AUTHOR'S NOTE: I never thought I could write a piece of fiction totaling 20k words. Passion & Perfection's Epic Proportions challenge changed my mind on that score. And I've had such a blast writing this piece I might be tempted to call this book one and go on to write another 20k of the ongoing story. We shall see.
THANKS: As always to two very special people, L for just being there and guiding me quietly in my writing, and Ann for correcting all my British speak with my American characters.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
~~ January 2006~~
A strong gust of wind blew through the empty shell of a building, slamming the open door closed.
Suzie Hofmeyer glanced backwards with a start, and then laughed happily; it was as if the door was finally slamming to on her past. A past she had enjoyed for the most part, but a past she was happy to put behind her, a past she was intent on leaving behind.
Two short and unsatisfying marriages, despite the joy of bearing two smart, handsome sons, and one longer and ultimately satisfying relationship had been her path to now. A sigh escaped Suzie's lips as she spoke to the silence.
"Oh, Lou, why did you have to go? We could have done this together. We could have been so good here."
And yet she knew, without Louise Elliot's untimely death, she probably wouldn't have been standing here, looking around this room full of rubbish and builder's debris, and envisaging her future. It had been a lifelong wish to own a small coffee house, a wish she'd voiced so many times to Louise; it had almost become a likely truth. And now, without Louise, she suddenly had the money behind her to make her wish become a reality.
"Mom? Are you in here?"
Suzie looked up to lock eyes with her youngest son, and she smiled and beckoned him over. They shared a hug of comfort before sitting side by side on the room's large window sill. Simon took his mom's hand in his own and squeezed it gently.
"How you bearing up, mom? Sorry, I've not been around to ask before, but you know how it is."
The dark haired woman smiled at her fair haired son, seeing the twinkle in his eyes that never failed to remind her that she had once been happy with his father. At least now, she had the ability to see the good times before she saw the bad.
"Yeah, I do know, Si. University's a scary thing, right?" seeing his brief acknowledgement, she went on. "I hope you know I'm here if you need to talk."
"I do, mom. And I hope you know I'm only going to Berkeley. It's not that far in the whole scheme of things. If ever you need me, I'll come running. I promise you that."
"I'll be fine. You need to go do what you need to do. I need you to make Lou proud. She would've been there through it all, you know."
"Yeah. I miss her, mom. I do."
Suzie pulled her son into her arms and hugged him tight, surprised at his words. It had been her youngest son, only eight when she'd first met the woman who would become the nearest she'd ever had to her perfect partner, who had taken an intense dislike to the burgeoning relationship, but as Lou Elliot had done with so many people, she had slowly won the boy over and here was Suzie's evidence of that truth.
"I hated her when you first got together "
Simon's voice was so quiet, his mom had to strain to really hear his words, but listen intently she did.
" I was eight, and I thought she was taking you away from Dad. Oh, I know now that was ridiculous, hell you'd been married to that idiot Ray for five years of my life, but I always thought once he'd gone, you'd make your way back to dad. Then you met Lou and I knew, immediately, there was no chance. And there wasn't, was there?"
"No, there was never any chance of that. We did love each other you know, me and your dad, and you were one of our success stories, but I could never live with him again, and now, the friendship we have because of you and your brother is so much better for us both."
"Yeah, mom, I can see that now. Like I saw how happy you were whenever Lou was over here with us, and how, even when she was home in London, you still had that glow about you. But mom, more than that, more than the fact that you were happy, she made us, me and Josh, happier, too. Do you know why?"
Remaining silent, Suzie just shook her head.
"Because she never, ever, took you away from us. She was always just there for all of us. She loved us unconditionally, and it may have been unconventional, but for us, it worked. Even now, mom, even though she's not here, it's her that's allowed us to have what we've all desired in life. Josh is comfortable in his new home, making a life in the job he was always meant to do. I'm about to go off and pursue the degree I've dreamed about. And you, you're going to make this " he swept his arm around the room, " dump into the best little coffee shop this side of Vegas."
He laughed out loud, and Suzie soon joined in with him. Yes, it was a dump, but soon it would be as perfect as her dream.
"Thanks for saying all that about Lou, Simon. I miss her so much too, but you're right, she wanted us to make a go of this life, and that's what we're going to do."
Jumping to her feet, she pulled her son up.
"Now go enjoy your last few hours in Vegas with your friends, and then come home for that farewell dinner with Josh. Tomorrow is the day it all begins."
Suzie pushed him towards the door, accepting another hefty hug before he strode away.
"Go on. Be careful, and I'll see you later."
Watching as he walked away down the street, Suzie once more took a seat on the window sill. Still surprised at the words her son had just shared with her and feeling a little melancholic, she took a small well-worn piece of paper out of her pocket and read the words intently.
If you're reading this, then something went wrong in my surgery, and I need to tell you something important.
Meeting you was the most important thing that ever happened to me, the years we've shared the best. All those years ago, I never dreamt that a long-distance relationship like we shared would become so precious, but it did, and for us, it was perfect. We had our togetherness and we had our other life, and the two just worked in true harmony.
Suzie, I know how much you and the boys have struggled over the years, and if I want one thing for you all, it's that you never have to do that again. So, I'm leaving you enough to get that damn coffee shop, enough for Simon to go do that University degree he craves, and enough for Josh to be comfortable until he's made his way to that Detective's Shield.
Whatever happens, from now on, the money is yours, to do as you please; just make sure you use it well and that you're all happy.
It's all I ever wanted.
And Suzie, if Ms. Blonde-hair/Blue-eyes walks through that coffee shop doorway, you go get her girl. Okay?
All my love, always,
The small coffee shop was bursting at the seams as a petite blonde woman checked the time on her watch. Seeing that she still had an hour until her shift with the local police force started, she visibly relaxed and smiled across towards her friend.
Warren Bright had volunteered to grab two chairs as soon as they became available while she waited in line. Chris didn't mind the wait, after all, this was purported to be the best coffee in town, and she admitted that, whenever she'd been coaxed here by her friend, the coffee had been more than acceptable. She would've preferred it to be a little less busy, but she was finally at the head of the line, so she guessed it didn't really matter.
It was just that time was a premium these days.
A single mother with a young daughter at home, working all the hours she could as a beat cop in Las Vegas PD, it was hard to spend time with the girl, never mind, with her friends. Coffees in hand, she pushed her way through the other people in line and sank wearily into the chair opposite Warren.
"I hear there's going to be a new coffee shop opening up nearer to headquarters sometime in the not too distant future. We'll have to try that one out as soon as it opens, huh?"
"Yeah, I heard that, too. One of the researchers in the entertainment department reckons the owner is a young woman who came into some money on the death of her British sugar-daddy, and all she's ever wanted to do, is open a coffee house with a debating corner," replied Warren with a hint of a smile in his voice.
"Yeah, that's what I heard; no idea what it means, but I'm sure we'll find out once it's opened."
"Sounds intriguing, I don't care what it has as a gimmick as long as the coffee's good and as long as it's quieter than this place," muttered Chris, giving a weary sigh as she looked around at the masses.
"I don't suppose the owner will want it to be quiet, but I know what you mean."
Warren looked towards his friend, seeing her pale face and slight bags under her eyes, normally a bright blue, but today more of a dull grey colour. She looked so much more tired than the last time they were together.
"Are you okay, Chris? You look kinda tired."
"Yeah, we had a rough couple of days last week, a multiple vehicle pile-up over in Henderson, and then that double murder you probably wrote about at your place."
Seeing her companion nod at the last comment, she smiled ruefully before continuing.
"And then Laurie's struggling at school at the moment. It's been hard for her since losing her dad, he was her hero, you know? It seems there're some kids at school that don't know how he left us, and they're teasing her that her daddy just walked out on us. It's hard."
The young man grabbed hold of his friend's hands, "Hey Chris, if there's anything we can do, you would call, wouldn't you? You know the kids adore Laurie, and Lila would love to have her if you need a break."
"Yeah, Warren, I do know. And thanks, it means a lot. You were a good partner to Tom, and you're a good friend to me. Don't worry, we'll be fine. I just need to find a way for Laurie to get her story out at this new school."
"Do you want me to write a story, highlighting the exploits of LVPD, and how some of the good guys get killed in the line of duty sometimes too? I should be able to write that pretty close to real-life, I guess."
Chris's dead husband had been Warren's best friend and partner in the police force, until Tom's untimely death, and Warren's health induced resignation seven years before. Since then, he'd taken a job on the local paper researching news stories specific to the crime in the city.
"No, that's maybe taking it too far, though the story might not be a bad idea, just keep Tom's name out of it, huh? I don't want any hassle from the rest of his old crew; I really don't blame Hindle, Tom was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I guess, friendly fire is the worst way to die, but at least he died doing what he loved."
It had taken a long time for the woman to hold that view. The first year or so after her husband's death had been the worst in her life. Before his death, Christine and Tom Walker had been a typical American couple; both had worked in the Vegas police force, she as a clerk and he as an officer on the drug-squad, and both had been settled and happy together, finally deciding to have a child fifteen years into their relationship.
As Tom had said, they'd survived a life together since they were in their teens, surely they could now bring a good life to a child. So, at the age of 33, they gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter and had five full years of bliss, until Officer Hindle's bullet, intended for the drug-trafficker that had Warren Bright and Tom Walker pinned down, slid fatally into Tom's chest.
In the blink of an eye, Chris's life changed, and without the help of the guy sitting opposite her, holding her hand so safely, she knew she wouldn't have made it this far.
In honour of her dead husband, she'd worked hard to take his place on the police force to give her daughter another hero to look up to, and here she was, shattered, but content.
Suddenly, Warren's voice cut through her reverie.
"I hear you've started dating again. Is it true, you're seeing that young lab tech from CSI headquarters? The one with brown eyes to die for, and legs that go all the way up to here?"
Warren's eyes sparkled as he teased his friend. He'd been a little surprised to hear that Chris was dating a young woman, but deep down he knew that scenario had always been a possibility.
Tom might have been the only man Chris had ever wanted, would probably still be the only man she ever wanted, but Chris had always been open with her close friends and family. Before Tom, she'd been looking for the dark haired, brown eyed woman that had haunted her dreams since being old enough to remember. Meeting Tom had stopped that search, but it hadn't stopped the dreams. Maybe now, it hadn't stopped the search either.
Chuckling along with Warren's teasing, Chris admitted, "Yeah, I just couldn't resist those eyes. You know me; for brown/brown I'm a sucker. So, the chance to have some fun time being offered on a silver platter, and at a time when I needed it, what could I do?"
The tall guy laughed again, pleased to hear his friend appeared to be enjoying life, despite her troubles.
"She's not the one then?"
"Connie? No. She's just a friend really, someone to cuddle up to at nights, someone to share the hard days with, and at least she understands the shift patterns."
Smiling, Warren continued to tease.
"Funny how you chose your dream girl as your first date since Tom, don't you think?"
Chris reached across to nudge her friends elbow, "Oh shut up you. That's just what the one will only ever be you know, my dream girl."
"Hey, Lady. Where do you want me to put the water pipes? I can manage it at the back of this room, or possibly over there towards the doorway in front of you."
Suzie looked up from her musings over the many colour schemes available at Home Depot. Seeing the grey-haired man smiling at her in question, she glanced around, never thinking in all the years of wanting to set up a coffee stop that it would involve so many decisions. All she wanted was for it to be finished and her business up and running.
"Um, I want to have the coffee counter over there facing the entrance. Is that doable?"
"And maybe you could plumb through that doorway for me, there's the remains of an old bathroom that I'd like to convert into two separate restrooms. Okay?"
The man didn't answer immediately, just going straight in the direction she'd indicated, only to return five minutes later to mutter, "Yeah, that's possible. Give me a minute to give you a quote and to look in my planner for a date."
Suzie looked up and muttered towards the departing man's back, "Smashing," before returning to her books to wait.
An hour later, her smile had grown tenfold. She had a date from Mr. Plumbing-man to start the renovation work the following week, and she'd decided on subtle shades of brown and orange for her decoration. At last, things were beginning to move forward. Taking a look around the building, she spied the newly built wall that now split a large room into two. The room she was standing in was to become the hub of her new life, the coffee shop. The room behind would become both the store and the area for dishwashing.
Swivelling around, her mind full of ideas, she looked over towards the large open window that looked out over The Fremont Hotel and other casinos. She had a hope that she could help provide a small haven of quiet in this busy area of Vegas. The price of this plot had been more than she ever could've believed, and yet there'd been subtle hints in Lou's estate that here was the place to be.
A good friend of Lou's, calling to see how things were progressing, had mentioned the police headquarters being not more than ten minutes away, and how maybe she could get Josh to give her business a gentle push among his colleagues.
She chuckled, doubting very much that her eldest son would do anything of the sort. Josh was very much like his dad in many ways, reluctant to accept help and extremely self-sufficient. Simon was more like her, more outgoing and friendly, intelligent beyond his age, but unlike her, having the chance to make good of his intelligence. Both of her boys though cared, about the world and its people, and both wanted and intended to make their mark on this world in a positive manner.
Thinking back to when she was their age, Suzie knew she, too, could have gone on to better things, but like the fool she wasn't, she'd fallen pregnant too young and blown away all her chances of university and a profession. No, her goal in life now was to give her customers a place to have a quiet drink and a place to be themselves; something she'd always wanted for herself, to just be.
Weeks later, she made her first cup of coffee using the newly installed espresso bar that covered most of the back wall. Gerald, the plumber, had been a lovely man to work with. He'd been reliable and more than willing to go the extra mile, working overtime a couple of weekends to make sure everything was fitted and working in as short a space a time as possible.
His only extra payment had been her joining him twice for dinner and a drink; both times her easy enjoyment had been more than worth the effort. Gerald smiled, in his seat across from the new espresso as he watched her bring the coffees across the room.
"So, how are you going to make this place work, huh?"
Gerald's directness had been one of the things Suzie had appreciated the past couple of weeks. He hadn't been afraid to personally direct her on the complexities of getting the plumbing right, and, as was evident, his knowledge had served her well.
"There're loads of coffee shops around here; what's going to be special about this one?"
Suzie had spent many a night pondering this since realizing that Louise had given her the opportunity to try and make things work.
"Well, I know it's cliché, but I'm going to make this place as homey as possible, so lots of armchairs, low lighting, rugs on the floor, and warmth. But more than that, I know it's got to be useful as well. For some, I want it to be an escape from business, for others I want it to be a place to make business. So, you know that small room upstairs, the one at the front? Well, eventually that will become a wireless hotspot for all the laptop users; a small room where they can continue their work, but still enjoy the peace of having a coffee break."
"And that other room, opposite the toilets?"
"Well, I want this place to have something unusual, a gimmick, I suppose, and I've got two little ideas I'm going to run with. There are lots of places that have books for sale where they sell coffee, so I'm going to have a debating room."
Gerald laughed. "Debating room? That's a new one, what do you mean?"
"Um, it'll be a place where people can go and argue their point on a topic of the day, where they can rant, or just talk loudly while still enjoying the coffee. I've not worked it out completely yet, but as a girl, I used to be on my high school's debating team, and I loved it, so we'll see. Just have to think how to get it to work, and if it doesn't, I can always fall back on the book idea."
"And your other idea?"
The brunette woman was so lost in thoughts of her debating room that it took a minute to understand the question. Looking at Gerald, she saw him waiting for an answer.
"Oh yeah, well, Louise, my partner, she was English, and they drink tea, you know. They drink coffee as well, but they do like their tea, so I thought, why not specialize in teas, too?" She shrugged and went quiet before adding quietly, "It'd be something she would have liked."
Gerald jumped as he realized she was talking of her partner in the past tense. He reached over to hold her hand.
"Suzie? Why didn't you say you'd lost a partner recently? It wouldn't have changed how I felt about you."
"Well, Lou's been gone for just under a year now; it's her money that's paying for all of this."
"I'd gathered someone was helping you, but I hadn't realized it was through a death. Were you very close?"
"Oh yeah. She was my future, and now, she's gone." Throwing her hands out, she indicated the rooms around her. "All of this, this is my future now, and I need to make it work for her." She squeezed the hand that was holding her own. "I can't possibly thank you enough for all your help in making our dream come true."
"Go out with me again, even though my work is done. Just as friends, you know, I can see how much this Louise meant to you. I like you, I can help you. Friends, that would be thanks enough."
As always, the young man was running a few moments late; he just hadn't quite got used to the length of time it took him to get from Henderson to here, Police Plaza. Then again, until six months ago, he'd never believed he'd be living in his own place and already striving for the dream he's always held to be a detective in his hometown police force. He knew the shield was a long way off, but at least it was now within sight.
The fact his mother's lover had died to bring about his upturn in fortune was the only blot on his horizon. He'd loved Louise enough that he'd rather she still be here, but if this was her wish, for him to achieve his dream, then he was damn well going to make the most of it.
Lost in his thoughts, he missed the woman leaning against the door facing, missed how she watched him with interest, a small smile creeping across her face.
Christine Walker knew a cop that was going to go places as soon as she saw one. After all, she'd been married to a rookie cop as a young woman, had stood by him through the early hard years and the study, had supported his desire to move upwards, and had been there when he was accepted onto the narcotics squad. Of course, she'd also been there when his commanding officer had knocked on the door with news of his death.
Josh Hofmeyer had the same darn look in his eyes that Tom Walker had on the day she'd met him years before.
She saw him now, deep in thought, and suddenly it hit her, how she could help Laurie out with her school problems.
The young man jumped at the raised voice, and spun around to see who was calling. He turned around just in time to see Officer Walker striding towards him, a welcoming smile on her face. He'd heard the stories behind her route into the career he was now forging and had even watched her in action a few times. It was obvious she was happy to walk the beat, appeared happier interacting with the minor felons of this city, and yet, he knew if he could just earn half the respect she had, he'd be fine.
He smiled towards the older woman.
"Oh please, you make me sound like an old woman. Yeah, don't say it, I know I am, but please call me Chris."
Josh chuckled and nodded his head, watching as the woman nodded her head in acceptance.
"Chris, what can I do for you?"
His politeness made Chris sure her idea was a sound one, and she decided to push ahead. "I have a proposition for you, one that will stand you in good stead in years to come; will you join me for a coffee after shift?"
Shocked at the invitation, Josh glanced around as if to see if there were any other colleagues hanging around, certain that this was a joke. Why would this respected officer want to proposition this rookie?
As if seeing the indecision in his eyes, Chris added, "Hey! It's nothing unusual, I'm not talking about that sort of proposition, it's just "
"Oh, I didn't think that, Ma'am, honestly, I " Josh stuttered his apologies.
"Calm down, calm down, huh? It's Josh, isn't it?" Chris waited for his nod before continuing. "My daughter has some problems at school, related to her father's death you know about that, right? anyway, you're nearer her age than I am - just "
They both shared a grin at that comment.
" - and I'd like to ask your opinion on an idea I've had. So, how about it?"
Intrigued by the offer, and intent on doing the right thing, Josh's only answer could be the one he gave. "As long as nothing comes up to keep me, I'll be here. Meet you in the break-room?"
"Yeah, great, I'll see you later then."
Later, in the same coffee shop she'd visited with Warren, the two police officers passed the time of day.
"Yeah, I never thought I'd be able to pay my way through the rookie years, but here I am giving it a go, and I love it. Silly, huh, loving this job?" Josh's voice was alive with the excitement he obviously felt in his life.
"No, no, not at all. If I didn't love it, I'm not sure I could've gone down this road after Tom's death, but I'd watched how much he'd gotten from his career, all the satisfaction, all the friendships, and yeah, there were some negatives, but everyday Tom and I shared around this career were good ones, so "
Chris's voice trailed off, she didn't want to put the young man off by being too heavy. He needed to be happy to make his career choice the right one, but she couldn't make him be happy, he had to do that himself.
" so, less of me. Now, you can tell me to mind my own business, but just how did you manage to get enough behind you to give this a go?"
Josh's brown eyes flashed with something Christine didn't quite recognize; something like a flash of pride. "Let's just say, like you, it took the death of someone very dear to me to make this path possible."
Josh had no intention of letting anyone know how he'd come by his financial security; he was going to make his way on merit alone. That was why, when Chris had bemoaned the fact that the small coffee shop nearer to police headquarters was taking an age to be completed, he had pointedly not enlightened her to the fact it was actually his mother that was taking her time making sure things were just right.
"You had some proposition to put to me?" Josh pushed the envelope wide open, wanting to take the discussion away from his personal issues.
"Um, yeah, let me see; how can I explain this? My daughter, Laurie, is 12 years old and misses her father like crazy. He was her hero, you see. Anyway, at school, there's a group of kids that are giving her grief over the fact he's no longer with us. They say he's a typical cop, selfish, and only interested in himself, and that's he's not dead, that he's just walked out on us, left us to fend for ourselves just like all the cops leave the city to fend for itself."
Josh watched as Chris's eyes watered but stayed silent, waiting patiently for her request.
"She knows that's not true, hell we have the citation to prove it, but it doesn't stop the words hurting. Anyway, I've talked her into challenging the school to a debate - it's something she's good at - on the rights and wrongs of having a police force. The principal has agreed to the idea and has suggested a panel of four speakers; two for and two against. Obviously, Laurie is one of the pros, I wondered if you would consider being the other."
Seeing the look of pure shock on the young dark-haired man's face, Chris chuckled. "There's no need to look so worried, I'm sure you'd be perfect. As I said earlier, you're so much nearer their age, and I know, from watching you and listening to you, both today and during your work, that this is a career you've wanted to follow, that you've strived for. Who else would be better suited to convince a bunch of non-believers that this force is good for our city?"
She watched as a hint of a blush crept up the young man's face, but also spotted the give-away sign of his chest preening outwards at her praise; she knew she had him now.
"Well, what do you say, young man?"
The big day had nearly arrived; in exactly one week the coffee shop was scheduled to open, and Suzie had a problem. Who could she trust to help her recruit some counter assistants? Simon was happy and glowing at Harvard, while Josh was busy all day at work and on some debate he had gotten dragged into.
Her eldest son had been a great help in renovating the coffee shop but just recently had become more and more involved in the life of his chosen career. Suzie was happy for him and somewhat a little surprised at the ease he appeared to be fitting in.
He'd called a few nights ago to tell her all about his new friendship with one of his older colleagues, a woman named Chris, who, it appeared, had been widowed and had a young daughter she was struggling to bring up right in an often times troubling world. Suzie understood that ordeal perfectly.
This woman had asked Josh to participate in a debate to be held at her daughter's school, and he was spending every spare minute of his day on his speech preparation.
If truth were known, Suzie was proud at the way her boy, normally quiet and reserved and rather introspective, had taken on this opportunity to do something impressive for a more experienced colleague.
As if drawn by magic, the dark hair of her son suddenly appeared at the serving hatch of the kitchen area.
"Hey, Mom, I thought I'd come by and check to make sure all was well for next Saturday."
Suzie'd decided that Saturday was a good day to open. She wanted to see how things flowed with the more amenable tourists to her city before contending with the harried business personnel over the week day, and she smiled at her son before answering.
"It's going okay, Josh, but I don't suppose you're free this afternoon are you? It's just I'm interviewing for the counter assistant positions, and another's help would be appreciated."
"Oh, Mom, I can't today, it's the debate week after next, and I'm meeting Chris's daughter for the first time. We're going to try and prepare our speeches to complement each other. More impact that way, you see."
For the next half hour, Suzie spent a lovely session with her son just fine tuning the points of his speech and giving him suggestions of how to use his non-verbal communication for the best effect. She'd always known her debating skills would come in useful one day, and now she had two chances of re-learning her past love by helping Josh and being involved with the converted room down the corridor to be used as her debating hole.
Josh reluctantly checked his watch and saw it was time to take his leave. As he looked back up, he caught sight of a small van pulling up to the nearby sidewalk. The words 2G's Plumbing Agency on its side alerted him to the occupant, and he immediately turned to his mom.
"There's your savior, mom. Gerald's here so he can help you interview for your new staff." Seeing a look of disbelief on her face, he quickly countered her denial. "He's an amenable guy, mom; he'll help you choose amenable staff and that's what you need for this place, right?"
Leaning over he kissed her cheek and whispered that he would be there bright and early Saturday morning, and he left through the open doorway just as Gerald approached. Josh high-fived the older man and nodded his head in Suzie's direction, "She's in the kitchen area."
Five hours later, Suzie and Gerald were sharing one of the specialty teas she had to offer, and Suzie was planning how she would teach her six new staff members to use the espresso machine before Saturday and how she could best help them settle into their jobs.
Josh had been right in his assumption that Gerald would be an able interviewer. Despite his dour, stoic character, Suzie knew that he was a warm, friendly guy, having spent many a pleasant day with him the past few months, and that trait had helped put the applicants at ease, allowing the pair to choose well.
Suzie also knew that Gerald harboured a belief that one day she might see him as something more than the friend he had become. She knew it was too early for her to be dating anybody, and if the truth were known, she didn't believe that another could ever take the place of her Lou. At this point in her life, even if her dream girl walked through the door, she wasn't convinced that even then she would take a chance again. What was the point of trying to top perfection?
Whatever Gerald and Suzie's different perspectives on their relationship, they made a good team. And she now had six lovely people to help her make things work. She knew they'd chosen carefully, trying hard to acquire an eclectic bunch of workers so that her customers would have lots of choices of a friendly face.
Each of her choices had their own quality, and she looked forward to drawing that out of them. She'd chosen three men and three women of varying ages. Two were students, one had a young family, one was a musician, and two were more Suzie's age looking for work to keep them company. Ironically, two were interested in the debating room, two had expressed a fascination with the computer area, and two obviously just loved to talk.
Suzie smiled towards Gerald and raised her cup of tea. She clinked it against his cup and toasted, "To Elliot's Place." Then, seeing his grin, she added quietly, "I think this is going to work."
"Of that I have no doubt, Suze. Tell me, why Elliot's and not Hofmeyer's?"
"Um, this is my dream, but it's Lou's wish, and for that I need her here with me. If I call it Elliot's Place, she'll always be a part of this in name as well as in my heart."
Opening day came around in a blur. Luckily, Grace and Jim, the two staff chosen for their ability to talk and to make customers feel at ease, had taken to the espresso machine as if they were born to it, Grace especially. So, come opening day, Suzie had asked those two to do the serving honors.
Hannah and Mario were assigned to look after the debating room and were also going to mingle among the customers; Jim and Candida planned to set a few computers up and would be there to mingle and encourage as well. Suzie was just going to watch, wonder, and no doubt cry.
Before the doors opened, she called her team to her and laid her cards on the table. This was her dream, and these were the people she'd chosen to live that dream with her, and she wanted them fully invested in her dream. Searching their faces, she was stunned at the support she could read in each and every face, even now after one week; she could see they were a team.
She was ready, and more importantly, Elliot's Place was ready.
Watching the minute hand click over to 8.00 am, she nodded towards Gerald, and he turned the key in the lock. Elliot's Place was open for business.
Suzie watched with tears in her eyes as he unlocked the door. He'd tried to insist the symbolic opening of the door was hers, but the dark-haired woman knew otherwise. It had always been a dream, and now it was a reality; she wanted to watch it happen so that she could always remember this moment.
Later, much later, Suzie allowed herself to really cry. The day had been exhausting, but absolutely brilliant. It had taken an hour or so for people to realize they were open for business, and then the trade had been steady but continuous.
She'd watched and marveled at the way each of her six staff members adapted to the change in their own lives.
Suzie could already see Hannah, the 19 year-old Psychology student, was meant to be a counselor in another life. Since the debating room was only in the planning stage, the plush armchairs and warm coloring of that room had proved to be a talking spot, and Suzie was certain Hannah had already soothed two broken hearts.
Her boyfriend, Jim, had proved a whiz on the tea counter, and an expert at wooing the female tourists. Where he'd found his knowledge of English tea at such short notice, Suzie had no idea, but it was obvious he had the gift of the gab as Louise would have called it; a tremendous asset for both him and the coffee shop.
And Grace, the other server, might have been your typical brash, bottle blonde older lady, but her tales had already hooked a few of the local shop workers. It seemed Grace had that remarkable ability to talk non-stop while working non-stop at the same time. Throughout the day, Suzie was surprised to see that the older woman had developed an unlikely rapport with the youngest male of the group, Mario.
Mario, another student, just happened to win his place on Suzie's team by his semi-annoying habit of disagreeing with everything that was said to him during the interview. His disagreements were so eloquent Suzie knew he would work wonders if the debating room was going to take off. If a customer held a certain viewpoint, Mario would have the uncanny ability to disagree politely; exactly what a good debate needed. And yet, today, he'd quietly worked his way around the shop, getting to know his colleagues, and chatting with Suzie about their first topic of debate for the next week.
The other two members of Suzie's team were the two computer geeks. Today, they'd shown their credentials by each proving more than capable of coping with all ages. The older Tony, an ex-cop, had been a real hit with the youngsters, allowing them to beat him over and over again on a Western shoot-out game he'd rigged up in one of the computer bays, while Candida, a young mum of three, had ably kept the parents happy with her ability to paint quite elaborate pictures on some art-shop program or other.
Suzie's only worry, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, was that they would all be so wrapped up in their customers that the used cups and mugs would get left by the wayside.
Standing at the door to her shop, waving off each of her staff, she pondered whether it would be worth, in the future, employing even more staff to do the so-called dirty work. She would just have to wait and see how it went in the first few months before making any more decisions.
Josh came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder.
"They seem like a nice bunch, Mom."
"Yeah, I think we got the balance just about right, you know?"
Josh kissed his mother's cheek and whispered, "So, a good first day then?"
"Hmm. Brilliant, it's about all I can say. I really do think this is going to work." She leaned her head against his and allowed the sigh that had been brewing to escape at his next words.
Sometimes Josh heard his mom use some English expression, something she'd obviously learned from Louise, and he saw the older woman that had come to mean so much to him as clear as if she were still there in real time. This moment was one of them. "She would have been so proud."
Suzie knew immediately who he was talking about. "Yes, she would, and she would have been so proud of you, too. You do know if your debating debut is a success, I want you to bring the topic to my room. I'd like it to be my first advertising push. What do you think?"
"Let me get it out of the way first, but if me and Laurie are as good as Chris thinks I'll be honored to be your protagonist."
Suzie raised her eyebrows towards her son and gave him a teasing smile, "I'd like to meet this Chris of yours."
"Mom! She's a friend, and in her forties, way too old for me." His mom raised her eyebrows again at that comment. Laughing out loud, Josh teased his mother some more. "In fact, she's much more your type, blonde hair, big blue eyes; you'd love her."
"Don't be daft, boy; Lou's still in here."
Hearing Suzie use of one of Lou's favourite sayings, Josh could see the truth in her words and wondered out loud. "And Gerald?"
~~ June 2006~~
"As you've heard from Officer Hofmeyer, being a police officer can be an enjoyable and rewarding profession, but I, for one, can attest to the fact that being a police officer is not always the safest place to be. Nobody should have to suffer the loss of a son or daughter, father or mother, or maybe just a friend, taken far too early, but, in more cases than I care to admit, this is a fate that befalls a proportion of this country's police officers.
In conclusion, I ask you this question. Who, if not our brave police officers, are out every day on the front lines of the struggle to ensure equal treatment for all, are battling crime and violence, and are promoting civil rights and justice for all?"
Laurie Walker took the seat behind her and turned towards Josh with a big smile on her face. She glanced towards the back of the hall to see her mom clapping enthusiastically with the crowd. Only after sharing a grin with her mother, did she dare to look out over her watching school mates, pleased to find they were clapping for her as one.
Later, after the vote on the debate subject was tabulated, it was obvious she hadn't convinced everyone with her words, but for now, they were at least congratulating her eloquence on the subject.
Christine Walker turned to the woman standing quietly beside her and, with tears in her eyes, just said, "That's my girl."
The young woman grinned, nodding her head in agreement; Laurie Walker was definitely Chris's girl. The courage and the determination to be right shown up on the stage was only part of the likeness, but it was there nonetheless.
Suddenly, the young girl ran into her mother's waiting arms.
"Thank you for coming, Mom. It went okay, I think."
"It went more than okay, Hon. You had them eating out of the palm of your hand. I'm so proud of you. And you brought Dad into the piece without being, what's the word, melodramatic, maybe? Oh, I don't know, you're the one who's good with words. Just amazing."
Laurie beamed with pride while Chris turned towards the shy young man standing behind her daughter. She grasped his hand and shook it firmly. "As for you, Officer Hofmeyer, even I started to believe I was in the right profession. Well done."
Josh Hofmeyer laughed at Chris's words, knowing full well that the blonde adored her role, despite her words to the contrary.
"I enjoyed myself; it was great to support such a competent speaker in an argument dear to my heart. She's brilliant at putting the picture across, of convincing people that what they believe is not always right, she'd be a real boon in my mom's debating room."
Chris's eyebrows rose in interest, but before she could question Josh on his statement, the speakers were called back to the stage for the announcement of the result. As the two younger people turned to go, Chris called out, "You will join us for dinner later, Josh." It was definitely a statement, not a question.
She grinned as Josh turned back with a big smile, answering as if it was a chore. "Yeah, smashing!"
The dark eyed woman with Chris jumped at the words. "I thought we were going out for dinner, and Laurie was going to your sister's."
Hearing the result in the background, Chris replied with just a little annoyance. "Oh, come on, Connie. My daughter's just made a wonderful 'victory' speech; surely I can treat her to dinner. We can go out another day."
"So, why invite Josh Hofmeyer, too?"
"Uh? He's Laurie's partner in this, of course he's welcome, too."
"And your what?"
"What's Josh to you?"
The blonde turned quickly to stare at the younger woman. Seething inside, she calmly spoke her piece. "Josh is becoming a friend. A friend I want to spend time with, and if you don't like that, maybe it's you that should go."
Connie glared. "You don't mean that?"
"I do. Look, I told you early on in this friendship that I liked spending time with you, that you made me happy for the first time in years, that we had something worth sharing, but I can't give you much more than that at this moment. You're a very dear friend, and yes ," she glanced around to make sure nobody else was listening, " a sweet, talented lover, but I am not yours."
Sighing quietly, not sure that this was the best place to have this conversation, and yet, whenever was it right to have these sort of conversations than when the time was right, and now felt right, so she added in a whisper, "I will never be yours."
At last, the look on the young woman's face changed from anger to resignation, she'd known all along that her relationship with the beautiful, hardened police officer would more than likely end in her tears, she just hadn't realized it would be so soon. And she certainly hadn't intended to be the catalyst herself.
Their conversation broken by the return of Josh and Laurie, Chris turned to ask Connie if she was staying for the dinner. Dark eyes shone as the brunette leaned over to kiss Chris's cheek, whispering, "No, I think I'll give this one a miss. I'll see you tomorrow, and Chris, I'm sorry not for us, for this."
Her kiss was returned softly, and the small group remaining watched as Connie walked away.
Later, sitting in a nearby diner, Chris listened intently as the two younger people bantered back and forth about the quality of some local musical talent. She smiled to herself, pleased that Laurie seemed to be finally settling into herself; twelve was a hard age to bear at any time, not yet a woman, but no longer a child. Suddenly, a word from Josh caught her ear.
"Smashing? You said that earlier, isn't that some sort of British word for good?"
The young police officer blushed slightly; he hated to come across as different, yet he knew Louise's words often crept into his chatter, especially when he was relaxed as now.
"Yeah, Mom's partner was English, she used that word all the time, and sometimes, when I'm talking fast, it just slips out."
Chris smiled as her daughter immediately began to tell Josh about her dad's favourite words and how she couldn't stop using them either.
Something brought Warren's words of a few months back into her head. 'One of the researchers in the entertainment department reckons the owner is a young woman who came into some money on the death of her British sugar-daddy, and all she's ever wanted to do, is open a coffee house with a debating corner.' For some reason Chris's thoughts coalesced into 'so not a sugar-daddy at all'.
"Hey Josh, is it your mom that's opened the coffee shop across from the Fremont, Elliot's Place?"
Josh looked up, shock written on his face. "Um, yeah; how'd you work that one out?"
Not willing to admit her thoughts about sugar-daddies, or to be precise a lack of them, she answered semi-truthfully, "Oh, something you said about a debating room, and when I popped into Elliot's Place a couple of weeks ago, the talk was all about some young guy who could argue the pants off anyone willing to try and disagree with the topic of the day up in the debating room."
Josh laughed. "That would be Mario; he's a real character. I tell you, he would argue that black was white, and at the end of the day you'd believe him. I bet young Laurie here would give him a run for his money though. May I take her along one day? I promise she'd have a good time, and Mom would make sure no harm came her way."
The older police officer grinned at her young colleague as Laurie jumped up and down, insisting she please say yes. So, she did.
"Yes. Now, tell me how your mom came to make such a brave move; opposite the Fremont, I would think is quite a challenging position to make a coffee shop work."
"Oh, it's been Mom's dream ever since she failed to make her way through university, my fault that one. When Louise died, she left us all enough money to try and achieve our dreams, not enough to stop us working for it, but enough to try. She owned a successful dress design empire here and in London, an empire she and her sister had built from scratch, and she always said that we all have the ability to achieve what we want in life as long as we work at it. So, I guess you could say, the coffee shop across from the Fremont is Mom's way of having to work to make her gift worthwhile."
"You miss her?"
"Louise? Yeah, we all do, but without her help, Simon going to university, Mom opening the coffee shop, and me making it as a police officer would all have taken a good while longer."
Chris could see in the young man's eyes how he was desperate to say that he could have made it without the cash help, and she was sure he could have, it was just money did make things easier. "I'm sure you would've been right here where you are now whatever happened, Josh. But remember, things happen for a reason, and Louise obviously wanted this to happen, so enjoy."
"Yeah, you're right. That's just what Mom says; Lou wanted it, so let's live it for her."
Laurie's quiet voice piped in. "That's why Mom walks the beat, you know. Dad would've still been living it if he was here, so she lives it for him."
Tears filled the corner of Chris's eyes once again; aware the conversation had taken a maudlin turn, she asked, "So, please tell me that brassy blonde woman serving wonderful coffee wasn't your mom?" And then, as if realizing that she might've just stuck her foot in her mouth, she quickly added, "Not that she wasn't a lovely woman mind you, it's just I kind of thought your mom would be darker. Um, the blonde's jokes were fantastic."
Josh laughed at Chris's squirming, deciding to put her out of her misery.
"That would be Grace; Mom's a brunette, about 5'11'' in height, just hit 40. Her name's Suzie and she tends to wander around the shop talking with the customers. Yeah, she makes a damn good supervisor does my Mom. When did you say you visited?"
"Let's see. Warren and I met over lunch two weeks ago."
"Ah, then Mom was probably at an English tea convention." Seeing Chris raise her eyebrows at that comment, he gave a wry grin. "Yeah, that's another of Mom's foibles, English tea. You'll have to come over when Laurie's blinding Mario with her words, I'll introduce you then, and Mom can tell you all about tea."
~~ July 2006~~
Elliot's Place was growing by leaps and bounds. In the two months it had been open, the customer numbers had steadily risen as word of mouth had a positive effect on its popularity.
The local police headquarters gave the coffee shop a regular clientele, helped by a few officers realizing Josh was the owner's son, and helped enormously by the fact that Tony, one of the computer geniuses in Suzie's team was not only an ex-police officer but was also the current retiree representative of The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Association, and, therefore, still knew many past and present officers.
Suzie scanned her business with a glowing smile. She'd had to make some tough decisions very early on when it became clear that her chosen six members of staff worked so well together that they were reluctant to split their shift patterns. In the end, she'd devised a rotating schedule of hours on and off, meaning that each of the six worked with each other at certain times of a two week period, and each had time off as well as time on.
Listening to her crew's comments, she knew they were reasonably happy with the arrangements. Mario and Grace who'd struck up an unlikely friendship, and Hannah and Jim, who were already girlfriend and boyfriend, were satisfied with their time together and also their time apart. Candida was happy to work alternating shifts to allow her time with her young family, and Tony appreciated the time off to continue with his involvement in the Police Association.
All in all, things were going well, and her three areas of novelty were each proving a hit. The wireless internet area was always well used; on weekdays, by business folk desperate for time away from the office, or keen to have a meeting place that served good coffee and had pleasant surroundings, and on the weekends, by the younger end of her customer base; the teenagers.
The debating room had also proved to be a big hit with the youth of the city, often full to the brim with students just needing an outlet to vent some of their frustrations, and what better than a good old argument to clear the cobwebs than a healthy debate. Finally, Suzie's baby, the introduction of English teas, was proving a real novelty to many of the city's tourists. Each weekend, the tea counter came into its own, and Jim was the major hit in this area.
One morning, chatting to the young man over a suitably brewed English breakfast tea she'd heard how, as a young boy, his father had been stationed on an American-led airbase just outside of a small English city, and how he and his mother had spent two years based in the same area. From the ages of 13-15, he'd attended a local school and became involved in the local scouting association, where he'd learned all about serving English tea as part of a major charitable push they'd had one summer.
Jim's easy chatter and ability to brew 'a good strong cuppa', as Lou had always called her first drink of the day, made his shifts some of Suzie's most enjoyable. Her other favourite times were the times like now, when the shop was busy, but not overly busy, and when she could step away from the counters to just mingle with her customers.
"Hey, Suzie," a soft voice called out, and the brunette turned to see Harry and Bertha Green, two of her regular locals. A couple who just liked to stroll around their city of lights, knowing they could get way from the hustle and bustle with Suzie and her team.
"Come and sit over here, Hon," said Bertha, as she patted the seat to the side of her. "Come keep me company while Harry goes for his daily hour of poker death."
Suzie laughed at the last word. "It's a death, is it, Harry? Why do you still bother?" She knew the older man was one of the very few in this city of gambling that still played poker for pleasure rather than for gain. She knew, when his wife said he would be an hour, he would be. He played his game and left whether he was up or down.
"Ah Suzie, there's nothing better than beating the dealer, but if I don't, there's nothing better than drowning my sorrows in one of Grace's Irish coffees."
The two women sitting with Harry laughed again, and both watched as he turned to leave. Suzie checked her watch, noting the exact time of his departure. It was the game she played while Jim was away playing his, watching the time to be certain he'd return by the end of the hour.
"So, tell me, Suzie, what are those two young men of yours up to these days?"
"Well, Simon's just found out how expensive it can be being a student. The word is he's found himself a little bartending job to help pay for his recreation."
Bertha laughed. "I thought he'd gone out there to learn something?"
"Oh, he'll learn something, Bertha; he's a good lad like that." Suzie knew he would too; she was happy for him to party and to be a typical youth for she knew, deep down, he wanted to study because he wanted something at the end of it. She and Josh weren't yet sure what he was aiming for, but they both had no doubts that he had a target in mind.
"And Josh, you've met Josh, I think; he's becoming involved in the Public Relations side of the police force. Remember I mentioned that colleague who roped him in for some school debate? Well, she's also big on the selling of law enforcement as a career choice, and she feels Josh is the type of guy to sell his profession."
The brunette couldn't help a hint of pride touching her words about both her sons, but she was a good enough business woman to know that her customers had their own lives, too.
"Now, tell me about those grandchildren of yours, after I've served us another coffee, on the house, of course."
As she stood up, she turned to tease the older woman, "Or, maybe I could interest you in a nice cup of brewed Earl Grey?"
"Is that one of them teas you keep trying to sell me, huh? You know I don't want any of that British stuff; you drink it, and I'll just look."
Suzie laughed to herself but did as the woman suggested.
After listening to the tales of Bertha and her granddaughters, Suzie was startled by a warm hand on her shoulder.
"Mom, can I interrupt?"
She turned quickly to see Josh behind her with a young girl standing shyly at his side.
"Bertha, you've met my son, Josh. Would you excuse us for a minute?"
"No problem, love, I'll be here."
Suzie turned towards her son.
"Mom, this is Laurie Walker, Christine's daughter, and the brilliant exponent of debate." He indicated the young blonde, and she stepped forward, extending her hand in greeting.
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"Oh please, Laurie, it's Suzie. Why don't you get Josh here to take you to meet Mario? He's been driving me up the wall today with his always being right, go and show him what for with your words."
Nodding to Josh, she added, "Go on, Josh, I'll be there in a few minutes."
Suzie turned back to her guest to see that Harry was already back. Looking at her watch again, Suzie saw that she had indeed spent a very pleasant hour with Bertha.
"How'd it go, Harry?"
The grinning man held up a wad of cash. "It was good today, Suzie. I'm gonna take Bertha to that mall down the street, and I'm gonna buy her the biggest something-or-other I can find."
Enjoying the spontaneous laughter, she watched the couple leave. This was the part of her job she'd surprised herself by loving. Who'd have thought Suzie Hofmeyer would spend her days gaining so much enjoyment from just chatting with her customers?
Nodding at a couple of her other customers and indicating to Grace that she was making her way to the back, she walked to the debating room and grinned as she heard two perfectly controlled raised voices, one male and one female. If she didn't know better, she would swear one was saying black was white and the other was saying white was black.
"If black is black or white is white, in black and white it's down, they're only traitors to the Queen and rebels to the Crown."
Susie chuckled at the words Laurie was saying and watched the young girl apparently blindside even Mario with her words.
She was a young girl, around 12 or 13, and had long, silky blonde hair that framed her soft, round face. From where Suzie was standing she appeared to have blue eyes with flecks of green; eyes that twinkled with mischief and obvious pleasure at the nonsense debate she was clearly winning with Mario.
Their words disappeared into the background as young Hannah came across to talk her. Walking over to the corner, they found a couple of empty chairs and took a few minutes together.
"You look a bit down, Suzie, is everything alright?"
As Suzie had predicted on the day of the shops opening, Hannah had proved to be a wonderful counselor of sorts; she just seemed to have the type of smile that made people confess. For some reason, even knowing all that, Suzie couldn't stop her own confession.
"It's coming up to the anniversary of Louise's death, and I miss her. Even with the excitement of all this," she indicated their surroundings, "I find myself wishing she were here and telling her all about it."
"Did you ever really say goodbye, Suzie? Tell me if I'm out of line, but Josh there said her funeral and everything was over in England and that you'd only been able to stay for a few days. Maybe you'd be better if you could go and say your final goodbyes."
Suzie looked into the bright blue eyes and saw only the truth of the young woman's words. "You know, you might just be right. Simon and Josh are both settled, this place is up and running, and you lot can cope without me, I might just do that."
She leaned across the chair arm and gave her employee a hug. "You were a brilliant choice, Hannah; I'm so glad you're working here for me."
Suzie smiled at Hannah's pleased blush and then managed to zone back into the room's debate just as young Laurie closed up her speech.
"So, I tell you, the only possible truth is black is black and white is white."
The tall brunette winked at her son when Mario threw his arms in the air, exasperated. "You win, Laurie, you got me on that one. Now, tell me who's going to win the big match on Sunday."
She watched as her son pulled Laurie away from the crowd towards her, telling the group the girl would be back another day.
"That was awesome, Mrs. Hofmeyer, just awesome. May I come again, soon?"
"It's Suzie, Laurie, and sure you can. You just make sure you ask your mom's permission. Now, come tell me all about yourself and about your mom, huh?"
"Mom, Mom, look at this." Laurie Walker came crashing into the kitchen waving a large envelope in her hand.
Her mother took the envelope from her and quickly scanned the contents. A large grin immediately creased her face as she pulled the girl into a hug and planted a kiss on her forehead.
"Oh my, my baby has been invited to take part in a public speaking contest, against adults no less. I'm so proud of you."
Although it was just her and her mom, Laurie groaned in embarrassment at her mom's words and kisses.
"Mom! Can I go to Suzie's place to practice my speaking, can I please?"
"Of course you can, you only have to put one foot in front of the other; however, whether you may is another matter altogether."
Her mother's sarcasm did not interest Laurie. "Mom!"
"Stop teasing me; may I go to Suzie's place to practice, please?"
"Well, how are you going to win a public speaking contest if you use 'can' instead of 'may'?" teased Chris, before continuing with a hint of seriousness. "And it's Mrs. Hofmeyer to you, not Suzie."
"Oh no, Mom, you're wrong. She's way younger than you, so it's cool to call her Suzie, she says so."
Chris laughed happily. As far as she knew, this Suzie Hofmeyer woman was only a few years younger than herself but who was she to argue with her daughter's assessment. At least, since she had got hooked on the whole idea of debating and public speaking, Laurie was happier, even enjoying school and her classmates.
Josh introducing her daughter to his mom had ended up being a clever move. The coffee shop owner had taken Laurie under her wing, giving her real pointers on how to direct a debate towards a winning game, and this invite was testament to Suzie's achievement on that score.
Laurie waited until her mom had stopped laughing, grabbed a piece of the carrot lying beside the chopping board, and then looking up at her mom with her best puppy-dog features; she asked once again sweetly, "So, may I?"
"Let me give Josh a call to see what's going on, and then we'll see."
Minutes later, she returned from the hallway, "Josh has a few double shifts this week, so he can't help out at the minute. He says I should call his mom directly to see if there's anything happening at Elliot's Place, so, I thought I'd just check if you'd be okay on your own. If so, and if Suzie agrees, I could possibly drop you off on my way into work Saturday, would that be doable?"
"Yeah, that'd be great, Mom. Thank you. I'll go and do my homework now, I think. Will you ask what the topic for debate is this weekend, so I can do some research later?"
Chris watched her daughter head into the den and marveled at just how much more settled she really was. She reached for the phone again and took a seat at the kitchen bar to make her call.
"Could I speak to Suzie Hofmeyer, please?"
A woman with a soft Vegas lilt answered the call; Chris could almost see the smile hidden behind the voice. In her mind's eye, she could see the brassy blonde Josh had called Grace. "Of course you can love, who can I say is calling?"
"Oh, tell her it's Christine Walker, um, Laurie's mother." She wasn't sure how much Josh and Laurie had told the coffee shop crew, but she thought that introduction was the simple truth.
Grace raised her voice and shouted to someone in the distance, "Suzie love; it's Josh's lady friend on the phone, you know young Laurie's mom, Christine Walker." Chris could hear a distant voice saying something before Grace spoke again, "She'll be right here, love."
And then there was silence until a friendly voice introduced itself as Suzie Hofmeyer.
"Oh, hey Suzie, this is Chris Walker, Laurie's mom, Josh said it would be okay for me to call you as I have a favour to ask."
"Yeah, hi, no problems. Shoot."
"Would it be okay if I dropped Laurie off at Elliot's Place this Saturday? Unfortunately, both Josh and I are working that day, and Laurie's desperate to get some public speaking practice. She's been invited to enter the 10th Annual Las Vegas Public Speaking Competition to be held next month, and, well yeah, she needs some practice."
"That's fine, Mrs. Walker; Mario's here this weekend; if it's okay with you, Laurie can spend the day helping him whip the weekend crowd into a frenzy." Hearing a quiet chuckle on the other end of the phone, Suzie quickly corrected herself, "Um, what I mean is, she can help him to control a well-behaved group in the debating room."
The older woman laughed some more. "It sounds wonderful, I'm sure Laurie will have the time of her life. And Suzie, it's Chris, please? Hopefully, we'll get the chance to meet; if I can get off in time I'll pick her up before you close, is that ok?"
"Yes, I hope so, and yes. See you this weekend then."
"Hmm, I hope so. Oh, before you go, Laurie asked me to find out what the debate topic was this weekend?"
"Oh, let me think what Mario's got planned. I think it's going to be something about 'Who should be the family breadwinner?' A contentious topic if ever I heard one."
Christine chuckled, as Suzie continued talking.
"And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a cup of tea to mash for one of my regulars. Bye for now."
Before Chris could ask what the hell 'to mash' a cup of tea meant Suzie had put the phone down. Chris gave a wry smile; she hoped the next time they got a chance to talk it could be for a slightly longer time. The woman's voice had sounded friendly, and if Laurie's endorsement was anything to go by, Suzie Hofmeyer was worth getting to know.
As always happened, in the lifestyle of working moms and busy city police departments, time was of the essence, and Chris's plan for Saturday fell through.
First, she and Laurie were running late, and she literally dropped her daughter at the coffee shop doorway, only able to watch as Laurie ran happily through the doors to be greeted by what appeared to be four or five welcoming pairs of arms. Second, she got dragged in to a massive police situation that wasn't resolved until the late evening.
Chris hated shifts like this. When she'd made the decision to follow in her husband's career path, it had been to her own addendum that Laurie's care would never suffer. Unfortunately, she sometimes let herself down; occasionally, she had to fend Laurie's care off to another.
Tonight was one of those nights. At 8.00 pm, she made the drastic decision to contact Connie to collect Laurie from Elliot's Place and take her out to her sister's home until she could eventually get off duty. Luckily, the younger lab technician had been realistic about their break-up of a couple of months before, and the two had remained close friends.
Connie was happy to help; Laurie less so when she saw who had arrived to take her home.
Later, when Chris arrived at her sister's, she was met by a sulky daughter. Saying immediate thanks and goodbyes to her sister, she settled Laurie into the car and started for home.
"So, how did your day go? Was Mario up to his usual tricks, or did you cope with his underhand tactics?" Usually, getting Laurie to talk about her speaking brought the young girl out of any moods, but not tonight, tonight she just gave monosyllabic answers.
Christine sighed; this was the only reason she ever resented the time she gave to the police department.
She tried another tack. "Did you get any chance to speak with Suzie; to learn any tips for the contest?"
At last, her daughter perked up as she regaled her mother of the lunch Suzie treated her to over at The Fremont's renowned burger bar. Making a mental bookmark to thank Suzie, she allowed herself to smile at her daughter's exuberance; however, Laurie's next words caused the smile to drop from her face.
"Why'd you send Connie to pick me up, Mom? I really don't like her."
"Oh. I just needed somebody to take you to Aunt Jo's, and Connie was nearby, so "
Laurie interrupted with an angry snarl. "You could have called Uncle Warren, or better yet, you could have just asked Suzie to drop me off."
"Laurie, Warren wasn't available, and I couldn't impose on Mrs. Hofmeyer any more than I already had "
"Because I couldn't, that's why." Another sigh crossed Chris's lips before she whispered, "I thought you liked Connie."
"Well, I don't. She's not good enough for you. Anyway, I thought you'd broken up with her."
"I have, but she's still a friend, and she helped me out. I'm sorry you weren't happy, Hon; I hate it when I have to do that to you, you know. Next time, because there will be a next time, Laurie, you do know that too, don't you?"
Seeing her daughter nod and drop her head a little in shame, she continued, "Yeah, well, next time, I'll think of something better, I promise."
For the next few minutes the Walker women sat in complete silence. At least now, it was more of a comfortable silence. Suddenly, an idea came into Chris's head, something that might appease her daughter.
"Why don't you ask the Hofmeyer's if they'll be our guests at the contest? I'd like to meet this woman that you've taken a shine to, or is it because she's Josh's mom, huh?" Chris couldn't help teasing her daughter.
"Mom, Josh is a friend; he's too old and too much into country music for me," laughing inwardly at that comment and making another mental note to tell Josh about her daughter's assessment, she almost missed Laurie's next bit of chatter. "And Suzie's so much more your type than she'll ever be mine, Mom; I just think she's cool."
Chris ignored Laurie's comment, too stunned to really comprehend her meaning, and asked again, "So, are you inviting them to the contest."
"It's already in Josh's planner, but Suzie can't make it; she's going to England for the next month."
The gentle breeze blew across Suzie's face; its warmth helping to dry the few tears that had tracked down her cheeks. She looked at the small plaque left by Louise's family in memorial to their loved one; it was a plain, simple, brass plaque, basically saying how much she was loved and missed. Suzie smiled at the etched wording; when all was said and done, that really was all that needed to be said.
"Hey Lou, it's good to be here. I finally opened that damn coffee shop, and it's going well. I called it Elliot's Place, so, whatever happens from here on out, you'll always be with me. Thank you for giving me my dream. I just wish you were here to share it."
She turned on her heel and went to sit on the wooden bench a few yards away from where her lover's ashes had been scattered. Looking out over the hills of Louise's hometown, she allowed herself to remember the good times they'd shared.
Half an hour of quiet contemplation passed in easy memories, until finally she stood and walked back to the plaque. She bent down and touched the brass plate, whispering, "I love you, Lou, and I'll always miss you, but it's time to go now. Goodbye you."
And then, her last goodbye enough, she turned and walked back to her rental car. She waved to the young man lazily leaning against its hood, and he waved back in greeting.
"Did you do what you had to do, Suzie?"
"I did. Thank you, Sam. Will you drive me back to your house now? I'd like to have that cuppa with your mom."
The nephew of Louise climbed into the driver's seat and waited until Suzie glanced back one last time, as if memorizing the view before climbing in beside him.
As he drove out onto the open road, she spoke quietly.
"It's a lovely part of the world out here. The green hills make such a change from the flatness of the Nevada deserts. It almost makes me want to come and live here." Hearing him laugh a little at her words, she added, ruefully, "Yeah, right, almost."
He smiled. "You'd be more than welcome to stay here a while longer, you know; Mum would love to bore you to death with her gossip about Aunt Lou."
Suzie laughed with the young man. "Yeah, I bet she would. Well, I'm here for another two weeks, so I'm sure she'll manage to regale me with enough stories to take back with me."
The next fifty miles passed in pleasant conversation with the young English man she'd only met a couple of times before. Like her youngest son, Simon, Sam had just started his degree course at a corresponding English university. As she listened to the stories of his exploits on the many hill-climbing sites of his country, and on his obviously very large social circle; she marveled at the similarities between his life and her sons'.
"Sam, you and my boys would get on really well. Would you consider coming over to stay with us sometime?"
"Oh, that would be great. In a couple of years, once my degree's finished, I thought I might take a year out, maybe I could come over and help in your new venture. Maybe, and I'd have to look into this, I could take my Masters study while I'm with you. What do you think?"
"I think that sounds wonderful. I think your Aunt would have liked you to consider that, too."
A quiet silence descended on the car as the two occupants both remembered the woman that had made that suggestion a real possibility.
Later, sitting outside Louise's family home, drinking not a cup of tea but a glass of home-brew instead, she chatted happily with Lou's sister, Jenny. Surprised at the warmth in the air, she muttered, "I thought September was the beginnings of your cooler weather, I think I'm wearing too many clothes."
"Ah, you Americans; Lou was just the same, she'd spend months at a time over there with you, forgetting that we had lovely balmy days like this one."
"Um, balmy? I used to hear Lou say that and just assumed it meant warm. Is that right?
"Yeah, warm and comfortable; the sort of weather you can just sit and enjoy, not too hot and not too cold."
Jenny looked at Suzie, pleased to see she looked well and relaxed, and asked, "So, tell me, Suze, how's the coffee shop going?"
Three hours later, Suzie had regaled Jenny with story after story of the shop renovation as well as the exploits of her staff choices. The day was just beginning to turn to a chill as Jenny looked at her wristwatch and the empty bottles on the patio table.
"Oh heck, Suzie, look at us. What would Lou say, huh? We've just gossiped our afternoon away, she'd have a fit that we hadn't done anything constructive." Then, reaching across the table to clasp the brunette's hand, she added in a conspiratorial whisper, "It's been great, hasn't it?"
Suzie chuckled and nodded in agreement just as her cell-phone rang. Glancing down at the display, she was surprised to see Christine Walker's name flashing back at her as it had only been recently that she'd added the number to her directory, ever since young Laurie had become something of a regular at Elliot's Place. She certainly hadn't expected the woman to call her while she was away in England.
"Is it anything important, Suze?"
Startled out of her musings by the question, she realized that she'd let the call pass her by. Sighing, she answered, "Um, I don't really know. I've gone and missed the call; remember I mentioned Josh helping a young girl in a school debate, and how he'd then introduced the young girl to our debating room? Well, the caller was her mother, and I've really no idea why she'd be calling me here. Let me check my voicemail."
After listening in to her message box and finding nothing, she continued on in a slightly more anxious voice, "There's no message. You don't think there's anything wrong with Josh, do you? I can't think why else she'd be calling me."
"Well, there's no need to worry, love, why don't you just call her back while I make us a nice bit of tea? And then, once your mind's at rest, we can continue our conversation inside where it'll be a bit warmer now."
Suzie nodded and reached for her cardigan before settling down to return the call.
"Chris? It's Suzie Hofmeyer. Did you just call me?"
"Oh hey, Suzie, you didn't have to call back from over there. I'd just promised Laurie she could give you a call; she has something important to tell you. If you could hold on for just a minute, I'll call her to the phone."
While Suzie waited for the young girl, she once again pondered the reasons she still hadn't managed to cross paths with the woman she found herself talking to once again.
"She's just coming. Are you doing okay over there? Josh mentioned why you were visiting; I hope you don't mind? Anyway, just before the dynamo gets here, let me say, if you ever want to talk, I'm a good listener, and I do know a little bit what it's like to lose a loved one. Just give "
A loud excited voice interrupted Chris's words, and she quickly said her goodbyes before handing the phone over to her daughter.
"Suzie, Suzie, I won!"
"You did? That's wonderful news. What topic did you get?"
"We had three things to do: one was to research the moon landings of 1968 and then to debate how genuine the whole thing was, two, we had to argue something 'ridiculous', so I used that black is white thing Mario tried on me, and three, we had to be in the audience of a staged debate and give our responses in real time. All those things you made me practice worked so well. I won, I won, I won."
Laurie's excited chatter passed a few happy minutes of time for Suzie, and she made a note to find some sort of appropriate gift to take back with her for the jubilant champion.
"Hey Laurie, will you bring your trophy to the coffee shop sometime? Maybe we could put it on display for a little while. It would be good PR for the debate room."
"Oh, yes please, Suzie. Um, mom says I've got to go now, that you're paying for this call, and that we'll see you when you get back."
"Yes, you will. Be careful, Laurie, and tell your mom thanks for the call."
Silence surrounded the brunette, and she enjoyed the quiet time to just sit and think about the young girl and the woman that had become a small part of her recent life despite the fact she'd never met one half of the friendly pair. She smiled; surely the day wasn't too far away.
After a lovely gentle tea of cheese and ham toasties served with a side salad - she'd forgotten that tea to Lou's family was a cooked snack eaten at the end of the day Suzie and Jenny sat down with another glass of beer each and began to chat about Suzie's transatlantic call.
"So, she's Josh's friend really?"
"Um, yes, I suppose so. Chris is a police officer colleague that seems to have taken him under her wing, and Laurie is the daughter that Josh has taken under his wing. And me, I've always had a thing for the intricacies of debating the point, and Laurie's helped me by being a willing listener."
"And Chris and you?"
"Well, would you believe me if I told you I've never met the woman, and yet, I'm starting to call her a friend. For some reason or another, our paths just keep missing. I'm sure we'll meet up eventually."
"And?" the English woman teased her friend.
Suzie looked up sharply, not sure what Jenny was getting at. When she saw the saucily raised eyebrow, she suddenly understood and reacted curtly, "And nothing. I love your sister."
"Oh Suzie, I know that, but Lou's gone now; she would be happy if you found another, you know. She used to say she was only keeping a spot warm for your real true love, some dream girl." And then, seeing tears welling in the corners of the dark brown eyes, shining with interest despite the tears, she continued gently, "She wasn't jealous, far from it. She knew you loved her, knew you loved her very much. It's just she also believed in fate, that's why you two worked so well, even though it was so long-distance, she just knew you were meant to be."
The two women shared a smile as Lou's sister continued, "And she was right; it was perfect, but destined to finish early, that was her fate. Your fate, Suzie dear, is this other woman. That's what Louise believed, and I'm sure you know that whatever Lou believed in usually came true somewhere along the line. Just look at you, Josh, and Simon now."
Suzie managed a tearful chuckle as she saw the truth in Jenny's words. Realizing she hadn't upset the brunette too much, Jenny began to tease again.
"So, come on, spill the beans. Who is this big competition to my sister's memory?"
"Don't say it like that, Jen, you know I'll never forget Louise, but, from the age of 15 or so, I've had this recurring dream whereby a beautiful blonde haired woman walks towards me with bright blue eyes I could just fall into, and in my dream, I know, she's the one."
This time it was Suzie that was encouraged by Jenny's interested gaze.
"The funny thing is, and Lou could never understand this, though I know the colour of her eyes perfectly, and though I know I would recognize those eyes in any crowd, I can't for the life of me describe her face. I'll just know it when I see it. Does that make any sort of sense?"
"No, and yes. Do you have the dream often? Have you ever thought you might have already met this woman, and now, you're just remembering something you missed?"
"I haven't had the dream now for over two years. I guess Lou satisfied me more than enough in many respects. I usually have the dream right before something important happens; like before each of my weddings, and most importantly, the day before I met Louise. And no, I'm convinced I've never met her; the first time I had the dream I was that young naive 15 year old, so no, I'm sure I'm not remembering. Louise convinced me, and you've just said the same thing, I guess, that this woman is my end, that everything I've done, everything I will do, is leading me to her."
The Walker household echoed with the sounds of happy laughter. Laurie had a few friends over for a slumber party, and their giggling was infectious; Chris couldn't help the ripple of laughter at her daughter's excited showing off. As soon as the girls had entered the house, she'd dashed off to fetch her gift from Suzie Hofmeyer.
The coffee shop owner had struggled on the ideal gift to bring her young friend on her return from the UK; eventually deciding on two things. One was a beautiful, leather-bound notebook, especially for the girl to jot down notes for her debating exploits. The second was the gift the girls were enjoying now, a collection of English TV programs lovingly recorded onto ten DVD's.
Chris had sighed playfully when Laurie had brought the gift home with her the weekend before, wondering when they'd ever find the time to sit and watch all there was to offer. In fact, she and Laurie had enjoyed a wonderful Sunday, the first they'd truly shared in ages, just watching the DVD that contained an old, judging by the clothes the contestants were wearing, British game show in which the participants had to win a number of crystals to gain time inside a pyramid of air-blown pieces of paper. Chris and Laurie had had a ball getting rather irate at the stupid antics of some of the contestants.
The blonde woman popped her head into the girls' room and asked if they wanted anything else to eat or drink before she left them to watch groups of British youngsters attempt something similar to their older counterparts. Receiving a chorus of no, she bid the girls goodnight, and then, since she'd allowed the party to happen on a school night, made them promise to turn in at a sensible hour. Chris then left to enjoy the DVD that Suzie had slipped in especially for the older woman's viewing pleasure.
Picking up the DVD, she read the short note, 'Thank you for allowing Laurie to call me in England, it truly meant a lot to me. I hope you enjoy this slice of English suburbia and that we get a chance to meet in person very soon'. Christine settled back and, surprisingly, enjoyed the first episode of the English drama featuring two female detectives solving crime in suburban England. She surmised the program was written more along an American style of police enforcement, but the lovely, gentle, verbal interaction between the two leading ladies was an absolute delight.
Moments into the second episode, Chris's enjoyment was interrupted by a ringing phone. Pressing the pause button, she reached over to her nightstand to grab the phone.
A voice she had begun to recognize spoke as soon as she picked up. "Hey Chris, it's Suzie Hofmeyer, I was wondering if you'd had a chance to watch any of those DVDs I brought back with me?"
Surprised at the uncanny timing of the phone call, Chris answered happily, "Yeah, I've just watched the first episode of 'Murder in Suburbia,' and I kinda liked it. In fact, I was just getting ready to watch the second episode before I checked on the girls."
"Girls? I thought Laurie was an only child?"
Chris laughed. "She is; she has some friends over watching your DVDs, too. Oh, did I thank you for that gorgeous notebook? Laurie loves it, and I'll make sure she treasures it as she should."
"No need for thanks, it was a pleasure. I've had a blast using all my old debating skills again. I missed it, you know?"
An hour later, spent just chatting with the other woman about nothing important, Chris realized the girls had gone very quiet.
"Hey Suzie, I'm going to have to take my leave; I really need to go and check on the girls, it's a school day tomorrow and they need their sleep, and I really need to watch episode two of this riveting drama."
Suzie laughed and bid her farewells, promising that they would get together as soon as possible.
Chris walked down the hallway with a smile on her face and looked into her daughter's bedroom. Surprisingly, the girls had all fallen asleep where they lay, the television still buzzing in the background. The blonde crossed the room, switched off the TV and threw a cover over the girls before leaving to make herself a mug of hot chocolate.
Back in her bed, once more watching her DVD, she finally allowed herself to consider the friendship that was developing between herself and Suzie Hofmeyer. She couldn't comprehend the easy connection they appeared to have, even though, at this point in time, they still hadn't managed to cross paths with each other. Whenever Chris had ventured into Elliot's Place, Suzie had been away at some business meeting or other, and every time Suzie had invited her back to the shop, Chris's work had poked its nose in where it wasn't wanted.
She really wasn't used to communicating so easily with a stranger. It usually took many get-togethers for the independent woman to let her guard down with another, and yet, here she was discussing openly her life since losing Tom and offering her complete understanding of Suzie's anguish.
The hard part to understand was that she did understand it. She didn't know why, but she could just feel Suzie's emotional turmoil, and after the phone call tonight, Chris could also feel that Suzie had turned a corner.
If the truth were known, the feeling of connection scared her silly.
The police woman didn't need any more complications in her life; she had enough with bringing her daughter up and with making her profession of choice work for her, so she made a decision. Tomorrow, she would meet Suzie, realize they were just well matched contemporaries, and enjoy the friendship that was developing with no worries about explaining the connection.
After dropping the girls off at school, Chris strode into the coffee shop only to be thwarted once more by Suzie's absence at the Vegas coffee trade market.
It was no surprise, however, when moments after walking back through her own front door, her cell-phone rang and the display showed 'S. Hofmeyer'. There was that frightening connection again.
She picked up the phone and covered up her anxieties by teasing the other woman. "Hey Suzie, I've just been to your place, and once again, we miss each other. What is it with you, huh? You don't want to meet me, is that it?"
"Oh, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, that's why I'm ringing "
Before Suzie could indeed explain why she was calling, Chris interrupted with a teasing, "Dr-i-ing, dr-i-ing, my bell's ringing, you managed it," and couldn't hold back the laughter that seemed to happen regularly when she spoke with Suzie.
Suzie replied in a sarcastic tone, "Hardeharhar," but she too couldn't hold back the laughter.
"Oh, I'm sorry, it's just we American's say calling, you know? What's with the ringing?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know that. That's another nasty habit, Louise left us all with; not only do we adore bacon and eggs for out breakfast but we don't use the right words."
"Hmm, I'm sure she left you with more than that. I like it. It's almost as if 'we' have this extra language. Oh, I know you probably use it all the time but none of my other friends do, and so it feels like it's special to you and me. Does that make sense?"
Chris cringed at her words; there was that connection again, her words just coming out without thought.
Suzie laughed delightedly. "I like that, friends with benefits, huh? A whole new language, smashing," she continued to tease.
"So, Chris, friends, that leads me nicely to the real reason I called you. I wondered if you'd like to go see Neil Diamond with me on Saturday night. I've just been given two complementary tickets and would be honoured if you'd be my guest."
Shocked at the sudden invite and desperate to say yes, but not understanding that desperation, Chris panicked and gave the answer she didn't really want to give. "Oh, Suzie, I'm so sorry, but I'm going to have to say no. Saturday is my only night off, and I have a date. Can I take a rain check?"
Stunned at the words she'd just uttered, especially since she didn't have a date at all that night, Chris nearly missed Suzie's stuttered response.
"Oh, um, yes, of course you can. No worries, I'm sure we'll find time to meet up soon. Um, will Laurie be coming to the shop this weekend?"
"Yeah, I'm dropping her off, and then Jo's picking her up to keep her overnight."
"Oh, okay, I'll leave you in peace then."
Confusion warring with her need, Chris hesitated. Wanting to deny the connection, and yet, wanting to hear more of Suzie's gentle voice, she called out. "No, don't go just yet; I was hoping you'd explain what you meant when you said something about going to mash a cup of tea."
Long moments later, after another bout of easy banter back and forth, Suzie finally said her goodbyes. Chris slumped down in her chair, dropped her head in her hands and wondered why she'd just blown the other woman off.
Reaching for the phone, Chris dialed the only person she trusted enough to ask.
"Warren, I'm scared. What the hell should I do?"
"Um, what are you talking about Chris? I can't help if I don't know what you're talking about."
"This thing with Suzie Hofmeyer, she just asked me out, and I said no. What's wrong with me?"
Warren didn't need any further clarification than that. Whenever he met up with the Walker family these days, every other sentence involved the name Suzie, whether it was Laurie or Chris talking. He'd almost seen the phone call coming. Having known Chris since her early 20's, he knew how much she liked to be in control of her own destiny, and any deviation from her chosen path threw her into a mental panic.
It had taken years for Chris to regain her equilibrium after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, and any unexplained attraction that she couldn't control would obviously knock Chris for a loop. He didn't need her words to tell him that was the problem.
He grinned, and hoped above anything else that this Hofmeyer woman was as stubborn as Laurie had indicated. Chris would need time, and hopefully, Suzie had that time.
"Being scared is one thing, but not doing something you want to do because of it, is not the Christine Walker I know and love."
"Yeah, yeah, I know that. So, what do I do?"
"Chris, the only person that can answer that is you. If you truly feel this connection, then only you can let it pull you in."
Minutes later, after promising to get together later in the week, Chris hung up the phone and smiled. Warren had never been big on long conversations, not like the coffee shop owner appeared to be anyway.
"All I have to do is let her pull me in. Yeah, that's so easy. . . not."
Checking the time on her watch and seeing that she still had half an hour before the masses descended upon her, Suzie Hofmeyer looked around, smiling at the appearance of her very own business premises. Even now, six months later, she still preened at the beauty of Elliot's Place and its budding success. Just recently, they'd had their first five-star rating in the Las Vegas Tribune.
As well as a business she could be proud of, her two sons, too, were making a go of their chosen paths. Simon had passed his midterms with flying colours, and Josh had been offered a small promotion already. His friendship with Officer Christine Walker had certainly proved to be his springboard to success.
Thinking of Chris brought Suzie's mind to the friendship they had growing, for now denoted only by many long flowing conversations over a telephone line. She pondered their last shared call, almost able to recite it verbatim. She didn't stop to wonder why her memory of contact with Chris was so intense, she just enjoyed it. In her mind's eyes, she could vividly hear her own voice as she complimented Chris on her ability to successfully juggle her job with her family obligations.
"Robert was a fireman at the time when we needed money desperately, so you don't have to tell me about the horrors of working shifts. I lived them for six long years, right through the boys' baby years. Damn it was hard work, but now, looking back, I know it wasn't easy for Robert either. In fact, knowing all that means I just don't know how you do it. Laurie's more than happy with her lot, and yet, you ask no favours of the force, amazing."
"Don't be silly, it's the career I've chosen, and I know in the end, some of the decision was made easy because I wanted to give Laurie a parent to look up to, but I can't deny I love my job, too. It's just "
"I can see you love your job, and if I haven't said thank you for taking Josh under your wing, I'm saying it now. Thank you."
"Suzie, he's a great guy; I can see the same passion for law enforcement I used to see in Tom's eyes, and that passion needs encouragement, you know. I bet your other son has that same passion for something else, I'm betting they get it from you, yes?"
"Actually, the passion probably comes from their dad, but yes, Simon has it in spades, mostly for the girls and for the booze."
The two women had laughed as Chris protested, "You don't really mean that, I'm sure."
"Oh, I do, just wait until you meet Simon; you'll see exactly what I mean."
"Hmm, I'll look forward to that."
Something in Chris's words had hit a chord, something related to Chris's refusal of a night out together a few weeks previously, and yet, her words intimated she wanted to meet Suzie, or at least her family. Maybe it was just her she didn't want to see.
"Suzie, are you still there?"
Not wanting to admit her thoughts, she'd told a little white lie. "Huh? Yeah, sorry, I was lost in my memories, something you just said reminded me so much of Louise."
"You miss her?"
"Yes, I do, but not as much as I did; I think you know the reason for that."
Chris's silence scared Suzie, she wondered if she'd once again pushed too hard, but no, this time Chris responded with her deft sarcasm. "You mean my daughter's got you wrapped around her little finger, don't you? With how much of your time she takes, I bet you don't have time to miss much of anything."
Smiling at Chris's words, Suzie was surprised when Chris continued in her cryptic vein. "Let's just say, the situation is paralleled on this end of the telephone line."
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Suzie hoped she hadn't been reading too much into Chris's words, especially when in the next few breaths, she'd once again turned down a chance to meet. Suzie grinned in remembrance of that part of the conversation; she'd enjoyed Chris's discomfort immensely.
"So, I'm having a big Thanksgiving get-together at Elliot's Place, all the crew will be there with their families, both the boys and their dad are coming over, a few of Louise's old colleagues might pop in, and ,of course, I'll be there. It's a pot-luck party, we're forgoing the traditional turkey this year, to be replaced by Lou's specialty, Turkey Curry. Are you and Laurie going to be able to join us?"
"Oh, Suzie, this time I really can't make it."
"You mean the last time you really could have?"
"Um, well, you know, I "
"Hmm, now I know what you think of me, huh?"
"Suzie! I'm off to Colorado for a week's vacation; my mom and dad are still over there, and we always have a family gathering on Thanksgiving. Trust me, this time, if I could, I would be there. Really, I would."
"Yeah, yeah, never mind there's always Christmas."
Suzie bit her lip, although this was another example of their lengthy, comfort zone chats, it really did feel as if they were never going to meet face-to-face. Recently, Suzie had just decided to go with the flow, to just enjoy the long-distance friendship. It was, after all, something she was an expert at, and although the distance across Las Vegas was many times less than the distance between London and Las Vegas, the friendship she was feeling for this woman held the same promise as her friendship with Louise once had. If Chris wasn't ready to meet, then that was her choice and, while ever these easy conversational interludes gave Suzie pleasure, she could wait for more.
Suddenly, the voices of her first visitors brought her back to the here and now. Her quiet time was temporarily over.
Josh and Simon both wandered through the open doorway, dragging their father behind them. Suzie smiled; she hadn't seen Robert for a few years now, but he looked well as he walked towards her.
Pulling her into a warm hug, he said, "Hey Suzie, long time no see; I'm so sorry about Louise. She was good for you."
"Thanks Robert. It's good to see you, too, you look well, very well. What's going on with you?"
Robert grinned, amazed at just how well Suzie could still read him. They all laughed to see a blush cross his face. "Well, I've got myself a girlfriend at last. I think you'll all like her, maybe we can get together soon, and I'll introduce you all."
"That sounds great. We'll do that, won't we boys?"
Josh and Simon both nodded their heads in agreement and patted their dad on the back, laughing happily.
The party was in full swing as Suzie took another five minutes to survey her manor. She smiled once more at thinking something Lou would have said. It amazed her how just lately her thoughts of Lou had been full of real pleasure rather than the sad pleasure of a few months back. She realized that her trip to England had been more cathartic than she'd expected.
She made a mental note to thank Hannah for her role in that vacation, and she watched as the girl in question cuddled up to her boyfriend, Jim, while Candida's firefighter husband played the ukulele as his three children sang along gleefully.
Lou's turkey curry had been a huge success, and her sister's home brew was even more popular. Suzie laughed at the antics of her two computer geeks, seemingly oblivious to their families as they argued like cat and dog about whose program for battleships gave the best explosion on a hit.
Thank goodness that was all they had to argue about these days.
Forcing herself to rise from the comfy sofa, Suzie dragged Robert over to meet Candida's husband, and then left the fellow firefighters chatting while she spent a few minutes with each of her staff, making sure she gave the special thanks that this day deserved for all their help in making her business a stunning success.
As she walked over to the Espresso, she noticed that her head was beginning to swim just a little. The English beer was stronger than she'd first thought, and judging by some of the raucous enjoyment around her, she wasn't the only one suffering from its effects.
She saw Robert and Josh talking in the corner, and deciding to rest her feet, she began to make her way towards them. It really was a good thing they didn't have to open the shop tomorrow as she wasn't convinced anybody would be in a fit state. And yet, they'd all agreed to reopen over the weekend. It was obvious they all loved their job. She and Gerald had chosen well.
Suzie sighed, that had been the only down side of the past six months, Gerald had wanted more from Suzie than she could give and hadn't been willing to be just a friend. Now, as she once more thought of the friendship with Chris, she knew she'd got the better end of the deal.
Reaching the men, she overheard the last few lines of their conversation and held back a little rather than interrupting.
"Well Dad, I've just got this new role in the department, and it's a kind of promotion, at least for part of my week. I've been assigned 15 hours a week to work with the juvenile criminals of Vegas. It's a chance to use my youth to my advantage. Chris heard about the post and offered to be my sponsor, and then she got one of her most senior partners to second me. She thinks I've got the gift of the gab and should do great."
"I'm sure you will, son, I'm sure you will."
As Robert got to the end of his sentence, Suzie put her hand on Josh's shoulder and smiled over at her ex-husband. Together, they shared a proud smile as Suzie took the seat next to her son.
"So, Josh, did I hear you say Chris thinks you've got the gift of the gab? Well, that daughter of hers could give anybody a run for their money in the gabbing department, just ask Mario over there."
All three turned to watch Mario holding court, watched lovingly by his boyfriend, Mark, and by his new protector, Grace.
Turning back to give each other the attention they deserved, Josh asked his mom, "Are you picking Laurie up from school next Thursday or am I?"
"Um, I think Chris said Laurie was expecting you this time, is that okay?"
"Well, if you can do it, it would help me; I was going to take Mags to the new Climbing Zone that's opened up in the Bellagio."
They all looked over towards the young redhead chatting animatedly with Simon. Maggie had been a recent addition to Suzie's staff, another student who was happy to take more of a backseat job. She was majoring in food sciences and had agreed to experiment with the introduction of Danish Pastries to the coffee shop's lunch time menu.
If it worked, Suzie could see it becoming more of an all-day treat.
"Oh, you were, were you? Does Chris know you're blowing young Laurie off for another woman?"
"Mom! It was Chris's suggestion that I made a move before anybody else did."
Mother and father both laughed at their son's indignation, although Suzie couldn't help thinking how odd it was that Chris had managed to meet almost everybody else of importance in the coffee shop except for her; it was almost as if their fate was meant to be this. She ignored the chill the thought brought her and, instead, tuned in to the question Robert was starting to ask.
"All I hear these days is Chris this and Chris that from both of you. Tell me, who is this Chris?"
They both started to answer at once, and Josh immediately cried out, "Jinx," smiling as he proceeded to punch his mother in the arm. They both laughed out loud at their antics.
Robert just looked bemused; he remembered Lou once sharing her homebrew with him, way back when she was trying to convince him she would be careful with his boys. At the time, he wasn't sure that getting him tipsy had been the way to do it, but she'd won him over in the end and, watching Josh with his mom, he knew he'd made the right decision to trust her.
He smiled at Suzie's words, ready to hear who this marvelous Chris was. "You go first, Josh"
"She's a woman I work with"
Robert turned to Suzie to hear her answer and grinned as her words were more than a little slurred.
"She's a woman I've never met."
The smell of citrus fruits hung heavy in the air as Laurie wandered down into the kitchen to see one of her mom's pots of tea brewing on the breakfast bar. She smiled to herself as she thought of the two gifts she had brought home from the coffee shop the weekend before. One for her, an advent calendar with a piece of chocolate behind each of 24 doors counting down to Christmas Eve; Suzie had told her that she'd especially picked it up from the Cadbury's chocolate factory during her stay in England. And one for her mother, a hand-made advent calendar of 24 small pockets, inside each one a different type of Suzie's passion, tea.
For the last 10 days, both Laurie and Chris had spent a happy few minutes each morning learning about the tea of the day; Chris, while partaking of the flavour, and Laurie, while chomping on her chocolate.
Her mom came into the kitchen from the direction of the laundry room where Laurie could hear the washer beginning to spin.
"So, mom, what's today's special?"
Chris kissed her daughter on the cheek and directed her to sit down at the table.
"Um, let's see ," she picked up the neatly handwritten card from pocket 10 and began to read, "Laurie tells me that today is one of your 12 hour shifts, so I give you Twinings' Pink Grapefruit, Mandarin & Lime flavoured tea, a light, bright, and refreshing citrus taste of the Mediterranean that really perks you up in the morning. Maybe it will give you a good start to the day."
Sipping the hot tea, Chris smiled towards her daughter.
"Yeah, it has a nice zing to it, though I don't think anything can prepare me for these sorts of days."
"So, I'm going to spend the morning at the debating room, and then I'm going with Josh and Mags to the climbing zone at the Bellagio."
Chris walked over towards Laurie and smoothed the back of her hair. "Yeah, just be careful, huh? You do everything Mags tells you to do, and you stick to their side like glue, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, mom, don't worry. I'll be fine."
"I know you will, just be good."
After another few minutes of collecting her stuff together, Laurie hugged her mom and started for the door. Suddenly, remembering something, she turned back to say, "Are you going to be able to pick me up at Josh's later today or is Aunt Jo coming?"
"Um, the plan is that I'll give Josh a call if I'm tied up with something, and he'll drop you at Aunt Jo's. I'll come and get you as soon as I can, I promise."
Remembering their angry chat of a couple of months before, Laurie nodded. "I know you will, mom. Love you."
And with one more kiss she was gone.
Chris sighed but allowed a grin to crease her face; they grew up so fast these days, one day a child, another day a young woman, and her daughter was coming along just nicely.
Taking a gulp of her tea, she checked her watch; she had another ten minutes before she had to leave. She put her feet up and closed her eyes in contentment, allowing herself to ponder the unusual Christmas gift from Suzie.
She opened her eyes to look across the kitchen to where the calendar was hanging on the wall, 24 pockets of tea, each with a note attached to the packet; Suzie must have spent ages getting this ready for her friend. A friend, she guessed she was ready to meet, and yet, a friend, who just seemed to keep walking a different path.
Like the weekend before, once again, they'd made plans for Chris to pick up Laurie from the coffee shop, even set the time so that Suzie could ensure she was in attendance and, once again, her law enforcement career had gotten in the way. This time, it had been Suzie's son of all people that had been the problem. He'd got himself stuck in a high-rise building with a young potential suicide case, and the only person the girl had been willing to talk with had been Chris, the police officer that had helped the young girl find a job a few weeks before.
Day's later, when they'd shared another of their long, cozy telephone calls, the two women had wondered whether Josh had deliberately stopped the two women from meeting.
"I take it that your son has a plan to stop us meeting up?"
"Oh yeah, he's got his eyes set on your daughter, and the only way he can win her hand is by stopping the two evil mothers from contacting each other."
"Yeah, that sounds about right, though Laurie has this theory that he's too much into country music for her tastes, and I'm sure she's told him in not so many words that he'd be better off listening to Wheetus than to good old Shania. I guess the real problem is that he doesn't want my influence on his mother, probably thinks I'll turn you against his music too." Chris answered with a laugh.
Suzie slipped in to 'Louise speak,' unsure whether Chris was serious or truly joking, "Don't be daft woman, Josh is the one that keeps me informed of your shift pattern; he's determined we'll have that cuppa soon."
"Oh, he is, is he? Well, I've got myself at least 20 odd cups of tea here so I'll be fine, thank you very much."
Suzie laughed. "Yeah, but a true cup of tea is best shared while gossiping with a friend. You do know that, huh?"
"Yeah, yeah, you put it on December first's card along with that expert's guide to mashing a cup of tea. Let me see if I remember it right?"
Suzie waited to see if her friend had indeed taken on board any of the supposed intricacies of tea drinking.
"The water for black teas should be boiling, and the teapot should have been previously warmed. The tea should not be allowed to steep for less than 30 seconds or more than about five minutes, and that's what you mean by mashing, a Yorkshire term, I believe." Chris paused a moment before adding quietly, "Is that where Louise came from?"
"Originally, yeah, more recently London and, I guess, here."
Suzie answered in her normal tone, pleasing Chris, who could tell from that simple fact that Suzie was beginning to live again.
"Hmm, so after the tea is mashed, it should be strained and served, with or without milk, depending on taste. And, let me tell you, the English breakfast tea you sent me with that first card, when brewed exactly to your specifications, was the best cup of tea I'd ever tasted. At this rate, before December's out, I'll be an expert on tea."
"We'll see, we'll see. So, Mrs. Expert, did you have a mif or a tif?"
Suzie laughed out loud. "Milk in first or tea in first, it makes a massive difference, you know."
"I bet it does. Well, next time, you can make the tea for me and show me just how."
"Yeah, I'd like that."
This time, they'd made no plans; it wasn't worth it.
Suddenly, Chris jumped, her thoughts causing her to run a few minutes late. Allowing herself one more laugh at their interactions, she made her way into Police Headquarters and her busy day ahead.
For Chris, it ended up being one of the days she hated.
Not long after walking out on to the streets of a sunny Vegas, the call had come though of a disturbance at the local bowling alley. One man with a grudge to bear against the youth of the city had decided to hold the whole building hostage, and, it being a Sunday, the bowling alley was full of young families enjoying a day together.
Five hours later, she had ten dead, and a score of people to interview. Five more hours later, she had a blinding headache, had called Laurie to apologize once again, and was only now beginning to feel the atrocities of this sort of day in Vegas.
Of the ten dead, eight were under 20 years of age, three families had lost more than one child, and two children were each without a parent. And the killer, the man who had taken it upon himself to spray machine gun fire around the crowded building because of some stupid vendetta, was sitting in a cozy police cell as alive as the day he was born.
Finally, walking out of the building, she sighed; the next few days would be hell for her squad and the attached CSI officers; for without concrete evidence, they wouldn't get the deserved sentence for this one sick bastard of a man.
Her head pounded as she thought of the death sentence; normally, she was against such extreme measures but, after witnessing scenes like today, she sometimes thought she would gladly administer the lethal injection herself.
Chris turned away from the parking lot; tonight, she needed to walk, tonight, she needed to breathe.
As she walked, she suddenly had an idea for Laurie and Josh's next debating venture at the school. Their successful debate of June had led to an invitation to host another debate in February of the next year. She was sure her daughter and her young colleague could give the death penalty a decent debating platform.
Lost in her thoughts, she realized her feet had drawn her towards Elliot's Place. She glanced down at her wristwatch to see it was gone 9.00 pm, long past closing time, and, yet, from this far away, it appeared there was a light in the shop window.
Christine made a decision; tonight, she needed the comfort of a friend, she needed the chance to talk some things out, and maybe Suzie would be there, ready to share that long talked about cup of tea, or better yet, a strong cup of coffee and some chat.
She walked on; finally ready to meet the woman.
In the shop, for some reason, Suzie had decided to fill all the jars of coffee afresh. As she'd waved her staff farewell at the end of their working day, she'd pondered going straight home to watch something boring and mind-numbing on the television, but something had made her wary of leaving the building, and more disturbing than the feeling she should stay right where she was, was the undisputable belief that she should leave the door unlocked..
Glancing at the large wall clock, she saw it was gone 9.00 pm and really too late to still be here on a Sunday and yet there was still no doubt in her mind that she should be. She smiled at how her life had changed so much in the 12 months of 2006. Her sons were both settled and doing well, her business was blooming, she'd developed new friendships and, more than anything, she'd finally accepted that Lou was gone and that she was ready to get on with her life in the New Year.
For 30 odd years, she'd truly believed that somewhere there was a blonde blue-eyed lover just waiting for her. A beautiful blonde, who's smiling, yet featureless face, haunted the wonderful dreams she'd been missing for so long now. She chuckled out loud at the irony; for the last two nights, she had dreamt her dream again, maybe her subconscious really was telling her that the time was now.
Lost in memory of the vivid blue eyes that held an enchanting twinkle at the blonde's smile, she knocked one of the large jars off the top shelf. Surprised, she managed to catch the glass jar, but was unable to stop the lid careening off into the corner and the coffee spilling out over her hair and her clothing.
Spluttering at the taste of coffee grounds in her mouth, she was shocked to hear the shop door open. Blushing at her predicament, she spun around to see who was calling at this time of night, only to be greeted by that smile and those blue eyes.
Christine Walker entered the shop and immediately locked eyes with the woman covered from head to toe in coffee. She grinned broadly at her friend's state; this was Suzie.
Stunned, Susie could only watch as the blonde, with a look of recognition crossing her beautiful features, walked gracefully towards her. At the last moment, Chris reached out to gently wipe a smudge of coffee from Susie's cheek and whispered, "We meet at last."
The only words Suzie could get out spoke volumes.
"Yeah, we do."
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