Jay and Nicole were waiting for Aunt Mimi in Olmstead Park, sitting on one of the benches across from the same war statue that seemed to stand in every park in the state. “She said she'd be here at 3:00, right?” Jay asked, checking her watch for the third time.
“Yes. Calm down.”
“I'm just worried she'll bring her stupid dog,” Jay muttered.
“Aw, I like poodles. I'm sure she won't be that bad...”
Jay caught sight of her Aunt Mimi walking towards them. To her dismay, she had Tinkerbelle with her. “Speak of the devil, and she shall appear.” Jay was pleased to note that the poodle was on its leash.
“Hello!” said Aunt Mimi when she was in hearing range. She sat down on the bench next to Nicole, and Jay tried to scoot closer to the rail, wanting to put as much space as possible between her and Tinkerbelle. “I had to bring my baby, she was so lonely and sad, cooped up in the house all day.”
Jay did not believe Aunt Mimi's excuse. She suspected that her Aunt had deliberately brought the dog to provoke her. When she voiced this suspicion to Nicole, the blonde accused her of being paranoid.
Of course, Nicole got along perfectly with Tinkerbelle. The demon dog took to Jay's girlfriend right away, trotting playfully around her feet and allowing Nicole to pet her. “Aw, she's adorable! And so friendly! Hello, sweetie. You aren't mean at all, are you?” Nicole glared at Jay. “Why did you lie about this cute little thing?”
“She's evil!” Jay protested, pointing accusingly at the poodle. Tinkerbelle growled low in the back of her throat, the hair on her back bristling. Nicole seemed surprised, but decided to ignore it.
After greeting each other, the four visitors to the park settled back and watched the crowd. Even this close to winter, there were still children playing outside in the park. In another month, they would be playing pick-up games of ice hockey on the frozen surface of the lake. “So, do the police have any leads on the break-in?”
“Oh no, please tell me you're not going to try and solve that mystery, too...” Jay said, sounding depressed. “How did you find out about that so fast?”
“Probably Cindy's story,” Nicole offered.
“I know,” Jay muttered. “I guess it was too much to hope that she wouldn't read the paper. Please tell me she didn't mention our relationship. I never ended up reading the stupid thing.”
“She didn't,” said Aunt Mimi. “I assume you asked her to keep that part quiet.” They both nodded. Today, along with her usual matching purse and shoes set, she had also included matching gloves to protect her hands from the cold. That afternoon's color was lavender. “Anyway, you never answered my question.”
“Everything is in the article. There are no new leads. The only thing Cindy deliberately left out was the fact that Nicole and I had a sleepover,” Jay said.
Jay set her coffee down on the bench between her and Nicole. Her lover's cup was already balancing on the seat of the bench. “It doesn't make sense,” said Aunt Mimi, thinking aloud. “Who would break into your apartment to steal a photo album? What connection would a garter have to Mr. Fox?”
“I have no idea,” said Jay. “Are you sure it matters?”
Aunt Mimi was insistent. “It doesn't fit with any of the other clues. I'm sure it is important.” She paused, watching a pair of squirrels climb up the side of a trashcan to look for food inside. “Jay told me about the meeting yesterday,” she said to Nicole.
“Nothing important happened. Tom was just an ass, as usual. He wasn't always that way, you know... he used to be really sweet, more like Harry.”
“Harry was really upset, huh? Did you call him and ask how he was doing later that night?”
Nicole shook her head. “I decided to give him some time to cool off first. Whenever anyone talks about Victoria with him, he gets defensive.”
“I read about that in the newspapers,” said Aunt Mimi, her voice distant. She was obviously thinking about something.
“No, back issues,” Jay and Aunt Mimi said at the same time. They looked at each other with identical expressions of surprise.
Three children ran by, chasing a red ball, their breath streaming out of their mouths in puffs like smoke from a steam engine. Tinkerbelle barked at them before walking in a few tight circles and settling back down. “I used to come to this park,” said Jay, smiling at the trio. “I loved trying to beat the boys at any game they played.”
Nicole laughed. “I'm not surprised at all. You still give the boys a run for their money, don't you?”
“Eh. It's easier for girls to date guys,” Jay said, trying to hide her embarrassment. “I mean, I can't give a woman babies or a stable life.” She had never wanted to give anyone those things before. But then Nicole happened.
“You should give yourself more credit. You are a very stable girlfriend. You've been like my rock through this whole mess. And as for the babies part... I dunno, stud. Maybe if you tried hard enough...” Nicole purred in Jay's ear, making sure that Aunt Mimi could not hear. Jay blushed furiously, almost choking on air. She reached to her side to take a sip of her drink. After a long swallow, she looked at the cup with a disgusted expression on her face. “Ew, I don't remember putting cream in this.”
Nicole looked at the cup. “That's my drink, sweetheart,” she said. There was a small pink print from Nicole's lips. Jay handed the cup back to her, and Nicole took a sip, too. “I know you don't like it black.”
“That's it!” Aunt Mimi shot up from the bench, holding one of her arms up to the sky, finger extended. Several squirrels rummaging in a nearby trashcan darted away to hide in their favorite trees. Of course, Tinkerbelle had to bark at them, too, but they ignored her, obviously used to the invaders that came and visited their home. Many young children were also startled, and their mothers quickly pulled them away from the crazy-looking stranger.
“Um. What's ‘it'?” Jay asked, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.
“I've solved it,” said Aunt Mimi. Then, louder, “I've solved it!” She practically skipped off through the crisp grass, swinging her lavender purse gleefully. Tinkerbelle followed, although she tossed an evil glance over her shoulder at Jay to remind her that she was still her least favorite person.
Jay looked at Nicole and took another sip of her coffee. “Um, so. Should we go after her? And do you have any idea what she's talking about?”
Nicole, who had found the right cup this time, also took a long drink, feeling the warmth trickle down her throat and settle in her belly. Coffee was nice on a cold day, but hot chocolate was even better. “No, I don't know what she was talking about. And it's up to you whether you want to go after her or not.”
“She brought her own car,” Jay said, not really wanting to chase her Aunt. “If she wants to leave, she can-” The taller woman's voice trailed off as a figure wearing a very fashionable long coat approached the bench. She recognized the perfect hair, complexion, and teeth immediately.
“What are you doing here, Lucas?” Nicole snapped, setting down her cup and almost spilling some of the coffee through the hole in the lid. “I told you to leave me alone.”
Lucas ignored her, taking his time to look at the pair. “Well, isn't this adorable?” he said, taking a drag on his cigarette. Jay was really sick of Lucas' rhetorical questions, but she decided to shut up and let Nicole handle the maddeningly attractive problem. She coughed, glaring at her girlfriend's ex when he blew a smoke ring in her direction. “What brings you two lovebirds to the park?”
Nicole gave him a cold frown. “Here's a better question: why are you following me around when I specifically asked you to stop bothering me?”
“Bothering you?” Lucas pretended to look hurt. “I thought we were friends, Nicole. Just because I broke up with you...”
“I broke up with you,” Nicole reminded him. “The fumes from all the bottles of hair gel were starting to rot my brain.” The flicker Lucas' mouth told the blonde that she had scored a point. “Come on, Lucas, we're just not compatible.” Their intelligence isn't compatible, either, Jay thought.
“So you left me for a woman?”
“No, I left you for Jay. Not because she's a woman, but because of who she is as a person.” Jay could not help smiling, and her heart filled with warmth and love. Maybe Nicole didn't need her help after all.
“Well, I guess that answers my question, then,” said Lucas, looking between the two of them. “She is fucking you. Oh well, she'll leave you just like I did when she figures out what a frigid bitch you are in bed. She probably just wants to spare your feelings. Then, you'll come running back to me.” Satisfied with the crushed look on Nicole's face, Lucas sauntered away, not bothering to look back over his shoulder at the spirit he had wounded.
The car ride back to Jay's apartment was silent and strained. She did not know how to comfort her lover. She was afraid that if she talked to Nicole or tried to touch her, she might shatter. The little blonde looked so vulnerable. Lucas had obviously hit an old wound.
Jay did wrap an arm around Nicole's waist as they walked up to their floor, and she held open the door, but the gesture of chivalry did not make Nicole smile.
“Do you really think I'm a frigid bitch?” The pleading, hurt voice surprised Jay, who had turned to close the door. Nicole was standing behind her, twisting the strap of her purse nervously with both hands. Jay touched her wrist softly, causing her to drop the purse onto the rug. Neither of them bothered to pick it up. The taller woman opened her arms, inviting Nicole to come to her for comfort.
After a moment, the blonde decided. She hugged Jay tight, pressing her face into her lover's shoulder, trembling in the embrace. Jay kissed the crown of her head. “You are not a frigid bitch,” she whispered, rocking Nicole gently. “You are incredibly beautiful. You are a wonderful lover. You make me crazy. Lucas is just jealous and angry. Don't listen to anything he says.”
“He told me that when I broke up with him,” she said, still shaking. “He said, ‘at last I can finally have some decent sex now'... Sometimes, I wonder if he went looking for it while we were still together...”
“He's a jerk, and if he cheated on you, he's an even bigger jerk.” Jay tilted Nicole's chin up, looking down into her eyes. Softly, she pressed her lips to Nicole's, knowing that her girlfriend needed the comfort.
Nicole's eyelashes fluttered, and finally closed. She breathed in slowly through her nose, trying to control her emotions. She was not sure whether to keep being upset, or lose herself in Jay.
Carefully, looking at Nicole's face every few seconds to make sure that everything was okay, Jay let her hands wander across Nicole's back, helping to take off her coat. It fell to the floor on top of the blonde's abandoned purse, but she did not care. Jay tossed off her own coat, still pressing her body against Nicole's, not wanting to give up the warmth of their contact. She began unbuttoning her lover's blouse, pressing kisses to her cheek, her neck, her shoulder. It wasn't enough for Nicole to hear that she was loved. Jay had to show her.
Backing Nicole towards the couch, Jay pulled off her own shirt, not caring where their clothes ended up. Her lips found Nicole's again, groaning into the kiss when she felt her girlfriend's small, curious hands unzipping her jeans. She allowed herself to relax, knowing that Nicole wanted this, too.
“You really are beautiful,” Jay whispered, hoping that her touches made her lover feel that way. Nicole deserved nothing but complete worship and adoration.
Nicole nibbled and kissed a line across Jay's cheek, her hand climbing up to stroke dark, soft locks of hair. “You see me that way.”
“Because you are,” Jay insisted. Wandering hands explored Nicole's stomach and back, enjoying it every time Nicole shuddered and leaned into her touch. The little blonde was so responsive, so... honest with her emotions.
With a surge of aggression that surprised Jay, Nicole tore off Jay's pants and underwear with a few sharp tugs, pushing her taller lover back until her legs hit the couch. Nicole flipped their positions and pulled Jay's tall, lanky form on top of her, capturing her mouth in a searing kiss at the same time. Helplessly, Jay pulled at Nicole's skirt, wanting her lover to be naked, too.
Once they were settled on the couch, Nicole wrapped her legs around Jay's hips, pressing them closer together. Lifting her head, she rained kisses over Jay's chest and shoulders, overwhelmed with the taste of slick, salty-tasting skin. Nicole latched on to the curve of her neck and bit down, feeling the wildly racing pulse just beneath Jay's damp skin. Wetness – hers and Jay's, Nicole realized – painted itself over both of their thighs as they rocked together in an urgent rhythm.
She caught one of Jay's nipples between her teeth and flicked it, making Jay's back arch even more and her hips press down. Nicole wanted to bring Jay all of the pleasure she possibly could. She felt a fierce need to prove herself and banish the last of her doubts.
“Too fast,” Jay panted helplessly as she moved faster against Nicole, her skin covered in a light sheen of sweat. She was rising so fast that it frightened her.
“Shhh, it's okay... I want you to come for me...” Nicole did not care about her own release. She wanted this moment, this connection with Jay, to last forever. Finally, Jay felt a small hand reach between her legs, rolling once – twice – in a tight circle. Jay's head flew back, the edges of her dark hair brushing the straining tips of Nicole's breasts.
“I love you,” Jay forced out through gritted teeth, fighting off her release. She could hardly hear Nicole's response because of the blood rushing in her ears.
Nicole held a steadying hand at the small of Jay's back, supporting her as rough, almost painful spasms rippled through her lover's abdomen. The blissful torture was too much, and Jay had to close her eyes. With a long, satisfied moan, she collapsed on top of Nicole. Luckily, the blonde enjoyed the comforting feeling of Jay's weight pressing down on her.
“Hey you,” she murmured against Jay's cheek.
“Now... are you convinced... that you please me in bed...?” the dark-haired woman panted, still trying to catch her breath.
A satisfied smile pulled at Nicole's lips. “Yep,” she said, sounding very happy with herself. “You okay, tiger?”
Jay swallowed nervously. “Y-yeah...” Her voice was unsteady, and she was still twitching with the occasional aftershock against Nicole's softly stroking hand. She shivered violently as two fingers probed forwards, sliding inside of her effortlessly. “No, no... stop for a second. But stay inside... Wish I hadn't finished so fast.”
“Finished? We're just getting started,” Nicole said. She kissed the tip of Jay's nose. “Don't worry, we can have another round in a minute.”
Jay smiled, biting at Nicole's bottom lip and tugging it with her teeth. “Yeah. And another... and another...”
Where is Aunt Mimi? Jay thought to herself, looking around at the people gathered in the restaurant. Honestly, she had no idea how her Aunt Mimi had persuaded everyone to come. Aunt Martha certainly looked irritated, the corners of her mouth pulled down in a frown. She was complaining to her brother-in-law Bill, who sat next to her silently, his eyes fluttering nervously from the other tables to the front door. Was he worried that the Ritornellos would burst in and drag him away?
On Jay's right side, Nicole seemed relatively calm. Their shoulders were pressed together, and Jay could feel her warmth. “So, what now?” Jay asked, looking at Harry, who was on her left. She was not sure how she had ended up in between the two siblings, but was glad that she did not have to sit near Tom Jr. or Nicole's stepmother.
“I have no idea. I asked Mum what this was about, she wouldn't talk to me,” said Harry.
Janine looked strangely calm and collected, her neat blonde hair piled on top of her head in loose curls. She looked lovely, almost like Nicole, even though they were not related. Perhaps Nicole's father had noticed her because she looked somewhat like his dead wife. Gregory Fox was sitting next to Janine, staring a hole through the plate of appetizers. He seemed a little uncomfortable, but considering what had happened the last time the entire Fox family was together, Jay did not blame him. He looked as unhappy as she felt. What was Aunt Mimi up to?
She had an idea. Her Aunt's fondness for detective novels had probably spawned this mad gathering. It was the infamous parlor scene... the one where the detective revealed whodunit in front of everyone involved, and the murderer was brought to justice. Honestly, Jay was no closer to finding out who had murdered Stephen Fox than she had been on the night of the murder. Yes, they had discovered some new motives, but that did not mean anything. There was no proof, no evidence, nothing to separate the suspects.
“Do you know where she is?” Jay asked Nicole.
The blonde shook her head. “I do know that she's coming.”
“Is she planning a dramatic entrance?”
Jay's guess was confirmed when Aunt Mimi strode in through the front doors of the restaurant and past the bewildered host without getting directions to her party. It was easy enough to spot them, anyway.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said, sitting down in the last empty seat at the head of the table.
“You invited us? I'm leaving,” said Tom Jr., starting to rise from his seat. “I thought this was about the money...”
“Oh, it is about the money,” Aunt Mimi assured him, “but you're right, the invitation did not come from Mr. Matheson. It came from me.”
So, that's how she got them here, Jay thought. Her Aunt was certainly devious, even if she was more than a little delusional.
“Don't tell me you've actually figured out this whole business,” said Nicole's father.
“I have. With some help from your daughter.”
Nicole looked surprised. “Help from me?”
“Yes, dear. You really solved the whole thing, you know.”
Nicole turned to Jay, asking: did I? with her eyes. Obviously, if she had helped Aunt Mimi in some way, it was unintentional.
“This is stupid,” said Uncle Bill, also trying to stand up from his seat. A heavy hand from Aunt Beatrice stopped him.
“Nooo...” she slurred, already seeming very drunk on the restaurant's wine. “C'mon, stay. I wanna hear what thish person hash to say...”
“Tom!” Aunt Martha snapped shrilly, glaring at her brother. “Your wife is touching my husband!”
“Shut up, Martha. Your husband is a weasel, and she's too drunk to know what she's doing.”
Aunt Mimi looked a little put out. Obviously, she had expected to be the center of attention. “As I was saying,” she said, a little too loudly, “over the past few weeks, I have discovered several things about your family.”
Janine had an unpleasant expression on her face, but she pressed her lips together and did not say anything. She was still upset with Aunt Mimi for following her and dragging up the past. Sensing her hostility, Aunt Mimi turned to look at Janine. “Your ex-husband died, and you received a huge payoff from his life insurance.” The woman did not deny it.
She turned to Uncle Bill. “You got in trouble with the Ritornellos and owe them a lot of money.” He did not deny her statement either, and he still looked very nervous. “Don't worry, they have no idea you're here. I sent you the anonymous invitation, and I have nothing to do with them.” Uncle Bill calmed down a little.
Aunt Mimi focused her attention on Tom Jr. “I also know about your drug habit,” she said to Tom. That surprised everyone at the table. Aunt Beatrice was the most shocked of all. “My baby... he can't be d-doing drugs!” she wailed, the alcohol in her brain making her tears uncontrollable.
Even Nicole looked pale, Jay noticed, putting a hand on her lover's shoulder to offer comfort. “Why do you care what I do?” Tom asked. “All of you obviously hate me. You probably think you would be better off if I was dead, anyway.” He could not hide the bitterness in his voice.
“Do you blame us?” Harry snapped.
Nicole gave him a sharp look. “We don't hate you, Tom,” she said softly. Her voice sounded tired. “You're family. But your actions hurt us.”
“So it's true.” For the first time, Jay saw emotion on Tom Sr's face. There were worry lines around the corners of his mouth and eyes. The weariness was etched into his skin.
Tom just glared at his father like a sulking child.
Aunt Mimi coughed, directing the table's attention back to her. “My next clue was the stolen photo album from Nicole's house.” No one at the table seemed surprised. All of them had read about the incident in the paper. “I asked myself: who would steal a family photo album? I also asked myself, who might have a key to Nicole's apartment?”
Nicole's face went very pale. She had obviously never considered that the burglar might be someone she trusted enough to share a key with. “Aside from the yellow garter, those were the only important facts. All the other nonsense – the different motives, the different suspects, none of them mattered in the end. Using those two clues, I figured out who killed Mr. Fox,” Aunt Mimi said dramatically, pleased to notice that every pair of eyes was staring at her. “But Mr. Fox was not the intended target!”
Everyone started talking at once.
“Oh my God...”
“It doesn't make sense-”
“If it wasn't him, then who?”
Aunt Mimi jumped on the last comment. “Who? That is obvious. It all started at the party...” Jay did a mental eye-roll. How long would it take for her attention-loving Aunt to get to the point? Not that she was convinced Aunt Mimi had really solved the mystery...
“You were treated to a delicious dinner for Mr. Fox's seventieth birthday. Appetizers, steak, very well prepared. And, of course, Mr. Fox's favorite after-dinner wine...”
“Get to the point,” Tom Jr. snapped. “I don't want to spend all night with a table full of people who hate me.”
“Of course they hate you, Tom. That was why the murderer tried to kill you.”
For the third time that evening, everyone was shocked. This time, instead of bursting out with exclamations, everyone sat back in silence. The room suddenly seemed twenty degrees colder. “I know how I helped solve the mystery,” Nicole said, her face white as paper. “It was when I accidentally took a sip of Jay's coffee, wasn't it, Aunt Mimi?”
Aunt Mimi nodded. “Yes, that was it. Someone tried to poison Tom with Strychnine, and since all of the glasses were identical, Mr. Fox accidentally took a drink from the wrong one.”
“What the hell is Shetrick...Shariks... that word!” Aunt Beatrice slurred.
“Strychnine is a very violent poison. You saw the results at the party. Violent convulsions, contracting muscles, immense pain, and then... death.”
“This is all nonsense!” said Aunt Martha. “None of us would want to kill Thomas, no matter how rude and unpleasant he is.”
“You're wrong. They did want to kill Tom. Kill him in the most violent, ruthless way possible. They wanted revenge.”
“Victoria. That's why they stole the photo album.” Everyone looked at Nicole. She had a filmy, far away look in her eyes. She stared up at Aunt Mimi, and something passed between them. Jay could not recognize the expression on her Aunt's face. Was it... pity?
“Yes. A sibling's vengeance can be a terrible, evil thing.” A pause. “Isn't that right, Harry?”
Several emotions crossed Harry's handsome face at once, turning it ugly: surprise, disbelief, anger, pain. “You have no idea what you're talking about,” said Harry, his knee jumping under the table. His body thrummed with energy, and he could not hold still. Jay was shocked. He looked nothing like the friendly man she had gotten to know.
“But I've already figured it out. You found your sister, dead, in her wedding dress.” Harry flinched at the mention of Victoria.“You knew it was Tom's fault that she committed suicide. So, you decided to kill him.”
“You have no proof,” he blurted out, glancing around the table with wild eyes.
“But I do. That is why they found a yellow garter under Mr. Fox's body. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the wrong body. It was a garter from her wedding outfit."
“Harry?” Nicole's voice was helpless, lost, and confused. Jay wanted to take her lover in her arms, but her muscles were frozen. Harry did not answer. His baby sister's voice struck an emotional chord. He had no idea how to respond.
“He broke in to your apartment, Nicole,” Aunt Mimi continued. “There were dress-shopping photos in that album, taken before the wedding. One of them must have had the yellow garter in it. Your brother just couldn't take the chance that you might look through the album someday and recognize it as the same garter found under your grandfather's body. He had a key to your apartment, so he decided to sneak in and take out the picture before you noticed. Jay startled him, he knocked the rest of the books off the shelf, and ran out.”
Jay kept glancing between the two siblings, not sure whether to tackle Harry and restrain his hands or cradle her hurting lover. “He killed my sister!” Harry's screaming voice was hateful, unrecognizable. His face was a mask of fury. “Victoria hung herself over his stupid joke, and he didn't even admit that he was wrong!”
For the first time since she had met him, Jay saw Tom tremble. He was afraid.
The entire restaurant had gone silent, avidly watching the confrontation. The waiters stood still, balancing their serving trays and staring.
Like a frightened, confused animal, Harry tried to lunge over the table at Tom. Jay grabbed his shoulder, trying to hold him back. Nicole's father flew out of his seat to help. Together, they tried to wrestle Harry back down into his chair. Jay reeled back as the tall man's fist connected with her face. Her head spun, and she felt a pounding pain around her eye.
Harry tried to throw another punch at Jay, but she knocked his fist away, almost losing her balance. Soon, everyone was out of their chairs, screaming and shouting and waving their arms. Most of them were no help at all. “Nicole! Call Slack!” Jay shouted as Harry tried to make another lunge for freedom – or Tom. Several hands and arms forced him to stay in his seat.
With a shaking hand, Nicole flipped open her cell phone and dialed for the police. “Lieutenant Slack...? Yes... yes, this is Nicole. I'm at a restaurant on Malborne Road... my brother is attacking- no... no... I can't explain... It's violent, isn't that enough? Just get here...”
The rest of the short, tense conversation was lost on Jay. Harry had stopped struggling in her grip. He went limp, hanging his head and burying his face in his hands. Trembling violently, he wept like a broken man.
“You realize what a mess this is, don't you?” Lieutenant Slack asked Nicole. The tired, frazzled blonde was sitting in his interrogation room – again – and did not seem happy about it. Not that he could blame her.
“Yes, Lieutenant,” she said, trying her best to sound calm. It was difficult for her, considering all she had been through that night. “My brother accidentally killed my grandfather while trying to kill my cousin, who made my sister commit suicide. I think that ‘mess' is an understatement. I am sure that this case has caused your department its fair share of problems, too.” The tone in Nicole Fox's voice left no doubt in the Inspector's mind that she considered her problems more difficult than his. He had to concede the point.
“That was an insensitive question,” Slack admitted. Bellows, who was standing beside him, tried not to show his surprise. The Lieutenant rarely admitted mistakes. “Oh, there's still a lot of work to do. We will need to interview everyone in the family, compare the garter to your sister's wedding dress, try and trace your brother's purchase of the Strychnine... but there are just too many corroborating witnesses and facts. Did Jay's Aunt Mimi ever explain why your brother dropped the garter by Mr. Fox's body?”
“She had a theory,” said Nicole. “Harry has obviously... gone outside the boundaries of reality. When he accidentally poisoned the wrong person, he decided to leave the garter anyway. He thought that Tom Jr. would recognize it and realize that the poison was meant for him. Or maybe Harry just dropped it in shock when he figured out that Grandpa took the poison by accident. I guess we won't know which version is true unless Harry decides to tell us during the trial.”
“Unless a miracle happens and your brother gets off on a technicality, he's going to jail for a very long time, probably for the rest of his life.”
“I know,” Nicole said. There was bleak resignation in her words. There were no easy answers for her, and there would be no peace for a long time. “Honestly, I think a cell might be the best place for him right now... he killed somebody. He scared me tonight. But.” She left the sentence unfinished. Harry was still her brother. They had always been close. Did she know him at all anymore?
Nicole pushed aside her confusion and pain, trying to be logical. “Maybe I should ask a question now.”
“Shoot,” said Slack.
“What do you want from me?”
“You gave your statement to me already about what happened tonight. Really, Ms. Fox, I could allow you to leave.” The Lieutenant looked a little sheepish. “I was hoping to stall you for a minute or two so I could check and see if you were all right. I mean, you just had a hell of a lot dumped on you, and...”
Nicole allowed herself a small, genuine smile. The gruff old police officer was concerned about her. She was touched. “Thank you, Lieutenant. That helps me feel better, in a strange way. Don't worry. I have someone to stay with tonight. I won't be alone.”
“Jay Buchanan?” asked Bellows. Slack glared at him. The kid was clueless.
Fortunately, Nicole did not seem to mind the probing question. “Yeah,” she said. “Poor Jay. She never wanted to be involved in any of this. I kind of dragged her in to the whole thing.”
“I think her Aunt did a damn good job of that on her own,” Slack pointed out.
Nicole remembered something. “She isn't in trouble, right? No being charged with hampering an investigation or stalking?”
Slack shook his head. “Nope, nothing of the kind. We owe the crazy old bird a thank you. Hell if I know how she did it, but she figured this one out, and I'll be honest, it was stumping me.” He smiled to himself, a little bewildered. Jay Buchanan's Aunt Mimi certainly was a character.
Jay glanced nervously from side to side, finally letting her eyes settle on her shoes. Her brief interview with Lieutenant Slack had ended a while ago, and now she was waiting for Nicole to finish her turn. Unfortunately, she was not waiting alone.
Janine Fox sat next to her in the front room of the police station, trying to avoid the eyes of the curious receptionist. Finally, Jay could not stand another second of silence. “I owe you an apology,” she blurted out, twisting her hands in her lap and fixing her gaze anywhere but on Janine's face.
That surprised the older woman. “For what?” she asked. Her voice sounded tired, Jay realized. It made sense, after everything that had happened that evening.
“I know that my Aunt followed you to your hair appointment,” Jay admitted, more than a little embarrassed. “While I'm at it, I might as well apologize for the time she trashed our dinner. I tried to talk her out of it.”
Janine snorted. Jay looked up at her for the first time, surprised at the un-ladylike sound. “If tonight's taught me anything, it's that we can't control the actions of our family members,” said Janine. “There are worse things your Aunt could have done.”
“Figured I should apologize anyway,” Jay mumbled. She was pretty lucky, now that she thought about it. No one in her family had been murdered, after all. At least her Aunt did not go around poisoning people. Yeah, she just stalks them and digs into their personal lives.
“I don't hold you responsible,” said Janine, “but I accept the apology anyway.”
Jay took a deep breath in through her nose, hoping it wasn't noticeable. Now for the hard part. “I'm really serious about my relationship with Nicole,” she confessed. Despite her strong feelings, it was a difficult confession to put into words, especially directed at her lover's stepmother. “I want to start off on the right foot this time.”
Janine locked eyes with Jay, which made the younger woman very uncomfortable. She tried not to show it. “Nicole is an adult, and I'm not her biological mother. Why are you trying so hard?” It was a genuine question, and Jay was not offended by her bluntness.
“Because I care about Nicole,” she said softly. “She deserves a family that gets along.”
Nicole's stepmother sighed. “I think it's a little too late for that, dear. The Fox family was dysfunctional long before you came in to the picture.”
“I guess you don't choose the family you marry in to,” Jay said, mostly to herself. “Well, I mean, you do, but–”
“You don't choose who you fall in love with.”
Janine's answer surprised Jay. “Yeah. That's what I meant.”
“Would you believe that I married Nicole's father because of his personality and not his money?” Janine smiled gently, obviously revisiting a pleasant memory. “We knew each other while my first husband was still alive. He was a good friend.”
Jay got the sense that Janine was sharing something very personal with her, and she was strangely touched. “I never thought I'd end up in a long-term relationship,” Jay said, deciding to share something personal about herself in return. “I used to be a party girl. Then Nicole came along and I was whipped before I knew what happened.”
“What's that about you being whipped?” Jay and Janine looked up with one movement when they heard Nicole's familiar voice.
Jay stood up to give her lover a short hug. She would have kissed Nicole, but did not want to embarrass her in front of Janine. “Oh, I was just telling your stepmother how you're the boss in our relationship.”
“You got that right,” Nicole said, trying to sound cheerful. She could not hide how tired she was, though. Her slumped posture and the dark circles under her eyes gave her away.
To Nicole's surprise, Janine gave her a hug once Jay let her go. It made the tired girl smile despite herself. “Where's Dad?”
“Your father went across the street to get some coffee. I have the feeling we're all going to be drinking a lot of coffee in the near future.”
“Why are you waiting here for me?”
“Would you believe I wanted to see if you were all right?” the older blonde asked, sounding just as tired as her stepdaughter.
“No, I'm not,” Nicole said, deciding to answer honestly. “I just can't believe that my own brother would hurt anyone...”
“I don't think he's really your brother right now,” said Jay. For a moment, Nicole looked offended and hurt, and Jay hurried to explain herself. “Something obviously changed in him when Victoria killed herself. I think he needs psychological help...”
“And a good lawyer,” Nicole added bitterly.
“What I mean is, he isn't the same brother you grew up with. Don't let what happened now completely ruin your past with him.”
For a moment, Jay was sure that Nicole did not understand what she was trying to say. Then, a soft hand touched hers, and Nicole nodded her head. “How did you get to be so smart growing up as an only child?”
“I'm related to my Aunt Mimi. Of course I'm smart.”
“And a little crazy,” Nicole added. Even Janine had to smile at that.
“So,” Janine said, “where do we go from here? As a family.”
“I don't know what to do or think where Harry is concerned. I do think that rehab would be a good idea for Tom Jr. Not that he'll listen.”
“You might be surprised,” Jay slipped back in to the conversation. “He looked pretty affected by what happened tonight.”
“I'll talk to his parents,” Janine offered. “I agree that rehab is probably the best place for him. Actually, Thomas Sr. and Beatrice could both stand to drink a little less alcohol and spend a little more time with their sons.”
“What about Uncle Bill?”
Janine frowned. “Let him get out of that one on his own. He and Martha aren't exactly in the poor house. I'm more concerned about all the bad press our family is going to get.”
Jay and Nicole shared a look. “We have a contact at the Tribune that owes us. If we give her first dibs on the story, she might be able to spin it and make us look a little less...” Jay's voice trailed off.
“Stupid,” Nicole finished for her.
“He fooled all of us. Only your Aunt Mimi had any idea, Jay. I still have no idea how she put all the pieces together.”
“Too much time on her hands and too many detective novels,” Jay mumbled.
“Come on,” said Nicole. “Let's go across the street and see if my Dad got anything for us along with his coffee.”
“I can't believe it's over,” Jay said, gripping the steering wheel loosely with her fingers. She felt strangely introspective. “I guess this has been hanging over my head.”
“Is it wrong to feel relieved?” Nicole asked, staring out the passenger side window instead of looking at her girlfriend. “Even after what Harry did... I'm glad that we found out the truth.”
Jay tapped the brake at a stoplight, drumming her fingers lightly as she waited for the color to change. “It's not wrong,” she said. “I'm relieved, too. I'm also worried.”
“No, about you.”
Slowly, Nicole turned her head. “About me?” she repeated.
Jay hit the gas when the light turned green, pausing for a moment to glare at an SUV next to her trying to change lanes. “To be honest, Nicole, I'm totally out of my depth here...”
The blonde froze, looking at Jay with tortured green eyes. “You're leaving me?” Nicole asked, her voice breaking.
Jay's eyes widened. “No! That isn't what I meant at all. Of course I'm not leaving you...” Immediately, she flipped on her turn signal and pulled over to the side of the road, not paying attention to honking of the car behind her. She put the car in park and turned to look at her upset girlfriend, who was slumped in the passenger's seat.
“It just sounded like the beginning of a break-up speech.” Nicole did not want to think about how much the idea of breaking up with Jay had scared her.
“I just don't know how to comfort you. You've been through a lot in a short amount of time. Your grandfather died... you found out that it was your brother who killed him. My crazy Aunt's meddling didn't help, even if she did end up figuring out the solution to the mystery.”
Nicole's brain took a while to sort through all of her emotions and thoughts. “Know what?” she said, finally breaking the silence, “even though I've been in a stressful situation lately... I wouldn't change it.”
Jay's eyebrows lifted. “You wouldn't?”
“Well, I wish my grandfather was alive again, and my brother wasn't in jail. I wish that my Uncle Bill didn't have gambling debts to pay off, and my cousin wasn't using drugs... but I don't regret falling in love with you during all that.”
“I feel helpless,” Jay admitted. “I don't know how to help you. I need you to tell me what you want from me.”
Nicole flung her arms around the taller woman's neck. “Oh, Jay, just love me...”
Jay kissed her lover's smooth forehead. “I guess I can do that. Before, I was afraid I'd say the wrong thing and make you feel worse. Been there, done that.” Slowly pulling away, Jay put the car back in drive and pulled out onto the road.
The corners of Nicole's mouth turned up in a soft, genuine smile. “I love you, Jay Buchanan.”
At another red light, Jay took her hands off of the steering wheel and let them rest on her lap for a moment. “My full name is Jacqueline.”
Epilogue: Six Months Later
“I can't believe we have a house and a dog,” Jay said. “A year ago, I would have sworn up and down that I'd never get married.”
Nicole looked down at Jay's head, which was resting on her lap as they watched the late night news. Her fingers combed through the dark hair, enjoying the silky texture. “You're not getting off so easily,” she said, forcing herself to hold her serious expression. Inside, she wanted to laugh. “You haven't walked me down the aisle yet, stud. A house and a dog don't always equal marriage in the lesbian world.”
Jay gave her lover a look of mock panic. “Oh no! Save me, Wendy!”
Hearing her name, the nine-week-old puppy barked. Despite Jay's numerous protests, Nicole had accepted immediately when Aunt Mimi offered her “favorite nieces” one of the pups from Tinkerbelle's first litter. To Nicole's amusement, Jay had fallen in love with the tiny miniature poodle at first sight.
“Hush, you, or I'll trade you in for a pit bull,” Jay threatened. The little white puppy rolled over onto her back, her paws sticking up in the air and her pink tongue lolling out.
“Aw, you don't think Wendy is butch enough for you, handsome?” Nicole teased, her fingers creeping up her lover's thigh and tracing the familiar pattern of Jay's Tigger tattoo through the denim of her jeans.
“Grrr. Don't start what you aren't willing to finish.”
“Who said I wasn't willing to finish?”
Jay lifted her head off of Nicole's lap, reaching up for a kiss. Nicole tilted her head at the last moment, and Jay only caught her chin. “Hey, stop that! Wendy, close your eyes. Your mommies are going to have some adult time now.”
Deciding that the comment had really been an invitation, the tiny puppy scratched at the bottom of the sofa, begging to be picked up so that she could join her parents. Unable to resist the cuteness, Jay shifted her weight and bent down to scoop up the puppy. “I still hate your mom, you know. Tinkerbelle didn't want to let me anywhere near you when we picked you out.”
“There was no ‘we' about it,” said Nicole. “You picked her out and I just sat and watched you hold her for the first hour. You didn't want to give her up.”
Jay pouted. “I wanted to train her to like me while she was still young and impressionable. Otherwise, her mom might have taught her to bite me and pee on me.”
“She did pee on you,” Nicole reminded her.
“But she's a puppy. It was an accident. Right, sweetie?” Losing interest in the conversation, Wendy yawned and curled up on Jay's stomach, closing her eyes and preparing to take a nap. “Don't get too comfortable there. I'm going to move in a minute once Nicole stops playing hard to get.”
“I'm not playing hard to get!” Nicole insisted. A phrase coming from the television grabbed her attention. A disgusted look crossed her face, and she reached for the remote, muting the sound. “Ugh, the last thing I want to hear about right now is that stupid trial. It's bad enough that most of us are being subpoenaed.”
“I still think it's stupid that you have to testify.”
“Honestly, I'm not sure what I want the result of the trial to be,” Nicole admitted, not for the first time.
“Making you testify against your own brother isn't right,” Jay insisted, not willing to drop the subject.
“I'm not testifying for or against him.” But Nicole was not naïve. She knew that her testimony would do more to hurt Harry than help him. “I wish I could just stay out of it.”
“Well, you're my wife, not his, so I guess you don't have an excuse to get out of testifying,” Jay said, trying to lighten the mood.
“Ew, I don't want to think about being married to my own brother.” Nicole blushed. It was the first time Jay had actually used the word ‘wife'. It felt frightening and fantastic all mixed together. “Besides, I'm not your wife yet.” Jay was pleased when she noticed a smile on her girlfriend's face. “You've mentioned marriage twice in the last ten minutes. Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Hey, I'll propose to you when I'm good and ready. Right, Wendy?” But Wendy was already asleep, and could not come to Jay's defense. “Aunt Mimi keeps asking me when we're going to get married, and I want to pretend it's my idea. Give me some time, okay sweetheart?”
Nicole decided not to mention that Jay had basically just proposed with that sentence. Not the most romantic proposal in the world, but she could wait. “Okay. Just don't wait too long, or I'll be too old to have your babies.”
Jay's eyes got very big. “Babies?” she squeaked. “Um, honey...”
Unable to hold a straight face, Nicole burst out laughing. Soon, Jay was laughing, too. The loud noise woke the sleeping pup from her nap, and she whimpered her displeasure. Upset that her beauty sleep had been interrupted, Wendy climbed down from the couch and wandered in to the kitchen to find her food bowl. Sometimes, her humans made no sense.
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