Greg Parker looked up from the table scratches he’d been tracing with his eyes to watch his protégé as she shook some of the excess rainwater that clung to her jacket. They weren’t at the station. None of the guys were likely to come in and see them. He wished she’d make the small concession of an umbrella instead of daring Mother Nature to inflict her with so much as a sniffle. He didn’t reprimand her, though. Only smiled at her as she approached. “Morning, Jules. Hey, thanks for meeting me.”
“No problem,” she dismissed any suggestion that meeting her oddly secretive boss before the pre-shift work out could even remotely be considered an inconvenience. “Did you eat yet?”
“I figured I’d wait for you.”
They both ordered, then made small talk about this and that until their food arrived. Their topics were casual. Jules was thinking about selling her house and buying another fixer-upper. Greg told her about the boat he was thinking about buying himself. Nothing consequential.
Finally, when the server had them all taken care of, Jules asked, “What’s this all about, Sarge? Huh? Why’d you want to talk here?”
“Like I said on the phone, I wanted to talk to you alone.”
“But you could’ve just…”
“I didn’t know if Sam was there...and I didn’t really wanna ask.”
“Oh.” She could see how that might be a little awkward for the both of them. Might’ve even put a monkey wrench into the conversation he wanted to have. “So, what’s up?” she prompted, grasping her coffee mug by the handle and lifting it to her lips.
“This has to stay just between us for now, okay? You can’t tell anybody. Especially anybody on the team. Not yet.”
She nodded her acceptance of his caveat, and then continued sipping her coffee while she waited for him to continue.
“I’m gonna retire.”
The silverware clattered against the plates when the mug suddenly slammed against the tabletop. Coffee sloshed unnoticed over the hand still clutching the handle with a death grip. Unnoticed by the hand’s owner, at least. Greg pulled a couple of napkins out of the dispenser and reached across the table to pat her hand dry.
He kept patting, looking down.
“Greg. Look at me.”
He slowly, hesitantly raised his eyes to glance briefly into hers. He could only maintain the contact briefly and that scared her.
“You chose this team,” Jules reminded him.
Her voice was quiet, and he knew she was trying to sound neutral, nonjudgmental, but he knew the meaning hidden beneath those four simple words. The reproach. The accusation of abandonment. The concern. The fear.
“You let Ed rip up those papers. You love this team.”
You love me. He could hear what she wasn’t saying, his Jules. He knew he was too much to his team sometimes. In Jules’ case, he was too much of a father-figure. He’d seen that flaw in their relationship as an acceptable one more often than not because it didn’t interfere with the job. In fact, it enhanced their working relationship. He had so much faith in her, so much trust, so much pride…he believed she could do anything he needed her to. Even this. That was still true, but he hated seeing so much hurt in her eyes. He knew it would be reflected in the rest of the team’s eyes as well.
“Please talk to me.” Small hands grasped larger ones. “Tell me what’s wrong. We can work through it. We’ve got all the time in the world to sit here and work through it. If you’re having a bad day. I’m here. I’m right here. I—”
“It’s just today, Jules,” Greg finally broke in, unable to let her continue her futile attempt to talk him down. He worked his hands free of hers in order to switch positions with them. Grasping her hands, he tried to explain, “I’m not doing so good—”
“What are you talking about? You’ve been amazing lately. Just the other day when you had to talk down that—”
“I don’t mean about work.” He held up a hand with a faint, begging smile when she was about to interrupt again. If she wanted him to get to the point, she was going to have to let him speak. “I’m sick, Jules.”
She started to shake her head.
He nodded his.
“Yeah. It’s cancer.”
“Uh-uh. No.” Her voice held a faint whine. Jules never whined. It was a clear sign to him that he had to back off if she was going to be able to hold on to her valued composure. He couldn’t think about her dignity right now, though. Now he had to be her boss. Her sergeant. Maybe even her mentor. He couldn’t be her father.
“It’s bad, Jules. Real bad. I need you to listen to me, here. The, uh, the team needs you to be strong. It needs you to…”
She suddenly got up and, for a split second and maybe with a flash of fear, he thought she was going to walk away from him. Stalk off into the rain with no umbrella, no backward glance. But then she was on his side of the table, standing right by his side, hugging him tight. “I’m here, Sarge. I’m right here. Just tell me what you need me to do.”
She was shaky, unsteady, far from composed, but she was there and that was good enough for him.
“I need you to take care of our team.” His voice was muffled by her arm, but he could feel her nod against his head. “Good girl,” he murmured, awkwardly patting her arm as she tightened her grip on him.