Forget Me Not
by Julie Coulter Bellon
Copyrighted material. All rights reserved.
For the past few hours, Detective Bart Gutierrez had been living on adrenaline and he knew the crash was coming. The hostage situation had ended peacefully, but it had been touch and go most of the day. After stopping to park in front of his mother’s flower shop, he rested his forehead against the steering wheel. Sucking in a breath, he let it out slowly. He never wanted to bring his work home with him, to have the things he saw and experienced touch the people he loved. Today was no different.
Maybe I should just go home. But his mom was providing all the flowers for a big wedding reception this afternoon, and he wanted to help her get the heavier ones inside. At least that’s part of it. As weary as he was, he wanted to see Lucy. The thought of her smile made all the edginess of the last few hours fade away. They’d only been home from Colombia for a month, but she already dominated his thoughts. Before, he didn’t mind staying late or covering a shift. Now he couldn’t wait to be with her. And if that meant he spent more time delivering flower arrangements, then that’s what he’d do.
He got out of the car and headed in to Forget Me Not, the bell over the door tinkling when he opened it. Satisfaction rolled through him knowing his mom now owned the shop outright. She’d worked here for years and was finally living her dream of being a business owner. “Ma? You here?”
She came out of the back carrying a large vase filled with tall cylindrical-looking flowers and peeked out from behind it. “Right here. Thanks for coming to help me, mijo.”
He laughed and took the vase from her. “I can hardly see you behind that thing. What kind of flowers are they?”
“Calla lilies on top with hydrangeas on the bottom layer. Aren’t they beautiful?” She buried her nose in the arrangement. “The bride chose them for all the centerpieces.”
“They’re so big. How will people be able to see each other across the tables?” Bart asked as he set it on the counter.
When it was safely anchored, he turned back to face his mother. She was small, her hair pulled back into a serviceable bun, her uniform of black pants and a white shirt that said Forget Me Not on the pocket still looking as fresh as when she’d put it on. There wasn’t anything out of place, the entire ensemble made to help her blend into the background. But, as usual, she wore her special flower earrings that made her stand out from anyone else. Today it was large purple pansies. She always wore those particular ones when she felt happy and confident, and it made him feel good to see that.
“We do what the bride wants. And besides, once you’re sitting, the only thing in the way is the vase.” She turned to grab a box on the floor. “We better start loading up.”
He looked around the shop. “So, where’s Lucy?” Bart asked, trying to keep his voice nonchalant. His mother was well-meaning, but she’d been in matchmaker overdrive since he brought Lucy home. Knowing her, she’d probably already decided on all the flower arrangements for their wedding— and centerpieces for their future children’s christenings. Of course with how strong his feelings were for Lucy, those things were definitely in his mind for the future, but they’d just started exploring their relationship and still had some figuring out to do.
“Someone looking for me?” Lucy came out of the back room, holding an arrangement identical to the one his mother had, but since she was a little taller, she wasn’t quite so hidden behind the towering flowers and her head was visible. She wore the same bun as his mother, but some tendrils had come loose and were curling just at the nape of her neck, a soft spot he liked to touch himself.
She crossed the room to him and set down the flowers, bringing his attention back to her face. For a second it looked like she might reach for him, but changed her mind at the last second. Bart squelched his disappointment.
“I’m surprised to see you here. That hostage scene was all over the news. It looked pretty bad. I thought for sure you’d go straight home,” she said, searching his eyes.
Bart put his hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t be tempted to reach out and touch her hair. Or her face. Or just hug her. “I’ll sleep after we unload all of these.” He nodded toward the boxes and vases covering the floor and counter space.
“Well, I won’t say no to your help,” his mother said as she reached up on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.”
She bustled out to the van with a box of glass vases. Bart bent to pick up a calla lily arrangement, but Lucy stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Are you okay? From what I saw, no one expected that situation to have a happy ending.”
“Yeah, it was a tough one.” Bart looked down into her brown eyes, seeing worry and concern there. For him. His chest tightened. As kids, she’d annoyed him, getting under his skin with her constant challenges in sports, bike races, and even watermelon seed-spitting. Even with all that, though, she’d still managed to end up being one of his best friends. Together with her and Manny, they’d been the Three Musketeers, willing to take on anything or anyone.
It still amazed him that he’d found Lucy again after losing touch for all those years. His feelings from childhood had turned into so much more. She got under his skin in a whole new way and, so far, the adult Lucy was full of surprises. Sometimes she reminded him of that daredevil young girl she’d been, and other times she kept her cards close to the vest. She was a beautiful, complex woman who’d been through so much and come out stronger. The kind of woman he’d been searching for and was lucky enough to have in his life again.
“Bart?” She waved her hand in front of his face. “Where’d you go?”
Realizing he’d been staring, he stepped back and tried to pick up the conversation. “Sorry. You distract me.”
She lightly slapped his shoulder. “Be serious.”
He held up his hands and chuckled. “I am.” She raised her eyebrows, and he sobered. “All right, I was just going to say the whole thing would have been over a lot sooner if the guy hadn’t been coming off a high. It’s tough to reason with people on drugs.” And it had taken nearly thirty hours before they’d gotten the girlfriend out safely. With how agitated the guy had been it was a miracle no one had been killed.
Lucy let out a little puff of air, her concern turning to sympathy. “I’m glad it ended well. I’ve seen way too many situations where it didn’t.”
Her words brought Bart back to the reality he’d compartmentalized in an out-of-the-way place in his head. Their connection to a drug cartel wouldn’t be going away anytime soon. He couldn’t change who his father was, and Lucy had been an undercover operative for years.
No doubt she’d seen her share of tragedy while in the Castillo cartel. Hopefully being here with him would help put that behind her, though, so they could both move on. “I hope the guy gets some help,” he said finally. But he didn’t want to talk shop anymore. With her so close, he couldn’t control the temptation he’d had since she’d come in, and he reached out to cup her face. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you all day.”
She pressed her cheek into his palm. “I’m glad you’re here. Safe.”
“Do you worry about me then?” Her skin was so silky soft; he let his thumb trail over her cheek and down her neck.
“Maybe a little. It would be just our luck to survive Colombia, only to have you get shot on the job in Connecticut.” Her breaths were coming faster, and he could feel her pulse thrumming under his fingers.
He moved closer, unable to take his eyes off of her. “Maybe our luck is changing,” he said, just as he bent to kiss her.
Before he could, he heard his mother’s familiar steps behind them. Lucy jumped back, and they both turned. His mother was standing there with an indulgent smile. “Don’t mind me.”
Bart rolled his eyes, but his lips curved in amusement at his mother’s dramatics. “I won’t, Ma.” He leaned closer to Lucy and kissed her forehead. “Later.”
Lucy smiled and grabbed a smaller arrangement. “I’m counting on it.”
They went out to the van, and it didn’t take long before everything was loaded. “Should I follow you over to the reception hall?” Bart asked his mother.
“That’s a good idea. You know what’s a better idea? If Lucy goes with you in your car. Then I can play my music loud.” She winked and climbed into the driver’s seat of the floral van, starting it up and not waiting for an answer.
Lucy laughed. “Hey, I don’t mind your music.” But Daniela was already pulling away. They watched her leave and Lucy brushed her hands together. “Well, that was pretty obvious.”
Bart grinned. “That’s why I love her.” He took advantage of the opportunity to pick up where they’d left off by pulling her against him. She smelled like a smorgasbord of all of his favorite flowers, and he drew in a deep breath. “How are things going? Is it okay living with my mom for now?” Not exactly an ideal situation, but until they could find her an apartment nearby, it was the most logical.
“Things are fine,” she said, drawing back slightly to look at him. Her words were the ones he wanted to hear, but there was a shadow in her eyes when she spoke.
Bart furrowed his brows, wanting to chase the shadows away. “That doesn’t sound fine.”
“How can I explain?” She dropped her chin and nestled her face into his chest. He liked the contact, but he also knew the signs. She didn’t want to look him in the eye.
Avoidance wasn’t like Lucy at all. She was the strongest woman he knew and always met every challenge head on. He loosened his hold to lift her face. “You can trust me. If it’s not working out, we can find somewhere else for you to live.” She closed her eyes, and a tear escaped. Bart’s stomach dropped to the pavement as he wiped away the drop of moisture from her cheek. Was she having second thoughts? Was this new life too much? “Tell me, Luce.”
She opened her eyes still shimmering with tears, and bit her lip. “It’s just been so long since I had a mother.” Her hands slid up his chest and around his neck, and he embraced her, relieved. “Your mom treats me like a daughter. I didn’t realize how much I missed that.”
Her voice was muffled against his shirt, and he could feel her trembling. “You can borrow my mom anytime. I don’t mind sharing.”
She gave him a sniffle-laugh, but stayed in his embrace. He tucked her head under his chin and stroked her hair, gratitude replacing the anxiety of a moment ago. She’d confided in him and was letting him give her comfort. With the way she’d bottled up her emotions for so long, he knew that was a gift.
Bart kissed the top of her head. “I know you had it rough growing up, but you’ve got a family now. Remember that.” And he’d do all he could to make that permanent. Sooner rather than later, if he got his wish.
She held on for a moment longer, then pulled back. “Well, we better get going before we test that theory. Your mom will be wondering where we are.”
“No, she won’t.” Bart gave her a quick kiss on the lips and opened the passenger door for her. “She’s probably hoping we take a quick trip to Vegas.” Lucy’s eyes widened, and Bart felt his ears start to burn, a flush creeping up his neck. “You know how she is,” he said lamely. He didn’t want to bring up marriage before she was ready and have Lucy feel pressured. As it was, his mother’s machinations were enough.
She touched his chin, a smile on her face. “I love everything about your mom.”
What about me? he wanted to ask, but didn’t. “I do, too. Most of the time,” he deadpanned.
Lucy chuckled as she sat down in his car and wiped away her tears. “She’s a romantic at heart. That’s what makes her an exceptional florist.”
And she wants you for a daughter-in-law, Bart added silently, suddenly wishing they didn’t have anything to work out. Not many other couples had father issues like theirs¾ his father, head of a drug cartel, had ordered the murder of Lucy’s father, who’d helped hide Bart and his mother. Could they get past that sort of baggage? Best to take things slow, but that was proving harder than he’d thought.
He got into the driver’s seat and pulled into traffic, giving her a sidelong glance. Her hands were folded in her lap, and she was looking out the window. He hadn’t known her to be so thoughtful before and wished he could read her thoughts. For some reason, whether lack of sleep was getting to him, or he was just over-thinking things, her demeanor had his anxiety antennae on full alert. “Besides being mothered 24/7, how is it working at the flower shop? My mom tells me you’ve won over Mr. Beagley, so you must be working some sort of magic there, but I’m sure customer service is pretty tame compared to what you’re used to.”
“Mr. Beagley was gruff, but it was all a show.” She turned and smiled. “He was pretty tight-lipped at first, but I finally got him to open up to me.”
“Mom said no one has ever been able to get a word out of him beyond hello and good day. You’re a miracle-worker.”
“When I was undercover I learned all kinds of ways to get people to talk.” She lowered her voice as if imparting a great secret. “But I didn’t have to use those techniques. Mr. Beagley is just a lonely old man who comes in every day to buy a flower for his wife’s grave. When he saw I truly cared, well, that was all he needed.”
“Working at a flower shop is a far cry from being undercover.” Bart was pushing, but part of him had to know. Coming back to a normal life after being “under” had been too much for some cops he knew. He didn’t want that for Lucy.
“I’m fine, Bart. You don’t have to worry.” She reached for his hand. “After watching over my shoulder every second for so long, making flower arrangements is a nice change. A happy change.”
“Glad to hear it.” He hadn’t known until that moment how glad he really was. Bart gave her a smile and entwined his fingers with hers. Her hand was a little cold, so he rubbed his thumb over the back of it.
Lucy turned her knees toward him and squeezed his hand. “Okay, now who’s getting people to talk? Your turn. You’ve been acting weird since you came in, and I know that case affected you. Can you tell me about it?”
Thinking back on how tense the hostage situation was and how he didn’t want that feeling bleeding over into this part of his life, he grimaced. The weight of trying to balance his worlds crashed over him, especially since this particular case was his first hostage situation since Colombia. The fact that drugs were the center of the case had brought up so many feelings he hadn’t been prepared for. “I just wish I could put the past behind me. Let go of things.” He clenched his jaw. How could he describe exactly how he felt without too many details? “Being up close and personal with how drugs affect people and families makes me think¾” He stopped. His thoughts were probably silly or wouldn’t make sense.
“You feel responsible somehow because of who your father was?” she asked gently. “Bart, you’re nothing like him. Look at what you’ve done with your life. Almost the exact opposite. And you have no control over your father’s actions.”
Bart’s hand clenched the wheel. “I don’t want people to know my father was Nico Castillo. Especially anyone in law enforcement. I feel their judgment, see them wonder if I’m dirty and helping my father’s cartel move the drugs, you know? He ruined so many people’s lives, including yours.” He stared straight ahead, his pulse starting to pound in his ears. “Most of the time I’m okay with it, but when hostage situations like this come up, it’s hard to compartmentalize.”
She didn’t say anything, just moved closer until they were as close to shoulder-to-shoulder as they could be while seat-belted in a car— like a show of silent solidarity between the two of them. No one understood better than her that it would take time to process everything that had happened with Nico. Just having her support meant the world.
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. “Thanks for being here.”
“Always. You just need time. We all do.” She laid her head on his shoulder, and suddenly the burdens he’d been carrying seemed lighter with her at his side.
Too soon, they pulled into the parking lot of the reception hall. The Forget Me Not van was near a side entrance, and Bart pulled up next to it, wishing he hadn’t used their precious time together to talk about his father. At the same time, though, if they were going to move forward, they had to be open and honest with each other.
“You know, I’m mostly feeling good about things when it comes to my dad and how his actions have affected me. Sometimes it’s hard to have my integrity questioned.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m just tired.”
Lucy shook her head. “I worked for your father for five years, and I question myself sometimes. Maybe I should have done things differently. Stopped him sooner. Maybe even been more compassionate at the end.” She leaned over the console and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Second-guessing yourself never does any good. Neither does questioning the man you are because of what your dad did. Or caring what others think they know about you. But I’m always here to listen if you need to talk about it. You’ve got a family, too. Don’t forget that.”
She tossed his own words back at him and his heart skipped a beat.
“I’m counting on it.” He put the car into park and turned the last inch to press her to him, his mouth finding hers. Her hand came up to stroke his jaw, and combined with her soft lips exploring his, everything else faded away and there was only her— them.
“I’m falling in love with you, you know,” he whispered when they came up for air.
“I’m already there,” she whispered back.
He wanted to kiss her again, to show what those words really meant to him, but out of the corner of his eye he could see his mother waving to them. With a deep sigh, he knew his time alone with Lucy was over for the moment, but he was glad for what they’d had. “Are we going to pick this up later?” he asked in a low voice.
Lucy reached for the door handle, but smiled over her shoulder. “Definitely.”
He got out and followed behind her as they joined his mother. These two women meant more to him than anything else in the world, and seeing Lucy in their little circle brought a grin to his face.
Family. He liked the sound of that.
Family. He liked the sound of that.