Disclaimers: The characters in this story are mine. This is a 'uber' story, set in today's timeline, and some of the characters may bear more than a slight resemblance to certain other characters we all know, but which are not owned by me. Any similarity to real people is unintentional and purely coincidental. The location is Orlando, Florida. This story is character driven. As in my previous stories, there is not a whole lot of plot. There is no violence, nobody is trying to kill anybody else, nobody is chasing anybody else, etc., etc. There may be some minor angst here, but nothing too traumatic. The backdrop is a law firm, and from first-hand experience, law firms can be rather routine places to work. This story continues the tale of two people set in that environment whose lives are anything but routine.
Subtext Disclaimer: There is subtext, or maintext as the case may be, here. This story deals with the deep, profound love and devotion between two people who happen to be of the same gender. Although there are some scenes depicting the physical expression of that love, there are no graphic or explicit scenes here. If that is what you are looking for, you might want to go ahead and read something else.
Continuing Story Disclaimer: This is the sequel to my previous stories "Undeniable" and "Considerable Appeal" and picks up about one month later. You may want to read the previous stories prior to reading this one, otherwise the storyline will probably not make very much sense to you.
Feedback: This is my third attempt at fan fiction. Comments are always welcome and very much appreciated. Please feel free to let me know if there is something you especially liked or didn't like. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by KM
Robin rushed into the house after what seemed like an unusually long commute home from work that day, her stomach growling for something substantial to eat or at least a small snack before dinner. She pondered the slim pickings from the pantry, mentally noting that she and Jess needed to set a more regular grocery shopping routine, then finally settled on a fruit bar to hold her over until dinner. After a brief detour to her bedroom to change from her business suit into more casual clothes, Robin headed back into the kitchen to scrounge up passable dinner fare. Her immediate thought was pasta. They had some left-over tomato sauce and some salad fixings, along with a box of rigatoni which always worked well in a pinch. So, pasta it was. Lots of carbohydrates, and definitely not low-calorie, but just exactly what she was in the mood for. As soon as she'd made her decision, the door to the garage opened and Jess breezed in.
"Hey." Robin grabbed a large pot and began filling it with water for the rigatoni. "I thought you were supposed to be right behind me."
The older woman set her keys on the counter and started flipping through the mail. "Got stuck behind a train." A grimace. "I hate trains."
A hidden smile. "You love trains."
Two gorgeous azure eyes glanced up from the mail. "I love to ride trains. I love the Casey Jones Cannonball Express. I love the historic old west iron horse trains. I love the choo-choo of the whistle. I love the chugging of the engine." A deliberate pause. "But I do not love getting stuck behind slow-moving, ugly-looking, noisy, long freight trains that go on and on and on for fifteen minutes when I'm trying to get home at night." A dark eyebrow rose sharply. "Are we clear on the difference?"
Robin nodded indulgently. "Perfectly."
"Good." Jess smiled, then stepped over and gave the younger woman a long hug, speaking into a conveniently placed ear. "Because, you see, the longer I was stuck behind that train, the longer I had to wait to do this." She tightened her hold.
Just the characteristic woodsy scent of Jess made Robin snuggle further into the embrace, all thoughts of rigatoni erased completely from her mind. "Dastardly train."
"Dastardly indeed. So, how are you doing, sweetheart? Better day today?"
"Much." Robin lifted up on her toes and gave Jess a tiny peck on the cheek. "I wish I would've seen you more today, though. How did your settlement conference go?"
"Not much progress. How do you demand two million dollars without any proof of damages?"
Although she knew it was a rhetorical question, Robin answered anyway. "Huff, puff, and bluff?"
Blue eyes twinkled. "Someone's been studying."
"I learned from the best." The smaller woman went back to fixing their dinner. "Pasta okay with you tonight?"
"Great." To be honest, Jess didn't really have a preference as to what they ate. Robin could have heated up a frozen dinner, and Jess would have thought it was fantastic. And it really was as simple as that. Whatever it was, wherever it was, whenever it was, as long as Robin was right there beside her, everything was great. "Let me go change for dinner."
Just after leaving the kitchen, Jess heard the doorbell ring behind her.
"I'll get it." The younger woman shouted down the hallway.
"If it's one of the local kids selling candy bars for school, buy a box." Jess yelled back, quickly turning into the master bedroom. She never really advertised the fact that she always bought whatever the neighborhood kids were selling. At one point, she had twelve boxes of cookies in her pantry from one such school sale and enough carwash tickets to wash her car every week for three months from another. Jess let her mind continue on that path for a second. Kids had always been great when they were someone else's responsibility. That thought stopped her cold. It was time to examine how she really felt about the subject. Actually, it was well past time. Do I want this responsibility? Well, it was clear that Robin did, although they really hadn't talked about it. Maybe it's time we had this talk.
She pulled on a cotton shirt and some shorts, still preoccupied with her thoughts, and started back for the kitchen, arriving and standing just outside the entrance. She watched as Robin stirred the sauce, then tried to imagine for herself what it might be like with little feet scurrying about the house. In her mind's eye, she saw young ones at the kitchen table, Robin cutting their food and feeding them small bites. She also saw herself there, and the amazing thing was, she was doing the same thing. They were all a family, together, and it was good. Really good.
Robin turned and saw her standing there. "These came for you."
Jess had been so lost in her musings that she had completely missed seeing the gorgeous vase of two dozen red roses sitting over on the far end of the countertop. "Oh?" What she didn't miss was the hard set to Robin's jaw as a petite hand pointed in the roses' direction. Uh-oh. "Who are they from?"
Three guesses. "I didn't read the card." That was all Robin could manage to say.
It was evident to anyone with half a brain cell exactly who the roses were from. Jess retrieved the card and read it silently.
Unable to resist any longer, Robin poked her head around the taller woman's shoulder, reading the words on the card out loud. "Looking forward to spending more time together. James."
Unlike the last time flowers had arrived, Jess didn't hesitate. "Trash?"
Robin, though, didn't answer, instead her face held a bewildered look. "But he agreed not to send you any more flowers."
Cautious blue eyes focused intently on Robin. "Did he?"
"Yes. I told him not to send you any more flowers, and he agreed."
"Exactly what did you tell him?"
"I told him……" Blonde eyebrows knit together. "Not to send any more flowers to you……" A sigh. "At work."
A large hand reached up and cupped Robin's face. "Sweetheart, look, he's slick. He did exactly what you asked, not what you meant. And believe me, he knew the difference."
Sea green eyes stared at the roses. Red. They were red roses. They weren't some generic assortment of meaningless flowers like last time. They were red roses, and there was no mistaking the meaning.
"So, trash?" Jess asked again and started to take the roses from their vase.
"No." Robin quickly stopped the older woman's motion. The roses hadn't yet begun to open, and their tips only hinted at the soft velvety petals that lay tucked away inside. A deliberate gesture? Robin knew Jess was all about layers of meaning, and she was sure James knew it as well. "They're lovely roses." The younger woman marveled. "Flawless." Too perfect. Robin was fascinated by them, but there was also an undisguised sadness to her voice. "You should keep them."
"Keep them?" Jess was definitely confused. "Why? I don't want them."
Although it had taken a moment, Robin's practical side took over. "You should keep them in case he's over here again so he can see you've displayed them. It'll work for our plan."
I suppose so. "Are you sure?" This didn't feel entirely right.
"Yeah. Besides, they're too pretty to waste."
Two slender fingers removed one of the roses from the vase as discerning blue eyes studied it. "It's exquisite, isn't it? See how there's only the tip of what will be a deep red silky soft petal once it fully opens? It's delicate, yet immensely beautiful, even captivating." The fingers twisted the rose slightly. "But see these thorns, too, hiding beneath the leaves? Most florists would have selected varieties without them or removed the thorns automatically before delivery, yet these were deliberately left on. They're not easily noticed and are a threat to those who are unsuspecting." Those discerning blue eyes cast a glance over at Robin. "So something disguised as beauty can be in reality quite treacherous."
Robin began looking at the roses in a completely different light. That manipulator had sent them as a veiled warning, almost daring Jess to decipher their true meaning. Or did he really send them to provoke jealousy? Robin did have jealous instincts, though she tried to keep them under control……to some extent, at least. All of a sudden, those roses weren't so beautiful after all. Robin's own protective nature kicked in. "I would never give these to you."
A smile. "I know that, Robin."
"Let me take them and put them someplace where we can't see them. If he comes over, we'll display them then as part of our plan." The younger woman carefully replaced the rose in its vase and vanished with the entire bouquet to parts of the house unknown.
James would get his due soon enough.
Meeting day. All the participants were assembled in a conference room around an oval glass table in the newly completed office space. It was an impressive suite of offices located in the trendiest part of downtown with a commanding view of the lakefront and surrounding park. The price per square foot was surely through the roof. Contemporary furnishings and earth tone décor gave the impression of an accomplished architectural engineering firm branding its mark on new territory. Competition in an expanding field filled with planned downtown residential condominiums and commercial high-rises in addition to new developments in the attractions areas were sure to make the whole city take notice of the latest newcomer in town. Jess and Robin had taken a seat along the far side of the conference table opposite the door, a strategic move Jess had deliberately made in order to effectively observe the meeting and the arrival of its attendees.
James "Jay" Prescott opened the kick-off meeting with the typical introductions. "Thank you all for being here today. First, let me take a moment to introduce two people whom most of you may not have had the pleasure of meeting yet." Gesturing toward Robin and Jess, he continued. "We have extended an offer to Jessica Harrison to serve as our office manager and local corporate legal counsel, and sitting next to her is her associate, Robin Wilson. Should Ms. Harrison accept our offer, and I hope she will……." James smiled charmingly. "Ms. Wilson and Ms. Harrison will be working together with regard to our legal affairs."
It was all Robin could do to stop herself from rolling her eyes.
He went on to explain. "Because we have a short ramp-up time with several pending contracts already in place and multiple potential bids to prepare and submit for other work, we needed to expedite our staffing. Therefore, I invited both Ms. Harrison and Ms. Wilson to meet with us today to become familiar with everyone here and get a jump-start on our business operation."
The way he could turn the situation into something even resembling professional was amazing given his personal interest in Jess. Robin wondered what Jess was thinking.
"Ms. Harrison has assured me……" He smiled at her again. "That she is seriously considering our offer and will provide us with her formal decision by the close of business tomorrow. Although we won't be discussing the specifics of bidding or anything of a trade secret nature today, I would ask that everyone keep what is discussed here proprietary and confidential."
Even though Jess's facial expression was neutral, her eyes held a hint of amusement. I've seen a truckload of financial information on this company and probably know more about its financial condition than all of these people put together. But I gotta hand it to him. He's a showman. To Jess's experienced eye though, he did appear to be a bit off his game, as if something else was definitely on his mind, although he tried to cover it well.
"Okay, so let me introduce the crowd." James started to his left and went around the table. "José Rodriguez is our Comptroller. Next is Evelyn Arthur, our Human Resources Director. Our Technology Supervisor is Ian McNally. Nathan Langford is our Project Coordinator. Marti Westfield is our Chief Estimator. Alicia Jennings is our Director of Marketing. And finally, but not in any way least, Ken Christopher is our Vice-President of Design Services for the Central Florida region."
At this point, James stood up and helped himself to some coffee on the nearby credenza, then turned back to the assembled group. "Does anyone have any questions?"
Ian spoke up. "One thing, Jay. Could we get the office assignments as soon as possible? I've got phones and computers to hook up, and I really need to know who's going where. Otherwise, we're going to be under the gun to get the servers and routers up and the phone extensions completed."
James nodded. "I've got the floor plan which I'll hand out at the end of the meeting." He cast a glance around the room, noting with interest that Jess was very quiet and, if truth be told, seemed almost bored. That should change. "I have a……" He paused for a second. "A situation that I need to make you all aware of."
Now that did indeed pique Jess's interest, although she didn't show it in the least.
His voice became a little stilted, and he looked slightly pale. "I received a call this morning from our home office. It seems we've come under a bit of scrutiny of late from a couple of different directions. Our home office legal department has been apprised of the matters and is handling them capably. However, I wanted to make you all aware of them in case you hear of anything or are asked about anything related to them. Once again, I ask that you keep what we talk about today confidential."
Robin noted that Jess's facial expression remained neutral.
James leaned back stiffly against the credenza, his eyes focused on some distant point. "For some reason, and I'm not entirely sure why yet, we are now the subject of an informal federal inquiry into our business practices and have also been notified that the IRS has decided to conduct an audit of the company."
What? Robin's mouth fell open, but she quickly recovered. She nudged Jess's elbow, but Jess merely raised her eyebrows ever so slightly.
"I've been told to expect a subpoena for our financial records. José and Alicia, you may receive some questions from the press or others if they get wind of it, which may have already happened. Just report to them that the company is cooperating fully and is confident that any and all matters will be resolved very shortly in a manner favorable to the company. Now, I'm told that this is all just a preliminary inquiry, and that once our records are reviewed, there should be no further investigation. I can assure you that the company is in full compliance with all federal and state regulatory requirements and there is nothing to worry about."
Well, an IRS audit and a federal inquiry would not exactly qualify as nothing to worry about. And judging by the look on everyone's faces, they were thinking the same thing. Robin watched Jess carefully. There was no shock, or alarm, or surprise in the junior partner's expression. There was, however, something Robin had never seen before in those very cool blue eyes. What is it? There was an uncharacteristic hardness to them, but also something else…….steely, yet satisfied……callous, yet gleeful ……menacing, yet strangely pleased. Finally after a long moment, Robin realized it for what it was. Revenge. It was evident now, and awareness of what that look actually meant put everything into a perfect perspective. She knew. And as Robin watched Jess further, she came to an even deeper realization. Not only did she know…… she caused it. The young associate was surprised at that. Robin hadn't suspected it, but confronted with the evidence, it made absolute sense. And she had to admit she was impressed. Remind me never to get on her bad side.
As an uncomfortable silence settled upon the room, James cleared his throat and took his seat once again. "Okay, back to the reason we're here. Let's get a department report from each of you, and then we'll address any outstanding issues that require our attention before our start date next week."
From that point forward, the meeting droned on. At mid-way through, Jess briefly thought of making an excuse to leave early but decided instead to stick around and continue her observations. It was a shame that some of these people may be hurt by the actions this company had taken and the investigations that were underway, but people were resilient, and it was better that they got out from under a sinking ship before it ended up dragging them down along with it.
Whether the company survived or not, at a minimum, James "Jay" Prescott would have to go down and go down for good. And she was just the person to see to it that it happened.
It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
Robin followed Jess out of the office building after the meeting had concluded. The older woman was usually silent, having not said a word since they bid their goodbyes to the rest of the group. She did, however, look like the cat that had just swallowed the canary. As they approached the silver Mercedes, Robin just couldn't keep her thoughts to herself any longer. "You knew."
Jess reached her side of the car and unlocked the door, slipping quickly inside. Her only response as Robin buckled her seatbelt was a faint smile.
"You did that in there. You made that happen."
"I can't take all of the credit, Robin."
"But how did you get it done so quickly?"
"It pays to know people in the right places." The silver Mercedes backed out of the parking space and headed toward the law firm. "And to call in a few favors. I wasn't actually sure anyone would look into what was going on."
"Doesn't it usually take quite a long time to get agencies going on things like this? I mean, isn't this rather fast for government work?"
"Well, remember, this is just a routine audit and an informal inquiry. If they think there's something there, they may launch a formal investigation, but until then, an inquiry letter……or two……" Jess smiled to herself. "Is enough to keep James off his game."
"You think he's bothered by it? He seemed mostly as smug as usual."
"Oh I guarantee you, Robin, he's worried. That anonymous investor deal stinks to high heaven, and he knows it."
It was about time James got what was coming to him. "Have I told you you're a genius?"
"Not lately." A wide grin, then a wink. "But thank you."
Robin really admired how Jess's mind worked. "So what are they looking into, specifically?"
"The IRS is likely looking into the company's reporting of its financial transactions. And the federal inquiry may be related to wire fraud or RICO."
"You never know. Money laundering, bribery, criminal associations, extortion."
"You think?" This had actually never occurred to Robin.
"Maybe, maybe not. But until this deal is adequately vetted, who can be sure?" The older woman shook her head in disbelief as she mulled things over in her mind. "That arrogant SOB. He gave me the financials. He knew the transaction was in there. He was practically daring me to find it, all the while sure I would miss it because I'd be so overwhelmed by his charm and renewed interest after all of these years. That was a game he was betting he'd win just to prove he could. But his ego blinded him."
"So when are you going to tell him we're not taking the job?"
The car came to a stop at a red light, and Jess glanced over at Robin. "The plan is tomorrow, late in the day." She put on a mock serious expression. "Having given it a lot of thought, regretfully, what with these new inquiries and the uncertainty of the situation, not to mention being tainted with the broad brush of potential impropriety, how could I possibly accept any position with the company now?"
"Perfect." The petite woman smiled broadly. "And James gets a whole boatload of trouble for the foreseeable future." Robin let out a satisfied sigh. "Serves him right."
"Oh, the fun's just beginning for him. He hasn't seen anything yet. Remember when I said back when we first started with this that I'd strike him where he lives and he wouldn't see it coming? Well, this is just a taste of what's in store for him. When I'm through with him, if nothing else, he'll have to resign from his own company. He'd be too much of a liability for his board of directors to allow him to stay."
Although Robin fully enjoyed seeing James get his due, she was a little worried about Jess's zealous enthusiasm for all of this. The last thing she wanted was for Jess to be consumed with retribution. "Honey, pull over in that parking lot for a second."
"I just need to talk for a minute."
Reluctantly, Jess did as Robin asked, then stopped the silver Mercedes and put it in park. "Okay. We're here."
Petite fingers curled around Jess's hand. "Are you all right?"
"Of course. Why do you ask?"
"I was watching you in the meeting when all of this came up. I saw the way you looked. I've……well, I've never seen that before."
"Never seen what?" Jess had no clue what Robin was talking about.
"In your eyes……that look of revenge. I remember thinking that I was really glad it wasn't directed at me."
"What?" The older woman's adrenaline had been pumping on overdrive since the meeting, but hearing Robin say these things brought the high she'd been feeling to an abrupt and definite end, and she came crashing right back down to earth.
Robin continued. "It was……well, it was just a little intense when I realized…..."
Jess finished for her. "That I'd be capable of the destruction of someone for the sake of revenge?"
The younger woman nodded slowly.
She's afraid of me? "Are you afraid of me, Robin?"
"No." Robin rushed to assure her, then squeezed Jess's hand. "No. I'd never, ever be afraid of you. What I'm afraid of is that you'll become consumed with getting back at him. Can't we just get him to go away and then forget about him?" It was easier said than done, and Robin knew what she was asking.
Jess gave her a sad smile. "I've wanted revenge ever since he came back to town. That's been no secret with me, and I know I've let it get the better of me on more than one occasion by letting it distract me." She grasped and held onto both of Robin's hands. "I promise you, though, I do know when to stop."
"Okay." Robin felt better. "Because I want him gone more than anything."
"So do I, sweetheart, and we will make that happen. I think this is just the ticket we need to do that, but if you think I'm getting off track, pull me back in line, okay?"
"You got it, Jess."
"One more thing I want to say." The older woman had a strange expression on her face. "I don't ever want you to be afraid of me."
"I'm not, honey. I worry about you, but I'd never be afraid of you."
"Because no matter what may happen in our lives, revenge will never ever enter my heart when it comes to you. You have my word on that." Jess was more sincere about what she'd just said than she'd been about almost anything else in her life. Actually, in truth, she was terrified she had opened a dark part of herself for Robin to see, one that rarely emerged, and that possibly Robin might want to back away from her because of it. Or worse yet……leave.
And Robin knew it. She scooted over and hugged Jess fiercely. She kissed the older woman's cheek, then held Jess's face in her hands and peered into such engaging blue eyes. "You sweet, sweet woman. I know your heart. You gave it to me, remember? And I know that it is capable of such enormous love that there's no room in there for anything else. I will hold it forever and never be afraid. How could I be? It's your heart that protects me."
Jess had a hard time swallowing, emotion threatening to overcome her right there in the parking lot. "Yeah." It was all she could manage to say.
Robin kissed Jess's cheek again then released her face, smiling gently. "Yeah." She sat back in her seat, giving both of them a few moments to regain their composure. "Um……I guess we should get going."
Still contemplating their conversation, Jess nodded and put the car in gear. The previous delight and glee at the fulfillment of revenge was gone, replaced now with a new knowledge of the ever-deepening bond that she and Robin shared, even when it seemed as if they couldn't become any closer. And curiously now because of that, Jess felt surprisingly giddy, which was not something Jess was prone to feel in the middle of a parking lot in the middle of the city in the middle of the day. "You up for some lunch?"
Robin looked over at Jess, then chuckled. "Obviously, that was a rhetorical question."
That earned her a playful wink. "Obviously."
"Actually, I'm starving."
"Now how in the world did I know that?"
Back at the office, the junior partner typed away at her computer working on a brief that was due the following week. She found it hard, though, to concentrate considering her earlier talk with Robin. Jess hadn't really thought about the consequences of the actions she had taken in her quest for revenge and how it would appear to Robin. Would she really be afraid of me? She paused as she considered that. No, not really. She was sure Robin knew the difference between being protective and being deliberately malicious, and Robin had even assured her that she knew what was in her heart and had said as much. Besides it felt damn good to give James a little bit of what he had coming to him. Both she and Robin were satisfied with that. So why did Jess feel so uneasy? It was like an annoying niggling in the back of her mind telling her that things were not so straightforward as a little funny business with secret investors and questionable business transactions. Intuitively, she sensed there was something more there. But what?
The ringing of the phone broke her from her thoughts. She recognized the number on the caller display. Ah……guess who? She picked up the receiver. "Jessica Harrison."
"Jess. Good, I caught you." James spoke with his usual air of confidence.
"Shouldn't you be meeting with your lawyers right about now?" Jess smirked.
"No worries on that." He downplayed the earlier events. "Everything's being handled, but I did want to talk with you further about the things we discussed this morning." He purposely left the nasty little issues of audits and inquiries out of his vocabulary selection.
Jess faced a dilemma. Should she play along or just turn him down right away? Since she still had that niggling hanging around in the back of her mind, it might actually serve her well to play along for one more day just to see if she could get any more out of him. "Fine, but I'm a bit busy right now. How about tomorrow?"
That wasn't quite his plan. He needed to make sure she was still on board. "How about dinner?"
This guy was as predictable as the sun coming up. "Dinner?"
"Tonight. We have some business to discuss. Besides……" His voice softened. "I'd really like to see you."
Jess could have gagged. He had some nerve. She had to give it to him for that. Or maybe it was just his ego, as usual, talking. Whatever it was, it was brazen. She rolled her eyes at the phone. Just get me through one more day. "All right, yes, I can do dinner tonight."
"Great." That would give him a chance to firm up her commitment both to him and to his company. "Robin won't mind you being gone this evening, will she?"
He can't leave her out of this. Why? "It wouldn't matter. I don't have to clear my schedule with her." Jess made her comment sound deliberately cold.
You two still haven't made up, huh, Jess? And that worked just perfectly for him. "Okay, then. I'll pick you up at seven."
"Seven it is."
"I'll let you get back to work, now, Jess. Thanks again for attending the meeting this morning. I think everyone appreciated your being there and your support."
The junior partner recognized this ploy for what it was. Way to put on pressure while doling out praise. The junior partner frowned. She really did hate disappointing innocent people, but unfortunately some things just had to be the way they had to be. "You're welcome. See you tonight at seven."
He hung up the phone, confident that his mission had been accomplished. After all, he knew exactly how to work the situation to his advantage. Or so he thought.
Jess opened up her e-mail program and typed in a brief message.
Guess who just called and wants to have dinner tonight?
She clicked the send button, momentarily distracted. Only one more day of this charade, and then it would be over. And hopefully the snake would slither away for good. After a few more moments, the junior partner received a reply to her e-mail.
You're kidding. Dinner? Apparently he doesn't have an original thought.
Jess smiled to herself. James was the one who really needed some luck. He had absolutely no clue what was in store for him if he didn't cut his losses and get the hell out of dodge.
The upscale restaurant was designed to impress, and that was exactly what James had intended. He needed to reinforce Jess's commitment to the company, even though in reality, she had never actually made one. At least not yet. But that was a mere detail. And very soon, that would be resolved. He sipped his cabernet and fixed his eyes on her across the table from him.
Jess, however, was not in the least bit impressed. If I didn't know better, and I sure as hell do, I'd swear he was some lovesick schoolboy.
Oblivious, he made his pitch to close the deal. "So, let me first reassure you that everything is completely under control and there is absolutely nothing at all to worry about. Our Texas legal counsel tells us that this is just some minor fishing expedition by some overzealous local U.S. Attorney out to scrutinize newcomers to this area."
"I see." She nodded.
"After we serve our response letter and they conduct whatever audits they want, this whole thing will be nothing but a distant memory."
You wish. "I would imagine it would be rather unpleasant having the government's team of forensic accountants scouring your books."
"A nuisance, maybe, but it'll all blow over quickly." He sighed for dramatic effect. "It's just the cost of doing business."
Right. And the moon is made of green cheese. "What if they shut you down?"
He laughed. "Don't be silly. They won't find anything to warrant that." He could see she wasn't taking his reassurances easily. "Look, call the home office tomorrow and speak with our lead counsel, Roger Overman. He'll explain everything to you."
Jess sipped at her wine but didn't respond.
He'd let it drop for now. After all, they should enjoy their dinner, and then he'd have more time afterward to work his magic on her. "I'm really glad we could spend some time together tonight."
For the second time in one day, Jess nearly gagged. "Well, since you're buying, how could I turn you down?"
"That's the Jess I know. Always a great comeback." James relaxed back in his chair, choosing his next words carefully for the maximum effect. "So, Robin was okay with your going out tonight?"
What is it with him? His fascination with Robin is getting to be ridiculous. Jess also realized he was goading her, and she somehow managed to keep herself in check when all she really wanted to do was lunge across the table and choke the life out of him. She lifted an eyebrow, forcing a hard crease in her forehead as if his question had provoked an annoying thought. "As I said, I don't have to clear my schedule with Robin. She's a big girl and can look after herself, and so can I."
Well, this renewed confirmation that Jess and her little friend were still on the outs was great news. A rift, hopefully permanent, would be just the ticket to his prize. "I'm sure she'll come around soon." He sounded patronizingly sincere.
Picking up on his tactics, Jess continued to mislead him. Besides, a little ego stroking would make it easier to pry any final bits of information out of him. "By the way, the roses you sent are very pretty. I displayed them in the living room to show them off."
Ah, thorns aside, they were beautiful. And I bet the annoying little blonde was beside herself when they arrived. "Yes, I saw them there when I came by to pick you up earlier this evening. I'm glad you like them."
"How did you find a florist that stocks such perfect roses?"
He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. "I have contacts for just the right occasions." Now, to his thinking, the old Jess would have picked up on his little riddle with the thorns. But this Jess, the new-and-off-her-game Jess, was just too distracted to get the meaning. And that was just what he had been banking on, and his test proved it. He was practically running his plan right under her nose and she had no idea he was doing it. Too bad it wasn't such a challenge for him, but his eyes were fixed on the ultimate prize anyway. Jess was just a way to obtain it.
They carried on with dinner……Jess evading him about her intention toward the company and James making insignificant small talk, sure he had the winning hand. Jess, for her part, made it through the evening thinking about getting home to Robin and their snuggling up cozily together. What a contrast that was……the warmth and peace that came over her when she thought of Robin, and the wary tenseness and feelings of retribution that filled her when she thought of James. Robin was her safe harbor, and right in the middle of an outrageously expensive dinner with James, all she could think about was melting into Robin's embrace.
God, I miss her right now.
The journey home seemed like it took forever. Jess was more than ready to jump out of the passenger seat when James finally pulled his rental car into the driveway of the ranch-style house and turned off the ignition. The thought of spending any more time with him tonight was just about the most unappealing thing to her, especially since she knew Robin waited for her inside, but she also knew she had a mission to accomplish, and this was the prime opportunity to get to the bottom of whatever it was he was trying to do. Resigned to getting the job done once and for all, she braced herself for the continuation of a very tedious evening.
James lightly jingled his car keys, sending a not so subtle signal that he definitely did not want the evening to end so soon. After all, the deal was nearly closed. He figured that Jess just needed one more little nudge, and then he could collect his winnings.
"Would you……" Jess cleared her throat as the words almost stuck. "Would you like to come in for a few minutes?"
Now that was the offer he had been waiting for and definitely one he wasn't about to refuse. "Sure."
They entered the house by the front door through the foyer, noticing that everything was very quiet inside. Jess casually checked the garage and saw that Robin's car was still there. Hopefully, she's asleep or at least watching TV in the back.
"Where's Robin tonight?" His question came right on cue.
That settled it. His obsessive interest in Robin was unnatural and raised red flag warnings clear across the state of Florida. "Maybe asleep. Does it matter?"
He shook his head, then took a seat on the sofa. He decided to get right to the point. "Listen, Jess, why drag this out any further? Why don't you just give me your formal answer tonight, and then we can start making our plans for the future?"
As if! Perhaps it would really be best to let him down now. The faster he got the entire picture, the faster he'd hopefully get out of town. And she had plenty up her sleeve to make him believe it would be in his best interest to do just that. She stood several feet away from him, refusing his implied invitation to join him on the sofa, and braced her hands on the back of the chair located in the opposite corner of the room. "Okay, here's my formal answer. I've considered your offer very carefully, and it's quite generous." She noted his smug expression, then continued. "However, considering the most recent developments, I really don't think I can accept."
J.R. Prescott's jaw dropped. "What?" Surely he couldn't have heard that right.
"It's just too risky at this time. I've got a reputation to protect, and I can't be tainted with the spectacle of federal inquiries even if it turns out there's nothing there."
"C'mon Jess." He was absolutely flabbergasted.
"My mind's made up."
"But, Jess, I've told you that we've done our homework, and there's nothing to worry about."
"If that investor deal of yours is half as rotten as it smells, you're in for a heap of trouble."
What had gone wrong? He'd had it all planned precisely to his advantage. "Look, we've got it covered. It's perfectly legitimate, and any auditor will see that."
"Perhaps so, but I won't be there."
James stood up and approached her. "Jess, c'mon." He was starting to whine. "You and I make a great team. We were always good together, and now we can be better." He saw, however, that she wasn't moved by his attempt at persuasion, so he tried harder. "The sky's the limit for us. We have the whole world in front of us. You're obviously not happy with the way things are right now, so make a change. What have you got to lose? You and Robin were never right for each other, and you know that now. Look at the problems you're having just because you were considering coming on board with me."
Problems you tried to instigate. Jess folded her arms and let him carry on.
"Let her go, Jess. She can go back to her family where she'd probably be better off, especially so soon after the accident, and then you can get on with your life the way it was meant to be. She'd only be in your way."
What a load of…… Jess's head suddenly snapped up. Wait a minute. "How did you know about the accident?" She approached him. "Did you have her investigated?"
"What?" He was perplexed. What did this have to do with anything they were discussing?
"You heard me. How did you know about the accident?"
"I……I……" He stammered.
"You had her investigated, didn't you." It was an accusation.
"No, of course not."
"Then how?" Jess's eyes became very intense. "And don't you lie to me."
"I'm sure you must've told me about it."
James really didn't see what the big deal was. "You must have."
"I didn't. I was very careful not to mention anything about Robin's private life to you. I'm sure you will recall our many conversations where I told you in no uncertain terms that Robin was none of your business."
"Then Robin must've said something."
"She didn't." How the hell did he find out?
"You don't know that. We had conversations where you weren't present, or have you forgotten about that already, Jess?"
"Oh, I do know. Robin would never tell you, of all people, about that." The pieces were starting to fall into place, and she definitely didn't like where they were headed. Jess closed the remaining gap between the two of them and got right up into his face. "Now, I'm going to ask you for the last time. How did you know about the accident?" Her eyes shot him daggers, a dangerous and very fierce expression chiseled on her face, as the intensity suddenly turned to anger boiling up inside of her.
"I……" James actually started to feel afraid.
Without warning, she grabbed his tie and twisted it back, choking him as she whirled him up against the wall and pinned him there with an arm across his throat, using a strength she hadn't realized she possessed. Those self-defense classes all those years ago must have finally started to pay off. "You will give me an answer."
"You're choking me, Jess." He gasped.
She was nearly out of control with quiet rage. Her blue eyes flashed, and her breath encircled him with a fiery fury. "You listen to me. You had better give me an answer in three seconds, or……" She glanced downward for just an instant and then right back up again. "I guarantee you'll be leaving here a soprano. Now, spill it, and make it good."
His face was turning red, and he could hardly breathe as his collar became a noose. "Jess……let go."
But she only tightened her hold. It all became a blur, as if she was on auto-pilot. Something had kicked in inside of her that seemed to have a mind all of its own……untamed, feral, and absolutely lethal.
James started to slide down the wall, his knees nearly buckling under him, and was only kept in place by the force of Jess pressed up against him.
"One……" She twisted the tie tighter. "Two……" Her arm pressed harder against his throat.
"What's going on?" The unexpected voice resonated from the opposite side of the room.
Startled, they both turned toward the sound, its familiarity echoing through the fuzziness in Jess's head. Robin.
Robin took in the scene. She had heard the commotion going on from all the way in the back of the house and had come out into the living room to see what was causing it. What she saw would have been frightening if she hadn't known Jess so well. She hurried over and placed a gentle hand on the older woman's shoulder. "Jess, honey, it's okay. Let him go."
There was a slight hesitation, then a semi-calm came over Jess as the soothing voice and touch brought the older woman fully to her senses once again. She stepped back just a bit and loosened her hold on James' tie, though still grasping it firmly in her hand.
James took several deep breaths for air and rubbed his throat as Jess continued to clutch his tie in place at mid-chest.
Robin still didn't understand what she had walked in on. "Tell me what's going on."
"James, here, was just about to tell me something very interesting."
"Really?" The younger woman raised an eyebrow. "I'd like to hear that, too."
Jess looked at Robin apologetically, both for what she had just witnessed and for what James was about to say. "He was about to tell me how he knew about……the accident, Robin. You didn't tell him, did you?"
The accident? "No, of course not."
"Neither did I. So, go ahead, James. Tell us who told you."
"I can't say."
Wrong answer. Blue eyes glanced over at Robin then glared back at James, a hint of a former fury returning and deepening their shade. "Let's try this again, shall we?" Jess gave his tie a forcible tug, a reminder of what would happen if he evaded the question any longer. "The name, James. Who told you?"
He coughed as the tie jerked roughly against his neck and the collar tightened all over again. How could this happen? Things had gotten so far out of control so quickly that he'd might as well cut his losses fast. Before she chokes me to death. He coughed again, then rasped the words she wanted to hear. "Thomas Wilson."
Robin brought her hand to her mouth and stood frozen in place.
Jess got up into his face again, not letting her grip on the tie loosen a single millimeter. "And just so we're clear, who's your anonymous investor?"
"You know I'm not at liberty to disclose that."
She yanked the tie taut, the wild look in her eyes warning him not to resist. "Who?"
"Jess…..." He gasped for breath as the noose tightened, realizing that any further protest was futile. There was no point in being choked to death over a deal gone bad. "Thomas Wilson."
Although Jess was too focused on James to see, Robin backed away in disbelief, trying to process the full implication of these new revelations.
Bastard. "Why?" Jess questioned James further. "Why all of this?"
He grabbed at his collar, extremely relieved when she gave him a little more room to breathe. "Isn't it obvious, Jess?" He rubbed his throat again. "He wants his daughter back."
"So you and he concocted this little scheme?"
"No, he came to me. Just one day, out of the blue, he called and introduced himself and wanted to meet."
"Convenient." Icy blue eyes narrowed. "What was the deal?"
"Very simple. He'd provide some investment capital, some kind of arrangement from his bank, and I'd make you an offer to join up with me. Robin would finally see that things would never be right between the two of you, especially given the history between you and me, and eventually go back home to her family."
Too neat. "That's crap and you know it. Try again."
"Jess…..." James protested.
She was deceptively calm, but her voice became deathly serious. "You have just one more chance, and believe me, I mean that." She twisted the end of the tie around her fist menacingly.
"Okay, okay." James knew he would probably pass out from lack of oxygen if he didn't give her the truth. "I was supposed to tempt you to come back to me, make you sneak around and hide things from Robin, make her jealous, and cause you to do things that she couldn't forgive you for. Then, when that had happened, her father believed she'd finally see who you really were and come to her senses and leave you."
Robin stepped up to him, stared hard at him for a long moment, then slapped him across the face. "Leave? Like you did?" Once the younger woman got herself going, it was not easy for her to stop. "You are one of the most despicable persons I have ever met, second only to my father. You would cause anyone trouble for the sake of your own ego. When Jess put her trust in you all those years ago, paid your way, put you through school, cared about you, how did you repay her? You betrayed her. You got what you wanted, and then you up and left without a word. That's what you did."
"That was a mistake." He now realized he had thoroughly miscalculated. "And I apologized."
Robin continued. "Your mistake was thinking that you could come back here and carry on as if none of it had ever happened. Your mistake was thinking that your alliance with my father would be to your benefit and that your scheme could ever have worked. Your mistake was thinking that I would be anything like you. I would never hurt her like that."
Something else occurred to Jess. "And what if your plan had in fact worked? What if Robin had actually left and you and I were teamed up with your business just as you wanted? What then? What did you get out of that, other than your company receiving the benefit of her father's investment capital?"
"Well, then you and I, Jess, would carry on like we had planned to do."
"That's more of the same crap." The older woman was very close to losing what little patience she had left, and in fact nearly did lose it, until she felt a familiar steadying hand squeeze her shoulder. "Now, spill the whole story, James, or so help me…..."
"All right, all right." He swallowed hard. After all, Jess still had his tie wrapped around her fist. "I was supposed to get a personal payout from him on the back end if I succeeded."
"So it was all about money with you." Jess's eyes flared, and she seemed to breathe fire at him. "Every single last bit of it. And after you had won your little reward, then you and I were supposed to do what? Go off into the sunset together?"
He kept silent.
"Come on now, James, I'm dying to hear how this turns out."
"Okay, yes, that's how it was supposed to be." He finally answered. He had never seen this menacing side of Jess before, and it was definitely not pleasant.
"What you really mean is that I was your trophy for a job well-done. Isn't that right?"
"Let me go, Jess. I can hardly breathe."
She released his tie harshly. "You disgust me."
"Aw c'mon, Jess." James quickly loosened up his tie and shirt collar. "Was it really all that bad? Everyone would have gotten what they wanted. You and I would finally be doing what we had planned to do all those years ago, Robin would go home to a family who cares for her, and her father would get his daughter back. It was a win-win."
"Don't try to justify the indefensible to me. You did it for the money, plain and simple, and to prove to yourself and your ego that you could still manipulate me. And then, after a while and after you had gotten tired of your little victory, you would have moved on to something and someone else." Jess raised a sarcastic eyebrow. "Am I close?"
"No." He wouldn't admit it to her even though he knew it was possible it could have happened that way. "You ignore the fact that it was working. You obviously still care about me, Jess, because you and Robin are having problems. So how good could it really have been between the two of you?"
Blue eyes cast a look over at Robin. "Sweetheart, are we having problems?"
He creased his eyebrows together. Sweetheart?
"Problems? Why, no, Jess." Robin's voice was one of total innocence. "Why would anyone think that?"
"But……but……" He stammered for a second time that night. "I thought you said, Jess, that you were having some difficulties. You, yourself, told me this several times, and confirmed it to me only a few hours ago. After all, look at what's happened. You kept secret our meetings, you were having dinner with me on a regular basis, she failed to tell you that she came to see me about accepting our job offer. The list goes on and on."
"Things you carefully manipulated." The older woman snapped back at him.
James seemed entirely confused. "But you even had arguments over these things. I heard you."
Blue eyes glanced again at Robin. "Sweetheart, do you know what he's talking about?"
Robin placed an arm conspicuously around Jess's waist. "I haven't a clue."
"All right. Wait a minute. What's going on?" It slowly dawned on James that he'd been duped. "You made it all up? You were playing me?"
"Oh please." Jess could hardly contain herself. "This coming from the king of manipulations and deceit. You're just mad at yourself for being a victim of your own game." This conversation, as revealing as it was, had become exceedingly tiresome. It was time to lay it all out on the line. "So, here's what's gonna happen." She poked James in the chest. "You're gonna shut down your little operation in town, leave here, and never come back again."
"But Jess, I got people. I got contracts and commitments. I can't just close shop."
"Then find a place somewhere else, just not here." Jess poked him again. "No one says you have to be local to design a building."
"We'd be at a disadvantage over local firms."
"Robin, I'm starting to hear little violins, aren't you?" It was a rhetorical question made purely for satirical effect. Jess continued. "Maybe you're not understanding me, so let me spell it out for you." There was that certain glee in her eyes, the same glee Robin had seen at the kick-off meeting earlier that day. "You're gonna walk out of here tonight, and believe me that is a privilege considering everything you've done, and you're gonna shut down your business in town, leave, and never set foot here again." She gave him one last poke in the chest. "Because if you don't, you'll have to hire on more legal staff to handle all of the new federal inquiries you'll be receiving." She paused a moment to let that statement sink in.
James' mouth fell open as the realization hit home. "That was you? Jess, how could you?"
"Easy." She quipped. "I've got the district attorney on speed dial."
He was truly flabbergasted. He had totally underestimated her. The Jess he knew was trusting and easily managed. He had known what she would do even before she knew she was going to do it. But this Jess……this Jess was different, totally unpredictable, capable of just about anything, and clearly out for blood. What he didn't realize was that he had made her exactly what she was. "You would jeopardize all those people's livelihoods for a little revenge?"
"Don't give me that." She spat. "This investor scheme of yours and Thomas Wilson's is a time bomb waiting to explode. You caused it, not me, so don't even suggest that your problems are somehow my fault. Anyone who works for you deserves to work for a company that's not involved in shady dealings. They'll be better off when everything's been fully scrutinized."
"You had no right to call in the feds." He became indignant. "You were privy to confidential information. I trusted you."
Trust. The irony of his statement was not lost on Jess. How does it feel? She remained unmoved by his petulance.
"But what will I tell my board of directors?" Why he was at a loss to handle this disaster of his own making was a mystery.
"Not my problem." Jess led him to the front door and opened it. "So let's make sure we're absolutely clear. You're gonna shut your operation here, you're gonna leave town, and you're never gonna come back. And further, if either Robin or I ever see you again or even hear through the wind that you're back in town……and that means merely changing planes at the airport, you'll not only be dealing with federal regulators, but I will have the State Attorney General all over your case."
Damn. How was he going to explain this?
"It also means that if by some unlucky coincidence Robin and I are in another state or country, and you just happen to be where we are purely by chance, you will turn around and walk away. Fast. Because if either of us merely gets a glimpse of you in the same area code as we happen to be in, the State Attorney General will be only seconds away from my itchy speed dial finger." She grabbed the end of his tie and stuffed it into his top pocket. "You got that?"
He nodded, defeated. He'd have to find a way out of this mess.
"Good." The older woman gave Robin a satisfied look, and Robin, knowing Jess, took it as Jess's way of saying she had resolved the problem.
Directing her attention to James once again, Jess meticulously smoothed the newly formed wrinkles from his shirt. Her tone of voice softened deceptively. "Now, I would suggest that you get out of here while I'm still in such a good mood." She promptly ushered him outside and slammed the door immediately behind him.
Both Robin and Jess stood and stared for a long moment at the closed door, then just looked at each other.
"Sweetheart?" Jess lightly touched the younger woman's shoulder as Robin stared blankly out the picture window into the dark night sky. "How are you?"
"Fine." It wasn't the truth.
Long arms wrapped around Robin from behind. "I'm so sorry."
"So am I."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
The petite woman nodded silently, then turned around and faced Jess.
Jess could see the tear that had just escaped, capturing it on the tip of her thumb. "Oh, honey." She drew the younger woman in close to her. "You don't deserve this pain."
"Neither do you. I know what his coming back here meant for you. It sickens me that my father brought this on and dredged all of this up for you."
"Let's sit, okay?" Jess led them to the sofa. "It's over now."
"It's not over." Robin replied sadly. "It will never be over. My father will never stop trying to control me by whatever means he can." A couple more tears fell as Robin cupped Jess's cheek. "As long as I'm with you, he will not stop."
What is she saying? "He doesn't matter."
Petite fingers brushed against Jess's cheek then slowly eased through the dark hair. "He'll keep trying to hurt you because of me. Look what he's done. He's tried to blackmail you, ruin your career, turn the firm against you, and now, he's conspired to make you relive a terrible time in your life. All for what? To break us apart?" Robin shook her head. "How can I let this go on?"
Don't feel guilty for him. "It hasn't exactly been a picnic for you, either, sweetheart." Jess gently wiped the tears from Robin's eyes. "And you're not letting anything go on. I'm choosing to be with you, remember? Your father comes with that territory. I understand that, and I freely accept it. Robin, if you don't know this by now, I'd walk across hot coals just to get a glimpse of your face and look into the sweetest green eyes I've ever seen in my life." In fact, Jess, right at that moment, couldn't tear her gaze away.
"But is it worth it? Is it worth all the pain and the trouble?"
"If you're asking me whether loving you is worth the problems your father's interference causes, then let me say this. Loving you is worth everything." It was an understated sentiment, but the magnitude of the emotion was astounding. "I've never known such happiness."
"Even after what he's done?" He'll keep hurting you.
"It doesn't diminish my love for you or my desire to want to spend the rest of my life with you."
Robin curled up next to Jess on the sofa and was quiet for a very long time thinking about what Jess had said. It was hard seeing the person Robin loved so much being assaulted time and time again just for the fact that the person chose to love her back. And then there was the primary betrayal and deception by her father. All of the empty words and manipulative ploys he used to lull Robin into thinking he was trying to accept her relationship with Jess and that he wanted to make amends only to be scheming in the worst possible way behind her back. "He's dead to me now."
Jess held Robin tight. "I know it hurts."
"I told him the last time that if he tried to come between us, he'd never see me again. And then I started to trust him again. That was a big mistake. He just can't let me be who I am."
As angry as Jess was at James, and it was definitely significant, it didn't even come close to the deep rage she felt toward Thomas Wilson. And she was sure that all of this maneuvering nearly one year to the day after that terrible accident was no mere coincidence, either. It makes sense now why I saw him that day at James' hotel. So all bets were off. If Jess even got a hint that Thomas Wilson was anywhere near Robin ever again, she'd destroy him. His deceptions and deliberate misrepresentations may have set Robin's faith in everything back months, just when she was making real progress. "Don't let what he did control you, sweetheart. You're in control of your own life. You make the decisions and choices that are right for you, and if anyone doesn't agree, it's their problem, not yours."
"But he takes it out on you."
Jess gently hooked two fingers under the petite woman's chin and lifted it so their eyes met evenly. "Hot coals, Robin. Just remember that."
She's being so wonderful about this. And if truth be told, Robin was entirely enchanted, even under the solemn circumstances. The sentiment Jess expressed was so.…..well, what? So romantic that it nearly made Robin melt right then and there. "I'll remember."
"Good." Jess gave her a tiny kiss.
"You know…..." Green eyes held steadily onto blue. "The way you were tonight……I've never seen that side of you."
Well, Jess acknowledged she had gone over the top. She'd let her anger consume her and display itself aggressively and physically. She grimaced visibly. I frightened her. "Honey, I'm sorry. I don't know what happened. Something snapped inside of me when I realized what was going on. Part of it was because of the sick game James had played with yet another betrayal, and the other part was that I knew your father's orchestration of all of this would hurt you deeply. I just lost it." Truly, Jess was at a loss to explain it further, and it showed.
I recognize that expression. "You're thinking that you scared me, aren't you?"
"Did I?" Jess held her breath for the answer.
"What I saw was a very brave woman protecting us from the evil that had invaded our world. You had every right to be angry after everything that had happened."
"I totally lost it, Robin. I swear I could have strangled him with my bare hands for what he'd done." And I nearly did.
Petite hands gently took hold of the larger hands resting loosely nearby. Robin then placed a tender kiss on each one. "These are hands of a protector. I know that for a fact. He deserved everything you gave him and more."
The dark headed nodded. Actually, he was damn lucky to leave here without so much as a scratch.
"You're my hero, Jess." Robin meant every word. "And don't you ever forget that."
Jess didn't argue with the characterization, although she was sure she didn't deserve it.
"Where did you learn those moves? You had him totally pinned."
The older woman shrugged as if it was a mystery. "I took some self-defense classes several years back, just as something to keep me from spending my entire life at the office, which I would have done." She then became a little reflective. "And perhaps also to work through some aggression that lingered after the last time James was here and pulled his stunts with me. I guess from that."
"I'm glad you did." Robin stated simply. There was still more left to be said, but that would have to wait for another day.
They were silent for quite some time, both of them contemplating all that had just transpired, before Jess spoke again. "You ready for bed now, kiddo?" I've wanted to hold you since dinner.
It would be good to snuggle up safe and secure in loving arms, free from the villains who only sought to destroy. "Yeah, I'm ready." It would definitely be good to get past this day.
And finally let this nightmare end.
To Be Continued ..
Return to the Academy
© Copyright 04/05/06