Copyright© 2016 by AA Nemo
Jessica glanced at the red numerals on the bedside clock. It was almost seven, but it was still dark. She cuddled against Harrison and smiled. It’s Christmas!
She had lots to do today, but what she really wanted to do was just snuggle in bed with Harrison for a couple more hours. Lots to do today? She had to stifle a giggle. That’s funny – lots to do every day!
Before Natalie left for Chicago she warned her that she needed to start saying, ‘no.’ Now she had over sixty employees and a day off was a rarity. Rashmi was getting better at saying ‘no.’ She finally had the confidence to start making decisions about meetings and appointments without consulting Jessica. She was finally overcoming her subservient, model Indian daughter upbringing and becoming the confident young woman who had fractured a kidnapper’s skull and torched his car.
Harrison was on his back and Jessica was half draped across him – her favorite sleeping position. She would be glad when they were married and they could spend every night together – right now they still kept separate homes. It was just better for them to still have some time apart, especially with Rashmi and Jenny living in the house with Harrison. Soon enough she would be a permanent resident and would join the happy chaos that was this household each morning. Her office, though, would remain upstairs in the apartment. Rashmi had taken over a corner of the living room there and now had her own desk.
She lay there in the darkness, breathing in Harrison’s scent and just listening to him breathe, feeling content and wondering how she had become the luckiest woman on the planet. How often did this happen outside of the movies? In the past year they had spent a lot of time together and had seen each other’s best and worst. If Rashmi had known Kate’s true circumstances she would have called this a large helping of positive Karmic repayment.
She kissed Harrison’s face, not even minding his early morning stubble, and silently got out of bed. He didn’t stir. She wrapped herself in a thick dark blue terry robe, slipped into some shearling-lined slippers, and walked down the hall toward the kitchen. She spotted Sam on the sofa. He uncurled himself and gave a big cat stretch, a yawn and a quizzical expression which seemed to ask why they weren’t across the way in the apartment in their own bed. Sam definitely preferred to be in Jacob’s apartment, sleeping on the foot of her bed. Much of the reason for his preference came trotting down the hall from the direction of Jenny’s bedroom. The cat moved to the back of the sofa and gave Banner a look that said, approach at your peril.
Jessica moved to the kitchen and opened the door for Banner. He stopped and checked his empty food dish before he headed out to do his doggy business for the morning. Having been met by a decidedly chilly breeze, Jessica quickly closed the door. It was too soon to put coffee on for Harrison so she filled Banner’s dish as Sam watched. He knew his breakfast would be eaten in the apartment across the way, undisturbed by a dog.
Banner taken care of and her eyes now more open, Jessica took a glass container of Rashmi’s homemade chai from the refrigerator. She smiled, thinking how thoughtful Rashmi was to leave something for her. It wasn’t the same as Rashmi’s fresh-brewed, but it beat anything that came out of a box labeled ‘chai.’
She loved Rashmi –Rashmi was her little sister, her number one fan, her indispensable assistant and a brilliant person. In the coming months Rashmi, aided long distance by Natalie, would become Jessica’s wedding planner too. She was certain that Rashmi would also excel at that, having already booked the church and Father Xavier to perform the ceremony. She wondered how long it would be before Rashmi and Tom would be wed. If it was Rashmi’s choice it would be the day after Tom was discharged from the Marines in December next year. But she’s so young – too young to be married and too young to listen to me on this subject.
As she waited for the microwave to do its magic, Jessica leaned against the tile counter and examined the kitchen. In contrast to the sterility of the first time she came into this house a year ago, it was now cluttered with all sorts of touches that transformed it from an empty kitchen to the center of a home filled with active and busy people. Natalie’s family cast iron skillets hung above the stove and the glass-front cabinets show-cased Natalie and Harrison’s grandmother’s dishes. The kitchen was a bit narrow when you had three, or four or five people vying for space, but they somehow managed. The fact it was usually filled with people who loved each other made it seem more cozy than crowded.
She glanced into the bathroom where she had spent several hours closeted with a book, or with Jessica’s computer, trying to avoid discovery. Was it really a year ago?
Retrieving her hot chai from the microwave, she let Banner in and then walked into the dark living/dining area. The light from the kitchen spilled into the room so she didn’t bother with the room lights. It seemed like Rashmi and Jenny had competed to see who could find the most places for Christmas decorations throughout the house. It was hardly haphazard, each was placed carefully and the tree was amazing. She skirted the pile of gifts and plugged in the lights for the tree.
Jessica sat on the sofa sipping her chai and just admired their decorating efforts, smiling in recollection about their day trip into the Sierra to a Christmas tree farm near Placerville. Not being Christian, Rashmi had never had a tree at home and she was as excited as Jenny, perhaps more so since Jenny was an old hand at going into the mountains to get a tree. As they were traveling, with Harrison at the wheel of his truck, Jenny regaled them with stories full of excited girl utterances about long treks into the Montana mountains, much of the time in four wheel drive because of the snow, and how they would always find the perfect tree to cut and bring home.
“Natalie always brought sandwiches and cocoa in a Thermos, and we had to dress real warm.”
Jessica saw Harrison smile as he was reminded of those snowy trips to get the perfect tree.
“Jenny and Natalie were pretty picky about their trees. Good thing we brought lots of supplies!” He laughed.
Jenny seemed disappointed when they got to the tree farm. For one thing there was no snow, despite the elevation, for another, the trees were planted in neat rows with just the right amount of space between them to grow the most desired conical shape for a Christmas tree. That didn’t matter to Rashmi. She seemed to revert to being a child as she and Jenny walked among the hundreds of trees, stopping now and again to discuss the potential of a particular specimen. Jessica had packed a picnic basket with sandwiches and home baked brownies, thanks to Maria, and of course lots of hot cocoa. Harrison had tipped her off about that tradition.
Jessica wondered why there was no mention of Cindy during their excursion. Had she gone with them when Jenny was smaller and then somehow lost interest, or had this annual event always been a dad and daughter and Natalie adventure?
Despite Cindy’s meltdown with Harrison last night, Jessica hoped she still planned to join them for brunch and presents this morning. Jenny would be disappointed if Cindy didn’t stay after bringing her back to the farm. She had to admit she’d be disappointed too (as would Rashmi). Over the months since Cindy had appeared Jessica and Rashmi had both grown fond of her. Cindy was a caring and loving person who was making a so-far successful effort to atone for her mistakes, especially where it impacted Jenny. Jessica had decided months ago that she would do her best to get along with Cindy, since they both loved Jenny and were going to be involved with each other for a long time to come. Her confession last night that she still loved Harrison should not have been a surprise. Had she thought about it she would have recognized Cindy’s continued love for, and attachment to, Harrison months ago. Perhaps with Matt and Cindy being a couple since the summer Jessica had just assumed that Cindy’s love had turned in Matt’s direction.
She wasn’t the least bit threatened by Cindy’s continued presence. Harrison had been deeply wounded by Cindy’s actions, but had forgiven her. That didn’t mean they would ever get back together. Harrison was a one woman man and Jessica was his woman. It was probably more uncomfortable for Cindy to spend time around Jessica and Harrison, especially since she still loved him. Occasionally Jessica felt a twinge of jealousy when Jenny or Cindy would bring up some happy event from their lives in Montana, and Harrison and Cindy would share a smile at the memory. Jessica could not insert herself into their past, nor would she want them to forego those happy memories. They were important to all concerned to help balance the tears and pain that followed. She just tried very hard to make new happy memories for Harrison and Jenny.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Banner came in to join her. He sat on the floor next to her place on the sofa and put his head on her lap. “Wondering where Jenny’s gone?” No matter how many times Jenny had stayed at Cindy’s, Banner still searched the house for her in her absences. Occasionally Banner would be invited to Cindy’s home but there was no place to roam and someone would have to walk him so it was just easier for Banner to stay at the farm. When Jenny was gone and Rashmi was home Banner camped out in Rashmi’s room. He was a sweet dog and these days it was not uncommon for year-old Grace to simply sprawl on top of him – Banner’s only reaction was to lay there with a long-suffering look.
She looked at the tree, now festooned with miniature white lights and what seemed to be hundreds of ornaments, most of which came from Harrison and Jenny’s Montana home. Jessica had noted when they were decorating that Jenny put several aside in a box to take to Cindy. She wondered about the significance of those ornaments but didn’t bring it up. She was just happy Jenny and Cindy had the kind of relationship where she would think to bring ornaments to her mother that had once graced the family Christmas tree in Montana.
Her gaze settled on the pile of presents under the tree.
As she stroked the big dog’s head, she noticed a long red foil-wrapped box. She suspected it was Matt’s present from Jo – a new shotgun. Jo told her that Cindy had suggested it – more evidence that she had accepted Jo and Matt’s relationship. Jessica had been puzzled at first how accepting Cindy had been, but in light of her unrequited love for Harrison it made sense. Jessica really hoped that Cindy would find someone, but she also recognized Cindy’s need to take her time.
She had no idea what Harrison had gotten her for Christmas. She had been thrilled last year when he and Jenny had presented her with sketches – sketches which now hung on the walls of the apartment over the garage. She’d be perfectly happy with more of the same. As for Harrison, she had debated for a long time about surprising him with a new truck. She could easily afford to give him his dream truck without a second thought. She had seen the brochures around the house – brochures highlighting the latest Ford trucks, but her knowledge of Harrison and a discussion with Natalie had convinced her otherwise. He knew she was wealthy, although he might be surprised if he actually knew what she was worth, even without Kate’s millions in Chicago.
Her wealth really made no difference to Harrison, except where it came to having her buy things for him. He was happy to accept small things like a new wallet or even a new pair of boots – both desperately needed. She had upgraded his wardrobe significantly and he didn’t seem to mind. Of course he had no idea of the cost of many of those things. He equated a new pair of jeans or a cotton shirt with JC Penny or Wal-Mart prices, certainly not Orvis – she kept those catalogs carefully hidden. So a truck was out of the question. Plus she knew he’d look to buying a truck when he was ready and he would very much enjoy the process of finding just the right one at the right price. He might joke about a new truck but he was also the kind of man who wore things out before buying a replacement.
Her attitude about money had changed little since her experiences on the road. Somehow, even after a year she found it difficult to come to grips with the fact she had millions of dollars in assets and a fair amount in disposable income. The transition from a girl who had to scrounge for meals, often dumpster diving behind restaurants and wearing cast-off clothes, to someone who was very wealthy, was at times jarring. Her parents had not been wealthy but Kate had never gone without. Now she could afford to buy practically anything without a second thought – but she never did, at least for herself. She still shopped at the consignment stores in Sacramento but had not hesitated to hire a private jet to rescue Rashmi. She had chartered a jet to take them to Dmitri’s wedding, but it had been a one-time thing. Sharing her good fortune with others seemed to satisfy her most. She thought Jacob would approve.
Jessica sat in the darkened room a few more minutes, absently petting Banner’s big head and enjoying the solitude while she finished her chai. Eventually she bestirred herself, and followed by Sam and Banner, she made her way out the side door and through the breezeway to the stairs to the apartment. Banner gave her a hopeful look but she shook her head so he left to take up station at the foot of the big oak in the front yard. After Montana, the cool northern California December morning didn’t bother him a bit.
Once in the apartment she put her refilled cup in the microwave, fed Sam and then went for a shower.
She hated to wash the smell of him off her, but she had to get ready for the day. She hadn’t let her hair get long again – too much upkeep, and Harrison seemed to like it as a short ‘wash and wear’ cut, so her morning preparations didn’t take long. She didn’t bother with makeup; maybe later, just a bit before company arrived for brunch. While drying off she decided perhaps she’d get a walk in before the craziness of the day came down on them, so she dressed in an old pair of jeans, a bulky sweater and some well broken in running shoes.
Breakfast was the usual, a bowl of cereal with a banana. Before she started on her breakfast she retrieved a large brown envelope from her desk. It was there with yesterday’s unopened mail, waiting for Rashmi’s return. Usually Rashmi collected the mail and sorted it, figuring out what needed to be brought to Jessica’s attention or what should just be delivered to Joe Foss, Alicia Estrada or someone else, or placed in the neatly organized files Natalie had started and now Rashmi kept. The one that Rashmi knew was to go to Jessica unopened was any large envelope with a Chicago postmark. Jessica had simply explained it was from Dmitri and contained mostly legal documents from the Ryan Firm and perhaps some other information about investments she was considering with him. That seemed to satisfy Rashmi. Jessica wondered what she might think of the investment documents from Northern Trust and other letters addressed to ‘Kate Brice, ‘ especially if she saw the amounts listed.
As she sat at the kitchen counter finishing her chai and cereal, she opened the envelope and arranged the contents on the counter. She set aside the documents concerning Kate’s investments and other financial documents and then opened a beautiful Madonna and Child Christmas card which contained a 5x7 color photograph. With tears and trembling hands she looked at the photo of a much younger Kate with her brother Peter sitting on Santa’s lap, flanked by her smiling parents. How did Dmitri find this?
She recalled one time telling Dmitri that each year she and Peter sat on Santa’s lap at the Marshall Field’s department store in downtown Chicago. One year the whole family got in the photo. She vividly recalled that moment. She must have been about ten. Somehow Dmitri must have tracked down the photographer. She blotted her eyes with a tissue as she read the message inside the card written in Dmitri’s neat script;
My Dearest Daughter,
In this life a man may have many things, but in the short time we are given on this earth they are insignificant when placed next to the people we love and those who love us. I am certain your loving heart, your unselfishness, and your protectiveness of others meet the approval of the angels, your parents and your brother, who now, with those angels smile down upon you.
May you have a most joyful Christmas and a wonderful New Year surrounded by and watched over by those you love and those who love you.
Jessica was stunned. Nothing could have prepared her for this gift. It was the most precious Christmas gift she had ever received. She would find a suitable frame and keep it in one of the drawers in her desk where she could just take it out occasionally and remind herself of the wonderful family she once had.
She was jarred out of her reverie by Sam jumping onto the counter looking to have the dregs of milk and cereal in her bowl. She lifted him off the counter with a mild admonishment and then placed the bowl on the floor. Usually she was quicker to get the bowl onto the floor, but today she’d been distracted.
Drying her eyes but keeping the photograph on the counter near her, she discovered another card addressed to ‘Kate Brice.’ The cover of the card featured kneeling shepherds and the star of Bethlehem. Inside, was a photograph of a young dark-haired boy on Santa’s lap accompanied by a note on pink stationary. She glanced at the bottom of the note and saw it was from her friend Rosie, who with her boyfriend Jerry, had helped her escape from her Uncle on graduation night, four and a half years ago.
It was so exciting to get your card after all this time! I’m so glad you are all right and I’m so happy you have an address where I can finally write to you and thank you for all you’ve done for us – yes, us. Jerry and I are married and little Angelo is seven now and in school! Can you believe it? When the checks started coming last March I called the trust company in Chicago and told them I was sure there was some mistake, but they told me that there was no mistake, but they couldn’t tell me who was responsible – but somehow I knew it was you Kate. I knew you were from Chicago and had friends there. You know you don’t have to send money, although we are very grateful. We helped you because it was the right thing to do, but I have to tell you those checks have changed our lives – I don’t work at the restaurant any longer. I have a job at a local insurance office and I’m going to school part time and Jerry is back in school too. He’s studying to be an engineer at Penn!!! We’re renting a nice apartment not far from campus so he can bike to school. Kate, I so want to thank you in person. Please do come visit, or at least call me. It would be wonderful to see you or at least hear your voice. Because of you this is the happiest Christmas we’ve ever had.
Love and Kisses, Rosie (I go by Rose now) Jerry and Angelo
Jessica smiled and dabbed at tears with a tissue as she reread the letter in Rosie’s neat script. Most of what was in the letter wasn’t news. She’d asked Dmitri to send one of his minions to check on Rosie and Angelo some months ago and then had directed Northern Trust to start sending checks. Since then she’d received monthly reports about the family.
Rosie said she didn’t need to send money – they had simply done what was right, but if they had been caught Jessica hated to think what Donatello would have done. They must have known the risk, but they elected to help a young woman who wasn’t even a relative. For that she’d always be grateful.
Even the generous checks she directed they receive each month seemed insufficient to Jessica, balanced against what they risked. They saved my life. What’s my life worth? They risked their lives. What’s that risk worth?
Without Rosie and Jerry, Kate Brice would have disappeared on graduation night four and a half years ago.
The memories came rushing back. Her heart pounded as she thought about her escape. That night Kate had walked across the stage, received her high school diploma, and then instead of returning to her seat she had darted out the side door of the auditorium closest to the stage. As she fled down the darkened streets she had flung her cap and gown into the nearest alley and two blocks later she met Jerry at a prearranged spot. He was parked in an alley off a side street – an area without security cameras. She had some moments of panic as he closed her and her cast-off roller bag in the trunk of his beat-up Ford, but there were no other options. She had to trust him and she had to be out of sight. Fortunately, he had put a thick blanket in the trunk so her ride wasn’t all that physically uncomfortable, but her mind kept conjuring scenarios where when the trunk opened it would be Donatello who looked at her.
Almost an hour later the car stopped and she waited. She was somewhat comforted by the sounds of buses nearby. A few minutes later the trunk opened and much to her relief there was Jerry. He helped her out and then removed the roller bag. Kate had filled it with whatever clothes she could smuggle out of her Uncle’s house. Jerry told her they were on a side street near the central bus station in Wilmington, Delaware. He handed her a bus ticket for Savanah, Georgia and a brown paper bag – a gift from Rosie. Inside the bag was a dark wig, sunglasses, scissors, dark makeup, an apple and some granola bars. And so my journey began.
Jessica sat at the kitchen counter for several minutes, composing herself. She looked at the clock and decided she still had time for a walk. Sam had disappeared after his cereal treat, certainly off to Jessica’s bed for his morning nap, away from Banner. She grabbed a quilted jacket and a baseball cap and went out the door.
As she went down the steps she saw a grinning Matt waiting for her. “Good morning Jessica. Merry Christmas.” He was wearing a ball cap, faded jeans, and a gray sweatshirt, covered by a heavy cotton canvas jacket. He held a metal travel mug, steam rising from the hot coffee inside. She chided herself for being surprised. Matt was always around. She just hadn’t thought about it. Was security going to be necessary even on Christmas morning? Apparently so.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs she hugged him, careful not to spill his coffee. “Good morning Matt, and Merry Christmas to you.”
He stepped back. “Thought maybe I’d join you for a walk this morning. I figured since the ‘Y’ is closed today we’d both be looking for a little exercise.”
Jessica knew when she was outmaneuvered. Matt would be her protector this morning even if it was Christmas, and in her mind, unnecessary.
She smiled, letting him know she was on to his game, but she was actually pleased – pleased by his dedication and by the fact she would have him for company this morning. Matt was always good company. She had grown very fond of the sandy-haired former SEAL and she was very happy for him and for Jo and their daughter Grace.
Matt took a couple of swallows of his coffee and then set the mug on the bottom step. “All set?”
As they walked toward the gate he said, “I seem to remember a quote attributed to President Harry Truman, who loved to walk, ‘Walk as if you had somewhere to go.’ So they set a good pace. By the time they reached the end of the drive Banner had joined them.
They enjoyed stretching their leg muscles and getting their blood pumping on this cool Christmas morning along the traffic-free road. After a few minutes Matt asked, “Jessica, can we talk about Valeria Ramirez?”
Surprised, Jessica looked at him. Xena must have briefed him. When did she have time to do that?
“Matt, you amaze me sometimes.”
He smiled, “Just trying to do my job.” He paused for a moment and then continued, “Valeria, who will be seventeen in March, is Rafael Ramirez’s granddaughter by his only child Gema Ramirez. Gema had Valeria here in Lodi when she was eighteen; no father is listed on the birth certificate.”
Birth certificate? How did Matt get access to that since last night?
“Gema is reportedly living in Spain with an Argentine named Eduardo Morales and has been for the last four years.”
“So mama runs off when Valeria is twelve and leaves her with granddad?”
“Appears that way.”
“Sounds like Gema and her dad didn’t get along, but to leave your child...”
“Not much more information about the mother.”
“Okay. I don’t like her already.”
Matt nodded as they walked along the quiet road flanked by dormant vineyards, then added, “She attends an exclusive girl’s school in Sacramento, with the daughters of other movers and shakers in the area. Her grades don’t reflect her intelligence, according to her teachers.”
Somehow I suspect Matt’s hacking skills came to play in this.
“No, reading between the lines I’d say she’s just disinterested, maybe bored.”
“Nobody’s challenging her?”
“That’s my guess, although according to her teachers she’s pretty challenging herself.”
“So she’s smart enough and I can certainly challenge her, and she already knows I won’t put up with any of her BS. So why do I get the feeling you’re not sold on Valeria Ramirez?”
Matt didn’t say anything while he formulated his thoughts. “We’re worried...”
“As in you and Xena?”
“Well, maybe that’s too strong a word, since we don’t see any danger to you or the family from Ramirez enemies, because, putting it bluntly, he’s eliminated them over the years. He’s a large fish in a small pond in Lodi and no one wants to bother him. That doesn’t mean there can’t be someone out there trying to make a name for himself, but I think the target would be Ramirez.”
“Well, that’s comforting, I think.”
Matt smiled. “It’s the reaction from the law-abiding citizens of this town that we need to think about.”
“Jessica, if people don’t know already that she may become an employee, then they will by this afternoon when you take her with you to St. Anne’s for the annual Christmas dinner.”
“The fact she won’t just be an employee of Three Corners Corporation, but your personal assistant, will certainly get the attention of a number of people.”
“Well it’s not like I can hide her.”
“True, but since she’ll be working directly for you, it gives the impression that you and Rafael Ramirez have entered into some kind of agreement, or worse, an alliance. Some people in this town won’t like that.”
Jessica stopped walking and turned to face him. “So this comes under the heading of, no good deed goes unpunished?”
“Maybe, but I’ve been giving it some thought.”
“Yes I expect you have and the first question in your mind would be, why on earth would Jessica agree to something like this without consulting all the people she has around her? That’s certainly what I’m asking myself right now.”
“Look Jessica, don’t beat yourself up about it. Xena told me that Ramirez said Jacob owed him some favors – conveniently there’s no way to check with Jacob on that, although I don’t think Ramirez was lying. From his request to you I think he is exactly what he portrayed, a concerned grandfather, who’s worried about his granddaughter. I never knew Jacob, but I suspect he would have done the same thing, not as a payment for favors, but because he was asked by a man who wanted to get his granddaughter on a different path.”
They continued their walk for a few minutes, both lost in thought.
“Matt, you’re right about Rafael Ramirez. Xena filled me in on him before the meeting and Father Xavier made it clear I didn’t have to meet with him. So I made a decision to take Valeria on, at least provisionally. If she screws up she’s gone.”
Jessica thought for a few seconds. “Somehow I don’t think she’ll sabotage her chances. I spoke pretty bluntly to the girl: maybe it was the first time anyone called her out. I think she’ll do a good job and I won’t make up some transgression to let her go.”
“Okay, so we have to go with Valeria becoming a permanent member of your inner circle. The question is, how do we handle it?”
He smiled at her. “I hate that term, but that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it?”
“Matt, we have to make this about Valeria, which is actually the truth.”
“I agree, Valeria is not her grandfather ... unlike Jessica Brandt.” He grinned at her. “Any ideas?”
She thought for a minute or so. “This afternoon a fresh-scrubbed and very youthful looking Valeria will appear at the Christmas dinner at St. Anne’s. She’ll be a model of decorum and I will not hide the fact she is auditioning as one of my assistants. She’ll be seen mopping floors, scrubbing pots, clearing tables and doing all sorts of menial tasks with grace and humor. We’ll have to create some fiction about how she came to apply for the job. Perhaps we could call her position a paid internship.”
“Intern? That works. And it sounds much different than personal assistant – less threatening.”
“I’ll have Alicia carry her on the payroll as an intern.”
“Good, but how did she know about the position?”
“Hummm, on reflection, rather than come up with some story, maybe we leave that vague. I know people will fill in their own blanks, but if pressed I’ll explain that it’s common knowledge in Lodi that Rashmi’s plan is to start at UC Davis in the fall, so I need to start training a replacement. There’s precedent - Rashmi was Natalie’s understudy for six months. So based on that information, Valeria’s grandfather, not Rafael Ramirez, but ‘Valeria’s grandfather’ approached me about an internship. All of that is true.”
“Plus we’ll count on the fact the people of this town have really taken to Rashmi and they’ll soon get used to seeing Rashmi and Valeria, like they did with Natalie. Hopefully what they’ll see is two smart and pretty girls working hard for Jessica Brandt and the community.”
Matt looked at her. “True, but lots depends on Valeria. She has to make the effort to get along with Rashmi and the rest of the family. From what Xena told me she was none too happy about the whole idea.”
“Some of that was her reaction to my comments about her dressing like a whore.”
“I think she’ll come around, if for the first time in her sixteen and a half years people treat her like an adult and expect her to act like one. Plus, I’m pretty sure I can enlist Sofía to help with bringing her along. Apparently the girl is a big fan, so let’s use that.”
Jessica paused, thinking about other things she could do. “I should probably call Father Xavier. I have a feeling he knew what Ramirez was going to ask. He could be helpful.”
“I’ll talk to Xena. She’ll be at brunch at the house this morning won’t she?”
“Yes, along with Carson Canady.”
He smiled. “They make a good pair, although he’s going to have to work pretty hard to keep up.”
Jessica’s phone chimed. A text from Natalie read, Awake yet?
She hit speed dial and soon heard Natalie’s voice.
“Merry Christmas Jessica!
“Merry Christmas Natalie. Can’t wait to see you. What time are you leaving Chicago?”
“Slight change of plans.”
“Oh?” She had a hard time keeping the disappointment out of her voice.
Natalie laughed. “No, in a good way. Thanks to Dmitri we have seats on a private jet.”
“One of his buddies at Executive Airport called him and said they had a jet deadheading to San Jose at eleven Chicago time this morning to pick up a honeymooning couple, so we get to go along. We arrive about noon your time. That means we get in about two hours before we were scheduled into Sacramento. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Natalie that’s wonderful, although it’s about twice the distance by road to San Jose.”
“We figured on Christmas there wouldn’t be much traffic.”
“You’re probably right, and if I send Rashmi to pick you up...”
Natalie’s laugh exploded through the phone. “Please no!”
Jessica chuckled, “Okay, I’ll let Matt sort that out.”
“Actually we have a rental waiting for us at San Jose at the private jet arrivals area.”
“You sure? I can have someone meet you.”
“I know you can but I figure we’ll need a car, and with everyone there at the farm an additional car will be helpful, plus we have a passenger.”
“Oh, did Victoria decide to come along? She’s more than welcome by the way.”
“No, for some reason she’s gone to visit her family in snowy thirteen degree Missoula.”
“Well, we can probably do a bit better than that!”
“Jessica, I hope so. I love Chicago but the winter weather gets old in a hurry.”
“And that from a woman who grew up in Missoula?”
That elicited a raspberry from Natalie. Jessica laughed.
“So how is Victoria?”
“She’s doing well mainly thanks to you. The fact she was able to give up her job as a flight attendant has made a big difference, and for the most part, sharing an apartment with her is great...”
“For the most part?”
“She’s a slave driver. I discovered going to the University of Chicago requires a lot more work than at the community college – the competition is fierce.”
“Sometimes I want to slack off a bit, but then she and Brendon gang up on me and kick me in the butt.”
“Oh dear. I’m so sorry.” Jessica had trouble keeping the laugh out of her voice”
“I just knew you’d understand.” She tried unsuccessfully to make her sarcastic come back free of laughter.
Jessica laughed again.
“And the Jacob’s Granddaughter’s Foundation?”
“Victoria’s charging ahead with it of course. Her grad studies are really wrapped around setting that up and she has a couple of her B-School professors as advisors.”
“And she’s retained at least one attorney from the Ryan Firm who specializes in non-profits. I’m getting the bill. I wonder who recommended the firm.”
“She did ask before she retained him, I’m sure.”
“Yes, and his billing so far has been reasonable. Maybe he’s giving her the ‘we’re dating’ discount.”
“How do you know that? Never mind. I don’t think I want to know. Anyway Andrew is one of the good guys, and they are kind of cute together.”
Jessica laughed and changed the subject. “So then, who’s our mystery guest on the flight?”
“Oh right. Her name’s Kasrin Shafik and she’s Matt’s first employee.”
Jessica looked over at Matt and mouthed, ‘Kasrin Shafik?’
He looked surprised. “Coming with Natalie?”
She nodded. “Okay, I’ll pass that along. Matt’s with me – we’re out for a Christmas morning walk.”
“Oh, does Harrison know you’re out wandering the countryside with Matt, or for that matter does Jo know?” she teased.
“I’m an engaged woman I’ll have you know. He’s not just my protector, he’s my dueña.”
Natalie laughed and Matt gave Jessica a quizzical look.
“Jessica, with all this company where are you going to put everyone?”
“For you and Brendon I think a couple of bunk beds in the unheated garage.”
Natalie snorted. “I thought you were meeting with an architect about expanding the house.”
“Don’t remind me. The guy from Sacramento has been designing houses for politicians too long. He proposed leveling both places and building a ten-thousand square foot Mac-mansion. Next!”
“No, worse. Wait until I show you the drawings. Now we’re working with a local kid fresh out of school who’s an engineer and architect and she actually listens and expects to present us with some plans right after the first of the year. Janet Ferguson recommended her.”
“Oh good then maybe the next time we visit we won’t have to settle for bunk beds in the garage!” She laughed.
“Natalie, you’re in an awfully good mood this morning. Good Christmas?”
“Absolutely the best ever! We’ll catch up when I see you in a few hours. I’ve got to run and catch a plane. See you soon. Can’t wait.”
Jessica looked at her phone wondering at Natalie’s hasty departure. That was Natalie’s MO for when she was about to blurt some news that she wanted to tell in person. Guess she’d find out in a few hours.
They resumed their walk and she looked at Matt. “Kasrin your first employee?”
He nodded. “Kasrin Shafik has been working with Dmitri the last few months and he thought she’d provide the nucleus for my security team in my new firm. I just didn’t expect her for another couple of weeks.”
“Maybe she was anxious to get started and when offered a free ride she decided to come out early.”
“I’m happy with that. I really do need a good right hand person right away.”
“What’s her background?”
“She’s Egyptian – actually Coptic Christian, and her family was subject to all kinds of harassment and brutality by both the Egyptian authorities and the common people. A few years ago they were tipped that most of the males were to be arrested so the entire extended family fled. They became part of the Coptic diaspora which is estimated to be between one and two million forced out of their homes, primarily in Egypt. Her resume says she was trained by, and then worked for, the Israelis during that time.”
He paused. “As you probably remember, Dmitri’s brother provides security for a family in Texas and that family has a wealthy friend who has hired a number of Copts including Kasrin’s cousin. Actually her cousin heads up security for that woman.”