A Lodi Christmas
Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day, in everything that’s light and gay,
I’ll always think of you that way
I’ll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new, I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you.
“Oh, Case, this is too much!” Juliet was already wearing one of two new hand-knitted sweaters he’d given her when she opened the small box which contained a TAG Heuer sport watch with a blue silicone strap.
As she admired it, she admonished him, “Whatever made you buy me something so expensive? And don’t try to blame it on Cindy!”
He shook his head and grinned. “She did say a nice watch was always a good gift, and she did help me pick it out, but it was entirely my decision. Anyway, you’re worth it, and these days I can afford to spoil my little sister just a bit.”
She tried, but failed to look stern, “But this is more than a little bit. And you don’t have the Air-Bytes money in your bank account yet!”
“Well, I suppose I could take it back, and tell Andrew Clark you didn’t like it,” he teased.
Juliet laughed. “Not on your life!” She strapped it on, and then turning her wrist, she said, “And it is a fantastic looking watch.”
“So, you do like it just a little?”
She moved closer to him on her large sofa, put her arms around his neck and hugged him. “I love you, Case.”
He hugged her back. “I love you, Juliet.”
They were silent for a few moments, just enjoying the closeness they shared. Finally, he asked, “Breakfast?”
They spent the next half hour side by side in her small kitchen, preparing an egg scramble with cheese, sautéed onions and mushrooms, and decided they were hungry enough to add a few slices of French toast.
They took their feast, along with fresh coffee, to the dining table and made quick work of the meal. When they sat back with more coffee, Case couldn’t help teasing his sister. “Considering what that Filson duffle you got me must have cost, I expect it took a greater chunk from your exchequer than your watch did from mine.”
Juliet sipped her coffee and then shook her head. “It was on sale.”
He laughed. “Good for you!”
They cleared away the dishes, and moved to the kitchen for cleanup. As they worked, Juliet said. “I heard you come in last night, or I should say, this morning. I’m guessing you had a good time.”
He looked at her. “I can’t remember ever having that much fun, especially with people I’d just met.”
“Well, if you stayed half as excited as you were yesterday morning when Cindy picked you up, I can imagine you had a pretty good time.”
He went on to tell her about his day and evening.
“So, you kind of glossed over her reaction when your boss showed up, along with Anastasia and Vika.”
He was silent for a bit, thinking about his answer.
“I screwed up because I forgot to tell her they were coming...”
“Yeah. I got caught up in the rehearsal with Jenny and then La Banda Sage invited me to sing with them during setup, and I was having such a good time I just forgot.”
“So, these three gorgeous women show up and drag you out for a meeting at a restaurant - where you’d gone with Cindy the day before no less - and you forgot to tell her?”
“And what did you tell her when you were leaving with these women?”
“I did introduce them before we left,” he said defensively.
“I just told her we had a business meeting and I’d see her in a couple of hours.”
Juliet looked aghast. “You’re still breathing, and you said Cindy brought you home, so I guess you were able to grovel enough to get her to accept your apology.”
He nodded. “It gets worse.”
“Worse? How could it get worse? I’m not sure if I want to know.”
“When we got back from lunch...”
“Meaning you and the CEO, and Anastasia, and Vika?”
“And Jonas – he was there when they arrived and I thought it was a good idea to introduce him since he was interested in flying for Air-Bytes. After introductions, Cassandra invited him to lunch.”
“Okay, Jonas was there, too, and?”
“Well, when we got out of the car, Cindy saw Vika kissing me.”
“Jeeeze. And you were just standing there helpless?”
“No ... I was kissing her, too.”
He shook his head. “Just one kiss.”
“I’m surprised Cindy still had anything to do with you.”
He paused and then said, “Yeah, me too. She wasn’t happy. That was for sure, and she let me know that, but she did let me explain...”
“More than I’d have done.”
“We did work it out.”
“Lucky for you. I’d have just sent Jenny to kick your butt. She’s the black belt in the family!” Juliet shook her head. “I don’t think I want to know any more about your day.”
When he didn’t respond, she asked, “What?
“There is one more thing.”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“I met Rafael Ramirez before Mass last night, actually it was on the church steps.”
Her good humor evaporated.
“And I ended up sitting with him and Valeria. Although it was Harrison and Jessica who introduced us and we were all in the same row,” he quickly added.
“This just keeps getting better and better,” she said sarcastically. “I seem to remember telling you the reasons to stay away from the Ramirez family.”
“Sorry, there was no way to get out of it without being rude.”
Juliet was not smiling when she asked, “Anything else I need to know, that might come back to bite me?”
“I did dance with Valeria a few times at the party.”
“And what did Cindy have to say about that, especially in light of the kissing Vika debacle?”
“Cindy was okay with it since Jonas and I danced with all the girls in Jenny’s band, and we both danced with Valeria. She seemed excluded somehow and I felt sorry for her.”
“Case, I do love you, but after what you’ve told me, it makes me wonder how anyone lets you anywhere near an airplane, much less fly one.”
He looked contrite, so she let him off the hook. “Okay, but please try to stay far away from Valeria this afternoon at St. Anne’s. I’m sure LPD didn’t have anyone watching Valeria at the Christmas party, but I know darn well someone was watching Ramirez last night at Mass. I doubt they will have anyone at St. Anne’s because Ramirez won’t be there. And I’m thinking they won’t bother to have anyone watching Valeria on Christmas in such a public place. Anyway, just keep in mind, less contact is better.”
“Okay, I promise, and from what I’ve heard, she’s so busy with the volunteers she doesn’t have time to socialize anyway.”
“Well, that’s a good thing.”
They took their coffee to the living room where they got comfortable on the sofa. She looked over her coffee mug at him, her displeasure about Ramirez now put aside. She had decided that there was no reason to get upset about something that she had no control over, and the meeting at St. Anne’s was just a chance thing.
“So, what about Anastasia? You didn’t mention her in your list of screw-ups from yesterday.”
He explained the obvious and immediate attraction between Anastasia and Jonas Kaufmann.
She thought about that scenario for a minute or so. “From your description, that’s not surprising.”
“I agree, it just happened so fast I was surprised. Jonas, it appears, is already well past the Case two-point-oh stage, at least in her mind. I guess this is what I feared in the time we were together – that she’d find some guy who was ambitious and on his way up, without having to be molded, and send me packing. Also, Jonas is just not intimidated by Anastasia, or her money.”
“Did he grow up with wealth?”
“Doubtful, from what he told me. He’s a military brat – grew up mainly around San Diego. His dad was a career Navy aviator, and of course, you know his mother Anne. I think some people just have the ability to fit in, or at least are so self-confident all that money doesn’t affect them.”
She nodded. “You may be right, but there may be more to it, Anyway, I guess, that simplifies things for you.”
“Yes, Anastasia was pretty blatant. I got the message. Now, if only I could figure out how to spend more time with Cindy, because I really do feel the attraction, and I’d like to see where it goes.”
Juliet nodded. “Case, you do understand, you may be trading one set of problems for another?”
“I know, time and distance...”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“Your problem with Anastasia was one of expectations, and you resented her trying to mold you into something you’re not.”
“The way I see it, with Cindy, like Anastasia, you’re the one who has to make all the sacrifices.”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“I see what you mean. Cindy can’t move to Austin, and why would she? She has a daughter and a successful life here in Lodi, so I’d have to be the one to move, and find a job here, or nearby. The money I get from the sale of my shares of Air-Bytes is nice to have, but it doesn’t mean I could move here and become a gentleman of leisure – not especially practical, or desirable.
“For the next fourteen months or so, I’m senior pilot for an expanding Air-Bytes, and I’m on the forefront of making the new Air-Bytes a success, not just for the Duncan Group, but for me and all the employees. When I think about it, I really don’t see me leaving Air-Bytes and Austin after fourteen months.
“I’m also a partner in Aero Services Austin, which is probably going to suck up what little spare time I might have, so the idea of buying a plane, or borrowing one from ASA, to visit Cindy is just a pipe dream. Damn!”
Juliet, took his hand. “Sorry, there are no easy answers.”
He forced a smile. “I thought you told me love will find a way.”
She shook her head. “I think that’s mostly in the movies, but at least you know what you’re looking for in a partner.”
He sighed. “Yeah, but I want the original.”
She countered. “As that great philosopher Mick Jagger once said, ‘you can’t always get what you want’.”
Case responded by singing, “But if you try sometime you find you get what you need.” He then added with a grin, “maybe I should stick with Vika...”
He ducked a sofa pillow.
It was after eight, according to Juliet’s new watch. Things at St Anne’s were starting to wind down from the hectic pace of the afternoon and early evening. She watched the thinning crowd from her position against the wall near the main doors to the church hall. Her feet were tired and she was ready to call it a night. Fortunately, there had not been even a hint of trouble. People were there to celebrate Christmas in a safe and festive atmosphere. Of course, the presence of off-duty LPD officers, like Juliet, tended to discourage drunks and troublemakers.
Shuttle buses were now taking guests home, and those in need were loaded down with gifts from Santa, groceries and perhaps a new warm coat or sweater, from St. Anne’s food and clothing bank.
Valeria came in from outside, her ever-present tablet at the ready. When she saw Juliet, she smiled and joined her. She was dressed in fitted jeans and a red sweater, covered by an unzipped black quilted jacket which had a jeweled wreath pinned to the left breast. Around her neck hung a gold cross on a delicate chain.
Leaning back against the wall, she sighed. “I think I’m ready to be done.”
Juliet nodded. Yeah, me too.
Valeria was quiet for a few moments, and Juliet caught her staring across the large room to where Case was helping an elderly lady get her coat on and gather her Christmas treasures. The woman was beaming, and Case was smiling in return. Juliet had watched him make several trips to the parking lot to cars and shuttle buses. He’d been busier than Juliet, but seemed to still have plenty of energy, and he was clearly enjoying himself.
She had watched him carry sleeping children, bags and boxes, or like now, just offering a strong arm to someone who needed it.
“You’re lucky to have a brother like Case. He’s so caring and he’s a wonderful singer ... I think all the girls in Jenny’s group are half in love with him.” She tried unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle. The sound made her seem much younger than her almost twenty years. “And poor Essie, she has such a crush on him that when Jenny surprised everyone and invited Cindy to join Case in singing, You and Tequila make me Crazy, I thought she was going to cry.
“She didn’t though, and Case was sweet when she invited him to sing Cowgirls don’t cry with her. They nailed it. Makes me wish I could sing...”
Is every woman in this place part of the Case Reynolds admiration society?
“Last night at the party, he danced with all the girls, even me, but always went back to Cindy between sets.” Juliet caught just a flash of sadness, then she continued, “He really does seem to care for Cindy, and she feels the same about him. They ... look happy together. And Cindy’s so nice, and she’s beautiful, too, especially for someone as old as she is.”
Valeria got the reaction from Juliet she wanted, and burst out laughing.
Catching on, Juliet laughed too.
I’ve underestimated this young woman. No wonder Jessica relies on her. Too bad she’s Rafael Ramirez’s granddaughter, I think we could be friends.
“I won’t tell Cindy you said that,” she said dryly.
Valeria smiled, but then turned serious when she said wistfully, “I wish I had a big brother like Case.”
I understand, but the way you look at him, I think you’d like more than that.
“He’s pretty special, and I missed him a lot when he went off to the Air Force Academy when he was eighteen. In the ten years between, it seems there’s never been enough time to spend together. Now that he’s out of the Air Force, and I have a little more time with LPD, I plan to make up for that. Even when he was gone and on the other side of the world, I still felt a connection.”
“Yes, it’s pretty hard to describe, but, in here,” she touched her chest, “I felt connected.”
“It must be wonderful to share that feeling.”
Juliet studied her boots for a few seconds as she fought tears. “Yes, but sometimes...”
Seeing her distress, Valeria put her hand on Juliet’s arm.
“The day Case was ... hurt, in Afghanistan, I was in class in college and suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and tears came. I rushed out of my class and all I could think about was something had happened to Case.”
“I didn’t know. But he was okay? I mean he’s still here.”
“Yes, but he was hurt badly. I’m glad he’s out of there...”
Valeria nodded, and looked like she was deciding something. “My grandfather said I have a younger brother and sister in Spain ... with my mother.”
Juliet was surprised. “And you’ve never met them?”
Valeria shook her head sadly.
“I’d like to. I sometimes wonder if they even know about me.”
“What about your mother? Would you like to see her?”
Valeria grimaced. “Only long enough to ask her why she left me, before I kicked her ass.”
She’s not joking about that. How could she walk away from her child?
Valeria’s phone rang. “Valeria Ramirez.”
Juliet watched her face go from assistant mode to concern, then what could be described as panic.
“Yes, I understand. Yes. I’ll be right there. Where is he?”
Juliet understood something serious was going on, especially when Valeria turned to her with tears in her eyes. “That was the Emergency Room at Lodi Memorial.” She choked back a sob. “They said my grandfather had a heart attack. It’s pretty serious. I’ve got to go!”
Valeria started to turn towards the doors when Juliet caught her arm. “Where’s Ramón?”
She looked at Juliet without comprehension for a second, then replied, “He’s not here. He had to take Luna home, she’s coming down with the flu.”
Damn! But this girl’s in no condition to drive.
“Okay, let’s go. I’ll take you.”
“My car is here.”
“And you’re in no condition to drive, and I can pull right up at the ER and drop you.”
“It won’t take long, it’s only a little over a mile from here. We’ll be there in less than five minutes.”
As they walked out to the parking lot Juliet saw Tom Billings, one of her fellow LPD officers. “Tom, just to let you know, I’ve got to run Ms. Ramirez over to Lodi Memorial. I shouldn’t be gone long.” He looked like he had some questions but they brushed by him.
As they got into Juliet’s SUV she said, “Valeria, why don’t you text Ramón and Jessica, and let them know what’s going on.”
“Oh, okay. Sorry, not thinking straight.”
She gave a slight smile. “That’s why I’m driving.”
It didn’t take long for them to cover the short distance to the hospital. Juliet pulled off the main road and headed across the mostly empty parking lot toward the large illuminated sign that said, Emergency Room. As a cop she was very familiar with the place.
As she approached, she caught sight of a white van out of the corner of her eye.
What the hell? They’re going too fast, and why no lights? Damn, they’re going to T-bone us!
She barely had time to jerk the wheel to the right before impact. Her quick reaction changed the angle of the collision so the van hit the left front quarter panel of her SUV, instead of her door. There was a grinding crash.
The collision would not have been too severe had it not shoved her SUV toward the squat concrete security pillars outside the building. She braked hard, but there wasn’t enough distance to prevent the front of her SUV from crashing into one of pillars. The abrupt stop crumpled the front end, and caused the motor to stall and the front airbags to deploy.
She felt like she’d been smacked hard in the face and the cabin was filled with airbag propellant.
That was no accident. I’m okay, though. Valeria!
She looked across the cabin and saw Valeria moving. She looked groggy as she slowly shook her head.
It happened so fast I didn’t even have a chance to warn her.
Suddenly the passenger door was jerked open, and a large Latino reached in and started pulling on Valeria. He then reached across her and started fumbling with the seat belt catch.
This is about Valeria, and these guys aren’t here to help us. Where’s my gun? Oh, it’s in my hand – how’d it get there?
Juliet pointed her .357 at the man who was busy trying to get Valeria out. He looked at Juliet as she pulled the trigger.