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Title: A Few Good Women
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Private investigator, Lexi Graves is on cloud nine. After getting engaged to her boyfriend-slash-boss, Solomon, along with her old job back, now, her best friend is about to give birth to her first baby. Nothing could make life better for Lexi... but a blast from her past could make everything a whole lot worse.
Anthony Simon Steadman isn't a man Lexi ever thought she'd run into again. For a start, he's her ex-fiancé. Their shock break-up left her with some crazy life decisions to live down. So when he shows up, pleading for her help, she's not sure she's ready to forgive and forget. Does she really want to risk getting involved in her ex's shady doings when her own life is going so well? But after he insists someone is out to kill him, and his body disappears from a bloody crime scene, the stakes are raised. Lexi has no other choice but to find out who wanted her ex dead... besides her.
Lexi tries to solve the jerk's murder, while unwillingly competing in a contest with her boastful sister to throw the perfect engagement party. She also has to remain available twenty-four/seven to take Lily to the hospital at a moment's notice. Lexi’s plate is full, and the road to the aisle has never looked so long.
"Push, Lily, puuuuuuush!"
"It's no good," Lily panted, a bead of perspiration sliding down her forehead and dripping off her nose. She flicked back a damp strand of hair with a toss of her head and concentrated hard. "Something that big just won't fit!"
"Then where am I supposed to put this purse?" I asked, stepping back to survey my new closet in Solomon's house. No, not Solomon's house. Our house. John Solomon and Lexi Graves, private investigators, future newlyweds and let’s not forget, employer and employee. Having recently finalized the details of our co-habitation, both of us were happy with the results. The biggest change was moving to his house since it was considerably larger than the sweet, yellow bungalow I previously called my home. However, the move across town included several wonderful bonuses. I was rather attached to my house, but more attached to Solomon. After he reminded me how enormous his walk-in closet was, my vote swung a few miles in his direction. Plus, we both agreed living in his house was only temporary. I insisted on knowing that we both liked it before considering anything more serious or permanent. Living together changes a relationship in many ways and a small part of me couldn’t shake a fear that resided deep inside my chest. The last time I lived with someone was brief and disastrous. I doubted living with Solomon would go south quite as quickly as that, but it was always better not to rush over that hurdle without a safety net. One thing neither of us realized was the validity of my need for purse and shoe space. How did I manage to accumulate so many utterly fabulous and wearable accessories? Sometimes, I managed to even astound myself.
"Do you think Solomon really needs all that space?" Lily asked, pointing to Solomon's side of the closet. I followed her pointing finger to the racks of perfectly pressed shirts and pants, not to mention all the shelves of nearly identical t-shirts and sweaters. His clothing barely took up one side, which he neatly subdivided into shirts, pants, jeans, sweaters and t-shirts. All of his clothes were in neutral shades, completely unlike my rainbow of garments.
"Since his clothes are there, I guess so."
"Men," she huffed.
"Maybe I should lose some purses," I said, pondering the vast array of totes, clutches, crossbodies, and shoppers. Did I really need that many? Or that many colors?
"I'll take the pink crossbody, the blue satchel and the green tote," said Lily, reaching for them. "And you're welcome."
"I might want them some day!"
Lily paused, one hand outstretched for a black shopper that she didn't even mention. "Let me know when you miss them and I'll bring them right back."
With the purses safely stashed beside her own, Lily flopped onto the upholstered bench in the center of the room. She stretched her legs while groaning as she pressed her hands into the small of her back. "I don't think this baby is ever coming out."
"Weren't you due, like, two months ago?"
"Haha, very funny. I have one week to go. The nursery isn't decorated yet. The crib isn't built. I can't move, everything aches, and my boobs are officially classified as legal buoyancy aids. As for walking around, now I know how parking the human version of an articulated truck in a parking space at the supermarket feels. I might as well be a full cargo, female ice trucker rig, minus the ice. I'm too big for anything!"
"I could get you a mobility scooter?" I ducked when a sock flew through the air and missed me by a few inches.
"Is that everything?" asked Lily, turning her eye to my neat racks of clothing. Regardless of what Lily said, she was a huge help in organizing all the garment bags I transported. My clothes and closet had never looked neater. My shoes were arranged like pieces of artwork. They took up the shelving on one end of the closet and my purses occupied another floor-to-ceiling unit. "I think we need a break. Let's go play house in your new kitchen."
Lily waddled slowly after me as we exited the bedroom and took the stairs down, moving through the house to the large eat-in kitchen at the rear. I opened the fridge, concealed behind a bank of identical units, and pulled out a bottle of mineral water. I handed it to Lily as she hoisted herself onto the tall chair at the island. "Have these seats always been so high?" she asked as she unsnapped the bottle cap.
"Always," I said, "But you can adjust them."
"No need. It's easier to launch myself into a standing position from this height." Lily took a long sip and sighed.
"Is something wrong?"
"With me? No, just tired." To prove it, she yawned before clamping a hand across her mouth.
"Are you sure? You seem kind of off today."
"I'm sure. Just feeling tired. Really."
"Okay," I accepted her reply without believing her. My brother, Jord, dropped Lily off at the house after breakfast and although the past couple hours were more than pleasant, we also made great strides in the terms of closet organization. Strangely, I had the feeling that she was distracted, but she refused to say why, simply claiming that the last trimester of pregnancy was the most draining. I had no doubt of that, but there was definitely something else bothering her. I could only wish she would let me help.
"Tell me about the engagement party," said Lily, brightening. "When's the big date? Where's it going to be?"
"I wish I had those details to tell you."
"You must have planned something. It's been months since you got engaged and you still haven't had a party."
"You didn't have an engagement party!"
"That's not the point. Plus, I have dinner with your family all the time."
"Our family," I corrected her. Lily was my best friend but she also became my sister-in-law, thanks to Jord. "What about your parents? Didn't they want to celebrate too?" As soon as I asked the question, I wished I hadn't. In direct contrast to Lily's vivacious nature, her absentee parents were stone cold. They remained distant from her in more ways than just geography.
"I mentioned it to my mom and she told me she was very busy. There wasn't any window of time she could find."
"You spoke to your mom when you got engaged?" News to me.
"I spoke to her secretary and she spoke to my mom. So, same thing? Plus, we got married quickly and she sent us a card."
I didn't want to remind Lily that her parents didn't show up for her wedding either. I could only hope they would make an effort for the birth of their first grandchild. If not, my parents would step in. They would definitely double the welcome for their seventh grandchild. Hopefully, the excitement would be so overwhelming, they might temporarily forget I was the only one of their children who failed to produce a grandchild. So far, their hopes for a new grandbaby were entirely pinned on Lily. My engagement plans also failed to materialize. And not because I didn't want to celebrate, but because neither Solomon nor I ever got around to it. Beyond provisionally booking the next and only available date in the private dining room at Alessandro's restaurant, neither of us had planned another thing since. We'd been too swamped with work and arranging for my move into his house. Perhaps we should have made the time.
"So, planning your engagement party..."
"Dinner," I corrected her, eager to define some ideas. "A dinner would be nice. My family, his family, low key."
"Do you think you can do it before I pop?"
"Plan something else in a week? Are you serious?"
"Deadly. It might be my last chance to leave the house without booking a sitter."
"I guess so... maybe... I already provisionally booked Alessandro's. I got the last free date they had for the next three months; and Solomon's sister and brother are flying in for the weekend. I told everyone to save the date."
"If you have the party earlier than that date, you can use the private room at my bar. It's free all week. I already checked."
I thought about the bland space that Lily decided to turn into a VIP room at the bar. Having only recently completed its transformation from barely used storage space to a function room, it now boasted a huge dining table with very bland décor. Lily couldn't commit to any definite decision involving the space.
"Sure! Just let me know what date is good for you and it's yours if you want it. I can get flowers, caterers, a cake..."
"Do we need a cake?"
Lily gaped, horror spreading across her face. "What's a party without cake?"
"It's a dinner, not a party."
"What's dinner without cake?"
"I'll need to check with Solomon and find out if his sister and brother can make it earlier. They already confirmed the date I got at Alessandro's. We should assume changing flights now will be impossible."
"Speaking of the man, where is he? Doesn't he want to organize the closet with you?"
"Funnily enough, no. He was happy carrying boxes yesterday but he had to meet some clients this morning. He was supposed to have lunch with us, but he got called in to the agency." I checked my watch, wondering if he would still have time to meet us. When my phone rang, seconds later, I had a feeling the answer was no. "Hi, honey," I chirped into the phone, already smiling at the thought of him coming home. Would we never again need an overnight bag and spare toothbrushes? The very thought nearly made me giddy.
"Hi, sweetheart. Can you come to the office?" asked Solomon.
"Now? No, I'm with Lily. We're going to lunch and then we plan to go baby shopping."
"She wants another one?"
"Haha. No, she still needs things for the baby."
"That baby is going to be one well dressed infant. Your shopping trip sounds fun, but couldn’t you postpone it?"
"I really don't want to," I pouted since there were few things I liked more than shopping.
"I need you in the office." Solomon's voice was politely insistent and I immediately stood a little straighter, wondering what was going on.
"Did you get the account from this morning's client?" I asked. I knew it was something big after Solomon worked very hard to prepare the presentation for the clients.
"I did but it's not about that. Another client just walked in and I need you here. Now," he said, his voice forbidding any kind of dissension. It was that note of finality that made me frown. What could be so urgent that he needed me there now, on my day off? My day off to go shopping with my pregnant best friend? Whatever it was, it had better be important.
"I'll be there soon but I can't stay long," I told him.
"That's fine. It shouldn't take long."
"What's this about?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"On my way." I hung up and pulled a face. "I'm so sorry. I have to go to the agency."
"But I can take you wherever you need to go and still meet you for lunch. I'll be as fast as I can."
"Solomon sounded weird."
"He did. He says there's a client but he won't say what the case is about, only that I wouldn't believe him. Do you think it's someone famous?"
"Oooh! That would be so awesome. What do you think it is? Murder? Theft? Stolen identity? All of the above?"
Lily was still hypothesizing over what the mystery client sought when I dropped her off at a coffee shop near the agency. Then I turned around and aimed for the building that had become my second home.
By the time I walked up the stairs and into the private investigators' common office - a large room I shared with my soon-to-be brother-in-law, Antonio Delgado, plus ex-detectives Steve Fletcher and Matt Flaherty -- I was racing through a dozen different and increasingly mysterious options. Whatever the case was, I hoped it would be intriguing. Since my last big case, I'd only worked on smaller, lower fee, cases. They were all very interesting and certainly helped me hone my surveillance skills, but I was ready to sink my teeth into a big, juicy case. I just expected it would happen after Lily's baby was born so I could be available to help her with whatever she needed. However, I couldn't control what clients came in. And unless one of the guys wrapped up his case, I would be the next in line to provide my skill set and do my best to match the job on offer.
I was wondering which skills Solomon might need when I crossed the office floor. Unusually the blinds in Solomon's office remained partially closed, but I could just make out the backs of three women's heads. Each had brown hair although the lengths differed from mid-back to a chic bob.
Making the assumption that Solomon wanted to keep the meeting semi-private, I knocked on the door and waited for Solomon to call me in before I opened it. When he did, I stepped inside and shut it behind me.
"Hi," I said simply, moving around the seated women and smiling at Solomon. He didn't return the smile, and his eyes darted away before landing on the clients. When I turned around, my eyes following his, the smile dropped from my face.
I knew each one of the waiting women, and judging from the expressions on their faces, they obviously recognized me.
The oldest of the women was seated in the middle. Cynthia Steadman was a lovely woman who lived most of her life happily in denial. With a quick calculation, I judged her age as somewhere in her mid-sixties now. Her life -- and her money -- had both been very kind of her. Her face was largely free of lines and wrinkles and her brown eyes were still bright and pretty. Her daughters matched her looks. Sarah and Maris both had the same big, brown eyes and emulated their mother's country club chic: well-made clothes in varying shades of neutrals with elegant, understated jewelry. Sarah wore a wedding band. Seeing the small bump under her sweater, I wondered if she were in the early stages of pregnancy. Both situations were foreign to me; when I knew Sarah, she was a party girl.
"Lexi, darling, it's so nice to see you," said Cynthia, looking and sounding pleased.
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, to conceal my shock, but nothing came out. So I turned to Solomon. "What are they doing here?"
"I'm so sorry we surprised you, but I had to insist to your boss that we needed you. You have to take our case," continued Cynthia, before Solomon could react.
"They were very convincing," he said. "I'd like you to hear them out."
"I haven't seen you all for years," I said, still struggling for words. To Solomon, I added, "You know who they are?"
He nodded, which did nothing to appease me. If he knew who they were, and the impact the Steadmans had on my life, why would he have called me in to meet them? I had nothing against Cynthia, Sarah, and Maris, personally, but I never expected to see any of them again. Not since my fast exit from the Steadmans' life.
"Take a seat," said Solomon, indicating the one available chair at the side of the room. It was not quite on Solomon's side of the desk, but definitely not on the Steadman side.
"We need your help," said Cynthia. "We don't know where else to turn."
"Did something happen to one of you?" I asked, looking into each of their faces. Neither gave away a thing, which made my stomach drop. I had an awful feeling about the kind of help they needed and felt pretty sure they knew I was the last person who would offer any. That meant they must have exhausted every other potential Samaritan and were now desperate. Desperate people worried me. Desperate indicated a huge disaster for them and a bombshell for me.
"No, not us," said Sarah.
"We want you to help Anthony," blurted Maris.
"You want me to help Anthony?" I repeated, pointing a finger at her chest and doing nothing to mask the appalled look on my face. If the Steadmans had the audacity to ask for my help, they could see exactly what I thought of it. It was an emotion they should have anticipated and possibly did.
The sisters glanced at their mother. Sarah raised her eyebrows. Maris had the grace to look embarrassed. "I told you this was a bad idea," she muttered.
Cynthia, ever the proud matriarch, took over, "I know this must come as a huge surprise to you, but Anthony is in trouble..."
I couldn't stifle the sarcastic laugh that burst from my mouth. "That comes as no surprise to me!"
"Let me rephrase... We know it must come as a huge surprise to you that we're here asking you for help. We know you and Anthony had problems in the past, but we hope you can ignore that for now and help us. It was so long ago and I told him what a naughty boy he was. We have nowhere else to turn and we're truly desperate."
"He's being framed," Sarah interjected again. "You have to believe us, Lexi, please."
"If Anthony is in trouble, it's because he did something," I replied tersely, even though honesty was never the best policy with the Steadmans. Their problem was simple: they didn't want to hear it. I wasn't even sure they could comprehend it. Anthony was their golden boy. Unfortunately, they didn't see his gold was merely cheap plating covering the walking, talking, human equivalent of brass, which would eventually turn a finger green. He could say anything, do anything, or hurt anyone, and they would find some excuse for his behavior.
"We know he's acted badly in the past..." Cynthia paused while I scoffed, then continued, "Boys will be boys but this is very serious. He could go to prison for a long time. Lexi, darling, he's being framed for fraud. Will you please look into our case and help him?"
"I'm sorry, no," I said as bluntly and firmly as I could. While I didn't like Cynthia, I didn't wish her any ill or misfortune either. She could be a nice person, warm and generous, but she adored her son to a fault. "I'm sorry Anthony put you in the position you now find yourself and him in, but this isn't a case for me. If you believe Anthony is innocent, you need an investigator who also believes in him. That, unfortunately, is not me."
"But you know him so well. Anthony was your fiancé!" said Cynthia.
"Anthony Simon Steadman is not someone I really ever knew and he is not a man I wish to help. I'm sorry for your predicament but you came to the wrong person. I don't ever want to see him again," I said. Before anyone could object or try to make me think differently, I got up and walked out of the office, leaving my no good ex-fiancé’s family in my wake. I had no doubt that it was an excellent decision.