“So what is going on over there?” Claire asked Cindy with the barest jerk of her head towards Abbie and Lindsay. In front of them, Jo and Olivia were decimating Casey and Jill at pool, though the conversation and laughter made it apparent that they were all having a good time. She signaled the waiter to order another round of drinks while she waited for Cindy’s reply. What she got was a shrug.
“I dunno.” She turned open brown eyes to meet Claire’s. “I just know Linds was concerned about Abbie… she seems to think something was bothering her and you know how Lindsay is when she gets an idea about something.”
Claire smiled and nodded. “Indeed I do. Well, I hope whatever it is gets resolved. Uh oh,” she added when Alex and Blair rose and headed their way. Cindy looked at them and then back at Claire.
Claire grinned. “Trouble, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve seen that particular expression on the boys’ faces when they’re up to something and hoping not to get caught.”
Cindy looked again and just stopped herself from giggling at the predatory expression swiftly hidden as Alex and Blair reached them.
“Ladies,” Claire greeted, then narrowed her eyes at them. “Which of you’re going to tell me what you’re up to? And don’t deny it,” she instructed in a mom tone. “I have children – I recognize the signs.”
“We just thought we should show support for our fellow barristers,” Blair stated. Cindy stared at them both for a long moment.
“Which of you is the ringer?” smiling when they exchanged startled glances. “Been there, done that.”
“You any good?” Alex asked frankly.
“It paid all my college expenses except tuition and gave me a nice little nest egg besides.”
Alex eyed Cindy for a long moment. “All right – willing to put your money where your mouth is?”
“What are you proposing, Counselor?”
Alex glanced at Blair, who nodded. “I think it’s time to take the detectives down a peg or two.”
“Aren’t they your girlfriends?” Alex and Blair nodded. “And they don’t know you’re a ringer?” directed at Alex who shook her head. Cindy chuckled. “All right – I’m in. This could be a lot of fun.”
A groan went up from the lawyers as Jill scratched. Jo and Olivia shook hands and they all placed their sticks on the table and approached the tall table Claire and Cindy were currently ensconced at.
“Clean sweep, Joey?” Blair asked when Jo crossed over to her side, swiping the beer she held and draining it halfway. Jo shifted the bottle from her lips and gave Blair a cocky grin, though her eyes twinkled in pure delight.
“Uh huh. We still got it,” slapping hands with Liv.
“So you wouldn’t mind playing me and Cindy then, right?” Alex asked coyly. Jo and Olivia exchanged glances.
“You get the feeling they’re trying to set us up?”
“Probably,” Liv agreed with a smirk, giving Alex the once over. “But if getting set up means I get to see Alex wearing those jeans bent over a pool table for the next hour, I’m not gonna complain.”
“Benson, you’re a dog.”
Olivia snorted. “Like you wouldn’t say the same thing if it was Blair.”
Jo looked at Blair whose arms were crossed over her chest and whose eyebrow was raised in question. “Busted,” she admitted sheepishly.
Blair rolled her eyes. “Barbarian.” But she couldn’t stop the smirk or the twinkle.
“And on that note,” Cindy said as she slid from her stool, “let’s play some pool.”
“So what’s up, cuz?” Lindsay pegged Abbie with a firm glance. “And don’t try to dissimilate with all that lawyer mumbo-jumbo either. We may not have shared a womb, but I still know you better than anyone else in the world and I’m not gonna let you sidetrack me with big words and flashy litigation.” When it didn’t garner her as much as a smirk or a twinkle, Lindsay frowned. Usually, she would have gotten at least a snide comment. Instead, Abbie traced the condensation down the side of her glass, staring in fascination as beads of water followed her finger down to the table top.
Lindsay covered Abbie’s hand with her own, forcing her chin up with her other hand until their eyes met. Then she sucked in a silent breath at the bewilderment she found staring back at her from her eyes’ twins. “Abbie?”
“Tell me about you and Cindy,” Abbie asked after an awkward moment of silence. Lindsay’s brows rose to her hairline.
“Um... all right. What would you like to know?”
“Ooookaaaay,” she drawled slowly. “Can I ask why first?”
“I don’t suppose I could blame it on family inspired nosiness, could I?”
“You could try, but I’d still want to know what my relationship with Cindy has to do with whatever is bothering you. You never even met her before today.”
“Is what you have together real?” Abbie asked abruptly. Lindsay’s eyes widened, but considering the source of the question, she stopped her impulse to rail and gave the query some thought. After all, Abbie wasn’t the type to speak without thinking first. “That sounded impertinent, didn’t it?” Abbie continued, breaking into Lindsay’s train of thought. “It’s just, you’ve always been a man’s woman – beating him at his own game and still making him grateful to be the one going home with you at night.”
“What makes you think that has changed?” Lindsay asked seriously.
“I’ve seen the way she looks at you, Linds. I may not be a trained inspector, but even I recognize the signs of lust and infatuation.”
“Is that all you see?”
Abbie shrugged. “I... I’m not sure. I don’t really know Cindy well enough to do more than guess at her feelings. And you’ve always been pretty closed off about anything personal – your passion seems to be reserved for your work.”
Lindsay sighed. What Abbie said was the truth, and Abbie knew her better than almost anyone else on earth... including Jill and Claire. But this... she sighed again.
“You’re right, Abs, and that single-minded devotion has cost me a lot through the years – my marriage, my baby... almost my life.” Lindsay stopped speaking as her thoughts wandered back through her darkest memories, until a hand cupping her face brought her attention back to her surroundings. She blinked and found compassion and understanding in Abbie’s eyes.
“You all right?”
Lindsay smiled. “We’re quite a pair, aren’t we?”
“We’re something all right,” Abbie agreed.
Lindsay chuckled and sat back slightly, clasping the hand that had been cupping her cheek. “We’ve kind of wandered pretty far off topic. To answer your question – I really don’t know yet. I know that I like spending time with her – she’s fun and smart and beautiful and she sees things in a way I really never have. She has an optimism that is naïve and refreshing and completely frustrating and she is forever trying to make me see the best in people that I know just isn’t there. She makes me feel....” Lindsay paused trying to formulate her thoughts. “She makes me feel,” she reiterated, “and in her eyes I am young and sexy and desirable. And she’s become a good friend, despite me. Is that enough for a lasting relationship? I dunno. But I do know we are only at the beginning of whatever we have and I want the time to explore and discover the possibilities between us.”
“So it is real.”
Lindsay shook her head slowly, then nodded. “I think so. I know I wouldn’t mind if it was.” A beat. “You wanna tell me what this is about now?”
Abbie looked around, her eyes settling on the tableau taking place around the pool table. Cindy and Alex were obviously winning, judging by the looks of delight on their faces. Casey, Jill, Claire and Blair were laughing and cheering and the sight brought a smile to Abbie’s face. Lindsay watched her for a long moment, then tugged on the hand she still held.
“C’mon... let’s go for a walk. I need some air. They can call us when they’re ready to leave.”
Abbie followed Lindsay out the door. Casey watched them go with a thoughtful look on her face. Claire tapped her on the leg, bringing her attention back to her surroundings.
“Don’t worry, honey. If something is bothering your girl, Lindsay’ll ferret it out. It’s what she’s good at.”
Casey smiled sadly and nodded, patting the hand resting on hers. “I hope so.” Then she turned her attention back to the game playing out in front of her, trying to put her worries out of her mind. It was going to be a long night.
“What a nice night,” Janet said as she and Sam sat outside at the pool bar.
“Oh yeah,” Mac agreed as she returned with drinks for the three of them. “This was a great idea.”
“Disney or drinks by the pool?”
“Yes!” Mac chuckled. “And I see we’re not the only ones who thought so,” motioning around at the tables filled with laughing, drinking women.
“I recognize a lot of these faces from the registration this afternoon,” Sam commented as she sipped her margarita. “Though it seems like a very mixed crowd – not all law enforcement personnel, I mean.”
“I think there is more than one convention here. I seem to recall....” Janet let her voice trail off as her eyes closed. Sam and Mac waited patiently for her to continue her thought. “I think there was some sort of publishing convention or something. Didn’t we see some kind of book boxes being brought into the room next to us?”
“I think so – I know there were two separate registration desks running,” Mac replied, sipping her drink and sighing in contentment.
“That must be it then. Looks like it is catering to a female clientele as well, judging from the number of women here.”
“Yeah, ‘cause they sure stick out,” gesturing to a mixed group of tired looking individuals that had just dropped into seats two tables over from them.
“What, Janet?? They do.”
“I know, sweetie. That doesn’t mean we need to draw any more attention to them. It looks like they’ve got enough to deal with.”
“How do you know they didn’t just spend too much time fighting crowds at the parks?”
“Because tired tourists, even those with kids, don’t look that miserable. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they got dressed down by their commanding officer... so to speak.”
“Yeah, I think we’re all familiar with that look. Wonder who could be that unhappy at Walt Disney World?”
“Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do now, Gordon?” AVID marketing director Adelia Ryder asked CEO Gordon Reichmann. “This is going to be the event of the year and yet, Desdemona managed to completely dismiss the need to register. And from what I’ve heard, the woman in charge isn’t one to be trifled with.”
“You think she can take on Desi?”
“According to what I can find out,” AVID’s legal advisor Buster Goodfellow said softly, “she and her partner have no reason to fear her. Of course I’ve only had a few hours to dig anything up, but so far they’re coming up clean as a whistle.”
“Aw, c’mon guys. Desi’s not like that,” accountant Franklin Mint spoke up. “She’s such a gentlewoman.”
“Shut up, Frank,” the group said collectively, causing him to shrivel in place and force his attention to the drink that sat in front of him in the hopes they would forget about him. Security agent Harmon Nottingham glared at him a moment longer before looking at his compatriots.
“I got nothing as well. I’ve got some feelers out, but....” He shrugged. “Even if we manage to dig something up, I doubt it will be of any use before tomorrow, and Desdemona expects to be able to walk into that conference tomorrow like she owns the place.”
“It’s gonna suck to be her then,” editor Violet Hunter-Powers commented softly, though her lips quirked in what looked suspiciously like a grin. “Karmic payback’s a bitch.”
“Yeah, but I’ll be the one paying for it,” editor Graham Lacking griped. “You and Melissa always seem to fly under her radar.”
“At least you get noticed, Graham,” editor Melissa Parsons replied softly. “Sometimes it would be nice to be seen for a change.”
“All right you two... enough,” webmaster Dotty Comstock interrupted before an all out argument could start. “Rehashing your same old argument again does nothing to help us resolve the situation we’ve got right now.”
“Honestly, Dot, I don’t think anything is going to help with that,” Desdemona’s personal assistant Bailey Bonner stated plaintively. “She’s already in a snit.”
“So how’d you escape?” Desdemona’s half-brother Warner Godwin asked sardonically. “Don’t you have a perpetual bullseye tattooed to your forehead?”
Bailey shrugged. “She wanted to be left alone. I wasn’t going to miss my chance to escape.” A tall redhead walked by, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She winked at Bailey, causing a small smile to grace Bailey’s face, but the woman moved on without speaking.
Chuckles and snorts broke out across the table. “Well, I think your early release from the clutches of the evil known to the world as DIVA calls for a round of drinks,” Gordon offered.
“That sounds divine,” Bailey agreed. The rest nodded their agreement and Gordon and Franklin rose from their places after taking orders from each of their tablemates. At least their evening was shaping up better than their day had been. And when a drink arrived for Bailey with a note, it gave them fodder enough to entertain themselves about her new secret admirer.
Gabrielle pushed her bangs off her face and sighed out loud. “My gods,” she mumbled, exchanging glances with Xena. Xena held her gaze for a long moment before turning back to Barbara. The three of them had moved into the bedroom at Barbara’s request, wanting to give her the privacy necessary to share the secret Desdemona had unearthed about her.
“Are you completely sure about this?”
Barbara looked at Xena askance at the question – it wasn’t like killing someone... accidental or not... was something she would ever forget. She let her sigh convey her thorough frustration with the whole situation – both Desdemona’s knowledge of the event as well as having to share this particular ugly secret with two people she’d come to respect and admire. “Oh yes. She showed me proof of her knowledge, although the fact that she had that particular knowledge was proof enough. It’s not something I would share around – it’s not something I am proud of.”
Gabrielle placed a hand on Barbara’s shoulder, squeezing it gently in affectionate support. “Just know we don’t think less of you, Barbara. We’ve seen and done much worse.” She held up a hand to halt the protest Barbara would have made. “Trust me – I would never lie about something so important just to make you feel better,” allowing Barbara to see the truth in her eyes. Barbara’s eyes widened in response and she nodded her acceptance. Xena cleared her throat.
“Who else knows about this?”
“Um... Helena, my mentor Bruce Wayne and probably our butler Alfred. He always seems to know everything without being told anything.”
“People you trust then.”
“And she has something on Helena and Dinah as well.”
Barbara nodded slowly. “I have tried to find a way to remove her from our lives or at least relieve her of the proof she has, but I have been unable to find a way to do so short of simply eliminating her from the gene pool altogether. And I can’t do that – we don’t kill.”
Xena nodded. “It’s a good code to follow, Barbara. Becoming judge, jury and executioner is a steep slippery slope to stand on and it gets easier after consciously taking that first step.”
Barbara held Xena’s eyes for a long moment. “You know that from experience, don’t you?”
Xena’s head dropped. “I do,” she replied softly, feeling Gabrielle’s hand rub comforting circles across her back. Her head popped up when Barbara rolled forward and covered Xena’s hand with her own.
“That doesn’t change the person that you are now or how I think about you, Xena. Sometimes you just do what you have to and move on.”
Xena smiled. “I like you Barbara Gordon – you’re good people.” She briefly clasped the hand she held tightly before releasing it and standing. “All right. Let me talk to Lucy for a minute and then... well, then we’ll see what we can do about this DIVA.”
Xena moved back into the main room and jerked her head at Lucy, causing the younger woman to move into the kitchenette area of the suite to assure them some privacy. Amy made to follow when a shake of Lucy’s head stayed her movement. Instead, she turned her attention to watching Barbara and Gabrielle emerge from the bedroom. Barbara rolled to Helena’s side instinctively while Gabrielle’s attention was claimed by her ringing cell phone.
“This is Gabrielle.”
“Gabrielle, this is Natalia Rivera – personal assistant to Blake Marler of LaCrosse Publishing.”
“Hi, Natalia. What can I do for you?”
“I realize that we missed registration this afternoon; we had some serious weather issues coming out of Chicago. Anyway, I was wondering if it would be possible to check-in tomorrow morning. ”
With a single motion from Gabrielle, Barbara had her laptop up and Gabrielle flipped through the pages of conference notes to find the registration for LaCrosse Publishing. She nodded her thanks to Barbara before turning her attention back to the phone.
“Absolutely, Natalia. Or if you’d prefer, you can pick them up this evening.”
“Oh, could I? I’d appreciate it,” sounding a little harried.
“Sure,” Gabrielle said with sympathy in her voice. “I’ve been in your shoes before. You’ll have to give me a few minutes to get back to the convention area though. I’m at the back of the resort.”
“So am I. Would you like some company on the walk back over?”
“Sure,” Gabrielle replied with a smile and gave Natalia Barbara’s suite number. She heard a palpable sigh of relief.
“Wonderful... you’re just around the corner. I’ll be there in a couple minutes if that’s all right.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Gabrielle assured her before closing her phone. Then she moved towards the kitchenette to let Xena know what was going on.
“So, you know this DIVA woman personally?” Xena asked Lucy as soon as they were out of earshot of the rest.
“No,” managing to convey disgust and trepidation at the same time. “I know her by reputation.” She blew out a frustrated breath causing her bangs to flutter a moment before they resettled themselves on her forehead. “She’s not an acknowledged part of any known criminal network, but they are all aware of her. Rumor is, she’s managed to get some pretty big secrets on some pretty major players.”
“So no one has taken her out... why, exactly? C’mon, Lucy – you and I both know someone like that has a way of disappearing.”
“Unless her disappearance or death would cause those secrets to be revealed?” Lucy responded with a question in her voice. “I dunno,” she shrugged. “Maybe the secrets weren’t big enough for that; maybe they were just embarrassing things people didn’t want to see the light of day and therefore not important enough to call for a hit on someone that would require a public investigation.”
“What does she have on you?” Xena asked abruptly.
Lucy sighed, letting her eyes drop to the ground before meeting Xena’s once more. “The reason I was deported from Australia,” shrugging nonchalantly again.
Xena smirked. She had a feeling this was going to be much more entertaining than Barbara’s secret. “And that would be...?”
Lucy’s lips twitched. “How was I supposed to know she was the Prime Minister’s daughter? And while it’s not the worst thing in the world, it isn’t something I want out there, ya know? It makes me look like an idiot.”
Xena held up her hand. “Say no more,” she instructed. Then she turned to greet Gabrielle. “What’s up, sweetheart?”
“I just wanted to let you know I have to go back to the con hall for a couple minutes. One of my attendees was late getting in and I told her we’d get them checked in tonight. She sounded like she was having a really bad day, and maybe this will help it end a little better.” Xena nodded, knowing Gabrielle had an uncanny sense for things like this.
“You want me to walk over with you?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “She should be here in a minute and you need to finish up here. But I wouldn’t be adverse to you joining me as soon as you’re done here,” smiling at her beguilingly. “We do have a date tonight, you know.”
Before Xena could answer, Lucy cut in with an almost gagging sound. “Honestly... the two of you are gonna give me diabetes with all the sappiness.”
Xena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle briefly but thoroughly. She turned to Lucy when they separated. “Jealous much?” she asked with a snicker and twinkling blue eyes. Lucy simply rolled her brown eyes and shook her head, knowing this was a discussion she had no hope of actually winning.
A knock interrupted their tableau and Helena moved to answer it even as Xena, Gabrielle and Lucy moved back into the living area. Natalia studied Helena for a long moment, then glanced around the room at the other women gathered there. “Um... I was looking for Gabrielle?”
Helena motioned her in as Gabrielle stepped forward. Natalia crossed the threshold, followed immediately by Olivia holding Emma’s hand. No one even blinked as Gabrielle reached out a hand to introduce herself.
“Natalia? I’m Gabrielle. This is Xena, Lucy, Amy, Dinah, Diana, Barbara and Helena,” pointing out the rest individually as she introduced them with a smile. Natalia nodded her head at them in acknowledgement and accepted Gabrielle’s hand.
“It’s very nice to meet you all. I’m Natalia and this is my partner Olivia and our daughter Emma,” feeling Olivia’s smile at her introduction of their family. It had been a long, hard road to get them to this point and she couldn’t help the bit of pride that slipped into her voice. Gabrielle smiled, recognizing the tone for what it was, and unwilling to embarrass Natalia by drawing attention to it. Instead, she clasped Olivia’s hand briefly, welcoming her as she had welcomed Natalia, then turned her attention to Emma.
“So are you attending the conference with your mom, Emma?”
“Oh no... Mama is the one attending the conference with Auntie Blake. Mom promised to take me on Pirates of the Caribbean and Soaring. Mama said she has to take me on Mission Space, Test Track, Tower of Terror and the Rockin’ Roller Coaster though.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Your mama is a very brave lady.”
Emma raised her hand to cup her mouth in an effort to confide secretly in Gabrielle, although the entire room heard her stage whisper clearly. “Mom says it’s ‘cause Mama’s nuts, but really it’s just ‘cause Mom can’t do those rides ‘cause of her heart and Mama wants me to have the chance to do everything here. I’ve never been here before, you know. ”
“Emma!” Olivia’s exclamation was nothing more than a gasp laced with laughter.
Gabrielle kept her eyes focused on Emma, though she could feel the glances Natalia and Olivia were exchanging as well as the attention of the rest of the room. “Well, I’ll tell you what – I happen to know a couple daredevil types that have done everything here at least once. They would probably be willing to do all those things with you if your mama decides to keep an eye on your mom instead of being considered nuts by her. I could even provide references,” with a quick glance of reassurance at Olivia before returning her eyes to Emma.
Emma’s eyes lit up and her smile grew excited at the prospect. “Really?”
“Really,” Gabrielle grinned. “But how about if we go over to the convention hall and get the papers your mama needs to come to the conference tomorrow?”
Emma nodded emphatically. “Yes! Mom promised me ice cream and a trip to the pool after we take care of business. Are there any other kids here, do you think?”
“For the conference? I don’t think so, but I know there are a number of children at the hotel.”
“YES!” Emma exclaimed again, this time pumping her arm in victory. Then she grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and tugged her towards the door. “Well, c’mon already. Let’s get this over with so we can go have some fun.” Gabrielle followed her out the door, her laughter real and full-bodied. Natalia and Olivia exchanged disbelieving looks with one another before glancing around the room.
Helena snorted. “Why? She was just being honest. Besides, we’re all looking forward to the same thing, we just have to pretend to be adults first.”
Natalia laughed softly. “And here I thought it was just us,” she commented before Emma’s voice carried through the still open door.
“C’mon you guys – I want ice cream!”
Natalia took Olivia’s hand and pulled her towards the door. “It was nice meeting you all, but we better go before Emma disappears again.”
“Not to worry,” Xena reassured them. “Gabrielle won’t lose her.”
Olivia snorted. “You’d be surprised. That kid is slick - I really should have nicknamed her Houdini instead of Jellybean.” Everyone in the room chuckled at the visual Olivia’s droll pronouncement gave them. Natalia and Olivia each gave a quick wave, then closed the door behind them.
The room was silent for a long moment, then they gave a simultaneous sigh, causing another chuckle to ripple through them. “Wow,” Amy commented after a deep breath. “I get the feeling that kid is a real handful.”
“I got the feeling Gabrielle volunteered her and Xena to watch her,” Diana remarked with a smile.
“Nothing we haven’t done before,” Xena said with a telling look in Diana’s direction. “However,” her tone serious and bringing their focus back to the situation at hand. “We need to keep an eye on this DIVA individual. I won’t have her causing problems for Gabrielle... or us, for that matter. So if you hear anything, let me know immediately, all right?” Her look turned dark, and everyone in the room felt the temperature drop. “I’m sure I can convince her of the error of her ways.”
Helena turned to Xena, breaking the silence. “I’d pay good money to see that. Hell, I’d pay good money to help.”
“I think we all would,” Lucy confessed.
“All right then,” Xena said, clapping her hands together. “On that note, I’m going to go to catch up with Gabrielle. You ladies have a good night, and if anything comes up....”
“You’ll be the first to know,” Diana said solemnly. Xena nodded, knowing Diana would spend a good portion of her night digging for whatever she could find out about Desdemona Imala Von A’Calandra. A tiny part of Xena almost felt sorry for the woman who had brought herself to their attention, but the larger part of her – the warrior part – was looking forward to the denouement with great relish.
“So when are we taking Jellybean to the parks with us?” Xena dryly asked Gabrielle several hours later when they were comfortably ensconced in their room - alone together at last. Their dinner date had turned into a family affair, as everyone who knew them stopped by to say hello and chat a moment. They tried not to begrudge the time, as they counted each of the women who did so as friends, but it was something of a relief to finally get back to their suite.
“We don’t have to....” Gabrielle started, before grinding to a halt at Xena’s upraised hand. Xena motioned with her finger and Gabrielle presented her back. Xena unzipped her and planted a kiss on the juncture between shoulder and neck, then patted her back before she responded.
“Sure we do,” she replied with a smile, kicking off her shoes and unzipping the dark trousers she wore. “You promised her we would. And to be honest with you, I think it would be kind of fun. We haven’t seen this place with a newbie’s eyes since it was new almost forty years ago.” She paused a moment. “I’m kinda curious as to why you did it though... aside from there being a good story between Olivia and Natalia. They kinda - they remind me of us... once upon a long time ago.”
“You got that feeling too?” Gabrielle asked, stepping out of her dress and hanging it up for dry cleaning later. She turned to face Xena and started casually unbuttoning the silk shirt she had on as Xena tried to neatly fold her pants.
Xena smirked. “When you’ve lived with a bard as long as I have, you learn to pick up on the subtle things.”
Gabrielle smacked the bare belly she had just exposed. “Don’t go blaming me for your sixth sense, warrior. You were doing that long before you and I met. As I recall, you’re the one who taught me to look for significance in the details.”
“Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe,” Xena commented, bracing herself for the second smack she knew was coming, then pouting the least little bit when it landed. “Oof! Careful there, bard of mine. You’re gonna damage the goods.”
Gabrielle smirked before sliding down and leaning over to kiss the spot she had just hit. “That’s all right,” she reassured. “I own these goods. Besides, you heal pretty quickly, and I’m pretty sure I can make you forget all about any residual pain you might be experiencing in the meantime,” continuing to ghost light kisses across the muscled midriff in front of her.
Xena cupped Gabrielle’s chin gently, raising her face until their eyes met. “You think so, huh?” blue eyes dancing with merriment. “Can I get that in writing?”
“I have a counter offer,” waiting for the brow to spike in question like she knew it would. She stood up straight, putting her hands on Xena’s shoulders and nudging her gently towards the bed and watching the raised brow become a smirking expression.
“Umm... how about you take me on faith just this once?” pushing Xena to sit on the bed before straddling her lap. “If it works out in your best interests, we’ll just forget all about that written guarantee, all right?”
“And if it doesn’t?” Xena asked distractedly, her focus concentrated on unclasping the bra Gabrielle wore and sliding it off her body while stroking every bit of bare skin she could touch. She smiled when Gabrielle’s breath caught in her chest at the light caresses. Gabrielle shook her head and cleared her throat in an effort to regain control of herself and the situation that was rapidly spiraling away from her.
“If it doesn’t,” she replied breathlessly, “you can name your terms,” sucking in another deep breath when Xena tweaked both nipples hard. She felt her eyes flash red-gold at the pain and allowed them to meet Xena’s as her incisors began to elongate. The warrior chuckled.
“So,” she purred, nuzzling into Gabrielle’s neck and sniffing at her pulse point. “It’s a win/win situation for me.” She felt the barest pinprick at her own neck and scented the coppery tang of blood in the air surrounding them.
“Um hmm,” Gabrielle agreed as she licked the drop of blood that had welled up on Xena’s neck. Then without warning, she found herself on the bottom of a hot-blooded warrior pile and she smiled beguilingly into Xena’s eyes. “Is there a problem?”
“Not at all, my bard. Just remember than any marks you leave on me, I will be only too happy to return in kind.”
It was the last word spoken between them for the remainder of the night.
Diana blew out a frustrated breath and closed her laptop, removing her glasses and rubbing eyes that were actually aching with the strain of staring at a computer screen for too many consecutive hours. She had found some information on Von A’Calandra, but not enough to put her away for. There were a lot of rumors, some hints and clues about possibilities, but no real hard-core evidence that the woman was guilty of any real wrongdoing. Not that blackmail was a respectable occupation, but without absolute proof or someone willing to testify against her, Xena would simply want to beat the woman senseless for her implied threat of Gabrielle. And that didn’t even take into account Gabrielle’s reaction or that of the Amazon Nation when they got wind of the threat to their most revered Queen. No... what Diana needed were cold hard facts she could put in front of a judge – or better yet, in front of a council of elders who would punish the woman in ways she would never again think of breathing out of sync... much less anything that smacked of illegality.
Diana let her hands move down to her neck, rubbing at the stiffness there before moving from the table and crawling between the cool sheets with a sigh. She didn’t think it was enough on its own, but maybe it was enough of a start that she and Xena might come up with some new ideas in the morning. At any rate, she needed some sleep. Hopefully tomorrow would bring more answers.
Meanwhile, at another resort on property, Desdemona sat propped up in bed hacking into files and search engines looking for something... anything... she could use as leverage against Gabrielle. She had the distinct feeling the woman was a force to be reckoned with judging by her polite but unflinching manner earlier. And she was determined to get into that conference by whatever means necessary.
She smiled and cracked her knuckles as the computer whizzed through the directives and parameters she had given it. Everybody had secrets. And secrets had a way of coming out if you knew where to look and what to look for. Lucky for her, she was a master at hide and seek and knew how to parley that knowledge into a profitable little side venture. She chuckled softly and resumed her searching.
Desdemona was going to be the star of this conference... one way or another.
“So how was your friend, Nat?” Blair asked as they sat at breakfast in the resort’s main dining room. They had contemplated eating in the food court for about half a minute before deciding to simply take the buffet option and the quieter setting.
“Good – better than I expected,” Natalie replied as she buttered her toast. “I think there is probably a story there, if she’ll let me run with it.”
“There is a story there,” Tootie confirmed. “You wouldn’t believe the things she shared with us last night... about this war as well as Desert Storm.”
“And does she have proof?” Jo asked as she set her coffee cup on the table.
Natalie shrugged. “That’s the first thing I have to find out, but I’d be willing to bet she does.”
“So it was worth missing dinner with us?” Blair asked haughtily, but couldn’t contain the twinkle in her eye.
Natalie smirked and cocked an eyebrow, but her eyes remained serious. “It would have been even without a story, Blair. I see you guys all the time. I haven’t seen her for years, though we have kept in touch.” She paused, her expression sobering. “She saved my life.”
Silence fell at her statement and Jo cleared her throat awkwardly. “Maybe you’ll share the story one day?” she asked quietly.
“Maybe one day,” Natalie agreed. Then they focused on breakfast, not surprised to see more conference attendees entering the restaurant.
“Are Abbie and Casey joining us this morning?” Alex asked as she and Olivia entered the restaurant foyer waiting to be seated. When Liv shrugged, Alex asked for a table for two and followed the hostess to a quiet corner in the restaurant. “I wonder what’s going on there,” she said after they were seated, her voice quiet despite their relative privacy. Olivia shrugged.
“I dunno. But if I was a betting woman, I’d guess it has something to do with Abbie having commitment issues.”
“You think Casey is pushing her?”
“Not at all. I think Abbie wants it... badly, and she doesn’t know how to deal with that.”
They heard a faint buzzing sound and Alex jumped slightly before reaching for her phone. She read the text message and frowned, typing in a response before tucking her phone away again. Olivia arched an eyebrow in her direction and Alex sighed.
“Mary’s been held up in Albuquerque, though she’s hoping to be here sometime tonight. I was really hoping she’d be here early so you could meet her. I liked her a lot better than Hammond; she was more a little more sympathetic and much easier to deal with.”
Olivia smirked. “Not that you made it easy.” Alex glared at her briefly before giving Olivia a sheepish grin and a shrug. Then her demeanor changed and Olivia watched Alex wave someone over, not surprised to see Casey come up beside them. Olivia took one look at their friend and rose to snatch an empty chair from a nearby table, motioning Casey to a seat before she resumed her own. Alex covered Casey’s hand.
“You all right, Case?”
The redhead gave a negative shake. “Not really,” she said, blowing out a breath and accepting the menu Olivia handed her. “But I will be. It’s just going to take time.”
“I could just kick her ass,” Liv offered, earning her a glare from Alex and Casey simultaneously. She shrugged. “It was just a thought.”
“Put your macha back in your pants, Detective,” Alex admonished. “It’s not our problem to solve.”
“I know, Alex. Is it wrong that I don’t want our friends to suffer through what we did to find happiness?”
“I think it’s sweet of you, Liv,” Casey said with a sad smile. “I think it’s also one reason you appreciate what you have.”
Olivia and Alex exchanged a long look. “Probably,” they said together and smiled. “Still wouldn’t wish it on my friends though.”
Casey smiled. “I appreciate that. And I think having her cousin here will do her a world of good. I just have to be patient,” chuckling when Olivia’s head met the table.
“I *hate* that word,” she mumbled, purring when she felt Alex’s nails scrape against her scalp.
“All good cops and lawyers do,” Alex assured her when her hand reached the base of Olivia’s skull. “Now sit up and let’s order breakfast. I have a feeling today is going to be a busy day, even without all the personal drama.”
“With any luck, the personal drama will be over before it turns into really bad melodrama.”
Casey raised her coffee cup at Liv’s sentiment. “Hear! Hear!!” Then they turned to give their orders to the waiting server.
“My word, it’s busy in here,” Helen commented as she and Nikki took seats in the food court next to Kate and Emma.
“It’s to be expected, luv,” Emma assured her. “Remember the crush of women that were registering yesterday? On the plus side, it’s likely we’ll be making some good contacts on this side of the pond before all this is over,” she mentioned, just as Kelly approached them.
“Excuse me,” the light Texas drawl evident to the British quartet. “I don’t mean to impose on you, but I saw you registering for the conference yesterday?” the question evident in her voice. Four heads nodded in tandem. Kelly smiled. “Right, well, could I ask you to possibly help me hold these two tables?” motioning to the tables beside them. “I need seating for six and as busy as it is in here....”
For answer, Kate shifted over to the nearest table and Kelly’s smile became a genuine grin. “Thank you,” extending her hand. “I’m Kelly Garrett of Townsend and Associates.”
“We know of you,” Emma exclaimed with a smile of her own. Then the introductions began as they waited for the remainder of Kelly’s party to join them.
Emily and JJ watched as Garcia charmed the man at the omelet station into creating something that vaguely resembled pizza, before they moved on to the grill station.
“So are we going to get to hear the story of you and your Aunt Sabrina soon?” JJ asked as they waited in line. Emily shrugged. Their plans the previous evening had gone up like so much smoke when a phone call from Charles Townsend had called Sabrina, Kelly and Kris from the restaurant before they could even be seated. They had just had time to make arrangements to meet for breakfast and as busy as the food court was, they were glad Kelly had volunteered to find a place for them all to sit together.
“I hope so,” Emily said sadly. “I’d really like to know....”
“So would I,” JJ agreed fiercely, bringing a smile to Emily’s face.
“Thank you for being patient,” Emily commented as they reached the head of the line. “I know it’s hard.” She smirked. “It’s driving me nuts myself.” She turned and gave their order to the cast member waiting to take it. JJ bumped her shoulder.
“So we’ll be squirrelly together. No worries.” Then Penelope caught up to them to let them know she would meet them at the table.
“Looks like Kelly made some new friends. Always a good thing in this business,” she mentioned before she headed towards the seating area. They watched her go for a moment before turning their attention back towards the food that was being prepared for them.
“I can’t believe she had the nerve to show up here,” Kris commented to Sabrina as they collected breakfast for the three of them. “You’d think with the number of law enforcement personnel here....”
Sabrina smirked, one of her first since Charlie’s call the previous evening. Not only had she lost an opportunity to reconnect with a niece she had sorely missed, Charlie’s news had been less than welcome and they had spent a good portion of the evening going over everything they knew about the woman everyone knew as DIVA.
“I’d be willing to bet good money and tickets to Disney besides that she wasn’t aware of the law enforcement conference.” She bit her lip thoughtfully. “She still may not be. Remember, according to Charlie’s information, she’s here for the Women in Media conference that is set up next door to ours. I imagine we’re going to be something of an unpleasant surprise for her.”
“As bad as she was for us?”
Now Sabrina’s smile turned feral. “Worse – she’s screwing up a reunion I really want to happen.”
“And we’ll get to hear about this?” Kris asked as they moved towards Kelly. Sabrina chuckled.
“You think Kelly would let it lie?” Kris laughed.
“You think Linds got her cousin straightened out last night?” Jill asked Claire as they exited their room.
“Maybe,” Cindy replied, stepping from her room in time to hear the question. She took a deep breath that became a yawn before she responded more calmly. “Abbie stayed the night with us. I think Linds may have gotten through to her, but God what a mess in the meantime.”
“What’s a mess?” Catherine asked as the Las Vegas contingent exited their rooms almost simultaneously.
“Trying to get up and going this morning,” Cindy replied without missing a beat.
Sofia nodded her agreement. “No kidding. I think we were up half the night trying to figure out where Wendy picked up a doppelganger.”
“Find anything?” Sara asked as they headed towards the main building as a single unit.
“Well,” Lilly said slowly. “We know she’s a New Orleans police detective named Nikki Beaumont. Otherwise...” she paused. “Wendy may just have to talk to her to get some answers.”
Jill snorted. “Figures we can’t even come to a conference at Walt Disney World without running into some sort of mystery.” The rest chortled at her comment, and they made their way to the restaurant for breakfast.
“Excuse me, Jordan?” Liz asked, looking at the woman’s nametag to ensure she didn’t call her Claire. “Could we join you?” motioning to her fellow counselors. Jordan cocked a questioning eyebrow, but nodded, her curiosity overwhelming her caution. “Thank you.”
Serena, Tracey, Kelly and Liz all took seats and Jordon continued eating until their surreptitious glances caused her to blurt out, “What?!”
“I’m sorry,” Liz apologized. “You just remind us so much of an old friend. Did you know a woman named Claire Kincaid?”
Jordan paused thoughtfully then shook her head. “Tell me about her?”
“Tempe?” Mac asked as she, Janet and Sam wended their way through the restaurant. Bones waved them over and Angela and Cam made room for them to join them. Mac performed introductions and they quickly ordered from the harried-looking, though still smiling waitress. Then they glanced around the full room.
“So how did the military end up at a law enforcement convention? Or are you attending the media conference?”
“Well, you know Mac is a lawyer; Janet is a doctor who has done her share of autopsies and I was ordered here as a Homeland Security liaison.”
Angela snorted. “I just wanted the free trip to Disney World.” Janet laughed.
“Emily, why am I dealing with all these people? Surely there is a way I could have peace and privacy for breakfast, especially with *her* in our vicinity,” sneering in Andrea’s direction before turning her attention back to her own table. “Nevermind... the girls seem to be enjoying it,” she doted, noting the smiles on Caroline’s and Cassidy’s faces. “And the food is acceptable at least.” She noticed Emma and her mothers two tables over. “Find out who those women are. They are a lovely family and that child is adorable. We might be able to use something like that in an upcoming issue,” the wheels of her mind turning as Emily scribbled as quickly as she could. “Emily, for heaven’s sakes... eat something before you fall over. And make sure the girls get out to the park as soon as they are done here. I will see you in the conference room in forty-five minutes,” dropping cash onto the table as she rose. She kissed both children, then made her way out the door, not noticing the stares that followed her.
“I wonder who she is,” Ziva commented as she watched Miranda leave.
“Fashion editor,” Kate commented, frowning when Abby and Ziva stared at her. “What? Just because I carry a gun doesn’t mean I don’t have an eclectic mix of reading material.”
“No need to get defensive,” Abby commented. “I like Runway myself, if only to try and figure out what the designers were smoking when they were drawing.”
Ziva snorted. “I never understood the fascination with pencil thin women.”
“It reminds the rest of us how good it is to be normal women with curves who can relish good food and caffeine,” Kate snarked, then deliberately took a bite of bacon and eggs.
Ziva laughed. “I can agree with that.”
“Me too,” Abby said, relishing the Caf-Pow the staff had managed to concoct to her specifications and reminding herself to leave them a good tip. “Life would be ugly without it,” raising her glass and smiled when her companions did the same in return.
“Excited?” Simone asked Annabelle as they looked around the crowded food court. Annabelle bit her lip as a substitute for the fingernail she couldn’t reach due to the tray she held in her hands.
“A little, maybe. Nervous mostly,” she confessed as they squeezed into an empty table for two.
Simone frowned. “Why? Annabelle, you are one of the most gifted, confident women I know. Where is all the insecurity coming from, sweetheart?”
“I don’t know, but it can go away now.”
Simone smiled. “We’ll get through this... just like we have everything else that’s come our way. And once we’re done here, we can go Princess stalking.”
Annabelle narrowed her eyes. “I’m going to give you something to stalk in a minute.”
“Promise?” Simone queried with an evil smirk.
Annabelle set her tray down and wrapped her arms around Simone’s neck, previous nervousness completely forgotten. “Guaran-damn-teed.”
Simone grinned, glad her ploy had worked. They never even saw the harried individuals that passed them without a second look.
“Are you kidding me, Bailey?” Adelia asked incredulously, cringing at the force ten glare leveled her way. “Of course you’re not. But what the hell does she hope to accomplish with this?”
“How the hell would I know?” Bailey ground out between clenched teeth. “I tried telling her that if Gabrielle doesn’t get us tossed, Disney will do it of their own volition. You definitely get what you pay for here, but you absolutely have to pay for it. Stealing space is going to land us in jail!!”
“So while she’s landing all us girls in jail, what are the boys doing?” Melissa asked as they made their way to wherever Bailey was leading them.
Bailey shook her head. “I’m not sure. I know they’re bringing books over, but otherwise...?” She shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll let us know when she thinks we need to know.”
“Someone’s going to get fed up with her one day,” Violet smirked even as she hefted one end of the long table Bailey had scrounged from somewhere. “And then it will be bye-bye Desi.”
“I hope that day comes soon,” Graham said as he rolled up with a bellhop’s cart full of boxes. “Someone needs to take that bitch down a peg or six.”
Silence fell – all of them agreeing with him, but unwilling to make that sort of commitment aloud for fear of the consequences. Instead, they returned to their task, wondering how long it would be before hell broke loose for them... again.
“Morning, Sport,” Xena commented to Lucy as she clapped her shoulder, garnering a glare from her younger compatriot until Lucy started coughing. Instantly, Xena smacked Lucy sharply between the shoulder blades, causing her to dislodge whatever had caused her to choke. Lucy waved her off, catching her breath and taking a few swallows of her orange juice before hissing and glaring in Xena’s direction again. Xena’s brow creased. “What?”
“That burns,” Lucy croaked, reaching for the water and sighing when its coolness hit the back of her throat, soothing the rawness.
“You all right?” Xena asked sincerely. Lucy nodded.
“Yeah... I just didn’t hear you sneaking up on me,” Lucy smirked. “What’s up with that anyway?”
Xena blinked guileless blue eyes. “I’m not sure I know what you mean. I walked over here just like I walk everywhere else.”
“My point,” Lucy crowed though the twinkling in brown eyes belied any real upset. “Can’t you stomp or wear a bell or something?”
Xena rolled her eyes and signaled the single server assigned to this room over for both her order as well as Gabrielle’s. Sometimes, it was good to be in charge, and at the moment, in a private dining room that allowed the organizers of both conventions a few more minutes of peace before the melee began, it was good. She only hoped she’d feel the same at the end of the day - as well as at the end of the conference.
They watched the waiter walk back towards the kitchen area behind the conference rooms before Lucy resumed eating. “Amy having breakfast with the D.E.B.S.?”
Lucy finished chewing and swallowed carefully before nodding. “Yeah. Janet came by this morning to see if Amy would join them, you know... to give them a little chance to catch up. Since she’s really not part of the staff for either conference....” Lucy trailed off and Xena nodded sagely.
“Fair enough,” then nodded again when the waiter offered her a cup of coffee. She looked around casually, noting with satisfaction all their computer equipment seemed to be set and running. “Scud’s already been and gone?”
“Yeah,” Lucy replied with a laugh. “Said he needed to get out of the estrogen field before he lost his boyish figure. I’m not sure where he’s gonna find a testosterone laden bingo game at the Magic Kingdom, but if it makes him happy....” She trailed off with a shrug.
“Remind me to give him a bonus. He did some really great work here... for both conferences. I know he saved Barbara and Gabrielle some effort.”
“Speaking of... where’s everyone else?” Lucy asked, motioning around the empty room with her fork.
Xena looked at her watch and shrugged. “We’re actually a little ahead of schedule. Gabrielle sent me ahead to take care of ordering for us because she couldn’t find her glasses.” Xena watched Lucy’s eyes widen comically and chuckled. “I know, but she said I was causing more problems than I was solving,” her smile just the slightest bit evil. Lucy snorted.
“No, really? Imagine that.”
“Exactly,” Xena nodded emphatically, lips protesting her innocence even as her eyes spoke of her deviltry. “I mean who would think...?”
“Anyone who knows you, sweetheart,” Gabrielle pronounced from the doorway as she led an entourage into the room. Helena shook her head in understanding.
“Glad I don’t seem to be the only one with that affliction,” she remarked to Barbara. “Always being sadly misunderstood.”
A raised brow from Barbara and a snort from Dinah caused Helena to purse her lips in the smallest pout – which immediately changed to a blinding smile when Barbara took her hand and squeezed lightly.
Dinah slapped her hands over her ears. “All right, you two – stop projecting mushy stuff!!” She stomped to the table and dropped into a chair, propping her elbows on the table. “I’m gonna need therapy to recover!”
“I wouldn’t recommend it – there’s not enough therapy in the world to fix your issues on that particular front,” offered with a smirk that caused Dinah to stick out her tongue in Helena’s direction. “Besides, we both know from personal experience that psychs are bigger lunatics than the rest of us combined,” Helena commented roughly. “Although that makes a certain amount of sense, given that they listen to fruitcakes complain all damn day long.”
“Maybe I can take your mind off of it Dinah,” Diana said as she crossed the threshold holding her open laptop.
“Bad news?” Xena asked, her tone causing the rest to straighten and find the seats at the table.
Diana nodded and passed the notebook to Xena. “It’s not good,” she confirmed. The waiter placed Xena’s order in front of her and waited for Gabrielle to signal for the other plate, then patiently waited for the rest to place their orders. He scooted off quickly when they were done, and they all turned their attention to Xena, awaiting her verdict on Diana’s research.
“So we can expect some sort of retaliation at this point regardless,” Xena stated flatly, directing her gaze to Diana who nodded slowly.
“I’d say it was a safe bet. She doesn’t seem to be the type to let any sort of perceived slight to slide.”
Xena cocked an eyebrow. “I’ll look forward to her trying.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle chided softly. Xena turned to look directly into green eyes and the rest of the world faded from their consciousness.
“No, Gabrielle. I never have, and I’m certainly not starting with this woman. She wants to be the baddest ass on the block – I’ll show her what badass is.”
Gabrielle smiled gently, cupping her hand around Xena’s cheek. “Still my champion?”
“But you do know I can handle this?” seeing the truth in the blue eyes she held even as broad shoulders lifted nonchalantly. “Xena….”
“I know; it doesn’t make me want to pound her face into a fine powder any less.” She held Gabrielle’s eyes a moment longer before giving a loud sigh. “Fine... we’ll do it your way for now. But so help me, Gabrielle, she lifts an eyebrow in your direction....”
“... and all bets are off. I know. I have to try my way first. I doubt she’s ever had to deal with someone like me before. We both know there is nothing for her to find.”
“And she won’t be able to plant anything against her either,” Diana assured them, bringing their attention back to the room and the women patiently waiting for the tableau to be over. “I contacted Paula last night and she is running a program that will effectively thwart every effort Desdemona makes to take action against Gabrielle. It’s quite clever, actually.”
“May I see...?” Barbara asked, holding out her hands as Diana scooped up her laptop and offered it to her. She waited until Diana keyed in a few commands, then stared at the screen with an evil smirk. She turned to Diana and laughed. “Am I reading this right?” pointing to one small portion of the screen.
“Depends,” Diana replied cautiously. “What do you think you see?”
Barbara studied the area a moment longer, then slipped her glasses from her face to chew absently on an earpiece while she remained thoughtfully still. Finally, after a few moments of contemplation she returned her eyes to meet Diana’s, only absently noting that the rest seemed to be waiting for her discovery as well.
“I think it is a bot that turns her own actions against her – the more digging she does... the more action she tries to take against Gabrielle, the more the bot makes her the victim of her effort.”
“In English, please, Barbara,” Helena asked, knowing from some of the other befuddled looks in the room that she wasn’t the only one having a difficult time following.
Barbara folded her hands in her lap and took a deep breath to address the gathered women just as she would a classroom full of English Lit seniors. “Correct me if I am wrong, Diana,” with a nod to the other woman, “but it looks like it’s creating a loop that always leads back to her. When she tries to investigate Gabrielle, the bot will only provide Desdemona information about herself... not Gabrielle. And any attempt Desdemona makes to fabricate some sort of charge against Gabrielle – anything she could try to use as blackmail material – ends up as her ‘truth’. In other words, she can’t plant any evidence of wrongdoing against Gabrielle because it makes her look guilty of whatever she’s trying to accuse Gabrielle of.”
Helena nodded her approval. “That’s pretty fucking cool, Red.”
“I thought so too,” Barbara admitted. She looked back at Diana. “Do you think I could get a look at the code when this is all over – for my personal curiosity?”
Her eyes didn’t leave Barbara’s, but the vigilante got the distinct impression she waited for approval from Gabrielle before nodding her agreement. Barbara smiled and passed the laptop back to Diana.
“Thank you, Diana. You won’t regret it.”
“I know, Barbara, and I appreciate that. Now,” closing her laptop and turning back to the others in the room, “if we’re done here....” But before she could finish, the Disney convention coordinator strode quickly into the room from the back, her expression more than slightly harried.
“Rita?” Gabrielle asked.
The slim woman took a deep breath. “Gabrielle, I think we have a problem.”
“Is this the best you could do?” Desdemona asked sharply as she swept up to the beleaguered women currently putting the finishing touches on the tables they had pilfered not many minutes before. They were draped and labeled with the AVID logo. Boxes were stacked neatly under them waiting to be opened and their bounty placed on the tops – all in all, they weren’t doing too badly, and Bailey exchanged a look with her hapless cohorts before looking at Desi.
“We’ve only had a few moments to prepare,” she started, but cut off abruptly when Desdemona sighed like a martyr while giving her a look that distinctly called her a moron without ever saying a word.
“Why are we out in the hall? We are supposed to be inside with the *rest* of the publishers! This is not some two-bit company looking for handouts. We are one of the foremost leaders in the industry of feminine publishing. Tell them, Franklyn.”
“We are one of the foremost leaders in the industry of feminine publishing,” he droned obediently. Bailey and the rest rolled their eyes at one another though they did not let Desdemona see such an action. She wasn’t very tolerant of much – least of all insubordination. Bailey took a deep breath when she turned back to Desi, only to find her waiting impatiently for an explanation – hands on hips and eyebrow raised in question even as she scowled in anger.
“Be that as it may, it does not change the fact that we did not register for this convention and there is not a place inside for us.”
Brown eyes burned red with rage and Desdemona sneered. “Are you so sure?? Have you tried?” grabbing for the door handle and jerking... only to find it locked against her efforts.
“Yes, Desdemona. I am sure and I have tried,” Bailey responded calmly, wondering again why she continued working a job she had come to hate almost as much as she did the woman who employed her.
“Well, pick the lock or something,” Desi demanded.
“No,” Bailey returned shakily, though her eyes never left Desdemona’s.
“What did you say?” hissing and standing straighter.
“No, Desdemona. Setting up out here is going to get us into enough trouble. I’m not going to add breaking and entering to the charges.”
Desdemona snorted. “That’s ridiculous. What charges?? We’re *entitled* to be here. We’re a pillar in the publishing community. There should be a place for us regardless of whether we registered or not. They need us.”
“If they need us, then they will ask us to join them when they arrive. Until then, there’s not much else we can do,” Bailey explained patiently.
“Actually,” a new voice broke in, “there is something you can do.” The AVID publishing contingent turned as a single body to find a slim woman approaching them wearing a Disney nametag. Bailey gave a longsuffering sigh. She had been waiting for this and knew with Desi here, it was likely to become an ugly confrontation.
“Who are you... Rita?” Desdemona sneered, hoping to intimidate the woman into leaving. “What business do you have here?”
Rita smiled pleasantly enough, but it was clear to the rest of the AVID team that she was someone of importance in this place. “I am the convention planning supervisor for the resort,” she informed Desdemona politely. “And it is my job to ensure that things run smoothly and that everything is in place for my clients.”
“Good!” Desdemona replied, oozing slimy charm. “Then you can let us into the convention hall,” motioning to the locked doors behind her. “We were late getting in and my associates thought it best to set up in the hall since we couldn’t gain access to the main room. Now that you’re here however....”
“Now that I’m here, I’m going to have to ask you to pack up your things and return the tables to wherever you found them. Then you need to clear the premises.”
Desdemona sputtered, her anger washing over her in white hot spots. “Clear the premises?!? Do you know who I am???” drawing herself up to her full height... a height that made little difference to Rita who stood another five inches taller than she was.
“Yes, actually I do. And I know you are not actually registered for either convention that is taking place in this hall this weekend. So I am offering you the opportunity, as a courtesy, to vacate these premises without penalty. If I have to have you removed, it will be unpleasant. You will be removed, not simply from this resort, but from Disney property.”
Desdemona narrowed her eyes. “Are you threatening me, Rita?”
“Not at all, Ms Von A’Calandra. I am simply telling you how it is going to be.”
Desi pursed her lips, then gave what was supposed to have been a charming smile. “I think there has been a misunderstanding. I am supposed to be part of the Women in Media conference. I am certain the paperwork just got lost... probably my worthless assistant,” gesturing to Bailey who turned red at the implication. “Perhaps if we were to talk to Gabrielle....”
Rita sighed. She knew what she had been told, but if it would make this... individual... leave peacefully, she would ask Gabrielle to reiterate her instructions. She nodded.
“Very well. Wait here. I’ll go find Gabrielle and we’ll get this settled once and for all. However, regardless of what she says, you cannot keep these tables here. They need to be dismantled and put away where you found them.”
“Of course,” Desdemona agreed sweetly. “We’ll get right on it.”
Rita walked away and Desdemona turned back to her employees, fuming.
“All right! Get this mess packed up and put away. You knew better than to try something like this – I can’t imagine what you were thinking!” A beat. “Oh that’s right – you can’t think for yourselves, can you? That’s why you need me to do it for you all the time! And you,” facing Bailey who met her eyes defiantly before dropping back to the table. “If Gabrielle doesn’t forgive your lack of preparedness and allow us into this convention – you’re fired.”
“Of course,” Bailey mumbled under her breath. “Heaven forbid you take responsibility for your own mistakes.”
“That’s what I thought. Now get to work.”
Bailey bit her lip and the rest looked at her sympathetically, but no one stepped forward to interfere. Instead, they doubled their efforts, hoping to deflect Desdemona’s attention from her ire. Then Gabrielle and her entourage approached with Rita leading the way and they simply stood back to watch the fallout.
“Gabrielle, I don’t think you understand.” Desdemona’s smile reminded Gabrielle vaguely of an alligator waiting to bite.
“I understand perfectly, Ms Von A’Calandra. The fact remains that you did not register for the conference and there is no way to make a place for you at this late date. Now, I am sorry that you cannot attend, but I cannot and will not make an exception.”
Desdemona’s eyes flared in rage and she looked at the women behind Gabrielle, smirking when she caught Barbara Gordon’s eye. “I guess Ms Gordon didn’t explain things to you.”
Green eyes flashed fire and Desdemona forced herself not to take an instinctive step back in reflex. “Oh... Barbara made things perfectly clear, Ms Von A’Calandra. So let me make *myself* perfectly clear to *you*. I don’t like you and I don’t like the way you operate; therefore I have absolutely no reason to allow you into my conference. Do yourself a favor and go home.”
Desdemona snarled. “Oh Gabrielle,” she purred. “You have *no* idea who you’re dealing with.”
Gabrielle’s chuckle caused a flush of red to infuse Desdemona’s features. “That’s where you’re wrong, Desdemona. I know *exactly* who and what you are. But let me assure you, you *really* don’t have a clue who you’re dealing with. Now go home, and leave my friends alone.”
“And if I don’t?”
Before Gabrielle could say a word, Xena stepped up beside her and let her eyes flash red-gold. This time, Desdemona did step back, clutching at her throat with her hand and nodding jerkily.
“Very well,” she conceded with another sneer in Gabrielle’s direction. “I’ll go for now. But we’re not done. This isn’t over!” she proclaimed dramatically before motioning to her minions and striding off down the hall, leaving the rest to watch her departure in silence.
Return to the Academy