Exposure Season 1 by Xwpfanatic & TNovan

lindac

Artwork by Calli

Exposure Season 1 by Xwpfanatic & TNovan

Exposure: Season One
Episode One: Powder Blues
I check my equipment one last time, adjusting the camera on my shoulder. Doesn’t matter how much padding you put under it, it’s still heavy on the shoulder. The Sony Betacam weighs over fifteen pounds, without accessories. That isn’t much compared to prior models, so I can’t really complain. Especially since the Betacam has withstood a lot of abuse from my travels.

In addition to the camera everyone sees, I have a micro-camera clipped to my belt. It’s smaller than a pager, with a lens the size of a dime. But it gets sharp color images and sound. It’s powered by a nine volt battery, also tucked into my belt. If I have to ditch the big camera for any reason, I won’t be totally blind. This has happened more times than I care to think about.

I have a partner on crew, Jimmy Parks. Everyone calls him Jimmy Olsen because he has red hair and he’s junior on staff, fresh out of film school. The red hair is his own damn fault. It actually looks more orange than red. This is especially incongruous since Jimmy is of Korean descent. Jimmy sits in the van and monitors the feeds. Both cameras are live right now. We’re about to go in.

The cop next to me listens to the wire in his ear and nods. He gives me a thumbs up and I follow him closer to the house. We’re standing in the middle of Beverly Hills, on the huge front lawn of Tyler Sagemore, Hollywood’s hottest star of the moment. Tyler is about to be arrested for a number of felonies. He’s known to be sourcing coke to his much younger leading lady on the set. He’s known to be screwing her too, which wouldn’t be so bad except she’s underage. He’s not aware of that fact; she lied on her resume and to him. Ignorance is not bliss in this instance.

My contacts in the LAPD let me know this was going down tonight. Working for TrueTV has given me a lot of friends on the force. I see them all the time when I ride along as they arrest the rich and famous. I admire the job they have to do here in Lala land, where nothing is real and everyone thinks they are Someone Important.

The action begins. I point the Betacam at the front door where the officer in charge is knocking loudly. “Mr. Sagemore, this is the LA Police Department. Please open the door, we have a search warrant for the premises.” Two cops stand to either side of the office in charge, in case something goes wrong. I am a little farther back with another four cops.

I can’t help but hope that something will go wrong. No one wants to watch an easy arrest. Hell, I don’t want to film an easy arrest.

As the first gunshot rings out, I get my wish. I hear the click of the shoulder mike and then the words, “Shot fired! We’re going in.”

I trigger the camera as two of the officers move from behind me with the battering ram. It’s the only thing around here heavier than my camera. I’m glad I’m not wielding that. Two hard blows send the door crashing open.

“Move, move, move!” The team leader calls as the officers rush in. I have a good shot of them making entry and so far I am very pleased. I’m sure my cop buddies don’t feel the same way.

Though my brain is telling me to duck out of the way, my instincts tell me otherwise and send me hot on the heels of the officer closest to me. I wield my camera as he does his automatic pistol, knowing myself to be just as adept with my weapon of choice. It has led me through many harrowing situations.

While I am doing everything I can to stay out of their way, I am still making sure to get good shots. I know better than to charge ahead of the officers. O’Reilly, my buddy on this team, would have my head if I were to do something that stupid. I’m not willing to take that chance no matter how badly I want the story. Not because I fear for my own safety but because I don’t want to burn bridges with O’Reilly or these men.

As we step into the darkened front hallway, the rush is palpable and has a deep rich flavor that tingles on the back of my tongue providing a better high than any of the drugs I experimented with. The hall is a room that sets the atmosphere for the rest of the house: overwhelming and austere. To our left is a large winding staircase of gray and white marble leading to the second floor hallway which is little more than a balcony overlooking the entranceway and the formal living room beyond. The stone walls are lined with glowing brass sconces and it is obvious to even me that the interior decorator was going for the “too much money to have taste” look. The small part of the house we see reeks with it.

I use the Betacam as an extension of myself, seeing through its lens as easily as I see with my own eyes. I track up the staircase and over the balcony, listening intently to the chatter around me, silently urging them to speak up. Though my personal preference is stunning footage, spectacular sound is something I won’t turn down.

The officers are doing a search of the downstairs while I stay only feet from where I entered the house, letting the Betacam do my searching for me. It would appear that nothing is going down on this level. My intuition tells me to follow the cops going up the steps to the second floor so I do. My instincts are always good and I learned long ago never to ignore them.

“Upstairs room? Which end?” the officer in charge mutters to his microphone, back plastered against the wall in the middle of the stairway. I stand beside him, and I realize how exposed we are in this large echoing room. I hope they make a move soon because I know any action that happens here won’t be in my favor. It would be like shooting rats in a trashcan. I watched my older brothers do that as a kid and never quite understood it, but find it an apt analogy right now.

“South West end,” crackles back. “Shots are out of the South West window.”

Cool. I adjust the Betacam, tap the micro-cam on my belt to reassure myself of its presence. We’re moving again in seconds, slinking up the remainder of the staircase. We’re still sitting ducks here if Sagemore decides to come to the front hall instead of taking potshots at the cruisers outside but this knowledge only excites me further. I love the danger of my job, something I’d feared wouldn’t be possible for a camera person. Thank God for Jerry Springer and trash TV. He set up a pattern of sensationalist journalism that gives me the ability to do what I’m doing today. Life on the edge: shut up and jump.

We arrive at the landing and duck into a room. Scanning it quickly, it proves empty of anything but bad taste and expensive baubles. Here we wait for word from the street. We hear a few more shots and they sound louder now. I creep closer to the open door and peek around the jamb with the Betacam. I think he’s in the room at the end of the hall, or just beyond it. I will him to open the door so I can get footage of the infamous Sagemore with a weapon in his hand. We could sell such a clip for a handy profit, ensuring me a healthy bonus. The thought brings a grin to my face and I know my teeth glint in the fading light. I brush my hand through tangling hair, flipping a long ponytail over my back.

I’m still focusing on the door when two more officers slide behind me into the room we’ve taken over. I glance back at them to see they have blueprints of the house. Quickly I spin the Betacam around, making sure to take in the atmosphere of the room on my way: the officers hunched over the rolled out blueprint, their weapons still drawn. Viewers will be able to feel the tension in the room and it makes me smile. So far I couldn’t have asked for a better night.

I focus on the map, zoom in on the room where we are and then pan over to where Sagemore must be. Then I go back to my position by the door. He’s still taking shots out the window, apparently. The chatter on the radio confirms this.

“Come to me, come to me,” I chant, wanting the door to open. “C’mon, c’mon.”

I’ve never prayed to a deity and I certainly don’t now but by some grace of some god, the door I’m watching creaks open. It reveals Tyler Sagemore’s handsome face, peering through the crack.

“Fuck you!”

All right! I grin as I zoom in on him. I know I should be ashamed of my blatant happiness about the fact that this man is an idiot, but I wanted a good story and I’m gonna get it now.

“Damn it, Tyler! Put the gun down!” The officer beside me in the doorway commands. It isn’t until Sagemore pushes the door open further that his costar is revealed at his side. “Let the girl go!”

Cool! Hostage too. Oh happy day. The actor is dressed in white terry cloth shorts and nothing else. I zoom in on his face to capture his wide eyed drug stare and then come back out for the full effect of the actor holding a weapon on the slip of a girl in front of him. It’s a Smith and Wesson forty-four magnum, light gleaming off well polished silver. He must have reloaded during his haphazard shooting because even from here I can see spent cases on the floor in the room and his hand clutching a ripped open box of ammo at the young woman’s shoulder while he pins her small body to him. He has at most six shots before he has to resort to the box but we have no way of telling how many bullets are in the gun itself. If his hands weren’t shaking so much and the angle were right, I could try to zoom in and count the empty chambers. I love this.

I take the opportunity to focus on the girl, her blonde hair tied back in a ribbon, her caramel eyes seeming to focus on everything and nothing. It’s obvious that they are both strung out. The girl has to be. She’s far too calm. She makes no sound as he growls at the officers and jams the weapon into her temple.

Blue uniforms are pressing around me in my doorway. They try to shove me out of the way but I don’t budge. This is what I came for and I’ll be damned if some cop is going to push me to safety as if I’m a damsel in distress. I’ve seen more shootings than most of these boys put together.

They’re yelling to Sagemore to put down the weapon. Shouts are coming from downstairs, too, and I realize that there are officers in the front hall but I can’t afford to look at them. I can’t look away for even a second, refusing to miss the moment that will end this night. Darkly, I know what I am hoping for. I wonder if that makes me as sick as the man stumbling forward across the hall. He lurches as if drunk, waving the weapon and screaming obscenities at the officers and me. I am glad that his young costar is drugged, too. She stumbles along beside him in his painful grip but her peaceful face shows no sign of the fear she should be feeling. If she dies tonight, her last moments won’t have been filled with panic and I’m grateful for that. I’m not the cold-hearted bitch most take me for, although I’m but a stone’s throw away from it.

So we’re at a virtual standstill in the upstairs hallway. Even though he’s stumbling around and waving his weapon, he’s too close to the door for a good shot from downstairs. He holds the girl in front of him so the officers crouched in the doorway with me will have no better luck. None of us can move without risking injury to ourselves or her and, after awhile, even the shouts dwindle down so all that’s left in the silence is sliceable tension. My blood is singing with my good fortune.

“Is that a fucking camera?” Tyler asks, breaking the silence.

It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking to me. I’m so used to having it, I don’t even think about it anymore. “Yeah,” I reply slowly, making it a three syllable word. I figure now is not the time to explain that cameras can’t fuck.

“Come over here!” he barks, spittle dripping down his chin. He wipes it off in the girl’s hair.

“No, Tyler, she can’t do that,” O’Reilly replies for me.

“Like hell she can’t!” Tyler replies. He presses the magnum closer into the girl’s skin. She giggles, as if it tickles. “Get over here, camera dog, or I blow her fuckin’ head off.”

Camera dog? What the hell type of insult is that? I roll my eyes. Coke is no damn good for anyone. “Why?”

“It doesn’t matter why,” O’Reilly mutters next to me.

“I want to talk.”

“So talk.” I point to the Betacam with my free hand. “It’s rolling.”

“Privately.”

O’Reilly steps partially in front of me, nearly obscuring my shot. “What do you think this is, Sagemore? A tea party? Put your gun down and then you can talk to this nice lady here.”

I growl. I am neither nice nor a lady. I’ll make O’Reilly buy me a beer later for that comment.

“You’re not getting it!” Even as the words leave Tyler’s mouth his magnum fires a shot into the closest cop’s chest. The cop goes down screaming. The girl hardly reacts to the round being fired next to her ear.

The number of expletives that leave my mouth and the cops around me will guarantee a long beep on the broadcast. I pan the camera over to the cop, he’s a rookie I don’t know, and realize the kid is wearing a bulletproof vest. It’ll still hurt like hell, but he won’t die.

All the cops are tense, each of them are praying for just one clean shot. I have mine though and that’s all that matters.

“Get over here, now! Or I blow her fuckin’ head off!” He looks like he might actually mean it this time.

Ah hell, at least it’ll be great footage. Before anyone can stop me, I approach the demented actor. “What do you want?”

“I want to talk.” His voice is whiney; he must realize the shitload of trouble he just bought himself.

The idea comes to me in a second. “Ok, ok … you can talk. You can talk to the whole country, Tyler. We’re the top rated independent syndicated news show worldwide.” I think all of my qualifiers were in there. “Let me just get the microphone, Tyler. Ok? It’s right here …” I reach into my vest slowly, feeling around for anything that is shaped somewhat like a microphone, hoping that he’s too wasted to notice the one perched on the end of the Betacam. My fingers close around my penlight.

Oh well, what the hell? I pull it out and hold it up. “This is our newest mike, Tyler. It’ll pick up anything and transmits via light wave.” Smell what you’re shoveling, Harper. I force myself to sound serious. His eyes are so glazed, I doubt if he even knows his own name at this point. “You just need to hold it and speak right into it.”

He looks at me puzzled. Both of his hands are accounted for, in his mind. One is wrapped tightly around his co-star, keeping her from escaping. The other is holding the gun. If I get lucky, he’s going to have to let go of one of them in order to get his wish.

“You hold it!” he protests, his voice confused, unsure of the situation.

“I can’t, Tyler. I gotta shoot,” as I say the word, I regret it. “Film,” I correct hastily. I tap the penlight against the camera.

“Oh.” He’s so close to taking the bait. I can feel it.

“Come on. Let’s get going.” I extend the penlight once more and smile like all those false network anchors do.

He reaches out with the hand holding the gun. Yes! Yes! Yes!

“You want me to hold that for you while you talk?” I asked with as innocent a tone as these lips can manage.

“Do you mind?” he asks, his manners returning as the coke works through his system.

I shrug, “Nah. Just for a minute though, ok?”

“Ok.” He hands me the magnum, barrel first, scaring the hell out of me. I don’t have on one of those fancy vests. I just have my equipment vest, and it won’t stop shit. I grab hold of the barrel. It’s still hot from its recent firing, and I untangle it from his fingers.

The moment it’s out of his hand and into mine, four very pissed off cops tackle him.

And I get it all in close up.

Damn, I’m good.

<fade to commercial>

* * *

<fade in from commercial>

I smile as I drop the kickstand on my baby and park her outside my favorite after-hours hangout. I love The Rio; it serves all of my purposes. I get to hang out with a lot of my friends and there is always someone who wants to go home with me. Quite a few news groupies gather here. Most of them all hope that one of us will be able to help them break into ‘The Business.’ I let them think that. I know, I’m awful. I laugh to myself as I hang my helmet on the handle bar and get off the bike.

I take a good look at myself in the reflection of the bar window before I go in. Black silk shirt open to the third button, small black leather vest to accent the chaps over my dark jeans and boots. I run my fingers through my hair to work out some of the kinks left by the helmet. Oh yeah, I look good and I’m ready for whatever the evening might hold.

As I open the door and step inside, I am immediately greeted by a loud round of applause with varied whistles and catcalls inserted liberally. I spread my arms to either side of my body and take a bow. “Thank you! Thank you! No applause, please, just throw money!”

This gets me an additional round of applause. Some dip-shit pitches a quarter at me which I snag out of the air with my left hand. The bar goes silent, waiting for my reaction.

I look up to see the culprit is Gary Lawton. Gary is another cameraman and at one time we were considered rivals, but not anymore. Now Gary is the closest thing to a best friend I have. I move to his spot by the bar and take the stool next to him. “Thanks a lot, you cheap son of a bitch.” I toss the quarter onto the bar.

People laugh and the bar activity goes back to normal.

“My pleasure.” He smirks as he raises his glass to me. “You know, I have come to a conclusion about you, Harper Kingsley.”

“Oh you have?” I motion the bartender over then I signal for two drinks, one for me and one for my friend. “And that would be what?”

“You are either the bravest, or the stupidest, person I have ever met.”

I laugh as the bartender puts our beers down in front of us. I continue looking to Gary over the rim of my mug as I take my first drink.

“A fucking penlight! You used a fucking penlight!”

“Inspired, don’t you think?” I chuckle as I sit my beer down and slowly begin looking around to see who might get my attention tonight.

“Crazy maybe. Too bad they don’t give awards for those kinds of shots, ‘cause, man, that was a winner.”

“Thanks.” For some reason, Gary’s approval actually matters to me.

“I still can’t believe that it worked.”

“Eh, Sagemore was positively trashed out of his mind. I could have handed him a stick of fuckin’ dynamite and he wouldn’t have known the difference.”

“Now that would have been some footage!” Gary laughs as he drains his glass. “Oh look, it’s the Ice Bitch.” He points to the TV above the bar.

I turn my head from the dark blonde that had caught my attention to the screen. There I find another blonde. Oh, now she is cute. I grin. “Ice Bitch, huh? Doesn’t look very frosty to me. Actually she looks like she’d be quite a sweet treat.” I sip my beer.

“Kelsey Stanton? Are you kidding? Oh, you need to get out more, my friend. She has quite the reputation for being a man-eater.”

I nearly choke on my beer at his words. I glance up again, study the woman on-screen. Nope, not her, she’s ‘family.’ “Gary, she’s a lipstick lesbian.” I explain patiently, as if to a child; most men are. “The words ‘man’ and ‘eater’ do not commingle in her vocabulary.” I am proud of myself for finding a non-sexual way to use the word commingle in a sentence.

“Ha! Goes to show how much you know, smart-ass. She lives with Erik Collins. They’ve got quite the thing going.”

“You don’t say.” I consider the screen again. Generally, I’m not wrong about these things so this news does surprise me a bit. “Too bad. She really strikes me as the type who would enjoy a tongue bath.”

“Nah. Well, at least not from you, but I’ll bet old Erik ‘Super Stud’ Collins finds himself on his back more often that not. I’m betting she likes to be on top. I’m guessing she gives quite the ride.”

“I could fix that problem.” I smile as I crook my finger to the woman I was checking out earlier. “If she were with me, she’d be on her back and enjoying every heart-pounding, muscle-jolting minute of it as she writhed around on a nice set of silk sheets.” I drop my voice just a bit and lean closer to him. “You know what I mean: when a light sheen of sweat breaks out on our bodies as I fuck her silly.”

“You know you’ve got quite the ego there.” Gary remarks as he shifts in his seat to make the proper adjustment. His grin fades as the woman comes over to me laying a gentle hand on my shoulder.

I move my mouth to her ear. “So, can I buy you a drink?”

She nods as her other hand travels slowly down the opening of my shirt.

“Careful, darlin’, you’ll cause my buddy here to have a heart attack.” We both glance over at Gary who is staring and not doing a damn thing to try and hide it. I raise my eyebrow at him as her hand travels under my shirt, her fingers grazing against my nipple. If Gary wants a show, I can give him a show. “You were saying?” I motion for the bartender again.

“Ah, hell! Nothing, forget I fucking said anything.” He turns to the bar, sipping the beer I just bought him. Poor Gary, he never gets the girl.

“So, sweet thing.” I turn back my attention to the woman on my shoulder. “Other than me, what’ll you have?”

She smiles. ” How about a Screaming Orgasm?”

“Well, I was thinking a drink first, but, hey, I’m game for anything,” I tease, as I slide my hands under her blouse caressing the small of her back.

“It is a drink, silly.” She gives my nipple a little pinch. Oh, she’s gonna be fun.
EPISODE TWO: POWDER ROOM
I take one last look in the mirror: steel gray skirt suit with a white silk blouse and two inch heels. Yup, this is my look. My professional look, that is. My private look is more likely to be baggy sweats and a T-shirt. I glance back at the clock by the bed. “Oh shit!”

Grabbing my purse from the bed, I start digging for my car keys as I head through the penthouse. I call for the elevator, continuing to look for my keys. “Okay, Kelsey, think… keys… keys…” I take a deep breath when I realize where the keys to my Mercedes are. “Erik! You little shit!” I climb up the stairs back to the bedrooms, glancing down at the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the knob to Erik’s room. It is quite clear that he has company. “Hope your friend doesn’t blush easily.”

I throw the door to his room open. “Erik?” I call as I stroll inside, clicking on the bedside lamp. My roommate and ‘live in lover’ Erik Collins lays on his side, back to me, arm draped over some young man he brought home last night. I sit down on the edge on the bed and poke him in the shoulder. “Erik?” I do at least whisper. I don’t really want to wake his guest.

He rolls over, opening a bleary eye in my direction. “Kels, my love.” He grins as he wipes his eyes, taking a few moments to blink and focus. He’s handsome even just from slumber: tousled blonde hair framing an angular face and clear blue eyes. He’s smiling at me and even though I’m late and frustrated, I find I can’t muster the anger that had been coursing through me moments before. But I don’t let him off the hook completely.

“Cut the crap. Where are the keys to my Mercedes? I’m running late.”

“My pants.” He gestures to the back of the chair, glancing to his bedmate who still sleeps soundly. I can tell from the muscular tanned back and the shock of bleached blonde hair that Erik hasn’t strayed from his surfer boy tendencies yet, and it makes me smother a grin. He’ll grow up some day but for now he prefers to play the field. “Sorry. We got in late. I didn’t want to wake you,” he continues, oblivious to my silent thoughts.

I retrieve his pants, fishing out my keys, capturing them in my palm to muffle the jingle. “No problem. I’ll see you later.”

“Hey?”

“What?”

“I have a late lunch with Calvin Alexander to-day.” He grins at me as he sings the ‘today’ in his sentence. “Would my lovely and beautiful girlfriend please join me?”

“What time?”

“Two.”

I draw a deep breath, running through my own hectic schedule. “Can you meet me at the studio?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Okay, if you can meet me there at one-thirty, I should be able to cut out and go with you. You know how Chambers loves it when we go out in public together. If he sees you picking me up, he should bend over backward to get me out of there.”

“Great. See you then.” As I start to pull the door shut, his voice carries to the hall. “By the way you need gas.”

“You little shit,” I mumble, heading back down and calling for the elevator again. I grab my purse and cell phone just as the doors open and the attendant steps out.

“Good morning, Ms. Stanton.” He smiles, holding the door for me. He’s a retired bellhop. I didn’t know people actually retired from such positions, but he told me that with pride many times our first few weeks here. He’s dressed smartly in a dark green uniform with gold piping and I think he looks plain silly, but he’s pleasant enough and always polite. And better yet, if he suspects something about mine and Erik’s relationship, he keeps his mouth shut. Of course, I tip him well.

“Good morning, Carl. Can you do me a favor?” I step onto the elevator and turn to face the grinning attendant.

“Of course, Ms. Stanton.”

“When Erik tries to leave this morning, get him stuck between floors.” I grin as I pull my sunglasses from my purse and slip them on.

“I’ll do my best, Ms. Stanton.” He gives me a wink and presses the button that will take us to the parking garage.

Before I turn to leave, I press a twenty into his palm. “For at least five minutes.” I return his wink and head for my red Mercedes convertible.

* * *

My assistant meets me at the entrance to the studio. Gail is a nice enough girl, but something about her annoys me. I’m going to have to figure it out one of these days, but right now I am running late and don’t have time to think about anything. Especially since Gail is shoving a stack of folders in my hands. “You’re…” she starts, pulling the door open for me. We hustle down the hallway to my office.

“Don’t even say it,” I say, holding up a warning hand. “I know I’m late. It’s obvious I’m late.” I rifle through the folders. “What’s the most urgent thing here?”

“Well, the top story coming off the wire is about some young Hollywood type who barricaded himself in his house early this morning and took his underage girlfriend hostage…”

“I’m not talking dirty laundry, Gail. I’m talking about real news.”

“They’re trying to schedule an interview with the Commander of the Coast Guard for you in the wake of the Kennedy thing.”

“Yeah, could be something good there, I guess.” She pushes the door to my office open and I head straight for my desk. I retrieve the remote from another stack of papers and begin switching on televisions. Then taking a deep breath, I turn to my assistant. “Could you get me some tea, please?”

“Sure.”

As she leaves, I sit back for just a moment. Glancing up at the screens, I find myself captured by the absolute bluest eyes I have ever seen.

The crawl at the bottom of the screen identifies the pair as belonging to Harper Kingsley, a camera woman for True TV. Too bad, she was attractive until I knew she was tabloid. Brains do count for something in the total package. Memo to self: tell Erik this insight.

I am still chuckling over that thought when Gail brings back my tea. I don’t like the taste of coffee, never have, even though I love the aroma of it. Each day begins with a cup of Earl Gray tea with just a hint of cream to smooth it out. Maybe Gail wouldn’t annoy me so if she’d picked up on that small habit and was actually ready for me each morning. Maybe that’s too much to ask for. I shrug the thought off, watching the small brunette fuss with some files piled in my out basket.

As Gail turns to leave, she sees the blue eyed wonder on the screen, my attention also turns back to those impossible eyes. “That’s the woman the wires are going crazy about. She talked Sagemore out of his gun. Handed him a penlight instead.”

I frown. “A penlight?”

“He was so coked up he thought it was a microphone. She got it all on tape.”

“Naturally. They always do.” I rearrange the papers on my desk. I don’t know why this subject is annoying me so much, but it is. So I change it. “Why has the production meeting been rescheduled?”

“Jessica had something come up on her story.”

Oh, God Almighty. I roll my eyes, fearful they might get stuck as they’re so far back. Jessica “Who Thinks She Walks On” Water is the bane of my existence here at the station. She used to be the only woman and only blonde on the six o’clock until I was hired two years ago. She’s still pissed.

Gail finally leaves me in peace and I can sip at my tea and glance at all the screens. She was right: Harper Kingsley adorns each one of them at some point. A two-shot shows her to be the same height as Channel 7’s Bruce Adams. And I know from experience the clean-cut man towers above me. She has raven black hair that’s pulled away from her angular face and I just can’t get over the color of those eyes. Despite myself, I find I’m cranking up the volume on the set. She’s answering the questions in a husky dark voice. She shows no emotion or any real interest in the proceedings but she’s dutifully plugging True TV along the way and I sneer.

Sensationalist television makes my blood boil. The ‘cutting edge’ camera shots and pure lack of decorum are media and not news. I hate that the business is a reaction to the ratings and not the events of the world. I hate more that my own station is pushing that direction. Our competition has stepped up to the battle, wielding flashy sets and expensive, form-fitting suits of pastels. The ratings show that audiences like this hip look and we’re losing to the competition. Change is afoot and I can smell it like rotten meat on a campout in June. I wrinkle my nose with distaste as I finish my tea and turn my attention to the stacks of files Gail handed me. I turn down the volume again, finding the tall woman distracting.

* * *

For once in his life, Erik arrives on time and is standing in the middle of the newsroom when we file out of the production meeting. Jessica, of course, dominated the meeting and made subtle jabs at me throughout. She’s all for a more risqué production and she never hides that fact. In fact, she takes every opportunity she can to point out that my backwater, small town attitude won’t sell news in a city this size and I need to step up to big city flashiness. It always escapes her that I’ve been here two years, won the station both of its Emmys, and can out-anchor her with both hands tied behind my back and my hair dyed green. Of course that’s my personal opinion and personal opinions don’t get you far in the news world when you’re at my level.

So I’m trying to shrug off Jessica’s comments as I spot Erik. He’s dressed in khaki pants and a buttoned striped shirt with a tie. He looks comfortable but gorgeous, he always does, and I smile when I see him. I wonder often if things were different for each of us where we would be. Because if he were a woman, I would find him inescapable.

He reflects my smile easily, offering the support he knows I need and I secretly relish that he’s everything Jessica wants but cannot have. Better yet she thinks I have him.

Erik leans forward and kisses me tenderly, his soft lips brushing against mine. “How are ya, Kels?” he murmurs as he senses the tension about me.

“Been better, handsome. How are you?” I tug at his tie playfully, smile for him.

He shrugs, easily turning me and sliding an arm over my shoulders. “Had some trouble with the elevator this morning. I can’t believe that piece of shit lift doesn’t ever get you stuck. Seems to happen to me a couple of times a week.”

I smile, pleased that my twenty bucks went to a good cause. “I leave earlier, love. Less traffic.”

“Hmmm,” he considers with a nod but there is a twinkle in his eyes that hints he knows something else is up. My previous bad mood vanishes with his presence.

As expected, Chambers is thrilled to see Erik in his newsroom and he immediately clears my schedule and shuffles me out the door. I have to be back by four for the six o’clock, but it gives me some time to get away from the pressure here. Chambers stands at the door to the office and waves to us, beaming with pride, as if he is somehow responsible for our apparently happy union. He loves it when the other stations show footage of Erik and I together: it’s great publicity for the station and Erik is just too hot right now to be ignored, even if he is dating a rival network’s anchor. How fortunate for Chambers, I grumble as we make our way to my Mercedes.

Erik squeezes my shoulders and releases me, freeing my hands of the keys before settling me into the passenger seat. On the short drive, we talk about Harper Kingsley. I am sick of hearing about her, her name having come up several times throughout the day and during our production meeting, so I tell Erik this and he laughs. He knows well my hatred for the tabloids. He points out how beautiful she is and I snort my laughter, remembering my memo to myself and telling him that brains have to be part of the overall package. Erik sides with her, lauding her quick thinking and obvious skill. I don’t know if he believes what he tells me or if he’s trying to goad me into an argument. In the end I don’t care because I refuse the bait, leaning back and letting the wind soothe my frayed nerves.

Calvin Alexander is beyond thrilled to see me walk in on Erik’s arm and my escort must feel me flinch because he chuckles dryly. Alexander is a nice enough guy if a touch too lecherous for my tastes. He hovers over me and on me like a bee to clover and it makes my skin crawl sometimes. For the millionth time I am grateful that the public sees a secure couple in Erik and me. Alexander’s advances would be even more unbearable if he actually thought I was available. His overtures now are those of a thwarted suitor who hopes to be there when the chosen falls.

Calvin gallantly leans forward and takes my hand in his, kissing the knuckles and tickling my pale skin with his bushy mustache. If only he knew facial hair makes me cringe. I smile for him, knowing this meeting is important to Erik. I wonder if I am prostituting myself by playing into Alexander’s hand and laughing at his jokes to buy Erik the opportunity at a big name production.

Not that Erik needs the help. His brazenly good looks and earnest acting abilities make him likeable in any market. He has a string of lesser known movies to his credit, some guest shots on television shows, but this is his chance at a summer blockbuster. An Alexander film will ensure him top billing for any script he wants and I intend to do my best to see that happens. He deserves it.

Erik smiles at me warmly, knowing my thoughts as I chuckle at yet another stupid joke from Calvin. My room mate and best friend lifts my hand and places it against his clean-shaven cheek as a gesture of his appreciation so I return his smile. Yes, if only things were different. But they aren’t and we each have no choice but to be what we are even though we hide behind a fake relationship.

* * *

Lunch is pleasant and Erik is thrilled when he excuses himself afterwards to visit the men’s room. This leaves me alone in Alexander’s company. As soon as Erik departs, the stocky man steps closer, crowding my space and making me wish I were elsewhere. But I smile and bat my eyelashes at him, using my emerald eyes to their best advantage. I am shameless, always have been.

“So, Kelsey, my dear,” he drawls with a leer, placing an unwelcome hand on my shoulder. I resist shrugging it off. “How long have you and Erik been … together?”

I smile before I answer, running nimble fingers through carefully coifed hair, fluffing my bangs. I think absently that they are in need of a trimming. I know that Calvin Alexander knows the answer to his question but I’ll humor him anyway. Our private lives are far from private given our professions. “We met three years ago,” I say, grinning like someone hopelessly in love. I could have been an actress, too. Erik always reminds me of that when we play these games. “We moved in together about two years ago.”

“Are there plans for the future?”

The retort that first comes to my tongue is to tell Alexander he doesn’t have a chance. Not only is he overbearing, too hairy, and too rotund for my tastes, he’s also a man. Not to mention, for all practical purposes, in the public eye, I am in a committed relationship. What this man is suggesting is nothing less than adultery. But I hold back all these thoughts and instead shrug my shoulders, his hand still heavy and meaty on the left one. “Neither of our parents had successful marriages. We aren’t eager to enter into that institution ourselves and ruin a good thing.”

It’s a good response, one we thought of early on. It holds truth since both of our families are broken and estranged. Though I am cynical about relationships and commitments, there is a part of me deep down that still wants to find that special person. Part of me is certain I have a match out there who can love as much as I can and believe enough for both of us. I am grateful to Erik for having shown me the love and friendship to at least have hope for a better future.

Calvin is responding something about his own parents and his first failed marriage but I’m not listening. I look forward to Erik’s return and he’s there immediately, sensing my need as always. He gives me a gentle peck on the cheek, murmuring his apologies for abandoning me. I laugh and shove him gently.

“Little shit,” I whisper back and his light eyes sparkle with gentle humor.

We say our farewells and thank Alexander for meeting us. The producer promises to call Erik’s agent and our lunch is a success as we head back to the Mercedes which will take me to the office.

* * *

The five o’clock newscast was a borderline disaster with the wrong tapes and a slow teleprompter. The live feeds were cutting in and out and the Director was slamming around, screaming at everyone. I wait now for the cue to begin the six o’clock, hoping that fate won’t fall on us as well. I fidget with my earpiece and glance to the teleprompter. Then I smooth the lapels of my grey silk coat.

I know my wishful thinking was just that when they cut to the first clip and though it’s the correct tape, the filming is amateurish at best. There is nothing exciting or intriguing about the scene it portrays and it’s obvious that either Jessica didn’t make her wishes clear to the cameraman or we need better cameramen. I swallow my groan even as I plaster a fake smile on my face for the cameras and we begin. I hate my job sometimes.

* * *

I am the best drink-nurser in all of LA, of that I have no doubt. Erik casts me a baleful glance as I sip from my White Russian: heavy on the cream and Kahlua, light on the vodka, thank you. It’s more ice water than drink at this point but it suits me just fine.

“Hey,” Erik smiles, scooting closer to me. He’s working on a martini, which is normally what one would get at a martini bar, but I just can’t stand vermouth. Even on his breath it makes me cringe and I wrinkle my nose at him. The little shit blows into my face.

“What?” I growl.

“Kels, lighten up. It wasn’t that bad,” he pleads gently. He’s referring to the newscast and I know it was that bad, and worse. Fortunately, the whole damn city is so captivated by Harper Kingsley that it’s likely no one noticed how off we were.

“Just like Boys on the Beach wasn’t so bad,” I jab at him and regret it immediately. He deserves better than my foul mood and biting remarks. Boys on the Beach is the only thing Erik has ever done that he’s ashamed of. It was a silly summer flick with teenagers in Speedos, trying to start a beach volleyball league. All flesh, no brains, and Erik’s first real job in the business. We never talk about it and to do it now is a shameless attempt to make him feel as crappy as I do. I can do that to everyone else, and often do, but hurting Erik is off limits and I’ve stepped over my self-imposed line.

His light eyes reflect soft pain but he doesn’t flinch away or get angry with me.

I sigh. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”

“Yeah, it was. But I forgive you,” he smiles. “Why don’t you relax? We’re here with friends,” he motions around the bar at the group of people assembled here.

“Your friends,” I remind him. None of these people mean anything to me but some are acquaintances of his. We’re all dressed in suits and ties and downing alcohol on a Monday night. It’s the hangout we frequent and the group is made up of news people and actors alike. We sit on these stools or in the nearby booths, sipping on martinis and talking about our days and our lives as if someone cares. The general atmosphere is one of subdued upper class. It’s where we fit best whether we want to or not. Any flirting that takes place here is high brow impressing and strictly across gender. I feel sick to my stomach in that way I did as a little kid when I didn’t quite belong. When I wanted to go home and sit alone in my room. In fact, I’d love to do that now.

“Our friends.”

I raise an eyebrow that lets him know I don’t believe him. He knows the truth. Often he tries to hide it, thinking that there is a place for us in mainstream show business, but he’s wrong. Erik and I promised long ago that we could lie to the world but not ourselves and each other. My look tells him he’s going back on that promise.

Erik smiles and leans into me, I put my glass down and hug him tightly.

“Thanks,” he whispers.

“For what?”

“Keeping me honest.”

“You going bar hopping tonight?”

“Nah,” he backs away and sips from his tall glass.

“How was pretty boy last night?” I grin lecherously.

Erik laughs, shakes his head. “I feel good, nah nah nah nah nah nah,” he sings softly, rocking his hips a little bit and it makes me burst out with laughter. No matter what, he always makes me laugh.

My laughter catches attention from people around us. They probably don’t even know I can laugh, that somehow that capability had been surgically removed from me at a young age. I have all kinds of nicknames and I shrug each off with equal nonchalance. Only Erik knows what’s inside and I’m still unsure how he managed to get there.

I was raised in a household where affection was rarely given and more often withheld. I learned to be a successful woman in the business world you couldn’t have emotions or sympathy. And I was taught at an early age how to disregard others’ feelings and how to hide my own. I’ve been called a man-eater by some because before Erik, I had a new man every month. I’d string them along and toss them aside, anything for the image. Erik laughs at that now, thinking that nickname especially ironic. At least with him there’s no more pretending or doing things I don’t want to do.

I’m considering these thoughts when some out of work actor across the room yells for the bartender to turn up the volume on the overhead sets. I glance up and groan when Harper Kingsley is looking back at me.

Erik laughs and pokes me in the ribs. “She’s a dyke, ya know?”

“And you found this out, how?”

“Oh, she’s not subtle about it. She may as well have a rainbow flag tattooed on her forehead. They also say she’s a womanizer, new chick every night, leaves ‘em begging for more.”

“Where do you hear this crap, Erik?” I shake my head and suck an ice cube into my mouth where I crunch it on over-sensitive molars. I know what ice-chewing is supposed to be a sign of and I glare at Erik, daring him to make a comment. He doesn’t.

“Around, you know. Mutual friends.”

Erik toils in his hidden life much more than I do so I know he’s probably right. I look up into those blue eyes and watch mesmerized as she brushes a lock of black hair behind her ear. Her hand is large but well constructed, the fingers long and narrow. There are a lot of things fingers like that are good for, I admit, before Erik’s laughter brings me back.

“You want her.”

“Please,” I scoff. “She’s tabloid trash, films for money, not for news. Anything for ratings.”

“You above that, Kels?” he teases.

I nod. “You know I am.”

“You still want her. Admit it.”

I glare at him. He thinks I want every woman I see. He thinks that since I don’t bed a woman every other day that my sexual need must be on overdrive. “I’ll admit she’s gorgeous. But that’s not everything and you know it.”

He nods slowly, watching me. “Some day, Kels,” he whispers. “Some day it’ll all work out. You’ll find the right person who sees your heart just like I do.”

His sincerity chokes me for a moment. How does he do that? I’m tired of this place and the fake people and the expensive drinks. I’m tired of my pale life and my lonely bed and the career that I chose that binds me into a lifestyle I despise. I sigh. “Take me home?”

Erik sets his drink down and takes my hand. Even though he does his best to make me social, dragging me out nearly every night our schedules allow, all I have to do is tell him I’ve had enough. We’ve made our appearance tonight, both for the media and our peers, and I’m ready to call it a day.

“Gladly,” Erik says, squeezing my fingers.
Episode Three: Powder Keg

I park the Mercedes in the outside lot this morning, feeling the weather will hold and not liking the station’s underground garage. The walk is a little farther and brings me around the front of the building instead of the back entrance but it’s a beautiful morning and the sun is warm on my upturned face.

Finally, at the end of the week, the hoopla over Harper Kingsley has died down and Erik has stopped badgering me about her. I haven’t told him that those blue eyes haunt my dreams and I don’t intend to. Instead, we planned a weekend in Mammoth with some buddies of his and I’m looking forward to heading out after the newscast tonight.

I round the corner of the building towards the large multi-colored station logo, and I hear the loud rumbling of a motorcycle. I nearly jump out of my skin with surprise and then immediately start growling under my breath. I hate motorcycles. They’re dangerous and accident prone and the morons who drive them seem to have only slightly less respect for their own lives than for the lives of the other motorists on the road. They zig in and out of traffic, drive on the dotted line and more often than not I want to open my car door so they might hit it as they illegally sneak through rush hour jams. Shaking my head, I continue to the door as the motorcycle powers by me to screech to a halt right in front of the station doors. On the sidewalk. Asshole.

I can’t help but look at the scene unfolding before me. There are two people on the bike, decked out in leather and black helmets. The driver turns the bike off and slips the helmet off, hanging it on a handlebar, and I am more than a little shocked to see long black hair tumble over broad shoulders. I think it’s actually Harper Kingsley but I’m not certain from here and I’m trying hard not to stare.

The passenger follows suit, handing over her helmet, revealing shoulder length curly hair in a mute chestnut shade. The driver hangs it off the other handlebar and then completely turns around so she’s straddling the bike backwards. She pulls the other woman to her and proceeds to devour her.

I’m sure I scrape my chin on the pavement of the sidewalk before I manage to close my mouth. The kiss is wild and passionate, each woman moving hands erotically, tongues obviously seeking and plunging. Saliva can be seen draped between them as they part for breath. As if this display isn’t quite enough, the dark-haired woman grabs her companion’s thighs, lifting them over her own, dragging the smaller body so close that they are now touching completely along their torsos.

The smaller woman is losing it, I can tell as I come closer. She is pressing against the driver’s body, practically humping her right there on the street and though I find it disgusting on some level, I must find it erotic on another because there is a pulsing deep within me that I often try to ignore.

Glancing around, I’m relieved to see I’m not the only one staring. The show is quite amazing; I think the passenger may have actually orgasmed as her gyrations slow and the kisses lose steam. The taller woman is murmuring something, grinning rakishly, and she looks around to the growing crowd. It is Harper Kingsley and I am even more repulsed now. There’s something else inside me, maybe jealousy that Harper has the ability to so freely display herself when I do not. It certainly isn’t jealousy for the Biker Bitch who is now stumbling to her feet and being steadied by large hands.

I am merely yards from them when, much to my amazement, Harper hails a cab. She gives the woman a last, long, lingering kiss and tucks her into the back seat. When the cab pulls away, she waves to the small audience without even a hint of shame, and she turns my way briefly.

Her eyes are even more amazing off screen and they meet mine, stopping there for just a moment. Then she winks at me and smirks before continuing her stroll into the station, through the large glass doors, into the lobby beyond.

Jesus Christ. So many things are running through my mind but the first thing that really hits me is how horny I suddenly am. Being soundly closeted and a bit more than paranoid at being discovered, I don’t indulge often. Well, with another person, that is. The blatant display before me has left my libido tap dancing and rattling its cage. It isn’t until I’ve completely acknowledged my own state that I realize what else has just happened.

She walked into the station. My station. No, no, no. This can’t be good.

To say I have friends at the station is less an understatement and more a blatant lie. The truth is I don’t have friends at all, aside from Erik, and I have enemies at the station. I’ve earned them, I won’t argue that. Sometimes you have to step on other people’s fingers when you climb the ladder and I’ve never been shy about doing it. I may have even stepped on a few heads on the way up but I never apologize. I’m good at what I do and I know it. I’m on the fast track and I have little time or tolerance for those in the passing lane going under the speed limit. Get out of my way or get run over. It’s a good philosophy and has served me well.

Just like every other morning, I get the normal glares and contemptuous mutters as I walk through the newsroom towards my office. I’m basically ignoring Gail as she rattles on and fills my arms with folders. She has matched her stride to mine and follows me into the office, blabbering on and on even as I switch on the televisions and take my seat. Finally, when I remind her about the tea, she shuts up and leaves my office. I glance through the partially closed blinds across the newsroom towards Chambers’ office. The door is closed and his shutters pulled. Harper was nowhere in the newsroom and that doesn’t bode well. She’s in there with him, I know it.

And I also know that the station has finally sold out to the corporation and Armageddon is nigh. I’m ready to drown myself in the cup of Earl Grey when Gail brings it back but I can’t figure out how to get both my nose and mouth into the mug and inhale enough of the liquid to bring my demise. So, after close scrutiny that has Gail standing confused in the doorway with a wrinkled nose, I give up and take a sip of the soothing liquid instead.

It dawns on me when Gail leaves this time that she did actually say something important. Running the one-sided conversation back through my mind, I remember her saying that Chambers wants to see me half an hour before the production meeting, in his office.

I ponder this revelation for a moment. He could be firing me in an effort to make the transition to trash media go more smoothly since I am very vocal about my hatred towards it but it wouldn’t be wise. The contract he holds has me stuck here for just over another year and the severance would be a hefty sum to the station. I made sure of it when I signed the contract two years ago. If they were going to shove me in the closet with that morals clause and staple my butt to the seat for three years, they sure as hell were going to have as hard a time breaking the contract as I would have.

So that isn’t likely. Maybe he wants to break this Harper shit to me ahead of time and then ask I not come to the production meeting. I grin at the thought, tapping a well-sharpened wooden pencil on the edge of my mug. I sure could cause hell at the meeting, I love to do that and Chambers knows it. He’s broken news to me in this manner before so I decide that must be it. I have no control over whom they hire as camera anyway so I shrug it off and open a folder, determined to get some work done and to stop thinking about the dark-haired exhibitionist in my boss’s office.

* * *

Chambers is more beefy than he should be even though his towering height manages to shelter a good bit of his extra weight. His hair is silvery and we were all grateful when he finally quit dyeing it late last year. I think his wife was doing it for him, or he was going to a beauty school, because the shades he came back with varied between purple and shit brown though we always told him it looked great. He stands before me now with his hands folded in the small of his back. He’s behind his desk and I think he may actually be hoping it provides him some protection.

I have already had the conversation in my mind and am ready to react calmly and surprise him. I like to keep him guessing. He only thinks I’m always ready to fly off half-cocked. The truth is there is very little I do that has not been considered and planned. So I know that he will tell me Harper is now working camera and that we’re stepping up to the challenge of our competitors. The worst he could tell me is that she’s doing camera on my newscast but I’m betting that she’ll be special assignment and live feed. Otherwise her previous experience would be wasted here in the studio. I figure I’ll just nod my head and smile at him and make a calm retreat. That’ll shock him.

He asks me to close the door and I do, leaning my back against it, crossing my ankles casually. I chose emerald green silk this morning and I know it flatters my vibrant eyes and my golden hair. I know this because I’ve been color typed and wardrobed so often that there is very little in my closet that I chose myself.

“Have a seat, Kelsey,” Chambers offers nervously.

I shake my head once. “Feel like standing, thanks.”

“All right,” he nods but I can tell he’s disappointed. Either I’m less imposing seated or he desperately wants to sit himself, I can’t decide which.

“We’ve had a formatting change.”

I nod, meeting his eyes. Odd choice of words, I decide. Not an ‘addition to the staff’ or some such mundane phrase.

“Harper Kingsley has signed with us to head up our special assignments. She’ll be director and camera lead for our field work and our away crews.”

I nod again. Sounds like a good opportunity for her. If she didn’t make my skin crawl, I would be happy for her.

Chambers takes a deep breath and suddenly I realize there’s more going on here. I clamp down on the unexpected nervousness in my gut and narrow my eyes at him. “What else?”

“Uh … she requested a full time reporter to round out her team. Someone who would go on locations and do the live feeds.”

I don’t like where this conversation is leading and my expression must show it because he starts talking even faster.

“We looked at the staff and knew that we needed someone with a lot of experience and good presence, someone the public already knows and likes. We chose you,” he blurted at last.

“You’re taking me off anchor?” I ask slowly.

He nods.

“My contract states-”

“Your contract allows for this shift, Kelsey,” he interrupts me. “Believe me, we made sure of that before we even approached you.”

I wonder vaguely if he has a mouse in his pocket or if his weight problem has finally taken on a separate identity to warrant the plural pronoun he insists on using. “You’re demoting me?” My voice is low and dangerous.

“No,” he says quickly, shaking his head. “This is a great opportunity for you. You get more exposure, more field experience. It will improve station ratings and make you a sure bet for the anchor in New York.”

I squint at him, studying the beads of sweat on his forehead. He’s pulling out the Ace now, it’s peeking from his sleeve. He knows that I want that move to New York. He doesn’t have to offer me anything, actually, the contract binds me to this position change without my consent and without padding to make it more comfortable. I know he’s trying to appease me, lessen the impact my move will have on the newsroom. “You make an addendum to my contract saying that I get the anchor when Reeves retires, even if it’s before this contract expires, and I’ll make it easy for you.”

He knows exactly what I’m saying. I’ll go because I have to but I can walk in silently and pretend it’s the promotion he claims it to be or I can go screaming and yelling like it’s the demotion I know it is. The choice is up to him. The image of the station could depend on it.

“What if Reeves hangs on another year?”

“Then we renegotiate my contract with the New York anchor still intact and a clause that lets me leave anytime it comes available.” It’s a good deal and I know it. It secures me the coveted position I’ve wanted for years and also makes sure I stay on here, my second choice market, until that anchor is available.

Slowly, very slowly, he nods. “I’ll have the attorneys draw it up.”

“So I work for Tabloid now?” I ask carefully. His answer to this next question will mean a lot to me.

“Ah, no, not exactly. More like partners. She’s camera crew and live director. You still work for me. Tonight’s your last newscast.”

“Grand,” I answer shortly and turn to grasp the doorknob in my hand. I’m doing a great job of controlling my temper and we both know it. Silently I ask for permission to leave with a raised eyebrow and he grants it, nodding his head. I decide an early lunch is in order and walk right out the front door.

* * *

Her arms are tight around me as we ride up in front of my new station. I pull my Harley-Davidson FLTSF Fat Boy up onto the sidewalk, creating my own parking space. I need to talk to the station manager about getting an assigned one right by the entrance. No way in hell do I leave my baby out in some parking lot. All six hundred and sixty-six pounds of pure white heat need to be readily available to me at all times. And far away from drivers of foreign automobiles who think nothing of crashing their door into my ride.

As I turn off the engine and free my head of the brain bucket, the girl behind me continues exploring my upper body, as she has all during the ride here. I try to remember her name, but it still escapes me as it has all morning. I shrug my mental shoulders. Doesn’t matter really. It’s not like I’m gonna be sending her a Christmas card or anything like that.

I hang the helmet off the handlebars and reach around for hers. As soon as the buffer is removed, she lunges for me again. God, she acts like she’s never been laid before. Not well, at least.

I spin around on the seat, facing her, admiring the full lips and generous breasts that caused me to pick her last night at the bar. I lick my lips and capture hers. She tastes good, like peppermint, and I realize she must have had a breath mint on the drive over. My tongue dives into her mouth again and again, intent on capturing all of that taste for myself.

I feel her moan against my lips and her breathing hitches. I bet I can take her right here, right now and not even have to use my hands. Never one to turn down a challenge, especially one issued by myself, I grasp her hips firmly and pull her toward me. Her knees are splayed wide as they encounter my legs and she is rocking on the seat, desperate for contact. I feel her smaller hands slide over my back, my neck, my hair, as she clutches me, seeking relief.

I reach down and pull both of her legs over mine and tug her forward. She’s straddling me now, moaning as the pressure of my stomach begins to provide some of the relief she’s sought. It’s still not enough to get her off, I realize, so I grasp her ass cheeks and pull her closer still, grinding her against me.

She’s getting close now. We trade long, moist kisses, tongues sliding against each other, matching the rhythm of her body against mine. I can feel her wetness through her cotton pants and against my T-shirt. She’s deliberately rubbing herself against my navel ring, using it to get off. Each time she scrapes against it, nice little tremors go through my body as well. Nothing much, but pleasant nonetheless.

I need to bring this gig to a close and get in to my new job. I also need to have pity on the audience we seem to have attracted. One guy in a suit is practically saluting us with his lower member as he watches, several other men are twitching nervously nearby. There are a few women on the periphery as well, each looking a bit flushed, wondering what this is like. The straight women are enjoying the show, thinking about how their husbands and boyfriends have never made them feel like I’m making this girl feel. And I prove that to them right now.

I pull my date tight against me and lift my body up off the seat, being sure to rake the ring across her sensitive spot with just the right amount of pressure. She goes off, and I feel her body succumb to the tremors, and I kiss her long and hard, claiming her in every way.

Sated, she nestles against my chest, breathing deeply, kissing my neck and jaw. I lick her earlobe. “Feel good, darlin’?” I ask, allowing my Louisiana accent to peek through, knowing how much women like Southern accents.

“Harper … god … yes.”

I smile. It’s gonna be a good day. I glance around at the crowd, and wouldn’t be surprised if we got applause. You gotta go to clubs with expensive cover charges to see what we’ve just provided for free.

“Come on, I need to start my day.” I wrap my hands around her waist and lift her up and off the Fat Boy. I follow her, swinging my leg over the long body of the bike. She staggers, still weak, and I steady her. Over her shoulder, I see what I am looking for.

I whistle, one of those piercing whistles my brothers taught me growing up. It’s the same one dad used to call us home in the evening. We could hear that shrill sound wherever we were in the neighborhood. A cab immediately pulls over to the sidewalk and I open the door for my date.

She grabs the lapels of my leather jacket and rubs her breasts against mine sensuously. “Please call me.”

“Sure, baby,” I promise. I lie. I can’t even remember her name, but I did enjoy her company. To distract her from my obvious lack of sincerity, I kiss her again. Once she is safely inside the confines of the car, I close the door and walk away.

My audience is still there. I recognize one of the women immediately, now that my focus isn’t otherwise distracted. Kelsey Stanton, the hot, young anchor for the network is staring at me, looking like a pickled fish. Obviously, she thinks I’m a cad of first order. I stand still for a long moment, taking her in. She’s shorter than I expected, but, damn, if the proportions aren’t all right. I wouldn’t mind giving her a ride on my bike. I might even use my hands, just to enjoy the feel of her. Knowing it will infuriate her, I smile and wink at her. I can’t believe she’s straight. Doesn’t seem right.

Time to go in and greet my new boss.

As I walk down the very staid halls of a network television station, I have to chuckle at what brought me, a tabloid camerawoman, here.

My phone started ringing off the hook with job offers the morning after I gave away my best penlight. The cops insisted it be kept as evidence, pissing me off entirely. It’s not like it was worth a lot, it was more the principle of the matter. I figure, if I disarm a nutjob, I should be able to keep the penlight as a souvenir. Now some crappy pissant evidence clerk will steal it and auction it off on e-bay, earning a bundle.

The first message that interested me was from KNBC, the Los Angeles NBC affiliate. Ronald Chambers, Division Chief, personally called me and asked me to come work for their news division. Needless to say, I was surprised to get such a respectable offer. I had always been told that a stint with True TV would successfully derail my career.

We met at a hotel bar in downtown LA for the interview. I figured he didn’t want me coming anywhere near the station and upsetting his precious employees. Like Kelsey Stanton, for instance. Gary told me last week at the bar that she despises our kind. Of course she would, our ratings kick her ass week in and week out.

Chambers told me what they needed: good camera work by someone not afraid to go after the story. He feels like his reporters have become too soft, too used to using their prestige rather than their gut in getting at the truth. I am supposed to “get out there and mix it up” or some other lame ass expression Chambers used. All he’s asking for is a taste of tabloid for the upright citizens who watch KNBC.

I can provide that.

As part of the deal, I insisted that my crew come along – Jimmy, my assistant, and Conrad, my editor. Best damn crew in the business, that’s us. And now we belong to Chambers. Hell, for the salary he gave me, I’d belong to just about anyone.

And the best part is: he promised me Kelsey Stanton.

Straight, my ass.
EPISODE FOUR: READING IS FUNDAMENTAL
I stand silently in the large conference room off the newsroom. It’s early yet and the reporters and anchors haven’t shown up, leaving the building in relative silence. I meet my crew today, though the only one who concerns me is Kelsey Stanton herself.

It hadn’t taken much convincing to get her on the team. Chambers knows that she’s a little gold mine. She’s a publicist’s dream come true, even if she is a director’s nightmare. She’s intelligent, charismatic, and already in the public’s eye due to her relationship with Collins. She’ll be a good draw to our pieces, as long as she holds her own. She has to have done field work to be where she is now. I’m just not sure how much and in what market. I could have asked, I suppose.

Her attitude will be troublesome. Chambers warned that she didn’t want the position, that he’d had to pull rank. I suspected as much. Rumor is she hates tabloid television so I figure she must hate me as well since that’s where all my experience is.

I’m looking out the window over the sound stage, which is bathed in darkness and silence, when Jimmy strolls in. I hear his clompy too-big shoe approach so I don’t need to turn around.

“Olson,” I say by way of greeting.

I know he’s checking me out, unused to seeing me with anything but jeans. I went for the soft look this morning: I’m wearing black cotton pants and a deep blue silk shirt. My long thick hair is braided away from my face.

“Hello?” I try again, still not turning.

“Oh!” Even without looking, I know he’s blushing. “Morning. This is it, huh?”

“Yup. We’ll have a quick team meeting this morning and then Chambers wants to talk to us. That’ll leave us time for some equipment checks before lunch.”

“Cool.” He scrapes a chair back and drops himself into it. He’s about as graceful as a hippopotamus sometimes.

Conrad comes in next and silently plants himself next to Jimmy. I’m still not watching them.

“What do you know about Kelsey Stanton?” the orange-haired kid asks, hating silences. He talks to hear himself talk; it was the first thing I learned about him.

“What about her?” I query. I don’t know a ton, but I sure do have my suspicions.

“I hear she’s a bitch on wheels,” Conrad speaks up. “The whole news room hates to work with her. They fight over who has to do her stories and promos. The makeup lady dreads that part of her day.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agrees. “I hear the same. Why did we have to get the bitch, Harper? That Samantha woman seems like a better bet.”

“Every team needs a problem child.” I shrug. “And we all know it ain’t one of us,” I drawl softly, pleased with myself. It isn’t until that moment that I turn around to face the room.

Wouldn’t you know Kelsey Stanton is standing in the doorway? Her expression is frozen, her green eyes shuttered. She’s a woman used to hiding her emotions.

“Speak of the devil,” I say to let the boys know she’s there.

They turn crimson as they avoid her eyes.

She’s not alone. Erik Collins stands beside her, a hand resting on the small of her back. He looks angry, his handsome features drawn up into a scowl.

“Now just-” Erik starts, but Kelsey lays a hand on his chest, shaking her head.

“Thanks for walking me in, Erik,” she says softly and I detect kindness in her voice. “Good luck today.”

Erik nods but he’s still glaring at the lot of us. Though I’m the only one who will meet his eyes.

He turns his attention back to the small blonde at his side and leans forward to kiss her cheek. “Don’t let them get to you, Kels.” His words are meant only for her but I pick them up. “I love you.”

She nods, pats his chest with the hand still resting there, and nudges him out the door, which she closes behind him.

She stands before us and the room is filled with uneasy silence. She’s wearing a copper colored pantsuit with a light colored blouse, no skirt today. I’m glad for it since we’ll be doing some walking. She seems nervous, but determined not to show it. Her body also radiates anger.

“Queen Bitch reporting for duty,” she says slowly, taking a seat at the far end of the table, and I realize that our first meeting could have had a better start.

* * *

We are sitting in the news van Chambers has provided his new “Go-team.” If he calls us that one more time, I may have to kick him. He tried to do a little pep talk for the four of us, but as he saw it failing abysmally, he sent us out on assignment, shortening our equipment checks and making us miss lunch.

Kelsey Stanton is sitting in the seat beside me, fuming still. Her arms are folded tightly across her chest, her legs are crossed and everything about her is screaming ‘don’t fuck with me.’ If she were a porcupine, I’d be picking quills out of my ass right now.

She doesn’t intimidate me. Although poor Jimmy is cowering in the back of the van, sitting on a crate, wishing he were anywhere but with us. Conrad is at the station, checking out the equipment and meeting the other editors. We didn’t have any confrontations this morning, despite the boys’ words, but she’s not thawed yet, either. She only speaks if one of us asks her a direct question. Ironically, I’m the only one with the balls to try. I hope she’s a professional and can turn it on in front of the camera. If not, I’ll certainly lay into her then and I guarantee she won’t like it.

It’s lunchtime and we’re behind schedule because Ms. Important closed herself in her office to ‘attend to business’ for the better part of an hour. We have an appointment with the Los Angeles County Commissioner at two to discuss water permits being issued to political cronies. My comment that this sounds like the start of the plot of Chinatown is met with stony silence.

“You could at least pretend to not hate me,” I finally say, knowing it will annoy her further. “I mean, after all, we’re gonna be working together for awhile.” I don’t hate her nearly as much as she hates me. I almost feel sorry for her.

“Only just.”

“Just what?” I am confused.

She looks at me as one might look at a dead animal carcass. “Just until the anchor spot opens up.”

“Your old one?” I tweak. I can’t help myself. I really should lay off of her. This can’t be easy on the ex-anchor.

A frosty smile is my reply. “No, the New York one.”

“You mean network anchor?” I ask.

The smile grows bigger and colder. “Yes; it’s my reward for doing this demeaning assignment.”

I stop at a red light and use the opportunity to turn my full attention on my passenger. I roam my eyes over her body, undressing her, tossing each piece of that nice copper colored suit back into Jimmy’s hands. Oh, I wish. She flushes because she knows what I am doing. “Honey, you haven’t been demeaned yet,” I drawl, letting my Louisiana accent slip out again.

“The light’s green. And do you have to keep that thing on so loud?” she asks, pointing to the police scanner attached to the dash.

Lazily, I turn my attention back to the road, ignoring the honking of drivers behind me. “So it is, and, yes, I do.” I step on the accelerator and we continue making our way down South Figueroa Street. “Reeves isn’t going to retire anytime soon.”

She snorts, shakes her head. “Obviously, you don’t know anything about the network. He’s due to retire this year or next, at the latest.”

My turn to snort and shake my head. “Obviously, you don’t know shit about his finances. I happen to know that he has gambling debts out his butt. Atlantic City now owns more of his property than he does. And he’s got a son in rehab. All that gets expensive. He’ll be staying around for awhile.” I shrug, change lanes, pulling around some little old lady doing ten miles an hour. “Besides, word on the street has it that Hathaway is a shoo in for the job.”

“Hathaway? I think not. He’s an idiot.”

“Emphasis on ‘he’, Kels.”

She bristles, “Don’t call me that.”

I ignore her, liking the nickname I overheard Erik use and, more than that, enjoying her reaction to it. “No woman has ever anchored the network news on a nightly basis. Only one co-anchored and where the hell is Connie Chung nowadays? Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Lesley Stahl, they all do news magazines. Besides, you’re too young. What are you thirty-five?”

She looks aghast, that I would think her that old. “Thirty-two.”

“My point exactly. You gotta have some credibility. You sure they didn’t promise you the NY nightly news? Not network?”

“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.” She fidgets in the seat, angry beyond all reason at me. “And who the hell are you to act as my career counselor? You’re trash TV, the lowest rung on the television evolutionary scale. God, you’ve barely climbed out of the primordial ooze.”

“Yeah, well, when the rest of the higher life forms die off, the only thing that’s gonna survive are single-celled organisms like myself. And cockroaches, because they’re indestructible.” We’re passing Sixth Street and I make a decision, turning left onto Fifth at the next light. “Hey, Jimmy, guess where we’re near!”

The orange-haired Korean, who’s been watching our interchange like someone at a Ping-Pong tournament, smiles. “Dirty water dog?”

“Yup!”

For the first time since leaving the station, Jimmy doesn’t look like a frightened kid in the back. He bounds forward and throws open the back door. He is at the hot dog vendor before I have even finished illegally double-parking in front of the LA Public Library, Main Branch.

“You want one?” I ask as I am about to hop out my side of the van.

Kelsey makes the same face as yesterday after she saw me with what’s-her-name on my bike. “I think not. Those things are terrible for you.”

“Haven’t seemed to hurt me yet.” I leave her to wait for us as I buy one of Mother Nature’s most perfect gifts to mankind.

Jimmy is already starting on his second dog when I arrive at the cart. Whenever we’re in downtown LA, our crew always stops by Old Vito’s cart. Vito looks like the dogs he sells – wrinkled, red and long.

I am finishing squirting extra ketchup on my foot long when I hear Kelsey’s voice in the background. I roll my eyes and share a smirk with Jimmy. I let her wait; I am busy.

“Harper! Jesus Christ, Joseph and Mary! Get over here!”

“I didn’t know we brought so many people with us, eh, Olson?”

He grimaces and runs a fine boned hand through his orange hair. “I’m gonna dye it back. I gotta stop these Jimmy Olson jokes. It’s hurting my career.”

“Jims, you don’t have a career yet. You’ve only been out of school two months.”

“Harper! Goddammit!” Her voice is louder this time.

I turn around and shove the remainder of the dog in my mouth. I spread out my hands conveying the universal sign for ‘what the fuck do you want?’.

“The scanner!”

Shit. Something’s breaking loose. Suddenly, my feet find life again and I race back to the van. I get there in time to hear: “Gunshots fired in the LA Public Library, all available units respond.”

We all swing our heads around to stare at the front doors to a major news event. “Jimmy!!” I lunge through the still open back door and grab my Betacam. I shove two extra batteries into my vest pockets. “Jims, let the station know what’s happening and that we’re on it!” I switch on my micro-cam and the Betacam. “How’s the feed?”

He is turning on the monitors in the van. “Receiving both.”

“Let’s go, Kels!”

“Where?” she asks, unbuckling her seat belt.

The question strikes me dumb for a long moment. Where? Where? “Inside, Kels. That’s where the story is. Not out here. Out here is for desk jockeys and wannabe network anchors. Inside is where the reporters are.” I know this will get her to do exactly what I want. Confident in her following, I race for the entryway, just in time for the flood of frightened people to nearly run over me when I arrive there.

I am grateful that I am tall and strong, because I am able to force my way inside without any injury or long delay. I stand in the impressive foyer, ignoring the architecture, the antiques and the chandelier. All I want is the psycho with the gun. I hope it’s a psycho with a gun. Those guys pull down huge ratings. And, so far, we’ve got an exclusive. On my first day at the station. Chambers is gonna treat me like God from now on.

Another gunshot. Sounds like a rifle, but I can’t really tell for sure. The acoustics in here are really messing me up. I am moving toward the sound when I realize someone is behind me. I spin around only to find Kelsey on my heels. “Let’s go!”

The archway at the far end leads to the children’s library. Oh damn. Not kids. I’d trade the highest ratings in the world to keep one kid safe. We are entering the hallway leading to the reading room when three more gunshots explode. The noise is deafening in the echoing room.

Kelsey looks like she might pass out at any moment.

As my hearing returns, I hear whimpering to my right. I bend down and approach the small girl I now see huddled in the corner. The girl’s trying to make herself as small as possible; she doesn’t want to be an easy target. “Hey there,” I say softly, reaching out to the child. I lay my camera aside, knowing my micro-cam will pick up the shot for me.

The girl flinches away from me. Her large brown eyes peer out from beneath her arms to size me up. She looks from me to Kelsey and back again. Finally, she flings herself at my legs, clasping onto my calves with all her strength. I feel her tears seep through the cotton of my pants. I reach down a hand and rub her back. I hazard a guess based on her brown skin. “No te preocupes, estas bien.” It’s ok, I’ve got you.

She looks up, momentarily soothed.

“Ahora, necesito que estes bien callada.” I need you to be very quiet now.

She nods. One small hand comes up to wipe away her tears.

“Eres una nina valiente. Como te llamas?” Such a brave girl. What’s your name?

“Cristina.”

“Que linda. Quedate con la amable rubia.” How pretty. Stay with the nice blonde lady. Did I just call the Ice Bitch “nice”?

Cristina looks over again at Kelsey. “Ella tiene tanto miedo como yo.”

She’s right, of course. Kelsey looks as much, or even more frightened, as Cristina is. I wonder if it was such a good idea to bring the anchor into the midst of the story. “Lo esta, yo creo.” She is, I think. “Donde esta el hombre?” Where’s the man at?

Cristina points to the other room. “El esta en el cuarto grande, con todo los libros grandes.”

He’s in the reading room. Now for the million dollar question. “Cuantos revolves tiene el?” How many guns does he have? Of course, knowing that doesn’t tell me how many rounds of ammunition he has. He can have a fucking arsenal and I won’t know until I get in there.

She shrugs.

And now for the ten million dollar question: “Hay otro ninos alli dentro?” Are any other children in there? I already know the answer in my gut.

“Si. Mi clase todavia esta alli. . Yo iva para el bano cuando el comenzo disparando a la gente.”

Ah, that explains it. She was using the bathroom while her class was in there. The shooting began and she hid as best she could. She probably started to go back in the reading room, heard the gunfire, and came out here instead.

Cristina fingers my vest shyly. “Es la policia?”

I chuckle. “No. Pero soy mejor que un policia.” I’m better than a cop. I can bring the whole damn world on someone with just the right camera angle. Which is exactly what I’m going to do with this bastard. For Cristina. And all the other kids who get used and abused by adults with guns.

I stand up and guide the girl to Kelsey who is still looking faint. I take the blonde’s hand and put it around Cristina’s trembling fingers. The woman looks at me and I see true fear in those eyes. It’s the only emotion besides anger or hatred that I’ve seen in them. For a moment, I run through a gamut of emotions. On some level, I do feel sorry for her but I don’t have time for sympathy. I can’t coddle Ms. Silver Spoon, and exasperation is the feeling that wins out.

“Stay here with the girl.”

Kelsey looks down as if seeing the child for the first time and nods dumbly.

Shouldering the camera, I move away.

For a long minute, I kneel by the threshold to the reading room. The massive doors leading to it slightly askew, wide enough for me and my camera to fit through without any trouble. I am plotting my entry when I feel something touch my lower back. With a start, I turn to see Kelsey close behind me, my shirt clutched in her hand. I tilt my head at her in question.

“It’s my job now,” she whispers with growing confidence. The proud smile I feel creeping across my face is nearly big enough to split my cheeks.

“Good girl,” I murmur, reaching back to pat her knee. “Where’s Cristina?”

With the hand not clenching my shirt, she points towards the entrance where I see an adult carrying Cristina out of the building to safety beyond. There are still a lot of people rushing out of the building. We’re the only two brave – or stupid – enough to be heading into the line of fire.

I nod, pat her knee again. It seems some of her wits have returned. Kids have a way of reminding people of priorities. I half turn, not enough to loosen her hold but enough to lean towards her and whisper in her ear. “Stay close to me. We’re gonna work this guy, try to bargain the kids’ freedom for some airtime. Okay?”

She nods.

“If it’s safe, we’ll put you in the shot with him, have you talking him down.”

She flinches and I know she’s battling with the obvious rating ploy I’m describing to her. This is the moment I see how far she’ll go to make a point. Will she accept the fact she’s on board now or will she fight me all the way?

Slowly, Kelsey nods, her grip tightens.

I sigh with relief and glance down to the arm that disappears behind my back, tapping it. “You’re gonna ruin my shirt.”

“I’ll buy you a new one,” she responds, not willing to let me go. I smile. That’s okay. This isn’t what I would have wished for a first time. I like to break my virgins in gently; Kelsey won’t have that opportunity, unfortunately.

I enter the reading room, slinking along the floor, Kelsey glued tightly to me. We get inside but are still out of view, a bookshelf directly in front of us. I’m adjusting the sound on the camera because I can hear frantic murmuring beyond the books and I’d love to be able to decipher it later. Assuming there is a later.

I feel a tap to my back, glancing back I see Kels point to a large circulation desk to our left. Good girl. The thick heavy semi-curved desk will offer us a hell of a lot more protection than the waist-high bookcase we’re hiding behind. I motion for her to move to it. She moves slowly and very quietly to get behind it. I back up with her as we take cover.

“Okay,” she whispers through clenched teeth. “Now what? We’re in.”

I reach into my vest pocket and hand her a clip-on mike and a power pack. Without any hesitation she accepts it into slightly trembling hands. She fastens the mike to her lapel, tucking the power pack away at the small of her back under her jacket. “Hold tight for just a sec,” I whisper, as I begin to stand up. I want to get a quick sweep of the room to find out what I can see.

I raise up to do a quick pan of the room. In the back, I get a glimpse of the gunman. Focusing quickly, I realize he is distracted by the sound of the police response. The dumb son of a bitch doesn’t even realize that two other people have managed to get in here with him. He’s too busy staring out the window. Yeah, go ahead stupid, stand there long enough to let the snipers get a bead on you. As if he can hear my thoughts, he backs away from the window as his hands tighten on his weapon. I duck back down behind the desk to begin calculating in my own mind what I’ve just filmed. And what has most likely been projected to viewers of KNBC and the police outside.

Kels throws me a questioning look.

“It’s a lone gunman.” Even in a crisis, I keep my sense of humor. “He’s wearing body armor and a mask. And he has an Uzi,” I whisper this directly into her ear. I try not to notice either the fragrance of her shampoo or her perfume.

She takes it in swallowing hard as she nods her understanding. She’s still pale, but the fear is keeping her alert.

I take a deep breath. It’s now or never. Shut up and jump. I set the Betacam down and remove my vest. Don’t want Psycho-with-a-gun thinking I’m concealing a weapon.

“What are you doing?” she whispers as she watches me adjust the micro-camera.

“I’m gonna go make nice.” I watch as a slightly amused look crosses her face. I grin at her. “I’m capable of doing that. When I want.” As I duck out from behind the desk, I whisper, “Stay here until I signal for you.”

Staying low, I move toward the back of the room toward the gunman. Gary’s right: I’m stupid. But I have an exclusive so far. And if I can live to enjoy it, it’s gonna be a great day. I begin to slowly straighten to my full height as I move. I try to keep my eye on our host and still get a look around. I finally see what I am afraid of. In the corner, clustered into a small mass, two adults are huddled protectively around nine or so children. Dammit! One of the women sees me so I quickly place my finger to my lips. She nods.

The next step I take brings the gunman around to face me. I look down briefly to see the crinkled magazine under my foot. Oops. I return my gaze to the gunman as I slowly bring my hands up to my sides, palms up, so he can see I’m not armed. Then I turn around to show no hidden weapons. As I make the slow circle, praying I’m not gonna get shot in the back, I notice that somehow my Betacam has made it to the top of the desk. It is pointed right at us and the light is on. Apparently Kelsey wants videotape of my death to play at the office Christmas party and other festive occasions.

I turn back to the gunman who levels the barrel of the gun at my heart. “Who the fuck are you?” The question is muffled by the black mask he’s wearing. It reveals only dark brown eyes, but those eyes sing volumes to me.

{{Break here for the first week?}}

“I’m Harper Kingsley. I work for KNBC.” The Micro-Uzi makes me really apprehensive. Those things are notorious for having hair triggers and our host is already nervous. “Would you like to talk to us?”

He nods. Good, this is good. “Okay, partner, here’s the deal. I have a friend with me. She’s a reporter…”

He tenses as he grips the gun tighter. “Where?”

“Right there.” I hear her. Turning at the waist, I see Kels stand up from behind the desk. She mimics my hands-open position as she slowly steps forward.

“I’m right here,” she says. “We’re not here to hurt you or trick you. You can talk to us. We’ll listen. Harper will film it for you too.”

He nods again. “You got a camera?”

“Yeah, back there.” I point back to the desk.

“Get it.”

“Okay.” I slowly begin to back up. Kels doesn’t move from her spot. I’m not sure if she is immobile from fear or guts. But I’m glad she’s not making him more nervous.

“Listen,” she says as she glances over to the huddled formation in the corner. “Why don’t you let the children go? They’re terrified and don’t really serve a purpose in this whole thing, do they?” Her voice is steady and low and I find it very soothing. I hope Wonder Nut does too.

I grab my camera and return to a position behind Kels. It gives me an excellent shot of her and him. He looks to the children.

“Do they?” Kels asks again very softly. “Do they really have any reason to be here?”

“No. I didn’t know they’d be here. There are never children in this reading room.”

“They were on a field trip.” Kels offers as she slowly moves to them. She kneels down, doing a quick visual check. “You okay?”

One of the women nods, still too terrified to speak.

This is fucking wonderful! God, our ratings must be sky-high at the moment. This is better than a slow car chase down the Santa Monica freeway.

“Good. We’ll get you out of here in a moment.” Kelsey’s soft voice is soothing the woman’s fears even as her fingers reach out and stroke as many of the children as she can reach: touching hands, arms, bowed heads. She seems to have given them courage while gaining more of her own and she stands, moving back to the gunman. “If you want us to help you, you have to let the children go.”

“The police will come in…”

“No, they won’t.” Kelsey reassures him, it’s obvious she has no desire to bargain this point. If the man wants our airtime, he’ll have to abide by this rule. “No one will come in if you let the children go. It’s the children they’re worried about. And it will look very good for you when you decide to leave too.”

The gunman hesitates, then nods at Kels. She immediately motions for the women and the children to make a quick exit before Nutflake changes his mind.

The women scramble to their feet, grabbing as many children as they can and pulling the rest to their feet as they head for the door. Kelsey is also tugging children to standing positions and shoving them gently towards the opening and the women standing there. I pan around to capture the frantic race for freedom, very proud that we have managed to gain it for them.

“Stop!” he yells, just as they are at the door.

Damn! Double-crossing, Uzi-toting, child-abusing Nutflake. I’m gonna be happy to capture the LAPD’s use of excessive force on your ass. I manage to meet Kelsey’s eyes for a split second and I see in them the fear of a plan gone awry. She’s on her toes, ready to try a new tact.

“She stays!” He points the gun at one of the women. She’s apparently an employee here, as she is wearing a library nametag.

She stops and puts down the two children she was carrying. She pushes them out the door, then turns very slowly.

“Get over here! Now, bitch!”

I sigh. There’s no need for that. Especially not for a woman as attractive as she is. I stifle a chuckle. I always keep my priorities straight, even in hostage situations.

The woman comes over and slides up behind me, grabbing onto the back of my shirt. Oh this shirt is toast.

“Police are outside the doors,” she whispers. “Lots of police.”

I nod as I continue to film Kels and the gunman. Now, we just have to get our asses out of the line of fire and let the cops do their job.

“Thank you.” Kelsey smiles as she takes a seat at a reading table. “Why don’t you sit down here and talk to me? Tell me what the problem is. Tell me why you would come here and do this.”

I’m impressed. Kelsey is pulling herself together just fine. She’s smoothing her hair and her coat and she looks every bit the professional I’m learning she is.

He cocks his head as he points the barrel of the gun away from Kels. I’m glad he did that. Chambers wouldn’t like me losing her on the first outing.

“I like the library.”

Ah, that explains everything. I watch warily as he takes a seat at the end of the table across from Kelsey.

“Generally the library is where you come to read, not target shoot,” she says with a very charming little smile. It almost doesn’t sound like an insult. “Are you sure there’s not another reason you came here?”

“He died here,” our host says quietly.

I see Kels reach for the mike pack to adjust the volume. Good girl; story first, compassion second. “Who died here?”

“My son. My son died here. In this room.” He waves an irritated hand through the air.

“I’m sorry,” Kels replies sincerely as she brushes a hand through her hair, tucking an errant strand behind her ear. “What happened?”

“He took an overdose in this room and died. Nobody noticed, nobody cared. They found him at closing. It’s their fault that my son is dead.” His anger flares as he jumps from his seat and whips the gun around on me and the woman behind me. I wait for the inevitable and hope that the camera will keep working even if I can’t. I almost shout out a protest when I see Kelsey rising to her feet and approaching him slowly. Jesus Christ, we’re all dead!

“It’s okay,” she says softly as she reaches out for him. “I understand your loss. I understand your pain, but there’s no reason for anyone else to die senselessly in this room, is there?”

The gunman whirls around, turning the barrel to the ceiling firing a burst of gunfire into it.

Kelsey avoids the bits of the ceiling raining down around her. She takes a few cautious steps back. She looks a little shocked but is hiding her fear well. Her hands aren’t even trembling as they cautiously brush pieces of the ceiling from her hair and arms.

“It’s their fault! Someone should have been here!” He lowers the gun to Kels pointing it right at her. “You don’t care! No one cares that my boy is dead!”

“I do care.” Kelsey offers as she stays near the table. “I do care. If someone here is truly responsible for his death, then I can help you bring them to justice. But you have to trust me and let me help you.”

“How can you help me?”

“I can do a story about the library and its policies. If we find out someone here was negligent…”

“You’d do that? You’d help me?” He lowers the gun.

“Yes. Yes, I will, but you have to trust me.” She moves slowly towards the table again and begins another approach. “You have to let me help you.” I zoom in and see her swallow hard as the sweat breaks out across her forehead. “Give me the gun. I can’t help you unless you give me the gun.” With her other hand, she’s brushed bits of plaster from the table and chairs, inviting her captor to sit with her once more.

“No!” He raises the barrel again. I actually feel my heart beat double time and I’m nearly ready to get between them.

“Okay, okay. You don’t have to give it to me.”

I hate to break it to her, but he isn’t.

“But I can’t help you if you don’t. Harper and I may as well leave and let police come in here.”

“If you try, I’ll kill you.”

Kelsey, would you please not mention the goddamn cops to him again.

“Well, then-” Kels gestures around. “This room will have seen four senseless deaths. Mine. Harper’s. Your son’s. And yours. Because if you kill us, the police will have no choice. I just thought you’d like to be around to see your revenge.”

This seems to make some amount of sense to the man and though he’s still gripping the weapon in flexing fingers, he does take the seat she’s offered him. Kelsey sits as well, a little too closely for my tastes, but she can touch him now, placing a comforting hand on the fidgeting man’s arm.

“Tell me about your son? Huh? Let’s start there,” she’s trying to calm him down before she goes for the gun again and I think it’s a pretty good plan since he looks just a touch too trigger happy for my tastes.

“He came here that day because I’d kicked him out of the house. I caught him with drugs and he wasn’t supposed to have them, ya know? His parole officer told me that.”

Okay, I think, zooming in on the two figures. Leave it to Beaver, this ain’t. But it’s great television.

“I was so angry, I kicked him out and told him he needed to pull himself together. Was that wrong?” the gunman’s eyes seek out Kelsey’s, finding in them gentle acceptance.

“Not necessarily,” she sooths softly. “Sometimes you have to force kids to make their own decisions and take on their own responsibilities. Especially if he was already involved in the wrong crowds. He couldn’t have expected you to turn the other cheek while he continued to hurt himself, could he? You loved him too much for that.”

God, she’s good.

The gunman nods sadly. “I loved him very much. He must have come straight here, didn’t know what else to do. I don’t think he was trying to kill himself, do you?”

Kelsey smiles sweetly, pats the man’s arm. “No, I doubt it. I think his judgment was impaired, is all. Maybe he got some bad stuff. I’m sure he wanted to work things out with you and come home. He knew you were right.”

“But these people-” his voice rises in anger again and he starts to stand but Kelsey interrupts him.

“Unh unh,” she chastises gently, pulling him back to his chair and reaching again for the weapon. “I told you. I’ll help you bring justice here by determining if they’re understaffed and undertrained. If the library was negligent, we’ll get our revenge for your son, I promise you that. But it won’t be at the end of this gun.” She taps the weapon, the sound of her well-manicured nail on steel echoing through the room. “We’ll do what they couldn’t. We’ll make sure that other people don’t die from their negligence without resorting to senseless death.”

The man hesitates in his half standing position before allowing himself to be tugged back into the chair. He’s still holding the weapon though it isn’t with the white-knuckled grip of moments before. He wants to trust Kelsey, that much is obvious.

Hell, my little blonde gold mine is so sincere, I want to trust her. Her compassion is earnest and convincing, her grip on him strong and comforting. I see just a glimpse of the woman she must be under all the makeup and cold exterior. This must be the woman that has captured Erik because, until this moment, I just couldn’t figure out why he would stay with her. I figured she must be one hell of a good lay. It’s a theory I’d love to test some day.

So distracted by these lecherous thoughts, it takes a moment for me to realize what’s going on in front of me.

I watch, amazed, as the Psycho Wonder puts the Uzi on the table, then stands up and steps back from it. Kelsey takes it and places it gently to the floor, respecting the weapon even once it is out of the nut’s hands. Giving it a shove with her foot, it slides over to me, stopping at my feet. I follow its slide with the Betacam. As I pan it back to Kelsey, she has left her own seat and is making a slow and cautious approach, holding her hand out to the man, who takes it.

“Do you have any more guns?”

Uh, gee, Kelsey, a better time to ask that question would be before you take his fucking hand! Christ almighty!

He shakes his head slowly. Kels reaches for the mask.

Oh, damn, damn, damn! She’s gonna do it! I feel my breath hitch as she pulls up on the mask and reveals the face beneath it. It’s a woman! Holy shit! I get it all as the sobbing woman falls into Kelsey’s arms and the police rush in.

They take her into custody, detaching her arms from around Kelsey’s neck and handcuffing them behind her back.

I’ve got every moment of it on tape. I follow them as they take her from the room. Then I turn the camera back on Kels who is sitting at the table with her head down on her crossed arms. I continue to film as I approach her.

She looks up and snarls. “Turn that fucking thing off before I shove it up your ass!”

I do as she says, knowing that Chambers will have her hide for using that language while we were undoubtedly live. Her peaches and cream reputation on-screen won’t last long if people hear much more of that.

She moves past me and out the door. I let her go. Those porcupine quills are up and ready again. Whatever compassion she felt moments before for that distraught mother have not overflowed into our relationship.

I take the camera from my shoulder and set it on the table. I turn to the woman who was with us through all of this. She is leaning against the desk breathing heavily as her nerves settle, it makes her breasts sway in a most pleasing manner. “You willing to give us an interview?”

She nods, as she looks up to me. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. What’s your name?”

“Marion.”

I bite back the chuckle as I place my hand on the small of her back to lead her from the room. Marion the librarian. Fucking priceless! I begin humming “Seventy-six Trombones.”

“I get that all the time,” she says, raising an eyebrow at me. I think she’s flirting with me. And I love it.

As we exit the room, the police intercept us. After giving them enough information to get them off my back, I realize I have to let them get a statement from Marion. I turn her over to a cop friend of mine in the bunch. He says he’ll bring her to me at the van as soon as he can. Pays to drink with the boys in blue.

I leave the building to find Kelsey leaning against the van, eyes closed, hands splayed against the metal, steadying herself. I lay my camera inside at Jimmy’s feet.

“God, Harper, that was fucking great!” He bounces around the van switching tapes and putting everything together. “You were live from the moment you were talking that to that little girl. Shit! Who knew you could speak Spanish?”

I shrug, “I did. So did my Spanish professor who gave me an ‘A’ in the class.”

“Chambers wants you to call in. He wants to Kelsey to go live with a wrap up for a special broadcast. But she refused. He’s ready to strangle her.”

“Give me a sec, Olson.”

I pull out of the van and go over to Kelsey, laying a hand on her shoulder. “You did great in there.”

She looks up and gives me her best dirty look. “Yeah, and I didn’t even need a penlight.” Kelsey’s green eyes are weary. “Congratulations, in one day you’ve made me just like you. I didn’t think it was possible.”

I shrug, “Oh, you coming out of the closet now?”

“Fuck you. You made me give up my journalistic integrity in there. I’m supposed to report the news, not become it, dammit! You don’t care! You don’t care because you don’t know what it means to be a journalist. You don’t know what it means to have millions of people trust you, and then piss it all away in less than thirty minutes. For ratings! For fucking ratings! I was traded so the station can sell more sports car and beer commercials!” She pushes herself off of the van and stalks away.

“No!” I holler after her. “You used it to save ten kids’ lives. And, guess what, Kelsey, it was worth it! You didn’t piss away any trust in there, Kels. You got that mother to lay it all on the line for you, just because you asked and you were sincere. All of your high-minded principles don’t mean shit if it had ended any other way.”

She stops and turns slowly to face me once more. “Don’t feed that line to me.”

“Why? Because it’s true?” I smirk. “You can’t handle the truth?” I use my best Nicholson imitation, which is – actually – pretty damn good.

Kelsey bursts into laughter, big belly laughs that cause her to bend at the waist. It’s a tension release; she needed it big time. She shakes her head. “You’re certifiable.”

I shrug. This is not news to me. Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse. “Tell me something I don’t know. But, before you do, give Chambers the wrap-up he wants. So we can get the hell out of here.”

“What? You got a hot date or something?”

A gentle voice calls to me from beside our van. “Harper, do you still want me for that interview?”

Both Kelsey and I turn and look at the pretty librarian. I can’t wait to explore her Dewey Decimal system. “Uh, you could say that. Now, let’s get this finished so Marion and I can enjoy our good fortune to still be alive.”

“Harper, you’re a dog. You know that, right?” Her voice is slightly teasing, though, not holding the censure it had moments before. Things change so quickly between us, going from understanding, to sympathy, to anger in moments. I take us one step further, laying on all the charm I can muster and stepping right into her space.

I lean forward, once again making myself ignore her perfume. “And you’re jealous. You know that, right? I’ve got your number, Kelsey Stanton. And, one day, I’ll make the Ice Bitch thaw. And, you’ll thank me for it.” I smile warmly as I pat her butt, admiring its shape and feel under my hand. “Let’s wrap up.”

“Touch my ass again, Harper, and you’re dead. Now get your camera. I’ve had a hell of a long day.” She shoves me away without real vehemence and uses steady fingers to start combing through her hair and preparing for our final wrap.

I smirk. And I know she won’t be able to relieve any of that stress with Erik. I, however, plan on relieving as much stress as possible. I shoulder my camera again and glance at Kelsey. Unaware of my eyes focused on her, she is casually checking out Marion the librarian.

Straight, my ass.
Episode Five: Back Against the Wall
I take a deep breath as I lean against the Mercedes. The fact that I could have been killed finally started setting in while I was driving home. Good God, working with Harper Kingsley is going to be the death of me. The woman is absolutely insane.

I head for the elevator. I sigh as I ring for the car, and before I have time to blink the doors slide open. Erik steps out and engulfs me in a tight hug. As he plants a soft kiss to my temple, he whispers, “Are you all right?” Too tired too answer him, I just nod as I settle into his strong arms. He leads us back to the elevator, never releasing me from his protective embrace. I don’t know or care how he knew to be here at just the right moment.

“Straight back to the penthouse, Richard,” he tells the evening operator. “Don’t stop for anyone.”

“Yes, sir.” He nods as he presses the button, glancing briefly at us then turning to the front to stare dutifully at the doors.

“You’re not hurt, are you?” Erik whispers again. My ears still ring from the gunshots, and I am grateful for his concern.

“No, I’m not hurt. Just taking a minute to allow my mind and body to catch up with each other.” His arms tighten around me and I am so grateful they are there for me, but, then again, they always are. If I were straight, I’d marry this man.

“Take your time, sweetheart. Take your time. I have all night.” He gives my temple another kiss.

When the doors slide open, we make our way straight to the living room where I’m deposited on the couch. Erik kneels down in front of me and slides my heels off, gently massaging my feet. Oh yeah, I’d marry him. I might regardless of my sexuality if he keeps this up. I reach out, stroking my fingers through his hair. “Why are you so good to the ‘Ice Bitch’?”

He smiles at the nickname. He knows I know most of them, but I think he was surprised that I knew that one. “I’m not. The ‘Ice Bitch’ doesn’t exist for me. She never did. You, Kelsey Stanton, are my best friend and I love you.” He drops his head then lifts it, grinning at me. “Like a sister of course.”

“Of course.” I chuckle as I flex my toes in his very attentive hands. “You keep that up and I’m gonna have an …”

“Don’t go there. I don’t need to know what turns you on, thanks.”

“Well, that does. So, umm, stop, will you?”

“You sure?”

“Un-huh.” He slowly takes his hands from my feet, letting them drop gently to the floor. I should have kept my mouth shut and just enjoyed the ride because I feel alone without his hands on me. “Any chance I could sweet talk you into getting me a drink?”

“Name your poison, love.” He stands, waiting for my request.

“Oh, I need a scotch.”

“Rocks?”

“Please.” I let my head drop back to the couch, closing my eyes allowing my mind to run through the events of the day.

“Kels, what possessed you to follow her in there?”

“I have no goddammed idea. I must be losing my mind, too.” I laugh softly as I feel the glass slide into my hand. It’s cold in my grasp, already sweating and making it slightly slippery. “Maybe she has some sort of infectious disease that causes the brain cells of those around her to die out, too. It must be airborne. Something she exhales.”

Erik tosses his head back and, through his chuckles, sips his own drink. He drops down to the couch next to me, brushing my hair behind my ear. “Let me take you out to dinner tonight.”

I glance over to my best friend. “Where? I’m not in the mood for

Gag in the Bag.” This is the California nickname for Jack in the Box.

“Oh, I was thinking somewhere expensive. I can afford it. I got the part.” His lips break into a little grin. “My agent called today right before you and crazy lady made the news.”

“You little shit!” I laugh and sit up, quickly giving his arm a slap. I am thrilled for him and I know my enthusiasm shows even though I’m drained and exhausted. His blue eyes twinkle with his own happiness. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I just did.”

“I mean before now! Erik, I swear. You gotta learn what’s important in this life.”

“I have, Kels. I needed to make sure you were okay first. Now that I know you are, I want to take you out and celebrate. Celebrate both our good fortunes.”

“Just take me some place where Harper Kingsley won’t be and I’m there.” I set my drink on the table in front of me then wrap my arms around his neck. “Congratulations, Erik. It’s wonderful. I’m so glad for you.” Pulling back from him, I watch the gentle mirth in his eyes. “So when you’re getting that first Oscar, you gonna forget old Kels?”

“Are you kidding? You’ll be right there with me, babe. You,” he places the tip of his finger to my nose, “are my good luck charm.”

* * *

Erik manages to get us reservations at one of our favorite restaurants. The Oak Room is absolutely the type of place I need to be tonight and Erik knows it. It is so far removed from the Harper Kingsleys of the world – refined and elegant -it will be perfect. They don’t serve anything that remotely resembles a ‘dirty water dog.’ God, the thought of that makes my stomach churn more than the fear I felt today.

I have time, Erik is quick to point out, to take a long hot bath and try to relax a little before dinner. As I settle back into the tub I chalk up another reason to keep Erik. Resting against the smooth porcelain tub, I close my eyes. Only to see Harper’s blue eyes peering back at me, staring deep inside. “Get out!” I protest aloud as I slap the water and blink my eyes open in the subdued bathroom light. “Leave me alone, you demon spawn from hell.” I groan as I lean back again, refusing to close my eyes. I can’t even enjoy a bath.

* * *

A knock on my bedroom door makes me forget the argument I’m having with the zipper of my dress. I turn to find Erik. He’s dressed in a dark suit with a gray silk tie. He looks fabulous and I envy him. He can jump in the shower, primp for two minutes, get dressed and be gorgeous. It takes me an hour just to decide what to wear.

“Need a hand?”

“Yeah, could you, please?” I offer him my back and feel the zipper slide up, along with the warmth of his knuckles. “Thanks.”

“No problem it looked like it was winning.”

“It was. I’m still a little off kilter, I guess.” I slide on my heels as I check my reflection in the mirror one more time. “Do I look all right?”

“You have to ask?”

“No, I just need to hear you say it.” I bat my eyes at him playfully.

“You are the most beautiful thing in my life and if Harper Kingsley isn’t more careful with you, I’m gonna kick her ass.”

“Erik, two things. One, it’s my job now. No more safe anchor desk doing real news. I’m out in the field and I have a feeling that trouble gravitates toward that one. And two, please don’t say her name again tonight.”

“My lips are sealed.” He smiles and offers me his arm.

* * *

Erik is arguing with the host while I stand slightly behind him. Apparently there’s some mix up about our reservations but I’m really too tired to pay too much attention. Though I do wonder vaguely who you have to be to get a table in this place if Erik’s name isn’t good enough.

“Why don’t you join us?”

The voice about knocks me down. Even after one day, I’d recognize it anywhere and it is the last sound I want to hear right now.

Erik places himself between Harper and me. It’s clear he remembers this morning as well as I do.

“My friends canceled on us,” she continues, oblivious to Erik’s mood. “We have a table for four.”

I step around Erik to look at my nemesis and catch my breath. She’s absolutely stunning in a tailored black Armani pantsuit. Her hair is free, long and glossy over her shoulders. I notice belatedly the woman on her arm.

It’s not Marion.

Her new date is small in stature but big in breast. I’m imagining she’s small in the brain area, as well, but I chastise myself for the stereotype even though her blue eyes appear oddly vacant. She’s gorgeous, though, with platinum blonde hair and remarkable features. I feel small here but Erik wraps his arm around my shoulders.

“No, thank you-” I say, starting to make up some excuse. Erik is almost making up some reason why we can’t join them.

“Aw, c’mon, Kels,” she teases, those blue eyes sparkling. “We’ve had a rough day, you came here to unwind. Take advantage of the opportunity. It’s 9:30. You’re not going to get into any other decent restaurant at this hour.”

I’m watching her, trying to come up with a suitable response, when she tosses the gauntlet.

“Or aren’t you woman enough to sit through a meal with me and act like an adult? I mean, as the future network anchor you’re going to be in a lot more hostile interview situations in the future.”

Bitch, I groan. A challenge issued from Harper that I just can’t walk away from.

“Of course I am,” I tell her with a forced smile. “I’m not the problem half of this relationship.”

Erik’s eyes are wide and he knows that a peaceful and celebratory evening has just flown out the window as we follow the camera woman and her date to a booth near the back.

I end up against the wall across from Harper’s date and next to Erik. Unable to control myself, I smile neatly and say, “You didn’t introduce your girl for the evening, Harper. I remember Marion from this afternoon, of course.”

Erik is groaning; Harper is grinning. The blonde remains quiet but looks slightly puzzled like a Cocker Spaniel. Her hair is kind of the right color for a Cocker Spaniel, too, I realize. I immediately try to erase the image from my mind. It doesn’t work.

“Oh, I figured you may have known her already. We met at a gay bar, after all. Lots of famous lesbians there … figured you’d been.”

I think Erik’s eyes may land on the table at any moment. Gaydar or not, I’m not sure how she reached this conclusion about me but I refuse to give her any satisfaction or any reason to think she’s right.

I idly note that the Cocker Spaniel looks confused too.

“Can’t say I have,” I reply in as bored a tone as I can manage. “So is your avoidance of the subject an admission to not knowing her name?”

She grins knowingly but allows me the subject change. “Veronica, please meet my partner – in a non-sexual sense – Kelsey, and her friend Erik.”

The blonde extends a hand across the table. “Hi,” she says meekly. “It’s Victoria, nice to meet you.”

I glance to Harper, but the woman has no shame and is grinning rakishly. She shrugs one broad shoulder and picks up her menu. She leans into her date and whispers something in her ear. Whatever she says has Veronica … er, Victoria blushing.

“So tell us what happened today, Harper.” She turns her low wattage baby blues on the high wattage ones belonging to my infuriating partner.

The last thing I want to hear is a recount of the afternoon. Harper must feel the same way because she actually glances to me and then answers shortly. “Another idiot with a gun, kids getting the shit scared out of them, and me, Kels and my camera. You know. It’s been on the news, nothing more to tell.”

I’m relieved. I think Erik is, too. He doesn’t want to know the nitty-gritty, finding the entire thing too emotional.

“So, tell me, Erik,” Harper starts slowly and I know I’m in trouble. “What do you think about Kelsey’s career change?”

He clears his throat, sips some water. “I think Chambers is selling her short.”

“Did she tell you about the sweet deal, Erik? About the anchor in New York?”

“Sure, she did,” he smiles, pats my leg. “We don’t have secrets.”

“Did she tell you that it’s all a fantasy and she has no chance in hell of getting it? They’re playing her.”

Harper is smiling graciously as if she’s talking about the weather and not my life. And I find it just a touch annoying that she’s speaking about me as if I’m not here. I point that out. “You don’t need to talk around me. I’m right here.” I’m trying to smile like she is but I know mine looks more forced.

“And you’ll be right here for a long time, Kels,” she leans forward. “Right here with me. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I shake my head and turn to Erik who is looking only slightly baffled. He is a good actor. “Harper seems to think that Reeves won’t retire. But he will, and my contract assures me the position.”

“Did your contract assure you your previous anchor job, Kels?”

I glare at her, her point having been made without any comment necessary from me.

“Obviously not,” she smiles smugly. “I sure wouldn’t hold my breath on the New York job. But I can recommend a good attorney for you. The one who worked on my contract did a fabulous job. I’ve never had any troubles.”

“Funny, I don’t recall asking you for your help.”

Harper shrugs, flags the waiter down to order a bottle of wine.

“So, Harper, tell us about your previous work. The whole field of tabloid camera work must be so exhilarating. And such a respectable position, too.”

Victoria, poor girl, nods enthusiastically. “Yes, do tell, Harper. I heard you know Jerry Springer. I just love his show. It’s so clever,” Sparky turns my direction. “Don’t you think?”

I grin, enjoying that her own date is doing the work for me. “Very clever. What about True TV? Now there’s a place where someone can build a career.”

Victoria agrees. Erik thinks the wallpaper is perhaps the most intricate design he’s ever seen, and Harper is looking at me through unexpectedly humored eyes.

“Yes, it was an excellent stepping stone. Now I’m on a network news program. I’m only twenty-five years old and am shooting and directing in my field of choice. But that’s not nearly as exciting as your promotion, Kels,” she’s smirking. “I hear you jumped at the chance. We would have settled for Waters.”

My blood runs cold, praying there is no truth to that statement. Why had Chambers chosen me for this assignment over Jessica? That pro-change bitch would have been perfect. I know Harper’s only taunting me and I hate that it’s working. I also hate that she’s only twenty-five. Bitch.

“I think you just wanted the opportunity to work with me,” Harper says, nodding to the waiter when he shows her the wine label.

“Yes, you’re right,” I allow, pausing just enough for her eyes to glance my way. “Someone of my caliber doesn’t normally have the opportunity to work with someone who has such a history of quality television on her resume.”

It’s quite clear the night is going to be as horrible as our afternoon. The waiter returns for our orders. Harper smiles at me, giving Erik and I the opportunity to go ahead of her and Sparky. Erik orders his typical pasta dish. I grin at him as he quirks a brow at me, he knows I love pasta but never touch it because it only leads to extra time in the gym. I lean over and whisper in his ear as I play with the lapel of his jacket. “You little shit.”

I hear Harper clear her throat. As I turn to face her she gives me a grin and a slight shake of her head as she glances to the waiter. “Care to order? Or would you just prefer to have Erik as an entrée?”

I give Erik a slight pat on the inside of his leg. “Actually he’s more of a dessert item.”

“Uh-huh,” she says dryly.

I glance to Erik as he grins at Harper. “Oh yeah, she’s got this thing she does with chocolate.”

“Hmm too bad I’m allergic.” Harper smirks at me again. I notice Sparky gives her another confused look.

I draw a deep breath and give the waiter my order. I can see an embarrassed blush creep into his features as he turns to Harper. “Ma’am?”

“I’ll have the New York Strip medium rare. The lady….”

Using the term loosely Harper?

“Will have the Fettucine Alfredo.”

“Harper, maybe, just maybe, Victoria,” I glance over at Sparky who smiles at me, (Christ, she’s hopeless) “might like to order for herself. I’m sure she’s capable.”

“Actually, whatever Harper thinks will be just fine.”

There’s just no helping some people. I shake my head as Harper chuckles and slides her arm around the woman’s shoulders. “See Kels, some people trust my judgment.”

“To each their own.” I smile as I sip my wine. I’m finally starting to relax. I can play these childish games just as well as my new (oh God how I hate to say this) partner. I just sigh as Erik drapes his arm across our seat allowing his fingertips to graze my shoulder. The gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by Harper who quirks a brow.

As I look across the room, I see Calvin Alexander. I give Erik a little nudge to direct his attention to his new employer. “You really should go over and say hello.” Erik looks to me, his brows shooting up in silent question. “I’ll be fine, darling. Go make nice with Calvin.”

“Ah Kels, I do love you so,” he whispers as he gives me a soft kiss on the cheek. “I’ll be back in a flash.”

“Oh, Erik,” Harper says to him, but looks at me. “Take your time. I’m sure Veronica and I can keep Kels entertained for a few minutes.”

Erik stands and buttons his jacket before leaning over to Harper. “It’s Victoria. You could at least try to get it right.”

As he walks away Harper watches him go then turns back to me. “Presumptuous little shit, isn’t he?”

“He’s a caring person. He hates to see people treated badly.” I look over to Victoria who it staring intently into her water, completely enthralled by whatever she sees there. Now I understand it: Marion must have had too much in the brains department.

Sparky speaks. “Harper, could you excuse me for just a second. I need to…”

Flee! Flee! You poor, stupid woman before she uses you and tosses you away, too. Harper slides out of the booth to allow her to exit, patting Sparky’s butt the same way she patted mine today outside of the library. All too soon Harper and I are alone.

“So what’s the going rate for a lay these days, Harper? A two hundred dollar dinner?” I sip my wine looking at her over the rim of my glass.

“No; actually, I could have had her for another drink at the bar. I was just in the mood for a nice dinner and some pleasant company. She may not suit your intellectual standards, but she is polite and sweet. You could learn a lot from her.”

“Hmm, generally pleasant company means they can string more than two words together at the same time.”

“And what about you and Mr. Wonderful? Don’t you get tired of playing these silly little games with Erik?”

“Games? I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do, Kelsey Stanton.” She leans in on both her arms very nearly coming clear across the table. “The ‘I’m straight’ game. It’s bullshit and we both know it. You don’t have any more of a relationship with Erik than I do with what’s-her-name. The only difference is I’m gonna get laid tonight and you’re not. You’re gonna go back to your fancy penthouse and get into your big old bed and curl up around your pillow. Must be getting awfully lonely there, Kels. I bet it’s been a long time since you’ve been held in the warm embrace of a lover. An even longer time since you fell asleep with your head resting on someone’s shoulder while they held you and caressed you, worshipping your body with their fingertips.”

I hope that the lust I’m feeling isn’t showing on my face as I smile at her. “My life with Erik is none of your goddamned business. We have a perfectly marvelous relationship and I would like to invite you to get the hell out of my bedroom.”

Harper leans back giving me her trademark smirk as she lifts her wineglass to her lips. “Yeah, I figured as much. Truth hurts doesn’t it, Kels?”

God, I hate this woman.

Harper smiles at my silence and runs a finger along the rim of her glass. “Don’t worry, Kels. Your secret’s safe with me.”

Thankfully, Erik returns. Apparently, he heard the last of her words. “What secret is that?” he asks amicably as he takes his seat beside me. “Alexander says hello.”

I look over to where the meaty man is leering at me and give him a meek smile and a slight wave. He grins and winks before turning his attention back to his own group and I’m grateful. I only feel able to handle one problem at a time.

“The secret about Kels being gay and your relationship being a sham,” Harper says helpfully. I’d been hoping his question would be dropped. I should have known better.

Erik hesitates a moment too long as he meets my gaze. I can’t blame him, I know that he’s trying to see if I’ve admitted as much to this woman. When he sees no such indication, he turns back to Harper and is grinning slightly.

“I understand why you would want her to be gay, Ms. Kingsley. Who wouldn’t want Kelsey? What I don’t understand is how people can jump to conclusions that are so obviously incorrect.” He leans forward while wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “I can assure you that Kelsey is absolutely heterosexual,” Erik raises an eyebrow suggestively. “I have the scratches on my back to prove it.”

Well, okay. That may have been over the top but inside I’m grinning. Harper seems temporarily stymied but I can tell she’s not completely convinced. She gracefully changes the subject when Veronica … Sparky … whoever the hell she is returns from the facilities.

Sliding out to let her date into the booth, she moves a large tanned hand over the other woman’s body with more than a hint of possessiveness. “So, how are the restrooms in a swank place like this?”

Sparky’s eyes seem to shine as she grins. “There was music playing in there! And a woman handing out towels. I used some of the perfume they had by the sink.” She offers her wrists to Harper to smell. The tall woman obliges, taking a nip of the skin as well, making her companion blush and her eyes go dark with desire.

Ugh. There goes my libido again.

“Good choice of wines,” Erik compliments, trying to get back to mundane chit-chat. Thank God, it works.

Shortly, our meals come and we eat them with minimal conversation. Harper seems to have turned her attention from torturing me to teasing her date. The heat coming from the other side of the table is almost smothering.

Despite my silent pleas and dagger looks, Erik orders dessert, dragging this meal out longer than necessary. I, of course, decline. I’m not the bottomless pit he seems to be and everything I eat manages to find its way to my hips in no time flat. Sparky and Harper appear to be closer to Erik’s constitution and they each order something sweet to finish the meal. I satisfy myself with a cup of tea.

Finally, we are waiting for the check and I excuse myself to use the restroom. Sparky’s friend hands me a towel and I freshen up before stepping out into the short hallway off the front entrance.

It’s dark and out of direct view of the main restaurant and this provides some excellent cover. Suddenly, I’m pressed up against the wood paneling behind me and my eyes meet the dark lapels of an Armani. Slowly, my eyes scan up a well-muscled column of a tanned neck, past full lips, to sparkling blue jewels.

Harper is pressing me fully into the wall, I can feel her body hot and firm against me. She parts my legs with one of hers and raises it as much as she can given the length of my dress. She makes up for the restriction by tilting her hips and making sound contact with me. Oh, God.

Her breath is laced with wine and I wonder if she’s had too much. I also wonder, idly, if I’ll actually stop her should she try to pursue anything. (As if this isn’t pursuing anything.) The feeling of her against me is exquisite, those hooded luminous eyes captivating. It’s times like these that I regret my lifestyle choice.

She moves her leg slowly, rubbing against me, causing tingles to run up and down my spine. I know, in the part of my brain that’s still functioning, that I need to make a decision to let her in or push her out. I realize there is no reason, aside from the obvious and raging lust, to let her in on my well-kept secret. This rationalization wins out. Logic always does.

“Get off of me,” I grit out between my teeth, raising my hands and pushing at her broad shoulders. “I think you’ve had too much to drink, Harper.”

“I’ve had just enough,” she disagrees with a smile. But she is moving away from me. Thank God. Another few seconds and my resolve would have crumbled. It has been far too long since I got laid.

My body is cold without her against it and I shiver involuntarily. This only makes her grin broader.

She runs a hand up my body from waist, over my breast, along my jawline, to brush against my cheek. “Some day, Kels. And, I promise you, I won’t leave you wanting.” Then, with a wink and a leer, Harper disappears into the women’s restroom, leaving me panting and helpless with the wall as my only support.

I push away from the paneling and straighten my dress. It’s all I can do to collect Erik with a minimum of words and no explanation to Sparky before we are on the sidewalk. We head towards the Mercedes where it waits patiently on the curb half a block away.

“What happened?” Erik asks, his arm around my shoulders, his voice confused.

I shake my head, not wishing to talk about it even to my best friend. Not sure that I can talk about it.

“I didn’t even pay, Kels. We ran out and stuck her with the check.”

“Good,” I say and I mean it. She deserves it. She’s such a confident, pompous bitch. How in the hell did I get into this mess?

Erik opens my door and settles me comfortably in the passenger side before trotting around to slide behind the wheel. “Kelsey, you know I love you,” he says as he pulls away, starting our short drive home. There’s a ‘but’ coming, I know it. “But,” he doesn’t disappoint me, “you are a different person around her. What is it about her? I know she’s a cad and shameless, but you’re above that, honey. Why does it eat at you so?”

I shrug my shoulders and settle more deeply into my leather seat.

“You don’t want to talk about it?”

I shake my head. He catches the movement out of the corner of his eyes and he nods.

“Okay. But if you do, you know I’m here.”

I reach over and pat his knee. I do know that.

It’s just too hard to admit that I don’t know whether to rip her clothes off or kill her.
Episode Six: Clueless
I sit behind my desk doing my best to forget last night. Dinner wasn’t so damn bad – in fact, it was kinda fun watching Kelsey squirm – it was what happened after.

I shuffle a stack of tapes from one side of my desk to the other as the memories come back to me.

There I was blissfully enjoying the natural wonders of Victoria (I can remember her name when I focus) when it happened. Right in the middle of what should have been one of the most incredible experiences of Victoria’s life, Kelsey Stanton’s face and voice came into my mind and I couldn’t shake them. It was all I could do to keep from yelling her name.

It was that comment Kelsey made to me about staying out of ‘my bedroom.’ Not ‘our bedroom’, but ‘my bedroom’. Oops, told on yourself, Kels. I chuckle as I move to the file cabinet and try to get it organized. I glance through the large plate glass window to my office and watch as Kels makes her grand entrance. Good God, she is attractive. Why does she have to be such a pain in the ass?

I notice she’s dressed down today: tailored slacks and a very nice, silky, blue blouse. Hmm, must be a tad cold in the hallway. I grin again as I shake my head and stick my head back in my file cabinet; it’s wonderful to have good eyesight. There’s a knock on the door before it opens. Franklin Saunders, the General Manager, comes in without waiting for an invitation and closes the door behind him.

“Good morning, Harper.”

“Good morning, Big Boss. What can I do for you?” Saunders is over Chambers, who is the News Director. He is older and fatter. This is how you can tell the two apart.

“Harper,” he begins as he drops himself down on the couch that lines the wall across from my desk. “Do you have any experience with undercover camera work?”

Well, there are a thousand different smart ass answers to that one, but I’ll play it safe and assume he’s talking about work. I close the file cabinet and lean against it with my arms crossed. “Yeah, I know how to be discreet. You got something in mind?”

“I got an insider tip this morning about some serious drug dealing going on in one of the local high schools, one of the more elite ones, you know. With white kids.”

My eyes narrow at this blatant racist remark. “You know, my parents moved from Louisiana for exactly that reason.”

He is confused. “What?” Then he smiles knowingly, like we’re in the same club or something. “Oh, to be around better people.”

“Yes, exactly,” I agree, but not for the same reasons. “Dr. King was a good friend to my parents before his murder. And I grew up calling Ms. Parks my favorite adopted grandmother.”

Saunders looks perplexed, then angry as what I have said sinks in.

I’m not a member of your club, buddy. I don’t even use white cotton sheets on my bed. Always preferred flannel, or satin, depending on the activities planned. That is another story, however.

And I’ve hardly warmed up to this one. “I’m named after Harper Lee, the novelist. She wrote about the wrongful conviction and murder of a man whose only crime was being born with the wrong color skin. My family has been in Louisiana longer than Louisiana has been in the United States. My parents love New Orleans because it is such a wonderful blend of cultures and people. But, when the South grappled with issues of racial justice in the Sixties, my parents moved to Birmingham, at Dr. King’s personal request, to be on the front lines. I don’t think I realized I was white, or a girl, until I was old enough to know that neither of them meant shit if I wasn’t a decent human being first and foremost.” I stare long and meaningfully at him.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” he mutters. “And I don’t even care that you’re a dyke. But I don’t think that voting for Prop 109 was the wrong thing to do.”

Prop 109 was a recent California ballot proposal that cut off access to all public services by illegal immigrants. Somehow or another the lawmakers and a number of California citizens actually believed that not having a green card was a good enough reason to let little kids die without medical assistance.

“And I don’t care that you’re a homophobic racist who will be in need of long-term physical therapy if you ever say something like that to me again. But let’s not go there. Okay, Boss?” I place just enough emphasis on the last word to get my own dig in.

Saunders clears his throat and resumes his mantle of authority. Apparently, I’m not fired for saying what I just said. Almost wish I were. ” I want you and Kelsey to go in to the high school and see what you can find out about the drugs.”

“You got it.” We don’t have to like each other to work together. This I know from long experience.

He’s happier now that we’re talking about the story again. “Apparently there’s a pretty major dealer in that school somewhere and I’d really like to see us take him out of there. It’d be great for the ratings.”

“And for the kids too,” I can’t resist adding. “I may need some new equipment.” Typically, in this type of situation, I use a minicam, a tape deck, several battery packs, and a directional pen mike. The minicam looks like a pager, so it’s easy to wear without raising suspicion. I clip it on my belt and just turn my body toward the subject. The camera has a wire running to the tape deck for recording sound and image, which I run under my shirt and into a backpack I carry with the batteries and tape deck. The directional pen mike is exactly what it sounds like – a microphone shaped like a fat fountain pen. When I do these types of shoots, I merely affect the nervous habit of playing with my pen, thereby pointing it where it needs to be to catch the conversation. The pictures aren’t gorgeous, but they have good resolution and they’ll play in prime time.

“No problem. Just tell Chambers what you need.”

“I’ll get a list together for him then. I need to speak with Kels. We need to figure out how to get her in there, without her being recognized.”

“I wondered about that myself. Do you think it can be done?”

I grin as I look into Kels’ office across the hall. She’s sipping her tea, reading through a file. It’s then that an evil idea pops into my head. “Oh yeah,” I say to Saunders as I turn for the door. “I think I know a way.”

Saunders pulls himself up from my couch and follows me out the door, patting me on the back. “I’ll leave in your capable hands then,” he says as he peels off to go back to his office, hiding from the explosion he knows I’m about to cause.

“Yeah, I know you will, you phobic, racist, chicken shit,” I mumble as I knock on the door of Kels’ office. Don’t want her to think I’m a complete barbarian.

“Come,” she yells from the other side.

Oh, well, now that’s just too good to pass up. I fling the door open. With my arms held wide, I step in, leering at her. “I thought you’d never ask.”

She looks up with a truly bored expression on her face then drops her head back to her file. “Go to hell.”

I drop my arms and cross her office, perching on the corner of her desk looking down at her. “Ah, come on, Kels, I thought you were offering.” I swear she mumbles something to the effect of ‘Not in your lifetime.’ But I’m not sure.

Straight, my ass. I think this may become my new meditation mantra. Now all I need to do is take up meditation.

“Why is everything about sex with you, Harper?” Kelsey asks.

I shrug, “Probably for the same reason nothing is about sex with you, Kels.” She doesn’t reply. I didn’t think she would. She’s terrified of the truth: We’re more alike than she cares to admit. I continue, “Okay, partner in the non-sexual sense, here’s the deal: Do you own a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt?”

“What kind of dumb ass question is that?” She looks up and leans into her high back leather chair. I gotta talk to Chambers about getting one of those. “Of course, I own a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.” She sips her tea as she stares at me.

Is that a little curiosity I see in those eyes, Kels? Seems she knows how to unbutton a button or two of her own; I can feel her mentally undressing me.

I clear my throat, trying to shake that image. “We have a new assignment and it’s going to require a little dressing down on your part.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

* * *

Standing at the registration desk I try to hide my smirk as Kels fidgets next to me. I glance her direction, as I take her in. During a quick stop at the local WalMart (I can’t even begin to describe the fun it was to take her there), we picked up a Ricky Martin T-shirt. I then had to threaten her with bodily harm if she didn’t trade her designer polo for it (our ideas of ‘dressing down’ are apparently not in sync). She can now almost pass for an 18-year old high-school student.

It was when I reached around to pull her hair back that my suspicions were confirmed. As my fingertips innocently – I swear – grazed her neck while pulling back her hair, I felt her pulse quicken. It was a nice feeling. I was glad to have caused it.

The clerk lays the registration papers in front of me. “What relationship are you to the student?”

I smirk as I notice Kels isn’t paying close attention to my conversation. “I’m her probation officer.” I catch a slight bristle from Kels as she slowly turns to face me.

The clerk looks to Kels and back to me. “This is unusual.”

“Yes, it is, but the court ordered that Miss Dumb Ass…”

Kels cuts my off with a glare that would knock a lesser person into next week. “It’s Doo-maas, you primate.”

I turn to her and grin, then check the paper I am holding in my hand. “Hmmm. D- u – m – a – s. Looks like a ‘dumb-ass’ to me. And you know what they say: ‘If it looks like a dumb ass and it sounds like a dumb ass, it’s probably a dumb ass.”

The woman is eyeing us warily. “I need to get the Principal for this. Would you two take a seat over there, please?” The registrar points to a wooden bench placed beneath a bulletin board.

I give a flourish with my arm, “After you, Miss …”

“Just shut the fuck up, Harper.”

I love life. Sometimes, I really, really do. “Hey, look, Kels, there’s a dance this weekend.”

All I get for my effort is a sullen stare.

“Come on, buck up, Little Roo.”

She turns her green eyes on me and I feel a little bit of my heart melt. Damn, she’s good. No wonder they made her an anchor. “Why probation officer?” she asks.

“Well, it would have been a bit cliché for me to come in as a gym teacher, chér.” I give my most charming smile, which is, I admit, quite charming. “Besides, we don’t know if someone in the administration is in on the sourcing. Trust no one, right?”

“We aren’t the X-Files, Harper.”

“I dunno. They’re partners and not sleeping together either.” I slide a little closer to her on the bench. “But everyone wants them to.”

“Once they sleep together, the ratings will go down. Look at Maddie and David on ‘Moonlighting.’ And I know how much you value ratings.”

This I find highly amusing. “Oh my God, you still remember their characters’ names! You must really have had a thing for Cybill Shepherd.” I laugh a bit more, ignoring my partner’s discomfort, noting the lack of denial for the object of her affection. “Personally, I like cute, short blondes.”

She is forming a retort when the registrar appears before us. “Principal Downey will see you now.”

Saved by the bell, so to speak.

* * *

We’re sitting in Algebra II. Kelsey is seated in the second to last row, next to the windows. I’m sitting further back, at the teacher’s desk. The principal agreed to admit Kels without too much of a fuss. Apparently, a couple other kids here came back to school that way. It’s California’s way of getting serious about probation. All juvie offenders have to be escorted for their first 60 days out. This puts an unimaginable strain on the probation officers, but it does seem to be having some effect on juvenile recidivism.

Kelsey is playing the part well enough: snapping her gum and displaying that air of disinterest she does so well. She looks out the window and leans back slightly as if trying to get a better look at something, when the teacher loudly clears his throat and raps on the blackboard with a ruler.

“Ms. Dumas, if the outside world is too distracting for you, I can change your seating assignment,” he offers magnanimously.

My partner looks back to him immediately and offers him a shy smile and a slight shrug of her shoulders. “Thanks for the offer, teach, but I’m with ya now.”

He watches her a moment longer before turning back to the lesson. Aside from a few sly glances out the window, Kels manages to pay attention.

* * *

After Algebra we go to History. As we make our way down the hall, we’re both watching the other students. What a mix. Everything from designer suits – hey, who knew- to punked-out, spiked-hair and leather dog collars.

“I need to make a stop.” Kels tugs on my arm.

“Rest room?”

“No, thanks.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Locker. I’m dumping some of these books.” She grumbles as she leads me to a wall of lockers. “Unless you’d like to carry them for me?”

“Are we going steady?”

She laughs, and I am extraordinarily pleased by that reaction.

I lean against another locker as she fumbles with the armload of books and her combination lock. “Here let me.” I take her books and tuck them away under my arm as she plays with the lock.

“Thanks. But don’t get any ideas.”

“Fair enough.” Suddenly, I remember her distraction in Algebra class. “Hey, what did you see outside?”

She looks up and crinkles her brow in confusion.

“Algebra? Mr. Daniels?” I prompt, waiting for her eyes to glimmer with recognition.

“Mmm.” She shrugs, looks back to her lock. “Maybe nothing. A couple little gatherings in the student parking lot. One of the guys seemed shady.”

“Seemed shady?” I repeat slowly. “You want to elaborate?”

“Not really. Just shady. I think I’m gonna skip Algebra II tomorrow.”

“I’ll have to come look for you,” I warn her with a smirk.

“I don’t care. Just let me do my job, Tabloid.” She jerks her locker open then reaches for her books. As she stuffs them in, I notice a ‘jock’ type taking an interest in the new student.

“You have an admirer.” I nod at the young man who slowly runs his eyes up and down my partner’s body before he closes the door of his locker. He keeps that up and I’m gonna take them out for him.

Kels glances his direction, giving him a smile and a wave.

“Why, you little flirt, you.” I laugh as I push off the lockers and we head to History.

“Trust no one, but don’t think anyone is above suspicion.”

Good philosophy, Kels. I fall back a couple of steps and let her mix and mingle just a bit. She has managed to strike up a conversation with Mr. Football. I slide into the classroom and make my introductions to the instructor, Mr. Webber. Good God, doesn’t this place have any female teachers? I take a seat again at the back of the room so I can keep an eye on my partner. She’s still making eyes at Mr. Football. I shake my head wondering if I might be wrong about her. Nah.

As I watch her, I can’t help but think back to my own days in high school. I was popular and able to float between groups without censure. I played on the varsity basketball team all four years and was valedictorian at graduation. This, of course, surprised my pals. I always told them I was a straight “C” student. It just seemed easier that way, especially since I was two years younger than everyone else and already stood out for that reason as well as my height. My parents had home schooled me through elementary school, as my brothers and I were the object of many threats by people not as liberally minded as my parents. When I went to public junior high, after we returned to New Orleans, I was quickly advanced.

I received a scholarship to Tulane and surprised my family when I pursued journalism. My four older brothers had all chosen traditional pre-law courses of study. My classmates had seen a number of my homemade movies and mock documentaries that I’d been preparing for years so they expected nothing less of me. My mother expected more. She was disappointed and told me I could have been anything with my intellect. I told her that I was already everything (at least to her), so not to worry.

I remember the exchange fondly with a grin as I watch Kelsey. She really seems to be making some inroads with the jock. I know her well enough by now to know that if he wasn’t giving her what she needed, she’d be done with him.

So why is she with Erik? Why is she so afraid? Or, is she really in love with him?

We manage to get through History and Chemistry before lunch. As we stand in the serving line, I look at my partner who is deep in thought. “What’s up, little Roo?”

“Ah, just thinking about something Frank said.”

“Frank?”

“The kid from History.”

“Yeah, what did he say?”

“He said he knew how and where to get anything.”

“Geez, Kels, you really get to the point when you want to, don’t you?” I take a moment to stop and get a cup of coffee. As I fix it, I notice her palm several packets of powdered creamer. I’m not even gonna ask.

“He positively reeked of marijuana smoke, Harper. He was so stoned he could barely see.”

“And how do you know what marijuana smells like?” I give her a little nudge as she picks a bottle of water out of a tub.

“I’m not as innocent as I look, officer.” She bats her eyelashes at me again as she picks up her tray and makes her way past me into the seating area. Wow, that almost qualified as a civil conversation, complete with a joke. Damn. I turn and follow her out.

I stand next to her table, waiting. Finally, she looks up and gives me a little smile. “Have a seat.”

She’s got her hands under the table and she’s doing something I can’t see. I clear my throat and my mind at the same time as I take a seat next to her.

“Okay,” she says as I feel her stuff something in my jacket pocket. “I figure for this to really work you need to be close to me so your camera can get the best shots, right?”

“Un-huh.” My hand starts to go to my pocket but she grabs it and holds onto it.

“Don’t.” She turns to me with more sincerity in her eyes than I have ever seen before. “Harper, I’ve followed you. Now follow me. Trust me.” She gives my hand a little squeeze. “Please?”

How can I resist that request? I nod my head as I bring my coffee to my lips. “So what’s the plan?”

“We’re meeting Frank after classes. He says if I can prove I have the means he can set me up.”

“We need cash.”

“Hey, brilliant deduction, Sherlock. You’re gonna get it by the end of the day.”

“I’ll make a call when you go to gym class.” I give her a grin as I lift my eyebrows.

“Oh, I can’t believe you’re gonna miss that opportunity. Just think of all the ogling time you’ll miss.”

“I have no desire to commit a misdemeanor, thanks.” I take another sip of my coffee. “Besides, it’s a co-ed class. And I specialize. How much cash do you need?”

“Two grand.”

I nearly choke on my coffee. “Christ, Kels, what are you buying?”

“Coke.” The look of shock must be clear on my face. She grins over her water. “Hey, you said you wanted big.”

“Yes, I did. Damn, woman. Well done.”

“Well, let’s not count our chickens yet, shall we. We’ve still got to hatch the eggs.”

“Nice imagery, Kels.”

* * *

I lean on the hood of Kels’ car waiting for Olsen to show up. I glance at my watch. I’m feeling a little nervous about this. Kels’ next class is nearly over and I really don’t want to lose track of her. “Come on Olsen, Jesus, how long does it take to get two grand together?”

I see him pull up on his little rice burner motorcycle.

“Finally.” I trot over as he lifts the visor on his helmet.

“The boss says you lose this and he’s gonna take it out of your ass.” He announces as he hands me a thick envelope.

I find it humorous how his orange hair still manages to stick out under the visor. “Was that Chambers or Saunders?”

“Saunders.”

“Saunders can kiss my ass.” I thumb through the envelope before tucking it in my pocket. “Now, get out of here and go buy a real motorcycle.” I give him a playful smack on the helmet and turn for the school at a healthy jog. Just as I make it to the steps, I see Kels and Football coming around the side of the building. I start to duck, but she sees me and waves me over.

We head straight for the parking lot and to Kels’ car. What in the hell? Trust her, Harper. I take a deep breath. I move toward them, taking my time and waiting for a signal.

“Fuck!” Football says as he runs his hand over the shiny Mercedes. “Where’d you get this?”

“Ah, present from daddy for my last birthday.” Kels leans against the car. “So you can hook me up, right?”

“I said I could if you had the cash.”

She looks to me and I give a little nod. “Oh, I got it.” She motions me over to the car. Football looks horrified as he starts to back off.

“Wait a minute! She’s a cop!”

“Who? Her?” Kels jerks her thumb at me. “Hell, she’s not a cop. She’s barely a human being.”

Gee, thanks, Kels. Love you, too.

“Thought she was your shadow from the probation office.”

“She is.” Kels slips her hand into his and pulls him close to her so she can play with the front of his shirt. “But, you see, when daddy has money, daddy can pretty much get who he wants assigned to his ‘little girl.’ He wanted her, he got her.” She turns to me and smiles. “Isn’t that right, blue eyes?”

I take a deep breath before nodding. It’s then I notice the name on the back of this kid’s jersey. Saunders. Oh God, it couldn’t be? Oh, if it is, there must be an angel on my shoulder.

Kels holds out a hand to me looking totally bored by my preoccupation.

“What?”

“Cash. You have it. Give it to me.”

“Yeah.” I pull the envelope out of my pocket along with a baggy that has white powder in it. I glance at it as she takes both items from my hand. So that’s what the creamer was for. Clever, Kels, very clever.

“Okay, champ.” She waves the envelope in his face. “I got cash.” She lifts the baggy so he can see it. “And I’m about out. So can you hook me up?”

Football looks back to me. I still make him nervous. Kels grabs the sides of his face and makes him pay attention to her. “Franky, baby, she’s as crooked as Highway One-oh-One. Don’t worry about her.”

Those green eyes work as well on him as they do on me because, before he’s even aware of it, Football is nodding dumbly.

“I have the cash, I want the Coke. Today.”

“I dunno,” Football stammers, still captured by well manicured hands and luminous eyes. Oh, to be in his sneakers. I catch myself grinning.

“You said you could get anything,” Kelsey murmurs, moving closer to him and pressing her lithe body against him. She’s good at this, I realize immediately. And here I thought I was the talent in this partnership when it came to using sex as a means to an end. I’ve obviously sold her short.

“Yeah,” he gulps, brown eyes wide and sweat beading on his upper lip.

“Today, Franky, honey,” she croons.

“Tomorrow,” he bargains, nodding slowly. “I can have it by first period.”

Kelsey grins in triumph and draws him closer for a lingering kiss that leaves him stupefied. Then she hands me the cash and the baggie of creamer along with her car keys. I raise an eyebrow in surprise but she doesn’t notice as she slides into the passenger seat.

Apparently part of being a rich kid is having your father’s lackeys drive you. That’s okay. If I were being honest with myself, I’d admit that I’m flattered by the display of trust. I subconsciously promise not to make bologna skins out of her expensive tires peeling out of the lot.

Football stands and watches us as we turn around the large brick school and disappear. I glance to my passenger who is leaning back, sunglasses firmly in place, blonde hair streaming with the wind. I can’t help but laugh.

“What?” she asks dryly, not looking to me.

“You never cease to amaze me, Kelsey Stanton,” I tell her. It’s probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever given.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet, baby,” she assures me with a fair imitation of my drawl, making me laugh again. She is certainly in her element while knee deep in a story.

***

In the morning, we waste some time over cafe lattes while Football chases down his provider. I take the opportunity to call a friend on the force, wanting to get a good arrest on film as well. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a uniform around when messing with drugs and dealers. My buddy, O’Reilly, promises to be here in half an hour which will give us time to fill him in before the meet.

Seven thirty on the dot has us back in the student parking lot, lounging against Kelsey’s Mercedes as we watch students file in for first period. Kels has been pleasant and somewhat carefree yesterday afternoon and this morning, enjoying the sport of the game we’re playing. She listened avidly as O’Reilly set up the hit and, I think, was impressed with my rapport with the officer. He’s giving us free rein to make the meet ourselves and film it although he has called in some back up. He’s watching us through binoculars, and making his own tape of the deal, since my little outfit can’t do a feed at this distance.

Football shows up with a swagger and a smirk so I know he’s here to deliver. Saunders is gonna lose his mind when we bust his grandson on his own network. I can hardly contain my grin. I know it comes out as slightly feral which is okay for the situation so I don’t bend over backwards to smother it.

Kelsey feels my energy and smiles at me before turning on the charm full steam and sashaying towards her Franky. Her hands are on him before I can blink and she’s murmuring congratulations to him.

He’s beet red and, I’m guessing, at full attention as his own hands find purchase on her slim body. The anger rumbles just beneath the surface of my skin, I don’t like how he’s handling her. The odd feeling of jealousy is not lost on me but I try to shake it off.

“You got it, honey?” she croons, sliding a hand up his meaty chest to tap on his collarbone where it’s exposed.

“Yeah, baby,” he grins. “I got everything you asked for. I just need the cash.”

Kelsey glances to me and nods so I step forward, withdrawing the envelope from my pocket and waving it. I can feel the air crackling around us and I shudder with excitement. When he takes the money, O’Reilly will bust him and we’ll have everything on video from Kelsey’s first meeting with Football to this doomed meet. A great day for television and a fabulous day for the kids to get a dealer out of their midst.

Unaware, Franky takes the envelope and shoves it in his pocket. Then he removes a small package wrapped in brown paper. This he places triumphantly in Kelsey’s hand.

I motion her towards me, wanting her to step away from him as I hear the police running through the parking lot. She meets my eyes and nods, understanding my concern for her safety. But she gets only a step away when Football’s eyes go wide and he turns to grab her.

Without a second thought, I shove Kels out of the way and tackle Football to the asphalt. Hell, I was always meant to play the sport, but for the genetic issue the high school coach had with me. We would have had a better season if I had been with the team.

O’Reilly’s on him in a moment and the cuffs are clicking into place. I step away, dusting off clothing and checking my equipment. Everything seems all right, just a little jostled.

The cops are grinning, Kelsey’s beaming, and I’m thrilled. Little Franky Saunders, however, can’t seem to share our enjoyment.

As the police lead Franky off he’s begging to cut a deal, offering to rat out his supplier. I grin, the little shit is afraid of going to jail. Since he’s eighteen there won’t be any nice comfortable juvie hall and a sealed record upon adulthood. Nope, if O’Reilly chooses not to mess with him he’s going to jail. Directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect our $2,000.

Fortunately for the kid, I know O’Rielly and if he thinks there’s a bigger fish to catch he’ll get the DA’s office to cut Franky baby a deal. One of the officers comes and takes the package from Kels, explaining that it needs to be tagged for evidence. She hands it over without hesitation then turns to me. Just as she is about to say something another officer comes over and takes her by the arm. Something in me is about to intervene when he tells her he needs a statement.

As I watch them walk away, O’Rielly saunters over with a great big grin on his face. “I … umm … shouldn’t do this and it may mean my ass, but … umm … having it on film will be good. You want to have some real fun, Harper?”

“Oh, you know all the right buttons, buddy. What’s up?”

“The Saunders kid spilled his guts. Want to go in with me while I get his source?”

“Now, how can I pass that up?”

We walk into the school like we own the place. Which, right now we do. Me, O’Rielly and three uniforms. Straight to the main office and right into the vice principal’s office.

***

Kelsey and I stand side by side and watch Saunders’ face as the tape plays. All of his egotistical, prejudiced bullshit flies out the window. His fat face trembles and he splutters as he turns various shades of red. He knows, with an exclusive like this, he has to give it air time.

It is glorious. I can almost hear the angels singing. If they would actually speak to me. Which I highly doubt.

I watch as the blood drains from his face. I hope he isn’t going to have a heart attack. I’d hate to have to do CPR on his racist ass. Kels grins at me and whispers she needs to go call Erik. She leaves us alone and I stop the tape.

“Now, Boss,” I grin as I produce another tape from a pile on my desk. “Here’s the story you can run and keep your slimy grandson out of the limelight.” I wave it slightly in front of him, watching his eyes track it like a hypnotist’s pendulum. “But I’m gonna tell you right now: it’s going to cost you. It’s going to cost you big. I don’t know what yet, but trust me I’ll think of something. Lucky for you that the absolute worst thing your grandson ever did was smoke a little pot and hope for a quick fuck from your precious anchor.” I decide to let the attempted selling of cocaine thing slide, since it was his first offense and he wasn’t thinking with his brain when he agreed to do it. Kels seems to inspire baser motivations.

I give the tape to Saunders who takes it eagerly. I make sure he notices the label says copy before I grab my jacket and head into the newsroom. Kels comes out of her office at the same time wearing a really silly grin.

“Erik say something funny?” I tuck my jacket over my arm.

She glances up at me as the question registers. “Umm … no. I just found out that an old friend of mine from college is coming into town this weekend.”

“Must be some friend to make you smile like that.”

“Yeah.” She clears her throat as she jerks her chin toward my office. “You let him off the hook?”

“Well, not completely. He doesn’t deserve it. I did give him the other tape.”

“Good.” She nods as we walk toward the elevator. “Nice job, by the way. And thanks for looking out for me.”

I lift a brow as I punch the button. “Yeah, you too. And, I couldn’t let anything happen to the Talent in this operation. It felt good to get to the main source in the school. If O’Rielly plays the vice principal right they may be able to go even higher.”

“That’d be good. Hard telling how many other schools have the same damn problem.”

“One of the unfortunate side affects of our educators not being paid enough. Some of them become so desperate they make stupid choices.”

* * *

I toss my jacket across the back of my couch before the door is even completely open. It’s been a long day. But, oh, so good.

Kelsey and I said goodbye in the lobby and I’d hopped on my Harley to come home. I plan on going out later, having a few drinks, hang out with my friends. I want to watch our story unveiled while in a crowded bar, it’s always better that way. And it always makes me popular with the ladies.

But right now I need a shower and a change of clothes. I illuminate the apartment as I move from room to room. Before long, I have a small shadow in the form of my cat following me. He’s a dark auburn color with green eyes and a tail as long as his body. He wraps that appendage around me as I walk.

“Good boy,” I murmur, reaching down to stroke his strong back. He hints that I may have missed his dinner last night in my obsession with the story. Good thing he’s so fat and can stand to miss a meal or two. I fill his bowl and leave him happily munching from it on the kitchen floor while I slip back to my bedroom and strip down.

I wonder who could put that type of smile on Kels’ face and if I ever could. It might be fun to try.
Episode Seven: Locked Up and Tied Down
I look in the mirror one last time drawing a deep, satisfied breath, very pleased with myself. I smooth my ivory skirt and adjust the white silk blouse, which includes lowering one more button. Smiling and humming to myself, I turn to my dresser and pick up the perfume bottle at my fingertips. As I rub my wrists together, I hear him snicker from the doorway.

“What?” I ask in the most irritated voice I can muster. Truth of the matter is it’s hard for me ever to be irritated with Erik. And, well, just the thought of where I am headed keeps me in a damn good mood.

He takes a deep breath through his nose as he saunters into my room to sit on the end of my bed. “Ah, Elizabeth is in town.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, for one, you are far too happy.”

I scowl at him, but he is unaffected.

“And, two, the only time you wear that perfume is when you go to see her.”

“That’s not true.”

“Oh, but, Kels, my love, it is. That’s the most expensive perfume on your dresser and you save it for your little weekend trysts with her. It seems to be your ‘I’m sleeping with Elizabeth’ fragrance of choice. Tell me, Kels, does it turn her on?”

“Actually it does. Thank you very much, you little shit.”

“So, I shouldn’t expect you back tonight, right?”

“Umm, no.” I can’t contain my smile as I pick up my jacket from the bed.

Erik takes it and helps me into it. “Well, have fun, sweetheart. I’ll make sure I set the alarm before I leave tonight. So don’t forget about it when you come home.” He pauses as he brushes the back of my jacket with a lint brush he has retrieved from my dresser. “If you come back at all.”

“Oh, that’s right. You’re flying to New York tonight, aren’t you?”

“Yup, they want to do some publicity for the film.”

“When will you be back?”

“Friday, at the latest.”

I turn to him and wrap my arms around his neck. I can’t help but smile as I see the pride in his eyes. “Have a good time, my friend. Where are you staying?”

“Well, I’ll have you know,” he moves in, whispering in my ear. “I’m at The Plaza.” He laughs softly as he draws back.

“Oh boy, you have hit the big time. Too bad I’m not going with you. I could use a weekend of getting pampered.”

“Nah.” He turns me and shoves me out the door. “You need a weekend of getting laid. If you came to New York with me that wouldn’t happen. You two would have switched coasts. So go see your girlfriend.”

“She is not my girlfriend. We have a very casual relationship.”

“Yeah, and every time you get together, you fuck like bunnies.” He laughs as he guides me to the elevator, grabbing my purse and car keys from the hall table on the way. He shoves them into my hands as he calls for the car. “Now go have some fun.”

“Oh, I intend to.” I give him a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck and have fun yourself. See you Friday.” The doors open and I step in, giving Erik a wave before they close.

As I settle into the Mercedes and start the engine, I can’t wipe the silly grin off my face. Part of it is due to the fact that I am really looking forward to seeing Elizabeth again. The other part of it is that I am looking forward to ‘seeing’ Elizabeth again. We went to college together and we found that we liked a lot of the same things, including, but not limited to, sleeping together. The fun part of it was that we never pressured each other for a relationship, outside of our friendship. We both knew we were headed in our careers. So we accepted our relationship for what it was, genuine affection and a tension reliever. Boy, do I have some tension to relieve.

Elizabeth is a high profile junior partner with Andersen Kill. She belongs there. She’s a hell of a litigator, very aggressive, predatory even, befitting the law firm’s name. I grin as I realize all that aggression will be turned in my favor tonight and this weekend. My libido is at the cage door, waiting very patiently at the moment.

As I pull up to the hotel, it occurs to me that this is the same hotel where we decided on this arrangement. It’s a very “Same Time Next Year” kind of thing we have going, but it’s fun. I pop the trunk and the valet helps me out of my car. I smile as I hand him the keys. Just can’t seem to keep the damn thing off my face.

Moving to the trunk, I fetch a small bag that could double for a soft sided briefcase. You learn all kinds of tricks about how to be discreet over the years. I open it, slip my purse inside, then put the bag on my shoulder. When the bellman approaches, I shake my head and tighten my hold on the bag.

I see her immediately when I enter the lobby. My libido stands up and does a hula dance in my chest, accompanied by the pounding drum of my heart. So much for waiting patiently at the cage door.

God, she is gorgeous. Oh Lord. You know as I look at her now it occurs to me how much she looks like Sharon Stone. No wonder I want her. She smiles as she waves at me, then holds out her arms to me.

Finally! A very friendly embrace. Oh yeah!

“Kels, God, it seems like forever.” She smiles at me as we part, her hands run down my arms slowly, erupting goosebumps along long-neglected flesh.

“It’s been too long, Beth. How are you?”

“Working my ass off, sweetheart, and you?”

“Oh, please.” I roll my eyes as thoughts of Harper come crashing into my mind, then, thankfully, leave just as quickly. “Too much to tell in the lobby of the hotel.”

“Well, okay.” She takes my bag and hands it to the bellman. “There was some problem with my room, a computer foul up of some kind, so they’re getting another one ready. Let’s go to the bar and have a drink while we catch up.”

“Let me get my purse,” I start to reach for the bag only to have Elizabeth grab my arm and guide me to the bar.

“Nope, you don’t need it. Your money is no good with me. I heard you got a new addition to your show. Harp…”

I cut her off with a wave. “Please, don’t say it,” I groan out as we settle into a small booth.

She slides in next to me, giving me a concerned look. “Say what?”

“Her name. You would not believe the turns my life has taken since she showed up. And it’s only been a little more than two weeks.”

“Not good?”

“So very bad.” I give her a smile. “Please, let’s not talk about it. I didn’t come here to talk about her. I came here,” I pause, knowing it will only serve to heighten her interest in what I am about to say, “to lose myself in you for a weekend. To remind myself why I thought you were the best thing about Brown.”

“I was the best thing about Brown,” Elizabeth replies easily. “Don’t ever forget that.”

* * *

We’re on our second round of drinks when Elizabeth’s pager goes off. We both look at the small device with disdain, knowing it has the power to ruin our weekend together. I feel a throb deep within, reminding me that I will die if something interferes with us now. Why didn’t I just drag her upstairs and skip the drinks?

Elizabeth removes the pager from her skirt waistband and stares at the numbers. “Damn! It’s Aguilera. I need to go to our room and return the call. He’s gonna wanna bitch at me about the hearing on Friday.”

I look at her warily. “Will you have to go back to New York?”

She smiles the smile that has won her many clients over the years, the same one that first made my sexuality wake up and take note more than a decade ago. “Would I leave you in your hour of need? Let me go calm him down.” She leans forward, giving me a pleasant view. “Then I can calm you down.”

“Promises, promises.”

She winks and pushes away from the table. I watch the gentle sway of her hips as she disappears from view.

I let my eyes wander around the bar and take in the scenery. It is a nice view. There are quite a few gorgeous women scattered around its confines. One, who is particularly easy on the eyes, smiles at me when we make brief eye contact. It’s not unusual, a lot of people recognize me from the news.

As I wait for Elizabeth to return, I watch the other patrons. It never ceases to amaze me how old, fat, ugly men are able to date young, vibrant women and no one seems to note or care. When I’m fifty, would people think it’s normal for me to go out with some young thing?

Somehow, I doubt it. For a variety of reasons.

I am lost in my thoughts until I notice that a number of dark suited men have suddenly joined all of the beautiful women around the room. There is one standing by my table as well. “Yes?”

He opens his wallet and presents me with his badge. “I’m Officer Gibson of the Los Angeles Police Department. I need you to come with me, ma’am.”

“What’s this about?”

“You’re under arrest, ma’am. Please get up from the table and come with me.”

“What’s the charge?” There is no way in hell I’m getting up. This has got to be some sort of practical joke.

“Prostitution.” He leans down and takes hold of my upper arm and begins pulling me out of the booth.

“Stop it!” I swat at his hand. “Let go of me!” I raise my voice, I want attention; this man is insane. “Do you know who I am?”

He rolls his eyes, unimpressed. “If I had a nickel for every time someone in this town said that to me.” His grip around my upper arm tightens and he hauls me out of the booth, manhandling me all the way out of the bar and through the lobby.

“I am Kelsey Stanton. I am the anchor on the channel four news.” I find myself standing outside and I wonder exactly how I got here.

The officer calls over another dark-suited man. “Sarge, she says she’s some news person.”

“Kelsey Stanton, Channel Four,” I add.

The older man looks me over, his gray eyes studying me carefully. After a long moment, he turns to the junior officer. “Nah, she’s too short. Put her in the van. I don’t want to cause a scene here.”

“I am Kelsey Stanton!” I lose it. I can’t believe this is happening. Will I never get laid again in my life? Are all the gods of the universe conspiring against me obtaining any relief?

“Well, if you are her, show me some identification and I’ll let you go,” the Sarge offers magnanimously.

“Thank you!” I huff and reach for my purse.

Which is in the room with Elizabeth.

Shit. Damn. Fuck.

“Look, my friend has my purse in her room …”

The two men laugh. “Uh huh, right.” The younger one guides me into a waiting van where all of the attractive women from the bar are awaiting me. “We’ll help you make ID down at the station.”

He leans over and handcuffs me to the seat, just the same as the other women. Stepping out of the van, he swings the doors shut and locks them, patting on the metal. At the sound, the driver starts up the engine and pulls away.

What in the hell just happened to me?

* * *

I get my customary single phone call.

“Los Angeles Inter-Continental. How may I direct your call?”

I sigh. This is so humiliating. “Elizabeth Hill, please.”

“One moment.” I hear the operator’s long fingernails tapping on the keyboard. “I’m sorry, ma’am, our computers are down at this time. What’s her room number?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. Look, I know she’s staying there. I was just having a drink with her at the bar. Can you please call her room?”

More tapping. “I’m sorry. I have no way of connecting you without her room number.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, ma’am. Not with the computers down.”

I groan. Elizabeth, where the hell are you?

“Ma’am, if you call back later, I’m sure we’ll be able to help you.”

I bang my forehead against the back of the telephone receiver. This can’t be happening.

* * *

Three hours later the Inter-Continental’s computers are still down. It’s midnight. And, unless I plan on spending the night here, I’m down to a single option.

* * *

The phone rings loudly by my bed, awakening me from a very pleasant dream. My hand snakes out from under the covers and clutches the receiver. I pull it under the blanket and press it against my ear. “Kingsley.”

“Oh thank God, you’re home!” Kels gushes.

“Kels?” I manage, pushing myself up on my bed, turning to look at the clock. The LED readout tells me it is after midnight. “What’s going on? Why are you calling me?”

“I need your help, Harper.”

I stop moving, stop breathing. With my free hand, I pinch my other arm. Yup. I’m awake. “Come again?”

“I. Need. Your. Help.”

I am awake now. It has to be important for Kelsey to want my help. “What’s wrong?”

“I need you to …” her voice breaks. I can’t tell if she’s crying or not. She takes a deep breath and exhales, the air whistling into my ear. “Come bail me out of jail.”

I can’t help it. I lose it. Involuntarily, I convulse with laughter, dropping the handset and guffawing loudly.

When my laughter subsides, I grope for the phone and pick it up again. Only to be overtaken by another laughing fit. “I’m sorry, Kels …” I manage. “I just … wasn’t expecting that.” Snort. “Uh … which precinct?”

“The Fifteenth.”

“What’s the charge?”

She starts to reply but stops herself. “You’ll have to find out when you get here, Tabloid. Now hurry up. I need identification.”

I’m barely listening as she tells me where it is and how to get to the hotel, I’m still so in shock that she would actually call me. “Okay, okay … I’m on my way.”

Oh, this is gonna be fun! I get out of bed and dress quickly, whistling a happy tune.

* * *

After trying the hotel and asking for Elizabeth for what seems like an hour, I give up on their lame computer system and decide to get Kelsey’s media credentials from the station instead. She keeps her credentials in her desk drawer, always prepared. She must have been a Girl Scout. (I was a Girl Scout who got thrown out for eating a Brownie. Or so goes the old joke.) I hope that her station identification will be good enough. I can talk my way out of or into anything, so I’m certain those skills will come in handy.

The Fifteenth is in downtown, and I notice that the station seems quiet and somewhat lazy as I make my way inside. Los Angeles’ downtown at night is desolate. Anyone with any good sense got out during rush hour. Only a few hotels catering to business travelers are here. Wonder what Kels was doing in this part of town to get herself arrested.

It takes only a few questions until I’m being led back towards holding. When I glance inside the cells, it seems that most of the women occupying them are gorgeous, well dressed and appear harmless; unless you consider long fingernails raking across your back in the moment of ecstasy harmful. I don’t. I arch my eyebrow at my young escort and the cop grins.

“High class prostitution ring,” he offers without my asking. I don’t often have to ask a lot of questions, people seem to volunteer information to me. Must be my baby blues.

“You’re kidding,” I reply dryly, trying to hold in the guffaw that threatens. Oh, Kels, this is priceless.

“Nope. That your friend?” he stops in front of a cell and motions with his arm. Sure enough, Kelsey is sitting on a bench against the back wall. She’s in a corner and appears to be asleep so I take a moment to look her over. She’s dressed classily and obviously had plans for this evening. Even slightly rumpled, her ivory skirt suit and white blouse are showing off the best of her attributes. Her blonde hair is plaited away from her face, highlighting the delicate bone structure to good effect. She is beautiful.

“Yeah,” I nod, smiling. “Wake up, Sunshine,” I call across the distance between us.

She stirs and blinks open those emerald eyes and actually smiles when she sees me. Then the look is hidden by her mask of indifference. “About time,” she grumbles, rising to her feet and smoothing her clothes.

“Careful,” I warn, smirking. ” I could leave.”

She looks worried for a moment that I might do just that so I wink at her. I’m here now. Unless there’s a reason I can’t get her out, I don’t plan to leave her here. She seems to relax as she comes forward to the cell door, clutching the bars like all the women in prison movies do.

“Did you get my purse?”

“Stupid hotel computer was still down, Kels,” I say by way of apology. “But I stopped by the station.”

She nods her understanding and turns her eyes to the cop who has been watching us. “Well?” She obviously expects him to be doing something helpful and not just gawking.

“Let me get someone who can help you,” he stammers and trots away, leaving us alone. Well, mostly alone. There are the other women milling around in various cells.

“So,” I say, unable to wait for her. “Please, tell me you aren’t in here on prostitution charges.”

She looks away for a moment and then glances back, already blushing. “Don’t laugh at me, Harper,” she says softly.

She looks tired and strung out, more than a little embarrassed, and I manage to find some sympathy for her. It’s not easy. I tend to live my life as I see best with little regard for how that might impact others or their opinions of me. Something about Kelsey appears to curb that tendency. “I’m done laughing,” I tell her, realizing I mean it.

“I was meeting a friend at the hotel. We were going to go out. I guess these sluts were working-”

“Hey!” one of the women glares to Kelsey. “Watch it, pretty girl.”

I shake my head as Kelsey turns to the lady and gives her the bird.

“Anyway,” I prompt.

“Anyway, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Without my purse.”

“What about this friend?”

“She’d gone up to her room to make a phone call and the stupid hotel computers …” her voice trails off and I nod.

“Suck,” I finish for her.

“Hmmm,” she agrees. “Do you think they’ll drop the charges?”

I look over my shoulder where a uniformed cop is approaching and I glance back to Kelsey. “Leave that to me.” I walk after the cop with a swagger in my step.

***

“Did you bring some identification?” Officer Crane looks to me over the report in his hands. He’s moved me to his desk across the room, leaving Kelsey in the cell.

“Mine or hers?” I ask with a smile.

He smiles back and I’m relieved. “Both.”

I pull out my own driver’s license and put it on his desk. Then I place Kelsey’s credentials there as well. He eyes them slowly.

“Don’t you have her driver’s license or something?”

“Her purse is at the hotel with a friend and the hotel computers have been down. This is the best I could do.”

He looks them over carefully and eventually nods. “She told us she was an anchor. Wanted to believe her. She’s different from the others.”

“Yeah,” I agree, glancing back across the room and winking at a very relieved Kelsey. “What about her record?”

“Record?” he was already pulling together her personal items and stops to look up at me. “Oh. No record. I didn’t book her. Like I said, I wanted to believe her. None of this will be official. As long as she doesn’t press charges. If she does, then I’ll have to let the whole story out.” It’s a barely concealed threat but I don’t care.

“Not a chance. I’ll take care of that.”

I’m grinning as we head back to the cell. Kels will think I worked wonders to get her off. She doesn’t need to know the whole truth.

***

It’s only a few hours before dawn when we leave the precinct and arrive at my Harley. Kelsey’s footsteps are slowing until she stops. When I turn to look at her, her head is cocked and she’s eyeing my bike.

“I can’t ride on that,” she announces.

“Sure ya can. Best thing you’ll have had between your legs in months.”

She glares at me and murmurs something about ‘what could have been’ but I don’t get the whole sentence or the meaning behind it.

“C’mon,” I motion her forward. Eventually, she’s shuffled so she’s standing next to the Harley while I’m straddling it. “Put this on.”

Following my instructions, she dons the helmet.

“And this,” I hand her my leather jacket after I shrug it off.

“But you’ll be-”

“I’m fine. Naturally warm blooded.” An understatement, I know. “Put it on.”

Without another word, she shrugs into the thick black leather and lets me zip it up for her. I have a sudden vision of a small Kelsey, being dressed up for her first day of school. I catch myself about to kiss her forehead. Gruffly, I say, instead, “Now, hike up your skirt and hop on.” Ah, things that sound dirty, but aren’t. That could be a fun Jeopardy category.

Behind the smoky visor, I’m guessing she’s glaring at me again. After a moment, she does as I’ve instructed and settles behind me. Slowly, her arms snake around my midsection and I pat her linked hands.

With a rumble, we’re off. Her arms tighten around me and I can’t help but grin at the warmth of her body so close to mine. Oh, the things I would do.

Too soon we pull up to the hotel only the place has turned into a media circus. I even see one of our own trucks outside and we catch comments about the prostitution ring and it being the biggest high class bust to date. Great.

Kelsey pulls off the helmet, still seated behind me, and looks into the lobby which is buzzing with reporters and cameras. She sighs.

“Put the bucket back on,” I tell her, making my decision. As much as I enjoy teasing Kelsey, that doesn’t involve public embarrassment and ruining her career. Especially when her career and mine are so intertwined at present.

“Huh?”

“Do it.”

***

“So, this is where you live?”

I don’t respond since it’s a dumb question. I am, after all, putting a cover on my bike in the parking lot of an apartment building.

She follows me silently to the elevator. Once we’re headed up, she looks to me. “Thank you.”

I brush it off. Despite how I may seem, I’m not one to hold a kind act over someone’s head. I didn’t do it so she would feel indebted. I did it because, on some level, I do consider her my friend. I know she doesn’t feel the same about me.

“You think the computers are fixed?”

“Maybe.”

“I should tell my friend I’m okay. She’ll be worried.”

“What kind of friend is she?” I raise my eyebrows.

Kelsey sighs and shakes her head. “Just a friend.”

“Whatever,” I think she’s fibbing but I’m not interested in getting into a fight now that we’re stuck with each other. Instead, I lead her down the hall and open my apartment door, shoving her through quickly.

“Wha-” She’s baffled by my quick actions.

“Cat.” I point to the feline in question who loves to slip out into the hallway. He’s watching us with those green eyes when I turn on the living room light.

“He’s beautiful,” Kelsey whispers.

I shrug. He is. He’s a red Abyssinian from a show cattery. He came to me after he’d been retired. He belonged to a friend of my parents and, even after the pounds I’ve added to him, you can tell he’s not a mutt cat. He has sleek short fur that’s a rich auburn color, his limbs are long and tapered. Those green eyes watch us curiously.

“What’s his name?”

“Trouble.”

“Really?”

I nod, removing my jacket from her shoulders and placing it in the closet. I put our helmets there, too, before closing the door.

“I love animals,” she announces.

I roll my eyes. There’s a shocker. “Do you have any?”

“No. Too busy.” She sounds deflated.

“Cats are easy, Kels. He was an adult when I got him, so no destructive kitten phase. You could do it.”

“I suppose. Is he friendly?”

“Oh yeah. Have a seat on the couch. Are you hungry?”

She’s eyeing me suspiciously and I know she’s not sure how to take this side of me. I’m not pushing her or teasing her, not demanding anything from her. And my social skills are impressive and unimpeachable.

“It’s been a long day, Kels. No strings, I promise. Have a seat, you look beat.”

Warily, she agrees and makes her way into the living room. Trouble is on her lap almost before she sits down. When I come back into the room with cold pasta salad, bread and cheese, she and Trouble have bonded. When I bring in a bottle of wine and two glasses, Trouble, the shameless flirt, is stretched up against Kels’ chest, pressing his cat nose against her human nose, and purring loud enough to wake the dead.

Hell, if I was stretched up against Kels, I’d be purring too. So would she.

We eat in silence, once Trouble acquiesces to moving away from her chest for a few minutes. He remains huddled close to my partner. I watch as Kels mindlessly strokes her fingers through the cat’s fur. Never in my life have I wanted to be a cat so damn bad.

“Thanks for dinner,” she says softly as she sips her wine.

“You’re welcome. I’m guessing you and ‘your friend’ didn’t get to have dinner?”

“Umm, no. We didn’t.” She looks at her watch. “It’s nearly two-thirty. Wonder if I should try calling her again.”

“Well, it depends, Kels,” I offer as I pick myself up off the floor and place myself down on the couch, on the other side of Trouble. Trouble gives me a dirty look, as if his private turf has been invaded. “Will she be worried about you?”

“Un-huh.”

I pick the cordless up and hand it to her. “Then call her.”

She gives me a wary look as she fingers the phone.

I stand up and collect the dishes. “I’ll give you some privacy.” As I move to the kitchen, I thank God for my good hearing. I know I shouldn’t eavesdrop, but, damn, it’s killing me not knowing.

I hear her talk to the hotel operator for a moment. I assume since she’s not ripping into them, that the computers are fixed and she’s being connected.

“Beth?” She pauses for a moment before I hear her voice hitch and she continues. “No, no. I’m fine really. Just tired and embarrassed about this whole mess that happened. I’ll explain everything later. I just don’t want anything to screw up our….”

She lowers her voice a bit and now I have to strain to hear. She’s not making it easy. So what’s new?

“Yes, honey, you’ve got my car and keys…”

Honey? Honey? She lowers her voice again and now I can’t hear her, but I did definitely hear ‘honey.’

“See you soon,” she ends louder, stronger, happier.

I take a deep breath getting control of the jealousy I’m feeling. Where in the hell is this coming from anyhow? I do not get jealous. Well, I didn’t used to get jealous. I shake it off and head back into the living room. “Get a hold of her?”

“Yeah, thanks. I hope you don’t mind, she’s going to come here to pick me up. She’s on her way. It shouldn’t be long.”

“Umm, no, that’s fine.” YES! I’m gonna get to see Beth. I’m gonna get to see what type of woman lights Kels’ fire. This should be interesting.

“Harper?”

“Hmm?” I take my seat on the couch again and I, too, give Trouble a couple of strokes.

“I don’t know what will happen when she gets here, what will be said. I … Beth and I are more than old friends. She was an occasional lover during college.” I watch as she drops her head.

Straight, my ass. Yes! Confirmation from Kelsey herself. I know she’s neglected to mention that she went to the hotel to screw Beth’s brains out tonight – I’m shocked she thinks I’m that dense – but I accept this admission for the offering of trust that it is.

I can see she’s searching for more of an explanation, knowing how lame it sounds, so I let her off the hook. “You don’t have to explain anything to me.” I smile gently as I look at her. “It’s not like we’re going steady or anything.”

“But, hey, I did let you carry my books.” She laughs a little as she looks up at me. “Thanks for everything.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m sorry if I ruined anything for you. I mean if you had company or….” She glances at what she assumes to be my bedroom door, wondering if I have someone lying in my bed, waiting for me.

“No. Actually, I was sound asleep.”

With the knock on the door twenty minutes later, it’s all I can do to keep from leaping over the back of the couch to get to the door. Somehow I manage to walk over and pull the door open. Aww, shit! She just had to be beautiful. Stunning, actually. Oh man, I could be a happy filling in a Kels and Beth sandwich.

“I’m looking for Kelsey Stanton.”

“Ah, yeah, she’s right in here. Sorry.” I step back and allow her to come in watching as she makes her way to Kels and kneels by the couch.

I look as I close the door and she runs her fingers through Kels hair and murmurs to her. “You okay, sweetheart?”

Kels nods, but then the tears start and she moves closer to the woman who folds her up in her arms, moving up on the couch to comfort her. As I observe this scene, I notice an ache in my own arms. Snap out of it, Harper!

“Let’s get you back to the hotel and let you get some rest.”

I watch as Kels nods and Beth helps her up. She straightens as she wipes her eyes and looks to me. The jig is up and she knows it. She gives me a look and all I can do is offer a smile. I was right, but now is not the time to rub it in.

Kels takes a deep breath and smiles at me before turning to Beth. “Before we go, let me introduce you to my new partner.”

I move closer to them.

“Harper Kingsley meet Elizabeth Hill.”

I extend my hand. “It’s a pleasure. Wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

“The pleasure is mine.” She takes my hand and I can understand why Kels likes the feel of them on her body. Mine would be better though. “Thank you for helping my girl tonight.”

Your girl? Your girl? When in the hell did she become your girl? “No problem. That’s what friends do for each other.” I give Kels a glance. “Right?”

Kels nods. “Right.”

Beth wraps her arm around Kels’ shoulders and starts for the door. “Well, I’m going to take her back to the hotel and let her get some rest. Thanks again for your help, Ms. Kingsley.”

I don’t correct her and tell her to call me Harper. I hope she won’t be around that much. “Anytime.” Oh, hell, I can’t resist all temptation. “Hey, Kels!”

“Yeah?”

“The next time you get busted, try to do it before midnight, huh?”

She laughs a little as she steps out into the hallway. I scoop Trouble up because I know that he’s going to try and make a break for it. I lean against the doorframe watching them go. Kels stops and turns around to me. She smiles and gives Trouble a little scratch on his head (eliciting a major suck-up purr if I’ve ever heard one) before she leans forward and gives me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks again, Tabloid. Don’t know what I would have done without you tonight.”

“No problem, Little Roo.” I watch as they disappear onto the elevator then I close the door. I look at Trouble. “I need a cold shower. And, you sure don’t act like you’re fixed.”
Episode Eight: Out of the Closet and Into the Fire
The sun is going down and it will be late by the time we land. I’m not looking forward to it. We’ll have to argue over who drives the rental car and who gets which room in the hotel. The rest of the crew, who are now scattered throughout the plane, will watch and keep silent as they always do.

She requests a glass of water immediately upon boarding. She’s been really irritable today. For someone who spent most of the weekend getting laid, she’s awfully cranky. Apparently, Elizabeth didn’t do it right. I chuckle at the thought as the stewardess approaches.

“Let me get that for you, Ms. Kingsley.”

I smile at Teresa as she takes my garment bag with a wink, her fingers caressing the back of my hand. She was kind enough to give me a private tour of the VIP lounge, well at least part of it, before our flight.

Kels shoots me a look as she takes her seat near the window. I ease in next to her, settling my long frame into the cushions. I can feel her eyes on me and I look over. “What?”

“Have you no shame? My God, Harper, you just had sex with that woman in the airport lounge.”

“Nah, technically it was,” I glance at my watch, “almost an hour ago. And it was more like the supply closet. See, we have something in common, Kels. We’re both recently out of the closet,” I whisper this last part.

Kelsey levels a mean stare at me.

Teresa returns, handing Kels a glass of water. She turns and smiles down at me. “Can I get you anything?”

“Else,” Kels mumbles behind her glass as she sips. It’s my turn to shoot a look at my partner.

“No, thank you. You’ve done more than enough already.” I smile up at the pretty young woman, then turn back to Kels.

It’s odd really. The way we gravitate toward each other. I guess the old saying that opposites attract is true. I’m sure someone would love to do their psychology thesis on the two of us. Although, I’d hate to see what they say about me. I doubt it would be flattering, especially from some Ivy League, no real-life experience, academic. At least, we’ve lightened up on each other. If we hadn’t, our work would have suffered and I’d hate for that to happen. I watch as she pops a pill in her mouth, swallowing a drink of water right behind it.

“What’s up, Little Roo?” I nod to the package she has in her hand.

“Dramamine. I don’t fly well.”

“You’re afraid of flying?”

“Not afraid, really. It’s more of a claustrophobic issue.”

“Then,” I lean over and whisper, “aren’t you glad you came out of the closet?”

“I didn’t come out,” she growls as she turns to me. “I told you what I had to in order to get out of a bad situation. Harper …” She takes my hand, giving it a slight stroke with her thumb. “I’m begging you here. Don’t put me in a bad situation. My contract has a morals clause…”

“Kels, I would never do anything to jeopardize your job. If you don’t believe anything else I tell you, please, believe me capable of that much honesty, at least.”

She nods her head as she releases my hand and turns to the window.

I twist in my seat causing my denim shirt to scrape across my nipples. I flinch as my pre-departure activities have left me tender, but it was well worth it. Kels looks back. She must notice me cringe because she flushes red in anger before turning away again.

“Don’t be bitchy just because you’re jealous,” I murmur. I know I should shut up but I can’t help myself.

She’s silent but her knuckles turn white as her tense hands clutch the armrests.

I laugh and start digging through my carry-on for reading material. Kelsey continues to stare out the window all through the boarding. “Missing Elizabeth?” I turn a page in my magazine as I ask.

“No. Well, yes, a little. I always do for a few days after she leaves.” She admits this quietly as she rests her forehead on the pane of the window. “But it’s not that.”

I lay my magazine in my lap and turn to her. “Wanna talk about it?” She shakes her head and, I swear to God, I see her wipe a tear from her eye. I know I’m taking a hell of a chance here, but I lay my hand on her knee. “If you change your mind, umm … well, I’m here, you know.”

“Thank you.” It’s another almost pitiful answer. Why do I feel so bad for her?

Thirty minutes into the flight, I notice that Kels is sound asleep against the hard wall of the cabin. I ask Teresa for a blanket. I spread it over Kels as I gently pull her so that her head rests on my shoulder. I notice how quickly and easily she snuggles into me, wrapping one arm through mine in her sleep. This is nice.

* * *

I tip the bellhop before closing the door and toss my key card across the room toward the desk. The key slides across the surface to fall behind it and I groan. Figures. First, I wake up with my head on Harper’s shoulder. It was not an unpleasant sensation and that really pissed me off. Then I had to listen to her and the boys all the way to the hotel. I’m working with three overgrown delinquents and one of them makes a really nice pillow.

Stop it, Kelsey Stanton, this very damn minute! You cannot, will not, may not, think that way about her.

The room is icy cold so the first thing I do is turn off the air conditioning. Then I dig in my suitcase for a comfortable pair of sweats and a sweatshirt. Once I feel appropriately bundled up, I open my briefcase and pull out the file.

We’re in Omaha, Nebraska, of all places, checking out a forming cult. It’s situated across the border outside of Council Bluffs, taking up nearly 100 acres. My paperwork tells me it started as a sanctuary of sorts: a place for families to live and find a community atmosphere. Then it started to grow and, most recently, the adherents are getting unruly when they go into town for supplies. Though mostly self sufficient on their plot of land, they still need some more modern items that are bought during weekly shopping trips. And more often than not, these shopping trips have turned into violent escapades. Like most cults, they feel persecuted by those on the outside. So, they retaliate.

As of yet, officials have no reason to go onto their property and try to get the bigger picture. Instead, they’re concentrating on keeping an eye on them during their weekly visits and trying to curtail the violence.

This story was Tabloid’s bright idea. She has a source who said there was cult activity involved, that this could be the next Waco, and she wants a front row seat. She always does. I’ve done a little research with the local clientele and have names of some of the people in the compound and their profiles are included in my folder.

Though I only have a small sampling, they seem to be the typical outcasts from society, searching for a place to call home. If that’s all that has happened here, I certainly can’t begrudge them that.

While I’m reading, my thoughts turn back to Harper. She really has been pretty good about not torturing me over the incident last weekend. It does make me more than a little nervous that I had to let her into my private life. God only knows how she will use it against me, if she chooses to do so. I hope she doesn’t go there.

It doesn’t help my mood that my parents are going back to court again. I received a subpoena to testify only yesterday afternoon. They’ve been divorced nearly twenty years and I’d appreciate it if they stopped filing civil suits against each other. I don’t even know what this one’s about because I haven’t spoken to either of them since the last subpoena.

It’s going to be a long week.

* * *

The compound is surrounded by six foot chain link with barb wire on the top. That’s not cheap with 100 acres of land. The dirt road we’re on dead ends into a guarded gate with a little shack next to it. There’s a scruffy looking man with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder. He pulls it down into his hands when our microwave truck slows and stops 100 feet from him.

We went to the affiliate early this morning and loaded our equipment into the waiting truck. Jimmy sits silently in the back while Kelsey sits beside me. Once again, Conrad is at the station, waiting for our signal . Nebraska is great for this type of microwave hookup due to the flat terrain and long lines of sight.

I watch the bearded man at the gate curiously, trying to decide what kind of threat he is.

I glance to Kelsey. She’s as quiet as the day we first met, before we went into the library. And though she was bristling with anger and hatred then, all I can sense about her now is an air of defeat. Something’s bothering her and it’s impacting her ability to work. “Buck up, Little Roo, we have a job to concentrate on.”

“I’m with you, Tabloid.”

I smile a little as we wait for this man. I know this new nickname is supposed to be a slam, but I kinda like it. I also notice that she hasn’t said word one about being called ‘Little Roo.’

“We’ll just go chat with him, ask if they want some airtime, if they have concerns to discuss. If we get in, we’ll go alone, Jims. You stay out here with the truck.”

The Korean kid makes some affirmative sound and starts to run through the equipment before pausing to look up at me. “You want the betacam?”

“Not at first,” I tell him. “Set up the microcam. If he agrees, I’ll come back for the big one so get it ready.”

Kelsey stays belted into her seat as I slide into the back of the truck where Jimmy fits the small camera onto my belt. I’m wearing jeans and a denim shirt again today, unbuttoned to partially reveal a white tank top. Kels has on khaki pants and a button down Oxford shirt. She looks good. She always does, even though she gives off an air of being uncomfortable in her own skin. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of touching that skin. Especially since I found out that my gender was welcome.

She’s on my heels as we approach the hillbilly with the rifle. I like the way she always manages to stay right on top of me when we’re entering the unknown. Just as I’d like to stay right on top of her while entering her unknown.

“Stop,” the man calls out, waving the gun at us, encompassing the truck behind us in this gesture. “You with the television?”

I glance back to the white vehicle with the bold multi-colored logo, the big number eight and a fifty foot mast. No, nimrod, we just like the paint scheme. “Yeah,” I say aloud. “Heard you guys might want some airtime. We’re a special events crew from LA.”

He thinks about this, probably wondering where LA is, dropping one hand from his rifle and scratching at his bearded chin. “Whaddya want?”

“Some interviews, some footage. As much or as little as you want to give. It’s an opportunity for you to speak your minds. Things are brewing in town, pretty soon the cops are going to be asking you questions. This makes it look like you were willing to discuss it first, tell your side of the story.”

He’s considering whether to relay our request, I know. He certainly doesn’t want to be the one who turned down free publicity for their group. I wait for him as he ducks inside the shack. The cool morning air is brushing against us where we stand unsheltered and I feel Kelsey shiver slightly next to me. I wish I had an airplane blanket I could drape over her. I smile at the memory.

Our armed host comes back out. “Boss is sending someone down to escort you to his office.”

After receiving permission, I go back for the betacam. “You got a sweatshirt, Olson?” I ask as I pull on the equipment vest and check my battery supply. I shove several batteries and even more tapes into my backpack. I also grab a couple extra microphones: two clip ons, a stick mike and shotgun mike, and the 13 gig antenna. Olson hands me a tripod and light kit. Jesus, I’m running out of hands. I’ll have to have Kelsey carry the tripod. No wonder I stay in such excellent shape since I’m a total pack mule on assignments like this. I also grab my leather jacket in case it gets cooler later. These loonies like to go on, I want to be sure I have plenty equipment to capture it all and not freeze my ass off. It’s such a perfect ass, it’d be a shame to waste it.

“Huh?”

“Sweatshirt?”

“Oh.” He scrounges behind him and hands me one.

I toss it to Kelsey when I get back to where she’s been waiting and hand her the tripod.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

We stand in silence for a few more minutes until a small entourage appears at the gate. When we step forward, we get frisked quickly. I watch the men closely, making sure they aren’t too grabby with Kelsey. This over protective thing I seemed to have developed makes me wonder. Note to self: give this serious consideration later. They seem efficient and business-like, though, and soon we are sheltered within the small group and headed down the dirt road away from the truck.

The gate clangs closed behind us and Kelsey jumps with the sound of it, looking back over her shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I reassure her under my breath.

She glances my way and, for the first time since we’ve met, her features soften when she meets my eyes. “Just another story, right?”

“Just another story. We’ll get it in the can and go on to the next one.”

She nods tightly and we continue following our ‘hosts’.

A rise in the hill has sheltered the compound itself but now as we crest it, I can see the layout at the end of the dirt road. There are several buildings, all one story, surrounding a large three story structure. All of them are finished in white adobe and red clay roofs and appear to be well maintained. Our friends aren’t hillbillies, anyway.

Behind the buildings are fields of corn and who-knows-what. I’m no farmer. However, I can identify the beasts along the side of the road we’re on as cattle. I think I see a few horses as well, further on.

“You raise your own cattle?” I’m surprised to hear Kelsey’s voice at my left elbow, even if it is a stupid question.

“We have a few sheep and pigs, too. There’s a chicken coop on the far side of the compound. Mostly we use the cattle for milk and hide, sell the meat in town.” Surprisingly, the tall man at the head of the group is speaking. I figured we’d get the silent treatment all the way in. He’s dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt and is clean cut. He doesn’t look at us while he speaks.

I poke Kelsey in the arm with my elbow, nodding to her.

“You don’t eat meat?”

The man shrugs, his shoulders broad under the navy fleece. “Some do, some don’t. We don’t presume to make people be one way or another. We all benefit from the animals in some way and we all care for them.”

“What’s your name?”

“You talk a lot,” he stops the small entourage to turn and look at us for the first time. He doesn’t look amused.

Kelsey, bless her, grins. “I’ve heard that before.”

Slowly, a smile spreads across his face and he shakes his head before turning back around and walking again. “Chris.”

“Nice to meet you,” Kelsey nods. “You been here long, Chris?”

This question is answered by silence and I figure my little partner pushed it too far.

Our group stops in front of the taller building and Chris rests his hand on the knob, hesitating. “Five years.”

“That’s a long time,” Kelsey responds.

Slowly, Chris turns and looks at us. With a slight wave he dismisses the rest of our escorts and they wander away amiably. “Look … I’m not sure why he agreed to this. I don’t think we need outside influence. We can handle our disputes internally, just as we’ve handled our successes. But, I like you, so I’ll give you a little warning. Don’t ask him question after question. Don’t bring up subjects unless he’s initiated them. Don’t make him mad.”

We’re both staring at the man with more than a little confusion. This is gonna be a shitty interview.

“Does he have a name?” I ask, biting my tongue before I spout out a sarcastic remark like ‘Or should we call him God.’ I can tell that Kelsey expected me to say such a thing because she’s as tense as a board next to me. I chuckle.

“Sam.”

These are some pretty generic sounding names.

Chris turns away and opens the door without another word. Then he leads us down a short hallway to a stairwell. From there we make our way upstairs and find ourselves standing outside a heavy grey door. Chris knocks and then pushes it open, waving us inside.

I’m assuming the behemoth before us is Sam. The guy is huge, nearing six and a half feet and maybe half that wide. He’s not a fat man, either. His bulk is muscle and bone. He watches us with steely grey eyes and I don’t like the cold glint they have. Unconsciously, I move closer to Kelsey, only to realize she’s moved closer to me and we’re almost standing on each other’s feet.

Stupidly, the four of us stare for a very long time. Kelsey and I are waiting for one of them to make a move but apparently such a thing is not forthcoming.

So Kelsey steps forward and extends her hand. “Kelsey Stanton.” She tilts her head back to me. “My partner, Harper Kingsley.”

I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from adding, “In a non-sexual sense.”

I think Chris’s eyes may just bug out of his head at the shock of Kelsey’s forwardness. But she is undaunted and stands with that hand extended for several awkward seconds before her small fingers are grasped in the meaty man’s palm.

“Sam.”

“Nice to meet you, Sam. Harper and I thought you may want a little good press. Heard things aren’t going so well in town and you guys could tell your side of the story before the cops go Waco on ya.”

Now I have to consciously prevent my chin from dropping to the floor. I’ve seen a few sides of Kels before, but risk taker is not one of them. She’s completely disregarded the warning from Chris.

The room is thick with silence as we all wait for Sam’s reaction. He lets us suffer for almost a minute before he laughs deeply and releases Kelsey’s hand. “You’ve got guts, I like that in a broad.”

“Hmm,” Kelsey purses her lips. “I can think of better labels than ‘broad’, but ‘gutsy’ I like.” She pauses. “You up for an interview?”

“That’s why you’re here, little lady,” he grins. “Let’s get started.”

“Kels,” I call softly, watching our hosts. “C’mere a minute and let me set you up.”

She moves closer to me and I turn us both so my back is to the two men, as I wire her with the clip on microphone. I try not to be aware of the warmth of her skin as I run the wire up over her shoulder and down her back to the connector. “Why did you do that?”

She shrugs and smiles. It’s the first time she’s done so since we left LA. “It’s a trick my parents used to play to intimidate me: Mom would tell me how angry my Dad was and what I should absolutely not bring up before she pushed me in the room with him. Kinda good cop, bad cop. I picked up pretty quickly that the best way to throw them off was to go right for the forbidden subject.”

I laugh at her and tug the ribbed collar of Olson’s shirt. “Good job, Little Roo. You ready?”

She nods and pats the betacam before heading back to where the men are seated.

It takes a little persuasion, but I manage to get Sam to agree to wear a mike like Kelsey is wearing. I don’t linger over thoughts of the warmth of his skin, however. The thought itself is a bit nauseating. Before Kels begins, I set up the lights and mount the betacam on the tripod. I will use the shotgun mike to pick up any comments from the others in the room, often they are the most interesting, I’ve found. Finally, I brace the 13 gig antenna in the window, aiming it back toward the truck so Olson can get the signal. This will allow us to have backup tapes at the truck and the station, just in case. For some reason, I don’t have a great feeling about this all.

***

God, these men don’t know when to shut up. Kelsey hasn’t had to ask them much of anything, we’ll have to edit the heck out of this to get anything coherent. Jimmy comments on this several times during the interview while he watches the feed in the truck and chatters in my ear.

They’re educated and believe in education. Their children attend school all day and the work for the compound seems to be divided equally among men and women and not across gender lines. I can respect that. They’ve been here five years, Chris was a founder, and it started out as a shelter for battered women and children, mostly.

Chris and Sam were social workers in Lincoln, apparently, and tired of the red tape and the mistreated families (they should come to LA some time) so they came up with this scheme one drunken Saturday night. It seems like a good plan and the people here are willing to be here, no one is held against their will and families come and go all the time.

Sam talked a little bit about the different religious groups and how everyone is free to follow their own beliefs and that his position as ‘caretaker’ is elected.

It sounds pretty cool. I wonder what they think of same sex relationships.

“How many people are here?” Kelsey asks, over an hour into the interview. They’re the first words she’s been able to sneak in.

“A hundred and forty as of last week,” Sam replies. “The housing is mostly communal, different family units sharing kitchens and common rooms but having their own sleeping quarters.”

“Isn’t that a lot for a piece of land this size?”

Sam shrugs. “We’re not completely self-sufficient when our numbers get that high but we won’t turn people away. We get supplies in town when we need them and we have some profitable ventures here to help us.”

“Tell me about these trips to town,” Kels prompts.

“We have a group of teenagers responsible for shopping and the selling of our goods. We expect everyone to pull their own weight and it’s a good job for youngsters: teaches them the value of money and social structures.”

“But …” Kelsey prods into the silence Sam has left dangling.

“But we have a couple of young men now who are testing their boundaries, feeling a bit too big for their britches.”

“The town thinks you’re a bunch of wackos out here,” Kelsey points out.

Oh good, Kelsey, sugarcoat it. I focus in on Sam’s serious face while he ponders the statement.

“We’ve never made an effort to prove we’re not. They think we do all kinds of weird things in here. But, really, it’s none of their business. The boys aren’t necessarily helping our cause right now, but we’re working with them.”

“Have you restricted their access to town?”

Sam looks shocked at such a question. “No, of course not. They’re there today.”

I meet Kelsey’s curious green gaze over the betacam and I shrug. I’m not a parent. I don’t know crap about disciplining teenaged boys. Now, give me a few teenaged girls and I could come up with something. Well, college girls. Gotta be legal.

I can tell we’re wrapping up this very boring interview and I hear Kelsey ask for permission to film the grounds and talk with some of the residents. Sam agrees easily and asks Chris to show us around.

When I turn off the camera, I get it ready for our short interview work. I will shoot off the shoulder and not bother sending the 13 gig feed back to the truck, it’s too hard to maneuver the pole around with us.

Kelsey saunters over to me and shakes her head. She’s wondering why we came to middle America for nothing and I have to admit, I’m wondering the same. Oh well. Some stories pan out and some don’t. No beer at the bar for my source this time around.

It’s getting late in the afternoon when Kelsey finishes up yet another interview with yet another happy camper. We have gotten some dirty looks from a few and refusals to speak from some others, but that’s not so unusual in the media business.

We’re wrapping up and talking about heading down the dirt road when a loud rumble and dust come over the crest and down into the compound. A red four door pickup screeches to a halt and a handful of young men jump out of the vehicle, laughing loudly and pounding each other on backs.

I suppose we should try to get some words from them before we head back to the hotel. Kelsey’s silent nod tells me she agrees and we’re on our way over.

Kelsey does the intro and permission spiel, which the boys are thrilled to hear. She’s much more professional with this group than she was with Football and the memory makes me grin before I start taping. Jimmy groans in my ear.

“You were in town just now?”

“Yeah,” says the apparent leader. “What a blast. Got us some important things back there. We have an important job.”

“Did you start anything while you were there? I understand you’ve had some run-ins recently?”

The kid scuffs his toe in the dirt for awhile and shrugs. “We only do what we’re told.”

Kelsey raises one fine eyebrow. “What were you told to do?”

“Alan-” a voice from the back of the group calls out in warning but the speaker waves him off.

“It’s almost time, man. I don’t care if the lady knows. We were told to get the town worried about us. Like we were a threat. So we start fights and we talk like we’re all a buncha kooks. No big deal.”

“Did Sam tell you to do this?”

“Sam? That bag of wind? He ain’t nothing,” Alan shakes his head. “Come on, guys,” he motions to his buddies and they start to move to the back of the truck.

I follow them with the camera and continue taping while they pull wrapped bundles from the bed and drop them in the dirt. The packages clatter noisily.

“So who told you to do these things?” Kelsey persists, leaning against the vehicle.

Alan stops his motion and watches my partner and glances at me and the camera before deciding to answer. “See, living here is a lot like living anywhere. You have groups of people who don’t get along and you have minorities who might have better ideas and more promises for the future but the old politics don’t allow for those changes.”

I’m struck by how articulate our young friend is, as if he has someone speaking in his ear. Or he’s memorized this speech from previous encounters.

“So it’s a minority leader? Trying for a coup?”

Alan grins. “Something like that, yeah. We have work to do, Ms. Stanton.”

She thanks him for his time and comes back over to me.

I lower the betacam from my shoulder, shifting my grip on it. “What do you think?”

“I think we should ask Chris a couple more questions.”

I nod my agreement and we head back to the large building where Chris disappeared once deeming us unworthy an escort. We’re barely in the upstairs hallway when we hear a heated argument coming from Sam’s office. I quirk an eyebrow at Kels and turn on the camera so we can at least get sound, and Kels aims the antenna back toward the truck.

“You’re taping nothing,” Jimmy’s voice pipes up helpfully in my ear.

“Shut up and listen, Olson,” I whisper.

I really can’t pick up much but muffled voices through the thick door. I hear ‘fanatic’ in Sam’s deep booming tones and a higher voice responds with a jumble of words and ‘what the people want.’

Suddenly things are more interesting and I’m grinning again. Kelsey shakes her head but a slight smile graces her features. Jimmy is whining about something in my ear but I pop it out and let it dangle, not wanting to miss the fun in front of me.

We don’t get too much time to respond to this new development because the door bursts open and out stomp Chris, Sam, and a tall skinny man. They’re still yelling at each other and Sam is telling the third man to go home and cool off.

“Then we’ll call a meeting and decide if this is a place for you and your followers to live, Scamp.”

Scamp? There’s a classy name if I’ve ever heard one. It fits the man, though. He’s tall and lanky with long hair and a scruffy beard. He’s dressed in denim and flannel and parades a ‘world-be-damned’ attitude if I’ve ever seen one. And I have a pretty good idea of what one looks like since I consider myself a pro.

“That’s what you think, Sam,” he grumbles in response.

Interrupting our friendly little gathering, a small group of men comes flying up the stairs and into the hallway.

“Sam! There are cops at the gate. They’re demanding entrance, wielding weapons,” the shortest of the group pants while sliding to a halt.

“Do they have a subpoena?” Sam asks reasonably. I’m glad the camera is running and I know Jimmy is getting an eyeful. This must be what he was trying to tell me when I tuned him out. Oh well. I sure hope the kid has enough sense to grab the extra betacam and catch the action at the gate with it.

“No. They said they have probable cause and they’re not taking no for an answer.”

As I pan back from Sam’s close-up to take in the whole group, I see an odd smile on Scamp’s thin lips. “And so it begins.”

Huh?

We don’t consider his vague statement for very long before the men in the group that just came up the stairs all pull guns. In a blink of an eye, their short spokesman is shot in the back. Another crack of gunshot leaves Sam on the ground.

“Jesus Christ,” I yell. I reach out my free hand towards Kelsey and am relieved when I feel the soft flesh of her hand meet my palm.

I close my fingers and pull her towards me, wanting her close to me and far away from them. When I take the time to focus again through the camera, I see a gun pointed right at us and Scamp grinning behind the barrel.

Jimmy’s babbling in my ear again and I try to tune him out as I tuck Kelsey behind me. She’s not willing to be protected and stubbornly remains at my side.

“You! Camera ladies,” Scamp calls out. “You’ll come in handy. Pete, lock ‘em up.”

Pete steps forward with a semi-automatic weapon and jabs me in the ribs.

“Turn that off for now,” Scamp demands.

I think about arguing with him but something tells me this isn’t wise, and the batteries are almost completely drained by now. Protesting will get me nothing but broken ribs and no good footage. Not a good exchange. I take the camera off my shoulder without stopping it and let it focus on the linoleum at our feet but giving Jimmy all the sound he wants.

“Move it,” Pete grabs for Kelsey’s arm but that damn chivalry I find in me when the blonde’s around makes me reach out and knock his hand away.

“Don’t touch us,” I warn him. “We’ll do what you want.”

Pete eyes me for a long moment, as if determining some kind of response. I wonder briefly if I’ve made a mistake.

“Get moving!” Scamp shouts over Sam’s shouts of pain. “Don’t mess with ‘em, Pete.”

Our captor seems to be willing to abide by his leader’s requests and motions to the stairwell with his weapon.

We’re escorted from the building, across the chaotic compound, and to a smaller structure. I switch off the camera now, the antenna won’t work inside the building.

Once inside, our ‘escort’ points to a soiled corner. “Camera goes there.”

“No way.”

He levels the gun at my midsection. “Camera goes there.”

I glance at Kelsey. “Can’t argue with that logic, can I?” I put the camera, the kit, the tripod, the antenna and everything else we’ve been carrying down in the corner gently. That’s a helluva lot of money invested in that squalid space right now.

Pete opens a door and shoves us into a tiny room, slamming the door behind us.

The room is nothing more than an oversized closet and is lit from a bare dangling bulb in the middle. The walls and floor are all seamless grey concrete. Looking up proves to me the ceiling offers no better possibilities. We hear the ominous sound of a deadbolt and chain behind us.

I glance over to Kelsey who is also taking in our surroundings, shaking her head. Slowly our eyes meet and hers look suddenly sad.

“Just another story, huh?” she asks with a raised eyebrow.
Episode Nine: The Long Kiss Goodnight
It’s chilly when I wake. I can’t help but shake a little bit. The tiny room is empty except for Harper and me. There are no windows in this little room, just one naked bulb that hangs from the ceiling by a wire which looks like it could give at any second. This is a bad cliché. Jail was better than this. I try to sit up wondering when they’re going to come kill us, if the room doesn’t do me in first. I shiver again.

“C’mere.” Her voice is soft and comes from the corner. I manage to focus on Harper. She’s leaning with her back against the wall, holding her hand out to me. “C’mere, Kels. You’re cold. I’m not going to feel you up.”

I slowly scoot across the cold concrete floor to her and she wraps her arms around me as she settles her jacket over us. The leather is already warm from her body heat and it instantly feels good. “Thanks,” I whisper as I lay my head on her shoulder. Under any other circumstance I bet I could really get into this, provided I was drunk as hell and out of my mind. Right now, though, all I want is her body warmth.

“You’re welcome.”

“Harper? Do you think they are going to kill us?”

“Nah, cher, never.” Her New Orleans accent comes out stronger with this reassurance. She looks down and gives me a smile. I like both the smile and the accent. “We’ll be fine, just fine.” Her arms tighten around me, holding me close.

God, I never really noticed how good she smells before. Even after a day of not showering she still has a scent that is simply, well, for lack of a better word and noted in a purely detached manner, erotic. I can’t really describe it well without not doing it justice. It reminds me of the smell of summer rain and winter nights by the fireplace, all natural and primal and musky. No wonder she has women lining up at her bedroom door.

The door rattles as a key enters the lock. I jerk away from Harper, immediately missing her warmth. She lets me keep the jacket though. The last thing I want to do is give these maniacs any additional reason to hurt us; somehow I figure being lesbian is a big no-no here.

When the door opens, an armed guard lets a small brunette woman into the room with a tray of food. She sets it on the floor and slides it into the room without a word. They back out and the door closes again. Glad to see the Women’s Movement is alive and well in Omaha.

Harper pulls the tray over and uncovers it. “Hmm … looks like we’re going to live for sure.”

“What makes you say that?”

“If they were gonna kill us, they wouldn’t feed us this well.” She explains as she pops a piece of bacon in her mouth.

I look at the tempting bacon, eggs and biscuits. Apparently, diets and cholesterol counts mean nothing to these people. “Maybe the food is poisoned.”

She manages to swallow before giving me a dirty look. “That was cruel.”

“Sorry.” I shrug a bit then decide to go ahead and eat anyhow. Hell, if they’re going to kill us I may as well choose which way I want to go. And on a full stomach sounds best right now. This is as opposed to riddled with bullets. I break off another piece of bacon and offer it to her. She leans forward and takes it from my fingers with her mouth. Oh God. I’m about to die and I am incredibly turned on. Not fair. So not fair. “Wonder what’s going on outside?” I think I manage to sound almost nonchalant.

Harper chuckles, enjoying my discomfort. “Well, after breakfast,” she reaches for a carton of milk and sips, “we’ll try to wrangle a trip to the little hostage’s room and see what we can find out.”

“Good plan. I’m going to need that anyhow.”

“Me too,” she admits with a little laugh.

“Ah … so Harper Kingsley does function like a normal human.”

“Oh yeah. I even put my pants on one leg at a time.”

I can’t resist playing a little. “So, how do you get out of them?”

“As quickly as possible.” She grins at me.

Oh, she is good. As I look at her now, I’m betting very good. Oh hell, I guessed that from the moment I saw her on the motorcycle. Some part of me is sorry that I’ll never find out. Did I just think that? Christ, Kels get a fucking grip. She is not even your type.

Beth.

Beth is your type. And you spent most of the last weekend with her taking you to places you hadn’t been in a long time. Now slam the damn cage door shut ‘til she comes back into town. In another six months or so. Oh God.

She offers me the milk and I take a drink. “Thanks. You like apple?” I ask as I pick up a slice from the tray.

“Will you feed it to me?”

“Ah, no.” I hold it out to her. “You’re a big girl now. You know how to feed yourself. I’ve seen you do it.”

She takes the apple, then pushes off the wall to stand up. She stretches, reaching high above her head and twisting at the waist a little.

“Sore?”

“Yeah, I’ve got to admit, I’m not accustomed to sleeping on a hard floor. Besides, lugging the gear around has taken its toll on my back. I get an adjustment once a week, but I had to miss it to come here.”

“Lay down.”

She turns to me. “What?”

“Lay down. On your stomach,” I add. Just so she’s clear on my intentions. Actually, that doesn’t really make any difference, but … Jesus, Kelsey, get a grip on your hormones.

She shakes her head a bit, as if able to read my thoughts, but does as I tell her.

I move over her and straddle her lower back. I try not to concentrate on where our bodies are touching. Rubbing my hands together to warm them, I lean down to speak into her left ear. “Do you trust me?”

“Un-huh.”

“Okay, good. Lay your arms at your side, take a deep breath, and hold it.”

Again, she does as I ask. I position my hands alongside her spine. “Now, exhale.” She does. I apply a slight pressure with an upward movement, and I hear and feel everything move back into place.

“Ohhhh God, that felt good,” she groans. She lifts her head and turns to look at me, her eyes conveying ultimate pleasure.

God, she has bedroom eyes.

“Where in the hell did you learn to do that?”

“My grandfather had a bad back. He taught me.” I get up and move back to the breakfast tray before I do anything I might regret.

She rolls over onto her side, and props her head up in the palm of her hand. “Your grandfather?”

“I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a child. My folks were never really meant to be parents.”

“You’re an only child then?”

“Yes, thank God. I’m glad they did that right.”

“Huh?”

I shake my head. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“’Kay.” She stands up and moves to the door, listening first, then she raps on it with her knuckles. “Hey!”

I’m a bit surprised when she gets an answer. “Whaddya want?”

“The lady needs use of the facilities and I wouldn’t mind the chance either.” She looks over and gives me a little wink. I can’t help but smile.

She steps back when the lock turns, followed by the knob. I get to my feet dusting my hands off as the door opens. Another gun wielding man looks in at us then waves the barrel of the gun at me. “You first.”

“No.”

That was an honest to God growl I just heard from Harper.

“We go together. You’re not separating us.”

“Lady, I got the fucking gun.” He explains this slowly, as if she might be mentally impaired.

“Only because I choose to let you keep it,” she replies with the same tone. “You’re not separating us. We came in here together, we stay that way.”

I watch as he tightens the grip on his gun as he considers this turn of events. It’s clear he believes hostages are supposed to be easy to intimidate. Harper isn’t. I wonder if she’s serious about him only having the gun because she lets him keep it. For some reason I am inclined to believe her. She turns and offers me her hand, which I am more than willing to take.

As my hand slides into hers, she gives it a little squeeze. “Come on, Little Roo.”

As we walk past him, Harper moves me in front of her and keeps her hands on my shoulders. She glances around, checking for her gear, I’m sure. I look over and am relieved that it’s still there.

“Bathroom is right there.” Our guard points to a door at our left.

Harper opens the door and looks in. “Well, at least it’s indoors,” she mumbles as she opens the door further. “You guys never heard that little saying about cleanliness and godliness?” She directs this comment to our captor, who scowls at her, but doesn’t reply. “You go first.” She gives me a wink as she allows me to go in. I leave the door ajar just a little and I see her place her body right in front of it. From my vantage point I can see her standing there with her legs slightly apart and her arms crossed.

“You stay right there, butch,” she warns as she holds up a hand in challenge to our guard. “Let the lady have some privacy.” She reaches back and pulls the door a little tighter, but still leaves it open just a bit.

Now it’s Harper’s turn. Somehow I don’t think I’m going to be the imposing door sentry she was. Though I quickly realize I won’t have to worry about it; she refuses to close the door. She motions for me to turn around, which I am more than happy to do, more for my own peace of mind than to offer my partner privacy. Our guard stares, however.

“She got something you never seen before?” I ask as I cross my arms. He blushes and turns away, finding the wall more interesting.

Very soon I hear the toilet flush and her zipping her jeans. She washes her hands in the grimy sink. Her mother taught her manners. I’m impressed. Our guard motions us back toward the room.

Harper pauses as she points to a pile of blankets on a shelf. “I want a few of those.” He acquiesces and she retrieves a couple.

As he opens the door, I hesitate as my brain takes in the small room. Oh God!

I feel a sweaty hand on my arm and I hear that growl again.

“Get your fucking hand off her!”

Before I’m sure what’s happening she has his wrist in her hand and is prying it away from my arm.

I turn to see him stick the gun in her ribs. He says angrily, “Let go of me and get inside or I’ll pop you right now.”

“Touch her again and I’ll break your worthless neck,” she hisses as she pushes his hand away. She makes a show of wiping her hand on her jeans.

I take a deep breath and step back into our cell. Harper follows, but only after her stare down is ended by a poke in the ribs from the barrel of the gun. She moves inside but blocks the door with her body. “Tell your boss I want to see him too.” After her last demand, she steps back and he closes the door.

She turns to me with a smile. “You okay?”

All I can do is nod.

“You know, I just get you to come out of the closet and then I end up in one. Ironic, huh?”

I look around and begin shaking as the walls begin closing in on me. I feel the sweat break out on my forehead as the tunnel vision starts. I can hear my breath becoming ragged.

“Shit! Oh Christ, Kels, I’m sorry, I forgot.”

I hear her and I can feel a blanket going around my shoulders but my vision is blurring and I’m shaking uncontrollably.

“Breathe, Kels. Come on, take long, deep breaths and relax. I got you!” I can feel her arms around me. “Come on, Kels, take a long, deep breath. Listen to the sound of my voice. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice.”

* * *

I finally have her calmed down. She’s resting with her head in my lap as I comb my fingers through her hair. This is a universal calmer for upset women, I’ve discovered. I first discovered it with my little niece, Caitlin, but I’ve tried on a variety of sized females. All respond very well.

A glance down at Kelsey leads me to think she might be sleeping. I can’t really tell. She still shivers from time to time even though I have covered her with two of the blankets I procured from the nimrod outside the door.

Then there is the occasional whimper she emits. You know sometimes fear, pain and pleasure all have sounds that are very much alike. Those sounds leaving my partner’s body make me not help but wonder what she sounds like in the throes of passion. One thing is for sure, if I ever want to find out, I have to get us out of here.

“Harper?” she says, her voice quivering.

“Yeah, Little Roo.”

“Can I tell you something?”

“Sure you can.”

She rolls over and opens her eyes. A single tear slides down the side of her face as she looks at me. “I’m scared and I don’t want to die.”

I wonder what this admission has cost her. “Don’t worry about anything, Kels. I’m not going to let anything happen. ‘Sides Chambers would have my ass if I let something happen to the Talent. Now, can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“I think for someone who’s claustrophobic you’re doing really well.”

“It helps having you here. Your voice is very soothing.”

I can’t help but laugh hard. My voice has been called a lot of things. Soothing ain’t one of them. Especially not with some of the things I’m rather fond of saying. “Well, you be sure to let me know if my voice, or any other part of me, can be of service.”

“Actually,” she says as she sits up and runs a hand through her hair. “Hold me. Please?”

It’s not really a question or a demand, more of an expectation. One we both don’t want to disappoint. I find myself opening my arms to her. She moves into them easily and snuggles in, laying her head on my shoulder. I can still feel the tension in her body as I enclose her in my arms. She is truly terrified. “I got you, Little Roo. Just relax.”

She nods, her chin brushing the cotton over my breast. I scratch the base of her neck instinctually. She looks up at me and our eyes truly meet for the first time.

Ah, what the hell. We may end up dead anyway, despite my assurances to Kelsey, so I may as well take the chance. I pull her close to me, molding our bodies together, noticing how her breasts fit under mine, how good she smells, how green her eyes are, and a thousand other small details. I duck my head closer to hers. Our lips barley brush against each other, as if it were almost an accident.

It isn’t.

Oh, they are as soft as I knew they would be. I must have more of them. I don’t feel her resisting in any way. As a matter of fact, she is moving closer to me, sliding her arms around my neck, tangling her fingers in my hair.

The request is made and she opens up to me. Our kiss is long, deep and passionate. God, she tastes good. No wonder Elizabeth flies across the damn country to have more of her. I’d crawl.

I hear her moan and I know that we have to stop before it’s too late. Before dipshit outside hears us and interrupts, perhaps violently. Hesitantly, very hesitantly, I pull back and the kiss ends.

She simply looks at me for a long moment before she closes her eyes and puts her head back on my shoulder.

Just after she does, the door opens. She tries to pull away, but I won’t let her. She simply feels too good against me. I look up to find Scamp staring down at us.

“What in the hell!” he growls as he steps in.

Well, that answers the question about how they feel about same sex relationships. Fuckin’ psycho religious wacko bastards. I say, in as calm a tone as I can manage, “She’s sick and she’s scared. She’s claustrophobic and this place is getting to her.”

“She’s what?”

“She has a fear of small places, nimrod. It’s making her sick to be in here. Now if you don’t want more problems than you already have, you might want to find us better accommodations.”

“Pushy bitch, ain’t ya?”

“Worse has been said about me, asshole.”

“What’s keeping me from killing you right now?”

I watch as his hand tightens around his own gun. Kels never looks up but I hear a slight whimper and feel her shiver.

“You know as well as I do that you’re using us as leverage. We’re hostages. You think you can get something for us. My guess is this whole little coup of yours is taking place under police observation. Your junior assholes went into town, stirred up more trouble, fled back here with cops on their tails, and you used the situation to your advantage. You’re now barely in control of the compound, supported by armed teenagers stupider than you, and – most likely – surrounded by the local police force. Your only hope of getting out of this with your head still attached to your worthless and unattractive body is using us as bargaining chips. If you have any clue at all, you’ve figured out that this woman here is worth a ‘Get out of jail free’ card for you. She’s gold. And without her, your ass is grass.”

We share a long, hate-filled stare. He knows I’m right. I know I’m right. As I feel Kelsey stop shivering, I know she knows I’m right.

Finally, he barks, “Get the fuck up! Now!”

I nudge Kels reluctantly and help her to her feet. I manage to keep the blanket around her as we get up. There’s no way in hell I’m letting go of her and Scamp can see that. He’s challenging me, and I’m challenging him right back. Don’t fuck with me, fella. I have tricks you can’t even imagine in that tiny, sick little mind of yours.

He motions us out of the room with the barrel of the gun. We begin a slow walk down a small corridor which is fortunately lined with windows. I take a deep breath when I get a good look outside. I can see up the slight slope surrounding the compound. There, on the ridge, are cops of all kinds and the National Guard surrounding the place.

Just fucking wonderful.

Well, if the ATF doesn’t get involved, we might survive this.

And, ooh, does it feel good to be proven correct. I’ve never been happier to see that many guns around me. Well, except for that one time in the Bayou, but that’s a completely different story.

“Cops,” I whisper to Kels who still has her head down and her eyes closed. “Lots of cops.”

I feel her clutch my shirt.

“We’re okay, Little Roo. Just keep walking.”

We are finally put in another room. A much larger one with a window that has wire and bars over it. At least now we can see out and keep an eye on things. This room also has two cots. I take Kels over and lay her down. “Rest.”

“Don’t leave me.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Kels. Relax.” I run my fingers through her hair then stand and turn to face Scamp who has arrived in the room quietly.

“I want airtime,” he says as he slings the gun over his shoulder.

“Everyone wants airtime, buddy. We’re a nation of television-worshipping freaks. Why should you be any different?”

“Because I have a gun.”

“Hardly different. Shit, half the fucking high schoolers in the nation carry an illegal handgun.”

“I have a gun and I’ll use it on her.” He flicks it toward Kelsey.

“You’ll only have one try. And you better pop me first. Because, I swear to God, if you even think about hurting her, I’ll kill you.”

“I want airtime,” he repeats.

“Well, get my gear and we’ll see what we can work out in exchange.”

“Exchange? Exchange for what? I’m holding all the cards here.”

“Really? Can you run my camera?”

He shuffles for a second then orders one of his flunkies to get my gear. “Exchange for what?”

I jerk my thumb over my shoulder. “Let her go. I’ll stay and run the camera. She’s just a reporter. If all you want to do is run your mouth, you don’t need her.”

“We’ll talk about it,” Scamp grumbles before pulling the door shut. As it closes, I hear him mumble something that really sounds like ‘feminist bitch’.

I turn to Kels and grin. “Wonder how he’d feel if I called him a gun-toting, Nazi son of a bitch!” I lift my voice for the last five words.

I watch as Kels sits up and takes a deep breath before she turns to me. “I’m not.”

“You’re not what?”

“Leaving you in here by yourself.”

“Kels, let’s be rationale about this.”

“Don’t argue with me, Harper. I’m not leaving you and you can live with it. We have a story to tell here. And we’re going to tell it together.”

I shake my head a bit. She does manage to pull it together when the chips start falling. I do admire that quality. And her breasts. I like them too.

She stands, crossing to the window. “The light and the larger room help. I’ll be okay.”

“Kelsey, don’t be difficult…”

She spins around to look at me with a little smile on her face. “Hey, I’m the Talent here. Being difficult is in my contract.” Her grin widens a little as she steps forward and runs her hand up the front of my denim shirt from my waist to shoulder, right along the seam of buttons. “Wouldn’t want me to do anything to jeopardize my contract, now would you?”

In so many ways, on so many levels, Kels. You have no idea. “Uh, no,” I manage to lie.

“Didn’t think so,” she pauses as she looks to me, “partner.”

I smile and nod. I believe, for the first time, she really means it when she calls me her partner. Now all we gotta do is work out that ‘not in a sexual sense’ detail.

“Okay, partner,” I clear my throat a little as I take her hand from my shoulder. God, her hands are soft. “I won’t ask you to do something you don’t want to do.” Okay, now that is a bit of a stretch. I would, but it’d be in the bedroom and involve a blindfold and a feather. Besides, I think she’d like that anyhow.

The door opens and two of Head Nimrod’s Junior Nimrods bring my gear in. Christ, boys, I haul all this shit myself. What’s the matter with you? I want to say it out loud, but that might actually entice them to fuck the gear up. And I don’t want to do that. Chambers will have my ass for Kelsey being held hostage as it is. If I come back with even a scratch on the equipment, he’ll piss himself for sure.

As I’m going through my gear, several things occur to me. I’m going to need fresh batteries from the van, and by this request, Scamp is giving the police a direct line into the compound. As I kneel by my gear, Kels joins me.

“Anything I can do?”

Short of getting naked and letting me cover your body with mine? Instead, I say, “Yeah, dig all my batteries out of my pack, will you?” I slide the bag over as I give the Betacam a good going over.

“Well, well, look at what I found.” She is laughing at me as she holds up my secret stash of Twinkies.

I snatch the package and toss it to the bed, grumbling good-naturedly. “Great for a quick energy rush,” I explain. “Besides, I enjoy licking the cream out with my tongue.”

I knew that would get a groan. She doesn’t disappoint.

I decide to have mercy on her and distract her. “Tell me the story here, Kels.”

She sits back on her heels, and considers my request. I watch as she silently runs through a few leads. Finally, she says, “How about this. ‘The public image of “cults” is one of mind-control, occasional violence and social irresponsibility. But that’s just one part of the story. We came to Omaha, Nebraska, to look at a different kind of cult, one that calls itself the Chosen Family.’ What do you think, Tabloid?

“No, but we could use that for the sidebar lead. First we have to report the takeover and Sam’s shooting. I sure hope that Olson got good footage at the gate. If not, I’m gonna whip his orange-haired ass.”

Kels chuckles, “He has orange hair on his ass?”

I scowl, but she is unaffected. “You know what I meant. Now, try again.”

She salutes, “Yes, sir!” Once again, she concentrates for a long moment. “How’s this for the teaser: ‘Violence and death erupted today in a quiet community that was originally created to provide a safe haven for the abused and abandoned of our society. KNBC was on the scene when social consciousness confronted social violence. The result of that confrontation is our Exposure feature for the evening.’”

“Good.” I like it, a lot. “And with any luck, not that we’ve experienced a helluva lot so far, the random footage I got from either the micro cam or the beta will support it. Now, what do you want for the lead?” It’s nice to see her relaxed again. She’s in her element now, telling the story. Give the woman a little space, a little light, and a breaking news story and she’s just fine. I idly wonder how many of our competitors are camped out there alongside the National Guard. Wonder what type of odds they’re giving us. Olson better be smart enough to put down some money for me.

Kels’ voice interrupts my thoughts. “’In a quiet community outside of Omaha, Nebraska, created to provide a sanctuary for those who were cast out, abused and abandoned by society, the very violence that the founders of “The Chosen Family” tried to escape emerged today with tragic results. Exposure came here to look at a different kind of cult, one created to protect people from the violence and hatred that plagues our society today. But a small faction of dissatisfied residents staged a violent coup, killing founder Sam Stevenson right in front of Exposure’s cameras.’”

“If it bleeds, it leads,” I reply. “Nice.”

The door opens and Scamp is staring down at us again. I get to my feet and help Kels up as well. No way in hell are we going to be on our knees in front of this son of a bitch. Kelsey takes her customary position, right next to me. You know, I kinda like that.

“Feeling better, blondie?”

“It’s Ms. Stanton to you, jerk off,” she growls. Guess she has decided to join me in our little game of defiance. Work does wonders for her disposition.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” He looks to me. “You give us airtime and your little friend can go.”

“I’m staying,” Kels responds immediately. “We’re a team. We came in together and we’ll leave together.”

“Suit yourself.”

I nod toward the door. “If you still want airtime, I’m going to need gear from the van. Fresh tapes and batteries.”

“One of my men will walk you out.” He swings the barrel of the gun at Kels. “She stays here to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.”

Bringing her here was stupid. I’m going to find my friend at the bar and beat the ever-lovin’ hell out of him when we get home.

Kelsey doesn’t say anything. She simply bends at the waist and retrieves my backpack, thrusting it into my hands. “Hurry back, Tabloid. I’ll be practicing the lead while you’re gone.”

“As quick as I can, Little Roo, as quick as I can.”

If we didn’t have an audience, I’d kiss her again. Instead, I have to settle for a wink and a smile. This makes me think of the Harry Connick Jr. song of the same title. Wish we were in the Big Easy listening to Harry croon right now. Then I’d show her why we gave New Orleans that quaint little nickname.

I turn and leave the room. When I hear the door close and lock behind me, my throat and heart drop right into my stomach like a rock. I hate leaving her behind.
Episode Ten: Skyrockets in Flight
There are a lot of people in this compound, but there’s only one that I give a good goddamn about. And these freaks had better hope nothing happens to her while I’m gone or they’ll learn how many ways I can inflict pain and exactly how goddamn good I am at it.

I’m walking in front of another gun-toting dumb ass with my hands up. No way in hell do I want to be mistaken for one of these crazies. I want to make it perfectly clear that I’m the victim here. I snort as that thought crosses my mind. Victim, riiiight. I’ve never been a victim in my life. I’m not even one now, but I may as well let them think I am.

As we step outside the building where they’re holding us, Head Nimrod, a.k.a. Scamp, joins us on the porch. “Okay, Tabloid.” He grins at me. “That is what your little friend called you, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, and she can call me that all she wants, but if you do it again, I’ll take your lungs out through your nose.”

“Watch it,” he warns, his voice low and serious. “You’re walking out of here and blondie is still inside with me. If you’re not good, I’ll go back in there and show her what a real man can do for her.”

The only thing that is keeping me from killing him right now is the fact that I know I’ll get shot and Kels will never get out alive. “It always comes down to fucking something over for losers like you, doesn’t it?”

“If you behave, she’ll be unharmed. If not, know that she will be cursing your name for leaving her behind, not mine.” He leans back against the wooden railing, folding his arms across his chest, fixing me with a level stare.

My stomach rolls at the thought of him with his hands on Kels and I return his stare. “Stay away from her.”

He smirks at me and waves his hand to the junior nimrod. There is a poke in my back as I am nudged down the steps. I watch the cops and National Guard watch me as we make our way up the slight incline, away from the compound, and outside the main gate. It clangs shut behind us. I now have guns pointed at my front and my behind. Suddenly, I’m ready to join my family on a march for gun control. Right now would be nice.

My companion, a disposable nimrod, apparently, since they have him accompanying me into the heart of National Guard-land, is plodding along behind me. I almost wish someone would shoot him for being stupid. But, the consequences to Kelsey aren’t anywhere worth quenching my frustration.

As I move toward the truck, Olson slides the door open and sticks his orange head out.

“Stop!” my guard snaps, suddenly panicked.

Little late to get spooked, dickhead.

Olson meets my eyes and waits for me.

I turn to my shadow. “Look, I need to give him the tapes we shot yesterday for editing, and I need to get fresh batteries and tapes. This is so I can do what Scamp wants. You wouldn’t want me to be unable to do his interview, do you?”

He squints, thinking hard.

I can smell smoke. Christ, he is as stupid as he looks.

“Fine. Don’t pull any funny stuff.”

Riiiight. I’ll be sure not to do my Abbott and Costello routine.

However, I will need him to stay back so I can work my magic. I glance back over my shoulder to see if he looks gullible on top of it all. Okay, this should work. “You might want to wait here.”

“Why?”

“Microwaves are bad for your umm…performance abilities, if you know what

I mean.”

The look of horror on his face makes it clear that he does. “What about the guy in the truck?”

“Oh, that’s why we hired him for the job. He can’t get it up anyhow. Bicycle accident as a kid.” I shrug, as if it’s no big deal. I hope to hell Olson doesn’t have a directional mike on me; otherwise, he’s gonna be pissed.

“Go ahead.” He takes an extra step away from the truck. Can’t be too careful, you know.

Jesus, there’s nothing more dangerous than a moron with a gun.

I make my way to the open door of the truck. Olson is waiting for me inside; he looks terrible. “What’s wrong, kid? Didn’t you sleep?”

He shakes his head at my bravado. “How are you, Harper? Where’s Kelsey?”

“I’m okay. We’re okay. They kept her inside for an interview. Now, listen up good, I only got a minute.” I slide the backpack off my back and start pulling out objects slowly. Don’t want Chicken Little to shoot me accidentally. I hand Olson the tapes we shot yesterday. “Give these to the cops. They’ll get a good idea of the layout of the compound. And we taped a murder. Assholes.”

His eyes go wider still as he takes the tapes and sets them aside carefully.

“Now, when you hand me some new tapes, be sure to hand me the pinhead mike, transceiver and earpiece with them.” The three items I’ve asked for will allow me to both send and receive audio signals without much difficulty.

He nods slowly, and turns to retrieve the items I’ve asked for. “How are you gonna wire yourself up?” he asks softly with his back to me.

I smile, enjoying the thought. “I’ll have Kelsey do it. If we have a moment alone. Just monitor the feed. I’ll go live as soon as possible.” I draw in a deep breath, noticing that the air of freedom really does smell better. Damn, I am getting to be more and more like my parents every damn day. Soon I’ll be singing “If I had a hammer” and other folk songs.

Olson turns around and places the requested items in the backpack.

“Now some fresh batteries,” I prompt.

He frowns. “They don’t have electricity in there?” He knows as well as I do that my battery pack has an a/c adapter. All I needed to do was plug it in and it’d be good to go again pretty quickly. Kinda like my sex drive, but I digress.

“They do. But not much brain power.”

“Great. Idiots with guns.”

“Is there any other kind?”

“Harper, any chance you bring these tendencies out in people?” He asks this in all seriousness. “I mean, there was that actor guy, and then that library lady, and now a cult …”

“I know. At least religion used to be safe from me. Lord knows, the Catholic church tossed me out on my ass years ago.”

He chuckles. “Be careful. You’re the best education I’ve ever had.”

“Hell, I know that, Jims. They don’t teach you a fuckin’ thing in film school.” I am ready to go back, but it sure would be nice to take a weapon or two with me. “Hey, we still carry the Capstun?”

“Hurry up over there!” Shit-for-brains calls out.

“One second!” I reply, resisting giving him the finger.

“The pepper spray?”

I roll my eyes. “Just announce it out loud, kid.”

“Shit! Sorry, boss.” He looks like he might cry.

“It’s okay, Olson. Just slip it in the pocket of your jacket.”

He does, but frowns. “Why my jacket?”

“Because Kels is cold.” I hold out my hand for the bomber jacket. He bought one exactly like mine after we started working together. He’s a sweet kid.

“Tell her ‘hi’ for me.”

I take the coat and fold it over my arm. I gotta remember to palm the pepper spray out of the pocket before they search it. If they’re bright enough to think to do that. “I will, Jims. You just watch your back out here. And no giving interviews. We cover the news, we don’t make it.”

We look at each other for a long moment and then burst into laughter. “Yeah, right, Harper. Kick some ass.”

“Will do, Olson. See ya in a few.” I turn around to face the dipshit. Something in my gut tells me to get back to Kels and get back now. I move quickly and walk right past him to the gate. I look back at the moron who just now seems to register that I’m walking away from him. “You coming?” I quirk my brow at him. “Or would you rather take your chances with the cops?”

He juts out his stupid little jaw and motions with his gun. Great conversationalists, these guys. As I move back inside the compound, I can see that the women and children are being moved to a barn behind the house. God, I hope the cops are getting this from their vantage point. Climbing the steps to the building where they are keeping Kels, I hear the rotors of a helicopter and know at least the National Guard must have that information now.

Standing outside the door to our current accommodations, I try to wait patiently for dumbass to get the door open but he can’t seem to handle the gun and the keys at the same time. I could take the gun away from him, but that would only cause trouble. So, I snatch the keys instead.

“Stupid son of a bitch,” I mumble as I open the door, dropping the keys to the floor outside the door. I step inside and close the door behind me. I’m not inviting him in. “Hi, Honey, I’m home,” I call out.

I put my bag down and lift my head to find Kels with my Twinkie, licking the filling from … Oh God! What I wouldn’t give to be a little yellow sponge cake.

* * *

I hear the key in the lock. Instinctively, I know Harper is back. I can feel it, feel her. Given my current state, I have two choices: admit that I was worried about … eh … without her, or torture my partner. I know she’ll forgive me for torturing her; I would never forgive myself for admitting the other.

I pick up the Twinkies, remembering her comment about licking out the cream. I open the package and wait until I’m sure we’re going to be left alone. Then her eyes meet mine.

She thinks she can beat me at this game? I invented sexual frustration and have honed it to perfection over the years. After taking a small bite, I lick my lips and then take my finger and insert it slowly into the creamy center. I swirl it around, letting her see the effect of my finger on the spongy texture.

When I withdraw it, it is coated with the sugary nectar. I look at it for a long moment. Then, slowly, while watching her, insert it in my mouth. She groans and I can’t help but grin.

“Get everything you need?” I ask as I remove my finger from my mouth. Is that a slight tremor I see?

“Oh, don’t go there right now, Little Roo, especially with what we need to do,” she growls at me as she steps forward.

I offer her a bite of the cake. “I’m sorry, Tabloid.” She takes hold of my wrist and my eyes as she takes a long, slow bite. Oh Lord, well, we just might be evenly matched. “I … I needed to play a little, to break up the tension,” I stammer.

“You call that breaking up the tension? Good God, woman, you’d kill a normal person in the bedroom.” She drops her backpack to the ground and begins unzipping it. “Good thing for you, I’m not a normal person.”

I chuckle as I pop the last of the cake into my mouth and bend down to see what she’s brought back. I recognize the transceiver, pinhead mike and receiver. “What are these for?”

She smiles. “Ah, thanks for finding those, baby.” Before I realize what is happening, she stands up and drops her jeans to the floor. I am now kneeling by her backpack staring at a mile’s worth of leg ending in a white thong.

“I … I …” I am going to pass out. “I always figured you for a boxer gal,” I manage finally.

She laughs, low in her throat. “I didn’t know you thought about me in my underwear, Kels.”

God, more than you know.

She then pulls the elastic of the waistband away from her skin and I nearly faint. I force myself to not crane my neck to get a good look down. I also refrain from offering to help.

Next thing I know, she is putting the transceiver down the front of her underwear.

Okay, I think my Twinkie trick just got its ass beat. “What are you gonna do if they search you?”

“Anyone who puts a hand there uninvited, loses their arm at the shoulder. Because I’ll rip it off and beat them with it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

She shrugs as she unrolls the mike wire. “Oh, you have an open invitation.”

She plugs in the lead to the pinhead mike and runs it up under her shirt, lifting her T-shirt as she goes. I watch with avid interest as the tanned flesh is revealed. Damn. She has six pack abs to die for. She pulls the front of her bra away from her skin and slides the mike under it. Letting the elastic snap back, it holds the mike in place for her, she secures it with a small piece of tape as well.

“Can you give me a hand?”

“I’ll give you two,” I mutter, giving serious consideration to that invitation.

She tsk’s and then spins around offering me her broad back. “Run the receiver lead up for me?”

I take the dangling earpiece and run the wire around her hip, holding it in place with my left hand as my right hand pulls it though the elastic of that thong and then up her spinal column. I hit the edge of her rolled up shirt, and have to lift it up and slide my hand under to continue my path.

“Want it under your bra?” She gives a nod and a grunt as my fingers slide under to move the receiver through. She’s so tall, however, that I can’t reach down from her collar and pull it out.

“Bend your knees,” I husk, then quickly clear my throat.

“Okay, but, hurry, Kels, we don’t have time for you to feel me up right now. Later. After we get the fuck out of here.”

“Stop flattering yourself.”

“Stop rubbing yourself against me,” she counters.

“I had to lean to keep my balance.”

“Uh huh.”

Finally, my hands stop betraying me and I grasp the earpiece and pull it clear of her shirt. The black lead wire blends in with her hair perfectly.

She takes it from my fingers and presses the small device into her ear. “Thanks.” Turning around, she gives me another long look, then she leans in and does something I’m not expecting.

“You missed some,” she says as she licks a bit of cream from the corner of my mouth.

Oh, I want to turn my head and kiss her senseless, but I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it. No matter how much my mouth and other parts of my body want to. I am not going to do it. No.

While I struggle with my now raging hormones, remembering the taste and feel of that kiss we shared in the closet, she drags her jeans back up her long legs, zipping them and then fastening the button. Her shirt is tucked in next.

I successfully resist the urge to lean into her breasts and whisper “testing, testing.” I should get an Emmy for that restraint.

For her part, Harper seems completely unaffected by our game, having recovered from the Twinkie moment with her usual smug grace.

She’s just finishing up the prep on the camera and helping me with my mike when the door opens again. It’s one of the younger guards, much bigger than the last one. Tall and very meaty, he looks like a human wall. My guess is he would be our host’s attempt to intimidate my partner.

“Boss is ready ladies. C’mon.”

“After you, Kels. Stick close as we go outside.” She adds this last bit for our non-viewing audience.

“Oh, no problem there, Tabloid, trust me.” I take a deep breath and adjust the mike one last time, remembering the feeling of her hands raising my shirt to put it in place. God, I’m reduced to this as foreplay. You know, it occurs to me that I used to put my own damn mike on, but I haven’t since we met.

Harper takes a moment to adjust and collect all our gear. She gives me a look that says ‘trust me’ and I know I do, with my heart and soul. She hands me a jacket that looks like hers, but by the smell of the cologne I know it belongs to Jims. Sweet kid, but he needs help with his taste in aftershave. I slip the jacket on, grateful for the extra warmth now that I’ve lost Harper’s. Stop it, Kelsey!

The human wall leads us down the hall and out to the porch. Jesus, there are cops and National Guardsmen everywhere. Even this idiot must realize he isn’t going to simply make this go away. Scamp is standing there too, seemingly oblivious to the danger posed. I follow him as he leaves the porch for the front yard. I hear Harper right behind me. I watch as our host takes a deep breath, as he seems to survey everything around him. He’s far too calm.

Harper rigs him up with a mike and presses one of his goons into service, holding the antenna for her so we can broadcast back to the truck. Then Harper lifts the Betacam to her shoulder and winks at me, giving me another smile. Okay, I like that smile … a lot. Even Beth, whom I adore, doesn’t have a smile like that. And, certainly, doesn’t make me feel as safe as Harper does. Less sexually frustrated, yes; safe, no. Sometimes, actually, most of the time, safe is a hell of a lot more important.

“We’re ready. Are you?” I ask, as I take my mark where Harper has pointed to the ground as she begins rolling.

Scamp turns slowly and looks at us. “Are you really ready? Are you prepared to air to the entire nation the death that will most certainly take place here today because people refuse to allow us to live here in peace.”

I fight to not roll my eyes, okay, Kels, be a professional. Instead of what I want to say, I say, “There are those who say that you have provoked this antagonism – that you would have been allowed to live here in peace if you had not deliberately encouraged the young men of this community to terrorize the local citizens. If that is true, then it suggests that you deliberately set up your own downfall. Why did you take such an aggressive course of action?”

“It’s important for people to know how corrupt our own government has become.”

I hear Harper snort behind me and I can almost hear the Lewinsky joke rolling around in her head. I take another deep breath. “Risking the lives of more than a hundred and forty people being killed is going to prove how corrupt our government is? How so?”

“Men are no longer allowed to live as God intended. Free from the restrictions of a government that now has to control our every movement. From the moment we are born until the second we die, they know what we are doing.”

Great, just great, a paranoid maniac with conspiracy delusions, this should be fun.

He continues as he looks at the law enforcement surrounding him. He knows they are closing in. “We are forced to register our children when they are born by getting social security numbers for them. Our young men must register for a draft to fight unjust wars on foreign soil. You have to register to vote. Provide ID to buy guns to protect your family. You work hard and the government takes money from your pocket and food from the mouths of your family to pay for its own decadence.”

He takes a long, deep breath then turns to face me, giving me a long stare that starts very hard then softens just a bit. “Miss Stanton, do you believe that there are some things worth dying for?” he asks as he cocks his head at me.

Oh, I really don’t like the sound of that question, and I most definitely don’t like the look in his eyes. “My personal beliefs have nothing to do with this situation – my commitment is to report …”

“Well, perhaps this might help you get in touch with those personal beliefs a bit more.” This last comment is delivered as he reaches around to his back and draws a very large hand gun, pointing it directly in my face. “Because your death will save the lives of those hundred and forty people. Too bad your government was willing to let you die.”

I have those visions everyone talks about. My life, such as it is, flashes before my eyes. I hear a roar and my world starts spinning. There’s something in my eyes, burning and causing them to tear up, I can’t see. I feel myself stagger as my hands go to my face. Then I feel someone grab me around the waist, pulling me hard to the ground. I can’t breath, I can’t see and I know I need to get away, so I fight. Lashing out, my hands are pinned right away as I feel a body cover mine.

“Stop, Kels! Stop! Just lay still! I have you!”

I realize it’s Harper on top of me, covering my body with hers. I try to hold still as she has commanded, but the burning in my eyes makes me want to fight. I hear distant gunfire, people screaming, metal crashing, vehicles roaring into the compound, sirens, men running and yelling.

“Harper!” I’m shaking my head trying to force my eyes to see, but the burning is so intense. “I can’t see!”

“I know, baby, I know. Hang on. It’ll all be over in a few minutes! Trust me, we’re safe. Lay still. Stop fighting me.” She whispers in my ear, “Please stop fighting me.”

I try to relax as much as possible but it is so hard. As I do, her body tightens around mine holding me closer and she continues to murmur in my ear. “I have you. I have you.”

Then I feel her pulled away from me. I’m left blind and alone, and the panic starts to settle in again. Someone grabs me and rolls me onto my stomach. Oh God! I’m gonna be shot in the head. But instead of a bullet, I feel handcuffs being snapped into place on my wrists pulled behind my back. “Harper!”

“It’s the cops, Kels, the good guys. Don’t fight them. Lay still. They’re doing this for their own safety. They’ll let us go when they get it sorted out. Just relax.”

I can hear all kinds of things but none of it makes any sense to me. There is only one thing that does makes sense to me. “Harper, talk to me. Please talk to me.”

“It’s okay, Little Roo…”

“My eyes…” I sob, overcome by the endearment and the pain.

“They’ll be okay, Kels. I’m sorry about that, it was my fault. It’s just Capstun. I used it on the big guy with the gun. The wind swept some of it back, catching you in the face. I’m sorry. We’ll wash it out. In the meantime just try to open your eyes.”

“It burns.”

“I know, but if your eyes tear up it’ll help wash it away.”

Again, hands I don’t recognize are pulling me up. The only good point here is I’m leaned against a back I do recognize and I feel her take my hands. Getting used to the burning in my eyes, I take a deep breath. “What in the fuck just happened?” I ask as I grasp her hands.

“The police were setting up snipers to take our host down when he put the gun in your face. If my camera survived, you can look at the tape later.”

“What do you mean if your camera survived?”

“I threw it at him after I used the Capstun.”

“You threw your baby?” I am amazed.

“Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, Kels.” I hear her laugh a little as she gives my hand a gentle squeeze. “And you’re worth more than the damn thing anyway.”

***

A while later, sitting in the comfort of the truck I feel her hand cup my chin. “Okay, Little Roo. This may sting a little, but it will neutralize the Capstun. Ready?”

I nod as I feel her pry one eye open and spray something in it. Then she repeats the process in the other. I can’t help but pull away and shake my head. My eyes finally start cooling and stop stinging. As I lift my head and open my eyes, she smiles at me, wiping away the tears with a cloth. Funny, the last thing I saw when I thought I was going to die, is the first thing I see now when I know I’m not.

“Better?” She smiles as she continues to wipe the tears from my face. I just nod. “Good. You know when we get out of here, we’re all going out for a really expensive dinner on the company tab.” She reaches around and draws a blanket over my shoulders. “After we get really drunk tonight.”

“Are you okay?” I ask as I notice a row of scratches on her neck. I must have done that with my fingernails when I was fighting her. I reach out and run my finger over them. “I’m sorry.”

She acts like it doesn’t hurt to have me do that. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a scrape or two. Besides, I deserve it since you pretty much softened my fall. I want you to go to the hospital and get checked out.”

“Glad I could help.” I laugh a little, as Jimmy hands me a cup of coffee. “I’m okay, Harper.”

“I’m sorry it’s not tea, Kelsey, but coffee is the best I could do,” the kid says as his hand comes to rest on my shoulder.

I smile at him and his orange hair. I’m really glad to see it again. “It’s fine, Jimmy. Thanks.” I sip the coffee, hating the bitter taste but enjoying the warmth it offers. “Do we have any idea how this went so wrong so quickly?” I ask Harper between sips.

“Apparently Scamp and his followers had arrived recently. They liked that Sam and the others were a bunch of tree-huggers, figured they’d be easy to take over. Assholes like that are always the same: unwilling to pay the price of leadership, so they steal someone else’s followers. Scamp was wanting his jerk-offs to get the town stirred up against Sam’s leadership. Then he would step in and ‘control’ the kids, and take over the compound. But, the kids went overboard yesterday and beat up one of the shopkeepers, and then we showed up, and his timetable was blown to hell. So, when he realized his plan wasn’t going to work, he apparently decided to kill us and commit suicide by cop. In his mind it was a more honorable death than being taken alive. He also knew that by killing you, it would make national news and basically it would be Waco all over again. Kind of a ‘the government over-reacted again and a lot of innocent people got killed’ thing.”

“Including a well known TV personality.” I shudder at the thought.

“Including a well know TV personality.” She says softly as her palm comes to rest on my cheek. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”

“No, don’t you be sorry. We came here to get a story and it went bad. You had no way of knowing and it’s not your fault. It’s a hazard of the job.”

“Still…”

“Stop,” I say again as I sip my coffee. “We’re all okay and that’s what matters.”

“You are amazing, Little Roo.”

“Nothing to it when you’re inspired, Tabloid.” I glance around and see the camera lying in the back of the truck. “Did it make it?”

Harper looks to the camera and sighs. “I’m not sure, I haven’t even checked it yet. I’ll have it checked out at the station before we fly home.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, that camera and I have been together a long time, but,” she looks down at me and smiles, “it was worth it.”

Yeah. I do love that smile. I catch her eyes and decide to tease her a touch. “Hey, Harper, got any more Twinkies?”

***

“So.” I fold my long frame into the piece of crap Ford rental and close the door, resting my wrists on the steering wheel. We’ve spent the last few hours down at the local police station, once again, signing witness statements and drinking bad coffee, all the while putting the story to bed. I look into the backseat where Olson is stretched out and half-asleep and then to my other passenger whose eyes are only still slightly bloodshot. They’re beautiful, regardless, and I could drown in those jade depths but I shake my head quickly. Back to the topic at hand. “Where to?”

“Hotel,” my companions say simultaneously.

I roll my eyes and start the car. “After the hotel, you party animals.”

“Uh,” Jimmy speaks first. “I’m gonna stay in, call my parents. You know.”

I can’t very well rib him for that, it was a frightening experience, and I need to call mine before they organize a sit-in protest on my behalf. So I turn my attention to Kelsey instead. “You gonna call your parents, too?” I ask, without a touch of teasing.

She snorts, looks away as if the scenery we’re passing is the most interesting she’s seen. “Nah. What do you have in mind?”

I raise my eyebrow but she misses it. “I don’t know. What is there to do in Nebraska anyway?”

Kelsey laughs and shrugs her shoulders. I think she’s as reluctant to be alone as I am. It seems like we’ve been together forever and it will be strange to be apart. “Maybe we could find a gay bar,” I suggest, pulling into traffic.

She gives me a withering look. “What in the hell would I want with a gay bar, Tabloid?”

“Hmm.” I look to Olson through the rearview mirror and he appears suddenly interested in our conversation. “Good point,” I say and wink at her.

She shakes her head but she’s smiling. Somewhere along the line we made a truce of sorts and I’m glad. I always liked her; it’s nice to have the feeling returned. Besides, it bodes well for my future plans that involve her naked and screaming.

“Maybe drinking and dancing?”

Kelsey shrugs slightly. “Sure.”

***

When I come down the hall, dressed appropriately in jeans and a fresh denim shirt, Kelsey’s door is slightly open. I knock on it as I push it inwards. “Little Roo?”

“Come in,” she calls from the bathroom and I do, taking a seat on the edge of her bed.

I bounce on it slowly, testing the resiliency. Nice bed for a hotel, I muse.

Moments later, Kelsey emerges from the bathroom, pulling still damp hair back into a ponytail. She’s wearing jeans and a tight white shirt. She looks fabulous, though I admit to being biased.

“Okay?” she queries, looking for my approval. I nod.

“Better than okay, cher,” I tease her, letting my Cajun come out.

She laughs, better able to take my bantering than before.

“You have a message,” I tell her. Just now I’ve noticed the light on her phone is blinking.

Kelsey looks at me warily. “Is it from you?”

“Nope.” I hold my hands up. “Not me.” I scoot over so she can sit by the nightstand.

She listens to the message silently and angrily slaps the phone back into the cradle.

“Kels?”

She waves me off and returns to the bathroom. “I’ll be ready in a minute,” she assures me but her voice sounds strained, like she’s on the verge of tears.

I jump to my feet but she’s already sealed herself into the smaller room. “Kels, come on. Is everything okay? I meant it when I said you could talk to me about anything.”

“I’m fine.” Her voice is muffled. “Give me a sec.”

I know I shouldn’t. I know she deserves her privacy, but I’m worried about her. I also know she didn’t hit any buttons when she hung up the phone and I can probably retrieve whatever it was that sent her off in tears. I convince myself I’m doing it for her benefit and pick up the receiver, dialing the message retrieval number.

The voice on the recording is clipped and formal, sounding a bit like Kelsey did during our first meetings. It’s colder, though, than Kelsey’s tones could ever be.

“Kelsey, it’s your mother. I saw on the news you were in a bit of a mess with that silly job of yours. I just need to know if you can make that court date against your Father. It’s vital for my case that you be there. And if he calls, tell him to find his own damn witness. Let me know.”

I’m stunned as I replace the receiver softly. That was her mother? Didn’t ask how she was or what happened? Didn’t appear to care that her daughter had nearly died? I’d spent a good twenty minutes trying to get my parents off the phone so I could shower, they’d been so worried about me and what they had seen. Kelsey’s mother didn’t care at all.

Suddenly, I feel sobered. I understand a little more about my partner and why she does some of the things she does. I wish I could show her what a family is supposed to be like; maybe I’ll take her home with me for Thanksgiving. Instead, I decide to show her what a friend can be.

“Little Roo.” I knock on the door to the bathroom. “Let’s go turn this town upside down.”

She’s quiet for a long time. “You listened, didn’t you.” She sounds more relieved that I know than angry that I invaded her privacy.

There’s no reason to lie. “Fuck her, Kels. Come with me. She can stick her stupid court date up her tight ass and we’ll have fun without her.”

Without a word, she opens the door and looks at me with slightly watery eyes. They’re bloodshot but I’m pretty sure it’s not from her recent tears and I feel a twinge of guilt again for the overspray.

I don’t say anything either, as I take her hand and tug her out of the hotel room. Omaha, here we come. Line dancing and cheap beer, sounds like a perfect night.
Episode Eleven: It Must Be The Morning After
When my brain decides it’s okay to function again, I become aware of several things at once. One, I am hung over. Not the “begging God to let you live” kind of hangover, but a “I can’t quite remember last night” kind of hangover.

Two, there is an incredible body spooned to my back and a strong arm draped over my waist. As I run my hand over that arm, I also realize we are both totally nude. My breath catches, forcing me to inhale.

I smell the rain and forest and sea and …

Oh my God!

Oh my God! No.

It can’t be.

I’d know that scent anywhere. Before I can roll over to confirm my suspicion, she stretches and her entire body goes taut against mine and it’s all I can do to keep from moaning aloud.

She relaxes and curls back around me. As she does, she murmurs something as she kisses my shoulder. My entire body shudders with pleasure and I know have to stop this. “Harper?” I manage to get out as I give her arm a little squeeze.

“Hmmm?”

Oh, Jesus, it is her.

“Harper… umm… wake up.”

“No. No reason to get up. Day off.” She sounds like a kid in the morning, her voice all petulant and sleepy.

I roll over in her arms and open my eyes. Oh yeah, it’s her. God, she looks sexy in the morning.

Now that my eyes are working I really should see how bad it is. I slowly lift the blankets. Oh yeah. Totally naked. Oh my, Harper, nice little navel ring there. That must be fun to play with. Stop it, Kels! But what a view! This should be illegal in most states.

No, no, I take that back. It IS illegal in most states.

Okay, Kels, why in the hell haven’t you moved yet? Could it be you don’t want to wake her because she is positively the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen? Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s because she’s been rubbing her entire body against you for the last few minutes?

I clear my throat just a little. “Harper?”

“Hmm?” Her head moves forward and she brushes her lips against mine.

Oh my God, I gotta stop and gotta stop right now.

I take the sheet and wrap it tightly around myself. I leave the blanket for Harper, which I have to straighten out (so to speak) over her before I lose all my will to get out of this bed. If any of her body parts remain on display, my resolve is toast.

As I sit on the edge of the bed, my mind swims, trying to put together everything that happened last night. We gave statements to the cops for forever. Then we dropped Jims off at the hotel, and Harper and I decided to go out to dinner. After dinner, we decided to blow off steam with some dancing and a drink or two. I seem to recall a country and western bar and line dancing. One or two drinks led to at least eight and that’s where the problems start.

I get up and move across the room toward the bathroom. On my way I pass the dresser mirror and stop. I look at my reflection and see the deep purple bruise on my neck. “Oh my God,” I mumble as I run my fingers over it. “Okay, Kels, breathe, a hickey does not mean anything happened.”

Slowly I open the sheet and inspect the rest of my body. Umm … well, now those marks probably mean a little more. Oh Lord, what did we do? It doesn’t quite feel like a morning after, but it sure looks like one.

I close up the sheet and begin looking around for my clothes. The first thing I find is Harper’s shirt. All the buttons are missing. “Did I do that?”

“Un-huh,” a low voice agrees from the bed.

I look up. She’s awake now, leaning back on her elbows with a huge smile on her face and nothing at all on her chest. This is not helping my concentration.

“You bit the first two off then you just ripped it open.”

“Oh please. I have never in my life bitten off a button. Let alone two.”

“Well,” she smirks lazily, “you did seem to find ripping them off far more satisfying.”

“Harper.” I rest my cheek in my hand as I lean against the doorframe to the bathroom. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Umm-hmm.”

“Will you answer it honestly?”

“Umm-hmm.”

“What happened?”

“You mean you don’t remember?” Her tone is teasing.

Oh, I just know I’m gonna choke on this next word. “No.” Okay, I don’t need the laughter coming from the bed. I throw her shirt at her. “Go to hell.”

“Ah, come on, Kels…” I hear her as I head into the bathroom. I need a shower. I close the door behind me, leaning against it and trying to rattle my brain into remembering anything. And I don’t know what my body is telling me, talk about mixed signals. Oh God, I can’t believe this is happening.

The knock on the door brings me back. “Leave me alone!”

“That’s not what you said last night.”

“Fuck you.”

“Yup, that’s what you said last night. See, Kels, it’s all coming back to you now.”

“Harper, if you have a kind bone in your body, you’ll let me take a shower in peace.”

“No problem.” Her voice is subdued suddenly. “Could you hand me a robe first?”

I take the robe down from the hook and open the door. And gape.

I should have known she’d be naked; I just should have known it. I swallow hard and try not to look. Wonder if a prayer to be struck blind would do me any good? Because my damned eyes are certainly not obeying my brain’s command not to look. “Here.” I shove the robe at her and close the door.

“Do you want breakfast? I’ll have room service send something up.”

I don’t answer, assuming the question to be rhetorical. She’ll do what she wants, I imagine. God, what did she want to do last night? What did we do?

And what am I going to do now?

* * *

I am having a wonderful dream. I’m in Louisiana, staying at one of the old plantation houses, and the scent of magnolia is drifting in an open window. I’m in an upstairs bedroom, laying on a plump feather bed, being embraced by both its softness and a small body in front of me. She’s snuggled up against me tightly, leaving no room between our bodies, which is just fine with me. Her head is resting on my left arm and my other arm is thrown around her waist, under the fullness of her breasts. Her skin is soft and smooth and smells wonderful, even better than the flowers outside.

I feel her hand stroke my arm. It feels so good, so gentle. I stretch lazily, like my fat cat, and enjoy the feel of our skin sliding against one another. I kiss her shoulder. “Stay. Nice,” I whisper. No need for this dream to end anytime soon.

“Harper?” My dream asks.

“Hmmm?”

“Harper … umm … wake up.”

“No,” I protest. This is too nice. “No reason to get up. Day off.” I deserve one, especially after the last few days and the hostage situation. Surely, the world can continue on without me for awhile.

I relax again into sleep, letting it take me back without protest.

My dream girl turns in my arms, stirring me again. I fold my arms around her, pulling her close. She needs to learn to be still, enjoy the quiet of the morning. Instead, she’s plucking at the heirloom quilt covering our bodies and letting cool air hit warm skin.

“Harper?”

Honey, it’s early morning. Maybe she feels awkward here. I can fix that. I kiss her gently, enjoying the taste of her lips. It’s familiar, surprising me; I didn’t think I knew her, other than in a Biblical sense.

Then, my dream does the unexpected: she pulls away from me. I feel the sheet disappear and the quilt tucked tightly around my body. What’s going on here? This was supposed to be a nice dream.

Awareness comes suddenly.

This ain’t Louisiana, that ain’t an heirloom quilt, and she ain’t no dream girl. That’s Kelsey.

Oh shit.

I play possum and try to take stock of the situation. Through barely open eyes, I see Kelsey standing in front of a mirror, examining her body. I wish she’d drop that sheet a bit lower so I could join in the inspection.

Because I sure as hell don’t know what happened.

But, given the pounding behind my eyes, I’m surprised I can recall my own name. Jesus. That was some strong shit they served last night. Gotta remember to not drink Omaha Special Blend Whiskey in the near future. Or ever again.

I take stock of my body. I feel like crap. But that’s the hangover talking. My shoulder hurts, but I think that’s explained by my tackle of Kelsey yesterday after throwing the Betacam at Scamp. I am certainly relaxed, but it doesn’t seem quite like the normal post-sexual lassitude I typically enjoy. Did we? Or didn’t we?

I hear Kelsey begin rummaging around for something near the bed. Rolling over, I push myself up on my elbows to observe her. I think my Little Roo is upset.

“Did I do that?” she asks my shirt, as if it might answer her.

“Un-huh,” I answer on behalf of my shirt. This is one of the few things I recall from last night. “You bit the first two off, then you just ripped it open.” Surprised the hell out of me. Little tiger. I may have to change her nickname.

“Oh please. I have never in my life bitten off a button. Let alone two.” The most precious blush is creeping up her neck and cheeks.

“Well, you did seem to find ripping them off far more satisfying.” Come on, Kels, this isn’t so bad, is it?

“Harper.” She sounds so weary. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Umm-hmm.”

“Will you answer it honestly?”

“Umm-hmm.”

“What happened?”

I smirk, a bit relieved that she doesn’t know either. At least, we have a level playing field. “You mean you don’t remember?”

“No,” she squeaks.

God, it’s too funny to see the fierce Kelsey Stanton standing wrapped up in a sheet and looking none too sure of herself. I laugh at the thought and get smacked in the face by my shirt, suddenly flung at me by an angry blonde.

“Go to hell.”

Ah, damn. I didn’t mean anything by that. Come on, Kels, this is funny. I mean, we both obviously want each other. This isn’t the end of the world, is it? “Ah, come on, Kels.” I follow her to the bathroom and knock on the door.

“Leave me alone!”

“That’s not what you said last night,” I tease. Kels, don’t be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way, right?

“Fuck you.”

“Yup, that’s what you said last night. See, Kels, it’s all coming back to you now.”

“Harper, if you have a kind bone in your body, you’ll let me take a shower in peace.”

“No problem.” Guess it does have to. “Could you hand me a robe first?”

The door opens, she stares for a long moment and then she shoves a robe into my hands, the door closing again immediately. “Here.”

Maybe this can still be salvaged. “Do you want breakfast? I’ll have room service send something up.” Perhaps food will calm the savage beast.

* * *

As the water runs over me and I let it wash away some of the cobwebs, I try really hard to remember what the hell happened last night.

All right. Now let me think. We came back here. I remember Harper having a little trouble getting the door open.

Oh God. It was because I was standing behind her running my hands up and down the front of her shirt.

I remember pushing her into the wall and kissing her senseless once we were inside. She tasted so good, oh so very good. I remember the burning in the pit of my stomach, the ache between my legs. Oh Jesus, I remember wanting her so damn bad. I don’t ever remember feeling like that before, to want someone so much it hurt.

Her hands were all over my body and felt so good. I didn’t want her to stop. I wanted her to take me to bed and make me feel, make me feel anything she wanted me to. Of all the things I do doubt this morning that, most certainly, is not one of them. Last night, I wanted Harper Kingsley.

Have I lost my fucking mind?

Good God. I lean against the shower wall as the water runs over my body. How goddamned irresponsible could I be? Harper is my co-worker. The last thing I need is an affair with her. I laugh a little as the word “affair” tangles itself in my mind. I didn’t want an affair. I wanted a quick fuck.

It was a bad idea then and it’s bad idea now.

I finish my shower and begin toweling off, trying to remember the rest of last night. Okay. After the kiss, what happened? What happened?

She began undressing me. Slowly. I remember it being slowly. Far too slowly for my tastes.

Shit!

I did bite her buttons.

Fuck! I think I even spat one across the room.

Then she caught on to the game we were playing and began undressing me the way I wanted it done. Fast and hard.

We ended up on the bed pawing each other like the first two women to discover great sex. Oh yeah, I remember her long strong, body coming to rest on top of me. Her firm thigh finding the exact spot that I wanted it in. Her mouth on my neck.

I lean with my hands against the sink, my head down and my eyes closed as some of those sensations come flooding back, nearly causing my knees to buckle.

Then what the fuck happened?

* * *

I hang up after ordering breakfast. In the bathroom, I hear shower running and I try not to imagine Kelsey’s naked body under it. As the fog clears, I do remember the magnificent body I uncovered last night.

I started imagining it in detail when we were out dancing.

I remember the Denim Diamond, the country and western bar we ultimately ended up at. It was a classic – sawdust scattered on the floor, along with peanut shells, a large dance floor, lots of two top tables circling it, and peroxide waitresses in boots. Those are a personal favorite of mine.

But, I hardly noticed them last night with Kelsey.

We grabbed a table near the dance floor, ordered a round of drinks and listened to the latest Dixie Chicks single. Some of the locals recognized us from the television coverage and sent over another round.

And then another.

And another.

And then someone showed up with a bottle of Omaha’s famous special blend whiskey. Which we drank.

Soon, there was a whole crowd around our table, laughing, drinking, and daring us to line dance.

I was actually pretty good considering I was drunk off my ass. Kelsey, bless her heart, was trying.

So, like any good friend, I helped her out. I found the best way to do that was by placing my hands on her hips and guiding her through the steps. Good, clean, innocent fun.

Certainly nothing that anyone at the bar thought twice of.

But, they didn’t see us in the hallway outside her room at the hotel.

I remember her fondling my breasts as I tried to open her door, causing me to drop the damn card key twice. Each time I bent down to pick it up, she ran her hands over my ass in ways I didn’t imagine she would think to do.

I nearly bashed my head into the wall the first time.

The second time I moaned and got the fucking door opened.

We stumbled into the room and somehow managed to get the door closed. No need to give our fellow guests at the hotel a free show. I was surprised to find myself pressed up against the wall. Not quite how I imagined this moment. It was supposed to be Kels against the wall, me pressing against her, taking control.

I was so shit-faced.

She was climbing up my body, her hands on my shoulders, her legs around my waist, her mouth everywhere. Damn. I thought she just got laid last weekend. She acted like I was the last drink of water in the middle of the desert.

The way her tongue was probing in my mouth she wasn’t going to share any of it with me.

I tried to cool things down a couple notches. I remember exchanging slow kisses, pulling away when she tried to deepen them. My fingers found the buttons on her blouse and I tried to undo them slowly.

She was having none of that.

I yelped when she leaned forward and bit my top button off.

God, I thought she was going to take a hunk of my flesh with it, her expression was so intense.

When she spit it across the room, I got the hint. I stumbled across the room to the bed – you should try walking gracefully when you have a hundred pound hellcat in your arms – and we collapsed on the bed together.

I remember ripping the clothes off her body while she destroyed my shirt. First the silk one in the library, which she never did pay me for, and now this one. I might be safer going topless around her.

Yeah right.

She calmed down a bit once we got naked.

I just wish I knew what happened after that.

* * *

Finally, I know I have to face the inevitable. I hear the knock on the door and Harper answer it to allow room service to bring in breakfast. I take the opportunity to put on a robe and wrap my hair in a towel.

Maybe breakfast will help. We can sit down and discuss this like two rational adults.

Once the waiter is gone, I exit the bathroom. Harper gives me a smile as she adjusts the table. “I wasn’t sure what you wanted, but I guessed you’re a fresh fruit and bagel for breakfast type.”

“I am. Thanks.”

She smiles as she holds a chair for me. I glance sideways at her. She’s being far too kind. As I take my seat, she moves to the chair across from me and pours coffee for herself, then she hands me a cup of tea.

“Earl Gray, right?”

“Right.”

She leans back and drapes her napkin in her lap. “I, however, am a ham and eggs type.” She uncovers her plate and looks at the meal with an appreciative nod. “Looks good.”

“Uh-huh,” I offer as I sip my tea.

We sit in an awkward silence. Well, actually, I sit in an awkward silence. Harper is eating breakfast.

“Kels, what’s wrong?” She finally responds to my staring at her.

“What’s wrong? You have to ask?”

She looks up from her breakfast as she cuts through the ham. “Yeah, I have to ask. I mean, is it really that bad?” She takes a bite as she waits for my answer.

“Harper, we got drunk and we came back here and we… we…”

“Made love.”

“Ah, is that what you call it?”

“Well, isn’t that what we did?”

“Do you know where the buttons are to your shirt?”

She chuckles. “No.”

“Then it wasn’t making love, Harper. It was sex.” I lean back in my chair and set my tea cup down. I hate how composed she looks. How it seems like none of this matters to her. I want her to feel as badly as I do. “You know sex. You’ve had lots of it.”

Puzzled blue eyes meet mine. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Harper, the first time I laid eyes on you, you were practically fucking a woman on the seat of your motorcycle.”

She laughs a little as she nods. “And you should have seen the look on your face. It was priceless.”

“I’m so glad you’re amused. I mean, it was such an accomplishment for you, such a quality moment in your life. And let’s not forget about Sparky.”

“Her name was Victoria.” She sets the knife down forcefully, her breakfast forgotten for the moment.

“And did you see her more than once?”

“No.”

“Do you ever see anyone more than once?”

“Occasionally I might find someone I see two or three times.”

“So basically you notch your bed post and move on.”

“Christ, Kels, what do you want? A run down of my sexual past?” she growls as she wipes her mouth with her napkin. “Sorry, I don’t keep track. I have healthy sex life and I enjoy it. Unlike some people.”

“Is that a dig?”

“No, that’s a fact. You’re so fucking uptight, you squeak when you walk.”

“Oh, that’s rich coming from someone who will sleep with anything that’s willing.”

“Willing is the key word, Kels. And you were more than goddamn willing last night!” she says as she gets to her feet and begins collecting her clothes.

“That was last night. So now you can go home and add another notch.”

“You’re not worth one. On my bedpost or anywhere else.”

She starts dressing quickly, slipping on her jeans and T-shirt followed by her shoes. She collects everything else and starts to wrap them in her shirt. As she does, she pauses, reconsidering, then tosses me the shirt.

“That’s the second shirt you’ve totaled. Keep it as a souvenir of the one time in your frigid, uptight life when maybe, just maybe, you were willing to let go and enjoy yourself.”

“You are the most arrogant person I have ever met!” I’m on my feet now throwing the shirt to the floor. “The world does not revolve around Harper Kingsley.”

She moves to the door and turns as she lays her hand on the knob. “Oh, I know it doesn’t revolve around me. But at least I know how to get out into it and enjoy it a little. I don’t hide in hotel rooms waiting to be with someone who sneaks into town twice a year to give me a quick fuck and leave.”

She pauses at the door and stares at me for a long moment. Her mouth starts to move, but nothing comes out. Finally, she clears her throat and says, “Get packed. We have a plane to catch.”

She leaves without another word.

I sit on the bed retrieving the shirt from the floor and bring it to my face. That scent. God, tell me I didn’t destroy a friendship over something that might not have even happened.

* * *

My heart is pounding when I step out into the hallway. Where did this morning go wrong? I woke up happy and naked with a beautiful woman in my arms. Now I’m standing in the fucking hallway slinking away like I did something wrong.

I don’t even know for sure that we did anything. I bring my hands up to my nose and sniff tentatively.

Damn. Eggs and ham. Somehow, I doubt if that’s Kels’ scent.

Okay, what are the facts?

Fact one, I woke up naked in bed with Kelsey.

Fact two, she acts like we had hot monkey sex.

Fact three, I’m standing out in the hallway after a fight I don’t even understand how it started.

Great. I nail her. And I don’t even remember it. Even if I did carve fucking notches in my bedpost I wouldn’t be able to count this one.

I don’t even know if I would want to now.

Good-bye, Kels. It was fun while it lasted.
Episode Twelve: Kiss and Make Up
Gail places my tea in front of me and hands me the remote to my TV’s. “I saw you on the news last night with Erik. You two looked great! Your dress was magnificent. I bet you made it on one of the best dressed lists.”

I smile as I think of the awards ceremony. Erik was all decked out in his Armani tuxedo and I wore a long, tight, forest green gown by Vera Wang. It was the type of dress that made me grateful for my constant workouts and dieting. With Erik’s height, broad shoulders and good looks and my all-American girl persona, we managed to capture a lot of attention last night. It was a great night for my best friend. “We had a really good time.”

“I know that the Popular Picks Awards aren’t considered the biggest thing in the world, but I think it’s really cool that Erik won for Best New Actor.”

I fight down my irritation at Gail. Nothing like a backhanded compliment to start off the day. “Hey, one step at a time,” I say, forcing a breezy tone into my voice. “He’s very proud of that award. It’s a popular poll of the people who see his work. He’s walking on clouds today.”

“I’ll bet he is. Did you go to any cool parties after?”

“Yeah, we hit two or three.”

“Oh, I’ll bet you were rubbing all kinds of elbows last night.”

“We ran into a few familiar faces. It was also a good opportunity for Erik to make some important contacts. The guy who runs Camelot Pictures simply fell in love with him.” Quite literally, I think. It was kinda fun watching them both check each other out, without seeming to.

I smile when I consider that.

“Any chance he’ll be by today?” Gail asks, trying to not sound too hopeful. All the women here are in love with him.

“Actually, yes. He’s coming by to take me to lunch. So you can drool over him for a few minutes when he gets here.” And slip him your phone number again, bitch. Did you really think he wouldn’t tell me?

“Oh, I won’t be the only one. You have no idea how many women in this place envy you.”

You wouldn’t if you knew the truth. My life is a fucking mess, but a good-looking one.

I’m about to reply when there is a knock on my door. I glance up to find an office messenger carrying a dozen roses arranged in a crystal vase. “These came for you, Miss Stanton.”

I’m a little surprised before I realize they must be from Erik. He tends to go overboard when he’s in a good mood, and, boy, is he in a good mood right now. I wave the messenger in and he places the vase on the corner of my desk. “Anything you need me to take, Miss Stanton?”

“Actually, yes.” I hand him a file. “Could you take this to Ms. Kingsley for me? Tell her it’s my notes on the Omaha story.”

Omaha.

A fucking fiasco professionally. And personally, if the truth be known.

However, if I am nothing else, I am a professional. I simply have no damn desire to see Harper right now. I notice him glance across the hallway into Harper’s office where she is sitting at her desk. He knows something is wrong, but is smart enough to not comment.

“Is there a problem?” I ask as I reach for the card stuck among the rose stems.

“No, ma’am, Miss Stanton. I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks so much.” I give him my anchor smile. That’s a dismissal and he takes the cue, leaving my office and heading straight for hers. I pull the card from the envelope. I’m surprised to discover the flowers are not from Erik. “From a secret admirer” is all the card says.

I look over into Harper’s office. They couldn’t be from her, could they? We’re barely speaking to each other and it’s been nearly two weeks since we came back. Surely she wouldn’t be ballsey enough to send me roses. I watch as she takes the file from the messenger and glances my way with a smirk.

Maybe she would.

I take my tea and the card and cross over to her office. I enter as the messenger leaves, who gives me a strange look. Tossing the card down on the desk in front of her, I take a sip of my tea as she reads it.

“Aww, now ain’t that sweet?” she sneers as she shoves it to the corner of her desk.

“Cut the fucking crap. Don’t play around here, Harper.”

“What? I’m sitting here minding my own goddamn business in my own goddamned office. You’re the one who blew in here with the fucking attitude.” She leans back in her chair, folding her arms across her chest.

“You sent the roses.”

“Yeah, right.” She shakes her head and gives me a disapproving look. “Hate to disappoint you, Kels, but if I were going blow that kinda money on a woman, it wouldn’t be you on the receiving end.”

“You didn’t send them?”

“I just said I didn’t. What more do you want from me? A signed statement?” She picks the card up and holds it out for me as she leans on her elbow. “Maybe they’re from someone you met while you were out with your boy toy last night.”

I snatch the card from her hand. “Bite me.” I hiss as I turn to leave her office.

“I think I’ll pass on the offer,” she calls after me. “You left a bad taste in my mouth last time.”

To think not long ago some part of me actually wanted her. Ah, shit, I still do, but it’ll be the day hell freezes over before I let it happen now.

Returning to my office I turn the card over to look at it again. I have work to do, I don’t have time to figure out this ‘secret admirer’ shit. I toss it in my top desk drawer and open a file.

The knocking on my door brings me out of my research. I look up to see Erik’s smiling face. I glance at my watch. “God, is it lunch time all ready?”

“Yup, it sure is. We still on?” He grins as he crosses over and places himself on the corner of my desk closest to me.

“Would I stand the People’s Poll Best New Actor up?” I get to my feet and wrap my arms around his neck as his arms wrap around my waist. “Do you have any idea how proud of you I am?”

He gives me a kiss on the cheek. “Kelsey, you’ve been with me every step of the way.” His voice drops a bit as he whispers into my ear. “If things were different for us, I swear I’d marry you. I love you, Kels.”

“I love you too, Erik.”

To anyone looking through my office window right now, we look like two lovers who can’t get enough of one another.

Appearances mean nothing. Surely ten years in Los Angeles have taught me that by now.

You know, I deserve my life: the only person who truly loves me is a gay man. Still, it’s nice to know that there is at least one person in this world who does love me. Some days it’s the only thing that keeps me going.

Okay, Kels, cut out the maudlin stuff. I mentally shake myself and tilt my head back to look up at him, forcing a smile to my lips. “Hey! Question for you, stud. Did you by any chance send those?” I wave to the roses.

He cranes his neck to look without releasing me. “No, but, boy, I wish I had. They’re beautiful. I gotta get the name of the florist before I leave.”

“Oh, who’s the lucky guy?”

He chuckles. “It never hurts to be prepared. You don’t know who sent them?”

“Not a clue.”

“Maybe Beth…”

I shake my head. “No, I spoke to Beth day before yesterday and she would have signed the card.” She did send flowers, but that was right after the hostage incident, and they were sent to my home.

“Well, hell, beautiful, you were all over the news last night. It’s a wonder you don’t have dozens and dozens of flowers in here today.”

“No, no, last night was your night.” Funny enough, Erik is the only person I have never felt competitive with. Even with Beth there’s still a one-upmanship between us, each of us trying to out-career one another. But with Erik, all I want is for him to have everything he’s ever wanted. And more.

“Funny,” he says as he draws me tighter into his arms. “I haven’t gotten any flowers today.”

“Want those?” I grin as I flick a finger at the ones on my desk.

“Umm … Kelsey Stanton’s sloppy seconds. Nah, I’ll pass. You can buy me lunch though.”

“Deal. Let me get my purse.”

He kisses my forehead as he releases me.

As we make our way out of my office, I pull my door shut and glance back to Harper’s office. She’s one the phone now, leaning back in her chair and laughing. It galls me that she seems to be quite fine with everything. Omaha doesn’t seem to have affected her in the least. I was simply another conquest for her. Well, if we actually did anything. She’s never said what she remembers. Or doesn’t remember.

Damn it all.

A few people want a minute or two with Erik. He is more than happy to oblige my co-workers. He makes sure to keep me close and Chambers is eating it up from across the room. Christ, his heart would explode if he had seen Harper and me in that hotel room.

“Ready, sweetheart?”

“After you, handsome.” God, we’re sickening. But it plays well.

“Gotta warn you,” he says as we are about to emerge from the station. “There are people with cameras following me around today, so be prepared.”

“Ooooo does this mean I’m gonna get my picture in the paper too?” I laugh as I poke him in the ribs.

“More than likely it’ll be The Tattler or whoever will pay the highest price for it.”

“Ah, you mean…”

“Un-huh. Tabloids.”

He knows how I feel about the subject, but now is not the time for me to show my feelings. So we’ll stop and I’ll smile. I am, after all, the supportive girlfriend.

Some days, I really hate my life.

* * *

I park my Harley next to the door of The Rio. It’s good to be back. Of course, I was here last night, but, damn, it was a hard day at work. Kelsey is still acting like a pole has been rammed up her ass, threatening to come out her throat.

Jesus. All over the stupidity in Omaha.

She acts like it was all my fault. Like I took her out and got her drunk and then tried to do something. Or did something. Whichever the case was. Kelsey isn’t saying, so I’m thinking it happened. Why else would she be so upset?

Come on, Harper, focus. You’re not at work. You’re about to join friends, and relax a bit.

I roll my shoulders, loosening them, and hang my helmet off the handlebar. I pat my Fat Boy tenderly and head over to the door.

Snake, the regular bouncer, smiles at me. “I’ll take good care of her for you, Harper.” He will too. Snake is a small mountain of flesh encased in leather. No one fucks with him.

I push a twenty dollar bill into his hand. “Thanks, Snake. Anyone inside worth noticing?”

He smiles, a gap between his two front teeth makes him look friendlier than he would otherwise. “Oh yeah. There’s a little blonde in there that’s real easy on the eyes.”

I nod, considering the possibilities. “Last time you mentioned someone, they had come in with a date. Am I gonna have someone trying to kill my ass for flirting with this little blonde?”

Snake chuckles, remembering the incident all too well. He had to give up his watch over my beloved bike to stop a brawl in the bar before it began. Fortunately, my bike had been unharmed in his absence, or there would have been another fight on his hands. “Nah, she came in alone. Can’t promise she wasn’t meeting someone though.”

“Fair enough. Later, Snake.”

I push my way in the heavy door and take a deep breath. God, I love it here. This is the smell of a real place, real people, real liquor, real smoke. The Rio doesn’t have room for bullshit or mind games. Here, if you want to get laid, you can get laid. If you just want to drink, you can drink unharassed. If you want to just relax with friends, you do what I’m gonna do.

“What’s an ugly son-of-a-bitch like you doing in a classy bar like this?”

Gary gives me the finger. “They let you in again? Damn, this place is going downhill. I may have to find me a new hangout.” He presses his hands to the bar and pushes up, as if he might actually leave.

“Yeah, right. Most of the respectable bars have banned you.” I take a seat on the stool next to him, my back to the bar. I’m looking for the cute blonde that captured Snake’s attention. Despite his ill-conceived moniker, Snake has good taste in women.

Gary laughs and claps me on the back. “How the hell are you, Harper? How are things down at the station?”

The bartender puts a beer down by me. “Sent by the woman at the end of the bar.”

I glance down and see the blonde I had last night. I raise the glass to my lips and smile at her. Doesn’t hurt to be polite.

“I don’t want to talk about work, Gary.”

“You haven’t want to talk about work for two weeks. What the hell happened up in Ohio?”

“Omaha, you idiot. Nothing.”

“You sure?”

I put the glass down a bit more forcefully than I should. “Nothing happened. Just drop it.”

“Ice Bitch getting to you?” he asks, teasing me.

“Don’t call her that,” I growl.

“What’s wrong, Harper?” Suddenly, Gary is all serious and sincere. “Something’s eating at you.”

“I wish,” I mutter.

“What?”

“Nothing. Look, Gary, it’s been a long couple weeks. I nearly had my fucking head blown off in Omaha and we’ve been pushing it hard lately.”

“Has she been able to do much? I saw her parading around with that actor boyfriend of hers last night. They were on all the news broadcasts – even your rivals.”

“I don’t want to talk about her, Gary.”

“Because you can’t have her?”

“Goddammit!” I slam the mug down on the bar, sloshing some of the amber liquid onto the counter. Heads turn our way, but I don’t care. “Enough about her! Jesus H. Christ, since when did you become so interested in my sex life?”

“Since I can’t seem to have one of my own,” Gary replies softly, realizing he’s been an asshole of first rate.

“Well, Gary, you gotta stop wearing those fucking plaid shirts. Jesus, man, you look like a lumberjack. People will think you come complete with Babe the Blue Ox.”

He guffaws, nearly snorting beer out his nose. “God, what an image.”

“Tell me about it. Scares the crap out of me.” Then I join him in the laughter.

We’re all right now. That’s what I like most about Gary. He’s so much like my brothers. We give each other shit all the time, but it never lasts long. So different from women. They hold grudges. Forever.

Forever and ever.

And Kelsey is all woman.

I spy the little blonde. Ooo … she is sweet. She’s small, but not in the important areas, and she has a nice smile. She looks friendly. I could use friendly in my life around now.

Imagine Kelsey thinking I sent her flowers.

Yeah right.

Maybe dead roses. I hear there are places in LA that will send them. Perhaps I’ll look into that.

But, now, I have better things to look in to. The blonde’s blouse is cut low. And I am quite tall. “Excuse me for a bit, Gar.”

“But of course. I’ll just sit here by my little lonesome. Again.”

“Change the shirt, I tell ya. It would do wonders.” I give him my parting advice as I amble over toward the blonde.

***

As I climb out of the Mercedes and make my way into the studio, I take stock of everything that’s going on in my very screwed up life at the moment.

I saw Erik off at the airport this morning. He’ll be gone for over a month filming on location in North Carolina. The press showed up at the airport so we were required to share a rather intense little kiss at the gate. Whoever taught him to kiss really should receive a thank you note.

I miss him already.

Maybe I really am straight.

Oh, I don’t think so. All evidence is certainly to the contrary. I mean, I do have witnesses.

Maybe I just need more friends.

Bingo! Give that woman a cigar. Or some other phallic shaped device.

I shake my head, wondering what has gotten into it. God, Kels, you’ve been alone too much lately. And you’ll be alone for Thanksgiving, too. Yet another holiday spent in the movie theatre eating popcorn instead of turkey.

Well, at least I did receive one bit of good news: the judge who is hearing my parents’ case pushed it back on his docket until after the first of the year.

I love it. Make them suffer through the holidays, too.

I had Beth handle that mess for me. She told me I owed her “big.” I look forward to paying her back when I fly to New York in January for the hearing. That’s the only up-side to that trip. No matter how bad it might get, Beth will make it better.

And seeing Martha will make it better as well. I smile at the thought. I wish I saw her more often. My parents’ retired housekeeper was my one constant friend growing up. And even then …

I need to send her flowers.

And stop being so damn melancholy.

My thoughts betray me and stray to Harper.

Jesus, she’s been pushing us hard lately. The NRA had its executive meeting here in LA for the last three days. Of course, that sparked protests three days before, during and after. We covered the protests, the meeting itself, NRA advocates, and more. Of course, the shooting of a child a block away from the meeting took on epic significance. In one day, I think we did almost 100 cut-aways for our affiliates nationwide. We’re all exhausted from the pace we’ve kept for the last two weeks. Not that I mind, it’s been nice to be focused since Harper and I don’t seem to be speaking to each other yet.

As I consider that fact, I sort of feel a little bad. I wish she’d come clean about what happened in Omaha. I know she knows. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have laughed at me like that when I asked her. She would have admitted it. Right?

I asked her to be honest with me. She promised me she would. Then she laughed at me. That hurt worse than anything else. She laughed at me.

As I make my way into the building, I see Harper ahead of me in the hallway. She’s waiting for the elevator. I take a deep breath and enter through the glass door. As I take my place beside her waiting for the elevator, she glances down at me.

“Good morning,” she says as she resumes her stare at the door.

“Good morning. What’s on the agenda for today?” I am proud of myself for being so civilized and polite.

“The guys are going to do some final editing on a couple of the pieces. Then we’re gonna sit down and talk over a few story ideas. Is that all right with you?”

“Un-huh.”

“Good.” We have just had this conversation without ever looking at each other. I follow her onto the elevator with a sigh. No words are spoken on the trip up. As the doors slide open and we exit, the office messenger meets me.

“This came for you this morning, Miss Stanton.” He hands me a medium-sized, stuffed, white teddy bear holding a rose. “I was going to put it in your office, but the door was locked.”

“It was locked?” I echo. I never lock my door. I glance at Harper, immediately suspicious. “Did you lock it?”

She makes a face. “Hardly.”

The messenger kid pipes up, trying to diffuse the tension he can feel between us. “There’s a new janitor working the third shift. Maybe he locked it.”

“I’ll have to leave him a note about it. I tend to leave my keys in my desk drawer. Which would be bad if he locks the door.” I explain all of this unnecessarily. I realize I am babbling because I know I was just a bitch to Harper.

What is wrong with me?

“Do you need me to take anything for you, Ms. Stanton?”

“No, thanks.”

He smiles shyly and leaves.

I risk a glance at Harper who still looks annoyed at me. “Sorry.”

“It’s nothing,” she replies, but I know it isn’t.

I notice the card attached to the rose as we continue our walk toward our offices. I open the card up and read, “From your secret admirer.” “Oh no, not again,” I groan.

“What’s up?”

I’m surprised she asks so I decide to answer her, and to try to be friendly about it. We’re both feeling annoyed enough at the moment without it getting any worse.

“You remember the roses day before yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, yesterday it was Godiva chocolates and today this.” I shake the teddy bear at her. “All from someone claiming to be ‘A secret admirer’.”

“Isn’t that sweet?” she offers as she stops to make herself a cup of coffee.

I lean against the wall. “I mean, does he really think this is going to make me fall in love with him?”

Harper smirks. “How do you know it’s a man?”

She’s right. I don’t know for sure. “Just a gut feeling.”

Harper sips her coffee. “Sure the stuff isn’t from Erik or Beth?”

“Nope, I already asked them both. They aren’t doing it. That’s why I asked you about the roses.”

Her back stiffens. “You didn’t ask, you accused.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m…”

She waves it off. “Whatever. Water under the bridge, right?”

I suppose. But I still don’t completely believe her denials.

We’ve arrived outside my office. I try the doorknob. It’s definitely locked.

“You got the key?”

“Hold on.” I hand her the teddy bear and start looking through my purse for the key.

As I lay a few things out on a desk, I hear her laugh and I look up. She’s grinning down at me holding a diaphragm case in her hands. “This is priceless. What do you do, keep mints in it?” She laughs again as she shakes her head.

“It’s for show. In case I lose my purse.”

“Everything you do is for show.”

Ouch. “Yeah, I know. Disgusting, isn’t it? Not everyone can be so open about things as you are. Do you know what I would give for just one day of being allowed to be myself?”

She doesn’t answer, but I didn’t really expect her to.

I finally retrieve the key from the bottom of my purse, cram everything back into it, then turn and unlock my door.

“Everything look okay?” Harper asks from the doorway.

“Seems to be.” I glance around the office, nothing seems out of place. In fact, everything seems cleaner than normal. I like the new cleaning guy, if we can just skip the door locking in the future. “Your office or here for the meeting?”

She shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. Ah hell, let’s do it here so we can take a look at the morning news too. Chambers still hasn’t installed TV’s in my office yet. Let me get my notes.” She tosses the teddy bear at me and then the diaphragm. “Here you might need this.”

“Ha, ha, very fucking funny,” I call as she turns to go to her office.

Gail comes in. She’s in an absolute panic as she lays a few files on my desk and hands me my tea. “I’m sorry. I’m running a little late today.”

“Relax, I just got here too.” I settle into my chair and turn on the TV’s. I sip my tea and watch the morning news while I wait for Harper. She finally comes back in and takes a seat on my couch. She glances up at one of the screens and gestures to it.

“Turn that up. That’s Ted Brice. He’s a detective on the LAPD and a buddy of mine.”

I raise the volume on the TV and Harper scoots forward watching and listening to the report about a body that had been found in one of the parks.

Ah, real news.

* * *

Tonight I’m sitting at a table in The Rio, not at the bar. It’s Wednesday. Poker night.

To my left is Gary. For all his failings with women, he’s a terrific poker player. He always has the same damn expression on his face no matter what the hand he’s dealt. He’s sitting with a majority of the cash in front of him right now. I intend to rectify that situation soon.

To my right is Bear, a.k.a. Ted, the one who was on television earlier today. He got his nickname because he’s a big fella and quite hairy. Teddy Bear. He’s a pretty good poker player, but he tends to whistle when he has a really good hand. None of us have ever bothered to point out that fact to him, though.

Our fourth is Justin, another detective. He’s another good player, but tends to be a bit overly aggressive. But, his money is good and I like taking some of it every week.

We’ve been playing for about an hour already. Justin pulls out a cigar from his jacket pocket and takes an appreciative sniff. “Anyone?” he asks, offering another wrapped one out to us.

“Sure,” I say, taking it. I don’t smoke cigars often, but tonight I really want one. “Thanks.” I remove the wrapper, bite off one end, and light up.

“That was a helluva thing today, Bear,” Gary says dealing out the next hand. We play five card draw. Nothing wild; no weird shit like deuces wild if you hold a one-eyed jack. Simple and pure poker.

Bear nods solemnly. “Yeah, pretty girl. Kinda like the ones you go for, Harper: blonde, all-American, athletic. She was a grad student at UCLA.”

“Boyfriend do her?” I ask. Most women know their murderers intimately.

“He’s got a rock solid alibi. Was in a lecture hall with two hundred students at the time of her murder.”

“It’s easy to slip out of a lecture like that,” Gary observes.

Bear chuckles, “Not when you’re giving it.” He calls Justin’s opening bet.

“Well, maybe not,” I counter. “I remember my art history professor slipped out one time. He pre-recorded his comments on the slides he was going to show us. He gave some opening remarks, then he had a grad student put in the tape and work the projector.” I call as well, tossing a Susan B. Anthony into the pile.

“God,” Gary interrupts, “you Louisianians are corrupt even in education.”

“Well, hell, yes. We require it. I don’t trust a man I can trust.”

We all laugh at the absurdity of the statement. Gary folds, and looks to Justin to see if he wants any new cards.

“Nah, he was right in front of the kids the entire time,” Bear tells us. “He’s a grad student in the math department. Teaching calculus. He was standing by a chalkboard in clear view of a couple hundred witnesses.”

“Two,” Justin says, laying down two cards and picking up the two new ones that Gary deals him. He puts them in his hand and almost reorganizes them.

Hmm … a good hand, at least something matched up or fit in.

“Three,” I say, holding on to the two aces I was dealt previously. In turn, I receive another ace and two eight’s.

Bear takes two cards. “The murder seemed personal though, like the perp knew her, had a grudge against her.”

“An ex-boyfriend?”

“We’re looking into it, but, that’s what it seems like.” Bear looks around and then leans forward. “None of this is public,” he warns.

Over the years, our foursome has developed a strong code of silence. All we have to say is something isn’t public and none of us will repeat what we know. Gary and I have enjoyed the insight into investigations, and the scoops when we can go public. In return, Justin and Bear have heard comments from witnesses they wouldn’t have otherwise. In this strange world we live in, people would rather talk to a reporter than a cop. Go figure.

“He cut her hair before he killed her.”

“This is a makeover gone bad?” I joke, although it isn’t funny. Sick fucker killed a vibrant twenty-four year old. “He shave it off or something?” I add two more dollars into the pot, calling Justin’s new bet.

“No. She had it long, almost to her hips. He cut it shoulder length. We’re trying to find out if she wore her hair shorter in the past. See who her boyfriend was then. Maybe he was trying to recapture the past.”

“Bastard.”

“Yep, that he is,” Bear agrees. He folds.

“Straight, jack high.” Justin reaches for the pot.

“Keep your hand off my money. Full house.” I lay my cards down and begin raking in the money.

Bear looks at my cards. “Dead man’s hand. Not a good sign, Harper.”

I snort, “I don’t believe in signs.”

That’s a fucking lie. I’m from New Orleans and grew up with a blend of Catholicism, voodoo and good old superstition. If it is a sign, I’m fucked.

Some weeks, nothing seems to go right.
Episode Thirteen: Torch Song Trilogy
Looking down at the timer, I drop my head a little, ten more minutes. Christ, I’m not sure why I’m on a treadmill at this hour of the morning. I have the day off and some part of me told me that an early trip to the gym would be good. I need to hurt that part of me.

No, what I need to do is learn to relax. Right. Like that’ll happen anytime soon.

I look up at the TV screen and see that it’s tuned to my station. The early morning anchors are delivering the news. The new guy, Jack Towne, isn’t half bad, but the woman has to go. Jesus. Fake breasts, fake nose, fake chin, and not a damn bit of brain stem activity taking place. The volume is down so as not to interfere with the music playing through the gym. They do have the closed captioning on, though, and I read as I continue my walk to nowhere on the treadmill.

The mourning news. That’s what I call the early broadcast because they routinely just recap all the murders which took place the night before. True to form, No Brain is introducing a segment on a body found on the beach. Another young woman, mid-twenties, petite, attractive and blonde.

Jesus. This is what, number two or three?

The police aren’t confirming it publicly, but our sources tell us it’s the work of a single killer. Apparently, he likes blondes. All of the victims were raped before their death. But, other than the victims’ physical characteristics and the rapes, the cops aren’t acknowledging any other similarities.

I sigh, thanking God I’m not a homicide cop. My job is hard enough as it is. I’d hate to get yanked out of bed in the middle of the night to go look at dead bodies all of the time.

I glance to my left as a very attractive woman steps onto the treadmill there. She looks over and smiles at me, setting her timer so the machine comes to life.

Oh, she could make me come to life too.

Tall, lean, dark hair down to her very shapely ass, toned in all the right spots. Oh God! I drop my head as I look to the timer again.

Seven more minutes.

“Excuse me?”

I look over to my newly arrived companion. She grins a little as she looks to me with almost shy reserve. “Yes?”

“You’re Kelsey Stanton, aren’t you?”

“Last time I got my driver’s license that’s what they told me.” I smile back.

“I hope you don’t mind, I just wanted to tell you that I unh…well,” she takes a deep breath and shakes her head a bit, “I really admire the work you do.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that. We do try.”

“You manage to get yourself in some pretty interesting situations.”

Oh, if you only knew.

“Yeah, well, my field director/shooter has a real knack for getting us into trouble.” I can’t help but laugh a little, as my mind runs quickly through all the stories Harper and I have done in just over two months together.

“Do you enjoy it? Doing those kinds of stories would scare me senseless.”

“I don’t know if enjoy is the right word. I always enjoy living through them. Are you in the field?”

“Oh no, not me.” She shakes her head again as she extends her hand. “I’m sorry, I’m Susan Hamilton.” She has soft hands, but a firm grip. “I’m a doctor. Pediatrician.”

“Nice to meet you.” Very nice, actually.

I notice she holds my hand just a tick longer than necessary, before releasing it and gripping the rails of the treadmill. I recognize that white-knuckle death grip.

Four minutes left.

I’m not sure why my hand reaches out and adds another ten minutes, but it does. Oh hell, I know perfectly well why I did it.

Have I lost my mind? I’m imagining things here, most likely. I do not need to get laid that badly.

Like hell I don’t. I was willing to sleep with Harper. This can’t be any worse.

I spend another few minutes chatting with her and trying to get a better feel for my chances here. God, it’s been a long time since I’ve done this. But you know some of the things that Harper said in Omaha made sense. How long can I go on fooling myself?

My extra ten minutes pass pretty quickly. I step off, taking my towel and wiping down my face and neck, and I head over to the juice bar for a bottle of water. As I take a seat, I continue to watch her in the mirror. I notice she’s glancing my direction with a little grin too. This could be good.

Susan and I end up having breakfast together. She is absolutely delightful. I really enjoying talking with a normal, sane, rational human being.

Funny, I didn’t notice before, she has blue eyes. I shake my head as an image starts to take form. No. I refuse to let this be ruined by her.

“Listen.” I put my mug down and hope I’m not about to make a complete fool of myself here. I lean forward a bit, resting my elbows on the table. “I have tickets to the symphony tonight. If you’re not busy…”

“I’d love too,” she answers before I can even finish the sentence. “Maybe dinner before or drinks after? Or both, if we’re feeling daring.”

“That would be very nice. Can I pick you up or would you rather meet somewhere?”

She reaches for her purse, pulling out a card and writing her home number and address on the back. “What time is the concert?” she asks as she hands me the card.

“I’m not sure. To be honest, I hadn’t planned on actually using the tickets.”

“Well, tell you what,” she says as she pulls her purse strap over her shoulder. “Why don’t you check and give me a call and we’ll go from there? My cell phone number is on the front.”

“Great. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Kelsey.” She gives me a wave as she heads out of the restaurant.

I flip the card slowly in my fingers after she’s left. It’s clearly her business card, giving the address of her practice and the names of the other pediatricians there. The back of the card is written in bold strokes, indicating a strong hand. I like strong hands.

Now I have to go buy symphony tickets. I sure hope they’re in town.

* * *

Dinner was very nice. The symphony was terrific. Drinks at the bar after were even better, but the bottle of wine we’re sharing now is the absolute best part of my evening. Even sitting, as we are, on opposites ends of my couch, talking and sipping the wine, this is the most relaxed I’ve been in weeks.

“I really wish you had at least let me buy dinner.” Susan smiles at me over the rim of her glass.

“No, no, my treat. I had a really good time tonight. Thanks for coming out with me.”

Oh boy, does the meaning of those words buzz around in my head before slamming into the proverbial mental wall.

“It was a wonderful evening, Kelsey.” She slides down the sofa closing the distance between us. “Can I ask you a very personal question?”

“Oh, you can ask. Doesn’t mean I’ll answer.” I sip my wine.

“Fair enough. Since you didn’t let me buy you dinner, can I at least make you breakfast?” She smiles as she waits for my answer.

She’s not pushing me, but, boy, is she leading me right into temptation.

“Look, Susan, I lead a rather complicated life.” I give a little sigh. “And I don’t want you to get the wrong impression here. I have certain commitments and contractual issues….” Why I’m backpedaling now is beyond me. We did just go out on a date, after all, and were seen in public together. What we do here is certainly no worse.

She holds up her hand and nods. “I’m sure of it. I have an idea how the business works, Kelsey. Okay, let me try to simplify your life. I have to be discreet also. My partners wouldn’t think much of this and the parents of my patients would probably think even less. We’re both used to living with secrets so this could be ideal for us. I’m attracted to you. I think you’re attracted to me, and I would very much like to spend the night with you. I’m not asking for a commitment or a long-term relationship. But I do hope to see more of you.”

I grin.

“Now that’s not what I meant,” she teases as she moves a little closer to me. “It would be nice if we could….”

“I think we both know what you’re trying to say. Let’s not force the issues,” I offer, placing my glass on the table then leaning back into the couch. She’s convinced me, but I wasn’t really a hard sell anyway. “We’ll keep it casual, right?”

“Right.”

“But in the meantime there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy each other’s company to the absolute fullest.”

“Exactly.” She leans in and brushes her lips against mine.

Morals clause. What morals clause?

* * *

The buzzer wakes me from a very happy and sound sleep. I feel Susan’s arm wrapped around my waist and her warmth where she is curled up against my back. I know right away that it’s not my alarm. What in the hell is it? Ah hell, it’s the intercom buzzer from the lobby.

I reach out a sleepy hand and hit the button. Thank God, Erik and I had the foresight to have intercoms put in nearly every damn room of the condo. I open my eyes to find that it’s six in the morning. Oh, I’m gonna kill whoever is on the other end of this thing.

“Stanton,” I say as I release the button.

“Kels, get your ass out of bed and get ready. We’ve got a story breaking.”

Harper. I should have fucking known. If there was a way to ruin my bliss, she would find it. Damn!

I hit the button again as I lift to my elbow. Susan stirs behind me and rolls away with a groan. “I’ll be at least twenty minutes. Go get some coffee and I’ll meet you down front.”

“Hell, Kels, be civil and let me come up. I brought you bagels and tea. I need to brief you while you get ready and I drink my coffee.”

Oh why the hell not? Maybe it’ll prove to her that Omaha was an aberration.

“All right. Come on up.” I release the button and get up.

Susan opens her eyes and smiles at me. “Does this happen often?”

“No, thank God,” I growl a little as I pull two terry cloth robes from my closet. I slip into one and put the other on the bed. “You’re welcome to stay and go back to sleep, but if you want to get up at this ungodly hour -” I gesture to the robe.

As I leave my bedroom to go meet Harper, I hear Susan get up. Oh, this should prove to be interesting.

I’m leaning against the wall with my arms crossed as the elevator doors slide open. Harper steps out with two paper bags and a newspaper tucked under her arm. The doors close and Harper’s eyes go very wide, very suddenly. I look over my shoulder to find Susan tying off her robe.

Turning back to Harper with a little smirk, I can’t resist saying, “Hope you brought enough for everyone.”

* * *

“I didn’t know we had company,” I mutter.

Kelsey arches her eyebrow. “We don’t, Harper. I do.”

Yeah, you sure do. My eyes drift over to the open bedroom door. I imagine that I can see the disheveled sheets and smell the scent of sex. It does not improve my mood.

Sex is just sex, right? Lord knows I’ve had my share of fun-filled nights. Hell, I’ve even had more than my share. I was pretty sure up until this moment that I had taken Kelsey’s share.

Apparently not.

“Right,” I say. I toss the newspaper on the coffee table and set the bags next to it, unloading the contents onto polished oak.

The other woman steps down into the main living area, smoothing the folds in her robe, and extends a hand towards me. “Hello. I’m Susan,” she offers with a genuine smile.

“Harper,” I respond. Suddenly, I realize she looks like …

Well, me.

I should get some perverse pleasure from this, that Kelsey is subconsciously searching for me, but I don’t. It pisses me off instead.

You could have me, Kels. The original is always so much better than a cheap imitation. God, what was the horrible song in the seventies? I know: “Paper roses.” It begins playing in my mind, “I realize the way your eyes deceived me, with tender looks that I mistook for love.”

“I’m a big fan of your work,” Susan continues, interrupting my thoughts and the bad music, oblivious to the tension in the room.

“Thank you.” I force a smile. “But Kels is the real star.” I always give credit where credit is due. I’ll be damned if I change that now. “She could get a tree stump to give a good interview.”

Too bad she won’t talk to me.

Kelsey seems stunned by my praise. Slowly, she smiles her thank you. “Can I make you some tea, Susan? I’m afraid I don’t have any coffee. I’d offer you my tea, but not many people drink it with three Sweet-n-Lows.”

“Count me among those people. I’ll take it with just a little cream.”

Good, because I didn’t bring it for you.

With a nod, Kelsey disappears into the kitchen, leaving her night’s entertainment alone with me.

Talk about awkward.

“So,” I manage, not my best opening line. I realize this is only awkward for me since Susan has no idea, I suppose, what has transpired between Kels and I. “Do you like bagels? Kelsey does … I didn’t think to pick up anything else.”

“Bagels are fine.” She takes a seat on the couch, tucking the sides of the robe under shapely legs and picking up a bagel from the table. “You have an intriguing accent, Harper.”

It must have slipped out in my confusion. Normally, I do all-American pretty well unless I’m trying to charm the ladies. And I don’t want to charm this one. I just want her to go away. Far away. Very far away. Very soon. “Louisiana. New Orleans.”

“Really?” Susan seems delighted. “Did you grow up there?”

I squint at her, taking a sip of my coffee and feeling the liquid warm my throat. Is she flirting with me? Because if she is, I’ll kill her. Studying her open features and gentle blue eyes, I decide she’s just being polite, making small talk. “Yeah, mostly. My parents and brothers and their families are still there. How about you? Where are you from?” I can chit-chat when I have to. I don’t just grunt and scratch, despite rumors to the contrary.

“California native.”

“I’m sorry.”

She laughs and pats me on the knee just as Kelsey comes back in with a cup of tea.

Oh shit.

I look up expecting the explosion. I know I’d fucking explode if I walked in on this scene. Kels, on the other hand, takes a deep breath as her brows knit together for a moment.

“Scoot your ass over, Tabloid.” She gives me a little smirk as she hands the mug she just brought in to Susan and inserts herself between us, giving the brunette a tender rub on her back as she does.

Does she have to be so damn smug about the whole thing?

I unfold the morning paper. On the third page, below the fold, is a story about a fire late last night. I point it out to her and let her read it silently.

“A battered women’s shelter burnt to the ground last night,” she recaps for Susan when she looks up at me. Kels leans over and picks up the Styrofoam cup of tea I brought her and takes a sip.

I see the professionalism slip back into place and I know we can get through this without hurting each other. At least, I hope we can. “Right. I have a source in the fire department who says early investigation shows it’s arson.”

“What?” she asks with surprise.

“Sick, huh? As if these women haven’t been through enough, right? Bastard. Probably one of their asshole husbands who did it.”

“Truly.” Kelsey nods. “So what are we doing this morning?”

“We’re talking to the manager of the shelter, and then to my source at the fire department.”

“What happened to the women?” Susan asks suddenly.

We both turn our gaze to her.

“The article says the women were all put up at different area shelters.” It’s Kelsey who answers, placing a warm hand on Susan’s knee.

“Were they all okay?”

“No deaths,” Kelsey assures. “Some hospitalizations for smoke inhalation and a couple for minor burns, though.”

For some reason it completely annoys me that Susan is so concerned about these women. It just smacks of insincerity, like she’s trying to one-up me.

Susan nods and says, “Well, it sounds like you two have your work cut out for you. I’m going to take a shower and then get out of your hair.” With that, the brunette rises from her seat and sets down her empty mug. She gently kisses Kelsey’s temple and makes her way towards the bedroom.

I watch as Kels smiles and her eyes follow the woman across the room. There was a time when I wanted her eyes to follow me like that. I guess deep down inside I still do, but Omaha certainly fucked that up. That’ll be the last time I get hammered on whiskey.

And finding Susan here this morning didn’t help much either.

We’re left alone and I suddenly feel the need to fill the silence. “So, I have an interview set up with the manager of the facility. Right now, we have an exclusive, if we get there fast enough. I want to go over some potential questions for her. If we can get -”

“I really like her,” Kelsey interrupts in a soft tone.

“What?” I truly am baffled by the statement. Is she talking about the manager?

“Susan, I like her, a lot. We promised to keep it casual and that’s what I need.”

It’s not what you need, Kels. Don’t bother lying to yourself. “What happened to all that bullshit about your contract and appearances?” The words are out before I can stop them.

“She knows to be discreet. She needs to be as well.” She fixes her gaze on me and hardens her look a bit. “You’re the one who told me I had to stop hiding from myself.”

I can’t really argue with her on that one. Though I kind of had intended to be the beneficiary of her new found freedom.

“So don’t interfere.”

“Kels, come on,” I argue softly. She thinks this lowly of me? “Regardless of what you may think, I’m not out to hurt you.”

“Why should I believe you?”

I meet her shuttered green eyes. They’re cautious and wary and I long for those moments we shared in Omaha. God, I’d like to kiss her right now. But it would only get me slapped. Or worse. “Because I’m giving you my word. And there was a time when you trusted me.”

She sighs, looks down at her hands. “And you threw that in my face.”

I did no such thing. I protected you and took care of you, just like I’d promised. I got you out of there alive and intact. I held you while you cried and trembled with fear. I let you eat my Twinkie. “I did not,” I finally object, long explanations failing me.

“You laughed at me.”

It sounds like a child’s confession and I see, for a moment, the sensitive woman I met in that closet in the compound. “Kels,” I say softly, wanting to touch her but knowing it’s not welcome. “Little Roo, when did I ever laugh at you?”

“After we woke up. In my hotel room.”

I think back and remember. Shit, I wasn’t laughing at her. I was laughing at the situation. I hadn’t realized at that moment she was horrified.

Horrified.

That still bugs the crap out of me. What am I? Some infectious disease? “Come on, Kels,” I say sharply. “I mean, you acted like waking up naked with me was the worst thing that had ever happened in your life, that the thought of spending the night with me was repulsive.”

“You’re wrong. I was confused and hung over and …” She shakes her head as if to clear it of the thoughts that she’s having. “You showed me I was nothing. I was just another…” She pauses again and then looks to her bedroom door with a sad smile. “Just never mind, Tabloid, it doesn’t fucking matter anymore.” She puts her cup down and stands up. As she brushes past me, I hear her mumble something about ‘being so damn stupid to think’, then the comment dies on her lips.

“Fine,” I say quickly, raising a hand to placate her. My head is starting to hurt and this new information only makes it worse. “Let’s just get to work. Wear something friendly and feminine. You know, your lipstick lez look.” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop it.

She’s standing a few feet from me, trembling with anger. “I need a shower,” she mutters.

“I think it’s occupied.”

“All the better.” She turns quickly on her heel and disappears.

I throw myself down on the couch and finish my coffee in a huge gulp. “That went well,” I tell the empty room.

***

This morning could have gone better, I realize as I lean my back against the passenger seat of the van. Jimmy is in the back, as usual, messing with equipment and muttering to himself, doing his best to avoid us at all costs. Harper is on her fourth cup of coffee already. She’s not speaking to me.

I hadn’t meant to be vulnerable. I hadn’t meant to tell her what was bothering me. It just came out. Part of me wanted her to understand because I really am attracted to her. Not just her looks, that much is obvious. But because she’s educated and compassionate, she lives her life with carefree abandon, and has this sense of loyalty that I admire. I bet she’s good in bed, too, I admit to myself. I know it’s not her fault about our encounter. I’m a lousy drunk.

The shower was nice. Susan is a wonderful woman and I’m thrilled to have found her. I can still feel her hands on my body and in my hair. She kissed me goodbye at the elevator and whispered promises of more opportunities to come. I feel pretty good about that relationship. If only I could fix this one.

“I’m sorry I blew up this morning.” I say, surprising us both. Jimmy looks up from his tinkering but then goes back to it wordlessly.

“Whatever,” Harper responds shortly as she jerks the van’s steering wheel and slams on the brakes. I hear Jimmy fall onto the floor in the back.

“Christ, Harper,” he glares at her. “Didja wake up on the wrong side of bed this morning?”

“We’re here,” she answers, ignoring Jimmy.

“I see,” I nod slowly. We’re parked outside the hotel where the shelter’s manager is staying. I feel a little tingle in my belly at the thought of the interview. I always love that feeling: the thrill of a mystery and hoping to get to the bottom of it. Today would be a perfect day if it weren’t for the black cloud hovering next to me behind the wheel.

I know I’m to blame for that, though, so I try hard not to react with my usual moodiness. I decide to be neutral and get the job done. Why is it I feel I have to protect myself by hurting her? My parents taught me well, I realize with a sinking feeling.

***

The woman contrasts with Kelsey nicely. She’s in her early fifties, tall and willowy. Still, she has the appearance of a strong woman who has survived her share of disappointments. She greets us with a gentle smile as she rubs at her eyes. “Sorry, long night,” she explains and yawns, showing us into the hotel room.

Kelsey is talking with her casually as Jims and I set up. She’s trying to make the woman comfortable with her voice and mannerisms and is idly discussing the string of murders.

“Rumor is they all look alike,” the woman says, shaking her head.

“I think they were all blonde. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. We’re in California, after all,” she laughs. “Most of the women who aren’t blonde here find the color in a bottle.”

I hide my smirk at that statement. Kelsey is no bottle-blonde. I know that for a fact. I shake my head, trying to clear that image from my brain. I’m not gonna be looking at that view again anytime soon.

The woman agrees with Kelsey. “Still. It’s frightening to know how unsafe women are in this city. I see it every day, as I am sure you do as well.”

Kelsey uses this sentiment to segue into the topic of our interview. “Which is why your work is so important, Ms. Graham. Your home offered women a safe place to recover from tragic events in their lives.”

She nods solemnly and folds her hands in thought. “It’s horrible to lose that place. It was so much a part of my life and so important to the hundreds of women who have found shelter there over the years.”

I catch Kelsey’s eyes and tell her in my look to back off a little. I want this on tape and we’re not quite ready. Jims finishes setting up the lights while I check the camera, and give him instructions to help soften the lightening.

She understands and touches Shirley Graham on the leg. “Let me get my mike and we’ll see if we’re ready yet.”

I give Jims a nod for him to rig up our interviewee.

Kelsey comes to face me, her back to our subject. “Sorry, she warmed to the subject faster than I expected,” she whispers.

“No harm done,” I assure her and find myself settling the mike on her collar and dropping the wire down her shirt. I freeze and meet her eyes, realizing I have just taken a great liberty given our tenuous relationship.

She smiles slightly and reaches out to pat my side.

So I continue with the work, reaching up her shirt to find the dangling cord and trying hard not to notice the smoothness of her skin or smell her perfume. It’s a difficult task standing this close to her. Susan is lucky. I never should have laughed, I knew how insecure she was. I just thought the entire thing was so ironic. Actually, I didn’t think. Fuck. I hope some day we reach a point where we can talk this out without the need to throw insults at each other.

Kelsey settles into her seat beside the manager, smoothing her skirt and fluffing her bangs. We do a quick sound check on both of their mikes and light up. Kelsey looks at me for approval and I nod. “Let’s go.”

* * *

I turn to the woman trying to be sympathetic and professional at the same time. It’s a hard mix to achieve, but somehow I’ve managed to do a pretty good job of getting it right over the years. “Miss Graham, I know it’s been a long night and I’d like to thank you for giving us this interview this morning.”

“I wish I could say it was my pleasure. I’d much rather be getting good press for the shelter.”

Oh, she’s done this before.

I nod as I continue. “I understand completely. Would you like to tell us what happened last night?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure. I received a call a little after ten last night that the shelter was on fire and the women staying there had been evacuated.”

“I thought you were the resident manager.” I glance down at my notes to confirm this fact. “Weren’t you on the property last night?”

She shifts a bit and sighs. “I was having dinner with my sister and her husband.”

“Did you know at the time of the call that there had been several injuries from smoke inhalation?”

“No. I didn’t know that until I got there.” She fidgets a bit more and drops her head to stare at her hands.

“There were three women hospitalized, correct?”

“Yes, unfortunately, that’s right.”

“Have you had any indication from the fire department about the cause of the fire yet?” I don’t want to clue her in that it might be arson if she hasn’t heard.

“No, not yet.”

“What do you think the problem was?”

“It could have been any number of thing really… We’ve had problems with the electrical wiring in the past, and our appliances are gas, so …” She shrugs, at a loss.

I notice a silent cue from Harper. “Hold that thought for a sec. I’m sorry.”

Getting to my feet I wonder what could be so important that Harper has called me to her. I cross the room and incline my head, trying so hard to ignore whatever the hell kind of cologne that is she has on. Damn, it smells good. Wonder if it would mix that well with Susan’s body chemistry.

She reads the text message on her pager to me. “One of the women from the shelter died a few minutes ago.” She pauses and sighs in my ear a little. That feels slightly familiar. Focus Kels, focus. “Apparently, she was asthmatic. The smoke inhalation killed her.”

“Oh shit.” I murmur as I look up to her. She nods and I turn to the manager.

I take a deep breath and reclaim my seat. “Miss Graham, I’m afraid I have some bad news. One of the victims of the fire died.”

Her eyes go wide and she looks at me as she shakes her head just a bit. “No, that can’t be.”

I reach out and take her hand. “I’m afraid so.”

I look up to Harper who gives me a bittersweet smile. Okay, she’s still got a nice smile. She knows this is hard on all of us and offers her support silently. She is a damn good partner.

“That…that wasn’t suppose to happen.”

Suddenly, Harper and I make eye contact again and we’re both thinking the same thing.

Oh shit!

***

I smile as I hand a copy of our tapes to the arson investigator standing in front of me in my office. Unexpected confessions are always nice. And they make great ratings, as well.

“Thank you, Ms. Kingsley.” He shakes my hand. “You did a great job with this. We’ve suspected the owner of that property for some time, as other properties of his have met the same fate. We just never could pin arson on him before, never found someone working with him willing to talk.”

“Until now.” I smirk as I take my seat.

“Until now.” He agrees, tucking the tapes into his briefcase. “Ms. Graham gave us a full confession. The owner of the property is in deep financial trouble. He’s been having his properties torched for the insurance money. He had made her promises of a new facility for her shelter, a better place for the women to stay. Her job was to get everyone out. Unfortunately for them, the torch he hired screwed up and lit the place a day early.”

“So she wasn’t there and someone died.”

“Right. Now they’re facing all kinds of charges. The shelter is gone and one woman is dead.”

“What a waste.” I sigh as I take a sip of chocolate milk. Too much fucking coffee today has my stomach in knots.

“Yes, it is. Well, thank you again.” He offers while moving to my office door. “We appreciate your help in this matter.”

“No problem, we appreciate the inside track on information.” I wave as he leaves my office.

I lean back in my chair, sipping my milk. Glancing over to Kels’ office, I can see she’s on the phone, smiling and laughing. Making a date with my clone, I’ll bet.

Jesus, Kels, that’s so pathetic.
Episode Fourteen: Every Breath You Take
There’s something about it being November and seventy degrees. I knew deep down there was a reason that I loved living in L.A. This is it. Being able to walk down Rodeo Drive in short sleeves and a skirt has its advantages. Since I met Susan, I am taking full advantage of everything.

Oh boy, am I.

From waking up with her arms around me in the mornings to the three-hour lunch we took today, it’s really nice to have someone who is semi-regular in my life. I glance down at my watch as I make my way to LaPerla.

Shopping has never really been big on my list of things to do, but occasionally when the mood strikes me, I like to get out and spend a little of my hard-earned money. Okay, I admit it, occasionally I like to get out and spend a lot of my hard-earned money.

Glancing around the shop, I realize I had almost forgotten what it felt like to be attractive to someone. Now, I remember and I love every minute of it.

Three hundred dollars for a nightgown that I’m going to be on for all of an hour? Oh yeah, I’m losing it, but what the hell? It looks good and I know I’ll feel good in it. I’ll feel even better out of it.

As I make my way back to the Mercedes (Rodeo Drive being the only place I feel comfortable leaving my baby parked on the street with the top down), something in the window of Bernini Sport catches my eye.

A long sleeve black silk shirt that would look great on Harper.

I do, after all, owe her a shirt for the library thing. Hell, I owe her two shirts. I do remember biting off the buttons, not that I’ll never admit that little fact to her.

And Christmas is coming soon.

I sigh as I enter the shop.

Okay, one black silk shirt, one blue silk shirt and one copper silk shirt later, I don’t feel guilty anymore. She’s gonna look great in the copper one. What in the hell am I thinking? Get a fucking grip, Kels.

I rearrange my packages and make my way to the car. Placing them in the trunk, I go around to drop my purse in the passenger’s seat when I find the black foil florist box.

My hand is shaking a bit as I retrieve the card from the box. I know what it’s gonna say before I even read it. This has gone too far. I look around trying to figure out who might have put it there as I pull the card from the box. “We belong together. Can’t you see that?”

Oh Christ! I wasn’t expecting that.

My hands are really shaking now as I take the lid from the box. One dozen red roses. More precisely one dozen dead red roses, now nearly black in color.

I don’t know whether to be scared or sick to my stomach as I put the lid back on the box and get in my car.

I sit there for a moment taking deep breaths. I hold the steering wheel in both hands like the car will somehow protect me if I do. I glance over at the box as I turn the key in the ignition.

My cell phone rings, nearly startling me out of my skin and I reach for my purse. Taking the phone, I flip it open and try to sound remotely normal.

“Stanton.”

“Kels, it’s Harper,” she tells me unnecessarily, as if I wouldn’t recognize her voice.

“Yeah….” I manage to croak out as I look at the box again.

“I need you to come back to the studio for about an hour.”

“Uh…okay…I’ll…I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” I manage to stammer as I try to get my breathing under control.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” I finally get some air into my lungs and lie to her. “I’m fine. I’ll see you in twenty minutes.”

* * *

Making sure to put the top up and lock the Mercedes, I leave it in my regular parking spot in the garage, grateful now for the security camera that sweeps it every thirty seconds or so. I take the offensive black box, intent on getting rid of it as soon as possible.

When the elevator opens, I head for it without really looking and run straight into a human wall. Giving a little yelp as I jump back, still not quite focused, I feel a hand close around each of my arms.

“Kels, are you okay?”

Suddenly I realize the wall is my partner and her hands are there to steady me from the backward tumble I was about to take.

“Huh?” I blink at her trying to focus and recall her question.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m not sure anymore, Harper.” I look up her. I need to trust someone and we trusted each other once.

I offer her the black box.

* * *

I take the long box from her hands with a raised eyebrow. “Not from the kiddie doc, eh?” I ask sarcastically. I’m still not wild about this Susan chick. But something in the green eyes watching me tell me not to joke about this.

“No. She’s not into black.”

I open the box, hearing the elevator doors slide closed behind me. Holy shit.

“Or dead flowers,” Kelsey continues. She’s trembling. “Read the card.”

I look around the garage, not liking this setting. “Let’s get inside, okay?” I wrap an arm around her shoulder and punch the elevator button with the hand holding the box of shriveled roses. My protective instincts are coming out full force and I conveniently forget all of our cold-shouldered discussions of the last several weeks.

Gail is hovering outside Kelsey’s office, demanding her boss’s attention, so I chase her away with an evil glare. Kelsey spent the elevator ride in silence, averting her gaze from the gift. Now, she ducks from under my arm and takes the seat behind her desk. I close the door behind us.

“Read the card,” she whispers again.

The words I read give me a shiver of fear before I just get pissed off. “Is this the first one like this?” I snap.

Kelsey refuses to meet my eyes. “Yes. The others have been kinda cutesy, admiring from afar things.”

“Do you have them all?” My voice is still harsh. I’m letting my emotions get the best of me and she’s taking the brunt of it.

“No.”

“What?”

“No. I threw the first ones away.”

I growl with frustration. “What the fuck were you thinking? It’s evidence.”

She takes a deep breath and finally looks up. “Please don’t yell at me,” she whispers. “I didn’t tell anyone. I thought it was some harmless crush. I wasn’t interested in responding, there weren’t signatures or anything on the cards, so I threw them out. I didn’t want Susan to find them and think I was involved with someone else. Harper, I wouldn’t have come to you except …” Her voice trails off.

I shake my head, angry at my outburst. She’s ready to trust me again, let me help her with something that frightens her, and I bite her head off. “I’m sorry. I’m only worried about you,” I say gently. “We need to contact the police.”

“Do you think so? Maybe it’s a prank. I don’t want to blow this out of proportion.”

I take the seat facing her desk, turning the chair to straddle it backwards and rest my elbows on the back. “Let me at least talk to some friends of mine on the force and get their feel for it. They may want to ask you some questions.”

She’s quiet for a long time, tracing her finger along an invisible line on her desk blotter. “I’m sure it’s nothing, Harper.”

“Little Roo, your words and your actions don’t match. This person really has you shaken up. Let’s do something about it.”

“Okay.” She nods.

“Have you noticed anyone watching you or following you? Maybe at the gym or a new staff member at your building?”

“No.”

“Any phone calls?”

Kelsey is way too quiet after that question.

“Jesus Christ, Kels,” I blurt out before remembering my resolve to calm down. “How many times?”

“I dunno,” she shrugs. “No one speaks on the other end. Usually they hang up, sometimes they just stay quiet and I hang up.”

“Do you have Caller ID?”

“No.”

I roll my eyes with exasperation. “Did you try that dial-back thing for missed calls?”

She wrinkles her nose and is undeniably cute with the action. “They charge for that. What a rip off.”

“Kels, this is serious. This person knows where you live. You’re getting gifts at home, too?

“Yeah.”

“Erik’s still gone, so you’re by yourself?”

“Well, there’s Susan,” she provides helpfully, making my stomach flip.

I hate talking about Susan. Why does she keep coming up? “Oh big help. She uses a tongue depressor for a living.”

Kelsey meets my eyes and is almost smiling at the banter. “You carry a camera for a living.”

“Sure,” I allow. “But it’ll hurt a lot more when I swing it at that bastard. A tongue depressor is fucking worthless.”

“I wouldn’t say worthless,” she replies with a leer.

I do not want to know. But at least she’s joking around now. I hope she’s joking, anyway. Tongue depressor?

“You think it’s a guy?” she asks instead, when she realizes I’m not rising to her bait.

We talked about this after the first flowers arrived, I remember vaguely. “I feel like it is,” I admit. “I don’t know why.”

She nods slowly but doesn’t comment.

“What other gifts have you received? Anything else like this?”

“No.” She stands up and stretches her arms above her head. I try hard not to focus on how that accentuates her assets. “Flowers. Stuffed animals. Box of chocolates.”

“Did you eat them?”

She pauses a long time to lay a killer look on me. “I’m not a fucking moron, Harper.”

Right. “Where is the rest of the stuff?”

“I think I still have one of the bears. It’s at the condo. Everything else is gone.”

We watch each other for a long moment. She seems calmer; she’s not shaking anymore at any rate. “Tell ya what, I’ll come get the bear tonight and go chat with my friends.” I needed a night at The Rio anyway. When I’m out, I spend less time picturing Kelsey and my clone in a naked embrace.

“Okay.”

“Are you afraid, Kels?”

She waves me off. “Nah, I’m sure it’s nothing.” She’s lying. We both know it, but it’ll do little good to call her on it.

Without thinking, I rise and cross to her, pulling her into a hug. We haven’t touched like this since Omaha but I remember it providing her comfort then. I want it to now. She stiffens briefly before relaxing and putting her arms around my waist. I lay my cheek against her golden head. “I promise you, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

“I know,” she whispers. “I believe you.”

Then the moment is gone and she’s pulling away from me. The walls go back up and she turns into Ms. Professional. I don’t like Ms. Professional very much but I have a lot of respect for her. “So what did you call me back here for?”

***

Gary’s there when I walk in. He’s always there. He needs a life.

I called Justin and Bear and asked them to meet me. It’s not poker night so there was no guarantee I’d run into them. A quick glance tells me they haven’t arrived yet.

I claim a stool to Gary’s right, reaching over the bar to grab a cherry and popping it into my mouth. The bartender slaps me but it’s more of a game than an admonishment.

“Whiskey?” he asks.

“Beer. Anything dark on tap.” I haven’t been able to drink whiskey since Omaha. I had it once the first week back and only remembered the flavor of it on Kelsey’s tongue. God, what I wouldn’t do to taste that again. I wonder if the rest of her tastes as sweet. I know it does.

“How’s it going?” Gary interrupts my less-than-chaste thoughts. That’s for the best, anyway. Lusting after Kelsey gets me nowhere but frustrated. And I don’t want to take someone home tonight.

I place a ten inch blue teddy bear on the bar, pulling it from where I’d stuffed it under my leather jacket.

Gary looks at quizzically, then looks to me. “You’ve had better dates. Rough week?”

Oh, he’s a laugh a minute, the asshole. “Mean anything to you?”

“Should it?”

I shrug. “Friend of mine has been getting weird things from a secret admirer. This was one of ‘em.”

“Not so weird,” he replies as I take a drink of the beer that’s been placed in front of me. “You know, Harper, sometimes people court and woo a potential date. Not everyone just crooks a finger and finds something naked and willing in their laps.”

I smirk. “Well, if it works-”

“Don’t knock it,” he finishes. “No shit about that,” he shakes his head in admiration.

“Today’s gift was a box of dead roses and a creepy note.”

This gets Gary’s attention and he sets his beer down with an audible thump. Just then Justin and Bear arrive. I recap for them, pointing out the blue teddy bear with the silly grin.

“Who is your friend?” Justin asks while flagging down the bartender.

I hesitate for a moment. It’s absurd to want to protect her identity, I know it’s safe with these men just as their poker table secrets have been safe with me. “Kelsey Stanton.”

Gary stops and stares at me, the peanut he’d been tossing into his mouth bouncing off his cheek. “You’re shitting me.”

“No.”

“She’s public enough that this could be anybody, Harper,” Justin replies.

Thanks, pal. “I know.”

“She’s so cold. No wonder the bear is blue.” Gary should have figured out by now that type of comment is off limits. The glare I give him is not a gentle reminder.

“Do you have the note?” Bear asks, diverting my attention.

I pull it out of my jeans pocket and hand it to him. It’s in a plastic baggie, not that I expect there to be anything as helpful as prints on it. I watch the large man’s jaw work and it worries me.

“Can I keep this?”

“Yeah.”

“Will she talk to the police?”

“She will,” I nod. “But she’s a little spooked. She’s kind of shrugging it off as nothing, but those dead roses were left in her car. She’s been getting gifts at work and home. This guy is persistent.”

“Does she have any of the other gifts?” Bear is much more interested than our companions. Of course, it makes sense given his job.

“Only the bear and the roses. I didn’t bring the roses but they’re in my office. I can get them to you tomorrow.”

“I’d like them,” he says seriously.

He’s worrying me. I left Kelsey’s building as Susan was coming in, but I don’t trust the doctor to keep my partner safe. Distracted, maybe. But not safe. I glance to the other two and they seem to have lost interest; they’re watching a Baywatch rerun on the bar’s television. They’re men; I excuse them for a short attention span.

“Walk with me?” I ask Bear and he nods, pushing his beer further onto the counter and following me out the door into the warm, dark night.

“What the fuck is going on, Bear?” I ask when we’re alone, well, except for Snake. The mountainous bouncer gives us a gap-toothed smile as we come out. “I thought she should be concerned but I didn’t think you’d react like this.”

He sighs and seems to consider his response. “You know that case I’m working on, the rapes and murders?”

“Yeah?”

“One of the women, the second one, had a handwritten note at the scene. It was gibberish: street names and off comments. We think he wrote it while he was following her.”

“And?” I don’t like where this is going.

“Look, I’m no handwriting expert. And it’s not even in the same color ink or on the same paper, but there’s something about this note your friend got that rubs me the wrong way. I’d like to have our analyst look at it.”

“Bullshit, Bear,” I laugh sharply. “This is someone jealous of her and Erik. Someone who saw her when she was an anchor and watches our special reports. He’s off balanced, yeah, but not a rapist. Not a murderer.” Am I convincing him or myself?

He chuckles softly and nods. “You’re probably right, Harper. I’m paranoid. Those scenes … the women … it really is brutal. I want to catch this guy and I think I see clues everywhere. Let me run this note. I’m sure it’s not even related. But we’ll both sleep better, right?”

“Well, I will, but I bet you hope it’s him.” I’m no fool. I know Bear would piss himself to have one of the killer’s potential victims under his watch.

Bear stops strolling back to the bar and looks at me. His large face softens and is oddly expressive. “Harper, I hope it’s not him. I wouldn’t want your friend to be associated with this guy.”

I take a five dollar bill out of my pocket and shove it into his hand. “Pay for my beer.” I punch Snake in his thick arm good-naturedly. “Thanks for watching over my baby.”

Snake shrugs. “Everyone needs someone to watch over them.”

Ain’t that the truth. I hope it doesn’t get too chilly tonight since it looks like I’ll be spending it outside Kelsey’s building.

***

The first thing I notice when I get to the office is Harper looks like hell. Her dark hair is pulled back into a tight French braid and her eyes are haggard. She’s drinking coffee like it’s a life source and I’m worried that I pissed her off again.

The reason I get such a good look at her is because she’s sitting in my chair, her feet on my desk.

“Big story?” I ask by way of greeting.

She shakes her head. “Are you okay?”

I think we’re both surprised by the sudden question. She looks exhausted and apparently her filtering systems are down. “I’m fine.”

“Any gifts or phone calls? Anything?”

“No.” She’s worrying me and she must see it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” she sighs, getting up. “Gail is bringing your tea. D’you believe I had to ask her? Is she fucking stupid? Even I know you drink tea every morning.”

I wave it off. Gail is no brain trust, that’s for damn sure. “Thank you.” She nods.

“Did you talk to your cop friends?”

She appears to freeze, blue eyes wide. “A little. They’re looking into some stuff. No big deal.”

“Right.” I study her for a long moment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Harper Kingsley this tense. She’s strung tight, long fingers constantly fidgeting with the mug in her grip. “Are you okay? I know you have plenty of friends to talk to but … I’d like you to know you can talk to me, too. If something’s wrong. I’d try to help you.” God, I sound like an idiot. I’m not very good at this friendship thing. No wonder I don’t have any.

She seems to soften at my words but the worried look doesn’t leave her eyes. “I appreciate that, Kels. I really do. It means a lot to me. But I’m fine. I’m expecting a phone call, kind of eager about it. I better get back to my office.”

She may be gorgeous but I’m relieved to find out she’s as odd as the rest of us.

***

“Harper?”

“Bear.” About damn time. It’s nearly noon. “Tell me about the note.”

He doesn’t waste time. “No match. You can relax. It wasn’t even close.”

Jesus. I feel instantly relieved. “Thank you.”

“I’d like those roses. Your friend still has some kinda weird stalker thing going on.”

“Yeah. Should we meet for lunch? You can talk to her directly,” I offer, hoping Kelsey doesn’t have plans with Susan. “And don’t mention the suspicions we had last night. I didn’t tell her.”

“No problem,” he agrees. We make plans for him to come to the station first.

***

Kelsey is less receptive than I’d hoped.

“Do you have lunch plans?” I fish, trying to figure out her reluctance. Is it me? I thought we were past that. I’d hoped we were, anyway.

“No,” she says slowly.

“It’s just business, Kels,” I say shortly, allowing myself to get angry at her rejection. “And my buddy’ll be there. So I’ll have to keep my hands to myself.”

“No,” she responds quickly, rising from her chair. “No, Harper, it’s not that.” She runs her hand through her hair and I know she’s trying to get the courage to tell me something. “It’s just … if this person is following me, I don’t want him to see me talking to the cops. Your friend’s been on TV with those murders and I don’t want my admirer to think I ratted on him.”

I understand her fear now. “Of course, you’re right. I’m sorry.” I try my best lopsided grin, knowing I shouldn’t have gotten so defensive with her. We’ve both been trying.

“Can I talk to him here?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry, Little Roo. I should have thought about that.” I should have, too. How the fuck am I supposed to keep my promise to her if I lose my ability to think after one sleepless night? I’ve had a shitload of sleepless nights before. Of course they were filled with arousing activity and not sitting on a curb with a thermos of coffee. I guess the arousing activity was more stimulating than Maxwell House. Hell, I know it was. I am glad to say, though, that Susan didn’t spend the night. She left just before midnight and I refrained from stuffing a banana up her tailpipe. Ooh, another thing that sounds dirty, but isn’t.

“Let’s order pizza,” she suggests. “My treat.”

I guess I’ve been forgiven.

***

Bear smiles nervously when I introduce him to Kelsey. “Pleasure,” he manages, blushing to his roots.

Kelsey smiles back politely, obviously used to eliciting this reaction. “Thanks for coming here, Detective Brice.”

“Call me Ted, please.”

“No, call him Bear,” I interject. I motion to the two pies lying on my desk. “Come on, let’s eat while it’s hot.”

We settle around the desk to gorge ourselves on pizza. It is topped with pepperoni, sausage and hamburger. Kels makes a face as I pick up the first slice to my mouth. I pause in mid-bite. “What?”

“Is anything on four legs safe around you?”

“Chér, most things with two legs aren’t safe around me,” I reply, giving her my most lascivious look.

“Hand me a slice,” Kelsey answers, surprising me. Who knew she could flirt? Was she flirting?

Bear chuckles at my discomfort. “Ms. Stanton, when did the gifts begin?”

“It’s Kelsey. They began the day after Erik received the Popular Pick’s award. It started off with a dozen roses and a note.”

“And how many have you received now?”

“About one every other day for the last three weeks. Flowers, chocolates, stuffed animals, balloons, little poetry books, all that type of stuff. All with the same note: ‘From a Secret Admirer.’ Until yesterday when he put the dead roses in my car.” She shivers, and it’s not from the cold.

“Do you still have that first note, Kels?” I ask, remembering she put it in her desk drawer.

“I think so. Want me to go get it?”

“That would be great if you could, Ms … Kelsey.”

“Excuse me,” she says, wiping her mouth and hands. I watch her leave, noticing yet again that she has a perfectly proportioned body. Damn Susan.

Bear catches me lusting after her but wisely says nothing. “Jesus, Harper, that means she’s received more than ten gifts from this nut.”

“Some at home, some here, some in her fucking car. He’s called her at home, on her unlisted number.”

“We need to get her some protection.”

I laugh. “I don’t think she needs condoms.”

He joins me, grateful for a break in the tension. “I’ll speak to Greg Komansky, he’s head of the Threat Management Unit.”

“Nice euphemism.”

“Well, we didn’t want to call it Stalkers Anonymous for God’s sake.”

I wonder what’s taking Kelsey so long. I look over at her office and see her curled up in her chair, crying. “Bear!” I call as I am bounding out of my office and into hers.

On the floor are scattered pictures of her, and me, and Erik, and Susan. She’s clutching a note in her hand mindlessly. I remove it, trying to only touch it at its corners and place it on the desk. It reads “You belong to me.”

“Come here,” I say, even as I take her into my arms. She hugs me readily. Our boundaries are forgotten in the midst of crisis, as per standard operating procedure with us. I enfold her in a strong embrace, rocking her gently, whispering calming words.

Bear is gathering up the photographs with a gloved hand. He’s scared, I can tell. So am I.

“We need to get Komansky over here now, Harper. I want a written report on file. She needs to start keeping a diary of the incidents and report each of them. And it’s time to get a bodyguard.”

“No, no bodyguard,” Kelsey protests against me.

I don’t release her. “Yes, a bodyguard. Me.”

“You?” she echoes.

“Me.”

She stares at me for a long moment, her green eyes still wet with tears. “Okay.”

“Good. Glad that’s settled.” And that means no Susan. At least, I hope it does.

Bear interrupts us as he lumbers to his feet. “I’m going to take these things in to the station, Harper. I’ll call you later.”

“Thanks, bud.” I say over Kelsey’s head. It feels so good holding her.

But she’s moving away from me now, wiping away her tears and reaching for the phone. “I need to call Susan,” she explains.

Damn.

“And tell her not to come over tonight. It’s not safe.”

“No, it’s not,” I readily agree. Because if she comes over, I’ll be there. Definitely not safe for her.

“Thanks, Harper.”

“Hey, what are partners for?” Unfortunately, we’re still talking partners in the non-sexual sense here.

* * *

I roll over and face the back of the couch. Kels offered me the guestroom, but if I can’t be with her I want to be near the only entrance into this joint.

So the sofa it is. Kelsey has good taste and it’s not horribly uncomfortable for a sofa. I’ve slept on a hell of a lot worse, with and without company. The pillow came off of Kels’ bed and I have to admit it’s got me so distracted I can’t sleep.

I’d know the smell of her shampoo anywhere and this ain’t it. Susan must have been the last one to use this pillow. I toss it to the end of the couch. Rolling up one of the two blankets, I place it under my head instead.

As I turn back over, I glance at the bedroom door and notice a light is still creeping out of it. She left it slightly cracked when she went to bed. I look to my watch. One-thirty in the morning. Hell, she went to bed hours ago.

I get up and move to the door, knocking softly. “Little Roo?”

No answer. I push the door open and find her sleeping. She’s curled up tight under the blankets and as I approach the bed I can tell she’s been crying. God, she must be terrified.

While I’m not wild about Susan, some part of me feels guilty that she’s not here to offer Kelsey the comfort I can’t. Well, that she won’t let me give her. God knows I want to.

There is a book laying next to her, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” At least her reading tastes are excellent. Nothing better than a book set in the deep south. However, maybe not the best choice for her at the moment.

I take the book and place it on the night stand as I let my fingers brush through her hair just once. It’s as soft as I remember and my touch lingers a moment longer than necessary. “No one will hurt you while I’m around, Kels. I promise.”

Snapping off the light, I leave her room and close the door behind me.
Episode Fifteen: Home Is Where The Heart Is
I hear the incessant knocking on Harper’s office door and I glance over to see a messenger holding an envelope. I finally get up from my desk and move to my doorway.

“You know, it doesn’t take a mental giant to figure out after five friggen minutes that she’s not in there.”

The pimply face messenger with the headsets still doesn’t hear me. Maybe it’s the heavy metal music he’s listening too, full blast, on his cd player that’s rusted his ears shut. I step forward and tap him on the shoulder. He jumps forward and bangs his head on the door.

Dipshit.

I smirk as he rubs his head and turns around holding out the thick yellow envelope to me.

“You wanna sign for it?” he asks as he chomps his gum.

No, you stupid little turd I want to smack you into the middle of next week.

Instead I take his pen and sign his book so he will take his purple spiked head out of my immediate viewing area. Jesus, I remember a time when clean-cut got you the job.

As I turn the envelope over in my hands I see it’s from a travel agent. Harper must be going somewhere for the holidays. I wonder who the lucky girl is and what waters of the Caribbean they’re gonna be scaring the fish in.

I return to my desk and my paperwork, tossing the envelope down on the corner of my desk. Some people have all the luck.

An hour or so later, as I lean back in my chair and stretch, I see her come in.

“Hey, Tabloid!” I call as I wave her into my office.

She sticks her head in and gives me a wide, ornery grin. “Yeeesssss….”

I can’t help, but laugh at the silly look on her face as I gesture toward the envelope. “Messenger from Heavy Metal Hell delivered that about an hour ago.”

She practically bounces into my office.

“Oh goody!” She snatches the envelope from the corner of my desk.

“Somebody hit you with a giant happy stick today?”

“Yeah, well.” She opens the envelope and gives the contents a quick check. “I haven’t been home in almost four months….”

Oh, a whole four months? Christ, Tabloid, I haven’t been home in ten years. Except, of course, for the occasional court appearance.

Then it hits me: home. She’s going home for Thanksgiving and not to some tropical island with the catch of the day. I am both surprised and pleased. “Have fun. Enjoy,” I offer as I lean forward and close the file.

She plants herself on the corner of my desk staring down at me. “So do you and Dr. Feel Good have plans?”

I take a deep breath and lean back. “Umm, no, actually, we don’t. Susan will be home with her family.”

“And she didn’t ask you?” Harper looks pissed.

“Harper, here’s a tip, my friend.” I lean forward and grin just a little. “Not everyone can be as open as you are. We all don’t live in a perfect world. Susan’s parents don’t know about her so she can’t take me with her.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Hey, no problem.” I wave it off as if it doesn’t bother me.

“Erik’s gonna be home though, right?”

Jesus, Harper, when did you become so interested in what I do for the holidays?

“No. He won’t be home until the following week. He’s still shooting in North Carolina. And, before you ask,” I offer as I hold up my hand, “I’ll be going to a Bogart and Bacall movie marathon. Decked out in baggy sweats and ballcap. It’s become a tradition I’ve been pretty happy with over the years. Last year it was Clark Gable marathon.”

Another convincing lie about my life.

“Un-huh. Old movies and stale popcorn on Thanksgiving? Come on, Kels.”

Okay, maybe not so convincing.

“No, actually, they have really good gourmet popcorn at this place, thanks. Very ummm,” I leer as I look at her, “buttery. You know, the kind you gotta lick off your fingers after?”

To make sure I get my point across to my partner, I insert the first two fingers of my left hand into my mouth to the second knuckle and close my eyes. I very slowly start to bring them out of my mouth, but just before they are clear, I suck them back in and then remove them with a little smacking noise. I give the end of my thumb a little lick with the very tip of my tongue.

When I open my eyes, Harper is gone.

* * *

Sometimes, in a war, the best thing you can do is a tactical retreat.

That’s what I’m telling myself as I sit in my office and try not to think about Kelsey’s fingers in her mouth and the soft sucking sounds coming from her throat and …

Oh God. I groan and shift in my chair.

Why is it so fucking hot in this office today?

I nearly pounced on her. I want her. I want her like I’ve never wanted another woman in … well, ever, truth be told.

She’s infuriating. Exciting. Smart. Gorgeous. Funny. Damn good at her job. Sexy. Sensitive. Alone.

God, I hate that she’s alone. She shouldn’t be. She should have more than Erik and their sham relationship. More than Susan and their casual … whatever. She deserves someone who will be willing to be proud to be at her side as her lover. Who will tell the entire world to piss off about morals clauses and other such nonsense.

My parents didn’t raise me to roll over and accept the status quo and suffer injustice quietly. Nope. Not the Kingsleys.

Truth be told, I can’t wait to see my family. Four long months of not having decent food and music in my life. And not playing touch football with my brothers. And I haven’t even seen Robie and Rene’s little baby Clark yet. My own nephew and I haven’t even seen him after three months of being in this world.

Mama isn’t pleased, I know that. I got an earful of sour French last time I called home.

Hmm.

I think I know how to get Mama off of my back. Give her a new cause. Always worked for Papa before.

I stand up and straighten my shirt, for no reason other than to give my hands something to do. Come on, Harper, stop acting like a nervous teenager. Which, if I need to remind you, you never were before. Just go ask her.

I find myself standing in Kelsey’s office, not quite sure how I got here. She’s staring at me, waiting for me to speak. “Why don’t you come home with me for the holidays, Kels?”

There. To the point.

She is surprised at my invitation. I think. Either that or she just swallowed a fish.

“Uh, well, Harper … thanks for the invitation. But, really, I couldn’t intrude.”

“It’s not intruding if you’re invited.”

“That’s really sweet, but … No. You go on home and have a good time. I’ll be here when you get back.”

Then it hits me: What if she isn’t? What if the fucking stalker does something to her while I’m gone? After I promised her earlier this week that I’d take care of her. After I’ve been sleeping on her couch for the last couple nights.

“Come on, Kels. You know you want to. It’ll just be me and my family. A small gathering of about twenty insane Cajuns having a wonderful holiday. Mama is the best cook in all of Louisiana, even Emeril Lagasse calls her for cooking advice.” I can tell she’s not yet persuaded, so I try pulling out the big gun. Well, I hope it’s a big gun. “Besides, I promised to protect you and I can’t do that if we’re in different states. And my Mama will absolutely kill me if I don’t come home for Thanksgiving. I’m already standing hip deep in gator shit for not going home when my nephew was born. So ….”

Kelsey laughs. It’s a wonderful sound. “Okay, okay. If I can get a ticket at this late time, I’m yours for the holiday.”

God, if only that were true.

* * *

We’re sitting in first class on Delta flight 1816 about to take off from Dallas. Next stop New Orleans. I was able to purchase Kels’ ticket for a mere $2500 at this late date. But, at least, she’s with me.

Take that, Susan. I’m not ashamed of her. Or myself.

Kelsey is gripping the armrest as if it’s her last, best friend in the world. We went through this when we took off from LAX earlier this morning. She really hates to fly. I’d give her something alcoholic to drink, but Omaha is a bad memory.

“All right, are you ready for the cast of characters?” I ask, trying to distract her.

“What?” She blinks mossy green eyes at me.

“My family. Ready to learn all their names?”

“That many?”

“Well, I have twenty immediate family – mom, dad, brothers, sisters-in-laws, nephews and nieces. All of them will be there for Thanksgiving. And then I have forty-nine other relatives – aunts, uncles, cousins, Nonny – who you may or may not see this time. This gives me a total of sixty-nine relatives, which I find inordinately pleasing for some reason.”

She snickers, “Right. For some reason.”

“Dirty mind,” I chastise. I hear my New Orleans accent coming out stronger as we head home. I like it. It feels right to speak to Kelsey this way. “All right, Mama and Papa are Cecile and Jonathan Kingsley. Then my brothers are Gerrard, Jean, Lucien and Robie.”

Kelsey is amused. “How in the hell did you end up with Harper then?”

“Well, I am called Leone by the Cajun side of the family. But my brothers and parents know better.”

“Which side is Cajun?”

“Chér, with a last name like Kingsley, what you tink?” I slip right into the way I’ve spoken with my mother’s family all my life.

“Your mama’s?”

“Tres bien. She was Cecile Boudreaux before marrying my daddy.”

“So, what are your brothers’ non-Cajun names then?”

I laugh, wondering what her reaction will be to them. “Well, now remember, my parents were big in the civil rights movement. So, we have Medgar, John, Martin and Robert.”

She shakes her head, getting all of the references. “Medgar Evers, JFK, Martin Luther King, and RFK. And then Harper Lee of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ fame. Jesus, they were serious about it, weren’t they?”

“Still are. I come from a very passionate family. We all just focus our passion a bit differently.”

“What do your brothers do for a living?”

“They’re all attorneys. Well, Gerrard’s a judge, actually.”

“Sixties civil rights activists gave birth to four attorneys? Somehow that doesn’t seem right.”

“Actually, Papa always said the best way to change the institution was to infiltrate it. He came from a very wealthy and influential family in New Orleans.”

Kelsey’s small hand releases the armrest and travels over to rest on my forearm. “Thanks for inviting me, Harper. I’m really looking forward to meeting your family.”

“They’re gonna love you, Kels. It’ll be the best Thanksgiving you’ve ever had. I guarantee it.”

Or I’ll kick their ever-lovin’ butts all the way down St. Charles.

* * *

We make the right turn on St. Charles and drive the final leg to my family’s house. Okay, house isn’t quite the right word.

“Ohmigod,” Kelsey says as I pull into the long driveway alongside the family home. “This is where your parents live?”

“Not exactly the trailer you had pictured, eh?”

She slaps my arm gently. “Harper.”

I never thought much about the house growing up. All the houses in the Garden District are impressive. Ours was just another Greek Revival on the block. The one thing I did gratefully know was that it had eight bedrooms, so I didn’t have to share with any of my brothers.

As I park the Explorer, I see Mama walk out onto the porch, having heard us pull in. Well, here goes nothing. God, I can’t believe I ‘m nervous about being home. I’ve never felt this way before.

“By the way, do you speak French at all?” I ask as we climb out the vehicle.

She wrinkles her face up in a cute frown. “A little.”

“Ah, good. French tends to be the language of choice with the family. But, they’re pretty good about it when any of the wives are around.”

Her eyebrow hikes up toward her hairline. “I’m a wife now?”

“No!” Shit. “No, my brothers are all married. And only Rene speaks fluent French. The others are pretty bad with it, actually.” Is my face as red as it feels?

“Okay. Because, I mean, Harper, we haven’t even gone steady.”

I join her smile, catching her reference to our school adventure. “I did carry your books though.”

“True. So, why don’t you get the luggage now?” Laughing at me, she turns and walks toward my home.

“Oh no, ma’am, get back over here!” I wave her back over.

She looks over her shoulder lowering her sunglasses to stare at me over the top of them. It is undeniably cute and a bit alluring. I wave her back again and she turns and very slowly walks back to me.

“Yes?”

“We’re not going steady. You can carry your own luggage.” I hand her the black overnight bag. As she starts to take the matching case, I cringe when I hear Mama.

“Harper Lee Kingsley, what you think you’re doing!”

I look to the porch and I can feel the gator shit getting deeper. “Yes, Mama?”

“Please tell me the last time a guest carried her own bags into our home.”

“Mama, she’s not a guest,” I protest. “She’s…she’s…” Words fail me. What is Kels to me? Finally, I take the damn bag as Mama crosses her arms and offers me a very disapproving look.

“Come on,” I grumble as I start up the walk to the house.

“Grump,” Kels teases as she gives me a little slap on the backside, dawdling a bit behind me.

I climb the steps and I am face to face with the one woman in the world who can make me do exactly what she wants me to do, when she wants me to do it.

My Mama.

“Bonjour, mon coeur. Comment ça va?”

She’s called me her heart for as long as I can remember. The boys were always called her spirit. And Papa is her soul. “Mama,
ça va bien. Et toi? Et Papa?” Mama, I am good. And how are you? And Papa?

“Ça va bien. Qui est cette jeune fille?”

How to explain who Kelsey is to me? Well, guess I’ll go with the basics. “On travaille ensemble. Je te l’ai dit.” My partner from work. I told you about her.

“Quelle dommage. Elle est vashement belle!”

Yeah, it is a shame. And, yeah, she is beautiful. “On n’est que m’amie. C’est tout, mamman!” She’s not my girlfriend, Mama. Don’t get any ideas either. My mother considers herself my personal matchmaker. Some parents, when they find out their child is gay, react poorly. My parents? Well, they immediately bought a rainbow bumper sticker for the fucking BMW, joined PFLAG, and started trying to hook me up with cute girls. Mama is also now the National Chairwoman of the Families for Same Sex Marriages. My sexuality is another one of their causes.

“Espèsce de tête dure!”

I roll my eyes. She’s been telling me I’m hard-headed for as long as she’s been calling me her heart. That explains a lot about both of us. “D’accord, mamman. Alors, est-ce que je te presenter Kelsey.” I agree, Mama. Now, let me introduce Kelsey.

***

As Harper and her mother embrace and say hello, I take the time to take a really good look at the house. It’s truly beautiful. Surrounded by flowers and thick, old oak trees covered with Spanish Moss, it feels like taking a step back in time.

I take a deep breath as I lean against the railing and look out over the grounds. God, it is beautiful. Very traditional in southern charm and ambiance. In any other situation it could be very romantic, like finding the world’s best bed and breakfast.

“Hey, Little Roo.” I turn to face Harper who still has her arm around her mother’s shoulders.

Cecile Kingsley is one of the most dignified and attractive women I have ever seen. It’s easy to see where Harper gets her good looks.

“Mama, may I introduce my partner, Kelsey Stanton. Kelsey, this is my Mama, Cecile Kingsley.”

I offer my hand with a genuine smile. “Mrs. Kingsley, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

I am not expecting to be pulled into a hug by the woman, but I go with it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kelsey. And Mrs. Kingsley, elle a disarue, God rest her soul, was my mother-in-law. You call me Mama. All the friends and family do. Or Cecile, if you wish.”

“Thank you.” I look into my partner’s very amused blue eyes as I pull back from the hug.

“Harper has told me a lot about you.”

“Really?” I raise my brows to my partner. Surely, she has better things to talk about than me when she calls home.

“Mais, yeah.”

I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but since she’s welcoming me into her home and not ordering me off her property, I’ll go with the feeling that it’s been good. Will the surprises never cease?

“Harper, you take Kelsey up and get her settled. She’s in the guest room at the end of the hall, next to your room.” Her words are full of soft sounds – gentle d’s and t’s. I can understand why French is the language of romance.

“Yes, Mama.”

“I’ll find your Papa and you two meet us in the garden for tea when you’re ready. Robie and Rene will be here with les bébettes soon. We’ll have supper once they get here.”

“Sounds fine, Mama.” Harper nods as she begins collecting the bags again.

I hold out my hand to take the overnight bag. Harper smiles, giving her head a little shake as her eyes shift to her mother. “Allons.” She motions toward the front door.

“Of course.” I follow my partner.

“Kels, could you get the door?”

“I think I can manage that.” I reach past her and push open the door.

“Thanks.”

“Welcome.”

I follow her in and am immediately struck by the beauty and the charm of the house. It is furnished entirely with antiques, with wide young pine and cypress that accent the floors and ceilings.

“It’s beautiful, Harper. You really grew up here?”

“Yup, I sure did.” She heads for the staircase, which immediately makes me think of “Gone With The Wind.”

“This is a Thomas Sully house, isn’t it?” I ask as I look at the intricate carvings on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs.

Harper stops in mid-step halfway up the stairs. The look on her face is one of pure shock. “Yes, yes it is.”

“Thought so. The design of the house really reflects his work. From the crown moldings at the ceiling, I’d guess it was built between eighteen ninety and eighteen ninety-five.”

“Ninety-two, actually.”

“Well, what do you know?” I offer as I join her on the steps. “That year and a half I thought I wanted to be an architect finally paid off.” I grin as I gesture up the stairs.

“Amazing,” she mumbles as she continues up the stairs. “You’re full of surprises.”

“So are you.”

“What’s that suppose to mean?”

“You’ve been talking to your mother about me?”

“Sure. We work together. When she asks about work, you naturally come up.”

“Naturally.” I smirk just a little. I don’t talk to my mother about work. Hell, who am I trying to fool, I don’t talk to my mother.

I continue to take in the fixtures of the house. The crystal chandeliers, the old gas lamps lining the hall that have been converted to electricity, the rugs, old portraits and photographs that line the walls.

“Relatives?”

“Hmm?” Harper glances at the wall. “Oh yeah, most of them. Family history is very important to the Kingsleys and the Boudreaux.”

“I figured.”

She stops at one room and opens the door, dropping her bags inside it. She turns to me with a grin. “My room. Mama and Papa have left our rooms ready and available to us, in case we ever needed to come home. So far, only Jean has needed to. Elaine threw him out when he told her she looked fat during her last trimester.”

“Ouch. Not good. My Mother turned my room into an office two weeks after I left for college.”

She doesn’t seem to know how to respond to this. She shakes her head a little as she shows me the next room. “This is yours. I think you’ll like it.”

A big four poster bed dominates the room, but the floor to ceiling French doors offer a beautiful view and lots of light. The light only serves to accent the marble mantle over the small fireplace and the crystal chandelier that hangs in my room.

“Is there a room in the house that doesn’t look like this?” I ask as I take it all in.

“No. It’s a pretty amazing place.”

“Oh, now there’s the understatement of the century.”

Harper places my bag down on the bench at the end of the bed and moves to the French doors. She pushes them open, allowing a soft breeze to blow in.

“Kels, just relax and enjoy it. Feel free to look around and get to know the place.” She waves her hand toward the outside. “You have a private balcony here, and, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful view the house offers: it overlooks the garden.”

I follow her out on to the balcony to find yet again more beauty. My view is of a formal garden below, filled with every flower known to man. God, no wonder she loves it here and wants to come home so often. I would too, if I had someplace like this to come to.

“Is that Harper Lee I see standing tall and proud up there?” A man’s voice brings me clear of my own thoughts.

I watch as Harper smiles and waves. “Yes, Papa.”

I look down into the garden to find a tall, good-looking man with slightly graying hair and a mustache smiling up at us.

“And the very attractive young woman standing next to you would be?” He gestures my direction.

“This is Kelsey Stanton, Papa. She’s my partner, from work.”

“Ah, yes, your Mama mentioned that you were bringing a guest. Good choice, Harper.”

“Thank you, Papa.”

I can tell that she’s a little embarrassed and I reach over and give her hand a little pat.

“It’s nice to meet you, Kelsey. We’re glad you could join us for the holidays.”

“It’s nice to meet you too, Mr. Kingsley.”

“Eh, that’s a bit too formal for my tastes. Call me Jonathan.”

I smile and nod.

“Well, when you two get settled, come on down and join us for a glass of tea.”

“We’ll be down in a few minutes.”

I feel Harper’s hand on the small of my back as she guides me back in. “I’ll leave you to get unpacked. If you need anything I’m right through that door there.” She gestures to the door that connects our room which I hadn’t noticed before. “If you need me, just knock.”

“Uh, Harper why don’t we just open it now? I’ve got to be honest, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed here and I’d like very much to keep you close for a while.”

Truth is, here in this setting, I’d like to keep you close to me and naked … oh shit … did I just think that? Reality, Kels. Reality. But hey! it could lend to an interesting fantasy or two. God knows, I have enough of those.

“Sure, we can do that.” She moves to the door, unlocking it and pulling it open to reveal her room on the other side. “Now all you need to do is give a whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you?” She is teasing me, I can tell.

“Uh huh, put my lips together and blow. I’ve got that down. Thanks.”

***

As I finish unpacking, I hear her clear her throat. “How you doing, Little Roo?”

“All finished,” I offer as I close the door to the wardrobe.

“Great. Let’s go down and find my folks.”

“Harper?”

“Yeah?”

Oh God, how to do this? “I want to thank you again for the invitation. You’re right, this is better than old movies and popcorn.”

“It’s my pleasure, Kels. Thanksgiving is really fun around here. I think you’re gonna like it.” She offers me her hand. “Come on.”

As I slide my hand into hers, I take a moment to notice how right they feel together. How could I have been so stupid to push her away from me? If I had worked at it a little maybe things could have been different for us. Damn.

As we walk through the house, I notice more of the detail: the marble, the cut glass in the windows, the stained glass at the top of the stairs and over the entry. True beauty. Just like the woman walking in front of me. I screwed up. Damn.

Damn my own fears, and damn my parents for putting them there.

Harper leads me to the garden where her parents are. They’ve been joined by a young man and woman. The man is an obvious brother of Harper’s, being merely a male version of my partner. A small child is standing next to Cecile clutching her pants leg. Cecile stroking his hair as she speaks with the young man and gives him a hug.

“Well, look there,” Harper yells as we enter the garden. I’m waiting for her to release my hand now that we’re nearing her family, but she doesn’t. Actually, if anything, I notice her tighten her hold on me. “If it isn’t the ugliest thing on two legs since the zoo got its new baboon.”

The young man straightens up and turns our direction. “Ah, baby sister, don’t start what you can’t finish.” He sprints toward us. My hand is released as they engulf each other in a fierce embrace, which resembles a tackle.

I watch them until I notice I’m being waved over by Cecile. I leave Harper and her brother, who are now joking with one another, and join her parents and the young woman. I notice now that she’s cradling a tiny dark-haired baby in her arms. “Ah, this must be little Clark.” I smile as I look at the baby. “Harper hasn’t talked about anything else since we got on the plane.”

“Yes, this is the newest addition to the Kingsley clan.” Mama offers as she makes the introductions. “This is his mother, Rene, and his older brother, Christian.” She gestures to the child clutching her pants. “Rene, this is Kelsey, your sister’s partner.”

“How do you do, Kelsey?” She asks warmly as she adjusts the baby and offers me her hand.

“I’m fine, thank you. Nice to meet you.”

I kneel down to the child and offer my hand. “It’s nice to meet you too, Christian.”

He gives me an embarrassed little smile and turns his face away. He’s adorable. I brush my fingers through his hair before standing back up.

“Christian’s a little shy.” Rene looks to her eldest. “But he’ll get over that soon enough. Christian, I want you to say hello to Ms. Kelsey.”

He peers up at his mother, trying to gauge how serious she is.

“Say hello to Ms. Kelsey. You need to be polite, ma fils.”

He nods slowly and then fixes his big blue eyes on me. Apparently the Kingsley clan specializes in big, blue eyes that make your knees weak. “Hello,” he says softly, but clearly.

“Hello, Christian,” I reply.

“Baby!” I hear Harper yell as she moves across the grass to us. “Give me the baby!”

Rene laughs as she gives up the child to the demanding hands of my partner. “Here you go, Tante Harper. Let me introduce you to Clark.”

“Ah, little guy, I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived, but, rest assured, if you ever need me, I’ll be here for you.” She coos as she cradles the child in her arms.

Now there’s a sight. Harper Kingsley holding a baby.

She unwraps the blanket from around the small body and inspects the child. Finally, she looks up and grins at Rene. “Thank the good Lord above this one also looks like you, Rene.” She leans down and kisses her sister-in-law’s cheek. “There’s hope for him yet. Despite having Robie as his papa.”

“Hey now!” Robie protests good-naturedly. “I don’t see you providing Mama and Papa with any grandchildren.”

“Well, I’m in the infertile brother, remember?” Harper replies and then the two siblings explode in laughter, apparently over an inside joke.

Little Clark lets out a small cry of protest at the noise, causing Rene to reach for her youngest son. Harper swats at her hand and nestles the boy closer to her.

“Don’t worry, Ren, I’ll be good around him. Now, let me bond with my nephew.” She drops to a knee. “And, little Christian, get over here and give your Tante Harper a kiss.”

The boy immediately obeys, throwing himself at my partner with abandon. She somehow manages to hold onto the infant and get an arm around the two year old. She pinches the small boy’s cheek, then kisses it. “Mmmmm, my little cochon de lait!”

He laughs, a big belly laugh, nearly doubling his small body over. “Tante Harper! I am not a cochon!”

“Mais, yeah!” she replies back. She leans forward and makes pig noises against his small neck, sending the small boy back into fits of laughter.

If this is Harper Kingsley, who is the person I know back in Los Angeles?

* * *

At supper, Harper insists on two things. She demands that I sit on one side of her and Clark’s infant seat is situated in a chair on the other. I notice that her family takes this behavior in hand as if her love of children is common knowledge. I obviously don’t know her as well as I thought I did.

Supper consists of andouille gumbo with sweet potato, jambalaya, and homemade French bread. It’s absolutely delicious. The family is loud and loving. I smile as I think how appalled my mother would be at the display before me: elbows on the table, people reaching across the middle, tossing pieces of bread from one end to the other.

Harper is equally attentive to Clark and me. She makes sure my plate is full and often asks me if I’m doing okay even as she is holding a bottle for the baby and following the conversation around her.

Christian, true to his mother’s words, has lost all shyness. Now Robie and Harper are taking turns challenging him to sing songs and he stands in his chair for each one, belting out classics like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Each round is greeted with cries of encouragement from the two siblings. “You sing, peeshwet.”

Somewhere in the middle of the meal, I forget to be uptight and reserved and start enjoying myself.

Mama is bending my ear on one side, asking about work and how I got where I am. She brings up my family but drops the subject kindly when I’m reluctant to talk about them. Even though I’ve known her for less than a day, I’m certain the topic will come up again and I won’t be able to avoid it.

“Mama made sweet potato pie for dessert, Kels,” Harper says, interrupting our conversation. “She makes the best pie so you better save some room.” To her mother she says, “I have had such an envie for good food, Mama!”

Mama replies with a wide smile, full of affection of her youngest.

“Save some room? You’re the one who’s been piling food on my plate,” I laugh.

Harper pats my knee and winks at me. God, she’s even more gorgeous here with her family.

“Hey,” Robie calls from his seat across the table. “Quit flirting over there. You get to see Kelsey all the time. I think Clark needs his tante to hold him.”

Harper doesn’t miss a beat as she reaches over to free Clark from his seat and cradle him against her. “Thank God I get to see Kelsey more than your ugly mug, Robie.”

Clark fusses momentarily and I wave my fingers at him. He looks comfortable there on her chest. Of course, who wouldn’t be?

“You wanna hold him, Kels?”

I blink for a moment. Me? Hold a baby? “No, that’s okay.”

“No, really.” She’s already moving closer to me, pressing the baby into my arms.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to hold Clark, Harper,” Robie chastises.

“Ça! Don’t worry. She won’t drop him on his head like Papa did you, big guy.” Her blue eyes twinkle at me. “You won’t drop him, right?” she whispers.

I shake my head rapidly.

“Good.” She’s tucking my arm around him, sliding it under his well-padded bottom.

“His head?” I don’t know much about babies but I remember something about wobbly necks.

“It’s fine,” she assures me. “Just support it on your elbow like that. There.”

Oh shit. Her hands are gone and I’m holding Clark. He looks as uncomfortable as I feel.

“Relax,” Harper whispers, rubbing my knee warmly. “Isn’t he wonderful?”

I nod. He’s warm and solid in my grip and his eyes are so trusting. I can’t help but smile.

“Smell him.”

“Huh?”

The entire table bursts out laughing and I blush bright red. I can feel the heat of my face.

Harper smiles. “Smell his skin. Babies smell so good. As long as their diapers are clean.”

I do as she says and there is something about his scent that’s comforting. He smells fresh and cozy. The scent of baby powder lingers on him. I look up to Harper and we meet eyes as she nods.

“Wonderful, huh?”

“Yeah,” I agree. “You love kids.”

“Sure, I do. What’s there not to love?”

“Have you ever thought of having them?”

“Nah,” she waves me off. “I’m the world’s best aunt. That’s good enough.”

Christian agrees readily and Robie makes a comment about swollen heads. Harper ignores him as she helps me settle Clark and shows me how to eat one handed. It’s harder than it looks.

***

I know I’m in for it when I sneak into the kitchen just after midnight and Mama is sitting at the table.

“Thief!” she accuses and I smirk.

“Is there any more of that pie, Mama?”

“Mais, yeah.”

She starts to stand but I wave her back to her seat. “I’ll get it. You want a piece?”

“Oh no, bou. I’m stuffed.”

She lets me stew through half of my midnight snack before she speaks up. “Tell me about this sweet Kelsey and you.”

I meet her eyes, knowing that they are exact replicas of my own. She’s not teasing or pressing, she honestly wants to know.

“Not much to tell. We work together.”

She purses her lips in thought. “But you want more?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Tell your Mama,” she soothes. How often have I heard that phrase?

I consider how much to tell but I know she’ll get it all out over the course of the weekend. Poor Kelsey, she won’t be safe from my mother’s questioning. “We work well together, we click in a lot of ways. When she’s herself, she’s wonderful. But she’s almost always hiding behind this imaginary person she thinks she has to be.”

“She’s hurt you.”

Uh oh. “Non, Mama,” I say quickly, trying to save Kels from her wrath. “Well, we’ve hurt each other. But we’re moving past that.”

“She wants a relationship with a woman, though? This you know?”

I smirk, finishing my pie. “I know she does.”

“And she likes you?”

“Who wouldn’t?” I give her my best smug look.

Mama laughs and reaches out to smooth my hair back. “Who, indeed? What do you know about her people?”

I tell her about Omaha and the phone message I heard. “That’s all I know.”

She looks as angry as I feel. “Maybe she doesn’t know how to be liked or cared for. Those couillons!”

I shrug silently. Maybe. But there is Erik and she’s mentioned a grandfather. Plus she does have some kind of relationship with Susan. I can’t figure out why the fuck she’d want Susan instead of me but self-esteem has never been a big problem of mine.

“We must seem from a different planet,” Mama says and finishes up her coffee.

“I think she’s feeling a little overwhelmed,” I agree.

“Harper, you dote on her.”

I’m shocked. I don’t dote on Kelsey. I say as much.

Mama laughs and clears my plate, rinsing it in the sink and dropping it into the dishwasher. “You were good with her and Clark.”

I shrug. “Kingsley babies are easy to love. She just needs practice.” I can’t believe I said that. “With Clark,” I add but I can tell by her smile that I already blew it.

“Practice makes perfect.”

I shake my head, hiding a smirk. My parents are impossible. It’s late and I’m tired so I stand up and stretch. “It’s good to be home, Mama.”

“Well, don’t wait so long next time,” she chides. “And I’m glad you brought her.”

“Mama, you know some matches just can’t be made,” I say stupidly and then cringe. Shit, I just challenged her. We’re really in for it now.

I can hear her chuckling as I make my way up the staircase. I can’t wait to see the rest of my family tomorrow. My visit is all the sweeter having Kelsey here to share it.
Episode Sixteen: We Are Family
As I slowly come into full wakefulness, I wonder how I can smuggle this bed back to Los Angeles. It has to be the most comfortable thing I have ever slept in. Every time I stretch, I find a new comfortable spot and I’m nearly lulled backed to sleep. It’s easy to curl up here and rest. I’ve never felt so safe.

However, the smell of food cooking and all the laughter coming from downstairs compel me to get out of this big, old, wonderful bed. I slip on my robe and tie it off, moving to the door that connects my room to Harper’s. A quick peek through confirms she’s not there. I didn’t figure she would be.

I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the fresh scent of this place. It’s amazing how I don’t miss the smell of smog. I listen carefully to the sounds floating in through the slightly open balcony doors. Ah, there she is. Turning, I walk out onto to the balcony.

I look down into the garden to find my partner dressed in jeans and a baggy sweatshirt rolling around on the ground, covered in little bodies. She must be wrestling and playing with every child in the house. They are all laughing and giggling as they find new ways to attack Tabloid.

I see four men who I know instantly are her bothers sitting nearby. It’s as if Cécile and Jonathan bought a photocopier which produced children. The only difference is the last one came out a girl. They are all tall and broadshouldered – though the oldest two, Gerrard and Jean, I believe, are a bit thicker through the chest than the younger two. But they all share the same dark hair, straight noses, light eyes, and length of bone. I can’t wait to see what their spouses look like.

The brothers are encouraging their children and laughing loudly every time one of their suggestions is used to elicit a new yell from their sister.

“No fair!” Harper shouts as a water gun is brought into the fray and she is doused from the back.

I fold my arms across my chest, hugging this moment to me, and watch them. I still can’t believe this is the Harper Kingsley I work with back in LA. Our eyes meet when she gets rolled over by one of the kids.

She starts pushing kids off of her body. “Okay, guys, she’s up. Ready?”

I watch as she scrambles to her feet, glancing up at me and smiling as she does. She motions all the kids together in a group. They all look up at me and in unison yell, “Good morning, Ms. Kelsey!”

I can’t help but laugh. I feel the blush rise all over my face. She’s certifiable. I manage to catch my breath and give a little wave. “Good morning, everyone.”

“You coming down anytime soon, lazy bones?” Harper calls as she picks up one of the smallest children.

“Yeah. I’m going to shower first and then I’ll be right down.”

“‘Kay.” She turns in time to find herself ambushed again and the game is back on.

***

I make my way downstairs, following the sounds of chatter and laughter until I find myself standing in the doorway of the kitchen. “Good morning,” I offer as I step hesitantly into the room. Lots of unfamiliar faces here, and I don’t want to slip into work mode to deal with these people. I know work mode isn’t very pleasant, for anyone concerned.

“Bonjour, Kelsey. Come on in here and let me introduce you to the rest of the family. Elaine, chér, will you put some water on to boil for tea?” Cécile’s smile and open arms are truly infectious. I am glad to accept another hug from this woman.

“I don’t need tea if you don’t have…” I murmur as I untangle myself from her slowly.

“Oh I have. I have Earl Gray.” She laughs gently. “Harper called and made sure I understood that you drank Earl Gray tea every morning.”

“She did, huh?”

“Mais, oui, she did.”

“Harper did that?” A slim woman asks, looking up from her work, an inscrutable expression on her face.

“Mais, yeah.” Mama grabs my hand and walks me around the huge kitchen. “This is Katherine, Gerrard’s wife.”

All right, someone can get a real insecurity complex in this family. Katherine looks like a model – long blonde hair, big blue eyes, stunning figure. I know she has to be close to forty years old, but she looks younger than I do. I’d hate her if she wasn’t Harper’s sister-in-law. And hugging me right now.

“Pleasure to meet you, Kelsey. We’re all glad you could join us.”

“Thank you,” I stammer.

“Mom?” a small voice calls from the doorway. Katherine’s attention goes to the boy standing there.

“What do you need, T-Jean?”

“Can I have something to eat? I’m hungry.”

“Sure, sweetie. You go on back out and I’ll bring everyone a snack in a few moments.”

“Thanks!”

He turns to run back outside, but Katherine’s voice stops him. “You tell your Tante Harper the next time she gets hungry to come in and ask for herself.”

The boy giggles. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Some things never change. She used to send in Robie,” Cécile mutters. She leads me to the next woman, the one who asked about Harper a moment ago. “This is Rachel, Lucien’s wife.”

This is another blonde wife, but different from Katherine in almost every way imaginable. Where Katherine is tall and voluptuous, Rachel is short and has an athlete’s build. Her hair is cut short and she has hazel eyes, which belie a keen intelligence, I suspect.

Rachel holds up her hands, which are covered in flour, and smiles. “Good to have you here. Maybe we’ll get to hear some truth about what it is old Harper does nowadays.”

“I think we can swap some stories,” I suggest. I would love to have some dirt about a young Harper.

We move along and come to Rene. “Good morning.” I am surprised to see that she has Clark in a snuggle-pack against her chest. “How did you wrestle him away from his aunt?”

“Wrestle is the key word. Clark is a little too young yet to be out there with that rowdy bunch. And Robie is just as bad.”

“They’re all alike, every last one of them,” Katherine sighs.

“I’m Elaine,” the last wife introduces herself to me as she hands me a mug of Earl Gray. “Jean’s wife.”

Elaine is dark haired and willowy with a toothy smile. I look at her narrow hips and can’t believe this is a woman who has given birth to no less than five children, as Harper has told me. The youngest of her five is an infant boy, a few months older than Clark, sitting in a car seat on the table. He is sound asleep. “Thank you.” I prepare my tea on the countertop, drizzling in some honey. “Cécile, is there anything I can do to help?”

“Actually, yes.” She gathers up a cutting board, knife and a colander of something I don’t recognize. “Could you peel these up for me? And take out the seed?”

“Of course, I’d be happy to. But … what are those?” The item in question is a prickly-skinned green vegetable, roughly the size and shape of an avocado.

Harper’s mother laughs. “Child, this are merlitons. After you peel them and remove the seed, we’re going to stuff them with shrimp and breadcrumbs. Then we bake them and eat them. And you will love it, so good.”

I take the vegetables and begin lending about as much help in the kitchen as I’m capable of. Thank God Erik has taught me the bare basics of cooking for myself. Peeling I can do.

Katherine has finished putting together some snacks for everyone outside. She is about to take a tray out when Rachel stops her. “Hold on, I want to take some tea out to the boys, too.”

The two sisters-in-law look at each other and laugh.

I think someone’s in trouble.

***

I’m wondering where Kels has gotten to when Katherine and Rachel come into the garden with trays of snacks and iced tea. The kids instantly cluster around Katherine, wanting even more sugar, God help us, while Rachel makes her way to me.

I don’t like the look on her face. It’s far too smug. She sets the tray down on the wrought iron table. Then picks up a glass and turns to me, placing it in my hand. “She’s cute, Harper. I like her.”

Oh shit.

“Huh?” I can’t seem to find my tongue as I sip my tea, hoping my sister-in-law won’t torture me. But this is Rachel. I know better.

“Kelsey. She’s cute.”

“Where…where…is she?” I take another sip of tease…er…tea.

“With Mama and the girls, in the kitchen.” She says the last three words slowly, letting me know what’s going on. Rachel turns from me and picks up another glass, which she gives to Lucien, along with a kiss.

Oh shit.

“Excuse me for a minute, guys.” I grasp the glass and head for forbidden territory. I gotta get Kels out of there.

Years ago Mama banished all of us kids from the kitchen, declaring it to be hers alone, the one place in the house where she could have solitude. We were all quite fine with that declaration, until we realized she only meant it during the cooking of the food and not during clean up. Nevertheless, Mama’s prohibition stayed in place.

Until Katherine.

When Gerrard brought her home, Mama immediately took her to the kitchen and tossed us out. Together, they plotted and schemed and decided Gerrard’s fate. Not that he wasn’t amenable to it. But, he wouldn’t have been married quite so young had it been left solely up to him.

Andrew Jackson’s kitchen cabinet has nothing on Mama’s.

The kitchen became a litmus test of sorts for the girlfriends. If Mama liked one, she was invited into the kitchen to help. Elaine was invited into the kitchen after dinner to help with dessert. It took Mama the meal to decide if she liked the Yankee. Elaine’s family had only moved to New Orleans fifty years prior from Massachusetts.

Rene was scooped from Robie the moment she stepped into the house. I think Mama spent more time courting her than he did. Of course, Rene has Cajun in her – her grandmère grew up near mine – and so she was instantly family. If Robie hadn’t already been head over heels in love with her, Mama would have beat him until he was. She was intent on Rene becoming a Kingsley.

Lucien brought home a series of girls who never got past the parlor. I was actually the one who brought Rachel home. We were at Tulane at the same time – although she was in law school while I was undergrad. We took a course on entertainment law together. When I brought her home for dinner one night so we could study for the final together, she met Lucien. And got invited into the kitchen.

I was best man in the wedding, gender notwithstanding.

Standing in the doorway, I see that it’s worse than I thought.

Not only is she in Mama’s kitchen, but she’s helping out with the meal.

Mama, you’ve gone too far this time.

I force a smile across my face as I approach my partner. I need to appear nonchalant. Despite the fact everyone is looking at me and pretending not to.

“Good morning, Little Roo, ‘bout time you got up.” I reach for one of the merliton seeds and get my hand playfully slapped.

“Well, I’m up and having my tea.” She picks up her mug to take another drink. “Thank you, by the way.” She grins as she toasts me with the mug.

“Uh huh.” Oh boy. This is sooooo very bad. On so many levels.

She takes the time to pull the collar of my polo shirt out of my sweatshirt and straighten it, like this is something she does everyday. “And I thought I’d offer a little help in the kitchen.” She now hands me one of the seeds.

I put it in my mouth immediately to keep myself from doing one of two things: saying something really stupid or kissing her.

Rene says, “Fous le camp, Harper. Ce n’est pas tu place.”

I’ve just been ordered out of the kitchen. “Tais toi, agitateur.” You be quiet, troublemaker. I look over at my favorite sister and give her my best intimidating look. It is, of course, completely wasted on her. “Tu sais ce qu’elle fout.” You know what she’s up to. Meaning Mama.

“Vas-y!” the accused orders.

I narrow my eyes slightly at my mother at her command to leave, but not so much as to get a spoon rapped on the back of my hand. It’s been known to happen. “Kels, it’s beautiful out. You wanna come outside? I can show you around.” Come on, Kels, let me get you out of here.

“No, thanks. I’m glad to help out.”

“See, she’s fine. Dehors!” Mama repeats, looking displeased with me.

Now Mama is pointing the way out of here. “Mama, I told you …”

She holds up her hands and turns her head to the side. It’s her ‘I give up – what did I do to God to have him give me a child like you’ sign. I saw it quite a bit growing up.

“Fine. I’ll be outside,” I huff.

“On t’appellera, quand on est prêt,” Mama says after me.

I snort. Yeah, right, she’ll call me back into the kitchen later. Will that be before or after you pick me up a marriage license, Mama? I’ve gotta get her off that Families for Same Sex Marriages committee.

Now I know how my brothers felt.

* * *

They are laughing at me when I come out. Robie comes to my side and throws his arm around my shoulders. “She’s brutal. But we know that, we grew up with her.”

“Like a dog on a bone,” I mutter.

“I know, little sister. But, at least, Kelsey’s a cute chew toy.”

“Robie! à ça oui!” I slap him upside the head for even thinking such a thing about Kelsey. I can. My brother can’t. Even if he is my favorite. Especially since he’s my favorite.

Oh God. I am so screwed.

I’m glad she’s here with me. I can’t stand the thought of her being in Los Angeles watching some crappy movie marathon instead. And I like her. A lot. Okay, more than a lot. But, am I ready for her to be in that damn kitchen?

Suddenly a football is headed my way and I catch it as it impacts my gut. I look over to see Gerrard and his two oldest sons waiting for me to toss it back.

I do.

Too much thinking is bad for the appetite.

And it is Thanksgiving. I plan on stuffing myself.

* * *

I finish with the merlitons, then take the cutting board over to Cécile, giving it to her with a little smile.

“Merci, chér.” Her smile is so kind and gentle. I shake my head a bit as I turn to see if there is anything else I can do.

“So.” Rene waves me over to the breakfast table, which she is now clearing. I don’t know why, but I begin helping her. It simply feels right. “You were going to give us dirt on Harper.”

Oh, the dirt I could give them. But somehow I think I’d better make it clean dirt. Question is, do I know any clean dirt?

“Not without us!” Rachel calls as she, Elaine and Katherine wander over.

Cécile looks over at us from the stove. “À oui, mes brus, I do believe it is time for us to do what we do best. Dinner is coming along nicely. Let’s relax a bit.”

With that, the breakfast table is properly prepared and very soon we are all seated around it with fresh cups of tea, coffee and finger food. Somehow, I had a feeling we were going to end up here.

“Come on now, Kelsey,” Elaine encourages as she scoops Geoffrey out of his car seat. He looks at me as he rests his head against his mother’s shoulder. His hair is dark like the rest of the Kingsleys, but his sleepy brown eyes remind me of a baby deer. He focuses on me, poking his little tongue out from between his lips. He yawns, almost making me join him. Once his fists are done rubbing his eyes, he smiles and reaches for me.

Oh shit. Me and kids. Not a mix I had considered before. Still, he’s too cute to be denied. I open my arms to him and he extends his body. It doesn’t take long for me to find myself with a lap full of eight-month-old. He’s content to sit upright in the crook of my arm with his bottom on my lap, staring at his mother and sucking on his fingers. I look down at him and begin to understand why Harper likes this so much.

As I glance around the table, I get the feeling that all of these women are communicating telepathically. Guess that’s what happens in close knit families.

“Tell you what,” I offer as I sip my tea. I’m grateful for Harper’s baby lessons from dinner last night, which allow me to be reasonably comfortable right now. If nothing, I’m a fast learner. “I’ll trade you two for one, but you have to go first.”

They all look at each other. I can tell they’re trying to decide which story to tell first. Oh, I’m gonna like this. Watch out, Tabloid. I got you where I want you now.

Well, maybe not where I want you, but this will do.

***

I have tears in my eyes and I try to catch my breath. “You’re joking?”

“Pas de tout,” Cécile says, pouring another cup of coffee from the carafe she brought over earlier. “I’m serious. Covered.” She puts her cup down and gestures over her own body. “Totally covered, head to toe, in flour.”

“Now, this was, of course, after Robie and Gerrard had pelted her with a few raw eggs,” Rachel adds as she wipes away her tears. “She looked like a walking cake mix. She had things just dripping off her body. It was almost obscene.”

Now, I don’t know why that struck me as so funny, but I find myself choking on my tea. I try hard to swallow it instead of letting it leave my mouth and nose like it wants to. I’m glad I returned Geoffrey to the safety of his mother’s arms a few minutes before.

Katherine joins in. “Not quite the food play Harper is used to.”

All the women burst out in laughter again.

“Well, all I can say is thank God Harper has shared some of her ideas with her brothers,” Rachel whispers conspiratorially.

“Amen,” Rene echoes, crossing herself, setting off another round of tittering.

“Qu’est ce qu’on vous fairait?” Mama asks, clearly as amused as the rest of us.

“What will you do with us? Adore us, madly, like you already do,” Rene replies, leaning over to kiss her mother-in-law’s cheek.

“And they did this because?” I ask as I hold a napkin to my lips.

“They did it because she said that they couldn’t.” Rene cuddles Clark close to her. “She said she was the grand champion of practical jokes and nothing they could cook up would be smooth enough to catch her. So they nailed her with the eggs…”

“Got her to chase them down to the gazebo,” Elaine continues, shifting Geoffrey and his bottle just a bit. “There they managed to get her to hit a trip wire and dump close to fifty pounds of flour on her head from the trees above.”

“It looked like a snowstorm had hit us in the middle of July,” Katherine adds as she begins to clear the table.

July. It hits me. “You mean to tell me this happened the last time she was home? Not when they were kids?”

Cécile shrugs. “They just never grow up. Took Jonathan weeks to get the grounds cleaned up. He wasn’t nearly as amused as they were.”

“I can only imagine.”

Just as we are all about to get back to work the back door swings open with a crash.

“Oh, don’t be such a big baby, baby sister!” I think it’s Robie’s voice.

“I’m not. I’d just like to get the damn bleeding stopped, if you don’t mind.” I hear Harper growl and I’m on my feet before she enters the kitchen.

“Kelsey?” I turn and catch the damp towel Cécile has tossed to me. Why did she toss it to me? Why am I getting up?

Harper comes into the kitchen holding her right hand to the top of her head. She looks a little sheepish, as she shrugs at all of us. “I zigged when I should have zagged.” She points at Katherine. “Your Joseph is getting as big as his daddy. Damn.”

Katherine swells with maternal pride. “We have a team to supply at Tulane, Harper. You know that. Is he all right?”

Harper pauses, hand on her hip, and glares at her sister. “He’s fine. I’m the one bleeding.”

A mock baby’s cry is heard from the doorway.

“You go along, Robie,” Rene calls. “She’ll come back out and play in a minute.”

Before I even realize what I’m doing, I take Harper by the arm and sit her down at the table. “Lemme see.”

“Kels.”

“No argument. Now, come on.”

“It’s just a scratch. I only need a Band-Aid,” she protests as she swats at my hands.

“Don’t make me hurt you, Tabloid.” I hear Robie snort from the doorway. Harper shoots him a dirty look as Mama shoves him out the door. But Harper drops her hand, allowing me to press the cloth to the cut on her head. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.”

After I clean the cut above her right eyebrow, I find that first aid supplies have been placed at my fingertips. Without thinking, I place a small bandage over it. I give my head a little shake to stop myself from my next course of action, which would have been to give her boo boo a kiss.

“There you go, Tabloid. All better?”

“Much.” She fingers the bandage for a second. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” I gather up the wrapper and the other discarded items and move across the kitchen to throw them away. “You can go play again,” I tease. “But be more careful this time.”

Harper just shakes her head and tries to hightail it out of here.

“Tu as pris aux bons soin de cela,” Cécile whispers to me. You took good care of that. She has her back to the rest of the family, who are now teasing Harper, each of the sisters carefully inspecting her for further injury. “Tu as du douce âme.” You have a gentle soul.

Here I thought I had kept my little secret, secret. I’m beginning to wonder if anything is secret from Cécile Kingsley. I smile at her, tossing away the wrappers. “Merci.”

“Dit donc, tu as le nez fin, aussi.” She quirks her brow at me. And you are a sneaky one to boot.

“Evidament, que ce n’est pas assez.” Apparently not enough. I give her a pat on the hand as I turn and lean against the counter.

* * *

Papa and I come in for the turkeys. He goes over and places a gentle kiss on Mama’s left temple. “The natives are getting restless, darlin’.”

“Of course they are. Ça fini pas,” she murmurs in agreement. “They’re ours.” She spots a small scrape on the back of his knuckles. “Jonathan?”

He shrugs, glancing at me. “We had to make the extra point, dear.”

“Mama,” I say, trying to save my father. “I can’t wait to have some of your fried turkey. I’ve been dreaming of it long and hard.”

Mama recognizes my ploy, but allows it. She walks over to the large professional size refrigerator and opens the door, revealing two large birds waiting for us.

“Fried turkey?” Kelsey asks, the tone of her voice conveying her extreme skepticism.

“It’s amazing,” Rene assures her. “Nothing better in record time. Don’t worry.”

“You want to see how it’s done, Kels?” I ask, innocently enough. I can use this to drag Kels out of this dangerous place.

“Sure,” she agrees amiably.

Papa and I each grab a tray laden with a twenty pound turkey and make our way outside. Kels opens the screen door for us and helps run interference as the older grandkids run over to see the birds.

We approach the garage driveway where a makeshift fence has been erected around a cooking area. Gerrard and Lucien are standing inside it, while Jean and Robie are entertaining the littlest kids, keeping them well away.

Fried turkey is a wonderful thing, a staple in our home for Thanksgiving, and in many other Cajun households. It sounds like KFC, but it ain’t. Not by a long shot. There’s no breading on the bird, so it doesn’t come out that way. We just cook the turkey in a pot of oil and take it out when it’s done. Cooks faster and seals in the moisture. Plus, Mama puts an amazing injection of Cajun spices into the turkey, so those are sealed in as well.

“So, you can see,” I begin explaining to Kels, “we’ve heated up the oil using the propane tanks. We need to dip them quickly a few times in the oil to vaporize any excess water off their skin, to prevent any spitting of oil once they’re fully immersed.”

Even as I speak, Gerrard and Lucien take the birds and do as I describe. They sizzle, and a small cloud of vapor rises up over the pots. Then the boys set them down fully in the oil.

“That’s it?” Kels asks, as my brothers go over to deck chairs and set themselves down to watch the birds cook.

“Yup.”

“How long will they take?”

“Around an hour.”

“That’s fast.”

“Yup. And wait until you taste it. Darlin’ …” I growl, like my stomach always does thinking about this delicacy.

Kels laughs and blushes.

Oh damn.

* * *

It’s less than two hours later when we sit down for dinner. The formal dining room table doesn’t have enough room for the family anymore, which now numbers twenty-three, including Kels. We’ve brought another table into the room and set it at a T to the main one. Mama never believed in kids’ table. Family sits with family, no distinction for age.

So, here we sit and gaze at the abundance of food spread out before us.

“My God, Mama, you’ve outdone yourself!” Robie exclaims.

“Qui t’a dit,” she chastises.

“Yeah, watch your language, Robie.” I snicker and am surprised when both Rene and Kels slap my arm, one on each side.

Papa clears his throat. “Speaking of the Lord,” he intones. He holds out his hands and soon all of us have linked hands around the table.

Kels has the softest hands.

Stop it.

“Lord, we thank you for this day to reflect. We thank you for this family that makes us strong. We thank you for the new members of the family, and how you bless us with new ones. We thank you for this food and all the hands that prepared it. And help us to have the strength to do the right. Teach us to pray, as you taught your disciples, saying …”

We finish up with the Lord’s prayer and we all cross ourselves, including Kelsey. I haven’t the heart to tell her she did it backwards. Lord knows, I’ve done it that way more than a few times myself, and I was raised Catholic. Of course, I was normally hung over those times, but I’ll credit hers to nerves and lack of practice.

I miss holding her hand.

Argh!

* * *

I watch her as I lean against the doorframe.

She is sitting on the living room floor with her long legs stretched out in front of her, surrounded by the youngest grandchildren. I now recognize them as Christian (Robie and Rene’s oldest son), Thomas and Caitlin (Jean and Elaine’s two year old twins), T-Jean and Anthony (kindergartners belonging to Gerrard and Katherine and Jean and Elaine respectively). And, of course, Clark is cuddled in her arms.

I smile, watching her tickle them and run her fingers through their hair paying attention to each one, redistributing toys as necessary. They all seem to run to her the second she sits down and she loves every minute of it.

I look around the living room and it’s no wonder. Her brothers and their wives, her mother and father, are all here together for the holidays and happy. Suddenly I feel a huge lump in my throat and I need to get away for a minute.

Making my way to the verandah, I take a seat on the porch swing. I curl my legs under me and I stare at the sweat running down the side of my iced tea glass.

I trail my finger over the glass’ surface. I can see the path I clear and then the path closes and you can never tell I was there. Kinda like my childhood. I snort at the thought and bring the glass to my lips.

“Hey, Little Roo?”

I turn my head to find her standing on the porch with me. I hadn’t even heard her approach.

“You okay?”

I nod without answering, then smile as Danielle (Gerrard and Katherine’s eight-year-old) bounces over to Harper. She hunches down to eye level and gives the little girl a hug and a kiss. “Tante Harper needs to talk to her friend for a sec. Can I catch up to you in a bit?”

“Sure.”

“Cool. I’ll be in soon.”

And with that the child runs back into the house calling to her grandmother, “Tante Harper is on the porch with her new girlfriend”.

Harper rolls her eyes and turns to me with a smile and a shrug. “I’m sorry about that. She’s been trained that partner equals girlfriend. She’s a bit confused.”

“It’s okay.” I reassure her. I can’t help it when I see her like this. She is happy and relaxed here. “Is it always like this around here during the holidays?”

“This?” She lifts her brows as she juts her thumb over her shoulders. “Ah, this is nothing. You should be glad the rest of the extended family didn’t come over. Then it’s a real zoo.”

I really want to cry. I fight back the tears and shake my head. “Amazing, just amazing.” I know my voice is breaking, but can’t help it.

“Hey!” Before I know it she is kneeling in front of me, taking one of my hands in her own and rubbing it. “What’s wrong, Kels? Please tell me.”

I shake my head and note that my hands are trembling for some reason. “It’s silly.”

She takes the glass from my hand and places it on the ground. “You’re on the verge of tears. Whatever it is, it’s not silly.”

I look down at her and I see real concern reflected back at me in her impossibly blue eyes. I can feel the tears pooling again and I know I can’t let them fall. I catch them on the tips of my fingers before they have the chance. Running my hand over the surface of my slacks, they are gone.

Harper’s voice is soft and caring. “Please?” She settles herself cross-legged on the floor in front of me. She runs her thumb over the back of my hand. I can tell she’s not going to let this issue go. Why should she? I’m probably ruining her holiday with her family.

“You know, maybe I should just fly back to LA tonight,” I offer softly.

“Oh no, you can’t do that. My Mama would never forgive us.”

“Us?”

“Yup, because if you go, I go.”

I laugh a little as a tear finally slides down my cheek. “You’re nuts.”

“Some reporter you are if you’re just figuring that out.” She reaches up and wipes the tear away, palming my cheek as she does. “Please tell me,” she gently urges again.

I take a deep breath and look at her. “You’re gonna hate it.”

“I know. But I need to hear it and you need to say it.”

“I’m just so overwhelmed by all this.” I gesture to the house. “I mean if there is a total opposite for the way I was raised, this is it.”

Her hand drops away from my cheek to rest on my leg. I miss it on my cheek.

“I come from a very affluent family as well. However, my Mother and Father are … well, just that, my Mother and Father, not mama and papa or even mom and dad. Mother and Father, always. I’m an only child. Thank God. I would have hated for another child to have lived like that. The fact that I was also a girl was bad for my Father’s ego, you know. His only child wasn’t a proper heir.”

“Because you were born a girl.” It’s a statement not a question.

“I spent my very early years with nurses and nannies. They were good to me but Mother always found something wrong with them. They never lasted long. Personally, I think that the second she saw I was getting attached to one, she’d fire her.”

I can really tell I’m gonna lose it. Part of me wants to stop as I blink back the tears. A gentle squeeze to my leg, however, gives me the courage to say things I’ve never said to anyone. Not even Erik.

“Then, when I got old enough, I was given a tour of the best boarding schools in the world. Again always being transferred when I began making friends and getting attached to teachers or some other adult. If I spoke of anyone too often, I’d soon be leaving one school for another. My Mother said it was so I would have a well rounded education.”

Harper hands me my iced tea and I take a sip to wet my now very dry mouth.

“I was always brought home for the major holidays. This was so I could be shown off to all their friends and business associates. Then, while they had a wonderful time at their dinner parties, I was taken to my room where I would have dinner, watching TV or maybe reading a book. Always by myself. That’s how I’ve always spent Thanksgiving. Movies and popcorn aren’t new to me.”

“Oh God, Kels.” She gets up and joins me on the swing, her arms sliding around me, pulling me tight against her chest.

The tears come again. I begin sniffing to try to get myself under control. I feel safer with her arms around me. It’s easier to talk. “Christmas time was always my favorite though,” I offer with a slight smile.

“Christmas was better?” her voice is low in my ear.

I give a little nod. I let the tears fall unabated against her shirt as I remember the one person who made Christmas special for me. “On Christmas Eve, when they were at their dinner party, I would sneak down to the kitchen. Martha, our cook, always baked Christmas cookies just for me. They’d be in the shape of toy soldiers and ballerinas.

“We would eat them together and drink great big glasses of fresh milk. I wasn’t allowed whole milk as a child. Mother said it would make me fat, but, on Christmas, I always got hot cookies and cold milk. Martha and I would talk until the party started to break up. Then she would take me back upstairs and tuck me in with a kiss. She always left me with a little present for Christmas morning, too. It was always the first one I opened, and the only one I ever kept. I never told my parents because I knew if I did, they’d get rid her. I didn’t want to lose the only person who seemed to care about me.”

When I look up at Harper, there are tears streaking down her cheeks.

“Oh God, Harper, I’m sorry.” I wipe them away. “I am so sorry. I’m ruining your holiday with this.”

“No,” she says forcefully. “No, you’re not. You are actually reminding me of how much I do have to be thankful for.”

“Imagine that. Me, helping you, during the holidays.”

“And, Kels,” she whispers, staring at me intensely.

“What?” I breathe, taking in the scent of her, my emotions all in a whirl.

“You now have someone else who cares for you. Both on the holidays and off.”

And then she kisses me. I’m surprised, but oh so very happy with this turn of events. God, it feels so right. Her lips are soft and moving against mine. It’s not demanding, but it’s certainly not just a friendly kiss.

I feel my arms move around her shoulders of their own volition. And when one of her hands cups my neck and pulls me even closer, I almost forget what we’ve been talking about for the last few minutes.

We break for air, but don’t move very far from one another. I can still taste her on my lips, mingled with the salt of my tears, and I want more of her.

Just as I am about to go back for a second helping, we hear Danielle’s voice from the open doorway. “Grandmaman! Tante Harper is kissing her girlfriend on the porch swing!”

Just when I was beginning to like kids.
Episode Seventeen: Anticipation
I tighten my robe around me and roll my shoulders before entering the kitchen. I know Cécile will be in here. I could barely look at her last night after Danielle announced what Harper and I were doing on the porch.

What exactly were we doing?

I mean, besides kissing.

I was crying, she was trying to stop me, our lips got in the way. Right? That’s all there was.

Except it felt so damn good.

I could be in trouble here.

“Bonjour, chér,” Mama greets me with a smile, looking up from her coffee. “Why you awake so early?” She gets up and moves to the stove to turn the burner on under the tea kettle.

“Restless, I guess.” I take a seat at the breakfast table and smooth out the place mat in front of me so I’ll have something to do with my hands.

“Tch tch, what could get you that worked up?” she teases, dropping a tea bag in a mug. She seems to enjoy watching the blush spread over my features.

“Uh … I …” I wish I could crawl back into bed right now.

“Please, ma petite, don’t look so red. I must know something about that. I do have five children, you know.” Mama goes to the refrigerator and begins pulling out breakfast fixings. “And I have heard she knows what she’s doing.”

I moan and drop my forehead against the breakfast table.

Mama laughs. “If it makes you feel any better, she’s up already too.” I hear her crack an egg against a bowl rim. “Went out for a run. Said she had excess energy to burn off.”

I must be in hell.

The tea kettle whistles. The woman I once regarded as sweet pours me a cup and brings it over to me, along with the jar of honey. She brushes a lock of my hair back behind my ear, then moves away again.

“Jonathan and I have to go Baton Rogue today.”

“Something wrong?”

“Mais, non. One of our foundations has its annual meeting today. Board meetings during the day; then a charity dinner/dance tonight. Personally, I look forward to the evening.”

I laugh, enjoying the honesty of the admission. “I can understand. I don’t like meetings much myself.”

“C’est la vie. If they somehow protect one more woman or child, then I don’t mind. But, I am glad Jonathan is there with me. He makes my life fun.”

“I think your family specializes in that, Cécile.”

“Harper is fun, is she not?” She begins to fry some sausage on the stove, its spicy aroma immediately filling the kitchen. Is this what mothers do in the morning? I certainly wouldn’t know.

Is Harper fun?

“Yes, she is,” I admit. When she’s not being irritating, maddening or exasperating.

She can read minds, I swear. “Except for when you want to strangle her. I know the feeling. I am her mother.” She turns the sausage, and pours the eggs into another frying pan. “But, she has a good heart. I have never seen her hurt anyone intentionally. Not in what is important.”

“I see.” This is my standard noncommittal answer.

“And you are important. To her.”

Cécile keeps her back to me, allowing me the privacy I need to absorb her words. I take each one to carefully weigh and measure, knowing their importance instinctually.

“She’s never brought anyone home before,” she continues after a long moment.

This surprises me and I admit so.

“Why? Do you think my Harper would bring home the usual women she goes out with?”

I try to imagine the woman from the motorcycle here in this home. It does not compute. “You know about them?” I ask weakly.

She begins serving up breakfast, putting a full plate in front of me. “Please.” She sighs, retrieves her plate, and sits across from me. After a brief prayer, she resumes. “A mother knows her child. I have prayed long and hard for her to be as happy as her father and I are.”

“I am sure she will be one day. With a family like this, she knows love.”

“Merci. And, I believe you are right.”

Now what did she mean by that?

* * *

Papa slows as we approach the house. His sweatshirt is stained with sweat, as I know mine must be as well. Nothing like a three mile run to get the blood flowing. “You’re getting slow in your old age,” he teases.

“Yeah, right. Who was pacing who the last mile?” I give him a gentle backhand to the stomach. It’s as hard as a rock.

“I just didn’t want you to feel bad, runt.” He flashes a huge smile, the one I know I inherited, and waggles his eyebrows at me. “What’s on your mind? Or should I say who?”

“That obvious?”

“Been through this four times before, Harper. I know the signs.”

I shake my head. “I’m not there yet, Papa. I know Mama has plans for Kels. Dammit, she practically chained her in the kitchen yesterday. It wasn’t fair.”

Papa laughs and grabs my forearm, slowing us down to a walk. “Mama doesn’t play fair, Harper. Ask Gerrard. She wants to see her baby happy. And Kelsey seems to do that.”

Does she?

“What do you think of her?” I ask. My father is one of the best judges of character I’ve ever known.

“Mama or Kelsey?”

I glare at him.

“I think Kelsey is scared. But, I like her a great deal. She’s good people and darn pretty. You two would make beautiful grandchildren for your Mama. Or, at least, have fun trying,” he adds with a wink.

“Papa!” I groan.

“Come on, lazy bones, let’s see if our women are up.” He claps me on my shoulder and runs toward the house.

Our women. Maybe bringing her home wasn’t such a smart idea.

* * *

Okay. I came, I saw, I enjoyed. Now, it’s almost time to go back to LA, where we will go back to work and all this will be left behind.

But, I kissed her. Again. Oh hell. Why does she keep kissing me? Why do I keep enjoying it so much?

I slide my sneakers on as I consider it. No big deal. It was just a kiss, one kiss on the porch. Not likely to happen again.

Damn it.

“Okay, Kels, get a grip and stop it.” As I tie up my laces, I hear her clear her throat. I look up to find her in the doorway between our rooms. She’s still in her running clothes. Which, to my dismay, consists of a sweatshirt and shorts that show off those wonderful, long, tanned, muscular legs.

I need a hobby.

“Good morning, Little Roo.” She seems almost shy this morning.

I can’t help but smile at her. “Good morning. Good run?”

“Yeah, Papa always manages to put me through my paces.”

“Seems to be the norm for your family.” I straighten my pants and stand up.

“Did Mama say anyth-”

I wave off the question. “Don’t be silly, Harper. I love your family. They’re great.” Oh shit. Tell me I didn’t just say that.

She gives me a little smile and nods. “What’s not to love?”

I sigh, then nod my agreement as well. “You’re very lucky.”

“Yeah, so I’m finding out.”

Quick, change the subject or she might kiss you again. “So, what’s on the agenda for today?”

She sniffs her sweatshirt and grins at me. “A shower first and foremost.”

“Good choice.” Oh yeah, that mental image was a great change of pace. Thanks a lot, Tabloid.

“No one would want to get close to me while I smell like this.”

Want to bet? Stop it!

She pulls off the sweatshirt, revealing the black tank top underneath. I think I may have swallowed my tongue.

“Meet me downstairs in a few minutes?” she asks.

I scratch my throat trying desperately not to stare at the absolutely gorgeous body in front of me. “Sure,” I manage to choke out. Oh, that was articulate, Kelsey Stanton. For some reason I find myself crossing the room to stand close to her. Mother would be so proud if she could see me now. Standing here almost drooling. She’d have a coronary. Okay, so there’s another positive to having Harper in my life. It’d kill my Mother.

“Maybe we can go out and I can show you some of the sights,” she offers as she untucks the tank top from her shorts.

Oh, damn, she’s only talking about the city. Stop it, Kels! Think about going home. Going back to LA. Going back to work. Things getting back to normal. I can see Susan, and Harper can see everyone else. Eh, I don’t want to think about that.

“Meet you downstairs,” I reply. “Go get cleaned up.” I give her arm a little squeeze. Great muscle tone in those arms.

I’m in so deep.

***

Once again I find myself near tears as Robie tells me another story. Now I have dirt and he was willing to give it up for free. I like Robie.

“I swear to you, Kelsey, it’s the God’s honest truth. Took us two hours to get her loose. Mama thought we were gonna have to call the fire department.”

“Oh, I’d love to have seen that!” I laugh and take another sip of tea.

“We have pictures,” Rene offers as she settles Clark at her breast for his morning meal.

Nothing seems to phase these people.

“Oh, do you now? And what would copies cost me?”

“Copies of what?” Harper asks, entering the kitchen. She gives Rene a kiss on the temple and strokes Clark’s cheek. She is about to give her brother a hug when he tells her.

“Pictures of you stuck in the dog door. You know, the time Mama and Papa caught you trying to sneak back into the house.”

“Oh my God! Don’t you dare! I can’t believe you told her that!”

Is that a blush I see? Who would have thought it? The mighty Harper Kingsley actually embarrassed about something.

“She asked,” Robie defends as Harper swings around to look at me.

“He’s lying,” Harper says flatly. “He’s a habitual liar. You can’t believe a word he says. He’s an attorney, for Christ sake!”

“Hmmm.” I get up and pour her a cup of coffee. “Methinks thou doth protest too much, Tabloid.”

“Ah, hell, I can’t win,” she grumbles, taking the cup from my hand. Did she just caress the back of my hand? Or am I imagining things?

“Why are you here?” she growls at her brother as she sips her coffee.

“Well, Rene and I came by to see if you and Kelsey would like to go out with us tonight, seeing how Mama and Papa will be up at Red Stick. But, since you’re being such a brat, maybe we’ll just take Kelsey to dinner instead. She’s much better company anyhow and a lot prettier too.”

“Thanks a lot, Robie.”

“My pleasure,” he snickers from behind his mug.

“Actually, Harper,” Rene offers with a sigh, “we’d love it if you and Kelsey would join us tonight. We’re going to Celebration in the Oaks.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“It’s a Druidic cult thing,” Harper replies blithely, trying to hide a smile. “Everyone gets really wasted and screws under the oak trees. It’s great fun.”

“Huh?” Robie grunts. “That sounds like the prom.”

Sounds like Omaha. Get over it, Kels, get over it.

“Actually, it’s one of the nicest traditions we have down here for Christmas,” Harper explains. “So we are simply going to have to suffer through Robie’s company. It’ll be worth the sacrifice.”

“Hey!” Rene protests.

“We’re suffering with Robie, chér, not with you.”

Rene smiles at Harper’s admission. She really is very beautiful, reminding me of a young Elizabeth Taylor before the booze, pills and the men did a number on her. “Okay. Remember, I’m the mother of your two favorite nephews. You want to keep on my good side.”

“Speaking of which, where is Christian? Or did Robie forget him again?”

“One time. That was all, thank you. And I went back as soon as I realized he wasn’t in the car with me. Christian’s with Poppy, of course. He brought his little hammer and wanted to show it off.”

“Men and their hammers, it starts so early,” Rene coos.

“Hey, I resemble that remark!” Robie good-naturedly agrees, leaning over to give his wife a lingering kiss.

And it’s all I can do to keep myself from turning to Harper and puckering up. It’s gonna be a long day.

* * *

We agree to meet Robie and Rene at Café Degas at seven in the evening. It’s a wonderfully romantic restaurant featuring a full French cuisine with a touch of Creole. Edward Degas, the French impressionist, once lived in the neighborhood and the restaurant is named after him. The place has a relaxed atmosphere, not the regular starched shirt of the French restaurants located in the Quarter.

Kels and I arrive after Robie and Rene. They’re seated in a booth near the garden area. Actually, it’s not quite a booth. It’s two love seats on opposite sides of a table. I bet he asked for this damn table.

We exchange greetings and sit down on the uncomfortably small seat. Well, it’s not uncomfortable. It’s way too comfortable. I keep telling myself to not put my arm around the back of the seat.

The waiter comes over to take our drink order after a few minutes. Robie orders a Pinot Noir, a 1997 Clos de la Roche from Burgundy, for us to share. The waiter murmurs his approval of Robie’s order and hurries off to retrieve the bottle.

“What looks good to you, Harper?” Kelsey asks.

God, you do.

Rene jumps in to my rescue and begins discussing the best items on the menu as I find my tongue again. Of course, there are other things I wish my tongue was doing right now. How do I get myself into these situations?

We place our orders. Kelsey chooses the couscous and vegetable salad, along with the roasted Cornish game hen with rosemary. I order the onion soup gratinee and the faux filet mignon Bordelaise. Maybe onion breath will keep my hormones in line tonight.

Or maybe I could just get a fucking mint when we leave.

After the waiter pours the wine, upon Robie’s approval of the bottle, Robie raises his glass in a toast. “May the best of your yesterdays be the worst of your tomorrows.”

“Ah, that’s sweet,” Kelsey murmurs and takes a sip from her glass. “Oh, this is good.” She runs her finger over the rim of the glass.

Oh, to be that rim.

“It has a raspberry hint to it,” Kels comments.

Rene nods. “And coffee.”

“And black cherries,” Kels adds.

Robie stares at the wine, looking very confused. “How the hell do you do that? I mean, I know it’s a great wine, but I can’t pick out the specific flavors in it.” He looks to me for support.

“We have a more sophisticated palette, sweetie,” Rene answers, patting his leg.

“And wine tasting class,” Robie teases.

“Well, that too.”

Dinner is a pleasant and friendly affair. The food is great, but the conversation is even better. I am pleased by how well Rene and Kelsey are getting along, talking like long lost sorority sisters. For the most part, Robie and I just add a few words when we can, which isn’t often. It’s funny watching my brother and the fond, indulgent look he bestows on Rene. I never thought he’d look at anyone like that. And I certainly never expected to see him married and a father twice over in less than four year’s time.

“Can you let me up, Harper?” Kels asks, touching my shoulder, startling me out of my thoughts.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” I stutter and slide out of the loveseat. I stand and let her pass. She’s wearing Alfred Sung perfume. My favorite.

Robie also gets up and lets Rene leave as well. Apparently women can only go to the bathroom in groups.

“You’re so wrapped,” I tease.

“Hello, Pot, this is the Kettle.” He raps his knuckles on the table, laughing at me.

“I am not!”

“None are so blind as those who cannot see. Or will not see.”

“Jesus, Robie, you make it sound like I’m in love with her or something.”

“Aren’t you?” He leans back in the seat, interested in my answer.

“No!” I say too quickly. “God, Rob, I don’t know. I’m so confused. I don’t know if I’m coming or going anymore. Some days, I swear I can smell her on my clothing and it drives me wild. Other days, she can be Satan incarnate to me.”

“Oh, and you’re easy to live with.”

I put my forehead on the table and groan, mindless of the bad manners I am exhibiting. Mama would slap my head right now. Thank God I’m out with Robie.

“Just relax, Harper. I think you’re the only two who don’t see how good you are together. Let it happen. And stop being such a scaredy cat.”

“I am not,” I mumble.

“Right. This from the one who’s never had a steady girlfriend. You’re so afraid of being caught in something you don’t want, you don’t know when you should surrender.”

“Are you a fucking psychiatrist or a lawyer?”

“I’m your brother. Close enough.”

* * *

Standing at the sink, I watch myself in the mirror.

“Enjoying yourself?” Rene asks as she joins me and we have your typical reflection conversation. What is it about being in the bathroom that makes you do this?

“Oh, very much, thanks for inviting me along.”

“Well, Robie and Harper didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time together last time she was home. I’m glad you came with us. She’s really enjoying herself with you here.”

“Oh, Harper can enjoy herself anywhere.”

“But you make it special for her.”

“You’re seeing things.” I smile at her as I inspect my make up.

“Uh huh.” Rene sounds skeptical. “And you’re too busy trying to deny it.” She gives me a wink and pulls open the door gesturing back to the dining area. “The best two things that the Kingsley family has to offer await.”

I turn and smile as I step past her.

Bet mine is better than yours.

Arrrgh!

* * *

After dinner, we drive over to City Park and park the cars on Wisner Boulevard. The night air is chilly and I glance down at Kelsey to see how she’s doing. She tends to get cold easily. “Need another jacket?”

She smiles up at me. “I’m fine, thanks. It’s perfect out. Just cool enough to let you know winter is coming, but not too cold.”

“Good. Looks like Robie and Rene are up by the carriages. A carriage ride is really the best way to see the Celebration. The route is a couple miles long and there are over two million lights along it. I don’t like walking with the crowds, so this is the way to go.”

“It sounds beautiful.”

“It is. Our family loves coming here. A little later in the season there will be carolers in the park every night. It’s really special.”

“I never took you for someone who really gets into the holidays.”

“Oh sure, I’m a big kid at heart. Last year, Robie and I went and had our pictures taken with Santa. Mama had it up on the refrigerator for a long time with all the grandkids pictures.”

Kelsey is still laughing when we reach Robie and Rene. “Ready to go?” he asks. He is standing by a red carriage drawn by a white horse.

“Sure enough.” I give Kels a boost into the carriage, resisting my urge to pat her on the rear. Somehow, I doubt if it would be appreciated. I climb up and sit beside her, spreading a blanket over our laps and legs. It can get a bit chilly during the ride.

I look down to see Robie and Rene engaged in a rather heated lip lock.

Lucky bastard.

“Ahem.”

Reluctantly, my brother disengages. “Tell you what, little sister, why don’t you two go on in this one? I think my beautiful bride and I will find our own carriage.”

“Or, better yet, a room.”

Robie sweeps Rene up in his arms and spins around. “Now that is the best idea you’ve had yet tonight, Harper Lee! We’ll see you tomorrow!”

And they leave.

I can’t believe it. He left me. Here. In a carriage. With Kelsey. In one of the most romantic spots in New Orleans.

I’ve been set up.

* * *

As Robie and Rene leave, I get the strangest sensation we’ve been set up. I hear a little growl leave Harper’s chest while she watches them go.

“Umm, it’s okay, you know. We can head home too, if you want,” I offer. Home? When did it become home to you, Kels?

“Oh no, Kels, that’s okay. I’m sorry. I don’t want you to miss this.” She leans forward briefly and gives the driver the word. Then her eyes are back on me. They really are beautiful.

I smile when the carriage starts forward. “Thanks.”

“For?” Her arm comes up to rest behind me, making the slightest contact with my shoulders.

“For bringing me here and sharing all this with me. I know it’s special to you.” I can’t take it anymore and I have to have some kind of contact with her. I take her free hand in mine, which is under the blanket. “That makes me feel special.”

“You are special.”

“Okay, who are you? And what have you done with Harper Kingsley?” I tease as I interlace our fingers. Her hands are warm.

“Am I that bad?”

“No,” I admit quietly. “No, actually you’re not. I’ve grown pretty fond of you. I’m not sure when or how it happened, but I …” I’m at a loss at what to say. I drop my head and shake it a bit.

“Kels.” She removes her hand from under the blanket and palms my cheek. “I feel the same way.”

I wish she’d tell me what it is then. Because I don’t know what to call it. Love? Lust? Affection? Friendship? Desire? All of the above? Or something else entirely?

My eyes close and I lean my cheek into her palm. I don’t resist when she places her mouth close to my ear. “This is good, isn’t it?” she asks softly.

I turn my face slowly, my eyes still closed, taking in the scent of her. As her lips graze my ear, I whisper, “Feels good to me. What about you?”

I feel her nod and I can’t help but smile. God, I’ve wanted to do this all day. All I’ve been able to think about is that kiss last night on the porch.

I want another kiss. I don’t care if we are out in public. Harper is certainly out in public, pun intended, so it doesn’t matter. I pull back and look into her eyes. She smiles at me, inviting me in, an offer I can’t and don’t want to refuse. I move forward and give her a light kiss. She returns it readily, her arm tightening around my shoulders, drawing me closer.

Testing in progress here. Do not disturb.

Oh, yeah, this is good. Oh … and firmer is good. I’m a big fan of firmer. A little moan. I’m not sure if that was her or me. Not that I care either way.

“Kels,” she whispers in my ear when our kiss is over. ” You’re … umm … I mean … I’m …”

“Harper, we’re both a little unsure here, right?”

She nods.

“But we are obviously both attracted, right? I mean, we’re both sober and well aware of what’s happening.”

She nods again.

“Then I think we should go with your life philosophy of ‘shut up and jump’. We’ll figure out what to say as we go down.”

She bursts out laughing. The double meaning of what I said strikes me right between the eyes. I can’t believe I said that.

“You.” She caresses my cheek again. I know it’s beet red, like the rest of my face. “Are priceless.”

“I am an idiot.” Is there a rock somewhere nearby I can crawl under?

“Oh no. No, you’re not.” She leans in and kisses me again.

Oh, this is good. I like ‘shut up and jump.’ We’re gonna have to come back to Celebration in the Oaks next year because I’m not seeing a thing.

***

We drive back to the house. I try not to grin like a fool all the way there. I’m really sure about what I want, but I don’t want to push anything. I don’t want to make any assumptions. You know what they say about assuming. I’ve been there and done that, and would rather not do that again.

I follow her through the front door, watching as she removes her jacket, her hands trailing slowly down it, before she hangs it on the coat rack. How does one become an article of clothing in your next life? Is that something you can request? I’ll fill out the paperwork in triplicate if need be.

She turns and smiles as I remove my own coat. “Tired?” She takes my jacket and hangs it next to hers.

“No!” Oh, that was subtle. Why not just start biting buttons? Geez, Kels, get a grip. “You?”

“Not really.” She sticks her hands in her trouser pockets and rocks back and forth a bit. “Cocoa?”

“With marshmallows?”

“With marshmallows,” she agrees. Then she steps forward and wraps her arms around my waist, hugging me close and swaying slightly. “In front of the fireplace, in your room?” She leans close and gives my neck a little nuzzle. “Sound good?”

“Uh huh,” I choke out as every nerve in my body catches fire.

“Okay, you make the cocoa and I’ll get the fire started,” she whispers with another little nuzzle.

It’s already started. Now, let’s hope I can find the damn kitchen.

****

When I get to my room with the tray, I find her placing a log in the fireplace. Oh Tabloid, nice setting: fire, soft lights, big, fluffy pillows on the floor with a couple of blankets. Hey, you know how to do romantic. Who knew?

“You gonna stand there all night,” she drops to the floor, “or come in?” She settles back against a chair, placing a pillow behind her.

I know when I’ve been challenged. This is going to be fun. I settle down next to her with the tray, proud of myself for not spilling anything. I offer her a mug, which she sets aside immediately.

“No cocoa?” I ask, a bit perturbed. Why did I just waste ten minutes downstairs making this if she doesn’t want any?

“In a minute. Right now,” she leans toward me, “I’m in the mood for something a little sweeter.”

Ah, you smooth talker, you.

Not that I’m objecting in any way here when she kisses me again, but this friggin tray has got to go. I pull back and give a quick signal as I move the stupid thing.

Ah, much better. Now I can touch too, which I do immediately when we resume our kiss.

I run my hands up the front of her shirt as our kiss deepens. Oh yeah, this is very good. I feel her arms around me and I know I’m safe here.

She breaks our kiss and begins a slow nuzzle of my neck. “No,” she nibbles on my earlobe, “destroying this shirt. If,” another nibble – I’m just going to be a little puddle on the floor if she keeps that up – “you decide you need to bite buttons or rip the material, let me know and I’ll take it off.”

I laugh softly in between kisses. “Go for it.” I give her a little assist by undoing the first two buttons. Before long, I find myself straddling her lap and sliding the shirt from her shoulders. It’s more convenient this way, I rationalize. I have to be close enough to help.

She has great shoulders which are just begging to be kissed. And I am more than happy to do so. That’s the kind of girl I am.

I feel her head shift to one side to give me more room. Her hands slide between us and I feel the buttons of my blouse being loosened. It’s a good thing I don’t have to move my mouth to let her slide my blouse from my body. I’d be really pissed if I had to give up this very lovely patch of neck. I’ve discovered kissing her right here causes some very interesting sounds from my partner.

Great minds think alike. We reach around at the same time and divest one another of our bras. I glance over at the growing pile of clothing before she distracts me by running her hands up and down my back, pulling our torsos together.

“You know what?” she whispers with a little kiss to my shoulder.

How can she talk right now? Why does she want to? “What?” I growl.

“I think we should move over to the bed.”

Ah, that’s okay. “Glad to hear it,” I whisper back, mollified.

She tightens her hold on me and forces herself to her feet, carrying me with her. God, she’s strong. And then it hits me: I’m in Harper’s arms and she’s taking me to bed.

She kisses me again as she carries me across the room. We are slowly moving from soft and romantic to something that is no doubt going to be mind blowing.

I can enjoy mind blowing. Actually, I’d like to try mind blowing, just once. I could die happy. It’d take them a week to get the smile off my face. What a way to go.

Speaking of going. How did she get my slacks and shoes off without my noticing? Kels, you think too much and ask too many damn questions. Go with this, nothing in your life has ever felt this good. You’re lying in the most comfortable bed on the planet, very nearly naked, with the most beautiful woman in the known world leaning over you looking like she’s going to devour you any second. Go with it, for God’s sake.

I open my arms to her. She sheds the rest of her clothes, and mine (what there was of them) then lowers herself down to the bed with me. Oh my God. Oh yeah, I’m gonna die a very happy woman tonight.

Her hands are gentle, making a slow tour of my body. Her mouth is warm and soft as she proceeds to explore my neck and points more southerly.

“God, Harper, I-” Oh, to hell with talking. I’m going to resort to moaning because she’s driving me crazy, and my vocabulary has completely left me.

She brings her head back up and I find her lips to engage her in a kiss. I shift to allow her to come to rest between my legs. Oh yeah, I like her there and she knows it. It’s rather obvious at this point. Our kiss deepens as I feel her move into me. That’s nice.

I have to get to know the magnificent body in bed with me. Thank God, my hands agree and work with me on this one. I find every spot to be warm and firm and the most amazing thing I have ever touched. I can’t help but arch my body into hers as we begin to move together.

We are hungry for each other. We both want this. This is good. Very good. Very, very good. I love the feel of her, the scent of her. I love hearing her. Her voice only serves to excite me more, something I didn’t realize was actually possible. I’m learning a few new things about myself tonight, too. Wonder how she’d take a polite request?

“Down!” I demand, giving her a little shove. Okay, I tried to be polite.

I hear her laugh. I didn’t find it especially funny. I have needs here. Big needs. Huge needs. A lifetime of need. She begins to move slowly down my body, kissing every exposed part she can find on her way. She’s purposely trying to kill me.

“Doucement, ma biche, doucement,” she whispers against my belly.

Patience, my ass, Tabloid, and don’t waste the French on me. Unless it’s in a kiss delivered about six inches further down from where you are right now.

I can feel my entire body quiver as she touches me, kisses me. Oh, she really is good at this. She’s got the torture thing down to an art. I guess practice really does make perfect.

“Oh God!” It’s out of my mouth before I know it and my hands tighten in her hair. My body is hers. She can have it.

That’s the kiss I was talking about.

How can one person give another person so much pleasure? I can barely think as the room begins to sway a bit and I feel the edge moving closer like the ground is being pulled out from under me. My body tenses under her loving kiss and touch. Suddenly, my eyes snap shut and I can’t stop the shuddering that has begun.

“Harper!” I cry, knowing only her name at this moment. The lights explode behind my eyelids and I feel my body rise from the bed. I’m not sure how long I’m suspended there. White light tears through my mind as I settle back down. Breathe, Kels, breathe.

I feel her pull me into her arms, her hands stroking my body, soothing it, relaxing it. As soon as I can see, speak, and find the top of my head, I’m going to repay her act of extreme kindness.

“You okay?” she whispers in my ear. She is holding me tightly and I never want her to let me go.

“I’m better than okay. I’m delirious. You are – what’s the right word here? – phenomenal. Yeah, let’s go with that one.”

She laughs and a smug expression steals over her face. “Glad you’re pleased.”

“Pleased doesn’t even begin to cover it. When we get back home, I’m insuring your mouth for a million bucks.” I lift my head and smile down at her. I need to have another kiss. “Nope,” I stammer as I pull back, “a million five.”

* * *

“That kiss was only worth an additional half mil? I’m hurt,” I tease.

She smiles, her nose scrunching up in an absolutely adorable fashion. “Do you want to try again? See if you can do any better?”

Oh, so it’s gonna be that way, is it? “I didn’t hear any complaints a moment ago. In fact, it was quite the opposite,” I drawl, adding a dramatic whimper at the end which sounds remarkably like her a few moments ago.

Suddenly, I have a feisty anchor straddling my body, her hands pressing down into my shoulders, her nose almost touching mine. I am, of course, distracted by other parts of her anatomy, which are tantalizingly close to me. “Oh, you are so full of yourself, Tabloid.”

“I’d rather be full of you,” I reply, arching up into her, my hands sliding up to her waist trying to pull her down.

“Stop it!” She slaps my hands lightly. Frowning, she takes hold of them and places them back down on the bed. “No distracting me.”

“All right, all right.” I laugh. God, the look on her face is priceless. If I were a Twinkie, I’d be scared. Deciding to relax and see what she has in store, I fold my hands under my head to keep them from wandering.

She sits back, her rear resting lightly on my thighs. “Where to begin?”

“I have a couple suggestions.”

“Hush!” Kelsey trails a finger from the tip of my nose, across my lips, down my chin, swirls it in the hollow of my throat, before traveling down between my breasts. Arching her eyebrow, she dips the tip of her finger into my bellybutton and then tugs on my navel ring.

Oh God. Come on, Kels, get on with it.

“That was an interesting sound,” Kelsey murmurs and tugs again.

I jostle my legs, attempting to dislodge her.

“Doucement, ma biche, doucement,” she chides. She then takes pity on me and leans down to kiss me.

I return the kiss hungrily, glad to have her lips against mine at last. And who is she to lecture me about patience? I mean, it wasn’t ten minutes ago she was shoving me down her body.

Wait a second.

She just spoke French.

And I thought she could only do that in her kisses.

She presses her body against mine and I decide that self-restraint isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I fold my arms around her, intent on keeping her right where she is. She feels so good, so soft. And she fits just right.

We’ll deal with that French thing later.

She’s kissing my lips, my jaw, my cheek, my throat. I tilt my head back to give her plenty of room to work. Oh yeah, right there. That’s good. More of that please.

She seems to understand my need and she continues, marking me. I don’t care. As long as she doesn’t stop. I feel her hand slide down the length of our bodies and move between us. Oh, don’t stop that either. That’s especially nice. Uh huh. Right … there.

Her lips cover mine once more and her tongue imitates her hand. We move together, slowly at first, becoming accustomed to the feel of our bodies so intertwined. Suddenly, it’s all too much. Teasing has turned to passion, which has metamorphosed to pure pleasure.

“Oh …darlin’,” I exhale, as the tremors overtake me.

And then I can do nothing more than lay limply on the bed, grateful for the weight of Kelsey on me keeping me grounded. Otherwise, I would simply float away.

She nestles against me, burrowing her head under my chin, bringing the scent of rainwater to me. We hold each other gently and whisper nonsense words as sleep begins to overtake us. Kels places soft kisses on my flesh then falls asleep in my arms.

I chuckle as an old thought returns to me: Straight, my ass.
Episode Eighteen: Reality Bites
It’s morning.

I know this because the sun is streaming through the blinds and hitting me right in the eye. I burrow my face deeper into Kelsey’s hair and tighten my hold around her waist. This is nice.

She reaches down to take my hand and drags it up between her breasts, kissing my knuckles. “Go back to sleep,” she whispers.

“Good morning,” I whisper, kissing the base of her neck. She shivers. I caused that and I am inordinately pleased.

“You going for a run?”

I tickle the base of her throat with my fingers. “I think not. I’m gonna go downstairs and fix us breakfast before Mama and Papa come home.”

She groans and blushes. I watch it travel all over her body. Damn, that’s cute. “I have to face your Mama now.”

I kiss her shoulder. “Chér, it’s going to be fine. I mean, it’s not like we have to wear signs telling everyone what we did last night.” I didn’t think she’d already regret it. So much for a morning after.

Kelsey rolls over in my arms and inspects me carefully. “And how will you explain this?” She gently fingers the hickey she gave me last night.

“I let the bed bugs bite?”

She laughs at my unexpected joke. “I don’t think she’ll fall for that.”

“Is it really that bad, Kels?” I ask before I can censure myself. God, I don’t want another Omaha fiasco on my hands.

“Is what so bad?” she echoes. Then her eyes register understanding of what I’m asking. “No, not at all, Harper. Not at all.” She kisses my chin and snuggles closer. “Last night was wonderful. You were wonderful. This is wonderful.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. In fact, I say to hell with breakfast. We can always eat on the plane. But there are certain things we can’t do in the air.”

Her hands cover my breasts and I let out a little sigh. “Darlin’, haven’t you ever heard of the Mile High Club?”

Kelsey blinks innocently. “Isn’t that when you fly over Denver?”

God, I love waking up with this woman. “Uh, no. But I’ll help you complete a membership application later.”

* * *

We stand awkwardly by the rental car. Kelsey and I are deliberately trying to not touch each other, which is so damn hard. All I want is to touch her, hold her, caress her.

Snap out of it, Harper! Or you’ll never make it onto the plane. Flying over Denver. That’s some sense of humor you got there, Kels.

Papa catches me thinking lascivious thoughts and winks at me.

We gotta get going. I can barely make out what my mother is saying.

“You two be sure to call us when you get back to Los Angeles so we don’t worry about you.”

Kelsey manages to answer since I seem to have lost my voice. “We will, Cécile.”

“You call me Mama, ma petite.” I watch as Mama hugs Kelsey tightly to her and kisses both cheeks. “And you come back here soon. At least for Christmas, if not before.”

I don’t hear Kelsey’s reply since my Papa chooses that moment to grab me in a headlock. His knuckles brush through my hair just like they have since I barely had hair. “Don’t you be hardheaded, Harper Lee,” he whispers in my ear. “And don’t you be scared. I didn’t raise you to back down from anything.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thanks for coming home for Thanksgiving, sweetheart.” He lets me stand up and regain some sense of dignity. “We’re always so happy when you’re here.”

“Me too, Papa.” I kiss his cheek. Then turn to face Mama.

She is holding her arms open to me, a wide smile on her face. I go to her, feeling very much like the little girl who once sought shelter in those same arms, knowing they could protect me from anything and everything. “Je t’aime, mon coeur. Je suis bien fier de toi.”

“I love you too, mama.” For some reason, my mother being proud of me is a better achievement than any other I can imagine.

“Tu prends bien soin d’elle. And go, before I start crying.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I will take good care of Kelsey. And I don’t want to start crying either. I kiss her cheeks then climb into the Explorer before my heart can decide to stay here at home.

* * *

As I settle into my seat I wonder why such a wonderful trip has to be ruined by flying home. I, for one, would welcome high-speed, cross-country trains.

Harper settles in next to me and I have to wonder how she copes so damn well. I feel like a sardine in one of these things, even in first class. Thank God we’re not sitting in coach.

“You okay, Little Roo?”

“Eh, you know me and planes.”

“Yeah, but I have the cure this time around.” She quirks a brow at me. “You just leave everything to me.”

“No problem.” I try to smile, but can only flinch when I hear that door close and I know I’m now officially trapped.

* * *

“You know,” I laugh a little as she grabs me around the waist from behind, “this would me a little easier if I could actually get to the answering machine.”

“You,” she pulls me back and begins kissing the back of my neck, “don’t need to check the machine right now.”

“I have messages.” I turn around in her arms.

Her answer to this statement is to kiss me soundly.

What messages?

To hell with the messages. I don’t like most of the people who leave them anyway.

Her arms tighten around me and the kiss continues. We start to lose our balance and fall back to the couch. I have to talk to her about shirts with snaps, or better yet Velcro, because the buttons are starting to piss me off.

“Oh yeah, that’s good,” I moan. She finds a very sensitive spot on my neck. I don’t think anyone has ever found that spot before.

I feel her tug my shirt from my jeans. I manage to get the last button undone on her shirt and begin pushing it from her shoulders. God, I love these shoulders, I really do.

“Kels… please…” she whispers, then unsnaps my jeans.

I know what her problem is. She did a really nice job of distracting me on the plane (it’s amazing what she can do with a blanket, an ice cube and a swizzle stick), but now she’s all wound up and in desperate need of relief.

“Something I can do for you, Tabloid?”

“Oh yes.” She nods, lifting up long enough to let me get her shirt off completely. “Teasing, however, really,” she somehow manages to kick off her boots and I hear them thump to the floor, “isn’t on the menu.”

“No?”

“No.” She kisses me again. This isn’t a slow lingering kiss. This is a deep and demanding kiss.

As my hands travel over her torso, I feel and hear her moan into my mouth. Her hands work to rid me of my shirt and my bra, then begin caressing my skin. Oh, I like that.

That’s good.

Was that the elevator? Nah, couldn’t be.

I unsnap her jeans and work my hands into the waistband. I feel her shift so I can work them over her hips.

“Oh, that’s good,” she moans. We continue to rid ourselves of the clothing.

“Oh boy!” a deep, decidedly male voice says from the entryway.

Erik’s voice is a major distraction. Oooh shit!

I manage to glance around Harper in time to watch my best friend make a hasty exit in the general direction of the kitchen, his face bright red. Harper groans when I pull away from her and reach for my shirt.

“I’m sorry,” I offer with a little kiss on the throat. “I wasn’t expecting him back until next week.”

“No,” she swallows hard and reaches for her own shirt, “problem.”

“I left a message on the machine!” Erik calls from the kitchen.

She grins ruefully. “Who knew?” she whispers, buttoning up her shirt.

“Un-huh.” I smile, getting up from the couch and trying to rearrange my clothes to look at least somewhat presentable. “I’ll be right in, Erik.”

“Oh, please. Take your time. I wouldn’t want to interrupt anything.” I hear him laugh and the fridge door is pulled open.

“Too late, you little shit!” I call again.

He laughs again and I hear Harper mumble something about strangling him. I lean over and give her a kiss. “Oh, I’ll make him pay. I promise. I know where all his weak spots are.”

“You have a mean streak, don’t you?” She pulls on her boots, then stands, wrapping her arms around me. “Don’t you?”

“You’d better believe it. Come on.” I take her hand, tugging her with me into the kitchen.

Erik is leaning against the counter drinking a glass of milk. He looks like one of those ‘Got milk?’ ads. I shake my head as I let go of Harper’s hand and go to him for a hug. “Welcome back. Your timing sucks, but welcome home.” I pull back and wipe his upper lip with a cloth retrieved from the counter.

He smiles first at me then at Harper. “I’m sorry, guys. I really did leave a message. We wrapped early so here I am.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I step back and extend my hand to Harper, not liking the sensation of being out of contact with her for to long. “Erik, you remember Harper.”

He takes a deep breath, nodding. “I sure do. How are you, Ms. Kingsley?”

I can feel the tension building in the room. Oh shit. Please, Erik, be nice; please, be nice.

“I’m fine. Please, call me Harper.” She extends her right hand to him.

He looks at it for a moment. Take it, Erik. Damn it, take it. He smiles and doesn’t disappoint me.

“Nice to see you again.” He doesn’t hold her hand any longer than needed. “Kels, where in the hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick.”

“I’m sorry. I left a message for you with a production assistant. I was in New Orleans.”

“New Orleans? Doing what?”

“Harper took me there for Thanksgiving. I went home with her, spent the holiday with her and her family.”

His brow arches and looks to her. “Really? I’m guessing you had a good time.”

“I had a great time.”

“We,” Harper pipes up, gripping my hand just a little tighter, “had a great time.”

I’m really glad to hear that she had a good time too.

“Glad to hear it,” he offers.

Jesus, Erik, lighten up a little. If it gets any chillier in here, I’ll need a jacket.

“Kels, why don’t I grab a cab, go home, get unpacked?”

“I can run you home.”

“No. You two have things to catch up on and talk about. I’ll head out and when you’re ready, give me a call. We’ll do dinner, okay?” She leans in and gives me a kiss. It almost feels like a good-bye kiss and my stomach drops a little. I tighten my hold on her and try to communicate that I will call her.

“Don’t go to far from your phone, Tabloid. I intend to take you out to a very expensive dinner tonight.” Leaning up, I manage to whisper in her ear. “Then bring you back here for dessert.”

“You’ve got all my numbers, Little Roo.” She offers with a wink. “I’ll talk to you later.”

I stay in the kitchen, resisting the urge to follow her. I listen as the elevator opens and closes. I turn back to Erik. “Why didn’t you just tell her to get out?”

“What? What did I do?”

“You could have tried to be a little friendlier.”

“Kels, come on. That was Harper Kingsley. The ‘bane of your existence’, remember? What in the hell is going on anyway?”

“I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure it has some to do with the fact that I’m thirty-two years old and tired of living my life by everyone else’s rules.”

“So you decided to be the flavor of the week in Harper’s bed? Jesus Christ, Kels.”

“No, it’s not like that,” I defend her, hoping to God I’m right. “It’s different.”

“Did she tell you that?”

“No.” I admit quietly. I open the fridge and grab a bottle of water. Leaning against the counter next to Erik, I twist off the cap. “She hasn’t said anything to me about where this is going. I don’t think we know.”

“Kels, honey.” He moves closer and wraps his arm around my shoulders. “I’m your best friend and I love you. I want you to be happy and I don’t want to see you get hurt. You have to admit her track record isn’t a very good one.”

“I know, but isn’t it possible that things are changing? I mean, isn’t it possible that we could build a long and wonderful relationship together?”

“Sure it is. But it’s also possible that by the time you call her to make dinner arrangements she will already be on the move. Don’t you remember what you told me after dinner that night? She left the library with one woman in the afternoon and had another with her at dinner.”

“She wouldn’t do that to me.”

Would she?

“I hope not, Kels, but please don’t delude yourself, and, please, please, be careful.”

I nod, as I sip my water. “I will.”

****

I drop Trouble to the floor. He meows in protest and ambles off to find his food bowl, always thinking with his stomach.

I toss my garment bag on the couch and go through my apartment. I manage to slam every door I can find. I even open up the linen closet door just so I can slam it shut.

Who the hell does he think he is? Mr. Erik “I’m a big movie star wannabe, but I’m so far in the closet it ain’t funny” Collins. Locked his big, gay self in the closet and trapped Kelsey in there with him too.

Fuckin’ hypocrite.

Thinks I’m not good enough for Kelsey.

What if I’m not?

Fortunately, the phone rings sparing me any self-analysis. It can’t be Kelsey, it’s too soon. If she even calls me at all. Somehow, I think Erik is doing his best to talk her out of whatever it is we are doing.

“Hello?”

“Bonjour, mon coeur.”

“Hi, Mama. Ah, shit, I forgot to call you when we landed.”

“Qui t’a dit, Harper Lee.”

I groan. Gotta watch my language around Mama. Think I’d know that by now. “I’m sorry, Mama.”

“What’s wrong?”

How is it that mothers always know when their children are stressed? And with my mother there’s no good in denying it. If I do, I’ll find her on my doorstep in the morning. “When we got home, Erik came back.”

“Erik? Who is this Erik?”

I sigh. I hadn’t wanted to get into this but, now that the Pandora’s box has been opened, I have no choice. I tell her everything I know about Erik and Kelsey’s relationship.

“So you think this man he says bad things about you?”

“I’m pretty sure about it.”

“And you think Kelsey will believe him?”

Do I? I don’t know anymore. I tell Mama that. “Maybe I should call her and tell her it doesn’t matter.”

“Espèsce de tête dure!”

Great. Now I’m being called hard-headed again. A little compassion here wouldn’t hurt, Mama.

“You need to give Kelsey a bit more credit, Harper. She’s a grown woman and very capable of making her own choices. Let her choose you. Don’t you go and do something so stupid. And don’t you dare hurt that lovely girl.”

“I think you like her more than you like me,” I grouse.

“Mais, non. I love you so much I will not let you hurt yourself by hurting her.”

I sigh. “Okay, Mama, okay. You win.”

“What will I do with you? I don’t win. You win. I only win when you give me a grandbaby.”

I bang the receiver against my forehead several times. “Mama!”

“I’m sorry, but it is true, Harper.”

“Well, we have a slight problem here. One I hardly need educate you about.”

She laughs and I smile for the first time since I left Kelsey’s apartment. “I have great faith in your problem-solving capabilities, Harper. Now, I must go so your very beautiful girlfriend can call you.”

I don’t bother telling Mama that I have call waiting.

***

When the phone rings for the fourth time, my hopes for a nice dinner are beginning to fade. Maybe she’s gone out with her friends at The Rio. I certainly wouldn’t blame her if she did after the way Erik acted today.

Maybe he’ll reconsider his attitude when he finds the presents I left for him in the pockets of his favorite jacket. It’ll take him forever to get the smell out and it’ll cost him a small fortune to get it cleaned. It was very satisfying.

“Hello?”

Ah, there’s the voice I wanted to hear. “Hey you.” I feel like a teenager, not quite knowing what to say.

“So,” I hear her pause and wonder if she’s feeling the same way, “what’s up?” she asks, sounding like a teenager. Oh yeah, she’s feeling it too. I smile at the thought. I prefer a level playing field.

“You still up for dinner?” I ask.

“You know it. Where?”

“Actually, I thought maybe I’d stop, pick up something and come over to your place. We could have a nice quiet evening in.”

“That sounds nice. Especially after the plane food for lunch. Why don’t you come straight here and then we go out together to get the food? I’d rather you not be running around by yourself.”

“Oh yeah, almost forgot about all that.” But she didn’t. That has to be a good sign, right? At least, she cares.

Hopefully my little admirer has forgotten about me over the holiday. There wasn’t anything new waiting for me at my apartment today.

“So, does that work for you?”

I can hear a noise in the background that sounds like something rapping on wood. “Works for me, Tabloid. What are you doing?” My curiosity gets the better of me.

“I’m stretched out on the couch watching a video. Trouble’s fat ass is on my stomach and his big head keeps blocking my view. Why?”

That’s a fun image, but not what I was wondering about. I do like the mental picture of her sprawled out on the couch waiting for my call. The cat will have to move though when I get there. “What’s that tapping noise?”

“Un, oh that, I um was tapping my knuckles on the coffee table.”

What are you nervous about, Harper? “So when should I come over?”

She laughs. “You’re a half hour late as it is.”

****

There’s something about eating Chinese food straight out of the carton that I’ve always found fun. I can’t explain it, but it is. The fact that I’m giving Harper chopstick lessons is fun too.

Truth be told, it’s a good reason to put my arms around her in an effort to help. Like I need a good reason. I’ll take a poor one or none at all, actually. She’s sitting on the floor, between my legs, and I’m leaning down from my spot on the couch. From my vantage point, I can smell the perfume she put on recently. And I like the feel of her skin against mine as I guide her fingers around the wooden sticks.

She leans her head against my knee and groans pathetically. “I’m gonna starve before I get it to my mouth, Little Roo. This is why we invented forks. Was that really such a bad thing?”

“There were chopsticks before there were forks.”

“Yeah, but have you ever noticed how skinny the Chinese are?”

Laughing, I reach around and pick a piece of beef out of the carton with my fingers and feed it to her. She takes not only the food but the tips of my fingers too. I groan a little when she runs her tongue over them.

“Now, that beats even a fork.” She tilts her head back, smiling up at me. “I could eat Chinese every night if you’d feed it to me like that. Then again,” she twists around and kneels between my legs, her eyes now level with mine, “they say you are what you eat. I could be you in the morning.”

God, that’s old, but it still so works. “Oh, you are bad.” I shove against her shoulders, trying not to laugh.

“That’s not what you said this morning or when we got off the plane. Do I need to remind you I very nearly had to carry you off?”

“I know, I know. You’re so smug.”

This feels so good. Just being here. Being with her. I want a kiss, which I lean in and take. When I pull back our eyes meet and I bring my hand to her cheek. She turns her head slightly, placing a kiss on my palm.

“So what are you thinking?” I know I shouldn’t ask, but I need to.

“How do you mean?”

“About us?”

She draws a deep breath, her eyes growing guarded. She joins me on the couch, pulling me into her arms. Resting my head on her shoulder, I wait for her answer.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she begins.

Oh, that doesn’t sound good. I resist the urge to pull away from her.

“I’m kinda trying not to.” she continues, placing a kiss on the top of my head. She must have felt the shiver that ran through my body. Her large hands rub my back gently. “Kels, when I start thinking about these things, I tend to panic. So, this time I’ve decided not to think and just enjoy it.”

“Hey, I kinda like that idea.” I feel the relief washing over my body. I really like not having to think about this. I’d freak myself, I’m afraid.

“Good. I think that’s what we should do.”

“Another Harper Kingsley plan comes together. I like it.”

“Of course, you do. You’d be nuts not to. I mean, what’s not to like?”

I hear the smirk before I can turn around to see it. Yup, there it is. She should get that thing trademarked.

“Now, you wanna hear my plan?” I tug at the football jersey she is wearing over a white tank top.

“Oh, absolutely.”

“My plan is to get you completely naked and take advantage of you.” I have become a nymphomaniac since the first touch of her skin against mine. But, if I gotta have an addiction, this is the best one I can come up with.

“I must admit your plan is even better than mine.” Her eyebrows rise playfully. She can really get some silly looks on her face when she wants to.

“Would you like to be ravished here or in the bedroom?”

“Decisions, decisions….”

* * *

We end up deciding on both the couch and the bedroom. This morning, we decide on the shower. We then share muffins and juice while reading the LA Times and NY Times Sunday editions. We’re news junkies. It’s scary.

When I find the entertainment section, I realize I haven’t seen a first-run movie since the summer and ‘Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace.’ I’m still pissed off about that movie and all its wasted opportunity. Of course, the racist crap struck way too close to home. Mama and Papa walked out after the faux-Asian bad guys were introduced five minutes into the movie. I should have left with them.

“Hey, Tabloid!” Kels calls out, interrupting my thoughts. I turn to see her toss the keys of the Mercedes at me.

I catch them in my left hand and toss them in the air. “What are these for?” I ask. “You’re not giving me your baby, are you?”

She laughs. “Hardly. But the way you’re staring at the movie listings, I figured you want to go see one. So, let’s go.”

“And I get to drive? That’s an awful lot of trust there, Little Roo.”

“I trust you.” Her reply is soft and I definitely get the feeling that we’re talking about more than just her car. “So what movie are we going to see?”

“I dunno.” I shrug, turning the paper around for her to read what’s playing nearby. “We’ll figure it out when we get there. Nothing animated or touchy-feely though.”

She laughs. “No chick flicks, eh? So I guess ‘Anna and the King’ is out?”

I start herding Kelsey out of the apartment, barely blocking Trouble when he tries to make a break for it. We take the elevator to the parking garage and head to her little red Mercedes. I open the passenger door for her and get her settled in before going around to my side. I wish the top were down and I hop over the door and into my seat. The stalker stopped that fun.

“Nothing bloody or creepy,” she says, as if she read my thoughts. She peers at me from over the top of her sunglasses. I love it when she does that. So damn cute.

“’Scream 3’ doesn’t come out until January. It got pushed back from a December release, ruining my Christmas Eve plans.”

“Somehow I doubt Mama would let you get away with that.”

She called my Mama … Mama. “How about ‘The Insider’ ?” I suggest.

She grimaces. “How about we just go back to work? Jesus, Harper, I have no desire to see a damn movie about a news room.”

“Good point.” I pull out of the parking garage, running through movies the sounded good when I was reading the paper. “Hey, Tim Robbins has a new movie out. It’s a thirties period piece. A comedy.”

“I like Robbins, I could live with that.”

“I don’t think he’s in it, though. It stars John Cusack and Susan Sarandon, I think. The review looked good.”

“Sounds like a winner to me. And I love Sarandon. She’s wonderful.”

I nod vigorously. “She’s a class act all the way. Mama and Papa have worked with her on a lot of causes, especially after ‘Dead Man Walking’.”

“Very cool.” She settles down in her seat. Then she reaches over and lays her hand on top on mine, which is resting on the gearshift. I could get used to this. If I were thinking about us, that is.

***

It’s a good thing Kels and I both make good money because the cost of going out to a movie is ridiculous. Of course, I pay for both of us. I’m a good date.

We’re standing in line at the concession stand, waiting with all the other lemmings for our chance to buy severely overpriced popcorn and soda, having a very pleasant conversation about what is most likely going to happen when we get back to my place, when a woman in the line next to us recognizes Kels. I just groan when she interjects herself into our life.

“Oh, wow, aren’t you Kelsey Stanton? The NBC news reporter?”

Suddenly, my relaxed, happy, Little Roo is all business. She seems to have forgotten that we were having a good time. She’s steps away from me and is now barely making eye contact with me.

“Yes, I am.”

“I knew it!” the woman squeals. “I knew I would meet some stars while I was visiting out here!”

Of course she’s not from Los Angeles. A resident here would never bother us. Not when they can go over to the Scientology Celebrity Center and see all the big stars.

“Where are you from?” Kelsey asks politely.

“Kansas. I’m from the town that’s the exact geographic center of the United States.”

Well, there’s something to be proud of. Of course, I’m assuming she means in the forty-eight states. If Alaska and Hawaii were included, I bet the exact center would be somewhere in the fucking Pacific Ocean. Which is where I wish this Kansan … Kansian … Kansaser … whatever … was right now.

“That’s terrific!” Kelsey says with a bit too much enthusiasm. “Let me introduce you to Harper Kingsley. She’s my field director.”

Wow, Kels, actually acknowledging my presence. How thoughtful of you. Nothing like being ashamed of being seen with me.

The woman continues to distract her with more exciting tales of Kansas, until we finally reach the counter. “Uh,” I clear my throat, “Ms. Stanton, what would you like?” I can do professional too.

She gives me a puzzled look, wondering why the formality all of the sudden. Gee, you figure it out, Kels. And go away, lady. You are ruining a perfectly good day.

Kels finally manages to break away and tries to get back in the swing of things. “I’m sorry.”

“S’okay,” I grumble, tossing a twenty on the counter and gathering up a pile of food and a little change.

***

It wasn’t a bad movie. It definitely had it’s moments. And might have been funny if I wasn’t so tied up in knots inside. All the way through it, I wanted to find a way to apologize to Harper. I know I froze up when that woman recognized me. It was a gut reaction. I’ve been doing it all my life. The best I could do was sit there in that dark theater and hold her hand to try to convey how sorry I was.

Her mood has definitely soured and I can’t blame her. Let’s see, yesterday Erik pulls his crap. And today I pull mine.

Shit.

As we are headed out of the theater toward the car, a woman calls her name. When she turns around, she finds her arms full of a very slender, very attractive brunette. She removes the woman’s arms from around her, but not before receiving a kiss on the neck. Right where I left a mark two nights ago.

Oh God. What a day. We should have just stayed inside.

In New Orleans.

What am I doing? She’s never going to be happy with me. I’m way too uptight for her and she’s going to get tired of that fast. Not when she is so open about her lifestyle. Somehow, I don’t think sneaking around is in Harper’s bag of tricks.

I feel the tears coming and force them back.

I hear my mother’s voice ringing in my ears, ‘Don’t you dare cry, Kelsey Diane Stanton.’

“God, you look amazing, Harper!” the slut exclaims.

“Thanks.” I note she doesn’t say the woman’s name. I bet she doesn’t even know it. I wonder if she’ll remember mine in another month.

Snap out of it, Kels!

“How have you been?” The tramp tugs at Harper’s jacket.

Harper shrugs, glances my way. “Good, thanks. But, we need to get going.”

The hussy looks acknowledges my presence for the first time. She examines me from head to toe and seems to find me lacking. Bitch.

“Well, when you’re through, give me a call. I’d love to go out with you again, take another ride on your Harley.” She leans her whole body forward, pressing it against Harper. “We had so much fun that one time. We could do that again.”

I watch the scene with a huge lump in my throat. Will we ever be able to go anyplace and not run into a woman she’s fucked?

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Harper replies. “See ya around.” She turns to me and takes hold of my arm lightly. “Come on, Kels.”

We take a few steps away, heading toward my Mercedes. I swallow hard and will myself to speak. “Look, Harper, if you want to go … it’s okay.” God, that hurt to say. But I have to offer her to choice.

Choose me, Harper. Please.

She stops and stares at me intently. The afternoon sunlight makes her eyes appear even bluer than normal. “Do you really mean that, Kels?”

Oh, God. I lost. Just hold it together until she leaves, Kels. I nod stiffly. “Sure.”

“Oh.”

The sound of disappointment in her voice clues me in. “You don’t want to go?”

She shakes her head vigorously. “No. Not with her. Certainly not in front of you. Jesus, Kels, I think better of you than that. I would have hoped you had a little higher estimation of me by now.”

“It’s not that, Harper,” I quickly protest. “It’s just …” I struggle to find the words to express what I feel. “I … I’ve never won against women like that.”

“Well, then, Kelsey, the people you’ve dated in the past have been damn fools.”

The afternoon just improved. “You think so?”

“Dammit, I know so. I liked her idea, Kels, but I want to do that with you. Not her.” Her tone is low and she sounds embarrassed. “I’m so sorry you had to see that, Kels. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Not a stellar day for us, huh?”

“Major understatement.”

“So now what?”

She chuckles, gesturing to the vast parking lot. “We find the car.”

***

I pull into the parking garage. Finding a spot, I park and shut down the engine. As I pull the keys from the ignition,, I offer them back to Kels draped over the end of my finger. “Do you want to come up? Or do you need to get going? I hate that we have to go back to work tomorrow.”

Of course, if you don’t, I’d understand. Nothing like being reminded what a dog I’ve been, eh? Who was that woman anyhow? Christ, I don’t even remember her name. I doubt if I even asked.

Kelsey takes her keys slowly. Shit, she’s going to leave. So this is what it feels like to have your past bite you in the ass?

“I’d like to. Do you really want me to?”

Oh, wow. Got lucky. “Very much.”

She leans over and gives me a soft kiss since we appear to be alone in the garage. “I’d like that, Harper. And I’d like to spend the night too. Would that all right?”

“That is so all right, Little Roo. I’m sorry about that thing in the parking lot.”

She shrugs. “How could you know she’d be there, Harper? It’s not like you’ve been a nun or said you were one. And you certainly know about a couple of my relationships.”

Ah, yes, the Twice-A-Year Boink Beth. And my lookalike, Susan. Is it reasonable to demand she give them up even though we’re not talking about us? At my own request.

Smart move, Harper.

She didn’t even call them ‘past relationships’. You’re one of three, Harper Lee. That you know about. Don’t think about it. It’ll make you crazy.

“I’m sorry though if she upset you,” I say. “I really just wanted us to have a nice time at the movies together. Seemed like a simple enough plan earlier today.”

“Well, how about we do this? Go upstairs, kick Trouble off the couch, snuggle up on it and watch a video together? Later we can order in dinner and get to bed early.”

“To bed early, right, but not to sleep early?” I want to make sure we’re real clear on this.

She smiles. “A good reporter always says exactly what she means. Especially about important things. Now, come on, good-looking. Take me upstairs.”

Okay, maybe today isn’t a total loss.
Episode Nineteen: Deep In My Heart In Texas
I watch as Gail delivers a stack of mail to Kels’ office. Kelsey is in a meeting in the conference room with the rest of ‘the Talent’ right now. While I know I probably shouldn’t do it, I get up and head over to her office. I want to make sure there weren’t any surprises delivered from her little admirer. Kels seems to feel that maybe he’s forgotten about her over the holidays, but I’m not so sure. It’s just a gut feeling, but I’m going with it. Better safe than sorry. Especially where she is concerned.

Gail looks me up and down when I meet her in the doorway of the office. I know I put on clean clothes and deodorant, so I don’t deserve the glare I’m receiving. “She’s in a meeting,” the assistant says, trying to block my path.

“I know she’s in a meeting,” I growl, pushing past her. “But she has a file I need. Do you mind? We are partners, you know.”

In both the professional and sexual sense now, you nosey pain in my ass. Go away. Go very far away.

Gail mumbles something about Kels not liking it and stalks off.

“She likes it just fine, thank you very much,” I say quietly. I take a seat behind Kels’ desk and thumb through her mail. Most of it seems pretty harmless. There are a couple of pieces that give me pause, though, and I lay them to the side. They both have LA postmarks but no return addresses. I am, of course, assuming that Dr. Susan Feel Good wouldn’t send her anything at the station. Hmmm, really need to find a way to get rid of her.

Kels’ phone rings and out of habit I pick it up. “Kelsey Stanton’s office.”

“This is Dr. Susan Hamilton. Is Ms. Stanton available?”

Speak of the fucking devil. “Hi, Doc. It’s Harper Kingsley. I’m sorry, Kels isn’t available.” To you, ever again in this lifetime, if I can help it. I lean back in the chair, trying not to sound as irritated as I feel. “She’s in a meeting. Can I take a message?”

“Just ask her to give me a call. She has my number.”

Yeah, so do I. “No problem. I’ll tell her as soon as I see her.” Now all I have to do is walk around with my eyes closed for the rest of the day.

Christ, Harper, get a grip. This is not junior high. Even though your hormones seem to think it is.

“Thanks. Have a good day, Ms. Kingsley.”

“You too, Doc.”

I manage to hang up the phone without slamming it down. Returning my attention to the mail, I am careful with the pieces that have caught my eye.

“It’s a federal offense,” Kelsey offers quietly as she steps in her office and closes the door and the blinds, “to open up someone else’s mail.”

“Kels, I …” I’m on my feet trying to find my tongue and a good excuse. Then I narrow in on her. “How did you know?”

“Gail came in and told me.”

“Why that little shit!”

Kels raises her hand. “Now don’t be too upset. I got to throw a fit, threaten to come kill you, and make a hasty exit out of a meeting that was boring me senseless. And it was perfect because Jessica was rambling on about something unbelievably stupid. So it was extra special.”

I watch as she locks her office door. “Kels, what are you doing?”

“You know what, Tabloid?” She crooks her finger at me, calling me to her. For some reason my legs obey her. Traitors.

“What?” I find myself waiting in front of her.

“They want me in the closet, so I want you to consider this a great big closet for a minute.”

She wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me. Immediately, I enfold her in my arms, pulling her tight against my body. God, I love the feel of her breasts against mine, the way our bodies seem to melt into one another. Her mouth is so soft and she tastes so sweet, like the honey she puts in her tea every morning.

I’m feeling more than a little breathless when we part, and hungry for more, but she takes a moment and wipes her lipstick from my lips. Guess I’m not getting any more right now. Damn. Why have such a nice couch in her office if we can’t put it to good use?

“So not your shade,” she teases.

I step back, instantly feeling the loss. She unlocks her door but leaves the blinds closed. I guess to not seem too suspicious. She crosses over behind her desk.

“Now, why were you going through my mail?”

“I was looking for anything that might be from your little friend.” I rest against the corner of her desk. I take a moment to enjoy the view, her blouse is open one button too many for prime time, and her skirt came up to mid-thigh when she sat down. She has wonderful legs. What I wouldn’t give for them to be –

“Find anything interesting?”

Oh yeah. Wait, she’s talking about the mail. “Couple of things I want to check out.” Get your mind out of the gutter, Kingsley.

“Will you do me a favor and take them? I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t even want to know if they are from him, okay?”

I reach for the two pieces of mail. “No problem.”

“And, please, consider yourself told off.” She grins again.

“You, madam, can tell me off anytime.” Oh yeah, I suppose I should tell her about the good doctor calling. “Kels,” I trace my finger over a stack of files, “Susan called.”

“Oh.”

“She wants you to call her.”

“Okay, if I get a chance, I will.”

I’ll keep you busy forever if that’ll do the trick. Maybe in a year or two Susan will take the hint and go quietly into the sunset. And, I like that noncommittal response. Not overwhelmed with enthusiasm to call the good doctor. Unless she only said it for my benefit. I could ask, I suppose. But I won’t. She’d tell me if she wanted to. Right?

* * *

There is a piece of mail that concerns me in a great big old way. As soon as I read it, I call Bear and make arrangements to get it to him. It’s a list of everywhere Kels had been in the last couple of weeks. It has the times, dates, places and the people she was with. It wasn’t even lost on the guy that she spent a few nights at my place. He knows she left town, but it doesn’t seem to reflect that he knew where she was. Thank God for that. I don’t want my family involved in any way. It’s bad enough he’s after Kelsey.

I make sure Kels is indeed going to be tied up at the station all day before I leave to meet Bear for lunch at The Rio. I’m looking at the note and picking over a bacon cheeseburger and steak fries when he arrives.

“Harper, I’m glad to see you.” He grabs a seat, motioning to the waitress to bring him the same thing I’m eating. “We need to talk.”

“No kidding.” I hand him the note. He takes it, exchanging a piece of paper with me. I read it through carefully. “Christ! Bear, are you absolutely sure?”

“Positive. The fibers found in the hair of one of the victims definitely match the fibers from the bear Kelsey got from her admirer. I just got the report back this morning. I was going to call you when I got your call.”

“Then this means …” Oh God, I just lost my ability to speak. And I might get sick right here and now.

“The guy killing the blondes is also Kelsey’s stalker.”

“Fuck.”

“I know, Harper. It scares the shit out of me, too.” He lays a large, comforting hand on my shoulder. “But the good news is we’re going to have surveillance on Kelsey 24/7 from here on out.”

“You’re staking her out like a sacrificial lamb,” I accuse.

Bear shakes his head. “Nope. The sick fuck has done that himself. And she’s our best chance at getting him before he carves up some other woman.”

I blow out a deep breath, trying to quiet my rebellious stomach. “They all look like her, don’t they?” I know the answer to my own question. My mind supplies me images of the previous victims, all young, all petite, all blonde, all green-eyed, all beautiful.

He nods. “He’s been trying to create them in her image, I think, although I ain’t the department shrink. Probably kills them when he realizes they aren’t her.”

“I need to get back to the station.”

“I figured. Look, my Captain and I will be by later to go over some safety protocol with you both. I’ll also want to talk to the general manager about what’s going on. I hear from a friend at the FBI that they are sending in another agent to help with the investigation. Most likely they’re going to bring in another profiler. They may want to talk to Kelsey.”

“Yeah, fine.” I can barely hear him over the pounding of my heart. I pull a ten dollar bill out of my pocket and lay it on the table to cover my lunch. “I gotta go, Bear.”

I can’t hide this from her, as much as I might want to. She deserves to know what we’re up against. And to know she’s not alone.

* * *

Harper is standing in my doorway with a look that has me really confused. It’s somewhere between playful and very concerned.

“What’s up, Tabloid?”

“We need to talk.”

Oh, I most definitely don’t like the sound of that. Is this where she tells me it’s been real and it’s been fun, but it hasn’t been real fun? Kels, you always manage to either run or scare everyone off. Poor Harper certainly isn’t the type to hide and I can’t blame her for that. Closets weren’t built for two.

“Okay.” I lean back from my desk hoping I don’t lose it when I actually hear the words. How can it hurt so much after so short a time?

“First, I want to give you this.” She steps in my office and closes my office door, locking it as she does so. In a few long strides, she crosses to me, turning my chair to face her. Harper drops to her knees and hands me a long, thin box. I take it in shaky hands. I’ve never been given anything from someone who was about to dump me. Is this some new dating custom I haven’t heard about? When I remove the lid, I find a toothbrush. I can’t stop the smile that breaks across my face. Lifting it out of the box, I find a key tied to the end.

“What’s this?”

“Everything you need to stay at my place. Something to keep your breath sweet.” She leans forward and steals a brief kiss, her hands coming to rest on my legs. “And a key to get you in the front door.”

“Okay, the toothbrush I can understand, but the key? That’s an awfully big step.” And one I’d like for her to define for me, just so there are no misunderstandings here.

“There’s a big reason, Kels.”

“What?”

And she tells me.

* * *

Blinking tired eyes into darkness, it takes me a few moments to realize the bed is empty beside me. I roll over slowly and see her outlined against the window. She’s in the wingback chair there, tucked under my Nonny’s handmade quilt. Trouble is curled up on her lap and I can hear the beast purring from here as she strokes him idly with the fingertips of one hand.

“Kels?”

She jumps at my voice and looks over to me, the moonlight coming in through the window glinting across her eyes makes them look silver.

“What time is it?” I ask.

“It’s only three. Go back to sleep,” she says softly.

“Come to bed,” I growl, extending an arm her way. “And we can do more than sleep.”

She chuckles. “You’re insatiable.”

“Me?” I respond with shock. I can barely keep up with her, so what if I’m younger? The good Lord knew I’d need stamina, that’s why he let me be born seven years later.

“Mmm,” she responds positively, ignoring my shock. Sometimes I think she’s embarrassed by her own carnal desires. She has no reason to be ashamed, that’s for damn sure.

“What’s keeping you up? Not that Trouble doesn’t enjoy the company.”

She pauses to scratch behind his ears and the damn cat seems about to implode with pleasure if his loud purring is any indication. “Couldn’t sleep.”

I know why she can’t sleep and I need to distract her. “We don’t have to,” I leer. I can’t help myself. She’s everything I’d imagined and more. I can’t keep my hands off of her and I know under that delicate quilt my grandmere made is perhaps the most beautiful body I’ve ever seen, and a very sensitive heart as well.

“Harper.” Her tone is slightly chastising but gentle. She worries too much. I want her to forget things for awhile and concentrate instead on us and this room and the pleasures we bring each other.

“Don’t make me drag you back to bed,” I warn teasingly. I almost have her, I can tell by the way her face is shifting in the moonlight. She shakes her head.

“All right. I warned ya.” I toss the covers aside and prowl across the room. “Outta the way, Trouble.”

The cat doesn’t need any more warning. He’s lived with me long enough to know when he’s not welcome in the bedroom. He moves his fat ass slowly, though, rubbing his head against Kelsey one last time before hopping down from her lap.

I replace him there, straddling Kelsey’s legs and capturing her mouth in a deep, searing kiss. She responds readily, her hands moving to my bare back and lingering there, sending chills up and down my body. God, I can’t get enough of her. Whenever I touch her, it’s like I’ve never had my hands on her before. Her skin is hot under my fingers as they travel beneath the quilt and down her chest.

“You worry too much,” I murmur to her as I release her lips long enough to nibble at her ear.

“Shut the fuck up, Tabloid, and take me to bed.”

That’s more like it.

* * *

From my office I can look across the newsroom and into hers. She’s chugging coffee, yelling at someone on the phone, her gestures large and imposing. It brings a smile to my lips.

I think the most amusing part about her self-appointed position as personal bodyguard is that she accompanies me to the gym in the mornings. She purchased a membership last week after she broke the horrific news to me about my “admirer”, but so far hasn’t done anything more than sit at the juice bar and drink the coffee she’s brought with her.

Well, that and watch the women exercising.

That bothers me some but I realize I trust her. I know that Harper, for all her flaws, is the most loyal person I have ever met. And her attention is almost always on me, anyway.

However, being at the gym wreaks havoc on her libido and most mornings she insists we go back to her place to shower, change, and do something about releasing that pressure. This morning we didn’t have time. So on days like this, she’s an uncontrollable fury in the studio and it amuses me to no end since I’m the only one who knows why. The shit will hit the fan, though, if she sees my smug grin so I do my best to rein it in.

While I’m sipping my tea and watching the various televisions in my office, the phone rings. Grateful for the distraction, I mute each TV in turn and pick up the receiver.

“Kelsey Stanton.”

“Hey, little girl.” To my surprise, I recognize the voice immediately. It’s Henry Richardson. He and my grandfather used to work in the Department of Defense as medical engineers for many, many years. Their last position together was in a biomedical lab, refining vaccines against potential chemical warfare. Pa had enjoyed the work, saying it was challenging yet rewarding and he liked the idea of being able to protect the populace from unseen enemies. My grandfather was an excellent man and I miss him dearly.

“Henry,” I say softly, shaken from my reverie. It’s hard because when I hear Henry’s voice I remember Pa’s as well. My first instinct is to get Henry off the phone and hide from those memories. I have too much going on right now with Harper and our growing relationship, and the stalker/serial killer mess, to get wrapped up in remembering a happier time with a jovial old man. The memories are still bittersweet; I’ve never said goodbye to Pa and have no desire to do so even now. He was solely responsible for nearly every happy moment in my childhood.

Luckily, it seems Henry isn’t calling to reminisce. “I was wondering if you had the time to help an old friend.”

“Always, Henry,” I say honestly, leaning back in my chair and picking up a pencil to chew. I’m a little surprised by his lack of subtlety. Henry was a man to beat around every bush in the damn forest before finding a point.

“Your Pa always told me what a great reporter you are and how you can get to the bottom of anything.”

I laugh softly. “You and I both know what kinda bullshitter Pa was.”

“Not about you, honey. You know that.”

“I know.” Please, Henry. I can’t do this. Not right now at least.

I listen with half an ear as Henry tells me about what he’s been doing since retiring to his horse ranch a few years ago. He thought he was out of the biochemical warfare game until last week. Seems Texas is one of a few states in the US where anthrax can occur in cattle. And he thinks that someone he knows is trying to isolate the microbe and grow the spores for some evil purpose.

It’s all just supposition and rumor, and a bit too outlandish to be believed. I can’t help but wonder if this is an excuse to get me back to Texas. I swore I’d never go home again.

* * *

“Texas? What the hell is in Texas?” I ask as Kels basically falls into my sofa. It’s all I can do to keep from getting up and going over there and trying my couch out. Stupid aerobics class ran late for her this morning. So, instead of sweating with me, Kels was sweating with a couple dozen women in tight little leotards … oh, Jesus, don’t go there Harper. You’re in enough pain as it is.

“Well,” she sighs just a little, crossing her legs in a very “Basic Instinct” manner.

Keep it up, Kels, and we will be trying out the sofa. Right here. Right now. Blinds open and consequences be damned.

“If you must know,” she continues, oblivious to my distress. “My family, on my Father’s side is from Texas.”

I laugh as I lean forward on my elbows. “You’re not a complete Yankee?”

“Not completely. I was born and raised in New York, but some time was spent with my grandparents in Texas as a child.” She smiles quizzically at me. I know she’s wondering why I asked. I’ll tell her later.

Oh, Mama will be thrilled at this news. Texas isn’t exactly the South, but at least it’s below the Mason-Dixon line.

“A friend of my grandfather’s called me this morning. He needs my help. Actually, he needs our help.”

“Well, any friend of yours …” I want to say ‘is a pain in my ass’ (for example, Erik and Susan) but I hold back. “Can’t be all bad,” I finish politely, rising to move to the front of my desk, leaning on the edge to obtain a better view down the front of her blouse. I cross my arms over my chest. “What’s the problem?”

She leans forward, enhancing my view. I smile; sneaky Kels, you play the flirt game pretty well. “Would you believe anthrax?”

* * *

Henry meets us at the San Antonio International Airport and he’s exactly as Kelsey has described him: grizzly and grinning. This is the Marlboro Man after a three pack a day habit all his life, too much time in the sun without sunscreen, and only a passing acquaintance with non-flannel apparel. I like him. He wraps my partner in a bear hug, squeezing her tight enough to get a grunt out of her, before backing away and shaking my hand.

“Kelsey, you look fabulous,” he enthuses, returning his attention to her. “You’ve grown up so pretty.”

I can’t argue that statement so I simply nod my agreement and get a gentle nudge in the ribs.

We introduce Olsen and Conrad, who are already working on equipment and hotel accommodations so they desert us quickly to handle those. We head toward baggage claim to take care of our end.

“Your Pa would be so proud, Kelsey,” Henry says as we climb onto the escalator.

I’m intrigued by this discussion since Kelsey has told me very little about her grandfather. I only know how important he was to her and that he’s no longer with us. What kind of euphemism is that anyway? Why are people so damn scared about death? And why is it considered impolite to say someone is dead? Unless, despite all our protestations, we really do believe it is the end. That would be depressing if it were true. But I don’t believe it is. I may be a lapsed Catholic, but the concept of eternity is deep within me.

Any of my previous attempts to pry information out of Kelsey about her grandfather have been met with tight lips and watery eyes. Since I hate to see her cry, I drop the topic each time. Even now, seeing Henry, she’s getting maudlin. I rub her back warmly and get a surprised if grateful smile in response. Hey, I can do sensitive. No one seems to believe me, but I can.

“How are your parents?” Henry asks. Man, he knows how to hit all the buttons. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

Kelsey brushes him off. “Same as always. Tell me about Irene and your boys.”

Her distraction is a complete success and we’re well into the heart of San Antonio before Henry stops talking about his three sons (I now know their ages, occupations, marital status, and college GPA’s), and begins discussing the reason we came here.

“So I thought we could meet everyone for lunch tomorrow, including Clayton Jackson, he’s the fella who owns the ranch I was telling you about. I told the family you’re in town to visit with some friends of your Pa’s, to remember him. They don’t know about my suspicions. I figured it was best that way. Don’t want people to get all panicky. This type of stuff scares the crap out of people. As it should.”

Great. Apparently Henry is a Dick Tracy wannabe.

“That’s fine.” Kelsey nods, turning in the front passenger seat of the Chevy Suburban to meet my gaze. I must appear amused because she gives me a warning glare and I school my expression, looking to my right and using Jimmy as a distraction. Jims, the orange hair still standing spiky on his head because he was dumb enough to dye it again, is busy examining the console next to him where he can adjust the volume and radio station. He turns on the AC.

Henry turns it off from up front. “Wastes gas, that air conditioning does. No one needs it. Besides, it’s December, for God’s sake.”

Jimmy looks at me guiltily and I can’t help but laugh. How is it we end up in such bizarre situations?

* * *

I am about to leave the rest of the crew at the affiliate station to pick up a truck and check the equipment. I can’t, with good conscience, shake Henry who was a dear friend of my Pa’s, so I agree to dinner with him and Irene. He says he will take me back by the hotel later tonight.

I find myself wanting Harper’s company but can’t think of a good enough reason to have the my director/producer come along and no one else on the crew. So Harper pulls me aside and promises to check us into the hotel. At least I’ll get to sleep with her tonight. My little psycho gives us a ready excuse to room together. Wish it gave her a ready excuse to come to dinner. But I don’t want to get Henry all upset, and we don’t have any reason to believe that he followed us here. Besides, the gun rack in the back of the Suburban serves as a deterrent. I know it scares the hell out of me.

“You’ll be okay?” she asks in that dark, worried voice.

I nod, run a hand down the front of her shirt, smoothing the buttons. I find myself constantly fascinated with her buttons, I suppose it’s because I know what’s under there, but I try not to bite them off anymore. Unless I simply can’t help myself.

“I know this is hard for you,” she whispers, “and, eventually, I’ll torture the details out of you. But, for now, please know that I care.”

I’m stunned into silence when I look up to meet her blue eyes. They’re sincere and warm. There are so many facets to this woman I may never understand. “I know,” I finally manage to say.

“You can tell me anything; you know that, right?”

I nod again.

“So go enjoy dinner. I’ll have my cell on if you need anything. Okay?”

“Yeah. Thank you, Harper.” I feel a little awkward, wanting to hug her or kiss her or something. She’s turning into a better friend than I could have imagined. I know I’m not very good at returning that sentiment. This whole friendship thing is new to me, only Erik has ever been able to squeeze it out of me before.

She always seems to understand and smiles rakishly, running a hand down my arm. “I’ll think of ways for you to express your gratitude.”

“I don’t doubt you will.”

“Be careful.”

“Always.” It’s hard to watch them pile into the truck and drive away. Finally, Henry draws my attention away with yet another story about his oldest son, Ryan. I was supposed to marry him – in Henry’s mind – so I am relieved to hear that the position has been filled in my absence. I certainly don’t need any more complications in my life right now.

* * *

“So Henry thinks this Dale Sams guy is trying to grow anthrax? And he’s collecting samples from the sick cows over at the Jackson ranch?” Harper asks, while we linger over dessert and each other, settled on the hotel’s king sized bed.

“Yeah, he thinks that maybe the guy is planning something. He says the guy always has been a little off. But it was hard to know for sure since he’s an Aggie professor and those guys like the smell of manure to begin with.”

She laughs at that statement. “Ah great, another nut flake to add to our list of known and unknown nut flakes? We do seem to manage to find them, don’t we? Doesn’t this all seem a wee bit melodramatic though?” Harper inquires, offering me a strawberry and then licking the juice from her fingers. It’s amazingly provocative and is serving to distract me from the conversation. “Is Henry just looking for some excitement in his retirement days?”

“I don’t think so, Henry was never the excitable type before, but it is possible. Bio-chemical warfare is a terrifying reality today, ever since the subway gassing in Tokyo a few years ago. Anthrax is the easiest to create, transport and deliver. Henry says just about anyone with a basic understanding of microbiology and a small lab could grow it.”

“It also has a vaccine.” She bites my shoulder through the cotton of my blouse. Then her fingers find the buttons, freeing each slowly.

“Which no one uses. We only started vaccinating our deployable military in the last decade. Other than millworkers, veterinarians and a few other people, the general populace isn’t vaccinated. That makes anthrax a very viable weapon.”

Harper nods, but is quickly losing interest in the conversation. My shirt is now on the floor, her hand is in the waistband of my jeans, tugging me closer.

“This guy, the person Henry suspects, is cooking up the wicked brew,” Harper begins, actually managing to still be coherent.

I gasp when she unfastens my jeans and pulls open the fly, allowing her long fingers clear access to my silk underwear. I went out and bought a whole new set of lingerie last week. She’s a bit inspiring in that regard.

“Go on,” I husk, trying to do two things at once, being the good workaholic that I am.

She gives me a gentle push, then covers my body with hers, working me out of the remainder of my clothes. “Later,” she whispers.

Thank God, I’ve completely lost interest in the conversation. Her fingers prove much more stimulating. Without further comment, I wrap my arms around her and concentrate instead on the matter at hand. So to speak.

* * *

Lying on my side, with Kels snuggled in close to me, I realize it’s the slight whimpers coming from her that have woken me. She trembling in my arms and I know she’s on the verge of another nightmare.

“Shhh, sweetheart,” I whisper as I comb my fingers through her hair. “I’ve got you. You’re safe.”

Pulling her closer and continuing to stroke her hair, I whisper to her. It calms her and she sleeps again before the nightmare can fully take hold of her. The trembling stops. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that the mere sound of my voice can comfort her.

I glance at the clock and see it’s four-thirty. Taking a deep breath, I close my eyes to go back to sleep, but now my own mind is awake and demanding to take inventory of everything that has happened.

I turn slowly onto my back, eliciting another protest from my partner. “No,” she squeaks as she grabs for me without waking.

“I’m right here, baby.” I keep her close and she settles her body along my side, with her head resting on my shoulder.

As I stare at the ceiling, my mind tries to put things in order of importance.

Kelsey’s stalker really has her on edge since we discovered that he and the serial killer are one in the same. Quite reasonable, of course. I’m scared shitless for her, not that I let her know that. I have to be strong for both of us right now. Not to mention the fact she’s completely torn apart over the concept this man is killing these girls because they look like her. She blames herself, for no damn good reason. It’s not like she asked the sicko to do it. Or that she has ever encouraged his attentions. Still, she is carrying around a lot of guilt.

Bear and his buddy from the Threat Management Unit have really started putting some overtime in on this one. I can’t ever reach Bear at home anymore for progress reports. He’s either at his desk in the station, or he’s out following up leads. God only knows when or if he sleeps. I’ll never be able to repay him. No matter how many nights I let him win at poker.

Of course, our own relationship scares the hell out of us both, I think. We both want it, and we both need it, but Kels is still wound tighter than a ten-cent top sometimes. And to be honest the thought of a singular person in my life is terrifying. I have moved from person to person all my life, I don’t have the first clue as to how to be a half of a couple. I hope this is a learn-as-you-go kinda thing. And that I can get a lot of forgiveness for mistakes. I’m sure I’ll need it.

So now we’re in Texas looking into one of the most over-dramatic things I’ve ever heard in my life. Local nut flake collects anthrax spores from poor, sick cows to make biochemical weapon to use against the population. News at eleven. Yeah, right.

Okay, I’ve followed up dumber things that have led to great stories. We might get lucky. If one can consider potential biochemical devastation lucky. God how the news industry warps you.

To top it all off, to make this little jaunt even worse for Kels, it’s a trip home that is tearing her heart out. She was nearly in tears when she got back to me tonight. I think a little too much reminiscing went on about Pa at dinner.

So I distracted her with the only two things I knew would work. The story first and me second. She seemed to like the second a lot better. Perhaps her priorities are shifting a little. I smile as I place a soft kiss to the top of her head and she moves closer to me.

Could life get any more interesting? Looking down at the woman sleeping in my arms, I’m betting good money that the answer is ‘yes.’ I have the feeling that she’ll be able to keep my life interesting as long as she can put up with me.

* * *

I glance over at Harper who is sitting a table away from us with Jims and Conrad. I wish she were here with me. I take a sip of my tea and return my concentration to the table and the four men I’m having lunch with.

There’s Henry, of course, my Pa’s best friend and like a second grandfather to me. Then there’s Clayton Jackson, the rancher whose farm had the infected cows, all of which have now been put down, their carcasses burned. Next to him is Andy George, who worked with Pa and Henry when they were at the DoD and, finally, Travis McCall, one of my Pa’s friends from so long ago. These four men are all concerned about the possibility of the virus infecting their cattle. Henry told them I might do a story so that they might get some help from the government to prevent any other livestock from getting sick.

“So, Kels, you have no idea how proud we are of you,” Travis offers, covering my hand with his callused one. “Your Pa would simply be busting all the buttons right off his vest.”

“Thanks. I like to think he’d be pleased.”

“Pleased isn’t the word for it, little girl.” Henry raises his glass to me. “We never could get a word in edgewise when he got on the subject of his Little Filly.”

Oh God, I’m so glad Harper wasn’t here to hear that. The last thing I need is for her to know one of my Pa’s old nicknames for me.

I smile at Henry and just shake my head. “Well, like I said, Pa always was one of the best bullshitters in the business.”

“Oh, not when it came to you, sweetheart. How many time do I have to tell you that before you’ll believe me?”

“I believe you. Let’s just wait until you see me in action first, okay?” I’m not normally this humble, but these men remind me of where I came from. And how much I owe to my Pa. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I turn my attention to Clayton Jackson. “Mr. Jackson….”

He throws his hand up. “Clay.”

I nod. “Clay. You think you’ll be able to arrange a meeting for me with Professor Sams?”

“Oh yeah, no doubt. He’s coming by my place tomorrow to have another look at my remaining herd.”

“All right then. The first thing I’ll need is an interview with him as the local expert. Then we’ll shoot a few interviews with you gentlemen. Will you be available tomorrow?” They all agree, after a few protestations about their appearance on camera. It’s cute to see them so concerned about looking handsome for the lens.

So now we have to make contact with Professor Sams tomorrow and feel him out – so to speak – to see if Henry’s concerns are warranted.

One by one they say their good-byes, leaving Henry and I alone at the table. He takes a deep breath and I can tell he’s about to start beating the bushes.

“Out with it, Henry,” I tease, sipping my iced tea.

He pulls a small box from his jacket pocket as he stands to go. “I thought you might want this. I saved it for you, hoping you’d come back for it, but you never returned home after your Pa died.”

He lays the box in front of me, kissing the top of my head before turning to leave.

I look at the box. My hands tremble when I take the ribbon in my fingers and pull it apart. Lifting the lid, I can’t stop the gasp that leaves my chest before the tears begin to fall. I couldn’t stop these tears if I wanted to.

“Oh God!” I lift my Pa’s antique, gold pocket watch out of the box. Holding it gingerly in the palm of my hand, I run the tips of my fingers over the intricate carvings on the cover. I’m afraid if I touch it too much, it will disappear. I thought this was gone for good, sold by my parents along with everything else after Pa died. They “liquidated his assets” right after they buried his body.

I push the button at the top and the cover pops open revealing the face. It’s still running. My God, this watch must be close to a hundred and fifty years old and it still works. Time still goes on, despite the fact that Pa isn’t here anymore.

I notice movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to find Harper pulling up a seat next to me. Her hand comes to rest on my neck, massaging gently. “You okay, Little Roo?” Her voice is full of concern. I realize she must have heard me break down. I can’t speak right now so I just show her the watch.

“It’s beautiful.”

I nod, sniffing and trying to find my voice. “It belonged to Pa. I used to play with it as a little girl. I thought my parents sold it. I didn’t know Henry had it.” I wipe the tears away before I try to speak again. “There’s someplace I need to go before we leave.”

“Anywhere you want.”

* * *

After dropping Jims and Conrad at the station so they can prep for our interviews tomorrow, Harper and I head for my requested destination. She drives quietly. I continue to hold Pa’s watch and run my thumb over it, trying to connect with him once again. “Turn left up here.”

She does so without a word. I look at her and realize how lucky I am. God, I hope I can hold onto her.

“Stop.” I glance out over the tombstones and spot Ma and Pa’s right away. Turning back to Harper, she gives me a little smile. “Come with me?” I ask.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. They’re the only family I have to share with you.”

She nods mutely and climbs out of the car.

As we walk across the manicured grass, I loop my arm through hers to get as close as I can. She interlaces her fingers with mine. When we get to Pa’s headstone, she tries to let go but I won’t let her. I need her strength. I kneel down, taking her with me.

“Hi, Pa,” I begin, rearranging a few flowers that decorate the stone. I’ve always made sure that fresh flowers are delivered here every week. “I miss you so much. I’m sorry I haven’t been here before. I just couldn’t come before now.” I take a deep breath, trying to calm my heart. “Henry gave me your watch today. I promise to take very good care of it. I know it’s been in the family a long time.”

Harper settles down on the grass beside me, getting comfortable, willing to let me take as much time as I want here.

I glance over to my partner. “There’s someone I want you to meet. Pa, this is Harper.” I settle down next to her, and she drapes her arm around my shoulders. “We work together.”

I stop. While that’s true, it’s not the whole truth. “Pa, you never judged me, and you never hated me for the choices I’ve made in my life. God, I so needed that from you. I lived for your approval. And I think you’d approve of her,” the words are out of my mouth before I can censor them.

I glance over to find a huge smile on her face. Okay, at least she’s not running away from me right now. That’s a good sign. Turning back to the stone, I whisper, “She knows how to tell the world to go to hell, too. Between the two of you, I’m hoping to learn a few things.”

I tug a weed away. “The reason I came today was to tell you how much I love you. I always will. And how much I miss you. And to say good-bye, because I never did that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back here, but please know I love you. I always carry you in my heart.”

Leaning forward, I place a kiss on the stone, wishing it was my grandfather’s warm cheek, and let my hand drop down the white marble stone for the first and last time. After I get to my feet, Harper wraps her arms around me from behind allowing me a moment to contemplate in silence. “Ready?” I ask her as I glance up.

“One quick thing.” She kneels down and places her hand on my Pa’s stone. She whispers a few words, which I can’t hear, and then kisses the stone as I did, crossing herself as she rises.

I wipe away a tear and take her proffered her hand. We start back for the car, walking slowly, close together.

“Thank you, Kels.”

“For what?” I stutter. It’s not like I just showed her a great time or anything.

“For sharing him with me.”

Oh. Family is important to her. I do know that. “No, thank you, for coming with me. Do you think he’d be proud of me?”

“Oh, I have no doubt of that.”

* * *

Kels is tense tonight. I know it’s not the interview tomorrow. She could do it in her sleep. It’s this trip home. I rub my hands together warming them before I let them touch her bare skin.

I convinced her a hot shower and a massage would be exactly what she needed to relax. Now she’s lying on her stomach, totally nude, waiting for my touch. I can tell by the pink tint of her skin that it was indeed a hot shower. I begin with her shoulders, slowly and firmly, and am rewarded with a soft little moan.

“Good?”

“Umm-hmmm.”

“You think there’s anything to this anthrax thing?”

“Yeah, I do. Henry and Andy are really concerned about it. They spent enough time with the Defense Department to know when to worry. This guy must really be spooky.”

“Great. You be extra careful out there tomorrow,” I tell her as I rub my way down her back.

“Don’t need to be,” she mumbles, relaxing under my touch. “Have my own personal bodyguard.”

“Right.” I lean over to whisper in her ear. “Wouldn’t want anything to happen to Pa’s Little Filly.”

The groan that escapes her is a long and frustrated one. The only problem is I’m laughing too hard that I don’t see the pillow coming until it’s too late.
Episode Twenty: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
“We’re going to treat this particular nut flake with kid gloves, as any person with a potential, ready supply of anthrax deserves to be. So I don’t want him to see the mike on you when you first approach him for an interview.”

I nod and she opens my robe, revealing my bra and panties. I put on the emerald green silk set this morning. She particularly likes it, saying it matches my eyes. I don’t know how she knows that. I’ve never worn them long enough for an adequate comparison.

“Or we could just forget the whole anthrax thing and go back to bed,” she groans as she twists the transceiver and the mike in her hands.

“Behave.” I give her a gentle slap on the arm and then a little kiss on the chin. “Just wire me up.”

She drops to her knees and kisses my stomach. “Are you sure?” She slides the transceiver into the front of my briefs and runs the wire, and her lips, up my stomach. Nibbling one breast through my bra, she runs the wire under the other side.

“Oh God! Harper, behave! I mean it!” I falter a bit under her touch. It’s my subconscious trying to get me back in bed. My subconscious really, really likes it in bed. Hell, my conscious does too, but I’m trying to have a little bit of will power here.

She laughs a little as she steadies me and places a piece of tape over the wire. “See what happens when you don’t have any concentration?” She stands up to her full height and rubs her hand up and down my back.

“I have plenty of concentration. You insist on breaking it.” I step back and close my robe, then move into the bathroom to apply my make-up. “So do you think it’s going to be safe to stick a camera in his face?”

“Maybe not right away. I’m going to hang back in the truck with Olson until you get his permission.” She pauses, then calls loudly. “I’ll be drinking coffee and eating Twinkies.”

I hear her laugh and poke my head out of the bathroom. “You save your Twinkie eating for when you’re with me, Tabloid.”

“Right.” She winks at me. “Anyhow, I’ll be right there once you get him to agree.”

“And if he won’t?”

She shrugs. “Then you get your cute, little ass out of there and we’ll figure something else out.”

I spin around and present the body part in question. “You really think it’s cute?”

“Don’t start what you won’t finish, Kels,” she warns. “But, yeah, I do. It’s delicious.”

I laugh at that description and get back to work. “There’s a good chance he won’t agree, you know. Henry says he’s a really odd duck, something straight out of the 1860’s. A true Texas gentleman.”

“Oh, well, this I gotta see.”

“Okay, but can I offer you one piece of advice?” I step back into our room to see how she’s gonna handle this.

“Sure.” She crosses her arms and gives me her ‘look’. She about the roll her eyes. I know it.

I start anyway. “If he’s really as odd as Henry says, he’s going to see us as women. You know, the ‘breeding’ type. So, take my word for it, around here they’ll shoot you before you get past the ‘s’ in the word lesbian. They even look suspiciously at women named Leslie.”

“Oh, I get it. I should be seen and not heard, huh?”

“Not if you’re going to expound the pleasures of being with another woman.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it, Little Roo.” She grins, an evil little grin. “I wouldn’t tell on you like that.”

I return to the bathroom. Now I’m grinning. Tell on me like that, huh? Oh, I like that.

* * *

Kels seems to be relaxed and in her element now. I’ve even noticed a little Texas drawl slipping out. It’s cute, it really is.

“What are you smiling about?” she asks out of the side of her mouth.

“Who me? I’m not doing nothing.” Damn, she caught me.

“Right,” she laughs at me. “And you’re not doing anything.” She crosses her denim clad legs and rests her hands on her knee. “So you think the new clothes will get him to talk?”

I glance her way trying not to look interested. I already took in a complete eyeful of the boots, denim skirt and white blouse with the intricate black stitching along her shoulders. Very Texan, and, surprisingly, very sexy. “I guess you look okay.” God, I’m so bad a feigning disinterest.

“Thanks, Tabloid, I’ll keep that in mind later tonight.”

“Now, there’s no need to go saying stuff like that,” I protest.

She laughs at me. She points to the road I need to turn down. Christ, could we get any further into Texas?

“By the way, I like your shirt,” she offers with a smile.

“Only because it snaps and no buttons. Easy access.” I look down at the shirt she bought for me this morning. It’s black with white piping and has snaps up one side of it. The cut and design allow you to lower one side so that it folds down the front at an angle. I am also the proud owner of a new belt buckle that has my initials engraved in it. It gold and silver inlayed, very well carved. Ugly as hell, though, and I’ll probably never wear it again. Kels says the look is important out here. Since I absolutely refused to wear a skirt, she decided I may as well go with the cowboy look. I absolutely drew the line at a hat and she wouldn’t let me get a six-shooter.

She looks at a rough, hand-drawn map, pointing again, which puts us on a road that hasn’t been graded since the 1800’s. Bumpy is a polite word for this road.

“Damn, Harper!” Jims yells, from the back, along with a thud. “Try not to kill the crew!”

“Shut up, kid,” I growl. “I can kill you if I want. It’s in my contract.”

Once we finally make it to the ranch, not only am I relieved, but every internal organ I have is as well.

“Ready, partner?”

“Oh yeah,” I groan, turning my neck from side to side to get a very satisfying pop in each direction.

“Remind me to adjust your back when we get back to the hotel,” Kels offers as she climbs out of the truck, smoothing her skirt down.

My back and a few other things, Little Roo.

I watch her as she walks to the front door of the sprawling ranch house. It really is like being back in time here. There’s the ‘big house’ (where Ben, Little Joe, Adam and Hoss would live), to the right is the requisite red barn, and to the left is a smaller house for the ranch hands. I don’t see any vehicles here, so we might just be shit outta luck on the whole deal anyway.

Kels is singing softly as she approaches the house. I’ve never heard her sing before. She’s not bad. Of course, she’s not going to get a recording contract anytime soon, but she can sing to me anytime she wants. Just not this song.

“This frog has a song to be sung;
“This frog isn’t gonna spend his life in a swamp, catchin’ flies with his tongue;
“This frog may slip and stumble, but this frog tries again;
“This frog never will grumble, but fall to rise again;
“This frog is staying with it, like a tick sticks to a dog;
“I’m gonna win!
“You’re gonna love this frog!”
I look at Jims, who is laughing in the back of the truck, having been listening along with me. “What in the hell is she singing?”

Between laughs, he replies, “It’s a Kermit the Frog song.”

The woman needs help. Professional help.

She stops singing, mercifully, when she knocks on the front door. We all wait to see whether Professor Dale Sams is home. She’s starting to turn around, give up, when the door swings open and the professor stands before her.

Even from my vantage point, I can tell he’s from a different era. He’s tall and lean, as you imagine a cowboy being, and weathered from being out in the sun the majority of his life. His hair is jet black, like the oil in the ground beneath most of Texas, and he has a handlebar mustache that I could use on my Harley. The fact that I can see it from the truck is scary.

“Hello, Professor Sams?” Kelsey asks, opening up the screen door to shake his hand. I love it. Kels has done well as a reporter because she instantly breaks down barriers between herself and her subjects.

He takes her hand and nods. “Yes, that’s me. What can I do for you, Miss?”

She indicates the truck. “My name is Kelsey Stanton, I’m an old friend of Henry Richardson, and I’m with a television station out west.”

I snicker. California is certainly out west. In fact, if you don’t stop there, your ass is in the Pacific. I’m pretty sure the professor thinks the west ends right around El Paso.

“Henry and Clay Jackson were telling me about the help you’ve been giving Clay down on his ranch. I was wondering I could impose on you for a few minutes for an interview. I am hoping to draw attention to this health crisis and get ya’ll some help down here.”

The professor shrugs. “I don’t reckon we need much help from the government, Miss, they’re probably the ones who got Clay’s cattle infected in the first place. Damn anthrax – pardon my language – is actually more a sheep disease than cattle. But, once the government starts monkeying around with the virus, well, then it can go just about anywhere.”

“Would you mind if I got my crew, so I can record what you’re saying? I’d really love to get you on camera, given your expertise in this field.”

He hesitates, but finally agrees. I slap Olson on the back as I gather up my camera, mike, light pole and assorted other equipment. It takes a few minutes, but soon we’re ready to shoot. The professor and Kelsey are sitting on the front porch, both wired for sound – though I just clipped the mike on his shirt lapel – and I’m checking the lighting. I give Kels a little nod and begin rolling the tape.

“Professor Sams, you’re a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, in the biology department, correct?”

“Yes, Miss. I’ve been there for nearly fifteen years now. My focus is on environmental science.”

“And how is that different from biology, Professor?”

“Well, it’s more a subset of it. My concern has been, and continues to be, the need for what I call a Caretakers’ Movement in today’s society to counteract the pollution and destruction of our environment. Most people in this world don’t have a caretaker’s heart for the environment. They use and abuse it and then expect everything to remain the same. It’s insanity, really. People like that don’t deserve the beautiful earth we’ve been given.”

Kels pauses and checks her notes, keeping her expression neutral. He just concerned me with that comment too. “So, Professor, what should we, as responsible users of the environment, be aware of or sensitive to? I mean, I recycle and try not to waste resources, but it sounds like you have a deeper concern. Can you explain the real issues here?”

“Part of the problem is exactly in how you phrased the question, Miss. We aren’t supposed to be ‘users’ of the environment. If you read any of my publications, you’ll find that I have consistently advocated a Caretaker role. We borrow the earth from future generations. We may have the power to ‘use’ the environment, but we have no right.”

The last four words come out harsh, staccato. This appears to be a sore point with the good professor.

Kels nods. “I understand your concern. Professor, what should we be doing about it then?”

“I think we need to get back to basics, to way things were supposed to be from the beginning. We were given this great, garden paradise as a gift. We were told to populate it, name it, care for it. And, what have we done? Everything we possibly can to destroy it.”

“Are you referring to the biblical Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden myth?”

The words are barely out of her mouth when the professor’s face clouds over in anger. His eyebrows come together and he looks long and hard at Kelsey, trying to decide what to do with her. In the past, heathens were stoned. I’m glad they’re on the porch and not near any handy rocks.

“The Garden of Eden was no myth, Miss Stanton, despite the current vogue of discrediting the Lord’s word.”

Kelsey remains silent, not rising to the provocation, nor providing any of her own.

After a long moment, he continues. “I’d like to return to your original question: what should we be doing about the current disaster we’re faced with? I think we need to look back again to the very beginning and follow the pattern we’re given. When the original Caretakers broke the rules, they were banished.”

Where are we gonna send them, fella, the moon?

“That seems a bit extreme, Professor.”

He bristles at her suggestion. “How is that extreme? If you have cancer, what do you do? Sit around and tolerate its presence in your body? No, you cut it out. You get rid of the disease before it kills you.”

“So what is the cancer that you would expunge from today’s modernized and industrialized society?”

“The modern and industrial society is the cancer.”

Oh boy. Houston, we have a problem. Seems the professor is one can short of a six pack. He ain’t the coldest beer in the fridge. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Not the brightest … ah, hell, I get my own point.

Personally, I’ve grown kinda fond of electricity, running water and modern medicine. Not to mention motorcycles. I really like my Harley. I gotta get Kels to take a fun ride with me, not just one from the clink.

Focus, Harper. You got a nut flake sitting on the porch by the woman your Mama invited into the kitchen.

“So, Professor, are you suggesting that we need to reduce the population?”

“Exactly. Or the earth herself will do it for us, with a vengeance. Drastic measures need to be taken to protect the earth from its attackers.”

Kelsey takes a deep breath and settles back in the chair she’s sitting on. She wants to go in for the jugular, but is also mindful that this guy may have a handy supply of anthrax at his disposal. “Are you suggesting that certain people are the primary attackers? Isn’t that a little harsh of an assessment?”

“Hardly!” he scoffs. “Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, the recent radiation leak in Japan, the list goes on and on. All of those were caused by mankind and our precious, industrial, modern society. Harsh? We poison and pollute and destroy. Surely you would agree that is an attack on the earth?” He doesn’t wait for her to respond. “The reason why you came to visit me today is indicative of our attack on the planet. We’ve recently found an anthrax strain in cattle which had previously only been found in sheep. These things don’t happen accidentally, in a vacuum. Someone caused it.”

“Are you suggesting that we may be facing a major epidemic, rather like the Black Plague in Europe in the 14th century?”

He shrugs, crosses his legs. “It wouldn’t be entirely unexpected.”

No, I bet it wouldn’t be to you. Man, I owe Henry an apology for thinking he was over-reacting to this guy.

“So, Professor, you believe some illness or plague or event will occur in the near future to reduce the human population significantly?”

“I would say it’s pretty much a given at this point.” His words are spoken softly, with assurance. This is a man with a plan.

“Do you think there are people or organizations out there who are willing to ‘help’ this process along?”

“Again, from the beginning of time, there have always been Caretakers. I think it’s time for these gardeners to start pruning before the whole garden is lost. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my work.” The professor stands up to his full height and smoothes out his jeans. He unclips the mike pack and sets it down on the chair.

Yeah, and we need to get the hell out of here and get some of that anthrax vaccine. Jesus. This is one scary son-of-a-bitch.

“Thank you so much for your time,” Kelsey closes, the consummate professional. “If I have further questions, would you mind me calling on you again in the future?

As he walks through his front door, the professor answers, “What there is left of it, sure.”

* * *

No, no, no, no, no.

I open my eyes and peer at the clock as the phone continues to ring. Six a.m. Say it isn’t so.

I try reaching for the phone, but somebody has both my arms neatly pinned to my body with her arm. How in the hell can she sleep through this phone ringing? “Harper, honey, let go. I need to get the phone.”

She groans, and I manage to get my arm free and pick up the receiver.

“Stanton.”

“Hey, Little Girl.”

My foggy brain barely lets it register that it’s Henry on the phone and that he sounds a tad panicked. “Henry? What’s wrong?”

“The Professor bolted last night.”

“What?” Oh, he has my full attention now. I squirm free of Harper and sit up against the headboard.

“We think he left late last night. He had an evening lecture at the university. After it, his GA says he went to his lab, collected some samples and left.”

“Shit. Do we have any idea where he went?” Where would I go if I wanted to release the second Black Plague?

Harper grumbles next to me and starts to say something. I quickly place my hand over her mouth as I listen to Henry. Glancing down I find two very sleepy, annoyed, blue eyes looking back at me. I shake my head, but remove my hand, when she nods her understanding. She crawls quietly out of bed, heading for the bathroom.

“Are you absolutely sure?” I ask when I hear him say that he thinks Dale is headed for New York City.

“That’s what my contact at the university said. He told his GA that he was going up to do a presentation at the U.N.”

“Henry, I hope your contact was right because millions of lives could be at stake.” Jesus, the thought is incomprehensible.

“I know, Kelsey. You’ve got to stop him.”

“We’ll do our best. See you soon, Henry.”

“No, you won’t. Just remember I love ya too, Little Girl.”

“I will. Good-bye, Henry.”

“Good-bye, Kelsey.”

** *

“I don’t care what it takes!” Harper yells into the phone as she zips her jeans. “We need to be on the next damn plane to New York City! I don’t give a rat’s ass which airport we fly into, just pick one of them, for Christ’s sake!”

I’m packing us up so fast, I’m not sure I’m keeping all our stuff separate. If it weren’t so critical that we get to New York, it wouldn’t be so bad. This is most definitely a pack and dash. I hate it when a story goes like this.

Of course, I love it too, but that’s beside the point.

“Then get me a goddamned private plane, you moron!” she yells again, waving her hands, which is a dangerous thing because she’s holding the phone in one. I’ve had to duck twice to keep from getting hit.

Man, is she in her element.

I finish zipping the last suitcase when she slams the phone down. “Idiots!” She grumbles, grabbing for her boots.

“Are we…?”

“Yeah, we’re on the next flight out, but we have to hurry. Jims and Conrad are already downstairs with the car. You ready?”

“Oh yeah, we’re ready. We’re gonna have to sort things out in New York, but I figured, no big deal.” I shoulder our carryons, she takes our bigger cases.

“Very true, our underwear are not strangers anymore.” She winks at me. “Let’s hope there’s a New York to sort things out in.”

I grab the door, holding it for her as we begin our mad dash. I love this job. And I love doing it with her.

* * *

We’re sitting in the New York field office for the Federal Bureau of Investigation waiting to see the agent in charge of counter-terrorism. I have an unedited videotape of Kels’ interview with the lesser Professor in my bag and I’ve sent Jims and Conrad over to the network to work on editing the master tape.

Kels is pacing the hallway, burning a groove into it, actually. She does not like the lackadaisical response to our presence. In point of fact, we’ve only been waiting fifteen minutes.

“Miss Stanton? Miss Kingsley? Could you come with me, please?” a secretary asks, stepping out of a nearby room.

Kels mutters, “Finally” and we follow the nonplussed secretary into the adjoining office.

Special Agent Kyle Donovan rises from behind his desk and extends his hand to both of us. After we do the meet and greet thing, we settle down in the chairs across from him. “So, tell me about what brings you here.”

I open up my briefcase, pull out the portfolio of information we’ve gathered on Professor Dale Sams and slide it over to him. “We went down to San Antonio a few days ago based on a story lead provided to us …” And I tell him our story.

* * *

We leave the FBI with two important objectives accomplished: one, the FBI has taken us seriously and is launching an intensive search for the professor, and two, we got the exclusive. The second wasn’t really that hard. There is no way in hell they want this information to get out.

New York is already on full alert for the holiday season. Christmas is in two days and New Year’s Eve – and one point five million people in Time’s Square – is coming fast. With the nutso arrested in Seattle in the last couple days, security has increased, given the fact he had a plane ticket here.

Maybe there’s a convention of paranoid, psychotics being held in New York?

Well, other than the usual.

We’re heading over to the network to do background work for our story. Finding this guy shouldn’t be too big a problem for the FBI – he sticks out like a sore thumb even in Texas. We’ll need a full background on him for when we run our segment. And I want to find out if he has ties to any other Eco-terrorist organization. I doubt it. He seems like a lone gunslinger, but I don’t want to miss a connection.

And it’s always good to see what’s happening at the network level. Especially when my Little Roo has ambitions for bigger and better assignments. And, well, so do I. It’ll be good to stir the pot a bit while we’re here.

* * *

I smile as I wrap my arms around her pillow and crush it to my chest. It holds her scent, like the entire room holds the scent of our loving-making from earlier, before she went out to dinner with one of the high mucky-mucks from CBS.

Funny how after a short time I can miss her like this. Odd really. This is a unique sensation, to actually miss someone. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. Of course not, Harper, you have to know their names to miss them.

Since we checked in with the station, our cell phones and hotel room have been inundated with calls from the networks, ours and the others. And as we work on our story, we’re taking time to be courted. We’ve done some damn good work together these last few months – the library shooter, Omaha, and now this one. If we play our cards right, we’re poised for something big.

I have two or three lunches set up and I know Kels has at least one lunch and another dinner at some point. Of course, nothing says we have to make this move together.

I wonder if she plans on leaving me. Or if she even is considering doing this together. Just because we’re partnered up at KNBC doesn’t mean we would have to be anywhere else. She may just get a fabulous offer and take it and not even think twice about me. It’s not like we’ve made any promises to each other. Of any kind.

I’m surprised when the phone rings, shaking me out of my morose thoughts. I hope it’s Kels, slipping away long enough to call me. God, Harper, get a grip. Repeat after me: I am not in high school. “Hello?”

“Harper?” The male voice throws me a bit before I recognize it. It’s Erik. Great just what I didn’t need tonight. I can’t feel much worse right now, buddy, so lay off.

“Yeah. Sorry, Erik, Kels is out to dinner. I can have her give you a call when she comes in.”

“That’d be great.” He pauses, then clears his throat slightly. “Look, about the other day…”

“Ah, don’t sweat it.” I want to be bitchy with him, but I know that would be so very, very bad. And it’s not like he doesn’t have a point. My track record sucks.

“No. I was a jackass and I’m sorry. I’m really protective of Kels and I …well, never mind. I only wanted to say I’m sorry for the way I acted. To be honest, I haven’t seen her this happy in years.”

“Really?” I perk up. Now the conversation is getting interesting.

“Yeah, really.” I can hear him settle back into a leather chair. Apparently, we’re going to chat. “Did she ever tell you our story?”

“No.” Can’t say I’ve ever cared enough to ask.

“You interested?”

Ah, hell, I have nothing much better to do right now than miss Kelsey and get depressed about the future. Getting to know Kels’ best friend isn’t a bad thing. Still, “Are you sure you should?”

“Hey, it’s my story too.” He lets out a little laugh.

I can tell by his nervous laugh that this is something very important to him. Thus, it’s important to Kels. “Sure, I’ve got the time, if you do.”

“For you, I’ll make the time. I think you need to know.”

Interesting. I settle into the bed and grip Kels’ pillow closer to my body as I listen to the voice on the other end of the line.

“I ran away from home when I was fifteen. My father drank too much and beat me, and my mother sold her body for drugs. I wanted to get away from it. I ended up in L.A. Big dreams for a stupid kid. You know the story.”

“Un-huh.” I have seen it one too many times, played out at some crime scene or the other.

“Well, true to form, I fell right into the Sunset Strip pit. Hooked and hooking. I didn’t give a damn who I sold my body to as long as I got enough for a fix.”

“Jesus. I’m sorry, Erik.” It never ceases to amaze me how adults are willing to fuck over kids for their own pleasure.

“One night this beautiful, young, blonde woman stops at a red light. I don’t know why, but I went over and gave her my pitch. Normally, I didn’t approach the real attractive ladies. They don’t need to pay for sex, you know. But, she just looked so … inviting. That’s not the right word. But, something drew me to her. I gave my speech and she told me to get in. That was another thing. I never would get into a buyer’s car. Kids who did very often died. But, something about her made me get in. She took me home and never let me go back to the Strip. She cleaned me up, and put me in rehab to clean me out. She held on to me for dear life. She saved my life.”

“And she made you the centerpiece of her story on child porn and prostitution,” I venture.

“Yeah, but under a different name since I was minor. The station paid for my rehab and a couple other incidentals. Look, I was happy to help with her story. And she did everything for me without expecting it.”

“So, how old was Kels when you first met her?”

“Twenty-two. She was brand-spanking new in Los Angeles, a little cub reporter for KNBC. She wanted something juicy to start off with and she found me.”

That makes Erik my age. I never would have thought. He seems so much older. So serious.

“She was living with a cop at the time. Although the station, of course, thought they were just roommates. CJ was a few years older than Kels and had been around the block a few times. She managed to get guardianship from my parents, her brother was a lawyer and he helped out. My parents were only too happy to be rid of me. CJ, and Kels, put me in school and kept me on the straight and narrow. Three years later, I graduated at the top of my class and entered UCLA on a scholarship.”

So, I think Beth was first, then came the cop, then Susan, now me. How many more have there been? Not that I have a right to be asking, but I am curious. I also want to know what happened to the cop, but I don’t ask. If Erik wanted to tell me, he would.

“They didn’t make it past my freshman year together,” he offers as if he has read my mind. “Don’t get me wrong, Kels loved her and CJ was wild about Kels. It nearly killed them both to give each other up. But Kels couldn’t stand watching CJ put on a bullet proof vest every night to go to work.”

“If they loved each other so much, why didn’t the cop give it up?” Not, why didn’t Kels get over it? But, why didn’t this CJ make her happy?

“She would have, if she’d been asked, I think. Kels didn’t go that route. She loved CJ and didn’t want her to give up what made her happy. I don’t think Kels realized that she was what made CJ the happiest.”

So she loved this woman, huh?

“They managed to make a good split. They don’t see much of each other nowadays. But when you see them together, you can tell they loved each other and maybe, to some extent, still do.”

You don’t pull any punches do you, Erik, boy?

“The point is, there are a few of us out here who really love Kels, and we don’t want to see her hurt anymore. She’s been badly hurt in the past and she doesn’t deserve it. I’m really, truly sincere when I say if things were different for us, I’d marry her in a heartbeat. I love her more than I’ve ever loved anyone in my life.”

So CJ saved your soul but Kels won your heart, eh? “Yeah, well, we have that in common at least, Erik.” I’ll let him decide for himself whether I’m referring to not wanting to see Kelsey get hurt, loving her more than anyone else in my life, or wishing I could marry her.

In fact, maybe I should decide on that for myself.

* * *

“Go!” I grumble at her very quietly, giving her another little shove. “I can handle this.” We’re arguing in the middle of the FBI field offices. We’ve been working from here all morning, and now she doesn’t want to leave for her lunch appointment.

“That is not my point, Kels. I know you can handle this. Just like you handled SA Donovan.”

Oh, she’s so cute when she’s jealous. I think I’ll keep her.

“Look, I handled him well enough to get us a desk and a phone. Now, I want you to go to lunch with CBS and order the most expensive thing on the menu,” I tease, giving her another nudge.

“I don’t like leaving you alone.”

“Christ, Harper, I’m surrounded by forty heavily armed FBI agents, who somehow found out about my little problem back in LA.” I cross my arms and give her a slightly accusing look. “How do you suppose that happened, hmmm?”

“I wouldn’t know.” She kicks the floor with her shoe. It’s adorable.

“Please, go to lunch and enjoy it. I’ll be fine and I’ll be right here when you get back.”

“All right, but if you need me, I’m a call away.”

“Yeah, well, so am I.” I wink, taking a seat at the desk in the corner. “Go!” I smile, shooing her away. I hear her grouse as she turns on her heels to leave for lunch.

A little while later, I’m finishing up a call on the professor’s’ background when Kyle comes up and tosses a notepad and a sandwich down in front of me.

“Well,” he pulls up a chair, flips it around backwards straddling it as he unwraps his own sandwich, “we know where he was.”

“Was?”

He gestures to the notepad. “After arriving in New York very late last night, he took a taxi to the Best Western near Times Square.”

I groan. “Of course he did. What other hotel would he stay at?” I unwrap the sandwich, continuing to look over Kyle’s notes, careful not to make a lot of eye contact with him. He might get the wrong idea and I’d rather Harper not kill him. It could be bad for our relationship if she gets convicted of killing a FBI agent. “But he’s not there now?”

“Nope, but if he comes back, we have a man waiting for him. Right now, as best we know, he’s out wandering around New York City. We’re also following up on a few calls he made from his room.”

Great, just great. He’s out there and so is Harper.

With our luck they’ll run smack dab into each other while she’s at lunch.

* * *

I used to hate hotel room beds. Until I found a better way to wake up in them. I smile as I struggle into consciousness, feeling Kels cuddled up against my back with her arm around my waist. I run my hand over her arm and inhale deeply, feeling totally satisfied. Very content. This is an interesting sensation. One I could get used to.

She stretches behind me and groans. This is the way she wakes up in the mornings. Funny, I not only know that she has tea every morning, but I also know what signals the fact she waking up. This is definitely a first in my life. I’ve never had time to learn anyone else’s habits.

I roll over and brush back the hair from her face. “Merry Christmas, Little Roo.”

She nods and snuggles into me without opening her eyes. This is her sign that she’s not quite awake and has no desire to be so anytime soon.

I hold her close, feeling very protective of her right now. Between stalkers, serial killers and anthrax nut flakes, we’ve been having a rough couple weeks. And all I want is her to feel safe in my arms. I kiss the top of her head and close my eyes, content to doze and just hold her.

I jump a few moments later when I feel a hand someplace I certainly don’t have one. I open my eyes and look into her now very playful face.

“Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be, huh? You lured me into an ambush,” I chide, loving every moment of it.

She nods again then attaches her lips to my neck as her hands begin roaming my body. Oh yeah, this is good. She seems to enjoy making love first thing in the morning. Not that I particularly care what time of the day she chooses.

“Ah, Kels…” I roll over on my back and enjoy the feeling of being loved by this woman. “So nice,” I manage as my eyes slip closed, my hands rubbing up and down her back.

The knock on the door to our room is a huge fucking distraction. Can’t people read a goddamn do not disturb sign? I whimper when she pauses. Don’t stop, Kels. Please, don’t stop.

“Kelsey, I know you’re in there. Open the door!” The woman’s voice is harsh.

“Ah, fuck!” Kels groans. She slaps the mattress then rolls out of bed, pulling on a robe.

“What is going on?” I’m so totally frustrated right now I can’t think. Why is she stopping?

“It’s my mother,” Kels explains, tying off her robe.

“Your mother?” Jesus H. Christ! Suddenly, I feel like I should be jumping into my clothes and looking for the nearest exit. Which, of course, would be out the door she’s knocking on. I wonder if she’d think I was just delivering room service.

Service with a smile.

Kels comes and kneels next to the bed, and gives me a long, lingering kiss. She brushes my hair back from my face. “Relax. I came out to my mother years ago, just to piss her off. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get a big Christmas present and she’ll have a stroke when she sees you.” She examines me and pulls the sheet up around my very nude body reluctantly. “Just follow my lead.”

I nod dumbly, tucking the sheet around me. “I can do that.” As if I have a choice.

“Good.”

What the hell is it with her family and friends anyhow? Every time she starts doing wonderful things to my body, they manage to ruin it.

There is another demanding knock on the door.

“Kelsey Diane! Open this door, right now!”

Diane? Huh, I didn’t know that. I like it. It’s pretty. Well, hell, she’s pretty.

She smiles a truly evil smile and opens the door. The woman breezes into the room, completely oblivious to my presence. She starts speaking as she pulls off her gloves.

“It’s about time, Kelsey. Did you plan on keeping me waiting in the hall all day?”

I can feel my brows coming together as I watch this woman. She’s so fucking self-absorbed and I don’t like her tone of voice with Kels. At all.

“Merry Christmas, Mother. What are you doing here?” Kels moves into the bathroom and retrieves a robe for me. She walks past her mother, who is peeling off her coat, and gives me the robe, but signals me to stay put. She sits at the foot of the bed and waits for the woman to focus.

“I called that place you work for in Los Angeles and they told me you were in…” Her tirade comes to a sudden stop when she finally takes in the picture before her. The look of shock, horror and disapproval is clear. She turns her back to us. “Kelsey, get dressed this minute! How dare you! ”

“How dare I?” She’s on her feet, gesturing with her hands. “Oh, please, Mother! You stormed in here. Live with the consequences of your own actions. And you could at least be civil and let me introduce you to Harper.”

She turns back around, squaring her shoulders, looking down at me. The look on her face is indicative of an extremely unpleasant odor.

I simply wait her out. I have to fight back the smirk and the ‘Hi, Mom’ that wants to cross my lips.

“Mother, this is Harper, my partner” she pauses as she smiles at me, “in every way. Harper, this is my mother, Katherine Stanton.”

I’m really not quite sure what to say, so I simply nod. I know Kels is dragging this out for the pleasure of torturing this woman. Look up the word ‘Bitch’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of Kels’ mother.

Mother Stanton nods stiffly back at me. And I used to think Kels was uptight.

“Harper, darling,” Kels turns to me, “why don’t you go grab a shower while I visit with Mother?” She offers an evil smile, wrinkling her nose at me. Ah, this would be my cue to scandalize Mother.

I get out of bed. Kels knows I never put on my robe without a good stretch first. Why should this morning be any different? Mother comes in, Mother deals with life as she finds it. I can almost see the aneurysm taking form in the woman’s head when I stretch. My Little Roo really does have a mean streak.

Note to self: Never, ever piss Kels off.

I put on my robe. I am then rewarded with a long, deep kiss and sent to the showers like a good team player. Damn, I’m glad I joined this team. The others aren’t nearly as much fun. I let a little chuckle escape as I close the bathroom door.

I start off with a cold shower. I need it. Ice cubes coming out and hitting my body would be about right for this occasion. Or I could ask Kels’ mom to join me. That’d freeze the water on anyone’s ass.

Ew, what a thought, Harper.

I shake my head to rid myself of horrific images and I begin to slowly warm the water and get down to the business of getting clean. Kels’ singing of a Kermit the Frog song the other day now has me humming “Rubber Ducky” as I lather myself up.

After a few rousing choruses of my new favorite song, I hear the door to our room slam. I begin rinsing so I can go make sure Kels is all right when I hear the bathroom door open and close. Very soon I find myself pressed against the shower wall by a very feisty Little Roo.

“You okay?” I manage to croak out before I’m lost to her touch again.

“Merry Christmas,” she replies before beginning a heated, torturous exploration of my body.

I look down at Kels who appears to have only one goal in mind at the moment. A goal I can most definitely live with. “Oh, Christ!” I extend my hands, bracing myself against the shower walls to keep from collapsing right here.

Where in the hell is this coming from? She’s like a woman possessed.

Don’t ask stupid questions, Harper, just go with it.

As I slowly slide down the wall after one of the more amazing experiences in my life, I pull her into my arms. I imagine what this would be like out in the rain, in the middle of a sweet-smelling field. God, we’ll have to try that some time.

“She called me a whore,” she whispers quietly, completely ending any fantasies I am concocting at the moment.

I’m going to hurt the bitch before this is over. I tighten my hold on Kels. “You know that’s not true.” Now, if Mother Stanton only knew who her daughter was sleeping with. I’d like to see her call me a whore to my face. Somehow, I think Mother Stanton’s ‘bravery’ is rather situational. The bitch.

“Five people. I’ve had five lovers in my life.” She clings to me there in the bottom of the shower.

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” I whisper in her ear, holding her as close as possible. “You’re one of the finest people I know. And I’m so glad to be a part of your life.” The words are out before I can censor them. Though, I don’t know if I want to. She needs to hear this, and, I believe, she needs to hear it from me.

And, with any luck, Kels, you’ll never have a sixth lover. If I have anything to say about it.
Episode Twenty-One: Three – Two – One
We look like prunes.

Of course, that’s to be expected. We were in the shower for nearly an hour. Fortunately, hotels have endless supplies of hot water, so we’re not hypothermic prunes right now.

Kels has calmed down some. Music and food seem to have helped. I found a decent jazz station on the radio and had room service bring up enough food for a small army. Emotional scenes always make me ravenous.

After Robie had his first son, while Christian and Rene slept happily in the hospital room, he and I went to a nearby Denny’s and ate three Grand Slam breakfasts. Each. God, I was so sick after that. But, at the moment, I just couldn’t get enough in me. It was like all of my energy had been spent on this huge emotion, and it had to be replenished. Kinda like now.

Kels is bundled up in the hotel robe, her feet tucked under her, and her damp hair hanging loose around her shoulders. She is an absolute vision of loveliness. If this is what it means to be in a steady relationship, I like it. Just being with her calms me. I don’t feel as if I have anything to prove to her. And, because of that, all I want is to prove myself.

Geez, I gotta call Mama and talk this over soon, I think.

I hate seeing the preoccupied look on Kels’ features, though. And I think I know how to get rid of it.

I wander over to my suitcase and unzip it. There, where I had hidden it yesterday, is the robin’s egg blue of a Tiffany bag. We may be on a story, we may be in NYC, we may be facing anthrax exposure, but, dammit, we’re gonna celebrate our first Christmas together properly.

Hiding it behind my back, I go over and sit beside Kels. “You okay?”

“You’d think it wouldn’t bother me anymore,” she sighs. “I’ve been browbeaten by that woman for thirty-two years now, and fought back for the last fifteen, and yet, she still can make me feel like crap.”

“It’s because you love her, despite it all. You’re her daughter.”

“Why couldn’t I have your mother?”

I smile and caress her cheek. “You can share mine, how’s that? And I’ll share yours. That’ll keep it from being quite so bad on you. How’s that for fair?”

She kisses my wrist. “I think you’re getting the short end of the stick. But, thank you.”

“Nah, you can’t thank me until you open this up.” Given the opening, I present the bag with a flourish. “Merry Christmas, Kels.”

She blinks and stares at the bag in her hands for a long moment. I’m almost afraid she’s going to start crying again. Instead, she jumps out of her chair and hurries over to her suitcase.

I really hope to hell she’s not leaving.

My fears are allayed when she turns around with a brightly wrapped box and hands it to me. “Merry Christmas, Harper.”

I take the box happily, glad she isn’t bolting, and glad she thought of me. This could be the best wrapped piece of gum and it wouldn’t matter. As long as she gave me something, it’s perfect.

“You first,” I urge.

She, for once, doesn’t argue. She removes a flat, square, black, velvet box from the bag and looks at me expectantly. “This isn’t …?” her voice trails off. She knows it’s not a ring, based on box size. I assume she’s protesting the cost. Doesn’t matter. I have more money than I can spend. And I like spending it on her.

She opens the lid and gasps, her hand goes to her throat, where the enclosed necklace will soon lay against her skin. “It’s gorgeous, Harper. Thank you.”

“You like?”

She nods and lifts it out of the box. It’s a sprouting diamond necklace, made of platinum, with two carat of total diamond weight. “Will you?” she asks.

“Be glad to.” I step behind her and clasp the necklace around her throat, letting it fall gently against her skin. Leaning forward, I can’t help but kiss the base of her neck.

I step back around and smile at the sight. “God, you’re beautiful.”

“Open yours,” she replies, blushing.

I obey her, ripping open the package, not caring about saving the wrapping paper. I have never understood that weird custom either. I’ve yet to see someone reuse the paper. So, why the hell go to all that work? What I find inside is a Rolex.

I’ve always loved these timepieces. I know instantly the model – it’s a Rolex President – with a platinum case and baguette diamond markers for the hours.

We have a theme here: platinum and diamonds.

Hopefully that means we’ll last until our diamond anniversary. I could handle sixty years with this woman.

* * *

“Je suis desoleé, Mama!” I hear her protest when I return to our room.

Oooh, somebody’s in trouble and is having to apologize. I laugh at her as I close the door. She tosses her hands in the air exactly the same way her mother did in New Orleans.

“We’re working!” She pauses and listens, holding the receiver away from her ear. “I know, I know. But you know how it is.” From the grimace Harper makes, I assume Mama doesn’t know how it is. “Yes, Mama, family comes first, second and last. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Je me suis bien trompeé.” She hangs her head. “You know I love you, Mama.”

I fall on the bed and try to muffle my laughter against the pillow. I’ve never seen such a hangdog expression on Harper’s face.

Harper reaches over and shakes me, using the waistband of my jeans to toss me around. I peek out to find her sticking her tongue out at me.

“Oui, Mama, Kels is here with me. You want to talk to her?”

I shake my head, she nods hers. Oh, I’m gonna hurt her.

“Attend, maman.” She shoulders the receiver. “Okay, you smart ass, get over here and take your medicine too. I already had mine.”

I push myself up on my elbows and take the phone from her. Harper, relieved to be off the firing line, leans back against the headboard, and stretches out her legs on the bed. Not being stupid, I crawl over and rest my head on her thigh. Immediately her hand is in my hair, stroking it. This is nice.

“Hi, Mama. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas to you, douce fille. How is my daughter treating you this Christmas day?”

“Very well, Mama. You should see the necklace she gave me. Ooo la la.” I feel Harper chuckle under me and she scratches the base of my neck.

“When are you and my baby coming home? It doesn’t feel like a holiday without you here. Robie is moping around without his playmate and we have a seat in the kitchen waiting for you.”

I laugh at the scene described. I wish we were there. “Soon, Mama. We just need to finish up this story. Maybe we can at least stop by on our way back to Los Angeles.” I roll over on my back and look up at Harper, to find her smiling and nodding enthusiastically. “We could take you and Papa and Robie and Rene out to dinner to celebrate the New Year.”

“Good. We’ll expect you soon then. You kiss my baby girl for me and tell her I love her.”

“Oui, Mama. Good-bye.” I hand the phone back to Harper who closes it and sets it on the nightstand.

“You’re going to spoil her,” she warns. “You give in once, you give in forever.”

“Oh, come here, baby girl,” I tease, holding open my arms. “Mama told me to give you a kiss.”

I’m sure she had a different kind of kiss in mind, but I believe in improvising.

* * *

Other than a few, small Christmas trees on an occasional desk, you wouldn’t know it’s a holiday. The FBI field office is an absolutely flurry of activity when Harper and I arrive. Of course, besides our own personal nut flake, there are several hundred others that they’re looking for as well. APB’s keep coming over the wire, getting sent out to agents in the field and distributed to local law enforcement. We could very well end up with two or three stories before it’s over.

A sad commentary on my profession: while I hope to God that everything goes smoothly, and the only things Harper and I cover are the end of the year and then each other, I really wouldn’t be heartbroken to get a nice piece out of the chaos either. I can’t help but chuckle to myself, now how warped does that sound?

Hope for the best. Expect the worst. And be there to get it on film when it happens.

As I take my seat at the desk Kyle provided for us, I glance over at Harper who is once again attached to her cell phone, ranting at poor Jims about something. She is totally amazing to watch. She can get things done using the cell phone that would put Kissinger to shame.

“Jims, you’re a bright kid, regardless of what you do to your hair. You’ll find a way.”

I watch her take that deep breath and hold it, before she lets it out slowly. Oh, he’s arguing with her. Dumb, Jimmy, just plain dumb, and you know it. I hope she keeps it down to a roar when she lets loose.

“Just do it!” She slams the cell shut. I think it’s her third one since she came to the station. They keep meeting an untimely demise at her hand.

I have discovered I do admire and love the way she works. She simply takes charge and gets things done. No questions, no arguments. Do it, and do it to her satisfaction, and you’ll be just fine. Do it wrong, and you will find yourself a permanent name on her list for a very long time. She has a long list and an even longer memory from what I can gather.

I’m absolutely sure that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her.

Wow. Who’d have ever thought this day would come? I am in love with Harper Lee Kingsley. And I’m not insane. Well, at least, I don’t think so. Of course, I don’t think most insane people realize they’re bonkers, but I digress.

I came to this definite conclusion at the bottom of our shower this morning. And now all I have to do is find the guts to tell her. I think. I mean, I guess she deserves to know. It’s just I don’t want her to panic. She told me she does that if she thinks about these things too much. But, Hell’s bells, I simply need to find a way without scaring her off.

I wonder what that would be. Because I can’t imagine one. This is a woman who has spent her entire life going from woman to woman. I’ve had five lovers in my life, she had five lovers last week. Well, not last week, but probably the week before Thanksgiving that was true. The fact that she hasn’t left me already is amazing in and of itself.

To talk about being in love … I don’t know.

She growls a little, crossing her arms and staring down at me, her cue that I haven’t been paying attention. Oops, that’s bad too. Focus, Kels, you have to make sure there is a later so you can tell her.

“Sorry,” I offer with a weak smile. “You were saying?”

“No, I was asking.” She settles down across from me, sitting backward in her chair like Kyle did. Much sexier look on her.

Stop it, Kels! Damn!

“Yes?” I lean back, playing with a pencil, rolling it between my fingers.

“If you wanted to spread anthrax, how would you do it?”

Kyle answers, arriving on the scene, taking a seat on the corner of the desk. “It’s best spread through the air, but you two probably already know that. Just thought I’d let you know that our teams have had two sightings of the nutty professor.”

“And?” I watch as she perks up immediately. She loves a hot story.

“He seems to be sightseeing. He’s been spending a lot of time at the Museum of Natural History, appropriately enough. He hasn’t made one furtive movement. Not yet, at least.”

“Well, he’s got a few days.” I lean forward resting my elbows on the desk tapping the pencil. “Maybe he’s trying to figure out the best way to deploy it.”

“Makes sense.”

She reaches out and takes my toy, laying it down next to me. I forgot she hates it when I do that. Nervous tic I picked up in college. I have a right to be nervous. I have a lot of reasons to be nervous. “Too damn bad the city is on high alert. I’d love it if you could snag him and bring him in for questioning,” she tells the agent without so much as a look in my direction.

“Me too,” Donovan agrees with a nod. “But, under the circumstances, until he does something to give us a reason there really isn’t anything we can do. Hell, every interview room I have here is already full.” He sighs, a very frustrated sigh. “I know the NYPD is having the same problem. And, from what I hear, Rikers is already so full they’re trying to figure out what they’re gonna be doing with everyone else they arrest this week.”

“Terrific. No place to put the bad little boys and girls.” Harper shakes her head.

“Right.”

“What about from an airplane or a blimp?” I offer, trying to get the conversation back on track with a little brainstorming, before my thoughts can deteriorate with that ‘bad little girls’ comment. I’d hate to start thinking about handcuffs and …

Argh! Stop it, Kels.

“Restricted airspace,” both Harper and Kyle offer at the same time, in the same bored tone. Smart asses.

“But what about those helicopter ride places in the city? How do they get around?”

Kyle shrugs. “Can’t hurt. We’ll show his picture at those places. Have them contact us if he tries to hire them.”

“Ventilation systems?”

“Covered.” Kyle shrugs and picks up my pencil. “Well, ladies, since there is no rest for the wicked, or the FBI, I need to get back to work. I’ll keep you posted. If you come up with anything, let me know.”

“No problem,” Harper agrees. “I think it’s gonna be a long couple days.”

* * *

“It annoys me, that’s all,” I say, sipping from the soda glass.

She nods, swallowing, before attempting to answer. “I know, but…” Her comment is cut short by the ringing of her cell phone.

I simply take another bite of my sandwich and wait, hoping its good news. The last few days have been frustrating as hell for us. Nothing like waiting for the end of the world.

“Kingsley.” It’s not Kyle, I can tell by the look on her face. “Well, of course, there would be contract issues in Los Angeles that would have to be cleared up.” She grins at me and lifts her eyebrows.

Oh boy, somebody is making her a better offer.

Oh shit.

They’re gonna offer her a fabulous job here in New York and she’s gonna take it. And if I tell her how I feel then, it’s gonna sound manipulative, like I’m trying to get her to stay with me. And if I don’t, she’ll leave and not know what this meant to me.

Why is my stomach dropping? I should be happy for her. She’s damn good at what she does. She deserves all the best. She should come to New York. She should be in the number one market.

Okay, Kels, buck up. Be a professional about this. You’re happy for her. You want her to have all the best. You’ve let go before. You can do it again and you can survive it again.

Remember how much it hurt the last time?

No. Don’t think like that. That was a long time ago, you’re stronger now, used to being alone. This is Harper. She deserves it, too. Just be ready to go on without her.

I try to choke down a little more of my food and not look as sick to my stomach as I feel.

She makes a few more comments then quietly snaps the cell shut. Well, that’s a first. I guess offering her a lot of money, power and prestige make her a happy camper and kind to electronics. She gives me a great big Cheshire Cat smile.

“Well, don’t you look pleased with yourself?” I hope I sound happy for her. I am happy for her. I just hate the crushing feeling in my own chest. A Mack truck didn’t park on top of me by any chance, did it?

“I am, thanks. It’s an incredible package, Kels. A major step forward. Of course, a few details need to be tweaked, but, otherwise, it’s golden.”

I reach out and pat her hand, trying to keep mine from shaking. “Congratulations.”

“Hey.” She keeps my hand. Obviously, I’m not doing the camouflage job I thought I was. “I never said I was taking it.”

“Don’t be silly. You should. These offers don’t grow on trees.”

“I know that, but….”

Interrupted again. This time by my cell. Christ. For once I’d like my world to fall apart without an interruption.

* * *

Okay, I have this terrific offer on the table. A chance of a lifetime, especially for someone my age. Senior Producer with CBS, working on their premiere news magazine. It means moving to New York. It means leaving Kels. Wonder if she’d move here with me? One of the networks has to want her here. They’d be crazy not to.

I take a drink of my coffee as she takes her call. She looks at me and gives me a ‘thumbs up’ sign. Seems like something is going well for her too. This is good. This is very good. I know she wants a spot in New York. Wonder if she’d be upset if I took one too?

Nothing says we come as a team. Nothing says we ever see each other if they do hire us both. Even if we’re at the same network. Unless it’s in her contract to work with me, I could be in Siberia for all it mattered. They’d pair her up with their more seasoned producers, give her exposure, a chance to work with their best. I’ll be producing real exciting stories like the National Spelling Bee.

We’ll be in Manhattan and never see each other again. This is the perfect city to lose someone in.

Like hell.

She’s crazy if she thinks I’m giving up so easily. We don’t necessarily have to work together, but I refuse to give up on us if we’are both living in New York.

Oh shit. Beth lives in New York. Maybe she’d rather be with Beth if she moves here. Maybe that’s why she wants to move here.

Damn.

No! I refuse to think like this. My Papa’s words, “Don’t you be scared, Harper Lee,” ring in my ears. Shut up and jump.

“I’ll have my agent give you a call. You’ll be hearing from her right after the New Year.” Kelsey smiles triumphantly at me. She hangs up, laying her phone down on the table. “CBS,” she says softly, “just made me a hell of an offer.”

Same network, thank God. “Was there ever a doubt, Little Roo? They know real talent when they see it.”

“Was that a dig?” she teases. ‘Talent’ is not a nice word in our profession.

“No way, sweetheart. You deserve it. It’s about damn time.”

“We should celebrate.”

“Absolutely. And we will, just as soon as we wrap our story.” The story that could be our last one together. God, suddenly, I’m not very hungry anymore. And I sure don’t want to celebrate.

* * *

We’re standing in the middle of Times Square, by TKTS, facing the building where the ball will drop later tonight. It’s already crazy here. The millennium extravaganza includes hourly celebrations as each time zone in the world enters the year 2000. There are seven huge television screens stretched out around us, hundreds of speakers blaring music, light towers illuminating every nook and cranny in the area, and already more people than I can tolerate in one space.

Right now, the Indian subcontinent is welcoming the New Year on the big screens. And, to mark this occasion, a twenty-two foot elephant is making its way down Broadway. It’s not a real elephant, of course, but a huge puppet, propelled by a dozen workers, and is rather interesting looking. Deafening the ears is an authentic soundtrack and cascading down from the surrounding building rooftops are red streamers. This is going to be a bitch to clean up. I hope the sanitation workers’ union negotiated triple time.

And I hate crowds. I’ve been jostled, pushed, bumped, hassled and grabbed one too many times in the short period we’ve been here. I’m carrying heavy camera equipment for our shoot, and I’m ready to kick the next person who even walks too close to me.

Kels is practicing her intro beside me, trying out different word combinations and inflections. I always enjoy hearing this. It’s interesting how a story comes together. In our industry, we can change a word or two and give a whole new meaning to what we’re covering. But, of course, as professionals, we’re unbiased. Yeah, right.

I stake out a spot that I like, and drop a couple bags of gear at my feet, marking my territory. Jims is with us, acting as my pack mule, and he’s complaining bitterly about the cold.

“We were happy in LA, Harper. Then you drug us to Texas, that wasn’t so bad. But, why did you have to bring us to New York City on the coldest day of the entire millennium?”

I roll my eyes. “I’ve had enough of the millennium crap, Olson. It’s not even until 2001. And don’t quote that Mulder line to me again.” I shake my finger at him. He and I love ‘The X Files’. We both watch it for Gillian Anderson. Wow. What a knockout.

“I meant this millennium, Harper,” he continues, interrupting my thoughts. “And I’m more than happy to come back here around 2001. Maybe by then global warming will have caught up with us.”

I take off my wool scarf and wrap it around his neck. “There. Be quiet.” I then pull a five dollar bill out of my wallet and thrust it into his hands. “Go over there and get us some coffee and Kels some tea.” I point to one of the numerous coffee and roll vendors dotting the sidewalks.

“Can I pour it on my hands?”

“Get going!” I growl playfully and give him a shove. He trots across the street to stand in line. With any luck, he’ll be back with it around midnight.

“I’m ready,” Kels announces, finally pleased with her narration.

“Great. Jims went to get us something to drink. I sure hope to hell that they catch the lesser professor soon. I sure don’t want to be here otherwise. I may be insane, but I ain’t stupid.”

She smiles at me, warming me better than the coffee will. “No, you’re not. If he’s not caught, I don’t see a need to stand here and expose ourselves just to get the exclusive.”

“No, chér, but I can think of other places we can expose ourselves.”

“Stop it!” She slaps my arm without any sting. “Now,” she begins scanning the surrounding buildings, “if you wanted to make a bunch of anthrax spores airborne, where would you do it?”

I shrug. “I might put them in the ball, so that when it dropped they’d be released.”

“FBI has someone stationed up there. Nothing is in it right now and nothing will get it,” Kels repeats SA Donovan’s earlier comments to us.

“Lots of rooftops around.”

“NYPD and FBI are on all of them, as well as the staging crew for this event. The whole Osama bin Laden organization has them worried. They figure he’s targeting three locales – Times Square, the National Monuments in DC, and the Space Needle in Seattle.”

“Damn. Couldn’t it be a Starbucks? I mean, what’s one less of them in the grand scheme of things.”

“Hey, I’m not a coffee drinker so it wouldn’t bother me.”

We share an easy laugh, enjoying these last few moments of relative peace before the evening really gets crazy. “You know how Iraq supposedly has enough of this stuff to kill every man, woman and child on the planet?”

“Yeah. You trying to scare me even more?”

“No, just thinking. How would Saddam deploy the shit?”

Kels shrugs, the answer obvious. “He supposedly builds it into the payload of the missiles. Some of the spores get burned up by the explosion, but enough are left to wipe out plenty.”

“The rockets’ red glare,” I confirm.

“Fireworks,” we say together.

“Same idea,” I continue. “Launch it up, and let people ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ while you poison their ass. The fireworks are sent up over the Hudson River, not four avenues from here. Just a little breeze and you’ve got two million infected.”

I’m not finished speaking when Kels is on her cell phone and speaking with SA Donovan about our hunch. This is gonna make a great Movie of the Week one day. Wonder who’s gonna star as me?

* * *

“You be careful,” she says to me for at least the fourth time while I check my gear.

“I will, Kels, you know that. I have a lot going right for me nowadays.”

“You keep telling yourself that, Tabloid. You’ve already got one great offer on the table and if you play your cards right, you might get another one tonight.” She leers at me. Damn, that’s cute.

“Is that so?”

“Oh, yeah.” She hands me a spare battery. When I grab onto it, she tugs it, and me, closer and whispers, “If you come back in the same condition you leave in, think: perfume, necklace, and a smile.”

“And that would be?”

“What I wear to bed tonight.”

Oh, I’m coming back in the same damn condition I’m leaving in. Hell, I might not leave with that kind of offer. But, I suppose I need to go save New York City. Ta-da-da-da! Super Harper to the rescue! All I need are tights and a cape – not! Jesus. What a weird world we live in.

Looking up into mist green eyes, I realize there’s something I need to get brave about as well. Just in case nut flake manages to infect us and I don’t make it back. I have to tell her. I need to make Papa proud. “Kels, I … ah …”

“Kingsley!” A male voice distracts me. I swing around to find two of NYPD’s Finest waiting for me.

“Be right there,” I call to them, then turn back to Kels. “I’ll be back before you know it,” I say, instead of what I should have.

Coward. You can face anthrax but you can’t say three little words.

Kelsey nods. I can see in her face she’s not happy, but she’s doing a good job of hiding it. She absolutely hates being left behind. That’s my Little Roo.

“Kingsley! Let’s go!” They yell again and I leave giving her a final smile.

* * *

Dumb, Stanton! Very fucking dumb. You should have said it, you should have told her. If she gets hurt and you haven’t told her, you’ll never forgive yourself.

But she’s not going to get hurt. She going to go get the greatest footage she’s ever shot and come back in one piece. Then she’ll take you back to the hotel and make love to you all night long.

“You ready, Kelsey?” Jimmy looks at me quizzically.

He hands me my mike so I can do some fillers while she’s gone. “Yeah. Let’s go to work, Jims.”

* * *

The cruiser to the FBI field office was cramped as hell, but the ride over in the back of the sedan to meet Donovan isn’t too bad. He’s already at the staging area. The agent driving me over tells me the latest intel. Apparently, the good professor hired a boat to go to the barge that holds all the fireworks for the display tonight.

Ah, it feels so damn good to be right.

The car comes to a halt and I climb out, gathering all my gear.

“Whoa!” a voice calls.

I turn to find Kyle. “Yeah?”

“Okay, before we do this, put this on.” He hands me a bullet proof vest. God, I’m glad Kels can’t see this. I slip it on over my head. “Next, we’re going to send in a NYPD SWAT team in chem suits first. Just in case he has an itchy trigger finger with the anthrax. When we get the all clear, we go in and you can go with us. Got it?”

“Yeah.” Not the way I would have chosen, but I guess I have to play by his rules tonight.

“Let’s go ahead and get on the boat.”

I shoulder the camera and start shooting, you never know what you’ll get. I find a nice spot near the front of the powerboat that gives me a really good view of the barge. I get some excellent footage of the SWAT team boarding before they’re out of sight.

I feel the engine fire up and our boat starts forward slowly. This is very good stuff, very dramatic. My footage coupled with Kels’ studio work will give us one hell of a story. I can feel my new starting salary growing with each frame shot.

I hear Kyle on his radio and we have the all clear to move in. Damn, that was surprisingly fast. I can’t imagine that nut flake simply surrendered.

I hear Kyle laughing a little and I turn around to see what’s so funny.

He makes his way up to me. “Just keep shooting. You are so gonna love this.”

We cross over to the barge in no time and step onto the platform. Several of the SWAT officers are talking to some civilians nearby. I zoom in and become intrigued by what they’re talking about. I wander over so the mike can pick up their conversation and Donovan follows me.

“This putz came over and tried to mess with our rig. He tried to pass himself off as a state firearms inspector, but, it’s goddamn clear he’s not from our state.”

That’s an understatement, buddy.

“So then what happened?” one of the cops asks.

“So, Vinnie and me told him to get lost before we shoved one of the firing shells up his ass. I mean, we’re working on a tight schedule here to get ready for this shoot, you know? Jesus, the amount of groundwork we gotta do to make this go off, and with it being the fuckin’ millennium, everyone is expecting something really big, ya know? So, we -”

The cop interrupts. “After you told him to leave, what happened?”

“He pulled out a thermos and threatened us with it.” Vinnie and the narrator exchange looks and burst into laughter. “I mean, what is he going to do with it? Scald us? Cream us to death?” More laughter and this time the cops join in.

“And then?”

The fireworks display operator gets serious. “Nobody threatens Eddie DeMarco and gets away with it.” He gestures with his chin, which is not insubstantial, “The punk’s over there.”

We are led over to an area near some large crates by one of the SWAT officers. They’re still wearing their chem suits which will provide dramatic footage, even though I don’t think they’re necessary anymore. Boys and their toys, I suppose.

“Ms. Kingsley, can you identify this man?” Kyle gestures to the figure at my feet.

As I pan the camera down, I find the good professor bound and gagged with duct taped. Oh, it’s gonna hurt like hell when they rip the duct tape away from that mustache.

“Yes, I can.” I nod, making a positive ID.

* * *

We’re alone in an editing bay as we wrap our exclusive.

“Tired?” Harper rubs my shoulders while I put the final voiceover track to bed on our story. It’s a damn good story, one of the best we’ve ever done.

“A little.”

“Want to go back to the hotel or do you want to go out into the madness? Our segment leads at eleven. We can still see the New Year in.”

“Well, I think with the proper persuasion, I could go out for a bit.” Actually, I’d kinda like to see the non-end of the world. And know that we were in some small way responsible.

“How does a semi-private seat for the best show of the end of the year sound?”

“Sounds pretty good.”

“After that, can I get a private seat for the best show of the New Year?” she whispers, her voice low and piercing through me.

“That can also be arranged.”

She leans down and gives my neck a little kiss. “You still planning on just wearing the necklace, perfume and a smile?”

“Un-huh.” I smile and nod. I hear her breathing catch, feel her fingers tighten on my shoulders.

“Oh boy.”

* * *

There are perks to helping the feds capture an insane cowboy bent on killing the New Year’s Eve partygoers. We are now nestled at the top of the Marriott Marquis, on the roof, overlooking Times Square. Also up here are a couple cops, a few feds and part of the staging crew for the festival.

They have confetti cannons rigged and are preparing to pelt the crowd below with almost three tons of the stuff in just a few minutes at the stroke of midnight. There are also a bunch of people getting ready to release globe shaped balloons.

All because of a fluke of a calendar. Amazing, really.

In the midst of all this madness, Kels and I have found a patch of vacant rooftop. We have a perfect view and while I should be freezing my ass off, I am quite cozy and content. I procured a big, wool blanket from one of the agents, and have wrapped it around us as we stare down at the mob below. Kels is nestled against me, her smaller frame resting tightly against mine. We’re a nice fit.

“So, how does it feel to have saved all of their lives?” I bellow into her ear in an effort to be heard. What will the noise level be like when the ball drops? Will I have any hearing left?

She runs her hands over my forearms, squeezing them through my thick jacket. “Not nearly as good as this does.”

“Liar,” I reply, “but nice.”

“We did good, Tabloid. I can already taste the Emmy or Peabody nomination. And, God, I love scooping all of them.” She gestures to the media scattered all around us – on the rooftops, on the ground, on the stage.

“It does feel good to be the best, doesn’t it? I can’t wait to tell Robie the whole story when we get there tomorrow night.”

“Do you have presents for your family yet, Harper?”

I give her a mock outraged look. “My God, woman! What do you think of me? Of course, I do. I did most of my shopping on-line. They’ve had the presents since after Thanksgiving.”

“Oh,” she replies, looking disappointed. What’s that about?

“What’s wrong, Little Roo?”

She shrugs. “I haven’t gotten them anything yet.”

Mama only wants you, but this is an easily solved problem. “New York is the shopping capital of the world, chér. I am sure we can pick them up something before we leave tomorrow.”

“Good. Thanks. I didn’t want to show up empty-handed.”

“Never. Besides, you have your hands full with me,” I tease.

Her unhappiness dissipated, Kelsey laughs and squeezes my hands. “Ain’t that the truth.”

“Ten!” the crowd below us bellows.

I look up and see the ball sliding inexorably downward. It’s quite the sight to behold. It’s made of Waterford Crystal and has over six hundred light bulbs, ninety-six strobe lights and ninety rotating mirrors in it. Nearly blinding in its intensity, it dazzles the eye.

“Nine!”

“Amazing, huh?” I shout.

“Eight!”

“What?” she replies.

“Seven!”

“Beautiful!” I try again.

“Six!”

“Sure.”

She obviously didn’t hear me.

“Five!”

“I said, it’s beautiful!”

“Four!”

“It is, yes.”

“Three!”

“Gorgeous,” she confirms. She heard me this time.

“Two!”

Ah, what the hell? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. “I love you!”

“One!”

“What?”

This just isn’t our day. “Happy New Year, Kels!”

This she hears. Go figure. “Happy New Year, Harper!”

And I kiss her.

What a nice way to start the millennium.
Episode Twenty-Two: Let’s Give ‘Em Something To Talk About
“Excuse me, little sister?”

“Yes?” I turn around to find Robie behind me with Clark in his arms. He doesn’t even hesitate, he just hands me the baby. I’ve trained him well. I cradle my nephew close, inhaling his clean baby scent, and continue to watch Kels with Rene and Christian. Little Christian is tearing into the presents Kels brought for him. She’s spoiling my entire family.

“Good Lord, Harper, what in the hell is that?” He taps my wrist, where Kels’ Christmas present to me is proudly displayed.

“That, big brother, should be obvious. Christian, c’mere!” I call my older nephew over, kneeling down to show him my wrist. “Tell your Daddy what that is.”

He looks at it, then up to his father. “A watch.” With that he turns and runs back to Kels and Rene. He knows where the good stuff is. I stand back up, careful with little Clark as I do.

“See, even your son knows what it is,” I tease. “Maybe Kels should have brought picture books for you too.”

“Har, har, but what kind of a watch?”

“A wrist watch. If it were a pocket watch, it’d be in my pocket.”

“Oh, very funny.” He nudges me. “So you’ve moved into the expensive jewelry phase?”

I let my head drop, brush my lips against Clark’s downy head. “Want to take a walk, Robie?”

“Yeah, let me get Clark a jacket. It’s a bit too chilly for him.”

We bundle up the littlest member of the Kingsley family and put him in a snuggle pack. I insist on carrying him. Robie gets to enjoy him all year round. Besides, holding him makes me feel better, for whatever reason.

We slip out onto the Avenue and begin walking. The air is crisp, but the sky is clear, making it a beautiful day to be outdoors.

“So, what’s going on, Harper?” Robie finally asks after several blocks of silence. I’m surprised he lasted that long.

“How did you know Rene was the one?”

He chuckles. “Nothing like getting to the point, eh?” He reaches out and touches Clark’s hair, as if wanting some physical connection with a part of Rene. “I don’t know, Harper. I just kinda knew. And, well, of course, Mama told me.”

We both laugh. “Mama is a piece of work. Between her and the kitchen conspiracy, I may not have a choice in the matter.” I poke him in the shoulder. “And, you played your part over Thanksgiving, too.”

He mock stumbles a few steps. “Well, you didn’t seem to be getting a clue on your own. And, being your favorite brother, I felt I had an obligation to lend a hand, so to speak.”

“Thanks, Robie. I’m glad you did.”

“In answer to your question, though, there was one thing I did that helped.” At my encouragement, he continues. “I tried to imagine my life without Rene. And, when I began physically hurting from that thought, I decided I needed to do something to keep her from leaving.”

“Sure it wasn’t just gas?” He whacks me on the back of the head. “Hey! Careful! I’m carrying your kid, for God’s sake.”

“If it was gas, it’s stayed around for almost four years now.” My brother gives me a huge smile, the one that caused all the co-eds to swoon before Rene staked out her claim. “It’s going to be fine, Harper. It’s scary as hell, I know. But, if you love her, it’s worth it.”

“There are some new issues.” Robie doesn’t ask what they are. He waits for me to tell him, or not. “I’ve been offered a job in New York: Senior Producer for Exposure, CBS’ lead news magazine.”

“Congratulations!” He claps me on the back. “That’s a big step forward, right?”

I shrug. “It’s the next step, that’s for sure. Kels got an offer there too.”

Robie squints and thrusts his hands in his jeans. “I guess I’m failing to see the problem. New York City is a lot better place to live than LaLa Land.”

“Nothing says we’re doing this together. We both received independent offers. I may take it, but she might not. We might both take it, and never see each other in New York.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” He grabs my arm and drags me to a stop.

“Just that.”

“Have you two talked about it?”

“Sure.”

“No,” he corrects. “I mean, have you talked about it? Have you told her you don’t want to lose her?”

“It’s her life, Robie. She needs to make the best decisions for her own career.”

“T’es vachement difficile, just like Mama says.” He spins me around and starts marching us back to the house. “You’ve never backed down from anything and now some petite blonde has you running scared. Who’d have thought?”

“Hey!” Only Mama gets to call me hard-headed.

“Shut up! We’re going back there and you’re going to take your girl and go have a little heart to heart chat. I mean, it’s about damn time. How long have you been sleeping with her?”

“Robie!”

“How long? Since Celebration in the Oaks?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a little late, but I think there’s still hope for you. At least, there will be by the time Mama is through with her.”

* * *

Well, I now have what I wanted while I was in New York. I am comfortably seated on what apparently has been designated as my chair in the kitchen, eating the most sinful cheesecake known to man, and having a decent cup of tea. Mama and the sisters surround me. The smaller children are either playing at our feet or are asleep in their car seats, with the exception of Clark. Tante Harper isn’t giving him up anytime soon. Harper and her brothers, along with the older children, have been properly banished to another section of the house.

I love this.

“Give!” Rachel orders from her spot at the table.

I know I look confused. “Give what?”

I hear an evil little chuckle leave Rene as she takes her seat next to me, leaning over. “Details.”

I’m about to choke on the cheesecake. “Details?”

Mama laughs. “Child, do you always answer a request with a question?”

“No. I’m just not sure what you mean by details.” Actually, I’m afraid I know all too well what they mean. The heat from my face certainly confirms my fear.

“Details,” Elaine says, lifting her brows at me, as if merely repeating the word clarifies things. “You know.”

Ah, what the hell? This doesn’t appear to freak them out. I guess I shouldn’t let it freak me out. Although, the fact that Harper’s mother is sitting here should be more than enough to do so. I can’t even imagine having a conversation like this with my mother present. Or even in the same state. “Oh, you mean like what does she wear to bed?”

“That’s a start.” Katherine laughs, pouring a cup of coffee. “We’ll get to juicier details soon enough.”

“Well, lately, not much.”

The table erupts in a round of laughter, which only causes my blush to deepen. God, I am so bad at this. I never had many girlfriends to do ‘girl talk’ with growing up. But, I must admit, this is rather enjoyable. I’m sure I’ll get used to it. It doesn’t do much for my condition when the subject of the conversation pokes her head in the door. I can’t help but allow my smile to widen.

“Is it all right for me to come in?”

“Is it ever all right?” Rene chastises, pointing with her fork. “You know better. Go away.”

Everyone laughs again.

“Ah, Ren, we’re starving to death out here,” Harper protests.

“No, you’re not,” I correct, rising to meet her in the doorway. “You just had lunch. You’re being nosey.” I take her by the arm and walk out into the hallway with her.

She pulls me into her arms, staring down at me with one lifted brow. “Yeah? So what if I am? I heard the laughter. What do you people talk about in there?”

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Now go back and join your brothers.” I lean up, giving her chin a little kiss.

This obviously isn’t good enough, because she tilts her head, capturing me in a kiss that leaves me breathless and weak-kneed. “I’ll torture it out of you later,” she whispers against my lips.

“No, you won’t. I’ll never tell.”

She kisses me again. “We’ll see.” She turns serious. “Any chance I can sneak you away from the girls in a little bit?”

“Sure. What’s up?” My heart starts to flutter, but I will it to stop. I can’t imagine she brought me to her family’s home to break up with me.

“I want to ravish you. And I don’t want an audience.”

I flush again. I seem to do that a lot in this house. “Oh.”

“Remember that comfy bed upstairs?”

I most certainly do. Best damn bed in the world. Of course, I liked what we were doing in it a bit more. “Soon,” I promise. The only reason I don’t drag her to it right now is because I was raised with manners. “Now go.” I break away, turning her around in the hallway and giving a little shove.

“Yes ma’am,” I hear her grumble before I turn to go back in the kitchen.

When I do so, I find Rene, Rachel, Elaine and Katherine peeking out, with huge smiles on their faces.

“You’re all evil,” I tease, and push past them to return to the kitchen.

So this is what it means to be part of a family? I think I’m going to do whatever I have to do to hold onto this.

As we settle back into our seats, Mama just shakes her head at all of us, looking very pleased and very proud.

“Happy?” I inquire softly, reaching out to gently touch her hand.

“Very. My table is complete now.” She sweeps her hand around the table, taking in each of the sisters, and me, as well.

“And if Mama is happy,” Rene begins.

“Everyone is happy,” the rest of them help finish her sentence.

* * *

Harper and I don’t get a chance to slip away at all during the day. This family likes to be together. And, since they don’t get to see her as often as they want, they were loath to let us sneak upstairs. We did try once, and got as far as the fourth stair, when little Danielle once again announced what we were doing to the family.

I gotta talk to that kid sometime.

So, now, finally, all the family have left to their own homes. Mama and Papa have not so subtly shooed us out of the living room, telling us we look tired. Maybe I could have Mother meet Mama. That would do her in for sure.

Once we get inside my – our? – room, Harper tackles me onto the bed. She straddles my hips, tickling me mercilessly. “Talk!” she orders playfully.

I place a kiss on her arm, which earns me a little growl. “Grump,” I tease.

“You can tell me,” she mutters. She stops tickling me and stretches out beside me, keeping one long arm snug around my waist.

“No, I can’t. It’s a clause in my contract, total non-disclosure.”

“Contract?”

“Oh yeah, didn’t you know? Mama has a full contract you have to sign when she gives you a seat in the kitchen.” I giggle a little, pulling away from her to look in her eyes.

“Right.” She sounds doubtful.

“That’s what you get when you have so many lawyers in the family.”

She frowns, and looks remarkably like her nephew Christian when she does so. “It’s a conspiracy.”

“Not anymore. It was a conspiracy. Now it’s just girl talk.”

“Oh God.” Her arms flop down to the bed, giving me the perfect opportunity to crawl on top of her. This is a chance I don’t pass up.

“Now, come on, Tabloid. You mean to tell me that your brothers aren’t doing the same thing to you?”

“No. They aren’t that nosey.” Her hands come back to me, beginning a soft massage of my back through my T-shirt.

“Really? So what have they said?”

She snorts. “Let’s see. Gerrard said: ‘About damn time.’ Lucien gave his usual insightful comment: ‘She’s damn cute.’ Jean followed that up with: ‘We got any more damn beer?’ And that was the end of it.”

I laugh, imagining the scene. But one brother, the most important one, wasn’t mentioned. If I don’t meet Robie’s approval, I don’t stand a ghost of a chance. “And Robie?”

“He said: ‘damn lucky.’ And he was right.”

If I’m going to say it, I had better say it now before we end up doing other things. Because, I really want to do other things. All night long. Despite the fact her parents are here in the house. “Harper, I -”

“Kels, I -” she says at the same time.

We both laugh. “Jinx,” I whisper.

“Ladies first,” Harper replies, squeezing me gently.

Okay, it’s now or never. “I love you.”

Her hands stop their movement and I feel her go taut under me. Oh God, did I just screw up? Please, please, no! Let this be all right. Please.

She releases a deep breath and replies, “Jinx.”

* * *

I am a total jerk.

Picture a jerk, and you’ll see me. Big as life. Smiling stupidly.

“Jinx.” What the hell kinda reply is that? I mean, did I see the movie ‘Ghost’ one too many fucking times? At least I didn’t say ‘ditto.’ I’d have to kill myself then.

I’m a coward.

I should ask Kels if she can find any feathers on my body.

“God, Harper, that was wonderful,” the subject of my thoughts sighs, snuggling up against me.

I wrap my arms around her, pulling her tight against me. It was amazing, but, every time with her is. She is simply inspirational.

And I am simply a jackass.

She kisses the base of my throat. Once. Twice. Three times. “What’s wrong?” she asks, concern coloring her voice.

“What?” I play dumb. Not hard. I am dumb.

“Harper, something is obviously bothering you. I know how you usually react to me.” She starts to pull away from me.

I won’t let her go. I roll us over, so I am looking down at her. Gently, I comb her hair back from her face. Her skin is still damp from our lovemaking, her lips bruised from my kisses. “I owe you an apology.”

“You do?”

I nod and summon up all my courage. This is ridiculous. It shouldn’t be this hard. “I do. A little while ago when you said you loved me …”

“Yes?” she purrs, I suppose recalling what we did immediately after that particular declaration. “You certainly don’t have anything to apologize for. At least, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Well, of course not,” I counter, needing to keep up my reputation.

“So why do you owe me an apology?”

“Because I didn’t tell you how I felt. Not really.” I close my eyes and draw a deep breath. When I open them again, all I see is her gentle gaze. “I am so in love with you I can’t think straight. I get scared because I’ve never felt this way, with anyone. Outside of my family, I’ve never even said ‘I love you’ to anyone. Ever.”

“You don’t have to be afraid of me, Harper.”

“I love you, Kelsey Diane Stanton.”

I am rewarded with the sweetest kiss of my lifetime.

* * *

Harper is sound asleep next to me, her arm draped over my waist. We spent most of the night making love, really making love. Not that the other times weren’t. It’s just that this time it was different, more intense, more real. I guess it has something to do with the fact we both finally found the courage to admit how we feel.

It is a wonderful feeling too.

I have to share it with my best friend in the world. I glance over at the clock. Oh, who cares if it’s only four a.m. in L.A.? I sure don’t.

I manage to slide out of Harper’s grasp, getting a grumpy protest, but she sleeps through it. As I pull on my robe, I lean over and give her a little kiss. Damn, this feels good. I’m going to enjoy this for the rest of my life.

I make my way downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and give old Erik the wake up call of his life. The little shit better be home.

Settling down with my tea and the phone, I punch in the never ending stream of numbers that make up my home phone number and my calling card number. I remember when making a damn phone call was easy.

It rings about three times before his very groggy voice is heard on the other end.

“Somebody better be dead,” he growls. His voice is about an octave deeper in the morning and sounds like sandpaper running over plywood.

“And good morning to you, too, Sunshine.”

“Jesus, Kels, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“Six a.m.”

“What part of the fucking world are you in?”

“New Orleans.”

“Again? Geez, you’re spending a lot of time there.”

“Yes, and I would imagine I’ll be spending a great deal of time in my future here too.”

“That good?”

“Better than good. It’s great.” I pause and then speak the words I never expected to say again. And certainly not with Harper as the object of the sentence. “I’m in love, Erik.”

“I know, sweetheart. I’m happy for you. So how’s old Harper doing?”

Old Harper? This is a new development. It almost sounds like he can tolerate her presence in my life. “She’s great. She’s better than great she’s … umm …”

“Phenomenalwonderfulsuperb.”

“All right, you little shit, knock it off!”

His laughter is music to my ears. “I’m happy for you, Kels. I really am.”

“She loves me too,” I tell him. It makes it more real when someone else knows, I think. “She told me that last night.”

“No shit! She said that? She really said the three dreaded words.”

“Loud and clear.”

“Damn. Well, congratulations, Kelsey Stanton. You tamed Harper Kingsley.”

“I hope to hell not.” I laugh. “Personally, I’m rather fond of her wild side.”

“Hot monkey sex?” He adds a little chimp noise at the end of his question.

“The hottest,” I confirm. I can still feel her touch from last night. I think her handprints are seared onto my skin. Those are the kind of tattoos I don’t mind having.

“Ooo must be nice.”

“It is.” And now that it’s been mentioned … hmm … time to get off the phone. “Listen, there are lots of other fun and exciting developments I want to fill you in on, but not right now.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, wake me up at four in the morning and then go have sex. Thanks, Kels, love you too.”

I chuckle, surprised at how deep the sound is coming from me. Oh my. She is inspiring. “I’ll see you tomorrow. When I get home, we’ll go out and celebrate.”

“Absolutely.”

“I love you, Erik.”

His voice is gentle and warm, just like his heart. “Love you too, Kels. Be careful and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Hanging up the phone, it strikes me as funny that I had no desire to fill him in on the New York offer, only my relationship with Harper. Maybe my priorities are shifting. Or maybe a couple million dollars a year isn’t competition for really good sex.

Oh well. Change is good. In this case, very good.

Off to the bedroom.

* * *

I bound down the stairs and hustle into the kitchen. Mama is cooking at the stove. “Couri pas dans la maison,” she scolds.

No running indoors. Some things never change. “Morning, Mama.” I squeeze her around the waist and plant a wet kiss on her cheek.

“Oh, someone had a good night last night.”

“Mama! Stop that!” I release her. “Do you want me to be in therapy for the rest of my life? I mean, can you not be open-minded about one thing in life?”

“Ah, shush. Other people pray to have parents like your Papa and I,” she says this with a smile to take the sting out of her words. It transforms into an evil smirk. “And you have nothing to be embarrassed about from what I understand.”

I groan. It just gets worse.

She laughs at me. “We already had breakfast. Other people had more reason to stay in bed. But, I made some beignets for you two.”

“Mais, oui.”

“Take some up to your girl. But don’t ruin your appetite. I’m making a big lunch for us. Will you two be able to come down for it?”

“If we can still walk, yes.” Two can play at this game.

“Practice makes perfect. I’m sure you’ll get it right soon enough.”

Gotta remember not to play with Mama.

* * *

We’re seated on the floor in front of the fireplace. Well, actually, I’m seated on the floor, Kels is sprawled all over me. She’s a bit exhausted. I snicker, proud of myself. I’ve barely been able to get her to drink her tea or eat the beignets Mama made. The latter part doesn’t bother me. I could eat a dozen of these without blinking an eye. “Kels, you awake?”

“No.”

I laugh softly, causing her to bounce about on my chest.

“Stop it, bad mattress,” she chides, slapping my side.

“We can’t sleep all day.”

“Sure we can, we didn’t sleep last night,” she mutters and attempts to fluff my breast like a pillow.

“Stop that!” I protest. The woman is insane. “We have places to go, people to see.”

“Where are we going to go, Tabloid?”

I summon up my courage once again. Based on my track record so far, I’m doing well. But, this one has the potential to really hurt. “I was thinking New York.”

I feel her become a bit more alert. “Yeah?”

“I want to take the job CBS is offering me.”

“Okay.” Her voice suggests that this is anything but okay.

I lift her jaw so that our eyes meet. “I want us to go together, Little Roo. I don’t want to lose this, lose you.”

“Oh. You don’t?”

I frown, confused. How have I been unclear? “Hell, no. Do I look stupid?”

“No, I’ve never thought you looked stupid.”

“Don’t you want to go to New York with me, Kels?” I can feel my heart stop beating as it waits for her reply.

She sighs and burrows down into me once more. “Of course I do.”

Blood begins pumping once more. “We need to have your agent negotiate it then. If it isn’t part of your contract for me to be your executive producer, it won’t matter if we’re both on Exposure.”

“We’ll call Foster together later today.” Kelsey kisses the spot where my shoulder has a little indent.

“Foster?”

“My agent. Foster McGovern. She’s with Phillip Morris in New York. I’ve been with her for a couple years now. She’s great, ruthless in negotiating.”

“Good, I like that in a woman.”

Kels nips my skin. “Well, don’t like it too much.”

She’s got a point, given my reputation. “I won’t, chér. I seem to be a bit preoccupied with a certain blonde nowadays. She’s got me to where I can’t tell if I’m coming, going, or standing still.”

“Well, recently, you’ve been coming a lot,” she teases and squeezes me tight. “‘Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today,’” Kels begins singing softly.

Oh, what the hell, at least it’s not a Kermit song. “‘I want to be a part of it – New York, New York.’” I can sing too.

My Little Roo is waking up a bit more. Her voice gets stronger, “‘These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray.’”

“‘Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York,’” I continue. We both join in on the next section, struggling to keep from dissolving into laughter. “‘I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep. And find I’m king of the hill – top of the heap.’”

Okay, we’re losing it now. Somehow one of us manages to sing at least one of the words in the next section, making for a very broken harmony, but a very good time. “‘These little town blues, are melting away. I’m gonna make a brand new start of it – in old New York. If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you – New York, New York.’”

I nearly die when I hear applause coming from outside our bedroom door. “Encore!” Mama calls.

Kelsey groans and collapses against me once more. “Welcome to the family, darlin’,” I whisper. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

“No, it doesn’t, Harper; no, it doesn’t.”

* * *

Mama announces through the bedroom door that if we have enough strength to sing, we have enough strength to come down for lunch. Even though it means giving up my spot on my new mattress, I agree and nudge Harper into agreeing as well. However, we do make it clear a shower is required first.

Right when she is about to join me, Mama actually sticks her head in the bathroom causing poor Harper to nearly go through the roof. Mercifully, I am already safe in the shower, hidden by the opaque shower curtain. I stand under the warm water and snicker at her distress.

“Harper, there is a phone call for you from Los Angeles, a Detective Brice. He’s says it’s urgent.” She exits, much to Harper’s relief.

I stick my head out of the shower. “Why would Bear be calling you here, Tabloid?”

“Dunno.” She shrugs, pulling on a robe. “I’m sure it’s nothing, Kels. You finish your shower and I’ll see what he wants. My poker check probably bounced, that’s all.” She laughs, trying to hide the anxiety in her voice.

“Yeah, right. I’m coming with you.” I get out, toweling off quickly and throwing on a robe in order to follow her to our room. I lean against the doorframe, while she takes a seat on the bed, picking up the extension.

“Yeah, Mama, I got it. Thanks. Hey Bear, what’s up?”

Harper smiles at me as she listens to him. I know that smile. That’s the ‘Oh, this is bad, but I can’t let Kels know it’ smile. I don’t intend to tell her I’ve figured that one out. It’s way too useful.

“Yeah, I understand.” She swallows hard. “We’ll be back in L.A. tomorrow. Bear, Kels and I are thinking of making a move to New York. That should stop him, right?”

I knew it. This has something to do with my stalker.

“Hmm. Just as soon as we can.” She extends her hand to me. When I take it, she pulls me down on the bed next to her, holding me so close I’m in danger of becoming part of her. “All right, I’ll tell her. Keep me posted.” She drops the receiver back onto the cradle then her other arm wraps around me. Her reaction is worrying me more than anything else.

“What?” I can barely whisper it.

“I don’t know where to start, Kels. It’s bad news all the way around.”

“Just tell me.”

“There’s been another murder.”

“Oh God!” I feel sick. She holds me close. I know I’m shaking now. How can the sick bastard do this? These girls, they’re dying because they look like me.

“They,” she pauses, then tries again, “they found this one in Santa Monica, locked in the trunk of a car.”

“The trunk of a car?” I pull back a bit. “Harper, that’s different from anything he’s ever done before. Are they sure it’s him?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid so, Kels.” She pauses again. I don’t like this at all. “It was your car.”

“What?”

“He stole your car from your apartment’s garage. Then he apparently put the body in the trunk, drove it to Santa Monica, and set it on fire.”

I’m going to be sick now. I promptly head to the bathroom and close the door behind me.

* * *

Harper’s family must be wondering what in the hell she has gotten herself into. She decided since Bear called here, we need to give the latest news to her family. She knows Mama is not going to let us out of the house without an explanation.

“We could lie to them and tell them it was for a story,” I offer quietly, tying the laces on my sneakers.

“Have you figured out nothing, Little Roo?” She kneels in front of me, smiling and trying to bring me out of my funk. “You don’t try to lie to Mama because she’ll catch you every time.”

“Harper, when you tell them this, they are going to demand…”

“That we do whatever is necessary to keep you safe, and an explanation about why they weren’t told sooner. They love you, Kels, get used to it.” She leans in, giving me a very gentle kiss. Staying with me after, our foreheads touching, she continues, “We’ll get through this together.”

“He wants me, Harper.”

“He can’t have you, Kelsey. I got dibs.” She grins a little. She’s not making light of the situation, she’s just being supportive. It’s a wonderful feeling to know I’m not alone, because I’m scared as hell. “But, right now, we need to go fill in my family. My brothers are already downstairs. Papa called them the moment Mama told him there was a problem. Never accuse the Kingsleys of waiting until the last minute to get involved.”

“Wouldn’t think of it.” I try to smile, for her at least. I know I don’t feel like smiling.

I’ve lost track of how many women have died because they look like me. And he’s taken further action by stealing my car. Not that the car means anything, but, my God, he was that close to my home. Hell, for all I know he was stealing the damn thing while I was on the phone with Erik.

I need to call Erik and warn him. “Erik…,” I whisper as we head down the steps. “I need to call Erik.”

“Honey, Erik is fine. Bear went up to check on the condo after they found your car. He talked to Erik and filled him in. He’s okay.”

“Thank God.” I’d never forgive myself if something happened to him because of me.

We make our way into the kitchen. Mama immediately guides me to the table, placing a cup of tea in front of me, then places a kiss on my temple as her hand strokes through my hair. “Are you all right, ma petite?”

“I’m fine, Mama. Thank you.”

She settles down next to me, never releasing my hand, listening intently as Harper stands behind me, filling everyone in on what’s going on. I block it out. I can’t listen to it again.

“I don’t see why you cannot simply stay here until this monster is caught,” Mama says, bringing me back into the conversation. “Kelsey would most certainly be safe in this house.”

“We can’t hide, Mama,” Harper sighs, her hands massaging my shoulders.

Papa nods. “That’s the problem: once you start running, you never stop. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be extremely cautious. This one has plans, that’s for sure.”

“Do you have police protection arranged?” Robie asks.

“Ever since they found the fibers, yes. One of my buddies is on the LAPD, and we have the head of the Threat Management Unit working on the case too. We just don’t have protection while we’re on the road. He doesn’t seem to follow us on our stories. He’s local and staying local.”

“Makes sense, from his point of view,” Jean mutters.

“It makes no sense at all,” Mama disagrees. “Comin’ after this little one makes no sense at all.” I feel her hand making broad strokes across my back. It’s very soothing. My own mother never touched me like this.

“Is the FBI involved?” Gerrard inquires.

“They are. But, we’ve never talked to them,” Harper explains, taking a seat next to me and wrapping her arms around me. God, it feels good to be able to sink into her arms without worrying what the people around us are thinking.

“Why not?” Mama is indignant.

“The link between my stalker and the killer was only recently made,” I tell her, trying to get involved, instead of sitting here like an idiot.

“Gerrard, can’t you do something?” Mama is almost acrimonious toward him with her request. I have to chuckle a little into Harper’s shoulder. That’s what he gets for being a judge.

“I will, Mama. I have some friends in the Bureau. I’ll give them a call and find out what I can.” Gerrard excuses himself from the table and goes into the living room to make the phone call.

“I’d like to see him come down here and try something.” Robie leans back in his chair, crossing his arms. “He’d have to go through every one of us to get to Kelsey then.”

“Robie, don’t go all macho Cajun on me,” Harper tells him. “This is one scary psycho and I don’t want any of us near him. For any reason.”

“He knows I’ll come back to LA eventually. He doesn’t need to go anywhere. He can do it at his time on his own terms.” I shake my head to help the shiver pass that runs down my spine at the mere thought of what he has in store for me.

Harper’s hold on me increases and she places a soft kiss to my hair. “Sweetheart, nothing bad is going to happen to you, I swear it. They’re gonna catch this sick son-of-a-bitch and lock him away for ever and ever.”

“Amen,” Mama intones. Guess Harper’s swearing is okay in this context.

I really like being a part of this family. I hope I live long enough to enjoy it.
Episode Twenty-Three: Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me
I hear the elevator doors slide open and glance at my watch. Harper isn’t due back for another two hours. I didn’t miss the buzzer, did I?

“Erik, hon, are you expecting someone?” I call across the hall to his room. Since he’s leaving for a well-deserved vacation in the Bahamas, it might well be his most recent ‘personal assistant.’

God, I’m glad I’ve never seen anyone’s name in quotes like that about me. I’d have to give up women. Well, maybe. Actually, that article really pissed me off. With everything that’s going on in my life right now, we don’t need the stress of some ass trying to ‘out’ Erik.

Even Harper, who is so out, agrees with me. In order to help the public image, while she went to The Rio to play cards the other night, Erik and I made an appearance at a trendy restaurant in Hollywood. We were followed, of course, very discreetly, by a couple of Bear’s friends on the force. Harper had her cell phone on at the game, despite the usual protocol, in case anything happened while we were out. Apparently it did little for Harper’s concentration and she lost close to a hundred dollars.

I made it up to her later.

Erik comes down the hallway and signals for me to be quiet. He pushes me back in my room and pulls the door closed.

Somehow, I don’t think it’s his new boyfriend.

I head for the phone to call the police. I pick up the receiver and punch in 9-1-1. It’s when I wait for the operator that I realize the line is dead.

Oh shit!

I need my cell phone. Where is it? Where the fuck did I put it?

Purse. It’s in my purse. In the goddamn living room. God, I swear I’ll start picking up after myself if you don’t let anything bad happen.

Harper. Where are you? I need you.

Erik. Are you all right? Why are you playing hero? Isn’t that why there’s a cop sitting in my foyer? Why isn’t he doing something?

Or can’t he?

Suddenly my claustrophobia rolls over me. I gasp, clutch my chest and try to remove the boulder, which must have landed on it. My heart might explode any moment.

I press my ear against the door and listen. All I hear is the blood pumping in my body. How do they get this to work in the movies? Jesus. This is bad.

I can’t leave Erik out there alone.

I pull the door open and listen again.

Nothing.

I step out and peek down the hallway.

Nothing still.

That’s good, I suppose, but it feels really bad. I just need to get to my cell phone. I’m gonna chain that thing to me in the future. I’m sorry for every bad thought I’ve ever had about it in the past.

I move down the hallway slowly, cautiously. Erik’s door is closed and I don’t even want to open it. Who knows what could be behind it?

When I reach the end, I see Erik’s stocking feet sticking out by the couch. No, no, no. This can’t be happening. God, let this be a dream, please.

I race to Erik and drop by his side. I see the little red dart sticking out of his shoulder. Pulling it out, I check him for a pulse.

He’s alive, thank God.

Okay, that’s good. Now, I just need to find my cell phone and we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. We’re going to be fine.

I move over to the chair and dump the contents of my purse. Where in the hell is my phone? I know it was in here. I know it.

“Looking for this?”

Oh God.

I turn and see him standing there, holding my cell phone in his hand. A thousand thoughts come to my mind, but none make it past my lips before I hear the ‘puff’ noise and feel the stab. I look at the dart sticking out of my thigh.

It’s almost like it’s in someone else’s body, that’s how unreal this whole scene is to me. This is just a nightmare. I’ll wake up soon in Harper’s arms. Everything is going to be just fine.

I reach for the dart to remove it. If I take it out, the nightmare will end, I know. My vision is already cloudy and the room is spinning.

Harper, I’m sorry.

* * *

I press the buzzer.

I know the old guy who runs this thing is slow, but this is ridiculous. I mean, doesn’t he realize I want to get upstairs to Kelsey? I hated leaving earlier today, but I had errands I needed to run. And my Harley had to be driven. What use is all that power if I only have it sit in my garage all the damn time? I need to get Kels a leather jacket and a helmet so we can go out cruising together. It may be the only way she can have her hands on me in public.

I snicker. Kinda like that godawful movie ‘Grease 2’ which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and that flash-in-the-pan Maxwell Caufield. He was some geek loser until he got himself a bike, something I never suffered from. I think the big song about him was ‘Cool Rider.’ Oh, did I want to give Michelle a ride when I saw that movie.

Now I have my own cute blonde. And, oh, do I want to give her a ride.

I buzz the penthouse again and wait … again.

What the fuck is wrong with this guy?

Crap. What if something is wrong? Terribly wrong.

Kelsey.

I snag my cell phone off my belt and speed dial Bear’s number. Come on, buddy, have your cell with you. And have it turned on.

“Brice here.”

Two of the sweetest words I’ve heard today. “Bear, Harper. I’m standing down in the lobby of Kels’ building and I’m not getting a fuckin’ answer upstairs. Don’t you have a man up there?”

His voice is immediately alert. “Yeah, we do. Let me try and reach him. Hold on.” I hear him grab his radio and try to get through to the cop stationed in the apartment.

I know there won’t be an answer.

Even as I wait for Brice to confirm my fears, I am moving to the security desk where the guard has just returned from his rounds. I rap on the wood. “Do you have a key to the service elevator and the fire door to the penthouse?”

My question surprises him and he blinks at me. “Yeah, but…”

That’s all I need to hear, buddy. “Give them to me!” I bark.

“I can’t.”

I reach across the desk and grab him by the front of his shirt, pulling him to me. “Give me the fucking keys!”

I see him reach for a small ring at his side and I snag it before he can.

“I’m calling the cops!” he protests.

“So am I, shithead.” I release him and run to the service elevator.

“Look, Harper, I can’t reach our man. I want you to stay downstairs until I get there. I’m leaving right now.”

I push the key into the slot and twist it, the doors closing in front of me. I press the penthouse floor and feel the jolt as the elevator begins to rise. “I guess you know what I’m going to say to that, Bear. Just get over here and bring the fucking cavalry!”

“We’ll be right there, Harper. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Yeah, right.

I already did when I left this afternoon, I’m afraid.

* * *

The service elevator leaves me off at the back of the apartment. I step into the small alcove and fumble with the keys until I find the one that opens Kels’ fire door. Hearing the satisfying slide of the bolt, I pause for a moment to collect myself. If the bastard is in there, I don’t want to give him any more advantage over me.

I notice blood on the floor, but quickly realize it is from my own hand, from gripping the keys. Jesus, pull it together, Harper. I wipe my hand on the back of my jeans and slowly enter the kitchen.

No one else in here. Everything seems fine. I consider grabbing one of the butcher knives from the block, but refrain. Don’t need to get my damn throat slit.

Moving as quickly and as quietly as possible, I peer out into the living room.

“Oh fuck! Erik!” I can’t help but whisper.

My eyes freeze on the body. That’s what he is now – a body that the police will come and collect. I can’t seem to move as I take in every horrible thing that has been done to him. The smell of blood is overwhelming, and the dark fluid is everywhere. His face and neck have been hacked up with a knife, skin peeled back to the bone. The murder weapon is not more than a foot from his head, stuck through a picture of Erik and Kels.

My stomach lurches and I bite back the bile threatening to spill out. Lord knows I’ve seen this brutality before. But never to a friend.

“God, please don’t let me find Kels like that,” I pray aloud.

Fighting down the nausea once more, I am on the move again. A glance to the foyer confirms my fear: the cop is slumped in his seat, shot once in the forehead, dead as dead can be. And lying in the elevator, feet sticking out of doors trying desperately to close but repeatedly bouncing open, is the old elevator guy. He’s been shot as well. Poor bastard. He was a nice old man.

I need to find Kelsey.

I rush headlong back into the apartment, no longer caring about being quiet or cautious. I only want to find her. And, yet, I am terrified of what I might see if I do.

I go into her bedroom, where not more than a few hours ago we were snuggled together, happy and content. It’s empty. Silent.

The bathroom door is closed. Thank God! She locked herself in there. She’s fine. She’s safe.

The door swings open when I grasp the handle.

“Kels!” I call out.

Only my own echo greets me from the tiles.

Fueled by fear, I rampage through the rest of the penthouse. I find every room empty.

She’s gone.

She’s gone.

She’s gone.

* * *

I don’t remember going back into the living room or sliding down the wall. But it’s where I find myself when Bear’s voice reaches me.

“Harper?”

“She’s gone. He’s got her,” I manage to choke out past my tears. I am dimly aware of my wet cheeks and shirt. I have no idea how long I’ve been here weeping.

“I know.” He kneels down next to me and lays a compassionate hand on my knee. “We’ll find her, Harper. I swear we will.”

“Erik.” I gesture futilely toward where his body is. “It’s so horrible … what he did.”

“I know. Come with me. Let’s get you something to drink.”

“We have to find her, Bear! My God, before he hurts her!” I grab his shirt and hold him close.

He hugs me gently. “We will. Let’s get you out of here.”

* * *

I am in a daze as Bear takes me down the service elevator, to the apartment basement where a squad car awaits us. He helps me into the back seat, keeping me from smacking my head, as if I care anymore.

It’s dark as we pull out of the garage. The sun sets early in the winter months, even in Southern California. I see a few paparazzi gathered at the building’s entrance already. Fuckin’ vultures.

I endure the short ride to the station house and follow Bear inside. He puts me at his desk and motions to the phone. “You want to call anyone, Harper?”

I nod. My fingers grasp the hard plastic of the phone. “Thanks, Bear.” I give him a grateful smile. “You get to work. I’ll be here.”

“I’m gonna get the latest information. Sit tight.”

Not like I have a choice. I punch in my parents’ phone number. The phone rings twice before it’s picked up by my father. I listen to his greeting several times before I can respond. “Papa,” I whisper.

“Harper?” I hear him call for Mama in the background. “What’s wrong, baby?”

“He took her. He took Kelsey and he killed Erik.” I’m surprised at how calm my voice sounds. It can’t be mine.

“Where are you?”

“I’m at the police station with Bear. I need to get going. I have to tell the station and prepare a press release. I didn’t want you to hear it over the news. And, then I need to find the fucking bastard and rip his heart out through his chest.”

“Don’t you do anything stupid, Harper Lee. That little girl is going to need you when she gets back.”

“If she gets back, Papa.”

“No,” he corrects me strongly, “when she gets back. You have your cell phone with you, sweetheart?”

I pat my hip absently, confirming its presence. “Yeah, why?”

“We’ll call you as soon as we get in town.”

“You don’t need to come here. It’s going to be crazy. The paparazzi are everywhere already. It’s …”

“Be quiet. We’ll be there. We love you, baby.”

I am about to say good-bye when Mama’s voice reaches me. “Mon Coeur?”

“Mama,” I whisper, my heart breaking.

“Ecoutes bien ton Papa. Tu seras bien forte pour ta petiet copine. On sera la, avec toi, fort ensemble. On t’aime.” You listen to your Papa. You be strong for the little one. We will be there and be strong for you. We love you.

“Bye,” I manage and hang up. I give myself a few more moments to cry. Because that’s all I have.

Time to get my game face on. Gotta go be Kels’ senior producer and pull together the story of a lifetime.

Just hope it’s not our last one.

* * *

Next call. Franklin Saunders, the General Manager of the station. I have to tell him that his million-dollar-a-year talent has been kidnapped by a murderous psycho. And somehow I’ve got to do it without losing it myself.

“Saunders,” he answers the phone the same way, whether at work or at home,

which is where I now reach him.

“Kingsley here. We’ve got a crisis. Stanton has become the evening’s top story, rather than reporting it.”

“Tell me more.” I hear him down the rest of whatever he was drinking.

“It appears the serial killer in LA has been following a pattern based on Kelsey: young, blonde, beautiful, athletic. As of a couple hours ago, he kidnapped Kelsey from her apartment and killed her live-in boyfriend, Erik Collins.”

“Holy shit. Do they think she’s still alive?”

“As of right now, they do. The FBI is here as well. They’re worried the serial killer has reached a crisis point and he’s changing his pattern. They’re moving fast to try to find him and save her.”

“Jesus H. Christ. That’s a hell of a story, any way you cut it.”

“Yes, sir, and it’s ours. Send me some new talent down here and I can go live. The cops are organizing a press conference for an hour from now. I can do our breaking report beforehand and give us an exclusive.”

I can hear Saunders thinking. Finally, he says, “I’m sending Jessica down there. You want your regular crew? That orange haired kid?”

“Yup, sure do.” I’d be glad to have Jims around right now.

“Kingsley, I want sensitivity here. You keep the focus on bringing a serial killer to justice. I want Stanton’s role downplayed in this. She’s one of our own. Protect her, if at all possible. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely. Tell Jessica to use the side entrance and ask for Detective Brice.

That’s where I’ll be.”

“Good luck, Kingsley.”

* * *

I really hate Jessica Waters. And I just might kill her before the night is through.

First off, she’s a wee bit too damn happy about Kelsey being kidnapped. You’d think we were reporting on the opening of a new ride at Disneyland the way she is glowing. Second, she’s being a bitch on wheels to Olson. And third, she’s a fake blonde.

We’re standing in one of the back offices of the station house, ready to go live, when we get the go-ahead from the studio. We’re breaking into a repeat episode of ‘Veronica’s Closet.’ I hardly doubt that anyone will care.

“On in three, two, one …” I hear in my earpiece, and so does Jessica. She faces the camera Jims is shouldering and begins her report, looking appropriately concerned.

“Thank you, John,” she says to our anchor, who has introduced her. “The serial killer who has been stalking and killing young blonde women in Los Angeles over the past two months has struck again. Today, the killer broke from his prior pattern. This time the victims were three men, actor Erik Collins, concierge Carl Neumann and an unidentified police officer.

“A fourth individual, KNBC’s own Kelsey Stanton, who resides with Mr. Collins, has apparently been abducted. Police officials and the FBI have made the Twenty-third Precinct their command post as they try to piece together the events of earlier today and move as rapidly as possible to track the killer and protect Ms. Stanton’s life. Ms. Stanton fits the profile of the previous victims of the Blonde Scalper. There is no word right now as to her whereabouts or her condition.

“The police and FBI are expected to make an official statement about today’s tragic events at any moment. We will be there live to cover this unfolding tragedy. John?”

Over the airwaves, we hear his question. “What is the profile of the victims, Jessica?”

“As you know, John, all six of the prior victims have been women in the late-twenties/early-thirties, of an athletic build, with blonde hair and green eyes. The interesting thing about the serial killer is he has cut the hair of all but one of the victims so that it would be shoulder length. Police speculate that he was attempting to have each of the women look like some individual he has idealized, or for whom he has an obsession.”

“Any information on what drives him to kill these women?”

“No one can truly understand such a mind, John. However, police sources theorize that he murders them when they do not measure up to his standards.”

There is movement around us.

“John, it appears that the Police and the FBI are prepared to make a statement at this time. We understand that Ms. Stanton’s Executive Producer will also be making a statement on behalf of KNBC management.”

We all turn our attention, and camera, onto the unfolding scene around us. A couple police officials step forward, followed by their FBI counterparts in dark suits and ties.

Greg Komansky, head of the Threat Management Unit, takes the podium.

“I’ll be making a short statement, followed by Special Agent Adams with the FBI. There will be no question and answer session at this time, due to the ongoing investigation.

“At approximately four-thirty this afternoon, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a call of an unknown disturbance at the residence of Erik Collins and Kelsey Stanton. Upon arriving, patrol units discovered a multiple homicide crime scene.

“We can confirm that Mr. Collins and two others are deceased. One was Carl Neumann, the concierge of the apartment building, and the third was a police officer stationed there. The officer’s name is being withheld pending notification of the next of kin.

“We can also confirm Ms. Stanton is missing. We are doing everything we can to ensure her safe recovery.

“We will continue to keep you updated as facts become available for release. We also request at this time that anyone with any information on Ms. Stanton’s whereabouts call the LAPD at 213-555-TIPS.”

Greg steps away from the microphone and SA Adams takes his position.

“To be honest, I cannot and will not offer much more information than Detective Komansky already has. This is an ongoing investigation and, of course, we won’t risk the health or well-being of Ms. Stanton.

“The FBI is doing everything it can, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department, to ensure Ms. Stanton’s safe return as soon as possible.”

Bear motions that I should go ahead with our statement at this time. I step up to the podium and ignore the lights, the camera, the microphones, everything. My only hope is that the sick bastard has the television on wherever he is and that Kelsey can see and hear me.

“My name is Harper Kingsley. I’m an executive producer at KNBC and have the privilege of working with Kelsey Stanton. Franklin Saunders, our General Manager, has asked me to make the following statement on the station’s behalf:

“The management and staff of KNBC are deeply concerned for the safety of our colleague, Kelsey Stanton. We are giving the police our full cooperation and assistance in this matter. In addition, we are offering a reward of $100,000 to anyone who provides the police with the information leading to Kelsey’s safe return, and the capture of this violent criminal. We ask that anyone with such information contact our Crime Stoppers Hotline at 213-555-KNBC. KNBC staff will assist the police in answering and responding to all calls we receive.

“Our prayers and thoughts are with Kelsey’s family, as well as that of Erik Collins, Carl Neumann, and the slain police officer, to whom we extend our deepest and most sincere condolences. Thank you.”

I turn and leave, ignoring the shouted questions. I am not the news.

* * *

I’m still sitting at Bear’s desk at four in the morning. There’ve been no developments in this nightmare I’m living in. Somehow, the psycho managed to get into her apartment building, kill three men, take Kelsey, and no one saw a goddamn thing. He didn’t leave a fingerprint, a footprint, a drop of blood. No forensic evidence to help us find him.

Nor did he contact the cops with the prior abductees. He simply took them and killed them when they didn’t meet his expectations. I fear that even the real thing won’t live up to his approval. Especially not when you get Kelsey mad. She’s impossible to live with then.

I stifle a laugh. God, it’s not funny. What I wouldn’t give to have her here and furious with me. For any reason. I wouldn’t care. If she were safe.

Jims and Jessica left hours ago. Jessica couldn’t afford to look ‘droopy’ for her broadcast later today. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying everything that crossed my mind at that moment. Jims squeezed my shoulder when he left; I had told him not to stay. If I lose it, I don’t want anyone from work to see.

I hear Bear’s voice across the room and I look up, dully. I see him pointing toward me, my parents standing beside him. Mama’s face reflects everything I feel right now – utter despair. She and Papa are now hurrying over to me, and soon I am in their arms.

“Mon Coeur,” Mama whispers, kissing my hair.

“My baby girl,” Papa says, holding both Mama and I.

I shake, but I will the tears not to fall. I cannot let my little bit of control fall. If I do, I will be lost in this nightmare. “Thank you for coming,” I say, straightening up.

“Where else would we be?” Mama asks.

“At home, in bed.”

Papa shakes his head. “I don’t think so. Your Mama has been snoring a lot lately. It’s been hard to get sleep.”

I burst into laughter at the unexpected humor. Mama scolds Papa in French playfully, knowing it was for my benefit.

“Come on, sweetheart, we’re taking you home.”

“Papa, I have to stay here in LA. This is my story. And … she’s …”

“No, no. We’re taking you to your apartment. Your friend, Detective Brice, says there’s no need for you to be here. He let you stay because he didn’t want you to be alone. Now, you’re not alone.”

If only Kelsey were as fortunate as I am right now.

* * *

My mouth is dry and my head is spinning when I begin to become cognizant. I realize very quickly I am on a small bed of some sort. A cot. At least, it feels like a small cot. I try to move my hands to my side, but find them chained above my head to the rail at the top of the mattress.

I haven’t opened my eyes yet. I’m afraid to. This is bad.

I’m gonna die. He’s going to kill me just like he killed the others. It’s only a matter of when.

Oh God, Harper. I’m so sorry. I never imagined it ending like this.

I know I need to open my eyes, but I take the time to listen first. I can’t tell if there is anyone in the room with me because I can’t hear anything past the sound of my own heart hammering in my ears.

I feel the tears slip past my eyelids even though I try to hold them back.

I flinch when I feel his hand on my face brushing away my tears.

“Don’t cry, Kelsey. It’s not that bad.”

Oh, God! Please make him stop touching me.

“I won’t hurt you,” I hear him pause as his hand leaves my face, “unless you make me.”

“I won’t,” I whisper, still not opening my eyes. Somehow if I keep them closed it’s not real. I can feel myself shaking on the inside. I have to keep some control here if I am to stand a chance of survival.

“You know, Kelsey, if you had come to me sooner I wouldn’t have had to kill those others. I only wanted to be with you.” His voice is soft and it sets my nerves on edge with how cold it is.

I don’t even want to try and respond to that. There isn’t anything I can say that will work in this situation.

“But now, we’re together and everyone is out of the way. No one can keep us from being together forever.” I feel him sit on the edge of the bed, taking my chin in his hand. “Open your eyes, Kelsey. Take a look at the face of the person you were meant to be with.”

It’s amazing how fear can make you think the silliest things. The first thing to come to my mind is ‘if you’re not six feet tall with long, dark hair and piercing blue eyes, and female, forget it.’ I hear myself let out a frightened chuckle at the thought.

His grip tightens on my face and his voice becomes hard. “Open them!”

I do. Slowly.

He stares back at me, then a soft smile breaks out across his lips. “See? No monster.”

Why does he look so familiar to me? I know him from somewhere.

“Could I have something to drink?” It’s a risky request. Hell, maybe he intends on poisoning me, but I need to get the dry feeling out of my mouth.

“Absolutely. All you have to do is ask. I love you, Kelsey. I’ll give you anything you want.” He leaves me for a moment, retrieving a bottle of water from a small fridge in the corner.

Okay, how about we start with unchaining me and letting me go? Somehow I doubt that would be a popular request.

Heh, I sound like Harper. Such a smart ass, that one.

God, I must be cracking up. I should be terrified. I should be screaming at the top of my lungs. I should be doing something to try and get away. What in the hell is wrong with me?

Suddenly, I can see Harper in the corner, arms crossed against her chest, looking down at me. She smiles at me and winks. “It’s called a strong survival instinct, Little Roo. You’ve reported on this kind of madness so you know better. You’ll only piss him off if you get hysterical. So stay calm. The good guys are coming.”

Oh yeah, I’m cracking up.

He returns to the cot, lifting my head, offering me some water. I take a few sips before he pulls the bottle away. “Better?”

I nod. I don’t want to say more to him than I have to.

“Good.” He sighs, retaking his seat, brushing his fingers through my hair. “I know, eventually, you’re going to try to get away, or start screaming for help, or something. You’re in shock right now. Once it passes, you will have a bad reaction and do what comes naturally. But you can’t get out of this room. And it is soundproof. We’re in an old recording studio. So you can scream as loud as you want, but no one will hear you.”

With these words, I finally let my eyes wander around the room. The walls are indeed soundproofed, and I now have a good estimate for the size of the room. Maybe I’ll get lucky and my claustrophobia will kill me first.

As I really begin to focus, I realize one wall is covered with photos of various people and me.

I zero in on one in particular. Harper. I remember that day. That picture was taken when we were leaving the station after I accused her of sending me the first batch of roses. Oh, how I wish she had sent them.

He looks back and forth between the pictures and me. Once he figures out the one I am staring at, he rises quickly and pulls the picture of Harper down. “This bitch,” he hisses, “is responsible for keeping us apart!”

“No,” I whisper. God, please don’t let him go after her. Keep her safe. I don’t care what he does to me, but don’t let him hurt her. “No, she wasn’t,” I counter quietly.

He storms across the room, shoving the photo in my face before giving me a good hard slap. “Don’t lie to me, Kelsey! I know she was! I know she did everything she could to keep us apart.”

“She was only being a friend.”

He drops to his knees and forces me to look at him. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. You know why?”

“Why?” I hear myself ask.

“She’s dead. I cut her fucking throat.”

Oh, God, please no!

“No.”

“Yeah, I watched her bleed out all over her apartment when she slipped away from you today.” He sneers at me. His face twitches as he crumples the picture. “See, I know all about that, too. I know she seduced you, deceived you, corrupted you. But, I don’t blame you, Kelsey. But she defiled you, and because of that, she had to die.”

“She didn’t defile me! She loved me!”

“Shut up!”

He delivers another blow that rattles my senses. I can taste the blood in my mouth. As the pain and the anger overtake me, I let the tears fall. God, I hate that I cry when I’m angry.

She can’t be dead. I don’t believe him.

If she isn’t, why did I see her ghost a moment ago? Jesus. She is dead.

“Then kill me, too, because I’ll never belong to you.” I tug on the chains trying to sit upright. I’m going to die on my own terms and not flat on my back. “Go on, kill me!”

He pulls his gun from his shoulder holster, placing it squarely between my eyes. “I can do that.”

I close my eyes, hearing the hammer being pulled back. I wait for the shot as visions of Harper fill my mind.

Love you, Tabloid. We’ll be together soon. I promise.
Episode Twenty-Four: All Good Things Come To An End
I am numb.

I haven’t felt anything for days. And I don’t know if I will ever again.

I’m dressed in a black suit, matching my mood, and appropriate for the occasion. I’m wearing my hair down. She said she liked it best that way. It makes me look wild, free.

I’m neither anymore.

There is a knock on the bathroom door. “Harper, are you ready?” Papa asks gently.

“Yeah, one second.” I straighten up and look at my reflection one more time. I have to pull it together. Kelsey would want it that way.

I wander out to the living room and find the rest of my family. Robie and Rene flew in as soon as they heard about the murder. They left Christian with Gerrard and Katherine, but brought along Clark. Rene said it was because Clark is still breast-feeding. I know it’s because they knew I’d need him.

Robie hands me my nephew and I hold him close. This little human has been my lifeline. I’ll have to thank him when he’s older and spoil him rotten until then.

“The limousine is waiting,” Mama informs us, opening the door to my apartment. She is dressed in a black dress and hat. I absently note that she looks great in a hat. I can’t wear them, they make my head look too large.

We all file out of my apartment, Rene slipping her arm around my waist and walking beside me to the elevator. Truth is, I’ve always been a little bit in love with my sister-in-law. I’m so glad she and Robie are here. I’d never get through this without them. Robie has been my best friend for as long as I’ve been alive.

We all climb into the limousine and settle in our seats. The ride is essentially silent. I watch as the barren landscape of Los Angeles passes by our windows.

Clark whimpers against my chest and tries to burrow into my jacket. I know exactly how he feels.

“When this is all over, we want you to come spend some time at home.”

I nod. “I’d like that, Papa.”

Finally, we pass through the wrought iron gates of Fairlawn Cemetery. My heart drops.

Rene reaches over and holds my hand.

We pull to a stop alongside a number of other limousines and the driver opens the door for us. When we exit, I keep hold of Clark. If I let go of him, I don’t know what I might do. But, as long as this little life is in my hands, I won’t do anything stupid.

The paparazzi rush toward us. Several of the funeral director’s men intercept them, blocking their view of us.

A sophisticated looking gentleman approaches us, looking appropriately contrite. “Ms. Kingsley?” he asks, as he takes my hand.

I shift Clark in my arms, but still won’t give him up. “Yes. Are you Winston?”

“I am. Would you please come this way? We have all the speakers seated over here.”

I follow him, my family trailing behind me. Winston goes over the order of events for the graveside service. The will had been very clear – no church service, no floral sprays, no somber music. The event was to be simple, the music classical, and the speakers few.

I am one of three.

The two others rise when I approach. The first is a woman, a little shorter than me, but broad-shouldered. She has hazel eyes, short brown hair, cut like a cop, and I know instantly this is CJ, Kels’ previous lover. I offer my hand to her and she takes it readily. She has a strong handshake.

“I’m very sorry to meet you under these circumstances,” I offer.

“I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m glad you came.”

“Kelsey would want me here.”

CJ nods sympathetically. “I know. Who’s the little one? Is he yours?”

“I only wish. This is Clark, my nephew.” I gesture toward Robie and Rene with my head. “My brother and his wife. My parents behind them.”

“I had heard you took Kelsey home with you for Thanksgiving.”

A smile graces my lips at the memory. “I did. We had a great time. My family all fell in love with her. They came as soon as they heard.”

“I’m glad. No one should be alone in all of this.”

“Kelsey is.”

CJ doesn’t reply. I turn my attention to the other speaker, a young man. “Harper Kingsley,” I introduce myself.

“Patrick Collins, Erik’s cousin.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss.”

He thanks me and we take our seats. I look around and I see assorted Hollywood types scattered in the crowd. They all look a bit too perfect for this moment. Shouldn’t we all be falling apart? Sick with grief?

Or is that just me?

God, Kelsey, I miss you so much.

A bearded man steps up to the microphone at the head of the grave. “We’ve come together today to celebrate the life of one taken from us far too young. A young man full of potential. A young man loved by many. He died protecting one of his dearest friends, Kelsey Stanton. Our thoughts and prayers are with her right now. We pray that she is safe from harm and that she will be returned to us soon.”

“Amen,” I whisper and cross myself. I look over and see my family echoing my movements. Kelsey, I’m trying my best here, chér. I’m here representing you, as I believe you’d want me to. But I don’t think I can do you justice.

We’re trying to find you, sweetheart. We’ve been searching everywhere for this sick fuck. Four days. Four days without you and I am going a bit insane.

You be strong. You stay alive. I will find you.

* * *

We’re back at my apartment. Rene and Clark are taking a nap in my bedroom. Mama has just finished cleaning up after our lunch. Papa is stretched out on the couch, idly reading the newspaper. Robie is watching the news.

And I am pissed.

I go into my bedroom quietly and gather up more comfortable clothes, then slip into the bathroom and change. In a few minutes, I emerge, grab my keys off the dresser and stalk into the living room.

“I’m leaving,” I announce.

“Where you going?” Robie asks from his spot on the floor.

“The station.”

“Cool.” He pushes himself up. “Let’s go.”

I fold my arms across my chest. “Did I invite you?”

Robie pulls himself up to his full height, a couple inches taller than me, and crosses his arms over his chest. He makes sure he flexes his biceps. He thinks he can impress me. “I didn’t realize I needed an invitation.”

“We’re taking the Harley,” I tell him, as a challenge. No one drives my bike but me. And he knows it.

He smiles. “I heard you give good rides.”

“Bastard. Grab a jacket from the closet.”

“Watch your language,” Mama chastises as we leave. Some things never change.

* * *

“Harper! What are you doing here?” Olson asks. He looks over at Robie. “You must be related to her.”

“Robie Kingsley, her big brother.” He shakes Jims’ hand.

“Ha!” I snort.

“What? I am. A whole nineteen months, eight days and twelve hours.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” I slap Robie in the stomach. He’s been working out, I notice. “Look, Jims, I need you to bring up all of Kels’ tapes in the last three months.”

“Okay, I can do that.”

“The unedited footage, Jims.”

His brow furrows. “What are you looking for, Harper?”

“I’ve been an idiot. This bastard has been stalking Kelsey for months, right? Sending her shit, recording her movements, taking photographs. So, he had to be around, nearby, in the crowds. Right? He had to be near her to know that type of stuff. And, fortunately, we have a fuckin’ camera too.”

Robie grins. “Smile. You’re on Candid Camera.”

“Yup. So, Olson, just think of this as a ‘Where’s Waldo’ game where the stakes are a wee bit higher.”

“Let me get those tapes.”

Now we’re cooking.

* * *

We’ve been in front of the monitor/VTR here for four hours straight. Working quickly, we’ve been able to get through a good deal of footage. There are a few people who look like they’ve shown up more than once. We’ve noted the date/time stamp on each of those tapes and set them aside.

Only a couple more hundred tapes to go. And I’m not moving until I’ve looked at each and every one.

Robie stretches. “I’m gonna get more coffee. You want some?”

“Definitely. Make it a double.”

* * *

Seven hours.

My cell phone rings. “Kingsley.” I pass it immediately to Robie. “Handle this.” I keep my attention on the monitor. I’m going to find the bastard.

I’m gonna find him and rip his fuckin’ heart out with my bare hands. But, I repeat myself.

I spot another person who looks familiar in the crowd. Good. Now we have eight incidents recorded.

“Mama is going to bring us over dinner.” Robie folds up my cell phone and hands it back to me.

“We’re not studying for finals, for God’s sake!”

Robie waves Olson out of my office. He leaves gladly. “Harper,” Robie begins, softly.

“What?” I bark.

“I know you’re upset. And I know the way you’re coping is by looking at these tapes.”

“It’s more than coping. I’m gonna find the psycho.”

“I know, I know. But, listen: Mama is coping by taking care of her kids. And that means keeping us fed. So, when she and Papa and Rene and Clark come by … you’re gonna be damn grateful. And nice to her.”

I stare at him, trying to intimidate him. It doesn’t work. It never has. “You’re right.”

“Good girl.”

“I’m not a girl,” I growl.

He laughs and nudges me in the ribs. “Well, don’t tell Kelsey that. She’ll dump your ass for sure.”

I lean over and kiss his cheek. I love Robie. He always manages to get me back on track.

* * *

It’s midnight. We’ve been working for almost twelve hours. And we’re almost through all of the tapes. We’ve set aside two dozen of them for further review. Robie and I agreed early on that we wanted to look at everything before narrowing down our choices. With Kelsey’s life at stake, we didn’t want to run off half-cocked and miss the real bad guy accidentally. It’s taken more time, but it’s an investment I can live with.

God, I hope I can live with it.

I’d really like to live with Kelsey, that’s for sure.

Kels, why couldn’t you have locked yourself in the bathroom? Stayed in there, safe and sound? Of course, you might have been in the living room when he came in and never had a chance.

A better question is why did I leave that afternoon?

Since when did driving my Harley mean that much? What did I do? Pay a few bills, mail a couple letters, check on Trouble. Nothing significant. Nothing important enough to have left her.

I knew he was out there. I knew he was escalating.

And I left.

I am an idiot. I am a horrible, evil person.

Kelsey must hate me.

Oh God. Please, don’t let her die hating me. I don’t know if I could survive that. Let her live and hate me. That would be fine. Let her live and come kick my ass for having left her alone. I’d deserve it.

But, please, don’t let her last thoughts be hating me.

I swear, I’ll never leave her alone again. She’ll think I’m her shadow for the rest of her life. If you let her live. Or, if she wants, I’ll never be around her again. Which would be understandable.

I failed her.

What a time to start being a fuck-up.

“Hey, you two,” a voice calls from the door of my office.

Torn from my thoughts, I look up to see Bear and CJ standing a few feet away. They both look tired and rumpled from long hours of work. I don’t think Bear has taken one break since finding out Kelsey was the object of the psycho’s attentions.

Unlike me.

God, forgive me.

“You okay, Harper?” Bear asks gently.

No, and I don’t think I ever will be again. “Fair enough. Come on in. We’re about to review the repeat faces in the crowd.”

“Good, we’re just in time.” Bear lumbers over to the couch, like his namesake would, and plops down. Without being asked, Robie hands him a coffee mug, which the large man takes gratefully.

CJ waves off a similar offer.

“Here’s what we have so far,” I mutter, sliding the first tape in. I point out the crowd clustered around us after the library shooting spree. I freeze the frame. “That’s one.” We all stare at the man. He’s a bit blurry, but we can make out his general features: blond, tall, early thirties, cheap suit.

“Hard to see him real well,” CJ says, sliding closer to the monitor for a better view.

“Hand me the next tape, Robie.” I hold out my hand and accept the next one, sliding it in and cueing it up. “Here he is again … I think.”

“Could be,” Bear concedes. “Got any more?”

Robie consults the index we’ve made. “Blond guy appears on four other tapes, we think.” He pulls the next one.

It’s a bit clearer.

“Let’s see the rest,” Bear says softly.

The next three we watch in rapid succession. I can feel the tension rising in the room from both Bear and CJ.

“You know him,” I accuse.

Bear checks with CJ, then nods. “That’s Detective Bill Danes.”

“My ex-partner,” CJ adds.

“And part of the Threat Management Unit.”

* * *

It’s one a.m. and we’re standing in the Twenty-third Precinct. Well, Bear, CJ and Robie are standing. I am pacing.

“Take it easy, Harper,” Robie chastises.

“Don’t tell me to take it easy,” I growl back. Then I shake my head. “Sorry, I’m such a bitch lately.”

“It’s understandable. Just don’t make a habit of it, ok?”

I nod. I don’t make that promise. If Kelsey has been hurt, I don’t know what I’ll be like in the future. If Kelsey has been hurt … geez … how ignorant I am. I am really worthless. I never should have left her alone.

Greg Komansky walks into the room we’re in, closing the door behind him. He looks like he’s been dragged out of bed to come here. And he has been. Bear called him from my office and gave him a quick overview of our suspicions. Komansky said he’d meet us here.

“Morning. Tell me what you have, Brice.”

“Detective Danes has shown up in a number of videotapes, apparently following Kelsey Stanton.”

Komansky interrupts. “Would there be any official reason for him to be at any of the scenes? I seem to remember that a number of her stories are ones involving police support.”

“Yes, sir, they are. However, Detective Danes was not on duty for any of those events. I checked the duty log while we were waiting for you.”

“Good. Go on.”

“Second,” Brice continues, “the log also indicates that he was off-duty on the dates of the other abductions.”

“All of them?”

“Yes, sir, every last one of them.”

“Go on.”

“Third, Detective Danes knew Kelsey Stanton and had previously been infatuated with her.”

Komansky looks up, his eyes cold, serious. “Says who?”

“I do, sir,” CJ speaks up. “Kelsey Stanton was my roommate for a period of three years when she first came to Los Angeles. During that time, Detective Danes was assigned to the Eleventh Precinct. We were partners there, before he made detective. He knew Kelsey. He repeatedly spoke to me about his desire for a closer relationship with her.”

“Why didn’t you report it at the time?”

CJ shrugs. “There was nothing to report, sir. It wasn’t inappropriate. It was just unrequited. Kelsey wasn’t interested in him. I thought it was over with, naturally.”

“Sir,” Bear says, “he’s been on vacation this week. The second day of his vacation corresponds to the date of Ms. Stanton’s abduction.”

“Come with me,” Komansky orders and leaves the room.

I happily follow. Finally. Action.

He leads us back to another section of the building. We enter the detectives’ room and go over to a desk in the corner. A rumpled looking man is seated behind it. “Thanks for coming in, Vic,” Komansky says.

“Glad to help out.”

Komansky turns to us, filling us in on what’s going on. “Vic Jerone is Detective Danes current partner. They share this desk. I was wondering if we could take a look in the desk, Vic.”

“Of course, sir.” He unlocks the drawers and pushes his chair back.

Komansky steps behind the desk and begins systematically looking through it. From the middle drawer comes the usual assortment of office supplies – paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, pens, pushpins, scissors, stapler. He moves to the next one – envelopes, paper, report forms, folders. The last – more folders, copies of reports, a packet of photos.

Komansky hands the photos to Bear. “Look through those, Detective.” He kneels down and pulls out the middle drawer, to look for anything that might be taped to the bottom of the drawer. He does this for each of the drawers.

I am growing increasingly despondent over the search when something on the desk captures my eye.

“Those are wrong,” I say.

Everyone looks at me.

“The scissors. They’re the wrong type. Those are hair shears, like you’d find at the barber shop or beauty salon.”

Komansky looks at Vic. “Those yours?”

“No, sir.”

“Our perp cuts his victims’ hair, right?” Komansky asks. The question is rhetorical in nature, I believe. “Brice, get me Danes’ current address. We’re going to pay him a little visit.”

I nearly pass out in relief.

Hang on, Kels, the cavalry is coming.

* * *

“You shouldn’t even be here,” Bear grumbles. “We’re all taking a hell of a chance by letting you stay.” He presses a bulletproof vest into my hands, then hands one to Robie. “Now, put these on and don’t give me any more grief.”

“But…” I start to protest.

He puts his hand up, index finger pointing skyward. This is the international sign for ‘you’re pissing me off, now shut up.’ The rest of my complaint dies on my lips. I need to be here and I know Bear will have me carted away if he thinks I’m going to give him trouble.

I nod and silently slip the vest over my head. I watch Robie struggle with his, having never worn one before. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him get hurt too. “C’mere.” I pull him to me and strap the vest into place. It’s sad that I know how to do so. Of course, the way the fuckin’ world is going lately, someday I’m gonna have to put one on my kid before he goes to school.

But, for now, I have to stand back and watch in the predawn light as the FBI and SWAT team get ready to move on the house. God, if Kels is alive, they’ll scare the shit out of her. I let loose a nervous laugh. I hope they do scare the shit out of her. I couldn’t stand the alternative.

Watching the scene, I am glad that these men mean business. Dressed in full entry gear and brandishing submachine guns, it is their plan to enter and enter quickly. They don’t want to give Danes a chance to do anything stupid.

Of course, it’s a bit late at this point.

Bear turns his radio up, setting it on the hood of the car. He hands me a pair of binoculars. “You watch. You listen. You stay here.”

I nod, taking the binoculars. I know I don’t have any other choice right now. I glance over to find CJ making her way to us. “You’re not going in with them?”

“I’m not SWAT. They wouldn’t let me if I wanted.” She sighs, crossing her arms against her chest. “Besides, I’m not the first person Kelsey needs to see when they bring her out.” She gives me a slight, knowing smile.

“Thanks.” I like CJ. I doubt if I would be quite so gracious about losing Little Roo.

“I’m glad she’s happy.”

“Did Erik tell you that?”

“Numerous times.” She wipes away a tear I know she didn’t want me to see. “He always was a little shit.”

I wonder who was the first to call him that – CJ or Kels? “I’m sorry about what happened to him.”

“So am I. He didn’t deserve it. I hope to hell Danes gives the team a reason to blow his fucking head off.”

“Amen to that,” I whisper.

“They’re ready,” Bear announces, distracting us from our conversation.

I hand Robie the binoculars. I don’t need or want to watch the scene that closely. God, I might be sick. My stomach is sitting somewhere around my knees right now. I can taste fear on the back of my throat.

Just a few more minutes, sweetheart. Hang on.

The radio traffic is fast and somewhat garbled. It reminds me of the day I made entry with the police on what became a hostage situation at Tyler Sagemore’s house. It was the day I shot the footage that put me together with Kels. Who would have guessed six months ago I would be standing out here today? Fate has a strange sense of humor. I sure as hell hope I like the punch line today.

The eight member SWAT team busts the door, the sound deafening to me. There’s nothing subtle or secretive about their approach. They go in fast, loud and aggressive. I hope to hell he’s far away from Kelsey right now.

Five FBI agents follow the SWAT team in. Bear’s radio crackles with life and then goes silent. Dead silent.

Every nerve I have is trying to come through my skin. Someone fuckin’ tell me what’s going on.

Only my heartbeat answers.

“Shots fired! Down, down, down!”

Oh Jesus.

We all stare at the radio waiting for something else to be said. Anything else. Christ, say something!

“Residence secure.”

I let out a shuddering breath, collapsing against the car. I know how boneless chicken feels now. My relief is complete.

“Two victims,” is the next thing we hear.

Two? He had another woman in there?

“One male. One Female.”

Oh, that explains it. The SWAT team shot his ass. Good. Saves me the trouble. But, wait, if there’s a female victim, that means Kelsey … oh God!

“Positive ID on the female victim.”

That’s the code phrase Bear gave them to let us know if it was Kels in the house. It’s not part of their normal protocol, but they agreed to at least let us know if she definitely was inside.

“Dispatch two ambulances.”

An ambulance. So, she’s alive. She may be hurt, but, thank God, she’s alive!

“Correction. Dispatch one ambulance and the coroner.”
See You All Next Season! Season 2
© 1999 Exposure Productions.

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