“Rylen,” a voice called, “Boss wants to see you.”
Absently dabbing at the newly formed coffee stain on my jacket, I rose from my desk and made my way to the main office. Several eyes met mine as I passed, some mildly curious while others were gentle and supportive. Most, however, met me with smug, half-tilted smirks.
Knocking lightly on Sheriff Linesse’s door, I heard his deep, bass carry to enter.
“Ah, Rylen,” he murmured, looking up momentarily from a messy stack of paperwork. “What the hell have you already spilled? Jesus, you haven’t even been here for ten minutes.”
Taking the seat directly in front of him, I felt my cheeks flush red and warm.
“Rough night,” I mumbled. “Didn’t sleep the best.”
A flicker of a tender smile tugged at the corners of Linesse’s face, old age crinkling the edges of his eyelids and lips.
“I won’t give you some cliché line about ‘we’ve all been there’, Rylen. God knows, half the deputies in this building can’t understand what you’re going through right now,” he stated, his voice kind. “But I have been there, if that is of any comfort.”
Nodding, I smiled my thanks and let my gaze travel to the picture frame of Linesse and a fellow man, both in uniform, always kept at the top of his bookshelf. Age hadn’t harmed Linesse, the younger version of himself very much like the man sitting in front of me at that moment; same deep-set blue eyes, high Indian cheekbones, and tanned complexion. Salt-and-pepper dotted his once coal black hair but it was cut the same as the picture which had been taken well over twenty years prior.
“Does it get easier? Please tell me it does,” I whispered, keeping my eyes on the photo. I shoved my hands inside my jacket pockets, hiding the shaky-way I felt as I voiced the request.
Sighing, Linesse stood, his uniform starched and pristine over his cowboy boots.
Reaching for the picture, he came to sit next to me in the other chair.
“I didn’t like him much in the beginning,” Linesse stated, laying the photo in my lap. “He was a cocky little prick. We didn’t have any women in our ranks back then but we had girls who worked part-time at the reception desk – and, boy, did he think he was God’s gift to them. He’d strut around, chest all puffed out, bring them little pieces of candy and leave them cooing after him.”
Standing, Linesse paced to the window, remaining silent for several seconds.
“When we were made partners, I was furious. Threatened to quit and tell the whole bunch to go shove it up their ass. Matt, to my surprise, was elated. Kept going on and on about how he’d always wanted to work directly with me and how it was so great to have someone to get to know. Pretty soon I figured out the kid wasn’t bad, he just needed to feel like he was a part of something. He grew into himself and this job and grew out of wanting people to like him pretty quickly. Made me like him even more for some reason. Damn good deputy – sharp eye, quick to assess every type of situation. We stuck it out through some of the hardest points in our lives,” Linesse forced, fogging up the window with his breath. “He was my best friend through it all – my marriage, my divorce, my promotions, my screwups. Always had my back even when I didn’t deserve it.”
Sucking in a huge rush of air, I looked away from my boss before tears could dot my eyelashes.
“Rylen,” Linesse continued. “When you spend every day with that person and you trust your life in their hands with one hundred percent certainty that they will protect you at all costs…no one can blame you for being messed up right now.”
Leaning forward, I softly laid the picture frame on Linesse’s desk.
“What happened to him? To your partner?”
Silence followed my question, reddening my cheeks again for asking such an inappropriate question.
“Sorry, sir,” I stated, tugging nervously on my pony tail. “I didn’t mean to-”
“Lung cancer,” Linesse replied, returning to sit at his desk. “I was lucky, if anyone can call losing someone lucky. Matt retired, moved to the beach, and fished his days away until God decided it was time for him to come home.”
Nodding, I stared down at the scarred knuckles on my hands.
“I’m sorry you lost Gabe, Rylen,” Linesse finished. “I know you’ve talked to the shrink – but hear me out when I say this, not only as your boss, but as your friend. I may not have lost my partner the same way you did but I did lose him in the end. Hurts all the same to lose someone we love. The only thing I need you to promise me is that you will not, under any circumstances, blame yourself for the situation Gabe willingly put himself in. There was nothing you could do. Gabe chose to make the sacrifice he did. Don’t wreck yourself in an attempt to reconcile what could’ve been or what you should’ve done. You will lose that battle. You will lose yourself.”
The tears I’d been fighting trickled openly down my face, the torture of punishing myself day in and day out finally breaking the surface at the softness of Linesse’s tone and acceptance.
“Thank you, sir,” I whispered, comforted at the thought of no longer having to pretend I was okay. Straightening my back, I wiped the moisture from my cheeks and shook the tightness from my shoulders. “I have several things I need to finish up, was there something you needed?”
Shaking his head quickly, Linesse gestured for me to relax.
“No, I don’t need anything exactly. However, I do want to broach a subject that you’re not going to like,” he spoke. Reaching into the bottom of his desk drawer, I heard the rustle of paper as I watched him assume his leadership demeanor. “I know you have a lot of weight on your shoulders right now, however, I have a spot to fill. Higher-ups are on me wanting to secure another deputy and there is no discussion about leaving the position vacant any longer.”
Nodding, I pulled my leg up to rest on my other knee, knowing this discussion was going to happen sooner or later. Enough time had been “given” to mourn Gabe, now it was time to move on with life and business.
“Have you spoke with possible candidates, sir?”
Tossing a folder onto the edge closest to me, Linesse nodded.
“I’ve chosen the one I think is best suited to our home here. I truly was hoping for another woman to partner up with you. No such luck, though. Now, I’m not going to give you comfort in thinking you’ll be the deciding factor of his hire, Rylen, but I would like you to meet him first to get a feel for whether you’d feel comfortable becoming partners.”
“Partners?” My voice squeaked, the nerves rattling my vocal chords. “Why can’t I just have one of the guys fill in with me for awhile? Let me at least get back on my feet with someone who I’ve been working with for a couple years. Pellam, Jackson, Hill, any of them.”
Sighing deeply, Linesse rubbed his forehead with both thumbs, shrugging inwardly.
“Rylen,” he uttered, “you have no choice. Either you partner or you go – whether it be with this newbie or one of the other candidates we’ve hired recently. Pellam and Hill have partners of their own to deal with. Jackson has other obligations, as you well know.”
Rolling my shoulders back, I opened the folder hesitantly.
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