Author's Note: This odd little piece is my birthday gift to the lovely Lou, aka InkyCoffee, who deserves all the good things, which may or may not include this fic. ;) I hope you enjoy it.

The title is a reference to the story plot, and also to the fact that Lou is such a gift to our fandom. :) :)

Happy birthday, Lou!

"Wait - Wait! You dropped your - ah, damn it."

The subway car's doors slid shut and the train pulled out of the station in a rush of air, leaving Richard Castle standing on the platform, holding an unknown woman's purse.

He had just been getting off the train when he'd seen the purse fall off the woman's shoulder and drop to the floor. In his rush to bend over and grab it before it got kicked or trampled, he hadn't even managed to catch a glimpse of its owner's face; he'd just seen the back of her head, brown hair coiled into a tight bun, before she got swallowed up in the crowd of people boarding the train he had just left.

Now he was stuck on an empty subway platform with the purse in his hand and no idea of what its owner looked like.

Sighing, he headed for the exit. With any luck, maybe the woman lived nearby and he could find her address and drop the purse off at her home. He checked his watch as he started climbing the stairs toward street level; plenty of time before he needed to get to the Black Pawn publishing office to meet with his editor.

As he emerged into daylight, it occurred to him that he could just turn in the purse to the MTA security office, but something in him was too curious - okay, nosy - and wanted to handle it himself. Rick was a big believer in fate, destiny; the universe had clearly wanted him, not anyone else, to find this purse and return it to its owner.

Plopping down on a bench at a nearby bus stop, he opened the purse. It wasn't snooping, he told himself virtuously; he was just looking for anything with the owner's address on it, so he could return it. Purely innocent. Yes.

The first things he noticed, spilling out as soon as he opened the clasp, were the coffee receipts. Dozens of them, so it seemed, all crumpled and rumpled as if they had been haphazardly shoved into the purse on the go. The woman really liked her coffee.

He glanced through a few of them and saw that she was very consistent with her order: a latte with skim milk and sugar-free vanilla syrup. A woman who knew what she liked.

Stuffing the receipts back in, he looked through the other contents of the purse. It was mostly what he thought of as typical woman stuff: lip balm, hair ties, tampons, breath mints, makeup (all high-end brands, he noticed), and so forth. The purse itself was also clearly high-quality, and from a brand he recognized as one of his ex-wife's favorites. This mystery woman had expensive tastes, it seemed.

In a small zippered pocket on one side of the purse's interior, he found a slim leather wallet. "Now we're getting somewhere," he muttered to himself as he pulled it out.

The wallet yielded a driver's license, a Starbucks rewards card, an NYU student ID (expired), and several credit cards, all bearing the name Katherine Beckett. According to her license, Katherine was 22 years old, almost 23, and - aha! - she did indeed live near this subway stop, just a few blocks away.

Rick studied her picture for a long moment. Like all driver's license photos, it wasn't particularly flattering, but he could tell that Katherine Beckett was beautiful. And lurking behind the bored expression on her face, he thought there was something darker in her eyes - some deep, unfathomable sorrow.

In the next moment he shook his head at himself, huffing ruefully. There he went again, inventing whole wide expanses of backstory for someone he knew nothing about. An occupational hazard that was bound to get him into trouble one of these days.

He pushed the wallet back into the purse, and as he did so, dislodged two more pieces of paper, which sailed out and drifted onto the bench next to him. He snatched at them quickly before the light early-autumn breeze could whisk them away.

The first one turned out to be a credit-card bill, marked PAST DUE and THIRD NOTICE. It showed no new charges except for a late fee and accrued interest, and a balance of several thousand dollars carried forward from the previous month.

The second piece of paper had clearly been unfolded and re-folded many times; it was battered and stained, presumably from spending a lot of time in the purse. When he opened it, his eyebrows immediately rose at the sight of the seal of the City of New York imprinted at the top. Below that was printed what appeared to be a form letter:

Dear Ms. Beckett,

Congratulations on your acceptance to the NYPD Academy. We look forward to welcoming you into training this fall. Please see below for the date and location of your first scheduled orientation session...

Rick felt his jaw drop as he took in the words. So, Katherine Beckett was a cop! Or, well, a cop in training. The dates on the letter showed that she was about six weeks into her training now.

He wondered what would drive a woman like her to join the police force. From the contents of her purse, he had pegged her as a young woman who came from money; yet her wallet contained a grand total of two dollars in cash, her credit-card bill was past due, and here she was joining the police academy at her young age, presumably straight out of college.

His mind was spinning around these details, trying to fit them into a narrative, even as he shoved all of the stuff back into the purse and stood up. It frustrated him to have only bits and pieces of Katherine Beckett's story; making things up would only take him so far.

He mulled it all over as he walked along the sidewalk, heading for Katherine's address. Absentmindedly, he pulled the strap of her purse over his shoulder, heedless of how odd he must look, a grown man in jeans and a sport coat carrying a woman's purse.

Katherine Beckett's home address was a run-down apartment building with a shabby, poorly-lit lobby. Rick wrinkled his nose at the smell, and searched along the adjacent corridor until he found the super's office.

"Beckett?" the man said, scowling as if it were an enormous inconvenience. "Yeah, 4G. Found her purse, you said? Don't suppose it has the back rent she owes in it?"

"She's behind on her rent?" Rick repeated, frowning as he added this fact to his small mental collection of data about Katherine Beckett. "How much does she owe?"

The super studied him shrewdly. "Three grand."

Rick folded his arms across his chest and gave the man a skeptical look. After a beat, the super relented.

"Okay, two," he admitted. "But that's for this month, and she ain't paid next month either, which was due yesterday. So if you see her, you can tell her the same thing I told her yesterday - she better pay up by the end of the week or management is gonna start talking eviction."

"They'd evict her? But she's going to the police academy," Rick protested. "I would think they'd like the idea of having a cop living in their building. Makes it safer, right?"

The super scoffed. "Cops still gotta pay their rent, buddy."

Rick couldn't argue with that, but the man's attitude irritated him. Reluctantly, he left the purse with the super - hopefully the guy would actually return it to her - and wandered back down the hallway, thinking. A plan was taking shape in his mind.

But first, he needed to get to that meeting with his editor.

An hour later, Rick walked out of the Black Pawn offices with a slight headache. His newest Derrick Storm novel was coming along nicely, but his editor had had a lot of nits to pick with the plot, and he would have to do a fair amount of rewriting before she'd be satisfied. Still, he knew that in the end it would make the book better.

As he emerged onto the sidewalk again, he remembered his little mystery - the elusive Katherine Beckett and her financial woes, and the plan he had concocted. His mood lifted at the thought.

Just around the corner from his publishers' office, there was a branch of his bank. He stopped in there briefly, and then, feeling re-energized, made his way back over to Katherine Beckett's building.

"You again?" the super grumbled when Rick knocked on his door. But the man's expression changed when Rick pulled out a thick wad of cash.

"This is to cover Katherine's back rent plus the next six months," he said, slapping the stack of bills down onto the man's desk. "And this..." he took out another fifty-dollar bill and set it down beside the rest, "is for you, as thanks for keeping all of it under your hat."

The super eyed Rick speculatively as he made the $50 disappear. "She never mentioned nothin' about a sugar daddy," he observed. Rick winced and shook his head.

"It's not like that," he said. "You heard me about the keeping quiet part, right? Just tell her it was an anonymous benefactor."

The other man shrugged. "Whatever you say, pal. Oh, and her friends call her Kate."

Kate Beckett, Rick repeated to himself as he left the building and walked back to the subway station. It was a good name. A strong name, for a strong woman.

He wasn't sure what had made him decide to do it, but he did enjoy helping people out. Since his books had started to make him rich, he'd been eager to pay it forward; he gave a lot of money to various charities, but he also enjoyed doing smaller acts of kindness, like paying for someone else's bill at a restaurant, or shoving a few extra bills into a homeless person's cup.

And something about Kate Beckett had compelled him. The contents of her purse, combined with the knowledge of her unpaid rent, told a tale that had captivated his imagination. He knew he was doing it again - making up stories about people he didn't know - but he couldn't help it.

Kate Beckett had expensive tastes, had gone to a prestigious college; she must be smart, and her family was probably well-off. Yet, instead of going on to law school or medical school after college, she had entered the police academy, and instead of living in a high-end loft in a doorman building like he did, she lived in a sleazy walkup. Why?

As soon as Rick got home, he plopped himself down in front of his computer and went to work.

First, he pulled out Kate Beckett's credit card bill, which he had quietly shoved into his pocket before he returned her purse to the super. This probably counts as felony mail fraud or something, he told himself with a twinge of conscience, but he shrugged that off. No one would ever know, right?

He made a quick phone call to the credit-card company, gave them his bank account information, and authorized a one-time charge to his account, paying off the full balance on the card.

Then he took out his phone and pulled up the photo that he had quickly snapped of Kate Beckett's Starbucks rewards card. He surfed over to the Starbucks website, entered the card's number into the system, and linked it to his credit card. He set it up to automatically refill whenever the card's balance got too low. That should take care of Kate's coffee habit.

He thought about Kate's driver's license, which he could still picture in his mind, with her birthdate on it; she would be 23 in just a few weeks. He opened a new browser tab and selected the website of his favorite chocolatier, ordering a nice assortment to be delivered anonymously to Kate Beckett's address on the date of her birthday. Every woman liked chocolate, right? He nodded to himself as he confirmed the order and authorized the payment.

Satisfied, Rick glanced at his watch. He still had a few hours left before he would have to go pick up Alexis from school; he should really spend that time working on the edits to his novel. Reluctantly, he closed his browser and opened his word processor.

But he only spent a few minutes staring blankly at his own words before curiosity got the best of him. He reopened the browser and typed "Kate Beckett" into the search bar.

It took a little digging, but eventually he turned up a major piece of the puzzle: a small article from a local newspaper about an unsolved murder. The victim's name was Johanna Beckett, stabbed to death in an alley. She was survived by her husband Jim, a fellow lawyer, and their daughter, Kate, aged 19 at the time.

Rick blew out a slow breath, tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling.

That explained a lot. The brutal murder of her mother was surely a traumatic event for anyone, especially a teenager; certainly enough to cause her career path to do a 180.

But why was Kate living in poverty? Where was her father? The obituary said that Jim Beckett was a partner at a fairly prestigious uptown law firm, so the man must have plenty of money. So why were his daughter's bills piling up?

A dozen scenarios filled Rick's brain as he closed his browser window again. He knew he could waste a whole day, or more, in spinning stories for himself based on the limited amount of information he had; but he also knew that he couldn't indulge himself like that. Not right now, when the edits on the novel were already overdue.

Anyway, he had gotten enough information to satisfy his curiosity. It was time to let go of the Kate Beckett mystery and get back to work on the latest Derrick Storm mystery.

Firmly putting Kate Beckett out of his mind, he switched back to his word processor and got to work.

(Two Years Later)

It was unusual for the loft's doorbell to ring unexpectedly, especially on a random weekday evening. Rick looked up in surprise from the pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove. He searched his memory, wondering if he had forgotten about a playdate for Alexis or a package delivery, but couldn't think of anything.

Giving the pot one more quick stir, he turned down the heat to leave it simmering, and wiped his hands on a dishrag before making his way across the open living area to answer the door.

A young woman stood on the other side of the threshold, tall and slender, wearing a police uniform. Her hands were fiddling nervously with the strap of her purse, but when Rick opened the door she stood up straighter, lifting her chin to look straight at him.

"Mr. Castle?"

"Yes?" Her face was oddly familiar, but it wasn't until her fidgety hands drew his gaze to her purse that he connected the dots. It was a different purse, but the sight of it, combined with the police uniform, jogged his memory; brought him back to that bench downtown where he had sat, holding a purse, digging into its owner's identity. "Oh!" he exclaimed in astonishment as the details came flooding back. "You're Kate Beckett."

"Officer Beckett," she corrected, with spark of defiance, a hint of danger in her tone.

Rick nodded, immediately captivated by her. "Of course, Officer," he murmured.

He couldn't help remembering how, all that time ago when he'd looked at her face in her driver's license photo, he had thought that there was some kind of tragedy lurking in her eyes; and then his internet search had confirmed it. And now here she was, standing in front of him with a steely glint in those same eyes, clearly intended to intimidate.

In person, she was far more fascinating than she had been in the flat, lifeless picture. Everything about her - her posture, the set to her jaw, the way she looked at him, the sound of her voice - revived the curiosity he had felt about her back then.

He had pushed it down, set it aside, thought of it only briefly and rarely during the two intervening years. But now, having exchanged only a few words with her, he knew without a doubt that if he had actually seen her back then - the real person, not just her photo - he would never have been able to let it go.

"Please, come in," he invited, opening the door wider. But she shook her head and didn't move.

"No, thank you," she said stiffly. "I just came to give you this."

She held something out toward him: a small piece of paper. As soon as Rick saw the shape of it and realized what it was, he began to shake his head in negation.

"No, no. I don't need that," he said. Officer Beckett frowned, taking a half-step forward as if to foist the check onto him.

"It's all there," she said. "You can double-check the amount for yourself. The rent, the credit card, the coffee-"

"I don't need it," Rick repeated. "I'm not going to take your money." He put his hand lightly on hers and pushed it back toward her. "Keep it."

As soon as their hands touched, a shiver went through him, tingles rushing up his arm, leaving heat in their wake. She seemed to feel it too; her eyes went wide, snapping up to his face, and she snatched her hand back as if burned.

"I don't need charity," she said, but her voice wobbled, the words not coming out nearly as forcefully as she probably intended. She took a deep breath, carefully steadying herself, and met his eyes again. "Thank you for returning my purse two years ago, Mr. Castle," she said formally, the words emerging from her mouth as if practiced. "I really appreciate it. And it was kind of you to pay my bills, but not necessary. As you can see-" she shook the check at him for emphasis - "I'm fully able to provide for myself."

"Are you?" he asked, genuinely curious. "How? Because as I remember it, two years ago, you were behind on your bills and living in a flophouse."

She frowned again, and he realized belatedly that the question had been presumptuous; it was none of his business. He softened his tone, leaning toward her and holding out his hand in invitation again. "Please, come in," he urged gently. He tried to keep his body language as unthreatening as possible, his smile genuine and friendly.

The frown didn't leave her face, but she consented to take a few more steps, over the threshold and into his loft. Rick carefully pretended not to notice the way her eyes widened as she took in the space.

"Let's start over, okay?" he said, closing the door and turning back to her. He held out his hand again and gave her another smile. "Hi, I'm Rick Castle."

She rolled her eyes slightly, but she put her hand in his, producing another wave of goosebumps that rippled across his skin. Her palm was warm, her handshake firm. "Kate Beckett," she said. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Castle."

"Please, call me Rick." Before she had a chance to respond, he went on. "I don't know if you know this, but I'm a writer."

"I, um, yeah." She looked away, her cheeks turning slightly pink. "I do know that."

"Cool." He grinned, filing that away for later. "So, as a writer, I'm all about the story. Everyone has a story, and I need to know them all. Especially when it's a really interesting one. So, ah, sometimes I ask questions that aren't really my place to ask."

She looked at him again, caution in her eyes. "I'm not that interesting," she said. But before he could object, she added grudgingly, "Trust fund. I couldn't access it until now."

"Trust fund," he repeated, his brow furrowing as he mulled that over. His memory popped up an image of Kate's driver's license, the chocolates he had ordered, the current date - and suddenly it all clicked. "Oh," he exclaimed. "You just turned 25. Your inheritance from your mom was put into trust because you were under-age." He saw her wince, and mentally kicked himself for speaking so bluntly. "God, I'm sorry. That was tactless of me. I'm so sorry about your mother. And... and happy birthday."

"Thanks," she muttered, and he saw her throat working around a thick swallow. But then she pulled icy control around herself and met his eyes again.

"So, like I said, I don't need your money," she said firmly. "I have my own now, and I can take care of myself." Again she held out the check toward him. Again he shook his head.

"No, look, all of that was a gift," he told her. "And I really don't need your money. You can, I don't know, donate it to charity or something. The NYPD must have a widows and orphans fund."

She opened her mouth, but before she could reply, a light voice called from above, "Daddy? Who are you talking to?"

Officer Beckett closed her mouth again, looking up toward the upper level of the loft with surprise on her face. Alexis came into view at the top of the stairs, looking down at them.

"Oh no, the police?" the girl asked. "What did you do, Daddy?"

"Nothing!" he protested, putting on a faux-injured look at his daughter's frown as she started down the stairs. "I'm innocent, pumpkin. Officer Beckett just came to, uh, to thank me for a favor that I did for her a while ago."

"That's right," the woman agreed hastily, her eyes darting from Alexis to Rick, something softer animating her face now. "Your dad was very helpful."

"Oh, okay," Alexis said. She reached the bottom of the stairs and came over toward them, looking at Kate curiously as she held out her hand. "I'm Alexis."

"Kate." They shook hands and smiled at each other.

"Are you sure my dad's not in trouble?" Alexis asked. "You can tell me the truth. I'm not a little kid. I'm almost ten."

Rick was sure he saw Kate's lips twitch, but she maintained a solemn expression as she assured Alexis, "No, he's not in trouble, and that is the truth, I promise." She glanced over at him, then back to Alexis. "Does he get in trouble a lot?"

"Kind of," his daughter shrugged. "But he means well." As Kate let out a startled laugh at that, Alexis turned to look at her father. "You invited her to dinner, right?"

"Oh," he blinked, surprised - but not half as surprised as Kate, who lifted her eyes to him with a very deer-in-headlights expression. "Well, I wasn't exactly, uh..."

Alexis gave an exaggerated sigh. "Daddy! Where are your manners?" She turned back to Kate and said politely, "You must join us for dinner, Officer. My dad's making spaghetti and meatballs."

"Thank you, Alexis, that's very kind," Kate said, her eyes still wide with astonishment, "but I wouldn't want to impose on your, uh-"

"Oh, you're not," Alexis said breezily. "Daddy always makes way too much. And I bet you're hungry, 'cause being a cop is hard work, right?"

"Um, well, it has its moments," the young woman said, looking bemused as Alexis took her arm and tugged her gently toward the kitchen.

"You sit here," the girl instructed. "Daddy, ask her what she wants to drink while I set the table."

Rick couldn't help grinning at his daughter's bossy side. "Yes, ma'am," he agreed. Inwardly, he was rejoicing. He knew that there was no way in hell he could have convinced Officer Beckett to linger another minute in his loft, let alone stay for dinner; but Alexis's natural charm was irresistible.

"Can I get you a glass of wine? Beer? Seltzer?" he offered. Kate Beckett had sat on the kitchen stool that Alexis had steered her to, and she stared up at him for a moment, flummoxed.

But then some indefinable tension released, her shoulders relaxing, her face clearing. She gave a little shrug, as if to say, Why fight it? "Seltzer sounds perfect, thanks."

Within minutes they were all seated at the dining table. Officer Beckett had removed her uniform coat, leaving her in a plain black turtleneck, and with the change in clothing came a change in her demeanor. She still seemed awkward, as if she couldn't quite believe what was happening, but her posture was softer, her expression more relaxed.

She ate with enthusiasm, complimented his cooking, and answered Alexis's questions about police work with equanimity - and, Rick was pretty sure, with a lot of editing. She was certainly toning down the uglier side of her job for the sake of young ears. Rick appreciated it, and was relieved when they managed to steer the conversation toward Alexis's schoolwork - but at the same time, he was dying to hear some of Kate's more 'interesting' stories.

Near the end of the meal, Alexis excused herself to go to the bathroom. Rick was occupied with refilling his water glass, but when he looked up, he found Kate sitting back in her chair, arms folded across her chest, her eyes narrowed at him in accusation.

He had no idea what it was about, but he gulped anyway, already intimidated by her glare. "What?" he squeaked.

"Richard Castle," she said sternly. "You based a character on me. In your latest book. What the hell was that about?"

"Oh. Um," he said, startled and a bit guilty. "You, uh, you noticed that?"

She rolled her eyes. "Come on. She's a tall brunette whose mother was murdered when she was 19, which prompted her to become a cop. And the book came out after you found my purse," her glare returned, "and went snooping through it, apparently."

"I was just looking for your address to return it," he protested weakly.

Kate merely stared at him in stony silence, until he felt the back of his neck beginning to break out in a cold sweat. Holy crap, he couldn't help thinking, she was going to be the most effective interrogator the NYPD had ever seen.

"Okay," he burst out, breaking under her glare. "I'm sorry I snooped in your purse, and, uh, borrowed some details of your life for a character."

"Uh-huh," she said skeptically. "And what kind of a name is Nikki Heat, anyway?"

"Um..." He chuckled sheepishly. "A cop name?"

"It's a stripper name," she accused.

"Well, she is kinda sl-" He stopped himself abruptly as Alexis returned to the table, her eyes bright.

"What are you talking about?" she asked, looking from her father's mischievous smirk to Kate's murderous glower and back again. "Daddy, you made our guest mad."

"I'm sorry, honey." He leaned forward, catching Kate's eye across the table. "I'm sorry, Kate. I didn't mean to make you mad."

The young woman pursed her lips, her gaze softening again as she looked at Alexis. "I forgive you," she said grudgingly. "But you're skating on thin ice, mister."

"That's what I tell him all the time," Alexis chirped. "He doesn't listen." She sat down and picked up her fork. "Does your dad listen to you when you tell him what to do, Kate?"

Rick only just caught a glimpse of the anguish that passed across Kate's face before she turned her face away, lowering her eyes and pressing her lips together. She swallowed and blinked hard, and her voice was low but controlled when she answered. "No. My dad and I don't really talk."

"Alexis," Rick cut in quickly, before his daughter could ask another question, "tell us about that field trip you're taking next week. The zoo, right? Do you think they still have that penguin?"

The diversion worked. Rick and Alexis chattered happily about zoo animals for a few minutes while Kate composed herself, took a few more bites of her dinner, and eventually rejoined the conversation.

Then, as the topic turned to ice skating, Rick was the one who briefly tuned out, his mind whirling with thoughts and stories as he watched Kate, took in her body language and her facial expressions, the smooth low tone of her voice.

He found himself thinking about Nikki Heat, the minor character he had put into his latest book based on what little he knew of Kate Beckett. In his mind, he had a clear picture of Nikki's face, and he'd developed a certain amount of backstory for her, but the full details of her personality were still rather vague. But now that he had met Kate, spoken with her, observed her body language and the sound of her voice and the snap of her quick wit, he could feel the missing pieces of Nikki flooding into his brain. He hadn't felt this rush of excitement for a character in a very long time.

With a start, he realized that he was already plotting out Nikki's entire career, her evolution from the carefree young girl she'd been before her mother's murder into the hardened, kick-ass cop she would become. His fingers began to twitch involuntarily as he thought about all the angles of Nikki that he wanted to explore.

"Daddy," Alexis said, startling him out of his haze. "No zoning out at the table. It's time for dessert."

"Sorry! Sorry," he said hastily. "I'm here. Yes. Dessert time." He smiled at Kate as he rose to begin clearing the table. "Coffee?"

Kate accepted the coffee, and allowed Alexis to talk her into dessert. When the brownies were gone and the coffee cups refilled, Alexis stood up again.

"May I be excused? I have to finish my homework."

"Sure, pumpkin. Give me some sugar," he replied with a soft smile.

"You already had three brownies," his daughter teased, but she rounded the table and kissed his cheek before turning to their guest.

"It was nice meeting you, Officer Beckett."

"It was nice meeting you too, Alexis," the young woman replied. "Thanks for dinner."

"You're welcome. Come back any time." And the girl went bouncing cheerfully up the stairs.

Kate got to her feet, giving Rick a polite smile. "I should be going."

"Oh..." He got up as well, wracking his brain for an excuse to keep her from leaving. The spark he'd felt when their hands touched earlier was still zinging through his bloodstream - not to mention the whirl of thoughts about Nikki.

But Kate was probably tired from a long day of cop work, he reminded himself. He should let her go.

"Well, thanks for coming by," he said awkwardly.

She paused in the middle of putting her uniform jacket back on, and pursed her lips as she looked over at him. "We haven't finished our discussion, though," she said sternly.

He blinked. "We haven't? What discussion?"

"About repaying you," she reminded him with a slight roll of her eyes. She settled the jacket into place on her shoulders and began buttoning it up. "I can't let you just pay for my stuff."

"Oh, right. That." Rick frowned. "But I already told you, I'm not taking your money. I don't need it. And anyway, it was a gift. You don't repay a gift."

"But you didn't even know me," she objected.

"No, but I knew that you liked coffee," he teased. "And I bet you liked the chocolates too, didn't you?" He hadn't missed how avidly she'd enjoyed his brownies, after all.

Kate bit her lip and averted her eyes as her cheeks colored slightly. "That's not the point," she said, but he could see that she was trying not to smile.

"Listen," Rick said earnestly, "can I just tell you something? I'm glad you dropped your purse that day." She looked up at him again, surprised. "Because in some small way, your story inspired me," he went on. "I didn't know it at the time, but Nikki might be the best character I've ever created."

"Nikki Heat?" Kate's forehead furrowed as she stared at him. "She's just a minor character."

"She was," he corrected. "But now that I've met you, I'm going to write more about her. I need to. You inspired me," he said again.

And just like that, in a flash of realization, the solution popped into his head and out through his mouth with no hesitation.

"That's it! That's how you can repay me," he exclaimed, feeling his body begin to buzz with excitement. "You're my muse. I need you."

Kate looked at him warily, taking a careful step backward. "What are you talking about?"

"Character research!" Rick said, the words tumbling out in a rush of excitement. "Let me pick your brain. You can teach me all about what it's like to be a rookie cop. It's perfect."

She was still suspicious, but he could see the glimmer of interest in her eyes. "What, you mean like procedures and stuff?"

"Everything! Procedures, routines, everyday life in the precinct, how you do everything. All your crazy stories. All the things you've seen." He gestured toward the dining table. "All the stuff you edited out for Alexis. I need all of that for Nikki."

Kate pursed her lips and studied him thoughtfully. "Really? You mean it? You're going to write more about her?"

"Oh yeah. Definitely." He nodded emphatically. "But I can't do it without you, Kate." He gave his best puppy-dog look. "Please?"

Her eyes still narrowed, she took a long beat to think it over, but finally she nodded back at him. "Well, okay," she said. "But if you call me your muse again, I'll break both your legs."

Rick felt a grin spread uncontrollably across his face. "Fair enough," he said. "I'll come to the precinct tomorrow and-"

"Oh no. No way," she interrupted, shaking her head firmly. "Not in the precinct. Captain Montgomery will never agree to that. We'll have to meet up after my shift."

Montgomery? Rick thought. Wasn't that the captain he had met at the mayor's poker game a few weeks back? He made a mental note to make some phone calls first thing in the morning.

But for the moment, all he said was, "Okay, okay. After shift. I'll meet you at that Starbucks, the one you go to most often."

Kate grimaced and rolled her eyes. "You already know way too much about me."

"No such thing, Officer," he insisted. "But I'm looking forward to getting to know so much more." He opened the door for her. "So I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow," she confirmed, pulling her purse strap over her shoulder as she walked into the doorway. "Good night, Mr. Castle."

"Until tomorrow, Officer." He bounced on his toes. "This is gonna be great. You'll see."

She cocked her head at him, amusement beginning to play around the corners of her mouth. "Don't you mean, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship?"

Rick felt an answering smile tugging at his lips. "Well, is it?"

Kate quirked an eyebrow at him and stepped out of the loft. "Maybe," he heard her murmur just as the door closed behind her. "Maybe it is."