grinned. “Much as I’d love to start yesterday all over again, I regret to inform you it appears the snow has now stopped.”
Starsky groaned and pushed himself into a sitting position so that they were shoulder to shoulder. “Damn.”
“How much shoveling we got to do?”
Hutch leaned his head back. “Don’t know. I haven’t looked outside yet. Probably a foot or so, with higher drifts here and there.”
“And how long’s your grandfather’s road?”
“Five hundred feet.”
Starsky swung his legs out of bed and stood. Hutch watched the play of muscles in his back and ass as he stretched slowly.
“Exhibitionist,” he accused.
Starsky responded by flexing one ass cheek, then the other. Hutch laughed.
“I’m calling Annika,” Starsky said as he pulled on his jeans and a sweater. “Maybe she knows somebody with a plow.”
Hutch slid back under the covers. “Good. Throw some wood in the stove while you’re at it, will you? And put on some coffee?”
Starsky turned and eyed him. “Would you care for anything else, mon sewer?” he asked, adding an obsequious bow. “A warm bath? Kippers and eggs benedict?”
“No, that will be all, Jeeves,” Hutch returned, pulling the heavy wool blanket up to his chin and closing his eyes.
He heard Starsky mutter something uncomplimentary, then shuffle off into the main room. Hutch had fully intended to get up, but now that he was cocooned again in the warm haven of the bed, he found himself drifting off to sleep.
His eyes had barely closed when Starsk sat heavily on the bed, jolting him back to full consciousness.
“Annika sent a plow already,” he said without preamble. “I had a look outside—it’s at the top of the road now. Should be here in a few minutes.”
Hutch quickly pushed himself upright; he recognized that expression on Starsky’s face. “What’s wrong?”
Starsky blew out a breath. “Rebecca Martin came and arrested Lars early this morning, as soon as the roads were clear.”
Hutch scrubbed his face with both hands, dispelling the last of his fatigue. “Damn.”
“Yeah,” Starsky agreed.
“You haven’t got a case and you know it,” Hutch said.
“The DA seems to disagree with you,” Rebecca Gunderson shot back coldly.
Starsky shifted in the wooden chair on the other side of Rebecca’s desk and watched the tennis match that was being played out in front of him. Both Rebecca and Hutch had been on their feet for a while, their postures as belligerent as their words. Starsky knew they were about an inch away from getting thrown out of her office, he also knew he wasn’t going to help the situation by putting in his two cents right now.
Rebecca began ticking off points on her fingers. “There’s motive. He was in love with Annika Sorenson since they were kids, and he knew Chris was threatening her. There’s opportunity. He drove Chris home that night, was alone with him. And I have witnesses who saw him fight Chris three hours before he was killed.”
“Witnesses who saw Chris fight him,” Hutch persisted. “He was only defending himself.”
Starsky closed his eyes as Rebecca’s widened. “How did you—” she began, then cut herself off. “Never mind. I’m already pissed off enough without contemplating the two of you withholding evidence.”
“Speaking of evidence, have you anything that definitively places Lars in the barn that night?” Hutch asked.
Rebecca scowled. “I can’t give you details like that.”
That would be a no, Starsky thought.
“Are there any witnesses that saw him kill Chris Sorenson?” Hutch went on, oblivious to her anger.
Rebecca shook her head. “You know there aren’t. None that are able to testify, anyway.”
Starsky sat up at that. “What’re you saying? You think Sorenson’s father—”
“I think he might have witnessed the murder, yes,” Rebecca said, folding her arms and leaning on the edge of her desk.
Starsky frowned, thinking about it. “And if he doesn’t come back to himself? What then?”
“There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” Rebecca told him.
“Yeah?” Hutch snapped. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe Sorenson’s father did see what really happened. And what if the real killer knows that, and is still on the loose? How hard would it be for him to sneak into the hospital one night and finish off the only person who can put him away?”
“How hard would it have been for Lars, for that matter,” Starsky volunteered, “before you locked him up this morning?”
Rebecca stared him down. “Are you suggesting Lars is capable of murdering someone in cold blood?”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Hutch spat. “Use your head, use your instincts. Do you really think Lars could have killed him?”
Rebecca shook her head. “It’s not my job to decide that.”
“Sure it’s your job!” Hutch shot back. “A man is sitting in your jail cell right now because of evidence you collected against him. But what if there’s other evidence out there you haven’t considered? What if there’s somebody else out there who’s never going to get a second look from you because you think your job is done?” He gestured at Starsky. “Let me tell you something. Starsk and I put away a lot of filth in our time, and we knew when we had the right ones.”
Starsky couldn’t help smiling. “It got so we could smell ‘em.”
“And I don’t know how to explain it to you, or even to myself, but Lars doesn’t smell like the right one,” Hutch said, more gently this time. “All I’m asking is that you keep looking, Rebecca. Don’t let the trail go cold, because once it does, we may never find out who really killed Chris Sorenson.”
Rebecca stared at him for a long moment, then blew out a frustrated breath. “Ken, you’re staking a lot on an old friendship, you know that?”
“Yeah, but how can you resist that sweet talk and manly charm?” Starsky drawled. Rebecca looked at him in surprise, then burst out laughing.
“I can see why you keep him around,” she said to Hutch. “A minute ago I was ready to wrap my hands around your neck.” Hutch opened his mouth, but she forestalled him with a raised hand. “Look. Okay. Between you, me and the furniture, I know this doesn’t smell right. I may be a hick cop, Ken, but I’ve solved my share of crimes.”
Hutch shook his head. “Rebecca, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“I know. You always worked yourself up when you felt strongly about something.” Hutch ducked his head, looking briefly like the teenager he would have been, and Starsky’s gut tightened.
“So did you,” Hutch reminded her softly.
“Yeah, but this isn’t the high school debate team. If I want to keep digging on this, I can’t go to my superiors and tell them I’ve got a feeling. I need something concrete.”
Starsky judiciously kept his mouth shut, though privately he was thinking about all the times Dobey had let them run on just that. He’d griped about it plenty, but he’d let them go.
Hutch was probably thinking the same thing, because he exchanged a wry glance with Starsky, then turned back to Rebecca. “All I’m asking is that you keep your eyes and ears open for that something concrete. If a piece of evidence doesn’t fit, grab ahold of it and look at it from every angle. And if you feel you can tell us about it…” He spread his hands.
“Fair enough,” Rebecca sighed. She cast a glance at the window of her office and inclined her head. Starsky followed her nod and saw Annika emerging from the back hallway—the one leading to the police station’s holding cells. “Looks like Annika is ready to go. I need to talk to her, find out when that fancy California lawyer of hers is showing up.”
Starsky rose to his feet. “I guess this would be a bad time to ask for a peek at the forensics report on the barn, huh?” he said, grinning.
Rebecca raised her eyebrows. “Uh-huh. But you can ask me again in, say, 1997.”
“Thought so,” Starsky said cheerfully, stepping out of her way to allow her to exit ahead of him.
Annika waited until her mother had gone up to bed before she asked the question Hutch knew was coming. Her hands were flat on the kitchen table, her gaze unrelenting. Hutch met it steadily.
“How long have you known that Lars was a suspect?”
Hutch exchanged a glance with Starsky, who shrugged infinitesimally. “We didn’t know for sure,” he murmured. “But we knew it was a matter of time.”
“At most we figured he’d be brought in for questioning, not arrested,” Starsky added. It wasn’t quite a lie; they had been surprised at the swiftness of the arrest.
“You knew he was the one who’d fought Chris before he died.”
“Yes,” Hutch admitted.
“Then why didn’t you tell me?” Annika demanded. Her voice was steady, but there was a note of betrayal in it that tore at Hutch. The last thing he’d wanted to do was to add to this woman’s pain.
“Maybe we should have,” Starsky offered. “But we kind of hoped Lars would tell you himself.”
Annika laughed hollowly. “He did. As we were sitting together in a jail cell.”
Hutch closed his eyes briefly, fighting back the guilt that told him he should have been working on the case even through a snowstorm, that he shouldn’t have taken even a day off for selfish reasons. But dammit, there had been no indication that the police were anywhere near ready to make an arrest.
And it’s a surprise that Rebecca didn’t tell you everything? his conscience reminded him. You’re not a cop any longer, and you haven’t been her friend in twenty years. She doesn’t owe you anything, and she didn’t deserve that sanctimonious display this afternoon.
Silently, he pushed aside his doubts and recriminations for a later time. It wasn’t a surprise that his guilt would try for a comeback after the exorcism it had suffered the other day. The only thing he could do was to move ahead and do the best job he could for both the woman in front of him and her friend.
If they’ll let us, he thought, observing Annika’s stony countenance. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she’d show them the door after this; she was certainly entitled to see their action as a betrayal of trust rather than simply a case of bad timing.
As if reading his thoughts, Starsky sighed and said, “We’re sorry, Annika. We honestly didn’t think it would happen that fast, and we were hoping it wouldn't happen at all. If you want to fire us, we understand.”
Annika regarded him for a long moment, then said wearily, “I don’t want to fire you. Right now, I feel like you’re the only people who are on my side.”
Starsky reached across the table and clasped her hand. “We’re on Lars’ side, too. We don’t think he killed Chris.”
Annika stared at him for a moment, then blinked furiously as tears began to run silently down her cheeks. “Oh, thank God,” she rasped. “But—who could it have been? How can you hope to find Chris' killer when the police think the case is closed?”
“That’s where we’re hoping you can help,” Hutch said. “We need to know everything we can about Chris’ time here, about his friends, his enemies—everyone. We know you’ve been over this before with us, but we need to go over it again. There’s someone out there we missed the first time around.”
“When you’re ready,” Starsky added. “We know this has been a hell of a day.”
Annika looked at each of them in turn. “I’ve been having a hell of a day for a very long time now,” she said steadily. “But Lars needs my help now. Let’s get started.”
Starsky watched Hutch pause before knocking on the door. “What’s the matter?”
Hutch sighed, looking every bit as exhausted as Starsky felt. They’d been up most of the night with Annika, taking a painful walk down memory lane, and they’d gotten exactly nowhere. Any suspects that they could dig up out of Chris’ checkered past were suspects only by a wild stretch of the imagination. In the end, they’d decided to go with the one person they knew had been with Chris before his death. Maybe from there they could try to piece things together.
“I don’t know,” Hutch murmured. “It just seems like a long shot.”
“Yeah, I get that. But there’s noplace else to go.”
Nodding, Hutch turned back to the door and knocked sharply. Starsky heard a thud from somewhere inside the small house, and then the sound of footsteps. The door opened slowly, and Starsky noted a chain was securing it. Geez, he didn’t think people in rural Minnesota even locked their doors. But then, this wasn’t exactly the rich end of town.
The woman on the other side squinted at them in the morning light. “Oh. It’s you guys again. What do you want?”
“We were hoping you might have remembered something else about the night Chris Sorenson was killed,” Hutch said softly.
She shook her head. “I told you everything I remember.” She began to shut the door, but Hutch stuck his foot in the gap just in time.
“Please, Dora,” he said, voice still gentle. “Lars Anderson has been arrested for the murder.”
“And we don’t believe he’s guilty.” He was met by a blank expression and silence. “If we could just go over it one more time, maybe we’ll come across something that might help him.”
Dora paused for a few moments, then sighed. “Okay. You got five minutes while I pack.” She waved her hand at Hutch impatiently, and he withdrew his foot so that she could take the chain off the door.
When Starsky got inside, he saw immediately that the small living room looked like a hurricane had blown through it. Clothes were strewn over every available surface, and suitcases of various sizes were open and overflowing.
“You goin’ somewhere?”
“Yeah. Somewhere that son of a bitch can’t find me.”
Starsky looked up, startled, and saw immediately that Dora’s pretty face was marred by a large bruise on her right cheek. He took a step forward. “Tell us who,” he growled. “Your boyfriend?”
Dora turned away and started shoving more clothes in the suitcases. “I’m not pressing charges,” she told him flatly. “I don’t have anything holding me to this stinking town, and I’m leaving.”
Starsky looked at Hutch, who shrugged minutely. As frustrating as it was, they had no credibility with this woman; encouraging her to go to the police would just make her kick them out faster. And the hell of it was, everybody in this room knew she was probably better off skipping town and trying to start up somewhere else, hopefully with a guy who wouldn’t hit her this time.
“Talk fast. He’s coming back at noon and I want to be long gone by then.”
“Did he find out about you and Chris?” Hutch asked.
Dora spun around, her features twisted in anger. “Get out.”
“Hear me out,” Hutch said, raising his hands palm-up. “I mean the night of the murder.”
“Yeah, he found out,” Dora snapped. “That bitch next door made sure he found out as soon as he got off work.” She snorted. “She’s gonna get a treat when he picks up with her after I’m gone.”
“Was he with you the whole night?” Hutch asked.
Dora’s expression didn’t change, but Starsky caught a flicker of fear in her eyes. “Please,” he said.
Dora shook her head. “You don’t understand. He wouldn’t have killed him. He’s a goddamned coward; that’s why he takes it out on me.”
“Was he with you between two and four a.m. that night?” Starsky murmured.
Dora paused, then shook her head. “He went out after he—”
“He hit you?” Starsky said. She nodded. “I’m sorry, we didn’t know. Your face looked okay when we talked to you.”
“Yeah,” Dora muttered. “Usually he hits me where it doesn’t show. He’s getting sloppy.”
Jesus, Starsky thought, reminded of some of the more horrifying domestic cases they'd handled. Talk about a walk down memory lane. “You know where he went?”
Dora paused, then shook her head. “He didn’t show up again until after dawn. “
“Did you ask him where he went?”
Another shake of the head. “I didn’t care. I was just glad he wasn’t here.”
Hutch asked the next question. “Did he give you any indication he was going after Chris?”
“No.” She chuckled hollowly. “But then, he doesn’t share his innermost thoughts with me.” She snatched up a couple of dresses hanging on a chair and balled them up before stuffing them in a bag. “Look, I tell you he couldn’t have done it. He doesn’t have the balls.”
“He might not have meant to,” Starsky offered. “It may have been an accident. But we have to look at all the possibilities, Dora. If we don’t, an innocent man could go to jail.”
Dora looked them both over. “So which one of you is Batman,” she drawled, “and which one is Robin?”
“We flip a coin every morning,” Starsky returned, grinning.
Dora actually laughed at that. “Okay, caped crusaders,” she said. “One of you sit your crimefighting keester on this suitcase so I can zip it closed, willya?”
“You want me to what?” Rebecca demanded, jaw dropping.
Hutch smiled thinly. “Let us have a look at the coroner’s report?”
Rebecca sagged in her chair. “You two are going to be the death of me, you know that?”
“Pretty please with sugar on top?” Starsky asked. “C’mon, we already got a look at the body.”
“Don’t remind me!” Rebecca shouted. She bounced to her feet, a picture of righteous indignation, and in that instant Hutch was reminded of Dobey. He shivered at the comparison as Rebecca jabbed a finger toward her door. “Will you get out of here?”
“Not until you listen,” Hutch shot back. “Lars is right-handed.”
“Yeah, so what?” Rebecca snapped. “The contusions Chris Sorenson sustained were consistent with that fact.”
“Yes, they were,” Hutch said. “He had a bruise around his left eye, and a couple of others that supported he was in a fight with a right-hander. But you already know that fight happened several hours before his death.”
“We want another look at some of the photos, and at the coroner’s conclusions,” Starsky said reasonably. “See, Hutch and I both remember a scrape on Sorenson’s jaw, on the right side. We just want to confirm—”
“Confirm what?” Rebecca interrupted.
“That it’s there, and that it was probably inflicted closer to the time of death. Your husband would have been able to figure that out, right?”
“Where is this leading?” Rebecca demanded.
“Terry Fisher is left-handed,” Hutch said.
Rebecca stared at him.
Starsky smiled. “Dora Hartman’s boyfriend.”
Rebecca shook her head. “You’re telling me you think Fisher might be the murderer?”
“We’re thinking it’s a possibility, yeah. We know that Dora was with Sorenson between three in the afternoon and seven-thirty in the evening the day he was killed. We know that someone let Fisher know Sorenson had been at their place, and that Fisher didn’t take the news well. And we know that Fisher left his home about midnight and didn’t come home until right after dawn.”
“Ken. David.” Rebecca sighed. “We already had Fisher checked out. He’s got an alibi for that night.”
Hutch gaped at her. Rebecca shrugged.
“What can I say? It’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. I’d heard about Dora and Chris, and I figured the boyfriend might be a possibility. But he’s got a dozen witnesses who saw him get drunk at a bar outside of Brainerd until he passed out, and then a friend of his let him crash at his place.”
“Do you think the friend might be covering for him?” Hutch asked, aware that he was grasping at straws but unwilling to admit their one credible suspect had just disappeared into thin air.
“No. He’s not that good of a friend.” Rebecca shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Hutch told her. “You did your job well. Don’t apologize for that.”
“Do you have any other leads?” Rebecca asked, her voice gentler this time.
Hutch rubbed the back of his neck. “No.”
Rebecca leaned forward, resting her elbows on her desk and steepling her fingers in front of her face. Seeming to come to a decision, she reached into one of the drawers and pulled out a file, then placed it on the desk in front of her.
Hutch looked down and caught the name on the file. His questioning gaze rose to hers; she nodded minutely.
“I have to talk to one of my beat cops about a traffic accident report. I think I’ll probably be about fifteen minutes or so. And then I’ll bring you guys back some of our prize breakroom coffee and we can finally do some catching up.” She rose to her feet and walked toward her door, then turned. “And Ken.” He raised his eyebrows. “This is the last cup of coffee I can give you.”
“Thanks, Rebecca,” Hutch said quietly. As the door closed behind her, he flipped open the coroner’s report on Chris Sorenson’s death.
“Let’s go, buddy,” Hutch said, handing Starsky the sheaf of photos while he picked up the written report. “We’ve got fifteen minutes to solve a murder.”
Starsky stirred the spaghetti sauce as it began to bubble. He heard Hutch make a noise and looked up expectantly.
“You find something?”
Hutch sat at the cabin’s small kitchen table, sheets of paper covered in scribbles strewn around him. As soon as they’d finished talking with Rebecca they’d driven back at top speed to start piecing together what they’d read in the report. After nearly four hours, they’d gotten exactly nowhere.
“Hutch?” Starsky asked again.
Hutch raised his head and peered at him. “What?”
Starsky waved his hand. “You made a noise, like—” He imitated what he thought he’d heard. “I thought maybe you’d found something.”
Hutch sighed. “Starsk, that was a burp.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Starsky returned to his stirring, then turned down the heat and placed the cover on the pot. “We’re screwed, aren’t we?”
“Not exactly,” Hutch said, sighing again and pushing his chair back. “Like we said earlier, we can take this to his lawyer; it won’t be inside information because he’ll have access to the report too. There’s definitely evidence Sorenson was assaulted by a left-handed man right before his death. His nose was probably broken at that time, and there’s that minor cut just to the right of his chin.”
“Remember Nutsy Malone?” Starsk said. “He had that ring with the big ruby in it, always cut whoever he punched.”
“Yeah,” Hutch said. “It might have been from jewelry.”
“Wonder if Lars wears rings,” Starsky mused. “If he doesn’t, that might be something.”
“Every inconsistency we can come up with is going to help Lars’ case.”
“What’ll really help Lars’ case is if we find the guy who really killed Sorenson,” Starsky muttered. The elation he’d felt at the start of this case was swiftly fading in the face of their new reality. Not only were they in a state where they had few connections, they were civilians without access to the vast array of government services that had always helped them solve crimes in the past. Here, they weren’t much more than nosy interlopers, with no tie to this case but duty and honor.
Hell, Starsky mused, that’s all we had a lot of times anyway. This time shouldn’t be that different.
Hutch began gathering the papers together into one neat pile. “That might not be possible,” he said, voice resigned. “But all we need to do for Lars is to help establish a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.”
“And what’ll a trial do to Annika and Lars, huh?” Starsky persisted. “You know the tabloids would make this into a three-ring circus. By the time they’ve hung those two out to dry, they may not have lives left, let alone careers.”
Hutch waved the papers clutched in his fist. “We can’t make this say what we want it to say,” he said, voice sounding as frustrated as Starsky felt. “Starsk, we’ve accounted for every minute of his time from the moment his plane landed until Lars drove him home. Everybody he came in contact with who might’ve gotten pissed off enough to kill him has been crossed off the list.”
“We must be missing something,” Starsky said, gentling his voice. “We just gotta think about it.”
“I’ve been thinking so much my brain’s gonna explode,” Hutch groaned.
“Okay, then, c’mere,” Starsky said. He bent down to retrieve a pot from the cupboard.
“You trying to show off?” Hutch said.
“More like distract you,” Starsky answered, straightening and handing Hutch the pot. “Go fill this up with water.”
Instead of obeying, Hutch laid the pot on the counter and placed his hands on Starsky’s hips. “What do I get for it?”
“Cooked spaghetti?” Starsky answered, raising his eyebrows in mock innocence.
“Meathead,” Hutch said, leaning in and kissing Starsky softly. Starsky returned the kiss, his own hand fisting in Hutch’s shirt to pull him closer.
“Geez, blondie,” he murmured when they parted, “you gonna expect me to put out every time I ask you to help out around the house?”
“That might not be a bad idea. If I wash the windows when we get back, what do I get?”
“Never mind the windows,” Starsky growled against Hutch’s mouth. “I’m thinking laundry. For laundry, you could grease me up and tie me to a pole in the backyard.”
Hutch laughed and kissed him again.
And that, of course, was when the phone chose to ring.
“Crap,” Starsky muttered, as Hutch broke away to answer it. He took it upon himself to fill the pot and set it on the stove as Hutch spoke in low tones in the living room.
“Don’t bother turning it on.”
Starsky turned. “Trouble?”
“Annika needs us. Martin’s taken a turn for the worse, and she needs to go to the hospital. She’d like us to be there, since Lars…” He spread his hands.
“Yeah,” Starsky said, nodding. He turned off the sauce and set it on a cold burner, then grabbed his coat and joined Hutch, who was already moving.
As they shut and locked the door behind them, Starsky couldn’t help one last longing glance at the stove through the window. Looked like it would be hospital cafeteria sandwiches and coffee instead of homemade spaghetti and garlic bread tonight.
Hutch looked down at the restless form of Martin Sorenson. In the couple of days since he’d seen him last, Chris Sorenson’s father appeared paler and thinner. His steel-gray hair was disheveled and his eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling as the three of them watched the old man. Standing on the other side of the bed, a nurse took Sorenson’s vitals.
“What did the doctor tell you?” Starsky murmured.
Annika shook her head. “That they don’t know what’s wrong with him. There’s no indication that his previous condition has worsened, so it’s not that. But he’s getting increasingly delirious, and he’s not responding to any of the treatments they’ve tried.”
Sorenson chose that moment to draw in a long, rattling breath, and Hutch winced. He’d never been a fan of hospitals, especially since more often than not it seemed medical science more of a help than a hindrance. He remembered those terrible times when Starsky had hung on the edge of death from poison or gunshot wounds, times when it was a miracle he’d come through at all. Despite Starsky’s successful rehab and positive experiences with the physical therapists, he still had an almost instinctive reaction to the atmosphere of the places.
Turning his attention away from Sorenson’s face, Hutch let his gaze wander. Sorenson was hooked up to an IV since they hadn’t been able to get him to eat. Those bracelets were the same in every hospital, he mused, turning his head slightly to read the tiny lettering on the band. Then his gaze moved to Sorenson’s hand, and he paused.
Oh my God. How come we never thought of that?
Hutch jerked his head. “Look at his left hand.”
Starsky frowned, focusing. He opened his mouth, probably to ask Hutch what the hell he was talking about, when Hutch saw the realization hit him.
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah,” Hutch murmured. “We were so busy accounting for all of Chris’ time before he got home, we never thought about after.”
“What’s the matter?” Annika asked softly.
Hutch moved forward and lifted Sorenson’s hand gingerly, where a ring adorned the little finger of his left hand. It was made of cheap gold with a black face, an old signet ring probably from the thirties or forties. He leaned in for a closer look, then brushed his thumb over the surface.
“There used to be a setting in here, probably for a diamond chip. It’s gone.”
“You think it might have fallen out when he hit him?” Starsky asked.
“I doubt we’ll be that lucky. If it did, it might still be lying on the floor of the barn. If not, it could still account for the cut. The surface is rough where the setting used to be.”
Annika stared at Hutch, dawning horror spreading across her beautiful face. “Are you saying…that Martin…?”
Starsky turned to the nurse. “Do you know where we might be able to find a tape recorder?”
The woman frowned and said, “Yes, I think so.” She took a step toward the door.
“No!” Starsky exclaimed. “Sorry. I’ll go, if you tell me where it is. We need you to stay here as a witness in case he says something. Listen to every word, okay? Write it down if it helps.”
Hutch caught Starsky’s eye as the nurse gave him directions on who to speak to about the recorder. They exchanged looks; Starsky nodded. Hutch stepped forward and laid a hand on Annika’s shoulder as Starsky left the room at a run.
“Think you can get him talking?” Hutch asked.
Annika drew in a breath. “I’m not sure, but I’ll try.” He pulled the chair up to the bed and invited her to sit; Sorenson stirred at the sound of the legs scraping across the linoleum but didn’t wake. “Martin? Martin, can you hear me?”
Sorenson turned his head toward her slowly. “Lizzie? Is that you?”
Annika looked up at Hutch. “Lizzie—Elizabeth—was his wife.” Turning back to Sorenson, she cleared her throat and said, “No, Martin. It’s Annika. Annika.”
“Lizzie, he won’t get up. I’m sorry, he won’t get up.”
“Oh, God,” Annika breathed.
Hutch glanced toward the door. Damn, he had expected Martin to take a little longer before he started spilling his guts. He squeezed Annika’s shoulder and murmured, “Try to slow him down. And don’t ask him any leading questions.”
“He won’t get up, Lizzie,” Sorenson said again.
“Why not?” Annika asked. “Why can’t he get up?”
Sorenson shook his head slowly. “He wouldn’t listen. Never listened to me. Son…should show respect for his father. S’the way it should be.”
Hutch watched Annika clench her hands together in her lap, the nails biting into her pale skin. He looked up at the nurse, who was watching the conversation with rapt attention; she’d grabbed a small notepad from somewhere and had started jotting down notes as she listened.
“His own fault,” Sorenson muttered. “He was going to call her again, and I told him not to. He would’ve been better off without that bitch leading him around by the nose. She always thought she was better than he was. Made him think he was better than me. His own father.”
Hutch felt Annika stiffen under his hand.
“He called her, pleaded with her like a whipped dog to take him back. He wasn’t even a man any more.” A weird parody of a smile lit the old man’s face. “I never begged you, did I, Lizzie?” A hollow chuckle. “You wanted to leave, I let you leave, didn’t I, sweetheart? I let you leave. Not the way you wanted, though. Not the way you wanted.”
Dear Lord, Hutch thought, the implications of those words hitting him full force. The first chance he got, he was going to do some investigating into the fate of Lizzie Sorenson.
He registered the sound of pounding footsteps, and then Starsky was at the door, panting and holding a miniature tape recorder in one hand. Striding over to Hutch, he plugged it in the outlet above the bed and started it, then placed it on the table near Sorenson’s head.
Hutch exchanged glances with the nurse, who nodded and stayed put. Smart lady, he mused, smiling his thanks.
Although Sorenson seemed to have no clear idea of his surroundings or the people around him, the commotion had quieted him. He frowned and murmured, “Lizzie?”
“I’m here, Martin,” Annika said, her voice now shaking. “I’m here. Can you tell me about what happened? Can you tell me what happened to Chris?”
“I hit him,” Sorenson said matter-of-factly. “He was mouthin’ off, like he always did. I told him no son of mine was going to be a pussy for a woman. He tried to fight back, but he was too drunk. He never could handle his liquor the way I could. He swung at me—”
Suddenly Sorenson convulsed in a vicious fit of coughing. The nurse came around the bed, but before she could reach him the coughing had subsided. Sorenson drew in a few gasping breaths, then blinked. Hutch held his own breath, hoping the old bastard wouldn’t choose this moment to snap out of this and start recognizing what the hell was going on.
Luckily, Sorenson soon drifted back to the night of the murder. “Missed me, the little twat,” he muttered, sagging back onto the bed. “I hit him again, but I guess I hit him too hard. He fell back, holding on to his nose, and stumbled. He twisted around and—” Sorenson’s face crumpled “—and that’s when he hit his head.”
“Where did he hit his head?” Annika asked.
Sorenson shook his head. “On the—on the beam. ‘S head snapped back—I could hear the crack. Jesus Christ, it was his neck. It was his neck, oh god, Jesus fucking Christ, it was his neck—"
“Oh God,” Annika breathed, her shoulder shaking under Starsky’s hand, “Oh, God, please—”
Hutch reached over and snapped off the recorder, then pulled her up into his arms. “We’ve got enough,” he murmured into her hair. “We’ve got enough.”
Starsky awoke slowly, awareness of his surroundings setting in bit by bit. His half-opened eyes registered the sunlight streaming in through a window over his head, Hutch snoring softly beside him, a lamp, dresser, closet..
Wait a minute. That was his lamp, his dresser, his closet.
Starsky blinked and sat up, momentarily at a loss. When the hell had he gotten home?
Beside him, Hutch snorted loudly and opened his eyes. “Whassat?” he demanded gruffly.
“We’re home,” Starsky said.
“You sound surprised,” Hutch observed, shoving himself up on one elbow with a small groan.
“I am.” Starsky scrubbed at his face, but when he took his hands away his room was still there. “Tell me I’m not dreamin’.”
“You’re not dreaming,” Hutch said.
“Hallelujah, we’re back in the Promised Land,” Starsky crooned.
“Mushbrain,” Hutch said, flicking him in the side of the head with a finger. “Don’t you remember getting on the plane?”
“Sort of. I was so wiped out by that point I must’ve figured it was just wishful thinking.” Now that Starsky was slightly more awake, recent events were beginning to come back to him. The past few days had been a tornado of activity unleashed on the Minnesota landscape. Martin Sorenson’s taped confession had been strong enough evidence for Lars’ lawyer to make a successful bid for the dropping of all charges against his client. After further investigation, the case had quietly been ruled an accidental death. The day after Lars’ release, Martin Sorenson had died peacefully in his sleep. Personally, Starsky thought it was a better end than the old bastard deserved, but at least Annika had finally achieved some peace of her own. That was all that counted.
Chris Sorenson’s funeral had been yesterday. The two of them had helped the local cops run interference on the press, keeping the reporters far from the small, private ceremony. Luckily, none of the vultures had caught wind of Lars’ arrest, and they weren’t likely to now. Starsky found it ironic that the mistrust of outsiders that had made their investigation so difficult finally worked in Lars and Annika’s favor. Nobody in small-town Minnesota was eager to share their prize gossip with some yutz from Variety.
“Okay,” Starsky murmured, settling back down under the covers. “I remember. Sort of.” He pushed Hutch down until he was lying flat on his back, then pillowed his head on Hutch’s chest.
“You, uh, comfortable there?” Hutch asked, the amusement clear in his voice.
“Mmm-hmm,” Starsky said, wrapping one arm around Hutch’s midsection and throwing a leg over his thighs. He felt Hutch’s hand stroke down his back and caress the rise of his ass.
Suppressing the involuntary shiver at the teasing touch, Starsky nuzzled Hutch’s nipple. “You don’t want to go back to sleep?”
When Hutch slid one finger over the dimple at the top of Starsky’s cleft, Starsky nearly bit his tongue off as a wave of erotic sensation exploded over his skin.
“Nope.” Hutch’s voice was low, vibrating under Starsky’s cheek. Starsky felt Hutch’s cock rising, pushing against his thigh, felt his own begin to respond.
Holy shit, Starsky thought, pulse jumping crazily. We're really gonna do this.
He was so caught up in his own thoughts that he didn’t notice that Hutch had taken his hand away. When he did, he raised his head and looked at Hutch, who had closed his eyes.
Hutch opened his eyes.
Deliberately, Starsky reached back and placed Hutch’s hand back where it had been. Hutch stared at him, a question in his eyes.
“Yeah,” Starsky said gruffly. “Yeah, I want it.”
Hutch’s expression turned doubtful. “You sure?”
Starsky sat up and swung his leg over Hutch’s hips, straddling him. Hutch’s eyes widened as Starsky ground his ass against Hutch’s erection. His hands flew to Starsky’s hips, where his fingers dug into the skin covering the jutting bone.
“Blondie,” Starsky drawled, still swiveling slowly, “what do I have to do to get you to fuck me?”
Hutch’s eyes snapped shut. “Oh, Christ,” he groaned. “That’s a—a damned good start.”
Starsky leaned forward, hands bracketing Hutch’s head on the pillow. “Good,” he said, brushing his lips against Hutch’s. “’Cause if I have to get out the clowns and the elephants, this is gonna get messy.”
Obviously that was enough to convince Hutch, because he looped an arm around Starsky’s back and reeled him in, kissing him like he wanted to eat him alive. Starsky did his best to give back as good as he was getting, his mouth and hands and body ruthlessly searching for Hutch’s sweet spots. Every time he was rewarded with a groan or a sigh from Hutch, it sent his own pleasure soaring into the stratosphere. He was more than halfway to coming and they’d barely even started.
Just when he felt like he couldn’t stand it another second, he broke away and rested his forehead against Hutch’s. “Hold up, hold up,” he panted.
Starsky nodded. “Too okay.”
Hutch chuckled. “Yeah, I was having the same problem.”
Starsky reached down and wrapped his hand around Hutch’s cock. “Forget it. You’re savin’ that for me.”
Hutch’s hips bucked into the touch. “Keep doing that and I won’t be saving it much longer,” he growled.
Grinning, Starsky leaned over and yanked open the drawer in his nightstand. He rummaged around a little until he found what he was looking for, then held it up triumphantly. Hutch stared at it for a moment as if Starsky had grown another head.
“You never seen lube before?” Starsky demanded, wiggling the tube at him.
Hutch shook his head. “Never had much need for it. Uncut, remember?”
“I remember.” Starsky flipped the cap and silently directed Hutch to hold out his hand. Hutch obeyed, and Starsky squeezed some of the contents onto his fingers. Hutch’s eyes remained on his face, watching him intently.
“You ever—tried this?” Hutch asked hesitantly.
“I had a couple of girls stick their fingers up there. Never did much for me.” He held up a hand to silence the inevitable protest. “I hear it gets better when you, uh, get further in.”
Hutch closed his eyes again and swallowed. His clean hand caressed Starsky’s body with something akin to reverence. It felt strange to Starsky at first—usually, he was the one whose job it was to cherish his bed partner. But then it occurred to him that Hutch had been touching him that way for years, whenever he needed it, just never in this particular context. They’d both been cherishing one another in every way that counted except one.
Smiling down at Hutch, Starsky brushed his fingers over Hutch’s beloved face, mapping the surfaces he’d long since committed to memory.
“God, I love you,” Hutch breathed, kissing him softly. Starsky felt something slick and warm press against him; he gasped into Hutch’s mouth as it breached him for the first time.
Hutch’s finger stilled immediately. “Keep going, keep going,” Starsky rasped against his mouth, and after a few agonizing seconds, Hutch obeyed. Starsky closed his eyes and brushed his open, eager mouth against Hutch’s neck and tried to think about how good it was going to get in a minute.
What seemed like a few hours later, Hutch had three fingers in him and it wasn’t getting any better. The pain was minimal; Hutch was too careful with him, his patience and care exactly what Starsky would have expected. But as for fireworks—Starsky hadn’t seen any yet, and he was starting to wonder if he was ever going to. Maybe it was like the way some women had trouble getting excited by penetration, he thought. Maybe he just wasn’t wired to—
Hutch’s fingers slid out slowly. Those clear blue eyes stared up at him, burrowing straight to his soul.
“This isn’t doing anything for you, is it?”
Starsky shrugged. He thought he’d been doing a pretty good job of keeping up the moaning and the sighing, but obviously he couldn’t hide anything from Hutch. “Like I said, it only gets better—”
Hutch was already shaking his head. “No. This isn’t the way we should do this. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing—”
“There was this book I saw in a store a couple of weeks back, I picked it up but I didn’t buy it, I should’ve—”
Starsky silenced him with a hard, bruising kiss. “Hutch. We don’t need to buy a manual or take a class to figure out how to be with each other. It’s gonna be good, babe. We just have to believe it will.”
Hutch’s mouth quirked. “The power of positive thinking?”
Starsky grinned. “Don’t knock it.” He felt Hutch relax under him and suddenly decided he’d never get a better chance. Rising up on his knees, he reached back to position Hutch’s cock under him.
Hutch’s eyes widened. “Starsk, what are you—” But that was all he got out before Starsky lowered himself onto his erection, taking half of him in before the wave of pain hit.
Starsky hissed air through his teeth, willing himself to open. It wasn’t as hard as he thought it’d be, because he could do pretty much anything with Hutch beside him, but it was still shattering, to know this was who he was now. To finally have the irrefutable evidence, against everything he’d once believed about himself, that this was something he wanted.
Hutch’s hands scrabbled frantically at his hips. “God, Starsk, don’t—”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Starsky reassured him, hoping his voice wasn’t shaking too much. He rose up again slightly, then glided back down, taking a little more of him, then a little more. “It’s gettin’ easier.” Another glide, another inch. “How does it feel for you?”
Hutch squeezed his eyes shut and groaned, the sound going straight to Starsky’s cock. “Oh, Jesus, Starsk, it feels—incredible.”
Starsky treated him to a twist of his hips on the next downstroke, and was rewarded with another low, shuddery groan. “Now there’s some of that positive thinking in action,” Starsky said, his smile coming back to him.
Hutch’s hips jerked convulsively in response.
Starsky took a deep breath and lifted up again, preparing for the final, deepest thrust. But before he could manage it, Hutch’s hips snapped up, burying his cock as far inside him as it would go.
And then a few things happened at once.
Hutch’s eyes flew open, a jumbled look of shock, worry and lust plastered to his face.
He reached for Starsky’s hips, probably intending to move him off Hutch’s lap.
And every brain cell in Starsky’s head caught fire and burned to a crisp.
He was only just aware of his arms and legs trembling and stiffening as though he’d been hit by lightning. His head flopped back on a neck that had forgotten how to support it.
“Oh my God, Starsk—” Hutch breathed, mouth gulping in air like there wasn’t enough oxygen left in the world.
Starsky wanted to say something else to reassure Hutch, to tell him everything was okay, in fact everything was more okay than it had been in his entire life, but he couldn’t find the words that would be enough to explain the feeling of Hutch inside him. Instead, he focused on moving up and back, setting up a slow, easy rhythm that he thought would bank the fire.
It didn’t; within seconds, he was about to go up in smoke. Hutch must’ve felt it too, because he clutched at Starsky’s straining thighs, gasping, “Wait, wait, wait, wait.”
Starsky let himself fall forward onto his hands, let Hutch’s cock slip out of him a little. Hutch strained up to meet him in an uncoordinated kiss. “This is—it’s—” Hutch attempted, between kisses.
“Yeah,” Starsky agreed, glad to hear he wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue how to describe this. And just like that, he realized he could let go, let this particular moment end, because if he had anything to say about it there’d be a hell of a lot more moments like this in their futures. Kissing Hutch one more time, he leaned back and took him all the way inside again, welcoming the renewed feeling of fullness, of completion. Lifting up, he began to move, picking up the pace until he could feel his thigh muscles burn with the effort. Under him, Hutch shook and groaned and arched his head back into the pillow. He ran his hands up Starsky’s torso and brushed his thumbs over his nipples, and that was it. Starsky came like he was dying but his body hadn’t caught on yet, hips still undulating helplessly in a relentless pattern. A few more strokes and he felt the warm flood of Hutch’s own orgasm filling him.
Starsky didn’t realize he’d collapsed on top of Hutch until the part of the mattress he was lying on shifted and he nearly fell off. With a muttered apology, he pushed himself to one side and rolled onto the real mattress.
“I think I stopped breathing there for a minute,” Hutch groaned.
“Jeez, I’m not that heavy.”
Hutch shook his head limply. “I meant earlier.”
Starsky propped himself up on an elbow and regarded Hutch, who, sensing Starsky’s gaze, opened an eye and peered at him blearily.
“So was it good for you?” Starsky asked, grinning.
Hutch lifted a hand and stroked over Starsky’s cheek with gentle fingers. “What do you think?”
Still grinning, Starsky turned his head and sucked one of Hutch’s fingers into his mouth. Hutch’s eyes closed in pain.
“God, you’re gonna kill me,” he moaned.
“Nah,” Starsky said, releasing Hutch’s finger with a popping sound. “Just wound you a little.”
“Oh, well, that’s all right then,” Hutch said. Sobering, he murmured, “You okay?”
Starsky took his own finger and swiped it through the small puddle he’d made on Hutch’s belly. “What do you think?”
Hutch grabbed Starsky’s hand and proceeded to do a little sucking of his own. Against all the laws of nature, Starsky’s cock twitched, trying to come back from the dead.
“Oh, man, we gotta do this again real soon,” Starsky sighed, wondering how watching his finger move in and out of Hutch’s wide mouth could be hotter than feeling it.
“Maybe next time we could trade places,” Hutch murmured. “I mean, if you think you might not mind.”
Starsky pretended to think about it. “Well…only if you think I’ll like it.”
Hutch looped an arm around Starsky’s neck and dragged him down. “You’ll like it,” he growled against Starsky’s mouth. “Guaranteed, or your money back.”
“Sounds fair,” Starsky told him, opening himself to Hutch’s kiss.
“Kiko. Mi hijo.”
Kiko shook himself, feeling his bones creak as he looked up from the notes he was studying for his last exam of the semester. The sound of his mother’s voice made him realize he’d lost all track of time. Figuring she must be calling him to dinner, he glanced up at his clock, but it was still the middle of the afternoon. Frowning, he rose and opened the door.
His mother was standing at the doorway to the kitchen, the telephone cradled in her hand. “It is for you. He says his name is Frank?”
Kiko tried to keep the surprise off his face, but knew without having to look in a mirror that he’d lost. Frank had always understood—though they’d never actually talked about it—that their phone calls would be in one direction only. Besides, they’d seen one another yesterday; what could be so urgent that Frank needed to break their unspoken rule?
Kiko’s mother covered the receiver with her hand. “I have not met any of your friends from your new school. I could make extra enchiladas tonight.”
A vivid image from last night, Frank’s porcelain-pale hand moving over his chest, rose before his eyes before he could stop it, and he squeezed them shut briefly to dispel the memory. “He’s not—” that kind of friend, Kiko stopped himself from saying. “I mean, I don’t think he’s free for dinner tonight.”
His mother’s face became unreadable; it was the mask she put on for the gringos she worked for. Wordlessly, she held out the phone to him. When he took it, she retreated into the kitchen.
Kiko pulled the phone as far into the hallway as the cord would allow. “Frank?” he asked, as quietly as he could. “What is it?”
“I’m sorry,” Frank said immediately, and Kiko winced. “I know I’m not—but I had to.”
“It’s okay,” Kiko soothed, feeling even more like a bastard than he had a minute ago. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Peter. He’s gone.”
Kiko sucked in a breath. “Dios mio. Did he run a way?”
“Worse,” Frank said grimly. “Much worse.”
Hutch knew it was selfish of him, but as they drove at top speed along the freeway, he couldn’t help wishing they could have had one whole day before everything went to hell again.
Since two o’clock yesterday afternoon, when Kiko’s panicked phone call had wakened them from an exhausted but sated sleep, they’d been going full tilt trying to rescue Peter O’Halloran from the clutches of bureaucratic incompetence. It seemed that Peter’s parents, who had reluctantly agreed to allow Peter to stay with Frank and his roommates until the family could attend counseling, had abruptly changed their minds and hired a new, expensive lawyer to represent “their” interests. Said lawyer had then proceeded to browbeat some poor overworked schmuck down at Children’s Services, then found a sympathetic ADA, and the next thing they knew two uniforms and a social worker had shown up at Frank’s door and taken Peter back to his mother and father.
The Lambda lawyer who had been working with Peter since they’d brought him back to Bay City was down at Children’s Services less than an hour after they called her, but they all knew their position was tenuous. She’d been trying to get Peter emancipated minor status for weeks, but they were still at least a week away from cutting through the remainder of the red tape. The situation was complicated by the fact that there weren’t too many precedents for Peter’s situation; Starsky and Hutch had discovered to their shock that if you were underage and your parents decided you needed to be “cured” of being gay, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot you could do about it.
And that meant the only immediate recourse was a reckoning with Peter’s parents, one the lawyer strongly counseled them to avoid. But both of them were afraid that Peter would run again, and this time it would probably be a hell of a lot harder to find him. So while the lawyer kept working at her end, they headed for the upscale suburb where the O’Hallorans lived.
“How much further?” Kiko asked from the back seat. He and Frank had insisted on coming along, though Hutch was still convinced they should stay in the car. They’d gotten quite attached to Peter over the past few weeks, and it might not be a good idea to introduce them into a situation that was going to be volatile at best.
“Geez, you kids are so impatient these days,” Starsky drawled as he turned the Torino onto a tree-lined residential street. “We’re almost there.”
“I’m just worried about Peter,” Kiko murmured.
“I know you are,” Hutch soothed, glancing in the back. “We are, too. But we have to be as diplomatic about this as we can. Like it or not, his mother and father are still his legal guardians.”
“Can’t we just swap them for my parents?” Frank asked, only half joking. “He’ll never miss them.”
“I wish we could,” Hutch sighed. “Though I’m glad you made that call.” After calling Kiko, Frank had gotten in touch with his parents and told them the situation. The Tanners had immediately offered to become Peter's foster parents, if it could be arranged. It was nearly as complicated as getting Peter emancipated, but it was another option that his lawyer could use if that failed.
“All right,” Starsky said as he pulled the car up to the curb and shut off the engine. “You two wait here.” Kiko made a noise of protest, which was silenced by a pointed look from Starsky. “If it goes okay, we’ll ask if you can see Peter. Otherwise, we’ll have to abide by their rules.”
“They’re holding all the cards right now,” Hutch agreed.
As they made their way from the car to the house, Starsky shot him a glance. “You think this is gonna work?”
“No,” Hutch admitted, sighing. “But we have to try.”
“It doesn’t happen that much, but there are times when I want that badge back. This is one of ‘em.”
Hutch laid a hand on Starsky’s shoulder and squeezed. “We still have the ultimate weapon,” he said.
“The famous Dave Starsky charm.”
Hutch was rewarded with a chuckle. “We’re in deep trouble.”
As it turned out, they actually got a lot further than Starsky had expected, though that had a lot more to do with the famous Kenneth Hutchinson charm than Starsky’s. He wasn’t exactly offended by that: he’d always known that the middle-upper-class suburban ladies preferred Hutch’s patrician WASP to Starsky’s Brooklyn Jew. But then, he had more of a connection at the street level than Hutch did, so it all balanced out.
So by some miracle of blondness, Hutch managed to get them past the front door, but then things went downhill, because it was clear Edith O’Halloran was afraid of somebody—either her husband or the lawyer or both of them—and under no circumstances was she going to let them near Peter. Starsky watched as the defenses that had eased a little with Hutch’s sweet-talking slammed right back into place as soon as he asked to see Peter for a moment.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mr. Hutchinson,” she said, pleasantly but with a hint of ice. “Peter is still asleep.”
Hutch glanced at his watch. “Oh? I didn’t realize. It’s almost noon.”
Edith O’Halloran gave an imitation of a laugh and waved her hand. “You don’t know teenagers very well, do you? They’re always sleeping in until all hours.”
“That’s funny,” Hutch said, “because Frank tells me he always went out running with him every morning at seven.”
Mrs. O’Halloran frowned. “Frank?”
Starsky’s ears pricked at that. “He didn’t mention Frank?”
Another wave of the hand. “No. Why would he?”
“Frank is the young man Peter was staying with since he returned from San Francisco,” Hutch said, still in that calm, even tone.
Mrs. O’Halloran’s button nose wrinkled. “Oh. Yes. You mean the young hooligan who almost got himself arrested yesterday trying to stop the police from doing their duty.”
Starsky and Hutch traded glances; Starsky hadn’t heard that one, and he was willing to bet Hutch hadn’t either. “Frank was probably just being protective of Peter,” Hutch said after a moment. “He and his friends have gotten very attached to your son in the short time they’ve known him.”
“Yes, I’m sure they have. Tell me, is this Frank a homosexual?”
Starsky watched a muscle in Hutch’s jaw twitch. “What difference does that make?” Hutch asked quietly, through his teeth.
Mrs. O’Halloran cocked her head. “I’m simply curious as to why you thought it was a good idea to save my son from prostitution only to ensconce him in a den of sodomists.”
Hutch actually took a step forward, then stopped, obviously too angry to speak. Starsky swiftly took up the slack. “Mrs. O’Halloran,” he said, as calmly as he could, “like we told your husband back when this started, the place we chose for your son is a quiet, off-campus residence for university students. There are seven people living there in four apartments, and we had them all thoroughly checked out before we ‘ensconced’ him there. Peter is a straight-A art student, and his roommate is a graduate music student. She’s an exemplary student who works with inner-city kids in her spare time, and if it makes you feel any better, she’s got a boyfriend. The landlord lives right downstairs, and she’s a retired university professor who handpicks her tenants. She was the one who assumed temporary custody of Peter. She checked in on him every day and tutored him in the classes he’d missed—for free.” He smiled thinly. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but I’m here to tell you it’s wrong.”
Mrs. O’Halloran’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times before she stammered, “I—hadn’t heard any of that.” She turned away, wrapping her arms around herself protectively. “I don’t know what to believe.”
“I wish you’d agreed to meet with us and Alice Johnson, Peter’s lawyer, before taking this step,” Hutch said softly. “We could have explained this. Peter was in no danger where he was.”
She shook her head, still staring at the mantel. “Andrew was convinced he was.” And with that simple statement, Starsky felt his anger burn through the barriers he’d been using to contain it. It was worse, somehow, that this woman didn’t have some unflappable conviction, that she was only going along with her husband’s twisted view of reality. Starsky wondered if she’d know an independent thought if it came up and slapped her across the face.
“Mrs. O’Halloran,” Starsky heard himself ask, “do you believe your son should be forced to go to a mental institution if he doesn’t want to go?”
Her body stiffened. “He’s sixteen. He doesn’t know what’s best for him.”
“Did your husband tell you what they do to kids in those places to try to ‘cure’ them of something that most doctors now figure can’t be cured?” Starsky persisted. “Did he tell you about the isolation, the behavior modification, the sleep deprivation, the drugs? Did he tell you about the shock therapy?”
“Stop it,” she whispered, shoulders hunching.
“Did they tell you they’re gonna hook electric wires up to your son and flip a switch? You think that’s gonna make him normal, Mrs. O’Halloran? ”
Starsky felt Hutch’s hand touch his shoulder again, and he stilled. “We only want to see Peter for a moment,” Hutch said in his best soothing tone. “There are several people who are very concerned about him, who would just like to be reassured he’s all right.”
Back still turned, Mrs. O’Halloran said, “Then will you leave?”
“Yes. We promise.”
“All right. Wait here.” And without looking at them, she headed off down the hall.
Hutch shot Starsky a look. “Yeah, I know,” Starsky muttered. “I almost blew it.”
Hutch’s expression softened at that. “If it helps any, I share your frustration.”
Starsky blew out a breath. “Yeah. I wish we could just take him out of here.”
A shrill scream tore through the air. Before it was over, they were both tearing off down the hall, Starsky only just behind Hutch. When they reached an open door, they rushed in.
Edith O’Halloran was sprawled on the floor beside her son’s bedside, still hugging her own body with her arms. Peter O’Halloran lay on the bed in a similar sprawl, his eyes closed, his body still and unresponsive. Starsky used his cop’s eye to quickly scan the room and caught sight of a clear plastic prescription bottle sitting open on Peter’s nightstand. It was empty.
“Oh, God,” Mrs. O'Halloran moaned, rocking slowly. “Please, no, please.”
Starsky’s heart pounded in his chest as he watched Hutch walk over to the boy and feel for a pulse.
After a moment, Hutch’s gaze met his.
“He’s alive. Barely. Pulse is thready.”
Starsky spun on his heel and ran back to the living room, where he knew he’d seen a phone. Grabbing it off the meticulously polished walnut table, he started dialing.
The ER at Bay City General was quiet for a Friday afternoon, Hutch thought. There was the usual assortment of walk-ins, a couple of junkies and older homeless men making up an ailment so they’d have a bed for the night, a guy cradling an obviously broken arm. Later on, once the bars got going, it would pick up, and it wouldn’t let up again until Sunday morning.
He sat in his hard plastic chair and watched as a young nurse went from patient to patient, speaking with them briefly before moving on to the next. He noticed how she met each one’s gaze, took a few moments to connect with them on a personal level, then give each a reassuring pat on the arm or shoulder before leaving them.
Leaning back as much as the chair would allow, Hutch sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. He didn’t miss that part of it, feeling as though you were just running against the flood tide of suffering humanity. Maybe she wasn’t at that stage yet, but within a few years she’d burn out, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it.
And maybe she’ll be Miss Sunshine and Lollipops for the next forty years, Hutch thought. What the hell do I know?
The lady in question approached Hutch, Kiko and Frank with a smile on her face, and Hutch sat up a little straighter. “Have you heard anything about Peter yet?”
Hutch blinked; he hadn’t expected her to remember Peter’s name. “Not yet,” he said tightly. He looked over at Kiko and Frank and noticed they were loosely holding hands; when he returned his gaze to the nurse, he saw that she had seen it as well. He glared at her, daring her to comment.
But she simply smiled guilelessly and said, “Let me see what I can find out for you, all right?”
Hutch slumped, feeling about two inches tall. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.” After she had gone, they sat in silence, the anticipation adding to the tension.
“When do you think Starsky will be coming back?” Kiko asked.
Hutch glanced at the glass sliding doors leading to the outside, as if Starsky would materialize at the mention of his name. “Soon, I hope. He wasn’t supposed to be gone this long.” As soon as he dropped them off at the hospital, Starsky had taken what they’d thought would be a quick run to the house, to call Alice and let Kiko’s mother know he’d be late. Frank asked Starsky to give a call to his parents too, figuring they might want to step up their legal efforts now that it had become clear that Peter could not stay with his parents any longer.
If he gets through this. As soon as it formed in his head, Hutch stamped the thought out ruthlessly. Kiko and Frank needed him to be positive now, but this had brought back too many bad memories of his years as a cop. He and Starsky had attended suicide scenes similar to the one this morning, overdoses and hangings and shootings and a dozen other inventive methods. The most terrible aspect of suicides to him had always been that most of the victims hadn’t really intended to be successful in their attempts; they’d been sending out a cry for help, only they hadn’t been heard in time and, in tragic irony, were silenced forever.
Well, he was sick of those scenes, and determined that Peter wouldn’t end up as merely another drop of water in the flood. He didn’t deserve that, dammit. None of them had.
Hutch raised his head to find the nurse standing before him again. Along with Kiko and Frank, he found himself rising to his feet; oddly, it seemed like the right thing to do.
“Mrs. O’Halloran wanted you to know—it looks like Peter’s going to be okay.”
“Oh my God,” Kiko breathed; he turned into Frank’s arms and the two young men enfolded one another in a powerful hug.
“C—can you tell me anything specific?” Hutch asked, aware that there were tears in his eyes and not giving a damn.
The nurse nodded. “It was touch and go for a while. They pumped his stomach, but he’d taken the pills late last night and so they’d already been absorbed. Luckily, the preliminary indications suggest there weren’t enough pills left in the bottle for a fatal dose. He’s not out of the woods yet, but they’ve got him on mild stimulants and he’s stayed awake so far.” She smiled. “His mother told me you knew what to do. You were the one who brought him back to consciousness.”
Hutch closed his eyes. He’d had to hold Mrs. O’Halloran back as Starsk slapped Peter hard enough to wake him. “My partner was, actually. But yeah. We knew what to do.”
“Do you have medical training?”
He opened his eyes. “First aid. We’re—we were—cops.”
Her smile broadened. “That explains it.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Listen, why don’t you go home for a while? My name is Brenda, and I don’t go off shift until eight. Just call in a couple of hours and I’ll give you an update.”
Hutch traded glances with Kiko and Frank. They seemed to have no objections, so Hutch said, “Sure, that sounds good. We appreciate it.”
She nodded, and with a final pat to his arm, she left them to tend to the next drops in the flood.
“We can’t go without Starsky,” Kiko said.
“I know,” Hutch said, glancing at his watch again in frustration. “He should be—”
“—walking through the door as we speak,” Starsky finished for him. Hutch spun around to be met by his lover’s blue gaze as he approached them.
He wasn’t alone.
Consuela Ramos’ gaze was glued to her son as she walked toward them. Hutch opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again when he realized he had nothing to say. Kiko and Frank were still holding on to one another, Kiko with one arm around Frank’s waist, Frank’s arm encircling Kiko’s shoulders. He supposed the contact could be construed as platonic, but one look at the brittle expression on Consuela’s face told him she wasn’t seeing it that way. He looked at Kiko, who stepped away from Frank’s touch as though it burned him, saw the hurt look cross Frank’s young features.
Hutch traded glances with Starsky, whose own expression had turned grim. “Consuela wanted to come,” he said. “When I told her a friend of Kiko’s was in the hospital, she was worried.” He jerked his chin up. “How is he?”
“He’s gonna be okay,” Hutch said.
Consuela murmured a prayer of thanks, and Starsky sighed with relief. “Man, am I glad to hear that.”
“We, uh,” Hutch added swiftly, “we were just about to head out. The nurse just told us we could call her in a couple of hours and check on him.” He moved forward, trying to break up this awkward situation as quickly as possible, but was stopped dead in his tracks when he heard:
“Mrs. Ramos, my name is Frank Tanner. We spoke on the phone yesterday.” Hutch turned to see Frank extending his hand to Consuela. Time seemed to slow and stretch as she regarded him levelly, then glanced at her son.
And then she took his hand and nodded. “Yes, I remember,” she said. “It is nice to finally meet you. I have heard my Kiko speak of you often.” At Frank’s startled look, she added, “Oh, not to me. He speaks to you on the telephone, or tells Molly about you. At first I try not to listen, and I am ashamed of myself, but I have been very worried about him.”
“Mama.” Kiko’s voice was low and full of so many emotions Hutch couldn’t begin to sort them out.
Releasing Frank’s hand, Consuela turned to him. “This boy—” She gestured toward the interior of the hospital “—he took too many pills, yes?”
Kiko nodded tightly. “Yes.”
“He wanted to die. Why?”
Kiko paused, then answered, “Because his parents hate him.”
Hutch shook his head. “They don’t hate him, Keek. They just don’t understand what he needs.”
“He is—” Consuela waved a hand, as she did whenever she couldn’t come up with the right English word. “He loves other boys, this friend of yours? This is what they do not understand?”
“That’s right,” Frank acknowledged, when Kiko remained silent.
“Then what does he need?” Consuela asked earnestly, her gaze still riveted to her son. “Tell me what he needs, mi hijo.”
Kiko sucked in a harsh breath at the endearment, but still couldn’t speak. His eyes filled with tears. Consuela took a step toward him, then another, until they were only a foot or so apart.
“When you are young,” Consuela said softly, “you tell me everything. For a long time, I know you have a secret from me, and I want you to have it. Everyone needs a secret. But you do not have it because you need a secret from your mama. You need it because you think I will hate you for this secret.”
“I didn’t know,” Kiko whispered.
Consuela’s eyes flashed. “You think this will make me feel better? You did not know if your own mama would hate you?” Suddenly, all the fight seemed to go out of her, and her pretty face grew sad. “Then if you still do not know me, I will tell you. I do not hate you. I will never hate you.” She took a deep, shuddering breath and drew herself up. “You are my blood, my body, my life. Do you think I want you to become like that probrecita in there?”
Kiko bit his lip as tears spilled down his cheeks. Consuela turned to Frank, who wasn’t faring much better.
“He has a heart bigger than all the world, my Kiko,” she said quietly. “Do you know that?”
“Yes, I do,” Frank said, voice shaky but sincere. “I love him very much, Mrs. Ramos.”
Consuela smiled and reached out a hand to cup Frank’s cheek briefly. “Good. That is good.” She looked at Starsky and Hutch. “Molly is preparing supper. It should be ready by the time we get home.” And with her head held high, she turned and headed for the door, obviously sure the men would follow.
They all stood stunned for a moment before obediently trailing behind her. As Hutch looped an arm around Starsky’s shoulders, he heard Starsky murmur, “Did what I think just happened—happen?”
“Yeah,” he said, grinning stupidly when he saw Kiko reach tentatively for Frank’s hand, then saw Frank take it and squeeze hard. “Nothing like a happy ending, huh?”
Starsky’s hand slid around his back and settled on his hip as they walked out the door. “You said it, babe.”
Six Months Later
“You gonna lay there all day, lazybones?”
Hutch groaned and rolled over, grabbing the pillow and covering his face with it. “Just five more minutes, ma,” he pleaded, voice muffled.
But Starsky was remorseless. “C’mon. We got a ton of work to do today. We still gotta put the shutters up on the dining room and get everything ready for the party.”
“What idiot thought it would be a good idea to have thirty people over as soon as we were finished the renovations, anyway?”
“You did, dummy.” Hutch felt something thwap against his midsection; reaching down, he discovered it was a wet towel.
He stretched, flinging the pillow aside, then turned his head and got his first good look at the clock. “God, six a.m.? Are you nuts?”
“Twelve hours goes fast.”
Hutch looked up and saw Starsky leaning in the doorway, hair still damp from his shower, body naked and unashamed. They hadn’t exactly celebrated the second anniversary of the shooting a couple of weeks ago, but they’d shared a good meal and a bottle of wine and made love in their new, big bed. It seemed to be the most life-affirming way to say “fuck you” to Gunther.
And now Starsky stood before him, healthy and whole, and if Hutch had ever been more grateful for anything, he couldn’t think of what it might be.
While Hutch had been lost in his own thoughts, Starsky’s lip had acquired a sexy, sardonic smirk. He hiked up a shoulder a couple of times and lowered his chin. “You like what you see, big boy?”
Hutch grinned. “Is that Mae West?”
Starsky smiled. “Yeah.”
“Don’t give up your day job,” Hutch singsonged.
Starsky’s expression turned murderous. “Oh, you’re gonna get it.” And with a running start, he pounced, pinning Hutch under him. Soon, both men were laughing, tangled up in the sheets, grabbing at one another while each tried to gain the upper hand.
It was Starsky who emerged victorious, wrestling Hutch to a standstill with a particularly inventive maneuver that involved Starsky’s talented fingers on more sensitive areas of Hutch’s anatomy. Within minutes Hutch was prone and panting under his lover’s hands.
“That’s gotta be—illegal in Alabama—” Hutch mock-protested, wiggling his hips to work Starsky’s fingers in a little deeper.
“Mmm,” Starsky agreed, planting a kiss at the top of Hutch’s ass. “Good thing we’re not in Alabama. Don’t want you makin’ a citizen’s arrest.”
When Starsky’s mouth glided lower, Hutch shouted his name into the pillow. Starsky lifted his head and pinched one rounded buttock. “Shhhhh, blondie. You want to wake up the whole neighborhood?”
Hutch tried to raise his head, then let it drop back into the pillow when it seemed that all the bones had left his neck. “You keep doing that, I won’t care if the whole damn neighborhood comes over to watch.”
“Exhibitionist,” Starsky murmured, returning to his task. Hutch squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lip and fisted his hands in the sheets and prayed that Starsky would never stop. It had always been the least erotic act he could imagine—he’d had one woman try to do this to him once and had nearly died of embarrassment—but whenever Starsky did this to him he got Hutch so turned on he could barely remember to breathe. He used his thumbs to hold Hutch open and exposed, and for long moments Hutch felt nothing else, only the almost unbearable anticipation of the touch that would be coming. That was when he knew Starsk was holding himself still, too, just looking his fill, drinking in the sight of Hutch spread wide for him.
Right from the start, Starsky had seen all of Hutch, all of his strengths and his weaknesses, all of his flaws, and loved him anyway. When they’d built armor to shield them from the rest of the world, they’d always shed it when they were together, allowed themselves to be vulnerable and human with one another.
Right now it seemed that whatever armor that was still left on him was rusting, falling away. Pretty soon there’d be nothing left of it, just piles of dust at his feet. He didn’t regret it, any more than he regretted the incredible twin gifts of Starsky’s love and Starsky’s life.
He felt the first teasing swipe of Starsky’s tongue and sucked in a harsh breath; the start of it always came as a delicious surprise like this, always caught him unawares, because he still couldn’t quite believe Starsk would do this to him, for him. Starsky spent long moments accustoming Hutch to that light, gentle touch, barely pressing into his flesh, letting Hutch set the pace, determine the next step.
The next step came quickly, because soon those fleeting touches weren’t enough any more. Hutch signaled his frustration by canting his hips and grinding them into the mattress; Starsky’s hands immediately latched onto them, holding him fast with an iron grip. Hutch growled and fought the restraint, but they both knew he loved this, loved experiencing Starsky’s renewed strength.
Starsky pressed against Hutch’s back, his breath tickling Hutch’s ear as he murmured, “Don’t worry, you’re gonna get it. But you’re gonna get it nice…and…slow.” He followed up his promise with a glide of his tongue down Hutch’s spine that made Hutch shiver and moan.
After an agonizing wait, Starsk’s tongue was back where it belonged, and this time he resumed the assault with a deep, silky plunge that nearly made Hutch come right there. Hutch swore copiously, counted backwards from a hundred, and remained still, fighting the dizzying spiral that was threatening to fling him skyward. Christ, it was the sweetest pain Hutch had ever felt, having Starsky holding him down and driving him crazy with need.
By the time Starsky had finished readying him, Hutch felt like he’d been fucked ten times over, and Starsk had only used his mouth and hands. Those same strong hands urged him to rise to his knees, but Hutch’s legs failed him halfway up and he collapsed back onto the mattress with a grunt.
Starsky’s teeth nipped at his ass. “You’re that far gone, huh?” he asked, and there was something like wonder in his voice, as if he was still surprised he could have that kind of power over Hutch.
Hutch tried to say something coherent, but the only word he could manage was a broken “Please,” while his hips, finally freed from their restraint, gyrated helplessly.
He heard Starsky mutter an oath, then felt the bed shift. One hand stole under his right hip, lifting him just enough to stuff a pillow beneath it. When Starsky did the same with his left, Hutch summoned the presence of mind to help him a little.
Starsky delivered a soothing stroke to his ass as a reward, then gripped Hutch’s thighs and spread him wider. “That’s perfect,” he crooned, and Hutch felt his cheeks flame at what he must look like.
When he felt the first hot pressure of Starsky’s cock, he tried to push back into it, but couldn’t summon the strength. Starsky must have sensed his frustration, because he placed a hand flat against the small of his back and murmured, “Slow, baby blue. Gonna fuck you slow, remember?”
“Ah, God!” Hutch gasped, shuddering as Starsky’s cock slid in another inch. He tried to lever himself up with his hands, but Starsk leaned into him, keeping him down. Luckily, it also drove Starsky’s cock a little deeper into him.
Starsky bit the skin over Hutch’s shoulder blade. “That’s it,” he breathed, licking the spot apologetically. “You’re takin’ it so good.”
Hutch groaned again, the muscles in his arms and legs trembling like he’d run a marathon. “Goddammit,” he grated, finally breaking, “give it to me.”
“You want it?” Starsky demanded harshly.
Hutch pressed his forehead into the pillow and fought for control. “You—know I do,” he gasped.
Starsky pushed in a little more, and then Hutch was startled to feel a soft kiss pressed to his spine. “You always gonna want this, want me?”
Hutch raised his head, realizing even in his nearly altered state that Starsky was asking a vitally important question. Leaning his weight on one of his hands, he reached back with the other until he found one of Starsky’s. Lacing their fingers together, he squeezed as tightly as he could. “Always, Starsk,” Hutch said roughly. “Always this. Always you.”
At that, Starsky buried his head against Hutch’s back and groaned as though he was dying. “Love you,” he rasped. “God, Hutch, love you.” And then he was moving, drawing back and plunging in deeply, finally giving all of himself to Hutch until they were both sobbing with exertion and relief and pleasure.
And when they lay spent and entwined in each others’ arms, Hutch murmured, “Looks like I got my five minutes.”
Starsky kissed him softly. “You get all the minutes you want. All the minutes I can give you.”
Hutch stared at him for a moment, then pulled him even closer and returned the kiss with interest. “Time with you,” he husked, taking Starsk’s beloved face in his hands. “I think that’s the most precious gift anyone has ever given me.”
The sun was just nearly gone when Starsky took a book of matches and began lighting all the torches they’d set up around the back garden.
“A toast!” Starsky grinned; that one had come from Dobey. There was the sound of scattered laughter.
“What, again?” Huggy drawled.
“That makes about a hundred,” someone else observed.
“Now, everyone here gets five toasts apiece,” Hutch called out. “That means we have another few dozen to go, so you’d better start getting creative.” More laughter. “The floor is yours, Captain.”
Starsky finished with the last torch in time to see their former captain raise his glass to the assembled crowd. “I don’t know how creative I can be, but I just wanted to say this.” Dobey cleared his throat. “Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson are true heroes. And I’m not talkin’ about the kinds that run around in tight pants in the movies—”
“Although Dave’s pants can get pretty tight!” someone yelled.
“—but the kinds that go out and do the jobs that not too many people have the guts—or the heart—to do.”
“Geez, Cap, give us a break,” Starsky called. “We already told you we’re retired.”
Dobey raised his voice over the chuckling. “I wish I had you back again, sure,” he admitted. “I wish I had a hundred of you. But you’re where you should be now, and it’s a good place, not much different from the place you were before. You’re still two of the good guys, and I’m proud to have served with you. I’m even prouder to still call you my friends.” He raised his glass higher. “To our hosts.”
As their assembled friends echoed his last words and drank, Starsky glanced over at his partner. He wasn’t surprised to note that Hutch was a little misty-eyed, nor was he shocked that his own eyes were stinging. Of all the people here tonight, Dobey had been one of the last ones they’d told of their new relationship. It wasn’t that they’d been ashamed of anything, but after their years on the force and the fallout from John Blaine’s murder, they well knew the attitude of most cops toward homosexuality.
But they’d forgotten that Harold Dobey was not most cops. He’d taken their news with a solemn face that had scared the hell out of Starsky. And then he’d told them that he’d be “the biggest goddamned hypocrite on this earth” if he let prejudice change the way he felt about two of the best men he’d ever known. And then he’d said nothing more about it. Starsky knew that they’d face hurdles if they decided to come out—they’d already lost a couple of so-called friends who couldn’t handle the news—but the burden got a hell of a lot easier to bear when you knew there were people at your backs, especially people like their old captain.
“That was a pretty nice toast. Not that you didn’t deserve it.” Starsky turned at the sound of that melodious voice to see Annika Sorenson smiling at him.
“Hey, you made it!” he exclaimed, enfolding her in a hug without hesitation. “It’s good to see you again.”
“I almost didn’t,” Annika admitted. “Our flight was late; I’m sorry.”
Hutch leaned in conspiratorially and said in her ear, “Big singing stars don’t ever have to say they’re sorry. Didn’t you get the manual?”
Annika slapped her forehead. “I knew there was something I was supposed to read!” Laughing, she spun and hugged Hutch. “How are you two?”
“Good,” Hutch said, shooting a grin at Starsky that almost melted his insides. “Really good.”
“We should give you a tour of our new dining room,” Starsky said, sweeping a hand toward the new addition. “After all, it’s mostly thanks to you we were able to build it.”
“You built it yourselves?”
Starsky nodded proudly. “Yep. From the ground up.”
“With a little help from our friends,” Hutch added.
“Mm-hmm,” Huggy chimed in as he passed on his way to the bar. “And I got the bruises to prove it.”
“So what’s new with you?” Starsky asked. “Besides the million-selling album and the sold out concert tour?”
And then, to Starsky’s surprise, the self-possessed goddess in front of him blushed like a teenager. “Well, I…I’m dating someone.”
Starsky grinned. “Let me guess. You and Lars?”
Annika blinked. “How did you—”
Hutch slipped an arm around Starsky’s shoulders. “We’re romantics at heart.”
“Well, yeah, we are, but also he’s standing over there—” Starsky pointed at the bar where Lars and Huggy were engaged in an animated conversation “—looking like the happiest son of a gun who ever lived. I guessed you might have something to do with that.”
Annika blushed even further and hid her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking with laughter. “What can I say?” she managed after a moment. “It’s amazing to turn around and find love in a place where you never expected it.”
Starsky felt Hutch squeeze his shoulder. “Amen,” Hutch murmured.
The opening strains of a jazz tune floated through the garden through the open windows of the dining room; someone had put one of Hutch’s Billie Holliday records on the stereo. Annika swayed in time with the music and smiled. “‘Night and Day,’” she murmured. “I love that song.”
Hutch released Starsky and held out a hand to her. “May I?” Annika inclined her head like a princess at a fancy ball, then took the offered hand and let Hutch lead her out into the open space in the middle of the garden. Starsky watched as they slid into a slow, easy step, any residual feelings of jealousy or inadequacy long gone. Hutch had chosen him, and would keep choosing him time and again, just as he would always choose Hutch. It was still good to hear the words now and then, but Starsky knew now that Hutch’s love had been the one constant in his life since they’d met, and it looked like it was going to be that way til death do them part.
Some of the guests were beginning to pair off, joining Hutch and Annika on the impromptu dance floor. The Dobeys were one couple, Molly and her date were another, Consuela and Huggy were a third, and—Starsky did a double-take—so were Frank and Kiko. It felt damned good to know they felt safe and comfortable enough here to be themselves, and it felt doubly good to know that Kiko and his mother had patched up their relationship. In fact, they’d become closer than ever over the past few months.
Frank dipped Kiko, making him laugh, and Starsky grinned. One of these days, they’d have to tell Keek about how he’d unknowingly played matchmaker for his favorite uncles. He probably wouldn’t quit laughing for a week.
Suddenly, his view of the dancers was blocked for a moment by the human mountain that was Lars Anderson. Carefully, the big man stepped around the couples until he was standing beside Annika and Hutch. Before Lars had even tapped Hutch on the shoulder, Starsky was moving toward them. By the time Lars and Annika were in one another’s arms, Starsky was stepping in front of Hutch and holding out his hands.
“Dance with me, beautiful,” he said, smiling when Hutch moved into his arms without hesitation, letting him take the lead.
Hutch pressed his cheek against Starsky’s as they began to move together in their slow, shuffling dance. “Always,” Hutch murmured.