Disclaimers - Nope, none. My characters, my hometown, my pseudo company. Dar and Kerry are (amazingly) copyrighted people belonging to themselves, who are renting their lives to me for reasons beyond my understanding. This is the sequel to Hurricane Watch.
By Melissa Good
The air was thick with nervous dread, even though the plain, if neatly furnished conference room provided a relatively relaxed appearance. Six people were seated around the nicked, wooden table, all eyeing each other with looks of trepidation. It was mid afternoon, and several beams of warm sunlight were entering through a high set of windows, painting the opposite wall in lurid stripes.
"So." A short, dark haired woman shuffled the papers in front of her. "Never thought I'd see this happen."
A taller, equally dark haired man across from her leaned back and folded his arms. "C'mon, Ann… we were sitting targets… six new contracts, and two of them directly competing?" He sighed in disgust. "Just a matter of time." He glanced at his watch. "Speaking of.. when's this piece of bad news going to get here?"
Ann Delaney stood, and paced to the window, barely tall enough to peer out. "Beats me… maybe the plane was late… you know these people. They'll come when they're good and ready, and I hear this one's a tough customer."
A stocky, balding man stood up and went to the coffee pot, pouring himself a cup. "What else is new? They don't send nice guys to do this sort of thing… I've told accounting to be on their toes, god knows what they'll ask for."
Footsteps sounded on the carpet outside, and the door latch worked, then the wooden door pushed open. A thin, pale haired man walked in followed by a stranger. "Good morning folks. Please be seated."
"Morning, Charlie." Ann murmured, resuming her seat and watching their visitor as the woman walked around to the front of the conference table, and set her briefcase down.
Charles Efton took a seat and folded his hands. "Well, here we all are, just like you asked." He turned his attention to the silent figure waiting at the head of the table. "I guess we can start."
Cool eyes regarded them. "Thank you." The voice was calm, yet vibrant. "I have a list of things I'm going to need for us to start this process." Strong, powerful hands opened the briefcase, and removed a sheaf of papers, which were slid down the table. "I don't think there's anything unusual there. Once I have this information, we can proceed."
Ann took the top sheet and passed the stack down, then looked at it. A list of reports topped the requests. Some were expected, others… "Dependents?" She looked up sharply, meeting intelligent eyes looking evenly back at her. "Is that necessary?"
"You'd be surprised what I find necessary." The woman answered briskly. "I'd like to drop my things off at the hotel. That should give you about two hours to gather everything… you shouldn't need more than that." A beat. "Right?"
Ann shuffled the papers, and arranged them with small, precise motions. "Right."
"Good." The sound of a briefcase being zipped was suddenly loud.
Charlie stood up hastily and moved forward, joined by the tall, dark haired man. "Ah… yeah, that'll give us time.. um, Sam, sorry.. I should have introduced you but we…"
The woman turned and held out a hand. "Sam Gershwin, right? You're the comptroller."
Sharp brown eyes regarded her carefully, before her grip was returned. "Right…and, sorry.. we didn't catch your name?"
The pale eyes warmed briefly. "Kerry Stuart." A smile appeared, breaking through the business façade easily, then disappearing. "Good to meet you… I'm sure we can make this a smooth transition."
"I'm sure." Sam murmured, as he watched the slim, blond woman shoulder her case. "You need a ride out?" The intense green eyes flicked to his face, then dropped.
"No, thanks." Kerry gave him a brief smile. "It's the Courtyard, right down the road. See you all shortly." She stepped around the table and made her way to the door, aware of the eyes at her back, which were cut off as she closed the door behind her, hearing the voices already beginning to rise.
With a sigh, she stepped out into the pleasant sunlight, taking in a breath of the pine scented air. "Maybe three hours." She decided, heading for her rental car across a gravel strewn lot.
The soft shuffle of booted feet against the padded deck broke the silence, and the ring of watchers shifted to watch as two opponents circled each other. The taller of the two stepped backwards and twisted, avoiding a kick from the shorter, then caught the extended leg under the knee and turned, bringing the other body down and over an outstretched thigh to the mat.
"Shit." The shorter figure rolled to it's feet and circled again, this time diving right into an attack, and grappling with powerful hands, managing a solid hold that was broken moments later when his opponent dropped to one knee, and delivered a blow to his ribcage. "Oof."
"Sorry." The low voice drawled, as they separated, then went at it again, this time trading kicks and blows in a rapid exchange that ended finally with the taller of the two taking them both through the air with a rolling attack, then landing with a thump and tossing the shorter outside the fight area.
He stayed there.
Dar got to her feet and flexed her hands inside their padded covering as she walked over. "You okay, Ken?" She extended an arm down to help him up. "Didn't mean to toss you quite that far."
"Sure…sure." Ken Yamamura took the hand good naturedly and allowed himself to be hauled upright. "Nah.. I'm fine, Dar… just needed to catch my breath.. we've been at it for a while."
"That's true." The tall, dark haired woman agreed mildly, looking around as the crowd began to break up, giving her lingering, appreciative glances. "I think I'm finally getting used to being part of the freak show."
"Phsw." Ken dusted his body off, covered in the neat fabric outfit matching Dar's, and tightened his black belt. "They love watching me get my butt kicked, is what it is, Dar…believe me, there' s a bunch of those kids who are loving every minute of this." He gave his opponent a smile, to take the sting out of the words.
Dar bit off a smile, and riffled her fingers through her sweat dampened hair. "Well, you're the one who haggled me into entering that meet… you can only blame yourself."
"Ugh.. don’t remind me." Ken winced as he rubbed his shoulder. "They're not going to know what hit them. " He paused. "Literally." His voice held warm admiration though. "Seriously, Dar… you've really been working hard… I'm totally impressed."
They started walking towards the changing rooms. "Thanks.. " Dar exhaled. "It's… come back faster than I thought it would, frankly.. I had half convinced myself I was being an idiot.. trying to recapture lost youth or something stupid like that."
Ken paused, peering up at the strong, angular face with a puzzled look. "Lost? Did you lose that somewhere? Why Dar.. you should have told me.. I'd have put up a wanted poster."
Blue eyes fastened on him with a dryly amused expression. "Very funny." But the compliment pleased her, and she clapped the younger man on the shoulder as she headed in to change clothes. "Thanks, Ken… see you tomorrow?"
"Oh yeah." Ken grinned wryly. "Same splat time, same splat channel.. see ya, Dar."
Chuckling, Dar entered the locker room and found her locker, then untied her belt and slung it over the door as she changed clothes. Light beach shorts replaced her long, cotton pants, with a tank top tucked into them. She stuffed her gear into the small gym bag and closed the locker door, then shouldered the bag's strap and headed for the door.
The hotel room was quiet, the soft sound of leaves rustling coming in through the window a counterpoint to the soft clicking of keys and the occasional shuffle of papers. Kerry rested her chin on one fist briefly, and reviewed her laptop screen which contained the beginnings of a status report.
"Okay." She sighed. "Maybe this won't be too bad, but they're not going to be happy giving up those perks." Kerry reviewed the report again, then dropped her eyes to the pages of reports, leafing through them for the tenth time. "I wonder if they realize how lucky they are to be so remote.. we don't have an office within three hundred miles of here."
She stood and stretched, wincing as her back protested from being seated in one place for far too long. Then she trudged over to the window and leaned on the sill, gazing out at the forest her snug little room was nestled in.
It was the silence, she realized, that was so significant. There was no traffic, or very little up here in this part of Vermont, and the entire pace of life seemed slower than she was used to. The hotel was a collection of small cabins, each tucked into pockets of trees and underbrush, with unobstructed views of the wilderness around them. It gave the illusion of complete privacy, and Kerry remained gazing out at it for a long moment before she turned and padded across the wooden floor, to throw herself down on the large, quilt covered bed.
It was nice, she considered, to be able to see different places. She rolled over and reached for the tv remote, clicking it on and sorting through the available cable channels. A familiar scene caught her eye and she paused, then put the remote down, resting her chin on her forearm as she watched the travel channel focus on a skyline she knew.
Kerry felt a wistful smile tug at her lips as she checked her watch. She'd been on the road for two very long weeks, though that was coming to an end after she'd wrapped up this assignment.
Good thing, too. Kerry pulled a pillow out from under the quilt and wrapped her arms around it, exhaling softly and turning her mind to figuring out where she could rustle up some dinner.
“Hey girl.” Dar managed to get inside the door to the condo without allowing the frantic Labrador to escape. “Hey.. take it easy.. take it easy…I know it’s late.”
Chino bucked around in a circle and whined, grabbing hold of the edge of Dar’s shorts in her teeth and tugging fiercely.
“Okay.. okay…” The tall woman tossed her gym bag down and surrendered, sitting down on the cold tile floor and hugging the dog. “Yeah.. okay.. I missed you too.” She closed her eyes as the Labrador licked her face thoroughly and climbed up her chest, her half grown paws scrabbling for a good hold. “Easy…easy…”
Finally, Chino calmed down and curled up inside the circle of Dar’s arms, panting. “Good girl.” Dar leaned back against the door and rubbed the dog’s ears idly. “You know something, Chino?”
Brown eyes looked up at her in question.
“It’s too damn quiet in here.”
The dog barked at her.
Dar smiled, and gave her a final hug, then stood up and retrieved her bag, crossing the large living room and entering the kitchen. It was almost painfully clean, and Dar averted her eyes as she ducked into the laundry room. She tugged her outfit from the bag and dumped it into the washing machine, along with her towel and underwear, and set the device running. Then she re-entered the kitchen and went to the cupboard, opening it and removing a tall glass which she filled with milk from the refrigerator.
“Dar Roberts, six messages, none urgent. Kerry Stuart, twelve messages, three urgent.” The console answered, bringing a faint smile to Dar’s face.
“Display Mail, Dar Roberts.” She scanned the headers, then produced a real smile. “Read two.”
Vermont is nice.
“Eh…if you like trees.” Dar commented aloud, a habit of hers when reading Kerry’s mails.
It would be a lot nicer if you were in it, though… it’s really quiet up here in the woods. I keep thinking some raccoon is going to hop up on my windowsill and start talking to me.
“Trapped in a Disney movie..very scary, Ker.”
Oh well. The account is going all right – I have all the information, and a copy of the plan is attached to this mail for you to check out. They were kind of upset when I first got here, but I think I made them relax a little, and maybe they realize I’m not here to turn everything upside down for them.
“I’m sure they warmed right up to you.”
Only some things, I guess.. they’ve got some very strange acquisition flowcharts… I wasn’t sure what they were doing, Dar.. so I scanned those in great. and attached them too. If you could take a minute and look them, over, it’d be
“Sure.” Dar murmured softly, taking a sip of her milk. “No problem.”
It’s been a really long two weeks.
“Yeah.. no kidding.”
I think it really hit me today, when I was driving to the hotel, just how much I miss you.
Dar bit down on the rim of her glass, rereading the words in silence.
It was really strange.. I dreamt about you last night, and when I woke up and you weren’t here, I felt awful. I know a business email isn’t the place to say that, but… I just wanted you to know.
Anyway, I’m going to go see if I can find something around here for dinner. I noticed an advertisement at the front desk for maple ice cream.. it sounded interesting. Call you later.
“Mm.” Dar leaned a hip against the counter and permitted herself a few moments of idle daydreaming, then she sighed as the computer beeped.
“Incoming video conference request, Alastair M.”
A square opened, revealing the familiar features of her boss, a round faced man in his fifties, with a perennially cheerful expression. “Evening, Dar!”
“Hi.” The dark haired woman drawled in response. “Little late for you, isn’t it?”
“Who me? Nah.” Alastair waved a hand at her. “Listen.. I need a favor.”
Uh oh. “And that would be…?”
“I’ve got a little problem here…well..” Alastair looked uncharacteristically troubled. “More than a little. You know David Ankow.”
“Mm.. the new board member.. yeah.” Dar grimaced. An outsider, he’d been voted onto the board by the stockholders two months prior, as a sort of watchdog, and had been challenging Alastair ever since. It was bad timing, since they were right in the middle of a huge network redesign project, which Dar was heading up, and that meant large expenditures without an immediate return to account for them.
“He’s called an emergency board meeting tomorrow morning, to debate the new network. I’ve got the answers he’s looking for, but just to be sure, I could use your support.”
That, Dar realized, was as close to a scream for help as she’d ever hear from her boss. “Hang on.” She pulled the seldom used pointing device out from the console and clicked to a browser screen, then entered an address. Moments later, she was reviewing the results of a query, and approving them. Then she clicked back to Alastair’s window. “Okay.”
“Listen, I know it’s short notice, but you know I don’t really ask that often and I…okay what?” His brow creased.
“Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow morning.” Dar replied. “Anything else you need?”
Alastair merely gazed at her for a long moment. “Well.” He propped his chin up on one hand. “Yeah, in fact…what’s Kerry’s favorite kind of flowers?”
Dar blinked in startlement. “What?”
“C’mon.. roses? Tulips? What?” Alastair pursued. “I want to send her something, because I honestly appreciate just how much of a human being she’s made you into in the last few months.”
Dar stared at him, shocked.
“I’ll make it roses… that’s safe. Later, Dar.. see ya tomorrow.” Alastair’s face disappeared, leaving a company logo behind in the box.
“T..b…you… hold on there you son of a…” She could hear her voice rising in outrage, and stopped, realizing that yelling at a blank computer screen was less than useful. What in the hell had that been about anyway? “I certainly haven’t changed that much.”
Chino wagged her tail.
“Have I?” Dar almost jumped when the phone rang, then she set her glass down and answered it, feeling a little rattled. “Yeah?”
“Um… hi?” Kerry’s voice came back at her.
“Oh.. hi.” Dar picked up her milk and wandered into the living room, dropping down into the leather love seat and slinging one leg over the arm of it. “Sorry… Alastair just called.. I’ve got to go out there tomorrow.”
“Oh? What’s up?”
“Some meeting.. that damn new board member.. what’s up with you?” Dar swallowed a mouthful of milk. “Did you get your maple ice cream?”
A soft chuckle trickled down the line. “Oh yeah…I was bad.” Kerry admitted. “I’d bring you home some, but I think it’d melt.” She paused a moment. “Got my mail, I guess, huh?”
“Yeah.” Her lover responded. “I’ll take a look at your paperwork.. but I’m sure it’s fine. You’ve got a knack for that.”
“And I miss you too.”
“Ah.” The smile was very evident through the phone line. “How long are you going to be in Texas?”
“Just an up and back.. probably fly in tomorrow night.” Dar sighed. “Sounds like he’s getting a lot of crap from that new guy… and it’s about the network, so..”
“Yeah.” Dar relaxed and closed her eyes. “He’s a pinhead… I’m going to have to come up with Sesame Street words to describe a global intranet to him tomorrow…wish me luck.” The project was hers, really, something she’d been able to do because Kerry had really stepped up to the plate in the last few months, and taken most of the day to day headaches off her shoulders. It would treble productivity, and almost quadruple the amount of bandwidth they had to offer, and Dar was quietly proud of herself in the design.
It had been damn nice to have the time to sit back and really think about it, working with a hand picked engineering team and laying out a new design that replaced circuits in some places twenty years old. But it was obscenely expensive, and Dar knew that’s what the newbie had picked up on, as a way to make a name for himself with the stockholders, since they wouldn’t see any benefit from the new system for at least two quarters, maybe more.
“Hmm? Sorry… I was just thinking.”
“I love you.”
Dar smiled at the ceiling. “I love you too.”
“What were you thinking about?”
“When?” Came the puzzled response.
Kerry laughed. “Never mind… listen, my flight’s due in at nine on Friday, assuming I finish up by then… can I get a ride?”
Dar snorted. “You have to ask??? What kind of dumb question is that? You bet your ass I’m going to be at that gate, my friend.” She stated. “And you tell those people in Vermont they’d better their butts be done by then, or they’re going to have a lot bigger problem than an consolidation to worry about.”
“Like me.” Dar growled. “Live and in color, and wanting to know why they’re monopolizing a very, very valuable company resource.”
Kerry giggled. “Oh my god.. you have no idea how cute you sound.”
“Cute?” Dar affected a wounded tone. “That’s the second time tonight.. Alastair accused me of turning into a mush ball too.”
“Did he?” Her lover laughed. “Well, he didn’t hear you with those network carriers before I left, I guess… they could have heard you in Atlanta without the phone.” She’d been privately thinking that she’d detected some changes in Dar recently, and had wondered if anyone else had noticed.
Apparently they had.
“How’d practice go tonight?” Kerry changed the subject.
“Pretty good.” Dar allowed. “I think it’s possible I won’t embarrass myself totally on Saturday.” She’d finally allowed herself to be coaxed into entering a small, local martial arts competition, whose date was finally upon her.
“Great…. I have my little flag and t-shirt all ready.” Kerry teased her gently.
“Ermph.” Dar rolled her eyes. “I hope I don’t regret this.” She stretched her legs out, feeling the strong pull of newly redefined thigh muscles. “Me and a bunch of kids.”
“Ooo…. Listen to old grandma there… want me to send you a nice frilly cap for your cane?” Kerry retorted. “C’mon, Dar.. don’t start that. You bounce Ken all over the place, and leave most of those other people in the gym standing slack jawed.”
It was true, Dar acknowledged silently. But what do I say, that most isn’t good enough? That I’m not happy unless I beat them all? Do I tell her coming close on Saturday ain’t gonna cut it? “We’ll see.” She finally compromised. “Anyway.. let me let you get some sleep… it’ll be a long day tomorrow.”
“You’re right.” Kerry sighed. “Have a safe flight… and say hi to Alastair for me, okay?”
“Mm.. I will.. he’s.. um.. “ Dar shifted a little. “Sending you flowers.”
“Huh?” Kerry finally spluttered. “For what?”
“Apparently.. he.. ah… thinks you’re a good influence on me.” Her lover replied. “He appreciates that.” She could imagine the stunned look on Kerry’s face. “I think he may be right.”
A long, in-drawn breath was clearly heard. “Oh.” Kerry murmured. “Well, it’s mutual, you know.. I couldn’t do half of this stuff if you hadn’t shown me the way.” She paused a moment. “God, I so want to hug you right now.”
Dar smiled wistfully at the phone. “Yeah.. that’d be nice.” She responded. “Anyway.. have a good night, Ker… I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”
“G’night.” Kerry sighed, then closed the phone, resting her chin on it thoughtfully. “Be careful.” She murmured softly. “Be safe.”
A cold, wet nose poked her in the eyeball. Dar jerked her head back in startlement, then blinked and looked around dazedly. “What th…” Chino was curled up against her chest, the puppy’s tail thumping against Dar’s leg. The condo was lit warmly with dawn light, and the TV was displaying an infomercial for a revolutionary new pooper scooper.
“Damn it.” Dar hitched herself up on one elbow and rubbed her face. “Gotta stop doing that.” She muttered to Chino, who was apparently getting used to her falling asleep on the couch. Not that the leather surface was uncomfortable, but it threw off her internal alarm clock, and made her have to scramble in the mornings.
Like now, for instance, especially since she had a damn plane to catch. Groggily, she sat up, then got to her feet, eyeing the cute abalone clock Kerry had insisted on getting, deciding they didn’t have one piece of tacky South Florida stuff in their living room. “Oh… hell.” Her flight was at eight, and here it was almost seven. “Chino, I’ll tell ya.. they’re not getting a wool suit.”
Dar ambled over and opened the back door for the puppy, then she ducked into the kitchen and grabbed a container of grape juice, which she popped open and sucked at as she headed for the shower.
Ten minutes later she was toweling off and rummaging through her clean clothes, wondering if her presence was worth the scandal she’d cause by showing up casual. Then Alastair’s comments of the previous night poked her, and she grinned. “Guess we’ll find out.” She tugged out a pair of faded jeans and neatly ironed cotton shirt.
She pulled the shirt on, and brushed a few errant Chino hairs off the sleeves, then slid into the jeans and buttoned them, eyeing the mirror to check the results. A tanned and lean figure was reflected back, showing the effect of three hard months of martial arts training and a multitude of weekends spent diving in the sunny waters offshore. “Oh yeah.” A twinkle entered the pale blue eyes gazing back at her as she added a belt, then clipped her pager and phone on. “Nice, huh? I’ll give you nice.” She pulled a jacket from the closet and slung it over her arm, then shouldered her briefcase and headed for the door. “Think you’ve forgotten just how much trouble I can be when I put my mind to it, Alastair.”
Then she stopped. “Whoa.” She put her things down and jogged to the back door, whistling for Chino, who came bounding up the steps. “C’mon, girl… I gotta go.” The puppy put paws up on her leg and whined, and she gave her a quick hug. “Don’t worry.. I’ll be back tonight.” She glanced around, then gave the dog a kiss on the head. “And don’t you tell anyone I did that, okay?”
“Grrrr.” Chino chewed on her belt loop.
Kerry sighed gently as the first light trickled into her window. She hadn’t slept much, her thoughts keeping her tossing and turning until she’d finally dropped off well after midnight. Now here she was awake before dawn.
Oh well. She sat up and dangled her feet over the bed, rubbing her bare arms and yawning. It would give her a chance to get a run in, at any rate, something she’d had only sporadic success at while she was out on the road. At least it would be pretty scenery.
Kerry stood and trudged into the rustic bathroom, turning on the water and splashing a handful of it on her face before she realized the temperature difference between Vermont and Miami. “Yow!” Her green eyes popped wide open, and she hastily adjusted the warm water faucet a little to cut the chill. “That’s one way to wake up.”
She investigated the little courtesy refrigerator in the room, finding tiny crocks of cold apple cider and some little coffee cakes. “Mm.” She took one of each and dropped into the curved wooden desk chair, hitting the key to retrieve her mail while she nibbled on her breakfast.
The laptop connected, and she logged in with two fingers, then sat back as her mail downloaded. “Oo.” She clicked on one mail, and smiled, as a small, dancing raccoon shimmied it’s way across the screen, singing “Dixie”. Kerry muffled a laugh, almost sending a spray of crumbs all over her keyboard. “Where in the hell did she find that?” She watched the cartoon for a moment more, then shook her head, and checked the rest of the mails, leaving the three urgent ones open and waiting for attention.
Her juice finished, she got into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, tying her hair back into a tail and putting on her running shoes before slipping out the door to the cabin and into the early morning air. It was cool and dry, very different from the late June heat she’d have been facing in Miami, and Kerry drew in an appreciative breath as she chose a path and started up it at a walk.
She let her leg muscles stretch out a little, before she broke into a jog, not wanting to push herself too hard after being relatively inactive for a few weeks. Between flights, and hotels, and the four accounts she’d consolidated on her trip, she’d hardly had time to figure out what state she was in, much less where the nearest gym was.
So, she asked herself, why drag yourself out here today, hmm? Kerry picked up her pace a little, feeling her body settle into the activity. Couldn’t possibly be because you’re going home in two days, could it? Hmm? And you’re going to have to keep up with Dar, or risk a first class teasing? She laughed at herself, acknowledging the eager thrill that danced over her skin at the thought of seeing her lover again.
The little path meandered upward, and she welcomed the effort, enjoying the pretty trees as she lengthened her stride. It had been an interesting couple of months, really. Both she and Dar had settled down, and gotten used to being with each other, and now that they’d worked out timing, and schedules… it was really becoming a lot of fun. She’d half expected there to be large areas of contention between them, since they were so different, but the condo allowed them both their space, and they’d started off by setting a few ground rules.
Like, no talking work at home. That was a biggie, since they were both so involved with the same subjects, it was hard not to. After a while, though, Kerry had noticed a distinct change in Dar’s attitude when she was home – the taller woman seemed to shed her tough and often impatient shell when she walked through the door, displaying a warmer and gentler side that Kerry found herself becoming very addicted to.
What a sweetie she was. Not that she’d ever admit to it, though. As they'd grown closer, she'd been able to get Dar to open up a little, and share some of her inner demons, just as Kerry had slowly started to unburden herself from her own.
Kerry’s path took her up and over a small ridge, and down parallel to a stream that trickled through the wooded area. She slowed her steps as she reached a wooden bridge crossing it, and ambled to a halt, finding a log nearby and sitting down on it, just to watch the water go by her.
Ducks floated past, nibbling at the reeds, and making the occasional foray under the water. Kerry looked up from watching them as soft footsteps approached her. From the path opposite the way she’d come, a tall, burly man in corduroy pants and a flannel shirt came into view, with a carved walking stick he was using to disguise a faint limp.
Seeing her, he stopped in surprise, and paused. “Why, hello there.”
Kerry smiled in reflex, finding nothing to dislike in his broad, open face with it’s light covering of beard. “Hello.”
“You’re a strange bit of a thing to be sitting out here on a log, now, aren’t you?” The man ambled closer and cocked his head, studying her. “Without your clothes on and all.”
Kerry stood up. “I was just out for a run.” She pointed towards the bridge. “Where does that go?”
“Just down by the old mill.” The man answered. “You don’t want to go down there…ground’s very rocky, and there’s snakes.”
“Ah.” Kerry glanced around her. “You’re right… that wouldn’t be a good idea… oh well.” She circled him and regained the path. “Time to get to work anyway.”
He moved suddenly and blocked her. “Hey.. hey.. so..what kind of work do you do?” His hands stroked his cane. “Pretty little thing like you?”
Oh boy. Kerry drew in a breath, then expelled it. “I’m a network analyst.” She forced a smile. “But thanks for the compliment…. Now. I do have to be going.” The cane snaked out and caught her upper arm and her heart started pounding. “Sir, you don’t want to do that.”
“Now… I just want to talk.. take it easy, little girl.” The man laughed. “Not often I get to see someone as nice looking as you up here.. surely not half naked.” He tugged her closer.
Kerry almost panicked, but just as she was about to scream, she could almost hear Dar’s calm words in the back of her mind. Don’t lose your mind. Stay calm. Hit hard. She grabbed the stick with one hand and jerked hard, then spun and swept a leg out, pulling his feet from under him and dumping him on the ground.
The stick came free into her hands and she backed off, spreading her grip across the length of it with a feeling of weird familiarity.
It was strange. Her body shifted, coming over her center of balance as her knees unlocked, and her shoulders tensed in readiness. “Like I said, you really don’t want to do that.” She spoke quietly.
“Son of a bitch.” Oddly, the man didn’t seem upset. He started laughing. “Jokes on me, then, I guess… Sorry about that, young lady.. I really did think you were just out to tease an old goat like me.”
Kerry eyed him uncertainly, but she relaxed a little, and stepped back, but kept the cane between herself and the prone man. Her thumbs slid out to balance her grip, and she was aware of how comforting it felt to have the thing in her hands. “That’s a pretty disgusting thing to think.”
“Well.” He got to his knees, then heaved himself up onto his feet. “If I’d a known you were some kind of a ninja, I surely would have kept my thoughts a deal more pure.” He held up his hands. “I am sorry, ma’am.”
Slowly, she let the stick’s end drop, then extended it towards him. “It’s all right.. sorry I threw you that hard.” She felt a faint pang of regret in releasing the cane, but she put that down to her natural caution, and focused on keeping her knees from shaking in pure reaction. "Are you all right?"
"Surely." The man brushed his pants off, then wrapped his hands around the walking stick. "I am sorry, Ms…"
"Stuart." Kerry offered her hand. "Kerry Stuart.. and you are..?"
"Jess Walters." He gingerly returned her grip. "You new around here, Ms. Stuart?" He gestured towards the path. "I don’t' want to keep you."
Kerry started walking back the way she'd come, and he fell into step next to her, his limp hardly keeping him from matching her stride. "No.. I'm just visiting. My company sent me here for a few days."
"Ah." Jess nodded. "I live up past the hill top there.. I'm a web designer."
Kerry gave him a startled look. "Really?"
"Ayup." He nodded. "Last job was with Tungsten Aerospace… just finished their website last week."
"I work for ILS."
Now it was his turn to stare. "No.. really?"
"Mm.. they just bought Allison Consulting… that's what I'm here for." Kerry felt the shakiness fade, as she continued walking, and decided Mr. Walters was probably harmless for now.
"Ah." The tall, burly man chewed his lower lip. "Well, since I put a scare in you, let me try and make amends.. you be careful of those people, Ms. Stuart.. they're not nice folks."
Kerry turned her head. "Really? They seemed all right…what do you mean?"
"I can't really say." His jaw firmed and he looked off into the distance. "Just you be careful, all right? Nice talking to you, Ms. Stuart.. and sorry about the misunderstanding." Abruptly, he chose an offshoot of the path, and was gone before Kerry could answer, his tall form disappearing into the brush with startling speed.
Kerry put her hands on her hips and stared at the spot for a moment in deep puzzlement. "What in the heck was that?" She shook her head, then resumed her jogging towards the cabin, now wondering what in the world she'd gotten into.
She was still wondering after a hot shower had removed the sweat from her body, and she was standing in the middle of her room, deciding what to wear. "Hmm." She eyed her possible choices. The staff at Allison had been wearing business dress, so her maroon suit wouldn't be out of place, however…
Dar had this theory about power trips, and it went something like.. "Find out what they think is important, then turn it around and show them how unimportant you think it is." So. They thought appearances were important.
Kerry smiled, and tugged her oldest, most comfortable jeans out of her bag, and added a brightly colored shirt to it, along with her hiking boots. "Let's shake em up a little."
The Houston airport was busy, and Dar had to dodge around a multitude of moving bodies on her way to the car rental desks. She managed to arrive there just after a handful of business men in suits, and took her place in line with a feeling of mild irritation. The single clerk made her wonder if it was early lunchtime, then she noticed two others in a small office in the back, apparently working on a problem.
Dar turned her attention to watching people go by, playing her usual mental game of trying to guess the person’s occupation. She’d picked out three geeks, two accountants, and a tv star before a loud voice drew her eyes back to the desk.
One of the businessmen was at the counter, and was arguing, slapping his hand down on the Formica countertop. The clerk behind the desk simply shrugged, and held her hands out and pointed at the clock. The man grabbed his briefcase and stormed off, towards an airport limo desk.
“What’s up?” Dar asked her neighbor in line.
“They’re out of cars.” The man grunted. “Figures… they got some damn convention up here going on.. and they’re all empty, even the luxury models.”
“Convention?” Dar mused.
“Yeah… Southern Baptists, or something like that.” The man pointed at a group of travelers heading towards a large tour bus.
Dar followed them with her eyes, then considered her options. She could, of course, take a cab to the office, but she hated cabs. Her eyes went to the limo desk. There was that possibility.. but she wasn’t sure she wanted to send that kind of message.
Then her eyes drifted back over to a small kiosk near the door, where a young man in denims and a cowboy hat was sitting, evidently bored.
Fun Rentals. Dar studied the pictures, of RV’s, Skidoos, and…
Slowly, a smile appeared on her face. “Excuse me.” She stepped past the men in line and ambled over to the kiosk, leaning on it’s desk and waiting for the cowboy to look up. “Hi.”
His eyes widened and he sat up, blinking at her. “Um.. sorry, ma’am… can I help you?”
Dar pointed. “One of those, please.”
He looked. “Uh.. sure.” He scrabbled around his desk for paperwork. “Um..sorry.. not many….ah, we usually have folks taking out the RV’s first..and I… oh, here we go.” He retrieved two forms, and slid one across the desk to Dar. “Could you fill that out for me? And I’ll need to see your driver’s license.”
“Uh huh.” Dar pulled her wallet out and removed the license, handing it over as she took a pen out and started writing. “Here.” She also handed over her credit card.
“Okay.. um.. I have to call in your license… do you have any outstanding tickets, ma’am?”
“No.” Dar continued writing. She ignored his low voice as he called in the license, then straightened as he hung up. “Got what you need?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The boy scribbled something on her form, then pulled a set of keys from a small board near his left hip. “Would you come with me, please?”
Dar followed him out the door into a blast of bright sunlight. She pulled her sunglasses out of her jacket pocket and shoved them into place, then stood back as the boy opened a door to one side of the parking area.
“Gotcha a nice one.. have you ever driven one of these, ma’am?” The boy looked up, tipping his hat back a little. “They can be a little tricky.”
“I’ve ridden one.” Dar took the helmet off the handlebars and removed the keys from the attendant’s hand. “Thanks.” She checked the motorcycle over, biting off a grin. “Harley, eh? Nice.”
“Yeah.” The boy backed off, then waved. “Have a great day.”
Kerry was aware of the eyes fastening on her as she entered Allison’s offices, and she returned the looks with pleasant smiles as she made her way to the conference room. She walked by the startled occupants and put her briefcase down, then unzipped it and pulled out a thick manila envelope. “All right. This is what the plan is.”
She took out several packets and passed them around. “We have certain criteria your systems need to meet before we permit the connection up to the intranet.. I’ll need your server specifications before the end of today.”
“That’s a lot of machines.” Ann objected coolly. “We’d have to pull resources for that.” She ran her pencil over her lips in thought. “Our clients are already calling, asking what the impact of the merger is going to be on their services.”
“Well.” Kerry leaned on the table, meeting her eyes. “Once their traffic’s on our backbone, it’ll double their throughput… I bet they can’t wait.” She smiled. “Isn’t it nice to have great news for them?”
An awkward silence fell. “Ann, that’s a minor detail, just put some people on it.” Sam drawled. “What else?”
Kerry lifted a sheet of paper. “It’s mostly procedural at this point. Our personnel people will be in contact with you to transition staff.. but I want you to know in advance everyone will be subject to background checks and screening.”
A low murmur rose. Ann leaned close to Sam, as she watched the slim blond woman review her papers. “That could be an issue.”
The comptroller grunted.
“Is that really necessary? We’ve had most of these people on board for years.” Charlie objected. “I’d hate to have them think we think they’re criminals, or something.”
The cool green eyes fastened on him. “Nothing personal.” Kerry replied, smiling for no apparent reason. “It really isn’t. Everyone has to go through it, because of all of our government contracts, and the fact that you all will have access to our intranet.” She paused. “Is there a problem with that? Sometimes it’s easier if we know in advance.”
They exchanged glances. “Oh..no..no.. no problem.” Charlie waved a hand at her. “I was just asking… seemed like a waste of money to me, and we all know how important that is.”
“Mm.” Kerry put her paper down, and slid her hands into her jeans pockets. “Well, we’ve found that in the long run, it’s worth it. One security breach can cost us a lot.” Her fingers touched a small, unfamiliar object, and her brow creased, but she merely closed her hand around it inside her pocket. “Okay…I’ll need a current print of your payables and receivables, preferably in soft copy, then we can get started.”
Sam stood up and stretched. “All right.. I’ll get that going…Charlie? Want to coordinate these things with me.. we don’t want to keep Ms. Stuart waiting.” The two men left, closing the conference room door behind them.
Ann remained, leaning back in her chair and sliding her pencil between her fingers. “Anything else I can do?” She asked, politely.
Kerry picked up her paper. “My boss had some questions.”
The petite woman smiled. “Would that be the infamous Dar Roberts?” She inquired. “I’ve heard some very impressive things about her.. in fact, it’s one of the things I was most intrigued about after I heard we were being bought out.”
“Yes, it would be.” Kerry sat down and folded her hands. “She definitely lives up to her reputation… and as a matter of fact, one of her questions was regarding the bidding process.. she found it really.. interesting.. that your company always got the bid on the day of last refusal.”
A guarded look slipped over Ann’s face. “Oh.. really? Well.. that’s a coincidence.. I don’t think I ever noticed that.”
Kerry watched her expression and body language, something Dar had been coaching her in. Ms. Ann was nervous, all right, and hiding something. “Yeah… she was going to give the account reps at those companies a call.. just to check out how the deals went through.” The pencil started moving faster, and she could almost sense the other woman’s tension rising.
“Well, I’m sure she’ll find out it was just a coincidence.. and some sharp bidding.” Ann stood up abruptly. “Excuse me.. I need to use the restroom… ah.. there’s coffee down the hall if you’re interested.” She took her papers and left quickly, her heels making a staccato tattoo on the tile floor.
The company headquarters was, in a word, huge. Dar found herself on the perimeter road under a hot sun, but the wind provided by her nice shiny Harley more than compensated. She accelerated, enjoying the feel of the large engine under her, and the sensation of being exposed to nature, in a way she never got while driving in Miami.
Maybe she’d get a cycle back home. Dar waggled an eyebrow, glancing aside to watch a herd of buffalo thunder past, raising a cloud of dust and sending the scent of warm wool to her nose. Wonder if Kerry would like this? She imagined her lover behind her, holding on as they raced around, and a grin split her face. I bet she would.
The road curved around towards the entrance, and Dar throttled down the cycle, slowing the machine to a rumbling crawl as she came up to the gates. The guard darted out, and another joined him as she pulled to a halt, fishing in her jacket pocket for her ID badge.
“Hold on….” The man held a hand up warningly. His partner stood off, and put a hand on his holstered gun.
Dar almost laughed, as she unhooked her helmet and pulled it off, shaking her hair loose. “Here.” She handed him the badge. “I’m not a terrorist.”
The man came forward and took the card, giving her a suspicious look before he glanced down at it. Then his attitude changed so fast it was a wonder, Dar thought, that his tie didn’t spin around his head and choke him. He stiffened up and ducked his head at her. “Ma’am.” A hand waved off his partner urgently. “I think they’re expecting you.”
Dar gave him a whole hearted, sexy grin. “I bet they’re not.” She took her badge back, and waited while the gate opened, then gunned the engine cheerfully and swept on by, thoroughly enjoying herself. She pulled up into a spot near the front door and parked, leaving the helmet perched on the handlebars.
Four steps up, then a small waterfall filled pool, then another six steps, then a weird sculpture, another four steps, and she was at the front doors, massive glass portals so perfectly balanced they opened at a touch of her fingertips. She walked in, her boots sounding loud on the marble tile, and let the door whisper shut behind her. The lobby was very quiet, only a small fountain in the corner breaking the stillness, and Dar spent a moment merely standing, and absorbing it all.
"Hasn't changed a bit." Dar shook her head in mild disgust, and headed for the elevators, perched behind an imposing guard desk. "Pretentious piece of…"
"Can I help you, ma'am'." The guard's voice stopped her. "Are you looking for someone?"
Dar walked over and leaned on the counter. "Yeah. " She pulled off her sunglasses and chewed on an earpiece. "Alastair McLean."
The cool hazel eyes studied her, as the guard scanned a list behind the desk. "Is he expecting you, ma'am?" His voice was pointed on the title.
"Yep." Dar flipped her badge onto the counter.
Reluctantly, the man took it, and put it on the desk, then started typing in something, glancing at the badge as he did so.
His hands stopped, and he leaned closer, then looked up at her in evident shock.
Dar smiled. "Not what you expected?" She hazarded.
He slowly handed her the badge back. "No, ma'am, Ms. Roberts, not exactly." Now the voice was respectful. "You can go on up..you know the way, I guess."
The dark haired woman smiled, then moved past him to the bank of glass and marble lined elevators, one of which was resting on ground level in all it's brassy splendor. Dar entered it and punched the twenty third floor, then leaned against the wall as the doors slid shut and the car started moving upward.
It stopped on fifteen, and two men got on, arguing over a Y2K upgrade on a legacy program Dar remembered writing seven or eight years prior. She listened in amusement as they debated, ignoring the glances they kept giving her.
"If they'd have left that original code in place, Dave, we'd be fine."
"You tell them that. I tried to tell them that two years ago, but no.. no.. they had their heads stuck too far up their butts to go and ask the original coder." The shorter man shook his head in disgust. "Pansy asses."
"Well.." The taller man chuckled, as they got out on the twentieth floor. "I don't know.. I'm not sure I'd have the balls to go tell Dar Robert's I'd messed up her code either."
The doors slid shut, and Dar snickered, then eyed her reflection, flicking her dark hair into a semblance of order as the elevator reached it's destination, and the doors opened.
It was, if anything, even quieter up here than in the lobby. There was soundproofing weave on all the walls, and the floors had plush, padded carpeting on them. Dar walked silently through the entryway, lit by sunlight that poured in through the vaulted glass ceilings, and turned down the largest corridor, which had plaques all down it's length.
The soft sounds of business could be heard through the wooden doors she passed, and she exchanged nods with two other women who passed her. Finally she was at the last set of doors, and she reached out, grabbing the ornate brass handle and pulling them open.
Inside was a large, airy antechamber, roughly circular, with three doors leading off it. In the center was a small fountain, and to one side, a huge, laminated wood circular desk presided, with a tall, austere women seated precisely in the center, her attention focused on a paper.
"Hello, Beatrice." Dar's voice broke the quiet.
Startled, the woman glanced up. "Oh I… " Then she turned her head fully. "Well, my god, Paladar Roberts. It's been forever." Beatrice laughed, and stood up. "Or at least, what.. five years?"
"At least." Dar allowed, walking over and folding her arms over her chest. "You know I hate this place."
Alastair's longtime assistant cocked her head, and smiled, pulling down her half glasses a little. "You show up like that just to tweak him?" She asked gently. "Bad timing, if it was.. Ankow's really giving it to him in there."
"I know.. that's why he asked me to show up." Dar replied. "They still in session?"
"Mm." Beatrice nodded her neatly coifed gray head. "He's trouble, Dar.. he wants to get Alastair out." The older woman folded her hands, and sighed. "Have you met him?"
"Well, I can't say I like him much. He's in his early forties, good looking, sporty type." Beatrice told her. "Thinks anyone who can remember World War II should be gone and buried.. he doesn’t' have much patience with what he regards as the old ways."
"Really." Dar considered the door to the conference room. "Change for the sake of change gets no one anything but trouble, Beatrice.. you know that."
"Mm.. well, he's on a campaign to get the board restructured, and remove Alastair… he thinks he has the leverage. You know last quarter's results weren't that great."
"We're trying to fix that." Dar replied quietly. "You can't sell facilities you don't have."
"I know that, and you know that… maybe you should tell Mr. Ankow that." Beatrice's dark eyes twinkled. "He took one look at your sixteen year tenure.. and he wants you out, too." She gazed at Dar. "You look great for such an old-timer, Paladar."
A look of wry amusement crossed Dar's tanned features. "Thanks. " She walked over and put her hands on the door latches into the conference room. "See ya."
"Good luck." Beatrice waved.
Dar paused, hearing the raised voices inside, and took a breath, rousting her more aggressive, darker side up before she worked the handles, and pulled the doors open.
Kerry entered the break room, winding her way through several employees seated at the small tables, most of whom ignored her. She went to the hot water dispenser and allowed the steaming liquid to run over her teabag, focusing her ears on the conversations behind her.
“Think they’ll fire us?”
“Nah.. they can’t…Sam’ll get them locked up.. just give it a chance.”
“I dunno, Rex.. this ain’t no little two bit graphics company coming in here.”
“I heard they just got rid of the last three companies they bought out… you came in, and they handed you a box with your stuff in it.”
Kerry rolled her eyes, and dunked her teabag. Not quite, though she had needed to make some hard decisions on the first of them, where the departments pretty much mirrored the business unit that was acquiring them.
It had been a very lonely moment, that night in a strange hotel room, in a tiny corner of North Carolina, and she’d sat up for hours, locked in a fierce debate with herself as she tried to come up with some way, any way to justify not screwing up these people’s lives.
And she couldn’t.
At 4am, she’d given up, and, feeling small and foolish, called Dar. “How can I make decisions like this?” She’d asked her lover.
“Don’t.” Dar had answered, apparently wide awake. “I’ll do it.”
It had been so tempting, Kerry sighed. She’d been exhausted, and emotionally drained, and every instinct she had was begging her to give in and let Dar take the weight off her shoulders.
But she’d said no. And she’d collected herself, gotten a few hours sleep, and went into the place the next morning, to give them their limited options.
“Well.” The company’s director had said. “We thought we were all out.. that’s good news.” And he’d smiled at her. “Thanks, Ms. Stuart.. it’s sure been a pleasure working with you.”
Kerry put some sweetner in her cup and stirred it.
“Yeah, well they’d better take care of us.. or I’ll have something to say about it.” A tall, younger man in the corner spoke up irritatedly. “We held up our end of things.”
“You’d better shut up, Alvin.” A woman answered. “Or you’ll end up like Mary.”
An odd silence fell, and Kerry experienced a sudden prickly feeling up and down her spine. Casually, she turned, to find everyone looking at her. She took a sip of her tea. “I didn’t bring any boxes with me, so you can relax.”
It got ten degrees cooler immediately. “You’re from the new company?” A muttered question came from the back of the room.
Kerry nodded. “Yep.” She took another sip, feeling the waves of hostility beating against her. “It’s really not that bad.”
“Not from your perspective.” The woman who had last spoken retorted.
“Well.. I was in your shoes a couple months ago.” Kerry answered evenly. “So you never know.. I got a promotion out of it.” She made her way out the door and down the hall, but not fast enough to escape the comment that floated after her.
“Yeah? Wonder who she slept with.”
Kerry sighed. “And you know, I can’t even really get mad at that.” She remarked, to the empty hallway. “I hate living a cliché sometimes.”
She slipped back into the conference room and stopped, finding Sam’s tall figure waiting for her. “Oh.. I took you up on the offer of coffee.” She lifted her cup and circled the table on the opposite side.
“Great.” The comptroller replied, with a friendly smile. “We’ve got the reports you asked for running.. but it’ll take a couple of hours.. listen, you up for an early lunch? There’s a nice spot near here we all go to.”
A tiny, faint warning bell rang in Kerry’s mind’s ear. “Sure.” She pulled out her cell phone. “Let me just check in with the office.” She dialed a number, then waited. “Hey, Maria.”
“Kerrisita!” Maria’s warm tones came through the phone at her. “I am glad to hear your voice.”
“Thanks.” Kerry smiled in reflex. “Listen, did the boss call in yet?”
“No.. she is in a meeting in Texas.” Maria told her. “Beatrice tells me it is not a good one.”
“Mm.” Kerry sighed. “She was afraid of that.. yeah… well, things are in process here.. but I’m going to step out for lunch so if anyone’s looking for me, have them use my pager, or the cell.”
There was a little silence, then Maria cleared her throat. “Si, I will do that, Kerrisita.”
“I shouldn’t be more than an hour or two.”
“Thanks, Maria.” Kerry hung up and clipped her phone to her belt. “Okay. Let’s go.” She glanced up at the tall accountant, and found his interesting hazel eyes gazing back at her. His face was nicely proportioned, and he had a straight nose and thin, but well formed lips. Not a bad face to have to sit across a lunch table at, she decided
“Right this way.” Sam gestured towards the door and followed her out, making small talk as they exited the building, and he guided her towards a four door sedan parked nearby. “So.. have you been to Vermont before, Ms. Stuart?”
Kerry settled into the passenger seat, and buckled the seat belt around her body. “No… I’m from Michigan, originally.. and I’ve spent some time around the northeast.”
“Really?” Sam got behind the wheel and started the car, locking the doors as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Michigan… hm…I had a friend that went to school up there… don’t’ think I’ve ever been, though. I’m from Oregon, but I moved here when I was just a kid.”
“Do you like it here?” Kerry gazed out the window at the beautiful, stately trees. “It’s lovely country.. must be nice when the leaves change.”
“It’s gorgeous.” Sam told her, with an easy smile. “Do you miss that in Florida?”
Kerry watched the road idly, marking the streets until the car turned into a driveway, continuing down a crunching gravel path and through a line of neatly trimmed hedges before it pulled up next to a small inn. She released the safety belt and waited until the doors unlocked, then got out of the car.
She was fairly sure there was more to this than lunch, and as she felt Sam's speculative eyes examining her as they walked towards the inn, she found herself wondering just exactly what that something more was.
"This isn't a debate, Alastair." The tall, dark haired man leaned back in his chair and threw his arms up. "You can't argue with numbers, and that's what the shareholders are concerned with. "
Alastair folded his hands on the table and kept a patient smile on his face. "Now, David… you've seen the plans for next quarter.. I agree the last one wasn't what we'd want, but projections on towards the end of the year are excellent."
"That's right." Stuart Kissington, the chief financial officer agreed, his low, gruff voice a counterpoint to Alastair's polished tones. Kissington had been on the board of directors for as many years as Alastair, and was a formidable bulwark to the CEO's left, a burly, bearded man with white hair and a grizzled beard. "Damn shame we had to take that charge last quarter, but it couldn't be helped. Weather."
"Not good enough." Ankow shook his head. "Gentlemen, we're rounding the corner to the 21st century.. and frankly, this company's not ready for it." He stood up and started pacing, an annoying habit of his. "Our shareholders expect us to be cutting edge, and that's not just on technology. We have to be ready to provide all the services our clients need into the next century!" He turned and spread his arms. "We can't be stuck in the past.. and I think that’s exactly where we are right now. I don't see any indication that this company is up to the challenge."
Alastair propped his chin up on one hand. "David, I don’t' get why you're so against the new network, then. That's all the new technology you've been bab… I mean, referring to in the last five minutes."
He ticked off his fingers. "It's overpriced. It's under designed… I can't think of one reason why this company should invest in a lot of wires and cables that won't get us squat in the marketplace."
David's voice had covered the sound of doors opening, and now a low, vibrant drawl overrode his speech, and echoed across the conference room.
Ankow turned, startled, to see a tall, dark haired young woman in jeans and a faded crimson shirt standing in the doorway, sunglasses perched on her nose, and both hands planted firmly on her hips.
One hand lifted and a long, narrow finger raised. "It's all fiber technology. It's state of the art. It triples our available public bandwidth" The tall form stalked towards him. "The one problem this company has is our lack of infrastructure. You can't goddamn well sell what you don't have. And if.. Mr. Ankow.. if, you can't see that."
Dar pulled off her sunglasses and treated him to an ice blue stare. "Get some glasses." She held her ground for a moment as he stared at her in shock, then she turned and walked to the conference table, picking a chair and stripping her leather jacket off as she dropped down into it. She tossed her sunglasses on the polished wood surface and glanced down it's length. "Hello, Alastair."
Her boss beamed at her. "Hi, Dar… nice to see you." He turned the beatific smile on the now furious David Ankow. "David? I don't think you've ever met Dar, have you? Sorry.. this is Dar Roberts, our CIO."
Dar rolled her head around and peered at her target. "Hi."
Alastair cleared his throat and stood up. "Well, now that we're all here… David, why don't you sit down.. I believe Dar is prepared to give us a briefing on the new network."
Ankow visibly wrestled with his temper, then allowed a smile to cross his face. "I'd like that." He took a seat opposite where Dar was. "Go ahead…I've got lots of questions."
"Hope you like stick to your ribs type foods, Ms. Stuart.. that's their specialty here." Sam remarked, as he opened the menu. "We're not big on salads."
Kerry eyed the selections and bit back a wry grin, deciding Dar would be in heaven here. "I'll be fine, thanks." She answered politely, making her choices and putting the folded linen panel down. Though, she reflected, while Sam examined his options, Dar had been getting better about that lately, and she'd done her darndest to nudge her lover towards a healthier diet.
Of course, during these two weeks, the woman was probably living on cheeseburgers and fries, but… Kerry sighed, and folded her arms, looking around. The restaurant was a cozy one, with about two dozen tables, and a wooden interior liberally sprinkled with gingham and craftswork. Roughly half the tables were filled, despite the early hour, and that at least boded well for the quality of the food.
A waitress came over, taking a pencil from behind one ear. She was an older woman, with a cheerful face and a sturdy body. "Hello there, Sam… how are you doing today?"
The accountant looked up and smiled. "Hi, Sadie…I'm doing fine, thanks… how's the husband?"
"Cantankerous as always." The woman laughed. "What'll you have, the usual?"
"That'll be fine.. and a mug of coffee." Sam glanced across the table. "Ms. Stuart?"
The waitress blinked, then turned her head. "Sorry, hon…you're so quiet there. What can I get for you?" She paused, evaluating her subject. "We've got some poached fish for the special."
"No..I'll take the pot roast, thanks." Kerry replied mildly.
The waitress looked surprised. "All righty… that comes with mashed potatoes.. but we can put steamed vegetables on if you like."
"Nope… potatoes are just fine." The blond woman reassured her. "And a chocolate milkshake, please."
The writing stopped, then started again. "Coming right up." Sadie took both menus and trundled off, after a long look at Kerry.
Keep them off balance. Dar had told her. Figure out what they expect you to do, then do something else. Don't let them get comfortable thinking they know you. "So." Kerry leaned back in her chair and regarded her tablemate. "What is it you want to talk about, Mr. Gershwin?"
The dark haired man looked honestly nonplussed for a long moment. Finally, he leaned on his elbows and laced his fingers together as he studied her face. "You do keep surprising me, Ms. Stuart. I'll give you that." A faint smile flickered on and off his face. 'I'm not sure what to think about you."
Kerry merely waited.
"Ann tells me you were interested in our bidding methods." Sam finally drawled. "She seemed to think you wanted more information."
Hmm. Kerry's nostrils flared a little, smelling trouble. She carefully considered her answer. "On reviewing them… we just though it was interesting.. that you won the bid on last call." She remarked casually. "After not really being a contender in the preliminary stages."
"My boss, and I, yes."
"Ah." Sam pressed his fingertips against his lips. "That would be Ms. Roberts, correct?"
Kerry nodded. "Yes."
"I hadn't thought Dar Roberts would argue with success… and certainly not that she'd quibble with tactics to get there." Sam tilted his head. "Not with her reputation."
"I didn't say she was arguing." Kerry replied mildly. "Just that she was interested.. and curious. Dar's like that.. she likes to know what the real story is." A pause. "So.. are you going to tell me the real story, Mr. Gershwin? Because sooner or later, she'll find out anyway."
The waitress came, breaking the tension and delivering their food. They were both quiet for a few minutes, and Kerry took the opportunity to concentrate on eating, finding the pot roast delicious. "This is very good." She commented, putting her fork down and taking sip of her milkshake.
"Glad you approve." Sam replied. "And as for our bidding strategy..well, I'm afraid your boss is going to be disappointed. It just comes down to.. really getting to know your customer, shall we say." He smiled at Kerry. "And being local… let's just say we had a definite advantage in that."
"Really?" Kerry digested the information. "Well, that's great… she'll be glad to hear it." Green eyes flicked up and caught him staring at her. "We're hoping to continue your streak.. this is a new market for us."
He settled back in his chair and laced his hands over his stomach. "I bet you are." He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip. "We've put a lot of effort into building a team here.. that's part of our success. You come in and break it up.. well…. I can't guarantee anything."
Ah. Now that motive, Kerry understood only too well. "We're running everyone through the checks, Mr. Gershwin.. I don't see any reason to make wholesale changes." She put a reassuring tone in her voice. "That's not part of the current plan."
He started to answer, then stopped as Kerry's cellphone rang. "Ever in demand, eh?"
Kerry unhooked it and opened the phone. "Hello?"
It took a lot of effort to not smile. "How are things going?"
"We're on a break. It's not pretty." Dar's voice sounded slightly hoarse. "How about you?"
"Same." Kerry replied.
"You all right? Maria said you sounded upset." The concern almost leaked through the phone at her, giving Kerry a warm feeling.
"Yeah.. I'm just clarifying some of the plans here… I should have something for you later this afternoon."
"Caught you in front of them, huh?"
A soft, gentle chuckle traveled over the connection. "All right. Call me later."
"I will." Kerry promised, as the line disconnected. She folded the phone back up and tucked it into her belt. "Sorry." She directed that at Sam. "What were you saying?"
"Just was going to say I'm glad to hear that." Sam replied, a smile lurking around his lips. "Though some of our people found your…security… very intrusive." He paused. "Almost.. communistic." He bit down on a French fry. "They were very upset."
Kerry considered that. "I'm sorry if they were." She told him, sincerely. "If it's any consolation, everyone goes through it. " A shrug. "I did… we just hate surprises."
"Mm." A pause. "I suppose it comes down to privacy…everyone's got something in their life they'd like to keep secret, don’t' you agree?'
Kerry felt a chill. "I never thought about it."
He smiled. "C'mon, Ms. Stuart… you're telling me you've got no closed doors in your life?"
A tiny, wry smile tugged at Kerry's lips. "Mr. Gershwin, you'd be surprised at just how open a book my life really is."
He studied her intently, then laughed. "Maybe I would be."
Kerry sucked on her milkshake, unsure of what, exactly, to answer to that.
Dar took a swallow of water, rolling it around in her mouth before she swallowed it. Her throat hurt from talking, and she really wanted nothing more than to go find a quiet place with hot tea in it.
Beatrice looked up from her computer and gave Dar a sympathetic look. "Long day?"
"You know it." The dark haired woman sighed. "I must have explained the concept of burst bottlenecking a dozen times, if I did it once. God.. he's got the comprehension of a dead sea snail."
Beatrice snickered, and covered her mouth. "You know, Paladar.. we could use more of you around here.. I'd forgotten just how colorful you can be when you put your mind to it."
"No thanks." Dar shook her head. "Not if this is a sample of what it's like… he's had Alastair in there listening to him whine for over an hour… how does he stand it?"
"That's his job." The older woman turned and leaned on her elbows, regarding Dar thoughtfully. "And he knows he has someone who can make things happen for him.. so it makes it a little easier to take." Her face grew serious. "I don't think you realize just how much he depends on you, Dar.. when you resigned, I thought he was going to go insane… I walked into his office and he was almost crying."
Dar blinked, truly surprised. "I just do what he pays me to do, Beatrice."
A door slammed, and David Ankow walked swiftly by, not giving either of them so much as a glance. He exited the reception area and slammed that door too, making Dar jump a little. She turned her head and gave Beatrice an inquiring look. The secretary shook her head.
"Well." Alastair appeared from his office, loosening his tie. "Glad that's over with."
Dar gazed at him. "How'd we do?"
The CEO sighed. "He's not happy. He's not happy with me, with the board, with the company… and boy, oh boy, oh boy, Paladar.. he's really not happy with you."
"Fortunately, however, you nearly bludgeoned him to death with some very pointed logic, and a very impressive set of statistics, by the way, and he had to back off."
"For now." Alastair shook his head. "He'll be back though… he's not nearly done." He held a hand out. "C'mon in side, Dar.. let's chat a bit. I know you must be ready to get going."
Dar stood up, sorry to leave the comfortable couch, and followed her boss into his office, closing the door behind them. It was quiet, and Dar glanced around as she crossed the soft carpet, remembering the last time she'd been in the place. "Hasn't changed."
Alastair circled his fine mahogany desk and sat down, letting his hands drop onto his knees. "Not a whole lot, no." He watched his CIO as she sauntered over, dropping into one of his visitor's chairs and gazing at him with those incredibly blue eyes. "You're looking good, Dar… you losing weight?'
"A couple of pounds, yeah." Dar replied, with a shrug. "I started working out a little more..been pretty busy."
Alastair nodded. "How's Kerrison?"
Dar's face relaxed briefly into a smile. "She's fine… in Vermont, as a matter of fact, consolidating Allison Consulting." She paused, fingering her sunglasses. "This jerk's going to be real trouble, isn't he?"
"Yeap." Her boss pursed his lips. "If he gets enough support, he can force a stockholder vote, and overturn the board.. but you know that."
Alastair shifted, looking a little uncomfortable. "Dar… the new network's about ready… isn't it?'
Dar nodded. "First components start coming online next week."
He sighed. "It'll be six months before we see results. It's going to be a very long, very tough six months." Alastair leaned back in his leather chair and crossed a pinstriped leg over one knee. "Especially since the stockholder's meeting is next month."
"Dar." Alastair looked down at his hands. "He's going to be looking for any bit of ammunition he can get, and he's the type to get personal."
Dar went very still. "What do you mean?"
Her boss looked uneasy. "I mean, he's going to go after anything that will make any of us look bad.. and… " He sighed, and finally looked up. "He's not going to ignore the things that I do."
Dar drew in a quiet breath. "Oh."
"It's pretty common knowledge, Dar." Alastair cleared his throat. "Not so much here, but certainly in Miami."
It hit hard. Somehow, Dar had managed to make herself forget just how out of bounds her relationship with Kerry was. She'd actually broken company rules by simply dating her assistant; now that they lived together… "Yeah…we.. don't bring our personal lives to the office, but… " Dar sighed. "It's no secret, no."
"And it's in CAS." Alastair responded, simply. "Autonomics flagged it when it discovered two employees in the direct chain with the same address." He paused. "I overrode it."
They were both silent for a long while. Dar lifted her head finally and looked him in the eye. "Do you want me to resign from the board?" She asked quietly. "Because if it's a choice between the company, and Kerry, you've got no chance."
Alastair rested his chin in his hands and gazed fondly at her. "If you think I'm so cowpoke dumb as to not know that, I might have to be insulted." Then he exhaled. "No…I just want you to be aware of what might happen.. and make Kerry aware. This could get nasty." He drummed his fingers on his cheek. "I have a mandate to do the best I can for this company, and losing two of my very top employees runs counter to that mandate."
Dar nodded unhappily. "All right." She paused. "Does that mean I can expect to see his ugly puss around my neck of the swamp?"
Alastair nodded. "He mentioned tonight he was planning a trip over the Gulf…probably next week or so." He made a face. "Maybe he won't find out, Dar… he's not likely to hang out in the lunch room collecting gossip, and you two must be relatively old news by now."
"True." Dar acknowledged. "And it's not like we….ahm…."
"Make out on your desk?" Her boss, finally, smiled, watching his normally icy CIO turn a deep crimson. "My god, Dar Roberts blushing.. where's my damn digital camera." He laughed in genuine delight.
Dar rubbed her face and tried to get her rebellious body back under control. "Glad you're amused." She muttered, standing up and putting on her jacket. "I gotta get out of here."
Alastair let his chuckles run down. "All right.. have a good flight, Dar… and thanks." He stood and held out a hand. "You really made the difference today."
"Glad I could help." Dar returned his grip. "See ya."
"See ya, Dar." Alastair lifted a hand towards her. "Good luck."
Yeah. Dar shoved her sunglasses on as she headed back through the reception area. "Nice seeing you, Beatrice."
"Same to you, Dar… " The secretary smiled at her. "Safe flight."
Dar closed the door behind her, and headed for the elevator.
Kerry shoved the hotel room door open and trudged inside, letting it close behind her. She dropped her briefcase by the small desk and sat down on the desk chair, letting her head fall into her hands with a small groan.
What a mess.
She rubbed her eyes tiredly. That was the trouble when you suspected something was going on…you started looking. When you started looking, very often, you found, not necessarily what you were looking for, but things that got out of place very fast.
They'd run those reports, and she'd taken the soft copies, dumping them into the twelve gigabyte storage of her laptop. But then she'd started scanning the printed versions, and to her statistics trained mind, numbers started jumping out at her, making her look deeper and deeper into the deceptively docile black and white printouts.
Questions. Lots of them, and the answers were either a little too pat, or a little too vague. Yet they'd passed due diligence. Kerry shook her head. How? Something wasn't right, and she hadn't had time, really, to analyze it. That would be up to Duk's auditors, who would be getting her files tomorrow, and armed with her preliminary report, would start hunting.
She wondered if Allison's staff suspected… she'd tried to be noncommittal, but the fact that she'd kept them there until after nine at night should have told them something. The atmosphere had been growing steadily more hostile as the day went on, and Kerry found herself forcing her body not to hunch up defensively as she brought yet another question to the table.
It had made her sort of nervous, and she'd had trouble not watching the lights behind her as she drove to the hotel, half convinced she was being followed. That was the kind of paranoia, she realized, that could easily make you nuts pretty fast.
And yet. Kerry eyed the window speculatively, conscious of the silence around the small cabin, and just how dark it was outside, and the fact that the hotel was isolated by the woods around it for some distance around.
Her heartbeat picked up a little. Did she hear footsteps outside? She concentrated, and the soft crunching of boots on gravel came to her again. The sound moved closer, then stopped and Kerry's eyes widened as she stood up.
A soft knock came at the door, and her pulse shot up, a chill running up and down her spine. She stared at the door in a half panic, her mind momentarily blanking on what to do.
The knock came again, a little louder, and she exhaled, getting ahold of herself. "All right. Just relax, and calm down, and answer it." She walked over on unsteady feet and put her hand on the knob, taking a deep breath. "Yes?"
Kerry stared at the door in total, numb shock, then yanked the handle down and pulled it back towards her so fast she almost knocked herself down. An incoherent sound gurgled from her throat as her eyes confirmed her hearing, and she drank in the tall, dark haired form leaning casually in her doorway. "Urk."
Dar's eyebrows shot up. "Interesting reaction. Can I come in?"
Kerry reached out and grabbed handfuls of Dar and pulled her inside, hardly waiting for the door to close before throwing herself at her lover, and feeling the long arms wrap around her body. It felt so good she almost started crying.
Dar leaned back against the wall, afraid her knees were going to collapse on her as she hugged Kerry, a shiver of pure joy traveling over her at the sheer power of their emotional reunion.
It was everything she'd hoped it would be. Dar let a breath out slowly and rested her cheek against Kerry's soft hair, absorbing it, and feeling like a dried sponge tossed into a pond.
Kerry buried her face into Dar's shoulder, and made tiny, soft sounds of happiness, scarcely able to believe what her senses were telling her. But it was her lover's sturdy body she was holding, and she could hear Dar's heart pounding under her ear, a rapid pattern that started to slow as she felt fingertips rub lightly up and down her back.
She finally turned her head to one side, and reveled in the sight of her lover's angular profile just above her. "Wow."
Dar smiled in pure reflex. "Wow?"
Kerry exhaled, and nuzzled her. "Wow… as in, wow…that was one of the neatest surprises I've ever gotten." She squeezed Dar's ribs. "Wow, as in wow, you've got no idea how glad I am to see you… and wow, as in wow…you just made a really cruddy day absolutely perfect."
Dar blushed at the effusiveness. "Hm."
Kerry laughed in delight. "Oh, my god… it is so darn good to see you, Dar."
The blue eyes twinkled happily. "Same here." She hugged the smaller woman. "I was in the Houston airport, and the gate for my flight back to Miami was right next to the gate for a plane coming here… I just ended up on the wrong one."
"Uh uh.. right one." Kerry mumbled contentedly. "I was just about to call you… this thing blew up on me today."
"Yeah?" Dar asked, surprised. "Thought it was pretty straightforward…" Impulsively she scooped Kerry up, getting a startled squawk from her lover, then dropped them both onto the bed. "But that's all right.. I had a pretty lousy day myself."
Kerry sprawled lazily over her, and rested her chin on Dar's collarbone. "Somehow, it's really hard for me to give a raccoon's butt about that stuff right now."
Hmm. Dar had been having the same thought, as the aggravation of the day evaporated effortlessly. "You can fill me in tomorrow… and I booked myself back to Miami on the same flight as you have."
"Awesome." Kerry chuckled. "They all wanted to meet my boss.. just goes to show you, be careful what you ask for in life, huh?" She spared a moment to indulge in the guilty pleasure of imagining walking into Allison Consulting tomorrow with the ultimate in attitude with her. "Heh." The she studied Dar. "Do you have any luggage with you, or did you just…"
"I just." Dar grinned. "So I've gotta wash this stuff out tonight and wear it again… guess I'll have to buff it tonight. " They both grinned, and chuckled.
Kerry plucked at her jeans button. " You went to HQ in this?"
"Yup.. I woke up late yesterday, and I didn’t have time for anything else.. figured Alastair would rather me there in this, than not there."
"Were you right?"
"Oh yeah… we managed to get the pinhead to back down, but it's gonna get ugly." Dar sighed. "He's gonna tour Miami." She hesitated, then combed her fingers through Kerry's pale hair. "Alastair warned me he likes to get personal." She hesitated, worried about her lover's reaction.
A blond eyebrow lifted. "My job performance stands for itself." Kerry answered proudly. "And as for anything else, he can kiss my butt."
Dar grinned. "That's my girl." She half sat up, leaning closer to whisper. "And if he comes within a foot of your butt, I'm going to remove his testicles." She paused. ""Got me?"
Kerry held it in for a moment, then she started laughing helplessly. Dar joined in, then they let that wind down. Kerry sighed. "Is Alastair really worried?"
Dar nodded. "Yeah… but I had time to think about it on the flight up here. Unless he can prove it's affecting the company in a negative way, there's not much he can do. " She paused. "Legally, that is. He can make it pretty public, though."
"Everyone knows anyway, Dar…we get invitations addressed to both of us all the time." Kerry reminded her, with a smile. "And being publicly linked with you doesn't bother me." She paused." I've had a lot of time to myself to think about that the last couple of weeks."
Dar studied the determined look on her lover's face and felt a sense of relief flood through her. "Guess we'll take it as it comes, then." She traced Kerry's jawline with a finger. "I told Alastair if I had to choose, there wasn't any contest."
"He knew that." Kerry replied quietly. "He's not stupid."
Dar laughed. "Funny.. that's exactly what he said." She lifted her body up and leaned over, finding Kerry waiting for her. Their .lips touched, and she felt a shudder of pure reaction sweep through her body. Fingers started exploring her, then Kerry paused and nudged her with her head. "Mm?"
"Let's get your clothes taken care of.. cause you certainly can't borrow mine."
Obligingly, Dar rolled up off the bed and pulled Kerry up with her. The smaller woman immediately unbuckled her belt, then slid fingers under Dar's waistband and unbuttoned them.
Dar reciprocated by tugging Kerry's shirt free, and unfastening it, unable to prevent her hands from slipping beneath the fabric and starting a teasing exploration of the familiar body now pressing lightly against hers.
The cool air of the room hit her shoulders as Kerry pulled her shirt off and she reluctantly relinquished first one hand, then the other to remove it entirely, managing to do the same for her without totally tangling them both up in fabric.
"Sometimes.. " Kerry breathed against her skin, as she nibbled a path up her breastbone and reached around to unhook her bra. "It's very nice being shorter than you."
"Oh really?" Dar purred, working on her lover's jeans, then running light fingers over her back as Kerry kicked her pants free. "Mm.. red hearts, huh?" She teased gently, pulling at the waistband of Kerry's underwear.
"Look who's taking," Kerry moved down and kissed her navel, then bit at the sedate, white briefs covered with a plethora of Dogbert's. "Nerd."
Dar slid her arms around Kerry and picked her up, then fell sideways onto the bed, rolling over and settling her lover's bare body on top of her, welcoming the explosion in her senses as Kerry's touch claimed her.
Guess I'm wearing wet clothes tomorrow. She remembered thinking, just before a low, breathy growl in her ear made tomorrow, and clothing, and everything else…