Elise didn’t even need to drop her voice for privacy. “Emergency budget meeting? Complaints from the union about freezing salaries instead of paying overtime? The most vocal person in the room is Councilman Johnson. Ergo, you want to be armed with the information showing a direct correlation between hot weather and a higher crime rate, and how putting extra uniformed officers on the street during peak power demands will counteract that danger.”
A dark eyebrow arched as he looked up from the file. “Ergo?”
Elise met his gaze and shrugged. “So you can shut up Mr. Johnson.”
That earned a chuckle from deep in his throat. Okay. So the man did possess a little charm. “You’re onto me. Did anyone ever tell you that you’d make a good detective?”
Elise looked beyond the wide shoulders of his blue dress shirt to see the medals and commendations framed on the wall behind his desk. Her boss’s day might be filled with administrative duties now, but there was no doubt who the real detective was here. “I function much better behind the scenes than I do on the front line, sir.”
His square jaw tightened momentarily. But before he snapped the folder shut and gave voice to whatever thought had crossed his features, a light knock on Elise’s office door diverted her attention across the reception area.
“Excuse me, sir.” Elise crossed the taupe carpet to meet the deliveryman hidden behind the extravagant bouquet of yellow roses at the hallway door. “Yes?”
“Is this the deputy commissioner’s office?” a winded voice asked.
“Finally. Do you know how far I had to carry these things?” When the twentysomething man poked his head around the tall glass vase, his ruddy cheeks and forehead were dotted with perspiration. She also noted that he was wearing a visitor’s badge around the sweat-stained neck of his brown uniform. Good. That meant he’d been cleared at both the ground floor and the security desk at the eighth floor elevators, and she didn’t need to screen him as any kind of threat to the higher-ups at KCPD.
“Has it topped a hundred degrees out there yet?” Elise asked, reaching for the electronic signature pad he pushed toward her. Since a heat wave was bearing down on Kansas City for its third straight week, it was a topic of conversation friends and strangers alike could share. She hoped her friendly smile might improve the man’s mood.
But she got little more than a weary grunt in return. “I just need you to sign for these, ma’am.”
Understanding how a heat index of one hundred and ten and humidity that was nearly as high could make tempers and frustrations flare, Elise quickly wrote her name. “Could I get you something cold to drink? Some ice water?”
The man’s grim expression relaxed as he traded the vase for the keypad. “I’ve got a cooler in my van in the parking garage across the street. But thanks.”
“Looks like Commissioner Madigan has a special admirer.” Elise hefted the over-the-top bouquet into her arms. Had George won some award he hadn’t mentioned? Been seeing someone during the few hours he wasn’t in the office?
“They’re for you, ma’am.” The deliveryman glanced down at his keypad screen. “You’re Elise Brown, right?”
Surprise warred with confusion inside her at the unexpected gift. “For me?”
“Yes, ma’am. Enjoy. And stay cool.” The man was all smiles as he walked away.
Elise touched her nose to one velvety blossom, cautiously inhaling its cloying, perfumey scent as she counted. Eleven, twelve...twenty-three yellow roses, complete with golden ribbons, baby’s breath and a cut-glass vase—for her?
The flowers grew unbearably heavy. Twenty-three roses. One for every day we’ve been together.
“Easy.” Suddenly, a strong hand cupped beneath hers, taking the weight of the glass. “We don’t want a flood on the carpet.”
A flash of blue danced into Elise’s peripheral vision a split second before her boss’s crisp voice startled her from her momentary paralysis. She backed away a step and hugged her arms securely around the vase. “I’ve got them.” She turned and carried them to the corner of her desk. “Thanks.”
The flowers might be a different color, but the similarity...twenty-three? Elise breathed in deeply, clearing the troubling thought from her mind. It wasn’t possible. The florist had simply miscounted. Or the deliveryman had stolen one for his girlfriend. This was just a coincidence and she’d overreacted. That part of her past was over and done with.
Dead men didn’t send flowers.
But who would?
Shuffling through the stems and greenery, Elise searched for a card that wasn’t there. She pulled the empty plastic clamp from the vase that should have held the sender’s name or a message for her, and hurried out into the hallway. “Wait a minute,” she called after the deliveryman. “Who are these from? There’s no card....”
But he’d already disappeared around the corner by the elevators and security desk. She could either kick off her heels and run after him, or solve the mystery on her own. And since Nikolai was dead... With another steadying breath, Elise had made her decision. Ease up on the paranoia. There’s a rational explanation. Figure it out.
But when she turned around, she froze, her path blocked by George Madigan filling the doorway. His sturdy forearms were exposed by his rolled-up sleeves, and their tanned strength formed an impenetrable barrier folded across the front of his chest. “Did I miss your birthday?”
Although he wore no gun, his badge was right there, clipped to his belt, its polished blue enamel and extra brass chevrons indicating he had the right to stop her and ask any questions he wanted in this office. Elise tipped her face up to his narrowed gray eyes. Was that suspicion she saw there? Curiosity? Concern?
She knew that George Madigan on a mission could be an intimidating thing. His devotion to the department, his single-minded determination to solve problems, made him a force to be reckoned with in city and departmental politics. But the idea of him turning that perceptive intelligence and laser beam focus on her was as unnerving as it was thrilling.
And that made those little ripples of awareness stirring her blood far too dangerous.
Tempting as it might be to share her fears with her boss, Elise nixed the idea. Her problems were her own. She understood George Madigan well enough to get her job done, and that was as far as their relationship needed to go. Mixing work and personal was definitely a bad idea.
Oh, snap. How long had she been staring at the loose knot of his tie?
Despite the air-conditioning that cooled the building’s temperature to a tolerable level, Elise suddenly felt hot. She brushed aside a short dark wave of hair that clung to her damp skin and tucked it behind her ear before scooting around the file he fisted in one hand. “My birthday’s not until September.”
Two months away. Elise set the card holder beside the vase and sorted through the ribbons and greenery again. She found one broken stem being held upright by sprigs of baby’s breath and the oversize bow, but still no card.
A queasy sense of unease turned in her stomach. Nikolai had sent her twenty-three red roses after he’d gone back to Russia. A thank-you, apology and do svidaniya all in one. But Nikolai was dead. Murdered by her former boss Quinn Gallagher’s father-in-law when Nikolai had dared to threaten Quinn’s daughter.
“I know it’s not Administrative Professionals’ Week. I marked that on my calendar.” George followed her to the desk and reached out to finger one of the blooms. “These are unexpected.”