A Lodi Christmas
Chapter 4: Case Reynolds

Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo

The man who only lives for making money
lives a life that isn’t necessarily sunny;

Likewise the man who works for fame.
There’s no guarantee that time won’t erase his name

The fact is the only work that brings enjoyment
is the kind that is for girl and boy meant

Fall in love – you won’t regret it.
That’s the best work of all if you can get it

Loving one who loves you and then taking that vow
Nice work if you can get it.
And if you can get it, won’t you tell me how?

George Gershwin

After a short drive, Case followed the two SUVs off the main road, through an ornate but sturdy-looking metal gate and then down a long gravel drive. Off to his left was a two-story structure which looked like an apartment over a large garage. To his right was a large pale stucco house in the Spanish style, with a red tile roof and a circular drive. He pulled up just behind the other two vehicles at the front of the house.

The main entry was a pair of heavy-looking wood doors, set in an archway at the center of a wide covered porch that was reached by a set of wide wood steps. As people started to get out of the Suburban, one of the doors to the house opened and a blonde girl maybe about four or five came racing out. She was followed by an older Latina. The girl was intercepted by Matt and she squealed in delight as he picked her up and swung her around, her blonde hair flying. “How’s my girl?”

She giggled and hugged his neck as he carried her to the house.

The house was even bigger up close. As Case approached the porch he noted that the large metal scrollwork-covered front facing windows were actually indentations in the stucco that gave the appearance of windows.

Security? Those entry doors look like they could withstand an RPG. Whoever designed this place really took security to heart. Are these people so wealthy they need this kind of security, or is it something else?

Just before reaching the entrance he was intercepted by the driver of the Suburban.

She was the first one out of the vehicles and stood outside the doors as everyone filed in, watching the surroundings, not her charges. More security and definitely former military. She’s also wearing a Coptic Cross – this one in sterling silver and much plainer. Bet she has the tattoo also. She does look enough like Mariam to be her older sister.

“Mr. Reynolds, I’m Kasrin. If you will give me your keys I’ll park your vehicle.”

He wanted to tell her he would be happy to park his own car but from her expression it seemed pointless to make an issue of it.

“Thank you, Kasrin.” Case handed over the keys.

Just before Kasrin closed the doors behind him he caught the scent of evergreen from the large Christmas wreaths that hung from each one.

I guess Christmas really is just two days away. Despite all the decorations that have been up for weeks I’ve been so busy they just kind of faded into the background. I know Chloe will be happy with a gift card, but what to get Mom and Dad? And what to get Juliet? She insisted she needed nothing but my presence for Christmas ... maybe I’ll think of something. Valeria and Mariam would probably know just the thing and have it gift wrapped and delivered. Hummm, guess I could really use a personal assistant!

At the front hall he was met by Mariam, who took his jacket and directed him to the dining room. “Just follow the hall through the house and when you get to the veranda turn left. You’ll see the entrance on your left through the French doors.”

The floor of the stuccoed hall was covered with large terracotta tiles. Light came from a number of wrought-iron chandeliers. There were frescos on the walls - mostly fanciful pastoral scenes in a primitive style - of smiling Latinos in colorful costumes harvesting grapes under a perfectly blue sky – a painted sky that stretched across the high curved ceiling. Case paused when to his right he noticed a wide archway that led into a high-ceilinged great room. It was filled with several sofas and comfortable chairs, and dominated by a large fireplace that was flanked by floor to ceiling windows overlooking a courtyard. Case stood in the entrance for a few seconds admiring the beautifully decorated Christmas tree that brushed the ceiling. A train circled its base and the abundance of other decorations transformed the room into a holiday wonderland.

Amazing. Someone put in a lot of work.

In front of the fireplace, half a dozen casually dressed high school or college girls gathered around Valeria and another girl, a petite Latina, who was consulting her tablet and then giving instructions.

He heard footsteps and looked around to see Jessica Brandt.

“Jessica, from what I’ve seen so far you have an amazing home. Whoever did the Christmas decorating should get some kind of award.”

“I wish I could claim credit, but I have some very talented and dedicated people working for me who did the decorating.” She smiled. “I was allowed to supervise, though.” And then she nodded toward Valeria. “Especially that one. She was helped by these young women who are the first of, I hope, many recipients of the Jacob’s Granddaughters’ Scholarship Fund. Valeria, and now Luna,” she indicated the girl with the tablet, “ride herd on them when they’re visiting.”


“This year these girls are from small rural communities in four states: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and New Mexico. Harrison and I hosted them for a month last summer before they started college and at that point we decided that it might be a good idea to bring them here for a week before Christmas.” Jessica laughed. “What were we thinking? This is a big house but six teen girls – thank God for Valeria and her organizational skills! She keeps them occupied with just enough down time so they can have some fun without any drama.”

“And over the summer you had them for a month?”

Jessica nodded. “Here for a while, and then to our friend’s ranch, up north near Red Bluff, where they spent most of the month.”

Case smiled. “And they’re still your friends?”

Jessica smiled in return. What a nice smile. “Yes, they are. They waste no time putting the girls to work. Call it team building ranch style. People pay thousands of dollars for that kind of experience!”

They both chuckled.

“Valeria doesn’t look much older.”

“She’ll be twenty in a couple of months but don’t let her youthful looks fool you. She’s been working for me for three years. She’s brilliant and hard-working, plus she goes to school.”

“Valeria’s been your assistant since she was sixteen?”

“Actually she was an intern; or maybe understudy is more accurate, with my former assistant. When that assistant left for school at UC Davis, Valeria took over – seamlessly, I might add.”

They watched the striking short-haired Latina continue to organize her charges, which now included having the girls place their suitcases and backpacks near the archway.

“You’re lucky to find someone so capable.”

“Yes, we are, and I’m thankful every day. I just wish I could convince her to take some time off occasionally.”

“Burn out?”

“With the amount of energy she has, I doubt it, but sometimes I feel guilty that she’s missing out on other facets of life that go on outside our family, but she really doesn’t seem to care.”

Jessica paused for a few seconds and then said, “Harrison tells me you’re an Air Force veteran, flying for a company out of Austin.”

“It’s a start up. We pick up and deliver time-sensitive products for tech companies across the west. I fly two days out of three. This is my first real vacation in a year and a half.”

“Gee, with that schedule, whatever do you do with your spare time?” She teased.

He grinned. “I really don’t mind the flying. Most days, I’m by myself and I love watching the changing topography, and the clouds around, and listening to the sounds the aircraft makes. I enjoy the solitude.

“In my off time, I usually start the day with a lot of laps at the Y, and then, if the weather cooperates, I get on my motorcycle and explore the hill country around Austin.”

“Sounds like you love your job, and you’ve figured out a relaxing way to spend your down time.” Jessica paused for a moment, and then went on. “But with all that solitude, don’t you ever get lonely?”

“Yeah, sometimes...”

Jessica detected his sudden change in mood. “Sorry, none of my business.”

He managed a faint smile. “That’s okay. A breakup a couple of months ago.”

She touched his arm. “I’m sorry.”

He studied her for a few seconds, seeing the sincerity in her expression. “It’s okay. There are lots of worse things that can happen to a person.”

Jessica briefly looked away. Case detected just a flicker of emotion, before it was quickly masked. Wonder what happened to Jessica? She’s surrounded by wonderful people, in this beautiful house. There was something though.

It was his turn to change the subject. “So, why do you bring the girls here?”

Jessica stepped back into the hall and he followed. “They don’t go to the same schools, so this way we keep them in touch with us and each other. We encourage them to become friends so during the scholastic year they can provide support for each other as they make their way through college. They’re all very bright and majoring in math, science and engineering, but they’re still eighteen and nineteen year olds and are away from home for the first time, so it helps to have friends and a good support structure.”

“And you plan to do this every year?”

“Yes, we’d like to award eight scholarships next year and ten the year after. We set it up to honor my late grandfather Jacob, and the fund pays for everything. It’s based on merit and need and is geared toward identifying young women from small ranching and farming communities in the West who are academically gifted, but for whatever reason - mostly financial - might never get a chance to attend college.”

Case smiled. “Sounds wonderful, but in years to come things might get a bit crowded around here.”

“Yes, it will. Our architect is already drawing plans to build a dormitory of some kind.”

They watched as Valeria finished her instructions, then looked to Luna, who spoke up. “All set. Kasrin has sorted out the transportation to the airport this afternoon, and,” she grinned, “Essie gets to stay on, and party with us!”

Jessica saw his questioning look, and gestured toward one of the girls, a tall thin Latina, who like the rest of the girls, was wearing jeans and a heavy sweater. She wore her long dark hair in a ponytail and showed a sparkling smile at Luna’s teasing.

“Essie really has nowhere to go. She’s a foster child from a small ranching community outside Albuquerque. They get kicked out of the system at eighteen, so she’s spending the holidays with us, where she’s more than welcome.” Jessica shook her head. “And hopefully, during the coming weeks we can put some meat on her bones.”

Before he could ask more questions, they were interrupted by Mariam, who came through the front door with three additional guests in tow.

“Case, if you’ll excuse me. I’ll see you in the dining room.” Jessica walked to the guests, not seeing Case’s broad grin, as he watched the introductions.

Jessica gave the older woman a hug. “Hi, Anne, glad you could make it this morning.” Anne, was tall, dark-haired, and probably around fifty. She was dressed in a dark green turtleneck and fitted black slacks with black boots. Her sun-darkened skin, coupled with a wiry build, gave her the look of an active person who spent a good deal of time outdoors.

Smiling, Jessica turned to the other two. “Welcome to Three Corners Farm. I’m Jessica Brandt, and Anne’s told me so much about you that I feel we’ve already met.” She put out her hand. “I’m happy to finally meet you, Jonas.”

They shook hands, and she turned to the teen girl with them. “And of course you’re Kesi. You’re a pilot like your dad, and your proud grandmother has shown me lots of pictures, especially the ones of you flying a Cessna.”

Kesi beamed. Today she was dressed very much as she had been last night, only substituting a very stylish cropped black quilted jacket for the Kenya flight jacket.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Ms. Brandt. Thank you for the invitation to brunch.”

“Please call me Jessica.” Her smile broadened. “‘Ms. Brandt’ makes me feel like I’m ... I’m your teacher.”

Kesi smiled in return, clearly taken by the tall blonde woman.

Case watched Jessica interact with her guests. She’s only in her twenties, but she handles guests with aplomb. It appears Kesi has learned that lesson as well.

He moved toward the group. “Jonas and Kesi, nice to see you again so soon.”

Jessica looked puzzled, as did Jonas’s mother.

Jonas smiled, then explained. “We met Case last night on the plane from Orange County. Case Reynolds, this is my mother, Anne Kaufmann.”

“Nice to meet you Ms. Kaufmann.”

“It’s Anne, and thank you for giving Kesi and Jonas a ride from the airport. I’m sorry I wasn’t there last night when you arrived to thank you in person.”

“We were glad to do it. My sister was there already and she had plenty of room.”

“Your sister is Officer Reynolds?”

He nodded. “Do you know her?”

“I don’t believe we’ve ever met...” She smiled a nice smile. “But I do know who she is. Lodi’s police force isn’t very big and there aren’t many women. I also know she is highly regarded by the people here because she’s involved in the community, including being one of the school outreach officers.”

Valeria joined them and waited patiently until there was a lull in the conversation where she requested a moment of Jessica’s time. They conferred briefly and Jessica apologized and excused herself.

Anne took charge and said, “Shall we join the others?”

Case and Jonas trailed the other two, and then Jonas stopped and said, “I’ve been thinking about Air-Bytes. Actually this morning I went on line and did some research.”

Why am I not surprised?

“Can we get together after Christmas to talk more about it?”

“Sure. How would you feel about living in San Antonio?”

He laughed. “While I was researching Air-Bytes, Kesi was researching San Antonio. I think she’s already found us a house!”

“We’ll definitely talk, and if you’re interested you can come down to Orange County and meet the CEO. I’m heading back there January second.”

“Sounds good.”

When they reached the end of the hallway they found Anne and Kesi admiring the sun-splashed courtyard, although simply describing it as a courtyard was like saying that Central Park was just a park. It was deceptively large and surrounded by the house.

This house is really much bigger than it appears when you drive up, and whoever designed it had an affinity for gardens.

The wing across the courtyard had a second story and carried over the Spanish theme, with French doors and wrought iron balcony railings overlooking the courtyard.

In the center of the courtyard was a large traditional looking terracotta three-tiered Spanish fountain surrounded by a shallow round blue-tiled pool. It made a wonderful sound as the water trickled down the tiers. Radiating from the fountain were white gravel paths lined with palms and other plants, some in the ground and others in pots and urns. Wood benches were located along the paths and around the fountain.

“Amazing,” he muttered. Anne looked over at him.

“I love this place; I wish I’d designed it.” He knew she meant more than the courtyard. She smiled. “But at least I was smart enough to hire the young woman who did the design and oversaw the construction. She has an amazing talent.”

Case noticed comfortable-looking porch swings and gliders in various places along the wide veranda which ran the length of the ground floor.

Maybe I should incorporate something like this in my fantasy stucco house in Austin - a tranquil place that lends itself to relaxation. Who needs a pool, anyway?

The four of them walked a few steps along the wood planks of the veranda, and through the open French doors into the dining room.

It was a large room with a high ceiling supported by exposed beams, and was full of people, including a few children. Happy voices and the sound of cutlery on china surrounded them. The center of the room was dominated by a long red-covered table that looked as if it could seat twenty with ease.

Like the great room, it was wonderfully decorated for Christmas. Smaller tables were situated along the floor to ceiling windows which looked out over the central courtyard. Opposite the windows, along the wall, was a buffet with a least a dozen covered restaurant style serving pans, trays of breakfast pastries, glass bowls of sliced fruit, and what looked like pitchers of fresh juices. The smells coming from the buffet and from what looked like the kitchen door beyond were amazing. He realized he was very hungry.

Harrison approached the group. “Hi, Anne.” Introductions to Kesi and Jonas were made, and he said, “Welcome. Brunch rules apply. Sit anywhere.” He grinned. “Taking seconds or thirds is always encouraged.”

He glanced at the troop of teen girls that just entered. They were the ones Case had seen in the great room. “Maybe you better get your food now...”

Plates piled with a mix of traditional American and Mexican breakfast items, the foursome ended up sitting near the end of the table closest to the door to the veranda. Soon they were joined by Matt, Jo, and their daughter Grace, the little blonde dynamo who had greeted her father so enthusiastically earlier. She started on a booster seat, but quickly migrated to Kesi’s lap. Grace seemed quite taken by Kesi and peppered her with questions about how old she was and where she was from. Soon the conversation was punctuated by photos of Kenya on Kesi’s phone. She seemed to be enjoying herself as much as Grace.

Case noticed that there was only a small amount on Jo’s plate and watched Matt place his hand over hers. He asked solicitously, “Are you doing okay?”

Jo replied with a twinkle in her eye, “Just taking it easy. Anyway, it’s your fault I can’t enjoy all this wonderful food.”

He sighed. “Ah, yes, blame the male of the species, when he’s just doing what he’s been programmed to do.”

“I’ll give you programmed, Mr. Kipling. You missed the last time with Grace, but this time when I’m big as a house you’ll be sorry.”

He squeezed her hand. “No, I won’t.” Jo gave him a loving look. She then turned her attention to Case. “Do you have any children?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No, I haven’t found a woman who would put up with me or my constant absences.”

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Jonas nodding. That may be true, Jonas, but at least you’ve got Kesi.

He watched a look pass between Jo and Matt.

Considering his injuries I suspect Matt was a SEAL. There would be lots of absences. She said he missed her last pregnancy. At least with me I could tell people where I was, and pretty much what I was doing. Of course, for my family’s benefit, I fudged the facts a bit. The one fact I couldn’t hide was my stay at Walter Reed.

Matt rather unsuccessfully tried to hide a grin when he said, “A bit of advice then, Case, when you do find that woman, never ever argue with her when she’s pregnant.”

Jo grinned. “Better advice: never argue with her at all!”

“I’ll take that to heart. I was pretty young when my mother was pregnant with my two sisters, so I’m not sure how my father handled the pregnancies, but I do know that he was a very wise man who believed in marital harmony. He stood at least a foot taller than my mother but was always quick with a ‘yes, dear.’”

Jo looked at Matt. “A wise man indeed.”

“Yes, dear,” he replied with a straight face.

Everyone laughed.

Jessica and Harrison joined them, setting their plates on the table. They had a girl with them who looked very much like Harrison, although her hair was several shades lighter. She was maybe eleven or twelve, and tall and slender.

Jessica introduced ‘our daughter Jenny’ to the newcomers.

Jessica can’t be more than twenty-five or six! There’s certainly more to that story. Oh, I remember Matt saying Harrison arrived here with his daughter and sister and then married Jessica. Wonder what happened to the mother.

When Jenny was introduced to Case, she extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Reynolds. Matt told me your sister is Officer Reynolds. She and I work out at the Dojo. She’s my inspiration, and it’s that way with the other girls, too. Someday, we hope to be as strong and agile as she is.” Her grip was surprisingly strong. I wonder if she breaks bricks!

“It’s nice to meet you, Jenny. I think my sister is pretty special. Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend near enough time with her.”

Jenny looked at her parents and then back at him and said with all seriousness, “If I had a sister ... or a brother, I’d want to be around them a lot.” Case watched Harrison and Jessica smile as they exchanged a look.

Jenny migrated to the side of the table near Kesi and Grace, and soon Grace was on her lap explaining in all earnestness about Kesi and her home in Kenya, and even insisted Kesi show Jenny some pictures. Grace then moved to her father’s lap, and it wasn’t long before the two girls had their heads together chatting like old friends.

Observing the girls, Case looked over at Jonas, and smiled. Jonas, you are one lucky guy.

After a few minutes, Jenny stood and turned to her parents, “I’ve finished eating and I have some rehearsing to do. May I be excused?”

Harrison and Jessica both nodded.

She turned to Jonas. “Mr. Kaufmann, I’ve invited Kesi to join me. Is that okay?”

Jonas directed a questioning look at Harrison and Jessica. Jessica spoke first. “Jenny’s put together a band.” She paused and smiled. “A girl band, and they’re rehearsing for a show they’ll put on at our Feed the Hungry event on Christmas Day. They’ll be just across the way in the garage.”

Jonas looked at Kesi. “Go have fun.”

Kesi came around the table and hugged his neck.

Grace watched all this with interest. “Me too!” She got down from Matt’s lap and took Jenny’s hand. “Let’s go sing!”

Jenny looked at Jo, and when she got a nod the girls left the room.

Case looked at the others, including Jonas. “If I ever have children can I get your handbooks?”

They laughed and Jo said, “Case, we’re blessed by having terrific children and we live in an extended family which treats children like the treasures they are.” The others nodded.

Jessica asked, “What about you, Jonas? Kesi seems like a remarkable young woman.”

Jonas gave them a summary of his time in Kenya, and his history with Kesi. “I wish I could say that I knew all the tricks of parenting, but I’m blessed with Kesi.”

He smiled, staring out the doors toward the garden, lost in thought for a few seconds. When he faced the group again, he said, “I think our closeness comes from being together twenty-four-seven, except when I was actually flying missions. At Forward Operating Base Wajir, for me, every day was take your daughter to work day. I was her Dad, her teacher, and her flight instructor, and she took care of me, doing all the big and little things to make my job and life easier. More importantly, she was always there when I took off for a mission, and always waiting when I returned, regardless of hour or weather. She grew up on a forward operating base near a war that was only a few miles away...

“She always worried, but never showed it, even when some of the missions ... didn’t go as planned...”

He unconsciously rubbed his sweater-covered left forearm.

Case knew exactly where he was going – those missions – the missions where aircraft got shot up and people got killed and wounded. He caught Matt and Harrison nodding, and Jessica and Jo doing their best to mask their feelings. Anne looked thoughtful, perhaps for the first time getting a glimpse into Jonas’s and Kesi’s world.

Jonas came back from some far away memory, smiled and looked a bit sheepish. “Sorry. Anyway, Kesi’s a pretty special young woman.”

Wiping her eyes, Anne leaned forward, placing her hand on her son’s arm. “And I think you’re a pretty special dad.”

The others nodded.

They were quiet for a few minutes while coffee cups and plates were refilled. Finally Jo asked, “Case is an unusual name. I don’t think I’ve heard it before. A family name?”

He wore his best neutral expression as he explained, “Well, according to family lore, when my mother first laid eyes on me - I wasn’t the handsomest of babies by a long stretch - she was reputed to have said to my father,” Here he put on a passable imitation of his mother’s soft Charleston accent, “Charlie, I believe this child has just made the case that we should refrain from having more children.”

The three women, along with some of the other women within hearing, looked horrified. Harrison, Jonas, and Matt guffawed, garnering indulgent smiles from the women as they looked at each other acknowledging they were dealing with complete idiots.

“Well, at least that was the way my father told the story, although Case is a family name going back before the War of Northern Aggression. In fact, one of General Sherman’s Yankee cavalry patrols burned the family’s plantation house outside Savannah in December 1864.”

Harrison held out his hands. “Don’t look at me. Montana wasn’t even a state then – we didn’t have a dog in that fight, and anyway I was infantry. Those cavalry guys, well...”

The others chuckled, and Matt chimed in, “My kin were in Hood’s Texas Brigade with the Army of Northern Virginia.”

The three turned to Jonas. “Hey, no burning plantation homes for my ancestors. We were still running around southern Germany during the ‘War of Northern Aggression.’ We didn’t even get to Ellis Island until the 1880s, and then my great-great grandfather had the sense to immediately decamp for California!” He looked pointedly at Case. “Family lore says he got out one step ahead of being drafted into the Prussian army.

“Great-great grandpa would probably be appalled that every generation of Kaufmanns since has served ... with varying levels of distinction,” he deadpanned.

There were chuckles around the table.

Mariam walked up and stood near Matt and Jo. She waited while Case commented on the paucity of Confederate brigades of any stripe in and around Savannah in December 1864.

Finally, Matt looked at the teen and said, ‘What’s up?”

She consulted her tablet. “I received a text from Ms. Hawthorn’s assistant. She said that Ms. Hawthorn and Mr. Chandler would be picking you up at DFW and providing transportation to Tyler instead of Mr. Cavanaugh. They will also have Mr. Chandler’s daughter Felicia with them. I told them you would have some checked baggage and she said they would meet you outside American Airlines baggage claim and to look for Mr. Chandler’s dark green Land Rover.”

Matt looked at Jo. “Dillon just wants to show off his new toy.”

She smiled. “Possibly, but since they’re going to Tyler anyway, it makes perfect sense for Dillon and Pamela to give us a ride instead of James having to do a 450 mile round trip.”

Dillon Chandler and Pamela Hawthorn and James Cavanaugh?

“A new Land Rover. I told him some months ago since he was going to be a Texan he should just give in and get a Suburban, but he didn’t listen, had to get a British-badged car.”

“You going to call him on it?” Jo teased.

“Well maybe ... Those SAS guys, even the retired ones, have a reputation for being pretty tough!”

As the laughter died down, Jo asked, “Anything else, Mariam?”

“Yes, the message said they will have a child car seat for Grace, so there is no need to bring one.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh, and Doctor Archer, Mr. Kipling, a reminder, your flight from Sacramento is at 2:30 pm. Kasrin will be your driver and she’ll be outside at 11. She’ll have already picked up your luggage and unless you think you need to stop by the house you should plan to leave here no later than 11:15. I checked the weather forecast and there’s a cold front coming in. By the New Year it could be in the twenties in Tyler. I asked Kasrin to grab your heavier coats from the back closet.”

“Mariam, what would we do without you?”

She responded dryly, “I shudder to think what would happen.”

When she walked over to confer with Valeria and Luna near the kitchen, Matt asked, “Jo, did Mariam just make a joke?”

She smiled. “Yes, I think so. Maybe she’s loosening up.”

Seeing Case and Jonas’s puzzled expressions, Jo explained, “Mariam’s family got out of Egypt with little but the clothes on their backs when she was six. They ended up in Israel for a time and finally were sponsored to come to the US. She’s had a pretty formal upbringing and she’s still trying to adjust to the informal style we use here. She sees herself as an employee, and even though we’ve asked her to call us by our first names she’s never been comfortable enough to do so.”

Matt chimed in, “God knows we’re working on it, and even though she lives in our house and we treat her more like a younger sister, and Grace adores her, she’s still pretty formal.”

Jo nodded, smiling. “I do agree with Mariam and shudder to think what we’d do without her though. She’s a gem.”

Jonas asked, “So, how did you find her?”

Matt considered his reply for a few seconds. “I run a security company that protects entertainers and others. Mariam’s older sister Kasrin was my first hire three years ago. She was highly recommended by a friend of Jessica’s from Chicago who’s also in the security business. Last year, after Mariam graduated from high school in Chicago, Kasrin suggested we might need a personal assistant and suggested Mariam.”

“For which we will be eternally grateful,” Jo added with a smile.

Jessica nodded. “We feel the same. Most days I can’t imagine what we’d do without Valeria.” She passed the carafe around and three of them refilled their cups. As they were doing so Valeria walked up and placed a steaming white ceramic mug in front of Jessica.

“Fresh chai.”

“Thank you, Valeria.” As she walked away Jessica looked at the others as if to say, ‘See?’

They sipped their beverages for a bit when Case finally asked what had been on his mind since Mariam had come to the table. “Mariam mentioned Pamela Hawthorn. A woman by that name is one of the founders and principal backers of the air delivery service I work for. She lives in Dallas and is married to a guy named Dillion Chandler. I guess it’s not much of a stretch to think they’re the same.”

They both looked astonished. Jo found her voice first. “Pamela has talked about some involvement with an air delivery service for tech companies and that her daughter was the CEO, although I feared it was simply to give Cassandra a job after college.”

Case shook his head. “Far from it. As CEO Cassandra has worked tirelessly to make our little startup, which by the way, is called Air-Bytes, a success. We’ve been in business less than two years and we’re now running in the black. And because of her we’re adding new customers all the time.”

“Oh, that’s good. I know Pamela, and consider her a friend. I should have known better. Pamela is quite the business woman, although in my defense sometimes family ties can get in the way of sound business judgment.”

Case nodded, thinking about the buyout offer Air-Bytes had received and how a keen business man named Angus Duncan had a blind spot when it came to his son.

“Yes, that’s true.” Case looked at blonde Jessica and then more pointedly at blonde Jo. “And sometimes when you’re young, blonde, and beautiful, people might underestimate your abilities.”

Jessica grinned and shook her head. “He got you there, Jo.”

Jo blushed but quickly recovered, and with a laugh said, “Well done, Case.”

When it was obvious Case didn’t understand Matt quickly interjected, “Jo’s a psychiatrist.”

They all laughed.

Then Matt asked, “So you work directly for Cassandra?”

“Yes, and she’s a good CEO, although she’s still trying to make her way through all the stuff that’s part of running a business that’s not taught in business school. I’m flying two out of every three days and don’t see her much, but I do know she prides herself in hiring good people and then letting them get on with their jobs.”

“And you’re one of those good people?” teased Jessica.

“Of course!” Case didn’t want to try to explain the complexities of the arrangement where he was also a shareholder and a co-founder. “So tell me how you two know Pamela and Dillon.”

Jo and Matt looked at each other and finally Jo spoke. “Matt’s sister Emily lives in a place in east Texas called Tyler and she’s a nurse. Her best friend is a doctor at the hospital where she works, and that doctor is married to Pamela’s son James. Have you met him?”

Case nodded remembering Cassandra proudly showing her brother around the big hangar they leased in Austin not long after Air-Bytes was founded. “Yes, I have. He seems like a nice guy, and Cassandra certainly thinks he’s the best brother ever.”

Matt picked up the story. “We were visiting my folks in Tyler a couple of years ago at Christmas – that’s where they retired – and Emily dragged us to a charity event for the hospital and we sat at the same table with Dillon and Pamela. James and his date, Sarah Evans, sat with one of the big shot attorneys for that part of Texas, but as things wound down they ended up at our table.”

“That was James and Sarah’s first date,” added Jo. “You couldn’t tell it, though. It was like they’d been together longer.”

Matt continued. “Yeah, the poor guy was so smitten, I knew right then he was done for and they married within six months!”

Jessica turned to Matt. “Just like three years ago the day before Thanksgiving when you wandered into the tent we had set up for the celebration with Jo holding onto your arm...”

Harrison looked across at Matt. “Definitely done for and married within two months.”

Matt smiled ruefully and nodded. “There were extenuating circumstances, but I also recall on that day a very well respected psychiatrist said something to the effect that when a person’s in love, most times logical thinking goes out the window.”

Her eyes glistening, Jo leaned over and kissed his cheek.

After a few moments lost in the memories Matt continued. “Anyway, Jo really hit it off with Sarah Evans and the following summer we were guests at their wedding in Tyler. My sister was matron of honor and Jo was one of the two bridesmaids. The other was Rachel Paulson.” He paused for a moment and looked at Case. “So since you work for Cassandra that means you also work with Rachel and Jeff. Right?”

Case nodded.

“I guess you knew Jeff was James Cavanaugh’s best man.”

“I had to fly for him that day. I told him it was a lousy excuse, but I’d do it anyway.”

Then Jo asked, “How did you get involved with Jeff and Rachel in the first place?”

“I met Jeff when I was in rehab at Walter Reed a couple of years ago. He discovered that, like him, I was soon to be an out of work military pilot so they offered me a job.”

Matt and Harrison exchanged looks, and Harrison said, “When you said you were former Air Force, we just figured you’d done your time and got out.”

Case shook his head. “I had pretty much completed my obligation and I could have stayed but there didn’t seem much point if I couldn’t fly. Jeff felt the same way. Air-Bytes doesn’t care if we’re a bit banged up.”

Matt tried to make light of things. “And I thought the Air Force had all the cushy billets.”

“Oh, but they do. I just had one bad day!”

The men chuckled, but Jessica and Jo wore expressions of understanding. Case knew they lived with men who had had more than one bad day, especially Jo.

“What kind of missions did you fly?” asked Harrison.

“Close air support.”

He could see that in their eyes he was no longer just some former Air Force guy who flew high above the fray and came back to hot meals and clean sheets each night.

“A-10’s?” asked Matt.

“No, a plane called an A-29 Super Tucano.” He looked over at Jonas. “According to Jonas, he’s flown the Kenyan military trainer version built in the UK.”

“Yeah, and wouldn’t I love to get my hands on the Super Tucano. It would really make a difference in Somalia, but I’ve spent enough time in god-awful places, got the T-shirts, and have no desire to go back!”

Harrison smiled and nodded, and Matt chimed in, “Amen to that!”

Harrison pulled out his cell phone and was soon showing a photo of the plane. Matt nodded. ‘We had a few of those assigned to us for special operations – all weather, single turboprop, long loiter time, armed to the teeth. Didn’t know the Air Force had any.”

“They don’t, but the Afghan Air Force probably has a couple dozen by now, and more on order I’ve heard.”

“Afghan Air Force, huh?”

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