Authors: i-must-go-first & UbiquitousMixie

Rating: M

Word Count: 6930

Disclaimer: Not ours. Please don't sue.

Authors' Note: Thank you to those readers who have not given up on our fic. Real life is, as usual, very demanding, but we STILL mean it when we say that we WILL finish this story. Comments fuel our life force, so let us know what you think!

Chapter 24: Advice to the Lovelorn

"I don't suppose you could talk to him, ma'am...?"

The apprehensive, hang-dog expression on Officer Rey's face might, under other circumstances, have induced a sympathetic response in Captain Raydor. She knew all too well what it was like to deal with angry, edgy, defensive officers who felt like an OIS investigation was a witch hunt rather than a necessary part of police life. Mark Alvarez was young, and no doubt his shooting of a mid-level Crip - to all appearances, a clean shoot - had left him feeling traumatized and vulnerable. Alvarez wanted his badge and firearm back, and he didn't see why he needed to deal with a departmental psychologist or, as he put it, "a bunch of notebook-toting, paper-pushing bureaucrats" in order to make that happen.

However, these were not other circumstances; these were the circumstances Rey was getting. His captain was having an extremely frustrating week, and while she scrupulously stopped short of taking it out on her subordinates, it seemed that the wellspring of sympathy in her breast had temporarily dried up. "I suppose I could," she said evenly, removing her reading glasses and folding them, and then meeting the young man's eyes. "If you feel that you're incapable of performing this aspect of your duties." The other officer winced at the crispness of the consonants, the unwonted precision of the t.

He swallowed, his dusky skin flushing. "No, captain," he muttered. "That won't be necessary."

She responded with a brusque, single nod. "I need that report by 4:30, no later," she reminded, and walked quickly into her small private office, closing the door behind her.

The outer bullpen area was hushed for a moment. Sergeant Margaret Clark clapped her younger colleague on the shoulder. "Don't take it personally. Madame Porcupine has been extra prickly all week."

"Yeah," Tim Elliott volunteered from the next desk over, pushing his chair back. "Sometimes when you answer to Darth Raydor, the force isn't with you. Who wants coffee? Rey, it's your turn to make a run."

Safe in the privacy of her inner sanctum, Sharon flopped down in her squeaky desk chair and pinched the bridge of her nose. All the daily little irritations of her position seemed sharper this week, as if her skin was a little raw. And it was only Wednesday.

She'd just come back from what was supposed to be lunch with her best friend, and what had actually turned out to be a bagel and a cup of scorched coffee in the cafeteria. That wasn't why Sharon was frustrated, though; with their busy schedules, a less-than-gourmet meal was no reason to get upset. Normally just seeing Brenda's face, kvetching about their current cases, and exchanging cat-rearing tips would be enough of a mid-week treat to keep Sharon coasting at least through Thursday afternoon. But not today.

Sharon propped her head on her hand, her index finger tapping an erratic beat on her cheekbone. She couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was that had rankled so thoroughly, though she was certain that she could provide an itemized list to narrow down the various possibilities.

Item One: Lunch in the cafeteria. They had previously agreed to meet in the lobby and venture out for lunch, allowing themselves the rare opportunity to vacate the premises. They wouldn't exactly have been alone, but they would have been able to be Brenda and Sharon rather than Deputy Chief Johnson and Captain Raydor. Sharon had been particularly looking forward to sharing a bench with her favorite deputy chief while the spring breeze softly rustled all of that glorious blonde hair. Before Sharon could even make it to the elevator, Brenda instructed her to meet in the cafeteria instead, where they'd barely been able to find a table amidst the lunchtime rush.

Item Two: Brenda's outfit. When Sharon had been able to catch a glimpse of the younger woman in the cafeteria, her irritation at the change of plans had been mollified when she'd taken in the sight of the younger woman. She'd been wearing that royal blue dress, the one that Sharon loved, showing off every clean curve of that lithe, compact body. Sharon's pulse had begun to race-it had been days since they had seen each other, days since they'd touched or kissed, and the mere sight of her had begun to take a greater effect. It was as if Brenda's mere existence had become an aphrodisiac, leaving Sharon in a constant state of breathless anticipation and arousal. Brenda must have known that Sharon's eyes had been lingering-as soon as they sat down, she extracted her ubiquitous brown cashmere sweater from the depths of her bottomless purse and shrugged it over her shoulders, hiding her body away.

Item Three: Brenda. Sharon had no illusions or expectations about breaking professionalism at work. She hadn't exactly expected (or wanted) there to be hand-holding or soulful glances, but she had gone into lunch with a particular agenda in mind, hoping to make plans for their next date. She had assumed (wrongly) that Brenda would want to spend some time alone together, but Brenda had evaded the topic with every work-related excuse she could before finally suggesting they combine their date and a playdate with Clarissa.

Sharon hadn't been able to keep the surprise from showing on her features, but she hoped she had masked the disappointment. "Oh."

"I haven't seen her since her birthday," Brenda had reminded brightly. "I bet she's growin' fast. Isn't that what people say about that age?"

Item Four: Titles. After they had agreed that Brenda would come by Saturday morning and go with Sharon to pick her granddaughter up (without either of them suggesting that they get together more privately in the interim), the deputy chief had abruptly abandoned Sharon right there on the elevator with a cheerful "Bye, Capt'n Raydor. You have a nice day, now."

Sharon twirled a pencil end over end. Captain Raydor now, was she? It wasn't as if they were in the midst of an investigation and Brenda was showing respect for Sharon's rank in front of her division. There had been no reason for that added measure of formality.

No reason at all, except that Brenda must have felt it necessary.

Sharon wasn't so far gone that she couldn't appreciate the irony: she was irked because Brenda Johnson was showing her respect.

But respect wasn't particularly what she craved from the younger woman these days. She already knew that she had Brenda's respect - had it in spades.

She couldn't help the obsessive way her mind ran back over the events of their last dinner together, the images clicking by like an old-fashioned film reel. Yes, it had been a little awkward at first, thanks entirely to Sharon's erratic behavior the whole week previous. But they were okay, weren't they? They had talked, resolved things. They had enjoyed the meal Sharon had prepared and one another's companionship, and had indulged in a goodnight kiss that had prolonged said night at least fifteen minutes.

Sharon heard raised voices in the outer office. Rey and Mark Alvarez. Well, better Rey than her. She cocked her head, listening. She'd give it a minute, and then if necessary -

No. She heard Clark say something, and Alvarez stopped shouting. The captain nodded, satisfied. Although Rey had not infrequently worked with IA in the past, he had only been transferred in permanently a few months ago. He needed to toughen up, but she thought he would do fine.

Maybe she needed to toughen up too, Sharon reflected, or lighten up. She knew perfectly well how absorbed Brenda could get in her work; Sharon operated the same way, although the outward signs were somewhat different. That was probably all that was going on. Brenda was having a busy week at work, and she'd been in work mode throughout their lunch; Sharon should be flattered that the younger woman had even remembered their lunch date, yet alone Clarissa's name, not incensed because that lunch date had been relegated to work and Brenda evinced an interest in spending time with Sharon's young granddaughter. The atmosphere would probably have been quite different if they'd gotten out into that spring breeze the captain had been fantasizing about, but there was always next time. She was just being silly.

With a firm nod of dismissal, Sharon Raydor redirected her attention to the towering stack of file folders teetering beside her keyboard.

Brenda had done a lot of scheming over the years to avoid Sharon Raydor. She'd lied, withheld evidence, and masterfully manipulated the circumstances just to put a little professional distance between the two of them. It had been an art form, though Brenda knew she'd become a little rusty since becoming friends-and-then-some with the captain.

Only now Brenda wasn't avoiding Captain Raydor. She was avoiding Sharon, and she had resorted to the most loathsome evasive tactic she could think of.

She quite literally held a child between them. If she tried really, really hard, she could almost convince herself that she wasn't using Clarissa as a human shield.

As if on cue, Clarissa let out a high-pitched whine and squirmed in Brenda's lap. "Hey, what's up, pumpkin? Where d'you think you're goin'?" She curled her arms a little tighter around the toddler's tiny waist, hugging her to her chest.

The child's grandmother gave a dark chuckle. "Someone is ready for her nap."

Alarm bells rang in Brenda's mind. "Awe, c'mon, Cee...I thought we were friends. Don't you wanna play with your friend Brenda?"

Clarissa let out a shrill shriek and twisted herself with surprising force from the blonde's lap, at once lumbering over to clutch at Sharon's legs.

"I'll take that as a no," Brenda mumbled glumly.

Sharon scooped the little girl up into her arms, patting the child's dark curls with a soothing hand. "Perhaps your friend Sharon can entertain you while Cee gets her beauty sleep." Green eyes shimmered with something dangerously close to mischief as she swept out of the room.

Brenda wiped her sweaty palms against the denim of her jeans and let out a nervous breath. This wasn't good. This wasn't good at all.

All those times when Brenda had avoided Sharon like the plague, she had wanted to be as far away from her as possible. It had been easy then to come up with excuses. It was a hell of a lot harder to do now that Brenda didn't actually want to avoid her at all.

But she needed to-not for her own sake, but for Sharon's.

It was so easy for Brenda to conjure up images of how sweet the brunette's kisses had been the last time she'd allowed herself to indulge in them, and even now the abject pleasure burned low in her belly. However, it was even easier to remember just how shaken Sharon had been the last time they took a leap in their relationship, and the deputy chief wasn't keen on scaring her off again. Every time Sharon ran away, she took a little piece of Brenda with her.

No-she couldn't let that happen again. She could control herself for Sharon's sake, for both their sakes, and she would.

Brenda briefly wondered if she could convince Sharon that she was as exhausted as Clarissa and also required a nap, thereby saving them from any potentially dangerous alone time, before discounting the possibility. The last thing she needed to be doing was telling Sharon she wanted to lay down. She climbed up from her position on Sharon's living room floor and began to wander around the room aimlessly just to give her body something to do. As exhausted as the little girl was, she was fussing and fighting the nap; as Brenda listened to the soundtrack, she tried to be grateful that Cee's antics would keep Sharon away for at least ten or fifteen minutes.

She'd been away from Sharon more than enough in the last week, though. It didn't help that it was Brenda's own doing. Their Wednesday lunch in the cozy, atmospheric cafeteria had been only the beginning. Thursday evening the two women had run into each other in the parking garage, and when Sharon suggested Brenda come over and share the pot roast she'd left simmering in her crock pot, the blonde had stammered out something about being too tired. Sharon had stepped forward, lightly touching Brenda's arm, and murmured, "Honey, you have to eat." The low, intimate tenor of her voice; the way her eyes glistened in the low light; the smell of her, warm and spicy, with just a hint of the perfume she had dabbed on that morning (did she spritz it between her breasts the way some women did? Would the scent be stronger there?): the combined impact made Brenda a little dizzy. Her head swam, and she had blurted, "I don't like pot roast!"

Now, feeling vaguely ridiculous, Brenda shook her head. She loved pot roast. Had she condemned herself to a lifetime of not eating it? And had she condemned herself to a lifetime of not eating - er, not being alone with her best friend? Absurd, she decided, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling. There was no reason for her to be so jumpy. It wasn't like Sharon was a hungry tiger and she was the village goat.

Brenda heard footsteps coming down the hall, and then Sharon said, "Well, I think she'll stay down."

The younger woman stopped herself in the act of again rubbing her sweaty palms over her thighs. "Oh, that's good," she said, barely containing a wince at the high, nervous pitch of her voice. Sharon took a couple of steps toward her, affection and perplexity mingling in her expression, and as soon as she was within arm's length Brenda asked, "You want some tea? Tea might be nice. Let's make some tea. It's a little cool this afternoon, isn't it?"

Sharon stopped where she was and tilted her head, annoyance flickering over her features and then disappearing. "You want tea," she said, turning toward the kitchen. "Okay. Black, green, chamomile - no, better not have chamomile. I don't want both my girls falling asleep."

"I'll have whatever you feel like makin'," Brenda said gamely. She watched Sharon leave the room, fraught with indecision-should she stay here, or should she follow? If she followed, she'd be in the same predicament; she'd still be alone with Sharon. She'd still be aware of the snug fit of the other woman's t-shirt and the scarlet hue of her painted toenails and the ever-so-subtle pout of those perfect lips.

Brenda nearly stamped her foot in frustration at her own behavior.

This was ridiculous. Brenda was being ridiculous.

When they had been posing as Jean and Susan, Brenda had given Sharon a firm talking-to for doing exactly what Brenda was doing now: putting distance between them and making things weird in the process. Brenda was all about respecting Sharon's wishes to take things slowly, but at what expense?

More than anything, Brenda wanted to sweep into that kitchen, pull Sharon into her arms, and kiss her into next week. She wanted it so much that she felt tears well up in her eyes.

For heaven's sake, Brenda thought, and walked into the kitchen.

Sharon's back was to her, arms braced along the counter while she watched the kettle hiss as the water began to boil. Her shoulders were set, and Brenda could read the tension in them from the other side of the room.

Brenda had done that. In her effort to respect Sharon's need to slow things down, she had put a little too much distance between them.

The blonde crept closer until she was mere inches away from the other woman. She caught that lingering scent of perfume and felt those damned tears again. Brenda made up her mind: she didn't have to be strong 100% of the time, did she? Would she be overstepping her bounds if she lowered her guard just for a little while?

She tentatively set her hands on Sharon's hips before sliding them around to encircle her waist. She nuzzled her nose in Sharon's hair and kissed the back of her head. "I've missed you."

The captain maintained her stiff posture for only a moment before she relaxed against her friend, covering Brenda's hands with her own. "I've missed you too, Brenda Leigh."

Sharon felt so good like this, so warm and soft and pliant, and Brenda wanted to lose herself in her. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest. Why had this become so difficult? Why could she no longer anticipate exactly what Sharon was feeling? Brenda felt lost and tired and weak.

When Sharon turned around to face her, Brenda didn't pull away. She brushed their lips together in a gentle kiss, ignoring the flurry of conflicting desires running through her mind. Her body said yes, yes, yes! at the intimate contact, though her head told her no, no, no! The struggle was exhausting.

She breathed out heavily, and Sharon drew back just enough to speak, their noses brushing. "Brenda... what's going on?"

Brenda let her eyes drift close, feeling her long lashes brush her skin. This was her opportunity to clarify, to get everything out in the open and make sure they were both on the same page. But the other woman felt so good in her arms, so natural and familiar. She would tense up if Brenda announced that she wanted to have a conversation, get that little furrow in her brow, start enunciating as if she were teaching elocution to a room full of ESL students. It was too much. The deputy chief recoiled from the thought.

"Nothin'," she reassured them both, drawing soothing circles on Sharon's shoulder blade as much for her own benefit as for the captain's. "Nothin', baby. I just don't want to disturb Clarissa, that's all."

Sharon pulled away slightly, and Brenda opened her eyes, knowing what she would see before she looked: green eyes staring right back into hers, wide and eerily expressionless. It was Sharon's turn not to say anything, though, leaving Brenda wondering if the older woman was nonplussed by the flimsy excuse or by the endearment. Oh, shoot, Brenda thought. Sharon was probably one of those women who hated being called 'baby,' because they found it demeaning, infantilizing. Brenda's own eyes widened as she scrutinized her friend's countenance, trying to determine whether the captain looked particularly demeaned.

The blonde stepped back. "Water's boilin'," she pointed out rather weakly.

"Mmm," Sharon acknowledged, turning away from Brenda once again. As she filled the steaming water into two mugs steeped with bags of jasmine green tea, she added tersely, "Wouldn't want to keep you from your tea."

Sharon could practically hear the blonde chewing her lip, a suspicion that was confirmed when she turned to present Brenda with her tea. "Here you are."

Brenda set the mug behind her on the island, stepping forward once more to brush Sharon's hair behind her ear. "It's not so much the tea that I wanted," Brenda Leigh said, dropping her voice just enough to make Sharon's stomach clench pleasantly. "It's that I wanted to drink it with my beautiful friend while the baby sleeps in the next room."

"Is that all?" Sharon pressed lightly, hesitant to allow herself to be pulled back in the confusing push-pull. Despite the current softness in the other woman's touch and the gentleness of her voice, Sharon would not forget the stiffness that had been underlying Brenda's demeanor for the last few days. Even now, Sharon was wary of relaxing; given how odd the deputy chief had been acting, the captain vigilantly prepared herself to be pushed back to arm's length at any moment.

"That's all," Brenda whispered, and even though Sharon knew it was a lie, she allowed herself to accept that this was all she was going to get out of the other woman.

Sharon would respect Brenda's reluctance to share what was going on in that beautiful, mystifying blonde head-but that didn't mean that she wouldn't play a little dirty while she waited. Curling her arms around Brenda's waist, Sharon tugged her closer, shifting her back just so to allow her breasts to brush against the other woman's. It was a delicious sensation, and Sharon could feel just how interested Brenda was by the tell-tale hardening of her nipples. She suppressed a smirk and slid her hands over the swell of Brenda's ass, dipping her hands into her pockets. "Clarissa's an excellent sleeper," Sharon mentioned, tracing the outline of Brenda's panties (cotton? silk?) through the denim. "We won't disturb her."

Brenda let out the breath she had been holding. "Oh. Good. That's good."

Sharon's lips ghosted against the line of Brenda's jaw. "Very good," the brunette corrected, placing a kiss on Brenda's rapidly-thumping pulse.

Brenda's eyelids fluttered closed before she snapped them back open. "The, uh, tea's gonna get cold."

Sharon nipped her teeth against Brenda's throat. "I have a microwave."

The deputy chief couldn't fathom how things had shifted so rapidly-she had been in control of the situation at one point, hadn't she? Now that Sharon's mouth had begun to do wicked things to her, Brenda felt what was left of her resolve begin to crumble. "Oh, Sharon..."

A loud clatter sounded from Clarissa's bedroom.

"What on earth?" Brenda questioned, the alarm in her voice mirroring the concern in Sharon's eyes.

They took off for the nursery (Sharon got there first, of course). The books that had been stacked atop the shelf near the crib had been knocked over, though Brenda noted with relief that the toddler was still in her crib.

Sharon let out a relieved laugh and reached for Brenda's hand, squeezing tightly as she pulled her closer to the toddler's bed. Brenda peered down for a better glimpse.

Curled in the center of the crib was Clarissa, still sleeping soundly, with an arm curled possessively over Manzana's grey form. The cat purred, seemingly unfazed by the chubby arm that held her in a death grip, staring up at her mistress with her good eye, and very much giving the impression of a lioness watching over her cub.

"Well," Sharon murmured, her voice pitched very low, "who needs a baby monitor when you've got a feline?"

"Aren't you gonna get her out?" Brenda whispered a little anxiously. She'd always heard stories about cats climbing into cribs -

The captain quirked a derisive eyebrow. "You think Manzana is going to hurt Clarissa?" she challenged. "I think Clarissa is far more likely to hurt the cat. Manzana is a perfect lady, not a rambunctious kitten like Sugar." Sharon turned back, moving softly into the hallway, and Brenda followed.

"You mean your cat's old, like you," Brenda teased lightly. "A pair of grandmas."

Sharon sniffed. "Well, this 'grandma' got asked out on four dates this week, for your information."

Brenda felt her skin prickling at the back of her neck, her nerves alight with jealousy and anxiety. Even as she told herself she was being wholly ridiculous - they'd talked about this, after all - she couldn't help rising to the bait. "You mean, other than this one?"

Sharon glanced back over her shoulder, her long dark hair swinging with the motion. "I meant four real dates," she specified rather crisply. "For grown-ups. Big Bird need not apply."

Brenda hadn't been totally certain that Sharon had noticed her concerted efforts to put a little more distance between the two of them. Obviously she had. Do not ask her if she accepted, Brenda Leigh schooled herself sternly. Do not, do not, do not.

She didn't, but she did hear herself asking, "Oh, you mean you left that datin' profile up?"

Back in the kitchen, Sharon scooped up the bright blue mug holding her steaming tea, cupping it in both hands. "As you know, Daniel paid for the first month." Was it Brenda's imagination that her voice was a little cool? "I agreed to the damn thing; if I made a fuss about it now, I'd have to explain why, and what would I say?" The blonde stared at the other woman's back as she opened the refrigerator door and perused the contents. "Do you want a snack? I have this huge container of pineapple. I could use some help eating it."

Brenda only vaguely heard the words. She was too disturbed by Sharon's off-the-cuff comment to think about food. What would Sharon say? Brenda echoed internally. She'd say she was already involved with someone. Already dating someone. They were dating.

The deputy chief gnawed on her lower lip. Sharon hadn't sounded much like she thought they were dating, just now.

Sharon looked back over her shoulder, her hair cascading down her back, one foot poised atop the other. "Brenda?" she prodded a little impatiently, but Brenda couldn't answer. Her voice was stuck somewhere in her throat. In her simple red t-shirt, with minimal makeup highlighting her features, and her hair lightly tangled from where Clarissa's fingers had been gripping it, she looked so beautiful that it hurt something in Brenda's heart. Suddenly, absurdly, she was afraid she was going to cry.

"Okay." Now Sharon definitely sounded annoyed. The refrigerator door closed with a little more force than was strictly necessary. "No pineapple." She glanced in Brenda's direction, her attention centered not on the other woman but on her teacup. She jerked her chin toward it. "You're letting that steep too long," she cautioned. "It's going to be bitter."

Brenda stared at the tea as if she'd altogether forgotten how to go about removing the teabag. A saucer appeared at her elbow, and then a spoon landed atop it with a clatter. Mechanically she lifted the spoon, reached out, fished the bag from the hot water. As she clumsily maneuvered the spoon, the teabag plummeted to the counter, landing with a plop.

"I'll get it," Sharon said briskly, and a sponge appeared in Brenda's peripheral vision, efficiently wiping up the mess. Brenda reflected that Sharon was sounding more and more like Captain Raydor.

Things between them felt like a mess. Brenda wished she could just wipe it all up.

Sharon's back was to her again, this time as the older woman stood at the sink, rinsing out the sponge. If Brenda went up to her, wrapped her arms around her, she might hold herself stiffly at first, but she would relax into the blonde's embrace, just like she had moments before.

And then they'd be right back where they started. Brenda reached up, rubbing her temples, and sighed unhappily. "I think I should go."

Sharon didn't turn, but she stopped moving, holding the now-clean sponge under the hot water. "Okay," she agreed evenly. "If that's what you want to do."

As soon as the words left her mouth, Brenda wondered why the hell she had said them. Of course it wasn't what she wanted to do. She felt a hot prickling of panic. Had she expected Sharon to put up a fight, ask her to stay? She knew that was a miscalculation. Something like that wasn't Sharon Raydor's style at all.

"It's not that I want to," she said weakly, eyes downcast, now resigned to her fate. "I just... have a lot of work."

"Okay," Sharon said again with no inflection. "I'll walk you out."

Brenda was feeling worse with every step she took. So much for Sharon begging her to stay; she was practically shoving her out the door. Why was it that every time she tried to do the right thing, she just ended up making the situation more uncomfortable?

At the door she turned back, her expression almost pleading. "I hope you and Cee have a good evenin'. You'll tell her bye for me?"

"Of course I will." Sharon reached up, tucking a hank of brown hair behind her ear. "Good luck with your work."

"Thanks." This was more awkward than their first date had been. At least then they'd both known they wanted to kiss; they just hadn't been quite sure how to go about it. Now Brenda wasn't at all certain such an overture would be welcome. Sharon stood in the doorway, but her body seemed already to be drawing back into the house. As much as she wanted to, Brenda couldn't bring herself to take what seemed like the very big step that would close the distance between their bodies. She couldn't bear the thought of being rejected. But she couldn't just leave like this either. "Maybe we could go out for dinner one night after work this week?" she asked, her voice hopeful.

Sharon's expression was guarded. "I might have to work."

"Well, yeah." Brenda jammed her hands into her pockets and forced a bright smile. "I might, too. But if we don't?"

Brenda watched her face soften, and heard the relenting in her tone, although her green eyes remained perplexed. "Okay. Yes, I would like that."

From inside the house, both women heard a distinct shriek. Sharon's mouth tightened. "So much for naptime," she said, enunciating even more carefully than usual. "Bye, Brenda. I suggest you get out while the getting's good."

Sharon disappeared inside, closing the door behind her before Brenda had even made it to her car, and the younger woman was left wondering if that had just been a turn of phrase, or if Sharon really thought Brenda wanted to get out of their fledgling relationship while the getting was good.

Brenda couldn't sleep. Granted, it was early (8pm, which was closer to her dinnertime than bedtime), but she was desperate. It was a last-ditch effort to clear her mind of the horrible, horrible thoughts that had held her hostage for two days.

Thoughts of Sharon-that Sharon might really be upset with her, that she might really be considering going on a date with a perfect stranger, that their relationship or whatever it was had become irreparably broken over something that Brenda didn't even understand.

Sharon wanting someone else. Sharon kissing someone else. Sharon giving her heart to someone else. Sharon Sharon Sharon...

That was what it had narrowed down to: Brenda Leigh was overwhelmingly insecure that Sharon had gone and changed her mind.

Brenda noticed that it was 8:03 as she rolled onto her side and reshaped her pillow beneath her head with a little more force than was necessary. She wondered what Sharon was doing; when they had texted earlier in the day, Sharon had mentioned having dinner with Daniel and a date with whatever was streaming On Demand. Brenda wondered if Sharon had thrown that word (date) around just to put the blonde on edge-or if Sharon even had plans with Daniel. Maybe she was on a date with one of her thirty new admirers...

No, Brenda told herself firmly, Sharon wouldn't lie.

She rubbed her eyes and sighed. She was making herself crazy. What she needed to do was pick up the phone, call the captain, and sort this business out. The jealousy over something that hadn't even happened was going to make her sick.

But what would she say if the other woman picked up the phone? "Sharon, please don't go out with anyone but me?" "Sharon, I'm sorry for trying to slow things down so I don't take advantage of you because you're not really ready?" "Sharon, I'm terrified that I'm going to screw everything up, and that's all I seem to be doing anyway?"

The very thought of trying to get the words out over the phone was making her stomach hurt. She needed to see Sharon again-she needed to know that she was talking to Sharon, not Captain Raydor.

Maybe she could convince a mind reader to hover around during their next date, just so Brenda wouldn't have to get the words out at all.

Her phone buzzed on the nightstand, and Brenda's palms began to sweat. She snatched a little too eagerly at the phone and was thoroughly disappointed (and a little relieved) that it was her mother.

"Hello, Mama," Brenda said, forcing a little pep into her voice.

"Oh, Brenda Leigh! I was just preparin' myself for a nice, long chat with your voicemail."

Brenda smiled into the darkness of her room, turning onto her back. "Nope, you're stuck with me. A whole work-free weekend-who knew?"

"I sure hope you took advantage of it."

The deputy chief thought of her afternoon with Clarissa and Sharon the day before, and how she had chased the discomfort of their parting with two cigarettes, Merlot, and an entire carton of ding-dongs. "I did," she said simply, because she couldn't stomach the thought of bringing up Sharon or introducing the barrage of questions about how Brenda's best friend was.

Sugar pounced onto the bed, pressing her wet nose against Brenda's thigh before climbing on top of her. She kneaded Brenda's belly before finally curling her tiny feline body between the blonde's breasts.

"Oooh, what aren't you tellin' me, Brenda Leigh?"

"What? Nothin'."

"Don't even think about lyin' to your mama. Is this...oh, did you have a date this weekend?"

"No," Brenda responded perhaps a little too hastily. It was, she reflected ruefully, true. At this distance it seemed safe to admit that her efforts to soothe Sharon by arranging the ultimate low-pressure, non-date dates had backfired. Her nose wrinkled slightly in irritation. Why did that woman have to be so difficult to please, anyway?

"Because, Brenda Leigh, if you had had a date, both your father and I would think that was a very good sign." She raised her voice slightly. "Wouldn't we, Clay?"

The deputy chief heard her father's surprised grunt in the background, and then Willie Rae prompting "Say yes!" in a stage whisper, which rather spoiled the effect. Brenda's mouth curved with affection.

"That's right, Brenda Leigh," her father shouted too loudly. "You listen to your mother."

"I'm a little surprised you and Daddy would want me datin' again this soon," Brenda said. "If I were datin'."

"Well, honey, it's good for you to be goin' out," her mother cooed reassuringly. Brenda immediately felt some of the tension begin to ebb from her body. This token of approval of her love life was a very long way from having her parents accept Sharon as the person Brenda was sort-of-maybe dating, but still, it was something. "It's good that you're makin' an effort," Willie Rae continued. "I know that's gotta be... challenging."

Brenda felt her features scrunch. It was hard to imagine what her mother knew about the challenges of re-entering the dating world after two failed marriages, since she and Clay had been married for over fifty-five years. Readjusting herself very slightly so as not to dislodge the kitten, whose bursts of affectionate cuddling were still rare at this stage of life, Brenda murmured something vaguely affirmative.

"Besides, we're just talkin' about going out on dates," her mother resumed more brightly, "not falling in love or jumpin' into a new relationship."

Unease tingled at the base of Brenda Leigh's spine. So much for that token of approval.

"I know you're too smart to rush into anything."

She barely contained a snort. Well, wasn't that the truth? If there was anything she and Sharon weren't doing (other than having sex), it was rushing.

"You're older now, more mature. I know how good you are at usin' that brilliant mind of yours at work, with all that plottin' and schemin'. I know you'll use your head when it comes to your love life too, as temptin' as it can be just to let yourself fall for the first person you meet, especially when everything is new and wonderful, and you're missin' that stability of havin' somebody waitin' for you at home."

Brenda couldn't stand it any more. "You've never been divorced," she pointed out forcefully, the words a little clipped.

"No, but at this stage in life, many of my friends are widows. And may I remind you that you don't have to be a horse to judge a horse show, Brenda Leigh."

There was a click on the line before Clay's booming voice chimed in, "Now you listen here, Brenda Leigh, a girl your age ought to be with somebody."

"But not just anybody," Willie Rae amended.

Brenda rolled her eyes, imagining her mother standing in the kitchen with the cordless phone while her father sat in the living room on the second line. "You two are lucky. You found each other and that was it-happily ever after. It's not so easy to find somebody who isn't just anybody...or to hold onto them when you do."

"Oh, honey, love was never meant to be easy," her mother soothed. "You've gotta put yourself out there."

"Maybe I should try one of those datin' websites," Brenda suggested glumly, thinking of Sharon's knockout photo on her profile. She guessed that she could probably muster up at least the same number of possible dates as Sharon.

"Over my dead body!" Clay boomed. "I will not have my daughter sellin' herself on the internet out of desperation!"

"Oh Clay, it's not that bad," Willie Rae continued.

Brenda grinned, mollified by her father's apparent disapproval. "I was just kiddin'."

"You've got to take this seriously, Brenda Leigh," Clay went on, "or you'll end up alone, or worse-look at Jimmy, a grown man still livin' with his roommate. You think he'll get himself a wife with his friend hangin' 'round him all the time?"

Scared either by the prospect or by Clay's booming baritone, Sugar leaped from the bed as if her tail were on fire, digging her miniature claws into Brenda's chest for good measure.

Brenda bit her lip, tuning her parents out as they discussed her older brother. She wondered how Jimmy had done it-were all same-sex relationships this complicated, or was it just hers? Perhaps she could ask him for tips...

"Clay, hush," Willie Rae said. "Now sweetheart, it sounds to me like maybe you've already got your eye on someone. You'll end up waitin' your whole life if you expect him to make the first move. You've never had a problem goin' after whatever you want, so what're you waitin' for?"

Her eyes closed as if of their own accord. So much for the pleasant distraction of a little chat with her parents; she was beginning to wish she were still just lying there staring at the ceiling and wondering what shenanigans Sharon might be getting up to. (No shenanigans, she reminded herself. None at all, because it was Sharon, and Sharon wouldn't.) The conflicting advice her parents were giving her was making her head swim. She was supposed to 'put herself out there' and 'go after what she wanted,' implying that she wanted something - someone - badly enough to go after it; but she wasn't supposed to want that person badly enough to get into a real relationship or do anything other than make clear, analytical decisions using her head, not her heart.

Oh, sure, she thought grumpily, no problem.

"Now, Willia Rae," Clay broke in again, "it's after eleven. It's our bedtime. You quit yammerin' at Brenda Leigh."

The blonde slumped into her mattress, going limp with relief as she shaped her mouth into the appropriate good-bye's and I-love-you's. Then she was left alone again in the dark and relative quiet, accompanied by the hum of the refrigerator and bent but not broken by the sound of Sugar playing with one of her toys, batting it across the hardwood floor.

On a certain level she was righteously indignant. She had the highest IQ of any of her siblings. She'd gotten the best grades, gone to the best university. She'd certainly never let her job take a backseat to her personal life. What business did her mama have telling her to use her head? She always used her head.

Except when maybe she didn't. Like now. Like any time Sharon Raydor walked into a room with her perfect hair and her little reading glasses and her pencil skirts. Like when she laughed or searched her hips for her pockets or compressed her soft lips in acute awkwardness. Like when she shot an underling a death glare or held Clarissa on her hip or told Daniel to 'be good.' Like when Brenda just wanted to sweep the taller woman into her arms and kiss her senseless.

Brenda gnawed on her lower lip, even as the thought occurred to her that she'd have to buy a lifetime supply of chapstick to repair the damage. Her mama had always said something about her not being well-endowed in the common sense department.

Oh, how did she get herself into these situations? In her own way she was worse than Flynn and Provenza. The only difference was that they usually did their screwing up on the clock, and she did hers off.

Part of her wanted to tell her well-intentioned mother to butt out. The problem, though, was that as much as Brenda Leigh hated to admit it, her mama was usually right.

It was with this in mind that Brenda resolutely banished thoughts of sending Sharon a text-or worse, calling her. She felt uneasy-between her parents' mixed messages and Sharon's confusing signals, Brenda didn't know what to do.

She would sleep-what else could she do?-and hope for a clear resolution to present itself to her in the morning.