***March 15, 2022***
"Sam, stop. Sit."
Ten feet away, the oversized tricolor collie halted and dropped to a sit, watching for the next command.
"Sam," and she pointed with index and middle finger toward the fence, "go."
He rose and ambled ten more feet until she once again commanded, "Sam, stop. Sit," and once again he dropped hindquarters, expectant eyes fixed on her.
"Alexandra Eames," said a female voice behind her, "are you training a recruit for a K9 unit?"
Alex wheeled to face the dark-haired woman standing on the sidewalk between her and the front gate, noting the sedan parked at the curb. "Liv?"
Olivia Benson smiled. "I wasn't sure I'd find either of you at home. You're busier retired than most working people."
"We only have trivia tonight," Alex returned, amused. "It's one of our less busy days. Tomorrow would have been therapy and volunteering, so you picked the better day."
"Sam, come!" she added, and the collie bounded joyously past her, to dance in front of Benson, nose working rapidly.
"Sam, greet!" said Alex, and once again the collie sat, offering Benson his right paw.
"What a well-mannered fellow you are," Benson praised, shaking the dog's paw, and his tail waved happily, but he remained in his stance.
"He has to be, or there's no therapy dog cert in his future," and Alex smoothed the dog's head before giving Benson a quick hug of greeting, taking in her clothing: tailored navy blue pantsuit, white blouse, high heels. "What's pried you out of the city today? Looks official."
Benson explained, "I had a case a month back with ties to Hartford, and needed to give a deposition at the county courthouse this morning. Noah's at school, so I thought why not make a day of it?" She looked at the intensely blue sky overhead. "What a day for being outside! It's like June."
"That's why Sam and I are taking advantage of it." Temperatures were in the high sixties, and Alex was wearing one of the t-shirts given out by the Dark Crystal restaurant and bar on Main Street, and a pair of jeans and running shoes, with her hair clipped back.
"Bobby upstairs working?"
"Actually, no. He finished a job on Sunday, and he's not taking any other work because we're leaving Friday to finally take the honeymoon COVID-19 spoiled in December."
"And what's the destination? Bermuda? Virgin Islands? A cruise?"
"Not a chance. Bobby hates the beach, and, to be honest, I've never been a 'cheeseburger in paradise' type girl. Left on my own, I might go hiking." She smiled at her friend, still currently Captain of the NYPD's Special Victims Unit. "I'm taking my husband to the Smithsonian, after a few nights at a B&B in the Blue Ridge. I found one where the owners are mystery buffs and the rooms are named after noted crime writers. I booked the Agatha Christie Room, which should pique Bobby's interest, and we'll get in some good walks there." She thumbed at the back yard. "He's out back, and has been for three hours, working on a 'surprise.' One of the innumerable 'surprises' he's presented me in the past four months."
Benson looked at her with warm eyes. "Making up for lost time?"
Alex smiled fondly. "It makes him happy. My therapist points out hundreds of spouses would love to be treated the way Bobby treats me." She glanced down at her Fitbit. "It's time he came up for air, though. We're having company in a little while and going out for lunch. You'll come with us? Please?"
"If we're going back to the Dark Crystal, that would have to be a 'yes,'" Benson laughed. "What does Mr. Gomes put in his wings? I think it's addicting."
"That's the other reason Sam and I were out here working. I'm getting saddlebags on my hips from TJ's potato skins!"
"Nonsense," Benson said. "You look wonderful."
Alex lowered her head, biting her lip. "Certainly better than this time last year."
"Hence the therapist?" Benson asked gently.
"That...started out being about my nine months of self-imposed sequestration. I could understand it on a surface levelthe pandemic. The summer of 2020. George Floyd. My retirement. The house fire. I had a lot to work through. But Dr. Chaudry's very good. She's so good I realized I was angry at myself."
"At yourself? None of what happened was your fault."
"None of those." Alex settled at the edge of one of the concrete front steps. "I...felt like I'd fallen in the 'Sleeping Beauty' trope and I've always despised it. You know, guy kisses girl, all of a sudden her life blossoms. Total bullshit! But suddenly Bobby's back in my life and it's like...the sun came out. I was hungry again...I noticed how depressing my apartment was...the day after we made love I had to force myself not to go running back. I yelled at myself: 'You can't do that, Alex! It's weak of you!' Then just when I'm about to pat myself on the back for making it through the day without turning tail, Bobby shows up at my apartment."
Her fingers toyed with the cross at her throat. "Of course I expect the usual joke when I say I was already headed backthe 'you know you can't live without me' line guys all fall back on. Instead he admits that he missed me. And I thought, 'What is it about me that I can't own up to how I feel?' It took a few more sessions to realize that the happiest times of my life, besides having been married to Joe, were when I was working with Bobbyeven with our bad patches. He wasn't some prince who removed a magic spell, and I didn't surrender, I wasn't weak. I could finally admit that I was here because it made me happy."
She watched Benson's expression flicker as she spoke, then joked, "Listen to me, I'm starting to sound like him, too. Pontification 101."
Now she stood back up again, stretching, adding, "Remember me telling you about the kids who stayed with us in December, Carlos and Luciana? You'll get to meet them at lunch. Their grandmother has a couple of appointments and we'll watch them until Mrs. Diaz and Mrs. Perrino get back. Fair warning, though: Ana will probably want to bend your ear. After assisting Bobby with his case in December, she says she wants to be a 'police lady' and help people."
Benson said thoughtfully, "The first thing I'd tell her is that there are many ways to 'help people' besides being a police officer."
"Oh, I've tried that. It's better coming from you, someone who's still working. She's very impressed by Kate Shadley, the local officer who helped out when her grandmother was ill. Of course, Ana's ten. She'll probably want to be a half-dozen other things before she heads for college. Not everybody is as single-minded as I was."
"I'll be respectful, but truthful."
"As if you could be anything else!" Alex smiled then. "I don't remember if I told you about Mrs. Diaz and Mrs. Perrino. My next-door neighbor suddenly had no one to fuss over after I left Southbury. At our Christmas party, she started talking to Mrs. Diaz, the kids' grandmother, working around the fact that Mrs. Diaz speaks limited English and Viola knows only a little Spanish. Now Viola takes Mrs. Diaz to her doctors' appointments, she's learning Spanish, and Mrs. Diaz is practicing her English plus getting good exercise at Silver Sneakers. It couldn't have worked out betterI tease them that they're a geriatric Thelma and Louise."
Benson chuckled at the image that brought to mind, then curiously inclined her chin toward the back yard. "Any idea what's going on out back?"
"Partially. Bobby's working on the shed. We've been discussing enlarging the house, but there's a problem with laying the plumbing in the way we'd want to bump out the walls, so we're going to have to rethink the design. But we figured that while the weather's good, why not use the shed out back for an office? It has power, the front's glassed in, with screens for summer, and it was painted recently. All we need are curtains and curtain rods; we can even put a couple of space heaters out when it gets chilly. The internet people tell us they can install a repeater so we get a decent wifi signal. Bobby and I can work, I can write"
"Waityou're working with Bobby now?"
"On two out of his three last jobs. Penelope Saltonstall likes me; she gave me the go-ahead when Bobby finished the trafficking case."
"And your book?"
"The preliminary version's finished, and Shard has a friend at Hastings House looking at it. Unfortunately she wants Bobby to provide 'psychological insights' on some of the perps, little two-page 'inserts' between chapters, and he stubbornly insists it's 'my book,' not his. You know Bobby and his principles. I'm wearing him down, though. Anyway, while we wait, come inside, we'll have lemonade, and you can meet Bandit."
"Bobby got me a parakeet for Christmas. Or...maybe we rescued him; it's a funny story."
At that moment Robert Goren's enthusiastic shout came from the back yard. "Eames! I'm finished! Check it out!" and Benson chuckled. "So he still calls you that?"
"When he's feeling affectionate." Alex smiled almost to herself, then added, "Makes me all squidgy inside," and now Olivia laughed aloud.
They circled the dark-grey, white-trimmed house, crossing a lawn still in its winter drab brown, an occasional dead leaf crunching underfoot, Sam romping at their sides, and Alex called, "We have company!"
"Are Carlos and Ana early? I hope so, I'm starved," he responded as they came in sight; in anticipation he was standing between the big maple tree and the shed behind it. His head tilted, and then he grinned broadly in recognition. "Olivia Benson!" and he crossed his arms in front of his chest. "What's pried you out of the city today?"
"I do occasionally leave Manhattan, you know," Benson said tartly. "Just finished up some business so I can have a little pleasure."
Alex shook her head. "Bobby, you're a mess."
He looked down at himself, palms outspread. His worn t-shirt was spattered in paint, jeans and old sneakers scattered with paint flecks and sawdust, hair rumpled with additional flecks of dirt, and hands coated with a mixture of paint and grime. He grinned, rubbed at his left ear, and replied, "You'll see why."
Rather than use the shed behind the house Bobby had rented almost two years earlier for tool storage, the previous owners had seemingly intended it as a faux summerhouse, fronted with large glass windows bracketing a narrow glassed-in door, all three which could be swapped out for screens. The screened window at back also could be opened. Previously unpainted inside, with only a bench running the length of the back wall of the 10x10 structure and a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling, it had recently been upgraded by an electrician who swapped the bulb for track lighting, and, a week earlier, during another warm spell, painters had tackled both the exterior of the house and the exterior and interior of the shed. It was then Bobby had asked her to bypass the outbuilding until he had a project finished.
"When did you get those?" she asked curiously, pointing at the circular Pennsylvania Dutch "hex signs" mounted under either window. One was a design of oak leaves and acorns in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and brown; the other was a six-petaled flower in green and blue with red hearts between the petals.
"While you were in the ladies' room at Pennsylvania Pantry, the day we visited Dec," he responded to her surprise. "They were for sale at the register. The oak design is 'strength, health, and long life,' and the other is 'love and romance.'"
Benson bit back a smile at the face Alex wore as she shot a glance sideways with an "I told you so" expression. "And that?" indicating the metal horseshoe hung correctly as a "U" shape over the door.
"Joelle. Slipped it in your bag with the Christmas flowers and the parts for the Ojo de Dios."
"And this," Alex said dryly to Benson, "is why you should avoid a husband who knows sleight of hand."
But to Bobby, pleased, she added, "You really have set everything up."
"I said it was finished," and he extended his arm in an "after you" gesture, following them inside with Sam beside him.
The painters had rendered the interior a pale sage green, the floor a slate color, the interior roof a reflective gloss white. A walnut-finish desk was set before each window, each with its own office chair, power supply, fan, wastebasket, and office accessories. A colorful all-weather rug centered the space. The side walls were bare, but Bobby had mounted a picture hook on either wall for future art. On the floor were the remains of his final project: a rolled-up length of clear plastic tarp covered in paint spatters, a now closed can of pale blue paint, and a black paint pen, and Alex tilted her head upon seeing themuntil she checked out the bench on the rear wall. It had been completely repainted pale blue, and in the middle was a small inscription done with the paint pen in Bobby's backhanded handwriting: 10/12/2021.
Benson saw Alex's eyes fill with tears, but whatever what might have happened next was interrupted by the sound of youthful shouting and Sam leaping out the open door, barking. Alex said hastily, "That sounds like Carlos and Ana," and headed back outside, leaving Olivia Benson with an odd smile on her face and Bobby looking a bit abashed.
"You got some mileage out of that surprise," she said, intrigued by the reaction.
Bobby glanced down at the bench, eyes gone soft and a wistful smile with it, rocking back and forth on his heels. "It's where I kissed her for the first time, and when. Well, a first 'real' kiss. The other two were farewells and didn't count."
Benson repeated her question to Alex. "Trying to make up for lost time?"
"That's not possible," he said, with a minute shake of his head. "But when you get to be my age...you start thinking. Too many years with things left unsaid. Missed chances. Squandered moments. Lost time. A reminder that there's only one turn..." and here he met her eyes, "... around the ballroom of life. The date's there so I don't forget."
"You stay out of my head, Bobby Goren," she warned, chin lifted.
"I wasn't aware I was there at all," he said innocently.
Outside the windows, Carlos and Ana appeared at a run, with Sam romping around them. They were kicking a soccer ball between them, and Sam would pounce on it, then let it go until one of them kicked it again, lolling his tongue in joy. Alex strode behind them, a pleased expression still on her face.
Bobby crossed to the door, calling out, "I'm going inside to shower and dress, then it's time for lunch. When will your abuela be back?"
"Same story as always, Mr. Gwhenever they finish talking," Carlos said with a grin, then fielded the ball Ana directed toward him.
"If they're not back by five we'll have to send a search party," Bobby shouted back, then smiled at Benson. "I won't be long."
He hurried down the steps of the shed, pausing briefly to kiss Alex on the forehead, keeping her at arms' length from his paint-spattered outfit, then strode toward the house. Alex mounted the steps into the shed, giving a misty look to the bench.
"So," she asked with a familiar tilt to her head, "how are...'things' in the city?"
"Not one more word, Alexandra," Benson said crisply, but Alex looked amused as her friend glanced toward the rear of the shed one last time before they walked back out into the warm spring sunshine.