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Chapter 36

“Hi, Princess, Merry Christmas,” Raphael whispered as he pulled her in for a kiss, kicking shut the door to her condo.

“Hi, yourself,” Mary said, wrapping her arms around his neck. The man definitely knew his way around a kiss.

He handed her a small box. “This is for you. I wanted to give it to you before we arrived at your parent’s house.” Mary froze. Please do not let it be a ring, she thought. I am absolutely not ready. “What’s this?”

“You mean a lot to me, Mary. I wanted to give you a gift to show you how much.”

Mary’s anxiety increased then disappeared when she unwrapped the gift. It was a beautiful Bvlgari necklace. A pendant in white gold with diamonds. She had admired it while they were window shopping in Miami.

“Raphael, I love it. I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed.”

Raphael gathered her in his arms. He held her tightly against his body, kissing her jawline, her cheek and then her lips. Mary relaxed into the kiss. He pressed against her. One hand cupped her hip to his and the other hand traveled up and down her back.

“I think I’m falling in love with you.” He pulled away, staring down at her.

“These last few weeks have meant a lot to me, too,” she said, nestling her head into his shoulder, hoping he wouldn’t notice the absence of “love” in her answer.

She felt strongly for him. The sex–no, the lovemaking- was great. He was passionate and intense. She had a few nagging doubts but they were diminished by her need to be with him, to be close to him. He had complimented her as the “quarterback” of the team, but did he really value what she did? He was focused on running for a judge’s seat. Did she fit in with that?

She pushed back from him. “Let’s put the necklace on. I can’t wait to wear it.”

“Good idea, because at this rate, I’m not going to be able to stop and your momma will kill me if we miss dinner.”

He fastened the necklace. “I love seeing you wear the jewelry I give you.”

Doubt crept up once again. Possession? Mary ignored it. “Well, I love wearing it.”

She reached into a chest in the foyer and gave him a beautifully wrapped box.

“This is for you. I hope you’re not disappointed. It’s not gold or diamonds.”

Raphael grinned when he saw the three black leather travel pouches from Levenger, embossed with his initials.

“These will be great for the conferences I have to attend over the next few months. Thanks, Mary.” He bent over to kiss her quickly.

“That’s what I thought. I know you like to be organized.”

“You know me well. I hope these pouches can be used on trips together soon.”

“I hope so, too. Listen before we leave, I need to talk to you about something,” Mary said.

He looked puzzled. Maybe even a little worried.

Mary brought Raphael current as to Kristin’s situation with the twins. She knew it would come out tonight at Nonna’s dinner.

“So why was I left out of the news? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“It was Kristin’s news. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing before she was ready to be open about the relationships.”

“We need to start acting like a team, Mary. There are a lot of competing demands in our complicated lives. The only way we can come out of this whole is if our first loyalty is to each other.”

Mary looked intently into his eyes. She knew he was asking for a greater commitment. She kissed his lips softly. “We’re getting there. I think I’m falling in love, too.” She flashed a nervous smile. He took her face in his hands, eager for another deep kiss.

“We’d better get going,” she said quickly. “Once you see the groaning table, you’ll understand why dinner is at four o’clock sharp.

“If you say so,” he sighed. “My priorities are a little different.”

The conversation turned to family once they settled in his sleek sports car. In Miami a few weeks ago she felt like she had passed inspection by the Gonzalez family, including his sisters. She knew that this Christmas dinner would be a big event for her family. It was one thing to bring a boyfriend over on a Sunday, or to have Signore Forlini gossip about their romantic dinner. But Christmas?

Everyone was sitting on the back deck when they arrived. Tony and John, Mary’s brother and brother-in-law, were setting up fishing poles for after dinner. Her mother had been cooking Italian specialties for days. The whole house smelled wonderful.

“Hey, everyone, I’ve got some news.” Mary raised her voice to get their attention.

“What, you’re getting married?” Her sister teased with a smile.

“No, not yet.” Raphael laughed and Mary poked him in the ribs. He wasn’t happy unless he was pushing the limits.

“No,” she announced. “Kristin and her family have an announcement of sorts.” She tried to explain what had happened, but football games and chatter took over.

Only Anthony, her dad, seemed to care. A big man in size and in heart, he drew Mary up from her seat, holding her hands.

“Families help each other. We will be there for Kristin and the kids as well as for the dads.” The doorbell rang a short time later. Anders walked in hand in hand with Berit.

“Hi Nonna. Hi Nonno. Merry Christmas! This is Berit. She’s my sister.” He gave them a mischievous smile.

Anthony rubbed Anders’s head affectionately.

“Merry Christmas to you. Welcome to our home, Berit.” MaryAnn smiled. “It’s not every day we find out about a new sister,” MaryAnn said, looking at Jackson and Ron.

Mary held her breath. She hadn’t mentioned the interracial aspect.

“Welcome and Merry Christmas,” her mother said, extending a hand each to Ron and Jackson before turning her attention to the twins.

“Come with me to see the Christmas tree. I think there are presents for both of you under it. Then we can go into the kitchen to fill the cannoli shells.”

“Anders already told me about the shells. He said that you eat them. They’re not the kind on the beach.” Berit ran after Anders as they raced to see the tree.

“Well, I guess Anders thought it best to dive right into matters,” Kristin smiled. “Merry Christmas and thanks for inviting us.”

Anthony embraced Kristin and whispered into her ear, “You’re family. Don’t thank me. It’s insulting.”

Kristin’s eyes filled with tears. How was it that she found herself in the middle of a loving family, with both of her children and their fathers and, if he remembered to come, Joseph.

“Thank you,” she whispered back. “That’s the best present of all.”

Kristin overheard the twins in the kitchen with Nonna.

“Dad and Daddy couldn’t have a baby,” Berit said.

“So they asked my mom to have one for them,” Anders added.

“And, surprise, there were twins,” Berit exclaimed.

“One for each family,” Anders finished.

Kristin peeked in and saw Nonna hug them both. Again, she wiped tears from her eyes and then turned towards the street as she heard the sound of Joseph’s motorcycle.

Since she didn’t want him knowing she’d been looking for him, she busied herself straightening a vase of Christmas greens that didn’t need fixing.

“Well, it’s my favorite judge,” he said as he stepped past Kristin, carrying a bouquet of a dozen red roses for Mrs. Visconti.

“And my favorite police detective,” she whispered to his back.

He turned to her and wiped a tear from her eye, looking puzzled.

“Oh, that,” Kristin explained. “I overheard the twins telling MaryAnn the big news about their birth. They took it so well. These are tears of happiness, I guess.”

“The best kind” he said. “Leave it to our Mary.”

He walked past Kristin towards the kitchen, then turned again. “I forgot the present I got for the twins. Mind if I stop by your house later tonight?”

“What a coincidence. I forgot the present I got for you. I was going to ask you to stop by.”

They both laughed.

“Couple of liars we are,” he nodded, heading into the kitchen with the red roses.

Christmas dinner was the usual loud affair. The table was groaning with food. The antipasto included pizza rustica, three types of bruschetta, hand cut Italian salami and prosciutto, stuffed peppers and eggplant rollatini. There were at least three courses to go.

Kristin saw the trays of manicotti and the prime rib resting on the table. Not to mention the cannoli to come. Loud male voices defended their position on topics ranging from football and local elections to beach re-nourishment. Joseph and Raphael fit right in with the men. Mary and Kristin just listened.

The two couples found themselves alone on the back deck talking about Mikayla before the cannoli were brought to the table. Joseph and Raphael were on the same page. There would be no “gathering of the troops” or clandestine project to nab Germaine as a sex trafficker, no matter their concern for Mikayla.

“We need to do this the legal way,” Raphael said, “using law enforcement to arrest and the state attorney to prosecute. We can’t take our orders from judges and psychologists. It’s a separation of powers issue, as well intentioned as you are.”

“What he means is that he doesn’t want women to be involved in this investigation,” Joseph said.

“Joseph!” Mary and Kristin shouted together.

Joseph ducked, palms raised in a peace offering. “Joke, guys. Don’t you get it? Joke!”

Raphael shook his head. “I could never get away with that.”

“No, seriously, Joseph added. “It’s also a practical matter. If you are involved in a scheme to capture Germaine, you couldn’t handle Mikayla’s case after an arrest. Let us handle it. We’ll get him. We’ll nail him. We’ll put him away for life. I promise you.”

Anthony finished the desert course with a toast. Even Berit and Anders had a small amount of wine mixed with their sparkling water, after two cannoli each.

“Merry Christmas, everyone. We celebrate families who come in all shapes and sizes, defined by the love they have for each other. We are thankful for all of you, our family.”

An hour later the dishes were done and Kristin was leaning next to Joseph on the Visconti’s large round couch in front of a huge flat screen TV, watching football from snowy Chicago. All the men had chosen sides, so there was a lot of cheering, booing, second guessing the referees and ogling the Bears’ cheerleaders, shivering in their skimpy clothes.

“This makes me really love Florida,” Kristin said. She could have added that the warmth of the Visconti home and their hospitality—no, it was more than hospitality, it was, genuine caring and love—made her feel incredibly happy and at ease.

“You, a cold-blooded Norwegian?” Joseph elbowed her gently, eyes fixed on the TV.

She was anything but cold-blooded, but her track record with men wasn’t so good. Could she care for this man? Dare she trust that he might be the right one?


Kristin asked herself the same questions an hour later as she welcomed Joseph into her Pass-a-Grille cottage. His arms were filled with presents. Ron and Jackson were about to leave but Joseph talked them into staying.

The twins opened his gift, a “Beat the Parents” trivia-type board game. On the cards were easier questions for kids and harder questions for parents. She huddled with Ron and Jackson to read the instructions when Joseph piped up.

“Hey, this family already has three parents. That’s three to two. Too much ganging up on Berit and Anders. Let’s give it a try, and I’ll be a kid on their team, against the three of you. Three against three. Makes more sense.”

“Yeah,” Anders yelled. “Joseph’s a kid like us.”

“Marvel,” Berit added. “It makes us even. But I wish Joseph was a girl. Girls are smarter.”

As everyone picked up their tokens and began to play, Kristin looked at Ron and Jackson. She had never seen them having so much fun with a child’s game. She had to hand it to Joseph. He might act the role of a tough cop, but deep down he had a lot of insight, wisdom and a joy of life.

She thought of the fast motorcycle rides she had taken with him; the rock, blues and folk concerts he had taken her to, the TV programs they watched - Law and Order, The Good Wife, True Detective - when he had assigned them roles. She loved to play the cop; he the judge. And the music. Her i-Pod hummed with his favorite vocalists, as her tablet resonated with his favorite game, blackjack. They took turns being the dealer.

She couldn’t deny it. She was having a great time.

After the kids won a few rounds of Beat the Parent, they put the game away and Joseph stood and stretched. “Hey, Ron and Garrett,” he said. “ Would you please take these hyperactive, super smart little lizards out on the deck so I can have a talk with Kristin?”

“Lizards!” the twins screamed, but Ron had them by their collars and Garrett said “I’ll bring the ice cream.”

“Don’t forget the fudge sauce,” reminded Berit.

Joseph led Kristin to the front porch swing. A quarter moon shone upon them as he took her hand.

“I’ll get right to the point,” he said. “Judge, I think I’m falling for you.”

“Detective Russo, the feeling might be mutual,” she replied. She stroked the dark stubble on his chin and moved to lean on his shoulder when he turned her face up to his.

“You know that stuff that Raphael said back at the Visconti’s home about staying out of it, the trafficking investigation?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Well, he means it. He doesn’t know exactly how I’m involved, but he’s ready to prosecute as soon as we make some arrests. He doesn’t want the invest tainted.”

“Well, neither do I,” Kristin huffed, standing up.

Joseph pulled her down again.

“No, that’s not what I meant. Of course you don’t. But I have to ask you for a favor. A just between us favor.”

Kristin’s eyes widened. Secrets again? And with this New York City cop? Who seemed to be an open book?

“Does it have to do with the Internet sex? Pimps soliciting young girls? Arrests at the malls? She asked.

“It’s bigger than that, Kristin. It’s bigger than that sleazy pimp Germaine, although he’s part of it.”

Kristin nodded, encouraging him.

“The FBI’s involved. It’s a national manhunt. Sex with underage girls is a local matter. Pimps like Germaine make a lot of money, if they can stay out of jail. But the real dough is in pornography, child pornography. Videos of the sex acts and the torture and even snuff films—that’s where the real money is. The Internet provides worldwide distribution.”

Kristin grabbed his arm. “Not Mikayla?”

“No, not yet, we think.”

“And your role in this, Joseph?”

“Starting Monday I’m undercover with the FBI task force. With the Sheriff’s permission, of course.”

“If that much money is involved, its got to be dangerous, Joseph.”

“Only if they catch me,” he smiled.

“And I’m not supposed to know anything about this?”

“I’ve already told you more than I should. You cant tell anyone, not even Mary. But there’s something else. I wanted to ask a favor, just between us.”

A secret, she thought. Just between us, again.

She stared at him, still holding his hand.

“The FBI believes Germaine is the bait. A major porn dealer has made contact with him. If we can follow Germaine to their hideout, we might be able to break the porn ring. That means Federal charges for the sex, the pornography and the distribution by wire. Many, many years in Federal prison. Not to mention state charges for good measure.”

“Oh, Joseph, I hope it works. These predators, these pimps, need to be locked up for life. What can I do?”

“If Germaine is the bait to catch the porn, Mikayla is the bait to track Germaine. I need you to keep tabs on Mikayla and let me know her whereabouts, at least when she’s out of detention.”

“No, Joseph, “You’re not going to use Mikayla for bait. No way, not ever. Besides, providing information about her to you outside of a court hearing may be unethical. No way.”

Joseph smiled, rose to meet her, and cupped her face in his hands.

“Kristin, I’m sorry I used the word ‘bait.’ Mikayla isn’t bait. She’s in danger now because she won’t stay away from Germaine. You know that. We saw it ourselves on the ride around. She’s with him every chance she gets. We can end that. Put a stop to that danger. If we know where she is, we know she’ll be contacting him. He’s our target. We follow Mikayla to Germaine and Gemaine to the porn. Think about it. It’s the best way to protect Mikayla.”

Kristin rubbed her forehead. Two minutes passed. Finally, Kristin spoke:

“You’re right, Joseph. Mikayla’s in danger—worse than we thought—every time Germaine finds her; every time she’s out of detention. Her mother couldn’t control her. Perhaps this is the only way. But I need to think about it. ”

Joseph wrapped his arms around her and gave her the sweetest, deepest and longest kiss she’s had in years. When she came up for air, he nuzzled her neck and licked the tip of her nose, her eyelids and ears.

She broke away, stood up and cocked her head at him. She had an idea.

“Say, Detective,” she sang to him, ‘What are you doing New… Year’s… Eve?’”

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