The Night Before
The darkly elegant figure slipped silently through the subdued, but growing, happy-hour crowd; a closed expression warding off those who would approach her. It didn't stop their eyes, however, and she felt the appraising glances slipping over and around her body-- in spite of the cashmere trench coat that protected her. A familiar shiver of discomfort crept up her spine; but she threw it off, squaring her broad shoulders and lifting her chin in habitual stubborn defiance. She absolutely hated jazz bars like this one, but in the six years since she had transplanted herself to New York, she had yet to find someplace that felt like home. Someplace with sawdust and peanut shells on the floor, a raucous country & western band in the corner, and a bartender who called her "honey" with absolutely no sexual intent as he poured her tequila shooters from the "good" bottle he kept stashed behind the counter. Not that the places back home had any different purpose than this one-- meat markets one and all-- but somehow it had seemed less deadly back then.
Of course, she supposed, that was the big difference been Abilene and Manhattan. Judging from the earnest expressions on the faces of the assembled young turks, they took getting laid much more seriously here. She doubted a single one of them even cracked a smile when fucking, which just ruled them all out in her book-- had other issues not already. Ignoring the thinly-veiled hostile looks thrown her way by the cluster of women at the other end of the bar, she slid onto a stool in the corner and tossed her coat over the one beside her. Not that the gesture would discourage anyone, but at least she could say she tried.
With a wave of a long-fingered hand, she motioned the bartender over. He was in his thirties, she guessed, and had been doing this for a while because of his familiarity with the bar glasses and liquor bottles. But what really tipped her off was the total nonchalance with which he observed the well-coiffed and perfumed women surrounding him. He might get lucky once and a blue moon when the pickings for the girls were otherwise pretty slim, but the look in his eyes told her he held no illusions about being anyone's Prince Charming. She liked him already. "Here," she murmured, pressing two twenties into his hand.
"What's this for?"
"Cab-fare home for me tonight," she said flatly.
He chuckled and nodded in amiable agreement. "Then I guess you'll be wanting to start a tab?"
"You'd be guessing right." She held up a gold AMEX-- still surprised after all these years that she had one. The little girl from Abilene really had come a long way. "You gonna laugh at me if I order Jack Daniels?"
"Not if you hand me that."
A fleeting grin crossed her lips. "Good man." She handed him the credit card and another twenty.
A questioning glance. "And this is....?"
"Any man tries to send a drink over here, you stop him."
He looked at the woman more closely-- this time taking in a thick mane of onyx hair, smoothly sculpted lines of cheekbones covered by flawless skin, and colorless dark eyes glittering with intelligence. "You sure this is gonna be enough to cover all my extra work?" he asked, only half-kidding. That earned him another grin and an additional twenty.
"You be sure to tell me if that doesn't cover it," came the laconic reply, a faint Southern drawl apparent in her vowels now that he was paying attention.
"Yes ma'am." Expertly tossing ice cubes into a crystal tumbler, he poured a healthy dose of amber liquid into the glass and set it before her. "My name's Chuck. Let me know if there's anything else you need."
She lifted the glass and saluted him. "I'll be sure to do that, Chuck. Thanks."
The liquor stung a familiar path down her throat, and she closed her eyes as the first wave washed against the knot of bile and nerves and disgust curled in her belly. Maybe if she drank herself sick she could throw it all up, lose this feeling of devastation and loss that crept over her more and more. She didn't know why this case had hit her so hard, why another skel's walking free should matter. Except that his victim-- a fourteen year old boy who didn't know anything except that a small town wasn't where he wanted to be-- looked just like her littlest brother, Billy.
Billy with his tow hair and cornflower blue eyes... the spitting image of their mama, dead these thirteen years. Billy was fourteen when she had left. He was a man now, and she hadn't seen how he had grown up. She wondered if his hair was still fine, and if it flopped in his eyes when he waited too long between haircuts. She had trimmed his hair when he was little, and even though sometimes his bangs were a little crooked, for the longest time he wouldn't let anyone else do it.
God, exile was hell...
Still, here she was in this Northern city with its bright lights and bustle. If you can make here, you can make it anywhere... the song said. And, by rights, she had. Fours years in narco and now nothing short of a total meltdown would stop her rise in Manhattan homicide. Schiff had his eye on her, and she knew with a little more experience she would be a serious competitor for the next EADA position that came open.
Then why did she miss a pissant Texas town so goddamn much?
She chuckled silently at her own musings, answering the question before it even thought about reaching her lips. Because I can't ever go back there.... Because I can't call my sister on the phone and bitch about a horrible date, because I missed my brother winning the state football championship, because I can't tell my mama I love her and my daddy will never put his arms around me again...
"Crybaby..." she muttered under her breath.
Still, the Jack felt good-- even though it reminded her undeniably of a home she would never have-- and she stretched a little on her stool as the tension of the day began popping uncomfortably out of her spine.
After the judge had thrown out the case, she had been uncharacteristically silent on the short trip back to her office. McCoy had eyed her suspiciously the entire time; and she knew he had expected an outburst, a tirade about how for every hoop the defense had to jump through they had to jump through ten. With his touchy, feely "let's all love each other" hippie attitude, he had wanted to go one more round. Talk about how, although it sucked right now, it proved-- badly perhaps-- how the system ultimately protected them all.
She just kept seeing her murdered brother's face.
Even though it wasn't him at all.
"You wanna talk about it?" Jack had asked.
She had resisted the urge to confess-- to been seen as something other than the heartless hang 'em high, subzero bitch that they all thought she was. She had given in to the temptation once before and told him about what was-- with one exception-- the most physically painful and emotionally humiliating moment of her life. He had shuffled his feet, his face a mask of pity and compassion, completely unprepared for what she had told him. Seeing that look and how it stripped away all her strength and control in his eyes had inured her to further confessionals. Instead on this humid spring night, she decided to solve her problems in a way she rarely did-- the bottom of a Jack Daniels bottle. Throughout her life, knowing her own propensity for extremes and disliking the sensation of continually being out of control; she had used liquor sparingly. But there were times when nothing else would do. Tonight was one of those times, and she be damned if she was going to drink alone. Like McCoy with his pint in the right hand drawer and everybody acting like they didn't know what happened late at night-- ignoring those mornings when he appeared with bloodshot eyes and rumpled clothes still smelling of the day past.
A quirk of her brow filled her glass a second time, and Chuck winked at her. "You're keeping me busy. Eight and counting." Obviously referring to the number of drinks he had refused on her behalf.
"You're a good man, Charlie Brown." He tipped an imaginary hat and returned to his duties, mixing exotic cocktails that she couldn't fathom drinking.
A smattering of applause drew her attention to the tiny stage in the corner and the rail thin singer who appeared in the spotlight. As the woman launched into a professionally flawless version of some unidentifiable jazz standard, she closed her eyes and wished more than anything for a jukebox with just one Janis Joplin record on it.
"Can I sit here?" A rich, purring voice-- distinctly female-- kept her from boarding one more train whose tracks led down another homesick memory lane. An elegantly-jointed hand, bare of decoration, gestured to the stool her coat now occupied. "Do you mind?"
Her eyes followed up the long arm and over the wide shoulders to the shining cap of pale hair that clung tightly to her scalp. Her face was exquisite, painted with dangerously sharp lines that led to the faceted hazel of her eyes. Pale brows arched in question, leading her to conclude that the stranger was either a natural blond, or just had a very good hairdresser.
She gestured to the throng of turks and their evening's prey. "There's lots of empty stools down there."
The stranger nodded and shifted slightly, the discreet bulge under her tweed blazer becoming apparent. "Yeah, but if I feel one more creep's hand on my ass, I'm gonna shoot someone."
She narrowed her eyes in recognition, the face becoming vaguely familiar now that she had a context for it. "You on the job?"
Surprise registered in the hazel eyes. "Yeah..." she answered slowly. "But I'm off duty now." Her gaze roamed over the other woman's broad-shouldered figure. "You?"
A smile slowly formed on her lips. It wasn't the first time someone had mistaken her for a cop, and sometimes she wondered if she had made the right career choice. "Naw. I'm Carmichael. DA's office. Homicide in Manhattan." Essentially her life story, in seven words. She offered a hand, which the other woman took in a warm, firm grip.
"Jill Kirkendall. I'm a dectective in the 15th."
"Good to meet you, Detective." She jerked her head at the stool beside her and gathered her coat. "Take a seat."
Chuck had noticed the woman's new companion and stepped over with alacrity. "Can I get something else for you?"
Abbie handed him her coat. "Can you put this someplace safe?"
"And can you get me a gin and tonic?" Kirkendall added.
"Definitely." He snapped to pour her drink and refill Carmichael's. Sometimes life really didn't get any better than being the beck-and-call-boy of two beautiful women.
Abbie glanced at the woman beside her. "You looking for company tonight?" A raised eyebrow indicated the not-too-discreetly-interested-throng to their left.
Kirkendall chuckled. "Not on your life."
"Hey Chuck," she called the bartender back over and presented two more twenties. "What goes for me--" She handed him the bills. "Goes for her, too."
He deftly took the cash and exchanged it for the women's drinks. "You're up to twelve. Some of them are pretty insistent."
"When it gets to twenty, let me know. I'll come up with something more drastic." Abbie smirked, thinking of Kirkendall's service weapon. Well, there was always the ultimate solution. Although at this point she didn't know if she'd use it on them or herself. She held her drink to Kirkendall's. "Cheers."
The two women clinked glasses and sipped in momentary silence. "What was that all about?" the detective asked.
"It's been a shit day, I wasn't looking for company." She ran a weary hand through her hair. "So I pay him to keep the trolls away."
"You're gonna be paying him a lot of money." Kirkendall's eyes roved over her in a not-unpleasant way, and an odd flush spread through Abbie's body at the gentle exploration. All these years in New York had not accustomed her to the frankness of these Yankees glances-- all boldness and urgency, raking her clothing and the skin underneath with their heat, their presumption, and sometimes-- rarely-- their kindness.
It was the kindness in Jill Kirkendall's eyes that warmed her now; and the woman who earlier in the day had called a judge a "gutless, spineless wonder that deserved to roast in hell for eternity" now found herself lost for what to say. Instead she stared into the comforting golden hues reflected in the crystalline shapes of the ice cubes in her glass. At last, she said softly, "Thanks."
Seeming to register her discomfort, Kirkendall quirked an eyebrow. "Don't tell me nobody's ever told you that you were beautiful?" A disbelieving tone answered the rhetorical question.
Abbie smiled wearily. "Yeah, but usually at the same time they're telling me how good my dress would look on their bedroom floor. Eventually I just kinda stop hearing it-- or, like you, I'd haveta start shooting them."
"Ooh yeah, been there, done that." Jill sighed in agreement. "Originality and men sometimes have a long way to go before they run into each other. But what else are you going to do?"
Abbie glanced at Kirkendall in muted surprise, then chuckled to herself. "Oh, I can think of one or two things."
She smirked, her brows lifting elegantly. "You're kidding, right?"
Kirkendall picked up on the sarcasm, a challenging light flickering in her eyes. "No, enlighten me."
In reply, Abbie merely raised the hand that currently was not holding her drink and wiggled her fingers lightly. A startled laugh burbled in the other woman's throat; and Abbie found herself liking the lush, exotic sound-- enjoying even more that she was the cause of it.
"There is always that." Jill shook her head lightly, the burnished highlights of her blond hair absorbing the subdued lighting of the bar and reflecting it back as gold.
"Well, people have always accused me of being self-involved."
Kirkendall seemed to consider that for a moment before asking, "So why are you here?" The eyes that held her were unwavering, but not hostile or demanding, as Abbie searched their depths-- watching the hazel of Jill's irises separate into delicate shades of brown and green, the bronze flecks scattered across their breadth gleaming with awareness.
Why was she here?
Because she could only bury herself in work for so long, and back at her apartment there was nothing but neatly arranged furniture and unavoidable memories. She had maxed out her credit cards to buy all new furniture, so she wouldn't have to look at the futon where she had slept, made love, and dreamed about her futures or the coffee table with its countless water stains where she had forgotten to use a coaster. Once she came to New York, she had never unpacked the knick-knacks accumulated from her years at UT and back home. That, besides the clothes she owned, was all she brought with her in some vainly self-protective instinct.
It hadn't worked.
The memories had followed her like an unrelenting wind, and sometimes she swore she could still smell the prairie grass and feel the soil underneath her feet when she ran. There wasn't much to do in Abliene to begin with, and pastimes were few and far between. For the boys there was always football, but for the girls it was harder. You were either pretty or not. A cheerleader or not. Going with an athelete or not. As a youth, Abbie hadn't been particularly fond of any of those options-- even though the genetic gifts of her parents had marked her as one of the "chosen ones" had she desired the status. Instead, she ran. Long hours sweating under the merciless sun, with nothing but the ragged sound of her own breathing in her ears and the strong feeling of her heart pounding the blood through her body. She ran herself to a state record in the 1600 meters, all the way into a track scholarship to the University of Texas, and eventually, right out of the state itself. The simple pleasures and simple rewards of the ache in her legs and the soreness in her shoulders after her time on the track were far different than the complex and oftentimes contradictory life that she led now. Courthouse victories were rarely straightforward affairs, and far more of them ended in stalemates or partial capitulation.
And then sometimes there was a clusterfuck like today.
Which led back to the question of why she was here.
A warm hand covered her own, shocking her body back to the present and away from the gaping chasm of the past. "You okay?"
Back to the unsettling kindness of Jill Kirkendall's hazel eyes. "Just wondering why I was here."
A long pause. "Maybe you should go home."
Abbie shuddered at the thought. Going home was really not an option. In fact, if that were her only alternative, she'd borrow Kirkendall's Glock right now. She cocked her head at the woman beside her, enjoying the feel of the strong fingers entwined in her own. "You like pie?"
"You know, pie. Apple, peach. Flaky, fruity stuff that's bad for you?"
A reluctant smile curved Jill's lips. "Yeah, why?"
"You wanna go get some? I know a little place not too far from here." She considered the raucous, well lit little hole-in-the-wall diner and contrasted it against the slick, calculated elegance of the bar they were now in. "Well, not too far physically that is. We could even walk. I could use a police escort." Kirkendall's brows furrowed at the unexpected invitation, and Abbie caught Chuck out of the corner of her eye, bearing down on her with two drinks in his hands. "Uh, I hate to pressure you, but I think I've reached my twenty." She nodded at the bartender headed their way. "Troll patrol has apparently retired for the evening, and unless you want to get real creative we're about to have company."
"You get the check, I'll cover you." Kirkendall grinned conspiratorially, and Abbie found herself wanting to know more about the stranger who had decided to share her evening. Perhaps pie would give her that chance.
Reluctantly releasing Jill's hand, Abbie turned her attention to Chuck-- who grimaced sympathetically. "I held them off as long as I could."
"Don't sweat it, just settle up my tab and tell the boys thanks but no."
"I think you'll have a chance to tell them yourself." His eyes focused behind her, and Abbie turned to see Jill rising fluidly off the stool, standing easily beside Carmichael as the young turks approached them.
"What are two beautiful women doing alone on a night like this?" the taller of the two asked. He was conventionally handsome; fair featured with bland, inoffensive eyes and a gym-enchanced body. Judging from the paisley-patterned suspenders over a crisp white shirt and muted tie, Abbie would have bet her AMEX he was a stock broker. His aftershave was that of someone who spent his days chasing money.
"We're not alone," Jill replied. "We're just leaving. And we're not looking for company." They were both blond, Abbie noted as she watched the exchange-- Jill as tall as he-- but there was something so much more fascinating about her new friend, the combination of relaxed confidence and exotic beauty infinitely more compelling than the man who stood in front of her.
He seemed to dismiss the detective's words and totally ignore her flat tone. "Who're you with? It looked like to us you girls were just crying in your drinks. We thought we'd cheer you up. Come on, just a drink. What do you say?"
Abbie lost the next exchange as Chuck handed her the tab to sign and returned her coat. She scribbled her signature on the paper and slung the trenchcoat over one arm, returning her attention to the matter at hand. She was astonished to feel Jill's fingers curl once more around hers and to hear the detective murmur to the men, "Get a clue, you morons."
A shout of laughter, barely suppressed by years of courtroom experience, rose up at the sight of the slack-jawed men who could only shake their heads numbly at the undeniable implication of the women's linked hands. Their eyes bounced from the tall blond to Abbie and back again. "No way," the second man murmured, as the two women stepped around them and into the traffic leading out of the bar. "No fucking way."
Carmichael couldn't resist calling over her shoulder, "Better luck next time, boys."
Once out on the street, their eyes met, setting off a round of rowdy laughter. "I didn't expect you to be that creative." Abbie leaned against the wall for support, now vividly aware of the woman in front of her whose hand was still clasped to hers.
"Well, you did say that you were going to have to do something drastic."
"Desperate times do call for desperate measures," she agreed.
"Well, I have to say-- that's a first for me. I always sort of wondered why those guys who left with the most beautiful woman in the bar couldn't stop smiling."
Abbie's eyes sought hers, gently teasing. "Then I'll have to tell you, 'cause I just got to do it."
Even the uncertain streetlight couldn't hide the blush that lit Kirkendall's fair features. Her eyes dropped away from Carmichael's, finding instead a crack in the sidewalk that needed instant investigation. "Is that something you do often?" she asked finally, quietly.
"I'm not much for one night stands," was the somber reply.
"That's not what I'm asking."
"I know." Abbie stood and straigtened, tugging hesitantly at the hand that had yet to release hers. "Come on. Let's go get some pie."
Carmichael circumspectly dropped her hand when Jill made apparent her willingness to follow-- though for the life of her, the detective couldn't figure out why. Because it was Friday night, she had let the boys go on a sleepover with some friends, and she found herself with an unexpectedly free evening. Some renegade impulse had sent her wandering into the twilight, and the soft jazz sounds emanating from the bar had drawn her inside. Jill had instantly recognized the thronging crowd's intentions, but she ignored them, working her way towards the bar and thinking that at least she could have a drink and listen to some good music.
Four passes in about as many minutes nearly sent her back out the door again, but a flash of sable caught her eye and drew her attention to the woman in the corner. The chiseled profile and casual, but alert, posture struck a chord of recognition in Jill's memory; and she headed over.
And found a little bit more than she had bargained for. A weary aloneness flickered in the obsidian glitter of Abbie Carmichael's eyes that caught on something unidentified in Jill's heart. The ADA didn't have the steady intensity of a habitual drinker, but there was a solitary set to her shoulders that looked like it had been there for years. Their would-be Lotharios had interrupted any serious conversation, but the flashes of wry humor and engaging smile of the other woman had intrigued her enough to accompany her in search of pie.
Jill looked around in astonishment as Abbie swept open the glass doors and ushered them into tiny diner that was warm, cozy and-- above all-- loud. Tammy Wynette cried from corner about her D-I-V-O-R-C-E and almost succeeded in drowning out the shouts from the kitchen, the clink of silverware on plates, and the assorted conversations coming from the crowded booths and tables. The decor was decidedly downwardly-mobile-diner, but it was spotless and gleaming under the bright florescent lights. Carmichael jerked her head towards a booth in the back corner. "Come on, follow me."
"Where are we?" she asked, surprised to find that it was easier to be heard than she had imagined.
As they threaded their way precariously through the closely-crowded tables, Carmichael grinned with a light in her eyes so infectious that Jill couldn't help but grin back. "This is where I go when I can't stand the sight of one more Yankee." When Jill arched an imperious eyebrow, she added hastily, "Present company excluded, of course."
Abbie grabbed the "Reserved" sign off the table and tossed it behind the ketchup and Heinz 57 bottles before sliding into the booth. "Siddown." She shrugged out of her coat, carelessly bunching it in the corner of the seat beside her. She grinned again, her mood visibly lifting. "Stay awhile."
Jill opened her mouth to ask a question, but was interrupted by a raucously loud female voice with a deep Southern accent. "Hey Texas! Where the hell have you been?"
To Kirkendall's surprise, Abbie looked up, another broad smile crossing her features, and answered. "Workin' my ass off, Mae. How you been?"
"Can't complain. Well, I could but who'd want to listen?" Mae-- a plump, compact woman with copious amounts of red, frizzy hair piled on her head-- was a whirling dervish of motion, refilling coffee cups and slinging plates along the counter as she bantered with Carmichael.
"I know the feeling. Can we get a pot of coffee?" She pointed to their booth.
Mae's laugh was a happy bark. "You break a leg or somepthin', Tex? I didn't see you limping when you came in. Come get it yourself, you know where everything is."
Carmichael rolled her eyes and slumped back on her side of the booth, complaining good-naturedly. "I got someone here I'm trying to impress. I thought I'd class up your joint. Now she's gonna think I'm one of the help."
Mae's eyes narrowed, then widened in surprise as her eyes swept over Jill. "So you did." She wiped her hands briskly on the red-checkered apron tied over her girth and grabbed a pot of coffee before making her way around the long counter. "I'll be damned. Don't think you've ever done that before, Tex."
The flush that spread up Carmichael's neck was faint, but visible to the detective's eyes. Apparently Mae didn't miss the lawyer's sudden shyness either, for she chortled in delight. "We just wanted some pie," Carmichael muttered, a grudging smile slinking around her mouth in spite of her pique.
Mae hrumphed in disapproval. "Not before you introduce me to your friend. Girl, were you raised in a barn?"
"Near enough," Abbie replied dryly. From the complacent way Carmichael accepted the older woman's mother-henning, Jill suspected that this was an old routine between the pair-- although apparently her presence was a new twist. "Mae Harper, may I present one of New York's finest, Detective Jill Kirkendall. Jill, this is Mae Harper, the proprietress of this fine establishment." She grinned at the two women. "Now can we have some pie?"
Mae set the coffee pot on the table along with the two mugs she had hooked on her way over. "Have you even had dinner yet?"
"Not likely, if I know you. Look at you--"
"You've got to get some meat on those big ole bones of yours or you're just gonna fall down one day when you're up in front of the judge. And how impressive would that be, Miss John Law? Hmmm?"
Jill could no longer smother the laugh that had been threatening to escape during the whole exchange-- which only drew Mae's chocolate brown gaze to her. "And you, Missy, you're not any better. Being a cop, I thought you'd be bigger. How do you catch anybody?"
Abbie smirked at the woman across from her. "I'm sure she runs fast, Mae. And she's got a real big gun, too."
"That don't do no good when somebody's sittin' on you." Mae shook her head. "What is it with you tall, skinny girls?"
Their hostess paused for a moment, and before she could gather enough steam to launch her next conversational salvo, Abbie interrupted. "Why don't you just bring us a couple of plates of whatever Harold's special is today?"
Mae nodded triumphantly. "That's better."
"Then can we have some pie?" Carmichael added hopefully.
But Mae was already gone, shouting their order back to the kitchen.
"Damn. I hope she remembers the pie." She glanced at Jill, a rueful smile in her eyes. "She makes good pie."
"I gathered." Jill poured two cups of coffee, sliding one mug across from her. "How did you find this place?"
"I just followed the sound of the loudest Alabama accent I heard since I left Texas." Carmichael chuckled, then shook her head. "Actually, a few years ago I was the riding DA on a case in narco. Some small fry was trying to set up shop on the corner, and Harold-- that's Mae's husband-- dimed him out. I came to take the depo, heard George Jones on the jukebox, and thought I'd died and gone to heaven. They've been here almost twenty five years, and Harold swears her accent gets thicker every year. Mae says it's her only defense against all these godless Yankees surrounding her." Carmichael didn't seem to notice that her own words had gotten a little slower, a soft burr creeping into her vowels that tickled gently at Kirkendall's hearing.
The detective decided she liked the sound and wanted to hear more of it. "So why did they leave Alabama?"
"Well, Harold's from New York. Years ago-- in the early seventies, I think-- he was stationed down at Fort Bragg in Georgia. He and Mae met when she came to visit her sister whose husband was also stationed there. They fell in love and decided to get married."
"And he won the 'where are we going to live' contest?"
"Weeellll..." Carmichael played with her spoon, stirring it idily in her coffee. "Not exactly. See, Harold's black-- and Mae's family about had a heart attack when they found out. And as much as I love the South, sometimes it can be a hard place to live for someone who's... different." A shadowy pain flickered across Carmichael's eyes; causing Jill to wonder what was behind the sadness, if perhaps Mae and Harold weren't alone in their exile.
Two plates, covered in an enormous amount of food, plunked down expertly in front of them. "All right, you two, dig in..." Mae fished in her apron for two sets of rolled silverware and a handful of quarters that she tossed on the table in Abbie's direction. "Honey, go put something else on that jukebox. Tom's wife left him again, and if I hear that damn Tammy Wynette song one more time, I'm gonna have to slap some sense back upside his head."
"Thought you wanted me to eat my dinner?"
"It'll still be here when you get back. Now, scoot."
Carmichael held her hands up in surrender and stood, scooping the quarters off the table. Jill watched the lean figure winding its way through the room, admiring the confident grace of the other woman's movement.
"She's a sweet girl." Jill turned her head to find Mae had pushed Abbie's plate a little further down the table and had seated herself in booth. "I worry about her sometimes, though. She works all the time and doesn't seem to do much else. Did my heart good to see her bring you in here. Ya'll known each other long?"
Jill shook her head. "No..." but didn't add anything more, thinking it prudent not to mention that she and Abbie had, in fact, just met. Besides, the detective in her wanted to hear what Mae had to say, knowing instinctively that the older woman knew a side to Abbie Carmichael that the woman herself might not admit to having. In their short acquaintance, Jill had already realized that Carmichael was smart, proud, and stubborn. What Mae Harper and this time in the diner were telling her was that Abbie was also kind, funny, and-- above all-- human.
Mae sighed. "She's got a hard row, harder than mine and Harold's ever was, I think. Most people these days, they don't even blink when they see somebody like us-- but her kind... I read the papers, that boy up in Wyoming and the soldier in Virginia..." Her voice trailed away. "I guess I just don't understand it. Of course, my momma said the same thing about my Harold. And my daddy threatened to take a shotgun to poor Harold if he came around. It didn't stop us, or even slow us down-- come to think of it." She smiled again, the corners of her eyes crinkling as Abbie approached. "Lord, listen to me, running off at the mouth and not letting you eat." She patted Jill on the arm-- something, Kirkendall noted, she hadn't done with Carmichael-- and stood up. "You enjoy that, and there's plenty more in the kitchen. If you want anything else, you just holler. Okay, sweetie?"
"Thanks, Mae." Jill smiled at their hostess as she departed; and when she returned her eyes to Carmichael, she found the attorney was watching her with a bemused expression. "She likes you," Jill commented, carving into her dinner.
"I like her," was Carmichael's only reply before digging into her own meal.
They concentrated on their dinners for a few moments, each woman thoroughly enjoying the protein and carbohydrate-laden meal. "Now, what is this called again?" Jill finally asked, after devouring half her plate.
"Chicken fried steak." Abbie grinned at Kirkendall's confusion. "It's basically flank steak, breaded and fried within an inch of its life. Then it's covered in gravy and baked just to make sure its dead. Served with mashed potatoes and fried okra."
"So where's the chicken?"
"There isn't any, that's just the way it's fried--"
Comprehension dawned. "Like chicken."
"I see." She watched Carmichael inhaling her dinner, as if she hadn't eaten in days. Of course, from what Mae had said, that was entirely likely. "Abbie..." Carmichael's head jerked up at the sound of her name on Jill's lips. "Can I ask you a question?"
A quiet wariness crept into the dark eyes focused on her. "Sure," she said, not quite shaking hesitation out of her voice.
"Why did you go to that bar tonight instead of coming here in the first place?"
Carmichael leaned back against the booth, resting her head against its back and closing her eyes. For the first time, Jill noticed the lines of strain etched into the aristocratic planes of the other woman's face. A heavy silence fell between them before she answered without moving. "Sometimes it hurts too much to come here."
Jill considered this answer for a moment before asking her next question. "So why bring me?"
Dark eyes opened, fixing on her and roving over her face with a quiet intimacy that unsettled Jill even as it quickened her pulse. "Because with you I could see through your eyes. And it was sweet again." Without thinking, Jill stretched across the table, her fingers brushing over Carmichael's wrist before settling lightly on her hand. Abbie sucked in a deep breath at the gesture, her eyes flickering closed momentarily.
"Tell me about Texas." A low-voiced request that sliced to the core of Abbie Carmichael's pain.
The attorney only shook her head and countered with a request of her own. "Tell me about you."
The curious sensation of literally stepping to another-- deeper-- level with this woman surrounded Jill. "What do you want to know?" Knowing that her own truth would help lead her to Abbie's.
"How long have you been on the job?"
"About nine years. Plainclothes for about four of those."
Carmichael whistled low in her throat. "You got your shield quick."
Jill shrugged. "They say you get it quick or not at all."
"Yeah, I've heard that one around the DA's office a couple of times too."
"Manhattan homicide is pretty high profile."
"Glamour Shots, Inc, that's us." Referring acidly to the snide nickname given the division because of the press's annoying habit of featuring cases-- and hence the ADA's photographs-- in the news more than any other divison's.
"How long you been there?"
"Bout two years. Spent four in narco before that. You ever done any undercover work?" Abbie cocked her head at Jill before shaking it in answer to her own question. "Nah, I bet you didn't."
"You're right, but what makes you say that?"
Carmichael smiled. "You're too distinctive. You couldn't fade into the woodwork if you tried. I bet the only stuff you got was vice. Am I right?"
"I have walked a corner or thousand in my time," Jill conceded with a wry smile. "I don't know who was worse-- the johns or the guys I was working with. Trying to cop feels and just generally being assholes. Fortunately I don't have to do too much of that any more. My partner is a whole lot better at it than I am. So I get to ride the surveillance van."
"How does your family feel about it?"
"If you're trying to ask me if I have a husband-- I don't. Just a half crazy ex. You know that song, 'My Favorite Mistake?'" Abbie nodded in recognition. "That's him, in a nutshell." She grinned wryly, and then her face softened. "I do have my boys, though."
Carmichael cocked a brow. "Boys?"
"Two sons. Twelve and ten who on any given day can think having a cop for a mother is either the coolest thing in the world or the worst punishment from God ever visited on a child."
"Where are they tonight?"
"Sleeping over with the rest of the Pee Wee League.The other mothers are good about making sure they're included, because sometimes my shifts can get kind of crazy. Especially when I'm in the middle of a case." Finally finished with dinner, Jill pushed her plate aside and poured herself another cup of coffee.
"Ah... had the night off, did you? That why you ended up at the bar?"
"I was walking past and heard the music. Thought I'd try and spend some time with folks who weren't felons or cops..."
"Or DA's," Abbie interrupted, a mischievous grin on her face. "Oops. Sorry about that."
"Don't be." Jill's eyes were gently serious, and they unhesitatingly focused on Carmichael. "I'm having a wonderful time." Better, if she were honest with herself, than any she could remember in a long time. There was a contradictory pleasure in the ease of their conversation and the thready tension that Carmichael's physical presence inspired in her. Mae had unwittingly answered the question that Jill had asked of Abbie outside the bar, but-- despite that knowledge-- Jill didn't think Carmichael was trying to seduce her. In fact, Jill had the distinct impression that if Abbie were trying to seduce her, she would have found herself naked and writhing quite some time ago. The image seared her brain with branding quickness, and she frowned at the unfamiliar impulse that raced through her blood.
"You sure about that?" Carmichael asked skeptically, sipping her own coffee. "That's a hell of a face you're pulling."
"Sorry, just..." How to explain the urge to put her arms around the other woman, to hold that dark head against her shoulder? She had never wanted to have sex with another woman, didn't think she particularly wanted to now. However, there was just something about this woman-- maybe it was Carmichael's own physicality, her ease with her body-- that made Jill's body respond, even as her mind was responding to the other woman's intelligence. "I was thinking," she finished lamely.
"Looks like you were Thinking with a capital 'T'," Carmichael observed.
"Ya'll ready for some pie now?" Mae called from across the counter. The place had thinned during their conversation, Jill noticed, until the din was just a rowling murmur. "What do you say?'
Jill looked at her empty plate and groaned. "If I eat one more bite, I'm going to explode. Honestly."
Abbie chuckled. "I know the feeling. That's why I can't come here more than once a week at the most. Wanna walk some of it off?"
Their gazes met-- and, against the still-smiling darkness of Carmichael's eyes, the uncertainty in Jill's lungs fell away. She took a deep breath. "Sure."
"Just the check, Mae," Carmichael called out. "I think we overfed her. She's about to burst at the seams."
Mae grumbled something about "not eating enough to feed a cat..." but obliged them by making a paper airplane of their check and sailing it over to their booth. "You are going to come back for that pie?" she asked Jill as Abbie settled up their check with the cashier.
"If Tex over there will let me come back," she replied. Over her shoulder, Carmichael tossed her a warm smile.
"Well, if she don't, she'll answer to me," Mae threatened.
"I think we can manage that," Abbie interrupted, pulling her coat out of the booth and slipping into it. "You about ready?"
"Yeah." She turned to Mae. "Thanks again for dinner, it was wonderful."
Mae's eyes crinkled in pleasure-- whether at the compliment or at the sight of the two women standing together, Jill didn't know. "My pleasure, sweetie, my pleasure. Be sure and come see me real soon."
Once out on the street, they glanced at each other, small grins playing around the edges of both their mouths. "So, where to?" Abbie asked.
The lump in Jill's throat dissolved-- its lifespan only an instant-- before she replied quietly. "Your place."
Returning to her place meant a cab ride instead of a walk, but they still made it to Abbie's apartment in an uncomfortably short amount of time for the lawyer. Jill's request had taken her completely by surprise, and she wasn't quite sure what the tall blond wanted. Or expected.
She had sensed Kirkendall's unease when she realized that most likely Abbie was gay, and yet that hadn't deterred her from going to Mae's. Their time at the diner had been nothing short of magical for Abbie, and she found herself opening up to the detective in a way she hadn't to anyone in years.
"Tell me about Texas," Jill had requested-- and at that moment Abbie honestly thought her heart was going to beat its way through her chest. Kirkendall knew, goddamn it, she knew somehow-- without knowing, of course-- what lurked behind Carmichael's give 'em hell exterior. Not that Jill had seen much of that whole side-- in the six years she had been with the DA's office, they hadn't ever formally crossed paths. Maybe the Jack had softened her up before Kirkendall had even approached-- but as an excuse, Abbie knew that particular dog wouldn't hunt. Deep inside-- where no one could see the scratches and scars on her soul, she knew instead that the other woman's kind eyes and warm hands had moved her in a way nothing else had for a long, long time.
When Jill had first touched her-- back at the bar-- she thought she was going to jump out of her skin. It had been so long since anyone had reached out to her. There wasn't even anything remotely sexual about the touch-- but still, Abbie found herself responding, the way a plant will inevitably turn towards the light. And for her, it had all started.
"Here we are." She unlocked the last deadbolt and pushed the door open, letting Jill precede her into the room. Full night had long ago fallen, but the city cast enough light through her windows that there was no need for a lamp. Abbie had spent six restless months here before she learned to sleep with New York's neverending assault on her eyes and ears. Even now she didn't rest well, although she couldn't blame it on the city any longer. "Watch your step," she cautioned, though there was no clutter to impede their way. "Do you need a light?"
But she had forgotten that Jill was a native of the bright lights and big city, that she had grown up with the sound and the noise and the smells. "No, I'm fine."
That deep-throated voice-- the one that had caught her imagination from the very beginning-- unsettled her even more. "What about some music?" she asked, not waiting for an answer as she walked to the sound system and crouched down in front of it.
Which only left her with the seemingly impossible task of choosing something. Somehow she didn't think Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson would be appropriate. She had exactly one jazz CD, given to her by a zealous would-be suitor who imagined a grand seduction scene that she could have told him would never happen, even if the world were about to end. Still she asked, needlessly, knowing that there was nothing in her collection remotely appropriate for the woman who now stood in her apartment, "What would you like to hear?"
Suddenly Jill's perfume surrounded her-- a scent so subtle she hadn't noticed it before-- and strong arms embraced her from behind. "You," came the quiet response, a puff of air carrying the word into her ear.
Even as her thoughts reeled, her body responded-- melting into the silent strength of this woman's arms, her broad shoulders and long fingers. It had been so long... and when had anyone ever held her like this? Abbie had been the strong one for so long, had offered comfort to her lovers, had held them when they cried, and kept her own demons at bay as best she could with the meager comfort of their contented slumber. Her head rested on Jill's shoulder, and she half-turned, feeling the wool of Kirkendall's blazer scratching at her cheek. "I'm not sure what you want from me," she murmured. "In fact, I'm not sure what you think I want from you."
A low snicker rumbled in her ears. "I don't think you expect anything from me. And if the way you're shaking is any indication, I'd say you're probably more scared than I am right now."
"You might be right about that."
"Are you frightened?"
Jill chuckled again. "You are lawyer, aren't you? Do you always answer a question with a question?"
Abbie found herself nuzzling the warm flesh at Jill's throat and pulled back before the detective could realize what she was doing. "Sometimes. Especially when I'm not sure of my own answers."
"And you're not sure now?"
She snorted softly. "Hell, I'm not even sure of the questions."
"How about I ask you one?"
"Go for it." Anything to keep the connection between them, so she didn't have to leave the shelter of these incredibly long arms.
"Are you comfortable?"
Was she comfortable? Was Texas a football state? She almost laughed at the absurdity of the question, then she became aware of the unyielding coolness of the hardwood floors-- in spite of the throw rugs that liberally dotted the room. And the ache in her right knee-- the one that had never been quite right after that long jump gone bad. And the constricting layers of coats and shirts and fabrics that separated her skin from Jill's "Well... all things considering... yeah, I'd have to say that I'm damn comfortable."
"Does that mean you'd object to me suggesting we go someplace else?"
Abbie pondered the question momentarily. "Uh... I do have a couch," she offered diffidently.
"Do you have a bed?"
The question was a sucker-punch to Carmichael's emotional solar plexis; and she sucked in air greedily, trying to restore the delicate balance there. "You can't mean that the way it sounds." Now she turned to face Jill, to see what depths those hazel eyes held for her.
She wasn't sure, but she thought a vague look of disappointment crossed Jill's eyes. "You're right," she said, finally. Immediately, Abbie started to pull away-- to loose herself from the entanglement of arms and emotions that Jill's embrace had promised. "Wait!" Jill ordered. Abbie was strong-- but Kirkendall was a cop, used to subduing everything from men twice her size to crackheads with a bad dose. A leanly muscular lawyer was no match for her. "Just listen to me, please."
Not sure what was more humiliating-- that she had been turned down without even propositioning Jill or that Kirkendall had only to tighten her arms to stop her escape-- Abbie dropped her gaze, unable to meet the other woman's eyes. She rested her head on Jill's chest, stealing what warmth she could until she was turned away again, left alone in a dim apartment with nothing but shadows to stand sentinel over her pain.
"Look at me, Abbie."
Her name in that voice. Carmichael wanted to groan with the pleasure of it, but she couldn't. She knew she would be hearing it in her dreams for months to come. "No," she murmured.
Jill's head dropped to Carmichael's shoulder until each of their mouths was even with the other's ear. "I don't think I'm wrong when I say that you need someone to hold you."
No, not wrong, but Abbie wasn't about to be a stop on anyone's pity trail. She stiffened, but Jill continued implacably, as if Carmichael's body hadn't objected to her words. "And maybe I'm crazy, but..." Here she hesitated; and for the first time, Abbie could hear the thunderous pounding of the other woman's heart. "I..." She paused again, as if gathering courage for the final leap of some unseen precipice. "I want to be the one to do it."
"Why?" It escaped Abbie's lips before she could think, breathe, or even consider what Jill was saying.
"I don't know."
Jill's hair teased the skin of Carmichael's cheek as she shook her head back and forth, and Abbie inhaled the alien scent of her shampoo-- filing it away in her memory as she had every moment of the evening to be poured over later, remembered and used as a salve when the days and nights got too rough.
A hand cupped her cheek, a thumb stroking her closed eyelids, drawing her face resolutely upwards. Abbie gave into the impulse, let her lips caress the painfully sharp line of Kirkendall's jaw-- barely touching her lips to Jill's as she pulled away.
"That wasn't what I meant," Kirkendall protested softly, but Abbie felt the sigh in the other woman's body, the tightening in the arms around her.
"I know," she admitted.
"What are we doing?"
"You tell me."
Abbie was suddenly on familiar ground. "Shh..." she comforted. This-- she could do-- reassure, tend, soothe. It was only when the tables were reversed, when she was the recipient of unwanted-- yet desperately needed-- succor that she lost her bearings. "It's okay. Come with me."
She led Jill into the shadowy illumination of her bedroom, the raised blinds offering a panoramic view of the city twenty stories below that her real estate agent said made this address a "must have" residence. At the time, Abbie hadn't cared, just wanted someplace a little roomier than the two room Greenwich walk-up where she had spent the previous four years. Moving to Manhattan homicide had given her a big salary bump; and to be honest, Abbie didn't really have anything or anyone to spend it on. So she got the apartment, and spent about as much time there as a traveler on holiday spends in his hotel room.
Jill Kirkendall was the first person who had ever seen it.
"I don't usually wear pajamas," Abbie said quietly, not quite sure where her voice had gone. Her throat was raw and hoarse, as if she had spent the day at a Longhorns game or a night at smoky roadhouse. "Will a shirt do?"
Without looking, she pulled two shirts from the left side of her closet where her "play" clothes hung. By touch she recognized the soft blue denim shirt that was one of her oldest and most favorite. "Here," she said, handing the long-sleeved shirt to Jill. "Is this okay?"
Jill nodded wordlessly, her hair a shining beacon in the moonlight, and took the garment from Abbie.
For herself, Abbie pulled out a white button-down so old that its collar and cuffs were frayed with use. In college she used to wear it out dancing-- buttoned low with a pair of faded button-flies, a pair of black shitkicker boots and a matching leather belt. Now it hung abandoned in her closet, brought out only on Sundays when she went into the office to catch on paperwork and work on summations without the constant interruptions of phones, messages, meetings and McCoy.
She slipped into bed beside Jill, who was already waiting. The detective looked around her, observing the large expanse of mattress surrounding them. "You're either a restless sleeper or you have a lot of company."
The lawyer chuckled low in her throat. "What do you think?"
Jill's face was solemn in the dim light streaming through the glass. "I'd be surprised if you slept very well, if at all. And rarely with anyone else."
What little air was left in Abbie's lungs kicked itself free at the unerring insight. "You gotta stop saying stuff like that," she whispered.
"Why is that?"
"Because I can't breathe when you do."
"Come here." Jill reached across the bed, her fingers interlacing with Abbie's, tugging her unhesitatingly foward.
Their arms and legs wound around each other with uncanny familiarity, as if they had just been waiting for this moment in time. Abbie bit back a contented sigh at the contact, relaxing into the contained power of the body around hers.
"God, your legs are long," Jill murmured.
She smiled against Kirkendall's shoulder. "I could say the same about yours."
"But you're so slender..." A quiet marvel inflected her tone, and hers was the voice of a woman who has never held another in the kind of intimacy in which they were now gathered.
"Is this okay?" she asked, half-afraid Jill would say no, and then what would she do?
"Yeah..." A strangled word, barely audible.
She raised her head, lips finding Jill's more by accident and instinct than anything. A yielding softness met her mouth; and she fought the urge to dive into the heat she found there, wanting the warm length of Jill's body to protect her more than she wanted to master its secrets. They kissed for long, unhurried moments, the other woman's tension lessening each time their lips brushed together without further invasion.
"This is really nice," Jill whispered at last, her forehead touching Abbie's.
"I'm glad you think so."
"You don't?" Faint worry crept into the question.
She bumped her head against Jill's gently, smiling in the dim illumination. "Of course I do. I'd have to be crazy-- or dead-- not to think so. You're incredible."
"Oh--" A soft smile.
She lifted her head slightly. "Do you want me to draw the blinds or anything?"
"Do you have any Peeping Tom's to worry about?"
"None that I know of." Abbie grinned. "I usually leave the blinds up. I tend to wake up at first light."
Jill groaned. "God, why?"
"Is somebody chasing you?"
She laughed. "Not generally. Been running ever since I can remember," she said, unaware of the irony of her words. "It put me through college."
"Yeah. Track scholarship at UT. I played a little basketball too."
"The University of..."
"Texas, not Tennessee," Abbie warned. "If one more person up here asks me what Pat Summitt is really like, I think I'm gonna wallop them one."
"I'll remember that."
"You make sure you do." She ducked her head and found Jill's lips once again, content to let the night settle around them.
Their mouths continued a genteel exploration of each other; her tongue delicately tracing the outline of Jill's mouth, her teeth nipping at a deliciously full bottom lip. Kirkendall's response was unmistakable-- long legs twining about hers, back arching towards her, fingers instinctively pulling their hips snugly together. They both groaned at the motion, Jill's head falling backwards and away from Abbie.
"What are we doing?" she half-sighed, half-moaned.
Abbie paused to gather her scattered senses from the sheets where they lay fractured by Jill's touch. "I think in technical terms it's called necking," she said lightly, deliberately keeping her voice free of the desire beginning to run high in her blood.
Jill snorted in laughter. "I haven't done that since I was sixteen."
"Well... I could leave you a big ole' hickey... but I'd like to think my technique has improved since I was sixteen."
"I'll say." She cuddled closer, her hands stroking Abbie's face. A suddenly serious light glimmered in her eyes as she drew their gazes level. "I can't..." She paused. "We're not going to make love tonight, Abbie."
A lazy smirk spread over Carmichael's face as she absorbed the feel of the other woman pressed against her, the scent of her skin in her nostrils, the taste of her mouth on her lips. "I know."
Kirkendall looked surprised. "You do?"
She pressed a finger against Jill's lips, smiling when she felt the soft kiss against her skin. "I told you. I'm not much for one night stands."
Jill seemed momentarily surprised, then she shook her head. "That's right, you did. Didn't you?"
"Yes ma'am." She leaned in to steal another kiss. A thousand words clamored for expression in Carmichael's throat-- but somehow, none of them seemed even remotely appropriate. With strong arms, kind eyes, and unwavering strength-- Jill Kirkendall had simply... arrived... in Abbie's life. Asking questions no one had even dared ask before, offering something no one else had ever thought to offer. Fleetingly, Carmichael wondered if she would be brave enough to accept what Jill represented in her life. More fearfully, she wondered if Kirkendall had any idea exactly what it was she was offering.
"Then what do you think this is?"
"The beginning," she said simply.
Abbie smiled enigmatically. "We'll see."
The first ochre tendrils of dawn had long since worked their way across the length of Carmichael's bedroom, shining brightly down on the slumbering woman. The bedside clock was beeping insistently and not with a little alarm until a long arm stretched the length of the mattress and slapped it to silence. Abbie rubbed ineffectually at eyes that seemed soldered shut with sleep, at last prying them open to survey the empty space beside her.
The tall blond detective was gone-- leaving a rumpled denim shirt tossed across the foot of the bed and the relaxed lassitude in Carmichael's body as the only evidence of her presence. Abbie's last concrete memory of the night before was of resting in Jill's arms, her head nestled on the other woman's shoulder and their legs tangled carelessly together while they talked about the minutiae of their lives. She thought she remembered a gentle kiss against her hair and the murmured words, "Sleep well, Abbie," before Jill had closed her eyes as well.
But maybe that had been the other woman's goodbye-- waiting until Abbie had fallen asleep to make her escape, to avoid those awkward goodbyes and uneasy truths about a fit that just didn't exist.
Maybe she had been mistaken about Jill Kirkendall all along.
Through the song in her body told a different story, Abbie's linear mind drew the easy conclusions-- adding one and one and one to equal her abandonment this morning. Whatever Jill might have wanted last night, even if it was nothing but the quiet kisses and the comfort of a warm embrace that they had shared, she had obviously thought better of it in the early morning light.
Carmichael's solitude attested to that.
"Dammit," she whispered into the silence.
It was a quiet regret, one that no one would ever hear or know of-- but as the word escaped into the atmosphere, it became another mournful addition to the growing legion of pain and hurt and regret in Abbie Carmichael's soul.