She found him, eventually, as he stood on the balcony atop their building, leaning against the parapet and gazing out into the night sky. Normally her company would be as welcome as driving rain to a parched desert. But tonight he wouldn't mind licking his wounds alone.
Her shoes tapped on the concrete. Cal listened to the familiar cadence of her gait as she quietly strode up and stood beside him. Not touching, but close enough to touch.
He felt her warm sympathy, her characteristic sensitive kindness, envelop him like an aura and knew what she was about to say. "Don't –"
"It wasn't your fault," Gillian interrupted.
She'd said it anyway.
But she was wrong. "Yeah, it was. I should have seen the signs. They were right there in front of me – I should've seen them."
"You did everything you could," she countered. "You cleared Caleb, you exposed the online porn scheme and you found out what was really going on with those underage girls. You did everything Zoë asked you to and more."
He snorted. "Didn't save the DA, did I? I should've figured out he was who Reed was gunning for. You spotted it right away."
"I was a fresh pair of eyes, you know that."
Shaking his head, still frustrated. Steeped in regret. "Fact remains you did your job better than I did mine."
She frowned at him, her exasperation obvious.
Cal raised his hands in capitulation. He knew she was trying to comfort him, and was grateful to her for making the attempt. And if he was honest with himself just being near her was a balm to his psyche. She always took his breath away, and tonight was no exception. But there was a troubled look in her eyes, a slight pinching of the skin between her brows that told him something else was bothering her. Her case? "How'd it go at the compound?" he asked.
Her jaw tightened. "Let's just say the IRS isn't very happy with us right now."
Cal nodded, taking the words on board, raising his eyebrows in a silent request for more specific information.
"There was a woman there, with three kids. Their so-called leader –" her voice dripped with scorn – "Jamie, he was keeping her a prisoner, threatening to take her children away if she tried to leave the compound."
"So not all the people there are believers," he deduced. "The IRS does have a case."
"Did," Gillian said unexpectedly, then took a deep breath and clarified: "I called a safe house. They came and took all four of them away."
Ah. No complainant, no case. That would definitely piss off Uncle Sam.
"I'm sorry, Cal, but I did what I had to do. She'd been there for years, trapped –"
"Shhh," he shushed her. One of the things he loved about her most was her bone deep sense of compassion, her uncompromising willingness to fight tooth and nail for those who had been victimized in any way. "Don't worry about it. I don't care about the IRS, ok?"
She nodded, and then averted her eyes, looking down at her hands.
There was more. He waited.
"The leader at the compound. Jamie. He said… he said the reason I didn't have children was that there was something wrong with me not biologically, but spiritually."
Cal sucked in a sharp breath, feeling outrage boiling up within him. What a viciously callous, cruel thing to say. It was a good thing Loker had been there instead of him. If he'd heard that, he would have exchanged more than mere words with the bastard. But even as his blood boiled in his veins, his relentlessly scientific brain concluded that perhaps it was just as well. Gillian didn't need any more men acting like thugs around her. Alec had done enough of that all by himself.
So instead he cocked his head to look her straight in the eye. "It's not true," he said, putting the whole weight of his belief behind the words.
"I know it's not," she replied in a soft, sad voice. "It's just – it hurt."
"I know, luv. I know." He ached to take her in his arms and comfort her. But it wasn't his place. Not yet. Until that day came he would have to settle for being the best friend he could.
He watched as she squared her shoulders and tilted her chin up. Trying to put it behind her. Good girl.
"Eli lied for me today."
Loker? The man who practiced full impact honesty? Who once risked being dismissed from the Group in order to see that the truth got out? Cal let his surprise show. "What about?"
"He told the woman from the IRS he didn't know who had called for the safe house van."
He nodded decisively, without even pausing for rational deliberation. "Good. Otherwise I'd have had to fire him."
"Hey. First rule – we protect each other, right?"
She gave a tiny nod, the barest hint of acquiescence, and then shifted her gaze out over the lights of the city. He didn't have to read her to see how withdrawn and tired her face had become.
"Go home," he said. He tried to recall what Zoë used to like to do after a hard day to let off stress – besides start a fight with him. "Take a bath. Curl up with a book. One of those romance novels you're always reading."
He was hoping for a smile, but none came. Nor did she make a move to leave.
"Go home, Gill," he repeated. Nothing.
"I will if you will," he proposed at last.
That finally drew the smile he sought.
"Walk me to my car?" she asked, turning and offering him her arm.
Cal took it gladly. It wasn't much, but it was a start.