Where the Blame Lies

Where the Blame Lies

Mia Sheridan



To the men and women of law enforcement who have made it their lives to turn toward the broken and the lost.





PROLOGUE


Before



The lights flashed, music pulsing as a crush of bodies twisted and gyrated on the dance floor in front of her. Josie felt both taken over by the sensory input and still oddly removed. Some innate other-ness in the mix of these carefree partyers, beautiful and exultant under the shifting strobes. Snap out of it, Josie, she demanded of herself, giving her shoulders a small shake. Have some damn fun.

What was wrong with her anyway?

“Cheers,” Reagan said as she came up on Josie’s right, thrusting a glass forward and breaking her from her moody thoughts, at least momentarily. “To living our best life.” Josie took a breath, rallied, forcing a grin as she took the gin and tonic and clinked Reagan’s glass. She sucked in a drink. “This place is packed tonight. Oh! There he is.” Reagan raised her hand and began waving wildly in the direction of the door where a tall, good-looking blond guy spotted her and waved back, making his way through the crowd to where they stood. He leaned forward and kissed Reagan’s lips. Josie looked away, giving them a moment of privacy as they greeted each other, her knee bouncing to the beat.

Reagan pulled on Josie’s sleeve. “Evan, this is my best friend, Josie. Josie, this is Evan.” Reagan practically purred as she said his name, and Josie barely refrained an eye-roll. Reagan had been crushing on the guy from her geology class for months, and he had finally asked her out two weeks before. They were already an item, though she couldn’t help wonder how long he’d last. Her best friend’s relationships with men were initially intense, but ultimately temporary.

Evan smiled. His teeth were very white and very straight, gaze sharp as he took her hand. His stare unnerved her slightly, and she wasn’t sure how to account for the strange feeling. He said something softly.

“I’m sorry, what?” she asked, leaning forward.

He leaned toward her too, and his mouth came close to her ear. “I said, we’ve met before.”

She leaned back. “Oh, I’m sorry . . .”

He shook his head. “House party on Stratford a couple months ago.”

“Oh.” She feigned sudden recognition, though she had absolutely no memory of meeting him. “Right. Nice to see you.”

He gave her a wry smile as though he knew she was lying and leaned away.

Reagan pulled him by the hand, jostling a girl next to her, who gave an annoyed look. “Let’s dance,” she singsonged loudly. “Come on, Jos.”

Josie held up her already-empty glass. No way was she going to be the third wheel in some weird three-person dance circle. “I’m gonna get another drink first. Want one?” she called as she moved away from the throng of swaying bodies. Reagan shook her head and disappeared into the revolving fray.

Ten minutes later, fresh cocktail in hand, Josie returned to the edge of the dance floor. She spotted Reagan and Evan dancing near the middle, Reagan holding her glass slightly out in front of her. Josie sipped at her drink. She hadn’t eaten much for dinner and the alcohol was acting fast, sending a pleasant buzz through her body. Her muscles relaxed. A guy in a red shirt grabbed her hand and she lurched forward, almost spilling her drink. The guy laughed, the sound swept under the loud pulse of the bass. He struck a pose meant to be funny, and Josie laughed, beginning to move with the stranger as they were pulled into the gyrating crowd. She downed the rest of her gin and tonic, closing her eyes as they danced, spinning, whirling, finally feeling a part of the people there rather than removed. Separate. She was one of them. A carefree college girl. She just needed to act like it. She needed to let go.

Bodies pressed close, and Josie could feel sweat dripping down the back of her neck. The guy in the red shirt moved directly against her and for a minute she let him. The music boomed, lyrics about a record spinning around. Josie felt like she was spinning too. The guy’s hand moved over her ass, back up her hip. Why not? He was cute and Josie smiled flirtatiously. He smelled like clean sweat and cologne and when he leaned toward her, she smelled beer on his breath. Josie closed her eyes, the vision of two little smiling faces filling her brain. Her eyes shot open, and she spun away from the guy she was dancing with, putting distance between them. He laughed, but annoyance flashed in his eyes. God, it’s hot. And that feeling of being removed settled over her once again. The need to get away. “I’m going to get a drink,” she yelled over the music, turning away from him.

In her peripheral vision, she saw the guy begin to follow her and slipped between a group of girls, losing him, and walking quickly to where she was out of sight. She spotted a familiar face standing at the end of the bar and while she wove through the crowd, a smile took over her face as he saw her and grinned. “Hey you,” Cooper greeted, giving her a big hug. “I didn’t know you were going to be here tonight.”

“I’m here with Reagan. Who I think has ditched me for Evan.” She dragged out his name, giving Cooper a meaningful look. “Last time I saw them, they were on the dance floor making out.”

Cooper shot her a wry smile. “Geology Evan? The stone-cold hunk?”

Josie laughed. They’d been annoying Reagan with really bad geology puns for weeks.

“The one and only. She really digs him.” They both pretended to crack up, giving big, fake laughs, which dissolved into real ones. Josie grinned. “Reagan always gets her man.”

“I’ve noticed,” Cooper said, rolling his eyes. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“Sure.” She was tipsy and heading toward drunk. Just where she wanted to be. She gripped the collar of her shirt and used it to fan the overheated skin beneath her clothing.

Cooper and Josie stood at the bar chatting and laughing for a little while, which helped Josie’s mood improve. Cooper attended UC too, and he worked at a local coffee shop where she and Reagan had met him over lattes and late-night studying. He was funny and sweet, always had a smile to share, and they’d gone out drinking and dancing with him a few times. He was also ridiculously good-looking, but unfortunately for her—and every other female in Cincinnati—he was not interested in the female persuasion.

She laughed as Cooper told a story about a customer he’d had earlier, her eyes meeting those of an older man sitting at a high-top table nearby, sipping a beer. He was handsome, wearing khakis and a button-down polo shirt. A young professor or a teacher’s aide. He smiled, his eyes moving down her body, and her nerves tingled. She was tempted. So tempted. He’d make her forget the melancholy that didn’t seem to want to release its hold on her tonight. He’d make her feel wanted, happy. But it’d be temporary. And temporary always ended up hurting. The thought confused her slightly. She’d never pondered that before, and definitely didn’t want to in the midst of a packed meat market. She’d come here for temporary. Hadn’t she?

She broke eye contact and took a long sip of her drink, attempting to recapture that carefree mood she’d found at the bottom of three gin and tonics and via Cooper’s charm. Cooper looked back over his shoulder where her gaze had lingered. When his eyes returned to her, his brow was raised. “Nice. Very nice.” He glanced back one more time and then leaned closer. “He’s still looking at you. Go ask him to dance.”

She shook her head, gathering her resolve. No, a one-night stand would only make her feel worse in the morning. Especially now. Don’t do it, Josie. “Nope. I’m on a hiatus from men at the moment. Especially older men.” With wives. And children. Her mood plummeted further, self-loathing rising, and suddenly her buzz soured. She felt annoyed. Sad. Lonely. The music blasted, the air felt hotter. Muggy. Everyone was too close. Jostling her, pressing, touching. She used the collar of her shirt to bring more air to her skin.

Cooper was watching her. “I think another round is called for.”

She shook her head but forced a smile. “No. And speaking of nice, there’s someone cute who’s got his eye on you.”

Cooper glanced over his shoulder at the dark-haired guy who was watching him from the other side of the bar, his head nodding slightly to the beat of the music. When Cooper caught his eye, the guy looked away bashfully and then immediately back in that age-old flirting move. “Ron. He works at the sandwich shop next to Brews. Do you mind if I go say hi and then I’ll be right back?”

“Not at all. You go. I’m good.”

“You sure?”

She pushed him. “Yes. I’m fine.”

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