Uh-uh. She wasn’t dismissing the confusion he’d read in her gaze. Not this time. “Are you worried someone stole the key?”
The corners of her mouth tightened as she fixed the smile on her lips. “I probably locked it inside the house the last time I used it and forgot. I didn’t have much time to look.”
George valued Elise as his assistant. His office had been a chaotic mess after the previous assistant retired. Elise had come in, quickly grasping the old information management and communication systems and updating them in ways that made his job easier, and made the entire deputy commissioner’s office a model of professional efficiency that other administrative departments were now copying.
But he’d been friends with each of his partners over the years. He’d gotten to know officers and staff alike. He knew the names of their children; whether they were football, baseball or basketball fans, or if they were even into sports at all. He knew what their favorite places to eat were and what issues they might be struggling with on the job or off the clock.
Elise went to great lengths to keep her personal life out of the office. He knew the names of her parents from her personnel file, but had never met them. And other than noting she wore no wedding ring and kept no pictures except one of a small black poodle on her desk, he couldn’t confirm whether or not she was in a relationship with anyone.
As stormy as his marriage to Courtney had been, he’d always kept a memento of her on his desk or in his wallet. And now that they were divorced, he had family pictures from his nephew Nick’s wedding on the shelves in his office, as well as a group photo from his twenty-fifth reunion at the University of Central Missouri on his desk.
But Elise? No pictures. No personal touches. Just the dog in her lap in one five-by-seven photo, and an invisible wall that said Keep Out.
George butted in, anyway. “Something’s upset you again. Something more than a misplaced key.” He shifted his stance, feeling the elevator slow its ascent. “What is it?”
For a few endless seconds, she tilted her cornflower-blue eyes up to his, giving him a glimpse of the turbulent emotions darkening their depths. Feeling an instinctive urge to respond to that unspoken plea for help, George stepped closer and reached for her.
But the elevator jerked to a stop. Elise blinked her gaze from his and moved to the front of the car. “I’m okay,” she lied.
The doors slid open and the chance to help was lost.
A lanky cop with dark blond hair that needed to see a comb rose from his chair behind the eighth floor security desk to greet them. “Good morning, sir. Morning, Elise.”
“Wilkins.” George slipped his hands into the pockets of his slacks, not sure what to do with the fingertips that itched with frustrated anticipation at the interrupted moment on the elevator.
Elise hurried across the lobby ahead of him to swipe her ID badge over the computerized card reader that Officer Wilkins set on top of the desk. Her serene smile was firmly in place as she looped the ID lanyard around her neck. “Hey, Shane. How are you today?”
The young uniformed officer hooked his thumbs into his utility belt and pulled his shoulders back. “Fit and fine. Ran my five miles this morning.”
“In this heat?”
Shane laughed. “That’s why I do it before dawn. No matter what the weather does to us, I have to stick to my training if I’m going to place in KC’s half marathon on Labor Day weekend. It’s only a few weeks away.”
Elise gave an exaggerated groan. “I barely want to walk out to my car in this heat. I admire your persistence and dedication.”
The younger man winked at her. “I try.”
George swiped his card and then clipped it to his belt beside his badge. He was out of smiles this morning and ready to work. “Is Commissioner Cartwright-Masterson in yet?”
Shane rightly turned his attention to his superior officer. “No, sir. Do you want me to tell her you’re looking for her when she checks in?”
George shook his head, hating that he was in such a mood. “No. I’m just curious if there’s any news on her son Seth’s baby yet. I know she wants to take a few days off then, but I’m hoping to get a little heads-up before it happens and the extra workload kicks in.”
“If I hear anything, you will, too,” Shane assured him.
“Thanks.” Elise was already heading around the corner into the hallway that led to their offices. Running away from him and his questions, it seemed. Whatever she’d been about to share in the elevator had been locked up tight inside her again. He’d be a smart man to respect her privacy and forget his concern. He’d be a smarter man to take care of the people he was responsible for. He flattened his hand on top of the counter, demanding Shane’s undivided attention. “In between screening visitors, you ought to apply some of that ‘persistence and dedication’ to studying for your detective’s exam. You got your degree in May, right?”
“Yes, sir. Finished it in three years instead of four. And that’s while I was working full-time.”
With that kind of drive, Shane was probably frustrated getting stuck on guard duty at KCPD headquarters. “You know I’ll put in a good word for you with the promotions board as soon as you pass the exam.”
“I appreciate that.”
George nodded. Sometimes, it was nice to have clout and be able to make a difference in a deserving person’s life. “Have a good one.”
“You, too, sir.”
And sometimes that clout didn’t do him a damn bit of good. George followed Elise to the reception area and the suite of offices at the end of the hallway. When he nudged open the door to her office, he was instantly hit with the sickeningly sweet smell of roses filling the air. And in the split second he wondered if a woman really was impressed with that stinky kind of excess, he plowed into Elise’s back.
“Whoa.” Before he sent her flying across the carpet, George grabbed her by the shoulders and kept her from falling. “Is there a reason why you stopped in the middle of the room?”
“They shouldn’t be here.”
And that’s when he realized she was frozen. In more ways than one. Her upper arms felt like ice beneath his fingers. He couldn’t seem to help rubbing his hands up and down her chilled skin, trying to instill some warmth. He looked over her shoulder to her desk and the yellow roses that had transfixed her, and this time, he wasn’t budging until he got an answer. “Explain.”
Elise never averted her gaze, never took a step away from him, so George never let go. She eased a sigh out on a deep, stuttered breath, then inhaled again before answering.
“It bothered me that I didn’t know who sent the roses, so I dropped them off at St. Luke’s on the way home last night. They’re too much and I didn’t want them.” She hugged her arms in front of her and shivered in his grip. “I got rid of them.”
George stepped up beside her to get a better look, dropping a steadying hand to the small of her back. “You’re certain these are the same?”
She nodded, recoiling a bit against his palm. “Cut-glass vase. There are only twenty-three roses, not twenty-four. One stem is broken. He brought them back.”
George quickly verified her description and began formulating possible scenarios to explain this twisted prank. Judging by her behavior in the elevator, he could guess this wasn’t the only worrisome puzzle Elise had been dealing with.
But how much of the story was she willing to share? How hard would he