Chapter One

Kerstin Anthony paused beside the bronze sculpture of police officer and boy outside the Melvin Municipal Office Building in downtown Greensboro and pulled her suit jacket tighter against the brisk fall breeze. She’d been here often—over seventeen years ago—with a friend in high school, whose father was a cop. She shivered from a pang of unexpected sadness, a reminder that period of her life hadn’t been entirely pleasant. She pushed the unwanted memories aside and focused on her purpose.

She’d taken over the architectural project for the first Greensboro Police substation from a coworker who’d been removed under embarrassing circumstances. Her boss was counting on her to redeem the firm’s reputation, but more importantly, she needed this project to secure her own future and her mother’s. If she was honest, her ego was also wrapped up in showing Leonard Parrish she could handle any messed-up assignment he shuffled her way. She climbed the stairs of the entrance and followed the hallway to the chief’s complex.

The chief had obviously not asked his admin to come in for the emergency Sunday meeting, so she waited in the small conference room adjacent to his office. She rolled her architectural plans out on the large conference table and smoothed the front of her favorite red power suit. The butterflies in her stomach accompanied every meeting in which she had to sell herself, actually any situation in which she was not totally in charge. Taking on someone else’s project, fraught with pitfalls and problems not of her making, could become a nightmare. But she’d reviewed the drawings and was prepared. She’d simply offer a brief overview to a police officer who knew nothing about architecture, get his signature on the contract, and carry on with the work she loved. The meeting was only a formality. Raised voices from the chief’s office, one male and one female, returned her attention to the present.

“Are you kidding, Chief? I’m a street cop. The manager’s office should oversee a project this size.”

Kerstin considered stepping out of the room, or at least making her presence known, but instead eased closer to the door, curiosity winning out. The disagreement was probably about her project, and she hated being left in the dark about anything.

“This is your first assignment. Comes with the promotion. Take it or leave it, Captain.” The voices quieted, and a few seconds later the door connecting the chief’s office and the conference room swung open.

Kerstin inhaled sharply as a tall, lean woman with observant whiskey-brown eyes and plump lips that evoked memories walked toward her. Kerstin backed away as if distance would change the situation.

“Kerstin Anthony?” the woman asked.

She pressed her fingertips on the tabletop to steady herself. “Ben…Bennett Carlyle?”

“Hi, Kerst.” Bennett openly stared her up and down with no hint of subtlety before settling on her lips. “What are you doing here?”

The last time she’d seen Bennett, her eyes and intentions were full of mischief and teenage rebellion, and Kerstin had been terrified. “It’s Kerstin.” Formality and structure kept her grounded and in control, and right now she needed those traits desperately.

“Okay, Kerstin.” Bennett offered a slight smile, and the dimples on either side of her mouth blossomed. “How have you been? Where have you been? What are you doing in Greensboro? At the police station? That didn’t sound right. You’re just…unexpected.”

The sociable Bennett, who’d been so popular in school, babbled nervously, and Kerstin just wanted to escape. She couldn’t pretend they were old friends picking up where they’d left off. Too much had happened. Her face heated, and the strong coffee she’d had for breakfast churned in her stomach. She gathered her drawings, willing her hands to steady. Sliding the plans to the edge of the table, she reached for her bag, but the pages fell and scattered across the floor.

“I’ll get them.” Bennett stooped beside her, and Kerstin inhaled the vivid musk scent she’d always associated with Bennett.

Kerstin stood quickly, pulling for a breath not filled with Bennett’s scent and the past. “I won’t waste your time or mine. This isn’t going to work.” Her carefully constructed façade quivered. Her life was already complicated enough.

Bennett rolled the drawings and offered them to her. “What’s not going to work?”

“The project. Us. Together.” She was a professional and worked with a variety of difficult and challenging people on assignments. She could handle the situation, if she wanted. The question tumbled over and over in her mind. Did she want to? Any person or thing from years ago controlling any aspect of her life rankled.

Bennett’s lips tightened slightly at the comment, and she glanced from Kerstin to the rolled pages she held. “You’re from the architectural firm?”

“Of course. Why else would I be here? And why is that so surprising?”

“I’m not surprised you’re an architect. You always had the smarts to be anything you wanted. I’m shocked you’re here.”

“Parrish Designs, the firm I work for, had the original contract. It makes sense, economically and design wise.” Kerstin reached for the plans Bennett held, careful to avoid touching her, but changed her mind. “Keep those.” She refused to explain anything about her life, past or present. “And you’re a cop. Didn’t see that one coming.”

A flicker of sadness crossed Bennett’s face, followed by a weighty silence. “It’s the family business, but you’re right.” She waved her hand down the front of the black uniform that hugged her body and added height to her already lanky figure. “Military dress, shiny synthetic shoes, and a twenty-pound utility belt. Not really me. Is it?”

“Certainly not the Bennett Carlyle I remember, but that was a long time ago.” And not a time she cared to remember. She schooled her expression and carefully delivered her next statement. “One of us should withdraw from the project. The job is massive, and a personality conflict will only complicate matters further.”

“I don’t have a personality conflict. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told I have a pretty decent personality.” Her full lips curved into a stunning smile, and dimples again flanked her mouth.

Of course, cool, confident Bennett Carlyle got along with everyone, so she was implying Kerstin obviously had the problem.

Bennett appraised her silently for several seconds. “And, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll be overseeing the project. Can you say awkward?”

She was supposed to work with a woman she could barely make eye contact with and accept her daily scrutiny? This was so not happening. Her boss might fire her if she didn’t at least make an attempt, but right now she wanted out of this uncomfortable situation. She had other projects waiting for her expertise. “I’ll find a suitable replacement from the firm, someone I think you’ll get along with better.” She turned to leave.

“Wait. What? This job is a big deal, as you said, and I’d hate for you to miss out.” Bennett took two long strides and stopped, towering over her.

Kerstin had forgotten how tall Bennett was, and the difference, once comforting, made her uneasy. And Bennett stood so close, Kerstin smelled her distinctive fragrance again.

“Why don’t we go for a walk and catch up before you make a definite decision? We could cut through the parking lot to Green Bean.”

“No, thanks. I’m here for a business meeting, not a reunion. And trust me, Parrish Designs has other qualified architects who can handle the job.” She almost added that a walk and a cup of coffee wouldn’t come close to catching them up. If she were any other woman, Kerstin would jump at the offer because Bennett was charming and totally hot. As it was, she couldn’t imagine spending more time with Bennett on purpose. Her energy was vibrant and compelling, which terrified and intrigued Kerstin, and she did not want to be intrigued by Bennett Carlyle.

“Okay. How about the canteen down the hall? Coffee’s not bad and a little socializing couldn’t hurt.”

“Again, thank you, but no.” Kerstin released the door handle and turned her head to breathe deeply and avoid those brown eyes. The pinnacle of her portfolio, the project to virtually guarantee the first contract in her own firm, was on the line, but she’d survive. “I need to go.”

“At least think about the job. Your coworker started the renovation, and we need everything to continue seamlessly. The department is in a time crunch.” Bennett’s tone was soft and obliging, the timbre of a woman negotiating for something important. Was she only concerned about her promotion? “I’m sure we can work together.”

“I’m not.” Bennett was probably right. They were professionals, so why did Kerstin want to run? She reached for the door handle again, but Bennett beat her to it.

“Let me.” She opened the door and waited for Kerstin to walk through. “Nice to see you again, Kerst—Kerstin. I wish you’d reconsider. This project could help both of us.”

Was Bennett waving a white flag about their past or speaking professionally? Either way, it didn’t matter. She’d simply ask her boss to assign another architect. After all, she’d taken over from Gilbert Early, who’d been pulled from the job without much explanation. Collaborating with Bennett Carlyle was not an option, even if it set back her future plans.

 

v

 

Bennett watched Kerstin until she disappeared down the hallway and then collapsed in the nearest chair. She’d seen Kerstin standing in the chief’s conference room and locked her knees. She didn’t shock easily, but her heart rate trebled, and a heavy sensation settled in her stomach. She’d read the chief’s notes about the meeting, but nowhere did he mention the name of the architect. How had her greatest professional accomplishment and her worst heartbreak collided?

Kerstin looked good. Damn it, better than good. Her sun-kissed blond hair had darkened a shade and lightly brushed the tops of her shoulders instead of cascading down her back. The steel-blue eyes still deepened when she was upset, and she’d definitely been upset at the sight of Bennett. The most dramatic change—a skinny schoolgirl had morphed into a fully developed woman. She transformed a red, tailored business suit from only clothing into a statement that said powerful, sexy woman, don’t mess with me. Excitement curled through Bennett, followed closely by a sense of regret and dread. The optimistic, adventurous girl from high school had vanished, or was at least buried beneath a veneer of caution.

Had it really been seventeen years since they’d seen each other? She still ached to know why. She’d rehearsed exactly what she’d say at their reunion, but after her disagreement with the chief and Kerstin’s unexpected appearance, Bennett reverted to humor and charm to offset the tension. Face-to-face with her childhood dream, she completely lost her nerve. Surreal to be thrown together again, but Kerstin was clear the reunion wouldn’t last. Maybe for the best. Important things had been left unsaid far too long.

No time to reminisce about old emotions. If Kerstin stayed on board, she’d appeal to the chief one final time about withdrawing from the project. Bennett didn’t really want to manage the substation renovation anyway. Her new position required focus and dedication far beyond just showing up every day like her predecessor. Pete Ashton was a reasonable man, and she’d convince him she could better serve the department in the field. She’d save face and make Kerstin happy at the same time, unsure why the latter was even a consideration.

She had scribbled her talking points on a Post-it, preparing to leave, when her cell rang.

“Sis, are you at the house yet?” Her brother’s deep James Earl Jones voice, so much like their father’s, boomed over the phone, always making her smile.

“Hey, Paul Simon.” She loved to kid him about his namesake because he couldn’t sing a note, and it annoyed him. “You mean you’re not there either?”

“Mama and G-ma are going to be pissed, but I got called to the firehouse on a personnel matter. Guess we’re both in the doghouse.”

“Are Stephanie and the kids there?”

“Yeah. I dropped them off on my way in but didn’t have the nerve to face Mama.”

“All I can say is you better hurry. I’d hate to see my older brother whipped in front of his wife and kids.”

“Very funny. Stall them if you can. I’ll be quick.”

 

v

 

Bennett rolled down her car window and breathed in the crisp fall air as she drove home for the family’s customary Sunday brunch. Like the mature oak trees in Fisher Park, her family had endured the storms of decades, and she and her siblings had climbed many of them growing up. She parked in front of their sprawling two-story home, grinning when Simon’s twins, Ryan and Riley, called out, “She’s here,” in unison. She raced up the steps of the wraparound porch to grab them, but the eleven-year-olds were quicker than they’d been a few years ago and got away.

She followed them through the screen door and stopped in the foyer, always humbled by the massive traditional family home and the memories filling every room. She and Jazz had walked down the wide, creaky staircase on graduation day into the arms of their parents. What she’d give to feel her father’s arms around her again. She’d kissed her first girlfriend at the age of fifteen on the old Mission-style sofa in the lounge, while her little sister Dylan spied on them through the stair rails. During her grandfather and father’s wakes, the house overflowed with cops, friends, and distant family. The walls made eerie sounds for months after, mourning the loss of each patriarch, so many good memories interwoven with bad. The shock of seeing Kerstin and the stress of possibly working with her drained away in the familiar surroundings of home and family.

The layout was perfect for the large family, with two lounges, a half bath, huge kitchen, and combination dining and sunroom occupying the first floor. Five bedrooms and three baths located upstairs provided for the immediate family who still lived here—G-ma, Mama, Jazz, and Dylan. She’d occupied the fourth single bedroom until two years ago. She and her partner had moved to the carriage house behind the garden, but their relationship ended when her partner left her and the country for a job opportunity. Bennett also suspected she found being so close to the family intrusive. Jazz, her adopted sister, would occupy the smaller residence next, if Bennett ever found the right woman. And she wanted that more than almost anything—a partner to build and share a home with, and maybe even start a family.

Soft piano music drifted from the sitting room on her right, and Bennett peeped in. Surrounded by traditional furnishings and rich colors, her younger sister, Dylan, long hair pulled back in a ponytail and dressed in a white blouse and jeans, undulated with each delicate keystroke, and Bennett marveled at her ability to urge such beautiful sounds from an instrument she’d always found arduous. Dylan’s musical interest would serve as a great stress reliever during her challenging medical career.

“Look at you getting all Bob Dylan.” Bennett knelt behind Dylan and wrapped her in a bear hug. Bennett loved her little sister, and not just because she was a mirror image of her, but for her intelligence and compassion. She’d stepped out of the family mold and surpassed all their expectations.

“Hey, sis.” Dylan rested her head back against Bennett’s shoulder for a few seconds, and Bennett traced the patch of freckles across her upturned nose. “You realize Bob Dylan played predominantly guitar and harmonica, right? But somebody has to represent our family of musically-named-but-talentless siblings.”

“Paul Simon Carlyle and Toni Bennett Carlyle bow to your superiority. Speaking of our big brother, he’s going to be late, so we have to stall G-ma and Mama. You know how he hates to miss a meal.”

“That won’t be easy. They’re already fired up about having to wait for you and Jazz.”

Bennett started to ask where Jazz was, but Stephanie, Simon’s petite and perfectly turned-out wife, interrupted. “Have either of you heard from Simon?” Her expression relayed that she was thinking the same thing they were—if Simon didn’t hurry, they’d start brunch without him.

“Mom, I’m hungry.” Riley and Ryan, smaller versions of their strawberry-blond mother with hazel eyes, flanked Stephanie. The children also vibrated with Stephanie’s seemingly endless energy, always on the move, always doing something. The only features marking them as laid-back Simon’s offspring were cleft chins and their above-average height.

Stephanie patted their heads. “We’re waiting for your father.”

“Where the blue blazes is everybody?” G-ma called from the kitchen.

“Uh-oh, play something, Dylan.” Bennett motioned Stephanie and the kids to her side, and they sang as Dylan played “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” G-ma and Mama couldn’t resist a good sing-along, and soon everyone was belting out the words in discordant joy.

During the third round, Simon slipped in and added his bass voice to the party, giving Bennett an appreciative wink. When G-ma saw him, she clapped her hands and ushered everybody into the dining area.

Bennett gave Dylan a quick conspiratorial squeeze and sprinted around back to the cottage to change out of her uniform. When she entered the sunroom, her family stood around the long refectory table her grandparents had rescued from a doomed monastery during one of their first trips as a married couple. She and her siblings had carved their names and dates of birth on the underside when her dad determined they were old enough to wield a sharp knife. Chafing dishes rested in hollows worn into the dark walnut wood and kept the food warm.

“You didn’t have to wait,” Jazz said as she rushed in the back door and washed her hands in the kitchen sink.

“Yeah, we’ve been waiting hours. I’m starving.” Simon waved an impatient greeting.

“The day my big brother isn’t hungry, we’ll know for sure you’re sick,” Bennett said.

Simon shrugged. “You know Mama won’t let anything interfere with Sunday brunch, not even a call from the chief of police.”

“Bennett and Jazz, cell phones in the basket along with the others. I don’t want any more interruptions.” Her mother kissed them on the cheek and motioned for the family to sit.

“Hurry up,” G-ma said as she settled at one end of the table with Simon at the other. “We got us some celebrating to do, times two.”

“What?” Her mind was still on the untimely reunion with Kerstin that overshadowed her promotion to captain. “Two?” She noticed the bottle of champagne chilling in the center of the table. “Is Stephanie pregnant again?”

Simon shook his head. “Second guess?”

Bennett scanned the faces around the table until she landed on Jazz. She was normally quiet but wouldn’t even look up, her fingers stroking the streak of white hair near her left ear. She was hiding something. “Jazz?”

Dylan sighed heavily to Bennett’s left. “I told you Jazz couldn’t keep anything from Ben. They’re like twins separated at birth.”

Jasmine Perry grinned, and her pearly teeth glistened against olive skin as she stretched her arm across the table and opened her hand. A pair of lieutenant’s bars rested in her palm.

“No shit?”

“Language,” Stephanie said, covering an ear of the twin on either side of her.

“Sorry.” Bennett rushed around the table to Jazz. She almost picked her up, but stopped at the last minute. Jazz shied away from unexpected or long embraces, so Bennett settled for a quick squeeze. “Congrats, sis.”

“Thanks, you too.”

“Did you know about this before I got the call?”

Jazz shook her head. “Got mine after you.”

“Where are you assigned?”

“Still in District One. Just moving up a notch.”

“No shi—kidding? Working together, sweet, but my job won’t be as much fun.” Jazz gave her a questioning look. “We’ll talk later.”

They fist-bumped and sat back down.

“Now that’s settled, Riley, say grace, please,” G-ma said.

Riley put her hands together and looked toward the ceiling. “If anybody’s really up there, thank you for this food, for Mommy and Daddy, G-ma, Mama, Aunties Bennett, Jazz, and Dylan. Oh yeah, and my irritating brother, Ryan. Amen.”

G-ma patted her on the arm. “Well done. Somebody pass the damn eggs before they get colder than Garrett’s tomb.”

“G-ma!” Dylan sounded genuinely shocked, but when G-ma and Mama laughed, the rest of the table joined in. Hearing Grandma Carlyle curse wasn’t new, but hearing it at a sacred Sunday brunch was different.

“You all right, G-ma?” Mama touched her mother-in-law’s forearm.

“Of course I’m all right, Gayle, but hungry as hell. Now pass the eggs. Only one thing on earth worse than cold eggs.”

“Don’t leave us hanging.” Stephanie passed the egg platter. “I’m sure it’ll be a doozy.”

“The empty side of anyone’s bed who has lost or doesn’t have a loving partner.”

The clatter of utensils and dishes abruptly ended. Bennett’s Grandpa Garrett and her father, Bryce, had been police officers and were both killed in the line of duty. The family didn’t speak of the incidents often because no one wanted to jinx her or Jazz, the only children who’d followed in their footsteps. Though Simon had chosen an equally proud but dangerous profession, nobody ever brought up how many firefighters were killed in fires.

“Amen, G-ma.” Simon smiled at Stephanie with the kind of love Bennett hoped she’d share with a partner one day.

“Can I eat now?” Ryan waved a piece of bacon in the air with the impatience of youth.

“Of course you can, darling,” G-ma spooned grits onto her plate. “Everybody eat up.”

Mama handed the champagne bottle to Simon. “Do the honors, son?” While he peeled the top and set about popping the cork, she asked, “So, why did Pete Ashton need to promote my two girls on Sunday morning? What’s the urgency?”

Bennett plucked a couple of pieces of bacon from the platter before moving it to the right. “My predecessor, Arthur Warren, and his architect got drunk and injured some folks in an accident on the way home last night. Warren flunked the Breathalyzer and resigned on the spot.”

“Lucky break,” Simon said. “You deserved that promotion a long time ago.”

Simon lived the Carlyle edicts to support and uphold the family name, and serve the community. Bennett probably hadn’t contributed enough. “Thanks, bro.” She’d screwed off for nineteen years, and her father hadn’t lived to see her change. She glanced across the table.

Jazz gave a faint headshake as if to say, don’t go there. She’d come to the family from foster care when they were both eight, after being passed around a few different homes, and knew all about not feeling good enough. She and Bennett were best friends and confidantes. Bennett was the fire to Jazz’s ice, the storm to her calm. Now they’d be running a district, and Bennett couldn’t wait.

“Is Ma Rolls ready for business again tomorrow, G-ma?” Simon asked.

“Ready and rearing to go. The police officers on Fairview Street and the other places we serve would starve without our food truck. And I’d seize up and wither away without my weekly doses of town gossip.”

Mama glanced over at G-ma and chuckled. “That’s for sure, and we’d be bored senseless.”

The rest of the meal passed quickly, with each family member talking about whatever he or she wanted, as long as they phrased their comments in a positive manner. G-ma always said there was enough negativity in the world without them contributing. The practice kept the family strong and involved in each other’s lives. Bennett wanted the same for her own family one day. Conversation finally lulled, and G-ma pushed away from the table, ending the meal.

Simon poured a cup of coffee and headed toward the lounge. “I think Ben and Jazz should do the dishes since they made us wait so long to eat. Do I hear a second?”

The rest of the family voiced their agreement and ran from the kitchen.

“Democracy’s alive and well in the Carlyle home,” Bennett said as she transferred dishes from the table to the dishwasher. “Are you okay moving up from sergeant to lieutenant in the same command?”

Jazz nodded. “Everybody knows me.”

“And they respect you, but they’ll still test you. Comes with any promotion, especially for a woman. I’ll be there, if you need me.” She wasn’t worried about Jazz’s professional abilities because she’d moved up quickly in the department despite being five years behind Bennett in seniority, but her introversion was sometimes interpreted as aloofness or lack of concern. Jazz didn’t have an arrogant or apathetic cell in her body. If anything, she cared too deeply at times.

“Thanks.” Jazz’s deep-brown eyes glistened with gratitude she didn’t need to verbalize. She dried her hands and looped the cloth through the oven handle. “I’ll walk you out.”

Jazz wasn’t the social type, more comfortable with her own company, so she obviously had something on her mind. As they cut through the garden to the cottage, Bennett’s quicker steps caused Jazz to fall behind.

“What’s the hurry, Ben?”

“Keep up, slowpoke.” She gave the conversation a nudge. “What’s on your mind, sis?”

Jazz stopped and faced her. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

They never made each other work too hard for the truth, sensing when the other needed to talk. “The chief wants me to oversee the renovation of the Cone Building for our new District One substation.”

“Captain Warren’s assignment before he quit. That’s a good thing, right?”

“It would be if…” Bennett scuffed her sneaker in the grass, feeling self-conscious.

“If what?”

At five-eleven, Bennett towered over Jazz by three inches, but Jazz wasn’t intimidated by the difference. Bennett couldn’t bullshit her either, her dark eyes a better lie detector than any mechanical device.

“Kerstin Anthony is the architect.” She finally looked at Jazz.

Her eyes opened wide and she said, “The Kerstin Anthony from high school?”

Bennett nodded. “And she doesn’t want to work with me. If she refuses, the project is delayed again while a new architect gets up to speed and possibly redraws the whole plan. What if the chief thinks it’s my fault? What if it is?”

“Did you do something to upset her?”

“I said I was glad to see her and tried to convince her we could work together. Even offered to buy her coffee.”

“That sounds harmless enough,” Jazz said.

“She’s probably still upset about what happened in high school.”

“You’re both adults now. That’s so in the past.”

“I didn’t quite measure up to her standards then, so she likely expects the same now.”

“Don’t go there, Ben. You’ve always been enough. The problem was, and still is sometimes, you don’t really believe it.” Jazz dropped onto a bench by the koi pond and motioned for Bennett to sit. “You’ve both moved on. You’re professionals with a job to do. What happened is in the past. Leave it there.”

Bennett rubbed her hands over her face and through her hair. Seeing Kerstin again had unearthed old feelings like unfinished sentences with no purpose.

“Can you do that, Ben?”

“If you’d asked me this morning, I’d have said definitely. Now I’m not so sure. I really want to understand what happened between us.”

Jazz shook her head.

“Say it, sis.”

“You’re a new captain with a great assignment. You can’t let Kerstin Anthony or anyone else interfere with your future. I saw the look on your face when Simon said you deserved the promotion. You’re already afraid of screwing up. Don’t let this woman be your excuse.”

Jazz had hit the nail squarely on the head. Bennett feared being an embarrassment or disappointment to her family and especially to the memory of her father. She’d struggled for years to cement her place in the department. This was her chance to silence all doubters on her way up the promotional ladder.

Jazz rose and placed her hand on Bennett’s shoulder. “Do what you need to do. I’ve always got your back, no matter what.”

“Thanks, and congratulations again. I’m very proud of you, Lieutenant Perry.” She gave Jazz a playful shove. “But don’t think I’ll take it easy on you because you’re my sister.”

Jazz mock saluted before walking back toward the house.

Bennett loved her sister as much as her own life, but Jazz had been hurt too badly in childhood to completely trust anyone with her heart. She’d understand Bennett’s unresolved feelings for Kerstin when she faced her own feelings about her mother’s death.

Bennett watched the koi jump for insects on the surface of the pond and willed the unsettled feelings for Kerstin back to their hiding place, but they no longer fit. How could she reconcile the need to prove herself professionally with the emotional call to heal her heart? Both tasks deserved her full attention.


Chapter Two

Kerstin texted her aunt Valerie from outside her mother’s Central Park high-rise as the streetlights around her flickered on.

 

Can you meet me in the lobby?

 

She was exhausted from ping-ponging between New York and Greensboro and the emotional challenges at either end, and today was only the first round. Her phone beeped with Valerie’s response.

 

Excellent timing. She’s napping.

 

Kerstin scanned the height of the building with its imposing steel, granite, and glass façade. When she’d moved here as a teenager, the building served as her prison; the huge panels of glass were her windows on the world, the steel dividers her bars. Central Park, just across the street, provided a personal hideaway with wooded areas, grass, lakes, and playgrounds, basically a giant oasis in a city too chaotic for her small-town upbringing. She shook off the conflicting feelings that often accompanied her return and walked toward the entrance.

The concierge offered to assist with her small overnight bag, but she waved him off as Valerie emerged from the elevator. Her petite stature belied her ability to deal with a physically and emotionally difficult patient. Valerie had been a godsend, especially when Kerstin was away on business or needed a break. Their arrangement allowed Valerie to live in the condo free and receive compensation denied her by the family matriarch because of Valerie’s unorthodox lifestyle—lesbian out and proud.

“How are you?” Valerie gathered her in a warm hug, and Kerstin settled into the comfort. Val was often more like another mother than an aunt, nurturing and supportive, while also attending to the demanding job of caring for her older sister.

“Good. You?”

“Very well. Let’s sit.” Valerie motioned toward a grouping of leather chairs surrounded by plants near the floor-to-ceiling window. “You look tired.”

“I’m okay. How’s Mother?”

“Elizabeth Anthony. What can I say about that woman you don’t already know?”

Kerstin recoiled at the question before she realized Valerie was kidding, and then she burst into laughter. “Thank you. I needed that. Mother definitely defies description.”

“She still has a hard time when you’re out of town. It’s the short-term memory adjustment we talked about. She’s better with long-term recall. I suggested she keep a daily journal to help with day-to-day events.”

If her mother could forget the past and remember details about the present, their lives would be happier, but that wasn’t the hand she’d been dealt from her stroke seven months ago. “Is she using a journal and does it help?”

“Yes. I believe so. She sneaks glances at the notebook because she doesn’t want to admit she needs one, and that’s fine as long as it works. She’s made a lot of progress since the stroke, but she wants to be fully recovered yesterday.”

“Sounds like her. Your experience in geriatrics is a lifesaver. I’m so grateful, Val.”

“It keeps me close to my sister, whether she likes it or not. I should be paying her…well, not really.” She stood and pulled Kerstin with her. “We better go up. She doesn’t sleep long this late in the day.”

Kerstin released Valerie’s hand and suppressed an urge to run. Her relationship with her mother had been challenging before the stroke, with good-intentioned but constant attempts to direct Kerstin’s life and set her up with eligible bachelors, and living together complicated things, but running wouldn’t help. Her father’s gruff counsel and limited attempts at parenting always revolved around dealing with her mother. “Always have the courage to fight for what you want, especially where your mother’s concerned.” Did his advice still apply in light of her stroke and diminished faculties? Kerstin found it easier to go along to get along. She’d need more courage than she’d ever shown to take on her mother for any reason now.

She shuffled behind Valerie across the gray-marble-floored lobby and onto the private elevator servicing her mother’s penthouse. She checked her phone, praying her boss could meet with her this evening instead of tomorrow, and immediately winced, feeling guilty. She wanted to help her mother and had tried since the stroke, but it wasn’t easy. Elizabeth Anthony didn’t make anything easy—not her own privileged life, not her marriage, and definitely not motherhood. Her parents had struggled after their divorce, each using her as a pawn in their settlement negotiations. And her mother’s sudden dependence had rubbed Elizabeth and Kerstin raw in previously chafed places.

Valerie unlocked the tall metal door and stood aside to let her enter first. Kerstin stopped for a second, acclimating once again to the stark contrast of her mother’s Queen Anne furniture with its curves, cushioned seats, and wing-backed chairs in the lofty-contemporary space. Elizabeth managed to make the setting feel welcoming and comfortable to the hundreds of guests she entertained annually for various charities, but it never quite seemed like a home to Kerstin.

“How nice to see you, Kerstin.” Elizabeth Anthony stood in the open-plan kitchen clinging to the large granite island with her right hand. The slight paralysis to her left leg and arm were concealed beneath silk lounging pajamas she insisted on wearing for the length.

Kerstin crossed the loft and kissed her on the cheek. “How are you, Mother?”

“As well as can be expected. It’s been a while since you visited.”

She’d left this morning, but reminding her mother would probably only irritate her. “I’m sorry. Would you like some tea?” Valerie disappeared with her bag to give them some privacy, and she wished their buffer would hurry back.

“Valerie can do it. Sit. Tell me where you’ve been.”

“Val’s busy. Besides, I’d like to make it for you.” She’d learned at a young age not to boil her mother’s Earl Grey and to pour the milk in before the tea. If Elizabeth knew British aristocracy had used the “milk in first” phrase to refer to working-class folks, she would’ve changed her preference. But since tea preparation was one of the few things Kerstin did well enough to please her mother, she kept the trivia to herself.

“I prefer Valerie’s.” She motioned for Kerstin to precede her to the sitting area, a social faux pas before the stroke.

Though the comment stung, Kerstin acquiesced and pretended to enjoy the view from the windows overlooking the park while surreptitiously observing her mother. Elizabeth secreted her slender walking cane behind her leg and moved slowly, posture upright, head high. She’d fought since the day of her stroke, determined to regain complete use of her limbs and total memory recall. She was making progress, but some of the damage couldn’t be undone. One thing would never change—her mother’s pride and determination—and Kerstin loved her for it. She was the reason Kerstin worked to secure a stable future no one could take from them.

“Anyone care for tea?” Valerie asked as she entered the living area.

“Yes, please,” her mother answered.

“None for me, Val.”

“Kerstin, don’t be petulant because I prefer Valerie’s tea.” Her mother gave her the chastising look she’d used since Kerstin was a child and settled in a wing-backed chair that gave her a slight height advantage.

She shook her head at Valerie. “I haven’t slept well for a couple of nights, and I really need to be rested tomorrow.”

“Look at the park. I can’t wait for everything to bloom again.” With Kerstin’s attention ostensibly diverted, Elizabeth slid a maroon notebook from the side of her chair cushion, glanced inside, and then replaced it. She smoothed the front of her silk pajamas and asked, “How was your trip to Greensboro? Remind me why you went there.”

The implication being she could go anywhere but the place she was born. Her mother detested Greensboro, and her constant complaints had torn their family apart.

“Parrish Designs has a new project there, but I’m thinking of turning it down. I’ll meet with Leonard tomorrow morning to discuss my options.”

“You mean Mr. Parrish, don’t you?”

“Of course.” Parrish might be her mother’s friend, but Kerstin gritted her teeth every day she had to work for the unpleasant man. He reminded her of Ebenezer Scrooge, tight with money and absolutely no compassion.

Valerie situated Elizabeth’s tea on a table to her right and moved it closer. “Do you need anything else before dinner?”

“No, thank you, dear.”

“I’ll be in my room while you two catch up.”

Kerstin gave her a pleading look she hoped would convince her to stay. The shock of running into Bennett Carlyle this morning had already frayed her nerves. Valerie shrugged and retreated. “Coward,” Kerstin mumbled and almost laughed at her transference.

“When are you going to move in and help Valerie take care of me? She can’t do everything. After all, I’m your mother.”

The words were needles, jabbing into wounds that never quite healed. Her insides clenched, and she fought back a pained response. The doctor’s explanation of Elizabeth’s difficulty retaining new information and her need to have things repeated didn’t make the critical tone hurt less.

“I’ve lived here for seven months, Mother, but I still have to travel for work.”

Elizabeth’s blue eyes registered momentary shock before she glanced toward the notebook resting at her side. “I know that. It just seems you aren’t here when I need you.”

Another needle. Kerstin’s eyes burned and she blinked back tears. How could she get through to a woman who couldn’t remember the past seven months? Elizabeth wasn’t a bad parent. She had specific ideas of what her daughter should and shouldn’t do and who she should be. Her idea of a fulfilling life included a crowded social schedule, charitable events, and a successful trophy husband on her arm. Children hadn’t been a priority. Kerstin didn’t have the necessary nurturing skills either, or the time now that the tables had been turned, but she wouldn’t stop trying. All she could do was hold on, try not to irritate Elizabeth, and pray Valerie didn’t quit. They sat in silence until daylight drained from the sky and the city hummed with nocturnal activities and light.

Valerie returned looking refreshed and asked, “Who’s ready for dinner?”

Kerstin’s shoulders relaxed. She should probably feel ashamed or guilty, but registered only a sense of relief as she kissed her mother on the cheek and started toward her bedroom. “I’m really tired. I’ll skip dinner and see you both tomorrow, though it might be late afternoon.”

Her mother’s long, disappointed breath was her only response.

Kerstin prayed for sleep as she got into bed, but thoughts of Bennett Carlyle returned. Seeing her had transformed Kerstin from orderly, efficient architect to love-struck teenager as old feelings mocked and injured her again. Kerstin’s ultimatum about the project had been a purely emotional one, totally out of character.

She considered sneaking out of the condo and going to the club to let off some steam and regain her sense of stability. Taking two steps toward her closet, she stopped. If a willing partner presented herself at this moment, Kerstin wouldn’t turn her down, but she didn’t have energy for the hunt. She flopped onto her extra-firm mattress again and stared at the ceiling. What if Leonard sent her back to Greensboro? She couldn’t afford a distraction, especially not one like Bennett. Her future depended on her focused creativity and precision.

 

v

 

Kerstin stood at her mother’s bedroom door watching her sleep. She debated waking her before she left for work, then decided against it. She wasn’t up for a confrontation at home before the one she anticipated at work, even though she understood Elizabeth’s fear and frustration. Kerstin would battle for control of her world if the same thing happened to her, but at some point their relationship had to even out in their new reality. While she was away or commuting on an irregular schedule, they’d have to manage.

“She’s a challenge.” Valerie handed Kerstin a travel mug full of steaming coffee.

“She certainly is.” Kerstin inhaled the strong scent of java and hazelnut while searching for something more generous to say about her mother. “I can’t imagine how difficult these limitations are for her, but I don’t know how else I can help.”

Valerie nodded back toward the kitchen. “Let’s chat before you leave.”

“Thank you again for everything you do.” She took a sip and placed her cup on the bar. “I’m not sure if I’ll be back today or if I’ll have to fly to Greensboro again.”

“Either way, I’ve got this, Kerstin. Don’t worry, and for God’s sake don’t feel guilty. You’re doing everything she’ll let you and more she doesn’t even know about.”

“I keep hoping for something to make a real difference.”

“Seriously? Let’s recap. You sublet your condo for a year, and if Elizabeth threw you out tomorrow, you couldn’t go home for at least five months. Right?”

Kerstin shrugged.

“You took six weeks’ family medical leave for caregiving, handled everything yourself until it became overwhelming, and eventually hired me, which I have to say is probably the smartest thing you’ve done in seven months. Elizabeth responds to me. I’m not a threat. She gave up rehabilitating me years ago. She still hopes you’ll suddenly flower into the perfect debutante, join the Junior League, and produce adorable clones of her. She’s trying, but she hasn’t fully accepted that we’re lesbians. Besides, you needed to get back to work for your sanity, and I’d guess to build a nest egg for Elizabeth’s future. The family money won’t last forever, contrary to her fantasies. Did I miss anything?”

Kerstin fiddled with the handle of her coffee cup, avoiding Valerie’s stare.

“That’s what I thought.” She motioned toward the stove. “Let me fix you a quick breakfast before you go.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“A piece of toast for the road?”

She shook her head and waved as she hit the lift button. “I love you, Val. Thanks for everything.” The door closed, and the mournful symphony music her mother preferred blared from overhead speakers, encouraging Kerstin to search for the escape hatch. The elevator opened, and she rushed out as if shoved.

Kerstin fast-walked to the subway station, found a seat, and rehearsed her speech on the ride. She was as prepared as she’d ever be when she knocked and opened the door to her boss’s office. She shelved the subject of Elizabeth and pulled the situation with Bennett Carlyle to the forefront. She disliked conflict, but she couldn’t avoid this particular problem.

“I was surprised to get your call yesterday, Kerstin.” Leonard Parrish tugged at the tie choking his thick neck. His balding head shone with a customary film of perspiration, and the books and papers stacked haphazardly everywhere reeked with the sour smell of it. “Is there a problem already?”

“You should probably ask Gilbert Early that question. I haven’t made a complete evaluation yet.” Kerstin tempered the disdain in her voice, but her boss’s slight coloring signaled that she’d failed. She’d suffered from Leonard’s lack of integrity and willingness to take the easy way out of difficult situations.

Leonard fumbled around on his desk, located a pen, and twirled it, the incessant clicking another indication of his discomfort.

“Perhaps I’m not the right person for this job. My style and vision differ greatly from Gil’s.” Leonard’s expression glazed over. He wasn’t buying her pitch. “The bottom line is we’re losing money with the delays.” Appealing to his pecuniary interests always did the trick and avoided a serious confrontation.

He stroked his chin, an attempt at concentration. “I see. Just carry on with the current design. It’s perfect for the project, and so are you.”

A knot tightened in her stomach, her foolproof bullshit detector. “What do you mean?” She wasn’t getting the whole story about Gil or the project.

“You’re a good architect, and this project needs to proceed without any further interruptions. As you said, we’re losing money every day the builders aren’t on site.”

Leonard never complimented her, but the money angle was definitely a motivator. “If time is so important, why did you replace Gilbert?”

He pushed back from the oak desk and stood, his sizeable girth straining the buttons of his discount suit. “The Greensboro Police Department is using some federal money for this build, and you know what the feds are like. If we’re delayed further, they’ll pull the funding. I thought you’d be happy about the job. It’ll look great in your portfolio, if you ever decide to leave Parrish Designs.”

Leaving couldn’t come soon enough, but telling Leonard would only make her life more difficult in the interim. “I do appreciate the opportunity, but I think someone else might be a better fit.” Truthfully, she wanted to dodge the undercurrent of trouble Bennett Carlyle represented.

“I’m sorry, Kerstin, but I must insist you see the project through.” The comment was almost shocking in its finality. He dodged a stack of drawings on his way to the door, signaling the end of their meeting.

She hated losing to Parrish, but she’d run out of professional excuses and wasn’t about to admit any personal motivation. He’d forge any weakness into a spear and gut her at every opportunity. No camaraderie or organizational support in this company. “I’ll do my best.”

“You always do.” He slammed the door behind her, and she walked to the elevator, baffled. Everything about their meeting seemed wrong, even the final result. She had no choice, but why should she choose between career advancement and dredging up the past? She just wouldn’t discuss their history with Bennett. Her work on the substation project needed to come first for so many reasons.

She stepped into the hectic flow of foot traffic and the cacophony of smells on the street, jittery and unsettled. Normally, she would bury herself in work or blow off steam with a willing companion, but work was part of the current problem, and the club didn’t open until later. Damn Bennett Carlyle for barging into her life at the most inopportune time and screwing up her carefully choreographed plans. Without making a conscious decision, she automatically joined the frantic pace of commuters and shoppers, elbowing her way forward step after step toward no specific destination. Maybe Bennett would secure a replacement on her end so they could avoid this whole unpleasant predicament.

If not, then what? She’d held her own against the most meticulous clients. Ms. Carlyle would be putty in her experienced hands. Kerstin stumbled at the thought. What was happening to her? She never walked unless absolutely necessary and then only with an endpoint and a goal. Walking served only three possible purposes in her opinion—idle thinking, wasting time, or making her late—none of which ever appeared on Kerstin’s agenda. She hailed a taxi, and when the driver stopped in front of her building, her mood and situation remained unchanged. Thank you, Bennett Carlyle. Her life had twisted awkwardly back on itself and bumped into the past.


Chapter Three

Bennett stared at her image in the full-length bedroom mirror the next morning and searched for an internal shift in her feelings. Nothing. The silver double bars positioned midway on her collar sparkled in the morning sun like her lieutenant’s bars, but these carried more weight and responsibility and a far greater chance of failure. Her stomach churned uncomfortably, and she pressed a hand against her midsection. She could handle police work, but overseeing an architectural project filled her with dread, and not just because of Kerstin. She’d pitch another reassignment appeal to the chief this morning and hope for the best. She finished dressing and started toward the living room.

She paused at the cottage door and glanced back. Only a couple of sweatshirts and a pizza box littered the otherwise clean space. Not bad for her. Mama, Stephanie, and Dylan, the women in the family with style sense, had redecorated in Bennett’s preferred mid-century modern style before she moved in two years ago. The living area was just large enough for her favorite Eames chair and ottoman, a sofa, one side chair, and two barstools at the peninsula slash dining room. She loved the cottage and the proximity to her family, but looked forward to sharing her life with someone else long-term in a home large enough for her own family.

On the way to her police cruiser, she waved at Mama and G-ma restocking the food truck for today’s run.

“The new bars look good, honey,” Mama called and blew her a kiss.

“You need some help?”

“We’re fine, taking our time. You run along. Have a good day.”

She drove slowly toward the downtown municipal building, second-guessing her decision about talking with the chief at every turn. She’d known Pete Ashton since she was a kid and rode with Mama to pick up her father after a shift. Pete had worked with her dad, eaten meals in their home, and stood with the family when her father was killed. Pete had earned the reputation as a fair and respected chief, so why was she worried? Perhaps because she took orders and performed every assignment without question no matter how unpleasant or dangerous, until this one.

Walking slowly toward the chief’s office, she considered whether her unusual case of nerves resulted from a desire to surrender or retain the project. Work was work, but this job obviously contained an emotional element beyond fear of failure or she wouldn’t be questioning her motives. She took a deep breath and knocked on the chief’s open door.

Pete Ashton waved her in as he ended a phone conversation. “Have a seat, Captain Carlyle. I like how that sounds, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The railroad tracks are a nice addition to your collar. Your father and grandfather would be very proud.”

A hitch in her breathing delayed Bennett’s response. “Thank you, sir. I sure hope so. And I hope you still feel the same after I have my say.”

He motioned her to a chair in front of his old seventies-era desk, gray metal with Formica top, which he boasted working at since he was a sergeant. “The substation assignment revisited?”

She wiped her sweaty hands down the legs of her uniform pants and nodded. “I’m a street cop, Chief, and you need an experienced administrator for the renovation. The project is too important to leave to chance, and I need time with my new command, to find out what’s working in the district and what isn’t.”

“I’ll tell you what’s not working, the cramped space at the Parks and Recreation building. You’ve got no place for temporary detention or interrogation and no weapons security. The list goes on and on. We have federal forfeiture money to remodel a building into our first district station, your station. This is a big opportunity, Ben.” He scratched his graying mustache as if considering another possibility. “Are you afraid you can’t handle the job?”

Was she so transparent, first Jazz and now the chief? Did she simply want to follow the safe, traditional path of a new captain’s command, or was she trying to honor Kerstin’s wishes? Maybe she wanted to avoid resurrecting old feelings by working with Kerstin. More likely, her hesitation was a combination of all those reasons. No point denying what seemed obvious to the chief. “Maybe that’s part of it, sir, if I’m totally honest.”

“If I didn’t think you were capable, I wouldn’t have promoted you. I have confidence in you, Ben. The project is a joint effort, so I’m not throwing you to the wolves. You’ll have city planners, finance, and public-works guys on the committee.” He stood. “And I support your recommendation of architect.”

Resigned to beginning her promotion with an unorthodox assignment, she replied, “I’d like one final conversation with her, if that’s okay.”

“Of course. She’ll be back in town sometime tomorrow.”

Bennett followed him toward the door. “Back in town, sir?” She wanted to ask where Kerstin had been, where she lived, but those questions were extraneous to the job. And maybe he was referring to Kerstin’s replacement.

“Don’t you know this young lady? She went to school here. I remember her vaguely. What’s her name? Kerry? Kelly?”

“Kerstin? Kerstin Anthony.”

“You two hung around together in high school. Happy reunion.”

“Yes, happy,” Bennett murmured. So, definitely Kerstin. Bennett had mixed feelings about working with Kerstin, but she’d just have to deal with them.

“My admin will contact you about your next meeting. If I don’t hear otherwise, we’ll sign the papers in the finance department, and then I’ll send her over to you. If I can help grease the wheels, don’t hesitate. And thanks for your service, Ben.”

She straightened and shook his hand, feeling both proud and nervous. She’d be plowing uncharted territory because she knew absolutely nothing about architecture or remodeling buildings. The Carlyle name and her reputation depended on her learning quickly. An image of Kerstin’s disappointed face flashed through Bennett’s mind. At least she’d attempted to honor Kerstin’s wishes.

Bennett drove to the Parks and Recreation building that served as the district’s temporary station to attend a few lineups and introduce herself to the troops. As she pulled into the employee parking lot, she spotted Jazz getting out of her blue Crown Vic.

“Thought you’d beat me here on the first day?” She slapped Jazz on the back as they walked together toward the police entrance at the side of the building.

“Making a good impression on my new captain. I hear she’s a real hard-ass.” Jazz grinned and held the door open for her. “Turn left. Lineups are in the big room near the end of the hallway.”

“Thanks, Jazz. Give me the full tour after?”

Jazz nodded and again held the door for Bennett to precede her into the midsized office that served as the assembly room for daily troop lineups.

“Squad, attention-huh!” The day-shift sergeant brought his troops from the relaxed parade-rest position to full attention and then joined them in formation.

“As you were,” Bennett said. “Carry on, Sergeant. I’ll address the squad at the end of your briefing.”

While the sergeant read alerts from overnight, a list of new warrants active in the district, and the zone and vehicle assignments, Bennett rehearsed her prepared speech and then dismissed it as too formal.

“Now, I’ll turn it over to our new commanding officer, Captain Bennett Carlyle.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” Bennett scanned the officers’ faces, registering expectation from the rookies and indifference from the veterans. Promotions challenged everyone, especially women, but it was her responsibility to set the tone and be an example for her district. The old adage Do as I say, not as I do wasn’t how she operated.

“I’m humbled and excited to be your new district captain. Some of you know me and how I operate, and the rest of you will learn. The short version, I say what I mean, support my troops, and don’t mind getting my hands dirty. I come from a family of cops and can’t imagine not working the street. That being said, the chief has other plans for me at the moment, but it’s all good.” She motioned Jazz closer to her side. “Most of you know Jazz Perry, a sergeant in the district for several years and now your new lieutenant. She’s one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable officers I’ve ever worked with. Lieutenant Perry will manage the operational side of things while I work on building a new substation for our district right across the street.”

A collective yelp went up from the officers along with a few comments.

“It’s about time.”

“We need locker rooms.”

“Weapons storage.”

“How about showers, Cap?”

She nodded and waved for them to continue. “What else?” For the next several minutes, they fired off suggestions, and she made mental notes. The officers had strong feelings about the substation and wanted to be proud of their new headquarters.

“Thanks, guys. I’ll look at the building plans and compare it to your list of demands.” The squad chuckled. “I hope our new place will have everything you want and more. The chief wants our first station to be a showpiece, so it’ll be fully outfitted. Any questions for me?”

The room was quiet for a few seconds before one of the veterans asked, “Is it true Captain Warren was driving drunk, caused a personal injury accident, and resigned?”

His sergeant shot him a scathing glance.

“It’s fine, Sergeant. I prefer facts to rumors. If you have questions or concerns, feel free to ask. I won’t hold it against you.” She turned her attention to the questioner. “Yes, that’s true, and my quick promotion assures continuity of the substation project. Any more questions?”

No one else spoke.

She looked at Jazz. “Anything to add, Lieutenant?”

“Only that I look forward to continuing to serve District One with all of you.”

“Lieutenant Perry and I will be in close contact about operations and the building project. If you need anything or have questions, let her know.” She nodded to the sergeant, and on the way out, she said, “I’ll see you in the field.”

As the door closed behind them, Bennett heard someone remark, “That’ll be different.”

Once in the hallway, Jazz directed Bennett to the right. “I’d much rather have my job than yours.”

“Seriously. I understand cops and crooks, but that’s about it.”

“You’ll be great. Stand here for the tour.” Jazz indicated a spot halfway between the assembly room and the door they’d entered and pointed to the left. “That small office at the end of the hall is yours and mine. Pretty tight, but it’s adequate.” She slid her finger in the air along a series of partitions. “And those are the sergeants’ cubicles. Three, sometimes four, sergeants share each unit, and before you ask, yes, it’s too cramped.”

Bennett looked from Jazz down the long hallway past each cubicle and back to her sister while mentally reviewing the district roster she’d studied last night. “This is an awfully small space for—”

“Don’t bother doing the math. It doesn’t add up no matter how you cut it. We’re like sardines, and tempers sometimes flare from lack of usable space.”

“And this is all?” She couldn’t believe the confined quarters these officers had endured for the better part of two years.

“Actually, we have one more room.” Jazz walked down the hallway past the assembly area to a door across from the captain’s office. “This was Captain Warren’s conference room, which he always locked unless he was using it.”

Bennett tried the doorknob, and a flash of anger caught her off guard. “Okay, this ends now. Your first official duty as my second in command is to send a memo to the sergeants offering this room for immediate use, twenty-four seven. Get a simple Velcro sign for the door we can flip to indicate it’s in use or available. If we leave this vacant when our guys desperately need private space, we’re being callous and irresponsible.”

“Aye, aye, Captain. Warren was nothing if not irresponsible.” Jazz rattled her keychain but didn’t look at Bennett until she located the right key to unlock the door.

“Something you need to tell me?”

“You won’t have to work hard to be a better captain than Warren, but you’ll have a lot to make up for.”

“That bad?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Why didn’t you say anything to Pete?” The question was reflex. Jazz followed the rules and didn’t violate the blue wall of silence or ask for favors. When Mama and Pa adopted her, she kept her last name out of respect for her mother and to avoid any preferential treatment as a member of the Carlyle family. She’d fought hard to overcome her childhood in foster care, challenging teenage years, and being female in the police department. “Sorry, Jazz. Dumb question. I know how the game’s played.”

Jazz shrugged. “Buy me a sandwich? Ma Rolls should be in the parking lot by now. I didn’t get breakfast, and G-ma shot me a killer look.”

“Least I can do.” Bennett’s phone vibrated, and she glanced at the text from the chief’s secretary.

 

Meeting with architect scheduled 1000 tomorrow, your office.

 

“How about I buy and you fly?”

“I’ll meet you in the break area in ten minutes, or as fast as G-ma turns me loose. She’s on one of her ‘all my grandbabies should be settled down’ rants today.”

“Thanks for the warning. I’ll steer clear.”

Jazz grinned, and Bennett handed her a twenty. “I expect change.”

After a quick sandwich and further logistical discussions with Jazz, Bennett slowly opened the door to her new office. The space seemed harmless enough, but over the threshold lay potential booby traps she couldn’t imagine until she stepped into them. She scanned the room, expecting an ambush or possibly someone with an answer to the recurring question. Was she ready?

The office walls were stripped bare; not even a district map adorned the gray surfaces. A large calendar occupied the center of a dark wooden desk, and a black leather chair rested on its side behind it. She calculated the time of Warren’s arrest Sunday morning with the arrival of first shift. He’d vacated in a hurry before anyone got wind of his situation. All the desk drawers were empty, nothing to indicate the status of the district, pending disciplinary issues, mood of the troops, or even current crime statistics. Warren hadn’t been much of a team player, and she was glad the department was rid of him.

She righted the overturned chair, sat, and breathed deeply for a few minutes, thinking about her father and grandfather. At each new phase of her career, she took time to express gratitude for those who’d sacrificed for the life she was blessed to live. She dug into her shirt pocket and retrieved the .380 shell casing from her father’s murder. The full metal jacket shone from hours of rubbing between her thumb and fingers. The firing pin indention in the primer seemed so small to have caused so much damage—a good man’s life ended, a family torn apart, the police community shocked and grieving, and her own life still impacted by the consequences. She looked toward the ceiling. “Help me not screw this up.” She rolled the casing between her palms one final time and returned it to her pocket.

Pulling a blank notepad from the bottom supply cabinet, Bennett listed the few things she needed to claim this place as her own. She’d bring family pictures, an inspirational saying to motivate the troops and herself occasionally, and her father’s badge encased in Lucite. She ripped the edge off the paper, slid it into her pocket, and idly scribbled on the pad. Thoughts of her pending meeting with Kerstin returned, and she bore down on the pen.

Her real job as a district commander was so different from Kerstin’s work. Policing required hands-on, person-to-person, interactive, and often physically and emotionally challenging skills. Kerstin’s more solitary career dealt with figures, numbers, and creative ideas. Maybe Kerstin’s career choice accounted for the more cautious and ordered approach Bennett detected. She couldn’t help wondering how else Kerstin might’ve changed.

What could they possibly have in common after all these years? Some aspects of Bennett’s job could be creative—figuring out how to reach a mentally challenged individual and talking him off a ledge; motivating an experienced officer to embrace new community-oriented concepts; balancing a demanding and dangerous career with an equally demanding and loving family. Maybe somewhere in between they’d find common ground. She looked down at the page she’d been doodling on and the initials KA were surrounded by Xs and Os.

“Seriously, Carlyle?” She ripped the paper off the pad and tossed it into the trash on her way out. She needed to be in the field answering calls, interacting with the officers, and getting the lay of the land in her new district, not mooning over a woman she’d crushed on as a teenager.