Dar came out of the bathroom, toweling her hair somewhat dry, dressed only in a second towel that was barely decent on her tall frame. She stopped to lean against the door, eyeing the sprawled form on the bed. “Ker?”
“Ungh.” Kerry had her arm thrown over her eyes. “Shh. Kerry isn’t here. It’s just a prune, masquerading as Kerry.”
“Uh huh.” Dar sat down on the bed next to her, very nearly pulling her towel loose. “That was some downpour. I’m glad we made it back here.” She reached over and used the other towel to dry off Kerry’s head. “What a pain in the ass long day.”
Kerry rolled over and draped her arm over Dar’s thigh. “We have to do that again tomorrow, Dar. Augh!” She drummed her feet against the sheets and squiggled into Dar’s lap. “Pig farts!”
Not at all displeased by the development, Dar tossed the towel somewhere in the vicinity of the bathroom and concentrated on her armful of cute blond instead. She was relieved herself that the day was over, and she was very much looking forward to the coming hours alone with her partner.
Accordingly, she slid her hand under Kerry’s neck to support it as she leaned over and gave her a leisurely kiss, enjoying the simple passion of it. She could taste the last remnants of the lemon soda Kerry had grabbed on their way out of the trade show, and as their tongues gently played against each other, she let out a chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” Kerry asked.
“I had fun in the afternoon session.” Dar admitted. “I think I got everything back under control.”
Kerry tweaked the towel, tugging it free of its tuck and exposing Dar’s torso. “Mmhm.” She traced a circle around her partner’s navel. “I think you did too. Thanks.” She felt the muscles just under the skin twitch. “I have a feeling you’re going to make the news, though... I saw reporters there. With cameras.”
“Eurgh.” Dar made a face.
Kerry chuckled. “Not that they needed a scandal to take pictures of you… they do that anyway. You could have been explaining subnet masking and you’d still have gotten a crowd.” She let her hand fall to the bed and closed her eyes. “Umph.”
“Something wrong?” Dar asked.
“Again?” Dar curled her fingers around the back of Kerry’s neck and kneaded it gently. “I see my friend Quest found you... that what gave you this?”
Kerry remained silent, enjoying the massage. Then she exhaled. “He wasn’t that bad.” She admitted. “He had some interesting things to say.”
Dar kept up the motion of her hands. “Ah.” She murmured, surprised. “What did he say? Must have been different than what he told me.”
Her cheek was resting against Dar’s leg, and Kerry let her fingers stroke the skin there before she answered. “I think it was the same offer.”
Dar considered that for a little while. “What did you tell him?” She finally asked. “Did you agree to do it?”
Kerry rolled her head to one side and opened her eyes, looking up at Dar with a faintly rueful expression. “Sweetheart, do you honestly think I would go do something you’d already told me you’d turned down on the company’s behalf?” She reached up to tickle Dar’s navel again. “I was really, really curious as to why you just turned him down flat, though.”
“What I don’t get is why he asked you.” Dar said. “What’s his game?”
“Well... if mom says no...” Kerry kidded her. “Just go ask... um... you know what I mean.” She closed her eyes again as Dar’s fingers found a knot at the back of her skull. “He asked me if I had the guts to go over your head.”
Kerry opened one eye and regarded her. “What do you think?”
A smile twitched at the corners of Dar’s mouth. “I think right now I trust your judgment better than mine. To be honest, I can’t tell you why the hell I just blew him off, Ker. I had no reason for it... no business reason, anyway.”
Kerry’s eyebrows lifted.
“Then when I reconsidered… it was because Telegenics was also bidding, and I wanted to kick their ass. Not because I made a good business choice.” Dar exhaled, but looked peaceful. “I think it’s time I vacate that office, my friend. I’m just not into it anymore.”
Dar put her fingers across Kerry’s lips. “It’s the truth, we both know it.” She said. “I’m not going to just walk out, Kerry, but I’m not doing my job.”
Uncertainly, Kerry subsided, confused and disturbed by her partner’s admission. Dar didn’t seem upset by it, but she was, and it was no use pretending she wasn’t. “I’m really not happy to hear that.” She sighed. “Especially because I think you’re brilliant at what you do, and this last year’s proved that over and over again.”
Dar traced the furrow in Kerry’s brow. “Anyway... we can talk about it when we get home.” She said. “So... what did you tell little Peter?”
Kerry rolled onto her back and settled her hands on her stomach. She recognized the change of subject for what it was, and pondered whether to let Dar get away with it. Then the ache in her head made itself felt again, and she decided if Dar didn’t want to talk about it right now, that was okay with her.
Maybe she would think about it some more. It had just been a ratty day. “What did I tell little Peter?" She repeated. “Well, I told him it was an interesting proposal, it was something we’re very experienced at doing, something we could probably easily handle, and something we’d be interested in getting involved in.”
Dar slipped her hands under Kerry’s head and resumed her massage.
“However.” Kerry continued. “I also told him I had nothing but the highest respect for your judgment, so if he was looking for a champion to butt heads with you, he picked the wrong blond.”
“He seemed to think that was funny.”
“I think that’s when my headache started again.” Kerry closed her eyes against the light in the room. “I just told him I’d be in touch and booted him out of the booth.”
Dar let the silence lengthen after that, as she kept working on Kerry’s tense muscles. She watched the skin over her partner’s brow smooth out, and her breathing slowed as she relaxed. “You want to do it?” She finally asked, in a low voice.
The tiniest hint of a smile appeared on Kerry’s lips, and she cracked open one eyelid. “I want us to do it.” She replied, huskily.
Hm. “Us as in... you and me, you mean?”
Kerry nodded. “I think it would be good for the company, sure… but just to prove I have my head in my workstation just as much as you do, I really just wanted to go there, just us, and whip everyone else’s butts.”
“Ahhh... Ulterior motives.” Dar chuckled softly.
“Something like that.” Kerry reached behind her and captured Dar’s foot. She ran her fingers over the corded tendons and threatened a tickle, feeling the muscles bunch instinctively. “Besides, I’d like to see New Zealand.”
Dar let one hand rest on Kerry’s stomach. “Ahhhhh.” She tapped the edge of her thumb against Kerry’s abs. “That brings this whoooollllee thing full circle.” With her other hand she lifted something from the nightstand and dropped it onto the bed next to her partner. “To this.”
Kerry turned her head and regarded the box. “Ahh.” She mimicked Dar. “You know, sweetheart, if you really wanted to know you could have just opened it.”
“That’s not my name on the label.” Dar wriggled into a more comfortable spot and leaned on one elbow, looking expectantly at the package and then at Kerry. “Feeling better?”
How could she not feel better? Kerry wondered, as she rolled over onto her side and reached for the box. She was lying in bed, with her head in Dar’s naked lap, with the prospects of what was in the box yet to emerge to look forward to.
Her headache had faded under Dar’s touch, and the feeling of pent up tension was being leeched out of her by a combination of being where she was and being able to feel the affection almost pouring out of her companion as the gentle, feather light stroking traveled over her body.
It would be very easy to just let the world fade out.
But there was her box to open, and dinner to be had, and fireworks to watch from their balcony. So Kerry obediently plucked at the box’s wrapping, ripping it apart and freeing the box from its bindings. “There. You have two hands free. Open it.”
Dar needed no second invitation. She took hold of the box and pried the top off, peering inside. Then she turned it over and let the contents drop into her hand.
It was a jar, with a white top, and a seemingly hand written label. Dar blinked it. “Double fudge body paint?” She read it aloud. “From New Zealand?”
Kerry affected an innocent look. “They didn’t have it at Sawgrass Mills.”
Dar bit her lip, then burst out laughing, flipping the jar over in her hand in delight. “Oooohh…. Housekeeping’s gonna be mad at us.” She chortled. “Kerry, what made you order this?” Her eyes went to her partner’s face. “Getting bored?”
For the first time in a long time, Kerry turned brick red, the color change very evident against her white cotton t-shirt. “No!” She got out, grabbing the jar. “I was just shopping! On the internet!”
“Shopping for… “ Dar teased. “Jars? Fudge? Sex toys?”
Kerry cleared her throat loudly. “Did you know they have milk flavored candy there?” She changed the subject. “And hey, look... I’ve got a canvas all ready to test this stuff on.” She tweaked Dar’s bare belly. “To be honest, I was looking for some stuff we could take on the boat, and the pointing and clicking just got a little... ah...”
“Off course?” Dar grinned. “You and a mouse. Dangerous.”
“Trackball. I hate mice.” Kerry corrected her. “Dirty balls – just not my style.” She leaned over and nibbled a bit of Dar’s skin. “So what do you say, Dixiecup? Wanna see if I have even one artistic bone in my body tonight?”
Dar set the jar down and picked Kerry up instead, curling her body around her partner’s and delivering a passionately serious kiss that coaxed a soft groan from Kerry’s guts and set the blond woman’s’ hands wandering over Dar’s skin. “Yeah.” She breathed into Kerry’s ear. “Paint anything you like on me... I won’t even check the spelling.”
“Spelling?” Kerry snickered, easing her body flat against Dar’s. “Baby, I’m not gonna be writing ANYTHING. You’re going to see how us repressed WASPS do finger-painting.”
They tumbled together across the bed, laughing as they got tangled in the sheets and ended up almost falling off. Dar clasped her arms around Kerry and held her tight, releasing a deeply satisfied sigh. “To hell with all of them.” She said. “Let’s go have fun.”
“I’m in heaven.” Kerry put her bare feet up on the railing next to Dar’s, as they sat and watched the fireworks. Absently, she reached over and took Dar’s hand in hers, as she let her other one rest on a very satisfactorily stuffed belly. “Thank god we don’t do this all the time. I can only imagine the amount of gym sweat I’d have to put in to keep up with it.”
Dar flexed her toes and leaned closer, pressing her shoulder against Kerry’s as a new set of colorful lights exploded in the distance. “Mm.” She agreed with both sentiments, though it was hard to focus on the question through the beer they’d shared over dinner and the lassitude the warm air was pressing on her. “That was pretty.”
“Uh huh.” Kerry rested her head against Dar’s upper arm. “Paladar Katherine?”
“Mmm…” Dar peered at her. “What have I done?”
“Nothing. I just like your name.” Kerry exhaled contentedly. “So... what’s our strategy for tomorrow? There’s two big panels in the afternoon… one’s on the direction of wireless, the others on outsourcing. I think we should be on both of them, don’t you?”
“Oh.” Her partner mused. “Like I didn’t make enough trouble today, you want me to try again tomorrow? Alastair’s probably already shredded his desk blotter.” She lifted the mug of coffee resting by her left elbow and took a sip from it. “I’m surprised he hasn’t called.”
“Maybe he hasn’t heard.” Kerry suggested. “It wasn’t that big a deal, Dar. Once you started talking them through it, everyone really relaxed.”
“Umph.” Dar watched several rockets go up, bursting into red and blue patterns overhead. “Yeah, all right. Sign me up. It’s more interesting than wandering around in the hall bullshitting.” She squeezed Kerry’s fingers. “Besides, I get the feeling one of the pitches Telegenics made is that they’re a lot more cutting edge than stodgy old ILS.”
A perceptible twinkle appeared in Dar’s eyes. “I got an email today from an old acquaintance at one of the accounts that switched, just passing the time of day.” She said. “And a little insider info.”
“Ahhh.” Kerry rumbled softly. “Do I sense some early reservations?”
“Hedging her bets.” A grin appeared. “Shirley Applebaum… she’s got a lot of sense, and even though we bumped heads when they first signed with us, she’s all right.”
“Bumped heads… like you and I did?”
Dar laughed. “Kerrison, no one in my life ever bumped heads with me like you did.” She assured her partner. “No, I’d just become a regional manager when they came onboard... they were my first account.”
“Talk about a learning experience.” Dar briefly covered her eyes with one hand. “For a while, I thought they were going to be my last account. But it worked out.”
“Obviously.” Kerry admired a sudden burst of color as it spread across the sky. “That really is pretty… but I’m glad I’m not under it. I hate the smell of gunpowder.”
They both jumped a little and turned as a knock sounded inside the room, echoing faintly through the sliding glass door. Dar frowned. “Are we expecting anyone?”
“Hell no.” Kerry got up and shoved the door open, trading the warm concrete for the rough nubble of the carpet against her bare feet. She pressed her hands against the door and peered through the eyehole, pushing back in annoyance when she recognized Michelle’s face on the other side. “Son of a bitch.” She muttered. “What do you want at ten o’clock at night?”
For a short moment, she debated with herself, seriously considering ignoring the knock and returning to the balcony. Then with a sigh, she grasped the door hand and turned it, her breeding overcoming her baser inclinations for once. “Yes?”
Michelle gazed back at her, for once dressed down in a shirt and jeans and having left most of her pretensions at home, it seemed. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Kerry responded, leaning against the jamb but not allowing the door to open past her body width. “What can I do for you?”
“Can we talk?” Michelle asked. “I know it’s late, I know it’s been a long day, I know you’re not pleased to see me here.”
Kerry felt a warm stream of air suddenly on the back of her neck, and somehow managed not to jump as Dar’s hands settled on her hips. Her partner remained silent, however, leaving the decision up to her. “If you know all that, why push it?” She asked. “Maybe tomorrow’s a better idea.”
“It probably is. But I’d like to talk to you anyway.” Their unwelcome visitor stated. “Both of you.” She added, a little belatedly.
Kerry’s face twitched a little as she was pinched very gently on the behind. Then the warmth behind her disappeared, and she straightened up. “Make it fast.” She backed up a step and opened the door. “We’ve got plans for the rest of this evening.”
Michelle raised her eyebrows as she slipped past, giving Kerry’s faded t-shirt and bare feet a glance. “Thanks.”
Kerry followed her inside. Dar had settled on the couch, her long, bare legs sprawled out across the carpet and her arms spread across the back of the cushions. It left just enough space next to her for one other person provided it was someone Dar liked.
Michelle prudently took the chair across from her, and waited until Kerry sat down within the spread of Dar’s reach before she crossed one ankle over her knee and cleared her throat. “Okay, I’ll cut to the chase, since we all don’t want to be here.”
“No.” Dar let her arm drop down over Kerry’s shoulders. “We want to be here.” She turned her head and regarded her partner’s profile. “What I can’t figure out is why the hell you don’t just follow your business plan and leave us the hell alone.” She glanced back at Michelle, raising her eyebrows in question.
Michelle exhaled. “Because you’re part of my business plan.” She responded. “Look. I know my infrastructure right down to the nuts and screws just like you do.” She looked right at Dar. “I know what the capacity is, and I’m at it. I can’t expand any more.”
“And?” Dar shrugged. “I could have told you that. You’ve promised the same service level to all the accounts you stole this year. If... “ She pointed back at Michelle. “If everything runs perfectly, and no one has any increase in demand, you can provide what you promised.”
“But things never do work perfectly.” Kerry said.
“Except in your network.” Michelle concluded. “So that’s why I’m here. I know what ILS must pay you. I also know you’ve been with them forever, and maybe you’re ready for a new set of challenges. I want to hire you.”
Kerry looked at Michelle, then she turned and looked at Dar. “I know she’s talking about you, not me.” She stated, with a half chuckle.
“Actually, I’m not stupid.” Michelle contradicted her. “Both of you. I know what conflict of interest is and I hate wasting money.”
Holy crap. Kerry kept her mouth shut and waited for Dar’s reaction. She could feel the slow, rhythmic stroking of her partner’s fingers against the back of her shoulder and she was close enough to hear Dar’s steady breathing.
Dar sniffed reflectively. “You don’t have the money.”
“To pay you?” Michelle chuckled. “Mm… you do have an ego.”
But Dar shook her head. “You don’t have the money to put in the infrastructure you’ll need to compete, not only with us, but with the rest of the dog pack we run with.”
Their visitor got up and walked around the back of her chair, pacing with short, deliberate steps. “If I can get projections justified, I can get the money. I have backers lined up who are just waiting… watching to see if we can make it over the top. They were very impressed at the progress we’ve made so far… but now I need to take the next step.” She paused and leaned on the back of the seat. “You are the next step. There is no fuzzy logic involved. Every deep pocket I have behind me knows who you are, and what you can do.”
Dar merely watched her, a faint smile on her face.
“So.” Michelle concluded, coming around to the front of the chair again and sitting down in it. Dressed as she was, she seemed more like them, than the starched figure they’d been dealing with for the last few days. “That’s what brings me here. I’m sorry it’s been so uncivilized the past two days. My fault. Stupid choices.”
Kerry decided to remain quiet. She was in no way tempted by the offer, and she knew despite Michelle’s words that she’d been included for reasons that did not wholly encompass her qualifications as an IT executive. However, Dar’s words earlier that evening echoed into her mind, and she had to wonder if her partner wasn’t just a little bit flattered and intrigued by the interest.
And in fact, she didn’t blame Michelle one bit – far from it. She gave the woman high points for going after a prize she herself valued above all others. In fact, if she’d chosen this approach from the get go, she might indeed have gotten the synergy she’d been hoping for.
“I don’t expect any answer.” Michelle went on. “I just want to put the idea out there. We’ve got the rest of this damn show to get through, and it would make my life a lot easier if we could can the feud now.”
“It’s not my feud.” Dar finally spoke, in a quiet voice.
Michelle watched her face closely, but apparently found nothing there. She lifted a hand and let it fall onto her denim-clad knee.
They were all briefly silent. Then Kerry cleared her throat a little. “Want some coffee?” She offered, indicating the table. “It’s pretty good here.”
Michelle glanced at it. “No thanks.” She half grimaced, half smiled. “I’d never get to sleep. Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Not really, no.” Kerry shook her head. “Though I generally prefer tea at night.” She leaned against Dar unobtrusively. “Why don’t we just agree to just behave like professionals for the next few days? I’m sure we can all handle that.”
“Mm.” Michelle glanced at Dar.
“You didn’t get any special treatment.” Dar said. “This is how I always act when people get in my face. Have your people stay out of my face, and we’ll have a grand old time.” She pinned Michelle with a cool gaze. “Your staff has been messing with us since I got here. You made me spend half the night in that damn hall because of your little tricks, and your managers keep harassing my staff. What makes you think any of that makes you or your company even the least bit appealing for someone like me to work for?”
Michelle, surprisingly, didn’t counter her accusations. Instead, she ducked her head to one side. “Granted. Like I said, bad choices. I take responsibility for that.”
Dar relaxed a little. “All right then.” She conceded. “We should have no problems anymore.”
“Good.” Their visitor put her hands on the chair arms and pushed herself to her feet. “Then I won’t take up more of your time. It’s late, and it’s been a long day.” Her eyes fell on the jar, sitting patiently on the table and she blinked, reading then label, then glanced at them, one eyebrow lifting.
Kerry smiled kindly at her. “See you tomorrow.” She waggled her fingers.
Michelle walked across the room and let herself out, pulling the door to after her with a definite, crisp snick.
Dar drummed her fingers on Kerry’s shoulder, then tilted her head back and let out a long chuckle. “Oh, ain’t this a tangled web.”
“Yeah, well... those two black widows can just kiss my butt.” Kerry snagged the jar and wrapped her hands in Dar’s shirt, tugging her upward. “C’mon, Dixiecup. Hedonism beckons.”
Outside the window, the fireworks peaked in silent glory, speckling the room with twinkling lights. They were, however, lost on the occupants.
Kerry greeted the perkily emerging sun bathing the balcony with a yawn. The warmth felt good right now, after the chill of the hotel room, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before it went from soothing to annoying and decided to enjoy it while she could.
So much had happened the day before, she spent a few minutes just reviewing it all. Then she looked up as the sliding door opened and Dar emerged onto the balcony.
She took the seat next to Kerry and cradled her coffee cup in her hands, sleepy eyes regarding the view amiably. “Kerrison?”
“I have chocolate in many places God did not intend.” Dar announced. “And you, my salacious little mudpuppy, are going to scrub it off me this morning in that there shower.” She toasted Kerry with the coffee. “In fact, I think I still have your name scrawled across my leg.”
“No, you don’t.” Kerry licked her lips. “Trust me.”
Dar chuckled, stretching her legs out into the sunshine and tensing her thigh muscles. “Tell you what. How about we get out there before all the munchkins and go in the pool for a while, before we get into our monkey suits? Show doesn’t start till ten.”
Kerry sucked in a lungful of pine scented, though warm air. “Yeah. I like that idea.” She decided. “Let’s do it. Then we can grab a fast breakfast down at that little snack bar thing.”
They got up, passing together through the glass door and bumping each other playfully as they maneuvered to the bathroom to grab their swimsuits.
Several minutes later, they had towels in hand and were headed out the door. This early, the hotel was quiet, and they could hear workers beginning to set up in the restaurants as they slipped out the back door and headed for the pool.
It was huge. But they had it pretty much to themselves, save a few tentative sunbathers collecting down on one end and timidly spreading towels out on the comfortable looking lounge chairs. Dar tossed her towel on a vacant one on the far side of the pool and dove in without a second’s hesitation.
Kerry took a moment to fold her towel and put it down next to Dar’s. She straightened and went to the side of the pool, stepping up onto the edge of it and diving in.
The water was warmer than she expected, but still refreshing. She surfaced and swam over to where Dar was somersaulting lazily in place, enjoying the clear liquid for a change after swimming mostly in seawater for the last few months.
Dar had on her silver gray suit, which had a functional tank neckline, but high cut sides that showed off her long legs. She flipped over onto her stomach and started to swim down the length of the pool, her powerful arms pulling her through the water with apparently effortless ease.
Kerry took off after her, working a little harder to keep up as they swam side by side all the way to the other end of the irregularly shaped pool. Arriving at the wall, they both turned, then leaned back and gazed across the water, blinking chlorine out of their eyes.
“Race you?” Kerry grinned.
Dar looked at her knowingly. “How many minutes head start do I have to give you?”
Sticking out her tongue, Kerry kicked off and started swimming as hard and as fast as she could, knowing perfectly well it was a lost cause. She liked swimming, but she’d come late to the sport, since they hadn’t had a pool in Michigan and the idea of her going to a public pool would never have been countenanced.
After moving to Florida, and certainly after moving in with Dar, she’d gotten a lot more experience at it, but she still was working to acquire the skills, whereas her partner… “Dar!” Kerry felt hands pluck impudently at her suit. She stuck her face in the water and opened her eyes, spotting Dar almost right under her, swimming under the surface as fast as she could swim on top of it.
As she watched, slowing her strokes, Dar flipped over and coasted beneath her, releasing a lungful of bubbles that rumbled against Kerry’s skin and surfaced around her. Then Dar stroked upward and emerged just in front of her, treading water around Kerry in a circle.
“Show off.” Kerry splashed her.
Dar stuck her tongue out. “Yeah, sometimes.” She agreed, relaxing onto her back and heading off with neat strokes and powerful flutter kicks.
Kerry eased into a breaststroke and followed, starting to grin as she saw Dar angle towards the tall slide. She surged after her, catching up as Dar pushed herself up out of the water and onto the concrete, then turned to offer her a hand up.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Kerry latched onto the back of Dar’s suit and followed her up the steps to the top of the slide. “I think this is supposed to be for the kids.”
“And?” Dar launched herself down the slippery surface. “C’mon, you punk!”
Kerry settled on the slide and shoved herself forward, enjoying the spray of water as she whirled downwards towards the pool. “Better get out of my way, slowpoke!” She yelled in warning, tucking her arms against her sides as she sped up. “Yahhhhhhh!!!”
She dropped out of the slide and plunged into the pool, relaxing her legs as she anticipated hitting the bottom.
Halfway there, she was abruptly intercepted as strong arms wrapped around her and yanked her to a halt. Dar had pushed off the bottom already and they surged back towards the surface, breaking through it into the warm air with a twin yell.
“Me a punk?” Kerry swept an armful of water towards her partner, dousing her thoroughly. “You’re a punk, you little...”
“Little?” Dar picked her up and leaned sideways, taking them both underwater. They wrestled around until Kerry managed to wriggle free, then broke out into the open air again. “Rat!” She dove at Dar and grappled with her again, but made the mistake of getting too close and growled as she felt Dar’s arms tighten around her with irresistible force.
“Rat, huh?” Dar’s low voice tickled her ear.
Kerry tried a wriggle, and then relaxed, realizing she was good and caught. She turned her head to regard her companion, giving her a kiss on her wet nose. “Okay. You’re not a rat.” She said. “You’re a HAMSTER!” She twisted suddenly and got a leg wrapped around Dar’s, pulling them both off balance and back under the water.
They finally came back up near the edge of the pool, laughing like kids. Dar ducked backwards and straightened, slicking her hair back as she leaned against the concrete. “Whoo.”
Kerry rapidly shook her head, scattering water everywhere before she joined her partner. “That was fun.” She glanced around, noting that the pool deck was becoming a little more populated, and several solitary bodies had joined them in the water.
“Yeah, it was.” Dar agreed, her eyes drifting across the deck. “Ah. Look who’s headed this way.”
Kerry actually growled. “If their names start with M or S, this pool’s gonna run red I swear it.”
Dar snorted, but shook her head. “No. It’s our friend Peter, Peter, Cruise Ship eater.” She assumed a cool expression as Quest arrived at poolside, hunkering down next to her in his crisp, gray suit. “Morning.”
“Good morning, ladies.” Quest answered. “Ms. Stuart, did you think about what we discussed yesterday? I have to leave right after the conferences today so I don’t think we’ll get a chance to meet again.”
“Gosh, that’s a pity.” Kerry replied mildly. “Mr. Quest, can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” Peter rested his arms on his knees.
“How did you know where to find us?” Kerry reached casually out and took hold of the hem of his pants. “I’m pretty sure we didn’t leave a note at the desk.”
He hesitated. “Um...”
Dar leaned closer, giving him an icy look. “Answer the lady.”
“Or?” Quest rallied, with commendable bravado.
“Or we’re going to pull you in the pool and possibly drown you.” Kerry smiled kindly at him. “Neither Dar nor I like snoops or weasels.”
Quest glanced down to the strong fingers clamped around his sartorial splendor. “No big mystery.” He replied. “I paid the bellboys to keep an eye on you.” A smirk appeared. “They didn’t seem to think it was a tough task.”
“Ah, I see.” Kerry murmured. “Well, Mr. Quest, aside from the fact that I don’t like sneaks, and you have really bad taste in tailors, I really don’t think you need a company of our caliber in your little contest.”
Quest blinked, obviously not hearing what he’d fully expected to. “But…”
“But?” Kerry replied, releasing his pants.
“You said you could make decisions.”
“Um... I just did.” The green eyes twinkled a little. “I could repeat it if you want me to. I said...”
“I heard you.” Quest frowned. “But damn it, I thought…”
Dar put her hands on the concrete and pressed herself up out of the water. She stood up and glared down at Quest. “You thought Kerry would go against me.”
He looked up. “She’s ambitious.” He shrugged. “Moving up that ladder ain’t a piece of cake, even in your company.” He stood up and brushed his hands off. “My sources told me it was something she was interested in.” His eyes dropped to a slightly boggled Kerry. “My sources said you better watch your back, Roberts.”
Kerry put a hand over her mouth, muffling a laugh.
Dar rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Did your sources bother to mention to you that Kerry and I are married?” She paused, watching his face go slack. “To each other?”
His nostrils flared. “Ah… “ An eyebrow twitched. “No, no they didn’t.”
Dar almost felt sorry for him. “How does it feel to be used?” She reached down and offered Kerry her hand. “Tell you what, Quest. We’ll enter your bid. Send me the papers first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Y… you will?”
“Yeah.” Dar pulled her partner up out of the pool. “And you can tell your source they better duck.”
Quest stood and watched them walk away, his jaw hanging slightly.
“What the hell was that?” Kerry threw her towel around her shoulders, lengthening her strides to keep up with Dar’s rapid walk. “Hello? Dar?” She snagged her partner by the back of the suit. “Dar!”
Dar slowed, but didn’t stop. “Yeah?”
“If I have to put up with you making me look like an idiot, I’d at least like to know why.”
Now Dar stopped. She sidestepped into a smaller alcove off the path, which had a sturdy bench in it. “Sit.” She took a seat herself, and waited for Kerry to follow suit. “I wasn’t trying to make you look like an idiot.”
Kerry leaned on her knees. “Honey, I know that. I didn’t think you did it on purpose, you just reacted to something and I can’t figure out what it was.”
Dar looked at her. “Didn’t you hear him? Didn’t you hear him say he’d been told you were looking to stab me in the back?”
“Dar, we’ve heard that before. Don’t you remember?” Kerry put a hand on Dar’s knee, seeing the upset in her posture. “I didn’t pay any attention… I’m used to people thinking all sorts of things about our relationship.”
“I know.” Her partner sighed, leaning back and stretching her arms out over the back of the bench. “But didn’t you find it really coincidental that this guy comes here…to this show… and gets that kind of stuff? You think it came from our people?”
“Neither do I.” Dar bit the words off precisely. “But I’d be willing to bet I know where he got it from.”
Kerry slowly let out a breath. “Okay.” She also leaned back, feeling first the chill of the water droplets, then the warmth of Dar’s skin touch her shoulders. “So... you’re thinking it was deliberate? Or... what are you thinking, Dar?”
Dar remained silent, gazing morosely at the green hedge separating them from the path.
Kerry waited patiently, wiping her arms off with her towel. The crickets sounded loud around her, and she jerked her foot as an ant tried to use her as a highway.
“It’s something Shari would have said to him.”
“That’s exactly how she thinks.” Dar went on. “That everyone has an angle. Wants something.”
“I don’t get it.” Kerry shook her head slightly. “Yeah, she seems like the kind of person who would say that, but damn it, Dar… what’s the point? What’s she trying to do?”
“Break us up.”
“My mother always said you sneeze on the truth.” Dar remarked wryly.
Kerry turned and faced her, leaning her elbow over Dar’s arm. “Are you really serious? You think that’s what she was trying to do? Or... I mean, if they’re bidding, it makes no sense at all to provoke you... us... into participating.”
Kerry sneezed again. “Pooters.” She wiped her face with the towel. “All that chlorine got up my nose.” She sighed. “Dar, what the heck’s going on then? Let’s say you’re right. Let’s say her motive was trying to break us up. What does that get her?”
Dar studied Kerry’s face, watching the sunlight pick up amber glints in the depths of her eyes. “The satisfaction of hurting me?”
Blond brows lifted. “You really think that’s what she’s after? It’s been a long time, Dar.”
“I really think so.” Her partner replied. “That’s why I told him we’d do the bid. It’s not that I want it... hell, it’s not really even big enough for us to bother with. I just don’t want her to get it, and I’m willing to make sure that’s not going to happen personally.”
Kerry nibbled the inside of her lip.
“So. I’m sorry I overrode you.” Dar went on. “It was a snap decision. Probably not a good one. Definitely based on something other than business.”
“Heh.” Her blond companion chuckled softly. “Well, poop, Dar... I was just saying no because I didn’t think you wanted anything to do with going up against them. I thought we were going to just leave them alone. But if you want to go up in their faces, I’m there with you.” She rubbed Dar’s shoulder. “My ego will live.”
Dar’s eyes dropped.
“Of course, we could actually send a bid analysis team, like we would for any other prospective client.” Kerry reminded her. “I have people that do that sort of thing, you know.”
Kerry reached up with a corner of her towel and wiped away the sweat forming on Dar’s temple. “That’s probably what they’re going to do. I don’t think Michelle’s a qualified engineer, and you said yourself Shari was in marketing.”
“True.” Dar admitted. “But it’s not that way for us.” She tilted her head, one brow arching. “We can do this.”
“I want to do it.” A shrug. “It’s new, it’s different… I’ve never been inside that industry before.” Dar considered thoughtfully. “I like ships.” She pushed a bit of sodden blond hair back off Kerry’s forehead. “Maybe you were right. I’m restless. But you don’t have to get involved – you’ve got a lot on your plate back here.”
Kerry caught her hand and kissed her fingers. “Where you go, I go.” She replied simply.
“Poetic, but you know what I mean.” Dar smiled anyway.
“It’s development of new business, and implementation of new technologies.” Kerry answered blithely. “Both are my job. In fact, it’s actually my prerogative to assign an engineer to the project, you know.”
“That’s true, it is.” Dar hauled herself to her feet. “How about we negotiate my services over a corn muffin? I’m hungry.”
Kerry got up and followed as Dar started out back onto the path. She caught up and bumped her taller partner’s shoulder as they strolled along together. “Hm... Can I afford you?” She wondered facetiously. “Maybe I should assign a junior engineer.”
“And why would you want anything but the best?” Dar inquired. “I work for Oreos and milk. Can’t get much cheaper than that.”
“Heh. True.” Kerry studied the smooth rock surface they were walking on. “Can I tell you a secret?”
Dar headed for the small café. “Sure.”
“Sometimes I’m a little restless too.” Kerry nudged Dar to a plastic covered seat, heading herself towards the counter. “My treat, cookie monster. You stay here.”
Dar settled into the chair and looped her damp towel around her neck, content to merely watch Kerry as she stepped up to the counter and placed their order. After a moment, she smiled, propping her head up on one fist. “Where I go you go, huh?” She uttered softly. “Y’know, I like the sound of that.”
Kerry turned, leaning on the counter as she waited. Her eyes met Dar’s, and she grinned.
Dar grinned back.
Today, she decided, she wouldn’t wait to see what fate had in store for them. They wanted a show?
She’d give em one.
Kerry hopped up onto the platform of their booth, waving a greeting to the techs working busily at the consoles. “Morning, guys.”
“Hey, Kerry.” Mark looked up, then got up and walked over. “Listen, I think the marketing geeks screwed up again. I saw her name listed on another one of those presentations.”
“I know.” Kerry nodded. “It’s okay. I put her on it. Matter of fact, I’m on one too. Anything going on?”
The dark haired MIS manager shook his head. “Nope... well, you guys were starring big time on Tech TV, that’s all. That’s who the cameras were yesterday. I think they’re back.” He pointed over her shoulder. “They kept looping that whole thing with Big D holding off the masses at the booth entrance.”
“Ah.” Kerry put her hands on her hips and regarded the oncoming news crew. “Well, let’s see how much good press we can get today.” A wry look crossed her face. “Jesus, I never in my life thought I’d hear myself say that.”
Kerry started forward, making eye contact with the reporter in the lead. The man grinned, appreciating the attention, and made a beeline for her. “Here we go.” She muttered under her breath. “You are the Midwestern Republican WASP face of ILS, Kerrison... now let’s let them get a look at the radical gay biker chick considering a tattoo under all of it.”
“Hey!” The reporter hailed her. “Can we get a quick interview with you, Ms. Stuart?”
“Absolutely.” Green eyes twinkled. “Long as you don’t ask me for my hacker card. I left it in my gym bag.”
The reporter laughed. So did the crew. Out of the corner of her eye, Kerry spotted Michelle strolling in her direction, and she perched on the edge of the booth, the ILS logo right behind her shoulder giving a great shot to the cameramen.
“Got anything new for us??” The reporter asked first. “ILS doesn’t usually come across as razor’s edge, but I thought we got a different view yesterday. Want to follow up on that?”
Kerry smiled, crossing her arms. “Yes, I do.” She replied. “Let me tell you what we’ve got planned… but you better duct tape your socks.”
A crowd had gathered to listen in, and she saw Michelle on the edge of it, pretending to study a brochure from a nearby booth. “We’ve gotten a lot of press lately for what everyone thinks is a negative reason.” Kerry said. “Let me tell you what the real story is.”
Michelle turned and stared, looking her right in the eye.
Kerry’s smile broadened, and her gaze turned sea ice cold. You want a fight?
You got one.
Dar prowled through the exhibits, aware of and enjoying the attention being directed at her. After the aborted session the previous night, and her grandstanding at their booth there weren’t many in the room who didn’t know who she was.
She intended on making sure that number was zero before she left. As she peered critically at a new firewall product, however, her cell phone went off. She pulled it out and glanced at it, recognizing the number immediately. “Sheesh. About time.”
Walking over to a small alcove, she answered it. “Morning, Alastair.”
“Holy crap, Dar!”
Dar smiled. “I love starting the day out having made you say that.” She announced cheerfully. “Better than a cup of café con leche.”
Her boss sighed audibly. “I didn’t expect to start my morning by seeing you on MSNBC, as the technology headline.”
“Was I?” Dar mused. “Didn’t even see them there. I thought AP and UPI were giving us a skip this year because technology is ‘out’.” She glanced casually around, spotting one of their biggest competitors cornering two ILS clients.
“Well, Dar, when you go and announce we hire hackers, and dare anyone to try and hack our network to prove we only hire the best ones…” Alastair replied, in a dry tone. “It’s a sound bite they just can’t resist.”
“Got us attention.”
The ILS CEO sighed again. “The only thing that offset the ‘attention’ was the way you handled it. The camera is fascinated by you.” He cleared his throat. “With good reason. Nice suit, too.”
“Uh huh.” Dar leaned against the woven weave wall, feeling it’s faint prickliness through the cloth of her jacket. “So let me guess. The board is freaking.”
“Surprisingly, no.” Alastair answered. “Actually, they asked me to give you a call and say how pleased they were.”
Dar pulled the phone away from her ear and studied with a deeply quizzical expression. Then she knocked it against the wall, making a sharp rapping sound.
“Dar?” Her bosses voice came to her tinnily. “Dar? What’s going on?”
“Sorry. I think we’ve got a crossed line.” She replied. “I know I didn’t just hear that.”
Alastair chuckled. “Well, you know, it surprised me too.” He admitted. “But John said he’d gotten a lot of flak lately about how stodgy we are… well, most of us, anyway. He thought this was a damn good boot in the short pants for all those pundits who thought we were mummies in three piece suits.”
“Eh.” Dar grunted. “Glad they liked it, but it wasn’t planned. Damn guy just got my goat.”
“Whatever the reason.” Her boss shrugged it off. “Something good’ll come of it.”
Dar watched Peter Quest enter, and cross over to their booth, where Kerry was currently holding court. Michelle was there also, she noted, by her posture not entirely happy. “Kerry’s giving an interview right now to TechTV.” She commented. “So listen, let me go see if she needs backup. We got invited into a little bid for some new cruise ship it business.”
“Yeah. “ Dar craned her neck to watch the crowd. “Could end up being a decent sized contract.”
“Dar! Why didn’t you tell me!”
“Because I just decided to do it. Listen, Alastair… let me get back to you. I’ve got people looking for me here.” Dar studied Kerry’s body language anxiously.
“Dar, damn it, just talk to me for a minute.” Her boss shot back. “Kerry’s perfectly capable of doing an interview, isn’t she?”
The rough bark drew Dar’s attention from her lover. She collected herself and focused back on the phone. “Yes, she is.” She replied. “I don’t have that many details, Alastair. I got approached by some guy over at American Cruise Lines, who wants to put new tech in all their ships, especially the ones they’re bringing over to the states.”
Dar sighed. “Yeah, well, we’re up against two other companies, including Telegenics.”
There was a small silence on the other end of the phone. “Really?”
Another silence. “Well, we’re gonna have to make sure we win this one!” Alastair stated positively. “No taking chances, Dar. I want you to handle this personally.”
Dar examined her cell phone again, this time with a bemused look. She poked a button experimentally, then a second, making a small musical interlude.
“Sorry.” Dar put the phone back to her ear reluctantly. “I was just checking something. You know, I do have qualified people working for me.”
“Dar, this is no time for that. These bastards have been running roughshod all over us. Here’s one major chance to stop their momentum.. this is too important to let someone else do it.” Her boss argued. “I want you to handle it. In fact, take Kerry if it’ll make you feel better. She’s your protégé.”
“Could you arrange for an ice cream machine to be installed in my office?”
“Never mind.” Dar almost laughed. “I’ll take care of it. I’ve got a vested interest… did you know who the movers and shakers were in Telegenics? I bumped into them here.”
“Ahem.” Alastair cleared his throat. “I know they’ve got deep pockets. Japanese, I believe.”
“Michelle Graver, and someone from my past I hate with a passion.” Dar informed him. “So yeah, I’ll take this one, Alastair. I’ll take it and beat them so badly they’ll go running off to San Francisco to sell tie dye shirts and tickets to Alcataz.”
It was, apparently, her bosses turn to be nonplussed. He made a sound something like a cluck, then cleared his throat.
“Now, can I talk to you later? The person I hate with a passion is about to start bugging my wife.”
“Uh.. bye, Dar. Talk to you later, huh?”
“Sure.” Dar closed the phone and clipped it to her belt. Then she straightened her jacket and headed for the booth, wrapping her attitude around her like a dark, weighted cloak.
“We know where we hold the market lead.” Kerry leaned back and crossed her ankles. “Right now, our priority isn’t spending time fending off lowball services contract hawkers. We’re interested in taking another step forward in providing our backbone customers with the best infrastructure in the world.”
“That’s bold.” The Tech TV reporter remarked. “You guys put a really solid network in place, everyone knows that. But where do you go from there? Only so many bells and whistles you can add before it just becomes more frills customers have to pay for.”
“Exactly.” Michelle piped up, her lip twitching at the lowball comment.
Kerry met her gaze evenly. “We don’t bother with frills.” She turned back to the reporter. “What’s the next step? The next step is making the network intelligent. Giving it the sentience to be able to react to changing conditions, and flexible enough to respond to the challenge of new bandwidth requirements dynamically.”
The man stared at her, then cocked his head. “You can’t do that. The intelligence doesn’t exist.”
“Not yet.” Kerry agreed quietly. “But it will.”
“if it’s not just empty promises.” Shari called out. “Sounds like vaporware to me.”
Kerry could have reacted, but she chose not to. She merely gave Shari a brief, dismissive look, and then turned back to one of the men in the front. “Eddie, you know what I’m talking about. You’re a pilot location.”
Thrust suddenly in the spotlight, her client almost melted into a pocket protected puddle. Kerry gave him a smile though, and he blinked at the round, staring eye of the camera and managed a nod. “Uh… yeah.” He stammered. “It was cool. It was like the pipes knew when the program needed more space, and like… um… “ He shrugged. “Gave it to em. Real cool.”
“Wait.. I thought you said it didn’t exist yet.” The reporter eased closer to her. “Didn’t you just say that? She just said that, right?” He asked the audience.
“Right.” Michelle drawled. “That’s what she said.”
Kerry slipped into a nearby console chair and turned the monitor on the desk around so the audience could see it. “It’s not production.” She conceded. “But we’ve prototyped it. Wanna see?”
They were lucky the booth was well built. Kerry suddenly found herself surrounded by curious nerds and a cameraman who seemed more interested in checking out her earlobes than seeing what she was doing on the monitor.
She flexed her fingers, and spared a glance at the part of the crowd unable to fit, giving their rivals a brief, very pleasant, wordlessly wicked smile. “Okay, here’s how it works.” She tapped out a quick command, fishing in her memory for the codes she’d learned from Dar.
Cryptic codes. Dar never made anything obvious or easy, at least on the back end. She permitted the applications people to put snazzy looking front ends on her stuff, but where it counted, it was all grease on the hands and you better know what you’re doing time.
Basic and functional, straightforward yet elegant.
Just like Dar. “Let’s say you have this allocated bandwidth…”
“So what, it bursts. Big deal.” Shari commented.
“Hey, shut up.” One of the men in front turned around. “You don’t want to hear this? Take a hike.” He glanced at Shari’s badge. “Take your petty rivalry and ditch it, sister.”
Ah, chivalry. “Thanks.” Kerry put a hand on her unlikely champion’s arm.
“Don’t thank me yet, lady.” The man warned her. “If this is all bs, I’ll chew you next.”
Bet you won’t. Kerry just… she felt Dar’s presence and knew, if she turned her head, she’d find her partner nearby. “I’m not worried.” She told the man. “Now, where was I? Ah. Yes. Bandwidth. Let’s use a T1 for example.”
Shari started to push forward, but suddenly found herself held back firmly. She turned in annoyance, only to find herself the focus of two chips of icy fury only slightly tinted with blue. “All right, now..”
“If you know what’s good for you.” Dar spoke in an absolute flat voice. “You’ll take the gentlemen’s advice.”
“Okay, you two. Break it up.” Michelle gently eased between them, giving Dar a determined smile. “Time out. We’ll continue the discussion later.” She took hold of Shari’s arm and despite their size difference, maneuvered the larger woman away from their bristling adversary.
“Like she said, it bursts.” The loud man shook his head, oblivious to the drama going on behind him. “What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is how it bursts.” Kerry released a breath, watching Michelle and Shari leave from her peripheral vision. “It analyzes the traffic flow, and makes decisions on how to route, what to route, and what to prioritize based on the application layer.”
“What?” The man snorted. “At a network level? That’s impossible to deploy large scale. Sure you can do it for one router…”
“It’s not impossible.” Kerry shook her head. “Dar’s working with the hardware manufacturers to burn the essential code into firmware.”
“No way.” The man shook his head.
“Guess you’ll just have to wait and see.” Kerry smiled. “But don’t wait too long. Your competitors won’t.”
“Oooh. Nice sound bite.” The reporter complimented her. “But.. does this really work?”
“It really works.” Dar judged that her body had stopped shaking enough for her to move up onto the platform and join Kerry. Her knees were still quivering a little as the adrenaline slowly drained from her bloodstream, and as she came up in back of her partner, she felt a sudden warmth as Kerry’s hand patted her calf. “Not bad for an old hacker, huh?”
A chuckle went around the crowd. “Can we ask you a few questions about it?” The aggressive man countered, with a visibly higher degree of respect.
“Maybe.” Dar let her hands drop on Kerry’s shoulder. “But if I answer, I might have to kill ya.”
So far, Dar decided, so good. Roberts and Stuart several, Michelle and Shari, none.
Let’s just make sure it stays that way.
Michelle found a corner, and put them both in it. “Can I ask what your damn problem is?” She fumed. “Damn it, I’m trying to build something we can use here. “
Shari glared back at her. “It’s all bullshit!” She said. “Can’t you see what they’re trying to do? We spent how many months putting together a campaign, getting new clients, digging a wedge into them. We’re going to blow it if we let them steal the spotlight!”
Michelle ran her hands through her hair. “Shari.. Shari… you’re not seeing straight. Look at them.” She turned her companion around and pointed. “How in the hell would you like to remove them from the spotlight?”
“You should have let me alone! If I kept at them…”
“If you kept at them… “Michelle gritted her teeth. “You were going to get your clock cleaned any minute. Didn’t you see that look you were getting? You’re the one who used to sleep with her.. I’d have thought you’d clue into that.”
Shari made a disgusted sound. “Psycho.”
“Hey.” Michelle patted her arm. “It’s not psycho to go after someone who’s taking potshots at your SO. You were being obnoxious.”
“You were.” The shorter woman exhaled. “So just cool it. Go back to the booth and schmooze. Let me deal with those two. At least I can have some sort of conversation with Stuart. Besides.. I want to see whatever it is they’re developing – that sounds like technology we can’t afford to ignore.”
Shari glared at the ILS booth, then she shrugged. ”Whatever.”
“Just stop antagonizing them.” Michelle’s voice gentled. “You just keep pushing them, and they push back. ILS could cover our budget in Robert’s lunch money. So let’s back off, and see what they’re going to do next. Last thing we want is for them to come gunning for us”
“We can handle it.”
“Technologically, no we can’t.” Michelle told her, with a wry twist to her lips. “Our strength is small, personalized niches, and accounts where we can compete with them based on skinny margins. When it comes to the big silicon… baby, we’re recycled glass.”
Her taller companion stuck her hands in the pockets of her skirt. “I want to keep them off balance.” She said seriously. “Dar likes to control what’s going on. She doesn’t do well when she has to improvise.”
Michelle studied the lanky, dark haired form lurking behind Kerry’s seated figure. “I don’t know about that.” She disagreed. “But at any rate, go on back to the booth and let me do my thing. I’m the nerd, and it’ll be up to me to find a way to give us enough technology to get a leg up on these guys while you dazzle them with the savings they’ll get.”
“Mmph. Okay.” Shari finally agreed. “I guess I just sometimes look at Dar, and I see that grotty kid I actually slept with in the depths of my stupid youth. I can’t adjust my focus to believe this is actually a CIO of a major IT services company. I just can’t.”
Michelle patted her arm again. “Well, I first met her that way, so it’s easier for me. G’wan.” She gave Shari a push, watching as she reluctantly retreated to their smaller, but snazzy looking booth. She started back towards her target, but stopped when Peter Quest stepped into her path unexpectedly. “Oh, hello.”
“Well, Ms. Graver, how are you?” Quest seemed quite pleased with himself. “Ready for a challenge?”
“Absolutely.” She assured him. “We’re very confident we can put together a package for you that’ll knock your socks off.”
He chuckled. “You’d better.” He turned and indicated the crowd around ILS. “It’s going to take a lot of snaz to knock them off. Hope your lean, mean, cost savings machine’s up to it.” With a grin, he sauntered off, clasping his hands behind his back as he paused to listen to Kerry’s smooth, Midwestern voice.
“Shit.” Michelle cursed. “I thought he said they’d turned him down. What in hell changed…. “She paused in mid mutter, and her eyes narrowed. “Oh, brother. We probably just shot ourselves in the kneecap. Damn it.”
“Did you say something, ma’am?” A passing usher inquired. “Need directions?”
“I need a tranquilizer. Got any?” She responded. “No, huh?” She watched the usher retreat in confusion. “Damn, damn, damn.” Once they’d accepted the bid challenge, her focus had been to defuse the rising tension between them, and even though she hadn’t expected either Dar or Kerry to rise to her offer of employment, she’d counted on the gambit altering their relationship enough to make them feel a little wary of head to head competition.
Quest had been so damn sure. Pissed off, in fact, at how he’d been treated and she’d taken quick advantage of that in arranging their position as the prime bidder on his contract.
So what had changed? Michelle’s eyes narrowed, remembering suddenly Kerry’s altered attitude on coming into the hall that morning. If the blond woman had possessed a ruff, in fact, she was sure it would have bristled. She drummed her fingers on her thigh.
Kerry finished up her presentation, to applause from the her audience. Dar lounged behind her like a well dressed eagle, one hand never far from her partner’s shoulder. As though sensing it, Kerry half turned and bumped the taller woman with her shoulder, grinning at her with almost intimate warmth.
“Dar’s having ‘Hi, I’m an ILS Hacker” shirts made up.” Kerry announced. “I don’t think they’ll be ready before the show ends though.”
“Aww.” The Tech TV reporter chuckled. “That was a real hot question yesterday. Did you do that on purpose, Ms. Roberts? You’ve been accused of being too conservative, you know.”
Both of Dar’s eyebrows hiked. “Me?” She drawled. “Buddy, I’ve been called a lot of things by a lot of people…that ain’t one of them.”
The crowd laughed with her.
“ILS.” The reporter restated, with a tolerant smile.
Dar perched on the corner of the desk Kerry was sitting at, letting both powerful hands rest on her knee. “No, I really didn’t.” Her voice altered, going a touch more serious. “It was something that came out of the discussion we were having. It isn’t something I’ve ever hidden, but on the other hand, it’s not something we put in the shareholder’s folio every year either. It comes down to having the right skill sets in the right places all the time. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, but I would never not hire someone with that skill set just because it might be viewed as radical.”
Kerry took a breath, having run out while listening to one of the longest single bits of speech she’d ever heard her partner make.
“I think most of us view hackers as something bad.” The reporter conceded.
“Sometimes they are.” Dar agreed. “But the really good ones also have a spirit of discovery, and a hunger for gaining knowledge that in my business, sir, is priceless.”
Wow. Kerry blinked. I like that. She cocked her head and looked up at Dar’s profile. “You know, you’re about the best example of that I’ve ever seen.”
Startled, Dar turned and met her eyes, a hesitant grin tugging at her lips. “Thanks.”
The room faded out for a single moment.
Then the air conditioning cycled on, and buzzers next to them went off, and another question was shouted at them from the crowd. Dar swiveled back around and answered it after a brief hesitation, leaving Kerry to rest her elbows on the counter to simply watch and listen.
She spotted Michelle near the corner where two walls joined, also watching, but there was no longer any sign of Shari. Kerry gave Michelle a point for good sense in getting her out of the room, because she’d seen Dar’s face as she’d come up behind her heckler.
Oo. She’d been pissed. Shari’s obnoxious comments hadn’t really bothered Kerry that much – she’d seen much worse in both takeover bids, and competing boardrooms. But she found Dar’s protective instincts charming in the extreme and she was glad to know she could always count on that solid, forceful backup whenever she needed it.
“So that’s really all we have to say for the moment.” Dar concluded. “You guys better go pay everyone else some attention.”
The television lights went out, and the crowd slowly started to disperse, talking among themselves as Dar eased off the desk and dropped into the chair next to Kerry instead. “Ever tell you how much I hate trade shows?” She uttered under her breath.
“Right back atcha.” Kerry smiled pleasantly at the passing throngs. “Boy, will I be glad when five o’clock gets here. Can I interest you in dinner and a beer after that, boss?”
“Mmmmmm.” Dar rumbled low in her throat. “I have a taste for Mexican. Want to go pavilion hopping with me at Epcot?”
Kerry found the irritation of the morning slipping away. “If we can have dessert in France, sure.” She agreed. “And you buy me that beer in Germany.”
Dar leaned back and laced her fingers behind her neck. “You’re on, Yankee.” She agreed. “I’m gonna send our crew back to the hotel once we shut down. Let someone else clean this crap up – I gave the bar manager over there my credit card to get them all plastered.”
“Dar.” Kerry covered her eyes. “That’s so responsible of you.”
A shrug. “They’re not driving.” Her partner replied unrepentantly. “They deserve it. They worked their asses off.” She paused and leaned over, touching Kerry’s arm. “Did you talk to any of them yet?”
Kerry shook her head slightly. “Didn’t think this was the place.” She said. “I could pull them out one at a time… might make for a lot more entertaining afternoon for me than it would otherwise.”
“Do it.” Dar said. “I’ll cover this joint.”
“Let me get my paperwork.” Kerry got up and headed for the locked switch cabinet, where she’d stowed her likewise locked briefcase. “Is there a little room.. oh, yeah, I see it. Over there near the entrance.”
Kerry removed a folder from her case and closed the cabinet back up. Then she stood and went to the first of their techs, sitting at one of the smaller consoles. “John? Can I talk to you for a minute?”
The dark haired man glanced up at her, surprised. “Sure.. um..”
“C’mon.” Kerry took him by the elbow, and lead him out of the booth, giving the rest of the techs now very alertly watching her a smile. “You all are next. Don’t worry.”
Dar watched the guys after her partner walked out of earshot from the corner of her eyes. They were plainly bewildered, but none of them looked particularly worried.
Now, if it’d been her doing it…..
“All right, Roberts.”
Dar tilted her head to one side, making eye contact with the aggressive questioner in gray whom she’d thought had moved on to more interesting things. “Ye..s?” She moderated her usual response.
The man stepped up into the booth and flipped a card at her. Dar picked it up and looked at it, noted the Army insignia then flipped it back to him. “Something I can do for you, Captain Mousser?”
The man turned one of the chairs around and sat on it, folding his arms across the back and studying her with bright, alert eyes. “Yeah. Let’s talk. You ever play G.I Joe as a kid?”
Dar blinked. “What?”
The captain grinned at her. “Wanna get to play with more cool toys than your company could afford in twenty years?”
Oh… Dar groaned inwardly. I’ve got a bad, bad feeling about this…..
Continued in Part 5