follows "Blessings"


                            ***December 2, 2022***

Robert Goren had scarcely finished plating breakfast when Sam woofed and bolted from the kitchen just before the doorbell rang. Alexandra Eames Goren, still clad in long-sleeved t-shirt and flannel pajama pants on that lazy Thursday morning, looked puzzled as she pushed her chair back. "Who's ringing the doorbell at this hour?" and followed the oversized tricolor collie, who now stood at the solid old front door with its three staggered windowpanes, wagging his tail. He heard her say cheerfully, "Hi, Bandit," then a moment later she called back, accompanied by the sound of the door being pulled open and the faint grinding of truck gears outdoors, "It was FedEx-" followed by "Bobby! Come quick!"

He switched off the stove burner and hurried into the living room to discover Alex, notwithstanding the chill outdoors, on the concrete front steps of the stoop in her slippers hefting an 18"x18" box. "This is yours!"

Alex's little white and grey budgie chirped as he entered, and Bobby greeted the bright-eyed creature in return. "Good morning, buddy."

He skirted Alex with her arms full of the box, reopened the front door briefly, then brought the second, larger of the two boxes inside and locked the door behind him. "So by process of elimination–"

Return address labels on both boxes read "Hastings House," and he proposed, straight-faced, "Shall we leave them here to put under the Christmas tree and wait till Christmas morning?"

She was already wielding the sharpened cast-iron letter opener that hung near the front door. "Not on your life am I waiting."

She slit open her own box first, bending back the flaps, staring inside with an expression of awe and relief. Here it was: her work for over a year, writing, multiple drafts, inserts and excises, edits and more edits, the final extra chapter she'd added in August, all come to fruition. Stacked below her in the box were the results: covers of two books, the same book, side by side, the very top of a stack of twenty: ice blue cover to go with the chunky, no-nonsense san-serif font that proclaimed Ice Blue, and then in smaller point type Duty and Death at the NYPD against a silhouette of a woman in a police officer's uniform at center, with a shadowy badge at left and pistol at right. Spanning the very bottom of the dust jacket was her name in the same blocky font: Alexandra V. Eames.

Bobby gave her a hug around her shoulders, then bent to lift one of the top copies reverently, opened the book at random and sniffed it appreciatively—a habit Alex had always thought unique to him until she started paying more attention in bookstores—then closed and reopened it from the front cover, paging carefully through endpapers, half-title page, title page with the colophon on the flip side, and then the dedication page. By mutual agreement, they had not shown each other their dedications. Hers read:

To Dad: who encouraged me with his words
To Mom: who did it with her heart
To Bobby: Forever

Their eyes met for a second, then he tucked the book under his arm. "Bedside reading for tonight."

"You've already read it a dozen times," she pointed out, amused.

"Not the finished product, with the photo insert," he countered.

She offered him the letter opener, but he shook his head; now she turned away from him to slit open his box, expectation evident as she revealed his book. This was a slightly smaller and thinner hardbound volume, deckle-edged, and she once again admired the cover art, which she'd previously seen only as a drawing: a pen-and-ink sketch with watercolor highlights of a boy with untidy curls in a sweater and jeans sitting on the front stoop of a Brooklyn row house, head bowed over a book spread across his knees. The curtains of the first-floor flat fluttered out the open window, old-fashioned iron railings surrounded the steps down to the ground-level apartment, and a row of metal garbage cans filled part of the ground-level entry; at the left edge of the cover a spindly tree was growing from a square of soil carved from the pavement, the leaves on the tree in autumn gold and orange. The title was in soft burgundy-colored cursive: The Refuge: A Memoir, with "Robert O. Goren" at the bottom left in burgundy serif lettering, and the spine and the back cover were also in red.

"Your cover is so beautiful," she said enviously as he lifted a copy from the box, his big hands cupping it as he might a kitten.

"I think they were riffing on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," he said. "Very Edward Ardizzone."

He examined his own book as he had hers, and as he returned to the front cover, she added enticingly, "There's a surprise on the back."

He tilted his head at her anticipatory smile, then flipped the book over, read the four-line summary of its contents, then reached "Advance Praise for The Refuge" below, and stiffened in disbelief. She peeked over his arm and smiled; their editor, Holly Lewin, had told her which advance review would be quoted first, one Bobby hadn't seen.

She read it aloud: "'A paean to libraries and those who love them.' G. A. Grissom, Ph.D., Last Stand of the Hammerhead."

"Krystine chanced sending him a copy," she said gravely, referring to the publicist Hastings House had assigned them. "She never dreamed he'd send a response."

He stood gazing at the back cover for another moment before turning the book over and paging through it as he had hers, then tilted the book toward her.

To my mother, the consummate librarian
but especially
For Alex: my heart's desire

She gently removed it from his hand. "Bedside reading for tonight."

"I'm going to take one of these to the library where my mother worked," he said softly.

"She'd like that," Alex said with a small smile. "Think how proud she'd be that her son had a book at the library."

His gaze was still faraway, and she touched his arm. "Breakfast?" she suggested. "Before it gets cold?"

He nodded and they laid the books next to each other on the end table.

His eyes flickered back and forth to her as they ate; she was scrolling through her phone and he had a book next to him, although he wasn't paying much attention to it. She finally looked up, said softly, "C'mon, Bobby, spill."

"Hummmm?" he answered.

"What's on your mind?"

His question was unexpected. "Are you...all right?"

She regarded him gravely, chin tilted downward. "Do I look sick?"

"No...I meant...after yesterday–"

"Bobby, I'm fine." Now she realized what was eating at him. "Bandit and I made Kendra happy."

"You did." He put his fork down and rose to step behind her, to kiss her forehead when she glanced up at him.

"Bandit was so good with her."

"Crazy little bird," he said affectionately, remembering the teen girl Alex and Bandit had befriended at St. Bernard Hospice—the parakeet had seemed to sense she was terminally ill and let her handle and cuddle him where ordinarily he would have been fearful; Kendra had died a week earlier and they had gone to her funeral only yesterday.

Then Bobby vanished for a minute and returned to the kitchen with the budgie sitting in the palm of his hand. The moment he saw Alex, Bandit launched himself at the table, fluttering when he landed due to his lame leg, then pattered up to Alex's plate, perched at the edge, and proceeded to nibble on her scrambled eggs.

He made her chuckle, as Bobby knew he would. She said to the bird, "You are a little cannibal."

Bandit stopped, stared at her with bright eyes, tweedled, then said "Hi!" and went back to eating.

Bobby settled back in his chair, only for Sam to pad up to the table, sitting next to him to follow the budgie with his dark eyes. He thumped his tail, whined, and gazed earnestly at Bobby, who stroked his head. "Sorry, Sam. You're just too big to get away with what the little guy does."

The collie gave an almost human sigh, then laid his wedge-shaped head on Bobby's knee, and Alex smiled at the dog fondly.

"Oh, everything's all set for Tuesday," she concluded, finishing the last of her bacon. "It should be fun."

                            ***December 6, 2022***

"Aw, Mr. G," Carlos Serrano groaned, looking embarrassed as he lifted a Christmas-themed grocery bag from the storage box Bobby had retrieved from the basement, "you're not gonna put these on the tree, are you?"

Bobby, having just plugged in the lights of their Christmas tree and adjusted the white Moravian star at the top, looked aside questioningly as Carlos extracted one of the Ojo de Dios ornaments he and Ana had made the previous December. Although both Carlos and Ana had been frightened when their abuela fell ill, they'd enjoyed their four-day stay with the Gorens, having helped them pick out and then decorate their Christmas tree, then assisted them with a traumatized boy. Since Mrs. Diaz had missed the festivities the previous year, Alex had arranged a day for them to get together with the whole family.

"Abi-Abi," the kids' name for Abril Diaz, their guardian since their parents' deaths, was sitting on the sofa petting Sam while she watched her grandchildren help with this year's tree. That morning the five of them, with Sam, had driven north to the Nutmeg Hill Farmer's Market to purchase jams, preserves, pickled items, and other gift items, and once again Alex and Bobby had acquired a small Christmas tree that they could replant. A second, cut tree for Mrs. Diaz and the children was tied to the roof of Alex's Honda CRV.

"They are the ornaments you and Ana made last year?" Mrs. Diaz, a slim, tall woman in her mid-60s, with silvered black hair plaited and then coiled around her head, asked in her still careful English.

"What's wrong with our ornaments?" his eleven-year-old sister Luciana demanded. She was a slender child and had, until summer, been nearly as tall as Carlos, but he'd gone through his first growth spurt during the fall, his formerly round face slimmed out slightly, and was now four inches taller than his little sister.

"They're just," Carlos said, with all the dignity of his thirteen years.

Alex lowered eyes at him gravely. "Your ornaments were on our first Christmas tree as a couple, and I don't intend to get rid of them. They're special to us."

"Tradition," Bobby clarified. "And you and Ana are friends. We're happy to have ornaments you made on our tree."

Carlos looked so abashed that Bobby rescued him almost immediately. "I did order some new ornaments for this year. Hold on a minute."

He took the stairs two at a time to the second floor, which doubled as an office for him as well as being the household library, and returned with a box that had arrived in the mail the previous morning. With the old switchblade he still kept in one pocket, he cut open the box to reveal yet a second box labeled "Merrie Memories." A curious Ana moved to peek inside as he carefully slit the tape and opened the lid, discovering small bundles enrobed in bubble wrap and nestled in packing peanuts. With deft fingers he unwrapped them one by one.

"They didn't have one that looked like Bandit, I'm afraid," as a small white-headed blue glass budgie was revealed, a clip-on fastener attached to its feet. "It looks like Robbie instead."

He handed it to Alex, who cradled it in her hand with a nostalgic smile, remembering her previous parakeet, a mischievous bird who used to play hide-and-seek with her, then clipped it to the highest branch of the tree, just under the star.

Next he revealed a glass tricolor collie. "It's Sam!" Ana exclaimed, gingerly handling it, and she held out the ornament for the dog to sniff, but Sam immediately lost interest when he discovered it wasn't food. Bobby selected an ornament hook from a jumbled tangle in a sandwich bag and hung it at front center of the tree.

Next came Three Wise Men—"for Three Kings Day!" said Carlos enthusiastically—and, as Bobby explained, "Since they didn't have pastelillos ornaments, I settled for burritos to represent Nochebuena," and hung those two glass figurals on the branches. Next was a poinsettia, which Alex knew he'd bought in tribute to his mother, who had loved them. In succession came St. Francis in his brown robe outstretching a hand on which perched a little blue bird; St. Patrick in memory of Johnny Eames; a basketball for the games which Bobby and his fellow volunteer Russ Jenkins supervised at Big Brothers, Big Sisters; a stack of books; a Trivial Pursuit piece; a laptop and a Fitbit clone, both for Alex; and a New York City ornament featuring the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty. He passed them to Alex, who applied hooks and scattered them around the tree, then together they hung the rest of the vintage-looking ornaments they'd bought the previous year along with the Ojo de Dios pieces. Finally, the multicolor metallic bead garlands were draped until the entire tree sparkled.

Alex had just finished tweaking the branches and then she and Mrs. Diaz were arranging a Nativity upon the glass-door DVD cabinet that sat under the flat-screen television on the wall between the two windows at one side of the living room when the doorbell rang.

"And now the other part of the tradition–" Bobby announced.

"Pizza!" Ana said with glee.

                            ***December 9, 2022***

"Alexandra Eames, is that you?"

Damn, there's no escape...

It had been such a nice morning so far, she thought with some resentment. After breakfast and her morning run with Sam while Bobby took his walk, he had gone upstairs to work while she dressed for a trip into the city. Before leaving, she'd padded upstairs and, finding the door open, Bobby's signal that he wasn't working on anything requiring a security clearance, kissed him goodbye by coiling her arms around his shoulders and nibbling his left ear. He immediately rotated in his chair to envelop her in a bear hug and gave her such a kiss in return that she wished she could split herself in two so one of her could remain behind to seduce him (but then he'd have required a second self who could stay behind and work).

"You're leaving early," he said when they could both breathe again.

"I've got a little shopping list I want to work on without you around, and then Lizzie and I are doing our annual sisters Christmas shopping. Patty's on call again and can't come," she finished regretfully, for she loved her sister-in-law. "I'll probably check in a couple of times, but I may be later than usual."

"You be careful," he said, whispering in her ear. "I want you home safe tonight."

"You know I can take care of myself," she said, mock sternly, but his concern warmed her as always. "I promise I won't talk to strangers."

Arriving in New Haven just in time for the next train into New York City, she spent the journey either making lists or reading; once at Penn Station she'd gone directly to the East Village at Broadway and 12th, planning to hand her list to one of the clerks to look up on their database—she hadn't the patience nor the time to browse as Bobby did; if he had his way, she thought fondly, it would be similar to an all-day archeological dig, only stopping for brief refreshment and quick pee breaks before plunging into stacks of books again.

Alex had once defined three classes of workplace interaction (aside from the unique bond she eventually shared with Bobby): people she liked/respected, with whom she enjoyed interacting; people she disliked (like Kenny Moran, the former blowhard Chief of Ds) but was required to deal with, whom she dealt with respectfully; and people she absolutely loathed and dealt with reluctantly. It was the last who had just greeted her inside the front entrance of The Strand, followed now by a startled, "That is you, Alex! Fancy meeting you here!"

Patrice MacMillan had her trapped and she couldn't flee without appearing rude.

"Hello, Patrice," she said, suppressing a sigh. There had been so many Patricks/Patricias and variations at the NYPD that most of them soon acquired descriptive nicknames. Patrice MacMillan, who still wore her now pepper-and-salt hair close-cropped, surrounding a freckled heart-shaped face with dark eyes and plump cheeks, had begun as a clerical assistant in ADA Ron Carver's office, quickly acquiring the sobriquet "Patti Mac," and while she was at 1 Police Plaza she became the bane of Bobby's existence. Once word spread that the "weirdo from Narcotics" was actually (a) very nice and (b) "dishy" (qualified occasionally with "Have you seen the size of his hands and feet?"), Bobby automatically had a small cadre of female admirers, Patti Mac among them. Alex had teased him about it, which he took in good humor.

Their two dates, however, had been disasters; she'd hated the well-reviewed restaurant he'd carefully chosen, and called the lively selections at the jazz club "old fart music." Her restaurant choice left him popping antacids, although he was uncertain if the indigestion wasn't caused by her verbal dissection of co-workers between courses. She eventually abandoned him at the club she insisted they go to, enjoying herself on the dance floor while he nursed a headache from the loud music and strobe lights. Feeling their tastes were too disparate, he gently rebuffed further advances. As months passed and her tongue sharpened, Bobby began to avoid her, giving her cubicle a wide berth when visiting Carver. Solely between themselves, Alex called her "Pattywack," which amused him. Near the end of Bobby's two calamitous years, right before he'd been framed for his brother's death, Patti Mac had transferred to Public Affairs, where Alex later dreaded semi-regular contact with her. Over the years she remained forthright to the point of rudeness, garrulous, opinionated, and judgmental, and was one of the people Alex had rejoiced at never having to deal with ever again.

"I haven't seen you since you retired!" Patti Mac chided, after raking Alex up and down with a critical eye, as if they had been "besties" who saw each other often. Today Alex had dressed for comfort, her puffy grey parka open over a pink and green striped sweater, wool pants, and walking shoes that would carry her all day; Patti Mac's daily outfits had always seemed designed to impress, and she would always broadly hint at the value of a certain pair of pumps or a blouse. This day she looked chilly and stressed in her Jimmy Choos and Emilio Pucci short skirt with a thin but fashionable Saks jacket topping her ensemble.

"I've moved out of the city," Alex explained, but Patti Mac had already forged on without listening, asking "Have you seen this?" while pressing a flawlessly manicured finger on a rectangular section of poster on which upcoming books were promoted—this particular one advertising spring releases from Hastings House, Random House, and Harper-Collins. Alex recognized the cover immediately, and bristled when the other woman added critically, "I saw it the moment I came in. Crazy Bob Goren has written a book."

Alex curbed her temper. "Bobby had an unusual personality, but he was never crazy."

Patti Mac gave her a pitying look. "My goodness, you still stick up for him, don't you? I don't understand how you managed to put up with all his oddities for eleven years. I would have applied for another partner—but then you did once, didn't you?"

"At first," Alex answered equably, but she'd unfortunately forgotten the long, long reach—and memory—of NYPD gossip and was irritated that Patti Mac knew about the letter she'd written early in her partnership with Bobby. "I started out working with more conventional detectives. Bobby had a bit of a learning curve, but once I managed to sync with him, we discovered we had complementary skills." Her voice sharpened slightly. "It's probably why we closed so many cases together."

Patti Mac didn't take the hint. "I don't see why you still defend him. He left you in the end."

"Working with the FBI was an extraordinary opportunity for him," Alex retorted. "He's closed some big cases for them. Last year alone he helped put a stop to a multi-state child trafficking ring operating out of Connecticut."

"Last year? So you still hear from him?" Patti Mac perked suddenly, as if ripe gossip might be in the offing. Then her eyes fell on the postcard-size promotional cards that were associated with the books featured on the poster, set on a long narrow wooden table below. Instead of being neatly stacked, the cards were in wild disorder from the curious fingers of dozens of Christmas shoppers, but she fished out the one for The Refuge, looking critically at the photo of Bobby on the reverse side. "My goodness, how he's changed since Major Case! All that grey hair and he's become rather–"

Alex said abruptly, "I find we all go through some changes as we age, don't you, Patrice?" Bobby would have recognized her now-deadly smile at once. "Bobby's actually quite fit these days. Walks two to three miles a day and works out as well. You'd be surprised how much he can bench press." A certain physical memory made her smile turn almost impish, and now Patti Mac looked surprised.

"It sounds like you see him often," she ventured, as if seeking the news for herself.

In the time it took to take several breaths, Alex reflected on change: the passage of years, the fact that neither she nor Bobby were no longer young, events both positive and not, that had occurred as time passed. But they both had changed, and emerged from hard times stronger and happier, while it was evident Patti Mac still reeked with as much discontent as she had twenty years earlier. So Alex swallowed a hasty retort, and instead smiled gently, slipping off her left glove to display her wedding ring with its four sapphire chips. "I see Bobby every single day—and every night as well. You see, we still do have complementary personalities."

Patti Mac started to speak, sputtered, and Alex finished quietly, "Bobby's not the only one who's been busy with words," and here she fished the promotional postcard for Ice Blue from the tumbled stacks on the table, and laid it in the woman's hand. "Both books will be available in late spring. I think Bobby's book is the special one, but if you buy a copy of mine, I hope you'll enjoy it. Happy holidays, Patrice."

And she disappeared into the store.

A little less than ninety minutes later, with a reusable shopping bag containing a selection of gifts for Bobby as well as a few others, she arrived at Lizzie and Steve's apartment, feeling collected once more. She and her sister had Chinese food for lunch, visited Macy's and Sak's Fifth Avenue and two small shops, slipped into St. Patrick's Cathedral for a few minutes of quiet time and Christmas music, wound their way through the crowds at the Christmas tree and the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, then returned to the apartment for hot tea and peppermint chocolate chip cookies. Her brother-in-law Steve had just arrived home from the Hibernian Club, where he ran the bar, and was in time to hear Alex relate what had happened at The Strand.

"Is the book?" Lizzie asked curiously.

"Disguised as a really ditzy secretary to the Chief of Ds," Alex admitted. "She might not even recognize herself. I couldn't believe that she was still dissing Bobby after fifteen years—she never would let up! Now I wonder if she was one of the people who passed around rumors about him." She paused. "But I felt sorry for her, too, even though she made my blood boil criticizing that photo. If you knew what it took to get it just right!"

Both promotional cards were laid on the Hogans' coffee table, and Lizzie glanced again at the back of the card for The Refuge: it was a candid shot of Bobby in an open-necked sport shirt; his greying curls were rumpled and he had a thoughtful smile on his face as he gazed toward an unknown horizon. "It's a great shot—what caused all the trouble?"

"First we did the usual 'author head shot,' with Bobby in a suit," Alex recalled, "and it came out well, but Krystine—the Hastings House publicist assigned to us—hated it. She said it was fine for a book like mine, but for The Refuge she wanted the readers to see 'the little dreamer' that Bobby had been, not a pro shot. Next Hastings House assigned a house photographer, but Krystine still wasn't satisfied. So I called up the woman who took our wedding pictures–"

"Those were wonderful! So this is one of hers?"

"You can tell, can't you? I'm glad I remembered her! She shadowed Bobby all day—told us 'Stick to your routine and ignore me.' It was a Wednesday—she took a few candids at the house between our therapy sessions, a few more pics of him while we did errands, but most were taken at Big Brothers, Big Sisters with him interacting with the kids. Then she linked her camera to the television in the meeting room and showed all the photos to the kids—she said 'they'll give us an honest answer'—and asked them which they liked best. The kids—especially Ana and Carlos—picked that one specifically. I kept my mouth shut, because it was my favorite." Reluctantly, she put her mug down. "I need to get home. You know how Bobby worries."

"Do you think he'll like the special gift?" Lizzie asked curiously. "I was surprised when you ordered it from Kaufman's. It doesn't seem to be Bobby's sort of 'thing.'"

"I hope," Alex said, but she looked pensive. "We'll see in sixteen days."

Steve escorted her to Penn Station—"I gotta grab something for Liz at Macy's anyway," was his excuse, fooling no one—and saw her off on Amtrak after she assured him that she and Bobby would return together next Friday and also on Christmas Day. She enjoyed spotting Christmas decorations during her dark drive home, but finally relaxed during the last mile down Main Street and the left turn on Courant, smiling at Bruno Volpe's house sparkling with white lights on the corner, followed by more lights...

"Bobby, what have you been up to?" she asked aloud, as if it wasn't already speaking for itself.

He must have been following her progress on his phone's Life360 app, because he appeared in the porch doorway with an expectant look on his face just as she emerged from the car.

"Been busy, haven't you, Oscar Diggs?" she said slyly, referencing his Wizard persona at Saturday and Tuesday trivia.

"A surprise for the Princess Ozma," he smiled, pulling on his coat so he could walk her around the house.

She had to admit he'd brightened the property from their simple decorations the previous year: multicolored battery-powered seed lights were added to the wreath she'd made for the front door and he'd set vintage candoliers with flickering bulbs in their bedroom and living room windows, plus wound multicolor lights around the replanted Christmas tree in front of the house. A battery-lighted wreath now also graced the porch door and another hung from the front gate, and a holly-trimmed leather strap of antique brass harness bells, an item Alex suspected came from the local antique mall, was attached to the back door, lending a silvery ring to her homecoming. Once inside, she was certain of the latter's origin when she spied the matched pair of mid-century pale green alabaster reindeer, the color of Jadite—on their last trip checking out antiques, Alex recalled passing the striking figurines and commenting on how beautiful they were–now flanking the sparkling Christmas bouquet on the kitchen table.

The kitchen smelled delightful. She took a deep breath, then said concernedly, "That candle is safe for Bandit, isn't it?"


"I smell a gingerbread candle. Or maybe it's cinnamon?"

"'s real gingerbread. I put it in the oven after Life360 said you left New Haven; it just finished." She blinked at him owlishly and he added, "It was so chilly I figured it would be a good gingerbread day." He chuckled. "It's not like it was rocket science, Alex. It's Betty Crocker—but I added extra ginger along with the egg."

Alex laughed and leaned her head momentarily against his arm. "My mother would say I was failing my basic domestic duties."

"And I'd have said to her, 'Mrs. Eames, Alex hates to cook and I don't mind doing it, so why should we have to conform to restrictive gender roles?'" he parried.

"If Mom was still with us, I would have dared you to say that to her face," Alex returned wistfully. "You know, the one thing I don't smell is dinner."

"We've both had a long day," he said. "I figured we'd let TJ feed us instead."

Now as they stood in the archway to the living room, Sam pranced up to her, wagging his tail enthusiastically, wearing a red-and-green holly bandanna around his neck. Bandit was staring with wide eyes, fascinated, at the two miniature red-and-green shiny bird ornaments that hung from the metal "eaves" of his bird cage. And a thick artificial holly and pine cone garland was entwined around the railing of the stairs to the second floor, with a big red velvet bow on the newel post.

She then tilted her head upward at one final item, a bunch of greenery tied up with red ribbon, hung in the archway. "I believe that's mistletoe, Agent Goren."

"Yes, it is, Captain Eames," he said, stifling a grin.

Bandit sprang to the side of his cage, making kissing noises when she spoke.

Bobby glanced indulgently at the happily fluffed bird. "Wait your turn, buddy" he advised.

                            ***December 13, 2022***

Once more the door to "The Wizard's Lair" was open; still, Alex knocked before entering. He looked up from a file folder, smiling because she was clad in the "All I want for Christmas is a classic car" sweatshirt his buddy Lewis had bought her the previous year. "Have you ever heard of a television talk show called Hello, Connecticut!?"

He nodded. "Clicked by it a couple of times. It's on the Hartford independent channel."

She settled on a stool next to him. "They want to interview us about our books."

"Holly did say she had begun to contact media outlets," he said. "Did you accept?"

"Of course. Why not?"

"What's the date?"

"It's already on our calendar. December 27."

"That's a bit soon, isn't it? They know the books aren't coming out until late spring, don't they?"

"They have an emergency spot to fill, and 'people can always pre-order at their favorite bookstore or on,'" Alex responded, repeating the line exactly as the man on the phone had said it to her. "They told me they'd re-promote—that was the word he used—the books when they were released."

He eyed her, knowing the significance of the date. "Will that be okay with you?"

She said quietly, "It's been two years, Bobby."

"My mother died fifteen years ago. I still hurt on the anniversary...and I know you feel that way about Joe."

She patted his knee. "Nothing can bring back the special things Mom left me, or Robbie. The interview will take my mind off the date," she added, referring to the fire that had claimed her old home and her pet bird in 2020.

He looked at his watch. "It's on at eleven. I'll take a break and we can scope it out."

In a moment he was loping down the stairs to change the channel on the television, currently on National Geographic Wild for Bandit to sing along to, while Alex followed more deliberately, wandering to the front window to look at the snow remaining from Sunday's storm. WCNT was on Channel 13, and a droning infomercial for Medicare was just ending. He took his usual place on the sofa, leaning forward with elbows propped on his thighs as he rested his chin on his fingertips. "There are very few of these local shows left except on stations with network affiliates. I've heard Hello, Connecticut! described as a real dinosaur."

The station ID flashed on the screen: "WCNT, Connecting With Connecticut" on a holly-patterned background, then a jazzy little signature tune opened the program, which featured a full-figured Latina in a cheerful red-and-green-and-white ski sweater and a red skirt, her hair sleekly coiffed and resting in ebony curls on her shoulders, and an older, silver-haired white man with the world's broadest, pearliest smile, dressed in a Fair Isle-type sweater and hunter green trousers, both seated on a nondescript plaid sofa with a coffee table fronting them, trying to appear as if they were interrupted by visitors while having their morning coffee.

The pair, Aitana Garza and Billy Torvald, opened with a recap of the day's top news stories and then chatted about Sunday's snowstorm.

"She's perky," Alex said idly as Garza discussed her wish for snow at Christmas, "but at least she doesn't come off airheaded like some of the talk hosts."

"I once heard someone at 1PP refer to you as 'perky.'"

"I'm glad you didn't tell me, because I would have killed him."

"It was a woman," responded Bobby, biting back a grin.

"Must have been Pattywack," returned Alex darkly.

Six commercials followed, bubbling with holiday cheer, then Garza and Torvald introduced their first guest, a young small-business owner who had created an educational computer program for children. Alex nodded approvingly as both hosts asked serious, intelligent questions of the man about his business and what he hoped to achieve with the computer program, instead of the "goofing off" that so annoyed her on morning talk shows. They permitted themselves to be sillier for the next segment, but this was a feature about Christmas gifts for your pets—they had one of the directors' dogs and Torvald's cat on the set to see how they reacted to the pet toys. Alex and Bobby were both laughing by the time the cat, a big orange tabby, who was supposed to be "fascinated and engaged" by an electronic cat toy, according to the promotional material, instead fled fearfully to Torvald's lap.

"She's extremely perceptive, and he has the comic relief down pat. It should be a good interview," Bobby decided by the time the half-hour show ended. "Incidentally, did Holly get back to you about the book tour?"

"I told her we'd hoped to make mostly day trips and at the longest overnight," Alex recounted, expelling a breath, "because it wasn't fair to ask Sharon to stay over every time we needed a pet sitter—although Sharon will say what she always does, that it's 'no problem.' I hate the idea of interviewing other pet sitters. But Quint Hastings is really pushing for us to do a west coast and an east coast tour."

Sam chose that moment to pad to Bobby's side and offer his head for petting. "We'll work it out."

                            ***December 24, 2022***

"...and we spent last Friday with my family, so this December's certainly been a relief!" Alex concluded as she and Carla Antonacci stood in front of the Christmas tree at the Gorens' second annual Nochebuena party. "Last year was nonstop, Dec's death and the money he'd left Bobby, Ana and Carlos needing a place to stay, and Bobby's nephew, of all people, showing up with a kid who'd escaped from his kidnapper. Like four Lifetime movies rolled into one," she joked. "My favorite memory of Christmas last year, though, is Bobby and that poor clerk at PetHaven. I can still see his face when he saw the business card and realized Bobby was FBI."

Then she smiled. "Thanks to both you and Mike for coming, Carla. I was afraid no one would show up after the storm yesterday."

Carla gave her a hug. "We wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Mike Logan made his way down the stairs just then, sauntering up to his red-headed fiancé to exchange glances with her, then raised a fork and tapped it against the glass of wassail he carried to get everyone's attention. "Hey! Listen up, guys!"

The chatter abated slightly just as Bobby ambled into the living room from the kitchen with a half-smile on his face, making Alex tilt her head at him.

"C'mon, guys!" Mike raised his voice. "We've got some news, the old lady and I."

"Oh, I like that," Carla exclaimed indignantly as people gathered around the archway and the chatter ceased, but she was biting back a smile and the way usually sardonic Mike gently reached out to take her hand, their fingers intimately threading together, made Alex twig, and she laughed aloud.

"Library Lady and I couldn't stand it any longer, so we went to City Hall this morning and tied the knot," he announced, then chuckled deeply when someone piped up "Whoa!" "Yah, I know. Me married. I couldn't believe it either."

"At least we picked a date you couldn't forget! And you don't know how hard it's been to keep that secret for the past two hours," Carla added with a grin. "May I have my wedding ring back now, lover boy? 'Old lady,' indeed!"

Logan laughed and fished in his shirt pocket just as Ron Carver turned to congratulate him, passing one ring on to Carla and donning his own, then was given a slap on the back by their old ADA from Major Case. Bobby wound through the crowd and called up the stairs for Jimmy Deakins and Joe Hannah to come down—there were so many people at this year's party that they had scattered all over the house, an NYPD contingent in Bobby's attic, Alex's family in the spare bedroom, and a mixed crowd in the tiny kitchen and small living room. In due course, Mike and Carla were receiving well wishes from all the guests, until everyone had been glad-handed.

Bobby looked at Logan sideways and said, ribbing, "I'll have to text Falacci at Quantico to tell her she owes me twenty bucks. She once bet me no one would ever marry you."

Mike snorted, "That sounds like Falacci all right," and Bobby returned to the kitchen after wishing them well and privately murmuring, "Enjoy every minute, man" to him. As he passed the spare room, Lizzie beckoned to him and whispered a few words.

Shard and TJ had brought along two of the outdoor space heaters from the Dark Crystal, which they had set on the screened porch and a few hardy souls were still sitting there, half-watching Ana and Carlos, who were bundled up against the sub-freezing weather outside playing fetch with Sam under the floodlights. Bobby could see Evelyn Carlson rising from her seat through the big pane of glass in the back door and opened it to call out, "Come on in. It's getting too cold out there, even with the heaters. Ana! Carlos! ¡Adelante!"

His nephew Donny escorted his mother through the door. "We were doing okay, Uncle Bobby."

"Speak for yourself," Evelyn retorted, nursing the cup of hot cider she carried in with her. "It was fine until the wind picked up."

Bruno Volpe, the Gorens' nonagenarian next-door neighbor, scoffed gruffly, "You weren't in Korea during the winter of 1951! This ain't nothin'."

Donny laughed. "I'm eternally glad I wasn't, Mr. Volpe. But I enjoyed your stories." He grinned at Bobby. "Maybe you ought to get Uncle Bobby or Aunt Alex to put them down in a book."

Ana and Carlos appeared to be trying to get in the porch door at the same time, their entry turned into a playful shoving match. Sam waited behind them for a few seconds, then squeezed between them to make a beeline for the stove, where Mrs. Diaz was still happily handing out Nochebuena food. Finally Carlos pushed his sister through the door first. "I'll shut off the heaters, Mr. G. What's up?"

"My sister-in-law is talking about us getting together to sing carols," Bobby said with a grin.

TJ smiled at him from the stove where he was helping Abril Diaz with the food. "Bobby, ever think you'd end up in a Hallmark movie?"

There was a wistful expression on his face when he answered, "Never in any future I ever envisioned for myself. But happy to be here."

"No one deserved this more," was TJ's sober response, then he pointed to the collie, sitting and waiting for a treat. "Could you get 'big walking carpet' out of the way, though?"

Bobby chuckled. "Here, Sam!" and produced a dog treat from his pocket. Sam took it obediently and Bobby added, "Take it to your bed. Go on." The dog's eyes widened in wistful entreaty, but Bobby repeated, biting back a grin. "Take it to your bed, Sam. Good dog," and the dog slipped away to his blanket at the foot of the staircase. As he passed, Lizzie was just emerging from the spare bedroom, calling backward to her husband, "Come on, it will be fun."

And, they admitted later, it was.

Finally time slipped away, as did the guests, but Bobby and Alex found very little to clear up except extra food, for, following Mrs. Diaz' confidential whisper, Ana and Carlos had collected and tossed all the trash and emptied the wastebaskets and left the trash bags on the back porch.

"We'll do the rest later," Bobby said as they refrigerated the few leftovers (he'd sent much of the other finger food home with Bruno and the Nochebuena specialty dishes with Mrs. Diaz and the kids). "Let's just sit."

Bandit already had his head under his wing, and Sam, tired out by the children, was sprawled flat on his dog bed, asleep, but they collapsed on the sofa by the light of the Christmas tree, Alex idly switching from channel to channel on the television.

"Stop," Bobby said suddenly, just as a long aerial shot of a metropolitan night dissolved into snowy city streets and a man played by Cary Grant strolled among throngs of Christmas shoppers, while a chorus sang "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." "This is a good one."

"The Bishop's Wife?" Alex asked curiously, consulting the cable guide.

"Mmmn," he said, eyes on the screen, his arm automatically curving around her. "Did you know Cary Grant was originally cast as the bishop?"

"No," she said with a soft smile, resting her head in the hollow between his chest and arm with happy satisfaction.

"Sorry," he said, "Slipped into annotation mode."

"Annotate away," she replied contentedly, and they watched the entire film—accompanied by Bobby's "CliffsNotes" as she termed them—as they had Casablanca over a year ago, until the credits rolled and they finally wandered to bed.

                            ***December 25, 2022***

Most of the discarded wrapping paper had been stuffed into a trash bag, Sam was gnawing on the sizable Nylabone he'd received for Christmas, and Bandit still harmonized with the Christmas carols playing on CD when it came down to the final gift under the Christmas tree. Bobby was puzzled when he unwrapped it because what was inside resembled the jewelry box containing the monogrammed bracelet he'd presented to Alex on New Year's Eve.

"I know you don't wear jewelry except for your watch and your wedding ring," she explained softly as he crumpled the wrapping paper and tossed it unerringly into the trash bag. "I thought you could hang it from your rear-view mirror or keep it on your laptop monitor—it's just that I remember what you said to me when I visited Lizzie at the beginning of the month." She kissed his cheek. "You're not getting rid of me so easily, Bobby Goren. I'm here for the duration."

In the box he found a medium-weight chain with square links in pewter tones, with a heavy pewter one-inch round medallion suspended from it. The medallion was engraved with the outline of an old-fashioned padlock: incised on the body of the padlock were their first initials, the "A" tilted to the right so that the second upright of that letter became the vertical for the "R," the two initials joined permanently. He cupped it in his hands, regarding it, then held it out to her. "Put it on for me?"

She did so, and the medallion fit under his Adam's apple perfectly, the metal warming immediately from his body heat. He touched it reflexively, adjusting to the weight. "Did you measure my neck while I slept?"

"Just paid attention to your shirt collars," she said fondly.

"I feel like Mr. T," he joked, rubbing at the chain.

"'Mr. G,'" she corrected, using the kids' nickname for him at Big Brothers. "Mr. G and me, locked together forever."

                            ***December 27, 2022***

Bobby's assessment had proved correct: their interview at WCNT had gone smoothly—they'd arrived at the Windsor Locks studio early as requested and had been invited to eat breakfast with the cast and crew, enabling them to chat informally with hosts Garza and Torvald before airtime; later on Hello, Connecticut! they were asked insightful questions, and had both been given time to read passages from the books. They'd barely left the studio when messages began to fly from family and friends about having seen the segment, or asking how they could see it, and Alex was kept busy sending links to a digital copy.

The moment they arrived home, Alex changed into comfortable clothes, Bobby lagging somewhat behind, then asked briskly, chafing her hands, "How about some coffee? So cold out there this morning!"

He appeared preoccupied, so she simply shrugged and returned to the kitchen. By the time he returned in sweats and stocking feet, she had two cups of coffee brewed and was spooning the usual dosage of sugar in hers.

"Eames," he said softly, taking his cup and adding milk to it, "can we talk?"

He sounded so serious that it perplexed her, but she simply used the milk and set it back in the refrigerator. "Sure, Bobby." She paused. "But it's okay. I saw the look on your face when Ms. Garza asked me what was next for me. I'll be fine. But thanks for jumping in reminding them to mention the book tour."

It was Bobby's turn to look puzzled. "What?"

"I know the book's finished. It's okay. Once the book tour is over, I'll start a new project. It's not like I've been working solely on the manuscript this year. I helped Abril and Viola with the Spanish book project at Big Brothers and the fall fundraising drive. And the two of us worked some of your cases together. I hope Penelope will let us keep doing it. I like keeping my hand in."

" d-did bother me for a moment—your face changed. I just–" Bobby floundered momentarily, then added, "Just for a minute...I remembered your a-apartment. I don't want–"

"I was alone then," she said regretfully, sipping at her coffee, "and stubborn." Then she smiled at him, her eyes soft. "I'm not alone any more. And I know now it's not weak of me to ask for help."

"I'm here for you, Eames," and he tapped the medallion at his throat. Wearing it still felt odd,, it spoke to him with her voice, and he didn't intend to hang it from his rear-view mirror or on his monitor. "But that isn't what I wanted to talk about." And before she could ask, he continued, "I was little disappointed. Neither she nor Mr. Torvald asked me...what I planned to do next."

"Well, she knows you still work," Alex commented, bemused. "and she must have assumed you'd just continue."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about." The copies of the books they'd brought to the WCNT studio were still laid on the kitchen table and he tapped the cover of his book. "Rereading my own words...the books I mentioned borrowing from the library...what did you notice about them?"

Alex was momentarily distracted by recalling the lush paragraphs where he'd described the vintage books at the venerable Carnegie-funded library where his mother first worked, and the building which had captured his imagination, crammed with rows upon rows of wooden bookcases, and, in passages she loved, his story of the elderly widow who volunteered there. Since her husband's death she had felt purposeless, so each day she'd walked to the library to dust the shelves and clean the worktables. Weekly she polished the checkout and reference desks and the carrels, tables, and chairs with real furniture polish, so that the interior was redolent with the scent of Johnson's Wax—to Bobby, that scent and the distinctive smell of the books represented sanctuary and happiness for him. Moreover the librarians knew the woman was on a fixed income and regularly brought in items they said they had "cooked too much of" or to share so that tiny Eileen Muldoon would be certain of a hot meal at least once a day. Bobby, all of ten years old, picked up on this kindness, and it comforted him knowing how his mom and the other staff treated her.

She tore her mind away from that very scene, which he had read aloud that morning, and ventured, "What I noticed was that the majority of the books took place in foreign countries—the Yukon adventures, Emil and the Detectives, the Scoville books where the boys and the professor explored South America and Africa, the Narnia books—or were set in 'exotic' places in the United States—at least for city kids like us!—the Everglades or a turpentine operation in the Carolinas or Oregon lumber camps–"

"I wanted to see all those places someday, not just read about them," Bobby explained intensely. "It's why I joined the Army; not just the educational opportunities, but the prospect of going overseas. Other guys begged for stateside duty; I was the opposite. And my dad—the guy who couldn't stay home to save his life!—once had the nerve to ask, 'Why do you want to go to all those joints, Bobby? Better you stick around here.'" Bitterness edged his voice for a moment. "Sure, 'stick around,' so he could go off gallivanting with his latest conquest while I tended to Mom."

Then the resentment dissolved. "But my mom understood—on her good days, she'd pat my shoulder and say, 'You go, Bobby. See the world while you're young. And send me postcards. Tell me about it.' Just as if I were Capote's 'Buddy' at military school sending his cousin Sook letters. So whenever I had leave, I did all the sightseeing I could, and sent her postcards like she asked, from Germany, Korea, even that short time at Oxford." He chuckled reminiscently. "My mom kept all of them—they were in a box in her closet when I cleaned out her room at Carmel Ridge."

Alex finished her coffee, then extended her right hand toward him. He laid his left hand on top of it, then continued, "When my tour was over I came home, finished my education, burned to solve more 'puzzles,' went to the police academy, buried myself in my work—and you know how deep I dug that hole. So here I am, at 62 finally feeling secure, with a potential traveling companion who's free to explore, and...where am I? Holed up in the attic buried in my files. You asked me last Christmas if I ever thought of retiring–"

She protested, "Only because that child trafficking case was disturbing you so much. You still love your work, Bobby, and there's no reason you can't–"

"I do still love my work. But The Refuge has reminded of my dreams. Next year I want to reduce my workload, and I'm going to ask Phil if he'll sub for me a few more times at the Dark Crystal." He tilted his head with a wistful smile. "When the book tour's over, I want us to go wandering, Eames, like we did two months ago—and not just to museums. I'm sure there are plenty of pet-friendly hotels where Bandit can practice his flirting."

She laughed spontaneously, recalling the rest area encounter on their autumn vacation. "And you can gather a harem–" Then she sobered and laid her left hand atop his own. "I would be very happy to be your traveling companion and partner in crime—so to speak—for whatever adventures are in store for us." She paused and then added darkly, "So long as it doesn't involve homicidal Australians or 'good ol' boys' with persecution complexes."

He said gravely, setting his remaining hand over hers, "I'm hoping our Harry Cavanaugh days are done for."

"All through the interview this morning I realized these books are going to change our life," Alex said, pensive. "Maybe they won't be bestsellers, but—traveling around, promoting them...we'll see new things, make some friends, I'm sure. We might meet people, though, who still don't trust law enforcement—after 2020, who could blame them? Billy Torvald told me they received a couple of negative comments when they promoted Ice Blue on Facebook. We may have signings where no one shows up, or people protest."

They were silent for a minute, then she added, "I was thinking...if there are profits...we ought to do something like we did with Dec's money–"

"You always say I read your mind, now you're reading mine," he said with a smile. "Maybe donate a percentage? I was thinking of the Neuroblastoma Childrens Cancer Society."

"In Kendra's name?"

"Even better."

"Then we'll talk with Tony," Alex said briskly, referring to her attorney, "and set it up after the first."

He looked down at the table, then chuckled indulgently. "Well, there's at least one good omen for the future."

"What?" she asked, puzzled, seeing only the tower made by their stacked hands.

"I get to bat first," he said with a grin.

                            ***December 31, 2022***

"A what?" Alex wasn't certain she'd heard correctly.

"A tour bus," replied Holly Lewin, her image pixelating momentarily on their Zoom connection.

Bobby tilted his head inquisitively. "So we'd a rock band?"

"Why not? You both rock."

Alex made a face. "Six months ago she was the comma martinet. Now that the book's finished, she's making Dad jokes."

Alex's and Bobby's editor simply laughed. Her mostly silvered dark hair was scraped into a bun, and, like editors of old, she liked to stick a pencil over one ear although she chiefly edited digital documents these days. Bobby felt kinship with her every time he saw her desk, which was a magpie's nest of folders, manuscripts, several containers of writing implements, a half-eaten sandwich, an orange, and a copy of the current "New York Times." "It solves the problem, doesn't it? Zes thinks it's a great idea—took some convincing to get Quint on his side, but now he's on board, too. No need for a pet sitter—in fact, Quint thinks the dog would be a great draw. You'd have your own driver and between gigs you can sightsee. How about it?"

Alex mentally translated the publishers' names; like the Eames family in police work, Hastings House was a legacy publisher, the original Quentin Hastings having been born in 1858. "Quint" was Quentin Hastings V, the current CEO, a year older than herself and very traditional, and "Zes" (otherwise "Quentin VI") was in his mid-30s, his father genially referring to him as the world's only Millennial Hippie.

"You'll need FBI clearance for the driver," Bobby reminded her, and Holly nodded sagely. "Pity being bonded isn't enough. Let Krystine know who at the Bureau to call. It has to be easier than getting clearances for two dozen hotels."

"I'll get back to you with contact info after the first," Bobby responded. "Why are you working New Year's Eve, Holly?"

"Working? Heaven forbid. I'm calling on my own time because I wanted to wish you two a Happy New Year," she chuckled. "When I hang up, I'm donning my best glad rags and heading as close to Times Square as I can. Every year I curse the crowds, and every year I go back. What about you two?"

"Special edition New Year's Eve trivia. We have my family coming in and Mike and Carla Logan. Mike and Carla are staying at the Travelodge, but the family will be camping out at our house," Alex explained. "My brother Jack doesn't have to be back at work until eleven on Monday night, so we'll have a long weekend."

"Six people using one bathroom," Bobby added, amused.

"Time to start thinking about that addition again?" Holly laughed. "You could have it done while you're on the road."

"Oh, no–" Alex began just as Bobby said firmly, "Not without Alex's supervision!" He shrugged and continued. "With the office out in the yard, the house is fine. It's just the two of us, after all."

"Suit yourself," Holly said jauntily. "Have a safe and happy New Year. I'll be thinking of you when 2023 kicks in."

Bobby signed off, then asked curiously, "Did you ever go to the ball drop?"

"When I was a lot younger. Joe took me when we were dating. We had one evening off together between us during the holidays and we spent it elbow-to-elbow in Times Square. We had a great time...I remember laughing most of the night, but we didn't get home until almost four, and God, did I need to pee!" She looked at him fondly. "You spent your New Year's Eves with your mom, didn't you?"

He nodded. "The excitement and the fireworks outside unsettled her. Most of the time we'd play Scrabble. Having to concentrate on making words calmed her down."

"Seems to have worked well for her son, too." She regarded him thoughtfully. "Bobby...those post cards you sent your mom? I'd love to see them. We could check them out once everyone goes home. You never know—maybe there's another book in them." Then she glanced at her Fitbit. "So, we have about four hours before people start arriving and we need to walk Sam before heading over to the Crystal."

He ran his forefinger under her chin. "Want to watch Casablanca?"

She smiled. "Why not? I can't think of a better way to celebrate as time goes by."


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