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40

I woke up lazily the next morning, savoring the sensation of rest and peace. I tugged the comforter to my chin, taking a leisurely inventory: I was safe in my own bed, Bear snored in her favorite spot at my side, and a lawyer banged around in my kitchen. Hey, you, I called out.

Hey, yourself.

Come back to bed.

Im busy. There was theclang of a pot, then cabinet doors opening and closing.

What are you doing?

None of your business.

When are you coming back?

When Im good and ready. The tap was turned on, then off.

ButIm good and ready now. Id been less tired than I thought last night, and this morning I was feeling even less tired than that. Must be the rowing. A useful sport.

Stop being so bossy!

I cant help it, Im the boss.

Are not, partner.

I smiled. Are we partners now? Ill have to think about that.

Rosato amp; Wells is fine with me. I know how shy you are.

In the next instant I heard it. A gurgle I could identify in my sleep. My heart leapt up. I hoped against hope. The paper towels are-

I found them, he said, and I snuggled under the covers in delicious anticipation. Life was good. A man with this set of skills was hard to find. I doubted Id look any further. The aroma of his perfect coffee arrived just as he did.

Lord, are you rude! Grady said, naked except for his briefs and theSTUDMUFFIN Mug Id swiped from Homicide when Id sprung him. My fee to be a nuisance. And now it was full.

Coffee! I sat up and reached for it thirstily. The first sip hit my tongue. It was my third orgasm in eight hours.

Drink fast. We have something important to do. Grady sat on the bed and grinned at me.

More important than coffee?

Absolutely.

What could possibly be more important than coffee? I was backsliding into Mae West, but Grady only frowned.

You think I mean sex? No way. He plucked his pants from the floor and pulled them on. Drink up and get dressed.

What?

Its all arranged. I fixed it while you were asleep. He searched for his workshirt. We have somewhere to go.

Where?

Youll see, he said, and even Bear lifted her ears, intrigued.

Ten minutes later, I was locked in one of Hatties pungent bear hugs, pressed awkwardly into the royal flush of shiny playing cards that spanned her bosom. Im so happy to see you, so happy, she said. Thank God, thank God.

Its okay now, its all over. I hugged her back as hard as I could. Id gotten home too late last night to stop in and I wasnt up to seeing my mother then anyway. Id intended to deal with her after a solid nights sleep, but Grady had made other plans. Without my permission.

Come in, Hattie said, then stepped back and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Come in, both of you. Shes in her room.

How is she?

Youll see soon enough. Hattie closed the apartment door and shot Grady a look so knowing it made me laugh.

Have you two been conspiring?

She smiled. Me and Grady are old friends, by now.

He nodded. We grew up not ten miles apart, did you know that, Bennie? Hattie grew up near the Georgia border, and I was born in Murphy, right over the line.

Hattie tugged at my arm. We had ourselves a nice long talk on the telephone. Now lets go see your momma. Shes awake.

Grady took my other arm. Come on, Bennie. I want to meet her.

I let them yank me along only reluctantly. Do we have to do this now? What do I say to her? Sorry I sent you to-

Say what comes natural, Hattie said. Bear trotted at the heels of her scruffy bedroom slippers as she and Grady tugged me through the living room. Did you know your momma knew all about Marks murder?

She did?

Said you told her all about it, at night. We reached my mothers door, which was slightly ajar, and Hattie pressed it open.

My God, I heard myself say, the sight was so unexpected.

A soft morning breeze blew through the open screen, billowing through the curtains. The room was bright and smelled fresh, only faintly floral. My mother sat in a chair by the bed, still as calm water, reading a newspaper. JOINT VENTURE, said the headline above photos of Renee and Eve. My mothers hair had been combed into neat waves, and she wore slacks and a pressed white blouse. She seemed not to see me standing at the threshold in wonder.

Is shecured? I whispered.

No, but shes gettin there, Hattie said softly. Carmella, honey, she called, see whos come home.

My mother looked up from the paper and her brown eyes opened slightly in surprise. Benedetta.

Her voice struck a chord, buried deep. No one but my mother called me Benedetta, and I felt the sound reverberating inside me. Resonating within my chest. Calling me to dinner, or from play. To climb onto her lap. Benedetta.

Benedetta, youre free, she said.

My eyes stung. A lump appeared in my throat. My heart lifted. She didnt know how right she was, and neither did I.

Until now.


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