A Lodi Christmas
Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo
My Mama done tol’ me when I was in pigtails
My Mama done tol’ me a man’s gonna sweet talk and give you the big eyes
But when the sweet-talking’s done a man is a two-face, a worrisome thing
Who’ll leave you to sing the blues in the night
Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer
Cindy stood a bit to the side of the slightly raised platform that served as a temporary stage in the large tent outside the garage at Three Corners Farm. She sipped from a bottle of water, as the band took a break. She had fronted La Banda Sage for the last two songs, and now it was Janine ‘JJ’ Jennings’ turn. The band was going to cover Little Big Town’s “Sober” and that was one of JJ’s signature tunes. Her rendition was as amazing as the original.
The start of the annual Christmas Eve party was still hours away, but the members of the group were there already, helping with the set-up and just enjoying being together. They had decided on some impromptu fun for themselves, and the people who were there early, making sure everything was just right for the most anticipated party of the Christmas season.
About a dozen older children and teens were also lending a hand. Cindy was as happy as she’d been in a long time. It was Christmas Eve, and there was now the potential for a new man in her life. She ignored the fact he was leaving in a week and decided to just enjoy being around Case Reynolds.
She watched Case, standing next to Krista as she picked out Sober on her keyboard. He followed along on a borrowed guitar. When Jenny’s group had finished with rehearsal Case had volunteered to help with whatever needed to be done for the upcoming party. After Jenny had a word with Krista and JJ, they invited Case to sit in during this impromptu set. He had tried to decline and held out until Cindy weighed in, then he had relented.
Watching this morning’s rehearsal with Jenny, Cindy had confirmed that Case was a talented musician, despite his protests that he had little time to practice with a guitar in several years.
There’s nothing wrong with his singing voice either. He absolutely nailed the Zac Brown songs he’d selected to sing with Jenny and her group, which now includes Essie, the twins, and newly arrived Kesi Kaufmann.
Cindy smiled. La Banda Sage, watch out!
She watched her bandmates. They were relaxed and having fun. Unlike the concert two nights ago at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, and their upcoming show on New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas, there was no pressure, no stage makeup, no costumes – just six casually dressed women in jeans and sweaters playing for friends and family.
She felt nothing but affection as she watched La Banda Sage huddle around Case and Krista. They were her friends, her sisters, her bandmates, sharing the highs and lows of life, but always confident that the bond they shared was unbreakable.
I wish Sofía was here. Come fall when she starts medical school, we probably won’t see her much, but she has promised to sit in whenever her schedule allows.
Replacing her would be difficult. Her beauty, talent, stage presence and amazing voice had transformed a country band named Sage into the crossover group, La Banda Sage. They could be one or the other or both depending on their audience.
Sofia had called this morning to report that Ian’s family had welcomed her warmly. His sisters had at first been star-struck but Sofía had put them at ease and now she was just Sofía. Also, her worries about Ian’s parents had evaporated as soon as she arrived and she was treated as one of the family. Sofía was also happy to report that the presence of a bodyguard had been accepted, too, and the family had included Megan in their Christmas festivities, even when she was not needed to accompany Sofía.
Sofía admitted that she and Ian had not yet had an opportunity to talk about their future – especially the fact they would be apart much of the next few years as they pursued their studies hundreds of miles apart. Right now, she was just enjoying her time with Ian and his family and being out of the spotlight.
Cindy smiled as she stepped back onto the stage and took up a position next to Case. ‘Sober’ was one of their ‘go-to’ tunes, which was always a crowd pleaser. They stood to the right of flame-haired JJ and shared a microphone. On her other side stood an excited looking Essie Sinclair. When the opening notes filled the tent, most activity stopped, and then JJ sang,
“I wanna walk that line a little crooked and live my life a little on the rocks. Laughing each time, I fail, not afraid to make a fool of myself, and keep on dancing when the music stops.”
Cindy, Case and Essie joined her in the chorus.
“‘Cause I love being in love. It’s the best kind of drug. Drunk on the high, leaning on your shoulder. Sweet like wine as it gets older. When I die, I don’t want to go sober. When I die, I don’t want to go sober!”
JJ closed her eyes.
“You’re like drinking from a never-ending bottle. When I think it’s gone there’s always a little bit more left. Lay back with you and close my eyes. Let the big ol’ world just spin on by and saying your name with my last breath.
‘Cause I love being in love...”
When they finished, the growing audience erupted with a great deal of laughter and applause. Even the crew putting the finishing touches on the tent and the catering staff stopped to watch and then join the applause.
Cindy turned and spontaneously hugged Case.
He feels so good. There’s a lot of muscle under that shirt.
He grinned. “Now that was fun.”
“Yes, it was.” The hug, or the song? Stop it! Cindy could feel her face flush as they stood close.
“You understand that wasn’t really an audition, but if you play your cards right, and want to give up the life of a nomadic flyer, we might be able to fit you in with Sage now and then,” she teased.
“And you actually get paid to do this?” he asked wide-eyed as he half turned to the rest of La Banda Sage. “I’d get to play guitar and sing with a bunch of beautiful women? Where do I sign up?”
JJ rolled her eyes and laughed, but Krista nodded vigorously from behind her keyboard. Her sister Maritza tapped her cymbal with a drumstick, voting in the affirmative. Coleen Jeffers, their fiddle player, nodded also, and Celia Flores on bass guitar yelled, “Hell, yeah!” as she joined the others laughing.
Case turned back to Cindy. “It’s too bad I’m under contract to keep flying ... but maybe when I’m done, I can get an audition?”
Cindy smiled, “It’s a deal.” You’re already hired in my book. Then she had second thoughts. How would that change the dynamics of La Banda Sage? We’re pretty comfortable with each other, although a male singer would add a different dimension. That’s not even a possibility for over a year anyway, and if he’s even still interested in joining, or in me, I guess I’ll think about it then. We’d have to teach him some Spanish, though.
He looked out over the people going back to their setup duties and then asked, “The couple with the video cameras?”
“Oh, that’s Addison Morgan, our videographer, and Jon her assistant. She’s the daughter of our promoter Felicity Morgan. Felicity thought it might be interesting to film a documentary on La Banda Sage. I hardly notice them anymore.”
“Does that mean I’ll get my couple minutes of fame?”
“She’ll probably just edit you out since you’re not anyone famous,” she said dryly.
Case looked startled, until he caught her trying to hide a smile.
“Oh, very funny.” He tried to look serious but failed.
He has a wonderful smile.
At that point Case spotted Jenny. “Well, ladies, it’s been fun, but I have a guitar to return.” He turned to Cindy, “I’ll be right back, unless I’m mobbed by autograph seekers.”
She laughed and shook her head. “That’s okay. Just remember no autographing undergarments or body parts that should be covered!”
He grimaced. “Okay ... That’s the rule, huh?”
Hands on hips she said, “That’s our rule, Mr. Reynolds. Got any problems with that?”
“No, ma’am.” He gave a mock salute. “None at all.”
“Good. Now I see the caterers have set up some lunch for us, so why don’t I meet you over by the buffet?”
“Okay. But hurry over. I think Jenny is going to start the critique of my singing at rehearsal this morning. I might need to be rescued.”
As Case walked away, she saw Essie watching him. Cindy had talked to Felicity and Felicity wanted to meet Essie right after Christmas. Essie had surprised Cindy this morning at rehearsal when she was all business, although Cindy had caught her staring at Case a few times despite her best efforts to hide her feelings.
Too bad, Essie. I saw him first!
At that point Krista came over. She, like the rest of La Banda Sage, was dressed casually in jeans and a sweater. Over the last several months she’s been letting her blonde hair grow. Today, instead of the curly mane she usually sported for concerts, it was in a ponytail hanging halfway down her back. The difference in her wardrobe from three years ago was remarkable. The off the rack skinny jeans had been replaced by jeans that probably cost more than she used to make in a week at her old job at the grocery, her sweater was cashmere, and her high heel boots, bespoke.
She followed Cindy’s gaze as she watched Case with Jenny. He was still holding her guitar and Jenny was smiling.
“I think he’s a keeper.”
Cindy simply nodded.
Eventually Cindy turned and asked, “So who’s that hunky guy with the catering crew who’s been smiling at you all through our performance?”
She couldn’t believe it when Krista blushed. “Antony Russo.”
Not exactly the reaction I expected. Usually she’s much more forthcoming, even boasting.
“And would Antony be any relation to Luca Russo, who just happens to be our caterer, and who also owns Luca vineyard and winery?”
This is like pulling teeth. What’s happened to our resident love them and leave them girl? Krista, are you in love?
Cindy grinned at her friend. “And Ms. Krista, how long’s this been going on?” Before Krista could answer, she went on, “Because the way he looks at you something’s definitely going on!”
Krista looked down and barely above a whisper replied, “Since summer.”
“And you were keeping this quiet, why?”
Krista looked up. “He goes to school at Berkeley, and he’s not home much ... and I didn’t want to jinx us.”
Cindy took her hand. “And you didn’t want the rest of us to tease you about him...” Suddenly it dawned on her. “Oh my, Krista, you’re serious about this guy.”
“Yeah ... I guess so...”
“And now you’re insecure, all of a sudden?”
“That’s a first.” Cindy hugged her. “Your secret’s safe with me, but I don’t think it’ll be a secret very long. Here he comes now.” Krista turned quickly, her smile lighting the place as she caught sight of Antony.
As she watched Krista step down from the stage, she caught Krista’s cousin’s eye. Maritza winked. Cindy laughed.
A smiling JJ joined Cindy. “That girl’s a goner.”
“Why am I always the last to know these things?” she asked theatrically.
JJ chuckled, and then said, “Don’t look now, but it seems three finalists for the Ms. Scandinavia pageant somehow made a wrong turn and ended up in Lodi!”
Cindy’s laugh died in her throat when she turned and saw who it was. The three women trailing Xena Skarlatos were heading toward Case.
Not seeing Cindy’s reaction, JJ continued, “Seems like a lead into one of those jokes: two blondes and a redhead walk into a Christmas party ... What?”
“Those are ... Case’s coworkers.”
JJ looked at Cindy then back to the women. “Damn.”
They examined the three the way women have been doing forever; and what they saw was women dressed in casual elegance, similarly to La Banda Sage in skinny jeans and sweaters, but that’s where the similarities ended. The two blondes wore buttery-soft-looking suede jackets and the auburn-haired woman wore a cropped fleece and leather jacket. All of them wore boots which ranged from ankle length to knee high. Cindy and JJ had played enough venues to know what wealth looked like – not Hollywood Wives’ money, but the wealth bringing private jets, yachts, and servants. These women had that look.
“Case works with them, huh?”
Cindy felt her stomach knot as the trio plus Xena reached Case.
He’s not surprised, and seems genuinely pleased to see them.
The blondes hugged him, the younger one lingered. Cindy recognized her as one of the pilots – the one who was smiling at Case in the photo.
She watched the auburn-haired woman cautiously approach. Case extended his hand, but she ignored it and moved in for a hug.
Case seems a bit startled by that reaction. Ex-girlfriend, but she’s not over it? What broke them up? They seemed so happy in the photos and the younger blonde’s staring daggers at her.
Cindy’s insecurities came roaring back. Suddenly it was Thanksgiving again three years ago, and Jo Archer had arrived on Matt’s arm.
“Cindy!” She looked at JJ. “Are you okay?”
“I ... I think so.”
“Look, I’ve been watching Case around you, and I think the guy’s falling for you.”
“But ... how can I compete with that?” She motioned with her head toward the trio.
“You don’t have to compete...”
“But why are they here? It seems like he was expecting them.”
“Guess you’ll just have to ask; they’re headed this way.”
Cindy watched them approach. Maybe it’s petty of me, but I’m not getting off this platform. It may only be six or eight inches taller, but I need to be up here looking down on them.
“Cindy McCabe, meet Cassandra Cavanaugh, Vika Vishnevsky, and Anastasia Walsh.” Cindy shook hands with them as Case explained their positions with Air-Bytes. During the introductions she noticed Cassandra’s wedding set which included a large diamond engagement ring.
At least that’s one I don’t have to worry about. The younger blonde, Vika? She keeps moving into Case’s personal space. Anastasia doesn’t like that at all, and she’s not especially fond of me either. Yeah, she’s the ex. But what’s going on with Case and Vika? Her body language tells me they’re not just co-workers. If she was a cat, she’d be rubbing up against him. Did she cause the break with Anastasia?
Are you that kind of man, Case Reynolds? How old is she anyway?
“Cindy, we’ve got some business to take care of. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”
With that, they headed for the exit, accompanied by Xena. Cindy watched Case wave Jonas Kaufmann over, and after a brief conversation, they followed the others outside.
What’s that about?
Case and Jonas caught up to the three women when they reached an SUV parked behind several other vehicles along the drive.
“Ladies, I’d like to introduce Jonas Kaufmann. He’s just arrived from Kenya and might be interested in flying for Air-Bytes.” He grinned. “So be nice to him.”
Case made the introductions, and when he got to Anastasia, he said, “I think you’ve already met.”
Seeing Anastasia’s puzzled expression, Jonas tried unsuccessfully to look hurt, as he put one hand over his heart. “I’m crushed. You don’t remember meeting me, or I should say running into me, on the concourse at the Orange County Airport?”
Anastasia looked him over and then recognition dawned. She blushed. “That was you? I’m so sorry!”
“The pleasure was all mine, I assure you.”
The others laughed.
Cassandra stepped forward, “Jonas, why don’t you join us for lunch.”
“I don’t want to intrude on a business meeting.”
“Nothing we’re going to discuss is secret, and this way if you’re interested in working for Air-Bytes, we’ll get a chance to learn a little about each other.”
On the short drive to the restaurant, Case discovered that instead of flying commercial, Vika had flown Cassandra up from Orange County, and Anastasia had borrowed ‘daddy’s jet’, and flown in from Texas. They met at Sacramento International and traveled down to Lodi in a rental.
David Anders gave Case a funny look when he showed the five of them into a private room at the back of the Rosewood. It was late enough that the usual lunch crowd and the Christmas party crowd had mostly departed.
More grist for the gossip mill, David? Cindy’s mystery man, correction, handsome mystery man, showing up with these three beauties? Damn! I just realized, I probably owed Cindy more of an explanation before I disappeared.
He thought about the greeting he got from the three and how it must have looked to her. Damn!
I’ve got some ‘splaining to do when I get back.
Once they were seated and lunch was ordered, Cassandra welcomed Jonas, and they spent a few minutes reintroducing themselves and giving a bit of their background.
Case watched with some amusement the interaction between Anastasia and Jonas, who were seated next to each other. She asked several questions about his history. She seemed quite impressed that he’d been a squadron commander in the Kenyan Air Force. Case could see the attraction. Jonas carried himself like a guy who is used to being in charge. It wasn’t arrogance, just that kind of leadership ability that either he was born with, or learned along the way.
Here he was in a meeting/job interview with three gorgeous women he’d never met, and he was relaxed and comfortable as if they’d been friends for a long time. The fact that they were from money didn’t faze him. Case had a vision of Jonas at some charity event, wearing a tux, with Anastasia on his arm. He’d charm the wives and the big deal makers and Anastasia would never wander off to the bar or show her temper because some trophy wife tried to get overly friendly.
How do I feel about that?
Relief? Yeah, relief.
What if I hadn’t met Cindy? No, with or without Cindy, I’d already decided I wasn’t going to spend my life trying to live up to Anastasia’s expectations. That’s not who I am, and I think she realizes that, despite her tearful apology at the airport.
I’d bet that even Anastasia’s mother wouldn’t want to take on Jonas, and even if she did, she’d lose!
I still need to talk to her though, but if she’s enamored with Jonas, I guess that will make things easier. I hope he decides to come on board – it’ll solve several of my problems in one fell swoop.
Case noticed Anastasia’s frown when Jonas mentioned he had a daughter, but she brightened considerably when he told the story of her adoption in Kenya, and the difficulties a single person faced when applying to adopt a Kenyan child.
Anastasia, are you interviewing a new pilot, or a new boyfriend? Come to think of it, I think Jonas has already far surpassed Case Two Point Oh. Yes, Anastasia, you’ve already decided that I’m going to be replaced, and right now Jonas is the guy.
Would this have happened if we were still together? Probably not with Jonas, he doesn’t seem like the guy to poach someone else’s girl, but it would happen sooner or later – she’d meet some guy who was ambitious and moving up fast, and it would be adios Case Reynolds.
Sad, but I’m not that guy, never was.
Case’s attention was drawn to Vika, who was asking all the right technical questions. She wanted to know the number of hours he had in fixed-wing aircraft, as opposed to rotary, and she asked some pointed questions about safety, to include details of any accidents. She also asked about the state of his FAA pilot certificate, aircraft and instrument rating, and date of last flight physical.
Case wasn’t surprised that Vika was all business.
She’s as smart as she is beautiful, and we are having a business meeting which includes a pilot candidate. I’m glad they’re leaving right after our meeting, considering the looks I’m getting; she’d jump at the chance to stay. Sorry, Vika, I’m not going to ask. She needs to fly Cassandra home and spend Christmas with her family.
I’m sure Cassandra will be glad to wrap things up so she can get home to Noah. Anastasia has daddy’s jet, so she’ll probably be able to go right back to daddy’s ranch. Does he have his own airstrip? Probably. Unless she decides to spend a few days with Jonas! No, as much as she might like that, she has to get back to be able to file the incorporation documents right after Christmas.
If things go the way I hope with Cindy, I’ll have to have a discussion with Vika sooner than later, but I have to keep in mind these are early days in our relationship – relationship? We might find out we can’t stand each other – yeah right, but just remember, ‘life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.’
Over lunch, Cassandra got to the crux of the meeting. “Case, as we discussed on the conference call last night, we’re incorporating Aero Services Austin. You’ve agreed to be one of the partners and serve on the board.”
Vika handed him the original incorporation documents – he’d reviewed them already from the email attachment last night, and he quickly signed where indicated. He saw that Anastasia and Cassandra had already signed, leaving only Jeff and Rachel. Vika then notarized his signature.
“As soon as Jeff and Rachel sign, we’ll get these filed with the Secretary of State in Austin on the first day they’re open after Christmas. After that each of us will transfer half of our existing shares in Air-Bytes to the new corporation, which will then sell them to the Duncan Group.
“Oh, by the way, Case, the leasing company has agreed to sell our three planes to us for a million.”
“No, all three.”
“All three! I hope you have that in writing.” He grinned. “Talk about grand theft!”
She chuckled. “Well, you were the one who originally brought it up.”
“And if a partner occasionally wanted to take one of those 900s for a spin, is that allowed?”
“I suppose, as long as you pay for the gas!”
Cindy, here I come!
Seeing Jonas’s puzzled expression, Cassandra explained about Aero Services Austin, “We’re putting together a corporation to buy the three Socata TBM 900s we have now from the leasing company. Ideally, we’ll get a contract with the postal service, FedEx, or UPS to pick up and deliver packages in Texas, and eventually get FAA approval to carry passengers on charter. We all had to sign a non-compete contract with Air-Bytes, so we’ll stay away from the tech sector. Once we buy a 172, we’ll also establish a flying school.”
“Sounds pretty ambitious.”
Cassandra sat back and reflected. “Yes, but the five people who are the nucleus of Air-Bytes, and the reason for Air-Bytes’ success, are involved. I’m optimistic, plus we’ll start off without any debt.”
Case noticed that Jonas did not ask about the possibility of being an investor.
Probably smart, Jonas. It’s a risky proposition and we could lose our shirts but considering the bargain we got on the airplanes and the expertise of Cassandra and Anastasia, I’m hoping it’s a safe bet. Regardless, the three of us are going to be busy with the new Air-Bytes for the next year, so Aero Services Austin will have to sit on the back burner, at least until Jeff and Rachel can start on it full time in about five months.
Jonas nodded, and smiled. “If Aero Services Austin ever decides to buy a helicopter, and you need an instructor pilot, let me know.”
“Moving on to Air-Bytes, subject to your approval, Case, we’ve also offered Vika a full-time pilot position starting January 15th.”
Vika beamed as he responded, “About damn time!”
Cassandra turned to Anastasia. “You spoke to Mr. Duncan; would you explain why things are moving forward with hiring before the March first takeover?”
“Sure. Vika coming on board early frees Case to start taking delivery of the six new TBM 930s from the leasing company in South Carolina. That way when the new Air-Bytes launches on March first, we’re ready to go. Plus, we want to start looking at some new routes, especially in the southeast.”
“Austin to Huntsville, Roswell, Raleigh-Durham, and Charlotte. For the most part those are in your old neighborhood, Case.”
“Great idea, but assessing those places, and getting the new planes delivered, would be a whole lot easier if we had another pilot soon.”
He looked over at Jonas. “You in?”
Jonas considered the offer for a few moments. “Case, from what you told me about the new and expanded Air-Bytes, and after meeting these ladies, if you’re serious, I’m in.”
Jonas, if you were trying to be subtle when you looked at ‘these ladies’ you failed. You couldn’t keep your eyes off Anastasia. No doubt you can handle her, though.
Anastasia tried without much success to keep her face neutral as she asked, “Would you like to discuss salary and benefits?”
“What? I’d get paid, too?” Everyone laughed.
With a few deft strokes, Anastasia called up a document on her tablet, and then handed the tablet to Jonas. “This is our standard pilot contract and the base salary is the same for everyone. Once you’ve completed the ninety-day probationary period, then we’ll discuss increases depending on performance and responsibilities.”
Jonas considered the numbers and the included benefits, and replied, “Okay.”
“You available to start January 15th also?”
“As I told Case, my daughter is already looking at houses in Austin on the internet!”
Anastasia added, “I’ll give you the name of a realtor, or should I give it to your daughter?”
Jonas laughed. “That might be easiest – eliminate the middleman!”
“Give me her number, and I’ll call her. I’m looking forward to meeting her.”
Case thought his ears had deceived him. What did you say, Anastasia? You’ve never shown the slightest interest in children. You’d better mean it, because Kesi is a perceptive young woman, who appears to be very close to her dad.
“Jonas, I’ll need a copy of your pilot certificate, and we’ll arrange for a flight physical, which includes a drug test. Any problems?”
He shook his head.
“Sorry. I had to ask. No sense in you coming to Austin if there’s an issue.”
“I’m not offended, and the Kenya Air Force has the same policy as the Marines. Fail a drug test, especially as a pilot, and you’re out.”