The small, dark-haired woman who stopped in front of Lee Brody's desk in the Weatherford Detective's Bureau looked enough like her daughter to make his heart turn a now-familiar flip. But age had softened the angular features, there was gray threaded through her dark bob of hair and her eyes were blue rather than the striking gunmetal gray of Stella Hannigan's.

Though he hadn't yet met his partner's mother, he knew he was looking at Ruby Nell Hannigan. Quirky intelligence like her daughter's blazed in the eyes gazing down at him.

He stood. "You're Mrs. Hannigan, right?"

Mrs. Hannigan smiled. "And you're Lee Brody. I've heard a lot about you." She had the same strong Appalachian accent that slipped into her daughter's speech from time to time, the legacy of a lifetime in the mountains of northeastern Alabama.

"All lies," he said with a smile, hiding his uneasy curiosity about what his mercurial partner might have told her mother about him. "Hannigan—" He started over. "Stella is off today."

He had been seething with curiosity ever since she'd told him the day before that she'd be taking Friday off. She hadn't told him why, and, given their twisted-up relationship at the moment, he hadn't dared ask.

He never should have touched her navel ring—

"I know she's off today." Mrs. Hannigan's rueful smile once again conjured up her daughter's face. "That's why I'm here."

Brody waved at the chair in front of his desk, ignoring the curious look from his fellow detectives. "Have a seat."

She sat, both feet flat on the floor, her hands folded in her lap. Now he knew where Hannigan got that pose. "What I'm about to tell you doesn't need to get around to my daughter. Understand?"

Brody's gut tightened with sudden alarm. Was Hannigan sick? Was that why she'd taken the day off? "Is something wrong?"

"Nothing life or death," Mrs. Hannigan said quickly, apparently sensing his concern. "And nothing to do with Stella," she added when his furrowed brow didn't immediately disappear.

He schooled his features, and Mrs. Hannigan's expression cleared. "What is it?" he asked.

"I've gotten myself into a real pickle." Her cheeks went pink, and she looked embarrassed. "Last week, I went to Florida with a couple of friends, and well, Stella keeps telling me it's a tax on the poor and stupid, and most times I'd say she's right, but we'd stopped at the Circle K for some Diet Cokes and it was right there. And I just had a feeling—"

"You bought a lottery ticket?"

"I bought the winning Florida Lotto ticket," she said, a smile breaking across her face briefly before a shadow darkened her expression. "Three million dollars."

He sat back, puzzled as to why she wasn't dancing for joy. Even with her daughter's disdain for gambling as a piss-poor way to make money, surely a winning ticket would offer a heaping helping of shut-up juice. He knew from the handful of things Hannigan had told him about her childhoodH that her family had struggled to keep a roof overhead and food in their mouths for several years. Three million dollars, even after taxes, must seem like a bloody fortune. "You want me to help you figure out how to tell Stella or something?"

"No, I want you to help me find it." She winced a little as she said it, as if anticipating a backlash.

"The ticket?"

She nodded.

His stomach ached a little in sympathy. "You lost it?"

"No," she said quickly, her expression darkening even more. "Some thieving son of a bitch stole it right out of my purse."

Shopping for lingerie had to be the most humiliating experience possible, Stella Hannigan thought glumly as she stared at her reflection in the dressing room mirror. Everything she'd tried on seemed to fit into one of two extremes—polyester hausfrau or satin slut. Nightgowns seemed to be made for a woman whose height was ninety percent legs. Teddies were too on the nose. And the camisole and tap pants ensemble she'd tried made her look about twelve years old.

Why was it so damned hard to find something that Brody might find moderately alluring?

She closed her eyes to the horrifying vision of her compact body dripping with black and red lace and pictured her partner's expression if he could see her in such a get up.

Humiliation wasn't a strong enough word.

"How are we doing in there?" The too-cheerful saleswoman tapped lightly on the dressing room door, trying not to sound impatient. But Hannigan knew she had to be losing her happy outlook after nearly an hour of trying to find something that didn't make her skin crawl.

"We're crashing and burning," she muttered, wriggling out of the teddy. A quiet sigh from the other side of the door told her the saleswoman had heard.

Once she'd redressed, she emerged from the dressing room and shot an apologetic look at the saleswoman. To justify wasting the woman's time, she found a couple of pairs of panties and added a set of black tights, since winter was just around the corner. She paid for her purchase, trying not to meet the annoyed saleswoman's eyes, and headed from the shop into the mild October breeze blowing down Weatherford's busy Butler Avenue.

She'd lived in Weatherford since her family had moved there when she was a few months shy of twelve. Her parents had finally saved up enough money to leave behind the tiny converted trailer where they'd lived just across the county line and put a down payment on a small bungalow in the Riverside neighborhood near the Weatherford town center. Barely a step up from the converted trailer, but at least they'd had a basement where they could take cover during the regular flurry of tornado warnings Weatherford suffered through every year from early spring to late fall.

And it was a hell of a lot less isolated than that trailer in the middle of nowhere. Her parents never said so explicitly, but Hannigan knew what she'd gone through at age eleven had sent her parents scrambling for a better place to raise the family.

Her mother still lived in that Riverside bungalow almost twenty years later. Though her father had passed away several years ago, victim to a factory accident, her mother had never seen fit to move. The house was paid for, she'd argued, and it was all the house she needed now that she was living there alone.

She should call her mother, Hannigan thought. Offer to take her to lunch, since she had a rare day off during the week.

Digging in her purse for her cell phone, she nearly ran head-on into another pedestrian on the sidewalk in front of her. "Oh, I'm so sorry—" She faltered to a stop as she recognized the tall, broad-shouldered man who put out a hand to steady her. "Kowalski."

Greg Kowalski grinned at her, his blue eyes slanting toward the lingerie shop she'd exited moments before. One sandy eyebrow arched. "Shopping on the job, Hannigan?"

"Day off, Kowalski," she answered, though she was writhing inside with dismay.

His gaze slid back to the lingerie shop again. "Special occasion?"

She shook her head. "Just picking up a few things I've been needing."

The broadening grin on his boyishly handsome face made her want to punch him. "New boyfriend?"

"Not your business."

His voice lowered intimately. "Used to be."

"Used to," she said flatly. "Not now."

"Come on, Hannigan. I’d be big man at the station if I could start a little gossip about your sex life. Throw me a bone."

"Go to hell." She started past him.

He caught her arm. "Aw, come on, Stella. I'm just teasing you."

She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. He was right. She had totally overreacted to his typical cop smart-assery. Maybe if it had been any other Weatherford cop, she might have reacted better, but she and Kowalski had a history that included more than one naked tangle in bed sheets. Discussing her current sex life—or lack of one—wasn't anything she wanted to do with Kowalski any time soon.

"Sorry. I'm just frazzled. Rare day off, and I've packed it full of things to do. In fact, I was just about to meet my mom for lunch."

"Really." He sounded surprised.

"It happens," she said defensively, although she had to admit that it had been a while since she'd spent any quality time with her mother that didn't include one of her brothers' rambunctious little rug rats running around making a racket and a mess.

"No, I didn't mean that. It's just—I saw your mom maybe five minutes ago, right before I left the office."

Now she was the one surprised. "My mom was at the station?"

"Yeah. You didn't know?"

She shook her head. "No. Was she okay?"

"She looked fine."

"What was she doing there?"

Kowalski's grin returned. "You don't know?"

"Clearly not."

He lowered his voice. "Well, when I walked by the Detective's Bureau twenty minutes ago, she was deep in conversation with your pal Brody."

Her stomach gave a little flip. Her mother had been talking to Brody? Why? Had she come to the station looking for her?
Was something wrong?

"Probably came by to look for you," Kowalski said gently, as if he could read the worry in her face. "Maybe she had the same idea about lunch?"

She schooled her expression immediately. "I'm sure that's it," she said with a smile she didn't feel. Because her mother knew she was off work that day. Hannigan had mentioned her day off when her mother had called the night before to remind her about her brother's goodbye party a week from Saturday. Her brother Nathan, a captain in the Army National Guard, was headed overseas on a two-year deployment.

"I've gotta meet the team for a planning powwow." Kowalski gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Enjoy the rest of your day off."

"Thanks. Say hi to the Vice crew." She kept a smile pasted on her face until he was out of sight, swallowed by the midday crowd of office workers beginning to fill the sidewalks in search of food and a break from the daily grind. Once she could no longer spot Kowalski, she backed up against the concrete façade of the phone store next to the lingerie shop,  dialed her mother's number and waited for an answer.

Her mother sounded distracted when she answered on the third ring. "Hey, baby girl. Enjoying your day off?"

"Sure am. I was just calling to see if you wanted to go to lunch."

"Oh, honey, I wish I could. But I'm already having lunch with the girls. Nina's met a new fellow and she's been telling us all about him. Rain check? Maybe you could come by the house tonight for dinner?"

"I'm not sure what I'm doing tonight," Hannigan answered tonelessly, gooseflesh fluttering up her arms. "I'll call you closer to time. Have fun with the girls." She hung up the phone, a wriggly sensation in her belly.

Her mother had just flat out lied to her.

"That was awful close." Ruby Hannigan laughed ruefully.

Brody frowned. "Are you sure you really want to keep this from Stella? If we can actually recover your ticket, she's going to find out about it once the money starts rolling in."

Mrs. Hannigan looked sheepish. "I'm just a big ol' coward, aren't I? I know her bark's worse than her bite, but her bark is powerful loud, you know? And honestly, if the Lotto numbers had gone a different way, I'd be out a few bucks I haven't always been able to spare. Her daddy and I taught Stella the value of good money sense, so I can't fault her if she looks at gambling as throwing good money after bad."

"She does pinch a penny 'til it screams," Brody said with a smile, thinking of his partner's quirks with an indulgent smile. Her frugality was legendary among the police station staffers. She recycled anything that could feasibly be reused, more out of disdain for wasting perfectly good office supplies than any environmental concerns. When she paid for lunch, they ate cheaply, and when he paid, she always ordered the least expensive item on the menu. At first he'd assumed she was living hand to mouth, but it hadn't taken long to learn that she had enough in her savings account to live comfortably for a year, even if she didn't earn a penny in salary.

Now that he knew more about her childhood, he understood her frugality a lot better. She'd done without, so it was easy for her. But she'd never be penniless again, not as long as she put away money for a potentially leaner future. He admired her for the discipline, even if he had no frame of reference from which to understand the fears that drove her. He'd had money his whole life, never wanting for anything material. Nice home, nice cars, expensive clothes and the best education his father's successful law practice could purchase.

He and Hannigan were so different in so many ways. Sometimes he wondered if he was crazy to want more from their relationship. What were the odds they could overcome those differences to make a romantic relationship work?

What would they be risking if they tried?

"Reckon I'd better call the girls and see if they can meet for lunch," Mrs. Hannigan said with another rueful smile. "So it ain't a complete lie."

"Stella is probably the better person to help you with this investigation, you know," Brody pointed out, not for the first time. "She knows the players involved. I don't."

Mrs. Hannigan's jaw squared. "If you don't want to take this on, I understand—"

"I didn't say that," he assured her quickly. "I'll help you. I just don't like keeping it from your daughter."

"I know I'm asking a lot of you. I just—" She flattened her lips and started again. "I worked real hard for so long to protect my kids from having to worry about things. And maybe I didn't do such a good job always, but her daddy and I tried. God bless her, she always took our troubles to heart, so much more than her brothers did. She once gave us everything she'd saved for two years so we could pay a power bill. Emptied her little blue piggy bank." Mrs. Hannigan's eyes welled up with tears.

Brody's heart softened at the mental image of little Stella Hannigan pouring out her piggy bank to help her parents.

Instinctively, he reached across the desk and closed his hand over Mrs. Hannigan's.

She gave his fingers a quick squeeze before she withdrew her hand and brushed away her brimming tears with swift jabs of her fingers, a gesture that reminded Brody keenly of his partner. "Stella saw a lot of things as a kid that I wish she hadn't. I reckon that's why she's the way she is. So I don't want to burden her with this until I have an answer, one way or the other."

"Okay." Brody nodded. "But the minute we find out what happened to that ticket, either you tell her or I will."

"That's fair." Mrs. Hannigan stood and extended her hand.

 Brody rose and shook it.  "I can start tomorrow. I've got the addresses you gave me, and I can start asking around."
"Just don't tell them you're a policeman."

"Won't they already know? I mean, I've been Stella's partner for years now." Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer.

"She doesn't actually speak of you—any of y'all, here at the station—that often. Stella's…private that way. I reckon I fibbed when I said I'd heard a lot about you."

He wasn't surprised. It was one of the handful of things he and Stella Hannigan had in common. He rarely spoke of his relationship with his partner to his own family and friends. She was like a treasure he hid from the rest of the world, a secret belonging to him alone.

Another thing that would change if he and Hannigan followed up on their sexual attraction to each other. What if they decided their relationship was strong enough to form a foundation on which to build a future? He could hardly hide a wife and children from the rest of his world.

Slow down, tiger, he warned himself as he watched Ruby Hannigan walk out of the Detective's Bureau. You haven't even seen third base yet, much less slid home and popped the champagne in the clubhouse.

He pressed his face into his hands, trying to clear from his mind a sudden onslaught of very naughty images of his partner. Would his Technicolor fantasies get worse or better if they finally snapped all the delicious sexual tension zinging between them?

His cell phone hummed on the desk, making him jump. In the display window, Hannigan's face glared back at him, the photo snapped without her permission at a particularly stressful moment during their last investigation. She was covered with mud from getting too close to the wet, dirty cadaver dog that had found the body of a missing drug addict. Paco, the happy-faced golden retriever, had chosen the wrong moment to shake the muddy water from his thick coat.

Brody was grinning when he answered. "Hey, Hannigan. Enjoying your day off?"

"Yeah. Just running a few errands. I was hoping to catch my mom for lunch but apparently she's out with friends."

"That's too bad." He felt like a creep for even the lie of omission.

How the hell was he going to survive keeping a whole investigation secret from his partner?

Text Copyright © 2013  Paula Graves.