Gun Shy by Lori L. Lake (part 2)

PART 7

Dez hovered in the roll call room, sipping from her ever-present water bottle and awaiting Jaylynn’s entrance. The rookie had arrived extra early, at the Lieutenant’s request, and was currently talking to him behind closed doors. It had been six months since the young woman had joined the force, so today she was getting her second quarterly progress report. Dez had already put in her two cents about Savage, Oster, and Mahoney, the three recruits she’d had experience with. She’d also made a few informal comments about Dwayne Neilsen.

She was proud of Jaylynn’s development, but secretly, she was just as pleased with how Oster had advanced. The young man had gone from bumbling, underconfident, and pudgy to smooth and thoughtful, with an evolving competence that earmarked him as the kind of officer who would be steady and effective. He’d been lifting weights, watching his diet, and studying like crazy. She knew that things did not come to him easily as they did for Mahoney or even for Jaylynn, but his hard work and concentration was paying off. She had gone out of her way to encourage him and offer advice whenever possible. It gave her a good feeling to take on a mentoring project some of the other FTOs had deemed a lost cause. There was a side of her that greatly enjoyed being able to say, “I told ya so.” When Oster passed probation at the end of the year, she looked forward to saying that to a couple people, especially Lieutenant Andres.

She grinned when she heard a clatter on the stairs. No mistaking those footsteps. The rookie exploded into the room full of energy and excitement.

“Hey, guess what! I’m doing better than I thought.” Jaylynn slid into the chair next to Dez. “The Lieutenant says I’m exceeding standards in some areas and making excellent progress. Wow! Isn’t that great?” She fixed her hazel green eyes on Dez, smiling at her warmly.

Dez couldn’t help but grin back. She nodded at the rookie. “Congratulations. Six months down, six more to go.”

Jaylynn chattered on about the details of the performance review, all of which Dez already knew since she had written most of the data the Lieutenant had used to score her. As she half-listened, Dez thought about the training she had gotten when she became an officer nine years earlier. Everything was hit and miss back then, and not nearly as organized as it had become. She was lucky to have ridden along periodically with her father when she was small, and then regularly with her father’s best friend, Mac MacArthur, when she was in her teens. She had attended every Police Officers’ Father/Daughter Banquet with her father, and then, after his death, with Mac until she was age 22.

The dark haired woman had always had the good fortune of being in the company of cops who told her stories and cautionary tales. Before she ever donned the uniform she already had a wealth of anecdotes and information to draw upon. By the time she joined the force, she’d seen the results of people’s poor choices: dead bodies, homeless children, bleeding victims, vandalized schools, a bombed business, and the aftermath of so many brawls that she couldn’t have possibly counted them. Most new recruits were not so lucky as she, and they didn’t know what they were getting into.

She turned her full attention to Jaylynn who was now saying, “So are you ready for this shadow phase?”

Dez nodded.

“It’s going to be hard for you though, isn’t it?” said the rookie with a smirk on her face. “Hanging back, mostly watching, not taking the lead . . . .”

“I’ll manage,” Dez said in a low voice. For the next three months they no longer worked so much as a team. Instead, she was to focus on Jaylynn’s handling of everything while the blond went through the motions as though she were out entirely on her own. The veteran cop’s role was to take notes, evaluate performance, give the rookie feedback, and discuss, discuss, discuss. After every shift she’d have to give a verbal summary of the evening’s events to the sergeant and then a weekly written report to Lt. Malcolm. As far as she could tell, it would be maddening. But she wasn’t going to admit that to Jaylynn.

Once roll call began, it seemed to go on forever and ever, with a great many more reports and updates than usual. Here it was, the second of July, and everybody and their brother was reporting their car stolen. There had also been a rash of break-ins and street thefts. Despite the improving economy, they still had the same drug dealers and burglars and con artists to deal with. The only good thing was that homicides were down. In fact, now that she thought about it, she didn’t think Jaylynn had even been to a homicide crime scene yet. That rosy situation wouldn’t go on forever, she was sure of that.

*****

The Fourth of July dawned cloudy and cool. Dez awoke later than usual feeling cranky and hungry. It was only six weeks until the body building competition, and she had to admit that even she was tired of herself. Trying to sluice off all possible fat cells and get down to lean muscle entailed eating lots of protein and scarcely any carbohydrates other than romaine lettuce, a few fibrous vegetables, and small amounts of brown rice or sweet potatoes. The lack of carbs made her irritable, and she wasn’t sure how she could make it through the next few weeks.

She was glad she no longer had to lift so heavy, but her weight routine still included a full array of exercises—only with lighter weights and higher repetitions. No challenge and very boring. Forty-one days, she thought. I can make it forty-one more days, and then I never have to do this again if I don’t want to.

By the time she reported for duty in mid-afternoon, it was drizzling out. On account of the weather, the first part of their shift was quiet, but as the evening went on, it stopped raining and the loonies came out in full force. Firecracker complaints, loud parties, drunk drivers, and the never-ending domestic assaults kept them occupied non-stop. It wasn’t until nearly ten p.m. that the veteran and the rookie decided to sign out for a meal break. Dez had already eaten two cold chicken breasts and a protein bar in the car, and now all she needed was a fresh quart of water. Jaylynn, as usual, had her sights set on something Dez could not eat.

“Even though you’re eating healthier stuff,” groused Dez, “I still can’t believe how much you can pack away.” She got out of the passenger’s side and headed toward the 7-11.

Over the top of the car Jaylynn replied, “Hey! It’s a hard job doing all the work out here with you just tagging along to take notes. I’ve gotta keep up my strength, don’t I?” She slammed her door shut, straightened her collar, and stepped up on the sidewalk. “I don’t think an ice cream snack will kill me.”

“Yeah, but I gotta sit and watch you eat it and hear all those happy noises you make.”

Jaylynn grinned. “You could join me, you know.”

The tall cop pushed open the 7-11 door as she glanced back, exasperated. “Jay! You know I can’t. Don’t torture me.”

Dez took two steps into the convenience store, her eyes scanning for the dairy case, before she noticed the clerk and saw his frightened face. Standing with him at the checkout counter, profile to them, was a perilously thin black man clad in a pink t-shirt and baggy black shorts. The big cop stopped abruptly and Jaylynn bumped into her as the man turned. Dez saw the gun swing her way and she reached for her Glock. Her ears filled with a roar as her chest absorbed a blow like nothing she’d ever felt before. She stumbled back. Sliding sideways against Jaylynn, she desperately tried to stay on her feet. Before she even hit the ground, she heard another roar, and the man in pink clutched his chest, then crumpled to the ground. She felt a blow to the back of her head, and then everything went white.

Dez couldn’t breathe. Her lungs ached. A buzzing in her ears wouldn’t stop, and a light-headed floating feeling came over her causing the world to tilt sideways and out of focus. She tried to keep her eyes open, but the tears streaming from them burned and blurred her vision. She pinched her eyes shut.

Dez opened her eyes. Lying flat on her back in a musty smelling place, she was as cold and bone-weary as she had ever felt. Against the back of her head, shoulders, and legs she felt a chilly surface. Hesitantly she placed her hands, palms down, near her sides and ran them over a smooth stone, perhaps marble? As fuzzy clouds cleared from her vision and her eyes adjusted to the faintly lit room, she focused on the ceiling fifteen feet above. What is that above me? They look like stalactites. Stalactites?

She tried to sit up, but a stab of pain shot through her rib cage. She raised her hands, crossed them over her chest and closed her eyes. Barely breathing, she lay still until the wave of pain passed.

Once she could choke in air again, she began to relax and realized her hands were clutching something strange attached to her chest. What happened to my vest? Puzzled, she trailed her fingers over metal swirls until she reached buckles and clips. Hmm, this is an odd thing, an odd pattern. What is it? She knocked against the metal with a knuckle and heard a solid thunk. Running her fingers over her shoulders, sides, and stomach, she felt leather and metal clasps. Definitely not my police uniform. And my legs—are they bare?

I have no idea where I am, what I’m wearing, why I’m here. She turned her head to the side and moved as if to sit up, and once again, the explosion of pain blasted through her, leaving her weak and with tears in her eyes.

Through the mist of tears, she let her eyes explore around her and concluded that she was in a cave, but she could see very little other than the projectiles hanging from the ceiling and the faint outline of rocks imbedded in the walls. Gradually she became aware of the far-off sound of voices, one deep and rumbling, the other higher toned. Dez held her breath to listen, and as she lay quietly, breathlessly, the voices grew nearer until she could hear them crystal clear behind her.

“She’s mine,” said a firm, elegant woman’s voice.

“No she’s not. This one is my Chosen, always has been,” rumbled the deep reply.

“But the Fair One is mine, and as my Chosen, you can’t interfere with her destiny.”

“I’ve waited eons, Artemis. I don’t give a damn if you are my sister. I’ll fight you to the bitter end. I’ve got too much invested.”

“Just because it’s the 20th century now, it doesn’t mean you have to flaunt your high tech, business oriented, war nonsense to me. You don’t need this one miserable warrior any more. You’ve got your computers and TV stations and the Pentagon. What more could you need, Ares?”

In a petulant voice, he said, “Cut the crap, Artemis. You can’t have this one. She belongs to me.”

“So that’s what this is all about. You never did get over being spurned, did you?” Artemis said, her voice full of derision.

Dez thought she heard faint laughter. She tried to turn her head to see the two people talking, but the pain was too intense. She opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was a rasping cough.

“Little brother, you can’t have her. You’ve never possessed her. She may be your Chosen One, but ultimately, she has failed to choose you in every single lifetime she has lived. She doesn’t belong to you, she belongs to herself.”

A flash of light filled the cave for the briefest second. Dez crinkled up her nose, then recognized a smell rather like burnt raspberries, something fruity, yet smoky too. A warm hand rested for a moment on her forehead, and then a mocking woman’s voice said, “I beg to differ with you two lame-brains. She doesn’t belong to herself at all.”

“Oh geez,” said Ares in an irritated voice. “First her, now you. Can’t a guy take care of business without all the women in the family horning in? Artemis, release your claim. This is none of your business. And Aphrodite, don’t you have some warrior or president or king to titillate?”

Artemis’s soft voice spoke up. “This is most assuredly my business. I have first claim to the Fair One. And her fate is wrapped up inexplicably with the Dark One here. You can’t have this one, as the other will be affected. The Fair One belongs to me, and by extension, so does this one.”

“Wrong,” said Aphrodite in a bored voice. “The Fair One belongs to her.”

Dez felt the warm hand stroking her forehead again, and a minty-smelling breath of air wafted into her face.

Aphrodite went on, “And I hate to tell you two squabbling idiots, but the Dark One here belongs to the Fair One, though even the gods don’t know why she doesn’t seem to recognize it at all.”

Ares shouted, “She doesn’t recognize it because this time things are different!”

“A little frustrated, are we, Ares?” said Aphrodite. “Tsk-tsk-tsk.” In a baby voice she said, “Been a while since you’ve had a little lovin’?” She sighed and removed her hand from Dez’s forehead. “As usual, I hate to break bad news, but under these circumstances, they both belong to me.” As Ares and Artemis started to protest, she interrupted and said in an irritated voice, “Yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s not like I planned it this way. Like I have time for these two star-crossed fools?”

A low-pitched growl emerged, and Ares spat out, “You are so wrong!” As he spoke, a cool wind flowed through the cave, and Dez began to shiver. Feeling light headed, she closed her eyes and tried to suck in more air.

“No,” said Artemis thoughtfully. “Aphrodite may be right. Let us wait and see.”

“Noooooooo,” roared Ares. “You two will not gang up on me again!”

The cold in the cave intensified and Dez choked, gasping for air, the pain returning to her chest. She rolled her head from side to side and tried to speak, but no words came out.

“Oh quit being a spoiled little brat, Ares,” said Aphrodite. “Why do you think I dumped you, Mr. Poor Sport? Artemis and I agree. Two against one. You lose. You wanna take your chances that you may be right? Well, then give it your best shot.”

Artemis said, “And Ares, quit visiting the nightmares upon her. That’s unfair and uncalled for.”

“By the gods,” said Ares, “that’s how she knows who she is.”

Aphrodite said, “Bad news for ya, Big Boy. This one doesn’t get it. The Fair One, now she remembers her dreams, but her? What a putz. She’s in la-la land. But not for long.”

“Yes, Ares,” said Artemis. “We can send dreams of our own.”

“We’ll see about that,” he said as he crossed his arms over his broad chest.

Dez felt warm hands placed on either side of her head, steadying her, and very close to her right ear the Artemis voice whispered, “Think of the Fair One. She is your responsibility and your salvation. From her, great help will come. Watch over her . . .”

The warmth around her head dissipated quickly, and Dez’s body shook violently. Both hands opened, and she felt something hard and heavy and freezing cold in her right hand. She forced open her eyes to find herself holding a broad sword which glinted silver and blue despite the darkness. She shook so hard she could barely keep hold of the hilt, but new hands at her head helped to steady her. A deep and richly seductive voice said, “Use the sword, my Chosen. Kill anything in your way–anything. Remember, remember! Just call my name. You only need call me. I’ll be watching and waiting . . .”

And then something warm touched her chest, radiating heat. The shaking slowly abated. Her sword hand dropped until the blade lay across her thighs, and her left hand clenched over her abdomen. The third and final voice said, “You can choose responsibility . . . or destruction . . . or love. Use your heart, Warrior. You have another chance. Prove me right and choose love. Use your heart . . . your heart . . . .”

*****

Ears ringing from the report of her gun, Jaylynn scrambled out from under the deadened weight that had fallen partly against her. Her heart screamed out to Dez, but she forced herself not to look, to focus instead on what had been drilled into her over and over: halt the imminent risk, then render first aid.

Crouching, her gun held level, she moved quickly to stand over the shooter. He lay on the floor panting and twitching, the .45 near his hand. She put her foot on the barrel of the gun and eased it away from him, kicking it behind her and under the candy bar display case.

“Oh my God,” the clerk was yelling repeatedly. He continued to stand behind the cash register, clutching the counter with shaky hands. Jaylynn nodded toward him in a daze, then bent over to fasten a handcuff to the shooter’s hand. She rolled him to his side. He cried out in pain, but she clicked the cuff on his other hand anyway. Touching her shoulder mike, she put out the call for help, “Officer down,” she said. In a mechanical voice she answered the questions dispatch asked and listened to their assurances that help was on the way.

Only then did she holster her gun. She paused, for the briefest second, afraid to turn, her heart pounding so hard she thought she was having a heart attack. She spun shakily, and in two steps landed on her knees next to the wheezing woman.

“Dez,” she shouted. Frantically she ripped open the pierced blue shirt, popping buttons every which way. She saw the exploded hole in the vest and felt the flat lump of hot metal imbedded there. Struggling to loosen the gray vest was awkward, but with a grim look of determination, she undid the velcro and tugged up the white t-shirt underneath to reveal the smooth alabaster skin and the terrible mark on the right rib just below the pale breast.

She smoothed the t-shirt down. “You’re going to be okay, Dez. It’s okay.” Jaylynn swung her legs around in front of her, sat back and leaned against the checkout counter. She splayed her legs out and leaned forward to drag Dez’s upper body, face up, into her lap. The big cop stared at her, eyes glazed. “Dez, can you hear me? Your vest caught it. The bullet didn’t penetrate.”

“Unnnhh—it hurts.”

The rookie leaned over and made soothing noises. “Don’t worry. Help is on the way.”

“Take the sword. It’s too heavy, too cold. I can’t….”

“What?” said Jaylynn. “Shh. Lie still. You’ll be okay.” She brushed the hair out of Dez’s face and held her tighter.

Dez’s eyes popped open and without blinking, she focused in on her partner’s face. “Jay, the shooter . . .what about. . . .”

“He’s down.”

Dez groaned and squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again. “Are…you…sure?”

“Yeah. I shot him. He’s down and cuffed. Stop worrying. You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

A flash of light exploded in Jaylynn’s face. She blinked and squinted. The clerk stood over her ready to take another photo with an orange disposable camera.

“Stop!” she shouted. Click-flash. Click-flash. “You are dead meat, mister,” she said in her sternest voice. He paid no attention, instead moving down the aisle to capture another angle. When it was clear he wasn’t listening, she turned her face away from him and held her partner closer to her. He then moved over to take shots of the man in the pink shirt who lay bleeding on the floor. Jaylynn was grateful for the sound of the sirens approaching.

A low moan escaped, and in a strangled voice Dez said, “Ow. Shit, this hurts.”

“It’s all right,” soothed Jaylynn. “You’re gonna be okay. I gotcha.”

Dez looked up into the worried face, so close to hers, and the words tumbled out in a choked whisper, “I . . . love you . . . Jay.”

“I know. Shhh—don’t talk now. Just save your strength.” Jay cradled her gently, oblivious to the clerk’s continued photographic antics. She pressed her face in the dark hair, feeling tears rising and not being able to control them.

“Hey.” Dez’s voice was raspy as she reached an unsteady hand up. “Cops . . . don’t . . . cry. Remember?” She tried to wipe away the tears, but Jay turned her head aside and swept her face clean with her own sleeve. Dez’s large hand slid down the front of her partner’s uniform shirt, and the rookie grasped it, pulling it close to her heart, watching as her partner’s eyes squeezed shut in pain.

“I’m so sorry, Dez.”

Through gritted teeth, she said, “Thought you said I’m okay.”

“Yeah, you are—”

Cop cars screeched into the parking lot. One. Two. Three. Jay could now see four through the front glass door. Her brothers in blue, armed and dangerous, descended upon her and calmly took charge. She was mildly amused to see Cooper and Braswell in the door first. Pudgy Braswell went down on one knee before them.

Jaylynn said, “Her vest caught it.”

He nodded. “Good. Reilly honey, you’re gonna be all right. We’ll get you outta here.”

“Don’t . . . call me . . . honey . . . Braswell,” Dez choked out, “or I’ll . . .rip your . . . testicles off.”

“Atta girl, Reilly.” He reached down and patted Jaylynn’s knee. “She’s gonna be fine, Savage. The EMTs will be here any second. Just hang on.” He grunted as he struggled to his feet, then pulled his belt up over his prodigious gut. By then a string of eight more cops had come into the store, stopping to check on Dez. Braswell stood over the two women and in his gravelly voice kept saying, “Vest took it. She’s okay.” The clerk was off to one side gesturing and talking loudly, trying to explain what had happened.

Jaylynn closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the counter. She continued to hold Dez, the taller woman’s head cradled in her left arm and her body lying face up in the V of her legs. She opened her eyes and watched her fellow officers as they secured the scene and then escorted two sets of paramedics in the door, one set for each injured party. It was with reluctance that she relinquished her hold on her partner, and then, embarrassed, she stood and joined her fellow officers. She jumped when she unexpectedly felt a warm hand grab hold of her fingers, and she looked to the side to find Oster, his eyes brimming with held-back tears. He wouldn’t look at her, but he didn’t let go of her hand as they watched the EMTs prepare to load Dez on the stretcher.

After the big cop was wheeled through the 7-11 door, she took a deep breath. “Who’s the responding officer?” she said, “You, Braswell?”

“Yeah, me and Cooper. Let’s get your statement now while it’s fresh in your mind, and then you can take the squad car over to the hospital to check on her.” He cleared his throat. “One more thing: department policy. You need to give me your weapon.”

She nodded in understanding and unholstered the .38 to hand it to him. Cooper opened a plastic bag and Braswell placed it inside. They waited while Cooper labeled the bag.

None of the cops noticed the young clerk tucking an orange box into his shirt pocket.

*****

Dez spent the better part of the night in the ER, which meant Jaylynn spent it in the waiting room. Cops came and went as the night went on. The Police Chief appeared, stomping through the waiting area in jeans and a lightweight t-shirt, her face a pale mask. Jaylynn met her eyes, but the grim-faced woman merely nodded and swept by. Four medical personnel in blue scrubs appeared, took the Chief off into a side room and shut the door.

Cowboy came tumbling in, sleep in his eyes and without his customary off-duty cowboy boots. “I came as quick as I could. Oster called me. Is she okay?” He stood awkwardly until Jaylynn rose, nodding, and then he engulfed her in a hug. “Thank God,” he said. “I just couldn’t go through that again.” Wordlessly she let him hold her, feeling the solidness of his back and torso, and then she led him to the too-soft waiting room chairs and told him what had happened. She never even noticed when the Chief departed through the automatic glass doors.

When they were finally allowed to see Dez, she’d been moved to a regular room. She lay at an incline in the bed, her ribs and torso taped and a blanket covering her up to her mid-section. Even in the semi-darkened room, her face was unnaturally white and she looked like she had two half-moon bruises under her eyes.

“They gave me something for the pain, so I’m feeling pretty fine now,” said Dez.

“I’ll bet,” said Jaylynn. She went shyly to one side of the bed while Cowboy went to the other. Each of them took a hand.

Cowboy said, “Cracked rib, huh, little lady?”

Dez’s pale face relaxed into a crooked half-smile. “I’m not little.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Next to me you’ll always be little, you know. Now you just sit back and take it easy, okay? When they letting you out?”

“Probably tomorrow. Wanna to keep an eye on my head. Got a big bump on the back.”

“Well, I’ll come back if they keep you longer. Otherwise, you take good care of yourself, okay?”

“Sure, Cowboy.” He leaned over and placed a soft kiss on her forehead, and a slight blush washed over her face.

“Good night,” he said as he sashayed out of the room, leaving the two women alone.

Dez shifted and winced in pain. “Gosh, that stuff they gave me sure made me tired.’

“Have you considered that it’s four o’clock in the morning and you’ve been shot? I’d be tired too!”

Dez looked at her seriously and said, “Only good thing about getting shot was you holding me.”

Jaylynn caught her breath and nearly let go of Dez’s hand, but the injured woman held tight.

Dez said, “Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s okay.” She twisted her hand around and entwined her fingers with the rookie’s.

Jaylynn said quietly, “We’re going to have to talk about what happened.”

“I know . . . but it’s part of the job.” She looked away, across the room, then back at Jaylynn.

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Look at the bright side—odds of me ever getting shot again . . . are slim.” She gave a little laugh, then groaned in pain.

“That’s not what I mean,” Jaylynn repeated, then decided it was the wrong time to broach the subject. “We’ll talk tomorrow,” she said. “You should try to get some sleep.”

Dez looked alarmed. “You’ll stay a few more minutes, won’t you?”

“Sure.” Jaylynn reached behind her and pulled a chair up close to the bed and sat, never letting go of the warm hand. I’ll do one better than that, she thought. I’ve got nowhere to go. I’ll be here when you wake up in the morning. Dez closed her eyes and slipped off to sleep. Jaylynn sat in the darkened room, her fingers threaded with the sleeping woman’s, and puzzled over things. She had a lot to think about.

After a few minutes, waves of fatigue washed over her and she let her head rest against the edge of the hospital bed. Before she knew it, she was asleep.

*****

Jay woke abruptly when she heard a gasp. Through bleary eyes she saw a tall silver-haired man in the doorway. He was dressed in tan slacks and a brown bomber jacket, and his arm was around a regal looking brunette woman in her late fifties. She wore navy blue slacks and a beautiful powder blue top. Over one arm she had a purse and a raincoat. The gasp had come from her and she now stood with a hand over her mouth and tears welling up in her eyes.

“Oh Desiree,” she whispered, and she crossed the room to stand on the opposite side of the bed. The man followed her and put a protective arm around her waist, his hand caressing the side of her stomach. He leaned down and whispered something soothing in her ear, which Jaylynn could not hear. The woman nodded and took a deep breath, composing herself in an instant.

The rookie stood awkwardly, not knowing what to say, and was relieved when a nurse bustled into the room.

“Dr. Reilly,” said the nurse brightly. “She’ll probably sleep for several more hours.”

Jaylynn’s head snapped up and she squinted to get a good clear look at the woman. She didn’t think she looked at all like Dez until her eyes rose and met the rookie’s, and then she saw the same piercing blue eyes. The blue-eyed woman turned back to the nurse and said, “Prognosis?”

“Excellent. She’s going to be sore for a week or so, but she’ll be fine. We’re keeping her now to make sure there’s no internal injuries, but that’s unlikely.”

“Thank you,” said the woman and dismissed the nurse. She turned back toward Jaylynn. “Who are you?” she said. “Her partner?”

Jaylynn nodded.

“Who did this?”

“A guy in a 7-11. He was robbing the place.”

Dez’s mother looked her up and down and then the man spoke up. “What happened to the suspect?”

“I shot him. He’s either dead or in intensive care.” Unexpectedly Jay’s knees went weak, and she suddenly found herself sitting in the chair, her hands shaking. I shot a man, she thought. I may have killed someone. She looked up at the two people standing over Dez and tried to get control of herself. The piercing blue eyes had softened, and the woman said, “I’m very sorry. I’m sure you did what you had to do. What’s your name?”

“Savage,” Jay choked out.

The woman grimaced and looked up at the silver-haired man. She said to him, “You cops are all the same.” Shaking her head, she took hold of his hand and turned back to Jaylynn. “Don’t you have a first name?”

Embarrassed, Jaylynn told her.

“I’m Colette Reilly, and this is Mac MacArthur. I’m Dez’s mother, and Mac has known Dez since she was a little girl.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Jaylynn said. She stopped there, leaving off the next clichÈ, ‘Dez has told me so much about you,’ because she’d never heard word one about either of these people. She wished Dez had prepared her even a little.

A hoarse whisper sounded from the figure lying on the bed. “Mac. Whaddya doin’ here?” Dez squinted open her eyes, but didn’t seem to be able to focus.

“Hello Dez. Just came by to check on you. Sounds like you’ll get to go home in the morning.”

“Ummm . . . Mom . . .” She swallowed and tried to keep her eyes open. “Why are you here?”

“Luella called me.” She reached a hand out and nervously smoothed the covers over her daughter’s abdomen. Suddenly her hand darted out, and Jaylynn watched as Dez’s mother grabbed Dez’s arm, sliding down the forearm to grip the long fingers.

Dez closed her eyes and in a slurred voice said, “Thought you didn’t like me anymore.”

Her mother’s face went visibly pale and she bit her upper lip. She glanced up at the silver-haired man uncertainly. Just when it seemed she was going to answer her daughter, she looked down to see that she was fast asleep.

Tear-filled blue chips lifted and met the rookie’s hazel green eyes. They were filled with such pain and anguish that Jaylynn looked away, feeling she was intruding. Mac, standing slightly behind Dez’s mother, slipped his hand from Colette Reilly’s shoulder and let it run down her side until it came to rest protectively against the silver-haired woman’s abdomen. Jaylynn thought she should leave, but when she rose and cleared her throat, Colette Reilly seemed to come out of her sorrowful state. Suddenly she was all business. She peered intently at Jaylynn, then gave her head a little shake. With a half smile lighting her features, she said, “Are you staying here, or did you need to go home?”

“No ma’am. I didn’t intend to go home, but if you want—”

“Stop. I was just going to say that if you would keep an eye on her, I’d appreciate it.” She fished in the purse hanging over her arm and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. She scribbled for a moment and then handed the piece of paper to Jaylynn. “Please call me if I’m needed.”

Once again she smoothed the covers, then stepped back reluctantly. With one last look over her shoulder, she headed for the door. Mac slipped an arm around Dez’s mother’s waist and held open the door, then glanced back in the room and winked at Jaylynn before they left.

Jaylynn continued to sit in the chair, feeling the fatigue wash over her. She supposed she should go home, and she stood up and moved to collect her jacket, but then Dez whimpered. She leaned over her and saw that in her sleep, Dez was crying. Jaylynn didn’t have the heart to leave. Before she could turn around and sit, the hospital room door opened and Luella shuffled in.

“How’s she doing?” the silver haired woman said. She shucked off her windbreaker and tossed it over the visitor’s chair by the door, then came to stand by Jaylynn. “You poor child. You look done in.” She wrapped her arms around the blond woman and held her while she cried. “Sorry it took so long to get here. Had to wait for a cab, and they don’t send ’em fast in the middle of the night!”

“I’m just glad you’re here,” Jaylynn snuffled. “It’s been an awful night.”

“Sounds like it, hon.”

Jaylynn pulled back a little, leaning her face to her shoulder to blot her eyes with her sleeve. “I’m probably messing up your nice dress.”

Luella sputtered, “Who cares! You’re more important than a dress.” The older woman glanced over her shoulder and caught sight of the chair Jaylynn had been sitting in. She took the young woman’s hand and led her over, then sat herself down and pulled the rookie toward her lap.

Jaylynn resisted. “I’ll squash you, Luella.”

“No, you won’t. Just relax. I’ve had bigger kids than you on my lap before.” She gestured with a toss of her head toward the bed where Dez lay sleeping. “Her, for instance.” She pulled the young woman into her lap and enfolded her in a tight hug. “Tell me everything that happened, beginning to end.”

And Jaylynn did that, feeling that she was confessing terrible sins. The silver haired woman listened and comforted her, and after a while, Luella talked her into going home and coming back in the morning.

Jaylynn stood, feeling numb, as the landlady picked up her lightweight jacket and kissed Dez on the forehead.

Even though she was still a little shaky, Jaylynn led Luella out to the parking lot and dropped the older woman off at her house, then drove herself home where she changed clothes and got back in the squad car to return to the hospital.

*****

When Dez awoke at dawn, she was in a foul mood. Half her torso ached and throbbed, and she had a headache that wouldn’t quit. When she forced her eyes open and examined the room, she realized there was a blond head lying on the bed to her left. She carefully lifted her hand and flicked her wrist that direction. When she connected with the crown of the head, she heard a groan, and then the head raised. Dull, sleepy hazel green eyes met hers, in a face full of worry and fatigue.

Dez sighed and softened her cranky attitude. “How you feeling?”

Jaylynn said, “Isn’t that supposed to be my line to you?”

“I feel like shit. Get me outta here, okay? I’m sure Luella can take better care of me than these yahoos.”

Jaylynn stood and stretched, looking like she was in pain. “I can see that you’re going to be fine.”

“Yeah,” she snapped. “What was your first clue?”

Just then a heavy-set nurse hustled into the room. “Good morning,” she said brightly. “And how’s our hero today?”

Before Dez could snarl a response, Jaylynn squeezed her arm and said, “She’s fine, just fine.”

The nurse looked the rumpled blond up and down. “Actually,” she said, “you’re the one we should be calling the hero.”

“What?” said Jaylynn.

The nurse spun on her heel and headed for the door. “Be right back,” she called over her shoulder. When she returned a minute later, she was toting a section of the newspaper, which she folded open and spread out on the hospital bed facing Dez.

Both women gasped.

The Metro section of the Twin Cities Courier carried the bold headline Saint Paul Cop Shot, and splashed below it was a one foot square color photo. Under the photo the caption read: “Nine year veteran officer Desiree Reilly, shot on duty in an east side 7-11, is comforted by rookie partner, Jaylynn Savage.”

The color photograph was clear. Jaylynn sat on the floor, a red counter at her back, with her legs splayed out in a V. Dez lay in the V, her eyes squeezed shut and a look of obvious pain on her face. Her legs were sprawled over Jaylynn’s right thigh and her upper body was cradled in the rookie’s arms. But what made the picture most remarkable was the proud, defiant look on the blond’s face as she faced the camera, one solitary tear etching a distinct line down her cheek.

The nurse said, “They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and this one definitely is. We need to get the guns off the streets, that’s for sure.” She looked at the shocked faces of the two women. “Ah—well, ah, why don’t you two go ahead and keep this?”

Jaylynn looked up at her, worry evident on her pale face. “What happened to the man I shot last night?”

The nurse hesitated, then with a sigh said, “You’ll see it in the article, so I may as well tell you. He died on the way to the hospital.”

“Oh God,” said the rookie. She sat down hard in the visitor’s chair and burst into tears.

Dez tried to sit up. A jolt of pain shot through her ribs, and she lay back on the bed sweating. Feeling totally helpless, she grimaced and said, “Jaylynn. Hey. Come on. It wasn’t your fault.”

Jaylynn stared at her blankly through the tears. In a quiet voice, almost a whisper, she said, “I’ve killed a man. Someone’s dead because of me.”

The nurse came around the side of the bed and patted the young woman awkwardly. “There, there,” she said. “Go on and get it all out. It’s awful, isn’t it.”

Dez wanted to leap from the bed and throttle the nurse. She gritted her teeth to keep from screaming at the woman. She took a deep breath to speak, but just then there was a tap on the door, and it opened. A gray-haired man in a business suit entered. He carried a clipboard and introduced himself as the hospital administrator. “Good morning, ladies, nurse,” he said. “Ms. Reilly, we have a number of reporters asking for interviews. Do you wish to grant anyone an audience?”

“Hell, no,” she snarled.

With a trace of a smile, he said, “Well, that was perfectly clear. Now then, we also have several officers here. Do you wish to see any of them?”

“Who?”

He consulted the clipboard. “Lopez, Culpepper, Oster, Coombs, Mahoney, Milton, Swenson, and last but not least, a Lieutenant Malcolm.”

Grudgingly she said, “Yeah, they can all come in.” He turned and exited the room.

She cast a worried glance over at Jaylynn who was now sitting silently. She was no longer crying but looked as though she was in another world. Dez was relieved when the horde of cops, led by Lt. Malcolm, filed in respectfully, one after another. She caught the Lieutenant’s eye immediately and tossed her head toward Jaylynn, but before he could make a move, Crystal was already at the rookie’s side.

The Latina went down on one knee before the rookie. “Hey, Jay. It’s me—Crystal. Time to head home. Come with me.” She pulled the teary-eyed young woman up out of the chair, pausing long enough to grab Dez’s hand for a split second and say, “Sorry it’s a short visit, but you look fine. Catch ya later, okay?”

In a low voice the dark haired cop responded, “Just take good care of her,” and then Crystal led a very tired Jaylynn out the door.

The Lieutenant said, “I’ll get someone from Departmental Assistance for her, Reilly. Don’t worry. She’ll be okay. We’ll take care of her.”

Dez cast one last look toward the two cops as they disappeared out into the hall. She took a deep breath, then winced when the pain in her rib coursed through her again.

*****

The hospital released Dez late in the afternoon, and Cowboy came down to pick her up and take her back to her place. He also agreed to go by the station and get someone to help him deliver her truck. She knew she wouldn’t be driving for a little while, and she didn’t want her pickup sitting in the lot for days on end.

It was a struggle, but she changed out of her uniform and into jeans and a sweatshirt, no bra. Then she turned her attention to her biggest worry: Jaylynn. She hadn’t seen or heard from the rookie since Crystal dragged her off earlier in the day. She’d tried to call her house from the hospital, but no one, not even Tim or Sara, had answered the phone. She tried now to reach Shayna and Crystal, but their answering machine was the only response she got. She didn’t leave a message.

She limped into the kitchen and got a glass of water so that she could take a pain pill, then walked slowly down the stairs and knocked on Luella’s door. It took a minute, but when the old woman finally opened the door, she looked like she had just awakened.

“Thank goodness you’re home! Come in. Come in.” She held the door open wide and Dez hobbled along behind her into the living room, then sank down on the couch.

The old woman said, “Can I get you something?”

“No, no. I’m fine. Have you by any chance talked to Jaylynn this morning?”

Luella came to sit right next to her and laid a soft hand on her thigh to pat the denim there. “Yes, she called a little bit ago. She wanted me to let you know she’s okay, but she’s off work for a while.”

Dez nodded. “I figured that.”

“She flew home to Seattle at the crack of dawn. I don’t know when she’ll be back.”

“What!”

“Dez, honey, that poor kid needs her mom right now, that’s what. I don’t blame her. She was a wreck last night, and I can only imagine how she felt when she found out she killed that fellow.”

Tears rose and spilled over, and Dez couldn’t stop them. Luella put her hand over Dez’s left arm and squeezed it gently as the dark haired woman hung her head in shame. The landlady chuckled. “You know you don’t have to be that way around here. I don’t expect you to be Miss Big Shot Cop in this house. I’d rather have you human and hurting than tough and hard. You could learn a lesson from Jaylynn, you know.”

“Yeah,” the tall woman choked out. “I know.”

*****

Jaylynn knew plenty enough about post traumatic stress disorder to realize she could have a full-blown case of it if she didn’t deal with the events of the last few hours. It was all she could think of on the plane and in the taxi on the way to her parents’ house as she fidgeted and fought back tears. Late Monday afternoon she arrived at long last on her parents’ doorstep, unannounced, and Erin and Amanda nearly flipped with excitement. The girls had just been home from summer school daycare for a short while, and Dave and Janet Lindstrom were in the kitchen getting ready to prepare dinner.

It took Jaylynn’s mother only seconds to discern that something was wrong, and after the girls finished jumping all over their big sister, Janet led her daughter upstairs to the master bedroom.

As soon as the door was shut, Jaylynn collapsed on her parents’ unmade bed and burst into tears.

“What’s the matter?” her mother asked in a voice tinged with desperation.

“I can’t believe this. I—I—Mom, oh my god . . . I killed a man.”

“What!” Janet sat next to her daughter and wrapped her in her arms. There was a tap on the door, and Dave stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.

“Janet?” he said, glancing between the two women. They looked at one another helplessly as Jaylynn, doubled over with grief, sobbed.

Dave sat down on the other side of his step-daughter. “Jaylynn—Lynnie honey . . . Jay! Stop! Stop right now. Look at me.”

In response Jaylynn slowly sat up and turned tear-filled eyes toward him.

“What happened?” he said. “Start at the beginning and tell your mother and me.”

And so she did. They sat on either side of her, shocked, and listened and held her as she cried. And so began the process of grieving.

*****

Dez sat at Luella’s dining room table and watched the older woman putter around, watering the plants on the window sills. The three large windows facing the front yard contained a total of ten plants, five of which were violets. Dez wasn’t sure what the other leafy ones were. She leaned back in the squeaky chair cautiously. Her ribs still hurt when she moved, but it was a dull ache and nothing like the sharp pain she had gotten for the first 48 hours.

“You’re gloomy today, Dez.” Luella took a tiny trowel, no bigger than a fork, and tilled up a bit of the dirt around the African violet in one pot, then filled in some potting soil from a green beans can.

Dez started to cross her arms, as she had a hundred times since the shooting, and was reminded most painfully that it hurt too much to do that. She let her hands drop into her lap.

Luella paused and the injured woman felt the gaze upon her. She met the brown eyes and listened as Luella said, “You ever notice how plants like to sit right next to each other? They don’t like to be alone any more than most people do.” She waved a wrinkled hand toward two potted violets next to one another. One was a deep, rich purple, the color of royalty. The other was pale lavendar with dark purple trim. Despite the gray weather outdoors, it was clear that both plants were thriving inside. “Look at how these two are all over each other.”

Dez craned her neck. “Whaddya mean?”

“Just look. They’re reaching out to touch each other.”

“Looks to me like they’re growing toward the light the window lets in.”

“They are. But they’re also inclining toward each other. See?”

Dez heaved herself up out of the chair and moved to stand over the plants and next to her landlady. She felt old today, old and defeated. The late afternoon sun tried to fight through the clouds, but was failing miserably, so the day was dark and dreary with little chance of change before nightfall. Dez examined the two plants as a tentative hand reached around her middle and a silver head leaned against her upper arm.

“What’s the matter, Squirt?”

“Don’t know. I just feel like shit.”

“Want me to make you something to eat?”

“No, thanks Luella.” She sighed. “You really shouldn’t have to take care of me. I’m a grown woman.”

“I like taking care of you.”

“You’re a generous person, but you shouldn’t always have to give, give, give. Makes me feel selfish.”

“You do a lot for this old woman, Dez.”

“Not half what you do for me,” she said in a cranky tone. “It’s not really fair to you.”

Luella bubbled with laughter. “Oh, girl, you may be a grown woman, but you’re still a babe in the woods.”

“No, I’m not,” she said in an icy tone.

“Yes, you are. You don’t fool me.” Luella looked up at her, kind eyes appraising the pale face. “And you still don’t get it. Sometimes accepting help from others is actually a gift to them—not to you. I don’t do one thing for you that I don’t want to. What I do makes me feel good.” Shifting around to face the tall woman she put one hand on each of the brunette’s hips. Looking up and into Dez’s eyes, she said, “I love you like you were my own kid. I don’t want you in pain. I want you to be happy. That’s all. It makes me feel good any time I can contribute to that.”

Tears sprang to Dez’s eyes, and she started to pull away. Luella’s eyes narrowed and she tightened her grip on the tall woman’s hips. “Don’t you go shutting me out. We’ve come through too much now for that.” She reached around Dez, pulled out a chair, and pressed her into it, then slid another chair over and lowered herself until she was knee to knee with the younger woman. She took Dez’s hands into her own. “I’m not going anywhere until you ’fess up and tell me what’s troubling you.”

Dez looked out the window, her teeth clamped together so hard that her jaw began to hurt. She felt the soft hands squeezing her fingers and turned stubborn eyes toward her landlady. “I’m worried about Jaylynn.”

Luella leaned forward, put her elbows on her knees, and kept hold of Dez’s hands. “She’s a resourceful girl. She knows how to take care of herself. She’ll be okay.”

“What if she’s not?”

“Why wouldn’t she be?” Luella said softly.

“I don’t know,” said Dez, her voice bitter and ragged. She turned away to stare out the window.

“I’ve got a hunch here. Let me tell you what I think.” Luella paused a moment, then reached up to turn Dez’s face toward her. “Look at me, Desiree Reilly. It’s not your fault some loony-tune decided to rob and shoot up the 7-11. There’s nothing you could have done. It’s not your fault.”

“But it shouldn’t have happened that way!” Dez said emphatically which caused her side to rip with pain.

“Why? What could you have done?”

“I should have seen it coming faster. I wasn’t—I didn’t pay close enough attention.” The words came out in a rush. “He should never have got a shot off. I should have reacted quicker, taken control . . .”

“And then you wouldn’t have been wounded, huh?” The old woman had a sly look on her face. She peered intently into Dez’s eyes, and suddenly the big cop wanted to get up and run.

“It wasn’t that so much . . . I don’t care about that . . .”

“Ah, I see then. You think you should have shot that idiot. The fact that Jaylynn did it, that she’s upset, that she’s gone—it’s all your fault, right? You’re afraid she’s blaming you. Is that it?”

Dez refused to answer and just stared daggers at Luella. She felt a swell of anger rise in her and said the first thing that came to her mind. “Why in the hell did you call my mother?”

Luella let go of Dez’s hands and pursed her lips into a tiny smile. “She’s your mother, Dez. She needed to know her child was hurt.”

“I have you on the call list because I don’t want her to know things about me. And then you go and call her and don’t even come to the hospital yourself.”

“What?” Luella looked startled for a moment, then she shook her head. “You must’ve been out of your mind on the drugs, girl, because I was there. I got there fast as I could.”

Now it was Dez’s turn to be surprised. “I don’t remember that,” she said indignantly.

“Well, I’m telling you the truth. I was there and I know exactly how Jaylynn was feeling. She wasn’t a bit concerned about herself. She was worried half to death about you!”

“If she was so worried about me, why didn’t she say goodbye?” Dez struggled unsuccessfully to keep the bitter tone out of her voice.

Luella shook her head slowly, then patted Dez’s knee with one hand. With a groan she rose. Picking up the tiny trowel she moved back over to the window sill. “You two are both exactly like these plants here. Both of you pretend to be straining toward the sun while you’re really leaning toward each other and spying out of the corners of your eyes. But you just watch—those plants sit there long enough, they’ll be entwined, just like you two. I know you can’t see it right now, but wait and see. You mark my words.”

Dez sat silently for a moment, fighting with herself. She thought about her source of strength, which she had always thought was her ability to stay cool and keep down any troublesome emotions. But now every single thing she did, everything that happened, served to unblock carefully constructed walls and fences. Her feelings ran amok, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. It occurred to her that perhaps she shouldn’t have dammed things off so effectively—perhaps she had denied herself the opportunity to learn to control the maelstrom of emotions that threatened to completely unnerve her now.

She listened to a tuneless humming Luella was making under her breath as she pinched an old leaf off one of the non-flowering plants. Without any consideration, Dez rose and wrapped her arms around the silver haired woman from behind, surprising her. Luella twisted in her arms and returned the hug, causing Dez to groan.

“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to squeeze.”

“That’s okay. I deserved it for being rotten.”

“Oh yeah, you’re rotten. Rotten through and through.” She chuckled. “That’s why I keep you around, ’cause you’re such a rotten kid.”

*****

Jaylynn borrowed her mother’s Bonneville and took the short drive around Green Lake to the apartments where her aunt lived. After 48 hours with two inquisitive girls and a pair of sympathetic parents, she was feeling less out-of-control. But she recognized that she still slipped in and out of periods of numbness.

At least she was better rested now. When she had first arrived, she was so exhausted she hadn’t been able to think clearly, and it wasn’t like anyone in that household ever went to bed very early. Besides, her body was on Minnesota time which was two hours later than west coast time. It took her a whole day to get reacquainted with the noises in the old house and with the racket her sisters put up. A night in her old double bed with two little girls, warm as twin toaster ovens, had done a lot to revive her. Last night the girls had each snuck into bed with her again, but once they went to sleep, she crept away and slept in the twin bed in Erin’s room. She hadn’t slept well, but she’d stayed in bed from ten p.m. until nearly nine a.m., so she figured that in between waking from the bad dreams, she probably slept six or seven hours, and she didn’t feel too terribly tired. She hoped tonight would be better.

In the five years that she had been living in Minnesota, it seemed the traffic in Seattle had gone from terrible to disastrous. The six-mile trip from the Ballard area to the far side of Green Lake used to take fifteen minutes at most. Today it took so long that her bare legs were stuck to the seat with sweat by the time she drove up to the complex. She knew her Aunt Lynn didn’t care when she got there though. The young woman arrived, a few minutes after noon, and waited while her aunt buzzed her in to the security apartments. Walking down the long hallway to unit 108, she felt the same thick carpet underfoot, smelled the same air-conditioned eucalyptus scent that she’d always noticed. Some things might change, but Auntie Lynn wasn’t one of them, of that she was sure. It gave her a feeling of security knowing her aunt was always there.

Jaylynn’s father’s younger sister, Lynn Savage, opened the apartment door and engulfed her niece in a bone-crushing hug. Though very nearly Jaylynn’s height, she seemed shorter, and she was totally the opposite in looks. Long curly dark hair framed a mischievous face often lit up with a smile. While Jaylynn was shapely, her aunt was rail thin. Her gray eyes didn’t miss much, and when she asked a person how she was doing, Jaylynn knew she really wanted to know the answer. So did her students. She was an extremely popular psychology professor and counselor at the University of Washington.

Auntie Lynn had come over to see her niece the day after Jaylynn’s tumultuous arrival, but this was their first time to talk privately without the distractions of Erin and Amanda.

“Are you hungry for lunch yet?” said Lynn. She led the blond over to the sofa and each curled up on one end facing the other.

“I haven’t been hungry since I got here,” confessed Jaylynn.

“That’s unusual for you, Ye Old Bottomless Pit.”

Jaylynn nodded. “I know—it’s not good, but nothing tastes appetizing at all.”

“I’ll get hungry pretty soon and I’ll make some lunch, but in the meantime, you want something to drink? Juice? Pop? Tea? Lemonade?”

“Orange juice?”

“Sure. Back in a flash.”

The petite brunette disappeared down the hall into the kitchen, and Jaylynn looked around the apartment living room and dining area. She had always liked this apartment because it was old-fashioned and roomy. The wide moulding was dark mahogany wood and gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the windows. The walls were pale yellow—pretty much the same color Luella had selected for her back hall. She thought for a moment about that day with Dez, how playful the big cop had been, how much fun the three of them had had at the movies. Though it was only a few weeks earlier, it seemed like forever.

She gazed up at a painting hanging over the wing chairs across the room. It hadn’t been in the apartment when she’d last been to visit. The only way to describe it would be to say that it was a four-by-five foot explosion of colors. At first glance the colorful brush and palette marks gave the impression of great chaotic energy, but upon further inspection, the blond began to notice something strange. The whirls and dips of the paint on the canvas contained intricate outlines of faces. After studying the painting for another minute, she was sure that she could pick out at least twelve faces, all overlapping and shading into one another.

When her aunt returned to the room with the juice for her and Pepsi for herself, Jaylynn pointed at the artwork. “Where did that come from?”

“A very talented psychology student painted that for me.”

“What’s it called?”

“Psych 5000, believe it or not. Notice anything interesting about it?”

“The faces?”

“Good, Lynnie! Almost no one ever picks them out. Everybody gets stuck on the color and overlooks the details. How many faces do you see?”

Jaylynn tilted her head to the side and counted. “I for sure see twelve, but somehow I bet there are more.”

“Not bad. The young man, Michael is his name, painted it, to represent the liveliness of the 14 students in the class. There are actually 15 faces there, including mine. Michael’s very talented, very troubled—and brilliant to make it more complicated.”

“It must be nice to teach somebody like that—someone so fascinating.”

“He can be very difficult at times, but I have a soft place in my heart for him.” She set her glass of soda on a blue coaster on the coffee table. “But that’s enough about me. I want to hear about you. I want to know about your partner.”

Startled, Jaylynn looked at her aunt. “Dez?”

“Yes.”

“She’ll recover just fine, Auntie.”

“I know that. But you and she are not fine.”

Jaylynn smiled at her aunt, a bemused expression on her face. If she didn’t know better, she would have to say her aunt and Sara went to the same mind reader’s school. “We’re better now, thank you.” She hesitated a moment, then went ahead and asked the question that came to mind. With a quizzical look, she said, “Why would you ask me that particular question first?”

“Because I sensed it was the most important—because of the arc of your letters.”

Jaylynn blushed and looked down. “I wrote about her a lot, didn’t I?”

“Yes. And then she disappeared from the narrative a while back, and I’ve wanted to know what happened to her ever since.”

Jaylynn sat quietly for a moment, her eyes resting on the vivid painting across the room. She hadn’t come out to her family, hadn’t ever even mentioned a single person she’d dated. It occurred to her that it didn’t really matter who knew anything anymore . . . she didn’t care one iota. She lifted her eyes to meet the level gray ones across from her, eyes looking at her with a love and affection she could never doubt.

Her aunt said, “Tell me about her.”

Jaylynn held her breath. She had never been able to resist her aunt’s openness and honesty. Since she had been a little girl, she could tell her anything. When her father died, it was Auntie Lynn she confessed to, saying with inimitable 11-year-old logic that his death had been her fault because she hadn’t kissed him goodbye that morning, preferring instead to sleep in. In short order her aunt had set her thinking straight and helped her to mourn. For every step of the young woman’s life, her father’s sister had been there, like a guardian angel, hovering in the background just in case. And here she was again, ready to listen and understand.

Jaylynn exhaled and burst into tears.

Scooting down the couch Auntie Lynn moved over next to the blond woman and put her arm around her. “It’s okay, Lynnie.” She grabbed up the box of tissues from the shelf under the coffee table and set them next to her niece.

“It’s really not okay,” said Jaylynn. “I love her.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“No, I mean I really love her.” She reached for a tissue and wiped her eyes, then let her hands drop into her lap.

Lynn squeezed her shoulder. “Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“She doesn’t return the feelings.”

“Oh, I see. Well, that’s a tough one.” They sat for a moment, Jaylynn letting silent tears run down her face and Lynn rubbing circles on her upper back.

“Jaylynn, there’s something else . . . what is it?”

Through the tears, the blond let out a chortle. “What is it about me—do I have something written on my forehead? Some sort of display that says ‘Keep Probing’?”

Lynn laughed. “No. I just know you, that’s all. Nothing is ever simple with you, punkin.” She reached up and smoothed a lock of hair out of Jaylynn’s eyes. “There’s always been way more than one layer. So I just thought I’d ask.”

“Well, as usual, you’re right.” She pulled out another tissue and blew her nose. Once she felt more composed she said, “I keep having the same kind of recurring dreams, and they’re scaring the hell out of me.”

“You used to have bad dreams when you were little, after your dad died.”

“I still have those dreams.”

“What? I thought they went away.”

“Oh no. You just taught me a way to control the fear. Remember the Warrior Woman?”

“Who could forget! I’ve never had a kid get so excited about an imaginary friend.”

“She’s not imaginary anymore. It’s Dez.” She shifted uncomfortably on the couch. She met her aunt’s eyes, then looked away.

“You mean you dream about Dez now.”

“No. I mean the Warrior Woman was—is—Dez, always has been Dez.” Again, she held her aunt’s eyes, nodding, hoping Auntie Lynn would be able to understand.

“She resembles her?”

Jaylynn placed her hands palms down on her knees and squeezed, the cords of her hands standing out. “I know it sounds crazy, but she is her.”

“Okay. So go on.”

“The first time I saw her, something clicked.” She turned to face her aunt, and in an excited voice, she said, “I can’t explain it, Auntie Lynn, but I knew—I just knew Desiree Reilly was somehow the one. I feel it here.” She patted her breastbone with her fist then returned her hands to her knees. “It’s like a—like a connection, a strange linking of souls. Every time I look her in the eye, it’s like looking at the other half of my heart. I get this jolt of familiarity—of dÈjý vu—that doesn’t quit. And even though she tries to pretend otherwise, the same thing happens to her too—I can tell.

“You’re saying she’s your soulmate.”

“Yes! That’s exactly it!”

“So what’s the problem between you then?”

Jaylynn sat back, doubt clouding her face. “I don’t know. I—I just don’t understand at all.”

“Have you tried talking to her about this?”

The younger woman’s face reddened. Avoiding her aunt’s eyes she said, “Let’s just say I messed that up real good and haven’t been able to broach the subject since.”

“Hmmm . . . okay. I’ll say it again. What else is there, Lynnie? I can tell there’s more.”

Jaylynn didn’t want to recall any of the dreams, but she forced herself to explain anyway. “Remember how the Warrior Woman used to come to me in my nightmares and help me escape or rescue me?”

“Um hmm.”

“That’s not happening anymore. Now the monsters—or pirates or whoever they are—they get her and they hang her up on a cross to die. They beat her, break her legs, shoot her with arrows. It’s terrifying. In my dream I can’t do anything to save her. I run all around, frantically, and there’s nothing I can do. I wake up sweating, screaming—Mom had to come in last night to wake me up and tell me everything was all right.”

Lynn reached over and patted on of the blond’s hands. “Hey, you’re gonna bruise your knees doing that.”

Jaylynn stopped clenching her kneecaps and relaxed her hands.

“So,” said Lynn. “When did this new development in your dreams occur?”

“Since I’ve been here.”

“Jaylynn,” she said in her kindest voice, “Dez just got shot. Your dreams are reflecting reality.”

“But I can’t help it, Auntie Lynn. I have the most unbearable feeling of foreboding, of anxiety. Every damn time I dream it, it’s like it’s actually happening, like she’s really dying, and there’s nothing I can do.”

Lynn turned to face the shaken woman and peered into her face until the hazel green eyes met understanding gray eyes. “Listen to me, Jaylynn. What you’re feeling is normal. This happens a lot when people go through a critical incident like you’ve just experienced. It’s normal. You need to talk about it, deal with it. Promise me you won’t bury it.”

“Ha. Fat chance of that. It’s all I think about.”

“I see. And you’re scared you’re going to lose her for good.”

“That about sums it up.” Tears came to her eyes again.

“Will you promise me that when you get back to St. Paul you’ll go see a counselor and talk about these feelings?”

“Yes. The department provides a psychologist.”

“Good. Take advantage of it, okay? I’ll be checking on you, you know.”

Jaylynn nodded. She put her arms around her aunt and squeezed her tight. In a choked voice, she said, “Thanks for listening to me, Auntie Lynn.”

“My pleasure dear. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

*****

After three days rest, Dez went back to desk duty where she found she was bored half to death. The days dragged by while Jaylynn was gone. She cleaned up paperwork she had totally forgotten she’d ever neglected and then was more than happy to get the doctor’s clearance to go on patrol again. But it felt empty to be out on the mean streets of St. Paul without the rookie along. She had to face it—she missed her.

She wanted to call, but she didn’t know the number in Seattle. Finally she got up the courage to call over at the house and someone named Kevin answered, but no one else was there and he didn’t know Jaylynn’s parents’ phone number. Exasperated, Dez gave up and resolved to wait more patiently, but it wasn’t easy.

It wasn’t until Friday, the fifth day after the shooting, that Dez came home from work and found a note on her door from Luella.

Dez,

Jaylynn would like a call at 206-555-3579.

She doesn’t have your phone # with her. Don’t

forget it’s two hours earlier on the west coast.

Love,

The Chief Cook and Uniform Washer

What time had Jaylynn called? She hurried to open her door and, without pausing to turn on the lights, rushed into the living room area to the phone. She checked the red LED time indicator on the VCR: 12:20. That made it 10:20 in Seattle. Was it too late to call?

She didn’t care. She grabbed up the phone, still dressed in the uniform she hadn’t bothered to change out of when shift ended, and when the touch tone numbers lit up, she dialed, hoping she wouldn’t wake anyone up.

A faraway voice said, “Hello?”

“Jaylynn?”

“Hey you. How are ya?”

“Ahhhh . . . .” Suddenly Dez was tongue-tied. She shuffled over to the couch and sat down, cleared her throat and said, “Did I wake you up?”

“Not in a million years. Seems no one ever goes to bed around here. The girls are like rats scurrying around half the night.” Jaylynn laughed, a throaty purr in the phone. “My hours have been so weird—I’ll be totally screwed up for time when I get home.”

Dez let out a breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding. She is coming back, she thought, and a feeling of relief washed over her which caused an involuntary shiver.

“Dez? You still there?”

“Yeah.”

“How about your ribs? Are they healing?”

“Oh yeah. Still have the bruise, but I’m back on patrol. It’s going fine.”

“Good. I was hoping you’d mend quickly. You do seem to heal fast, you know.”

Dez didn’t want to talk about her own healing. All she really wanted to know was when Jaylynn would be returning. She wasn’t sure how to put it so she said, “The Lieutenant asked me tonight how you’re doing.”

“Oh? That was nice. Tell him I’m fine and I’ll be back to work on Wednesday. I’ll fly home Sunday.”

“Sunday, huh? You need a ride from the airport?”

“No, don’t worry. Sara’s coming. But thanks.”

“Okay,” said Dez, trying to keep all hint of disappointment out of her voice. “So I’ll see you in a few more days?”

“Uh huh. Well . . . hmm . . . anything exciting to tell me?”

“Nope, guess not.” Her mind felt like it was stuck in neutral and she scrambled around trying to think of something, anything, to stay on the line. “Oster stepped on a nail on the street outside the civic center construction site.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, it went right through his boot and into his arch. Had to get a tetanus shot. At least he isn’t complaining.”

“That’s good. But he’s really not much of a complainer. He’s a good guy.”

“He is.”

“Oh hey! Something good did happen. Some cop in a little town in Michigan—Grand Ledge, I think—caught that guy who raped Kristy South.”

“You’re kidding? How’d they catch him?”

“I don’t know, but Lt. Malcolm told me today they’re gonna extradite him. So that was good to hear.”

“Yeah. I’ll have to check on her when I get back.”

Dez cleared her throat, suddenly tongue-tied again.

Jaylynn said, “Hey, this is costing you money.”

“That’s okay,” Dez said in a grumpy voice. “I don’t mind.”

For some reason, Jaylynn found this funny. Giggling in the phone she said, “Some things never change.”

Dez was puzzled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ll see you soon, Dez.”

“Do you want my phone number—you know, just in case you need to call or you need a ride or something?”

“Sure.”

Dez gave her the number and they said goodbye and hung up. She sat in her darkened apartment, sweating with nervousness, and held the cradled phone in her lap. Get a grip, she told herself. It’s gonna be okay. After a few moments her heartbeat returned to normal and she became drowsy. She rose and set the phone back on the top of the entertainment center and got undressed in the dark, tossing her uniform on the valet chair. Wearing only a sleeping shirt, she crawled into bed, exhausted, and fell into an immediate sleep.

The dream began as it often did. She was crazy with pain and grief, kneeling in what seemed to be a cave. A dim ray of light illuminated the area just enough to allow her to see a hand in front of her face. Her knees stung and ached, and when she rose and looked down, they were a mass of rawness, warm blood running freely down her shins. She brought her hand up, her fingers brushing her abdomen until they were stopped by something thin and hard protruding from her breast bone. Her fingers groped at a shaft so firmly embedded that she could not pull it out. Her hands dropped to her sides.

She wore no clothes, but she didn’t care. She moved toward the light, stumbling whenever her half-dead feet encountered bumps or rocks on the cave floor. The outline of the cave opening gaped ahead of her. She wondered why there was an exit from the cave. She had been here many times before, and she did not remember an opening. Ducking her head, she stepped out onto a dirt path that led away from the opening. The full moon shone down upon the hillside, casting enough light to clearly outline evergreen trees and rocks and brambly bushes. The narrow path was emblazoned with silver, and she shuffled along it hesitantly as it angled off to the side and led down to a lake.

Each step was painful and her breath came in short sharp wheezes. Something burned in her eyes, and when she wiped her brow with her forearm, it came away from her head covered in dark, sticky liquid. She was beyond caring and sought only oblivion. Lurching down the path she tripped once on a root and nearly fell, but she recovered her balance and continued down, faltering only once more before she came to stand at the water’s edge.

The moonlight shone on the lake revealing gentle ripples near the shore. She stepped one foot forward and felt the cool water lap at her foot. So close, I am so close. Closing her eyes, she took one last breath, as deep as her wounded lungs would allow, and then she fell face forward into the salty tasting water.

Sinking . . . sinking . . . light receding . . . darkness all around. The water grew colder until she shivered with the shock of its continual plunge in temperature. Instead of oblivion, instead of peace, the pressure intensified. She fought it, twisting and struggling. When she opened her mouth to scream, nothing came out. The brackish taste of bile rose up in her throat and choked her. She opened her eyes in alarm, sinking more, feeling the water crushing her. Suddenly she stopped fighting it. Letting her arms open and fall to either side of her body, she closed her eyes and gave herself to the descent.

It was then that she felt it. She opened her eyes and through the murk watched as capable white hands grasped the shaft bulging from her chest. Gradually, inch by inch, the arrow was removed until she wept with the cessation of the pain. Strong arms wrapped around her, pulling her upward. She felt the silken pressure of bare skin against her shoulders, legs, breasts. Each time she made a move or struggled, the ascent ceased, but when she went limp again, the arms tightened around her and they advanced upward until she was aware of moonlight shining bright in her eyes and cool wind brushing her tear-stained face.

She lay in the water, floating face up, all of the ache washed away, her body cleansed of the blood and grime and wounds. Resting, trusting, suspended in warmth, she became aware of that other presence, those other arms which felt so hauntingly familiar. She turned her head, searching for confirmation and fell into iridescent depths, a smiling presence of love.

*****

The phone woke Dez, and she had trouble shaking the sleep out of her eyes. She decided to let it ring and tried to turn over on her side. Her body was still stiff and sore, mostly from holding herself so erect and with such caution. She cursed the day she had ever walked into that 7-11. Suddenly it occurred to her that it could be Jaylynn calling. She swung her legs over the side of the bed to grab up the phone. Leaning to pull the handset toward her sent a sharp pain through her side. She winced and answered the phone with a hoarse “Hello.”

“Desiree?”

“Yes?”

“This is your mother.”

Dez’s heart sank. In just those few seconds before picking up her hopes had raised considerably. “Good morning,” she said.

“I’m calling to check on you. How are you feeling?”

The tall woman dragged her legs up on the bed and leaned back against the pillows. “I’m all right.”

“How are your ribs?”

“I’m healing okay, Mom.”

“You back to work?”

“Yeah. Finally done with boring desk duty.”

Dez heard a faint chuckle. “Just like your father. He never liked being cooped up inside either.”

“I’ve had enough of it this year. I was glad to go back on patrol—couldn’t wait.”

“How’s your partner holding up?”

“Savage?”

“I believe her name is Jaylynn,” her mother said dryly.

“Yeah, it is. I think she’s doing all right . . . she’s off work for a couple more days.”

“Don’t count on her doing all that great, dear. She was thoroughly shook up the other night at the hospital. She was frightened very badly.”

“Nah, she’s tough.”

There was a pause for a moment. “Not everyone can shut out bad things like you can, Desiree. Don’t expect it to be all that easy for her.”

Dez felt herself starting to get mad. Who was her mother to lecture her about the rookie? She’d spent—what?—five or ten minutes in her presence? “I gotta go, Mom. I need to take a pain pill again.”

“All right. Call me if you need anything, okay? You’ve got my number at the clinic, right?”

“Sure.”

Dez hung up, feeling quite irritated, and got out of bed to stomp toward the bathroom. Every step made her more aware of how out-of-sync her body was. She pulled aside the shower curtain and lowered herself carefully to sit on the edge of the big whirlpool tub so that she could turn on the faucets. After testing the water temperature with her right hand, she plugged the tub and stood up. She moved over to the sink while she waited for the whirlpool to fill. She grabbed up her toothbrush. Looking in the mirror, she thought she looked old. There were bags under her eyes, and her face looked drawn and more pale than usual.

A wisp of a dream rose to the surface of her memory. Arrows. Water. Thrashing and drowning. Pain. She shivered. She couldn’t exactly remember what happened, but she knew it was unpleasant. But it turned out all right, hadn’t it? She had this odd sense that something good happened . . . but it wouldn’t rise up to consciousness. Oh well. She brushed her teeth, then turned on the whirlpool jets. She slipped out of her sleeping shirt to step into the steaming, boiling water. Once she lowered herself carefully into the tub, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and let her mind float off.

The jets soothed her aching muscles and relaxed her. She sank lower in the over-sized tub until only her face poked up out of the water. Deeper she went, relaxing, drifting. She imagined a forest full of blooming deciduous trees, the branches so thick that the tiny path she followed was almost indiscernible. She put one leather booted foot in front of the other, making no noise, and moved along the dirt path. The air was still, not even the sound of birds. She could feel her own heart beat, and a thrill of elation ran through her body. She let her left arm reach back, and it was promptly grasped by a warm hand that sent shivers of delight up her arm. She stopped in her tracks and slowly turned. Bright green eyes met her own, a pair of laughing emerald eyes dancing with joy. You, she thought. I know you . . .

The whirlpool stopped and Dez jerked awake. She felt dizzy and overheated, her breath coming quicker than usual. Jaylynn in long blond hair, her eyes gem-stone green . . . she looked so familiar . . . and yet . . . .

Dez sat up abruptly and shook the water off her neck and shoulders. She put her hands on either side of her temples and pressed, shaking her head slightly. Her head ached. Her ribs hurt. In fact, it felt like she’d been trampled by an elephant. Maybe she shouldn’t have used such hot water in the whirlpool. She definitely felt overheated and faint.

With effort, she rose and stood as the water trickled off her pink skin. She felt shaky and took hold of the grab bar on the side of the tub, then stepped out onto the rug and leaned on the sink for balance. Once the room stopped spinning, she wrapped up in a towel and made her way into the kitchen. She didn’t feel a bit hungry, but she made a fortified protein shake and forced it down.

She had no idea whether this interruption in her training and lifting would ruin the possibility of competing in July’s bodybuilding competition, but she knew she had to eat or her body would devour the muscle on her large frame. She took the shaker glass into the other room and sat on the couch. Switching on the TV remote, she flipped through the channels until she came to reruns of “Star Trek: Voyager,” which she knew was one of Jaylynn’s favorite shows. She watched as a strange woman called the Borg Queen attempted to assimilate the captain of the ship and a striking blond with a numerical name. When she finished her shake, she set the glass on the coffee table, then scooted down on the couch and promptly fell asleep.
PART 8
When Dez arrived at the station an hour before roll call, she was surprised to see Jaylynn’s gray Camry already in the lot. She angled her truck in, a few spaces away, and grabbed her gym bag, then hopped out of the Ford. It was blazing hot, the black pavement oozing heat which she could feel burning against her sandals. She didn’t think it would be much fun to patrol this afternoon, and she looked forward to the sun going down.

Dark blue Docker shorts and a tank top revealed her well-muscled legs and arms. Despite the rib injury, she hadn’t gained weight—or lost any substantial amount of muscle. She strolled across the lot and to the back entrance shifting her shoulders from side to side and feeling the tension around her rib cage. She wasn’t entirely healed up, but every day the muscles in her torso felt looser. She just wished she could sleep better.

With a light step she hustled down the stairs to the locker room, but all was silent there. Puzzled, she wondered where the young woman was. She hadn’t seen her anywhere on the way down. She found herself wishing she had gathered up the courage to call the rookie the last two days, but she felt she would somehow be intruding. Luella had told her Jaylynn had phoned her with a positive update, so she knew from her landlady that all was well.

Dez opened her locker and sorted and arranged her things. She laid out her uniform and dressed, then sat down on the end of the bench with her back against the wall. She checked the magazine in her Glock and ran a long forefinger down the barrel before holstering it. Pulling her handcuffs out, she checked their mechanism, then put them away. She sat for a few moments, letting her breath come and go, trying to relax. Checking her watch, she saw it was 40 minutes until roll call.

She rose and rooted around on the top shelf of her locker until she found an ankle knife and sheath, then she pulled up her pant leg to affix it over her sock. She rearranged her slacks to conceal it, then fussed with it some more until she got it set just right on her ankle. She sat back on the bench and leaned against the wall, bringing her knee up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her shin.

Every moment that went by made her more and more nervous. She had been looking forward to seeing Jaylynn tonight. After over a week of wondering and worrying, she thought this would be a relief. Instead, she knew she was becoming edgier by the moment. It didn’t help that she had gone back on the low carb diet. The doctor had pronounced her healthy, though still bruised, and the minute he had given her the go-ahead, she shifted back into weight training mode. The last two nights she’d surprised herself with how well she’d lifted.

She heard voices, and the locker room door opened and shut a couple times, but no Jaylynn. The nasally sound of Pilcher’s voice wafted down the corridor. Dez had never much cared for Pilcher, and she concentrated on ignoring the sound. So she was taken by surprise when the rookie rounded the corner abruptly and said, “Oh. Hi Dez.”

Dez hadn’t thought at all about what she had expected to feel, but it certainly wasn’t this sudden thunderbolt to her heart and the immediate rush of blood to her head. She stammered out, “Jaylynn. You’re back,” instantly feeling stupid for stating the obvious.

Considering all she had been through in the last ten days, Jaylynn had never looked better. Her blonde hair had been recently cut and shaped close to her head. Hazel green eyes shone brightly, and she looked rested. She walked right up to the bench, swung a leg over, and put a hand on Dez’s ankle as she sat down. “How are you?”

Dez nodded, still feeling dull-witted. “Great.”

Jaylynn squeezed the dark haired woman’s ankle, then frowned and tilted her head to the side. “What is this . . . a gun?”

“Knife.” Dez shrugged. “Just felt like wearing it tonight.”

“In case we wanted to whittle, or what?” The rookie peered up at her, a smile on her face, her hair shining white-gold under the fluorescent lights. She wore a loose gray T-shirt that said “U of M Track & Field” in maroon lettering on the front and a pair of jeans shorts that revealed suntanned legs. Setting her car keys down on the bench, she reached down to untie the laces of her Adidas.

Dez smiled. A series of words came to mind to explain how she was feeling: foolish, silly, bird-brained, idiotic, giddy. Perhaps giddy described it best. She could almost imagine herself wrapping her arms around the blonde, but of course she restrained herself. In a low, controlled voice, she said, “How was Seattle?”

“It was good.” The blonde stood and unlocked her locker, pulling out various items. “Ugh. What a mess I’ve got going here.”

“You have some fresh uniforms back from the laundry. Want me to go get ’em for ya?”

“Sure.”

Dez was glad to head to the rear of the locker room so that Jaylynn could undress in privacy, but when she came back with two hangers full of clothes, she found the rookie waiting in her bra and briefs. She could honestly say she had never before paid attention to Jaylynn when she dressed, but today she couldn’t keep from looking. Her eyes traveled up from the floor taking in the lean runner’s legs, the flare of hips, the slender waist with tight abs, and the swell of breasts, topped off by well-rounded shoulders and, of course, those eyes. Eyes that were currently looking at her with amusement.

“Earth to Dez. Hey, you wanna give me those?”

Mechanically she handed Jaylynn the two heavy hangers full of uniforms and turned away to her own locker, attempting to swallow but realizing there was no liquid in her mouth. She pulled a water bottle from her top shelf, sat on the bench with her side to the young woman, and drank three big swigs. “You’re here early, Jay,” she mumbled.

“Yeah, I came down to see the Lieutenant and then to meet with the department psychologist. Gosh, she’s sure nice.”

“What’s her name?”

“Raina Goldman.”

“Goldman! You liked her?”

“Oh yes! What’s not to like?”

Dez remembered the intense, intrusive woman she had been required to see—six times—after Ryan’s death. She had hated every moment. The poking and probing and prying of her psyche was more than she could bear. “Isn’t she a nosy twit?”

“Nosy? No . . . inquisitive, maybe. I thought she was real nice, and I’m going to see her twice a week for a while, at least until things settle down some.”

Dez was amazed. Someone would actually want to see the department shrink? She spun around on the bench and gaped at Jaylynn, but the young woman didn’t notice. She was pulling on her black oxfords and tying them.

“Dez, how’s the bruise coming along? Is it fading any?”

“Oh yeah.” She took another pull from her water bottle and then set it on the bench so she could lock up.

“Oh crap!” said Jaylynn. I forgot to tell you that Lt. Malcolm wants you to drop by and see him for a minute.” She looked at her watch. “You’ve got lots of time . . . I’m sorry I forgot.” She looked over at Dez with a sheepish look on her face.

“Okay. I’ll check with him now. See you up there.”

She took the stairs two at a time and appeared in front of Belton. “Evening,” she said.

“Go in, Reilly. He’s expecting you.”

She ducked her head in the door and found the Lieutenant looking the same as he always did, a bit harried and tired, but in good spirits.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes. I just wanted to make sure everything’s on track. Savage and I talked, and she requested to continue riding with you. You okay with that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Internal Affairs ruled it a good shoot. You don’t have any problems with that, right?”

“Heck, no. She did everything by the book.”

The Lieutenant smiled. “She did, didn’t she? She didn’t panic, didn’t freeze up. You can take some credit for that. You’ve taught her well.”

“She’s got a good head on her shoulders, Lieutenant. She’s an excellent student.”

“I’m really glad to hear it.” He paused. “One more thing, Dez. I’ve been meaning to say this for a couple days. You’ve had a lot of stress this year. I’d like you to see the department psychologist again.”

She scowled. Glaring at him she said, “That’s really not necessary sir. I’m not suffering any trauma or anything. Believe me, if I was, I’d go.”

“Look, you’re a valuable member of this team here. I don’t want you to be offended, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t look after you a little. I just want you to check in with Goldman, okay?”

“But sir, with all due respect, I’ve been fine for a week and a half. There’s no need—”

“Reilly!” he interrupted. “This is not negotiable. I’ve meant to say something sooner, but I got hung up on other things. This is important, and I should have mentioned before.”

She gave him her best stony gaze, but he didn’t pay attention.

He went on. “One session. Answer her questions, let her give me a report, and you’re outta there. Okay?”

Reluctantly she said, “Yes, sir.” She rose. “Is that it?”

“Yup. Go forth and do good things, hear me?”

“Yes, sir.” She turned and strode out of the office, a slow burn starting at her neck and reaching up to the roots of her hair. She felt like hitting someone. She imagined hitting Goldman. Instead she stomped downstairs to the locker room and tossed some water on her face. After drying off with a crinkly brown paper towel, she walked back upstairs, her hands and face now feeling chilled in the station’s air-conditioning.

Jaylynn took one look at Dez’s face when the tall woman entered the room, and she knew something was wrong. When she asked though, Dez shrugged her off and sat in the next chair, placing her water bottle on the floor. Her face went flat and expressionless, and she wouldn’t meet the rookie’s gaze. Jaylynn watched her from the corner of her eye. Tight-lipped and angry, the dark haired woman seemed to be struggling for control. No one else was in the room, so the blonde reached over and patted the muscular thigh closest to her. She let her hand rest there for a moment and craned her head around, silently asking her partner to look at her. When those blue eyes finally did turn to meet hers, what she read there was stubbornness. And something more—an angry pride. She couldn’t resist; her lips curled up into a tiny ghost of a smile, and as she studied Dez’s face, the shock of recognition and desire welled up in her again. Her stomach kicked into performing gymnastic feats while the ability to remember how to breathe departed from her brain.

The anger in the pallid face before Jaylynn drained away to be replaced with something else she couldn’t quite identify. The rookie pulled her hand back as casually as she could, relieved when the tall cop bent to pick up her water bottle. Oh no, thought Jaylynn. These feelings of mine just won’t quit! She reminded herself of the commitment she made to focus only on friendship, and she had hoped that with a little perseverance and discipline, it would be easy to carry out. She could see now this wasn’t the case, and she found herself disappointed. It was going to be a long shift.

*****

The veteran and the rookie fell into a routine again, and the next two weeks passed quickly. On Wednesday and Friday afternoons Jaylynn came to the station early to meet with Raina Goldman. She was surprised to learn that some of the old-timer cops were appalled that she’d go willingly to see the “department shrink,” as they called Goldman. At first Braswell tried to sympathize, telling her it was tough luck she had to go “get her head shrunk.” When she told him she didn’t mind, he looked at her through narrowed eyes as though she’d lost her mind. Dwayne Neilsen cornered her and tried to make sport of the counseling angle. She laughed at him and cut into the women’s locker room.

Jaylynn was to the point where she didn’t care what anyone thought. Very few officers seemed to understand that she relished the chance to talk about what happened and how she felt about it. She certainly didn’t get to do that with Dez, much as she wished she could. Every afternoon they got in the patrol car and made small talk, casually avoiding any emotionally loaded conversations. In fact, most of the time lately Dez was distant and cranky. When Jaylynn tried to kid her out of her constant mood, the tall cop just glowered. All in all it was a tiring couple of weeks.

It was actually a relief to ride with Crystal on a Friday night. Dez had been in court all day on an old homicide case, so she was off work for the evening. For two days it had been extraordinarily humid. They had the air-conditioning going full blast in the car, but the late afternoon sun still beat in on them, and heated up the dark seats.

Crystal brought up Dez. “Hasn’t tall, dark and handsome been tall, dark and bitchy lately?”

Surprised, Jaylynn turned from her spot in the passenger’s seat. “You noticed, too?”

“Noticed? Everyone on the East Side has noticed. I think the main headquarters must be in the know by now. If you see her heading your way, everyone knows to split. God, she’s been unbearable. How can you ride with her?”

Jaylynn shook her head sorrowfully. “It’s been tough. I just cut her a lot of slack and don’t talk too much. It’s tiring, I’ll admit. I thought she was gonna clobber this foul-mouthed drunk last night. You should have seen this guy. I thought he was going to wet his pants by the time she got done with him.”

“I pity you, you poor thing.”

“Oh Crystal. It’s really not that bad. It’s just a little too tense. I can’t wait ‘til this stupid diet is over. It’s that more than anything, I think.”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Crystal thoughtfully. “I figured maybe she was having trouble with getting shot.”

“quot;You noticed, too?”

“Noticed? Everyone on the East Side has noticed. I think the main headquarters must be in the know by now. If you see her heading your way, everyone knows to split. God, she’s been unbearable. How can you ride with her?”

Jaylynn shook her head sorrowfully. “It’s been tough. I just cut her a lot of slack and don’t talk too much. It’s tiring, I’ll admit. I thought she was gonna clobber this foul-mouthed drunk last night. You should have seen this guy. I thought he was going to wet his pants by the time she got done with him.”

“I pity you, you poo

“Not Dez. She would have handled it.”

Crystal looked over across the dimly lit car with an incredulous look on her face. “You’re kidding, right?”

Jaylynn shifted to her left a little and laid her left arm across the top of the seat so she could look at Crystal better. “Actually, I’m serious.”

“Chica, let me clue you in on a little secret. Miss Big Bad Cop—the one you’ve got on a pedestal a thousand feet high?—had her own quiet little breakdown after Ryan was shot. You think you were shook up? You shoulda seen her.”

“What do you mean?” Jaylynn said, her face puzzled.

“She was on admin leave for two weeks, and when she came back, she retreated into some faraway place, deep inside herself. She only talked when talked to, carried out orders, pretty much didn’t look anyone in the eye. She basically started coming out of her shell when she began training you. At least you have the smarts to go to counseling—not her! Well, her body went, but her mind didn’t.” Crystal sighed. “I was really afraid for her. Didn’t you notice how out-of-sorts she was when you first started?”

Feeling guilty Jaylynn said, “No. Maybe I was too preoccupied with training. I didn’t—I never had any idea . . . I probably should have paid closer attention.” She thought back to those first days observing with Dez. The big woman had seemed shy, certainly standoffish, but after some initial awkwardness, she remembered Dez being helpful and attentive. As the weeks traveled on, the tall cop had seemed to relax and settle in. She had chalked it up to them getting to know one another.

Crystal said, “You’ve been good for her, Jaylynn. She needed a friend, somebody who wouldn’t let her sit around and brood. I couldn’t get through to her at all. I’m really glad you came along when you did.”

Impulsively Jaylynn reached across the seat and gave Crystal’s shoulder a squeeze. “That’s nice of you to say. I’ve really enjoyed working with you too. You’re the best.”

“Hey, hey! Don’t go getting all mushy on me now. I have to deal with enough of that from Shayna.”

Jaylynn clicked her tongue and shook her head. “You butchy cops are all the same—tough on the outside, marshmallows in the inside.”

Crystal smiled across the humid car, her teeth flashing white in the slanting sunlight. “Works for me,” she said.

*****

Dez had spent the better part of her day cooling her heels in court, and she hadn’t testified until mid-afternoon. Despite the book and magazine she brought along she was bored silly, and now that she was home, she almost wished she were on duty for the night. At least it would give her something to do other than think about all the breads and pastas and potatoes she was missing. Time for some aerobic work. Morning, noon, and night she was walking or biking. If she got her heart rate up to about 115 beats a minute for at least 45 minutes, she knew she was burning the fat off her tall frame. She’d already gone from 172 pounds down to 154 in the last six weeks, and she hoped to be under 150 for the body building competition. She was glad she only had to work at it for another week, and she knew it would be an incredible relief when it was over.

She changed into biking shorts and a hot pink sports bra over her regular bra, then snagged a quart of water on her way through the kitchen. After getting her bike and helmet out of the garage, she mashed the helmet on her head, pushing down the neat French braid. She mounted the bike, and put her feet in the toe clips. Sticking to residential streets she began what she hoped would be a good 90 minutes of riding. It took little time to get good and warm on the back streets as she passed yards of freshly mown grass and young boys playing basketball at driveway hoops. After she figured the rush hour traffic had slowed down, she ventured out to a busier street, Larpenteur Avenue. Hunched over and dripping sweat in the eighty degree heat, she pedaled powerfully up a slope toward Rice Street. Glancing to the side, she saw a white vehicle tracking her and realized it was a St. Paul cop car. Darting a glare at the occupants, she found a pair of warm hazel green eyes peering out the window at her. She almost fell off the bicycle as her stomach did the funny little leaping trick it had been doing lately every time she looked at Jaylynn.

In fact, she had been spending a considerable amount of energy lately trying not to look at Jaylynn and coming to the unavoidable conclusion that she was attracted to the younger woman. She’d been attracted to plenty of people in the past, but she’d never had so much trouble controlling her reactions before. She found that worrisome. Of course, she hadn’t had to ride around with the other objects of her interest in a hot squad car for hours on end. She remembered when Jaylynn had told her, last winter, about how much trouble it was to ride around lusting after her—a thought that embarrassed the big cop to no end. But the rookie didn’t appear to be having any trouble with that at all anymore. Jaylynn could look her straight in the eye—with that infectious little smile—and she didn’t seem to be having a single issue.

Dez didn’t know what she was going to do about the unwelcome feelings, but right now she thought she’d pull into the strip mall up ahead and talk with Jaylynn and whoever was at the wheel.

She nodded upon seeing that Crystal was driving. She hadn’t seen much of her lately. Frowning, she pulled up to the sidewalk surrounding the drugstore and stopped the bike with her foot on the curb. It’s August, she thought, and I can’t remember the last time I spent any time with Crystal and Shayna. She felt bad about that and decided she should probably have them over to Luella’s or do something with them soon. She caught her breath as she pulled her helmet off and hung it on her handlebar.

Her colleagues got out of the car to find a scowling, sweating Dez swigging half a quart of water. Some of the water escaped as she drank and ran along her chin, dripping down her neck. The big woman wiped her face and forehead on a bare arm glistening with sweat. It didn’t help, and Jaylynn thought Dez looked overheated and miserable.

“Uh hi,” said the rookie as she met a pair of dark blue eyes which bored right through her and traveled through every nerve ending from her head straight to her groin. She crossed her arms uncertainly and tried not to stare at the bare muscular mid-section, the broad shoulders, the beautifully planed face.

With a grimace Dez nodded. “How’s it going?”

“Not bad,” said Crystal. While Jaylynn hung back, leaning against the front panel of the car, Crystal strode up to Dez and grabbed hold of her forearm. “So, mi amiga, you ready for the show? Let’s see a nice biceps.”

Dez stared daggers at her, but pulled her arm away from the laughing cop and made a fist, then flexed her biceps.

“Not bad, chica. Not bad.” Crystal flexed her own arm and said, “Not quite as good as mine, but hey, who’s counting.”

In a dry voice Dez said, “Who could tell with that T-shirt and uniform sleeve covering it up.”

“Trust me, it’s there. A mountain of strength.”

“Yeah, right.” She took another long pull of her water. “Anything exciting going down tonight?”

Jaylynn and Crystal shook their heads simultaneously, and the rookie said, “You’re not missing a thing—though maybe it’ll pick up when the sun goes down.”

Dez looked around. “I better get going before that happens.” She tucked her water bottle away and pushed off the curb and past the police car. “See ya.”

Jaylynn gazed after her, watching the incredibly long legs and the lean hips. She’d never seen anyone look so luscious in biking shorts, thighs rippling with muscle and sinew. Nice buns, she thought. Really nice everything. The rookie hoped that if she fainted right now, Crystal wouldn’t figure out it was because of excess lust. She let out a soft sigh and gulped in some air as she got back in the stuffy car.

Crystal slammed her own door and started the engine. “See what I mean,” she said. “She’s got no sense of humor at all right now. She looked like she wanted to hit me.”

“She would never do that.”

“Who knows what goes on in that dense head of hers.”

Yes, who knows, thought Jaylynn. I sure don’t.

*****

Saturday night, Crystal and Dez left the locker room for roll call at the same time. Cautiously Crystal said, “Hey, Dez, what’s up?”

“Nothing much.”

“We’re going bowling tonight after shift. Wanna come?”

“Nah, I’m a terrible bowler.”

Crystal snorted out a loud laugh. “Who isn’t? Geez, that’s the point, Reilly. We have a hilarious time. You really ought to come. I tell ya, my abs usually hurt for three days afterwards from laughing.”

“You ought to work ’em a little harder in the gym. You’d have more fortitude that way.”

Crystal stopped, put her hands on her hips, and gave Dez her best dirty look. “Very funny. Too bad yours are in such good shape that a little laughter isn’t necessary.”

“Aw come on,” said Dez. She considered for a moment. What could it hurt? “Who’s coming?”

“Me and Shayna, Merilee, Jay, and that other new rookie, Marshall—I think her first name is Paula. If you join in, we’ll have six and we can use two lanes. That’s even more fun.”

“Shayna’s coming? Hmmph. All right,” Dez said reluctantly, “but only if I get to keep score.”

“Fine by me! I can never keep it all straight anyway.”

After shift, they converged on the lanes shortly after midnight. Merilee and Paula, both tall and slender, took to one another right away and were soon discussing vacation hot spots. For the first time, Jaylynn got to meet Shayna, and she was pleased and surprised at the same time. For one thing, Shayna was friendly and gregarious. She gave Dez a hug—which surprised Jaylynn—and patted the rookie on the shoulder. Warm brown eyes shown upon the rookie. Taller than Jaylynn by only a couple inches, Shayna’s skin was cocoa-brown, and she was plump. She wore a pair of half dollar-sized dangly gold earrings and six or seven gold bracelets on each wrist. The blonde liked the tie-dyed shirt Shayna was wearing and told her so. With an arm across her shoulders, Shayna walked her over to the shoe counter, talking non-stop about tie dye methods. Before she knew it, Jaylynn had committed to taking a tie dye class with her.

Bo’s Bowling Center was crowded, but they were lucky enough to get the last two lanes together. True to Crystal’s description, it was amusing. Once Jaylynn threw a strike on the first ball and followed it up with a gutter ball. Shayna managed to roll one ball across the double gutter and into the next lane, surprising their neighbors with a strike. Dez made up for lack of finesse by rolling powerhouse tosses, fast and furious, which caused the pins to explode noisily, though there was often one or two pins left standing. Everyone teased everybody about everything. After the first game, Dez had won with 120 points.

“Should we do another round?” asked Crystal.

Shayna, who had managed to rack up a mere 56 points, said in a grumpy voice, “No! Now I remember why I hate bowling. The ball’s heavy, the shoes hurt your feet, and they play crappy music.”

“Oh come on,” said Crystal, laughing as she circled Shayna’s waist with a strong arm. “We’ve only been here a half hour!”

“You come on,” said Shayna. “Admit it. Do you actually like this music?” Blaring over the tinny loudspeaker was Billy Ray Cyrus doing “Achy Breaky Heart.” Suddenly Shayna’s face lit up. “I know! Let’s go dancing.”

“Yeah, good idea,” said Merilee. “Let’s hit the Metro and dance the night away. Whaddya say?”

“I don’t know,” said Dez doubtfully.

Jaylynn watched the interactions from her seat next to Paula.

Crystal aimed a karate chop at Dez’s mid-section, which the tall woman blocked handily. “It’s not even one o’clock yet,” said Crystal. “Listen, Chica, you need to kick up your heels a little bit.”

“Yeah,” said Shayna. “Please come. And you too, Paula. Jaylynn?” She looked around at everyone with a hopeful smile on her mahogany brown face. “Girls?”

Jaylynn shrugged and glanced over at Dez.

Crystal feigned another series of jabs at the brunette. “If you’re real nice,” she said, “you can dance one with me. I’ll even let you lead. Maybe.” Her eyes twinkled with glee as she stifled a laugh and took hold of Shayna’s arm. “Come on,” she said as she looked back toward Dez. “Let’s get Twinkle Toes out of her uncomfortable shoes and go.”

Throughout this discussion Jaylynn felt torn, not sure if she wanted to tag along or not. She was surprised Dez relented so easily, but the dark haired woman was changing her shoes and didn’t appear to have a problem with the idea. Jaylynn sat on the molded blue plastic chair and exchanged the two-tone leather monstrosities for her pair of Adidas. Silently she followed the laughing group of women to the shoe return counter, threw in some cash for the line, and then listened as they all argued about who should ride with who, who would drink, who would abstain. Jaylynn rode with Crystal, Shayna, and Paula, while Merilee hopped into Dez’s truck to follow Crystal’s Chevy Impala over to the dance bar.

“It’s a hot spot tonight,” said Merilee gleefully as she got out of the car. “Looks like fun.” The boom of the bass could be heard in the parking lot. “Cool. Must be a live band.”

The six women made their way to the door, which Dez grabbed and held open. Jaylynn stepped into a dim room, about sixty feet wide and forty feet deep. The bar, on the far wall from the entrance, was staffed by three busy bartenders surrounded by thirsty patrons. The left half of the room contained tables and chairs while the right section was a dance floor, currently full of writhing bodies moving to the thump of the band. The stage for the band was set in the wall in the far right corner. Jaylynn saw a drummer, guitarist, bass, keyboard player, two horn players, and two backup vocalists. A scary looking man wearing what appeared to be a black fright wig—but wasn’t—was singing a rousing rendition of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” The crowd danced at a fever pitch.

“Let’s go, girls,” shouted Shayna. She and Crystal, Paula, and Merilee made a beeline for the floor, leaving Jaylynn standing, uncertain, next to an equally reticent Dez. The four women pressed through the crowd and joined the swirling mass.

The music pounded loud, so Jaylynn jumped when a voice tickled her ear. “Dance? Or sit?” came the low voice.

Jaylynn shrugged. She shouted, “I hate this song.”

Dez nodded in agreement and gestured toward the tables. Jaylynn sat at a rickety brown table. Spilled beer dripped off the side, so Dez wended her way through the crowd and got a rag at the bar. She returned and wiped up the table. She leaned down and said, “You want something to drink?”

Jaylynn shook her head.

Dez took one last swipe at the tabletop, then headed back. Jaylynn watched the brunette gracefully negotiate between tables and patrons, her broad shoulders dipping and twisting to pass through the throng. She slipped into the crowd and the waiting woman lost sight of her.

Jaylynn looked around the busy nightclub full of happy, dancing people. Scooting her chair forward she put her elbows on the table and leaned her chin in her hands. Her eyes combed the crowd until they lit upon a dark form, half a head taller than most everyone around, and Jaylynn watched Dez, carrying two glasses, worm her way through the mob surrounding the bar.

As the tall woman made her way back, women seated nearby stared at her appraisingly, some with obvious interest. Dez didn’t seem to notice. She set the drinks down and slipped into the seat next to Jaylynn, facing the dance floor, and slung an arm across the back of the rookie’s chair. With her other hand she picked up the tumbler and drained it, then set it back on the table.

Jaylynn shouted, “What did you get there?” as she nodded toward the glasses on the table.

“Ice water,” said Dez.

“What?”

Dipping her head down near Jaylynn’s ear, she repeated herself and said, “Want some?”

Jaylynn shook her head. Dez picked up the other glass and took a sip. They sat like that through three more songs. Every once in a while Jaylynn caught sight of one of the other cops out on the floor dancing, laughing, caught up in the music.

Next to her Dez sipped her drink, then bent to say, “You like to dance?”

Jaylynn nodded. Dez’s face was inches from her own, and she was glad it was dark enough to disguise the fact that she was blushing. The band was now playing an old Van Morrison song, “Wild Night,” and she couldn’t resist tapping her feet with the rhythm of the horns and the upbeat tempo.

Dez leaned in again. “Sure you don’t want something to drink?”

“Maybe later.”

“What?” Dez leaned down very close, tipping her head to the side to hear.

“Later,” Jaylynn enunciated.

Dez nodded as she sat back, but she kept her arm on Jaylynn’s chair. The band segued into a Madonna song, “Holiday,” complete with the horns playing. Jaylynn smiled. She turned to Dez. “I love this song,” she said into the dark woman’s ear.

“Me, too,” shouted Dez. “Shall we?” She downed the last of her water, then inclined her head toward the dance floor. Jaylynn swallowed, her heart pounding mercilessly. Suddenly she didn’t want to do this at all, but Dez grabbed hold of her wrist and pulled her up and toward the floor. She let herself be dragged along behind like a skier on a towline. Once they merged into the throng of dancers, once she let herself feel the beat, once she allowed herself to breathe again, she relaxed. The singer was doing a passably good job with Madonna’s vocals, and the band’s sound was lush and full. Dez did a little shimmy and then Jaylynn let herself slip into a rhythm complementing the taller woman. She was surprised at how adept Dez was, all sinew and legs. But why wouldn’t someone as coordinated and physical as Dez be a good dancer? Jaylynn just didn’t expect if for some reason.

A new song began, one that Jaylynn didn’t recognize at first, but it had a nice fast beat, and she slipped right into a groove. Then she heard Gloria Estefan’s voice and broke out in a smile. She moved closer to Dez and shouted, “I love Gloria!” Dez nodded back at her.

She lost herself in the dance, feeling her body purring with the fun of it. She closed her eyes and just let the pounding of the music guide her motion. Opening her eyes, she watched Dez for a moment until the tall woman moved closer and bent down, saying into her ear, “You got moves, woman.”

Jaylynn blushed some more and ripped a quick jab to the dark woman’s shoulder.

“Hey!” said Dez as she stopped and grabbed Jaylynn by the shoulders. “How come everybody’s hitting me tonight?”

Jaylynn twisted away and grinned back. Then the song was ending, winding down to a slower beat, and the keyboard cut in, playing the first few strains of a song Jaylynn couldn’t quite identify at first, but then recognized as Toni Braxton’s love ballad, “I Don’t Want To Sing Another Love Song.” Half of the dancers fled the floor, leaving the rest to move closer to their partners and gear down into a slower, more sensual dance.

The two women’s eyes met. Jaylynn stepped back. I can’t do this tonight. Definitely not possible. She tore her eyes away from the shiny blue chips burning into her, but before she could turn to go, she felt hands on her shoulders guiding her into a light embrace. She let her hands drop to Dez’s hips, feeling the leather of a belt against her palms. Her cheek would fit so perfectly in the crook of Dez’s neck . . . but she resisted the urge to press her face there, holding herself just a little apart. A brush of lips against her ear and the low voice said, “You okay with this?”

“Yes. No. I mean . . . I don’t know.”

Warm hands against her back pulled her closer, and she sighed as she dropped her forehead into the crook between the tall woman’s neck and chin, only to hear a heartbeat that matched her own, beating wildly. She couldn’t stop herself from moving closer, wrapping arms tight around the slim waist, her body craving more while her mind told her to resist.

She felt a gentle stroke from the top of her head, through her blonde hair, down the back of her neck where the hand stopped, the palm hot and dry against the skin above her collar.

It was too much.

Jaylynn tore herself away and dashed through the crowd, heading blindly toward the door. She passed a startled Merilee and apologized to Crystal as she cut by her. Then she was at the door, pushing against the heavy wood, and she burst into the humid night air, gasping for breath. The door behind her popped back open, and Dez was at her heels, grasping her shoulder, but Jaylynn refused to face her and tried to shrug her off.

In a low, frightened voice, the tall woman said, “Jay, what is it? What’s the matter?”

Jaylynn turned, eyes blazing, and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. I won’t. I can’t take it.” She closed her eyes and retreated within, backing away from Dez. When she opened her eyes again, Dez stood before her, hunched over, trying to look in her eyes.

“What do you mean?”

Jaylynn drew a deep breath. “I thought I could do this, be with you, pal around, ride with you every night. I thought I could, but I just can’t. Not anymore.”

Dez stared back at her as though she’d had the wind knocked out of her. “What are you saying? You don’t want to ride with me anymore?”

“Look,” Jaylynn said, “you made your feelings very clear, and whether you realize it or not, now you’re sending an entirely different message to me. I could handle it when it was all business . . .” She leaned back and sat against the front grill of a car, then put her foot up on the bumper. She rested her elbow on her knee and her head in her hand. “I just can’t ride around with you anymore, pretending I don’t feel the way I do. I can’t slow dance. I’m not sure I can fast dance with you.” In a strangled voice, she said, “I just can’t,” then turned away to hide the tears threatening to come.

“Then don’t pretend,” said the low voice. The door to the club slapped open and a crowd of laughing men emerged, casting curious glances their way. “Come on,” Dez said impatiently, tapping the blonde on the shoulder. “Let’s get outta here.”

“What about the rest of the crew?”

“They’ll manage,” Dez growled as she ushered Jaylynn toward the red truck.

Jaylynn was appalled at her lack of control. She had been in far more tense situations with Dez and she hadn’t cracked. What had come over her? She ran her fingers through her blonde hair and took a deep breath before stepping up into the truck. She had no idea what to expect now—much less what to do.

Dez backed out of the spot and gunned the engine out of the lot. She found she had been holding her breath and let it out in an audible rush, then glanced over at Jaylynn who slumped silently against the passenger door. Where should I go, Dez wondered. My place? Hers? A restaurant?

“Where are you taking me?” said a soft voice.

“I—I guess I don’t really know. Any suggestions?”

“I think I need to go home.”

Disappointment in the form of a sudden sinking sensation hit Dez’s stomach hard, and she decided she had made a monumental mistake. For once she wanted to talk, to attempt to express the conflicting emotions boiling up inside, regardless of the awkwardness. But what would she say? How did she really feel? With unexpected clarity, it occurred to her. She wanted Jaylynn—it was as simple as that. She wanted her, and she needed to let her know that, even at the risk of rejection. She turned onto the lane that led around to Jaylynn’s house. Como Lake, glittery in the moonlight, shone in front of her. She pulled the truck to a stop and cut the engine as Jaylynn popped open the door, which turned on the overhead lamp. Dez blinked in the harsh light, then reached across the truck cab to rest her hand lightly on Jaylynn’s knee.

“Please . . . don’t go,” she said in a choked voice. “Not just yet. Please?”

Jaylynn clicked the door closed, extinguishing the light, and Dez pulled her hand back reluctantly. By the dim light of the streetlamp Dez thought the blonde woman looked beautiful, her face all sharp planes and large hazel eyes, eyes that now looked haunted and unhappy. How do I say this? How do I make her understand? She swallowed nervously and said, “Could we walk by the lake for a while?” She held her breath waiting for Jaylynn to say no.

“Okay,” was all the smaller woman said, and with a sigh, she opened the passenger door. The overhead light startled Dez again. She hopped out of the truck, slammed the door, and was glad for the dim light of the streetlamps.

Wordlessly they walked across the street, through the grass, across the bike path. They stopped at the lake’s edge. Dez put her hands in her pockets and looked out on the shimmery surface of the lake, smooth as glass. Jaylynn headed toward a bench and sat, pulling her feet up and wrapping her arms around her knees. Hesitantly Dez followed and sat a couple of feet away on Jyalynn’s bench.

In a quiet voice the smaller woman said, “I like to come here with my journal some evenings and watch the sun go down.”

Dez angled her body to face Jaylynn and leaned her left shoulder against the back of the bench. “If we sit here long enough, we can watch the sun come up.”

Jaylynn sighed. “Not tonight. I am way too tired.”

The normally talkative woman sat in silence watching the lake. Dez tried to see her face, but it was shrouded in darkness. Tell her. It’s now or never, thought Dez. Say something. She cleared her throat and mentally kicked herself. “Jay,” she began.

The smaller woman turned and cocked her head to the side a bit and studied her. Jaylynn waited a moment, then when Dez didn’t go on, she said, “I’m confused. What do you want?”

With an explosive sigh of relief, Dez said, “I want to talk about us.”

The crickets chirped in the background. Far away a car could be heard speeding into the distance, gears grinding. Dez held her breath as seconds passed and Jaylynn did not respond.

“Why now?” whispered Jaylynn.

Dez was at a loss to respond. Was Jaylynn saying it was too late? She knew she had been slow to understand, slow to come to the realization that she loved this woman. Love? She gulped and gripped the back of the bench hard, glad she was seated. Yes. That was it: love. How embarrassing.

The last time she’d thought she loved someone she had been betrayed, laughed at and mocked, and since then, she had purposely made sure no one could get too close to her. She liked it that way. No complications. No risks. She always thought she had reconciled herself to spending her life on her own. But this was different. All of the old rules of the game seemed trivial, totally inapplicable. She stood, put her hands in her pockets, and paced, taking four steps with long legs, then twirling on her heel and pacing back.

“Why does this have to be so hard for you?” said Jaylynn.

Dez shrugged. She faced Jaylynn and turned her palms up. “I don’t know.”

“Dez, I am not Karin.”

Dez felt like she’d been socked in the stomach. For a moment she couldn’t breathe at all, and her legs felt weak. She managed to get her breath and choke out, “How—how in the hell do you know about Karin?”

Jaylynn said simply, “Crystal told me.”

“I’m gonna kill her,” said Dez. She smacked her fist into her palm. “Why did she tell you? Why?”

“Because she cares about you. Because she wanted me to understand you a little better.”

“That’s a goddamn excuse. How did she even know—dammit!” Furiously she paced back and forth in front of the bench.

Jaylynn waited silently until Dez slowed down, then the tall woman abruptly sat on the bench and put her head in her hands. “There was no reason for Crystal to run around spilling her guts about my life.”

“She was very worried about you at the time.”

“Oh, what the hell for?”

“For God’s sake, Dez you’re starving yourself! Do you hear me? You’re starved! You’ve deprived yourself in every way. Food. Sleep. Love.” Jaylynn paused and stared at Dez’s passive demeanor. “Aren’t you listening?”

Dez looked up defiantly, then looked away. “Yeah, but I don’t have to agree.”

In a bitter voice Jaylynn said, “Look at you. You’re thin as a rail. You don’t sleep more than three or four hours a night. You work yourself to exhaustion, and most of the time you shut out all your friends.”

“What’s your point?”

Jaylynn let out an exasperated growling sound. “My point is—you don’t have to do that. Stop the punishment. You’re slowly choking the life out of yourself.” She scooted down the bench, grabbed Dez’s arm and implored, “Don’t you want to live? To be happy?”

Dez stared over at the rookie’s sincere face and shrugged. “I’m okay with my life.”

“You’re okay with your life?” The sarcasm in Jaylynn’s voice was unmistakable. She let go of the arm she was grasping tightly. “You’re miserable! How can you not see that? How come everybody else on earth can see that so clearly—except you?”

Dez sighed. “What do you want from me, Jay?”

Abruptly Jaylynn started to cry. “Nothing,” she said. “And everything.” She quickly wiped away a tear and tried to choke back her feelings. “You don’t realize what gifts you have, what a gift you are. You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to feel this way, Dez. Look at you! You don’t even defend yourself. I’ve just told you your life is shit and you don’t even fight back.”

In a detached voice, Dez said, “Why is your life so great in comparison?”

Jaylynn squeezed her eyes shut, took a deep breath, and composed her thoughts. “I wake up most every morning feeling alive. I feel a pulse of happiness here in my heart that runs through my whole body. I look forward to the new day and wonder what interesting things will happen. Food tastes good. I feel the weather. I have energy. I talk, listen, hug, yell at people. I learn. I follow you around watching, trying new things. I laugh. Sometimes I cry—whether you approve or not. At the end of the day, I’m tired, and when my head hits the pillow, I sleep and wake up ready to go again. That’s it. That’s my simple little life. It may not be much, but I’ve been happy with it.”

“Maybe compared to your life, mine isn’t as great, but I’m content.”

“You either need to see a psychologist or raise your expectations!”

Dez sighed again and looked away.

“You asked for it,” said Jaylynn, “you got it. Obviously you aren’t going to change, no matter how much concern anyone shows. So I’m not going to bug you anymore. I guess this is another area where we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” She stood and turned to leave.

“Hey,” said Dez, “where ya going?”

“I’m outta here. See you tomorrow.”

Jaylynn stomped off leaving Dez sitting on the park bench. The longer she sat thinking, the more upset she became. That upstart rookie thinks my life is shit. How dare she? Who does she think she is judging whether I’m happy or not?

Upon reflection though, she wondered if maybe her life was indeed shit. Am I happy, she wondered? Do I enjoy each day? She sat for a few moments, not really thinking any coherent thoughts. Dez stood and faced the lake. The water was silent, no waves, no noise. All she could hear was the chirping of crickets. Streetlights on the other side of the lake winked and blinked as the warm night wind blew tree limbs back and forth in front of them. I envy her. Where does she get all that energy? And why is she so upset with me? A chilling thought rose and with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach she considered it. What if the rookie asked for a transfer again? What if she changed shifts? Last time they had this kind of disagreement, it had resulted in a time of misery. Would that happen again?

Bone-tired and feeling depressed, she turned and made her back to her truck. It occurred to her that Jaylynn was likely (???probably) right about her life—or lack thereof—but she was too tired to explore it further. Tomorrow. I’ll talk to her more tomorrow.

*****

With a heavy heart Dez got ready for her shift. She had had another restless night full of awful nightmares. She had dreamed again of Ryan, and though she couldn’t remember most of the dream, she awoke at five a.m. remembering a vision of his face, pale and lifeless, his eyes staring blankly up at her. She couldn’t get back to sleep after that, and now here she was before roll call, feeling so tired that she almost wanted to go home sick.

“Hey, girl,” said Crystal. Dez looked up in surprise to see Crystal leaning against the bright blue locker at the end of the row. The smiling cop said, “You’re here early today.”

“On the contrary,” Dez said in an icy voice as she rooted through her locker. “You’re the early one. What’s up?”

Crystal sat down on the bench and unlaced her street shoes. “Shayna had to go in to work early, so I just moseyed down here myself.”

Dez picked up an old belt and hung it up on a hook. She glanced back over her shoulder. “You’re always so full of it, Crys. You’ve never been early on purpose in your life.” She returned to sorting items in the locker.

“All right, so maybe I did have an ulterior motive.” She pulled her socks off and wiggled her brown toes as she relaxed on the bench. “What happened to you guys last night? Everything okay?”

Dez glowered at her. “Why?”

“You two tore outta there like you were on fire. And—well, Jaylynn didn’t look any too happy. We were just—we just wanted to make sure—”

“What? That I didn’t beat her or something?”

“Oooh! Groucheee. Must have been a rip-roarin’ fight, huh?”

Feeling a sudden surge of energy, Dez got in her face and in a quiet, deadly voice said, “Who the hell do you think you are telling her about Karin? And how the hell did you know?”

Crystal rolled her eyes. “Good God! I’ve only been friends with you for what, eight, nine years? And everyone knew what Karin was all about. Come on Dez! I could tell. Why do you think I made a point to get to know you? I could see what she’d done to you, and you didn’t deserve it.”

The dark haired cop backed away. She reached up and gripped the top of her locker door and squeezed it so hard her knuckles turned white. “You never said anything.”

“You’re a private kinda gal, mi amiga. I respect that.”

Dez turned abruptly and sat down at the other end of the bench. “Why didja have to talk to her about that?”

“Oh chica . . . you can’t even see it, can you? Nothing is so amazing as she who will not see.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Crystal slid down the bench and began to speak, her face near Dez’s ear. She whispered, “Listen to me—because I’m only going to tell you this once, and then if you must, you can go back to your self-imposed isolation.” She paused as Dez put her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands. The big woman looked down at the floor, but she appeared to be listening, so Crystal went on. “That girl, she’s so much in love with you—it shows in every smile, every glance, every pore of her body. You two, you got some kinda electricity going. And if you don’t feel it, well, you’re blind, deaf, and dumb. Shayna—she laughs about this—says she feels we’ll all be electrocuted soon if you don’t get your head outta your ass.”

Dez’s head jerked up and she glared at Crystal. “How do you know this?”

Dark eyes snapping, Crystal stood and put her hands on her hips. “Oh pullease! For once in your pig-headed life could you trust someone else? I’m telling you, it’s the truth. Pay attention! Wake up, girl!”

In a muffled voice, Dez said, “I feel like I’m in a soap opera.”

Crystal let out a deep belly laugh. “Maybe so. Maybe you are.” She picked up her shoes and socks and padded over to the other side of the locker room. She didn’t say anything when she heard Dez open the door and leave. She just shook her head and mumbled to herself, “Get a clue, Dez, before it’s too late.”

*****

Dez found Jaylynn digging through her locker twenty minutes before roll call. “Hey,” she said. “How are ya?”

Jaylynn turned to face her, misery etched into the worried planes of her face. The rookie stood for a moment studying the taller woman.

“What?” said Dez. She arched an eyebrow and spread her long arms out, her palms upright as though she expected rain. “All I asked is how you’re doing.”

“I can’t believe you’re still speaking to me.”

“What do you mean?”

Jaylynn shook her head. “You don’t remember last night’s conversation?”

Dez took a few steps and slid down onto the flat bench, facing Jaylynn on the rickety bench in front of her locker. She put her elbows on her knees and rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. “Yeah, I remember it clearly. Why?”

“How can you not be upset? You should be pissed at me.” Jaylynn dropped down on the other bench across from Dez. “I’m sorry. Okay? I—I said—I said some things I didn’t mean, okay? I shouldn’t have done it.” She looked as though she was about to cry.

In a quiet voice, Dez said, “You don’t have to apologize. You were right.”

“No, Dez. I was pretty harsh. I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Yes, you did.” Dez met Jaylynn’s gaze and held it. “Aren’t you the one always telling me to be honest? You were just being honest.”

The rookie put her head in her hands and stared down at the floor. She looked so miserable that Dez rose and sat next to her. She nudged the rookie’s leg with her knee. “Hey. Stop thinking about it. I took it to mean that you cared, Jay, that you were worried about me. You didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already sort of know anyway.” When the rookie didn’t respond, Dez said in a soft voice, “Look, I’ve been a pain in the ass lately—I know. The competition is this weekend, and I’ll be less crabby when I can start eating more carbs. I gotta tell you,” she said, as she hung her head, “I haven’t been much fun these last few weeks. I’m sorry.”

“That doesn’t excuse me for how I acted—”

Dez cut her off. “Please . . .” She stood and leaned back against the lockers with her hands behind her. “Just quit talking about it. I—I don’t want to talk about this—not now.” She ran her hand over her head smoothing back already tidy hair. “Can we just make it through tonight? Then I’m off ’til after the show. You won’t have to put up with my crankiness, okay?” Abruptly she turned and headed for the locker room door.

Jaylynn hustled to throw her stuff in her locker. Her relief was so great that she actually felt shaky. She had imagined all sorts of terrible things since the night before, and to be honest, she was just exhausted from lack of sleep. She hadn’t realized that Dez would be off work for the next several days, but in a way, that was okay with her. She needed a break from her intense partner, and the big cop needed to get away from the stresses of the street. She locked up and raced up the stairs to roll call.

*****

Saturday of the competition dawned clear and beautiful. Jaylynn dressed in lightweight slacks and her favorite green v-necked shirt. She ate a huge breakfast of cereal, toast, juice, and leftover fried potatoes, and she took a few minutes to pack some goodies to eat during the day.

The rookie arrived at Central High School an hour before the competition was scheduled. She figured Dez would be there early, and sure enough, she was. The tall woman, dressed in grey sweats and flips, was seated on the floor next to an oversized black gym bag. She leaned against a brick wall in the hallway, her knees drawn up to her chest, and her arms around her legs. Her face and hands and feet were so brown that for a moment Jaylynn didn’t recognize her. Her dark hair was woven together from the top of her head and down the back in a tight French braid that tucked under leaving no hair on her neck. She was gazing out the side window and didn’t even notice the blonde until she was sliding down next to her.

“Hey,” said Jaylynn. “How’d you sleep?”

The dark head swung around and bright blue eyes in a mahogany-colored face surveyed the younger woman. “Hi Jay. Okay, I guess.”

“Which means what? Five? Six hours?”

Dez gave her a slight smile and looked away. In truth, she had probably slept most of the last twelve hours. She actually remembered some pleasant dreams between waking every three hours when her internal clock told her she needed to eat. At this point she was so sick of protein powder, amino acid pills, romaine lettuce, and chicken breasts that she could gag just thinking about them. But she didn’t feel tired; she also did not feel very energetic, but she knew she had to get pumped by shortly after eight.

Jaylynn said, “Any competition to watch out for?”

Dez stretched her legs out and let her hands fall into her lap. “Yeah. Looks like at least two heavyweights. They both look pretty good from what I can tell.”

Jaylynn reached over and patted the grey-clad forearm. “I’ve got a good feeling about this. You’re going to do well.”

“Thanks for coming so early. I just hope Cowboy gets here soon.”

She pulled her gym bag over closer to her and hunted around in it, coming up with a pint of bottled water. “Want a swig?” she said as she twisted the cap open.

“Nope. I brought my own.” She gestured to her own leather bag, which contained plenty of goodies to make it through the day. “So tell me, what happens now?”

Dez closed up the bottle and stuck it back in her bag. “We weigh in at eight and then get pumped up for the 8:30 start. It’s all compulsory poses at first, then we do our one minute programs. They start with women teens, then the boys. I’m pretty sure they do the Masters competitors, then the rest of us novices, women first, followed by men. Somewhere along the way, the pairs get squeezed in. I haven’t actually seen the schedule yet, but I know from the one other show I did that they’ll give us a timeline to follow.”

“Where’s the best place to sit?”

“Oh, anywhere. The closer you are, the better though. You can see symmetry from the distance, but muscles and vascularity are best seen up close.”

“So you don’t care if I sit in the front row?”

Dez chuckled and shrugged. “Whatever.”

“How long does this take?”

Dez thought about that for a moment, then said, “Mmm . . . two, maybe three hours. I like to stay and see the men. When I’m done, I’ll come out and sit with you to watch—that is, if you’re staying that long?”

“Sure I am.” Jaylynn grinned. “I’d like that. Maybe then you can give me enough information so I understand all of this.”

Dez nodded. “You also better buy tonight’s tickets now or else you’ll get crummy seats.”

“I told Luella I’d get a pair for her and Vanita. She tried to tell me her tired old eyes needed to be up close.”

“Go get them now then.” Dez looked at her watch. “They’ll open up any minute. Go be first in line. They’ve already sold a lot in advance.” When the blonde reached for her bag, Dez said, “You can leave that here. I’ll keep an eye on it.”

Jaylynn rose and hastened to the table where two men were setting up to sell tickets. Dez watched her walk away, smiling approvingly at the cream-colored dockers, white Adidas tennis shoes, and a form fitting forest green v-neck shirt. Her hips were shapely and her white-blonde hair shone under the fluorescent lights. Dez felt a little blush creep into her face as she remembered some of the images of a dream she’d had the night before. In it, they were in a sunny glade near a lake. Jaylynn had been wearing considerably less than now—a green top that wasn’t much more than a bra and the shortest of skirts. Her legs were lean and sinewy, her stomach muscular and tight. And she had long red-blonde hair. Dez frowned and shook her head. She didn’t know where that had come from. But it was definitely Jaylynn, and the part that caused her to blush occurred when the young woman had slipped out of those clothes and stood nude before her. She looked down and realized that she herself wore no clothes either. They waded into the water, and the dream went on, but she couldn’t remember any more details, only that she had awakened from it unwillingly, her stomach protesting for food.

She looked at her watch again. 7:55. Time to weigh in. Jaylynn was walking back toward her, tucking tickets into her back pockets. Dez rose and picked up both of their bags.

“Time to go?” said Jaylynn.

“Yup. I’ll look for ya in the audience.”

The blonde stood awkwardly until Dez handed her the leather bag.

“Good luck,” said Jaylynn. “I’ll be rooting for you.” It seemed so lame, but it was all she could think to say.

Dez flashed her a smile, and her white teeth were such a contrast to the dark skin that Jaylynn was taken aback. That was the face of her Warrior Woman. It was uncanny and gave her the shivers. She watched the grey-clad woman walk away from her, and she was struck by how thin she appeared. In fact, those sweats bagged on the tall woman so much that Jaylynn thought they’d look more shapely on the hanger. As she turned away she heard a clock-clock-clock noise, and in came Cowboy wearing his ever-present leather boots and hauling a bag even bigger than Dez’s. He was nearly running as he caught up with the tall, dark haired woman who stood next to her bag, hands on hips, and shaking her head at him.

Jaylynn made her way into the auditorium where the audio techs were making final checks on the sound system. The high school’s theater hall was large and seated around two thousand. Right now there were seven judges sitting at a long table right in front of the stage and little knots of early birds scattered throughout the first 15 rows. The blonde picked her way down the stairs toward the front row, passing a huge man eating from a gallon-sized tupperware container full of rice and chicken. Picking a spot to the right in the fourth row where she thought she had the best angle of vision, she sat and proceeded to think about Dez.

The dark haired woman hadn’t seemed nervous at all. Then again, she had done this before. If she were Dez, Jaylynn was certain she’d be throwing up right about now. She looked around the auditorium. On the stage there were three banners that advertised other sponsors, including the Sports Nutrition Warehouse, a chiropractor, and three fitness clubs. On one side wall, two men were hanging a 30 foot long banner with red, white, and blue lettering that read “1999 Excalibur All Natural Bodybuilding Championship sponsored in part by the St. Paul Police Department.” The wall on the other side already contained another gold banner that carried the seal of the police department and the words “To Serve and Protect: In memory of Ryan Michaelson, 1960-1998.”

Jaylynn felt the hair on her arms stand on end, and once again she found herself wishing she had met the man who all of her colleagues had respected so much. In photos around the department, he was as blonde as she was. He was dark-eyed, stocky, broad-shouldered, and wearing a mischievous grin in every picture. She thought she probably would have liked him a lot.

A string of people—many of them cops who Jaylynn vaguely recognized—wandered in and found seats. And then the chief judge up front spoke into a microphone before him. “Let’s get started, ladies and gentleman.” Without any fanfare or introductions, he went on, “Let’s have the teen women—oh, wait a minute. We’ve got no teen female competitors. All right. Bring out the teen males.”

Jaylynn watched as the judges took the six boys through a series of mandatory poses. She was impressed at the muscle and sinew the young men displayed, not to mention their poise. They were all clearly nervous, but each held steady throughout the ten minutes of poses. After the compulsories were completed, each of the boys was called individually to the stage to perform his sixty second program, a succession of poses chosen by the competitor to highlight his best features. The first teen emerged and stood waiting motionless at center stage. Suddenly, Jaylynn was startled to hear acid rock music blaring out of the speakers. She covered her ears and winced for the full sixty seconds. The accompanying music for all six boys was variations of painful, screaming guitar, booming bass beat, indistinguishable words. Jaylynn had to grin. I guess I’m old now, she thought as she protected her ears. She didn’t know how the judges could stand it.

By the time the Masters women and men had done their compulsories and individual programs, Jaylynn was beginning to understand what bodybuilding was all about. She listened to the comments from the crowd, some of whom obviously knew what they were talking about, and she studied the physiques. What she found most appealing were men and women with well-defined muscle, and a lean, symmetrical presentation of it. She thought about how thin Dez had become, and she wondered if that would be detrimental.

In the Novice/Open class, the judges started with the lightweight women and moved on to the middleweights. As each moment passed, Jaylynn found herself becoming more and more nervous until her stomach was a roiling mess. She purposely closed her eyes and made herself breathe twenty deep breaths. Then she re-situated herself in the lumpy auditorium chair and watched the final middleweight finish her routine.

The judges called the heavyweights out. The three women filed out on the stage, their muscles pumped up. Jaylynn’s eyes found Dez immediately, and her jaw dropped. In an electric blue suit, Dez’s skin was super-shiny with a deep, dark tan, though Jaylynn could see that the lights made her look less brown than she had appeared in the hall. What stunned the blonde the most was how impossibly huge the dark haired woman looked. The other two women were shapely and muscular, but they were four and six inches shorter respectively. Dez, standing in the middle, towered over them, a veritable mountain of muscle and sinew. The three women stood, “at rest,” which meant they were not striking any poses, but every muscle in their bodies was tight and flexed.

The judges took them through the compulsory quarter turns. She saw the tall cop’s broad shoulders with the defined delts, the abdominal six-pack, and legs bulging with muscle. Somewhere off in the distance Jaylynn heard cheering, but everything seemed muddied and unintelligible. She only had eyes for Dez. The three contestants turned to face away from the audience to do back lat spreads, and Jaylynn wondered if she could believe her own eyes. The back the tall woman presented was sinewy and so rippled that she looked hard as rock.

Before Jaylynn knew it, the compulsories were over and she realized she hadn’t paid the slightest attention to the other two women. She had no idea what their strengths or weaknesses were. She hoped Dez wouldn’t ask for any comparisons because she wouldn’t be able to give them.

The judges called for the first individual program, and Jaylynn was relieved that Dez was first. The sooner she performed her sixty second routine, the sooner the blonde could relax. The tall woman strode out to the middle of the stage and waited for the music to start. The first notes of “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” came over the speakers bringing a smile to the blonde’s lips. Holding her breath, Jaylynn was struck by how much her dream Warrior Woman looked like Dez. Near the end of the incredibly quick minute, Jaylynn felt faint, then realized that she should remember to breathe. She took in great gulps of air and settled back in her seat as the music ended and Dez exited the stage. Now Jaylynn managed to look around, and she heard and saw the enthusiasm of the spectators.

The final two heavyweights performed, but it was all a blur to the young woman. She couldn’t get over how Dez had appeared. It wasn’t until the judges called the pairs out that she was able to focus again. She watched three different routines before Cowboy and Dez came on the stage. Next to him, the dark haired cop looked diminutive. Both had huge shoulders and biceps, but his musculature was so much larger and even more defined than Dez’s. They did their routine to “Simply Irresistible” and with a wave, left the stage.

The judges called for a ten-minute break. It was then that Jaylynn realized she was sweating. Her face was hot, and suddenly the auditorium seemed to close in on her. Jaylynn reached into her bag and pulled out a bottle of water. In addition to drinking it, she considered pouring some of it down her shirt, maybe over her head. With a start, she discovered she was dizzy from hunger, so she rooted through her bag again until she found a Snickers bar. She had just opened it and taken a bite when someone slid over the back of the chair beside her and settled in next to her. She looked over and was amazed that it was Dez, dressed again in her grey sweats.

“So, how’d we do?” said Dez.

“Good,” the rookie said, her mouth full.

Dez shook her head and laughed. “I should have known you’d be out here munching away on something.”

Jaylynn chewed furiously and swallowed. “I just got this out this very moment,” she said indignantly.

Before Dez could reply the blonde saw someone standing in the aisle to her left. She craned her head back to see a thin, fortyish, red-haired woman with striking blue eyes. She wore tailored jeans and a black blouse with a starched collar. Boots with stiletto heels—and Jaylynn’s seated position—made the woman look quite tall and thin.

“So Dez,” the woman purred, “you looked pretty good up there.” Her eyes raked over the dark haired woman. “You’ve certainly changed since I last saw your—ah, physique.”

Jaylynn looked to her right. The brunette’s face was grim, but she didn’t seem too upset.

Dez said, “Well, hello Karin. Surprised to see you here. You run outta sweet young things at the BCA?”

Karin looked Jaylynn up and down appreciatively. “No, but the sweet young things around here aren’t too bad.”

Comprehension dawned on Jaylynn and she realized who the red-haired woman was. In a fury, she shot up out of her seat so fast that her bag, which had been on her lap, spilled onto the auditorium floor. Without warning the red-haired woman found herself faced with a 130-pound spitfire.

“Who the hell do you think you are discussing me like a piece of meat?”

Karin stepped back, obviously surprised.

“Get lost,” said Jaylynn fiercely. “I’ll kick your ass if I see you here again.”

Karin looked down at Dez who was still slumped in her seat. “You let your little friend do all the protecting around here, huh?”

“She’s a better cop than you ever were.”

Again, Karin looked surprised. She shook her head as though she didn’t quite believe what she’d heard, and then turned on her heel and disappeared up the aisle.

Jaylynn picked up her bag off the floor and sank down into her seat feeling foolish and embarrassed. She sneaked a glance at Dez expecting the worst. Instead the big woman sat with a goofy grin on her face. She turned to Jaylynn and said, “Now that was rich. Did you see the look on her face?” She started laughing, then stopped abruptly when she caught the look on the Blondeee’s face.

Dez said, “What! What’s the matter?”

“How could that—that woman be so rude? I’m still furious!”

“Jay, Jay. It’s just the chocolate.”

Jaylynn gave her a blank look. “What?”

“The Snickers. What have I been telling you? Too much sugar is bad for you.” The tan woman couldn’t hold back anymore and laughed uproariously. “That was great when you told her you’d kick her ass. Ha ha ha . . .”

“I’m glad you find this so amusing.”

“I needed a good laugh.” Dez started laughing again, but tried to stifle it. “Be quiet now. It’s the guys. We gotta root for Cowboy.”

For the next hour they sat in the fourth row, heads together, while Dez told Jaylynn everything she could about proper form, posing, muscularity, and all the myriad details that made up the sport of bodybuilding. When Cowboy came out on stage, Jaylynn was surprised at all the hooting and catcalling from Dez, but it only made Cowboy preen and look all the more confident.

Once the heavyweight men finished and the morning judging concluded, Jaylynn turned to Dez and said, “Now what?”

Dez, who had been munching on a rice cake, shrugged her shoulders. “I come back in six hours. Until then, I just meander around avoiding anything remotely related to those Snickers bars you’ve been snacking on.”

Jaylynn felt herself blushing. “One Snicker bar. It was one. Didn’t you pay attention to the sandwich or the banana or the orange or the pretzels—”

Dez interrupted her. “Yes! I paid attention to all that, and believe me, the endless parade’s been killing me!” Irritably she said, “I can’t wait until I can eat something other than rice cakes and chicken, chicken, chicken.” She stood and stretched.

Jaylynn rose, too, and put her hand on Dez’s arm. “Hey, I didn’t know it would bother you—me eating, I mean.”

Dez scowled at her. “It didn’t bother me. You could have been eating dried squid and I woulda wanted it. I’ll just be glad when this is over.” She crumpled up the wrapper from the rice cakes and flung it on the floor.

“Uh oh,” said Jaylynn, still gripping Dez’s forearm. “I think your blood sugar is low. Let’s go get you some salad and chicken.” She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder and pulled Dez along behind her. “Where’s your bag, Dez?”

“I put it in the truck.” She let Jaylynn drag her up the aisle. “I can’t go out to a restaurant or anything like that,” she protested.

“I know. You’ve got the next three meals all set up in your frig, right?”

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

“Desiree Reilly, I know you far too well.” She rolled her eyes. “Come on. I’ll drive. You can just sit and cogitate, okay?”

*****

Jaylynn and Dez spent a leisurely afternoon hanging around at the tall woman’s apartment. After Dez had a meal—cold chicken breast and romaine lettuce—she sat on the couch to watch TV and promptly fell asleep. Jaylynn went out to the kitchen and opened cupboards until she found Dez’s toaster, but despite looking high and low, she found no bread.

She cracked open the kitchen door and crept downstairs to tap on Luella’s door. When Luella opened it, she put her finger to her lips, squeezed inside, and pushed the door shut. “Dez is actually sleeping, and I don’t want to wake her.” she said. “Just one little problem—I’m starving.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Luella beamed at her, her silver hair swept back and bobby pinned stylishly. Jaylynn took a deep breath. Luella’s house always smelled like fresh backed bread and fruit—maybe strawberries.

“Really, all I need is two or three slices of bread and I’ll be fine.”

In her pink slippers and blue green housedress, Luella shuffled down the hall and into her kitchen. “I’ve got some nutty oat bread. That strike your fancy?”

“Sounds great.”

“You want some jam or some roast beast with that?”

“Nah, I was just gonna make an omelette upstairs.”

“Bet she has no butter either.” When Jaylynn shrugged, the landlady shook her head and said, “What are we gonna do about that girl?”

Luella foraged around in her pantry closet and pulled out a loaf of bread. “She got anything to drink in that godforsaken icebox of hers?”

Jaylynn leaned against the doorway and tried to visualize the contents of the upstairs refrigerator. “I think she has ice tea . . . but that may be it.”

“An omelet’s no good without a little milk in it and a little in a glass to down it with. You agree?”

Kind brown eyes twinkled at Jaylynn, and it made the younger woman smile. Impulsively, Jaylynn blurted out, “Luella, I wish I’d met you years ago. You have to be one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met.” Jaylynn could see the flush of happiness suffuse the chestnut colored skin. “Oh, I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” she said.

Luella set the loaf of bread down and stepped over to Jaylynn, taking the blonde woman’s chin in both her soft brown hands. “How can she resist you, Jay? That’s what I don’t understand.” The wise old eyes gazed seriously into the now bashful face of her friend. “Don’t give up on that fool. She’s gonna figure this out sooner or later, you know.” With a final stroke, she released Jaylynn’s face and turned to the cupboard to get a plate down. Her back to the blushing woman, Luella said, “Guess you didn’t think I knew about that, huh? Well, these eyes may be old, but they’re not blind.”

She moved over to the refrigerator and opened the door. Over her shoulder Jaylynn could see it was packed more full than she had ever seen it. Luelled ducked in and pulled out a plastic half-gallon container of milk and a stick of butter. Just before she shut the door, she reached back in and snagged an egg from the indentations in the door.

“Am I so obvious?” Jaylynn choked out.

Luella handed her the milk jug, then arranged the bread and stick of butter on the plate so that the egg wouldn’t fall off. “No,” Luella said thoughtfully. ” I wouldn’t say that. But I do know the two of you. That girl is really something else, but she’s street savvy and not heart smart. You’ll have to be patient with her.” She handed Jaylynn the plate. “Careful not to drop the egg. It’s no fun cleaning up yolk. Now if you mix it in with one of those little boxes of egg whites she uses, your omelette will have a lot more body. Tastes better too.”

“Thank you Luella. I’ll bring this milk right back.”

“You’re always welcome, Jay. No hurry on the milk either. I don’t need it for hours. And hey, hon, I’m rooting for you.”

Momentarily confused, Jaylynn realized Luella was referring to her love life—not to Dez’s competition—and she felt her face flushing again. She retreated down the hallway, and Luella followed to open the door for her.

“See you in a bit, Luella.”

The old woman gave her a brilliant smile, her teeth flashing bright and her brown eyes sparkling. Once again Jaylynn was struck by how beautiful she was. A little gray hair and a few wrinkles didn’t mar the effect.

The blonde made her way up the stairs and set everything down on the counter, then peeked around the corner. Dez continued to sleep on the couch, her face frowning slightly even in her sleep. This brought a smile to Jaylynn’s face. She got out the egg whites, sliced up a tomato and green pepper, added Luella’s egg and milk, and put some chunks of Dez’s baked chicken breast in a fry pan to make the omelette. With a glass of milk and three pieces of toast slathered with the rich butter, her stomach was satisfied.

She went into the living room and sat on the couch near the slumbering woman. She didn’t want to wake Dez, but she got up and put a video in. Truly, Madly, Deeply. She’d wanted to watch it since the first visit to the apartment, and now she had three more hours to kill.

*****

The wind blew in her face and she smelled a musty, verdant odor. As she opened her eyes, Dez thought she was flying in a green tunnel, but as her eyes adjusted, she realized she was traveling at high speed through a forest of trees and bushes. She looked down and her eyes focused on the horn of a saddle. Her hands held taut reins, and, astride a powerful horse, she galloped on a narrow path. Something constricted her waist and she noticed tawny suntanned arms around her middle.

“Yah!” she found herself saying, and the cream-colored horse leapt forward even more quickly than before. An inexpressible joy raced through her. Blood coursed in her veins, pumping with excitement. Her legs gripped the horse tightly, and she knew without a doubt she could outrun the Fates themselves. She felt the warmth at her back and knew who it was without looking back.

“Yah!”

The horse galloped through a slim opening in the brush and burst out onto a vast plain covered with wild grass and flowers. She slowed the heaving horse to a canter and angled along the treeline. Hearing a protest from the body fastened to her back, she signaled the animal to a walk.

Her breathing slowed as the feeling of glee rushing through her body slacked off. Without warning, a flurry of movement caught her eye. Looking sideways to the treeline from which they had just ridden, she saw a line of figures on horses erupt shrieking and screaming. Wearing battle armor, they carried banners and spears, swords and bows. With a gasp she dug her heels into the horse’s side.

“Yah! Come on! Get us out of here!”

*****

Something wasn’t right. Dez inhaled as she struggled to consciousness. One blue eye squinted open, and she found herself curled up on the couch next to one silently sobbing blonde. She jolted up, alarmed, and said, “What’s the matter?”

Jaylynn turned to her, tears running down her face. She choked out, “That is the saddest movie I’ve ever seen.”

“What in the hell are you watching?”

“Truly, Madly, Deeply. It just got over.” She picked up the remote and clicked it to rewind.

Dez let out a deep breath and sat back. “I thought I told you it was a three hanky movie.”

“But you lied. It was a three boxes of hankies movie.”

“Yeah, well, at least it had a happy ending,” she said grouchily.

“But it’s such a sad happy ending.” Jaylynn wiped the tears away. She stood and took the video out of the VCR and returned it to its place on the shelf.

Dez said, “What time is it?”

Jaylynn looked at her watch and said, “4:10.”

Dez rose to her feet and stretched her arms so high she could touch the ceiling. “Guess we’d better get a move on. I need to stop at the store and buy another can of Pam.”

“Pam? Cooking oil Pam? Hey, we gonna fry something good after the show’s over?”

“No, that’s what we use on stage. I have enough, I think, but just in case, I like to be prepared.”

“You use Pam on stage?”

“Yeah. Works better than any other oil. Everybody uses it.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope.”

“I did wonder how you all got so shiny. Pam, huh?” Jaylynn didn’t say it, but she had begun to think bodybuilding was a wee bit odd.

*****

The evening program began at 6:30, and it was a packed house. Jaylynn sat through the first hour, waiting impatiently for Dez’s appearances.

There was a short break between the middleweight and heavyweight divisions when something went wrong with the PA system. Jaylynn sat in the audience between Luella and Vanita, and the two older women talked across her to one another. She had already offered to switch seats with one of them so they could talk more conveniently, but they both hushed her and said they each wanted the fun of sitting by her. A soft, warm hand patted her arm, and Luella gazed at her kindly, then went back to giggling with her sister.

Jaylynn was so nervous that she hardly heard what the two sisters were discussing. When Luella finished a statement with, “…and don’t you think it’s true?” and then looked at her expectantly, all she could do was shrug and say, “I’m sorry Luella. I can’t concentrate at all.”

“You’re not worrying about Dez now, are you?”

She nodded.

“Oh, stop fretting. She’s done this before. The girl’s a powerhouse. No need to worry. You said she did good this morning.”

Jaylynn fidgeted with her program. “I know, but this feels different.” Tonight Julie and the kids were there, and pretty much every cop she’d ever met and several dozen she had never seen before. The morning compulsory posing hadn’t been nearly as well attended, and she had liked sitting right near the front. Tonight she was stuck 12 rows back, and the place was so full it made her feel claustrophobic. “This is just more nerve-wracking than the morning was.”

Vanita said, “You haven’t seen nerve-wracking until you hear about what happened to me the time I—”

The announcer interrupted. “Okay folks, we’re back and ready for the women’s heavyweight routines. We’ve got three contestants tonight, all three from the Twin Cities. And here’s a little about our first contestant.”

Jaylynn didn’t pay attention to the rest of it. Dez was scheduled to perform third. The rookie sat through the other two womens’ programs and tried to evaluate each fairly. In her estimation, neither of them was anywhere near as good as Dez. The first woman was well built with incredible biceps. You could see every muscle in her back, and she had washboard abs. But Jaylynn thought her legs looked weak in comparison. The second contestant had great shoulders, muscular legs with good definition, and actual striations in her pec muscles, but her abs and her upper back didn’t have the kind of cut her competitors had. The rookie wasn’t a judge, but she knew she favored the symmetry Dez displayed—not to mention the fact that she felt weak in the knees every time she saw Dez in the very skimpy electric blue two piece suit. That didn’t happen when she looked at the other two contestants.

When the second routine was over, Jaylynn’s stomach went crazy, and for a moment she thought she might be sick. She was so relieved when that feeling passed, but then it was replaced with a general inability to breathe. She found herself holding her breath until the announcer began to introduce Dez. And then the tall woman emerged onto stage walking gracefully, her body impossibly long and lean and muscular. The cops in the audience went wild.

*****

Dez stood in the stage wings with her eyes closed, concentrating on keeping her body loose and yet tight at the same time. It was a delicate balancing act, staying pumped up and flexed while at the same time not cramping. She was past the bout of nerves she’d experienced earlier, and now she only had to get through this sixty seconds, just this short routine. And then, unless she won her weight class—which she dearly wished would happen—she would be done with the hard part.

The sixty seconds ended for the second competitor, and the music stopped. From the wings Dez could hear the appreciative applause. Unlike the morning’s quiet attendees, tonight’s crowd was a rowdy stomping wild bunch, a lot of them cops. She pushed that out of her mind and focused on breathing and on gathering all her energy inward so that she could direct it outward as needed. Her main competitor was statuesque and a steady poser. The dark haired woman knew she needed to be solid in this routine.

She didn’t even hear the brief biographical announcement about herself that preceded her performance. Instead she found herself thinking of Ryan and knowing that he would have been out in the front row watching and cheering for her until it was time for the men’s division to start. And suddenly she felt a crack in her legendary control. She looked about in alarm. There was nothing to be done. The stage monitor tapped her on the shoulder and gestured her out to the stage.

The house erupted into applause as she strode uncertainly to the middle of the stage. She knew she did not want to look at Julie or the kids or at Luella or at any of her brothers in blue. Unlike the morning where she concentrated on the judges, tonight she was expected to work the crowd. She didn’t know how she could do it.

She stood at ready, every muscle in her body flexed, arms out a few inches from her sides, and one foot in front of her, toe pointed downward. She knew it was cocky, but she had worked up a completely different routine from her morning program using new music. She had chosen Queen’s old song, “We Are The Champions,” because it was Ryan’s body building theme and she knew that would matter to Julie. The first strains of the song began. And that crack in her control widened.

She didn’t have time to think. She knew she had to hit every pose to the best of her ability. But as she moved through the poses—front facing abs, twisting double biceps, side chest—she broke. Not physically, but emotionally. On the outside, she continued through the longest sixty seconds of her life, but on the inside, a tidal wave of raging grief welled up and threatened to spill over. There was a moment of relief as she turned away from the audience and moved into the rear lat spread and rear double biceps, but as she she hit the right side triceps and looked out at the audience, tears sprang up. Her vision blurred, and she blinked, horrified at what was happening.

Dez didn’t hear the cheering, the loud clapping, the rising crescendo. In her head everything clanged in an indistinct din. In a panic, she jerked into the next pose, a front lat spread, and through the tears she gazed out into the crowd. She blinked again, and when her vision cleared, what she saw was a shock of short blonde hair and warm, hazel green eyes. Despite the tears running down her cheeks, Dez held eye contact. She saw the younger woman’s fist go up in an emphatic movement, and over all the crowd noise, she swore she could hear the rookie say, “It’s okay, you’re doing fine.”

The tall woman breathed in and steadied enough to move into the lunging single bicep twist she liked to end with. As she turned away from those green eyes and bowed her head in the final pose, the last strains of music sounded. She held the pose, tightened every muscle until it felt like she would fly apart. Looking down she saw one glistening silver pearl of liquid fall and splat on the floor below her.

The song ended. She exhaled in a huff and stood up straight, and the house went wild. Giving a wave she turned to walk off stage. Once more her eyes sought out the rookie, but she couldn’t find her in the confusion.

Once off stage Dez bent over, hands on knees, and tried to get her breath. Someone handed her a towel, and she daubed at her face. She knew she had to return to the stage right away with the other two heavyweights, and she took the brief moment to steel herself. All she really wanted to do was escape. She felt like she had when she was 14, when she used to grab her bike and ride miles and miles just to get away from everyone and everything. And here I am without a bike, she thought sarcastically.

Back at the podium the announcer was saying, “I believe the judges have their final decision. It’s time now for the presentation of awards. Let’s bring out our three heavyweight competitors, Cindy, Nancy, and Desiree. Here they are, ladies and gentlemen!”

He turned and gave them a hand as the three women filed out to center stage and stood in their “relaxed” poses. For the first time this evening, the three women stood next to one another on stage, and it was clear that Dez, on the far right, was much taller and more powerful looking than either of her rivals.

The announcer went on: “Presenting the trophies is last year’s champion and three time Ms. Minnesota winner, Sandy Marx!”

The crowd applauded, then grew quiet.

“And now ladies and gentlemen, third place in the heavyweight division goes to Nancy Daniels.”

The audience clapped and cheered. Through it all, a stony-faced Dez gazed out into the audience at Jaylynn. She didn’t break eye contact and the rookie returned the gaze. Then Jaylynn smiled mischievously and blew her a kiss, and for the first time in hours, Dez broke out in a full smile. She almost didn’t hear the announcer call the runner-up, Cindy Schmidt, and was startled when Nancy and Cindy smacked her on the back and gave her admiring hugs.

“Dez Reilly,” said the announcer, “step into the center there.” She moved into the middle position between the two body builders and accepted the gold statuette from the presenter. She looked at it a bit dazed, then set it down in front of her like the other two women had. The announcer said, “Okay now ladies, for the cameras, go ahead and strike a double bicep pose.”

*****

Jaylynn rose. Frantically she said, “Excuse me, Luella. I’ll be right back.” She crawled over Luella and into the aisle. It was all she could do to keep from running up the section. She made it out the side exit and back to the Pump Up Room before it occurred to her that perhaps she was being too hasty. What if Dez didn’t want her there?

Too bad. She couldn’t stop herself.

She scooted around pairs of dumbbells left lying throughout the room. As she rounded the corner and headed toward the stage wings, she saw the three heavyweights being interviewed by a man with a video camera, but as she neared, they finished, and Dez turned away. The brunette held a baggy gray sweatshirt in her right hand and was turning it right side out. Jaylynn reached her. She wanted to grab Dez into a hug, but she wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Instead she stretched out a hand and gripped the bigger woman’s glistening forearm.

Surprised, Dez spun around. Her face softened when she saw who it was. “Hey, you.”

Jaylynn broke into a grin. “You did good.”

“Right.” Embarrassed, Dez looked down. “I choked.”

Jaylynn squeezed the taller woman’s arm, which was warm and oily. “Just because it was emotional doesn’t mean you choked.” She took both of Dez’s hands into her own. “I’ve got news for you, Dez. Cops do cry. Half of the police in the audience were anyway. It was really beautiful. You were wonderful.”

Dez gave her hands a squeeze, then let go, and they looked at one another intently. The rookie started to say something, but then the stage director interrupted. “Hey, all of you women pairs. . . some of you are gonna be called out on the stage now. They’re awarding the pairs trophy.”

“Afterwards, okay?” said Dez as she moved away, her eyes smiling though her mouth didn’t.

Jaylynn nodded, her heart full, her eyes brimming. She didn’t wait to hear Dez and Cowboy’s names called as one of the top three pairs of couples. She knew they would be. She made her way back to her seat and sat patiently, relaxed, for the rest of the program. And she wasn’t one bit surprised when a totally composed Dez Reilly confidently took the pairs trophy, hugging and kissing Cowboy on the cheek, or when she won the posedown between the three weight classes to take the Overall Champion Award.
PART 9
The 1999 Excalibur All Natural Bodybuilding Championship ended, and a large share of the audience departed for a raucous, earsplitting party at Luella’s house. Carloads started appearing almost as soon as Dez dropped off Luella and Vanita. Cops and kids and friends and neighbors spilled out of the house and into the yard. They all showed up and waited impatiently for Dez to come downstairs after cleaning up. There was pop and beer, hamburgers and potato salad, cookies and bars, and every kind of snack imaginable. Luella and Vanita worked the crowd like veteran caterers stuffing everyone full of the tasty food.

Luella had insisted on clearing off the mantel for the trophies, which were constantly admired and fingered. The 3-foot tall Overall Champ award was a shiny obsidian black nude, and with its sculpted broad shoulders and graceful muscles, the woman on the trophy actually resembled Dez. The two smaller gold trophies were half the height and bookended the larger one. Scores of people crowded around to look at them.

Jaylynn circulated the house wiping up spills, clearing away discarded plates, and occasionally chatting with folks. She wanted very much to join Dez upstairs, but she restrained herself, waiting patiently like everyone else.

When Dez finally came clattering down the back stairs and burst into Luella’s living room, a great cheer went up. She skidded to a halt, obviously surprised, as happy people circled around her, patting her on the shoulder, shaking her hand, giving her hugs. She ran a hand through long dark hair, which was loose and still damp from her shower. She wore a pair of cutoff denim shorts and a bright yellow t-shirt. She had not been able to wash away much of the tan, and her skin was still unusually dark. It would be a week or so before the skin dye washed completely away. Even under the tan, it was clear she was blushing. Her eyes raked through the crowd until they came to rest on Jaylynn. The blonde felt a crackle of electricity which made her stomach flip-flop, and then the bigger woman looked away and accepted more congratulations from the horde of well-wishers.

A grumpy voice from the crowd called out and a big, white-haired man pushed his way through. “I just want you to know you cost me five hundred bucks, Reilly.”

“Lieutenant Andres,” said Dez with a wry smile on her face. “You’ve been called many things, but cheap has never been one of them.” She slapped him on the arm. “By now you should know better than to bet against me, but hey, look at the bright side: it’s all going to a good cause.”

Just then the “good causes” squeezed through the crowd. “Dez, Dez!” said Jeremy. “That was cool. Me and Jill were so happy when you won.”

Jill stepped shyly forward and took Dez’s hand. The big woman looked down at her and said, “What did you think?”

“Well, parts were awful boring, but when you were up there, it was great. And those are neat prizes.”

“Yeah? And which one do you like best, the black or the gold?”

Jill thought a moment, but Jeremy burst right in. “The black one is so big—and you can see her chest!”

Everyone laughed hilariously. Julie caught Dez’s eye and shook her head. “Just like his dad,” she said. “Always looking at the chest.” This drew more laughter.

“What do you think, Jill?” said Dez.

“I like the gold ones a lot. The black one is awfully big.”

Dez headed across the room, and the crowd parted to let her through. She took the two gold statues from the mantel and headed back to stand before the two kids. She handed one trophy to each. “They’re yours,” she said.

Julie said, “Wait a minute, Dez . . .”

Dez said, “I won those for Jeremy and Jill. I want them to have them. I don’t need ’em.”

“Yeah,” said Luella. “If you all went up and looked at that bare apartment of hers, you’d see why she’s giving them away. She’s totally into minimalist art—as in the art is so minimal it isn’t even there.”

Again the group laughed, and Luella went on, “There’s a ton more burgers and salad. I don’t want a bit of leftovers, so eat up.”

Julie made her way over to Dez and pulled her off to a corner to argue. Dez listened for a moment, then just stepped up and enfolded Julie in a hug. Into her friend’s ear she said, “I can’t give them back their daddy, Julie. The least you could do is let me give them a couple of dumb trophies.” She pulled away a bit, still holding Julie’s shoulders. “Look at them strutting around showing them off. It makes ’em happy. So let it be, okay?”

Wordlessly Julie nodded. She wrapped Dez in a tight hug. “Thank you. This—all of it—means a lot.”

“I’m glad,” said Dez gruffly.

*****

All through the evening Jaylynn watched and listened as the partygoers cheered Dez and laughed and sang and generally acted like teenagers rather than the rode-hard cops most of them were. Crystal and Shayna spent part of the evening going over the “take,” and after checking their figures, they reported that over six thousand dollars had been collected. Even Dez was surprised.

Periodically Jaylynn looked up from whatever she was doing and caught sight of those bright blue eyes watching her from over the heads of the many guests. Each time her heartbeat took off and she got butterflies in her stomach. They each smiled a tight little smile, just for each other, and then turned back to what they had been doing.

Jaylynn reached down to pick up some stray paper plates, and she felt a touch on her arm. She straightened up. “Oh hi,” she said.

“Hi, Jaylynn. I’m Julie, and I haven’t gotten a chance to introduce myself to you yet.” The statuesque brunette reached out and shook the shorter woman’s hand.

“I’m glad to meet you,” Jaylynn said as she smiled and squeezed the woman’s hand and let it drop.

“Luella has told me a lot about you and about how much Dez cares about you.”

“Luella?”

Julie leaned in conspiratorially. “Yeah, I get most of my good info about Dez from her. Isn’t she great?”

Jaylynn wasn’t sure whether she was talking about Dez or Luella, but she opted for Luella. “I’ve met few people in my life quite as wonderful as Luella. She’s a sweetie.”

“Yes she is.” The slender brunette beamed at Jaylynn. “And so is Dez.” In a quiet voice she said, “And I see the way you look at her.” She nodded and smiled. “It’s not like Dez would fill me in on anything, so I’m glad Luella rats her out to me. She’s told me all about you.”

Jaylynn wondered what exactly Luella had said. And what did Julie mean about the way Jaylynn looked at Dez? She looked around the room, and again, Dez caught her eye. The tall woman arched an eyebrow and raised her bottle of sparkling water, then turned back to Cowboy. Jaylynn blushed.

“See what I mean?” said Julie.

“Wha–what?” Jaylynn started to feel sick to her stomach.

“You, young woman, are very nearly transparent. Come here.” Julie grabbed the rookie by the wrist and pulled her down the hallway to the spare bedroom, then sat on the edge of the double bed as Jaylynn hovered in the doorway. “Sit down,” she said and patted the bed beside her. The rookie shuffled over in a daze and sat next to her. “Look,” Julie said, “Dez was very dear to Ryan. He’d want her to be happy. But she hasn’t been for a very long time—not since he died.”

Jaylynn’s head was spinning. She didn’t feel prepared to take in this information at all, but she tried to focus on what Julie was saying.

“Ryan and I always hoped she’d find someone special, but he didn’t live to see it.” Her face clouded over and she got a faraway, wistful look in her eyes. Then she sighed and refocused on Jaylynn. “Do you know there’s something between you two—kind of an electricity?” She smiled and gazed quizzically into Jaylynn’s face. The younger woman gulped, and Julie went on. “I feel like I know you because of Luella, and this probably feels too weird to you, but I just wanted to say thank you for looking after Dez. She’s a tough to read, but Luella was right. I can see how much she cares about you. Don’t give up on her no matter what, okay?”

“Okay,” Jaylynn replied, her face red and her heart pounding. Julie rose and Jaylynn popped up too.

The older woman said, “I’m glad we had this talk. And I’m very glad to finally meet you. I hope you two will come over often, maybe take Jill and Jeremy on an outing.”

“I’d like that.”

Julie smiled and reached over to squeeze the rookie’s hand, then said brightly, “Guess we’d better get back to the party, huh?”

They went out to the living room, and Jaylynn looked over into the next room to find Jeremy and Jill sitting at the dining room looking tired and bored. She moved toward them and saw Luella opening a drawer in the built-in buffet. Over the sound of laughter from the living room the silver haired woman said to the two kids, “You want to play a game? I’ve got about ten decks of cards here.”

Jeremy nodded, though Jill looked skeptical. The rookie advanced to the table, saying, “Do you two know how to play ‘Hand and Foot’? It’s a really good card game.”

She sat down at the table with the two kids and began to patiently explain the rules of the rummy game. As she dealt the cards, she glanced out into the living room to find blue eyes observing her in amusement. The tall woman winked at her and turned back to Crystal, leaving Jaylynn’s heart skipping beats.

*****

The party went on until past midnight. If there were any neighbors upset it was too bad because every cop on duty managed to swing by at one time or another. At one point there were five police cars double-parked in a row outside the house.

But finally, when the last of the partygoers bid goodnight, Luella, Vanita, Jaylynn, and Dez plopped down on the couch and chairs and surveyed the wreckage.

“That’s the most fun I’ve had in ages,” declared Luella.

From the rocking chair Dez said, “I had no idea . . . you must have spent a fortune!”

“Whew,” said Jaylynn. “The evening just blew by. I can’t believe how late it is.”

Luella said, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Her eyes came to rest on the lanky brunette rocking slowly across from her. “Well, sweet pea, was it worth it? All those days and nights of rabbit food—are you glad you did it?”

Dez looked at her seriously as she continued rocking. “Yeah, I think it was. It was hard. . . .” She paused and thought for a moment. “But I could do it again if I had to.”

Vanita said, “You mean if you were nuts enough to!”

Dez smiled. “Are you referring the food constraints, Van, or do you mean the actual competition process?”

“The food, of course!” said Vanita. “I am surprised to say this, but I actually liked the show. It was kind of a shock at first to see all those nearly naked people running around, but once I got used to it, I did start to understand all that business you’ve been talking about—you know, about muscle definition and leanness and such. I enjoyed it, ‘specially when you won.”

Jaylynn sat in the recliner and watched the two older women sitting side by side on the sofa, both so alike and yet so different, as they rehashed the pomp and pageantry of the evening. She studied Dez from her spot across the room. The dark haired woman looked tired, but content, her face relaxed and open. Still listening, Jaylynn rose and gathered up a few stray paper plates and three cups left on the table and windowsills. She carried it all into the kitchen, pulled the garbage container out from under the sink, and began tossing in the trash and tidying up the counters. She went back to the dining room table to clear away the leftover food, and saw Dez nod toward her. The taller woman stood and said, “Let me give you a hand, Jay.”

Luella sighed and started to rise. Dez said, “No, no, not you. You’ve done enough work for the night, ladies. Just relax.”

“We can help,” said Vanita, but she didn’t budge from her comfy spot on the sofa.

Luella continued to struggle up off the couch. Dez shook her finger at her. “You just sit that sorry carcass back down Luella. Your legs are sore, I can tell.”

“No, not at all. I’m ready for a foot race.”

“Yeah right.” Dez rolled her eyes. “You’ve done enough for me for the day. Please! Let us clean up. Jay and I won’t break a thing.”

“Kinda hard to break paper plates, young lady,” said Luella in a mock serious voice as she settled back on the couch near her sister.

“That’s right,” said Dez. “So just let us put things in order for you.”

Dez joined Jaylynn in the dining area and started carting dishes and platters into the kitchen. The blonde said, “How about you put the leftovers in containers, and I’ll wash stuff up?”

“Okay.”

Dez whistled softly as they worked wordlessly for several minutes. She went back out to the dining room table with a wet rag to wipe it down, then returned to the kitchen. She tossed the rag in the dishwater and took Jaylynn’s arm. With a finger to her lips she said, “Shh.” She beckoned with her other arm as she pulled Jaylynn along. They peeked around the corner into the living room.

Luella and Vanita sat on the sofa asleep, their feet up on the coffee table and their heads leaning back against the couch cushions. “Ready for a footrace,” whispered Dez. “Ha.”

They retreated back to the kitchen and Dez finished wiping down the stove, then stood awkwardly with her hands in her pockets. Jaylynn crossed her arms and leaned back against the counter searching out blue eyes. “Guess I’d better head home.”

Dez smiled at her warmly. “You were great today, Jay. Thanks—thanks for everything, for coming to the show, for being here today and tonight.” Suddenly shy, she looked down. “It really mattered to me that you were there.” She pulled her hands out of her shorts pockets and stepped closer spreading her arms wide. “Can I hug you?”

Jaylynn uncrossed her arms and welcomed Dez into an embrace, first tentative, and then secure and tight. Wrapping her arms around the thin waist, she could feel the taller woman’s palms flat on her back, a belt buckle at her stomach, hips pressed close. Flustered she released her hold and stepped back, saying, “Dez, you really are just skin and bones! How in the world did you manage to look so gargantuan on stage?”

“Ah, smoke and mirrors. You know, a little grease, a lot of skin tan dye.” The dark haired woman winked and then shrugged.

Jaylynn said, “What happens now?” As the words came out of her mouth, the blonde hoped Dez would take the question in the way she meant it. She hastened to add, “I mean, do you stay on that severe diet or what?”

Dez stepped back, leaning against the counter again. “Nah. Some guys start packing away tons of food and ice cream and crap, but I won’t do that. I’ll increase my carbs, eat a bit more of the so-called forbidden foods, and try not to gain more than 15 pounds. I think I feel best weighing in about 165.” She looked out the darkened kitchen window. “I guess I’ll be glad to get back to a normal routine. It was hard to do that.”

She looked so tired that Jaylynn was reminded of the hour. “I’d better go now.”

Dez nodded. “Sneak out the back, okay? Let’s not wake up the oldsters if we don’t have to.”

Jaylynn pulled her car keys out of her pocket as she moved toward the back door. “See you Wednesday?” she asked over her shoulder as she reached the door and turned the knob.

Dez looked startled for a minute. “Yeah, sure. Call me if you want to do anything before then though.”

Now it was Jaylynn’s turn to look surprised. “Like what? What do you mean?”

“You know, like go see a movie or something.”

Jaylynn moved lightning quick across the hall and put her hand to Dez’s forehead. Then she grinned and said, “No fever, but who are you and where is the real Dez?”

Dez blushed and stuttered out, “I – I – I just thought . . .”

Jaylynn laughed at her and retreated to grab the doorknob again. “Listen, you goofball, sounds like a good idea to me. Don’t take me too seriously. I’m just teasing. Go ahead and give me a call if you like. I’m around all day tomorrow. That is, after I get about 12 hours of sleep.” She opened the door and looked back smiling.

In an offhand manner, Dez said. “I’ll watch to see that you get to your car safely.”

“Hey! I’m a cop. Nobody messes with us, right?” Jaylynn pulled the door shut and walked around the side of the house to the front in the warm August night. She could hear a mosquito buzzing nearby and smell Luella’s overgrown lilac bush. As she turned onto the front walk, she glanced back at the house to see the outline of a dark head in the window. She raised one hand in a quick wave, then reached her car, got in and headed home.

On the way to her house the evening’s events went round and round in her head. She thought about Dez, about her performance, about her physique. And she thought of the years and years of dreams and nightmares she’d always had. There was no longer any doubt in her mind that her Warrior Woman and Desire Reilly were, somehow, by some strange destiny or coincidence, one and the same. It was amazing how different the black-haired, alabaster-skinned woman looked with a tan and most of her clothes off. Jaylynn felt a lecherous grin tweak her lips. The tall woman looked positively delicious, fit to eat. A shiver ran down her neck, and she smiled sheepishly and told herself to stop being so naughty.

Back at the house she saw that Sara was still up. As usual, nearly every light in the house was on. Suddenly she couldn’t wait to talk to her best friend. She parked next to Tim’s old beater, and skipped up the walk. She found Tim and Sara huddled on the couch watching a Mary Tyler Moore rerun. When she burst around the corner, they both looked up and said simultaneously, “Did she win?”

“Yup. She won everything—her weight class, the pairs trophy, and all-around. And she really was the best. You guys shoulda been there. It was just incredible. Wish I’d had a camera.” She plopped down on the end of the couch and tucked her legs under her, then turned to face them.

Tim clicked the TV off with the remote as he said, “It sure ran late. It’s like almost two now.”

“I went back to Dez and Luella’s place and there was a great party with about a million people at it.” Jaylynn grinned as she hugged her knees to her chest. “It was just a blast.”

Sara said, “Hmmm. Do tell. You look way too happy to be real.”

“I am happy. I’ve never seen Dez quite like this, so open, so relaxed. I mean, she even cried on stage.”

“What?” said Tim and Sara at the same time.

“You guys sound like a Greek Chorus,” said the blonde and she went on to tell them about all of the events of the evening. As she finished her recitation, she stretched her legs out over Tim’s lap and pressed her feet against Sara’s, sole to sole.

Tim said, “Girls, girls! You’re squishing me.” He shifted and pushed their legs aside, and both women ended up putting their legs on the coffee table. He said, “So, she gave you a great goodbye hug. She should have given you money for how patient you were all day!”

“Oh Tim,” said Sara. She turned to Jaylynn and rolled her eyes. “Don’t mind him. He and Kevin had a lover’s quarrel.”

“We did not,” Tim protested.

“What do you call screaming at him on the front porch and then slamming the door in his face?”

Disgruntled, he said, “Whatever. He’ll probably apologize tomorrow.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stared forlornly at the wall.

Jaylynn poked him in the arm. “Quit being so stubborn. Go call him now. You know he’ll be over here in minutes. Why does he have to be the one to apologize?”

“Geez, Jay,” said Tim, “you don’t even know what the argument was about!”

She smiled at him. “I’m telling you, life’s too short to be sitting here stewing over some dumb disagreement. You love the guy. Go call him.”

“I’ll call him when I’m good and ready.” He continued to sit there seething.

“Back to you Jay,” said the brown-haired woman. “What else happened? Tell me more about this hug.”

Tim stood and stepped over the blonde’s outstretched legs.

Jaylynn pinched him on the thigh. “Gonna go call lover boy? I tell ya, you’ll be thanking me for the encouragement.”

In a grumpy voice, he said, “Like your love life is going so well.”

“I’m hopeful,” she said, and she slapped him on the butt as he passed her by.

Sara stretched her legs out on the couch. “Okay, tell me all the nitty gritty details. What about this hug?”

“It was a great hug! You know how there are three types of hugs?”

Sara tipped her head to the side and gave Jaylynn a quizzical look. “Go on. What do you mean?”

“Well, think about it . . . there’s the quick shoulders-only kind of hug between people who are sort of doing the obligatory thing. Sometimes one person is even turned a bit to the side. Know what I mean?”

Sara nodded.

“Then there’s that upper body one where maybe the front of you presses a bit, but it’s brief, friendly, respectful?”

“Yeah.”

“And then there’s the last kind.” Jaylynn smiled.

“And that would be?”

“The one where you’re enfolded in an embrace that goes from shoulders to chest to hips to thighs. Whew! It’s intense.”

With a twinkle in her eye, Sara said, “Am I to assume that the latter was the variation you experienced?”

Jaylynn was nodding before the question even ended. “But maybe I’m giving it too much credence. I really don’t know. But I am going to call her to go to a movie tomorrow.”

“Why don’t you have her over for dinner? In fact, why don’t I make you guys dinner one day next week? Do you realize that in just nine days it’s the one year anniversary of you meeting her for the first time?”

Jaylynn stopped and thought for a moment. “That’s just amazing. I can hardly believe a whole year has passed.” From the kitchen she could hear the murmur of Tim’s voice as he spoke on the phone. She lowered her voice and said, “I don’t know how much longer Tim is going to live here, Sara. Either he’s gonna move out, or else Kevin is going to have to move in. He practically lives here now. What do you think of that?”

“I’ve thought about that lately too. Kevin can move in. I don’t mind. The more the merrier.” With a wicked smile on her face she said, “You can have Dez move in too for all I care.”

“I think you’re jumping the gun a bit.”

“Maybe. Will you ask her over for a thank you dinner from me? I’ll make you those barbecue chicken wings you like so much.”

“Okay. I’ll ask.”

Just then, Tim returned to the room. He ran his hands through his red hair and did a cannonball jump over the back of the couch and slid down between them.

Sara said, “Guess who’s on the way over?”

He smiled. “Yup.”

With menace in her voice the blonde said, “And who gets thanks for the suggestion?” He stared at her with a blank look on his face.

Jaylynn rose up to kneel on the couch and looked at Sara, raising her eyebrows. Both women attacked at once, tickling him mercilessly until he begged for mercy and forgiveness.

*****

On Sunday, they went to see the new “Star Wars” movie, and then the two women walked around Como Lake in the bright sunshine. Though humid, the temperature was surprisingly mild.

“I didn’t like that one as well as the other three,” said Jaylynn.

“Me neither. I figured out too fast about the queen.”

“Yeah, I kept wondering why they’d have all these short little brown-haired attendants who looked just like the queen. I thought maybe it was bad casting at first. But the kid was cute.”

Dez said, “Too bad he’s gonna grow up to be the evil Darth Vader.”

They kept the conversation light as they made two loops around the lake. Jaylynn could tell Dez was tired. She said, “Did you sleep well after yesterday’s hoopla?”

Dez shook her head. “Nah. Maybe tonight.”

“You should go see Dr. Goldman. She does great visualization exercises. Helps me with my nightmares.”

Dez glanced down at the rookie affectionately. “It was bad enough that the lieutenant made me go see her after I got shot. I’d prefer not having to go again.”

Jaylynn stopped on the path and put her hands on her hips. “What is it with all you tough-ass cops? How come none of you ever want to talk about your feelings?” She tapped her foot on the ground. “And I want a serious answer!”

With an amused expression on her face, Dez said, “I dunno. She’s a stranger.” She bent over and picked up a round rock from beside the path, then pitched it into the lake. She turned back to Jaylynn who was still waiting, patiently. “If I wanted to talk about stuff, I’d tell Luella. Or maybe you. Not some nosy shrink.”

Jaylynn sighed and shook her head. “You are incorrigible.” She dropped her hands from her sides and started walking again.

In three long strides Dez caught up with her again. “Hey, not everyone can process things the way you can.”

“Sure they can. Just takes practice.”

“Geez, Jay, there are a lot of other much more pleasant things to practice than that sorta junk!”

“Now, why do you say that?”

Dez shrugged, though Jaylynn didn’t see it.

I an irritated voice, the rookie said, “There’s processing—and then there’s not processing. How come everyone thinks I’m crazy for wanting to avoid the latter?”

Dez frowned. “Maybe they’re just jealous.”

“Why! That makes no sense to me.”

“There’s a lot of shit in this job, Jay. Not everyone can deal with it head-on like you do. Sometimes it’s easier to just not think about things.”

“But it’s self-preservation for me. If I don’t deal with this stuff, I have terrible dreams. Why is that so weird?”

“Hmm . . . never thought of it that way.” She smacked at a mosquito that came to rest on her forearm. “Well, the damn bugs are coming out. I better head home before I’m eaten alive.” They stopped on the path near the stone arch. “See you at work Wednesday?”

Jaylynn nodded. “Sure. Hope you sleep better tonight.”

“Yeah, me too. See ya, Jay.”

They parted. Dez crossed the street without looking back and set out toward home. Jaylynn headed on around the lake. She decided to put in a few running laps and started off at a slow jog. She was puzzled as to why she seemed to be one of the only cops she knew who was willing to discuss how the job—and other things—made her feel. At least Oster talked to her a bit. But no one else did. Didn’t the rest of them feel like they would explode otherwise? She picked up her pace and fell into a good rhythm. She decided that she wasn’t going to change for the rest of them, not even for Dez. If she wanted to see Goldman every single day, she would.

It wasn’t until she was on her third lap that she recalled Sara’s dinner invitation. Oh well. She’d ask Dez at work.

*****

On patrol Wednesday night, Jaylynn told Dez about Sara’s dinner request and asked her if she wanted to come over. For some reason she did not understand, she expected Dez to beg off. So she was taken aback when the dark haired woman said, “Sure. When?”

Surprised, she said, “Gosh, I don’t know exactly when, but she said one day next week. I’ll check with Sara. What works for you?”

Dez shrugged. “Whenever. I guess Monday or Tuesday since that’s when we’re off.”

Jaylynn nodded. “I told her you’re a picky eater . . .”

“No, I’m not!” Dez said with a little more vehemence than she expected. In a softer voice, she said, “Not so much anymore.”

“Give me a break! So you’re eating a few carbs now—big woo! You still don’t eat things normal people eat.” She paused and pointed out through the windshield. “Hey! Check out that Volvo. Is that the one on the hot sheet?” She grabbed the sheaf of pages they kept on the seat between them and turned on the center light.

Dez hit the gas and pulled closer to an orange station wagon. “Nah, the other one had 024 in the license number and I think it was blue.”

Jaylynn, by then, was perusing the hot sheet. “How do you do that?” she said, exasperated.

“Do what?”

“Remember the details like that?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t change that much from night to night. You drop a couple cars from your memory and add a couple.” She passed the Volvo and turned right onto University. “And I’ll have you know I’ve gained eight pounds already, so don’t be telling me I eat weird.”

Jaylynn had indeed noticed that her partner’s face had taken on a less gaunt appearance since the weekend of the body building competition. She reached across the seat and gripped the tall cop’s upper arm. Dez gave her a startled sideways glance.

Jaylynn said, “Yes, I did notice. You look much healthier now. You had started to look haunted before.” She let go of the short-sleeved arm, but not before she squeezed the tight muscle there. “You’re still solid as a rock.”

Dez made a squinty face at her and flexed her right arm. “Damn right.”

*****

Tuesday night found Dez parking in front of the stucco house and making her way up a cracked front walk bordered with freshly mown lawn. The day had again been humid, and the evening promised more of the same, with the unfortunate addition of mosquitos. She slapped at one and juggled the items she carried, a bottle of chablis and six pack of Twinkies. She was glad she had worn shorts, a tank top, and sandals because, if she remembered correctly, the old house didn’t have air conditioning.

Before she could reach the top of the cement stairs, the screen door was thrown open and a familiar blonde head poked out into the late afternoon light. “Whatcha got there?”

She stepped up to the top stair. “I didn’t know what we were having, but I brought some wine, and then I thought a special dessert was in order.” She waved the package in Jaylynn’s face.

“Twinkies! You wouldn’t . . .”

Dez silenced her by running a big hand through the rookie’s hair and messing it up, smirking as she sidled past. Out of the corner of her eye she took in the golden tan displayed quite nicely by cut-off jeans and a sleeveless white shirt. The shirt tightened against Jaylynn’s body as she ducked and shifted away with a smile on her face. Dez said, “I may surprise you yet.”

Jaylynn took hold of Dez’s arm. “Believe me when I say, you already keep me in constant amazement.” She led the tall women into the living room where Tim was lounging bare chested in crazy-colored boxer shorts. He sat in front of the oscillating fan looking miserably hot.

Jaylynn said, “He just finished mowing the lawn.”

Tim said, “Yeah, and I don’t think I’ll ever recover. Hi Dez.” She nodded and smiled as he fanned himself with a Cosmopolitan magazine. Dez resisted the urge to ask if it was his or Sara’s. She was pretty sure it wouldn’t be Jaylynn’s.

“You are full of surprises,” said Jaylynn. “I’m surprised enough for one night that you showed up with alcohol. I didn’t think you ever drank.”

“Oh, I’ve been known to tip a few upon occasion.” She handed the bottle to Jaylynn who accepted it and then pointed the bottle at her red-haired friend. “Tim, go take a cool shower. Go on. You’ll feel much better.” He grumbled, but rose with a groan and padded off to the staircase.

Jaylynn said, “Sara’s in the kitchen. Come on. Let’s put this in glasses and drink it with dinner.”

A short time later the four of them sat down at the picnic table in the backyard near the grill, which was emitting considerable heat. The sun no longer burned so hot and was rapidly falling behind the stand of evergreens across the alley, though rays of bright light still streamed through. Sara placed four citronella candles at the corners of the picnic table and lit them to ward off the bugs. On the menu were terriyaki chicken wings, brown and white rice, corn on the cob, and a green salad laced with chunks of cucumber, tomato, and broccoli flowerettes.

Sara and Jaylynn settled in on one side of the table. Dez sat across from the blonde with Tim beside her. As she dug into a generous helping of salad, Tim popped up from the table and stepped over the picnic bench. “Forgot the salad dressing,” he said. “Anyone want thousand island?”

“Sure,” said Sara and Jaylynn in unison. He ambled off toward the back door.

Dez said, “He works at a restaurant, right?”

Both women nodded and looked at one another. Jaylynn’s mouth was full, so Sara said, “He wants to be a chef someday. Right now he’s in charge of salad prep and is trying to get into a culinary school.”

The kitchen screen banged open and Tim emerged juggling several bottles of dressing. He stood at the head of the picnic table and set seven bottles out.

With a smile on her face, Jaylynn said, “That’s a lot of thousand island.”

He replied, “It’s not just thousand island. We’ve got bottles and bottles of this stuff. What do you girls do—buy another jar every time you make a salad?”

Jaylynn picked up the tongs and rose as she said, “Yup. And every time we make a steak we buy another bottle of steak sauce.”

Sara said, “And every time we get a hair cut we buy a new brush. It’s a girl thing.”

Jaylynn laughed out loud, then moved over toward the grill. As she passed Tim she poked him in the butt with the tongs and giggled some more. She lifted the lid off the grill and busied herself turning the chicken wings.

Tim moved around the side of the table and startled Dez by putting his hands on her shoulders. He leaned his face down close to her ear and quickly whispered, “Jay’s birthday is next week. Will you help us with the surprise party?” When she nodded, he glanced up to ensure Jaylynn’s back was still to them, then squeezed Dez’s shoulders and stepped back over the bench to settle in next to her. He cast a conspiratorial glance at Sara and back at Dez and waited until she choked down the bite she was chewing.

“Details?” Dez asked.

He whispered back, “Later.”

Sara jumped right in then and said, “Tim, we were just telling Dez about your salad work at the restaurant. I think she’d be interested to hear about your new job.”

“Yeah,” said Dez. “Which restaurant do you work at?” She spoke to Tim but her eyes followed Jaylynn as the blonde bent to pick up the grill cover, replaced it, and then came back over to the table. Her eyes flicked to the brunette and caught her looking. The rookie smiled and blushed ever so slightly, regarding Dez with amusement and then giving her the tiniest little wink.

Tim was saying, “The new one that just opened in downtown St. Paul called Pazzaluna. It’s a really nice Italian place.”

Dez turned her attention to him. “I haven’t been there yet.”

“We should all go,” said Sara. “I haven’t tried it yet either.”

“Excellent food and good service,” said Tim. “Of course how could they go wrong with Kevin as the maitre de?”

Dez said, “I’ll have to meet this Kevin sometime. You and he met at the restaurant?”

Tim nodded, his mouth full of chicken wing.

Dez pushed her plate away, put her elbows on the plastic tablecloth and said, “How did the three of you meet?”

Jaylynn and Sara smiled at one another, and the blonde said, “My sophomore year Sara moved to my dorm. I didn’t have a roommate at the time—”

“And I had a real jerk for a roommate,” said Sara. “I was only a freshman, but Jaylynn let me move into her room, and we’ve been roommates ever since—”

Jaylynn finished, “In two more dorms and then this house.”

Tim said, “I advertised in the school paper for housemates, and these two applied. I liked ’em right away.”

“And the rent was reasonable,” said Sara. “So we’ve been living here for almost two years. I’m still working my way through classes part-time.”

Tim said, “And I quit halfway through so I could get restaurant experience and get accepted into the Culinary School instead.”

Dez nodded as she listened to the information. She thought about the fact that this was pretty much the same way she’d met Luella: by answering an ad for an apartment. Sometimes people got lucky and turned strangers into better family than family was.

Later in the evening when the paper plates were tossed and the glasses and utensils cleared away, they all agreed to watch a video. Sara had brought a stack home from the video store, and they had their choice of adventure, thriller, drama, or two comedies. The Wedding Singer won by a vote of three to one, Jaylynn holding out for a drama. She accepted the loss with grace.

Dez sat in an overstuffed chair in the warm living room and regarded the three roommates who sat across from her on the couch. Huggiest damn group of people she’d ever been around. If they weren’t poking or tickling or hugging or pinching each other, they were patting her or reaching out to touch her lightly. It was a bit disconcerting. She couldn’t recall when the last time was that anyone invaded her personal space so repeatedly, well, unless you counted Jaylynn. Come to think of it, the rookie had always been in her personal space, practically from day one. She glanced at Jaylynn, a frown on her face, and wondered why she hadn’t noticed that. Instead, she realized she somehow been comfortable with the younger woman, and perhaps that was one reason it was so painful to have been separated from her those many awful weeks during the winter.

She thought about the fact that with the exception of Luella, people usually didn’t come near her. She didn’t want people to touch her, to get inside her bubble. Not friends, not relatives, not other cops, not suspects. There was safety in distance. Her eyes came to rest on the three laughing roommates across from her, and she watched as Sara made a smart retort to something Jaylynn said, then launched herself practically into the blonde woman’s lap to tickle her. Tim rolled his eyes and looked over at Dez who smiled politely and shrugged.

Tim said, “If you two are done mauling one another, I think Dez and I would like a little dessert before we start the video.”

Dez eyed Jaylynn, silently daring her to put out the Twinkies. Somehow she knew that the hazel-eyed woman understood. Jaylynn popped up off the couch and took Sara’s hand. “Come on,” she said. “It’s ice cream time.” She dragged Sara off toward the kitchen.

Tim watched them go, then gestured to Dez. “Spsss . . . come over.” He patted the couch next to him. Reluctantly she rose and moved around the coffee table to sit in the middle of the sofa.

He said, “The nice thing about our house is you can put your feet up on anything.” He slipped out of his Birkenstocks and stretched freckled, tan legs out on the coffee table, nodding an invitation to her to join him, which she did. Once they got settled, she looked over her shoulder at him and he said, “As soon as the kitchen door opens, launch into a description of a bad meal you’ve had, okay?”

She frowned, then assented.

“Okay,” he said, “it’s a surprise party next Saturday at noon before she goes to work. Can you help me fix it so her Lieutenant secretly gives her Saturday off?” When Dez nodded, he went on, “If you can do that, then she’ll never expect this, especially since her birthday isn’t until next Tuesday. Her mom, dad, and the girls are flying in Saturday morning. Will you pick them up at the airport at 10?”

She nodded and he glanced nervously over his shoulder at the kitchen door. They could hear the two women talking and laughing so he went on. “I’ve got to figure out a way to get her out of the house.”

Dez whispered, “Call Luella. She’s very inventive.”

“Sara already asked Luella to come to the party, and she’s coming over to make something—I don’t know what. She and Sara are doing the food. My job is to get the surprise part worked out.”

“How ’bout I keep Jay busy until just before noon and we have someone else pick up her folks?”

“Yeah! That could work. Let’s do that. If you can get her out of the house for the morning, then Sara and Luella can set up, and I can run out to the airport. Works for me.”

Just then the kitchen door whacked open, and Dez stammered, “It was the worst meal I ever had.”

Tim looked at her blankly, then started to laugh. Dez gazed shyly over Tim’s shoulder at the two women and found Jaylynn’s eyes upon her. The smaller woman gave a surprised look to see Dez cozied up to the red-haired man, but she didn’t say anything. She waved at them to move their feet, and Sara set a tray down on the coffee table bearing four stacked bowls, four spoons, a dish of peanuts, a brown plastic container of chocolate sauce, and a pile of Twinkies on a Melmac Cookie Monster plate. Jaylynn carried a tub of vanilla ice cream and a scoop.

“Everybody help yourself,” said Sara. She sat down next to Dez.

“I’ll scoop the ice cream,” said Jaylynn. “It gets so messy.” She proceeded to dole out generous globs for everyone, then went back in the kitchen to put the ice cream away.

Sara took the brief opportunity to whisper, “Are we all set?”

Tim nodded. “Details later, but yes. Dez is in.”

Sara smiled at Dez, her brown eyes full of warmth and caring. “Thank you. It’ll mean a lot to her if you come.” She reached a hand over and patted the bigger woman’s thigh. “By the way,” she said, “nice quads you got there.”

The dark haired woman was still blushing when Jaylynn came back into living room and squeezed between Sara and Dez to settled in for the video, totally oblivious to the clandestine planning that had gone on. The rookie grabbed up the TV remote and pressed the button. As she set the remote down, the dark haired woman juggled her bowl of ice cream, leaned forward, and snagged a Twinkie with her free hand. With a smirk directed at the blonde, she took a generous bite and offered the remainder to Jaylynn who accepted it with a roll of her eyes. “Don’t blame me if you get fat overnight,” said the rookie, as she bit down on the remaining half.

*****

All week Dez racked her brain to think of something she could do with Jaylynn from nine a.m. til noon on Saturday. Nothing seemed compelling enough to warrant a nine o’clock start. Finally she talked to Crystal, learning that she and her partner had also been invited to the party.

Crystal said, “Why don’t you bring her to our house for brunch?”

Dez thought about it. “That could work . . . but then you’d miss the surprise.”

Crystal considered that for a moment. “What if we got totally ready so that the minute you pulled away around noon, Shayna and I would jump in our car and race over there. Then all you’d have to do is stop to fill up with gas or pick up a coke at the drive-thru or something. Then we could be there on time.”

“Okay. What do you want me to bring on Saturday morning?”

“Let Shayna worry about that. You just bring Jay over about nine and we’ll keep you both occupied. At roll call tomorrow night, I’ll invite you guys over. For once, I’ll actually show up early.”

The next night, true to her word, Crystal was there ahead of time and corraled the two of them. She said, “Dez, Jay, I got a favor to ask. Would you be willing to come over on Saturday morning for brunch? Shayna has a couple new recipes she wants to try—and Dez, don’t worry. They’re not too high cal.”

Dez said, “Sure. What time?”

“Oh, about nine, how’s that?” She looked from one woman to the other.

Skeptically, Jaylynn said, “I won’t be very awake, but okay. What’s your address?”

Dez interjected smoothly, “I know how to get there. How about I pick you up at 8:45?”

“Okay,” said Jaylynn, “but I’m not promising to be a very entertaining brunch companion.”

Crystal squeezed the blonde’s arm and said, “Nonsense. You’re always entertaining, right, Dez?”

Gruffly Dez said, “Yeah right. C’mon. The sarge is on the way.” They all found seats as the sergeant entered the room and began his announcements.

*****

The day of the party dawned clear and bright, only a few fuzzy clouds blowing around in the bright blue sky. A shaft of rich gold light glowed through the small window above Dez’s double bed. On her back, she lay with the sheet over her warm body and watched dust motes floating in the beam of light. She only remembered waking once during the night after another bad dream. She vaguely recalled struggling, like she was drowning, and she woke up with a pain in her chest as though she had been shot again. Reaching her arms out to either side of her, she stretched, twisting her torso, tensing her chest muscles. She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, and her eyes fell to the two presents on the coffee table. They were wrapped in plain red paper, no bows, and the tape more than apparent. Pathetic wrapping job . . . she figured she should have had them professionally wrapped. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts, right? She had a hunch Jaylynn would like both gifts.

She ate her regular breakfast of oatmeal and a protein shake, then got ready for the day. By the time she left the apartment, she was actually feeling perky.

True to the young woman’s word, Jaylynn wasn’t very lively when she picked her up, but as they drew closer to Crystal and Shayna’s house in south Minneapolis, Jaylynn seemed to wake up.

“Nice t-shirt,” said the rookie.

Dez looked down at her WNBA shirt for the new Minnesota team, the Lynx. “Didn’t you know? I tried out for the team, but they don’t allow cops. So they gave me this free t-shirt.”

Jaylynn rolled her eyes. “You’re certainly full of it today,” she said.

Dez raised her eyebrows and gave an innocent look, then slowed the truck in front of a cyclone-fenced yard. “We’re here,” she said.

The couple lived in a side-by-side duplex. Their dog had been put in the back yard, and all the windows were open so that the early morning breeze could blow through. Since there was so much air blowing through the duplex, Dez didn’t think her allergies would act up at all. She hadn’t been to her friends’ house for a long time, and she commented on the new couch, a giant tan L-shaped monstrosity of a thing piled up with various sized pillows. Six or eight people could easily sit there—if some of the pillows were removed. Otherwise the room looked the same: wild-colored African paintings on the living room walls; a six-foot long tapestry of green, gold, black, and red hanging next to the doorway to the dining room; knick-knacks and figurines all around the room on shelves and tables. Dez always found their place to be very “busy” and she liked to tease Shayna about how much dusting she must have to do.

The four women sat around the living room for a while, chatting, until Shayna got up to work in the kitchen. They all followed her in and kept talking. The three cops stood around, mostly in the way, until Shayna shooed them into the dining room where she could still hear, but not have them underfoot.

Jaylynn sat in one of four majestic wooden chairs at the table and watched Dez out of the corner of her eye. The big woman was in good spirits this morning. In fact, she had been in good spirits—almost happy—for days now. Give that girl a carbohydrate, she thought, then smiled to herself. She decided she herself would be horribly mean if she wasn’t able to eat the variety of goodies she liked so well. No wonder the big cop had been so grumpy. She was just glad the weird diet was finally over.

Crystal said something and the rookie turned her attention to her. The smiling Latina said, “Did you read that article this morning about Dolly the Sheep?”

Jaylynn raised her eyebrows and looked at Crystal skeptically. She realized she hadn’t been following the thread of the conversation, so she said, “What? Some kind of interview with her?”

Dez barked out a laugh, surprising Jaylynn. “I think it was about the sheep, not with her.”

Jaylynn purposely ignored her. “What are you talking about, Crystal?”

“You know . . . that sheep they cloned—Dolly they named her.”

“What about her?”

“I read something about how when they clone the clones, it shortens their lifespan, and I was just going to comment that the department now has to end their experiment.”

Jaylynn looked at Crystal, confused. She could see the smirking woman was about to say something humorous, but she wasn’t able to track with it. “All right,” she said. “I’ll bite. What experiment?”

Crystal grinned and said, “The one where they clone Reilly here. They’re not gonna do it now that they’d end up with a bunch of mutant lesbians with tiny little lifespans.”

From the kitchen Shayna laughed. Dez gave her friend a level stare which caused Jaylynn to laugh out loud. The blonde said, “She can dish it out, Crystal, but she can’t take it.”

Dez said, “I don’t get mad. I get even.”

With a smirk on her face, Crystal nodded toward Jaylynn with a knowing look. “Truer words were never said. You should have been around the time she and Ryan put flour in Lieutenant Andres’ coffee sweetener.”

Jaylynn watched the flash of emotions move across Dez’s face, first uncertainty, then a slight wince of pain, settling into a tiny smile. It occurred to her that Dez very rarely talked about Ryan, and she hoped she would right now.

In a low voice, the big woman said, “It was Ryan’s idea.”

“But you got blamed.” Crystal sat forward in her seat and put her elbows on the table. Her face was lit up with pleasure, her brown eyes twinkling.

“He paid for that later. I made him buy me supper,” said Dez, an eyebrow arched. “Andres would never believe that his darling protégé would pull any tricks on him, but Ryan thought up more sneaky stuff . . . you wouldn’t believe it. Guess I didn’t mind being blamed. It was worth it to hear that Andres spit his coffee halfway across the room in Commander Paar’s office.”

Dez grinned, and Jaylynn saw the tip of a pink tongue run between the tall woman’s teeth. The rookie found herself staring. She didn’t often see Dez smile like that, her face totally relaxed and her eyes glinting with humor.

The women spent the next hour talking and laughing, with Shayna contributing occasional comments from the kitchen. It was well after ten when brunch was finally served. Jaylynn munched on scrambled eggs and blueberry pancakes. She said to Shayna, “So, what’s new about this pancake recipe?”

Shayna looked at her blankly.

Comprehension dawned on Crystal and Dez’s faces about the same time. They both started to speak at once, but Dez shut up right away as Crystal said, “Shayna was going to make a new thing, but it didn’t work out. Hope you don’t mind.”

Shayna’s brow was furled and she looked back and forth between her partner and Dez, but she was wise enough not to say anything.

“Hey,” said Dez. “How ’bout the Lynx? You guys go to any of their games?”

Another 45 minutes passed, and finally near noon, Dez rose. “Guess we’d better get going. We’ve got roll call at three, and I have errands I gotta run.”

They said their goodbyes, and Dez led the rookie out to the truck. Jaylynn was quiet as they drove out of Minneapolis. “Looks like it’s gonna be hot again tonight,” the blonde said.

Dez sighed. “Yeah, but we’re sure to get a nice thunderstorm. You can feel it building, can’t you?”

“Maybe. I’m looking forward to cooler weather—not snow, mind you! But I like fall a lot.”

“Me too. You mind if I stop for gas?”

“No, I’m not in any big hurry.”

Dez got off the freeway and pulled in to an Amoco gas station on Lexington Parkway. She took her time filling the truck. Jaylynn got out to try to wash the windows, and Dez thought it was lucky the blonde’s back was to the street when the smoking Pontiac Sunbird containing Crystal and Shayna went peeling by. Dez bit back a smile and turned her attention to the rookie who was doing a fine job washing the side windows, but when it came to the windshield, it was a lost cause.

“Need a step stool?” said Dez.

“Very funny.” The rookie obstinately opened the passenger door and levered herself up to stand on the edge of the doorframe so she could reach the windshield with the squeegee scrubber. She finished the driver’s side at the same time that Dez topped off the tank and removed the nozzle from the gas tank.

“Be right back,” said Dez. She ambled into the store, wondering how much time it would take Crystal to park the car around the block and hustle up to Jaylynn’s house. She waited in line while the harried clerk counted change for the customer ahead of her. Picking up a pack of Big Red cinnamon gum, she tossed it on the counter to be rung up too.

When she got back to the truck and pulled out of the lot, she offered Jaylynn a stick of gum.

“Uh, no thanks. That kind always burns my tongue.”

“You can eat salsa straight from the jar and spicy barbecue stuff, but you can’t chew gum?”

“Not that gum,” she said. She frowned and cast a puzzled look Dez’s way. “I just have to say you’re certainly feisty today.”

Dez smiled at her and wouldn’t meet her eyes. She couldn’t believe it, but she thought she’d actually pulled off this little diversion. She parked in front of the stucco house, busily congratulating herself, before it suddenly occurred to her that she was dropping Jaylynn off. But how was she herself going to get in there without arousing suspicion? She wanted to clonk herself on the head for not even thinking of that until now.

Hands on top of the steering wheel she sunk down a bit and said, “Uh, Jay?” The younger woman glanced over at her with a questioning look on her face, her eyebrows raised as she waited. Dez said, “Do you think I could come in, ah, to ah, use your bathroom?”

The rookie shrugged. “Sure. Come on.” For a moment Dez thought Jaylynn was going to ask why she couldn’t make it one measly mile and use the facilities at her own house, but she didn’t. Instead, the blonde opened the door and peeled out, smacking the door shut. Dez followed with what she was sure was the reddest face on the planet, partly from having to make the embarrassing request and partly because there were a dozen or more people waiting behind the shuttered windows of the stucco house, all of whom would be looking at her and Jaylynn as they entered. She didn’t want to face the crowd, but at the same time she didn’t want to miss the expression on the rookie’s face.

Jaylynn made her way up the front walk, inserted her key in the door and stepped inside with Dez hot on her heels. There was a split second pause as the young woman obviously realized something was amiss, and then a resounding “SURPRISE!” rang through the front hall. Jaylynn jerked back so fast that, without thinking, Dez automatically brought her hands up and grasped the rookie’s shoulders to steady her.

“Oh my God,” said Jaylynn. She turned and looked at Dez over her shoulder with her mouth open and the most stunned look on her face that Dez had ever seen. “You—you—you sneak!”

She turned back to the group standing in front of her: her mom and step-dad, Amanda and Erin, Crystal, Shayna, Tim and Kevin, Sara, Luella and Vanita, and Mitch Oster and his fiancee, Donna. Jaylynn rushed forward and began hugging people right and left while Dez hovered in the foyer, her hands in her shorts pockets.

A big banner hung over the entertainment center, obviously penned by her little sisters. It read Happy Birthday Jaylynn! Pink and purple, green and blue crepe paper was strung from one corner of the room to the other and tacked indiscriminately all over the furniture in the living room, again appearing to be the work of either the girls or an adult with no sense of balance or design whatsoever. A large sheet cake sat on the coffee table. Happy Big 25 it said in multi-colored frosting. On one half a running woman was drawn in blue shorts and top. On the other half was a picture of a lake and trees.

After being hugged by her big sister, Erin sidled over and looked up at the big cop. “Hi, Desiree,” she said shyly.

“Hi Erin. How ya been?”

“Fine.” Dez didn’t know what in the world possessed her, but she opened her arms wide, and the little girl wriggled with delight. The tall woman bent and picked Erin up under the arms, lifted her high in the air, and twirled the giggling girl around. Like a shot, Amanda was at her side.

“Me too! Me too.”

Dez put Erin down and lifted Amanda up in the air and spun her energetically. As she set her down, she peeked up to find everyone in the room looking her way.

The room had felt warm before, but now she suddenly found it stifling. She knew she was blushing and cleared her throat. Before she could get more embarrassed, a sandy-haired man with broad shoulders stepped forward. His twinkling brown eyes met hers and he stuck out his hand. “Hi,” he said. “You haven’t met me yet. I’m Dave Lindstrom, Lynnie—Jaylynn’s—step-dad.”

She shook his warm hand and sized him up. He was handsome, about six feet tall, with a dark blonde mustache. “Glad to meet you,” she said.

“Thanks for keeping the birthday girl occupied,” he said. “Gave us time to get here and settled.”

Sara chose that moment to hasten over to the piano and open the lid covering the keys. She sat down and played a familiar intro and then, in a clear, true voice, launched into the happy birthday song. Everyone else joined in and clapped at the end as Sara added some final piano grandstanding

“A quarter century, Jaylynn—how’s it feel?” teased Mitch.

“Hey, watch it, buddy,” the rookie retorted. “You’re next, you know.”

“Ah, but you’ll always be older than me,” he said as she advanced upon him and grabbed his arm to give him a mock slug.

Jaylynn said, “How do you put up with his teasing, Donna?”

The shy woman said, “I just threaten not to feed him.”

Everyone laughed, and then both of Jaylynn’s sisters were standing in front of her. “Presents first,” begged Erin. “Please?”

“Yeah,” Amanda said. “We got you something real good, Lynnie.” She scurried over to the coffee table and hauled out a square package. With a goofy smile on her face, she waved it in the air.

“Oh no,” said her mother. “Vanita and Luella went to a lot of trouble with the lunch so we should eat first.”

Jaylynn turned accusingly to Shayna and Crystal. “How could you two let me eat so much brunch?”

“We had to keep you busy some way,” said Shayna.

“Yeah,” said Crystal, “and everyone who knows you is aware that food’ll always do that!”

Luella said, “What all did you have?”

Jaylynn squinched up her nose and said, “About a hundred blueberry pancakes—and I’m still stuffed,” she wailed.

Luella said, “Well, let’s open presents first then,” a statement that was met by cheers from the two little girls.

Dez took that moment to duck outside to the truck so she could retrieve her gifts from where they were hidden behind her seat. She was glad to have a few moments to compose herself and took her time walking back to the house. When she came back in, she found the whole crew crowded in the living room around the cake and presents, Luella and Vanita and Jaylynn’s parents on the couch, and everyone else on the chairs or sitting cross-legged on the floor. Erin and Amanda knelt next to the table near their big sister and jabbered at her excitedly.

From the doorway Dez looked at the kneeling woman and her sisters. The rookie was laughing, her face alight with pleasure and her hazel eyes sparkling. She reached over and encircled Amanda’s waist with one hand and pulled the girl close for a hug. Her mother said something to her daughters, which Dez didn’t catch, and Jaylynn nodded, then reached over and patted her mother’s knee. The tall cop stood uncertainly as a feeling of bittersweet regret washed over her. She knew what her life had been like before Jaylynn had come into it, and she could imagine the emptiness she’d feel once the young woman moved on. She realized she didn’t feel complete without the rookie, but that Jaylynn was already whole without her.

The thought hit like a hammer blow to her heart, and she was filled with an odd wistfulness she couldn’t explain. Before she could slip further into remorse, a pair of shiny hazel eyes met hers and beckoned her forward. Shyly she handed the two packages over the top of the couch to Erin and slipped around to the side to sit on the floor between Mitch and Crystal. She knew that Jaylynn’s friends had all gone in together to buy her a simple 35 mm camera starter kit, and Luella and Vanita bought film to go with it.

“This is great!” said Jaylynn. “I’ve been wanting to learn more about photography for ages.” She opened the camera bag and pulled out the various boxes. “Let’s put it together now so I can take pictures this very moment.”

“Dontcha need film?” said Amanda.

Jaylynn said, “Oh yeah.”

Luella leaned forward from her perch on the couch. She said, “I think you’ll want to open that one next.” She pointed at a classy package wrapped in gold paper and expertly wound with ribbon and topped with a tangle of curled ribbon. Dez decided she should have had Luella wrap her gifts. Jaylynn gave the silver-haired woman a mischievous look, then tore into the gift, revealing four rolls of 24-exposure film.

“Thank you Vanita and Luella!”

Mitch said, “Hey rookie, you want me to assemble that thing for you?”

Dez said, “You actually know anything about cameras, Oster?”

“I’ll have you know I was the lead audio-visual aide for my high school,” he said in a huffy voice. “You’re not the only one with many skills.” He gave her a devilish grin, then snagged the camera bag that Jaylynn slid over to him and started to open boxes.

The rookie picked up the bigger package from Dez, and the big cop felt herself start to blush. She watched as Jaylynn opened it and pulled the cardboard flap open on the plain box. Out slid a leather duty belt, and Jaylynn looked over, surprise etched on her face. “Dez! Is this that kind you were telling me about—made especially for women?” When the dark haired woman nodded, Jaylynn said, “But these things are expensive!”

Dez shrugged. “It’ll help your lower back a lot.”

Jaylynn turned to her parents and said, “My regular work belt doesn’t fit exactly right and hurts my back.”

Dez said, “I got the size I thought would fit ya, but if it doesn’t feel right, you can exchange it.”

Jaylynn wrapped it around her middle. “I think it’s just right.” She set it down on the floor next to her, and picked up the smaller present, obviously a CD. “Is this from you too?”

Oster chose that opportunity to say, “You can tell it is by the incredibly masterful wrap job.”

Dez, embarrassed that the eyes of everyone in the room were on her, gave him the evil eye and said, “Watch it, Oster, you’re still on probation.” But she couldn’t help but smile at the young man’s enthusiasm. She looked over at Luella to find the silver-haired woman gazing at her with love in her eyes. Then she made a face at Dez. The dark haired woman made a mental note to give the landlady a really big hug later—and a pinch for sticking her tongue out at her.

Jaylynn unwrapped the CD. “Gloria Estefan! I love Gloria!” She beamed over at Dez, and the big cop decided it was worth all the soul-searching and worry she’d been through trying to decide what to give the rookie for a birthday present. Now that the two presents were open, she could sit back and relax.

Jaylynn moved on to the present Erin had been patiently holding on her lap. She removed the gold bow and tore off blue and green paper to uncover a journal. It had a gold spine and gold trim with trees and forest scenes all over the back and front. “Wow!” said the blonde. “This is really beautiful.”

“We bought it at the museum,” said Erin. “Look! See we got your initials put in.” Turning it over, she practically wrenched it out of Jaylynn’s hands to flip the front cover open. Sure enough, Jaylynn’s initials, J M S, were on the first page in two-inch tall gold lettering.

“This is really neat,” said Jaylynn. “I’ll have fun writing in it.” She picked up the gold bow and stuck it to Erin’s head. “You should have just put bows on your heads ’cause you guys are all the present I would ever need.”

Her mother said, “That’s sweet, Jaylynn. We’re glad you feel that way since we are your major present.”

“Mom, how long are you here?” she said with excitement in her voice.

“We fly out Tuesday. Gotta get the girls ready for school to start the next week.”

Jaylynn looked at her watch, then looked up in disappointment. “Darn, it’s already after one, and I have to be at work at three.”

Dez cleared her throat. “Actually, you don’t. I hope you don’t mind, but I cleared today and tomorrow off for you with Lt. Malcolm. You don’t have to go back until Wednesday.”

If she didn’t know better, Dez would swear that the rookie would have liked to launch herself across the room and hug her. She’d never seen Jaylynn look so thrilled. “Thank you! Oh, thanks so much for doing that!”

Crystal said, “I, on the other hand, have to show up.”

“Me too,” said Mitch. He snapped the back of the camera shut, and handed it to Jaylynn. “Here you go. It’s all set.”

Jaylynn put the camera strap around her neck and stood up. “Everybody,” she said. “This has been the best—and most surprising—birthday party I’ve ever had. Thanks! You all get on the couch and let me take a picture.”

After Jaylynn took the picture of the group piled on and around the sofa, Mitch insisted on taking several other pictures so Jaylynn could be in them. Once they’d shot nearly a whole roll, Luella hoisted herself up. “Come on Vanita,” she said. “Time for the goodies. We better get eatin’ so these working fools can have cake before they go.” She and her sister, plus Tim and Kevin, made a beeline for the kitchen.

One by one the pile of people on the couch extricated themselves and headed out to the kitchen. Jaylynn peered down at Dez who was sitting cross-legged on the floor jammed between the coffee table and the front of the couch. She said, “Do you go in at three?”

Solemnly Dez shook her head. “Day off.”

A wisp of a smile planted itself on the blonde’s lips, and she turned away to take a picture of Crystal and Shayna as they stood by the kitchen door and Shayna complained about how warm it was getting to be in the house.

Jaylynn’s sisters came each took one of her hands and led her out to the backyard were there were streamers and balloons decorating the trees and fence and table. Luella and Vanita supervised the laying out of the food which Dez was amused to see was mostly done by Kevin and Tim. In quick order, barbecued chicken, three kinds of salad, bowls of fruit, corn chips and potato chips, and a platter of cheese and crackers, pickles and olives were set out. Dez loaded up on the chicken and green salad, then took her plate over to sit under the canopy of the black walnut in the middle of the yard. She watched Jaylynn talking and laughing as the blonde helped dish up a paper plate Amanda was holding. A plump strawberry slid from one side of the plate to the other, and Dez observed its descent over the side almost as though it were in slow motion. In a smooth motion, Jaylynn swept her hand under Amanda’s arm and plucked the berry out of mid-air. She looked at the red fruit, then bit into it as Amanda watched.

Dez’s view was obstructed as Sara walked the few steps over to where the big cop sat. She lowered herself next to her.

“You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?” Sara said.

“Nope. Make yourself comfy.”

They sat eating in companionable silence, both watching the antics of the rest of the party. Tim and Kevin were telling some complicated story complete with exaggerated gestures, while Dave and Janet, Luella and Vanita listened intently. The little girls sat at the picnic table near Shayna, Crystal, Mitch and Donna. And Jaylynn flitted around, always laughing, hugging, teasing.

Sara said, “We’re surrounded by flaming extroverts.”

“You can say that again.”

“They’ll all run out of energy in the hot sun.”

“Meanwhile we’re keeping so cool in the 85 degree shade,” said Dez, in a dry voice.

Sara gave her a sidelong glance. “It is a bit too warm, isn’t it? I’m glad we kept the cake in the house.”

“Hey, Sara,” said Dez. “I didn’t realize you played piano.”

“Actually, I’m a music major. I play piano, violin, clarinet, even a little guitar. I hear you’re a guitarist. What do you like to play?”

Dez set her empty paper plate in front of her and cleared her throat. “Pop, folk, some bluesy stuff, a little country. Nothing too complicated.”

Sara finished chewing a bite of chicken and said, “I like to hear stuff on the radio and then see if I can duplicate it on the piano.”

“Me too,” said Dez.

“Have you heard that new one, “Baby Don’t you Break My Heart Slow” by Vonda Shepard and Emily from the Indigo Girls?”

“I think so. You figure it out already?”

Sara looked down at her near-empty plate. With a toss of her head she gestured toward the back stairs. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

They went into the house, leaving the rest of the crew out in the yard, and both settled in on the piano bench, backs to the living room. “You play?” asked the brown eyed woman.

“No, not really.”

“What do you mean—not really?”

“I can pick some things out, you know, play chords and such, but I don’t sight read well or anything.”

Sara nodded. She put her hands on the keys and began an introduction, and in an instant, Dez recognized it. “Oh yeah, I like this song a lot.”

“Know the words to it?”

Dez winced and shook her head. “Some, but not well enough to sing.”

Sara stopped playing and fished around in the papers and books stacked on top of the console piano until she found what she was looking for. “Here it is. I wrote the words down. I think you can read my writing—yeah, for once it’s pretty legible. Let’s run through it. Which part do you want?”

Dez was taken aback, but Sara was already playing the intro again. “You lead off,” the tall cop said, “and I’ll try that second verse and sing choruses with ya.” She glanced around, but no one was in the house, so she relaxed and closed her eyes. Sara started to sing and immediately her voice soothed Dez. It was clear and rich, a strong voice well-suited to a variety of musical styles. She had a hunch Sara could sing jazz or blues or rock. Her touch on the piano was deft and true, the rhythm reliable. After the first verse, Dez hummed a background harmony to the chorus. She let her voice curl around Sara’s. In her mind, she could feel the tones she sang surrounding and supporting Sara’s, helping to keep the song aloft. When she lost track of the words, she opened her eyes and checked the lyrics, then closed them again to let the reverberation of the piano thrum through her.

She started the second verse: I like the way you’d hold me, every night, for so long baby, and I like the way you’d say my name in the middle of the night while you were sleeping, I was believing in you, was I mistaken? Do you mean, do you mean what you say? When you say our love could last forever . . .

Sara’s strong voice joined in, and Dez felt the elation flow through her. She loved music. It had such power over her, the power to relax, excite, or soothe—or to make her cry. It was a refuge, a home, a path to her soul. When she sang or played guitar, she felt whole in a way she didn’t usually in the rest of her day-to-day life. And then when a song ended, she felt bereft, as though she’d lost something she desperately needed. They finished the verses, and then sang the final repeated chorus three times. Dez reveled in the fact that they were hitting all the harmonies together with no planning, without a word or a glance.

When the song came to an end and the piano faded to silence, Dez opened her eyes. “Nice piano work,” she said.

“Thanks. I’ve been working on that. You sounded good, Dez. It’s nice to sing with someone who stays on key and on their line. Lots of people can’t do that.” Sara picked up a book. “Here I’ve got one for you . . . see if you can sing this one—if you remember it—but I bet you will.”

“Oh, old Christopher Cross, huh. I know this.” The piano intro began and Dez let it wash over her. She marveled at how much tone Sara could coax out of the old piano. And then they sang together: Once in your life you find her, someone who turns your heart around, next thing you know you’re closing down the town, wake up and it’s still with you, even though you left her way across town, wondering to yourself, hey, what have I found?

Jaylynn stood in the kitchen and listened as the two women finished that song and moved into another and another. She was so thrilled she hardly breathed. Right now they were singing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s raucous romp, “Down at the Twist and Shout.” Jaylynn felt like a voyeur, but she knew if she went in the living room, they’d stop. She didn’t want that. Sara had sung so little all year, and when she did, she tended toward mournful tunes. It was good to hear her belting out a song like she was thoroughly enjoying it.

The screen door creaked open, and Luella entered carrying an empty chicken platter. Jaylynn smiled at her and put her finger to her lips, and the silver haired woman set the plate down carefully and moved to stand next to the blonde. Propped up against the counter, side by side, Jaylynn leaned into the older woman and let her head drop to rest on her friend’s shoulder.

Luella whispered, “I love it when she sings. She doesn’t do it enough.”

“Same with Sara. And listen to how great they sound together.” They finished “Down at the Twist and Shout” and without stopping, Sara segued into “Fast Car.” Dez was singing now by herself, her voice deep and expressive. Jaylynn felt the hairs on her arms stand on end, and even in the heat of the kitchen, she shivered. Oh my, she thought. Oh my. What she wouldn’t give to hear that voice singing quietly in her ear, even just whispering a song. Soon, she knew, she was going to have to have a heart-to-heart talk with Dez. She couldn’t go on like this much longer, her feelings constantly boiling to the surface. Any time soon she could lose her head and say or do something to really freak out the big cop. She couldn’t afford for that to happen, but it scared her to think of all the risks involved in revealing her feelings. Still, she knew something had to change.

She felt an odd sense of hope though. The entire atmosphere between the two women had changed since the bodybuilding show. Though not a single word had been exchanged, her intuition was running on high, and what it was telling her was that something profound was going on with Dez—and between the two of them. She didn’t know what had prompted it, but she wasn’t going to argue.

The screen door clattered opened, and in came Erin. As soon as the girl heard the piano, she was out of the kitchen like a shot. Jaylynn peeked around the corner and watched the bundle of squirmy energy insinuate herself between the piano and Dez. The big woman shifted back on the bench so that Erin could sit on the edge of the bench between her legs and lean into her. Long arms circled around the little body. Jaylynn couldn’t hear the conversation that went on for a minute as Sara hunted through the various books and papers on the piano. The blonde looked over at Luella. The silver-haired woman whispered, “Just go in there. They won’t stop now without disappointing the little pipsqueak.”

Jaylynn rounded the corner just as the piano started up again. It took a moment of puzzling before she recognized the old Beatles song. She heard her little sister’s quavery voice, displaying the family penchant for singing slightly off key: . . . I wanna hold your hand, I wanna hold your hand . . . and when I touch you I feel happy inside, it’s such a feeling that my love, I can’t hide . . . ” Dez sang quietly behind Erin, keeping her on track, and turning the pages of the music for Sara.

They were so into the song, that neither of the women nor Erin seemed to notice as one by one, all the guests made their way into the hot living room and camped out behind them. At the end of the song Vanita clapped and said, “Let’s hear it for the latest new star, Erin Lindstrom.” Erin peeked back, her little face squeezed between Sara and Dez.

Sara leaned over and whispered something into Dez’s ear, and Jaylynn saw the two women nod at one another and break into conspiratorial grins before they turned away again. Sara got her hands set on the piano and started a bass rhythm that Jaylynn immediately recognized. The two women hollered out, Get your motor running, head out on the highway, looking for adventure in whatever comes our way . . .

Jaylynn looked around the room. Everybody, even Luella, was singing the chorus, bellowing it out so loud that the neighbors must be able to hear it. The rookie couldn’t seem to get the silly grin off her face, and she hoped no one was paying attention to her. She felt this bubble of joy gurgle up from deep inside her, and she wanted to run through the room screaming with delight. Instead, she lowered herself onto the arm of the couch near Vanita and joined in, shrieking at the top of her lungs with the rest of them . . . Yeah, darling gonna make it happen, take the world in a love embrace, fire all of the guns at once and explode into space. Like a true nature’s child, we were born, born to be wild, we can climb so high, I never wanna die, born to be wild, born to be wild . . . .

Sara ended the song by playing the same rock chords she had started with, to the cheers of everyone assembled. She hit the final crashing chord and let up, then spun around on the bench a sheepish grin on her face.

“You got talent, girl,” said Vanita.

Sara smiled. “It’s an inspiring group, that’s all.”

Jaylynn saw that Dez still had her arms around Erin, with her back to the room. She was whispering something in the nine-year-old’s ear. The two of them nodded, and Erin rose. She took Dez’s hand and the two of them moved away from the piano.

Luella said, “We’ve gotta cut that cake now or these two,” she pointed at Mitch and Crystal, “aren’t going to get any. Come on Jaylynn.” She picked up a large kitchen knife and handed it to the blonde.

“I’m terrible at cutting cake,” Jaylynn confessed. “Really, I am.”

In a droll voice, her mother said, “She’s not lying. If you want a mangled piece of cake mashed up in a pile on your plate, then go ahead and let her cut.”

Tim, in his best prissy voice, said, “C’mon Kevin.” He reached over and took the knife from Luella. “What would you people do without us?”

Jaylynn was laughing so hard that she didn’t notice the big cop and Erin heading out the front door.

*****

“You’re sure you know which room is Jaylynn’s?” Dez had squatted down next to her truck, and was looking up at Erin who held an envelope in her hand.

The little girl nodded emphatically. “Oh yeah. Me and Amanda put our stuff in there on her couch. We’re hoping she lets us sleep over with her.”

You’re not the only one, thought Dez, then caught herself. What am I thinking? She shook her head from side to side as though that would cause the idea to fall out of her head and stop plaguing her. She said, “Will you sneak upstairs and hide this on her pillow so she won’t find it ’til tonight?”

Erin nodded, a serious look on her face. “What is it?”

“Just a birthday card.”

The little girl’s forehead wrinkled as Dez stood. “Why don’t you give it to her now?”

“I want it to be a surprise. Now hide it under your shirt, okay?”

Erin tucked it in the pink shorts waistband and pulled her shirt over it, then reached up for Dez’s hand. “Okay, I’m ready.”

They strolled back in the house, and when they got inside, Dez gave the girl a look and nodded toward the stairs. Erin took off like a firecracker, making such a racket on the way up the steps that Jaylynn looked up from the cake plate she was holding for Tim. “What’s got into her?” the blonde asked Dez.

Dez shrugged and gave the blonde a bashful smile. The inquisitive hazel eyes rested upon Dez for a moment longer before turning back to the cake serving, and the dark haired woman breathed a sigh of relief. She had debated long and hard about whether she would actually give the card to Jaylynn, and now it was too late to take it back. Well—she could ask Erin to retrieve it, but she wasn’t going to. She heard the pounding of little feet and Erin was back, breathless and triumphant. She tipped her head up and put her hands around her mouth. Dez bent over so the child could whisper in her ear.

“Mission accomp—accomp—”

“Accomplished?”

“Yup. Under the covers on top of the pillow.” She looked up with a very proud smile.

Dez bent to her ear and said, “Good job. I owe you one.”

Erin wrinkled up her nose. “Okay, you can take me to the zoo or something.”

This caused Dez to laugh out loud, and again, Jaylynn looked over at her quizzically. “What are you two in cahoots about?”

Erin straightened up, put her hands behind her back, and assumed an innocent look. “Nothing,” she said.

“Yeah, I’ll just bet,” said her big sister. “You having any cake?”

Dez said, “I think Erin should get a piece with lots of frosting, don’t you, Erin?” The girl leaned back into the tall cop’s legs and hooked her right arm around a strong thigh.

“Oh yeah,” said the little girl as she gazed up at Dez, a look of glee plastered across her face.

Jaylynn’s mother watched her youngest daughter with amusement then caught Dez’s eye. The tall woman smiled at her and winked.
PART 10
After midnight, Jaylynn’s sisters finally fell asleep on the downstairs couch while watching “Balto,” a kid-vid Sara had brought home. Her parents had gone to the hotel before dinner, Tim and Kevin were out, and Sara had hit the hay much earlier. Tired but satisfied, Jaylynn headed up the stairs to her warm and stuffy room. She got ready for bed, stripping down to a t-shirt and briefs, and brushed her teeth with a goofy smile on her face. She peered in the mirror in the bathroom, stared herself in the eye, and thought that she looked like a real dolt with the dumb, lovesick expression on her face. But she couldn’t help it. With a sigh she turned out the bathroom light and padded over to her room.

She sat on the couch and examined the new camera. She had taken an entire roll of film at the Minnesota Zoo and couldn’t wait to get it developed. She still couldn’t believe Dez had consented to go along with her sisters to the zoo, but then again, who could resist Erin or Amanda when they begged? She couldn’t—which was why, against her better judgment, they’d had hotdogs and popsicles for dinner. The zoo had been fun, and taking the girls there gave her parents a chance to get away for a while by themselves. The two women and two girls had walked miles, eaten cotton candy, and looked at mammals and fish and birds and reptiles. Amanda and Erin screamed with delight on the kiddie rides, and they all petted a million animals at the petting zoo—except for Dez who was allergic to them. Jaylynn had had to explain to the girls what that meant. For a few moments, they were disappointed that the black haired woman had kept her distance, but she was soon forgotten in the rush from one animal to the next.

The blonde picked up the new CD and painstakingly unwrapped the cellophane, then put the disk in her CD player next to the bed. Closing her eyes, she listened to the mellow tones of piano and Gloria’s sultry voice, letting the song roll over her, soothe her. And then the song’s tempo picked up and she wanted to be dancing. Nice beat. She curled her feet under her and read the words in the libretto. With excitement she realized it looked like an entire CD of salsa love songs. Wow. She couldn’t wait to hear it all.

Jaylynn reached over and adjusted the volume to a low level, clicked off the bedside lamp, and stood. She pulled back the covers and something pointy flew at her, poking her in the thigh as it fell. She clicked on the bedside lamp and stretched a hand down, half under the bed, to find a plain white envelope. With a frown on her face she picked it up and ripped open the flap. The picture on the card inside was a black and white photo of the back of two small girls, hand-in-hand and bare-legged. They wore old-fashioned jumpers that she imagined were probably corduroy. One was a curly-haired blonde, the other had short black hair and sported a beret. She opened the card and read:

Jay,

Thanks for sticking by me through thick and thin (literally!). This
last year has been hard for both of us in a lot of ways. You’ve been a good
friend and have come to mean a lot to me.
Hope you have a great birthday on Tuesday and that your day today
was memorable. I’m glad I was a part of it.

Love,

Dez

Her heart was beating so fast she almost couldn’t breathe. She read the card through once more. How . . . when . . . . She narrowed her eyes and remembered back to the early afternoon when she had seen Erin and Dez conspiring, and now she knew what that was about. Well, well, Miss Big Shot Cop, you got the drop on me repeatedly today. Hmm…we’ll see about this.

She got up, still carrying the card, and slipped out to the hall, hunting around for the phone cord. She found it trailing along the wall near the attic where it disappeared under the door that led upstairs. She opened the door to Tim’s nest and grabbed the cord, pulling it toward her as she climbed the stairs. She heard it sliding along the floor, and before she reached the top of the steps, it appeared, teetering on the edge. She grabbed it up and skipped back down the stairs, hauling the heavy, old-fashioned phone into her room and shutting the door behind her before setting it on the bed with the card. She crawled up on the bed, cross-legged, and leaned back against the pillows. Gloria’s voice, in Spanish, sang to a peppy salsa number, and Jaylynn couldn’t keep still. She rocked from side to side, happiness pulsing through her.

Jalynn dialed the number she knew by heart but rarely called, and when a familiar husky voice answered, she said, “Hey you.”

There was a pause. “Uh, hi.”

Grinning from ear to ear the rookie said, “So you think you’re pretty clever, huh?”

“Some days.”

“Today is definitely a day I’d have to agree with you.”

“Oh?”

“Oh yeah. Thanks for this card, and I’m listening to Gloria right now.”

“So you didn’t have that CD? I thought you might have gotten it already.”

“Nope. I’ve wanted it, but I didn’t get around to it yet. It’s just fabulous.”

In a low voice, Dez said, “I’m glad you like it.”

Jaylynn imagined the tall woman’s face, knowing that she’d be blushing a bit right now. “You were great today with my sisters. They like you a lot.”

“They’re a lot like you,” said the gruff voice.

“You mean energy-wise?”

“That—and they don’t listen to anything anyone tells ’em to do if they don’t wanna.”

“What? I don’t do that!”

“Yeah, right.”

Jaylynn heard a low chuckle in the phone. “I believe I’m getting a bad rep here.”

“Well-deserved is what I say.”

Jaylynn laughed, a warm, throaty sound that traveled through the phone line like a shot of adrenaline, and suddenly, with great intensity, Dez wished she were there with the blonde. She swallowed and said, “Where are you?”

“In my room, sitting on my bed. Where are you?”

“Standing in the middle of the apartment. Where are the little squirts?”

“They fell asleep on the couch downstairs, so—unless they wake in the middle of the night and search me out—I get a peaceful night of sleep.”

Dez nodded to herself. She picked up the phone and carried it over to her bed, then, tucking the receiver against her chin, lay down, crossed her legs at the ankles, and put her hands behind her head. “What are you gonna do with ’em tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. My step-dad has only been here once before, so we’ll probably do some sightseeing. They won’t be here that long. Dez, I still can’t believe they’re here!”

Dez smiled. “That was a pretty good surprise party. You really were surprised, weren’t you?”

Jaylynn made a snorting sound into the phone, “Are you kidding—blown away! I was totally clueless, though I did think you and Crystal were acting kind of odd . . . then again, as far as I knew, it could of just been you two being your same weird selves.”

“Who you calling weird? You’re the one who thinks a reporter can talk to Dolly the Sheep.”

“Ha! That’s rich,” said Jaylynn in a taunting voice, “from someone who breaks out in a sweat when a little petting zoo sheep strolls by.”

“Can I help it if I’m allergic?”

They talked on, joking and teasing, until Dez glanced over at her bedside clock to see that it was almost one a.m. They’d been on the phone almost half an hour. “What time are the midgets gonna get up tomorrow?”

“Why?”

“’Cause it’s getting late, and before you know it, they’ll be jumping on your bed. You better get some sleep.”

“Good point.” Jaylynn let a wave of fatigue wash over her. Much as she wished she could keep talking, she was feeling as tired as she ever had. She yawned. “If we go to the movies tomorrow, you wanna come?”

“Not if it’s to “Tarzan” or one of those bug movies.”

A bark of laughter burst out of the younger woman. “At least I know where you stand.”

“Probably couldn’t go anyway, Jay. I have to work, remember?”

“Oh. Well, that sucks.”

“Enjoy your family. Call me after they leave Tuesday—if you feel like it, that is.”

“Okay.” She yawned again. “Good night Dez.”

“’Night rookie.”

Jaylynn put the receiver back on the cradle and set the phone on the floor. Fluffing up the spread, she pulled it over her legs and lay on her side, her arms clasped against her chest and the card still next to her on the bed. With a sigh of contentment she closed her eyes, listening to the full, lilting voice of Gloria Estefan against a disco beat. Oh please, you know you own my heart . . . just tell me where to start . . . don’t make me wait much longer . . . were the last lyrics she heard before she fell asleep.

*****

Sunday and Monday flew by. Jaylynn’s family constantly kept busy hiking, shopping, going to the movies, eating meals with various combinations of Sara, Tim, and Kevin, and even riding on a paddlewheel boat from St. Paul down to Hastings. All too soon it was Tuesday and time to say goodbye.

At the airport Jaylynn parked the totally overloaded Camry, and the five occupants extricated themselves, pulling out suitcases and bags and backpacks. They had so much stuff that Jaylynn finally set off to find a cart. As she strode away, leaving her folks with the girls by the car, her mother caught up with her. “Lynnie,” she said. “Wait up.” They walked side by side through the parking ramp and over to the cart rack by the elevators. She pulled some quarters out of her shorts pockets. “Darn. It takes six, Mom. You got any quarters? I only have three.”

Her mother rooted through her purse and came up with a handful of change. “Here you go.” Jaylynn bent to insert the money, and when she stood up, her mother was eyeing her uncertainly.

“What?” The younger woman gave her mother a slight smile. “What’s on your mind, Mom? You look like you want to say something.”

Her mother cleared her throat and looked at her daughter. She raised a hand up and swept a stray lock of Jaylynn’s blonde hair away from her forehead. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous or anything, Lynnie, but I have to say this.”

Jaylynn stood, puzzled, her brow knit in concentration, as she waited for the rest.

Janet paused, then said, “Anyone can see how much you care about Dez, honey, and—and—well, we’ve never had a conversation about this, and maybe now’s not the time . . . but I just need you to know it’s okay. Dave and I just want you to be happy. Do you understand?”

Jaylynn stood mutely, her hands in the pockets of her shorts. She felt her face flaming and had no idea what to say.

Her mother stepped closer and slipped an arm around her daughter’s waist. “What? Have I rendered my gabby child completely speechless?”

“No . . . I—I just didn’t realize . . . ”

“That I knew about you and Dez? Or that I simply knew about you?”

“Either—or both,” she stuttered. “But Mom, there’s nothing between us . . .”

Janet erupted in laughter, squeezing her daughter around the waist. When she stopped chortling, she said, “Believe me, there will be.”

Jaylynn felt the blush rising up her neck, across her ears and face, all the way to the top of her head. “Could you please tell me why everyone else sees this when I don’t?” She slipped away from her mother’s embrace and grabbed the cart, jerking it from the rack, then raising her eyes shyly to meet her mom’s amused gaze.

“It’s plain as the nose on your face. Her face too.” She reached over and ruffled her daughter’s short hair, then cupped her eldest child’s chin in her hand. “Your father would be proud of how you’ve grown up, Lynnie. He’d be very proud.”

Tears filled her eyes, and Jaylynn turned to the side, stepping out of the way when another family bustled up to the rack. When she turned back, her mom looked at her in alarm, “Hey, sweetie, you’re not supposed to cry on your birthday.” She put her arm around her again and said, “Come on. Let’s go get those antsy girls before they drive Dave crazy.”

*****

Jaylynn drove home from the airport feeling teary-eyed and slightly stunned in the wake of the brief conversation with her mom. How many years had she worried about telling her folks, strategized, role played in her mind . . . and the whole subject was suddenly moot. It would take her some time to get adjusted to it. Now she wished she had had time to ask a few questions—like, how long have you known about this, Mom? What is it you see when you look at Dez and me?

She thought back to high school and how confusing it had been for her. Small and “cute,” she’d never lacked for guys to date, but by her junior year it seemed a useless expenditure of energy. She focused her time and attention on her studies, on running, and on her straight friend, Sandi. Her schoolmate was safe to hang around. She could be in love with her, and no one, not even Sandi, need ever know.

It wasn’t until the freedom of college, far away from home, that she allowed herself to get involved with anyone. She had never brought Dana home to Seattle or mentioned her to her parents. They’d only been together for about eight months, and they were eight of the most confusing and painful months she had ever experienced. By the time they had broken up, Jaylynn was a lot more jaded about love than she had thought she could be. After the fiasco of her second lover, Theresa, she had all but given up, deciding that she would devote her time and energies to causes that mattered to her: children’s issues, human rights, poverty problems. Issues were reliable; people weren’t.

Now she wondered if her other relationships hadn’t worked out because there was someone else floating around out in the world, someone meant to be her soulmate. She felt that it was true. She didn’t think dreams lied, and nearly two decades of dreams couldn’t be that far off, right? She pulled off Lexington and made her way to the back of the house, got out, and headed into the house.

Maybe I should go for a walk around the lake . . . instantly her body rebelled. She wanted to see the dark haired cop so badly that just thinking about not seeing her actually made a hollow spot behind her rib cage hurt. Guess that solves that question. She smiled and shook her head. Oh girl, you’ve got it bad. She checked her watch: 2:10. Well, let’s go call Miss Tall, Dark and Dangerous, and see what’s happening.

Dez picked up the phone on the first ring.

Jaylynn said, “You sitting on the phone or what?”

The big woman found herself blushing. “It rang. I picked up.”

“Ah, I see. So, whatcha doing today?”

Dez wanted to say that she’d been sitting by the phone, trying to make herself play her guitar, but really waiting for Jaylynn’s phone call. Instead she said, “Just practicing a little guitar. You got a better offer?”

“Not really.” Jaylynn racked her brain for something to suggest, but she drew a total blank.

“So you got ’em off on the plane safe and sound.”

“They’re on their way.”

“You ever play any basketball?”

“Sure. In high school. I didn’t play in college.”

“There’s a pick-up game over at Central later this afternoon. Wanna go play?”

“Who’s this with?”

“Buncha female cops from around the area get together to play on Tuesdays and Thursdays from four to six. It’s kinda fun.”

“Are we talking regular athletes or super human ones like you?”

“Oh come on! Basketball was never my big forte. Besides, it’s been months since I’ve played. Been too busy bodybuilding. You’re in way better shape than me.”

“Okay. I’ll dig out my hightops and give it the old college try.”

“I’ll come by and pick you up at 3:30, okay?”

“Sounds good.”

But Jaylynn found out Dez had exaggerated the extent of her rustiness. She was quick, powerful, and a decent ball handler. Blessed with long arms and great jumping ability, the big woman could even dunk it. Jaylynn watched from the sidelines as the first crew of rough and tumble cops went at it on the floor. She didn’t know any of these policewomen, and most were good ball players. They were rowdy, but not flagrant foulers, and there was a lot of good-natured ribbing between the players.

The game was fast and physical. And watching the black-clad Dez weave and scramble through the jungle of limbs was pure joy. She wasn’t the tallest player on the floor, but she could outleap any of the others. The rookie watched her fake out the woman guarding her, thread the needle, and lay one up left-handed. She admired the way the brunette could rocket a pass up the floor with unerring accuracy and then follow so quickly that if the fast break shooter missed, Dez often got the rebound and put it back up.

Jaylynn watched how Dez, the blonde-haired post, and the two wings moved about the floor, and she took note of the point guard on both teams. Dez’s team had a point guard who wasn’t particularly fast, but was able to make some incredible 3-pointers, so the other team guarded her closely. Jaylynn knew shooting was not her strong suit. But if she was guarded closely, she figured she could penetrate and pass off.

They didn’t keep score. It was not a game of numbers but of endurance. After the first twenty minutes, the guards ground down and needed a rest, so Jaylynn went in, accepting the ball on the sideline and passing it in to one of the forwards. She cut through the key and popped back up on top, received the pass, and put the ball to the floor. She surveyed the defense. Feinting right, she cut left around her defender, penetrating the top of the key. The defense collapsed on her, but she had already located three of her four fellow team members. Looking left, she flipped a bounce pass right, and the blonde haired post snagged the pass and shot it for an easy 8-foot jumper.

With a little smile, she retreated to the other end of the floor. “Good one,” a husky, panting voice said in her ear. As the big woman passed her, she whacked the rookie on the butt, then kept moving to her position at the base of the key.

Later, thinking back to the game, Jaylynn remembered scrambling for the ball, dribbling furiously up and down the floor, fast breaking right and left, and passing, passing, passing. The two opportunities she got for shots didn’t result in baskets. But her favorite play of the day occurred late in the afternoon when everyone was pretty wel worn down. She flitted around the point guard, stayed in her face, and just generally dogged her until the scrappy woman bobbled the ball. As the rookie snapped it up, Dez and two players from the other team were on their way past her. Jaylynn got control of the ball, dribbled fiercely up the court, and streaked past the two defenders. She felt one breathing down her neck two steps before the key. So instead of going for the layup, she alley-ooped it up toward the backboard. Two long arms plucked the ball from midair and dropped it in the basket.

“Perfect!” shouted Dez as her feet hit the ground. She spun and grabbed Jaylynn around the waist, swinging her up off her feet, a look of complete joy on her face. “That never happens. Nobody ever feeds me like that.”

“Hey!” said Jaylynn, a happy grin on her face. “Put me down.”

Dez complied. “On that note,” she said, “I think that’s enough for one day.” To the protests of the other ballplayers, she shook her head and said, “It’s almost six anyway, so we’re outta here.” They moved off the court where Dez picked up a towel and daubed at her forehead. “Wanna go get something to eat?”

In disbelief, Jaylynn looked down at her sweat soaked t-shirt.

“Oh, geez, I’m even sweatier than you,” said the tall woman. “Pizza? Or how ’bout Mexican?”

Jaylynn narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure you’re not a Stepford Dez?”

The big cop laughed. “Why—because of the dinner offer or the sweat?”

“Oh, definitely the food. I’ve worked with you for what, eight months? And I’ve never seen you eat pizza or tacos.”

“Join me at the local cantina, and I will display my great burrito eating talents. I’ll even buy on account of it being your birthday and everything.”

“Okay, it’s a deal.”

Later that night, as she lay in bed, Jaylynn thought back to the day and how much fun it had been. She had enjoyed the basketball game, though she definitely felt rusty. Eating chili rellenos with lots of hot sauce and talking with Dez had been exhilarating. Two and a half hours had passed in what felt like thirty minutes. She liked how Dez listened to her, giving her full attention and asking astute questions. She found herself talking way more than half the time, but Dez held up her side of the conversation—she just had a more economical way of stating her points.

There was no doubt at all that the big cop had changed, and Jaylynn didn’t know what had brought it on. She wasn’t one to question it though. It would be interesting to see how work would go from Wednesday through Sunday. She rolled over and went to sleep to the salsa tones of Gloria Estefan on the CD player.

*****

Labor Day passed without anything of note occurring at work. The following week, the rookie worked two extra days, covering the worst beat in their sector in a two-man car with Cooper. Cooper’s regular partner covered for Crystal who had gone with Shayna to Cancun. Jaylynn only had Tuesday off and was really tired, though she was glad to say that the low back pain she had been getting from the old duty belt had instantly gone away once she started wearing the belt Dez had bought her. She couldn’t believe what a difference it made.

Fatigued, Jaylynn lay around the house reading and taking it easy, knowing she had to go back to work on Wednesday. The only bright side was that she’d spend the next several nights riding with Dez again.

From Wednesday until Sunday night, the week’s worth of work was rather routine. In the station Dez was her same cool and distant self, but in the squad car she loosened up, though not as much as she had around Jaylynn’s birthday. By Sunday night, Jaylynn found herself wondering if she’d see Dez at all over the next three days. Not a word had been mentioned about doing anything together, and she was nervous to bring it up. A gust of cool air breezed in from the open window on Dez’s side of the car. The hot and humid days of summer seemed to be over, which was fine with Jaylynn. One of her favorite times of the year had always been the warmer days at the beginning of autumn, and she loved the changing colors on the trees and the crisp night air. Right now it actually seemed chilly.

She checked her watch, glad that it was after midnight. The shift was over, and Jaylynn was glad. As if she had read the rookie’s mind, Dez did a U-turn on University and headed west. In less than a minute they were parked in the station lot.

“You know,” said Dez, “after a shitty night like that, I feel like beating the crap out of someone.” She pulled on the door handle and kicked the car door open, slamming it behind her.

“I think that’s what the last guy we arrested said, wasn’t it?”

“You know what I mean. Was there something in the air tonight or what?”

They had spent the evening going from one domestic assault to another, and Jaylynn had to admit that it had been frustrating. The last call they had had to physically restrain the drunken apartment dweller who had beaten up his girlfriend. Paramedics took the bruised young woman off to the hospital with what the rookie suspected could be a broken jaw.

Dez stomped from the car toward the station house, and Jaylynn hustled to keep up with her.

The tall cop said, “Why do people have to be so damn mean and stupid?” Worst of all, Dez knew that it’d be hours before she got to sleep. In a mood like this, she’d be lucky to catch any sleep at all. “I may as well just take a trip,” she said as she grabbed the stationhouse door and wrenched it open, then stood aside for Jaylynn to enter.

“Thank you, Gallant Knight,” said Jaylynn with a laugh. “I don’t know how I would have gotten that door open, much less handled the night’s lively activities without you.”

Dez glared at her, then followed Jaylynn down the long hallway. “I’m just gonna get in my truck and drive until I reach water.”

“That’ll be what? Two miles? I think you’ll hit Como Lake in about three minutes. What then?’

Dez just made a growling sound and kept on moving. They both signed out, then started down the stairs to the locker room. Dez smacked open the door and went to her locker. She pulled out her wallet and checked it. “I’ve got sixty-seven bucks. Wanna go to Duluth?”

Jaylynn had her shirt unbuttoned and her vest half off. Over her shoulder, in a voice of disbelief, she said, “What? Are ya nuts?”

“Yeah. Certifiable.” Dez quickly stripped off her uniform and changed into blue jeans and a baggy bright green “Luck of the Irish” sweatshirt. She sat down on the bench and pulled off her shoes, reached for a pair of sneakers, and jammed a foot into each shoe. As she tied them, she said, “I’m getting in my truck and driving to Duluth. You can come if you want—or not. Whatever.”

Jaylynn hung her vest up on a hook in her locker. In her t-shirt she turned to face her partner. “You’re serious? It’s after midnight.”

The only response she got was a grunt as Dez finished tying her laces, stood up, and grabbed her wallet and keys. “See you on Wednesday then.” She moved as if to go, but Jaylynn reached out and grabbed her arm to stop her.

“Wait a minute, Miss Speedy Dresser. Give a girl a minute to get her act together.”

The dark haired woman frowned. “You’re not saying you wanna come?”

“Sure. Just let me get organized here. Not everyone is as lightning fast as you, at least not us normal people.”

Dez crossed the floor and stood by the sink. She looked in the mirror and noticed that her French braid was in disarray. She went back to her locker for a brush, then returned to the mirror and undid her hair and brushed it out. She hadn’t expected Jaylynn to accept her offer. She had been imagining herself driving silently up the darkened Highway 35, good tunes on the stereo, reaching the shores of Lake Superior before the sun rose. With a sigh of impatience, she decided she’d rather have company, even though she felt apprehensive about it. She started to braid her hair, then gazed in the mirror. The hell with it, she thought. I’ll leave it loose.

She wheeled around and marched back to her locker, dumped off the hairbrush, and rooted through her stuff until she found a black Twins baseball cap, which she mashed down on her head. Then she leaned back against the locker, crossed her arms over her chest, and let out another big sigh.

Jaylynn said, “Okay, okay. I think I’m ready.” The blonde cocked her head to the side as she watched Dez slowly straighten up. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Dez nodded her head. “Let’s hit the road, Jack. But we’ll come back.” Full of nervous energy, she took off toward the door.

Jaylynn shook her head. To herself she thought, what am I gonna do with you? You are certifiable. She allowed herself a quick chuckle, then jogged after the bigger woman who was already halfway up the stairs at the end of the hall.

As they walked through the parking lot, Jaylynn reached out and touched Dez’s arm. “I have one confession to make right here, right now, before we take off.”

Dez glanced at her but kept walking. “And that would be?”

“Within 15 minutes of departure, I’m likely to fall asleep. But I only need a short nap,” she hastened to add, “and then I’ll be totally perky when we get up there.”

“Ohhhhh, I see,” Dez said in a droll voice. “I’ve just invited a snoring companion. Well, don’t worry about it. I’ll keep the stereo up good and loud to drown it out. And just for the record, it’s over two hours up there. That’ll be quite the nap.”

“Just letting you know.” Jaylynn paused as Dez walked on. “You can always un-invite me.”

Dez hit the button on the keyless entry, and the interior lights blinked on. She waved her partner forward. “Oh come on,” she said in a grumpy voice. “Get in.” Jaylynn opened the door and climbed up into the shiny cranberry colored truck. She settled into the comfortable seat as Dez started the engine and then ejected a CD saying, “Any musical requests?”

Jaylynn said, “Oh no. You pick what you want—the driver should always get to choose.”

“Don’t you mean the person who’s awake chooses?”

Jay smirked at her. “Very funny. I’m not asleep yet.” She adjusted her seat to lean back slightly and put on her seat belt.

Dez picked up a CD from the small crate on the floor and unwrapped the plastic around it. Peering closely, she picked away at the clear adhesive tape on the top. “Don’t you just hate these damn CD wrappers? I’ve got no clue why they feel they have to weld them shut.” She painstakingly peeled the tape off, pulled out the disk, and inserted it, then stuck the cellophane and tape in the garbage holder.

Dez looked at the dashboard clock. 12:37. She put the truck in gear and pulled out of the parking lot as the strains of her brand new Lucy Kaplansky CD started. She was intrigued to hear words that echoed their own departure: There is no one else around, the road is quiet, the only sound is wind that sounds like cars that sound like breathing . . .

She turned onto the freeway and accelerated into the empty road. Two lanes weaving earth and sky, the stars are all that’s keeping time till morning, and I turn and look beside me and you’re sleeping like a baby . . .

She set the cruise control and let out a deep breath. . . . and the way you look tonight, fast asleep by the dashboard light, well I can’t speak, and that’s how I feel. When the song ended, she hit the replay and listened to it all over again.

She glanced over at Jaylynn and couldn’t help but smile when she saw the younger woman slumped against the window, already crashed, her face relaxed and soft. Her short blonde hair shone white in the moonlight slanting in the window. Dez looked at the clock on the dash: 12:44. Seven minutes. She shook her head. Geez, if I could go to sleep that quick and sleep as soundly—well, I’m jealous, that’s for sure. Tossing the black baseball cap behind the seat, she ran a hand through her hair and brushed it out of her eyes, remembering why exactly she tied it back or braided it most of the time. She turned down the music a notch, but she could still hear it clearly:

Open your eyes and look at me, look at me,

’Cause I have and hold this love for you

Before this ten year night is through

I’m telling you

Take it from me, take it from me . . .

The dark road was calming to her nerves, and she soon found herself thinking about the last several months. She felt like she had been on a long forced march, short of energy, short of faith, bereft of all hope. Since Ryan died . . . she didn’t like to think about it, but to be honest, it had been a year of hell. She wasn’t sure why the world seemed to have returned to a reasonable equilibrium, why she suddenly, without any warning or explanation, had regained some sort of inner balance. All she knew for sure was that she had a wild yearning to feel alive again, to feel energy and excitement. It didn’t seem true to Ryan, but then again, it didn’t seem true to his memory to mourn indefinitely. She thought of the goofy smirk his face so often held and how much like a little brother he always seemed, even though he was older. Remembering his constant teasing and good spirits brought a bittersweet smile to her face. Many days he was the only good thing about her heart-wrenching job . . . he was, anyway, until Jaylynn came along.

She heard a sigh from her companion and looked across the cab. Jaylynn shivered and groaned in her sleep. Dez reached over and turned the heater up one notch, which, since she was perfectly comfortable, was all she thought she could bear. She flipped up the seat’s center arm rest and grasped the steering wheel with her left hand. Using her right she fished around behind the seats until her fingers found the soft material of an old baby blue car blanket. She pulled it up and over, onto the top of the bench seat, then stretched across the truck cab and gripped the sleeve of Jaylynn’s jacket. The sleeping woman shifted and let out a quiet groan.

Dez tugged on her sleeve a bit more and pulled her companion toward her. Jaylynn turned to the left and leaned. Softly the dark haired woman said, “You can lie down, Jay.”

With a sigh the blonde shifted the seat belt off her shoulder, and slid down onto the seat until her head came to rest using the bigger woman’s thigh as a pillow.

That’s not quite what I had in mind, thought Dez. But she awkwardly unfolded the blanket one handed and tucked it around the sleeping rookie. She had to smile when Jaylynn’s response was to snuggle into the blanket and nestle up closer. The smaller woman curled her legs up on the seat and fell back into a deep sleep.

The CD started over with song number one, and Dez listened to the words again. With a long arm she reached over her companion and grabbed up the jewel case and checked the song name: “Ten Year Night.”

Going eighty on the highway, we’re all rushing somewhere

But the way I feel tonight, it’s like I’m already there.

Open your eyes and look at me, look at me,

‘Cause I have and hold this love for you

Before this ten year night is through

I’m telling you

Take it from me . . .

Tentatively she placed her hand on the rookie’s shoulder and was surprised when Jaylynn shifted and pulled the bigger woman’s hand to her chest so that Dez cradled her protectively, her fingers laced with her companion’s.

She couldn’t hold back. Tears came to her eyes and spilled over. She wiped them awkwardly on her left shoulder, but they wouldn’t stop. Through brimming eyes, she looked out on the dark road snaking through the night. This woman doesn’t lie, not even in her sleep. She trusts me. She really does care about me. A sense of wonderment came over her. Looking down, she checked to see that Jaylynn was still out and was relieved to feel the sleeping woman’s even breathing. She didn’t know how she would explain to Jaylynn what she was feeling, but she knew she had to try sometime soon. She looked at the clock: 1:20. She figured she had another hour or so to consider.

*****

I am so cold, so cold. Jaylynn lay on her side, and through sleepy eyes, she saw the crackling fire. But the small blaze didn’t give off enough heat to warm her. She crossed her arms over her chest and curled into a ball.

I am so numb, so very cold. She couldn’t wake up though, couldn’t rouse herself enough to sit up and find a way to warm herself.

Cool night air blew against her face and the smell of freshly cut pasture tickled her nose. Over the sound of crickets she heard a shuffle and then a toasty warm arm encircled her chest. A blanket covered her over and hot flesh pressed against the entire length of the back of her, radiating heat. Warm breath against her neck, a hand pressed flat against her chest. She laced her fingers with the toasty hand and slipped deeper into the dreams that beckoned her.

Oh, thank you, she thought as she went under. Thank you so very much.

*****

“Hey, sleepyhead. Wake up.”

Jaylynn opened her eyes and took a deep breath. “Don’t wanna,” she said grumpily.

“We’re on the hill going down into Duluth. If you wake up now, you may be able to catch sight of the lake before we hit the industrial park.”

Jaylynn let out a groan and snuggled deeper under the blanket. “It’s pitch black out,” she groused. “Unless there’s a million lights shining on the lake, I won’t be able to see a thing.” Suddenly she moved her right hand and realized it was touching warm skin, a hand definitely not her own. She let go and sat up with a start, gaping at Dez out of the corner of her eye as she settled herself on the other side of the seat.

“Ah, now you’re awake.”

“Yeah, yeah, I am.” She ran both hands nervously through her short hair and smoothed it down. “Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to use you as a pillow.”

“Oh yes you did,” Dez said, holding back a smile.

“No, really. I apologize. Won’t happen again.”

Dez couldn’t hold it in any longer. She laughed out loud. “You mean it won’t happen again until at least the trip home.”

Jaylynn relaxed. “Can I help it if you’re like a forest fire over there?” She reached out and playfully punched Dez in the arm.

“Can I help it if you’re some sort of heat seeking miss?”

“Ha ha. Very funny. For someone who got off shift in the crabbiest mood on earth, you sure are in a good mood now.” She looked at the dashboard clock. “Is it my imagination or have we been listening to this same CD for hours?”

“Yes we have.”

“You could have switched—it wouldn’t have woke me up.”

“A car crash wouldn’t have woke you up.” Dez grinned. “It’s a new CD. I like it.” She turned it up. “I decided she’s my new favorite artist.”

Jaylynn closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. She felt nervous, her stomach skipping and churning. She sneaked a glance at her companion from the corner of her eye and was surprised to see the happy, content look on her face. “Hey,” she said. “I like your hair loose like that. You should wear it that way more often.”

Even though she couldn’t actually see her in the darkened cab, she knew Dez was blushing as she said, “Thanks. But it’s like a horse’s tail. Drives me crazy, so I usually tie it back.” She steered the truck through one of the many Duluth tunnels and emerged onto a darkened main street.

Jaylynn reached over to stroke the brunette hair and then entangled her fingers for a moment before reluctantly pulling her hand away. “Yup, it is thick, isn’t it? It’s nice. My hair doesn’t have near the body.”

Before she knew it, a big hand shot over and palmed the back of her head, then tweaked her hair. “I can imagine you with long hair.”

“Oh it was long. I wore it long most of my life and only got it cut a couple of years ago, much to my mother’s chagrin. This is much easier though.”

“Maybe I have seen you before when you had long hair,” said Dez thoughtfully. “From the first time I saw you, I thought you looked familiar.” She turned right on Canal Park Drive, and when they crested the hill, she knew Lake Superior was just beyond.

“It’s funny you should say that,” said Jaelynn. “I sort of thought I knew you from somewhere, but I always wondered if maybe I imagined it.”

Dez shrugged. “Who knows . . . maybe in another life.” She wheeled into the parking area and nosed the truck into a spot facing east. She shut the engine off and looked at the clock. “Sun’ll be up before too long.”

“Dez?”

The bigger woman turned to look at her.

“It’s three o’clock in the morning.”

“3:10.”

“Whatever. Unless I miss my guess, it’s two or three hours before sunrise.”

“What’s your point?”

“It’s dark, nothing’s open, we have to wait hours for this wondrous event, and it’s getting cold in here.”

Dez shook her head and gave a big sigh. “You are such a wuss.”

Jaylynn gave her a happy smile. “I didn’t sign on to be frozen to death. You wanna keep the heater on low?”

“What a waste of gas. Just come over here.”

Jaylynn squinted at her partner in the darkness. Dez reclined her seat a couple notches, tilted the steering wheel up, then lifted the blanket from the middle of the seat and pulled it up. Hesitantly Jaylynn unhooked her seatbelt. She cast an anxious glance as she slid over. Dez fluffed the blanket and gathered the smaller woman up against her. With long arms, she tucked the blanket around Jaylynn’s legs and shifted her own hips so that she faced her slightly and her back was angled partly against the driver’s door.

Jaylynn found herself in the bigger woman’s embrace, her ear against a wildly beating heart. She hugged her left arm to her own chest and tentatively reached her right arm around her partner’s middle. In response Dez encircled her with both arms and pulled her closer, her chin resting on the top of the blonde head.

They cuddled together, wordlessly, for some time, and after a few minutes, their hearts calmed. The last thing Dez remembered before slipping off to sleep was a feeling of comfort and relaxation, a feeling that had not come to her for many months.

*****

Jaylynn sleepily opened her eyes. She sat on a rock promontory high above the sea. The ground was chilly despite the blanket she sat on, but she was mostly warm due to the morning sun streaming down upon her and the heating pad enveloping her back. She smelled the fresh sea air, and before her she watched a roiling ocean of water. Cozy and content, she sighed. Wow, that’s an amazing heating pad—and it’s outside too. Wonder where the cord is? She turned her head, only to realize she was nestled into the arms of one scorchingly heated woman.

Tilting her head up and back, Jaylynn studied her. The dark woman leaned back against the wall of a cliff, her eyes closed. Her skin was a deep tan, worry lines creasing her forehead. There was a tiny V-shaped scar above her right brow, but otherwise, her face was unmarked. Without warning bright blue eyes popped open and focused on her, and a feeling of glee rose in the young woman. I know you! You are . . . you are . . . . Confused and perplexed, she frowned. She felt strong arms tighten around her middle, and lips, soft and moist, tickled the skin on the side of her neck.

Her thoughts were in a jumble. Disjointed images rose in her mind, images of deep pits and falling, of bloodthirsty men giving chase, shooting arrows at her, and pain coursing through her body. Wait, she thought in a panic as she looked about her. She saw only the jagged rocks, felt only the warmth of the sun on her legs. Are they coming? Are we safe? She struggled and the arms tightened around her middle. This doesn’t happen in my dreams. You’re supposed to save me. I’ll do my part, but I don’t recall how we got here, to this place . . ..

Shhh. It’s okay. Everything is going to be fine . . . Trust me . . . it’ll be fine . . . .

*****

Dez awoke with a start as a seagull swept low making a high-pitched “kwee-kwee” noise. It didn’t get a stir from the slumbering bundle nestled up against her. She hugged Jaylynn tighter and looked out across the parking lot and out to the horizon. The sun would soon emerge, but at the moment all she could see of the lake was a solid dark gray mass and the faintest line where the sea met sky.

She took a deep breath and thought about the rookie and their relationship and how it was changing. She felt as though a deep chasm had been bridged, and the chasm had all been due to her own failure to understand the first thing about Jaylynn—not to mention herself.

What had Luella said about the two of them?—something about them being drawn to one another like those violets on her window sill. Dez thought she was right. She couldn’t explain it at all, but the pull she felt from the sleeping woman in her arms was more than she could resist. And she knew somehow that the feeling was mutual, though the idea of that scared the hell out of her. She’d faced down robbers and police chiefs, street thugs and drug runners, but none of them made her blood run cold with fear the way the idea of revealing her feelings to Jaylynn did. At the same time, there was a certainty about the rightness of doing it that made her resolve to figure out how to broach the subject.

One moment the world seemed dusky gray, and the next Dez saw fluorescent pink begin to appear before her. The lake moved from an inky black mass to a choppy gray sea right before her eyes. Gradually, rays of sun peeked over the edge of the horizon, and Canal Park became more visible. Over her shoulder was the bronze statue of the old man and the sea. To her left and stretching around in front of them was a rocky beach full of stones and rip rap. A leaning metal anchor, taller than Dez’s head, was planted in the middle of a raised platform. All around it seagulls landed and walked, bobbing along in the wind like bits of styrofoam.

Jaylynn shifted. “Dez?”

“Yes?”

She sat up and stretched her neck, then turned to gaze into serious blue eyes. “Do you know your heart beats only 54 times in a minute?”

“That’s the last thing I expected to hear!” said Dez, laughing. “How do you know that?”

“Because I’ve been counting all night.”

“No, you’ve been sleeping all night.”

Jaylynn sat up a little and reached for Dez’s hand. “I’ve been awake for the last few minutes. I thought you were asleep still.”

“Nah, just watching the sun come up.” It was now peeping up over the horizon, and the light was bright. “It’s going to be a nice day. Windy, but really pretty.”

Jaylynn leaned her head against the bigger woman’s shoulder and squeezed her hand. “What are we going to do once the sun’s up?”

“I can guess what your vote is.” As Dez said that, they both heard the rumble from Jaylynn’s stomach.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m hungry. As usual.”

Dez let go of Jaylynn’s hand and reached to start the engine, but the blonde grabbed her arm to stop her. “Wait. Let’s stay ’til the sun’s all the way up. Then we can find a place to eat.” If the truth were told, she’d have to say that she couldn’t care less about the sun at that moment, but she didn’t want to break the spell they both seemed to be under.

“All right.” The dark haired woman opened her hand and looked at her palm. Jaylynn shyly placed her smaller hand against it and intertwined their fingers. She looked up into Dez’s eyes, unsure if this was okay. The warm twinkle of the blue eyes that greeted her set her mind at ease.

Dez said, “Do you sometimes wish we could start over, maybe meet all over again for the first time? Like at a coffeeshop or—or a basketball game, or maybe at a party?”

Jaylynn thought about that. “I really don’t know. This has seemed so fated, so, hmmm, I’m not sure how to explain this, but it’s seems almost—”

“Like some sort of strange destiny?”

“Yeah. Do you believe in that?”

“I didn’t use to . . .” She paused. “But maybe I do now.”

*****

They stopped at a bakery on Superior Street. “Mmm, it smells so good in here,” said the blonde. “Don’t you love the smell of baking and cinnamon?”

The taller woman nodded as she studied the huge variety of donuts in the long glass display case.

They bought donuts, coffee for Jaylynn, and bottles of water. As Dez stood at the register, insisting on paying for the treats, her companion said, “Do you mean to tell me you’re actually going to eat two apple fritters?”

The low voice said, “By that, are you insinuating that two is too many?”

Jaylynn gave a snort of laughter. “No! I just can’t believe you’re actually going to place that much fat and sugar in the temple of your body. You gotta admit—they are enormous.”

The lady behind the counter, who was herself a rather substantial woman, laughed merrily. “She could use a little meat on them bones,” she said. “I’ll throw in an extra for you.”

So they departed with their drinks and five donuts. They stopped at a gas station to use the restrooms. While Dez filled the truck up with gas, Jaylynn called her house and left a message for Tim and Sara so they wouldn’t worry, and then they continued up the road.

With her mouth full of a delectable Chocolate Long John, Jaylynn said, “Where to, Magoo?”

Dez suddenly realized she hadn’t even asked Jaylynn what she wanted to do. What if she wanted to head home? But she was already on the coast highway heading north, so she simply said, “I was heading toward Gooseberry Falls. You been there?”

“No. I’ve passed by a few times, but never stopped.”

“Feel like hiking?”

“At six a.m.?”

“Hey, it’ll be seven or so when we get there.”

“Sounds like that gives me just enough time for another nap,” she said as she took a last swig of her coffee.

“Wait a minute. I thought coffee was supposed to keep a person awake.”

“Nah, never affects me.” She slung the blanket over her shoulders and looked at Dez as if for permission.

Dez let out a sigh. She patted the seat next to her. “Go ahead. I’ll wake you up when we get there.”

Jaylynn stretched out on her left side and returned to the snuggly position with her head on Dez’s right thigh. Dez gripped the wheel with her left hand and rested her other hand on Jaylynn’s shoulder. A small hand promptly reached up, grabbed her hand, and pulled it to her chest.

*****

Later, at Gooseberry Falls, Dez parked the truck. As Jaylynn got out, she could hear the rush of water and smell the fresh scent it carried. The big waterfalls were close to the bridge, and she could see the water as she hiked excitedly down a series of stone stairs.

“Wow, this is great,” said Jaylynn. She stood gazing out over rocks carved out of the hillside from many eons of erosion. Aspen, birch, and evergreen trees lined the sides of the deep chasm, the leaves of the deciduous trees starting to change from green to gold. She squeezed past an older couple who stood looking at the crashing water and stepped carefully across the dark brown rock as if spellbound. She stood close to the first large pool of water. Dez followed a few paces behind, her hands in her jeans pockets. Turning around, eyes shining, Jaylynn said, “Oh I wish I had my camera! I never knew this was so beautiful.” She spun around and knelt on one knee, thrusting her fingers in the water only to jerk them out just as abruptly. “Eeek! That’s cold!” She stood and shook her hand out, drying it on the leg of her pants.

Dez smiled and said, “There are five waterfalls all together. These two here,” she pointed to the left, “are the biggest, but there’s usually a lot of people here.” She looked around at the kids throwing rocks and other sightseers taking photos. In a grouchy voice she said, “What are all these people doing here on a Monday anyway?”

“They’re here because it’s so gorgeous.” The blonde let her eyes scan the area yet another time and decided it was one of the most lovely spots she’d ever been to.

“We can take that path—it’s called the Gitchi Gummi Trail,” said Dez, pointing alongside the water. “It comes out at Agate Beach where this runs into Lake Superior. Let’s walk out there, okay?”

She had such a hopeful look on her face that Jaylynn found she couldn’t refuse. She looked down at the lightweight jacket she was wearing. “But I bet I’ll get cold.”

“I’ll run up to the truck and get that blanket, and I’m pretty sure I have a sweatshirt behind the seat.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t mind,” and with that, the dark haired woman was off like a shot. Jaylynn watched as her long legs ate up the flights of stone stairs, and then she disappeared around a corner at the top. In moments she was back, skipping down the stairs like a kid. She arrived, breathless, carrying the light blue blanket, her black baseball cap, and a gray U of M sweatshirt.

Jaylynn took the sweatshirt and said, “Hey! I think this is mine. I was wondering where it was.”

Dez mumbled, “Yeah, guess you left it in the truck a while ago.” She jammed her black cap on over windblown hair and started off down the path, carrying the blanket and not letting the rookie see the embarrassed look on her face. She had been toting the sweatshirt around for months. She knew she should have returned it long ago, but it was the only thing she had of Jaylynn’s, and she couldn’t bring herself to give it back. She’d even worn it a couple of times. She looked over her shoulder to see Jaylynn pulling the thick sweatshirt on over her polo shirt and then zipping up her jacket over it. The younger woman hastened to catch up with her.

“My sweatshirt smells like you, Dez.”

The taller woman blanched. She stopped and faced the rookie. Stuttering she said, “Gosh, I hope it’s not sweaty or anything. I – I – I think I did wear it . . . yeah, I guess I must have.”

Jaylynn pulled at the neckband a bit and ducked her head down to sniff it. “No, it doesn’t smell bad at all. It smells good—like you.”

Dez wheeled around and began walking faster, her face flaming. Jaylynn hustled behind her and continued to talk. “Ever notice how people all smell so different? And did you ever read about pheromones and all that stuff in biology?” They stepped up on a wooden bridge. It was only five feet across and carried them over a muddy wash of water. “Smells are so interesting. Like have you noticed that some people who really like each other a lot seem to smell the same, and if you’re around someone whose smell doesn’t appeal to you, you just don’t seem to like them at all?”

Dez didn’t answer, so Jaylynn kept on. “For instance, Tim and Kevin. You probably didn’t get close enough to notice this, but I’ll just tell you anyway. They smell the same. If I hug either of them, they carry the same scent.”

Over her shoulder Dez said, “Like they use the same cologne, or what?”

“No, not that. They just have the same smell—I’m sorry. I think I’m explaining this badly.” She stepped over a twisted tree root and ducked under a low-hanging branch. “Whatever they eat, they both carry the same exact scent. Their breath is even the same. They probably sweat identically or something. And you know, they’re perfect for each other, can’t resist each other. It’s that pheromone thing, I’m just sure of it. This guy is the one for Tim. I can tell. Nobody else has ever affected him this way. But they’re not the only ones like this. So are Sara and Bill. And my mom and step-dad. And have you ever noticed that about Crystal and Shayna? Those two always smell like a vanilla candle.”

In a low gruff voice, Dez said, “I’m not sure I ever get close enough to people to test your theory.” She didn’t know where the rookie was going with this idea, but she was glad she seemed to have forgotten about the sweatshirt.

Jaylynn thought about that as she strode along right behind the taller woman. “Guess you’ll have to take my word for it ’cause I think it’s true.”

The path twisted to the right and wandered around a bit, and when Jaylynn thought they were deep in the forest, they suddenly emerged from the trees and found a pebbly beach spread out before them. She stopped and stared. Two hundred yards away were huge cracked glacial rocks, tossed haphazardly in what looked like an enormous pile at the water’s edge. The water was blue, the color of Dez’s eyes, and it lapped gently at the shore.

The sun shone bright but cold. Dez had kept walking and now stood forty yards away near the water, the blanket over her shoulder. She had her hands in jeans pockets, her long hair whipping to the side in the brisk breeze. The taller woman glanced over her shoulder, then wheeled around and found Jaylynn with her eyes. She raised her arms parallel to the ground, then tipped her head to the side slightly and shrugged as if to ask why the blonde wasn’t keeping up.

Jaylynn smiled and slogged through the pebbles to join her. The air was crisp and smelled fresh, like clean laundry, and she breathed it in, letting the familiarity of the place soothe her. She came to stand right next to the taller woman and reached up to grasp her upper arm. “It’s really beautiful here, Dez. What a great place.”

Dez nodded. She hadn’t been to Gooseberry Falls for several years, not since Karin. She’d always loved it and had hiked it high and low. She’d climbed the rocks and cliffs with her dad when she was younger, but she had thought Karin had spoiled it for her. She was surprised that the association of the place with Karin no longer had an effect on her at all. She realized, unexpectedly, that she could reclaim a favorite spot, and it made her feel relieved and warm all over.

On impulse she grabbed Jaylynn’s hand and pulled her toward the rocks. “Come on, let me show you something.”

She hauled Jaylynn up on one gigantic rock.

The younger woman said, “Do I need to remind you that I’m kind of afraid of heights?”

“We won’t be very high. Don’t worry.” The brunette pulled herself up another level and reached back to help her companion. They crawled up the pile of massive rocks. Dez picked her way along an edge and squeezed through a narrow space between two boulders, reaching back to help Jaylynn when necessary. Beyond the boulders there was a wide flat spot, and then a cliff, and from it they could see the craggy shoreline and the lake which stretched out for miles.

Jaylynn inched over to stand behind Dez as the bigger woman gazed out from the precipice. In a worried voice she said, “Don’t get too close, Dez.”

The dark-haired woman turned to face her anxious friend and gave her a brilliant smile. “I thought I was the worry wart around here.”

“We’ll trade off. It can be my turn today.” She reached for Dez’s hand and pulled her away from the edge.

Dez looked around and then pointed to a smooth depression in the rock against a tall outcropping. “There’s a great place to sit.” She realized she was nervous, but she moved over and arranged the partly folded blanket in the hollow, then sat on it and scooted back. She gestured to Jaylynn. “It’s a good spot here—out of the wind. Come join me?” She patted the blanket in front of her and drew her knees up. Jaylynn gingerly stepped over and lowered herself to sit, her back against Dez’s shins. The bigger woman leaned back against the cool rock. “Is that okay?”

“Um hmm.” Jaylynn shivered.

“Are you cold again?”

The rookie nodded. “A teeny bit hungry too.”

Dez laughed. She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of Hostess Chocolate Cupcakes which she set beside her. She unzipped her coat and moved her knees apart and made a V with her legs, then surprised Jaylynn by wrapping her arms around the shivering woman and pulling her closer. Once she got the smaller woman settled comfortably against her mid-section, she put her hands on her own knees. Dez hoped this was okay. It was all she could do to keep her hands off Jaylynn. But she had resolved not to be pushy, to let whatever happened happen. If we are only destined to be friends, I will live with that—maybe. She grinned and picked up the cellophane-wrapped treat next to her and thrust it in the rookie’s face.

Jaylynn twisted around. “Hey! Where’d you get that?”

“Bought it in the food mart when we stopped for gas.”

“Well, aren’t you the clever one.” She ripped into the package and nestled back into the warmth. Dez pulled her open jacket around the smaller woman as far as it would go.

As she munched, Jaylynn suddenly remembered fragments of a dream. She swallowed a bite of cupcake and said, “You won’t believe this, but earlier today in the truck, I dreamed of us in this place, this cliff, sitting here . . . that is so weird . . . hmm . . .”

“What?”

Jaylynn squeezed her eyes shut and willed the dream to come to the forefront but it would not. “I hate when that happens!”

“What? What do you mean?”

“When a scrap of a dream comes into your mind but before you can really remember it fully, it slips away. I hate that. But it was a good dream, I think.” She closed her eyes again and waited, but it was too late. She opened her eyes and looked out on the broad expanse of the lake. A movement caught her eye. Along the shore was a stand of poplar trees, and a bird rose from high up in the branches and took flight. She watched the hawk ascend, then circle above the treeline, floating and dipping in the morning wind.

Dez’s hand rose from her knee, and Jaylynn saw her pointing toward the hawk. “Yes, I see. Isn’t she beautiful?” She reached up and took the big hand in her own and pulled it down and around her.

A husky voice said, “How do you know it’s a she?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seems right. I imagine she’s circling above her nest, keeping an eye on it.” She squeezed the hand she held. Tentative arms encircled her waist, and the blonde drew her own knees up and leaned back with a peaceful sigh. When Dez shifted, Jaylynn twitched and said, “Am I squishing you?”

“Oh no. I’m just settling in,” she said in a husky voice. “Hold still. You’re fine.”

Jaylynn sat peacefully. She couldn’t help but smile and was glad Dez couldn’t see her face because she didn’t want to be asked any questions right now. She wanted to sit with this woman on the rocks gazing at Lake Superior forever and ever. But I’d get awfully hungry, she thought and then stifled a giggle.

A deep voice near her ear murmured, “What’s so funny?”

“Just thinking about my stomach again.” She picked up the cupcake package and held it up. “Do you want this second cupcake?”

“No, I’m fine. Go ahead.”

“I’m not used to eating something so sweet.”

“Wanna save it for later?”

When she nodded, Dez took the cellophane package and tucked it into her jacket pocket. Quickly she returned her arm to its place around Jaylynn’s middle, feeling the smooth surface of the windbreaker beneath her palms. When the blonde contentedly wrapped arms over the top of her forearms, Dez felt a warmth rise from her mid-section and spread through her body. Jaylynn’s blonde head nestled under her chin on Dez’s chest and the dark-haired woman could have kissed the white-blonde hair without stretching a bit. She took a deep breath and savored the smell. It occurred to her that maybe Jaylynn was right: maybe it was the scent of a person that attracted you to them. And she certainly felt attracted now. She hoped the woman snuggling comfortably between her legs didn’t realize what was happening. She didn’t want to scare her away or overwhelm her—but suddenly, Dez was flooded with heat. She tried to still her breath, to pace her thumping heart, but the sensations racing through her body seemed to short-circuit her will. With one slight shift her lips could be at the smaller woman’s ear, her neck. With every ounce of will, she fought against what her body urged her to do.

Dez cleared her throat and said, “Should we head back home?”

“Are you in a hurry to get back today?”

“No.”

“We could look around some more if you want.” There was a question in the blonde’s voice.

“Is anyone expecting you—I mean, do you have to be anywhere today?”

“Nope. If Sara or Tim come home and wonder where I am, they’ll get my phone message. You’re stuck with me for as long as you want.”

Dez tipped her head to the side and thought to herself, what if it’s forever? What if I want to be stuck with you forever? She could no longer avoid this conclusion. She felt complete when she was with Jaylynn, as though all was right with the world—even if that did sound trite and corny. At the same time, the intensity of her feelings scared the hell out of her. What if this woman she cradled in her arms didn’t feel the same way? She had spoken once of lust, but lust was not enough. I want love. Passion. Commitment. Forever. What likelihood was there of that? And Dez had felt the penalties of unrequited love—how could she live through that again?

They sat for some time, long enough for a ship to appear on the horizon and steam south until they could no longer see it over the rocks.

“Dez?”

“Hmmm?”

“Do you ever think about the man you had to shoot, you know, the one who killed Ryan?”

All thoughts of love and sex and commitment vanished from the tall woman’s mind. She shifted uncomfortably. “I try not to. Why?”

“‘Cause I can’t stop thinking about the guy I shot.” She paused, then went on. “He was so young. He could’ve had a life.” In a whisper Dez could hardly hear, she said, “It’s my fault he doesn’t. I still can’t believe someone’s dead because of me.”

In a firm voice, Dez said, “He’s dead because of his own choices. It’s not your fault. If you hadn’t shot him, he’d have shot you and probably the clerk too.”

“We don’t know that,” she said in a strangled voice.

“It’s likely though. He was high. It wasn’t your fault, Jay. You have to believe that.” Now she leaned forward and nuzzled the smaller woman’s neck with the side of her cheek. She tightened her grip and made a soothing sound in the back of her throat.

“I wish I could go back and do it all over again,” said Jaylynn, and Dez realized the younger woman was crying.

In a choked voice Dez said, “You did the right thing. You probably saved my life—and yours. What else could you have done?”

“I could have shot to wound,” she choked out.

“It happened too fast, Jay. You just reacted out of instinct.”

“No. I made a choice.” The events played out in Jaylynn’s mind as they had hundreds of times already. The startled face of the gunman as he swung toward them. Her arm going back automatically and unsnapping her holster. The explosion as Dez fell back into her. Instinctively using her partner as a shield as she pulled her weapon. Aiming. Firing. And then a split second feeling of a weight descending upon her chest and choking all the air out. “I shot to kill, not to wound.”

Dez leaned forward and inclined her head around to see Jaylynn’s face, but the smaller woman turned the other way. “Don’t look at me, Dez. I probably look terrible.”

The brunette shook her head. “No you don’t. You look fine, Jay. Listen to me. I think what you’re feeling is totally normal. I felt all the same things.” Only worse, she amended to herself. She knew what she had done, and it was unforgivable, much worse than what Jaylynn could ever think to do. She swallowed, feeling a bitterness rise up in her. Fat lot of good it did anyway. “Jay, when we became cops, we knew this kind of thing could happen. We’re trained to respond a certain way, and you acted exactly the way you were taught. You did the right thing. If it happened again, I would want you to react the very same way.”

“It—it really bothers me, Dez. I think about it far too much.”

“I know what you mean,” the tall woman said bitterly.

“Will you tell me what happened that night, the night Ryan got shot?”

Dez stiffened, her breath stopping in her chest. Not today. She couldn’t. She forced herself to take a breath and then relaxed her hands, which she found she was gripping in tight fists. “Yes,” she said. “I will someday. Just not now, okay?”

Jaylynn’s head nodded in front of her. “Another thing keeps bothering me. I couldn’t take it if it happened again. I – I don’t know if I can—I’m not sure if . . . oh geez! How were you able to stay on the job?” She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her jacket and shifted to the left so that she could look back at the concerned woman behind her.

Dez stared at her, surprised. “I don’t know. I just did. I tried not to think about it.”

“But did you ever want to quit?”

“Quit? Quit being a cop? No, it’s the only thing I know how to do.”

Jaylynn burst out into a mirthful laugh. “What do you mean! You know how to do a ton of things.”

That response flustered Dez, and now it was her turn to look away from the steady eyes. “Not anything that’s a profession.”

“Oh, give me a break! You can build stuff, you get along with people, you follow directions well, you’re an excellent teacher. Hell, you could run a paint company! You’re very smart, Dez. There’s a million professions for you! You’ve been a patrol cop for all this time. Have you ever thought of promoting?”

Dez pressed back against the cool rock. “Sometimes.”

In an excited voice, Jaylynn said, “Why don’t you take the sergeant’s exam then? It’s coming up in a couple months again.” She sat up and shifted almost a quarter turn so that she could look over her left shoulder and face the dark woman.

“I don’t know . . . sergeant’s have a crappy job.”

“You’d be a great detective. Why haven’t you applied for vice or homicide or something like that?”

“How did this suddenly get to be all about me?” grumbled Dez.

For some reason that made Jaylynn laugh out loud. “You are such a character.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You just crack me up.” She grinned and then impulsively said, “You make me happy.”

Next thing Dez knew, the blonde was again nestled in her arms, this time twisted more on her side, her cheek pressed into the chest of the brunette’s green sweatshirt. Dez slowly brought her arms up and gathered the woman tighter to her. She felt a wave of protectiveness wash over her and then realized she was helpless before this bundle of energy. She could no sooner resist her than she could stop breathing. And much as she might hate the uncertainty, she was going to have to deal with it. She sighed and in a soft voice said, “You make me happy too.”

*****

Some time later, the two women made their way off the rocks, across the pebbly beach, and back through the forest. It was not nearly as warm under the cover of trees, so Jaylynn unfolded the blanket and draped it over her shoulders.

Dez said, “You look like you’re in a blue cape.”

“Just call me Superman,” Jaylynn said.

“I’m pretty sure Superman’s cape was red.”

“You think so?” said the blonde as she thought for a moment. “It couldn’t possibly have been this warm.”

“Bet that old rag won’t let you fly though.”

Jaylynn cheerfully trudged up the stone stairs to the truck and stood inspecting the blue material. “I think this blanket has gotten a little dirty today,” she said as she refolded the it.

“It’ll wash,” said the bigger woman in a grouchy voice as she stepped up into the truck.

There she goes, thought Jaylynn, back to being a woman of few words. She crawled up into the cab and watched Dez out of the corner of her eye as she started the truck up.

The dark haired woman looked over and caught her staring. “What?”

Jaylynn hastened to shrug and say, “Nothing,” with a hint of innocence in her voice. Inside she was smiling to herself and wondering how to get her companion to extend the day with her.

In a noncommital voice, Dez said, “Back to Duluth?”

“What do you want to do?”

Dez looked away and out the side window. She didn’t want the morning to end. She didn’t want to go home. She hadn’t wanted to leave the rocky promontory they’d been on. “Are you hungry?”

Jaylynn giggled. “Do fish have fins?”

Dez couldn’t help but chuckle. She relaxed as she backed out of the parking space. “Then I guess the question is do we go north or south?”

“Which direction will yield the closest food?”

Dez grinned, then thought for a moment. “Two Harbors is south and has some restaurants. Beaver Bay and Silver Bay are north, and they do too. Beyond them there are some neat towns, and there’s always Grand Marais, but that’s a bit of a drive.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Dez frowned. “You want to go to Grand Marais?”

“Yeah. Let’s head that direction. If you don’t mind, that is.”

“No, I don’t mind at all.” Dez threw the truck into gear and peeled out of the parking lot, accelerating to 50 and then easing into a steady speed. She heard a click and saw Jaylynn unbuckling her seatbelt.

The blonde moved over toward Dez and fished around in the cushions of the bench seat to find the middle lap belt. Shyly, she said, “I’m gonna sit here by you, okay?”

“Sure.”

Jaylynn pulled the center belt around her waist and snapped it together, then let her hands drop to her lap. They drove along up the road like that for some time, following a string of vehicles, before Dez finally mustered up the courage to take her right hand off the wheel and reach out. Jaylynn promptly opened her hand and laced their fingers together.

At the same time that she was flooded with warmth and a buoyancy she wasn’t used to, Dez found herself worried about the teenage emotions that kept rising in her unbidden. She felt like a fool, like a sheepish, daffy, lovesick teenager. It was embarrassing. She snuck a dubious look out of the corner of her eye, and her companion seemed to have the same bashfulness adorning her face. Her eyes did not veer away quickly enough, and Jaylynn suddenly turned and looked up at her, catching her unguarded gaze.

The smaller woman said, “Are we going to talk about what’s happening?”

Dez knew immediately what she was referring to, but she hesitated, then turned her eyes back to the road. “No.” She paused and took a deep breath. “I mean yes. Just—just, not right now. Is that okay?”

She watched Jaylynn look down at their hands, and then the hazel green eyes were looking up at her, full of trust and hope. “Can I ask why?”

Dez didn’t answer right away, but when she did, she chose her words with care. “Let’s just enjoy the day for right now.”

“But we will talk?”

Dez nodded. “Soon.”

Jaylynn lifted their hands out of her lap. “Is this okay?”

With a big smile on her face, the brunette said, “Yes, it’s more than okay. Please—stay right where you are.” She leveled her blue eyes on the rookie and was rewarded with a smile, and then the blonde leaned her head against her shoulder.

It felt very right. It felt like home.

*****

They ate omelettes and hash browns in Grand Marais at a funny little cafÈ called Gwen’s Goodies. In addition to the old-fashioned chrome-trimmed booth in which they sat, they were surrounded by art supplies, stationery, and art pieces: sculptures, mosaics, paintings, clay pots. One entire wall was covered with artwork Grandma Moses could have done. Upon another wall a variety of Amish quilts were displayed. Over their table hung a four-foot tall paper mache mask. Celtic music warbled in the background. The small restaurant was an explosion: of wild colors, the sound of pennywhistles, and the smell of butter and cinnamon. Jaylynn loved it.

Dez sat slouched in the booth, her hands in her jacket pockets, and gazed across the room out the cafÈ’s bay window. The sun shone brightly through the window, and across the road she could see piles of rocks bordering a finger of the lake that pointed toward them.

Jaylynn said, “A penny for your thoughts.”

Dez’s head swung toward the blonde, her crystal blue eyes coming to rest on the rookie’s face. Jaylynn was once again startled at the intensity of the black haired woman’s gaze. She couldn’t help but smile.

Dez said, “I wasn’t thinking of anything much . . . just how my dad used to take my brother and me out walleye fishing when we were little. Not up here, but at a smaller lake.”

“Do you just have one brother?” said Jaylynn. “No sisters?”

Dez nodded. “Yup.”

“You never talk about him.”

Dez shrugged. “Not much to say. We’re not close.”

Jaylynn paused, considering whether to ask the next logical question. Instead, she said, “Where does he live?”

“Eden Prairie.”

“That’s not far to travel. Wish my family lived so near. And I always wished I had a brother. Is he older or younger than you?”

“Younger, by four years.”

Jaylynn paused a moment, worried that she’d start treading on thin ice, but she went ahead. “That night at the hospital, I got the impression that your mom is a doctor or nurse.”

“Doctor. Opthamologist.”

Jaylynn nodded, then said, “Is she married to that Mac?”

This clearly startled Dez. She jerked up from her slouching position in the booth and leveled an intent stare at the rookie. “Of course they’re not married. Why would you say that?”

Jaylynn set her fork down and pushed her plate away. She wiped her lips with the napkin and said, “That night—at the hospital—it was clear to me that they care about each other.”

“He was my father’s best friend. That’s it.”

“Dez,” Jaylynn said gently. “It’s been a lot of years since your dad died. Your mom has moved on, I think.”

“With Mac? I don’t think so. You’re wrong.” She crossed her arms over her sweatshirt and glowered over at the blonde, her face so cross that Jaylynn would have laughed if the topic had not been so obviously painful.

Jaylynn sat quietly thinking back to the scene in the hospital room on the fourth of July. She had no doubt that Mac MacArthur and Colette Reilly were more than just friends, but she didn’t understand why Dez not only did not know that, but was also so against it. Yet another mystery to unravel. She wondered how many secrets and old wounds this woman before her harbored.

The waitress appeared to ask if they needed anything more, and when both women shook their heads, she set the check facedown on the table and cleared their plates away. Dez picked up the ticket, glanced at it, and rose, tossing a sheaf of bills on the table.

Jaylynn opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything, Dez said, “I got that—don’t worry about it. C’mon.”

The blonde slid out of the booth, wincing at the change in the tall woman. She followed Dez by an eight-foot tall display of Mary Engelbreit items, between two racks of stationery, and past a shelf full of art supplies. When they got out to the sidewalk, the dark haired woman strode toward her truck. Jaylynn caught up with Dez and grabbed her hand, halting her.

“Dez! Look at me.”

The tall woman raised blue eyes full of misery.

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Mutely the tall woman nodded, but it looked to Jaylynn like she was on the verge of tears.

“There’s no hurry, is there? Can we walk over there by the water?” The rookie pointed across the road to where the long jetty extended out to the sea. She kept hold of Dez’s hand and pulled her along behind her, across the street, down a short walk, and then onto the pebbly beach. The wind whipped her hair to the side, and she was glad that the sun shone so brightly upon them. As the two women drew close, two gulls took flight and flapped above them before retreating to a safe distance. Jaylynn stepped around a dead bass, its flesh mostly picked away by the birds, and she kept a tight hold on Dez’s hand, which felt cold in her grip.

Once they were far away from the street, and the restaurant appeared as small as a tiny wooden block in the distance, Jaylynn stopped and looked up at the tall woman she’d been dragging along behind her. Still holding her hand, she said, “Remember that conversation we had walking around the lake? That one about practicing talking about stuff?”

Dez nodded.

Jaylynn gave her a little grin and said, “You’ve been shirking your training in that area. So out of the blue you get a little heavy weight, and you can’t lift it.” She made a tsk-tsk sound with her tongue, and with her free hand shook her finger in the air. In a kind voice, she said, “You know what happens when an athlete dogs it in practice?”

Dez didn’t respond in words, but a line of furrows appeared on her forehead, and she looked away out to sea.

“Um hmm . . . I know you know. Extra drills. Extra training until you’re on top of your form.” She reached up and cupped Dez’s cheek in one hand, bringing the tall woman’s face back so they were eye to eye. She let her hand drop. “You can’t run away from this, Dez, and you don’t need to. Come here.”

Dez let the smaller woman lead her another twenty paces until they came to a large chunk of driftwood wedged deep into the sand. Between two branches, there was just enough space for one person to sit.

“Here, sit down and take a load off,” said Jaylynn, the double meaning not missed by Dez. The dark haired woman started to sit on the log, but the blonde said, “Wait a minute. I think I should get the tall seat for once.” She sat and pointed down, “You get to sit in front this time.”

Dez lowered herself onto the warm sand and nestled her hips back against the partly buried log. Jaylynn splayed her legs out on either side of her, and the big cop leaned her head back until it came in contact with warm solidness. She felt the rookie rest her forearms on her broad shoulders and then a tickle of breath in her ear said, “You don’t even have to look at me—just start talking.”

The tall cop was at a loss as to what to say, where to start. She had not been involved in her mother’s life—or Mac’s, for that matter—for nearly six years. Mac had retired five years earlier at 55, and she so very rarely saw him. For all she knew, perhaps they were together. She didn’t remember very much about their visit that night at the hospital. She wished she did, but from the moment of the bullet’s impact until the next morning, everything was fuzzy.

She sat up tall and reached to grasp Jaylynn’s forearms, pulling the tawny colored limbs down, and then crossed her own arms over the top of them. The smaller woman shifted until she was pressed tight against the muscular back, her chin resting on Dez’s left shoulder, and her arms around a warm neck.

In a hoarse voice, Dez said, “Are you comfortable?”

“Yes, I am,” said a soft voice in her ear.

“Okay. Then what do you remember about my mother’s visit to the hospital that night?”

Jaylynn considered for a moment. “Are you asking me to tell you every little detail I can remember, or do you want to know why I think Mac and your mother are lovers?”

A snort of laughter erupted from Dez. It occurred to her that Jaylynn didn’t mess around skimming the surface of tough subjects. Just then the blonde peered around Dez’s shoulder and tried to see in her eyes.

“Hey, hey!” said Dez. “You’re supposed to stay on your side of the couch, Dr. Freud.” She felt Jaylynn laughing behind her. “Yes, I want to know why you think they’re lovers.”

She heard the rookie take a deep breath and then say, “Body proximity, eye contact, affectionate touch.”

Dez wanted to mention that with the exception of the eye contact, right now anyone observing the two of them would assume they were lovers—and they weren’t—but she held her tongue.

Jaylynn went on, “Do you recall what you said to your mother?”

Dez paused, then shook her head and waited.

“If I remember correctly, it was something like, ‘Why are you here, Mom? You don’t even like me anymore.’ As soon as you said that, she teared up, and Mac stepped in close, a little behind her. His arm had been across her shoulders, but he let it drop around her waist—practically around her whole middle—so that his hand came to rest like this. . .” Jaylynn’s hand caressed down Dez’s front until she laid it flat against the reclining woman’s stomach, just below her left breast.

Dez drew in a sharp breath.

Jaylynn said, “See? That’s kind of an intimate touch, and he wouldn’t have done that—under those circumstances especially—unless they had a high level of trust in one another. And from your mother’s demeanor, her manner, she doesn’t let just anybody touch her.”

“Like mother, like daughter, huh?”

Jaylynn laughed. “You could say that.”

Dez thought about what Jaylynn had explained. It did make sense. She remembered that all through her teen years she had wanted Mac to take her father’s place, to leave his wife and come live with her family. But it wasn’t until she was 22 that he and his wife had divorced, and then so soon after that, they’d had their falling out. Her mouth dropped open, and she stared out across Lake Superior in wonderment. After a moment, she said, “Shit, I think I just figured something out.”

“What?”

Jaylynn pressed a slightly chilled face against her neck, and Dez felt a thrill of warmth course through her body, which she tried to disregard. “I always assumed that my mother called up Mac and outed me to him out of spite. But what if she and he were seeing each other, and it became a topic of conversation? What if he was so distant with me because he was just being protective of her but didn’t want to interfere?” Dez knew Mac had never been the type to horn in on anyone’s business, not in his work life, and not in his personal life. He had, in fact, always let her work through her troubles her own way, and had been quite supportive of her.

“Why don’t you ask him?” said Jaylynn.

“Easier said than done.”

“Call him up on the phone. Send him a letter. Just start something. You’ll never find out otherwise, and aren’t you incredibly curious? I know I am!”

Dez found herself grinning and was glad the rookie couldn’t see the goofy expression on her face. “Yeah, I guess I am. It’s probably time to bury the hatchet anyway—for sure with my mom.”

“She loves you a lot, Dez. I could see that in the hospital room. When you said that to her, I could tell her heart just about broke. I hope you can sort things out with her—and with your brother. Why don’t you two get along?”

“He took mom’s side.”

“What does that mean?”

“Let me see . . . he told me I was being pig-headed and mean, and he said I was a jerk for upsetting her, and then he said I could just butt out of his life until I saw fit to treat her better.”

Jaylynn was very still and didn’t speak for so long that Dez finally said, “What? What are you thinking?”

“To be honest, I was just realizing that this is the stuff family feuds are made of and that I hope, hope, hope that my sisters and I never go through this. What’s your brother’s name?”

“Patrick.”

“And you haven’t seen him for six years?”

Dez shrugged. “About that.”

“Oh, Dez. He was right about one thing. You are the most pig-headed woman I’ve ever met.”

“Hey!” she protested, as she held back her desire to burst out laughing. “I’m sure Dr. Goldman would never be so judgmental.”

“But she’s not your friend, you fool. I will say one thing for you though: you’ve got endurance.”

“And you said I was doggin’ it earlier.”

“Truer words were never spoken! You’re going to need lots and lots and lots of practice at this, Miss Grin-and-Stuff-It. But your exercises have gone quite well today, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, not bad.” She got to her feet and brushed the sand off the back of her jeans, then reached down and took Jaylynn’s hand to pull her up. Still holding the smaller woman’s hand she pointed out to the end of the jetty and said, “Let’s walk all the way out there, okay?”

Jaylynn nodded, and they strolled along the pebbly beach, hand in hand, in the warm sunlight.

*****

Two meals, a large snack, and several hundred miles later they finally returned from Duluth to St. Paul. It was full dark, and the early September sun had long ago set. Dez pulled the Ford truck into the parking lot at the precinct and wheeled over to Jaylynn’s Camry. Before they came to a stop, the blonde had unhooked her seatbelt and scooted over to the other side of the truck. She sat there awkwardly when the truck halted in front of her car. “It’s been quite a day,” she said.

“Yup.”

“See you Wednesday?”

“For sure.”

“Thanks for lunch, Dez.”

“To which of the three meals are you referring,” she said, a smile on her face.

“I don’t think you can call the cupcake a lunch.”

“Oh, that reminds me . . .” Dez rooted around behind the seat and dug her jacket out, and after some more searching, triumphantly pulled something up. “Here you go,” she said as she handed it to her partner. “You can have it for a midnight snack.”

In the darkness of the cab Jaylynn felt the mashed cupcake still folded up in the crinkled cellophane. In a cross voice she said, “I’ll treasure it always.” She opened the truck door which flipped the overhead light on, and as she slid out, she caught and held dark blue eyes. Standing hesitantly in the open door, she looked up at Dez. She didn’t want to leave, didn’t want the night to end, but her courage failed her.

“Good night, Dez.”

“‘Night, Jay.”
PART 11
Jaylynn slammed Dez’s truck door shut and stomped over to her car, realizing with every step that she was mad at herself for being such a coward. It took her a few seconds to find the pocket of her jacket where the keys were. She unlocked the Camry door, gave a little wave and got in, setting the mashed cupcake on the passenger seat. The car was musty and warm and smelled faintly of mint. She didn’t know why—she hadn’t had anything minty in there that she could remember. She backed up out of the space and headed toward home. Smacking the wheel with the palm of her hand, she frowned. Why did the day have to end already? And why hadn’t she been able to summon up the courage to talk to Dez, to tell her how she felt? The thought that she might not get another chance like today filled her with despair.

Halfway down Lexington, she looked in the rear view mirror and saw the lights of a big vehicle tailing her. Squinting from the bright lights shining in through the back window, she questioned whether it was Dez’s truck, but decided the big cop wouldn’t follow that close. She came to Como Boulevard and maneuvered down the empty street around to the alley in back of the house. The truck stayed right behind and pulled in next to her.

Before Jaylynn could get out of her car, a tall dark form was opening her door. “Hey,” came the gruff voice.

“Long time, no see,” said the shorter woman as she emerged from her car and stood with her right arm resting on top of the doorframe.

Something made of soft fabric was thrust against her chest, and she reached up to take it with her left hand. Dez said, “You forgot this again.”

Jaylynn ran her hand over it for a moment before it registered: her U of M sweatshirt. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” she said in a cool tone. “You’ve had it so long, you should keep it.” She didn’t know what was wrong with her, why she was being so brusque. She handed it back to Dez and smacked shut the Camry door.

“Jay.” The voice was so soft she barely heard it. “Please?”

Startled, the rookie turned and looked up at the outline of her partner. Though moonlight reflected off the dark hair, she couldn’t see her face in the shadows. She did, however, feel the hand that came to rest on her shoulder, and a fierce truth flooded through her. She needed to know . . . and she wanted to know now, today, right this moment: was this a one day thing? A one time occurrence? What had today been all about? With a sigh she said, “We need to have that talk, Dez.”

“I know.”

In a peevish tone the blonde said, “Do we have to have it here in the alley, or can we go inside where it’s comfortable?” Acutely aware of the warm hand pressing lightly on her shoulder, she fumbled with her keys. When she looked up at the taller woman, her eyes had adjusted some to the darkness, and now she could see pale smouldering eyes burning into her own. She met the gaze and didn’t flinch. Everything around her narrowed, telescoping into the face before her until all she could see were indigo eyes and all she felt was the slow beat of her heart, the rhythm picking up as those eyes drilled into her.

Dez bent her head ever so slowly, eyes never wavering, giving Jaylynn every opportunity to withdraw. Instead the shorter woman met the gaze, unflinching, and tipped her head back until she connected with lips she found surprisingly soft. She dropped her car keys and brought her hands up to Dez’s middle, feeling the ridges of ribs under the worn cloth of the green sweatshirt. She slipped her arms around the taller woman as the hand on her shoulder shifted to encircle her in a tight embrace.

The kiss was intense and overpowering, hitting her like a tidal wave, and leaving her gasping for air. Jaylynn could hardly tear herself away, but after a moment, she did. She leaned her forehead against Dez’s shoulder, gulping, and said in a muffled voice, “Wait! Wait a minute.” She let her arms drop and backed up two steps, still out of breath, and bumped against the Camry. She choked out, “Don’t do this if you don’t mean it.” She took a deep breath and then bent to pick up her keys. When she rose, she saw the tall woman twisting the sweatshirt in her hands.

“I mean it,” growled Dez.

Jaylynn stood uncertainly, then whirled and headed toward the house. She reached the back gate and turned. “Well?” she said. “Are you coming?”

The dark haired woman hesitated for only a moment, then moved across the cement in slow strides until she caught up. “Will I be disturbing your roommates?”

“No. Tim’s car isn’t here, so he’s gone. Sara must be gone too because the house is dark. Come on.”

They made their way into the house through the kitchen back door, the hinges creaking as the smaller woman shut it. “Are you hungry?” said Jaylynn in a quiet voice as she slipped her jacket off and tossed her keys on the table.

“Not really.” Dez slouched by the back door, her hands in her Levi pockets.

The rookie opened the refrigerator door, which cast a stream of light in the darkened kitchen. She grabbed a plastic pint container of orange juice and shut the door. Turning, she looked at Dez standing in the shadows. “Let’s go up to my room.”

They passed through the dining area and into the living room, which was illuminated by one dim lamp. They started up the steps and Dez ran her hand over the smooth wood of the banister. It was the first time the dark haired woman had ventured upstairs since the night of the attack, and as they climbed up the staircase, she looked at the walls. She saw a Zorro movie poster on the landing, the black-clad hero standing with his sword drawn and the beautiful Catherine Zeta Jones next to him. Dez said, “Hey, that’s new. I loved that movie. She was great.”

Jaylynn peered back at her quizzically. “Why do you think that’s new?”

“Oh. Well,” she said, taken aback. “I suppose it could actually be months old, but it wasn’t there when I was up here last August. I remember all the other ones you have though.”

Jaylynn gave her a funny look. “Actually, we just got it a few weeks ago.”

“Where did you get all those posters?”

“Sara gets them at the video store where she works. She can get practically anything.”

At the top of the stairs, the blonde went into the only room Dez remembered. The tall woman hesitated in the dark doorway, still twisting the sweatshirt in her hands, until Jaylynn turned on a table lamp between the couch and bed. It shed a pale golden glow that barely illuminated the room. Dez’s pale eyes swept around, noticing that everything was completely different from the last time she had been upstairs. She said, “Wasn’t this Sara’s room?”

“Yeah, but we switched. She couldn’t face it after what happened.” Jaylynn reached over and turned on a pole lamp next to the bed. The bright light made Dez squint. Jaylynn frowned and switched off the glaring light, then set the orange juice container on the table next to the dimly glowing lamp. She sank down, angled into the corner of the couch, feet curled underneath her, and patted the cushion beside her. Dez sauntered in, tossing the gray sweatshirt at the other end of the couch. She sat gingerly in the middle of the sofa, unsure and confused. In fact she realized she felt a little panicky.

Jaylynn picked up the juice and offered it to her, but Dez shook her head and said, “No thanks.”

The blonde twisted the cap off and took a sip, then set it back down. “What’s the matter?”

The big woman shrugged.

“Come here.” When the brunette didn’t move, an exasperated Jaylynn said, “I won’t bite, and I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to. Please. Come here, Dez.”

With her head down, Dez scooted over. Jaylynn reached for her companion’s hand and was surprised to find that it was cool. “Hey! What happened to my furnace?”

The dark haired woman looked down, embarrassed, and said, “My hands go cold when I get nervous.”

“Dez! Why are you nervous?”

Another shrug.

In a kind voice the blonde said, “I’m the same person I was when we sat on the rocks earlier. The same one from the beach. The same one who sat next to you—or slept on you—in the truck for what, 500 miles? Why are you all of a sudden afraid of me?”

“I don’t know.”

Jaylynn squeezed the large hand and rubbed it a little to warm it up. She pulled the fingers open, and ran the palm of her hand over Dez’s palm feeling the calluses there. “You have great hands, you know.” Right after she said it, she realized how it sounded, and blushed crimson red. This got a smile out of Dez.

Jaylynn said, “Shame on you. You know that’s not what I meant—I meant that your hands are nice. I mean, they’re strong. They’re beautiful.”

“They’re too big.”

“You’d look sorta silly with my little hands on your body. These are just right for you. I like them. I like how I feel when they touch me.”

Now it was Dez’s turn to blush.

“Uh oh, your hands are going cold again. No more compliments for you.” Jaylynn reached over and took another drink of the orange juice. “Sure you don’t want some?”

“I’m sure.” Dez was also sure that if she ate or drank one single drop of anything, she’d be sick. What was she thinking when she had followed the younger woman? She hated how things usually went when she acted impulsively. And yet—she was glad to be with Jaylynn. Maybe she wasn’t ready to open up, but still, she didn’t want to leave. She fumbled for words, something, anything to talk about, but nothing occurred to her. Several tense seconds passed and then what came out of her mouth next surprised her as much as Jaylynn.

“What I said that day in the 7-11 when I got shot? It was true.” Dez took a sharp breath and, aghast, bit her tongue.

Now it was Jaylynn’s turn to hold her breath as she studied her partner’s face, which was blushing the brightest color of scarlet that the blonde had ever seen. In her kindest voice, she said, “I thought so.” She paused. “I’m surprised you remember. You were kind of out of it.”

“I remember.”

“I wasn’t totally sure you were talking to me.”

“I was.” Dez put her head down. “I am.”

Jaylynn reached up and pulled the long dark tresses back and let her palm rest against the blushing woman’s neck. With the other hand she gently turned Dez’s chin until the dark haired woman faced her and looked her in the eyes. “The feeling is so totally mutual.”

Dez raised timid eyes to meet smiling hazel green. She said, “I’m sorry I’m so slow.”

Jay shrugged. “You’ve made me wait a long time, but I think it’s been worth it.”

Uncertainty hit Dez again, and she shivered. “How do you know that? How can you be so sure? We haven’t even—you know—slept together.”

“Yes, we have! What about at Luella’s? What about last night in the truck?” She didn’t mention their first night together, the one that had turned so traumatic.

“Don’t be silly. That was different. It’s not the same as being, you know—intimate.”

Jaylynn stifled the urge to laugh, which was difficult since she was filled with so many contradictory and uncontrollable emotions that she almost felt the need to get up and run screaming jubilantly throughout the room. Instead, she said, “I think I’ll feel the same way—even more intensely after that intimacy.”

“But how do you know?” Bitterly Dez said, “It’s not like I have a good track record. Everybody who’s ever slept with me has ended up not liking me in the long run.”

“What—a cast of thousands?”

Dez looked down. “Well, no. Three.”

“They were idiots.” She let her hand drop from the dark haired woman’s face and rest on her thigh. “Desiree Reilly, I’ve been riding with you off and on for what—eight, nine months? I’ve seen you at your absolute worst, and I still like you. Shouldn’t that give you a clue?”

Dez considered that. “There’s an awful lot of unknowns here, Jay.”

The rookie rolled her eyes. “You worry too damn much.”

“Guess it comes with the job. Sometimes it’s like a heavy weight I can’t toss off.”

“Sorry, but I’m afraid I’m one heavy weight you aren’t gonna be able to toss off so easily. Please—why don’t you shut up and kiss me like you did in the alley?”

“Wait a minute. I haven’t done this for a very long time. What if—”

“Oh please!” Jaylynn said, laughing. “It’s like riding a bike. You won’t have just forgotten!”

“What if someone comes down the hall?” Dez nodded toward the open door.

Jaylynn sprang up from the couch and closed the bedroom door. “There. Is that better?” She stood in the dim lamplight with her hands on her hips and a smirk on her face. “Should I put the desk chair in front of it just to be safe? Maybe we could drag the couch over in front of it?”

Dez groaned and shook her head.

“Will you stop worrying then?”

Dez nodded and reached her hand out. “Okay. Come over here.”

Jaylynn was across the room in a shot. She stood before her partner and then eased down onto the couch by kneeling on either side of the dark haired woman’s legs, lowering herself onto muscular thighs.

“You’re lucky you’re still young and limber,” said Dez as she wrapped her arms around the smaller woman’s waist. “That’d kill my old knees.”

“Yeah, you’re so ancient.” Jaylynn cupped the dark head in her hands and met blue eyes. She arched an eyebrow. “Is this okay? There really isn’t any hurry, you know. We should take things slow ’til it feels right to you. ”

One dark eyebrow arched, and in a mocking tone, Dez said, “Go for it.”

“All right, but just stop me any time you want, okay?”

Soft lips came together shyly at first, then more insistently. After a moment, Jaylynn broke the kiss and pressed closer to Dez, taking the opportunity to slip her arms around the tall woman’s shoulders. She felt the bumpy texture of the couch against her forearms and the now very warm hands pressing against her back. Tucking her head against Dez’s collarbone, she nuzzled at her neck, smelling the soft scent she knew so well. “You smell incredibly good.”

“How is that possible?” Dez said in a low voice. “I haven’t even had a shower since yesterday.”

“I don’t know why, but you just smell edible to me.” She pressed her nose into the dark hair and inhaled. “You smell great.”

“So do you,” the tall woman countered gruffly as she pressed her lips against the side of Jaylynn’s neck. “And you taste good too.”

A quiet whimper emerged from the blonde, and suddenly she was breathing fast. “Oh, Dez. You don’t even know how sweet you are.”

With a soft groan, Dez wrapped her arms tightly around the smaller woman and stood up.

“Dez!”

In three steps they were at the edge of the bed, and Dez dropped them gracefully down onto it. They landed on their sides, still holding each other tightly.

Jaylynn said, “Pretty good for a decrepit old woman. It’s not like I’m light as a feather.”

“That was fun,” said Dez, laughing.

“You could have warned me.”

“What? And ruin the surprise? No way.” She nuzzled Jaylynn’s neck. In a soft voice she whispered, “You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to do this.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Get real. After what happened that first time?” She slid one leg between Jaylynn’s and moved as close as she could. “Jay, I thought I had—well, totally and completely blown it. I don’t know how you stuck it out all this time.”

“But couldn’t you see how I felt? Couldn’t you feel it?”

Dez drew her head back and gave her a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”

“Well, apparently everyone but the blind has been able to tell how I feel about you.”

“Meaning who?”

“Try Luella, Crystal, Vanita, Julie. Oh, and of course there’s Sara, but she’s had inside information. And Tim and Kevin, and Shayna—oh, and my mother definitely caught on too.”

“How do you know this?”

“Half of ’em told me! How else?”

In an indignant tone she said, “Good God! Is everyone we know privy to our relationship?”

“Dez! It’s not my fault. If all of them could read it in my face, then why didn’t you?”

“I’m glad no one read my face.”

Jaylynn burst into giggles.

“What?”

“Try Crystal and Luella, for sure. Julie too. And I’m sure Luella keeps Vanita up-to-date. And then there’s Shayna. And Cowboy.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.” She pulled the giggling woman closer. “So how come you couldn’t tell about me?”

“Just because you felt one way about me or maybe were attracted didn’t mean you wanted a relationship. Lucky I’m more patient than I look,” said Jaylynn. “I—I just wasn’t sure—you hide things well, you know.

“It’s been harder lately.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Dez ran her hand along Jaylynn’s hip. She didn’t quite know how to explain, but she took a shot at it. “I let you in too much. I started to rely on you too much.”

Jaylynn reached up to stroke the pale cheek. “I don’t understand. How can you care about anyone too much? There’s no too much about it. It’s pretty simple. You either care or you don’t.”

“Yeah, that’s a good theory,” Dez muttered.

“Now that’s not a theory—it’s a fact. Trust me.”

Instead of replying, Dez leaned in for a kiss.

“Wait,” the rookie said, startling the dark haired woman lying next to her.

Alarmed, Dez froze. “What?”

Jaylynn half sat up, her elbow under her head, and in a very serious voice said, “I thought you didn’t date cops.” She blanched when Dez rolled from her side onto her back. The blonde held her breath, then closed her eyes and swore silently to herself.

As Dez stared up at the ceiling, she said, “It doesn’t matter. At this point in our relationship, it appears that we’re skipping right over the dating part.”

Jaylynn laughed in relief. “You goofball,” she said, “you may not have realized it, but every day with you has been a date.”

“I don’t think so,” Dez said sheepishly. “I’m usually much nicer to my dates.”

“Now who said you had no sense of humor?” Jaylynn leaned over the prone woman and laid a hand on her stomach, stroking softly through the material of the sweatshirt, and grinning when she felt Dez’s breath catch. She let her hand drift higher until she was stroking the tight skin at her partner’s collarbone, then stroking downward over the tight muscle of her chest. Dez shifted and moved closer until Jaylynn could feel the warmth of her breath, then a gentle touch on her face as the taller woman lifted her dark head up off the bed and studied her intently. Jaylynn felt soft cotton under her hands as she slid them up against Dez’s body, then ducked her head gracefully and sought out the red lips below. Gentle at first, then again, a solid contact, lingering and powerful, lasting long enough for her soul to stir with a recognition she did not understand.

When they came up for air, Dez said, in a husky voice, “I guess I’ll have a new rule. I’ll only date one cop, but that’s it. After that, I draw the line. You’re the only one that got in the door in time, and now it’s closing.”

Breathlessly Jaylynn said, “For someone who had no idea what to say a little while ago, you sure are talking a lot.”

Dez reached out and put her hands over the back pockets of Jaylynn’s jeans and pulled the smaller woman up on top of her, in the process getting her hands up under the smaller woman’s shirt. The dark haired woman captured soft lips again. Her hands wandered up the skin of the blonde’s back, thumbs stroking a line along Jaylynn’s midsection. She felt the smaller woman shiver and arch upward.

Jaylynn said, “I want to feel your skin against me.” She pulled at Dez’s sweatshirt until it came off over the bigger woman’s head.

“Yours too.” Dez pulled off the polo shirt, and found yet another—a t-shirt. “Good God! How you coulda been cold all day with all these layers on is beyond me.”

Jaylynn shut her up with a kiss.

Unclothed from the waist up, they reveled in the touch of warm skin rapidly heating to the touch. Jaylynn slid to her side to give her hands free rein to touch her partner. She laid her head on Dez’s chest and let her right hand run from shoulder to breast to abdomen.

Jaylynn whispered, “You have no idea how much I wanted to touch you, especially the night of the bodybuilding show. I wanted to feel these muscles so bad.”

Dez answered by rolling the rookie over on her back and easing herself gently over the smaller woman’s frame. She traced a trail of kisses down Jaylynn’s neck, stroking her abdomen, caressing breasts until Jaylynn thought she would explode with the pleasure of it. She clutched at the broad shoulders and then felt a rush of cool air as her jeans were unbuttoned and slipped off. “Off with yours too,” she whispered as she fumbled at the zipper on Dez’s jeans. She couldn’t help the sigh of contentment that escaped when the denim against her legs disappeared and suddenly she felt the heat of limbs tangled with hers.

Strong hands stroked across her stomach, over her hips, across her whole upper body and then along the inside of her bare thighs. Elation swept through her as she savored a gentleness that, for some odd reason, she hadn’t expected. She completely lost track of where she was, focusing solely on the tension at her center as the heat grew and expanded in response to Dez’s tender but insistent touch. She felt lips against her neck and clasped the tall woman tightly, until she moved closer and closer to an explosion of lights and feeling. The intensity was so powerful that the sensations pounding through her body caused every muscle in her legs and hips to tighten and tremble in repeated waves. Through rasping breaths she held on to the woman in her arms until the tidal wave washing over her began to abate.

“Geez Dez,” she wheezed. “You certainly seem to have remembered plenty of bike riding techniques.” She gulped in air and gradually relaxed as Dez leaned over her and continued to stroke her body with deft hands.

In a low voice, the bigger woman said, “You don’t have any idea how beautiful you are, do you?”

“Oh come on, you crazy woman.”

“And,” she said, “you’re cute when you’re embarrassed.”

“I can only think of one way to shut you up.” Jaylynn pulled the dark head toward her and covered the smiling mouth with her lips. After moments of exploration, they came up for air, and the blonde said, “It’s my turn now.”

“I thought you just had your turn,” Dez commently dryly.

“No, it’s my turn to make you squirm.”

“Somehow that doesn’t sound very romantic.”

“I’ll work on it. Roll over, Miss Big Mouth Cop.”

Laughing, Dez obeyed, moving upward so she lay nearer the headboard. She pulled a pillow under her neck as the blonde straddled her, kneeling on either side of the lean hips.

Jaylynn said, “Okay now, let’s see a nice lying double biceps pose.”

“I don’t think that’s in the routine.”

“Put it in,” she said with fake menace.

So Dez brought up her arms and flexed both bicepss, looking first to the left, then to the right in the soft lamp light.

“Not bad,” said Jaylynn as she reached down to palm each of the bulging muscles. Quietly she said, “I still can’t believe how soft and cuddly you are when, from a distance, you looked like so many angles and cuts.” She leaned forward slowly and buried her face in the inviting neck below, nipping lightly with her teeth. When warm hands gripped her hips, she slid forward and shifted her legs until she lay atop the taller woman. She found herself clutched tightly as she ran her hands and mouth over as much of Dez as she could reach. It didn’t take long to find all the spots that pleased the dark-haired woman most, and she stroked and kissed at the soft skin in place after place until she heard a tortured whisper in her ear, “Please. You’re killin’ me.”

Jaylynn chuckled. She couldn’t help but grin as her hands caressed her lover’s legs. She found herself enfolded in strong arms against a wide chest. Hearing the pounding of the big woman’s heartbeat in her ear, she concentrated on the pleasure she hoped to bring. Before she knew it, Dez was clutching at her powerfully and gasping in her ear. She gripped the rookie as she trembled convulsively, and then, when the shuddering subsided, she opened her eyes.

Jaylynn gazed nervously into bright blue eyes. “Back in the saddle again?”

“Okay, okay. You were right,” the blue eyed woman said gruffly. “But that was definitely more fun than any bicycle I ever fell off.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

They lay tangled together for a few moments as their heartbeats gradually resumed normal levels. The brunette hugged Jaylynn tightly and closed her eyes, relishing the comfort of the moment. Then she sighed, and guarded eyes flicked open to search out Jaylynn’s face. In a low but nervous voice, Dez said, “Should I go home now?”

Jaylynn blinked in disbelief. “You’re joking, right?”

“Well, I—I mean, do you want me to go—”

“What! Are you nuts? Of course I don’t want you to go!” She reached up to the top of the bed and pulled the covers down.

Breathlessly Dez said, “Wait a minute . . . you can’t seriously be cold.”

“I will be soon. Here, slide over.” She wrestled the covers out from under the two of them and slid her legs under.

Alarmed, Dez said, “You gotta be kidding. I’ll roast.”

“Yeah, yeah. Here, just pull the sheet up. I’ll pull all the blankets over on me.” Jaylynn sat up to arrange the bed. She stretched to click off the bedside lamp, the skin on her back and torso taut and smooth, and then when the room went dark, she snuggled up next to her still very warm companion. “I don’t want you to leave. Please don’t go—ever—okay?” When her companion did not answer, she said, “Will you hold me?”

Dez reached out and folded her into a scorching embrace and they lay quietly delighting in the closeness. After a while, the smaller woman glanced at the bedside clock. “Wow! Can you believe it’s already one o’clock?”

“It seems more like five a.m.” Dez said sleepily as she settled in closer to her companion.

“Not really.”

“Maybe not to you, the one who got to sleep all over the north roads of Minnesota.” Dez yawned. “But I haven’t slept more than two hours at a time for days.”

“Why?”

“Don’t know. I never sleep well. But you won’t believe how tired I am now.” Her voice faded and her eyes closed. Jaylynn watched as the drowsy woman took a deep breath, exhaled, and then slept. She smiled, warm and content, and then eased over onto her side facing away from Dez. Her partner tightened her grip and tucked her legs up behind the rookie’s until they lay spooned together, a strong right arm gripping the blonde’s middle.

The feeling of gladness that coursed through the younger woman kept her awake for several minutes. She took a deep breath, thinking to herself that she had waited her whole life for this—not just making love, though that had been absolutely wonderful—but for this joining with the dark woman of her dreams. Always in the dreams there was a distance, a remoteness to the Woman Warrior. But with Dez lately, she had felt a burgeoning closeness that exhilarated her. This tall, complicated person who now held her so protectively in her arms had opened up, unfolding like a flower, in ways she had hoped for all her life.

With a contented sigh she closed her eyes and pressed her right forearm against the arm around her middle. She must have fallen asleep shortly after, but she opened her eyes some time later. The LED on the clock read 2:20. Wondering what had wakened her, she lay listening for a moment until she heard a familiar tread on the stairs. There was a tap on her door, and in the moonlight streaming through the window, a head poked in.

“Spssss. You awake?”

“Shhh.” Jaylynn sat up, arranging the sheet, and put her finger to her lips. She made a motion to Sara indicating that she’d be right out, and the other woman disappeared from the doorway.

Jaylynn extricated herself from her lover’s grip and padded across the floor. She grabbed an emerald green robe from the back of the door and slipped it on before taking a quick glance back. In the soft moonlight she saw dark hair fanned out on the pillow and it made her smile. She was still smiling when she descended the stairs and entered the kitchen to find Sara rooting through the refrigerator.

The brown-eyed woman looked askance at her over the frig door, a sly grin on her face. “Hey, sorry to barge in on you. Please tell me I didn’t imagine one tall policewoman in your bed?”

Jaylynn blushed, but she kept on grinning. “Nope. That was definitely not your imagination. We’ve had quite the day, to say the least.”

Sara smiled. “Hmmm. Guess I knew that was coming.” She collected an armload of items out of the frig and kicked the door shut with her foot. “You want a sandwich?”

“Sure. I’m starved.”

They stood assembling sandwiches while Jaylynn told her roommate about the events of the day. By the time she had finished the narrative, the two were sitting at the table downing milk and turkey and tomato sandwiches.

Sara said, “Where do you go from here then?”

Jaylynn looked thoughtfully across the kitchen table. “I guess that’s up to her.”

Sara gave her a puzzled look. “What does that mean? Isn’t it up to the both of you?”

Frowning, Jaylynn said, “I know exactly what I want, and I can only hope she wants the same, but it’s up to her. I learned my lesson already not to rush things. I’m just letting it happen however it goes.” She popped the last crust of bread into her mouth and drank the final dregs of milk. “I can’t believe how tired I am. But I’m glad I ate something. I was hungry.” She rose and picked up her plate and glass.

“Good night my friend,” Sara said warmly. “You know I’m hoping and praying this all works out.”

“I know you are. You’re the best.”

They smiled at one another, and then Jaylynn set her dishes in the sink and headed back upstairs. She crept into her room and slipped out of her robe, hanging it back up on the door hook, and slid into bed next to her toasty partner. She turned on her side, her back to the warmth, and felt an arm go around her and pull her close. She laced her fingers with Dez’s and they shifted until every surface of their bodies that could touch was in contact. Relaxing, the blonde closed her eyes, and then heard a sleepy whisper: “Guess I should have taken you up on your offer to drag the couch over in front of the door, huh?”

Jaylynn snickered.

“You were gone a long time.”

The smaller woman patted her own stomach with their intertwined hands. “Had to get a snack.”

“Mmm . . . figures. Good night love.”

“Sleep well,” the rookie replied, warmth and happiness flooding through her. She had waited so long, but finally, she was home.

*****

Dez awoke gradually and found herself in much the same position she’d been in when she’d fallen asleep, though she was no longer holding hands with the sleeping rookie. Jaylynn lay on her side facing away from her, the blonde head tucked under the bigger woman’s chin. Dez marveled at how every angle, every curve of their bodies fit together perfectly. She glanced over at the bedside clock and was surprised to see that it was nearly ten a.m. For once she’d actually gotten a whole night’s sleep. She only remembered waking once, attempting to escape a dream of fire and screaming. The woman in her arms had soothed her, even in sleep, reaching back and stroking her thigh until the big woman shook awake and realized she was safe.

Her left shoulder felt stiff, but she didn’t want to move for fear of awakening her partner. Gently bringing her free right hand up to the hip lying pressed against her, she touched the silky skin from waist to thigh, her hand sliding back up to rest on the soft hip. A sense of disbelief washed over her. I’m in love with this woman. I can hardly comprehend this, but last night she said she loved me too. I can hardly believe it. She swallowed and drew in a long, slow breath, which she let out gradually.

She looked around the room. It seemed much larger in the daylight than it had in the dim lamplight of the night before. Two walls each had two casement windows, which were covered with peach colored blinds, and plenty of light slanted in through the slats. Next to the closet door sat a huge bookshelf overflowing with books. Three Monet posters hung on one of the walls, and a framed Georgia O’Keeffe print hung above the bed. A cinnamon brown circular rug covered the center of the floor, bordered by the bed on one wall, and the bedside table and couch next to it.

At the other end of the room, next to the door, was a large modular computer desk where a monitor, tower, and printer rested. Above it, hanging from the wall was a four by five foot corkboard. Half of it contained cards and notes and various lists. The other half was covered with newspaper clippings. Dez squinted, then rose up on her left elbow. She realized that the clippings were all articles about her. The one of her in Jaylynn’s arms at the 7-11 looked new, but some of the others were old and yellowed, including the first write-up she’d ever gotten in 1993 when she had pulled two kids from a burning house. Though it was too far away to see clearly, she knew there was a fuzzy photo of herself on that one.

As she stared across the room at the articles, the blonde in her arms shifted and brought her hand up to grab Dez’s. The rookie groaned and rolled onto her back, then opened her eyes to look up at her partner. Her white-blonde hair was tousled, but the unlined face looked rested and at peace. In the luminous sunlight, the hazel eyes appeared greener than usual, and upon seeing them, a faint hint of recognition, of déjà vu, flowed through the dark haired woman.

She frowned. A tentative hand reached up and stroked her cheek, and a cheerful voice said, “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Again Dez was struck by the familiarity of that face, of those hazel green eyes. She’d known Jaylynn for over a year, yet she didnít feel she had ever truly looked at the woman. Now, holding the smaller form in her arms, her face inches away, she was acutely aware of how attractive she was. And not only that, but of something else, too, something intimate and almost recognizable that she had known forever and ever. At the same time that she felt a buoyant elation, she also experienced a contradictory sense of grief and loss. The paradox confused her. She cleared her throat and in a low voice said, “Nothing’s wrong. As usual, I’m just my same old grouchy self in the morning.”

“I don’t usually get to see you early in the day.” Jaylynn snaked warm arms around the muscled torso and shifted, rolling the bigger woman over, disarranging the covers, until the brunette lay on her back with one hazel eyed blonde peering down into her face. “But I could get used to this.”

“You could, could you?” Dez pulled the covers back up over the two of them and let her hands stroke the smooth shoulders, back, and hips in firm, languid motions. “It sure looks to me like you’ve been used to seeing me first thing every morning.”

A puzzled look creased Jaylynn’s brow. “What do you mean?”

Dez looked across the room and nodded toward the corkboard. “What’s that supposed to be?”

Jaylynn shot a look over her shoulder. Once she figured out what Dez was referring to, she let out an embarrassed laugh. “Ah, my wall of fame. I forgot all about that.” She lowered her head until her lips brushed the collarbone below her. “All I can say in my own defense is that it pales in comparison to the real thing, but it was the best I could do for a long time.”

“I see,” Dez said, arching one eyebrow and giving her partner just the faintest wisp of a smile. “How long have you been keeping this news and photo archive?”

Jaylynn nestled into Dez’s arms and put her head on the wide chest. “I think it’s been over a year now. Since last September, I guess.”

“Why?”

“Dez, I know it sounds impossible—maybe weird—but I fell in love with you the first time I laid eyes on you. One look . . . and that was it for me.” She paused, struggling for words, and beginning to blush. “I couldn’t help it. You didn’t return phone calls. You were distant at the precinct. But I had to get close to you. I don’t know why. I can’t explain . . .” She broke off obviously flustered.

“Guess I should be flattered.”

“Or you could call me crazy,” she said, her body tensed and uncertain.

Dez lay there with the smaller woman looming over her, a concerned look on the face staring down at her. She tried to think when it was that she could say she had fallen in love with Jaylynn, but everything blended together. It was as if she had been a dead thing—cold and numb and in the dark— and then suddenly, inexplicably, a golden ray of sunlight had come through a portal to illuminate everything for her. But when exactly that happened she could not say. One moment she was isolated and outcast; the next she had a constant companion who cared for her, who saved her from herself.

Dez said, “You’re about the farthest thing from crazy I’ve ever met,” she said, her voice low and husky. She tightened her grip around the slender waist, and felt Jaylynn relax against her, the blonde head tucked into her neck. “What happens now?”

“Breakfast?”

Dez smiled, nodding her head. “Hmm. Shoulda known that would be your first thought.”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“Yeah, I guess I am.” She lay there stroking smooth skin with her fingertips. “I should probably go home.”

“Why?”

Dez sighed and looked across the room. “Don’t wanna wear my welcome out.”

A sharp bark of laughter burst from Jaylynn. “You wouldn’t wear your welcome out if we were handcuffed together!”

With one eyebrow arched, Dez said, “That could be arranged.”

Dez felt the body against her tremble with laughter, then in a serious voice, Jaylynn said, “Do you want to do something together today, maybe?”

There was no maybe about it. Dez knew she would be content to lie in bed all day holding Jaylynn. The need to be close to her was so strong it was a gnawing ache.

When she didn’t answer right away, the woman in her arms let out a gust of air, as though she’d been holding her breath, and then pulled away and peered intently into her face. “It’s okay if you’d rather not—”

Dez marveled at how unselfconscious Jaylynn was, sitting before her with no clothes on, her hair uncombed and goosebumps on her arms. The younger woman handed her a narrow package, which Dez realized was a toothbrush. “Here,” she said. “Just take my robe and go shower—straight ahead, second door on the left down the hall. Meanwhile, I’ll round up some clothes you could wear.”

Dez started to pull the covers back, but inexplicably, she found herself blushing. She reached for the robe, but Jaylynn gave her an amused look. As though she could read her mind, the rookie said, “You’re not going shy on me now, are you, Dez?” When the big woman gave her a wry grimace, she giggled and said, “Shouldn’t I be the shy one? I’ve seen almost every inch of you at the bodybuilding show.” She grabbed the covers and slid in on her side, pressing up to the toasty alabaster skin. “I love how warm you always are.”

Dez set the toothbrush aside and enfolded the snuggling woman in her arms, feeling a lump rise in her throat. Awash in feeling, she ran her hand through the short blonde hair, her pulse quickening. She swallowed. “It’ll be interesting,” she said, “to squeeze into whatever you want me to wear.”

“You act like you’re an elephant!” Smiling eyes twinkled at her. “You probably haven’t noticed, but your hips are smaller than mine. And maybe your shoulders are broader, Miss Body Building Queen, but I have plenty of XL sweatshirts. So go get in the shower and I’ll dig you up something.”

They disentangled, and as Dez stepped out of the warm covers, Jaylynn slapped her on the butt. “Nice tush,” said the blonde as she held the toothbrush package out. Blushing, Dez snapped it up and then slipped into the robe, which was tight across the shoulders, to say the least. She pulled the tie around her and knotted it in front.

“What if one of your roommates—”

Jaylynn waved at her. “Don’t worry about it. Just go down the hall. No one will come in. I’m sure neither of them are even up yet. Towels are in the linen closet in there, and the white blow dryer is mine if you want to use it. There’s probably five different kinds of shampoo in the shower—just take your pick.”

Dez moved to the door and cracked it open, peeking down the hall. She glanced back to see the smirk on Jaylynn’s face, then swung the door wide and stepped resolutely out into the hall.

She unwrapped the toothbrush, brushed her teeth and hung the purple brush in the rack with half a dozen others. When she got done showering, Dez wrung the water out of her hair, which was thick and tangled, but she didn’t have a brush. She dried off, slipped the emerald robe back on, and padded back to Jaylynn’s room carrying the damp towel with her. She found her partner lounging under the covers again. “Hey lazybones!” she said.

Jaylynn stuck her tongue out. “I’m just trying to keep warm. You weren’t here, so what else was I supposed to do?” She reached for a pile of clothes next to her on the bed, and slid them toward the edge. “Why don’t you grab that blue brush on the dresser and come here. I’ll brush your hair.”

Dez did as she was told and came to sit before the smaller woman.

“You have such beautiful hair,” Jaylynn said quietly as she combed out the black tangles.

Dez closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation of the brush and warm hands against her damp head and neck.

In a dreamy voice, Jaylynn said, “I used to dream about this when I was a kid.”

“Brushing women’s hair?”

The rookie stopped abruptly. “Yeah, something like that.” She set the brush down on the bed and pulled the long dark hair to the side, revealing an ivory smooth neck. Bending her mouth to the skin near the dark hairline she ran a line of kisses down the graceful neck to the top of the green robe. Dez’s breath caught, and she felt shivers course through her body. She twisted to face Jaylynn, found velvety lips and lost herself in a kiss.

The kiss ended leaving them both breathless. Jaylynn smiled widely revealing flashing white teeth. “You taste good. No fair. You’ve brushed your teeth.” She picked up the hairbrush and quickly arranged the damp tresses into a French braid. “How’s that?”

Dez ran her hands over the top of her head. “Good.”

“All right. Now let me go get cleaned up.” Jaylynn slid out from under the dark woman and was pulling the green robe away before her feet even hit the floor. “My turn. Lemme have the robe.”

“I can see that sharing clothes with you is gonna be an experience,” Dez said as she let the shorter woman tug the robe down off her shoulders. As Jaylynn put the robe on, the brunette swung her legs off the side of the bed and sat on the edge, reaching into the pile of clothes to grab a navy blue sweatshirt. She pulled it on over her head. When her head popped through the neckband, she found Jaylynn watching her, the emerald robe around her shoulders but still open. Jaylynn stepped closer, and Dez slipped her hands inside the robe and pulled the rookie to her. She pressed her lips against the silky skin at Jaylynn’s breast and tightened her hold.

Next thing she knew, the blonde had pushed her back onto the bed and was kissing her in earnest. Dez crushed the blonde to her, carried away, her heart thundering. As they broke apart for air, Dez both felt and heard the giant rumble that emanated from the waist pressed against her. They laughed and relaxed. “Go on,” said Dez. “Your stomach is asserting itself again. Go hop in the shower and then we can get some food in ya.”

Jaylynn rose, blushing, and rearranged the robe. “Okay, I’ll hurry.”

While she was gone, Dez finished dressing in pink cotton underwear, dark blue sweatbottoms, and a pair of Fila athletic socks. She paused for a moment and marveled at the response Jaylynn brought about in her. She hadn’t expected to feel this way, this passionate hunger that robbed her of all sense and swept away every thought from her mind except for the need to touch and be touched. She had never felt this connection, this kind of rapport before. It was as if she and Jaylynn were totally in harmony, like a finely tuned guitar. One strum, one touch resulted in a rich and vibrant sound and feeling. Both gave her shivers and sent a thrill of happiness through her.

She laced up her own Nike hightops and realized Jaylynn had been right. Everything fit fine, though the sweatpants were a little short. She pressed her hands against her damp hair and arranged a few tendrils off her face. Moving over to the window near the foot of the bed, she pulled the blinds open and looked out. The sun was heading high in the sky. It shone brightly over the back of the house and glared off the chrome on her red truck. In the far corner of the backyard a shed listed slightly to the left, its white paint cracked and peeling. The last of the wilting tiger lilies struggled valiantly to remain upright, but the early autumn weather had taken its toll. The grass was still a verdant green and looked like it could use one final mowing before winter.

Dez crossed her arms over her chest and watched two squirrels streak across the grass to scramble up the black walnut in the middle of the yard. It occurred to her that things were happening awfully fast all of a sudden. Two days ago she and Jaylynn had been circling one another warily, as if uncertain about the other. Yesterday the barriers had begun to crumble, and last night, well, so much for barriers. Today had already started out on a good note, and she wondered how long it could last. She didn’t want to delude herself. What she wanted from Jaylynn and what she might actually get could be miles apart. And yet . . . something in her told her to trust. That recurring and familiar sense of dÈjý vu washed over her. She could not have explained her faith in the rookie to anyone, not even to Jaylynn, but at a purely instinctual level, something in her cried out to depend upon what she felt and upon what the younger woman professed to feel.

She moved away from the window and sat down on the bed. The water clunked off down the hall, and then she heard the whir of the hair dryer. In short order a whirling bundle of energy returned to the room and buzzed around, pulling out clothes and chattering away. Dez watched her dress in a white Police Academy sweatshirt, jeans, and Nikes running shoes.

Jaylynn brushed her hair back, then said, “Ready for something to eat?”

Dez nodded and rose from the bed. Jaylynn reached for her hand and pulled her down the stairs to the quiet kitchen. The blonde was appalled at the boring choice, but the big cop insisted on having oatmeal, though Dez did grudgingly accept two pieces of lightly buttered toast. Jaylynn sectioned a grapefruit and they ate that too, then they sat at the table looking expectantly at one another. The kitchen clock ticked away, displaying the time: 11:15.

“What next?” said Jaylynn.

Dez brought her large hands up from under the table and stretched them out to take the smaller woman’s hands in her own. She squeezed, her thumbs pressing into palms, and said seriously, “These clothes are nice and everything, but—” she cleared her throat and looked out the window.

Jaylynn frowned at her, puzzled. “But what?”

Dez returned her gaze to the concerned eyes before her, a funny look on her face. “But to be honest, I’d like to go back upstairs and take them off.” A pleasant shade of crimson started at her neck and rose as she saw understanding wash over Jaylynn’s features. The younger woman broke out in a grin and stood, leaving their dishes on the table. Still holding one of the dark haired woman’s hands, she pulled her to her feet and up the stairs to her room.

*****

The two women spent the afternoon making love and talking, with Jaylynn running downstairs twice to bring up food to munch on in bed. Soon it was late afternoon. The sun had ceased to slant in through the blinds, and Dez lay on her back against a pillow, the blonde woman cradled contentedly against her chest with their legs entwined. She reached a hand up to brush the blonde hair out of the younger woman’s face. The hazel green eyes opened slowly. Dez watched as the smaller woman’s eyes went from hazy to intent. “What?” Dez said.

In a soft, almost inaudible voice, Jaylynn said, “I’m not sure you understand how I feel about you.”

Dez waited, watching the green-eyed woman struggle to put something into words.

“This is not lust—well . . ..” Jaylynn’s face colored sweetly. “I’m not denying the lust, but how I feel is more than just an incredible attraction. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. Do you understand?”

Dez nodded slowly.

“Dez, I don’t want to scare you off . . . ”

The brunette reached out and cupped Jaylynn’s face in a big hand, her thumb stroking a tight circle on the soft skin. She waited.

“I want you . . . forever. You probably think that sounds crazy, huh?” Serious eyes and a worried face looked up at the dark haired woman.

Shyly Dez said, “It’s not just physical for me either. I feel the same way. I—I—well, I can’t explain it,” she finished awkwardly.

In answer, the smaller woman snuggled more tightly against her, burrowing her face into the ivory-colored neck. After a few minutes, Jaylynn whispered, “The worst time of my life was when you wouldn’t speak to me. You don’t know how much that hurt. Please . . . please don’t let that ever happen again.”

In a husky voice, Dez said, “I won’t. I promise.”

They lay there for several minutes, not moving, not talking, before Dez looked over at the bedside clock. “It’s nearly five. I should probably go home.”

Jaylynn raised her head and gave Dez an alarmed look. “I hope you’re not serious.”

“We’re closing in on 24 hours in bed. We gotta work tomorrow. Don’t you want to get up and get ready?’

“What’s to get ready?”

“You know—laundry, shopping, cooking, whatever.”

Jaylynn rolled off the broad chest onto her back and gave a big sigh. Looking up at the ceiling she said, “I don’t want to do any of that. I just want to lie here with you for the rest of our lives.”

Dez laughed making a strangled noise. “Short life. You’d run outta food pretty soon. Then all hell’d break loose.”

The blonde woman moved onto her side and propped herself up on her elbow to survey her partner. With a very cranky look on her face, she said, “I don’t want you to leave.”

Dez rolled on her side to face her companion so that they were nose to nose. With her left hand she feathered her fingers along the blonde woman’s side until she shivered. “Then come with me,” Dez said. She leaned in and kissed Jaylynn for added emphasis. She was rewarded with an immediate flashing smile.

Jaylynn said, “Are you saying I could come over to your place and stay the night?”

“Sure.”

Jaylynn was out of bed in a shot. She pulled on her clothes, which had been tossed haphazardly on the couch. Dez laced her fingers together and put her hands up behind her head as she watched the smaller woman move around the room collecting clean clothes and stuffing them into a small duffel bag. She sorted through the stack of CDs under the bedside table and grabbed two to put in the bag. In short order, Jaylynn tossed the bag over on the couch and came to sit on the edge of the bed.

Amused, Dez said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you get ready for anything that fast.”

“You’ve had a good affect on me. Come on. Get your clothes on, Miss Slowpoke.”

*****

Later, undressed again, they held one another in Dez’s bed. Jaylynn reclined comfortably, her knees drawn up slightly, and her blonde head cushioned on a pillow against the bed’s maple headboard. Dez lay on her stomach with her head resting on the rookie’s abdomen, her hands tucked under the blonde’s lower back. She was very nearly asleep when her partner’s voice rumbled in her ear.

“They’re not going to make us change shifts or stop riding together, are they?”

Dez opened her eyes, but didn’t move her head. “I thought about that too,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t know.”

“Is there some policy about this?”

“Not really, but there’s always the sexual harassment policy.”

“What?” Jaylynn said, surprise in her voice.

“Technically speaking, as your FTO, I supervise you. You could consider this harassment if you wanted to file a suit saying I took advantage of you.” She lifted her head and found the startled hazel green eyes above her. With a smirk she went on, “If you’re sleeping with me for a passing recommendation, you already had it.”

“Very funny.”

“There’s the flip side, too. If any of the other rookies wash out, they could say you got preferential treatment.”

Jaylynn thought for a moment. “I don’t think any of them are going to wash out.” She looked at Dez. “Hey, they’re all gonna make it, right?” Her eyes narrowed, and she poked the brunette in the side. “Dez!”

Dez lifted her upper body on her elbows and scooted herself up until she lay next to Jaylynn. She snuggled closer until her dark head nestled into the crook of the blonde’s neck. The smaller woman put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. With a sigh of pleasure, Dez wrapped her arm across the rookie’s middle, feeling the taut muscles of her stomach and the silky warmth of Jaylynn’s skin.

The brunette said, “Neilsen is the only one I am concerned about.”

“Why?”

“Besides the fact that he’s an asshole?”

Jaylynn gave her a look. “You’re still remembering that one little altercation, right?”

“Of course. But besides that, he’s already pulled his gun far too many times. Drives like an idiot. Talks big. Pisses citizens off. I’d like to smack him.”

“You have smacked him.”

“No, I mean really smack him. He’s a jerk. Shouldn’t be a cop. I’m sorry, but Alvarez and I talked about this. He’s not sure what he’s gonna do, but I’m recommending to the Lieutenant that Neilsen not pass probation. Maybe he’ll get enough support from other FTOs, but it isn’t coming from me.”

“Hmm….” Jaylynn looked down at the dark head in her arms and brought her hand up to absentmindedly stroke the pale white cheek. “Can I ask you something else?”

“Um hmm.”

Jaylynn took a deep breath and pulled Dez as tight to her as she could. Her fingers feathered across the warm arm against her abdomen, and she said, “Do you remember when we first met?”

“You mean last summer or later at the precinct?”

“At the house that night.”

“Yeah, why?”

“What do you remember?”

Dez closed her eyes and thought about the scene that night in the darkened house: the screams, the low laughter of the big man with the knife. She remembered her own fear as a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach—and an overwhelming desire to get in that house for reasons she couldn’t understand. She’d tossed aside protocol and gone in alone without backup, something she didn’t usually do. Once she got up the stairs, everything was a jumble of physical action, of shouting, of pure exhilaration as she beat down the two assailants. She’d felt so alive, adrenaline coursing through her veins like electricity.

And then, she had looked up and felt one moment of jolting connection. Her eyes had met those of the blonde woman, and she’d felt that strange recognition which she didn’t understand at the time. She knew now she had made a big mistake in disregarding that link. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”

The big woman rolled from her side to her back, then inched over so that her whole right side was touching Jaylynn. She found the smaller woman’s hand and laced their fingers together. “I remember you.”

Jaylynn paused. “What does that mean?”

“I can’t explain it. I tried to ignore it. I’ve fought it . . .” She looked over at Jaylynn and saw the puzzled look on the rookie’s face.

“Why is that?” said Jaylynn.

“Why is what—why can’t I explain?”

Jaylynn turned on her side toward her. “No, you fool. Why have you been fighting it? I gave in at the hospital the night of the attack—within minutes.”

“Guess you don’t have the endurance I do,” Dez said in a low, grudging voice.

“Yeah, right.” Jaylynn scooted up on her hands and knees and moved over the big woman, straddling one lean leg. Looking down into unflinching blue eyes, she lowered herself until her warm torso touched an even warmer stomach and chest, melting into the bigger woman as strong arms wrapped around her middle and stroked her back. With her face tucked into the crook of the brunette’s neck she whispered, “You’re a very good lover, Dez.”

In a low voice, the big cop responded, “You’re not so bad yourself.”

The rookie laughed outright. “Woman of few words . . . you crack me up.” She shifted a bit to the side, and let herself relax upon her partner, nuzzling her face into her neck. Jaylynn wanted to say how much she loved her, how for the first time ever, she felt complete, but she held back. She didn’t know if Dez was ready for that. She lifted her head and gazed into serious blue eyes, feeling her breath catch. A smile worked its way across her face, even though she tried to suppress it, and Dez gave her a questioning look.

Stroking Jaylynn’s back, Dez said, “What? What are you thinking?”

Jaylynn grinned. “I’m just very happy, that’s all. You make me happy.”

Dez’s arms tightened around her, and she felt entirely safe and protected. “I’m glad.” An impish grin spread across her face, and Jaylynn admired the even, white teeth.

“You should smile more often, Dez. You’re really beautiful.” Then Jaylynn laughed to see the dark haired woman blush.

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Dez growled.

“Nope. Only to you.” She moved up onto her elbows and leaned in for a kiss, which quickly kindled rising excitement for both of them. Their bodies melded together into a tangle of warmth and desire, and for a little while, all thought of anything other than the wild hunger for one another vanished.

*****

Dez lay on her right side, left arm around the body in front of her, and her legs tucked in behind the rookie’s. She let out a contented sigh.

Jaylynn craned her neck around, trying to see her partner. “What was the big sigh for?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you’re wearing me out . . . you’re a lot younger you know.”

“What?” Grinning, the blonde turned over to face the dark haired woman, reaching over to brush the long dark hair off Dez’s face. “You’ve barely got four years on me.”

“I can tell math is not your strong suit, Jay. I’m almost 30.”

Jaylynn laughed, a deep throaty sound that vibrated against Dez’s chest. “I plan to get back at you big time, too.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“When you turn 30, it’ll be payback time. And I’m not that bad at math. I know exactly how many days it is until your birthday. And you, Oh Ancient One, are only four years and nine months older than me. That’s nothing. When you turn 75, I’ll be almost 71, so big deal.”

Dez lifted her gaze to meet the hazel green eyes glittering before her, and said, “I hope I know you when I’m 75.”

“Why wouldn’t you?” said Jaylynn, exasperation in her voice. She let her hand slide along Dez’s thigh, feeling the strong curve there.

The tall woman shrugged and looked away. “I don’t know.”

Jaylynn snuggled closer and hooked her arm under Dez’s neck, wrapping her arms around her partner. “Fifty years from now, I hope we are curled up together like this on this very bed.”

In a dry voice, Dez said, “I’m pretty sure we’ll need a new mattress by then.”

Jaylynn reached down to tickle her. “Very funny, you smart aleck.” She poked at the muscle in Dez’s stomach, causing the bigger woman to double over and squirm away.

“Hey!” Dez said in a mock-threatening tone. “You better not start anything you can’t finish.”

“I told you,” said Jaylynn, “I never start anything I can’t finish.” She shrieked with laughter and made another grab for stomach, but just then a series of thumps sounded on the floor.

Dez froze. “Uh oh, it’s Luella.” She stared for a split second at Jaylynn, then leapt out of bed. “She’ll be on her way up here!” In four long strides she was across the room to the bathroom grabbing her red robe off the back of the door. “Lucky she’s slow on the stairs!” She slipped on the robe and tied it in front, then said, “I’ll go see what she wants.”

She went out to the kitchen and opened the door. The silver haired woman’s head was just appearing as she tenaciously climbed the stairs. Dez realized it had been several days since she’d talked to her landlady, and she was suddenly glad to see the plump woman. Smiling, she stood in the doorway, pulling the red robe closer around her.

“Thought maybe you up and skipped town, Dez,” said Luella as she rounded the newel post. She trained warm brown eyes on her tenant and shuffled toward her.

“Nah, just busy.”

“I don’t smell a single cooking odor from your place, so I thought maybe you two would like to come down for vegetable beef soup and sandwiches.”

Dez’s mouth opened, but nothing came out.

Luella grinned at her, white teeth sparkling. “Well—her car’s out front. Shoulda hid it if you didn’t want me to know.”

Just then, Jaylynn, barefoot and dressed in sweatbottoms and a t-shirt, squeezed into the doorframe next to Dez. “Hi Luella,” she said, the warmth evident in her voice. “I would love to come down for dinner. Wouldn’t you, Dez?” She looked up at her red-faced companion, then grabbed hold of a red-clad forearm.

Dez stammered, “Sure . . . yeah, okay.” She looked down at her robe. “Let me go, ah—finish changing.” She turned abruptly and fled, leaving Jaylynn and Luella looking at one another, amusement etched in their faces.

Luella said, “Looks like patience paid off, as usual.”

Jaylynn nodded. “Yup.”

They shared a conspiratorial grin, and Luella said, “Now just stay after her. She’s a tricky one, that one is, but she’s really a mushball at heart.”

Jaylynn giggled. “So I’ve gathered.”

From the other room a testy voice called out, “You two can stop talking about me as if I can’t hear ‘cause I can.”

“Good thing,” said Luella in a loud voice. “So you’ll know we’re on the way downstairs to talk some more about you where you can’t hear.” She grabbed hold of Jaylynn’s hand and pulled her toward the stairs.

“Oh no you don’t,” said Dez as she burst into the kitchen dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt.

“My, my,” Luella marvelled, “she’s dressed already. That girl does do everything fast, doesn’t she?”

Jaylynn gave her a sly look as she rounded the newel post and said, “Well, not exactly everything.” She tossed an evil grin back at Dez who was coloring up quite nicely once more.

In her best menacing voice, Dez said, “You two better not gang up on me again.”

She was answered by two smirks. “Oh no,” she grumbled. “I’m toast.”

“You can say that again,” said Luella. She and Jaylynn looked at one another and burst out laughing, and the three of them made their way downstairs to the warmth and happiness of a shared meal.

 

THE END

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