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
Maria put her cup down, and sighed contentedly, enjoying the peace and quiet of the early morning. It was Monday, and she knew it would stop being peaceful very soon, but for right now, just after sunrise, she could sit and listen to the lack of voices, and the phone not ringing, and think clearly.
Having Dar be gone for two days had thrown a wrench into quite a few things, and Maria had set aside items her boss needed to go into immediately in a bright red folder, now set exactly in the center of Dar's almost painfully clean desktop. They'd all expected Dar back on Friday, but her sudden detour had been immediately stated as both dire, and necessary by Lou Draefus, whose status email on the Allison account had gotten more and more drastic as the day went on.
So it was good that Dar had gone there.
Of course, Maria knew perfectly well that Allison Consulting had nothing to do with why Dar was in Vermont, but that was all right as well. Kerry had been starting to sound very stressed in the last few days of her first long trip, and it was a good thing that Dar wanted to make sure the visit was a success. Kerry had been doing a fantastic job in the last few months, getting compliments from even the sour Eleanor, and a few, very grudging, from Jose as she worked their problems with her own, gentler style. But it paid to make sure of things, and that was reason enough for Dar to have gone.
She would be glad to have them both back, though. Things were piling up, and she'd started sorting them in colors. Blue for Dar, Green for Kerry, with little red tabs on the items that were most urgent. Truthfully, Kerry was at a level where she could easily justify having her own admin, but Maria felt just a little protective of her bosses partner, and had decided the extra work was well worth the peace of mind it gave her. At least until she could find someone Kerrisita could trust.
Who would understand, and not judge.
Coincidentally, her eldest daughter, Mayte was just graduating junior college, and looking for a nice, respectable job. Maria snapped a rubber band around a package of Dar's mail. Family was always the best to trust, no? She had spoken to Mariana already, and the personnel VP had promised to earmark the position for her, dryly thanking Maria for solving what could become the personnel nightmare of her life for her.
It was good, yes. Mayte was a smart girl, very good with the computers, and this would get her out of the house most of the day, and away from her brother's friends, who had little to do, and lots of trouble to get into. Also, Maria smiled. It would give her eldest daughter a chance to be exposed to a new kind of person, since Kerrisita was also very smart, and very strong, and not afraid of saying what she thought. She would be a good influence on her shy daughter.
Besides, did Mayte not think she, Maria, who had a lifetime of experience, knew that the Jon Secada concert she and a few, a few of her friends were supposed to have gone to the other week was actually to a Melissa Etheridge one? Foolish girl. If she was thinking that she was not sure of what she wanted, better she be exposed to people like Kerrisita, and her boss Dar, then what she would find in dark corners.
Not that she was hoping Mayte would choose the same. Maria was human enough to want a home, and a family, and a husband for all her daughters, and she felt the family tradition was strong, and very important. No.. she was not hoping for that. But life, ay, life tended to give to you what it wanted, and not what you did, so it was best to be prepared, and do the best things you could for those you loved.
Ah. The elevator.
Maria heard the doors open, then two sets of footsteps approaching, accompanying familiar voices. She could hear Kerry's low laugh, and she smiled as the door opened, and the two of them came into the office. "Good morning, Dar.. welcome back, Kerrisita."
+"Morning Maria." Dar picked up her blue folder and leafed through it. "How was your weekend?"
"Very nice, thank you." Maria answered. "Kerrisita, is that a new outfit? It is very nice.. how was your trip?"
"Ugh." Kerry collected her own folder. "I didn't have time to get anything cleaned…so I ended up at the mall yesterday." She plucked at the neat cotton shirt, which was tucked into pressed, pleated pants. "I'm glad we went to business casual for the summer." She removed the long, legal sized envelope tucked into her folder. "This the papers?"
"Si." Maria gave her a sympathetic look. "Is not nice…but the policeman was very sweet, who brought them. "
Kerry sighed, and put the envelope back. "Other than the last few days, the trip was great… I don't know what we're going to do with Allison though.. did the security team make it out there?"
"Yes.. Brady called in one half hour ago, and said he had things taken care of." Maria responded. "I passed him through to Mark."
"Great.. I'll check on that, Dar.. and let you know what the deal is. Are you going to that meeting a ten?"
Dar had been perusing her folder. "Yeah… and we need a team meeting after lunch, because Mark bullied facilities into finishing the two hubsites. We're ahead of schedule." She glanced up. "Maria, cancel anything I've got late Friday afternoon.. I"ve got to fly up to Connecticut."
"Si.." Maria took notes. "Do you want me to book you?"
The tall executive nodded. "After lunch flight going up… " She paused, considering. "See if they have a really late flight coming back that night. Otherwise, early next morning return."
Kerry looked up. "Don't you want to maybe stay around there a day or so?"
Blue eyes met hers. "No." Dar closed her folder and headed into her inner office.
Maria had picked up a pencil to make notes, now she put it down, and inclined her head inquisitively at Kerry.
"Mm… Dar's grandmother passed on. " The blond woman explained. "She hasn't seen that part of her family in a while.. they don't get on well."
"Ahh… that is too bad." Maria clucked softly. "A funeral is always so hard."
They both fell introspectively silent, then spoke again at once.
"Maria, what does my schedule show for Friday?"
"You know, your schedule is clear for that day, Kerrisita."
They both chuckled. "Do you want me to book you for that as well?" Maria asked.
Kerry considered. "Yeah… but book me separately, okay? I haven't talked to her about it.. and Maria.. book those tickets on my credit card this time." She shook a finger at the secretary. "Dar doesn't need any help in that department from you.. she spoils me more than enough on her own."
Maria smiled, and held up a hand. "Ay, Kerrisita, the two of you are just like my children, sometimes. You'd better go check your office. I am thinking that my boss has missed you just a little being gone."
"My office?" Kerry queried. "What did she do in my office?"
No answer, just a smile.
"Oh my god.. " Kerry exhaled, and headed for the door. "I should have brought that darn trophy in."
Dar was halfway through the red folder, one hand propping up her head as she studied the paper in front of her. She reached over and took a swig of apple juice, then put her bottle down and turned the page. "No." She picked up the sheet and tossed it into her out bin. "No." She tossed the next one after it. "You've got to be kidding." A third went wafting.
She picked up a pen and scribbled her signature over the next, then turned it over. A soft chime made her look up, and she watched her mailbox fill with dark lines. Then she turned her head and went peacefully back to her papers.
A buzz. "Dar.. Mr. Alastair on line numero uno."
Dar hit the button. "Morning, Alastair."
"Good morning, Dar… hear we had some trouble with the Allison account."
Right to the point. Dar liked that. "Yeah… I've got a team up there, and Duks is has the auditors working on their books. Looks like someone bought off someone at Ernst and Young."
Alastair made a soft clucking noise. "You're kidding?"
"Nope… unless the analysis comes up weird… we managed to retrieve records that show they were buying their contracts… I can't think of how they passed due diligence otherwise." Dar signed a page, then flipped it over. "I fired their comptroller."
"I heard." Alastair murmured. "His uncle's the president of Intercorp."
Dar put her papers down and folded her hands. "And?"
"I got a call from him."
"And?" Dar asked again, her eyes narrowing.
"He's not happy."
"I wasn't happy on Friday… the idiot was stupid enough to keep records of what he was doing in his god damned corporate server, Alastair… if they couldn't find an angle to force the bid, they manufactured one… we're talking major league slimeballs, here."
She could hear the sigh. "He's threatening to pull the French deal."
Dar felt nauseous. "Did you tell him what we found?"
"He doesn't much care." Alastair told her, bluntly. "This kid's a protégé of his, and it's a lot of not nice smelling stuff on his face if he gets tossed on his rear."
A silence lengthened. "Are you suggesting we rehire him?" Dar asked, carefully.
"I'm suggesting you give me a reason not to." Her boss replied. "Something that would make him ineligible to be employed by ILS."
"How about filing criminal charges?" Dar snorted. "Jesus, Alastair… I can't believe we're having this conversation…tell you what. Give me this guy's phone number."
"The uncle… I'll call him." Dar pulled a pad and her pencil over. "I don't give a damn if he's got egg on his face.. he should have taught the little bastard better.. or at least made sure he had the sense to cover his ass."
"Um… no.. Dar, I don't think that's a good idea." Alastair told her, delicately. "He's got a hot temper."
"And I don't?"
"That was my point." Her boss remarked dryly. "Listen.. just get me something on him, so I can go back to the uncle with something other than lame excuses, huh?"
Dar glowered at the phone. "You know what I'd tell him?"
"Yes, in fact, I do… and we need that contract, Dar, so.. be a sport, hmm?"
"Grumph." The executive grunted. "All right.. I'll see what I can do… but I'll tell you, Alastair.. even if we don't get something concrete, I'm not integrating that bastard. " She hung up the line and scowled at the desktop, before dialing another number. "Mark?"
"Hmm?" The MIS chief cleared his throat. "Yes, boss? What's up.. welcome home."
"I need you to pull everything you can on that jerk from Allison." Dar told him. "He's got some pull somewhere, and I need to nail him down hard."
"Okay.. I'll see what I can get." Mark promised. "Hey.. has Kerry seen her office yet?"
Oh shit.. "She hasn't come barreling in here, so I guess not." Dar found her annoyance fading. "I'll let you know."
Mark laughed. "She's gonna have a fit…. Wish I could tape it. Later, boss."
Dar leaned back in her chair and crossed an ankle over her knee, smoothing her hand down the soft cotton of her casual slacks. She took a sip of her juice, and waited, hearing familiar footsteps coming down the back hallway.
Kerry ducked into the kitchen before she made it to her office, going to the cabinet and retrieving one of the extra mugs she'd stashed there. As she started a cup of expresso brewing, a familiar voice came in behind her.
"Hey, Kerry! Welcome back!" Mary Ann, Duk's assistant bounced in, and grabbed her own cup. "We've missed you at the gym… how'd the trip go?"
"Eh.." Kerry leaned back and crossed her arms. "Great, until the last few days.. I think the mess is sitting over in your office." She smiled at the tall, heavyset blond woman. "I've missed you guys too… finding a place to work out on the road is pretty tough."
Mary Ann poured a cup of regular coffee and added cream to it, then she glanced around and lowered her voice. "So.. how'd the meet go Saturday?"
Kerry grinned fully, her nose wrinkling up . "It was great… she came in first place, after all that grumping."
"Really?" Mary Ann clapped a hand over her mouth. "Ohmigod.. that's so funny… she really won it?"
"Uh huh..got a trophy almost as tall as me.. " Kerry laughed. "It was really something else… I wish you guys had been there."
"You told us not to come!"
"I know.. I know.. " Kerry made a shushing motion. "Shh… she was really nervous about it… but I think the next one will be okay… but hey, can we get the class together before Wednesday? It'd be fun to do something to her before class starts."
"Ooo… " Mary Ann's eyes lit. "Yeah… we could get a cake… would she kill us?"
"Not if it was chocolate." Kerry replied, wryly. "Chocolate cake, chocolate filling, chocolate frosting. Trust me."
"Gotcha." Mary Ann grinned. "This is going to be fun… it's been such a blast watching her unbend the past few months… no one would believe it if I told them."
Kerry took her cup and poured the strong coffee into it, then added the steamed milk she'd been frothing during their conversation. "She'll make faces, but she'll like that." She spoke over her shoulder. "Yikes.. I better get going.. I've got a conference call in ten minutes." She ducked past the taller woman and headed across the hall, pushing her doorhandle down and shoving the door open with one shoulder. She got inside and let the door shut, getting halfway across the room before two things hit her.
What was on her desk, which wasn't her large screen monitor.
The smell of a new computer.
"Oo." Kerry stopped and put her cup down, circling her desk and staring avidly. "Ooo..ooo..ooo….ooo…" Her eyes widened as she absorbed the sleek, twenty six inch, slim, liquid crystal display that now smugly sat on the surface. "Wooowww…. " The screen saver was swirling, a brilliant morphing of shapes that dissapeared as she touched the brand new ergonomic trackball nearby. "New crt.. new mouse.. "
Kerry dropped to her knees and shoved her chair aside, squirming under her desk to see the new, dark gray box underneat. "Ooo… I'm in geek heaven." She got up and pulled her chair back over, then cracked her knuckles and opened the machine's system information, her eyes scanning it rapidly. "Ohh…. My …. God….. that's more RAM than the Space Shuttle could hold in it's cargo bay." She sat up and did a little dance in her chair, then she got up and patted the display. "Honey, you wait right here, okay? I need to go thank my fairy godmother for you?"
Dar pinned a serious look on her face as she watched the inner door open, and Kerry appeared.
It lasted all of a second, before she clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh, since the blond woman was doing a little dance in the middle of her carpet.
"You know what this is, Dar?" Kerry asked her, doing her best Snoopy imitation. "This is a happy nerd dance."
Dar fell out of her chair, and hit the floor, laughing helplessly.
Kerry paused, delighted at the reaction. "Wow… that was almost as good as seeing that new puter." She put her hands on her hips and smiled, then walked over and extended a hand down to her boss. "Here… "
Dar gripped the hand and allowed herself to be hauled upright, then dusted herself off. "Whew… didn't expect that reaction." She chuckled wryly. "Glad you liked the new box… I told Mark to hold off on changing mine out till you saw yours."
"It's awesome." Kerry enthused. "That screen is so much clearer…my eyes thank you."
"Mm." Dar nodded. "Yeah… that was one of it's selling points for me, too.. " She walked over to her system and rolled the trackball, then selected a screen. "Couple weeks of reading these convinced me."
Kerry squinted at the complicated CAD drawing, recognizing the network symbols. "Yow… I see what you mean!" She looked up at Dar. "Were you getting those headaches again?"
The taller woman nodded mutely.
"Definitely worth it, in that case." Kerry decided, giving Dar's nearby leg a pat. "Thanks, boss."
Dar grinned, and dialed. "Hey Mark."
"Uh?? Oh.. hi boss… what's up?"
"You missed a dancing nerd up here a minute ago."
"A wh… oh, man.. I thought you meant the candy for minute.. I was gonna say.." Mark laughed. "Hey, Kerry.. like the new box?"
"Oooooo." Kerry responded. "Very much. Thanks, Mark…."
"Bring mine up." Dar chuckled. "When you get a chance."
"I love working for the head geek.." Mark sighed. "Okay.. Brent'll be up in a minute…"
Dar hung up the line and perched on the edge of her desk, folding her arms over her chest with a satisfied expression. "So. You like it, huh?" She was pleased with her surprise, having hand picked the systems in question.
"Very much." The blond woman smiled. "Now, let me get back to my new toy, and try to get some work done… hope those reports are in."
Dar lost her good humor. "Ah. Me too… apparently our slimy friend has relations in sticky places. Alastair's getting pressured to rehire him." She watched Kerry's jaw drop. "I know.. I know… I've got Mark checking. But you keep your eye out for solid stuff too."
"That sucks." Kerry replied forthrightly. "He's bigtime trouble, Dar… I tell you what, I'm going to contact that woman from the account they just got… she was really upset about whatever they had over her.. maybe I can get her to talk now."
"Good." The executive looked up as the door swung open, and an audio visual cart entered, pushed by a short, stocky man in his early twenties, with a pugnacious buzz cut. "Thanks, Brent."
"No problem, ma'am." The tech stated briskly, visibly holding back from a salute. "I'll get this hooked right up."
Kerry peeked at him from around Dar's desk. "Hi, Brent."
The man visibly blushed. "Morning, ma'am."
"Did you set up my new system too?" The blond woman inquired, a tiny, playful smile crossing her lips. "If you did, thanks."
Furtively, he looked at her. "Yeah, that was me… no problem." He messed around with some cables, then peeked up again. "If you want the cords tied back a different way, or anything.. let me know, okay?"
"I sure will." Kerry caught his eye and smiled, making him almost drop the keyboard he'd picked up. Brent had a well known crush on her, and she wasn't above tweaking him just a little because of it. Besides, he was cute, and almost painfully shy, and Kerry liked him for his accuracy and good attitude.
"Can't plug a mouse in there, Brent." Dar's voice rumbled dryly from across the desk. "Try the round hole."
Kerry decided to leave before she caused the poor man any more trouble. "I'll get those reports to you." She waved her fingers at Dar and slipped through the back hallway door, closing it behind her.
Dar took pity on the tech, strolling away from her desk and ending up at the window, gazing out over the water with an air of serene patience she'd rented from somewhere, and kept in her drawer for special occasions. She thought of her dancing nerd, and the glass reflected back a cheerful grin as she waited for Brent to finish.
"Ugh." Kerry closed her eyes, and allowed Dar to steer her inside the condo, where a cold blast of refreshing air conditioning immediately dried the sweat on her forehead. "I feel like an airboat rolled over me." They'd just gotten back from the island gym, and she was fiercely regretting the two weeks of slacking off while she was traveling. It had been a really long day at work as well, and with the two combined, Kerry felt like crawling into bed right that very instant and curling up into a ball of exhausted and sort muscles, both physical and mental.
Chino was wriggling in Dar's arms, and now the taller woman leaned closer, and allowed the Labrador puppy to lick Kerry's face. "C'mon… how about we share a shower, then relax? I've got my stuff all packed, so… "
Ah. Kerry forced her eyes open. That's right.. tomorrow was Friday, and Dar's flight up to Connecticut. She hadn't had the chance the past few days to broach the subject of joining her, so now… She sighed. Now she'd have to find a moment, and just accept whatever answer Dar gave her.
It was bothering her lover badly, she knew. Dar had been very quiet the past few days, almost withdrawn, and had taken to retreating into silent reserve, obviously deep in thought. Kerry had been caught between her anxiety, and the understanding that this was one area Dar kept her barriers up about. Well, maybe after they relaxed a little, she could test the waters. And speaking of waters…"Shower. Mm."
Dar set Chino down, then put their bags on the couch before she led Kerry into the bathroom, turning the water on before she started stripping the smaller woman's workout gear off. Kerry blinked wearily, sucking in a breath before she gathered some energy and started doing the same for her partner. "What a day."
"Mmhmm." Dar agreed, tugging Kerry's sports bra off, then tickling her under her arm. "Got some bad news right before we left.. our friend Steven Ankow's supposed to be here on Monday."
"Ugh Great.. just great.." Kerry stifled a yawn, then tugged Dar along with her as they made their way into the large octagonal stall shower, where warm water hit both of them. "Boy, that feels good."
Dar picked up a sponge and poured some body wash on it, then started scrubbing Kerry, beginning with her shoulders, then moving down her strong back as the blond woman simply fell against her. "Yeah, it sure does." She teased.
"Mmm…. " Kerry nuzzled her, taking a playful nip as her hands circled Dar, running lightly over her lover's powerful body. "Are you still mad at me for that cake?" She felt the movement as Dar laughed. "You were so cute yesterday… my god, Dar… I've never seen you blush like that before."
Dar made a gurgling noise. "I can't believe you let them do that."
Her lover sighed. "It… no, it was nice.. thank you. I appreciated it, Kerry.. I was just.. um.. "
"That was the point." Kerry captured the sponge and started making little soapy sculptures across Dar's belly. There were lots of little valleys and ridges there for her to explore now, and she made sure all of them were clean, hitting several ticklish spots and getting soap flying all over when Dar laughed and her abs contracted. "You've got a nice laugh… have I ever told you that?"
Dar lathered up her hair, scratching her behind the ears where she had a sensitive spot and making her utter a little moan of pleasure. "No, you hadn't mentioned that before." Her lover rumbled. "Have I ever told you you've got really tasty ears?" She explored one with tiny nibbles.
A mewling sound escaped the smaller woman, as she felt the weariness of the day fall away from her, banished by a rush of energy. Her skin started to tingle and her touch changed from playful to seductive, getting an immediate response from Dar, as she nuzzled sensitive areas and stepped forward, pressing her body against her lovers and reveling in the skin on skin contact.
A dilemma. Kerry was losing the ability to really decide, but she wondered if the effort of getting out of the shower would be worth the greater comfort of the waterbed. Then Dar slid a knee between hers, and she was beyond caring, wanting Dar's touch with an intensity that was almost scary.
The water's pressure alternated with Dar's touch, and she forgot about the day, concentrating only on the skin under her fingertips, and the taste of Dar's lips, and the rapidly building sensations that were making it hard to breathe. Then the world tilted, and she was vaguely aware of being lifted up, and the chill of the air conditioning, and the warm, slightly rough texture of the sheets as she was put gently down, and the touch became relentless.
She surrendered to it gladly.
Dar wasn't sleeping, Kerry realized, as she lay tangled in the sheets and her lover, contentedly somlenent in the low light. She tilted her head and confirmed that, seeing the half open eyes regarding the ceiling in pensive thought. "Mm."
Blue eyes opened wider, and Dar's head inclined. "Thought you were asleep."
"Almost." Kerry admitted, tracing the thin line of very fine hairs that went down the center of Dar's chest. "Why aren't you?"
"I was thinking."
Kerry nodded solemnly. "About tomorrow?"
Dar exhaled heavily. "Yeah."
"Is it going to be a big ceremony?" Kerry probed, very gently. Dar had been extremely resistant to talking about the issue at all, politely deferrring all of her lover's tentative nudges of concern.
Long silence, and Kerry had decided Dar wasn't going to answer, when she did.
"Probably… my mother has a fairly large family.. five brothers and sisters." Dar paused. "Lots of cousins… friends.. ."
"Who you haven't seen in a while."
"They going to be surprised?" Kerry whispered, getting a short, wry chuckle in return. "I bet."
"Last time I saw most of them was at the service for my father." Dar's voice spoke from the darkness, colored with a sad pain she usually didn't exhibit. "Going back there just.. rakes that whole scene up again for me… I felt very alone among all of them."
"Sounds pretty awful."
"It was…they're all pretty intelligent… sophisticated.. I had always gotten the idea that they looked down on Dad, because he wasn't that kind of person. I know… my mother didn't take him to big family gatherings a lot. " Dar spoke slowly, and awkwardly. "God knows I was far from…I really wasn't very polished back then, let's just put it that way. I felt.. pretty small, with all of them looking at me… the way I was dressed…. My world was so different than theirs."
"Dar, you're not the same person you were then." Kerry murmured, hurting for her.
"I know….but that was a very bad time for me." Dar admitted. "Brings up all kinds of nasty memories."
Kerry rubbed her skin with tender fingers. "I'm glad you decided to talk about it. I was getting sort of worried…I know it's hard for you." With her ear pressed against Dar's chest, she could hear the irregular heartbeat, and feel the increase in her lover's breathing. "Is there anything I can to do help you?"
The heartbeat skipped, then sped up a few beats.
Kerry waited through the silence, then started a soothing trace over Dar's skin.
"No.. I'll be all right.."
"Dar." Kerry laid her hand flat on her lover's stomach. "You're my best friend. If you can't ask me, who can you ask?"
"It's… juvenile." Dar muttered.
"C'mon, Dar… cough it up… do you want to take one of my teddy bears?" Kerry asked, in a gently kidding tone.
"No." The blue eyes now were looking at her, glints of light in the gloom.
"Do you want me to go along with you?" Kerry felt the movement under her fingers stop entirely for what seemed like a long time.
Dar shifted, as though her body wanted to escape, but was being pinned in place by Kerry's weight and her own will. "I can't ask you to do that.. and it's too late anyway." The dark haired woman muttered. "But thank you for offering."
"Tch tch tch." Kerry hiked herself up and kissed Dar on the lips, then rolled over and reached into the drawer next to the bed, pulling something out and dropping it on her lover's naked chest.
"What's that?" Dar asked, in a small voice.
"When did you get those?"
"Same day you did."
Dar lifted the folder and examined it, then looked at Kerry, lifting her body up. "Why didn't you say anything?" She asked curiously, a look of consternation mixed with relief on her face. "Damn, Ker.. I've been trying to find a way to…"
Kerry curled her arm over Dar's shoulder and put her head down. "Well." She exhaled thoughtfully. "You're a very private person, Dar… and I know this is a very sensitive area for you." She ran a finger down Dar's jawline. "If it's any consolation.. I was trying to find a way all week to ask you if you wanted me there." A smile. "I'm glad you do."
Dar let out an audible sigh of relief. "No wonder Maria looked at me so damn funny when I told her you were going to schedule a meeting tomorrow afternoon." She gave her lover a wry look. "It's not going to be pleasant, Kerry."
"That's all right. Coming to Michigan after me wasn't very pleasant for you, was it?" Kerry inquired. "It makes me feel good to be able to give you something back that way."
Dar hugged her suddenly, trading speech for physical contact.
Look down on Dar, would they? Kerry felt her protective instincts rising. Intellectual snobs? Uh huh. We'll just see.
The chapel had, as chapels do, an air of reserved peace about it, a hushed stillness that came as much from the natural human instinct to defer to death than anything else. There were discrete floral arrangements placed around the room, and a decorous bunting of midnight blue draped around the pale wood coffin.
The chapel employees were making their final adjustments, watched in silence by a slight, thin boned woman with pale, silvered blond hair and even, delicate features. A tall, almost bald man entered, glanced around, then walked over to join the woman. "Evening, Ceci…damn shame."
Cecilia Roberts glanced up at him, and inclined her head with studied grace. "Thanks, Charles…" Her voice was low, but vibrant. "She held on a long time…I'm glad she's finally at peace."
The man nodded solemnly. "She was a strong woman." His eyes flicked around the room. "They did a nice job."
A faintly sardonic smile crossed Ceci's lips. "If you say so." She drawled., watching as people started to filter in, most of them known to her. Most of them giving her sympathetic looks and nods. "Nice flowers… "
He grunted. "Mm.. that one there's lovely… are those orchids?"
"I believe they are." The woman mused.
They were both comfortably silent, as the room continued to fill. Charles finally inhaled. "I hear your daughter's going to show?"
A cool mask slipped down over Cecilia's face. "She said she'd be here, yes." She replied, briefly. "I gave my word to mama I'd ask her. " She paused. "I did."
A short, coiffed woman came over. "Ceci… I'm so sorry." She held out hands, which the slighter woman grasped briefly, then released. "It's been a long road, I know."
"Yes, it has." Cecilia answered. "I'll miss her, though, despite how much I wanted peace for her."
The short woman stepped closer. "Ceci… Andrea said.. I'm sure she got this wrong, but she said your daughter was going to be here?"
Cecilia sighed inwardly. "Let's not make this a side show, Elli… yes, mama wanted Paladar here, and I asked her to attend. She said she'd be here. Enough?"
"Mmph." Elli made a small face. "It's just been such a long time…I hardly know what to expect." She paused, delicately. "She was such an.. individual..person."
"I'm sure she still is." Ceci remarked dryly. "I only hope she decides not to disgrace my mother's memory by coming in blue jeans."
"I hardly think you've got to worry about that." Charles remarked, a curious tone in his voice. "If the person who just came in the door is who you're talking about."
Cecilia turned her head, curiously, and found her attention drawn immediately to the tall, strikingly attractive woman framed in the doorway, dressed in an impeccably cut black suit. The pale blue eyes standing out vividly against the tanned skin scanned the crowd, and, at the last, met her own.
The sense of presence was almost overwhelming. Cecilia found herself almost slack jawed in surprise at the sheer power of her daughter's personality, which muted itself as their eyes touched, and she received a single, gracious, inclination of the head.
"Goddess." She muttered, under her breath.
"Well.. " Elli's voice was vocalizing her own surprise. "She certainly has grown up, Ceci.. My god, she's gorgeous."
"Yes." Ceci agreed absently, tearing her eyes away as a second woman appeared at her daughter's elbow, apparently a friend of hers, and they moved to a rear pew, a little apart from the milling crowd.
"Andrew's image." Charles mused. "Always was."
Cecilia didn't answer.
"Is that your mother over there." Kerry kept her voice almost sub vocal.
"Yes." Dar folded her hands in her lap, trying to will them not to shake. She was cold, and her stomach hurt, and it was taking an enormous amount of effort just to keep up a shell of composure around her. A very warm hand curled around hers and she drew in a breath, letting it out very slowly as her nerves settled.
Okay. The hard part was over, that first eye to eye contact. She'd come out the winner in that one, at least, watching her mother's face react in surprise and shock in that first, unguarded moment. Wasn't what you expected, was it, mother?
"She's watching you." Kerry murmured, a hint of amusement in her voice. "She looks sort of stunned."
"Figures." Dar felt her body relax a little, and she glanced around. Most of the attendees hadn't noticed their entry, so she had a brief period to check things out before her family realized she was there. "Last time she saw me I.. um… I was sort of still in a rebellious phase."
"And that changed.. when?" Kerry inquired mildly, getting a hint of a smile on Dar's strained face. "Was I supposed to have noticed this streak of conservatism?" The fabric across her partner's shoulders shifted, then relaxed a little as Dar sat back. "Shall I throw it a party?"
"Kerrison." The pale blue eyes flicked her way, warming with quiet affection.
"That has such a nice ring when you say it." Kerry could feel the skin under her fingers losing their chill, and she looked around deliberately, eyeing the carved, polished wood. "This is a really pretty chapel." She hesitated. "Is this where.. um… "
Dar nodded. "The service, yes." She let herself get lost in memory for a moment. "Her family has a big plot here…she wanted the memorial stone close by." A sigh. "Listen.. I'll be right back. I’m going to… " Dar inclined her head towards the front of the chapel.
"Okay." Kerry released her hand, and watched as Dar rose and walked up the center aisle. The subdubded lighting in the room kept her in shadows until she reached the front rail, where she entered a soft pool of illumination. She rested her hands on the polished wood and gazed into the casket, her face quiet and composed.
More interesting was the reaction of the rest of the room. Kerry watched her neighbor's eyes fasten on the tall, still figure, and a low murmur buzzed her ears. She listened to the some of the comments, and her green eyes narrowed, her fingertips itching as she fought the desire to butt in to some of the conversations going on around her.
Dar found herself gazing down at a face her mind hardly recognized. Death did that, she knew, but she'd last seen her grandmother before her last illness, and remembered her older, but not gaunt, weathered, but not ravaged, as the sickness had left her.
Her eyes closed, and she took in a breath. Sorry, gram. She silently whispered. I should have called you, at least. Dar studied the quiet form. I started to, a dozen times. But every time I did… the thought of having mother answer stopped me. I did send cards, though… did you get them? Dar felt the pressure of eyes boring through her back, and sighed. Probably not, huh? Saw my return address on them and she probably threw them out.
A small rustling behind the curtains to her left caught her attention. Time to go, gram. At least you're in a nicer place now… and if you can hear me, I hope some day we can meet up… maybe just sit down and talk for a while. I really wanted to tell you about Kerry, gram… I finally found that one you told me was out there. Dar let her eyes drop for a moment, then she turned, and made her way back down the aisle, avoiding the avidly curious stares that hit her. She resumed her seat and resisted the urge to slide down and hunch her shoulders.
The was an expectant rustle of motion, then Dar glanced to her left, and realized her mother had chosen to sit down in their row, taking a place right next to her. Her blood pressure skyrocketed, but she folded her arms over her chest and fastened a calm, disinterested look on her face.
"Hello, Paladar." Her mother kept her voice to a low murmur.
Dar turned her head slightly. "Mother." She knew her tone was even, but she was desperately grateful for the pressure of Kerry's hand against her side, giving her little, friendly scratches.
"Glad you could make it. "
Dar merely nodded.
The minister stepped out at that moment, and cleared his throat, and provided a very welcome distraction. For the moment, at any rate. However with this, and the reception afterward, it was, Dar realized soberly, going to be a very long night.
"Thank you." Kerry accepted the two glasses, and turned, pausing a moment to survey the crowd before she made her way back to Dar. Her lover was against the far wall, making polite conversation with two or three of what Kerry assumed to be uncles and aunts. Certainly, they were of her mother's generation, and had a similar set of features.
"Excuse me." A voice to Kerry's right caught her ear, and she turned, to find the short woman with silvered chestnut hair at her elbow, smiling politely. Kerry smiled politely back at her.
"I'm sorry… forgive me for asking, but are you a friend of Paladar's?"
Kerry briefly toyed with the notion of flatly denying it, then decided she should be nice. "Yes, I am. Why?"
"It's just been so long since any of us have seen her… " The woman disregarded Kerry's question. "I'm Elli… Elli Bainister… I'm a good friend of her mother's, you see.. we're so glad Paladar decided to join us here."
"That's nice to hear." Kerry responded. "It's too bad it had to be a such a sad occasion."
"Yes.. isn't it? We've been wondering how she's doing."
Kerry blinked mildly. "Why don't you ask her?" She glanced over at her partner.
"Oh.. I don't want to bother her… she's talking with her uncles… I was just wondering.. are you in the computer business too?"
Kerry caught the clue that had been wandering aimlessly around. "Yes.. as a matter of fact, I am." She put down one of the drinks and held a hand out. "Kerry Stuart." She waited for the woman to return her grip hesitantly then smiled.
"Really.. well, my husband works for Ethrington Consulting.. have you heard of them?" Elli edged a little closer. "They do work for the government."
"Sure." Kerry nodded. "We've done some co bids with them, in fact… I'm the operations director of ILS."
Elli's eyes widened. "Oh…. Then you work with Paladar?"
"I work for her." Kerry replied, with a kind smile. "She's my boss at ILS."
"Ahh." The woman smiled, evidently figuring out whatever it is she was fishing for. "And what part are you director of? My husband specializes in retail."
"All of it." Came the prompt, amiable reply. "I'm the executive operations director."
There was a long pause, as the woman's head tilted to one side. "And you … work.. for…"
"The Chief Information Officer for ILS, mmhmm." Kerry agreed cheerfully, pointing across the room. "That's her… my boss. She's great."
Elli put a hand on her arm. "Excuse me a minute." She turned and scurried away, as Kerry lifted her hand and waggled her fingers at her retreating back.
"Bye." She scooped up the other drink and resumed her aborted trek across the room, arriving just as Dar was nodding a farewell to her latest group of questioners. "Here. " She handed the taller woman her glass.
"Is there alcohol in here?"
Dar drank the entire thing down in a draft. She lowered the glass, then licked her lips. "Got another one around?"
Kerry handed her the glass she'd gotten for herself without a word, and took the empty one from her lover. So far, at least, her mother seemed to be steering clear of them, letting the various family members come up and renew their acquaintance with what Kerry realized was their version of the black sheep of the family.
Who turned up, shockingly, with a snowy white fleece, and golden hooves, and now no one knew quite what to do with her. It would have been funny, if it had been anyone other than Dar, who was very obviously hating every moment of the affair. "Hey, Dar?"
Dar was busy chewing on a piece of ice, and now she finished crunching and leaned back against her chosen wall. "Yeah?"
"This rebellious phase… just how rebellious are we talking about?"
"Mm… I wasn't too bad a work.. but offhours.. " Dar chewed her lip a little. "I tended to leather and spiked collars." Her eyes darted to Kerry's face, which went slack with shock. "Yeah… and clothes with strategically placed rips." A pause. "I almost had a tattoo."
"Almost?" Kerry croaked, her mind still busy constructing a picture of her lover in leather and chains. "What stopped you?"
"Dad… he said.. 'Dardar, you kin do what you want, but so kin I, and if you put any damn pictures on any part of that body of yours, I'm gonna take steel wool and scrub em off."
Kerry covered her face with one hand, and stifled a giggle. "That would have stopped me." She admitted, glancing up as more people closed in on them. "Whoops.. next shift."
"Paladar. It's been so long! You look marvelous… what have you been doing with yourself?" A tall, willow thin woman with uniformly yellow hair wafted up, followed by a heavyset man that reminded Kerry of Duks.
"Hello, Aunt Seleine.. Uncle Rob." Dar replied quietly. "I haven't been up to much… um.. this is my friend Kerry.."
Kerry returned the greetings with a warm cordiality that made it seem like she'd been performing social duties all her life. Which, of course, she had. Shake em and bake em had been a part of her normal existence since she'd been old enough to stand, and she had a lot less problem dealing with the sea of faces than Dar did, who was used to mostly small, closed meetings and faceless conferences. A large event where everyone knew her personally, and where she was the focus of some not always friendly curiosity was getting on the taller woman's nerves, and Kerry felt a pang of sympathy as she watched Dar muster her energy for yet another assault.
"Paladar." The low voice was enough like her partner's to make her jerk, and Kerry turned to see Dar's mother standing at her elbow, her diminutive height inches shy of Kerry's own. "Excuse me." Her eyes flicked to Kerry's face, then away, dismissing her.
Dar hadn't noticed, and she turned, backing away a little in wariness as she regarded her mother. "Yes.?"
"Are you set with a place to stay tonight?"
One of Dar's dark eyebrows curved up a little. "We have a room, yes.." She answered guardedly. "We have an early flight back home."
Cecilia digested that. "If you could change your plans… I'd like a few minutes with you tomorrow."
Dar slowly folded her arms over her chest. "What did you have in mind?"
"Stop by the house… midmorning." Her mother directed. "Can I expect you?"
For a long minute, Kerry thought Dar was going to turn her down flat. But she finally incline her head slightly in assent, her face a mask.
"Good." Cecilia turned and started to walk away, almost slamming into Kerry. For a moment she was forced to look into a pair of very intense green eyes, as Kerry held her ground, then sidestepped with a polite smile.
The older woman paused uncertainly. "No.. it was my fault." She replied. "I should have watched where I was going." She paused again, slightly expectant, her eyes flicking up to Dar's face.
"This is Kerry Stuart." Dar supplied quietly. "My partner."
Kerry held out an obliging hand. "Pleasure to meet you." She returned Cecilia's grip with her own strong one, then released her. "That was a beautiful service."
Dar's mother nodded absently. "Thank you.. it's nice to meet you too." She remarked, then turned and threaded her way through the crowd gracefully.
Kerry turned, and met the pale blue eyes peering down at her. "You know something, Dar? I didn't think I'd ever meet someone with more nerve wracking relatives than me." She reflected on that, and shook her head. "Wow."
"Sorry." The taller woman sighed. "It's not exactly fun for me either." She rubbed her temple lightly. "What time is it?"
"Ten." Kerry answered.
"Let's get out of here." Dar set her glass down and straightened, running impatient fingers through her hair to settle it's waves, then twitching her suit jacket straight. She turned, and almost bumped into a distinguished looking man who had just come up. "Hello, Richard." It was close to a relief to see a face that wasn't family. "Kerry, this is Richard Edgerton.. something of a family lawyer."
Kerry smiled at the tall man. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Edgerton." She extended a hand, and found it clasped firmly, then released.
"Pleasure to meet you too, Ms. Stuart." The lawyer replied courteously. "It's nice knowing someone whom Dar speaks so highly of."
Ah. Kerry's ears perked up. He was the first person that night not to call her lover by her highly disliked full name, and on top of it, he knew who she was. Two points for him. "Hmm… " She released a gentle laugh. "I'm not sure I want to know what tales she's telling about me, but… "
The man laughed as well. "Nothing to scare the children with, Ms. Stuart… trust me." He turned to Dar. "It's unfortunate why you're here, Dar.. but since you are, can I get you to take a moment out and swing by the office? I've got some forms I need you to sign.. May's trust fund comes up next month, and it needs to be transferred over to you."
"I'd forgotten completely about that." Dar admitted. "Yeah.. I promised my mother I'd stop by her place tomorrow morning.. I can make it by your office by lunch, if that's all right with you."
"Perfect. See you then." Richard gave her a friendly pat on the arm. "Good to see you, Dar… you're looking great. Ms. Stuart, a pleasure." He smiled at both of them, then sauntered off, heading in an oblique line towards the bar.
They managed to get outside the room without being stopped again, and handed the valet the ticket for their rental car. They waited quietly for it to be brought around, then Dar hesitated. "Do you mind driving?"
Kerry shook her head. "No.. I think I remember where the airport guy said to go… it can't be that hard." She tipped the valet, then rested a hand on the doorframe. "Excuse me.. there's a Hilton near here?"
"Yes. Ma'am." The boy nodded. "Get on that road there, go north for about ten minutes, it's on your right. Can't miss it."
"Thanks." Kerry got in the car and almost laughed at the distance between her and the steering wheel. She adjusted the seat forward, and put the car in gear, then pulled out of the parking lot. "Well."
"Mm." Dar had slid down in her seat, and had her eyes closed.
"Glad that's over."
"Oh god, yes." Her lover muttered. "That was worse than I'd imagined."
Kerry reached over and patted her knee, then left her hand there just because she could ."I know it was rough on you… did you even get anything to eat."
"The hotel has room service."
"I bet they have ice cream."
"They'd better the hell and damnation have some god damned ice cream." Dar replied testily.
Kerry peered at her, since she'd had to stop at a light, and noticed the lines of tension around her lover's eyes. "You okay?"
Dar rested her head against the doorframe. "Headache."
"I think I've got something for that." Came the sympathetic answer. "Soon as we get to the room, okay?"
Dar wrapped her fingers around Kerry's, still resting on her leg, and exhaled. "I've got something for it right here." She half opened her eyes and peered over. "Thanks."
"No problem." The blond woman smiled. "But what have you been telling your family lawyer about me?" She turned into the well marked entrance to the hotel. "Hmm?"
"I had to explain to him who this person was that I was making my heir." Came the quiet reply. "When I had my will.. and the papers for all the accounts and stuff changed."
Kerry pulled the car up to the valet stand, and turned. "You didn't have to do that."
A shrug. "I wanted to make sure you were taken care of, just in case."
She had perhaps a moment, before the valet came. A moment in which to try and relate a truth so deeply ingrained, it came to her lips like second nature. "Dar.. " A breath. "If anything ever happened to you, there wouldn't be enough money in the world to patch the hole it would leave in me."
A stillness filled with only two sets of breathing lengthened, then broke as the door was opened, and a bright eyed young girl smiled at them. "You checking in?"
Dar got out and snagged both overnight bags from the back seat, then joined Kerry as she walked around and they headed for the steps. "You mean that." The taller woman pulled the hotel door open, and courteously motioned her forward.
"I mean it." Kerry replied peacefully, heading for the front desk.
Dar followed her, absorbed in thought.
Why, Kerry wondered, did all hotel rooms smell the same? She pushed the door open and held it as Dar entered, heading past her and dropping their overnight bags on the large king sized bed. Was it some weird air freshener they all used, Eau de Plastique, or something? She watched Dar pause a moment to rub the back of her neck, then strip off her jacket, laying it over the back of the comfortable looking chair and sighing as she took her shoes off.
Kerry did the same, glad to shed her gray wool jacket and silk shirt, and the matching wool knee length skirt and hose. She tugged her favorite Tweety T-shirt from her bag and wriggled into it, enjoying the freshly laundered scent. Dar changed next to her in silence, then stretched out her arms, and cracked her back and shoulders, making a small sound of discomfort as she did.
"Long day." Dar sat down on the edge of the bed and let her elbows rest on her knees.
Kerry picked up the room service menu and stretched out next to her, pulling a pillow out as a prop. "Considering it started with an eight am meeting.. yeah." She touched Dar's arm, then patted her stomach. "Want a pillow?"
Dar accepted, laying back and resting her head on her lover and folding her hands. "Ungh.. that feels good." She wriggled a little to get more comfortable, and turned her head to watch Kerry study her choices. It was much more relaxing to do that, then to think about her evening, and she decided to keep it that way, carefully locking the tense memories away for later.
One more hopefully short meeting, and they were outta there. She tried to engage her interest in the sideways written food items, but the headache that was now working it's way across her skull was so intense, it was making her sick to her stomach. She closed her eyes, and recalled the last time she'd felt this lousy.
A hand on her shoulder, brought her lashes fluttering open to see Kerry's concerned green eyes watching her. "You look really washed out… how's your head?"
"Reminds me of a certain day during a certain storm." Dar managed a wry smile.
"That bad?" Kerry put the menu down. "Why didn't you say something? I've got some stuff in my bag. Hang on. " She gently slid out from under Dar's head and padded over to the chair, rummaging in her bag and returning with a pill bottle. "Shoot.. you've got to eat something before you take this, Dar.. or you'll get sick."
"I am sick."
"Sicker." Kerry grabbed the phone and glanced at the menu. "Hello.. yes, room 322.. I need a bowl of the chicken soup… " A dark eyebrow lifted at her. "Two of the club sandwiches, and… " The blue eyes gazed at her sadly. Kerry sighed. "And a bowl of chocolate ice cream." She put the phone down and set the menu aside. "Have some soup.. and you can take this stuff.. I figured that was fastest."
"Okay." Dar rolled over and rested her head on her folded arms, feeling completely drained. "Mind turning that light down."
Kerry turned off the light closest to the bed. "Sure." She stretched a hand over and rubbed Dar's back lightly with her fingertips, eliciting an incoherent sound from her friend. "Want me to see if I can loosen those up a little?"
Kerry slid over and sat cross legged in front of Dar, flexing her hands before beginning a careful kneading of the painfully tense muscles. "Oo." She winced, touching the back of Dar's neck. "This must be driving you nuts."
It was easier just to grunt, so Dar did, curling her body up a little and trying to concentrate on not throwing up. It was too much for one day, she decided. Three meetings, two of them fairly rambunctious, then the flight which usually gave her a headache anyway, then the funeral. Add to that the knowledge she was going to have to deal with an inquisitive Ankow next week, and what she really felt like doing was taking off to the Keys, and disappearing.
She thought about that for a bit.
C'mon, Dar… you never backed down from anything.. don’t' go starting now, just because a few bad apples hit you on the head in the same day. She found a slight grin tugging at her lips at the sound of her father's voice echoing in her head and turned, letting her eyes crack open and observe the attractive kneecap inches from her face.
Experimentally, she licked it.
"Yeow!" Kerry almost levitated off the bed. "Dar!!!! What are you trying to do, scare me to death? "
"With a single measly lick?" Dar opened one blue eye fully, and raised it's brow. "You flatter me."
Kerry turned an appealing shade of crimson, which made her fair hair and eyebrows stand out vividly. "You must be feeling better." She accused, leaning over to continue her work.
Dar rocked a hand back and forth. "A little." She exhaled, warming Kerry's knee. "Just the peace and quiet's helping…" A finger reached out and touched Kerry's calf. "And having you here."
"Mm." Dar closed her eyes again.
"Tell me something…. I mean, I've met people like your mother's family before."
"How on earth did she and your father hook up? I'm trying to figure out where they could have met… did they crash into each other on the highway or something?" Privately, Kerry had been imagining a combination sushi bar/shooting range.
"Ah… well, that's a tale." Her lover acknowledged. "I wondered, myself, after I got old enough to realize just how different they really were." She tilted her head. "Like us."
Kerry burst out laughing. "Not! Dar.. we are not anywhere near that different… c'mon now."
"No, we are." The blue eye regarded her. "You grew up with a silver spoon, didncha?"
She thought about that. "I guess.. yeah.. if you mean my family always had money, sure…but you're worth a heck of a lot more than I am, partner."
"I'd firmly disagree.. but in dollars, right now, okay." Dar acknowledged. "That's only been in the last few years, though. Growing up, we were living on my dad's military pay… it's why I started working so young."
"Mm." Kerry's turn to be thoughtful.
"I have this…" Dar's brow creased. "Outer veneer of.. I mean, I learned how to buy the right clothes, and all that… but underneath, I'm still a scruffy military brat, who's more comfortable barefoot on the beach than dressed in the boardroom." A pause. "I think that's why I'm so.. why my mother's family gets to me so much. They know that… and they've all got that old money thing going.. I always felt.." Dar hesitated.
"Like they were looking down on you?"
"You kicked their attitude right up through their nostrils today, you do realize that, right?" Kerry pronounced, with an understanding grin. "I remember the first time I saw you, and let me tell you something, Dar.. you knocked my socks off and I am old money…I can smell a bourgeoisie at twenty paces. "
"It was the power suit." Dar mumbled, faintly embarrassed. "And the first time you saw me, I was going to fire you… that doesn't count."
A soft knock at the door caused Kerry to roll up to her feet and answer it, allowing the room service waiter to enter and put the tray down on the small table. "Thanks." She signed the bill and closed the door after him, then wen to the tray and examined it's contents. "I don't know, Dar.. there's something very appealing about the thought of you sitting in that kazillion dollar condo munching on a bowl of Frosted Flakes and milk. I like that about you." She uncovered the soup bowl, and brought it over to the bed, sitting down carefully so she wouldn't spill anything. "C'mon.. roll over."
With a sigh, Dar complied, sitting up and pulling her body closer to accept a spoonful of the broth. It was tasty, and she readily took the bowl from her lover and discarded the spoon, sipping it directly from the side as Kerry shook her head and chuckled. "You got a problem with me drinking from this here utensil, young lady?" Dar produced a reasonable facsimile of her father's growly tones.
"In a bus station." Dar glanced at her.
"You asked where they met." Dar swallowed the pill Kerry now offered her, chasing it down with a little more soup. "It was in a bus station. My mother had… I don' t know, I guess she was in a rebellious stage herself.. she'd decided to run away from home and ended up in the local Greyhound stop."
Kerry leaned her chin on her fist. "Really?"
"Mm.. dad had gotten caught between transports.. and decided to switch to the bus because it was going to take half of forever for him to get back to Atlanta otherwise." Dar smiled. "He just had enough cash for the ticket, and he was sitting in there with his gear, in his uniform when she came in."
"Uh huh… then what?" Kerry got up and retrieved the sandwiches, putting the plates down on the bed.
"Depends on which one you ask." Dar responded. "Dad says 'musta been the damn uniform, all them shiny things blinded her butt.'."
Kerry giggled. "And your mother said….?"
"She said she looked into those eyes and was lost." Dar's lips tightened slightly. "She asked where his ticket was for, and that's where she went." A breath. "She never looked back."
They regarded each other quietly for a moment.
"Wow." Kerry finally sighed, gaining an unexpected understanding of someone she barely knew. "That sounds really intense."
A slow nod. "It was… her family tried everything to get her home.. finally they just gave up."
"And accepted it?"
Dar shook her head. "They never did… he was always an outsider to them."
Kerry pulled a bit of turkey out of her sandwich and ate it, chewing slowly and thoughtfully. Dar took a bite of her own, and they ate in silence. "Wow." The blond woman finally said again, as her eyes studied the angular face opposite her. Even given their different genders and age, and Andrew's scarring, she could see the uncanny similarities, from the dark hair, and pale eyes, even to the shape of her friend's jaw. "She must miss him a lot."
A serious nod.
What would it be like, Kerry wondered, to have that kind of ache, and be reminded of it every time you looked into someone's eyes? "Are you going to tell her, Dar?" The question neither of them had brought up all week surfaced unexpectedly from her lips.
The blue eyes lowered. "I gave him my word I wouldn't." She could ask the same vow of Kerry, she knew.
But she didn't.
Dar raised her head to find Kerry looking back at her with quiet intelligence. "Can I come with you tomorrow?" The blond woman asked, with just a hint of a smile. "I think I have more in common with your mother than she realizes."
"Could be." Dar agreed softly, glad of the offer. She eyed Kerry, and produced a smile. "Wanna share some ice cream?"
Kerry chuckled, and retrieved the bowl.
The phone, when it rang, was a thin, discrete warbling. It echoed gently off spotless tile floors, and the eggshell walls that bore only abstract, thinly drawn art. After a moment, soft bare footfalls scuffed against the tile, and the phone was answered.
"Ceci… are you there?"
"Of course I am.. do you think this is the machine?" Cecilia sighed. "What is it, Richard… I have things I have to do this morning."
"Did you arrange to talk to Dar?"
Another sigh. "For all the good it's going to do for either of us, yes."
"C'mon, Cec… give it a chance, will you? She's not the kid you knew." Richard Edgerton coaxed. "Do you know what she's doing now?"
"I don't want to know." The slim silver blond woman stated sharply. "Richard, we've been through this. I'm only doing this because I think I'm obligated to, and why in the world you'd think she'd confide or listen to me, I haven't clue number one on."
"You're her mother."
"I used to be her mother, Richard." Came the quiet response. "And even then, it didn't work."
The lawyer sighed. "She's not a bad person, Ceci."
"I don't much care what kind of person she is, Richard… now, if you don't have anything else to nag me about, I've got things to do."
"She's coming here after she leaves your place." Edgerton commented.
Cecilia frowned. "Then you already knew she was coming here? Richard, I don't have time for games." She hung the phone up and straightened it's position, then glanced around the spacious townhouse, with it's neutral toned, spare furniture and it's air of almost painful neatness. "I really don't have time for this, either." She murmured, with a tiny shake of her head.
Or at least, she told herself that. She let her eyes run over the living room one more time before she moved into the austere kitchen and picked up a glass of vegetable juice she'd just pressed, sipping it slowly to settle her stomach. She leaned against the counter and watched out the window, putting everything out of her mind. Finally, the occasional car passing by outside became one that didn't pass, but turned into the small driveway instead. A rental car, with two passengers, and Cecilia closed her eyes at that. "You always do have to find the most difficult way, don't you.?"
She remained where she was, as both doors opened, and the two passengers emerged, then her eyes and attention focused on the taller of the two.
Richard was right about one thing.
Dar had changed.
Oh, she was recognizable, surely. The same tall, lanky frame, with it's cap of dark hair, and the southern tanned skin. Those same blue eyes.
But the dynamics behind it had all changed. The sullen, somewhat gawky, truculent young adult she'd last seen had been magically replaced by this confident, self assured woman whose poised movements bespoke an athleticism she frankly thought her sometimes impatient daughter would have given up by now. Today, Dar was wearing something a little more familiar, jeans that fit snugly all down the length of her long legs and a simple cotton shirt tucked into the waistband, the short sleeves revealing powerful, toned arms.
Cecilia watched them walk up the long driveway, and finally, briefly turned her attention to her daughter's shorter companion.
This was Kerrison Stuart.
She straightened, then set her glass down very precisely on the counter, and spared a single moment of memory for the last time she'd seen Dar. The awkward, stumbling speech she'd cut short, divining Dar's intent to go with her, and fulfill what she mistakenly thought was her father's responsibilities.
Just go. She'd said it simply. I don't want you around me.
And Dar had went, after a single, timeless moment of silent regard, in which she'd seen a glimpse of a hurt almost as profound as her own had been.
Academically, that has surprised her, but they hadn't spoken since, so she hadn't had a chance to examine what she'd caused, though in later years, she'd started to wonder just a little, what kind of person this spawn of hers had turned into.
Time to find out.
Cecilia brushed her hands off and walked into the hall, striding forward to time her hand hitting the knob of the door as the first chime disturbed the silence of the house.
"You all right?" Kerry asked softly, as they came up the driveway.
"Yeah." Dar replied, desperately glad her lover was there with her. She owed Kerry big on this one. "Shouldn't take long… " Her eyes went to the white, neatly painted townhouse with black and gold trim. "She might ask you to leave."
Kerry's eyebrows lifted. "Is it okay for me to tell her to kiss my ass?" She inquired mildly.
Dar couldn't help smiling. "It's all right… she doesn't know you, and god knows, she might have something she wants to say in private." A pause. "Then again, probably not. " They got to the door and Kerry exhaled, then rang the bell.
The door opened as it sounded, and Dar's mother was standing there, dressed in a pair of soft, white cotton drawstring pants, and a silk shirt, with a delicate rose embroidery on one shoulder. She was barefoot, and even Kerry felt suddenly large next to her.
"Mother." Dar's voice was cool and even, with it's best boardroom cordiality.
"Come in." Cecilia pulled the door open and stepped back. "Ms Stuart. " She inclined her head towards Kerry, who decided to kick her friendliness gene in it's recalcitrant butt.
"Hello… " She let the door close behind her and looked around. "Wow… what a nice apartment."
"Thank you." Dar's mother responded politely. "Please… sit down." She led them into the living room and indicated the couch.
Kerry circled the room instead, gazing at the walls. The precisely placed art hanging there had a certain geometric appeal, and she decided she liked the colors. "That's your work, isn't it?" She asked Cecilia, not missing her lover's slightly raised eyebrow.
Ceci had stopped on her way towards the other couch, and was now regarding Kerry with a mildly surprised expression "Yes, it is." She murmured. "Are you in the art trade, Ms. Stuart?" Her voice held a note of bemusement.
"No." Kerry returned to Dar's side, and seated herself on the couch. "I've spent a lot of time in Washington.. the museum of art is a favorite spot of mine." Dar's eyebrow lifted a notch further. "You had a mini exhibit there last year."
Cecilia felt very unsettled. "Yes, I did." She decided to move the scene along. "Well, I would love to discuss art with you, Ms. Stuart, but there's something I need to discuss with Paladar, so if you'd excuse us for a moment? There's some ice tea on the porch if you'd like." She watched the looks exchanged between the two of them, then Kerry rose.
"Not a problem." She replied. "Dar, I'm going to go check my mail."
"Check mine." Dar responded, folding her arms over her chest.
Kerry walked out, and the door closed behind her, leaving them both looking at each other in silence.
Dar waited, having learned patience over the years, and the value in letting others speak first. She studied her mother's face, noting the new lines, and the added silver in her hair, and withstood the same searching look being returned at her.
"There's no point in my going into long preambles, Paladar." Ceci chose her words precisely. "I was asked by the family to speak with you, and for reasons I can't begin to understand, I agreed, though I certainly have no idea what good they thought it might do."
Dar chose not to answer. She merely tilted her head to one side.
"Aunt May's estate." Ceci paused. "It gets signed over to you in total today."
It was the last thing Dar expected to hear from her mother. "And?" She injected a bit of puzzlement into her voice.
"There's a concern… the estate might pass out of the family." Her mother bit the words off. "To someone who is, perhaps, taking advantage of you."
Dar blinked, going over the words two or three times. "Is that a reference to Kerry?"
"I would suppose."
Dar felt anger easing the nervous dread out of her gut. She stood and walked to the fireplace, turning and leaning back against it. "In the first place, you can tell them from me, that I can leave my net worth to a tap dancing muskrat and they've got nothing to say about it."
"In the second place, unlike Uncle Mike's six bimbos, Kerry's not a passing fancy."
Dar's mother glanced at her hands and pursed her lips.
"In the third place, her damn trust fund is four million dollars."
Cecilia stood up, regretting getting involved to an enormous degree. "Well, that's the point, Paladar.. it's a large amount of money, and frankly, I would have a concern regarding your involvement with that myself." She took a breath to continue when Dar did something very surprising.
Ceci gazed at her in surprise. "What exactly are you finding funny?"
"The idiocy of people who are too stupid to do some basic research." Dar's amusement disappeared, and she let her anger steady into a dull burn. "The incredible arrogance of you to ask me here, after not bothering to talk to me for how many years… and worry about what I'll do with a lousy inheritance, or who I share my life with?"
"You can kiss my ass, mother, and tell the rest of the family they can do the same."
"It was a justifiable concern." Her mother's voice rose.
Dar flipped a card through the air, watching it hit her mother in the chest. "Not if you'd bothered to find out who I am now."
Cecilia glanced impatiently at the piece of white cardboard, then stopped, and read it more carefully.
Chief Information Officer? Paladar…no. She exhaled softly. Dar Roberts. Goddess.. Richard must have known.. I'll have his head for not telling me.
She tasted the knowledge that she'd made a fairly huge mistake. Question was, should she acknowledge it, or let it pass? After all, there was just so many levels of hate Dar could feel for her, right?
Her eyes lifted, to met a cold, angry stillness looking back, but her sense of fairness won out, and she lowered her gaze, and her voice. "You're right." She finally admitted, quietly. "I'm sorry, Paladar… I should have checked before I took on the responsibility… I wouldn't have bothered to ask you to come here."
Ceci expected an sharp retort, something spiteful.. something nasty… but instead, her daughter leaned back against the mantel, and crossed her arms over her chest.
"It's funny." Dar remarked. "When you called last week, Kerry speculated that maybe you were using this whole thing as an excuse to get back in touch."
Cecilia drew in a soundless breath.
"And I told her it was too late for that." A pause. "I was right." Dar pushed off the wall and headed for the door. "Goodbye, mother."
Let her go. A voice advised her in mental echo. "Paladar."
Dar kept walking, taking the two steps up in a smooth motion.
Her hand on the doorknob, Dar turned and waited.
"I don't expect you to understand what I did." Cecilia put her slim hands on the back of the chair.
"Maybe that's the problem." Came the soft, bitter reply. "You never thought I was capable of understanding."
Her mother came forward, anger starting to surface. "You have no idea… you can't begin to realize what I went through…what is it to lose half of yourself."
"No." Dar replied, her nostrils flaring. "But I do know what it felt like to lose the only friend I had in the world." Her voice deepened. "The only person I could talk to.. who accepted who I was… " She paused, needing a breath. "Who loved me." Another pause, for the lump in her throat to relax. "Is that good enough on your scale?"
Goddess. Cecilia suddenly felt very tired. I don't want to deal with this. I don't want to deal with her. Just let her go, and forget about all this… let it fade out like everything else. It was so much easier that way. "I'm sure you think so." She murmured. "I hope.. for your sake, Dar.. that you never find out any different." She was too tired to dissemble. "It was cruel to you.. I know that." Her eyes lifted and met blue eyes so hauntingly familiar she had to look away. "But it was the only way I could survive." A quiet regret settled over her, and she forced herself to look back at Dar's face, seeing a serious quietude there that suddenly, unexpectedly made her see past the common stamp of her features, and through to the person her daughter had become.
This was not her beloved, this tall, strange creature, who smelled of sun warmed cotton, and a light, spicy scent.
Perhaps, even that echo was gone.
"I'm sorry." She finally said, simply.
There was a long pause, as her daughter studied her. "So am I." .
They were both quiet, then the door opened and Kerry slipped inside, blinking at the silent tableau before her. Dar reached out blindly and touched her, bringing her closer by pure reflex.
"Hey." Kerry glanced from one to the other, a hand on Dar's back revealing an almost unbearable tension. "Everything okay in here? "
"Yeah." Dar answered. "Seems my… family.. was worried you might be sponging off me."
A blond brow lifted. "They should hear us arguing about who gets to pay the grocery bill, then." She remarked, slipping an arm around her lover, and leaning against her. "I'm going to hurt you if you don't stop switching that card."
The tension relaxed a little. Cecilia sighed. "Let's… ah, please sit down… "
"Sure." Kerry started moving towards the couch, tugging Dar along with her. They all moved down the stairs, the atmosphere uncomfortable and strained.
"So.. did you two… meet at work?" Ceci fished around for something to say.
"Actually… " Kerry smiled. "Dar showed up to fire me. I managed to talk her out of it, and we've been friends ever since. "
"Really?" The older woman murmured. "Well, I'll go get that tea." Cecilia walked quickly to the kitchen, and sanctuary.
Kerry watched her go, a thoughtful look on her face.
She stood with her hands on the counter while the tea steeped, with her eyes closed. It had been worse than she'd expected, but.. in a curious way, better at the same time. She'd thought to find Dar cold, and remote, her feelings locked down tight away just like they'd always been since her teenage years.
Instead, she'd halfway seen a glimpse of a child she'd thought long lost. Part of her… most of her wanted to forget that, and she felt a definite urge to send Dar on her way, and allow her life to return to it's sterile peace.
Surely, it would be better for both of them. It wasn't like Dar was in need..she'd done well, better , to be honest, than Ceci had ever dreamed she would. She had a good life, a nice home.. she seemed happy with her companion…
Footsteps made her open her eyes and turn her head to see Kerry enter the kitchen. The blond woman paused a few feet a way, and studied her.
"Can I help with that?"
Kerry's voice was, Ceci noted, gentle and cultured, with a Midwest note in the vowels. It went with her wholesome good looks, and was at distinct odds with the gleam of intense intelligence glinting off the interesting green of her eyes. "All right."
Kerry took that as permission to approach and did so, setting a few blue tinted glasses on the small tray Ceci had taken out, and adding the pitcher to it.
"So." The older woman went to the white refrigerator and retrieved some ice in a separate pitcher. "What makes you hang around the capitol, Ms. Stuart?"
"My father." Kerry replied quietly. "He's a senator."
Cecilia blinked, then her brows creased. "Not Roger Stuart, surely?"
Kerry nodded. "Yes."
"Interesting." Gray eyes studied Kerry's face curiously. "Does he know about you and Paladar?"
Another nod. "He does."
Ceci's lips twitched briefly. "Not his year, hmm?" She took the pitcher and walked out, leaving Kerry to follow her with the tray.
She did, with an almost silent sigh, turning the corner to see her lover standing at the window, peering out, her hands clasped behind her back. Dar turned as they entered, and leaned against the sill, the sunlight outside backlighting her tall form and throwing her face into shadow. Kerry poured two glasses, and picked one up, bringing it over and handing it to her.
Kerry gave her belly a friendly scratch and wrinkled her nose, her back turned to Cecilia. Dar's lips tightened, and she inclined her head, then pushed off from the window and returned to the couch, seating herself opposite her mother. Kerry followed her, and they sat in an uncomfortable silence, the faint tinkle of ice the only sound as they drank their tea.
Then Dar put her glass down, and folded her hands together. She hesitated, then spoke. "I'm glad I had a chance to say goodbye to Gran."
Safer subject. "I promised her I'd ask you." Cecilia remarked softly. "She kept all your cards in a book… I know she always appreciated getting them." She considered a moment, then stood and glided over to a chest of drawers, putting her hand on the knob of one and pulling it open, pulling out a large manila envelope and returning to hand it to her daughter. "You never put your return address on them… I could never mail these for her back to you."
Dar held the package uncertainly, then put it down on her knees. "Richard knew where I was."
Ceci nodded. "Probably… but I figured if you wanted us to know what your address was, you'd have put it down."
"Mm." Dar had to acknowledge the truth of that. "Well, we need to get over and take care of things with him, then catch our flight." She stood up and took her envelope, taking in the sight of the slight, silver blond woman seated across from her. "Take care, mother."
"You too." Ceci murmured, allowing herself a long, guarded look into the pale blue eyes, and a single brief memory that made her heart clench, and was discarded out immediately. She stood and accompanied them to the door, pulling it open and waiting for them to go through it.
They did, and she shut it behind them, letting the silence settle comfortably around her again. She watched them out the window, though, unable to take her eyes off Dar until her daughter ducked into the passenger side seat, and the car pulled away.
Ceci turned around and stared at the now empty room.
It was over.
She was safe. She'd fulfilled a promise, and now she never had to see Dar again, if she didn't want to.
That was good.
It was hard to stand here, with the memories so fresh in her mind, and remember a time when it hadn't been like this. A time before she'd had to look up to her daughter.
When a small child had sat on her lap, and looked up at her trustingly with those big blue eyes as they watched fireworks over the cow fields, in air so thick and moist it seemed to flow over them.
It was faint, that echo. But she could, if she tried, remember loving her daughter.
Maybe, at some level, she still did.
Ceci looked around the emptiness, and found herself wishing they were still here. Painful as Dar's presence was, there was a link there, a solid, living, breathing link, that touched her down deep in places she'd kept shy from for years.
Slowly, she found herself drawn through the living room and into the plain bedroom, with it's low, platform bed and crisp white sheets. To her right was her closet, with it's seldom opened door and she stopped, with her hand on the knob for long time before her fingers turned it reluctantly, and she pulled the door open, closing her eyes as the scent hit her.
Why do this?
In that moment she hated Dar all over again.
But her feet carried her inside, and she simply stood, letting the memories surround her as her fingers touched remembered wool, and her eyes drank in the rich colors and remembered shapes of what was once her life.
His things. Their things. Neatly folded clothes in the blues and greens he'd preferred.
The chest with their wedding gifts, carefully packed away and saved, most from the friends they'd made in the south, or his service buddies.
Dar's cradle, and the baby blanket, a gift from her mother.
It smelled of wool, from his uniforms, and old polish, mixed with the faint tang of oil. She ran a shaking finger down a perfectly starched sleeve, then laid her cheek against it, feeling the scratchiness of the fabric and remembering what it had felt like with a living, breathing body inside.
Her legs folded, and she sat down on a box full of remnants, carefully hoarded and stored away here. She picked up the soft, cheerful quilt that had once covered their bed and pulled it around her shoulders, tears hitting her knees as she hugged it to her, burying her face in the fabric.
Kerry drove in silence for a bit, casting the occasional glance at the tall, silent form slumped in the seat next to her. "Hey." Kerry finally said, reaching over and tugging a fold in the knee of Dar's jeans. "You doing okay?"
Blue eyes picked up a bit of the sun's glare from outside. "Yeah... listen, I'm sorry you had to get in the middle of all that." Dar gave her an apologetic look.
"Well.." Kerry watched the signs overhead, and changed lanes. "I know how it is with families... and I remember how I felt when I went home for Thanksgiving." A large tractor trailer whipped by, making the smaller rental car shake. "Jerk." She muttered. "I couldn't do much, but I was glad I was here."
Dar covered her hand, and rubbed a thumb over her knuckles. "Me too. Glad that's over, though." She faced forward. "You'll like Richard.. he's decent, even though he's a lawyer."
Kerry nibbled the inside of her lip, debating on touching still sensitive nerves. "Dar, can I say something kind of personal to you?"
Her lover lifted an eyebrow. "Um...sure."
"Okay." Kerry made a turn, and merged carefully into fitful traffic. "You're going to have to give me more specific directions soon."
"That's... personal." Dar remarked, with a wary smile.
Green eyes flicked very briefly to her. "What I was going to say was... I know we were talking before we left and all... and I don't know, Dar... I mean, I just met your mother... but I think I sort of figured out that I don't think she hates you."
Dar sorted through the statement, feeling it rub against her smarting defenses. She realized she really didn't want to talk about the subject, but found it hard to brush Kerry's obvious concern off. "No.. .I... " She fingered the envelope, still sealed. "I never really thought that."
Kerry remained quiet.
"Maybe that would have been better."
"Hate...is a lot more powerful than indifference." Dar murmured. 'I felt like.. after my father was gone, she was getting rid of an unwanted problem." A pause. "Not hate.. just an indifferent dislike..that made me feel pretty damn.. insignificant."
"So you went out and conquered the world."
Dar consider that, then reluctantly nodded. "Yeah.. maybe."
"I think she loves you, Dar."
A head shake. "No.. she loved my father, Kerry...I was just a part of that. Once he was gone... we had nothing in common, and all we did was hurt each other."
"No." Kerry disagreed stubbornly "I don't believe that, Dar. I think she was trying to find a way back to you."
Oh yeah. Dar remembered the exchange they'd had. "Well, I'm out of relatives I give a damn about, so I guess she had her one chance." She folded her arms over her chest and gazed out the window.
Kerry drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. "You could call her once in a while." She suggested. "Just to say hi.. now that you've seen each other and all."
A sigh. "She doesn't want me doing that."
"How d'you know?"
"Dar.. you know what? I think the problem is you guys are too much alike..." Kerry turned the wheel, paying attention to her route. "I saw her watching you... and I don't think she's indifferent, honey... honestly, I don't." She straightened the car out. "You're not."
Dar stared grumpily out the window, a half dozen retorts rising to her lips, only to subside unspoken. "Can we change the subject?" She muttered testily.
Kerry glanced at her. "Okay." She agreed, feeling her shoulders slump in reaction. "Sorry... I know I...I can't fix my family... and I sort of really like yours. "
Dar turned her head, tracing Kerry's profile with contrite eyes. "I appreciate that... and.. maybe you're right, Ker..." She plucked at the envelope, pulling the flap up. "Her birthday's next month. Maybe I'll send a card."
Ooo. Kerry refrained from smiling too widely. "We can both send one." she offered. "I think she'd like that."
"Mm." Dar pulled the small stack of envelopes out and set them on her lap, turning the first over curiously and examining it. "Yeah... all right."
Kerry leaned back, flexing her hands and exhaling in mild satisfaction. One down. Her thoughts turned to a much tougher nut to crack, and she started sorting her arguments, aligning facts and strategy for when she got back to Miami, and went in search of a certain Andrew Roberts.
The study was quiet, save the soft sound of a hard drive humming, and the occasional rustle as the desk chair's occupant shifted. Chino was curled up on the couch, her muzzle resting on the arm as she watched Dar work.
"God damn it." Dar muttered, reaching out and selecting a section of text, then copying it. "That's not what I asked for." She pasted it into an email then typed furiously, sending the message with a savage keystroke. "And you'd better have that in by Tuesday, mister... or I'm going to ram that IMUX in a place even extended cables won't reach it. "
"Grr." Chino agreed, yawning and poking her pink tongue out.
"Yeah." Dar leaned back and rocked her head back and forth, rubbing her neck with one hand. She'd been crouched over her email for hours, trying to catch up on things that had been building all week. Kerry had gone out to pick up a few things off the island, and she'd taken the opportunity to concentrate on her project. "Okay.. next."
She leaned forward and clicked on the next mail. "Ah." This, at least, was moderately good news. Mark's analysis of the data they'd recovered from Allison had turned up a copy of their friend's online banking account, and that had been sent to not only Duks and Dar, but to the corporate legal department as well.
Dar clicked on it to forward, and typed in Alastair's name. "There.. you wanted a smoking gun, you got one. The bastard was billing those customer's a 'management fee' and pocketing it." She hit send with considerably more satisfaction this time.
The next mail was from Ankow's office, and she skimmed through it, making small disgusted noises. "Yeah, right.. I'll provide an onsite aide and escort for you, buddy.. right out the loading dock door." With a sigh, she forwarded the mail to Maria. "This is a visiting board member. He thinks he's god's gift to ILS, please treat him accordingly."
A bit of warm sunset trickled in, striping her forearms as they lay on the desk. It reminded her of just how long a day it had been, and she surveyed her half full mailbox, then closed the window out and let the underwater scene she currently had as her backdrop replace it.
"That's enough, Chino." Dar let her head rest against the soft leather back of the chair. "I'll do the rest of that later, okay?"
"Yawp." Chino yawned sleepily, then climbed down and ambled over, sitting down on Dar's bare foot and licking her ankle.
Dar picked the half grown puppy up an put her on her lap, scratching her ears and smiling a little as Chino transferred her licking to the underside of Dar's chin. "Hey... that's cold." Dar hugged the puppy, and kissed her nose, glancing around a little guiltily as she did so. "You want to go for a walk? I think I need a walk, Chino...your green eyed friend stuffed me like a pig with that spicy noodle thing she made for lunch."
She stood and carried the animal into the kitchen to retrieve her leash, then put her down and opened the back door. "G'wan... "
Chino happily frisked down the steps and galloped over to the gate, waiting impatiently as Dar worked the latch and they walked out onto the path heading towards the beach.
Kerry tucked the bags she'd acquired under an arm and strolled towards the outside cafe at Bayside. The sun was starting to set, and a cool breeze was coming off the water. She took a deep breath of the salty air and found herself a seat, tucking her purchases under her and leaning back against the railing. A waiter drifted towards her and she ordered a strawberry banana smoothie, then settled back to wait.
It didn't take long. She had her drink, and was sucking contentedly on it when she caught a motion out of the corner of her eye, and turned, to see a tall, hooded figure casually making it's way towards her. Right on time. Briefly, Kerry wrestled with her conscience, considering what she was doing as being meddling rating a twelve on a one to ten scale.
On the other hand, she reasoned, as Andrew paused and watched a seagull before he continued. On the other hand, this is my family now, and I love them. Dar understood that, right? "Hi dad."
"Hey there, kumquat." Andrew dropped into the chair across from her. "Whatcha got in the glass?"
"It's a fruit and yogurt milkshake." Kerry pushed it towards him. "Try it."
He picked it up and sniffed it suspiciously, then took a small sip. "Huh.. that ain't half bad."
Kerry smiled, then leaned forward, and cocked her head. "Did you get hurt?" A bandage covered half the shadowed face, almost obscuring his right eye.
"Naw." Andrew returned her glass. "Some damn crazy stuff the VA's doin." He cleared his throat. "G"vment gimme pig kinda thing."
"Are they trying to fix some of the scars?" Kerry inched her chair closer. "That's where the really bad ones were." She peered curiously at him, noting the embarrassed glower that was the very image of his daughter's. "Can I see?"
"No you may not, young lady." Andrew growled at her. "So don't you be looking at me like that."
Kerry gazed compassionately at him.
She gave him her best sad puppy look, the one that always worked on Dar.
"I said.. stop that!' The tall man rasped. "Those damn green eyes ain't workin on me, hear?"
She mentally counted to ten.
"Aw, shit." Andrew scooted his chair closer. "It ain't hardly nothing... damn doctors were just tryin t'fix it so it didn't smart so damn much."
Kerry lifted a hand up slowly and touched the fastener on the bandage, feeling the skin tense under her touch, as Andrew's eyes closed in reflex. She pulled the white gauze aside, and leaned closer. "Oh... I see."
The two large, knotted scars that had almost covered the right side of his face had been seemingly removed, replaced by what looked like a thin layer of reddened, tacked in place skin. "Is that a graft?"
The blue eyes opened, and regarded her. "Fake. Some new stuff." He muttered.
"Ohh... artificial skin.. yeah... I saw a special on that." Kerry gently put the bandage back into place. "Cutting edge technology... in fact, um.. " She laughed softly. "We administer the mainframes it was developed on."
"Yeah, well... won't look any prettier, but it sure damn nough feels better." Andrew admitted. "Hurt to move the other way."
Kerry brushed his other cheek with her fingertips, resisting the urge to give him a hug. "I"m glad... I know Dar will be glad to hear it too."
"Mmph." Andrew leaned back and stuck his hands in the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt. This was his summer version, she realized, as it had the sleeves cut off to expose his muscular arms. "How's my kid?"
"She's all right." Kerry settled back too. "It was kind of a tough couple of days."
"You go up there with her?"
They were both silent for a bit.
"She kind of knocked everyone's socks off." Kerry finally said, feeling her way very cautiously.
Andrew smiled, his eyes briefly glinting with paternal pride. "I bet." Then he fell silent again.
"I... got to meet your wife." Kerry saw the flinch. "At the service, and then we stopped by where she lives this morning."
His eyes focused on something out on the horizon, and he remained quiet, watching and listening.
Kerry took her time, wanting, above all not to hurt him. "It's... I've been wondering all day what I was going to say to you when I saw you."
"She's doin all right." Andrew finally rasped. "Ain't she?"
How to answer that? "No... I don't' think she is." She spoke on an exhale. "She seemed really alone."
He stared at her intently, devouring everything.
"I mean.. she lives in a nice place... but... " Kerry clasped her hands to keep them from shaking, aware of how delicate a line she was treading. "Everything was very... stark. Very plain, and functional... and there.. it was so strange. There weren't any colors."
The waiter drifted back over. "Something for you, sir?"
'Whiskey." Andrew answered, in a clipped voice.
Kerry waited for the waiter to leave, then put a hand on Andrew's knee. "I"ll stop, if you want me to. "
"No." He seemed tired. "G'wan... she wasn't... sick.. or nothin, was she? I..I mean.."
"I don't think so, no." A breath. "Just very alone." Kerry steeled herself. "I think she really misses you."
He was totally motionless for a long moment. "Thought she'd have started over by now... ' He answered, in a remote voice. "S'what she said she'd do... find her someone who wouldn't run off on her like I done."
Kerry took his hand in hers. "That's not what she did." She took a breath. "I think she lost the most important thing in her life.... and there was nothing that could replace that, so she didn't even try."
The waiter came and delivered Andrew's shot. "Get you folks an appetizer or something?"
"Um... a basket of Cajun shrimp." Kerry told him, just to make him go away.
The shadowed eyes regarded her in bleak shock. "Dar tell her about me?" Andrew finally asked, bluntly.
"No." Kerry replied quietly. "She promised she wouldn't.. and I know she'd never break a promise to you." She took a folded piece of paper from her shirt pocket and put it in the palm of his hand, closing his fingers around it. "And I didn't think I had the right... not without talking to you first. But I did write down the phone, and the address." Her eyes searched his face. "If you wanted to use them."
His hand tightened around the paper and he sat very still, blue eyes shifting in intense thought. "She didn't forget about me, huh?" He asked at last, in a mild, wondering tone.
Kerry felt the awful tension gripping her relax. "I don't think anyone who met you could forget you." She murmured. "You're a very special person." She leaned back, emotionally exhausted, then deliberately picked up the shot of whiskey, and downed it in a single gulp. "Brr." She shuddered, as the alcohol burned it's way down, sending a relaxing flow through a body not accustomed to the hard stuff.
Andrew blinked at her in surprise, then drew his hand back and opened it, looking at the piece of paper before he tightened his fist and stuck it into his pocket. "Yer pretty damn special yourself, Kerry." He remarked in a gentle voice. "I can see why my kid's so stuck on you." He watched her lick her lips. "You want nother one?"
Kerry rubbed her nose. "Um.. no.. I.. don't usually do that... I was just a little wound up.. sorry. I'll have him get another."
Andrew snagged her smoothie glass and started sucking on that instead. "Naw.. this is all right." He looked up as the waiter put the basket down. "Can you get me one more of these damn things?"
"Um.. sure." The man looked confused, but willing, and left, after marking down something on his pad.
Dar's father leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "How'd my kid handle it?"
Kerry took a shrimp, examining it. "It was rough...I think what happened really hurt her." She booted the bags next her lightly. "I got her some treats... just to cheer her up a little."
Andrew peeked into the bag. "Lord." He managed a slight grin. "Got you enough chocolate there?"
Kerry smiled back. "Want to come help administer it?"
The answer came back surprisingly fast. "Yeap.... I think I'd like to do that." He confirmed. "Need to talk at her about a few things anyhow."
Kerry put a bill down on the table, and picked up the styrofoam plate of shrimp. "C'mon... " She offered him a spicy nugget. "Share?"
"I'd better take custody of them bags." Came the gruff reply, as Andrew joined her, and they walked down the patio, into the setting sun. "No sense in risking good chocolate.. you might trip or something."
"You sound just like Dar when you say that."
"Doncha mean she sounds like me?" Andrew countered, tasting a shrimp. "Jesus H. Christ in a Humvee, girl.. what the hell are you eating there?" He swallowed a mouthful of the drink he'd taken along.
"Um.. it's kinda spicy, huh?" Kerry smiled sheepishly. "Sorry.. shoulda warned you.. I've gotten to like things a lot hotter since I've met Dar."
"Heh." Andrew chuckled.
"Hmm?" Kerry gave him a puzzled look, and saw the amused twinkle in his eyes. "Ow…." She realized what she'd said, and groaned. "Daaaadd…."
"Heh… tips of yer ears turn pinker than a pig's butt, y'kow that?"
Kerry reached her free hand up and covered her ear in reflex. "Ugh… I know.. I know."
Continued in Part 4