Protecting What's His Page 3

“My apologies, Lieutenant,” she countered stiffly. “And that’s my second and final apology for the day.”

Ginger gave him her back once more to lift the end of the table, catching a hint of amusement on his face as she turned. Not that she gave a damn.

The cell phone in her front pocket vibrated for the umpteenth time today. She knew who called and why. She also knew she wouldn’t answer, or listen to the subsequent voice mail message. First chance she got, she’d cancel the plan and get new cell phones for herself and Willa.

With a nod in her sister’s direction, they picked up the table with the intention of continuing into the apartment.

“What the hell is that?”

Ginger dropped the table and faced the questioning lieutenant, making Willa shout a four-letter expletive at the ceiling. His annoyed green gaze flicked to Willa before inclining his head toward the statue propping open the door.

Both she and Willa looked toward the statue, then back at him.

Ginger answered slowly, as if speaking to the town idiot who also happened to be hard of hearing. “I assume you meant, ‘Who the hell is that?’ and to that question I say, who are you? Who are any of us?”

“I don’t follow.”

“That, Lieutenant, is the Smoky Mountain Songbird herself.”

“The Backwoods Barbie,” Willa chimed in angrily.

The man looked completely confused, so Ginger decided to take pity on him. “Dolly Parton.”

“Dolly motherfucking Parton.”

“Language, Willa. Honestly.”

Ginger waited for a reaction and felt far from satisfied when he merely shrugged his broad shoulders as if to say, “Should I know who that is?”

And that was the final straw.

“Willa, darling, you mind waiting for me inside the apartment?”

She felt rather than saw her sister’s eye roll, but heard her comply noisily, stomping inside the apartment. Then Ginger stood alone in the brightly lit hall with the scowling Lieutenant Von A-hole.

Twice he’d made her apologize after blatantly giving her the once-over, shot her little sister a dirty look, and then shrugged, shrugged at the mention of the Queen of Nashville. And this was after he’d yelled at them like a lunatic from his upstairs window.

Ginger couldn’t let it stand.

She sauntered forward, coming to a stop a foot away from his tall frame, and had the satisfaction of watching his eyes narrow warily. Up close, she saw his green eyes were rimmed with red and recognized a hangover when she saw one. Having skimmed his starched, navy blue uniform all the way up to his ruthlessly shorn, dark brown hair, something told her tying one on wasn’t something he did on a regular basis. No, despite his overtly masculine appearance, his reserve suggested he would be the type to order a glass of milk at the bar.

That offended her as a bartender and as a recreational drinker.

She took a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly. This morning, she’d woken up happy and optimistic. Ginger couldn’t remember the last time that was the case. She’d outrun the storm cloud darkening the sky above her head in Nashville and had come to Chicago for a new start. For her. For Willa. Adios leaky roof and questionable future.

After spending a week in a cheap, dingy motel, Ginger finally found an affordable neighborhood with a good high school nearby, close enough to downtown Chicago and potential work for herself. Then she’d sweet-talked the landlord into a double security deposit in lieu of the mandatory credit check. And bam! They now had themselves a sweet two-bedroom with new appliances and hardwood floors. Amenities that up until yesterday sounded like a foreign language. She and Willa had picked out furniture at thrift stores and yard sales throughout the week, pretending to be college students living off-campus. They’d had fun, dammit. Without a time limit.

And this son of a bitch was raining on their parade.

“What exactly is your problem, Lieutenant?”

He took a step forward, bringing them toe-to-toe, forcing her to look up if she wanted to meet his eyes. Damn, this guy kept surprising her. Men liked Ginger. That wasn’t arrogance talking. Okay, maybe a little, but it was mainly an observation. This man, however, seemed determined to piss her off good.

She couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face.

“You can stop calling me ‘Lieutenant’ now. It’s getting on my nerves.”

“I believe that was the point.”

A muscle in his jaw flexed. “It’s Derek from now on.”

Oh, he had balls making demands. She’d give him that. “I don’t believe I’ll have cause to call you anything at all. What do you think of that?”

He didn’t answer her question. “I assume there’s some sort of parental supervision moving in with you?”

Her smile disappeared right quick. “Beg pardon?”

Derek gestured with the patented cop-head-nod to the open door Willa had recently disappeared through. “She’s barely old enough to operate a vehicle and surely you’re not much older.”

Ginger’s left eye twitched. This little tête-à-tête had just gone from interesting to insufferable. Judging from his stoic expression, he had no idea what kind of land mine he’d just stepped on. Well, he was about to find the hell out. “I’m twenty-three years old, actually. And last time I checked, that’s old enough to vote, drink, gamble, rent an apartment, own a firearm, and explain to a grown man, police lieutenant or not, when he’s being a gigantic dickhead. And Derek, if it wasn’t clear enough already, you are the dickhead in this little scenario.” She paused for a breath. “And don’t call me surely.”

His eyes narrowed even further, completely obscuring the green of his irises. “Did you just quote Airplane! to me?”

Ginger swore she could feel steam coming out of her ears. “That’s really all you picked up on? Glossed right over the dickhead part?”

“What’s your name?”

She gritted her teeth. “Hardly matters at this point, wouldn’t you agree? I don’t think there are too many neighborly chats in our future.”

Willa picked that moment to holler from inside the apartment. “Ginger! I’m f**king starving and all we have is Triscuit crackers and strawberry frosting!”

Ah, impeccable timing as usual, sis.

Not quite suppressing his triumphant smile, Derek answered her rhetorical question. “I’d have to agree with you, Ginger. I’m not feeling the least bit neighborly toward you.”

“Well then, sugar, I’d say our association ends here.”

“I doubt that.”

“You can doubt anything if you think about it long enough. And I am done thinking about this. Good-bye, Derek. Can’t say it was a pleasure, but it was definitely an experience.”

Ginger spun around on the heel of her boot with the intention of storming into her apartment, leaving him staring after her, hopefully slack-jawed and regretful. Instead, she ran smack into the dining room table still blocking the hallway, effectively knocking the wind out of her stomach and her sails. Fighting the need to simultaneously suck in deep gulps of air and karate chop the table, Ginger straightened and skirted the table silently, refusing to turn around and gauge his reaction to her embarrassing mishap.

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