Southern Texas, outside of Houston
The young woman spurred her horse even faster as the wind blew wildly around her kicking up more than just dust. Her buckskin mare resisted her direction to move forward down the dirt trail at first.
But the young woman knew that they didn't have much time. So she squeezed her heels and yelled at Brandy to get moving again. Her dark hair streamed behind her as she tried to keep her eyes off the clouds that had moved from the horizon and darkened the sky.
She saw the faint sheen of green and knew they were in trouble. Summer thunderstorms weren't uncommon in southern Texas but then neither were tornados. She had no desire to get caught out in the middle of one so they were heading to the barn due west that had an old storm shelter. But it didn't look like she had much time and she still hadn't found her friend. He'd been out tending fence on the other side of the ranch. She'd volunteered to help him and the other hands do that and had been busy at it all day.
Looking up she saw the sky completely blacken, and she knew that rain and then hail would follow and then a tornado. She clucked to Brandy to run faster but this time the mare needed no prompting and picked up her cadence until she saw the familiar outline of the barn ahead. The two of them in tandem crossed the final pasture reaching it just as the first drops began to fall. She dismounted quickly before the mare completely stopped and then slapped her flank to get her to run to safety. Then holding her hat on her head, she ran towards the wooden just above the ground next to the barn.
"We don't have much time…"
She thought at first that was her friend and relief filled her that he had made it safely but as she turned to face him, she saw someone else. Someone equally familiar to her, the ranch foreman who opened the door against a gust of incoming wind as dust, leaves and other objects began to swirl around.
She followed him down the stairs to the shelter as the door slammed shut on both of them leaving them to sit there and wait until it passed.
About ten years later….
The sunlight shone brightly over the city of the Angels, which meant it was the perfect day for a barbecue. Even if it was held on the rooftop of one of Century City's tallest office buildings, where in a couple of hours over 100 people would congregate to welcome back an old friend. The decorators had arrived earlier to begin to transform the office suite into the perfect spot to do just that.
Matt and Uncle Roy got out of the elevator and entered the lobby of the penthouse suite which housed their private investigation agency. Usually a line of secretaries rushed up to meet Matt as soon as he set foot inside the lobby but today they were focused on all the activity that was done in anticipation of the party.
Buffet tables with all kinds of refreshments were set up and Chris had been working on the sound system to play country western of course to match the cowboy theme of the event. There would be room next to the helipad for those guests who were so moved to kick up their heels and dance.
The guest of honor would be one of Matt's buddies Tex Winston who had been the ranch foreman for some years on his daddy's ranch and now headed a successful corporation dealing in real estate, not to mention owning more than a half dozen horse farms and ranches. He had dropped in L.A. to look into a business deal that would involve his company, a couple others and potentially a subsidiary of Houston Enterprises. They had even talked about forming a partnership and so far, the president of operations, Murray Chase had given that plan high marks.
Matt and Roy had just returned to town after successfully completing another investigation, tracking down and returning some stolen jewelry to a countess who had been staying in San Francisco. They had to help the police and Interpol crack a theft ring to do that and they celebrated in good style on the flight back to L.A. A half dozen prospective clients had contacted them during the flight to set up meetings to track down their missing jewelry.
The two of them had been working back to back cases for the past six months, virtually nonstop since Matt's engagement to Elizabeth had gone kaput. He told himself he did it to address his caseload but he also did it to keep busy and move on with his life. But since his uncle had joined him in the business, he had found that their partnership had led to even greater success. He had even thought about hiring additional investigators to handle his caseload.
Matt hit the wet bar and poured a glass of Scotch before he went to the roof to supervise the barbecue. He'd flown in Tex's favorite brand of beef just for the occasion and pretty soon, he'd be cooking it up, the least he could do for a man who taught him so much. The guy who had mentored him while he'd grown up on his daddy's ranch and now was interested in partnering with one of his subsidiaries. But they'd talk business later and party first.
Roy carried out a bag of charcoal and a glass of his freshly squeezed mango juice.
"How's it looking?"
Matt looked over at his uncle as he dropped the sack.
"Almost ready to cook more than a hundred pounds of prime beef," Matt said, "but nothing but the best for Tex."
Roy nodded and stood beside him as Matt sipped his drink.
"Your daddy hired him when you were growing up," Roy said, "made him foreman after he proved to be a quick study."
"Yeah he did and he taught me everything I know about ranching."
Tex had worked on his daddy's ranch until Matt had headed off to Rice University and he had gone into business for himself. It hadn't taken him long to be a major success and Matt had read about his accomplishments in the financial publications. But when he and Matt caught up with each other, they had always talked about life back on the ranch
"Looks like it's going to be a great homecoming," Roy said.
Matt nodded because the guests would be arriving soon not long before Tex himself would believing he was attending a business meeting.
Roy sipped from his glass.
"So where's C.J.?"
"She's working late on one of those cases she's picked up," he said, "She should be here later."
C.J. put down her phone after she talked to a prospective client about how to fill out a temporary restraining order against her boyfriend. What she wanted to include in her legal advice was a referral to her kickboxing instructor who could teach the woman some really useful skills but she stuck to the issue of the restraining order. She heard a joke more than once at the clinic. What's a TRO someone would ask, to which someone else would answer, a piece of paper with writing on it. Not really all that far from the truth, C.J. knew but she had to keep her opinions on the matter to herself.
She looked around the crowded office building from her cubicle at all the activity around her. Other attorneys and paralegals who also volunteered at the free legal clinic just like she did a couple afternoons a week and they seemed to love it just as much as she did. Following the advice of her sorority sisters, Carolyn and Maureen had proven to be the right move to make, it certainly got her mind off of other things. Like how her relationship with her best friend Matt had changed since his uncle arrived in town a year ago and Matt's busted engagement about six months after that. Since she had started working with him at Houston Enterprises and then his investigative firm, they had been partners through thick and thin but no she felt as if Roy had taken over that role at least with the investigative firm.
That and a new flavor of the week in the form of various women in distress who had walked in and out of Matt's life including his fiancée Elizabeth. After all, hadn't Matt rescued her from some crisis too? But she was long gone, after some psycho with a grudge against Matt had crashed the wedding and the bride had finally thrown up her hands and said, enough.
But with all the changes, C.J. decided she needed to explore her options and one of them was that she wanted to do more with her law degree. When she'd been growing up back in Texas, she and her best friend Julia had wanted to start a law firm to help women in need of good legal counsel but Julia had gotten sick and dropped out of Harvard School of Law. She had created a charitable foundation to help women and children and accomplished a lot of great things up to the day she died not too long ago.
During the last real case she and Matt had worked together. Except for the brief period of time she put into that extortion case which nearly got her and her latest convertible blown sky high. She wondered if that had anything to do with why she'd spent most of her company time in her office.
Olivia walked up to her carrying a stack of files on her way to her office. She smiled at C.J. who returned to typing on her laptop.
"So you got her straightened out on the paperwork she needs for court?"
"Yeah…she'll need to take it to the judge," C.J. said, "but I think there's grounds for its approval."
"So how many more cases are you working on?"
C.J. paused. She had picked up a couple extra ones when she first arrived.
"About six, though I'm ready to close out two from last month," she said, "so I can handle a couple more."
Olivia just shook her head at her.
"You really enjoy putting in this time?"
"Yeah I do," she said, "It's been a while since I've done this kind of law and I think I missed it."
"Well, you've been a godsend," Olivia said, "We've really enjoyed having you here."
"It's a nice break from the routine," C.J. said, "I've been doing mostly office work since Roy's moved here and I've done that kind of work since I started there. I needed to break that routine."
Olivia looked at her carefully.
"Did you tell him how you feel about needing a change?"
"He and Roy have been out of town on a case past couple of weeks," she said, "and they work great together. It's nice to see that they healed the estrangement between their families."
And C.J. meant that, it's just that she missed her close partnership with Matt and how they'd worked on cases together. Even when the work had been dangerous, and actually that added a bit of thrill to what they did. They'd both had faced being patched up from bullet wounds and other injuries but then they both had attracted danger in their romantic relationships.
"But he's back in town now isn't he?"
"Throwing a party for an old friend," she said, "I'm supposed to be there soon."
Olivia smiled at her.
"Why don't you head on out now," she said, "Not much left to do here now."
C.J. sighed, picking up a stack of folders.
"Because he's not my friend…"
Matt looked around for his friend but couldn't find her. The party was in full swing, the guest of honor was the center of attention but C.J. hadn't yet arrived yet to join in the festivities. She had told him earlier that she might be late but that she'd show up if she could get away. Matt had responded that he hoped she would make an effort to appear, that Tex would be disappointed if she didn't show up.
He hadn't seen much of his best friend in recent weeks. But then he and Roy had been handling some cases including the recent jewelry heists. She'd been busy during her off time working at a Legal Aid clinic in downtown helping people with her expertise. Chris had told him that she had really gotten into her volunteer work and spent more and more time there handling cases.
Tex stood in the middle of the lounge area nursing a Scotch and talking to a couple of guests. Roy walked up to Matt.
"Looks like the guest of honor's having a good time," he said, "I'd say this shindig was a success."
Matt sipped his own drink.
"He's really done well for himself," he said, "and it's going to help us out with that project."
"Murray's really excited about it."
Matt nodded, remembering how animated his corporate president had been when he'd found out and how enthusiastic he's been ever since. He saw him right now entertaining two young women no doubt with his anecdotes about some of the business traveling he'd done for the conglomerate. One person was still missing here…
"I wonder what's keeping C.J."
"I hadn't seen her," Roy said, "Maybe she's tied up with the clinic or in traffic."
Matt thought that was certainly possible but then again, she hadn't been all that enthusiastic about the party or showing up. But then she'd been a bit distant when he had shared with her his partnership with Tex and the plans for the company. Always trying to change the subject or saying she had something to do. She kept up all her work at the office and that part of the agency had been running smooth as silk, it's just that he didn't see her as often as he'd like and the time they spent together had decreased even more so since his aborted wedding.
"Hi Matt, so this is where you've been hiding."
He looked up to see Crystal walking towards him in a cocktail dress. They had gone out a couple of times for dinner but there hadn't been much in the way of sparks between them.
"Enjoying the party?"
"Texas barbecue is cute but it's really not my thing," she said, "but I've got this great club we can check out."
Now he knew it wasn't going to work out between them. Matt loved nothing more than barbecuing with his closest friends, enjoying great food and kicking back and having a good time. It helped to relieve the stress of the day job and it reminded him of growing up on the ranch back home.
"No thanks Crystal," he said, "After the party I'm heading on home. Got an early morning business meeting…"
She frowned and then walked off. Matt had put himself back in circulation about a month after his broken engagement and it had been like he hadn't ever left only it asn't as fulfilling as it had been…maybe he had liked being in a steady relationship too much even though it hadn't worked out.
He walked up to where Tex had been talking to some folks but now he stood alone. He smiled when he saw Matt.
"Great party…You are definitely your father's son."
"Well my daddy always loved a good barbecue with friends and even some enemies."
"I remember when he held one for that company that outbid him on that well project," he said, "Wanted to show there were no hard feelings."
"They wound up joining up on a project later on that made them both a lot of money."
Tex slapped Matt on the back and shook his head.
"I really miss Bill but he raised a great son," he said, "but where's your better half?"
Matt still didn't know.
"She had some work to finish at the clinic where she volunteers but she really should have been here by now."
"I'm sure she's just lost track of the time," Tex said, "You know how she gets when she's busy on something."
"Yeah she does that sometimes still."
Tex sipped his drink.
"How's she doing anyway," he said, "She ever find someone or is she too busy working."
Matt stroked his chin with his thumb.
"No she's been focusing on her work here and at the clinic."
Tex shook his head.
"All work and no play…she's certainly pretty enough, always has been."
Matt couldn't argue with that. She was a pretty girl who had ripened into an even more beautiful young woman. But C.J. never seemed to notice that much, she had always been focused on her intellectual gifts.
Not that she had ever lacked for a man's attention and like him had loved people she'd lost to a killer and although unlike him she'd never been engaged, she'd been close a couple of times. Lately, she'd spent a lot of her free time with some old friends including her sorority sisters Maureen and Carolyn, going out for drinks and dancing or concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.
Some weekends when he'd been out of town on a case, she'd stayed on his ranch and rode the horses there, up into the hills where at the top lay a panoramic view of the valley. He felt tension arise in him as he once again reminded himself that he hadn't seen as much of her as he would have liked. The dinners out at their favorite eateries, spending hours talking and laughing, and occasionally out on the dance floor. Her body molded to his in a slow dance, her head against him, his hands resting on her back.
Not enough times like those in a while and he kept telling himself he would remedy that if he could get her to stand still for long enough to tell her.
But all he knew right now was she wasn't here and it didn't look like she was going to make an appearance at all.
C.J. leaned back in her chair at the Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica, sipping from her margarita Not that there would be too many of those because she had to drive home after all. Maureen and Olivia had joined her for after hours food and drinks after they had all finished the cases they'd been working on at the clinic and saw how late it had become.
She knew she should have gone to the shindig back at the office that Matt threw for Tex, because she told him she'd drop by there after she was finished at the clinic. But she couldn't get in her car and head on down there. No, she just didn't feel like it suddenly and instead accepted an invite with her friends to go to the restaurant. They'd eaten the highly renowned tamales and sipped their margaritas talking about their social lives.
Maureen had started dating again after finding out that her last boyfriend who told her he was separated from his wife had returned to her. Olivia had reunited with an old boyfriend at a high school reunion and wondered if she might be leaving L.A. C.J.'s love life wasn't nearly so complicated. She'd had relationships with a couple guys since she found out the man she loved, Robert Tyler, was a cold-blooded killer. But they hadn't lasted long because she'd just become so buried in her volunteering at the clinic.
"I'm going to get another tattoo…"
Both C.J. and Olivia looked at Maureen who had made that sudden proclamation. Maureen nodded in response.
"It's going to be butterfly this time."
Her first one had been a rose on her ankle, though C.J. noticed that most of the work had gone into designing and filling in the subtle shades of coloring for the thorny stem than the ruby red petals on the flowers. A commentary by Maureen on her love life, clearly.
Hopefully the butterfly symbolized the reemergence of her friend from her pessimism that she'd never find a man who got her and her crazy schedule. C.J. didn't think Maureen would have much trouble because she was very attractive, funny and always up for a good time despite her no-nonsense professionalism.
Maureen had even dated Matt for a couple of months but it hadn't worked out though the two were still friendly.
"Why don't you join us C.J.," Maureen coaxed, "Don't you want a tattoo?"
C.J. shook her head.
"I can't think of any image on my body I'd want to look at the rest of my life," she said, "but Maureen if you want one, I think you should go for it."
"Already made my appointment," she said, "Ivory's doing it, she's the best on the Westside."
Olivia shook her head.
"So what if you do go out again and get naked with some guy," she said, "and he takes one look at it and doesn't like it?"
Maureen shrugged, sipping her margarita.
"That's his problem then," she said, "I like it and that's what matter. I'm through trying to do what the men want."
Olivia clapped her hands.
C.J. was happy that her friend had decided to stop pleasing men at her own expense. If it took her getting a new tattoo to celebrate that decision, then more power to her. She sipped her drink, trying to remember the last time she'd been out with a guy. After breaking off with Jack, she'd been asked out by a couple of lawyers she ran into at various court appearances and functions but had turned those invites down. She just had been so focused on what she'd been doing and the men who had asked her out hadn't shown enough to cause her to reenter the dating game.
She hadn't even had time to spend with her best friend but then their lives had diverged before when she'd gone off to law school at Harvard and he'd gone off to join the military. This felt different because it wasn't about physical distance between them but something even more difficult to bridge.
His family had returned in the form of Roy and then Will and she loved both men fiercely. She had been just as distraught as Matt had been when Will had turned suicidal and had worked with Matt and Roy to help him readjust to life outside of a prisoner at war camp where time had been measured by the cycles of the moon and sun not by clocks and calendars.
But she had sensed a shift in that the three of them had blood tying them to the same family whereas C.J. had no one left alive in her family tree.
"So C.J. why aren't you at Matt's party?"
She stared down at her glass wondering if she should get it refilled.
"I didn't feel like going," she said, "besides it's for his friend Tex."
"Oh yeah…the guy that used to be a ranch hand on his family ranch," Maureen said, "Must have been like a member of his family."
C.J. ordered her second margarita.
"I guess so…look I just didn't feel like going," she said, "I've been working hard and then with the volunteering."
"But you like that don't you," Olivia piped in.
"Yes…I do but this is much more relaxing than that party would be."
C.J. reached for some chips to dip in some salsa while her friends watched. Maureen broke the silence first.
"What's up with this Tex guy?"
C.J. just looked at her.
"Nothing...I'm just not close to him like Houston."
Maureen and Olivia looked at each other.
"We can see that," Maureen said, "but didn't you grow up on the neighboring ranch?"
C.J. sighed as the waitress brought her a fresh drink.
"Yes…but I didn't spend a lot of time with him…he was the Houston's foreman."
Maureen shot her a look but appeared to drop the line of questioning.
"Well you know Matt," she said, "He loves to throw parties for his friends and family."
C.J. knew that very well about the man she'd known most of her life after all. She sipped her drink and found the tension in her muscles dissipating. Then she heard her phone buzz again. She reached for it and saw Matt's number on the display. She looked at her friends.
"I guess I better take this," she said, "I'll be right back."
Matt waited for C.J. to pick up the phone or at least to get her voice mail. The party was winding down and she still hadn't appeared. Where was she, it wasn't like her to not at least call and tell him she had a change of plans.
He sighed and went to sit on a chair out near the barbecue.
"Where are you," he said, "I thought you were going to come."
"Houston…I'm sorry but I had to work so late and then a couple other friends and I went out to dinner."
"C.J…you know how important this party was…it's our way of welcoming Tex back to L.A. and you didn't even show up."
He heard her sigh on the other end.
"Houston…I'm sorry and it's not personal but I just needed to spend some time with my friends."
He leaned back in his chair.
"Okay…then why didn't you at least call…so I would know you were at least okay?"
"Houston…I'm not a child okay," she said, "I can take care of myself."
"I didn't say that…I was worried about you and Tex asked about you."
A pause followed from her end.
"I'm here…look I'm in the middle of dinner and then I'm heading home…I got that court appearance tomorrow for Murray."
"So I won't see you?"
"Houston…you were out of town the past week and I'll be by the office after I got to court so we'll catch up then."
"I've got that meeting with Tex and a couple other backers in the morning," he said, "I was hoping you'd be there."
"I got court but maybe if I finish early…"
He ran his hand through his hair.
"No…it's okay…maybe we can catch lunch together."
"Maybe…look I've got to get back," she said, "I'll see you sometime tomorrow."
He heard her click off her phone and just looked at his own for a moment before getting up to go talk to Roy and Tex.
C.J. returned to the booth where they'd been eating and both of her friends looked up at her.
"So…you're deserting us to go to the party?"
C.J. shook her head and picked up her drink.
"I explained to Matt what happened," she said, "and that I'll see him tomorrow after court."
Maureen shook her head.
"That's cold C.J."
C.J. narrowed her eyes.
"How so…he had a lot of people at his party, more than enough to make Tex feel welcome here."
Maureen just looked at her.
"Come on…you know he wanted you there," she said, "You're very important to him."
"I know that but I just didn't feel like partying."
Olivia looked at her dead on.
"Oh come off it, you just didn't want to see Tex."
C.J. blinked her eyes in surprise.
"Where did you get that idea?"
Both Maureen and Olivia looked at each other.
"What…you think I've got some problem with him?"
"We didn't say it, you just did."
That caused C.J. to fall into silence. She took a careful sip from her margarita and then looked at the two women.
"I just don't like him…that's all."
Maureen leaned forward.
C.J. shook her head.
"It doesn't matter…just call it a personality conflict."
"Did you tell Matt about this personality conflict," Maureen asked.
C.J. shook her head again.
"No need to tell him anything," she said, "Our paths haven't crossed in some years."
"But they're crossing now and if there's some reason why you don't like him, don't you think you should tell Matt about it?"
C.J bit her lip and shook her head.
"No…it's just something that happened years ago…I just don't want to be around him."
"That's going to be difficult if you and Matt are working with him."
C.J.'s body tensed.
"We aren't working together," she said, "Matt and Murray will be handling their joint project."
"That'll work but what happened anyway," she asked.
Maureen folded her arms.
"Yeah if you had some kind of problem with the guy, shouldn't Matt know about it?"
C.J. just looked at the both of them sensing they were trying to push her down a path she didn't want to go.
"Look I don't want to talk about Houston or Tex or the party," she said, "So Olivia, tell us about whether or not you'll be packing up and leaving L.A…"
And just like that she had changed the subject.
Matt returned to his house after finishing his daily ocean swim. He loved to get up at the crack of dawn and hit the water before he could tell himself it was too cold. A few strokes into a couple of breaking waves and he remembered what he loved about his long swims. They allowed him to focus on his swimming rather than anything outside of the ocean.
He'd left the office just before midnight after Tex had headed back to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and his suite. Matt then got in his car and headed back to the beach house to call it a night.
Sleep had come readily enough because his fatigue from the flight home after his latest case and all the activity afterward had caught up with him. But his last thought before he closed his eyes had been C.J. and how she had just bailed on his party. When he had asked her about it and why she hadn't called, she had grown defensive. More so than usual anyway, the past six months there had been this kind of friction between them he couldn't figure out let alone understand. She didn't seem to notice it but went about life as normal, well except for all the volunteer work she did at the clinic. He had been glad that she found an avenue to use her legal expertise because he knew that the work at the office didn't really challenge her. He missed her being his partner in his caseload as much as he enjoyed working with his uncle but she seemed too distant to approach about it.
And last night he thought, again as he had swum through the water, it had reared up again about the party…or maybe it'd been about the guest of honor. He tried to think back to the relationship between C.J. and Tex and it had always seemed amiable going back to when Tex had first been hired. In fact, she had followed him around quite a bit while helping out on the ranch. You'd think she would have been excited to come to the party to see him again but she hadn't shown up at all.
He hit the shower and while wearing his robe, his hair still damp, he cooked up some eggs and hash browns for breakfast which filled him up nicely after the vigorous swim. This morning, he planned to meet with Tex in the conference room and begin the preliminaries of their partnership.
His phone rang then and he thought it might be C.J. giving him an update before heading to court or Chris from the office about some business.. But the phone number didn't look familiar.
"Hello…this is Houston…"
"Matt is that you?"
"Yeah Tex…Listen I'll see you at the office…"
"I'm not going to be there," he said, "I'm…at the police station. I was arrested this morning."
Matt's eyes widened in shock not believing what he'd just heard.
Tex paused and Matt could hear from the background noise there were others nearby.
"I..I can't tell you but I need someone to bail me out," he said, "and I'll probably need an attorney…just to get this straightened out. It's just a mistake…a misunderstanding."
Matt had to agree with him because he couldn't think about anything Tex would have done to warrant him getting arrested. After all, he had headed back to the hotel after the party, this…this just had to be a mistake.
"Listen Tex…you hold on tight…I'll be down there…with an attorney…I know a lieutenant there who will help us figure out what happened."
More silence, then a sigh.
"Okay…look I'm sorry about this," Tex said, "but I swear I didn't do anything wrong."
"I know that…I'll be right there as soon as I secure any bail."
Matt hung up knowing he had to get Tex out of jail first and then find out what happened but like Tex said, it had to be some horrible mistake. He reached for his cell phone to call C.J. or at least leave a message on her phone to meet him at the police station as soon as possible to help him get to the bottom of what happened to Tex.
Then he got dressed and sprinted to his car to head to the station.