For Disclaimers See Chapter 1
THE BLUEST EYES IN TEXAS
Copyright 2000 by Texbard
(posted February 8, 2001)
The laser light show ended, and throngs of fair-goers were headed out of the stadium, dispersing toward various fairground exits. It was the last major event of the evening and there was little else to do but go home. Most of the gaming and food vendor stands were closed, and maintenance people were busy sweeping up trash and hosing down pavement in preparation to start all over again the next morning. The fair would run for two more weeks.
Kennedy and Carson walked contentedly through the gates and across the back parking lot, and began making their way down a long row of vehicles. It was the last row in the lot and was fairly deserted of people. There was a slight chill in the air, along with the mixed scent of fair food and tar from the nearby railroad tracks.
Carson still clung to her two bears and every now and then she looked up at her balloon and smiled. Kennedy had the purple snake draped around her shoulders and one hand placed protectively in the small of the blonde's back. Both women were tired but happy. The day together had been a perfect escape from their worries about Nicholas Giovani.
The brunette listened to the faint sound of music that emanated from the midway where a few rides were still open, and the much closer sound of the quiet slap of their feet against the pavement. She frowned, as she realized she also heard steady footsteps behind them. She stopped momentarily, using her hand to tug her companion to a halt as well. The feet behind them took a few more steps and then also grew quiet.
"What's wrong?" Pale grey eyes regarded her in the faint light.
"Not sure." Kennedy patted Carson's lower back. "Keep walking, and be quiet for a second."
They resumed their pace and the feet behind fell back into step as well. The attorney peered over her shoulder and spotted their source, a tall man wearing a tweed blazer, boots, and khaki slacks. He had dark hair and even in the low light, faint stubble was visible on his face. A light-colored leather bag was slung over one of his shoulders. When their eyes met, he hastily looked away, toward the other side of the lot.
As they approached the rental car, Kennedy slowed down and pulled Carson closer to her side. She tilted her head toward her friend and kept her voice low. "Baby, there's a guy following us. He's been pretty steady on our tail since we entered this row of cars." She paused, listening intently.
The faint click of a camera shutter reached her ears and her suspicions were confirmed. Damn. Can't believe I haven't been more alert today. "Stay behind me." She handed off the snake and gently nudged Carson closer to the car, and then turned around. "You're pretty good." Her voice dropped to its lowest register. "You been following us all day? You'd just about have to have been, since no one knew where we were going today."
The man stopped. The surprise in his eyes was the only answer she needed. Kennedy edged closer to him. "You wanna tell me who you're working for, or do I even need to guess?" She came within three feet of the man and held out one hand. "Give me the film. All of it."
She cursed as the man turned and began running toward the parking lot exit. "Damn. Try to keep up, Carson. I may need you." She took off after him, zigzagging around a few on-lookers the tall man had almost bowled over. Closing the distance, she leaped forward and tackled him, knocking him to the ground on his stomach. She quickly grabbed one arm and pinned it behind him, pulling it up high against his back so that any attempt to escape would result in intense pain.
Kennedy used her other hand to remove a camera case from around his neck. She deftly opened it and dumped out several rolls of film. Looking over her shoulder she spotted Carson, who was standing at a safe distance a few yards away. "Do you have room for these in your bum bag?" She held out the film.
"My what?" Blonde brows furrowed as Carson stepped closer.
"Your pack there." Kennedy handed her the rolls and then patted the man down, searching for any additional film he might have stashed in his pockets. Finding none, she finally pried the camera from his other hand and popped the back open.
"Hey. You'll expose the film," the man finally spoke.
"That would be the idea." With both hands occupied, she ripped the unfinished roll from the back of the camera with her teeth, dropped the camera, and handed the film off to her friend. "Now, you gonna tell me who you work for, or do I have to break your arm?"
"I ain't gotta tell youse nothin'." The man struggled with her. "Get offa me you damned dyke."
"You're not from around here, are ya'?" The thick northeastern accent floated past her senses. The brunette toyed with the idea of making good on her threat to break his arm, but decided she was already pushing the limits of what a jury would find acceptable if the man pressed assault charges. She carefully slid off his back and stood up, stepping backward toward Carson. "Guess you get to go back and tell Giovani that you failed. Wonder if he'll treat you any better than I have?"
The man stood up. They were under a parking lot lamp, and he looked down at his clothing. "You ruint my shoirt." He smoothed down the torn front of an expensive designer button-down. He retrieved his camera from the ground, studying a cracked lense. "And busted my camera. I oughta make youse pay for that, ya god-dammed bitch." His upper lip curled into a snarl. "One way or another."
Kennedy watched him closely, backing up slightly. He played with something in his blazer pocket. She didn't remember feeling it when she patted him down, and her nape hairs prickled. Gun? "Carson . . ." She fished in her pocket for her keys. ". . . go get in the car and lock the door. If anything happens to me, get the hell out of here."
"No," a stubborn voice answered her. "I'm not leaving you out here alone."
The brunette sighed internally. She didn't have time to argue. "Okay, then at least take the keys and duck behind one of the cars, out of sight. Please. Do it." She mouthed a silent 'thank you' when her friend complied with her request. Just as the keys left her fingertips, the man lunged, grabbing for her knees.
She jumped to the side and watched as he landed clumsily on his hands and knees. This time he was quick, avoiding her attempt to pin him down again. He rolled and she found herself straddled across his stomach, and felt a hard impact to her chest as his fist connected with her diaphragm, forcefully expelling the air from her lungs. She almost doubled over, but managed to catch herself just in time.
"Son of a bitch!" She slammed her fist into his mouth, splitting his lip. He growled and threw her off of him, and stood back up, just as she rolled out of his reach and came up on her feet. She spun around to face him, as he lunged toward her again. I've had about enough of this. She quickly swung her leg up and around, nailing him solidly in the groin with the toe of her hiking boot. He immediately cried out, grabbing himself as he dropped to his knees.
She kicked him again, this time sending him tumbling onto his side. He was still agonizing over the first kick, both hands occupied, as she reached into his pocket to retrieve the suspicious lump. It was a zoom lens for the camera. She dropped it to the ground.
"Run!" She leaped past him, grabbing Carson's hand and half-dragging, half carrying her to the rental car. She looked back over her shoulder once, and eased up a bit. Musta kicked him harder than I thought. The man was curled up on his side, laying on the pavement.
They reached the car and she unlocked it, helping Carson inside. While she moved to the driver's side, Carson divested herself of stuffed animals, small pack, and a water bottle, dumping all of them into the back seat. She shoved the balloon out of the way under her legs against the floorboard, and fastened her seat belt.
Kennedy flung the door open and slid into the front seat, starting the engine and locking the doors. She backed out and began to drive away, watching in the rearview mirror as the man started running toward them. Her heart was beating wildly and she drove by rote, exiting the parking lot and pulling into the street.
They rode in shaken silence for a few minutes, both collecting their scrambled thoughts. Finally, Carson reached across and gently touched Kennedy's leg. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." She made a quick self-assessment, noting a dull throbbing to her midsection, and a stinging sensation in the knuckles of her right hand. She peered at it, grimacing at blood and gashes across three of her knuckles, along with more throbbing in her wrist. "Son of a bitch."
"What?" A fearful voice responded, as Carson looked around behind them, thinking maybe they were being followed.
"Sorry. Nothing. Musta split my knuckles on that guy's teeth when I hit him." She shook her hand slightly. "Damned wrist is starting to swell, too. You okay?" She made the turn onto an entrance ramp for Interstate 30, heading west toward the mix master that would take them to the Tollway and Carson's apartment.
"Yeah. Just scared, more than anything." The paralegal swallowed several times, her mouth as dry as cotton. She unfastened her seat belt and turned toward the back seat.
"Put you seat belt back on." Kennedy's voice took on a panicked tone that Carson missed in her pre-occupied state.
"Just getting my water bottle . . ."
"Dammit Carson, forget the water bottle! Just do what I said," the attorney yelled at her, the sound hitting her ears as effectively as a slap in the face.
Surprised and confused grey eyes met hooded blue ones, and Carson mutely sat back down and re-fastened her seat belt. "What's wrong? Are we about to make a quick getaway or something?" She peered in the rear-view mirror, spotting only a few cars at the late hour.
"No." Kennedy felt about three inches high. "Just . . . nothing."
"Nothing?" An angry voice responded. "You just yelled at me like I'm in kindergarten for no good reason?"
"No." Kennedy sighed. "I didn't mean it like that."
"Then what did you mean, exactly?" The paralegal crossed her arms over her chest.
"Can we just drop this?" She made the exit for the Tollway. "It's stupid."
"Oh, so now I'm stupid." Carson looked pointedly away, staring out the side window, seeing nothing.
"No . . . I didn't say that, Carson. I . . ." Kennedy trailed off, watching the hard set of Carson's jaw line. "We probably have more important things to talk about, like what the heck was going on with that guy back there, don't you think?"
She was greeted with silence, as the blonde made a show of turning more fully away from her. Great. She's been through hell this weekend, and you have to go and screw it up even more, don't you, Shea? She mentally chastised herself. Just tell her.
She felt the cold hand of fear wrap around her heart, and blinked, refusing to give in to even the remote possibility of tears. What if I tell her and I lose her? She stole another glance at Carson, who continued to ignore her. Like I haven't already lost her.
After twenty minutes that seemed more like hours, the uncomfortable ride back to Carson's apartment finally ended. Carson unlocked the door and stepped out of the car. Something brushed against her arm, and she watched as the Swissy-mouse balloon escaped, quickly flying up and out of reach. "Great. That would just about wrap up this evening," she mumbled.
Kennedy saw the balloon disappear and heard the blonde's words. She hung her head and took a deep breath, and then waited until Carson retrieved her belongings from the back seat. She noted with a faint glimmer of hope that the paralegal did pick up the bears, and at the same time left the purple snake in the car. Her hope shattered as Carson slammed the car door and began to walk toward her apartment, leaving the brunette standing beside the car alone.
Her shoulders slumped, as she waged an internal battle with her own insecurities. She pursed her lips and then slowly followed Carson, keeping her distance. The paralegal took the stairwell up and Kennedy caught up with her, as she dug her keys out of her pack and un-locked the front door.
The attorney was grateful that the door wasn't slammed in her face, and she mutely crossed the threshold, watching as Carson disappeared through the kitchen and into the backside of the apartment. Kennedy sat down on the couch and looked around, wondering how such a perfect day had gone so badly so quickly. Guess I better pack up my stuff and go get a room somewhere. Her suitcase sat on the floor at the end of the couch, and she pulled it over, unzipping it and shoving a few articles of clothing inside that had been folded up on top of it.
A rattling noise came from the kitchen, and she dimly realized it was Carson getting some ice from the freezer. The blonde entered the living room and stopped. "What are you doing?"
Pale blue eyes slowly tracked upward, reflecting utter defeat. "Figured I'd go to a hotel. I can come back tomorrow and work stuff out with your complex about the no entry order. Then I guess we can talk about whether or not you need to find another lawyer." She looked back down and finished her task, zipping up the suitcase with agonizing finality.
Carson crossed the room, kneeling on the floor in front of her. Kennedy felt something cold press against her right hand and wrist. "Here." The blonde held onto her hand from underneath. "Ice. Thought it might keep it from swelling up so much."
"Th . . . thanks." The brunette felt her stomach turn over. Tell her. "What time do you want me back here in the morning?"
"You . . . don't have to go. You can stay here." Carson gestured toward the couch.
"Okay. Thank you." She cleared her throat, feeling the paralegal resettle the ice pack. "Do . . . you need a referral for another attorney? Heidi probably has more connections here than I do, or I could look up someone . . ."
"Don't want another attorney." Carson's voice trembled. "Want you."
Kennedy watched as the blonde covered her face with one hand, and a single aching sob escaped from Carson's lips. Oh God. "Carson, please don't cry." She tilted the paralegal's chin up with her free hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Sad grey eyes blinked, sending a scattering of tears across the blonde's cheeks. "We've shared so much with each other. I don't understand. Why did you treat me that way? I can understand back in the parking lot, with a dangerous situation and all, but in the car . . . for you to just order me around harshly like I'm a child, with absolutely no explanation . . ." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "I don't want to fight with you. I love . . . I . . . I care about you."
Kennedy felt her own eyes sting, and she blinked. Her voice grew very gentle. "I love you too, Carson. And you do deserve an explanation." Tell her.
Carson felt the tight vise around her chest dissipate, to be replaced by a sudden surge of joy. She released a tiny yelp of pure happiness, and launched herself into Kennedy's arms, holding on tightly to the brunette. "You do?"
"Yeah." Soft lips brushed across Carson's cheek. "I do. Errfff . . ."
"What?" The paralegal pulled back a bit.
"My stomach, where that guy hit me." She looked down. "Kinda tender."
"Oh. Sorry." The blonde re-settled herself against Kennedy's side. "Should we take a look? Here, move closer, under the light." She directed her friend, watching her long frame shift toward the end of the couch.
The attorney pulled her sweatshirt over her head, and then un-tucked the short-sleeved polo shirt she was wearing underneath. She slowly raised the shirt to just below her breasts, and they both studied her mid-section. Carson leaned closer. "Oh, honey. That's gonna be a nasty bruise by morning." She peered intently at the reddened skin, which was already starting to turn pale purple in the center. Impulsively, she leaned in, softly kissing the injured skin before she drew back.
Kennedy held her breath at the contact, and forced herself to concentrate on the conversation she knew was coming. "Nah. I've had a lot worse." She tugged her sweatshirt back on and pulled Carson over onto the couch next to her, draping an arm across the blonde's shoulders and hugging her close to her side. "How tired are you?"
Two blonde brows quirked. "Not very much, why?"
"I . . . owe you an explanation, but it's kind of a long story. It's already late, and we need to get up early tomorrow." She hesitated. "It's not a nice story. One of the ugliest parts of my life, as a matter of fact. You might think differently about me after you hear it."
Carson watched, as Kennedy's eyes dropped, breaking their gaze. She reached over and guided the brunette's face toward her, scooted up, and gently kissed her, first on her tanned cheek, and then a more lingering contact on her lips. She broke away and idly ran her fingers back through the dark hair. "I told you my worst memory, Kennedy, something that I felt so horrible about that I hated myself for it. You can trust me. I'm not going anywhere."
"I was afraid you were going to dump me because of what happened in the car." Dusky lashes blinked uncertainly. "You were pretty mad."
"I was." The blonde smiled sheepishly. "That's how I am. I tend to blow, but then it passes pretty quickly. I don't hold it inside for very long. I forgive pretty easily. I didn't even consider dumping you. So . . . did we just have our first fight?"
"Yeah." Blue eyes twinkled. "Wanna know the best part about fighting?"
"What's that?" Carson felt herself shifted, and lifted, until she was settled across Kennedy's lap.
"Making up." Kennedy tilted her head to the side, closing the short distance, and kissing her friend soundly. After a leisurely contact, she released Carson's lips and sighed. "Unfortunately, we haven't finished talking it out, so making up is a little premature at this point."
"Mmmm . . ." The paralegal snuggled up, careful to avoid direct pressure against Kennedy's stomach. "Do we get to make up some more after we talk?"
"Count on it." Kennedy carefully moved out from under her friend, and stood up, pulling Carson along with her. "Why don't we get ready for bed first, and then talk? That way, no matter how long it goes, we can just go to sleep afterward."
"You mean after we make up." The blonde pecked her on the shoulder.
"Yeah." Kennedy grinned. "Definitely after we make up."
Kennedy pulled the comfortable worn t-shirt over her head and smoothed it down. She nervously wiped her hands down the front of the flannel boxers and then pushed her hair back. Now or never, Kennedy Shea. She said she's not going anywhere. Sometimes you just gotta take a leap of faith.
She made her way out of the bathroom and into the bedroom, where Carson was sitting back, propped up against a pile of pillows on the bed. "Hey, you. Come here." The blonde batted her eyelashes playfully, and patted the space next to her.
The attorney smiled briefly and then her brows furrowed, as she summoned up spare reserves of courage. She slowly sat down and joined her friend, closing her eyes as she felt Carson pull her in, the paralegal's arms wrapping around her like a warm security blanket. "This is nice."
"Yeah. Seems like you're always holding me. I wanted to hold you this time." Carson felt Kennedy settle in a bit more, the tension draining out of her body. "Nasty end to a great day, huh?"
"You can say that again." Kennedy ran her fingertips up and down a soft forearm. "That whole fight scene is still a little bit surreal. I haven't punched anyone in a long time."
"How're your knuckles?" Carson reached down and gently grasped the hand in question.
"Okay. I cleaned them up with some peroxide you had in the bathroom, and put a little of your antiseptic cream on them." She studied her fingers with detachment. "My wrist still hurts a little, but it doesn't seem to be swelling up any more."
"Good." The paralegal lifted Kennedy's hand, tenderly kissing the injured knuckles. "What do you think that guy was up to? Giovani already has pictures of us. Why would they take more?"
"Don't know." The attorney frowned. "I'm wondering if they have any clue who I am. If they read your e-mails or traced any of the calls you made to me from your office, it would be easy enough for them to find out, so I guess we can assume they know who I am by now."
"Do you think they're trying to catch us in some really compromising position, something that would embarrass me so much that they think I'd give Giovani what he wants, rather than have the photos sent to the managing partner?" Carson felt her anger rise again.
"Maybe. We need to develop all that film we collected and see what kinds of things he was taking pictures of." Kennedy pursed her lips. "But I think there's more going on here than Giovani being after you. They're spying on your entire firm, as far as I can tell. I have a buddy at the State Board of Insurance. When I get back to Austin tomorrow, I'm going to give him a call and check out Giovani's agency." She paused, reaching over to touch Carson's shoulder. "If he bothers you at all, you give me a call. I'm close to hunting him down anyway, and showing him just exactly how I feel about what he said he wants from you."
"I appreciate that, but I hope he'll just leave me alone." Carson smiled at the mental picture of her friend giving Giovani a dose of the medicine she'd given the photographer at the fair. "If he does bother me, I'll just have to make things very clear to him. I don't care what they do, I wouldn't touch that ugly little creep with a ten-foot pole. They can kiss my ass."
"And what a lovely ass it is. I have first-hand knowledge." Kennedy grinned as she watched her friend blush. "Darlin,' if Giovani or any of his goons were to even try to kiss your ass . . . or any other part of your body . . . I would have to introduce them to parts of mine they don't want to meet. As that photographer found out the hard way."
"I think you did a lot more damage to him than he did to you." Carson chuckled. "That kick was impressive. Did you ever study martial arts?"
"Nope." The attorney smiled. "That was a basic west Texas bar room brawl kick. It's come in handy a few times. Works even better with my cowboy boots on. The ones with the nickel-plated toes."
"Ewww. I'm just learning all kinds of things about you, aren't I?" Carson giggled, and then grew sober, as she felt the body in her arms stiffen. "Kennedy . . . I'm sorry I got so mad at you. You kind of pushed a button with me. That wasn't very fair. You had no way of knowing . . ."
"Button?" The brunette grinned, turning and playfully poking her friend's navel through her t-shirt."
"You . . ." Carson trailed off in happy exasperation. "Never mind. Not that kind of button. But you know that already, don't you?"
"Yeah." Kennedy gave the blonde her most charming smile. "I just like messing with you."
"Uh-huh. Seriously. You pushed my helpless dumb blonde button when you yelled at me about my seat belt." Carson's eyes took on a faraway look.
"Sweetheart, you have a brilliant mind. I haven't known you very long, but we've talked enough for me to know that. I have never thought you were a dumb blonde. Or helpless. You're handling everything with an incredible amount of bravery and common sense." Kennedy snuggled in closer, draping one arm around Carson's upraised knee. "I'm sorry I made you feel that way."
"It's not just you." The paralegal sighed. "It's everyone. Guys . . . and girls . . . I've dated in the past. Some of the attorneys I work for. They just see me . . . my hair color . . . my size . . . and they automatically think I'm this sweet little helpless thing, and they either want to walk all over me, rescue me, or try to tell me what to do. And it really pisses me off. Even my own father. He could never admit I was capable of doing anything for myself, even though I proved I could over and over again."
"Ah." Kennedy peered at angry grey eyes. "So when I started yelling, you felt like I was trying to tell you what to do, trying to control you?"
"Exactly." Carson's eyes softened. "Logically, I know that's not what you were trying to do, but emotionally, it takes me right back to when I was growing up, and even later, when I was in high school and college. My father . . . after I learned to drive . . . if he happened to be in the front yard when I was leaving the house. . . he would stand out on the sidewalk to the side and behind the car, and direct me while I backed out of the driveway. Heck, if it was raining or something, he'd come running out of the house to do it. I mean good grief. It was a short straight driveway with a clear view of the street from both directions. It made me so angry and embarrassed . . . any of the neighbors that were outside could see . . . God . . . I can still get boiling mad just thinking about it. And that's just one example. He was always trying to tell me how to do everything. And no matter how hard I tried, my way was never good enough for him. It never ceased to amaze him that I could do anything by myself. He was always trying to do it for me."
I've got to tell her. Kennedy swallowed. "Looks like we had a case of cross-button pushing."
"Oh. So I pushed one of your buttons, too?" The blonde chuckled. "'Cross-button pushing.' That almost sounds kinky."
"Yeah. It does." Kennedy managed to smile. "And yes, when you took off your seatbelt, you pushed one of my buttons."
"Really?" The paralegal briefly replayed the scene in her mind. "That makes me feel a little bit better. I was having a hard time figuring out why it was such a crime to want a drink of water."
"I'm sorry, Carson." Blue eyes reflected deep remorse. "I should have explained up front."
"It's okay. We're both totally stressed after the past couple of days. It's no wonder we're a little extra touchy. Now . . ." Carson stroked the dark head. "What is this terrible secret of yours?"
Kennedy chuckled wryly, in appreciation of Carson's attempt to lighten the mood. She swallowed hard and opened her eyes. "Remember I told you that some stuff happened when I was in Houston, and I was forced to re-evaluate my life?"
"Yeah." The paralegal continued to comb her fingers through Kennedy's hair.
"After I got my share of the fees from the Tejas case, I went a little crazy." She bit her lower lip. "A lot crazy, I guess. I was free of the long hours I'd been working for so long, and I finally had time to develop a social life. I found the lesbian bars in Houston and made some friends. We started hanging out on the weekends, partying indoors when it was cold, and going to the beach down at Galveston when it was warm. Didn't much matter where we were. We were all young, free, and had more money than sense. Booze flowed freely at our parties, along with some really primo weed. I was drunk or high almost every weekend. Or both."
Carson's brows shot into her hairline, trying to reconcile the information with the person she knew and held in her arms. "That's pretty difficult to picture."
"That's what Valerie says too." The brunette shifted so that she could face her friend. "Even Valerie doesn't know most of my story, just that I'm a reformed party girl. Heidi's about the only one I still keep in touch with from back then. She's been a good friend since we were roommates together in law school. She used to fly down from Dallas to Houston every weekend just to party with us."
"Heidi's still a party girl, isn't she?" The blonde commented quietly.
"Yeah. I worry about her sometimes, although as far as I can tell she still limits the drinking to the weekends. Doesn't get smashed during the week." Kennedy nervously licked her lips. "That's how I was in Houston. Totally sober during the week. It's not that I got falling-down drunk, even on the weekends. I really didn't do that very often. Just drank enough to get a comfortable buzz going. Hardly ever had a hangover the next day. I don't think I was an alcoholic. Just young and irresponsible. Besides, it was too easy to quit, when I finally did."
"What made you stop?" Carson saw the brief flicker of pain in her friend's eyes, and tightened her hold.
"I met someone during that last summer I was in Houston. She had just graduated from University of Houston but had moved back home to Bastrop for the summer to take a break. She was in one of the bars one night and we started talking. She came into town every weekend too, just like Heidi. She still had a lot of friends in Houston and was planning to move back there that fall." Kennedy paused, studying Carson's face. She reached out and brushed her fingertips across the blonde's jaw line. "I . . . don't normally talk about past girlfriends a lot with new ones. Always thought it was sort of insensitive. Not that there have been that many. I wouldn't, if it weren't an integral part of the story."
"It's okay." The paralegal grasped Kennedy's hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. "You told me that you didn't care who I did or did not sleep with in the past. All that mattered was that I was with you now. You're with me now. I'm not going to get jealous over someone from your past, honey. I'm a big girl."
"Thank you." Kennedy leaned in and pecked Carson's lips. "I figured you could deal with it, but I just wanted to make sure. Anyway, one thing led to another, and we started dating. It was my first serious relationship. Or as serious as I was capable of at that point. I was twenty-six, cocky, and smooth as silk, especially when it came to pretty girls, which she was."
Was? Carson made no comment about the past tense, sensing that there was a reason, and that she was going to hear it soon enough. "What's her name?"
"Angela." She hadn't spoken the name aloud in a very long time, and it felt strange as it rolled off her tongue. "After we met, she came to Houston every weekend and hung out with us. Sometimes we did stuff just the two of us, but more often than not we ran with the group. One of the girls had access to a huge double-decker party barge down on Galveston Bay, and we took advantage of it almost every weekend that summer."
"Sounds like fun."
"It was a blast." Kennedy's eyes became wistful. "We motored around all day long on Saturdays and Sundays, drinking . . . dancing . . . swimming . . . and on Saturday nights we'd crash at a couple of beach houses that belonged to some of the girls' parents. We'd stay until late on Sunday nights and not go back to Houston until we absolutely had to. It was only about an hour's drive between the two. Anyway, by the end of that September, Angela was planning to move in with me and continue her job search."
"Were you in love with her?" Carson had to ask. "Not that it matters now. Just wondering. I . . . want to be able to understand your feelings, that's all."
"I think . . . maybe. It was an immature love, if that's what it was. I had good intentions, but I'm not sure if I really understood what love was." The brunette gazed intently into grey eyes. But I think I do now. "Have you ever been in love?"
"My answer is about like yours." The paralegal looked down. "In college I dated a guy for about two years. We never slept together. But we were together almost every day and studied together almost every night. We . . . um . . . broke up because he figured out that he was gay."
"Seriously?" Kennedy's eyes grew wide. "That's pretty ironic."
"Tell me about it." Carson chuckled. "I should have figured myself out better by that point. Most college students don't date for two years and never have sex. And we didn't even kiss very much. But I did care about him, and it broke my heart when we broke up."
"No one should ever break your heart." Kennedy cupped Carson's cheek with her hand, stroking the soft skin with her thumb.
The blonde leaned into the contact. She closed her eyes and asked what she perceived to be a hard question. "So what happened with you and Angela?"
The brunette shifted, leaning back against Carson's chest and laying her head back on the paralegal's shoulder. She closed her eyes as she felt Carson's arms wrap around her waist, the shorter woman's legs pressed in against her hips. Be strong for me baby. The silent request was more like a prayer. "I . . . don't know if I can . . ."
"Shhhh." Carson kissed her friend's head. "I won't push you, honey . . . if you don't want to tell me, it's okay."
"No." The attorney ran her fingertips back and forth along the blonde's muscular thigh. "It's just . . . hard. But you need to know, if you and I are going to ever really get to know each other."
"Okay." Carson kissed her head again. "Whatever you need to do, just remember that what I do already know of you, I love."
Kennedy shifted sideways, curling up against the warm body that pillowed her. Where'd you come from, Carson Garret, and how did I get lucky enough to find you? She took a deep breath. "Hang onto that, sweetheart."
"I plan on it." As she spoke, Carson felt a soft kiss to the side of her neck, and then Kennedy settled back into her warm comfy cradle.
"The first weekend of October that year, we had a huge end-of-summer bash on the beach down in Galveston. Angela was there, and we were celebrating her move to Houston. I had taken off work that week before, and we had moved her stuff from Bastrop to my condo." The brunette paused, clearing a slight catch in her throat. "She had come out to her parents the weekend before. It wasn't pretty, but she said she wanted to be honest with them about our relationship. They hated me." She blinked in surprise as a tear trickled down her face. "They hated me more after that weekend."
Carson saw the tear, and reached out to brush it away. She remained silent, sensing her friend's inner turmoil.
"Angela was so happy and she partied all day long. She got completely wasted. Someone had brought some everclear, and we had a pretty potent trashcan punch mixed up. I had a few cups of it, but didn't drink enough to get drunk. I was a little buzzed by the afternoon, but I felt fairly normal by the time we left to drive back to Houston." Kennedy sniffled, as a few more tears escaped, dampening the edge of her t-shirt. She felt a comforting touch to the side of her face, and she let out a long trembling breath.
"Anyway, I had just bought a brand new Porsche Carrera. It was a sweet car, but very touchy to handle. I had gone to Porsche driving school before I bought it. Angela and I were in my car and we were at the end of our caravan of friends." She closed her eyes, feeling the tears begin to flow freely. "I . . . can still remember how beautiful the sunset was on the way back. Angela was having a hard time staying awake, and finally she just reclined her seat all the way back and unbuckled her seat belt, and went to sleep."
No no no. Carson could feel it coming, and she rested her cheek against the dark hair, feeling Kennedy tremble in her arms.
"We were on this two-lane highway, almost to the interstate. This truck . . . eighteen-wheeler . . . all of a sudden it crossed the lane coming toward us. It's kind of a blur now . . . I jerked the steering wheel to avoid him, forgetting how sensitive the car was, and we shot to the right, took out a barbed-wire fence, and plowed into the wall of a concrete water tank in the field next to the highway. The truck missed us, but he ended up jack-knifing. It was a complete mess, shut down the road in both directions for several hours. They said that hitting the fence first probably saved my life, because it slowed us down some before we crashed. The front end of the car was crumpled, all the way up to the dashboard, but somehow the interior didn't collapse." The attorney paused, wiping the back of her hand across her face.
"And Angela?" Carson's voice was a hoarse whisper.
"She . . ." Oh God. Kennedy's voice broke and she buried her face into Carson's shoulder. ". . . was thrown through the windshield. I remember right after the impact, just sitting there in the driver's seat with all this safety glass all around me in little shattered pellets and the air bag in my face. It happened so fast. I sort of looked around, and she just wasn't there."
The blonde rubbed her hand up and down Kennedy's back in a comforting motion, feeling the attorney shake as she continued to cry and talk.
"I managed to get the door open and I got out, and then I saw her, laying on the ground a few yards off to the side of the car. She wasn't moving. I don't know how I got to her, but when I did, she was awake. Her face . . . was covered in blood and she was just making these little noises, trying to breathe. Heidi was in the car in front of us, and by that time she and her passengers had stopped, and were running back toward us. They say I screamed, but I don't remember it. All I remember is holding on to her, trying to make her comfortable. She died in my arms before the paramedics ever got there . . ."
"Kennedy, I'm so sorry." Carson was crying too, and took deep even breaths to calm herself. "I . . ."
"There's more." The attorney interrupted her, looking up briefly at the grey eyes, and then looked intently away. "They ticketed the truck driver and gave him sole responsibility for the accident. I think he eventually got a reduced sentence for involuntary manslaughter. He had dozed off at the wheel. I never saw him and I don't ever want to. I'd probably kill him if I did. They took me and Angela to the hospital in the same ambulance, because it was going to take a long time for another one to get there. I remember sitting there, staring at that body bag, not believing it was her. They were trying to start an IV on me and I kept pushing their hands away. They finally gave up until we got to the hospital."
"You were injured?" The blonde continued with comforting circles of her hands.
"I was in shock. And I had a dislocated shoulder from the shoulder harness where it jerked against me on impact. I was lucky. They said the air bag probably kept me from breaking anything. And I was lucky in another way." Kennedy's face reddened with shame.
"How so?" Carson traced a strong cheekbone with her fingertips.
"For whatever reason, I didn't smoke any pot that weekend, so my urinalysis came out totally clean. And they didn't do a blood alcohol test on me until several hours after the accident. By then I was well below the legally intoxicated level. They couldn't charge me with anything. But I'll never know " She trailed off, looking up at the ceiling as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. ". . . if I hadn't been drinking, would I still have over-compensated when I turned that wheel? If Angela had just had her god-dammed seatbelt on, would she still be alive? If I'd opted for a car with duel airbags . . ."
"Oh, honey." Carson shifted, pulling Kennedy tightly against her and rocking her friend back and forth slightly. "You can't blame yourself. A truck almost killed you. You survived, and I'm not going to pretend I'm not very very glad that you did."
"But I didn't deserve to survive." The anguished voice broke Carson's heart. "Everything changed after that. Her parents came to get her things about two weeks after her funeral, which I wasn't welcome to attend. They made that pretty clear. After they loaded her stuff up, her mother just walked up to me, and slapped me across the face as hard as she could. Her father simply spat at my feet and then helped her mother get in the car. I never heard from them again. It didn't matter how the accident happened. In their eyes, I had corrupted their daughter and it was my fault she was on that highway that night."
"You didn't get to go to your girlfriend's funeral?" Carson felt her anger rise. "I hope I never see those people. I might have to hurt them."
Kennedy finally managed a small smile. My protector. She sighed and closed her eyes. "They've hurt enough, baby, whether it was my fault or not."
"Guess so," Carson grudgingly agreed with her. "So how did you end up in Austin?"
"It took a while. For about a month after Angela died, I didn't do very much at all. I showed up for work, but my head wasn't in it. I quit eating, almost completely, and I would run every evening until I as so tired that I had to fall asleep. It was the only way I could sleep." The attorney sighed, remembering days of acting completely by rote, unaware of her own surroundings. "Finally, Heidi came down and saw how much weight I had lost, and I guess I looked pretty bad. She called my folks and told them I needed some help."
"So you went to Alpine?"
"Only for a few weeks." Kennedy absently tugged at the hem of her t-shirt. "My father, he spent hours talking to me. He eventually got through, I guess. Made me realize that I couldn't change anything that had happened in the past, but that I could take steps to try to keep it from ever happening again. So I decided to leave Houston and all my drinking and smoking buddies, and make a fresh start. You've heard most of the rest. Except that I also decided that I had abused my body enough, and it was time to feed it things that would build it up rather than tear it down. And I vowed to never ever touch alcohol again if I was going to be behind the wheel of a car."
A light bulb went off, as several puzzle pieces fell into place. So that' s why she doesn't drink unless she's at home. "I knew you lived cleaner than anyone else I know. Now I know why."
"Yeah." The brunette smiled wanly. "I was determined to take complete control of every aspect of my life. But recently, I realized something. There are some things I can't control or plan. I . . . did not plan to ever fall in love again. But it seems those plans have changed."
Carson grew very still. "Are you sorry about that? Your change of plans, I mean."
"No." Blue eyes gazed fondly into grey, as Kennedy traced Carson's biceps. "I think from that first time we danced together, I let go of that part of my control. I don't know why. I was drawn to you, beyond all reason or ability for me to understand it. It just happened, Carson. I knew after last weekend, but I refused to actually give it a definition."
"I felt it too after that first dance," the blonde whispered. " I wanted to be in your arms as often as possible."
"Yeah?" The attorney smiled, flipping over against the pillows and reversing their positions, pulling Carson against her. "Good. 'Cause I like having you there. And that's why I lost it when I saw you take your seatbelt off. Things can happen in a split second. I don't ever want to lose you. I love you."
She tilted her head and their lips met, nibbling softly in a slow easy contact. They spent several minutes that way, gradually sinking down into the pillows. It was sweet and lazy, an affirmation of the emotions their hearts were sharing, neither woman having the energy to take things much further at the late hour.
Kennedy finally broke off and gently touched Carson's face. "Hey. You're coming down to Austin this weekend. If we finish up that shopping we need to get done on Friday, for the cell phone and all, we could get up Saturday and drive out to Fredericksburg, hike Enchanted Rock, then eat dinner in one of the beer gardens down there. You ever been there?"
"No." Carson smiled. "But I've heard about it. Little German community, right?"
"Yeah." The brunette's fingers trailed lower, circling the upper swells of Carson's breasts through her t-shirt. "There's this bed and breakfast there, run by women, for women. It's within walking distance of the main street, and the shops and restaurants. The third floor, it's this cool loft, with a nice seating area, big marble tub, antique four-poster bed. It's . . . um . . . real quiet . . . private. You can even have breakfast left outside the door in a basket if you don't want to go down to the dining room. Their Sunday checkout isn't until late afternoon. We could stay there Saturday night . . . spend some time together. What do you think?"
"I think I'd like that very much." Carson shyly lowered her eyes, scooting closer to her friend. She felt Kennedy's hand move back up, gently touching her face and pulling her forward for another long kiss.
"Good." Kennedy smiled as she pulled back slightly. Her eyes softened and she brushed the backs of her knuckles against the downy skin of the blonde's cheek. "'Cause I'd really like to spend some time with you there, Carson."
Carson snuggled up, resting her head against Kennedy's shoulder, as the taller woman wrapped her arms around her. Suddenly, the blonde's brows furrowed and she raised partway up, studying the tanned face. "Hey. What did you call my fanny pack earlier? A 'bum bag'?" What the heck is that?"
The brunette chuckled. "I was in Auckland on business a few years ago. One of my dot-com customers decided to run an on-line catalogue service from over there, and we went over to check out all the ins and outs of the legalities of it. It's a beautiful country, and we did a lot of day hikes while we were there. Let's just say that I learned real quick that over there, 'fanny' does not refer to your derriere." She gently patted Carson's behind for emphasis.
"Oh?" Carson frowned. "Ohhhh. You mean . . . ?"
"Yeah. It's a very crude offensive term over there." Kennedy smiled. "I picked up the term 'bum bag,' instead, and it has stuck with me ever since."
"New Zealand, huh?" The blonde mused. "I'd like to go there someday."
"I'll take you there sometime." The attorney's voice grew very soft. "I'll take you anywhere you want to go, sweetheart."
Carson smiled and brushed her lips across Kennedy's. "Right now, where I really want to go with you, is to that bed and breakfast in Fredericksburg."
Blue eyes twinkled. "I'll make the reservations as soon as I get back to Austin." She wrapped her hand across the back of her friend's neck, drawing her down for another long kiss. Her other hand wandered up under the blonde's shirt, rubbing Carson's back as she deepened the kiss, feeling the smaller body mold against her.
She slowly rolled Carson over onto her side, snuggling up behind her, as she kissed the back of her neck. She draped an arm around the paralegal's waist, her hand coming to rest in her favorite spot against the bare skin of Carson's stomach. "'Night Carson. I love you."
"Love you too." The blonde sighed happily, settling back against the long body behind her.
They fell into a deep contented sleep.
The plane was starting to pull out of the gate area as Kennedy plopped down in the last available seat beside a window. The regional carrier did not give pre-assigned seats, instead passing out numbered boarding passes on a first-come, first-served basis at the check-in desk at the gate. It was no-frills flying at its most efficient, unless one was running late for the airport.
She sighed with relief, sliding her laptop case under the seat in front of her and fumbling with her seatbelt as a frowning flight attendant wandered by checking that all passengers were prepared for take-off. She could feel the faint throbbing behind her eyeballs, the beginnings of a stress-induced headache. Her wrist ached, and her stomach was indeed bruised from stomach to navel, just as Carson had predicted.
Pulling the laptop case back out, she dug through a side pocket and located a bottle of Ibuprofen, quickly popping two of the pills without benefit of water. Uggghhh. The bitter taste of the medication lingered on the back of her tongue. Wonder when they start serving beverages around here?
She hunkered down in her seat and leaned back as far as she could, trying to stretch her long legs out as much as possible. Closing her eyes, she finally began to relax. I need a massage, among other things.
The morning had been a mixed bag of roller-coaster emotions. She awakened still pressed tightly against Carson's back, and to her surprise found her hand curled into a loose fist, nestled comfortably between the paralegal's breasts. The younger woman's own hand was once again holding her in place. The moment invoked several sensations, chiefly frustrated lust quickly followed by a profound sense of peace.
To wake up holding Carson was the most secure feeling she had ever experienced in her life. In the pale first light of morning, as she watched her friend sleep, she knew beyond a shadow of doubt that she had meant every word spoken the night before. She was in love and she was in this one for the long haul. She desperately wanted to get past the initial crisis that overshadowed their budding relationship, and just let things progress naturally.
When she finally woke up, the blonde rolled over onto her back and without saying a word, shyly drew Kennedy down for a kiss, squeezing her hand that was still resting in its warm soft haven. They spent several long minutes in quiet mutual exploration, and it had taken all of the attorney's restraint to keep from ripping Carson's nightshirt off and getting on with it. She had no doubt that if they had had a free morning ahead of them, that's exactly what she would have done.
Time was not on their side, however, and they regretfully got up, ate breakfast, showered, and dressed, so that they could go talk to Carson's apartment manager when the office opened at 9:00 a.m. It had been a long time since Kennedy had met anyone quite as vapid as the woman who at first steadfastly refused to honor the no entry order. Her response to each of their pleas was to continually quote the provisions in Carson's lease that gave management the right to enter her apartment at will at any time, with or without consent.
Her very long bleached hair, overly-made up face, spiked heels, and very short skirt got on Kennedy's nerves, and she wondered for the thousandth time why so many men found fake women to be more attractive than more natural-looking ones. It was obvious the woman was in the job until she could snare one of the wealthy men that lived in Carson's far north Dallas neighborhood of Bent Tree. She had a ring on almost every finger except the one that would hold a wedding band. Her voice was a high nasally whine, adding to Kennedy's annoyance, not to mention the half a tube of dark red lipstick on the girl's lips. Ugghhh. She internally grimaced. Why would anyone want to kiss that?
The attorney had finally managed to get across to the woman that stalking statutes and certain other provisions of the housing code superseded the lease. The manager appeared bored until Kennedy explained that violation of the no entry order resulting in harm to Carson could result in criminal negligence charges against the management company and personally against anyone who allowed unauthorized entry into the apartment. After the attorney further explained the potential fines and jail time for a criminal negligence conviction, the woman suddenly became interested, and reluctantly agreed to sign off on the order, acknowledging her intent to abide by it and enforce it.
Kennedy decided that she didn't want to wait until the weekend to get Carson at least one method of communicating with her while she was at work, so from the apartment office, they went to a computer store. They studied various hand-held e-mail devices, deciding on the E-mail Palm Wizard. By the time they made their way to the checkout stand, she purchased two of them, a purple one for her and a red one for Carson, putting them both on her credit card.
The blonde raised one questioning eyebrow at the attorney's color choice. "Figured you for a conservative black or silver kind of girl."
"Nope." Kennedy grinned. "Purple is my favorite color. The Four-Runner would be purple if that had been one of the standard choices. Red was the closest thing. I didn't want to pay for a custom paint job."
"I like it." Carson smiled. "Life is too short not to drive a red car."
The attorney had laughed at that, glad to see her friend in a good mood after the tense time spent in her apartment office. They went to a coffee shop and spent another hour reading the instructions for the hand-held computers, and setting Carson up with a separate e-mail account. Both women were delighted with their new toys, and discovered that not only could they send and receive e-mail, they could also surf the internet, use the devices as personal organizers, and could download files to and from their computers if they wanted to.
They shared an early lunch at a small Tex-Mex restaurant near Carson's apartment. The paralegal's mood rapidly deteriorated, and by the end of the meal she was silent, pushing her food around the plate and rarely looking up. She sighed heavily and peered across the table. "Guess I better get to work. I think my message when I called in this morning was a little cryptic."
"Mmm." Kennedy swallowed a bite of spinach enchilada. "What did you finally decide to tell them?"
"That I wasn't feeling well and I'd be in after lunch." The blonde grinned. "Luckily with Tony, all I have to do is mention the term 'female problems' and he doesn't want to know anything further." Her face fell again and she nervously bit her lower lip.
"Hey." The attorney reached across, clasping Carson's hand. "You are going to get through this just fine. Just do your best to act normally. And don't forget to put those bears on top of your computer."
"Yeah." The paralegal managed to smile. "I think I'm gonna have fun with that, knowing that I'm covering up the camera and them not knowing I know about it."
They shared a brief laugh and finished up the meal. From there they drove back to Carson's apartment so the blonde could get her car and go to work. It had been a bittersweet departure.
They loaded Kennedy's bags into the rental car and then went back inside to say their goodbyes. The attorney gently took Carson's face in both hands, and planted several kisses on her face before she slowly kissed her lips, pulling her into a tight hug. Carson clung to her, trembling in her arms, whispering that she didn't want her to leave.
"You . . ." She grasped Carson's hand and placed it over her heart. " . . . will always be with me. You've gotten inside of me, baby." She kissed the paralegal again, and let go with promises to call that night. Driving away was one of the hardest things she had ever done.
Kennedy felt a pair of eyes observing her, and was brought abruptly back to the present. She sat up in her seat and looked out the window of the plane, which was now high above the city. She slowly turned back toward the man next to her and gazed at him intently. "Something wrong?"
The man chuckled. "Do you always travel with your friend there?"
"Friend?" The attorney frowned and then turned deep crimson, as she realized that the fuzzy purple snake was still draped around her neck. She had almost left it in the back seat of the rental car and spied it at the last minute, snatching it up and tossing it around her shoulders in her mad dash to the terminal. "Um no. No room in the carry-on. It's a gift."
"I'm sure your child will love it." The man mistakenly thought she meant it was a gift she was giving to someone.
"Yeah." She closed her eyes again and leaned back. Whatever. Forty-five minutes later the man was shaking her arm. She'd fallen asleep and the plane had landed in Austin.
The doors to the high-rise loomed before her, and Carson took one last look across the street at her car. It was in a monthly-billed lot in a reserved space. It was much more expensive than the daily-pay lot she had been using, some three blocks away, but Kennedy had insisted she needed to be closer to the building. It was simply safer that way. The security guard stationed in the lobby had a clear view and could watch her from when she left the building until she reached her car.
She squared her shoulders and entered the building, nodding a greeting to the guard before she moved between the two elevator banks, pressing the 'up' button. I can do this. I can act like nothing happened Friday night. Was that really only three days ago? It seemed like three weeks. Her entire world-view had changed in less than seventy-two hours.
Entering the elevator car, she leaned back against the wall, grateful that she was alone. She closed her eyes and willed herself to remain calm. Every fiber in her body wanted to bolt and never return to the building again. The computerized elevator-operator announced the eighteenth floor, and she opened her eyes, stepping into the hallway.
She glanced at her watch. It was close to 1:00 p.m., and most of her co-workers would either be out to lunch, or gathered around the tables in the office's kitchen area, watching soap operas on a large-screen television. She slipped down the hallway, avoiding eye contact with the few secretaries who were at their workstations.
After unlocking her office door, she flipped on the lights and then closed the door behind her. She sat down behind the desk and simply looked around. Wonder how long it'll take me to be able to answer the phone without getting the complete heebie-jeebies? She sighed. At least I can take care of one problem.
She opened her brief case and fished out the two stuffed bears, placing them strategically on top of her computer monitor. Hah. They covered the camera hole perfectly. She grinned evilly and booted up the computer. As the various applications opened up, she leaned back and stuck her tongue out. Take that, you slimy little creep.
A soft rapping at her door broke her reverie, and she called out, "come in."
"Hey there." Kevin poked his head in, smiling broadly at her. "You feeling better?"
"Yeah." Carson frowned. "I'm okay. Just a little under the weather."
"Maybe these will make you feel better." The jovial man entered the office, placing a crystal vase on the desk. This time it was filled with a dozen red roses.
"Oh my God. I can't believe sh . . ." She caught herself, not ready to be outted at the office just yet. "I . . . really wasn't expecting that."
"Wait." Kevin disappeared again. "There's more." He returned, carrying a cluster of a dozen Swissy-mouse balloons in various colors.
"That little sneak." She grinned from ear-to-ear, in spite of herself, as he tied the strand of balloon strings to the arm of one of her guest chairs.
"Come on Carson, level with me." He winked. "Who's the new man . . . or woman . . . in your life?"
"Excuse me?" The blonde's brows shot into her bangs.
"Listen, Carson. I know you and Tamara are good friends, and at least half the office knows you two socialize together. Everyone's been speculating as to which way you swing your racquet? In fact, once those roses arrived, more than one person suspected you were just sleeping in this morning, you know what I mean?"
If only that were the case. Carson could feel the heat on her cheeks. "So now the whole office thinks I'm gay and I was playing hooky with my lover?"
"Carson, I didn't mean to embarrass you. Fact is, no one around here can remember the last time you mentioned having someone special in your life at all, man or woman." He sat down on the edge of the desk. "I'm your friend, and I don't care, as long as you're happy. Are you?"
"Yeah." She relaxed into the chair. "Yeah, I really am."
"Soooo . . ." He waggled his eyebrows. "Give me the scoop."
A look of profound sadness briefly clouded the grey eyes before Carson blinked and shook her head slightly. "I really wish I could, Kevin, but it's kind of complicated right now. I'm sorry."
"Fine." The man's voice took on a mock-hurt tone. "Now what am I going to gossip about in the kitchen? Everyone is expecting me to get the story. I had to guard those roses with my life until you got here. More than one person tried to open the card and read it."
"Kevin," Carson almost growled, but she smiled at the same time. "Tell them I'm having a torrid affair with Mr. Howard."
"Oh yeah, right." Kevin rolled his eyes. "Like they would ever believe that. Carson, honey, he's so married, you could walk into his office stark naked and he wouldn't even notice."
The paralegal almost snorted a sip of coffee through her nose, and coughed violently. She could actually picture such a scene with the firm's managing partner, and Kevin was right. "Oh, God. That is sooo true." She paused, glancing at the computer, wondering if the camera had audio, or just video. "Kevin, I'm sorry, I've got to play catch-up this afternoon."
"Yeah, me too." He smiled at her. "Mr. McIntosh needs me to make a run to the Federal courthouse to file some affidavits. Talk to you later." He paused, cocking his head to the side. "Looks good on you."
"What?" She called after him, as he exited her office.
He peered back around the doorframe. "Love."
The paralegal blushed and plucked the card from the roses. She pulled it out of the envelope and smiled. The message was short and sweet.
"Love you - K"
She dug around in her briefcase for the e-mail wizard, and felt a presence in her doorway. She looked up and her breath involuntarily caught, as Nick Giovani entered her office, uninvited. He sat down in the chair across the desk and casually crossed his legs, leaning back and looking around.
"Hello, Carson." He studied her desktop. "Nice roses. And balloons. Your little friend has outdone herself."
"Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Giovani?" To her own surprise, her voice was low and even.
"I thought I made that pretty clear on Friday night." He stood and moved around the desk to the window, staring outside with his back to her. "I decided it had been a long time since I visited you in the office. I usually always go directly back to Tony's office. Nice view."
"Yes it is." She warily watched as he turned back around to face her.
"I don't suppose over the weekend you might have decided to reconsider my request." He moved closer and picked up one of the bears. "Cute." He set it back down, off center from its original position, so that the camera was visible.
"Look, Nick." Carson stood up to her full five feet and four inches. "I already told you. I'm involved with someone. You do whatever you think you need to do, send photographers to follow me around, make snide remarks about my friend, but it isn't going to change my answer. Our relationship is strictly business and nothing more. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." She gestured toward the door.
"Fine." His smile dripped of insincerity. "Tony and I have a golf game this afternoon, so I need to go on down to his office so we can head out to the country club. Think about it, Carson. I can make it really worth your while. Hell, bring your girlfriend along. That could make things really fun."
He left the office and she quickly closed the door and locked it. With an angry motion, she picked up the bear and pretended to hold it for comfort before she placed it back in front of the camera. God. Her whole body was shaking, and her stomach felt vaguely queasy. She opened her briefcase again, this time locating the e-mail wizard. She punched at the keypad and then stopped. And just what is Kennedy going to do about Nick from two hundred miles away? All you'll do is worry her. You're a big girl.
She put the wizard back in its case. Then why do I feel so very very small right now? She sat back down at her desk and closed her eyes, sinking into the leather upholstery. Finally, she fished out the small computer again. I can at least thank her for the flowers and balloons. She felt a bit lighter-hearted, as she studied the whimsical mouse faces in shades of red, blue, orange, yellow, pink, purple, and green. "Roy G. Biv* is fully accounted for," she quipped to the bears. She smiled and punched in her message:
"K I should chastise you for being so extravagant, and I'm not even going to ask how you managed to get those balloons delivered here. But the truth is, you have no idea how much I needed that this afternoon. Thank you the roses are beautiful, and the balloons well, you know how much I love them. Looking forward to the weekend. Love you too - C"
With her door locked, her phone on 'do not disturb,' and the bears keeping watch over the computer, she finally managed to settle down and get some work done.
Down in Tony Moore's office, an enraged Giovani paced back and forth in front of the large mahogany desk. "Dammit, Tony, she's not taking the bait."
"I told you last week, Nick, Carson's not that kind of girl. If you wanted to drag her into this, you went about it the completely wrong way. You screwed this one up, buddy." Tony watched the short man as he continued to wear a path in the Oriental rug.
"Sure, she's that kind of girl." Giovani snarled. "She's a freakin' dyke, Tony. I figured she'd go for it to keep me from telling Howard."
"And that's another thing." Tony's anger rose. "You don't ever listen, do you? Howard wouldn't care, even if you did tell him. He knows all about Tamara and her partner, and he thinks very highly of her. It doesn't matter to him."
"Yeah, but she's out. Your little paralegal isn't. I thought she was afraid of being dragged out of the closet." He pounded a fist onto the desktop. "Dammit, Tony, we need her on our side, and you are going to help me get her there. She's too close. She's already asked you too many questions. She may not know anything yet, but she's too damned smart. She's gonna figure it out and then what are we going to do? We can't risk it. We have got to get her hands dirty, one way or another."
"Well what do you suggest?" Tony sat back, raking his fingers through his hair in agitation. "You seem to think you have all the answers."
"Maybe I need to just spell things out to her. Forget getting her in the sack, although I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to getting a piece of her. She's a nice little package." He leered at his own thoughts. "If she isn't afraid of me hurting her, maybe I need to convince her some other way."
"Like how?" The attorney licked his lips nervously.
"Like I threaten to hurt someone she cares about instead, say maybe her dyke girlfriend down in Austin." Giovani circled the desk and sat down on the edge. "Have you checked her out yet?"
"No." Tony looked down at his hands, which were folded loosely on the desktop. "I haven't had time." The truth went much deeper. He hated the idea of prying into his paralegal's personal life.
"Well do it." The short man's voice rose. "We've got her e-mail address, her work phone number, and now we've got her work address from the rental car records. Find out who she is. We figured from a couple of their phone conversations that she's in the legal field, probably an attorney. Find out what kind of law she practices. We know her name is Kennedy Nocona. How hard can it be? It's not like it's a common name for crying out loud."
"Okay, okay." Tony threw his hands up in the air. "I'll get on it this afternoon."
"Thought we were playing golf." Nick tapped his fingers on the wooden surface he sat on. "Tell you what, I'll get one of my people to check her out. We need to hurry up. Carson's too dangerous right now. She doesn't know what's going on and she's scared. Bad combination. She might do something stupid. We tried to keep tabs on her all weekend, but her friend took out one of my tails on Sunday. And we have no idea where she was Friday night after she left the restaurant. My idiot P.I. that was staking out her apartment fell asleep and then left before she ever came home on Saturday. He forgot to report in that he had left the scene, and by the time he did it was early Sunday morning. I have got to hire me some better people to keep an eye on her, maybe set up twenty-four hour surveillance. I need something I can hold over her head."
Tony studied the beady eyes and wondered what he had gotten himself into. He suddenly realized that he was playing a very dangerous game, one that it was too late to back out of. Carson was another matter. The paralegal had always gone above and beyond the call of duty in her job responsibilities, and was basically above reproach. The thought of dragging her into their problems sickened him. Despite his misgivings, he reluctantly handed over a file of information to Nick. "Here's everything your people will need to check her out. Let's go."
Kennedy entered her office and quickly shot off an e-mail to her friend at the state board of insurance. After that, she hit the ground running, and the pace remained steady until late afternoon. She completed the final drafts of three sets of corporate filings, did intake interviews with two prospective pro-bono clients, and bailed another client out of the Travis County jail who had been there since Saturday night after defending himself in a racially motivated fight.
Finally, when it was almost time to go home, she arrived back at the office. The stale odor of the inner section of the jail clung to her clothing, and she wrinkled her nose as a whiff of it drifted up to assault her senses. She took her suit jacket off and draped it over the arm of a chair, and then sat down at her desk to check mail.
First, she pulled out the new mail wizard and found Carson's message. She frowned, reading between the lines. Poor kid, musta had a hard day. She looked at the clock, hoping it might be late enough to call her friend at home, but was certain that at almost six o'clock in the evening, it was too early. She's probably either stuck in rush-hour traffic right now, or working out. Kennedy sighed, composed a response, and sent it on its way:
"C when it comes to you, nothing is too extravagant. As for the balloons, did you know you can use these little wizards to find on-line services, like couriers who are willing to go the fairgrounds and pick up Swissy-mouse balloons?
Sweetheart, I'm going to call you as soon as I get home tonight. Maybe we can eat dinner together over the phone. By the way, you told me on the phone last week that your friend in the office mentioned about flower colors having meaning. Why don't you go ask her about red? Talk to you soon - K"
She sent the message on its way and then checked her office mailbox. Sure enough, there was a response from Mike, an old law school friend who worked for the legal division of the state insurance department. She read it once, and then re-read it slowly, digesting it to relay the information to Carson later:
"Shea it's been a while, eh? Is there any way you can get your friend down here to talk to me on Thursday or Friday? I have a very thick file on Nicholas Giovani, and I'd like to discuss it with both you and her together. Without saying too much, she might be the big break we've been looking for. Meanwhile, brush up on insurance fraud and the RICO act. Call me tomorrow, if you don't get this message by 5:00. Mikey"
Okay. The attorney chewed on the end of a pen. She got up and pulled out a couple of volumes from her bookshelves and tucked them into her briefcase. Then she looked up a few cases on the Internet and forwarded the URL's to her home e-mail address, so she wouldn't have to search for them again. She shut down the computer, picked up her jacket and briefcase, and stepped outside. Everyone else was gone, and she walked through the small office, turning off lights. She locked up and made her way out to the parking lot and the long drive home to the lake.
The locker room was in its usual crowded early evening state. Carson pulled a completely soaked terrycloth headband from her head and wiped her face down with a small towel. She had taken advantage of the hour-long spin class, working off pent-up aggression. The instructor had given her more than one raised eyebrow, as she kept up a pace that was faster than required for most of the duration of the class.
She poked around in her locker, looking for her shower kit, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and smiled. "Tamara." She eyed the suit-clad woman. "You just getting here? I haven't seen you all day."
"Yeah. I was out of the office in meetings all morning." The petite attorney dropped a gym bag on the bench in front of the row of lockers. "Then I holed up in my office all afternoon. Had to prepare for a mediation. Hey, how was your weekend with your friend? What's her name again, 'Kennedy'?"
Carson couldn't stop the tiny smile that slowly grew larger. "Fine."
"'Fine?' Just 'fine'." Tamara grinned back. "Judging by the smile on your face . . . and the blush . . . I'd say it was more than 'fine'."
"Okay, yeah. It was." The paralegal sat down, untying her cross-trainer laces. She and Kennedy had already decided it was best for her not to discuss her situation with Giovani with anyone in the office, even people she was fairly sure she could trust. She chose her words carefully. "We took care of some stuff, went to the fair, decided we were in love, and then she went back to Austin."
"Did you just say you were in love?" Big brown eyes grew even bigger.
"Um . . . yeah." Carson looked shyly down at her feet before looking back at her friend. "She sent me a dozen more roses and a dozen balloons today."
"Really? That's great, Carson." Tamara pulled a t-shirt and shorts out of her bag. "So, I take it you two . . . you know . . ."
"No." Pale eyebrows stood out against pink skin. "Not yet."
"Wow. Balloons and roses. A woman who knows how to romance someone before she takes them to bed. I'm impressed. Sounds like she's pretty serious about you." The attorney studied her friend's face. "What color are the roses?"
"Red." Carson stripped down to her sports bra and shorts, removing her t-shirt and socks and tossing them in the locker. She stood up and closed the locker, cradling a pile of clean clothes in the crook of her arm. She had briefly checked her palm wizard when she arrived at the gym, and had received Kennedy's message. "She told me to ask you about red, by the way."
Tamara finished changing into her workout gear and also stood up. She smiled. "Red means 'I love you'. Let me know if she ever sends pink." She sauntered toward the door that led to the gym.
"Hey," the paralegal called after her. "What does pink mean?"
Tamara paused in the doorway. "Something I'm not gonna yell across the locker room." She disappeared from view.
Hmmm. Carson made her way to the showers. Do I want to know what pink means?
Carson sat in her recliner with a plate propped up on her upraised knees, munching on the daily special she'd picked up from the club's restaurant. The phone rang and she paused, swallowing her food and taking a quick sip of water. Then she picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Hey Carson." The rich melodic tone was so clear the paralegal could swear Kennedy was sitting beside her. Wish she was.
"Hey yourself." She sat her plate aside and curled up in the chair. "How was your day?"
"Busy as hell." Kennedy was sitting out on her porch swing, nursing a large soy-based sports shake. It also contained a banana, some strawberries, an assortment of liquid vitamins and minerals, and a healthy scoop of protein powder. "How about you?"
"Fine." The younger woman's voice was unconvincing.
"Doesn't sound fine." The attorney draped one leg across the arm of the bench. "Everything okay? I mean, under the circumstances, that is."
"Um . . . Giovani came by my office today. Basically wanted the same thing he wanted on Friday, and my response was the same. Except he suggested I could have you join us. And he moved one of my bears away from the camera. I played dumb later and moved it back." Her nostrils flared with distaste. "Do you think he was watching me the minute I got in? It sure didn't take him long to show up."
Kennedy fought down the urge to get on a plane and fly to Dallas to take out Giovani and be done with him. She also forced herself not to chastise her friend for not contacting her as soon as Giovani left her office. Come on, Shea. She's a grown woman. Cut the mothering act. "Don't know. He may have some kind of bot set up that notifies him whenever you log on. He might not have to be watching those monitors to know when you're working on the office computer. I did get an interesting message from my friend Mikey at the insurance board, though."
"Oh?" Carson's voice rose in interest. "What did he say?"
"Nothing very specific, but it seems your pal Giovani is being watched by the state, and maybe the feds, too." She sipped at her drink.
"Wow." The paralegal took a tiny bite of food and tried to talk at the same time. "Ruelffly?"
Kennedy chuckled. "So we are sharing dinner. What are you eating?"
Carson swallowed. "Un-fried fried chicken from the club. They can make baked chicken taste fried. It's my favorite meal they offer, and they only make it once a week. Comes with steamed mixed veggies, mashed potatoes, and a whole wheat roll."
"Sounds healthy. I've got a protein shake here, but you might not like it." She took another sip.
"What's not to like about a shake?" The paralegal took a bite of roll, wishing she'd buttered it first.
"Oh. You're right. I'd prefer yogurt." She set her plate aside again. "So what was the message from your friend?"
"He said he has a nice thick file on Giovani." She finished off the shake and laid back in the swing, stretching her legs out. "Are you familiar with RICO at all?"
"Doesn't that have something to do with the mob?" Carson's eyes grew wide.
"Sometimes, but it covers other things too. It's the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Obviously, the mafia is definitely a corrupt organization, but almost any organized entity that is corrupt may be subject to prosecution under the act, depending on the circumstances." A faint breeze blew in from the lake, and the attorney felt goose bumps dance across her bare arms. She got up and moved inside the house.
"Like an insurance agency?" The paralegal idly stroked Allie, who had jumped up in the chair beside her and was purring contentedly, vibrating against her leg.
"Yeah." Kennedy rinsed out her cup and tucked it into the dishwasher. "Or a law firm."
"You think my firm might be involved with whatever they're checking out Nick's company for?" Carson had realized that something was amiss. It would be pretty difficult for all the cameras to be set up at every workstation without someone in her office knowing about it. She frowned, trying to remember when the monitors were first installed. "I guess they probably have to be, at least a little bit, huh?"
The attorney cursed silently at herself for mentioning Carson's firm. She had suspected all along, but didn't want to worry her friend until absolutely necessary. "Yeah, baby. I think they are. I'm still trying to figure out what you have to do with it. If Giovani is just a horn dog, and it has nothing to do with whatever illegal activities he might be involved in, or if there's some other reason he's after you, beyond the obvious one."
"Kennedy." Carson willed the trembling sensation from her voice. "What if it's something really bad and Tony is part of it? What if it's some case I've worked on and I don't even know it? Could I be in trouble?"
"No." The brunette made her way across the dogtrot into her office. "If Tony is involved, it's his ass and his law license. Nothing bad is going to happen to you." I'll make sure of that, she added silently. "Which reminds me. Can you take off all day Friday and come in Thursday night instead of Friday night?"
"I think so. I've got almost all my vacation days left. Let me check." The paralegal had her laptop sitting on a table next to her, and opened up her office calendar. "I don't have any deadlines that day and Monday is fairly clear. Why?"
"Mikey wants to talk to us in person, and he wanted to meet Thursday or Friday." Kennedy clicked her mouse, pulling up the on-line travel agent. "I thought about this on the way home. I want you to make a big to-do, talking it up at the office that you're driving down to Austin on Thursday night. If they're trying to follow you, they'll be watching your car all day. I'm setting you up with electronic plane tickets right now. I'll send you the confirmation on your palm wizard. And I'm sending an airport limo to pick you up on the backside of the building, over on that little side street instead of the more congested one. I want you to meet Heidi for lunch one day this week and give her an extra set of car keys. I'll call her and ask her to take your car back to your apartment while you're gone, so it'll be there on Sunday night when you get home. Pack up most of your stuff and ship it down to me tomorrow. Then on Thursday morning put an empty suitcase and carry-on in the trunk of your car. Put your carry-on stuff in your brief case. That way you can just slip out the back and hopefully they won't even know what's up until it's too late for them to follow."
Carson's head was spinning. "Kennedy, do you have to plan stuff like this a lot?"
"Not a lot, exactly." She completed the travel arrangements and sent them to Carson's palm e-mail address. "But I've done it enough for some of my pro bono clients, that I just sort of know how to work things out by now. It's no big deal. Except they don't get a limo. I only do that for people who are special."
The blonde could almost feel the warmth radiating through the phone. "So I'm one of the special people, huh?"
"You're the most special." Kennedy felt a gentle fluttering in her gut. "I'm . . . really looking forward to the hiking trip."
Hiking? Oh, yeah. That is part of the plan, isn't it? Carson blushed at her own thoughts. "Me too." She paused, considering what she would need to pack. "You have to promise not to open up the stuff I ship down until I get there, okay?"
"Oh?" The attorney teased. "You sending down some kind of surprise?"
"Maybe," Carson taunted back. "But you don't get to see it unless you behave. Which means no peeking. Got me?"
Kennedy chuckled. "Yeah, I got you."
You sure do. The paralegal smiled. "Does that mean you promise, absolutely, not to open it up until I get there?"
"I promise, sweetheart. I wouldn't go snooping through your stuff."
"I didn't really think you would." She swallowed, feeling suddenly shy. "It's just . . . I really do have a surprise, and I want to show it to you myself."
"I look forward to it." Kennedy leaned back in her chair, propping her legs up on the desktop. "I might have a surprise to show you too."
They continued to talk until way past their normal bedtimes.
Continued in Chapter 6
*Roy G. Biv is an acronym used to remember all the colors of the spectrum Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Came in handy on a few physics exams.
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