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Holder’s always had a thing for redheads.

He blames Daniella Kimak, the Polish woman who lived next door while he was growing up. She was all long limbs longer hair, fiery red that fell all the way to her hips and swayed like liquid flames when she walked. She used to come over in her housecoat and smoke cigarettes with his mom until it was time to open a bottle of vodka, her pale, freckled forearms clearly visible beneath the soft cotton. Her husband was a trucker, worked away a lot hauling freight up and down the Pacific coast; when she came home they used to fight so loud their voices would echo around the neighbourhood.

When he was sixteen his mom sent him next door to ask Daniella if she needed help with the front lawn. She didn’t, but on his seventeenth birthday she led him up the stairs to the bed and she and her husband shared and show him exactly what she did need help with.

He grew up thinking that all redheads chain-smoked, had bad tempers and wouldn’t accept help from anyone.

She was the first.

The second was Celia, a college girl with a pixie cut of brilliant natural red that went orange in the sun. She played the bass like it was an extension of her hand and was rarely seen without a cigarette. Like Daniella, she had pale skin and a soft smattering of freckles that trickled down her spin and pooled out over her hips.

Their relationship had been rocky, tumultuous, combustible like the fire atop her head. One time, during a particularly brutal exchange, Holder punched the wall in frustration and broke a bone in his hand.

He kept coming back for more, though.

The third had been Marianne, a delicate beauty from New York with whom he spent one perfect idyllic summer before entering the academy. They’d gone hiking, taken walks in the park. She’d hated her freckles and covered them up with makeup and smoked cigarettes from one of those long holders and liked to read French poetry and had freckles that covered her collarbone and shoulders. But then the summer had ended and so had their idyll, and Holder never went hiking again after that.

The fourth had been a waitress at the local diner who used to bring him coffee when his shakes were so bad he spilled black, hot liquid all over the counter. If she knew what the twitches and the dark circles and the increasingly scrawny frame were from, she didn’t let on, but she listened when he wanted to talk and she never complained when he sought her comfort at the end of the day. Her skin was covered with burns from the hot oil that distorted her milky skin and smattering of freckles.

There had been others, to be sure: brunettes and blondes and even a girl with hair all the colours of the rainbow, but their faces and their hair became a blur, an endless rollercoaster punctured only by the redheads, the only faces he remembers.

Linden was the fifth.

Her hair had been the first thing he’d noticed about her when their boss had introduced them just as she was packing up her office and handing it over to him. To be sure, it was pulled back into a tight ponytail and the lights were artificial and it dulled the red but there was no mistaking it: glorious auburn that curled down her back.

He was glad that she was leaving. That way he wouldn’t have to watch her hair and wonder what it felt like between his fingers.

Of course, their first assignment had dragged them out of the police station and into the field; he can still remember standing in the marshlands outside the city, watching Linden bark orders at people in that harsh, unsociable way that she has about her. And the natural light made her hair so red and fiery that he had to clench and unclench his hands so he wouldn’t reach out and touch it.

She reminds him of Daniella, of Celia, of Marianne, of the nameless waitress. She reminds him of them and she doesn’t. She wants a cigarette but she rarely caves. She has a son that she lets him meet and what’s more, doesn’t object too much when Holder strikes up an easy rapport with the boy. She doesn’t ask for help but turns up at his apartment anyway because she’s got nowhere else to go and she needs his help because she’s afraid, afraid for herself and for her son.

When he first touches her hair, he doesn’t realise that he’s doing it.

Its morning, early morning and Jack’s stayed over at a friend’s and they’re in his apartment, just the two of them. Linden’s standing at the sink, looking out of the only window in the kitchen, blowing on her coffee cup. She’s wearing sweats and her hair is loose around her shoulders for the first time and Holder’s hand comes up without thinking to gently touch the curls that crown her head and almost hit her waist.

Silk, just like he thought. Thick, luscious silk that slips through his fingers in loose, easy waves in a glorious red, the reddest he’s ever touched.

She audibly inhales when she feels the contact but doesn’t ask him to stop, staring at him with those wide eyes that she has. Emboldened, Holder lets his fingertips touch the skin at the side of her neck, smiling when he sees the barest hint of freckles peeking out from her collar. But then soon her mouth’s on his and they in the bedroom and he realises that the freckles extend all the way down like leopard’s spots, covering her whole body. She’s pale and glorious just like he thought she would be.

“Holder.” Her voice is muffled by her hair as they lie amid sweaty limbs and tangled sheets and share a cigarette.

“Always had a thing for redheads.” He mumbles back.