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“The woman who cuts your hair?”

Barba cast Fin an impatient look. “Right.”

“They have women at your barbershop?”

“It’s not a barbershop, it’s a salon,” Barba answered, turning his attention back to Benson. “And this guy, this Randolph Markone—”

“A salon?” Fin repeated.

“—is a regular, I see him every month.”

“Every month?” Rollins piped in. “You go to a hair salon every month?”

“Let me guess,” Fin said. “Every first Monday?”

Barba turned his eyes in Fin’s direction for only a moment. “Last Sunday, actually,” he said. To Benson: “He owns a restaurant—”

“Your salon is open on Sundays?” Fin asked.

“Can you give me their number?” Rollins added.

“You prolly can’t afford ‘em,” Fin told her. “Hey, Barba, how much does that monthly haircut cost you, anyway?”

“Wait, do you get manicures there?” Rollins asked.

“Sometimes,” Barba said.

“Do they shave?” Carisi asked, and everyone looked at him. He raised his hands. “Look, sometimes it’d be nice to sit back and let someone else—”

“Lieutenant?” Barba looked at Benson. “Please?”

Benson looked up from her phone. “Randolph Markone, yeah, says here he owns Bella Claire’s in midtown. Swanky place.”

“He’s a swanky guy,” Barba agreed.

“Gets his hair cut once a month at the salon,” Fin said.

Ignoring him, Barba continued, “He’s smart, charming. Went to Yale.”

“Did you research him?” Rollins asked.

“No, he told me. I told you, I see him every month. He knows I went to Harvard.”

“He knows what you do?” Benson asked.

“Not in detail, no. He knows I’m a lawyer, and that’s it.”

“Unless he researched you,” Rollins said.

“Is it possible this is some sort of prank or something?” Carisi asked.

Barba shot him an incredulous look. “Prank? You think I don’t know the difference between a credible—”

“Alright, Barba, calm down,” Benson said, and Barba snapped his mouth shut, clenching his jaw. “And the rest of you, let him finish. So this woman…?”

“Ronnie,” Barba answered. “She and Markone’s girlfriend go way back, best friends since middle school or something, Ronnie’s known Markone for years through her. Every month, Markone gets his haircut and Tammy gets the works, manicure, pedicure, dye job, haircut, whatever.”

“I get why they get the royal treatment on a Sunday, being friends and all,” Rollins said. “But why you?”

Barba cocked an eyebrow at her. “I’m a good tipper,” he said. “Can we focus?”

“So this Tammy woman just volunteers the information to her good friend Ronnie the hairdresser that Markone, her boyfriend and—I’m assuming, financial provider, is running a prostitution ring and using his fancy midtown restaurant as a cover?” Rollins asked. “Why didn’t Tammy come to you herself?”

Benson held up a hand. “That’s not the issue right now. Rollins, run background on Markone, see what you can find out about the girlfriend. Carisi, check into Ronnie, see if she has anything unusual—Do you know how long she’s worked at the salon?” she asked Barba.

“She owns it. Bought it ten years ago with an inheritance from her grandmother.”

“We’re talking full-on Beauty Shop, huh?” Fin asked with a grin.

Barba ignored him. “I told her I’d bring you in to talk to her but told her we’d need to speak to Tammy, too. She said she’d see if she could get her to come in without tipping off Markone.”

Benson glanced at the clock and sighed. “Let’s go talk to her now,” she said.

“Try to control your enthusiasm,” Barba answered. As she stood, his gaze slid down the length of her body. “And could you…”

“What?” she asked, raising her brows, her eyes flashing.

“Could you look less like a cop?” he said.

“How’s that?” she asked, tipping her head.

“Look, I’m just saying, if he or one of his people sees you walking in, they’ll know something’s up.”

“Lucky it’s not the last Sunday of the month,” Benson said, and it was Barba’s turn to sigh. “Fine,” she relented, holding up a hand. “No gun, no badge?”

“No jacket,” Barba added.

“I’m sorry? My jacket makes me look like a cop?”

Barba held her stare, refusing to back down.

“On second thought, I really think Fin and Carisi should go with you. I know they’re curious about this beauty salon-slash-boys’ club, anyway.”

“Liv,” Barba said, and they glared at each other for a few moments longer.

“Fine,” she finally answered. She closed her eyes for a moment and drew a breath, letting it out slowly. She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Fine,” she repeated, calmer. “If you say it’s something, it’s something, and we need to talk to these women.”

“I want to be wrong about this,” Barba said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think I am.”

Benson nodded. “We’ll figure it out,” she answered.

“Thanks.”

“Barba—do you let them shave you?” Fin asked.

“I’ll meet you at the car,” Barba told Benson.

 

*       *       *

 

“Do I look less coppy, now?” Benson asked as they got out of her car. She was wearing dark slacks and a white blouse, unbuttoned at the collar. She wasn’t going in with her gun or badge, even though she felt naked without them. There was no reason to expect any trouble; they were simply going to speak to Ronnie, and Benson trusted Barba’s instincts.

Barba looked over the roof at her. “You know I wouldn’t care how you look if I wasn’t worried someone might see you,” he said. Then, before she could even react, he closed his eyes. “You know what I mean,” he said.

“It’s hard to believe you’re still single,” she told him, pushing her door closed.

He opened his eyes, but she’d already turned toward the salon on the corner. Silently cursing himself, he followed her. “Look, Ronnie almost exclusively deals with regular customers. Every new face is bound to be suspicious.”

“I get it. Let’s drop it,” she said as he fell into step beside her.

She heard his soft sigh, could sense his agitation as they walked.

“We could’ve met them somewhere else. Your office, the precinct—”

“All I was thinking about was getting the information to you,” he said, pulling open the door of the salon, and their eyes met. “Forgive me for not being better-prepared for something like this.”

She pressed her lips together and passed into the building. Barba followed her, letting the door swing softly closed.

Benson was surprised to find the seats empty; the only person in the salon was a woman standing at the back of the room. “Is it always this busy?” the lieutenant muttered over her shoulder.

“Ronnie has an exclusive clientele,” Barba answered under his breath. “And she works by herself on Fridays, which means only one customer at a time.”

The woman turned and saw Barba, and her face lit up. “Rafi,” she exclaimed, smiling broadly, “thank you, sugar, I knew I could count on you.”

“Ronnie, this is Lieutenant Olivia Benson, Liv, Ronnie,” Barba said, gesturing between the two women with a flick of his wrist as Ronnie crossed toward them.

“Lieutenant Benson, so nice to meet you,” Ronnie said, extending a hand. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

Benson glanced at Barba, but his expression was unreadable as he looked around the room. “Thank you, it’s nice to meet you, too,” Benson said as she shook the other woman’s hand. “Is it safe to talk here? Are you the only one here?”

“Tammy should be on her way to meet with us, I let her know when Rafi called to tell me y’all were coming. I cleared my appointments for the rest of the afternoon just in case,” she added, glancing at the clock. “Do you want me to go over what she told me, or wait until she gets here?”

“We should wait and hear it from her,” Benson said. “If she’s on her way…”

“Just make yourselves at home,” Ronnie said, gesturing around the room. She looked over her shoulder as her cell phone vibrated on the counter. “Excuse me, please,” she said, going to answer the phone.

“I can see why you like this place,” Benson said quietly, shooting a pointed look in Ronnie’s direction.

Barba glared at the lieutenant. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.

Benson lifted an eyebrow. “How is that ridiculous?” she asked. “She obviously likes you—and trusts you. You’ve known her, what, at least as long as you’ve known me? She’s not wearing a ring. You tell me, Barba, what’s—”

He cleared his throat, and Benson broke off as Ronnie headed back toward them.

Benson could see the tightness in his jaw and knew that she’d hit a nerve. She wasn’t even sure if it had been intentional or not. The looks that Ronnie kept shooting Barba were giving Benson an unexpected and unwelcome feeling in the pit of her stomach, one that felt suspiciously like jealousy.  

“Tammy’s almost here,” Ronnie said. “Rafael, you’re looking so scruffy—I’m used to seeing you in the morning. Do you always look like this by the end of the day?”

“Today’s an especially hairy day,” he answered, grinning at her, and she laughed, putting a hand on his arm.

“I’d hate to think of you going into the weekend looking so unkempt,” Ronnie said. “When we’re done talking to Tammy, you should let me give you an extra touchup. But not the gray, I know, I know,” she added, laughing again. She looked at Benson and rolled her eyes. “He stubbornly refuses to let me color his hair anymore.”

“I like the gray,” Benson said without thinking. She felt Barba’s eyes on her but didn’t look at him, cursing herself for having such a ridiculous reaction to seeing him and Ronnie flirting. “Anymore?” she added, as the last word sank in.

“He used to let me do a little maintenance here and there,” Ronnie said, shooting Barba a wink. “But not for a few years.” She reached up and touched her fingers to his jaw. “I didn’t realize your stubble was coming in so gray, these days,” she added, and Benson turned away from them, pulling out her phone so she could pretend to look at something else.

She felt irrationally relieved when the front door opened. Given the gravity of the accusations she was here to investigate, Benson couldn’t forgive herself for being distracted by such inappropriate—and unexpected—feelings.

She focused all her attention onto Tammy, the long-time girlfriend of Randolph Markone, listening as the woman laid out her suspicions. They seemed to be little more than suspicions, though. She’d seen no real evidence with her own eyes, and had nothing to offer Benson aside from a hunch. Even so, Benson could see that the woman was not just concerned, but frightened by the idea that Markone would learn she’d talked to the police. She’d confided in Ronnie because she’d needed someone to talk to about her fears, someone she trusted, and Ronnie was her oldest friend.

It was only because Tammy trusted Ronnie, and Ronnie trusted Barba, and Barba trusted Benson, that they were all standing together. Benson mused that it worked in reverse, too: she was only here because she trusted Barba, and he’d involved her because he trusted Ronnie, who trusted Tammy. It was a strange dynamic—not a circle of trust, but a line.

Benson shook her head to clear it and caught Barba’s eyes. She could read his concern, and could almost hear him asking what’s wrong with you?

She shook her head again, in response to his unspoken question. I don’t know, she thought.

“I have my detectives looking into Markone’s finances,” she said, turning her attention to Tammy. “So far we haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary.”

Tammy hugged herself, grimacing. “He’s going to kill me if he finds out I’m talking to you,” she muttered, her eyes shifting to Ronnie.

“If you’re worried about your safety,” Benson started, “we can protect you. Does Markone have a history of violence?”

Tammy looked at her. “He’s never hit me,” she said. “He gives me everything. Everything. But there’s another side to him. I’ve seen it, when people…try to rip him off, or when things aren’t going his way…” She chewed her lip for a moment. She opened her mouth to say something else, but broke off when the door opened.

They all looked over as a man walked in, and Benson knew immediately who he was. She’d seen his picture online, but she’d have known by the reactions of the three people beside her—reactions that they all tried to hide, with varying degrees of success.

Markone was well-dressed, well-groomed, handsome, and he oozed confidence as he strolled into the salon. “There you are,” he said, flashing Tammy a broad grin after his gaze slid quickly over the faces of the four people in the room. “I didn’t know you had an appointment today or I would’ve come with you.”

“I didn’t want to bother you,” Tammy said, pasting a smile onto her face as she tried not to fidget. “It was a last minute thing, I decided I…wanted to freshen up for our date tonight. Ronnie had a cancellation and was able to get me in,” she added, glancing at the salon-owner.

“Cancellation, huh?” Markone said as he folded himself into a chair near the door and straightened his unbuttoned blazer. He smiled at Ronnie. “Who in their right mind would cancel on you?”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Ronnie answered, ushering Tammy toward one of the swivel chairs. “Everyone has somewhere to be these days.”

“Rafael,” Markone said, nodding at him.

“Randolph,” Barba replied with a smile and a nod of his own.

Markone cast a quick look at Benson, then back at Barba. “You going to introduce me to your friend?”

Before Barba could answer, Ronnie spoke up: “This is Olivia, I’ve just hired her to fill in for Wanda while she’s off this week.”

Benson kept her reaction from her expression, although she sent up a string of silent curses. She met Barba’s eyes for only a heartbeat and knew that he was just as thrown as she was. And then it got worse.

“She’s going to take care of Rafi,” Ronnie added.

Under other circumstances, Benson might’ve laughed at the alarm in Barba’s eyes; his horror at the very thought of letting her go near his hair with a pair of scissors was actually comical. But Benson felt no inclination to laugh, because this whole situation was spiraling out of control.

“I didn’t know our lawyer friend let anyone but you touch him,” Markone said, shooting Ronnie a conspiratorial wink that made Benson’s stomach clench.

“He’s graciously agreed to put himself in Olivia’s hands,” Ronnie answered. Smiling at Barba, she added, “Just this once, right, Rafi?”

Barba met Benson’s eyes.

This is ridiculous, she thought.

I know, but we have to go along, he answered silently.

She raised an eyebrow. You’re going to let me actually cut your hair, just to cover for their lies?

Barba cleared his throat. “Yes, sure,” he said. “Just this once.”

“What brings Rafael in here on a Friday afternoon?” Markone asked.

Barba hesitated.

“He’s got a date night, too,” Ronnie answered, brushing a piece of lint from Barba’s shoulder, and Barba shot her a quick look. Benson could sense his irritation, and she felt more than a little annoyed, herself. The woman just kept piling on the lies, and she couldn’t seem to keep her hands off Barba.

“Ah, who’s the lucky…guy? Or girl? Sorry, you never talk about your personal life.”

Benson was close enough to Barba’s face to see the color creeping into his cheeks. He abruptly turned and slipped off his jacket, draping it over an empty chair as he went to settle himself into one of the salon seats. Ronnie handed Benson a nylon cape to cover Barba’s clothes, and Benson suddenly realized that this was really happening. They were all expecting her to act like a hairdresser, as though she knew the first thing about cutting hair. The few trim jobs she’d given Noah had narrowly escaped the realm of catastrophe. And this was Rafael Barba they were talking about.

“Well, whoever it is,” Markone had continued without waiting for an answer, “you should bring them in to Bella Claire’s. The offer’s always open, even if you did bring the whole mood down last time.” He had his phone in his hand and was texting as he spoke, barely paying attention to the people in the room while he typed.

Benson looked from Barba to Markone. “Last time…?” she prompted.

Markone was smiling; Benson didn’t know if there was any truth to Tammy’s suspicions, but she did know that she wouldn’t trust Randolph Markone as far as she could throw him. She unfolded the coverup and bent over Barba to snap it around his neck. He was barely breathing as he tipped his head a bit to make it easier for her.

“Yeah, he sat there all alone, eating a steak dinner and drinking expensive scotch. I mean I’m all for a night of solitude every once in a while but my restaurant, it’s about romance. Ambience.” He shot Benson a wink when she looked over at him. “I’m just giving Rafael a hard time. He can sit in my restaurant looking sad and lonely any time he wants, there’s always a table for him. But if he wants to bring a date, even better. Excuse me,” he added, raising his phone to his ear and lowering his chin as he answered a call.

Benson leaned toward Barba, until her lips were near his ear. “I thought you said he was charming,” she whispered, and from the corner of her eye, she saw his cheek dimple as he smiled. She adjusted the robe over his shoulders and then straightened. And then she hesitated, having no idea what she was supposed to do next.

“Rafi, aren’t you forgetting something?” Ronnie asked as she covered Tammy in the other chair.

Benson looked at Barba, and saw realization dawn in his expression. He pushed to his feet, meeting her eyes again.

“Make sure you’re thorough,” Ronnie said, over her shoulder, to Benson. “If you miss any, it can really gum up the scissors.”

What the hell is she talking about?

“You have to wash my hair first,” Barba murmured, his lips barely moving, his gaze holding a strange mixture of apology and accusation.

“Why don’t you make an excuse to leave,” she answered back in a whisper as they walked toward the sink.

“Both of us?” he hissed. “He’ll know something’s up.” Behind them, they could hear Markone talking into his phone, but he wasn’t—unsurprisingly—talking about illegal prostitution rings or any other crimes. Barba turned and sat in the chair at the sink, glaring up at Benson. His eyes held nothing but challenge, now, but she knew it was a front to cover his discomfort.

Even so, something within her, as always, reared its head at the sight of that look in his eyes. Barba adjusted the apron over his clothes with tight little flicks of his hands beneath the nylon, and she wondered what he was more worried about—his clothes, or his hair. The clothes were expensive, but they were also replaceable. It would take a while for his hair to grow out.

She decided she would just have to do everything as slowly as possible and bluff her way through until Markone left. He seemed to be settled in, but hopefully he would leave or, at the very least, Ronnie would hurry and finish whatever minimal ministrations could get Tammy convincingly out the door.

“Just remember you asked me to come here,” Benson said under her breath as she slowly tipped Barba’s chair back toward the sink. He settled the nape of his neck into the dip and shifted his head a bit, his eyes on her face. She picked up the sprayer and tested the temperature on her inner wrist.

“Don’t forget your apron, Olivia,” Ronnie said, sidling up beside her with a smock in her hands. “Don’t want to get your clothes wet.”

Markone was still on his phone.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Benson breathed in Ronnie’s direction as she took the apron and tied it around her own neck and back. “You need to get them out of here or us out of here.”

“He can’t know who you are,” Ronnie answered back through a smile. Her concern for Tammy was evident.

Benson thought it was likely that Markone already suspected his girlfriend of something; why else had he tracked her down to the salon, after all? But Benson didn’t have her badge, or her weapon, or backup, and she certainly had no cause to detain or question Markone.

She looked down at Barba. The challenge was still there, in his eyes.

She raised her eyebrows in response and saw his lips quirk—involuntarily, she thought—into a small smile. She sprayed the water against her wrist again and then bent over his head, turning the stream onto his hair.

“Your hair is waterproof,” she muttered after a few moments, and he snorted softly. “How much crap do you put in here?”

“You’d better figure out what that crap is,” he murmured in response, watching her face as she concentrated on wetting his head. “So you can replace it. And for the love of God, remember I have court in a few days,” he added, and she almost laughed.

Instead, she said, “I’m sure your friend can fix whatever damage I do.”

“I thought you were my friend,” he retorted.

She met his eyes and realized that he was in an unexpectedly vulnerable position. “I am,” she said. “That’s why I won’t do anything to the gray hair.”

He suddenly grinned up at her. “I never knew you were such a fan,” he said.

She squirted shampoo into her palm and started working it into his hair, concentrating on what she was doing so she wouldn’t have to think about how intimate their positions were, or how strangely fluttery her stomach had become.

“You’re scratching my scalp,” he murmured.

“Sorry. She told me to be thorough.”

“I didn’t say it was bad,” he said, and she was helpless to keep her gaze from sliding back to his.

She bent closer as she grabbed the sprayer. “This isn’t really the time or place to talk about fetishes,” she said softly, and he laughed before he could stop himself. He pressed his lips together, his eyes sparkling with humor as he looked up at her. “Close your eyes,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered with a break in his voice.

She rinsed his hair, taking her time—still stalling, hoping that Markone would leave. She marveled at how soft and silky Barba’s hair was beneath the product he usually wore.

“You really don’t have to stay if you’re busy,” Tammy said, and Benson realized that Markone was off the phone. “I can just send for the car—”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Markone answered with a smile. “You know I like watching Ronnie work on you. I’m in no hurry. Give her the works, Ron, she deserves to be pampered.”

“Of course,” Ronnie answered.

Benson helped Barba straighten up, grabbing a towel to keep his hair from dripping down his back, and followed him when he returned to the swivel chair. He turned the seat so he was facing the mirror. Once he’d settled himself beneath the apron, she grabbed a comb and worked it through his hair.

“Tell me about your plans for this date, Rafael,” Markone said. “I really am curious. Where’s your reservation? Can it compare to Bella Claire’s?”

“Few places can,” Barba answered.

Benson looked at him in the mirror. Markone seemed eager for Barba—a lawyer—to return to his restaurant. That didn’t mean that Markone wasn’t conducting illegal activities; in fact, he might get a thrill out of doing it under people’s noses.

“Bella Claire’s is Rand’s restaurant,” Barba said. “It’s named after his sister who unfortunately passed away when they were kids.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Benson told Markone, noting how smoothly Barba had shifted the conversation away from himself.

“She’d likely be married with kids by now,” Markone answered, with a little shake of his head, and for several moments he seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. Then he looked up. “What about you, Olivia? Are you married? I don’t see a ring.”

“No, not married,” she answered with a smile. Barba’s eyes tracked her movements in the reflection as she picked up the scissors from the counter.

“Kids?” Markone asked.

“Where are you two going tonight?” Barba asked, cutting a look toward Markone.

Tammy answered for him: “Bella Claire’s is the only place to go for dinner,” she said. “You know, Rafael, you ate there. Was that the best dinner you ever had?”

“It was a great steak,” Barba answered, closing his eyes only briefly when Benson carefully snipped at a few hairs near his nape. “But surely variety is the spice of life, and all that,” he added, fixing his gaze on Markone in the mirror to keep from watching whatever Benson was doing to his hair.

“I’ll win you over, yet, Rafael,” Markone answered with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I think it sounds great,” Benson said. Barba was holding himself perfectly still, barely breathing, as she cut tiny amounts from his hair. She wasn’t sure how long she could draw this out; Ronnie was doing Tammy’s nails, and she didn’t seem to be rushing through the process. Benson tried to suppress her irritation. “I’ll have to check it out.”

Markone looked Benson over. “Of course,” he said, his tone noncommittal. “There is a waiting list of three months, minimum,” he added.

“Three months?” Benson asked. She met Barba’s eyes in the mirror. “Must be nice to have connections,” she said with a smile. What an asshole.

I know. Sorry, Liv.

She lifted an eyebrow. I couldn’t care less what he thinks of me.

Barba smiled. Benson glanced at Markone in time to see him dialing a number on his phone. Turning her attention back to Barba, she set down the scissors and pushed his chair around so that his back was to the mirror. He looked startled, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously as he peered up at her.

“Trust me, you don’t want any more cutting,” she murmured, patting him on the shoulder as she reached for a bottle of volumizer. His muscles were tensed, but he didn’t object as Benson started working a palmful of product into his hair. She glanced at Ronnie and saw a brief look of horror on the woman’s face, and Benson had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.

Barba saw Ronnie’s expression, too, but he didn’t ask what Benson was doing to inspire such a look. He just sighed softly, and Benson took pity on him.

“I promise it’ll be okay,” she told him quietly, and he nodded once.

Markone was talking into his phone.

Benson finished with Barba’s hair and stood in front of him to look at it. She grinned, unable to stop herself.

“What?” he asked. He gave his head a little shake and felt his hair flop a bit. He narrowed his eyes again. “What did you—”

“Relax, it’s just a little fluffy,” she answered.

“Fluffy?” he repeated, his eyebrows going up. He started to turn the chair, and Benson put her foot down, stopping him.

“I like it,” Tammy said.

“It’s different,” Ronnie said. “But not bad,” she added quickly when Barba looked at her.

“Fluffy,” Barba repeated, turning his eyes back to Benson.

Benson reached up and ran her fingers through his hair once more, mussing it a bit. “It’s nice,” she told him. “Now what?” she added.

“You might as well shave me,” he muttered. “Razor’s in the drawer, shaving cream on the counter.”

“You really do get a shave here?” she asked.

He held her gaze but didn’t answer.

Ronnie answered for him. “I haven’t shaved Rafi in years,” she said. “He’s usually freshly shaved when he gets here in the morning. Olivia, can I see you for a minute?”

“Oh. Sure,” Benson said. “I’ll be right back,” she told Barba, glancing toward Markone before following Ronnie into the back storage room. “You need to hurry up and get them out of here,” she hissed when they were alone.

“Look, I know I put you on the spot and I appreciate you going along with this,” Ronnie said, pulling up a video on her phone as she talked. “I can’t risk anything happening to Tammy. Here, watch this,” she said, handing Benson the phone. The lieutenant looked down at the screen; it was an instructional video on shaving with a straight razor, and her stomach squirmed nervously.

Barba didn’t have a beard, just a day’s worth of stubble. Even so, the idea of putting a blade near his throat was daunting. If she hurt him, even for a second—

“I know what kind of relationship you and Rafi have,” Ronnie said, and Benson looked up from the video, surprised. “I mean, you know,” Ronnie added, waving a hand in the air. “It was like pulling teeth to get him to say anything about you in the beginning, but now he talks about you all the time when we’re alone. He clams up when Rand or other people are around, but—My point is, I know he trusts you. That’s why I trust you. You don’t know me, but there’s something off about Rand. I’ve never liked him, and I’ve never been able to put my finger on it other than the fact that he’s condescending as hell. But he made Tammy happy, so I never said anything. Well, she’s not happy anymore, she’s scared.”

“I understand,” Benson said, pulling out her own phone to read through the texts she’d missed from her detectives. She sent a quick response to Rollins and pocketed her phone. “We’ll get to the bottom of it,” she promised Ronnie, watching the video. “But we have to get through this charade as quickly as possible.”

“Shave him and do his nails and I’ll try to have her hair done,” Ronnie said.

“Do his nails?”

“While the towel’s on. That’s what I usually do.” She pointed at the phone in Benson’s hands. “You get that?”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Benson answered, unable to keep her sarcasm in check.

“You’ll do fine,” Ronnie said, taking the phone back. “Rafi says there’s literally nothing you can’t do.”

Benson didn’t even have time to process the rush of warmth she felt at those words; in a heartbeat, she was following Ronnie back out into the salon. Markone was off his phone again, talking to Barba about Cuban cigars.

Benson grabbed the jar of oil from the shelf, going over the abbreviated video in her mind. Oil, hot towel, shaving cream, straight razor without cutting him, aftershave, cold towel. In theory, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Barba was watching her. She’d already put her fingers into the jar of oil before she realized she should’ve put on gloves, but it was too late to turn back. She set the can on the counter, spread the oil onto her palms, and put her hands to Barba’s stubbled jaw.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” he whispered through his teeth.

“Yep. Bluffing,” she mumbled, spreading the oil across his chin with her thumbs. “Did you look in the mirror?”

“No,” he said.

She met his eyes to see if he was lying, and he lifted his eyebrows in challenge. “Too scared?” she teased quietly.

“No. I trust you,” he answered. Her hands stilled for a moment as she suddenly realized how intimately she was caressing his jaw. She finished quickly and straightened, going to the sink to wash her hands and run a towel under hot water. She could feel the ghostly prickle of his stubble on her palms.

“So?” Markone asked.

“Yes,” Barba said.

“Cohiba Behike.”

“Yes,” Barba repeated, resisting the urge to correct Markone’s pronunciation.

“You’ve got generous friends,” Markone said. “Guess it does pay to go to law school, huh?”

Barba smiled. “I said it was a gift, I didn’t say it was given to me. I bought the box in Havana for someone who passed away before I could give it to him.”

“You spent almost twenty-thousand dollars on a box of cigars and now it’s just collecting dust in your apartment?” Markone was sitting forward in his seat, clearly interested in the topic. “Not that I imagine your apartment has any dust,” he added, somehow making cleanliness sound like a dig.

Barba shrugged. “I’ve smoked a few. Not really my thing.”

“Hmm. Maybe you should try His Majesty’s Reserve.”

“Gurkha?” Barba said. “I’m not a big fan of cognac.” He tipped his head in consideration. “I would recommend Black Dragon if you can get your hands on one, though.”

Markone stared at him. “You’ve smoked a Black Dragon?”

Barba nodded once.

“They’re a hundred grand a box, minimum.”

“I didn’t smoke a box, I smoked one cigar,” Barba said.

Markone shook his head and leaned back in his seat. “All these years and you’ve never mentioned the box of Cohibas you’ve got at home,” he said. “You think you know a person.”

Barba looked at Benson, and she realized she was standing there, hot towel in her hands, staring at him. You think you know a person, indeed, she thought. She shook her head and moved forward, tipping his chair back a bit before tucking the hot towel under his chin and wrapping it up his jaw and cheeks. He closed his eyes and pulled in a breath through his nose.

“I need your hands,” she said, and Barba drew them from beneath the cover without comment.

“How long have you been doing this, Olivia?” Markone asked when she’d settled herself in a chair in front of Barba with a nail file. “No offense, of course, but you seem a little…unsure of yourself. Not that Rafael would complain. He’s far too polite for that.”

“I guess I’m just a little nervous,” Benson said, taking hold of one of Barba’s hands.

Barba couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was offering Markone a smile. If Barba didn’t know her so well, he’d be unaware of her dislike for the restaurateur. She was putting on a convincing act, but Barba knew that she was growing more suspicious of Markone the longer she spent in his company.

Barba knew that he should be focused on that, but all he could seem to think about was the warm tickle of her fingertips against his palm. She was holding his hand loosely in hers, with the back of her hand resting on his thigh, with her thumb beneath his forefinger so she could carefully file the nail. He doubted this would feel nearly so erotic if he could see what she was doing, but with the heat from the towel seeping into his collar, he was disturbed to feel a flush creeping through his whole body.

He was especially alarmed to feel the heat pooling into his lap, just inches away from where her hand was resting, and he shifted a bit, praying that she would never know how inappropriately his body was reacting to her innocent touch.

“Did I hurt you?” she asked, barely above a whisper.

He cleared his throat. “No,” he said. Please, do, he thought. Anything to distract me from—Oh, God. He barely suppressed a groan as she adjusted her fingers against the sensitive center of his palm. Barba had never been big on handholding, and he’d certainly never reacted like this to someone touching his hand. And it wasn’t just someone, for God’s sake, it was Olivia, and they weren’t just in a public place but in the presence of a man they were unofficially investigating—

“You’re going all out for this date, huh, Rafael?” Markone asked. “I’m growing curiouser by the second.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Barba muttered in the confines of his towel.

“Pardon me?” Markone asked.

“Lewis Carroll,” Barba said. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she says—”

“I never had much time for children’s books,” Markone interrupted, his voice laced with disinterest. “I’m rather surprised you would, though to each his own I suppose.”

“I loved the Alice books when I was a girl,” Ronnie volunteered.

“I’m not surprised,” Markone said.

“My favorite book was Peter Pan, though,” Ronnie continued as though Markone hadn’t spoken. “It doesn’t seem so innocent now, though. It’s a shame we can’t find the same sort of magic in things when we’re adults.”

Markone made a sound of derision.

Barba said, “‘The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.’ Certainly, though, reading books like The Little White Bird can be somewhat disturbing when seen through the cynical eyes of an adult, and I suppose the trick lies in remembering what it was like to be a child.”

“I can’t imagine your childhood was any picnic,” Markone said. “This guy,” he added, clearly talking to Benson, “keeps himself to himself, you know? Plays his cards close to the vest, but I guarantee the deck was stacked against him. He’s got the air about him. Probably not something you’d understand, but he and I are cut from the same cloth. Barely had bootstraps to pull ourselves up by, and look at us now. He’s smoking thousand dollar cigars.”

“And you?” Benson asked. She’d moved on to Barba’s other hand, and instead of his palm, her fingers were pressed against the underside of his wrist. Barba wasn’t sure he was going to survive this manicure; at least not with his dignity intact.

“Me?” Markone asked, sounding offended by the question. “You don’t have to worry about me, sweetheart.”

Barba felt Benson’s hand tense beneath his, and he knew that she was metaphorically biting her tongue. “I’m glad to hear that you’re both so successful,” she said, and Barba almost laughed. He clenched his jaw to keep the sound back. Benson was rushing through the filing of his nails, and he was both glad and disappointed when she released his hand and stood to remove the towel from his face.

She grabbed the can of shaving cream and filled her palm, meeting Barba’s gaze. He was afraid of what she might see shining in his eyes, but he was helpless to look away as she began spreading the cream over his cheeks, chin, jaw, throat…and, God help him, when she slid her thumb between his nose and upper lip, he knew there was no way she could miss the widening of his pupils.

But he could see her face, now, and he suddenly realized that she was not unaffected, herself. This realization did nothing to alleviate the tightening in his groin, and Barba’s breath caught in his throat. She wiped her hands on the damp towel and reached for the razor, and Barba watched her face as she concentrated—small frown creasing her brow—on carefully scraping away the stubble from his upper cheek.

Markone, Tammy, and Ronnie were talking, but Barba had no idea what they were saying. Their voices had become background noise, the distant hum of bees in a field. The sound of the razor whispering over the rough stubble of his jaw, the soft puff of Benson’s breath each time she wiped the razor on the towel and assured herself that she hadn’t cut him, the thud of his pulse in his ears—these sounds filled Barba’s focus.

She hesitated with her fingers on his chin and the razor at his throat, and her eyes slid up to his. He wasn’t worried—he wouldn’t hesitate to put his life in her hands—but he abruptly became aware of the fact that he had his hand resting on the curve of her hip. He’d lifted his hand to steady her, because he could sense her trepidation, but he’d done so without conscious thought. Now, as their eyes met, he could suddenly feel the heat of her skin, burning his fingertips through the layers of her clothes.

She was leaning into his hand, just enough to make him afraid to pull his fingers back, and for several moments, neither of them moved. Then she shifted her weight, and he dropped his hand to the armrest. She turned her eyes to the razor and continued shaving his neck in short, careful movements. He tipped his head back at the gentle pressure of her fingers on his chin, and she drew the razor up his throat.

“You two really aren’t fooling anyone, you know,” Markone said, his words breaking through the fog of desire clouding Barba’s brain. “I see what’s going on here.”

Benson wiped the razor on the towel and lifted it to Barba’s other cheekbone, but Barba could see the change in her expression. Markone’s words had brought both of them crashing back to reality, and Benson was on alert. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Rafael, you’ve been holding out on me. Got something to confess, brother?”

Benson looked at Barba: What the hell is he talking about?

I have no idea. “What do you mean?” Barba asked, echoing Benson’s unanswered question, careful to move his mouth as little as possible as she whisked away the hair and cream from his chin.

“Come off it, I’ve been watching the two of you. There’s no way Ronnie would hire her on skill, she clearly has no idea what she’s doing. You could’ve just told me that you got her to hire your girlfriend, no need to put on the act. There’s no shame in dating a hairdresser,” he added, although his tone belied his words. “Is this why you didn’t want to bring her to Bella Claire’s?”

“And subject her to—” Barba started, bristling at Markone’s condescension toward Benson—even if it was based on a fictional version of her. Markone was insulting Benson, and Ronnie, and anyone who didn’t measure up to his idea of success.

Before Barba could finish, however, Benson cut him off: “He’s just protective, you know how he is,” she said, flashing Markone a quick smile before turning her attention back to shaving Barba’s neck. She tipped his chin up again, and he took the hint: shut up and don’t antagonize him now, we’re almost out of this. “Worried I might feel self-conscious in such a fancy place. His protectiveness is just one of the reasons I love him,” she added, giving Barba a quick look before straightening.

“Hmm,” Markone answered.

Benson splashed aftershave onto her palm, rubbed her hands together, and gently patted her palms over Barba’s cheeks, jaw, and chin, before rubbing her hands over his throat. She felt him swallow against her palm, and her stomach fluttered in response. She cursed herself; now was not the time.

“I sure would love to see the place someday, though,” she added over her shoulder as she took the towel to the sink. She didn’t see a clean cloth, so she rinsed the hair and cream from the used one, wrung the extra water out, and carried it back to the chair.

“Any friend of Rafael’s is always welcome,” Markone said, and Benson couldn’t help but wonder if the words caused him actual pain. She hoped so.

“That would be great,” she said brightly. “I’m sure Raf wouldn’t mind changing our plans for tonight.” She saw Barba about to open his mouth, and she pressed the cold towel under his jaw, quickly wrapping it up over his cheeks as he hissed in a breath.

“I’ll make sure your names are on the list,” Markone answered. “Olivia…?”

She laughed. “Oh, you might as well just put us both under his name. He’ll get around to proposing one of these days,” she added. She patted Barba’s thigh and felt him flinch. “Isn’t that right, honey?”

“Right,” Barba said without hesitation from inside the wrappings of the cold towel.

“Friendly word of advice, Olivia,” Markone said. “Guys like Rafael might thrive under pressure in a courtroom, but they don’t need more of it at home. Probably best to keep thoughts like that to yourself.”

No wonder your girlfriend thinks you’re an asshole, Benson thought.

“Actually,” Barba said, reaching up to pull the towel from his face, “Liv and I don’t keep secrets from each other. She always tells me what’s on her mind, it’s one of the many things I love about her.” He lifted a hand in her direction, and she leaned down, her heart pounding in her chest as their eyes met. She thought he was going to kiss her, and she was alarmed by the eruption of heat in her belly at the thought.

At the last second, he turned his chin and pressed his lips against her cheek, just missing the corner of her mouth, and she had no idea if the tightness in her stomach was from relief or disappointment. She didn’t have time to sort through her feelings or figure out what the hell was wrong with her, so she pasted a smile onto her face and pushed herself upright, running her fingers through Barba’s air-dried hair. It really was quite fluffy. He was going to hate it.

“As you say,” Markone said with a shrug. “Ready, babe?” he asked, and Benson and Barba both realized that Tammy was rising from her chair. She and Ronnie had been so quiet, Benson had almost forgotten they were there. Now, she looked up at Ronnie’s face, wondering what the other woman thought of this new development. Would she be jealous, even knowing that it was an act?

“Yes,” Tammy answered with a smile.

“You look beautiful, as always,” Markone told her, getting to his feet and pulling out his wallet. He dropped a hundred dollar bill onto the reception desk as Tammy joined him near the door. “Rafael, I’ll see you tonight. And if you feel like bringing those cigars, I’ll pay you more than what’s fair. Ronnie, see you next Sunday, doll. Olivia,” he added, with a nod toward Benson. “I guess I’ll see you tonight, too.”

Without waiting for a response, he held the door for Tammy and followed her out, letting the door swing shut behind them. For several seconds, the salon was filled with silence.

“Sorry,” Ronnie finally said.

Benson started pacing, no longer able to contain her agitation. She shot Barba a look, and he reached up to remove the apron from around his neck. He pulled it off and handed it to Ronnie. He got to his feet carefully, casting a quick look down at himself to make sure everything appeared…decent. He hadn’t fully recovered from Benson’s touch, but his anger toward Markone had thankfully dulled some of his desire.

“I’ll go to the car and make sure they’re gone,” he said. “I’ll text you to come out.” He sensed her hesitation. “Even if he is potentially dangerous, at this point he doesn’t suspect you of being anything other than a hairdresser.”

“And your girlfriend,” Benson answered, shooting him a look as she paced. “I need to get a look inside the restaurant but I never should’ve told him we’d go tonight, especially not together. What was I thinking? You’re not a cop.”

“Liv, just—” He was about to say calm down, but he was fortunately able to bite back the words before his stupid tongue could make the situation worse. She stopped and stared at him, and of course she knew exactly what he’d been about to say. He suddenly grinned; he couldn’t help it. Yes, the situation was serious, but it was also ridiculous. He held up his hands, palms toward her. “I didn’t say it,” he told her. “You can’t be mad at me for my thoughts.”

She arched an eyebrow, and he knew exactly what she was thinking. He felt heat creeping up his neck and into his lower belly. “Can’t I?” she asked.

He cocked an eyebrow in response, with more bravado than he was feeling. To his surprise, she backed down quickly, dropping her gaze to resume her pacing. Barba suppressed a smile; her reaction pretty well confirmed what he’d already known about her thoughts.

“I’ll text you when I’m in the car,” he said, heading toward the door. He grabbed his jacket and slipped it on as he passed. “How much do we owe you, Ronnie?” he asked, reaching for his wallet. “For whatever stuff she used.”

Benson noticed that he’d studiously kept his gaze from sliding to the mirror, and she was impressed by his willpower. The curiosity must be eating him alive, but he was resisting the temptation to look at his hair.

“Nothing, don’t be ridiculous,” Ronnie said, but Barba was already setting money on the counter. He stuffed his wallet back into his pocket and started to turn to the door.

“Barba,” Benson said, and he looked back. She tossed him the keys to her car and he snatched them out of the air, looking surprised.

“Right,” he said, shaking his head. And then he was gone, once more plunging the salon into temporary silence.

“Sorry,” Ronnie repeated.

Benson looked around at the mess she’d made and grimaced. “I’m sorry about this,” she said, gesturing toward the array of open containers she’d left spread across the counter. “Some of my detectives will need to talk to you. And Tammy. We’ll be in touch, and we can protect both of you if it proves necessary.”

“You do believe us that something’s off?”

“We’ll get to the bottom of it,” Benson answered, pulling off her apron. She saw the small smile on Ronnie’s lips, and said, “What?”

“I can see why Rafi likes you.”

Benson shifted, unsure how to answer. “You know we’re not—” she finally started.

“Oh, I know,” Ronnie cut in. “He said you don’t see him that way.”

“He…said—”

“I believed him before today,” Ronnie added.

“I don’t know what—” Benson broke off, looking down at her phone as it buzzed in her hand. “I’ve gotta go,” she said. “We’ll be in contact, though. If anything happens, call me.” She handed Ronnie a card with her numbers and started toward the door.

“For the record, nothing ever happened between us. There was a time I thought it might. That the flirting might lead to something more, I mean. But all that stopped a few years ago.”

Benson hesitated at the door. Looking back, she said, “We’re just friends. I mean, and colleagues.”

“Yeah. That’s what he says, too. I never know if he’s trying to convince me or himself.”

Benson didn’t know what to say, so she let Ronnie have the last word. She couldn’t stop playing them over in her mind as she walked to the car, though. There had never been anything romantic between Benson and Barba, and while she couldn’t deny that she’d had fleeting moments when she’d considered it—when he showed up at the precinct in a tux, ready for the theater, when he sat in her apartment with his sleeves rolled up and his collar open, when she found him in Forlini’s nursing a scotch and looking a bit disheveled after a long day—the desire she’d felt in the salon had caught her completely by surprise.

She folded herself into the driver’s seat of the car, and they looked at each other.

“That was…odd,” he said, and she started laughing, tipping her head back against the seat.

She heard him laughing beside her—a familiar and comforting sound, and she pushed away her inappropriate musings. She wouldn’t risk their friendship for anything. Just being in the car with him, back to being themselves, she could feel most of her tension sliding away. “Definitely an unexpected turn,” she said, still laughing. “How are your nails?”

He held up a hand, and she turned her head to look. “Good, actually. And the shave feels nice,” he said, running the backs of his fingers under his chin. “Surprisingly,” he added, grinning.

“Gee, thanks,” she answered, though she couldn’t muster any real offense. “It’s only surprising that I didn’t accidentally cut you with that thing.”

“Accidentally?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “As annoyed with me as you were when we went in…” Then, before she could even begin to take affront, he said, “I’m kidding, of course. I never had any doubts.”

“You haven’t looked at your hair.”

“I have,” he said, gesturing toward the visor above him.

“And?”

“And…do you actually like this?” he asked, pointing at his head.

She reached out a hand and ruffled his hair without thinking. “Well, maybe just on the weekends,” she said. “Let loose a bit.”

“We have a date tonight,” he said.

Her eyes met his, and she slowly pulled her hand back from his hair. “You probably shouldn’t show up at Markone’s place with the fluffy look, he’ll take your name off the list. It’s bad enough you’re bringing me.”

“That asshole wouldn’t know real class if it was tap-dancing on his conceited face.”

Benson laughed, surprised by his anger. “Wow, Barba, you’re the one who said he was smart and charming. I thought you were practically friends.”

“Well, I was wrong, because—”

“Did I hear that right?”

“—no smart person uses curiouser without—” He stopped himself and drew a breath. “No smart person thinks that I have more class than you,” he said, offering a small smile.

Trying to ignore the slamming of her heart, she smiled in return. “No smart person thinks you and Markone are cut from the same cloth,” she answered. She sighed and reached for the key that he’d put in the ignition. “Let’s get back to the precinct and see what we’re dealing with.” She glanced at him as she started the car. “Did you really spend twenty thousand dollars on cigars?” she asked.

“Close to that,” he answered with a shrug, looking out the windshield. “It was a long time ago.”

“Sorry you’re not pulling in the same big bucks in the DA’s office?” she asked.

He snorted, glancing at her as she steered out into traffic.

“Hopefully that means you don’t regret your career moves,” she said, shooting him a quick look.

“Of course not.”

“Were they for your father?” she asked. She could feel his eyes on her, regarding her as she drove.

“Yes,” he answered after a few moments. “Some misguided attempt to prove that I’d become…successful, as if I really understood what that meant back then. But I had money to burn and by God, I wanted him to know it.” She could hear the bitterness in his voice, and the pain beneath it.

She reached over and put her hand on his knee, shooting him a quick look. “It’s natural to want our parents to be proud of us,” she said. “I’m sorry, Rafa.”

He covered her hand with his for a few seconds, looking at her profile. “Yeah. Me, too, Liv,” he said. “But I don’t think we turned out too badly, all things considered.”

She smiled and pulled her hand back. “If it means anything, I’m proud of you,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said. Then, to cover his sudden emotion, he joked, “You want a box of Cuban cigars? Now that they’re, uh…less illegal?”

“Less illegal?” she repeated. “Is that covered in law school? And do I want to know how you got them back here in the first place?” she asked.

“No,” he answered, and she laughed, shaking her head.

 

*       *       *

 

It occurred to Barba that he didn’t tell the SVU detectives often enough how much respect he had for the jobs they were doing. In the short amount of time he and Benson had been at the salon, her detectives had managed to find multiple unsubstantiated—and uninvestigated—claims against Markone’s restaurant, accusations ranging from suspicions that his waitresses were underage to reports of people having sex in the kitchen.

Uninvestigated wasn’t entirely accurate, though the paper trails for each and every claim—seven in all—ended abruptly with some version of “nothing credible found.”

Most disturbing of all, however, was an accusation made by a young woman named Natalia who claimed that her fifteen-year-old sister, Aria, was hired by Markone as a waitress. Natalia, understandably concerned, went to the restaurant and found her sister at a table with a man at least thirty years her senior, drinking champagne.

When Natalia threatened to call the police, she was forcibly removed from the restaurant. She immediately went to the police station, where officers told her they would look into the situation. Natalia was found dead in her apartment the next morning. Her death was ruled a suicide, her sister was listed as a runaway, and nothing was ever done about the allegations against Markone and Bella Claire’s.

Barba couldn’t help thinking that Natalia would likely still be alive if she’d walked into Benson’s office, instead.

Securing an invitation to dinner in Markone’s exclusive restaurant now seemed fortuitous, as it would afford Benson an opportunity to get a look around without tipping Markone off that he was under suspicion. There was no time to set up an official undercover operation, but Barba and Benson would be wired and her detectives would be ready to move in if anything happened.

Benson watched from her office as Barba walked into the precinct in a tuxedo, and she knew that her nervousness had little to do with the investigation. She smoothed her hands over the front of her dress and met Barba’s eyes through the window. She walked out to meet him, feeling unaccountably self-conscious.

Barba’s eyes traveled down the length of her body, and she saw his throat bob as he swallowed. Then his eyes were back on her face, and she resisted the urge to fidget. She gestured toward his hair, now slicked-back. Before she could say anything, though, he spoke.

“You did say I should forgo the fluff for tonight,” he reminded her.

“I did,” she agreed. “I’ll try to contain my disappointment,” she said, smiling so he’d know she was kidding. “This is very…James Bond, though,” she added.

“There’s not technically a dress code, but anyone dressed to less than the nines will likely never find their name on the seating list again,” he said.

“Is this alright?” she asked, glancing down at her dress. She wasn’t fishing for compliments. She knew she looked good in the dress, but she wasn’t sure it was right for Bella Claire’s.

“Alright?” he repeated, raising his eyebrows. He tipped his head toward her, and said in a low voice, “No one’s going to notice what I’m wearing.”

She felt a warm rush of pleasure and thought, maybe I was fishing, after all. The heat in his eyes was unmistakable, and she supposed he could see the same in hers. She wondered if things would ever be the same between them again, and she pushed the thought away.

“You brought the cigars?” she asked, gesturing toward the wooden humidor in his hands.

Barba hefted it with a shrug and said, “I thought it might butter him up a bit. If the allegations against him are true, I want to nail his ass to the wall.”

“So you’ll distract him with a thousand dollar cigar while you grab the hammer?” she asked.

Barba grinned. “While you grab the hammer, Lieutenant,” he said. 

“Thousand dollar cigars?” Fin asked.

“An exaggeration,” Barba said. To Benson, “Do you have room in your purse for this? I don’t want to show our hand too early.”

“I’ll make it work,” she said, reaching for the box. “But you don’t have to do this, you know.”

“The date, or the cigars?” he asked with a smile, watching her slide the humidor into her purse.

“Either.”

“They’re just cigars,” he said. “As for the date…” He moved closer, and she stared at him, unable to look away. “We should, uh…go over some…rules.”

“Rules?” she repeated, frowning.

“Like…touching.” He cleared his throat, and added, “For example.”

“Touching?”

“You know, we’re supposed to be a happy couple. I should probably be…”

“Affectionate?” she asked, suddenly grinning at his discomfiture. “Are you asking for permission to feel me up?”

He scowled at her. “I just don’t want to get shot.”

She patted him on the arm. “Sorry. Thank you for asking. Really. But don’t worry about it. All that matters is finding out if Markone is dirty.”

“I’d feel better if there were a safe word or something,” he muttered.

“Safe word? Wonderland. If either one of us says Wonderland, my guys come in.”

“No, I mean for you,” he said, still frowning.

“For me?”

“If I cross some sort of line. You know. A safe word. To let me know if you’re uncomfortable.” He shifted, and she could see the hint of color in his cheeks.

“How much touching are you planning on doing?” she joked. Then, because she was touched by his concern and bothered by his discomfort, she said, “I trust you, Rafael.”

Their gazes held for several seconds, and he swallowed. “Barbados,” he said quietly. “You say Barbados if you want me to stop…anything.”

“Fine,” she answered. “Then you say…Canada if I cross a line.”

His lips twitched into a smile. “Canada?” he repeated.

She stepped closer, reaching out to straighten his tie. “That’s right.” She met his eyes, her fingers lingering just beneath his chin. “You let me know if I make you uncomfortable, Barba,” she said.

He cocked an eyebrow. “I’d like to see you try,” he murmured.

She touched a fingertip under his chin. “I think I already did, remember?”

“I was caught off guard,” he answered.

Rollins cleared her throat, and Benson pulled back, looking at the detective. Rollins lifted a hand. “Sorry, but you and double-oh-seven here need to get wired, and the car’s waiting.”

“Car?” Benson asked.

“Barba thought it best if you show up in a limo,” Carisi answered. “Which actually works for us. Much more comfortable than a van.”

“Who authorized paying for a limo?” Benson asked.

Fin, Rollins, and Carisi all pointed at Barba. He looked disgusted by their betrayal. “I rented the car, it’s not costing the taxpayers anything. We need to keep up appearances in case Markone sees us arriving. And don’t bother arguing, because it’s too late to cancel.”

“What about the driver?” Benson asked.

“Carisi’s the driver,” Barba answered. “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”

“Don’t argue and don’t worry, huh?” she asked, giving Barba a look that he knew well.

He wasn’t daunted. He grinned, and said, “And calm down.”

She narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “Oh, I’m calm,” she said.

Barba laughed, turning away to keep his gaze from sliding down the length of her body. Her dress hugged every curve perfectly, and he’d come close enough to embarrassing himself for one day. He was surrounded by SVU detectives and had better keep his mind—and body—firmly under control.

“You always antagonize women before a date?” Rollins asked him.

“What can I say,” Barba answered, looking back at Benson. “I like a challenge.”

Her gaze raked over him from his smirk to his shiny shoes, and back to his eyes. Challenge accepted, she thought, and his smile widened.

“Hey, Liv, what’s the word if you want us to shoot him?” Fin asked.

 

*       *       *

 

“Barba. Rafael.”

“Ah, yes, Mr. Barba, of course. Hector will show you to your table,” the hostess said, smiling at the young man waiting nearby.

“Thank you,” Barba said.

As they followed Hector, Barba laid his hand against the small of Benson’s back and leaned close to whisper, “You actually seem nervous.”

“You really almost introduced yourself like James Bond,” she murmured back, and he chuckled softly. She wasn’t wearing a jacket, and the shawl around her shoulders only fell to the middle of her back. Her dress was cut much lower, and his fingers were warm against her bare skin.

“In case I forgot to say so earlier, you do look breathtaking in this dress,” he said.

“I don’t think you mentioned it,” she answered, and she saw his eyes drop to her mouth when she smiled.

“Then I’m an idiot,” he said. She felt his thumb, caressing lightly along her spine, and then they were at their table near the back of the room. Hector reached for one of the chairs, but Barba said, “Thank you, Hector,” extending a hand. Benson watched him pass a folded twenty dollar bill from his palm to Hector’s, and she had no idea where the money had come from. Before she could even process the smooth efficiency of his movements, Barba was holding out her chair, his eyes on hers.

“Thank you,” she managed, sitting in the offered seat. She would have a view of most of the restaurant; had she taken the chair that Hector had chosen, her back would’ve been to the room. As Barba eased her closer to the table, she set her purse beside her feet and glanced around.

Barba pulled her shawl from her shoulders, draping it across the back of her chair, and bent close. His fingers grazed the bare curve of her shoulder as he swept her hair aside, and he pressed a light kiss to the sensitive skin beneath her ear.

“Markone,” he breathed, and she dipped her chin a bit in acknowledgement. The restaurant’s owner had just walked in, and was talking to the hostess. Markone spotted Barba and offered a small smile and nod, which Barba returned before taking a seat beside Benson.

“You see what I see?” Benson asked, under her breath and through a smile.

Yes, he saw. The restaurant was full of couples, and couples only; there were no single patrons, no groups. Barba had felt this on some level the last time he’d eaten at Bella Claire’s—feeling like the odd man out, because he was—but had paid little attention to the specifics. Now, his stomach turned as he noted the pretty young faces around the room. He didn’t think there was a man under forty in the place, and he’d bet there wasn’t a woman over twenty-five except for Benson.

“I’m too old for this place,” she whispered.

He leaned toward her, putting an arm across the back of her chair, and kissed her shoulder. “There’s no other table I’d prefer.”

She turned her face toward him, their eyes meeting with just inches between. “Because you’re not a creepy misogynist,” she said softly.

He brushed his thumb against her arm. “Because—” He broke off whatever he’d been about to say, though, smiling up at the waitress who appeared at their table. He ordered a bottle of wine; cabernet sauvignon was the only thing Benson recognized out of whatever he rattled off. Before she could think to object, he was ordering their meals, too—ordering for both of them, without looking at a menu.

Barba fit effortlessly into this world of expensive cigars and wines, of unofficial black tie dress codes and exclusive waiting lists, and while Benson was confident in her ability to play the part, she recognized the difference. She had an idea what Barba’s childhood had been like, and sometimes she could almost see the boy he must’ve been in the mutinous set of his jaw or the steely glint in his eyes; but he had reinvented himself into the man sitting beside her—a man who would hand over twenty thousand dollar cigars, no questions asked, if it meant stopping a potentially-underage prostitution ring, and that was just one example of the kind of person he was.

“Sorry,” he murmured when the waitress left. “You’ll like it, I promise. But Markone was watching.”

“About that misogyny thing…” she answered, and he laughed. “Tammy just got here,” she added. “She should be glad to see me, she’s only the second-oldest woman here.”

“Let’s hope she didn’t get cold feet and tip him off,” Barba said, a possibility that they’d discussed.

“Do you think he would’ve let us in the door?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Hey, check out the couple leaving the side door,” she said quietly.

Barba glanced in that direction, but only as a formality; he knew she wasn’t talking to him.

“Discreetly,” she added. “No calls.”

Barba leaned toward Benson, his arm still around her shoulders, and said, “They’re coming over.” His breath was warm at her ear, and she barely suppressed a shiver. He tipped his head to see her face. “Cold?” he murmured. She shook her head and saw the smirk playing about his lips.

“Good evening, Rafael, Olivia,” Markone said, smiling broadly as he approached their table with Tammy on his arm. “You’re looking lovely,” he told Benson, managing enough tact to keep the surprise out of his voice. Benson felt Barba’s arm tighten around her shoulders, but his fingers remained light on her arm, warm and comforting as he traced invisible circles on her skin. “Do you mind if we join you?”

Benson was surprised by the request, but she smiled. “Please do,” she said, gesturing toward the other side of the table. “You were kind enough to get us a table at such short notice, and this really is a beautiful place.”

Barba withdrew his arm and stood, moving smoothly to pull Tammy’s chair from the table. “You look beautiful,” he told her with a smile, holding the chair while she seated herself.

“Thank you,” she murmured, and Benson thought there was a flush creeping up the woman’s throat. Benson couldn’t blame her; seeing Barba like this was a new thing for Benson, but she couldn’t imagine anyone being impervious to that level of charm and swagger.

“Showing me up, my man,” Markone said, shaking his head as he unbuttoned his jacket and folded himself into the seat across from Barba. He was still smiling.

Benson still didn’t trust Markone, but she didn’t think he was suspicious of her. In fact, he seemed to have very little interest in her at all. He glanced around impatiently, and Benson saw the waitress hurrying back to their table.

Barba was once more seated beside Benson, but he was no longer touching her. She missed the warmth of his fingers on her skin, though she could still feel their imprint. She looked at him while Markone ordered dinner for himself and Tammy, and Barba knew what she was thinking. Now that the restaurant’s owner had taken it upon himself to join them for dinner, they might be able to do more than just observe.

Bringing the cigars had been a brilliant stroke on Barba’s part, and Benson felt a rush of gratitude for having him on her side. He might not be a cop, but he was as much her partner as anyone had ever been. They might not always agree, but even when they were butting heads, they were ultimately on the same side. Cop or not, she would trust him with her life if it came down to it.

“Hope you don’t mind us crashing your date,” Markone said when the waitress was gone.

Barba smiled at Tammy and said, “Not at all, so long as you don’t mind sharing yours with us.”

Tammy returned his smile, but she was fidgeting, clearly nervous. “Our pleasure,” she answered.

Isn’t this nice, Benson thought. Four people pretending to like each other. She looked at Barba. Well, not all of us, she amended. She put a hand on his leg and he almost immediately covered it with his own. His palm was warm and dry against the back of her hand, and he slid his fingers between hers, shooting her a quick and lopsided smile that made her heart stutter. God, he’s good at this, she thought. Even I’m starting to believe it.

“So, how long have you two been together, anyway?” Markone asked, looking from Barba to Benson and back again.

They’d gone over this ahead of time, preparing a backstory, but Benson let Barba answer. “Almost a year,” he said. “In fact, our anniversary is in one week.” He smiled at Benson again.

“I can’t believe you’ve never said a word.” Markone’s tone held accusation, though he seemed to believe it was subtle. “And after I gave you such a hard time for sitting here alone. Where were you that night, Olivia?” He paused, and she loathed the smirk on his face. “Headache?” he suggested. He didn’t wait for an answer, but continued, “So what did you do before Ronnie hired you? I can’t imagine you’ve been a hairdresser for very long.”

“Oh, I’ve had a lot of…odd jobs,” Benson said. “I’ve been lucky since I’ve met Raf to be able to just, you know…try to find something I enjoy doing.”

Barba turned her hand over on his thigh and started tracing light circles on her palm. It was distracting, and the heat of desire pooling in her lower belly was alarming.

“You must make it worth his while,” Markone said, giving Benson a wink that set her jaw on edge.

“I haven’t gotten any complaints,” she answered.

Barba chuckled, pulling her hand up to his mouth. If she’d thought his fingers were distracting, that was nothing to the feeling of having him press his lips into her palm. “And you never will,” he said, looking at her with a twinkle in his eyes that couldn’t possibly be faked. He turned his gaze to Markone and leaned toward the table. “Honestly?” he said, his tone lowered conspiratorially, “I look around at all these men in here, my age or even older, with these younger women. That girl doesn’t even look old enough to drink,” he said, with a tiny gesture of his chin and a flick of his eyes. “Me? I’ll take experience over youth any day.”

Markone offered a tight smile. “Youth doesn’t necessarily preclude experience,” he said, and Barba’s hand tightened around Benson’s. They were both feeling the same twisting in their guts. Markone continued, “I see your point, though. To each their own. I have to admit, I think I misjudged you, Rafael. I always fancied you a bit of a stuffed shirt.”

Benson laughed, leaning against Barba’s arm, and this time she lifted their joined hands to her lips. “He acts tough and proper, but I know where all his soft spots are,” she said.

“It would seem so,” Markone answered, watching as she laid her cheek against Barba’s shoulder. “Anyway,” he said after a few moments, reaching out an arm to encircle Tammy’s shoulders, “maybe you’re right. You and I lucked out, Rafael, with the two most beautiful women in the room.” He turned his head and kissed his girlfriend on the mouth, quickly. Tammy smiled at him, but she looked a little sickly.

Benson didn’t want to leave Barba alone with Markone, but she needed to get Tammy away from the restaurateur to make sure she wasn’t going to crack under the pressure of pretending that everything was normal.

Benson turned her face toward the crook of Barba’s shoulder, and her lips found his neck just above his collar. He tipped his head, opening his neck to her kiss, and she gave herself just a few seconds to enjoy it—the hint of stubble, already, against her upper lip, the scents of his cologne and aftershave mingling in her nostrils, the soft tickle of his hair against her forehead, his heat, his pulse, the way his fingers released hers so his hand could settle, heavily, onto her thigh instead.

She lifted her mouth to his ear, nipping lightly at his ear lobe, and his fingers pressed into her thigh; not enough to hurt, but enough to make her want to shift closer, urge his hand further—

She shoved that thought away. She put her lips at the cup of his ear and breathed, “Remember Alice.” He turned his head, his eyes meeting hers for only a second, his lips nearly brushing hers before instead catching the edge of her jaw, and the side of her neck, and the hollow beneath her ear, and she barely suppressed her shiver of desire. His hand was still on her thigh, and she realized distantly that she had a tight grip on his wrist but she couldn’t seem to loosen her fingers.

His breath tickled her ear, and she heard his single word, whispered: “Aria.”

She drew back reluctantly, releasing his wrist, and then his hand was gone from her thigh and they were no longer touching. She shifted to move her chair back, and Barba rose smoothly to his feet beside her as she stood. She looked at him, caught his eye, and smiled. She knew that they understood each other.

Remember Alice. Yes, he would use the code word, Wonderland, if anything went wrong while Benson was away from the table.

Aria. Yes, a quick scan of the tables, as she got to her feet, confirmed to Benson that he was right; that was almost certainly young Aria, seated with a man at a table in the corner.

Barba had his hand on the back of her chair, and Benson had the fleeting thought: who says chivalry is dead?

“Please excuse me,” Benson said, smiling at Markone. “Which way is the restroom?”

Markone looked annoyed; he really didn’t govern his features as well as he seemed to think he did. He pointed a finger behind her, but before she could turn, Tammy got to her feet. “I’ll show you,” she said. Markone stood, grudgingly, not wanting to be shown up by Barba.

“I’ll be right back,” Benson told Barba, reaching out to straighten his tie.

He caught her wrist in a loose grasp and, before she realized his intention, lifted to his mouth. He trailed kisses from the base of her palm, up the inside of her wrist, and she actually had to lock her knees to keep her legs from buckling at the sudden and overwhelming desire settling into the center of her body. She felt a flush heating her cheeks as his eyes slid up to hers.

“Hurry back,” he murmured against the sensitive skin of her wrist, and the flush wasn’t just in her cheeks. She could feel the warmth of his breath all over her body.

“You know I can’t stay away for long,” she managed, and he smiled, releasing her wrist.

Barba turned to watch her walking toward the bathroom with Tammy at her side, and his eyes dipped—against his better judgement—down the bare expanse of her back, to the sway of her hips, to the stretch of the dress across her ass—

He jerked his gaze away, silently cursing himself as he turned to find Markone, already reseated, regarding him from across the table. Barba offered a sheepish smile, straightening his jacket as he sank into his chair.

“You’ve got it bad, brother,” Markone remarked.

“You know how it is,” Barba said.

Markone shrugged, glancing around. “Actually, I think I’m going to end things. With Tammy,” he said.

Barba was surprised by the other man’s matter-of-fact, bored tone, as though he were discussing the weather. “Really? You’ve been together for so long, I thought for sure you were heading toward marriage.”

Markone made a face, as though the idea of marriage was distasteful. “It was fun for a while, but I didn’t work to get where I am just to marry someone like her.”

Barba was momentarily stunned into speechlessness. While it was true that Barba had never particularly cared for Markone, he despised himself for never having truly understood what a shitty person he was.

Markone shrugged. “Just trying to find the right time. I don’t want it to be a big thing.”

“Of course,” Barba answered through lips that felt numb. “I’m sorry to hear things aren’t going well.”

“I never took you for such a romantic,” Markone said. “Though I do respect a man who keeps his private affairs to himself. No need to invite the world into your bedroom, right?”

“I suppose not,” Barba agreed. “Although with Olivia, it’s nearly impossible to keep my hands to myself. It’s like her body was made for my hands to touch, you know?” His stomach burned as he spoke about Benson. He was painfully aware of the fact that her detectives could hear him, and that she could not. Both felt like a betrayal.

“It’s a nice looking body, I’ll give you that,” Markone allowed with a grin. “And you have a point about the experience, an older woman who’s been around, they know what they’re doing and they’re eager to please as they get…let’s say, more desperate for affection. She seems a little plain, boring, in these public places, but I’ll bet she’s different in private, am I right?”

Barba’s hands were fisted on his thighs, and he could feel the muscle ticking in his jaw. He forced himself to unclench his teeth, and he did his best to temper his glare. Markone was barely paying attention to him, though, and didn’t seem to notice.

“You have no idea,” Barba said, and his voice sounded normal. When Markone looked at him, Barba even managed a smile. “To be honest,” he continued, leaning forward and lowering his voice, “I don’t have much experience with older women. Everything had to be new and flashy.” He gestured toward the room with a wave of his hand. “I would never cheat on Olivia, of course—”

“Of course.”

“—but there are a lot of beautiful women here. Youth and beauty are certainly appealing.”

“Sex isn’t cheating,” Markone said.

Barba took a beat to process that. “I’m not sure she would agree,” he said through a toothy smile.

“Obviously you wouldn’t need to tell her,” Markone answered with an impatient flick of his hand. “Although I think you’d find she’d be very forgiving. You’d still be coming home to her, after all. That’s what women really want, to feel like they’re the only one you actually care about. Sex, they can forgive. Sex is just a part of our nature, isn’t it? We’re hardwired to be drawn to, as you say, youth and beauty. We may be civilized, but we’re still animals.”

We may be civilized, Barba thought with disgust. He fought back the words that rose to his tongue and said, instead, “It’s certainly something to think about.” He looked around the room, mostly to keep himself from glaring at Markone. “Do you, uh…monitor your reservations?” he asked.

“Monitor, how?” Markone replied.

“You said this place is about romance, ambience,” Barba said. “When a couple calls for a reservation…” He cleared his throat, knowing he needed to tread carefully. “Is it just a coincidence that all the women here are so young and beautiful? Do you ever refuse tables to couples like, say, me and Olivia?”

Markone smiled, though it wasn’t a pleasant expression. “Well, I am used to my girlfriend being the oldest woman in the room,” he said. “But all kidding aside,” he added, as though Barba actually believed the man was joking, “we don’t really offer reservations to couples. Even Olivia seems to get it. What did she say? Might as well just put her under your name?”

“So you’re saying all of these men basically reserve a table and then worry about who’ll be joining them, later?” Barba asked. Objection. Leading, he thought, reminding himself he needed to tread lighter.

Markone shrugged a shoulder. “I wouldn’t say there’s so much worrying involved. Women like these are…readily available. As you said, you’d never cheat on Olivia, though.”

Barba had his elbows on the table, and he held up a hand. “Hold on, now,” he said. “If, for the sake of argument, I were willing to, uh…shop around a bit, you think there’s a chance that I could…get to know one of the women in here?”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Rafael,” Markone said. “A guy like you doesn’t need my help. But, for the sake of curiosity, do you see someone here you’d like to…get to know?”

Barba glanced around. “Well,” he said. He hesitated. Looking at Markone he said, his voice low, “I’ll tell you what, before I met Olivia, I can tell you I thought my type was a lot more like…” He cut his eyes quickly toward Aria and gave a small gesture of his chin.

Markone cleared his throat and checked casually over his shoulder. He turned back to Barba. “Corner table?” he asked. “Dark hair, pink shirt?”

“Yes,” Barba said. The child in the pink shirt, he thought.

“That’s Aria,” Markone said. “I can certainly introduce you. She’ll like someone like you. Perhaps another time, though. Unless you’d like to send Olivia home and come back for…dessert.”

Barba smiled. “Aria? Pretty name. She seems to be otherwise engaged, though,” he said. “Do you know everyone here?” he asked. “Good for business to know the regulars, I imagine.”

The waitress appeared at the table with their bottles of wine. Markone thanked her, but he checked his watch while he did so, and it was clear that he was unhappy with the speed of delivery. Her fingers were trembling just a bit as she poured from one bottle into the glasses of Markone and Tammy, and the other bottle into the two glasses that Barba held toward her.

Once she was gone, Markone sipped his wine and looked at Barba over the rim of his glass. After a few moments of silence, he said, “I never took you for a wine drinker. Is that Olivia’s influence, as well?”

Barba shrugged, swirling the liquid in his glass. “I do prefer the hard stuff,” he said. “But, you know, I’m happy to give her the little things.”

“Hmm,” Markone answered. “Aria isn’t much of a wine drinker, either. You might actually find you can be more of yourself with her.”

“Is she even old enough to drink?” Barba asked.

Markone smiled. “She’s old enough for a lot of things,” he answered. “Don’t let the baby cheeks fool you.”

Barba could feel the bile burning the back of his throat, and he took a quick swallow of wine.

“Everyone drinking here is old enough to drink,” Markone said. “I’m not looking to lose my liquor license. But Aria is…a special case.”

“She does seem special,” Barba said.

“If you want me to put your name on the list for tomorrow night, just say the word. You and she could have a nice romantic dinner, get to know each other.”

“You can make that happen?” Barba asked, forcing his gaze to cut back to Aria.

“What are friends for?” Markone answered.

Barba considered his options for a moment. “I’m not a fan of owing anyone favors,” he finally said.

“It’s just dinner,” Markone replied.

“What if I were interested in more?” Barba asked.

“Hypothetically?”

Barba gave a little sure, why not flick of his hand.

Markone smiled. “You wouldn’t regret it,” he said.

Barba frowned. “Shit, I forgot, we have a dinner party tomorrow night.”

“She’ll be available by ten,” Markone said.

Barba glanced at Aria. “Tonight?” he asked. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Markone answered. “Maybe you could send Olivia home, tell her we’re going out for drinks or something.”

Barba sighed, running a hand over his face. “I don’t know, man, if she found out…”

Markone shrugged. “Hey, it’s up to you,” he said. “If you’re not interested…”

“I am interested,” Barba muttered. “It’s just—If I weren’t here with Liv, you know, but if I send her home alone, she’ll know something’s up. I just…Let me think about it?”

“Sure. I’ll make sure she doesn’t make any other plans for the night.”

“I really appreciate that. And if—” He knew by the way that Markone’s eyes flicked past him that Benson was coming up to the table, and he broke off, pasting a smile onto his face as he turned his head to look up at her.

“Everything okay?” she asked, giving him a strange look.

“Fine,” he answered, getting to his feet. Across the table, Tammy was already settling into her chair. Markone had half-risen, and sank back down as she seated herself. Barba put a hand on Benson’s shoulder and leaned forward to kiss her cheek, but he stopped and drew back, his eyes narrowing on her face. “What?” he asked.

Her eyebrows went up. “What, what?” she asked.

“Were you talking to her, again?” Barba said, sliding a glance toward the phone in her hand and back to her face. He held out his hand. “Let me see your phone.”

“Excuse me?” she answered.

He glared at her, waiting. Finally, with her jaw clenched and her eyes flashing, she slapped her cell phone into his palm. He flipped it over and quickly typed in her passcode.

“Rafael,” she said, reaching for the phone, but he turned away, raising his elbow to block her grab as his thumbs tapped the glass. “Don’t—”

He looked at her, holding the phone up so she could see the screen. “You know how I feel about you running every time your sister beckons,” he said. “If Frannie weren’t such a bitch—”

“Don’t call my sister a bitch!” Benson interjected.

“—then her husband wouldn’t be such an asshole.”

“It’s her fault he treats her like shit?” Benson exclaimed, staring at him. “How could you say that? You know how close me and her are. What are you doing?” she asked, making another swipe for the phone as he started tapping again. He batted her hand away, and she made a sound of surprise at the slight sting of contact.

“What am I doing?” Barba asked, shooting her a quick glare from the corner of his eye. “I’m looking to see what the hell you were talking about. I should tell her to fuck off and leave you alone.”

“Don’t do that,” Benson said, making a third thwarted snatch for the phone. This time, Barba grabbed her wrist in midair, and they glared at each other. She was breathing heavily, the swell of her breasts rising and falling in the tight confines of her dress.

“Stop it,” Barba told her in a low voice, and she jerked her hand from his grasp, rubbing angrily at her wrist. He turned his attention back to her phone. “Jesus,” he said, shaking his head. “Tonight?” he asked her. “You’re going to stay with her tonight? Were you going to tell me, or just sneak out when I wasn’t looking?”

“Of course I was—”

He thrust the phone in her direction and she grabbed it in both hands to keep him from dropping it to the floor. He flopped into his chair, adjusting his jacket with angry jerks at the lapels.

“Of course I was going to tell you,” she tried again, making an effort to lower her voice as she glanced around at the other patrons. “You didn’t text her, did you…?” she asked, running her thumb over the screen. She let out a sigh of relief and lowered herself into her chair. “Thank you,” she said. She reached out a hand toward his arm, but Barba pulled away from her touch. “Don’t be mad, Rafi,” she said, and now her tone was cajoling. “You know I can’t say no, and I’d much rather stay home with you.”

“Clearly,” he said, his voice laced with cold sarcasm.

“I would,” she stressed, and this time when she put her hand on his sleeve, he didn’t pull away. “It’s just for the night, Rafi, she’s upset. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

He shot her a dirty look.

She drew her hand back and scowled at him. “I would invite her to stay with us—”

“God forbid,” he groaned.

“—if you hadn’t made her feel so unwelcome.”

“Me? Like I don’t know that whenever you’re together, all she does is tell you what a piece of shit I am?” He turned his face away from her and, after a moment, snatched his wine glass from the table. He took a quick swig.

“Hey,” she said, scooting her chair closer to his. “Don’t be like that, don’t get upset. She doesn’t know you like I do.”

“I’m not upset,” he answered, setting his glass on the table with exaggerated care to keep the liquid from sloshing. He leaned back and straightened his lapels again, pasting a smile onto his face as he looked at her. “It’s fine. I’ll have a quiet night home alone. It’ll be nice.”

She looked hurt for a few seconds. “I know you’re only saying that because you’re upset,” she finally said, quietly. She leaned toward him, snaking a hand behind his neck to rest it on his far shoulder. She tipped her head and kissed the side of his neck, beneath his ear. Barba kept his body rigid, his jaw clenched, as he glared at the table. His hands were fisted on his thighs.

She tipped her chin up and nipped at his earlobe, catching him off guard, and his breath caught. She moved her hand from his shoulder to the back of his head, sliding her fingers into his hair, scratching lightly at his scalp with her fingernails.

Jesus, Barba thought. She put her other hand on his chest, and he knew that there was no way she could miss the sudden race of his heart. He cleared his throat, carefully, and reached for his glass, taking another drink. He studiously avoided looking at Markone when he set it back down.

“You know I’ll make it up to you,” Benson murmured near his ear, and Barba suddenly realized that he’d lifted a hand and was holding hers against his chest.

He quickly released her and glanced sideways, catching her eye for a second. “Don’t start something you won’t be home to finish,” he said, and she sucked in a surprised breath, drawing back a bit. He had to tamp down his urge to apologize. She narrowed her eyes, and he thought, oh, shit. Then, to his complete astonishment, she stood and plopped herself down on his lap. He grunted, involuntarily, and one of his hands went to her waist. She put her arm behind his neck and leaned into his chest. Her perfume swirled around him, blocking out all the aromas of the restaurant.

He could feel the heat rushing to his face—and other parts of his body. “What are you doing?” he asked through his teeth. “You’re making a scene.” His fingers were splayed along the curve of her hip, now, keeping her steady as she shifted a bit.

“Nobody minds,” she said. “He said the place is about romance…” She hesitated, looking at Markone. “What word did you use? Ambience.”

“That’s right,” Markone answered.

Benson laughed, and the vibration almost killed Barba. He managed to keep himself from making any more embarrassing noises, but his fingers dug into her waist, trying to keep her still. Her fingers were absently twirling the slightly-sweaty curls at the nape of his neck, just inside his collar. “I don’t remember anything from the French classes I took,” she was saying. “Ambience is French, right?” Markone nodded once, but she was already continuing, “Really, I should’ve taken Spanish instead. If I’d known I’d end up living with a hot Cuban lawyer…” She smiled at Barba. “One with a temper, too, who mutters in Spanish when he’s ticked off. Be nice to know what he’s saying sometimes.”

“I imagine you don’t want to know,” Markone suggested.

Benson laughed again. “That’s probably true,” she agreed. She turned her face toward Barba’s. “Cursing me out in Spanish,” she said. She lifted her other hand and rubbed her thumb over his chin. “Your stubble grows fast,” she told him. “Maybe you should just let it grow for a couple of days, see what happens.”

Barba cocked an eyebrow at her. “I’d have a beard, that’s what would happen,” he said. She grinned at him, and his returning smile was completely involuntary.

Her thumb skated across his lower lip. “That’s better,” she murmured, her eyes on his. “You know I don’t like it when we fight.”

He opened his mouth, capturing her thumb between his teeth. Her eyes widened and her fingers pulled reflexively at his hair. He sucked—gently at first, but she shifted on his lap, her hip settling firmly against his crotch, and his mouth tightened. He could feel his cursed body starting to respond to her warm weight, and he released her thumb.

“Don’t you?” he asked in a low voice.

She stared at him, clearly confused, and he smirked because he’d made her forget her own words from ten seconds earlier. Her eyes narrowed again, but that only made his smile widen.

“Like it when we fight,” he elucidated, raising his eyebrows.

She smiled, and the gleam in her eyes did nothing to help the tightening in his groin. Soon, there would be no way to hide it from her, not without shoving her off his lap. She leaned toward him and laid her cheek against his shoulder. “I like it when we make up,” she said. Her breath was warm beneath his jaw. “You’re not mad at me, are you, Rafi?” she asked.

He sighed, wrapping his arms around her to hug her to his chest. “No,” he said. “Just disappointed, I suppose. I’m sure I can find something to do without you.” He met Markone’s eyes, finally, and saw a small smile playing on the restaurateur’s lips.

Markone picked up his glass and tipped it in Barba’s direction in a silent gesture of cheers, and Barba smiled in return. It can’t be this easy, can it? he thought.

“I’ll miss you. I’ll think about you all night,” Benson said, still stroking the back of his head. He wondered if she was aware of it; he wondered if he should make her stop before he really embarrassed himself. “Will you think about me?” she asked.

“Of course,” Barba answered, tossing Markone a wink.

Markone took a drink and set his glass on the table. He turned abruptly to Tammy, who seemed startled to find his attention suddenly focused on her. “Are you feeling alright, babe?” he asked. “You haven’t said two words since we’ve been here.”

“Y-yeah, fine,” she stammered, and Barba felt Benson’s body tense. “I just have a bit of a headache.”

Markone frowned and touched a hand to her wrist. “We can take off if you want,” he said. His concern seemed genuine, in spite of the fact that he’d told Barba he was going to break things off. “I can have them wrap our order to go.”

Tammy looked at Benson. “No, that’s okay—Olivia gave me some Tylenol in the bathroom, it should help soon.”

Markone looked across the table. His gaze slipped down to the swell of Benson’s breasts at the top of her dress. “Where’d she have it?” he asked.

Barba opened his mouth, and Benson surreptitiously elbowed him in his solar plexus. The move was subtle—and gentle—but delivered with uncanny accuracy and speed. He snapped his mouth shut to keep back his grunt of surprise and his words of defense.

“A lady never reveals her secrets,” Benson said, and he could hear her smile even though he couldn’t see her face.

God, she’s good at this, Barba thought. She adjusted her weight and he drew a breath through his nose. He was growing hard beneath her, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do to stop himself. He couldn’t imagine a more inappropriate time or place, and he despised himself for his lack of control over his body, but it had all become too much. All the tension at the salon, at the precinct, in the car; all the touching, the flirting, the silent challenges; her perfume filling his nose, her weight resting against him, her fingernails at his scalp. His mind was full of warning bells and curses, but his body ignored them all.

“Hmm,” Markone said, dragging his gaze from her chest to offer Tammy a smile. “Well, as long as you start to feel better,” he told her. He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her cheek.

“Thanks, honey,” she answered, returning his smile.

Barba looked up as the waitress appeared beside him with their food. He thought Benson would get off his lap, but she stayed put while the waitress set all four entrees on the table.

“Can I get you anything else?” the young woman asked, smiling at each of them in turn. It was clear that Markone was the only one who mattered, though.

Once she’d left them alone, Benson reached forward and grabbed both wine glasses from the table, turning to hand one to Barba. He took it, his eyes meeting hers as their fingers brushed on the stem. And he knew that she knew. He could feel the heat in his cheeks, but there was no judgement in her stare.

Her eyes dropped to his mouth for a few seconds, and she held up her glass. “A toast,” she said, dragging her gaze back up to his. “To…” She hesitated.

“Always making up after a fight,” he suggested quietly, and he saw her lips curve. He touched his glass against hers, and they each took a sip. He didn’t think it was his few drinks of expensive wine that had gone to his head. It was her. He leaned his mouth closer to her ear. “Have you been to Barbados?” he murmured. He left the rest unspoken: Are we going to be okay after this?

“Not yet,” she answered. She shifted a bit, and saw his expression tighten. “How far are we from Canada?” she asked.

He laughed. “Further than you’d think,” he said. His cheeks were still burning, but his smile was self-deprecating.

“I’ll get off,” she said, and her choice of words made him squirm beneath her, trying to relieve a little of the pinching tightness in his crotch. “Sorry,” she muttered, but her expression was less than contrite. He narrowed one eye at her, and she grinned. Under her breath, she muttered, “Do you need my shawl or a napkin or something?”

“No,” he said through his teeth. “I’m a big boy, I can take care of—” He broke off, realizing how suggestive that whole sentence was. Her amusement wasn’t helping; neither was the desire he could see beneath her humor. He cleared his throat. “Your food is getting cold,” he said.

To his relief—and disappointment—she carefully turned and rose from his lap. She sank into her own chair, but it was so close to his that their legs were touching. He put a hand on the back of her chair and helped her scoot it closer to the table, before sliding his own chair forward and beneath the concealing edge of the tablecloth.

Barba looked at Markone and knew that the other man knew exactly what condition he was in. Barba knew the idea should bring him shame, or at least more embarrassment. But he’d needed to convince Markone whether it was real or not, so what difference did it make? What mattered was that Markone now thought that Barba was going to be spending the evening with Aria to relieve the tension caused by Olivia.

We almost have him, Barba thought. And then, immediately, with a sick churning in his gut: It can’t be this easy to buy sex with a child. His gaze shifted toward Aria. He kept his disgust from his expression, but the sight of her face was like a dash of cold water to his body.

“This is delicious,” Benson said after she swallowed a mouthful of food. She gestured toward her plate with her fork and smiled at Markone. “I’m glad Rafael ordered for me, I wouldn’t’ve had a clue. This is so good.”

Markone smiled. “I’ll pass your compliments to the chef,” he said. He looked at Barba. “So, Rafael, as I understand you’re going to be flying solo tonight, perhaps you’d like to have a few drinks after the ladies head home. Or…wherever,” he added, casting Benson a quick look.

Barba looked at Benson, his expression wary.

“Oh, it’ll be fun,” she told him. “I’d hate to think of you sitting home alone being mad at me,” she said.

Barba let the tension ease from his shoulders, and he smiled at Markone. “Sure, why not,” he said. He could see Markone barely suppress the urge to roll his eyes, but it didn’t matter if he thought Barba was too eager to please Benson.

We almost have him, Barba thought again.

“Great, it’s settled then. Tammy’s car can drop Olivia wherever she needs to go.”

“That’s so nice of you!” Benson exclaimed. She put her hand on Barba’s arm. “He’s so nice, Rafi,” she said.

When she turned her attention back to her plate, Barba rolled his eyes, earning a grin from Markone.

Barba forced himself to eat even though his stomach was a queasy mess of knots.

 

*       *       *

 

“About that, uh, transaction we were talking about,” Barba said.

“Transaction?” Markone asked, raising his eyebrows. “Why make it sound so cold and clinical? I thought we were talking about a favor amongst friends.”

Careful, Barba thought. Don’t you dare fuck this up now. “I told you, I’m not big on favors,” he said with a smile. “However.” He hefted the humidor that he’d retrieved from Benson’s purse. “How do you feel about a nice simple trade with no…paper trail?”

“Paper trail?” Markone repeated, clearly amused. He eyed the box. “Twenty grand worth of cigars?”

Barba shrugged a shoulder. “Closer to fifteen,” he said. “I told you, I smoked a few.” He held out the box. “Will this work? For more than just an introduction?”

Markone took the cigars. “Sure. You scratch my back, I scratch yours,” he said. “Well,” he grinned, “I get Aria to scratch yours.”

“So long as she agrees,” Barba said.

“Oh, come on, Rafael,” Markone said. “You’re a lawyer. You know as well as I do that a no is only a no if you accept it. You and I didn’t get here by accepting noes, did we?”

Barba laughed, shaking his head. “I suppose not,” he answered.

“See? Even there, you hedged answering with a no,” Markone said with a wink, and Barba laughed again.

Then he hesitated. “Is she clean?” he asked.

“Squeaky.”

“Even with protection, I need to…I can’t risk giving Olivia anything…”

“You don’t have to worry about Aria,” Markone said. He tipped his head closer, and said, “But she’s so much better without protection, Rafael, let me tell you. It’s so worth it.”

Barba somehow managed to smile without cracking his face. You have to ask, he thought. Do it. Ask, make him say it. Barba leaned closer, too, and said, in a low voice, “So you’ve fucked her yourself, then?” He glanced around, ostensibly making sure no one was within earshot. “Sort of checking out the merchandise, right?”

“I’ve fucked every hole she has,” Markone said. His tone was so matter-of-fact that Barba almost convinced himself, for a few seconds, that he’d misheard him. Markone regarded him. “I can tell you, they’re all good. Just depends on what view you want.”

Barba felt ill, but there was something else: this man before him had hurt Aria already, but he was never going to do it again. In five minutes, she was going to be safe. For the rest of the women, if they were of legal age as Markone claimed, Barba couldn’t guarantee they would choose a different path for themselves. But for Aria, this nightmare was over. She didn’t know it yet, but she was about to meet Olivia Benson—and that was the best thing that could happen to her, now.

“Just let me say goodnight to Liv, I’ll be right back,” Barba said. He turned and met Benson’s eyes, and as he started toward her, he felt relief. He knew it was early to celebrate, but he also knew that they had him; Markone was going down, one way or another. He gave Benson a small nod, and he saw understanding dawn. We have him, he thought.

And then, shining in her eyes: pride. Not for herself, not even for the team. In that moment, as he crossed the distance between them, her pride was reserved solely for him.

Barba would never be the man his father had wanted him to be. He would never be the bigshot politician son for whom his mother had yearned. He might never be the judge his grandmother had foreseen. He might never be a husband, or a father. He might never be anything more than who and what he was in this moment, and for the first time in his life, he knew that it was alright.

If Olivia Benson was proud of him, then he didn’t need to be anyone other than who he was. He didn’t need anything else.

Except, maybe…just maybe…to taste her lips, even if it was only once. He could see the emotion, and the desire, in her eyes, and he knew that he wasn’t the only one affected.

Behind Barba, Benson could see Markone talking to Tammy, kissing her cheek. She could see Aria and her escort preparing to leave. Everything had slowed to a crawl, and her eyes slid to Barba’s as he stopped before her. She could read all the emotions in the lines of his face. He was upset, sickened by the reality around them. He was relieved, because it was almost over. He was sad for Aria and the others, he was determined to get their justice, he was proud to be working with Benson and the SVU.

And he was scared. Not of Markone, but of his feelings for Benson. No, not of his feelings, but of the fact that she’d seen them. That she was seeing them, now. In spite of his fear, he was making no effort to hide his thoughts or feelings from her.

He wanted to kiss her, and she couldn’t take her eyes from his. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath.

He cupped his hand to her cheek; she felt his fingers curve around her neck under her hair, and the warmth of his palm against her jaw. His thumb brushed lightly along her cheekbone as he held her gaze, and she felt her lips part. She knew he could see the desire in her eyes. She could see the answering heat in his, and she found herself leaning toward him, seeking more contact.

He dipped his head, searching her eyes, waiting for permission. She wanted him to kiss her, and the desire was so strong that it stunned her. She put a hand against the front of his shirt, not to hold him back but to steady herself, and she could feel the thudding of his heart beneath her palm.

Aria was heading toward the door. As soon as she and the man with her were outside, they would be apprehended by SVU. Just a few more seconds…and they were passing into the night…The door was swinging closed behind them…

Barba dipped his head closer, his breath fanning her face, and she’d never wanted to feel, to taste, anyone’s lips as badly as she wanted his.

I’m sorry, she thought, hoping he could read the words in her eyes. “Wonderland,” she said quietly.

She saw his expression tighten in the instant before he started to draw back, and for a couple of seconds, her hand fisted around the front of his shirt. There was still time, still time for him to lower his head and press his lips against hers, still time for her to pretend that it was all real.

His hand slid from her face and covered her hand, over his heart, his fingers wrapping around her fist. There’s still time, she thought.

Except there wasn’t.

The detectives were coming in, they were telling everyone to stay where they were and to not move. Barba released her hand, and she released his shirt. She stepped back, blinking as though coming out of a daze. She turned away, struggling to clear her head. She had a job to do, and she had to quit acting like some ridiculous adolescent.

She thought she heard him say her name, but when she looked back, he was turning toward Rollins. Benson strode toward Carisi, and the detective was already giving her a rundown before he’d even reached her.

“Have an officer take Barba home,” she said. “And Markone is mine,” she added, looking at the restaurateur.

“Barba did a good job,” Carisi said. “He should’ve been an actor.”

“Yes,” she agreed. She cast a quick glance toward Barba, but looked away when his gaze flicked toward her. “I don’t want him having any more interaction with Markone tonight,” she said. “Make sure he gets home.”

“Of course, Lieutenant,” Carisi said, but Benson was already walking away. She was full of a restless energy, the source of which she couldn’t allow herself to examine.

We were close, she thought, the traitorous whisper filling her mind before she could stop it. But now it’s over.

She glanced over her shoulder, and Barba looked quickly away.

Is it? Does it have to be?

She didn’t have an answer to that question, so she shoved it down and turned toward Markone, taking the handcuffs Fin was holding out for her.

 

*       *       *

 

Barba pulled open his door and stood, framed in the muted light from his apartment, staring out at her. He’d removed his jacket and tie and unbuttoned his collar, but he wasn’t dressed for bed. He was still wearing his shoes.

“Lieutenant,” he said, and she felt the silky softness of his voice like a caress down her back.

“Counsellor,” she responded, and she saw one corner of his lips tip upward. She cast a quick look at his clothes, raising an eyebrow, and said, “Expecting company?”

He put his wrist against the doorframe at shoulder level and cocked a hip, leaning against his arm. Her breath caught at the sight of his white shirt, pulled tight across his chest. She realized she was staring at the dark curls peeking from the V of his open collar, and she dragged her gaze up to his.

“Hoping,” he corrected. His posture was full of a cocky nonchalance that only he could manage, but his eyes were full of heat and sincerity. He pushed the door open wider without taking his eyes from hers. “Would you like to come in?” he asked.

She stepped closer. “That depends on how much of tonight was an act,” she said.

“An act?” he asked. He wanted to look down the length of her body; she could almost see him restraining himself, forcing himself to keep his eyes on her face.

“You playing the part. I’ve never seen you on a date, so—”

“Why do you suppose that is.”

“—I don’t know if you’re usually…” She trailed off. “What do you mean?” she asked after a few seconds of silence.

“What do I mean about what?” he returned, his voice low and soft, his lips curving because she’d finally realized what he’d said.

“Why do I suppose that is.”

He lifted a brow, waiting.

She swallowed. “Afraid I’d see how charming and romantic you were and not be able to resist?” she asked, an attempt at a joke because her heart was slamming so loudly that he could probably hear it from where he stood.

He held out his hand. She took it without thinking, and the heat of his palm sent a flush of desire through her body. He tugged gently, turning their hands so he could lace his fingers with hers as she stepped closer.

Straightening from the doorframe, he reached out his other hand, cupping her cheek. His fingers splayed into her hair; his palm was hot and dry against her jaw. His gaze held hers; she was powerless to look away. He bent his head forward, watching her pupils dilate as his breath fanned her lips.

“I never wanted you to see me as anything other than available to you, Liv,” he said quietly, his thumb rubbing lightly along her cheekbone. Her lips parted in surprise. He dipped his chin, gaze locked on hers, and added, “In whatever capacity you wanted me.”

She was surprised by his openness. He was usually as carefully guarded as she was; neither of them trusted easily, or gave themselves completely to another person. And yet, she trusted him with all of herself and she realized, looking into his familiar green eyes, that for the first time in her life, she wanted to give all of herself.

He searched her face, noting her surprise, her desire, her trepidation. “Barbados?” he suggested softly.

She gave her head the tiniest of shakes, and put her hand over his against her cheek. “I want you,” she admitted. She hesitated. “In every capacity,” she added with a small smile.

He bent his head forward and touched his lips to hers—the kiss was light, experimental, barely a brush of lip against lip, and she leaned into him, wanting and needing more. Their mouths opened at the same time, and she could feel his fingers curl against her nape; and then she was pushing him backward into his apartment and kicking the door shut behind herself, she was fumbling with the buttons of his shirt and tugging the shirt from his pants.

Annoyed by the buttons, she pulled the half-undone shirt up and over his head and tossed it aside. She slipped her hands beneath his undershirt, needing to feel his skin against her palms. She pushed him against the wall, and he made a small oof sound. “You called my sister a bitch,” she said, running her nails up to the curls of chest hair hidden beneath his shirt.

“Liv,” he said, and his hands were heavy as they slid down her sides to settle on her hips. Before she could answer, he turned, and suddenly the wall was behind her back. “You don’t have a sister, and Frannie is a bitch.” Her laugh was cut short; his mouth was once more on hers, and there was nothing tentative about this kiss. His tongue met hers hungrily, desperately, and he pressed her against the wall. His hands tugged up the clingy skirt of her dress until his fingers found the bare skin of her thighs, and she made a sound of desire in her throat, pulling at his waist to get his body closer to hers.

She couldn’t get him close enough, though; there were too many layers between them, and she made another sound, this time of frustration. All the hours of touching, of teasing, of wordless flirting, had left her skin craving his touch and the hollow ache between her legs was nearly unbearable. She reached down and hiked her skirt higher so she could bend a knee up by his thigh as she arched toward him, desperate for more contact. She could feel the proof of his desire, but she hadn’t needed proof; it was in his eyes, and had been all evening.

“Rafa, I need—to feel you—” She gasped as he pushed his hips forward, settling the bulge of his arousal between her legs, and she tipped her head back against the wall. He immediately took advantage of her exposed throat, ducking his head and kissing the hollow beneath her jaw.

“Olivia,” he murmured against her skin, the vibration shivering through her body.

“Hm,” she answered, tipping her head to give him better access to her neck. His hands were back at her waist, and she was holding his arms to steady herself as her body continued to strain towards his.

“Can I touch you, now?” he asked softly.

She laughed, a breathless sound of mingled amusement and desire and frustration, and looked sideways at him. “Where?” she asked; a challenge.

His lips near her ear, he breathed, “Everywhere.” He felt a quiver pass through her body, felt her hands tighten on his arms, and he pressed his lips against the skin beneath her ear. Already, he knew she liked that; he wanted to learn everything about her body, and learn to anticipate her every desire so he could satisfy it.

“Yes,” she exhaled. She gasped when she felt his tongue against her skin, as he tasted her—the slight sting of her perfume, the hint of sweat, and the sweet uniqueness of her—and he trailed kisses along the curve of her neck, the dip of her shoulder, tasting and nipping lightly at her skin. His fingers slid her dress and bra strap off her shoulder, clearing the way for his mouth.

“Can I taste you?” he asked against her shoulder, his teeth grazing her skin lightly.

“You are,” she said. And then: “Yes.”

“All of you.”

“Yes.”

“Liv.”

“Yes,” she repeated, her fingers digging into his arms.

“Olivia.”

She raised a hand to his jaw, turning his head until he was looking at her. “Why do you keep saying my name?” she asked, with barely-controlled exasperation. She smiled, though—she couldn’t help it.

“Trying to convince myself you’re real,” he murmured, his own lips curving upward.

She lifted her other hand to his face, pressing her palms against his jaw, her fingers curving down around each side of his neck as she held his gaze. She covered his mouth with hers and ran the tip of her tongue along his lower lip before pulling it gently between her teeth.

And then they were both moving, making their way blindly toward his bedroom, stumbling as they kicked off their shoes and fumbling as they tried to touch everywhere at once. His tongue was in her mouth, and she couldn’t breathe; when he tried to turn his head to draw air, she grabbed his hair, sucking his tongue deeper into her mouth, never wanting to let him go. His hands were at her waist where her dress was bunched up, and he was struggling to tug it higher with unsteady hands.

Benson’s head was spinning, and she finally had to release his mouth, gasping in a breath. She covered his hands with hers and together they drew the dress up and over her head, and Barba threw it aside with a flick of his wrist before ducking his head to trail kisses over the flushed swell of her breasts. His palm covered one cup of her bra and she pressed herself against his hand as she reached for the button of his trousers.

He pulled his undershirt up and off while she lowered his zipper, and then his fingers were at her back, unhooking her bra. She slid her hand into his pants, cupping his erection through his underwear, and his breath hitched. She squeezed gently, feeling him throb against her palm. His fingers stilled for a moment on her back, and his forehead dropped onto her shoulder.

“Liv,” he breathed.

She laughed, grabbing a handful of hair and tugging his head up to kiss him. His fingers finished with the hooks, and she quickly stripped off the bra and dropped it to the floor. “Rafael,” she said against his lips, and then they were both laughing. He turned her, and she felt the bed at the backs of her legs, and then he was pushing her down onto the comforter. He shoved impatiently at his trousers, dropping them to the floor and kicking them aside before peeling off his socks.

Benson lifted her hips and slid off her panties, and then she was naked, the cool air whispering against her flushed skin, and she laid back on the bed, looking up at Barba. He’d frozen with his thumbs tucked into the elastic waistband of his underwear, and she saw his throat working as he struggled to swallow. His gaze slid slowly down the length of her body, taking in every detail, and she shifted beneath the weight of his eyes.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“Jesus,” he breathed, dragging his eyes back up to hers. “You’re perfect. Every single thing about you. I—” He stopped himself, and she could see the emotion shining in his eyes; she could feel the shift in the atmosphere around them. She knew that he was afraid of saying too much, and she knew that she had to open herself up. For him, and for herself. There would be no turning back from this moment, and they both knew it. But he didn’t want to push her further than she was willing to go, and she loved him for that.

She lifted a hand toward him. “I need you,” she said. He closed the distance between them without hesitation, covering her body with his, supporting himself with a hand on either side of her as he bent his head to kiss her.

She knew it wasn’t enough, though. It was the truth; she wanted him with every piece of herself, more than she’d ever wanted anyone. But it wasn’t the whole truth, and he deserved everything. She turned her face from his kiss and pulled his head down so that his ear was at her lips.

“I love you,” she whispered. She felt his warm breath, exhaled in a soft puff into the hollow of her neck. For a moment, he didn’t move, and then his lips found the skin his breath had just warmed. His body settled against hers, his weight pressing her into the mattress, his underwear the only thing between them, and his hand flattened against her cheek to turn her face toward his. He put his forehead against hers, holding her gaze. “I love you,” she said again, and she knew that he knew what it meant for her to say the words now, in the overwhelming tenderness of the moment, how much it meant for her to drop her guard completely. He brushed his lips against hers, still holding her gaze.

She could feel his desire straining against the fabric of his underwear, but any urgency had been replaced with intimacy. She stared at him with her heart thudding in her chest, and she could feel his beating, too; she could feel the rise and fall of their mutual breaths, and the heat of his skin against hers. She lifted her hand and covered his on her face.

He kissed her again, slowly, and she accepted his tongue eagerly, wanting their bodies to be joined in every way. He shifted his weight and turned his hand, pulling hers to his chest. He flattened her fingers over the beat of his heart and held them there for several seconds.

And then, leaving her hand there, he trailed his fingers up the length of her arm, over the curve of her shoulder, down along the outer curve of her breast. He turned his head and kissed her shoulder; he started tracing the invisible trail made by his fingers, following with the soft brush of his lips, and she squirmed beneath him.

She opened her mouth to say his name, but his fingers found her hardened nipple, and she managed nothing but a wordless sound of desire. She arched toward him, sliding her hand over his shoulder, as he gently rolled her nipple between his thumb and forefinger. And then he shifted again, running his fingers down over the quivering muscles of her stomach, and his mouth closed around her breast.

“Oh my god,” she gasped as he sucked her beaded nipple against his tongue. His fingers were still traveling slowly downward, past her navel, curving around to the arc of her hip before sliding back toward her thigh. His other hand had found its way to her other breast, and he massaged gently, his thumb and tongue matching in both pattern and tempo against her nipples.

His fingers slid down to her knee and up her inner thigh, and Benson shifted her legs further apart. His hand moved slowly but confidently, and she finally managed to say his name when his middle finger rubbed softly across her clit. She lifted her hips off the bed, tipping her head into the pillow as her fingers dug into his shoulders.

His mouth left her breast, leaving a damp trail down her stomach. His finger slipped inside her as his tongue traced a circle around her belly button, and his words echoed in her head: can I touch you…everywhere? Can I taste…all of you?

He slid a second finger into her, massaging her most sensitive spot with his thumb, and all rational thought was gone from her head. His mouth skimmed over the curve of her hip, down her leg, up her inner thigh, and then his fingers were gone. She had only a heartbeat to mourn the loss before his mouth closed around her, his tongue replacing his thumb on her hardened clitoris, and she realized absently that she had her hands fisted in his hair but she couldn’t loosen her fingers.

One of his hands was still on her breast, and the other was now resting on her hip. Surrounded by his warmth, with one leg pinned beneath his weight, and under the skilled ministrations of his tongue, she found herself hurtling toward the climax she’d been craving for hours.

“Wait,” she breathed. She didn’t know she was going to speak until the word left her lips. She wanted release desperately, painfully—but not this quickly, not when he was getting nothing in return.

He lifted his head to look at her, and she let out a shaky breath. He started to move his hand from her breast, and she let go of his hair to grab his wrist. She could see the concern in his eyes, but she wasn’t sure she could put her thoughts into words. She pulled his hand to her mouth, kissing his palm.

He pushed himself up and forward. “Is something wrong?” he asked. His voice was low and husky; sexy, and it was all she could do to keep from throwing her legs around him. She shook her head against the pillow and pulled his head down to kiss him. And then she pushed at his chest, raising herself up as she flipped him. He didn’t resist, although his hands went to her arms and he grunted as she flopped on top of him.

He understood quickly, she could see it in his eyes and the flare of his nostrils. Rafael Barba always caught on quickly, and she smiled down at him, overwhelmed by her love for him. His lips curved in response, and that was too much to resist. She kissed him. He opened his mouth to her, but she drew away after only a moment. She kissed the corner of his mouth. She nudged his chin up with her fingers and pressed her lips against his Adam’s apple, feeling it bob beneath her kiss. She tipped her head and nipped lightly at the hollow of his throat with her teeth, barely grazing the sensitive skin. She both heard and felt his sharp intake of breath, and his body shifted beneath hers.

You like that, she thought, making a mental note. She meant to learn all of his desires—and she meant to fulfill each and every one.

She kissed her way along his sternum, diverting briefly to run her tongue over a nipple, and down the middle of his abdomen, circling his navel. His stomach was rising and falling beneath her lips, his breaths uneven. She followed the curls of hair that led into his waistband, kissing and nipping at his skin. She hooked her fingers into the elastic of his underwear but didn’t immediately pull them down.

She ran her tongue along his erection, through the barrier, wetting the material. His hands fell from her arms to the bed and fisted in the comforter. Her own arousal was still nearly unbearable, but denying herself was worth it when she heard the involuntary sound he made as she closed her mouth around the head of his cock—through his underwear—and sucked gently.

His hips lifted off the bed. She took advantage of his arched back and tugged his briefs down, freeing his erection. She slid the underwear down his thighs, and he drew up one leg, then the other, helping her discard the last article of clothing between them. She tossed them over the side of the bed.

She looked up at him and met his eyes. He cocked a brow at her, his lips twitching into a smirk. She narrowed her eyes and he laughed, a quiet rumble that caught abruptly in his throat when she ducked her head and pulled his cock into her mouth.

He lifted a hand toward her head and stopped himself, grabbing the bedspread instead. She tightened her mouth around him, taking as much of his length as she could, and she could feel him fighting his body’s urge to thrust upward.

She slid her hand up his stomach and spread her fingers over his heart—she knew already that he liked that, and he wasn’t the only quick learner. He lifted his hand and clutched at hers eagerly, desperately, his fingers tight around hers and his heartbeat heavy beneath their joined hands.

She pulled her mouth from his erection and tipped her head, running her tongue up the underside of his shaft and along the salty slit of his head; she could taste how close he was, already, but he was holding back. She suckled lightly at his tip, savoring the unique flavor of him.

“Liv,” he rasped, her name a plea.

She released him, crawling up to kiss his mouth—wanting to mingle their tastes on their tongues, one more way for them to be joined together. “I need you inside me,” she murmured against his lips.

He flipped her over, grinning down at her when she uttered a surprised and breathless little laugh. He pinned her hands against the bed on either side of her, twining his fingers with hers, their palms pressed together; this was something else she’d come to realize he liked, having their hands joined together. His body covered hers, and he ducked his head to nuzzle beneath her ear.

She wanted him inside of her, but he wasn’t moving. He had both of her hands held in his, and she couldn’t reach between them without pulling her fingers from his; she didn’t want to do that, and she made a sound of frustration, writhing beneath him, the ache between her legs unendurable.

“I should get—”

“No,” she interrupted. He lifted his head to look at her. “I want you inside me,” she said. “Just you.”

He made an involuntary sound at her words, and she felt him twitch against her. His erection was pressing against her, gently, almost in the right place. His fingers were twined tightly with hers, his eyes locked on hers, their bodies pressed together.

He flexed his hips, and she bent her leg up without thinking, opening herself to him, desperate to pull him in. He slid into her slowly, his hands tightening almost painfully around hers on the bed, his eyelids drooping as he fought to keep his eyes on hers. “Jesus,” he breathed. She curved her leg around him to take him deeper, needing all of him.

“Raf,” she said as he sank into her fully and stopped. She shifted, tightening herself around him, watching his eyes close. “Don’t make me beg,” she said.

He laughed, the low chuckle traveling through both of them, and she gasped at the sensation. His eyes opened to catch hers, and he moved his hips. “I’d never make you beg, Liv,” he murmured, and she could see the glint of amusement in his eyes. “Although if you wanted to—”

“Oh, shut up,” she laughed, and he chuckled again, dipping his head. Before he could kiss her, she said, her breath fanning his face, “Please.”

He groaned. “There goes my willpower,” he said quietly, and then they were both laughing. He slanted his mouth over hers.

He withdrew slowly, almost completely, and filled her again with a quick thrust of his hips, swallowing her moan. He released one of her hands and bent an arm around her head, breaking away from her mouth so they could breathe. He instead buried his face in the side of her neck, sucking at her skin, and she wrapped her arm around his shoulders, clinging to him as he started moving in earnest.

She met him thrust for thrust, her heel digging into the back of his thigh and her fingernails digging into his back. She held onto him, barely hearing the sounds of skin slapping skin over the roar of blood in her ears and the hum of him repeating her name against her neck.

“Raf—Rafa—I—” She couldn’t manage any more, though, because she was already tumbling over the edge. She held onto him, her entire body tightening around his as she tried desperately to keep him with her.

As her body shuddered, beneath him and around him, his hips slowed and then stopped. He said her name one more time, and then he lifted his head, finding her mouth with his, kissing her as he came inside her.

She couldn’t breathe, and she didn’t care. Her head was spinning. Their bodies were tangled together, wrapped around each other, and she didn’t ever want to let him go. He finally turned his head, drawing a ragged breath, and collapsed against her. His cheek came to rest on her shoulder, and he kissed her jaw as their bodies, struggling for air, heaved in unison. His fingers were stroking the hair at her temple; she had never felt so completely surrounded—enveloped—by another person, and she knew that he felt the same.

Neither of them wanted to move.

He mumbled something unintelligible. She drew her head back, tipping her chin to look at him. “Huh?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. He met her eyes and grinned endearingly, and she started laughing. “I have no idea,” he giggled, and he buried his face against her chest, his body shaking with laughter. Her arm tightened around him, even as she reluctantly drew her leg from behind his.

“Rafael Barba, robbed of speech,” she said, and he laughed harder. She was still struggling to breathe but she didn’t want to release him. “I’m glad I decided to stop over,” she added.

He pushed himself up on his elbows, pressing his palms to her cheeks, his expression growing serious in spite of the tears of laughter still shining in his eyes. “Olivia,” he said, and she knew what he was going to say. She knew what the words meant to him, how closely to his vest he carried them. He was still buried inside her, their bodies were pressed together, their heavy breaths mingling between their faces. He searched her eyes; neither had experienced a more intimate moment in their lives, and that fact added even more weight to his words. “I love you,” he said. His gaze traveled over her face, and he swallowed. Raising his eyes back to hers, he caressed her cheeks with the pads of his thumbs. “I love you,” he repeated.

“Does that mean I can stay the night?” she asked.

He smiled. He pressed a quick kiss on her lips before shifting his body, carefully withdrawing from hers. “You might as well,” he said. “I mean, since you’re already here.”

She laughed, pushing at his chest, and he rolled over onto his side with a grin. He laid his palm on her stomach and kissed her shoulder. After a few seconds, seemingly malcontent with such minimal contact, he pressed closer to her side and put a leg over hers.

“You’re very…” She hesitated, searching for the right word. “Tactile,” she finally said.

He laughed. “Tactile,” he repeated, his voice cracking. “I asked if I could touch you,” he reminded her, caressing her stomach with his fingertips. “You said yes.”

She smiled at him. “Yes,” she agreed. “And you were pretty thorough.”

“I missed a few spots,” he said.

“Hmm. Next time,” she answered.

He walked his fingers across her belly, slowly, toward the junction between her thighs. Her breath caught as his hand slipped out of sight, between her legs. His own thigh was over hers, his toes curled against her calf. When his fingers slid down to her slippery center, she closed her eyes, shifting against his hand.

“I want you to stay the night,” he said quietly.

“You already said I could,” she replied.

“I was joking.”

She was having difficulty thinking clearly as his fingers slowly and gently massaged her, but she opened her eyes to look at him. “I can’t stay?” she asked, her own attempt at a joke. She saw the seriousness in his expression. “I know you were kidding, that’s why I laughed,” she said.

“Stay the weekend,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but it wasn’t a command, either. He knew that Noah was on a camping trip and wouldn’t be home until Tuesday afternoon. Benson didn’t have anything with her to stay—no change of clothes, or toothbrush, or toiletries—but she also had no reason to return to her own apartment.

Stay the weekend.

And then what? she thought. She knew he could read the unspoken question in her eyes; she could see something similar in his, but she didn’t want to talk about it now. “Yes,” she said, instead. He slipped two fingers inside her, and she sucked in a breath, clutching at the bedspread. Her whole body was still tingling from his touches, her skin overly sensitive to the air whispering around her, and it took only a few strokes of his hooked fingers before she came against his hand, her back arching off the bed in spite of his restraining leg.

She blinked to clear the fog of orgasm from her eyes and looked up at him. Whatever he saw in her face made him chuckle, and he leaned over to place a quick kiss on her mouth before levering himself up and over her body. He kissed the hollow between her breasts before pushing himself downward.

“Rafael,” she started, but all ability to speak fled her brain when he dipped his head between her legs. Her clit was almost painfully sensitive, and she cried out when he sucked it against his tongue. Her hands fisted in his hair as tremors wracked her body. His hands were warm and firm on her hips.

His mouth was gentle but relentless, and she had no control over her body. All she could do was hold onto his hair as she writhed and panted beneath him. She didn’t know where one orgasm ended and the next began.

She never wanted him to stop, but she wasn’t sure how much more she could bear. She heard herself whimper, a sound she’d never made in her life. Tears were leaking from her eyes from the sheer intensity of sensation.

He released her and shoved himself up the length of her body, finding her mouth with his. She could taste herself on his lips and tongue, but the thought barely registered. She couldn’t breathe, and her body was shivering beneath him; her muscles felt shaky, rubbery.

He lifted his head, searching her face, concerned by the tears on her cheeks. She didn’t have the breath, or the strength, or the focus to reassure him, so she pulled his head back down and kissed him again. Lack of air had spots exploding across her vision, and she had to break away quickly, panting.

“Too much?” he asked, grinning when he was sure she wasn’t upset.

She laughed, the sound fractured by her labored breathing. “You wait,” she managed, sliding a hand between their bodies to emphasize the threat. She wrapped her slightly-trembling fingers around his cock.

He groaned. “I wish you’d known me twenty years ago,” he said, ducking his head to kiss the top of her breast. “As much as I’d love to go nonstop, I think I need—ahhh,” he said, as she tightened her fist around him. “Christ.”

“Is that a challenge?” she asked, arching a brow. Her body was still shaky, but she was gaining control over her muscles, and she meant to make him pay for that onslaught of pleasure he’d just delivered.

“Not a challenge—God, Liv.” She’d begun stroking him between their bodies, and he was growing hard in her hand. “Just humility.”

She snorted. “Not your strong suit,” she said, and he offered a cocky smirk that should’ve been infuriating. Instead, she was overwhelmed by love for him. “Also a lie, apparently,” she said, running her thumb over the head of his growing erection for emphasis.

He grunted. “I’m as surprised as you are,” he answered, and she laughed up at him, amused because he really did seem surprised by his body’s readiness to react to her touch.

“Guess you’re not as old as you think, Barba,” she said.

“Ha. In spite of the gray hair?”

Now who’s obsessed with your gray hair?” she asked, rolling her eyes with a smile.

“I was fishing for compliments.”

“Oh? Would you prefer I stroke your ego, or…something else?” she asked, running her fist slowly up and down his hardening length.

“Can’t I have both?” he returned, catching his tongue between his teeth to hold back his laughter when she glared up at him. Her gaze slid to his mouth, and she wanted his tongue between her teeth. He seemed to read her mind, and he lowered his head, covering her mouth and giving her complete control over the kiss. She pulled his tongue into her mouth and bit down gently, giving his cock a less-than-gentle jerk at the same time. He thrust against her, caught completely off guard, and he would’ve sworn if she didn’t have possession of his tongue.

She released his mouth and his erection. “Roll over,” she told him. He did, pushing himself up and to his side until he flopped onto his back, but his expression was wary when she rolled on top of him. “Scared, Barba?” she asked.

“Terrified,” he said, with a crack of humor in the middle of the word.

She reached up and lightly scratched her nails through the hair behind his temple. “I do love the gray,” she murmured. “But it’s a little sexist, don’t you think? What would you do if my hair all went gray tomorrow?”

“Is that a serious question?”

“Maybe,” she answered, her eyes dropping to his lips. She wondered if she would ever tire of kissing him now that she knew what she’d been missing.

“Olivia,” he said, and she looked up at the sternness in his voice. “Your hair could all fall out tomorrow and you would still literally be the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my life.”

She let out a breath, her body flattening against his. “God, you’re incorrigible,” she muttered.

He lifted his eyebrows. “I’m serious,” he said.

“That’s what makes you so infuriating,” she answered, but she was smiling as she said it. “You’re so damn charming, I can’t possibly compete.”

He frowned at that. “Compete?” he asked.

She traced her nails along his jaw. “You, with your fancy suits and your expensive cigars, ordering in French, smooth as James Bond…”

“Hold on,” he said, tipping his head on the pillow to get a better look at her face. “First of all, do you not like my clothes?”

She smiled. “That would be your first concern,” she teased, but his frown deepened.

“I’m serious,” he repeated. “Yours is the only opinion I care about. If you think I dress ridiculously or…pompously—”

“I love your clothes, Rafa,” she said quietly. “Down to every last colorful sock. I love every hair on your head, no matter what color they are. I love your lips even when I want to wipe the smirk right off them. I love you. But I saw you tonight. I know it was an act, but…you’ve worked hard to overcome your childhood. You’ve made yourself into someone that I’m proud to work beside and even prouder to call a friend. You deserve to be in a world of expensive suits and expensive wines and cigars and people who understand all your references that go over my head—”

“Olivia,” he said, cupping his hands to her cheeks and waiting until she met his eyes. She could see his shimmering tears. “I don’t know what I do or don’t deserve. All I know is what I want. You. If you’re proud of me, if you love me, for God’s sake, what else could I possibly want or need?” He searched her face. “If you want to go to fancy parties and rub elbows with rich snobs, I’ll gladly strut around with you on my arm, making everyone jealous.” He smiled when she laughed quietly. “If you want to sit in sweatpants on the couch watching movies and dropping popcorn on ourselves, I’ll gladly sit beside you forever.”

Forever, she thought, her heart stuttering in her chest. She hadn’t meant to broach this conversation now, but she felt the words forming on her tongue. And she knew, looking at his face, that he could see her preparing to ask.

“Or cartoons with Noah,” he said, quietly, before she could voice the question. “With him splattering spaghetti sauce on my shirt or getting everything sticky because the kid’s hands are always sticky,” he added, grinning at her. Now her eyes were shimmering. After a moment, he grew serious again, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “The only world I want to be part of is yours, Liv,” he said.

“See,” she answered with a small smile. “Incorrigible.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You just told me you’re proud to be my friend,” he said. “If this is a competition, I’m outmatched, because everything you just said made me all soft and gooey inside.”

She laughed loudly at that, and he chuckled along with her. “You’ve always been soft and gooey inside,” she told him.

He was still smiling, but his eyes were serious. “Maybe,” he allowed, surprising her. “But no one ever noticed before you.”

She hitched in a breath. After a moment, she lowered her head, brushing her lips against his. “No one’s ever seen me the way you do,” she breathed, and their gazes locked. There were other words, words that they didn’t need to say aloud; they both understood that no one ever noticed and no one’s ever seen me was not the point. The point was that neither of them had ever allowed anyone to look so deeply within their carefully-constructed walls.

“I love you,” he said, their lips still ghosting against each other’s.

He reached one hand down, and she felt his fingers wiggling their way between her thighs.

“Uh-uh,” she said with a little laugh, shifting her hips away. He pursed his lips in a pout, and she laughed again, kissing him quickly. “Trying to distract me. I haven’t forgotten your punishment.”

She pushed herself up so she was sitting on his thighs, her knees bent beneath her. She wouldn’t be able to stay like that for long; her joints weren’t as young as they used to be. His words flitted through her mind: I wish you’d known me twenty years ago. She dismissed them, though. They’d been different people twenty years ago. She wouldn’t waste her time imagining the great sex they could’ve had. They could have great sex now, and it would mean far more than it would’ve back then. Now, they were finally ready for each other.

She took hold of his wrists and lowered his hands to his sides, silently daring him to argue. He watched soundlessly, unmoving, as she slid herself down the lengths of his legs. She pushed her hair over her shoulder and took his erection in one hand. He shivered when her warm breath caressed his skin, and he couldn’t hold back a small moan when she closed her lips around him.

She tucked the fingers of her other hand between his legs, massaging beneath his balls, and his hips lifted off the bed for a moment. He fisted his hands in the blanket to keep himself from reaching for her. She held his shaft loosely between her curled thumb and fingers, stroking slowly as she ran her tongue over his silky head.

“Fuck,” he said, tipping his head back into the pillow. She slid her hand down and swallowed as much of him as she could—more than the last time; she was more adapted to his size, now, it seemed. “Ohh…liviahhhhh,” he said, pressing his shoulders into the mattress and digging in his heels. She tightened her mouth around him, fingering his testicles—prodding ever so gently with her nails, testing him. She could tell by the way he throbbed between her tongue and palate that he liked it, and she wasn’t surprised: nails on his scalp, his back; teeth grazing his neck or biting his lip, his tongue; she’d already learned so much about his body, just as he had about hers.

She moved her head up, tracing a vein with her tongue. He started to bend a knee up and immediately straightened it again. She knew without looking that his toes were curling as he tried desperately to keep himself still. She would’ve smiled if her mouth weren’t full. Instead, she hummed her encouragement—a wordless sound of approval for his effort, and a tremor passed through his body.

She lowered her head, pulling him deeper, deeper than she’d ever taken anyone, fighting her gag reflex with only the thought of his pleasure in mind. He was panting, using all his willpower to keep from thrusting into her throat. She scratched lightly at his balls and knew that he was dangerously close to losing his tenuous grip on his control.

She drew her mouth up his length until only his head was tucked behind her teeth. She wrapped her fist around him and stroked upward once, twisting her wrist a bit as she went; this was a warning of what was coming, and she could practically feel him gathering his fortitude in preparation.

She sucked roughly at his tip, and he bucked against her, swearing breathlessly. She didn’t relent, showing him as little mercy as he’d shown her: she started stroking with her fist in short, tight twists, working the head of his erection with her tongue, and he couldn’t restrain himself. He bent a knee, pushing upward with his foot.

“Liv.” He could barely manage the single syllable, but she heard all the silent words tied to its tail.

“Mmhmm,” she answered in acknowledgement, moving her hand harder, faster, as she tasted the salt on her tongue. He said her name again, and then he thrust upward again, his semen flooding her mouth in thick pulses. She swallowed automatically, because she wasn’t going to let him go—not yet. She sucked harder at his head, and he cried out, back arching and thigh flexing as he drove himself upward. She wasn’t deterred, as she had leverage on her side, and she kept her lips clamped firmly around the tip of his shaft. She moved with his involuntary bucks, refusing to release him until she’d sucked him dry.

He was muttering incoherently in a mixture of English and Spanish. She gave his head one last pull of her mouth, drawing the last drops of his cum onto her tongue, and finally released him with a wet popping sound. His hips dropped to the bed, but his sigh of relief was short-lived. He watched helplessly as she levered herself up and over him, kneeling on either side of his hips. His stomach was heaving as he tried to regulate his breaths.

She took him in her hand again; he was spent, but still mostly hard—and extremely sensitive. She lined herself up, watching his face as she lowered herself onto him. She let out her own sound of relief. The ache between her legs had again become unbearable, fueled by the strength of his orgasm, and she sank onto him gratefully. His hands went to her hips, his fingers pressing into her pale skin hard enough to leave faint bruises. Neither of them noticed until later.

She spread her hands on his chest, bracing herself, and curled her nails into his skin hard enough to leave marks. Neither of them noticed until later.

She rode him hard and fast until she came, which didn’t take long. He held onto her, both to help steady her and to keep himself from shattering into a million untethered pieces. They were both slick with sweat when she collapsed against him, and his body was trembling beneath hers. He reached a shaky hand between them to pull himself from her, because neither of them could manage much movement.

She was limp against him, letting the heavy rise and fall of his chest carry her. When he wrapped his arms around her, she kissed the skin over his slamming heart. They didn’t move for several minutes, until their pulses and breaths had returned to normal and their sweat had cooled on their skin.

She’d started to shiver in spite of his enveloping heat, and his arms tightened around her. They were still on top of his comforter, and they would have to move if they wanted to get under the covers. He tipped his head to the side, trying to see her face, and she turned hers up to kiss him. Her eyes closed, but she could feel him smiling against her lips.

The kiss was sweet, full of all of the emotion and none of the passion. They were too exhausted for that, now. When she drew back, she looked up and saw the humor sparkling in his eyes.

“I thought you were going to punish me,” he said with his trademark smirk.

She reached up a hand and scraped her nails along his jaw. “I didn’t want to break you already. It’s early,” she said, and his laugh—all the way from his belly—was the sexiest sound she’d ever heard. She was tempted to tell him so, and knew it would only make him more insufferable. She pressed her nose close to the curls of hair on his chest, breathing deeply. He smelled muskier than usual; the scent of sex clinging to him, to both of them.

“You’re cold,” he murmured. It wasn’t a question.

“We should get cleaned up,” she said.

“Are you saying you feel dirty?” he joked.

“No, I’m saying you stink,” she retorted, just to hear him laugh again, to feel his stomach contract beneath her and his arms tighten around her.

“By all means, then, let’s shower,” he said. When she snuggled against his chest instead of making a move to get up, he pinched lightly—playfully—at her naked backside.

“Hey,” she exclaimed, reaching back to slap his hand away. “I’m going to shower by myself, for that.”

“No, no,” he laughed, clutching her body to his chest. “I’m sorry.”

She glared at him. “You’d better be,” she said, before placing a quick kiss on his lips.

 

*       *       *

 

Standing in the hot spray of the shower, she ran her hands over his chest, tracing her finger over the indentations she’d left with her nails. He caught her wrist and pulled his hand to her mouth, kissing her palm. Then he ran his hands over the bruises that had already begun to show on her hips, and she looked down, surprised to see them. She reached down and lifted one of his hands, kissing his palm, and he smiled at her.

The steam was swirling around them, and they took their time soaping each other’s bodies and watching the watery suds run along their creases and dips and scars. He was getting hard again, and she stroked him casually while he ran his soapy hands over and under her breasts.

When she reached up—her breasts filling his palms with the movement—to run her fingers through his wet hair, his eyes drifted closed. They opened, but only barely, when she took hold of his shoulders and maneuvered their bodies until he was facing the shower spray and she was pressed up close to his back. He stood with his head slightly bowed, his arms by his sides, as she put shampoo into her palm. She reached up again, her breasts now flattening against the expanse of his back, and slowly worked his hair into a thick lather.

She dragged her nails through his soapy locks, keeping the pressure against his scalp gentle, bringing her fingers together to massage the back of his head. His breaths were slow and deep. She drew valleys through the lathered hair, into the hollow at the base of his skull, scratching lightly at his scalp. He made a humming sound and reached out a hand, touching his fingertips to the wall.

The hot water was hitting him in the chest, cascading down the front of his body, caressing him in soft warmth, and she leaned forward, putting her chin on his soapy shoulder to murmur into his ear.

“Could you come just like this?” she asked softly, fingers working at his scalp.

He leaned back against her body, one hand still tented against the wall. “Mm,” he said. “If I don’t fall asleep, first,” he rumbled.

Her breathy laughter at his ear made him shiver. She slid one hand down over his hip, around his waist, gliding over his slippery stomach until her fingers brushed the length of his erection. “If you’d rather nap, first,” she suggested. “Close your eyes,” she said, before gently pushing his head forward and down into the spray of water.

She rinsed his hair quickly, knowing the suds were flooding down and around his face. Once the water had run clear, she tugged the back of his hair, pulling his head up, and he once more leaned into her, tipping his wet head back against her shoulder so she could kiss the dip between his neck and shoulder. Reaching down, she wrapped her fingers around his erection, giving him a few lazy strokes.

They were both tired, and the hot shower had relaxed their muscles and soothed the aches they hadn’t realized they’d been feeling. Their movements were languid, but they couldn’t resist the lure of each other’s skin.

When Barba turned to face her, she didn’t object, instead taking the opportunity to kiss his soft, wet lips. She didn’t resist, either, when he turned her away from himself. She seized the opportunity to lean back against his chest; her legs already felt a little unsteady. He planted his feet on either side of hers and reached his arms in front of her. He flattened one palm against her inner thigh while his other hand slid into her hot folds. As his fingers massaged her, she tipped her head back against his shoulder so his mouth could find the side of her neck—an opportunity he didn’t ignore. She marveled at how evenly matched they were, in both height and what their bodies craved from one another.

She reached behind herself and stroked his cock between their bodies. He was already hard, but she felt him growing in her hand. He slipped two fingers inside her, the muscles of his forearm bunching against her stomach.

She couldn’t give his erection the proper attention it deserved, not reaching behind herself, so she pulled away from him and leaned forward, flattening a palm against the wall and looking over her shoulder. He was surprised, but that didn’t last long. She spread her feet to the curved edges of the bottom of the tub and he stepped up close, running his fingers along her slick length to make sure she was ready. The water might complicate things, but her body was eager to accept his, and he entered her in a single slow, smooth stroke.

He put one hand against the wall, his fingers crossed over hers, and curved his other arm around her, finding her clit with his fingers. He set a slow and steady pace, his stomach against her back as he kissed her between her shoulder blades.

When she was close, he picked up his speed, rocking his hips against hers until she cried out and her body convulsed, and she felt him spill his seed inside her a moment later. As soon as he’d slipped from her body, he pulled her upright and she turned in the circle of his arms to kiss him.

Once they could stand without leaning on each other, Barba washed and conditioned her hair, running his fingers through the tangles until they’d been tamed. He massaged her skull, chuckling when she mumbled that she was finally beginning to understand what the fuss was all about.

They washed each other again before stepping weakly from the shower. They patted each other dry with towels; his were far nicer—thicker and fluffier and larger—than any she’d ever owned, and she told him so. He chuckled and wrapped one around her before taking her hand and leading her back to the bedroom.

She stood with the towel clutched around herself, watching as he unceremoniously stripped off the comforter and tossed it into the corner of the room. He pulled a clean quilt from the trunk at the foot of his bed and quickly spread it over the sheets. Then he tugged the corner back and reached for her.

He’d offered her a shirt to wear to bed, but they both slipped between the cool sheets, naked. She turned her back to him and he pressed close against her body, tangling their legs together. She pulled his arms around herself, hugging them to her stomach, and he buried his face in her wet hair to kiss her shoulder.

She meant to tell him that she loved him, but she was asleep before she could form the words.

She woke just before dawn and knew that he was awake. His body was still wrapped around hers, and she could feel his erection against her thigh. She shifted against him.

“Sorry,” he murmured at her neck. “I don’t have any self-control around you.”

She rolled over to face him. 

His expression was sheepish. “Good morning,” he said.

She smiled. “Good morning,” she answered. It was still early, and they had no reason to be up. She pushed him onto his back and straddled him, running her hands over his stomach. The room was dark, but she could see the gleam of his eyes, and she already knew every curve and angle of his body.

When she levered herself up and lowered herself onto his cock, he said her name on a sigh. She brought them both to climax, and then she curled into the curve of his arm, pulled the blankets back over their bodies, and they slipped back to sleep. She woke an hour later when he was disentangling himself from her limbs.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “I’ll be right back.”

She could see daylight behind the dark curtains over his window. She watched him pad toward the bathroom, admiring the sight of his naked body.

“I can feel your eyes on my ass,” he said before disappearing into the bathroom, and the sound of her laughter followed him.

As soon as he’d emerged, she made her way toward the bathroom. She paused in the doorway to look back, and he raised his eyebrows in silent challenge. She laughed and shook her head, turning away.

“Fair is fair,” he called after her.

When she returned to the bed, he was lying on his back with his hands laced beneath his head. She’d checked to make sure she hadn’t missed any calls, but she’d realized something else while she was up.

He regarded her from the bed. “What?” he asked.

“I’m starving,” she informed him.

He let out a breath. “Thank god,” he said, throwing back the covers and swinging himself out of bed. She laughed and followed him toward the kitchen. She knew she should feel self-conscious, wandering through his apartment naked, but she didn’t.

She stood, watching with a mixture of adoration and exasperation, as he went about making scrambled eggs. He navigated his kitchen, cooking in nothing but his birthday suit, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, and she couldn’t help wondering if he often walked around without clothes.

The idea made her smile, but it also made her mouth dry. She could think of nothing more attractive, and she had to resist the urge to interrupt his breakfast-making endeavors to ravish him against the counter. Maybe after they ate.

They wouldn’t be able to do this with Noah around.

The thought gave her pause, because it felt natural to assume they’d be having breakfasts together like a real family. She didn’t want to rush things, but she didn’t think Barba would be frightened off by the idea. She thought he was as ready as she was.

They ate their eggs in bed and then shoved their dishes onto the bedside table before Barba rolled over on top of her and made love to her until she’d forgotten everything but his name. And they slept again.

In the afternoon, he buried his face between her legs and sucked her to distraction. He hadn’t shaved, and his cheeks and chin were rough against the insides of her thighs. The sensation brought her even more quickly to release, and she thought about what she’d said to him in Bella Claire’s: Maybe you should just let it grow for a couple of days, see what happens. She decided not to mention it, choosing instead to wait and see. He knew that she liked the stubble between her legs, just as she knew that he liked her nails biting into his skin.

They weren’t so different from each other.

In the afternoon, Noah called to check in, and he was excited to find that he got to talk to Barba, too. He didn’t ask why the two adults were together, and why should he? Benson supposed they’d always spent a lot of time together.

They ordered Chinese food for dinner, making sure they had enough for leftovers so they wouldn’t have to waste time cooking breakfast. She was in the bathroom when it was delivered, and she emerged in Barba’s bathrobe—even thicker and softer than his towels—to find Barba in the kitchen dividing the food.

He’d pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt to answer the door; the gray pants were slung low on his hips, the shirt bunched up on one side so she could see a sliver of bare skin. His hair was a mess. Better than fluffy, it was tousled, and she was amused by the fact that he’d answered his door looking so absolutely, adorably bedded

She crossed to him wordlessly, her bare feet silent on the tiles.

“I’m giving you more than half of the noodles—” he said without looking back. She put her hands on his hips and drew his shirt up to his armpits. He lifted his arms so she could pull the shirt over his head. “—so I don’t want to hear any complaints when I take the extra dumpling in the morning,” he finished without missing a beat. She ran her hands over his back while he finished dividing the food. He pushed the containers aside and turned to face her, and she ran her fingers over his chest, down the side of his abdomen. “Nice robe,” he said with a smirk.

She dropped his shirt onto the floor between their feet. “I really like the sight of you being all…domestic,” she said.

He offered a sardonic arch of his brow. “Barefoot in the kitchen?” he suggested.

She laughed, hooking her fingers into the waistband of his sweats. Her plan was to sink to her knees, drawing the pants down as she went, but his hand was at her waist, his fingers absently caressing the softness of the robe, and she found a new plan forming in her mind.

His eyes narrowed at the speculative look on her face. “Care to give me a hint at your thoughts, Lieutenant Benson?” he said.

“Oh, you’ll see,” she answered, and his eyes flicked downward as she drew the belt from the waist of the robe. “Actually, I guess you won’t,” she said, and his eyes returned to her face. He swallowed. She held the belt, hanging loosely between her hands. “Yes?” she asked.

He cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said.

Barba’s heart was slamming in his chest as she raised the soft belt toward his eyes. He’d seen her sucking him, an image that his brain would take to the grave. Just the memory of her looking up at his face, while her mouth was wrapped around his cock, was enough to send a rush of hot blood to his groin. But this? This was something else entirely, and he was already tenting the front of his sweats when she carefully tied the belt at the back of his head. It was soft at his temples, covering his eyes, and she knotted it at the base of his skull.

It wasn’t a hot towel wrapped around his face, but he had no need for artificial heat. He caught his breath when he felt a soft puff of air against his lips; his own lips parted in anticipation, and he pressed his fingertips against his thighs to keep from reaching for her.

Her tongue ghosted along his upper lip, and he opened his mouth wider, inviting her in. She had other plans, though. She pulled his upper lip into her mouth, sucking gently, and he felt his body swaying toward her. She put a hand against his shoulder, and he leaned back against the counter, his hands now fisted on his sweatpants.

She took hold of one of his wrists, pulling his hand away from his leg and turning it palm up. Releasing his lip, she kissed him, softly. He felt her fingertips in the middle of his palm. He hadn’t told her how her touch had affected him in that salon chair, but of course he hadn’t needed to say it aloud.

She already knew more about his body than anyone ever had before.

Using her fingernail, she lightly traced the shape of a heart into his palm.

Yes, she knew more about his body than anyone ever had, but it wasn’t just his body.

“The first time we met, you shook my hand,” she said. Her voice was low and husky, and he knew she was looking at him. “Do you remember?”

“Of course,” he breathed.

“I wanted you, then. In that first moment. Could you tell?”

“Yes,” he said. “But that didn’t last long.” He felt her fingers, feather-light, running up the inside of his wrist, and he felt himself twitch against the cotton of his sweats.

“Hm,” she answered, noncommittal, and he was surprised. He tried to concentrate as her fingers traced up his forearm, tickling lightly as they whispered over the inside of his elbow. “There was a definite spark,” she murmured.

“I pissed you off,” he said.

“We butted heads,” she corrected, and her fingers were brushing along his bicep, up his shoulder. “Part of it was the job, having different ideas of how to get results, but part was…that we both knew it would be a mistake to jump into bed together.” When he didn’t immediately answer, he felt her fingers hesitate at his collar bone.

Barba tried to process her words, tried to imagine ever thinking that sleeping with her would be a mistake. “It took two minutes of conversation with you to know I’d never survive a one night stand,” he heard himself admitting. “It would be like…Icarus trying to touch the sun.” It was a poor metaphor to express what he meant, but it was all his floundering mind could catch while her fingers were sliding over to his breastbone.

“Are you saying I would’ve destroyed you?” she asked, and he could hear the smile in her voice.

“I would’ve destroyed myself,” he said. “Trying to touch something I had no right to touch.” He heard her breath catch, and her fingers faltered again. After a second, they resumed their slow journey; he could feel the trail they’d burned into his skin. Her nails skated over his nipple, down along his ribs. “I never stopped wanting you, Liv,” he told her. “I just wanted more of you. All of you,” he amended.

Her fingers were light on his stomach, near the waistband of his pants, and he could feel his muscles quivering beneath her touch. He felt her breath against his lips as she leaned toward him, and he waited, desperately wanting her kiss; always.

“Rafa,” she said softly. She paused, and he waited. He knew what she was going to say. He could feel the words hanging between them, and he could feel their truth. But they were important; it was important that she say them, that she believe them—that they both believe them. “We deserve to be happy,” she whispered.

He felt his skin prickle pleasantly. “Yes,” he breathed. Neither of them had ever felt like they were enough, had ever felt good enough, in their lives. Not until they’d met each other, and begun to see themselves through each other’s eyes. “We deserve each other,” he said.

She touched her lips to his. “I like that,” she murmured against his mouth.

“I like you,” he answered, and both of their mouths curved into smiles. Her fingers hooked into the elastic of his sweats.

“I’ve never held your hand in mine, after that first meeting,” she said. “Until the salon. I was surprised by how much you seemed to like it.”

He chuckled. “Me, too,” he answered.

“I know a lot of things that you like, now,” she breathed against his throat, and he tipped his head back, unable to control himself. Her lips brushed his throat, but only for a moment. He could feel the swirl of air around him as she sank to her knees on his crumpled shirt, pulling his sweats down as she went.

He tried desperately not to come unglued when she took his erection in her hand. His eyes were closed beneath the belt, but he could see her there, as clear as day—holding him, looking up at him, her mouth hovering near his cock…

“Liv,” he said.

“Hm?” she answered, pausing with her hand wrapped loosely around him.

“I want you to know, if I don’t survive this weekend, I have no regrets.”

She laughed, and her warm breath felt cool against his overheated skin. A moment later, she kissed the tip of his penis, and the light touch of her lips sent a frisson of electricity through his body. He grabbed the counter behind his hips to steady himself.

When he felt her mouth, warm and wet and soft, close around him, he knew he wasn’t going to last long. He thought absently that he was going to have to work on his self-control, build up a little stamina, and then she erased all thought from his mind.

Her ministrations were slow and gentle, because she knew that he was close to the edge. In no time at all, he could feel himself throbbing in the slick confines of her mouth, could feel the orgasm rising up to consume him.

She caught his head between her lips, running her tongue along his tip, and before he could catch his breath she was sucking, hard, drawing everything—his seed, his climax, his very life—from him, and he bucked against her mouth, saying her name on something that felt like a sob.

When she withdrew, he leaned limply against the counter, his body shivering as she trailed kisses up his stomach, over his chest, until her lips were once more on his. He was breathless, but he kissed her eagerly, reaching for her. He wrapped his arms around her. The robe was soft and warm, but it was hanging open, and he felt her body press against his. He let out a sigh of contentment and leaned his forehead against hers, letting his heart slow.

“Our food’s getting cold,” she murmured. “And I swear, if you make one comment about how I shouldn’t be hungry…”

He laughed, squeezing her closer against his body and burying his blindfolded face into the side of her neck. “I told you, I already gave you more than half the noodles,” he said, and she groaned, slapping playfully at his back. Then they were both laughing, and Barba had only one thought: this is what I want, for the rest of my life.

After eating in the kitchen, propped against the counter and each other for support, they returned to Barba’s bed. They were too tired and full for sex, but that didn’t stop them from making out until they fell asleep. They woke in the middle of the night, took turns in the bathroom, and then he fingered her to multiple orgasms.

She didn’t object when he gathered her into his arms afterward. He told her with a self-conscious laugh that his body needed some time to recover; he was half-hard but seemed happy simply to hold her in his arms until he felt asleep.

In the morning, he was ready to make up for his lack of libido the night before. The sex was harder, rougher than before. They left marks with their teeth and nails, testing themselves and each other. By the time they came up for air, the day was half over. They ate their leftovers and showered together, mapping the marks they’d left on each other’s body and gently kissing each one.

They napped, waking up when Noah called.

Barba didn’t have court until Tuesday, so he wrote to his assistant to let her know that he wouldn’t be into the office on Monday. Benson texted Fin, letting the sergeant know that she wouldn’t be in to work on Monday, telling him she was taking a personal day. Lord knew she had enough accrued. Aria was safely ensconced in a foster home, and Benson trusted that her squad could handle anything that arose. For the first time she could remember, she’d decided to be selfish and take a day for herself. And she refused to let herself feel guilty about it.

They’d bought themselves one more day together, but they both knew they were going to have to talk about what their inevitable return to reality would mean.

It was Barba who broached the subject first. It was just after midnight, and he was lying on his side, one leg and one arm draped over her. She was on her back, head turned toward him.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep in this bed alone,” he said quietly, surprising her. “It’ll never be comfortable again without you.”

“Every time you say something sappy like that, I don’t know if I should kiss you or claw you.”

He smiled. “I think we’ve learned you can do both at once,” he teased. “Besides,” he said, wiggling his leg on top of hers, “it’s true. I can’t help it if you make me feel all sentimental. But if you want me to keep my thoughts to myself—”

“No,” she assured him quickly, earning herself a smile. She patted his chest. “You keep being sappy, Barba,” she said. She hesitated. “I’m sure, at the very least, you’ll be glad not to share your toothbrush anymore.”

Still smiling, running his fingers up and down her arm, he said, “Well, there is that.”

She scratched her fingertips at his jaw. He still hadn’t shaved. She couldn’t see the gray in the dark, but she knew it was there. “I’m going to miss this,” she told him.

“It’s my weekend beard,” he told her, adjusting his head on the pillow as he regarded her in the dimness. “And federal holidays,” he added.

“Vacations?”

“Sure,” he agreed. “Until you’re sick of it. I’ll add fluffy hair, if you want.”

They were almost there. She just had to ask.

“You know I can’t stay here,” she said quietly. That wasn’t a question, she thought.

“I know,” he answered, just as softly, still stroking her arm.

“I’ll miss your towels,” she said. What’s wrong with you? Ask him.

“You can take them with you,” he replied. “They’re yours.”

“Can I take you with me?” she asked.

“I’m yours, too,” he said.

It seemed so simple, and yet she was afraid to believe. Things had changed so profoundly, and so quickly, that a part of her was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He seemed to be reading her thoughts. He spoke quietly into the night: “I’m still me, Liv. We’re still us.”

“I’m afraid of screwing this up,” she admitted.

“We’re still us,” he repeated.

She opened her mouth and closed it again as she considered his words, as she really let them settle over her. She thought of everything they’d been through together, everything they’d accomplished together. And she thought of everything they’d learned about each other in the past two days—not just about their bodies, but about who they really were beneath all the layers of bravado. How he couldn’t stop touching her, how even now he was curled around her. How he’d stopped censoring his words, letting the sap flow unabashedly. How she’d never felt so connected to anyone in her life.

He was right, of course. He was always right, really, although she’d never tell him such a thing. We’re still us, she thought. Only better. More.

“What do we do?” she asked.

He laughed lightly. “Whatever the hell we want, Liv,” he said. “When have you or I ever followed the rules?”

“Good point,” she said, also laughing. She rolled toward him, and he drew his leg back just enough to let her move. Once she’d settled onto her side, his knee was tucked between hers and their heads were on the same pillow, their faces inches apart. “I should go home tomorrow night,” she said, reluctantly. “I mean, tonight,” she added, because it was after midnight. “I can’t very well show up to work Tuesday in that dress, and I’m not going to want to leave your bed in the morning.”

“Okay,” he said.

She hesitated, looking at her hand as she flattened her palm against his chest. “We could stay at my place,” she suggested. “I could give you a ride to work Tuesday morning. I…You could bring whatever you need…”

He crooked a finger under her chin and tipped her face up until their eyes met. “Okay,” he repeated quietly. “I’ll pack a bag in the morning. Or…maybe afternoon,” he amended, and she could hear the amusement in his voice. She leaned forward and kissed him, curling her fingers against his chest. He ran his hand into the tangles of her hair, brushing them back from her face, and said against her lips, “I love you, Liv.”

She relaxed against him, unsure why she’d ever been nervous.

 

*       *       *

 

“Is that the food already?” Barba asked, frowning. Monday was half over, and they hadn’t left the apartment since Benson’s arrival Friday night. They were just preparing to get into the shower.

Benson grabbed the boxers and t-shirt from the bathroom counter, quickly pulling them on. “Stay here, I’ll be right back,” she told him before stepping out of the bathroom and closing the door. She hurried to the door, grabbing her purse along the way. She threw the deadbolt and pulled the door open, already reaching into her bag for her wallet.

She froze, staring out at Carisi and Rollins.

They stared back, with matching dumbstruck looks on their faces.

Rollins recovered first. “Uh. Liv,” she said, glancing down at Benson’s state of undress—Barba’s boxers and undershirt, bare feet—and up to her tangled hair and makeup-free face. “Sorry, we…came to check on…Barba.”

Benson felt herself blushing and cursed herself a hundred times over for not checking the peephole before opening the door. She should’ve known better; it could’ve been anyone on the other side, and here she was standing in Barba’s underwear with her purse in her hands.

“What are you—” Carisi started, frowning, but Rollins elbowed him in the ribs. He winced, but took the hint quickly enough.

“Fin thought it was kinda weird, you taking a personal day, and then you haven’t answered back. And Barba hasn’t answered any calls or texts, and he wasn’t at his office today…” Rollins cleared her throat. “We were worried…maybe a friend of Markone’s or something…you know.” She gestured vaguely toward the apartment. “We were going to swing by your place after this.”

“Probably good you didn’t go there first,” Benson said, drawing a deep breath through her nose to settle her irrational nervousness. She had nothing to be embarrassed about. They were all adults for God’s sake. “Since I’m obviously not there and you would’ve just worried more.”

“Sorry to bother you,” Rollins said.

Benson sighed, running a hand over her face. “No, I’m sorry we were…irresponsible,” she answered. She’d been checking her phone regularly to make sure there were no calls from or about Noah, but she’d paid only minimal attention to any work-related texts. And she hadn’t even seen Barba look at his phone. Such selfish escapism was wildly unlike either of them, and they should’ve realized they would worry someone. She supposed they’d be lucky if Lucia wasn’t on her way over, too.

“You got a right to take a day off,” Carisi said, shifting his feet.

“Come in,” Benson said, pushing the door wider and stepping back. They might as well take a few minutes to brief her so she’d be up to speed.

“Are you sure we’re not, uh…” Rollins glanced into the apartment, clearly looking for Barba, “interrupting?”

Benson laughed, meeting the other woman’s eyes. She held up her purse. “Delivery person should be here before too long, anyway,” she said. She gestured with her other hand, and the detectives walked inside. She was going to tell them to stop looking so awkward, but Carisi managed to break the tension, first.

“Guess that date was about as good as it sounded from outside, huh?” he asked, his cheeks dimpling as he grinned.

Rollins shot him a look, trapped somewhere between amusement and horror, and Benson—in spite of her heated cheeks—laughed. “You have no idea,” the lieutenant said, and then all three of them were laughing, and Benson pressed her hand against her forehead.

“James Bond, huh?” Rollins asked, and Benson laughed harder, shaking her head.

“Hey, Liv?” Barba asked, appearing in the bedroom doorway in nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist. He stopped, and silence fell over the apartment. Benson’s mouth went dry at the sight of him, but she was painfully aware of the discomfort clinging to the detectives. Barba’s surprise at the sight of them was fleeting, and he seemed unperturbed. Look how relaxed you are after a weekend of nonstop sex, Benson thought, and she almost laughed aloud. It was a miracle they were both able to stand, really.

“Rafael,” Carisi said.

“Barba,” Rollins said at the same moment.

Barba glanced them over, looked at Benson with a quick tip of his head and a flick of his thumb, and said, “Who invited the Doublemint Twins?”

Benson took one look at their matching frowns and threw her head back, laughing. She caught sight of Barba’s grin and thought, God, I love you. “I guess reality came knocking a day early,” she told him, and she saw his grin widen.

“To hell with that,” Barba said. “I’ll wait for you in the shower.” He turned and disappeared into his bedroom, and Benson was still laughing when she turned to the detectives.

Before she could say anything, there was a knock on the door.

“I think your food’s here,” Carisi said.

“And I think that’s our cue to leave,” Rollins added. “The briefing can wait until tomorrow.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a debriefing—” Carisi started, but he cut himself off, his blue eyes widening in horror as he realized how inappropriate the joke was. His face flushed red. “I—sorry, Lieu, I—”

Benson wanted to set his mind at ease, and she would—as soon as she could make herself stop laughing.