By Melissa Good
The hotel lobby was full of people, men in business suits, and women in equally well tailored suits of their own. The plush carpet muted the conversation, but the buzz tickled the senses as the crowd shifted and moved, sophisticated glances meeting and mouths tensing into polite smiles.
Behind the long, marble topped front desk, two reservations agents observed the cocktail party with mildly bored expressions. "I hate these things." One confided. "They're so stupid."
Her companion shrugged. "They're all right this bunch is okay, at least. They tip. That convention we had in last week shoulda ended up at the Motel Six."
"You got that right." The female clerk fiddled with her terminal, then leaned on the counter and sighed. "How much longer?"
"Two hours." The dark haired man leaned next to her, watching the crowd. "Uh oh "
"What?" The woman peered in the direction he was watching. "Oh." She rolled her eyes. Entering the hotel's elegant glass and brass revolving door was someone obviously out of place in the lobby full of expensive, chic clothing.
The sweatshirted, blue jeaned figure edged it's way through the party, collecting stares along the way, headed unmistakably for the desk. Rips sliced the denim above the knees, and complimented the hiking boots which scuffed across the thick carpet.
"Water fountain." The man guessed.
"Bathroom." The woman countered.
"Change for a dollar."
They both smiled sweetly as the scruffy figure came to the desk, and rested long, powerful hands on the polished surface. "Yes ma'am?" The male clerk inquired. "Something we can do for you?" His tone indicated polite doubt.
One of the hands lifted, and removed the sunglasses hiding a pair of remarkably piercing eyes, which now drilled right through him. A dark, perfectly shaped eyebrow lifted wryly, as the woman answered. "Roberts. I have a reservation." It was a low voice, but distinct, with the faintest hint of the south in it.
The male clerk blinked. "Um.." He rattled a few keys, then managed to get the name typed in, aware of his co worker peering avidly over his shoulder. To his immense surprise, the name obediently returned an actual reservation, which he studied the details of. "Yes.. yes, Ms. Roberts. We've got it right here um do you have any luggage?"
"Just this." The woman hefted a weathered leather overnight bag slung casually over one shoulder. She took the key the clerk handed over. "Elevators?"
"Over to the right there, ma'am." The man's tone had altered to one of tense respect. "Is there anything we can send up for you?"
Dar turned and surveyed the crowd, some of whom were eyeing her disreputably ripped jeans with distaste. "Asprin." She enunicated the word carefully, then turned and made her way to the sleek elevators, ducking inside one and punching her floor. The doors closed lazily, trapping her in a small brass coffin smelling of polish, but at least it was quiet.
The two clerks watched her leave, then glanced at each other. " Son of a bitch." The man shook his head.
"That's their CIO?" The woman stared at the computer screen. "She's got the VIP suite?" She looked up at the now closed elevator. "Holy shit."
Dar sighed, and leaned back against the wall, swallowing as her ears popped with the rising of the car. She was already regretting agreeing to present the company's quarterly results at their stockholder meeting here in New York City, all the more so because it was so close to the Thanksgiving holiday, and that meant crowded planes, and crowded airports, and lots and lots of traffic.
Dar closed her eyes. And small elevators. She felt a familiar queasiness start in her stomach, and she concentrated on taking long, deep breaths, clenching her hands around the straps of her bag, and the laptop case over her other shoulder. Add that to the sinus headache she always got when flying in the winter, and the dry heat, and by the time the damned elevator grudgingly allowed her out, her body was tense and shaking, making her nauseus.
The hallway was small itself, and she edged down it, finding her room and opening the door, moving forward into a plush, thankfully acceptably large room, and letting the heavy partition shut behind her. She dropped her bags down on the huge bed and collapsed into the nearby chair, her head falling back to rest on the soft fabric. "Alastair.. I'm going to get you for this."
As though in psychic response, her cell phone rang. With a silent curse, Dar removed it from it's clip on her belt and opened it. "Yeah?"
"Well, well good afternoon, Dar." Her bosses voice sounded calmly cheerful. "Where are you?"
"The hotel." Dar replied, keeping her eyes closed. "Finally we circled for over two hours before they let us land at Laguardia." She exhaled. "Damn weather."
"Damned Northeast.. why the hell can't we have these meetings in Houston?"
"Now Dar " Alastiar's voice grew placating. "It's not that long.. besides, I thought you liked to travel."
Dar thought about the hours spent inside the crowded plane, pressing in on nerves made newly sensitive by an accident weeks earlier, which had reawakened a latent claustrophobia Dar had thought she'd conquered years back. "Not as much as I used to." She admitted, having been surprised by the level of discomfort she'd had to endure. "Maybe I'm just coming down with something.. anyway, did you need anything or are you just calling to bust my chops?"
Alastair McLean, the CEO of ILS chuckled. "That sounds more like you. Actually, I wanted to invite you to dinner. There's a nice place just across the road from here good Italian."
Dar let her eyes flick around the room, aware suddenly of it's silence.
"I realize I'm not as interesting company as Ms. Stuart is, but " Alastair coaxed. "C'mon, Dar I promise I won't talk football at you."
Just hearing Kerry's name brought a smile to Dar's face. Her friend, lover, and roommate was stuck back in Miami, consolidating a large deal with one of their major clients. "All right." She finally replied. "You're not bring the whole board, are you?"
A snort. "No I woudn't waste the clam sauce. Just you and me, Dar." Alastair reassured her. "I'll drop by your room at six, all right?"
Dar eyed the clock. It was barely four, and that gave her time to shower, and relax a little. "Sounds good." She let a smile cross her face. "See you then, Alastair." She closed the phone and relaxed a little, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand. "Damn." The hand lifted and rubbed her eyes. "I need some coffee." The hotel phone was nearby, but her body resisted moving, content to remain nestled in the leather chair, now nicely warmed and comfortable.
She slumped there limply for a moment, then lifted her cell phone and thumbed a number into it without looking. Dar lifted the instrument to her ear, and listened to it's buzzing ring. Once, twice.. then the noise stopped, and a soft grunt issued down the line that brought a smile to Dar's face.
"Hello?" Kerry's voice sounded almost breathless.
"Avoiding the elevators?" Dar queried.
"Oh." Kerry exhaled, then apparently stopped moving. "How'd you guess? They just called me down to the tenth floor, and I thought I'd jog back up." The sound of a door opening an closing, then the echo of the stairwell vanished, replaced with a soft hum. "Where are you? Did you just get there? How was the flight?"
Dar pictured her lover striding down the hall, with that distinctive, sexy walk, and her nose wrinkled in pleasure. "Hotel, yes, pain in my ass." She replied succinctly. "Just thought I'd check in. We hit weather over Virginia."
"I know." Kerry answered, over the sound of a door closing. Now the hum was gone, and it was quiet. "I.. um.. tracked your flight."
Dar stretched out her long legs, and felt her muscles relax. "Oh, you did, huh?"
"Yes, I did." Kerry's voice dropped a little, taking on a hint of huskiness. "I worry about you, y'know."
Mmm. Dar smiled at the ceiling. "Well, I made it here Alastair's taking me out to dinner, then I'm gonna get some sleep. The meeting starts at eight tomorrow."
"Ew." Kerry replied. "I've got that group meeting at the church tonight, then Colleen and Ray are meeting me and we're going to walk down the beach and see what trouble we can get into."
Uh oh. Dar imagined the possible results. "Be careful, okay?" She advised her lover.
"You too." Kerry replied seriously. "That city can be a scary place."
Dar smiled. "I will. Talk to you tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay." Kerry was smiling too, easily heard in her voice. "I love you."
"I love you too." Dar exhaled contentedly. "Night."
"Night." Kerry listened, until the call ended with a slight click, then regarded the phone for a moment before she leaned back in her comfortable desk chair and tapped her pen on her notepad. Her desk was neat, and clean - the LCD screen and her phone on one side, her inbox, notepad, and the small, wooden framed picture on the other. Idly, she reached out and lifted the picture, smiling at the beautiful face gazing out at her. "Don't you be getting lost down any subway tunnels, cutie pie." She instructed the picture. "We've got holiday plans in a few days."
Thanksgiving. Kerry set the picture down, and started straightening her things out in preparation to leave. Her very first real Thanksgiving, where she was in charge, and had decided what they'd do, and who they'd invite. She'd decided on a turkey, and a party, and Dar had amiably agreed, having never experienced the occasion as a host herself. She'd gotten her turkey, an enormous, frozen thing, and all the trimmings, and Colleen had volunteered to come over early that morning and help with the cooking.
Dar's parents would be there. Kerry smiled, as she picked up her laptop and slipped it into the leather shoulder bag she carried, and clipped her cellphone to her belt. She heard a slight knock, and looked up as the door opened and her secretary Mayte peeked in. "Hey."
The slim, young Latin girl smiled at her. "You go home, yes?"
"Not exactly." Kerry answered easily. "I've got a meeting to go to, then some socializing to do.. what about you?"
"I have my group tonight." Mayte replied. "I was going to ask, if it is not too much trouble, if I could get a ride with you just past the bus stop."
"Absolutely." Kerry circled the desk. "C'mon we'll beat the traffic." She motioned the girl out before her, and they left the office, walking together down the hall They were both dressed with casual elegance, and Kerry was amused to note that Mayte had taken to carefully studying her own choices of silk shirts, and well tailored slacks, and chosen items as close as she could without outright copying of Kerry's selections.
Kerry straightened her shoulders in reflex, as they entered the elevator and she drew the eyes of the occupants already inside, her wine colored shirt with it's tiny embroidered flowers contrasting neatly with her pale hair and fair complexion. "Evening." Kerry returned the quiet murmurs with a brief smile, acknowledging the slightly uncomfortable silence from the marketing clerks who were years older than she was, and probably aggravated beyond words that someone who looked just about Mayte's age of low twenty something had been promoted to Vice President regardless of what her qualifications were.
Or, she admitted wryly, they could also be fundimentalists who dissaproved of her very publicly known alternative lifestyle. The doors opened on the bottom floor, and the other women moved quickly out, heading across the huge brass and marble lobby towards the front doors to the building.
"Ms. Kerry?" Mayte murmured as they followed more slowly. "I do not think those ladies like you."
"Nope." Kerry gave the security guard a smile, and received one in return as they exited the building. "There are people out there that don't. " She led Mayte over to the dark green Mustang convertible, and unlocked the doors, popping her hatch to set her laptop bag down inside. Then she got in the driver's seat and fastened her seat belt, watching her assistant do the same. "You know how it is."
Mayte was quiet as she started the car and backed it from it's spot. The space next to her was conspicuously empty, in the full lot, having been filled with Dar's Lexus until the CIO had left for the airport. Kerry surpressed an irrational desire to have left right along with her, and turned her attention to the traffic as she pulled out of the parking lot.
"Did la jefa get to New York all right?" Mayte inquired shyly. "Mama was worried, she said there was a big storm somewhere."
"Yeah.. " Kerry nodded. "She called me right before we left it took them forever to land, but she's there, safe and sound." Her brow contracted. "I should have called your mother and told her.. I know she was concerned." She turned west and winced, as the sun invaded the car. "Whoops." One hand fished into the center console and emerged with her sunglasses, which she put on, cutting the brilliance and restoring her vision.
"I will tell her when I get home." Mayte reassured her. "I think you were worried too you did not eat your lunch."
Hm. Kerry's nose wrinkled. Busted. "Well, everything turned out okay, so I'll just make up for it at dinner." She chuckled, then considered her choice of streets. "Listen, I have to go downtown anyway - why don't I just drop you off home?" She offered. "No sense in you having to grab a bus at this hour." Normally, Mayte rode home with her mother, Maria, who was Dar's assistant, but the older woman had left early for a doctor's appointment after Dar had gone to the airport.
"You don't have to do that." Mayte looked shyly pleased at the offer, though. "You're so busy."
"Nah." Kerry produced a grin. "Besides, after what I've heard about the Metrobusses, I'd be a nervous wreck until I saw you again tomorrow morning." She pulled out onto the highway decisively, almost cutting of a huge truck as she ducked nimbly across two lanes of traffic.
"Oh. Si." Mayte closed her eyes resolutley and grabbed for the overhead handle. "I am feeling much safer already."
It was, after all, New York City, and here she was, dining out at night, with the CEO of one of the largest IS firms in the world. Dar crossed her ankles and reviewed the dark fabric covering her legs. At least he gets the jeans without the rips. She gazed across the table at her boss, who was watching her with a bemused expression. "Am I ruining your image?"
Alastair laughed. "Who, me? Just because half the people in here know who I am, and are dying of curiousity as to where I picked up the beautiful vagrant I'm eating dinner with?" He poked a fork at Dar's sweatshirt sleeve. "They'll find out soon enough."
Dar returned the chuckle. "Sorry I would have changed, but I fell asleep after you called, and barely had time to get my head on straight before you knocked." She stretched, and picked up a fragrant garlic stick, nibbling it's end appreciatively. "I was at the office at four am needed to get that new contract squared away before I left."
"Ouch." Alastair winced. "How's that going?"
"Not bad." The dark haired woman replied. "I've got a meeting scheduled next week with the top brass down at Southeast Command.. that's where Gerry wanted me to start."
"Close to home."
"Mm." Dar acknowledged. "They've been getting a pile of complaints about the training programs down there. He wants me to go in and do a complete systems and processes evaluation." She carefully ignored her salad, and dipped the breadstick into the spicy Italian soup. "Gonna be a little strange. One of the bases he wants me to review is the one I mostly grew up on."
Footsteps closed in, and they both looked up to see a sharply dressed man standing at the tableside. "Hello, Al." The man had a slight accent, but it was hard to tell exactly what kind. ""I was hoping I'd get a chance to see you before the meeting." He flicked a lazy glance over Dar's body, and the corner of his mouth twitched. "Sorry.. am I interrupting something?"
Dar considered the repercussions of stabbing him with her fork, and weighed the amusement value of hearing the scream, versus the certain lawsuit she'd have to deal with. She sighed, and just continued eating. The food was excellent, and she'd missed both breakfast and lunch, which hadn't helped the headache flying had given her. "Nah.. go ahead. I'm just his new intern." She commented lightly, sucking in a strand of spaghetti.
Alastair hid a smile behind his hand, and exhaled. "Good evening, Bob.. sit down, willya? What can I do for you?" Bob Trancet was the head of Corporate Sales for the New York office, which handled a good deal of their international business as well.
The tall man sat down, and folded his hands, ignoring Dar now. He was clean cut, and good looking, with silvered black hair and a strong profile. His athletic body was balanced and he had a very self assured air. "Nothing major. I was just hoping to put a bug in your ear about a possible new alliance. Datacom contacted me today, and started sniffing around the edges of suggesting they want us to take over their network ops."
"Really." Alastair propped his chin up on one fist. "They're big competitors of ours in some places."
"Mm.. but they can't compete with the new network, and they know it." Bob smirked. "They're talking strategic partnership now trading off them selling our net, with us getting a lot of their South American stuff."
"Not worth it." Dar commented, biting a meatball in half. "They've got twenty year old infrastructure, and it'll cost us over a million bucks to upgrade their nodes to our spec."
There was absolute silence for a moment, giving Dar some peace and quiet to slurp her noodles in.
"Spunky intern." Bob remarked dryly. "But all of a sudden, I'm realizing that voice is familiar." HE waited for Dar to lift her eyes and met them, with a twinkle of amusement. "I finally get to meet the infamous Dar Roberts.. that was outstandingly stupid of me, wasn't it? I should have figured it out from the start." He held out a hand, which Dar reached over and clasped. "Intern, eh?"
Dar smiled at him, and their eyes fenced briefly, two very strong wills gently testing each other. She could feel the intense magnetism he was putting out, and as his glance drifted over her and showed a distinct admiration, her ego pricked it's little bat ears right up. "Well.. " She drawled. "It was better than the other obvious conclusion."
He grinned right back. "Better for who? That would have done wonders for Al's reputation."
Alastair cleared his throat, glancing between the two. "I hadn't realized you never met Dar, Bob I know you've spoken on the phone, though."
"No no." Bob slowly shook his head, still apparently fascinated by Dar. "Never had the pleasure.. and I do mean pleasure."
Dar took a breath, and went back to consuming her dinner. "If Datacom wants to deal, they have to pay for their own upgrades before we sign anything. I don't want them bottlenecking us." She stated, then sighed, as her cell phone rang. "Yeah?"
"Dar.. it's Mark we've got a situation."
Figures. "Hang on." Dar stood, and tucked her napkin under her plate. "Be right back." She edged around where Bob was sitting and headed for the door, out of the noise where she could hear better.
Alastair took a sip of his wine, and gazed drolly at his long time associate. "Put your tongue back in your mouth, willya?"
"Son of a bitch." Bob laughed, shaking a finger at him. "You told me she was smart, tough, and stubborn.. how come you never mentioned she was gorgeous?" His eyes stayed pinned on the tall, lanky figure leaning against the door outside, phone pressed to her ear. "That is a serious hunk of woman, Al."
Alastair rolled his eyes. "You never change." He snorted. "Wipe your chin.. you're drooling."
"Hell yes I am!" Bob asserted. "That's one sexy item I intend to get a closer look at."
"She's taken." Alastair held a hand up.
"Bullshit. Nobody owns her not in this lifetime, bucko." Bob shook his head firmly. "Don't get so serious, Al.. I just want to have a drink with her, not get married."
"Bob, she's gay." Alastair threw his trump card.
"And? Your point is what?" His chief salesman replied. "Who cares? I sure don't." He balled up the napkin he'd been playing with and straightened. "I'll just in..hey.."
Alastair had reached across the table, and fastened one hand on his wrist. Now he bore down, and pulled, a suddenly serious, intent look on his face. "You listen to me, mister. Don't fuck with her."
A tiny pocket of shocked stillness surrounded them. Bob blinked, and stared at his boss, non plussed. "Hey.. c'mon, Al.." He said, softly. "Take it easy."
"I mean it." The CEO stated flatly.
The younger man drew in a breath and held out his other hand, palm up in a gesture of conciliation. "Okay.. okay, boss.. I hear you." He gathered his composure as Alastair released him, and sat back. "Is it okay if I just talk to her? She's really bright, and I"d really like to spend a few minutes doing that."
A finger pointed at him. "If you go a step further than that, I will personally fire your ass. Understand?"
"Understood." Bob acknowledged quietly, as Dar reentered the restaurant, moving back towards them and taking her seat. Alert blue eyes flicked first to Alastair, then to him, and he got the curious sensation of being analyzed like a faulty piece of code by the raw, potent intelligence lurking just behind Dar's now watchful gaze.
"Trouble, Dar?" Alastair took a gulp of his wine, and swirled the remaineder around his glass. "Didn't think we had that much going on this week."
"Ah." Dar twirled a forkful of spaghetti and munched on it, swallowing before she answered. "It's that damned conversion in Redmond they've been trying to tie in that big ATM pipeline up to Alaska for two weeks, and every time they do it, they take down half the damn west coast." She took a sip of her own wine. "I may have to send a team out there."
"Lousy time to be traveling." Bob ventured. "Holidays and all."
"Mm." Dar agreed, meeting his gaze. "Comes with the territory, though . My people know that." She finished off her meatballs and sat back, crossing an arm over her chest and as she sipped the wine. The problem was aggravating, for sure, and she wasn't entirely convinced she wasn't going to have to go there in person to take care of it.
Which truly, truly sucked.
She looked up, to find Bob leaning forward, with a look of friendly interest on his face. "Mm?" Something had gone on between him and Alastair, that much she knew, but what that was
Probably didn't involve her. "Something on your mind?"
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Get to the city much?"
That surprised her. "No I try to not cross the Mason Dixon unless I have to." She replied dryly, giving Alastair a look. "Why?"
Bob folded his hands together. Dar noticed they were nice, strong ones, with well tended nails and just a hint of callous along the top of his index fingers. "I'm pretty proud of the place I've lived her since I was shorter than the fire hydrants outside will you let me give you a quick tour?"
Dar considered the request. "If you put an intinerary together for tomorrow night, sure." She agreed amiably. "It's been a long day." He was attractive, and a sharp businessman, and it never hurt to build a few bridges when you had the chance to.
"You're on." Bob grinned, then pushed back from the table and stood up. "Al, it's been a pleasure as always." He inclined his head. "See you at the soiree tomorrow." His eyes shifted. "And you as well, I hear, madame.. looking forward to hearing the presentation." With a slight bow, he turned, and threaded his way through the now truly busy restaurant, disappearing into the New York Night once he cleared the door.
The small group sat in a circle, in chairs so mismatched you'd have thought it was on purpose, done by a designer with a definitely twisted streak. All were young, most in their late teens save the woman seated cross legged in the large overstuffed chair nearest the door.
"Okay, Barbara.. what makes you think he's got it out for you?" Kerry asked quietly, setting her mind to the problems of these troubled youngsters, halfway between children and adults, and dealing with an emerging sexuality they weren't sure they understood. Weren't really sure they wanted, for that matter, being different at this stage in their lives, at an age where different meant outcast in so many poignant ways.
She shared her councilling duties with two other older women, and found she enjoyed her time with the group. It meant having to listen to, and deal with problems vastly different from the ones she normally handled, and reminded her all over again that her own acceptance of her lifestyle had been far smoother than any number of other people's. Right now, the youngest member of the discussion group, Barbara Gonzales, had confessed that she thought her boss at Burger King had figured out she was gay, and was trying to get rid of her because of it.
"I don't know." The slim, brown haired girl wrapped an arm around one knee. "He changed my shift.. now me makes me do all the hard stuff, like figuring out how much bread and meat to order for the next week, and making me check out the bathrooms, and stuff like that."
"Hm." Kerry sat back, aware of the girl's eyes on her. "Did you ask him why he did that?"
A shrug. "No. I just figured it was because he saw me and Sally in the freezer that one time we were so stupid about that."
Kerry reflected. "Do you do a good job?"
"I guess the customers like me. I get stuff done, and I'm always on time, and all that stuff."
"Well, he could be coming down on you, but there is another possibility." Kerry told her. "He might be trying to nudge you towards a more responsible position in the restaurant."
Barbara blinked at her, obviously never having even considered it. "Huh?"
"If I were a fast food manager." Kerry speculated. "And I had a position I needed to fill.. say, and assistant manager, or a shift leader.. .I'd find someone who was trustworthy.. who was prompt, and neat, and got the job done, and give them a little more responsibility every day to see how they handled it."
"You would?" Casey cocked her head, covered in an explosion of dark curls.
"Sure." Kerry smiled. "Asking Barbara to do the ordering projections, and supervising the cleaning of the bathrooms seems to me, to be an indication that the man trusts her, and maybe wants to see if she's ready to be promoted." Her eyes twinkled at Barbara, who was staring open mouthed at her. "Tell you what. Think of it that way for a week, and try to look at everything he does positively, instead of negatively. See what happens."
Barbara pushed a lock of hair behind an ear. "Wow okay, yeah, I guess I could do that." She mused. "Maybe I could, like, iron my shirts and stuff.. see if he notices." She smiled, and her whole face lit up. "Thanks, Kerry you're so cool."
Kerry stood up and circled her chair, leaning on the back and gazing at them. "Sometimes, it's easy to get into the mode where you think everyone's against you.. or that your sexual preference automatically makes you a victim. It's not true." She paused, and considered. "Not that it doesn't happen, of course it does.. we all watch the news.. or have had stuff happen so you know it does." A brief smile touched her lips. "But not always."
"You're pretty out at work, aren't you?" Casey asked, curiously.
"Do you get shit for that?" The girls watched her, intensely interested in her answer. Kerry tended to turn talk away from her life to theirs, and they were always digging for little nuggets about her personal side. They knew she worked for a big company, and that she was gay and not a whole lot more. Most of them hadn't even met Dar, since the group had formed after the last picnic her lover had attended.
"Sometimes, there are people who find out, and they don't like it." Kerry allowed. "But mostly, I just do my job, and they don't really care."
"Your boss doesn't care?"
She couldn't help the smile. "No. Definitely not."
"Cool." Casey nodded. "Maybe I'll get me a job there, then they sound all right."
Kerry reviewed the stocky young woman, whose dark hair was dyed in three shades of purple, to match the six different kinds of earring stones, and contrast with the tattoos dancing across her neck. "Sure." She agreed mildly. "Give me a resume for you, and I'll give it to personnel."
Just the look on Mariana's face would be more than worth it.
"All right." Casey stayed by her, as the rest of the group filed out. "You're pretty cool, for an old lady."
Kerry's eyebrows lifted. "Just how ancient do you think I am?" She asked, mildly outraged, putting her hands on her hips. "I only have three gray hairs, you know."
Casey grinned, then dropped her eyes bashfully. "I know.. I was just ragging you it must be so cool to have it all so together like you do."
Hm. Yeah, as a matter of fact, it was pretty darn cool. "I've been really lucky." She admitted. "I've had good opportunities given to me, and I've managed to find someone I want to spend the rest of my life with. I thank God for that every day, believe me, Casey."
The teen glanced down, folding her arms with a distinct air of discomfort at that. "So. When do we get to meet this mystery woman of yours? You keep talking about her she sounds pretty hot."
Kerry turned and gestured to the door. "C'mon.. I've got to lock up. You'll get to meet Dar at the party next week.. you'll like her. She's really nice." Well, nice wasn't really what Dar was, but
Casey walked out, and watched her lock the door to the back room of the church. They strolled together up the narrow aisle past the rostrum, and up the two short stairs to the main door of the building. Kerry held the heavy portal open, then let it shut behind them, and locked it with the key she'd been given. The other girls were waiting outside, giving her shy looks.
"Hey." Casey was, apparently, elected the spokeswoman this week. "We're goin for a beer.. you want to come?"
For a moment, Kerry was tempted. Being the center of this sort of adolescent attention was very new, and very strange for her, and she felt the urge to explore it more thoroughly. However, plans were plans, and she suspected the invitation would be repeated.
Frequently. "Not tonight, guys.. I promised I'd meet some friends down on the beach.. but thanks for asking." Kerry smiled warmly at them. "Go on and have a good time.. but be careful, okay?" No sense in her pointing out most of them were underage, since she knew they'd just have Casey, the only one who had military ID buy the beer for them. The youngster had enlisted and lasted exactly two weeks in the marines, then busted out, but she'd kept the ID.
She watched them saunter off, then she turned and headed for her car, parked nearby, checking her watch as she walked. A half hour until her meeting up time with Col and Ray, which would give her more than enough leeway to get down to the beach, and the waiting sushi dive. Her stomach started growling at the thought, and the skipped lunch and breakfast suddenly made her light headed.
"Damn." Fortunately, she was next to her car, and a quick grab at the doorframe of the Mustang let her keep her balance. "Guess the ascetic fasting gig isn't for me." She got the door open and sat down, waiting for the dizzy feeling to fade. It did after a moment, and she closed the door and started the car. "Soon." She patted her stomach. "Hang in there kiddo teriyaki chicken is straight ahead."
Dar twitched her collar straight for the fourth time, as she stared into the mirror with a scowl. Not that there was anything wrong with the burgundy silk business suit, the soft folds draped nicely over her tall frame, sleeves cut specifically to her measure coming neatly past her wrists. The skirt was just above her knees, and with her tan, she could have gotten away without wearing hose. But she hadn't, dutifully donning the smokey dark nylons Kerry had tucked into her bag.
"C'mon, Dar." She repeated to her reflection. "Just pretend it's a staff meeting." With over a thousand people. Dar picked up the towel she'd used after her shower and wiped the sweat off her palms. She'd never admit to anyone just how much she hated public, really public speaking, she hadn't even told Kerry about it, but here, alone in her hotel room, barely an hour before she had to address the stockholders, she could admit to herself that she was scared senseless.
"Jackass." She glowered into the pale blue eyes in the mirror. A knock sounded on the door and she almost hit the popcorn ceiling, before she gave herself a shake, and stalked towards the entrance. She opened the door to find a plant wanting admittance. "Hello?"
Brown eyes peeked out from between the stalks of some extremely lurid roses. "Ms. Roberts? This came for you."
Dar surveyed the arrangement, and felt her eyebrows lift. She backed up. "C'mon in." She watched the bellman carefully put the basket on the room's small table, then back away cautiously. "Thanks." Dar had taken a bill from her wallet and now she handed it to him, ignoring his leaving as she explored her new decoration.
It was way too cute and classy for Alastair, she decided, plucking a small teddy bear from the center. "And he woudn't send you, now would he?" She sniffed one of the blooms, which was gorgeous, then realized some of the roses weren't real. Curiously, she touched one, then unwrapped the foil top to reveal rich, milky looking chocolate. "Ah." Cheerfully, she took a bite, then fished around until she rooted out the small card. She opened it and peered at the writing, not really needing the confirmation of the sender.
Give them heck.
I love you.
"Aw." Dar felt her entire body warm, a gentle flush that chased away the chills she'd been feeling not five minutes earlier. "You're something else, you know that?" She took another bite of chocolate and considered the roses, then selected one and carefully broke it's stem off just below the bloom. A few steps took her to her overnight back, and she fished inside it, coming up with a safety pin and neatly pinning the rose on her lapel.
Her eyes then fell on the tiny teddy, and she very briefly considered tucking it into her pocket, a sudden smile appearing when she imagined the collective reaction of the stockholders if they saw the little toy peeking out of her jacket. "Oh.. no..no.. Dar that would just blow that little old reputation of yours right out the window and into the Hudson River." But she laughed, the light sound echoing softly in the room.
She went over to where her breakfast tray lay mostly untasted on the bedside table and selected a croissant, cutting it open and covering it with butter and jelly. She ate that, and washed it down with a swallow of coffee, then clicked off the television that had been playing soundless in the background and took one last look in the mirror.
Chin up, shoulders back. Dar straightened, and felt her usual confident attitude drop over her in a comforting sensation. She picked up her slim, leather portfolio and headed out the door, hearing it close behind her as she walked down the carpeted hallway, her medium heeled shoes sinking just slightly into the pile.
The elevator had lots of nicely dressed people in it. Most of them glanced at her as she entered, and most of the guys sucked their guts in. Dar graced them with a smile, but kept silent, folding her hands over her folder with it's distinctive company logo stamped in leather on the outside.
The trip down seemed to last forever, in that elongated awkwardness that elevators often produced. But they did finally make it, and Dar exited the small space, moving into the lobby towards the convention center, where large groups of men and women were gathered near the double doors.
She turned, and waited for Alastair to catch up to her. The CEO was dressed in a dark blue suit and red tie, and he smiled at Dar as he took her by the elbow. "Morning."
"Morning.. morning.." Alastair ushered her through the door and up one broad aisle towards the podium. "Sleep well?"
"Fine." Dar replied, as they moved up to the table set on the elevated stage. "Did we get the..ah." She laid her portfolio down and took over the keyboard of the laptop on the table, rattling the keys with a sense of comforting familiarity. "Good." She murmured, reviewing the data flashing across the LED screen. The system was hooked to an overhead projector, which would allow her to show the stockholders real-time data moving across their new network. "Looks good."
Alastair glanced at the figures. "You'd know." He patted her shoulder. "I'm going to get everyone settled, then I'll introduce you hey, nice rose."
"Thanks." Dar glanced at it. "And thanks for dinner last night.. damn good pasta."
"Almost as good as the company." Alastair returned the compliment courteously. "And speaking of which, don't let Bob run you ragged tonight, all right? He loves this town, and loves to show it off, but he gets a little too enthusiastic about it's vices sometimes."
Dar looked up from her data, and cocked her head. "Is that a warning?" She watched her boss nod. "All right. I'll keep that in mind. Now c'mon.. let's get this show on the road." She concentrated on setting up the networking monitors and ignored Alastair's walking over to the podium.
"Ladies and Gentleman?" The CEO laid his hands confidently on the wood surface. "If you'd like to take your seats, we'll get started."
The crowd bustled into place, scrapes and scuffs overwhelming the conversation as people settled into the comfortable chairs. Almost immediately, a young, red haired man stood up and raised his hand. "Mr. McLean?"
Alastair looked over at him. "Yes? Charles Bantelberg, isn't it?"
The man blinked a moment, obviously not expecting the CEO to recognize him. "Yes.. listen, we're all really interested in the new network. We don't want to hear a bunch of corporate bs today, if you don't mind." Several people laughed, but more nodded, and faced forward.
"Well." Alastair leaned on the podium. "You know, I had a feeling everyone was going to feel like that." He had their attention, and the room settled down, everyone listening to him intently. "These stockholder meetings are usually pretty dry, huh?" A round of polite laughter. "I know how much the industry has been talking about our new infrastructure, and I thought that it would be a strong topic of conversation at this meeting." He straightened. "You all have questions like is it what it's advertised to be, and how are we going to use it, right?"
"Well, good." Alastair rubbed his hands briskly. "Because I can't tell you any of that."
"So I brought someone here to do the corporate presentation who can." He glanced over at Dar, who had finished fiddling with her hardware, and was quietly waiting. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like to present to you our Chief Information Officer, and the designer of the new network, Dar Roberts."
Dar forced her legs into motion, and gave her boss a curt nod as he relinquished the podium.
Then she wondered what all the noise was. Startled, her eyes lifted to see the entire crowd standing up, yelling and waving at her. She looked at Alastair in alarm, only to see the CEO hiding a smirk behind one hand. Only then did she realize what she was facing was a standing ovation.
Jesus. Now what?
Finally, they shut up and she was able to collect herself, waiting for everyone to sit down before she opened her mouth. Then she shut it again, because she had no idea what to say to the huge, faceless mob, whose attention was now focused on her with fierce intentness.
Well, she had to say something before they all fell asleep, didn't she? "The agenda requires me to spend some time at this point outlining the basic plan and infrastructure of why we implemented a new network." Dar finally said. "But I'd bet you'd rather just see it, right?"
There was a moment's silence, beating against her face, then a laugh. Ah. That was good. "Right." Dar clicked on the overhead and behind her, a slim, gray screen exploded into life. "This is the deal.."
"Oo.. I thought she was going to choke there." Kerry had her chin on her fists, her eyes glued to the IDLN broadcast of her lover, explaining in terse detail the advantages of their new net.
"Mm.." Duks was sitting on her desk, and Mark was leaning next to her. "Public speaking is not an easy thing for Dar, I do not think."
"Nice suit." Mark commented. "Crowd likes her."
Kerry watched Dar's body language, which to her seemed almost painfully stiff. After a few minutes, though, her lover relaxed a little. "That's better she's loosening up some."
"Yeah." The MIS chief agreed. "Boy, she looks nervous.. never thought I'd see that."
"C'mon, honey." Kerry whispered to the screen, crossing her fingers and willing Dar to calm down. For a brief instant, the blue eyes lifted from the crowd, and glanced right at the IDLN transmit camera and they were eye to eye, then Dar went back to her information, scrolling expertly through a series of benchmarks and displaying a test of the new network's capabilities. "Atta girl." She noticed the rose pinned to her bosses jacket, and smiled.
"What's she doing now.. oh." Mark leaned forward. "Showing off that new hub.. yeah, lookit that." They watched Dar shift traffic effortlessly from one port to the other, providing seamless fallback for the accounts on that particular system. "Cool."
Dar finished her displays, then turned, and laid her hands on the podium, much more at ease now. "Any questions?" The rich, powerful voice rolled out over the crowd. A moment's silence, then a forest of hands went up. Dar seemed to find this funny, the corners of her mouth twitching as she leaned on the wooden surface. "All right. You first." She pointed, and the questions began.
"She likes that better." Kerry nodded. "Questions she can deal with she has to do that every day." And certainly, her lover was handling them, becoming more confident as she watched, and moving out away from the protection of the podium, illustrating her answers with quick, precise motions of her hands. Kerry sighed. "God, she's gorgeous." She became aware of an awkward silence, and glanced up, to see Mark and Duks making strange faces at her. "Sorry.. but she is."
"Yeah, I know but.." Mark scratched his jaw. "It's just so weird hearing that.. um.. "
"From another woman?" Kerry asked wryly.
"It's okay." Mark shrugged, and laughed. "I needed some horizon broadening today."
They turned back to the screen, and watched as Dar took another step forward, her personality visibly emerging as she fielded tough questions, displaying an impressive knowledge of their industry.
"Yeah.. you go." Kerry smiled, as the crowd applauded. "Rock em."
"Ugh." Dar flopped down onto her back and stared up at the ceiling, flexing her newly freed toes from their leather entrapment. "Well, that wasn't so bad, I guess." Her cell phone rang, and she lifted it, stretching as she put the instrument to her ear. "Yes?"
"Oh, I do, do I?" Dar responded with a lazy smile, glad to have the entire affair behind her. "I didn't sound like too much like a walking geek tank?"
"No way." Kerry laughed. "We all watched it on IDLN but my god, Dar.. your face when they gave you that ovation.. I thought you were going to swallow your pager."
"Erf." Dar threw an arm over her eyes. "Caught me by surprise but it ended up pretty good. Those West Indies investors are sharp. They had some good questions."
"You had some great answers." Kerry leaned back in her chair and propped a knee up against her desk. "Listen I did call you to say hi, and congratulations and all that.."
"But." Dar drawled through the phone.
"But." Kerry agreed. "We've got a real problem in Redmond, Dar. I think I'm going to have to go out there." She heard the sigh. "Tonight." Another sigh. "Col said she'd watch Chino, since Mom and Dad are in Bermuda." They were both silent for a bit. "I don't think it'll take long."
"You promised me turkey." Dar protested with a hint of a verbal pout. "Tell Redmond to stuff itself."
Kerry gazed fondly at her speakerphone. "We've still got two days before Thanksgiving, Dar.. c'mon.. I"ll be back tomorrow night, at the latest. Besides, you're the one who said you could deal with Egg McMuffins if you had to." She reminded her boss.
"That was before you mentioned marshmallow stuffed sweet potatoes." Dar retorted, then sighed. "I know.. I know.. I was reviewing that mess myself. I thought I might have to make a trip out there but you're really better at handling those people than I am."
"Thank you." Kerry preened silently, tipping back and enjoying the twilight outside. "What's your plans for tonight?"
There was a momentary pause on the other end. "Bob Trancet wants to show me the town." Dar answered. "But after Alastair warned me off today, Im not sure I want to be shown." Another pause. "Hey."
"Mm?" Kerry was rolling over Dar's words in her mind.
"Thanks for the roses, the chocolate, and the teddy bear."
A smile. "I saw your jacket.. it looked pretty." Kerry turned her head to one side and regarded the phone. "Isn't that the guy there was the big scandal about over Fourth of July?" She asked curiously. "Him and a secretary, or something, in the Xerox room?"
"Yeah." Dar admitted. "He wears his gonads on his lapel, all right."
Kerry almost spit her tonsils out her nose. She clapped a hand over her mouth, and reached for her cup of tea, half choking with laughter. "Dar.. dont' do that." She spluttered. "I didn't need that mental image.. I really, really didn't."
Dar chuckled softly. "Sorry maybe I'll just force him into dinner here at the hotel. .I'm pretty tired after all that crap today. When's your flight?"
"Nine." Kerry stifled a yawn. "Wish it were landing in Laguardia." She rolled her head to one side. "God, this is ridiculous."
"Me feeling like a spoiled little brat denied her candy because you're not here." Kerry responded wryly. "Dar, this is not normal. I want you to go to Doctor Steve when you get back, so he can figure out what you put out that has me so damned hooked on you." Pause. "Stop smirking."
"You most certainly were." Kerry reached out and ran a fingertip along the phone. "Am I embarrassing you?"
"No." Dar's voice dropped a note. "Flattering me."
"Mm." Kerry's eyes half closed, and she exhaled. "Well, I guess I'd better get going I want to get to the airport a little early. " She stifled another yawn. "At least I can sleep on the plane you go and have fun with Mr. Happy Gonads, okay?"
"Oh yeah. A blast." Dar mused. "Hey.. have a good flight, okay? Give me a call when you get to your hotel."
"I will." Kerry promised. "Later, sweetie."
"Later." Dar hung up the phone, and set it on her mostly bare chest. She'd stripped out of her silk suit almost as fast as the damn shoes, and was in her half slip and bra, the air conditioning raising tiny goosebumps over her exposed belly. She rubbed her chilled skin, then sat up, using one hand to work a kink out of her neck. She got up and trudged over to the dresser, yanking a shirt out of her bag and tugging it on over her head.
"Okay." Dar addressed her now rumpled reflection, blowing a bit of dark hair out of her eyes with a quick puff of air. "Dinner, a drink in the bar, and we're outta here." She took off her slip and exchanged it for a pair of jeans, then tucked the shirt in and buckled the belt. "Might as well get some work done while I'm hanging around waiting."
Minutes later, she was sprawled over the bed with her laptop resting on her legs, reviewing her mail and the two system status reports Mark had sent down. A mail opened, and she reviewed it. "Kiss my ass." She typed in a response and sent it back, then opened a second. "Bite me." Another mail winged on it's way back. The third she opened, reading it several times, then cocking her head to one side to watch the tiny gopher graphic dance along it's edge sideways. "Oo. Cool you got the toes working." She praised Kerry in absentia. Then she leaned closer and squinted at the small creature, who seemed to have acquired spectacles somewhere. "Ah." Dar found a chagrined look crossing her face, as she nodded in wry acknowledgement. Kerry had been nudging her for a month to get her eyes checked, and so far, she'd found a lot of different excuses not to. "Cute, Ker very cute." She replied to the email, blithely ignoring the addition.
Kerry settled back in her seat, and debated on whether to take out her laptop or not. When she traveled alone, she was always conscious of who was sitting next to her, idle eyes that might take in what her laptop screen had to offer, and while the chances of her being seated next to a competitor were fairly slim, you never knew.
Her seatmate this trip was a bookish looking young man, with heavy glasses, and an academic air about him. She spared a moment to imagine what his profession was, a game she often played with herself while traveling. Professor? Probably not old enough. Research scientist? Maybe. The man solved her musings a moment later, when he tugged a pad from a notebook and started scribing lines on it, in a familiar programming language.
Kerry smiled and leaned back. Figures. Another nerd. She lazily eyed the dark window, observing the clearly not twinkling stars outside. She leaned a hand against the glass to shade the light and peered out, amazed as always at the complete explosion of lights spread so thickly across the sky. Below her, only dark land stretched, an occasional, brief island of light indicating a city. Far off towards the horizon they were traveling towards, she could see a line of darkness, shot through with lightning that had to be the storm front the Weather Channel had promised.
A slight clank caught her attention, and she turned her head to see the stewardess standing there, waiting to take her dinner order. "I'll take the filet, thanks." Kerry gave the woman a brief smile. "And if you have a beer?"
"Heinekan all right?" The woman wrote the note down. "Be right back. And you sir?" Kerry's seatmate ordered the filet as well, with a whiskey and soda. That was interesting, Kerry thought, as she folded her hands over her stomach, and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. Whiskey and soda always sounded like something her father would order, not someone of her own generation or younger.
"Do you fly much?" The young man asked diffidently.
"Unfortunately, more than I'd like to." Kerry replied politely. "It's not for pleasure."
"Oh." The man wiped his hand off on his neatly pressed wool pants leg and held it out. "Josh Abbot.. I just started working for Intelsat, and this is my second trip in a week. I'm not sure I like it."
Kerry took his hand and returned the grip. "Kerry Stuart. I work for ILS."
He brightened. "Really? Wow.. so you're headed to Washington for the snafu with that new data center, huh?"
Blond eyebrows shot up past Kerry's hairline. "I wasn't aware we'd released that to the press." She commented.
Josh had the grace, at least, to blush. "No, well I.. um " He looked up in startlement as the stewardess offered him a hot towel, taking it mechanically and looking at it like it was a small, dead white animal. "I heard my boss talking about it. I'm sorry . I should have watched my mouth."
Kerry took her towel, and carefully washed each finger with it, considering her options. "Well, it's a small industry, right?" She gave the man a reassuring smile. "Who's your boss?"
Josh chewed his lower lip unhappily. "Is he going to get in trouble?"
The green eyes facing him twinkled a little. "How intimidating do I look?" Kerry chuckled. "No. He won't get in trouble."
With a sigh of relief, Josh glibly coughed up the name of his boss, his bosses boss, who'd told his boss, and the secretary who worked for the bosses boss who was married to an ILS admin fairly high up in their Sales department. Jose, you are so dead meat. Kerry decided, handing her now cooled towel back to the stewardess. "It's not as bad as it sounds, really.. just some incompatibility with infrastructure."
"Oh." Josh nodded. "So.. you're going to go fix that?" He gazed at Kerry with new interest. "You one of their tech people?"
"Something like that." Kerry agreed solemnly. "You're a programmer?"
He nodded again. "Yeah.. I just graduated from Georgia Tech.. I'm working on this neat new application for the control of our sats, so they can squeeze more bandwidth out of them.. " He held up his pad. "I kinda hit a snag, though.. I'm not sure really how to write this one little routine.."
Kerry gave him a suggestion. "Try that. It's what we use on our big routers." She sat back as her dinner was delivered, opening her lap tray and spreading the provided linen napkin neatly across her thighs. Hm. She reviewed the tray the stewardess set down. It contained a plate with a petit filet mignon on it, in some kind of nice smelling burgundy sauce, and what looked very much like a decent sized blob of whipped mashed potatoes. And a broccoli floret, for those who had inescapable attacks of food guilt. Kerry solemnly consumed the broccoli, then turned her attention to the steaming beef.
"Wow.. that works cool." Josh laughed. "Hey, Ms. Stuart are you married?"
Kerry's hands stopped in mid cut. "Why?" She gave him a look.
"You wanna be? I think I love you." Josh burbled contentedly, making scratch marks on his pad.
A sigh. "Sorry, I'm taken." Kerry resumed cutting her meat, and took a bite.
"Yeah, yeah.. but do they appreciate you for your mind, like I would?" Josh seemed totally absorbed in his program now, hardly aware of what he was saying. "Or are they just out for that pretty face?" His tie drooped into his burgundy sauce, but the sartorial accompaniment could have been a cobra for all he'd noticed.
"Well.. " Kerry drawled, taking a swig of her beer. "My girlfriend thinks Im sexy, but says she married me for my brains."
"Damn. Just my luck." Josh scribbled a few more symbols, then stopped cold, blinked, and turned his head slowly to look over at her. "Did you just say what I think you just said?"
Kerry nodded, and smiled, curious to see what his reaction would be. She wasn't generally so out there about her relationship, but since they were 35,000 feet up, and he was proposing .
"Ever consider a threesome?"
Oo. Kerry's turn to be surprised. Imagine that. I thought he was a pinhead. "No." She laughed. "But that's a great answer." They both grinned at each other, and Josh sat back, putting his pad away and starting in on his food. They talked about programming after the stewardess removed their trays, and compared techniques until Kerry was distracted suddenly by a flash just outside.
"Whoa." She turned to peer out the window, when the plan dropped out from under her, and rocked to one side, sending people and crockery flying. Kerry felt her stomach flip as the craft leveled, then a scary vibration started, and the plane rocked from side to side, as lightning flashed past the window.
"Hang on everyone!" The lead stewardess yelled. "Hang on!"
"So." Bob strolled along next to Dar, having coaxed her out for a short walk near the hotel. "You don't like cities, huh?"
Dar dodged a stumbling man who was singing to himself and moved smoothly up onto the sidewalk. "Not particularly. We don't have a city in Miami, just a banking and government center surrounded by suburbs."
"Ah." Bob spread his arms out. "C'mon, you can't beat this atmosphere. This is the most exciting, most vibrant city on earth." He pointed. "Look at that building isn't it incredible?"
Dar obediently tilted her head and reviewed the building in question. It was large, yes, and the twenties architecture was eye catching, but "You know what I hate about cities, Bob?"
"They smell." Dar rubbed her nose. "And as big as these damn buildings are, all the rooms in them are smaller than my bathroom at home."
Bob put his hands on his hips, and regarded her. "Boy, you really know how to take the wind out of a guy's sails, you know that, Dar Roberts?" His face curled into a very rueful smile. "Here I am, trying to paint a lovely, romantic vision of my favorite place, and all you can think of is a few measly scents and floor space?"
A shrug of one leather covered shoulder. "I'm not really the romantic type." Dar drawled. "Will you settle for dinner and a drink with a nice view?" She pointed to a second floor dining room that overlooked the busy street.
"Oh, that place?" Bob waved her off. "C'mon.. you're more adventurous than that, I bet. Here's where I was going to take you.. it's a great little place. Fantastic food." He pointed her towards a tiny stairwell in a dark corner, that led below street level. Dar stopped cold, and felt him run into her back. "Hey?" Bob bounced off, surprised. "What's wrong?"
"That goes underground." Dar stated flatly.
Bob glanced at it, nonplussed. "Well, sure. It's in the basement."
"I don't do basements." Cool blue eyes flicked to his face.
"What do you mean, you dont' do basements? What the heck do you do at home when you have to go below the bottom floor, Dar?" Bob seemed thunderstruck.
"I swim. We have no basements in Miami." Dar told him crisply. "If you think you're gonna get me to go down those stairs, think again." A pause. "And before you think again, I bet Alastair never mentioned my interest in martial arts."
"Whoa..whoa..whoa take it easy, lady." Bob held up both hands and laughed. "Okay, I got the message..c'mon.. I know a good hot dog stand out on Fifth Avenue that's got a great view, and no enclosed walls." He put a careful hand on Dar's back and guided her back towards the street. "And no, he never did mention that, as a matter of fact."
Dar relaxed a little, and spared him a half grin.
"He never says much about you at all, you know just that you have more brains than was really safe for one person, and you take the word attitude to a new level of meaning." Bob chuckled. "You willing to be more forthcoming than that?"
"No." Dar replied, hiding a smirk. "When I talk about my personal life, I usually get the specifics thrown back in my face at a staff meeting sometime. No thanks." They walked down a set of shallow stairs, and ended up in an outdoor café, small tables on a patio which faced the Rockefeller Center.
Dar eyed the handwritten menu, and chose a sandwich and french fries, giving Bob an agreeable nod when he suggested a bottle of wine to go with it. She let her eyes drift across the scene, taking in the noise, and the lights, and the people going by. Now they, she acknowledged frankly, were interesting, and very different from what she was used to in Miami. The voices around her were different as well, sharper, and more staccato.
Dar turned and graciously gave up her attention to her host. "Sorry did you ask me something?"
They talked about business for a while, as they munched their way through the very good sandwiches, and half of the wine. Dar managed to relax a little, aware that the almost overwhelming intensity she'd felt from her co worker the previous night was muted, and he was, to her surprise, on his very best behavior.
She remembered Alastair's warning, and wondered. Her hand shifted, swirling the sweet, heavy white wine in it's glass and she took a sip, enjoying the taste she seldom indulged in. "Did you see the presentation today?"
Bob laughed, leaning back and crossing an ankle over his knee. "Definitely unconventional, I'll give you that, Dar. Most of the time I sleep through three quarter's of Al's speeches. I know them by heart. We did this for the quarter, we were supposed to do this, we took this charge, made that bonus " Bob swallowed a mouthful of wine. "Not like he comes in and says, well folks, this quarter we lost the farm, doncha know."
"Not if I can help it, no." Dar smiled.
"You definitely perked the stockers up, that's for sure." Her dinner companion let his eyes, finally, wander over her. "You're much nicer to look at than Al is, and you know your stuff.. nice work with those offshore investors. They were trying to pin your ears to the wall."
"I've faced a lot worse." Dar paused, as she felt a chill run down her back. It was the oddest feeling, and she just barely resisted the urge to look behind her. Abruptly, her stomach tightened, and she felt a knot form in her guts.
"Dar?" Bob caught the change and sat up. "You okay?"
No. Dar felt the blood drain from her face, and her heart started pounding. Was it the wine? She set the glass down. "Yeah, I'm all right " Her throat went dry, and she felt a surge of anxiety almost make her start shivering. "I think."
Bob put his glass down and reached over, touching her shoulder carefully. "You're pretty white maybe you should put your head down."
"No.. " Dar suddenly had the urge to be up and moving, an animal reflex fed by nervous energy that made her thighs twitch and tighten. The fear now gripped her guts, and she was afraid she was going to throw up. "Listen.. maybe I had something that didn't agree with me.. ."
"I'll get a cab." Bob stood decisively, and walked to the curb, snapping his fingers expertly. He motioned the waiter over with his other hand, and handed him a bill, then walked back over to where Dar was just standing up. "Let's go.. I'll get you back to the hotel."
"It's all right.." Dar started to protest.
"Lady, your well being is important enough to make Alastair P. McLean say the word fuck to me." The Sales exec told her firmly. "You are going to let me get you back to your room, and I'll call in a doctor if I have to."
It would have almost been funny, if Dar hadn't felt like her insides were clawing their way up, eager to erupt from every body orifice she had. "Okay." She let herself be bundled into the cab, and concentrated on taking deep breaths, trying not to throw up.
Kerry hung on to the chair arms, one hand jerking free to tighten the seat belt she'd left prudently fastened across her lap. Josh sat beside her, gasping as the plane bucked in the air, his fingers white with the strain of clutching the leather cushions.
"Folks." The captain's voice sounded strained, but calm. "I know it's pretty scary back there right now, but you all just hang on, and we'll be through this in a bit. Storm front caught us by surprise tonight, so just hold on tight, and keep calm."
Okay. Kerry's heart was hammering so hard, she could barely hear the man's voice. Her entire body was tense with fear, and she closed her eyes as the plane dropped unexpectedly, making her weightless for long, long seconds. Then the sensation stopped abruptly, and the plane lurched, tipping on it's side and shuddering.
She had to focus on something, so she chose the most vivid thing in her life, clamping her jaw down tight as she pictured her lover's face, trying to let the image fill her mind's eye and push out the horror all around her.
The shaking went on for a lifetime. She heard things fall in the galley, and the flight attendants cursing. Heard soft, faint echos of some kind of alarm behind the closed door of the cockpit.
The fear was almost choking her.
And then it stopped.
The violent shaking settled to the odd bump, and the labored sound of the engines evened out, still sounding rough but no longer giving the plane sickening surges of speed and slacking.
Slowly, Kerry opened one eye, then the other. Her dinner was chatting with her tonsils, and she hoped like crazy that no one was going to ask her to either think, or speak until it decided if it were going to go any higher or not.
She looked out the window, and her heart almost stopped again. They were between two layers of roiling gray clouds, ducking between shooting streaks of lightning, a moment's peace between two slices of hell.
Dar thanked Bob, reassured him for the tenth time that she'd be all right, then closed the hotel room door and escaped into the peaceful silence within.
It was dark in the room, and she only turned on one, small light before she trudged across the carpet and collapsed on the bed, her body curling instinctively into a ball as she lay there, trying to figure out what the hell had happened to her. For the moment, she was merely sick to her stomach, and had a pounding, tense headache. The frantic anxiety had faded, leaving only a knot in her gut that simply refused to loosen.
"What in the hell was that." Dar spoke aloud, her voice slightly hoarse. "What's wrong with me?" She was scared, she admitted to herself, visions of vague clips from popular magazine articles about anxiety attacks flashing into her memory. Stories about people who couldn't even leave their houses. "No." Dar let her eyes close, and she rested, forcing herself to breathe slowly and calmly. "That is not what's wrong with me. I won't put up with that."
After a few moments of simply lying there, she pushed herself upright, and got to her feet, glancing at the clock as she did so. Instinctively, her hand went for her cell phone, and she opened it, dialing a number by heart and listening to the ring.
Voice mail. Dar's brows creased, then she shrugged. "Guess you forgot to turn this back on, huh?" She spoke into the phone. "Listen something weird just happened to me.. I.." Dar hesitated. "I'd like to talk to you about it. Give me a call as soon as you get this, okay?" A pause. "Okay talk to you later." She closed the phone, then went over to the desk and sat down, activating her laptop and telling it to make a network connection.
A few clicks. The light from the laptop's active matrix screen lit her features with a ghostly glow, her face still as her eyes flicked back and forth, reading data. Another click, then she entered Kerry's flight number and hit enter.
In route - delayed.
"Delayed." A thousand thoughts sped through Dar's mind. "Why?"
Suddenly, her guts clenched again, and she doubled over, grabbing the edge of the table as a wave of fear almost swamped her. It forced a tiny cry from her throat, and she took a deep breath and held it, forcing the emotions down as she struggled to regain control.
It was tough, but she managed to do it. She refreshed the screen, after wiping the sweat off her fingers, watching the words refuse to change. She looked at the clock, and calculated times. Then she picked up her cell phone and dialed a number.
It rang. A voice picked up, relatively cheerful given the time of night. "I need status on one of your flights. It's listed as delayed." Dar spoke slowly, and clearly. "I need to know why it's delayed, and you're going to tell me specifically, or I'll go up your chain of command until I wake up someone high enough to come down to that center you're sitting in, and use a fire hose to make you give me the information." Pause. "Is that clear?"
Dead silence. "Yes ma'am." The voice finally spluttered. "Can I have the flight number?"
Dar did., aware of a shiver working it's way through her.
There was quiet, save the distinctive clicking of a keyboard. "Okay.. um Ms "
"Roberts." Dar provided softly.
"Right okay, well, from what I can see here, that flight hit some bad weather over Arkansas um "
"Specifically." Dar reminded her.
The clerk sighed. "Ma'am "
"I am the chief information officer of ILS. I can, if I have to, break into your reservations system, and get the information myself, but it's going to take longer, and I'm not in the mood. So just tell me." Dar bit the words out. "What is..the problem."
"It's not well, they've got some damage to the aircraft, but the captain thinks he can land it okay. The problem is they've got to go through another storm first.. they're trying to land in Chicago."
Dar clamped an arm across her stomach, and bit the inside of her lip. She had to take several breaths before she could speak. "Okay. Thanks."
Dar just closed the phone, and let her head drop forward to rest against the laptop's cool edge.
Kerry wrapped her arms around the pillow she had in her lap, and just kept her eyes closed as the plane rocked and yawed it's way through the clouds. She could feel little shudders running through the airframe, and she managed to compose a tiny prayer, which she sent outward , asking for nothing more than to hear Dar's voice again.
That was all.
She felt a touch on her hand, and she jerked her head up, to see Josh looking back at her, his face white as a sheet, and very young in appearance. She managed a smile for him. "We're gonna be okay."
"I know you're an old, married lady, but can I hang onto your hand?" Josh asked. "I'm so scared I think I just saw my left testicle float past my earlobe."
That forced a breath of laughter from Kerry, and she reached over, clasping his hand with her own. "Sure."
"Folks." The pilot's voice drew their attention. "Here's the situation. We got hit by lightning, and lost one of our engines, but don't get excited. We have three."
"Easy for him to say." Josh muttered.
"But we're going to have to land in Chicago. " The pilot went on. "We've got to get through this storm cell to do that. It's going to be a little scary, but you all hang on, and we'll get you down all right."
"A little?" Kerry felt like throwing up. "I wonder how long it'll take?"
One of the flight attendants, harried, coffee stained, and exhausted, heard her. "Twenty minutes."
"Thanks." Kerry gave her a grateful smile. "Have you ever been through this before?"
The attendant, a slim, middle aged woman with salt and pepper hair and an interesting face, nodded briefly. "Twice. Every time I swear Im retiring."
Kerry felt an uncomfortable pressure building in her ears, and she sighed, hugging her pillow with one arm, and keeping a grip on Josh with the other. The plane began to rock violently again, and the murmur of voices which had risen, fell again to silence. The cabin lights flicked off, leaving only the indirect lighting on, and the lightning outside brought lurid flashes of silver darting into the cabin unexpectedly.
"I hate this." Josh whispered. "I'm quitting the minute I get on the ground, I swear I"ll go into business with my Uncle Al back home."
Glad of the distraction, Kerry licked her lips. "What does he do?"
"Pizza parlor." Josh yelped, as a bang sounded, and the plane tilted to one side. "Oh my god."
Kerry exhaled, keeping her eyes glued on the window. The clouds were so thick and dark outside, she could only see the edges when lightning flared within them, or the faint lights from the plane's leading wing edge broke free of the clinging mist.
The plane kept rocking and bucking, so unstable it was making her dizzy as her sense of balance fought to compensate for the movement. Suddenly, she felt a difference in pressure, and she jumped, looking up and half expecting the panel to drop masks at her.
But it didn't.
"Depressurized the cabin." The flight attendant called to her seatmate. "We must be below 10 thousand."
"Is that good or bad?" Josh asked nervously.
No one answered him.
They all almost screamed when the engine sound changed, and the plane slowed, it's wallowing becoming far more apparent. Then another sound, a louder one, and Kerry just barely kept herself from total panic by realizing the sound was the landing gear extending. That meant, her frazzled mind clung to the rationale, that meant the noise before that was the air spoilers, slowing the plane for landing.
Right? She never remembered them being that loud, though.
The plane yawed and wobbled, the nose dipping, then the speed cutting back drastically. Outside, she could still only see clouds. She stared at them, willing them to part and show her something other than muddy darkness around the plane. "Cmon c'mon "
Lower and lower, until Kerry was sure they were going to crash. She closed her eyes and thought of Dar, and fiercely told herself that when she got to heaven, because god damn it, thats' where she was going, she'd be so careful to watch over Dar, and make sure she was never alone.
She bowed her head.
Then the darkness on the other side of the window dissolved, into rain, and lashing wind, and the lights of a big city, flashing by quickly as the big plane stumbled and rocked it's way onto the runway, landing to one side, bouncing, then landing again, this time solidly on all of it's wheels.
The engines reversed, and the blur of the lights turned into the solid outlines of a terminal, then exploded into color as a cadre of emergency vehicles whizzed around them, circling the plane as it limped it's way towards the buildings.
Kerry felt all the tension rush out of her, leaving her limp in her seat and completely exhausted. Not even the rattle of sleet against the window stirred her, as she simply closed her eyes, and gave a quiet, heartfelt thanks.
The plane rocked to a halt. Kerry reached for her cellphone.
It was hypnotic. Dar stayed crouched over her laptop, continually hitting the refresh button and attempting to change the indicator on the page by sheer force of will. Change, damn you. She whispered under her breath, slamming the button on the mouse for the thousandth time.
And it did. The page redrew, and the Delayed status morphed before her startled eyes to Arrived.
Dar blinked. She clicked on it again, and watched the same results occur. Again. Same thing. Her shoulder muscles relaxed and she slumped over the desk. Then she sucked in a breath and closed her hand around the cell phone and started to lift it. It rang as she did so, causing her whole body to jerk in shocked surprise. The cell phone went flying and Dar dove after it, tripping over the laptop's cable and sprawling across the carpet in an undignified tumble.
Her head struck the bedside table, and she yelped, but her fingers found the buzzing phone and she managed to get it open and to her ear without further injury. "Yeah?"
"Sweetheart, you have no idea what I've just been through."
Dar rolled onto her back and sucked the voice in, every muscle going completely slack in utter relief. "Uh?"
Kerry sighed into the phone. "We just landed we hit this huge storm, and the plane was rocking all over the place, and we lost an engine, and I think my stomach's going to resign and find a better job somewhere else after that ride down."
Dar placed a hand over her own belly and blinked. "Yeah. I know what you mean." She murmured softly into the phone. "Glad you're okay."
"I've never been so scared in my life." Kerry's voice was shaking.
"I bet. " Dar murmured. "I bet it felt like your heart was coming out your ears." She rubbed one of hers, then let the hand fall to the carpet limply.
"Yeah." Kerry sighed. "Im still shaking."
Dar lifted the errant paw again, and watched it tremble. "Hm." She let it drop with a thump. "Ow."
"What's wrong?" Kerry asked. "We're stuck in here for a few minutes.. they're trying to get the jetway working. It's all iced, I think ."
"I bumped my head." Dar told her. "So.. does that mean you're stuck in Chicago?" She had hardly a notion of what she was saying, merely pushing words out to fill the quiet. "You didn't get hurt or anything, did you?"
"No." Kerry sighed. "Just scared. I want off this airplane.. and I hope I am stuck overnight because let me tell you.. Im not anxious to get on another one of them."
"Mm yeah. I can understand that .boy." Dar exhaled. "Wish I was there."
Kerry was very quiet for a moment, and when she did start speaking, there was a distinct catch in her voice. "I wish you were too just before we landed I " Kerry stopped., then went on. "I was so scared."
Dar rolled onto her side, and curled her hands around the phone, wanting to reach right through it. Maybe she could squeeze through if she really tried hard. "Sorry you had such a rotten time, Ker hang in there, okay?"
A shaky sigh answered her. "You okay? You sound kinda washed out."
Like a limp dishrag. Dar now had an excellent insight into that hoary old saying. "Im fine.. just tired and I think this damn New York food knocked my system for a loop."
"Oh. Where'd you end " Kerry paused. "They got the door open.. I need to get out of here. Sweetie, I'll give you a call back as soon as I figure out what's going on, okay?"
"Sure. Talk to you soon." Dar answered. "I love you."
"I love you too." Kerry's voice, finally, sounded a smile at her. "Later."
Dar let the phone drop onto the carpet, and just lay there for a moment, then she reached up and dragged the hotel phone receiver off it's hook, and held it to her ear. The operator answered, and she asked for room service. A ring, and another voice sounded down the line. "Could you please send me the largest cup of warm milk you have?"
"Certainly, ma'am um.. will there be anything else?" The puzzled sounding room service operator asked.
"A really big dish of chocolate ice cream."
"How big is really big?"
Dar considered. "You got a punch bowl lying around?"
A muffled laugh. "I get the idea. It'll be right up, ma'am. Have a nice night."
Kerry edged past the crowd at the end of the jetway and moved into the terminal, the chaos of too many people, and too little space hitting her with an almost physical force. The terminal was full, and she found herself pressed back against the entry gate, watching the harried airline attendants trying to guide the frazzled passengers into some kind of order.
Kerry turned her head, to see a red coated woman at her elbow. "Yes?"
"Were you on that flight?"
"Okay.. well, as you can see, it's pretty jammed up here. The airport is closed now, because of the weather. They only let your flight land because of the trouble you had. We've got a cleared area set up over there, but there's not much good news about hotel space."
"Great." Josh appeared at her side, carrying his laptop case. "I think at this point, I'd be happy with a cardboard box and sheet of newsprint."
"Well.. " The gate agent grimaced. "I wish I could say we had that.. but we do have some coffee and some sandwiches.. would you come with me, please? " Her eyes dropped slightly, and caught the tag on Kerry's laptop case, and a subtle shift in her attitude occurred. "Are you two together?"
Kerry had caught the motion, and was just sharp enough to realize what was going on. "Yes." She answered, a breath before Josh denied it.
"Okay in that case, why don't you just follow me." The gate agent smiled, and took Kerry's elbow. "We'll see if we can get you comfortable."
"C'mon." Kerry caught Josh's sleeve, and tugged him along. They followed the red coated woman through the crowd, edging past angry faces and exhausted bodies, around a corner and paused, as the gate agent swiped her id and opened a large, heavy black unmarked door.
"Here you go.. let me have your bagtags. I'll go make sure your luggage is brought in." She took their envelopes, and dissapeared, leaving them in relative quiet inside a large, plush lounge filled with comfy furniture, a bar, and several perky looking attendants.
"Uh." Josh glanced around, then at Kerry.
"Cmon." Kerry repeated, heading for the leather couch and dropping her laptop onto it, then following suit with her tired body. "Can I get a beer?" She asked the lounge clerk, who ducked behind the bar obediently. Josh slowly sat down at her side, and put his case down. "Never been in the platinum lounge, huh?" Kerry asked him, with a wry smile. She hadn't spent much time in them herself, until Dar had prodded her the last few trips, personally dragging her into one of them at Newark, and showing her the ropes, so to speak. "We're very frequent business level flyers short trips, big price tags they love us."
"Uh..no." Josh leaned back. "Wow." He gave her a sideways glance. "Thanks for bringing me along I know for sure this is better than the hallway outside."
Several more customers were ushered in, a few Kerry recognized as being from their flight, several others she didn't. Everyone seemed tired, and cranky, and not inclined to talk, which was fine with her. She was very content to sit on the couch and sip her beer, washing down several Advil with a swig of the cold beverage. Dar would have scolded her for that, she knew, but she was just too tired to get up and get a drink of water, and the attendants were busy with the newcomers, making them as comfortable as possible. Blankets were being brought in, and Kerry guessed they'd be spending the evening in the lounge. She was glad she'd claimed her couch first, being the plushest, comfiest looking one, and she didn't mind sharing it with Josh.
At least he was cute, and nice to talk to, unlike the majority of the folks who had come in after them. She lifted her beer bottle, and tipped it towards him. He amiably clinked his glass against it, and the both took a sip. "What a night." Kerry sighed.
"You can say that again." Josh agreed. "I'm gonna give my notice as soon as I get access to a phone line. That's it for me, let me tell ya. No sir.. I'm going home to Minnesota, and sell me some pizza, and never get on anything bigger than a buffalo cart."
Kerry sucked at her bottleneck thoughtfully. "Minnesota?"
A finger. "No jokes."
"Hey.. I'm from Saugatuck." Kerry chuckled. "I dont make jokes about other people's hometowns." Her eyebrows twitched a little, and she felt a sense of recklessness tickle her spine. Maybe it was her close brush with danger. "So.. you don't want to work for Intelsat, huh? How about working for ILS?"
He blinked. "You're joking."
"Nope." Kerry smiled at a young woman, who offered her a platter of food. She had to look twice before she realized the small, square brown items were really White Castle burgers. "Interesting choice." She took two, and handed one to Josh. "Guess they were out of pate."
Josh munched his burger. "Texturally, there's not much difference here."
Kerry bit delicately into her patty, and chewed it. "Hm." She swallowed. "You've got a point there and no, I wasn't kidding. One of the things I do is look for new talent for the company.. you interested?"
"Do I get to work for you?" Josh asked, with a rakish grin.
Kerry considered the question. "Well, all the programming groups do work in the department I'm in.. so yeah.. I guess you would, in a way." She smiled at him. "Unless you wanted to move to Miami.. then you definitely would."
Josh wiggled his ears, a supremely goofy motion that almost made Kerry choke. "Waeeell now." He looked definitely intrigued. "I'll get back to you on that, Miz Stuart I surely will."
"Good." Kerry settled back and accepted the blanket the agent handed her, along with a standard airline size pillow. "Thank you and thanks for bringing up my bag." She patted the leather item.
The agent patted her arm. "I know it's been a rough night for you all - we'll see what we can do about getting you out of here tomorrow." She sighed. "Doesn't look good, though."
"No?" Kerry's brow creased. "Is the storm that bad?" She glanced at the tv screen, mutely dancing on the far wall. A map was featured on it, and the entire center of the country was one, big splort of flashing lights and colors. "Oh."
"Ugh." Josh exhaled. "Wonder if they make those White Castle things in turkey flavor."
Kerry stared at the picture, her rising spirits sinking again. She was beginning to think Thanksgiving was definitely just not her holiday.
It was mostly dark, when a disturbing dream brought Kerry out of her restless sleep, one hand reaching out automatically for something that wasn't there. Someone, she exhaled, her fingers trailing along the leather surface of the couch. Her body felt sore, and she realized it was the tension that had locked her muscles into rigid fear during their flight.
She lifted her head and peered around in the dim light, letting her eyes touch the sleeping lumps of her fellow travelers, some of whom were rattling the cups behind the bar with vibrant snores. Her time sense was telling her it was morning, though, her body so used to waking before dawn that she found it annoyingly hard to sleep in even when she could.
Not that it was comfortable enough in the lounge to sleep in, but she didn't have Dar poking her in the ribs to coax her out of bed, either. Kerry smiled to herself, thinking about the new game they'd been playing in the morning, shower dancing. Dar had gotten one of those in the shower radios, and they'd both discovered the music did a good job of waking them up.
And, occasionally, making them late for their morning run. Kerry chuckled to herself. Once, late for work itself, something that had them both mildly mortified as they strolled through the lobby collecting knowing stares. Oh well. Kerry stifled a yawn, then crawled out from under her blanket and rummaged in her pack, pulling out her small case of toiletries and tucking them under her arm along with a change of clothes.. She trudged into the restroom, letting the heavy door swing shut behind her, and regarded her reflection.
"Uck." She stuck her tongue out at the rumpled figure glaring back at her. "Sleep in your clothes much, Ker?" Her jacket slid off, and she hung it over the doorframe, then she untucked her shirt from her jeans and pulled it off, shivering as the cool air raised goosebumps across her bare skin.
"Bet we don't get hot water." She turned on the faucet, and was pleasantly surprised. "Ooo glad I was wrong about that." She took out her soap and scrubbed her face and upper body, then used the small towel she always packed to dry herself off. She gave her hair a quick wash, then ran a brush through it's shortened length. "There." Kerry smiled at the wet reflection. "Now you look human."
She brushed her teeth, giggling at the grape toothpaste Dar must have slipped into her bag, and trying not to swallow it. The horror of the day before had faded, and as she put her things away, and straightened, she felt her usual sense of self confidence returning, along with her appetite. "Hm.. I wonder if they have Cinnabons here." Her plan of action decided on, she changed into the folded clothes she'd brought, tucking her underwear into the pockets of the jeans she removed and rolling them, and her shirt, into a neat little ball. Then she resumed her leather jacket, and proceeded out into the lounge again.
Everyone was stirring, and they'd turned the lights up. Kerry was glad she'd gotten in and out early, as a stream of grumpy looking bodies moved towards the bathrooms, and two clerks appeared, carrying paperwork and a tray of fruit. "Fruit." Kerry knelt beside her bag and put her things away. "What do they think we are, monkeys?"
Josh had been rubbing his eyes, and now he laughed. "You sound like my little brother." He teased her. "And I figured you for a heath food nut when you got on the plane, too."
Kerry grinned back. "Not me.. not for breakfast, that's for sure. I need a good dose of protein, and a little carbs or my body just doesn't behave at all." She stood up and stretched, then glanced around. "Bet the concourse has something along those lines."
"They're probably fighting to feed all the folks stuck here." Josh commented. "Let me go fight for a um.."
"Urinal? Spot on the floor? Tree?" Kerry's face crinkled into a smile as she watched him turn red. "I've got a younger brother too." She sat down on the arm of the couch. "Go on.. I've got to tell my people Im not where I'm supposed to be." Josh left, and she keyed in the code for her voice mail, which her phone told her there were several of. The first two she deleted half heard, having already taken care of the problem they reported. The third she listened to, then rekeyed and listened again. It was from Dar, and the voice sounded uncharacteristically hesitant. She checked the time, and realized it must have been left while she was in the air. "Hm she didn't mention anything when we talked.. wonder what that was all about. Guess it wasn't that important."
Nothing else was urgent, and she dialed the Redmond office. "Hi, Clarice.. yeah, it's Kerry. Listen, I'm stuck." Kerry told the voice that answered.
"Yes, we got that message your office is already trying to get you out of there, but it's not looking too good." The regional coordinator answered briskly. "I think I've managed to put the crisis on hold for Thanksgiving , though. We figure we'll pick up after the weekend, and by then, you should be able to get out here."
Kerry sighed. "Yeah."
"Don't sound so excited." Clarice remarked dryly. "I wouldn't be asking for your help if I didn't really need it."
"No.. it's not that, Clar.. sorry." Kerry told her. "It's just this was my first Thanksgiving well, anyway. There'll be a lot more. It was just bad timing."
"Sorry.. didn't think you had family down there, Kerry. My apologies." The woman responded. "I always think of you Ops people as..er "
"Living under our desks on pizza and Jolt, right?"
Kerry laughed. "It's okay.. some of us do. I'm just not one of them. I like my traditional comforts but anyway, I'll see you out there on Monday, bright and early."
"Looking forward to meeting you, Kerry. You're great to work with." Clarice complimented her. "Good luck on your flight."
"Thanks." Kerry closed the phone, and looked up as Josh returned. "Ready to go find breakfast?" She stood, and they walked towards the door, opening it and edging out into the terminal. It was if anything, more packed than it had been the night before, and tempers were definitely on edge. Kerry could see a blanket of snow through the window, and her heart sank a little as she realized she was likely to be stuck over the holiday . "Yuck."
"Double yuck." Josh agreed. "Do you know what this terminal looks like?"
Kerry's eyes suddenly caught a motion to her left, and she swung her head that way, her eyes fastening immediately on the doorway leading into the main part of the concourse. She took a breath. Then a second. "Heaven."
"What?" Josh stared at her.
"Heaven." Kerry felt her face tense into a smile, as she broke into a run and dodged through the milling crowds, ending up leaping into the arms of a waiting Dar, who had just cleared the threshold. "Eauuerrgggggg .." She buried her face in the taller woman's chest and wiggled like a puppy.
"Boy." Dar engulfed her in a hug. "That was worth traveling all night for."
"Oohhhhh . " Kerry inhaled, then sighed. "I am so glad to see you, I can't even begin to describe it."
"Me too." Dar murmured. "I mean.. you know what I mean."
Kerry grinned. "Yeah, I know what you mean." She finally released her partner, and leaned back to gaze up, seeing very tired blue eyes looking back at her. "You look like heck." She could see the lines of tension across Dar's face. "You didn't drive here, did you?"
"Ever see the movie Trains, Planes and Automobiles?" Dar joked faintly. "That's what my night's been like." She glanced past Kerry. "You had breakfast?"
"Nuh huh." Kerry took her hand and tugged. "C'mon and meet my friend Josh. I found him on the airplane, we almost crashed together, and now Im recruiting him for ILS." She lead Dar back to where the very puzzled Josh was still standing and gave him a happy smile as they drew near.
"I take it you guys know each other." Josh drawled seriously. "Or else you're just a real friendly kind of person, Miz Kerry."
She laughed. "Well, I am pretty friendly most of the time, but yes, we do know each other. Josh, this is my boss, Dar Roberts."
His eyes flicked to Dar, then to her, then back to Dar. "Oh. Wow. I think Im going to love working for this company." He burbled. "You're not 'the' Dar Roberts, are you?"
A smile tugged one side of Dar's mouth up. "Im the only one I know."
"Your design for aircraft navigation matrices were a core component of my senior engineering and applications class." Josh told her. "I never thought I'd actually meet you. In fact, I though you were probably retired already." He rubbed his eyes, and giggled. "I wonder if the professor who used to swoon over your code knows you're a woman? He hates them."
Dar laughed. "Tell me his name. I'll send him a note."
Kerry relaxed, having detected signs her sometimes prickly lover approved of her new friend. "Why were they studying Dar's program?" She asked, as she nudged them both towards the doorway to the concourse.
"Because it was perfect." Josh told her. "The Prof used it to demonstrate proper coding and documentation, and economy of design.. it was so clean."
"How old were you?" Kerry elbowed her lover. "My punky genius." She slipped an arm around Dar's waist, and sighed happily as the taller woman draped her own arm over Kerry's shoulders. "Dar was an infant prodigy. She was dissecting Crays in the cradle."
They found a table, miraculously, and Josh gallantly told them to sit while he fought the masses for three portions of eggs and accoutrements. Kerry watched him plow off, and turned her partner. "Hi there."
Dar took her hands and just held them. "Hi."
"I was going to tell you that you didn't have to come all the way out here, but you know what, Dar?" Kerry regarded her. "I wanted you here. I was just about to go find a way to get to New York." She chafed the long fingers gently. "Thank you."
"I couldn't sleep." Dar answered. "I figured you weren't going to get out of here in time to get home for the holiday, and I sure as hell didn't want to be there without you." Dar paused. "So. Here I am." The blue eyes lifted, and took in the crowded, overheated airport. "So, here we are."
"Well." Kerry considered the situation. "We dont' have to stay here."
"Planes aren't leaving."
"No, I mean.." Kerry shifted. "We don't have to stay here in the airport.. we can go into the city, right? I bet it's nice in Chicago for Thanksgiving." She glanced at the window, where the snow was now driving so hard she couldnt see the sadly blanketed 747 that was just outside. "Driving's probably a bad idea.. I'm out of practice, but we can take the trains."
"Trains?" Dar looked interested. "All right. We can do that.. I"ve never spent time in Chicago."
"Me either." Kerry smiled. "But it's a lot harder to get lost on the train than in a car, right? It'll be easy."
The tired face opposite her creased into a grin. "Sounds great"
"After you take a nap." Kerry put a fingertip on Dar's nose. "I know where there's a leather couch that would just about fit you."
Dar nodded, and exhaled, allowing her body to relax, now that she was here, and the nightmares were behind her.
"Ms. Stuart, would you like some ice tea?" The clerk kept her voice down.
"No thanks." Kerry smiled at her, glad the lounge had emptied slightly. They'd taken over the couch in the furthest corner of the room, but it was still noisy and only the fact that Dar was completely exhausted was allowing the dark haired woman to get some sleep.
She was curled up on the couch, her head in Kerry's lap, mostly covered with one of the fluffy blue blankets, with one hand draped over Kerry's waist. . Kerry had an arm circling Dar's shoulders, and she kept up a light, absent stroking on her lover's back. She had absolutely nothing to do while Dar slept, but what could have been a boring time was merely peaceful instead, as she let her thoughts drift and enjoyed the simple warmth of Dar's presence.
Josh had gotten some college buddies of his to pick him up, and promised to keep in touch. He'd stuffed Kerry's business card into his pocket without looking at it, and she suspected he was in for a small surprise when he finally did. In the meantime, she amused herself with thinking up interesting things for her and Dar to do in Chicago.
Boating on the lake, unfortunately, was out, unless she wanted to introduce Dar to ice fishing, which she some how doubted her warm weather sweetheart would really appreciate. They could find a cute little restaurant to have dinner in, though. Kerry glanced down as she felt a long exhale warm her leg through the denim. Dar's head slowly turned, a faint hint of the devil evident in the half opened blue eyes. "Don't you get any ideas here in this crowded room, Paladar K. Roberts." Kerry warned her. The tip of a pink tongue poked out slightly. "Darrrrr " An eyebrow twitched slightly, and Dar smiled, then shifted a little to look straight up at her. "Good girl."
Dar's head moved at that, and the white teeth nipped at a very sensitive area very close by. Kerry almost let out a yelp that would have woken a dead man twelve feet away, but managed to keep it to a strangled gurgle as she grabbed for Dar's ears. "OooooI'mgonnagetyouforthat."
The teeth reappeared, this time in a smile. "Promise?" Dar inquired, in a low rasp.
"Ye.." Kerry cleared her throat as her voice broke, the jolts of sensuality still making her tingle. "Yes.. oh yes, I do indeed promise. You are in such trouble."
"Good." Dar snuggled down contentedly, and nuzzled her leg. "I want to put you in a large Roman tub and fill it with strawberry bubbles and me."
Oh boy. Kerry felt her hands move without permission, sensitive fingers finding the warm skin under the fabric of Dar's shirt and stroking softly. She felt another warm breath tickle her between the thighs and only just barely kept herself from leaning over and sucking Dar's ear, peeking out from the dark, disheveled hair. "Honey." She murmured piteously.
Dar chuckled. "Sorry."
"No you're not."
"Neither are you." Dar responded, with a twinkle. "What time is it?"
Kerry ran a finger along Dar's jawline, watching the light and shadows slip across her face in sober fascination. Her hand moved up, to trace a dark eyebrow, which lifted as she stroked it's fine hairs. "I'm sorry. What did you ask me?"
Dar's lips twitched. "What do you think I just asked you?"
"I have no idea." Kerry murmured. "My brain must have slipped south."
Dar's eyes tracked, then lifted, and the eyebrow curved up suggestively. "What was the name of that hotel we were going to again?"
"Fairmont." Kerry finally felt her synapses refiring. "Um.. and I think we'd better get going, it's kinda late." Her eyes flicked to her watch. "Three oclock, as a matter of fact."
"Thank you. That's what I asked." Dar rolled onto her back, then sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the couch, resting her elbows on her knees and scrubbing her face with her hands. "Boy, I needed that." She sat back and exhaled. "I don't feel like what my father used to describe as a used cat in a plastic bag anymore."
Kerry's face scrunched up. "Ew." She handed Dar the brush from her bag. "You may not feel like a scruffy kitty, but you sure look like one." She watched Dar run the brush through her dark locks, static electricity making the strands crackle and cling to her fingers. A thought suddenly occurred to her. "Did you bring a heavy jacket?"
Dar stopped in mid motion. "No. Why?"
"Because we're going out into the Arctic tundra, honey.. you might bump into a polar bear." Kerry chuckled. "Of course, neither did I we're going to have to get a couple before we leave this airport."
So they did. The airport was crowded full of unhappy people, but most of them were not going near the leather shop near the terminal entrance. "And you need gloves." Kerry pulled up the collar on the creamy, tan leather jacket Dar had tried on, with a furry lining and lots of interesting pockets.
"Gloves." Dar mused.
"And a scarf." Kerry wrapped a long, bright red piece of wool around her lover's neck.
"Kerrison." Dar disentangled herself. "I don't need a scarf."
"All right.. but dont' say I didn't warn you." Kerry selected a blue scarf for herself, and a pair of warm gloves, and brought them and the chocolate colored leather coat she'd selected to the cash register. "Please put this, and whatever that tall, dark haired southern person has on this card." She handed the clerk her credit card. "And if she argues with you, just say I said so, okay?"
"Yes, ma'am." The young girl smiled at her and took the card.
Kerry looped her shoulder strap over her shoulder and glanced sideways at Dar as they rode the escalator down, watching the bright blue eyes taking in the view of the very crowded main terminal. "Decided to trust me, huh?" She flicked a hand at the red scarf dangling from Dar's neck. "I should have told you to get ear muffs you'd look really, really cute in ear muffs."
"Dont push your luck, Buckyboo." Dar nudged her shoulder. "Or we'll see what you look like in a pair of those pink bunny ears." A long finger pointed. "Or a cotton tail."
"I'd look really dumb with a tail, Dar." Kerry chuckled, and shifted her bag., making ready to step off the escalator and board the next one. Dar lagged behind, and lifted the edge of her coat speculatively.
"Nah.. you'd look cute." Dar patted her on the butt, then caught up and joined her on the next stair down. "Where are these damn trains?"
"Right there." Kerry pointed towards the entrance. "C'mon, Buff.. let's get us on an L."
"El?" Dar held the door open, and they entered the train terminal, which echoed with faint, clicking noises that traveled up and down the tracks. "El what? El chupacabra?"
"El as in Elevated, Dar." Kerry dug in her pockets for change, only to find long arms surrounding her like an octopus inserting crisp dollar bills into the ticket machine. "Hey."
"You bought me a freaking two hundred dollar coat. I can buy a pair of tickets." Dar enunciated precisely into her ear. "And we're going to wrestle for the hotel bill, Madame."
"No fair. You always beat me in wrestling." Kerry complained, taking her ticket. "Can't we play checkers or something?"
"No. You win at that because you constantly distract me." Dar paced down the platform, looking around curiously.
"Not my fault you can't concentrate with peanut butter on your nose." Kerry muttered, as she joined her. "Have you ever been in on the subway, Dar?"
"Sub? I thought you said this was elevated." An eyebrow arched. The train arrived, and Dar reviewed it dubiously, before entering the car and selecting a seat. "Didn't you?"
"Well." Kerry smiled and patted her hand. "Parts of it are."
"And the other parts are underground?" Dar's nostrils flared.
"Or under the river."
"It's really snowing hard." Dar had her nose pressed to the train's window, watching the streets slip by, covered in blowing white. "Wow."
Kerry extended her legs and crossed them at the ankles, eyeing her lover with an amused grin. "Dixiecup."
"Yankee." Dar smiled, meeting Kerry's eyes in the reflection of the glass. "And you know damn well Miami's not part of the South."
"Mm." Kerry waggled her hand. "Parts of it are."
"No." Dar turned around and faced her. "Parts of unincorporated Dade County are."
"Which is where we live."
Dar's brows contracted. "Well, yes."
"There you go, you little rebel you." Kerry took hold of the strap of her bag. "C'mon.. ours is the next stop." She stood up and held onto the seat as the train rumbled to a halt. They stepped out, and made their way to the door, which Dar reached out and opened.
"Yow." A blast of very cold, very wet air hit them. Dar shut the door at once. "What the hell was that?"
Kerry pushed the door open, and tucked her scarf into her jacket. "Winter. C'mon." She latched on to Dar's arm and pulled her through the opening into the snowy weather. "Ugh." Snow immediately got in her eyes, and she threw a hand up, feeling the wet, thick flakes cluster on her skin. "I forgot how much I don't like this."
"Yeah?" Dar had her hands firmly tucked in her pockets, and she was squinting against the snowfall. "Doesn't seem as cold as I thought it would, I.. whoa!" Dar's body jerked as she lost her balance, and started slipping.
Kerry grabbed for her, but felt her own footing slip, and before she knew it, the ground was sloping down and she pitched forward, hearing Dar yelp in alarm as the sidewalk came up very fast and very hard. They hit and rolled, slipping down the icy surface until they ended up smack against a bus bench, rapidly collecting a coating of frosty white. "Ow."
Dar scrambled up next to her and sat, ignoring the cold surface as she reached over and patted Kerry carefully. "You all right?" She winced as she felt along one arm, where her elbow had taken most of the impact of her fall. "Ker?"
Kerry sat up and rubbed her neck. "That wasn't fun." She brushed a coating of snow off her legs. "Did I mention how I never liked snow?" She got to her knees, and carefully stood, holding onto the bench as Dar rose on the other side of her. "Boy, this better be one heck of hotel on the other end of this walk."
"Hm." Dar wrapped an arm around her and they started off again, walking a lot more carefully this time. It was dark, from the storm, and the street went under another one. They finally spotted the light of the hotel's entrance, and made for it gratefully as the wind tugged them back and forth. "I dont know.." Dar grabbed the door and pulled it open. "Im beginning to wonder about you northerners."
The door closed behind them, and they entered the hotel lobby, heading across the plush, elegant space towards the front desk. As they reached it, the clerk looked up, and gave them a smile. "Good afternoon."
"Hi." Kerry pushed the hood from her jacket back off her face. "I have a reservation under Kerrison Stuart?"
"Yes, ma'am." The woman pulled up the reservation, and entered some information. "I'll need a cred..oh, thank you." The clerk took the square of plastic helpfully held past Kerry's reach by Dar's longer arms and processed it. Then she gave them their key, and wished them a good night.
Dar leaned back against the elevator wall as they traveled upward. "Nice hotel."
"Mm." Kerry agreed, waiting for Dar to exit before she followed her off the elevator and down the quiet hallway to their room, which opened obediently and admitted them. "Oo." The room was large, and had a nice, big window in it, giving it an air of spaciousness that was very pleasing to Kerry's eyes. The bed was plush, and very comfortable looking, and the room had a couch, and desk, and a interesting looking bathroom.
"Jacuzzi?" Dar asked, as she set their bags down.
"Yeah." Kerry grinned. "You know, if I have to be stuck somewhere for Thanksgiving, this isn't a bad place." She leaned against Dar. "And the company's not bad either."
"Hm.." Dar smiled, then sighed, as her cell phone rang. "Yes?"
Alastair's cheerful voice answered. "Hello, Dar. Where the hell are you?"
There was a moment of puzzled silence. "Chicago? I thought you were going to Redmond?"
Kerry heard, and shook a finger at her playfully.
"I was. Weather got in the way, now I'm stuck here, no thanks to ILS." Dar dredged up a growl. "You owe me."
Alastair sighed. "Sorry about that, Dar. I'll make it up to you. Listen. Im calling because Bob wont' let me alone until I find out if you're all right. He said you got sick during dinner with him?"
Kerry's head cocked in puzzlement.
"I'm fine." Dar answered, shortly. "Must have been something I ate."
"You sure?" Alastair pressed gently. "Bob was pretty concerned."
"Yeah, I'm sure." Came the reply. "Tell him thanks, but it wasn't anything serious."
"Okay." Her boss accepted that. "Glad to hear it listen, Im really sorry you got stuck out there, Dar.. is there anything I can do? Some little comfort I can get for you? Are you in a decent hotel, at least?"
Dar glanced around, then relaxed, as Kerry leaned against her. "Yeah.. the Fairmont.. and I think I've got everything I need. Thanks, Alastair." She paused. "Have a good Thanksgiving."
Her arms slid around Kerry's body, and they rested against each other quietly for a bit. "Were you sick?" Kerry finally asked, glancing up. 'What happened..oh, hey.. did that have something to do with that voice mail you left me?"
What on earth could she answer to that? Dar put her phone away, and stripped out of her winter gear, using the act to give herself a moment to think. She found herself wanting to simply forget the whole thing, what was the sense in brining it up again? It was over. A freak thing. Never happen again.
"Dar?" Kerry folded her coat, and laid it over the chair. "You said you wanted to ask me about something weird, was that it?"
It sounded stupid to her, even thinking about it. "No.. well.." Dar dropped into a chair, and exhaled. "It wasn't any big deal, just "
Kerry read the warning signals very evident in her lover's body language, and they puzzled her. "Well, hold on.. I could use some coffee, so let me order some up, and we can talk about it." She paused, watching Dar's face tense. "If you still want to, that is."
Dar sipped the hot coffee, barely tasting the sweetness as it slipped down her throat. Kerry hadn't pressed her further after the tray had been delivered, merely giving her a cup and taking her own, then settling into the chair across from her and waiting.
"You don't have to talk about it , Dar." Kerry finally said, not quite managing to mask the disappointment in her voice. 'It's okay."
"It's not that I don't want Kerry, you were the first person I thought of after " Dar got a couple of aborted starts off, then stumbled to a halt. "Shit."
Kerry was puzzled. "Okay I know that, since you called. What on earth was it, Dar? He didn't make a pass at you, did he? I mean, you can handle that, god knows you have to often enough."
"No." Dar put her cup down, and sucked in a deep breath. "I wish it were that. No.. we were having dinner, and in the middle of it, I.." She lifted a hand. "I can't really describe it, Ker. It was like I don't know, maybe it was something I ate. It felt like the world crashed down on me for a little while."
"Really?" Kerry put her coffee aside and got up, walking over to kneel at Dar's side, and let her hands rest on her partner's knee. "Wow.. I know you were really nervous during the presentation.."
"You knew that?"
"Oh, honey you could see it all over your face." Kerry smiled. "So yeah, I did.. maybe it was an aftereffect of that?"
Dar considered the point. "Hm. Maybe." She felt better. "Yeah, I was tied up in knots, I'll admit it maybe that was it." She felt considerably lighter. "Beats the alternative.. I thought maybe I was going a little crazy.. having an anxiety attack or something." She managed a faint laugh.
Kerry folded her fingers around Dar's hand. "I know you've been kinda I mean, that whole thing in DC was pretty traumatic."
"Yeah." Dar swallowed. ""I try not to think about it."
Kerry took the next step very carefully. She'd been a little worried about Dar since they'd gotten back, but she'd hoped time would take care of that. Maybe she'd been wrong. "Would you feel better if you talked to someone about that?"
"I thought I was." Dar answered warily.
"Okay." Kerry rubbed a thumb over the back of her hand. "I like that. If something bothers you, I want to know beside you being the love of my life, you're also my best friend, remember that, okay?"
Dar smiled, a little more easily this time. "Likewise." She acknowledged. "You may be right about the conference. I was pretty wound up about that, maybe more than I realized." True. "Anyway, once I got back to the room, it let up for a while, then I was so busy worrying about you, I.. forgot all about it."
"Yeah.. I was pretty tied up in knots myself at that point." Kerry confessed. "When we hit that first pocket, I think I was more scared than I'd ever been in my entire life. I remember looking down at my watch, just staring at it, wondering if I"d ever see it change from nine fifteen to nine sixteen."
Dar's brow creased thoughtfully. "Nine fifteen? You sure?"
"Damn sure those decimals are imprinted on the back of my eyeballs practically." Kerry replied. "Why?"
"I'd just looked at the clock in Times Square before that whole thing happened to me. " Dar stated. "It was nine fifteen."
They stared at each other. "Weird." Kerry finally muttered. "Well, it must have been a cosmic coincidence, Dar there's no way you could have known what was going on up in that airplane." She paused. "Is there?"
"No." Her lover replied. "No way.. just one of those things, I guess."
Kerry stood up and circled the chair, leaning against the back and resting her hands on Dar's shoulders. Dar tipped her head back to watch her curiously. "You've never had that happen before, right?" Kerry asked.
"Nope." Dar shook her head definitely. "Why?"
"Just curious." Kerry murmured. "Anyway I saw a great restaurant downstairs they've got singing waiters. Want to give it a try for dinner?"
Dar nibbled Kerry's shirt, and tugged the fabric.
"Or, maybe not." Kerry leaned over and indulged herself in a kiss. "Maybe we can order in." She felt Dar's hands slip around her, pulling her around the side of the chair and into her lover's lap. 'Oh yeah " Her body reacted to Dar's touch, powerful even through the thick denim fabric. She knew she had something else she wanted to ask Dar, but what that was..
Escaped her, as Dar undid her belt, and ran curious fingers under her shirt. She undid Dar's buttons and peeled the silk fabric back, dipping her head to nibble the hollow just above her lover's collarbone. "Mmm " Kerry tasted the skin, then caught a fold of it in her teeth, and nibbled upward, feeling Dar's ribs heave under her hands. "God, I love you."
For an instant, Dar paused, then the gentle touch returned, releasing the button on her jeans, and easing them down past her hips. "I love you too." She whispered, right into Kerry's mouth, as she eased them both to their feet, turning gracefully as Kerry stepped out of her jeans. "You're the most important thing in the world to me."
Kerry took a breath. "That's such a nice thing to be." She pressed against Dar's body, moving her hands up the long back and pulling her closer so they were belly to belly as she unhooked Dar's chinos and got them out of the way. "Thank you." She kissed Dar's navel, then worked her way up.
And paused, as her half focused eyes registered a color change in front of her nose. She paused, and pulled her head back, blinking. "Good God, Dar.. what in the hell did you do to yourself?" Kerry touched a finger to the ugly bruise that covered her lover's ribcage just under her breasts.
"Huh?" Dar broke off her distracting attack on Kerry's ears, and glanced down. "Oh, damn. I forgot."
"Forgot?" Kerry shoved her gently backwards, and pushed her down on the bed, then did a very thorough examination of the sprawled form. "That's not from the sidewalk."
"No." Dar pulled her down and kissed her. "I had a little accident on the road on the way here." A night mare flash of white roads, and skidding tires sent a brief shiver down her spine. "Nothing permanent damaged."
Kerry rested her weight on her elbows, their bodies touching, and looked down into Dar's eyes. "When?" She felt Dar's hand slide up over her hip, and had to force herself to remain where she was, instead of lowering herself and falling into the sensual warmth starting to rise around her. "When did it happen, Dar?"
"I don't remember." Dar turned her head and licked Kerry's forearm, then nibbled the skin. "Sometime early in the morning.. " Her hands moved up Kerry's athletic form and circled her breasts. "Does it matter?"
Did it? Kerry knew she had a reason for asking, but the jolts of desire were too distracting, and she gave up worrying about it, leaning into Dar's touch as her head dropped forward to meet the waiting lips. Oh well. She'd remember later.
Return to The Bard's Corner