Disclaimer: Obviously, any characters you recognize from ItHotN aren't mine, and no money is being made. This is simply a creative exercise.
Thanks: Thank you, Julia, for your early feedback on this story. As ever, I hope we get to see more chapters of your fabulous stories soon! Thank you, Rhonda, who was kind enough to beta-read a later version for me. Any mistakes that remain are mine, not theirs.
Summary: Re-titled and revised as of June 1, 2004. New chapter has been added as well. A look at what happens when a family's worst fear becomes reality. (Complete)
A/N: All chapters have been revised a bit, to better fit into a developing story arc. If you happened upon this story before June of 2004, none of the changes made are substantive, with one exception. More on that later…
Betty Stiles glanced up as Bubba Skinner sidled anxiously into the Assistant District Attorney's outer office. The elderly secretary took one look at the captain as he filled the doorway before her sarcastic greeting died in her throat. She did not have to ask to know that something was wrong - Bubba's blank expression, the thick hands crumpling his hat brim were eloquent in their own right.
Clearly the sharp barbs Betty normally traded with Bubba would not be appreciated today. The members of Laura Jamison's staff had picked up her habit of teasing the cops when they stopped by with reports or evidence for the many cases crossing Laura's desk. Everyone knew of the mutual condescension that white-collar lawyers and blue-collar policemen often shared for each other, but Laura chose to break down the barrier by openly making fun of it. She refused to put up with any guff from the other members of the D.A.'s staff, or from members of the police force.
Bubba only nodded his head when Betty told him Laura was with the D.A. and asked if he wanted to wait in her office. She opened the door for him and turned toward her office mate as she shut it behind him.
"What do you suppose is goin' on?" she whispered quietly.
"I don't know," Janice answered in a stage whisper. "I haven't seen a sorry expression like that since God was a boy."
Betty thought for a moment before pursing her lips together and knocking softly on Laura's office door. The muscular police captain stood by the window, crumpled hat still in hand. He barely looked up when she spoke to him.
"Bubba, she and Gerard had several things to go over. She could be a little while. Do you want me to tell her you're here?"
He nodded his head slowly; never taking his eyes from whatever it was outside that fascinated him so. Quietly Betty closed the door once more and headed across the office to knock on the District Attorney's door.
For several long seconds, Bubba didn't move, refusing even to breathe. I shouldn't be here, like this, he thought as he watched cars pass by City Hall in what amounted to rush hour traffic in Sparta. He should be at the station, writing reports in preparation to finish another long shift. He shouldn't be here, with this thing to do. Somewhat absently he wondered if this moment would feel any different…not easier, certainly, but different…if he hadn't himself gotten married not so long ago. If he weren't standing here, thinking not only about the woman for whom he was waiting, but another woman who might someday receive the same message he was here to deliver now.
He backed away from the open window abruptly as a familiar white sedan passed below. He saw the number painted on top of the car, searching his memory for which officers were on patrol. Everett. That's right. He'd asked to switch shifts with Parker just a few days ago. Bubba had made the schedule out himself. He envied Luke Everett and Parker Williams – envied them because they were not standing where he was at this moment, waiting to deliver this particular message.
Sighing heavily, he turned away from the window, letting his eyes wander where they would. He'd always thought this was a nice office – classy, feminine without being prissy, much like its inhabitant – strong with a healthy dose of softness to smooth over the rough spots. An area rug in muted tones of yellow and peach covered most of the dark wooden floor, concealing the tracks left behind by the thousands of people who'd been in and out of this old office in this old building in this little town. Beige walls and white trim further brightened the old floor and its accompanying dark, heavy furniture. Thick law books neatly lined the shelves of the bookcase behind the desk, interspersed occasionally by a photograph, a small vase of silk flowers handmade by her grandmother. Mrs. Tompkins? Taylor? He couldn't remember. A short stack of manila folders lay on either side of the blotter on her desk, and he recognized many of the names written on the tabs in her determined hand.
She kept most of her photographs on her desk, and he stared at them as his heart sank further in his chest. One was a photograph of Lonnie, taken on their honeymoon. Bubba knew – because Laura had told him – that Lonnie hated that picture; but it was one of her favorites and she stubbornly refused to honor his wish that she put it away and never bring it out again. He looked at the man standing on the beach in the photograph. Sunlight glanced off the golden highlights in his dark hair as he squinted into the camera, a lazy half-smile turning up one corner of his mouth. What struck Bubba about the picture was the fact that it had been taken nearly four years ago, yet Lonnie hadn't changed a bit. He glanced at the other photographs, dogs and vacations and friends and family and Lonnie. Always Lonnie.
Bubba didn't consider himself a sentimental person, he never had. He kept the important cards close to the vest, even though he didn't keep the chokehold on them that Lonnie Jamison did. He didn't have Lonnie's poker face, but even he could see the half-smile that worked its way across his features whenever Laura came around.
After almost four years of marriage, Lonnie and Laura had a well-developed repertoire of private gestures, a code language of sorts, looks and winks and quirky smiles they shared even in public. They thought no one was the wiser, and Bubba supposed most people weren't, but he'd known Lonnie for over ten years, and had known Laura since she first came to Sparta, so he knew. He knew and Virgil and Althea Tibbs knew and the chief knew and the sheriff knew and Willson Sweet knew. Hell, even Parker knew, but Parker also knew not to talk about it, unlike most everything else.
His gaze began to drift back toward the window just as the door opened. Laura breezed in, blue eyes dancing as usual. Bubba felt the corners of his mouth harden as he realized that Betty had obviously not prepared Laura for his current mood.
"Hey, Bubba," she said brightly. "You would not believe what Gerard says we should do about the…"
He watched her as she talked, but the roaring in his ears drowned out whatever she was saying. He had always wondered how she put in a fifteen-hour day and still managed to look as cool and crisp and perfectly put together as she always did. He admired that kind of composure, that polish she had, and knew without a doubt that she'd need every bit of it to deal with what was coming.
Laura stopped in front of her desk, tossing a handful of files onto the blotter as she smiled at him. She had such a wide smile. He'd always liked her smile – thought it was her best feature. Her sharp eyes really looked at his face for the first time, and the smile froze in place.
"Bubba? Are you okay?" she asked as the first hint of dread crept its way across her expression.
She stood nearly six feet tall herself in her heels, but Bubba's six-feet-four-inches still forced him to look down into her face. He felt as if he'd swallowed sawdust as he looked at her, eyes so wide and trusting and expectant and concerned. And terribly, terribly young. Suddenly she didn't look like the tough, scrappy prosecutor she'd become; but more like the willowy, fresh-faced law student that had walked into their office six years ago. So much had changed since then, but not Laura. Bubba knew as he took a deep breath that he was about to change her. In fact, he had no doubt that whatever the outcome of this…nightmare; she'd never be the same. None of them would be.
"Honey, are you 'bout done for the day?" He hated the sound of his own voice at this moment, hated the way her keen eyes began to look him over, the way her she drew herself up straighter as if preparing for a blow.
"Bubba?" She seemed to hold her breath for a moment before continuing, as the question he knew she didn't want to ask sat poised on her lips. "What is it?"
"We…uh…" he struggled, hating his own weakness. He didn't want to hurt this woman, this friend, like he was about to. "There was a shootin'."
For the first time, Laura noticed two tiny scarlet stains on Bubba's shirtfront. She froze, jaw open, refusing to breath as she looked at them. Finally, she dragged her eyes from those tell-tale stains to Bubba's dark eyes. "Is he at the hospital?"
Bubba nodded mutely.
"Is he…" her body shook as she tried to force herself to ask the next question. "Is he alive?"
Bubba nodded again, but his eyes told her all she needed to know about the grimness of the situation.
"Yeah, honey, I'm afraid it is," he said, nodding again. Her pale skin lost its rosy glow in the late afternoon light, her posture taking on a brittleness that suggested she might shatter at any moment. He didn't know whether to reach out for her or stay put, so he waited for her to give some indication.
"Okay. Okay," she said, clenching and unclenching her hands as she crossed the room. Snatching her purse out of the tiny closet, she glanced over her at him. "Will you drive?"
"Yeah, I'm parked out front," he said, following her out of the room and toward the staircase. His long legs worked to keep pace with her light, frantic strides as she flew toward the front door.