Lucy waited a whole heartbeat after the AVID contingent disappeared around the corner before she snorted indelicately. Helena caught her eye and added a guffaw to her merriment and soon they were laughing. Rita, Dinah and Barbara joined in and even Diana chuckled quietly at the turn of events. Only Xena and Gabrielle remained unfazed, exchanging smirks and silent communication over not only the events of the past few minutes, but also the method of stress relief their cohorts were indulged in.
Finally, Rita drew a deep breath and sighed. “I know that was completely unprofessional of me, but that woman has been a thorn in my side and that of my fellow planners since she arrived two days ago.” She looked at Lucy and Helena. “Thank you for the laugh; I needed that.” She turned to Gabrielle. “Thank you for allowing me to be a witness to that. It was nice to see her get her comeuppance in a way that I am simply not allowed to give it to her.”
Gabrielle patted the hand resting lightly on her arm and gave Rita a sympathetic smile. “I do not envy you, Rita. I’ve been where you are and I’ve learned that sometimes the best art of negotiation lies in just telling it like it is.”
Rita nodded. “Is there anything else I can do for either of you at the moment?” looking between them and watching the unspoken communication in fascination before Xena and Gabrielle turned to face her once more.
“Not at the moment,” Xena replied. “I think we’re all set.”
“All right.” Rita nodded again. “Well, I’ll have my cell on and you know where the office is if you need anything. John will be in this morning and Shondra has the evening shift.”
“Thanks Rita,” they offered and watched her walk back towards the office area before Xena clapped her hands together.
“All right troops!” motioning the women around her to scatter. “Time to get to work.”
With that, Xena, Diana and Lucy went one direction while Gabriella, Barbara, Helena and Dinah headed another. It was time for the fun to begin.
“Casey, can we talk?” Lindsay asked as she met up with the rather large New York contingent waiting to enter the conference room. Casey studied Lindsay for a long moment before nodding her head.
“Sure.” She looked at Olivia and Alex. “Will you guys excuse me?”
“We’ll save you a seat,” Alex assured her as they were herded towards the door. Casey nodded her thanks and moved off to one side with Lindsay following just behind her.
“What can I do for you, Inspector?” her tone firm.
Lindsay bit her lip. “First of all, Abbie doesn’t know I’m here talking to you. If she did, she’d disown me for minding her business.”
“Which is?” Casey prodded.
“Look, I can’t tell you that; it’s really not my place. What I *can* tell you is that when she comes to you... and she will... and she tells you it’s her and not you – she’s not lying. Her problem is her right now, but if you’re patient, I promise the payoff will be worth it.” When she was met with silence and a skeptically raised eyebrow, Lindsay sighed. She should have known that her cousin would pick some one who was her equal – not just in the brains and beauty departments, but in the stubbornness department as well. She scrubbed her hands over her face and rubbed the back of her neck before catching Casey’s eyes and holding them with her own.
“Casey, do you love her? Really truly love her?”
“Heart and soul, Inspector,” Casey answered without hesitation. Lindsay smiled.
“Then trust me on this.”
Casey studied the brown eyes looking into her own and realized they were so like the ones she loved. She saw the same flecks of gold, the same twinkling sense of mischief peeking out at her and the same sense of earnestness and genuine concern. She wondered what caused the shadows in Lindsay’s eyes and vowed to befriend this woman on her own merit as well as for Abbie’s sake.
“All right, Inspector,” she said at long last. “I’ll trust you; I don’t think you’d lie to me about something like this.”
“Nope. I love my cousin,” Lindsay stated honestly. “We were best friends growing up.”
Casey smiled. “So you have lots of good stories to tell then.”
“Oh, you betcha.” Lindsay paused. “One condition, though.”
“You’re gonna have to call me Lindsay. Inspector is just too... formal... for family.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal, Lindsay. Oooh,” noting the line of women going into the conference room had thinned to a trickle. “Guess we better get in there before we miss out on something.”
As a matter of course, Lindsay put her hand on Casey’s back to usher them towards the door together. Then they crossed the threshold into the convention room and found their friends holding places for them as they had promised. It was starting out to be an interesting day.
“Ladies... ladies, if I could have your attention for a moment....” Xena looked out over the room and the rows and rows of chairs that were filled to capacity. The women quieted and faced the podium. “Thank you. My name is Xena and I just wanted to welcome you to the Women in Law Enforcement conference.” The women present clapped and cheered, and Xena hesitated, a bit nonplussed. “We’re going to give you some time this morning to visit the many vendor booths we have set up around the room. Each of you received a schedule in your registration packet - it shows the different panels available to each of the disciplines registered here. Please take advantage of as many as your schedule allows; I think you’ll find them informative regardless of your vocation. So, thank you for joining us. Feel free to move about the room and we’ll see you all back here at ten o’clock.”
Before anyone could say a word, Xena stepped off of the stage area and was moving towards the breakout room where the computer equipment was currently being monitored by Lucy.
“How’re we doing?”
“Everything’s cool. The vendors are all well-represented and all the speakers and instructors have checked in. Attendees are still straggling in, but since it’s just after eight am, that’s not surprising.”
Xena nodded. “All right. I’ll be walking the floor. Let me know if you need me for anything.”
“You got it, boss.”
Xena turned to head back to her side of the convention hall when she paused to look at Dinah who was manning the computers on Gabrielle’s side.
“You doing all right, Dinah?”
“Yeah, thanks. It’s quieter in here and I actually enjoy this part of things. Barbara’s been teaching me at home.”
Xena nodded, understanding everything Dinah was saying as well as those things she wasn’t able to say in front of Lucy.
“Well if you need anything....”
Dinah grinned. “I know where to find you *and* Gabrielle. Go do your ‘being in charge’ thing. Lucy and I are cool in here.”
Xena shook her head and walked towards the con hall, muttering under her breath about needing a vacation. Lucy and Dinah just exchanged grins and went back to their respective monitoring.
“Ladies, if I could have your attention,” Gabrielle said with a smile, nose crinkling in excitement as all eyes in the room turned to her. It had been a long time since she had been on stage for any reason and she realized with a bit of surprise that she missed it in ways she hadn’t realized until that moment. Still, this wasn’t a performance and there was a lot of work to be done in the next few days.
“Please, if you could all take your seats, we’ll get started,” waiting for the women to settle into place. “Thank you. Welcome to the Women in Media conference.” Applause greeted the pronouncement and she waited for it to die down before resuming her introductory speech. “My name is Gabrielle and I’m happy to see you all here today. If you had a chance to look through your packets, you’ll see that the first couple hours this morning are open. This will give you a chance to visit the vendors as well as do some networking amongst yourselves. This afternoon, we’ll begin the tutorials and classes that have been arranged for this weekend. I think Barbara scheduled it so that if you want to attend every panel, you’ll have the opportunity to do so. Just try to have some fun this weekend as well, okay?”
More applause and Gabrielle just smiled and waited. When it was quiet again, she spoke. “So please, enjoy yourselves and if you have any questions, well... I’ll be wandering around the hall, all right?”
They cheered again and Gabrielle stepped from the stage, finding Barbara at the bottom of the steps waiting for her. Green eyes met and Gabrielle smiled and arched an eyebrow, knowing Barbara would understand her unspoken question.
“Everything’s on track. The vendors and publishers are excited and stocked with all sorts of goodies and giveaways; the speakers prepped and ready; and Dinah’s in the monitoring room with Lucy.”
“She all right?” knowing Barbara had intended to man the computers herself.
Barbara nodded. “Yeah. As good as she’s gotten at control, there are a lot of projectors in this room. And it doesn’t matter how strong of a telepath you are – when people throw their thoughts out for all and sundry to hear, it’s wearing. There’s no need for her to suffer through this if she doesn’t have to.”
“You’re a good woman, Barbara Gordon.”
Barbara cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Don’t you go spreading that around. Ruins the image you know.”
Gabrielle snorted. “Barbara, as far as everyone here is concerned, you’re a high school English teacher who does editing on the side. Why wouldn’t they think you are a good woman?”
“Face it, Red,” Helena said as she approached stealthily from behind the stage area. “You’re always gonna have a good girl rep.”
Barbara stuck out her tongue. “That sucks!” she muttered low to keep the conversation private between the three of them. “I’m a vigilante for God’s sakes. I used to ride a motorcycle!”
Helena leaned forward, a teasing glint in her eye. “You’ll always be my bad girl, Barbara. The rest of the world doesn’t need to know that side of you.” Barbara flushed red but kept her eyes steadily locked onto Helena’s, returning the gentle smile.
Gabrielle covered her mouth to keep her chuckles silent at the exchange she was an unwitting witness to, but Helena heard them anyway, her eyes flashing gold before returning to their natural blue state. She broke Barbara’s gaze briefly to smile rakishly at Gabrielle and Gabrielle just shook her head knowingly.
“You two are quite a pair,” she said with a smile. “Now go have some fun,” motioning towards the full convention hall. “I’ll be around if you need me.”
Barbara caught her hand and squeezed it lightly before releasing it. “Thanks, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle didn’t ask what for – she simply nodded and smiled before wandering into the crowd.
“Excuse me?” the harried looking woman reluctantly interrupted the two striking dark-haired women sitting alone in the long hall leading to the convention area. They looked up at her simultaneously and she caught her breath. “I’m sorry to intrude, but you seem to be the only ones around at the moment,” gesturing at the empty corridor. “My name is Doris Wolfe, and I was wondering if you could point me to the Women in Law Enforcement conference.
“Sure,” the younger of the two answered, standing up and moving closer to Doris. “Just go down this hall. You’ll pass the first convention hall, then the hallway crooks to the right – keep going straight by the smaller halls until you reach another wide area like this one. The Law Enforcement conference is in the second large convention room in that hall.”
“Oh... thank you so much. My plane was late and I’m....” She trailed off, remembering the tableau she had interrupted. “Sorry, I’m babbling. Thank you for your help Ms...?” waiting for a name.
“Prentiss... Emily Prentiss.”
“Well, thank you for your help, Emily Prentiss.”
“My pleasure, Ms Wolfe,” watching her walk away dragging her suitcase and various other bags behind her. She returned to sit next to Sabrina who was watching her with proud, patient eyes.
“You are so not like your mother. She would have been scathingly polite, but sent the woman away with her tail between her legs for daring to interrupt us like that.”
“Did you mind?” Emily asked.
Sabrina shook her head. “Not at all. It didn’t hurt either of us, and it helped her. So why not extend a bit of courtesy to someone who needed it?”
“Are you certain you and Mother are related? I mean... don’t get me wrong, but you’re so... different. It’s hard to believe you were raised by the same parents.”
Sabrina shrugged. “We made different choices in life. We wanted different things. It’s one reason we grew so far apart.”
“Is that why you disappeared from my life? Because you and Mother were different and wanted different things out of life?”
Sabrina paused, considering her words carefully. She didn’t want to be the cause of any trouble between her niece and her sister. But at the same time, she felt the desire to be honest about the reasons behind their estrangement.
“Partly,” Sabrina replied. “Your mother didn’t want me to be an... undue influence on your life.”
Emily frowned. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Sabrina sighed. “It means that when I told her I was gay, she was afraid I might be contagious and refused to have anything to do with me after that. And there was no way in hell she was going to let me near you.”
“Excuse me?” Emily’s voice and facial expression creating a picture of confused disbelief. “You have *got* to be kidding me.”
Sabrina snorted. “Not at all – though Elizabeth did think I was kidding her when I told her. After all, as she pointed out, I had been married and divorced twice when I made the decision to become a lesbian. That’s how she saw it, you know – I chose to be a lesbian... mostly because I knew how it would reflect on her and the family and I would do anything to bring shame and disgrace to her.” Sabrina’s voice was laced with bitter memories and she closed her eyes.
Emily stared at the woman who, on the outside at least, resembled the mother she had struggled with and against her whole life and yet was so different. Tentatively, she raised a trembling hand, gently cupping Sabrina’s cheek and watching her brown eyes flutter open slowly.
“Mother told me you died.”
Sabrina shook her head. “As far as she was concerned, I did. I tried to keep in touch, but the State Department isn’t real big about releasing information about its employees – especially the ambassadors. Even Charlie couldn’t get anything from his contacts.” She chuckled wryly. “It figures that Elizabeth cultivated one that could blockade Charlie.”
“So you looked for us?”
“I looked for you. I figured given how uptight your mother was, you might need an outlet. I thought I might be able to be that for you.”
“I wish you had been. I could’ve used a friend like you when I was growing up.”
“Now, I could still use a friend like you, Aunt Bre.” Emily tilted Sabrina’s head forward and planted a kiss on her forehead. She dropped her hand down to clasp Sabrina’s, tugging on it gently until they were both standing. “C’mon, I know your friends and mine went ahead to give us a chance to get some answers from one another, but if we don’t get down there pretty soon, they’re going to come back looking for us.”
“We’ll sit down soon and catch up?” relishing the fact that Emily hadn’t released her hand.
“Oh, you betcha. We’ve got years of stories and life to share. I’m not letting go now that I’ve got you back.”
Sabrina’s grin was wide and she loosened their hands enough to allow her to wrap an arm around Emily’s waist. Emily reciprocated the motion and Sabrina brushed a kiss over her niece’s temple. Then they walked arm and arm down the corridor towards the convention hall, following the same path Emily had directed Doris to earlier.
It was shaping up to be a memorable conference.
Diana caught Xena’s eye and with a subtle nod, they were both headed towards the monitoring room where Dinah and Lucy still sat, patiently watching the computers set up in front of them. They looked up to see who was joining them, then returned their attention back to their observation., offering Xena and Diana whatever measure of privacy they could in the small enclosure.
“Problem?” Though they were in a corner of the room so they couldn’t be overheard, their voices were whisper soft.
Diana shrugged. “Depends on your point of view. I just got a note from Paula. She found – well, apparently Desdemona has two copies of her blackmail list. One of them is a hard copy that she keeps in a safety deposit box... and one of them is electronic.”
“Paula got in?”
“Paula got in. After looking through the electronic copy, she offered to eliminate it... before realizing that would give away the fact that someone was able to break through her firewall and put Desdemona’s back up. By Paula’s accounting, it appears that everyone here, except for you and Gabrielle, is on her list for something.”
“You’re kidding.” Xena’s voice was flat. She blew out a breath. “That would certainly explain a lot of what I’ve been hearing.” Before she could say more, Gabrielle stepped into the room and crossed over to where they stood. She looked at them both and shook her head.
“Let me guess... Desdemona?” Before either woman could ask, Gabrielle smirked. “You both have the same pinched expression I’ve been seeing in my room for the last hour.”
“Yeah... apparently everyone in there has a reason to fear this woman.” She turned and looked directly at Xena. “How is it we missed her? How did she stay under our radar?”
“Probably because she didn’t try to blackmail us. And let’s face it - no one, no matter how well they know you or how much they trust you is going to willingly share the fact that they are being blackmailed... especially by someone like her.”
“What are they saying on the law enforcement side?”
Xena bit her lip. “Lots of muttering, mostly. They can’t believe she showed up here like this. A lot of them are angry. Yours?”
“Most of them are talking about me having thrown her out on her ear – they think it’s funny. But none of them like the fact that she’s here.”
Xena turned to Diana who was watching the conversation in silence. “What about her employees?”
“I’ve got Paula looking into it. After our encounter with her this morning, I figured we’d need to know. They certainly didn’t look too happy to be working for her though... especially that poor, hapless assistant. Talk about a nightmare job.”
“All right,” Xena said, rubbing a hand over the back of her neck to relieve some of the tension she could feel settling there. “Let’s get back out there and keep our eyes and ears open. It could get nasty if that bitch decides to try again.”
Gabrielle and Diana nodded and they quickly separated to head back to their specific responsibilities. Lucy and Dinah exchanged glances and shook their heads.
“Glad I’m not the boss,” Lucy mumbled loud enough for Dinah to hear.
“Yeah... me too.”
“Gabrielle?” Natalia called softly from her vantage point near the door Gabrielle emerged from. Gabrielle let her eyes scan the room when she heard her name before they landed on Natalia’s pensive form. She nodded to show she had heard the summons and made her way slowly to stand in front of her.
“Natalia?” she returned warmly, her expression calm and comforting. “Is there a problem?”
“Aside from Desdemona you mean?” She held up her hand before Gabrielle could respond. “I just wanted to ask if you thought Jellybean was safe with her being here. No matter what she thinks she has on Olivia or me, if she’s a threat to Emma, all bets are off. And I’d really like to be able to enjoy this trip – it’s the first we’ve taken together since becoming a family.”
Despite her worry about Desdemona, Natalia couldn’t hide the pride or happiness she felt about being a family with Olivia and Emma and that fact made Gabrielle smile. She remembered the early days with Xena, when they were first becoming a family and it made her just the least little bit nostalgic. She placed her hand on Natalia’s arm and squeezed it in gentle reassurance.
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Natalia. I’m fairly confident that our earlier actions managed to focus her attention on Xena and me for the time being. We’re a new challenge... something she hasn’t encountered in a while and I think she’s going to be busy trying to dig up some dirt on us, thinking it will influence our thinking towards her. Regardless, there is no way Xena or I would stand idly by and allow her to hurt or endanger a child.”
She felt more than heard Natalia’s sigh of relief. “You sound very much like an irate parent. Thank you, Gabrielle.”
“Why don’t you and your family join us for dinner this evening?” Gabrielle offered impulsively. “After all, if you’re going to trust us with your most precious possession at some point, you’re going to want to get to know us a little better, right?”
The smile on Natalia’s face made her dimples blossom in their full glory and she nodded. “Yes, thank you. We’d love to. Emma thought you were the coolest thing to come along since sliced bread, but it would make Olivia and me....”
Gabrielle held up a hand. “Say no more - I understand perfectly. Tonight around six? I’ll let you know where to meet us before we break for the day.”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
“So will I,” Gabrielle assured her before heading deeper into the bowels of the convention room.
“You know, Sam... there should be some steps the military or homeland security could take to eliminate the threat someone like Desdemona poses.”
“What do you want me to do, Janet? Call Jack and tell him we’ve got a wet ops situation on our hands? Because you know he’d come in and take care of it if I asked him to.”
Janet narrowed her eyes in Sam’s direction. “I know he would, and you know that’s not what I meant. We both know what happens to those secrets if she dies.”
Sam sighed. “I know. But you’re right – someone ought to be able to do something without all those secrets suddenly becoming public knowledge. Because I’m betting if she is blackmailing the military and law enforcement to keep them from shutting her down, she is probably doing the same to her competition. And who knows how far her reach extends – politicians, heads of corporations.... I’ve heard she even has ties to the mob in that regard. If I could just figure out some way to put a worm in her system without her being able to detect it.”
“Even if you could,” Mac cut in as she came up behind them, “you know she has to have at least one failsafe to protect herself from something like that. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have survived as long as she has. Now, enough worrying about something we have no control over. C’mon... I want to see what some of theses vendors are offering. I promised Harm I’d see if there were any new law enforcement toys we might want to look into.”
“Personally or professionally?” Janet said with a grin of her own, watching Mac blush at the implication. “Besides, we came here to enjoy ourselves and make some new friends and I intend to do just that. Just because I wish there was something we could do doesn’t mean I think we should. Karma will pay Desdemona back in spades if we are simply patient enough to let it.”
“Atta girl. C’mon, Sarah,” Sam said taking Janet’s hand in hers and tucking her other hand in the crook of Mac’s elbow. “Lead the way.”
With a smile, Sarah MacKenzie headed towards the closest vendor booth.
A hand on Sara Sidle’s back caused her to turn, a smile crossing her face when she met Claire Washburn’s smiling countenance. Claire motioned to the booth. “Yours?” she asked quietly, noting the embarrassed flush that washed over Sara’s face before her eyes dropped to the floor and she nodded. Claire put a hand under her chin and brought Sara’s eyes back up to meet her own.
“Don’t do that, Sara. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your brilliance or your success.”
Sara nodded. “I know... and I’m not – not really. I’m just... this is all new,” motioning to the booth marked Coordinated Scientific Industries. “Even my team doesn’t know about this yet.”
Claire frowned. “Why not? Sara,” looking over the different pieces of equipment. “This is all good stuff... some of it is breakthrough technology, if I’m understanding its purpose.”
“It’s all still in the prototype stage, Claire. I’m not sure if it will even make it into practical application, or if it will function in the field like it’s supposed to.”
“Sara,” Claire chided, taking the younger woman’s face in her hands and holding her eyes steadily. “If you designed it, it’s going to work. I know it’s taken longer than you wanted it to, but this is your area of expertise, after all. You may have to do some tweaking or even some redesigning to make it function the way you want it to, but eventually you’ll achieve whatever purpose you had in mind.”
Before Sara could reply, Wendy came up to the booth, eyes shining as she realized what was in front of her.
“Oh... this is amazing. I wonder....” She looked around for the vendor representative before her eyes caught Sara’s and widened. Sara cleared her throat, taking comfort from the hand Claire still had resting on the small of her back.
“You wonder what, Wendy?”
Wendy blinked twice before her smile widened. “Is this yours, Sara?” waiting for the hesitant nod before giving Sara an impulsive hug. “That’s fabulous! Wait til I tell the others.”
“Tell the others what?” Catherine asked as she approached the small group gathered in front of the booth. Then she looked down and let her eyes widen at the implications of the equipment displayed there. She let her hands trail gently over the pieces. “Oh... this is great.” She looked between Wendy and Sara. “Is this what I think it is? Where’s the vendor?” caressing the gear again. “I have some questions.”
“Sara, as smart as we both know you are, I don’t think you’re going to be able to tell me about this stuff. It looks like new technology – only the person who designed it would be able to answer my questions.”
“Exactly,” Sara replied. “So why don’t you ask and let me see if I can answer them? I may as well start off with my harshest critic – if I can satisfy you, I should be able to satisfy anybody.”
“Are you saying...?”
“This is Sara’s stuff, Catherine,” Wendy cut in. “Give her a chance.”
Catherine’s eyebrows went into her hairline, but her blue eyes twinkled. “Why, Sara Sidle... color me impressed,” looking over the booth once more. “Now tell me about this stuff.” Before long, a crowd had gathered and Sara Sidle was holding an impromptu class about crime scene investigative work.
“Excuse me, Sam?” Natalie said as she approached the young women standing together in front of the Gold Leaf Publishing booth.
“Hey Nat!” She turned to the woman standing beside her. “I don’t think the two of you got introduced yesterday. Natalie Green... Cindy Thomas.”
Cindy’s eyes sparkled; Sam knew she had wanted to meet Natalie. She had long admired her work and was in fact one of the reasons Cindy had chosen journalism. Before she could say a word, Natalie held up her hand.
“Hold that thought, please. Sam, you need to go to the lobby... NOW.”
Sam’s brows furrowed, but she set aside the book she had been thumbing through and headed towards the door. She had known Natalie long enough to know something had to be really wrong if she was using that tone. When she realized she was being accompanied by both Natalie and Cindy, she smiled grimly and forged ahead – turning her head to ask the question as she pushed open the door.
“Nat, why I am rushing to the lobby?”
Then her arms were full of Brooke McQueen and she simply held the trembling woman in her arms for a long moment while looking around to spot what had upset her girlfriend so badly. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she tilted Brooke’s head up until their eyes met.
Brooke took a shuddering breath and shook her head. “I’m all right, Sammy. Just a little shook up.”
“What happened, baby?”
Natalie took Cindy’s arm and pulled her back towards their conference room. “C’mon. We’ll leave these two to settle things and....”
“And you’ll tell me what the hell is going on?”
They turned back to look at Sam still cradling Brooke in her embrace. “All I know is Brooke nearly plowed me over as I was coming out of the ladies’ room. I figured whatever was wrong, she needed Sam, so I came and got Sam. Other than that...?” Natalie shrugged.
“I hope everything’s all right, but I have to admit being glad for the opportunity to meet you.”
Natalie cocked an eyebrow and grinned. “You can tell me about it inside,” she said, opening the door and motioning Cindy in ahead of her. She spared a final glance at Sam and Brooke, nodding when Sam gave her a smile and wave, then she closed the door behind her, leaving Sam and Brooke alone in the shared foyer.
Sam led them over to a tiny alcove and seated them on the bench there, never losing tactile contact with Brooke. After a few more minutes, she felt Brooke relax in her embrace and take another shuddering breath. Brown eyes smiled down into hazel and Brooke smiled back in reflex, straightening so she met Sam’s eyes evenly.
“You ready to talk now?”
Brooke nodded. “Yeah... sorry. It just... it kind of freaked me out a little. In fact....” She stood up and looked around the large hallway, clutching Sam’s hand. Brooke tugged gently and Sam stood up beside her. “C’mon – I need to find Jordan. I’ll tell you the story on the way,” answering the unspoken question so apparent in Sam’s dark eyes.
Sam nodded gamely and walked beside Brooke as they moved down the hallway in search of Jordan Cavanaugh.
Strangely enough or not, they found her in the bar at the end of the hallway – not crying, not moving. She sat perfectly still, barely breathing, eyes focused on the drink in front of her. Having heard Brooke’s short description of what had happened, Sam took a seat next to Jordan while Brooke stood behind her – close enough to hear the conversation without drawing attention to herself.
“Dr. Cavanaugh? Are you all right?”
Jordan shook her head without looking up, tears welling in her eyes and rolling silently down her cheeks. Impatiently, she wiped them away and blew out a breath, picking up her glass and scrutinizing the contents thereof.
“She liked a good single malt whiskey, you know,” she commented offhandedly, then turned to face Sam. Jordan narrowed her eyes and scrunched up her nose in thought. “Do I know you?” She paused. “Should I know you?”
Sam smiled sadly and shook her head. “No, doc. You don’t know me – you shouldn’t know me... unless you read the Washington Post.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Sam McPherson.”
“And why are you here, Sam McPherson?”
“Because you scared the crap out of my girlfriend, and when I heard why, I thought you might need a friend.” Sam looked down at her hands clenched tightly together and took a deep breath before looking up to meet Jordan’s eyes. “You see, I’ve been where you are,” her voice shaky. “Except I was lucky – Brooke survived,” relaxing slightly when she felt the comforting touch on the small of her back.
Jordan noticed the action and shifted to see Brooke just behind Sam. She lifted a shaky hand towards the familiar face, but even though Brooke made no attempt to move away from her, Jordan let it drop before making contact. “You really do look just like her,” her voice an unsteady whisper.
“Tell us about her,” Sam encouraged.
Jordan looked between the two of them for a long moment. “I’ll share mine if you share yours.” Sam and Brooke exchanged silent glances and nodded. Jordan smiled sadly, then turned to the woman that stood in the back corner of the bar, trying to ignore the tableau playing out in front of her. Jordan motioned her over.
“Barkeep, two more glasses for my friends.” The bartender placed the bottle of whiskey on the bar with two fresh glasses. Jordan absently nodded her approval of the alcohol and the woman poured a generous portion into each glass. Jordan dropped a bill onto the wooden surface and scooped up her glass, while passing the remaining two to Sam. Then she rose from the stool and led them over to the privacy afforded by the more comfortable lounge area.
This was going to take a while.
“Detective Tallulah Simmons was my friend... probably the best friend I’d ever had in the world as an adult, except maybe my dad.” She paused thoughtfully. “She was a pretty good kisser too, though we were never....” gesturing between Sam and Brooke and shook her head at their slightly disbelieving looks. “Really,” she chuckled sadly. “Not that I might not have welcomed it after I kissed her, but.... My ex-boyfriend Woody and she were dating and he was afraid I might have hard feelings towards them. So I kissed them both to show them I was okay with them, you know... being a couple.”
“So what happened?” Sam prompted when the silence started to drag on uncomfortably. Jordan cleared her throat.
“Sorry.” She glanced at Brooke before settling her eyes on Sam. “Did you hear about the young black child that was shot by police officers in Boston... thirty-three times?”
Brooke squeezed the hand she held and Sam turned her attention to Brooke. “I did. It’s become part of the curriculum at Harvard. But I never saw pictures.” She swallowed hard and looked at Jordan’s downcast head. “No wonder... I’m so sorry, Jordan.”
“You even sound like her,” Jordan commented softly.
“You wanna share?” Sam asked impatiently. Brooke allowed her thumb to caress the back of Sam’s hand, the touch both comforting and reassuring. She smiled briefly when she felt Sam relax.
“The incident originally let the officers off scot-free and it caused the city to rise up in riots. Dr. Cavanaugh decided to reexamine the evidence, but the city was already in chaos. Detective Simmons was shot.”
“She died in my arms,” Jordan added softly. She met and held Brooke’s eyes. “So to see her... you... alive and well – it threw me... badly. I’m sorry for freaking you out,” accepting the hand Brooke offered her, stroking the soft skin and absently noting the subtle differences between Brooke’s touch and Lu’s. She chuckled softly and shook her head again. “You wanna know the ironic thing?” looking between them. “Apparently I remind some of the lawyers from Manhattan of a colleague that died years ago. The difference is none of them had a come apart when they saw me.”
“Sounds like it was a little different circumstance too.”
Jordan shrugged and wiped her eyes diffidently. “Maybe. Doesn’t make my reaction any less embarrassing.”
“But more understandable. I’m sorry for....” Brooke stopped speaking when Jordan shook her head.
“All you did was walk away. It could have been so much worse.” She cleared her throat again and turned back to Sam. “So what’s your story?” Sam shuddered and Jordan watched the color drain from her face before feeling Brooke’s hand slide from hers to clutch Sam’s face between her hands.
“Breathe, Sammy. I’m right here.” She turned back to Jordan.
“During our junior year of high school, my supposed best friend got drunk and ran me over with her Jag. Sam watched it happened... watched me die... and brought me back to life. We spent a large part of our senior year in one form of therapy or another together. Sam never missed a day of physical therapy with me, and we were both in counseling for the emotional damage she did.”
Jordan turned to Sam whose eyes never left Brooke’s. “That’s amazing, Sam. Maybe sometime when you feel a little more comfortable, you can share more of the story. Because you obviously got a happy ending, and I’m a sucker for a happy ending.” Her voice was still shaky, but her eyes were sincere.
Sam swallowed hard and nodded jerkily before letting her eyes leave Brooke’s to meet Jordan’s gaze. “Yeah,” she said as she covered the hands cupping her face. “Me too,” she agreed softly, bringing the hands she now held in her own and brushing her lips over them before putting them in her lap. “I’m sorry about your loss.”
Jordan nodded her acceptance of the proffered condolence. “Me too. She was a good person... a good friend.” She lifted her glass towards them and they released their hands to raise their own in response. “To happy endings,” she offered.
“And new friends,” Brooke replied. “If you’d be willing, I mean,” she added after seeing the stunned look on Jordan’s face.
Jordan blinked and nodded. “I think I’d like that,” raising her glass to theirs before they all downed the whiskey... with three completely different reactions. Jordan sighed in satisfaction; Brooke blinked rapidly to keep the tears from spilling onto her face; and Sam coughed, inhaling roughly against the burn it created inside her. Jordan reached a hand up and patted her on the back until Sam raised her head and motioned she was all right. Jordan cocked a brow at her.
Sam nodded. “Yeah... thanks. Not much of a drinker – not after....” letting her words trail off.
“Fair enough,” Jordan agreed. “Maybe chocolate milk next time?”
“Definitely more my speed,” Sam said with a shaky grin, her voice still hoarse from her coughing spat. She rose from her seat and held out a hand – first to Brooke, then to Jordan, pulling them to stand beside her. “Um, if we’re done here for now, I need to get back to my conference.”
“So do we, actually,” Jordan confirmed, gesturing them out of the bar in front of her.
“Dr. Cavanaugh? Are you going to be all right?” Brooke asked quietly, still holding onto Sam’s hand.
“If we’re going to be friends, you’re both going to have to get past the Dr. Cavanaugh thing and call me Jordan. And yes, I’ll be all right. It was more shock than anything – I mean, it’s not every day you run into the doppleganger of someone who you know is dead,” her tone wry.
Sam and Brooke exchanged glances before they turned and Sam stepped in front of Jordan, placing her empty hand on Jordan’s arm. Jordan stopped and waited, trying for a look of amusement. Sam shook her head, and scowled fiercely.
“No. Not with us. You may want to keep your feelings private, and we certainly respect that, but please don’t make light of them... not in front of us. It’s okay to feel them – whether it was love or friendship or something else. Please don’t be ashamed of having them. You never know when you might need them.”
Jordan froze. After a long, still moment, she took a deep breath. “You’re a very wise woman, Sam McPherson.”
“Wisdom garnered from lessons learned the hard way.”
Jordan glanced at Sam and Brooke’s still clasped hands and nodded. “Fair enough. Thanks.”
The rest of the trip back to the convention hall was made in silence.
“Hey, Bailey... you all right?” Gordon asked as he and the rest of the AVID delegation gathered around the young woman currently ensconced at one of the outdoor tables overlooking Bay Lake. They had just come from Desdemona’s room at the Grand Floridian after being thoroughly dressed down and were unconsciously seeking shelter in one another’s presence. They all pulled up chairs and sat down in a large circle, waiting for Bailey to answer.
She shrugged. “Oh sure... it’s the third time I’ve been fired this week. The first time she figures out she has to do something for herself, she’ll call me, and I’ll be hired back again.”
“Something needs to be done about her,” Warren growled. “She’s got no right treating you or any of the rest of us that way... especially for her screw-ups.”
Bailey smiled wanly. “You’re sweet Warren, but as her brother, you should know by now that Desi doesn’t screw-up – only those around her do.”
“Well personally, I can’t wait for her karma to come around and bite her on the ass. I mean... it has to, right? No one can be like this without some sort of payback.”
“I dunno, Adelia,” Melissa replied. “There’s nothing in the karmic codebook that says we’ll get any sort of payback in this life cycle. We may not get to see it at all.”
“Well, *that* just sucks,” commented Harmon, lifting a hand and motioning a server out from behind the bar.
“Yeah, but considering the way *our* karma seems to be running lately, it wouldn’t be all that unexpected either,” Buster mumbled.
“Some days I just wish she’d die,” Bailey stated without a single bit of inflection in her voice. “At least then *this* karmic cycle would be over with and maybe we wouldn’t get caught in her next one.” No one said a word, so surprised by the utter lack of... anything... in Bailey’s voice or tone. Only the waiter delivering the drinks Harmon had ordered broke the tableau and Dot cleared her throat.
“Well, I know two things for certain – when she dies, I’m going to try to find a way out of her circle. And if I figure out what I did to get into this circle to begin with, I swear I will *never* repeat it.”
“That sounds like a great idea, Dot,” Violet commented. “Too bad she has to die first.”
Whatever comment was coming next was halted by the imperious ring tone that suddenly blared from Bailey’s phone. Even though she knew who was calling simply by the ring tone, she still glanced at the screen, dropping her head on the table when her suspicions were confirmed. She hit the speakerphone, motioning everyone to be quiet.
“Bailey, where are you? Is that music I hear in the background? And ice... do I hear ice in a glass?? Are you drinking?? What’s wrong with you?? This is a workday and you have a job to do! And I expect you to get to it immediately.”
“I don’t have a job, remember? You fired me... again.”
“Of course I didn’t, stupid girl. What’s wrong with you?? Now get up here this instant. And bring Dot with you. I seem to be having a computer issue and it needs to be straightened out immediately before we lose any more time at the conference.”
“Desdemona, even if I was still working for you, and even if I could find Dot, that is still not going to get us into that conference. Gabrielle made it quite clear this morning....”
“Oh pish posh. I’m certain that was nothing more than a little misunderstanding on her part. Gabrielle simply needs the right kind of persuasion. Now... enough of your foolishness. I expect to see you here in the next five minutes!” Without allowing Bailey another word, DIVA hung up. Bailey looked around at her compatriots.
“See... I told you.”
“You oughta blow her off,” Adelia snarked, leaning back in her chair and taking a large gulp of her cocktail. Bailey just gave her a look.
“I can’t afford to do that any more than the rest of you can. C’mon, Dot.”
Dot upended her drink, draining it dry before she rose and motioned Bailey ahead of her. “Lead the way my dear. And the rest of you,” she said, narrowing her eyes and pointing, “no drinking without us.”
The rest watched them go before turning back to their drinks. Harmon signaled the waiter to bring another round.
“So how are things going on your side?” Gabrielle asked as she and Xena met once more in the private room between the two conventions. Lucy and Dinah were taking a well-deserved break and Xena and Gabrielle were appreciating the relative peace of a few minutes alone together.
“Umm,” Xena replied, swallowing the mouthful of soda she’d just taken. “Not bad, actually. Once everyone got involved in looking at all the vendors, and then moved into their seminars, they kinda settled down. They seem to be a lot more focused on the conference and what’s going on than in Desdemona now. I just hope it stays that way.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Me too. She was like a blip on the radar for a while, but it seems like most of the attendees are much more interested in what they can get out of the convention than they are in anything about her. Now if she’ll just lay low for the remainder of our time here....”
Xena cocked an eyebrow and smirked in her direction. Gabrielle just shook her head.
“Yeah, I don’t think so either, but it doesn’t do any harm to hope.” She looked at her watch as Lucy and Dinah reentered the room. “Great timing. I need to go see how lunch is coming along.” She stood and Dinah slid into her seat. “See you guys back here in a while.” And with a wave, Gabrielle departed.
Xena watched her go, turning to frown at Lucy when she cleared her throat loudly. “Something wrong there, Luce? You need another glass of water or something?”
Lucy glared. “Noooo,” she drawled. “But I do need you to get out of my seat.”
“Your seat? And what if I don’t wanna?”
This time Lucy smirked. “Then you can explain to *your* boss why you’re hiding out in here keeping me from doing my job instead of out there doing your job,” pointing to the opposite convention hall.
Xena glared at her for a long moment before relenting. “I hate you, ya know.”
“That’s okay... Gabrielle likes me.”
Xena growled, but headed back out to the law enforcement room. Dinah held her laughter until she was out of sight, then giggled at Lucy who was grinning back at her. “That was entertaining.”
“Yeah, I’ll pay for it later, but it was worth it for now.”
“And on that note, I need to go get the second half of this day started. Later, guys!”
Desdemona growled in frustration. Every bot she sent out looking for information about Gabrielle or Xena simply led straight back to her. Dot didn’t have an explanation for it, but regardless of what computer she used, the result was always the same. There was nothing to be found out about either woman – and no way to find it even it there was any dirt to be found. Harmon had confirmed he had been stonewalled the same way and despite his best efforts, he had no way to trace it to the source.
If she’d had more time, she might have been able to dig something up the old fashioned way, but there just wasn’t time for that – not and accomplish her goal of getting into the Women in Media conference. Still there had to be something – she just needed to figure out how to find it.
For now, though, it was lunchtime. She picked up the phone and placed her room service order, then she sat back down at her computer. Surely there was something she was missing.
And somewhere nearby, a woman carefully checked over her supplies, wanting to be certain everything was taken care of correctly the first time. This had been a long time coming.
“Gabrielle? Have you seen Helena?”
Gabrielle turned to find Barbara directly behind her and she shook her head thoughtfully. “Not since this morning. Why?” She was directing the staff as they removed the luncheon service. The first half of the day was over and except for the incident with Desdemona first thing, Gabrielle considered it a success. She had walked among the attendees as they ate, taking compliments and answering questions. Most were satisfied with their experience thus far and the little things that were causing issues could be easily solved with just minor tweaking. “Is everything okay?”
“I’m not sure,” watching the exodus of women heading towards the ladies’ rooms before the second half of the day’s events got underway. “I’ve never known Helena to miss a meal, and yet I didn’t see her at lunch.”
“Maybe she ate with Dinah? Or Xena?”
Barbara shrugged. “Maybe, but then why not let me know?” She pulled her glasses off and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. “Sorry. It’s not like she’s accountable to me... or you. I think this whole situation with Desdemona‘s just thrown me for a loop. I never expected....”
“I don’t think any of us did. I know from what I heard earlier and what Xena said she heard on her side, there were a lot of folks unhappy about her unexpected appearance.”
“She just... I feel like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“And you think Helena may be the one to drop it?”
Barbara shook her head. “No. Not anymore – she’s matured so much, Gabrielle... so beautifully. Sometimes she’s got a better handle on herself and her temper than I ever did at her age, and considering her heritage....”
“... that’s saying a lot, Barbara. It’s not like you were ever out of control.”
Barbara smiled wryly. “Yes, but I never *lived* like she has either. It wasn’t until she came into my life that I realized the difference between being and living.”
“It goes both ways, Red,” Helena said as she crossed the room to stand beside the two of them. She leaned down and kissed Barbara’s lips chastely, not wanting to start an uproar. Barbara curled one hand into Helena’s shirt and pulled her in for a second, longer kiss. She licked her lips in satisfaction at the flash of gold she saw in Helena’s glimpse before her eyes reverted to blue once more.
“I missed you.”
“I see that. I’m going to have to go away more often if that’s the kind of reception I’m going to get when I come back. Did you need something?”
“Nope. Just you,” the sentiment causing both women to blush and Gabrielle to chuckle as she turned away to give them a bit of privacy.
“Gabrielle.” The soft call of her name caused her to move away from Barbara and Helena with a bare nod, knowing from their distracted waves they were already deeply involved in discussion. She walked towards the woman waiting to speak to her and cocked her head in a listening attitude that even Miranda Priestly couldn’t fault. Miranda’s lips twitched though her expression didn’t change.
“I was simply wondering what was going to be done about....” Her lips pursed in disdain and her voice dropped even lower. “… Desdemona.”
“In what regard, Miranda? I have already made certain she knows that she is unwelcome at this conference due to her own lack of diligence.”
“Is that all?”
“What else would you like me to do? Until yesterday, I was unaware of her existence. And despite the fact that I have been made aware of what a truly despicable individual she seems to be, and though I am responsible for what happens here during the convention, I have very little control over much else that happens in the world. Short of someone coming forward and publicly pressing charges against her, there really is very little I can do that I haven’t already done.”
“I see,” Miranda breathed, dissatisfaction clear in her tone. “Very well – that’s all,” she added as she turned away. A hand on her arm caused her to still, but a slight shake of her head kept Emily from moving to her side. She looked at Gabrielle and raised a brow in question.
“Miranda, what would you have me do? I’m open to suggestions, if you have any to offer.”
Miranda sighed and unexpectedly patted the warm hand still resting on her forearm. “I wish I did, Gabrielle. I wish I did.” When she walked away this time, Gabrielle let her go.
“Oh boy,” Gabrielle muttered, before turning her attention to the women who were once more filling the room, ready to begin the next part of their day.
“Excuse me,” the harried looking woman inquired as she pushed her reddish hair behind her ear and hiked the strap of her bag further up her shoulder. Amy moved away from her friends to see if she could offer assistance.
“Can I help you?”
“I hope so,” the woman replied. “My name is Katie O’Donnell. I was looking for Xena or Gabrielle.”
“Of course,” flipping open her cell phone and speaking into it. A moment later, Lucy appeared beside her.
“What’s up, babe?” sliding an arm around Amy’s waist as she reached them.
“Lucy, this is Katie....”
“... O’Donnell,” Katie finished, extending a hand that Lucy accepted as a matter of course. “I was looking for Xena or Gabrielle? I’m one of the speakers at the Women in Law Enforcement and the Women in Media conventions.”
“Of course,” Lucy nodded. “We’ve been expecting you. If you’ll just come with me, please.”
Amy took Lucy’s hand in hers and together they led Katie into the private room. “If you’ll wait right here,” Lucy indicated, “I’ll let them know you’ve arrived.” Both Amy and Katie nodded and Lucy walked off to notify Xena and Gabrielle of their late arrival.
“So how did you end up participating in both conferences?” Amy asked as she leaned against the nearest table. Katie pulled her bag off her shoulder and placed it carefully on the table. “I only know of one or two others that might be able to do that, and I’m fairly certain they’re not attending both,” not mentioning that she was one of the two she knew of with the ability to attend both.
Katie shrugged and tucked her hair behind her ear again, wondering if it hadn’t been easier when she could just pull it into a bun. “Dumb luck, I guess,” she answered. “I was a sketch artist for the FBI before everything went digital, and I did some book art and scene layouts on the side.”
“Do you still sketch?” Amy inquired. Katie smiled.
“Oh yes. I don’t think I could ever fully give it up. Da Vinci was my idol growing up. He was such an amazing talent.”
“I like his work,” Amy agreed, “though of the old Masters I prefer Michelangelo. His art was just that... art. Da Vinci was more than just art.”
Katie nodded, unable to argue the truth of that statement. Then Gabrielle stepped into the room from one of the side doors and Amy excused herself to rejoin her friends.
“It was nice to meet you, Katie.”
“Nice to meet you too, Amy,” Katie returned politely, then turned to greet Gabrielle like the old friend she was.
“Hey, Gabrielle!” opening up her arms for a hug. “I’m sorry I’m late. I overslept this morning – I was visiting with my cousin last night. Housekeeping actually woke me up. I forgot to charge my phone and I couldn’t remember your numbers, so....”
“Katie, slow down. It’s all right,” Gabrielle assured her. “You haven’t missed anything but lunch, and your presentation wasn’t scheduled until after then anyway, remember?” Katie nodded and heaved a sigh of relief. “Good,” Gabrielle said with a smile and a pat on the arm. “Now take a deep breath,” waiting for Katie to follow her instruction. “Better?”
Katie released the breath slowly. “Yes, actually... as ridiculous as it sounds.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Trust me... I know.”
Before Katie could question her further, Xena stepped into the room just behind Lucy. Lucy took her seat behind one set of monitors just as Dinah came in and took her place behind the others.
“What’s all this?” Katie asked with a nervous giggle. “Afraid someone’s going to steal the good silver?”
Xena snorted. “You’ve been reading too much Agatha Christie,” reaching out for her own brief hug. “No, we’re recording all the seminar sessions. It will be part of the DVD package the attendees will receive at the end of the convention.”
“What a wonderful idea.”
“We thought so,” Xena replied drolly, pouting when Gabrielle mock-elbowed her in the belly.
“Be nice,” Gabrielle growled, but she couldn’t hide the twinkle sparkling in her eyes.
“I’ll show you nice later, bard,” she muttered sotto voce so only Gabrielle could hear her, blue eyes dancing merrily. Then she turned to Katie. “C’mon, Katie. You’re with me today, and the women should all be back from their breaks and ready to start the afternoon session.” She turned back to Gabrielle. “I’ll see you shortly?”
“You know where to find me, Tough Stuff,” Gabrielle said with a wink as she headed back towards her own room. “Katie, I’ll see you later.” With a wave she disappeared through the doorway, then Xena and Katie slipped through theirs. Dinah and Lucy exchanged glances.
“You ever get the feeling we’ve got the best seats in the house?”
Lucy just grinned and wiggled her eyebrows.
On the law enforcement side of the hall, women were trickling in, heading directly for the seminar rooms their different sessions had been scheduled for. Since they had been allowed to pick and choose their participation, they were a very mixed lot – no longer separated by friendship or job skill. Instead, they were a conglomeration of law enforcement personnel brought together by common interests and desires to learn new things. It was into this that Abbie Carmichael walked into.
She entered the convention hall slowly, not wanting to disrupt anything... until she realized that only a handful of women populated the main room as they meandered around the various vendors’ booths still open for their perusal.
She walked around the room as casually as possible searching for Casey, hoping her insecurities hadn’t cost her everything she’d given up hoping for. She knew Casey would give her the chance to explain – that was simply the kind of woman Casey was. Whether or not she would understand? Well, that was another matter entirely.
Abbie walked the perimeter of the entire room, subtly looking for any hint of a clue where Casey might be. Finally, Xena noted the lost and defeated expression she wore and approached her.
“Can I help you, Counselor?”
Abbie blew out a frustrated breath. It wasn’t Xena’s fault she was in this predicament and she was offering to help. Abbie wasn’t fool enough to turn away from the offer.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me which room Casey Novak is in, could you?”
Xena looked at Abbie for a long moment, recognizing the lost look in her eyes though she hadn’t seen it in her own in a long, long time. She looked down at an electronic pad the likes of which Abbie hadn’t seen outside of science fiction television. “Sure,” she agreed casually, running a finger down the screen. “Come with me.”
Abbie trailed along obediently, stopping when Xena came to a halt as she motioned to a door. “Would you like me to get her for you or...?”
Abbie shook her head. “Is it okay for me to go in?”
Xena nodded. “I will ask that if you need to... discuss... anything, that you please come out of the room to do so. I don’t want the seminar disrupted.”
Abbie nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”
“Good luck, Ms Carmichael,” Xena offered before she walked back towards the vendor area. Abbie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then opened the door and stepped into the room.
Casey noticed Abbie step into the room as soon as she crossed the threshold. With each of the seminar rooms being an off-shoot of the main conference room, all the doors tended to be along a side wall instead of in the back and from her vantage point, Casey had a perfect view of the doorway.
The look on Abbie’s face made her gasp, but she didn’t move, unsure if Abbie was joining the session or.... Then dark brown eyes met hers and Casey’s breath caught again. This time, however, she excused herself from her seatmates, walking silently across the back of the room until she was standing beside Abbie.
Without a word, Abbie offered Casey her hand. Casey stared into her eyes for a long moment, then she accepted Abbie’s hand when she found what she was looking for. Abbie offered her a small smile, and led them from the break-out room and out of the convention hall and towards the more populated area of the resort. It was time to get some things settled.
“You must think I’m some sort of head case,” Abbie started without preamble, chuckling depreciatively and keeping her eyes firmly on the table she and Casey were currently ensconced at. When Casey didn’t immediately reply, she glanced up. Casey’s expression was one of patient listening and maybe even a willingness to understand, but beyond that.... She swallowed hard; this was more difficult than she’d expected. Abbie shook her dark head. “Forget it,” she said, starting to stand. A gentle hand around her wrist halted her movement and she looked up again to see compassion reflected out of jade green eyes.
“No, Abbie. No more running. You owe me an explanation.” Casey paused and took a deep breath before she hurried on. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“What?!? NO!!” nearly shouted in her intensity to chase that idea from Casey’s mind. She took a look around, glad to note her outburst hadn’t attracted much attention from the passers-by. It didn’t hurt that they had chosen a table somewhat off the beaten path. “Why would you think that??”
Casey looked at her as if trying to discover if it was a serious question. Finally, “You’re kidding me right?” her voice dry and droll. “Abbie, we finally get a chance to take a semi-vacation together – meet up with some old friends and relax a little - and suddenly you don’t want to be anywhere near me. What am I supposed to think?”
“That you’re in love with a total nut case?”
At this, Casey rolled her eyes. “Oh Abbie – I knew you were a nut case before we met. You worked in the Manhattan DA’s office just like I did. That takes a special kind of nut and we both know it.”
Abbie snorted. “Yeah, cracked.”
Casey chuckled, knowing it for the truth. Then she sobered. “Why’d you run, Abbie?”
Abbie shrugged. “It’s what I’m good at.”
“The truth, Abbie. All of it. I think I deserve that much.”
Abbie nodded slowly. “You deserve more than that, but it’s the least I can do. C’mon and walk with me,” she offered, extending her hand and waiting for Casey to accept it. Casey took it and together they headed out along the walkway around the lake.
Silence reigned for a while and Casey was glad to let it, knowing Abbie was gathering her thoughts together. Finally, she drew a deep breath. “I’m not bi-polar; I need you to understand that first. I really am a stable individual.”
Casey drew them to a halt with the merest tug on their linked hands. “Abbie, I know you’re stable; I also know something scared the shit out of you. And I’m pretty sure it involves me and your cousin... although I haven’t figured out how exactly. I mean, I never even met Lindsay until....” She fell silent when Abbie covered her lips with the softest touch of her fingertips.
Abbie gave her a wry grin. “Shh,” she commanded. “Let me tell this.” When Casey nodded, Abbie removed her fingers and they resumed their stroll. “Growing up, Lindsay was my best friend - she still is in a lot of ways because first and foremost, she’s family. And she knows things about me... lived through things with me... that no one else would. At least until I met you. I hadn’t actually realized that until I saw her – until I introduced you as the love of my life, and it freaked me out.” She paused a beat and her voice lowered. “So I ran.”
“Because,” Abbie confessed, her voice so low Casey had to strain to hear her, “if I sabotage myself first, then you can’t hurt me later. Lesson hard learned.”
“I’m liable to hurt something in a minute,” Casey muttered with a scowl. Then she tugged on Abbie’s arm. “C’mon. We’re going to go back to our room and you’re going to start talking from the beginning. And then it’s my turn.”
“That depends on us... both of us, together.”
“I sure do like the sound of that,” Abbie confessed wistfully. Casey squeezed the hand she held and headed back towards their room.
“Has anybody seen Casey?” Liz asked as the lectures broke for a break and everyone congregated in the main convention room. “She was supposed to take notes for me.” She huffed impatiently. “I got a call from Jack McCoy that just couldn’t wait.”
“Problems?” Melinda asked as she passed the other woman a glass of water. Liz accepted it gratefully and gulped several swallows before shaking her head. “Nothing I couldn’t manage, but he did make me miss the seminar I was supposed to attend. Casey knew and said she’d grab me a copy of whatever material was available.”
“Excuse me,” a Scottish brogue broke into the conversation. “The woman you’re looking for – tall, reddish-blonde hair, lovely figure?” Liz’s brows went to her hairline at the description, but she nodded her head. “She left,” Helen supplied.
“I beg your pardon?” Liz asked, then held up a hand to prevent Helen from speaking. “Wait, I understood what you said. When did she leave?”
“Shortly after the lecture began. A dark haired woman came to the door and your friend got up and left with her.”
“Stewart... Helen Stewart.”
“Liz Donnelly,” Liz returned, offering her hand, then introducing her around the New York contingent that was currently grouped together. “Guess I’ll just have to wait until they kiss and make up before I get my notes,” she grumbled.
Helen smirked and shook her head. “I could share mine. It might be a while otherwise. I’ve seen those looks before.”
Liz blew out an impatient breath, then Alex linked an arm through hers. “C’mon, Liz. You’ll get your notes from Casey or we’ll ask the speaker for a copy. Jack won’t have made you miss anything.”
“I hope not. I’d hate to have to kill him for making me miss something good.”
The women around them, even Helen, chuckled at her pronouncement. Then they headed their separate ways again as the time for the next round of seminars approached. It was turning out to be a good day.
“Gabrielle?” Gabrielle stopped and turned back to Annabelle who nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She gave Annabelle a smile, hoping to put her at ease. In some ways Annabelle and Simone reminded Gabrielle of Xena and herself lifetimes ago, though for a long time in their relationship she had not been as brash as she knew Annabelle to be in hers. She wondered what could have possibly made the outgoing young woman so unsure of herself.
“What can I do for you, Annabelle?”
“I was wondering if you’d introduce me to Nikki Wade. I mean....”
“I’d be happy to Annabelle, but you have to know it’s perfectly all right to introduce yourself. That’s part of the purpose of this conference – to put women who’ve made media contributions to society in touch with one another. Networking makes us all stronger. I’m sure Nikki will be happy to meet you.”
“Annabelle, you have talent – don’t doubt that. It gives you common ground with her and everyone else. And your story is as interesting as Nikki’s,” seeing the slight flinch. Gabrielle frowned. “Are people making you uncomfortable?”
“Not really,” Annabelle confessed slowly. “I just feel a little out of my depth here. Everyone I’ve talked to is amazingly talented. I feel like a rank amateur and that is... I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always been brash and bold and gone after what I wanted without thought or hesitation. I don’t think that would fly with a lot of the professionals I see.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Annabelle, everyone here has been brash or bold at some point – a lot still are. Their passion is what’s made them successful. They just don’t need to demonstrate that part of them at the moment. They are secure and no one here is challenging them or their place in their field of expertise. Remember that everyone that is here is here because they want to be – they’re here to network and make new friends in the business just like you.”
“Trust me. C’mon. I’ll introduce you. Then you’re on your own.”
Simone looked up from her conversation with Miranda Priestly and Barbara Gordon, watching Annabelle and Gabrielle move off together arm in arm chuckling. She smiled, glad Gabrielle had given her young lover the words she needed to hear. Simone watched Nikki greet Annabelle enthusiastically before she turned her attention back to the discussion at hand, suddenly glad she’d given into Annabelle’s pleas to attend this convention. It was turning out even better for them both than she hoped.
Nikki accepted Annabelle’s hand with a smile, giving Gabrielle a grateful nod even as she gestured Annabelle to sit. Gabrielle watched them settle in, then moved around the room, checking in with the various groups without interfering with the dialogues being held. She was nodding her head thoughtfully when she entered the private room, causing both Dinah and Lucy to look at her with questioning expressions on their faces.
“Problem?” Dinah asked.
“No, and that disturbs me more than I want to admit,” Gabrielle confessed wryly. “Because the moment things seem to be running smooth....”
“... that’s the moment all hell breaks loose,” Lucy finished for her, then shrugged when two sets of eyes turned her way. “Experience,” she said flatly.
“Understood,” Dinah and Gabrielle answered simultaneously before all three burst into laughter. It was to this scene that Xena walked in on.
“Should I be concerned?” She walked up behind Gabrielle and wrapped an arm around her waist. Gabrielle leaned into her and tilted her head back to allow their eyes to meet.
“Only if you’re leery of things running smoothly.”
Blue eyes went wide and round and Xena brought a hand up to cover Gabrielle’s lips. “Are you trying to jinx us ?”
Gabrielle chuckled and kissed the fingers covering her mouth. Xena smirked, knowing Gabrielle could have chosen to lick them instead. So without further prompting she removed them and waited for Gabrielle to speak.
“Not at all; why do you think I am wary at this point?”
“Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure we have a few personal dramas going on behind the scenes as it were.”
“Problems?” Gabrielle inquired, her voice low and serious. Xena met her eyes frankly.
“I don’t think so. I think some of our attendees were met with some unexpected surprises when they arrived. So far, they seem to be working them out on their own time mostly. I’ve got a couple of attorneys that disappeared earlier, but since I haven’t gotten a call from hotel security, I’m working under the theory that whatever the issue is, they’ve got it under control.”
“Fair enough. We’ll be among the first to know if something goes haywire.”
“Something else, you mean,” Dinah commented.
She’s right,” Lucy agreed. “Desdemona is still out there plotting who knows what. You know she’s gonna be a problem again at some point – unless we get lucky and she chokes on a chicken bone or something.”
“As long as she’s not here, we’re not gonna worry about her. We’ve got enough to worry about without inviting anything else.”
“Agreed,” Xena said, looking at her watch. “We’ve only got one more session to get through today. Then we can let everybody go to get ready for the Halloween party tonight.”
Before she could say anything else, Gabrielle looked at her own watch then scurried towards the doorway leading to her side of the convention hall. “Gotta go.” She caught Xena’s eye. “Meet you back here shortly?”
Xena smiled. “You know it. Oh,” turning back to the room and waiting for Gabrielle to do the same. “Remind your crew about the buses – we need to pull out of here on time if possible.”
Desdemona growled, though no one was around to hear it. Dot and Bailey had been dismissed some time earlier, once again unable to give Desdemona the satisfactory results she’d been looking for from them. Despite all her efforts, Dot couldn’t break through the bot code that continued to send Desdemona’s searches in circles. Bailey had been more successful in running and fetching, but an already disgruntled Desdemona was still not content with her work and Bailey was happy when Desdemona finally released them both for the day in pure frustration.
“I do not understand why I seem to constantly be surrounded by incompetence,” Desdemona muttered to herself as she paced the length of the room and back gain. “There has to be a way to get into that conference even if I can’t find any dirt on that Gabrielle woman. No one is as clean as she purports herself to be. I’ll make something up – it’ll be my word against hers. No one will take her word over mine; my reputation is too great for her to overcome.” She nodded to herself in satisfaction. Now that she had a plan, she only needed to put it into action.
Desdemona picked up her phone, pressing Bailey’s number, then growling again when the phone went straight to voice mail.
“Where the hell is that stupid girl? Doesn’t she know that being at my beck and call means twenty-four/seven? Honestly, I have to do everything myself!”
She threw her phone on the bed and seated herself on the couch, pulling the laptop to her. Soon, Desdemona was engrossed in her work and a wicked smile crossed her face. If this worked out the way she planned, tomorrow would be glorious.
“Yes... yes, Sallie. It was wonderful.” A beat. “Thank you for telling me. Seeing her again was.... I love you Sallie.” A pause. “I know. I still love you. Bye.” Bailey cut the connection.
Violet looked at Bailey with admiration. “You really turned it off?”
“Oh yeah. I plan on having a good time at Halloween Horror Nights. I don’t need a real monster interrupting my fun. Let’s face it... nothing Universal has ever come up with is nearly as scary as Desdemona is on a daily basis.”
The women with her chuckled and nodded their agreement. “I can’t believe you managed to get the time off,” Missy commented, watching Bailey apply make-up to make her look truly gruesome.
Bailey shrugged. “I didn’t actually ask. She was so furious when she sent Dot and I out of her room this afternoon, I knew better than to bother. I figure she’s gonna be up most of the night trying to find another way into that convention.”
“What is her deal with that anyway?”
“If she could have gotten in just by registering for it on time, why didn’t she?”
“Because she figures she’s special enough to not have to follow the rules the rest of us mere mortals are compelled to,” Dot snarked, adding the last touches to her own costume. “How are we getting to this shindig, by the way?”
“Harmon and Gordon took care of it,” Adelia replied, swishing her costume into place before checking her watch. “We should probably go meet up with them before they decide we’re not coming.”
As a group the women rose and took a last look in the mirrors. Then with big grins firmly in place, they headed out for a night of good, scary fun.
Alex and Olivia met up in the big convention hall as soon as their last session for the day was finished. Olivia clasped Alex’s hand and they headed to the food court to pick up a bite to eat, mindful of the instructions Xena had given about the night’s activity.
“Do you suppose Casey and Abbie are still ‘talking’?” Olivia asked with a smirk. She was fairly certain their talking hadn’t taken nearly the amount of time they’d been gone from the conference. Alex looked over the rim of her glasses.
“I suppose that they are working out whatever it was that seemed to throw Abbie for a loop. I also suppose I don’t want to be the one to interrupt them if they have reached the ‘kiss and make-up’ stage of their conversation.”
Olivia pulled a face. “Me either.” She paused. “Do you think they are really all right?”
“I think that since we haven’t heard any emergency vehicles come screaming into the parking lot, we’ll take it as a good sign and leave them alone to work it out.”
“Is it wrong that I want them to be as happy as we are without all the bumps it took us to get here?” Olivia asked as they entered the food court and made their way over to the grill. Alex turned and covered her cheek with her free hand.
“Not at all, sweetheart. But sometimes we have to go through the hard stuff to understand the preciousness of the good we have.”
“Oh for the love of God, Cabot,” Tracey Kibre whined. “Your sappiness is going to give the lot of us diabetes. Whatever happened to the fire-eating, ball-buster I used to know?”
Alex’s hand slipped from Olivia’s face and she turned to answer Tracey before she was forestalled by Kelly Gaffney’s response.
“She fell in love, Tracey,” Kelly commented to her boss, tugging on her arm. “Leave them alone.”
“She fell in love,” Tracey repeated in a sarcastic mutter. “So the rest of us have to suffer? What exactly is fair about that?” grumbling as Kelly led her away from Alex and Olivia. Kelly shook her head in apology and Alex and Olivia smiled sympathetically before turning their attention back towards the grill just as their food was removed and passed over to them. They accepted it with a nod and made their way to the cashier, then headed back to their room.
“Well,” Olivia commented solemnly as they entered their temporary home. “I hope they get things settled soon. I expect them to have some fun with us this trip.”
Alex grinned. “I’m sure your buddy is looking forward to playing at Disney as much as you are.” Olivia blushed and ducked her head, but she didn’t deny Alex’s words, and they sat down to eat before preparing their costumes for the evening.
“I was popular in high school,” Abbie started softly. “Head cheerleader, president of the student body, captain of the debate team... that sort of thing,” she offered with a shrug. “I was also a Dean’s list student, girlfriend of the quarterback... you get the idea,” letting her eyes meet Casey’s briefly before returning to an intricate study of her clasped hands. “Cameron and I grew up together; our families were neighbors – we went to the same schools, the same church, rode the same bus – we were always together. Eventually people just expected us to be and we kind of went along with it, to the point of getting engaged after high school was over. I was so happy – I was in love with my Prince Charming and he was in love with me and we were going to have a perfect life together. Our parents were so excited. I think they had been looking forward to our wedding since we’d been born so getting their blessing was a piece of cake, even though we weren’t planning to get married until after college.”
“So what happened?” Casey finally asked when the silence went on too long.
“I was raped.”
It was silent for a time after that. Casey was unsure what if anything to say and Abbie was collecting her thoughts. Finally Abbie broke the silence.
“Cameron couldn’t stand the thought of someone else having touched me, and although he was smart enough not to blame me for it to my face, he still broke up with me almost as soon as I told him.”
Abbie snorted. “My daddy said the same thing.” She hesitated. “Of course, he never knew the reason behind our break-up either. Lindsay knew; she’s always had a way of getting the truth out of me.” She shrugged. “However, it completely changed my focus; I went from being an English Lit major into law. My guidance counselor nearly had a come apart, but when I went to the head of my class and stayed there, she realized I had found my path.”
“Did she know...?”
“About the rape? No,” Abbie replied. “After Cameron’s reaction, I didn’t tell anyone else except Lindsay. I already blamed myself and I knew Cameron did as well. I didn’t need people I didn’t even know thinking I was some sort of slut. It was easier just to keep it to myself. But after that, I kept myself a little apart – friendly to everyone without being close to anyone. I made friends, but I was the one to walk away when they got too close or I started becoming too attached.”
“It sounds lonely.”
“It was, but it was also insulating – kept me from getting hurt again. Lindsay was the only one who wouldn’t let me get away with it, but she was half a country away except when we went home for the holidays. The rest….” Abbie shrugged again. “It allowed me to graduate at the top of my class and get an ADA internship in Manhattan right out of law school.”
“And then?” Casey prompted when Abbie fell silent again.
Abbie rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you heard the rumors – I was either a frigid bitch or a fucking whore, depending on who you asked and what day of the week or time of the month it was. I decided early on that I wouldn’t let it bother me... I couldn’t. It would have shattered my composure. As it was....”
Casey waited, finally raising Abbie’s chin enough so their eyes could meet. She cocked her head in concern when dark eyes filled with tears met her worried green ones. “Abbie?”
Abbie smiled sadly and shook her head. “The first person to befriend me when I got to the City was a woman named Toni Ricci – another ADA. She was the first person aside from Lindsay I felt comfortable enough around to let my guard down with. She was... amazing. She allowed me to be what I needed to be without pushing me for answers or reasons for my behavior. Eventually, she became my best friend, and I told her about what had happened.” Abbie sighed. “She encouraged me to see someone – a professional – but she didn’t force me into anything I wasn’t able to do on my own.”
Tears spilled down Abbie’s cheeks, but her voice was a steady whisper when she answered. “I let myself care for her, and she was gone in an instant... killed by mobsters. That was the last time I opened myself up... until you.”
“Even with Alex and Olivia?”
Abbie made a face. “They were my colleagues and then my friends. And although we’re close and I’m proud to count them among my best friends, they have never been more than that. They never had the power to hurt me the way you could... the way you still can.”
“And that occurred to you....”
“... when I introduced you to Lindsay as the love of my life.”
“So why not come talk to me, Abbie?”
“I had to recover my balance.” Abbie shook her head and rose from her spot beside Casey. “I can’t explain to you how thrown I was. I know it makes me sound like an idiot, but it’s the truth.” She took a deep breath and stepped over to the window. “It was like going to bed in New York in the middle of a blizzard and waking up half-naked on the French Riviera.”
Casey blinked. “Wow – that’s quite a visual.” Abbie shrugged again, but kept her back to the room. Casey stood up and moved to stand behind her – not quite touching, but close enough for Abbie to feel her presence. Abbie’s eyes closed and Casey let her hands drop to her sides. “Abbie... Abbie, look at me.” The dark head shook and Casey sighed, this time placing her hands on Abbie’s shoulders. “Abbie,” her voice soft and pleading.
It took a moment, but finally Abbie turned in the circle of Casey’s arms, allowing her eyes to meet Casey’s. She sucked in a startled breath, not having expected to find the love and understanding reflected back to her.
“Thank you for sharing that with me. I can’t promise never to hurt you, but I can promise you that I will try. Next time, come talk to me first, huh?”
Abbie didn’t answer verbally. Instead, she let Casey envelop her in a fierce embrace, which she returned fully. When they parted enough to allow their eyes to meet, Casey whispered, “I love you, Abbie – I love all of you.”
This time Abbie’s response was more physical, and it wasn’t long before their making up was as well.
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