Sydney Hyatt worked diligently from her home office that was tucked into the loft of her nineteenth-century repurposed warehouse. A large window formed the longest wall and offered her a sweeping view of her living space below. The old red brick contrasted perfectly against the modern white columns, visually separating the rooms from each other. She mused at how different the space felt now she often shared it with someone else.
A black convertible swept into the space next to hers and she leaned over to watch the driver walk toward the building. Parker was wrestling to balance her workbag on her shoulder and she clicked the car’s remote key before managing a graceful march toward their building on three-inch heels. Syd forced herself to return to her current project, despite the fact that she would rather be across the hall with Parker, her neighbor who long ago stopped being just someone who lived in her building.
Parker undressed and laid her suit over the slipper chair in her small bedroom and relished the feel of shedding her dress clothes after what had turned into a twelve-hour workday. Cotton shorts and a fitted T-shirt bearing a unicorn straddling a rainbow was as dressed up as she planned to be before she began it all again in the morning. She dragged her long brown hair into a loose ponytail and took a moment to appraise the space she spent little time in anymore. The journey had been paved by obstacles of wild emotions, a failed relationship, and fresh discoveries. The final destination brought a welcome independence and the person who had managed to round out her universe in a myriad of unconventional ways.
She snatched her keys from the table and locked the barn style, rolling door despite the fact that the other tenants, who ran businesses out of the space, rarely graced the halls after five p.m. She padded across the dark foyer carpet to Unit A.
She smelled the coffee that regularly accompanied Syd throughout her workday and a faint reminder of the cologne that her girlfriend wore. She glanced up to see Sydney hunched over her desk and proceeded to the bar which spanned the old brick of the outside wall. She deftly assembled a double scotch on the rocks and filled a stemless Riedel glass with a cabernet franc, taking a grateful sip of the earthy red before heading to the loft.
She could still hear Syd clicking away at the computer as she climbed the black iron stairs. She awkwardly balanced the drinks and pressed her thumb to the bio pad, releasing the door lock.
Syd turned her chair and smiled as Parker offered her the heavy rocks glass filled with the amber alcohol.
“Not what I want,” Syd said seductively and she curved a finger meant to encourage Parker to come closer.
Parker smiled and placed both glasses on the counter. “Fine. I’ll just let you get back to work then.” She shrugged playfully and turned toward the door when she felt strong arms around her waist. She was pulled onto the chair and into the crushing embrace that never failed to spur her heart into a drumming rhythm in her ears.
Syd skimmed her hands under Parker’s long hair, pulling the tie away, and bringing their lips together. Parker sank into the kiss that always felt like home base for her. The place she reset and regrouped. Syd’s arms were firm around her as Parker curled against her.
“How does being here always make me feel better?” She emphasized here with a tap on Syd’s chest. “You make all the daily crap seem insignificant.” Parker breathed into her neck and skimmed the skin below Syd’s ear with her lips.
Syd shivered at the contact that invariably caused her breathing to deepen and goose bumps to skim down her arms.
“I’m glad.” Her voice was husky from the sensory assault that Parker had delivered. “It means you still love me.”
“Maybe a little,” Parker teased and closed her eyes for a moment. “What are you working on so late?”
“This case from Bob’s office.” Syd knew she sounded frustrated as she turned the screen so Parker could see the DA’s latest pretrial case video she was constructing.
“You usually love these.”
“Well they’re usually much easier. Facts are all there and I just have to put them all together and make it look like a movie.”
“And according to the investigator, the wife says the husband came home early from a business trip and walked in on an intruder. He died in a bullet exchange with the neighbor, who was allegedly breaking into their house. She says she only heard the commotion, but I have to replicate the wife’s movements from the bedroom. She says she was sleeping and hadn’t woken up until she heard the shots.”
Parked leaned into the animation that Syd had created on the screen, still pretty fascinated that she could make it look so real. “Okay.”
“Bob is fairly certain she’s lying about something significant and he sort of hopes we can prove it here”—she pointed at the now frozen image on the monitor—“since neither man is around to talk.”
Parker turned away from the video and bent over the police pictures of a tall woman with auburn hair tipped with platinum. The woman stood, looking distraught, in satin sleep shorts and matching top. The hooks of a lacy bustier peaked from the bloodstained camisole.
“She says she bent over her husband, which is fairly consistent with the staining on her pajamas since he was bleeding across his torso.” Syd pointed to the photo of the prone man’s body contorted between the walls of a narrow hallway. “They couldn’t find any GSR on her hands or any indication that she had changed clothes.”
Parker briefly considered the fact that she could now look at crime scene photos with Syd without wanting to throw up. She declined to consider it progress. “No gunshot residue just means she didn’t fire the gun—it doesn’t mean she wasn’t involved somehow,” Parker reasoned.
“True, and that’s what Bob says too but his new investigator is struggling with how.”
“Did he ask her about any affairs?” Parker glanced back at Syd.
“I have to imagine he did. Why?”
“Because she wasn’t asleep.” Parker was certain of this. “And I doubt she planned to be alone that night.”
“Oh, really. Do tell, Inspector Duncan, why do you say that?” Syd reclined in the chair as Parker dragged the woman’s photo toward them both, and pointed at her pajamas.
“She’s supposedly by herself because her husband is out of town? Please,” Parker scoffed. “I wear your faded Forensics Academy T-shirt and boxers when you’re out of town.”
“Still sexy as hell,” Syd said as she glided a palm along Parker’s thigh before Parker slapped it away playfully.
“Even if you are home, I would save satin bustiers and matching lingerie for special occasions. No woman sleeps in that crap. It’s ridiculously uncomfortable and a waste of a come get me outfit.”
“Do you have any such outfit you can wear for me right now? It might help me visualize,” Syd said teasingly, pulling Parker against her.
“You’re not listening to me.” Parker laughed at the playful bites Syd was doling out across her shoulder.
Syd straightened and released her hold on Parker so she could resume her explanation. “Sorry. I’m listening. I promise.” She snuck in a last peck against Parker’s cheek and angled the chair back toward the photos.
“Her hair is perfect and looks newly colored. Her manicure is fresh and she’s wearing earrings. I bet Bob’s investigator fell for the damsel in distress story, assisted greatly by her long legs and big boobs.”
“And you think she was meeting someone for a rendezvous of the sexual kind. Makes more sense than being sound asleep looking like a Victoria’s Secret model, I suppose. I guess I should have done the math myself.” Syd shook her head and began clicking the screens.
“You were probably admiring her big boobs and long legs too. I seem to remember that you had a type.”
Syd colored slightly and shook her head at the reference to her dubious past. “We both know my type consisted of willing and not too bright. I lucked out when you reformed me.”
“Damn right, you did,” Parker lobbed back jokingly and watched Syd work. Being reminded of Syd’s regular prowl of the Pride Lounge and less than significant encounters no longer made Parker feel wary or the least bit jealous.
“Did they see if there was any connection with the neighbor? Maybe while the mouse was away…”
“Great minds think alike.” Syd felt the new avenue of investigation taking shape and she scribbled thoughts onto a notepad for her conference call with the District Attorney in the morning. She pushed her new list of questions at Parker. The last one said, Affair with neighbor? “Maybe she and the lover wanted her husband out of the picture or hubby discovered that she was cheating and came home to confront them.” Syd marveled at the fact that the investigator seemed to have left those stones unturned. “Doesn’t mean she had a hand in it, but it certainly means she’s possibly being less than honest.”
“Right. Now how about you stop working for the night and order us Chinese and a bad movie?” Parker sipped her wine and slipped off Syd’s lap to stand beside her chair.
Syd skimmed a hand over her military short hair and leaned in to save her file. “Way ahead of you. Food should be here any second.”
“You think you know me, huh?” Parker levered her from the chair with comically exaggerated effort.
“Indeed.” Syd followed her down the stairs and fought the urge to steer her toward the bedroom instead of waiting for dinner. “I still think I need to study your come get me outfit, though.”
“Maybe I’ll give you a show later.” Syd was enchanted by the way Parker still flirted with her. The buzzer sounded from the lobby door and Parker jerked a thumb in the direction of the entrance. “But you’ll have to feed me first.”
Sergeant Mack Foster tapped her thumb on the steering wheel of her SUV and watched for signs that her wife would make it to the car before the event was over entirely. The life she shared with Jenny now was many shades different than the carefree existence they had known before a baby and careers complicated it. She wouldn’t trade the life with her daughter for anything but it felt nice to be headed to an event with their friends for what Jenny had coined adult time.
“Sorry,” Jenny breathed as she heaved her tiny frame into the passenger seat and slammed the door. “Olivia was playing with the dog and I wanted pictures.” She held up her phone promising a later slide show.
“It’s okay. I called Sandy and they were running a bit behind as well.” She wound her fingers through Jenny’s thick blond mane absently as she backed down the driveway.
“Stop apologizing, it feels weird leaving her for me as well,” Mack said reassuringly. “Anyway, they understood. Sandy’s been a cop as long as I have—schedules are nice, but never guaranteed, as you can attest.”
Jenny nodded with a wry grin. “Tell me about it.” She smoothed a hand over her midnight blue silk column dress and Mack planted a chaste kiss on her wife’s pale shoulder when a stoplight afforded her the opportunity.
Jen turned, smiling. “You look very handsome, Mack. I kind of miss doing these grown-up things together. I mean, I would do anything to be with Olivia Grace,” she rushed out guiltily, obviously thinking of their daughter now probably sleeping soundly at the neighbors’, “but it means a lot to be able to have this, just you and me.” She caught Mack in a soft kiss and sighed.
“You don’t have to qualify that with me. I miss my hot, carefree wife sometimes. We just need to remember to have date night more often, okay?” She considered her light gray pantsuit and midnight-blue shirt, and the small square silver cuff links at her wrists. “I kind of feel like we’re going to the prom since my shirt matches your dress.” She laughed and looked self-consciously at Jenny.
“I planned it like that. This way someone can return you to me if you wander off,” Jenny joked, gently kissing Mack’s cheek as she drove.
“We both know that is something you’ll never have to worry about.” Mack covered Jenny’s hand with her own.
“Are you happy, Mack?” Jenny’s tone was suddenly serious.
Mack looked carefully at her wife. “What would make you ask me that? I tell you how much I love you constantly.”
“I know, but there have been so many changes for us since last year and I just feel like I need to check in sometimes.”
Mack smiled as she pulled Jenny’s hand into her lap. She stroked a thumb over her fingers and glanced over at her. “I walked into a party many years ago expecting boring people telling half-truths about their accomplishments and overselling their dim children.” She brought Jenny’s hand to her lips. “But I walked away knowing that the only thing that would ever make me truly happy was a tiny blonde in a bad peasant blouse and the highest heels I’d ever seen someone stand upright in.”
Despite her attempt to insert humor in her answer, Mack was totally serious and her emotions rode close to the surface. “Do you know that I look at you every morning before you wake up and wish we could have known each other longer? That way I could have more years with you.” She couldn’t imagine sharing her life, her home, her daughter with anyone else.
“You know, I bought that blouse just for the party. It was very expensive.” Jenny looked mock-wounded.
“And it was very ugly, sweetheart.” Mack smiled and turned onto a residential street lined with dark brick bungalows.
“You’re lucky you’re cute, Foster. I don’t let just anyone insult my wardrobe.” Jenny leaned against Mack’s shoulder. “But thank you for saying those things, Mack. I love you in a way I never thought would be possible.” She suddenly sounded wistful. “You know, when I realized I was attracted to women, I never thought I would grow up and get married, not to mention have a baby. You gave me all that. You make me feel very loved.”
Mack glided a strong hand over her wife’s back and took a deep breath. “If I ever forget to make you feel those things, hit me with something, okay?”
“Deal.” She held on for several more seconds, as if silently absorbing the woman who loved her so completely.
Mack stopped in front of an unassuming Craftsman bungalow just as the front door opened.
Sergeant Sandy Curran’s five foot nine frame was thick but she kept in decent shape, evidenced by a tailored black tuxedo sans the bow tie. She’d opted instead for a nontraditional shirt with the top button unfastened. Her partner Mia wore a long green dress adding to the dramatic portrait sketched by her curly red hair and emerald-colored eyes. She stood just an inch or two shorter than Sandy and Mack thought they looked good together. She was happy for her oldest friend and watched Sandy hold Mia’s hand tightly as they walked to the car.
“Smurf!” Sandy slid across the back seat and leaned over to peck Jenny on the cheek. She clapped Mack on the shoulder. Mack laughed at the nickname Sandy had devised for Sergeant M. R. Foster shortly after their promotions ceremony six years earlier. Once she decided her initials spelled SMRF, she’d never let it die.
“Sandy Feet! Long time, no see,” Mack lobbed back. “Mia, you look stunning as always.”
Jenny turned to offer a half hug to Mia as Mack drove toward the venue.
“Thank you, Mack. How does it feel to have grown-up date night?”
“We’re somewhere between ridiculously excited adults and woefully neglectful parents,” Jenny responded, glancing over at Mack who nodded in agreement. “But considering she barely looked my way when I left her with Maggie and her sheepdog, I guess I should quit thinking about it.”
“Good idea,” Mack scolded lightheartedly. “I’m not even on call tonight, so I plan on enjoying twenty-four hours of freedom.”
“I’m with you. I don’t go back until nineteen hundred tomorrow night. I could use a little R & R.” Sandy sounded relieved to have a few hours away from the bustle of the patrol division. “Even though this is sort of a command performance for you, Detective.”
“It seems you’re actually the official rep for the Lesbian Cop Guild, San,” Mack joked, referring to a recent newspaper interview profiling female police officers in Silver Lake. They had not been circumspect about Sandy’s orientation.
“Funny, we both know all that means is I get more sideways glances and a few less propositions.”
“Really? I just get eyes-down bypasses in the hallway and people who stop talking when I enter a room.” Mack glanced in the mirror at Sandy.
“Maybe they’re just devising how to put us on the next recruiting poster for a more diverse police department.”
“Very funny. That would mean that the chief and her lackeys would have to acknowledge that there are already a dozen of us in our little department. And we all know that isn’t on the agenda.” Mack fingered her index card notes for the evening’s speech.
“A dozen and one, Smurf. I’m pretty sure Lora Hayman in Records might break out of the closet anytime now.”
“She does always look like she might burst into flames when we’re around, so you might be right. I’ll leave the welcome kit to you.”
The vision of Sydney standing in her signature black suit and white collared shirt made Parker stare appreciatively. The Prada jacket clung to her broad shoulders and the bright white of the shirt made her coal black hair look even darker.
Syd leaned against the tall painted column near the kitchen and Parker could see her watching. She attached an earring as she walked down the hall toward her. She wore a short black cocktail sheath and strappy heels, raising her five foot four inch height closer to that of her six foot tall lover.
“You know I can’t focus when you dress like that.” Sydney smiled and looked approvingly at Parker preparing for their Saturday night event.
“You’ll be concentrating on drumming up new business, love.” The way Sydney looked at her made her feel like a runway model every time. And the sight of Sydney in the formal ensemble never failed to make Parker’s stomach find all the butterflies that she thought should have been gone by the relationship’s anniversary mark.
“How about we stay home and I’ll have my way with you, instead?” Sydney suggested.
Parker watched Sydney’s gray eyes flash and she leaned against her. She had never imagined feeling so connected to anyone before. “How about you let me just enjoy being on your arm? I get to be the luckiest woman in any room when I walk in with you, you know.” Parker rolled to her toes and pressed her lips against Sydney’s. “Afterward you can have me any way you want me.” Her voice was seductive as she closed her eyes briefly and breathed in the scent of Sydney’s skin and expensive cologne.
Sydney’s arms encircled Parker’s waist and trapped her there. “Deal.” She winked as she leaned in to take her mouth possessively, skimming her fingers underneath Parker’s hair. “Plan on being up very late.”
“I love you, you know,” Parker said locking into Sydney’s gaze.
“I know that. Almost as much as I love you.”
Three soaring white tents graced the lush green lawns of City Park for the Silver Lake event of the year. Limos deposited flashy social climbers at the steps while well-dressed valets waited for the guests who opted to drive personal vehicles up a long path from the street.
Although Silver Lake was a relatively small city, its proximity to the nation’s capital drew an abundance of wealthy residents looking for their peace and quiet outside the rumble of the Beltway. Similarly, medium to large sized companies hung their shingles in Silver Lake, allowing them to save on real estate but enjoy the closeness to DC for both their clients and their employees. The city worked hard to foster goodwill with those citizens and their companies, not to mention to preserve their contribution to the city’s tax base, so they wined and dined them every summer when Silver Lake held the Silver Stars Ball.
Syd had laughed when she’d opened the gold trimmed parchment inviting her as a guest of the DA’s office, one of her largest clients. Syd imagined her mother, a member of a city council committee, fainting at the prospect of attending such an event with her only daughter. Sydney would admit that had been at least half the reason she had accepted the invitation. Of course fostering new potential client relationships was also useful. Attorneys were always looking for her video reconstruction expertise, which helped them win favor with many a jury.
Syd glided the black Porsche 911 to the curb and strode confidently to the passenger side, nodding at the attending valet who held Parker’s door as she collected her from the passenger seat.
“Chivalry is certainly not dead,” Parker remarked as she slipped a hand through Sydney’s elbow. Syd considered it a small thing, but she relished Parker’s appreciation. As they ascended the steps toward the tents, the cadence of their silent walk together was an effortless dance, one Syd believed they had been practicing for their whole lives. Tiki torches lined the narrow approach, creating a well-lit path as they made the long climb to the graceful landing under a painted arbor.
Syd stopped just as they reached the top, turning to face Parker. She guided both hands down her back, coursing the tips of her fingers along the zipper. “In case I ever forget to tell you, you are the best thing that has ever happened in my life.” Sydney stroked her fingers under Parker’s hair and delivered a slow kiss against her forehead reinforcing the message that Parker had become, and would always be, Sydney Hyatt’s world.
Syd, once addicted to casual affairs with less-than-substantial women, took every opportunity to remind Parker that those days were far behind her.
Parker breathed raggedly, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but I’ll take it…forever.”
“Remember that when I act like a jerk, okay?” Syd smoothed a hand across Parker’s bare shoulder.
“Deal.” Parker snaked her arms around Sydney’s neck and held her tightly before they steered through the gauzy curtains.
Sydney held the draping away from the entrance as they both ducked through. The huge white tent boasted giant crystal chandeliers that hung from billowing linen draped low over the created space, easily the length of a football field. A sea of white-cloaked chairs and tables were set off by gauzy fuchsia sashes and coordinated centerpieces of stargazer lilies and baby’s breath. White-painted panels created table platforms and walkways, and a dance floor at the opposite end of the long expanse. A few couples sat chatting at the tables while others mingled in the growing crowd, issuing obligatory air-kisses and enthusiastic handshakes. The night air carried the fragrance of lilies and fresh cut grass.
“Wow, it’s really beautiful.” Parker looked at Sydney and stood tightly against her. “It’s kind of like a fairy tale, huh?”
Sydney stroked her hand and admired the genuine way Parker embraced their moments together. She turned as a tall female figure made her way through the tables in their direction. “More like a fairy tale than you thought—here comes the evil witch.”
Parker followed Syd’s gaze until she saw her. Pamela Hyatt wore a long bronze column skirt and matching jacket in slightly iridescent taffeta. An abundance of gold jewelry dripped from her skin making her look rather like an overdecorated Oscar statue. Her dark hair streaked with pewter strands was cut into a shoulder-length bob, framing a creased face and her trademark dour expression. It was amusing to watch it transform when some political player got within ten feet of her. Her countenance became instantly open and friendly, smiling broadly at whoever bestowed attention upon her.
Syd’s mother looked them over just as they entered the bar area and she scowled in their direction.
“Apparently she was expecting her other daughter this evening,” Syd jested. She was an only child.
Parker knew that seeing her mother hurt Syd. She always fought to ignore her mother’s obvious disapproval of her life. She would never admit that it was more than an inconsequential irritation, but Parker felt the brief crack in Sydney’s resolve every time she was forced to face her.
Syd turned toward Parker. “Watch out,” she said quietly, her gaze fixed on something far away, over Parker’s head. “The jackal is descending.”
Parker slid her arm more firmly into Sydney’s as they stepped away from the bar with their drinks. They sipped casually as the dour widow marched toward them on dyed-to-match bronze satin heels.
“I wasn’t aware you would be attending, Victoria.” The air seemed to thicken at her arrival and her clipped delivery, aimed at Sydney’s back.
Syd turned reluctantly. “And good evening to you, too. Would you like to verify my invitation, Pamela?” Sydney had long since stopped referring to the bitter woman as Mother.
“I just came over to ask you something. Could you please…could you show some”—she seemed to struggle with her word choice—“decorum this evening, simply out of respect for the distinguished attendees who will be here tonight, of course.”
Sydney took a long draw of her scotch, unmistakably choosing her response carefully. “Do you think you could be more specific, Pamela?” Sydney sounded weary as she regarded the woman who took every opportunity to attempt to belittle her daughter.
“Perhaps you could refrain from flaunting your…whatever this is.” She swept a scathing finger between Sydney and Parker, who accepted her lover’s strong arm around her shoulders. “Not during this evening. It’s uncomfortable for our guests to see you demonstrating that type of behavior.” The words seemed to create a foul taste in her mouth and produced an even more sour expression on her face.
Parker squeezed against Sydney when her muscles tensed at the exchange. Sydney’s jaw flexed as she squared her shoulders. The elder Hyatt was tall but Sydney was taller and much more imposing as she prepared to address her mother’s latest inappropriate commentary on her life.
“So, Pamela, does that mean I shouldn’t hold her hand, or would you rather I didn’t French kiss her over the sorbet at Table One?” Sydney delighted in delivering such a blunt hammer blow to her sad excuse for a parent.
A look of utter revulsion crossed Pamela Hyatt’s face.
Sydney leaned against Parker and said, “I think I need a refill, you?” She locked eyes with Parker and forced the interaction with Pamela to fade into the periphery.
“That would be fabulous, love.”
Syd could see Pamela watching them walk away. She didn’t spare another glance in her direction but she grazed her hand across Parker’s back and down, just briefly, over her bottom, for effect. She smiled as she heard her mother cluck her derision before her fake voice swiped over some unfortunate new target.
“Do you know how much I hate that woman?” Syd rotated her shoulders attempting to release the tension that had built there.
“I have some idea.” Parker lifted onto her toes to kiss her cheek. “She’s just trying to impress everyone. Her opinions mean nothing, love.”
As Pamela stalked away, Jen and Mack breezed through the drapes. Mack greeted Syd with a firm handshake. “Too late for the floor show?”
“Unfortunately. But not much variation on the regular theme. You know, mother embarrassed by deviant and hopes I will agree to pretend we aren’t related.” Sydney’s tone was wry and tired.
Mack shook her head and Sydney attempted to dispel the residing bad temper that had taken hold of her.
“You know she’s on the Concerned Citizens’ Coalition for the city council now?” Mack looked toward Sydney’s mother who was accepting polite embraces from members of the city council. “I don’t understand what exactly they are concerned about—their mission statement seems a bit thin. It buys her a seat at the table, I suppose.”
“Speaking of, are we sitting together?” Jen asked hopefully of Mack, reaching for her hand and skillfully changing the subject.
“I listed all our names when I RSVP’d.” Mack nodded at a table near the stage. “Sandy and Mia are sitting with us, too.” Mack indicated Mia and Sandy still wading through the crowd.
“Wow, six lesbians at the same table—my mother might just call in the CDC.” Sydney drained her drink and slid it onto a passing tray.
The rooms slowly filled with local dignitaries and the who’s who of city government. Syd watched Sandy stop to speak briefly with a member of the command staff before walking with Mia to the bar.
When they reached the table, Sandy exchanged a hearty embrace with Sydney. “How’s business, President Hyatt?”
“Couldn’t be better,” Sydney replied happily. “How is fighting crime street side?”
“Maybe Sandy will tell you why we never see her outside of newspapers and banquets, Syd,” Mack lobbed at Sandy as Mia maneuvered around to introduce herself to Parker.
“Um,” Sandy returned, “because you can make one case last a month or better and I have a hundred blue shirts busy harassing the public to deal with.” They laughed as they regaled the table with the tale of their first traffic stop together. A well-known citizen had screamed to a late night crowd a warning that they should watch carefully since the Silver Lake Police were intent on harassing the public for no reason. He had blown a .25 into the Breathalyzer just before passing out on the blacktop.
“So what was your tête-à-tête about when you came in?” Syd asked and Mia rolled her eyes, groaning playfully at the question.
Sandy caught her girlfriend’s hand and kissed it briefly. “I promised no shop talk tonight but let’s just say I’m still a detective at heart.” The former detective in the white collar crimes division was vocal about the fact that she missed the challenge of investigations. “Patrol sergeants get to hand off cases and maybe never see them again. It’s not in my nature to let someone else play. I’m working on trusting that someone will listen to me one day.”
“You mean to tell me that people don’t feel compelled to work on a case that doesn’t spell a promotion? I can’t imagine.” Sarcasm dripped from Sydney’s lips as she shook the ice in her glass.
“Ah, so you’ve met some of our esteemed commanders?” Sandy looked at her with amusement.
“One of them and my mother scheme to save the world from anyone not worthy of oxygen in their opinion.” Her jaw clenched as she scanned the room and located her mother speaking animatedly with Major Williams.
Sandy’s eyes grew huge. “I never put it together before. Pamela Hyatt is your mother?” She gawked briefly.
Syd smiled drolly and ran an absent finger around the rim of the glass. “Well, we’ve never actually had confirmation from her home planet, but it is a fairly persistent rumor.” A sneer overtook her attempt at a grin.
Despite the moratorium on department-related chatter, Mack and Sandy continued to recount tales of their rookie days over dinner. Syd appraised the duo; their genuine admiration for each other was evident. Their enduring friendship was solid.
As the meal drew to an end with the arrival of a decadent chocolate dessert garnished with fresh raspberries and whipped cream, staff in white coats and black slacks rapidly buzzed around the room filling coffee cups and clearing plates before the spirited sounds of the crowd fell into a retreating hush. Pamela Hyatt climbed the short stairs to assume her post behind the podium. Sydney was continually mystified how her mother contributed practically nothing valuable to the running of the city but still managed to ingratiate herself with the movers and shakers of the community.
Her normally pinched expression spilled into a broad smile at her audience. Sydney thought a good audience might be something she loved more than anything.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.”
Parker turned in her chair toward the stage and leaned slightly against Sydney’s chest. She closed her eyes and savored the jolt of electricity that still found her body every time they touched. Sydney turned Parker’s face gently, softly grazing a kiss over her cheek.
“Love you,” Sydney whispered as Parker smiled and drew Syd’s arm tighter around her shoulders.
Pamela continued, “What a pleasure to see all of you, our esteemed citizens and city leaders. The other cities in Fairfax County are certainly poorer for this gathering tonight, am I right?”
A smattering of applause greeted her painfully awkward attempt at a joke, Parker observed, entertained by the fact that Pamela actually clapped for herself.
“We have some truly inspirational guests here to address everyone this evening. Tonight we begin with our most esteemed and accomplished law enforcement leader, Chief Jayne Provost, who came to our fair city a scant five years ago from our nation’s capital. She brought with her thorough knowledge and a dedication to ridding our lovely city of violent crime and the unwelcome behavior of delinquents and deviants.” Pamela seemed thoroughly impressed with herself.
Syd leaned into Parker’s ear. “I love it when I get mentioned in my mother’s speeches.” Parker giggled and rubbed Sydney’s hand, remembering briefly how the elder Hyatt had referred to both her and Sydney as deviants during a thoroughly unpleasant exchange last Christmas.
“Please give a warm welcome to Chief Jayne Provost!”
Everyone clapped politely as she climbed the stairs of the dais revealing the red soles of her Louboutins. Parker had heard that it consistently bewildered the officers sworn to protect and serve Silver Lake that their top cop behaved more like a fashion-addicted celebrity than a law-enforcement professional.
The slender, auburn-haired woman smiled and waved as the reception quieted. “Thank you so much for that warm welcome and for coming out tonight to this beautiful event.” Her manicured hands swept grandly over the venue. “It is my distinct pleasure to welcome my officers here tonight as well as our community’s business and government leaders. Our esteemed district attorney Robert Fillmore is also with us—please stand, Bob.” He waved awkwardly garnering a quick round of applause. “Now please give a hand for Marco Hamlin, our city manager.” A short round of applause followed again as the small man in a dark suit did a half stand from his place at table two.
“Let me now offer a special welcome to our local celebrities from the world of business who were most generous in their sponsorship of this event. First, please offer a special welcome to our Platinum sponsor, representing CacheTech Incorporated, one of our largest corporate partners in Silver Lake as well as the city’s largest employer—Lawrence and Bryce Downing.”
Pamela worked her way through the corporate sponsors, recognizing each one. “And finally, representing the PRC Advertising Group—”
Parker tensed as she heard the company’s name and glanced around uneasily, wondering how she hadn’t seen anyone from PRC during the cocktail hour.
“—senior account manager and vice president Dayne Grant, and account manager Tom Simmons.” Applause rang out as Parker’s ex-wife was the first to stand followed by her shorter, pudgier colleague.
Parker watched as Dayne waved to the crowd as if she had just been crowned Miss America. Anyone who knew the brash Dayne Grant would expect nothing less.
Jenny leaned over the table and whispered to Parker, “Did you know she was coming?” Jenny looked at her best friend and boss, as if to read her unspoken thoughts. After more than seven years together at Davidson Properties they worked together like sisters. Parker knew she likely looked unsettled to her best friend. After all, Jenny had watched the daily struggle Parker endured to get to the other side of her horrific separation from the unfaithful Dayne.
Parker took a long steadying sip of her wine before answering. “I had no idea. Richard told me months ago that he had declined this invitation because they would be on their cruise. I suppose I should have assumed that they would send her in his place.” She shrugged and watched Dayne lean over to other tables to shake hands with acquaintances as the speech continued.
“Are you okay?” Mack asked.
Syd hugged Parker more firmly against her adding her other arm around her lover’s shoulders. “Parker has nothing to worry about from Dayne. I don’t think Ms. Grant would attempt a repeat of our New Year’s gathering, do you?”
Parker looked warily at Dayne who had made a pointed play for Parker before knowing that she and Sydney were together. Syd lifted Parker’s hair and dropped a kiss on the nape of her neck.
Parker turned to look at Syd. “Are we okay?”
Sydney looked incredulous for a moment and pressed the side of her face against Parker’s as she spoke. “Of course we are. I’m not, nor will I ever be, threatened by Dayne Grant. Surely even she has better sense than to behave inappropriately at a citywide event like this. New Year’s Eve was bad enough.”
Parker laughed and nodded. “Yes, I think even she has more common sense than that.”
Sydney looked at her steadily, her sharp gray eyes locking into Parker’s. “She missed an opportunity to spend the rest of her life with you, so you’ll forgive me if I give her common sense a failing grade.”
Parker smiled and turned farther in her chair to kiss Sydney’s mouth slowly. “I fell in love with a hopeless charmer.”
“As long as you stay in love with me, you can call me anything you like.” Sydney watched Dayne as she resumed her seat, flicking a glance over to her ex’s new girlfriend before focusing elsewhere. Syd made sure that her silent warning was clear. Dayne would steer clear of Parker because Sydney wouldn’t permit an attempt to lure Parker from her. It should have been out of consideration for Dayne’s new girlfriend; however, Syd wondered if Dayne ever considered anyone other than herself.
The evening ambled by slowly as Major Williams gave his State of the City address, regarding the reduction of crime in Silver Lake. Major Cash had happily escaped the obligation, normally his responsibility, since he and his wife were celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in Belize.
Syd people-watched as Major Williams spent the majority of his speech verbally kissing Chief Provost’s designer-clad behind. It was no secret that Major Williams coveted the chief spot. He had been summarily overlooked five years ago by the city council but no one had expected them to select an even more mediocre cop, which Jayne Provost had proven to be. Pamela hovered nearby, seemingly entranced by the speech. Typical.
As Major Williams finished, he angled toward their table. He introduced a reluctant Mack and invited her to the podium. “Our Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Foster, over the west side homicide division, has helped bring our little city into the new millennium, overseeing a number of new and progressive projects. Please help me welcome this rising trailblazer in the Silver Lake Police Department.”
Mack politely thanked the major. Sydney wondered if her disdain for the incompetent leader was as apparent to the rest of the room as it was to her. She spoke quickly and knowledgeably about the progress her division had made and the sound solution rates they had achieved. She noted that crimes like homicide affected predominantly the homeless and drug-involved populations in the city. She reviewed recent programs and initiatives to help the underprivileged populations in their city as well as announcing the CIT certification of thirty-five officers, dedicated to helping the mentally challenged residents of Silver Lake. Mack finished as her fellow officers gave her a louder than necessary round of applause which made her blush, but gave her the opportunity to return to her seat quickly, swallowed by the celebratory din.
Finally, District Attorney Robert Fillmore took the stage and spoke about the successful prosecution rates of some of the city’s more publicized criminal trials. He took a moment to address his staff and the administrator of the courts, then made special mention of Sydney Hyatt and DRIFT, asking her to stand as he cited her invaluable contribution to a recent successful prosecution.
Syd sat down as soon as it was appropriate and took a swallow of her now-watery scotch. The group at the table clapped loudly for Sydney who gestured away the uncomfortable kudos.
The speeches ended and Syd knew the remainder of the evening would be dedicated to rubbing elbows with people who thought networking might garner them future business advantage. She could manage the task easily but it wasn’t her favorite pastime. Several attorneys pulled her aside and asked to set up meetings for cases that were pending. While she did many personal injury cases when she believed the claims were bona fide, she had no patience for ambulance chasers and staged reconstructions of minor accidents. She happily stepped aside as her competition snatched those cases aimed at big settlements from large corporations who were often just victims of a litigious wave. Syd’s true love was pro bono work, reconstructing violent incidents where the defendants were long forgotten and resources were slim by the time new evidence came to light.
Parker watched Dayne make the rounds with the local elite, no doubt touting the work she could do publicizing their businesses. Dayne had glanced over once, catching Parker’s eye and raising her scotch in salute. Dayne had then darted her eyes over the crowd as if to locate Sydney before her girlfriend grabbed her arm and her attention possessively. Parker felt nothing for her ex-wife and was glad she was no longer part of the ad exec’s sales pitches and endless diatribes of self-aggrandizement.
Parker accepted a fresh glass of wine from a passing tray as she watched Sydney speak with the DA about the latest project she was finishing for him. She was dark and serious and cripplingly sexy as she talked business and inadvertently charmed her audience. She scanned the room and noticed Mia and Sandy walking with Mack and Jen to the coffee station, when a stocky, light-haired man in a gray suit approached her.
“Nice gathering, don’t you think? I’m Bryce Downing.” He thrust a clammy hand toward her and she shook it reluctantly but graciously.
Parker smiled at him politely. “Yes, it’s lovely. The tent and the lighting make it feel really special.” He finally released her hand and she reflexively rushed hers back as if it had touched something unpleasant.
“My company is the major sponsor of this event every year. I was assured this time it would be better—more upscale—or I wasn’t interested in having the company name up there.” He smiled smugly as he turned her toward the sponsor board behind the coffee bar. Parker caught Jen’s bemused expression as she observed Parker tensely and awkwardly engaging the self-important little man. He attempted to appear assured and laid back but instead she thought he came off as uneasy and arrogant. Parker remembered a man once telling her that confidence could easily be mistaken for arrogance. She was quite sure that he had made the comment because everyone thought he was arrogant. By contrast, she thought, Sydney was coolly confident in any situation; this guy was just a pretentious ass.
Parker moved away slightly, causing his unwanted hand to slide off her upper arm. She took in an unexpectedly shaky breath and struggled to corral her reaction. “Well, it was nice to meet you.” She tried to smile but she was positive the attempt could have been called a grimace at best.
Clueless or completely unconcerned about his acquaintance’s attempt to extricate herself from the conversation, he continued speaking too closely to Parker.
“So what do you do—or are you married? I don’t see a ring.” He sang the last word as if he had dug for gold and come up a millionaire. He sounded slightly drunk. He smelled like whiskey and had begun to slur his words. His breath fell hotly over Parker who still tried in vain to subtly increase the distance between them.
“Well, I’ve been married and I also had a job at the same time.” Parker felt the affront for any of his potential girlfriends and hoped the new sheen of indignation would coat her unsettled mood. “I guess I’m just multitalented like that. And no I’m not—”
“Well, I just mean, when I decide to get married, I expect my wife to stay at home and tend to the duties there. A lot of women would appreciate a traditional guy like me.”
Some women marry imprisoned serial killers, too, she thought. She also thought the number of his potential girlfriends could be statistically similar.
Out loud she managed, “I’m sure they would. I guess I’m one of those pesky, self-sufficient types.” Parker tried a grin again but she was finding the exchange with the boorish man increasingly unsettling. She skimmed a hand over her neck where a glaze of perspiration was forming despite the relative cool of the room.
Parker noticed Sydney deep in negotiations with an attorney who had spent weeks practically begging for help on a case he hoped to fast-track for his corporate client. As if feeling her gaze, Syd glanced over to wink at Parker before she turned back to face the attorney. Parker stared at her, willing her to turn around again.
As if the footlights on his personal stage had just snapped on, Bryce Downing leaned in. “People are finally dancing, looks like our chance.” His watery eyes and stale breath contributed to the churning in her stomach. Without any warning or indication of capitulation from Parker, he grabbed her upper arm, more tightly this time, and endeavored to move her toward the dance floor.
“Thank you, but no.” She attempted to pull out of his grasp but he held her too firmly. She scanned the space for a place to relinquish her glass, suddenly wanting both hands free. “Please let go,” she said a little louder as a cold sweat broke over her face. She suddenly felt short of breath and, despite the room full of people, desperately isolated. Alarm flushed over her body and her knees felt weak. She mentally evaluated her visceral reaction to the situation. She bordered on panic which she knew was irrational so close to the safety of hundreds of people, but she couldn’t seem to break its spell.
“Come on, honey, I’m a great dancer.” He leaned into her and attempted a wink that wound up looking like some sort of nervous tic. Parker supposed his alcohol consumption made touted prowess of any kind easy for him to believe. She was sure she wouldn’t be finding out firsthand.
Parker endeavored once again to twist out of his grip but felt weaker from each attempt. She hardly managed words now as she struggled for a breath. Edges of her vision narrowed and she felt locked on his face which seemed only inches from hers. She closed her eyes and fought for oxygen which seemed to catch in her throat. Her internal admonishments told her that she was being ridiculous and that she was overreacting. They did nothing to calm the pounding of her heart.
“She said no.” Sydney stood too close, towering over Bryce, her hands inches from his. “Let go.”
“Not sure this involves you,” Bryce responded. Parker thought something akin to beer muscles just overtook his logical brain. His sarcastic delivery sounded feeble in the face of her physically imposing girlfriend. But the sudden tension caused him to squeeze Parker’s skin even harder.
Sydney sneered as she peeled his hand from Parker’s arm and twisted his fingers roughly, holding them in hers for a few unnecessary seconds. Once free, Parker tried urgently to rub away the legacy of him from her flesh. Sydney moved between her and Bryce Downing, creating a shield with her body. Parker knew that Sydney’s move to protect her was more instinct than calculation. Parker placed her hands against Sydney’s back using the moment to ground herself, feeling suddenly silly at her reaction.
“I beg to differ,” Sydney stared at him treacherously, not moving a muscle. “Don’t ever do that again.” Parker moved around and accepted Syd’s arm around her back.
Bryce Downing smirked at Sydney and sidestepped to look more directly at Parker, who still felt strangely off balance by the peculiar encounter.
“You’re queer?” He sounded incredulous as he dragged his eyes lecherously over Parker’s body, increasing her discomfort. Sydney remained partially in front of her, her other hand half clenched at her side.
Parker laced her fingers into Syd’s and attempted to sound flip. “Yup, I got a toaster oven and the T-shirt.”
“Good luck with that.” He threw the words over his shoulder as he began to walk unsteadily away. “You don’t know what you’re missing.” Parker was grateful for that at least.
Parker hoped he might be embarrassed, but then doubted if he even understood how inappropriate his behavior had been. She sighed loudly as Sydney turned to fold her arms around her, causing a shudder to wash over her.
“I’m sorry I didn’t see him earlier.” Sydney was visibly steaming. “Let me see your arm.”
Parker forced a smile. “I’m okay, really. It was just so weird. I’m thinking that guy is used to getting what he wants and alcohol is not his friend.” She presented the angry red ring on her arm quickly before shrugging it away.
“I’m going to go talk to Bob about him, okay?” Parker knew Sydney’s reassuring tone was no match for the blind rage she could see simmering behind her eyes.
“No, please, love, it’s okay. He just doesn’t seem to have much experience wooing women, I guess. He seems harmless enough.” She chuckled as she now felt Sydney’s heart beating loudly in her ear instead of her own. Syd brushed long soothing strokes over her back.
“You don’t know how close I was to choking the little cretin.” Her words sounded much less lethal than her voice.
“Thank you for not making a scene. It’s okay, really. I’m just going to run to the restroom, all right?” As she turned, Parker still felt her face burn from the encounter—whether a blush, or the heat created by the crush of the crowd, she couldn’t arrive at a satisfactory description.
Parker walked quickly through the door of the deserted bathroom and leaned against the wall in front of the sink. She felt grateful for the cool tiles at her back. Pressing a damp paper towel to her cheeks, she dabbed carefully under her mascaraed lashes. She marveled at how easy it had been for him to unnerve her and how instantaneously she recognized the feeling. It had been nearly a year since one of Sydney’s acquaintances began stalking her and ended up taking her hostage. Becky Weaver had held her at knifepoint until Sydney talked her way in and eventually overpowered the unstable woman. Since then, feeling defenseless against some unwanted touch, some stranger’s grasp, was more of a frightening trigger than it should have been.
The Becky incident had left a now-tiny scar beneath her right eye and some other faint legacies from the deranged woman’s knife, but otherwise she had escaped significant injury. Parker breathed slowly and pushed the memories back. This was the first time she could remember the recall coming so vividly or affecting her so dramatically. She pushed the damp towel under her eyes again and over her forehead before wetting it again in the sink.
Sydney tried to carry on casual conversations while repeatedly turning toward the restrooms, expecting to see Parker making her return. Finally catching Mack’s ear, she whispered to her, “I need to go check on Park—make my excuses, okay?” Mack nodded as Sydney nearly jogged through the crowd and through the door marked by a skirted silhouette.
She only had to see Parker for a second before she knew instinctively that she was still fighting unwanted feelings from the Becky episode. Sydney moved her up and away from the vanity, gathering Parker protectively against her without a word.
“I’ll be okay.” Parker attempted a laugh but Syd could feel her body tremble in her embrace. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“I’m so sorry. What he did wasn’t okay.” Her voice was ragged and she knew it revealed her poorly restrained fury.
Parker took a deep breath again and relaxed in Sydney’s still unyielding grip. “I’m okay now.” After a moment, Parker arched away from Sydney, just enough for her to see her face properly. “Any makeup runs?”
“Stunning as always.” Sydney held a tiny distance between her lips and Parker’s allowing the heat to build before she pressed her mouth into a gentle kiss, reassuring herself, and hopefully Parker, of the impenetrable bond that cemented them.
Parker responded gratefully and then hungrily. Syd relished the building heat and endeavored to replace Parker’s feelings of unsteadiness. She felt the deepening kiss to her soul, always amazed at the spell Parker could place over her.
The contemptuous gasp from behind them caught Syd by surprise, lost as she’d been in the moment.
“Victoria, when will you stop humiliating our family? When will it be enough?”
Sydney unhurriedly finished the kiss, looking only at Parker, still shielding her. “Let’s go home.” Her eyes locked into Parker’s intense blue ones as if no one had invaded the solitary space in their very personal universe.
Neither of them looked at Pamela; she wasn’t allowed to spoil their moment. Sydney felt triumphant.