Unmasked Hearts by Missy Good




The following Dar and Kerry short story happens sometime before the kiss on the beach. Sometime even before the tropical storm, or Disney, but after their first dinner at the little Thai place.


It was already getting dark, Kerry noticed, as she drove towards home. Though winter had very little meaning in Miami, the days did shorten, and now, almost November, where it would be crackling cold at home in Michigan, the one visible sign of the season was that it was getting darker earlier.

She pulled into a spot in the lot outside her apartment building, and sat there for a moment, just relaxing. It had been a long, tough day at her new job, and she was still trying to absorb enough knowledge to just get things done while she figured out how to deal with all her new responsibilities.

Sometimes... Kerry sighed to herself. I wonder if I did the right thing. She opened the door to her Mustang and got out, pulling her laptop case with her and shouldering it before she headed inside.

"Hey, Ker!" Colleen’s voice came from the door of her own apartment.

"Hey." Kerry lifted a hand in a wave. "What’s up?"

The redhead trotted out to meet her. "What’s up with you? Late nights already?"

Kerry shrugged. "Not really... I just had a meeting, and then I was working on some email." She glanced around. "Guess I lost track of time." Had she, really? She wondered briefly. Yeah, there was a meeting, but she really could have left after that, right? Why hang around? "In fact, Dar threw me out. She came back from a client briefing and found me with my head in my keyboard." Kerry studied her keys pensively, remembering the little tickle of pleasure she’d felt on hearing her bosses voice.

Well, she did want her new boss to know she was putting in a lot of effort.

"Hm." Colleen made a face. "Hey, you up for dinner? It’s two for one night down at the Cuban place."

Kerry considered the question. "Sure." She agreed. "But I tell you what; can we go do the mall?"

Colleen pulled her tinted reading glasses down and peered at her. "The mall? Did I just hear you ask me to go to the MALL?"

Kerry pushed her door open, and walked inside. "Yes." She waited for Colleen to follow her inside, and then she closed the door behind them. "It’s not what you think."

"Good gravy, I hope not." The redhead grinned, sitting down on the couch and crossing her ankles. "The last time you asked me to go shopping with you we ended up with those ugly vases I now have to find floofy flowers for."

Kerry set her laptop bag down, and stripped her jacket off as she headed for her bedroom. "We’re having a Halloween party at work." She explained. "Everyone is supposed to dress up."

"Is that dressing down?" Colleen asked, pointing at Kerry’s business suit. "Whoa... you getting a prom gown for this thing, then?"

Kerry unzipped her skirt and slid out of it, then leaned on the doorframe in just her silk shirt. "Dress up as in a costume." She gave her friend a wry look. "You know, like a panda bear or something?"

Colleen studied her. "Do you know how many pillows you’d need to fill a panda bear suit, bucko?"

The blond woman rolled her eyes, and ducked back inside her bedroom. "Not as many as I used to." She called. "I put on three pounds since I started working at that place." She slid in a pair of worn jeans and buckled them.

A snort. "Where? Your earlobes?"

Kerry emerged, tugging on a bright blue pullover. "It’s there." She walked over and sat down on the couch with her sneakers in hand. "Anyway, I have to find something to wear to the thing. If you help me, I’ll get dinner. How’s that?"

Colleen chuckled gleefully. "You’re on." She got up. "I’ll go put me boots on, and we’ll be walking out the door." She ambled out, leaving Kerry to tie her laces in peace.


It was very quiet in the office. The air conditioner cycled on, its fan stirring a single piece of paper sitting in lonely exile in the outbox on the desk. The monitor screen saver painted pacing jungle animals across the dark surface, unnoticed by the figure seated in the plush leather chair.

Been a long time. Dar mused, as she gazed out the floor to ceiling glass windows. A long time since she’d just sat and watched the sun set. She let her eyes track a small sailboat cutting across the waves, then lifted the cup she held in both hands and took a sip.

Her intercom buzzed.

Dar half turned and glared at it then slapped the button in disgust. "Yeah?"

"Just me, boss." Mark’s voice emerged. "Got some turnips asking me to let them store crap in our wiring closet on fourteen. Okay?"

"No." Dar frowned. "What is it?"

"Just some party stuff." The MIS manager explained. "Black hats, and webs and crap."

"Oh." Dar rolled her eyes. "That." She released an aggrieved sigh. "Last time we let them store anything in there, they took down half the conference rooms on the floor with the damn wire hangers poked in the sixty six blocks."

"Yeah. I told em if they came within a foot of the back wall, you’d squash em like a bug."

Dar snorted softly in wry amusement. "Did they piddle on the carpet?"

"Like newborn puppies!"

Another sigh. "All right." Dar relented. "I’ll go let em in. I was on my way out anyway." She pried herself out of the soft comfort of her chair and stood, stretching her body out and wincing as a kink made itself known in her back. "Did those servers come back online?"

"Not yet." Mark said. "Working on it."

"Keep working." Dar cut off the intercom and circled her desk, picking up her keycard as she headed for the door. Most of the floor was silent, its occupants gone home for the day, and Dar found it refreshingly peaceful as she padded barefoot across the carpet. The closet she was heading for was next to one of the large presentation rooms, where they would have their annual Halloween party the next day.

Bah. Dar wasn’t fond of parties, especially ones that involved her coworkers putting on weird hats and makeup. With a sigh, she pulled the presentation room door open and stalked inside, finding the setup crew gathered in one corner near the closet in question.

They were all juniors. Dar glowered at them just for fun, and watched as they backed off from the door, nervously watching her as she approached. Something almost hit her in the head and she barely kept herself from ducking, stopping and examining the large, hairy spider hanging from the drop ceiling. Then she turned around in a circle and reviewed the room, shaking her head at the lurid decorations.

She swiped her card in the reader next to the door and opened it, stepping back and gesturing to the workers. "G’wan."

They timidly crept past her into the fairly large size chamber, all of them escaping save the last.

Dar put a hand out. "Whoa." Her nose twitched slightly. "What’s in there?" She pointed to the bag the woman was carrying.

"Candy." The woman replied, opening the top hurriedly and displaying it.

Dar peered inside curiously and then stuck a hand in and pulled out a fistful, giving the woman a wicked grin. "My fee." She drawled, before she retreated, leaving the workers peeking out of the door and watching her go.

Mm. Dar regarded her booty with interest. Peanut butter cups. She unwrapped one with her other hand and popped it into her mouth, chewing it as she sauntered back down to her office. As she passed a doorway, however, she paused.

Once, it had been an empty room she would never have looked twice at in passing. Now, behind its smooth, oak door was something new and different. Dar peered at her handful of goodies, then changed direction and swiped her keycard near the door, hearing a light click as the lock released. She pushed the handle open and entered, letting it close behind her as she walked into Kerry’s office.

It was still mostly empty. Dar acknowledged, as she let her eyes wander over the interior. But Kerry had been adding little bits of her personality to it. She strolled around the desk, approving its neat surface, and leaned on the back of the chair for a brief moment.

Her nostrils twitched again, detecting faint traces of Kerry’s perfume on the leather surface. It was a fresh, slightly floral scent she found herself liking.

Impulsively, she gave up three of her treats, leaving them in the center of the desk before she turned and headed for the back door that led to her own office.

She paused, with her hand on the latch and turned, leaning on the door and looking back to see the desk’s surface with its little offering. "What the hell did you do that for?" She wondered aloud. "You don’t even know if she likes them."

The peanut butter cups nestled in their little huddle, mutely providing no answer to her.

"Well, she can throw em away." Dar shook her head and went through the doorway, making her way back to her office and closing her inner door as she entered it. Feeling oddly restless, she decided to pack it in for the day and take off.

To that end, she fastened the catch on her laptop case and slid its strap over her shoulder, regarding her heeled shoes under her desk with an evil eye.

Scandal or no scandal?

Dar reached down and snagged the shoes, then tucked them into the outer pocket of her bag.


With a satisfied nod, she headed for the door.


"How about a cat?" Colleen investigated some very lurid makeup as they browsed through Burdines. "You’d look cute as a cat, Ker."

"A cat?" Kerry leaned on the counter.

"Yeah, draw whiskers on your face..." Colleen took a purple stick and mimed the action. "Put a little tail on you… got a dance leotard? You could wear that."

Kerry plucked the pencil from her fingers and put it down. "No cats." She said. "No cats, no bats, no rats, no fuzzy mammals of any kind, thanks. I don’t want to look like a stuffed animal." She pushed off the glass case and wandered on, searching for some kind of inspiration.

"How about a Scottish look?" Colleen suggested, fingering a plaid skirt.

Kerry studied it warily. "You mean, like a kilt?"

"Yeah. White shirt, plaid skirt, patent leather shoes... you know."

The blond woman sighed. "I think I’d look like an escapee from a prep school." She continued on as they came even with a section of frilly, ruffled shirts. Kerry paused and fingered one. "Now, what does this remind me of…?"

"Lemon chiffon pie?"

Kerry chuckled, touching the light tan stitching at the edges of the ruffles. "Fifth grade, actually." She reminisced. "We acted out the signing of the Declaration of Independence in school. I got to be Thomas Jefferson."

"Hm." Her friend considered. "Y’know, the new jackets the guys are wearing for the proms this year are cutaways... you could get away with that, this, and a pair of knickers and go as a revolutionary."

Revolutionary. One of Kerry’s very blond eyebrows quirked. She imagined herself in the outfit Colleen was describing, and decided it had possibilities. Not too outlandish, definitely dignified. For some reason, that was important to her since the whole company was going to be there. Halloween or no Halloween, she wanted to look…

For no particular reason, an image of Dar flashed in her mind.

Right. She didn’t want to embarrass Dar for picking her as her new assistant, so she wanted to look good. "Okay." Kerry decided. "We can work with that." She sorted through the ruffled shirts and selected one in her size. "Can you find some capris that look something like velvet?"

Colleen snickered. "Honey, this is Miami. I can find capris that *are* velvet, in six colors, with sequins." She patted Kerry on the shoulder. "Be right back."

"No sequins!" Kerry called after her. Linen would have been more accurate, but in Kerry’s mind, if she had to wear short pants, at least she wanted to wear a pair that felt nice. She draped the shirt over her arm, and started towards the area that featured men’s dress jackets.

After a moment’s checking the sizes, however, she chuckled wryly to herself and headed for the boy’s section. They had cooler looking stuff anyway.

Colleen caught up to her there, holding two pairs of soft, colorful pants. One in crimson and one in rich, royal blue. Kerry took them, and two jackets, and her shirt, and trotted off to the fitting room, the attendants giving her collection of odd items a knowingly wry look.

Inside the room, she shucked her jeans and top and examined her choices. "Blue, I think." She had to admit, pulling on the velvet capris. The short pants came to her knees, and fit snugly, but not too tight. Kerry surveyed the results critically, then donned her shirt and buttoned it. The tails tucked into the pants, and then she put the rich, silk navy jacket over it all. The jacket’s soft, but heavy folds neatly outlined her body, and she gave her reflection a faint nod before she opened the door. "Hey, Col?"

Colleen poked her head around the corner, and then stepped out into the hall to examine her friend. "You know, Kerry?" She spoke seriously. "That looks really good on you." She stepped forward and fluffed the ruffles of Kerry’s shirt, arranging the frilly cravat. "Need to get you a pin, a belt, and one of those three sided hats, and you’re set."

Kerry put her hands on her hips and grinned, quite pleased with herself. "I think I know a place to get a hat." She said. "And it’s right next to that Italian place."

"She shoots, she scores!" Colleen chortled, giving her thumbs up. "Let’s go, Tommy!"


Dar wasn’t sure why she’d ended up down on South Beach. She’d left work, and headed home but found the thought of just going to her empty apartment unappealing for some reason. So she’d detoured, and kept driving on the causeway instead of turning into the ferry terminal. She’d parked down at one of the public lots and just started walking.

Halloween was definitely in the air. She found a grin pulling at her lips as she passed the outdoor cafes, strung with lurid skeletons and slightly comical bats, with the odd real pumpkin flickering wickedly at her from its table.

"Hey, pretty lady!"

It took a minute before Dar realized she was being addressed. She’d traded her business clothes for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt she’d had in her always packed bag, and didn’t particularly think she stuck out in the crowd, but... Her eyes met the street vendor’s, and her eyebrows lifted in inquiry. "Whatcha got there?"

"Ghool grog." The man grinned, and held up a plastic mug filled with... something… that was emitting smoke and fog that rolled over the edge of the cup and half obscured his hand. "Just the thing to hit the spot on a night like this."

Dar studied the concoction. "Who pays the emergency bill if you swallow a chunk of the dry ice?" She inquired curiously.

"Straw." The man popped one in, evading the question. ‘It’s safe, honest."

Ah well, you only live once, right? "Sure." Dar accepted the mug, shaped like the head of a skeleton and paid the vendor. "What’s in it other than the obvious?"

"Rum, banana liqueur, coco libre, a little vodka, and lemonade."

Dar took a very, very cautious sip, and then relaxed as the mixture of unlikely ingredients proved surprisingly tasty. "Not bad." She gave the man a grin, and then moved on, looking for more trouble to get into.

It didn’t take long. She wound her way between groups of laughing skaters, idly looking at some of the trendy stores and boutiques tucked between the cafes. One caught her eye, and she strolled over to look inside, the tiny store filled with Native American clothing and artifacts.

Dar had always felt ambivalent about the original inhabitants of the state she now lived in. She’d spent a lot of time in high school studying the current local tribes, the Seminole and Miccosoukee, and the prior ones, the Tequesta all of which had, in her private opinion, gotten thoroughly raped by the white colonists who took over the area.

Having the tribes now recouping a lot of their income from running gambling establishments had always seemed to her a bit of poetic justice. Growing up military, though, she’d found her viewpoints in somewhat of a minority, though there had always been an undercurrent of respect, and intrigue revolving around the native’s warrior culture.

Just as she’d been fascinated with it as a youngster.

Now, she fingered the beautiful tribal war shirt near the front of the store, leaning close to confirm that the substance fashioning it was, as she suspected, the spines from sea urchin. Meticulously cleaned, patiently bored, they clicked together with a faint musical sound she recognized as akin to one she’d heard many times underwater.

"Nice, huh?"

Dar looked up, to find the single salesperson leaning on the counter watching her. He was tall, about her height, and they were built somewhat similarly with long, lanky frames and dark hair. She figured him for at least part native, though, either by birth of by choice. "Never seen urchins legs used like this."

The man grinned and walked over. He was wearing well worn jeans and equally worn boots, with an intricately carved belt buckle centered on his midsection. "Yeah, I thought it was a cool way to mix tradition with local resources, you know?"

"You made this?" Dar asked.

He nodded. "Everyone kind of tosses in something for the store. The guy who owns the building gives it to us rent free, cause he makes his money on the café next door. So everything practically is profit."

"Nice." Dar eyed the intricately tooled item, and the pair of well tanned leather pants that were propped under it on the mannequin.

"Usually I steer the girls over to the mini dress area, but that would work on you." The salesman commented.

Funny. Dar had just been thinking the same thing, quickly followed by a mental slap to the back of her head as she chastised herself for even considering it. "What in the hell would I do with something like this?"

The man shrugged, and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest and regarding her with chocolate dark eyes. "You could wear it to some of the clubs down here... betcha it gets you looked at."

Dar snorted. "I think you just want to make a sale." But she glanced at the price tag anyway.

"True." He grinned. "But you want to buy it, so I’m just doin my job, right?"

A thought wormed its way into Dar’s mind, as she tasted the faintest hint of peanut butter on the back of her tongue. Slowly, a dangerous grin appeared. "All right." She flicked her eyes to his. "I’ll take the whole getup."

"Cool." Not quite stifling a triumphant smile, the salesman carefully unlatched the sleeveless, almost backless vest from its stand and laid it over his arm. "It’s got an underlining, so you can wear it… "He looked at her from the corner of his eyes. "Without anything under it, if you want."

"I know." Dar followed him to the register, quickly browsing and selecting a pair of soft moccasins as well.

He folded the items neatly into a few squares of tissue paper. "You know, we’ve got a pay out plan, if you’re interested." His hands paused as Dar’s platinum card landed on the paper. "Then again, who needs compound interest, right?" Respectfully, he lifted the card and glanced at it, before he swiped it and handed it back ‘Interesting name."

"Not my choice." Dar tucked it away. She took a sip of her ghoulish mug while she waited for the receipt to print, trying not to think about how ludicrous it was that she was actually considering not only going to the company Halloween party, a first in itself, but dressing up for it.

"Thanks." She signed the slip as he presented it to her, and picked up her bags. "Good luck with this place."

"No problem." The man smiled at her. "You know, you could almost pass as native yourself, except for those white man’s eyes." He extended a hand. "Nice talking to you, Paladar."

Dar took the grip, and returned it, finding a strong, calloused hand clasped in hers. "Same here." She replied briefly, before she turned and edge out of the small store, wandering over to the seawall and sitting down on it as she regarded the bag in her hands.

Halloween party, Dar? What the hell has gotten into you? Wasn’t it you who told Kerry, just today, that you didn’t do company parties?

Kerry, of course, was going because it was her first one, and the kid was still trying to fit in and all. Dar pondered her shoelace, plucking at it with idle fingers.

Wonder what she’s wearing?


Kerry took a deep breath of newly cool morning air as she walked across the parking lot at ILS. It was early, just past dawn, and she was one of the few workers now entering the large building.

"Morning, Kerry." Duks Draefus suddenly appeared next to her, his large frame popping out of nowhere and almost scaring her. "What is that you have there?"

Duks was, she knew, relatively a good guy. He was a close colleague of her bosses, and Kerry also knew Dar considered him a friend. Still, she didn’t know him that well, and he was, after all, Dar’s peer. "Oh, just my Halloween duds, Mr. Draefus." She told him. "Are you going to the party?"

"Ah." Duks courteously held the door for her, and followed her inside the building. They both showed their badges to the guard, and were let through, joining a small sprinkling of others heading for the elevators. "I am afraid I have been coerced into participation in this odd celebration of ancient pagan rituals."

Kerry wasn’t sure what the response should be to that. She prudently just smiled, and joined him in the elevator, waiting for the doors to shut behind them. At the last moment, a hand reached out and held the sliding panels open. A split second later the owner of the hand eased around the corner and into the elevator car, picking a spot on the wall near Kerry to lean against. "Morning." Kerry greeted her boss, adding a smile that was returned when Dar’s eyes met hers.

"Ah, and a good morning as well, Dar." Duks rocked up and down on the balls of his feet as the car rose slowly. "You are early today."

Dar was dressed in her gunmetal gray suit, with a black silk shirt underneath. "Meeting at eight." She replied tersely. "What’s that?" She indicated Kerry’s suit bag.

"My costume." Kerry said. "For the party tonight."

Dar’s brows twitched. "I figured that out on my own. What kind of costume?"

Duks kept quiet, his eyes going from one to the other with interest.

"I think we’re supposed to keep that a secret." Kerry murmured, as the elevator reached the fourteenth floor. "Aren’t we? Until the party, I mean."

Dar held the door as they all exited. Duks waved and went the other way towards his offices, while Dar and Kerry moved on towards their own. "Ah, but I’m not going to the party." Dar reminded her assistant. "Besides, I can keep a secret."

Kerry surrendered gracefully, slowing as they approached her office door. "It’s… not that much really. I just went out and got some... um... "

Dar leaned against the wall, her arms folded, one eyebrow lifted to her hairline. "How bad can this be?" She asked dryly.

Why was she so damn tongue tied all of a sudden? Kerry frowned inwardly, and gave herself a little shake. It was just Dar, after all. "It’s not bad; it’s kinda fun, really. I put together sort of a revolutionary era outfit."

Dar cocked her head to one side, intrigued. "Revolutionary? As in George Washington and that stuff?"

Kerry nodded. "Right."

"Where’s you find the bonnet and apron?"

"Bo…" Kerry felt herself blushing unexpectedly. "Oh, no... Um... it’s not the... it’s the coat, and the frilly shirt, and... ."

"Oooh. The guy’s outfit." Dar said. "Right, gotcha." She gave Kerry a grin and a pat on the shoulder. "Good choice." Then she turned and headed for her own office, leaving a very bemused Kerrison Stuart behind her.

"What on earth did she mean by that?" Kerry wondered aloud.

"Pardonamente, Kerry?" Maria appeared at her elbow. "Did you ask me something?"

"Uh…no." Kerry cleared her throat. "No, I was just saying I was going to go get some coffee, that’s all." She smiled at Maria. "Morning!"

"Buenos Dias, Kerry." Maria smiled back, and went on her way.

Shaking her head, Kerry went into her office, stopping by her small closet to stash her costume on her way to her desk. The sun was pouring in the window, and she spent a moment enjoying the view before she pulled her chair out and sat down. Only then did she notice the three foil covered disks.

Curiously, she picked one up. "Peanut butter cups? How did they get here?" Someone, of course, must have left them, but… "How did someone know I love these things?" They hadn’t been there when she’d left the night before, and she’d been the last person in the wing to leave except…


Kerry studied the cup seriously. Then she unwrapped it, sniffed delicately at the creamy chocolate, and popped it into her mouth. "Mm." Peanut butter cups for breakfast, Kerry. How completely, totally awful is that?

Awful. Cheerfully, she licked her fingers, then got up and retrieved her mug, heading out to get some coffee to wash the treats down.


Dar entered her office, glaring dourly at the afternoon sunlight before she yanked her chair out and claimed it, pulling open her desk drawer and retrieving a bottle of aspirin. "Stupid sons of bitches." She cursed, shaking out several pills and tossing the bottle back in the drawer. "Don’t have the brains god gave a grasshopper, I swear."

Her intercom buzzed softly. "Dar?"

"Yeah." Dar muttered. "What is it, Maria?" She propped her elbows on her desk and rubbed her temples, trying to ease the throbbing ache.

"I have two messages here for you, from Mr. Alastair."

"I have a cell phone, and he knows how to use it." Dar growled. "Anything else?"

"Si. Your lunch is still here, on my desk. Do you want me to bring it in for you?"

Dar winced. "No." She swallowed bile at the thought of the cold meatloaf. "I’ll pass." She glanced at her watch. "I’ve got the ops meeting in five minutes anyway." With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and trudged over to the small executive refrigerator under the credenza in her office, opening the door and removing a small, brown plastic bottle. She took it, and her project folder, and headed for the door.

The rest of her operations team was already there by the time she reached the conference room. That wasn’t surprising, generally speaking no one was ever late to one of her department meetings because that was one of Dar’s pet peeves and they all knew it.

So, she wasn’t surprised to see the table already full when she pushed the door open and made for her seat, the end one near the window. She was glad this was the last meeting of the day, and she’d already chucked her nascent idea of attending the Halloween party, deciding to just go home and maybe spend some time in the gym instead.

As she sat, she glanced up the table and found her gaze caught and held halfway down by a pair of warm, concerned green eyes. Kerry usually sat in the middle of the group, and now she was leaning on her elbows, watching Dar’s face and waiting for whatever she had to say.

Dar relaxed a little, and took a sip of her chocolate milk. "Other than the fact that I’m gonna have to fistfight Eleanor for our slice of the budget, I’ve got nothing worthwhile to tell you."

Everyone was silent, digesting that. "Can I sell tickets?" Mark Polenti spoke up, hesitantly. "I figure I can get at least ten bucks a pop, since it’s only gonna last five seconds."

That got a chuckle from everyone, and even got a smile from Dar.

"Not even." Cherylee Simons waved a finger at him. "She’ll be screaming "No Mas!’ and running out the building before it even starts."

"You wouldn’t try to bite her ear off, wouldja, boss?"

Dar acknowledged the banter with a wave of her hand. "All right, all right. That’s enough." She rested her chin on her fist. "Your turn."

One by one they dutifully reported little items and big ones, successes and failures. Dar found herself listening with half an ear, though, her thoughts seeming to wander elsewhere. She made a few notes in her palm pilot, just to keep everyone on their toes, and wished the day was over.

Then her eyes were drawn to a flashing indicator on her palm device, and she glanced at it in puzzlement before she reached out and tapped the square with her stylus.

A tiny pumpkin appeared.

Dar looked up and around the table. Several of her staff carried the palm devices, but only one had theirs out and open.

Kerry folded her hands in front of her Palm and cleared her throat a little. "Not much to report here." She stated softly. "The three new accounts we just signed should be ready for integration next week, and we have their site surveys all ready for Mark." Her eyes lifted and met Dar’s. "We cleared the problems we were having in customs in Canada. I think the big order you needed is being rerouted through Newfoundland, and it should get to London tomorrow night."

Dar grinned at her. "Good work."

Kerry smiled back, visibly pleased at the praise. "That’s all from my end." She said. "We’re doing the server migration next week for Australia. I think we’re ready." Her eyes shifted to Mark. "We are ready, right?"

"You betcha." Mark agreed. "Three hundred servers, two big pipes, six routers, no waiting. We just need a name for the project."

"How about Pumpkin." Dar drawled, keeping her eyes on Kerry’s face. The blond woman flashed a slightly sheepish grin, as her fingers twirled her stylus a touch nervously. "I like that."

Mark shrugged. "Sure. Right time of year for it." He scribbled something on his pad. "Pumpkin is it, boss." He shuffled a paper. "For my stuff, we’re mostly okay, except that we’re outta boxes for the sales department."

"What?" Dar barked. "They just got a hundred. What the hell are they doing with em, using them as planters?"

"I dunno."

"FIND OUT." Dar growled. "That jackass Jose is probably letting his little favorites take the damn things home. I’ll have his cojones on a platter if he is."

"I’ll see what I can find out." Kerry interjected mildly. "I’ve got a meeting with them tomorrow morning." She cleared her throat again. "But I’ll, um... leave his c…cojones where they are unless you really, really want them."

There was a moment of honest surprise from the group. Kerry had been with them so short a time, she hadn’t ventured into the familiar language with any of the group, let alone Dar. They stared curiously at her, and then everyone looked at Dar for her reaction.

Dar exhaled, pursing her lips as though seriously considering the question. Then she shrugged. "Hell. Even if I petrified them, they’d only be the size of marbles. Why bother?" Her blue eyes twinkled gently at Kerry. "See if you can get the truth out of him. I know he throws incentives to his best people — and I don’t care, but the replacements have to come from his budget."

"Okay." Kerry nodded.

"That’s it." Dar pushed back from the table. "See you tomorrow." She stood up and headed for the door, not looking back.

The atmosphere in the room relaxed palpably as soon as Dar left. Everyone sat back and stretched, some taking notes and stuffing them into briefcases. "Man, Big D was grumpy today." Cherylee sighed.

"Like there’s a difference?" One of her assistants remarked, wryly. "I’ve never seen her in a good mood. How can you tell?"

Cherylee chuckled, and rolled her eyes. "True... true… "She looked at Kerry. "You lucked out, though. She likes you."

"Oh, yeah."

"Hey, I just do what I need to do." Kerry held a hand up in negation. "Has nothing to do with luck or like."

"She’s right." Mark interjected smoothly. "She knows her shit, and Big D knows it. That’s all it takes, you all know that."

"You should know." Cherylee told him. "You’re the favorite boy."

"I know my shit." Mark spread his hands out, radiating confidence. "And I never BS her. That’s where you get your ass nailed, Chery." He said. "She knows every time you try to dump sugar on something."

"Yeah, yeah." The woman got up. "Well, I’m going to go get my party hat on." She glanced at Kerry. "You going?"

Kerry nodded, as she packed up her notes. "Yep, wouldn’t miss it."

"Oo.. first time in five years we’ll have someone from Ops Exec in there." Cherylee laughed. "Someone bring a camera."


Kerry decided to relax with a cup of tea before changing into her costume for the party. She kicked her shoes off under her desk and leaned back, cradling her mug between her hands and sipping from it.

It had been a pretty good day. She’d gotten most of her worklist done before lunch, and she realized she was getting accustomed to the much faster pace of business here at ILS. Adapting well, in fact. Kerry found herself really enjoying the challenge most of the time, though there were times when she felt a little overwhelmed.

It wasn’t just her job responsibilities, either. Fitting in with this new, big company had been more stressful than she’d anticipated. Her very visible position put her in the limelight more often than she liked, and she knew herself to be under curious scrutiny even within her own department.

Still. She opened her drawer and removed her last peanut butter cup, saved from the morning. She unwrapped it and bit into the treat, munching contentedly on it as the light started to fade outside her window.

After she finished, she got up and went to her closet, opening it and zipping open the garment bag she’d stashed her costume in. A few minutes later, she’d exchanged her business suit and hose for velvet and silk, the soft fabrics feeling wonderful against her skin. "Mm." She exhaled in satisfaction. "Much better than a cat costume."

She buckled the slim leather belt and picked up the case of old jewelry she’d taken from her trunk. Carrying it over to the small credenza under an equally small mirror, she set it down and opened it up. Inside, resting on some old cloth was a family brooch, which she set aside, and an old, time burnished pocket watch.

First, she fastened the fob on the watch to her belt, and then carefully lowered the watch itself into her jacket pocket. The burnished chain winked against the blue fabric, and she smiled, just a little as she fingered the metal links.

One of the very few things she had that truly, honestly tied her to her family. The watch had been passed down for generations from father to firstborn son, until her father had decided, for whatever reason, that he was going to give it to his firstborn period.

So when she’d turned eighteen, he’d taken her into his study, and given her a speech about traditions, and handed her this piece of history that had been through at least four wars and countless hands. She opened the cover and gazed at the engraving. It was simple, just the family surname, and the date the watch had been created.

Tradition. Kerry sighed, and closed the lid, putting the watch back into her pocket. Her parents had called her last night, and then she’d talked to Angie and Mike. As much as she loved her life here, she had to admit she missed her family, missed the closeness and intimacy of her siblings and the familiarity of home.

She had friends here, but it wasn’t the same. They didn’t know her, and she didn’t know them, not really.

A soft knock brought her out of her pensive thoughts. "Yes?"

Her inner door opened, and Dar’s head appeared, the startling blue eyes tracking across the office until they rested on her. "Oh, hi."

"Hi." Dar entered and shut the door behind her, a smile edging across her lips as she reviewed Kerry’s costume.

"What do you think?" Kerry always felt more relaxed when she and Dar were alone. Maybe their experiences together during the Consolidated integration made her feel that way, but when they were by themselves, out from under the ever watchful eyes, she felt more at ease with her often intimidating new boss.

"What do I think?" Dar walked over to her and folded her arms over her chest, her black silk shirt with its rolled sleeves catching the light. She reviewed the slim figure before her in its revolutionary garb, and grinned. "Cute outfit."

Kerry felt a mixture of confusion and pleasure. "Thanks." She fiddled with the brooch. "Can I ask a favor?"

Blue eyes regarded her warily. "Sure."

"Could you pin this?" She indicated her cravat, and the brooch. "I’ll never get it centered."

Dar took the brooch from her and stepped forward, entering Kerry’s personal space. She carefully worked the catch on the jewelry, and pinned it in place, as Kerry stood motionless.

So close, that Kerry could smell the faintly spicy perfume Dar wore, and see the heartbeat pulsing in her throat.

"There ya go." Dar finished and stepped back, regarding her work. "Good enough?"

Kerry glanced down. "Great." She grinned. "Thanks." Then she looked back up. "Did you need something? I just realized you’re probably not here to give me a hand dressing."

Dar fidgeted, and then re-crossed her arms. "I... um..." She paused, uncharacteristically. "Really, I just came over to say good night." She shrugged. "Have a good time at the party."

"You should go." Kerry found herself saying.

"Home?" Dar’s eyebrows lifted.

"To the party."

"I’m not a party animal." The dark haired woman shrugged. "Besides, most of those people hate my guts. I don’t want to sour their punch."

"Mmph." Kerry frowned.

"You got a hat to go with that?" Dar changed the subject. "To make you a proper Yankee?" She let a bit of her natural southern accent emerge.

Kerry suspected she was being teased, so she grinned, but retrieved her tri-cornered hat and settled it on her head. "I’m all set." She put a hand on the door handle, turning her gaze on Dar. "Won’t you come just for a few minutes? It’s just a party."

Dar’s eyes dropped, and then lifted again. "Really not my style. Have fun, okay?" She lifted a hand farewell, and retreated to the back hallway door.

"Okay." Kerry sighed, disturbingly aware of how empty the room seemed without her fascinating if perplexing boss in it. But she put aside her disappointment and checked her image one more time in the mirror, straightening her hat before she left her office and headed towards the presentation room.


Dar slumped in her chair, her eyes ostensibly studying the screen in front of her. She had no idea what was on it, but she suspected it wasn’t pleasant, so when a knock came at her door, she abandoned whatever it was gladly. "Come."

The door opened, and Maria stuck her head inside. The sight of her administrative assistant made Dar grin, if for no other reason than she had a bright red ball stuck on the end of her nose. "Maria... is that you behind there?"

"Si." Maria entered, and shuffled over to the desk. She was dressed as a clown, with bright red curly hair, a polka dotted outfit, and overlarge shoes. "I am so the ‘it’, no?"

Dar had to laugh. "Maria, you’ve got more guts than I do, I’ll tell ya that." She admitted. "I could never pull that off."

Maria smiled. "It is only for the one night, and my familias does not celebrate the Halloween, so I have fun." She clasped her hands in front of her. "Will you not stop by and see the other funny things? I hear Mr. Draefus is coming as the bear."

What is it with everyone today? "You know I don’t do parties, Maria." Dar told her. "Besides, with you and Kerry, our office is damn well represented this year."

"Ah." Maria nodded. "Si, then Kerry is also going?"

Dar nodded. "Yeah, she’s dressed up as George Washington or something." She told her admin. "Real cute."

Maria studied her face intently. "You know, Jefa, I worry about her in this place. I think she is finding it not so easy to get into how we are."

"What do you mean?" Dar’s brows contracted. "I thought she was doing fine. She does a good job."

"Oh, no, si, I mean, yes of course she does!" Maria corrected herself. "But I think she does not find the friends here so fast. It is because of what she is doing, I think. The people, they do not know how to be with her."

"Yeah." Dar exhaled. "She’s in a lousy spot." She admitted. "Everyone in our group has to report to her, and everyone outside it won’t go near her because they’re scared of me."

Maria suppressed a smile. "Si." She nodded sadly. "It is too bad, she is so nice."

"Yeah." That worried Dar, because she did like the kid, and wanted her to be happy at ILS, didn’t she? Kerry was a great assistant, a great employee, had great potential…

"It is too bad she will not have a friend to have the fun with at the party tonight, Jefe." Maria presented the politest, most gentile Cuban attack Dar had ever felt. "I think you are the closest to that for her, here."

Dar looked at her. "I think I’m being bushwhacked."

"I do not know how to, as you say, whack a bush, Jefe, but I am doing a good one, yes?"

The double meaning of the words almost cost Dar her composure. She scrubbed her face with one hand, and took a deep breath, then relaxed back into her chair, surrendering with far less struggle than she’d ever thought she could. "All right." She let her hands drop to the chair arms, and gave her admin a wry smile. "Besides, I’ve got this damn stupid thing I bought to wear in the damn closet. Might as well use it."

Maria smiled broadly. "Jefe! You did not!"

"Yeah, I did." Dar admitted. "So, g’wan. With any luck, the entire room’ll pass out when I show up and it’ll be a short party."

"I am going." Maria looked supremely satisfied, at least as much as someone could with bright pink lipstick circles on their cheeks. "I will see you there, Dar. It is good." She turned and marched, or rather, shuffled out, closing the door behind her.

Dar sat for a moment, absorbing the implications of what she was doing. Then she grinned, and threw caution out the window as she jumped up and headed for where she’d stashed her costume.


Kerry edged into a place near the wall, letting her eyes get used to the low, odd lighting as she looked around the room. The decorators had done a great job — there were balloon headed witches, ghosts, goblins and other… things wafting from the ceiling, along with bats and spiders. Someone had a dry ice machine tucked away somewhere because a low layer of fog obscured the floor.

Two large bars on opposite sides of the room were dispensing sodas, beer and wine, and there were two very long tables on the remaining walls that had various goodies on them. In the center of the room, a large area had been cleared, and around it were small tables where people were sitting and talking. Two of the tables had been taken over by fortune tellers, and they had a brisk business going around them.

Spooky music was playing, and the lights were low, covered in richly colored plastic that painted everything in bizarre colors.

Kerry decided she preferred it to the way the presentation room looked normally. As she glanced around, she saw several eyes turn away from hers, and felt suddenly very self conscious.

"Hey, Kerry." Mark popped up next to her, dressed as a vampire. "Wanna ‘bite’ to eat?" He showed his impressively glow in the dark fangs.

"Yikes." Kerry chuckled; glad she could at least talk to someone. "This place is wild."

"Yeah." Mark spit out the fangs, and ran his tongue around his teeth. "I hate the taste of plastic." He commented, tucking the items away for later. "This ain’t bad. I like to just hang out and watch how stupid everyone looks."

Well. Kerry watched one of the marketing analysts shimmy across the cleared center space heading for the bar. "What’s that supposed to be?" She queried.

Mark looked, then tilted his head sideways and looked again. "I think she thinks its Carmen Miranda." He said. "Either that, or she’s representing the sausage industry."

"Wow." Kerry murmured. "That’s different."

"But hey, I love your costume." Mark went on. "Real slick." He admired the silk jacket. "I knew you wouldn’t do anything... ahm… "

"Stupid." Kerry supplied, with a wry smile. "No, I didn’t think my first company party would be the time or place for that." She said. "Anyway, I’m going to go get a cold cup of something."

"Okay, see ya in a bit." Mark flourished his cape around him and stalked off, bent on scaring as many unsuspecting victims he could.

With a sigh, Kerry headed off through the growing crowd towards the bar, returning mostly cordial smiles as she approached it. "Hi." She greeted the bartender, laboring under a full set of blue makeup and chains. "What kind of beer do you have?"

The man mutely held up two bottles. Kerry pointed at one, and was rewarded with a plastic cup full of her choice on tap. She took it and turned, wondering where to go next.

"Ah, Kerry. We were just talking about you." Eleanor appeared at her elbow, dressed as Cruella DeVille, complete with spotted fake fur cape. "Why don’t you come over and join us?" She took Kerry’s arm and led her over to one of the small tables, where Jose and a number of their cronies were gathered.

Yippee, my favorite people. Kerry sighed inwardly. But at least it was someone to talk to, sort of. She allowed herself to be drawn into the group, and returned the various murmurs and smiles of greeting.

"Hey, that’s a nice outfit." Jose commented. "Mozart, right?"

"Jose, you’re so uncultured." Eleanor rolled her eyes. "It’s obviously revolutionary period, isn’t it, Kerry?"

"That’s right." Kerry nodded. "That’s a lovely cape, Eleanor."

The marketing VP beamed at her. "Thank you! Now, see, Jose? Did you ever figure to hear that out of the mouth of anyone in that office?"

Jose rolled his eyes. "I don’t expect shit from that office. No offense, all right?" He glanced at Kerry. "You are a nice kid, but don’t expect to last long there. Nobody does."

"Jose!" Eleanor frowned at him. "Please! Don’t scare her off. She’s the only civilized voice we’ve got in that cesspool."

Kerry didn’t expect the cold anger that suddenly grabbed her. She suspected it showed on her face, though, because the two women closest to her backed off a step, and Jose had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Excuse me." She managed to get out in a quiet, civil tone. "I happen to have a lot of respect and admiration for the person I work for, and I’d rather not be a part of this conversation."

"Now, I’m sure Jose didn’t mean it quite that way..." Eleanor started, but she found herself speaking to Kerry’s silk jacketed back as she turned and simply walked away, moving through the crowd with an unconscious grace. "Son of a bitch."

Jose grunted. "Thought she’d figured it out by now. "

Eleanor sighed vexedly. "She’s intelligent. I don’t understand why she still doesn’t get it."

Kerry blocked out the words as she headed towards the other side of the room. She was surprised how much her insides were shaking with anger over the insults thrown Dar’s way, and she decided the hell with it. She’d finish her beer and just take off. Had to be something on television she’d be better off watching rather than stick around here.

"Hola, Kerry."

Kerry slowed, then paused as she came upon Maria standing in a circle of some of her friends. "Hi, Maria. That’s such a cute outfit." She murmured.

"Muchas gracias, and you, too, look very well." Maria returned the compliment. "That is so pretty on you."

Yeah. "Thanks." Kerry replied quietly, as she glanced around them. "It’s just something I…" Her words trailed off as her eyes fell on a tall figure that had just entered the room.

Oh boy. Kerry was startlingly aware of a truth that came home and hit her in the groin so hard her knees shook.

"Ah, good." Maria seemingly didn’t notice the suddenly stunned speechless woman next to her. "I am so glad el Jefe decided to come, after all. " She commented placidly. "That is a very interesting costume, is it not, Kerry?"

Interesting. Kerry blinked. Her boss was wearing a pair of buckskin leather pants, decorated with beading and shells and a halter like top that covered just the front of her and little else. Her shoulders and arms were bare except for thin bands of beads around her biceps, and her hair had a long, colorful feather threaded through it.

She walked with a catlike grace appropriate to the Indian garb, and her customary attitude of almost feral intensity fit the outfit to perfection.

"Uh. Yeah." Kerry managed to get the words out. "Very interesting." She finally got her composure back, and licked her lips. "I didn’t think she was... she said she didn’t do parties."

"There is always a first time." Maria remarked. "Dar is never the predictable." She looked at Kerry with bright, twinkling eyes. "You should tell her how nice her costume is. Maybe she will do another party again."

"I should." Kerry rolled the words around in her mouth. "Yeah, you’re right, Maria. I should." She took control of herself and started purposefully towards her boss. All of a sudden, the party was definitely looking up.


Dar paused before she pushed open the door to the presentation room; shifting her posture and glancing down to make sure her urchins were where they were supposed to be. The air conditioning brushed against her bare shoulder blades, and she was conscious suddenly of the amount of skin she had showing.

Was this a smart idea? She glanced at one of the mirrored panels on either side of the door and reviewed the outlandish figure looking back at her. Maybe not. She frowned at her reflection, and was about to turn around and go back to her office when the double doors opened and Duks emerged in his bear suit.

It was hard to say which one of them was more surprised. "I cannot believe my eyes." Duks spluttered. "Dar?"

Oh well. Dar exhaled, seeing the eyes suddenly looking her way from inside the room. Guess I’m going in. "Yeah." She plucked at Duk’s furry outfit. "What the hell is this?"

"It was either that, or a cowboy outfit." Mariana emerged, her eyes taking in Dar’s tall form. "Hm... you two could have come as a pair if he’d worn that. Good heavens, Dar... that’s quite a getup."

Dar shrugged. "Let me go in there, shock everyone senseless, get a drink, and get outta here." She started past them. "If they don’t run screaming out the door." Fortifying herself with a deep breath, she entered the presentation room, summoning up as much attitude as she could to cover up the embarrassment.

She paused just inside the door to get her bearings, and let her eyes adjust to the dark. Not that it stopped everyone nearby from staring, naturally, and as she moved off towards the nearest bar, she heard the whispers start up behind her.

"Oh, that’s appropriate. Where’s the tomahawk."

"Savage... yeah, that’s about right."

"I can’t believe she showed up. Did someone die?"

Resolutely, Dar kept on her path, with each step regretting more and more her decision to come. She’d almost reached the bar when she was intercepted by a short, blond, nattily dressed person coming in the other direction. Warily, she paused, waiting for Kerry’s reaction, her expression hard to discern in the dim light.

"Hey." Kerry’s voice was warm. "Thought you weren’t coming."

Dar shrugged. "Had nowhere else to wear this." She replied tersely.

"Too bad." Her assistant said. "It’s gorgeous. You look great in it."

Hm. Dar’s ego pricked its ears up cautiously. Was that genuine admiration or just Kerry’s usual charming good manners? She decided to be direct. "You’re not just saying that because I’m your boss, are you?"

Kerry’s eyes lifted and met hers, and Dar knew the answer before the blond woman said a word.

"No." Kerry said, with a warm smile. "I said it because it’s true. It just really fits you somehow."

Well, then. Dar felt a little better about showing up. She turned and addressed the bartender. "Whadda ya got?" She reviewed the offerings. "Gimme a wine cooler."

Kerry handed over her mostly full cup. "Can I get a cold one of these? I’ve been carrying it around for a while."

They took their drinks and moved to one side of the bar, to a quieter spot near the wall. Kerry leaned back and sipped her beer, watching the crowd wryly. "Dar?"


"Everyone is looking at us."

"Umhm." Dar agreed. "They’re expecting us to act out the frontier Indian wars. I think I’m supposed to knock you over the head, and carry you out over my shoulder."

Kerry almost spit her beer out a foot in front of her. She covered her mouth and managed to swallow, then wiped her face. "Oh, god. That’d make the company newspaper."

Dar chuckled. "Yeah." She sipped her wine cooler, waiting for the crowd to find something more interesting to watch. "Am I interrupting your fun?"

Kerry remained silent for a moment, deciding how to answer. "No." She decided on honesty. "I was about to leave. I’m not really comfortable around here yet." She said. "People still look at me like a cross between a simpleton and a nutball."

Dar felt vaguely like a somewhat tarnished knight in leather armor. "That’s okay." She told her assistant wryly. ‘They look at me like a cross between Satan and the IRS." A smile flickered across her face and disappeared. "Want to hang out together? At least we can talk about the same subjects and understand each other."

Kerry accepted the compliment with a broad grin. "Yes I would, thanks." She indicated the long tables. "Want to see what they’ve got over there?"

"Lead on, Kemosabe." Dar replied, with a smirk.


They found themselves a small table near the back of the room, after they picked up plates from the buffet and sat down. "Is this traditional Halloween food here in Miami?" Kerry inquired, regarding her plate of Southern Cuban Caribbean delicacies with a wry expression.

Dar chuckled softly. "They try to put in a little of everything."

"So I see." Kerry inspected her tablemate’s plate. "What is that?" She pointed curiously with her fork.

"Hush puppy." Dar answered.

"I thought those were shoes."

"They are." Dar broke her puppy in half and placed one half on Kerry’s plate. "They grind them up and deep fry them when they’re old and used up." She took a bite of her half and chewed it, regarding her assistant’s widened eyes innocently. "You know what they say in the south... good enough batter, you kin deep fry any damn thing and it’ll taste jest fine."

Kerry put her fork down, and held up both hands, as she peered at Dar with all seriousness. "You are kidding me, aren’t you?" She pointed. "That is not really ground up shoes, right?"

Dar kept her straight face for a moment more, then gave it up and chuckled. "Yeah, it’s just deep-fried cornmeal. Relax."

"Ah." Kerry investigated the item, cutting a bit of it off with her fork and putting it into her mouth. She chewed it and swallowed thoughtfully. "That’s pretty good, actually." She admitted. "Did anyone ever tell you that you have a twisted sense of humor?"

"Shh." Dar made a show of looking around. "If word gets out I have one at all, I’m gonna have to kill somebody to disprove it." She said, casually watching Kerry’s face. The blond woman’s eyes twinkled in amusement, and half grin pulled at her lips. Dar returned it, enjoying the time with her interesting and intelligent new subordinate.

She liked Kerry, she’d decided. Both as an employee, and as a person. The blond woman was not only good at what she did, she was sharp in ways very few other people Dar knew were. Though she appeared good natured, and something of an innocent, there was a very keen, politically aware mind behind the soft green eyes, and it was flexible enough to readily absorb Dar’s sometimes offbeat teasing and give back just as good.

"So." Kerry finished her chicken breast. "Are you really Southern, or was that accent just a put on?"

Dar played around with her beans and rice briefly, considering how to answer. "It’s real." She replied. "I grew up down South of here, but I’ve been around a lot so most of it’s worked its way out."

"Ah, I see."

"I use it sometimes when I want to piss Jose off." Dar offered.

"He really doesn’t like you." Kerry said, giving Dar an apologetic look. "Does he?"

Dar shook her head. "Most people don’t."

That was, Kerry knew, the truth. She had only to look around them and see the veiled stares to know that. Her political sense told her that her life would be quantum leaps easier if she joined the majority, and got in with Eleanor and Jose’s group, distancing herself from Dar as best as she was able.

Well. Screw that. "I do." Kerry stated cheerfully. "Does that make me one of the few and proud?"

Dar looked up in surprise and their eyes met. She took a breath to answer, but shadows looming over them forced them to acknowledge two unwelcome visitors. "Yeah?" A cold shadow dropped over Dar’s face as Eleanor and Jose sat down at the table.

"Why, Dar, darling. We just came over to see if it was really you." Eleanor smiled at her. "I’ve never, ever seen you at a party."

"It’s me." Dar stated. "Anything else you want to know?"

"What kind of god damned costume is that? You think you’re a Peter Pan or something?"

"Peter Pan?" Kerry mouthed silently to herself, her eyebrows contracting in puzzlement.

"It’s... lovely… Dar, really." Eleanor gave her condescending look.

"Coming from a skunk and a monkey, that’s pretty damn funny." Dar replied. "Why don’t you both go share fleas over in the corner? You’re making me itch."

Kerry hastily wiped a grin off her face as Eleanor turned to her, seeking an easier victim.

"So, Kerry. Tell me. What are you and the missing link here chatting about?"

"Multipathed integrated routing tables." Kerry replied. "And the implementation of the new IEEE specifications... interested?"

Eleanor got up. "You know, dear, I think I was wrong. I think you’re just exactly where you should be in this company." She plucked Jose’s hairy sleeve. "C’mon, Jose. I see some wine glasses with our names on them."

A loud squeal stopped most of the conversation, and then Mariana got control of her microphone and waved. "Okay, folks. Welcome to the party."

Everyone cheered and clapped.

"I’m glad so many of you could join us." Mariana said, making a point of looking right at Dar and grinning. "I think this might be the first time we have our entire executive contingent here, and it’s great to see that."

Dar rolled her eyes.

"Now." Mariana held up a sheaf of papers. "I’ve got some pretty nifty incentives here that were donated from our various clients. As you all know, I can’t just give them out, because if I do, then you all have to pay taxes on them."

Good natured groaning arose.

"So, as usual, now I have to come up with stupid party games so one of you can ‘win’ these lovely items." Mariana concluded. "I’ve decided to have two kinds. One, we’ll give two of these items to the best costumes, as chosen by our panel of distinguished judges... "She pointed to her right, where the two fortune tellers were now seated. The women waved happily. "And two, we’ll have a contest to see which team of two people can keep a volleyball in the air the longest."

Dar snorted softly. "Well, it’s fair." She concluded, resting her chin on her fist. "People who went all out in costumes can’t really do volleyballs, and people who are capable of doing volleyballs probably didn’t go all out in costume."

"She’s pretty sharp." Kerry agreed. "What are the prizes?"

"I have no idea." Dar replied. "Usually day cruises, things like that."

"Hm." Kerry watched as two of Mariana’s assistants came out with four volleyballs. "I’ve never been on a cruise. " She turned to Dar. "Want to give the volleyballs a try with me?" She stripped off her jacket, and slung it over her chair.

Dar was caught seriously flatfooted.

Kerry blushed slightly. "Sorry, I can find someone else to ask. You probably would rather eat nails then get up there. Maybe Mark’ll do it." She started to get up, and then stopped when Dar put a hand out. "It’s okay."

"No, it’s not." Dar disagreed. "If you really want to win it. Mark’s got the eye hand coordination of a pelican." She didn’t stop to think. "Sure, I’ll do it. C’mon."

And, actually, Dar had to acknowledge, the look on Mariana’s face when grabbed one of the volleyballs made the whole thing worth it.


Kerry found Dar’s rhythm quickly, after only a few tosses back and forth of the ball. She lightly tapped the surface with her fingertips with a sure skill learned over many hours of playing the game. She’d liked volleyball, actually, though she’d been at a serious height disadvantage against her much taller teammates and opponents.

Dar didn’t appear to be that familiar with the sport, but Kerry quickly found that her bosses’ natural athletic skill more than made up for that. Dar’s reach was outrageous, and she could return the ball to Kerry even with her arm stretched out to one side, attesting to the strength of her shoulders.

At first, it was hard, because she knew how many eyes were on her. She suspected Dar did also, but they both concentrated, and after a few minutes she started to have fun. She heard Mark hooting behind them, and saw Dar’s quick grin in acknowledgement.

Then those blue eyes were turned on her, and Kerry almost missed her hit. She recovered and sent the ball heading towards Dar, who batted it lazily back at her.

A shriek next to her, and she saw a ball go bounding into the crowd from the corner of one eye. Two of the contestants retired, laughing ruefully. That cleared a little space, and Kerry edged over, keeping her attention on Dar’s body, shifting under its light covering. She could see the muscles just under Dar’s skin jump and move, and her long torso seemed to have a lot of elastic power in it.

Kerry saw the ball heading back towards her and she moved over a bit, getting under it and popping it back with her fingertips. She was jostled then by the man next to her, who muttered an apology before he frantically tried to return a badly tossed ball from his partner.

"Hey." Dar’s voice brought her attention sharply back, just in time to get the ball coming right for her face. She frowned at herself and re-sharpened her focus, getting back into the rhythm they’d established.

Dar tapped the ball back, and she went for it, and then found her opponent banging into her again, knocking her off balance. She got one hand on the ball, but it went back in a crazy arc, forcing Dar to leap after it. Her opponent tripped and almost made her go down, but she somehow managed to jump over his legs, precariously keeping her footing while she cast her eyes back in Dar’s direction.

Her boss had followed her motions precisely, getting a hand on the ball just before it hit the ground to give Kerry the most time she could in getting back on her feet. As she lifted her hands, Dar sent the ball back, along with a rakish grin and a wink.

The crowd clapped unexpectedly.

Yeah! Kerry tried to keep a handle on her competitive impulse, but felt it getting the better of her as she realized there were only two teams left. The prize was irrelevant, she knew. The winning was what she wanted, the winning, and the fact that it would be her, and Dar that did it.

That mattered most, all of a sudden.

Dar had just the biggest piratical grin on her face now, as they tossed the ball back and forth confidently. Kerry knew she did too, and as the other team faltered, and their ball went rolling off, she sent a last volley Dar’s way, as Mariana whistled into her mic.

Dar caught the ball and palmed it, then came towards Kerry and met her impulsive high five.

Their eyes met.

"What a team." Mariana announced, laughing into the microphone.

And for the space of a few heartbeats, those words seemed to echo around them as they bumped shoulders and bounced off each other, Dar reaching a hand out to steady her as Kerry released her excess emotion.

Mariana handed them the slip of paper, still laughing. "I can’t believe you." She addressed Dar. "What the heck got into you tonight?"

Dar tried to shrug it off. "Long as I was here, might as well do it right." She drew in a breath, and addressed the still grinning Kerry. "I don’t know about you but… "

"I definitely need a drink." Kerry agreed. "And some air." She fanned herself, the packed room having become stuffy.

And so, they found themselves a few minutes later outside on the fourteenth floor balcony, cups in hand, and the entire sea to the horizon before them.

Kerry leaned against the railing and wiped her brow, glad of the cool on shore breeze at her back. "Wow."

"You can say that again." Dar replied, with a chuckle. "We’re gonna be hearing about this for the next fiscal decade."

"Is that a bad thing?" Kerry took a long swallow of her fresh beer, her eyes watching Dar’s profile.

Dar leaned on the railing, looking out at the sea for a minute. "For me? No." She eventually answered. "For you it might be."

Kerry cocked her head in question. "How?"

‘If you wanted to go places inside the company, it’s better for you if you stay as clear of me as you can." Dar spoke very quietly, and very evenly. She was surprised when Kerry laughed, and she turned to face her. "I was serious."

"I know." Kerry let her chuckles wind down. "But — the only place I want to be in this place is where I already am." She told her boss. "So I don’t really care what the rest of them think of me for that." Now it was her turn to be serious. "Dar, this may be out of line for me to say, but… you’re brilliant. I want to learn from you, to learn from the best, and the rest of this political bullshit doesn’t mean anything to me. I know more about that then anyone here anyway." She glanced inside the open doors to the presentation room, and shook her head slightly. "Amateurs."

Dar regarded her intently for a very long moment, and then her lips edged into a tiny smile. "You know something?" She said. "Someday you and I are going to sit down and tally up which one of us learned more from whom." With that, she lifted her cup and extended it, and watched as Kerry touched the rim with her own.

They finished their drinks in peaceful silence, just enjoying the night air, and the full moon that lit the ocean with a pathway of lurid silver. Then Kerry half turned and regarded the noisy party, watching as Eleanor paraded before the judges in her costume. "I think I’ve had enough for one night, but with three beers in me, I’d better chill in the corner somewhere before I think about driving home."

Dar blinked at the doors thoughtfully. "There’s a little coffee shop around the corner. Want to grab a cup instead of waiting in there?"

There were, Kerry was well aware, coffee machines in two varieties on every single floor of ILS’s office building. It was even free. It was amazing how happy the thought of paying for a cup of the stuff made her. "Sounds like a good plan." She complimented her boss. "I don’t suppose you know a back way out of here, do you?"

"Sure." Dar replied, pointing towards the other side of the balcony. "Follow me."

"Anywhere." Kerry readily complied, as they disappeared into the darkness. She’d started the night lonely for something she’d hardly realized she was missing, and ended it finding far more than she’d ever hoped for.

Only time would reveal where that would lead her.


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