by Erica Abbott
CJ St. Clair left Savannah for Colorado years ago and never looked back. But a summons from a most unexpected source compels her to return to Georgia in the midst of a crisis. A murder accusation threatens to tear her family apart—unless CJ can unravel a case the police believe has already been solved.
Her partner Alex has a struggle of her own, dealing with a tragedy from her past that might derail her career. As they cope with murder both recent and long ago, CJ and Alex discover how much claim the past has on their future.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Taken In — Finalist, Mystery / Thriller.
Lambda Literary Review
Abbott has skillfully portrayed the characters in this tale. A bit of a “cozy” with a little “thriller” thrown in for good measure, the story makes us feel as if we’re walking alongside CJ and Alex, discovering answers and experiencing how each revelation affects them. This story is an easy read—delightfully entertaining, jam-packed with baffling suspects and a surprising twist, all leading us to its satisfying end. A great read for the couch or the beach.
Lex Kent’s Reviews - I enjoyed getting to know more background on CJ. These books are mystery romances, but they still have enough excitement to keep you on your toes. Technically, this book could be read alone, since the crime solves itself in one book. But if this is the first Alex and CJ book you have read, you would be missing out on so much. Especially the chemistry that brought these two together.
Pin’s Reviews - Erica Abbott's writing is great as usual with all literary elements done well. The plot is strong and very interesting with a dominating mystery-solving part which holds one's interest all through. Taken In is a delight to read as well as the rest of this series and I recommend it heartily.
Until she saw the stranger standing by her front door, Alex Ryan thought it was going to be a relaxing Saturday.
She’d already done the morning’s errands: oil change on her car and picking up the dry cleaning on the way home. Most of it was CJ’s clothing, as always. Alex’s wardrobe tended toward machine-washable cottons. CJ preferred silks, wool, cashmere, and other hard-to-care-for fabrics, the byproduct, Alex supposed, of growing up with a lot of money.
Now it was time for a shower and lunch with friends. A day off with CJ was always worth looking forward to—but the man standing in front of the closed door of the condo she shared with CJ produced a jolt of alarm.
The stranger was broad but not tall. He wore a black suit that didn’t fit him very well. The pants were too long, the jacket pulled too tightly across his thick shoulders. He was pacing a few steps up and down the hall, but he stopped when he spotted Alex.
More than twenty years as a cop had trained Alex to make quick assessments of people. This man looked wary but not overtly hostile. More importantly, as far as Alex could tell, he wasn’t armed. The tightness of that jacket made it hard to miss a hidden gun.
He had a shaved head and it gleamed in the overhead light. He turned his stout body toward Alex as she approached, blocking the entrance to the condo.
“We’re busy,” he announced. “Go away.”
What the hell? Alex’s anxiety ratcheted up another notch.
She stopped a few feet away, too far for him to jump her without a chance for her to escape. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“It don’t matter. The lady don’t want to be disturbed. Now go away.”
The lady? He couldn’t mean CJ. Keeping her eyes on him, Alex carefully laid the dry cleaning down on the polished wood floor so it wouldn’t wrinkle. She reached into her bag.
She pulled out a leather wallet and held it up to him. Her shield was on one side, her photo identification on the other.
“I’m Captain Alex Ryan, Colfax PD. This is my condominium and I’m going inside. Move away from the door.”
He peered at her badge, looking back at her face. She could see him trying to match an ordinary, average-looking, middle-aged woman with the title of police captain. She gave him a moment to think about things since it seemed to be taking him a long time.
She said, “You’ve got two choices. You can leave the building now or you can tell me what’s going on. Either option, you’re getting out of my way.”
Alex watched him tighten his shoulders. For a second she prepared for a swing at her head. She moved her feet apart a little, shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet, ready to move.
She saw the moment of indecision, the second of disbelief. The next minute she relaxed as his shoulders sagged and his hands dropped.
“My boss, she’s inside. She don’t want nobody to bother them.”
“Who is your boss?”
He shrugged. “Dunno. I’m a driver. Picked her up this morning at the Hilton. She told me to keep anybody away. Gave me a hundred bucks. Dunno her name.” He eyed Alex again, clearly disgruntled at the turn events had taken. “She didn’t tell me there was gonna be cops.”
Alex wondered how many priors he had. Using her best authoritative tone she demanded, “Give me your identification.”
He frowned but dug his wallet out. Alex slipped his commercial driver’s license from the plastic case, kept it and handed the wallet back to him.
“Okay, Mr. Davis. Go downstairs and wait in your car. I’ll be sending your client down in a while.”
He stared longingly at the card still in her fingers. “I gotta have my license.”
“Behave yourself and I’ll send it down with her. Now leave.”
He shook his gleaming head. “She ain’t gonna like that.”
“I suppose not. Good-bye, Mr. Davis.”
Defeated by higher authority, he rumbled down the elegant hallway, looking as out of place as overalls at a black-tie dinner.
Alex waited for the elevator doors to close behind him before she picked up the dry cleaning again. She took a couple of breaths to help clear the adrenaline thrumming through her veins. But she was still keyed up from the encounter as she unlocked the front door and went inside.
She hung the dry cleaning in the front closet of the foyer. She didn’t know who was visiting CJ, but she was beginning to have an inkling.
“I’m home,” she called out.
She saw CJ first, sitting on the sofa. Sitting wasn’t really the right description, Alex thought. CJ was perched on the edge of the leather couch, as if she were preparing to flee at any moment. She was staring at someone Alex couldn’t see in the easy chair.
Alex stepped into the large living room. CJ had owned the condo when they met, but Alex left her small house and moved in happily soon thereafter. She loved the size of the rooms—and the lack of yard work. In the years they’d been married, Alex had grown to think of the condo as their home together. The mystery novels Alex loved were neatly on the shelves beside CJ’s poetry and biographies. Alex’s favorite jazz music was playing softly on the sound system in the corner.
Alex knew every inch of the room. But she didn’t know the woman who was staring at her angrily from the chair.
Their visitor was meticulously dressed in a linen dress and suit jacket. Her low beige pumps were the exact shade of the purse that sat on the floor beside her. The hands that lay in her lap had several rings, including a large diamond in an old-fashioned setting on her left ring finger.
Alex took in the age spots on the hands and the ropy muscles of her neck to estimate her age. Perhaps seventy? Alex had trouble guessing because the woman had the kind of well-preserved skin, hair, and nails that only money and a determined attention to self-care could accomplish. Her fingernails looked newly done, a light pink polish that didn’t call too much attention to her manicure. Her pale skin looked as if it had never seen sunlight and she was carefully made-up, not too much rouge. The only jarring notes in her appearance were the scowl on her face and the choice she—or her stylist—had made for her hair color. It was aggressively red, no longer a color found in nature, although Alex supposed it was highly effective at covering the gray.
Even from halfway across the room, Alex could see that her eyes were a bright shade of green, a color with which Alex had intimate familiarity.
Alex could not have been more astonished if the Easter Bunny had suddenly materialized.
“Mrs. St. Clair, I presume.” She greeted the woman who had to be CJ’s mother.
“Apparently the man is too stupid to follow the simplest of instructions,” she answered tartly. “Whoever you are, this is a private conversation.” She had a raspy voice, more a betrayal of her age than her appearance. Alex wondered if she’d ever been a smoker.
Alex turned her gaze to CJ, who finally seemed to regain her ability to speak. CJ stood and walked to Alex’s side. She said, “Mother, this is Alex. My wife.”
CJ rarely referred to her as a wife, usually preferring “partner,” but Alex knew CJ was making a point to a woman she hadn’t seen in a very long time. By Alex’s count, it had been more than a decade since Lydia St. Clair had seen or spoken to her daughter. So what are you doing here now?
“I don’t care who you are,” Lydia St. Clair answered crisply. “I’m having a private conversation with my daughter. Please leave.”
“Mama,” CJ cut in sharply. “She’s not leaving. This is her home too.”
“I doubt that.” She gave Alex a probing look. “I imagine your money paid for all of it. Or more precisely, your grandfather’s money.”
Alex had just a moment to make a choice. She’d never had to face a hostile parent with an announcement that she was gay. Her mother had died of cancer when Alex was ten years old, and her father had died on the job when she was nineteen. She hadn’t been able to come out to herself until just a few years ago.
Falling in love with CJ had changed the world for her. For the first time, Alex was happy. They’d been through a lot together, but CJ meant everything to her.
And now this stranger, CJ’s mother, was here making CJ look both angry and frightened at the same time. Alex wasn’t having that, but she wasn’t going to fight either. It would only upset CJ more than she was already.
Alex said calmly, “May I offer you something, Mrs. St. Clair? We finished the morning coffee, I’m afraid, but I’m happy to brew another pot. Or would you prefer something cold? We have iced tea or I think there’s lemonade still in the fridge.”
CJ turned to her with an expression just short of astonishment. Alex smiled at her.
“No, thank you,” Mrs. St. Clair said through tight lips. “This is not a social occasion.”
Alex led CJ back to the couch and sat next to her. “No, I’m sure you wouldn’t have taken the time to travel from Georgia after all this time for a social call. Please tell us what you need.” She took CJ’s hand and settled in for the conversation.
Mrs. St. Clair shifted unhappily in the chair and Alex couldn’t suppress a flutter of satisfaction. There was only so much a Southern woman could do in the face of a courteous response. Alex had her outmaneuvered.
CJ gripped her fingers firmly. Alex could feel anxiety—and gratitude—in her touch.
Mrs. St. Clair began abruptly. “If your father were still alive, I wouldn’t have to be here.”
Alex felt rather than saw CJ’s flinch. Her father had died a couple of years ago. Mrs. St. Clair had sent word through CJ’s trustee that his daughter would not be welcome at the funeral.
CJ found her voice. “What is this about, Mama? Do you need money?”
Mrs. St. Clair straightened her back as if preparing for an assault. Alex couldn’t imagine what the hell was going on, but all of her instincts were on high alert.
“It’s your brother,” Mrs. St. Clair said at length.
“Clayton? Is he sick?” CJ asked.
“No. He’s been arrested.”
“Arrested?” CJ exclaimed. “For what?”
“He’s been charged with murder.”
“Well?” Mrs. St. Clair said into the stunned silence. “Haven’t you anything to say?”
“Did he do it?” CJ rasped.
The color rose on Mrs. St. Clair’s face. “What an absurd question! Not that I should expect anything different from you, I suppose. Of course he didn’t do any such thing!”
“But he’s been arrested. Charged by the district attorney. And arraigned by now, I imagine.”
“Yes, but he pleaded not guilty. It’s all a ridiculous mistake.”
CJ shook her head. “Probably not.”
“What on earth…”
“I’m a police officer, Mama.”
Mrs. St. Clair’s lips tightened again in what Alex was beginning to realize was a signature expression.
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
“Well, just to let you know. Cops usually get it right. Not always, but almost always. If Clayton’s been charged, there are some really good reasons for it.”
“It’s ridiculous,” her mother repeated. “The local police have some sort of vendetta against him.”
To Alex’s astonishment, CJ broke into a bitter laugh.
“Really, Mama? Since when does the Savannah Police Department take up vendettas against well-to-do white orthodontists?”
Mrs. St. Clair stirred again in her seat. Alex thought she’d never seen anyone so uneasy in an easy chair.
“There’s no reason for you to be unpleasant about this situation,” she snapped. “Your brother needs your help. He’s been unjustly accused.”
“If he has been unfairly accused, I presume his lawyer will be addressing the situation. I’m sure he has the best defense attorney your money can buy.”
Their visitor finally seemed to find a comfortable position. It appeared to Alex that she was only at ease if CJ was uncomfortable. Alex wanted to order this unpleasant woman out of their house, out of their lives. Send her back to the oblivion she had been in before this morning.
“We hired Miller Ross from Atlanta,” she said. “But I can tell he’s concerned about the case. He suggested we get a private investigator to see what we could discover to prove that Clayton is innocent.”
CJ said sharply, “You don’t have to prove he’s innocent. The prosecution has to prove he’s guilty. All the defense has to do is raise reasonable doubt.”
“You don’t seem to understand the situation,” Mrs. St. Clair said irritably. “This has been in the news, in the papers. Everyone knows about Clayton. ‘Prominent Savannah Dentist Arrested for Murder,’ that sort of thing. It won’t be enough for him just to be found not guilty. It’s imperative to prove that he’s innocent.”
CJ lifted her hand to stop the flow of words.
“All right, Mama. But what do you want me to do about it? I asked you before if you needed money. Is that it?”
“We don’t need money. Your brother needs you.”
CJ snorted. “For what? Moral support? I haven’t talked to him in years.”
“Don’t be absurd. He needs for you to investigate the case, show where the police got it wrong.”
Alex shook her head, unwilling to participate in the discussion between mother and daughter but unable to completely suppress her reaction. CJ shot her a warning look, then said flatly, “Mama, even if it would do you any good, I can’t just drop everything and come. I have a job, responsibilities.”
“He’s your only brother, Belle. There’s no reason to turn your back on Clayton.”
Other than the fact that he’s refused to have any relationship with her because she’s a lesbian, Alex thought grimly.
CJ took a long breath. Finally she said, “I’m not promising you anything. I can’t just leave. But tell us what happened. Who is the victim?”
Mrs. St. Clair lifted her hands from her lap and laid them on the arms of the chair. Alex could see her fingers digging into the leather. Uh-oh.
After a long time she responded, “It was Amy. Someone shot her and they think it was Clayton.”
CJ was on her feet in an instant. “Amy? His wife Amy?”
“Ex-wife,” Mrs. St. Clair corrected her. “They’ve been divorced for years.”
CJ was pacing now. “Oh my God! Poor Amy. I can’t believe it. And…oh, Mama! What about Laura?”
“Well, naturally she’s very upset, losing her mother and having these terrible accusations leveled at her father.”
CJ thrust her fingers through her hair.
Alex risked a question. “I’ve forgotten how old your niece is. A teenager?”
Mrs. St. Clair answered, “She’s fifteen. I’m surprised Belle has even mentioned the girl.”
Alex couldn’t help herself. “Why wouldn’t she? CJ sends her a birthday card and a Christmas present every year.”
Mrs. St. Clair opened her mouth and closed it again with a snap. Ah, didn’t know that, did you? Maybe your son has kept some secrets from you.
“The best thing you can do for Laura, Belle, is clear her father of this absurd accusation.”
CJ stopped pacing and sat down again on the couch next to Alex. She leaned forward, elbows on her thighs, and looked intensely at her mother.
“You keep telling us how ridiculous the charge is, but you haven’t told us what happened.”
The lips returned to their firm line. Alex could see the fine wrinkles appearing around her mouth. Her carefully applied lipstick was just bleeding into the lines. She must have been truly desperate to come here, Alex realized suddenly. She’s more than just angry. She’s terrified.
Mrs. St. Clair took a moment. She returned her hands to her lap in an effort to regain her composure.
CJ didn’t move. Alex studied her profile. Her eyes were locked on her mother, her brows drawn in slightly in an expression Alex had often seen before—in the department’s interview rooms.
“Tell me what happened to Amy,” CJ said in a surprisingly soft voice. Alex had already figured out that CJ must have known Clayton’s first wife. She did the math. Clayton was already married when CJ left home.
“She was leaving a meeting, at her church. She was walking out to her car when it happened.”
“No. It was after dark. She was walking out with a friend, another woman.”
“All right. So we have a witness. What did she say happened?”
The restless shifting resumed. “A man appeared out of nowhere, she said. He demanded Amy’s purse. Then he shot her and ran away.”
“And the witness identified Clayton?”
Mrs. St. Clair shook her head. “No, she never saw his face. He was wearing a hood or something over his head.”
She stopped and CJ waited.
Finally she continued, “They thought it was a robbery, of course. But the next day they found Amy’s purse in a trash can near the church. It hadn’t been touched. So then they decided that the robbery was a pretext. They arrested Clayton.”
Alex said dryly, “I doubt it was quite that simple.”
Mrs. St. Clair shot her an unpleasant look, but CJ said, “She’s right. What are you leaving out?”
She capitulated with poor grace.
“They found a hooded jacket similar to the one the robber used at Clayton’s home. And they found…the gun.”
CJ jerked upright. “The murder weapon? Clayton had the gun?”
“He didn’t have it,” her mother corrected her imperiously. “They found it. It was probably put there by the police.”
Alex and CJ exchanged a look. Alex said, “It’s possible, but that means that they found it somewhere else and decided to frame your son. Why would they do that?”
“They must have had a reason.” She sounded uncertain.
CJ shook her head. “That’s not going to work, Mama. Where was the gun?”
“In his car.”
“Apparently not. But they verified that it was the gun that killed Amy.”
“They’ve been divorced for years,” CJ pointed out. “What do they think his motive was?”
Her hands went back to the arms of the chair. This won’t be good, Alex thought.
“Money.” She half-whispered the word.
CJ looked confused. “Money? How would Amy’s death…wait. Insurance?”
Mrs. St. Clair nodded. “The divorce required both of them to carry policies with the other as beneficiary. For Laura’s benefit, of course.”
“How much?” Alex interjected.
“Five hundred thousand dollars.”
“That’s a lot of motive. But only if Clayton needed the money,” CJ said. “Did he?”
“No! Of course not. Well, not really. His practice is going well, but he had a lot of expenses. Child support, of course, and there were the payments to his ex-wives.”
“He was still paying Amy?” CJ asked in surprise. “Property settlement? Or spousal support?”
Mrs. St. Clair sighed. “Just before the divorce, Amy had been diagnosed with MS. The court ordered support for her and Laura both. And of course, he was still paying off Paula and in the middle of the divorce with that Missy.”
Alex made an involuntary noise and CJ shot her another warning look.
“I didn’t realize he was on his third divorce,” CJ said tartly.
“I told him not to marry her,” Mrs. St. Clair said with asperity. “She had no breeding. It was always clear to me that she was just after his money.”
“Which you say he’s running short of,” CJ pointed out.
That earned her a glare.
“It’s absurd to think that Clayton would kill his daughter’s mother for some money,” she announced. “He didn’t do it, and someone is trying to make it look as though he did. That’s why he needs your help, Belle.”
CJ sighed. “I told you, Mama, I have a job. I can’t just leave.”
“You want your brother to go to prison?” Her voice rose imperiously. “What kind of ungrateful daughter are you?”
Alex felt her temper rise as a tight ball in her stomach. She stood up and said, “You’re staying at the Hilton, your driver said. We’ll be in touch.”
Now her mouth twisted in anger. “This is none of your…”
CJ said, “She’s right, Mama. I need some time. I’ll call you. We need to go. We have lunch with friends.”
Mrs. St. Clair gathered her purse and got to her feet. “I’m leaving,” she announced as if it were her idea, “but I expect you to call me today, Belle.”
CJ simply nodded. She looked exhausted and a bit shell-shocked. Alex said to her, “I’ll walk your mother out.”
In the foyer, Mrs. St. Clair turned to Alex. “I have something to say to you, so listen carefully. I meant what I said before. I don’t want you interfering with this in any way. This is family business and none of your concern. So I will not have you exercising whatever…influence you may have on my daughter to prevent her from helping her brother.”
She turned and put her hand on the doorknob.
Alex said, “Wait a minute.”
Mrs. St. Clair turned back, her brows drawn together. Her mouth was so firmly set that her lips were scarcely visible.
“I met you for the first time a few minutes ago,” Alex said. “In that time, you’ve tried to keep me out of my own home, exclude me from a conversation concerning my wife and implied that I’m some kind of gold digger who married your daughter for her money. So I got the message. Now you can listen carefully to me. CJ is a woman of good judgment who will make her own decisions. I’m going to support whatever she decides to do. My only agenda is this: if you want CJ’s help, treat her with kindness. She deserves nothing less from you.”
“I am her mother. Who do you think you are?”
Mrs. St. Clair’s glower was meant to intimidate, but Alex refused to flinch. She wondered how this imperious woman could be the mother of her kind, openhearted partner.
Alex responded, “Let me be clear about who I am. I am the woman who is married to your daughter whether you like it or not. CJ is part of my family now. Treat her with the respect she deserves. Or I will start interfering. I promise you that.”
“How long has it been since we’ve seen Viv and Marja?” Alex asked as she pulled the car into the parking lot of the Park Restaurant.
“I don’t remember.” CJ was staring out the window.
Alex got out and locked the car after CJ exited.
“Think it’s going to rain later?” Alex ventured.
CJ shrugged. “We’re talking about the weather now? You know we have the same forecast in Denver every day from June to September. Warm with a chance of afternoon showers.”
Alex stopped her on the sidewalk before they reached the front door.
“CJ,” she said gently. “Let me go in and tell them we’ll reschedule. You’re not in a good place for a couple hours worth of Vivien’s conversation. You didn’t say three words to me all the way here.”
“Alex, it took me three weeks to find a day all four of us could be in the same place at the same time,” she said. “Viv and I have had to cancel our last two mani-pedi appointments, either her job or mine. Marja is on call every other weekend, and God knows you work about sixty hours a week, so could we just go in and have a nice time?”
Alex doubted a good time was in the offing. CJ sounded close to petulant. She said mildly, “Of course, sweetheart. Whatever you want. I just thought you might want to do this another time. It was a bit of a shock this morning. Maybe you should give yourself time to process a little bit.”
“I don’t want to process anything, Alex. I want to have lunch, okay?”
Alex opened the door.
The Park Restaurant had a bar filled with high-top tables on one side, full of old wood and young couples having Bloody Marys with their omelets or salads. The other side was a small and comfortable restaurant, booths with curved and padded benches in a deep green upholstery. The walnut wood paneling served as the perfect frame for the Park’s displays of artwork for sale. The displays changed monthly and the effect differed depending on the genre of that month’s artist. Last time they’d been here, Alex recalled, each painting featured a single piece of fruit rendered in vivid jewel tones unrelated to the actual fruit color—she remembered a bright purple apple with silver leaves. This month’s painter favored graphic pieces in primary colors. Above the booth where Vivien sat waving to them hung an acrylic painting featuring a shield shape in bright yellow against a cobalt background. Alex thought it looked like an emblem for a classic comic book superhero.
Vivien Wong sprang out of the booth for hugs, CJ first and one for Alex too. She and Alex hadn’t been particularly close in the beginning of her relationship with CJ, but time and a long, bitter separation when CJ had been gone for nine months the year before had drawn Alex into a warmer relationship with CJ’s longtime friend.
Vivien’s girlfriend Marja Erickson slid out of the booth behind Viv and waited her turn for hugs. Every time Alex saw them together, she tried to imagine how two women could look less alike. Marja looked like a power forward for a women’s basketball team, her blond braid swinging casually over her polo shirt and jeans. Viv was petite and wore her gleaming black hair in what Alex supposed was still called a pixie cut. For a casual Saturday lunch, Vivien was wearing a gray pencil skirt and white silk blouse.
They arranged themselves in the booth, Viv and CJ sliding in to sit together with Alex and Marja across from each other at the semicircular table.
“Christ on toast, you took long enough to get here,” Viv began. “We are starving. Somebody made me miss dinner last night!”
She gave a sly sideways glance at Marja, who smiled gently. For all her size, Alex had never seen her do anything that wasn’t slow and deliberate.
“Not my fault,” Marja said. “Something went wrong with a closing at work. She didn’t get home until after eight and almost fell asleep in the bubble bath.”
Vivien elbowed her. “Hey, don’t give all our secrets away! They’re going to think we’re not having hot, sweaty sex on the couch every day as soon as I get home from work.”
Alex opened the menu. “I could have done without the visual, Vivien, but thanks.”
“Really, Viv,” Marja murmured. “That happened, like, only two or three times.”
Alex and Vivien laughed. CJ managed only a smile.
Vivien quickly turned to her. “Okay, what’s wrong?”
“Not a thing,” CJ said. “You’re trying to talk about sex in public and Marja is shutting you down. Everything is exactly as usual.”
Viv threw a questioning glance at Alex, who said, “If you’re starving, let’s order, okay? We can talk while someone is making us food.”
As she was opening her mouth to pursue the question of why CJ wasn’t acting normally, Marja asked softly, “What’re you having, honey?”
“Hmph,” Vivien said, conceding with poor grace for the moment. “What am I having? Something with hollandaise. A Benedict thingy. Because what’s the point of brunch if you can’t have a cream sauce?”
CJ said dryly, “That would depend on whether your doctor told you at your last appointment to lose twenty pounds.”
“Is that what’s gotten you so Miss Cranky Face?” Vivien asked her. “Well, screw the doctor. As long as Alex likes the way you look, who cares?” She turned to lift an eyebrow at Alex. “You’re not unhappy, are you?”
Marja said, “This is none of our business, Viv.”
“Oh, come on. You’re not pressuring her, are you, Alex?” Vivien persisted.
“Of course not,” Alex responded. “I love how CJ looks in every way. I just want her to be happy with herself. And healthy, because I’m planning on living with her for a very long time.”
Vivien nodded approvingly. “Good answer.”
CJ said, “I’m right here, y’all. You could talk to me instead of about me.”
Alex winced a little. “Sorry, sweetheart, I just…”
The waiter appeared, pencil in hand. “Are we ready to order?”
They sorted out the food: crab benedict for Vivien, corned beef hash with poached eggs for Marja, with CJ choosing Eggs Santa Fe, a spicier dish with salsa. Alex decided on a spinach omelet. Vivien ordered a Bellini while the others settled for iced tea.
Before Vivien could resume her line of questioning, Marja said, “So I wonder if you two would be willing to talk shop for a couple of minutes.”
Alex glanced at CJ before answering. “Sure. What’s going on?”
“You know I’ve been running an evening group for adolescent girls,” Marja began. “It’s for kids in foster care, not old enough to go to emancipation classes yet, but starting to face adult issues. Foster parents do as good a job as they can, but they’re usually swamped. And it’s hard for them in public school. Kids in foster care get bullied sometimes and they never seem to have enough support or the right clothes.” She smiled shyly. “You know how important clothes are to teenagers.”
Viv and CJ nodded sympathetically. Alex drank her iced tea in silence. By the time she was a teenager, she was taking care of her younger sister Nicole while her father worked as a police officer. She never had time to think about anything else other than her coursework and tennis, which she had hoped would be her ticket to a college scholarship.
Life never worked out the way you thought it would, she mused. She was going to go to college, maybe become a teacher or a lawyer. She got the scholarship and a year later someone they’d never found ran down her father on a rainy night while he was working a traffic accident. At nineteen she had to quit college to take care of Nic, who was just entering high school. Alex joined the police force and had been there ever since.
She watched CJ, who was listening to Marja talk about her group. It was CJ who had urged Alex to finish her long-abandoned college degree. And it was falling in love with CJ that had been the proof of her long-suppressed suspicion that she was gay. Everything was different now.
“…so what do you think?” Marja was finishing up, and Alex realized that she’d missed the point of the conversation.
She caught CJ’s look: a touch of recrimination and more than a bit of amusement. CJ said smoothly, “I think it’s a great idea. My experience has been that the best way to overcome prejudice of any kind is to expose people to whatever it is they’re biased against. The reality rarely matches their bigotry. Don’t you agree, Alex?”
CJ’s green eyes were twinkling at her. She knew Alex had no idea what the subject matter had been. Yet despite the fact that she was the butt of the joke, Alex was glad to see CJ’s sense of humor returning.
“Yes,” Alex replied. “Prejudice is the son of ignorance.”
Marja looked at her in surprise and Vivien laughed. “What is that, the quote of the day?”
“No, that’s me covering the fact that I zoned out and have no idea what we’re talking about,” Alex admitted.
Marja grinned and said, “Don’t worry. I’m used to talking and people not listening. Occupational hazard for social workers.”
Vivien said archly, “You’re not talking about me not listening to you, I trust?”
“Oh, no, honey. I know you hang on my every word.”
“So what is the topic?” Alex asked.
Marja said, “Most of these girls are pretty embittered about the system. I thought if they saw the police doing something for them, with them, it might give them a different perspective.”
Alex was still lost, but CJ added, “We’re thinking about a fundraiser, sponsored by the Colfax PD, where we work with the girls on some project to help support a scholarship fund.”
“Oh. Got it. Great idea. What kind of fundraiser?”
“To be decided,” Marja said. “But if you’re willing to go to your boss about it, I’ll get the agency to buy in.”
They kicked around ideas for the fundraising project. Vivien’s suggestion of a fashion show won the prize as least likely to succeed. By the time the food arrived, CJ seemed more herself and Alex was glad that they hadn’t canceled. This was just what CJ needed, she thought, the distraction of her best friend.
As usual, Vivien dominated the conversation. They covered dogs (Marja wanted one and Vivien was trying to decide if she could put up with an animal), current events (a recent earthquake near San Francisco, Vivien’s hometown) and the weather (summer was lingering longer than usual in Colorado).
While the plates were cleared, Marja said shyly, “Um, Alex? Vivien told me you used to play tennis.”
“Yes. When I was a lot younger. Why?”
“I used to play back home. I was on the tennis team at high school, not that that meant much. I think there were only six girls in the whole place that played tennis.”
“The joy of growing up in a small town,” Vivien muttered.
Alex smiled. “It’s been a while since I’ve played much. Sometimes CJ will go out with me and we’ll play a set.”
Marja turned to look at CJ. “You play too?”
“Don’t look so surprised.” CJ laughed a little. “My parents were very much into the country club social scene when I was growing up. Tennis lessons were de rigueur. Sorry,” she added, seeing the confused look on Marja’s face. “I just meant every properly brought up Southern girl took tennis lessons.”
“Cool,” Marja said. “I thought maybe, if you wanted to, we could all go out and play sometime. If you don’t mind playing with somebody who just knocked the ball around at the local public park.”
“Hey,” Alex said quietly. “Me too. No country clubs here.”
CJ said, “The tennis court’s the same size for everybody, no matter where it is. I think this is a great idea! Think you can find your racket, Viv?”
“Ha, ha. I haven’t set foot on a tennis court since I graduated from high school and got to leave my parents’ influence. I’ll have to buy a new one.” She brightened at the thought. “And new shoes and a cute tennis dress and…hmm, they don’t wear headbands anymore. Maybe a nice visor.”
“Leave it to Viv to make playing tennis into an exercise in retail therapy,” CJ said.
“Oh, don’t be difficult. It’ll be fun. We’ll get something matchy-matchy.”
“You’ll have to play with Alex,” CJ said. “If you and I play together, the two of them will kill us. I have trouble taking more than two or three games a set from Alex.”
“What?” Vivien exclaimed. “You and Marja together are, like, twelve feet of tennis player. How are Alex and I going to compete?”
“Oh, come on, Vivien,” Alex said. “Size doesn’t matter, right?”
CJ joined in the general laughter and Alex relaxed. It looked like they were going to get through lunch successfully and Alex would be going home with a cheerful CJ instead of a grumpy one.
But then the check arrived. As usual, Vivien handed Marja her card to put in the credit card wallet. CJ dug her American Express gold card out and said, “It’s our turn, I think.”
“I’ve got it,” Vivien said. Alex had to acknowledge that Vivien was usually generous in matters financial. She made a lot more money in mortgage banking than a social worker and a couple of cops, so she deemed it her obligation to pick up the checks regularly.
CJ retorted irritably, “We don’t need for you to pay every time, Vivien. We’re not living in poverty, you know.”
Vivien frowned at her. “Well, Christ in a three-piece suit, I know that. I just like to pay my way, that’s all. Even if you do come from all that genteel Southern money.”
CJ threw her napkin down. “I don’t see why my grandfather’s real estate investments are somehow more respectable than your parents making money in tech stocks,” she snapped.
Alex reached over and said, “CJ, she didn’t mean anything.”
CJ turned on her. “I don’t need for you to translate what people mean for me. I do that for a living, you know!”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Marja was looking worriedly from Vivien to CJ to Alex. Vivien was staring at CJ in disbelief.
Finally Vivien said, “Okay. What the holy fucking hell is the matter with you?”
“Nothing.” CJ sat back sullenly. “You were being an ass.”
“I’m always an ass,” Vivien replied, shrugging. “You’re used to it. You’re supposed to laugh at me or ignore me. Now, what the hell is going on?”
CJ said nothing.
Marja said, “Stop it, Viv. Leave her alone. Everybody’s entitled to an off day.”
“Oh, don’t go all social worker on me. Are you going to talk to me or not, CJ?”
At last CJ unfolded her arms.
“Sorry, Viv. Let’s forget it, all right?”
Alex said softly, “Sweetheart. Tell her, please.”
CJ released a deep sigh. She began to toy with a knife left on the table, turning the silver handle over between her fingers.
“We had a visit at the condo this morning. From my mother.”
“Your…for a minute there, I thought you said your mother,” Vivien exclaimed.
Alex said, “In person, unannounced and unexpected.”
It was one of the few occasions that Alex had actually seen Vivien’s jaw drop.
Marja said quietly, “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
Alex opened her mouth to explain, but CJ cut her off.
“Why would you? Y’all haven’t heard the story of my dear mama and her only daughter. She threw me out of the house when I told her I was a lesbian and I haven’t spoken to her in almost fourteen years.”
“Oh.” Marja managed to convey compassion and surprise into a single syllable.
Vivien found her voice at last. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she bellowed. “Seriously? I hope you threw her out of your house on her ass!”
Several diners at nearby tables glanced their way, in curiosity or worry.
“Viv,” Marja murmured.
“Well, honestly!” Vivien said, managing to slightly lower her tone. “What the fuck did she think she was doing? Trying to make up after all this time?”
CJ gave a bitter little laugh. “Hardly. Apparently she actually stationed her limo driver outside the condo to try to keep Alex from even coming in.”
“Oh, I’ll bet that went over really well,” Vivien said. “How long did it take you to get past him, Alex?”
“About thirty seconds,” Alex acknowledged. “She was not happy to include me in the conversation.”
“No shit. So what the hell did she want, CJ?”
CJ moved on to playing with an unused spoon, turning it over and back again and again.
Alex waited. It wasn’t her story to tell.
Finally CJ said, “My brother’s in trouble. She wants me to come home to Savannah to help him.”
“And you told her to go fuck herself, I hope,” Vivien snapped.
“I haven’t told her anything.”
“What the…” Vivien began, but Marja cut her off.
“Okay, enough, Viv,” she said. “Anything we can do to help, CJ?”
Alex threw her a grateful look. CJ shook her head.
“No. I just need some time. And I’m sorry I snapped your head off, Viv. This has really thrown me. I’ve thought about how I might react if I ever saw her again. But this was nothing like what I thought about or expected. I just need to sort out how I feel.”
Vivien reached over and wrapped her elegant fingers around CJ’s forearm.
“You know how I feel about this,” she said. “But I’m here for you, kiddo. We all are, right? So you take your time. I’m sure you’ll make the right decision.”
Alex wondered if CJ would even know what the right decision might be.