The Alex Ryan and CJ St. Clair Romantic Thrillers — Finalists, GCLS Goldie Awards, Debut Author and Mystery/Thriller.
Erica Abbott: Alice B. Reader's Lavender Certificate for Debut Author
Erica Abbott: Brainy is the new sexy!
It was drizzling an intermittent March rain as Alex Ryan ran to her truck after the school meeting. Almost all the other cars were gone from the parking lot, as she had stayed late to answer all the questions from those who had been reluctant to ask them during the meeting itself. As the Captain in charge of the Detective Squad, school safety was hardly her specialty, but she’d studied up on the initiatives enough to give a presentation as the Colfax Police Chief’s representative.
She slid into the leather seat of her SUV and punched the heater on low. The interior would warm quickly, a benefit of the expensive vehicle, a gift from her partner CJ St. Clair for Alex’s fortieth birthday. CJ, casual about money in a way only a woman with a trust fund could be, had actually suggested replacing it with a new one this year. Alex remembered arguing against it. “Just because you change cars every two years doesn’t mean I have to,” she’d told CJ.
CJ had responded, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll wait until next year to buy you a new one if you promise not to try to talk me out of it then.”
“CJ, sweetheart, I do not want you to keep buying me new cars.”
“It’s for my benefit, too,” CJ asserted. “I have to ride in it half the time. And besides, I have a vested interest in keeping you as safe as possible. If you’ll recall, when I met you, you were driving a ten-year-old truck that had no passenger airbag and no anti-lock brakes.”
Alex couldn’t argue with that. She did appreciate that this sleek black model had six airbags and traction control. She clicked her seat belt into place and pulled out of the lot. When she had safely merged onto I-225 headed south, she used her Bluetooth link to call CJ at their condo.
“Hi, darlin’,” CJ answered.
“You obviously got home from the party all right.”
“I left not long after you did. How did your presentation go?”
“Fine. Fortunately, no one asked me a question I couldn’t answer. Chief Wylie owes me big-time for this one.”
“Enough for a three-day weekend, do you think?”
“I imagine so. What did you have in mind?”
“Nothing in particular. Glenwood Springs, maybe? A little soaking in the hot springs, a little walking around in the mountains, a lot of sleeping in.”
“Hmm,” Alex pretended to consider. “Sounds dull. Maybe Vivien was right. We are getting to be a boring married couple.”
“Do not start agreeing with her!” CJ exclaimed. “There’s nothing boring about us. My other thoughts about the weekend are too lurid to communicate in a telephone call.”
“Lurid is good,” Alex remarked, changing lanes back to the right after passing a slow-moving pickup, the driver apparently freaked out by the wet highway. “Say more.”
“You want me to talk dirty to you while you’re driving at fifty-five miles an hour?” Alex heard the amusement in her voice.
“I’m considering the pros and cons,” Alex said. “I guess I can wait twenty minutes. I just passed Parker Road, so I’ll be home in…what the hell?”
Alex glared at the bright lights in her rearview mirror, approaching fast in the left lane. “An idiot driver,” Alex said tersely. “Going eighty, at least.”
“Alex,” CJ said warningly. “Do not try anything. I don’t care if you’re in uniform. You’re in your own car and out of your jurisdiction.”
“Thanks for the reminder, Lieutenant. I…”
The driver reached Alex’s truck, then pulled just ahead, still in the left lane. Alex saw the brake lights, bright as rubies reflecting against the rain-slicked concrete.
“What the hell?” Alex muttered again. It was far too dark for the driver to see that she was in uniform, so the sudden braking didn’t make sense…
“Alex?” CJ asked sharply in her ear.
The driver cut over in front of her abruptly, clipping Alex’s front bumper. Alex tried to brake and turn the wheel away from the car at the same time, but her tires couldn’t hold the pavement. In the next second her SUV sailed off the road, and Alex’s world spun out of control.
Many times over the past three years, CJ had consciously paused to fix a memory of Alex in her mind’s eye, taking an internal snapshot to freeze the image of her partner, so that she could later take the good memories out and look at them if she was lonely or troubled. Alex propped up on their couch, reading, bare feet touching CJ’s calves. A sudden smile at tasting something CJ had made for her in the kitchen. Her forehead wrinkled in concentration when CJ entered her office unawares. The sight of her blue eyes first thing in the morning, bringing color to CJ’s world again.
Now CJ’s eyes were taking pictures she didn’t want to have, memories being etched like acid on her mind. Flashing blue and red lights on the shoulder of the highway, visible from a mile away as she approached from the other side. The cluster of highway patrol, sheriff’s vehicles, paramedics and a fire truck gathered untidily on the pavement or pulled onto the grass.
She turned illegally across the median and got as close as she could. When she ran out of her car, her mind took the worst picture: Alex’s SUV lying at the bottom of the embankment, the roof half crushed from the vehicle rolling over, the terrible gashes in the grass, like scars.
Oh, God, a rollover. She’d been sheriff’s deputy for eight years before joining the Internal Affairs Division of the Colfax Police Department, and she’d seen more fatal car rollovers than she could remember.
There were people gathered down around the vehicle, and many more up on the shoulder. She wanted to turn and scream at all of them to get down there and help, to get Alex out of that goddamned car.
One of the men in uniform broke away and approached her. CJ wanted him to come and tell her to go away so that she could yell at him that she had to be there, that it was her life lying trapped down there in the twisted metal and broken glass.
“CJ St. Clair,” the man said, and she recognized him, an old acquaintance from her days at the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s office. “What are you doing here?”
“I was on the phone with her, and I heard…I called it in. She’s…we’re…” She couldn’t form a coherent thought, much less a coherent sentence.
“Detective,” he said gently, using her former rank, and she remembered his name was Bernard something, Bernie.
“She’s my partner,” she managed, then realizing he would misunderstand, she choked out, “We’re married. Is she…”
There was no way to say the words aloud, no reality in which she would survive hearing the wrong answer to the question she couldn’t ask.
Bernie said, “They’re trying to get her out. She’s alive, I think.”
I think. She didn’t know whether to fall into his arms weeping with gratitude or pound against his chest in anger for his uncertainty. She started down the hill.
He grabbed her arm. “Don’t.”
It gave her the excuse she wanted to scream. “Don’t you tell me what to do!”
He took her other arm and hauled back her up, saying, “Detective, you have to stay here and let them work. You can’t help, you’ll just be in the way.”
She tore her arms away from him, but knew he was right and hated him for it. “I’m sorry,” she panted. “I’m sorry, Bernie, I just can’t…”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Stay here and think good thoughts. She was wearing her seat belt, they said, and the airbags deployed. It’s a big, heavy car, she could be okay.”
I’m buying her a fucking tank next time, she thought desperately. God, please, let her be alive, please.
There was a flurry of activity at the bottom of the hill. That has to be good. They wouldn’t be working so hard, so fast, if she were already gone. It was a fragile thought to pin the rest of her life on.
A hundred other nightmares crowded into her. She made her bargain with God: Let her be alive. We will deal with whatever else there is, I swear, just give her back to me with her mind whole, and I promise I’ll take care of the rest. Please.
For a brief moment, she could see Alex as they lifted her onto the stretcher, her uniform dark against the white of the backboard they had her strapped onto. No one was pulling a sheet over her face, she must be breathing. Five people grabbed the stretcher and hauled it up the hill as quickly and carefully as the wet grass would allow.
CJ ran to meet them at the junction of the hill and the back of the ambulance, and this time no one tried to stop her. They had Alex in a neck brace, and the blood all over the left side of her face made CJ’s heart lurch.
“Alex, darlin’, I’m here,” she said, trying to find someplace to touch her.
To her astonishment, Alex actually opened her eyes for a moment. Even in the harsh distortion of the flashing red lights, CJ could see her face was gray with pain.
“Sorry,” Alex muttered. “Scared you, sorry.”
CJ couldn’t talk. One of the paramedics said, “Are you family?”
CJ nodded. Tired of euphemisms, she fumbled out, “Wife. She’s my wife.”
The paramedic blinked, then said, “We’re taking her to Aurora Lutheran.”
CJ wanted to ask how bad it was, but knew it was a useless question none of them could really answer. Instead she said, “I’m coming with you.”
Alex closed her eyes again, but managed, “Please.”
They let her sit by Alex’s side. CJ kept a firm grip on her arm all the way to the hospital, keeping Alex with her, in this world.
* * *
CJ sat in the waiting area at the emergency room. She was attempting to send positive thoughts across the hall to Alex but all she could think about was the drama of earlier that same evening.
Before the rain, it had been a mild evening for March in Denver, and people were spilling out onto the deck and the pool area of the townhome complex where Vivien Wong lived. Music could be heard coming from within the building.
“What is that?” Alex had asked. “I’ve heard it before, haven’t I?”
CJ listened for a moment and said, “Chaka Khan. Through the Fire. Sounds like Viv is going with jazz tonight.”
“At least Vivien has good taste in music.”
“And in best friends,” CJ added lightly.
Alex laughed. “You’re so modest.”
CJ smiled. “Not me. I’ve got the most beautiful woman at the party on my arm, so I have nothing to be modest about.”
She tugged at Alex’s hand and led her into the room without releasing her. Alex was always careful about public displays of affection, both because she was a career police officer and because she’d fallen in love with a woman later in life, but CJ was comfortable and happy touching her. Vivien was out, and the party was sure to be filled with lesbians as well as with her business associates. Viv only gave one big party a year, and she invited just about everyone she knew.
The room was pretty full, people clumped in predictable groupings. By the food table, there was a crowd of both men and women, their casual clothing failing to conceal their ties to mortgage banking, Vivien’s job. Other groups near the bar were more likely personal friends, women in everything from cocktail dresses to suits, sequins to jeans.
Alex said to CJ, “Vivien actually hired bartenders this year.” She nodded at a petite brunette and a tall blond in white shirts and black ties, mixing drinks with practiced precision. The wine and liquor bottles set up on the table covered with a white tablecloth looked like the downtown Denver city skyline.
“She told me she was tired of tending bar and wanted to mingle.”
“Since when did Vivien ever tend bar?” Alex asked dryly. “Last year, I think you and I did it most of the evening.”
CJ laughed. “And that’s why I told her to hire help this time.”
Alex grinned at her. “Good thinking, sweetheart.”
A moment later CJ stiffened as she glanced across the room. Alex turned around, her reaction to CJ’s expression both wary and curious.
The women approached them and CJ couldn’t see any graceful way to escape. “I was sure it was you,” one of the women said to CJ. “It’s been a while.”
She hadn’t changed much, CJ thought. The woman’s dark hair was cut severely short, showing off diamond earrings just a bit too large to be in good taste at a casual cocktail party. She wore a pantsuit that looked like linen, and attached to her elbow was a much younger woman who was pretty in a vague way, although she was wearing too much makeup.
“It has been a long time,” CJ replied. Her voice was calm, her tone carefully controlled. “Viv didn’t tell me you were coming.”
The woman laughed. “She didn’t know I was showing up. Patty brought me, didn’t you, my dear?”
Patty nodded, sliding her round blue eyes back and forth between CJ and Alex. “Um, yeah,” Patty said. “I’m with Mountain Title Company. Vivien and I work together sometimes.” She offered her hand. “Patty Herron.”
“Alex Ryan,” Alex said, her expression still cautious.
“Are you a friend of Vivien’s, too?” Patty asked.
“Indirectly,” Alex began. “Actually, I met her through CJ. They’re old friends and—”
The other woman interrupted, still addressing CJ. “Is this the new girlfriend, honey?”
Alex narrowed her gaze. She wasn’t the jealous type normally but CJ could feel Alex’s temper starting to rise.
CJ said abruptly, “Alex. This is Stephanie Morrow.” She added for clarification, “Steph.”
CJ had only had two serious relationships before she met Alex: Laurel, her college girlfriend, and Stephanie, the real estate agent with whom she had lived for two years. CJ didn’t talk much about either woman to Alex. There hadn’t been any reason to: Steph was a minor chapter in her past. Alex was her present and her future.
CJ watched Alex study Stephanie. She was certainly still attractive in an edgy way, her hair molding against her head like a black skullcap. Her makeup was perfect and underneath her expensive clothes she had retained her well-maintained body. She was CJ’s age, which made her seven years younger than Alex. CJ wondered if Alex was comparing herself to this flawlessly turned-out woman.
CJ found Alex’s hand and tangled their fingers together in silent reassurance, silently answering Steph’s question. She felt Alex’s tiny tug of gratitude.
Stephanie dropped her eyes to the diamond ring and wedding band on CJ’s left hand. Her manicured eyebrows rose and she murmured, “Well, well. Looks like you finally found somebody to go through that ceremony you always wanted.”
CJ saw that Alex was ready to enter the conversational conflict, but she was saved from intervening by Patty’s bright question.
“Oh, hey. You’re CJ St. Clair, Steph’s ex, right? Did anybody ever tell you that you look just like that singer? You know the one. Stephy, you know, we saw her on Ellen, remember? It’s been a while, but you look just like her.” Her look wobbled uncertainly between Stephanie and CJ, searching for help. “You know. The singer,” she said again.
Steph was ignoring her, but CJ asked gently, “Are you talking about Trisha Yearwood?”
Patty clapped her hands together happily. “Yes! You’re a redheaded Trisha Yearwood!”
“I have heard that once or twice,” CJ said. “It’s very flattering every time, though.”
“You sound like her too, when you talk,” Patty added, oblivious to the currents of discomfort swirling around her from the other three women. “She’s from the South, isn’t she? Are you?”
“I’m from Savannah, Georgia, originally,” CJ explained patiently, her drawl thickening for a moment. “Trisha is from a pretty small town about two hundred miles away, I believe.”
“Well, you sound just like her,” Patty repeated.
Stephanie cut in with, “So what have you been doing with yourself, CJ? Aside from getting out the U-Haul. Are you still a police officer?” She shot a glance at Alex, not a friendly one.
CJ responded, “Yes, I left the sheriff’s office and I’m with Colfax PD now. I’m in Internal Affairs, actually. Alex is a Captain in the Department, in charge of Investigations.”
Stephanie’s lips curled a little and she said, “Oh, nepotism, huh?”
Alex had just about had enough, but again CJ stepped in and said coolly, “Not at all. I’m in a different chain of command.” She turned to Alex. “Would you mind getting us a drink, darlin’? I think I could use something refreshing.”
“Of course,” Alex said, letting CJ handle whatever was going on. “Back in a minute.”
CJ watched her walk across the room then managed a few more minutes listening to Patty, who liked to chat about everyone, and fending off intrusive questions from Steph. Finally Patty said, “Steph, honey, I could use a drink too.”
Steph said, “There’s the bar.”
Patty glared at her and huffed off in the same direction Alex had taken. CJ thought Steph would be looking for a new girlfriend pretty quickly at this rate.
“You femmes keep us busy taking care of your every need, don’t you?”
CJ replied coolly, “I wouldn’t say that at all. Actually, I find taking care of someone I love and being taken care of equally satisfying.” She turned to go, hoping to leave the conversation behind, but Stephanie wasn’t through.
“You’ve really got her under control, do you?”
CJ suppressed a flare of anger. She turned very deliberately and said, “I’m not going to take relationship advice from you, Steph. You don’t know Alex. And you didn’t really know me at all apparently, or you wouldn’t have suggested a ménage à trois.”
A dark red flush crept up Stephanie’s neck. “You’d be surprised how well I understand you,” she said acidly. “Do you still like to be fucked in the shower? You were a pain in the ass to live with, but you did like fucking.”
CJ stared at her for a long moment, proud of herself for not slapping the leer from Steph’s face. Then, her voice very low, CJ said, “You always were an offensive bitch, weren’t you? I can’t figure out why it took me so long to see that.”
The angry flush reached Stephanie’s cheeks. At that moment, Alex returned to hand CJ her chardonnay. CJ watched Alex read the situation and then Alex said, “Nice meeting you, Steph. I think Patty needs you. Now.”
Steph gave her a glare, then she stalked away. Alex murmured, “Do I need to ruin Vivien’s party by going over to slap the bitch?”
CJ looked at her in amused shock. “Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know what she said to you, but I can see your canine teeth and not in your usual pretty smile.”
CJ shook her head. “You always know how to make me feel better.” Then she looked into Alex’s stormy blue-gray eyes and murmured, “I’m sorry for bringing her into our lives, even for just a minute.”
Now Alex gave her the full smile that always transformed her serious face. “Please, Red. If we have to apologize for everybody we were with before you and I met, I’d have to do seven years of penance for bringing Tony into the equation.”
CJ grinned, suddenly feeling much better. “You are so right,” she said with a laugh. “Dealing with your crazy ex-husband the district attorney on a weekly basis is much worse than my occasional bitchy ex-girlfriend.”
Alex squeezed lime into her tonic water. “I agree.” She glanced around and added, “Is Laurel here, by chance? I’m on a roll and I’d love to tell off your other cheating ex while I’m at it.”
CJ laughed again. “Sorry. She’s still in Georgia, last I heard. And I’m not keeping track of her. Keeping track of you occupies all my time.”
Alex decided to take advantage of the opportunity to be affectionate in public and leaned over to kiss her, very lightly. “And that’s the way I like it.”
Vivien Wong joined them at that moment. She was in bright red, a tunic with a mandarin collar that emphasized her Asian features. “Okay, knock it off,” she said tartly. “Jesus, I invite you two to a cocktail party so you can mingle and you just stand in the corner and neck. With each other. How boring.”
CJ hugged her hostess. “I keep telling you, Viv. It’s the opposite of boring, believe me.”
Alex added, “And that’s not really necking. I could show you the difference, if you’d like.”
Vivien rolled her eyes and then hugged Alex, too. “I’d like that,” she said, suggestively. Flirting with Alex was one of her occasional hobbies, but the unspoken rule was that she could only do it in full view of CJ.
“I meant with CJ, not you,” Alex said with mock severity.
“Christ, you two are boring as hell!” Vivien exclaimed.
CJ laughed at her. “Not so boring,” she said. “I think Alex was ready to throw a punch or two at one of your guests a minute ago.”
Vivien’s eyes widened. “Which one?”
CJ gestured across the room, where Steph was having what looked like a disagreement with Patty. “Stephanie,” CJ said.
Vivien exclaimed, “Christ on a pancake! I had no idea Patty was bringing that cunt to my party.”
CJ choked on her wine. “For heaven’s sake, Viv! Just because we broke up doesn’t make her a…” CJ hesitated over the word.
Vivien shook her head and turned to Alex. “For God’s sake, she can’t even say it, despite the fact that she presumably spends much of her leisure time in and around one. I hope to Christ she at least manages some choice language for you in bed.”
CJ, suddenly angry again, demanded, “Why is everyone suddenly so interested in the details of my sex life?”
Alex’s face turned hard. “Is that what Steph said to you? She really is a—”
CJ interjected, “She’s not a nice person.”
Vivien threw up her hands. “I give up. I’m going to go play hostess and flirt with the bartender.”
“Which one?” CJ eyed the two women behind the bar.
Vivien smirked before she answered, “The blond Viking-looking one, of course. Alex, this one is all yours.”
CJ watched the slow smile cross Alex’s face.
“That’s true,” Alex murmured. “She is.”
When the time came for Alex to go, she touched CJ’s arm. “I’m going to go change. I’ll come back and say goodbye to you before I leave.”
“See you in a minute,” CJ said.
Alex disposed of her glass and said goodbye to her hostess. CJ watched her walk across to Viv’s townhouse, where she’d stashed her uniform earlier. After a couple of minutes CJ followed, opening and closing the door to Viv’s spare bedroom quietly.
Alex turned around, surprised. “What are you doing here?” Alex asked.
“Thought I’d help you get dressed,” she said in her best sultry tone.
“I’ve been getting dressed all by myself for about forty years,” Alex remarked.
“Hmm. Then maybe I came in to help you get undressed. I’m much better at that anyway.”
Alex deliberately removed her blouse and tossed it onto the bed. “I’d have to agree with that. But I have to go.”
CJ crossed to her, close enough to run one long finger under Alex’s bra strap, easing down to touch the soft skin at the top of her breast. “That’s too bad. I love the black bra.”
CJ smiled as she felt Alex’s breathing speed up.
“Sweetheart, I really can’t be late for this meeting.”
“Oh, I know,” CJ acknowledged. The finger was wandering into the valley between Alex’s breasts. CJ saw her nipples tighten underneath the lace and she grinned again in approval.
CJ dropped her hand. The look on Alex’s face was mixed relief and disappointment. “I was just making sure,” she said.
“Making sure of what?” Alex demanded. “That I had to go off to a meeting in front of a couple of hundred people with my panties damp?”
CJ leaned in and murmured, “I was making sure you knew it’s always you I want.”
Alex said, “I think all you’ve proven is how much I want you.”
“Good,” CJ said, approvingly. “In that case, I’ll wait up for you to get home.”
Alex ran her nose down CJ’s cheek, nuzzling her softly. “Will you? What will you be doing?”
“Hmm. Let me think. Reading, I suppose. In bed. Naked, of course.”
Alex gave a little groan. “I really, really have to change clothes.”
“Go ahead. I’ll just watch.”
“No, you won’t. If I take off one more stitch with you in here, we both know what will happen.”
“Umm. What was that, again?”
Alex told her in vivid terms. CJ tried to look shocked, but only managed to feel self-satisfied.
“Well, we wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?” she managed after another of Alex’s searing kisses.
Alex muttered, “We might.”
“Now, now. You have to go to your meeting, so I’ll just run along.”
Alex groaned again. “So you really just dropped in here to make me crazy for you?”
“Just a reminder.”
Alex pulled away a little and met her eyes. Every insecurity CJ had ever felt over two failed relationships vanished when Alex looked at her like this. “You don’t have to remind me,” Alex said. “I never ever forget how much I want to be with you. You’re the person I waited for all my life.”
CJ relaxed in her arms a little. “Not the package you expected, though?” she teased.
Alex kissed her a final time. “You’re so much more than I ever thought I could have. Sometimes I can’t believe how beautiful you are. Now, please get your gorgeous self out of here, or I really am not going to make that meeting.”
CJ went to the door, but stopped and turned back with her hand on the knob. “Sure you trust me in the same room with Steph?” she teased again.
“Of course,” Alex replied calmly. “You are carrying your backup weapon, aren’t you, Lieutenant?”
CJ laughed. “Darlin’, you know I never leave home without it.”
“Good. Then remember to always use the force appropriate to the situation.”
“You are such a cop sometimes.”
“Go. I’ll call you on the way home, okay?”
“Okay. Be safe, darlin’.”
“Always. I have a really good reason to come home safely.”
* * *
But she hadn’t gotten home safely, CJ thought miserably, still sitting near the emergency room.
Nicole Ryan Castillo, walking fast, came into the waiting room. Her trench coat was thrown over jeans and a sweatshirt. CJ stood up and Nicole went immediately into her arms for a quick hug.
“What do you know?” she asked, sitting down next to CJ.
“Not much,” CJ admitted. “They haven’t come out yet to tell me anything. She was conscious when they put her in the ambulance, said a couple of words to me. She was in a lot of pain, though. We weren’t exactly having a conversation.”
Nicole gripped her hand tightly. CJ saw that she was close to panic, and it frightened her. Alex’s younger sister was typically calm in a crisis, using her lawyer’s logic to handle her emotions. At this moment she looked tightly wound, jaw clenched, the tiny muscles around her eyes tensed. Despite the five-year gap in age and the extra ten pounds or so that Nicole carried, CJ thought again how much she looked like Alex.
“Was she moving? Could you tell anything?” Nicole asked.
“She squeezed my hand as they took her in. They had her on a backboard, in a brace, but that’s usual until they can eliminate spinal injuries. She…” CJ stumbled a little then went on, “She had some blood on her face, a cut or something, so I’m sure they’re looking at her for head injuries, too.”
“God damn it!” Nicole let go of CJ’s hand to drop her head into her palms. CJ could see her shoulders shaking beneath the coat.
It tore at CJ’s heart to see Nicole like this. She slipped her arm around her, rubbing her hand across her back, brushing away the tiny droplets of rain beaded on the waterproof material.
Nicole sat up, wiping tears away with trembling fingers. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I should be comforting you.”
“She’ll be all right,” CJ said, both giving and receiving the mindless comfort of ignorance.
“I just…” Nicole took a deep breath.
“It’s okay, darlin’.”
She took another breath and said, “I just keep thinking about Dad. I was sitting here in a room like this, with Alex, when they came out and told us he was dead.”
CJ hugged her tighter. She knew the story: their father, a patrol sergeant, had been killed in a hit-and-run accident when Alex was nineteen and Nicole only fourteen. Their mother was already nine years gone from cancer, so it left just the two sisters, who were as close as two women with different lives could be. CJ envied Alex the relationship sometimes, her own family long estranged from her because of their disapproval of her.
“We should call Paul,” Nicole said suddenly, referring to Deputy Chief Paul Duncan, their godfather.
CJ said gently, “He and Betty are out of the country on a cruise, remember? That’s why Alex had to cover this meeting tonight for the chief. He’s got a real backlog with Paul away.”
Nicole nodded unhappily. “I remember now. CJ, what happened? Alex is the best driver I know.”
CJ bit her lip. “I’m not sure. She was on the phone with me, and told me someone was driving recklessly, too fast, coming up behind her. That may have had something to do with it. She didn’t say she was particularly tired, I know she hadn’t had anything to drink at the party we went to earlier, so it’s hard for me to believe she just drove off the road. Maybe there was something on the pavement. The road was wet. Accidents happen, even to the best drivers.”
Nicole shrugged out of her coat. CJ could see her trying to regain her composure, smoothing her hair and getting out a tissue to wipe the remnants of tears from her cheeks.
“I always hated that she was a police officer,” she said suddenly. “I knew how dangerous it was, especially after Dad died. Alex was so determined to make a home for us, let me stay here with my friends to finish high school, but I really hated that she joined the department. It was worse when she was in uniform. The more she got promoted, the better I felt about it, knowing she wasn’t on the street, you know?”
“Yes.” It was all CJ said, letting Nicole talk.
“Then later I used to worry about her being, I guess, unhappy is the word,” Nicole continued aimlessly. “Her relationship with Tony was never very good for her, and she just seemed to be lost. Personally, I mean. Her career was important to her, but she didn’t really seem to have anything else.”
“I know,” CJ said.
Nicole turned to her and gave her a sad little smile. “Then you came along and changed everything. Why am I telling you all this? It’s not like you don’t know pretty much everything about Alex already.”
CJ answered gently, “It’s what we do when we’re scared or stressed. We work out what we remember, what we fear, what we want, trying to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. Life can be pretty random sometimes.”
Nicole fixed her with an intense look that reminded her forcefully of Alex. “I know you’re scared, CJ,” Nicole said.
“I’m terrified,” CJ said softly. “She’s my whole life.”
They sat together quietly for a long time.
* * *
Alex was half-propped up on the exam table, looking a little better than when CJ last saw her. The blood was gone from her face, and a small gauze pad was taped just above her left eyebrow. She wore a faded hospital gown, her right arm inside the sleeve but her left shoulder out, the ugly deep purple bruise exposed. There was a pillow propped between the arm and her body. Farther down on her bare arm her wrist was also carefully propped up, and it looked badly swollen.
But CJ really looked only at her eyes. They were a stormy dark blue-gray and CJ could see how much pain she was still in.
“Hi,” Alex said.
CJ went to her, not touching anything that looked hurt. She brushed fingertips up Alex’s right arm and tried to sound calm. She said, “Hey, darlin’.”
There were people moving around behind her getting ready for the next procedures. CJ leaned in and kissed her very gently. Alex’s mouth crooked up. She said, “Thanks, I feel better already.”
“Nicole is here. She sends her love and told me to tell you thank you for wearing your seat belt.”
“Tell her she’s very welcome. It could have been a whole lot worse. And you tell her I’m fine.”
“The doctor told me you’re being a bad patient and refusing pain meds. Honey, they have to reduce the shoulder dislocation. You need to do what they tell you, and take the medicine.”
“I will,” Alex said. “But I have to tell you something first and I didn’t want to be on drugs when I did.”
“Then tell me quickly so you can get what you need.”
Alex shifted slightly and winced. “The car ran me off the road.”
“What?” CJ asked, in shock.
“It was light-colored, silver, gray, maybe beige. A Toyota Corolla, I think, a couple of years old or so. Partial plate is King Adam X-ray, I couldn’t get the numbers.”
She’d had two seconds, at the most, and she had a description and part of the license plate. CJ shook her head in wonder. Her partner really was always on duty.
“Okay, I promise I’ll get it out right away. Do you think it was accidental?”
Alex looked at her hard. She said, “He clipped me on my left front bumper. Make sure they do a forensics check, there may be paint. He pulled just ahead of me at high speed, slowed to match my pace, then cut in front of me. It sure as hell didn’t feel like an accident.”
Was she being paranoid? CJ wondered for a moment, but doubted it. Alex didn’t think that way.
“I’m on it,” she said, partly because that was what Alex needed to hear to let go and let the doctors treat her injuries. “Now take the pain medicine, darlin’.”
Suddenly Alex looked exhausted. She sagged back, closing her eyes. “Okay,” she said with uncharacteristic acquiescence. The sound of it broke CJ’s heart, but she hadn’t forgotten to be grateful that Alex hadn’t been hurt much worse. A young woman in scrubs stepped up and injected something into the IV line in Alex’s right hand.
CJ turned back to the nearest doctor and asked, “You’ll be a while, I guess?”
“Yes, we need to get a CAT scan, but it looks like only a mild concussion. We’re getting a resident from plastics down here to stitch the cut on her face, to minimize the scarring, as soon as we get the shoulder taken care of, and her wrist in a cast.”
CJ dropped her eyes to the injured hand. “Broken?”
“Yes, a small chip of the hamate bone, not too bad.”
From the table, Alex said, “CJ?”
“My service weapon is around here somewhere. Will you secure it?”
CJ turned back to her and leaned close to her ear. “I have an idea. Why don’t you let me take care of everything? Do what the doctors say, and let someone else be in control for a bit, all right? They’re going to keep you overnight because you lost consciousness a couple of minutes. I’ll be in your room when they take you up, and I’ll stay with you tonight. You’re going to be fine, so just let it go.”
Alex’s eyelids fluttered, the medication already taking effect. “I’m not good at that,” she muttered.
“I know,” CJ said, kissing her softly again. “Now behave.”
“I am sorry. I know you were scared for me.”
CJ blinked hard a couple of times, and said, “Worrying about you is just part of the deal we made. I’ll see you soon.”
She stepped outside the treatment room, knowing Alex would be out very soon—or at least she hoped so, praying for unconsciousness while they put her dislocated shoulder back into place and set her broken wrist.
Nicole was waiting for her on the edge of her chair. “How is she?”
CJ managed a bright smile and said, “She’s okay, Nicole. We talked, she’s clear-headed, and now that she let them give her something for the pain, she’ll be fine.”
Nicole frowned. “Why the hell didn’t they give her something before?”
“She refused.” CJ sighed. “She had information to give me about what happened, and she didn’t want the evidence to be compromised because she was on meds when she told me. Your sister is a very stubborn woman.”
“Welcome to the world of the Ryan family. Dad was just as bad.”
“The important thing is that she’s getting help now and she’ll be fine. Do you want to wait until you can see her? It’s probably going to be an hour or two before they move her upstairs.”
“It’s okay. David doesn’t have an early lecture tomorrow, so he can get Charlie off to school in the morning. I’ll see her, then go home and sleep so I can relieve you in the morning.”
“They’re telling me they might be able to send her home before lunch, if the CAT scans are clear.”
Nicole brightened. “That’s great. I’ll stick around anyway. I really want to see her a minute. Why don’t I get us both some coffee? I need to call David. He was really worried.”
CJ smiled. “Your husband is a good guy. I’ll be right here. I have a couple of calls to make.”
CJ first called Lieutenant Rod Chavez, an old friend from her days as a detective with the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Department. After telling him what happened and relieving his anxiety about Alex’s condition, she related the information about the vehicle that had run her off the road.
“What the hell?” he grumbled, and she could picture him tugging at his thick black mustache in irritation. “Somebody tried to kill her?”
“I have no idea, but Alex certainly thinks it was no accident.”
“Well, I do believe I agree with her. That woman you’re shackin’ up with has good instincts, y’know.”
CJ laughed for the first time in hours. “‘Shacking up’? Really, you are so offensive. We are married, you know.”
“Hmm, married. I’m trying to remember where I heard of such a thing.”
“Put Ana on. I’ll mention that to your wife and we’ll see how that bad back of yours survives you sleeping on the couch.”
“Hell, how d’you think I got the bad back in the first place? If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll just make a call or two and see what we’ve got.”
“Call me back on my cell, will you? I’m staying here. They’re keeping her overnight.”
“Will do. Tell Alex to rest, okay?”
She called Vivien next, and got a cranky greeting. “What the fuck, CJ?”
“Oh, sorry, darlin’. Did I interrupt something?”
“Yes and no. You failed to interrupt rounds one and two, but have managed to screw with round three.”
“Viv. Too much information. Way too much.”
“Hey, you called and you asked. I trust this is some kind of emergency.”
CJ explained, and spent several minutes reassuring her about Alex’s condition.
“Do you want me to come to the hospital?” Vivien demanded.
“Not directly. I came here in the ambulance with Alex, so what I need for you to do is go and pick up my car. It’s on I-225 southbound, just south of the Parker Road exit. You’ll need to drive it here, which means you’ll have to take a cab to get to it.”
“Wait a sec.” There was a muffled conversation that CJ assumed was Vivien getting rid of that night’s date. After a minute, Vivien got back on and said, “Don’t worry. Marja will drive me there, and I’ll bring your car to the hospital. She’ll follow me and bring me back. I’ve still got your spare set of keys around here somewhere.”
Vivien cleared her throat. “Blond bartender,” she added.
“Oh. Of course. Thanks for doing this and thank, um, Marja for me, too.”
“No problem. We’ll see you inside an hour.”
CJ studied her phone with an air of disbelief. How on earth did Vivien do it? She must have dated at least fifty women in the seven years or so CJ had known her, if “dated” was the right word.
Nicole returned with coffee, remembering to bring two tiny containers of half and half for CJ. In a few minutes CJ’s cell rang again, the caller ID showing Rod Chavez’s home number.
“I am a very suspicious man,” he began.
“What is it?”
“Patrol unit found the car a few minutes ago. It was abandoned, in a Home Depot parking lot on East Mississippi.”
“Wait. That’s north of the accident. Alex was traveling south.”
“Yeah. Interestin’, isn’t it? He, she or they must have turned around. If we hadn’t had a description and the partial from Alex, we probably wouldn’t have found it for a day or two. Anyway, the car was reported stolen from a parking lot at Aurora Mall around eight or so this evening. And, no surprise, there’s some damage to the right front bumper. We’re gettin’ it towed so we can look for prints and match the damage.”
“Let me get this straight. They took it from Aurora Mall, and then they dump it a few hours later less than a mile away? And in the meantime, they drive it fewer than ten miles, run Alex off the road and then drive it back to virtually where they stole it in the first place?”
“Yep, and if you think that sounds screwy, I’m on board the train with you. Something smells bad, pelirroja.”
CJ closed her phone and sipped at her coffee thoughtfully. Something did indeed smell bad, and it wasn’t the hospital coffee.
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