Nicole Fox was not, and never had been, a morning person. Without coffee at the local Starbucks down the street from her apartment (or, in this case, the Starbucks two blocks away from Jay's apartment), she could not contemplate getting out of bed. Although Jay, she thought privately, was quickly becoming a very good morning substitute for coffee.
However, as she was standing in the second of two lines, waiting for her usual coffee and blueberry muffin, she caught sight of a very unpleasant intruder into her morning ritual. There was Lucas, sitting at one of the tiny, two-person tables that were inconveniently placed right in the way of foot traffic.
The handsome man caught her eye, lifting his glass in a silent toast and smiling. Nicole debated for a moment, trying to decide whether to go over and talk to him or not. When she finally got her coffee and muffin, she headed over to the dark-haired man's table, trying to ignore how uncomfortable his blue eyes made her. They did not remind her of Jay's at all.
“What a nice surprise,” said Lucas, gesturing at the empty seat. “Sit down, Nicole. Is that a blueberry muffin? I know you love those.”
Nicole sighed, but took the seat across from Lucas. “Listen, we need to talk. Why are you here?”
Lucas looked at her strangely, as though the question was stupid. “For... breakfast...?” he said, very slowly. Nicole blushed, feeling like a fool.
“Come on. Don't tell me that you just happened to choose the Starbucks two blocks away from my lover's house, and just happened to be here when I usually come in. I'm not that naïve, Lucas.”
“I wanted to talk to you,” he said, as though that made everything all right.
Nicole glared at him. “Yeah, sure, let's talk. I want you to leave me alone. It's been over for a long time, and I'm with Jay now. I'm in love with her.”
“With a woman? No one knows better than me how fun a woman can be once in a while, but she can't give you what I can.”
“Jay gives me everything I need,” she said. Lucas just smiled infuriatingly at her.
“Everything?” he drawled. Nicole tried not to blush.
“Yes. Everything. More than you did.”
If he was insulted or hurt, Lucas' face did not show it. Instead, he took a sip of his coffee, completely relaxed. “You'll change your mind,” he said confidently. They always did.
“Listen, I just want you back out of my life. I know we're bound to run in to each other at parties or events, but that doesn't mean you can follow me around.”
“Come on, Nicky. You can't tell me that your parents approve of this.. Jay...”
“They were over for dinner last night,” Nicole said, “but I don't have to defend my relationship to you. I'm going to take my delicious blueberry muffin and get out of here before you make me do something I'll regret, like kick your ass.”
Angrily, she pushed back her chair and grabbed the aforementioned muffin and coffee, storming out of the double glass doors and onto the sidewalk.
Jay was surprised, and a little alarmed, when she found herself with an armful of upset, angry blonde. She had awoken to an empty bed and, feeling lonely, decided to run to Starbucks to try and catch her girlfriend for a few minutes of breakfast together before their day started.
“He. Is. So. STUPID!” she wailed, burying her face in Jay's shoulder and half-screaming. “Why did I ever date him?”
“Because you were waiting to meet me,” said Jay, looking over Nicole's blonde head to try and see who she was talking about. As she suspected, Lucas was sitting inside of the Starbucks, watching them from his table. He looked surprised, and a little hurt, to see them together, but quickly masked those emotions when he noticed that Jay was watching him. “Sweetie,” she said, looking down at the girl in her arms, “did he bother you?”
“No... well, yes... obviously. He didn't threaten me or make me feel scared. Just really, really annoyed.”
“Do you want me to file a police report?” Nicole shook her head, still keeping her face pressed into the crook of Jay's shoulder. “Are you sure?” Another shake.
“He isn't a stalker, really. He thinks he can get me back. I'm not sure if he wants my money, or if his pride was hurt when he found out I left him for a woman. I never told him the reason behind the breakup, although it was right after I finally caved and had sex with him.”
“I don't like thinking about you with that jerk,” Jay said, her voice low and threatening.
“It sucked,” she said. “I think I even kept my shirt on. I mostly felt cheap and used.” Jay nuzzled her girlfriend's hair, pulling her tighter. Several people looked at them strangely as they exited the Starbucks, but the couple did not notice or care. “I never feel that way with you. You make me... you are amazing.”
“I'm glad,” Jay murmured, her temper soothed, at least for the moment. But this was not over. She would have words with Lucas, and possibly Lieutenant Slack at the police department about this, whether Nicole liked it or not. Nicole was hers now, and Jay always protected what was hers.
“What do you mean it's still in the papers?” Lieutenant Slack bellowed, the picture frames on his desk shaking. His chair squeaked as he shifted his weight, his forehead wrinkled, his mouth turned down in a frown. His moustache and chin quivered angrily, and his face was red as a tomato. “I thought that nonsense ended yesterday!”
“Well, it was a hot tip – ” Officer Bellows said meekly, moving from foot to foot. His fingers clenched and unclenched, a nervous habit.
“It wasn't a tip,” said the Lieutenant, “it was a leak! And I have to find out who did it so I can fire their ass.”
Bellows looked sheepish. “Hypothetically – what if it was a mistake, and an officer just happened to mention it to a reporter he thought was pretty?”
Lieutenant Slack groaned, slamming his hand onto his desk, which made the pictures of his wife and children shake again. “Bellows, you idiot! Why didn't you tell me this yesterday? I should sack you for this.”
“You probably should,” Bellows admitted, looking very repentant and embarrassed. He must have done a good enough job, because Lieutenant Slack's face started fading back to pink instead of continuing to swell up to purple.
“Oh well. Better a young and stupid cop than a traitorous cop. Please tell me that you didn't accept any kind of bribe for that information – yes, sleeping with her counts as a bribe, so don't even ask.”
“No,” said Bellows. “She is way too good-looking for me anyway.”
“I bet it was Cindy Larson. I know her... she'll do almost anything to get a story, she's vicious. My advice, Bellows, is to stay far, far away from her. Not just for the sake of our fair city's police department, but for your own physical safety. That lady is nuts.”
Bellows' eyes got very round, and his eyebrows went high up on his forehead. “Nuts?”
“Let's just say she's caused our officers trouble in the past. Anyway, I trust there will be no more leaks to Sinning Cindy, or any of the other nuisances in the newsroom. Is that CLEAR?”
Bellows jumped at the louder volume, startled. “Yes, sir! Very clear, sir! Uh, Loo?”
“Yeah?” Slack said gruffly.
“You don't think it will scare the murderer off, knowing we have classified this as a homicide?”
Lieutenant Slack thought about it. “No, I don't think so. Usually, those rich types think they can buy their way out of trouble with a good lawyer, even if the evidence does point their way.”
“Does any evidence point their way?” Bellows asked.
Slack snorted. “Ha! I shouldn't even tell you anything about this case until it's good and over. In fact, I might bust you down to traffic duty.”
Bellows looked like a puppy about to be spanked with a rolled up newspaper. Against his better judgment, Slack was starting to get attached to the young, stupid rookie. He was certainly not like a son to him... maybe more like a young nephew that wasn't very bright. He was likable, in a kindhearted, stupid way.
“I'm not busting you down to traffic duty, Bellows, so stop moping. And I did pick up something interesting on William Fox, Stephen Fox's middle kid.”
Bellows looked interested. “Oh? What?”
“Seems he has a lot of gambling debts to pay off. We think he's in with the Ritornellos. Bad stuff.” The Ritornellos had been a thorn in the side of the police department for years. They had not managed to buy off many officers inside of the fold, fortunately, but they had some powerful connections with local officials to help keep them out of trouble. If anything, the Police department had a grudge against the crime family, and went out of their way to try and nail them, even if the charges just got dropped or misfiled later by the corrupt law offices.
“Whoa. That's serious. You don't think this is mob related, do you?”
“Nah,” said Slack. “Not mob. The Foxes aren't connected with the Ritornellos at all, from what I can find. Different avenues of business, and all. Besides, this was poison, not a drive-by. Good old Billy was the only thread to the Family. If he did Gramps in, it was because he needed the inheritance to pay off his debts without his wife finding out.”
“Could she have done it, Lieutenant?” asked Bellows.
“Don't think so. I interviewed Martha. She's chatty, but clueless, and so is her bimbo daughter, besides...” The Lieutenant's voice trailed off, and he looked up to see Jay Buchanan's face peeking in the window on his door. At that same moment, his phone rang. “Yellow?” he asked, picking up the receiver.
“There's someone to see you, Lieutenant,” said the female voice on the other end. “A Miss Jay Buchanan? She said that you know her, and she is involved in an ongoing investigation? I sent her back to wait, but if you want me to call her back up front...”
“No, I'll see her, she's already here. Thanks,” the Lieutenant said gruffly, hanging up the phone. “Bellows, get the door.”
Jay looked a little nervous entering the office, like she did not want to be there. “I wouldn't have come,” she said after shaking Lieutenant Slack's hand and saying hello, “except that my crazy Aunt might have actually discovered something important.”
“The lady with the weird handbag, right?” said Bellows. Slack glared at him.
“Yeah,” Jay said regretfully. “Anyway, I have three things to tell you. The first is that my Aunt has started following people.”
Slack looked surprised. Then, he laughed. “That's just what this case needs! A batty forty-something with shoes and a handbag, trailing suspects in a murder investigation... It's not like every reporter on the planet isn't already stalking them.”
“I'm concerned for her safety. If you catch her at it, you have my permission to throw her in a jail cell and threaten her with whatever you like until I can come bail her ass out. I want to keep her out of this, because I'm starting to really think this is a murder. That has to do with the other two things I want to tell you about.”
“Go on,” said Slack.
“First off, Aunt Mimi decided it would be a good idea to trail Nicole's Uncle Bill. She saw him get in an argument with two shady guys in suits about an outstanding debt. Apparently, he has a gambling problem.”
Slack nodded. “Our sources picked that up as well. But we didn't know the Ritornellos were being so – aggressive.”
Jay frowned. “You can see why I'm worried about my Aunt getting involved in this mess. I didn't know for sure if Nicole's Uncle was mixed up with a crime family, but I assumed... Generally, guys wearing suits, dark glasses, and fedoras, demanding money are people you want to avoid.”
“The head of the Ritornello family watches too many Godfather-type movies.” Slack rolled his eyes. “Bet he has the boxed set.” Bellows gave an awkward laugh. He snapped his mouth shut when he noticed both Jay and Lieutenant Slack looking at him oddly.
“The other thing I found out,” Jay continued, “is that Janine, Nicole's stepmother, was married before. Her husband died. They say it was a seizure...”
“But you aren't so sure,” Lieutenant Slack concluded for her.
“It was several years ago, but it did give her a very generous life insurance payout. I figured it was worth mentioning. Unlike my Aunt, I trust the police department to get to the bottom of this. But I figure the more information you have, the better your chances.”
“You'd be right. We didn't know about Janine Fox's deceased husband. We'll certainly look in to it. There could be a tie-in.”
Jay changed the subject abruptly, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her coat. “Do you have any literature on stalking charges?” she asked, looking very uncomfortable with the question.
Slack seemed interested. “I think there are some pamphlets out front. Anything you want to tell me about.”
“Nothing important,” Jay said evasively. But she was no good at lying. “Well, two reasons. One, I'm worried about Aunt Mimi, and want to know what's what before someone actually notices she's tailing them and files are report. The other reason is personal. One of Nicole's exes has taken a renewed interest in her. No threatening actions, he's just being an annoying ass.”
“Most stalkers start out as annoying asses,” said Slack. “Listen to your gut. If that tells you he's harmless, ignore him. If you think he might try something, give me a call. You have my number.”
“Yeah. Listen, thanks,” she said, looking very grateful. “You've been really great about my Aunt Mimi annoying you and all. I know she's been a pain.” After reassuring Jay that there was nothing they could do to her Aunt (yet) and accepting her thanks, the police officers bid her a polite goodbye.
“Wow,” said Bellows, looking at her retreating form appreciatively through the window in the middle of the door. “Too bad she's head-over-keister for that Nicole Fox, or I'd ask her out for coffee.”
“That's an excellent idea, Bellows,” said Slack, tapping his chin with his index finger thoughtfully.
The rookie cop looked surprised. “What, asking out Jay Buchanan?”
“No, coffee. Go make yourself useful and get me some.”
Jay, who was very familiar with the police station by now, had no trouble finding her way out the front door. She even waved at the receptionist and picked up some of the pamphlets that Lieutenant Slack recommended. They reminded her of the kind you found in doctor's offices, with a title in fancy text on the front and bright, eye-searing colors. In fact, the neon yellow of this particular model ( Stalkers and You: Know Your Rights ) reminded her of one of Aunt Mimi's purse-shoe combinations.
She was thumbing through the pamphlet, not really looking where she was going, when she accidentally bumped into a warm, soft body. “Oh, I'm sorry,” she stammered, grabbing a slender arm to try and right the person she had collided with.
“I'm not,” said a cheerful, persistent voice that Jay recognized.
“Oh. You're... Larson! Cindy Larson, that reporter,” said Jay. She felt stupid saying it out loud. Obviously, Cindy knew who she was. The redhead brushed herself off, even though she had not touched the ground, and straightened her tight skirt.
“And you're the infamous Jay Buchanan. I've been digging for information on you, and let me tell you, I found out some interesting things.”
“I'm pretty boring,” Jay said, trying to side-step the woman and continue out into the parking lot. She did not want this reporter getting too friendly. She had Nicole's family and reputation to protect. That had to be the reason Cindy Larson was interested in her.
“Not from what I've heard. Oh, there's not much on paper. No criminal record, no work in any major field, no prestigious family connections. I had to use some... personal contacts to find out about you.”
Jay stopped trying to dodge Cindy. The woman was very good at walking backwards, sideways, and diagonally, as long as it kept Jay in front of her. “Just what did you find out about me?” Jay asked, frowning.
The tip of Cindy's tongue outlined her lips. She gave Jay a searing look. “Plenty. Apparently, you're usually up for a good time, especially if it involves alcohol and pretty girls, and you've left a trail of broken hearts behind you.”
“Alcohol and pretty girls don't do it for me anymore,” said Jay, “it's called growing up. Now, I need to get to my car-”
“What about Nicole?”
Jay stopped trying to push past Cindy and unlock the driver's side door. “What about Nicole?”
“She dropped you off at work a few days ago. I've seen you two around together.”
“Have you been following us?” Jay asked defensively. Oh great, just what we need, another stalker problem.
“Not following, investigating.” Jay laughed, clearly unsettled. That sounded just like something her Aunt Mimi would say.
“Listen, I don't know what you think you know about me and Nicole Fox, but I have no interest in adding to your information – however falsified or blown out of proportion it might be. If you want information on this story, get it from another source.”
Cindy leaned forwards, her hips pressing uncomfortably against Jay's, pushing her back against the car door. “I don't suppose a girl could get a date out of this source? I hear you're quite the playgirl.”
The aggressiveness made Jay wince. There was only one fiery little woman she wanted attention from, and it certainly was not Cindy, even if she was kind of pretty. She was definitely not Jay's type anymore. “No date, this playgirl is retired, goodbye,” Jay said as fast as she could, pressing the unlock button on her car keys and almost knocking Cindy over for a second time in her effort to open the door and slide into the driver's seat. She sped off a little too fast, eager to get away from Cindy and back to Nicole.
The frustrated redhead stared after her, pouting a little, but not defeated. In fact, she was more determined than ever to get her story. Obviously, Jay was not going to talk, and she would bet her bottom dollar Nicole would stay just as tight-lipped. She needed another source.
Nicole opened her eyes to see large blue ones staring down at her adoringly. Feeling lazy, very well loved, and snuggled up against the warm side of her lover, she could not think of a better way to wake up. She had spent a week at Jay's apartment, give or take a few trips back to her place for clothes and some toiletries. For what could have been mislabeled a stereotypical lesbian U-haul relationship, things were going very smoothly, even if they had not ‘officially' talked about moving in together or started packing boxes.
“Hellooo gorgeous,” she purred, pulling closer to Jay and enjoying the feel of naked skin.
“Do you have a map? I keep getting lost in your eyes.”
The romantic mood broken, Nicole let out a very un-ladylike snort and rolled her eyes. “Oh, wow. That was pretty bad. I didn't know you used awful pickup lines on your women.”
“You're my woman,” Jay growled, wrapping a possessive arm around Nicole. “And you have no idea what you just got yourself in to... Hey, baby, you must be a French verb, because I sure wanna conjugate you!”
Another snort. “Okay, that one was worse. That all you got?”
Jay wiggled her eyebrows. “Was your father an alien? Because there's sure nothing else like you on earth!” That one got a real laugh, and it took several moments for Nicole to regain her composure.
But Jay wasn't done yet. “Your daddy must have been a baker, ‘cuz you've sure got a nice set of buns.” She reached down under the covers and squeezed the aforementioned body parts, causing Nicole to squeal and wriggle.
“Stop it, that tickles!”
“Are you religious, ‘cuz you're the answer to all my prayers...”
“Stop, I can't... oh God... stop... laughing –” Nicole's laugh was the most beautiful sound in the world, Jay thought as she held her girlfriend's trembling body, feeling the small chest gasp for air against her arm. Well, the second most beautiful sound in the world. The most beautiful sound in the world was actually Nicole saying her name or ‘I love you' when they made love.
“I must be a hunter,” she said, preparing her grand finale, “because I sure caught me a fox!”
“Oh wow... Pfft... that one worked way too well. Is that your official pickup line now?”
“Nah, just my Facebook status.”
“Stop lying, you're too cool for Facebook.”
“You're right. How did you know?”
Nicole looked up into Jay's face, a little embarrassed. “I checked after the first time I met you.”
“Ohoho? So you were interested in me?”
“Just a little. You were a dork, but a cute dork.” Jay grinned. “Yep. Very cute. So cute, that I might decide to give you a good-morning kiss...” Crawling on top of Jay, Nicole leaned down until their noses brushed. Closing her eyes, she pressed a soft kiss to her lover's lips, feeling them twitch into a smile. They held absolutely still for a hot second, and then broke apart to breathe. Jay's insides were shaken apart.
“You call that a good morning kiss, lady?” she said, her lips still centimeters away from Nicole's. “I'll show you a real good morning kiss.” Keeping her promise, she gave her girlfriend a deep, swirling kiss that made her heart pound in her chest. She could feel Nicole's heart beating fast, too.
Instead of using a witty comeback, Nicole lifted one hand, tracing a line across Jay's cheek. Enjoying the soft touch, Jay squeezed two vulnerable handfuls of flesh, glad that she had kept her hold on Nicole's bottom. “So, wanna conjugate?”
Nicole took in several quick, sharp breaths, trying desperately not to laugh. “Shut up and take me without reminding me how cheesy you are, please.” Of course, Jay had to comply. She scattered warm, wet kisses over the dip of Nicole's pale throat, along her collarbone, and around the curve of a breast. Nicole made little whimpering noises in the back of her throat, obviously enjoying the attention.
Jay was in heaven. Nicole's skin was soft and covered in adorable freckles that she had to kiss. She tried to map them out, making sure to go back and kiss any that she might have acidentally missed. Her lover was truly beautiful.
As she drew nearer to Nicole's hips, the little blonde started to squirm, making little circles with her pelvis, trying to push against something and find contact that wasn't there. Jay nipped the skin just below her bellybutton. Nicole groaned, clutching the sheets in tight little fists. “Don't tease,” she pleaded, her legs falling open. She stared down her body, watching as Jay's hands explored her legs, blushing bright red.
“No one's ever done that before,” she whispered shyly. The idea of someone using their mouth on her was frightening and unpleasant, but the thought of Jay doing it made her heart pound, and not from nerves. The more she thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her.
“Well, I want to,” Jay said, resting her chin on the pillow of Nicole's right thigh. “Is this... okay...?”
“Don't stop now, or I'll never forgive you!” said Nicole, her fingers reaching down to touch Jay's face. Jay's hand found hers instead, and their fingers linked as Jay urged Nicole's legs further apart and took in the breathtaking view.
“You are so beautiful.” Nicole shivered, feeling the words as they were breathed against her sensitive skin. She jerked, unsure of herself, at the first touch of Jay's warm tongue. They both held their breath. The second time, she tilted her hips forward to meet the stroke of her lover's searching mouth and got a better idea of how it felt. Wonderful.
Nicole tried to stay quiet, too embarrassed to make any noise and break the moment. She was only partially successful. Jay followed every little sigh, every tiny twitch of her muscles. She shuddered when her lover's tongue actually dared to slip inside of her, wanting to taste more. Jay's touch was gentle, coaxing. Never forceful, although Nicole thought she would probably like that, too. When Jay's lips curled around her sensitive bud and began to flick the tip, she felt herself levitate off the bed.
Finally, she broke. “Jay – please...” Whatever Nicole had been about to say was lost in a choked gasp.
“It's okay,” Jay lifted her tongue long enough to murmur. She lost herself in the softness and warmth, never forgetting just how much she loved the woman she was giving pleasure to.
Nicole's body went rigid, muscles locking up tight. A soft, keening cry, and Jay felt Nicole's release. Warm wetness flooded from her lover, coating her cheeks. The sweet, tangy taste of the little blonde made her head spin and her heart pound. Nicole stopped breathing for a few seconds, almost making Jay nervous, and then she went limp, sinking into the mattress and panting for air.
Jay gave her lover a few soft, gentle licks, not wanting to startle her by stopping too soon. She glanced up Nicole's body, wanting to see her girlfriend's face. Her green eyes were open, but she was staring straight up at the ceiling, her face flushed.
Licking her lips clean, Jay crawled up to wrap Nicole in her arms, pressing kisses to her hair. “I really want to kiss you on the lips, but if y-” The end of Jay's sentence was cut off by Nicole's mouth. Her shy little lover seemed to like tasting herself, Jay noticed, but all other thoughts were quickly driven from her mind as Nicole's small hand trailed down her stomach and reached between her legs, squeezing possessively. The taller woman groaned into Nicole's lips, her eyes fluttering closed.
“Let me return the favor?” Kiss. “Huh?”
“Go ahead, beautiful girl,” Jay said dreamily, thinking that she had to be the luckiest woman in the world.
Meanwhile, Aunt Mimi was on the trail of a suspicious character. Or, more accurately, she was following Nicole's stepmother, Janine, to her afternoon hair appointment. Every Thursday, the neat looking blonde went to get her hair done at François' , an upper-crust French salon that gave their clients the latest hairstyles and grooming products.
Unlike Nicole's cousin, Tom, and her Uncle Bill, Janine knew what Aunt Mimi looked like, and so the woman had decided to be resourceful and disguise herself. Wearing prescription sunglasses instead of her usual coke bottle glasses, she had wrapped her hair and shoulders in a leopard-print scarf, like an actress in a nineteen-fifties style movie. The pants matched the scarf, and the shirt, shoes, and purse were all black. There was no way that Aunt Mimi would ever abandon her matching-shoes-and-purse ritual.
She waited in the bagel shop across the street for five minutes after Janine entered François' , and then made her move. After a near miss on the crosswalk, a slightly flustered Aunt Mimi pushed through the door to the hair salon, ignoring the cheerful tinkling of the bell above her head. The receptionist looked at her suspiciously. This was a new customer. And her clothes, so strange! Certainly not the usual style of the upper classes.
“Excuse me, madam, may I help you?” she asked, careful to keep her tone polite.
Aunt Mimi looked at her over the tops of her sunglasses, tugging at the scarf around her neck and hair. “Yes, you may. Please tell François that I must speak with him immediately.”
“I am afraid that he is with a customer,” said the receptionist. Perhaps this woman really did know François, but she decided to go back and check before sending her in while he was ‘practicing his art'. “May I have your name?”
“He will know who I am. Could you please inform him of my arrival?”
Doubtfully, the receptionist studied her one last time. Deciding that this woman would not go away without a little more effort, she left her desk and gestured to a hallway. François had several rooms, the first of which was a waiting area.
“If you will please wait here, madam, I will go back and find Francois for you.” Still unsure if she was doing the right thing, the receptionist left. Aunt Mimi, however, smiled. Sitting on the other side of the waiting room, her nose buried in a magazine, was Janine Fox.
Carefully, Mimi eyed her over the tops of her sunglasses, checking to make sure that none of her hair showed. She did not want Janine to realize who she was. Suddenly, Janine's purse buzzed, and she pulled out a sleek black cell phone. She flipped it open, putting it to her cheek. “Hello? ... Oh, yes, I did get a letter from Brenner and Matheson... You want to confirm our appointment for tomorrow? ... Yes, I will be there at 9:00... of course, if you wanted to call them individually... of course... yes.... thank you.”
Aunt Mimi felt her excitement rising. Brenner and Matheson was a prestigious law firm. Like François, it only served the richest and most glamorous clientele. But why did Janine Fox need a lawyer? Did she think that the police were going to charge her with something? Was she preparing a defense?
“Excuse me?” The voice interrupted Mimi's thoughts. She looked up, startled, and saw that Janine was squinting at her curiously. “I'm sure I've seen you before...”
“Ah – I mean... no, I don't think so.” Aunt Mimi babbled, her heart rate increasing dramatically.
Janine leaned forward to take a closer look. “I apologize if I startled you, but you look very familiar...”
“No, I am pretty sure that I have never seen you before.”
Suddenly, Janine's eyes got very large, and she pulled back. “You! You're Jay Buchanan's Aunt! What are you doing here? Why are you wearing – you were following me!”
Afraid of retribution, Aunt Mimi grabbed her black purse (it was one of her favorites, she would never leave it behind) and ran out of the waiting room. Fortunately, Janine was either too angry or too startled to chase her. She pushed past the front door, almost knocking a large woman in a very gaudy hat onto her behind in the process. She did not stop to rest until she was at least five blocks away, and sure that Janine had not followed her.
Unzipping the precious black purse, she pulled out her own cell phone, which was a large, older model, and very clunky. She dialed a familiar number (she really needed to put her niece on speed dial), and waited for the phone to be answered. When Jay did not pick up, she tried again. On the third call, Jay finally picked up, sounding very irritated.
“What?” she snapped.
“Jay! Is that any way to talk to your favorite Aunt?”
“How about I call the next time you are having sex and see how you like it!” As soon as she blurted the sentence out, she knew it was a very big mistake. Her face turned bright red.
Aunt Mimi was shocked. “You were having sex? Jay!”
“I'm in a relationship, it's allowed. Where the hell are you so I can go pick up your ass before you get in trouble. And why didn't you bring your own damn car?”
“I wanted to walk in the fresh air – wait a minute... Jay, you were having sex?”
“Argh, I don't care, just tell me where to pick you up.”
“Yes, with Nicole!” Back at her apartment, Jay wanted to bang her head against the wall, but her lover looked so adorable curled up in bed, clutching the pillow that Jay had been resting on, that she did not want to disturb her with loud noises. “Which of them did you decide to follow this time?”
“I don't understand... why in the world would you tell me that you just had sex with Nicole?” Aunt Mimi was clearly confused.
“Dammit,” Jay muttered, kicking the wall and hopping on one foot when she realized that she had accidentally hurt herself. “Ow, that hurts.”
“Are you still having sex with Nicole? Or did you do something stupid and hurt yourself?”
“Second one. Now, will you please tell me where the heck you are so we can end this incredibly awkward phone conversation and I can find you before someone else – like men in fedoras or the police – come to pick you up instead?”
“There were no men in fedoras this time,” Aunt Mimi said, trying to reassure her niece. “I only went to François , the hair salon. Do you need directions?”
“Nicole has GPS, I'll take her car. Too lazy to Mapquest it. Give me a few minutes, I'll be right there.”
Aunt Mimi started to say goodbye, but realized that her niece had already hung up. “Well, how rude.”
It only took Jay twenty minutes to find her Aunt Mimi. She was easy to spot in her not-very-subtle black and leopard print outfit combination. Sighing, she pulled her car into an empty parking spot on the side of the street, not bothering to pay the meter since she would only be there for a few seconds. She unlocked the doors, and watched Aunt Mimi climb into the car.
"You hung up on me," the older woman said accusingly. "It was very rude."
"You called at an awkward time, and you wanted me to rush and pick you up. What else did you expect?"
Aunt Mimi shrugged. "I did find out something interesting, though."
"Should I ask?" Jay could not keep all of the sarcasm from her voice
"Nothing as exciting as last time," Aunt Mimi admitted. "I simply overheard a phone conversation. I promise, there were no thugs trying to collect money or drunken people groping each other on a dance floor. I do think that I annoyed the receptionist at the hair salon, though."
You annoy everyone , Jay thought to herself, still sulky that her time with Nicole had been so rudely interrupted. "Well, what did you find out?" she asked, impatiently.
“Mrs. Janine Fox has an appointment scheduled with her lawyers. Did you know she hired Brenner and Matheson?”
“Yeah, Nicole told me. Her entire family uses them. Did you ever think that it might just be a meeting about the assets her husband inherited?”
“Then why is she going to be there? Why did they call her to confirm the appointment time?”
Jay shrugged. “I don't know, but it's really none of your business.” Of course, the younger woman knew that no amount of warnings or threats would stop her Aunt from sticking her nose in to other people's business.
Loud barking greeted Jay as she and her Aunt Mimi approached the door of a small, tidy house with a well-groomed front yard. Jay groaned, not wanting to think about the vicious beast that was waiting for them inside. Hopefully, she could make her escape before she was invited in.
Aunt Mimi seemed to read her niece's mind. “Come in, Jay, you can handle spending a little time with your Aunt,” she demanded, not bothering to phrase the idea as a request. Jay was expected to go along whether she wanted to or not.
“I'm not sure that's a good idea,” Jay said, shifting nervously from foot to foot. “You know that thing doesn't like me...”
“What thing?” Aunt Mimi asked, turning the key in her lock and opening the gates of hell. Immediately, a small white blur rushed past her ankles and launched itself towards Jay's foot, tiny teeth gripping her sneakers. The thing snarled aggressively, thrashing its head and trying to kill Jay's shoe.
Jay cried out, not moving her foot in case she accidentally kicked the white ball of fluff. “Argh! Get it off me!”
“Oh, ignore Tinkerbelle, she's harmless,” Aunt Mimi cooed, bending down to pick up the vicious attack poodle. Its fluffy cut immediately gave away its breed. Reluctantly, Tinkerbelle allowed herself to be picked up, her gums still pulled back from her teeth as she growled at Jay. Jay was tempted to bare her own teeth and growl back.
“I hate that thing,” she muttered. “Stupid dog...”
Usually, Jay loved dogs and all kinds of animals, but she and Tinkerbelle were old foes. They had shared a mutual hatred ever since the little fuzz demon had peed on Jay's brand new, freshly altered pants.
“What do you mean? Tinkerbelle is a little angel. Did you know that poodles are the second smartest breed of dog?”
“I find that very hard to believe.” At least she's a miniature, Jay thought, counting her blessings. A standard poodle with Tinkerbelle's temperament would be... Jay searched for a suitably chaotic and unpleasant adjective, but nothing seemed to suit.
“Come in,” Aunt Mimi said. Jay was grateful that Aunt Mimi kept a firm hold on Tinkerbelle as she stepped inside and closed the door behind them. The inside of her Aunt's house was not nearly as neat and well kept as the outside. Books and papers were scattered across every available surface, and the TV was blaring at full volume.
“CAN YOU TURN IT DOWN?” Jay yelled, straining to be heard.
Aunt Mimi obligingly switched off the television, which had been turned to Animal Planet. “Sorry,” she said, “Tinkerbelle gets lonely. Don't you, sweetheart?” Tinkerbelle responded by growling at Jay over Aunt Mimi's shoulder. Jay stuck out her tongue and squinted her eyes at the dog, making an unpleasant face.
Ignoring the junk on the sofa, Aunt Mimi sat down on it, letting Tinkerbelle curl up next to her. When Jay tried to sit on the other end of the couch, the dog growled threateningly at her, warning her to stay away. Sighing, Jay sat on the floor instead, Indian-style. Damn dog. It's the one that should be on the floor. Jay refused to acknowledge that the dog was a ‘she'. To her, it was a sexless, heartless demon.
“So, will you ask Nicole what the meeting tomorrow is about?” Aunt Mimi asked, her thoughts, as always, centering around the unsolved mystery.
“I told you,” Jay said, threading nervous fingers through her dark hair as she kept a wary eye on Tinkerbelle, “Nicole says that it is just a short meeting to discuss her grandfather's will.”
“I thought most of the correspondence was through the mail.”
Jay shrugged. The motion set off Tinkerbelle, who started barking her head off, the fur along her back bristling. Even with her ridiculous show-poodle cut, she seemed threatening, and Jay scooted back on the rug, wanting to get as far away as possible from that dog. “Well, Nicole's grandfather had a lot of money. I got the impression that the whole family was going to be there.”
“You should go,” Aunt Mimi said, sounding excited. “You might find something out.
Jay shook her head. “I don't think so. I'm not really involved, and I got the impression that it was a family thing.”
“Exactly! It will be the first time that the Fox family has been together in the same room since the murder. You need to be there to observe their reactions.”
“Can't Nicole do it?” Jay pleaded, on the verge of whining. Tinkerbelle glared at her, little black eyes glinting under the doggy-afro piled on top of her head. No wonder that dog is so mean, Jay thought, its cut makes it look ridiculous. She felt a small pang of sympathy for the dog until it snapped at her and threatened to launch itself off the couch, muscles twitching under the white coat. All sympathy immediately vanished.
Jay gave in to her immature side and growled back at the dog, which started a new round of yapping from Tinkerbelle. “If Nicole and I ever get a dog, it is going to be a big, friendly golden retriever or black lab,” Jay insisted.
“Nonsense. Poodles are wonderful dogs. Tinkerbelle isn't spayed, you know. I could always breed her with another poodle. You could have one of her pups.”
Her hands were up before she realized what she was doing, as if to protect herself from the mere idea. “Get the dog spayed, Aunt Mimi, please? ” I don't want to think about any of Tinkerbelle's demon-spawn running around, especially in my apartment!
Suddenly, Jay realized that she had, once again, been thinking about her relationship with Nicole in serious terms. For lots of lesbian couples, adopting a dog together was basically a marriage contract. To Jay's surprise, she did not mind the idea of getting a dog with Nicole, as long as it was absolutely nothing like Tinkerbelle.
“You know, Jay, I've just realized something,” Aunt Mimi said, patting Tinkerbelle's head. Reluctantly, the dog settled back down on the cushions of the couch, still watching Jay mistrustfully.
“That your dog is evil?”
Aunt Mimi snorted. “No! I realized that I never asked you who you think the murderer is.”
That surprised Jay. None of the suspects really stood out to her. “I have no idea,” she said honestly. “I know who I want it to be. If Tom Jr. was the murderer, it would be easier on Nicole, since she already doesn't like him.”
“Family relationships are always messy.”
“Nicole's family is very messy. This isn't the first death, you know.”
“Are you talking about her sister's suicide?”
Jay did a double take. “Wait, you know about that? How?” She was equal parts surprised and angry. Had Aunt Mimi been digging into Nicole's past?
“I read it in the back issues of the newspaper when I was at the library. Didn't you ever wonder what I was doing there that day when I came up to you?” Aunt Mimi asked.
Jay, who had never been as observant or as curious as her Aunt, wished that she had questioned her Aunt's presence. At least she could have told her off... “Aunt Mimi, that was a very personal family thing... I know it was in the news, but you should have let Nicole retain some of her privacy. Her life is about to be picked apart again because of her Grandfather. There is even a reporter following us around.”
“A reporter?” Aunt Mimi asked. “Who?”
“Cindy Larson. She works for the Tribune. Nicole and I have both just brushed her off, but if she keeps bothering us, I'll have to do something.”
Jay eyed Tinkerbelle. “Well, I could always sic your dog on her if she comes around again,” she suggested. Aunt Mimi pointedly ignored the idea. “Anyway,” she said, trying to recover, “the point is, you should leave Nicole alone. You don't think she did it, right?”
“She didn't,” said Aunt Mimi. “My niece wouldn't date a murderer.”
“I thought your detective novels told you to suspect everyone?” Jay challenged.
“Not your niece's girlfriend.”
Jay never understood her Aunt's logic, and decided not to question her further. “Listen, I'm going. I want to get away from that demon you keep as a pet.” Tinkerbelle, as if she knew that she was being addressed, growled in response.
“See? Now you've upset her. She's so human. You should know better, Jackie.”
“Don't call me Jackie,” Jay muttered, picking herself up off of the carpet and heading for the door. “Lock it behind me,” she said. “I don't want anyone coming after you. One of Nicole's relatives might have taken exception to your stalking habits.”
“I've never stalked anyone,” Aunt Mimi protested. “It was part of the investigation!”
Jay rolled her eyes to the ceiling, turning the doorknob and stepping out into the autumn air. “Sure. You keep on thinking that.”
As she was walking back to her car, Jay noticed another strange vehicle parked along the street. She watched as the driver's side door opened and a familiar figure stepped out. It was Lucas, his hair perfectly styled and his teeth perfectly white. He smiled and waved when he saw her, but the greeting was anything but friendly.
“What are you doing here?” Jay asked, narrowing her eyes at the intruder. “Did you follow me?”
“Yes,” Lucas admitted, not seeing anything wrong with that.
“God, what is wrong with everyone in my life?” Jay shouted to the sky, forgetting that she was supposed to be talking to Lucas. “First my crazy Aunt, then crazy reporter, now you! Has Congress passed a new law protecting stalking rights or something?”
Lucas was taken by surprise. He stepped back, holding up his hands. “Whoa, what's your problem?”
“What's your problem?” Jay snapped. She was sick and tired of strangers trying to interfere with her life and her relationship with Nicole. “We obviously don't like each other, so why did you follow me to your Aunt's house?”
“This is your Aunt's house?” Lucas asked, looking confused.
“What, were you trying to find my house?” she asked.
“Yeah. Well, actually, I was trying to find Nicole.”
Lucas gave her a superior look. “I wanted to talk to her.”
“About what?” Jay demanded.
“None of your business.”
Jay gritted her teeth. Tinkerbelle had already put her on edge, and Lucas was wearing down her nerves. “Listen, leave her alone. She already told you to fuck off – very clearly, I might add, and more politely than I would have – and you should do what she wants.”
“Well, aren't you possessive?” Lucas drawled, sarcasm lacing his words. “Just because you're Nicole's current fling doesn't mean that she isn't allowed to talk to anyone else.”
“Nicole can talk with anyone she likes,” Jay said, “but she doesn't want to talk to you.”
The annoying smile on Lucas' face vanished completely. Instead, he gave Jay a frown. “Listen, just tell me where she is. I need to talk to her.”
Jay snorted. “You honestly think I'm stupid enough to tell you where my girlfriend is when I know you'll just upset her? You'll never get her back.” Lucas straightened his back, standing taller than Jay, but she refused to be intimidated. “I'm leaving. If I check my rear view mirror and see you following me, I won't head home to Nicole.” She knew that the word ‘home' would annoy Lucas, with its implied intimacy. “I'll find somewhere awkward and embarrassing to take you instead.”
Pleased with herself for saying the last word on the matter, Jay left an angry, confused Lucas behind as she headed for her car and pulled out of Aunt Mimi's driveway. All she wanted was to go home and spend time with her girlfriend. Away from Aunt Mimi, away from Lucas, away from Nicole's family, away from that stupid reporter, Cindy Larson, and far, far away from Tinkerbelle.
As soon as Jay opened the door to Nicole's apartment, she found herself with an armful of angry, upset blonde. “Hey, what's wrong?” she asked, rubbing Nicole's back awkwardly. As much as she loved the closeness in their relationship, she was not completely comfortable with being a supportive partner. Mostly, she was afraid of saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse.
“My stupid family is what's wrong! Two of them are in the paper this time!” Nicole practically shouted. Jay flinched, since her girlfriend's mouth was very close to her ear.
“Hey, in-door voice, hon. What's in the paper?”
“My stupid cousins,” Nicole said, lowering her voice as requested. Holding on to Jay's wrist, she dragged the reluctant brunette over to the counter in the kitchen and pointed at a crumpled section of the evening paper. The pages were unceremoniously shoved in front of Jay's nose. “Read this,” she ordered.
Jay read it.
Fox Murder: Relatives Say It Was In The Family
In exclusive statements to the Tribune, two separate members of the Fox family announced that the late Stephen Fox, wealthy transportation and shipping baron, was most likely murdered by someone in his own family. Stephen Fox, who also started the Fox Foundation, was poisoned late last week on his seventieth birthday.
“It was [definitely] someone at the party,” said Thomas Fox Jr., Stephen Fox's youngest living grandchild. “I mean, all of us stood to gain from his death. Everyone at that party was in his will, or had a spouse that was going to inherit... we all had opportunity. Any one of us could have put [the Strychnine] in his drink.” Thomas Jr., who was at the party, did not give a direct answer when asked who, if anyone, he suspected of the murder.
Denise Rorsche, another of Stephen Fox's grandchildren, and Thomas Jr.'s cousin, weighed in on the situation as well. “Like, it had to be someone there. Because, I mean, you had to be there to, like, put the poison in, right? And they're saying it was... it was definitely poison, you know? So, like, it had to be someone there. I think. Because it would make, like, zero sense to put it in the wine bottle because then, like, we would all be dead, I think?”
When asked about her grandfather's untimely death, Nicole Fox, a third Fox grandchild who attended the party, stated:“My grandfather's death was a terrible tragedy for us all [and] I hope that he finds peace.” She refused to acknowledge whether her relationship with another woman had anything to do with her grandfather's death, or any further strain within the Fox family.
The police department refused to answer the Tribune's questions about new leads and the focus of their investigation.
Cindy Larson, staff reporter
Jay lowered Nicole's hands, which were still holding up the paper. “I can't believe they actually talked to her,” said Nicole. “I wish she hadn't dragged our relationship in to this. I'm not even sure how she found us out...” Nicole laughed, but the sound was hollow.
“It was pretty obvious just by watching us, and I think you called me sweetie at one point. Want me to go egg her house?” Jay asked. “I'm sure Lieutenant Slack could dig up her address for me. I'd be doing him a favor. He's probably almost as upset as you.”
Nicole gave Jay a small, hesitant smile. “Thanks,” she said, opening her arms for a hug. “You know exactly what to say... you make me smile even when things suck.”
Jay gave Nicole a silly grin. “That's one of my jobs, sexy!”
“Comedian, chauffer, cook, love slave...” She winked, dodging a well-aimed blow to her midsection.
The law offices of Brenner, Matheson, and Associates were designed to impress. A small but exclusive law firm, they specialized in handling the finances (and, occasionally, the criminal cases) of very wealthy families. The Fox family had topped their clientele list for decades, when the firm had used a different name and was under different management.
Their offices were on the seventh floor of a high-rise in the middle of the city, and the décor was elegant and tasteful. The color scheme, mostly tans, browns, and beiges, was comfortable on the eye.
Jay held Nicole's hand as they waited, glancing suspiciously at the rest of the Fox family members. She recognized all of their faces, and placed the lone stranger as Nicole's Uncle Tom, who had been out of the country during the macabre birthday party.
Jay did not know why she agreed to come, except that Nicole had asked her to, and she wanted to protect her lover by heading off any conflict. After explaining Aunt Mimi's latest fiasco to her girlfriend over dinner, and revealing that her stepmother had been overheard confirming an appointment with the family lawyers, Nicole came forward with the request.
“I have to go to that appointment as well,” she told Jay. “It's about grandfather's assets. Will you come with me? I don't think that they will let you in, but it would be nice to know you're waiting for me outside. It will be the first time I've seen my entire family since Grandpa died...”
How could Jay say no? Nicole had pleaded with those soft green eyes, and her heart melted. And so she switched shifts at the bookstore and went to support her girlfriend.
“Why are they all looking at us?” she whispered to Nicole, eyeing Denise suspiciously.
“Who?” asked Harry, who was on Nicole's other side.
“Not you, Harry, your sister,” she said.
“No, I meant who was looking at you,” said Harry. “The only one I noticed was that sleazy cousin of mine.” He gestured at Tom Jr., who was, indeed, looking at them.
“All of them,” Jay said, trying not to move her lips.
“Well, I guess they didn't expect for you to come with me,” said Nicole. “You didn't have to... maybe it was a bad idea to ask.”
“It wasn't a bad idea,” said Jay, giving up on whispering, although she still kept her voice at a soft volume. “Maybe I just surprised them.”
“So, like, why is your hair so long?” Jay looked to her left. Denise was staring at her curiously. Her bubblegum pink lips matched her outfit. She looked like she had walked out of the Disney princess store today.
“Excuse me? Why shouldn't my hair be long?”
“Well, I just thought it would be short or in a mohawk or something. Do you have any tattoos?”
Jay blushed. “Um, I have one of a tiger,” she lied. She did not want Denise to know about her Tigger tattoo. Nicole poked her in the side, which made Jay flinch.
“Where?” Denise asked, not wanting to drop the subject. “Can I see it?”
“She'd have to take off her pants,” said Nicole, giving Denise a very smug look. This time, it was Denise's turn to blush. Nicole's stepmother, who had overheard the conversation, looked scandalized. Fortunately, a lawyer in a very fashionable but uncomfortable looking suit, chose that moment to come out of his office and summon the Fox family into his room.
Left alone in the waiting room, Jay pulled out her cell phone and started to play Pac Man. It was the only game she had, and she did not feel like reading an out of date magazine.
“I suppose you know why I called you here. Or, at least, you suspect,” said Mr. Matheson. On paper, he was the Fox family's official lawyer, although all parts of the law firm had helped to handle the late Mr. Fox's finances in one way or another. They were a very complicated, and very wealthy, account.
“I have no idea,” said Aunt Martha, looking irritated (as usual). “It was very inconvenient to attend this meeting, I'll have you know. Why, I had to cancel a doctor's appointment. You see, my heart-”
“You don't want to give us the money,” Nicole guessed.
That stopped Aunt Martha's tirade. For once, the chatty woman could find nothing to say.
“I wouldn't put it that way,” said Matheson, his demeanor cool and controlled. He had not become a partner in the most sought-after law firm in the city by letting uncomfortable situations faze him.
“None of that damn lawyer talk,” said Nicole's father, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “You aren't releasing the money to us, and I want to know why.”
“It's because one of us knocked off the old bugger,” Tom Jr. drawled. Tom Sr. gave him a warning glance, but Tom Jr. had not listened to his father in years, and was not about to start any time soon. “Come on, Matheson, you can say it.”
Matheson adjusted his glasses. “We are putting a temporary hold on all payouts until the matter of Mr. Fox's death has been resolved. We are not accusing anyone. As the executors of his will, we simply want to be sure that his estate can be divided correctly.”
Tom leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “So, what you're really saying is that if one of us is accused of his murder, we won't get a cent.”
“You can't hold the money,” Uncle Bill blurted out, wiping nervously at his forehead with a handkerchief just beneath his rising hairline. His face was very red. “This is terribly unprofessional. The will is very clear, we want what's rightfully ours!”
“So you can pay off your gambling debts and get the Ritornellos off your back?” Everyone looked from Tom Jr. to Bill.
“Tom, say something to your son!” exclaimed Aunt Martha, whose face was almost as red as her husband's. Tom Sr. was silent for a long moment. Too long for Aunt Martha. “He just accused my husband of gambling and associating with a crime family!”
Tom Sr. shrugged, looking bored. “If you want to shut him up yourself, be my guest. Beatrice and I can't do a damn thing with him.”
“I'll shut him up,” said Janine, who looked very upset. “Tom, you have been nothing but disrespectful this morning. Why your grandfather even included you in his will, I have no idea.”
“Oh, like you don't have your own dirty little secrets. We all know about your first husband. Didn't take you long to find a rich second one, did it?”
“Tom, we aren't here to fight,” said Nicole, her hands bunched into fists on top of her skirt. Tom slumped down in his seat, sulking. “Mr. Matheson, are you legally allowed to freeze our grandfather's assets like that?”
“Not permanently, no,” said the lawyer. “But we are allowed to launch an investigation... not in to the murder itself, but into Mr. Fox's finances.”
“In other words, you want to bury the paperwork in file-land until you're sure a huge chunk of the trust fund isn't going to a murderer. The press would rip you apart. Good luck finding clients after that!” said Harry.
Nicole sighed at her brother. “You could have said it nicer.”
“It's the truth,” Harry protested.
“It is the truth,” Matheson admitted, making eye contact with the group in front of him. “This is the safest possible thing to do, considering the circumstances.”
“You do realize,” Janine said, her voice icy cold, “that you are accusing a member of this family of murder.”
“I am trying to protect my firm, Mrs. Fox. If no one is guilty, then there will be no problems, and everyone will get their money.”
“When is the soonest we will get it?” asked Uncle Bill, perspiring even in the air-conditioned office.
“That depends entirely on how quickly this business is resolved.”
Tom looked thoughtful. “If I drink myself to death by the time I'm fifty five, even with holdups, that will give me a good...” he paused, calculating, “thirty years to enjoy my millions of dollars. Do whatever you want, we'll get what's coming to us eventually.”
“Don't joke about death like that.” Harry's skin was pale, and his face was tight-set. “Or you will get what's coming to you.”
Tom smirked at his cousin. “Oh, I forgot, you actually loved the old bastard. You loved Vicky, too. Do you still miss your little sister?” The handsome man's voice was cold and mocking. A look of pain, anger, and hate crossed Harry's face, and he did nothing to hide it. “We all have to die some time, Harry. Might as well enjoy some debauchery on the way to hell.”
Harry almost jumped out of his chair. “Sorry, Mr. Matheson, I'm leaving. If there are any more details that I need to be made aware of, call me, or just tell Nicky.” Without looking back, he pushed open the door and left the rest of the group staring after him, too surprised to say anything.
The rest of the family looked horrified. “Sometimes,” said Patrick, the first to break the stunned silence that had descended over the room, “I wonder if you really are my brother. There was no reason to bring Victoria in to this.”
“There was no reason for you to insult any of us,” Nicole jumped in. “I think you should leave, Tom. None of us want you here.”
Tom also pushed back his chair and stood up, although much more slowly than Harry. “That works out perfectly, because I don't want to be here. If the money isn't coming to me any time soon, I see no reason to stay.” Again, the Foxes watched a member of their family leave without looking back.
“For all intents and purposes, this meeting is dismissed,” said Mr. Matheson. “Our representatives will be in touch with you regarding the will's status and execution.
“We could go to the press with this,” Bill threatened, looking visibly upset.
“Don't we have enough publicity?” Nicole's father protested. “Damn reporters.” But everyone around him could tell that his heart was not in it. The reminder of Victoria had shaken him, too.
“Come on, Daddy. Let's go,” Nicole said softly, taking her father's hand and leading him out of the office. Janine went with them, leaving the rest of the group to shuffle out of the office behind them in an awkward, lumpy group.
When the door opened and she saw the distressed expression on her lover's face, Jay stood up. She wanted to run over to Nicole, but was worried about making a scene. She did open her arms when the small blonde came closer, and Nicole allowed herself to be pulled in for a tight hug.
“What's wrong?” Jay asked, rubbing circles on Nicole's back. For once, Janine and her husband did not seem upset at the display of affection.
“I'll tell you about it later. Tom Jr. was just being difficult.”
Jay snorted. “That's a surprise.”
“Now you're being difficult. Come on, tall, dark, and delirious, get me out of here. I'm sick of this place.”
“Tom really brought up your sister? I knew he was an ass,” Jay said after Nicole told her the whole story later that evening. Other, less important details, like the hold on her grandfather's estate, had been divulged on the car ride home.
Nicole shrugged, letting her head flop back on the arm of Jay's couch. Her feet were resting in the taller woman's lap, and she was very comfortable. “You don't need to tell me twice. Harry took it harder than me. They were Irish twins.”
“You know, when two babies are born in the same year, nine months apart? They were in the same grade at school. Those two did almost everything together. I was a few years younger, so I felt a little left out sometimes... but I loved Victoria to pieces. She was my big sister.”
Nicole rubbed at her eyes, even though she did not feel like crying. Most of her tears for her sister had dried up years ago. Now, it just felt like an old, sore wound in her chest that had been prodded too many times.
“You don't think... someone killed her, too?” Jay asked. She did not want to upset her lover, but the question was haunting her.
“Oh, no, Victoria did it herself. Left a suicide note in her own handwriting. Not that it made much sense. Besides, we knew she was depressed after her fiancé called off the wedding.” Nicole's eyes filmed over, turning reflective. “She hung herself. She was wearing her wedding dress. Harry found her.”
“Why didn't she get back together with her fiancé?” Jay did not want to prod, but something told her that her lover wanted to talk about it.
“It was Tom's fault,” said Nicole. “He told Victoria's husband-to-be that she was cheating on him. The boy was nice, but a little stupid. He believed him. By the time he realized Tom was a snake and a liar, it was too late.”
Jay was floored. “And Tom doesn't feel guilty about this at all? He doesn't think...”
“Exactly. Tom doesn't think at all. But you know what? I think he really does feel guilty about it. That's probably why he drinks so much, just like his mother. She's stupid, but harmless, but Tom... He's always had a mean streak. It's only gotten worse. You know, I wouldn't be surprised if...”
“If he was behind the whole thing. The poison they used to kill Grandpa was meant to be a painful death. Tom would like that sort of thing.”
Jay tried to think of what to say. Not something accusatory, or anything to bring up unpleasant memories. She wanted to pull her lover out of the dark hole she had fallen in, not join her there. “Hey,” she whispered, moving Nicole's feet off of her lap and scooting over to her side of the couch.
“Hey,” Nicole said quietly.
“You're really sweet.” As she bent down to nuzzle Nicole's cheek, Jay wondered how she had gotten to this point. She was now a mushy, hopeless romantic. Where had her youth and her sense of adventure gone? A year ago, or even six months ago, she never would have thought that a little blonde would come along and steal her heart. Her party-hard life was gone, and she was officially ‘boring' now. She loved it.
Jay felt a smile twitch in the corners of her lips. Although she could never imagine life with Nicole being dull, Aunt Mimi would always be around to bring some trouble back into Jay's life and keep things exciting...
Tinkerbelle was purple, the same shade of purple as Aunt Mimi's shoes and sequined handbag. The handbag still counted as part of a matching set, even though it was different from her Aunt's usual style of purse.
Jay and Nicole were dressed for a dinner party. Nicole wore an off-the-shoulder forest green dress and Jay had donned a sharp white tux. Unfortunately, there was purple hair all over Jay's left pant leg. Tinkerbelle had done it on purpose.
“My favorite color is green.” Lucas was also at the dinner party. Unlike Jay, he was wearing a black tux, and there were no purple dog hairs on it. He gave Nicole a three-foot-tall smile that blinded all of them.
Cindy Larson appeared on a floating television screen, which Tinkerbelle decided to bark at. “In other news, this reporter has uncovered the real murderer of billionaire, Stephen Fox: Mimi Buchanan!”
Jay almost fell out of her chair.
Aunt Mimi began crying hysterically. “I wanted to solve a mystery!” she wailed. “I had to find a victim!”
“How did you kill him?” Jay asked, still confused. “You weren't even at the party!”
Tom Jr. rolled his eyes. For some reason, Tinkerbelle was standing on his head. “You don't know? You're so stupid. She mind controlled you and made you poison him, of course!”
“I'm breaking up with you,” Nicole declared, walking over to stand beside Lucas. “And Lucas and I are getting married. You aren't invited.”
Lieutenant Slack grinned from underneath the table. “A-ha! I caught you! Jay Buchanan, you are under arrest for the murder of Stephen Fox...” his voice began to fade as he read her rights.
“But I didn't do it!” Jay protested.
She got the distinct impression that Tinkerbelle was laughing at her as she was handcuffed.
Jay sat up in bed, cold sweat trickling down her back, her heart pounding. “Oh God,” she moaned, shaking her head to rid herself of the horrible dream. “What a nightmare...” She almost jumped out of her skin as something warm and soft moved beside her. Oh, Nicole. Still not used to that.
“S'wrong?” the blonde asked sleepily, squinting at Jay even though all of the lights were still off. She tried to say something else, but swallowed her words with a yawn.
“I just had a really bad dream,” Jay mumbled, still trying to make sense of the image fragments.
“Really bad?” Nicole repeated.
“Yeah. Tinkerbelle was in it, and Lucas, and Cindy Larson, and Tom Jr.”
Nicole blinked. “All of your favorite people.” She wrapped her arms around Jay's waist, burrowing back under the covers and pulling her lover close. “Go back to sleep. S'early.”
Reluctantly, Jay untangled herself from Nicole's embrace. “Gonna get a glass of water. Then I'll come back to bed.”
Not caring that she was naked, the sleepy woman climbed out of bed and trudged to the kitchen. Not bothering to turn on the light, she was nearly blinded when she opened the fridge. “Why did I even do that?” she asked herself out loud. “I wanted water.”
Shaking her head to wake herself up, Jay opened a cabinet above the sink and pulled out a glass. Scratching off a spot with her fingernail, she filled it with water from the sink and dumped in a few ice cubes. A long, cold sip soothed her throat and made her feel much better.
Glass in hand, Jay wandered back to the bedroom, passing through the living room on her way. A strange feeling made her pause: something wasn't right. She peered around the dark room, trying to figure out what had disturbed her.
Feeling her way over to the wall (and narrowly avoiding the coffee table), Jay flipped on the light switch. It took several moments for her eyes to adjust to the bright light, but when she did, she realized immediately what had caught her attention. The books on the living room shelf had been knocked onto the floor, and the front door was swinging open, leading out into the dark mouth of the hallway.
“Nicole!” Jay shouted, not caring if the neighbors on the floor below heard her. “Wake up and get in here!”
Blinking sleep from her eyes, the tired blonde wandered in to the living room, combing through her mussed hair with her fingers. Like Jay, she was completely naked, and was too tired to care. “What's wrong – oh!” Immediately, she opened her eyes wider. “Jay, what happened?”
“I found it like this,” she said, pointing at the open door.
“Someone broke in? Oh my God!”
“They aren't here anymore,” Jay reassured her. “I might have scared them off when I came out of the bedroom.”
“As far as I can see, all they did was knock over the books... anything valuable was in the bedroom, and you said the kitchen wasn't like this, right? The TV is still here...”
“Hold on, don't touch anything. Let me get my cell phone and call Lieutenant Slack.”
“Two in the goddamn morning,” the Lieutenant mumbled, passing two rookies who were waiting just outside the door to Nicole Fox's apartment. “They had to call me for a break-in at two in the goddamn morning!” His wife had not been happy to see him leaving the house that late, and he was not happy about it either.
“Do you think it's related to the murder?” Bellows asked. Unlike his older superior, the young officer was excited despite the late hour. “Maybe they were trying to kill Stephen Fox's granddaughter, too?”
Lieutenant Slack snorted. “Don't think so. Just a break-in. Either it's a coincidence, or Nicole had some kind of evidence that the burglar wanted.”
“Do you think it's a coincidence?”
Slack shook his head. “Nah. The timing is too close. Also, why would a burglar come up to the top floor of a high-security apartment complex? Too difficult to get up here unless you purposely chose the Fox girl as your target.”
As he entered the living room, Jay Buchanan and Nicole Fox, both wearing nightshirts and looking extremely worried, approached him. “Sorry about the early morning call,” Jay said, looking a little guilty. “I woke up to get a glass of water and found it like this.”
“Nothing has been taken, as far as you know?” Slack asked, watching as a fourth officer took photos of the crime scene.
“Haven't checked yet,” said Jay. “We decided not to touch anything in case we were disturbing evidence.”
Slack nodded his approval. “That's just about the only thing CSI gets right. Disturbing evidence is a bad mistake for civilians to make. Hey, Wallace, you done?” he asked the photographer.
“Yeah, I've got everything photographed. I did the door earlier. There's no sign of a break-in, but I guess they could have picked the lock. Must have been a damn good burglar to get in without leaving any evidence. Whoever it was, they certainly weren't sloppy.”
Slack took Nicole over to the pile of fallen books. “We can't use these for trace. Too many different fingerprints on them. Since that's all that was disturbed, go ahead and look through them” he said. “Tell me if anything is missing.”
Obediently, Nicole got on her knees and sorted through the pile, putting the books back on the shelf. Jay made herself useful, staying on her feet so that she could put a few of the books on the top shelf. “Nothing so far,” came the voice from around her knees, “oh, wait... a photo album. The big white one I keep on the middle shelf... It's not here.”
“A photo album?” Jay asked. “What the hell would a burglar want with a photo album?”
“What was in the photo album, Ms. Fox?” asked Slack, sounding neither excited nor uninterested.
Nicole thought about it. “Just some family photos,” she said, sounding unsure. “I have no idea what anyone would want with those...”
“Nothing else is missing?”
Jay shook her head. “Nope. I just put up the last book.” She offered Nicole a hand and helped her up, which make Lieutenant Slack smile. He had to admit, the girls were cute. It bothered him that someone had been able to break into their apartment so easily.
“Do you have somewhere else you could stay tonight?” he asked, looking from Jay to Nicole. “It probably isn't safe here, and technically, it's still a crime scene.”
“I guess we could spend a few hours at my apartment,” Jay suggested. “I doubt we'll be able to get much sleep, though.”
Nicole reached down to squeeze Jay's hand. “I don't care if we sleep or not, but I don't want to stay here. Not so soon after... Excuse us, Lieutenant. We're going to put some real clothes on and head over to Jay's apartment. If you need to ask us any more questions, call us tomorrow morning.” Shaking her head, she led the taller woman back to their room to find some clothes.
“Well,” Slack said to himself, looking over his shoulder at Bellows, “I guess we know who is in charge in that relationship.” The young officer had to agree.
The next day was equally unpleasant. Despite what had happened the night before, Jay still had to go in to work. Since both of them were shaken up from the break-in, Nicole offered to drive Jay to work again in her convertible. Unfortunately, someone familiar was waiting for them.
“Oh no, not her again,” Nicole groaned, nodding her head in the direction of an approaching figure. Jay looked to her left and immediately recognized Cindy Larson.
“Let me handle this,” Jay said, stepping forward to block Nicole with her body.
“Sweetie, stand next to me, not in front of me. I know you're trying to protect me, but it's just an annoying reporter. What if she was the one who broke in to my apartment?”
The intrusive reporter was close enough to hear the tail end of their conversation. “Someone broke into your apartment?” the redhead asked. She brushed a stray lock of curly hair behind one shoulder to keep it away from her face. “I don't suppose you'd like to make a statement to the press about it?”
Jay glared at the reporter, trying to scare Cindy with her most intimidating look. “That is the last thing she wants to do,” she growled.
Surprisingly, Cindy backed off. “Not surprising. Hey, I'm sorry, if that counts for anything. Off the record.” The reporter seemed sincere, which surprised both Jay and Nicole.
It did not take Jay long to remember the other reason that she was angry with Cindy Larson, however. “And why did you have to put something about my alleged relationship with Nicole in the news? Wasn't Denise's garbled quote enough for you?”
“Jay, be quiet,” Nicole whispered, “I don't want her printing any of this...”
“You haven't given me anything to print,” Cindy said, shrugging her shoulders. “So far, you two have been very uncooperative.” The statement was made without malice.
“Can you blame us? You're turning her grandfather's death into a media sensation,” Jay snapped.
Cindy did not lose her cool. “It is a media sensation. I just rode the wave.”
“Jay, please...” Nicole put a small hand on her lover's shoulder. Immediately, Jay reigned in her anger. If anyone had the right to be upset, it was Nicole. “Listen, Cindy, I'll make you a deal.”
Immediately, the reporter's eyes lit up. “What kind of deal?”
“A deal where we both profit.”
Cindy could not help looking interested. “Explain.”
“You can print a story about my apartment being broken in to. I'll give you a few quotes. In return, you have to promise to leave my relationship with Jay out of any future stories.”
“What if you end up being the murderer?” Cindy pointed out. “Unless you know who it is, and would like to tell me...”
Nicole didn't bite. “Oh no, you're not getting me to say anything about that. But if by some strange twist of fate, I end up being directly or indirectly responsible for my grandfather's death – which I assure you is not true, and no, you can't use that as a quote – you can tear me apart. I would have bigger problems to worry about at that point, anyway.”
“Deal,” said Cindy. “Shake on it?”
Nicole stretched out her hand, and Cindy shook it. “I have the feeling you don't like long interviews, so I'll just ask you a few questions right here.” She reached in to her sleek black purse and pulled out the familiar mini recorder that she had used the first time she approached Nicole and Jay.
“That's fine. But before we start, the promise about keeping Jay's name out of the news applies to this story, too. She was there that night, but you're going to write this story without mentioning her.”
Cindy looked like she wanted to object, but thought better of it. This was obviously a big story, and she didn't want to risk losing it now that Nicole had warmed up to her. “I promise.”
“If you break that promise, I'll make it my life's mission to ruin your career,” Nicole warned. Jay had to smile. Even though Nicole was at least six inches shorter than her, she was still fiercely protective. It was almost... sweet.
“Trust me, I might annoy people with money while trying to dig up a story, but I don't make enemies out of them if I can help it,” said Cindy.
“Fine. Ask your questions.”
“Let's start with the basics. When did you find out that your apartment had been broken in to?”
Nicole tried to remember. “Late at night, a little after one, I think – all of my books had been knocked off the shelf. I'm on the top floor, so I have no idea how they got in to the building, let alone up the stairs, without being seen.”
“So, you were asleep during the break-in?” Nicole nodded. “That must have been scary,” said Cindy, breaking out of character for a moment. She quickly resumed her line of questioning. “Do you have any idea what the motive behind the break-in was? A robbery?”
“The police didn't think so,” Nicole said. “By the way, don't include my address, please. I'm sure you can find it, but I don't want any copycats attempting to rob me.”
Cindy laughed. “I might be obnoxious and persistent, but I'm not stupid.”
“Well, you certainly got the first two right,” Jay muttered.
“Were any valuables taken?”
“Nothing expensive, no. We think that the sound of the bedroom door opening might have scared him off. Jay went to get a glass of water.”
“You mean, you went to get a glass of water,” Cindy said, remembering their deal.
Nicole smiled. “Exactly.”
“So, you're sure nothing was taken?”
“The only thing missing is a big album of family photos. Draw whatever conclusions you want from that.”
Cindy switched off her mini recorder, grinning. “Thanks, that should get me major points with my boss. I won't forget this. I promise to leave your girlfriend's name out of the story.” She gave Jay a long, lingering up-and-down. “Off the record, you have good taste.”
“Off the record, thanks.”
“Do you have to talk about me like I'm not even here?” Jay complained.
Nicole gave her lover a reassuring pat on the bottom. “Yeah, because I know it annoys you.”
Continued in Chapter Sixteen
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