DISCLAIMER: I do not own the copyright to either Major Crimes or The Closer and I seek no profit from this story. It is meant for entertainment purposes only.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I write femslash. There are romantic, loving scenes between two women contained in this story but I would not categorize it as erotica. I fade to black rather than describe graphic sexual content, which is a departure from my writing history. I consider it to be PG-13-ish.
STYLE NOTES: 1) This story is written in first person from Sharon Raydor's point of view. The last section is intentionally told in first person, present tense. 2) I have chosen to drop the terminal 'g' in Brenda Leigh Johnson's dialogue to indicate her Georgia accent. Anything written by the character remains unchanged. 3) I do a hell of a lot of research for stories in a known location. Restaurant names, street names, other locations are all chosen based on that research. If you've been to any of the places named in this story and my descriptions are different from your memories, blame their websites. ;) 4) I wrote this story after we'd been introduced to the character of Rick on Major Crimes but before they introduced Emily. My Emily is somewhat different than the portrayal of Emily on the show. You'll have to reconcile yourself to the differences. I like mine better. ;)
OBJECTIONABLE CONTENT: 1) Major Character Death (Fritz Howard). Since it happens in the first line of the story, telling you here is not really a spoiler. As I explained to my mother, the writers of Major Crimes gave me the doorway. I just walked through it. 2) Squick/Trigger Alert (Home Invasion/Blood/Murder of Children/Violence/Hate Crimes). A case investigated by Sharon's team becomes a secondary plot point and certain violent crimes are alluded to or described outright. Mentions of blood and descriptions of the aftermath of brutal murders appear in this story.
DEDICATION: To my beautiful and amazing wife, Lisa Countryman (a name some of you might recognize). I realize several stories I have written through the years have been love letters to my wife. Queen of Hearts, Star Trek: Voyager, B'Elanna/Seven and Wake Up Call, NCIS, Abby/Ziva are two of those. This is another. I am the luckiest woman alive to have such a wonderful, intelligent, talented, and beloved woman as my wife and I know it. Now all of you do, too.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To limegreenbeez[at]gmail.com

Old Married Ladies
By DiNovia

 

In the end, Fritz Howard's large generous heart just...gave out.

Brenda, who was neck deep in the political mire of Washington DC at the time, simply walked away from it all and returned to LA, all the threads of her life ending here for some reason. 

Their marriage was supposed to have endured a six month long-distance trial—Brenda orienting to her new position in DC, Fritz stabilizing the SOB office here—after which they'd assess the situation and decide what the next six months would bring.  No one expected anything other than a thriving marriage peopled by two driven professionals.  For Fritz to die within the first three months...

It was a blow to all of us.  Fritz represented continuity to my team—a solid connection to their creation and foundation under Brenda Leigh Johnson and Will Pope, a sense of things coming full circle after their first two years with me at the helm.  David Gabriel and Philip Stroh, the destructive forces that had nearly brought Major Crimes to its knees, were gone.  Rusty Beck, the material witness under my care, had survived an assassination attempt and had successfully testified against Stroh, helping to put the serial rapist and murderer away for five consecutive life sentences. 

When Fritz joined the LA Special Operations Bureau, we were all moving on, putting the past behind us and forging new, stronger bonds.  His acceptance of the appointment told us all it was meant to be.  God was smiling on our endeavors.  He was the right person at the right time. 

Then, in the blink of an eye, it was over. 

Brenda at the funeral was as broken a human being as I have ever seen.  Grief made her skin sallow and robbed her hair of its sun-gold depths. She had pulled her untamable dishwater mane into a severe braid and that told me all I needed to know. She was bereft, despairing.  Her hands, usually a pair of frenetic birds fluttering in expressive motion around her, were utterly still.  Her eyes, usually bright with intelligence and cunning, were shuttered.

My team and I wore our dress uniforms.  Rusty, by then my son both legally and in my heart, looked too small in his new black suit, his shoulders rounded in grief and confusion.  We all went through the motions, Brenda included, crying on each other's' shoulders and promising to do "whatever Brenda needs."

We all expected her to pack up Fritz's cat, Joel, and his few belongings from the apartment he'd rented short-term and retreat back to DC—or possibly to Atlanta to begin the long healing process in the cradle of her family's presence.  She did neither. 

She found a small house like the one she'd rented when she'd first become Deputy Chief Johnson of the LAPD and reinstated herself as a resident of Los Angeles County, wandering through her tear-stained days like a ghost.  None of us had the slightest idea what to do for her.

It was Julio who suggested a rotating schedule of visitors.  One or two of us would bring dinner to her house once a week, make sure she was eating, listen to her talk...

I went alone the first time.  I'd been warned by Lieutenant Provenza that the house was bare and colorless; that Brenda was as thin as a rail and apparently surviving on a toxic diet of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, toast, and cheap white wine; that not even Joel ever received more than a wan smile from her. 

Uncertain what would be best to bring, I cooked three different entrees and baked homemade bread, using the time in my kitchen as a form of both meditation and courage-building. 

Brenda and I had never been close.  For a long time, we had not managed much more than civility strained to its edges—an overfilled party balloon ready to explode at the slightest provocation.  I am now aware there was at least one betting pool regarding the date and time when one of us would snap and physically assault the other.  I had no idea what to expect when I arrived bearing veal parmesan and homemade bread, but I did not think a return to our awkward, carefully-worded civility was outside the realm of possibility.  It turned out to be so much more. 

Lieutenant Provenza was right; the house was spartan and Brenda was barely holding on.  Crumpled Kleenex littered every surface, along with dirty dishes and piles of unread mail.  Two plants did a fair approximation of desert-wanderers in search of an oasis on her dining room table and Joel's litter box definitely needed attention.  After the strained pleasantries were out of the way—grief subdued Brenda's usual southern twang significantly—and I had her settled at the table, eating a proper meal, I rolled up my sleeves and did what all O'Dwyer women did best: I cleaned.  I continued to claim the name Raydor—I was still married to Jack after all—but my people were New York Irish Catholic O'Dwyers and we all knew how to scrub a floor on our hands and knees.

Brenda protested at first, embarrassed, not wanting to be a burden.  When she realized I could not be persuaded to take off the yellow rubber gloves or to put the sponge back, she quietly went back to her dinner.  When I finally finished, hours later, she sat at the dining room table with Joel asleep in her lap, her dinner plate empty.  I couldn't hide my smile as I retrieved the dishes and took them to the sink.

"That was the best veal parmesan I think I've ever had, Sharon.  What restaurant did you get it from?"

"I didn't. I made it, actually," I said, sponging away remnants of sauce before dropping the plate in the dishwasher.  I had my back turned to her so I didn't see her reaction to my answer.  She tells me now her jaw dropped to the floor. 

"You—you made that?  In your kitchen?  By yourself?"

Brenda was not then and never has been what you'd call "a good cook."  She stored take-out menus in her refrigerator next to the wine.

When I turned around with a smart answer for her perched on my lips, she added, "For me?"  The plaintiveness of the question stopped me in my tracks. 

Tears welled up in her eyes and she turned away, embarrassed again.  She tried to distract herself from her own grief with self-deprecation and mopped at her tears with the sleeve of her over-sized Henley. Or was it one of Fritz's?

"Oh, here I go again!  I'm just—just useless right now.  I'm sorry."

I took the few steps that would bring me to her side and kneeled next to her, every fiber of my being vibrating with the same maternal energy that had drawn me to Rusty when he first became my responsibility. Her grief was palpable and heartbreaking.

"Don't apologize, Brenda," I said to her, covering her hand on the table with my own. "Of course I made it for you." I smiled a little with my own self-deprecation. "In fact, I made three different entrees. There's lamb stew and a chicken-mushroom casserole in my freezer at home. I was going to bring one of them next week."

Brenda turned her tear-stained face to me. "Home-made lamb stew? What on Earth?"

I shrugged and felt my cheeks go pink with my own embarrassment. "I couldn't decide what to make so I made it all."

She laughed. Just for one moment, just a clap of brightness in an otherwise bleak landscape, but it was real and alive and it loosened the band of awkwardness and concern around my chest just enough that I felt we both could breathe again.

Feeling the storm had passed for the moment, I stood. "Let me make us some tea," I said, moving back to her kitchen. It was a small house, just enough for her and Joel, but it seemed larger now.

"Oh, Sharon, you've done enough! I can't keep you here all day. I'm sure you have better things to do than babysit a weepin' widow…"

I plastered a smile across my face and turned back to Brenda from the stove. "I honestly have nothing to do today. Rusty is out with friends and we don't have a case at the moment. It's a rare lazy Sunday for me."

We had our tea in the living room, seated across from each other on uncomfortable couches, engaging in uneasy small talk about work or about Rusty until I could tell I'd worn out my welcome. But I returned the next Sunday (with the lamb stew) and each Sunday following that provided my team didn't have an active case.

Sometimes Rusty came with me, doing his best to be polite, but quickly tiring of the emotional landmines buried in grief and healing. He spent much of his visits on Brenda's couch with his smartphone or tablet, ignoring our conversations around the dining room table with stubborn earnestness.

It was on one of his visits Brenda leaned across the table to put her hand on my arm and said, "You're a good friend, Sharon, and I don't know how to thank you for everythin' you've done for me these last few weeks."

By then we had developed a routine. I would arrive with lunch at noon, we'd share the food and light conversation until we were finished, then I would do the dishes and whatever straightening up needing to be done. Afterward, I'd make tea and we would retire to the uncomfortable couches for more serious discussions—unless Rusty had come along as he had that day.

I covered Brenda's hand with my own and smiled. "I'm so glad you think of me as a friend now, Brenda. I've been hoping we would be able to move past the contention of our previous relationship."

We hadn't yet discussed becoming friends or our often-heated professional interactions before she left for Washington, DC. I was actually relieved she'd broached the topic first.

"Oh, we have! I promise, I don't even think of those times anymore," she said, squeezing my arm a little. "You've been so good to me since…since Fritzy died and it's different with you than with the guys. Oh, they try—they do! But it's just…it's just not the same as talkin' to a woman." She chuckled a little ruefully. "I mean, you should see the look on Tao's face when he's here. I think he expects me to burst into tears every five seconds!"

I laughed. "I expect Lieutenants Provenza and Flynn are no better."

"No, they're not," she agreed. "Imagine—some of the best minds in criminal justice brought to their knees by one tiny widow! They fall all over themselves to do and say the right thing and they look scared half to death while they're here. Only Julio—dear Julio—will hold my hand when I cry." She looked up at me, her eyes bright with emotion. "And you, of course."

"Julio comes from a long line of strong Latina mothers and aunties. He has probably navigated a few emotional tidal waves in his time." I ignored her reference to me. Of course I held her hand when she cried. What else could I do?

Brenda pulled her hand away and sat back in her chair. "I expect he has," she said noncommittally, but her eyes never left mine.

Three months became six and then nine, all in a blur. Brenda wasn't working and—financially speaking—she didn't have to for some time, but I could tell she was beginning to get bored. She asked more and more questions about our open cases, asked how our new DA was doing, let me use her as a sounding board when something just wasn't sitting right with a piece of evidence or a victim's timeline—all of which I was both grateful for and took as good signs.

In addition, she began to take more interest in her little house, adding bits of color here and there, paying more attention to Joel, and finally replacing the uncomfortable beige couches with a mid-century set the color of an Irish forest. Our Sundays, which had begun as a duty owed a fellow officer of the law, had become a haven in my otherwise chaotic life and we eventually added dinners on Wednesday evenings to the mix—provided I had the time.

One Wednesday night, after dinner, I asked Brenda about the possibility of her working again.

"Oh, I don't know, Sharon," she said, shaking her head. "I'm not sure I'm ready quite yet. All the politics, the fightin'? I don't want to go back to all that."

"Aren't you bored? You have such an agile mind, Brenda. I hate to think of you here, alone, with nothing to keep you busy."

She looked toward the kitchen, finally spying what she sought. "I have Joel," she said, nodding toward the gray tabby curled up on the windowsill in the kitchen. "And a TV—though how anyone can stand to watch the shows on during the daytime, I do not know."

"What about a book?"

"I do read, Captain—" Brenda began, indignant.

"No, Brenda. What if you wrote a book?" I watched incredulity overtake her features, rising up like flood waters about to spill their banks. "Surely the public would love the story of a CIA interrogator who ends up closing cases for LAPD Major Crimes."

Brenda waved me away. "Oh, go on!" When I only raised my eyebrows in challenge, she added, "The story isn't even that interestin'. I swear, y'all make it seem like more than it was."

"Oh, I don't know. The way Lieutenant Tao tells it, your elevator altercation with Philip Stroh alone was Oscar-worthy."

Brenda smiled, pleased, though she tried to hide it. "Lieutenant Tao is excitable is all. It wasn't all that."

I shrugged. "Well, if you change your mind, let me know. I know several publishers in New York. I'm certain one or more of them would be interested in acquiring your story."

We didn't talk about it again that night but, when I left, I could tell I'd gotten her thinking.

She surprised me Sunday by bringing it up again, although in her own oblique way.

"Did I ever tell you how the CIA recruited me?"

I set a plate of hoisin-glazed salmon with jasmine rice and garlicky green beans at each of our places at her dining room table, then poured us each a healthy glass of Pinot Grigio.

"I assumed you had sought them out," I admitted, wondering why I had never considered the alternative.

"Me? Oh, no. No! I honestly don't think I was consciously aware the CIA existed back then. Well, beyond the usual trashy beach readin' published by the likes of Michael Crichton, I mean." She took a sip of her wine. "No, an agent approached me after I had an argument with one of my professors in a rhetoric class."

I tried and failed to hide my surprise. "You were in college?"

"Barely. I'd been at Vanderbilt just about six weeks. This man—Christopher Ryan Dalton—was waitin' for me after class. He asked if I always talked to people like that and I said 'Like what?'" She took a bite of her salmon and hummed her appreciation. "Oh Sharon, this is so good!"

I smiled at the compliment but was frankly more interested in her story. "You were saying?"

"Oh, yeah. Well, long story short, he took me out to coffee and then to bed—in that order—and told me he was a recruiter for the CIA." She laughed and brushed an errant lock of hair from her eyes. "I thought he was full of it at first. I mean, really? How young did he think I was? It turned out he was tellin' the truth. I'd accepted a position, moved to Georgetown, and had begun my first training courses all within a month." A slight frown reflective of an old wound settled between her eyebrows. "I don't think my Daddy will ever forgive me for that, no matter how long I live."

I nodded sympathetically. Brenda's father was ex-military. I could only imagine how he would have felt about his only daughter joining the CIA at eighteen.

"You think people will want to read about all that?"

This time I successfully hid my dismay. Would 'people' want to read it? I nearly snorted with derision. It would probably debut on the Bestseller's List if she ever got around to writing it.

"I know they will," I assured her. "Take me for example—when have you ever known me to hang on your every word?"

Brenda chuckled. "Only when you were lookin' for one to hang me with," she agreed. "Well, if you think it might work, Sharon, I'll take you up on the offer you made Wednesday. I have to do somethin' to keep from goin' crazy. My only other option at the moment is startin' a life of crime!"

"I'll make some calls," I promised, smiling. "If only to prevent the possibility of having to arrest you at some later date."

I remember her eyes twinkled as she laughed at my joke. What I don't remember is the moment when everything changed for me. There must have been one—or maybe it was gradual, like a long, cold winter slowly giving way to the warmth of Spring. I don't know.

I do remember needing to stop to pick up milk on my way home from a crime scene at 1:00am and going out of my way to the Ralph's instead of the corner bodega so I could also pick up the makings of chocolate éclairs for Brenda Leigh. I remember taking Rusty to the Galleria for new clothes for his first day at community college and ending up wandering Crate & Barrel, mentally redecorating Brenda Leigh's tiny house. I remember putting down the new Elizabeth Gilbert book after two chapters—even though I'd been looking forward to reading it for months—only to find myself in PetSmart an hour later, picking out toys for Joel.

And I remember wondering, exasperated with myself, when it was I'd started thinking of her as 'Brenda Leigh' and not just 'Brenda'.

My newfound feelings certainly weren't confusing or mysterious. I noticed myself reaching for Brenda Leigh's hand or arm more during our conversations just so I could thrill at her touch and the electricity between us. The sensation was addictive, almost as much as the woman herself.

I noticed I had abandoned my usual spot alone on the loveseat and had claimed a new one next to Brenda Leigh during our Sunday talks, where I could gaze at her longer than was strictly required, watching her hands flutter around her face as she talked or as they moved her hair away from her lovely, caramel-colored eyes.

I noticed I made excuses to brush past Brenda Leigh in the kitchen more often, close enough for her perfume to wreath around me, the crisp, citrusy scent of it lingering longer that way.

I noticed I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering what it would be like to kiss Brenda Leigh, wondering how soft and sensuous her mouth would feel open to mine, luxuriating in the daydream and the way my stomach flipped, filled with school-girl butterflies.

I also noticed the guilt I felt from developing a crush on my widowed best friend—who was still actively grieving, no less—was not strong enough to keep me from engaging in these activities. I rationalized my behavior easily by reminding myself no one need ever know how I felt, not Brenda Leigh, not Rusty, not anyone. Only I need suffer.

Allowing myself to indulge in the fantasy made everything easier and harder all at once. Permission fueled my desire rather than abating it. I wasn't concerned. As my need grew, my resolve matched it. My armor could not be breached, no matter what happened.

And I believed that right up until the moment my absent husband of decades did the one thing I never expected him to, not in a million years.

He signed the divorce papers.

I was at work, prepping for my team's involvement in the annual terrorist response simulation the LAPD held every October, when I received the email from Jack. It was addressed to both of our children, but he'd copied his lawyer, my lawyer, me, and Rusty. It was short and sharp, meant to cut.

Kids,

I read it twice before savagely closing the screen. I placed both hands flat on my desk, seething with a rage that had no proximal target.

Up to me now? The woman he had left? The woman who had raised two children—his children—practically alone? The woman who had never once considered divorce until Rusty's welfare became an issue? What in God's name was he thinking?

Unable to process any rational thoughts beyond those involving my gun and knowing I needed to talk to someone before I began shouting at my team, I picked up my phone and texted Brenda Leigh.

Jackson Courtney Raydor is a goddamned bastard and I hope he rots in hell!

I watched an ellipsis appear under my text almost immediately, filled with both guilt and satisfaction that she was instantly available to me in my time of need.

Another reply followed on the first one's heels.

My fingers flew across the tiny virtual keyboard.

I switched to my email app and forwarded her the offending email, seeing two replies already nestled beneath it—one from our son, Rick, and one from my lawyer. I didn't open either one.

Check your inbox.

A reply came back instantly.

I got it. My, my…he's full of himself today, isn't he? Bastard.

Then another text right after that one.

What're you gonna do?

Jack had given in to me on Rusty's adoption already—once I finagled a legal loophole for him to wriggle through, that is. I had no idea what he wanted now, what scheme or angle he was trying to play. I thought I should probably open my lawyer's email to see if it held some clue, but I couldn't.

I don't know.

The ellipsis indicating a response was forthcoming flickered for a long time before one finally appeared.

There was a much shorter pause then another reply.

You bring the cake.

I laughed out loud—one bark of joyful mirth—before covering my mouth with the back of my hand to stifle more. I felt the familiar prickle of tears and shook my head ruefully at myself, stealing a glance at the squad through the stark slats of the blinds in my office. No one seemed to be paying the slightest bit of attention to me, for which I was grateful.

I reread Brenda Leigh's last two texts and shook my head again, this time at her. Leave it to her to order me to her home, with chocolate, all in the name of comforting me!

I tapped out a short reply—See you at six—then stood, retrieving my black blazer from the back of my chair. I dropped the phone into my purse, which I shouldered resolutely.

Buzz saw me enter the squad room first.

"Going somewhere, Captain?"

"Yes. Something has come up—a personal issue involving…" How much did I want to involve my team in my sordid home life? "Well, involving something personal. I'll be back tomorrow."

Lieutenant Provenza instantly rose from his desk and put his arm lightly around my waist. "Don't worry about us, Captain," he said, oozing obsequious charm. "We'll have that TRS strategy report on your desk before we leave tonight, won't we, gentlemen?" Then noticing Amy Sykes shooting him a look Brenda Leigh would have called "stink eye", he quickly amended, "And Sykes. Gentlemen and Sykes."

"Absolutely, Captain," said Andy Flynn, quickly picking up the ball Provenza had dropped. "You just go and take care of—of whatever it is you need to…uh…take care of." He looked a little befuddled, like he'd gotten lost somewhere in that last sentence and had ended up with too many 'ofs.'

"We've done this before, Captain," said Lieutenant Tao, not bothering to look up from his computer. "It's just a lot of copying and pasting at this point."

Provenza shot Tao a look he never saw, then gave me an ingratiating smile.

"Right," I said, bemused. "Thank you, Amy and…uh…gentlemen for your proactive attitude. I'll review your strategy report in the morning and hopefully we can submit it to Chief Taylor by the afternoon."

Provenza began to steer me toward the door. "Yes, yes, Captain. We wouldn't want to disappoint Chief Taylor in any way, would we? Like I said, the report will be on your desk in the morning." He gave me a little push toward the hallway and I saw no reason to resist it. I wanted to be somewhere else anyway.

"Until tomorrow, everyone," I called over my shoulder, striding out of the squad room.

It wasn't until the elevator doors closed that I realized two things:

1) My team were all probably in their cars and on their way home, having bolted down the stairs ahead of me and

2) A finalized divorce would render me legally single for the first time in 27 years.

The last realization kept me standing in the elevator car, uncertain, even after it arrived at the parking garage floor. I'd been a married woman for nearly all of my adult life—and had been separated from Jack for more than half that time. I wasn't a nun—not by any stretch of the imagination—but my extra-marital relationships were all discreet, well-controlled affairs tempered by the iron-clad circumstances of my situation. There'd been no room for unabashed passion or the extravagance of romance.

My breath caught at the thought of that convenient excuse suddenly disappearing.

I hadn't quite gotten my breath back when Rusty called my cell phone.

"Hello, Rusty," I said, grateful for the distraction. "How are you? How was your day?"

"How was my day? What are—" he began, the anger in his voice giving way to uncertainty. "Uh…have you checked your email today, Sharon?"

I closed my eyes and tried not to picture strangling Jack for the thirtieth time that hour. The email. Of course Rusty had read the email.

"Yes, I've read my email. I'm on my way to take care of it now."

Chocolate cake from Republique was a form of 'taking care of it', after all.

"With your gun?" Rusty's sarcasm was laced with hope and I smirked.

"No, not with my gun. In our family, we do things the civilized way—with lawyers."

He didn't laugh.

"Listen, Sharon, this isn't about me, is it? I mean, Jack's not freaking out about some inheritance thing again, is he? Because I can just go—"

My revenge fantasies became more violent and I unconsciously reached for the gun on my hip before stopping myself.

"Rusty, I promise what Jack is doing is not about you. Our lawyers settled your adoption months ago and I met every one of his demands." I took a deep breath, hoping to soften the harshness of my tone. "I don't know what Jack is up to now but whatever it is, you are not going anywhere. You are my son and I love you. Nothing can change that. Nothing will ever change that."

The long, awkward silence on the other end told me I'd embarrassed Rusty with my emotional declaration, but he needed to hear me, to believe me. Adults had been letting Rusty down his entire life—until Brenda Leigh had entered the picture. I was not about to be one of them.

"Okay?" I asked gently.

"Okay," he said. "I'm going out for pizza tonight with a couple of friends from school, so don't worry about dinner, okay?" He took a deep breath. "See you at home later."

I smiled at his usage of the word 'home'.

"Have a good time with your friends. Brenda has offered to make me dinner tonight, so I'll be home a little later than usual."

There was a slight pause on his side.

"Brenda's cooking for you? Good luck with that. You'll need it."

I chuckled but he terminated the call before I could respond.

My rage had been somewhat mitigated by my talk with Rusty but was not entirely gone, despite the fact I'd stopped at home to change clothes and then had driven 45 minutes to a bakery on the other side of town for the chocolate cake I'd been ordered to bring. I could still feel the anger beneath my sternum, a kettle of emotion simmering darkly, when Brenda Leigh opened her front door. She narrowed her eyes and gave me a quick once over to establish my mental state. Then she looked at the pink bakery box I held.

"Oooh, Republique! The salted caramel one?"

I gave her a curt nod.

"You'll live," she deadpanned. "Nothin' says 'I will survive' like a $60 chocolate cake." She grinned at me finally and opened the door wider. "Come on in so we can commence plottin' our revenge."

Before I had gotten properly inside, my mouth began to water. The air was thick and warm and smelled of comfort and home. If a scent could have a color, this one would have been golden brown.

"What is that?" I asked, inhaling deeply. I think my stomach actually growled. "It smells heavenly!"

"Oh, just a little somethin' I whipped up. Nothin' special," said Brenda Leigh over her shoulder.

"It certainly smells special to—" I began, only to be brought up short by the transformation of Brenda Leigh's bungalow. It was like walking into an entirely different house and the shock of it obliterated everything else. The mossy mid-century set in the living room had been joined by a gorgeous set of Danish modern tables and period appropriate accessories, including two lamps I was certain had been in my parents' Manhattan brownstone when I was a child.

The entertainment center and television had been replaced with a minimalist campaign desk upon which sat a brand new MacBook Air, a vintage desk lamp, and the smallest cactus plant I had ever seen. The accompanying chair could have sat in any number of turn-of-the-century jury boxes. The dark wood shone with the patina of years of use.

Throw pillows and artwork in bright, citrusy colors and vintage prints tied the whole ensemble together.

"Do you like it?" asked Brenda Leigh quietly. I would have said she was behaving shyly but I had never known Brenda Leigh Johnson to be shy.

I made a second, slower revolution so I could see it all again. Nothing I had thought of while wandering the Crate & Barrel at the Galleria had come close to what she had managed here.

"It's gorgeous!" I said. "When did—how—?" I stopped myself from babbling incoherently and started over. "Brenda Leigh, when did you have time to do all this?"

She shot me a hawk-eyed look and I realized I'd called her by her full name in my surprise. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks I and turned my face away from hers quickly, pretending to look at one of the paintings again. I prayed she hadn't seen my blush.

"Well, I had an eentsy bit of help. Turns out Dr. Morales and his boyfriend are also gifted designers. And it's truly amazin' how much writing one can avoid by shoppin' on the Internet."

"You've begun the book. then?" I asked, turning back to her, grateful for the change in topic. I put my purse down on a new credenza and we walked into the kitchen together, the mouth-watering smells much stronger there. I noticed the dining room table had been set with china I didn't recognize, cloth napkins matching the pops of citrus in the living room, and wine glasses.

"It seems that's all I can do is start the book. I've written the same three sentences over a thousand times." She looked vaguely unsettled. "Maybe a book wasn't such a good idea, Sharon. I don't have the slightest idea what I'm doin'."

"Nonsense, Brenda," I said, careful to use her shortened name, watching for any reaction. She had none. "You're overthinking it. Write as if you were telling me the story—like you did the other night. I found it all so fascinating! Particularly how young you were when the CIA recruited you."

She took the bakery box from me and gestured for me to sit at the dining room table.

"You make it sound all Zero Dark Thirty or somethin'. It wasn't like that—or not exactly. Not for me, anyway." She cocked her hip against the counter and crossed her arms. I did my best not to notice the slight wrinkle of deep thought that appeared between her pale brows. "Some of us spent years in language school before gettin' our first assignments and—" She stopped herself and gave me a dark look. "Oh, you! You're not supposed to be solvin' my problems tonight! We're supposed to be talkin' about you and Jack!"

Hearing Jack's name returned my rage to a rolling boil. It must have shown in my features because Brenda Leigh held up a cautioning finger.

"Hold on. I know that look. Before you start rippin' Jack a new one, I need to serve supper or we'll have a disaster on our hands. You pour the wine—it's in the fridge—and I'll bring our plates."

I did as I was told and poured the light, apple-y chardonnay that had already been corked and was waiting in the refrigerator. Just as I sat down, Brenda Leigh put my plate in front of me and I gaped, first at the array of delectable items and then at her.

"Something you just 'whipped up'?" I asked in disbelief as she seated herself across from me and flipped open her napkin. "Who on Earth just 'whips up' fried chicken and home-made biscuits?"

"Don't forget the fried green tomatoes," she said, pleased. "Though the mashed potatoes are instant—forgive me, Momma—but honestly, if you put enough butter and garlic in 'em, you can hardly tell."

I stared down at my plate, unsure of where to begin. I had only ever heard of fried green tomatoes because of Fannie Flagg's book. The recipe had been included in its pages but I'd never been brave enough to attempt them, largely because I didn't own a properly-seasoned cast-iron skillet, which seemed essential. Now here they were in front of me, hand made by the woman I had a secret crush on, and I didn't know what to think. Were they a staple of Southern cooking?

The movie based on the book had put fried green tomatoes on the menu of thousands of restaurants country-wide, all of them cashing in on the popularity of what was now widely known as the first mainstream lesbian film to be shown nationally.

Did Brenda Leigh have the slightest idea how they could be interpreted or was she just sharing a family recipe?

"Well, go on, Sharon! Eat before it gets cold. Some people like cold fried chicken but I am not one of them." She must have seen me staring down at the perfectly fried tomato slices and added, "And don't feel like you have to eat anythin' you don't like. Momma made me learn to cook one proper meal before I left home and this was it. She always said any woman who could fry chicken and make decent biscuits was a respectable woman."

I unfolded my napkin and laid it in my lap. Then I reached for the crispy drumstick on my plate, noting the batter was a perfect golden brown. "I've never tried fried green tomatoes," I admitted. "I've only ever heard of them because of the book by the same name."

"Oh, I loved that book!" she exclaimed, brown eyes twinkling. "The movie, too, but I think the book was better. Idgie and Ruth's relationship was so much clearer in the book—you knew how they felt about each other." She prodded at one of her tomato slices and cut off a piece. "The movie left most of that out. Silly of them, don't you think?"

The bite of chicken I was chewing became paste in my mouth and I could only nod at her, hoping I wouldn't blush again.

"I learned how to make fried green tomatoes because of that movie. I'd eaten them growin' up in Georgia but they weren't somethin' we had a lot. They became a whole lot more popular after that movie was released, though. Every restaurant in Atlanta seemed to have them on their menu that summer." She looked up, her smile all but gone. "Hey, that gives me an idea, actually."

I swallowed thickly and asked, "It does?"

"Oh, yeah." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively. "If you can't get Jack to see reason and do what you want this time, we'll just cook him up! Might be worth learnin' to make barbecue ribs if the end result is him out of the way!"

She grinned like the Cheshire Cat and I laughed, relieved she was only suggesting murder and not something entirely more intimate. I returned to my meal with gusto.

"I don't think we'll have to resort to something that drastic," I said, pulling apart one of my biscuits and dipping it in the gravy. "I just wish I knew what his angle was—why he's intent on making the kids think the divorce is something I want."

"It isn't?" she asked lightly. Her tone caused me to look at her more closely. It seemed an innocent question but I had known Brenda Leigh long enough to recognize when she was performing for an audience. There was something more going on with her but I couldn't quite put a finger on what it was.

"Oh, it is. Now." I took a healthy sip of wine. "But not until Rusty's welfare became an issue and Jack let me know he would fight the adoption if I went through with it. Until then, the divorce had been something he wanted that I wouldn't give him."

Brenda Leigh played with her mashed potatoes. "Y'know, I never did understand all that. If you knew he wasn't comin' back and y'all went on with your lives separately, why not just get the divorce?"

I shook my head. "Believe me, I wasn't going to let Jack escape that easily. I may have been too blinded by trust to see the affairs when we were still living together, but when he left me for a law intern at his firm when Emily was only eighteen months old, I wasn't about to let him abandon his responsibilities." I adjusted my glasses and looked over the rims at her. "He could walk away from me but I would not let him walk away from our children."

Brenda Leigh nodded and took a sip of her own wine. "All right. I understand that, you bein' Catholic an' all. But your kids are both grown now, right? Rusty's adoption has been settled. Why not just let the bastard go? Let him have his divorce."

I paused. For the first time, I suspected Brenda Leigh and I were not on the same page. "Oh, he has his divorce. I've had a standing order with my lawyer for months: if Ellis receives signed papers, she's to file them at the courthouse the same day. If Jack was telling the truth in his email, I'm certain Ellis had them in time to file them before the end of the day."

"What?" Brenda Leigh put her wine glass down carefully. "You're goin' through with the divorce?"

"Oh, yes," I said emphatically. That had never been in question. At least, not for me.

Her mouth dropped open for a moment and then she shook herself. "Well, what on Earth are we doin' here, then? I thought I was gonna hold your hand while you figured out what you were gonna do! Here you are, already half way to bein' a divorcee!"

I am ashamed to admit it now, but I laughed. Not at Brenda Leigh, but at the penchant we had for miscommunication that seemed to continue despite our friendship. No wonder our early interactions had been so fraught with tension and acrimony.

"I apologize, Brenda," I said, reaching across the table for her hand. I did my best to ignore the delicious electricity that blazed through our joined fingers. "I truly do. When I said I didn't know what I was going to do, I meant I didn't know how I was going to handle the discussion with my children." I shrugged apologetically. "The only question I have for Jack is why he has opted for the divorce now when he refused the option only last year."

"Oh, you!" Brenda Leigh snatched her hand out from under mine and gave me a playful swat. "Here I was, all set to do somethin' nice for you for once! I cooked for you an' I haven't cooked for anyone in years."

"This is the first home-cooked meal I've had in ages and it is the best fried chicken I have ever had—in my life!" I leaned forward, hoping to convey the depths of my gratitude. "It is the nicest thing anyone has done for me for months and I'm grateful to have a friend who would drop everything to be there for me."

Brenda Leigh pouted. "It's the least I could do after all the home-cooked meals you've made for me the last year. Not to mention the cleanin' up and the hand holdin' and the talkin' me off the proverbial ledge when I needed it."

Sensing too much more seriousness could push Brenda Leigh into a more melancholy mood, I chose to change the subject. "Speaking of cleaning up, I am so impressed by the spotlessness of your kitchen. Mine would look like a tornado had leveled it if I had made this meal."

Brenda Leigh gaped at me and then closed her eyes, a deeply self-conscious grimace twisting her features. "Well, not to incriminate myself or anything, but I wouldn't go into the master bathroom if I were you." She opened one eye to gauge my reaction—which was to turn and look down the hallway.

"You know that little spray nozzle thing in the kitchen sink and then the one that looks just like it, but bigger, in the tub?"

I nodded slowly.

"They are not the same," she said, shaking her head sadly. "Not even close."

When I laughed, she grinned and I thought I had never seen anything quite so lovely as Brenda Leigh Johnson.

We finished dinner and I did the dishes—the ones in the kitchen anyway. Afterward, we retreated to the living room and I shed my shoes, so I could pull my knees up under me on the couch. Brenda sat primly at her end of the couch, her legs crossed at the ankles, her floral skirt spread around her like a fan.

"So you have no idea why Jack would want the divorce now when he clearly did not want it during the adoption negotiations?"

I splayed my palms up in a gesture of question. "None at all." Then I remembered Rick's nearly instant response to his father's email and I got up to retrieve my phone from my bag. "Unless one of the kids knows something. I saw Rick—that's our son—had replied to his father's email earlier today. I completely forgot it was there."

"What are you waitin' for?" asked Brenda Leigh, patting the couch near her. "Come on, let's read it!"

I sat as close as I dared and opened the email app on my phone, studiously ignoring the inappropriate pounding of my heart. I could feel the heat of Brenda Leigh all along my side even though we weren't quite touching and, at this small distance, the scent of her—a heady mix of something citrusy, the lingering smell of frying chicken, and something light and clean I couldn't identify—was intoxicating.

Rick's email was the first response under Jack's original, so I started there. I noticed there were three additional responses by this time—one from my daughter, Emily; another one from my lawyer; and one from Rusty—but those could wait. It was always best to start at the beginning.

Classy, Dad.

I reread Rick's email, caught between pride in my son and his ability to stand up for himself (and for me) and heartbreak he hadn't had a better father and a better upbringing. I was utterly certain no child should ever have to write such a letter to his own father.

Brenda Leigh put a comforting hand on my knee and squeezed.

"Well, that explains that, doesn't it?" she said, her voice deliberately neutral. "And next time Rick is in town, bring him over. I'd like to meet him. I like his style."

I smiled proudly. "Rick inherited all of Jack's charisma and charm while avoiding his father's less positive personality traits."

"He also apparently got his Momma's communication skills: honest and straightforward."

I chuckled. "I'm afraid both of my children inherited that particular trait, for better or for worse."

I opened the next email—from my lawyer—and nodded. It said just what I expected it would and it was addressed only to me. Ellis was a consummate professional with an impeccable reputation. She also didn't take any crap from Jack.

Sharon,

Emily's email response eliminated the two law offices. She had never liked for our family's dirty laundry to be aired publicly. I was, however, exceptionally pleased to see she kept Rusty in the distribution list. She'd been on tour with her ballet company in Eastern Europe and Russia for the last year and a half and—though she had enthusiastically welcomed Rusty to our family via email and one Skype session—she had yet to meet him in person.

Rusty,

"Oh my," said Brenda Leigh when she finished reading Emily's email. "You weren't kiddin', were you? That girl is a chip off her Momma's block!"

I beamed. "As I said, neither of my apples fell very far from this tree."

"Well, thank the Lord she took up ballet instead of the law! Havin' to face the two of you together on a case would be a complete nightmare!"

I chuckled, agreeing wholeheartedly. "You're right. Luckily it never crossed her mind. I enrolled Emily in her first dance class a week after she turned three. She never wanted to be anything else."

"I'd love to see her dance," said Brenda Leigh wistfully. "I just love creative people like that—artists, dancers, musicians… I don't have any artistic tendencies whatsoever so I admire it in others."

"Emily's ballet company is doing The Nutcracker here in LA at Christmas. She's been cast as Clara. I'd love for you to join me."

"Really?" Brenda Leigh put one hand to her heart in a gesture I had learned long ago was not an affected part of her persona but a genuine part of her Southern upbringing. "Oh, Sharon, I would love that! Thank you! Thank you so much!"

"Of course," I said, turning back to my phone in an attempt to conceal how pleased I was Brenda Leigh Johnson was going to accompany me to a ballet performance that was still months away. I stopped myself from mentally looking through my closet for something to wear that night by opening the second email from my lawyer.

Sharon,

I snorted with barely concealed derision. "I'll believe that when I see it."

"I agree. Knowin' what I do about Jack, I can't believe this is gonna go smoothly." Brenda Leigh plucked the phone out of my hand. "All right, last one. Let's see what Rusty has to say about this whole mess."

I shook my head tolerantly. Apparently we were moving too slowly for the ex-deputy chief.

Emily,

What is it about this family and pie? Everyone's always talking about it.

I covered my eyes at his last line, knowing it would go over like a lead balloon. To my surprise, Brenda Leigh only giggled.

"Aww, poor thing. I'm afraid he was subjected to one too many Chinese take-out suppers when he was stayin' with Fritz and me."

"I would think you had a little more on your mind at the time, what with Philip Stroh free and actively sabotaging your case."

Brenda Leigh handed my phone back to me and I returned to my original spot on the couch. "True," she said, conceding the point. "But a growin' boy—especially one that grew up on the streets—needs a little more than leftover sweet an' sour pork to keep his strength up." She smiled softly at me. "When Lieutenant Provenza told me he was goin' to live with you, I knew that was the best thing for him. I knew you'd take care of everything."

"Thank you," I said. "That means a lot coming from the woman who stood by him to begin with."

Brenda Leigh blushed and stood suddenly. "Well, if we're gonna be all sickly sweet, we might as well have cake. Can I get you another glass of wine or would you rather have coffee?"

"Actually, I'd love a glass of milk if you have it. This cake looks so rich, I'm afraid anything less will be inadequate."

"Oh, a woman after my own heart!" said Brenda Leigh, crossing to the kitchen, clearly delighted.

You don't know the half of it, I thought ruefully.

I listened to the refrigerator open and close and to the clink of forks on plates, trying not to think of the romantic implications of chocolate or the prospect of attending the ballet with a woman who was becoming more captivating to me by the moment. I tried focusing on Jack, hoping thoughts of my failed marriage would neutralize the low-level butterflies that seemed always to be present when I was with Brenda Leigh. It didn't work. Thinking of Jack led directly to thoughts of the divorce and its inevitable finalization—which reminded me, darkly, I'd have to quash this ridiculous crush sooner rather than later.

I was debating the shoulds and should nots of my near future when Brenda Leigh returned with a large glass of cold milk and a slice of the chocolate cake. She presented them to me with a flourish and licked icing from her thumb after I relieved her of her burden. My mouth went dry.

"Honestly, that is the best chocolate cake I think I've ever had," she said, returning to the kitchen for her own plate and glass. "I'd be makin' highly inappropriate sounds right now if you weren't here, Sharon."

I fought off a groan at the thought of Brenda Leigh showing her appreciation for the cake with a symphony of orgasmic vocalizations by shoving a bite of it into my mouth—only to have to suppress another groan because the cake was, indeed, a work of culinary perfection.

I took a careful sip of milk after swallowing and cleared my throat.

"I see what you mean," I said, my voice a little deeper than I was comfortable with.

We finished our slices of cake and our glasses of milk in reverent silence. The cake was a work of art. Afterward, with Brenda Leigh's humanitarian mission completed, there was little reason for me to stay, no matter how much I wanted to do so.

I made a weak excuse about my need to be up early and slipped my shoes back on.

At the door, I turned to Brenda Leigh and reached for her hand.

"I cannot thank you enough for tonight, Brenda," I said, hoping she could feel the sincerity of my gratitude through the connection of our hands. "It was exactly what I needed."

"Well," she said, grinning wide enough to warm the chill of the night air, "I may not be able to charm bees but I can fry chicken. Sometimes that's enough." Then she leaned forward and kissed me softly on the cheek, still holding my hand in hers. "Drive safely," she whispered as she pulled back and before I could answer, she'd closed and locked her front door.

Which was perfectly fine as far as I was concerned. It took me a full three minutes to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth and another ten for my adrenaline to subside.

But those ten minutes…. I thought I could fly.

Within days, it became clear Jack had been bluffing about his resignation to the divorce. He didn't answer any of the emails sent to him by the children; instead, he sent one to me. Its lack of forced niceties let me know just how upset my attorney's response had made him.

A standing order, Sharon? Not even a discussion?

I expected more from you.

I replied with equal brevity—something about expectations and both of us ending up disappointed in some way—and didn't show either email to Brenda Leigh. He waited the entire 60 days to file his Financial Disclosure and then omitted several inconsequential holdings, hoping to restart the clock when I balked. Instead, I directed Ellis to consider the matter closed and asked her to proceed. I wanted an end to the back and forth and an end to living in marital purgatory.

I also wanted—no, needed—incentive to end my crush on Brenda Leigh finally. Willpower alone wasn't working and our weekly dinners often ended with the two of us talking late into the night, curled up next to each other on her longer sofa. What had begun as a delicious, harmless infatuation was now an ache that could never be soothed and every guileless smile she beamed at me, every bat of her long eyelashes, and every casual touch we shared fueled it.

It was long past time to end it and yet I couldn't bring myself to actually do it. The impending finalization of my divorce to Jack had to be the motivating force that would impel me to act. I just had to gird myself, as if preparing to tear away a stubborn bandage.

Easier said than done, it turns out.

After his plan to reset the disclosure clock had failed, Jack began making noises of taking the divorce proceedings to trial. I didn't want to go through that, of course. It would have been unseemly after all the time that had passed to inject passion and vitriol into the process. It would have been unfair—to me, to Jack, to our children, and to Rusty. It would have been unfair to the first happy years of our marriage and to the ghost of what could have been.

Someone else must have convinced Jack of the futility of his plan—or perhaps his new girlfriend had simply had enough. I don't know exactly. All I do know is it was finally almost over. Ellis had notified me the final paperwork would be ready to register with the county clerk by the end of the week and I sat in my office, blinds pulled tightly shut, trying to figure out just exactly how I was supposed to break my own heart by pulling away from Brenda Leigh Johnson before then.

I had been sitting at my desk in silence for some time, my hands flat on its surface, as if I'd been caught in the act of standing, when my telephone rang. Its jarring inelegance startled me and I waited until I had regained my breath to answer.

"Sharon Raydor," I said shortly, my irritation plain.

"Sharon? You all right?" Of course it was Brenda Leigh. I closed my eyes and asked God for strength I didn't have and didn't deserve.

"Brenda," I said, my smile half-hearted. I ignored her question. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Actually, you said you were goin' to call me. After Ellis called to let you know what Jack's lawyer said. Remember? When you hadn't called by lunch, I thought you might have been called to a case, but Andy said you were all workin' cold cases and had been all week."

In fact, I hadn't remembered. I had been much too distracted by thoughts of Brenda Leigh to actually call her. The irony did not escape me.

"Oh, Brenda, I'm sorry," I said, apologizing. "You're absolutely right."

"Well, what did she say? You've got me tied up in knots here, woman! And don't say somethin' smart like 'Well, how are you able to use a phone, then?' You know what I mean."

Her impression of me made me chuckle. Did I really sound that stodgy and formal?

"Friday," I said. "Ellis said it would be over by Friday."

"Finally!" said Brenda Leigh, the word exploding like a gun shot. "Somethin' to celebrate!"

I blinked. "Oh no, Brenda. That's not necessary. Besides, I don't think I'll be up to entertaining guests—"

"Who said anythin' about guests? It'll just be me, you, and Rusty. Somethin' simple. Dinner and maybe a funny movie. I'll take care of everythin'."

The part of me desperate to end things with Brenda Leigh demanded I say no, that I seize the perfect opportunity I was being given to put some distance between us. The larger part of me—the part hopelessly infatuated with my best friend—answered instead.

"That sounds great," I said, my smile heartfelt now. "What should we bring?"

"I'm comin' to your place," she said. "Rusty hates comin' to my borin' little house. Besides, your couches are more comfortable than mine." She paused for a moment, then added, "You supply the popcorn—with extra butter—an' I'll bring everythin' else. Deal?"

I didn't hesitate. "Deal," I said. The rational part of me sighed in resignation.

"It's a date, then. But be sure to tell Rusty it's just goin' to be the three of us, okay? I want the two of you all to myself."

I heard the grin in her voice just before she hung up. The pounding of my heartbeat eventually drowned it out.

I was still in my bedroom, despairing of ever finding something to wear, when the doorbell rang Friday.

"I got it!" yelled Rusty. Brenda Leigh's unmistakable-though-muffled Southern twang confirmed she had arrived.

"Brenda's here, Sharon!" Rusty's habit of shouting whenever I wasn't in the same room was the one bad habit he couldn't seem to break. Instead of shouting in return, I grabbed a royal purple cashmere sweater out of my dresser and pulled it on over my head, taking a few seconds to straighten it over my jeans. It would have to do.

I met them in the kitchen, where Brenda Leigh had Rusty reluctantly arranging a bouquet of irises in a vase. They matched the sweater I had chosen to wear. She herself wore red—more specifically, a red sweater over a white collared shirt. Black slacks and patent leather pumps completed the look.

"You two look hard at work," I said, smiling. I loved seeing Brenda Leigh with Rusty; it reminded me how far we'd come since the Philip Stroh case and how much Rusty's life had changed for the better.

Brenda Leigh stopped opening take-out containers and grinned, pulling me into a hug.

"There's our new divorcee! Do you feel any different? When I got divorced from Tyler all those years ago, I didn't feel anythin' but relieved."

I took a quick inventory of how I felt, realizing the majority of my emotions at the moment had nothing to do with Jack and everything to do with Brenda Leigh. Nervous, resigned, hopeful, self-recriminating, wistful, terrified, untethered, vulnerable, strong, able….

"Let's go with relieved," I said, watching as Brenda Leigh flitted from my kitchen island to my cupboards to the fridge and back with practiced ease. "Can I help with anything?"

"Not a thing!" she tossed over her shoulder as she pulled down plates for our dinner. "Rusty and I will take care of all this. Unless you want to pour us some wine?"

That I could do. From the tempting smells wafting from various foil containers, I surmised we were having the baked ziti from Little Dom's across the street. A merlot would go nicely with the meal and I happened to have two or three bottles of Brenda Leigh's favorite on hand.

"I'll just have Pepsi," said Rusty, crinkling his nose in distaste at the thought of wine.

"Yes. You will," I agreed, pulling a 1997 McCray Ridge out of my wine rack. "Wine is not an option for you for another two years."

"You can keep it," he said, his grimace deepening. "It all tastes like rotten grapes to me."

Brenda Leigh laughed. "No accountin' for taste, is there?" She brought the salad and garlic bread to the table and returned to the kitchen for our plates.

Rusty acquired a Pepsi from the refrigerator and cracked it open on his way to his seat at the dining room table. "No, there sure ain't!" he said in a breathless, fluttery, cartoonish version of Brenda Leigh's accent. He fanned himself with one hand and batted his eyelashes coquettishly.

I laughed out loud. Brenda Leigh put his plate in front of him and promptly swatted him on the shoulder.

"Oh, you!"

After she had served the two of us, Brenda Leigh took her seat and raised her wine glass.

"Before we start, I just want to say somethin'. To Sharon Magdalena O'Dwyer Raydor. Thank God Almighty, she's free at last!"

Brenda Leigh smiled behind her wine glass and took a healthy sip. Her eyes lit up as the ruby liquid filled her mouth.

"This is McCray Ridge 1997, isn't it?" she asked, beaming. "It's my favorite!"

I narrowed my eyes at her, ignoring her question. Rusty goggled, his big blue eyes swiveling owlishly between the two of us.

"Magdalena?" he asked. "O'Dwyer?"

"Someone has been reading one too many personnel files," I said darkly, taking my own sip of wine.

"In my defense, it is a memorable name. I would have gotten married at the age of twelve if I'd had the last name of O'Dwyer," she replied.

Rusty gave Brenda Leigh a lopsided smile. "Twelve?" he asked. "Isn't that, like, old maid in Georgia?"

I bit my lip to keep from laughing again. It was Brenda Leigh's turn to narrow her eyes. She leveled her darkening gaze at Rusty for one full minute before turning it on me. I was grateful we were sitting because the look made my knees go weak.

"I'm not sure I have any confidence in this school Rusty's attendin' if they are teachin' him to sass his elders," she said, her voice clipped and business-like.

"I tested out of Elementary Sass," said Rusty helpfully. "I'm, like, the youngest student they've ever had in Advanced Sass."

I nearly spit my second sip of wine across the table and ended up choking it down with my laughter.

Brenda Leigh just grinned her evil smile. "Well, maybe out here on the West Coast you're the youngest in Advanced Sass," she said sweetly. "But I graduated summa cum laude in Sass. When I was fourteen." She ripped a slice of garlic bread from the end of the loaf. "Lemme know if you need a tutor."

Rusty blinked, frozen in his chair. Then he laughed. "You win," he said, raising his hands in surrender.

"Amateurs," I said, serving myself salad. "Both of you." I raised my eyebrows at Brenda Leigh. "Sass is one thing but every Catholic schoolgirl learns to question authority innocuously, usually by the fourth grade. We find the simplicity of a well-phrased question is often sufficient."

"Why Sharon," said Brenda Leigh, pointing her fork at me playfully. "Do tell. I've always found Catholic schoolgirls so fascinatin'!"

I bit the inside of my cheek to keep myself from reacting to her unintentionally provocative remark, pushing thoughts of pleated red tartan skirts out of my mind.

"For example, during a class discussion about Noah's Ark, I once asked a nun where Noah kept the elephants' food and water."

"You didn't!" Brenda Leigh looked scandalized.

"I most certainly did. It cost me six Hail Mary's and a Rosary at confession that Sunday."

Rusty put out a hand to stop the conversation. "Wait, wait. I don't get it. Why is that questioning authority?"

"Because, Rusty dear, the average adult elephant consumes approximately 300 pounds of food and 12 gallons of fresh water a day," explained Brenda Leigh. "A boat the size of the ark couldn't support one elephant let alone two of them! There wasn't room enough to store that much food for a whole year. Don't get me started on the other animals."

"Oh! This is like the fish!" he said, looking back and forth between Brenda Leigh and me, nodding enthusiastically. "In my senior year, Sister Angela, our principal, came to home room and gave this weird speech about dating and picking the right person and a lot of stuff I just didn't get. But she kept talking about how Noah had saved all the animals on Earth by choosing one of each, male and female. And I raised my hand and said, 'Not the fish, because fish would have been okay in a flood.'"

I put my hands flat on the table. "You didn't."

"Yeah. I did." He looked to Brenda Leigh, pleased with himself. "She just shook her head at me and said 'I'll pray for you, Russell.' She said that a lot about me, actually."

I cradled my face in my hands. I wondered how long ago I'd last sent a donation to the school and for what amount. Whatever it was, I planned to double it in my next check.

"Well, I stand corrected," said Brenda Leigh, grinning proudly. "Clearly Rusty will not be needing me to tutor him in sass after all."

Dinner was wonderful. The banter between Brenda Leigh and Rusty wove through our wandering conversations like a silver thread. Warmth permeated every moment. I should have been content, satisfied with the joy of the evening and our growing friendship, but sadness crept in behind the warmth like a spider through a crack.

My heart wanted more, much more.

When Brenda Leigh brushed an untamed lock of hair out of her eyes, my heart wanted to know what the strands would feel like on my fingertips.

When she laughed at one of Rusty's snide remarks, my heart wanted to be the one who brought her that kind of joy.

When she smiled at me from across the table, my heart wondered how her smile would look wreathed in candlelight, after a deep, trembling kiss.

In fact, I was lost in contemplation of that exact scenario when Brenda Leigh caught me being inattentive.

"Yoo hoo? Sharon? You still with us, darlin'?"

I shook myself out of my daydream and smiled weakly. "Of course. I apologize. I was lost in thought."

"No need to apologize," she admonished me. "Though, if we are goin' to watch our movie, we should get a move on. I wouldn't want to keep you up all night." She winked and I felt a momentary shift in the gravity of the room, as if we'd experienced a localized earthquake. The double meaning potential of her words made me dizzy. I bit the inside of my cheek again, to ground me.

"You know what, guys," said Rusty suddenly. "I hate to eat and run but I promised some of the guys I'd go to their place to play video games. You don't mind, do you?" He rushed to make a case for letting him go before I'd even answered. "I think you two would have a better time if I wasn't, you know, here. I mean, that movie was made before I was born. I'm probably not going to like it anyway." He shrugged. "It's, like, in black and white, right?"

I chuckled and rolled my eyes at him. "Go," I said. "Be careful and have fun." Brenda Leigh and I both stood and I reached out to give my son a hug. "Call us if you need anything."

"I will." He turned and accepted a hug from Brenda Leigh. "And thanks for dinner, Brenda. It was great."

"You are so welcome! It was my pleasure." She grinned at him and he hesitated.

"Uh, Brenda? Do you have a minute? I need to ask you something…"

Brenda Leigh looked at me questioningly and I shrugged the slightest of shrugs. "Oookay," she said. "Sure! Sharon, why don't you start clearing the table and I'll just walk Rusty to the door. I'll be back to help with the popcorn in a minute."

"Absolutely." I gathered our plates and utensils as the two of them walked off. I could see them at the door, both of them glancing back at me nervously, but I couldn't hear what they were saying. Rusty's youth and inexperience made him terrible at subterfuge but I expected more from Brenda Leigh. After all, she was an ex-CIA agent. Subterfuge should have been an A-level skill for her.

After a brief conversation, Rusty gave Brenda Leigh another hug, grabbed his backpack out of the closet, and took off.

"Everything okay?" I asked as Brenda Leigh returned to the kitchen. She looked a little flushed.

"Hmm? Oh, that? Yes, yes." She picked up a dish towel and distractedly began drying the dishes I was washing, clearly a million miles away. Her faint half-smile gave the impression she was thinking deliciously wicked thoughts and I had to bite the inside of my cheek again to keep myself from leaning in to kiss her.

"You sure?" I prodded and she snapped to attention, as if realizing where she was and what she was supposed to be doing.

"Oh! Yes! Yes, it was nothin'," she said, quickly drying the rest of the dishes and putting them away. "You know kids," she said, being deliberately vague.

"Yes. I do," I agreed, looking over the rims of my glasses at her. "I have three. Remind me how many you have again?" I smirked at her. "And cats don't count."

She laughed. "Don't tell Joel. He'll never forgive you."

I boxed up the leftovers and put them away while Brenda Leigh cleared away the packaging and take-out bags. She reached past me to throw the trash away and I became acutely aware of her proximity, of the heat radiating from her.

"Why don't you start the popcorn and I'll get the movie ready," she said, running her fingers across the small of my back as she turned toward the living room. "Do you want another glass of wine?"

I wanted a shot of whiskey. Wine would have to do.

"Please," I said, pulling a plastic bowl out of one of my cupboards. My skin tingled where her fingers had grazed me even though she'd brushed them over the sweater, not under. The routine steps required to prepare microwaveable popcorn allowed me the space I needed to regain my equilibrium.

It doesn't mean anything.

I said these words to myself over and over, reminding myself Brenda Leigh's words, her smiles, her casual touch—none of this meant what I wanted it to mean.

It doesn't mean anything.

If I could somehow secure those words in my mind or burn them into my skin, I could stop everything else—the wishing, the daydreaming, the bone-deep ache of my unrequited desire….

Brenda Leigh snuck up behind me and handed me another glass of wine. She clinked her glass against mine and said "Cheers!", winking at me saucily before heading back to the living room to get the DVD ready.

It doesn't mean anything.

I said the words again, finally realizing they were, in part, a brazen lie. 'It doesn't mean anything to her' would have been the more accurate declarative statement. It very much meant something to me.

I added melted butter and a sprinkle of fresh parmesan to the popcorn and brought it and my wine glass into the living room. Brenda Leigh had shed her pumps and was sitting curled up on the couch with the remote pointed at the entertainment center, waiting for me. The only light in the room came from the television set. She patted the couch next to her.

"Come sit by me," she said, eyeing the popcorn bowl narrowly. "Did you remember the extra butter?"

I smiled. "Of course."

I slipped off my flats and curled my legs under me on the couch. Brenda Leigh pressed a button on the remote and the opening credits of Groundhog Day began to play. It had been a while since I'd seen the movie and I was looking forward to it. It was a perfect winter movie—light, funny, romantic, and not holiday-themed at all.

We didn't talk. I was gratified to find that Brenda Leigh, who usually couldn't keep her opinions to herself—wanted or not—apparently drew the line at speaking during a movie. I allowed myself to relax. Bill Murray was one of my favorite comedians and I loved him best when he portrayed the wounded Everyman. At the very least, his character's sarcastic response to being trapped in a temporal anomaly would distract me from my own trap, one of my own making.

You are too old for this, I told myself.

About 20 minutes in, my fingers touched Brenda Leigh's as we reached into the communal popcorn bowl set between us on the couch. A jolt of electricity snaked through my body, reminding me she was right there, only a foot away, and we were alone, watching a romantic comedy.

I began to lose the threads of the plot.

Forty minutes in, the popcorn was gone. Brenda Leigh put the bowl on the coffee table and licked melted butter from her fingertips.

I had no idea where we were in the movie.

Seventy minutes in, Brenda Leigh leaned close to me and whispered, "Would you mind if I made myself an eensty bit more comfortable?" I shook my head no, but stared ahead at the screen, pretending to be engrossed in the movie. I didn't want to know what would make Brenda Leigh more comfortable. My heart pounded in my ears.

Seconds later, Brenda Leigh placed one of the couch's throw pillows across my legs and curled up around it, her head resting lightly in my lap.

I had no idea what movie we were even watching anymore.

Flickering blue light played over the both of us as I tried to figure out what to do with my hands. I put my right hand on the couch beside me but my left hovered in the air over Brenda Leigh as I considered and discarded several hundred options in the space of three seconds.

I finally decided the first option was best and I put my hand gently on her shoulder. I felt her sigh.

The movie finally ended to the strains of Nat King Cole's "Almost Like Being in Love" and I expected Brenda Leigh to sit up. When she didn't—giving no sign of movement whatsoever—I let go the breath I'd been holding. She was asleep. I had never been so relieved in all my life.

I sat through the rest of the credits, wondering what to do next.

The rational, responsible part of me thought I should gently shake Brenda Leigh awake and send her home to bed, treating the whole incident as a normal, innocent evening between friends.

The louder, larger, completely irresponsible part of me thought I should stay where I was and do nothing, reveling in the sensation of holding Brenda Leigh for as long as I could.

You don't know when you will have this chance again, it rationalized. Savor it.

I listened to that part.

I looked down at Brenda Leigh asleep in my lap and felt tears well up in my eyes. I could just see the curve of her milk-white cheek and her long lashes under the tumble of her blond hair. Her left fist was tucked up under her chin and she was so still.

I couldn't help myself.

I reached out and sifted strands of Brenda Leigh's hair between trembling fingertips. I held my breath, afraid to wake her, afraid to be caught. I could feel my heartbeat everywhere and the butterflies in my stomach entertained each other with ever-more-daring gymnastic contortions.

I was concentrating so completely on what I was doing and on memorizing how it felt, I almost didn't hear the single word Brenda Leigh whispered.

"Finally…."

I froze. I panicked. I thought I might throw up.

She wasn't asleep at all.

Brenda Leigh sat up as I tried to find the words that would explain my actions—my truly inappropriate actions. I opened my mouth only to find myself completely unable to speak. She took my left hand into both of hers and brought it to her mouth. Her bright eyes watched me as she kissed each of my fingertips.

I tried to say something—anything—and managed a faint sound somewhere between a squeak and a cry.

She held my hand and smiled gently at me, her eyes twinkling.

"Rusty said I would have to send you an engraved invitation. I didn't believe him but it turns out he was right."

That snapped me out of my stupor like a bucket of ice water dumped over my head.

"What?" I sputtered.

"Remember when he left tonight? He had a question for me?" She caressed the back of my hand with a feather light touch and I had trouble thinking of anything else.

I nodded.

"He asked me if I'd brought my gun and when I rolled my eyes at him—because I always have my gun—he said—his exact words were—'Then shoot her or kiss her, but please just put her out of her misery.'" She cocked her head and grinned. "So what'll it be, darlin'?"

I barely had enough time to consider an answer before Brenda Leigh reached out to remove my glasses, placing them carefully on the coffee table next to the popcorn bowl. Then she cupped my face in her hands, gazing at me thoughtfully. I swayed a little in her grasp and she leaned forward until her mouth was a breath away from my ear.

"Breathe, sweetheart," she whispered and I shivered. "I'm right here."

She turned my face toward her and brought our mouths together, her eyes lingering on my lips for just a second before they fluttered shut and she gave her full attention to kissing me.

It was…. It was like nothing I've ever experienced before. Her softness, her earnestness, the taste of the strawberry gloss she'd put on over her lipstick, the feel of her fingers winding in my hair, the breathlessness of every single daydream I'd had over the last year becoming solid and real….

I shook. I could not stop shaking.

I reached for her, slid my hands under her silken hair, and pulled her closer, wanting more. I opened my mouth to her and she whimpered, immediately opening hers to me. The sensation of softness, of intimate connection intensified so quickly my head swam. I was drowning in Brenda Leigh, in her warmth, succumbing to her depths, to the complex taste of her, to her intoxicating sensuality, so familiar and yet so different….

I couldn't breathe and I pulled away, throwing my head back, gasping for air. Her mouth moved to my neck and she began to kiss her way downward. I groaned and she pushed forward, pressing me into the couch, her mouth casting spells of fire, of ice, bewitching me. I wanted nothing more than to surrender to Brenda Leigh but the rational part of me, a nickel core of logic and practicality, shot through my brain like a spot light, disrupting the heat building between us with cold, leaden dread.

"Wait," I said, trying to sit up again. "Brenda, wait…."

Brenda Leigh stopped immediately and pulled away, her eyes searching mine. Her lips were slightly swollen from our kiss and her cheeks were flushed with desire.

"What is it, darlin'?" she asked softly, brushing my hair back from my forehead.

I felt fear rise in me. Old fear, fear I thought I had long ago successfully outgrown. She must have seen it in my eyes because she cupped my face in her hands again, but tenderly this time, a touch meant to soothe rather than inflame.

"You can say anythin' to me, Sharon Raydor."

I felt the fear in me recede slightly. That was true, at least. I had always been able to be honest with Brenda Leigh Johnson and she respected my honesty, even if she didn't like what I had to say. I took a steadying breath and reached out to touch her, if only to tug at the hem of her sweater.

"I don't want to be a substitute for…someone else," I admitted quietly, watching my fingers pull at the red fibers. It felt wrong to invoke Fritz Howard's name at this particular moment.

Brenda Leigh crooked a finger beneath my chin and lifted it so she could look into my eyes. I saw the worry in hers fade, replaced with something altogether more beautiful and loving.

"Oh, honey," she breathed, chuckling slightly and shaking her head. "I've been flirtin' with you for months now and you never noticed—not once! I don't work that hard for second-best."

I blinked, confused. "Excuse me?"

She brushed her fingertips along my cheek. "I'm not sayin' it's not complicated. I loved Fritz and, yes, I'm still grievin' his death. I will be for a while. But losin' him, and Momma before him, taught me tomorrow isn't promised and we ought to spend our todays more wisely." She leaned forward and kissed me gently. When she pulled back, she shrugged helplessly. "So I've been spendin' mine with you."

We talked and held hands and kissed and talked some more until we were both falling asleep. Cognizant of the fact I wouldn't want Rusty to come home in the morning to find us spooned together on the couch, Brenda Leigh decided to go home. But not before I'd agreed to go out with her, on what she called "a proper date."

"Wear somethin' black and slinky," she murmured, nuzzling my neck sleepily. We were saying our goodbyes in the open doorway of my condo. It was 4am and we were probably scandalizing nosy Mrs. Boedigheimer across the hallway, but I didn't care.

"Just exactly where are you taking me, Brenda Leigh Johnson?" I asked, stopping her from answering with another long, languid kiss.

"Keep kissin' me like that, Sharon Raydor, and I'll take you wherever your little heart desires," she said a little breathlessly. "But tomorrow—no, tonight—tonight, I'm gonna show you off at Valentino. I want everyone to see me with the most beautiful woman in the room." She bit her bottom lip and grinned. "They'll simmer in their own envy."

I chuckled. "Flatterer," I said, leaning in for another kiss, then another.

Brenda Leigh finally pulled away, resting her forehead on my shoulder. "I'd better go," she said. "Otherwise we'll still be standin' here in your doorway when Rusty comes home."

"Go," I said, reaching out to wind a lock of gold around my finger. "Get some sleep." I felt myself sway toward her, wanting to kiss her again, and put up both my hands to ward off the temptation.

"I'm goin'," she said, stepping backward away from me. "I'll pick you up at seven." She turned and took a few steps down the hall before stopping and turning back. "Sharon, did you ever think we'd end up here, kissin' the night away in your open doorway, when we met that first time? What was it—four years ago?"

"Almost five," I corrected. "And I didn't think we'd end up here, kissing in my open doorway, five hours ago, Brenda Leigh."

She grinned and the sun rose in her eyes. "Well, you always were the slow one," she said.

I woke at 10:30 the next morning, bleary-eyed and desperate for coffee. As exhausted as I had been when Brenda Leigh had left, I had replayed our night together over and over, remembering the taste of our kisses, her touch, and how it felt to finally hold her. I had fallen asleep smiling.

I pulled a robe over my pajamas and headed toward the kitchen only to find Rusty sitting at the dining room table, eating a bowl of cereal. He grinned at me then looked behind me, his face falling when he didn't see what—or rather, who—he expected to see.

"How was the movie?" he asked, clearly disappointed.

I crossed my arms and raised a single eyebrow. "Apparently not as exciting as you thought it would be."

He had the good sense to look embarrassed.

"Did you think I would invite someone to stay the night on our first date?" I asked.

"First date?" he sputtered, clearly outraged. "Brenda has been trying to date you for, like, months now! Did you even realize it was a date when she showed up? She brought you flowers, Sharon. Purple flowers. Your favorite color."

I looked at the irises still sitting in the vase on the kitchen counter and smiled. Not only were they my favorite color but they were my favorite flower, too. Knowing what I knew now, her gesture took on an entirely different meaning than it had the night before.

I looked back at Rusty, the look on his face expectant and slightly annoying.

"I need coffee," I said, walking past him to turn on my Keurig.

"You didn't know," he accused. "You had no idea! She's not exactly subtle, Sharon. How could you not know?"

"We are not having this conversation," I said, warning him. I glared at the Keurig, waiting impatiently for the water to heat. My head was killing me.

"Did you have it with Brenda?" he asked, shoveling a spoonful of cereal into his mouth. He looked like a little kid watching Saturday morning cartoons. I tried not to think how accurate the comparison might be.

"What do you mean?" The smell of coffee brewing momentarily distracted me from the content of our discussion.

"Oh my God!" Rusty looked as exasperated as I had ever seen him. "Are you and Brenda dating or not? This isn't a hard question."

I blinked, concerned. "Would it bother you if we were?" I asked, acutely aware of his vehemence in the matter. Had I missed something here?

"Oh yeah," said Rusty, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Yeah, it bothers me the woman who literally saved my life from some serial killer freak might be dating the woman who adopted me after helping me convict the serial killer freak. We teenage throwaways hate it when the women who take care of us date each other. Especially us gay ones."

I was touched by Rusty's acceptance even if I wasn't thrilled by his method of communicating it. But I wasn't going to let him know that.

"Well then, I am sorry to have to tell you Brenda is taking me to Valentino tonight on what she has decided to call 'a proper date'. You'll have to reconcile yourself to seeing her more often."

One of the things I loved most about Rusty was his complete inability to hide what he was feeling. It was a freedom I didn't often allow myself and I lived vicariously through the vibrancy of his emotional palette. He was genuinely pleased by this information but attempted to play it off.

"I suppose I could get used to that," he said, noncommittally. He gave me a wicked smile. "The real question is can Mrs. Boedigheimer?"

I froze in mid-sip of my long-awaited coffee and looked over the rims of my glasses at my son. "Mrs. Boedigheimer?" I repeated, my voice a little flat.

Rusty shoveled another spoonful of cereal into his mouth. "Yeah. She stopped me this morning in the hall when I was coming home. She asked me to tell you she's happy for you."

"She did?"

"Uh-huh." He picked up his bowl and drank down the remainder of the milk in two gulps. "I think her exact words were 'I'm so happy your mozzer has found such a pretty voman to kiss in ze hallvay, even if it is at four o'clock in ze morning.'"

Rusty's grinned at me in schadenfreude-esque glee.

I closed my eyes. I am not proud to admit it but—for a split second—I wished death on that nosy German octogenarian. Catholic guilt forced me to take it back moments later.

My dinner with Brenda Leigh at Valentino that night was fantastic. Excellent food, impeccable service, a romantic table for two…. Brenda Leigh had only been wrong about one thing: the other patrons were envious all right, but of me. She was the most beautiful woman in the room.

Light conversation and nervous compliments gave way to subtle flirtation which eventually transformed into seductive gazes heavy with the promise of more. A delicious tension built between us all night and we spent considerable time in the back seat of Brenda Leigh's car in the parking garage of my building after dinner, engaging in what the nuns of my youth used to call 'heavy petting.' Both of us wanted more but Rusty was upstairs studying for mid-terms. Before either of us remembered Brenda Leigh lived alone, my cell phone rang.

We pulled away from a ravenous kiss and caught our breath, resting forehead to forehead.

Before the fourth ring, I reached for my phone in my purse on the passenger seat. I slid away from Brenda Leigh and she first straightened the hem of her fire-engine-red mini-dress, then her passion-tumbled hair. I bit my lip and tried not to look at her.

I stabbed the touch screen of my phone instead. "Raydor," I snapped.

"Uh, Lieutenant Tao, Captain. We have a situation, a home-invasion in Hancock Park. Six deceased, including a pair of two-year-old twins…."

I closed my eyes and mouthed the words 'I'm sorry' to Brenda Leigh, who shook her head to indicate I shouldn't apologize.

"I'll have to change. I was out on—at dinner. Text me the address and I'll be there in—" I checked the clock on my phone. "Forty minutes. Have Lieutenant Provenza ready to give me a report when I arrive and shut the media down completely. I want a hard perimeter around that house. Am I understood?"

"Yes, ma'am. We're on it." He clicked off and I apologized to Brenda and began looking for my left shoe at the same time.

"I'm so sorry to cut our evening short—" I began, only to be silenced by a quick, sharp kiss.

"It's okay, Sharon," said Brenda Leigh. "Believe me, I am the one person on Earth who understands completely. Go." She pushed the door open behind me and I backed out of the car awkwardly.

"Will you be okay getting home?" I asked, pulling my purse out of the front seat. I wished she would stay—would be there, waiting for me, when I got home—but everything was too new, too precarious, and we hadn't even….

"Of course. Call me when you can. I'll be up."

I nodded and forced myself to leave, hurrying toward the elevator. I looked back at her once and she waved. The elevator doors closed just as she called, "Be safe!"

I stumbled back into my condo at 5:30am the next morning, trying hard not to wake Rusty. I stripped out of the tan suit I'd changed into after dinner and pulled on the pajamas I'd worn the night before, when I'd fallen asleep remembering kisses. I fell into my bed with my phone in my hand and called Brenda Leigh.

She picked it up on the half-ring. "Sharon? Honey, you okay?"

"No, but I will be when we catch these bastards," I said, closing my eyes against the memories of what we'd found in that house.

"What can I do? What do you need?"

Not 'That bad, huh?': the question most other people would have asked when faced with the brutal realities of my job. Instead, an offer of help, of support. I would have smiled gratefully if I hadn't been so exhausted.

"I need you here, holding me," I admitted honestly.

There was a sharp intake of breath on Brenda Leigh's end then the sound of rushed movement.

"I can be there in fifteen minutes—" she began but I interrupted her.

"No, Brenda. Don't. As much as I need you, I need sleep more. I have to be up to shower in two hours and if you're here, I won't sleep at all."

"Yes, you will—" she protested but I stopped her.

"Trust me, I won't." I paused, wondering if my next words would be too rash under the circumstances. In the end, I was too tired to care. "I want you, Brenda Leigh. In ways I haven't wanted anyone in a long time."

"I want you, too, Sharon," she replied, her voice sultry and deep. "So much."

I swallowed my need. "Talk to me instead. Until I can sleep."

"About what?" She sounded pained, almost panicked. I could hear the worry in her voice.

"I don't know. Tell me—tell me about the most peaceful place you remember in Georgia. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere without hatred and violence." Somewhere where people don't butcher children, I thought. I wiped away the tears rolling helplessly down my face.

"All right. All right." I could almost hear her wracking her brain, digging around in her cluttered memory like one of her over-sized bags for something suitable to distract me. "There's a place out on St. Simons Island—a wooden dock in the middle of a marsh, just as lonely as you can imagine. There's nothin' out there—no boats, no people. Just this creaky, little broken-down dock slowly collapsin' into the murky water. I used to go out there when I came home to visit Momma and Daddy. Sometimes I just needed to be alone, after everythin' I'd seen—after everythin' I'd done.

"I'd go out as far as I could on the dock and I'd sit there, watchin' the tide go out or watchin' the sun turn red and sink into the horizon. I could hear birds cryin' their sad songs and the water lappin' at the dock posts and my own heartbeat and that was it. That was it, Sharon. Just birds and water and the rustle of leaves in the oak trees, dancin' in the ocean breeze…."

My phone vibrating woke me at 7:45am and I realized I'd fallen asleep holding it, drifting off into a blissfully dreamless sleep listening to Brenda Leigh talk about the ocean. As I lay there, forcing myself awake, I remember thinking I could still hear her.

In fact, I could. Our call was still connected and Brenda Leigh was still telling stories, her voice thick and sleepy, but there, carrying me through what could have been a dark and ugly morning.

"…an' that was the first time I remember ever seein' my Daddy. I was almost four years old and he was so tall and handsome in his Marine uniform, blockin' out the sun high overhead. It was about a thousand degrees—right in the middle of August—and he lifted me up in his arms and swung me around. I laughed and laughed—"

"Brenda?" I croaked. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Brenda? What are you still doing up?"

"Holdin' you," she said matter-of-factly. "Since I couldn't do it in person, I thought I'd do it with stories. To keep away the nightmares." She yawned. "Did it work?"

"It absolutely did," I said, sitting up. "But you should be asleep. You should have ended the call hours ago."

"Not tonight. Not when you needed me. I can sleep after we hang up."

I pulled myself out of bed. "Which has to be now, unfortunately. I need to shower and get to the precinct." I pulled my pin-stripe suit out of my closet and hung it on the back of the door. "I can't believe you talked to me for over two hours, Brenda. I don't know how to thank you…."

"I'm sure I can think of somethin'" she said, mimicking Rita from the final scenes of Groundhog Day.

I chuckled. "I'm sure you can. I have to go. I'll call you this afternoon. I promise."

"I'll be here." She yawned again and whispered "Be safe."

"You too," I whispered back before disconnecting the call. I held the phone to my heart for a moment then put it on my dresser, hurrying to get ready.

One home invasion quickly became two in the space of two weeks and my team worked around the clock to find the men who seemed to be targeting and torturing families. Nothing—not even a bite of food—had been taken from the houses.

We ran down every lead, every possible connection between the two families and kept coming up empty handed. The family from Hancock Park, the Rombergs, were upper-middle-class, Jewish, educated, and well-traveled. They'd been home celebrating their twins' second-birthday with their maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Lewin, also of Hancock Park. The family from Brentwood, the Turners, were middle-class, African American, hard-working, and involved in their community. Alicia Turner, the wife, was just leaving for her shift at Keck Medical Center. Her husband, Keith, was finishing breakfast with their kids.

As far as we could tell, the two families had never even crossed paths.

To complicate matters, the Lewins were acquaintances of the mayor, increasing the pressure to close this case. It was a complication I didn't need.

I barely had the opportunity to eat, let alone to shower or change. I caught cat naps in my office or sometimes managed to slip home for an hour or two of restless, fractured sleep.

I snuck away from the bullpen to call Brenda Leigh for five minutes here and there, sometimes hiding in my car or in the stairwell to whisper how much I wished I could see her, promising her my team would find a break in the case soon and she and I could spend some time together. We both knew from experience how little a promise like that meant.

A mysterious take-out feast appeared at the precinct on the second Sunday my team had to work. Of course, it had been sent by Brenda Leigh. Most of my detectives attributed her generosity to a kind of quid pro quo thank you for the rotating schedule of dinners we'd arranged for her when she was first grieving Fritz's death. Only Provenza gave me an inscrutable look.

We'd just begun the third week of our investigation when a possible motive reared its ugly head.

It was a Tuesday evening in early November. I had sent Amy and Julio home to sleep that afternoon while the three lieutenants and I reached out to law enforcement offices in surrounding counties to discuss recent home invasions and break-ins. It was a long shot but we had little in the way of forensic evidence and no leads. We had to do something.

I was on the phone with Sacramento FBI in my office when I saw Lieutenant Tao answer his phone. After listening for a moment, he stood and glanced worriedly in my direction. He grabbed a notepad from his desk and scribbled a few lines of information. When he hung up, he glanced in my direction again, then hurried to Lieutenant Provenza's desk. The two of them had spoken for only a moment when Provenza stood, grabbing for his jacket on the back of his chair with one hand and gesturing for me with the other.

I apologized to the agent on the phone and hung up.

"What is it?" I asked, hurrying into the bullpen.

"Another possible home invasion," said Lieutenant Tao, grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair. "In Silverlake. A relative of the homeowner found the bodies."

"The good thing about this—if it is, in fact, our particular team of low-lifes—is the scene is fresh," said Provenza. "The witness says he'd spoken to his brother just a couple of hours ago on the telephone."

"And the bad thing?" I asked. He was holding something back. I was sure of it.

"Besides having another scene, you mean?" asked Andy sarcastically.

Provenza rounded on him. "Flynn, you call Amy and Julio. Give them the address; tell them to meet us there. Tao, make sure CSU and the coroner are on the way. And Buzz. Don't forget Buzz." He turned toward me and put one hand lightly on my back. "Captain, you ride with me. We'll talk on the way."

Later, I stood over the bodies of Jeff Thiel, the homeowner, and his new boyfriend, Alex Long. Jeff's older brother, Michael, told us it was their third date, that they'd met at a party a month or so ago, that they'd had dinner at RockSugar in Century City. When Jeff hadn't called after the date as promised, Michael had tried to call him. Both his brother's cell and home phones had gone to voice mail. Worried, he'd decided to drop by, just to check on his little brother. A little voice in the back of his head had told him something was wrong.

It had been right.

Alex Long had dark hair and eyes and a swimmer's athleticism. Jeff though…. Jeff Thiel shared his brother's blue eyes but his hair was lighter. He had a dancer's physique, a long, aquiline nose, and—lying there on the floor in a dark pool of blood—he could have been Rusty. Or rather, in a few years, Rusty would look very much like him.

The realization chilled me to the bone.

I left the house without saying a word and made my way back to Lieutenant Provenza's car. I shut myself in and let my head drop back onto the headrest, fighting both exhaustion and tears. Within seconds, my cell phone rang. It was Brenda Leigh, of course. I sighed. I was supposed to have been home hours ago. I was supposed to have called.

I wiped my eyes and answered the phone with an apology.

"It's all right, darlin'," she said. "I was just worried is all. Where are you?"

I looked back at the house. "Another scene. Silverlake. Lieutenant Provenza drove me. I'm sitting in the car, waiting for the coroner to arrive." I rubbed my forehead, trying to soothe yet another headache. "Where are you?"

"Your place," she said. "I stopped by to check on Rusty. We ordered pizza and played video games until he went to bed." The tears I'd been fighting spilled down my cheeks. I covered my mouth so she wouldn't hear me sob. "I was gonna wait for you to come home, but when you hadn't by now, I thought I oughta call. Is it them again?"

I cleared my throat and tried to sound as stodgy and formal as usual. "It appears so."

"Oh, Sharon, I'm so sorry. What can I do? I want to help—"

"Believe me, Brenda Leigh, you are doing exactly what I need you to do." I rummaged through my purse for a Kleenex and dried my eyes. "Be there for Rusty. Please." I looked back at the house and saw Lieutenant Provenza walking toward the car. "The coroner must have arrived," I said. I checked my face in the mirror and grimaced. It would have to do. "I have to go."

"I know. It's okay."

I closed my eyes. "No, it's not. I—I wish this was over already. I wish I could see you."

"Me too, darlin'," she said softly. I could hear her smile. "Soon."

"Thank you, Brenda Leigh. Thank you for checking on Rusty." Provenza knocked quietly on the window. "I have to go."

"Okay. Don't worry about us. We're fine."

I smiled, grateful beyond words. "I know." I wanted to say more but the growing lump in my throat prevented it.

"Be safe, Sharon," Brenda said softly, then hung up.

I dropped my phone in my jacket pocket and girded myself for the coroner, hoping we'd be lucky and this would all soon be over.

Luck was not on our side that night despite our newfound fears about a possible motive. In fact, it wasn't until the fourth home invasion that we caught a break in the case. The woman who lived in the fourth house had a secret. She'd been stalked a few years earlier by a co-worker. Although her stalker had eventually escalated to physical assault and was still serving time, the motion-sensitive nanny cams she'd had installed in her home to protect herself were still present. The home invaders had no idea they were being filmed. They hadn't even worn masks, believing masks were unnecessary since they weren't planning to let any of their targets live.

Sanaa Rostami's security system caught a significant portion of the brutal attack, including full facial shots of two of the three perpetrators. Her determination to protect herself from another assailant had provided us the means to stop one of the most violent home invasion teams on record.

We were able to identify and to arrest the two visible men in the video using facial recognition software. Both of them had criminal histories—long ones extolling armed robbery and B&E convictions with prison terms.

By the time we determined the identity of the third perpetrator—Mike Butler, a White Supremacist the others had met during separate stints in Folsom—we were all exhausted, the working dead. It took another week to locate Butler and to orchestrate the deal that would give him the death penalty. None of us were completely satisfied with the outcome.

I sent my entire team home to get some sleep after we handed the case off to DDA Hobbs but Lieutenant Provenza and Detective Sanchez stayed behind to finish some reports—or so Provenza wanted me to believe. Julio busied himself with clearing photographs and crime details off the four white boards we had set up in the bullpen while Provenza just sat at his desk, absently moving files from one pile to another.

I sat in my office and looked out at them, acutely aware the open blind slats made it seem as if I was looking out at the bullpen through the bars of a cell. But I sat there, unable to move, knowing if I did move, I might break down and I was not about to do that in front of my team—or the few who remained—after all we'd been through on this case.

So I sat. And stared. And sat.

And stared as Brenda Leigh Johnson, in jeans and a carnation pink cardigan, entered the bullpen, her blond ponytail bobbing behind her as she walked. She carried an enormous white purse that matched her white tee and white Keds. She looked more like a tourist heading to the beach than the previous leader of our force.

I saw Lieutenant Provenza rise from his desk when she walked in. Julio stopped taking photos off the boards. Although I couldn't hear them, my lip-reading skills were good enough that I saw both of them address her as 'Chief.'

She smiled at them and moved to shake each of their hands. She wasn't a hugger, even now. I guessed the CIA had probably broken her of that tendency with everyone but her inner circle. I saw her tell Julio it was good to see him. I saw her thank Lieutenant Provenza and when she did, he looked into my office.

He knew. I don't know how he knew, but he clearly did. He looked down at his desk after meeting my gaze but I could tell.

He knew. And he'd called her, had told her to come.

He truly was the best investigator in Los Angeles County.

Brenda Leigh opened my office door but I couldn't look at her. I couldn't look at any of them.

She must have read something of my distress in my lack of action because she crossed the room to my blinds and pulled them closed on both sides. She dropped her bag in one of my guest chairs then came to stand next to me, waiting silently.

The blinds still swayed with movement after being pulled shut and I watched them until they blurred, tears I didn't want spilling down my cheeks.

Brenda Leigh knelt beside me.

"I know you don't want to do this here," she said, her voice so soft, so gentle. "I know how hard this is for you." She reached out and brushed my hair away from my eyes. "Let's go home, darlin'."

"I can't," I whispered, feeling the threads of my control begin to unravel.

"You can." When I didn't respond, her voice became sharp, focused. "Sharon, look at me. Look at me right now."

It took every ounce of whatever strength I thought I had left, but I turned to her, finding my gaze held by deep, dark brown eyes filled with understanding and an unwavering belief in me.

"You can do this, Sharon Raydor," she repeated. "You're gonna get up and walk out there just like you have every other day of the year. You'll thank Lieutenant Provenza and Detective Sanchez for their good work on this case and you'll remind them there is more to life than sittin' around this godforsaken place on a Wednesday afternoon." She leaned in to kiss my cheek and whispered, "Then I'm takin' you home."

I did exactly what she said, even managing to raise my eyebrow at Provenza when he smirked surreptitiously at Brenda's presence. The slight smile he gave me served as his blessing and meant more to me than I could say. I made a mental note to ask him how he had discovered our secret, but that could wait for another time.

Rusty stood when we entered the condo, looking nervously from Brenda to me and back. I tried not to see Jeff Thiel in him but it was almost impossible not to do so. The pressure of my unexpressed grief rose again behind my eyes, closing my throat, and all I wanted to do was throw my arms around my son to know, viscerally, he was alive and safe and well.

Rusty walked a few steps toward us and I met him by the dining room table, pulling him into a hug. He hugged me back, tentatively at first, then harder.

"Are you okay?" he asked. I heard the confusion and worry in his voice. For a young man who was still working out his own grief and anger regarding his childhood, he was handling my distress remarkably well.

"I am now," I assured him, pulling away slightly to look at him. I realized the tears welling up in my eyes belied my words but I couldn't stop them. I hugged him again, instead. He would just have to get used to my occasional emotional outbursts.

"Nothin' a proper meal an' fifteen hours of sleep can't fix," said Brenda confidently, joining us in the dining room.

Rusty released me and said, "I can make scrambled eggs and toast if that would help." He looked so eager to act—to do something helpful—my heart ached.

I ran my fingers through his bangs. "That would be perfect," I said, smiling.

"Brenda can help. She says she can make decent tea—though I've never actually seen her do it."

Brenda looked positively scandalized. "I'll have you know tea is the house wine of the South! Well, sweet tea is and I know my way around a pitcher of sweet tea. Hot tea is just the starter. How hard can it be?" She grinned, then looked at me, turning serious. "That is—I'd be happy to help if your momma wants me to stay."

I didn't hesitate. "Please," I said, reaching out my hand to her, relieved when she took it. I was still functioning largely because of Brenda Leigh's strength and I knew it. I wasn't ready to give it—or her—up just yet.

Brenda Leigh's smile returned and she squeezed my hand in hers. "All right," she said, turning to look at the kitchen. "Why don't you shower and change, Sharon, while Rusty and I start dinner. We'll take care of everythin'."

I thought those might be famous last words but I'd been craving a long, hot shower for weeks so I excused myself while Brenda Leigh and Rusty began opening cupboards and drawers, preparing for their culinary collaboration.

In my room, I stripped off the clothes I felt like I'd been wearing for a month and headed to my bathroom, my sanctuary. It was the one room I had splurged on when I had bought the condo, remodeling it from the ground up so I could have both the deep, claw foot tub I had always wanted, but also a palatial shower enclosure. I turned on the shower and waited until steam began to collect on the mirror over my sink before stepping inside.

As I settled under the hot spray, I felt the muscles in my neck and shoulders begin to relax.

Finally, I thought, more preoccupied with the physical sensations of heat and water and the gentle massage of the showerhead setting than any thought currently housed in my mind. I washed my hair vigorously and scrubbed the sweat and staleness from my skin without thinking, simply reveling in the quiet, the steam, and the soothing heat. When I finished, I repeated the entire process for no other reason than I could.

Somewhere between rewashing my hair and rewashing my body, the thoughts roaming my brain became sharper, more focused, and more distracting. I felt my hands curl into fists, felt the muscles in my abdomen and chest tighten, felt my face contract into an involuntary frown. From somewhere behind my navel, waves of anger and of sadness crashed together, swelling quickly, swamping me. The heat and quiet of my shower had melted my defenses and my guard was down for the first time in weeks. Sobs tore through me, a tsunami of emotion, and I tried to stifle them, first by holding them in, then—when that failed spectacularly—by covering my face with a washcloth. I doubled over as the sobs wracked my body, unable to breathe for what seemed like an eternity until the waves receded a little and I took in a great, gulping breath.

I leaned heavily on the tile wall under the showerhead, steadying myself as grief and self-recrimination began a battle for my conscious thoughts. The lancing shrieks of myriad whys pierced me over and over.

Why had these men done these terrible things? Why did they hate so desperately—enough to slaughter entire families? Why hadn't I stopped them sooner? Why did such evil exist in the world?

None of these questions had answers and they were only another distraction from the real enemy, the one lurking behind the anger and grief and self-recrimination, pulling their strings like marionettes.

Fear.

Ripping the veil of concealment from the fear caused it to bloom and expand like black ink dropped in water. These people—and my mind spat the word because to define those men as such strained the definition of the word to its limits—had targeted those different from themselves. These people—again, a venomous expectoration of the word—had butchered human beings because of their religion, because of their race, because of their sexuality, having deemed them to be lesser, aberrations to be eradicated, deviations from a self-referential norm who required destruction.

And there it was, the real source of my pain. Those men would not have thought twice about doing the same heinous things to my son, to my soon-to-be lover, to myself. They would not have hesitated, having passed judgment of the most permanent kind, to end our lives brutally and violently in the name of some perverted good.

What frightened me the most, though? They were not alone, not unique at all. There were many who felt the way Mike Butler and his associates felt and they, too, would do equally hateful, horrible things to us if given the chance.

I couldn't stop those animals before they had killed fourteen innocent people. What made me think I could stop others when the target was my son or my lover...or even myself?

I sobbed though I wanted to scream and I tried to stop the sound with a claret-colored washcloth and my own will, afraid Rusty or Brenda Leigh would hear me, afraid they would come to my rescue, afraid they wouldn't.

That's when the door to the shower opened briefly, then closed.

A pair of slight arms lightly encircled my waist. A pair of soft lips pressed an earnest kiss between my shoulder blades. A velvet cheek nuzzled my shoulder.

"It's all right, darlin'," whispered Brenda Leigh. "I've got you."

"Did he hear me?" I asked hoarsely, my first and only concern the possibility that Rusty had heard me sobbing and was pacing the length of the living room, blaming himself somehow for my breakdown.

"I sent him to the store twenty minutes ago," said Brenda Leigh gently. "Turns out neither one of us is any good at shoppin'. There's not a single egg or slice of bread in this entire house." She kissed my right shoulder blade and I felt her smile against my skin. "Tea, though—we have an abundance of tea."

I covered one of Brenda Leigh's hands with my own and entwined our fingers, attempting to stifle more tears, these of gratitude. "Thank you," I whispered.

"I had a feelin' somethin' like this might be comin'," she said. "He'll be gone for a little while yet. I wanted to give you time to do what you needed to do." She tightened her arms around my waist. "I wanted you to know you don't have to do it alone."

It never occurred to me to be self-conscious or even nervous though we were both decidedly…underdressed. This moment wasn't about passion or desire; it was about comfort and support. I felt grateful. I felt cared for, deeply. I felt safe.

The sobs receded then tapered off completely, leaving me sodden, disheveled, and even more exhausted than I had been. Brenda Leigh said nothing, only held me close, our right hands entwined while her left caressed soothing patterns on the skin over my left hip.

"I'm so afraid," I whispered, turning my face under the spray to wash away my tears, surprised we still had hot water.

"Of what?" asked Brenda Leigh, propping her chin on my shoulder.

"Of something terrible happening to Rusty or to you." I felt a pounding headache beginning at my temples. "Of not being able to stop it."

"There are no guarantees in life, darlin'," she said simply. "But I tell you what, if somethin' bad does happen to Rusty or me, well, my money's on you to stop it."

I chuckled mirthlessly. "You give me too much credit."

She nuzzled me with her cheek again. "Not from where I'm standin'," she said, coloring her tone with the barest hint of flirtation. It was enough of a life line for me to grasp at and I reached for it, pulling myself out of the miasma of grief…for now. I looked over my shoulder at the top of her blonde head.

"Stay with me tonight?" I asked, then stumbled to clarify. "Not for anything—not for—" I sighed, frustrated with my sudden shyness.

Brenda Leigh tightened her arms around me. "I've been wantin' to hold you while you sleep for a while now," she admitted. "Is that okay?"

I nodded, grateful she'd understood. As much as I had been wanting to reconnect with Brenda Leigh in the way we had after our date at Valentino, tonight was just not the night for passion. I needed something else entirely. "That's perfect," I said, turning in her arms. I rested my forehead against hers. "Thank you."

She reached up to brush the backs of her fingers along my cheek. "You're welcome," she said softly. After a moment, she took a deep breath, as if waking from a dream. "Now, as much as I hate to say it, we need to get out of this shower and get dressed before Rusty gets home. Finding us kissin' in the hallway is a whole lot different than findin' us together in the shower and I, for one, am not ready to have that conversation. Are you?"

I reflexively reached for the shower controls and the spray trickled to a stop.

"I'll take that as a 'no,'" she said, grinning at me lopsidedly.

We emerged from my bedroom ten minutes before Rusty returned, breathless, with groceries and bakery boxes. I took the pink boxes from him at the door, questions apparently written all over my face.

"The way this family is always talking about pie, I thought one or two might, like, help," he said by way of explanation. "House of Pies is just over on Vermont and I know you like their sour cream cheesecake."

I laughed, fully cognizant of the Raydor family obsession with pie. "And the other one?"

He shrugged nervously. "I thought Brenda might like peach," he said. "Since she's from Georgia."

"It's my favorite!" she exclaimed, lying through her teeth. I knew perfectly well her favorite was chocolate peanut butter pie, but I was touched she'd lie about it to save Rusty's feelings. The pleased smile he gave her was worth the deception.

Brenda Leigh and Rusty made scrambled eggs, bacon, and sourdough toast for the three of us and the hot tea with lemon and simple syrup, made to Brenda Leigh's exacting specifications, was particularly soothing. I was already foggy with exhaustion when Rusty broke out the pie plates but I managed to devour a single piece of the sour cream cheesecake anyway.

I was practically asleep in my seat, listening to Brenda Leigh's and Rusty's good-natured sparring back and forth across the table, when someone took the fork gently from my grasp.

"Hey, sleepyhead," whispered Brenda Leigh, taking the empty plate from my place. "Bed time."

I nodded, yawning in the process, and stood, crossing to Rusty, pulling him out of his seat to give him a hug.

"Thank you for making me your famous scrambled eggs," I said, smiling softly. "And for the cheesecake. It was very thoughtful of you."

He held me tighter for a moment. "You've done so much for me, Sharon," he said, his voice wavering a little, the way it often did when he talked about emotional things. "I wanted to do something for you for once."

I let him go and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "You do more for me than you could ever know, Rusty," I said. "Every day. But thank you for wanting to do something special."

"You're welcome," he said, grinning, pleased by the recognition of his efforts. I knew acknowledgement like that must have been a rare occurrence during his childhood.

Brenda Leigh came to stand beside me, reaching for my hand and entwining our fingers. "Your momma has asked me to stay the night," she said, looking at Rusty openly, honestly. She clearly didn't want this to be something that went undiscussed. "Is that okay with you, Rusty?" she asked.

His grin didn't fade. "I kinda figured you would whether she asked or not," he said, a wicked gleam in his eye. "So yeah, it's okay with me."

He laughed at my look of consternation. "Just for that, you're cleaning the kitchen," I told him, pointing in that general direction, resisting only slightly as Brenda Leigh pulled me toward the hallway.

"Okay, okay," he said, holding his hands up in surrender. "Good night, Brenda," he said, waving. "Good night, Mom." Then he turned to start gathering the rest of the dishes from the dining room table.

I stopped in my tracks and stared after him, tears of joy pricking the corners of my eyes.

It was the first time Rusty had ever called me 'Mom.'

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Brenda Leigh returned to my side and squeezed me, grinning as I savored it, burning it into my memory, using it to overwrite some of the more disturbing things I had seen over the past month.

She eventually pulled me down the hall before Rusty caught me staring and we entered my bedroom together. All the nervousness I had not felt hours ago in the shower caught up with me and I began to tremble from a potent mix of adrenaline and expectation.

Brenda Leigh released me and crossed to my reading chair, now entirely dwarfed by her gigantic white bag. She reached into it and retrieved a white tank top, a pair of shorts, and a pink toothbrush. She caught me staring at her and shrugged self-consciously.

"I had to be prepared…in case you needed me," she explained.

My stomach flipped and I felt a smile bubble up from my toes.

The truth was, I needed Brenda Leigh in ways I hadn't fully identified or categorized yet. The home invasion case had subsumed my life just as we were beginning to navigate the transition from friendship to something more. I was painfully aware, though, that two dates and a handful of earnest telephone calls did not a relationship foundation make.

Brenda Leigh excused herself to change in the bathroom and I turned off all the lights except for the one on my bedside table. I took off my glasses and the sweater I'd thrown over my tee-shirt and yoga pants, then slipped into bed, feeling decidedly awkward and insecure.  I listened to the water running as she brushed her teeth and wondered what I was doing—what we were doing.  This certainly wasn't the usual order of things—at least not in my experience. 

I had married Jack at thirty, waiting until I had made detective before settling down to raise a family.  I wasn't so devout a Catholic that I had saved myself for marriage (my mother's beliefs notwithstanding) but all of my relationships up to and including Jack had begun with romance and intimacy.  Months usually passed before my partner and I would spend a chaste night together in bed, talking or simply holding one another, and it had never become a common occurrence.  The physical aspect of the relationship had provided the bond.  Everything else was, well, icing.

I found the prospect of upending that particular paradigm both intriguing and nerve-wracking.

I heard the water turn off in the bathroom and watched as the door opened, admitting Brenda Leigh in her abbreviated yet perfectly respectable sleeping attire. Her shorts were a shade of blue that reminded me of the beaches in Miami. I wondered if that was why I felt so warm.

She took a few hesitant steps toward the bed and I lifted a corner of the blankets as an invitation. She accepted readily and slipped in beside me, her feet and legs like ice. I reacted instinctively.

"Come here so I can warm you up," I whispered, pulling her closer and entwining our legs so she could leech some heat from me. I always seemed to generate a furnace's worth of heat, even now. Perhaps especially now.

"Ohhh," she sighed gratefully. "You're so warm!" She curled into me, shivering momentarily, and I convinced myself it was because of the cold and nothing else. I gathered the blankets closer around us both and had just begun to contemplate the puzzle that would be the placement of arms and legs and bodies when everything seemed to settle magically on its own. Surprised, I realized we fit together incredibly well, like German engineering. There were no gaps, no uncomfortable angles requiring workarounds, no excess footage taking up too much space.

Brenda Leigh and I were close in height but that couldn't possibly account for the difference. Where I was used to angles and hard edges, I now found curves and softness. Where I was used to imbalance and compromise, I now found total symmetry. The entire experience appealed to me deeply, like the craftsmanship of a Patek watch or the perfection of Mozart's concertos. I sighed in utter contentment and felt Brenda Leigh smile against my neck.

"How long has it been since someone's held you like this?" she asked quietly.

The funny thing was, I didn't know. "Mmm…seven years?" I guessed, not at all sure.

Brenda Leigh propped herself up by my side and gaped at me, her mouth hanging half open in outrage. "That is simply criminal, Sharon Raydor!" she exclaimed, her face a perfect picture of righteous indignation and incredulity. "How can you have survived? That's—that's just terrible!"

I shrugged. "It wasn't a priority," I admitted. "For me or for my more recent partners. My unique circumstances with Jack necessitated a certain amount of discretion and of scheduling. Convenience superseded passion or connection in those relationships. They were good friends. There wasn't room for more in my life at the time."

"So the last person who drove you to distraction with passion or who held you while you slept to comfort you was Jack?"

I shook my head. "Not at all."

"But—"

I stopped her mouth with a soft, sudden kiss. When I pulled back, I looked into her eyes. "The last person to drive me to distraction or to comfort me while I slept was you, Brenda Leigh. One month ago, when this horrible case began. Or don't you remember?"

She collapsed back into my arms and blew her own bangs out of her eyes, a mock-pout hiding her obvious pleasure at my admission. "Oh, I remember! I remember waitin' months to get you to notice me at all and then havin' that pack of rabid animals ruin all my hard work!"

I turned her to look at me, wanting her to see the truth of what I was about to say reflected in my eyes. "I noticed you," I said. "I don't know when it happened or why, but all I've been doing for months is noticing you…and berating myself for having a crush on my best friend." I gave her a lopsided, self-conscious smile. "Apparently I was too busy beating myself up for some imagined intrusion on your grieving process to notice the feelings were mutual. I'm sorry."

Her consternation softened and she reached up to brush her fingers along my cheek, a smile curving her petal-pink lips. "Well, no harm done, I guess," she said, leaning in for another light kiss. "As long as everybody's on the same page now."

I chuckled. "I think we have that covered," I said, thinking of Rusty and Lieutenant Provenza and Julio. And Mrs. Boedigheimer.

Brenda Leigh settled back into my arms and we simply held each other. I could feel the far-away tattoo of her heartbeat through our tee-shirts and the pleasant, comforting weight of her against my side. Her hair smelled like green apples and sunshine and the fingertips of her right hand slipped beneath the hem of my shirt to draw abstract patterns on my skin, giving me wave after wave of goose bumps. The warmth and quiet and comfort of our little nest conspired to heighten my drowsiness and I felt myself begin to slip sideways into sleep.

Brenda Leigh stirred in my arms just before I drifted off completely and whispered, "I'm right here, Sharon. For as long as you want me."

I nuzzled her temple. "Thank God," I whispered back.

I awoke hours and hours later to the feel of Brenda Leigh Johnson spooned behind me, her expressive mouth doing amazing things to the nape of my neck and the column of my throat. I gasped, my body coming alive with delicious sensation before my brain could catch up. I felt her inquisitive hands against my skin, felt the ache and the heat they inspired, and arched my back to give her greater access.

"Brenda, what are you doing?"

She bit down gently on a particularly sensitive spot and I groaned.

"I've never been big spoon before," she explained, soothing the bite with her tongue. "I'm findin' the experience quite illuminatin'." Her fingers slipped higher up, brushing over my ribcage on their way to someplace much, much more sensitive. "What do you think?"

I turned my head to meet a torrid kiss and was too breathless to answer her at first. Just when I'd finally found my voice, my cell phone jingled on my dresser across the room.

"What was that?" asked Brenda, clearly not caring about the answer. She had other, more important things on her mind.

"A reminder alert," I said haltingly, shivering within her talented and busy hands.

The answer intrigued her. "A reminder for what?" she asked, smiling as she kissed her way down my vertebrae. Everywhere she touched me tingled.

"I have no earthly idea," I confessed, reaching behind me to pull her closer. "What day is today?"

"It's Thursday," she breathed, reaching up to nibble my right earlobe. Lightning skated down my nerve endings all the way to my toes. "The 11th," she added, her right hand drifting to a more southerly destination.

"The 11th," I repeated, the answer meaning nothing to me. I'm not even sure I understood what she was saying. I existed only in a realm of sensation and it took a long time for the words to coalesce with meaning. When they finally did, I froze, gripping Brenda Leigh's hip a little more forcefully than necessary. "Of December?"

"Ow!" she protested, pushing my hand away. "Yes, of December! How long did you think you'd been asleep for, Rip Van Winkle?"

"Oh my God! Emily!" I struggled with the comforter and sheets, trying to push them off me, floundering helplessly.

"Your daughter? The ballerina?" Brenda tried to help with the blankets but ended up making them more confused. "What about her?"

"That alert is to remind me when she's supposed to be home from the Ukraine," I said, finally managing to exit the bed. I reached for my glasses and slipped them on, Brenda Leigh's passion-tumbled hair and her annoyed features coming clearly into focus.

"Emily's comin' home from her tour? Today?" She closed her eyes, clearly asking for strength. "When?"

I reached for the watch on my bedside table and glanced at it as I slipped it on. "In about thirty minutes," I said, cursing the interruption, my aging memory, the lateness of the hour, and the entire criminal population of Los Angeles County all at once.

"Oh, for Pete's sake!" Brenda covered her eyes with her hands.

I stopped pulling clothing out of my dresser and sat on the bed next to Brenda. I grasped her hands and brought them to my lips, kissing them. When she opened her eyes to look at me, I cupped her cheek in my hand. I wanted to tell her this wasn't over, that I could still feel her mouth and hands on my body, that every one of my cells still vibrated with need for her, that no one had ever made me feel the way she did with just a few kisses and the brush of her fingertips, but I'm no poet.

I apologized instead.

Brenda sat up. "It's not your fault, darlin'," she said, smiling reluctantly. She leaned in for a kiss and I obliged happily. When she pulled away, she rolled her eyes at herself. "I've just never been what you might call patient."

"You don't say," I deadpanned, smirking at her. She laughed and I helped her out of the bed, giving it one last wistful look.

When we finally left the bedroom (at a decadently late 12:30pm), we walked into an entirely different dining room than the one Brenda Leigh had pulled me from after dinner the night before. Rusty stood at the kitchen counter with his back to us, arranging something we couldn't quite see. A colorful banner saying 'Welcome Home, Emily!' had been pinned over the dining room table, which was set for four for lunch. A pair of pale pink helium balloons had been tied to the back of one chair and a vase containing purple irises and bright orange tiger lilies sat in the middle of the table.

"What on Earth?" Brenda Leigh's grin couldn't have been wider if she'd tried. The flowers in the vase were our favorites combined.

Rusty jumped and turned around, a look of annoyance crossing his face. The mysterious project on the counter turned out to be a large salad. Three pizza boxes sat on the granite next to the bowl. "Nice of you two to join us," he said sarcastically, hurrying to put the salad on the table. "Emily's going to be here any minute!"

"I know," I said, covering a smile with my fingers. His irritation with us was palpable and well-deserved; his obvious nervousness was incredibly sweet. "The question is how do you know?"

"She texted me, like, an hour ago when her plane landed," he said, walking back into the kitchen to get napkins. "She said she didn't have anything to declare in customs because she'd, like, shipped everything good, so she'd be home by one at the latest. It's almost one now." He shot me a look that seemed equally disgusted and smug. I ignored it in favor of the knowledge he and Emily had apparently been keeping in touch.

Before I could comment, however, the doorbell rang. Rusty went positively white and wiped his hands on his jeans.

I turned and grinned, excitement at seeing Emily outweighing everything else at that moment. "My baby's home!"

The door swung open and a flat parcel cart piled with luggage entered the condo followed by my weary daughter. She wore oversized grey sweats, a pair of Uggs, and had pulled her long, dark hair up in a severe ponytail. She had a Timbuk 2 bag in competing prints slung across her body and was carrying a half-empty liter bottle of Evian.

I threw open my arms, expecting my baby, my only daughter to run to me. We hadn't seen each other in 18 months. She'd been on tour in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Ukraine. It had been a long and eventful time for both of us. Her face lit up and instead of running to me, she dropped the messenger bag and her bottle of water and darted past me, apologizing as she went.

"Mom! I'm sorry! I'm so happy to see you, I am. And Brenda, right? You must be Brenda. I can't wait to meet you. But there's just one thing—" She turned just as she reached Rusty and launched herself at him, so enthusiastic she almost knocked him off his feet. He yelped in alarm.

Emily hugged Rusty in the same way she used to hug the costumed characters at Disneyland or Santa Claus when she was a child: with her whole body and heart at the same time. Rusty looked wholly shocked by the experience and tentatively wrapped his arms around her. When she finally pulled back a little bit to look at him, she began to apologize.

"Sorry!" She spontaneously hugged him again. "It's not every day you get to meet your little brother in person for the first time."

Clearly unsure of what to say to that and looking completely taken aback, Rusty replied, "I'm pretty sure I'm two inches taller than you."

Emily laughed. "Everybody's taller than me. Even Mom." Then she rounded on me, a look of horror on her face. "Mom!"

Much more accustomed to my daughter's greetings, I braced myself for the hug just in time. It was so good to feel her in my arms again.

"Oh, sweetheart," I said. "You are a sight for sore eyes!" I pulled back and tugged on her ponytail. "Your hair is so long. Look at you!"

"Look at you! You look terrific, Mom. It's so good to be home," she said, her wild grin the same as it had always been. She looked over my shoulder at Brenda. "Now, introduce me to your girlfriend."

The order detonated like a bomb in the middle of the dining room and Rusty, Brenda, and I all froze, staring at Emily with various expressions of shock and disbelief. 

"What?"  Emily looked around the room at us and smirked.  "Was I not supposed to know that?  Am I wrong?"  No one answered her.  "I'm not wrong.  I'm never wrong about stuff like this."  She finally giggled.  "You thought I wouldn't figure that out?"  She shook her head finally and took it upon herself to approach Brenda Leigh, extending her hand in greeting.

"Hi," she said.  "I'm Emily, Sharon's daughter.  I'm getting a decidedly non-hugger vibe from you, so I'll just shake your hand."  Brenda extended her own hand slowly, her astonishment thawing and giving way to relief and admiration in equal measure.  "You must be Brenda Johnson, my mother's girlfriend.  I am so very happy to meet you." She looked at me and grinned evilly. "Please, please let me be the one to tell Dad."

Rusty looked from me to Brenda to Emily and back, his eyes round and his hands raised in supplication and surrender.  "I had nothing to do with this," he said desperately.  "I swear!"

I felt badly for him.  He'd—actually we all had fallen victim to Emily's preternatural talent for reading body language, emotional landscapes, and the general energy of a room.  It could be excruciatingly unnerving for the uninitiated, which both he and Brenda Leigh were.

Brenda Leigh, still slightly dazed but mostly recovered, shook Emily's hand warmly.  "I am so pleased to meet you, Emily," she said, her accent thicker than usual due to her discombobulation.  "Your momma has told me so much about you!  I'm lookin' forward to seein' you in The Nutcracker this Christmas.  I understand you'll be dancin' the part of Clara?"

As the two of them walked past me, heading for the couch in the living room, Brenda Leigh shot me a look I knew meant we were going to have a little talk later. I wasn't the least bit surprised.

By the time dinner had ended that evening, Rusty and Emily had bonded so totally, they had adopted annoying sibling nicknames for each other. Rusty had begun calling Emily "Hairy Larry" after seeing her unshaven legs and Emily had retaliated by calling him "Phteven", showing him a picture of a Dachshund with an overbite and a bowtie on her phone she claimed was her favorite picture of him. Emily had accepted Brenda Leigh with no qualms, finally putting together I had inherited my current position at the LAPD from her and wondering aloud if we'd realized our attraction to each other that long ago. She did not seem inclined to believe us when we told her most people who knew us then had been sure we would one day come to blows.

Brenda Leigh watched Rusty and Emily washing dishes in the kitchen for a moment before turning to me, asking, "Has Emily always been like that? Able to read people and situations so accurately?"

I nodded. "I've always attributed it to the fact she was born just as my marriage to Jack was beginning to fall apart. He left me before Emily turned two, but Jack was having affairs long before that. I think I was just beginning to put two and two together and, as a result, our relationship was…strained…most of the time. I was often angry and suspicious while he vacillated between distance and deceptive charm. Rick was already in school by then and didn't witness many of our arguments. Emily experienced it all right along with us."

"She's wasted in the ballet," declared Brenda Leigh flatly. "Bein' able to read people like that, with her level of self-possession and the strength and intelligence she inherited from you, well, the CIA would simply eat her up!"

"Eat her alive, you mean," I corrected, shaking my head. I didn't want Emily anywhere near the CIA, my relationship with Brenda Leigh notwithstanding. "Believe me, those skills you admire so much are just as frequently used within an international ballet company. You haven't seen brutal until you've seen two or three ballerinas competing over a newly-posted principal cast-member opening. They're like rabid dogs and ninjas combined."

Brenda Leigh grinned. "I see she's no worse for wear," she said.

I grinned back. "She got the part, didn't she?" We were still chuckling when Emily plopped herself practically in my lap, planting a melodramatic kiss on my cheek.

"Brenda, I'm taking everyone to dinner tomorrow night at Lucques, my treat. Please tell me you can join us." She winked at me. "Otherwise I might have to dig my ninja garb out of the bottom of my laundry bag."

Brenda Leigh seemed momentarily flummoxed before answering. "Please don't take this the wrong way, Emily," she began, looking from my daughter to me nervously. "Normally, I would be tickled pink to join your family for dinner—especially at Lucques. But I have another commitment tomorrow night." Seeing my obvious disappointment, not to mention Emily's, she asked, "May I have a rain check?"

Emily pouted. "I suppose," she said, drawing out the words morosely. "Rusty and I are going up to SF on Saturday to pester—I mean, visit—Rick." She grinned mischievously and I thought pester might be closer to the truth. The fact this was the first I was hearing about this little trip also made me suspicious. "I start dress rehearsals on Tuesday, so we'll be back Monday…." She reached for her phone and checked her calendar. "Maybe I could take you and Mom to lunch on Thursday—if Mom doesn't have a case."

"And Rick is expecting you both?" I asked pointedly, gratified when Emily affected an innocent look.

"Essentially," she said. "I mean, for all intents and purposes, yes, he is expecting us." She paused and tapped her fingers on the top of her phone. "Mostly."

I shook my head, not wanting to know any more. "Fine. Keep me out of it. Just don't get Rusty into any trouble."

She laughed. "That's what big sisters are for!" she said. I noticed she didn't clarify whether 'big sisters' were for keeping little brothers out of trouble or getting them into it. I decided it was safer not to know.

"As long as my team hasn't caught another case, I'm free Thursday," I said, looking at Brenda Leigh.

"Me too," she said, smiling. "I'm lookin' forward to it."

Later that evening, I left Rusty and Emily as they discussed the merits of the current season of some ridiculous television show or other while I walked Brenda Leigh to the elevator. She claimed she had to go home and pack and, yet again, this was the first I was hearing about a trip.

"Can you tell me where you're going?" I asked when we reached the elevator bank.

"DC," she said. "I have some loose ends I have to tie up there…a couple of meetings that can't wait." She looked at me worriedly, her brow creased over her café-au-lait eyes. "Are you upset with me for not tellin' you sooner?" she asked.

I was—a little—but it was an irrational reaction so I lied. Despite my daughter's unexpected declaration in the dining room, Brenda Leigh and I had not formalized our relationship in any way. We'd only been on one date—two if we counted Groundhog's Day and I thought that might be a stretch. "Not at all," I said, forcing a smile. "When will you be back?"

"Sunday afternoon," she said in a slightly sing-songy voice, reaching out to touch the collar of my sweater where it lay over my clavicle. My whole body tingled when her fingertips brushed the skin there. "Maybe I could come over when I get back?" she asked coyly.

In lieu of a verbal answer, I cupped the back of her neck with one hand, pushed her against the wall next to the elevator, and kissed her deeply. She was flushed and breathing raggedly when I released her.

"I'll take that as a 'yes,'" she said weakly, her bravado gone but her eyes burning.

"Please do," I said, adjusting my glasses nonchalantly, trying to hide how unsteady on my feet I'd become. I tried not to think about how much I wanted to kiss her again. "Who do you have watching Joel while you're away?" I asked, hoping a change of subject would help.

"The retired postman next door, Mr. Halloran," she said, pressing her hand to her throat. I could see her pulse pounding there. "He has my extra key."

"That's good," I replied woodenly. The change of subject wasn't helping at all. I swayed toward her, my body responding to the magnetic pull between us. I cleared my throat. "You need to go," I said firmly. I didn't want to think about what might happen if she stayed much longer. I imagined Mrs. Boedigheimer straining to hear us with a drinking glass pressed against the inside of her door.

Brenda Leigh had been staring at my mouth and she looked up at me sharply, blinking in surprise. "Yes," she agreed, shaking herself out of her daze. "Yes, I do." She turned and jabbed at the elevator's call button. When the elevator doors opened, I reached out and caught her sleeve.

"Be safe, Brenda," I said.

"I will," she replied. I let go and she stepped into the elevator car, waving just as the doors began to close.

Dinner at Lucques with Rusty and Emily the next night was wonderful. Rusty pulled uncomfortably at his collar, unused to wearing a tie. I made a mental note to thank Lieutenant Provenza for teaching him to tie his own, though Emily confessed she often assisted the male members of her company with theirs and would be able to assist. Emily herself was absolutely radiant in a dress she had obviously chosen for my benefit—a beautiful and conservative ensemble in cranberry that ended just above her knee.

The food and service at the restaurant were impeccable, of course, and Emily held court the entire night, regaling us both with stories from her travels. She had always been able to manipulate an audience as well as she could read one and she held Rusty and me in the palm of her hand. I hadn't laughed so hard in ages.

Later that night, as I tried—and mostly failed—to read in bed, my cell phone rang. It was Brenda Leigh.

"Hello," I said, drawing out the word, my voice much more sultry and deep than I had intended. Considering I had spent an hour "reading" the same page of my book over and over while actually indulging in somewhat salacious thoughts of Brenda, I wasn't surprised.

"This is ridiculous," she replied, sounding rather put out. "I've been here in DC for almost six hours now and all I can think about is you, Sharon Raydor! I can't read, I can't watch the Food Network, I can't even sleep!" She sighed explosively. "Not even chocolate is helpin'."

"Chocolate?" I asked weakly. I was a little taken aback by her admission and was having trouble following the thread of Brenda's thinking, my own having instantly returned to my interrupted daydream.

"You know those little gold boxes of Godiva good hotels put on your pillow nowadays? The ones with three truffles in them?"

"Yes," I said, nodding unhelpfully.

"Well, I ate the one that was on my pillow, hopin' it would help. When it didn't, I called down to the front desk and told them I had accidentally sat on my little box of Godiva and would they mind sendin' up another—which they did. In fact, the nice young man brought two." She sounded morose.

"And?" I asked.

"I ate them, too," she admitted. "I'm gonna gain ten pounds out here and it's all your fault!"

I couldn't help but laugh, even though I tried to stifle it enough so she wouldn't hear. I had once found Brenda's histrionics overwrought and tedious. It did not surprise me they had become endearing to me now.

"Would it relieve you to know I've been attempting to read for over an hour and haven't even managed to turn a single page?" I asked, smiling. "That all I've been able to think about is you?"

"That's it!" said Brenda, sounding angry rather than pleased. "I'm changin' my flight. This trip was a terrible idea. I should've known better." She blew out a sharp breath, then added, "You should've stopped me!"

"Me?!" I sat bolt upright in my bed, utterly stunned. What was she talking about? How could I have stopped her? Who had ever stopped Brenda Leigh Johnson from doing exactly what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it?

"Yes, you! As my girlfriend or partner or—or whatever we're calling ourselves—you should have told me this trip was badly timed, that I should've rescheduled it! You're allowed to do that, Sharon." She seemed to run out of steam and sighed. "You're allowed to say anythin' to me," she said quietly.

"I love you," I blurted. It wasn't at all what I had planned to say and certainly not over the telephone when we were both so far away from each other and hadn't formally discussed our new relationship. But it was true, utterly and completely so. I had known for a while what I felt wasn't simply infatuation, was no longer just a crush. I had fallen in love with Brenda Leigh Johnson somewhere along the way, between a fried chicken dinner and waking up with her voice in my ear, telling me all about one hot August afternoon when she was four. Since I had already said it once, I saw no harm in saying it again.

"I love you, Brenda Leigh Johnson," I said softly, sinking back into my pillows, my hands shaking. "Please come home."

"Oh! Oh, you!" I could hear the grin in Brenda's voice. "I've been wantin' to tell you that for weeks! Weeks an' weeks..." Was she crying?

"To tell me what?" I asked, my heart and breath stopped in my chest.

"I love you, too, Sharon. So much. I've wanted to say it for so long but all I could manage was—"

"'Be safe,'" I said, realizing the true meaning behind those words, remembering how she stopped me before I went into the parking garage elevator the night of the first home invasion, how there seemed to be more to say, even then.

"I felt so stupid sayin' it that first night. I was afraid you'd see right through me or think I was some kinda idiot or somethin'. But you didn't seem to think anythin' of it so I kept sayin' it." She stopped for a moment then continued, her voice becoming slightly louder—as if she'd moved closer to the transmitter in an effort to be clearly heard. "I kept sayin' it, Sharon, and every time I did, I was sayin' 'I love you.'"

I felt tears gathering in my own eyes and a lump growing in my throat, but before I could respond, she rushed on.

"Darlin', I need to go. I'm pretty sure I can move my two meetings tomorrow earlier and then I can change my ticket home to tomorrow afternoon." Her voice became deep and smoky, like Laphroaig single malt. "I need to see you, Sharon. I need to touch you, to kiss you—every inch of you—an' if I don't get you in my arms before Sunday, I just don't know what I'll do."

"Oh…." I said, wondering how she could make my whole body tingle with just her words. I fanned myself with my discarded book and silently cursed every mile between us. "Take your, um, time and please text me your itinerary when you have it finalized." I lifted the hair off the back of my neck, realizing ruefully it was going to be a long, lonely night.

"I will. Good night, Sharon."

"Good night, Brenda Leigh," I whispered. "Be safe."

I heard Brenda chuckle at my choice of words just before she terminated the call.

After a chaotic morning filled with unexpected laundry and slightly more bickering than necessary, Emily and Rusty filled their backpacks with clean clothing and all the supplies they'd need for a two-day trip to San Francisco. I drove them to the airport and kissed them both through the driver's side window, making Emily promise not to annoy her brothers—either of them—too much. She just laughed.

Back at home, in the quiet and emptiness of the condo, I felt at loose ends. I turned on the tree lights early, tuned the satellite radio to my favorite Christmas standards station, and wandered around for half an hour, straightening up. Quickly bored, I gathered a few linens to wash and, once they were started, I wrapped a few gifts at the dining room table, placing them precisely under the tree.

I obsessively refreshed the weather page for DC on my phone, watching for anything that might delay Brenda's flight. As the hours wore on, I noticed I became both incredibly impatient and incredibly anxious. I went out and impulsively bought a bottle of Giulio Ferrari champagne, a box of Godiva truffles, and a single, perfect red rose—which I left lying across the plate at Brenda's customary seat at the dining room table.

Too nervous to cook anything complex or heavy for our dinner, I instead pulled out the makings for a light salad I planned to throw together just before she arrived. A soft jingle from my phone let me know I had a text.

My fingers shook as I typed my reply.

Just you.

An ellipsis appeared almost immediately.

I still have your extra key. I'll let myself in.

A slight pause, then an addendum.

I can't wait to see you, Sharon. I've been a wreck all day just thinking about you.

I nodded, empathizing with her, worrying I was too old to be feeling this way—both so nervous and so filled with anticipation. I hadn't even felt this way on my wedding night. What was wrong with me?

Me too. Still am, actually.

A last ellipsis appeared.

Oh, darling… I'll be there soon. We can be wrecks together. ;)

I chuckled and clicked my phone off, shaking my head as I headed to my bathroom to shower. Afterward, I took an excruciatingly long time deciding between the comfort and neutrality of yoga pants and a Henley or the suggestiveness and sensuality of black silk lingerie that fell mid-thigh and a matching robe. I chose the lingerie as an act of bravery, deciding to be straightforward and clear about what I wanted—about what we both wanted—rather than safe and boring. Brenda deserved that of me. I deserved it.

I had played it safe for far too long.

The Christmas tree lights warmed the living room with their glow. I added the light of a few flickering candles to the mix then headed to the kitchen. I intended to start the salad but the chill on my bare legs and the flickering shadows cast by the candles suggested an altogether different concoction: hot cocoa.

Needing something to do to center myself, I pulled a saucepan from one of the cupboards and an open container of Half & Half from the fridge. Once the heat was on, I went to my pantry and dug out my glass jar of good Dutch cocoa, some instant coffee, the homemade bourbon vanilla that had been a gift from Buzz, and sugar. I measured and mixed and poured and finally stirred, taking comfort in the soft metallic swish of the whisk against the bottom of the pan as the cocoa warmed and thickened.

Perhaps the act of making hot chocolate from scratch had become so deep a form of meditation I was oblivious to the world around me or perhaps I just wasn't getting any younger. Whatever the reason, I never heard the front door open or close.

"My, my," said Brenda behind me and I jumped, my heart in my throat. I turned, intending to scold her for scaring me half to death, but the words died before I could even formulate them. Brenda Leigh Johnson stood in my dining room, haloed by the light of my Christmas tree. She wore a blood-red trench coat cinched tightly around her slender waist, sheer black hose, and the sexiest, most dangerous pair of 4-inch black patent leather heels I had ever seen. She twirled the rose I had left for her between her fingers.

My heart hammered painfully for another reason entirely.

"I don't know what I find more desirable," she continued, her ruby lips quirked in the sexiest half-grin I'd ever seen. "You in lingerie or that you're makin' somethin' chocolate."

She made a show of looking at me, her gaze sliding down my legs and back up, taking her sweet time. When her eyes met mine again, they were filled with both lust and tenderness, with appreciation and with hunger. I had never felt more attractive or more wanted in my life.

"Whatever it is you're makin'—can it wait?" she asked.

I nodded readily—I still couldn't talk—and quickly turned the burner off, depositing the unwanted whisk in the pan. Before I could turn around again, I felt Brenda close to me, the heat of her warming my skin. I shivered.

"Turn around, darlin'." The order was whispered and soft, but it was an order nonetheless. I obeyed it.

She reached up and brushed a few strands of hair away from my eyes, then she cupped my cheek in her hand. I could feel the trembling of her fingertips.

"I missed you so," she murmured, drawing me down for a slow, deeply erotic kiss. When she finally released me, she took my hand in hers and said, "Come with me."

She tugged my hand and I followed, hungry for what was in her eyes, for the promises she'd made with just a single kiss….

Only physical hunger and thirst routed us from the depths of my bed that weekend. We made love, yes, but we also laughed and talked and slept curled around each other in the silver sunlight of an LA winter's morning like a pair of lazy housecats. We had champagne at 11:00 in the morning when Brenda finally told me why she'd gone to DC in the first place. It turned out two of the publisher friends I had contacted about the possibility of her book were in a bidding war over it now she'd finished the first draft. She had gone to DC to choose one of them.

After our phone call, she'd convinced them she'd have to meet both of them together at breakfast to hear their offers. From the sound of it, each had made quite an impression.

"How did you ever choose between them?" I asked, taking another sip of the crisp, golden champagne we'd opened to celebrate.

"Well," she said, her fawn-colored eyes dancing over the rim of her champagne flute, "I told them I'd called you and that you'd asked me to come home early, that you needed me. Tony—sweet as he is—is no Einstein. He said, 'Is she okay? Is there an emergency?'" She grinned and tipped her glass up for another sip. "Stephanie, though, she narrowed her eyes at me for just a moment, then grinned like a wolf in a sheep's pen. 'I can have you on a chartered jet within the hour,' she said. 'With a driver at your disposal in LA when you arrive.' So, of course, I picked her."

Brenda laughed and kissed my cheek when I didn't answer immediately. "I'd expect a call from her in a few days," she added smugly. "I got the feelin' she's a little put out that a) she didn't know you were available and b) that she missed her shot." She winked at me as she finished her champagne, setting her empty glass on the bedside table.

"What?" I said, shaking my head, my own glass forgotten in my hand. Brenda took that, too, and reached up to kiss me slowly, languidly, dizzyingly….

"Oh, darlin'," she said when we parted, trailing her fingertips lightly across my clavicle and over the curve of my shoulder. "I'm just the lucky one—the one you picked. There are probably scores of people out there—both women and men—who have been waitin' for you, some of them for years."

She kissed me again, but this time feather-light, at the corner of my mouth first, then along my jawline until she reached the sensitive curve of my neck. She continued to kiss her way downward, her kisses becoming less feathery and more heated as she went. I arched into them, my arguments against her ridiculous conjecture getting lost somewhere along the way.

"Sharon," she whispered, breathing my name against my skin. "I am the lucky one. Let me show you how wonderful you are to me…."

In the wee hours of Monday morning, milk-blue moonlight slipped through the cracks of my plantation shutters and across our tumbled bedclothes as quiet as a winter's snowfall. I lay watching Brenda sleep, her sun-gold hair silver in the light, her face unlined and peaceful, her lips slightly swollen from our lovemaking….

She looked so young—much younger than her 48 years—and I realized I felt young, too. Younger than I had felt in decades, in fact, like a sapling breaking ground or a bud bursting forth in vibrant color.

She was the reason.

I had had no idea how colorless and rote my life had become until she'd opened some hidden door within me, releasing me from my self-imposed solitary confinement as if she'd always had the key. It was maddening, overwhelming, and breathtaking all at once—this sudden freedom, this expansion, this taste of bright blue sky when I had once been content with brackish rainwater at the bottom of a dark barrel.

"Mmmm," hummed Brenda, her eyes still closed. She stretched like a cat and purred with pleasure at the movement, opening her eyes finally. "Are you gonna come kiss me or are you just gonna lay there and stare?"

I laughed, blushing, and leaned in for a sweet, gentle kiss. When I pulled away, Brenda looked up at the moonlight streaming through the shutters. "What time is it?" she asked, her brows contracting slightly over her dark eyes as worry crept into her voice. "Have you slept at all? Is somethin' wrong, darlin'?"

"Nothing is wrong," I said, my conviction of that fact rock solid in my voice. "I promise."

Brenda looked uncertain. "The kids come back today…" she said.

I nodded. "They do."

"What will you tell them?" she asked and I noticed the worry hadn't yet left her eyes.

"I will tell them what they both already seem to know: that we are together—a couple—and they can expect you to be spending the night more frequently." I lifted her chin so her eyes met mine. "I have no intention of hiding this—us—from anyone, Brenda Leigh."

The stain of fear in her eyes bled away in the moonlight, making way for the sweetest smile. "Oh," she said. "All right, then."

My own smile soured into a slight grimace as I added, "Although I am too old to be called anyone's 'girlfriend'—Emily's beliefs to the contrary notwithstanding."

Brenda's laughter rang out in the darkness like a bell.

It took us the better part of a year to figure everything out—including what to call each other. We settled on introducing one another as "my partner" even though neither of us liked the sterility and business-like tone of the word. Only Jack, Rick, and Andy Flynn required a period of adjustment to the announcement of our relationship.

Jack's opinion meant less than nothing to me but Rick's bobbled reaction to the announcement—he had the nerve to ask me if my relationship with Brenda was a bid to bond more completely with Rusty—hurt. It hurt me my own son could be so closed minded and suspicious, especially when he lived in San Francisco, the nation's bastion of liberalism and equality. Since he had shown the same doubts when I had adopted Rusty, I had to wonder where I had failed as a parent. That he could so easily hurt Brenda and Rusty both with such an accusation…well, it was simply unacceptable.

Rick had come down early for the holidays, to see his little sister dance in The Nutcracker with us that Saturday, and I had planned a special dinner for us that Friday night so Brenda and I could tell him in person we were seeing each other. It had not gone well, as evidenced by his rude question, and he had stormed out, not liking what I had said to him in return.

He had apparently gone to the theater to see his sister and had ended up waiting for her at the stage door, his anger and confusion growing in the rain and cold. To this day, Emily has never confided in me what she told her brother that night, but she returned him to the condo, bedraggled and sodden, with a small, pink handprint burning on his cheek. Contrite and sincere, he apologized for his behavior and for hurting our feelings.

The tension lasted only until the next night, when we all sat in the theater, dressed to the nines, all of us abuzz with excitement and adrenaline as the orchestra played the overture. The curtain rose finally and Brenda grabbed my hand tightly with delight, gasping in child-like wonder at the spectacle on stage. By the end of the performance, her head rested on my shoulder and tears ran down her cheeks. Rick turned to look at us and I saw his face soften when he saw Brenda's obvious emotion. He never questioned her presence in our lives again.

Andy's sudden coolness and distance was a mystery to me until Lieutenant Provenza took me aside one afternoon to explain. Apparently, Andy's interest in me as a date to his daughter's wedding had been more genuine than he had let me believe and he was feeling more than a little rejected. When I asked Provenza how I should go about rectifying the miscommunication, he assured me he would take care of it and he did. Again I was not made privy to the conversation, but Andy eventually came around and we regained our good working relationship.

The Major Crimes unit stayed as busy as it ever had been while Brenda, having been bitten by the writer's bug, began her second book even while flying back and forth between LA and DC every three months to work on edits for her first one. Rick—deciding he needed to settle down and "stop living like a college kid"—bought a house in Palo Alto, which Rusty helped him to decorate. Emily moved to New York shortly after being offered a principal part with the New York City Ballet. She moved in with two other ballerinas and emailed me every single day her first month there, extolling the many virtues and vices of Manhattan living. Rusty continued to live with me—or rather, us—while he finished his associate's degree at the community college and planned for his transfer to UCLA.

As for us—Brenda and I became overwhelmed maintaining two separate households and all that entailed, including poor Joel, caught in the middle as an unwilling participant. She slowly moved into the condo with Rusty and me, sending Joel as her representative first, until she finally sublet her tiny cottage and brought the last of her disorganized boxes over one Saturday morning.

We remodeled Emily's bedroom into Brenda's office and weathered the expected transition to full-time cohabitation with understanding and hard-won compromise if not grace and aplomb. Rusty and Joel, having successfully adjusted to the change early on, waited for Brenda and me to catch up with indulgent patience.

We'd been together well over a year and had been living together full-time for almost five months when Brenda announced one Spring Saturday morning we were all going to Little Dom's for lunch. It was a rare day off for me, made all the rarer by Rusty choosing to hang around the condo rather than studying or socializing with his friends, so I readily agreed.

The owner, Warner, met the three of us at the door and showed us to the best table in the restaurant. He held Brenda's chair for her and Rusty held mine for me. That alone should have made me suspicious but I was so charmed, I could only smile. We had a lovely lunch peppered throughout with laughter and excellent conversation. Warner returned to the table to serve our coffee himself and offered us dessert on the house—as a thank you for being regular customers.

If there is one thing Brenda Leigh never turns down, it is a free dessert. She ordered the chocolate caramel tart and Rusty ordered his favorite—the vanilla gelato sandwich. I ordered an affogato, wanting to partake of the joy but entirely too full from lunch to eat anything more.

While we were waiting for our desserts, Brenda reached for her gigantic black bag that had been acting as our fourth diner, taking up the empty chair at our table and then some. She dug around inside it for a minute then finally pulled something out, presenting it to me with a bit of a flourish.

"What's this?" I asked, taking the gaily wrapped gift from her. I experienced a moment of panic as I tried to think what important date I had missed, knowing for certain it wasn't a birthday or an anniversary. Now I knew why Jack had always seemed so terrified when I would make reservations at our favorite restaurant without warning during the early days of our marriage: he'd been wracking his brain for a missed occasion, too.

"Consider it an engagement gift from your betrothed," said Brenda airily, waving her hand at the package dismissively, looking almost bored. I caught the glint of fire in her eyes, though, and the tug of her lips as she tried to stifle a grin. What exactly did she think she was up to?

Wait—what?

"From my….betrothed?" I blinked at her dumbly from behind my glasses, the forgotten gift becoming leaden in my grasp. It dropped to the table with an audible thunk.

"Yes. From your betrothed," she repeated, as if speaking to someone cognitively challenged. "Allow me to elaborate. For instance, if I were to have asked your children—one of whom who is present here—for your hand in marriage and—having acquired their enthusiastic approval—were to have brought you to a favorite restaurant with the intent of presentin' you with an engagement ring…" She reached into her gigantic bag again and pulled out a small blue box. "…like this one…."

Brenda Leigh Johnson opened the blue box, retrieved the stately and conservative diamond and emerald band within, and slid over to the now unoccupied chair next to me. She reached for my limp right hand and took it into her own.

"Sharon Magdalena O'Dwyer Raydor," she began, her smile trembling on the edge of an untamable grin, her eyes rimed with unshed tears. She gently slipped the ring on my finger and looked up at me through long, dark lashes. "Will you marry me?"

I was aware of a terrible silence in the restaurant, as if the entire building was holding its breath, waiting for me to answer.

"Yes," I said, nodding stupidly, tears of my own spilling down my cheeks. "Yes, of course!"

The entire restaurant erupted into applause. I leaned forward and cupped Brenda Leigh's face in my hands, kissing her with an abandon unlike me, particularly in a public place. Rusty pumped his fist in the air.

"Yes!" he cheered, his grin wide.

I finally released Brenda and she blushed, giggling, as we accepted the heartfelt congratulations of Warner and his staff—who I now understood had been in on the entire proposal. Several diners also offered their congratulations and eventually my cheeks began to hurt, stretched to their limit by a smile that did not seem likely to abate anytime soon.

Warner and one of his waiters brought our desserts finally and things quieted down a little. It was then I saw the present that had begun everything, still wrapped and laying forgotten next to my fork and napkin.

"What is this?" I asked, retrieving it from the table.

"Open it and find out," replied Brenda. "Honestly, do I have to do everythin' around here?" She winked at me and I rolled my eyes at her, tearing the floral paper from the end of the package. A hardcover book slid out.

"A…book?" I asked, confused. I was still a little breathless and distracted from the proposal. In fact, it was all I could do to pull my attention away from the ring now secure on my finger, its weight and sparkle stealing what little reason I had left.

Brenda snorted. "You were expectin' somethin' a little more extravagant, darlin'? Like Philip Stroh's untimely demise?" She grimaced while enthusiastically digging into her tart, chopping into the crust with more vehemence than was strictly necessary. "I'm good but it turns out I'm not that good. You'd be surprised how difficult it is to visit a high-security prison—even for someone with my impressive professional connections."

I blinked. "You didn't!" I whispered harshly, leaning forward so no one could hear us. Brenda Leigh Johnson visiting Philip Stroh in prison wouldn't just be the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, it would be front page news. The kind of front page news neither of us needed.

"Oh, relax, darlin'!" said Brenda, exasperated. "I didn't." She resettled her napkin in her lap and returned to her tart. "Though not for a lack of tryin'," she said under her breath.

Rusty flashed Brenda a wicked grin. "You can try again for my birthday," he said and I swatted him on the shoulder.

"She will not!" I looked between the two of them—my fiancée and my son—flabbergasted by their behavior. Did they not understand how dangerous—

Suddenly my brain began firing on all cylinders again. Of course they understood how dangerous Philip Stroh was, how dangerous confronting him would be. The two of them had wrestled him on Brenda's kitchen floor, fighting for their lives, for God's sake!

They had almost been killed by this man, this murderer—my fiancée and my son. He had sent an assassin to kill Rusty while he'd been under constant SIS surveillance. Who knew what else he might be capable of?

If Brenda and Rusty wanted to indulge in a few revenge fantasies—well, how would that make them different from me? I returned my attention to the book in my hands.

"The Closer," I read from the cover, still confused. Then I caught the author's name at the bottom. "By Brenda Leigh Johnson! It's been published?"

Brenda smiled. "Well, not officially. They want to publish it June 1st in order to take advantage of the beach readin' season. That's just the advance copy."

"'Just,'" I scoffed, opening the book to skim a few pages. "Sweetheart, this is wonderful! I'm so proud of you!" I leaned forward to give Brenda a congratulatory kiss. She returned it enthusiastically.

"Read the dedication," said Rusty, leaning forward, interrupting us. I narrowly kept myself from rolling my eyes and turned several pages.

I found the correct one and read:

For my darling Sharon.

I knew exactly what I was doing the night I served you fried green tomatoes.

I said you were the slow one, didn't I?

Always yours, Brenda Leigh

We married that September in a small civil ceremony at the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Gardens in Long Beach. Brenda Leigh wore a boat-neck, sleeveless storm-blue silk dress with a white plum blossom print. It was so long, it brushed the grass beneath her bare feet. She wore her mother's demi-parure of pearls and swept her long, sun-gold hair up in a loose chignon pinned with fresh plum blossoms. I couldn't take my eyes off of her and every time she caught me staring, she'd smile and blush and bat her long, beautiful eyelashes at me and I would forget to breathe….

I wore a capped-sleeve, floor-length satin gown in royal purple. It had a draped cowl back that made me feel as statuesque and glamorous as a movie star from the 1930s. At Brenda Leigh's request, I wore my hair down and unadorned. Each piece of the jewelry I wore came from one of my children: a pair of diamond earrings from Rick, a decadent rope of sterling silver from Rusty, and a delicate diamond bracelet from Emily.

The same judge who had presided over Rusty's adoption performed the ceremony. Rick stood as my witness and Clay Johnson, puffed up and proud, insisted on giving his daughter away formally. He'd pulled me aside privately that morning and said, "I know it seems strange, Sharon, for me to want to do the formal part, but I didn't get to give Brenda Leigh away at her first weddin'. She and Tyler eloped and we all see where that got them. But I did give her away to Fritz and most of your guests today were there, too. If I don't give Brenda Leigh away today, I'm afraid they'll all think I don't approve. I couldn't bear for anyone to think that, do you understand?"

I squeezed his hand and nodded, unable to speak past the lump in my throat. Instead, I kissed his cheek. Red-faced and gruff, he handed me his handkerchief and told me to use it before I ended up "lookin' like a drowned raccoon on your weddin' day."

He was right, though. Most of the guests there that day were present at Brenda's wedding to Fritz Howard and then again at his funeral. This wedding had to be just as surreal to them as it was to me. As it was, I had spent the long, sleepless night before talking to Fritz, telling him how sorry I was his time with Brenda Leigh had been cut so unfairly short, telling him how grateful we all were for his work and his service, telling him how I would do everything in my power to see Brenda Leigh remained safe and loved and cherished for the rest of her life and mine….

-----

It's our tenth anniversary today and my beautiful children arranged for us to celebrate it at the gardens where we married.

So much has changed since that day.

Rick's wife, Jennifer—the woman clearly in charge of this event—seems to have been born to organize and host large parties. She's the perfect combination of grace and joy and everyone here is drawn to her like proverbial moths to a flame. She never seems to want for company and her easy smile is as charming as it is genuine. Rick—to hear Jennifer tell it—became tongue-tied the moment he met her nine years ago (at a conference for work) and has yet to recover. Ricky, their eldest, is seven and is chasing his six-year-old sister, Elizabeth (known as 'Bizzy', Ricky's toddler pronunciation), around a pagoda-shaped pavilion while she shrieks with laughter.

Emily's husband, Brian Darvill, is deep in conversation with Buzz and Mike Tao. They are probably discussing either Elizabethan poetry (Brian has a PhD in the topic and is a professor at NYU) or something technological, although I hesitate to imagine what. Emily is chatting with Brenda's sister-in-law and niece while Maggie, their shy five-year-old, clings to her hand. Maggie has copper red hair that will one day turn as dark as mine and moss green eyes and she was named for me—her full name is Sharon Magdalena—but, so far, the resemblance ends there. She inherited her British father's gentility and reserve and Emily's tenderness of heart. God only knows where the shyness comes from….

Russ and his husband, Brandon, are with my wife who has their new baby daughter cradled in the hammock of skirt draped between her knees, cooing at her as if being a grandmother comes as easily and naturally to her as breathing. I am here to tell you it doesn't. Billie Rae is four months old and has no hair to speak of. Her eyes are as big and blue as Russ's were the day I invited him to live with me and I wonder if they chose their surrogate for that very reason.

Brandon is a helicopter pilot with the LAPD. Russ is an LCSW who specializes in work with teens at risk, particularly throwaway teens, a scourge on our society that hasn't yet abated. They've been married for three years now and I used to think nothing could top the way they lit up around each other until Billie Rae came into the picture.

Brenda Leigh is a world-renowned author now with book number five on the way. She transitioned from memoir to fiction after her second book and has all the makings of "a female John le Carré" if the media is to be believed.

I retired from the LAPD with a full pension seven years ago, just before the birth of my first grandchild and just after the death of Lieutenant Louis Provenza who had died in the line of duty saving two fellow officers from a shooter at a crime scene. Andy is Captain Flynn now and Tao and Julio are his senior officers, both of them as curmudgeonly as their predecessors.

I teach two courses at UCLA, both of them in investigational technique. One is a general course for undergraduate criminal justice majors and the other is a graduate-level course intended for Internal Affairs officers and their ilk. I am just busy enough to keep my sanity but not so busy I don't have time for my beautiful wife and our grandchildren, though only Russ and Brandon still live in LA.

I take a sip of my champagne and look over at them—Russ and Brandon, Brenda Leigh, Billie Rae. I walk toward their little group, longing for time with my wife and my newest grandchild. Brandon says something I don't hear just as I join them and Brenda gasps, scandalized.

"Of course I'm good with babies!" she says, bubbly with grandmotherly pride. Her sun-gold hair has gained a streak of salt these past few years and a map of her many smiles crinkles around her eyes. She is as beautiful today as the day we met. "They're nothin' but bald kittens after all!"

It's Brandon's turn to be scandalized now and I pat his shoulder in mock commiseration as I hand him my champagne glass. I sit next to Brenda Leigh, snaking one arm around her still-slender waist, and lean in close, partly to connect with my wife and partly to observe the newest member of our growing family. I smell Brenda's citrusy perfume underneath Billie Rae's clean, crisp baby smell and I feel the familiar heat of her against my side, ever so appreciative of the magnetic current between us—even now, when we are just old married ladies with a loving family around us. Nothing more, nothing less.

Billie Rae squeals and squirms and a fair approximation of a smile passes over her face. Brenda Leigh claps her hands together, child-like in her excitement. She takes all the credit, of course, attempting to convince her fathers and myself she's the favorite grandmother, naturally. She bases her theory only on the alleged smile and the fact the baby is named for her mother, the great Willie Rae Johnson, gone too soon. None of us attempts to dissuade her.

Billie Rae clamps her tiny, perfect fist around my index finger and my heart melts anew. I cannot hide my smile, especially when I notice Maggie has come up beside me, wary green eyes locked on the interloper. She is too young to understand exactly how Billie Rae is related to her but she's used to being the baby of the family and recognizes the title may have been passed on without proper consultation. As I pull her into our little circle, whispering comforting and gentle explanations to her, I notice we've drawn the attention of more than a few of our guests, our children front and center.

Brandon returns my champagne glass and Emily snags one for Brenda Leigh.

Russ looks directly into my eyes and I'm struck by how much he's grown in the few short years I've known him. He's no longer a gangly, confused, angry young man navigating the difficult transition from merely surviving to thriving. He's become a loving husband and father right in front of my eyes and I am so proud of him. I open my mouth to say just that when he lifts his glass of champagne.

"I'd like to make a toast," he says and the remnants of conversation burbling in the back of this growing crowd halt obligingly. "Many of you know my story, have lived it with me even. But for those of you that don't know, well, you only have to Google my name to find out the more sensational details." Knowing chuckles pepper the ranks of the assembled.

"What you won't read in those details, however, is how these two women—my mothers—saved me. Oh, you'll read the exciting parts. How Brenda Leigh Johnson saved my life in a fight on her kitchen floor and how Sharon Raydor saved my life by shooting through the door of a condo two floors up from where she still lives. Those are facts but they only tell part of the story.

"What you won't read in those articles is how, by defending me when I was at my most vulnerable, Brenda Leigh Johnson gave me my first taste of unconditional love. She didn't care who I was or what I had done. She put herself between me and a threat to my life with no regard to her own safety, her own well-being. For someone raised as I had been, this was a life-changing moment. This was the moment I came to understand someone cared what happened to me. She planted a seed.

"And what Brenda planted, Sharon Raydor nurtured. By putting my safety and my welfare first, by being steadfastly in my corner even when it was hard for her, even when it terrified her, Sharon showed me I had the power to direct my future no matter how terrible my past. She gave me her strength, taught me determination and diplomacy, and loved me when I was hard to love. She never gave up on me. She gave me a family and made me part of it.

"I was barely eighteen when Brenda came back to LA. I was almost nineteen when the two of them finally caught up to the fact they were dating and had been for some time."

Another round of chuckles breaks the silence and I take the opportunity to sneak a sidelong glance at Brenda Leigh and to wipe the tears from my eyes. Brenda has Billie Rae cradled in a half-seated position in her arms so the baby can see properly. Her smile is as radiant as autumn sunshine and her own tears run unchecked down her cheeks.

Russ smiles at the both of us and continues, unapologetic for the gentle jibe. "Trust me, it was getting so bad I considered putting up a billboard on Los Feliz that said JUST KISS ALREADY!"

"Oh for goodness' sakes!" cries Brenda, blushing clear to the roots of her hair, waving dismissively at Russ as the chuckles become outright laughter. "I was tryin'! Honest! It was your momma who was slow on the uptake, not me."

I nod morosely in agreement. "She's right," I say, eliciting another round of laughter.

"Well," says Russ, "slow or not, they finally worked it out and ten years ago today, they married—right here in these gardens—with all of you here, surrounding them.

"You saw the plum blossoms in Brenda's hair and Sharon's gorgeous royal violet gown. You saw them look into each other's eyes and pledge their lives and love to each other. And since then, you—each and every one of you—has benefitted in some way from their love, from their commitment to one another.

"These women—my mothers in every sense of the word except one—gave you the same gift they gave to me all those years ago. They gave you a family. They made you part of it."

My hand flies up, fingers fluttering against the spot over my heart. I ache with love for this man, our son, just as much Brenda's as mine, the one we fought for, the gift we gave ourselves. Brenda juggles Billie Rae in her arms again and frees one hand, reaching for mine with it, squeezing it tightly. Russ looks at each of us, his eyes full. He raises his glass higher.

"To Brenda and Sharon," he says, looking at his brother and sister, at his husband, at the wider congregation of our family and friends. "To family!"

"To family!" The rejoinder from the crowd rings out in the gardens, startling a clutch of Canadian geese at the water's edge, sending them soaring into the blue sky above.

Brenda and I stay until the bitter end of the party, wanting to thank each and every guest personally for their company and their love. Russ and Brandon hesitate at the pavilion with us, torn between their sleepy baby and not wanting to say good-bye. Russ has never been particularly good with good-byes.

"Go," I tell him, leaning in to kiss his cheek. I lean in to kiss Brandon as well and bend over their daughter who lies milk-drunk and drowsy in his arms. "It's way past someone's bedtime," I coo, caressing her head.

"Okay," says Russ. "If you're sure."

"I am," I say, reaching for his hand. "I can't thank you enough for your beautiful toast, sweetheart. I am so proud of you. I love you so much."

"I love you, too, Mom," he says, squeezing my hand. I feel more tears gathering in my eyes and he pulls away, turning toward Brenda who leans in to whisper something in his ear. She has always done that—kept the sweetest words between the two of them private and unshared with the rest of the world. I never need to pry. Russ always tells me what she's said later.

Brandon accepts a squeeze of the hand from Brenda after she's finished with Russ and blurts out, "Come to dinner next Sunday. I'll make chocolate peanut butter pie."

"Oh, Billie Rae," says Brenda, winking conspiratorially at our granddaughter. "Your daddy sure does know how to get a girl's attention, doesn't he?" To Brandon, she says, "How does six sound?"

"Great," he says, grinning.

After they leave, I turn to watch the caterers folding tablecloths and gathering dishware in the fading light of the evening. Brenda slips her hand into mine.

"Come with me," she whispers and I follow. I follow like I always do, like I always will, helpless, hopelessly in love, and willingly under her spell. We stop in the center of the moon bridge and she turns to look out at the turtle island in the center of the pond, a slight breeze tugging playfully at tendrils of her hair. She stares at the island for a long moment, watching shadows crawl across its untouched surface, listening to the water lap gently at the posts of the bridge.

She closes her eyes and breathes deeply, her smile wide and relaxed, her face as still and as unruffled as the pond beneath us.

"This place reminds me of a little dock on St. Simon's Island," she says finally, opening her eyes. She turns and the sunset reflected in them makes me think of firelight dancing at the edge of darkness. "Do you remember me tellin' you about it once? The sounds are slightly different, of course, and there's no salt in the air here, but it's close enough."

"I remember," I say. How could I ever forget? My hand trembles in hers. "I fell in love with you the morning you told me about it."

Brenda eyes widen and she doesn't speak. I swallow nervously—how can I still find anything to be nervous about with her?—and continue. "It was the morning after our first 'proper' date, after those terrible home invasions began. I fell asleep alone in my bed, curled around my phone, listening to you. I remember every word, every picture painted by your voice, every heartbeat that pounded against the ache of unshed tears in my throat. I remember understanding—finally—it wasn't simply infatuation or lust. I loved you. I have every minute since."

She curls into my side and lays her head on my shoulder, looking back out over the water. Stars begin to wink on in the inky blue sky above the horizon and I wrap my arms around her against some imagined chill.

"I knew when I went to your place lookin' for you only to end up playin' video games with Russ half the night," she says softly. "Oh, I'd known I was interested for a while. I bought sofas that matched your eyes, for Pete's sake! I didn't know I'd fallen in love with you, though—or rather, how far I'd fallen—until that night."

I look down at her. "Why? What was different that night?"

She sighs and pulls away from me slightly, just enough to look up at me, her eyes open and honest, unabashed, unshuttered.

"I was," she says simply. When I fail to understand her, she tries again. "You know how competitive I am, Sharon. I didn't just play video games with Russ that night; I lost to him. Every game we played, every time we played. I lost and I didn't care." She laughs and looks out over the water again. Another breeze, this one stronger than before, ruffles the surface of the pond. The willow on the island's shore waves its long branches at us.

"We were havin' so much fun, you know? We laughed and laughed. We were so loud, I was afraid someone might complain. Russ was so worried about you, about school, about—well—everythin'. He opened the door and looked just so…pinched. Closed up. Locked away. He told me you weren't there and he was just so sad. I told him I wasn't there to see you; I was there to see him. I'll never forget the way his eyes lit up, like someone flipped a switch."

"You flipped the switch," I say, smiling, happy on so many levels to have this story. I remember how it was for me, what I was dealing with at the exact same moment, living in a world steeped in blood and hatred and no closer to finding those responsible. I remember how desperately I wanted to be home, to see Russ and Brenda, to feel normal again. I remember how deeply grateful I was Brenda had somehow known what I needed most: someone to be there for Russ when I couldn't be.

"I don't think I realized I had that power until that very moment. I was so used to bein' the thorn in everybody's side, always demandin' the world bend to my will. Even poor Fritz. Everythin' had to be my way and when it wasn't, I made sure the world knew how unhappy I was." She turns to look at me again. "The night I played video games with Russ, absolutely nothin' was goin' my way. I was losin' shootin' games to a teenager, was eatin' pizza instead of the Thai take-out I was cravin', was missin' you and couldn't do a thing about it—and I didn't care, not one bit. As long as Russ was happy, as long as you were safe—those are the only things that mattered. That's when I realized how much in love I was, with both of you, with all of you, with the whole wide world—whether things went my way or not."

She kisses me and the kiss is everything. A promise, a wish, hope, gratitude, love—it's all wrapped up in this perfect moment, in the taste of her, in the starlight and the water and the silence. When we part, she smiles and her eyes crinkle in an old, familiar way.

"Let's go home," she says and she slips her hand into mine again, pulling me along with her like a river current, insistent yet gentle.

I follow.

I follow.

The End

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