by Lois Cloarec Hart
Disclaimers - See Part 1 for disclaimers.
Marika frowned at the manila folder in front of her and turned to her computer to call up another file. Her client had a weak case for refugee status and she'd been hard pressed to find adequate substantiation for his hearing, which was scheduled in three weeks.
A knock sounded on her open door and she glanced up to see a large, burly man standing there smiling at her.
"Hi Marika, do you have a moment?"
"Sure, Len-come on in. What brings you down from the corporate world?" Marika was puzzled, but pleasantly so, to see her colleague. Len Owen was an amiable man but working in different divisions and three floors apart, they didn't often cross paths except at company functions.
"Well, I don't know if you heard or not, but I've taken a position in Vancouver and I'll be leaving in a couple of weeks. I'm basically just wrapping things up right now."
The big man had ambled over to take a chair in front of Marika's desk and she regarded him curiously. "I had heard something about that. Congratulations, Len. I'm sure you're going to enjoy living out on the coast."
"It'll be different, that's for sure," Len agreed with a smile. "Gonna take quite a hit on the housing costs out there but I sure won't miss Calgary winters!"
The two shared a chuckle over that sentiment, and then Len said more seriously, "Look, I'm hoping we might help each other out here." As Marika quirked an inquiring eyebrow at him, he went on. "Personnel said that your legal assistant is leaving soon on maternity leave, is that right?"
Marika nodded. "Yes, Marian starts her leave in two weeks though I'm not entirely sure she's going to last that long."
Grinning, Len agreed, "Yeah, she looks ready to pop any day now. Well, I was wondering if you've found a replacement for her yet."
With a small groan, she shook her head. "No, and I haven't even had time to really look into it. I was going to call Personnel and just tell them to send me floaters for now. I might even just go that route for the entire six months until she's back.
"I think I have a better idea," Len said, leaning forward eagerly. "I have a terrific little assistant and I think you'd be very pleased with her work if you took her on. I'd really like to find her a position before I leave and with you in the market, I thought this would work out perfectly."
"Okay," said Marika slowly. "Why doesn't she just go into the floater pool though? After all, I'm not looking for anyone permanent since Marian will be coming back after her leave's up."
"I know, and certainly that's what she'll do if you're not interested, but she's a good kid and I'd like to see her settled with someone who'll treat her right even if it's just for a limited time."
With a slight smile, Marika regarded her colleague and asked, "What is it you're not telling me about her, Len?"
The burly man leaned back with a sheepish grin. "I'm not trying to put one over on you. Rhiannon really is the best assistant I've ever had. She's got a terrific mind and is probably the hardest worker in this building. She never balks at overtime, and countless nights I've left here when she's still hard at it."
"Hmm," Marika murmured skeptically. "Maybe she just can't get her work done in regular hours."
"No, that's not it at all. Her output is phenomenal and I can't even begin to tell you how many times her research has bailed me out. Sure, that's what she's paid for but damn, Marika, she really makes me look good in front of the clients. I'd love to take her with me to Vancouver if I could."
"So what's the drawback to this paragon of legal assistants, Len? What aren't you telling me?"
Marika regarded the man curiously as he squirmed a little under her gaze. He rubbed his chin and then sighed. "Well, to be blunt, Rhiannon's people skills aren't the greatest." He hastened to add, "Don't get me wrong, she's always perfectly polite and correct in her behaviour to me and to the clients."
"But she's the oddest duck I've ever run into." Len sighed as if relieved to get that out.
"Odd how?" Marika's tone turned from suspicious to genuinely curious.
Len stood and paced over to the windows, which overlooked the heart of downtown Calgary from seven floors up. "Well, for instance, even after two years I can't get her to call me anything but Mr. Owen. I've told her dozens of times to call me Len, but she always nods agreeably and keeps on treating me as formally as always."
"Well that doesn't sound all that bad," Marika said, watching as her colleague peered out the windows. "I know it's outdated but office formality has its place. Maybe she's shy."
Len shook his head and turned to face her. "No, it's not shyness exactly, though she is pretty reserved. I'd almost say she doesn't like people but once she comes to trust you enough to let down the barriers a little, you can tell it's not that she hates people, she just doesn't trust them."
He walked back over to the chair and resumed his seat. "Look, the thing is if you're looking for someone warm and fuzzy to have cheerful morning chitchats with, Rhiannon isn't it. If you're looking for a dedicated, talented worker, she's your girl. I'd like to see her with you because you treat your people decently. I'm afraid that if she goes into the floater pool, she'll end up working for someone like Nolan."
The two grimaced in agreement over their irritating colleague. Troy Nolan hadn't been able to keep any of his assistants for more than six months at the longest. Ingratiating to the extreme with peers and superiors, Nolan treated his subordinates with utter disdain and he had a reputation among the firm's legal assistants for outright abrasiveness. Personnel had resorted to slipping a bonus to any assistant willing to work for him but even that was rarely enough to keep anyone under his thumb for long. The senior partner had called him on the carpet about his treatment of the assistants pool, but that had only served to make him subtler in his petty spitefulness.
Marika laced her fingers together on the desk. "I suppose I could give her a chance, Len. I'd need her to work with Marian for at least a week before Marian goes on leave so that she's up to date on our procedures here in immigration," she added. She hoped she wasn't making a mistake, but was willing to take the risk to solve her own staffing problems while also helping a friend.
Len beamed at her. "That's great, Marika! I know you won't regret it. And there's no problem sparing her to start training right away. Like I said, I'm in the process of wrapping things up right now and I can always grab a floater myself if you've got Rhiannon tied up."
He stood and leaned across the desk to offer his hand, which Marika took. "I'll send her down later this morning. She's running an errand for Henry right now. One of his witnesses showed up here rather than the courthouse and his assistant had already gone over so he borrowed Rhiannon to escort the lady over since he was still tied up here."
"He couldn't have just given her directions?" Marika asked, mildly curious.
"I don't think her grasp of English was too good. She was wearing one of those funny robe things, you know where you can't see anything but her face?"
"Oh, you mean a chador?"
"Yeah, I guess that's what it's called. Anyway, when Rhiannon gets back, I'll have her come down and introduce herself, all right?"
"That's fine. I'll get Marian to start introducing her to our procedures."
Marika had risen and was escorting Len to the door when he turned and said, "You won't regret it, Marika. Treat her fairly and you'll never have a more dedicated employee."
Marika gave a noncommittal murmur as he stepped out in the hallway and turned to the elevators. Stopping at her assistant's cubicle, she briefed Marian on her replacement, uneasily ignoring the raised eyebrow that greeted her announcement.
"Rhiannon Davies? Are you sure about this, Marika?"
Marika felt suddenly unsure and defensive in spite of herself. "Why? Len said she's a very hard worker."
"Well, yeah, she is that, but she sure isn't the most sociable person I've ever met. I don't think I've ever even heard her utter a word that isn't work-related, except maybe to ask if there's more coffee anywhere. Hell, she doesn't even come to our monthly luncheons. Got so we don't even bother asking her anymore."
Marika sighed. "I know, Len said she's not much of a people person but as long as she's competent, I can put up with anything until you're back." She smiled at her longtime assistant. "Besides, you know that no one could really replace you anyway."
Marian preened. "Got that right, boss. Okay, if you're willing to put up with Miss Ice, I'll train her up right for you."
"Miss Ice? No forget it, I don't want to know." Marika shook her head in amusement and made her way back to her office.
An hour later, Marian poked her head in the office. "Marika, Rhiannon is here. May I bring her in?"
The blonde looked up from her computer and nodded. "Sure." She stood and came out from behind her desk only to stop short when Marian walked in with a diminutive young woman behind her. Surprised, she suddenly recalled the collision at the plaza several days before when she'd accidentally knocked this very same woman over. The calm eyes regarding her quietly showed no signs of being nonplussed, suggesting that Rhiannon had already made the connection between her assailant and her new employer.
Slightly flustered, and annoyed at herself for feeling so, Marika extended her hand and said coolly, "Rhiannon? Why don't you come in and we'll talk about what your responsibilities will be."
The young woman stepped forward and gave her hand a single, firm shake before turning and taking one of the chairs in front of the desk. Marika had intended to take the other chair but suddenly preferred to put her desk between them. Marian hovered for a moment until she was dismissed with a nod.
Turning to the woman sitting silently across from her, Marika regarded her new employee. She hadn't taken much notice of the smaller woman during their brief encounter Friday night, and she took the opportunity to study her now. Rhiannon's slight figure was garbed in a drab, unflattering but businesslike brown skirt, tan blouse and flat shoes. A complete absence of make-up or jewelry, aside from a cheap watch, and a short, practical haircut all contributed to the impression of a woman who preferred not to be noticed.
Absently, Marika took in the rigid, wary set of the young woman's shoulders and the clear cool eyes that returned her look steadily. Suddenly realizing that they'd been sitting in silence for long minutes, she was bemused to realize that Rhiannon hadn't once squirmed under her scrutiny. She'd unconsciously assumed her stern, 'I will tolerate no fools' look which had been known to reduce grown men to cold sweat and trembling knees, but the young woman hadn't so much as flinched. Marika got the impression that her new employee could sit unmoving and silent for hours until dismissed if her boss so chose.
Clearing her throat, Marika began. "You come well recommended. Len thinks highly of your work habits. I trust his opinion and I'm sure you'll extend the same quality of performance in this office."
She paused, but Rhiannon gave no indication of accepting the conversational opening. If Marika hadn't seen the intensity behind the dark blue eyes focused on her, she'd have wondered if the young woman was even paying attention.
Wanting to shift uneasily but forcing herself to remain still, Marika went on, "I want you to work with Marian and get up to speed on our procedures in the next couple of weeks. I know that immigration will be quite a change from corporate, but I'm sure you'll handle the transition smoothly."
That at least got a nod. Marika sighed softly. This was the point where she would normally engage in some polite conversation to elicit something of a new employee's personal history, but she doubted that any such attempts would be welcomed. She wondered if Len even knew anything of Rhiannon's background and reminded herself to ask him. She sensed that route would be easier and more productive than broaching the topic with the sphinx across from her.
"All right then, why don't you join Marian and get started," Marika suggested.
The young woman stood and said stiffly, "Thank you, Ms. Havers."
She withdrew abruptly and was almost out of her office as Marika said, "You can call me..."
The flowing hem of the brown skirt vanished around the corner as she trailed off weakly, "Marika." She shook her head and wondered if she'd just made a mistake. She allowed herself a moment to fret over whether it'd be a long six months, then leaned back in her chair and chuckled ruefully. Len hadn't exaggerated. This youngster had the social skills of koala bear. There certainly wouldn't be any heart-to-heart fraternizing over a beer after work as she'd often done with Marian.
Still, she'd reserve judgment until she saw if the young woman lived up to Len's assessment. As long as she was capable and hard working, that was all Marika required from an employee. After all, Miss Davies hadn't signed on to be her new best friend. Resolutely, she turned back to wrestle with her own work.
It was almost noon when she heard a cheerful voice at her doorway. "Nose to the grindstone, eh? Good to see it!"
Looking up with a grin, Marika eyed the formidable figure lounging against the doorframe. "Well as I live and breathe, if it isn't the notorious Lee Glenn! I thought sure they'd toss you in jail down there in Mexico and I'd have to come bail your ass out."
Laughter bubbled out of the tall, solidly muscled woman who strolled over to perch on the edge of Marika's desk. "Nah, though I did have one run-in with an overly enthusiastic customs agent."
Marika stood and hugged her longtime friend before leaning back and eying her with admiration. "That's quite the tan you have there. I thought you were going down there to work. Looks like you put in some time on the beach."
Lee groaned. "Not you too, 'Rika! Ever since I've come back, I've been trying to convince Dana that I would never go on holiday without her and Danny."
"Uh huh," Marika teased as she sat down again. "Well if I were that lady of yours, I'd put a long leash on you the next time you claim you're heading out of the country on 'business'."
"You know," Lee grumbled good-naturedly, "you used to be one of my favourite people. I think I'm moving you down the list just for that."
The blonde waved airily, accustomed to being moved up and down on her friend's imaginary list. "So did you bring me something back?" she asked, poking the solid thigh resting beside her.
"I did bring back a bottle of tequila so fresh from the factory that the worm is still doing cartwheels," Lee offered with a grin.
"Hmm, that sounds interesting. You'll have to bring it over sometime this week and we can catch up."
"Sounds great, but I was also thinking I might take my favourite lawyer out to lunch, if you're free that is," Lee offered.
Marika glanced at the stubborn file she'd been poring over all morning and then back at her friend. Lee's broad, open face was regarding her hopefully. Firmly she closed the file and stood.
"I'm all yours, Lee."
The big woman leered at her comically and Marika shook her head in amusement. "God, you're incorrigible. How does Dana put up with you?"
"Dunno, I ask myself that pretty much every day," Lee agreed amiably as she trailed the lawyer out of the office.
Marika spotted Marian waddling back to her cubicle followed by Rhiannon with an armful of binders. "I'm just going to let them know that I'll be out for lunch, Lee." She glanced over her shoulder to see a surprised look on the big woman's face. "Lee?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, okay. Sorry, I just didn't realize she belonged to you," Lee said absently.
Marika raised an eyebrow at the cryptic remark, but didn't stop to ask for clarification. After telling Marian that she'd be out for the next hour, the lawyer's eyes flicked over her trainee and she realized to her surprise that Rhiannon was looking beyond her with a slight trace of a smile on her lips. Startled, she looked over her shoulder to see Lee regarding the young woman with a grin of her own.
"You two know each other?" Marika asked curiously.
Lee shook her head. "No, Lady Mouse and I only met this morning. How are you doing, Miss Rhiannon?"
"Fine thanks, and you, Madam Dragonslayer?" Rhiannon said. Marika was shocked to hear real warmth in the young woman's voice. From what little she had observed, banter was the last thing she'd have expected. As soon as Rhiannon saw that she was being watched, her young face closed up and she turned back to her work without another word.
Marika backed out of the cubicle as Lee bade Rhiannon good-bye, securing a small, shy smile in return and a nod of farewell. The lawyer tried not to gape at her friend, but as they walked to the elevator she laid a hand on Lee's forearm and stated firmly, "You will be telling me that story!"
Lee grinned and responded, "Yes, ma'am, Counselor. I'll tell you the whole tale over lunch. Now c'mon, before all the tables are gone."
The two friends left the office tower and walked two blocks over to the Tudor Rose, an English style pub that they both enjoyed. Lucking into an empty booth in the popular lunch spot, they slid into their seats and picked up their menus. Lee ordered a draft, but Marika opted for coffee, deciding she needed a clear mind for her troublesome case. Having made their lunch choices, the friends settled in to catch up as Marika smiled at the foam left on Lee's upper lip.
Marika eyed her old friend affectionately. Lee could be an intimidating figure to those she encountered in the course of her work. An ex-military policewoman, she was a partner in one of Calgary's foremost private security firms. As tall as Marika, Lee had twice the bulk of the slender blonde, and all of it muscle. Thick arms and broad shoulders strained the fabric of her navy blue company blazer. Deep laugh lines etched the skin around keen hazel eyes and generous lips. In her mid-forties, Lee's short dark hair was liberally streaked with silver and Marika couldn't suppress a snicker at how far away her friend had had to hold the menu to read it. Lee stubbornly refused to admit that she needed reading glasses now, which forever exasperated her long-suffering partner, Dana. Marika found her friend's quirk endearing and it really was Lee's only personal vanity, but then she didn't have to live with the woman.
"So tell me why I'm getting the pleasure of your company today? I'd have thought after your trip, you'd have taken some time off," Marika asked her companion curiously.
"Yeah, I was pretty tired all right. Honestly, setting up a consultation company in Mexico is a whole new experience, and we had to twist ourselves into some pretty strange knots to get the contracts signed. I was relieved to finally wrap it up and drop it in Juan's capable hands."
Lee shook her head in exasperation and then gave Marika her irrepressible grin. "But you know how indispensable I am. We're considering bidding on the security contract for your building when it's up for renewal in a few months so Willem dispatched me to look things over. I'll be hanging around and poking into corners for the next week."
"That's wonderful, Lee. It'll be a treat seeing your ugly mug around the office," Marika teased. "Maybe we can get together for coffee breaks."
"Or go out for lunch again," Lee agreed, always mindful of a chance for a full meal. "It's on you next time though."
Marika chuckled, but like any good lawyer wisely avoided a verbal contract. "Not the next couple of days though. I have hearings scheduled and they're pretty unpredictable in length, so it's hard to make plans. How about we look at Friday?"
"Great," Lee said, her eyes brightening as the waiter placed her meal on the table. Digging in with relish, she glanced up to see Marika shaking her head. "What?"
"How can you eat that stuff?" Marika shuddered as she watched the steak and kidney pie disappearing rapidly under the onslaught.
"It's great," Lee mumbled around a mouthful. "Don't knock it until you've tried it. Besides, it's a helluva lot better than that dead fish you're eating."
Marika delicately skewered a piece of her broiled flounder. "Well, I'd hardly want to eat it while it was still alive."
Having exchanged the customary insults that surfaced whenever they dined together, the two friends contentedly dug in. Lee finished long before her companion and leaned back wiping her mouth with her napkin as she eyed the tempting dessert menu at the end of the table.
Marika smiled to herself. Lee had a huge appetite for life and all its pleasures, which was one of the things she loved about her old friend. The woman embraced new experiences as eagerly as she'd attacked her lunch. There were never any half-measures with the large woman, and while her friends and family sometimes worried about her ardent, outgoing nature getting her in trouble, she could no more change than a beaver could learn to fly.
Lee was examining the dessert menu with premeditated intent. "Hmm, the mud pie looks pretty good, doesn't it?"
"It's meant to," Marika said dryly. "They're trying to entice you."
"And doing a damned fine job of it too," Lee grinned. "Well, I'd hate for someone to have done all that work for nothing." She signaled the waiter over and ordered dessert and another draft.
"So, you were going to tell me the story of how you know my new assistant," Marika prodded, as she pushed her plate aside and reached for her coffee.
Lee nodded. "Right, I was. Well, it all started this morning when I was on my way to your building. I was a couple of blocks away and I noticed two women turn down one of the alleys. The only reason I even paid any attention is that one of the women was wearing a chador and you don't see that every day, but I didn't think too much of it until I saw a couple of punks follow them in."
Lee frowned as she recognized the pair who'd just trailed after the women into the alley. Quickening her pace, she hastened to the mouth of the alley only to see her fears realized. Anger darkened her face and her warm hazel eyes turned cold. The woman in the chador was backed up against a brick wall, beside a dumpster. A small woman stood in front of her, arms back in a defensive gesture as if to guard the one behind her. Striding down the lane, Lee could see fear on the chador-clad woman's face and defiance in the little one's as she confronted the two men blocking them in.
As Lee got closer, she heard the short, skinny, black-haired man snicker.
"Hey, Eddie, look what we got here. It's our neighbour, the mouse. Fancy meeting you here, little girl. Whatcha doing hanging out with the likes of her?" He jerked his head at the woman cowering against the wall, dark eyes casting wildly about.
His beefy, buzz cut and tattooed companion backing him up, the slighter man stepped forward and the smaller woman backed up until she was pressing her companion against the brick wall.
"Back off, Pike! This is none of your business."
Lee admired the feisty little one's challenging tone even as she picked up her pace, bearing down on the group.
"It's my business if I say it is, mouse. Now I don't much like her kind, and I figure she just needs a little invite to go back where she come from."
Coming up behind the men who'd been so engrossed in their sport that they hadn't noticed her, Lee growled, "Well look here, it's Pike and Eddie, the loser King brothers. What hole did you boys crawl out of?"
The shorter man whirled, his burly brother stumbling as he tried to follow. Regaining his balance, Eddie scowled and squared himself as Pike's dark eyes narrowed in anger and recognition.
"You!" he spat, greasy black hair falling over his face. Lee noticed that the prominent wine-coloured birthmark on his neck and lower jaw seemed even brighter in the flush of his anger. She smiled coolly.
"As brilliant as ever, Francis," she smirked. She knew Pike hated his given name and never allowed anyone to use it. "Now why don't you two slugs get the hell out of here before I bust you right back into jail for harassment."
"You got no authority," Pike snarled, even as his eyes flickered nervously.
Lee shrugged. "Maybe not, but I'm sure your PO would just love to hear how you're filling your time so constructively, and I just happen to have his number."
Regarding the fuming man, Lee wondered if rage would overcome his good sense. She had no fear of taking on both the brothers if it came to that. Thirty years of martial arts training and the muscles to back up her words left her more than confident she could handle them, even if her earlier run-ins with this pair hadn't given her the psychological edge.
Like all bullies however, Pike had a healthy sense of self-preservation when the odds weren't heavily in his favour. "C'mon, Eddie," he growled at his dull-eyed brother. Giving his intended victims one last glare, he slunk off down the alley.
Turning to the two women, Lee saw the shorter one turn and place a hand on her companion's arm. "It's all right, Mrs. Khalil. They're gone now. You're safe."
"They're no better than the Taliban!" the taller woman choked out in a heavy accent, anger beginning to take the place of fear.
"You're right, but here at least, they don't have that kind of power. They can't hurt you." The young woman turned back to their savior, and Lee was struck by her composure in the face of what had happened. Cool assessing eyes passed over her, and when the wary features relaxed a little, the big woman guessed that she'd passed inspection.
"Are you two all right?" she asked with concern.
"Yes, thanks to you. I appreciate your intervention," the small woman replied formally.
"No problem, glad to help. I've had run-ins with those two before, so I figured they were trouble as soon as I saw them follow you into the alley." A slightly scolding tone came into Lee's voice as she added, "What were you doing in here anyway?"
Instantly, the small woman straightened defensively. "We're on our way to the courthouse and took a shortcut. I had no idea that they'd be around."
"Shhh, I wasn't criticizing, just wondering," Lee soothed. "Look, why don't you let me escort you the rest of the way, just to make sure they're not hanging about, okay?" She thought her offer would be refused, but after an entreating look from Mrs. Khalil, they set out together.
"My name's Lee Glenn by the way," she said as they paced steadily. "What's yours?"
"Mouse, apparently." There was a touch of bitterness as the young woman stared in the direction that the bullies had disappeared.
"Well then, Lady Mouse, it's good to meet you," Lee beamed.
The young woman stared up at her, and Lee watched indignation and amusement wage a battle in cobalt eyes before amusement won out. "Good to meet you too, Madam Dragonslayer. This is Mrs. Khalil."
Lee nodded courteously to them both as they continued down the alley. By the time they dropped Mrs. Khalil at the Courthouse, Lee learned the small woman's real name was Rhiannon Davies. She offered to escort Rhiannon back to her office, however the offer was politely but firmly refused. After suggesting that she stick to the main streets, Lee watched bemusedly as the young woman walked quickly away.
"And that's how I met Lady Mouse," Lee concluded. "I had no idea she worked for you though."
"She only started this morning," Marika said absently. Frowning, she looked at her big friend who was starting enthusiastically on the mud pie the waiter had set in front of her. "I wish you'd be more careful; you could've been hurt."
Lee snorted. "Not likely. I've wiped the floor with those two before and besides, they're too gutless to do anything in broad daylight anyway."
"Well, they were obviously intent on attacking Rhiannon and Mrs. Khalil."
"Yeah, but only because they figured they had a couple of easy marks." Lee chuckled, shaking her head. "I think they might've found the mouse was really a tiger in disguise though. Your little assistant is no coward."
"Huh." Marika quietly mused over this insight into her new employee. Then remembering abruptly, she changed the subject. "Before I forget Lee, I've come up with the perfect gift for you to give Dana this weekend."
Lee looked down at her dessert guiltily before peering up at Marika. "Um, I sorta already took care of that, 'Rika."
Her friend groaned. "Oh no! Lee, you swore after the last disaster that you'd never buy Dana a birthday or anniversary gift again without consulting me first. Have I ever steered you wrong?"
"No, no you haven't," Lee admitted but then leaned forward eagerly. "But I came up with the perfect idea this time, and I know she's gonna love it!"
Marika looked at her skeptically. "Okay, let's hear it. What did you get for the love of your life this time?"
"I got her a new motorcycle helmet!"
"Leandra Phyllis Glenn! You got her what?!"
"Shhh, keep that name quiet, willya?" Lee said, glancing about nervously. Defensively, she added, "Hey, I had it custom painted in the Suke's colours. You should see it! It's gorgeous--all black and purple, with her name on it."
Marika sighed heavily. There was a very good reason Lee was forbidden to buy gifts without consulting her. Dana often resorted to slipping Marika hints to be passed on to her obtuse mate. The two of them had a patented routine to handle Lee, and it never boded well when she went off and followed her own tangent.
Patiently, Marika began, "Lee, I'm sure the helmet is lovely, but this is your anniversary. Perhaps a more...romantic gift is in order."
Lee frowned as she poked at the remnants of chocolate on her plate. "It's romantic," she insisted, though with a noticeable lack of conviction. "After all, it says I'm thinking about her safety when she's riding with me and that I want her around in one piece for a long time."
Marika smiled thinly. "Well if that's really what you wanted to say, you'd get rid of that damned bike!"
Lee looked up in horror and the blonde grimaced wryly. She knew that to the large woman, that was akin to suggesting she get rid of a child. Lee loved her Suzuki 1100 touring bike almost as much as she loved Dana and Danny. Marika started to laugh as a pout emerged on her friend's face. It looked so out of place on the large woman.
"Okay, so maybe the helmet wasn't the best idea," Lee admitted reluctantly. "Aw shit, 'Rika, I don't know what to get her."
"That's what you have me for," Marika assured her. Regarding her friend then, she asked gently, "Lee, have you thought that maybe it's time to be thinking of a ring for Dana?"
Startled, Lee looked up. "A ring?"
"Yes, a ring," Marika said adamantly. "After all, how long have you two been together now?"
Lee looked at the ceiling and frowned. "Well, how long ago did we break up?"
The blonde smiled faintly. "About five years and a half years ago."
"Okay, so then this is our fifth anniversary."
"Then don't you think she might be expecting some sign of commitment from you?"
"Shit, we bought a house together. We're raising her son together. If that isn't commitment, what is?" Lee protested.
Leaning across the table, Marika laid a slender hand on her friend's large one. "I know, I know, but I really think Dana might like a ring and a ceremony to formalize that in front of all your friends and family. I think she'd like to know that you're fully committed to her and Danny."
Lee blinked steadily, pondering the notion. "Huh, you think so?"
"I think so," Marika stated firmly.
Slowly her friend nodded. "I'll think about it." Then with a grin she said, "But I'm still giving her the helmet!"
Rolling her eyes, Marika conceded gracefully. She knew that Lee would consider all the angles carefully and make a decision in her own good time. She resigned herself to the fact that for this anniversary at least, Dana would be getting a helmet from her significant other. She almost missed it when Lee cheerfully asked, "So what'd you do with yourself this weekend?"
She flinched involuntarily and tried to cover up with a casual, "Oh not much. Pretty much stayed in most of the weekend. Just me and Spooky, keeping each other company."
Glancing up, she saw Lee studying her and realized to her chagrin that her old friend hadn't missed her body language. Quickly seeking to change the subject, she asked, "The party is still on for Saturday, right? I told Dana I'd be there early to help set up."
Lee regarded her intently. "Uh huh. What's going on, Marika?"
"Nothing's going on," the blonde answered brightly even as she refused to meet her companion's eyes. "Why do you ask?"
There was silence for a few moments then the large woman growled, "Shit! You went to Cass, didn't you?"
Marika sat perfectly still, ashamed and unwilling to admit that she had gone back after the last time.
"Goddamnit, 'Rika! You swore you'd stay away from her!"
Marika unconsciously shrank back into her seat in the face of her friend's anger even as she said defensively, "Hey, I'm an adult. I have a right to see whom I choose."
Lee reached out suddenly, taking both her hands and gripping them tightly. Reluctantly Marika raised her eyes. "She's bad for you, 'Rika! Please, please stay away from her. Jesus, you're so much better than that!"
Unable to meet her friend's gaze for long, the blonde looked away as she murmured, "Am I?"
A heavy sigh met her question and the grip on her hands gentled. "Yes, you are. She uses you, my friend. It just ain't healthy."
"Maybe I use her too."
"Yeah, I suppose in a way you do, but you don't hurt her the way she hurts you. Frankly, I don't even think she has a heart to hurt. But you do. Of all people, I know you do. Oh, 'Rika, why?"
The sad tone penetrated Marika's guilt and she shrugged. "There's no expectations, no confusion. We both know what we're getting out of it."
Lee shook her head. "You have so much more to give than that. Why do you settle for someone like Cass when you could have someone like Dana?"
Lee frowned. "Of course you could! Why couldn't you?"
Marika snorted softly. "Look at my track record, Lee."
Sighing, Lee had to agree. "Yeah, I gotta admit that you haven't had much luck. But that doesn't mean you should stop trying."
"It's not a matter of luck, Lee. Every time I meet someone I might be interested in, I either end up bored and can't wait to get rid of them, or I go the opposite way and smother the life out of the relationship."
"So you're just going to give up and go to Cass when you need to get your jollies, is that it?" Lee asked harshly.
Marika looked up, stung by the callous assessment, but unable to rebut it.
"Aw shit, 'Rika, I'm sorry. Sometime my mouth gets away from me." Lee patted the slender hands in her own and leaned back. "Look, I just think you deserve a lot more than Cass. I know you suck at romance, but you know what? You're great at friendship. Maybe that's the problem. You need to concentrate on being friends first and see if anything else develops, rather than trying to get all hot and heavy the moment you meet someone."
Marika chuckled ruefully. "When did you become Dear Abby?"
The big woman smiled back gently. "When my friend needs some good advice." Sighing she said, "I know you'll do what you want, but I don't have to like it. I hate watching you treat yourself like this or even worse, letting her treat you like that. She's bad news. Nothing good can come of seeing her."
Suddenly eager to escape her friend's scrutiny and retreat to the safety of her office, Marika motioned for the check. Lee regarded her somberly but didn't make any protest, other than to take the check and pay it herself. Silently, the two rose and made their way out of the pub.
Continued in Chapter 3
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