by JS Stephens
Copyright © 2013 by JS Stephens (email@example.com). All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: all original characters that appeared in my head and decided they wanted their story told. Any errors in geography, weather, laws, regulations are strictly my own.
Darcy Kent had been hyper-competitive her entire life. She was born in 1957 as the tenth child of Jim and Ellen Kent, in a small town in Kentucky. Her father was a train engineer, and her mother was a waitress in the local cafe. Her brothers and sisters all managed to graduate from high school, going on to whatever jobs and marriages they managed to drift into.
Darcy was different. She was born "hollering and waving those tiny fists", her parents would brag. She crawled early, she walked early, and she talked in "near complete sentences" at eighteen months. By her fifth year, she started to teach herself to read by following the bulletin in the local church. Her teachers all were challenged to keep her engaged, to feed her voracious appetite for learning. By middle school, she started asking her teachers what to do in order to go to college, and was given much good advice.
She worked her way through the library collections at the public library and all of her school libraries, amazing everyone with her photographic recall of what she had read. She volunteered as a page in the public library in order to get quicker access to new books, and peppered the head librarian many questions about how to find answers to her many questions. By high school, she was in the choir and played volleyball, hoping this would help her college applications.
It did. Darcy won multiple scholarships, and managed to graduate with honors in three years with a BA in Political Science. She happened to be in the right place at the right time to win a scholarship to Harvard Law School, where she again graduated with top honors, summa cum laude. After graduation, she realized that she needed a job with a law firm, so she pinned a large map of the United States to her dorm room wall and tossed a dart.
It landed in Seattle, Washington. Darcy sold most of her possessions, cleaned out her meager savings, and headed west to Seattle, finding a small efficiency apartment. She took a job in a small bookstore, located the law library at the University of Washington to consult the Martindale-Hubbell directory for law firms within walking distance.
The nearest firm was Jenner & Smith, only a twenty minute walk from her apartment. Darcy eagerly sent her resume, following up by calling Douglas Jenner to ask for an interview.
Loraine Williams was born to great privilege and wealth. Her father was a third generation attorney in the law form of Swain & Williams, which his grandfather had started. Loraine was the younger of two children; her brother, Joseph, was two years older than she was.
She grew up in the Boston area, hiding a keen intellect behind the gracious manners of a young society lady. Private schools, a year of college, a steady stream of beaus, all expected of her. Lorraine was bored with society, but knew that it was her ticket out. She decided that she wanted to teach school, but knew her father and potential husband (whoever he might be) would probably forbid it, so she schemed to spend a year away from her family, making friends with a girl in her sorority at Mount Holyoke who hailed from Seattle, Washington.
Andrea (Andy) Long invited Loraine to spend the summer with her in Seattle at her parents' large home. Permission was given, and Loraine was soon on the train to Seattle.
She was almost derailed by a whirlwind courtship and marriage to a young engineer recently discharged from the Army. Theodore (Ted) Archer, just starting his career with the highway department, met her at a dance and swept her off her feet. They made a beautiful couple, both tall and slender, both blonde and blue-eyed, both graceful and excellent golfers. They married within months, dashing her plans to teach.
Months after Ted and Loraine married, he was killed in an auto accident. Loraine mourned publicly, but privately was relieved; Ted was fun, but they were not compatible in bed. But she did have to find a new place to live, the manager of the apartments told her that he could not rent to a single woman, even if she was a widow, how would that look? Loraine was angry, but didn't fight it. Andy Long invited Loraine to share her apartment for the rest of the summer until her lease was up. "What you need is a job," Andy said one night.
"I know, but what? I don't have a teaching certificate for Washington state, Andy. I thought I'd teach at some point. What else can a girl do in this town? Be a secretary?"
Andrea thought a moment while opening a bottle of ginger ale and pouring it in her glass. "You could call my Uncle Doug. He's an attorney in town, has his own firm and everything. Maybe he'd give you a job as a legal secretary. You do know how to type, file, take shorthand, answer phones, don't you? It's not that hard, I've worked for him filling in for secretaries who were sick or on vacation."
Loraine thought a moment. "I suppose I could try it, Andy," she said slowly, staring at her half-eaten spaghetti. "What should I ask?"
"I'll give you the number. Call him in the morning, he gets in around 9:00. Tell him that Andrea sent you and I'm sure he'll give you an interview. You have such great poise, that Eastern reserve, he'll hire you in a moment, add class to the firm."
"All I can do is try," Loraine said reluctantly. "I guess it beats trying to be a substitute teacher, and much better than working in a department store. I can't get to my trust fund for two more years, and Ted's estate is snarled in knots. You'd think a widow could get the life insurance money quickly, but I didn't know that his parents would fight me on it."
"I didn't either. Maybe Uncle Doug can help with that too."
The next morning, Loraine dressed in her best suit and heels and took the bus downtown. She walked into the law firm at 9:00 exactly, timing it perfectly so that she walked in behind Mr. Jenner himself. She recognized him from Andy's family pictures. She approached the reception desk just as he passed it, asking, "May I speak with Mr. Jenner?"
He paused, turning to look at the poised young woman. Before the receptionist could respond, he asked, "Who are you?"
"I am Loraine Williams, a friend of Andrea Long's," she replied smoothly.
Enchanted by her poise and melodic voice, he shifted his briefcase to his left hand, holding out his right. "I'm Douglas Jenner, Miss Williams. So you are a friend of Andy's? Come chat with me, then."
Loraine followed him to his large, well-appointed office, regally hanging up her coat and purse on his coat rack, seating herself as he slowly walked around his desk to sink into his chair. "So what brings you here, Miss Williams?" he asked, curious.
"Andrea speaks well of you, Mr. Jenner, and said you might have an opening for a legal secretary. I'd appreciate you considering me for the position."
"Why?" he asked, leaning forward.
She lifted her chin slightly. "I am well educated, grew up in Boston society, and have excellent organizational skills. If you need a girl who can hold her own, can sooth ruffled feathers, and knows how to type, file, and smooth your pathway, then you would do well to hire me. Otherwise, I will visit your competition."
Amused, Douglas Jenner said, "Well, with that kind of background, how can I resist? I'll give you a trial. I'll take you down to the secretarial pool and introduce you to Miss Street, have her assign you. I'll take a chance because you are a friend of Andy's, but I'll have you fired if you misrepresented yourself."
"Mr. Jenner, you will not regret this decision," Loraine said smoothly. "Thank you."
He smiled, escorted her to Miss Street's office. Damn, if she was half as good of a secretary as a looker, he'd just made a great find.
College was quite a revelation for Greta Hanson. The tall, athletic blonde had never lacked for dates, and she dated quite a few men the first couple of years of college, but when she discovered women, it was all over for the men. Working in a ski lodge meant contact with a lot of bored women, some of which were not beyond drunken flirtations with the good looking young ski instructor.
There were also women in her dorm who were horny and needed an outlet. Greta helped other women explore their fantasies about kissing women, but it rarely went further than a few stolen kisses until she met April. April Daniels was an intense senior that Greta met in one of her business classes, a petite dark-haired woman with a fierce intelligence and drive to finish her degree before she turned twenty-five. April had dropped out for a few years to save money to finish college, and now was the object of Greta's admiration.
As luck would have it, Greta and April were assigned to work together on a project in their class. "You might as well come to my apartment, it's pretty quiet," April said as they left class.
"Sound good. Want me to bring anything?"
April looked confused for a moment, then said, "Well, if you come about eight, we can eat while we work on this. I'm working in the library until 7:30, so if you bring a pizza, that would be terrific."
"Just give me the address." April scribbled it down on a scrap of paper, handing it to Greta. "See you then."
Later that evening, Greta took the pizza box to the dumpster, then returned to the apartment, feeling happily buzzed. April had produced a bottle of wine, not knowing that Greta rarely drank, but Greta wasn't one to turn down new experiences. She stared into the dark eyes happily, then looked at the lush lips. "Greta, did you hear anything I said?"
Greta blinked a moment, then rattled off, "You'll write the outline, and I'll supply the first draft. You already have the references. I'll handle the statistics for the paper, and you'll type it."
"Damn, you have a great memory," April responded. "Want any more wine?"
Greta thought a moment, then shook her head. "I'm afraid I'm not able to drive right now as it is," she confessed.
April glanced at the clock. "Well, it's nearly time for me to go to bed," she said uncertainly, "I guess I'd better let you stay over."
"I suppose." Greta smiled, enjoying watching the older woman dither about what to do. It was an efficiency, and the sofa obviously doubled as April's bed. "Want me to help you pull out the bed?"
"I guess so. I can lend you pajamas, if you don't mind them being a bit short."
"Not at all," Greta said, forcing her eyes up to dark brown eyes. "I don't have classes until noon tomorrow, and I don't work until Saturday."
"I have a ten o'clock," April responded as she got up to find pajamas.
A short while later, the women were settled in bed, lights off. Greta felt pleasantly tired, room swirling slowly. Not sick swirling, like the time she had the flu, but just enough to make dropping off to sleep easy. It also made it so easy to curl up behind April, give in to her fantasy of wrapping an arm around the shorter woman, feeling April's breasts against her arm, feeling April finally lay an arm on top of hers.
Some time in the night, she had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and when she returned to bed, April rolled over to face her. Suddenly they were a whisper apart, and Greta took a chance, laying a hand on April's cheek, stroking the softness. "Are you interested?" April whispered.
"Yes," Greta whispered back, closing the distance, kissing April tentatively, then with growing confidence.
Kisses turned to caresses, caresses traveled under clothes, barriers were breached. Greta allowed herself to be undressed, and undressed April in return, breathing growing ragged with pent up desire. Greta had kissed women, but had never been naked with one, but here she was now, suddenly naked with the beautiful woman. "Let me teach you how to make love to a woman," April whispered seductively, guiding Greta's hands over her body.
"Please do," Greta gasped. Feelings usually pushed down rose to the surface, drawn by the expert hands and lips of the older woman. Greta lost track of time, allowing April to bring her to glorious orgasm, nearly strangling with the effort not to scream her release. Panting, she flopped back on the sofa, drained beyond belief.
"Did you enjoy that?" April asked.
"Give me a few minutes to recover, and I'll show you how much I enjoyed it," Greta said hoarsely. "Oh, God, that was so much better than sex with a man!"
Douglas Jenner shuffled papers on his desk, finally looking up at the young woman across from him. "Tell me why I should hire a woman to be an attorney. Wouldn't you be more comfortable as a legal assistant?"
Darcy Kent clamped down on her temper, taking a quiet breath. "Tell me why you shouldn't hire me as an attorney. I was in the top 1% of my class at Harvard, was assistant editor for the law review, and put myself through school by winning multiple scholarships. How many brand new attorneys do you know who can say they graduated with no debt due to their own hustle?"
He stared at her, secretly impressed with her drive and fierce intelligence. The firm was starting to get a little rumbling from clients wondering if they would hire women as more than secretaries or legal assistants. This scrappy young woman might be the perfect fit. Her articles from the law review were first rate, well reasoned and superbly written, showing excellent grasp of many legal issues of the day. She wasn't the best dressed candidate, that was for sure, but maybe if he teamed her with Loraine, she could take care of that. "I'll tell you what, I'll hire you on probation."
"Hire me the same as you hire any other new associate," she challenged, "and I'll show you just how right you were to take a chance."
Jenner lifted an eyebrow, liking her attitude even more. "How soon would you be ready to take the Washington State Bar exam?"
Kent smiled, handing him a folder. Curious, he opened it, finding her certificate. "You've already passed the bar," he said, surprised.
"All right, I'll take a chance. I'm going to pair you with one of my personal secretaries, Loraine Williams. She'll take care of you." He reached for his phone, punching a number. "Loraine, will you come in here, please?"
Darcy had never seen anyone so beautiful or poised in her life. The tall, elegant secretary swept in, looking Darcy over with a measuring eye, then turned her gaze to her boss. "You rang, Mr. Jenner?"
"New attorney. Go get her set up with personnel, then take her to Miller's office. We asked him to leave."
"Yes, sir. Anything else?" Loraine asked coolly.
"Oh, right." Douglas fiddled with his empty pipe, not looking at her as he said, "Loraine, meet your new boss, Darcy Kent. Harvard Law."
She simply raised her eyebrows, but nodded. "Yes sir. Is Helen moving with Mr. Miller?"
Douglas scratched his chin, then mused, "No, she's not. I'll have personnel move her into the floating pool for now until we hire someone else. She'll be moved by the end of the day, so you can move your desk tomorrow."
"Yes sir. Miss Kent, if you would follow me, please." Loraine turned, walking out the door without checking to see if her new attorney was following.
Darcy picked up her briefcase and stood. "You won't regret this, Mr. Jenner," she promised. Catching up to Loraine, she said, "Lead on."
It took a little negotiation, but Darcy and Loraine settled into a power team. Loraine took her new boss in hand, quietly teaching her office etiquette, taking her shopping for professional clothes, teaching her how to work with the other attorneys, and teaching her proper dining etiquette. Little did Darcy know that Loraine was her behind the scenes champion, building her up in Douglas Jenner's eyes as he and his former secretary carried on a casual affair that would last until his unexpected death six years later.
The rest of the firm was uneasy with Kent at first, but her firm grasp of legal issues and sheer genius in the courtroom gradually won them over. When she forced the vote for partnership, she elected by a slender margin. She and Loraine worked hard to push her billable hours, and to effectively use young associates in drafting documents, conducting research, preliminary depositions, and researching their opposing counsel.
Darcy burned the candle at both ends constantly, often working sixteen to seventeen hours a day. Loraine tried to get her to slow down, finally forcing the issue after a particularly harrowing trial. "Darcy, you may want to kill yourself with overwork, but I don't. From now on, if you want support after 5:30, you need another secretary."
"But you're the best." Darcy looked up from her brief, surprised.
"And, dear, I'm getting older. I would like to enjoy my life," the tall blonde explained simply.
Darcy sat back and ran her fingers through graying blonde hair, staring at her work companion. "So what am I to do?"
Her secretary answered, "Do what you always do, use others effectively. Call HR and ask for a floater to be assigned to you in the evenings. I have a new man in my life, and I'd like to get to know him better. Besides, your billings are out the roof, and you could stand to scale back."
"But, Loraine!" Darcy spluttered, "you've always worked with me!"
Loraine sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose in frustration. She glanced around the sumptuous office, wondering if her boss even saw the elegant furnishings. She had poured her heart and soul into making Darcy who she was, and now wanted to enjoy life. She looked at her boss, almost cringing at the sight of the once slender woman, now obese. Yes, Darcy still dressed well, Loraine saw to that, but hasty meals, abundant snacks, and lack of exercise had taken their toll over the years. Dare she say what she felt? Sure, she never backed down from telling her boss the truth. "Darcy, let me be blunt. If you don't slow down and take better care of yourself, you'll die before you are sixty. You need to eat better, start exercising, get more sleep, and stop blowing off your annual physical."
The secretary abruptly stood, leaning over her attorney's desk. "Darcy, you are a walking time bomb. I love you dearly, but let's face facts. You are fifty-five, and I am seventy-two. I should have retired years ago, but you begged me to stay. All right, my condition for staying is this: you find a way to get into shape, or I walk out that door for good." She swept the stack of file folders off the desk into her arms, pivoting on her heel, storming out of the door.
"Oh, shit." Darcy stared at the retreating back of her secretary and best friend. "I think she's mad now. Strike that, she's furious." She tapped her pen rapidly on her desk, beating a nervous tattoo. "How am I going to survive without her?"
Darcy Kent slammed her car door, hands shaking in her anger. How dare the doctor say that she was "morbidly obese"! She was just a little overweight!
"Damn it!" she growled before taking a deep breath. Time to calm down, assess, and strategize. This worked with her cases, why not with her life? She turned the key enough to let the windows down, then picked up her phone, punching the number for Loraine.
"Jenner & Ziegler, this is Loraine speaking, how may I help you?"
Darcy felt the band of anger start to dissipate at the sound of her secretary's soothing voice. "It's me," she said, "and I hate to admit, but you were right. Dr. Collins put me on notice."
"Well, bravo for him. Details, please, Darcy."
She started tapping her fingers nervously on the steering wheel as she recited, "Better nutrition, more exercise, blood tests, stress test, a whole bunch of stuff. I'll show you the plan when I get to work. How's my day look?"
She heard keys clicking, then, "Your morning meeting cancelled, and your afternoon deposition has been rescheduled. Why don't you just take the rest of the day off?"
"Can't. I need to meet with Calvin to go over the Crosby filings."
"You can see Mr. Adams tomorrow, I've already rescheduled it. The filings are not due until next week, and that will give you plenty of time to terrorize the poor associate," Loraine countered.
"Terrorize? Loraine, you exaggerate. Thank you for taking care of my schedule. I will start off now, and should be there within half an hour, but I need to stop for coffee first."
"All right, boss, see you then."
Darcy put her phone in her briefcase, then started her car. She let her mind wander a bit as she pulled out of the parking lot, heading toward the coffee shop. How dare the doctor say she needed to lose weight? She caught a glimpse of her face in the rear view mirror, reluctantly admitting that she did have a double chin, and that her cheekbones were buried. Maybe she should get Loraine to look into a gym with a private trainer for her.
The light turned green in the intersection as Darcy approached it. She started to sail through the intersection...
"Jenner & Ziegler, this is Loraine speaking, how may I help you?" Loraine said, noting that the caller was from a hospital.
"Is this Ms. Williams?"
"Yes, this is she."
Loraine heard a rustle of paper, then the woman continued, "I'm calling from Mercy Hospital, and you are listed as the emergency contact for Darcy Kent. Ms. Kent has been in an accident, and is in evaluation right now. Could you come fill out some paperwork for us?"
Loraine's heart felt like it contracted. Darcy? For all of her faults, she was the best driver Loraine had even known, even refusing to use her cell phone while driving like so many of her fellow attorneys. Pulling her thoughts back together, Loraine answered crisply, "I can come down fairly soon, I believe you are just fifteen minutes from downtown. I need to tell HR that I am leaving for the day, and I will have copies of the relevant legal documents with me."
"Thank you, Ms. Williams. Just come to the ER admitting desk and we'll take care of everything from there."
"I will see you soon," Loraine said before hanging up. She allowed the shock to wash over her for a moment, then gathered her thoughts, mind shifting into triage mode. She went into Darcy's office, unlocking a drawer in her desk, and withdrew a large envelope, then relocked the drawer. She went back to her desk and called Human Resources to say she would be out for the rest of the day. That taken care of, she rapidly emailed various attorneys and staff, outlining what they needed to accomplish for the next few days, sending a copy of filing dates for open trials.
Loraine nodded to herself, shut down her computer, slid her iPad into her attachĂ© case, picked up her purse, and left for the hospital. She was not too surprised to find her hands shaking from the shock, but ruthlessly disciplined herself to pay attention. No sense in both of them being in accidents. She did indulge herself in one call, tapping the button on her steering wheel to activate her phone.
"David Burner," the gruff voice answered.
"David, Loraine. I'm afraid I will have to break our date tonight, Darcy is in the hospital."
"What? Good God, what happened? Heart attack?"
"All I know is that she was in an accident, but they didn't say how serious her condition is. I'm going to fill out paperwork right now. I'm sorry, babe, I was looking forward to our date tonight."
He sighed. "Me too, love. Let me know what I can do."
"Shall do. Thank you. I'll text you from the hospital. Goodbye."
Loraine tapped the disconnect button, the swung into traffic, still mentally reviewing her checklist. She hoped Darcy would be all right.
Loraine Williams strode to the admitting desk, glancing at the name plate. "Ms. Gardner, I am Loraine Williams, someone called me in regards to Darcy Kent. To whom do I need to speak?"
The young woman behind the desk smiled up at the tall woman. "I was the one who called, Mrs. Williams, I have a few forms that you need to fill out. Did you bring the medical power of attorney document?"
Loraine nodded, extracting the envelope from her attachĂ©, then fished out the relevant documents. "I believe you need copies of all of these."
"Yes, thank you," the surprised clerk said. "I'll make copies, then give them back when you bring back the paperwork." She handed over a clipboard and pen. "You can sit out there in the waiting room. Just tap on the glass when you are ready."
"Thank you," Loraine murmured. She strode into the waiting room, found a good chair, then went to work on filling out the paperwork in her precise handwriting. She knew most of the answers by heart, needing to refer to her iPad only a few times for additional information. She only hesitated on the blanks for additional contacts, wondering whether or not to alert Darcy's family. Loraine knew that her boss rarely mentioned her family, the only real contact being gifts sent back to Kentucky for the holidays. She decided to leave it blank for the moment. There was plenty of time to tell Darcy's family after she had good information to give them.
The secretary turned in the paperwork, then settled in to wait for someone to fetch her. She used the time to check work email, redirecting some, replying to some, deleting others, marking others to be answered later. She went into Darcy's calendar, rescheduling appointments for the next few days, giving her boss some breathing room. Nothing urgent this week, most of the meetings and depositions had already been rescheduled. She decided to delegate the lead on a few cases to junior partners or senior associates, sending them short emails telling them that they would get additional information after Darcy was out of the hospital. Mindful of HIIPPA regulations, she was deliberately vague as to why Darcy was in the hospital.
As she was sliding her tablet back into her bag, a nurse came out, calling, "Loraine Williams? We're ready to see you now."
Loraine rose gracefully, collecting her purse and attachĂ©, following the nurse through the ER doors. "Ms. Kent's in here," the nurse said, pulling aside a curtain.
"Thank you, dear," Loraine said absently as she looked at her boss.
"The doctor will be in shortly," The nurse left, pulling the curtain closed behind her.
Loraine carefully set her bags down in a corner, then looked at the unconscious figure on the gurney. Darcy still had blood on her face from multiple small cuts, a bandage wrapped around her head, tubes going into her arms, hospital gown barely covering her. "I haven't seen you this vulnerable since you started at the firm," the secretary whispered as she sank into a chair near the gurney. "Darcy, what have you gotten yourself into?"
Darcy woke up gradually, confused. This was not her bed. She felt like a freight train had hit her. She struggled to open her eyes, blinking at the room that swam into reluctant focus. Why was Loraine here? What was she doing in a hospital room?
"Loraine?" she croaked.
The slender woman rose from her chair, yawning uncharacteristically. "You're awake," she said as she approached the bed. "I'll call the nurse."
Darcy waved her free hand, spluttering, "Wait, wait, wait, what happened to me?"
Loraine hesitated, finger on the call button. She shook her head, as if clearing cobwebs, then took Darcy's hand in hers and looking into Darcy's green eyes with tired blue ones. "My dear, you were in a horrific wreck yesterday on the way back from your doctor's appointment. The hospital called me, and I've been here since. It's morning."
"Wreck?" Darcy asked blankly.
"Yes," Loraine affirmed.
Darcy tried to shift position, then blurted out, "I need to pee."
Loraine smiled. "Go right ahead, dear, you're hooked up-"
"No need to elaborate!" Darcy interrupted. She blinked several times, trying to focus. The room was getting clearer, but her thoughts refused coherency. "Did I cause the wreck? You know I never talk on the phone while driving, that's wrong! I always obey speed limits and traffic signals. I always look both ways-"
Loraine laid a finger on Darcy's lips, stopping the escalating flow of words. "One moment, Counselor, and I will explain all." Darcy relaxed a little at the sound of her title, laying back on the bed. "First, you did not cause the wreck. Second, I'm taking care of everything, those documents we drew up last year have worked like a charm. Third, someone T-boned you in an intersection. Fourth, you're extremely lucky to be alive without broken bones. Fifth, you will be here for another day or two, as you have a nasty concussion and massive internal bruising. Sixth, I've already rearranged your schedule and made sure your active cases are being handled. Now relax, and let me take care of you."
Darcy squeezed Loraine's hand, unexpectedly bursting into tears. "You're so good to me, you've always taken care of me. Why do you take such good care of me?" She sat up, heedless of the tubes and wires, reaching for the other woman, grasping her arms. "I don't deserve you."
Loraine was stunned; she had never seen Darcy like this in the decades they had worked together. She awkwardly leaned over, wrapping her arms around the attorney the best she could, trying to comfort her. "You are a magnificent attorney and a decent boss. I take care of you because that is my role, I support your work."
Darcy sniffed, laying back, emotionally spent. Loraine reached over, snagging several tissues from the box on the nightstand, handing them to the exhausted attorney. "Thank you," Darcy whispered.
"You are welcome. Now may I call the nurse?"
"If you must. Just don't leave me," the distraught attorney begged.
"I won't." The secretary pushed the call button, then dragged the chair next to the bed. "I'm right here for you.â€ť
Darcy Kent struggled to understand the doctor. "Explain that to me again, Dr. Frederick," she sighed.
The grandmotherly woman smiled, patting the attorney's hand soothingly. "You've had a serious head trauma, Ms. Kent, I can understand your frustration. Basically, you have a concussion, which will take some time to heal. I recommend that you take a short leave of absence from work so you can rest and recover. Further, I'm going to prescribe some physical therapy, possibly some occupational therapy, to get you back on the road to good health. You might consider counseling too, since you've indicated that you're having issues with your temper and feeling confused. We're waiting on the results from your scans, but it is likely that the memory issues stem directly from the wreck."
The attorney shifted uncomfortably in her chair, acutely aware that it was too small for her. Why was she noticing this? Why was she so easily annoyed and distracted? When could she go back to work? She always could remember everything, she had a photographic memory. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Ms. Kent, I said that I'm not going to prescribe any medications right now, but some of the underlying issues are not just from the accident, but your poor health. I've consulted with Dr. Collins, your primary physician, and we concur that we first stabilize the head injury issues, then start on the rest of the issues. Your blood pressure is elevated, your cholesterol and blood sugar are also on the high side of normal, and frankly, we'd like to see it go down. Dr. Collins indicates you have issues with lower back pain, for which I am prescribing physical therapy. I am also prescribing daily walks as soon as you are able. I believe that your balance issues will go away when your brain heals."
"But what about work?" Darcy pleaded.
Dr. Frederick leaned forward, dark eyes understanding. "My dear, do you really think you are able to work right now?"
Darcy swallowed hard, feeling tears rising to the surface. Damn it, she hated being this emotional! "I guess not," she finally admitted.
"That's the first step toward healing, my dear. I've already filled out the paperwork stating that you will be off work for at least six weeks, and will go back on a half time schedule pending my approval of your progress," Dr. Frederick said as she made notes in Darcy's chart.
The large attorney shot to her feet, anger sweeping her being. "I can't be off that long! I wasn't even off for more than a week after my hysterectomy!"
"But you didn't have serious head trauma then," the doctor countered gently, laying a hand on her arm.
The attorney sank like a deflated balloon. "What is my next step?" she asked, resigned.
Loraine sat quietly next to Darcy as the attorney tried to answer the questions that the managing partner posed. "Bill, I have submitted the required reports, and I am under doctor's orders not to work for another five weeks as I am in physical therapy every day and still healing. I had Loraine reassign my open and pending cases in consultation with Robert North as I'm not allowed to work. I assigned Calvin Adams to head up the Neuro Inc. case, and Michelle Miller will take the lead on everything else."
William Forney fiddled uneasily with his tie. "I must confess we've never had a partner on medical leave before. I know you're entitled to a little time off, but this is ridiculous."
"Entitled? You make it sound like I'm slacking off!" Darcy exploded. Loraine laid a restraining hand on her boss's arm, leaning over to whisper in her ear. Darcy nodded, stopping to regroup her scattered thoughts, continuing, "I've worked here for thirty years, Bill, which is nearly twelve years longer than you have. My billings and realization rate is the highest in the entire damn firm, so don't you dare make me sound like a slacker."
"I just wondered if you could work from home," he asked, puzzled by her outburst at his reasonable request.
Loraine spoke up. "Bill, you are a M&A attorney. Please consult with one of our employment partners before you start asking questions that could leave you and the firm in hot water. Darcy is under doctor's care, and requires time and treatment to heal before she returns to work."
Bill squirmed in his seat. He was a hard charging attorney, able to negotiate bitter mergers and acquisitions deals, able to ruthlessly pull together deals that decimated takeover targets, yet he was secretly terrified of the elderly secretary. His mentor, Mr. Jenner himself, had warned Bill never to cross Loraine, and Bill had ignored that advice that early on. She never retaliated when he did, but simply let him know that she was aware of his secrets. He marshaled his thoughts, cleared his throat, then said reluctantly, "Your leave is approved. Take all of the time you need."
"I'll be in touch." Darcy and Loraine rose, leaving the room. As soon as they swept into the elevator, Darcy sagged against the wall. "I'm exhausted, Loraine, please take me home."
Loraine waited until she had unlocked the door and followed Darcy into her house to ask, "What would you have done if Bill had denied your leave?"
Darcy crossed over to her armchair, sinking into it before answering softly, "I don't know. I've worked since I was in middle school, and can't not work, Loraine, and I'm not sure what to do. Just when I think my thoughts are clearing up, they scatter to the four winds, and I can't seem to gather them up." She looked up at her secretary, tears in her eyes. "What happens if I can't go back to work?"
Loraine sat on the ottoman, reaching for the attorney's hands, taking them in her own. "Then I guess we retire. I have plenty stashed away, still have most of my parents' inheritance, and still have Ted's money. I know your financial picture, you could never work another day and still have money left in another thirty years."
"But I've never not worked, Loraine," Darcy said fearfully. "What do I do?"
"You rest, recuperate, relax," Loraine repeated soothingly.
"But I'm scared," Darcy whispered, staring at the floor.
The tall secretary looked sharply at the attorney, then softened. "My dear," she said quietly, "This enforced time off is not the end of the world. Maybe you can take this time to reflect on what you want to do with the rest of your life. You've rarely taken any time off, other than for conferences, and I can't recall you ever taking a real vacation. I think you should look at this time off as a gift."
Darcy nodded, pulling a hand free to wipe her eyes. "You'll help me, then?" she asked in a small voice.
"Yes, dear, I will help you, but I can't help you forever. I am getting older, you know," Loraine reminded her.
Darcy looked up, chagrined. "I don't like to remember that."
Loraine smiled, reaching up to cup her boss's cheek. "I know, my dear, but I would like to retire and be able to spend more time with David."
"I guess I forgot about you having a personal life," Darcy said slowly, wondering why she forgot about David. "Is this serious?"
The secretary smiled broadly. "He wishes, but I don't want to be tied down. We enjoy each other's charms, shall we say, but I haven't dated a man with more than fun and sex on my mind in decades. Anyway, Darcy, we need to get you ready for your next appointment. Shall we eat something for lunch?"
Darcy considered, asking, "What? I'm still having problems with being a touch queasy at times."
"I'll think of something," Loraine answered, rising gracefully. "You just nap." She leaned over, lightly kissing Darcy's forehead, reaching for the afghan. "I'll wake you up for lunch."
"Okay," Darcy mumbled, yawning as Loraine tucked the cover around her. "You're so good to me."
"I know I am," Loraine said lightly. "Sleep now."
Darcy yawned again, slipping into sleep. Loraine watched her boss for a moment, then turned her attention to the kitchen, hoping to find something that they could both eat. Darcy's fear, confusion, and passiveness worried her, even though the doctor had said this was common with head trauma. What would happen if Darcy could not return to work? As for herself, she could happily quit today and never look back, but Darcy lived to work. Maybe if she had someone in her life, she would be happier.
Loraine continued to think about this as she found canned soup, saltine crackers, and an unopened bottle of ginger ale in the pantry. Darcy had lived and breathed the law, had only taken time off when forced, had always run herself ragged for the damn firm. Loraine smiled at herself as she dumped the soup into a pan and turned on the burner. Ah, the good old days, when attorneys had time to play golf! Now it seemed that they were all so consumed by billing more hours, collecting more fees, taking on more clients, and were absolute slaves to their smart phones. God forbid they miss a call or email from a client, even in the middle of the night! "I'm glad I'm only a secretary," she chuckled.
But still, she felt responsible for Darcy. Mr. Jenner, God rest his soul, had picked her to raise this young woman, and to subtly mold her into a sophisticated attorney. Loraine was proud of the way Darcy turned out, how she had blossomed from brash yet unsure woman to sophisticated, powerful senior partner and respected litigator.
So, what to do about Darcy? Loraine frowned as she took the pan off the burner, pulling out bowls and a soup ladle. She wasn't even sure which side of the fence Darcy might play on. She mentally matched the attorney with both a man and a woman, then decided she'd better just stay out of that arena.
A month flew by before Darcy realized it. She stayed busy with physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, and taking long walks. She didn't realize it at first, but she was starting to lose a little weight from a combination of decreased appetite and increased physical activity. Now she could walk a mile or more without getting tired, whereas she could barely go a few hundred feet without being winded before.
Loraine. "She is so good to me," Darcy told her mirror one morning as she got dressed for the day. "She still takes care of my appointments, oversees the associates, keeps me in the loop on work, and makes sure I get out of bed in the mornings." She carefully combed her hair, seeing that it was time for a trim. Or did Loraine make that appointment?
"Damn." Darcy had to take a deep breath to keep from becoming upset about not remembering whether or not she had a hair appointment soon. She of the photographic memory! "The doctor said I'd be more emotional," she groused as she went into the bedroom, looking for her phone. She sometimes had trouble remembering to put the phone on the charger, very unlike her usual organized self. Or how she had been.
Luck was with her, however, and the phone was on the charger, on the night stand. Darcy tapped in her code, then brought up the calendar, squinting at the small font. She started hunting for her glasses, only to realize that they were hooked in the front of her pajama top. "Oh, damn, damn, damn," she grumbled, unfolding them to place on her nose. She hated feeling forgetful, having to struggle to keep a few things in mind when she had effortlessly run a huge caseload before the wreck. Filing deadlines, depositions, client meetings, all usually easily within reach without having to refer to a calendar. "Oh, hair appointment."
Darcy adjusted her glasses, noting the calendar was so much easier to read with her new bifocals. She flicked through, noting a hair appointment later that morning. She struggled briefly to remember where the shop was, then realized it was in that shopping center just about a mile away, a very walkable distance now. She checked the weather, a perfect fall day. High in the 50's, uncommonly sunny, little wind. Perfect day for jeans, sweatshirt, boat shoes. Or sneakers. Or, maybe those new hiking shoes Loraine talked her into, so she could walk rather than drive the unfamiliar rent car. She shuddered at the thought of driving.
Darcy looked at the clock, hurriedly dressed and pulled her dark blonde hair into a ponytail, absently noting that her jeans were getting looser. She grabbed her little backpack, stuffed her wallet, small notepad, pen, and phone it in before swinging it over her shoulder.
Darcy excitedly walked the distance to the shop, noting that she was still about 45 minutes early. Pondering what to do, she noted the coffee shop on the corner across from the shopping center. "Jesse's Coffee Bar," she read out loud. She had seen it for years, but never stopped in, preferring the drive through on her way to the office. Maybe she should take the chance to try something new.
"Hi, welcome to Jesse's. I'm Greta," said a tall, blonde, athletic woman from behind the counter. "What can I help you with?"
Darcy looked over the counter, immediately enchanted with the other woman's melodic voice and pale gray eyes. "I'm Darcy," she replied belatedly, staring at the woman behind the counter. "Oh, I need coffee. What do you recommend?"
Greta leaned on the counter, Darcy unconsciously mimicking her, her hands on the counter. "Well, that depends on your tastes. I have single source and blends from around the world. Maybe a spicy Mexican coffee, medium body, medium roast? With a hint of cinnamon and chocolate to bring out the flavors?"
"Sounds good," Darcy said dreamily.
"Anything to eat with it? I have bagels, pastries, or can whip up some oatmeal. Or how about a thin bagel with egg and cheese?"
"Any of that," Darcy said, captivated. She thought for a moment, then asked tentatively, "Something low calorie?"
Greta tapped her chin for a moment, then said, "I have some multigrain nut bread that I can slice and toast. I'll add a thin layer of real butter that will fill you up without the sugar load of a pastry." She nodded decisively, turning to start Darcy's order.
The lawyer watched the shop owner's methodical, sure movements as she sliced, buttered, toasted, poured, and assembled all on a tray. "Where are you sitting?"
"Oh, I don't know," Darcy spluttered, uncharacteristically timid and unsure. She glanced around, noting that the shop was half full, even with it being mid-morning.
"Then I'll recommend the table near the front window. Great view of the street, comfortable chairs, and I can sit with you while keeping an eye on things." Greta motioned with her head. Darcy followed her, letting the other woman unload the tray. "Hang on and let me get a cup, then I'll join you."
"That's fine," Darcy said, sinking into one of the comfortable leather wing chairs. She set her pack at her feet, reaching for the mug as Greta returned with her own thick ceramic mug. "Cheers," Darcy said, feeling silly and giddy at the same time.
"Well?" Greta prodded as the attorney sipped the coffee.
"Excellent!" Darcy proclaimed, taking another sip. "This is far better than what I'm used to getting."
"My partner learned all about coffee from an old master roaster," Greta said as she tucked one leg under the other. "Jesse, rest her soul, was all about getting the finest coffee beans and roasting them herself." She paused for a sip, then asked, "So, what brings you to my little corner of the world, Darcy?"
Darcy swallowed her bite of toast (oh, so nutty and right) before answering, "I'm on my way for a hair appointment at 10:30. I walked here."
"Do you enjoy walking? And what do you do when you're not walking?"
The attorney felt panic rise up, unsure why the questions bothered her so much. She took off her glasses, playing with them as she struggled to pull in her zinging thoughts. Finally, she laid her glasses on the table and said, "Well, I'm a lawyer, a partner at Jenner & Ziegler. I'm the go to attorney if you have complex litigation hanging over your head."
"I see," Greta said, smiling at the dark blonde woman.
Darcy suddenly processed something. "Partner? Jesse?"
Greta smiled warmly, laying a hand on the agitated woman's arm. "Jesse and I were together for almost twenty years when she died from breast cancer a couple of years ago. We started this shop twelve years ago, and love seeing all the neighborhood people, the students from the community college, the retirees, the high school students. But no, I'm not dating anyone right now, in case you're wondering."
Darcy felt herself blushing, something she never did. She sipped her coffee again, buying time while she tried to corral her errant thoughts. She finally looked up at the other woman, blurting out, "I didn't think I was wondering that. I meant, I wasn't asking. No, wait." She gave up, flustered.
"Dear, I'd venture that you're not usually this discombobulated," Greta mused.
The attorney bit into her toast again, savoring the flavors before pulling her attention back to the beautiful woman across the table from her. "No, I'm not. I'm on medical leave, serious concussion following a car wreck."
"I see. I thought it might be something like that."
Suddenly Darcy pulled out her phone, staring at the time. "I'm almost late," she said.
"Then come back after your appointment, let me see your new do. Deal?"
"Yes." Darcy drained her mug, then blurted out, "I haven't paid you yet!"
"You can do that on your way back," Greta offered gently.
Darcy darted out the door, leaving Greta to shake her head. "She's different, but I like her," Greta said softly.
Loraine pulled into the circular drive of Darcy's house, shutting off the engine and sitting for a few seconds before she opened the car door. She was exhausted, but in a good way. Darcy seemed to be doing well enough for her to take a short weekend trip with David, the first time she'd really had more than an hour with him for nearly a month. She smiled, recalling their passion of the morning before, taking full advantage of the time to themselves. No calls from Darcy, which seemed to indicate that the attorney was coping better.
"Good morning, Darcy," she said as the attorney opened the door.
"Good morning, Loraine," Darcy replied, green eyes sparkling. "Come on in, I have coffee brewing." She led the secretary through the house to the kitchen, where indeed a pot of coffee was sending out delicious odors. "It's a new blend, aged Sumatra and a hint of Blue Mountain. Greta made it up for me this weekend."
Loraine draped her coat over her chair, then sat at the table. "Greta? Who is Greta?" she queried.
"Greta Hanson, owns the coffee shop down the way." Darcy bustled to the table, bringing two mugs of fragrant coffee with her. "Try this," she said.
The tall silver blonde sipped cautiously at the coffee, then took a longer sip. It was good, full-bodied, strong, but not bitter. "This is very good, Darcy. When did you switch from Starbucks?"
"Friday, on my way to get my hair cut. I decided to walk, and found this place called Jesse's Coffee Bar literally on the way, and stopped in for a cup. It was so good that I went back on Saturday, and Greta made up a batch for me. She swears I need to learn to make press pot coffee, that it's even better, keeps the oils that are usually absorbed by the filters."
"Greta." Loraine repeated.
"Yes. She and her partner opened the shop, but her partner died, leaving her with the whole shop. Hey, what do I know about small business law?"
Loraine felt a little like she was watching a fast ping-pong match, the way Darcy was bouncing. She marshaled her thoughts, interpreting the question. "You mostly deal with large multinational corporations, but you have done some pro bono work before for small businesses. Mostly helping them get set up, filing the requisite papers with the Secretary of State's office, getting permits, things like that. Why do you ask?"
"Because Greta is being pushed to sell out to the strip mall across the street, and I want to help her fight it," Darcy replied, eyes shining with happiness.
The older woman stared, mouth hanging open in shock. Was this really her boss, or was she a pod person? Loraine snapped her jaw shut, staring frankly at her boss, wondering if she had really sustained more brain damage than suspected. "My dear, I think I'm missing some connections here." She belated noticed a new haircut, with some subtle highlights covering what little gray Darcy had. "You changed your hair."
"Yes. Bella convinced me that it would be easier to wash and dry when I finish with my workouts."
Loraine was really confused now. "You mean physical therapy?"
"No, workouts. I joined a gym near my house, and hired a personal trainer," Darcy elaborated happily.
Loraine was glad she was sitting down already. "You. A gym."
The secretary looked more closely at the attorney, recognizing a drive and eagerness that she had not seen in decades. She started assembling the few facts, and deduced the impossible. "You're in love. With Greta."
Instead of growling at the bald statement, Darcy smiled dreamily. "I think I am. Loraine, I've been spending a lot of time with Greta this weekend. She had to work Saturday, but we had Sunday to go play. After I came back from church, we went out to eat, then went downtown to the Space Needle and the Chihuly Garden, then drove down to the market. It was amazing, beautiful, even with the clouds coming and going. We talked and talked, and I have never found anyone who could understand me the way she does. Loraine, you have got to meet her soon, tell me what you think."
Loraine held up a hand to stop the torrent of words. "I will. Now, Darcy, if we don't get a move on, we'll be late for your next appointment."
"I know." Darcy rose, smiling as she cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. Loraine raised her eyebrows at this, Darcy usually left everything for the maid. "Shall we?"
"We shall," Loraine affirmed, amused.
Greta Hanson woke up, humming for the first time in years. She merely shut off her alarm rather than flinging it across the room as she usually did, happy to be alive. What a difference a few days made!
Darcy. Greta smiled as she splashed water on her face and patted it dry before pulling her old fleece robe around her as she shuffled off to the kitchen. She usually made it a point to greet all of her customers, and to get acquainted with regulars, but something about the attorney caught her attention immediately. She usually was attracted to thin women with dark hair and intense dark eyes, but this large, blonde, green-eyed woman captured her eyes immediately. She could immediately tell that Darcy was frustrated with her inability to think as clearly as usual, recognizing the same symptoms that her sister-in-law had after a bad car wreck. Once she had a chance to talk to the woman Saturday night, and most of the day Sunday, she realized that this woman was highly intelligent, and had ruthlessly squashed any softness over the years.
But, oh, the long ramble through the Chihuly and the market was such a joy. Darcy relaxed and stopped having as much trouble word finding as she simply enjoyed the beauty of the late fall, the stunning glass sculptures, the crowded market. Greta discovered that Darcy had a secret weakness for cozy English mysteries, and they talked at length about several series they'd both read over the years.
Would Darcy appear in the shop today? Too bad there weren't any volleyball courts nearby, Darcy had revealed that she played in high school, and had enjoyed the strategy and physical aspects of the game. Greta had a little trouble picturing the large woman as an athlete, but could see the competitive streak in her.
So now what? When Jesse died, Greta could not picture herself dating again for a very long time. They had met in college when Greta taught ski lessons and Jesse literally fell for her. Nearly fell down the slope, that is, but Greta managed to snag her before she fell too far, and from then on, they were inseparable. Greta had dated a lot of boys in high school, discovered women in college, and had happily played the field until she met Jesse. Jesse had fallen in love with her, but refused to go to bed with her until they'd committed to dating only each other. It had worked for nearly twenty years.
Greta shook her head to clear it, forcing herself to stop woolgathering. It was time to get ready to go to work. Maybe Darcy would be there, maybe not, but in any case, she wanted to see the attorney again. And again. And again.
After Loraine dropped her back off at the house, Darcy changed into her new workout clothes. They gym was between her house and the coffee shop, so she could go work out, then surprise Greta by dropping in for a cup of coffee. She smiled, thinking about the luscious coffee shop owner. She had noticed other women over the years, but was afraid to get involved, afraid of derailing her career.
So what about her career?
Darcy was still struggling with hunting for words at times, still forgetful, but years of absolute discipline helped her remember to check her calendar often, and knowing that Loraine would never let her forget an important appointment meant she didn't have to worry as much. Darcy still was shy about driving, and had rented a car, but not driven very far yet. What sort of car should she buy? Her last car was a mid-sized sedan, but maybe she wanted something different. Darcy forced her thoughts back in line. She would wait on the decision for now, until she'd had a chance to do some research.
Drive or walk? She poked her head outside, deciding to walk, despite the overcast sky and light wind. She'd forgotten how much she had walked as a girl and young woman. Being the youngest of ten children, there wasn't money for a car for her, so she had to borrow a sibling's car on the rare occasions she drove. She usually walked to school, to the library, to church, to work, and back home. In college, she ran up and down the dorm stairs, walked all over campus, walked to church, walked to a series of jobs, never owning a car until she was a full-fledged attorney. It was time she rediscovered the joy of walking everywhere.
What to do about work? She was coming to the end of her medical leave, and had been told by the doctors that she could probably return part time soon if she didn't overdo it.
Darcy shucked her sweats, locked up her bag, and headed for the treadmill where her trainer waited for her. As she went through the routine of warming up with a few minutes of walking, then off to the weights, she continued to ponder her future.
"What if I just retire?" Darcy blurted out.
"Beg pardon?" the young man asked.
Darcy laughed, embarrassed by thinking out loud in front of her trainer. "I'm sorry, Nate, but I was just thinking about whether or not to go back to work. You know, I could retire now and live quite well for the rest of my life."
The dark haired man looked at her thoughtfully, then said, "I wish I could afford to retire. But for now, Darcy, we need to go to the next set of reps. Is that why you're so distracted today, thinking about the future?"
"I suppose so," she agreed. The attorney forced herself to pay attention to the trainer, concentrating on mastering the next weight machine. It felt so good to be doing something physical again, not just sitting on her fat ass and plowing through endless piles of papers and files.
"Good workout, Darcy," Nate commented. "I think you have the routine down well enough to keep up with it yourself. You still have the notes I gave you?"
"Then how about I meet with you three times a week instead of five?" he proposed.
"Sounds like a plan to me. Thank you, Nate," Darcy said, beaming with excitement at her progress.
"It is my pleasure." The man smiled back at her. "Have a good day, Darcy."
"I shall!" Darcy exclaimed. She felt damn good as she went into the locker room, stripping down to take a hot shower. The water felt so good on her sore muscles, reminding her of her first apartment, when she could finally take a hot shower instead of a lukewarm one. She finally stepped out, quickly drying off and dressing in preparation to make the short walk to the coffee shop.
Darcy nearly made it to the shop before the heavens opened and let loose with torrential rains. She hurried into the shop, stopping to absorb the warmth of the place, trying not to drip too much on the wooden floors. "Ah, a drowned rat," called out one of the baristas.
The attorney smiled, walking up to the counter. "You are right, Michelle. Is the boss around?"
"She should be shortly. Greta went to run a few errands before the lunch crowd. Go sit, I'll bring you your coffee in a moment. Have you eaten breakfast?" Michelle asked.
"Yes, but I think I worked hard enough for a small yogurt," Darcy answered with a wide grin.
"Yogurt and coffee, coming right up." Michelle smiled as she bustled to fill the order. Darcy walked over to sink in one of the wooden chairs, grateful that she had put her phone in an interior pocket of her bag before heading out. Her top has pretty wet, but her sweatpants were only damp. Too bad she didn't have a dry set to change into. "Your coffee and yogurt, Darcy."
"Thank you," Darcy said, handing the barista her coffee card. "Add a tip for yourself." Michelle smiled, going back to run the card as Darcy took her first hot swallow. "Ah," she sighed with pleasure, closing her eyes. She concentrated on teasing out the flavor notes, as Greta was trying to teach her to do. She'd love a slice of coffee cake with this, but it wasn't on her plan. She opened her eyes just as the store owner burst through the door, shaking out her umbrella. "Get wet?" she asked.
"Drenched, more like it. Looks like you did too," Greta commented. "I'll be back in a jiffy. Michelle, mind pouring me a cup?"
"Not at all, boss."
Darcy watched the athletic blonde go to the back, waving at regulars as she went. What was it about this woman that attracted her so? She found herself grinning hugely as the woman came back out of her office, dressed in dry clothes, headed for her table. Darcy sat up a little taller, happy for the attention. "Good morning," she said.
"Good morning, Darcy," Greta replied, mirroring the huge smile. "Did you walk in the rain?"
"It caught me just before I got here. I've been to the gym this morning, and walked here, misjudging the clouds. But I'll dry off eventually."
"Too bad we don't wear the same size, or I'd lend you something. I usually keep several outfits in my office," Greta commented. Michelle came over, setting Greta's latte in front of her. "Thanks, hon," Greta said.
"You're welcome, boss." Michelle bounced back to the counter, stopping to check on regulars along the way.
"She's doing better," Greta commented. At Darcy's inquisitive look, she explained, "I'm teaching all of my employees to say 'you're welcome' instead of 'no problem'. One of my pet peeves. So, tell me about your workout."
"It was good. Nate says I'm ready to go solo some mornings." She ate a bit of yogurt, licking the spoon thoughtfully. "So, would you like to get together again this week?"
Greta leaned forward, looking into Darcy's green eyes. "You mean, like a date or something?" she asked quietly.
Darcy blushed, ducking her head. "Yeah, like that."
Darcy looked up, surprised. "You would? I mean..." She stumbled over words, concentrating on pulling together her intent before continuing, "I don't really have any dating experience."
Greta sat back, raking fingers through her drenched hair. "Really?"
Darcy sat back, reaching up to adjust her rimless glasses. "I guess I never found anyone. No, that's not completely true, I-"
Her thought was interrupted by Michelle hollering, "Greta, phone call!"
"I'm sorry, dear, we'll get back to this soon. Michelle doesn't interrupt without good reason." Greta patted Darcy's hand, then walked over to the counter. Darcy followed her with her eyes, sighing. What should she say? She watched the shop owner turn her back, talking, then listening, back growing stiffer. Darcy recognized signs of stress and anger, wondering what was causing her friend to get so angry. She finished her coffee and yogurt, debating whether to stay or go. She glanced outside, seeing that the rain had stopped, and decided to catch up later. Now didn't seem to be the time to say that she was considering retirement. She waved to Michelle, grabbed her bag, and quietly left the building.
Greta resisted the temptation to hurl the phone through the window, contenting herself with placing the receiver down as softly as possible. She took a deep breath, staring out at the cloudy sky, wondering what else would go wrong.
"Hey boss, you have a minute?"
She turned, blinking, focusing on Michelle. "What?"
The red-headed college student said timidly, "Well, first off, Darcy left about ten minutes ago, and secondly, the truck is at the loading dock and you need to sign for the delivery."
Greta rubbed her forehead, wondering if she could stave off this developing headache. "Thanks, Michelle." She walked slowly to the back, still thinking about the call. She had just paid off the building a couple of months ago, and now someone wanted to buy it. She rearranged her face into a pleasant look, greeting the truck driver. "Hey, Jim, you have goodies for me?"
"Yup," said the burly driver, "the usual. Sign here, if you would."
She scribbled her name at the bottom of the form, wondering briefly why she couldn't just make someone an assistant manager to deal with such mundane tasks. "Thanks, and say hello to the girls for me."
"Will do." He smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth, taking the clipboard back. Greta watched as he jumped back into his truck, expertly backing out of the narrow alleyway. She waited for several minutes, then went back inside to deal with what was happening.
"Michelle, let me know when it starts getting busy. I need to make some calls," she called out on her way to her office.
"Sure thing." Michelle smiled, continuing to work on a drink for a customer. Greta watched for a moment, then saw Tony scooting in the front door. She automatically glanced at the clock, surprised that he was a few minutes early instead of a few minutes late. At least she could concentrate now, since Tony was relieving Pauline, who was about to leave for class.
Greta sank into her office chair, swinging slowly, repeatedly raking fingers through her blonde hair. She knew that the strip mall across the street had changed hands in the past year, and that they'd put in a lot of money into the place, but never expected that they wanted to expand into her block. Her block was all standalone buildings, including hers, a florist, and a gas station, and an abandoned bookstore. She wondered if the florist and the gas station had received similar calls, offering to buy their buildings. She pondered, thinking that the offer was pretty good, that she could probably invest the money and retire comfortably. Not that she was ready to retire, she was only in her mid-40's, but the thought of giving up the last tie to Jesse was too painful.
The shop owner finally picked up the phone and started making calls. "Good morning, Paul," she said as the florist answered, "how are you this morning?" After exchanging pleasantries, she asked, "Have you received any calls offering to buy you out?"
"Yes, I did. This guy called me up, offering a pretty good amount for my building. I guess he called you, too."
"Just a few minutes ago," she confirmed. "It would be a definite profit, but I'm not keen on selling, but I wanted to feel you out. Smith's will probably sell out, he's already in his 70's."
"Yeah, last of the true gas station garages. Smitty has complained recently about taxes and other expenses eating him alive, and about the complexity of today's car engines. His wife has told me a few times that she's ready for him to retire." He paused, then said, "My wife would be thrilled for me to retire early. I guess you're the only one who isn't close to retirement age."
"Nowhere near. So, what are you thinking?"
She heard him sigh. "Greta, I'm going to be honest, it's tempting. I could pay off the building, make a tidy profit, and then take Sonya on the cruise she's always wanted to go on. Still, I love working with flowers, love decorating for weddings, love my regular customers."
"True." The coffee shop owner tapped a pen on her desk, swinging her chair slowly back and forth. "I need to think about this. Oh, by the way, I want to order some flowers."
She heard him gasp. "Flowers? You?"
She smiled into the phone. "Yes, flowers. I've met someone just recently, and I like her. So could you please whip up some sort of arrangement that says, 'I'm happy to have spent time with you' but not gushy?"
He laughed. "Yes, Greta, I think I can arrange that. What's the address of this mystery woman?"
Greta reached for her pocket phone book, thumbing to the newest entry, reading off the address. "I think she's home now."
"I'll get it take care of, Greta," Paul promised.
"Thanks, Paul, My best to Sonya."
"I'll tell her. You should come to dinner, she asks after you."
"Soon, Paul. Bye." She hung up the phone, still thinking. "I need a lawyer," she said out loud. Betty Cornwell, who had drawn up her legal papers when Jesse was still alive, had retired and moved north to Bellingham recently. "Oh, wait, I do know a lawyer," she said, slapping her forehead. "But do I want to drag her into something like this so soon?"
Darcy was thrilled to get the small bouquet, and had immediately called Greta to thank her. "I can't remember the last time I got flowers," she said, leaning over to sniff. "So, would you like to go to dinner tonight? My treat."
"Dinner would be fine, but it will have to be late. One of my baristas is on vacation this week, so I'm covering the dinner shift. Is 8:30 too late?"
"No, it isn't. I'll call back or swing by later to confirm our plans. And thank you again for the lovely flowers, it was so thoughtful of you."
"You're welcome, Darcy. Listen, I need to get back to work."
"Fine. I look forward to seeing you." Darcy hung up, grinning. Flowers. Such a romantic gesture. Where, then, should they go to dinner?
A couple of hours later, she left her doctor's office, whistling a half-remembered show tune. Dr. Collins had conditionally cleared her to go back to work part-time, and was pleased that she had lost ten pounds. "Your blood pressure is better, too. I'll have one of my staff call with the blood panel results later. You're on the right track, but just remember not to get too run down."
"Thanks, Dr. Collins." She swept out of the office, whistling, only tensing when she unlocked the rent car door. She still got nervous driving, but knew she had to get over it. She called Loraine as she sat behind the wheel, drumming her fingers on the middle console. "Loraine, it's Darcy," she said, "I'm cleared to come back to work part-time. Would you please set up and appointment for me with Bill Forney and Elaine Jenkins in HR?"
"Yes, I will. How did your appointment go?"
"Dr. Collins reviewed Dr. Frederick's records, and they both agree that I can go back to work part-time. Oh, I've lost ten pounds and my blood pressure is down a little. Who knows, maybe I could keep this up and eventually get off my medication!"
"That would be wonderful, Darcy," Loraine agreed. "So how soon will you be in the office?"
"About twenty minutes."
"Not stopping at Jesse's Coffee Bar?" the secretary teased.
Darcy felt herself blushing. "No, not this morning, but after work. I've already texted Greta with the news."
"I'll see you soon, then. Drive safely."
"Oh, I will." Darcy punched the "off" icon and slid her phone into her briefcase. She had always put her phone away before driving, but was even more careful to now after her wreck. Ironic that she, who had never talked on the phone while driving, had been hit by someone who was on the phone and ran a red light. "Stop thinking about it," she admonished herself as she put the car into gear.
Half an hour later, she was at her desk, going through the mail with Loraine. "I answered what I could, farmed out what could be handed over, and saved what you needed to look at. By the way, you have that appointment at 2:30 with Mr. Forney and Ms. Jenkins."
"And I made sure that you had a current network login password," Loraine continued, handing her boss a slip of paper. "Memorize this, then shred it."
Darcy glanced at the password, then tucked the paper in a jacket pocket. "I'll shred it at home, after I'm sure I'll remember it," she promised. She adjusted her rimless glasses, bringing the monitor into better focus. "Have you gone through my email?"
"I should never doubt you, Loraine," Darcy mumbled as she started clicking through messages.
"Is there anything else?"
The attorney looked up, feeling anxious for a moment at being left alone, forcing herself to squash the unwanted anxiety. "Not now, but thank you for asking."
Loraine smiled, commenting, "I'll say one thing, you're a lot nicer than before. You never thanked me for anything before."
Darcy looked up, surprised. "Was I that much of a bitch?"
Loraine leaned over, whispering, "Yes, but you had to be. And it's still a man's world." She straightened up. "I'll check in later." Darcy smiled, then focused on her emails again.
At precisely 2:30, Darcy went to meet with the managing partner and the head of human resources. She irrationally wished that Greta or Loraine were with her for moral support, at the same time chiding herself. After all, she was known as the killer, the one who could make CEOs cry at the witness stand. Why should this meeting bother her so much?
"Good afternoon, Ms. Kent," Elaine Jenkins said as the three of them sat down at the conference room table. "Welcome back to Jenner & Ziegler. We're here to discuss your schedule going forward."
"Thank you." Darcy waited expectantly, projecting a calm she didn't feel.
William Forney cleared his throat theatrically. Do I sound that pompous? She wondered briefly. "Welcome back, Darcy. I must say, your absence has been a hardship on the firm. We're behind on billings and collections this quarter, and hope that you can get back up to speed in a hurry."
Darcy smiled pleasantly as warning bells started ringing in her head. "I'll do what I can, Bill, but I'm only cleared to work twenty hours a week until my next evaluation." She pulled a file out of her briefcase. "My doctor and the neurologist have submitted their recommendations for my work schedule, stating I should work part-time for the next month while continuing my physical and occupational therapy sessions. Assuming all goes well and I continue to improve, I should return to full time status within the month."
Jenkins reached for the report, skimming through it, then handed it to the managing partner. He glanced at it, forced a tight smile, saying. "Darcy, you're our star rainmaker, we can't afford for you to be off lollygagging much longer."
Darcy felt her face go cold. "Lollygagging? Bill, you should reconsider your statement," she warned.
The HR director glanced at the managing partner uneasily, then turned back to the litigator. "I'm sure you have been working hard at your recovery," she said, throwing a warning look at the man next to her.
"Yes." The attorney turned to stare at the managing partner, shifting into cross-examine mode. "Bill, have you ever had head trauma, soft tissue damage, concussion, and cracked ribs?"
"No," he said loftily.
"Then you have nothing to say to me. Don't worry, I've been reviewing the work my associates and junior partners have been doing in my absence, and my clients are happy. Work has continued. So think carefully before you start making statements that you will regret." She stood, sweeping her briefcase over her shoulder. "Elaine, I'll make sure all of the proper forms are completed and returned to your office by close of business today."
"Thank you," the HR director said. As soon as Darcy left the room, she turned to the managing partner and said, "Bill, that crack could cost us if you continue with this attitude."
He sighed. "Elaine, she's been off a month already, and yes, work is getting done, but without her billing at her rates, we're losing potential revenue. Typical woman, crying she needs more time off."
The HR director stared at him, unbelievingly. "How long have you been here?" she asked.
"Nearly eighteen years, why?"
"And how many sick days in that time?"
He frowned, thinking. "A couple of days a year, usually."
She stood, gathering her papers. "Darcy had never taken of a sick day in the thirty years before her accident, other than one week after major surgery. I suggest that you go apologize to her."
He stared, fury starting to gather. "I'll not apologize to her. And you, dear, need to reconsider how you talk to me or you'll find yourself out the door."
Jenkins shrugged. "I wouldn't make threats if I were you," she tossed over her shoulder as she departed the conference room.
He stared after her, gripped with cold fear. Did Elaine know too?
"Ms. Kent, I have the briefs you asked for, and I'm almost finished with the memorandum you requested," Calvin Adams said nervously, standing in front of Darcy's desk.
She took it from him, absently motioning him to sit down. Surprised, the young attorney perched on the edge of one of the visitor chairs, trying not to rock back and forth as he usually did when he was anxious. He waited as she read through the brief, picking up a pen to make a few comments, then handed it back to him. "Very good, Calvin, I've marked a few items, but otherwise, very good."
"Very good?" he echoed, stunned.
"Yes." She raised blonde eyebrows, looking at the well-built dark young man. "Your writing has improved over the past six months. It is clearer and your reasoning is better as well. I would say let's go to dinner to continue this, but I am busy tonight." Darcy glanced down at the brief again, tapping it with her pen. "Make these corrections and return it to me tomorrow morning. What is our deadline?"
"Um," Calvin pulled out his phone, glancing through the calendar, "Thursday. The client requested a meeting to discuss it Thursday morning at 9:30. I wasn't sure what to do, so I asked Loraine to book a room to discuss it."
"You did well," Darcy said, handing the brief back to the young attorney. "I'm very pleased with your work on this, and I think they will go for your proposed settlement. It is a win-win situation, to use an overused cliche, and will ultimately save them several hundred thousand in litigation costs. I'd like for you to lead the discussion Thursday."
"Really?" he blurted out.
"Yes, really." The partner looked at the associate curiously, asking, "Am I really that scary, Calvin? Do I give you enough chances to learn, mentor you well enough?"
The dark-skinned man looked confused, answering cautiously, "You're good about mentoring, but usually don't let anyone take the lead until they make senior attorney or partner." He hesitated, then plowed ahead. "You're different now, Ms. Kent."
"How so?" she asked mildly.
He furrowed his brow, pulling together his thoughts. "If I may be honest..."
"Please do." Darcy folded her hands, listening intently
Calvin relaxed his stance a little, sitting back in his chair instead of on the edge. He steepled his fingers, trying to judge her expression. Just go for it , he advised himself. "You used to rip my work to shreds, even if it was for minor changes. You would yell at me, but you always stuck up for us when other partners yelled at us. You always take the lead in any client contact, but now you're giving me the chance to run the meeting, correct?"
"You've changed, Ms. Kent, and I think I may like it."
She smiled. "Good. You have a keen intellect, and a great grasp of the legal and business issues in this case, and I appreciate it. You've earned this." She glanced at her watch, then said, "I need to cut this short since I have dinner plans tonight, but would you consult with the rest of the team about a breakfast meeting Wednesday morning? I want to hear all of your thoughts on our settlement offer, pros and cons. And, I will rely more on you to manage this case, since I'm only supposed to work part-time for the next month. May I rely on you?"
"Yes, ma'am!" He caught himself before he saluted.
"I'm not your drill instructor," Darcy said wryly, "although if you prefer, I could fake it."
He smiled, responding to her genuine humor. "No, being in the marines once was enough for me, ma'am."
"Check back with me tomorrow afternoon, or with Loraine in the morning. Again, good work."
"Thank you." Calvin smiled as he gathered up his file and notes.
Darcy smiled at the young man as he left, then glanced at her watch again. She had just enough time to pack up, go home, change clothes, and go pick up Greta for dinner. She found herself smiling bigger as she thought of the tall blonde. "Ah, Greta," she said.
After a frantic call to Loraine to consult on what to wear, Darcy finally was showered, dressed, and pulling in front of Greta's door. She whistled a tune as she walked up the sidewalk of the small house, noting the profusion of flowers in the front beds and around the trees. She wondered if Greta did her own work or hired it out. Come to think of it, she wasn't even sure what was in her own flower beds, she simply left that up to the landscaping company. Corralling her darting thoughts, she pushed the doorbell, listening for Greta's footsteps.
"Good evening," Darcy said as the coffee shop owner opened the door, "are you ready for dinner?"
"God, yes," Greta said, "won't you come in for a few minutes?"
"Be glad to," Darcy said, curious about her friend's house. She followed Greta through the small foyer, into a larger living area. It was cozy and welcoming, with blue-gray walls, deep red curtains, oak floors, a comfortable tobacco brown leather sofa, matching chair, oak coffee table, a few floor lamps, and a wall of jam packed book shelves. "This is amazing," she said.
"Thank you," Greta said, smiling at the attorney. "I just repainted and added the curtains a few months ago."
"How was it before?" Darcy asked, curious.
"Stark white walls, no books, antique sofa and love seat. I finally decided to sell the furniture that was Jesse's since it didn't fit my style."
"Oh." Darcy was at a loss as to what to say. That she was sorry? Glad Greta could move on? Before she could decide, Greta motioned her to follow her down the hallway.
"Three bedrooms. One a guest room, one my office, and my bedroom," she said as they passed each one in turn. The guest room had a double bed, a dresser, and a rocking chair and various landscape photos on the walls. The office had a desk, chair, futon, and 32 inch flat screen TV. "I hook my computer up to the TV to watch movies," Greta commented.
The master bedroom was painted a pale gray, navy blue curtains, queen sized bed, two dressers, a small armchair, and a large closet/bathroom combination. Darcy was intrigued by the walk in shower, large enough for two people. She found herself blushing at the thought, eliciting a grin from her companion. "Yes, shower big enough for two," she affirmed.
"Um, nice." Darcy wondered briefly why she had started blushing so easily.
"This was the last renovation that Jesse and I did together. We hired out the plumbing work, but did all of the rebuilding of the shower area and tiling ourselves. We used to do a lot of home renovations, but then she got sick before we could do anything with the other rooms. I've thought of renovating the kitchen, but haven't had the heart or money to do so yet."
"I never thought of renovating," Darcy mused, "I just hire people to repaint every few years, and replaced the carpet last year. Loraine usually has to remind me to do these things."
"Ah, your secretary. She seems part mother figure, part friend, part executive assistant."
"I don't know what I'd do without her," Darcy said honestly, "she's been my mentor more than any of the attorneys." Darcy looked around the room again, then asked, "Are you ready for dinner?"
Darcy smiled shyly, happy to be in Greta's company. "Then let's away!"
A little while later, they pulled up at the restaurant. "Loraine dated the owner for a while," Darcy said as she led the way up the stairs. "I hope you'll like it. Casual French, he calls it." She furrowed her brow a moment, trying to remember the gentleman's name, or why Loraine dropped him. It didn't matter, she supposed. "They have the best tomato bisque ever, and the most wonderful sourdough bread." She held the door open for Greta.
"Oh, this is cozy," Greta said, taking in the rustic decor and roaring central fireplace.
"Good evening, Miss Kent," the older gentleman at the host station said as they walked up. "Two for dinner?"
"Yes," she affirmed, finally remembering his name. "Jacque, this is my date, Greta Hanson. Greta, Jacque LaBaron, owner of Matilda's. Greta owns Jesse's Coffee Bar, a wonderful coffee bar and cafe."
"Charmed," he said, tilting his magnificent mane of white hair toward them. "If you ladies will follow me, I have your table by the fire, Miss Kent." He seated them with a flourish, handing them menus. "Sabrina will be with you in a moment for your drink orders."
"Thank you, Jacque," Darcy said. As he left, she smiled at Greta. "You like this?"
"I think I will," Greta answered, taking in the French country decor. "Very cozy. I love being by the fireplace."
"It's my favorite table, Greta. Loraine introduced me to this place, but I haven't been back in a bit. She and Jacque broke up a few years ago." Darcy concentrated a moment, trying to remember who her secretary was dating now. Damned slippery memory. "David, that's his name," she murmured.
"Loraine is dating some guy named David something. They started dating a few months before my wreck."
"Ah." Before Greta could ask anything else, Sabrina came by for their orders. They spent a few minutes deciding what to eat, then as soon as Sabrina left, Greta took a deep breath and asked, "If I asked, could you recommend a good attorney?"
"Why? What is your legal issue?" Darcy asked, intrigued.
Greta marshaled her thoughts for a moment before replying, noting how Darcy started listening intently. "You know where the strip mall is across from my building."
"Yes. What about it?"
"It changed hands a few years ago, and the new owner has concentrated on renovations and bringing in more upscale stores. Now he wants to expand, buy out my entire block. I want to know how to slow him down."
Darcy propped her chin on her fists, thinking. "Do you own the building or lease?"
"Own. Paul Sears, the florist next door, recently bought his building from the leasing agency and still owes about five years on the mortgage. Carl Smith owns the gas station on the opposite end of the block. There's also a shuttered bookstore in the back side of the block."
"Did you talk to Mr. Sears and Mr. Smith about their plans? I assume they were also approached."
"Yes, they were," Greta affirmed as she buttered a slice of warm sourdough bread. She took a bite, nodded her appreciation, swallowed. "Paul is considering the offer so he can retire, and Smitty is ready to throw in the towel. I just paid off my building this year, and don't feel like retiring or finding a new location."
Darcy sensed something else was behind this, but waited until Greta had given her more facts during their dinner before asking, "What else would hold you back?"
She laid down her fork and said sadly, "The business was something Jesse and I built together, and I don't want to lose that. It's more of a reminder of our marriage and the good times than our house, to be honest. I don't know, Darcy, what would be involved in fighting this, if the other two take the offers?"
"I'd have to see the offers, but I think that since you own the building free and clear, they can't do much to you, unless they somehow got the city to condemn it for expansion. Is the building in good condition?"
"Yes, I've kept it up, and had a structural engineer check it thoroughly before we bought it."
Darcy pondered the facts and issues while sipping her after dinner coffee. Finally, she said, "I could look into this for you. Frankly, my billing rates are too high for you, but we could work something out."
"Would you? I'd love that," Greta said, relieved.
"First, we ask for a formal, written offer. Second, we go over it with a fine tooth comb. Third, we talk to the other property owners in the block, ascertain their potential positions. Fourth, we decide what to do once all of the facts and issues are on the table."
Greta smiled. "Darcy, thank you, this puts my mind at ease."
Darcy chuckled. "Wait until you see my bill! So, are you ready to go?"
"Go? We haven't paid yet."
Darcy smiled. "I took care of that ahead of time."
Darcy chuckled again as they stood. "Not a dog, unless I'm a pit bull, my dear," she said, taking Greta's elbow to escort her out of the restaurant.
As she drove the taller blonde back to her house, Darcy found her thoughts scattering. She thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and was sad to see it ending so soon. Soon? Darcy glanced at the dashboard clock, realizing it was later than she thought. She pulled in front of the coffee shop owner's house and shut off the engine. "We're here," she said.
Greta smiled. "I had a lovely evening, Darcy. Won't you come in for a moment?"
"Sure." Darcy got out, intending to go around and open Greta's door for her, but Greta beat her to the punch. Instead, she followed the woman up to her door, holding the storm door while Greta unlocked the wooden door.
They drifted to the couch and sat down. "I had a wonderful evening, Darcy," Greta said, laying a hand on her arm. "The dinner was perfect, the conversation great. I didn't mean to unload all of my worries on you about my business."
"Why do you think they call attorneys 'Counselor'?" Darcy said playfully. "We counsel!"
"That was bad," Greta laughed.
Darcy smiled, looking into Greta's bright gray eyes. She really did enjoy this woman's company, and wanted to spend lots of time with her.
She also wanted to kiss Greta.
The idea popped in unexpectedly. Yes, she'd called it a date, but did she kiss on the first date? Would Greta be turned off by her bulk? Greta was not skinny, but was well proportioned and athletic, with lovely firm breasts, just the right size.
"Darcy, you seem rather lost in thought," Greta said playfully.
"Sorry," Darcy said, licking her lips. How did one kiss a woman? She had been so career driven all of her life that she had never dated, never even kissed anyone. She tried to speak, but her tongue would not cooperate. Say something , she commanded herself.
"It is getting close to my bedtime," Greta said, "I really hate to throw you out, but will I see you in the morning?"
Darcy recovered her wits quickly. "Yes. I have another appointment in the morning, and plan to work in the afternoon, but I will come by for my coffee."
Greta stood up, holding a hand out. Darcy took it cautiously, unsure what to do, but allowed the other woman to help her stand up. She tilted her head slightly, realizing that Greta was a few inches taller. She felt like time was standing still as she looked frankly at Greta's slim lips. She carefully slid her hands up Greta's arms, bringing her closer, tilting up, slowly bringing her lips close to Greta's, finally closing the gap.
Greta was a little surprised by Darcy's boldness, but responded happily, meeting Darcy with passion. She took control of the kiss, opening her lips slightly. She felt the attorney increase the pressure, wrapping her arms closer, soon lost in the sensation of being thoroughly kissed, bodies pressed together. The familiar feelings of desire stirred, and she allowed her hands to roam freely over the attorney's broad back, ending up by cupping her ample butt.
Darcy finally broke away, all sorts of wild and unfamiliar feelings swirling through her. "My God, is it always that good?" she blurted out.
Greta laughed, pulling Darcy back into her arms, kissing the top of her dark blonde head. "Only if the two women are well matched," she said.
Darcy snuggled against Greta, heaving a sigh of contentment. "That was my first kiss," she admitted in a small voice.
"First kiss ever?"
Greta laughed again. "Girlfriend, you have a lot catching up to do!" She leaned back a bit, then slowly and thoroughly kissed the attorney again, finally reluctantly pulling away before they both got too overwhelmed. "Okay, you really need to go now, or I'll drag you off to bed."
"You would?" Darcy blurted out.
"Yes. God, you are hot, woman!" Greta affirmed.
Darcy blushed. "I never thought of myself as hot or sexy, Greta. You? Yes. Me? I'm dumpy and bitchy."
"And extremely intelligent, which is an absolute turn on for me," Greta said. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Yes, you will," Darcy said, a huge grin splitting her face. "I had a marvelous time."
"I did too, honey."
Darcy leaned in for one last kiss, then floated out of the house and back to her car. "That was amazing," she murmured as she pulled away from the curb.
Greta woke up, stretching leisurely, humming a show tune as she remembered the night before. God, the woman could kiss. It was hard to believe that Darcy really was a virgin, the way she kissed so boldly and passionately. She smiled at the thought, finally rolling out of bed so she could make breakfast. "Good morning," she said to her cat as she entered the kitchen. George meowed back, pointedly staring at his empty food bowl. "Sorry about that," she said, pulling out the bag and replenishing it.
A few minutes later, she was starting the coffee pot and contemplating what to eat. "I wonder what Darcy eats? If she had stayed, would I be fixing breakfast for both of us?" George kept his face in the food bowl, wisely withholding comment. "I'll be traditional, bacon and eggs and toast," she decided, opening the refrigerator door. She sang "Good morning" from Singin' In The Rain as she whipped together breakfast, sitting at the table, grinning. What would it be like to have Darcy here? It was early, they hadn't known each other long, but she was attracted to the large woman from the time she laid eyes on her. "She felt so good in my arms," she told the cat. He merely rose from his food bowl and stalked off.
Darcy woke up feeling happier than she had since the day she went to work for Jenner & Smith (now, of course, Jenner & Ziegler.) She had felt attractions to women before, but never acted on it, preferring to spend all of her time and energy on advancing her career. Now, however, she had kissed Greta, and had felt the stirrings of what everyone talked about. No wonder Christ had told his followers to leave their families, and no wonder Paul had looked down on marriage. It was distracting, but in a very good way. Or was that letter really by Paul? Darcy struggled for several minutes to call up the information that had been effortlessly at her fingertips, finally deciding to look it up later.
"Am I in love?" she asked the walls of her house. Speaking of her house, it did look rather sterile compared to Greta's house. She had a few framed awards in her home office, and a few generic landscapes on various walls, but it had no personality. It could have been a model home. "No, model homes have at least some personality," she said out loud.
Darcy shook her head, pulling her wandering thoughts back together. She ate a quick breakfast, then showered and dressed for her appointment with Dr. Frederick, the neurologist. Just as she started gathering her belongings, her phone rang. She picked it up, answering, "Darcy Kent, how may I help you?"
"Darcy, it's Loraine."
"Oh, good morning, Loraine, how are you doing?"
"Fine. You sound very chipper."
"I am. I'll tell you later. What may I do for you?"
"Are you sure this is Darcy Kent? You are chipper, not biting my head off, and not commenting that I'm not at your doorstep already."
"Oh." Darcy pondered this a moment, realizing it was true. "Actually, I think I'll take myself. You go on to work, I'll be there after lunch. Or before, and I'll take you to lunch."
She heard a musical peal of laughter on the other end of the line, something she rarely heard from her secretary. She liked Loraine's laugh! "Who are you and what have you done with my boss? Never mind, I'll take you up on that. I'll go on in to work now, and see you shortly before noon. Shall I make reservations?"
"Pick wherever you want to go, I need to get moving. See you soon." Darcy hung up, whistling "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from Oklahoma . It was a beautiful morning, a rare sunny morning for late fall in Seattle. Life was very good.
Two weeks after she started back to work, Darcy walked into a meeting of the board of directors. She immediately knew something was wrong, even though nothing appeared to be wrong. Years of reading subtle body language gave her the ability to size up opponents, and that experience told her that she was walking into the proverbial lions' den.
She took her accustomed seat between Jill Napier and Robert North, partners in bankruptcy and corporate, exchanging casual small talk with them until Bill Forney called the meeting to order. The first several items were the normal state of affairs of the firm, discussion of new cases, talk about the recent upgrade in computer systems. Finally, Bill said, "This is not on the agenda, and will not be part of the minutes." Darcy felt her hackles rise, knowing that it was about her. She felt in her pocket, silently switching on her digital recorder. The room fell silent, and he continued, looking everywhere but Darcy's direction. "As we all know, Darcy Kent has been unable to work more than twenty hours a week, after being off for a month. As a direct result, billings are down substantially, and I'd like to consider asking the partnership to buy her out."
Stunned silence fell across the room, then conversations broke out at once. He rapped on the table until it was quiet once more, a gleam in his eyes. "As a result, we may not be able to pay the usual bonuses."
The uproar returned and continued until Jill, who was also the financial partner for the firm, called out in a penetrating voice, "Show us the evidence."
"I beg pardon?" he asked, taken off guard by the demand.
"Show us the evidence," the bankruptcy attorney repeated. "Show us the accounting statements. I've seen her associates and junior partners remain as busy as ever, so prove this accusation."
Bill looked stunned. No one had questioned him since Douglas Jenner had appointed him to the board of directors just before his untimely death. "I'll bring it at the next meeting," he said, frowning.
"If you were going to have us consider buying Ms. Kent out, then why didn't you already have the statements ready for us to examine? And how do we know you're not having Accounting cooking the books? Remember, I'm very good at ferreting out hidden assets, my clients try to hid assets all of the time."
Bill Forney stared at the bankruptcy attorney, clearly flustered and not expecting opposition from anyone. "I'll have the statements at the next meeting."
Jill pressed on. "No, call in Chad Warner right now to address these statements. Our CFO should be able to answer this off the top of his head."
Bill swallowed his anger at being crossed. "Ms. Napier, I might remind you that your practice group has not been as profitable this year."
"Filings are down, but we've actually had a better realization rate than any group except intellectual property this year," Jill reminded him, green eyes gleaming. "And I believe that your group has seen a drop in your realization rate this quarter. So don't go picking on Ms. Kent."
Bill angrily slammed his agenda shut. "We'll address this again next month," he spluttered, stalking off. The rest of the board waited a moment, then started drifting out of the room.
Darcy turned off her recorder, turning to Jill. "Thank you for your support," she said.
"I hate bullies," Jill replied. "It is true that your billings are down, but there is such a thing as medical leave, even for partners," she grumbled. "God, that man gets on my last nerve sometimes."
Jill flashed a smile. "Yep. Votes are supposed to be confidential, but I know that five years ago he voted and lobbied against me being accepted into the partnership. Tell you what, let's go grab an early lunch and I'll tell you all about it."
"Sounds like a good plan," Darcy said as she finished gathering her reports. "Where?"
"I'm thinking far away," Jill said, winking.
"Okay, meet in the lobby in ten minutes?
"It's a date."
Jill Napier had joined the firm as a senior associate eight years ago, making partner several years after she arrived. She quickly made her way up the ladder, and stepped in as the practice group leader for bankruptcy and reorganization four years ago, when Kenneth Holloway retired after twenty-seven years with the firm. Jill, a short, fiery brunette, was one of the few people that Darcy spent time with on a somewhat social level.
"So," Jill said after they placed their order, "what are we going to do about Bill? I'm getting tired of his beating up on women."
"Just women?" Darcy asked, sipping her water. "Do tell."
Jill grinned, showing small, white, even teeth. "Anyway, go back a few years over the financials, Darcy, and see which partners got a smaller bonus due to their group finances. You'll notice that except for your group, any group or department headed by a woman got at least a 7-9% smaller bonus than groups or departments headed by men. I thought I was imagining things at first, but Chad has quietly ordered some reports from accounting, and we've come to the conclusion that Bill is deliberately shorting women. He doesn't like us, and has not had the stones to go after you until now."
"Darcy, you were Mr. Jenner's pet, and more importantly, Loraine's pet. The rest of the firm knew, I've been told, that you were not to be jacked with. When one of the founding members took you under his wing, you were golden. But I know that you've gotten ahead on pure talent and drive, and Bill has resented that. I've heard gossip that he almost got kicked out before Doug Jenner died, but that Doug's death saved Bill's ass." Jill paused as her sandwich and chips were laid down, and Darcy's soup and salad were placed before her. She took a bite, nodding in satisfaction. "Have you heard anything about our managing partner?"
Darcy slowly sipped a spoonful of soup, thinking. She had something in mind earlier, but it had slipped. Something Loraine told her many years ago, something she had some evidence on, something slimy indeed. "Yes, but I'm trying to remember the details."
"No matter, it will return to you. God, I'm so pissed at the way he's trying to shove you out of the firm. What are you going to do?" Jill asked, curious.
"Besides call him out? I'm meeting with Chad this afternoon, I've had him working on some reports as well. I know that my group has done as well without me as when I was here, and I'm very angry that he would do anything to my people just because I've been out."
Jill took another bite, framing her thoughts. Finally, she offered, "I think he's hiding something else."
Darcy spooned up the last of her soup. "I know he is. I'll ask Loraine as well, she knows everything." Darcy poked her salad, wishing for a moment that she could eat part of Jill's sandwich. No, she had to watch what she ate, or she'd be stuck at the gym for two hours, she reminded herself. "The financials don't quite jibe with what I think they should. I think he's doing something shady."
Jill drummed stubby fingers on the table, thinking. "Yeah, I think you are right. Something is very shady. Oh, I meant to ask, how are you doing?"
The older partner smiled. "Well, I'm better than I was, Jill. My memory is slowly improving, and my writing is nearly back. The irony is that I do great at editing, but sometimes forget punctuation or suffixes in my own writing. Like if a word ends in 'ed', I tend to leave it off. But it's a minor thing, and I'm working with a therapist to make sure I regain everything. I'm also working out at a gym 3-4 times a week, and am trying to eat healthier foods."
"I thought you looked a little different. We were all a little worried because Loraine looked so exhausted and strained for the first month, but she's looked better too. I figure if Loraine is happier, then you must be happier."
"I am." Darcy glanced around, then asked, "Jill, have we ever talked on a personal, confidential level?"
Jill raised one dark eyebrow. "No, but I'm good with secrets. My husband will tell you that."
"I didn't know you were married."
The bankruptcy attorney laughed. "See? I am good at secrets."
Darcy went silent a moment, taking off her glasses and absently chewing on the earpieces as she gathered her thoughts. Finally, she folded her glasses, laying them on the table and looking into Jill's brown eyes. "I think I've finally fallen in love."
"You?" Jill questions, truly surprised.
"Yes," Darcy affirmed shyly.
Jill smiled, clapping lightly. "Congratulations, Darcy, who is it?"
Darcy smiled dreamily. "Her name is Greta Hanson, and she owns a coffee shop a few blocks from my house. I found it when I was walking to get my hair cut and spontaneously stopped in. I'm glad I did, she's wonderful. We've done something together at least once a week for a month now, and I took her to dinner the other night. I'm thinking about a weekend in Vancouver, if we can both get away."
"So, the mighty Darcy has finally fallen, it took you long enough. When do I get to meet her?"
Darcy rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "I don't know. Gosh, I haven't even introduced her to Loraine yet."
"And you're alive?" Jill asked incredulously.
Darcy responded defensively, "She's usually doesn't introduce me to any of her lovers, unless we happen to run into them! But I don't think she's been serious about any of the men she's dated."
Jill's eyebrows rose. "Loraine? Our ice queen?"
Darcy laughed. "Yes, our ice queen. She does look like a movie star from the 1940's, doesn't she? You'd be surprised, she goes through men like tissues, but she's been dating this one for quite a while. David something. He's closer to my age than hers, and I think this is more than a fling for him, the way she talks. Anyway, I guess I should introduce Greta and Loraine to each other."
"Yep. Any Thanksgiving plans?"
Darcy looked surprised. "It is November, isn't it? I hadn't made any, my family is still in Kentucky, and I haven't gone home in years."
Jill glanced at her watch and said reluctantly, "We'd better go back to work now. I had no idea you were from Kentucky, Darcy. Okay, tell you what, if you wind up without plans, come spend it with my family. Bring Greta, if she's available. We always have more than we can eat, so it wouldn't be a big deal to squeeze two more at the table. My husband, Don, owns a catering business and has a wonderful spread every year. Oh, and you'll get to meet my son, Lamont. He's a senior in high school, and is thinking about following his mom into law."
"You have a son?"
Jill laughed. "I claim him, but he's actually Don's from a previous marriage. Don's wife, Sandy, died in a car accident when Lamont was ten. Anyway, think about it, I'll send you directions."
"I will," Darcy promised. She hadn't even thought about the holiday. Would Greta want to go? Was it too soon? "Let's get back together in the morning to discuss this issue with Bill and the finances. Do you think Chad will have all of the reports ready then?"
"Possibly. Oh, tell me where this wonderful coffee haven is, and we can meet there."
Darcy gave her directions, ending with, "It's better than Starbucks."
"Heresy!!" Jill laughed, picking up her purse and jacket. "Actually, their coffee tastes burnt part of the time."
"I never noticed," Darcy said sincerely.
"I would venture that there's a lot you never noticed over the years," Jill responded. "But, enough of that, time to go back to the salt mines."
>Paul Sears, Carl Smith, and Greta Hanson sat in her office, discussing the offers they'd received from Buckner Holdings for their respective buildings. Carl noted, "My wife just retired from teaching last spring. They offered me a really good price, and I'm tempted to sell. I can't sell the business for as much as the building."
Paul added, "The revised offer is good enough for me to pay off my building, my house, and have enough to travel before I do something else. I love my business, but I had to lay off nearly everyone a few years ago, and it sure would be nice to have some breathing room."
Greta reached for a gingerbread cookie, saying slowly, "I really don't want to sell. My offer has been nearly doubled, and I have very little debt, so I could almost retire completely. However, I love my business, love my customers, finally have a really good staff, and I'm happy."
"So it sounds like two of three," Carl noted. "Do we all need to sell, or could I sell and not affect the two of you?"
"I don't know," Greta said, pushing a lock of hair out of her eyes. Time for a haircut , she noted absently. "I could ask Darcy."
"Who's Darcy?" the men asked simultaneously.
Greta allowed a dreamy smile to cross her face. "Darcy Kent is the woman I've started dating recently. She's an attorney, quite intelligent, and just a lot of fun to be with. She came into my shop about a month ago, and I think I fell for her immediately."
"This is your first since Jesse?" Paul asked gently.
"You need someone," Carl added, "you do seem a lot happier, even with this offer hanging over your head. Congratulations."
The three looked at each other, silence descending for a moment. Finally, Carl broke the silence by asking, "Suppose we see if anyone else wants to buy us out? Or at least me?"
"What do you mean?" Paul asked, curious.
Carl reached for a cookie, answering slowly, "Well, you two don't really want to sell out, but I am ready to retire. Suppose we find someone who wants to buy out my building for another gas station, or repair shop? That would keep the character of this block and keep you two in business. I liked the offer, but I wasn't quite happy with the holding company offering the money. What about that attorney of yours? Would she have some clients who would want an investment?"
"I don't think she has any real estate clients," Greta mused, "but I could ask her. Say, what about the building behind us? It's been empty for over a year, has anyone heard what is being done with it?"
"No," Paul admitted, "but we could find out. I have a friend who is a Realtor, I'll bet she could find out in a jiffy."
"It's settled, then. We'll try to get someone to buy out Carl, and to see about that empty building. Thanks guys. Anyone want any more coffee or cookies?"
Paul shook his head, but Carl grinned and held out his cup. "Fill'er up!"
Greta invited Darcy over for supper, saying, "I have a bunch of questions that you might be able to answer. Besides, it's a good excuse to see you."
"I'll take any excuse I can get," Darcy laughed. "See you after work."
Darcy arrived promptly at 6:30, handing Greta a small winter bouquet and a bottle of zinfandel. "I wasn't sure what you were serving, so I opted for a dessert wine," she explained.
Greta smiled, ushering the attorney in after kissing her cheek. "Thank you, dear, these are lovely, and I adore this wine. It's one of my favorites. Let me hang up your coat."
Darcy handed over her coat and scarf while looking around. Greta had added some autumn decorations, pumpkins, cornucopias, strands of autumn leaves, and a small scarecrow in a corner. "I never thought of decorating for Thanksgiving," she commented. "In fact, I rarely decorate at all. Which reminds me, Jill Napier, one of the other partners, invited us to Thanksgiving with her family."
"Really? It just happens that I'll be here, I couldn't get a flight home this year. Please, sit, dinner is almost ready. Enjoy the fire while I take the chicken out of the oven." Greta set the bouquet on the mantel, smiling. "It goes well. Did Paul put this together for you?"
"Yes, he did."
"Excellent." Greta left the room to take care of dinner while Darcy sat in the armchair next to the fireplace. She sank down gratefully, relaxing for the first time that day. Due to the morning meeting, she had put in a full day instead of the recommended 5-6 hours. She was pretty tired, but glad to see Greta.
Greta came out fifteen minutes later to call Darcy to dinner and stopped. The large dark blonde woman was peacefully snoozing, probably relaxed for the first time today. Greta was reluctant to wake her, but was also starving. There had been a rush, Michelle called in with the flu, and she never had time for lunch. She watched her friend for another few seconds, then went over to her, gently kissing her forehead. "Wake up, sleepyhead," she said.
Darcy jerked awake, head colliding with Greta's. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, eyes popping open wide, "I didn't mean to hit you."
Greta laughed as she rubbed her head. "Serves me right, you were napping and so cute. Dinner's ready." She held out her hand to help Darcy up. "Nothing fancy, chicken, rice, and steamed veggies."
"Smells heavenly," Darcy said as she levered herself out of the chair. "Lead on, MacDuff."
The women discussed Thanksgiving plans over dinner, then adjourned to the living room near the fireplace for their after dinner coffee. "So, you and Paul don't want to sell, Carl does, and there is an empty building behind you. How aggressive is this holding company with their offer?"
"Considering we each got an offer nearly double the first offer, I'd say pretty aggressive. The shopping center is now spiffy and looks more modern, and we all have buildings that were built in the 1940's or 1950's. Solid, but old-fashioned."
"What about the empty building?"
"It was originally a bookstore, but went out of business a few years ago, couldn't compete with the online stores."
"Hm." Darcy swirled the coffee in her mug, lost in thought. "Did you get any information from Paul's friend?"
"She called back, said that she found out that the owner went bankrupt, and the bank owns it now. The bank just got an offer from the holding company, but she didn't know anything else."
An idea popped in Darcy's head, but she decided to wait and investigate before saying anything. "I don't have any clients who buy properties, but some of the individuals at the companies I represent like to buy investment properties. I'll also check with Nancy in our real estate practice, she may know of someone looking for such a property."
"That would be wonderful, dear." Greta set down her mug, smiling at the attorney.
"All in a day's work," Darcy said, returning the smile. She set her mug down, turning more serious. "Bill is doing his best to kick me out of the firm," she said. "Jill and I both asked our CFO, Chad, to look into the finances of the firm as we think something fishy is going on. I also found out through the grapevine that he tried to get my pay shorted, despite the fact that I had short term and long term disability insurance."
"Really." Darcy wondered briefly if it would be acceptable to take Greta's hand. Damn, she didn't know anything about dating! Ignoring the impulse, she continued, "He's been jealous of me for years, and is trying to exact his revenge, but I know he has secrets, and so does Loraine. I think she knows something really damaging about him, based on some hints she dropped recently."
Greta's gray eyes opened wide. "Blackmail?"
Darcy nodded. "I've thought of it. I've used dirt to get other companies to quickly settle lawsuits, but I've been careful to stay within all the rules."
The tall shop owner looked at the attorney thoughtfully, an idea popping in her head that she wasn't sure about voicing. The empty building had great potential, and could be converted fairly easily into offices. If she had enough credit, she'd be tempted to purchase it herself and rent it out. Maybe a partner or group of partners could go in and buy the building. Before she could open her mouth, Darcy suddenly asked, "So what are you doing for Thanksgiving again?"
Greta blinked at the change of topic, deciding to shelve what she had been pondering. "I usually have the shop open in the morning for last minute shoppers, and for people who just want to get away for a few minutes, but then close it by 2:00 or so. On years I go home, I have my crew cover, but I didn't get around to buying plane tickets this year. Besides, it's not a big holiday for my family."
"I see. Well, Jill said lunch, but I think it really means closer to 3:00, and she lives not too far from here. Could one of your people close the shop if necessary?" Darcy decided to be bold, reaching for Greta's hand. "I'd really like for you to be there with me."
"Well, if you insist."
Greta hesitated, wondering if she was ready to be seen as part of a couple again. She looked at her friend, seeing hope and a little fear in her eyes. It occurred to her that Darcy was being brave, having no experience with dating, to ask her to go to a holiday meal with friends. "Yes, I will go with you. Does Jill need us to bring anything?"
"Oh, God, no, Greta, Jill says her husband Don takes care of it. He has a catering business, I think." She frowned a moment, concentrating on remembering the details of her lunch conversation. "She has a stepson who is in high school. Larry. No, something else." Darcy furrowed her brow, frustrated by her still elusive memory. "What was the character's name who was The Shadow?"
"Yes, the boy is Lamont. I'll let Jill know tomorrow that we're coming." Darcy grinned hugely, rubbing her thumb against Greta's knuckles. She suddenly frowned. "How do I act? I mean, how do I introduce you?"
"As your date?"
"Oh, I think I did mention that to Jill. Anyway, it's getting late, and I need my sleep." Darcy rose, pulling Greta up with her, wrapping her arms around the tall blonde. She felt her pulse quicken at the nearness of the other woman, unfamiliar feelings of want enveloping her. She automatically pushed down the feelings, opting for a brief kiss.
Or, what was supposed to be a brief kiss. Darcy started to pull back, but Greta held her tight, deepening the kiss until they were both dizzy. The attorney finally pulled away, heart pounding, using every ounce of self-control not to continue. "God," she whispered reverently, "I never felt this before."
"Never?" Greta asked, forcing herself to drop her arms.
"Never," Darcy affirmed. "Someday, I want to hear how you gathered the courage to kiss a girl for the first time, but for now, I need sleep."
Greta took Darcy's hand, walking her to the door. "I'll tell you all about my sordid past one day," she said lightly, stopping to take Darcy's coat off the rack. "But yes, we both need to sleep. Talk to you tomorrow?"
"You bet." Darcy grinned, allowing herself one more kiss before leaving. I could get used to this , she thought as she floated to her car.
Darcy stood in her closet, suddenly realizing she had nothing to wear.
No, that was not completely correct, but she had mostly suits and evening wear, with a small, but growing, collection of workout wear. She had very little casual clothing, and what she had was now a couple of sizes too big. She dropped the latest pair of slacks on the floor, going into her bathroom out of curiosity. She stepped on the scales, looking down in surprise. She had lost nearly twenty-five pounds in the last two months. No wonder her suits were getting so loose. Frustrated, she walked back into her bedroom and picked up her phone. "Loraine, I have a proposal for you," she plunged in as soon as the older woman answered, "Are you doing anything today?"
"Well, good morning to you, too, boss. I'm at David's, but we didn't have any plans."
"Good. We need to go shopping, Greta and I are going to Jill and Don Napier's for Thanksgiving, and I don't have anything appropriate. I have no idea what to even look for."
She heard rustling, and the low tones of a man's sleepy voice on the other end before Loraine answered, "Okay, I'll meet you at the coffee shop in an hour and a half. I need to get ready and go back home to dress for shopping."
"Oh," Darcy said, a blush creeping up her face. Damn, she hated this blushing. An unbidden thought of Loraine, the cool, collected one, thrashing in passion flittered through her mind. I have sex on the brain , she wailed to herself. "I'm sorry, I didn't think."
"You never do, my dear," Loraine chuckled. "I'll see you soon. Have Greta save me a multigrain bagel."
"I will. Bye." Darcy disconnected, tossing her phone on the bed. She took a couple of controlled breaths, fighting down the panic that was rising. She never panicked before the wreck, even when it looked like cases were going into the toilet and her clients would lose huge amounts of money or reputation. Now, after the wreck, she still had problems with memory, panicking, being emotional, and loss of appetite. "That won't bother me today," she said out loud. "Loraine will make sure I'm dressed appropriately."
As she showered, she thought about her secretary. Loraine was really more than just a secretary, she had functioned as secretary, advisor, mentor, scheduler, and friend for decades. Darcy smiled, thinking about how Loraine had quietly taken her in hand in the early days, spending evenings and weekends with her in order to teach her how to dress, how to eat, how to talk, how to function in society and business. She suspected that initially Doug Jenner was behind Loraine's tutoring, but somehow the two women had forged a mutual bond, and she was grateful. "She deserves a great Christmas present," Darcy told her reflection in the mirror as she dried her hair. God knows her parents barely had money to feed and clothe her, and never had the time to really teach her anything. Not that a train engineer and cafe waitress knew anything about society.
She walked into the coffee shop to find Loraine and Greta deep in conversation. Darcy wondered if it was a good or bad sign, as she went to the counter and placed her order with Michelle. "The boss is talking to your friend," Michelle commented as she mixed Darcy's favorite yogurt and granola breakfast. "I'll bring your coffee out in a minute, we have a fresh batch almost finished brewing. Or would you like a press pot today?"
"Regular brewed is fine, thanks, Michelle," the attorney answered as she pulled out her money.
"One medium, black, coming up," Michelle said as she made change.
Darcy dropped her change in the tip jar, then took her small bowl and spoon over to the table where her secretary and girlfriend sat. Could she call Greta her girlfriend yet? "Good morning," she said as she sat down.
Greta leaned over, kissing her cheek. "Good morning, honey, Loraine has been telling me about your upcoming clothes hunt. As fun as that sounds, I think I'd rather stay here and run the store."
"Coward," Loraine teased, "I bet you buy everything out of a catalog."
"Almost. If I can't get it from L.L. Bean or from the sports store, it's not worth getting."
"We'll see about that," Loraine said, smiling wickedly, "if you intend to attend the office party with our Darcy, I'll need to take you shopping."
"Oh, Lord," Darcy groaned, "Greta, you'll never know what hit you."
"You, missy, just sit back and let me handle this. I've been handling you for years," Loraine countered playfully.
"True. Greta, you'll be in excellent hands with Loraine. Don't let her fool you either, she can drive a hard bargain with anyone, so you'll get the best clothes for less than you expect."
Loraine smiled as Greta pretended to be horrified. "Will I have to dress in something nicer than cords and flannel?"
Darcy laughed, then briefly imagined the athletic woman in a flowing, backless gown. She had to swallow hard at the intense feelings the image invoked, unaccustomed to the intensity of desire she felt for this woman. "Yes, you'll have to dress up. Loraine will make sure you are stunning."
"It is part of my job description," Loraine smirked, "just like making sure you look good."
"And you do a fine job," Darcy assured her. She leaned back to allow Michelle room to set her mug down, then applied herself to her breakfast as the teasing continued.
A little while later, Loraine was leading Darcy through the first store on their list, flicking rapidly through racks of clothes. "How casual is this affair?" Loraine asked as she held up a sweater against Darcy.
"Not casual at all. Or I don't think so, I've never dated anyone."
Loraine smiled. "Dear, I was referring to the Thanksgiving dinner, not to you and Greta. It is obvious that you are both smitten with each other. Besides, I can't see you as the casual affair type."
"I misunderstood," Darcy mumbled, embarrassed. "It's pretty casual, Jill said most of the family shows up in jeans and sweaters or sweatshirts. It's the one day they just hang out and eat, watch football, and play games."
"Ah." Loraine looked at her boss, gauging her new size, then guiding her to another display, scooping up several items. "To the dressing room with you," she ordered.
"Yes, boss," Darcy replied, sketching a salute. She took the clothes and disappeared for a moment. Loraine waited outside the dressing area, browsing the nearby racks, wondering idly what David's family was doing for Thanksgiving. She wasn't going home for the first time in decades, and was a little worried about her sister's health. Was she at the point with David to spend time with him on the holidays?
"Oh, my," Loraine said as Darcy walked out, twirling to show off. Brown jeans, cream mock turtleneck, and russet cable knit sweater, all fabulous. "Darcy, we have a winner. You are stunning, my dear. You can pair that with some of your pearl or gold stud earrings, and you'll look casual and elegant."
"Thank you," Darcy said shyly. "So you really think it looks good?"
"Yes. Now back in the dressing room with you to try on the other outfits I picked out for you." Loraine watched Darcy almost skip back into the dressing rooms, smiling. Loraine chuckled to herself, glad that Darcy was finally finding happiness with Greta . All it took was a life-changing accident for Darcy to finally open her eyes and see life instead of work , she thought. She was mildly conflicted about taking time away from David, but she knew that Darcy needed her for this. Should I ask David if he wants to go home with me? Would that be too forward?
"Okay, advise me on this outfit," Darcy said, interrupting Loraine's musings.
Loraine looked her boss up and down, then pronounced, "It looks great. I like the first outfit for Thanksgiving, but this will be great for the day after, if Great can take away a little time."
"We haven't talked about it, but I was thinking of waiting until Sunday night to take her to a movie or something. Give the crowds a little time to settle down. God forbid I try to do Black Friday sales."
Loraine smiled, trying to imagine the dark blonde attorney fighting her way through the crowds. If she used that Voice of Authority, the crowds might part like the Red Sea. "I'd hate to get in your way if you did go shopping," she laughed.
Darcy smirked. "I could part a path. Okay, we have two outfits. Do I need more?"
The elegant older woman tapped her chin, thinking. "We could find you a few more outfits, then wait to see if you lose more weight."
"Sensible. All right, let's take these back to the car, then figure out lunch."
Several hours later, the two women were seated in a cozy restaurant, eating a light lunch of soups and salad. Loraine noticed that Darcy ate slowly, forgoing the delicious loaf of sourdough bread that sat between them. Darcy finished her salad, and half of her soup before pushing it away and asking, "What are you doing for Thanksgiving?"
"I don't know yet," Loraine answered as she dipped a piece of bread in her soup. "I should go home this year, since my sister is in poor health, but I also don't want to overwhelm her. There will already be lots of relatives there. I haven't talked to David about this, either, but his family is right here in town, so I guess that's a possibility."
"I don't recall you going to holidays with anyone you dated."
Loraine smiled. "Some of your memory is good. No, I dated several married men, and then several widowers, which pretty much precluded any family events. It never bothered me before, since I usually went home to my family, but I am wondering about going home with David."
"I forget, was he ever married?"
"No, but he lived with several long time girlfriends." Loraine popped the bread in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. She swallowed, continuing, "Neither of us has been big on commitment, but I think I am finally in love this time. He's a lot of fun, both in and out of bed, but he's also a great conversationalist. He teaches contract law at the university and has a small consulting business on the side."
"Have I met him?"
Loraine shook her head as she swallowed another bite. "No, not yet, but I may have to arrange a meeting this time." She ate another few bites, then added quietly, "He's pretty special, and you're the only family I have here."
Darcy blinked with sudden emotion. "You consider me family?"
The attorney ducked her head, struggling to bring her emotions under control. "Thank you," she whispered. "You've always been better to me than I deserved." She sniffed hard, then brought her head back up. "Have I ever thanked you for all you've done for me?"
Loraine patted her hand, saying, "Not in so many words, but you've always done right by me. Now let's quit this before we both start getting all sappy and weepy." She straightened up, withdrawing her hand. "Do you want to do any more shopping?"
"No, I think I'm done for the day, I still need time to go to the gym tonight."
"Fair enough. So when are you going to buy a car instead of rent?"
Darcy looked surprised, as if she hadn't thought about it. "I don't know. I guess I should get one soon. How about one night this week?"
Loraine smiled, reaching into her purse for her tablet. "Let's look at your schedule, shall we?"
Greta took a deep breath, looking at her reflection in the mirror. Darcy would be by soon to pick her up for Thanksgiving dinner, and to be honest, she was nervous. Last year, she had gone home without Jesse, spending time with her parents, Karl and Gail, and her brother, Gilbert, and his wife Johanna, and their children Madison and Kurt. Her parents had always been rather low key for Thanksgiving, since her father had grown up in Sweden and her mother in England, usually having a rather ordinary meal and then going to the movies. Gilbert and Johanna had started the more traditional Thanksgiving after Madison and Kurt were born, but Greta and Jesse rarely had time to go back for the holidays.
Why was she musing on her family? They had welcomed Jesse with open arms, and had mourned with her when Jesse died. What would they think of Darcy? Jesse had grown up in Seattle, so they usually spent holidays with her family, a large, sprawling French Canadian Mexican Native American Irish Polynesian polyglot. Holidays were always boisterous, with huge spreads of all sorts of goodies, with family spilling out of the house and into the yard, no matter what the weather. Jesse's grandparents had a large house near the Sound, and had usually hosted most of the events.
Of course she was nervous, she hadn't spent Thanksgiving with anyone other than her family or Jesse's in, well, ever. Now not only was she spending the holiday with Darcy, but with her coworker's family. She hadn't met Jill, Don, and Lamont yet, and hoped that she was dressed appropriately. She had briefly panicked yesterday, calling Loraine to make sure she was doing the right thing. The secretary assured her that she was, and had approved the outfit that Greta described.
She put the hand mirror back in her desk, glancing at the wall clock. Time to start closing, and almost time for Darcy to arrive. She glanced at her email one more time, then shut down her computer and locked up the office.
As she walked back into the store, Michelle called out, "Hey boss, I've already started shutting down. No one is here."
"Thank you, Michelle." Before she could say anything else, Darcy walked into the shop. "Well, happy Thanksgiving, Darcy, come on in. I should be ready soon."
"Happy Thanksgiving to you," Darcy echoed as she sat in her favorite armchair. "Happy Thanksgiving, Michelle."
"Same to you! Say, you don't have to wait around, boss, I can finish locking up. You gave me a key a few months ago, remember? My family doesn't start their feast until 7:00 tonight."
"Oh, well, if you insist," Greta said.
"I do. Darcy, take her away."
"Yes, ma'am!" Darcy laughed, rising to her feet. She greeted the other woman with a brief kiss on the cheek, hoping that she had the etiquette down. Since Greta smiled and returned the gesture, she decided it was okay.
The two walked out the front door, hearing Michelle locking it behind them. "Where's the car?" Greta asked, looking for the latest in series of rental cars.
"Here," Darcy said, opening the door to a new small SUV. "I bought this Tuesday night."
"Tuesday? Wow. So you finally decided."
"Yes. I had one of the librarians do some research, and this is what she came up with. It has four wheel drive, so it's safer when we get bad weather, and the back seats fold down to accommodate cargo. Best gas mileage in its class, and so on. I made a fair offer, they accepted, then I spent hours with the paperwork. Why does it take so long to complete a simple transaction?"
Greta smiled as she slid into the passenger seat. "You're the lawyer, you tell me. I thought you thrived on paperwork."
"Right, that's what I have associates, paralegals, and Loraine for, is boring paperwork. I just work on the fun stuff." Darcy started the car, steering smoothly out of the parking lot. "It's got a backup camera, satellite radio, and all sorts of bells and whistles that I haven't had time to discover yet."
"New cars are so much fun," Greta agreed. "So, tell me more about these people we're going to see."
As Darcy drove, she described the feisty redhead, her tall, dark husband, and her stepson. "I didn't even know she had a family until I had lunch with her the other day," she admitted, "and I've worked with her for years. Come to think of it, I didn't really know about anyone else's family except Loraine's, and only because her parents used to come out here on vacation once or twice a year when I first started at the firm."
Greta was quiet for a moment, then asked, "Do they know about me?"
"Huh?" Darcy replied.
"Do they know we are dating, or do they think you are my friend?"
Darcy turned into a quiet neighborhood before answering slowly, "Yes, I told Jill about us. Why do you ask?"
Greta ran her fingers through her hair, framing her thoughts. "I forget you've never dated a woman before. Some people still aren't cool with gays and lesbians, or with the idea of them dating, so I wanted to make sure we weren't walking into a potentially tense situation."
"Oh, you're right, I never thought about that. No, Jill seemed just fine, she was just surprised that I am dating. Come to think of it, I usually don't know anything about my colleagues private lives unless they tell me." She turned onto a quiet residential street filled with large, but not ostentatious, houses. "According to Jill's directions, the house number is 515, and should be the third house down."
"There it is. Wow, look at all the cars parked around it."
Darcy pulled in at the end of the line of cars, saying, "The last time I was at such a big gathering, it was my family."
Darcy flashed a quick smile. "I went home for Easter about twelve years ago. We had to do the Easter lunch at a park, since I'm the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. Start multiplying by spouses, children, Mom's six siblings and families, and Dad's five siblings and families, and we easily had more than a hundred people."
Greta mused, "I need to ask you more questions about your background. I had no idea you had such a large family."
"I'm the only one who left Kentucky." Darcy shrugged. "Not a big deal, I'm not close to any of my family. If we all weren't blonde and green or blue eyed, I'd think I was adopted. Enough of my family. Ready for this?"
"Ready as I can be, Darcy."
They mounted the two steps up to the wraparound porch, but before they could ring the doorbell, the door swung wide open and Jill stepped out. "Hey, you made it! And is this your lovely lady?"
"Yes. Jill Napier, meet Greta Hanson. Greta, Jill is the bankruptcy group leader for the firm, and a damn good lawyer."
"I'll strive not to need your professional services," Greta joked as they shook hands.
The short redhead laughed, saying, "I sure hope not! But let's not talk shop, come in to our humble abode. Don and Lamont have been slaving for days on this." Jill took their coats, adding, "Just go on into the living room, first room on the right. Dinner will be ready soon, but there's plenty of snacks and drinks on the buffet in the dining room, which is to the left. I think some football game is on, if you're interested, or another group is working on a jigsaw puzzle on the other end of the living room. I'll hang up your coats, and be back in a flash."
"Thank you," Darcy said. She nervously ran fingers through her hair as she surveyed the foyer and entry hall. "This is fancier than either of our houses," she observed.
"And I thought I decorated a lot for fall," Greta agreed, taking in the autumnal decorations on the walls and tables. "Shall we?"
"We shall," Darcy said.
Dinner was a relaxed family affair, with the main buffet set up in the dining room, but multiple groups of tables and chairs set up all over the ground floor of the house. Darcy and Greta wound up at a table with some of Jill's cousins, soon laughing as they described life as wedding planners. "Lord, this mother would not stop sticking her nose into the planning," Amanda said, "and the bride was furious. The mother wanted a huge, formal wedding, but the bride and groom wanted a small, intimate affair. I shouldn't laugh, but they were almost coming to blows, and the mother kept picking out hideous dresses. Finally, the dad, who had been completely quiet during the whole meeting, spoke up. 'I'm paying for this damn thing, so I get the final say,' he grumbled in this deep rumbling voice. 'I say let them elope!' All the others stared at him, shocked, and mother and daughter finally compromised on an elegant, small wedding. And don't even get me started on having small children in weddings! Lord!"
"That sounds like a stressful occupation," Greta observed.
"Oh, it is, but it's fun. The bad ones are outweighed by the beautiful weddings. I did one recently for two women, just lovely. We kept having trouble finding a church, so we finally found a non-denominational chapel that would host it. Both women grew up in church, and wanted a church wedding. My husband, Phil, still has his ministerial license, but is currently unaffiliated, so he did the service. This was last year, and now they want another wedding, this time bigger, now that they'll be able to register for real marriage licenses soon. In fact, I expect a huge influx of gay and lesbian couples needing wedding planners in the next year."
Darcy looked puzzled. "Real marriage?"
"Yes," said Marcy, the wedding planner. "Remember Referendum 74? It passed, so people can start registering on December 6 and start marrying on December 9. I thought you were an attorney, you didn't know?"
Darcy shook her head. "No, it's not my usual area of law, I do litigation over corporate matters. But this is useful to know."
"If you and Greta here do decide to tie the knot, I'd be glad to help out. For a hefty fee, of course."
"Of course," Greta echoed, amused at the stunned look on Darcy's face. Marcy turned her attention to her plate, as Greta leaned over, whispering, "Why so surprised?"
"I had no idea that it was possible for people like us to marry," Darcy replied, "I guess I just hadn't thought about it. I'll have to do some research on this. Had marriage ever crossed your mind?"
Greta thoughtfully chased the last bite of mashed potatoes through the gravy as she pondered the question. "It did and it didn't. Being self-employed, it wouldn't have mattered about insurance for Jesse, since we used the same company for the cafe. But I think I would have married her after a few years if the option had been there."
"Oh." Darcy pursed her lips, thinking about the whole concept. "It never occurred to me that it would be an issue."
"Trust me," Greta offered, "marriage would help tremendously with legal issues, although it still won't help with federal issues, like income tax. Does Jenner & Ziegler recognize domestic partnerships?"
Darcy took her her glasses, chewing lightly on an earpiece as she tried to remember. "I am sure we have a non-discrimination clause, but I'm not sure about benefits. I think we do, but it never occurred to me to check. I never had a reason to before." She smiled at Greta, who grinned back. She'd known Greta just a short time, but the woman was becoming so important to her now. Suppose things worked out between them, would they get legally married? If so, which house would they live in? Would they combine finances, or keep them separate? "What?"
Marcy repeated, "I asked how long you and Greta have known each other."
"Oh. A little over a month." Darcy realized that Greta had left the table. "Where's Greta?"
"She went to get a refill on her coffee."
"I see." Darcy looked toward the kitchen, then turned back to Marcy. "It was a pleasure meeting you. Do you have a card? We might need your services one day."
"Sure," the wedding planner said, "they're in my purse. Do you have cards? Or what type of law do you practice?"
"Litigation, mostly large businesses, usually corporate and securities issues. I've done some pro bono work with registering startups, things like that."
"Well, you never know. Some of my clients are not happy with their current firm, so I thought I'd ask. Stay here and I'll go get my cards."
Darcy watched as she left, wondering if she should get another cup of coffee. As she pondered, a cup magically appeared in front of her. She looked up to find Greta smiling down at her. "Good chat with Marcy?"
"Yes, we're going to exchange cards. You never know when you'll need professionals of any field." Darcy reached into a pocket, pulling out a worn leather card holder. "I keep mine in a pocket at all times just for these types of occasions." She looked up. "And here she comes."
Most of the guests had left when Darcy and Greta started saying their goodbyes. "Don, it was a wonderful meal, now I know who to use if I need a great caterer," Darcy said, "as long as you promise to use Greta's coffee."
Don hugged her briefly. "Thanks! I saw you talking to Marcy earlier, I do a lot of weddings with her. It was a pleasure meeting you both."
Jill walked up, apologizing. "Sorry to keep you waiting, but you know how long it takes to say goodbye to so many relatives. Do you two need to leave immediately, or can you stay for a short time?"
Greta answered, "We didn't have any plans that I know of. Darcy?"
"We can stay a few minutes. What's on your mind, Jill?"
Jill said, "I have something work related to discuss with you. Greta, do you mind?"
"No, not at all. I'll chat with Don, I haven't a chance to talk to him much. I may think about expanding my menu." She kissed Darcy's cheek, then went off to find Don.
Jill motioned for Darcy to follow her, leading her into a nicely appointed home office. They sat down at a small conference table that had a few files on it. Curious, Darcy waited for the bankruptcy partner to begin. "Chad sent me reports late last night," Jill started, opening one of the folders and handing it over, "but he's afraid that he can't get us everything he needs. He's suddenly locked out of some of the accounting systems, and thinks he's going to be fired soon for snooping around. What he did find, however, shows that Bill and some of his cronies have been overcharging clients, inflating expenses, and skimming a cut of the profits before the rest of the partnership gets theirs."
"I was suspecting as much. Loraine and I talked about it several times recently, but we could completely shut Bill down if we wanted to."
"Let's just say Loraine has an ace up her sleeve where it comes to Bill, a secret that would kill his career. Not enough evidence to put him in jail, but enough of a cloud to keep anyone from wanting to do business with him," Darcy explained.
"Hm." Jill ran a hand through her wavy red hair, thinking for a moment. Finally, she said, "I've been thinking for a while about this, but the whole business with Bill and him trying to push you out after your accident has gotten me to thinking about this. What do you think of starting our own law firm? I've talked to several other partners recently who are fed up with the way Bill is running things. Apparently we're not the only ones that Bill is screwing, Elaine Jenkins in HR is furious with the way he is treating you. Nancy Moore in real estate is unhappy, John Carroll in patents thinks his group is being shorted, and a number of the associates are getting very nervous about the state of the firm."
Darcy took off her glasses, twirling them slowly as she thought. "Any of the staff getting nervous as well?"
"I think our CFO would jump in a hear beat, and I think my secretary and paralegal would jump pretty fast too. What about Loraine?"
"I don't know. She's been hinting about retiring lately. I can't imagine working without her, but I guess it will happen eventually. I would ask Calvin Adams, one of my senior associates, to jump with us."
Jill grinned. "I thought you might think about it. I had a friend of mine from another firm come up with a budget for starting a law firm." She opened another one of the folders, handing it over to Darcy. "This is her estimate for startup costs, and for running the firm for the first six months."
Darcy slid her glasses back on, skimming over the report, flipping through each section until she got to the end. She whistled, but didn't gasp. "This looks doable. Where would we go?"
"I'm not sure yet, there's not a huge amount of reasonably priced office space now, at least for the amount we'll need." Jill propped her chin on her fists, thinking.
Darcy laughed. "I think I have a solution." She pulled her phone out, tapping an icon, swiping until she located the picture that Greta texted her the other day. "You know that Greta is trying to find a way to save the block she's on."
Darcy filled her in quickly, ending with, "This old bookstore could be perfect for our first office. The inside would easily be sections off for offices, the shelves could be reused for our records and library center, and we could outsource a lot of our back office operations. Where the cash registers were could be our reception area. We could buy the building for a song, and keep Greta's block from being bought out. And we'd have a great coffee shop next door!"
Jill grinned. "Okay, then let's put together a meeting off site with potential attorneys. We can meet here at the house, I'd have enough room. No one would think it strange for a post-Thanksgiving gathering here, Don and I have hosted them before."
Jill Napier greeted and ushered in the select group of attorneys into her great room as Don and Lamont mingled, offering snacks and drinks. Finally, Darcy and Loraine arrived, signaling the beginning of the meeting. Don and Lamont exited the room, leaving the attorneys and the senior secretary alone in the room.
"Good evening, and thank you for coming to my house," Jill said as the rest of the crowd started quieting down. "Loraine has agreed to take minutes at this meeting. I have talked to each of you individually, and now I'm talking to you as a group. Darcy and I talked two nights ago about forming our own law firm and wanted to invite each of you to join us. Questions?"
"Yes," Nancy Moore, section head for real estate, said. "We've all been unhappy recently, but as we ready for this drastic of a step? How do we convince William Forney to release our shares to us?"
Loraine spoke up. "If it comes to it, I have a plan. If he protests too much, I will bring him down."
Nancy asked, "How?"
Loraine smiled mysteriously. "Don't worry, Nancy, I know his secrets, and he knows I know them, and that I'm willing to share them if I'm crossed. He tried to get rid of me at one point, and I shared a photo with him that made him absolutely pale with horror. So, he won't try to stop us."
"What about startup costs?" Nancy continued.
Jill nodded, and Loraine handed out binders to each attorney. As she handed them out, Jill explained, "These are personalized start up plans for each of us, based on a combined analysis from Chad and a law firm consultant. You'll find details of how much it would cost for each of our practice areas in support, such as specialized software, library services, records services, change of address, staff, and so on, plus general costs of lease or purchase of space, computers, networks, web building and hosting, insurance, benefits, and support staff. My consultant and Chad agree we can keep some costs down by outsourcing such functions as payroll, accounting, HR, benefits, mail room, supply room, and telephone answering services. Costs would go up if we hired people to do these functions. There's a separate report detailing how much it would cost each of us per practice if we enticed a few key associates and staff members to join us. Darcy, did I leave anything out?"
Darcy answered, "I don't think so. I also have a proposal in the back for the purchase and renovation of a former bookstore that would be near perfect for our initial offices. According to the architect we consulted, it would easily hold up to twenty-five attorney offices, ten paralegal cubicles, and twenty-five to thirty staff offices and cubicles. There would also be room for two conference rooms, a small lounge, a small library, a reception area, a small computer server room, and a very small records room. This was a huge bookstore, and while it is in a slightly older section of town, there's been a lot of renovation going on in the surrounding blocks.
â€śPros would be free parking, retail nearby, easy access to downtown, and a coffee shop just a few steps away. Cons would be building purchase or lease, renovation costs, delay in leaving the firm. There's also a proposal for putting together a holding company to purchase or lease the building so as not to tip our hand so easily. Other cons include possibly losing clients, but pros would be picking up clients who need expertise, but not big firm billing rates."
She paused, waiting for questions. None came, so she continued. "This is a risk, but I think it is worth it. All of us have been discriminated against in one way or another, either by the firm or by Bill Forney personally. But you look at the combined experience in this room, it exceeds 250 years. And many technology companies in the area want small, nimble firms, but they also want lots of diversity to reflect the makeup of their companies. In this very room, we represent three minorities, six women, and at least one lesbian. This group alone represents litigation, intellectual property, insurance, and bankruptcy, so we have a balanced group of specialties right away."
Nancy asked, "So how long do we have to make this decision?"
Jill answered, "I'd like to take a vote by December 1. Darcy and I took out an option on the building through a realtor yesterday, forming a temporary holding company registered through a proxy agent."
John Carroll rubbed his short beard thoughtfully, saying, "A lot of our patent filings now are strictly electronic, so I don't need as much storage room as I did before. But we do need research services for prior art searches and the like. I'm rather fed up with the firm too, but I already have five years as a partner. What happens if the proposed firm fails?"
Darcy answered, "Then we network like crazy and try to get on with another firm. But aren't you tired of having to wear a suit and tie every day while your clients are wearing jeans and sweatshirts?"
He nodded. "There is that. Okay, I will read this over. Where do we meet next?"
"At the proposed site. Jill and I have arranged a tour Monday night at 8:00 pm. We'll meet at Jesse's Coffee Bar, then the agent will walk us to the building and take us through. Directions are included in your handout."
Calvin Adams nervously cleared his throat, waiting for the others to fall silent before asking, "If associates go with you, what will the partnership track be? As it is with J & Z, I'm eligible in two years to be considered for the partnership, but if I go with this new firm, will I have to wait longer?"
Darcy looked at him thoughtfully, musing the question before answering, "I don't know at this juncture, Calvin, but I'll tell you what. Talk to Wendy Akins in corporate in the morning, or ask her to lunch. She's the associate who's getting a name as the best in advising professional partnerships, and I think she's pretty unhappy too. You're good at the gentle probing, I've seen you operate in depositions. Which reminds me, you need more trial work. Anyway, talk to Wendy and get the scoop. Maybe we'll bring her on board as well."
"Will do, Ms. Kent." He bent his dark head, scribbling in his notebook.
Jill looked around, then asked, "Any other questions? If not, I'll see you all Monday evening, if not before." As soon as the rest of the crowd left, Jill turned to Darcy and Loraine, asking, "Do we know what we're getting ourselves into?"
Before Darcy could answer, Loraine said, "Yes and no, but life is a gamble, Jill. Remember, you always have options."
"That is true. All right, good night, ladies." Jill said. She waited until they left to pour herself a large glass of wine. "This had better work," she mumbled to herself.
Greta welcomed Darcy into her office the next day. "The post-Thanksgiving services are usually sparsely attended, but we had a very good turnout today," Darcy said as she shrugged off her coat and sat down. "The pastor did her autumn wrap-up, as she called it, and will start the Advent series next week."
"That's nice," Greta said. "I've gotten out of the habit of attending church with the store and everything. It's amazing how busy we are on Sunday mornings."
Darcy smiled. "I confess, for years I've gone because it was expected, but this new pastor we got this summer is worth listening to. She's extremely intelligent, and expects us to keep up with her. So, are you against church, or just out of the habit of going?"
Greta said thoughtfully, "Both, I suppose. Jesse and I attended a small non-denominational church for a while, and when it came out we were lovers, we were disinvited. So I've not been too keen on going back. Why go listen to people tell you how sinful you are for daring to love someone?"
Darcy cocked her head, thinking. Finally, she said, "I hadn't contemplated it. I do have a lot to learn, don't I?"
The attorney sighed. "Greta, we need to talk."
The store owner looked at her, alarmed. "That sounds ominous."
Darcy shook her head, quickly saying, "No, not ominous, just practical. I'm sorry it came out wrong. Shall I try again?"
"Please do," Greta said, tone a little cool.
The blonde attorney sat quietly, gathering her rambling thoughts together into coherent sentences. Finally, she said, "I am strongly attracted to you, Greta, and find that sometimes your very presence disrupts all of my thoughts, my logic, my reasoning. It's been years since I was so physically attracted to a woman, and I can't remember being so emotionally attracted to a woman in my life. I wake up thinking about you, I go to sleep thinking about you. I want to hold you, I want to love you, I want to make love to you."
Greta's expression softened. "Me too, sweetie."
"Here's the crux of the matter: you've asked informally for legal advice, but I can't formalize that role and be your lover, it would be a conflict of interests. Now, I do have options for you, one we won't like, and one that would be better for us. First, of course, would be for me to represent you, but turn down the chance of being in a relationship with you. Second is for me to find you a good lawyer so we can be together. And since I'm really not as conversant on small business issues, I'd vote for the second."
Greta leaned back in her chair, drumming her fingers lightly on the armrest. "So what you're really saying is that you're more interested in me as a lover than as a client. I'd vote for that."
Darcy sighed, relieved. "I was hoping that you'd vote for another attorney. I have a couple in mind, one from my firm, and one I met at a seminar. Both specialize in small business and start up business issues, and have good reputations." She pulled a sheet of paper out of her ever present folio. "Here's their contact information, and my impressions of each. I had Loraine put this together for you."
"Sweet Loraine. What would you do without her?"
Darcy frowned. "Frankly, I'm not sure, she's the only secretary I've had. You know that she's part of the reason for my success, don't you? She taught me how to dress, how to act, proper etiquette, all the little niceties of society that she learned in the crib. Did you know that she was from a wealthy family, married into wealth, but never remarried after her husband died?"
"You mentioned it several times," Greta said.
"Oh." Darcy ran fingers through her hair, thoughts temporarily derailed. "I'm still having issues from the wreck. Sometimes I don't remember telling people things, and wind up repeating myself. My long term memory seems to be fine, but sometimes I have trouble with my short-term memory. If I tell you the same thing over and over, just take that into account."
"I will," Greta said, smiling. "It's cute."
Darcy huffed, "I'm not cute."
"Oh, yes you are," Greta countered. "So, are you free now, are do you plan to go back to work?"
Darcy asked, "Why? What do you have in mind?"
"Because I want to spend some time with you, without talking about my shop or your firm, without phones or email or texts interrupting us. How about a late lunch, followed by a movie?"
Darcy furrowed her brow, thinking. "I guess so. I haven't eaten yet, and I don't have to work on anything until later tonight, I suppose. Did you have something in mind?"
"Yes." Greta stood up, reaching for her coat. "Follow me."
They went to a quiet Chinese buffet, then to an art house movie theatre. Darcy tried to concentrate on the movie, but was hyperaware of the woman next to her. She could feel the warmth of Greta's arm against hers, could smell some elusive perfume, wanted to reach for her hand. She glanced around, realizing that the auditorium was fairly empty, did reach for Greta's hand.
As warm fingers wrapped around hers, Darcy felt a jolt in the pit of her stomach. It still amazed her that a simple touch could bring forth such strong physical and emotional reactions. Loraine holding her hand in the hospital brought forth feelings of comfort, but Greta? Pure electricity. Sexual desire. Clouded thinking. Darcy lightly rubbed her thumb against Greta's hand, rewarded by Greta turning and smiling at her. Did Greta also feel the electricity? Could she have desire for a "morbidly obese" woman? How long should they wait to get more intimate? What were the rules?
Darcy was rapidly coming to the realization that this was a whole new area she knew nothing about. Oh, she'd heard some stories from other attorneys of their courtships, had quiet hints from Loraine about her lovers, but no personal experience. Now she wished she had paid more attention in college, had followed through on the veiled invitation from one of her classmates.
The movie was over far too soon, and they headed back into the world. It was already dark, misting, cold, but Darcy felt warm. She had scarcely paid attention to the movie as she was wrapped up in her thoughts, the sensation of Greta next to her. She had to be honest, she was muddle-headed with desire, and hoped the cold air would clear her thoughts. "Um, I guess you need to go back to the shop," Darcy said stiffly.
"Unfortunately, yes," Greta confirmed, "but I am not working Tuesday. I hope I can convince you to come over Tuesday night for dinner."
Darcy belatedly realized they were still holding hands, but Greta didn't seem to mind. She tried to be nonchalant as she said, "I don't have anything on my calendar right now, but I'll let you know for sure tonight." She reluctantly dropped Greta's hand as they approached her new car.
The drive was too short. Darcy followed Greta into her shop, to her office. "I had a great time," Greta said as she took off her coat, "let me know about Tuesday, otherwise, I'll see you tomorrow morning."
"Okay." Darcy stood awkwardly, then decided. She shut the door and covered the short distance to Greta, pulling her in her arms and kissing her soundly. God, what an explosion of feeling! She felt Greta yield, opening her lips for a deeper kiss. The world seemed to stop as they leisurely explored each other's mouths, hands wandering, bodies pressed together tightly. Darcy was lightheaded with desire, pulling away with great difficulty, chiding herself not to do anything more.
"My god, are you sure you never were with a woman?" Greta asked in a languid voice. "You sure kiss like you have been."
"Good imagination," Darcy said thickly, trying to pull her thoughts together.
Greta smiled. "I'm glad. Damn, you can kiss me like that any time! Too bad we both have work to do, or I'd just say follow me home and jump in my bed."
"Yes, really. You, my dear, are a hot woman," Greta said, leaning down for another sizzling kiss. After a short eternity, she pulled back. "I can hardly wait to find the right time for more."
"Me too," Darcy said, feeling articulation was beyond her ability. "I'll call you tonight," she added. "See you." She wobbled out before she lost restraint and went back to ravish her date.
Greta watched Darcy walk out, contemplating running after her, but knowing she needed to work a few more hours. Too bad, she was hot and wet, and needed to do something about it, but she just didn't have time.
Darcy, Jill, John, and Nancy sent out a meeting invitation to the board of directors for the Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving. The four, along with several other partners, associates, and a few staff members, feverishly worked all day Monday to get details tied up for their proposal to either oust Bill Forney or to split off and create their own firm. Darcy sent Loraine with the proposal documents to a nearby copy shop for copying and binding, so as not to tip their hand by using the internal copy center. Chad Warner had pulled together last minute updates just before the package was sent out, including a statement as to how much each partner would be owed if they split off.
Tuesday morning arrived; gray, chilly, dismal. The meeting was set for 9:00 in the main conference room. Loraine arrived ahead of time with another trusted secretary to oversee the setups. Finally, the players started appearing.
It was decided to let Jill do the talking instead of Darcy. She stood at the front of the room at exactly 9:00, waiting silently until the hubbub had settled down. Finally, she signaled Loraine, who started passing out the packets. "Good morning," Jill started, "I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving."
She looked around the room, gaze finally settling on Bill Forney. "A small group of us have called this meeting to attempt to clear the air, and to get some resolution to problems, really personality issues, that have been swirling for years. William Forney has accused Darcy Kent of, in his words, 'lollygagging' when she came back to work after a major accident. Darcy has waived her HIPPA rights so I could share with you that she suffered a concussion and other injuries in that accident, which totaled her car. Had the other driver hit just a little differently, she would have been either killed or still been out at this time." Jill opened the packet, pulling out a picture. "I invite you to follow along with me. This is a picture of Darcy's former car."
The assembled partners pulled out the picture, some looking horrified as they gazed on the wreckage. "How did you get out alive?" one blurted out.
Jill answered, "By the grace of God. As we all know, Darcy was out for a month, healing, starting rehabilitation, then came back part-time for another month. Her doctors, her neurologist and her primary physician, actually advised her to wait another month before starting back to work, but reluctantly agreed to allow her to work twenty hours a week until they could completely clear her. See the reports from her doctors in the next tab."
She waited as the lawyers flipped through the reports, then continued, "Darcy still suffers from short-term memory issues, emotional outbursts, and other associated issues from the wreck and head trauma. But, in spite of this, she has continued to work, and her group has not missed any deadlines for court filings, secretary of state filings, client meetings, or any other measures. I've had Chad run an analysis, and her department is still the most profitable in the entire firm."
"So, why are you telling us this?" asked one of the older partners.
"Chet, I am laying a foundation," Jill answered, "to show you why it is so ridiculous that Bill Forney has been harassing Darcy, and tried to have her severed from the firm. You know we can't fire a partner without good cause, and even if a partner leaves, she or he has to be bought out of the partnership. Yet, Bill has been attempting to get rid of Darcy, and get rid of anyone who supports her. He flat out called Darcy lazy when she met with this board a month ago to state that she needed to come back part-time initially."
Bill snorted. "I've worked through the flu before, several times."
"Yes, we've all heard that tale, but we also know you have good reason not to be away from work, Bill," Jill said, pulling out another report. "If you'll look at the next item in your packet, you'll see an analysis of Mr. Forney's realization rate versus other partners in his department. You'll see that his has been consistently below everyone, even the newest partners, for the past five years, and further, that he has a larger percentage of write-offs than anyone in the firm."
The managing partner snorted. "Jill, you know as well as I do that the economy has sucked in the past few years, and that we're all hurt."
"I didn't say that you hadn't billed as much, just hadn't collected as much. Or so it would seem."
Jill pulled out another report. "Bill, you made a mistake. You billed a few clients on the side, and that money never reached the firm. So where did that money go? Why did you bill them separately, but use firm letterhead for billing? Where did that $2.5 million go over the past five years?"
She had to wait for the loud buzzing to slack off before continuing, "I demand an answer, Mr. Forney. Are you money laundering? If so, it is our duty as officers of the court to turn this over to the proper authorities. If not, where is the money?"
He stared at her, then shrugged. "It's none of your concern, Jill."
"I dare say it is my concern, as I am a member of the Board of Directors and a partner in this firm. You accuse Darcy of not pulling her weight, yet you hide substantial sums of money and refuse to account for it. You do everything you can to block the election of any woman or minority to the partnership, yet you expect women and minorities to hit higher billing and collections targets than white men. We have it documented in the next five documents, all prepared by our CFO and Director of Human Resources."
He affected a bored look. "So what do you want me to do? Apologize?"
"No, We want you to explain, repay the firm, and step down immediately as managing partner. If you refuse, we will not only turn over these documents to the proper authorities, but we will pull away and form our own firm, and demand our shares to be paid to us immediately."
Jill noticed that some of the other board members were starting to look uneasy. She wondered what lies Forney had been feeding them, she guessed they had been good ones. Smooth ones. "Well?"
The managing partner scoffed. "All I see is internal paperwork. This could be faked as well. Where's your real ammunition?"
Darcy spoke up. "Turn to the next section, Bill, and I think you'll see our real ammunition."
"More trumped up charges..." His voice trailed off as he flipped to the next sections, seeing the damning photos and papers he thought were hidden. His face turned absolutely white as he stared, fingers trembling, leafing through the documentation. "Where did you get this?" he whispered hoarsely.
Loraine spoke up. "Remember Clint Jenkins? The summer associate who arrived, took one look at you, then disappeared?"
"He supplied all of this."
Bill Forney looked bewildered. "Why would Clint do this to me? I tried to help him!"
Zach Manor, one of the senior board members, looked up from the shocking documents and demanded, "Bill, why the hell did you do this? It's bad enough that we've covered for your affairs with the young secretaries and paralegals, but this? No wonder Mr. Jenkins left so abruptly. Did you siphon money to pay him off?"
"To be more precise, to pay court fees, fines, and a trust fund," Loraine supplied helpfully. "I have a lot of connections, Zach, and I called them in for this. My nephew is a high level private investigator, and I'll be sending his bill to the firm."
Zach turned to Bill, face turning slowly red with fury. "If even half of this is true, then you should not only step down, but leave the firm and lose your license! No wonder the young man didn't want to work here, not after what you did with him. I just have one question."
Zach turned to a photo. "Is that really you?" he demanded, stabbing a finger at the man in the picture. Bill closed his eyes, nodding. "In that case, I move that we immediately kick you out of the firm. We'll pay you your share, less what you stole from us, and less the bill from the investigator. This sickens me, absolutely sickens me. I wondered why you pulled out of scouting so abruptly." He picked up the phone on the conference room table, stabbing digits. "Security? I have someone I need escorted out of here immediately. Coordinate with HR." Zach slammed the phone down, then turned to Elaine Jenkins. "Elaine, call your people in HR and get them to coordinate getting rid of this monster immediately."
Just as he finished, several security officers came in quietly, waiting for further orders. Elaine motioned to Bill, and they took him by the arms, escorting him out. The noise level suddenly rose as the assembled board members tried to make sense of what happened, what would happen. Jill suddenly let loose a piercing whistle, and the hubbub died down. "Now that we have that bit of business out of the way, what about our proposal to leave the firm?"
Zach held up a finger, leaning forward to confer with the others for a moment, then asked, "Do you really want to leave?"
"Yes and no. Depends on your next step."
Zach smoothed back his snow white hair and straightened his tie. "We'll have another formal meeting soon to nail down the details, but what if we made you managing partner?"
Jill stood, stunned at the offer. Did she really want to continue with the politics of big law, or did she want to have a chance to work with a smaller, more collegial firm? She glanced at Darcy, who shrugged. She drummed her fingers on the conference table desktop, thinking, then finally said, "All right, I'll consider your offer. I'll ask Darcy to counsel me in this. Speaking of Darcy?"
"Darcy, we really want you to stay," Zach said quickly. "Take all the time you need to completely recover."
Darcy looked at Loraine, then at the board members and the others she'd gathered. "I'll give you my decision on Monday," she said. She started packing the documents back into her briefcase, adding, "Jill is an excellent choice for managing partner. If I stay, she will have my full support." She snapped down the locks, lifting her ancient case as she stood. "But for now, I have work to do. Zach, Chet, you both backed me for many years, and I appreciate it, but I need to decide what my next steps will be on my own." She left the room to buzzing speculation.
Calvin met with Darcy after lunch, wondering what would happen now after the showdown with the board. He was surprised when she waved him to the small conference table in her office instead of the uncomfortable visitor's chair. He sat, waiting for her to begin.
"You were at the showdown, what did you think of the proceedings?" Darcy asked, leaning back in her chair.
Calvin gathered his thoughts, grateful that she had recently started giving him more time to think before peppering him with additional questions. He straightened his legal pad and pen, aligning them perfectly before answering, "It was harder than I expected to sit through. Mr. Forney has been managing partner for so long, and I'd heard all sorts of rumors the past few years, but until you and Loraine turned over the documents for me to organize, I had no idea just what a..." he trailed off, trying to come up with a polite term.
"An ass? Arrogant bastard? Sick deviant? All acceptable between you and me," Darcy said quietly. "And he'll deserve everything coming to him."
"I'm curious, did he ever bother you?"
Darcy smiled and shook her head. "No, he never did, but I think Loraine protected me. She had Doug Jenner's ear and heart, bless his soul."
"What was between them?" he asked.
"Calvin, it was a different world, with different rules. Doug Jenner was a faithful husband, but his wife suffered a massive stroke, and he had to put her in a nursing home. Loraine worked for him several years before their affair started, and even that was nearly ten years after his wife's stroke. Loraine could have taken advantage for herself, but instead, she used her position with Doug to make sure women and minorities got a chance to prove themselves at the firm. Too bad Bill Forney didn't learn from Doug Jenner."
Calvin shook his head. "I can't imagine being unfaithful to my wife, not even when I was deployed."
"Wife?" Darcy asked. "I had no idea, Calvin."
The dark young man smiled, pulling out his phone. "My wife, Denise, and our baby girl, Lori. Lori just turned five this week."
Darcy reached for the phone, adjusting her glasses as she gazed at the picture of her associate's family. She handed it back, saying, "I had no idea that you were a husband and father. I'm sure I've kept you from them in the past."
"Part of the job, ma'am, I knew that coming in."
"Still." Darcy drummed her fingers on the table, gathering her thoughts. She looked at him, thoughtfully, still thinking. Finally, she said, "Calvin, you are a very bright young man, and have a great future. You could have a great future here, but I want to run something by you." She paused, then said slowly, "I know that there's an offer on the table to keep us here, but I am still considering breaking away. I have the funds and an option on the building we've looked at, and now let me put this to you: do you want to stay here, or do you want to join me and a few others in our own firm? I can't make any guarantees that we would succeed, but I can promise you more time with your family. I know I want more time to spend with Greta."
Calvin smiled. "I have already discussed it with Denise, and we're ready for me to make the big step."
Darcy held out her hand. "Welcome to the firm, Calvin. Welcome to the firm."
"Ms. Hanson, my client is offering you a good sum for your building, I dare say much more than it is worth. Why are you persisting in turning us down?"
Greta looked at the smug young agent, idly wondering what he would do if she slapped that smirk off his face. It was almost tempting, he was too sharply dressed, constantly adjusting his tie and cuffs. Experience told her that no matter now smug he seemed, he was nervous, and almost desperate to close the deal. Her expression revealed nothing of her conflict, her desire to keep the coffee shop running, and her temptation to throw in the towel and accept the offer. Smitty had confided the day before that he had accepted the buyout offer, and just an hour ago, Paul said he was considering the revised offer. Should she accept, or hold out?
Was she holding on because it was the last link to Jesse, or because she really loved what she did? What about Darcy? Greta hadn't had a chance to hear how the big showdown came out because Darcy got tied up in an emergency client meeting, and said she'd come by the shop later today. Greta glanced around her office, eyes landing on a framed picture.
The picture was taken last summer, when the shop closed for a day for maintenance; she had ordered new equipment that needed to be installed. So, she took her entire crew to the park for a picnic and games, and Michelle had brought along her camera. They set it on a tripod, hit the timer, and got a great shot of the entire crew. Maybe that's why she continued, not for the past, but for the future.
"Mr. Griswold, I must turn down your offer again. I am happy here, and have plenty of business." As she spoke, she suddenly wondered about investing in Paul's floral shop. He was happy selling flowers, but she knew he needed some repairs on the place. A joint venture, perhaps?
The young man slapped his hands on the desk. "You're a fool for turning this down," he spat.
"And you are one for calling me a fool, young man. Let me give you a tip, always be cordial, since you never know where your next referral or your next client is coming from. Please feel free to stop by the counter for a free coffee and pastry on your way out."
"I will," he said, surprised. He stood up, gathering his things. "I am curious, why turn down such a good offer?"
Greta answered, "Because I love what I do and I make a difference in this neighborhood. Goodbye."
"Goodbye," he said, leaving her office. Greta watched him depart, still pondering. Yes, she did make a difference in this neighborhood. The business crowd came through early in the morning, retirees came mid-morning, stay at home parents came in late morning, employees of the surrounding stores came in for lunch, high school students came in after school, all sorts came in during the early evening. She guessed that most of her customers either lived or worked within a two mile radius. There wasn't another coffee shop within five miles, surprising for Seattle.
Greta shook off her musing, turning back to paperwork. She had been working steadily for a few hours when her phone rang, startling her out of her zone. "Jesse's Coffee Bar," she answered.
"Hey, it's Darcy," she heard on the other end, "I'm just finishing up at the courthouse, mind if I swing by for lunch?"
"No, I'd be very happy to see you," she answered. "Can I get you anything started?"
"I'll just do one of those packaged salads, so nothing fancy."
"I'll tell Tony to check our supply. How long will you be?"
"About 15-20 minutes to get there, I think. I have some news that you'll be interested in, so be prepared for me to talk your ears off."
"I have news as well. See you in a bit, love."
She heard a tiny sigh on the other end. "All right, dear. Chow." The attorney disconnected.
Half an hour later, Greta and Darcy were sitting at one of the tables, eating their lunch and catching up on their respective days. Darcy chased the last bite of salad, then announced, "I'm doing it. I'm breaking away from J&Z and forming my own firm with John Carroll, Nancy Moore, Calvin Adams, Robert North, Wendy Adkins, and Jane Murphy. A few key staff members are coming as well. For now, we'll call it Kent & Associates, LLP. I finished my last trial for Jenner & Ziegler, and Jane is filing the paperwork for the firm even as we speak."
"Well, well, well, so I'll have those new neighbors after all," Greta said, smiling. "What about Jill?"
Darcy shrugged. "She was gung ho, but then was offered the managing partner position after Bill was forced to step down. He'll be lucky not to have criminal charges filed, although he could go up on charges ranging from embezzlement to indecency with a minor. At the very least he'll have to repay the firm millions of dollars, which the PI says is squirreled away in offshore accounts. I'm pretty sure he'll lose his license, no matter what he does." Darcy pushed away her plate. "I was looking forward to having Jill by my managing partner for the new firm, but she felt like she couldn't turn down the opportunity with J&Z. It will be the first time ever that a woman has been in that role, and I'm sure there will be a small wave of retirements following the announcement. What about your news?"
Greta smiled. "I turned down the final offer to buy out my building, and I'm considering asking Paul if I can buy a stake in his business so he can keep going. I know he didn't want to sell out, but he needs a small infusion for repairs to keep his business going. He's turned a profit every year, but he could do better with some small improvements."
"Interesting. Well, I'm glad you are staying put, I love coming here for my coffee and meals. I noticed you've added flowers to every table."
"It was Michelle's idea, and I'm surprised I didn't think of it earlier. Paul will come over every morning and put them out, and I'll take over a couple of urns of coffee. Sort of a trade of services and cross-marketing."
"Good idea." Darcy agreed, "and of course, my firm will use your services, and I think we'll ask Paul to do something with the reception area. There's so much to think about!"
"Yes, there is. So who is going to be the managing partner of the firm?"
"I will for the first year, but I'm grooming Nancy Moore to take over after that. I'm going to spend the next couple of days winding up affairs at J&Z, talking to clients, and getting temporary space set up so we can work until the building is ready. Robert North has an architectural firm as one of his clients, so they're putting in a bid to redevelop the building. I'm excited and terrified at the same time."
"You, terrified?" Greta teased.
"You bet," Darcy confirmed. "I've always had a big firm behind me, so this is brand new territory." She paused, thinking, then asked, "I know it's early in the week, but do you think we have time for a date this weekend?"
Greta turned to her computer, clicking on the calendar. "I'm trying to remember, but I think I could Sunday night. Before then, half of my staff wants off Friday or Saturday night, and guess who picks up the slack."
"I think I could do Sunday night," Darcy confirmed. "I'd like to invite you to my house for dinner this time."
"I'd love it. Need me to bring anything?"
"Just your own lovely self," Darcy said, smiling. "You know, I'm not sure if I'm just scared or out of my mind, but it will be nice to set my own hours. Chad, our CFO, has determined that we could meet our projected payroll and expenses with billing only 1500 hours per year, instead of the usual 2200+ that we're currently billing." Darcy felt her phone buzz and pulled it out, glancing at it. "Sorry to cut this short, but I need to be back for another meeting. Will you be in tomorrow morning when I come by for breakfast?"
"No, but I could be."
"Don't change your schedule for me, Greta. Call me when you get off tonight?"
Darcy stood up, smiling shyly, unsure about protocol. Greta solved it for her by standing and hugging her lightly and kissing her cheek, then playfully pushing her away. "Get going, dear, you don't want to be late. I'll call you tonight."
"I'm looking forward to it," Darcy say as she reluctantly gathered her things. She left, mind already switching gears for her next meeting.
Darcy spent the rest of the day in meetings, winding up business, and going over plans with her new firm attorneys and staff. A temporary office had been located and rented, the final bid was put forth on the building, staff had been made offers, outsourcing companies contacted. Most of Darcy's clients had no problem moving with her, and the two that preferred to stay were handed off to J&Z attorneys. Darcy was in the process of shutting down her laptop when Loraine knocked on her doorframe.
"Come in, Loraine, I wanted to talk to you anyway. Have a seat." Darcy closed the lid of her laptop, focusing her full attention on her secretary.
Loraine sat carefully, folding her hands in her lap. She had been thinking about this all day, but hadn't found Darcy alone since she came into the office. Better get it over with now. "Darcy, how long have we worked together?"
"About thirty years, best I remember."
"And do you remember me telling you recently that I could retire at any time?"
Darcy frowned, searching her spotty memory. "I think so. It was after my wreck, right?"
Loraine pressed trembling fingers together. This was more difficult than she anticipated. "I know you'd like for me to move with you, but I'm turning in my resignation. I'm retiring, Darcy."
The attorney looked at her long time secretary, dumbfounded. "Retiring? But you are still young!"
Loraine smiled slightly, appreciating the compliment. "Darcy, this is a good chance for me to make a clean break. David is retiring next month, and we'd like to be able to spend our retirements together, not with me still working. I appreciate the offer you made me, but you need to start a new firm with a new secretary. May I suggest someone?"
Darcy sat, shocked. She should have seen this coming, but it hurt like hell. Loraine, who always kept her together, kept her sane, taught her everything she needed to know about firm politics, retiring? "You're really leaving me?"
The tall silver blonde nodded, reaching up to wipe a tear. "Damn it, woman, I didn't expect this to be so difficult. Yes, I am retiring. I'm not deserting you, I'm simply coming to the end of my career with Jenner & Ziegler."
Darcy drummed her fingers on the desk, then abruptly got up and shut the door, then sat back down heavily. "Loraine, I don't know how to work without you." Loraine shook her head, fighting tears. "I mean, you've always been here. I know, I'm being childish and selfish, but how do I operate without you?"
Loraine answered, "You'll do fine, Darcy, just pick a really good assistant. Might I suggest Glenda Barnes? She's worked for partners before, and if she can handle them, she can handle you. Most importantly, she's younger than you are, so she won't retire before you."
"But you're leaving me," Darcy said, tears welling in her eyes. "Loraine, I've depended on you all these years."
"You'll just have to learn to depend on someone else, Darcy. I am so proud of you, how you have turned out. You'll make a success of the new firm, I have no doubt, but don't fall back into the same trap of not having a life. Greta deserves all of you, not just the pieces you feel you can spare. I've fallen into that pit so many times, and had insignificant relationships as a result. David is different, though. I thought he was just another fling, but he's been so wonderful and supportive after your wreck." She reached for a tissue, wiping her eyes. "You are more than my boss, you are my friend, and I love you."
Darcy reached for a tissue, unable to reply for a moment. Damn it, she never cried, not until the wreck! She managed to get herself under control enough to say, "I love you too, Loraine. You've always been there for me." She sighed, then asked, "So you think Glenda will move to the new firm?"
Loraine managed a slight smile. "Yes, I've already talked to her and made the arrangements, all you have to do is formally offer the job to her. Just promise me one thing."
"Don't expect her to be me. She's younger, and hasn't worked for anyone expects their secretary to do absolutely everything for them. You will have to keep up your personal calendar yourself."
"Well, if that's all, I think I can handle it." Darcy wiped her eyes again, pissed that she was so emotional. And she had dinner plans tonight, too. Damn. Damn. "Will you and David stay in this area?"
"Probably. We haven't gotten to the moving in stage yet, which will be difficult, since we both have houses that are paid off. By the way, it may be too early to think about it, but you need to consider what you will do when you and Greta get to that stage."
Darcy rubbed her eyes tiredly. "You're right, I hadn't thought about it. I promise to give it some thought before it happens." She replaced her glasses and looked sternly at Loraine. "So, when is your last day?"
"Friday. You'll have a big blow out party for me."
Darcy looked at her sharply. "Me?"
Loraine laughed. "Got you. You'll just pay for it, Glenda will arrange everything. It will be a good introduction to working with you, because you'll have to work together on this and get your regular job done at the same time." She stood, still chuckling.
Darcy stood, walking slowly around her desk. "I guess it will be quite an experience." She stopped in front of Loraine, arms dangling awkwardly. "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, Darcy." Loraine closed the space, wrapping her arms around her boss.
They stood, just holding each other, for an undetermined time until Darcy pulled back, looking up into Loraine's eyes. "Thank you for everything you've done for me."
"You're welcome," Loraine said quietly, "by the way, I was right to tell Doug to promote you."
"Oh, so you did have your fingers in that."
"Yes, and I'm damn proud of the way you turned out. One question I've never asked."
Darcy stepped back, shoving her hands in her suit jacket pockets. "Shoot."
"Did you ever tell your family about your successes?"
Darcy looked surprised. "I guess not really. I did write them when I made partner, and I send my parents a card for Christmas and their anniversary. I usually send a check at Christmas."
Loraine nodded. "I suspected as much. One more promise: go home some time. Reconnect with your family. They deserve to get to know you."
"Are you going to visit your family?"
Loraine smiled. "Already booked a cruise with David, my sister, and my brother-in-law." She smiled, then leaned over to kiss Darcy's cheek. "Keep in touch."
"I promise." Darcy walked her friend to the door, watching her go to her desk and gather her belongings. She waved as Loraine walked out of sight, then turned back to her office. How would she survive without Loraine?
>The week flew by. Darcy extended a formal offer to Glenda, who accepted, then the two of them spent time planning Loraine's retirement party, and winding up affairs at J&Z. Darcy was pleased that Glenda seemed to just slide into the role effortlessly, although she did balk when Darcy asked her to make some doctor's appointments for her. "That's your personal business, Darcy, not mine," Glenda said firmly. Darcy was taken aback, and finally had to call Loraine for the numbers, but managed to make the appointments herself.
The retirement party was a huge success, and in a sense, was also the farewell party for the outgoing attorneys and staff. Darcy called Jill's husband, Don, to ask if he would cater the affair, which he did gladly. At the last minute, she remembered to call Paul for flowers for the affair, transforming the conference room into an enchanted room. Everyone agreed that it was the best party in recent memory, and champagne was popped on the stroke of 5:00.
The party lasted until nearly midnight. Darcy sipped one glass early on, then switched to water afterwards, and just nibbled on a few snacks. She wasn't really hungry, she was more sad and nervous. The moment had come to make the speeches about Loraine, who graciously stood at the front of the room, as various people stood and made a speech. Most talked about her unfailing work ethic, or her way that she kept Darcy in line.
Darcy finally stood, looking up at the tall, elegant woman. She waited until the room was absolutely silent before beginner. "Thirty years ago," she started in her best story-telling voice, "I was determined to make my way into the big time. I was scared, but I was also cocky, having managed to secure enough scholarships and grants to pay my way through my bachelor's and JD, and sure enough in my intellect to not only take the bar before I started job hunting, but to also pass it with one of the highest grades ever seen."
She took a deep breath, aware that her audience was now hanging on her every word. "No one in law school told me anything about getting summer interships, I would just go home and work in my hometown bookstore or library all summer, earning money to pay for what my scholarships didn't pay for. I picked Seattle by literally tossing a dart at a map of the states, then moved. I found a small studio apartment, found a job in a nearby bookstore, and within days found the law school library so I could start looking up firms in the Martindale-Hubbell directory. I saw Jenner & Smith, and liked it immediately. The firm looked well-rounded, had some excellent clients, and best of all, was within walking distance of my apartment."
"So I brashly made an appointment with Mr. Jenner himself, unaware that you didn't do that, you went through personnel. I'm not sure why he made the appointment with me, but I told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to hire me, and that he'd better pay me the same as any other associate. Remember, women were rare creatures in law firms at this time unless they were staff."
She paused to sip her water. "I guess something piqued his interest, for he hired me on the spot. Then my next real strike of luck: he assigned Loraine Williams as my secretary. Loraine had become accustomed to working with high-powered partners and stars, not some cocky, scared girl from a small town in Kentucky. I didn't know how to dress, what fork to use, how to function in society. Loraine took it all in stride, and my first day at work was spent with Loraine helping me buy my first suits and accessories." Darcy took another sip of water. "I'm sure she thought she didn't have much to work with, but she worked with me anyway. With unflappable good humor, she taught me how to look and act like an attorney. She taught me how to navigate the snarled mazes of office politics, how to read a docket sheet, how to run meetings, and how to manage people. If she had been born later, she probably would have been the CEO of a company instead of a top notch legal secretary."
Darcy paused, swallowing past sudden emotion. "But the best thing Loraine ever did for me was to be my friend. The two times I was out, she visited me, took care of me, and let me know I was going to be all right. First, unexpected surgery twelve years ago, and recently, when I was in a wreck. She calmly stepped in, negotiated with the doctors, made sure I got to my appointments, and stayed with me during first few nights. In short, I should nominate her for sainthood. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a huge round of applause for Miss Loraine Williams."
Thunderous applause broke out in the room. Darcy took Loraine's hand, squeezing it as the older woman stealthily wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. When the tumult subsided, Darcy handed Loraine a small jeweler's box, which she took with a puzzled expression. She opened it, and found two silver necklaces and the split pendent that read "Best Friends". Loraine laughed and kissed Darcy on the cheek, then turned to the assembly. "I'm laughing because I told Darcy many years ago that I was her secretary, not her friend. Guess I was wrong."
She smiled, waiting for the crowd to grow quiet again. "I've been very blessed my entire life. I had the opportunity to go to college. I was able to move on a whim to Seattle from Boston when a friend from college called. My friend's uncle worked for Jenner & Smith at the time, and when my husband of nine months died unexpectedly, he offered me a job as his secretary. A few years later, Douglas Jenner, one of the co-founders of Jenner & Smith, later Jenner & Ziegler, asked me to be his secretary." She smiled at a memory.
"Doug was a fantastic person, great boss, and excellent attorney. He groomed me to be his right arm, and we worked together for several years before this brash young woman roared into our lives, forever disrupting the staid atmosphere of the firm. Doug's wife had been seriously ill for several years, and was slipping into a coma. It is true that I had an affair with Doug, but he made it clear that he would never leave his wife. That was fine, I liked things the way they were. He did decide that I no longer should work for him, and was about to assign me to some other poor man when Darcy showed up in our lives."
Loraine smiled. "I thought I was being punished at first, being assigned to a lowly associate, and a woman at that! A woman who didn't know how to dress, apply makeup, or eat with the correct fork! But we both immediately saw something of the diamond under the rough layers of coal, and I was assigned to bring out the diamond in her. I'm glad I did, for I've never known a better, smarter, more driven attorney in my life." She turned, looking at Darcy. "So, have I said enough? Can we get on this with gig?"
Darcy laughed. "Yes, you have. Let's get back to the party!â€ť
Dinner was more relaxed that Darcy had anticipated. Everything came out perfectly, and she even allocated calories so she could share dessert with Greta. During the meal, Greta talked about growing up in Vermont. "We were all ski bums, even Mom. Dad, of course, skied from the time he was tiny, since he grew up in Sweden, but Mom didn't learn until she was in her teens, when her family travelled from England to France for vacation. That's actually where they met, was in the French Alps."
"How did they wind up in Vermont?" Darcy asked, anxious to learn more about her girlfriend.
"Well, it was one of those almost improbable sequence of events, Darcy. They met when Dad was sixteen and Mom seventeen, but then didn't see each other for another year. They both won scholarships to the University of Vermont, both in mathematics. My brother, Gilbert, married right out of college and runs a ski lodge that his wife's family owns. I worked there during college, majored in business, then ran off to the Great Northwest for adventure. Little did I know that I'd wind up owning a coffee shop."
"Did you enjoy growing up there?"
Greta poured herself another half glass of wine, sitting back in her chair. "I did. I had a lot of fun, dated a lot of men, then realized that I preferred women, so I dated a lot of women before I found Jesse. I think I told you that she refused to get intimate unless I was planning to spend a long time with her, not just have a fling."
"I vaguely remember that."
"Well, my parents were pretty wonderful about it, but Gilbert was a bit of a prig for a while. Jesse won him over, though, and life was much easier. We'd go back to Vermont every other year, and my parents came here the other years. Mom and Dad both taught math, Dad in high school, Mom in college."
"I see. Would you like to move to the living room?"
"Sure, but let me help you take dishes to the kitchen first." Greta got up, starting to stack dishes.
"I suppose I'll have to let you," Darcy said, picking up the other dishes. They worked comfortably side by side, making short work of the cleanup process. Darcy surveyed the kitchen, declaring it clean, leading Greta back into the living room to sit on the couch. "Do you want to watch a movie or anything?"
Greta considered, then said, "Sure, I guess something is on." Darcy grabbed the remote, turning on the TV and cable box, then handed it to Greta. Greta flipped through the offerings, settling on an old movie, then asked, "So tell me more about you. How did you get from Kentucky to Seattle?"
Darcy smiled, taking Greta's hand in hers. "Well, I was the last of ten children, born to a railroad engineer and a cafe waitress. Looking back, I'm not sure how they fed and clothed us all, but I think we all got jobs as soon as we were old enough. Back then kids could get paper routes, return bottles for cash, sack groceries, work on farms, muck stables, wash dishes, things like that. I was a page at the public library when I was young, then worked in the one bookstore in town when I turned sixteen. I was the only one in my family interested in college, and worked with my teachers to get all the scholarships possible."
"So how did you decide to become a lawyer?"
The large woman smiled. "I went to college on a number of scholarships, but the biggest one was my volleyball scholarship. The coach's brother was an attorney, and used to come see the games. I don't know how I started talking to him, but I was fascinated by his descriptions of court battles, so I asked him one day how he became a lawyer. Naive as I was, when he said one of the best schools was Harvard, probably because he went there, I applied and managed to get scholarships and grants. No one told me that most people didn't work and go to law school, so I worked at a bookstore and still managed to graduate in the top ten of my class."
"You should be," Darcy said, smiling wickedly.
"Aren't you full of yourself?" Greta teased, reaching over to tickle her girlfriend. She didn't expect Darcy to curl up and howl with laughter, but it was a beautiful sound. She kept after it until Darcy was panting and had slid down on the couch, laying helpless. Greta managed to hover over her, straddling her, threatening to tickle again.
"Stop, mercy, uncle!" Darcy begged, trying to fight off the approaching fingers. Greta smiled, laying her palms on Darcy's chest, waiting for the other woman's ragged breathing to return to normal. "I give up!" Darcy gasped.
"Mercy is dispensed," Greta said loftily. Without thinking, she lightly rubbed Darcy's upper chest, as one would soothe a child. Her fingers hit skin at the edge of Darcy's top, stroking the warmth, teasing at the edge of the shirt. Darcy's pupils dilated in a rush of desire, breathing growing heavy again. Greta looked deep into the attorney's dark green eyes, reaching up with one hand to stroke her face. The spell was broken when she touched the bridge of Darcy's nose, asking, "How did you get that bump?"
Darcy sighed. "It was silly."
"Oh, do tell," Greta said silkily.
"I was reaching for a book in the library, but it was a bit high for me. I was too stubborn to ask for help, and I managed to pull that book and others off the shelf, causing them to go flying. One caught my nose and broke it."
Greta laughed so hard she wound up laying on top of Darcy, finally catching her breath enough to ask, "Really?"
Greta raised up a little, and kissed the break line. She pulled back to see the effect, noting Darcy's eyes fluttering shut, and preceded to drop small kisses all over her face. Her own breath was starting to get ragged as she went lower and lower, soon kissing Darcy's collarbones. Darcy groaned, shifting under the delicious weight of her girlfriend, delicious feelings thrumming in her lower regions. She wrapped her arms around Greta, holding her close, squirming against her. Greta came back up, kissing her hard, making her dizzy with desire. Darcy was starting to feel overheated, skin coming sensitized, suddenly wanting skin to skin contact, but she was also afraid. She broke the kiss and blurted out, "You know I've never done this before."
It was like a splash of cold water over Greta's libido. She pulled up, apologizing. "I'm sorry, Darcy, I forget that you've never been involved with a woman before. God knows Jesse made me wait long enough, and you have a new job starting tomorrow. Maybe we should slow down, take it easy, wait until we're both ready."
The haze started clearing from Darcy's senses, and she knew intellectually that Greta was right, but her body was still reacting. She had always done the right thing, but it was so hard to stop right now. So why stop? "Take me to bed," she demanded.
Greta woke up, stretching, then snuggling back into a broad, warm back. Her internal clock said the alarm would go off in a few minutes, so why not enjoy the extra snuggle time? She smiled dreamily, recalling the night before, how surprised she was that Darcy turned so passionate. She tightened her arm just slightly under heavy breasts, enjoying the warm and silkiness of the skin against hers. Too bad there wasn't time for another round, Darcy had proved to be quite a handful in bed.
She almost drifted back off when she heard her alarm and Darcy's go off simultaneously. Greta reluctantly rolled over the dismiss the alarm, hearing Darcy doing the same on her side of the bed. She rolled back to the center, facing a very naked, very luscious, very tousled woman. "Good morning, sweetheart," she said.
"Good morning," Darcy croaked. They spent a couple of minutes kissing, then pulled apart. "Do you want the guest shower? I don't know the protocol."
Greta smiled at her lover. "What is your routine?"
"Breakfast, paper, shower, dress, leave for work," Darcy replied promptly. "I've never done this, so how do I fit you into my routine?"
"Let me suggest that you do breakfast and paper while I shower. I wish I'd known I was staying over, I'd have brought clothes," Greta mused as she stretched and yawned.
"I don't think mine would fit you," Darcy said seriously.
"No, really?" Greta kissed Darcy again. "I'm teasing you, love. All right, let's get cracking on this morning, we both have to go to work, even though I wish I could stay in bed with you all day."
"That would be nice," Darcy agreed. She reluctantly rolled out of bed, grabbing underwear and sweats on the way. Greta watched her leave, then headed into the bathroom for her shower.
Darcy was thoughtful as she carefully measured out her oatmeal, water, and coffee. She prepared breakfast by rote as she thought about the events of the last evening, wondering if it was common to start an intimate relationship so soon. How she missed Loraine right now! Loraine had lots of experience in this department. Then again, Loraine's attitude for years had been to have fun, but not get serious. The timing sucked in a way, taking this next step while also starting a brand new business, with all of the pressures of keeping the venture afloat until they started turning a profit.
Ah, the evening. Darcy had to smile. No, she did not anticipate it, but found that thoroughly enjoyed making love with Greta. She recalled stealthily watching her teammates in the locker rooms in high school and college, desperate not to get caught, then chastising herself the one time a girl looked her way and winked. It had scared her badly, enough to completely clamp down on any sexual feelings for decades, but now, oh, Lord, it felt like the genie had been released from the bottle! Nothing had prepared her for the physical or emotional tornado of making love with a woman, someone she was growing to love more every day.
Enough woolgathering, the oatmeal was almost overcooked. Darcy hurriedly spooned it out into a bowl, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down with the paper. No, she'd forgotten to get the paper. By the time she got back with the paper, Greta was sitting at the table, sipping a cup of coffee, eating leftovers from dinner. "I'm done with my shower."
"Okay." Darcy suddenly felt shy, adrift, unsure how to share her routine. Greta solved the problem by suggesting that they start with opposite ends of the paper. Darcy relaxed a bit, handing Greta a section, then diving in and starting to read the local and national news. You never knew when a client or potential client would be mentioned.
Darcy almost panicked while driving to the temporary office, trying to remember the exact path she had mapped out last week. She knew where it was, but her memory was still randomly spotty, and she didn't remember exactly how to get there. No Loraine to have stuffed a map in her briefcase the day before either. She suddenly remembered the GPS function in her car, but not how to access it. "Damn," she growled.
Finally, she arrived at the new building with minutes to spare. She pulled into the garage, found her spot, then hustled to the elevator, brand new badge in hand. Just as the door was about to shut, Calvin Adams slid his hand in, saying, "Hold up, please."
"Good morning, Calvin," Darcy said, happy to see her associate.
"Good morning, Ms. Kent," he replied.
"Calvin, do me a favor," Darcy said as she pushed the floor button.
"Call me Darcy, please. You are a senior attorney, and I suspect you'll make partner as soon as we have this firm running well, so call me by my first name."
His dark eyes widened in surprise. "Yes, Darcy." He smiled shyly, shifting his laptop bag nervously from hand to hand.
Moments later, they entered the temporary suite of offices, and found boxes everywhere. Darcy turned to Calvin and said, "Go ahead and take an hour to settle in, and then we'll get together."
"Will do, ma'am," he said, sketching a brief salute.
Darcy walked down the hallway, finally finding her office. It was smaller than her old one, but she didn't care, but she did really miss Loraine. She opened the door, intending to start unpacking, but found almost everything in place already. "Good morning, Darcy," Glenda said, pushing back a strand of dark hair, "I just lack half a box to unpack. The phones are working, and the IT guys are making the rounds with the new laptops. I've already checked, and most of the staff is here and about half of the attorneys. Can I get you anything?"
"No, you've done a wonderful job," Darcy said, taking in the office. There was a bookcase built in to the desk, with her books already correctly arranged. Her few framed pictures were carefully placed on shelves or the desk, including her favorite one at the dinner when she was named partner. Doug Jenner was shaking her hand, and Loraine was at her elbow. God, did she really have poodle hair back then? At least it was past the time of exaggerated shoulder pads. She shook off the memories and sat down, pulling out her phone. At least she was able to run the old Jenner email and the new Kent & Associates, LLP email on her phone until the laptop was ready.
Darcy poked around, making sure that she knew where everything was, then started reviewing briefs as the IT guys came and started doing their magic with the computer and phone. She paused to listen to instructions, chose a password, then waded through the setup with them. As soon as they had left, her phone started ringing. She smiled when she saw who was calling.
Greta met with Paul, her financial planner and her accountant, going over her plans to invest in Paul's business. It would be tight for a while, but should be fine, after all, she and Jesse had pulled through the horrible crash of 2008, dealt with Jesse's cancer diagnosis and treatment, and still made a profit.
"So as soon as I turn down the buyout offer from Buckner Holdings, you will invest this much in my business," Paul said as he finished reading the proposal.
"That is correct, and we'll exchange coffee and cookies for fresh arrangements every day," Greta confirmed. "Are there any loose ends?" she asked the accountant.
"No, it looks good," the accountant answered.
Greta took a pen and started signing the multiple copies of documents while Paul started on his stack. After a while of steady pen scratching, they switched piles and started co-signing. Finally, the financial planner and the accountant looked through them, counter-signed and notarized as needed, then proclaimed that the deal was done. Paul sighed with relief. "Now I can buy new equipment and make those renovations I've dreamed about."
"I can hardly wait to see the plans," Greta said. "I'll see you tomorrow." They stood up, shook hands, then Paul left. Greta hoped she was doing the right thing. "Are we good here?" she asked the other women.
"Yes. I'll send copies to each of you by courier tomorrow," the accountant said, "but you can go now."
"Thanks for your help," Greta said, pulling on her down coat. "Send me the bill." She grabbed her backpack and left, taking the stairs instead of the elevator so she could think. What was Darcy doing right now? All she heard from the first day was that everything was busy with settling in, and not much work got done, and she was going to have to work all evening to catch up . Hope you are still free for a late lunch , Greta thought.
But as soon as Greta arrived at the coffee shop, Michelle greeted her with the news that Buckner Holdings had sent an attorney, who was sitting in her office, waiting to deliver something. "Shit," Greta said, "now what? Michelle, get some coffee and cookies and bring them in."
"Already done, boss, you taught me well."
Greta smiled fleetingly. "I did. No wonder I depend on you so much. Okay, wish me luck and call Darcy for me, ask her if there is anyone she can send over right now."
"Will do." Michelle turned and went into the secondary office, presumably to place the call. Greta walked into her office quietly, managing to catch the unexpected visitor off guard. "Looking for something?" Greta asked as she hung up her coat and dropped her bag.
The man smoothly went around her desk to sit in a visitor's chair, unruffled at being caught looking at reports on Greta's desk. "No, not in particular. I'm Henry Rutter, representing Buckner Holdings, and I wanted to talk to you about your building. I've been told that you turned down multiple offers, so I'm here with some news."
"Good news, I hope," Greta said as she lowered herself into her chair.
He smiled, revealing bleached teeth. "I'll be truthful, this entire block should be condemned, and my client should be allowed to expand. The company has already invested nearly a million dollars in upgrades to the shopping center, and wishes to build new buildings on this block. We are in talks with the authorities about condemnation of the entire block via eminent domain, so we can redevelop this eyesore."
Greta raised a blonde eyebrow, then said quietly, "You're bluffing."
"I assure you, I'm not," the attorney smirked.
"A shopping center is not for the public good, not even for the semi-good. A road, a park, a lake, maybe, a new sports arena, plausible, but a shopping center? It won't fly. I just came back from a meeting where I signed papers to invest in the business next door, and we have a law firm about to start renovating the building on the back side of the block. I renovated this building a couple of years ago. All of the buildings are structurally sound, and even the gas station won't need much remediation. So peddle your papers elsewhere."
"I assure you, you do not want to cross me," Rutter said blithely, "I don't think you understand how much money it will take to drag out these proceedings."
"About as much as it will take to fight off the charges I'll suggest to the state bar," Nancy Moore said as she entered the office. "Good morning, Greta, I'm Nancy Moore, real estate partner for the Kent & Associates, LLP. Hank, I know you, and know you're not up to any good. I suggest you leave before I call the police and have you arrested for trespassing."
He looked slightly uneasy. "You wouldn't."
"I would. Remember, I started my career as criminal defense attorney, so I know all of the tricks." She smiled pleasantly, crossing her arms and leaning on the wall, waiting for his next move.
"All I'm doing is making the offer that my clients wished to convey. Would you please tell your client that it is in her best interest to accept this offer before the condemnation hearings?"
Nancy lifted a dark eyebrow. "My client has already made it quite clear that she has rejected all offers from your client. Furthermore, she has stipulated that she did not invite you in, that you invited yourself in, and thus trespassed."
"Ah," he grasped at a straw, "this is a public place."
"This is a business," Nancy corrected, "and the owner reserves the right to serve or not serve whomever she wishes. Furthermore, you are sitting in her private office, which, if I may point out, has the sign 'Private Office' marked on it clearly. Now, you have two choices, Mr. Rutter. You may either leave quietly and convey my client's wishes to your client, or you may be arrested for trespassing and harassment. You and I both know that you can get out of the charges fairly easily, but it will take time, and will not look good to either your client or the state bar. Your decision."
He sat quietly for a moment, then slowly gathered his papers and slid them into his briefcase. "I am leaving under protest."
"Protest noted," Nancy said calmly. She poked her head out the door, calling, "Officer? You can come escort this gentleman out of the store now."
"But I thought you weren't calling the police," the other attorney stammered as the police officer entered the office.
Nancy smiled. "I didn't. This gentleman came with me today in case there was any trouble. Just having him make sure you find our way out is in no way to be construed as an official act, just a friendly escort. Goodbye, Mr. Rutter."
Henry Rutter grabbed his case and stalked out of the office, followed by the police officer. Greta waited a beat, then asked slowly, "Nancy, do you have any other unexpected tricks up your sleeve?"
The real estate attorney laughed, easing herself into a chair. "No, but I'd gladly take a cup of that coffee that Darcy is always bragging about. You see, when Michelle called, I had just met my brother, Officer Daniel Moore, and were about to be seated for lunch."
"Can I offer you a consolation lunch?" Greta asked.
Nancy nodded. "Sure! We'll call it my fee for services rendered. Besides, I really didn't want to eat at the buffet again, but don't tell Dan."
"I won't," Greta laughed. "Do you think that your little warning will do us any good?"
Nancy looked thoughtful as Michelle slipped out, indicating she would come back with food in a moment. "I'd be curious to see why they want this land so badly. Anyway, I can recommend a really good real estate lawyer for you, Sam Kruger, who is in another small firm nearby. Sam and I went to law school together, and I know he loves to take on cases like this. Want me to give you his contact information?"
"Yes, please, and thank you, Nancy."
"You're welcome, Greta."
Michelle poked her head in, rapping lightly on the doorframe. "Greta, Officer Moore is back, and I have lunch ready for you."
"Thank you, Michelle. Nancy, shall we repair to lunch?" Greta asked.
Nancy stood up. "We shall."
The next few weeks flew by for all parties involved. The new law firm went through some bumps and issues, but the transition was still smoother than expected. Greta and Paul started their formal plans for exchanging coffee and snacks for fresh arrangements, and Smitty decided to retire and sell his building. Greta hired Sam Kruger to investigate the land records and court records to see just why Buckner Holdings was so dead set on getting the property.
Darcy was adjusting to the role of managing partner for the Kent & Associates, and to not having Loraine there to make her life smooth. Glenda was a fine secretary, but they didn't have that synchronization that comes from decades of working side by side. Her sporadic memory blips didn't help, although her doctor said it was perfectly normal for someone still recovering from the brain trauma she had sustained during the wreck.
And there was her promise to Loraine. Darcy stared at her calendar, wondering how she could justify clearing the week needed to fly back to Kentucky for the holidays. Damn, why had she promised to go home? Darcy sighed, staring at the squares. She had lots of meetings, but no court dates until early January as her last two trials had settled. She smiled with pride, Calvin had quietly negotiated very favorable, and very fair, settlements on behalf of two of their clients, thus sparing them the expense of a trial and earning them a hefty bonus in the process.
Darcy started leaning on Calvin more to propose innovative solutions to their clients problems. His grave demeanor and thoughtful style of speaking played counterpoint to her hard driving, almost abrupt manners. But being in love was smoothing her edges as well, and the daily trips to the gym helped her blow off steam before it built to epic proportions.
So, if she did go back home, would Greta be able to go with her? That was the real crux of the situation. Ah, her beloved. Darcy felt a surge of love as she contemplated her wonderful Greta. They sometimes had disagreements, but never fights, and they were spending several nights a week together now. Darcy felt a blush creep up her face as scenes of the previous night flitted through her mind. Maybe the extra bedroom gymnastics were helping her weight loss, her new clothes were already too large now. God, that meant another shopping trip.
The attorney looked up, startled by Calvin's sudden appearance. "Yes, Calvin?" she asked, turning away from the monitor.
"My wife's family is coming here for the holidays, so I won't need any additional time off like I thought I might."
Darcy looked at the younger man, thinking. "So, Calvin, would you be able to hold the fort if I went away for a short time?"
He mimed cleaning out his ears. "What? I swear I heard you say that you might go away, like on vacation. Surely I was wrong."
She smiled at his rare flash of humor. "Yes, I'm thinking of returning to Kentucky for a visit. I haven't seen my family in ten or twelve years."
His dark eyes widened. "You haven't seen them in that long? Why not?"
She struggled for a moment to phrase her answer. Had she ever discussed her background with him? He had been working with her for what, five, six years? More? Less? Damn her slippery memory! "I've always had a tight schedule," she started. No, that sounded weak even to her ears. "I don't dislike my family, but I have nothing in common with them. I'm the only one who went to college, the only one who never married, the only one who moved away. I am afraid I have nothing in common with my parents or brothers and sisters, so I make excuses and send money home every year."
"Oh, ma'am, family is important," Calvin said emphatically, "My parents and my wife's parents would kill us if we didn't call every week, and come see them at least a few times a year. You need to go see your family, I'll make sure things run smoothly here. Besides, Nancy will be here, and she's your second in command."
"This is true," Darcy said slowly.
The dark young man asked thoughtfully, "Will you take Greta with you?"
"I haven't broached it with her," Darcy replied honestly. "I'm a little torn about it. I never brought home anyone, friend or date, so I have no idea how my family would react to me bringing home a lover. A woman, at that."
He nodded. "I understand, my family was a little taken aback when Denise and I announced our engagement. We'd been best friends all through high school, but they weren't ready to welcome in this fiery Italian when our family is so quiet. But Denise went in and started helping my dad with dinner immediately, and he fell in love with her. Mom was just pleased because Denise knew how to wield power tools too."
"I had no idea. You're right, I'm a little nervous about introducing Greta to my family. I don't even know if she could take the time off or not."
"It never hurts to ask," Calvin suggested.
"You're right, Calvin. Okay, why did you really come in?" she asked.
"To drop off the filings you asked me to draft for the Neuro Inc. case. I had an idea while I was doing some research on how to get both parties to the negotiating table."
Darcy smiled, reaching for the papers. "Let's hear it, then."
Darcy pondered her conversation with Calvin that evening during dinner. Greta was coming over later to watch the news with her, so she had a few hours to herself. The maids had been there, so the house was clean, laundry put away, and pantry restocked. Darcy felt a little guilty asking the maid service to do these extra chores, but she guessed it was okay since she paid extra. She had to laugh at herself, before her wreck, it would have never occurred to her to feel guilty about anything.
She booted up her laptop, thinking about the last time she went home. How much had she changed? How much had her family changed? Would she recognize anyone? How long had it been? She dredged up vague recollections of watching nieces and nephews open presents, calculated relative ages, then came to the conclusion that her youngest niece should be in high school now, the niece that had just been born the last time she went home. That made her parents, what, in their late 80's, early 90's? She really wasn't sure how old her parents were, just that they started having children immediately after marrying.
This wasn't getting the task at hand accomplished. Darcy opened a browser and started searching for flights, hotels, and cars. After half an hour, she cursed at the complications of a free market and the lack of Loraine. Should she get an extra ticket in case Greta could go with her? She winced at the prices, but purchased them anyway. Okay, two plane tickets, a suite with a king sized bed, and a mid-sized car. She hoped the weather would hold and that she wouldn't have to dust off her ice driving skills. She didn't have to use them much here.
Now, to warn her family, or just show up? She knew from the generic Christmas letter from her sister Beverly that the family was gathering Christmas Eve at her parents', then going to the evening service at church, and then meeting again Christmas Day at noon for the big meal. Christmas Eve would be for presents and a light supper. She had already sent her usual round of checks to the family, but should she do more? She drummed her fingers lightly on the keyboard, then smiled to herself. She popped over to the coffee shop web site and placed an order for a sampler basket of different coffees, having it expedited to Kentucky. If she calculated correctly, it should arrive the day before Christmas Eve.
"Honey, I'm home!" Greta sang out as she let herself in.
"In my office," Darcy replied. Seconds later, Greta appeared, grinning hugely. "My, what a wonderful sight," Darcy noted, rising to kiss her lover.
"You're not bad yourself, Counselor," Greta teased, squeezing Darcy's butt before sitting down. "What a long day. What did you do with yourself today?"
"This and that, boring legal work, talking to Calvin about vacations."
"Is he going somewhere?"
"No, he was telling me to take vacation, and I'd promised you that I'd think about going home. So, I've been busy making reservations to go back to Kentucky."
Greta looked surprised. "I didn't think you'd go through with it." She thought a moment, adding wistfully, "I wish I could go with you."
Darcy reached for her girlfriend's hand, kissing it lightly. "You could go with me, you know."
"Yeah, but with all of the expenses I've had lately, I can't see parting with the money. Michelle and Tony both are staying here, so I could leave the shop, but I just can't afford it."
The dark blonde attorney reached over, picking up a small sheaf of papers from the printer tray and handed them to Greta, saying, "I can afford it. I know it's not the most romantic spot, but I'd like for you to come home with me."
Greta started reading the papers, stunned. "My God, Darcy, are you serious?"
The shop owner laid the papers down, taking both of her lover's hands. "You want to take me to your family? But suppose they have a problem with us as a couple?"
Darcy shrugged. "Then I stay away another few years. And it's a surprise, I'm not warning anyone. Think you can handle it?"
Greta nodded slowly. "I think so. I know we haven't really talked about this, but are we really making a commitment here? I mean, you're taking me home to your family."
"I know we haven't dated long, but I'm serious about you, Greta. If I wasn't positive about my love for you, I wouldn't make this offer to take you home. We can find a time to go visit your family too next year."
Greta sat, warring emotions washing through her. She loved Darcy, but was she ready to make a commitment? She looked into the attorney's dark green eyes, seeing the tenderness in them that made her heart melt. Would Darcy still look at her that way if her family rejected them? Only one way to find out. "I'd be proud to go home with you, Darcy."
Relief washed over Darcy's face as she stood up, pulling Greta up with her. "Thank you, my beloved," she said quietly, reaching up to kiss her lover. One kiss turned into multiples, soon leaving them both panting. "Bedroom," Darcy croaked, pulling on Greta's hand.
The last week leading up to Christmas was insanely busy for both women, who barely had time to meet for early breakfast or late dinner a few times. It was complicated by Loraine and David coming back from their long vacation, and trying to fit in dinner with them.
"Our cruise was lovely," Loraine said as she sipped her wine, "but I enjoyed our trip to Costa Rica even more. I had no idea that doing the zip line was so much fun."
"I wasn't too fond of that, I found out I have a little fear of heights," David admitted, "but I loved snorkeling in the islands." He smiled at Loraine, obviously smitten with the older woman.
"I'm glad you had so much fun," Darcy said, "so are you ready to come back to work?"
"Hell no, woman!" Loraine laughed, "I'm enjoying being a free woman! No more bellowing boss, no more deadlines, no more being polite to obnoxious clients. So how is Glenda working out?"
Darcy leaned back, pushing her plate away. "She's no you, but we're getting along. She's not old school, won't get my coffee or run my errands, but she's an organizational wizard. She's taken over coordinating with the construction crew for the new place, so I may promote her to office manager and have to hire a new secretary. And before you ask, Calvin is doing great, he's my right hand man now. And Chad says we're almost broken even this month, which is amazing. I suspect he's encouraging our clients to settle up faster somehow. Maybe he's giving discounts or something."
"I'm glad to hear this, Darcy. The old firm was eating your soul. By the way, you look fantastic."
"Thank, Loraine. I've lost a total of fifty pounds since September, when I had the wreck, and I'm finally shopping in the misses department."
Loraine raised her eyebrows in surprise. "That's fantastic, dear. So, Greta, how is the coffee world?"
"Doing well," Greta said, "we're making a steady profit, and I've invested in the flower shop next door. I hired Sam Kruger, one of Nancy's law school friends, and he found a buyer for Smitty's garage. She's a veteran, worked in the motor pool for the Army, and is planning to open a do it yourself shop. There's a suit filed for condemnation of the block, but Sam says it won't go anywhere." Greta picked up the wine bottle. "Anyone need refills?"
Several hours later, hugs and kisses were exchanged as the older couple left Greta's house, leaving her with Darcy. They crashed on the couch, too tired to even turn on the television, just happy to be in each other's company. Darcy laid her head on Greta's shoulder, then asked, "Are you packed for our flight tomorrow?"
"Except for last minute items, yes," Greta yawned. "You?"
"Been packed since last night." She laced her fingers with Greta's, thinking. "Should I pick you up, or do you want to pick me up?"
"Do you have parking reservations?"
"No, I forgot."
Greta yawned again, then pulled her phone out of her pocket. "I'll call the car service I've used before, just get them to take us and pick us up."
"All right. Excuse me a moment." Darcy reluctantly levered herself off the couch, headed for the bathroom. George meowed and followed her down the hallway, slipping in just as she shut the door. "Oh, so now you're escorting me. Don't you want to stay with your mom?" Darcy asked the cat. He sat in front of her and merely looked wise. Darcy finished up, then stared at her reflection as she washed her hands. Greta's house was so comfortable, so inviting. She found herself wanting to stay here more often. Would it be too much to eventually ask if she could move in, sell her own house? She leaned over, scratching George's ears, rewarded with a buzzing purr.
"Reservations made, my love. Just be here early in the morning. I hate to say this, but since you don't have your luggage, you need to go so we can both get our beauty sleep."
"Damn, I should have thought of that," Darcy groused. "But I get a goodnight kiss, don't I?"
"Always," Greta agreed, moving into the attorney's arms for a searing kiss. A short heart racing eternity later, she reluctantly pulled away, noting, "You are definitely shrinking. Your doctor will be proud."
"Thanks," Darcy said. She kissed her lover one more time, then said, "Well, I guess this is me going. See you in the morning. I love you."
Greta looked a little surprised, responding, "I love you too, Darcy." She watched out the door until Darcy's car was out of sight. "Darcy loves me," she repeated, "she actually said the words."
"The house looks smaller and larger than I remembered," Darcy commented as she locked the rent car. "It looks like enough cars that most of the family is here. Are you ready?"
Greta looked nervously into Darcy's green eyes. "Not really, but I'll fake it. Is it too late to go to Vermont instead?"
Darcy pretended to consider, then answered, "I guess it is. Oh well, we're here, let's go in." She led the way up the walkway, noticing that the house had a fresh coat of paint, and that the porch had been extended to wrap around the house. A plume of fragrant smoke was escaping the chimney, and happy noise could be hear pouring from the house. They walked up the steps, then hesitated at the door. "Do I ring the bell, or just go in?" Darcy asked, suddenly panicking.
"It's family, so just go in," Greta advised.
"Right." Darcy took a deep breath, unconsciously reaching for Greta's hand. "Here goes," she said, opening the door.
The hubbub of voices greeted them as they went through the entry hall and into the main room. No one noticed them initially, allowing the women to take stock. The room was filled to bursting with family members, a heavily decorated tree, presents piled haphazardly, garland and decorations covering the mantelpiece. Darcy looked up at Greta, apprehension written on her face. Greta smiled at her, squeezing her hand, leaning over to whisper, "You'll do great. Pretend they are the jury, and you need to sway them." Darcy smiled, relaxing minutely.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," Darcy said in her most mellow voice, "I am your long lost relative, Darcy Kent, and this is my beloved, Greta Hanson."
Quiet fell over the room as all eyes turned to the couple. A handsome older woman got up slowly, moving toward them, the sea of people magically parting for her. She reached them and stared at them frankly, evaluating, measuring. Finally, she nodded slowly and asked, "What took you so long, Darcy?"
Darcy looked steadily at the woman, answering, "Pride and an inflated sense of self-worth, Mother, that's what kept me away for so long. I have much to tell, much time to make up for."
"Ain't that the truth," the older woman cackled suddenly. She turned to Greta and held out a fragile hand. "I'm Ellen Kent, mother of this here prodigal. I didn't quite catch your name."
"Greta Hanson," Greta enunciated carefully, "and I'm please to meet you, Mrs. Kent."
Ellen Kent shook hands with Greta, then turned to her daughter. "Darcy, come sit," she commanded.
"Where's Dad?" Darcy asked.
A faded redhead spoke up. "He's resting, Darcy. We didn't want to disturb you out there, but he's had a heart attack recently, and he wanted to be rested for services. Are you going to church with us? And your friend?"
Darcy had to flip through her mental album to come up with her sister's name. "Eliza, we'll be there."
"Humph. Well, don't just stand there like statues, come have a seat. Roger, Chris, get up and let your aunt and her friend have your seats," she commanded two teenagers. "My grandsons," she explained to Darcy.
"Ah." Darcy and Greta sat in the old ladder back chairs, taking in the many relatives who were frankly appraising them. "Since it's been a little while, could we all go around and tell us your names?"
Introductions were made, with Darcy trying to remember them all. She was embarrassed that she didn't recognize some of her siblings, but then again, she was the youngest and most of them had grandchildren, if not great-grandchildren. Her parents had ten children in fifteen years, starting off when Jim Kent was twenty and Ellen Kent was nineteen. She was startled to realize that her parents were ninety and eighty-nine respectively, and that most of her siblings were probably retired. It had been so long since she had been home that there was an entire generation she had never met.
"So, are you still with the same law firm?" asked a taller man with salt and pepper hair.
"James, I started my own law firm recently," Darcy answered her brother as she accepted a cup of hot cider from one of the sisters.
She smiled. "Let's just say there was disagreement in the ranks of partner, so a few of us split off to form our own law firm, Kent & Associates, LLP."
"So you struck out on your own and named it for yourself."
"I did the initial paperwork, so for now, it's Kent & Associates, but we'll add other names soon." She proceeded to give a summary of the events leading up to the formation, glossing over the blatant discrimination and threats, winding up with, "We're in temporary quarters right now, but we bought a building that is being renovated for our new home. It's in the same block as Greta's coffee shop, so we'll always have a good supply of coffee and pastries."
"Oh." Rhett scratched his stubble, trying to wrap his head around the information. "Well, at least you have a friend there. What happened to that secretary of yours?"
"Loraine? She retired and went on a long trip with her lover, David," Darcy explained.
Her oldest sister, Lucille, asked, "Did they marry?"
"No, but they seem very happy together."
Lucille looked shocked. "They are traveling together without being married? That's sinful!"
"It happens, Lucille," Darcy commented, "but she was the best secretary ever. I miss her."
Greta watched the awkward interplay, recognizing that the family, so far, had completely ignored Darcy's introduction of her as "beloved." Or maybe they didn't recognize the subtle hint. Greta smiled to herself. Darcy is such a wordsmith that sometimes her nuances are too subtle for ordinary human beings, she mused, and this may be one of the times.
The talk swirled around as Greta continued to listen. She gathered that most of the family had stayed in the area, and most had either gone to work in manufacturing, horse racing, or in other blue collar jobs. Darcy seemed such an anomaly, the only one who had graduated from college. A couple of her nieces had started, but quit to get married. If Darcy didn't look so much like her family, she'd swear that her girlfriend had been adopted.
"Time for presents!" Beverly, the next to youngest, hollered. As if by magic, the roar dimmed immediately, with expectant faces turned toward the sister. "It's my turn to play Santa, but I thought maybe my baby sister, Darcy, would play Santa tonight, seeing as how she's missed quite a few turns."
"Thanks, Beverly," Darcy muttered.
"Any time, sister dear," the redhead laughed.
Darcy stood up and walked to the tree, aware that every eye was on her. She wanted to ask Greta to pass out presents with her, as tradition allowed spouses to share the role, but she was suddenly shy about making Greta's place in her life more plain. Instead, she picked a couple of young children at random, asking, "Will you be my elves and help pass out presents?" The two girls nodded excitedly, running to the overflowing tree to start grabbing presents. Darcy found her small stack of envelopes and started passing them out to her siblings, saying, "Merry Christmas" to each. At least once she saw the names, she was able to match them with faces. Mostly. "Rhett?" she asked tentatively.
"Good guess," the brother answered, wide smile splitting his stubbled face. "I thank you," he said.
Darcy smiled, then went on, guessing right and wrong, but mostly matching presents to the right brothers and sisters. She had to give up and simply call out names of younger generations, until all presents save her box to her parents. Jim Kent was still napping, so she handed the box to her mother. "Merry Christmas, Mom," she said.
Ellen Kent looked a little surprised as she reached for the box. One of the younger grandsons handed her a knife wordlessly, which she took to expertly slice open the ribbons, paper, and tape of the present. The room grew quiet as she opened the box, then held up a basket of different bags of coffee, interspersed with boxes of shortbread cookies. "Oh, Darcy, this is wonderful," she said, surveying the bags, "now I'll be able to tell Hester that I'm fancy too!"
"It's from Greta's shop," Darcy commented proudly, "so it's from both of us."
"Well, thank you girls," Ellen said, beaming, "Old Hester has bragged for years about her son, the airline pilot, bringing back goodies from wherever he lands, but I'll swear this is far better than what he brings her." She stood up, awkwardly reaching to hug her youngest daughter.
"We hope you like it," Greta added, "I guess that you'd use drip pots, so I had my staff grind the coffee for that."
"What other way would you grind it?" Ellen asked, curious.
As Greta started explaining about different grinds, roasts, and origins of coffees, Darcy and her helpers finished handing out the presents. Darcy thanked each girl by handing her a twenty dollar bill, causing them to run shrieking excitedly back to their parents. The attorney smiled, watching the younger ones playing with toys, the older ones comparing clothes, and the oldest generations comparing clothes and gardening tools. She suddenly wished she knew her family better, so she could do more than send checks. Maybe this next year she would know them better.
It was time for the candlelight service. Darcy wasn't sure if she remembered the way exactly, so she asked a great-niece to give directions. "If my parents will let me, I'll just go with you," the dark haired teen replied. She skipped off to ask them, then came running back. "They'll let me. Let's go."
Greta had to ask, "Which one are you again?"
The girl rolled her eyes, but replied politely, "I'm Melanie Kent. My parents are Charles and Wendy Kent, my grandparents Rhett and Thelma Kent. I take after my mom's folks, the Broussards."
"That you do," Darcy affirmed, glancing at the tall, slender, dark-haired girl. "Most of our family runs fair-skinned and fair-haired."
"And stocky," Melanie pointed out helpfully. "Okay, turn right up here, and go on several blocks until you hit Main Street. Then it's five blocks down and to your left, biggest church in town. They bought another block and built a new sanctuary a few years back."
"Is the local economy that good?" Darcy asked, curious.
"I dunno, you'd have to ask my parents. I just know that there's lots of money flowing here, and Mom says housing is pretty cheap compared to other parts of the country. She went back to get her real estate license a few years ago and does pretty steady business. Turn here."
Greta asked from the back, "So what are you interested in, Melanie?"
A shrug. "Not much, Greta. That's a pretty name, Greta, sounds like a character from a book or something. Greta and her amazing skis or something. Anyway, I turn sixteen next month, and I guess I do well enough in school."
"What's your favorite subject?" Darcy asked.
The girl twirled a lock of hair around her index finger, thinking. "Well, it's a tie between science and math. I have this weird ability to do complex formulas in my head, so Mom takes me along sometimes to do calculations on the fly. You know, square footage, how much would you gain by extending a wall so much, how much paint you'd need, stuff like that. But I don't know what I want to do when I get out of school. I've worked at the track in the summers, walking horses and mucking stables, but I'm not as interested in that. The church is coming up in two blocks."
"Thanks." Darcy guided the car carefully, grateful that the streets were relatively clear of the recent snow that lingered in the yards. She saw the new building up on her left and was amazed. It was light stone, soaring, and beautiful. Who donated that much money? She wondered as they approached.
"You'll need to park across the street in the grocery store lot," Melanie added helpfully, "the rest of our family will take up the rest of the parking lot."
"How do you know?" Darcy asked, curious.
Melanie shrugged. "Just based on the number of cars headed in. I calculated, and that's the answer I came up with. Turn right here."
Darcy turned, finding a spot in the second row back of the store lot. They got out, with Darcy taking Greta's arm out of habit, missing the raised eyebrows of her great-niece. Greta felt the girl's eyes on them, but chose not to react. The trio walked across the street and entered the sanctuary, feeling the warmth of the air and crowds of people washing over them. Melanie took Darcy's other arm, saying, "Come on, I'll show you the cloak room. It's gonna be warm in there with the holiday crowd." The older women followed her, jostled by the crowds, but finally making it in to hang up their coats.
"Our family always sits in the back," Melanie informed them. "We take up the back four rows, we're so big." She led the way, making various cousins scoot so the three of them could have a seat on the same pew. "Just in time," Melanie informed them.
Greta sat down, trying to remember the last time she had attended any sort of church service. Jesse had been deeply disappointed when the church they attended had refused to accept them as a couple, and although Jesse found another church, Greta simply stopped going. It occurred to her that Darcy had never been through anything like that, and they had never talked about their faith or lack thereof.
Darcy caught herself before she reached for Greta's hand, as had become her habit lately. She looked around the new sanctuary, liking the light paint and wood that lined the walls. There was a huge stained glass window in the front; she wondered what it looked like with sunlight streaming through it. The choir loft had chair instead of pews, which was a change, and there was no massive pulpit. The pastor walked out with a wireless mike on his head, much like popular singers or stage actors. What would the service be like? She remembered it being very plain, very conservative, unlike the more high church services she had become accustomed to in her church in Seattle. Would she like it, or cringe?
Melanie watched the two women out of the corner of her eye, wondering about their relationship. Her parents were strict, and she was not allowed to date until she turned sixteen, not that the boys were beating a path to her doorway. She had always heard about Aunt Darcy, the one who left . It's like her title or something, The One Who Left. Like The Boy Who Lived. And the way they look at each other, I bet they're together. Not that I'm supposed to know about that, no sir, boys and girls are supposed to pair off. Melanie took out the worn hymnal, turning to the first hymn, handing it to her aunt. "I know these," she whispered.
"Thank you," Darcy said, holding the hymnal so Greta could see it too. She loved singing Christmas songs, Christmas hymns, loved the familiar tunes and harmonies. She was a little surprised when Greta filled in with the tenor line on her left, and Melanie supplied a strong alto. Darcy was glad that her voice was in decent shape so she could hold the soprano line. It felt good to sing without getting out of breath!
The service continued, music flowed, preaching commenced, communion started. Greta was a little uneasy, since she hadn't taken communion in so long. She vaguely remembered little cups and tasteless wafers in her home church, so she was surprised to see the pastor pouring the juice in a chalice and breaking loaves of real bread. She guessed she would simply follow Melanie and Darcy's lead on this, and do whatever they did. She was surprised that she had remembered the hymns so well, but guessed that years of singing them in her youth had burned them into her brain. She smiled, thinking fondly of youth choir, and of having to sing tenor because they just didn't have enough boys in the choir.
When the time came, Melanie led the two women down to the communion rail, whispering that Christmas Eve was the only time it was okay to partake of the elements, then get up after a brief prayer. Darcy nodded, a vague memory of kneeling for what seemed like an eternity before it was acceptable to rise. She briefly touched Greta's back, guiding her to a couple of empty spots at the rail, grateful that it was easier to kneel now. As the servers circulated, she offered up a prayer of thanks for Greta and their new life together. It suddenly popped in her head that they could get married one day, if they really wanted to.
The service ended with the traditional candle lighting, and soon the sanctuary was glowing with soft light. Greta had to admit it was beautiful, although the service could have been shorter, in her opinion. Or maybe she'd just forgotten how long services ran. She caught Melanie watching them, and had to fight the sudden urge to wrap her arm around Darcy's shoulders. She was sure that the teenager had caught on to their relationship, even if the rest of the family either didn't understand or ignored it.
As they slowly started filing out of the pews following the benediction, a sturdy man came up and asked, "Are you Darcy Kent?"
"Yes, I am," Darcy replied, pausing, "although I confess I am at a loss as to your name."
He smiled, revealing a few missing teeth in his weathered face. "You don't remember me? Jake Lang? I used to follow you around school like a little puppy dog."
Darcy looked a little closer, adjusting her glasses. She started to shake her head, but recognition dawned. "Jake Lang, I do remember you. You'd come to all the volleyball games, and asked me out to the prom."
Greta started listening intently, wondering what would happen. Did Darcy date this man? She noticed Melanie listening as well, but frowning.
"Yeah, I asked, but you shot me down. Said you were busy studying for finals or some such bullshit. I never thought you'd stoop to come back to our little burg."
Darcy merely smiled, ignoring the creeping hostility in the man's voice. "I decided it was time to visit my family, Jake. I'm sorry I didn't go to the prom with you, but if it makes you feel better, I did ace the finals. Now if you will excuse us, I need to get Melanie back before Greta and I go to our hotel."
Jake stepped back, hands up in surrender. "I'll step out of your way. But just to let you know, I'm widowed now, so if you ever move back home, I'll be waiting."
Darcy smiled sweetly, replying, "My home is on the west coast, as is my law firm. Say hi to your sister for me. Greta, Melanie, time to go." Melanie took the hint, quickly leading them to the closet to fetch their coats. "Melanie," Darcy asked as Greta helped her into her long parka, "is Jake still a consummate donkey?"
Melanie chuckled at the description. "Yes, Aunt Darcy, he is. He was married to Belinda Graves, and Mom swears she died to escape him. You don't want to get mixed up with him, it's whispered that he runs guns as well as moonshine. Officially, he trains racehorses, but we don't think that's where his money really comes from."
"You really have interesting people around here," Greta observed as they left the church.
Melanie snorted. "More the reason I want to get away." She followed them across the street, into the parking lot. "So how long are you here for?"
"A couple of days, then we both have to get back home," Darcy answered as she hit the unlock on the remote. "Will you be around?"
"Yeah, like there's anything else to do here," Melanie snorted. "I guess when I turn sixteen, I'll apply for a job at the cafe or something."
Darcy asked, "Why not see if you could work for your mother officially? Clerical work or some sort of office work, say, after school for a few hours."
Melanie cocked her head, thinking. "Aunt Darcy, I hadn't thought of that. Hey, would you speak to Mom about it?"
"Sure," Darcy agreed. An agreeable silence fell in the car as Darcy navigated back to the house.
Greta admired Darcy's figure as the lawyer stepped out of the bathroom. It was morning, and they needed to be at the Kent house in a few hours, but first, Greta had other plans. "Good morning, lover," Greta purred, flicking back the covers.
Darcy's eyes widened as she took in the completely nude figure of her lover and felt her libido rise to the occasion. "Good morning to you," she replied, swallowing hard. "Do we have time?"
"You want to be hungry for lunch, don't you?" Greta asked, smiling wolfishly.
"Oh, yes, I do," Darcy agreed as she quickly shucked her own pajamas. "Brr, it's freezing."
"I'l warm you up," Greta promised as Darcy slid back into bed, tucking the covers around them. "Just you wait and see." She pulled Darcy into her arms, engaging her lover in a deep, sensual kiss to jumpstart their loving. Darcy responded, laying on top of Greta, lost in the sensations of skin against skin, passionate kisses, hands roaming.
Time passed deliciously, and the two women were finally sated enough to face the morning. Darcy laid on her back, breathing hard still, with Greta tucked against her, arm across her chest. "I had no idea it would be quite like this," Darcy said, turning slightly to kiss Greta's forehead, "or that multiple orgasms were even possible. I thought that was just something that was an urban legend or something."
"With you? Definitely not only possible, but a given," Greta said, resisting the temptation to start playing with Darcy's breasts again. "I'll be honest, I never had more than one at a time, even with Jesse. God, woman, we just keep lighting each other's fire."
Darcy smiled, stroking Greta's skin slowly. "I had no idea that just laying here with you would be so wonderful."
"I like that we will just lay here and talk after the fireworks," Greta agreed, "Jesse did sometimes, but she'd get antsy to get up and do something else."
"Fool. Laying with you afterwards is almost the best part," Darcy said, continuing to stroke Greta's skin, "I love touching you, I love being naked with you. I had no idea that I would enjoy just laying skin to skin, it's so sensual, so soothing." She pulled Greta on top of her for another kiss.
A short time later, Greta was quivering with the aftereffects of another orgasm, laying heavily on top of her lover. "If you family saw us now, they'd freak," she muttered thickly.
"Well, it's their loss if they don't have fantastic lovers like you. Speaking of lovers, did any of your other girlfriends or boyfriends in college stack up?"
Greta rolled over, pulling Darcy to lay her head on her shoulder. "The boys I dated were pretty much in and out, and it was okay. The worst part was making sure they had condoms and knew how to use them, since I sure didn't want a baby or any diseases. I rarely orgasmed with them, except for one guy, who would take the time to finish me off with his fingers after he'd come."
"At least you thought about protection, but still, yuck."
"Yeah, well, but when I discovered women, oh wow, completely different world. But some were mostly teases, and we never went beyond necking. Some were merely curious, and I happily indulged their curiosity. I think I only spent the night with two women before you, though, April, a classmate, and Jesse. April lived in an efficiency apartment, so I'd go eat dinner with her and wind up eating breakfast too. It only lasted a few months until she graduated." Greta smiled at the memory. "So you really never had a lover before me? It's hard to believe."
Darcy idly stroked Greta's back, mapping out all the contours. "Never. I was so driven that I just didn't allow myself to spend the time or emotional energy on dating or falling in love. Looking back, I did have a few crushes on girls, but never followed through. Greta, I wouldn't have known what to do even if I did allow myself to recognize my attraction to women."
"Oh, I think you would have done just fine," Greta answered in a deep, sultry voice. "You figured it out with me pretty quickly."
"I had an excellent teacher," Darcy laughed. "So, the first time you were with a woman, how did you figure out what to do?"
Greta smiled. "We just let instinct take over. Okay, Darcy my love, we need to get a move on. Do you want the shower first?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Greta rolled off, allowing Darcy to reluctantly rise. Darcy kissed her one more time, then shuffled off to the bathroom.
Melanie eagerly greeted the couple at the door, swinging it open before they could ring the bell. "Come on it," she said, reaching for their coats, "you arrived just in time for the argument over seating arrangements. I'll take your stuff to the greats bedroom. "
Darcy and Greta unbundled, handing their coats and purses over to the teenager. "The greats?" Greta questioned as Melanie disappeared.
"I guess my parents' room, they'd be her great-grandparents," Darcy replied. "Let's go make the rounds." She led them through the entry hall into the family room, thinking something had changed. "Oh, they took out the wall between the living room and dining room, made it bigger." She took a deep breath. "Time to plunge into the lions' den," she muttered as they entered the room, full of people, noise, and Christmas decorations.
"Good morning, sister," Lucille said as she stood up, "I didn't see you after the service last night." She reached for Darcy, hugging her awkwardly, then nodding at Greta.
"We were there with Melanie, in the next to last pew," Darcy explained, "and we got sidetracked by Jake Lang."
"He's still mooning over you?" Lucille asked as she led them through the crowded room. "Dad's up, so let's go say hi before the madness of lunch. Jake's wife died, and I don't rightly blame her," her sister added in a low voice.
Darcy almost stumbled when she saw her father. He had aged so much! Of course, he had just turned 90 in October, so he should be old. Thick shock of white hair, faded green eyes, deep wrinkles, and so thin. The last time she was home Jim Kent was still barrel-chested, with hard muscles still evident from his work as both a railroad engineer and part time farmer. "Dad?" she asked tentatively.
He looked up, blinking to focus on her. "My little Darcy?" he asked in a weak voice. He cleared his throat. "Your mama said you were home last night," he added in a stronger voice.
Darcy leaned over to hug his shoulders, then straightened up and took his hand. "Daddy, I'd like you to meet someone very dear to me. Jim Kent, this is Greta Hanson, my beloved. She came home with me from Seattle."
Jim Kent looked at Greta, furrowing his brow as he processed his daughter's words. He held out his other hand to her, saying, "So you're the friend of my little girl. This one has the will of an ox, hope you can handle her."
Greta took his thin hand in hers, lightly squeezing it in greeting. "I can handle her just fine, Mr. Kent. I appreciate getting to meet Darcy's family."
"This madhouse?" he said, flashing a quick smile that made him look decades younger, "Oh, boy, missy, you have a lot to learn about the Kent clan. We're pretty rowdy and rough, but kind-hearted. For the most part, that is. What do you do?"
"I own a coffee shop," Greta answered, "which is where I met Darcy. She came into my shop one morning, and life has been better since."
"Better, eh?" Jim replied. Before he could ask about the coffee shop, the dinner bell started pealing madly. "Time for lunch," he said, face lighting up. "Would you girls help me to the table?"
"Sure, Dad," Darcy said, holding out her arm for him to grab on to. He reached up, levering himself out of the chair, leaning heavily on his daughter as she led him carefully through the crowd to the main table. "How many are here today?" she asked as they shuffled along.
"Let's see," he said, thinking. Jim carefully lowered himself into his chair, motioning for Darcy and Greta to sit as well. "It's a smaller gathering, so I'd say around sixty this year. Counting you, eight of the ten kids came, plus assorted wives, husbands, children, their wives and husbands, and grandkids. We even have a couple of great-grandkids now." He looked at her quizzically. "So you never married?"
"Dad, I was married to my job for decades," Darcy answered. Before she could elaborate, her mother let loose a piercing whistle for silence. The loud roar settled down, waiting for the blessing.
"Our newest in-law, Jed Carnes, will offer the blessing," Ellen Kent announced, "He's just finished his seminary degree. Jed, will you say grace for us?"
Darcy turned to find the newest arrival, trying to figure out which one he was. There, standing in a corner next to Elena Ross. She thought it was Elena, the last time she saw the girl she was a two year old, but she looked very much like her mother, Dorothy. The stout young man nervously bowed his head, offering mercifully quick words of blessing, concluding with Ellen announcing, "Just find a chair anywhere! Grab your plates and let's get this show on the road!"
"Dad, can I fill your plate for you?" Darcy asked.
"No, but I thank you. The grandkids take turns filling my plate. Sometimes it means some strange choices," he chuckled. "I believe it's Stuart's turn this time."
"Which one is Stuart?" Darcy asked, trying to remember.
Greta spoke up. "He's the grandson of Ashley and Loretta, son of Julie and Gunther."
"How did you remember all that?" Darcy asked, surprised and irritated that she didn't remember.
Greta smiled. "Genealogy is an old hobby of mine, so I pay attention to families and lineage."
Jim nodded. "Greta, you're exactly right. Maybe we should talk, I started digging into our family after I retired for something to do."
"I didn't know that, Dad," Darcy said.
"Yes. Here's Stuart heading this direction with a precariously full plate, so I suggest you girls go get your plates filled."
Darcy shrugged, then led Greta to the kitchen, where dishes and plates were piled on every available surface. "Things have changed, paper plates and plastic utensils," she commented as she handed a set to Greta. "If it's the same, main dishes lining this side, desserts on the island, and rolls and salads on the short side. Drinks are a choice of iced tea or water, served after everyone is seated."
"It's a huge amount of food," Greta marveled, "makes my family gatherings tiny by comparison."
Darcy nodded, walking along and adding small amounts of food to her plate. "I swear the kitchen looks longer, but it could just be my memory playing tricks on me."
Melanie appeared at their elbows suddenly. "The kitchen was extended a few years back after the last wedding," she explained, "all of us kicked in money to contract it out. Can I sit with y'all?"
"I guess so," Darcy said, "we'd been offered a place by Dad."
Melanie looked astonished. "Wait, by Papa? Aunt Lucille and Uncle Tony have always sat there. Papa is stirring up trouble, I can tell. Ever since his heart attack, he's been mischievous, doing things like upsetting the seating order at family dinners, revealing that his uncle and grandfather ran moonshine during Prohibition, talking frankly about the slaves the family owned at one time. It upsets Aunt Lucille to no end."
"Is that so?" Darcy mused. "I guess we'll take full advantage of it. Do you still want to try to sit with us?"
"I guess I'll sit with the cousins," Melanie sighed, "the rule that you have to be over eighteen to sit at the head table still stands. I don't think Papa would let me break that one any time soon. I'll see you two later then." Melanie skipped off, seeking out a table with some of her cousins. Darcy and Greta watched her for a moment, then navigated back to the head table, where Jim was holding their places.
"You made it through the maddening crowd, eh?" he asked as they unloaded plates on the table.
"Yes, Dad, thanks for saving our places," Darcy said, watching him as she sat down. "Seems we're breaking tradition."
"Well, I'm the patriarch of this here clan, so what I say goes." He paused, adding with a grin, "As long as your mother agrees."
Ellen shot him an amused look as she sat down. "That's right, Mr. Kent, so you'd better toe the line." She set her plate down, then settled in her chair. "Greta, be careful, that chair is a bit rickety. One of the grandsons promised to fix it, but never did."
"Maybe you should ask a daughter or granddaughter to fix it," Darcy offered innocently.
"Humph, the daughters would say it wasn't woman's work, and the granddaughters would be clueless." Ellen dug into her food, motioning for the others to do the same.
Jim ate slowly, but gaining in strength as he ate. "So, a coffee shop," he said, pointing his fork at Greta. "How'd you come about that?"
Greta wiped her mouth before replying, "I was going to be a ski instructor all of my life, but a broken leg right after college stopped that. My girlfriend decided to move home to Seattle, and I moved with her, then we started the coffee shop with a small inheritance from her grandparents. She died several years ago, and left me the shop. Darcy walked in a few months ago, and one look and I decided I had to talk with her. Haven't regretted that since."
Jim nodded, tucking in the last morsel on his plate. "So you put up with our Darcy."
"Yes, you could say so."
"Well, then." He drained his water glass, then looked at his daughter. "I hope you treat her right, young lady. Thing I regret the most is having to work so much to keep body and soul together, I hope you're making more time for your lady here."
"Believe me, Dad, I am," Darcy answered.
Lucille suddenly perked up her ears and asked, "Papa, why are you calling Greta her lady?"
His faded green eyes twinkled with delight. "Lucille, can't you see these two women are head over heels in love with each other?"
"What?" Lucille screeched. Silence descended as the gathering turned to see what was going on at the head of the table. "My baby sister is one of those evil homosexuals?"
Darcy felt a surge of anger at her oldest sister, but managed to answer lightly, "Why yes, Lucille, I am evil, I am an attorney after all."
A chuckle rippled through the room, then an uneasy silence settled in again. Lucille gaped at the couple, then spluttered, "And you were in church with us? Sitting with Melanie? Are you corrupting her?"
Jim piped up, "Lucille, I wouldn't sling too many accusations, considering."
She glared at her father, snapping, "But at least it was with a man."
Darcy looked confused, so Ellen quickly explained, "Your oldest nephew was not a month premature, if you get my drift."
"Mother!" Lucille screeched.
"It's true, Tony had to marry you after the two of you-"
"That's enough," Tony bellowed, "I paid for my mistake."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Lucille snarled, "Am I a mistake?"
As the argument swirled around them, Jim Kent looked at Darcy and Greta, saying innocently, "Oh, dear, I seem to have stirred up a hornets nest here. Why don't you two help me to the living room, I'm done eating."
Darcy and Greta helped him up, each taking an arm to escort him into the living room. Once they settled in chairs next to the roaring fireplace, Jim Kent chuckled and asked, "Darcy, did you come home to cause an uproar, or did it just happen?"
"No, Dad, I didn't intend to cause an uproar," Darcy answered, puzzled. "What do you mean, uproar?"
He settled back in his wing chair, motioning for Greta to hand him the afghan behind her on the back of her chair. "It's been years since you graced us with your presence, and I can tell that something is different."
"I've been in a wreck, Dad, and was banged up pretty badly. I still have trouble sometimes."
He leaned forward, speaking urgently. "Darcy, I wasn't referring to your wreck, although it was a shock when Loraine called and said you'd been seriously injured. No, I don't think you saw how you affected your family over the years. You are the only one of us how left here, the only one of your siblings who went beyond high school, the only one who has made significant money. The rest of us muddle along, working for shops, farms, racetracks, factories, or real estate."
Darcy stared into the fire, absorbing her father's words. She had no idea that she had this effect on her family. She finally looked up at him, saying softly, "It's not been easy for me either. I had no idea how much I was shortchanging myself. I worked insane hours, I was a bitch, I never fell in love. The wreck caused some changes, my short term memory is still shaky at times, I am more emotional, but I'm also happier. So is it my career, or my falling in love with a woman that is the issue?"
"Both," he said. "I'm proud of your career, and frankly I'm too old to get riled up about much anyway, I'm just grateful to see my baby girl finally happy."
Melanie suddenly popped around, saying, "Darcy, there's practically a riot going on in there. The whole family is in an uproar."
Darcy sighed. "But it was Dad who stirred them up, not me."
Melanie laughed as she perched on the arm of her grandfather's chair. "But he's the head of the clan, so they can't get mad at him for pointing out the obvious."
Jim smiled as he patted Melanie's back. "How do you feel about it?"
Melanie rolled her eyes dramatically. "Non-event, totally. Lucille doesn't seem to know that her hairdresser, George, is just as queer as they come. My parents are a little more understanding, since my best friend is a lesbian. But they won't let Janice sleep over."
Greta asked, "So, are we about to get tarred and feathered?"
Melanie snorted. "I doubt it. But now some of them are wondering if their children are in danger."
Greta asked, "Do they think we're child molesters?"
"Yeah, which is a hoot, since they used to whine about Darcy never coming home. Said you didn't love the family, just sent money, were too uppity for us. Mom and Dad commented this morning that they'd never seen you when you were tied to a phone, dealing with clients."
"I see." Darcy drummed her fingers on the chair, thinking. "Dad, should we just leave?"
"Nope," he replied, smirking. "Stick around for a bit, this could be fun."
"Fun for whom?" Darcy asked sarcastically.
"Darcy!" All three heads swiveled as Lucille came screeching in the room, followed closely by Tony, Ellen, Charles, and Wendy. "Darcy Madeline Kent, you are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord!"
"Aunt Lucy, you're been too hard on Aunt Darcy," Charles yelled back at her as he caught up to Lucille. "Not everyone believes that way."
"But the Lord says woman shall not lie with woman as with a man," Lucille countered, waving her arms for emphasis. "Charles, you and Wendy are also heathens."
Charles got up in her face, shouting, "Maybe the rest of us don't belong to that cult that you do, but that doesn't make us heathens. Besides, I'd rather be a heathen than to be brainwashed like you are. Tony, what do you say?"
Tony shoved his fists in his pockets. "I'm with Lucille. How do we know that Darcy won't molest our children? God has spoken," he spat out.
The argument got louder and louder, each hurling accusations and Bible verses at each other until Darcy felt white hot anger roaring through her body, making it difficult to hear. It was the same heat that propelled her through many cross-examinations, through impassioned closing arguments, through devastating depositions. It was the first time she'd felt this righteous fury since the wreck, and it felt good. "SILENCE!" she bellowed.
The tsunami of noise ceased abruptly, all turning to face Darcy. "Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, I came here not to incite high harsh feelings, but to share my joy with you of finally finding someone to share my life with. You may bellow and rant and call me a whore, but you do not get to call Greta an abomination. The God I worship does not call us to take the mote from the other's eyes until we take the beam from our own, allowing us to see clearly and compassionately."
Darcy stalked over to her eldest sister, staring her in the eye. "Lucille, you dare to judge me, yet you do not know me. You were married before I was even born, so how could you know me? I remember being five and asking you to bandage my scraped knee at some family gathering, and you scolded me instead for playing with the boys."
She swung around looking at each one in turn as she laid out her case. "Statistics and studies show us that the overwhelming majority of child molesters are straight, not homosexual. Most are men, few are women. Yet the fear of someone different informs our emotions, instead of facts informing our intellect. Lucille, you have always seemed to harbor a special hate for me. No matter what I did in life, you never approved. I put myself through college and law school, never asking anyone for a dime. I graduated in the top ten of my class from Harvard, and made partner in a law firm that had never even hired women before I broke the barrier.
"Yes, I've missed many holidays, but why should I come home when you always sniped and told everyone that I was a 'dried up old maid'? I am no longer an old maid, I have fallen in love, and I refuse to hide that. My life was in God's hands the moment that car ran through the red light and nearly killed me. I was like the Scrooge, whose heart was two sizes too small, but Greta has filled my heart to overflowing. I understand now Christ's message of redeeming love. If you cannot accept that, cannot accept me, then I will leave. But hear this, no matter what you think of me, no matter how many slurs you heap upon my head, I will love you."
Greta sat, stunned at her lover's eloquence and bold declaration. She stood, went to Darcy, and took her hand proudly, staring into her deep green eyes. "Darcy, I am grateful to have another chance at love, having lost my Jesse after twenty years together." She turned to Jim and Ellen, asking, "It's a little late, but may I have your permission to court your daughter?"
Ellen wiped a stray tear as she walked over to Greta and Darcy. "You may," she said, opening her arms to Greta. The taller woman responded, hugging her lover's mother tightly, trembling with unexpected emotion.
Jim Kent struggled to his feet, staring at his eldest daughter. "Doesn't matter how we feel about them," he said, gesturing to Darcy and Greta, "but how they feel about each other."
Wendy piped up, "I can't see sin in committed love, Aunt Lucy. Maybe it is wrong, but it is not for us to say."
Lucille stared at the lot of them, then turned on her heel, growling, "We are leaving, Anthony."
Tony shrugged, then followed his wife out of the room. The room was silent for a moment, then burst into excited chatter. Ellen pulled back, but kept her arm around Greta as she turned to the assembly and whistled for attention. Instant silence. "If anyone else feels the same was as Lucille," she said," you may get up and leave now. Papa and I do not have time for that nonsense." She waited, looking around the room, then turned back to Darcy. "I guess no one else is complaining, so let's get back to celebrating Christmas."
"Thanks, Mom," Darcy said quietly. She turned back to the family and asked, "Who wants to play Monopoly?"
Christmas had been interesting, to say the least. Darcy and Greta were supposed to leave Kentucky on the 26th , but were delayed until the 28th by weather. Back in Seattle, they were immediately plunged back into work crisis, but were able to wrap things up by New Year's Eve. They thought about going out for a special celebration, but the day got away from them, so Greta suggested they spend the evening (and night) at her house.
Darcy arrived, letting herself in with the key that Greta had given her before Christmas. She had put her house key on a whimsical keychain from the Space Needle, while Greta had put hers on a Seattle Seahawks fob. "Honey, I'm home," she called out.
Greta answered, "I'm in the living room. Drop your bag in the bedroom, then come join me."
The lawyer grinned in anticipation as she obeyed, dropping her duffle bag and briefcase in the now familiar bedroom, stopping to pet the cat before going to join her beloved. "Happy New Year's, George," she said. He meowed once, then went back to sleep. Darcy chuckled at the cat, patting his head one more time before leaving the room.
"Good evening, Greta," she said, leaning over to kiss her lover.
"And a very good evening to you, too," Greta replied. She pulled Darcy down on the couch, kissing her most thoroughly before pulling away a bit. "My, my, I could get used to this," she said, running her fingers through Darcy's silky blonde hair, "but if I don't get up soon, dinner will burn."
"Just when it was getting good," Darcy growled as she released Greta. "Need any help?"
"Sure, I'll let you open the wine while I get the rest of dinner on the table. It's the white in the refrigerator."
"Got it," Darcy said. She followed Greta into the kitchen, allowing herself to enjoy watching Greta's rear. The day's problems were already fading fast as she anticipated the rest of the evening. She grabbed the bottle, opened it, then brought it to the table. "Shall I pour?"
"Yes, everything is ready," Greta affirmed.
Darcy poured generous portions in the wine glasses, then set the bottle down. She picked up the sweating water carafe and poured the water, then set it down and sat down. "It smells heavenly, Greta. How do you have time to fix everything while working full time?"
"I cheat," Greta confessed, "part of it I buy ready to just heat up, and partly I come home early and leave the shop in capable hands. Today I did everything from scratch, just popping into the shop between errands."
"Ah." Darcy unfolded her napkin, placing it in her lap, then reaching for Greta's hand. "Blessing?"
Darcy bowed her head, praying, "Dear God, thank you for the many blessings we have experienced. Thank you for the new direction our lives are taking, and thank you for my beloved Greta. Bless this food in nourishment of our bodies, so we may do your will. In Christ's name, amen."
"Amen," Greta repeated. "And here's a toast that Jesse's grandmother taught us." She picked up her wine glass and clinked it lightly against Darcy's.
May we live in peace without weeping.
May our joy outline the lives we touch without ceasing.
And may our love fill the world, angel wings tenderly beating.
"That is beautiful," Darcy said.
"I thought it was appropriate," Greta replied. "Jesse's grandmother, Sarah, always offered this as a blessing, saying she didn't like other prayers. Her grandmother was a fierce agnostic in a religious family, and was actually the one who first accepted us as a couple. When we decided to have a small ceremony to celebrate our love, Sarah read this during the service."
"Do you miss her still?" Darcy asked.
Greta reached for her wine, taking a sip. She thought about the question, then slowly answered, "I do miss Jesse, but not as much as I had. You two are alike and different, both driven and organized, intelligent, planners. As much as I loved Jesse, I'd get frustrated because she never wanted to take off any time to have fun. By the time the shop was doing well enough for us to take vacation, she was dying of cancer."
Darcy smiled. "One year Loraine decided I needed a vacation, so she planned it, made reservations, then handed me the itinerary and said, 'Your vacation starts tomorrow. I suggest you wrap things up and go home and pack.' It was mostly around Vancouver and northern Washington, but it was nice to get away for a bit." She drained her water glass, then said wistfully, "I miss Loraine, and Glenda is turning into a fine secretary, but she refuses to coddle me." Darcy smiled wryly. "Glenda expects me to answer my own phone most of the time. Horrors!"
Greta laughed. "Horrors indeed! So how goes the firm?"
"We're still figuring things out. I had no idea that being managing partner would take up so much time! I'm part lawyer, part office manager. But we are building up more business, taking on more clients, and may need to start looking for more attorneys."
"I see. Want to move to the couch?"
"Sure," Darcy replied. "Let me help you with the dishes first."
They made quick work of cleaning up, then brought the rest of the bottle with them to the couch. Greta turned on a floor lamp and turned off the overhead light before sinking down on the couch with Darcy. She reached out, stroking Darcy's cheek. "You look so different now, Darcy," she said quietly, "your cheeks are coming out, and I can see the color of your eyes better. I've never known anyone with such deep green eyes."
"Dad's were dark green when he was younger," Darcy said, leaning into the caress. "God, it feels so good when you touch me." She was quiet a moment, then asked, "Would you have fallen in love with me if I'd stayed fat?"
Greta looked confused. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I've lost eight inches around the waist, and lost nearly sixty pounds since the wreck. Would you still love me if I were fat?"
"Beloved, I'd love you no matter what. Remember, you had just started losing weight when I first saw you." Greta smiled at the memory. "There you were, looking so unsure, so anxious, that I had to go serve you personally. There was something about you that drew me in. As I got to know you, I found this brilliant woman who was finding herself, recognizing that she could have a real life outside of work. Someone who discovered that she loved museums, gardens, hiking, movies, games, long discussions. Somehow who realized she could have romance in her life. Someone I fell head over heels in love with."
"I never dreamed I'd fall in love," Darcy said slowly, reaching for Greta's hands, "and I never thought it would be someone as wonderful as you." A thought popped into her head, but she gently pushed it back. It wasn't time yet. "Thank you for introducing me to myself."
Greta glanced at her watch, then said, "Want to watch the ball drop? I know it's early, but I'm wanting to go to bed soon."
"Oh, is it time already? It is midnight on the east coast. Sure."
Greta grabbed the remote, turning on the TV in time for the Times Square countdown. The women counted down with the crowd, yelling "Happy New Year!" and toasting each other with the remainder of the wine, then kissing thoroughly. Darcy finally pulled back, saying, "May we celebrate many more New Years together."
"Amen," Greta agreed, leaning in for another kiss. "Shall we continue our celebration in the bedroom?"
Calvin Adams wiped his forehead, pausing in his unpacking chores. He had to laugh at himself for wondering if they would have a moving service to pack and unpack for them. He'd become comfortable with the many small things that staff did for you as a lawyer in a large firm. He certainly wouldn't have expected this in the Marines.
A loud crash had him cringing and reflexively dropping to the floor, about to roll under his desk before he caught himself. Loud, sudden noises still made him want to dive for cover, thanks to his experiences in war. He had been wounded overseas, and dishonorably discharged while recuperating. Thank God Denise was already working when he started school. They had married the day after high school graduation, then she had gone to college while he had started in the Marines in procurement. Denise graduated with a BBA in materials management and had gone to work for a manufacturing plant in Seattle while he was overseas, learning to keep materials flowing in Iraq.
His injury was during an unexpected attack; a stray bullet ripped through his calf, barely missing bone and arteries. A quick thinking buddy slapped a field tourniquet on his leg to staunch the blood flow while humping him out on her back. Calvin always thought it ironic that this 5'6" Alabama girl had managed to carry a 6'2" man over her shoulder to the Humvee that was parked outside the building, and had driven him to the field hospital.
Calvin still remembered Private Caroline Shaw driving like a bat out of hell, muscling him into the ER, dumping him on a gurney, then sitting outside the operating room until he was out of surgery. Private Shaw had stayed with him until the next day, defying orders to go back to work, and had called Denise to assure her that Calvin would be fine. It wasn't until a few days later that Calvin found out that Caroline had done all of this with a mild concussion sustained from falling off her Humvee while diving for cover.
Taking only five years to get through a bachelor's and JD was child's play after that.
Calvin shook his head, then turned back to the task at hand. He was on the last box, his personal effects. He pulled out his pictures of Denise and their daughter, Lori. He smiled at the picture of his daughter gazing solemnly at one of the glass balls in the Chihully garden. It was his favorite picture of his daughter, who had the perfect blend of her parents' features. Beautiful olive skin from Denise's Italian heritage, his high cheekbones from his native American heritage, curly hair that blended his wife's straight hair and his nappy African American hair. Lori was a beautiful child, well loved, very inquisitive. Thank God Denise's parents were able to keep her while he and Denise were at work. He smiled, fond memories of being guarded by older brothers and sisters while both of his parents worked. His father was a mechanic, his mother a teacher's aide. He was the youngest of five, three sisters and one brother, and was the only one to go to college.
Maybe that explained why Darcy had taken him under her wing.
At least two of his sisters had moved from Georgia; one to Florida and one to California. He had graduated near the top of his class, but finances had forced him to a much smaller law school, one that Jenner & Ziegler normally did not recruit from. He had applied, seeing that they were in Seattle, his home town, and was surprised that he got the interview. Loraine told him later that Darcy had argued forcefully for hiring him full time, finally having to break out the diversity card. He was grateful.
Darcy Kent. He placed another picture on his desk, one taken just recently, of the new law firm. Greta had volunteered to take the picture as they shivered in front of the Red Robin restaurant on the pier. He was pleased at how well the picture had turned out, and at how happy they all looked, especially Darcy. He had initially been scared of her; she was harder on him than any of his CO's in the Marines, but he realized later that she expected a lot from him, and he found himself delivering.
Since her wreck, Darcy had mellowed, had stopped yelling at people, had taken more time to mentor him, to teach him, to allow him to take the lead more often. She had also fallen hard for Greta, and love had softened her edges even more. Not to the detriment of serving their clients, but to the betterment of her relationships with people at work.
Calvin smiled, thinking about the future. The new firm was taking in new business almost faster than they could handle it, and the partnership was already talking about taking in new attorneys to help handle the surge. They put the decision off by hiring two more paralegals to handle the paperwork, and did what they could to streamline filings. It was a good mix of litigation and transactional people, he decided, but they still managed to close the office by 6:30 or 7:00 most evenings. It was nice to get home before Lori was asleep.
"Good morning, Calvin."
Calvin dropped the stapler he'd taken out of a box at the sound of Darcy's voice. "Good morning, Darcy," he replied, leaning over to retrieve it. He straightened up, placing the poor stapler on his desk. "What can I do for you today?"
She set down two cups of fragrant coffee and a small plate of bite sized pastries. "I was just checking to see how you were faring and to bring you something to tide you over. Greta's crew delivered the first run of coffee and pastries this morning, so I'm hand delivering them."
"Thank you, and thank Greta."
"Oh, she's getting paid well," Darcy chuckled.
Calvin was glad that his blush was hidden at the sultry note that crept into his boss's voice. Did she realize how it sounded? But he agreed with his wife, Darcy and Greta made a great couple. "As long as we have a good contract," he said mildly. "What's on the agenda for today?" he asked, reaching for his coffee.
"Settling in, then going over the schedule for the next few weeks. I need you to look over some documents for me this morning, please."
"Sure, which client?"
"Jesse's Coffee Bar."
"Greta?" he queried.
Darcy settled in her chair, sipping her coffee before answering, "Sam Kruger died mysteriously over the weekend. Very odd, the police have more questions than answers, so I'm asking you to look over the case so far and then recommend who she could hire. I can't, it would be a conflict of interest, and since you work with me directly, I don't want you on this either. Either someone here or at J&Z."
"Be glad to, boss," he said as he turned on his laptop. "Are we getting monitors too?"
"Delivery of monitors, keyboards, mice, and docking stations later this week. Something about the Christmas rush slowing them down, but I don't believe that either." Darcy drained her cup, tossing it into the wastebasket. "I'm suspicious, too. We've had several delays for delivery here, all blaming it on the holidays. Well, it's already January 21, so the Christmas rush should be well over. Keep your eyes open, Calvin."
"Will do, ma'am."
She sighed. "I'm Darcy, not your drill sergeant," she said mildly.
"Sorry, Darcy," Calvin said. He hesitated, wondering if this was the right time.
"Something else on your mind?" she asked.
Might as well tell her now, he decided. "Yes." He took a deep breath, then announced, "Denise and I are expecting again. She's due in late July."
Darcy grinned hugely. "Well, congratulations, Calvin! A new baby in the place, that will be fun." Her grin faded as her expression turned thoughtful. "I guess we'd better come up with a leave policy for this before the blessed event."
"I guess so," he said. "You really have changed," he added.
"Oh?" she asked.
"Yes." He reached for a pastry and put it on a napkin. "When Denise was pregnant with Lori, you said, 'You can have the day off for her birth, then I expect you back at work. No slacking.'"
Darcy winched. "I was a bitch, wasn't I? Well, Calvin, I apologize for my past behavior. I can't promise I'll always be nice, but I'm trying."
"It shows, Darcy," he affirmed.
She got up. "Well, I need to get back to finish unpacking my office. I've been busy delivering coffee and pastries, making sure everyone else was settled in. I sure miss Loraine. Glenda is great, but she's busy unpacking her desk."
Calvin stood, following her to the door. "Anything I can do for you?"
Darcy shook her head. "No, just finish unpacking then get to work. Oh, I nearly forgot, we're having lunch catered in today about 1:00, so bring your appetite then. Tell Denise congratulations for me." She took off down the hall, leaving Calvin to the rest of his boxes.
"And the gal that wanted to by my garage got her loan, so now all I have to do is sign the papers this afternoon," Carl Smith told his friends during their weekly coffee klatch. "Bonnie Wilkins, retired Army mechanic. She's already got crews lined up to turn it into a do it yourself place, with three bays to my original two." He grinned. "My wife is thrilled, already has trips lined up to visit all the grandkids over the next few months."
"That's great, Carl," Paul said enthusiastically, "and my business has picked up. The law firm is ordering bouquets for the reception area each week, and Darcy likes to send our Greta flowers." He smiled at his friend, who chuckled.
"She is taking advantage of being able to pop in at odd times," Greta laughed, "flowers for me, short breaks, walking to the gym, busy girl."
Carl finished his coffee and set his mug down. "That was good, Greta, I'll sure miss your coffee."
"You can come back any time, Carl," she pointed out.
"I meant miss it on a daily basis. By the way, how are you and Miss Kent getting along? Is this serious?"
Greta nodded slowly. "I did go home with her at Christmas. We're at the point that I can't imagine life without her. She's smart, sexy, and fun. What more could I want?"
Carl nodded. "She is a fine woman. So, will you marry her? You can now, you know."
Greta played with her mug, thinking before answering. "I'd have married Jesse eventually, if I could. Darcy and I have only been dating a short while, just since fall." She looked up at Carl. "When she first walked into my store, I thought she looked interesting, and I wanted to talk to her. I had no intention of dating anyone, let alone falling in love. I want to make sure it will last before making any commitment, besides, we each have a house."
"But would you marry her?" he persisted.
Greta thought for a moment. "My head says be sensible and wait, my heart says book the church this weekend. Guys, I love her so much it scares me."
"Have you talked about future plans?" Paul asked.
Greta sat back, thinking. "We really haven't made any future plans, other than just continuing to date."
Carl pointed a scarred finger at her. "Young lady, you can't be sure of anything in this life. So grab the bull by the horns and make a decision: are you in for the long haul? If not, don't play with her heart, and let her go. But if you are serious, then you'd better start making plans together."
She ran her fingers through her hair, noting absently that it was time for another trim . I wish I had a Loraine to run my schedule , she thought wistfully, wondering how the former secretary was doing. "You're right, Carl, I'd better decide soon, or someone else might come turn Darcy's head."
"That's not likely," Paul said loyally, "she's completely in love with you."
"And I'm in love with her," Greta acknowledged.
Paul glanced at his watch. "I hate to break this up, but I have to get back to work. Carl, best of luck with your retirement, and don't be a stranger."
"I won't be," Carl promised. "By the way, I need to order a bouquet for my wife. I'll come over later."
"I'll be there," Paul said cheerfully. The two men shook hands, then Paul left the shop, whistling.
Carl watched him leave, then turned back to Greta. "Paul is happier than I've seen him in years. He was so worried when this ruckus with the developers started up, so I'm glad they are off our backs."
Greta nodded. "He is happier, but I suspect the developers have not gone away, just between us. I've invested in his business, so that gave him a cash infusion he desperately needed to upgrade his refrigerators and his computer system. He's also going to have someone come in and renovate the public area of his shop, make it more inviting to see his standard arrangements."
"Good idea. Well, you take care of yourself, and of your lady." The two stood and shook hands. "Thanks for the coffee, Greta."
"You're welcome, Carl." She patted his shoulder, watching him leave, then turning to look at her shop. She was damn proud of it, and loved the renovations she'd done in the last few years. It was a great location, good neighborhood, and she could see why the developers were so anxious to get their hands on it.
"Things going well?" she asked her crew as she brought the plates and mugs back to the kitchen.
"Super!" Tony exclaimed, "why?"
"Just checking. I'm going to be in my office for a while, catching up on paperwork," Greta answered. Tony nodded, then grabbed the phone as it started ringing. She listened absently until he made shooing motions, then turned to go back to her office.
She sat down, flipped on her radio, then started wading through reports and invoices. She finished up quickly, then leaned back in her chair, letting the music flow over her as she thought about the recent events. Before Sam Kruger could review the documents she send over, he died mysteriously, in a less than desirable part of town.
Greta pondered it, pulling out the proposals again. Why was Buckner so bent on getting this block? It was too far inland to be part of the old underground Seattle, or she'd think there was abandoned treasure under their shops. The area was improving, but not enough to justify the inflated offer. There had to be something else, something worth premiums in the millions. What was it?
The phone rang, startling her out of her thoughts. "Jesse's Coffee Bar, this is Greta," she answered.
"Hey, it's Dick LaCroix," came the gravelly voice on the other end, "how's it going?"
"Pretty good, Dick," she answered, "what can you tell me?"
The detective cleared his throat before answering, "I'm still pretty bothered by Mr. Kruger's death, so I've been doing some more digging into the situation. Sam Kruger was a good man, no red flags in his background, nothing to explain why he was shot or why he was in that neighborhood. He'd just made partner at his firm, no complaints, no arrests, not even a traffic ticket. Sam was one of those impossibly squeaky clean men, you know, kind of boring to investigate. Church elder, no evidence that he cheated on his wife, his taxes, his business, nothing. Current on all of his bills, no hidden assets that we can find. No evidence of past drug use, rarely even drank a beer or glass of wine. So why was he in that neighborhood?"
"I don't know, Dick, it puzzles me too," Greta admitted. She picked up a pencil and started doodling on a pad of paper, shading various sized boxes as they talked. "What about the autopsy?"
"I'm not supposed to discuss it with you, but here goes. Initial findings showed a small mark on his upper arm, like he'd been stabbed with a needle, so we're waiting for the blood tests to see what it could have been. Otherwise, the coroner said Sam looked in good condition, no obvious health problems, no visible signs of alcohol or drug abuse. No signs of sexual assault or defensive wounds. Finances clean, no hidden assets that we've uncovered. Now we're checking his client list, see if anyone has any shady dealings, but so far, they all seem to be like yours, real estate or lease deals."
"Thanks, Dick," Greta said, "let me know when you find out more. Now I guess I'll have to find yet another attorney."
"Just don't let him or her know your track record," the detective said. "Bye."
"Bye." Greta replaced the handset, drumming her fingers on her desk as she thought. She didn't really know Sam Kruger very well, she'd just met with him twice so far. Nancy Moore had recommended him as someone very good at helping small businesses fend off encroaching big businesses. Well, his death, sad as it was, was a police affair, and she didn't need to worry about it.
Or did she?
Loraine woke to the smell of fresh coffee and bacon frying. She smiled, stretching languidly before flipping the covers back and finding her robe and slides, then wandered into the kitchen to find David cooking breakfast. "Good morning, David," she said.
"Oh, good morning, Loraine," he replied, turning to accept her kiss before turning back to lift bacon strips out of the frying pan. "Coffee is ready, paper is on the table, all I need to do is scramble the eggs and get the biscuits out of the oven. Oh, would you get out the honey? The butter is already on the table."
"I will." She moved to the pantry, opening the door and reaching in for the jar of honey. She never knew that there was local honey, or that there were so many differences in honey before she dated David. Different types of butter, yes, but honey? "What's on the agenda today?"
"Depends." He set down platters of bacon and eggs before turning back to get the biscuits. "I thought maybe we could take in a movie or something. It's too cold and rainy to do anything outside," he concluded wistfully.
"David, it's always raining."
"But I'm originally from New Mexico, I'm not used to this much rain."
Lorain smiled as she poured her coffee from the carafe. "I can see that. Where in New Mexico?"
"Santa Fe. Dad worked for the government and Mom was a local artist, mostly paintings and some photos. Great place for art, I should take you there some time. How about you?" he asked as he slipped the eggs into the skillet.
"I grew up near Boston, then graduated from Mount Holyoke with a degree in classics. I wanted to be a teacher, but I couldn't get a job. The schools knew my family, and assumed I'd leave shortly to marry." Loraine shook her head. "That's just the way it was in those days, but it still made me mad."
David sat down, handing her the basket of biscuits. "So how did you end up in Seattle?"
Loraine took one, setting the basket down before reaching for the platter. "I was bored. My parents were wealthy, multiple generations of inherited and earned money, part of the upper crust of society. I had quite a few offers of marriage, I was always dating someone from our set, but I wanted to see more of the country before I settled down. So when my friend Andrea called from Seattle to ask me to visit for a few months, I grabbed the chance with both hands."
"Then what?" David asked, delighted by this glimpse of Loraine's past.
Loraine smiled, thinking back to those days. "It was the early 1960's, before the social revolution. I packed my bags, moved in with Andrea's family, and enjoyed escaping the bounds of my parents' world. It was a heady time, the Space Needle was being constructed, and there was an energy in the air. I can't quite explain it, David, but it was an exciting time to be young and to have the money to indulge in fun."
She ate a few bites, then continued her tale. "I met Ted Archer at a party, and he was smitten immediately. I liked him, liked that we danced well together, and that we looked fantastic together. We started dating, and had a whirlwind courtship. Before I quite knew what was happening, we married in a small ceremony, then moved into a tiny apartment. Ted was an engineer with the highway department, and was considered an up and comer in his department."
"What happened to him?" David prompted.
Loraine propped her chin in her hand, looking a little lost in thought. "Well, he died. Auto accident on the job. I suspect he'd had too many cocktails at lunch, but it wasn't investigated. I was more relieved than anything, although he was handsome and was a lot of fun, he was terrible in bed. I didn't have any sexual experience, but I knew instinctively that it wasn't good."
David chuckled. "I do believe you've made up for lost time, my dear."
She playfully wagged her finger at him. "Are you saying I'm-"
"No, Loraine, I'm not saying anything bad, I'm saying you are a woman who knows how to enjoy herself and her partner. Nothing wrong with that." He drained his cup, then poured another. "Care for more coffee?"
"Please." Loraine held out her cup while David poured more of the rich brew from the carafe. "Where was I?"
"Ted." He prompted
"Ah, yes. The estate was simple to wind up, since we lived in an apartment and hadn't started buying lots of stuff. The kicker was that the complex was going to kick me out since they didn't 'cater to single ladies', as the owner put it. It made me mad, but there wasn't much I could do except move. Andy's family offered me a room, which helped until I found a complex that didn't require my husband's or father's signature to rent."
"Seriously?" he asked, incredulous.
"David, this was common until the 1970's, and this was still the early 60's. Women still didn't have credit in their own names if they were married, and even in they were single, a man was still expected somewhere. When I went to replace my car, my brother Joseph and his wife came to Seattle for a vacation, and Joe went car shopping with me. I was able to pay cash, and he talked the sales manager into putting the title in my name alone."
"So when did you start working for the firm?" David asked, caught up in her tale.
She pushed her empty plate aside, then wrapped elegant fingers around the cup as she launched into the next part of the tale. "I had money from Ted, had a trust fund from my parents, but was bored stiff. I didn't want to look for another husband, so I talked to Andrea's uncle, and he suggested I talk to Douglas Jenner, founder of Jenner & Smith. Doug said later that he was tickled with the idea of having such a beautiful, intelligent secretary, and didn't care if I could type or take shorthand or file. Ten years later, his wife had a massive stroke, and we started an affair shortly after. We were careful not to let it interfere with work."
"After Doug's wife died, he died just a few months later. He really did love her, I was more of a companion and sexual outlet. I dated various men after that, never seriously." Loraine explained.
David looked at her thoughtfully, counting the time in his head. "We've dated for nearly two years."
"Yes, and you're the first man I spent the night with since Doug."
She smiled, showing dimples. "You should be. Now, your turn."
David smiled. "Not much to tell, actually. As I said, I grew up in Santa Fe, went to college there, and was caught up in the draft. I managed to avoid going overseas, concentrating on the then new field of mainframe programming, staying in the Army until I could take retirement. I lived with several women over the years, but never settled down with any since I was moved every couple of years to a new base. After retiring, I was hired by a technology company out here, so I packed my duffle bag and moved here. I bought this house with my first big bonus check after the company went public. I retired again last year, and here I am."
"I see." Loraine looked into his dear face, wondering if he was finally the one she could settle down with. Sex was terrific with David, better than any man she'd been with, but his intelligence, gentleness, and taste for the arts was what really kept her interest. No other man had been so interested in going to art galleries, to gardens, or for long hikes as David. He played a fair game of golf, and was without any strings. She suddenly thought of her small condo, wondering if she could sell it. David had plenty of room in his house, and in fact, still had two completely empty bedrooms.
"Shall we adjourn to the living room?" David asked.
Loraine looked up, blinking. While she had been lost in thought, David had already cleaned the kitchen, leaving her a little embarrassed. She hadn't even noticed him clearing the dishes. "That would be fine," she said.
David led her into the cozy den, motioning for her to sit on the couch. Loraine was a little puzzled as he didn't immediately sit next to her as was his usual custom. He got down on one knee, took her hands, and said, "Loraine, I've told you that I've never married, never had any desire to do so. I've never found anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, until now. Will you consider marrying me?"
Loraine stared at him, almost panicking for a moment. But this was David, whom she loved more than any man she'd ever been with, she realized. Multiple scenarios popped into her head; accepting his offer, rejecting his offer, delaying his offer. It meant giving up her freedom. Or did it mean a different kind of freedom?
>Darcy stood in the shower at the gym, hurrying to clean up after her workout. Loraine caught her on the phone just as she was about to start her routine, asking if they could meet for lunch. It caught Darcy off guard, since Loraine usually made plans at least a day in advance. She could hear suppressed excitement in her former secretary's voice, which left her so curious that she rushed her usual thorough workout. I can always come back tonight , she thought as she rinsed off the soap.
A little while later, she was pulling up to the small cafe they had discovered years ago. It was cozy and served a limited menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches, but had excellent service and good parking. Darcy swung into a spot, spotting Loraine pacing impatiently next to the door. Loraine, pacing? That was unusual.
"Thank you for meeting me, Darcy," Loraine said as she briefly hugged her former boss.
"We haven't spent much time together, so this is good," Darcy said, returning the hug. Loraine led them inside and directly to a table, waving at the hostess as they went by. Darcy was nearly consumed with curiosity by the time they sat and had ordered their drinks. "Spill it," Darcy finally said, unable to contain herself.
Loraine smiled hugely, revealing seldom seen dimples. "Brace yourself, Darcy. David and I are getting married."
The shock was so great that Darcy physically swayed. Early on, she knew of Loraine's many beaus, her refusal to be tied down to any one man. Loraine, married. "When?" she finally asked as she reached for her tea.
"We are thinking in a few months, perhaps May. He proposed this weekend, and we've been talking seriously since about how to combine our lives and our households. Do we want to sell both places and buy something together? Keep one and sell the other? Keep both, but lease out one? I finally decided to sell my condo and move in with David, he has plenty of room, and my furniture will look grand in his house."
"Oh." Now this was typical Loraine, organizing down to the last detail. "What about his furniture?"
"He was going to replace it soon anyway, most of it was cheap and is falling apart."
"Yours is very nice," Darcy offered. It was true, Loraine had selected antiques and modern pieces carefully, creating a beautiful home with elegant, comfortable furniture in her condo. "So, when are you going to put your condo on the market?"
"I just did this morning. My Realtor listed it early this morning, and I've already had an offer on it."
Darcy gaped. "That is amazing," she said when she recovered. "Already?"
"I should make a tidy profit," Loraine affirmed. She motioned for the waiter to approach. "Shall we order lunch?" After they placed their order, Loraine filled Darcy in on their plans. "We're thinking we'll have a small wedding. David does have a niece living nearby, but his parents are dead. His sister and her husband live in Santa Fe, and may or may not be able to attend. My parents are dead, but I think Joseph and his family might come if I invited them."
"You rarely mention your brother," Darcy blurted out.
"That's true. We had a falling out for years after I refused to marry any man I was dating, he thought I was sinful and a bad example. We reconnected a few years ago when his son went through a divorce so he could move in with his boyfriend. Imagine, after nearly twenty years of marriage and two sons. I'm sure you understand a little about that."
"You think?" Darcy asked.
Loraine smiled as she opened a package of crackers to crumble into her soup. "I do." They ate quietly for a few minutes, then Loraine asked, "Have you thought about marrying Greta?"
Darcy pondered the question before slowly answering, "Sometimes. It's a little scary, thinking about publicly proclaiming my love for someone, making a vow to stay with her forever. But I have already thought about placing my house on the market, since I'm at Greta's more than I'm home."
Loraine asked, "Do you love her?"
Darcy smiled. "Yes. I don't think I could live without her." She pushed her spoon through her soup, lost in thought. "Should I propose?"
"Only if you think it is right." Loraine patted her arm. "If you do, we could have a double wedding."
Darcy laughed. "That would be terrific." She thought a moment, then added, "But how would I propose?"
Loraine rolled her eyes at her former boss. "Dear, you just have to wing it, and speak from the heart. Don't treat it like a court document, or you'll scare her off."
"Speaking of which, do we need a prenup?" Darcy asked, retreating into the practical.
"You are the attorney." Loraine reminded her.
"But you've always been my sounding board."
The former secretary looked steadily at the attorney, asking, "Are you worried?"
Darcy looked away uneasily. "Well, it's scary, I haven't lived with anyone since law school, and even then, I was still living in a dorm. I've never even shared expenses with anyone."
"So you go from sharing a house with umpteen siblings, to dorm mates to solo." Loraine summarized.
"Yes." The attorney affirmed as she played with a package of crackers.
"Darcy, I can see why you are anxious. Okay, forget the romantic notions, and talk honestly with Greta. Talk about what you would do if you lived together, how you would share bills, how you would handle finances."
"You're right, Loraine, that would be logical." Darcy pushed away her half-eaten soup. "But when it comes to Greta, it's hard to be logical," she confessed.
Loraine smiled. "Then, my dear, you really are in love. Now, about my upcoming nuptials, I'm looking at several different venues. What do you think about..."
>Nancy Moore had volunteered to take Greta's case after Sam's death, so now she and her paralegal, Ron Jackson sat in the county records room, sifting through old deeds and documents, patiently tracing the ownership trail of the lots on the block where their firm sat. Each lot had changed hands multiple times, usually some type of retail or service, nothing out of the ordinary. There had been cafes, bookstores, a dress shop, the florist, the garage, a dime store, and a grocery store. Nothing out of the ordinary.
"Nancy, I'm confused, why would anyone want to overpay for these properties?" Ron asked as he made another entry on his notepad.
"I'm not sure, but we need to keep digging. We'll come back tomorrow and check the docket sheets, see if these lots or owners have been involved in litigation."
Ron stretched his long legs under the table, his long arms above his head. "God, I'm stiff from sitting so long." He sighed, then suddenly asked, "I don't know about you, but I'm ready to call it a day."
Nancy agreed as she started packing up her belongings. "Tomorrow morning is soon enough, I'm exhausted, and I promised my daughter I'd take her to the soccer practice tonight."
"That indoor facility is great," Ron agreed, "so where should I start tomorrow?"
Nancy thought a moment as she stood up, swinging her bag over her shoulder. "Go to the office and start checking dockets online, then we'll regroup and decide how much further to go back. I don't want to spend all of Greta's money on research, I'm already giving her a sizable discount."
Ron smiled. "Because she's Darcy's girlfriend?"
Nancy laughed. "Not because she is dating Darcy, because her coffee is so doggone good."
A few hours later, Ron finished his dinner, still thinking about the case. Why would someone want the land so desperately? He washed his few dishes, then pulled out his laptop and files. He really shouldn't work off the clock like this, but his curiosity was aroused. As he waited for his machine to finish booting, he started sifting through the files, looking at the records they'd copied on the different properties. Nothing extraordinary stood out, nothing but commercial properties since Seattle was settled. "What is the connection?" he wondered out loud.
"I need a connection," Ron told his computer as it connected to his wireless network. "Something to tie everything together." He opened a browser, then suddenly changed tactics, logging into Hoover's and searching for Buckner Holdings. "Ah," he said, scrolling through the report, "this is interesting." He looked at the summary, the list of officers, the financials, then clicked the link to download the family tree list.
It started to make sense now.
"Sorry I'm late, Nancy, but I had a breakthrough last night," Ron said hurriedly as he rushed into the attorney's office, "I think you'll want to see this right away."
"And good morning to you, Mr. Jackson," the attorney said dryly. "I do hope you remember that we have an appointment this morning with another client."
"Yes, I do," he said, handing her a file, "but I think you'll want to see this first."
Curious, Nancy opened the file, asking, "What am I looking at, Ron?"
He came around the desk, leaning over to flip the pages until he found the chart. "Here. It took some doing, but with a combination of sources, I found an interesting pattern. Buckner Holdings will go into a commercial or retail area, buy old strip shopping centers, get them fixed up. That's not the unusual part, however, it's that they never seem to turn much of a profit, yet have plenty of money to keep buying and renovating these areas without many loans or lines of credit. I can't say for sure, since they are private and not required to file anything with the SEC."
"So what do you suspect?" Nancy asked.
"That they are buying these properties, fixing them up, and running something illegal. About ten years ago, the founder, Mark Buckner, died in a private plane crash, so his nephew, Edgar Butler, took over. I started searching dockets, and found that Edgar was charged with fraud a few years before that, but the case was dismissed. I started running searches for Edgar or Buckner Holdings or any of their subsidiaries or affiliated companies, and started finding little things that didn't make sense."
"Like what?" Nancy asked as she leaned forward.
Ron handed her another folder. "The strange pattern emerges after Edgar Butler took over. The company would buy an older strip mall that had other retail or commercial nearby, then buy that property as well. But, and here's the strange part, instead of fixing the buildings up, they'd raze them to the ground and build self-storage units."
"What's so strange about self-storage units?" Nancy asked, not sure where Ron was going with this.
"They never advertised the units. I found it odd that I never saw them in any yellow pages or similar sites, no advertising, nothing but the Secretary of State listing showing Buckner Holdings or some subsidiary owning the units. In this day and age, you'd think you'd at least come across a Yelp rating or something about how good or bad the storage company was, but I found nothing. And, it's always somewhere tucked away, but close enough to highways or roads with truck traffic that you could easily move merchandise in and out."
"So why offer to overpay to get our clients' lots?"
Don set his folder down, leaning back and running his fingers through his dark hair. "I haven't figured that out yet, Nancy. But I am planning to call a few utility companies this morning, see if I can get some electric usage figures for these storage units. I have an idea of how much they should consume, based on figures from some of our other clients."
Nancy perused the files for several minutes after he finished speaking, then said, "Go with it. Even if our clients can't pay for the research, I'll post it to pro bono or something. You think they are growing or storing illegal drugs?"
"That is one theory," Don admitted. "Another is that they're merely storing and selling other illegal merchandise, like gray market or counterfeit merchandise. I never found evidence that they overpaid this much before, but they did pay a ten percent premium in Oregon for some older retail properties a few years ago, when they should have been able to pick it up for 10-15% under market, due to the economy. It's also suspicious that they do this near coastlines, near smaller border towns, or near major interstate highway systems. Before Edgar took over, the company would buy properties, renovate them, then turn around and sell them for a decent profit. But they haven't sold any property in nearly eight years, just bought properties and did this renovation/build storage units combination."
Nancy drummed her fingers lightly on her desk, thinking. "Well, write me a report and I'll take it to Darcy this afternoon, see if she thinks we should pass it on to Dick LaCroix."
Don stood up, gathering his folders. "I'll get on this right away, Nancy."
"Okay. I hate having you chase geese when I need you to produce billable hours, but this is just too weird to let go. I'll have to see if our clients can pay for some of the research."
"Sure. I'll let you know as soon as I'm done with my report," Don said, hoisting his bag over his shoulder and walking out of her office. Nancy watched him depart, deep in thought. Was Buckner Holding doing something illegal, or providing space for something illegal? If so, could they prove it?
She finally reached for the phone.
Greta and Paul sat down in the conference room with Nancy and Ron, curious as to what the meeting was about. Paul nervously asked, "Are we being billed for this meeting?"
"No," Nancy said, "this is merely a recap. We'll talk about possible billing later, but be assured that we will cap our hours on this project. Ron?"
The paralegal handed out thick binders with copies of his research. "Greta, Paul, I think I know why Buckner is so anxious to get this block. I started digging around, and found a pattern of them purchasing older strip shopping malls, fixing them up, then purchasing additional property nearby for self-storage units. The really curious thing is that the self-storage units were never advertised for rent or lease, but were usually described in secretary of state or other business records as for profit, but how are you profitable without advertising?"
Paul offered, "Maybe they just counted on drive by traffic or word of mouth."
"I thought so too, so I emailed a couple of buddies in Oregon and California who lived near some of these places. They went by for me, and found that even though the buildings existed, and there were in/out gates, there was no signage, no contact information, no name, yet the three places they looked at had working lights and security notices."
"Interesting," said Greta, leaning forward, "and you suspect what?"
"I'm not sure. In digging further, I can find registrations for the storage places, registrations for the shopping centers, but everything is private, so no requirement for listing any financial information."
"That's true," Paul said, "I don't have to give out any financial information to the public, just to government agencies for taxes and fees."
"So what does this mean for us?" Greta asked.
"We think that there may be something funny going on. I may be crazy, but I think it is funny that the current owner of Buckner Holdings has been charged with fraud, counterfeiting, trademark violations, and shipping stolen merchandise, but none of the charges have stuck. But I really think what is happening is that illegal, stolen, or gray market merchandise is being stored in the units, then picked up by the trucks that ship the regular merchandise in the legitimate stores in the shopping center."
Paul frowned. "Can you prove any of this?"
"No, but when your former lawyer started digging into some of the property records, he was shot under mysterious circumstances."
Greta asked, "Isn't this a police matter, then?"
Nancy answered, "Yes, probably, but we wanted to get as much information as possible before bringing in the police."
Greta drummed her fingers on the table, thinking. "Dick LaCroix talked to me the other day, saying that he was waiting on final autopsy results on Sam."
Ron flipped through his binder, stopping and scanning a few pages before asking, "Mysterious small needle mark?"
"There was a mysterious death of a property owner who did not want to sell, and she died with a small needle mark too. The case was never solved. I talked to the lead detective on that, and he said that he was told that she probably had issues and had overdosed, so the case was closed."
"Weird," Paul agreed. "So, are we in danger, then?"
Nancy said, "I hope not. I keep wondering why this block, but realized that it is perfect. A small alley behind us, large enough for small trucks, but not travelled enough for anyone to notice activity. The newer tenants in the shopping center seem to be higher end than the neighborhood. And, true to the pattern that Ron uncovered, rents are being raised enough lately that some of the older tenants may have to move out."
"I'm glad I own my property," Greta said, "this is interesting. So now what?"
Nancy closed her binder and said, "For now, we act as if this were still just a business transaction. I will write a formal rebuff on the latest offer. Ron will take a copy of his binder to Lt. LaCroix. We will lay low on this, but I'd like to know if either of you have security cameras."
"I do, but they aren't very good," Paul admitted.
"I have a pretty good system," Greta said, "but one of my cameras went down this weekend. I don't know about Bonnie Wilkins, the new garage owner. Smitty never had any security other than his German Shepard and stout locks. Should I ask her?"
"No, I'll talk to her," Nancy said, "or I'll ask Dick to swing by."
"Sounds like a plan," Greta agreed. "Or do you think she is in on the plot?"
Ron spoke up. "I wondered about that as well, but when I checked with the military, she really had recently retired from the Army."
"We'll let Dick decide if she needs further investigation," Nancy said. "Any other questions?"
"Not right now," Paul said, "other than how much is this going to cost?"
Darcy looked at her calendar, verifying that she didn't have any deadlines or meetings for the next hour. It was rare to find a free bit of time during the day that she wasn't filling with administrative tasks, calling Greta, or trying to keep up with professional reading. Calvin was taking on more of the drafting and research work, and doing a great job of it. Glenda had her work schedule well in hand, and was learning how Darcy liked her files kept.
She took a sip from her mug, appreciating yet again having an excellent supply of coffee nearby. "Quit stalling," she told herself, "just do it." She opened a browser window and started searching for home values. She was surprised at how much her house had probably appreciated since she bought it as a young associate. She had diligently doubled payments when possible, refinanced, and eventually paid off her mortgage several years ago. She should ask Nancy about getting a realtor, but for now, was just curious if she could sell her house.
"Wow," she said softly, closing her browser. It appeared she could easily sell her house in a matter of days, and clear a huge profit. She wondered if Greta would let her buy into her house, or maybe they could look for a house together. Darcy had no real attachment to her house, it was merely a place to live, to store her belongings. She found herself staying at Greta's more often now, using the key Greta had given her to let herself in and out, and found herself not sleeping well on the nights they stayed apart.
Was it time to start thinking about moving in together? What did Greta think? Darcy pondered these questions, swinging slowly in her chair, wondering what to do next. Loraine and David had announced their engagement recently, and had asked Darcy to be the maid of honor. Suppose she proposed to Greta, and they had a double wedding, like Loraine had teased her about?
She even found herself enjoying George's company. Darcy had never had a pet of her own, but had grown up with cats and dogs in the rambling homestead in Kentucky. George had accepted her presence in Greta's life, now greeting her with loud purrs of affection when she came over. Sometimes the big tom would amble across the bed and settle next to her as they fell asleep.
So what would she need to do before proposing? "Wills, trusts, estates, papers," she muttered to herself, "financial plans." The firm was barely breaking even, which was a good thing. Maybe they could bring in another associate soon, or hire more staff. Darcy picked up a pen, tapping it on her notepad, smiling as she thought of the years that Loraine would appear, notepad and pen in hand, ready to take down the long lists that Darcy dictated. The last few years Loraine had taken to making notes on a tablet, then synchronizing them with Darcy's laptop through some mysterious means. She used computers, but never was absolutely fascinated by them like Loraine had always been.
"Enough." Darcy started to pick up her phone, but put in down, undecided. What would she tell Greta? She thought for a couple of minutes, then picked up her phone to call her financial advisor. She needed to get the ball rolling.
"Jesse's Coffee Grill," Greta said into the phone, trying to inject a delight she did not feel. She rubbed her tired eyes, wondering who was on the other end. She really needed to upgrade the phones so that all of the handsets had caller ID screens, not just the main ones.
"Hey, sweetheart," Darcy's voice came across, "how are you doing? Calvin and I just got out of court early, big, huge win."
Greta found herself smiling, just hearing Darcy's voice on the other end. "I'm much better now," she said as she plopped down in a chair. Not good form to sit in the public area, talking to her girlfriend, but she was too tired to care. "So how are you going to celebrate?"
"By seeing if you can slip away from work for a while. I think your boss might let you," Darcy teased.
Greta sighed. There was so much going on, workers installing the upgraded security system, Michelle had gone home for spring break, the smarmy agent from Buckner Holdings kept calling, and her washer at home quit last night. So, she really should stay here, but she wanted to get away. "Yes, I can get away," she said, mentally reviewing who was scheduled for work. At least Tony lived here, he could take over for the rest of the day. "Tony needs to take on more responsibility."
"What about Michelle?"
"She's on break at home."
Greta stood up, wandering back to her office, dropping in her well worn chair. "Tell you what, meet me at home, and we'll make plans for the day. Tony will be fine, and Robert is here too." Robert was a retired Navy vet who filled in from time to time, his wife was a distant cousin of Jesse's. "So meet me at home."
"Sounds good. I'll see you there. Love you, baby."
Greta found herself grinning. "I love you too, honey."
An hour later, Greta finally pulled into her garage, pleased to see Darcy's car there. It had taken some convincing to get Darcy to use the other space instead of parking out front, but now if felt perfectly natural. Greta hoisted herself out, pulling her bag after her, wondering what Darcy had in mind. "Hello," she called out as she opened the kitchen door.
"Hello to you, my darling," Darcy said before kissing Greta thoroughly. Greta perked up, feeling the other woman in her arms, feeling her desire rise, debating whether or not to simply drag Darcy off to the bedroom. Hell, the kitchen counter might be fine.
Darcy broke off the kiss after a dizzying time. "Go relax, and I'll call you when it is ready," she commanded.
"When what is ready?" Greta asked thickly.
"You'll see," Darcy replied mysteriously. "Now shoo, go shower and put on something sexy."
Greta groaned, but obeyed. She noticed on the way that Paul must have worked overtime, for the living room was covered in floral arrangements, and the dining room table was set with a snow white cloth, her best china, and a candelabra, waiting for a match. Now her curiosity was aroused as much as her body, but she forced herself to obey her directions.
A little while later, Greta appeared in the living room just as Darcy was placing the last platter on the table. Greta raised her eyebrows, Darcy had either had dinner delivered or had suddenly learned to cook more than just boxed meals. Elegant dishes of beautiful vegetables, broiled fish, and colorful salad dominated. Her favorite wine was uncorked, ready to pour.
"This looks amazing," Greta said as she sat down.
"I hope it tastes amazing too. I cooked."
Darcy grinned. "Nope, but I did pick out the dishes all by myself. Eat, tell me about your day."
As the meal wore on, Greta started relaxing, telling her girlfriend about her day, feeling her worries sliding away. Darcy regaled her with a hilarious rendition of her court battle, winding up with, "And the judge finally slammed his gavel down so hard that it flew apart! The plaintiffs were so preposterous in their accusations and so poorly prepared that they argued constantly with the judge. When their attorney yelled at the judge, he called a halt to the proceedings and handed down immediate judgment. We won a huge settlement, so I think this is a really good time to say I'm ready to marry you."
Greta laid her fork back down, rerunning the last sentence in her head. "Wait, you won a huge settlement and you're ready to marry me?"
Darcy blushed, ducking her head in a rare fit of embarrassment. "I'm sorry, I just blurted that out. I meant to lead up to it, to see how you felt, but there it is." She took a deep breath, rising to walk around the table and kneel down on one knee, taking Greta's hands in hers. "What I meant to say was that I've been doing some hard searching, and realize that I love you more than I can say. I know we haven't even discussed a future together, more than vaguely, or that we've even talked about moving in together. I'm a bit old-fashioned, and want to make a real commitment to you, to us. How do you feel?"
Greta looked at their joined hands, then into Darcy's shining face. She felt a flood of love for this woman, a sudden sureness of their future together. "Darcy, you beat me to the punch," she admitted, "Smitty and Paul had asked me if we were planning to get married, and I confess, I wasn't sure what to say." She leaned forward, kissing Darcy lightly, then leaning back, smiling. "I will marry you."
Darcy grinned hugely, surging up and bringing her lover with her, hugging her tightly. "You'll marry me? For real?" she whispered into Greta's ear.
"For real," Greta said. "We need to work out a few details, you know," she added soberly.
Darcy nodded. "We do. But first, let's finish eating, then think about the practical details."
Greta's stomach growled in agreement. She threw back her head, laughing heartily. "I agree with eating, obviously," she said. "That we are in agreement on."
Darcy grinned. "We are almost finished with the main course, and we could wait on dessert, you know," she said, voice dropping to a seductive register. Greta nodded in agreement, taking Darcy's hand as the attorney led her back to the bedroom. "We can celebrate our engagement," she said as she slid her hands up Greta's body.
"Oh, we can," Greta agreed, pushing Darcy onto the bed, adding, "God, I love you so much."
Later, the women laid in Darcy's bed, talking about their future as they cooled down from their lovemaking. "So what about our houses?" Greta asked, sliding a gentle hand over Darcy's hips.
"Mine is just a house, and I've already done some research," Darcy said distractedly, watching Greta's hand. She cleared her throat, forcing her attention to the question at hand. "It's never really been more than a place to eat, sleep, and store my clothes. I never did any socializing other than work related, and that was usually at some place Loraine found, or at the firm. "Besides, I could probably sell it easily and make a tidy profit. I'd be willing to buy into your house, or to put a down payment on a house we choose together."
"Those are options," Greta agreed, "I do rather like my house. It is a good size, in a good location. What about furniture?"
"Mine can go with the house, it's all just ordinary. Or it can be sold or donated, I don't really care. The only thing I want to bring other than my computer and books is a painting."
"Have I seen this painting?" Greta asked, thinking about Darcy's rather bare walls.
"Do you remember the picture of the waterfall in my office?"
Darcy sat up, wrapping her arms around her legs, staring at her toes. "My study partner in law school gave that to me. I didn't socialize much in college or law school, but Paola managed to drag me to fun things every once in a while. We went to an art fair one Saturday, and I saw the painting and was intrigued by it. I'm not sure what drew my eye initially, but Paola saw me eyeing it and asked if I liked it. I said yes, so she bought it on the spot and gave it to me."
Greta waited a moment, then asked, "Is there more to the story?"
Darcy shook her head. "Not really. It surprised me, since it was expensive for the time, but she came from money. She'd take me out to eat toward the end of the month, knowing I was running out of money. I never questioned why; I guess I thought it was to repay me for helping her study. Paola was smart, but sometimes had trouble explaining concepts, so I helped her study for tests and proofed her briefs for class."
"No longing glances? No accidental touches?" Greta teased.
The attorney thought a moment, then said, "Not that I can recall. She did say at the end of the semester that the painting was a good reflection of me, the water rushing and overcoming all obstacles. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what happened to her, we lost touch after graduation."
"Okay, so there is one thing you are sentimental about," Greta said, "anything else?"
"Not that I can think of."
Greta reached up lazily, saying, "Then I move we table the rest of this discussion until we get out of bed. So come here, you, and make love to your girlfriend again."
"I don't think so," Darcy said as she leaned over Greta's body.
Darcy smiled. "Not to my girlfriend, but I will make love to my fiancĂ©."
Greta laughed, pulling Darcy on top of her. "TouchĂ©, my love."
Dick LaCroix stretched back in his squeaky wooden chair, pondering the files that the firm had sent him. He laced his fingers over the top of his thinning brown hair, dark eyes lost in thought. The preliminary results from the autopsy revealed that Sam Kruger had been injected with a quick acting poison, so he never had. He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, so why was he there? And how did this commercial properties company come into play? Did they really funnel illegal goods or gray market goods as the attorney and paralegal suggested? Or maybe manufacture illegal drugs?
The shrilling of his phone disrupted his thoughts. "LaCroix," he answered abruptly.
"Dick, Susan Barnet here. I've been checking out the questions you sent, and it is true," the detective on the other end said. "I swung by the self-storage place you asked about, and there is no office, no contact information listed, just a fence with barbed wired and locked gate. I went by a few times, and did see a few small trucks go in and out. I ran the plates, and most of the plates were stolen or forged."
"I see," Dick said as he listened to his counterpart's pleasant voice. "What else?"
"I asked one of my undercover guys to check it out, and she caught pictures of trucks going from the storage units to the stores across the street. Nothing blatantly illegal, but curious. She did get a sharp picture of the logos on a few boxes, and they appeared legit, but who knows?"
"Thanks, Susan. Anything else?" he asked.
"Not really. I've asked around a bit, and no one seems to be able to figure out who is using the storage units. Like I said, stolen or forged plates, but we don't have enough to go check the VINs."
Dick sat up, thinking. "So you can't just pop them for stolen plates?"
"Not unless they are reported, but I could ask traffic to keep an eye out for them, see if any of the trucks break any traffic laws."
"Thanks. I owe you a beer the next time I'm in Portland."
"One more thing."
His ears perked up. Susan saying "One more thing" was like Steve Jobs about to reveal a life changing product. "Yes?"
"I requested utility records for the storage units. You'd think minimal usage, even with an office, but these units are consuming a lot of electricity."
"A lot, huh?" This confirmed what Greta had turned over to him that the law firm had dug up. "As in how much 'a lot'?"
He could practically hear her smile over the phone. "As in, similar to drug labs. Very similar, but not quite as much. Alas, they keep their grounds too neat for code violations, and nothing reported to the police as far as mischief or anything."
"Hm." Dick idly flipped through the files on his desk, thinking. "Thanks for the info, Susan. I'll send you a copy of what I have, so maybe we can match something up."
"All right, Dick. Bring it yourself, and I'll collect that beer."
He laughed. "On what travel budget? Talk to you later." He hung up, still thinking. High utility use, in units that should have little usage at all. How often do people go to their storage units? He scratched his head idly, thinking back to when he and his wife rented a unit to store the spillover from their combined belongings shortly after their wedding. They went maybe 2-3 times a month until they were able to clear it out. Probably less than ten minutes or so a visit, longer on the last visit when they cleared it out.
Dick picked up the autopsy report again, flipping through to the conclusion. The preliminary cause of death was unknown poison, so it was being treated as a homicide, therefore landing on his desk. It was true what he'd told Greta, Sam Kruger was a good man, quiet, church member, steady law practice, and so on. No financial problems, no unhappy clients, had no known contact with criminals. Since Kruger had practiced mostly real estate law, he hadn't even been to the criminal courts building for anything. So it all went back to Buckner Holdings as the common factor.
"So why is the name Edgar Butler so familiar?" the detective asked himself. He had ordered an investigation on the man, but again, mostly clean. Money issues until he'd taken over the company, then debts were paid off rapidly. No known contact with criminals, gangsters, the Mafia, drug cartels, etc. But there had to be a connection somewhere.
What was the missing piece?
Darcy didn't think it would bother her to pack up and move, but it was more emotional than she anticipated. It wasn't that she had collected so much, but that she was forced to make decisions about the little she had bought. The clothes were the easiest, she had already been going through them as she changed sizes, but even her closet had hidden traps.
"But it fits, Greta," Darcy said, smooth the velour sweater over her torso.
Greta laughed. "It may fit, my love, but that shade of green is too dark for you. Besides, it is out of fashion, and you have much better choices."
"Okay," Darcy said reluctantly. She pulled off the sweater and added it to the growing pile of discarded clothes. They worked in silence for several minutes, then Darcy pulled a ragged crimson sweatshirt out. "I'd forgotten I had this," she said, pulling on the garment.
Greta watched warily as her fiancĂ© pulled on her law school sweatshirt. "Honey, it's still a little snug, and ratty as hell. Do you really want to keep it?"
Darcy tugged it into place wistfully. "It holds sentimental appeal. I bought it with a tax refund the first year I was at Harvard." She turned to look at herself in the full length mirror on the back of her closet door. "Still, I guess you are right, it is time to give it up."
"Good thing is, we're almost finished with the clothes," Greta added.
"True." Darcy peeled the sweatshirt off, tossing it in the discard pile. "At least a lot of the suits are in good enough shape to donate."
"That's right, think of the tax write off," Greta laughed.
Darcy rolled her eyes. "Listen you, I have plenty of write-offs without these donations."
"Do you?" Greta asked, surprised. "I guess we'd better talk about money some time."
The attorney finished tying off the various bags before musing, "I suppose we should. It's been so long since I lived with anyone that I've forgotten how to share expenses. Do we split household bills down the middle, or as a percentage based on income? Do you want me to buy into your house? And we really need to get wills, trusts, power of attorney, medical directives, and so on drawn up. Just getting married won't convey all of the rights we need," she added.
"That sucks," Greta said, standing and stretching, trying to get the kinks out of her back. "Lord, I'd forgotten this takes so long."
"We haven't even started on my books," Darcy pointed out.
"Why did you say you'd be out of the house by next weekend?" Greta asked plaintively as she eyed the bed. What she wouldn't give for a nap right now! Or a little hanky panky, then a nap.
"It seemed logical," Darcy responded, "but I had no idea I'd need to work until bedtime for three nights in a row. At least I was able to get home early tonight."
"And I was able to leave the shop early," Greta added. "So, on to the books?" she queried.
Several hours later, the two women had made remarkable progress. Darcy decided she didn't need any of her furniture at all, and didn't care about most of her dishes or stainless. "All I care about is my coffee mug collection," she said as they packed up the kitchen. "At least it is small."
Greta smothered a grin as she helped pack the mugs. It was a motley collection of freebies and mismatched sets, some so worn that the original design was almost obliterated. She held up one chipped mug with the logo, "The Natural State" on it, asking, "Where is this from?"
Darcy smiled, reaching for the mug. "Loraine brought it back from Arkansas one year. It was a long time ago, probably her first vacation after I'd started at the firm, so she decided to go on vacation with her lover, who was from Hot Springs. The mug has lasted far longer than that relationship, she found out that he had a wife he hadn't told her about."
Darcy chuckled. "Loraine didn't mind dating married men, as long as they were up front about being married. I never understood the attitude, but it was her life. Anyway, she gave it to me when she returned, saying it would remind her to always check for marriage licenses before getting involved."
Greta looked in a cabinet, then asked, "Do you really have this little cookware?"
"Yes. A few pots, a few pans, one well used skillet. That's it, I mostly lived on take out or delivery or grilled sandwiches. Oh, I can scramble a mean omlette too. It can all go, I bought most of it with Green Stamps."
Greta looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled as she remembered. "Ah, I forget sometimes you're a little older than me."
"I resemble that remark," Darcy laughed. She paused a moment, then asked, "And why are we packing this instead of hiring it done?"
"Because I'm cheap," Greta replied, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. "Get your butt back in gear, we still have the rest of the kitchen to go." Darcy groaned, turning back to her pile, muttering dire threats under her breath. "No bitching," Greta called over her shoulder as she started unloading the pantry.
"Yes, dear," Darcy said sarcastically. "For someone who was rarely home to cook, I sure have enough crap," she added.
"Wait until we start going through your books and music," Greta said as she started two piles of canned goods. "Honey, did you ever go through and check the expiration dates on these? You've got soup that expired two years ago!"
"Huh? Oh, that's about the time I hired a different maid service. The old ones would go through my pantry and clean out the old stuff, but the owner retired and sold the business. I just kept getting busy and forgot to check."
"You're lucky none of this exploded," the shop owner sighed. She picked up another can, checking the date. "This is still good, but I've never seen you eat hominy before."
"I grabbed the wrong thing at the store once," Darcy explained, glancing Greta's way. "I had plenty of hominy growing up and never really did like it that well. Buttered corn? Yes. Creamed corn? You bet. Plain corn with a little pepper? Grand. Hominy? I'll pass."
They women worked in silence for a bit, finally finishing the kitchen. "We never did finish talking about money," Darcy said as they rested on the living room couch for a few minutes.
Greta thought a moment, then said, "How about this? We split the bills evenly for now, and if you'd like, you can buy into my house. Or would you rather look for a bigger place together?"
Darcy snorted. "Dear, if I lived in this place for over twenty years, I can certainly live in your place. I just want to be with you."
Greta took her hand, kissing the back of it before adding softly, "But you haven't shared living quarters full time for decades. I have, and I know the compromises. Are you really ready for this?"
"Yes," Darcy answered firmly, "I am."
"Then I hate to say it, but you'll need to do something with your books and music collections, they won't quite fit in my house. I started going through mine, and have gotten rid of quite a bit, but now it's your turn."
Darcy scratched her nose contemplatively, thinking of Greta's house, realizing it was true. But her books and music were the only things she was really attached to, even though she never had enough time to read as deeply as she'd like to. She closed her eyes a moment, wondering how to decide on what to take. "Maybe I should box it all up and store it for now, then go through it as I have time."
"That is an option," Greta said. "Let's get started."
Greta groggily answered the phone, rolling out of Darcy's arms to answer. "Hello?"
"Ms. Hanson, this is Bret from All Star Security. Should there be anyone in your store right now?"
Greta sat bolt upright as her heart started hammering. "No, Bret, they should not, my crew closed hours ago."
"Thank you. I'm notifying the police right now. Would you please stay on the line with me?"
"Yes, Bret, I will." Greta felt Darcy stir beside her, laying her hand on her lover's shoulder. "Security company, attempted break in at the shop," she explained rapidly. "Yes, I'm still here."
The agent said, "The police have arrived on the scene and will be contacting you shortly. They caught two suspects in the act of trying to break in your alley door. Will there be anything else you need from me?"
"No, thank you."
"Good night, then."
Greta replaced the receiver, turning to face Darcy. "At least the cops caught them in the act. I guess I should get dressed since the police will be calling in a bit."
Darcy said sleepily, "No, we both get dressed. I'm going with you."
Greta started to protest, but stopped. Jesse would have insisted on going with her, so it was right that Darcy should as well. "Thank you, honey," she said, laying her head on Darcy's shoulder for a moment. She reluctantly stood up, moving toward the bathroom. "I'd invite you to the shower, but we need to listen for the phone."
"I understand," Darcy said as she reached for her glasses. "What else can I do to help?"
"You got it." Darcy reached for her robe as Greta pulled out fresh underwear and stepped into the shower. The attorney flipped on lights as she went to the kitchen and busied herself with preparing coffee and a light snack. I don't need the extra calories, she thought, but a little food will help with the anxiety. I wish I could call Loraine, she would know exactly how to handle this.
Several minutes later, Greta came in the kitchen, fully dressed. "Your turn. Oh, snacks, what a great idea. We never did get around to dinner last night."
Darcy blushed, thinking of why they didn't get dinner, but only said, "I figured you can't go wrong with fruit, cheese, and crackers. I'll be out in a few minutes." She kissed Greta, then went back to the master bath to take her own shower. This is definitely the better of the two houses, she thought as she stepped into the multi-head shower spray. She hoped she had enough clothes moved over, she hadn't taken anything to the laundry in nearly a week!
Clean and dressed, Darcy went back to the kitchen to sit with Greta as they waited for the phone call from the police. They ate, drank coffee, and discussed mundane details of moving the rest of Darcy's belongings to pass the time. "I haven't kept up with the Anne Perry's William and Charlotte Pitt series, so I can sell them. That would make room for your Rita Mae Brown Sneaky Pie Brown books," Greta offered.
"Or, I could sell the Brown books as well, so I can keep my collection of religious history books," Darcy counter-offered.
Greta hesitated, about to offer a different suggestion when the phone rang. She picked up the cordless phone, answering. She listened, then said, "We're up, Dick, so send your detective by. Do I need to put on another pot of coffee? Okay, we'll see her soon." She disconnected, explaining, "Dick LaCroix is sending Sandra Porter over to talk to us. It seems that our thieves are also wanted for murder, so Dick will be interviewing them downtown."
"Interesting," Darcy said. "I'll get more coffee and snacks ready."
"Thanks, dear," Greta said, already thinking ahead to the interview. What would the detective tell them?
A little while later, Detective Porter arrived. As the three women sat at the dining table, the detective lit up when Darcy brought out the trays. "Good, I never had dinner," she said, reaching for a plate.
"An epidemic," Greta whispered to Darcy. Darcy stifled the urge to laugh, trying to imagine the serious looking detective in the throes of passion. She put on her serious face and said, "We know what you mean, Detective. I'm Darcy Kent."
"Oh, yes, the attorney. My cousin, Bruce Ames, was an associate at your firm for a few years. He left for a smaller firm."
Darcy frowned for a moment, then placed the man. He had been a nervous wreck, nearly driving her crazy with his constant questions and insecurity. "I remember Bruce," she said, adding diplomatically, "He was a very good researcher, and I believe a smaller firm is a better fit for him. How is he doing?"
"Well, thank you for asking." The dark haired detective eyed Darcy suspiciously. "He did not describe you in very flattering terms."
Darcy smiled. "I'm sure many former associates called me by many unflattering names, mostly deserved. I split off from the firm, and am now managing partner of Kent & Associates."
"Hm. I'll tell Bruce hi for you, then. Ms. Hanson," she said, turning to Greta, "thanks to the quick response from your security company, we were able to stop the suspects from breaking into your store. Also, thank you for having such excellent security cameras in place."
"You're welcome. We had a break in years ago, so I invested in upgraded security." She smiled. "Did they break the pepper pod?"
A smile ghosted the detective's lips. "It would seem so. Both had streaming eyes and sneezing fits when we arrived, so they were very easy to apprehend." She accepted a cup of coffee, sipping it before asking, "Have you noticed anyone out of place in your store recently?"
"You mean, other than the agent, something Griswold?"
"Clark?" asked the detective with a hint of a smile.
Greta laughed as Darcy looked puzzled. "Movie reference," she said before continuing, "This dipshit, something Griswold, came over to try to bully me into accepting a buyout offer from the real estate holdings company. I refused his offer." She went on to summarize the repeatedly higher offers, and the veiled threats when she and Paul refused the offers. "Now Darcy's firm is in what used to be a vacant building, so we have a full block again."
"Hm." The detective ate another cracker with cheese, then reached into her bag to pull out several files. "The suspects both did a stint for burglary, but have eluded capture for years. We matched their fingerprints to a murder in Portland, and suspect they have been involved in other murders. One trained as a LVN, but couldn't get a job with his background."
Darcy asked, "So he'd know about giving shots?"
"Yes, which caught Dick's attention for the Sam Kruger murder." She laid out several pictures. "Have you ever seen either of these men before?"
Greta looked at the pictures carefully, then paled as she pointed to one. "That's the agent," she said, suddenly recalling his full name. "William T. Griswold." She jumped up, dashing to her office, then coming back with a business card, held carefully in a tissue. "He gave this to me when he tried to persuade me to accept the offer from Buckner Holdings."
"Thank you," Detective Porter said, pulling an evidence bag out of her bag. She quickly sealed it, scribbled on the bag, then dropped it in her briefcase. "Anything else?"
Darcy suddenly snapped her head up. "The other man. He must be the nurse?"
A flash of memory came over her. "He was in the hospital after my wreck!"
Susan Barnet met Dick LaCroix and Sandra Porter at the Portland International Airport. "I thought you didn't have the travel budget to fly," she commented as they followed her to her car.
"We usually don't, but the evidence pointed here, and it was faster to fly," Dick explained. "Last time I drove, it was a four hour nightmare of traffic, and we were barely able to make the flight."
"You're here, that's what counts." Susan popped the trunk, watching as the detectives loaded their duffle bags and briefcases. "So what evidence led you here?"
"I kept thinking about the storage units you checked on for me, and Sandra found out that one of our suspects was fired from a private nursing home here recently. So we talked to our captain, and were able to convince him that this all tied together, and needed to be investigated."
Sandra added, "The other suspect was wanted in connection with other break-ins in Portland, so we decided to pay a visit."
"Well, welcome to Portland, then. Do you want to go to the station first, or your hotel?"
"Station," Dick and Sandra said simultaneously.
"To the station we go," Susan said as she swung into traffic.
Several hours later, the trio were deep into conversation in the conference room, trading files and discussing connections. Barnet had called the nursing home, but the nursing supervisor was off for the day and could not be reached at home. They made an appointment to talk to her the next morning, and continued following the leads in the paperwork.
Porter yawned as she closed another file, leaned her head back, and let her eyes shut for a moment. She had napped briefly on the plane, but had been up since the day before, when she started her evening shift. The attempted break-in at the coffee shop usually didn't warrant a detective's attention immediately, but Dick had asked her to check on it, since it seemed to be connected with his murder case. A thread teased her, but eluded her for the moment.
Dick chuckled. "Sandra, you dropped off there for a moment."
"My apologies," the dark headed detective said, sitting up. She rubbed her eyes, then glanced at her watch. "Shit, you let me sleep nearly an hour," she grumbled.
"You needed it," Dick said mildly. "Anyway, we're about to go swing by that storage place. Patrol caught two vans with stolen plates unloading something, and Susan was called to investigate."
She nodded. "When do we leave?"
Susan said, "In a few minutes. I need a pit stop first."
Dick stood up. "Sounds like a great idea. Lead on."
Half an hour later, the trio arrived at the storage unit and ducked under the fluttering crime scene tape. Susan introduced them to the officers guarding the scene, then asked, "Suspects say anything?"
"Nope, just asked for their lawyer, then clammed up tight. We can at least get them for attempted burglary, stolen plates, fake ID's, and resisting arrest. Both had on latex gloves and ski masks, so they seemed to be ready for work. I guess they forgot their keys, since they were able to get into the gate, but a neighbor saw them picking the lock on the unit door."
"Thank, Joe," Susan said. She turned to the Seattle detectives. "Let's check it out."
They walked over to the ten by ten unit, peering in around the crime scene techs. The unit was rigged with plant lights over trays of marijuana plants in various stages of growth. Water was supplied by a jury-rigged system of jugs, pumps, and tubes. A cut in a wall led to the next unit, which had multiple racks of drying plants. "Little factory here," Susan commented, "wonder what else goes on here?"
The detectives briefly debated the pros and cons of trying to get a warrant to search other units, but decided to try to question the suspects first. "Might be worthless, since they've already requested lawyers," Sandra pointed out.
"All we can do is try," Dick countered.
"So we have jugs for water supply, electricity for lights, drying racks, everything you need to grow and dry the plants," Sandra observed, "with two ten by ten units combined. We have no records of anyone renting these units, just shell companies owning the property and another series of shell companies for the utility and tax bills. I am curious, though, as to what is in the other units. Any way we can legally open them up?"
Susan scratched her chin, thinking. "Not really. We had cause for this unit, since our perps were caught red-handed breaking and entering, but we haven't seen anyone touch the other units."
"Hm. I'll be back." Sandra left the stifling unit, a little giddy from lack of sleep. She slowly walked the perimeter of the entire property, wondering what kept nagging at her. If they could get into the other units, certainly they would find illegal or counterfeit goods, thus bolstering their case. But without probable cause, no warrant to break into the other units.
She kept slowly walking, looking around until she came to a short dumpster. Curious, she opened the lid and peered in, shining her flashlight in it. The usual assortment of trash, fast food bags, paper, plastic bags, a shoe box, and a dead rat. Nothing exciting.
She left the dumpster, circling back around, shining her light in the scrawny bushes along the back side of the property. Sandra was frustrated at not finding anything more than a marijuana lab, nothing to tie into the murder of Sam Kruger, nothing to tie into the break-in at Jesse's Coffee Bar, nothing to justify their flight to Portland. The lack of sleep started to catch up with her again, causing her to yawn repeatedly.
Sandra started to go back when she noticed something trickling out from a unit. She shined her light on it and saw that it appeared to be blood. "Oh boy," she muttered as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. "Yeah, Dick, you might want to bring Susan over where I am. Looks like a blood trail. A fresh blood trail."
Darcy Kent, Nancy Moore, Don Jackson, Calvin Adams, Greta Hanson, Dick LaCroix, and Sandra Porter crowded around the conference room at Kent & Associates, updating the gathered parties. "So the blood trail Sandra found led to a body dump in the storage unit, which allowed us to get a warrant to search the entire property," Dick explained, "the body was shoved in a bag, but it was leaking. We suspect it wasn't supposed to stay there very long."
Sandra picked up the tale. "We found lots of stolen and counterfeit goods in the other units, anything from athletic shoes to drugs to CDs and DVDs. Most of the counterfeit goods were pretty shoddy, but the stolen merchandise was high quality. Susan Barnet in Portland is still processing it all, but we did find some evidence to tie it all in to your break-in and to Buckner Holdings."
"What did you find?" Greta asked.
"I'm sorry, we can't say right now, but I'll just say it is very solid," Dick said. "We can say that when we processed the suspects, we had enough to immediately charge them with murder."
"What about Buckner Holdings?" Nancy asked.
Sandra replied, "Well, with what you and Don uncovered, plus some evidence we're holding back at the moment, let's just say that we're able to subpoena their business records. The Portland suspects started singing over the advice of their lawyers once we started charging them with murder for hire. Dick and I think the whole company will come down now. And, depending on how the next few days go, we may be able to raid other storage units that the company owns."
"Very good," said Darcy. "Thanks for coming by to tell us what is going on."
Later that day, Greta was filling out paperwork when she heard a knock at her door. "Come in," she called out, barely glancing up.
"You are ruining everything."
Greta looked up, blinking at the handgun that Edgar Butler had trained on her. "How?" she asked more calmly than she felt.
He sat across from her after closing and locking her door. "I had an empire going, and all you and your stupid buddies had to do was to accept my company's offer, and you'd be rolling in the dough. But no, you had to be stubborn, you stupid bitch, you and your florist pal and your stupid lawyer cunt."
Greta went cold at the mention of Paul and Darcy, but strove to keep her voice light and expression blank. "I don't take well to threats," she said. "So why are you pointing a gun at me? You're the one who was stupid, going into theft. Peddling stolen and counterfeit merchandise? Stupid. You took a good property company and ran it into the ground."
Edgar's face contorted in rage as he spat out, "I took it and made it better! I'm swimming in profits now!"
Greta forced herself to think. How could she let anyone know that she was trapped with an angry man who had a gun trained on her? The phone? No, her cell phone? Maybe. She had just talked to Darcy, so the phone was at the edge of her desk. She leaned forward, covering the phone with her arms as she looked at Edgar, asking, "So what do you expect me to do now?"
He pulled a document out of his slim briefcase, tossing it at her. "Sign this, bitch. Sign it and turn over all of your property to me. I need your property."
She picked it up, managing to slide her phone into her lap as she did so. "I have to read it first," she said with a calm she didn't feel.
Edgar slammed himself into the visitor's chair, keeping his gun trained on her. "Read it, then, but sign the damned thing."
She picked up her phone from her lap, hitting redial as she slid it under a pile of loose papers. She could hear a faint voice at the other end, and said quickly, "Edgar, I'll read it, but why do you expect me to sign away my property? You know that me signing it with you holding a gun on me would be coercion, and render the deed void."
"I don't fucking care!" he screamed. "Just read it and sign the goddamned thing!"
Greta shrugged, then started reading the document out loud, pausing to interject comments. Edgar grew more fidgety as she read, finally saying, "Enough, bitch, just sign it!"
"But why do you want this block so badly?" she asked. "You have a very nice retail center across the road, and from what I understand, you have a lot of holdings. So why do you want my block for storage units? Certainly that won't bring in the kind of money another retail center would."
His face grew still as he asked, "How do you know about the storage units?"
She shrugged. "The Internet, stupid. Lots of property records and tax records are freely available. Besides, don't you think my lawyers would do their due diligence and check out your company?"
He jumped up, pacing the small office, then stopped to scream, "Bitch! Just sign it!"
"But why? If you have all of the holdings records indicate, you should be swimming in profits. Or is it something else?" As she spoke, she saw her door knob turn very slowly. Thank God she had a spare set of keys kept at the register! Maybe the police were finally here. "Or are you doing something illegal?"
Just as he stopped to glare at her, Calvin Adams burst through the door, shouting, "Freeze, motherfucker!" Before Edgar could react, the tall former marine swatted the gun away, forced Edgar's arms behind him, and slammed him to the ground. "You move and I'll tear your fucking arms off!" he snarled in Edgar's ear. "Just give me a reason."
Greta almost laughed when she smelled the sharp odor of urine as Edgar's bladder cut loose in fear of the furious marine on top of him. "Thank you, Calvin," she said.
"My pleasure, ma'am," the dark man replied, "and the police should be here any minute." As he answered, she saw a head pop around the doorway.
"You here to arrest this scum?" Greta asked the officer.
"Oh, I suppose I could," the officer said as he fished out handcuffs. "What are the charges besides waving a gun at you?"
Dick LaCroix and Sandra Porter took turns explaining the charges and the evidence gathered so far. Greta, Paul, Darcy, Nancy, Ron, and Calvin were all in the law firm conference room, listening intently and asking questions. Finally, Sandra finished with, "It appears that there will be multiple raids across the coast and the southeast now, based on a organizational chart we dug up. Dick, Susan Barnet from Portland, and I have been invited to help coordinate with the federal agencies and local police departments as we pull this together. Their biggest mistake so far was that their accountant was backing up records into a cloud account, and the password was very easy to guess - his poodle's name. So far, we've uncovered murder for hire, drug trafficking, counterfeit goods, and I have a feeling that's just the beginning."
"Thank you for keeping us in the loop," Darcy said, "we appreciate it."
"You're welcome," said Dick. "And Greta, we found a match to the poison that killed your other attorney, Sam Kruger, as well as his name on a list entitled, 'Issues'. Many of the names on the list were ones of murder victims or people who died mysterious deaths, so now those cases will be resurrected."
Paul said, "Thank you for giving us a measure of peace. Now I can really try to expand my business without worrying about who is trying to take it away from me."
"That's true," Greta chimed in, "and Calvin, I have you to thank for saving my life. So you actually answered the phone."
"Yes ma'am," he said quietly, "I did. Darcy had stepped out for a cup of coffee when your call came in, and I saw your name on the phone display. I figured Darcy would be unhappy if she missed your call, so I answered it. You did well to let me know that you were in trouble."
Sandra asked, "So you rushed over, no backup, and just decided that you could disarm him?"
Calvin nodded. "Ma'am, I'm a marine, and did two tours of duty in Iraq."
"Oh, I withdraw the question," Sandra said quickly, "I didn't know that you had served."
"I did, and although I don't regret my time in the military, I would rather be an attorney." He allowed himself a small smile. "I will say nothing was scarier than working for Darcy the first couple of years."
"That's because I didn't have anyone wonderful in my life," Darcy chimed in, beaming at her fiancĂ©.
Nancy rolled her eyes. "If we've tied everything up, I'm leaving before it gets too deep in here." She turned to her legal assistant. "Don, we have some deeds to research, so let's go make money."
"Right behind you," Don answered.
Within a few minutes, the room cleared except for Darcy and Greta. The couple looked at each other, suddenly shy. Greta finally broke the silence by asking, "So when do you get home tonight? I'll be pretty late, I have closing duties."
"I don't know. I'm planning to clear out of the office by six, then thought I'd go to the gym for a workout," Darcy said. "Should I wait for you to eat dinner?"
"No, eat without me, I'll grab something at work," Greta said.
"You know I try to come home early when I can," Greta commented, "but lately, it just hasn't worked out that way. It comes with hiring college students, it's starting to be that 'oh my god it's almost the end of the semester I have projects and papers due' time of the spring."
Darcy reached over, taking Greta's hand. "Did I complain? I'm the one who should feel guilty, I spent years not getting home before ten most nights. But that was before the wreck, before I met you and fell head over heels in love."
Greta looked at their linked hands and said, "Darcy, can I ask you something?"
Greta took a deep breath. "Are you afraid of commitment? Of sitting down and making plans together?"
"Why do you ask that?" Darcy said, a note of panic creeping in her voice.
"Don't that this wrong, dear, but when I try to talk to you about coordinating our schedules, you just rattle off yours, then act like I should fit around yours. You're good about giving me money for your half of the expenses and mortgage, but you don't ever ask what you can do around the house. I know you're a high powered professional, and you've had maids and such for many years, but I don't, and we need to talk about how we work together as a couple."
Darcy looked stunned. "I thought I contributed!"
"Sweetheart, you do, but we need to work together, now that we live together. I have a store, and my hours tend to be odd so I can keep up with everything, but there are times you make plans for us without consulting me. I've scrambled a few times to get coverage for my shift when you've done this. We need to sit down too and decide who does what around the house. You're good about cooking, and are turning out to be a great quick meal artist, but you never ask if you can do the grocery shopping, or even order the groceries. Do you even remember how to scrub a toilet?"
Darcy pulled away, leaning back in her chair, lacing her fingers over her stomach. "Greta, all you had to do was ask for help."
"Or you could volunteer."
Darcy stood up abruptly. "I need to get back to work. I'll talk to you tonight." She walked out rapidly, forcing herself to hold back the sudden tears that came out of nowhere.
Greta sat, stunned, at the sudden departure of her beloved. "I guess I could have been gentler," she grumbled to herself. "But we need to talk some time."
>Darcy had a hard time concentrating on her work after her sudden blow up with Greta. She snapped at Glenda, growled at Calvin, and yelled at Chad. She felt her temper surging and fraying, and gave up trying to rein it in. After all, she never tried to rein it in before the wreck, so why now?
After several hours of spinning her wheels, Glenda stormed into her office and slammed the door shut. "I usually don't talk to my boss this way," she started off, "but you need to hear this. Get your act together and act like a decent human. None of us are Loraine, and none of us will take the abuse you've handed out today. I don't give a damn if you had a fight with someone, you can't take it out on those you work with or those you love."
"I'm your boss, and if you-"
"And I can go back to Jenner & Ziegler or look for another job. But you don't have the right to yell at us like this, and treat us like we're idiots. So grow up, Darcy!"
Darcy was about to snap back, but restrained herself. "Okay, I'll try to calm down," she grumbled, "my apologies."
"It's a start," Glenda acknowledged. "I'm going home, it's past five." She spun on her heel and stormed out before Darcy could respond.
"Well, fuck," Darcy said quietly. She stared at the monitor for a moment, then abruptly powered down her laptop. She was upset, couldn't concentrate, and was almost afraid to go home. Who could she talk to?
David magically melted out of the way as Loraine led Darcy to the den. "I've never seen David's house," Darcy blurted out as she perched on an armchair.
"It's high time you came to visit," Loraine chuckled. "Ah, Darcy, what brings you here tonight? You look desperately unhappy. Did you and Greta have a fight?"
"Sort of," Darcy admitted, "and I'm not even sure how it happened." She repeated the conversation, struggling at times to remember the exact phrasing, something that still eluded her at times. "I still forget things. I thought that this long after my wreck that my memory would come back. I thought that moving in with Greta and selling my house would make us both happier, but instead, we're at each other's throats. Did I make a mistake? God, I love that woman more than I've loved anyone, but I'm worried now."
Loraine smiled gently at the distraught attorney. "Darcy, you've both been through a great deal, so I'm not surprised that you're so miserable right now."
"But you and David are so perfect. I want to be perfect," Darcy said sadly.
Loraine chuckled. "Sweetheart, I practically lived with you and believe me, it was a challenge. You are one of the sharpest, most intelligent people I've ever known, but you have the relationship skills of a two year old. You have to establish give and take, compromise, sharing. You have to be willing to take responsibility for more than yourself, you are a couple now, and if you plan to get married, it damn well better be forever. David and I had fights when I first moved in, but we've figured out who does what, and now things are much smoother. You had me and a host of people taking care of you for years, now you're having to take care of yourself and others, both at work and at home."
"How do I manage it all, then?" Darcy asked.
"Small steps. Draw up a chart if you have to, but start deciding who takes care of what, or take turns, whatever is best. It's got to be harder with your erratic schedules, but you both need to take time for yourselves, both together and apart. You have your gym time to be alone, but you need to make time for Greta. You need to figure out what household chores you can do and stick with them. And don't ever go to bed mad, talk it out, then kiss and make up."
Darcy looked down at her hands, contemplating what Loraine said. "Okay, Loraine, I'll try to do better." She looked up. "Was I really that difficult to get along with?"
"Honey, you were the worst, but at the same time, you assumed that I was an intelligent human being, and treated me as such. Besides, I was brought up to take care of my boss, much more than today's secretaries and assistants. I always had a sneaking admiration for you."
"Oh." Darcy stood up, looking around uncertainly. "So what about my memory? Suppose it never comes back?"
Loraine stood, and folded her friend into her arms. "Your memory is still better than most," she said quietly, "you just always had a photographic recall. It must be hard, but remember this, Greta loves you, and so do I." She kissed Darcy on the forehead, then pushed away. "Go home, Darcy, and figure out how you want to be part of a partnership, not just how to be a lover."
"Thank you, Loraine." Darcy heaved a big sigh. "I have some thinking to do." She turned to leave, then looked back. "Did I ever say thank you for everything you've done?"
"Not in so many words, but I always knew," Loraine said.
"Well, thank you from the bottom of my heart," Darcy said. She hugged Loraine quickly, then changed the subject. "So when's the wedding?"
Greta wearily unlocked the door and shut off the alarm, expecting to have to clean the kitchen before she could get to sleep. Darcy, although precise and organized, tended to forget to clean the dishes and put them away after cooking. Did she make a mistake by asking Darcy to move in? She and Jesse had just melded together easily, with similar styles of working and cleaning.
If I'm honest, she mused , I'd admit things weren't perfect with Jesse either. We shared chores well, but her constant need to do laundry every night bugged me. If I could only get Darcy to understand that bath towels can be used more than once, I think I'd be happy.
Greta paused to flip on the kitchen light. She dropped her bag on the bench next to the door, then turned to face a sparkling kitchen. "What?" she exclaimed, staring at the formerly messy place.
No dishes out, counters were sparkling, everything was lined up perfectly, clutter put away, and a small bouquet of her favorite spring flowers sat in a vase on the table. She crossed over to the table, fishing the card out of the envelope in front of the vase. "I've been selfish, and obviously don't know how to live with someone. Please help. All my love, Darcy." She read.
Greta took a deep sniff of the flowers, then ventured into the rest of the house. The scattered boxes of books were gone, the magazines aligned perfectly on the coffee table, the furniture and shelves gleaming with fresh polish, and even the light fixtures cleaned. A new throw rug graced the floor under the coffee table, one she and Darcy had seen recently, but had decided against because Greta couldn't afford to pay half. She sank down on the sofa, trying to blink away sudden tears. How had Darcy done all of this in such a short time?
Greta looked up, finding a sleepy Darcy standing in front of her, blonde hair in disarray. "Hey, Darcy. Thanks for the flowers, and thanks for cleaning. When did you get the rug?" she blurted out.
Darcy perched on the edge of the sofa, hands clasped in her lap. "This afternoon. I was upset, so I left work early, went to visit Loraine, and decided I needed to change a few things. I came home, made a few calls, had the rug and flowers delivered, and decided to clean the hell out of the place."
"Thank you. What happened to the boxes of books?"
Darcy took a deep breath. "I called the record guys at work and paid them extra to haul the books to the used book store, and told them to donate whatever they got from it to the humane society. I realized that most of the books were ones I hadn't looked at in years, so why keep them? I did keep my theology and history books, and the Black's Law Dictionary my family bought me when I graduated from Harvard. But I sold the rest."
Greta stared at her lover, shocked by this turnaround. "Why did you do all that?"
Darcy looked up. "Because something had to go. If we are to make a life together, we each have to make some sacrifices. You let me move in to your house, the house you shared with Jesse, so I had to make a sacrifice too. You sold the furniture in the guest room so I could set up my home office, so I decided we needed that rug. And you're right, I've been so accustomed to other people taking care of the little things that I never even considered doing my share of the cleaning. I won't promise that I'll always share in the grocery shopping, it bores me, but I will share in cleaning. I will make time to take turns running clothes to the cleaners. I will do my part to take care of us."
Greta reached for Darcy, pulling her into her arms. They both burst into tears, tears of fatigue, tears of relief. The tears gave way to kisses, the kisses gave way to caresses, the caresses gave way to overwhelming desire and need to connect. They left a trail of clothes from the living room to the bedroom, desperately needing to share themselves with each other.
As the first wave crashed and ebbed, they held each other, trading soft kisses while letting their pulses drop back to normal. They talked, agreed on rough schedules, then made slow, languid love to seal their promises.
Around three o'clock, Greta asked, "Do you really want to marry me? Do you want to make a lifetime commitment? Or do you want a chance to see who else is out there first?"
Darcy sat up, looking at the tall blonde with a grave expression. "It is pretty scary, and as Loraine pointed out, I've been through a lot this past year. I'm still bothered by short term memory issues, although that is getting better. I'm still more emotional than I was in the past, and get upset more easily. The idea of spending a lifetime with you is both terrifying and exhilarating, and sometimes, I wonder if you compare me to Jesse, and how I stack up against her."
"You think I compare you to her?" Greta asked, sitting up and staring at Darcy.
"I guess so. It would be natural, since you were together for so long."
"Darcy, I don't intend to compare you, you are completely different women," Greta said. "I mean, Jesse was very organized, very good at business, but I'll tell you, you have her beat in one department."
"Bed. I don't like to admit it, but although I loved her, it just wasn't like it is with you." Greta reached down, stroking Darcy's face. "Frankly, after a few years, Jesse didn't have much of a sex drive. We'd still have our times, but I'm not sure if it was the pressure of getting the business going, or if she just wasn't interested, but sex dwindled to a few times a year. Please tell me that it won't happen that way with us."
"No, it won't. I'm very good at keeping my promises."
Greta looked at Darcy for a long time, then kissed her again. "You may have your memory and outburst issues, but I can't imagine life without you. Let's get married."
Darcy whooped with joy. "I'm getting married!" She kissed Greta soundly, then asked, "So, what will we wear?"
Darcy escorted Greta down the aisle, looking around at the small chapel. Loraine and David decided to get married in a quiet ceremony, with just a few friends and family. Darcy recognized Greta's sister and brother-in-law from pictures, but no one else. She was pleased, though, to see a number of people from Jenner & Ziegler, testifying to Greta's many years at the firm.
Greta sat next to Darcy, realizing this was the first time they'd really been at a function as a couple. As an acknowledged couple at that. Oh, they had gone to Kentucky to visit Darcy's family, but that was rather strained. She felt a rush of love as Darcy reached for her hand, something she was becoming accustomed to. Despite the years of living in a fairly open city, she and Jesse had never held hands in public, never kissed in public, never hugged in public, but Darcy seemed to have no problems with little signs of affection.
David walked up the aisle, smiling at the small crowd that had gathered to celebrate his marriage to Loraine. He still could hardly believe his great fortune to capture the heart of this elegant, intelligent, sexy woman. His friends had initially cautioned him, pointing out that Loraine was fifteen years his senior, but he didn't care. Even a few years with his beloved was better than losing her. He dimly heart the wedding march start, heard the crowd rise, and watched with sheer joy as Loraine walked graciously down the aisle in her pale gray suit. He wore a simple navy suit and white shirt at her request, and he knew they looked damn good together.
Loraine walked down the aisle, reflexes kicking in to time her walk precisely. She only paused when she passed Darcy and Greta, and bestowed a radiant smile on her friends. She impulsively blew a kiss at Darcy, who blushed adorably. Loraine turned her attention to David, smiling as the finished her approach to the altar, reaching for his hand.
"Dearly beloved," the minister intoned as she started the ceremony. Loraine and David turned slightly, identical smiles creasing their faces. They were finally joining their lives without reservation, without holding back.
Greta couldn't believe the size of the venue that Darcy and Loraine had reserved for their wedding. Loraine had agreed to help with the arrangements as soon as she and David returned from their honeymoon, and managed to whip together a wedding in a very short time. Who knew that a ceremony this scale could be pulled together in a matter of weeks?
She and Darcy had talked a long time about the actual ceremony. Would they walk down the aisle separately? Together? With attendants? Without anyone? Darcy had toyed with the idea of having Loraine give her away, then ditched it. Finally, they agreed on walking down together.
Greta was surprised when Darcy insisted on wearing a bridal dress. A real one, but not with tons of lace and tulle, but simple and elegant, a satin white form fitting dress. Of course Greta had seen Darcy with and without clothes for months, but didn't realize quite how much weight Darcy had lost and how much shape she had gained until she tried on the dress. It was a simple, slightly tucked, white sleeveless satin dress. Greta wore a simple white pantsuit with teal jacket. There were no attendants, but Darcy (and she suspected Loraine) had somehow arranged to bring out both sets of parents and Greta's brother Gilbert and his family. The mothers were both wearing beautiful dresses; Ellen Kent was wearing a simple teal and white sleeveless dress with matching shawl, and Gail Hanson was wearing a soft gold and white sleeveless dress with matching shawl. The fathers were wearing black tuxes.
Greta thought that Darcy was completely calm until she noticed Darcy adjusting her glasses every few seconds. It was the one giveaway; curiously, it helped her calm down. It was a huge step, and an open declaration of their romantic relationship and intent to stay together legally. No more half-truths, no more evasion. I've never not said I was gay, but I did let a lot of people think that Jesse and I were just good friends and business partners, especially in the early years , she thought.
Finally, finally, the processional music started. Greta leaned over, asking, "Are you ready for this?"
Darcy beamed. "I am ready to join our lives in front of our friends and family." She slipped her hand in the crook of Greta's arm. "It is time."
And so it began, the official joining of their lives, their hearts, their joys, their sorrows, their love.
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