“Ten,” Casey replies and sips her water. “I’ll be eleven in seven months and one week.”
“That soon?” Lila asks with a laugh. “What grade are you in?”
“Lila is a teacher,” I tell Casey.
“What grade do you teach?”
“I am a college professor,” Lila says.
“Wow. You must be really smart.”
Lila laughs and orders pancakes and bacon for herself and Casey when the waitress arrives.
“Make it three,” I say.
“You have very pretty hair,” Lila tells Casey, who preens from the compliment.
“It’s just like my mom’s,” Casey says innocently, and the stab to my heart is immediate. It’s lessened with time, thankfully, but in these simple moments, it catches me off guard. “It’s really curly. And red.” She wrinkles her nose.
“That explains it,” Lila says, looking at me with surprised eyes. “I was expecting you to have dark hair like your daddy.”
“Nope. I got the red.” Casey sighs. “And the freckles.”
“You know, my best friend has red hair and freckles, and she’s just as gorgeous as you are.”
Casey smiles up at me, then back at Lila. “Cool.”
“So what are our plans for the rest of the day? Surely you don’t intend to try to entertain me all day.” Lila takes a sip of her water, watching me over the rim.
“I do intend to entertain you all day. And don’t call me Shirley.”
Lila laughs, a happy, loud laugh that makes my stomach clench. She tosses her hair over one shoulder and shakes her head at me. “You’re silly.”
“He’s really silly,” Casey agrees and claps her hands as our pancakes and bacon are served. “But he’s handsome. Don’t you think?”
“She’s really subtle,” I inform Lila dryly. She simply pours maple syrup on her pancakes, so much that I wince and then chuckle at her. “Do you want some pancakes with your syrup?”
“Maybe.” She winks at me and turns her attention back to Casey. “Yes, your daddy is handsome.”
“And he’s smart. And he has a good job. And he can fix things.”
“Really?” Lila takes a bite of her bacon and leans in like Casey is about to tell her all of life’s secrets. “What can he fix?”
I watch Casey, also interested to hear what it is, exactly, that I can fix.
“Well, he unclogged the toilet when I accidently dropped his phone in it and flushed.”
“And our stove stopped working and he replaced the lelement, and now it works again.”
“I replaced the heating element in the oven,” I correct her, but she’s ignoring me.
“And at Christmas time, half of the lights on our Christmas tree wouldn’t light, but he figured it out and made them come back on!”
“That is impressive.”
I chuckle and munch on my bacon, enjoying the banter between these two amazing girls. Casey is chattering about my skills in painting the living room, clearly trying to convince Lila that she and I should be together forever, and Lila is listening. Not half-assed the way some adults do when they’re humoring a kid and want to get on with their day.
Casey has Lila’s undivided attention, and it terrifies me to realize that she just…fits.
Which is ridiculous because I hardly know her. One night in bed with her and a few conversations does not a life-long relationship make.
And yet, I know she’s smart. So much smarter than me. She’s kind. She’s funny.
And fuck me, she’s sexy as I don’t know what.
And seeing her here, with my kid, she’s attentive and sweet.
A man could fall in love with her.
Where the hell did that come from?
“I have a joke!” Casey announces.
“Okay, shoot,” Lila says.
“Why did the peach go out with the prune?”
“Why?” Lila and I ask at the same time.
“Because it couldn’t find a date!”
Casey busts out laughing. “Get it?”
“Yes,” I reply, chuckling, and catch Lila’s humor-filled gaze with my own. “You’re a funny girl.”
“This was delicious,” Lila says as she lays her napkin on her empty plate. “You were right. Best pancakes ever.”
“They’re pretty good,” I agree. “When I was a kid, my mom—”
“I have to tell you about Masie!” Casey says, interrupting me.
“Hey.” I give her the Dad Stink Eye. “I understand that you’re enjoying Lila’s company, but that’s no reason to be rude. Apologize please.”
“I’m sorry for being rude,” Casey says. “Excuse me, Daddy?”
“May I please tell Lila about Masie?”
My phone buzzes in my pocket as Lila laughs. “Yes, go ahead and tell her.”
Casey begins to chatter about her best friend as I answer. “What’s up?”
“We have another one.” Jordan’s voice is clipped, and I can hear road noise as she drives. “I’m on my way to the scene now.”
“On my way.” I motion for the waitress and pay the bill without looking at it. “We have to go, girls.”
“What’s wrong?” Lila asks. I hold her gaze and shake my head quickly. I won’t discuss the details of my job around my daughter. She knows that I investigate murders, that I catch the bad guys, but that’s it. I see things that no ten-year-old should ever be privy to.
“I have to drop you home, then take Casey to my brother’s and get to work.”
“I thought you had today off,” Casey says with a sigh. “Did someone die?”
“Yes, baby.” I kiss her head as we walk to the car. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to make the extra trip. You can leave Casey with me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Really?” Casey says excitedly. “Oh, that would be so cool.”
“I’m sure,” Lila says with a smile, but her eyes are worried as she lays her hand on my arm. “Is it what I think it is?”
“I’m not sure,” I lie. I don’t want to tell her anything until I see the scene and find out exactly what’s going on. “Could be.”
Lila simply nods and sits back in the seat with a sigh, her hands tightly clasped in her lap. I take one of her hands in mine and kiss her knuckles.
“It’s going to be okay.”
She nods and I glance in the rearview at my daughter, who is watching us carefully with a wide grin on her perfect face. She gives me a thumbs-up and winks, as though she’s my buddy, and I can’t help but laugh.
God save me from ten-year-old matchmakers.
* * * *
I approach the scene, a small apartment on the edge of Tulane University campus. There is yellow DO NOT CROSS tape everywhere. Men in uniform are directing people away from the building. Girls are crying, sitting on the curb.
Jordan rushes over to me.
“Have you gone in?” I ask as we walk briskly to the apartment where the vic was killed.
“No, I was waiting for you.”
We’re gloving up as we approach the door. No one is inside. “Who secured the scene?”
“I did, sir.” A young uniformed officer is standing near the open doorway. He swallows hard as I approach. His nametag reads Tanner.
“Did anyone disturb the scene, Tanner?”
“I don’t think so, sir. The victim’s friend called it in when she arrived to take Ms. Roberts to coffee. They had a date.”
“Did she touch anything?”
“She denied touching anything. She walked in, saw the vic, and called 911. She was standing here when we arrived. I made a visual confirmation that the victim was deceased, sealed the door, and called it in.”
“Good job.” I nod, break the seal of the yellow tape on the door, and walk inside, Jordan right behind me. She has her camera out, already taking photos of the tiny apartment.
“Do we know if she lived alone?”
“The friend confirmed that she lived alone,” Tanner says from the doorway. He’s young, but he’s smart and respectful.
He has potential.
“Where is the vic?”
“In the bedroom.” Tanner swallows hard. “It’s pretty gruesome, sir.”
Jordan and I look at each other and walk to the bedroom.
“Sonofabitch,” Jordan whispers as we take in the scene before us. There is blood spatter everywhere—the walls, the floor, the furniture. Even the ceiling.
The victim, Cheyenne Roberts, is lying on the bed facedown. I remember her from last night when she left the library. A pretty young blonde. Happy. Carefree.
So fucking young.
I doubt her own parents would recognize her now. Her face has been torn off. Her fingers cut off at the knuckles.
And her intestines are strung from one side of the room to the other.
Jesus Christ, what the ever-loving fuck? Why didn’t I shut that damn group down? Or escort all of the girls home myself?
“Oh my God, Asher.”
“Take photos, Jordan.”