Someone’s Justice by Anne Reagin

justice

Someone’s Justice
by Anne Reagin

 

Part 1

The elaborate furnishings were probably all part of the plan to intimidate Josh Lowry’s business associates. The sofa was Italian leather, as were the club chairs surrounding it. The largest salt-water aquarium Sam had ever seen boasted exotic fish of brilliant colors; shades of vibrant yellow and blue undulating constantly against a backdrop of textured lava rock.

The receptionist was stationed at a sleek desk of burled walnut, the finest example she had ever seen. That was saying something, since Samantha Hilliard had been searching out and collecting beautiful old furniture all of her life. Plush carpets and gilded oriental wallpaper screamed the richness of the office décor.

“May I help you?” The chilly tone in the receptionist’s voice garnered the sought after effect. Thoroughly intimidated, Sam wrapped her arms around herself in a subconscious effort to protect her person. She had not been able to understand why her deposition was to be given here, in the offices of the man she was suing. Her attorney had explained that it was simply a matter of convenience, but it seemed to the young real estate broker that it only served to put her at a disadvantage.

“I’m here to give a deposition. My name is?.”

“Miss Hilliard, it’s nice to meet you.” It was suddenly as if the aging but well maintained receptionist had come upon a celebrity. “The conference room is set up for your group. If you’ll just follow me, please, I’ll show you the way.” The smile was not overly warm, but it held sincerity. Sam was amazed at the turn around in attitude from moments before.

While she followed the woman at a rapid pace down several hallways, she declined the offer of coffee, learned the location of the ladies room and studied closely the expensive outfit the woman was wearing.‘He obviously pays his receptionist well. I saw that jacket at Phipps Plaza and it was over three hundred dollars as I recall. You’d think he would just write me a check for the damages to the office and be done with this whole fiasco.’

They arrived at a non-descript door which did indeed open into a conference room. It was less pretentious than the reception area, but still richly appointed. The conference table was teak and could seat twenty comfortably. Sam selected a chair that allowed her to identify the occupants of the room as they entered. She had assumed her lawyer would arrive first and be available to greet her. Thus far, there was no sign of him. The door opened and a man in a starched shirt and expensive tie came hurriedly through it. There was a woman behind him, Sam’s age, who was dressed in a severe business suit and hanging on every word the young man said.

Engrossed in his own dialogue, several seconds passed before he suddenly became aware of Sam’s presence. “I’m Mike Epson and this is Jenny our stenographer. She’ll record the session today. Can I get you anything Miss Hilliard?” He gave the young woman a long look. Samantha had a disarming quality about her that put him immediately at ease until he realized that this was the woman suing his client.

Samantha didn’t always do well with strangers. Outgoing as a general rule when Sam found herself in certain circumstances she became amazingly bashful. This was one of those times.

“Is your attorney here?” The young man waited for her reply. Sam assumed that the attorneys had worked this out amongst themselves, only notifying her of their decisions at the last possible moment.

“I thought you might answer the same question for me? I just got a message to be here, today at ten-thirty. I assume Mr. Long will be here shortly if he isn’t already,” she offered. He smiled brightly at her as if she had just solved a world crisis. The young woman he had introduced as the stenographer began to untangle a series of wires and plugs, all protruding from a flat, notebook shaped device of beige plastic. She sat a single microphone on the table, held erect by its own plastic easel. The push of a button brought a red light to life on top of the recording device. Looking up, she discovered Sam watching her and offered a reserved smile before announcing her intent to seek out coffee.

Sam found herself alone at the long table once again. ‘This must be how Alice felt, down the rabbit hole. I’m completely dwarfed by this table but I bet that’s the whole idea. ‘ Her nerves were kicking into high gear and she picked up one of the pens from the table in front of her and began tapping it absently on the table surface. ‘It might be a good time to review my notes, ‘ she thought and placed the sheets on the table before her.

The door swept open again and assuming it would be the stenographer returning, she didn’t look up. In fact, the deep, rich timbre of an unknown voice startled her from her task. Sam’s eyes swept up and up and still slowly up the extraordinary countenance of a tall, dark-featured woman dressed impeccably in a creamy silk skirt and jacket that subtly flattered the sleek form beneath them. Mahogany hair cascaded to a line well below wide shoulders. The dark tresses obscured most of a filmy blouse that was the color of the heavens on a cloudless day in the fall of the year. Sam raised her gaze yet again to see eyes that matched its color looking back at her. Uncertain of whom she was staring at and amazed at the overall effect; the young Realtor drew in a steadying breath.

Sam thought she must have been witnessing an apparition. The woman before her possessed the beauty and assurance of a goddess. The graceful movement of her tall frame as she walked toward Samantha and offered her hand in greeting mesmerized the woman seated at the table. Sam took it, amazed at the warmth and gentleness of the woman’s touch. Flesh on flesh was brief but enough to disprove the possibility of a hallucination. This was the real thing.

“Ms. Hilliard, I assume?” The richness of her voice resonated across the short space between them. Sam nodded, unsure of her own voice at the moment.

“I’m Sterling Hayes. I represent Josh Lowry. I’ll be handling the deposition today.” Her eyebrow crept up at the look of confusion on the younger woman’s face.

“I thought Mr. Epson was doing that.”

“He’s a trainee. Officially, we refer to him as my assistant on this particular case.” She leaned closer and amended her statement in a conspiratorial tone. “The primary purpose of that title is to salvage his ego, though. I’m in charge. You may rely on that.” Surprisingly, her smile held no warmth and it made Samantha uncomfortable.

Jenny, the recorder, returned now with a steaming Styrofoam cup and offered a pinched greeting to the tall attorney. There was apparently no love lost between the two. Sam thought there was probably an interesting story there.

Sterling took the seat directly across from Samantha, with her back to the door. She sorted through the documents in her briefcase and removed the ones she would be needing. Meanwhile, Sam ran her fingers nervously through her thick blonde hair and wished a myriad of things.

‘I should have stopped in the powder room to freshen up. My hair must be a mess the way the wind is blowing out there. Why did I wear this outfit today, it makes me look fat? God, this woman looks like she could eat us all for brunch.’

Even though Sam might not have thought that she looked her best, only Sterling’s extraordinary poker face had saved her from visibly reacting to the attractive woman now seated across from her. The young woman’s face held all innocence above a body created for sinful purpose. Her wholesome features wore an open smile and an awareness that made Sterling uncomfortable. She felt that her character was being examined and the lawyer could ill afford scrutiny in that area.

They studied each other discreetly, the two main characters in the little drama playing out in Lowry’s conference room. Samantha acknowledged the wild and snarling creature that lived just beneath the polished surface of Sterling Hayes. That was it. The two women contrasted so completely that the young blonde could see herself reflected clearly as the antithesis of this enigmatic woman. The rich differences between the brooding darkness of the magnetic lawyer and the earnest openness of the charming young Realtor created a magnetic pull. Light was meeting darkness for the first time. Self-damnation was courting forgiveness. Fear of feeling ran headlong into love at first glance.

******

The attorney, who had been accepting Sam’s money in exchange for representation, came through the door winded and disheveled. Thank goodness he had sent her a video the previous week explaining the workings of a deposition, as apparently he had made no time allotment for counseling her now. The brief film had cautioned her against losing her temper, or giving answers before she took the time to carefully consider a question. Sam had also learned that she could be asked for a lot of personal information that would seem unrelated to the case. By law, she was obliged to answer any and all questions put before her.

“If everybody is ready now, I think we can get started. Are you ready Jenny?” A frigid blue gaze defied all present to deny her authority. Getting a general nod in response, the intense barrister began. “This is a deposition in the case of Hilliard versus Lowry, taken in the offices of Mr. Joshua Lowry on the tenth of May, nineteen hundred ninety-nine. Present are Samantha Hilliard, her attorney Ron Long, Mike Epson and Sterling Hayes of Hayes, Stern and Hayes. Ms. Hilliard, will you kindly state your full name and permanent address for the record.”

Sam answered the first half dozen questions easily, giving her a chance to overcome her nervousness somewhat.

“Are you married?” Sam looked up into the ice blue eyes of her interrogator and answered evenly.

“No, I am not.”

“Have you ever been married?” Once again Sam looked at Ms. Hayes to see if she was being asked a serious question. She couldn’t imagine what her marital status had to do with the case.

“No, I haven’t.” Clearly perturbed, she settled back into her chair.

“Do you live alone Ms. Hilliard?” Now Sam looked to her attorney to see if he could do anything about this invasion of her privacy. He waved the back of his hand toward the dark haired attorney sitting opposite them, letting Sam know that she not only needed to furnish the requested information, but he expected her to do it as quickly as possible.

“Yes, I live alone.” Exasperation was evident in her tone.

Sterling looked positively mischievous as she posed the next question. “For how long?” She was betting that the comely young blonde had a short temper and that prying into her personal life would trigger it.

Samantha blew out a breath in irritation. The attorney studied her briefly, issuing a self-congratulatory pat on the back.

“Almost two years I believe,” Sam offered.

“Do you enjoy an active social life?”

Now, obviously offended and befuddled by the current line of questioning Samantha threw a look of disbelief at all of the faces around the table. None granted her sympathy, save that of the mousy court reporter who could appreciate the embarrassing nature of airing the details of one’s social life or lack thereof.

In a grand gesture, Sterling, posturing as if she was bestowing a gift, withdrew her question and moved on. The sleek attorney was amused. Now that she had met Samantha in person, her instincts told her that the information she had procured about her from an investigative firm was accurate. The attorney would take all bets that the young woman staring daggers at her from across the table preferred the company of women, as did she.

Sterling’s amusement was short-lived however when her questioning turned to less personal questioning. Twenty-nine 4 x 6 glossy photographs were produced from Sam’s briefcase upon request. She leaned forward and handed them across the table for Sterling’s perusal.

The top picture showed the charming reception area of Sam’s realty office. It was decorated with beautifully restored antique furniture. The sofa with matching arm chairs, carved Larken desk, and glass-front bookcase would have made a nice magazine ad in the Antique Monthly, except for the pool of coffee colored water that the grouping stood in. Every damning photo included three inches of muddy water or the scummy deposits it had left in its aftermath when it receded.

All nine offices had been flooded. Every inch of carpeting had been underwater. The furnace, located in a storage area, had been partially submerged, as had the hot water heater.

Sterling studied the pictures trying not to visibly react but she couldn’t help but wonder what her client had been thinking. Lowry had advertised for fill dirt on his land, which adjoined Sam’s without bothering to get the proper permits. By raising the ground level, he had created the potential for a flood in her offices. Samantha had contacted the county and they had cited him for the violation but he made no attempt to rectify the situation. As the realtor had predicted, the first big rain flooded her office building and she was suing Lowry to recover the cost of damages.

‘This is a no-brainer. Lowry should have just written the poor woman a check. Hell, he’s lucky she didn’t go after punitive damages or throw a class action suit at him and the county for not following up on the citation.’ For the third time in as many days, Sterling Hayes found herself wishing desperately that she had started dumping her shadier clients long ago.

The charismatic lawyer had been forewarned about the pitfalls of letting this particular petitioner testify in a courtroom before jurors. The tip had been on target, too. Samantha Hilliard had the angelic countenance of a child and the regal demeanor of a seasoned monarch. This deadly combination would be lethal in a courtroom.

Sterling studied the blonde as she spoke in detail about the process that had been required to clean up the muddy mess. The barrister was particularly intrigued by the contrast of intense green eyes against the young woman’s alabaster skin. ‘Natural blonde for sure. Probably burns after ten minutes in the sun. Wouldn’t she look great wearing nothing but a tan line?’ Her lascivious thoughts were cut short by a question directed her way, which Sterling had to ask Ron Long to repeat.

Sam left the deposition two hours later feeling slightly drunk from all the tension. The questions had been deliberately posed in such a way as to trip her up or make her say something untrue. Several times she had found her temper building and the blonde had spent the better part of the meeting scowling at Ms. Hayes.

The inept lawyer who represented Sam caught up to her as she exited the building and suddenly wanted to talk. He had sat quietly through the entire deposition, obviously awestruck by the imposing figure of Sterling Hayes. The young Realtor dismissed the man with a wave of her hand and continued walking toward her car.

Fishing her cell phone from her purse, Sam pushed AutoDial to get Peter. The blast of heat when she opened her car door prompted her to crank the engine, set the air-conditioning on high and stand outside while the car’s interior cooled off.

“It was a lot like a trip to the principal’s office, Peter. Everything I said made me feel like I was sinking deeper and deeper.”

He related several messages but the Realtor didn’t consider any of them to be an emergency. As she was giving instructions about a project she needed Peter’s help with, Sam noticed a tall figure approaching in her periphery. Closer inspection identified none other than ‘Sterling Hayes of the ice blue eyes’.

“I’ll be in by two Peter. I need to grab some lunch and drop off these contracts in Tucker. See you then.”

Sterling was definitely coming in her direction and the younger woman automatically stiffened when she heard her name pronounced.

“Miss Hilliard.” The attorney wasn’t sure at first that she had Sam’s attention, but when she was close enough to see Sam’s face she knew that hers was not a welcome interruption.

“I just wanted to talk to you for a moment off the record.” A brilliant smile was her peace offering, but it didn’t make a dent in the stone face watching her.

“I’m going to recommend a settlement to my client. If I had known about the existence of those photographs, this thing would have never gotten this far.” She smiled again, feeling magnanimous in her attempt at fairness.

Samantha’s face clouded up even more. “I suppose you think I should be grateful. It would have been nice if you had done this a year ago or even six months ago. It might have been a welcomed development if you had counseled your client to settle because it was the right thing to do from the very beginning.” She took a deep breath and the lawyer thought she might get a word in, but was wrong. As it was, while Samantha continued her diatribe, the attorney could not tear her eyes from the young woman’s lips. Sterling imagined how it might feel to draw the firebrand into her arms and kiss her senseless.

“I’ve paid that jackass,” she pointed to her attorney’s departing car, “over two thousand dollars to extract justice from you and your client.” The Realtor’s tide of anger started to subside and her breathing slowed a little until she realized that Sterling was standing within inches of her. Sam began to back away and lost her balance as a hand shot out to steady her. There was no mistaking the jolt of fire that ran across the connection of the attorney’s fingers to Sam’s arm. It startled them both, but only Sam, frightened by the effect this stranger was having on her, reacted by lashing out.

“My attorney is as effective as a hat in a hurricane against a high priced looter like you.” The words hung in the air between them.

It was a verbal slap and Sterling felt it. The blood began to rise up the slender column of her neck, an emotional thermometer. The barrister’s eyes, no longer the color of a cloudless sky, began to storm in earnest. She spoke up while there was a momentary break in Samantha’s condemnation.

“Perhaps it would be best if we continued this conversation at another time.” Sterling’s smile was full of acid, now. Unaccustomed to having her defense skills desert her, the attorney instinctively responded with a retreat. “I’ll call your lawyer in a few days.”

“Don’t bother! He won’t be my lawyer any longer once I get to my office and get him on the phone. I’m not about to keep paying that ineffectual idiot to do nothing more than be intimidated by and drool over you.” Sam ducked her head and slid behind the wheel of her car. The arc of the slamming door barely missed a surprised Sterling. Squealing tires followed Sam’s car the short distance out of the parking lot.

Sterling stared after her, clenching and unclenching her fists in anger for a full minute before calm began to settle over her. The lawyer had always been able to find the truth, even in the sea of trash that had made up her client list over the years. Sam was right about Lowry. There were many innocent bystanders just like Samantha Hilliard that were harmed daily by wealthy bastards. Sterling had made a lucrative living representing them whether they were right or wrong, but all concerned were aware that most often, they were wrong. The lawyer’s life had been reduced to choosing lesser evils, both professionally and personally.

Samantha Hilliard had no way of knowing it but she the stunning attorney had already decided that she didn’t want to practice this kind of law anymore. Sterling had sacrificed two of her largest retainers in an effort to see what it felt like to practice on the right side of the law. She would have liked to defend her position to the alluring young woman who had just squealed out of the parking lot. For some unnamed reason, it mattered what Samantha Hilliard thought of her. Shaking her head at the verbal beating she had just taken, survival instincts long buried began to surface. The beautiful barrister was soon surprised to find a smile creeping onto her face. ‘It’s never over till it’s over.’

*******

It was bitterly cold. The wind cut through the thin jacket she wore. Sterling had chosen it over a heavier one hanging in her closet because it looked tough and that took precedence over practicality. ‘Of all days for the son of a bitch to be running late. My teeth are chattering for Christ’s sake but what am I gonna do, just walk away? He knows I can’t do that. Everybody within five miles of where I’m standing knows I can’t do that that.’

It was true. Sterling was waiting for a drop. At almost seventeen, she was the senior pick-up person for her area, which meant that she had been doing her job the longest without screwing up or overdosing. Her job entailed standing at a pre-appointed place, usually on a busy street corner and waiting for a punk named Slick to come by and exchange brown paper bags with her. Money for drugs.

As long as she reliably gave Slick the bag of money and turned the bag she received over to the dealer on her block, there was no trouble. Once she had been plagued by curiosity and had looked inside the ‘money’ sack. Rolled up wads of twenty dollar bills stared up at her. The temptation had only lasted a minute. Sterling had a good memory and she kept getting an image of her predecessor slumped against a brick wall down an alley. He had been covered with blood, unconscious and his right arm had been at too odd an angle not to be severely broken. No, she couldn’t afford to get greedy and stir up the wrath of the powers that be.

At seventeen Sterling Hayes walked down the street and men stopped to stare at her. Even wearing her standard uniform of torn and faded blue jeans under cast off men’s dress shirts from the thrift store, she could not hide her striking good looks. Sarah Hayes had insisted on keeping her daughter’s hair long. As a little girl, often wild and always in need of bathing, Sterling had complained about the sessions of brushing and patient untangling that she’d had to endure. Now, with her mother long dead, Sterling maintained the thick, dark tresses hanging down around her shoulders as a reminder of her mother’s patience and gentleness. It was the only gentleness she had ever experienced in her world.

Unsure of her family background, Sterling had no clue as to the source of her dark good looks but didn’t feel out of place in a neighborhood where fully half the population descended from Italian ancestry. She moved with a feline grace and maintained a proud posture bordering on arrogance. The fact that she seemed totally unapproachable was no accident. She had cultivated that demeanor most of her life as a defense.

Dressing in clothing chosen from the racks at the Salvation Army had never bothered the young tough. She had a good eye and knew instinctively what worked on her tall frame and what did not. Her years in High School had taught her that having a lot of money didn’t necessitate good taste. Many rich girls came to school in outfits that she considered laughable and many more watched Sterling closely so they could imitate her style.

Everyone had a different way of trying to describe the startling quality of Sterling’s eyes. She remembered her mother telling her that her eyes held the promise and color of the summer sky.

*******

The door was standing part way open when she got home. ‘We’ve been robbed!’ Panic flooded her until the thought sunk in, then she laughed aloud at the possibility. ‘What have we got that anybody would possibly want? Roach Motels and Empty Liquor Bottles? The lanky teenager tried to push the door open, but there was something heavy behind it, something that groaned.

‘Great! He missed work again.’ Sterling knew her father might have been on his way out. Sometimes he did that when she wasn’t around to run to the liquor store on the corner for him. Just as likely though, he had been on the way in when he passed out, because Sterling had not seen him the previous evening. She thought that a shame, too since she had dreaded his arrival in their apartment all evening. At midnight, she closed her bedroom door and went to bed fully clothed.

This peculiar habit had become a nightly ritual since her father had started drinking again. Sterling had seen too much and refused to be his punching bag. Five foot ten inches tall and solidly built, she didn’t have to be. The young woman knew that she could easily defend herself against the pathetic shell that had once been her father. She had signed up for a self-defense course at the “Y” and liked it so much that she had been attending martial arts classes ever since. Her fear was that she would not be able to stop herself from killing him if she ever got started in a physical scuffle. It was just easier to go into the night and find someplace to hang out until sunrise.

A young cop patrolled the beat that held most of her hiding places. She called him by his last name, Samson. He had helped her once, when she was new to the neighborhood and just turned twelve years old. He had come upon her, probably about to be beaten and possibly raped by three thugs in an alley. The policeman had no trouble convincing them to back off, his reputation for impatience with teenage mob brutality preceded him. Sterling nodded uncomfortably while he explained to her that she should avoid the alleyways in the area at all costs.

“Are you sure that you’re OK?” he asked, but remarkably Sterling had shed no tears. She had raised her face then, to whisper her thanks, and the eyes that held too much to be so young, captivated him. Completely taken with her, Samson watched over her from a discreet distance after that but Sterling made herself a promise that night and didn’t need his intervention again for many years.

Harry Hayes hadn’t always been a drunk and he certainly had not always been abusive. In fact, at one time in his life, he was a loving father, husband, and successful businessman. Then his wife had gotten sick and he became afraid. Falling into a liquor bottle helped when she was in terrible pain. He could not watch, he simply could not see her hurting and himself helpless. The accounting firm in which he had been made a partner could not use the services of a man who often came to work still half-drunk or hung over. His partner had a long talk with him and Harry straightened up for a while.

Twice, during her long battle with lung cancer Sara Hayes rallied and seemed to be on the road to recovery. At those times, Harry was a different person. He cleaned up his act, took care of their modest house in the suburbs and worked hard at his job. Then Sterling would come home from fifth grade and find her mother in bed and her Aunt Audrey busying about the kitchen, fixing dinner. Harry would fall to pieces then. Losing her mother had broken Sterling’s heart, too, but Harry had always acted as if it was his loss alone.

Disgusted, she threw her shoulder against the door and pushed him out of the way enough for her to enter. He moaned again but didn’t even look up at her. It was practically an everyday occurrence for him to regain consciousness in a strange place. The teenager went into the kitchen to discover unidentifiable spills and an overflowing ashtray. She carefully collected the shards of broken glass in the sink where her father had dropped a glass. Filling the percolator, she lit a burner on the stove and started coffee. “I ought to just let him lay there and die.” She shook her head in disgust. How many times had she picked him up? How many pots of coffee had she put on? How many mornings after had she witnessed and how many more could he survive?

As it happened, Harry Hayes was experiencing his very last hangover. Later in that same day, he stepped, unsteadily off the curb while taking a pull from a bottle in the brown bag he carried. The bus driver couldn’t stop in time to avoid hitting him and Sterling arrived home from her evening drop, an orphan.

************

While other teenagers were concerned with getting a date for the prom, Sterling had managed to keep the rent paid on their shabby apartment in the projects. Harry had lost the house soon after his wife’s death. Sterling learned quickly what it took to survive in her new neighborhood. Assuming she would be better off the teenager slowly built trust between her self and the local drug franchise. That was how she’d gotten the job that paid enough to cover rent, food and other expenses. She had even paid for her father’s booze for a while.

It had now been four months since her father’s death and Sterling had a real problem. She borrowed money to bury him and it would soon be time to repay it. In addition, her landlord was suspicious about Harry’s whereabouts. She never notified him of her father’s death, fearing that the lease would be suspended. Sterling was a very old seventeen, but seventeen just the same and not of legal age to sign a lease.

Slick, the dealer she worked with, had spoken to the higher ups on her behalf and secured the loan for the funeral expenses. Now she owed her soul to the franchise and everybody involved knew it. A proposition had been presented to her the previous day and her deadline for answering it was looming a short two hours away.

There was to be a party at the country estate of Gino Bertilini, the most powerful crime boss in the city, on Saturday. He was hosting dignitaries whose identities it was dangerous to even know. Mr. Bertilini’s son Alex was in charge of entertainment and having a hard time finding an acceptable group of young women to attend. The usual fare was too rough for this particular group of guests, according to his father. Alex had to admit he was pretty tired of some of them himself. He needed new faces and put the word out through the family network. Slick made some inquiries and found out that Sterling could pay her entire debt to the family by attending. He thought the news would make him a hero, but the look in her eyes told him otherwise.

“I’m a lot of things you prick, but ‘whore’ is not one of them!” She spat the words at the young man sitting on the sofa. He had tried every trick her knew to get this girl to give him a tumble. He had offered a free supply of drugs, but she had strict rules about staying a non-user. At twenty-four to her seventeen, he supposed it would be a simple accomplishment to bed her, but for the past year she had fought him on every front. The loan arrangement had been a nice gesture, but not enough to get him there. They had been talking all week about possibilities for repaying the debt. Nothing either of them could come up with would yield Sterling twenty-five hundred dollars in time.

“I never said you was a whore, but you need the money and this is an opportunity to get it.” Slick hung his head, sincerely hurt by her attitude.

“I know you’re just trying to help me man, but selling my body ? well that’s pretty low down. Besides, I can’t pull this off. I don’t have the clothes for this shit. Even if I did, I’d be clueless how to act and stuff. This is crazy!” She paced the carpet directly in front of him. Her tight young ass was just at eye level for him and he couldn’t help taking a look each time she turned away from him. It was getting harder for him to concentrate. He licked his lips and made a suggestion.

“Maybe I can get Joey to have one of the other girls talk to you and tell you what all goes on.” Joey was the boss’ youngest son. He was, in fact, one of several extra sons in line for the ascendancy of power and felt better about himself when he surrounded himself with underlings like Slick. ” You’re smarter than all those broads that hang out at his club are. I know you could pull it off if somebody could give you a little help. The clothes thing ain’t no problem. All of that is provided. No way Alex would trust some of them girls he hires to dress themselves. They’d all look like sluts and floozies if he did.”

No matter how long they talked about it and how hard the dark beauty fought against the inevitability, in the end it was the only salvation offered her and she took it.

‘RITZ’ proclaimed the pink neon reflecting up at Sterling from the puddled sidewalk. She had walked by the front of the club four times so far and couldn’t make herself go in. ‘It’s not that I’m better than anybody, God knows I work for them already, sort of. I just don’t want to have more than a passing acquaintance with any of these guys. Slick can try to sell me that line of shit all day long but I know better. I’ll be expected to screw these old goats. She closed her eyes and clenched her jaw. ‘I just need to get past that. The who and the how often are what I have to find out.’

Sterling had learned not to have expectations. She also understood that she had a debt to pay and she had no money. That meant that she would have to sell the only thing of value she had remaining. Resigning herself to her fate, the young woman took a deep breath and reached for the brass door pull, entering the cool interior of the sleazy joint with the classy name.

A large man with a face like a caricature came over to her immediately. “Sterling Hayes, here to see Alex Bertilini about a job next weekend? I may be a little late, sorry.”

He grunted and motioned for her to follow him through a door into a brightly-lit office. It was tastefully furnished and so drastically different from the sordid interior of the club she’d just walked through, Sterling began to wonder if she was dreaming. An overly made up brunette with huge breasts that were spilling out of a scoop necked tee shirt greeted her. The woman’s voice was so high and squeaky; it was all Sterling could do not to laugh.

“Come on with me and I’ll tell you the drill. If the interview goes OK I’ll send you over for the clothes you’ll need.”

************

There were four women all together, riding in the back of the black sedan toward the estate in Newport. Sterling had never met any of them, but they had at least a passing acquaintance of each other. After two or three attempts at drawing her into their conversation, they just left her alone to stew. The other women were only slightly offended by her rebuke.

Sterling began to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation between them. When she put together the facts and realized that one of them was actually a several months younger than she, it made her slightly nauseous. Apparently this was a business that aged women quickly.

‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Sterling had long since been divested of her virginity, but by her choice. Outside the realm of her sexuality, the irresponsibility and cowardice of her father had sacrificed her worldly innocence. Now she dreaded her first experience as part of the sex for hire team being whisked to a Mob chieftain’s social affair. ‘If it’s possible to go lower than this, I would like to know how.’She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the cool glass of the car window. As the primitive coastal landscape sped by, the young tough allowed herself a moment of self-pity, but only one. Any more than that would have proved disastrous. If she had any options, Sterling wouldn’t be on this road, in this predicament.

The car that transported them was a late model stretch Lincoln. Valuable to Gino for his sharp mind, Alex had decided that it would look like he was offering his father’s guests cheap goods if he had the women delivered in anything else. Every detail had been seen to, and the first guests had arrived a few hours ago. The boss’ son seemed to be in complete control but his palms were sweating and his stomach was on fire. Early that morning, Joey had beaten the hell out of a housemaid he’d been banging for the past few days. Gino detested low class scenes and it had been all Alex could do to clean up the details before his father found out. He was dog-tired of sweeping up after his little brother.

Gino Bertilini had come from nothing to become the head of the largest drug syndicate in Boston. It was no accident that he was a man accustomed to adaptation. Gino had exposed himself to all kinds of humanity on his way up the ladder and had learned a great deal about the motivations and weaknesses of men. He prided himself on his rise above his humble upbringing and insisted on surrounding himself with things of beauty and rarity.

Alex would catch particular hell if his old man found the party girls he had chosen to be low class. “The girls are here, boss,” announced a heavyset man a distinct bulge under his jacket where his shoulder holstered weapon resided. Alex gave instructions for them to be shown upstairs immediately. His father and their guests were poolside. The four women would be given a chance to unpack their personal belongings. The clothes selected for them arrived that morning in the van that also brought the expansive liquor supply.

A trip poolside was not mandatory, but Sterling’s three protégés hurried to get into swimsuits and join their host and his guests. Each was afraid that the others would latch onto the best catch. Sterling, meanwhile, used the time to study her surroundings. She had been cautioned about wandering the grounds without an escort, but nobody had established any restrictions about the interior of the house.

She changed into a deep burgundy silk lounging suit. The feel of the fabric against her skin was seductive. Although the outfit looked like a pair of men’s pajamas to her, the cut of it was very flattering to her muscled, lean form. She brushed her long hair for several minutes before the repetitive motion brought memories of her mother. Knowing how ashamed Sarah Hayes would be to see her daughter in this current predicament, Sterling put the brush away and tried to empty her head of all thoughts.

The young woman barely recognized her own reflection as she passed a mirror in the upstairs hall. Alex had stationed men at strategic locations throughout the house for security reasons. Their presence was necessary, but it was important to The Boss that it be as discreet as possible. Sterling figured that if she ventured anywhere she wasn’t supposed to be, they would let her know.

She walked slowly through the downstairs hallway, studying the paintings on the walls. They were undoubtedly expensive, but she had seen priceless paintings before in the museums of Boston. Samson had even accompanied her once, amazed at the focus of the young woman on something so far removed from the ugliness of her everyday existence. As he watched her he was quietly reminded of a child, nose pressed against a toy store window, dreaming of things unobtainable. Gino’s collection was exquisite. It was a representation of timeless beauty and drew her magically from one canvas to the next.

The door to the study stood open and Sterling followed her eyes to a still life by Stinsky. She could almost smell the aroma of the apples that she knew to be a favorite subject of his. Hands clasped behind her back, the tall beauty lingered before the canvas, paying tribute to the painter with her eyes.

A silent alarm began clanging inside Sterling’s head. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she realized that she was being watched. Scanning the room, she quickly spotted a distinguished man seated behind a desk near the center of the vast space.

“Sorry. I had no idea anyone was using this room.” Sterling spoke quietly, and turned to beat a hasty retreat.

“No harm. I am impressed with your appreciation of fine paintings.” His smile was sincere, but his overall countenance was that of a predator. Sterling sensed danger. He stood and moved to greet his guest, extending his hand for her to shake.

“Gino Bertilini, your host for the weekend. I am enchanted.” He bowed over her hand and kissed it. Sterling had to remind herself that this was an infamous mobster and evil drug lord even though he was doing one heck of a Cary Grant impersonation.

“I’m pleased to meet you Mr. Bertilini?”

“No, no, no. You must call me Gino, otherwise I will feel like the antiquity that I am.” His dark eyes crinkled into a charming smile and Sterling felt herself begin to relax a bit. “I don’t know how my son happens to know a beautiful young woman like you, but I am grateful that he has invited you here this weekend. Normally, his female friends aren’t particularly interested in art or beauty beyond their link to monetary value.”

Sterling studied the barrel-chested Italian. He was disarmingly handsome at fifty. Barely as tall as she, he carried himself in such a way that he seemed like a giant standing before her. Gino had dark eyes and hair, beginning to show a hint of gray at the temples. Dressed impeccably in steel gray slacks and a black silk shirt that mirrored his every move, he might have been any businessman. His body was muscular, broad shoulders funneling into a trim waistline. The thin white line of a scar running up the curve of his right jaw was the only visible reminder of the dues he must have paid to get to his current station in life.

Sterling was immobilized by her reaction to his presence. His eyes were penetrating and showed her his power, revealing the feral beast within him. Gino still had hold of her hand and showed no signs of releasing it. “I have some special paintings in my private study that I would like to show you. Perhaps after dinner?” Sterling nodded her assent, too captivated by her sophisticated host to realize his real intentions.

“Shall we join the others by the pool? We can sit on the veranda in the shade if you like and at least seem sociable.” He smiled at her, released her hand and pointed the way.

*********

“What are we going to do Jake?” Pregnant in her senior year of high school, Samantha was in serious trouble and pleaded for Jake’s attention as his eyes scanned the other students loitering in the gym.

“Look Sam, it’s not such a big deal. I know someone who can give us a name.” He looked at her now. “You don’t want to have this baby do you? I’m too young to be a father.”

‘Apparently not,’ she thought to herself but she didn’t need to remind him or herself that they had been foolish having unprotected sex. Sam was maddest at herself, because she had not been blinded by love or anything. It was just a spur of the moment decision to try sex with Jake, mostly out of curiosity and she was going to have to live with the consequences.

Making sure she had his attention, Samantha made a request. “See what you can find out and how much it costs by this weekend. I don’t really know how much time we have, but I think the sooner we take care of it the better off we’ll all be.”

Jake assured her that he would call her that night and give her all the information.

He didn’t call that night of course or the next night either. Samantha knew that he had started dating a cheerleader, which was why he was looking around the whole time she was with him in the gym that day. He couldn’t afford to make his new girl mad by being seen publicly with her. ‘God, I am so stupid.’ She let go a huge sigh just as her mother turned through the doorway and invaded the privacy of Sam’s bedroom.

“Have you made any decision about the Prom?”

Sam just shook her head and tried not to laugh in her mother’s face. ‘Maybe I could meet this ‘doctor’ at the hotel where the prom is being held. I could have the abortion and then just go on downstairs to the dance.’ She was really out there with her thoughts these days. A dozen scenarios had been invented, all involving a masked and gloved doctor. They accomplished the abortion on a roller coaster, in an elevator, in a parked car at the mall and now at the prom. The young woman needed to talk to somebody because she was losing it.

“Aunt Jane, it’s Samantha. Do you have a minute?” Her father’s sister was the only one in the family she could trust with this information. Fortunately Jane was willing to listen and didn’t start hurling judgements right away, like her own mother would have. Jane needed some time to let all of it sink in, before sitting down with her favorite niece. They made plans for Sam to spend the weekend. Jane would come up with the appropriate lies to tell Sam’s mother, Mattie.

It was a good plan, all in all. Unfortunately the abdominal pains that started while Sam was at the mall Friday night, rendered that plan useless and necessitated another, more urgent one.

“Mrs. Rogers, I need you to fill out these forms for me, front and back. As soon as the doctor has examined her, I’ll come out and get you.” The emergency room nurse’s smile seemed genuine enough, but it was wasted on Jane. Her brother and sister-in-law were at Calloway Gardens for a golfing weekend and she was in the emergency room at Northside Hospital helping her niece have a miscarriage. The staff hadn’t questioned her maternity. She had the same deep green eyes as her niece, and the same abundance of dirty blonde hair. She thanked God over and over that she had been at home when Sam called her.

The young woman propped up in the hospital bed looked tired and unfamiliar. Her eyes fluttered open for a moment and she recognized her aunt standing beside the bed, holding her hand. Samantha had wanted to be rid of her pregnancy, but she could not help but shed some tears now that she was. Jane cried with her for a while, then pulled up a chair and propped her feet on the lower rails of the hospital bed to watch Sam sleep.

***********Christmas vacation was only a week away. Mattie Hilliard had been on one for over a month, trying to get her daughter to commit to a dance and two parties over the holidays. Samantha had dodged the bullet so far, but her mother had stepped up her campaign. “Phone Sam! I think it’s your Mom!”

“God! Will she never give it up? I don’t know what it will take.”

“Sure you do. You know exactly what it’s gonna take, but I don’t recommend that you go through with it.” Sally Farrell was Sam’s best friend. They had started their freshman year together at Auburn University and were still roommates in their junior year. The coeds had helped each other through shattered romances. Each had held the other’s head over the commode on more than one drunken occasion. They had suffered their academic agonies together as well. Sally had met Sam’s mother on only two occasions but knew from all the late night talks she’d had with her roommate that Mattie Hilliard was not going to take the news well.

“I want to tell her Sally. I’m really tired of this charade and she won’t stop cramming me down the throat of every available man in Metro Atlanta. What is the worst thing that can happen?”

“She’d never speak to you again. HMMMMmmm. There’s no loss there, though is there?” Sally laughed.

“I better go grab the phone. She’s on hold long distance and besides costing her money, it’s giving her time to polish up her arguments for the Christmas Dance.” Sam rolled her eyes heavenward and started down the hall.

*****”Merry Christmas Daddy! I’m so glad to see you!” Sam threw her arms around her father in a heartfelt hug, which he gratefully returned. The young woman turned to her mother who briefly wiped her lips against Sam’s hair in lieu of a real greeting.

“You’re late Samantha and we have so many things to do tonight,” Mrs. Hilliard scolded. “Sam, get her luggage upstairs will you?” He saluted sarcastically and turned to his appointed duty. Samantha loved it when her dad fought back, even if he only did it with humor. “Sam!” Samantha and Mr. Hilliard both responded.

“What?” They looked at each other and laughed. “It’s your own fault,” Samantha nudged him in the ribs. “You shouldn’t have named me after yourself.” It hadn’t been a problem until she went away to school and encouraged everyone on campus to call her just ‘Sam’. Now she was used to answering to the shortened version of her name and it drove her mother crazy when she was at home.

“I wasn’t speaking to you SAMANTHA.” She deliberately exaggerated the pronunciation. Mrs. Hilliard rattled off her instructions to her husband. “Come on in the kitchen Samantha while I check on dinner. We need to talk about the party tomorrow night.”

‘We sure do,’ Sam thought. She had made a big decision; one she knew was not going to go over well. In fact, she feared that it might cause a serious rift between herself and her parents. After a great deal of soul searching and self-examination, Samantha Hilliard had discovered that she loved women and one woman in particular. Hating confrontation, Sam had spent the last three months getting up her nerve to announce this fact to her folks. She didn’t want to ruin the holidays for her family, but her Mother wouldn’t take no for an answer and Sam had no intention of being pawed by some country club gigolo at the Christmas dance just to please her mother. Besides, it was hard enough spending so much time away from Sharon. Sam wasn’t about to tell the love of her life that she’d spent several evenings over Christmas being hit on by local studs. Sharon would break somebody’s arm.

Sharon had, in fact, wanted to spend Christmas with Sam so badly that she asked to come home to Atlanta with her lover. In a panic, that involved several late night strategy sessions with her friend Sally, Sam came up with several reasons she could give Sharon why it was a bad idea. In reality, she could just see how her mother would react to Sharon’s masculine mannerisms and her butch appearance. It would be hard enough to confess her sexual preference in concept. Meeting the object of her daughter’s affection would finish Mattie Hilliard off. The second time a goodbye kiss with Sharon had resulted in passionate lovemaking, Sam knew this trip home would be hard to handle for everyone.

******

“This is the last of it.” Depositing the last dinner plate in the sink, Sam Hilliard came up behind his wife and put his arms around her waist. He nuzzled her neck, causing her to stiffen and pull away from him. He shrugged his shoulders and moved into a chair at the kitchen table, beside his daughter.

“I’m glad you’re here Dad. There’s something I’ve been trying to tell Mom for a while and she doesn’t seem to get it. I’ve tried to say this in so many ways?” she stared at the floor hoping for some miraculous message to reveal itself there. He nodded, encouraging her to go on. The love he felt for his daughter was obvious and it gave her the strength to speak.

“Mom, Dad, I’m in love with a woman.” Samantha waited, expecting the ceiling to fall in at minimum. She searched her father’s face and detected no change from the previous minute, which relieved her. Her mother’s face however was changing shades, light to darker red, then almost purple. Her mouth opened and closed, just like the goldfish that Sharon had in a bowl at her apartment.

“We’ll need to send you somewhere so that you can get help” were the first words out of Mrs. Hilliard’s mouth.

“I’m not ill Mother, I’ve just made a choice about how I want to live my life and it wasn’t an easy one either.” Sam looked from her mother to her father, waiting.

“Ridiculous! I have never heard anything so disgusting in my life!” That was the expected reaction and Mattie did not disappoint her daughter.

“I know you don’t understand Mother and I’m sorry if it hurts you.” Trying to remember some of the things she had rehearsed with Sally she grasped for something to say. “It has nothing to do with the way you and daddy raised me.”

“I should say not! We did everything for you, gave you everything?” Mrs. Hilliard could only sputter. Her vocabulary seemed to be lost somewhere.

“Now Mattie, she’s our daughter first and anything else comes after that.” Sam loved her father at this moment more than ever before and that was considerable.

“Don’t try to appease me Sam. It’s an abomination! Our only child is a queer! That’s going to be fine news for her grandparents now isn’t it?”

It was the first of many low blows. Samantha hadn’t seen it coming though and tears popped into her eyes as if she had been slapped. Mattie was concerned with what the people at the club would think. Suddenly she thought about the parents of the young men she had matched Samantha up with for various holiday festivities. What could she tell them? If the word got out, she would be mortified! She struck out at her daughter, wanting to deal her the kind of earth shattering blow she had been dealt. She sagged against the countertop, her back to the rest of her family.

“You’re upset Mother and this is startling news for you. Why don’t I just go upstairs to bed and we can talk about this some more when we’ve all had some rest and a little time to adjust?”

Her mother spun on her. “I have a better idea ‘Missy’. Why don’t you just get your luggage and get out of this house?!” The demonic look in Mattie’s eyes shocked both her husband and her daughter.

“Mattie, you don’t mean that and you know it!” Sam Hilliard protested, but his fear was realized when she delivered her ultimatum.

“You go, or I go. Do you understand me? It’s as simple as that.” Mattie Hilliard was five foot eight to her daughter’s five foot five and had to lean down to do it, but these damning words were delivered eye to eye. Sam stared at her, letting the full flush of anger rise into her cheeks while words formed in her mind.

“I will not let you make me feel ashamed of who I am Mother. I realize that you’re upset, but if you would let me tell you how happy I am now that I’ve found out?”

Mrs. Hilliard waved both of her hands in Samantha’s face to stop her. “No! I don’t want to know any of it. You can keep your perverted little stories to yourself.” She exited the kitchen and swept up the stairs, slamming the door to the master bedroom.

Samantha and her father looked forlornly at each other. When the tears started streaming down his daughter’s face, Sam Hilliard opened his arms and took her into his embrace. They held on to each other, trying to think, to understand what had just transpired. He would fight his wife over his daughter’s happiness if that was what Sam needed from him. “I’ll speak to her.” He started after his wife, but his daughter caught hold of his arm and stopped him.

“No dad. There’s gonna be enough hell for you to pay around here as it is. Don’t do that to yourself, too.” She hung her head and a single teardrop fell onto the toe of her trendy workboot. “I think I’ll call Aunt Jane and see if she’ll take me in for a few days. I want to believe that some part of Christmas can be salvaged. Maybe if I give her a little time and some space, she can come to terms with it.” Sam smiled for her father, because she knew that he knew that both of their hearts were breaking. Her smile was the only gift she could give him at the moment.

*********

“So, how’s my favorite niece? You sounded terrible on the phone. What are you and Mattie fighting about now? She trying to put you in a prom dress again?” Jane’s laughter died out when she saw the tears start trailing down Sam’s face. “Whoa there. Why don’t you come into the kitchen and tell me what this is about?” She steered Samantha by the arm and yelled to her husband as they went by the den. “Sam and I are gonna have a little girl talk in the kitchen, Al.” They had been married long enough for him to realize that meant the kitchen was off limits and he wasn’t expected to help entertain his wife’s niece. He turned the volume for the football game up a notch.

“OK, talk to me girl.” Jane moved around the kitchen, putting the kettle on for tea and setting out cups and saucers. Sam smiled; thinking that offering her a soothing cup of tea was a very ‘Aunt Jane’ thing to do in a dilemma.

“After the way my mother reacted, I’m not sure I want to share this information with you. If you go off the deep end too I won’t have any family left.”

Jane squeezed her shoulder and gave her a warm smile. “Honey, nothing you could ever tell me would change the way I love you. P.S. Never, ever, compare me with your mom or expect parallel reactions. She is your mother and my brother’s wife and as much as I love her, we are two very different people.” ?and don’t like each other most of the time.’

Samantha was feeling braver and ready to spill it when the teakettle started to whistle. With her back to her niece Jane went about pouring the water into mugs and dunking the tea bags. She encouraged Sam to continue. “I’m listening. Go ahead.”

She would have and could have, but it was a help that Sam didn’t have to watch her Aunt’s reaction. Sam readied herself, but still found herself in total shock when she realized that Jane was laughing.

“Is that all you’re worried about? My gosh Sam, I figured that out long ago. The fact that your mother hasn’t tells me how hard she works at not seeing reality.”

“You knew? But you never said anything, or let on at all.” Sam was stunned.

“It’s no big thing. In fact Sam and I talked about it once, briefly.” The young woman was truly agog now. “He said that he has always considered it a part of his role as you father to protect your innocence. Your dad told me that it would be easier for him to accept in some ways if you chose to give yourself to another woman. I understand that and I told him so.”

The shock on her face was beginning to fade, but the young woman’s emotions were adrift in a serious storm. “I want to believe that he isn’t disappointed in me.” Sam listened as Jane gave her the reassurance that they both realized she needed.

“Honey, your daddy loves you to no end! I don’t have to tell you that. Anyway your mama will come around. Let me tell you something.” She set the cups in their saucers before them and began stirring sugar into her own tea. “Your mother was a very beautiful woman once, like you are now. She was always kind of spoiled by it. See, in those days, a beautiful woman wasn’t expected to be anything else. The world has changed, but she won’t and it bothers her to see anybody playing by a different set of rules. Oh, she loves my brother and make no mistake, he has been crazy about her since he laid eyes on her twenty-nine years ago, but he accepts her without condition. Of course, in this case, he’s gonna have to choose between her and what is right. That will be hard for Sam, but he’ll manage it. Don’t give up on your daddy.”

Samantha listened and grew calmer as her Aunt talked on. Jane told Sam about the days when her parents had been younger and so obviously in love. She might have been trying to convince Sam that her mother had been a real human being at one time. She couldn’t explain when asked how Mattie Hilliard had evolved from that person to her present day self. Finally as midnight approached, Jane led her niece up the stairs to the guestroom.

They found an extra blanket for the bed and Jane encouraged her to call her friend if she needed to. It was the most touching of a large group of kindnesses and Sam could hardly contain her emotions. As Jane was pulling the door closed so that Samantha would have some privacy for her call, she stopped. “If I had ever been blessed with a daughter Sam, I would have wished with my whole heart to have one like you. I mean that, honey.” The door closed and she was gone.

*******

Six years went by before Samantha and her mother had a real reconciliation. Even then, there was often an iciness between mother and daughter that made things difficult. Sharon had long gone from Samantha’s life and she had moved on. The Bachelors degree in English that she carried away from Auburn with her was a far cry from a meal ticket. Having focused on graduation day for the first twenty-one years of her life, Samantha studied the rolled parchment in her hand and wondered what on earth she was supposed to do next.

A number of false starts and side trips had led her into the real estate business. Sam, least of all, would have ever believed she could be good at something that involved so much confrontation and negotiation. Unshakable integrity, a low-key approach and her meticulous attention to details made her a trusted realtor in the re-emerging Atlanta neighborhood where she had chosen to specialize.

“Of course I’m disappointed that you can’t come down this weekend, but I can look forward to your abuse next month instead. Give me a call when the smoke settles Sally.” Samantha’s college roommate came to visit her often in Atlanta. Wife and mother of two small boys, Sally welcomed any opportunity to escape her home for a few days of Southern hospitality. The current trip had been planned for months, but at the last minute one of the boys had come home with measles. His brother was sure to follow suit and Sally didn’t have the heart to “leave the little monsters” with their dad.

Samantha pictured the tow headed brothers, who might have been twins to look at them, tearing through the house armed with imaginary guns and raising a ruckus. A picture of Sally and her family hung on the wall of Sam’s office in a place where she could easily glance up and see it. Through most of the last ten years, it represented the only family she had known, except her Aunt Jane and of course Janet.

“Line one, boss.” Peter studied her closely, which was nothing new. Sam wondered if she was guilty of a fashion faux pas. He was always quick to let her know if anything about her appearance was either good or bad. “One of the advantages of working with a queen,” he told her.

“What? You’re looking me over like a prize heifer.”

“I noticed your lights on late last night. I was just trying to determine if you got any. Finally.”

She pitched a pencil at him, which he caught handily before pivoting gracefully and leaving her office. Sam loved Peter although he could be very nosy and overprotective of her. It had been three years since she had sold him a house across the street from her own. They had grown very close almost immediately, and the vibrant young man took an interest in everything Sam did. When he lost his secretarial job in Midtown, she had hired him. While he sometimes got on her nerves, Peter was tremendously efficient and had been a real find where business was concerned.

“Hello. Oh, hi Steve. I’ve got some great news for you guys. Your offer has been accepted.” She went on to give her client the details of the contract she had negotiated for him and his partner. Sam had shown them over twenty houses before they found the one that they couldn’t live without. Not all of her deals had as happy an ending as this one promised to have, but she would be glad to welcome these young professionals to the neighborhood.

As soon as she hung up her phone, Peter re-appeared in the doorway of her office. “Don’t forget, Rob is doing your hair in a half hour. He can be a real bitch if you’re late.” Samantha made a face. She couldn’t recall why she had promised Peter that she would subject herself to this, although in fleeting moments, she admitted that a new look might be nice.

“Why don’t you go with me and divert some of the criticism? I hate it when he starts in about my split ends and un-tweezed eyebrows.” Trying to look pitiful sometimes had the desired effect where her secretary was concerned.

“OK, but I’m not coming back here after that. You can straighten out your own voice mails tomorrow morning. Deal?”

“Deal!”

Forty minutes later she sat, caped and ready for the stylist’s scissors to do their magic. Unfortunately Rob and Peter had been arguing for ten minutes about what the appropriate cut should be. They compromised by deciding on something short for Rob, and something blonder to please Peter.

“I guess nobody is interested in my opinion, right?” The two men never even acknowledged her remark, but were busily selecting a shade of blonde. Two hours later, Rob spun the chair around and Sam saw her image in the huge mirror for the first time. The change was fairly drastic, but very flattering. She touched her neck where her shoulder length tresses had hung earlier that day, in an effort to get used to the bareness of it. The color change was subtler, leaving her undeniably blonde instead of her natural borderline shade.

Peter and Rob waited, getting more nervous as the silent seconds ticked by. Only now did either of them entertain the possibility that they had made a mistake in their judgement.

“Wow!” Sam’s face lit up. “I suppose you’ll start with the blonde jokes now, huh?” She studied first one profile and then the other before giving both of the men a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, guys.” Samantha glanced at her watch and realized that she was going to be late meeting Janet for dinner. “Gotta go, but thanks, really.”

Sam caught her own reflection in the glass front of a shop in Virginia Highlands as she made her way down the sidewalk to the TapRoom. It was one of her favorite places to eat in the whole city, and her ex-lover Janet had grudgingly agreed to join her. Janet loved Sam’s company but always groused about eating in nice places. She really had no appreciation for good food and said they were wasted on her.

‘Janet’s going to be surprised when she sees the new hairdo. I can’t wait to see what she says. Apparently I needed a change and didn’t know it, because I like it a lot!’ The vivacious young woman smoothed her skirt and went into the restaurant.

As soon as Sam entered the crowded bar she recognized Janet’s back at a high top table in the corner and automatically smiled in response. Her course dark hair was cut short and she was dressed, as always, in a sedate blazer over dress slacks. Sam knew that she had dozens of outfits, all basically the same in her closet. There was an unused glass sitting on the table next to a half empty bottle of beer. “I see you still prefer to drink straight from the bottle. I never could teach you any manners, could I?” Sam’s ex looked at her for a few seconds before recognition lit up her countenance.

“Well hello! My gosh, what have you done to yourself?” Janet stood and accepted a warm hug from her friend. “You look fantastic! Now I’ll REALLY never stop kicking myself for giving you up.”

“It’s always nice to hear you speak the truth. Thanks for the compliment, do you really like it?” She reached up and fluffed the back of her hair.

“You’re fishing now. I’ll never understand why you’re insecure about how gorgeous you are.” Sam’s friend took her seat again, explaining that there was a short wait to get a table for dinner.

The truth Sam spoke of had to do with the fact that Janet had never gotten over their break up and probably never would. Even though it had been her fault, she realized when it was too late just how much she felt for Samantha. The hurt between them was deep by then and the damage irreparable. When enough time had gone by for Sam’s hurt to start healing, she realized that they were simply destined to hang on to their seven years as friends and let go of their four years as a couple. She loved Janet too much to simply let her go altogether.

They caught up on the happenings of the past few weeks. Both of them had been swamped with work. In fact, Janet had been in Washington representing the software-marketing firm she worked for all week. When they finally got to a short lull in the conversation, the young computer executive interjected, “I heard through the grapevine that you’re seeing somebody?”

“The grapevine extends all the way to Washington, huh?” Sam countered, but blushed slightly as well. It was impossible for her to hide anything from this woman who had shared so much of her life. “I’ve been out a couple of times, yes.”

“Who are you seeing? Spill it, Sam.” The dark haired woman smiled, inviting her friend’s confidence, until Sam finally caved in.

“The people in this town need to find something more interesting to gossip about than my social life. I go out occasionally. I have dated a couple of women more than once, but I’m not interested in anything serious.”

Janet sighed deeply and took a long pull on the bottle in front of her.

Sam knew her too well and couldn’t let her friend’s reaction pass without comment. “You gave up the right to be relieved by that news a long time ago, you know.” Janet tried to look as if she didn’t know what her friend was talking about. “You needn’t worry on any account because I’ve about reconciled myself to living alone. I’m getting too old to tolerate anyone else’s bad habits or to compromise by giving up any of mine.” They were approached by the hostess, letting them know that their table was ready. The two friends went in to dinner.

*********

Gino Bertilini had developed a real appreciation for art in his life. In fact, the years of increasing his vast power and wealth had become a boring proposition until he realized that he could use both to surround himself with objects of beauty. Sterling soaked up the benefits of Gino’s wealth as if they were rays of sunshine. After that weekend in Newport, she never went back to the pitiful apartment in the projects. He gloried in her transition from street punk to sophisticated young woman and reveled in the opportunity to share what he revered with so appreciative an audience.

The lessons she learned were lasting. Another individual might have been afraid of the power that allowed Gino to order the death of a man as casually as he might order dinner in a restaurant, but it was what drew Sterling to him.

A sexual novice compared to a man of Gino’s experience, the young woman had a patient teacher in her fifty-year-old lover. Gino had been amazed at the seductive allure of such a tantalizing female. He could only wonder what her youth had been like and congratulated himself on finding her for himself.

The two lovers were well suited. He was the stable older man she had always needed in her life. Sterling was his midlife brush with mortality. She was spirited enough to challenge him and he taught her everything about the good life. They traveled and dined out at restaurants mostly belonging to his friends. They even occasionally went dancing which was something she had ever done before. Sterling was surprised to find that she not only enjoyed the latter, she was good at it.

The ringing phone seemed more urgent than usual. She debated whether to abandon the stair stepper and answer it or not. Sterling hated for her exercise routine to be interrupted but instinctively felt that she should answer the phone. “Hello!” Left breathless by the sprint it took to get there before the machine picked it up, all she could do was smile at the voice that greeted her.

“Hang on a second.” She carried the phone on her shoulder as she grabbed a towel from her bathroom and moved into the den. Sterling half-sat on the corner of the priceless Empire desk that had been her most recent birthday present. “Now, I can talk. What’s up with you today Gino?” As he spoke, she realized where she was sitting in her sweaty work out clothes and jumped up, chastising herself.

It had been three and a half years now since that day he had spotted her in the hallway outside his office in Newport. Sterling was his equal now, capable of feeling comfortable in practically any social situation. She was sleek and sophisticated in every way. Both of them were capable of being bright and witty or stoic and intense. Fortunately, they rarely occupied the same end of the spectrum. It was a good match.

“I’ve been orchestrating the takeover of a dry cleaning chain in New Jersey all day. Pretty boring stuff, compared to your Asian history exam. How did you do?”

It always amazed Sterling that he could head a business that employed hundreds, run a family that included a sick wife, six sons, a daughter plus three grandchildren and still keep accurate track of what was happening in her day to day life.

“I probably should have done better, but I hate essay questions and this guy just insists on having us write volumes. You’d think he’d be tired of our bullshit by now.”

Gino cleared his throat. A real study in contradiction, the crime boss had made a project of policing his young mistress’ language and this was his way of exhibiting his displeasure with her choice of words. “Sorry. It just slipped out. Sometimes you just have to call them like you see them though, Gino.” He laughed.

Sterling ceaselessly amused and amazed him. Over time, the physical relationship that had been their beginning changed into something closer. He had been in love with the young beauty from the first moment he had laid eyes on her. It was his most carefully guarded secret. He could never tell her or anyone else for that matter. A man like Gino Bertilini could not afford to love anything.

“You feel like going out to dinner tonight? I’m kind of restless and I hear there’s a great new place over near the track.”

She laughed at him. The man had so much class and polish that he could hold his own with foreign dignitaries, yet his love for gambling made him by his own admission, just another thug. The excitement he displayed while watching his horse cross the finish line in first place was rivaled only by the passion he displayed when he was with her.

*******

Law school had been his idea and a good one. Gino could have given her money and did, but education was a gift that she could keep even when he was gone. At fifty-three to her twenty-one, it was an inevitability that she would outlive him.

She surprised everyone, especially herself, with her academic abilities. Often commended by her professors for hard work, she was frequently snubbed by her classmates for the same reason. No matter, a bright mind and tenacious will had been turned loose.

Upon graduation, Sterling asked for and received a job in the offices of Gino’s attorney. Stanley Reed’s firm had represented the Families’ interest for Gino’s entire career. Reed had, in fact, ridden the mobsters’ coattails for thirty-five years. The two men had mutual trust, a rarity in their respective businesses. Stan understood his boss’ attraction to the dark beauty of his new law associate. He would have liked to pursue Sterling for himself, but it would cost him his practice and probably his life. No woman was worth that in his estimation, was she?

“Come in.” Stan was hanging up the phone when he heard the tap on his door. “Sterling, hello. I have something I need to speak with you about.” The head of the firm was the complete antithesis of Gino. Overweight and pasty complected; even the twelve hundred-dollar suits he wore couldn’t make him look presentable. Reed’s piggy eyes ran over her in a way that made the young woman feel dirty. He had made his career out of accurate character judgement and he knew that the flawless beauty before him was way outside of his grasp. Reed silently acknowledged the fact and shook his head in regret before getting down to business.

“I’m assigning you to the Sartori case. I think it would be good experience for you and at the same time it will show me what you’re made of.”

The young attorney stared wide-eyed at the man behind the desk. The Sartori trial would have very high visibility and any mistakes would happen in front of the media opening the firm up to attack from the opposition. Offering this assignment showed a lot of trust in the novice attorney. “I don’t know what to say Mr. Reed.”

“No need to thank me. You’ll be cursing me before it’s over. There’s a lot of grunt work in this one and you’ll be doing most of it. I don’t want to hear it from Gino either. Maybe you should talk to him before?”

“I don’t need permission Mr. Reed. I realize I got this job because of him, but I intend to earn my keep and then some. All I expect is a chance to prove myself.” As soon as Stan Reed recognized this as the beginning of a potentially long speech, he raised his hands to quiet her.

“Ok, OK. I meant no offense. Report to Jeffries and see where you’re needed the most.” As she left his office, Stan Reed reflected on the reaction of his fellow lawyers to his generosity in giving Sterling such a plum assignment. He knew for sure that some of them would assume she was screwing him behind Gino’s back. The thought had a certain appeal. Having people believe it was almost as good as if it were true.

******

O’Hara was scum. He was the kind of man who could not keep his hands off the teenaged girls he busted on his beat. It was well known among the kids in the neighborhood that when he nabbed one for possession of drugs he would accept sexual favors as payment for letting her go free. His perversion drove him to patrol the neighborhood steadily looking for offenders.

Samson had graduated from being a beat cop years ago, but he still had connections in the neighborhoods where O’Hara patrolled. The detective started to hear rumors and made it a point to talk to some of the old contacts from the projects to see if there was any truth in them. When the detective walked through the door into the sour smelling apartment to meet the young girl for the first time, he was shocked. Her eyes were hazel, not blue like Sterling’s, but there was a definite resemblance, a haunting one. Samson had set up an interview with what might have been a beautiful fourteen-year-old, if she didn’t have the drug habit. Now, she also carried the demons of submitting to forced sex with a pig. One nightmare was feeding the other in this miserable young woman’s life.

It might have been Sterling. It could have been her fate, to spiral downward one day at a time. Much as Samson disagreed with the path she had chosen, at least she hadn’t been subjected to this. Had he not been the officer patrolling the projects, willing to look the other way while she supported her drunken father and herself, this burned out fourteen-year-old staring coldly into his eyes could be Sterling. It helped him make up his mind. It gave Samson the added incentive he needed to go after that dirty bastard O’Hara. He couldn’t do much about the wave of crime and corruption that was sweeping across the city that he had once loved, but by God, he could sweep up the city’s own trash by taking O’Hara off the street.

Several underage girls came forward once the investigation began. The department tried to keep the matter quiet and let internal affairs handle it, but it was too good a story for the local reporters. O’Hara was in deep shit. He was going to jail for a long time. His wife was leaving him, his career was over and he was guaranteed a prison stay. The rotten cop had heard the stories for years about what inmates do to child molesters.

Gino had been funneling money to O’Hara for years to keep his eyes closed and his mouth shut. It was standard practice and certainly not limited to one beat officer, but things were getting hot for the cop and the Bertilinis were watching the situation closely. There were no surprises when one of the mobsters’ trusted sources sent word that O’Hara had offered to cooperate with the district attorney in exchange for ratting out the Bertilinis. He had decided that the only chance he had was the promised help of a distant physiological clinic and a new beginning in the witness protection program. O’Hara knew better, that the mob’s justice would not be so easily avoided, but the pressure got to him and he accepted what was offered.

The business meetings in Miami were important. Gino had decided that he had to attend, leaving Alex, his oldest in charge. Every few hours, a telephone would be handed to the powerful man and he would nod and speak in abbreviated sentences. The messages were becoming urgent, but Gino warned his sons to stay calm and wait the situation out. He hoped that O’Hara would keep his mouth shut at least until he concluded his business in Miami.

********

Joseph Bertilini was reminded daily that he was the youngest son. He grew into an angry adolescent very early and though he aged, Joey never became anything else. At twenty-four, he remained an angry adolescent. He resented Alex and his handling of the situation with O’Hara. He thought the family should take him out right away to control the amount of damage that the dirty cop could do. The majority of his brothers agreed with his sentiments but none would go along with his plan to hire an assassin. Gino was very much in charge, and would not like interference.

That is why Joey made the mistake of hiring an unknown gunman. No one else would take the job, unless the offer came from Gino himself.

Al Sartori flew into town to commit a murder. A killer for hire for the past three years, Al Sartori was determined to make a name for himself with this hit. Unfortunately, when he reached the Boston airport, his was the suitcase x-rayed and opened to reveal his forty-five automatic. Custom made, it bore no manufacturer’s markings, which raised enough suspicion to practically start a riot among the airport security guards. They waited anxiously in the baggage claim area to see who would come forward to claim the cheap battered suitcase containing a weapon worth several thousand of dollars.

Sartori would have been insulted by their conservative estimate. The killer was intercepted by a Bertilini employee who informed him of the development in the baggage claim area and spirited him away from the uniformed army waiting there.

Although grateful that he had been ticketed under an assumed identity, the gunman was just sick about the loss of his lucky automatic. Angelo, his driver told him “there’s something in the trunk that will take care of your headache.” Angelo pulled over on the corner of a street lined with abandoned warehouses, handed Sartori the keys and stepped out of the car. Just then a silver sedan pulled up. The heavyset man got in and was gone.

Angelo would not have been Gino’s choice to handle an important mission. He just wasn’t very smart. Joey on the other hand, had his complete loyalty for the same reason. Angelo hadn’t asked where the gun in the trunk had come from; he just assumed it to be another of the typical, untraceable variety that were abundant among the various offices and automobiles that the Bertilinis worked out of. He only knew that it was there in the first place because he’d had to change a flat tire the previous month and it had fallen out of the case that held the jack assembly. The gun had in fact been a present to Joey’s spirited new wife, who surprised him by refusing to have it in the house. The forty caliber Glock, a legal, registered purchase, had been residing in the boot of a company car ever since.

Al Sartori found a discreet hotel within walking distance from the jail where O’Hara was being held. Within twenty-four hours O’Hara was mysteriously murdered as he was being transported to a facility for mental evaluation. No one was surprised that the high powered security promised O’Hara had failed. No one much cared that he was dead, except the DA. He was devastated at losing his key source of evidence against Gino Bertilini. Imagine the pleasure he took in the news that O’Hara’s murderer had been identified to subway security by two witnesses and brought in for immediate questioning. Imagine his further delight at discovering that the murder weapon had been dropped at the scene. Even that was nothing compared to the ecstasy he experienced when he found out that the murder weapon was a gun registered to none other than Joey Bertilini.

All hell broke loose. The media went on full alert, Gino flew home in a fury at the fumbling and bumbling that had gone on under the noses of his older sons. Business was never discussed in the presence of Gino’s family, but when he arrived home, frustrated, angry and stung by his wife’s accusations concerning their youngest son sitting in jail, he exploded. Alex the oldest, had been left in charge as always and suffered his father’s wrath. He was sporting an angry cut at the corner of his mouth within minutes of Gino’s arrival. Gino had lost it and hit him in front of the entire family, including Alex’s wife. It was not the first time Alex was being blamed for the stupidity and inadequacies of his younger brother. It didn’t help matters that Joey, who had been questioned and released, had walked in at precisely that moment; smiling and cocksure that he would come out of the whole situation unscathed.

*********

The beep had sounded and Gino was supposed to be leaving a message for her, but he always felt so damned stupid doing that. This was the third time in as many days that he had tried to contact Sterling and make plans. Stan hadn’t been kidding when he’d said that Sterling would be very busy on the case. It was beginning to be a source of irritation for the powerful man, not to mention the eternal bickering from his wife whenever his mistress’ photo was published in the papers. Gino was discreet with his affair and shared an unspoken agreement with his wife that as long as he kept it under wraps, she would be tolerant. It only became a sore spot between them when Sterling became involved in defending Joey.

He frowned as he broke the connection on his cell phone, picturing her pouring over law books at the library. Gino had never known anyone with such ambition and drive. She reminded him very much of himself as a younger man.

Stan Reed’s defense team needed to get Sartori off. His guilt would provide the link between Joey and O’Hara’s death, a plausible scenario of hired murder to defend the family honor. If they could prove his innocence and get the trial out of the papers, a strong alibi and Joey’s story of an unreported gun theft might fly in conjunction with enough well placed bribes.

The key was in exposing O’Hara as a greater evil than the crime being tried. The defense team needed all of the dirt on the slain policeman that they could find. Young Sterling had donned ragged blue jeans and a tee shirt, an outfit reminiscent of her days living in the projects, and gone in search of testimony that her team could use to assassinate the character of the dirty cop. People were glad to slam O’Hara. Having to live on trash littered streets that teemed with dope dealers and in project apartments infested with rats was bad enough without having to deal with the likes of him.

It had been too easy, almost. Sterling had a series of tapes that had been made during interviews with various people in the neighborhoods where the scummy cop worked. Many hours had gone into the project. Some of the doors she knocked on opened to screaming babies and the stench of garbage. Her past came flooding back with each siren that screamed by the stoops that she sat on, asking questions.

Samson got wind of her questioning and followed her at a discreet distance. Only once had he felt his hand tighten around the grip on his 45 automatic.

“What’s in it for me mama? You gonna give me some of that pretty pussy if I tell you what you want to know?” As soon as the street punk opened his mouth Sterling realized that he was high as a kite. That made him useless to her and dangerous at the same time. Backing away she felt the accustomed tension of her younger years on the street flood into her body. Sterling put her mouth on automatic.

“Sorry, ain’t got no time right now. I gotta see a man about a party.” She smiled and turned to go, leaving her back unprotected. The punk reached in his pocket and Samson, undetected from his hidden vantagepoint, brought his gun smoothly out of its shoulder holster. The punk threw a scrap of paper onto the sidewalk and folded a piece of chewing gum into his mouth. Samson’s hands shook. ‘I almost killed that kid over a stick of gum. Christ! I am losing it!’

The young attorney’s tenacity paid off and she ended up with hours of tape that held many corroborated accounts of O’Hara’s lawbreaking. For once in her life, Sterling was honestly pleased with herself so naturally she was devastated when she returned home late one evening from the office to find her apartment ransacked and the tapes missing.

Mad as she was, Gino was angrier. Someone had the nerve to invade the inner sanctum of his world. Knowing that it was possible infuriated him.

“I’ll just have to begin again. It’s not the end of the world.” Sterling was delivering her progress report to the defense team the Monday morning after the burglary. She could only hope she could, in fact, duplicate the evidence that had been lost. “Its not as if the facts have changed now is it?” She was studying the faces of the people around the table as she spoke. Why were they so unconcerned about losing an important body of evidence?. The young woman’s instincts were screaming that somebody in the group before her was responsible for the theft.

“The facts are the same, but one of your witnesses, a store owner, has died.” Jerry Wilson reported this. Studying the paper in his hand, he read the name of the man in question from a copy of the police report he had obtained through his usual contacts. “Rahid Patel is the man’s name. He was the victim of a freak accident day before yesterday. Says here that the brakes went out on a beer truck. It jumped the curb and crashed through the glass storefront. He died at the scene, before he was able to give the cops much information.”

Sterling was upset that she was hearing this news second hand. She would have to speak with Samson and decided to visit him in person.

“Hello gorgeous.” It was his standard greeting. Sterling had always been a rare beauty against the backdrop of the neighborhood she grew up in. Standing in the grimy station house, surrounded by tired office furniture and stale cigarette smoke, she was breathtaking. She had dressed with purpose in wide belted, tailored slacks and a filmy blouse, knowing full well her effect on Samson.

“Hey yourself, ugly.” It was also a standard greeting and it made them both smile. “I’m hearing things from other people that I should be hearing from you.” Samson wasn’t the least bit interested in helping the cause of the local drug franchise but often, by helping Sterling, he did just that.

“I haven’t had a chance to fill you in yet, is all. Besides, you shouldn’t take this kind of thing personally, Sterling.” He was hedging and they both knew it. Samson was never thrilled with the prosecution of a fellow police officer. Even if he was dirty, everybody knew that Sterling’s boss was dirtier. The detective met her gaze and transmitted an unspoken plea. He had been trying for some time to make her understand that she needed to get out of Gino Bertilini’s life before she wound up dead.

“I have put a lot of hours into this case Samson and I DO take it personally when witnesses that I’ve located and interviewed show up at the local undertaker.” She was pissed at the situation and at the detective’s attitude. “I liked you much better when you were a beat cop.”

“Yeah, well, I liked you much better before you became the mob’s whore.” The words were in the air between them before he could censor them. His face showed alarm, hers showed hurt, something Samson had never seen there before. Seconds ticked past and he began to stumble over his words, trying to take back that which could not be taken back. “Listen, I didn’t…”

“Sure you did,” Sterling commented bitterly. “I see you’ve gotten into the judgement business, too. Well, go to hell then! I’ve taken enough shit for having a cop as a friend anyway, not to mention a loser.” She turned quickly to leave, afraid that she could not control the angry tears that threatened to fall. Samson had to stop her and grabbed her arm as she crossed the cubicle in front of him.

Sterling jerked away from the detective and gave him a venomous look. “If you ever put your hands on me again, you’ll lose them.” Her eyes flashed cold fire. Samson had been in love with her for a while and she had used his feeling for her to extract information on more than one occasion. Part of his judgement now stemmed from jealousy she was sure.

“Sterling, you know I didn’t really mean that. Come on! Let’s start this conversation over again.” He was speaking to the back of her departing head. “Damn! Damn! Double Damn! I have screwed up now.”

It was counterproductive for the Bertilinis to kill witnesses who could strengthen the case against O’Hara and yet one was dead and another had lost his nerve and left town. It didn’t fit and on top of everything else, now Sterling was pissed at him. A ringing phone on his desk demanded his attention.

*****

It was true of course. Sterling could kid herself all she wanted, but she was in fact, Gino’s mistress. ‘Whore’ was also an accurate word since he had put her through law school, paid for her apartment, living expenses and automobile. A throw of the dice had put her together with the powerful man and she wasn’t about to trade her life now with what she’d had when she met him.

The couple spent many evening hours discussing the details of her career. Gino wanted her to remain with Stan Reed’s law firm. Sterling wanted no part of that. The man gave her the creeps. She assumed that Gino could send enough business her way to establish her in the legal profession easily. He wasn’t so sure, and didn’t know how many of his business associates would hire a freshly graduated female lawyer who looked like a goddess. He, himself, sometimes had trouble remembering just how bright Sterling really was.

He stroked her hand in a fashion that generally constituted foreplay. Sterling began to dread the impending sexual encounter. “Stan gets it done. He has always acted in my best interest and I believe in rewarding that kind of loyalty.” Gino turned her hand over and kissed her pulse.

“Something is not right with the whole set up and I’ll prove it to you one day.” He laughed appreciatively at her determination as he led her by the hand to her bedroom.

******

By the time the Sartori trial actually began, Sterling Hayes had been pushed to the forefront many times. Confident in her research and painstaking preparation, the young attorney found herself presenting many of the early motions for the defense team. After the first dozen were denied, she began to question, Jasper Wells. He was a full partner in the firm, but in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Once brilliant, his only purpose now was to provide an experienced front man for the young woman’s court appearances.

Stan Reed seemed the logical one to answer her questions. “What the hell is going on here? That old codger you keep sending into court with me tells me that all of these motions are crap, invented to stall for time. Why do we need more time?” Her eyes blazed, her question clearly an accusation.

“If we hold things up as long as possible, facts are forgotten, evidence gets watered down and people change sides.”

“All those things will hurt us, not help us.”

Reed dismissed her logic. “Look Sterling, I know you are used to running on the inside track, but?”

She cut him off in mid sentence. “If you are insinuating that I don’t carry my share of the work load around here, you are mistaken. If you are saying that I don’t know what I’m talking about it’s obvious that you are misinformed.” Sterling took a deep breath and tried to steady her shaking hands by leaning onto the edge of Reed’s desk.

“It’s my ass in the library at midnight when they run me out to lock up. It’s my throbbing head sleeping on my desk blotter three times a week when your staff arrives for work. My witness interviews are a large part of this defense. Nobody handed them to me, I went out and squeezed every word out of those people with no help from anyone in this office. I don’t appreciate being kept in the dark about crucial tactics.”

“Now, now. I didn’t intend to question your dedication to the case.” His tone was patronizing, but his desire was barely contained. Stan Reed enjoyed displays of force, especially from women.

“No, you just pointed out in your typical underhanded way that you think I’m here due to my abilities between Gino’s sheets, which is total bullshit!”

The debate was halted by Reed’s sudden grab for Sterling. She had anticipated everything but this. In the moment that it took her to react, Reed pulled her to him by her shoulders and started spouting nonsense about how much he could do for her if she would only consider accepting his help. His meaning would have been crystal clear, except that Sterling wasn’t listening. Instead, she dropped into a horse stance and slammed her fist into his mid section. Her target should have been lower, but Stan Reed was two inches shorter than she was. Her second punch got the reaction she had hoped for and doubled him up, his face immediately turning red.

“Why the hell did you do that, you bitch?” He was gasping for air and holding solidly onto his injured privates.

“I just saved your life and this is the thanks I get.” She glowered down into his eyes. “If you had laid a hand on me, Gino would have your guts for garters. What were you thinking?” Her gaze was cold and her question superfluous. She knew exactly what the slime had been thinking and it made her stomach lurch. “Mind your business and stop bullshitting me. Otherwise I’ll go to Gino with a full report on this little incident.” His eyes widened.

*****

The trial had been hard on the young barrister. Sitting at the defense table without allowing herself to react visibly to some of her colleague’s foibles took all of the self-discipline Sterling possessed. Each day, at the end of the court session, she would close her briefcase and trail the other members of the defense team to the cars that waited at the base of the courthouse steps. The more the events of the trial escalated, the harder the media tried to get the defense team to answer questions.

Sterling was shocked one Friday afternoon at the end of the third week when Reed’s lead attorney revealed crucial evidence during an interview. The defense’s tactics included several motions to suppress the very evidence that was being discussed on the five o’clock news! She looked around her, to see if the faces of the other members of the firm were equally affected. They all maintained their posture, not reacting at all. That’s when she knew the leak had been deliberate.

******

Gino had not wanted to believe her. Sterling held all along that something was wrong within the circle of the defense effort. He had been on the phone in her den when she arrived home that day. The veins on his neck stood out like earthworms and his voice was loud enough to permeate every corner of her apartment. Fortunately, the young lawyer didn’t speak or understand Italian. Otherwise, she would have been getting an earful of serious threats peppered liberally with profanity. He had seen the broadcast of the news minutes before and had reacted much as she had.

He slammed the phone into the cradle and took a minute to compose himself before turning to face her. “Reed swears that he didn’t know anything about this.” He didn’t have to explain what ‘this’ was.

Sterling walked to the sofa and situated herself. “Do you believe him?” She waited, knowing a man’s life hung in the balance.

Gino looked at her for a long time, seeking the truth in the depths of her startling blue eyes. He stood and walked toward her. His face suddenly lost all of its tension. His eyes went cold. “No, I don’t believe him.” His deep voice was suddenly unfamiliar. The young woman might have understood another reaction, but he looked totally menacing as he approached her.

Sterling had seen enough in her youth to temper her character against the existence of fear, but what was in Gino’s eyes at that moment caused her mouth to go dry. He jerked her to her feet and crushed her body against his. His embrace felt like an act of desperation at first but it quickly metamorphosed into an assault.

Sterling was astonished at the viciousness of his need. He tore at her clothing and tangled his fingers in her long hair, jerking on it to force her to look directly at him. Their coupling happened so fast that she barely realized what was happening before it was all over. Certainly there had been no concern for her desire or lack thereof.

Dazed and confused, the young woman might have been angry had she had the time to fully consider Gino’s actions before he returned his focus to business. That and the cryptic statement that Gino made to her when his breathing finally returned to normal.

“You are never to reveal your suspicions to anyone and I mean anyone. Do you understand?” Gino had hitched up his expensive trousers and stood buckling his belt. Sterling still lay supine on the carpet where he had brutally taken her. She nodded her understanding as she sat up, wide-eyed and began collecting her clothing. Unsteadied by the events of the last few minutes, she waited for Gino to explain, but instead he picked up the phone and dialed a number. His fingers tapped impatiently on the library table he stood beside until his call was apparently answered and he barked an order into the receiver in Italian.

Mind racing with planning and calculating he spoke to her in an offhanded manner. “I want you to continue with business as usual. Leave the rest to me. Carry all your case notes home with you each night and anything else having to do with the trial. I don’t want any trouble for you when the smoke settles.” Gino turned to her and his face softened now. She looked so vulnerable, standing in the center of the room, naked. The bundle of her clothing was clutched in front of her, but she made no attempt to hide her perfectly proportioned body behind it.

A knock on the door drew Gino’s attention. He opened it a few inches and accepted the pistol that was passed through the crack. Turning to her he commanded. “Here, take this. Never go anywhere without it. You remember how to shoot one don’t you?” He handed over the automatic pistol and she nodded as it was added to the items she was already juggling. The torn lapel of her silk blouse now hung down under the gleaming gun barrel, threads straggling almost to the carpet.

Suddenly Gino’s expression changed. It was if he had just rejoined reality. He looked sadly at his beloved, knowing that he had startled and possibly hurt her. “I believe I owe you a new blouse.” He was trying to apologize, something they both knew he was incapable of.

“I have plenty of others.” Sterling accepted his attempt. Her confusion and concern were evident in her expression. Gino suddenly went to her and embraced her tenderly, taking the clothes from her and dropping them on the carpet again. This Gino she recognized.

Sterling waited for him to explain and finally he found the words. “Sometimes I need to be in complete control. I have to be certain in my soul that I am capable of gaining and keeping control even within the savagery of this business. There is no trust left, and yet you trusted me enough to let me commit an act with you that was brutal and unspeakably cold.” Gino looked deep into the clear pools of her eyes and was sure he saw her understanding burning there. “I only have real trust in one thing and that is the way I feel about?” His voice trailed off. He had come too close to making a declaration. “I’m sorry.” The last of his words were whispered tenderly into her ear as he held her.

For days afterward Gino would cringe at the sight of the dark bruises on Sterling’s body. He could not believe he had been so primitive in his lovemaking. Little gifts were offered by way of apology, followed by not so little gifts. For her part, she tried to dismiss the entire experience from her mind, knowing the depth of his guilt when he presented her with the keys to a new Mercedes convertible.

A week went by and then another, with no ripples in the daily doings of the trial. Sterling did as she was told, but offered nothing extra by way of effort or opinion. She did as Gino had bid her and made sure that she secured her case documents at all times. The two lovers had not seen each other in several days. He had called to say that he was in Miami on business and would be back after the weekend. The young woman was pondering her situation, both as Gino’s mistress and as a member of a Mob Operated law firm when her doorbell rang.

************

She wasn’t expecting company and the whole cloak and dagger thing with Stan Reed had her edgy. Life in the Projects had taught her to be wary, a lesson she never forgot. Sterling leaned over and watched out the peephole until she could focus on the figure standing in front of her door. “Mary, Mother of God,” she breathed, recognizing Gino’s daughter standing in the hallway.

Sterling ushered the young woman into the entry foyer of her apartment where the two women studied each other cautiously. Sterling had seen the young woman from a distance at a restaurant once when she had been dining out with Gino. The gangster had spirited her out of the establishment before he had to explain his mistress’ presence to his daughter.

“My name is Anna and you are very beautiful. I don’t blame Papa for wanting to be with you.”

Sterling was dumbstruck at the dark beauty standing before her. Enormous brown eyes captured her. They were her father’s eyes, except that they held warmth and compassion that Sterling had not realized was missing in Gino’s eyes until now.

“Forgive me, please come in.” Sterling motioned toward the sofa in the center of the sunken den. Anna moved slowly towards it, looking around her and absorbing her surroundings as she went.

“I know that you are called Sterling. Papa has never said your name in my presence, but I asked Carlos. He didn’t want to tell me, but I made him.” Sterling suspected that this young woman was very good at getting whatever she liked out of people, especially men. “He likes you. Did you know that? He doesn’t like many people either. You should be flattered.” Carlos was the bodyguard that accompanied Gino everywhere he went. Sterling had never heard him utter more than a grunt, but made a point to treat him with the same respect he showed her.

Still tongue-tied, Sterling enjoyed the ease with which Anna held her one sided conversation. Fascinated by the sway of the young woman’s straight, dark hair as she talked, her eyes followed its movement. “This is a nice place but not as fancy as I thought it would be. My Papa likes a lot of European junk. This is much better.” She indicated the clean lines of the apartment’s furnishings. Sterling acknowledged the compliment, waiting patiently to discover the purpose of the visit.

“Can I get you anything? Are you hungry or thirsty?” Sterling was accustomed to her lover coming in famished. A never-ending supply of food and drink made its way magically into her refrigerator. All she had to do was make a list and stuff it in the mailbox on the wall outside her door. This particular luxury would spoil her later in life.

“I’m not allowed to drink. Can you imagine? I’m past twenty-one and they treat me like a baby. Unfortunately I have six older brothers all of whom think it is their duty to protect my innocence.” She rolled her eyes and made Sterling laugh.

Sterling was surprised that Gino’s daughter was practically the same age as she was. “Wine it is then.” The attorney gave her a conspiratorial smile and rose from the sofa to fetch it. When she returned to the den, Anna was scrutinizing the books on the desk and the shelves lining the walls behind it.

“You read a lot. I suspected you were very smart. My brothers think a woman is good for only one thing, but I know my Papa and he wouldn’t waste his time on a dummy.” She smiled with obvious pride in her father as she accepted the glass of white wine.

“I’m very pleased that you came here and that you felt comfortable doing so Anna. Your father is a very special friend to me.” Before she could add anything more, Anna launched into another energetic monologue. Sterling settled back into the sofa cushions and enjoyed listening.

The crisp linen of the peasant blouse Anna wore contrasted with the deep bronze tones of her complexion. Like Gino, she had a year round suntan. Sterling found herself focusing on the lace that covered the soft swell of breast barely visible above the top button. Shocked at her own outrageous curiosity, she shook her head to clear it and returned her attention to the conversation.

Anna’s slender body was total motion as she spoke, expressing every syllable as if it were critical to do so. Anna’s hands mesmerized the young attorney as she waved them for emphasis to make a point about her brothers’ ignorant and backward attitudes. A half-hour later, Anna had her hostess laughing out loud with her sarcastic slams on her Catholic upbringing and her family’s double standard. Anna was charming and charismatic, much like her father. Sterling was amazed at the presence of a woman so young.

“Well, before I take up any more of your time, I guess you are wondering why I am here. I should get to the point. Papa asked me to give you a message. He would not let me write it, or call. He said that I must bring it in person. I knew when he said that how important it must be because my father has always separated his family from his friends.”

Sterling nodded her understanding, trying to make it obvious that she felt no slight at Gino’s policies regarding this.

“I am to tell you that you will hear from Papa when he returns next week, but in the meantime he wants you to go away for a few days. He suggested a place at the Cape. It’s all in the letter I think.” Now she reached into the leather shoulder bag next to her and handed Sterling a thick white envelope. It bore no markings at all.

“I know where he means.” Sterling voice was solemn. This visit from Gino’s daughter was puzzling and his mysterious banishment was truly disturbing. Each was lost in thought, grasping for some reasonable explanation of Gino’s motivation. The two young women were, oddly, comfortable enough in each other’s company to silently sip their wine. When Anna’s glass was empty, Sterling offered to refill it but was refused.

Anna laughed as she stood up. “I certainly can’t show up at home tipsy, now can I? My mother watches like a hawk. I don’t know what she thinks will happen if I’m given a little freedom, but she says that I’m too much like my Papa.” The young beauty shook her head and laughed again. Sterling thought it was the most carefree laughter she had ever heard and found herself laughing a little with her guest.

“It was very nice meeting you Sterling.” The attorney shook the hand that was offered her. Its warmth sent a small tingle through her. At close range Anna’s eyes were her father’s exactly and Sterling was drawn to them, unable to look away.

“I appreciate you delivering the message. I would like to think that I will see you again some time, but I know the chances of that are pretty slim.” She smiled sadly and studied the envelope she now held.

“Never say never Sterling.” Anna hesitated a moment before turning to depart. “My father didn’t tell me that you are such an intriguing woman or that you are so beautiful. In fact, the only thing about you that doesn’t surprise me is the hint of danger that I see in your eyes. That is something prerequisite for a friend of Gino Bertilini.” There was no time for a response. Anna was gone.

*********

The rustic country store was the only place to buy groceries for twenty miles. Sterling studied the limited selection, trying to decide on something simple that she could have for dinner. Cooking was definitely not her strong suit, but she could heat something up. She was studying the label on a soup can, her back to the counter where the ancient proprietor sat, watching the five o’clock news on a large portable television.

“It was a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of underworld celebrities today at the graveside service for Stan Reed, Attorney to the Mob.”

Sterling’s eyes grew wide and she spun around just in time to see the screen fill with Anna Bertilini, hooking her arm through that of her father’s stoic figure. Gino’s eyes were unreadable through dark glasses but Anna seemed stricken. Sterling thought she looked glamorous in the simple black dress that she wore and totally out of place against the backdrop of funeral flowers.

“Thus far the ongoing investigation of the explosion that caused fire to sweep through the law offices of Reed has yielded nothing. The other four victims are also being buried today in private services. The very public case pending in Federal court that was being handled by the Reed law firm has been postponed. A source close to Gino Bertilini, notorious crime boss, says that several attorneys have been contacted, but no decision will be made until those close to Stan Reed have had an opportunity to recover from their loss.”

She could not think clearly, but Sterling knew she had to get the hell out of that store. Paying for the contents of her shopping basket she quickly exited and climbed into the all terrain vehicle she had rented for her stay at the beach. ‘He knew.’ The single thought echoed through her and made her weak with nausea. ‘He didn’t want me to be caught in the crossfire. What will happen now, though? There will be repercussions surely. I still don’t understand what Reed hoped to gain by selling Gino out. It must have been something very big to risk so much after thirty-five years of friendship.’

Thoughts were careening off corners of her mind as she drove the short distance to the cottage she had rented. It sat on a remote tip of coastline, which is why she and Gino had chosen it for a getaway once before. The house was nothing special, but high fencing and electronic gates insuring privacy, secured the grounds. A spectacular view of the ocean from each of the five rooms in the house was a bonus that Sterling could not appreciate at the moment. In fact, as her paranoia blossomed she found herself pulling draperies closed for the first time in her three-day stay. The young attorney was imagining all sorts of scenarios that involved murders of retaliation. If Gino had considered her a target because of her relationship with him, she wondered who else might be in danger.

Sterling pulled the threadbare quilt from the back of the sofa and wrapped herself in it. Huddled in an overstuffed armchair she stared out the only window that she had left uncurtained and cast about in her conscious mind for answers. The intense young barrister didn’t dare entertain any of the dark answers that were stacking up in her subconscious.

*******

Gino’s letter had said that someone would come for her when the smoke settled, he just hadn’t said how long she should be prepared to wait. A week had gone by without much sleep or appetite. In fact, she sat staring out at the breaking waves as the tide rushed in only to watch it recede and begin the process over again. Lost in a dark tangle of imagined atrocities, she was currently trying to convince herself that her discoveries of disloyalty in the law firm had not resulted in the mass murder of the defense team. Sterling was trying to convince herself that she would live to see thirty when she heard the soft ‘thunk’ of a car door closing.

In an instant, Sterling had reached between the cushion and arm of the chair she was sitting in to retrieve the 45 automatic secreted there. The metallic sigh of a round being chambered was audible above the breaking of the waves. The attorney slid on sock feet to the front windows but didn’t get an opportunity to peek through the curtains before she heard the sound of a key in the door lock. Slipping behind the door, Sterling drew her breath in as the door swung open slowly. When the shadowed figure was far enough into the room she reached out with her foot and kicked the door closed with all her might. This left her hands free, one of which held the gun at eye level while the other grabbed an outstretched hand and twisted it behind the back of the unsuspecting intruder.

“Don’t move or I swear I’ll blow a hole through?”

“Sterling, it’s me!” came the shrill cry. The attorney pulled the gun barrel away from the temple it rested against and leaned around to check the profile of her prisoner. Still unable to identify the interloper in the dusky dark, she maintained the painful hold on the twisted arm. In fact, she raised it higher and heard her captive’s intake of breath as the pain of her action hit home.

“It’s me, Anna. Don’t shoot for God’s sake!” The plea was genuine. Gino’s daughter did not doubt that the woman behind her was capable of pulling a trigger. Sterling reached her gun hand over and hit a switch, bathing the room with light. It was indeed Anna who’s arm she had almost broken and she released it immediately, taking a step backward at the same time.

“What in the hell are you doing here? I damn near killed you!” Sterling was feeling the panic now, realizing that she had very nearly murdered Gino’s only daughter. Then she remembered that she could trust no one, not even Anna and did a visual check for weapons. The silky outfit she wore was sheer. It clung to Anna’s body in a way that revealed everything, including the fact that she could not possibly be hiding a weapon on her person. She carried nothing in her hands except the ring of keys that had gained her entry. Sterling recognized the chunky brass of Gino’s key ring and knew that Anna was not there to kill her.

Still breathless with fear, Anna took a moment to calm herself before finding her voice and offering an explanation for her presence. Gino’s daughter explained that she hadn’t seen Sterling’s car anywhere and assumed the attorney was gone. Otherwise, she would have announced her presence by calling Sterling’s cell phone number, which her father had given her. No one else had that number. The younger woman had hoped it would be enough assurance to allow the attorney to calm down and wait with her.

“Papa will call us here in a little while. I don’t know much more than you, but something big has happened. I hope you don’t mind the intrusion.” Anna was so sincere in her apology that Sterling felt guilty for suspecting her of participating in any wrongdoing.

“No, it’s fine. I just wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon and I’m still uncertain as to why Gino has me hiding here.” She noticed Anna noticing the pistol protruding from her jeans. Her face was all apologies. “Sorry, as I said, I’ve been a little uneasy about this whole situation.” Sterling ran her fingers through her dark hair and took a deep breath. “Come on in and tell me what you know.”

Anna had little to tell. Carlos had come to the house and dispatched her, by Gino’s orders to find Sterling and wait for his call. The fact that Carlos had left his boss’ side was unprecedented and said a great deal about the seriousness of the situation. There had been little time for discussion or conjecture when Sterling’s cell phone rang.

“How are you my sweet?” It was Gino’s voice, but Sterling knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. “I don’t have much time and I have a great deal to tell you, so please forgive me for getting straight to the point.”

Anna had crossed the tiny den of the cottage. Even so, the confines of the small room didn’t afford much privacy to Sterling and her caller. “Francis and Michael are dead. My sons are dead!” Gino’s voice was momentarily stolen by a quiet sob. “I needed Anna to be with someone strong when I tell her, Sterling. I couldn’t trust anyone but you.”

Sterling tried not to visibly react when she heard the next statement. “They were working with Reed to take over the business. Alex is the brain in this, I am almost certain, with his mother’s voice always in his ear. She doesn’t approve of?” He hesitated, uncertain how much detail he wanted to give her. “Let’s just say she disapproves of almost everything I do and has pitted three of our sons against the rest of us.” Gino sounded tired. “Needless to say, when I find Alex, he will join his brothers.” Gino made it clear that it boiled down to a tug of war between him and is oldest son. Whoever was left standing when this was over would hold the job that had been Gino’s for over twenty-five years. That job for Alex as his new retainer, coupled with a promise of Sterling Hayes for himself, had been the prize that Stan Reed had been willing to risk his life for.

“I have no intention of retiring. At least, not on anyone else’s terms.” The power was returning to his voice making it completely familiar again. “I wish I could be with you, but it is dangerous now. My family is being torn apart and I can trust no one with your safety. Anna and you are my heart and so the greatest threat they can use against me. Please take care of each other for a short while and I will get you to more permanent safety.” His brief endearments warmed her. It was Anna’s turn.

Sterling braced for the outpouring of anguish she expected from Gino’s daughter when she heard the news. Surprisingly, a sharp intake of breath was the only signal that it had been done. Anna turned to look at her father’s mistress and nodded briefly her acceptance of his plan. Her eyes, large and tremendously expressive under any circumstances, were enormous now and filled with recognizable pain.

The conversation ended and the young crime heiress looked stricken. She stood staring into Sterling’s cool blue eyes, looking for a lifeline, an explanation, and some salvation. When the tears finally started it was sudden and by the time the attorney could get to Anna, she was near collapse. Sterling guided her to the worn sofa and held the younger woman tightly. She whispered nonsensical words in an effort to soothe her charge and was shocked to find herself crying along in empathy for the young woman’s loss and the loss Gino must be feeling. Sterling had no siblings, but she been visited by death. The day her mother died she’d felt a trap door open beneath her feet and she’d been falling ever since.

Daylight turned to dusk then total darkness before Anna had cried herself out. Sterling kept wondering how a woman so young could have so much pent up sadness and emotion in her. It made her wonder if Gino was capable of the same depth of feeling. If so, she had certainly never been witness to anything that caused her to suspect it.

“Time to rest now. Come on and I’ll find you something to sleep in.” Anna mechanically did as she was told. Not bothering with modesty she threw off the skirt and blouse she’d been wearing and slipped into the nightshirt offered her. It was huge on her slight figure. Sterling had packed a few of Gino’s things, not knowing if he would be joining her. “It belongs to your papa.” Anna looked at her and smiled a little. She gathered the fabric near the button closures and brought it up to her nose.

“Yes. It most definitely belongs to my Papa. Thank you.” Her arms went around Sterling’s neck and she pulled her face down the short distance required to plant a kiss on her lips. The expression of gratitude was a great deal more than was necessary. When she was finally released, the older woman flushed deeply but it went unnoticed as Anna stripped the top coverings of the bed down and climbed between the sheets.

“Try to sleep,” was all the confused barrister could choke out as she started from the room.

Anna’s voice cut like the sharpest of knives. “Surely you won’t leave me tonight. I need someone close. Please Sterling.” A slight pain rushed across her consciousness, shallow but promising a bloom of anguish. The taller woman could not deny such a request, especially after promising Gino that she would watch over his daughter.

Pulling her own pajama shirt from the dresser, Sterling disappeared into the bathroom to change. She extinguished the bedside lamp and slipped into bed, careful to stay on her side. It shocked the attorney when she felt a shifting of weight and a warm body pressed firmly against the length of her back. An arm snaked itself under her own and a hand rested on her abdomen.

Neither of the women was able to sleep, each for their own reasons. Caught in a net of silent misery Sterling tried to remain perfectly still. The warm breath on the back of her neck was reminiscent of the exhausted slumber Gino always fell into when they had finished making love. During those times she generally felt a sense of relief. Now she felt a growing sense of unaccustomed desire.

Sterling Hayes had never wanted physical intimacy with anyone before although she accepted it as a part of her relationship with Gino, and exhibited some genuine enthusiasm at times. As Anna began to circle her navel with feather light strokes of her fingertips, Sterling felt a stirring she could not comprehend. Alarmed and confused she spoke quietly; hoping a return to the mundane would somehow ground her.

“Are you OK? I mean, do you need anything?”

Sterling received no response except a widening of the circle pattern Anna traced. When fingers came into contact with the soft underside of her breast she quit breathing and let the electric jolt run the length of her body before inhaling again. Anna gently but firmly succeeded in rolling the older woman over so that she could see her face. The chaos that she saw there was appealing. Finally, someone was in some ways, more naïve than ‘Gino’s Baby Girl’.

It dawned on Anna that she was caressing the same body that her father revered. Somehow that did not matter. With death’s shadow hovering so close, she was instinctively seeking an affirmation of life and might have found any body in her arms.

No words were spoken between them. Sterling was frankly amazed at her own responses. Never prudish, this experience still managed to catch her unaware. Her breathing was labored as she fought to keep from crying out into the night. Sterling could not help but wonder how the young woman who caressed her knew where to touch and how to stimulate the body of another woman. All of the questions that formulated in Sterling’s mind as she lay there were quieted as she gave herself over to guilty pleasure.

Anna, all those years ago had shown Sterling a path, the only path that ever made sense to the beautiful young attorney. The intimate incident was never mentioned again or even acknowledged when it was over.

*********

As suspected, Alex had been the leader of Gino’s malcontent sons. Within days the mob boss knew this with certainty and once again his heart was broken. It all could have belonged to them soon enough, but they would not wait and now he had three less sons. To spare his grandchildren, the murders of all three had been made to look like retribution from a rival family, but all the other local leaders were called together for a brief meeting with Gino.

He candidly revealed the plot that Alex had set in motion with Stan Reed’s help. With Joey on trial, Michael and Francis, Gino’s two remaining loyal sons would be murdered as a means to start a war with one of the families represented at the table. During the course of it, Gino would die and Alex would be left in charge. Joey’s stay in jail would end at the hands of some inmate and the way would be clear.

The crime leaders of Boston listened wide-eyed at the man who had survived the plot of his own family. Gino had not hesitated in the killing of his own flesh and blood, so all of them knew exactly where they stood if they chose to cross him. In awe of his cold cruelty, the six men around the table also all felt compassion for the aging leader. Any of them could easily find themselves in the same position and not all of them were sure they could have done what was necessary to survive the situation.

*******

Sterling and Anna were brought out of hiding in time for Anna to attend her fallen brother’s funerals. She was never made aware of their disloyalties.

Gino’s young mistress reeled as the tale unfolded over the next few weeks. It had been her instincts that had originally uncovered the plot and Gino was alive as a result of the doubt that Sterling had planted in his mind. Her loyalty had not and never would be questioned, but the mobster would now spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulders to see what his remaining three sons were doing.

Things changed drastically after that. Sterling opened her own firm. Sartori, found hanging in his cell as soon as Gino uncovered his part in the plot against him, no longer needed representation, but the young woman quietly and effectively cleared Joey’s name.

Gino sent clients to her, the majority of which were wealthy, unsavory types, trying to operate outside the law. Sterling demanded justice for each of them and soon gained the reputation as a legal gladiator, walking out into the courtroom arena regularly and doing the bidding of the rich and powerful.

The firm grew quickly and Sterling worked long hours. Gino might have missed her company, but he didn’t complain. His own time was taken up with increased vigilance and soul searching. The strain of heartache over recent events contributed to his failing health and in the spring of Sterling’s first year in practice, he had a stroke. It left him partially paralyzed and in a wheel chair. His sons were asked to take over the business and Gino quietly retired.

The loss of physical mobility ended the already dwindling sexual relationship between Sterling and her mentor. Gino had lost his zest for life on the day he buried Alex. Now, his best days were spent guiding Sterling in the building of her reputation. They shared dinner in her apartment often where he taught her every ruthless trick he knew to help her succeed.

His second stroke put him in a nursing home, unable to recognize anyone. Years ago the proud man had struck a deal with Carlos, his bodyguard. Carlos had protected Gino against assault for twenty-seven years, taking a bullet himself on two occasions to spare Gino’s life. Now, it was the silent servant’s obligation to his boss and friend to relieve Gino of the burden of living without dignity. When the once great man was found dead by the morning shift nurse, everyone suspected a third stroke had ended his life.

The demise of any figure in the underworld is an interesting event. The funeral of the deceased is a yardstick by which their power may be measured. The number of dignitaries present at Gino’s funeral showed clearly that he had been a great and powerful man indeed.

There were no rules governing the attendance of ex-girlfriends or jealous enemies. Sterling was torn about attending the service. She wanted to stay away out of respect for his family, but she was burying more than a benefactor. She was losing her constant friend and the only person who had treated her honestly. Her tall figure stood stoically at the back of the deep crown of mourners and was the first to leave when the service was complete.

A light touch on her arm as she was getting into her car, spun her around as Sterling fought her instinct to punish the invasion of her space. She was surprised to see the calm countenance of Anna, unafraid but obviously in great pain.

Sterling had no trouble getting Anna to meet her gaze, but was unprepared for the effect the sad brown eyes had on her. Even after all that had happened and the passage of time, Sterling felt the touch of the young woman’s fingers on her skin and electricity pricked the flesh of her forearms, bringing gooseflesh.

“I am sorry about the loss of your father, Anna. He was a great man and a good friend.” The offer of condolences was automatic from the attorney.

Anna finally spoke. “He loved you. I was jealous of that, because I believed that his love was something I shared with you and no other. He talked to me about that once.”

Blue eyes narrowed.

“He told me how much of himself he saw in you. When he realized he loved you it frightened him for many reasons, but it showed him too that he was capable of that.” The young woman wept quietly.

“I don’t know what to say to you Anna, except that I owe everything I am to Gino and I feel an obligation to honor his memory and his trust with great accomplishment.” Tears pooled in her eyes, but she kept them from falling by a tremendous act of will. She had now heard Gino’s love for her confirmed for the first time by his daughter.

“Good luck to you Sterling. You were a large part of the small beauty in my father’s life. I thank you for giving him that.” Anna wiped a hand across the attorney’s face and turned to go. Sterling could find no words to stop her. She simply watched her until she rejoined the group of mourners near the funeral tent by Gino’s grave.

***********

“Charlie, this is Sam. Please plan for a short meeting on this Sanders contract tomorrow. Call Peter and set up a time. We need to discuss the financing and the special stipulations before you present this to your co-op agent. Thanks.”

Sam had seven agents working in her firm at the moment. Some of them were highly successful, organized and easy to work with. Then there was Charlie. He had the contacts to be a tremendous seller, but he wouldn’t do his homework. This would be the broker’s third meeting with him in as many months. Sam had been lucky to catch this particular contract. It had been left with her for presentation to the listing agent while Charlie was away for a long weekend. One glance and the astute Realtor had smelled a rat.

‘He is definitely up to something with this five day closing thing. No legitimate mortgage application could be processed, approved and closed in five days, especially on people who are new to the area.’ Sam shook her head. It wasn’t the first time Charlie had put together a less than totally above board deal. The problem with Sam was that she would not look the other way like a lot of Brokers even though Charlie was a high volume producer. Shaking her head, she reached for the stack of mail that had been staring at her all morning.

The young woman was tired today. Unable to sleep, she had spent most of the previous night reading the latest Harry Potter adventure. All that was remaining for her to do at the office was look at the stack of mail spilling across the corner of her desk and she would go home early.

‘Bills, junk, caravan flier. Hmmmmm. I may go to see that listing. I’ve always wondered what the inside of that house looks like.’ The creamy paper of an expensive envelope looked out of place among the sales mailers and windowed envelopes that carried Sam’s bills. ‘Hayes & Simpson, Attorneys at Law’ it proclaimed. ‘That woman said she would be calling me. I was wondering what happened to her.’

Sam tore open the envelope and unfolded the single page it contained. As she read down the paragraphs she became more and more agitated by the language and then the message it conveyed. The signature at the bottom was that of the junior lawyer she had met at her deposition. Her case was apparently no longer of great enough importance for the high and mighty Sterling Hayes to address personally. Additionally, she was being offered a settlement sum far less than what she had asked for in the suit.

Tossing the letter onto her desk, Samantha balled up her fist and pounded it once on her desktop. Peter, who had been coming through the door at just that moment, pivoted on his heel as if to leave, but looked back over his shoulder to check his boss’ expression before making a choice to stay or go.

“What on earth is that? Are you being jilted, audited or proposed to by an inmate?” His attempt at lightening up the situation failed miserably.

“It’s from Lowry’s lawyer, or more specifically from some flunky who works for her!” The anger in her eyes was something Peter had only witnessed on one previous occasion and that was when Sam had been handed proof of Janet’s infidelities for the first time.

“Apparently this is a bad thing, yes?”

“Yes, a very bad thing. She made it sound like she was going to get Lowry to settle this right away. I was hoping to put the whole thing behind me. It has done nothing but keep my blood pressure up since it started.” Sam scanned the letter again; hoping she had misunderstood its contents, but there was no question that she was being screwed by the offer they were putting on the table.

The broker punched the numbers printed on the letterhead and asked for Mike Epson, prepared to give him a piece of her mind. She was completely surprised when it was Sterling Hayes’ voice that came on the line instead. In the moment it took for Sam to make the mental adjustment, the attorney offered a warm greeting, visualizing the sexy young woman.

The young Realtor’s response was a good deal less than friendly. “I see you’ve lost your stomach for cheating me yourself and have put one of your underlings back on the case. More like, this paltry sum isn’t worthy of your attention, right Miss Hayes?” There was a bitter hiss when Sam pronounced the Miss.

“On the contrary, I personally oversee each aspect of every case pending in my office. My reputation is at stake.” Sterling paused to let that information do the damage she intended for it to do. “I tried to contact your attorney, but you were true to your word and fired him. That necessitates someone from my office contacting you personally. Since you and I seem to have a conflict I assumed it would be more comfortable for both of us if Mike took over the negotiations.”

“Negotiations!? This is insulting! You’re offering me half of what I paid out to restore my office and the tone of the letter suggests that this is your final offer.”

“Miss Hilliard,” the hiss was there when Sterling pronounced it, too. “Surely you weren’t expecting a blank check. I believe you yourself are in a profession where negotiation is a large part of the process. The correspondence you received was a standard offer format.”

“So you did see the letter that was sent to me?”

“I had a copy brought to me when the receptionist told me that it was you on the phone.” Sterling remarked as a smile formed on her lips. “I didn’t suppose you were calling me to invite me out for lunch, not after the last conversation we had.” ‘I bet you look beautiful right now with your eyes flashing fire and the flush of anger on your cheeks. How much would I love to kiss you senseless and make you forget everything, including your name.’

Clear blue eyes were slightly amused. Unpleasant confrontation was a daily diet for Sterling. She was getting a kick out of the Realtor’s impassioned response. “Since you are without legal council and possibly unaccustomed to the workings of a law suit, please allow me to explain how this game is played. This is strictly off the record of course.”

“We make a lowball offer assuming that you will send a counter-proposal, stating just what you are willing to accept to settle this case.”

“I told you up front what my expenditures were,” Sam interjected.

Sterling chuckled. “Nobody asks for what they really want. It is a standard procedure to cushion your demands and then settle for something less than the amount named in the suit.”

“Wouldn’t it just be simpler if everyone started out making honest disclosures and reasonable requests? It seems unfair to penalize people for showing integrity in their business dealings, don’t you think?” Samantha paused for effect and then turned the verbal knife she’d just stuck in Sterling’s back. “Of course, if everyone shared that point of view I suppose there would be no need for lawyers.”

This snipe finally cracked Sterling’s cool exterior. The attorney was no longer having fun. “Miss Hilliard, my client pays me well to represent his interests.”

“So your job is to help wealthy clients avoid obeying the law. That’s a worthy undertaking.” The sarcasm was dripping in her voice.

“I practice law not law enforcement. My clients deserve able representation the same as anyone else. Should I discriminate against them because they are rich? I’m not some sinister character, I am only doing my job.” Sterling’s knuckles were white on the telephone receiver as she continued. “Like you, Ms. Hilliard, I live to serve. After all, most peoples’ worlds can not continue to spin without the acquisition of the perfect Decatur bungalow.” Her own sarcastic rebuttal made the attorney feel slightly better.

Sam took a deep breath and delivered the final blow. “I’m not out to save the world Sterling, I’m just trying to make a living, same as you. I just don’t happen to make it by walking over the bodies of the beaten or assisting people in carrying out deliberate cruelty.” Sam’s face was flushed and her eyes were positively flaming.

Sterling had rarely been the target of such anger and passion and was having a difficult time adjusting to the intensity of the electrically charged situation as was evidenced by her weak response. “I think this conversation is over. I will tell Mike to expect your counter-proposal in the near future. If you develop some personality conflict with him, perhaps I can keep sending opponents at you until you find a worthy adversary. Good day.”

The steady sound of a dead phone line hummed in Samantha’s ears for a few seconds before she reacted and hung up.

Sterling’s hand shook as she replaced the telephone in its cradle. ‘Ooohhhh! That Hilliard woman infuriates me! She acts like all of this is news to her when we’ve been playing by these rules in the grown up world for decades.’ Sterling clenched her jaw, reacting to the on target assessment of her clients and their legal needs. Granted, there were a lot of money grubbing, looters among them, but there were some ruthless individuals in the real estate world, too. The brooding attorney was irritated with herself for not mentioning that on the phone and for allowing herself the little fantasy she’d enjoyed only minutes ago. ‘She is a pompous, self-righteous, cold bitch. I’ll definitely pass.’

The e-mail draft took less than a minute to complete. ‘Mike. Expect a counter from the Hilliard woman on the flood of her office building. Prepare Lowry for settling. Write him a letter, telling him the damning nature of the photos we saw at the deposition and recommend he settle quickly and quietly. Copy to me on that.’ She signed her usual lower case ‘s’ with a period behind it and touched the send button.

‘That takes care of that.’ Sterling focused her attention on the research synopsis before her.

Part 2

Sam was fuming. This encounter left her angrier than the last one with Sterling Hayes. The Realtor made a mental note to write a letter to the Atlanta Bar Association condemning these unsavory practices in the legal community. ‘That woman has a hell of a lot of nerve!’ Somehow, she detected no tone of condemnation in her thought and it occurred to her that she was mostly making an observation.

Glancing at her watch, Samantha realized that she wouldn’t be getting home early after all.

*******

It was a charity event and she felt obligated to attend. Most of her neighbors and many of her clients would be at the Western Hoe Down to help raise money for Aid Atlanta. Sam had talked herself into and out of going a half dozen times in recent weeks. She had been in the ‘I’m not going’ mode when an attractive VP from her bank had called and invited her to go.

Samantha had noticed the appeal of Beverly’s clothing first. The beautiful brunette wore conservative, tailored garments of unquestionably good taste, something Sam had an appreciation for. On one of the Realtor’s frequent trips to the bank, the VP had made a point to greet her and they spoke briefly. They had crossed paths several times since then, once while having lunch in midtown, twice attending the same house party and finally, during intermission at the Fox.

Beverly Andrews had noticed Samantha come into the lobby during intermission. She kept an eye on her for several minutes, nodding her understanding when Peter and a friend brought the attractive blonde a drink. ‘She is here with her friends, a perfect opportunity to ask her to lunch.’ The sleek banker had been planning to make a date with Sam for some time. Bev walked over to the group, but turned her back at the last moment, waiting to see if Samantha would recognize her.

Much to Bev’s relief, Sam tapped her on the shoulder and greeted her with a warm smile.

“How are you? How do you like the show so far?” ‘Brilliant Sam, very original.’ The Realtor introduced her friends who discreetly excused themselves and left the two women standing alone.

Beverly picked up the conversation; “I love it! That lawyer playing his armpit was hysterical!” They were attending the live broadcast of a national radio show, something neither had done in the past. They talked and laughed for the few remaining minutes before flashing house lights signaled the need to return to their seats.

Sam had agreed to come with Peter and his friend because she loved the Fox Theater and took every opportunity afforded her to go there. She considered her enjoyment of the broadcast a bonus and now she had been treated to a warm exchange with Beverly Anderson who mentioned having lunch together the next day.

The two women sat in the trendy atmosphere of a new restaurant in Decatur. They agreed that the food didn’t live up to the rave reviews the establishment had gotten in the Weekender. Since both of the women dealt with mortgages and finance on a daily basis there was no shortage of things to talk about. Beverly, it turned out had a terrific sense of humor outside the bank and regaled her new friend with stories of bizarre loan applications and some of the collateral she had been offered over her years in banking.

They had finished lunch and were just enjoying a companionable conversation when Sam’s pager vibrated against her midriff. “Oh! This darn thing always manages to surprise me. Sorry.” Fishing her cell phone out of the purse on the spare chair next to her, she called the office. Peter was beside himself. Her afternoon appointment had arrived an hour early. “Don’t be so dramatic. You can stall them for the ten minutes it will take me to get there. Make them a cup of tea. Knit them an afghan. Do anything, but calm down!” Sam hung up the phone laughing and shaking her head. “My secretary has a tendency to lose it in stressful situations. She smiled and brought out her wallet to pay their check.

“No way, I invited you to lunch Samantha. Besides, my expense account is hardly ever used and it should be.” Sam thanked the brunette and apologized for the necessity of a hasty exit, but rose to leave. Bev agreed to wait for the check to arrive.

The banker placed a hand gently on Sam’s arm, stopping her for a moment where she stood by the table. “The bank reserved a table at the western dance next Saturday night. I’d love for you to go with me if you like that sort of thing.”

The hostess was leading a group of patrons to their seats and Sam allowed herself to be swept in front of them. “I’ll call you,” Bev called after her.

Samantha dismissed the mention until the call from Beverly came three days later. There had been a roundabout discussion that involved Beverly’s cautious admission of her interest in dating Sam, followed by a confirmed acceptance of her invitation to the upcoming charity event.

Now, dressed in snug black jeans, a black leather vest, belt and black western boots, the curvaceous blonde sat at a reserved table waiting for Bev to arrive. Sam and Peter had argued about the white tee shirt with its sleeves rolled up to expose Sam’s subtly muscled upper arms. He agreed that it was a touch masculine, but convinced her that it was an appropriate look for a hoe down. She hated to admit it, but the look on Beverly’s face when she first spotted Sam proved Peter was right.

“Wow! You look incredible tonight.” Sam accepted the abbreviated hug of greeting from where she sat. “Why don’t I brave the bar before I sit down and get too comfortable. What’s your poison this evening little lady?” Sam requested a scotch and water and Bev left her alone at the table.

“That outfit is sinful,” said an unidentified voice. The remark was quickly followed by a kiss on Sam’s cheek. A flirtatious cowgirl in leather chaps and a felt Stetson grinned widely. “Save a dance for me later?” The cowgirl squatted beside the realtor and dropped a proprietary arm around the back of her chair. Sam agreed to the dance and chatted briefly with the extremely young woman who was a regular at the bars Sam sometimes frequented to two-step.

“Amy and Donna are here and Stephanie. You know her don’t you? The red head who wears all the jewelry.” Sam shook her head, recalling the woman in question. “You do look incredible tonight by the way.” A wolfish smile curled the lips that were inches away from Sam’s face and closing fast.

“You already told me that, but thanks.” Sam was a little uncomfortable with the forwardness of the woman beside her.

“I’ve told her that a dozen times myself, haven’t I Hon?” Beverly stood behind Sam’s chair with their drinks, smiling icily down at the woman who was so obviously cruising her date.

As the banker sat the glasses on the table, the cowgirl stood, studying the brunette. “Beverly Andrews,” she extended her hand in greeting. Bev’s appearance cut the visit short and the youngster moved off after reminding Sam of the promised dance.

Sam thanked her date for the rescue but Beverly just waved it off. “Can’t blame her for trying but you better watch out. She may be back when she grows up!” They both laughed while Bev gauged the effect of her compliment.

The women enjoyed watching the pairs on the dance floor. Their movements were complex and had obviously required many hours of practice to master. Sam loved to two-step. Some of the couples were incredibly graceful and the banker, who had no experience in Western dancing, grew more and more intimidated. She began to drink heavily.

Samantha turned down the first two requests for a dance, but by the time the third one was made, Beverly realized that her date would love to be on the floor, instead of sidelined, looking on. The banker insisted that Samantha accept the offered hand and take the dance floor.

The VP came a little unglued watching Sam move rhythmically with her nameless partner through the intricate steps of a line dance, clearly designed to be provocative for participants as well as spectators. Enjoyment shone in Sam’s eyes as she twirled and stomped in perfect time to the blaring music. When the blonde returned to the table, face flushed and grinning widely she sat watching Bev’s face for a reaction to the spectacle she had just witnessed.

“Whew! That one should have a warning from the Surgeon General that comes along with it. My heart almost stopped twice.” Sam blushed at Bev’s compliment.

After a couple of drinks, Sam convinced her date that all she needed was a little coaching and Beverly finally acquiesced. They made their way around the crowded dance floor for several songs before retiring back to the relative quiet of their table. Beverly excused herself and headed to a quiet corner to return a page on her cell phone. “I’m really sorry Samantha, but they wouldn’t be calling me from the computer department at the bank unless something serious was going on.” Sam waved her away and settled back to enjoy watching the crowd.

A dark hat floated above the mostly bare heads on the dance floor. It moved fluidly in time to the music and Sam watched it intently, waiting for the wearer to come into view. Her curiosity peaked at long legs that did great justice to the snug fit of new Levis. The dull gleam of well worn boots slid seamlessly over the floor, their owner an obvious master of western dance. The arm that reached around the back of the mystery dancer belonged to a woman with a long blonde mane and spilling cleavage. This Sam had determined when the couple came by her for the second time, the blonde clinging to her partner’s chest, eyes closed and obviously enjoying the sensual contact provided by the movement of her graceful partner.

As the couple moved away, green eyes curiously surveyed the subtle curves of the tall dancer’s shapely ass. Sam caught herself smiling a little in appreciation and began anticipating the next turn around the dance floor. She hoped to get a glimpse of the face that went with the body under the black Stetson.

The drink in front of her was mostly melted ice. Sam had never been much of a drinker and knew with certainty that she would be the designated driver for the evening. Still, as she sat watching and fidgeting with the energy of the evening, the young blonde unconsciously lifted the glass to her lips several times. Sam was in the process of swallowing the last sip when the black hat glided into view once more. ‘Oh good! They’ve moved over to this side of the floor. They should be close enough for me to get a good look when they come by.’

Later Samantha would wish they hadn’t been quite so close. As the realtor’s eyes rose slowly up the denim column, past the flames that patterned the western shirt, she got a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach. It took a few moments for the crowd to part and reveal the sparkling blue eyes of Sterling Hayes. Recognition dawned on the attorney’s face just as the music stopped and the dance ended. It was necessary for Sterling to reach behind her neck and pry loose her partner’s hands before peeling the blonde woman off the front of her body. The barrister’s gaze never wavered, it remained locked on Samantha as she gave her dance partner brief instruction and the woman moved off unsteadily towards a table in the furthest corner of the room.

Sam tried to look away. Several beats went by as they simply stared at each other. Finally Sterling’s lips formed into a subtle smile and she touched the brim of her hat in salutation before moving off after her date. The realtor looked after the attorney, confused by her own reaction to the incident. She didn’t have time to analyze it much though before Beverly returned to their table with a fresh round of drinks. Sam took hers and for the first time all evening swallowed a healthy portion of it before sitting the glass on the table.

The drink handed her had been accompanied by a meaningful look. It was the third or fourth such look in the past hour and Sam nervously noted that the frequency was increasing in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol Bev was consuming.

The crowd was beginning to thin and Sam suggested that they go out for breakfast. It was her hope that some food might help sober Bev somewhat. The banker was just about to agree to the plan when Patsy Cline’s voice came over the speakers at the dance floor’s perimeter and the VP leaned in to request a last dance with her date. Sam accepted with enthusiasm, gratified to find that Beverly was very accomplished at waltzing. The banker held Sam tight as they moved around the floor. Fortunately the Realtor was experienced at following a strong lead, because her attention was diverted by the recent image of Sterling Hayes.

**********

The first thing she became aware of was the western shirt neatly hanging on the chair by the desk. It was the very one Beverly had been wearing at the dance. Sam closed her eyes and felt the shift of a body on the bed beside her. It wasn’t her bed, it wasn’t her house and she was about to experience that uncomfortable morning after thing, which she dreaded.

Not that her evening had been anything but pleasurable. Beverly had invited her to her home for a late night breakfast instead of going out, which the banker had prepared and served to Sam with a distinct flair.

They talked over their meal and the VP’s proclamation that she was ‘in like’ with Sam produced an uncomfortable moment between them. Sam, ever honest, admitted her attraction, but told Bev she was mostly enjoying being pursued and relishing the romantic attentions of the otherwise conservative banker. She also told Beverly that she had avoided physical closeness in her life for a long time, hoping candor would somehow discourage the VP. Before Sam got a chance to explain her reluctance to get deeply involved, the lovely brunette leaned closer and gave Samantha a searing kiss.

****

The banker was a considerate and gentle lover. This morning Samantha replayed the previous evening’s activities and was surprised that her recollection consisted mostly of a warm safety. Her green eyes opened slowly and found Beverly watching her.

“Good morning Sam. How did you sleep?” There was a Cheshire smile playing across the face of Sam’s attractive bedmate.

“Great, how ’bout you.” She stretched lavishly; watching in growing alarm as the sheet, which remained caught up under them, pulled off of her shoulders, revealing her nude body underneath.

“MMmmm, thanks. Talk about your morning inspirationals,” Beverly purred. The color rose in Sam’s face. She’d had no idea that she’d fallen asleep in the buff. It was just not something she would do. Bev sidled up to smaller partner and wrapped warm arms around her. She began kissing Sam’s neck lightly and casually caressing whatever was reachable with her free arm.

The thing with the sheet hadn’t been an invitation; it certainly must have appeared differently to Beverly. Knowing hands were moving over Sam’s breasts, causing involuntary responses. A moan vibrated against her ear, sending its little tickles deep inside. Tightening her own hold on the banker, Sam relished the feel of soft skin against her. She was thinking that maybe she had been too long without companionship, when insistent fingers found there way to her lower regions and wiped out the possibility of further thought.

*******

Sam felt doubly guilty for missing church due to the reason for her absence. Peter was going to give her a hard time about this, as was Janet, but it was worth it. The steam rose off the tub she was soaking in and her head was resting against the rim, almost sleeping. She and Beverly had talked over coffee. Sam wouldn’t allow the preparation of another breakfast stating that she’d put the banker to that trouble the previous night.

Parts of the conversation played over in her head. Beverly’s invitation to dinner had been turned down and the banker had shown her obvious disappointment. “I really enjoy your company and I’d like to spend time with you Bev.” The dark face watching Sam lightened perceptibly. “I have a lot of obligations, personally and professionally, as I’m sure you do, but we can work around that, huh?”

Bev had been in banking long enough to read between the lines effectively. “You’re saying that you don’t want anything serious between us, aren’t you?”

Samantha’s smile softened what was coming next. “Its like I told you Bev, I’m not in the market for a serious commitment, but you’re a real temptation.”

‘She is too’ Sam thought as she swirled the cooling water with her hand, pretending it was smooth rounded flesh beneath her fingers instead. A seductive smile appeared as Sam considered the gentle gifts her new friend had to offer.

‘RRRiiiinnnnnggggg!!!’ The shrill cry startled Sam and she half-leapt from the tub before she identified it. She snatched the portable from her dressing bench by the tub, annoyed with herself for her speeding heartbeat. Peter’s voice, chastising her flowed from the ear piece before she even got a chance to speak a greeting. ‘Here we go,’ she thought and sighed loudly.

*******

The table was perfect. Peter had insisted on taking care of it himself while Sam finished up in the kitchen. He had even pirated a bouquet from the abundant flower garden in his back yard. He joined her, casting a critical eye towards the pots on the stove. “You’re all set out there. What time is Beverly due to arrive?”

“About seven she said. There was something going on at the bank that she had to stay for. I hope she isn’t late; this casserole will dry out if it has to stay in the oven too long.”

“Maybe you’ll just skip dinner and get right to the important stuff.” Sam spun around to toss a dishtowel at him where he stood, hands on hips, smiling suggestively.

“Just because you are a sex maniac Peter, that doesn’t mean the rest of us are.”

“Right. I’m out of here. If you need help with anything, send up a flare.” He kissed her on the offered cheek and was gone.

Samantha tried not to be nervous, but it wasn’t working. She had offered to cook dinner for Beverly, thinking it might be nice to stay home for a change. They had been out to eat three times in the past two weeks, always at the banker’s expense and Sam did not want to begin feeling a sense of obligation.

The time they spent together was always enjoyable. Bev had season tickets for the Atlanta Braves and although Sam wasn’t a huge fan of baseball they would be attending a game together the following week. There was a plan in the works to attend an LPGA golf tournament together as well.

‘It’s nice to have somebody to do things with. Gosh! I sound like someone seventy years old! I don’t think I’m supposed to appreciate companionship this early in life.’ Sam had a lot of acquaintances and many invitations to various functions and events, but had fallen into the habit of refusing most of them. The social whirl of life in Midtown Atlanta had grown tiresome. Until Beverly came along, a quiet evening at home had become a steady diet.

The doorbell rang and Sam took one last look at her table before going to answer it. Beverly stood grinning with a bottle of wine extended in her hand.

*********

Sterling would never have anticipated the dread she now felt as she waited at the gate for Samson’s plane to land. Things had begun to heal between them when Sterling opened her own practice. Their phone calls had been uncomfortable at times, but since then they had spent long hours talking through problems, and sharing the details of their diverse lives.

Her move to South Carolina and ultimately to Atlanta had not affected their rekindling friendship. The long distance calls were just a little more expensive than the local ones had been. They had not met face to face since she left Boston.

Now, Samson was coming into Atlanta to attend a training session with forensics expert, Joseph Burton. He had never traveled more than a hundred miles away from home and Sterling had convinced him to turn the trip into a mini-vacation.

This man knew her like no one else living. He knew her past, her dreams, even her fears, but there were things Sterling was not comfortable telling Samson. At times, she had felt an obligation to enlighten Samson about her preference for women, but didn’t know how he would take it. Both of them knew that he had always been not so secretly in love with her. It had taken two years for her to finally come clean, but somehow Samson had been the most relieved by the news.

In his heart he had always known that Sterling was unobtainable and now there was good reason for him to accept the finality of that. At that point, they had become friends, betting on the outcome of football games, razzing each other about ‘hot dates’ turned bad and sharing camaraderie usually reserved for his fellow police officers.

A head of dark hair bobbed above the crowd. She watched it, waiting for the face beneath it to become visible. It was Samson all right, but he had aged twenty years in seven. Sterling smiled and waved so that he would spot her own tall figure.

“My God, you’re more beautiful than I remembered.” It was not an idle compliment. The detective looked positively awestruck. Sterling threw her arms around him and held him tight.

“My protector has finally come to Atlanta.” She patted him on the back before releasing him. The comfort of his presence flooded back from her years in the projects. Sterling didn’t often dredge up those memories, because all of them were unpleasant but Samson had always been a strong male role model in her life. He had filled those empty spaces that Gino could not. Between them, they had taught the young woman right and wrong and how fine the line was between the two.

Obviously embarrassed, the detective muttered, “I only have one bag. Do you know where we go to get it?”

They went arm and arm to the luggage claim area, catching up along the way. Each was the closest thing to a close friend that the other possessed. Loners by nature, it felt unnatural to form bonds, but they had the common thread of history between them. Samson knew things about the young attorney that no one else did or would. Likewise, she had a clear picture of the detective and the torments of a job that he both loved and hated.

“You have to stay with me! I have FOUR empty bedrooms, two extra vehicles and besides, I know where the best topless joints are.” Samson knew she was probably serious, too.

********As promised, the prime rib was delectable. Samson pushed his chair back a little to make room for his expanded waistline. Sterling was treating him to Atlanta’s legendary cuisine, one restaurant at a time. It was her hope that she would fatten him up a bit in the process.

“Surely you don’t eat like this all the time. You’d be as big as a house!”

She laughed at him.” I forget to eat as often as I remember, so when I do chow down, I chow down.” The young woman studied the barely graying temples of her dinner partner. “What’s up with the gray hair? You’re not that much older than me.” She was only partially kidding with her inquiry. Samson was just the other side of forty. She had researched his background thoroughly once upon a time and Sterling never forgot anything unless she wanted to.

“The job does that to you, it makes you old before your time. I’m really twenty-seven.” He smiled, but had a far away look in his eyes. She knew he was back in his city, focusing on some horror-story case that needed solving.

“I can get good tickets to the Braves game tomorrow afternoon. Are you done with your meetings and crap? I can sneak away from the office if you can go.” Samson confirmed that he would be free to make the pilgrimage to watch his favorite baseball team play. The sudden excitement in his eyes was heartwarming for Sterling. She couldn’t remember ever seeing it before.

They were like truant children the next day. Blue jeans and sneakers were enough of a departure from her usual dress that Sterling’s secretary openly stared at her as she was leaving the office. “Something wrong?” The attorney was in an ebullient mood. “You didn’t know that I was this human, did you Sally?” Sterling laughed and tossed her long dark hair. Sweeping it into a ponytail, she threaded it through the hole at the back of her brand new Braves hat. The matching one with its easily recognizable Atlanta ‘A’ was in the backpack that she slung over her shoulder. Samson had resisted every offer of a gift up until now, but he would readily accept this one she was sure.

“I’m out of here Sally. If the sky starts to fall, prop it up until the game is over, ok?” She was whistling as the outer office door swung closed behind her.

The beer was cold and the game was close although the two friends were enjoying eyeing the scantily clad women as much as the action on the field. Sterling was really thawing out, glad to be away from haughty judges, indignant clients and richly appointed conference rooms.

‘I’m just another rabid baseball fan, ditching work and living in the moment. God, why don’t I do this more often?’

“Hey! Gotta go pee. You want anything else to eat while I’m up there?” Sterling grimaced as she glanced at the crumpled hotdog wrappers, trays of both ketchup (from french fries) and mustard (from soft pretzels), mini pizza boxes and a popcorn box. Her stomach gurgled as she drained the plastic cup of her fourth beer and she accepted Samson’s refusal without pressing.

Sterling strode purposefully up the steps, two at a time. The bad thing about good seats was the long walk up from the field level to the bathrooms. Just as she reached the tunnel leading out to the mezzanine a roar went up from the crowd and she spun around to see what had happened on the field. Before either of them had a chance to react, Samantha Hilliard stumbled into her arms.

“Sorry! I should have looked where I was going.” Sam began to apologize, clearly shaken.

“I shouldn’t have stopped with no warning like that. Are you OK?” Sterling countered.

Both had rendered the immediate apology that good manners dictated. Now they stood at arms length, studying each other. Two pairs of eyes narrowed.

“We could be civil. After all, this isn’t a work -related outing. I’m not even supposed to be here. My boss would have a fit,” Sterling offered in an effort to keep the accidental meeting as light as possible. She didn’t want her ebullient mood spoiled by a nasty scene right now.

Stiffening and backing up a step Sam started to react. Unfortunately in her effort to physically remove herself from Sterling’s reach, she almost backed off the concrete riser. Losing her balance, she teetered precariously, realizing her mistake too late. The attorney reached out to grab Sam, pulling her back to safety on the top tier and into her arms.

Sam looked a little pale as the lawyer released her. The two women watched each other wide eyed. As the realization struck her of how long the aisle of steps was behind her and the kind of damage she could have suffered, Sam became paler still. There were patrons collecting behind the two women, trying to get through the tunnel and Sterling pulled Sam out of their way. Taking her by the elbow, the taller woman led her to a quiet corner under the exit ramp.

“You don’t look so hot. Can I get you some water or something?” Her concern was so sincere that Sam forgot to be angry with her rescuer.

“I’ll be fine. It scared me, that’s all.” She swallowed hard and looked up into Sterling’s face. “You’re right, I should be civil at least, especially since you kept me from falling down those stairs. I’d have broken something at least.” Fear had subsided enough to allow Sam’s embarrassment at her clumsiness to creep up from the neckline of the golf shirt she wore. A deep flush of red accompanied it.

The organ music announcing the seventh inning stretch was a prelude to the press of bodies streaming past them to the concession stands and restrooms. Sam was forced to stand closer to Sterling and found herself mesmerized by the hum of something unnamed that seem to emanate from the enigmatic attorney.

Sterling shifted from foot to foot, not knowing what was coming next. Finally she decided to breach the silence herself. “I know I said we’re both skipping work today, so I hate to bring up work-related subjects, but Mike should be sending you another settlement proposal, if he hasn’t already. I think you’ll be happier with this one.”

Samantha nodded and breathed a quiet “thanks” that could not be heard, but was clearly interpreted anyway.

“Well, I guess I better go get in line.” The barrister jerked her head in the direction of the line snaking out of the women’s bathroom. “Are you sure you’re going to be alright?” Sam nodded. “See you later, then. Enjoy the game.” Long legs carried Sterling quickly to her goal. Sam had to think a minute about why she had been coming up the stairs to begin with.

‘I can’t walk over there and get in line behind her, she’ll think I’m loony for not following her in the first place. Or else she’ll think I’m rude and don’t want to make any further conversation with her. Probably thinks that anyway. I’ll just walk around to another bathroom.’

All the way back to her seat, Sterling thought about the feel of Samantha Hilliard as she’d caught her in her arms. The openness of her expression and the intensity of her eyes had been disarming. The tall beauty shook her head. ‘I’m losing it. Just because we exchanged a few words without her cussing me out for once doesn’t mean anything. Does it?’

Samson was a little hoarse from yelling at various misdeeds by players on both teams. Sterling had thoroughly enjoyed watching her friend enjoy himself. It was a rare occurrence, she was sure and a day they would both remember for a long time.

They walked from the bus to the MARTA station enjoying a haze of content that the day spent together had produced. The train would drop them at Eastlake where Sterling had left her car. She looked over at her usually intense friend and hardly recognized the carefree, smiling stranger walking beside her. The lawyer had never thought of him in these terms before.

“When do you think you’ll settle down Samson. There has to be a good woman out there dying to get her hands on you, my man.” The question came from nowhere, but it was one Sterling had been meaning to pose for the past two days.

“I have my outlets. I don’t need anything more permanent than that.” She knew he was speaking of the two women he occasionally dated. Both were divorced, lonely and crazy about Samson. Whenever one would get too serious he would withdraw and go back to the other one. It was not a perfect arrangement, but it worked for all of them.

The lawyer laughed at his flushing face. “You could make an honest woman of one of them you know. You’re not too old to have some kids and stuff.”

“It’s the and stuff that scares me shitless. Besides, you’re one to talk. I don’t see any evidence of a steady squeeze in your life, much less a serious commitment. You’re getting older too Sterling. Maybe you should start thinking about starting a family.”

A family. Their conversation would haunt her in days to come. The progression of relationships in her life generally went from a tease to pursuit, then on to conquering where they inevitably ended. Observation had shown her that it was possible to have something beyond that, but Sterling had never put a name to what that might be. ‘Family. I wonder if there’s a class I could take to teach me about having a family? I don’t know if I could make the compromises.’ At the center of her own little universe, she wasn’t sure that she could share her life.

There was also the issue of a city teeming with beautiful women tempting her at every turn. Sterling had to admit if she was honest, though, that the chase was beginning to get tedious. ‘Maybe it’s time to at least start thinking about it. ‘ The conversation turned to less serious talk.

********

The two friends sat on stools in Sterling’s ultra-modern kitchen, eating sandwiches they had picked up at a deli around the corner. Samson chewed and made a face that wrung an immediate apology from his hostess.

“The deli down here is not what you’re used to, I know…”

He shook his head and explained. “No, no, it’s pretty good, really.” The detective studied her gearing up for his confession. ” I never thought I’d say this, but I hate to go home tomorrow.”

“Don’t go then. You’re welcome here as long as you want to stay.”

Samson protested. “No, it’s not the geography. I hate to go back to that dirty city and that twisted job of mine. Funny, I hate to leave you, this has been real different. I never had a friend before.”

“Neither have I Samson. It is kind of nice isn’t it?” They ate in companionable silence for a while before deciding to catch a movie on Sterling’s wide screen TV.

********

She dropped him off at the baggage check-in counter outside the airport. Sure it was nothing more than hormones, Sterling was feeling sentimental and didn’t want to embarrass herself with tears by accompanying Samson to the gate. He lifted his bag from the trunk of her BMW and slammed the lid. They had managed to avoid saying anything personal but both realized that they only had minutes and the detective would be gone.

“I really appreciate everything and in case I forgot to tell you, I’m real proud of what you’ve done with your life. You should be, too.” Samson looked a little embarrassed by his declaration. Neither of these two had much experience at expressing their feelings.

Sterling felt tears behind her eyes and hurried to hug him so that she could get out of there. She placed the softest of kisses on his lips before spinning around and quickly folding into her car. He watched the hand waving to him out the window until the silver BMW made the curve at the end of the sidewalk and carried his friend out of sight.

Blinded by the tears that were finally allowed to fall, the now vulnerable young woman drove mechanically towards her office. ‘I don’t know what my problem is. It’s just Samson and he’s only going home to Boston, it’s not like he’s dying or anything.’ She tried to console herself, but the emotion continued to bubble up and out of her and Sterling had to dig deeper to figure out why so that she could calm herself.

To begin with, it WAS like he was dying. Samson was returning to a place and a life that had been killing his soul by degrees for all the time she had known him. Their lives had run a parallel course in some respects. The young beauty knew that she had been feeding chunks of her own soul to the devil’s fire all along as well.

The differences between the friends were less dramatic. He had seen the filth and decay in the community where he had been born and dedicated his life to changing it. In the process he had only dirtied his own heart and soul. Sterling had crawled out of the same miasma of scum as soon as she discovered the means to do so and never looked back, but the method by which she accomplished this act of will had created their own stains on her conscience. Both of them thought themselves too soiled by the life they led to deserve the love of another human being. The two of them had seen too much death, disease, corruption and greed. It was hard not to examine motive in the actions of everyone around them and harder to witness the decay.

Sterling Hayes had always been alone. Suddenly, that mattered very much to her.

*********

Sterling had to get out of Boston if she ever intended to build any self-respect. Gino’s two remaining sons treated her as if she was a part of their inheritance from their father and nothing could be further from the truth. Joey and Sal were little boys compared to Gino and probably always would be. The rest of Gino’s friends and contacts weren’t sure what her position was now that he was gone and Sterling had access to a lot of damning information. She made them nervous.

It seemed best for everyone in her world when an opportunity arose and the lawyer decided to follow a big client to Charleston South Carolina. In a lot of ways it would mean starting over, but maybe that was a good thing.

Zachary Taylor, sixty-two year old shipping magnate, was the man who’s business lured Sterling to the southern capital of social graces. His name was one of the oldest on the social register and his introduction opened doors that would have remained closed for decades without his help. Sterling found herself immediately caught up in the social whirl of parties, receptions and afternoon teas.

The high and mighty of Charleston society recognized same-sex preferences among some of its own and oddly enough had no problem accepting Sterling’s new, but increasing appetite as long as she was somewhat discreet. It is safe to say that the women of Charleston were particularly intrigued with the dark beauty and gaining her attention became something of a competition. Zachary chided her at every opportunity, having been quite the stud around town in his younger days, himself.

“You look like you spent the night face down in a thicket.” The grey eyes scanning the documents held a barely contained merriment in them.

“Ha, Ha. It’s your fault, you bastard. That Singleton woman told Harriette that I was seeing somebody else on the side and she went psycho.”

“I see. So you spent the evening trying to soothe her ruffled feathers from the inside out and that’s my fault.” He lifted an eyebrow.

“Mrs. Singleton saw me at dinner with you last Friday. I told you it was a bad idea for me to bring a date downtown!”

“Yes, well. It may have been my suggestion that we all have dinner, but you might have urged that young woman to keep her hands to herself while in public. What is it with you and these nymphomaniacs?”

Sterling grinned in embarrassment and shrugged her shoulders. Zachary smiled and continued scanning the contracts he held on his lap. He knew damned well what the attraction was, he had made a ridiculous play for her himself while in Boston. The woman was brilliant, wealthy, incredibly easy on the eye and the most sensuous person, man or woman, he had ever known. She fairly radiated sexual energy now that she was in Charleston and freer than ever to pursue her own interests without fear of insulting Gino’s legacy.

That pursuit took more of her energy if not more of her time than rebuilding her practice. Fortunately, most of the women seeking her company either had legal needs of their own, or husbands who blindly accepted the suggestions of their wives and sent their business to Sterling for handling. In truth, most of the men married to the high profile women of Charleston had done so out of social or financial necessity and were too busy with their own extra-marital affairs to care what their wives were involved in.

The contracts perfectly expressed the reservations and restrictions Zachary wanted attached to his offer. As always, Sterling understood him and his thought process with very little communication. “This will do” he offered in an off hand fashion, trying not to show the depth of his satisfaction with her work.

“That document is a prize-winning script for your take-over of that factory and you know it.” He would not acquiesce enough to praise her except in his customary fashion.

“I’m sure your billing will be proportionate to the brilliance of the nomenclature in this.” He hefted the hundred-page document and waved it in her direction. Both of them laughed, knowing he was exactly on target. Zachary also understood her thought process and it had allowed them to become friends to the extent that they were allowed to in polite society. She was after all, a newcomer. Anyone who had not had family residing in Charleston for at least one hundred years was a newcomer and consequently on the outside. Sterling and Zachary ignored some of the rules and lunched together at his country club occasionally. They had played a few sets of tennis there too, until it brought attention to Sterling’s athletic prowess and another barrage of not-so-discreet inquiries as to her availability.

Zachary realized that her protests were only half-true when she began begging off on their tennis matches. She was awfully busy at the office, that was true, but mostly, Sterling was reaching saturation point with the women in her life and felt the need to slow down for a while.

By the time Sterling made her move to Atlanta, she had grown up a lot in that respect. Still taken by the occasional thrill of pursuing some elegant beauty or obvious hellcat, the attorney had learned that quality over quantity was a safe and steadfast bet. She was tired, too of waking up in strange places with even stranger people.

Atlanta had afforded her yet another fresh start, at least in her private life. She had managed to avoid the pitfalls of the highly visible social calendar until now.

********

“We’ve got two more to look at. One is just around the corner. It’s been completely updated and an upstairs study added.” Sam would be finishing up with her prospects ahead of schedule. They had toured nine houses during the course of the afternoon and she was confident that they would make a choice by day’s end. The young couple had made an offer on a house with another realtor who had misled them. The sale had fallen through when the appraisal came back way too low. Samantha had worked hard to rekindle some trust with them and knew instinctively that they had finally relaxed into a building rapport with her. The three of them had researched the available properties carefully and now her clients were under pressure to move out of the leased apartment where they had been living.

Sam used her lock box key to gain entry to the property. She sat in the window seat of the bow window in the living room and let the couple walk through the rooms on their own. Never pushy, the Realtor always tried to give people some privacy to react to what they were looking at. Buying a house, the single largest purchase in most people’s lives, shouldn’t be treated like a trip to Kmart.

She heard the couple’s footfalls echoing through the room upstairs and smiled, knowing he was picturing the study he wanted and she was seeing a playroom for the baby they were working on.

There had been a time in Sam’s life when she knew what it was like to plan a future with someone. Those plans had been the product of immaturity until she learned to focus on building a relationship first and a dream later. Sam’s first grown up plans for a future with someone she loved were shattered against the harsh reality of Janet’s infidelities and their resulting breakup. A deep sigh escaped the young blonde as her clients came through the hall into the living room where she had waited.

“And this house is how much?” the young man asked. Sam furnished the information and watched his face for a reaction. He seemed pleased and his wife smiled up at him.

‘We have a winner folks!’

“I think we can skip the last house. We want to make an offer on this one.” He beamed at her and she nodded her head.

“We need to go to my office and fill out the papers. It won’t take very long and hopefully by this time tomorrow, you will have bought yourself a home.” Sam was genuinely thrilled for the young people.

*******

“It’s Sterling Hayes on the line boss.” Samantha pushed down the intercom button thinking she would simply refuse the call and avoid another confrontation. A visual memory of the attorney’s body moving seductively around the dance floor at the Western dance floated into her mind and she became so distracted by it that she took the call.

“This is Samantha. Can I help you?” Sam gave her the best business voice she had.

“Sterling Hayes, Ms. Hilliard. I have the settlement offer you requested and wondered if you could stop by my office to sign the release.” She waited.

Sam was prepared to do battle, to decry the plight of the less than wealthy. She was prepared for almost anything except what she had just gotten.

“I don’t understand. Are you saying that Mr. Lowry has simply decided to pay me my money after all of this time?”

Sterling blew out a long sigh before offering the sought explanation. “I sent over a few pictures from the flood. He didn’t respond, so I went to see him in person and advised him to settle the matter immediately.” Sterling didn’t say that she had threatened Lowry, read him the riot act and ultimately been prepared to pay the damages herself, if necessary, just to show Samantha Hilliard that she did recognize the right thing to do when she saw it. The barrister leaned onto her desktop and waited for the nasty sarcasm that was the usual fare from the blond realtor.

Samantha was uncustomarily at a loss for words. “I.. well. . . thank you Ms. Hayes. I appreciate you intervening on my behalf. ”

“No problem, I’m just sorry it took so long. The process has flaws. Would it be convenient for you to come by later this week?”

“How about tomorrow?” Sam was thrilled at the prospect of recouping the funds she had been out for over a year.

“Sure, what time is good for you?”

Sterling had her secretary cancel the conflicting appointment she had with a client and made a note on her calendar that Samantha Hilliard would be expected at four o’clock.

*******

“Come in, please. Have a seat.” The sleek attorney met Sam halfway across her office. Placing a warm hand on the back of Sam’s shoulder, she guided her to one of the comfortable leather armchairs that faced her desk. Sterling sat down in the other one. There was a lot of tension between them. Each seemed to be on their best behavior, but both women knew what the other was capable of, if angered.

“Can I get you anything?” the attorney offered, but Sam declined. She was anxious to get the transaction completed. She was meeting Peter and Janet for a celebration at six and wanted to go home and change clothes first.

“I need your signature in the places indicated. This is a document saying that you will not initiate another suit arising out of the same circumstances.”

“What if my office floods again?”

“No, no. You won’t sue based on this particular incident again. If there is another flood, that’s a separate matter and he can get another attorney I might add.” She smiled at Samantha who instinctively responded in kind. The scratch of a pen filled the next few moments. Sterling reviewed the documents and added her signature, then reached across her desk and handed Sam a check made out for one thousand dollars more than her suit demanded. Sam’s eyes grew wide.

“I told the bastard it was the least he could do, under the circumstances. I reminded him how much money I’ve saved him over the years and told him he would either do as I asked or I wouldn’t accept his retainer.”

Suddenly, Samantha remembered the previous conversations she’d had with this woman and she filled with remorse. “Listen, I’m really sorry that this whole thing got so unpleasant…”

Sterling interrupted immediately. “Don’t ever apologize for being right.” She stood and extended her hand. “Sorry to rush off, but I have another appointment shortly.”

“That’s too bad. I was going to meet some friends for a celebratory drink and I was going to ask you to join us.” It was the truth, too.

“Maybe another time Ms. Hilliard.”

“Oh, you have to call me Samantha, please, or Sam. I answer to either.”

“Thanks. I’m Sterling.” Sterling was walking the younger woman to her office door. “I gave you your copies, right?” Sam nodded and stopped just short of their goal.

“Sterling, people don’t often surprise me, but you have and in a very nice way. You risked the wrath of your rich employer, you went against common practice, and you went to bat for a near stranger. I could go on, but I know you’re in a hurry.” Sterling was in the process of opening the door for her visitor when Sam stood on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on Sterling’s cheek. “Thanks,” was followed by a sincere smile, and Samantha was gone.

Sterling, on the other hand, stood unmoving, watching the departing figure. She was smiling until she realized that her secretary was staring at her open mouthed at having witnessed the breach of her untouchable boss. Color began to flood Sterling’s face and she quickly retreated into her office, closing the door behind her. She leaned back, feeling the substantial slab of oak behind her and re-summoned the image of a figure walking toward the elevator. The attorney lit up inside.

******”I thought you said she was a bitch, a demon spawn from hell and a scum sucking slick city lawyer who eats babies for breakfast. Did I forget any of your favorite descriptive passages?”

Janet walked up to the bar and kissed Sam’s offered cheek. “Who in the world are you describing, Peter? Someone you’re dating, Sam?” Janet gave her old friend the appropriate smile to accompany her smart-ass remark.

“No, no, just the attorney who settled the law suit. Sterling Hayes is her name.” Sam sipped her wine and waited for Janet to settle on the empty stool beside her. Peter went in search of the hostess to let her know their party was ready to be seated.

“Never heard of her. Is she new in the area?” Janet waved at the barkeep and pointed to Sam’s glass, mouthing her order.

“I don’t know much about her. During the brief time I’ve been around her, I have mostly managed to deliver fire and damnation speeches about members of her profession and the rich scavengers that they serve.” Sam paled a little, realizing once she’d said it, that it was a fair assessment.

“How charming and she hasn’t asked you out, yet?” Janet deadpanned.

Sam was obviously distracted by her own thoughts, but her immediate response was “no” to Janet’s question. Peter and Janet asked in perfect unison. “Huh?” They were astonished that Sam had taken the question seriously and answered it in kind. When Samantha realized what had transpired she joined her friends in laughter and all of them were amazed at the subconscious confession the Realtor had just made.

Peter was elated. He had waited a long time for his boss and friend to show any interest in a relationship. Janet was less enthused. She was struggling, watching Sam’s features change in recognition of her interest in the unlikely choice of Sterling Hayes. Janet had once been the target of that hungry look she was seeing on Sam’s face.

**********Sterling hadn’t been lying; she did have an appointment. She had been suffering remorse for some time about the nature of the work she was doing. Lowry made the third client she had dropped in as many months. Even before Samantha Hilliard pointed out the irreputable, dishonest dealings of some attorneys, Sterling had decided to clean up her practice. Removing the stain of dirty work from her hands would take some doing.

The offices of Aid Atlanta were only minutes away during normal circumstances, but in the afternoon traffic, it was anybody’s guess how long she would need to make the trek. Grabbing her keys out of the desk drawer, she stood to leave, but caught her reflection in the class front of her bookshelves. ‘I don’t think the six hundred dollar suit is appropriate for pro bono work. Maybe I’ve still got those clothes stashed in the dressing room.’ She hurried through the door of her private powder room and did in fact locate the jeans and Tina Turner tee shirt she was seeking. A quick change and Sterling Hayes, high priced lawyer, turned into any typical Mid Town dweller on the way to the grocery store or dry cleaner.

“There are four appointments set up for you today. I spaced them forty-five minutes apart, hoping that would give you time.” The volunteer was being overly solicitous. Sterling had overheard the middle aged woman named Vicky describe their new pro bono lawyer to her co-worker as gorgeous. The attorney had remained in the corner stall in the ladies room and waited for them to exit, to avoid embarrassment for all concerned. Now the woman was definitely all in Sterling’s face and it was beginning to annoy the dark beauty.

“I’ll work with that this time because this is just the initial planning session. The follow up visit will probably take an hour, or more, depending on how complex the case is. I can give you some guidelines after I’ve talked to the clients today.” She dismissed Vicky by entering the temporary office that had been assigned to her and closing the door.

Sterling had volunteered her legal services to the clients of Aid Atlanta. Most of the people she would serve were gay men who were sick and needed estate planning to protect a partner or make arrangements for their own care should they become unable to care for themselves. This was her first afternoon of appointments and a knock on the door signaled the arrival of her first client as a volunteer.

*****

Saturday mornings were quite busy for most realtors. While the rest of the Midtown world was sleeping late, Samantha Hilliard had a portable phone hanging on her shoulder. She was wrapped in her favorite, well-worn chenille bathrobe, pouring her first cup of coffee. It was not quite eight-thirty and Peter was on the phone, reporting a scheduling screw up.

“Calm down Peter. I’ll take the client to look at properties today. I don’t have any appointments this afternoon and I can handle this easily. Just pull up the listings Harry planned on taking her to see and fax me a copy. I’ll look it over while I’m getting dressed. They’re all in the area aren’t they?”

Peter confirmed that the homes were all in the same general area as her own home. She probably had previewed at least some of them, and could fake her way through the rest, if Peter could find the information she needed on Harry’s computer. ‘Just another day in Paradise.’ She smiled to herself and went down the hall and straight through her bedroom to examine the contents of her spacious walk-in closet. ‘Hmmmm. What kind of a mood am I in today? It’s going to be a long one, with lots of getting in and out of the car. I should go for comfortable, definitely, but casual comfortable or sexy comfortable?’ Sam sipped her coffee and started the water for her shower so that it could be heating up while she pondered the question.

Deciding on sexy comfortable turned out to be the wrong choice. She knew it the minute she walked through the back door and looked up the hallway, through her open door to see Sterling Hayes lounging in her office. The barrister had propped herself on the edge of Samantha’s desk and was flipping through a copy of Architectural Digest. Sam ducked into one of her agent’s offices before she was spotted and dialed Peter’s extension.

In hushed tones she began firing questions at him. “Did you know who this appointment was with? How did Harry happen to be showing her property? Has Miss Hayes been waiting long? Come in here and check my make-up for me!” She hung up the phone before he had the opportunity to comment. Within moments, he came through the door and shut it behind him.

“What is the deal boss? You act like this is your date for the Prom or something!” He began fluffing her hair. When he completed that task he pulled a tissue from the box on the desk and started blending her already perfectly blended foundation.

“That’s the attorney!” It did not register with Peter. “You know, the one that that represented Lowry against me.”

“No! My God, she’s gorgeous and she’s single, right?” He was letting his critical eye roam over her outfit and accessories now. “Solid choice on the outfit, even if it is a little trampy for broad daylight.”

A stricken look appeared on her face. If she looked trampy by Peter’s standards, she probably looked outright whorish in reality. The tan leather skirt she had on was a little short by her own admission. Sam realized that the dark green sweater she had chosen was a little on the tight side, too. Her favorite western boots matched the midriff hugging western jacket that completed her outfit.

“Shit! OK, I’m a professional. I need to get it together here. I can’t do anything about my appearance, now.”

Peter smirked. “What you see is what she gets. Or at least you hope she does.” Sam’s answering stare shut him up immediately. He held out several sheets of letter-sized paper. “The computer printouts on all of the properties. I used the color printer since they all had pictures.” He turned sharply to leave then remembered something and turned to face her again. “You came in the back door, didn’t you? Well there’s a limo out front waiting for the two of you I presume.” He smirked again, turned and left, considering himself to be the victor when he saw her jaw drop open.

Samantha took several deep breaths and scanned the sheets she held. Fortunately, just as the broker had guessed, most of the homes were familiar to her already. Peter had made the necessary phone calls to let the agents know that they would stopping by the properties. In this price range all of the homes they would be seeing had security systems, one even had a security staff. Calmer now, she started down the wide hall to her own office and her waiting client.

“Morning,” Sam offered her brightest smile. “I hope you don’t mind my filling in for Harry, he seems to be out of pocket this morning.”

“No, not at all. It’s kind of nice to go straight to the top and deal with the owner.” Sterling had to keep the smug expression off of her face. She had finally made the decision that she wanted a home. Harry Wells was a friend of a client of hers and Sterling had asked for his help in locating one. Then she had literally run into the beautiful realtor at the baseball game and decided that she would kill two birds with one stone. Sterling had admitted to herself that she was interested in Samantha Hilliard, for whatever reason. It would be a challenge to change the woman’s low opinion of her.

Samantha would never know about the deal the attorney had made to get Harry into a foursome playing golf at Eastlake Country Club with Tom Rivers, two time winner of the Masters Tournament. Harry had hardly asked any questions at all in his eagerness to accept Sterling’s offer. Now, the usually stern attorney was grinning widely at the prospect of a day spent with the captivating Realtor.

“I have several properties to show you. Harry made these selections to meet your requirements.” She handed the sheets across her desk to Sterling who now took a seat in one of the chairs facing it.

The attorney took a few minutes to study the print outs carefully. “My needs are simple.” Her eyes looked up and caught Samantha in their gaze, causing her heart to skip several beats.

Before the lawyer could continue, Sam changed the subject. “Coffee, Miss Hayes?”

“Please call me Sterling. We know each other well enough, don’t you think? Besides, we may well be neighbors before too long. Coffee would be great. Black with sweetener.” She returned to her task while Sam buzzed Peter and made her request for coffee.

Sam, trying not to stare openly, admired the casual attire her client had chosen for their Saturday of house hunting. The pale peach blouse she wore was tucked into caramel colored slacks. A rich leather jacket that matched her slacks was slung over the arm of the sofa. Despite her resolve not to be caught staring again, Samantha was watching her client’s face as she digested the information on the printouts before her.

Peter’s knock shocked Sam out of her dreamy state and she rose to take the tray he held. The realtor could tell that Peter really wanted to come in and serve them, but he couldn’t be trusted not to say something outrageous. Samantha took the tray and blocked his entry, leaving him no choice but to retreat.

Sterling never looked up or acknowledged Peter’s presence so it came as a surprise a few minutes later when she commented. “Likeable fellow, but I imagine he loves to meddle, doesn’t he?” She looked up and captured Sam’s gaze. They stared into each other’s eyes with an intensity that disturbed them both and they looked away at the same moment.

“Ha! That’s an understatement. He’s my mother, my father, my sibling, my confessor and my unsolicited critic all rolled into one.”

“You two are cute together.” Sterling sipped and read while Sam tried to figure out what had been meant by her last remark.

“These three, for sure and maybe this one here. Do you know if it has a pool?” Sam punched the listing up on her computer and confirmed that it did indeed have a free form graphite pool beyond the formal garden in the back yard.

“Peter, I’ll need another set of print outs on these properties for Miss Hayes, please. We’ll be leaving shortly.” Her meaning was clear; he was to produce the needed documents in all possible haste. The silences between them were getting uncomfortable for Sam. Her normally endless supply of small talk had deserted her for the moment.

Once Sterling had handed the list of addresses to the driver he opened the door for the two women. “Just the highlighted ones, Jack, and in no particular order. You decide buddy, OK?” She winked at him and followed Sam into the dark interior of the limo.

By early-afternoon they had previewed several homes, two of which were not on the original list but the Lawyer’s unfolding requirements brought them to the Realtor’s mind. Even though Sam hadn’t made appointments to show them, a quick call to Peter on her cell phone remedied the situation. ‘She’s really good at this’,’ Sterling thought as Sam excused herself and returned an important call to bail out one of her agents. ‘She certainly has confidence and charm, and wit. She seems so trusting, it inspires me to trust her, too.’ The lawyer casually studied the exposed thigh next to her. Sterling’s gaze began to track a path upward toward the hem of the very short skirt Sam was wearing but the attorney soon realized her unconscious intent and halted it. Refusing to yield to the temptation, Sterling eyes instead followed the lovely legs down until they disappeared into Sam’s boots.

*******

The barrister had suggested lunch and they were sitting in a booth at ‘Moe and Joe’s’, one of Sam’s favorite local joints. “The burgers are great here,” Sam offered. She was shuffling the listing sheets, trying to determine which properties Sterling was interested in.

“No doubt. Places with this kind of atmosphere always have the best food.” Sterling was looking around her absorbing the details of the décor. “Would it be tasteless to have one of those with lunch?” She pointed at the line of brightly labeled, imported beer bottles on the ledge above the row of booths opposite them.

“I don’t see why it could hurt anything. It’s not as if either one of us will be driving, huh?” The blonde realtor had brought up the subject of the car and driver three times now, hoping for some explanation. None was forthcoming this time either. Sam ordered her beer based on the colorful appeal of the label. Sterling asked the waiter for a suggestion, which proved the better way to choose.

“This is pretty good.” The dark haired woman drank thirstily from the bottle. “Want to try it? You don’t look too enthused about your choice there.” In truth, Sam could barely sip the thick, dark liquid that she had poured into her glass. She planned to ask for water with her lunch in order to avoid drinking it.

“It’s OK, I don’t have any diseases or anything,” Sterling laughed. In truth Sam was simply too distracted by her lunch companion to follow the conversation closely.

Samantha accepted the bottle offered her and sipped. She was pleasantly surprised at both the taste and at the pair of baby blue eyes that watched her intensely while she drank. “Not bad at all.” She smiled and returned the bottle to Sterling. Their fingers brushed lightly in the transfer causing an electric exchange. Both were aware of it and the attorney was considering boldly reaching across the table to cover Sam’s hand with her own when their lunch arrived. The moment was lost. Sam took several deep breaths to help her get her concentration back while Sterling glared at the waiter, silently cursing him for his timing.

The conversation returned to talk of the homes that they had investigated on their morning trek. “I like that one in Morningside and the one in Brookhaven but I can’t muster any enthusiasm for the two in Buckhead.” Sterling was mentally going down the list.

“You seemed to like the Windsor Lane property.”

“Which one was that again?” The attorney was not the least bit confused in reality but liked watching Sam in her Broker Mode. A woman who knew how to be all business when it was called for was someone Sterling could relate to.

Lunch was pleasant. The food was plain and good as promised. Talk returned to talk of the properties they had visited on the ride back to Sam’s office.

“You commented several times about the grounds. It had that huge sunken den with the European fireplace.”

“I did like that one.” Sterling shuffled the fliers again. This is so complicated.” She feigned confusion. “You’ve given me too many to choose from. I’ll tell you what, why don’t we talk about all of this over dinner? You can help me narrow my choices down objectively. What do you say?”

Sam was caught off guard. She scrambled mentally, trying to remember if she had any previous commitments. ‘Damn! I promised Kenny I’d go to that reunion with him’. “Actually, I have a prior engagement that I really can’t get out of.”

“Sounds serious.” Sterling was unhappy with the turn-down, but more unhappy that her information might prove to be incorrect. She had checked around pretty thoroughly and had been informed that Ms. Samantha Hilliard was very single. Now, she was beginning to wonder.

“Not really, I just promised a friend of mine that I’d accompany him to a reunion. He has done the same for me a couple of times.” Sam was very interested to see relief register on the attorney’s face.

“I see. I was hoping my information was accurate.” Although it had not been presented as a question, clearly Sterling was asking for confirmation that Sam considered herself to be single and available.

“I’ve been seeing someone, but we have an understanding.” A dark eyebrow was raised, inviting further explanation but for some unknown reason Sam could not meet her client’s gaze and a faint blush rose up her neck. “It’s a very casual thing, more like a new friendship.”

‘Except that you are sleeping together.’ Sterling was amazed at how much the thought bothered her, especially since she had never tried to find out if any of her own faceless conquests of the moment were unattached or not.

“Sounds like a very healthy approach to me. Here we are.” The car pulled up at Sam’s office and the driver hurried around to open the door. Sterling threw out a suggestion. “Maybe we could get together tomorrow. Why don’t you give me a call this evening? I’ll be up late.”

Sam nodded as she took the driver’s hand and made as graceful an exit as her short skirt would allow. She noticed that the he discreetly turned his gaze away and she smiled automatically at his kindness. “I won’t get home until ten or eleven. Will it be alright?”

Sterling’s smile made it clear that the late hour was no problem.

“Until later then. Have a good evening Samantha.” Sterling flashed her disarming smile at the realtor who stood on the sidewalk with her hand in the air, waving.

The blonde didn’t even hear his approach, so Peter’s question startled her on two levels. “Is she hot or what?”

Sam was trying to quiet her racing heartbeat, and felt very unsteady. “Peter! You scared me to death sneaking up on me like that!” The young woman turned and headed into her office, leaving him standing on the sidewalk.

“Which house did she like? I bet the Morningside was her favorite.” He waited until Sam was settled at her desk and he had her full attention before asking the question he really wanted answered. “Are you going to show her anything else?” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“You need to get a life of your own!” Sam acted affronted, but forgave Peter immediately and they shared a laugh. “I think we will probably review two or three of the properties tomorrow. Sterling has narrowed her choices that much already.”

Peter plopped down and began firing questions about the mysterious attorney, most of which Sam could not answer. She was trying to determine if there had been an insinuation in Sterling’s interest concerning her dating status. The young realtor hoped so but scolded herself for wishful thinking. When Sam realized that Peter was not going to shut up any time soon, she decided she might as well get his opinion and repeated the conversation as accurately as possible.

When she was done, she waited for a response. “What do you think?”

He met her eyes and nodded his head. “She’s definitely interested.” He clapped his hands, excited by his assessment of the situation. “You need to come up with something divine to wear tomorrow. Maybe I should come over and pick something.”

“I think I can dress myself, thanks. I’ve done just fine so far.” Having checked her messages and deciding there was nothing that required her immediate attention, Sam began collecting her things. She had errands to run and it would take some time in the Saturday traffic. “I need to get going. Kenny is picking me up at seven which means seven-thirty in Kenny Time. I could really use a nice long soak in the tub before that.”

“Cold shower sounds more appropriate to me.” Peter ducked out the door before she had an opportunity to respond.

The ride home was brief, but peppered with flashbacks of her hours with Sterling. The woman had a tremendous presence without a doubt. She was intelligent, sexy and obviously had money to be out looking at properties in the high six figures. ‘And she is absolutely gorgeous! My gosh! Those eyes seem to look right into my soul. They make me feel naked in more ways than one!’ Sam laughed at her own observation, realizing that she had entertained a steamy thought or two herself. An irritated driver’s honking horn reminded Samantha that she was operating a vehicle and needed to focus a bit more on the present. The enticing visuals would have to be continued at home, later.

********

The ringing phone woke Sterling from the light doze she had fallen into.

“I hope I didn’t wake you. If it’s too late to call, I can ring you back in the morning,” Sam apologized.

As soon as Sterling recognized the voice, it drove her pulse up a notch. “No, it’s fine. I must have fallen asleep reading. I’m glad you called. Otherwise I’d have slept all night in my glasses.” She sat up and adjusted a pillow behind her back “Enjoy your evening?”

Sam sighed. “It was pretty boring, but Kenny is grateful and it’s another year before he has to go to one of those things again.”

“Do you think you could help me out sometime?” Sterling had no idea why she had made such a request. Her only relative in the world was her mother’s sister who resided in a luxurious home for the elderly. There were no family reunions likely in her future.

“Sure, anytime. Just give me some warning and let me know what part you want me to play.” Pretending to be Kenny’s girlfriend was not too complicated a request. Sam wasn’t too clear though on who the attorney could possibly want her to pose as.

The two women talked for a few minutes and made arrangements to meet for brunch the following day as a prelude to choosing one of three houses for the attorney’s permanent residence. Sterling returned the telephone to its cradle on the night stand and readied for sleep. She thought of the young blonde readying for bed too and imagined what it might feel like to hold her.

*****

Samantha was locking her car door when she noticed the silver BMW convertible pull in two spaces away. The navy top was up against the chill of the cloudy day. A dark head of hair emerged first as Sterling stepped out. Stretching to her full height the lawyer smiled her most winning smile at Sam who hesitated a moment in reaction before returning it.

“Where’s your big car?” Sam inquired, thinking the sports car that Sterling had just stepped out of suited her much better than the limousine they’d ridden in the previous day.

“The limo isn’t mine. It belongs to a grateful client who insists that I use it periodically. He can be pretty persuasive and pretty sneaky. Sometimes I just find it parked at the curb in front of my house. You happened to catch me on one of those days yesterday.”

“I like that one better.” Sam indicated the sleek convertible. “It’s more your style.”

Sterling shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her leather jacket and waited for her lunch date to start towards the restaurant. Before they even made it to the door, Sam was talking about houses and escrow accounts. The beautiful barrister laughed quietly as she held the door open.

*********

They had left the BMW parked in the lot at Samantha’s office while they toured what Peter had termed the ‘final three contestants’ for Sterling’s new home.

“Some factor MUST make one of the three a stand out. Of course, you have lots of time to decide. It’s not like you’re under pressure to find something.” Sam’s voice trailed off as she watched her passenger glad for the opportunity to study her profile with good reason.

“You’re right.” Sterling’s succinct answer was geared to frustrate and it had. She had revealed virtually nothing about her motivations or her personal life in all of the time the two women been together. Years of reading jurors and judges had taught her to assess people’s motivations so that she could manipulate them accordingly. The predator instincts rose up in her now, as she weighed the situation. Always decisive and sometimes impulsive, she had made her choice of properties the previous afternoon but didn’t care to relinquish the opportunity for spending time with the provocative blonde Realtor. On the other hand she didn’t want to seem too anxious, either and she had spent time with Sam two days in a row already.

“This is going to be a killer week at the office. I’m expected to present a case for a new client on Wednesday and I really need to spend some time preparing if I’m going to dazzle her.” Sterling paused for a moment for effect. “Why don’t I have my secretary give you a call mid-week and let you know my decision. I could sign the papers on the weekend for you.”

Sam’s disappointment was obvious which pleased Sterling greatly. “You could just send the papers over to the office if you would rather,” Sterling suggested.

“No, no. The weekend is fine. There isn’t any great rush.” ‘I hoped she might want to see me sooner than the weekend. I must be reading her signals wrong altogether.’ Sam was usually more on target about these things and was a little disturbed.

The attorney now knew that her Realtor wasn’t pressing just to get her client’s signature on a contract. Samantha was interested, and it was only a matter of finding out how interested. Sterling smiled as she pulled her key ring from her jacket. Samantha leaned against Sterling’s car and blocked her getaway. Blue eyes boldly studied the attractive young woman, running her gaze appreciatively up and down Sam’s petite figure, but neither of them spoke.

Later, she would wonder what possessed her to do it, but in a surprising show of will, Sam stood her ground and stared right back. She considered beginning a lame conversation that would explain her reluctance to allow Sterling’s departure but decided against it. A minute went by and then two.

Sterling’s bravado was beginning to sag now and she was shifting from one foot to the other, her discomfort growing. She made a living by being confrontational but was unaccustomed to personal candor and fought to keep from admitting anything with her response. Totally disappointed at herself, she finally dropped her eyes to study the asphalt of the parking lot.

The soft bleat of a pager broke the silence and Sam automatically pulled the device from her pocket, studying the numbers. “Gotta go. See you later.” She apologized and went up the sidewalk to her office leaving Sterling looking off balance.

As soon as she opened the glass door into the lobby, Peter grabbed her hand and sat her down on the sofa before sitting close to her. “Tell all!”

“I need to return this call first. I don’t recognize this number though.” She checked the readout again and Peter burst into laughter.

“It’s my friend Randy’s number, silly. The two of you looked positively miserable out there. It was the only thing I could think of.”

Now it was Sam’s turn to laugh.

******

Sterling sat at one of the many traffic lights that caught her on the drive to her rented house. Examining her reaction over and over, she tried to determine exactly where her attempt at playing it cool had backfired. Sam had made her so uncomfortable with nothing more than a look. Something in her gaze had demanded that she be honest about their attraction to one another and Sterling just wasn’t in the habit of vocalizing how she felt.

The whole situation was wearing on Sterling’s nerves. She leaned her elbow on the ledge inside the car window and dropped her head over into the palm of her hand. ‘I’ll just draw up the contracts myself and have them couriered over to her.’ It was a good plan and one that would free up some time for her to focus on her clients but Sterling knew when she came up with it, that it would never be implemented. She wanted to spend time with Samantha Hilliard and would do whatever was necessary to accomplish it.

*******

“This is Christine and obviously you have my number. Why don’t you leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.” It had been a long time since she had dialed this particular number, but Sterling would have recognized the soft, seductive voice anywhere. She couldn’t help but smile as she summoned visions of Christine in the black lace teddy she had given her the last time they got together.

The lawyer had come home to a quiet house. Television bored her anytime and tonight screamed for a diversion. Sterling opened her briefcase and pulled out her case notes. ‘Homework. I will never stop hating it.’ Reading the first paragraph for the third time, she realized that she couldn’t concentrate. ‘Why on earth am I so restless? I’ve been gone virtually all weekend.’ That thought brought her mental images of the delectable blonde she’d been with and Sterling realized what her problem was. She needed a little female companionship.

“Hello Chris, it’s Sterling. I thought you might…”

She was interrupted by a breathless voice greeting her. “Hello stranger! It’s been a long time Sterling.”

“I see you still screen your calls Chris. How are you besides beautiful?”

“Available. Anytime. Anywhere. Where you’re concerned anyway.”

***********She was immediately aware of a possessive arm wrapped around her waist, holding her against a warm body. Beverly, even in her sleep, had begun to cling to Sam. Their relationship was getting to be a problem. Most women would have simply accepted the attention and good sex, biding their time until something more exciting came along. Sam thought it was dishonest to allow it to continue. She felt trapped, in a relationship that didn’t give her what she really needed. Beverly was a wonderful, loving woman, but she was not the one and Sam had been trying to fight that for some time.

Breakfast, as always, was prepared by the banker. Samantha sat at the table, drinking her coffee and falling over words that were hard to say to such a tender, caring woman. “You know Bev, in every relationship one of the people seems to have a greater emotional investment than the other. For the first time in my life, I am the party that is less involved. Even though we agreed in the beginning that this would be a casual arrangement, I can’t help but feel like it’s getting to be more than that.”

“For me, you mean.” Beverly looked contrite as she turned to face her guest. Sam was telling the truth and they both knew it, but Bev didn’t want to give up. “Maybe we need to back off a bit and try this again. We’re both adults after all and should be able to manage something this simple.” Her expression was earnest.

Sam looked at her, not wanting to deliver the blow that would sever their arrangement. It would hurt Beverly and that was not something Samantha could not do lightly. Although it was a mistake, she agreed to Beverly’s terms.

“You won’t be sorry, Sam. I promise I’ll do better.” Bev had Sam wrapped in her arms during her entire little speech, evidencing its inaccuracy.

The blond made a mental note to address the issue again in the near future.

**********

The prediction of a busy week had been an accurate one. In addition to the usual fare, Sterling managed a major coup by dazzling Kim Dahan, her new client. The woman was an entrepreneurial genius who had developed a franchise package for single women seeking self-employment opportunities. It had been sold and successfully utilized by fifty-eight women already. Unfortunately, someone had decided to clone Dahan’s idea illegally and had scammed three unsuspecting women. One of them was planning to sue Kim until Sterling took over the case and convinced her of Dahan’s innocence in the matter. As a gesture of good faith, Sterling had recommended that Kim offer the woman a discounted deal on the genuine package which she willingly did.

Although it had taken the greater part of two days, Sterling had retired the problem with ease, convincing Kim Dahan that she needed full time representation to guard against re-occurrences of this type in the future and protect her rapidly growing empire. Sterling was pouring over the contractual documents she had roughed out for the new account when the phone rang. It was after hours and her secretary had gone for the day. Sterling had forgotten to re-route the phone to the voice mail after her last outgoing call. Irritated with the interruption and with herself for causing it, she continued to read as she answered. “Hello.”

“It’s Samantha Hilliard. I’m sorry to bother you.” Sam recognized the aggravation in the attorney’s voice.

Sterling put down the papers and focused her attention on her caller. The brilliant smile on her face had appeared without her knowledge. “You’re not bothering me in the least. How have you been? How is the house hustling business?”

“I manage to stay fairly busy, the same as you I imagine. Have you given any more thought to which property you would like to make an offer on?” Sam had called to invite the dark beauty to attend a casual gathering at Peter’s house the following Saturday night but now she wasn’t so sure it was a good idea. She had fallen back into her Realtor routine at the last minute to save face.

“I think I’ve made a decision, but I really wanted to go back one more time if you don’t think that’s inappropriate. I know the owners will be reluctant to negotiate the price if they realize I’m interested enough to return a third time but I have decorating issues that might affect my choice.”

They discussed which house Sterling had an interest in returning to and made a tentative appointment to look at it on Thursday evening. Their business concluded Sterling waited, wondering if she should invite the attractive young woman to dinner following their appointment. Before she had a chance to do so, Sam regained her confidence somewhat and extended the invitation for the following Saturday. “It’s nothing fancy or anything and you may already have plans. Peter and I just thought it might be an opportunity to meet some of the people who live in the community, you know, since you’re probably going to be moving here.” Her voice trailed off, nervously awaiting Sterling’s response.

The lawyer suspected how difficult it had been for Sam to ask. It made the invitation even more irresistible. “I wouldn’t dream of letting a chance like this go by. It’s so thoughtful of you to include me.” They talked for a few moments.

Sterling hung up the phone and opened the bottom drawer of her desk. Using it as a footrest, she leaned way back in her desk chair and put her hands behind her head. ‘So, she wants me to come to her party. How interesting.’

All intensity and concern over the legal affairs of her clients had vanished. Sterling considered the attraction she felt for Samantha Hilliard. At first she had misidentified it as the challenge of making someone like her even when they were obviously trying hard not to. Sterling wasn’t sure what either of them was after; she only knew she felt good knowing that she had plans that included the beautiful blonde twice within the next three days. ‘Mmmm. Yes, this could get very interesting.’

Sam buzzed Peter’s desk immediately. “Yes, Master.” He affected his best ‘Igore’ voice except that he added a slight lisp. The young woman just shook her head and laughed before reporting her latest news.

“We have one more mouth to feed next Saturday night.” She waited.

“Who are you dragging over now? I thought Janet couldn’t make it.”

“She can’t, but Sterling Hayes can.” The clunk of a telephone receiver striking a desktop was the only response. Sam hung up her phone and watched the doorway, knowing Peter would fill it momentarily. He did not disappoint her.

“When did all of this happen? You’ve been holding out on me haven’t you?” Peter neated up stacks of papers, clearing a sizable portion of Sam’s desktop, then took a seat in the space he’d created. He asked a dozen questions in rapid fire most of which required lengthy answers, but would not yield the floor long enough for her to provide them.

“Calm down will you? I have no idea what her favorite foods are. She drank beer the day we had lunch together and didn’t eat much of anything.” Sam hadn’t realized until now that she had been paying that much attention at the time. “I’m sure just about anything will do. Sterling has probably eaten a truckload of finger food in her life. Her practice represents some pretty wealthy people. She’s mentioned attending social events for business reasons…”

Peter was all in a whirl of plans to impress the attorney in Sam’s behalf, which the Realtor found amusing. “You sound like my mother trying to fix me up with one of the boys at the Country Club, Peter.”

“Your mother will never see the day she has the style that I have, so please don’t insult me by drawing that comparison. Besides, your friend may be a member of the Country Club set, but she is definitely not a boy.”

“She certainly isn’t.” Now it was Peter’s turn to be amused at the wistful expression on his friend’s face. He knew even if she didn’t just how gone she was on the mysterious lawyer and had every intention of playing matchmaker between them.

Sam offered to help with food preparations and Peter accepted, attesting to her high rating in cooking acumen. Under normal circumstances, only his professional chef friends were allowed within the sacred confines of his kitchen. She shooed him off her desk announcing her intention to get some work wrapped up. Sam knew that there would be a dozen calls from Peter both at work and home before the gathering on Saturday. There was no immediate need to concentrate on the details of the party.

She’d been put on hold by a county clerk in Covington while the woman looked up some information for Sam on the tax maps. The young realtor ran her fingers through her hair and mentally went over the contents of her closets considering outfits for her Saturday meeting with Sterling. Sam had definitely liked the way the older woman looked at her the day she wore the short leather skirt. The memory of hungry blue eyes was on pause inside her thoughts when the clerk returned to the phone with the needed information.

Sam found herself at the mall trying on clothes later that afternoon. Nothing that was currently hanging in her closet could give her the confidence in her appearance that she was seeking. The sales woman at Neiman’s was overly solicitous and terribly snobby. It would have been much easier to find what she was looking for if she had brought Peter along. They would have been shunned, as usual, due to his flamboyant behavior.

“I have that in a larger size. Let me get it for you.” The sales woman left the fitting area with a sniff. That was all the reassurance Sam needed to believe that the fit of the outfit was perfect. The scoop neck of the red knit top was low enough to show some cleavage and the hounds tooth wool shorts were snug across her backside. Sam considered a long vest with lapels and slash pockets made of thin black polished cotton. It didn’t obscure the cut or fit of her outfit but a person would have to look a bit more closely to enjoy her feminine curves. The vest was totally impractical against the chill of the season, but it added a little extra dramatic effect so she decided to go with it.

By the time the surprised sales woman returned, Sam was dressed and ready to pay for her purchases. Driving home, the young woman tried to think what the real attraction was, other than the obvious. Sterling was darkly brooding, potentially ruthless, definitely predatory. In other words, she was all the things that Samantha didn’t care for in a friend or lover.

**************

“Shit!” A tall figure paced menacingly on the shoulder of the road. Darkness was falling and the beacon of the blue light was becoming more and more noticeable. Sterling looked at her watch for the third time in as many minutes, angry at herself for smarting off at the police officer who had pulled her over. ‘If I had been polite and showed her some respect I’d be on my way right now. I am such an ass sometimes.’ She shook her head and chastised herself over and over as her stress level continued to climb.

It had been a long wait for Thursday evening and the attorney had left her office early so that she could go home to shower and change before meeting Sam. She had made the mistake of answering the phone and Christine delivered an angry speech in reaction to the message Sterling had left, breaking their date on Saturday. It would have been less than polite not to give the breathy vamp an opportunity to vent her passionate nature, so the tall attorney lounged against the vanity in her bathroom and let the tide of malcontent wash over her.

With that behind her, a glance at the bedside alarm clock assured her that there was still plenty of time to make her six-thirty appointment. Humming a tune that she couldn’t identify, Sterling grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter and walked to the BMW she had left in the driveway. She hadn’t been planning to be home more than the twenty minutes it usually took her to bathe and dress. Chris’ phone call had extended that to almost forty which was time enough for some vandal to slit the rag top of her car and rifle through the contents of her glove box.

The phone call reporting the incident to the police was merely a formality. They didn’t even want to send a patrol car over to take the report, but took the information on the telephone instead. Sterling pulled the sportscar into the security of her three-car garage and went into the house to get keys for the Rangerover that stood in the adjacent slot. She rarely drove the vehicle, but when she went to the mountains or the beach to get away, she preferred a primitive setting, accessible only in a four-wheel-drive .

“Damn!” A glance at her watch told the lawyer that she would never make it on time in the mid-town traffic. Sterling tried to relax and convince herself that it might perpetuate her attempt to play it cool if she showed up fashionably late. The problem with that theory was that she was really looking forward to spending the evening with the charming young blonde.

‘Now this! I couldn’t keep my mouth shut’ The brooding woman was still punishing herself when the policewoman came over to return her license and registration. She wrote in the ticket book on her clipboard, occasionally looking up into the offender’s face. It occurred to the fuming attorney that the officer was checking her out pretty closely, but she was too angry to respond.

“Thanks a load,” she growled before ripping her copy of the speeding ticket out of the policewoman’s hand and getting back into her car. Sterling had committed the number for Hilliard Realty to memory weeks ago and dialed it now while simultaneously pulling out into traffic.

She recognized Sam’s voice immediately and tried to sound less perturbed than she in fact was. “Samantha, I’m going to be a little late.” The lawyer glanced at her watch. ‘A lot late is more like it’. “Can we still get into the house without disturbing the owners you think?”

“As luck would have it, they’re out of town, so don’t worry about it. Take your time, I’ll be here waiting.” The voice was pleasant and instantly forgiving. Sterling’s mood lightened immediately and she relaxed her death grip on the steering wheel. ‘I like the sound of that. She’s waiting for me.’

It was full dark when the Range Rover pulled to a stop in the parking lot of the realty office. The tall brunette gracefully stepped down to the pavement and headed up the walkway. The entire building was lit up, but only Sam’s car occupied a space outside. Sterling pushed the door open.

A buzzer, soundless to the attorney, announced her arrival to the waiting woman. Sam went out to meet her client and was delighted with the image that greeted her. Dressed casually in winter white slacks and a wool blazer, Sterling was a stylish picture. Hands shoved into jacket pockets she held them out as she apologized again, revealing the classic cashmere shell and alligator belt that she wore around her slim waist. Always understated, the lawyer had been dressed impeccably every time Sam had seen her.

“Please don’t apologize. If you do, then I am obligated to do the same every time I’m late, which I often am. It’s no big deal.” Samantha offered a sincere smile to punctuate her sentiment and the attorney bowed slightly signaling her acquiescence. “Let me grab my jacket and we’re on our way.”

Samantha stood and looked around the parking lot for the anticipated BMW. “I’m driving that.” She indicated the Range Rover. It’s a long story that I can tell you over dinner, but I need the time between now and then to adjust to the tale myself. Come on.” The taller woman held the door open for Sam and assisted her with a slight push on her elbow as she climbed up into the high passenger’s seat.

“Does this come with an escalator?” It was unlike Sam to make light of her own height, but she sensed that her client could use a little humor at the moment.

The two women drove most of the way in silence. Traffic was still heavy and Sterling needed to concentrate to get them to their destination. They pulled down the long driveway through the trees and around the semicircle of stone pavers to the front of the dwelling. The stucco façade was impressive with its intricately detailed trim cast in contrasting plaster. An abundance of windows and spans of fixed glass blended well into the offsets of the exterior. A series of breaks and direction changes in the roof line gave the house the specific character and curb appeal that had drawn Sterling back to it for the third time.

The tall woman stood on the drive, slowly scanning the length of the house and its grounds before moving to Sam’s side where she was waiting to usher them in. Once inside the normally quiet attorney began a running commentary.

“I like the height of the ceilings in here. I don’t feel confined at all and the light is wonderful. It’s a shame to curtain those windows.” Sterling pointed to the second story windows in the foyer. “I think those window treatments will have to come down. They’re too fancy for my taste anyway.”

“So you don’t like formal decorating, huh?” Sam was determined to find out all she could on this evening’s outing. Somehow she had fallen into the trap of talking about herself on their previous appointments and knew very little about the enigmatic woman who stood before her, studying the spindles of the hand railing that led up the steps.

“I like elegant just fine, but formal is just not me.” Sterling moved through the rooms downstairs, showing little interest in the dining room, but taking her time studying the wall space in the study and the large den behind the kitchen.

‘Elegant. Good word and one that describes Madame Attorney perfectly.’

“The longest lasting relationship in my life is with a leather sofa that I lounge on all the time in my den. It would have a perfect home right over there.” Samantha smiled at the image of the graceful figure, reclining on a well worn sofa. She was in the process of adding her own figure to that equation when Sterling continued her train of thought.

“I have a collection of paintings that were gifted to me a long time ago. Many of them are quite beautiful. There are plenty of walls for those. The rest is pretty much negotiable. It can stay, or go.” Sterling’s voice held no emotion.

“You don’t get into interior design I see.” It was a question; it just didn’t have a question mark behind it.

“I like to be comfortable and my tastes are conservative. I tend to buy what my eye goes to and work with it. This will be my first permanent home though. I may consider getting a professional decorator. Do you know any?”

Before the Realtor had a chance to answer, Sterling walked on ahead of Samantha into the walnut paneled study. It was a very masculine room, meant to exude authority by design. Sterling matched its presence with her own.

“You are in the decorating capital of Georgia.” Samantha laughed easily, thinking of the last dinner she had attended at Peter’s house.

“Are you being facetious?” Sterling didn’t know exactly how to take the younger woman’s response.

Sam explained that she had met no less than three interior designers during one recent afternoon. “Your only problem will be choosing only one and they will undoubtedly fight over you.” This earned Sam another questioning look.

“It’s a beautiful house and will become a real showcase of good taste, I have no doubt.” Sam enjoyed the effect of her compliment as the tall attorney dipped her head in acknowledgement of it.

Sterling’s cool blue eyes continued to scan the study, feeling the cold hand of Gino’s approval drop onto her shoulder from his grave. ‘I’m home. Finally.’ She looked to where Samantha stood studying her and relaxed into the open appraisal. It was not an uncommon experience for the enigmatic lawyer, but something in the gaze that fell on her now made her want to measure up to Sam’s expectations. This had never proven to be an issue in the past and unnerved Sterling slightly. She changed her tactic, pulling her attention away from Sam.

“Yes, this will do very nicely. I have the contracts in my briefcase, if you will look over them for me.”

“Don’t you want to go upstairs to the bedrooms?” Sam was surprised at the swift inspection.

“Do you?” Sterling eyebrow raised perceptibly as did the flush in Sam’s cheeks. The attorney apologized. “Just kidding. Sorry, I have a warped sense of humor.” ‘Gotcha didn’t I?’

*********

The offer was fair. It wasn’t quite full price, but Sterling was willing to handle the title search through her firm as well as the filing of the warranty deed. All the sellers needed to do was have their own lawyer look over the paperwork. It was no surprise to Samantha when the listing agent called back within a few hours of receiving the contracts with the news that the offer was accepted.

Sam felt a rush of elation as she hung up the telephone in her den. She started to dial the lawyer’s office number from memory, a fact that she was suddenly aware of and a little shocked by. Staring at the portable phone as if it held the answer to the multitude of questions whirling through her mind, Sam slumped into the leather armchair that was her favorite.

‘Is Peter right? Is there something about this woman that I am drawn to on some level?’ Sam asked herself why she was so excited and relieved to have news that legitimately required a conversation with the barrister. It was if she needed some feasible excuse to allow herself the pleasure of hearing the deep, seductive voice. Trying to dismiss the whole concept, Sam once again pushed the numbers on the telephone that would connect her with the lawyer’s office.

“Hayes and Foster,” The clipped professional voice that answered informed the Realtor that Ms. Hayes was in court for the remainder of the day. Sam deliberated leaving a message, but decided that her news was too big to be coldly transmitted through a voice mail.

“Just tell her that I called, please.” Samantha gave her name and was gratified when the secretary’s tone warmed immediately.

“Oh, hello Ms. Hilliard. I was told that you might be calling. I’ve been instructed to give Ms. Hayes a page and let her know. Is there a number I can give her, where you can be reached?”

Sam hung up the phone, and headed into the kitchen to fix herself a snack. She’d missed lunch and had promised to meet Beverly for dinner at seven. Looking at her watch, Sam calculated that to be too far in the future for her to wait for food.

She had barely sat down at the table to tackle the raw vegetables and ranch dip when the phone rang and interrupted. Assuming it would be Peter or one of the agents at the office, Sam answered in mid-chew.

“I understand you’re looking for me.” Sterling’s unmistakable voice came over the line.

“Hang on a second,” the Realtor managed to say around the mouthful of celery. Embarrassed, Sam covered the phone with her hand while she hastily finished crunching and swallowed.

“Sorry. My mouth was full. I …” Sam realized she was rambling and started over. “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you so soon.”

“Coincidentally the judge called it a day soon after I got the page. He’s been a grumpy bastard all week. I suspect he’s fallen off the wagon.” Sterling waited expectantly for the news she supposed Sam had for her.

“I just wanted to let you know that your offer was accepted.” Samantha grinned, practically feeling Sterling’s reaction across the miles. “Congratulations, you have a new home.”

Sterling was elated and surprised at her own reaction to the news. She let out a long breath. “Ha! Well what do you know?”

Sam didn’t speak, wanting the other woman to have a moment to savor her good news.

“We have to celebrate of course. Be my friend? Go out to dinner with me tonight?” Suddenly Sterling realized how much she wanted acceptance of her invitation.

Deciding quickly that it was a business related invitation and therefore a legitimate excuse for standing Beverly up, Sam didn’t hesitate. “That would be great. I can give you your copies of everything.” ‘There, that makes it official enough.’ “What time, and where?”

The attorney suggested a restaurant around the corner from Sam’s house. Insisting that she pick the younger woman up instead of meeting her there, Sam decided it would be fun to see Sterling’s face when she realized that the establishment was within walking distance from her front door and agreed.

Sam felt no remorse about breaking her date with her banker friend until she actually heard the disappointment in Beverly’s voice. “I understand, really Sam. After all, it’s your job. We’ve been lucky there haven’t been conflicts before now.” They agreed to see each other later in the week and Sam hung up the phone feeling relieved to have the matter over with.

Two hours later, as she stood studying the contents of her closet, Samantha wondered if her client would be driving her little car. Sam preferred the closeness of its passenger space. Her mind worked with her nose to jump-start her scent memory and conjure the subtle fragrance that the realtor now associated with Sterling Hayes. Sam could picture the attorney’s strong hands on the steering wheel and wondered at the softness of them, placed on her shoulder to guide her through a door. Something was happening between them that frightened and at the same time elated her.

*********

The doorbell rang at precisely seven o’clock. Samantha checked her face in the beveled mirror of a beautiful old hall tree in her entry foyer. Meanwhile Sterling fidgeted on the front porch, wondering if she had made a fool of herself in the course of her dinner invitation. ‘Be my friend? What was I thinking? She must think I’m an idiot.’ Her self-chastisement session was cut short when the door swung open.

“Hi.” Samantha’s voice was soft and sounded unfamiliar to her own ears. The two women stood smiling earnestly at each other. “Do you want to come in for a minute?” She stepped back to allow Sterling to pass closely in front of her before shutting the door after them.

“I hope I’m on time. I had a little trouble finding the house.” Suddenly bashful, a first in her life, Sterling tried to avoid Sam’s eyes. That led her to look at the simple black dress that hugged the young woman’s curvaceous form, revealing her many attributes. Staring at the creamy offering above the deep veed neckline, Sterling swallowed hard and met Sam’s eyes willingly now. “Beautiful home you’ve got here.” It was an automatic slice of small talk, but in glancing around her, the lawyer realized it was a sincere observation.

“Thanks. We can have a drink if you like, before we go.” Samantha was amused by the flustered attorney and enjoying the reaction to her choice of outfits.

“That would be nice if it isn’t any trouble.” Sterling took a cautious look at her hostess and was comforted by a warm smile.

“Any preference? I have scotch, bourbon, vodka or maybe you would prefer wine?” Sam waited.

“Whatever you’re having will be fine, thanks.” Sterling began to gain some control over her nervousness in Sam’s absence. She looked around the cozy den, just off the central hall of the house and tried to calm her elevated heart rate.

‘Steady old girl. You’ve been in the presence of many beautiful women in your life. There’s no need to fall apart over this one, although she does look ravishing in black.’ Sterling immediately allowed her imagination to replace the stylish dress with a black lace nightie she had admired in a Victoria’s Secret magazine earlier that day. The attempt at calming herself failed all out at the thought.

Forcing composure, the lawyer glanced around the room and admired the beautiful antiques it was furnished with. The enormous sofa, upholstered in rich fabric of burgundy and forest green held an even dozen pillows, perfect for a cozy evening before the fireplace it faced. A pair of matching pie crust tables stood at each end of it, their tops painted with magnolia blossom designs. The Persian rug underneath the leather topped, oval coffee table was an unusual pattern, even to Sterling, who was quite expert at identifying them. She had learned an appreciation of such things at Gino’s side. Before the attorney had a chance to investigate further, Samantha returned and handed her a stemmed wine glass.

“I hope Chardonnay is alright.” When Sterling had nodded her assent, Sam offered her glass in a toast. “To your new home. Congratulations.”

The words caught the attorney off guard and moved her deeply. Sam could not have suspected just how long her guest had wanted to hear them. ‘Your home. My God, I would never have believed it possible.’ Sterling felt an uncomfortable assault of emotion and fought to keep it in check. As their glasses clinked and each took a sip, Sam was aware of an internal struggle being waged by her quiet guest.

“Home means many different things to people. What does it mean to you Sterling?” A typical question, posed previously by the Realtor, but now the answer seemed important beyond reason to Sam. She waited.

“I have a vague memory of peacefulness and warmth. I guess that’s what I’m trying to replicate.”

Samantha wanted to ask a dozen questions, but understood the danger in prying into the dark stranger’s past. Sterling looked as if she was ready to run with little provocation. “We all need a safe place, that’s for sure. I hope your new house will provide that for you. It’s really beautiful, you know.”

“I’m hoping …” Sterling dropped her head and let out a short laugh. “Actually, I’m afraid I have too many hopes for one poor house to fulfill. My expectations may be a little high.” She drank deeply from the glass she clung to.

Sam caught her eye and held it, not allowing her an easy out. “You have every right to expect great things. You’re bright, charismatic and extremely successful. Why wouldn’t you deserve a sanctuary to comfort you against life’s harshness? Who could deny you a safe haven for your heart and a gathering place for the ones you love?”

Sterling looked stricken. “You don’t know what you’re saying. Those are thoughtful and sincere words, but you couldn’t possibly know where I’ve come from.” The dark beauty drained her glass and handed it to Sam, signaling the end of the conversation.

Unwilling to close the subject, but willing to postpone it, Sam offered a compromise. “I’ll let you off the hook, because I don’t want to be late for our dinner reservation, but I want to know what you mean by that remark. You sound positively cryptic.” She took the empty glasses to the kitchen and returned with her purse. “Shall we?”

********

The elegant interior of ‘The Doves’ restaurant was welcome. Its candlelit tables were graced with fresh flowers and beautiful settings of heavy silver and fine linen. The aroma of baking bread greeted them as Sterling shook the hand of the proprietress, Chloe. She showed them to an intimate table in the rear room of the beautiful old house.

When they were seated and alone Sterling explained that Chloe and her husband Claude had come to Atlanta during the Olympic games of 1996 and had loved it so much that they stayed and opened ‘The Doves’. A waiter stood at Sterling’s elbow and waited to be acknowledged before interrupting.

“Good evening Ms. Hayes. What can I get you and your guest to drink this evening?” Sterling greeted him by name and ordered something that Sam didn’t recognize. As he turned to go a short, stout man in a chef’s double-breasted coat approached.

“Claude, how are you?” She stood and accepted his handshake.

“I am wonderful, Sterling and so glad to see you this evening. It has been a long time.” The entire time he spoke to Sterling he was looking Sam over. His appreciation was evident before he spoke. “You have found the loveliest creature in the city to be your companion this evening.” Sam reached out to shake his hand and had hers kissed instead. It was a charming gesture, and one she had never experienced before.

There was a quiet conversation that followed. Sterling turned to her and asked if she liked veal. Sam nodded yes and watched the two, fascinated, as they argued good naturedly over the proper entrée to offer Sterling’s dinner guest. A decision was reached and both parties shook on it.

Claude returned to his kitchen to work his magic. Sam laughed. “You two look like co-conspirators in a neighborhood plot to take control of a treehouse, not a high powered attorney and an obviously respected chef.” She sipped from the water goblet that had been discreetly filled by a tableboy.

“This is a very nice place. I can’t believe I’ve never been here before, especially when I have heard how good it is.”

Sterling was pleased that she had managed to impress the younger woman with her choice of restaurants. Although she didn’t really understand it, the attorney wanted Sam’s acceptance. Unfortunately, that would require her to reveal more about herself than she was comfortable with. Her dinner companion was already hell bent on using their evening meal as a backdrop for her fact finding mission.

“Where did you say you grew up?” The waiter arrived with the selection of wine and offered to let Sterling taste it before he poured. She waved her acceptance and returned to the conversation before she remembered that she had been asked a question.

“On the outskirts of Boston.” Sterling sipped and nodded her appreciation to the waiter who vanished as quietly as he had come.

“How many siblings do you have?” Sam was being very direct, as no other approach had yielded her any information.

“I’m an only child. My parents are both dead, in fact I lost my mother when I was nine.”

“I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how that must have felt, although I must admit that I have often wished to be motherless.” Sam chuckled half-heartedly as she saw the question form in Sterling’s expression. “We don’t get along. I am also an only child, but Mother disagrees with my choice of lifestyles and I seem to be an embarrassment to her.” The tone of sadness in her confession was hard to hear.

“How horrid that must make you feel.” Sterling had almost commented aloud that Mrs. Hilliard must be a total bitch not to take great pride in the young woman seated across from her. “It doesn’t seem possible when considering your character, intelligence and flawless reputation. If none of that wows her there’s always your compassionate nature and then there is the thing about how beautiful you are.” It was all stated plainly, as if her observations were the obvious consensus among those who knew Sam.

The younger woman sat, awestruck to have been complimented so highly. It should have been more embarrassing than it was, but praise had always been a missing element in Sam’s life and she soaked it up now.

“Gosh! No wonder you make a zillion dollars an hour. You sure know how to win somebody over in a hurry.”

“I meant every word.” The pale blue of the gaze that held her was incredibly beautiful in the flickering candlelight.

Sam realized that once again the conversation was being steered away from the subject of Sterling’s background and she renewed her efforts to get to know the attorney better. Before long, Sterling found herself comfortably revealing the facts of her past. “I moved my practice to Charleston for three years when I left Boston. I really needed a change of scenery and I had enough contacts to make a go of it there. Last year my biggest client relocated in Atlanta and I followed. As you know, I’ve decided to make it my permanent home.”

“I’m glad you like it here. It is a beautiful city, even if I am slightly prejudiced.” Sam sipped her wine appreciatively. “It’s funny that in all the time you have been in Atlanta our paths haven’t crossed, don’t you think?”

“I haven’t been a very social creature I’m afraid. Most of the people I know, I have met through clients.”

“Maybe that’ll change now.” There was a hopefulness in Sam’s remark that Sterling liked very much.

The waiter appeared and placed salad before them. Both of the women nibbled on romaine and black olives, but were clearly more interested in the conversation than the food.

“Your practice seems to have flourished here. You must be very good at what you do.” Sam never took her eyes from Sterling’s face as she speared a tomato wedge and brought her fork to her mouth.

Sterling smiled at the remark and considered her reply. “I have served a lot of powerful clients in the past, as you well know, but I am finding that there are a lot of honest business people who need representation as well. My practice is changing in a good way, I think.”

“I sincerely hope you can forgive my repeated and very vocal opinions on the subject.” Sam felt that the apology was overdue.

“Please.” Sterling held up her hand to stop Sam. “You never said anything to me that wasn’t absolutely true. I may not have liked some of it, but I could not honestly say that you weren’t accurate in your observations.”

Sam’s offered a weak explanation. “I just tend to hold class on people sometimes. It’s a bad habit of mine.”

“On the contrary, I think that it’s part of a passionate nature. I admire that.” Sterling’s smile fairly melted the beautiful young blonde.

“You seem like a fairly passionate person yourself. I’ve never heard prettier speeches.” Sam cocked her head and grinned.

“When driven to it, yes, I can preach on any subject. It is, after all, what I was trained to do.” Sterling lifted the wine bottle chilling in the bucket beside her and refilled their glasses.

‘I better watch out or I’ll be tipsy before dessert,’ Sam cautioned herself. Ignoring the now full glass the Realtor decided to cut to the chase with her questioning. After all, Sterling had asked for and received certain information of a personal nature at their deposition, months ago. It seemed like time to expect reciprocation.

“So, have you ever been married?” Sam tried to maintain the same stern face she remembered seeing on the lawyer that day in Lowry’s office.

Sterling, in the process of sipping her wine, almost spewed it across the table. “Excuse me?” she managed when she had safely swallowed.

“I just wanted to know if you have ever been married. After all, I had to answer that question for you a while ago. Don’t you believe in…”

“No. I have never been married. Please, don’t even start on me about what I believe in.” Blue eyes sparkled. Sterling was obviously enjoying the mischievous nature of her dinner companion. “You already know where I live and how long I’ve been there from my loan application. What else did you want to know?”

“Are you seeing anyone?” Sam was suddenly serious and Sterling responded in kind.

“No one that matters, no.” Samantha’s relief was obvious and pleased the attorney mightily.

The moment was intense, but passed soon enough. The waiter whisked away the barely touched salad plates and place the main course before them. Samantha turned her full attention to dinner.

Samantha placed her napkin on the table, signaling an end to her dining experience. “I’ve never had such delicious food in my life. You must tell your friend when you speak with him next time.”

“Maybe you’ll come back here with me and tell him yourself.” Sterling let the statement stand as an open invitation. She handed the numbered ticket to the valet and they stood in the brisk night, waiting for the car to be brought around for them.

The questions had come in a steady stream since they left the restaurant. Now, they were parked in front of Sam’s house, both reluctant for their evening to end. “Will you move in right away?”

“I don’t know how long the bank needs to approve me.”

Sam laughed. “I don’t think it will take very long to get you in the house.”

“I guess I need to get into the bank and fill out a loan application. I’ll try to squeeze that in tomorrow. What about the current owners? Don’t they need some time to move?” Sterling had turned in her seat and was facing her young passenger.

“I’m sure they could vacate in the next three or four weeks without any problem. I don’t think they have spent much time in the house in the past few years anyway. They seem to travel a lot.” Sam didn’t realize that she had responded in kind.

“I need to buy some furniture and stuff, I guess. Can you get those decorators you know to call me? They could do that for me I bet.” Sterling sounded hopeful.

“Buying furniture shouldn’t be a job you get paid for. It seems unfair to me.” Sam laughed, thinking of her own penchant for shopping.

“Would you do it, then?” Realizing how forward the request was, Sterling backed up a step. “I mean, I know you’re busy and all, but would you allow me to hire you, instead of a stranger?”

Sam studied the woman beside her. “I’m not a professional, but I will help you. No money of course, but you can compensate me in another way.” She thought for a full minute. “How about if you let me use your pool in the spring?”

“Well, sure. That goes without saying though. You’re the closest thing to a friend I have in Atlanta. If you don’t use my pool, who will?”

“I doubt that you’ll have any problems making friends, now that you have decided to try.” Sam searched her face for clues. Sterling responded fluidly by leaning toward her and placing the softest of kisses on her waiting lips.

They watched each other across the mere inches separating their faces. There was no protest to be found on either face. Meeting half way the next kiss was somewhat less chaste. A sigh rose up between them, but neither knew who had uttered it. The third meeting of mouths had turned more urgent and tongues began to seek introduction. Sterling’s hands came up and caressed Sam’s face as their lips parted.

Awash in confusion over the avalanche of emotion she was feeling, the lawyer backed off. “I guess I better get going. I have an early appointment tomorrow.” Sam was clearly unhappy about the abrupt departure but said that she understood. She stepped from the car and started up the sidewalk. Before she had closed the front door behind her, the telephone was ringing. In an automatic gesture she picked it up.

“The two of you sat out front quite a while. What’s up with that?” Peter’s curiosity was in full flame.

“It’s illegal to be a Peeping Tom you know. I have repeatedly asked you to get a life, Peter.” Sam should have known it would be him.

“Did you have a good time with her? Where did you go?” He knew that Sam had agreed to the impromptu celebration.

“We had dinner at The Doves. It was fabulous.” Sam remembered the beautiful color of Sterling’s eyes in the candlelight.

“Wow! That place is expensive, but I hear it’s great. Tell me about the food.”

She did, in elaborate detail, hoping that would satisfy his curiosity about her evening. Alas, Peter was not letting her off the hook.

“So give with the information. Did she kiss you? How was it?”

“One question at a time please.” Sam laughed at his enthusiasm. As much as she hated to admit it, she was glad to have the opportunity to discuss her evening with Peter. “Yes she did and it was great. Actually, it was better than great.” The young woman grew quiet.

Peter distinctly remembered asking his friend the same question regarding Beverly’s kisses. Sam had deemed the banker a good kisser, but couldn’t muster any more enthusiasm than that. “Better than great? Sounds pretty hot, girlfriend.”

“Beyond description Peter.” Samantha sounded totally serious, all joking gone from her tone.

‘Wow! Something is going on with this story. I’ll have to stay tuned in for sure.’ Peter’s call holding beeped and he quickly excused himself, promising to talk with Sam the following day.

**********

“Beverly is on the phone, boss. You want I should put her through?” Peter affected his best impersonation of Ricky Ricardo’s impossibly Cuban accent.

“Please Peter.” Sam hit the blinking button on her phone and greeted her friend. “Hello Bev. How are things?”

“Everything’s great. By the way, I met a friend of yours a while ago and have been trying to find a minute to call you. She applied for a loan and the contract she gave me was one of yours.”

‘Sterling. Has to be. Of all the lending institutions in the city, I can’t believe she ended up in Beverly’s bank.’

“Sterling Hayes is her name.” The banker waited for a response of recognition.

“Yes, I just got her offer accepted yesterday. How does the application look?” Sam already knew the answer to that one.

“Triple A credit. Plenty on deposit both personally and professionally. Actually, I don’t think she really needs a loan, but wants the tax break. We’ll have her approved in about ten days I imagine, unless the information she gave us is completely fictitious.”

Samantha laughed at the prospect. “No, Bev. I’ve been around her enough to know that she has resources, I just didn’t know how extensive they were.”

“It’s confidential of course, but how about a salary in the high six figures and over four million dollars in Mutual Funds? There’s no telling what else she’s sitting on.”

Sam was a little surprised. She had supposed the woman to be well off, but it sounded like her financial situation took her off the charts. The realtor didn’t want to let on to Beverly that she had any interest in Sterling beyond her professional one and changed the subject. “Do you still want to come over and watch a movie tonight?” It had been the consolation prize offered Beverly for the last minute ditch the previous evening.

“Sounds great. Do you have popcorn, or should I bring some?” The banker laughed.

“You don’t need to bring anything. I should be home around six. See you later.” Sam hung up her phone, wishing she could respond to Beverly’s affection on a deeper level. It would be such a simple situation to find herself in, unlike the one with Sterling Hayes. She knew virtually nothing about the woman and most of what she did know had come from third party sources. The attorney obviously had a problem revealing the details of her past.

Samantha tried to rationally determine what the source of her attraction for the dark lawyer was and found that she could name many attributes that drew her. ‘Strong and silent, intelligent, beautiful, sexy…the only thing I can think of that’s bad about her is her need for secrecy.’ Warmth started to spread through the young blonde and Sam recognized it as desire, plain and simple. ‘This is not a good thing. You can’t base a relationship on lust, not that Sterling has really demonstrated that she wants that with me. That last kiss seemed to scare her to death. I hope I get an opportunity to ask her to explain that reaction.’

A light knock on her door brought her attention back to the scheduled meeting with her newest agent. “Come on in Anna and let’s take a look at that contract.” She smiled warmly at the nervous agent, who relaxed a little in response.

*********

Her evening with Beverly had been as expected. The banker had been all cuddly during the movie. An offer to massage Sam’s feet turned into an obvious seduction and Samantha had to hurt her guest’s feelings to stop it. “I thought we agreed about this Bev.”

“We’re not supposed to get emotionally dependent on each other, I thought. Are you saying you don’t want to be intimate either?” She was unhappy at the prospect.

“I just don’t think you should make assumptions.” Sam’s response was equally aggravated.

“What exactly are you saying Sam?” Beverly hadn’t meant to ask for clarification, it had slipped out and she wasn’t sure she was going to like what was coming.

“I’m saying that just because we’ve slept together a few times, that doesn’t mean you should assume we are going to fall into bed every time we see each other Bev. I never agreed to anything like that and I never would. I believe in a bit more spontaneity.” It was an accusation and they both knew it.

“Forgive me for wanting to be close to you, it obviously presents a problem.” Beverly had swallowed her pride more than once to keep from losing Samantha, but she was wounded now and struck back. “Maybe it would be best if I stop having expectations altogether where you are concerned.” She stood and looked down into beautiful green eyes as she fought to believe that she wasn’t in love with the enchanting creature behind them. “I’m really tired of apologizing for caring about you, Sam.” Beverly lifted her jacket up from the coat hook in the entry foyer and went out the door.

Sam sat, staring after her, sorry for having caused hurt, but relieved in a way that the impossible situation had been remedied. Janet would tell Sam later that she was a heartbreaker, but the realtor thought she had been honest and straightforward from the beginning. ‘I can’t make Beverly understand that you simply can not make someone love you. Wouldn’t it be great if you could?’

*****

She had Samantha by the hand and was leading her into the darkest part of the abandoned factory. The dozens of broken panes of glass let the cold wind howl through the expanse of the ground floor. Water from the leaky roof had collected into small lakes and frozen, creating an additional obstacle for Sterling to skirt on their journey.

They came to a wide staircase and ascended it to a much warmer second floor. Vandals’ rocks had done less damage to the higher windows, but the wooden floor was rotting in places and Sterling picked around those areas with practiced ease. A dim glow of light in the distance was the destination of their wordless journey. As the two came closer to it, Sam recognized the shape of a massive canopied bed. The rich carving on the heavy wooden posts and velvet hangings were an absurd contrast to the crumbling factory surrounding it.

The light grew brighter as they approached the banks of candles that sat on every surface in a circle around the bed. Overturned buckets, a rusty wheelbarrow, and a rickety workbench among other things all served as candlesticks for the forest of flaming tallow.

Sterling stopped when they were within the circle of the light and drew Samantha to her. She kissed her chastely once and then once again before lifting the smaller woman and carrying her to the huge bed. There, Sterling placed her charge gently on the lavish satin of an eiderdown comforter and lay down beside her.

Propped on her elbow Sterling stroked Sam’s cheek and watched her eyes for permission to begin the timeless dance that had brought them. Granted instantly, clear blue eyes closed with the intensity of her first coveted touch on tender skin. Samantha began to move slowly, writhing in the pleasure of the strange hands that somehow knew her intimately. Sterling moaned as she draped her leg over one of Sam’s and felt the mutual pressure at warm centers.

Dark hair hung down, curtaining the warm glow of the candlelight and forcing Sam to rely on her sense of touch alone. Eager lips feasted as clothes were thrown aside. The two rolled over and over, sampling the press of flesh, each wanting to lead but willing to follow. Finding herself in the perfect position, Sterling let her fingertips brush downward across the tight belly beneath them. She lingered a moment, investigating the slight dip of Sam’s navel before moving on towards her target below…

“GOOD MORNING ATLANTA. RISE AND SHINE SLEEPYHEADS! HERE’S YOUR TRAFFIC UPDATE FROM THE SKYCAM!” The annoying voice of the radio announcer startled Sterling awake as it did every day. Unfortunately this morning, that voice had exercised extremely bad timing. The lawyer hit the appropriate button to shut the clock radio up and groaned at the loss of the wonderfully erotic dream now lost in her wakefulness. She considered trying to go back to sleep, but felt certain that she could not realistically expect the exotic images to reappear.

‘Damn! I hate to start out my day with a cold shower.’ She considered briefly and accepted the alternative of managing matters herself and was well on her way to her much needed release when her telephone rang. A string of expletives greeted her six-thirty caller, a client who Sterling had always sincerely believed to be teetering on the brink of sanity. This call provided conclusive evidence.

Once she had explained to the agitated man that she could not answer his question without his files in front of her and that she would be in the office at eight o’clock, he abruptly hung up. Wondering how he had attained her private number Sterling made a mental note to question her secretary as she rolled out of bed. The stimulating scenes from her dream were lost in her aggravation. The attorney decided she might just as well start her day. By mid morning she had insulted practically everyone whose path she had crossed and the stern expression on Sterling’s face had intensified. Little did her staff know that her wake-up call had produced Sterling’s cranky, caustic mood.

*********

Sterling sat daydreaming at her desk. Sally, her secretary made a discreet entrance, having been verbally assaulted by her boss once already in the course of the day.

Sally was loyal, trustworthy and extremely good at the job she had been doing for over twenty years. She had agreed to take the secretarial position when Sterling opened her office the previous year under certain conditions. Sally would work late hours when necessary to fulfill her duties, but as a norm expected to be out of the office by six thirty each day. She would not under any circumstances take orders or instructions from anyone in the office other than Ms. Hayes and would not run errands. Sterling valued her opinions, judging her correctly to be a cool head and a quick mind.

“Ms. Hayes, your two o’clock has arrived. I’ve settled them in the conference room and ordered coffee.” Sterling had her back to the office and seemed to be studying something in the fantastic view of the city spread out before her. When she didn’t respond to the announcement, Sally hesitated, uncertain what to do next. Finally she decided to be direct. “Will that be all, Ms. Hayes?”

Sterling slowly turned in her lavish leather desk chair and faced her secretary. “I need your advice Sally. Could you come in please and close the door?”

The odd request made the secretary uneasy. Ms. Hayes had been acting strangely for the past few weeks. Sally was concerned about her boss, whom she had grudgingly grown to like. She waited.

“How long have you been married, Sally?”

‘What an odd question,’ the secretary thought. “Nineteen years Ms. Hayes.” She stood quietly.

“Does your husband ever do anything romantic for no real reason?”

Sally bit off a laugh. “Once upon a time he did but those days are good and gone. After so many years we have settled into a comfortable companionship.” Again, she stood quietly and waited.

“I’ve made a new friend, my first in Atlanta and I want to do something to thank her for the help she has given me.” Sterling watched her secretary expectantly.

Sally still couldn’t help but react to the confession she was hearing. Ms. Hayes had begun by questioning her about romantic gestures and moved straight into seeking an expression of thanks for a new woman in her life.

“I assume that the customary flowers won’t convey your message.” Sally was trying to get more information without direct questioning.

“Too mundane and jewelry…well let’s just say jewelry is inappropriate.” Sally was fairly certain that in the past, jewelry had been her boss’ gift of gratitude for particularly invigorating sexual encounters. Sterling always appeared to be exhausted but content on the days when she had Sally send jewelry. This new friend then, was not a sexual conquest.

“What are her interests?”

“She reads and likes to dance.” Sterling was going over the short list of things she knew about Sam in her mind. “She cooks too, I think and collects antiques.” Sterling threw in at the last. The attorney waited while her secretary digested this information.

“There is an excellent shop near Lenox, just off Peachtree or you could always research a gift for her on the internet. I understand that there is quite a large range of antiques available for sale there.”

“Excellent! Great idea Sally. I knew you would know what to do.” She smiled brightly at her secretary who was obviously pleased that she had been helpful. “By the way. I owe you an apology for this morning, Sally. I woke up in a bear of a mood, but I shouldn’t have reacted that way over a missing file. It’s my fault in the first place for losing it.” She expected Sally to accept her apology immediately, but her secretary’s reluctance to do so told Sterling several things. She had been intolerable and undoubtedly had hurt Sally’s feelings or there would have been no hesitation to accept the apology as she had so many times.

“I understand Ms. Hayes, we are all subject to having a bad day occasionally.” The final word had a load of emphasis on it.

“A good point Sally. Did I mention that I want you to take tomorrow off? I don’t plan to be in the office since our judge is on vacation.” Sterling looked at her desk.

A few moments passed in silence. “Very well then. Thank you Ms. Hayes.” Everything had been set right between them and Sterling was pleased. Most of the people in her office she could have cut down with a word or a glance and never felt any remorse over it, but Sally was different. Sterling respected her.

She stood and stretched her back a bit, trying to organize her thoughts. The clients waiting for her in the conference room were filing a professional negligence case against a cardiologist who had neglected to render a diagnosis to the wife. She subsequently suffered a heart attack and a thirty day stay in the hospital. Now the woman, in her mid-forties, was unable to walk and in all likelihood, would have a permanent disability. As far as Sterling was concerned, it was a no-brainer, but she would have to get a doctor on the medical review panel to go over the case history and agree with her before she could begin.

Gathering the various sheafs of papers from her desk, she patted her blazer pocket to locate her Mont Blanc and finding it there, went to interview her new clients.

*********

It had been three days since their dinner at The Doves and Sam had received no communication from Sterling. Disappointed, she regretted having issued the invitation to the upcoming party at Peter’s house, thinking it might turn uncomfortable for both of them. Apparently the beautiful barrister had elected to deny the heat generated by their good night kisses, something Sam had tried unsuccessfully to do herself.

Peter buzzed her on the intercom. “There’s a delivery her for you, boss.”

“I’m going over this listing agreement, Peter. Just bring it on back.” She was just a bit short with him.

“If I were that strong there would be men lined up to marry me.” Sam, now thoroughly curious, rose from her desk and went to the lobby to investigate.

Standing in the center of the floor was a beautiful mahogany etagere. The front was covered by doors, with shallow shelves running back at an angle on each side of them. Decorative carving adorned the skirt and legs of the unusual piece and the gold veined, marble top was exquisite. Sam walked around it, admiring the craftsmanship and condition.

“There’s a card, boss.” Peter was practically hyperventilating, waiting to find out what it said.

‘Samantha, I saw this and thought of you. I know it will look terrific in your office and is one way of thanking you for all of your efforts on my behalf. It’s been a while since I’ve had a friend. S.’

She read it again, trying to quiet her pulse so that the words would register in her mind. Peter was having a duck. Sam looked at him, rolled her eyes and read him the note.

“Oh my God! It is gorgeous, she must be gonzo on you. Me, well I hate your guts.” He knelt to open the doors and investigate the inside of the etagere.

“I can’t accept this,” Sam said to no one in particular. “This is a very expensive piece and an inappropriate gift from someone I hardly know.” She was on Southern auto-pilot, saying what good manners dictated. Doing the right thing was going to be tough though. Sam ran her hand over the cool marble. “She could have sent a card or a plant just as well and I could have kept either of those.” Disappointed, the young woman went into the privacy of her office to call Sterling and make arrangements to return her generous gift.

Sitting at her desk, Sam pressed her fingertips together and swiveled in half-circles, trying to decide what to say before she dialed the number. ‘It’s such a beautiful gift, but I can’t allow you to …No. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to tell you that I really can’t accept so extravagant…That’s not it either. What I want to ask her is why. Why can’t she acknowledge that she cares about me with a phone call, or a kind word. Every time we’re on the same wave length, she panics.’ In the end, Sam decided to dial the number and improvise.

“Sterling Hayes.” The voice was unmistakable. It sent a small tingle down Sam’s spine.

“Hello friend.” Sam took a deep breath. “I’ve had the loveliest surprise this afternoon. I wish I could allow you to make such a generous gesture, Sterling, but I really can’t accept this.”

The attorney was stunned. Her face went hot and tight with embarrassment. ‘This is all wrong! I wanted her to see how much she means to me!’ Her tone was casual when she had recovered enough to respond. “I don’t understand, Sam. I thought you would like the etagere. Since when does the extravagance of a gift make any difference?” The last she tried to keep light, but there was challenge in her voice as it dropped an octave.

“This is Atlanta, my dear. If I were to accept a token of your friendship of this magnitude, it would set tongues to wagging all around me.” She laughed a little, realizing that what she said was funny, but on target.

“I’m not sure I understand. Don’t people here give presents?”

“Sterling, I happen to know what a thing of this quality is worth. A woman doesn’t give presents like to this to someone unless she’s sleeping with them. It’s a common assumption.” Sam waited.

“Do you care so much what people think, that you would hurt my feelings by refusing it? Besides, I figured diamonds made the statement you are referring to, not furniture.” This she knew to be true. It had been her own method in the past.

She had Samantha there, but there was still the issue of a gift worth at least two thousand dollars. “Let me think about it Sterling. Please understand, I think this is the dearest thing anyone has ever done for me, but I’m not sure I can get comfortable with it.”

“Am I still invited to Peter’s house on Saturday?” The lawyer didn’t know how she felt at the moment, but was compelled to ask the question.

“Of course!” Sam sighed loudly. “I can’t think why you would wonder. We need to have a long talk in the near future and straighten some things out. Are you game?”

Sterling was elated at the prospect and fearful at the same time. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to clear up the guide lines a bit. Maybe we’ll have a chance on Saturday.”

She sounded defeated and Sam wanted very much to comfort her somehow and tell her things would be alright if they could learn to communicate with each other a little better. “Thanks again for the lovely gesture, Sterling. It means a great deal to me. See you Saturday.” She replaced the receiver.

Meanwhile, Sterling sat, cradling hers. That soft voice, pronouncing her name was food for her soul. It would be worth the risk of caring to hear it again. Of course, caring was no longer the issue. The next step was admitting it and the attorney was wrestling with that one.

Part 3

“Thank goodness you closed the office today. There is no way I could have done this without you. I want everything perfect.”

The assistant pastor and his friend had agreed to attend Peter’s little soiree. It was a major coup among Peter’s male friends to have them at a function and had almost turned into a competition. Sam thought it comical.

“That arrangement is too large, Peter. Can’t you tone it down a little. This isn’t a visit from the Queen Mother, you know.”

Hand on hip, lacey bibbed apron askew, pointing with a wooden spoon, Peter made quite a picture. “Today you are my friend, not my boss. I need moral support and help, not criticism, OK?”

Sam had her own reasons for being nervous. In a few hours she would be seeing Sterling. They had a lot to talk about, beginning with what was going on inside that beautiful head of hers. She’d never known anyone more cautious about their emotions. Sam herself had suffered several heartaches in her life and could understand reluctance to get involved. The problem as the Realtor saw it was that a bond had already formed between them and she needed help to determine exactly what that bond was. Sterling was the only one who could help her.

“Can I borrow that depression glass cake plate of yours? I think it would be a nice touch on the antique lace don’t you?” She wasn’t even hearing him.

Preparations completed, Sam headed home for a short rest and a long bath.

*********

“Give him my cell number and tell him I’ll only available for the next ten minutes.”

It was her answering service and the message was one she would rather not have received. Sterling pulled over into the parking lot of a grocery store and waited. Bob Hall was one of the clients she was trying hard to cut loose from her practice. His tenacity had come as a real surprise to the attorney. Hall was a friend of a friend of a friend of Gino’s and one of the very few people left who could connect her to her past.

Sterling suspected that whatever Bob Hall needed, she was not going to enjoy either providing it, or refusing him. The bleat of her telephone brought her back into the minute.

“Sterling.” The gravelly voice made her tense up as always.

“What is so important that it rates interrupting my Saturday, Bob?” She had always made a point of being blunt with this client.

“Always the kidder, huh? Listen, my son is in a little trouble and I need you to get him out of jail.”

“Bob, you know I don’t do criminal law anymore.” She sighed deeply.

“Please, Sterling. His mother’s having a cow.”

“Where is he?”

Hall supplied the information. Sterling checked her watch and decided that she could probably manage this for her client and still make the party on time. She promised to touch base with him as soon as she reached the county jail and drove out of the parking lot.

The usual collection of riff raff greeted her in the stronghold on Memorial Drive. Sterling had been to the facility on previous occasions, but effectively avoiding such places was one more reason why she was changing the face of her practice.

“I’m Sterling Hayes. I represent Ricky Hall. I’d like to talk to my client please.” The attorney passed her business card through the circular hole in the glass. She had no desire whatsoever to talk to him, but needed to find out the formal charges as quickly as possible. “You’re holding him for DUI,” she offered as the booking officer read down the ‘guest list’ of inmates.

“Yeah.” He smirked. “Among other things.” He handed her the clipboard that held all of Ricky’s charges and pertinent information. Scanning the notations quickly, Sterling’s demeanor began to change before the officer’s eyes. She looked up and found him staring at her. Arms folded across his chest, a look of total disgust on his face, Sterling understood his judgment. He could not know that she wasn’t a dirty lawyer who accepted guilty clients as standard fare. Not until she told him, anyway.

The sheet noted that Ricky Hall had been busted leaving a party the night before. He was in fact, driving under the influence, but more importantly several thousand dollars worth of cocaine were found on his person. Additionally, he was without a license due to previous arrests and at twenty-six had three minor females in the car with him. One of the young girls had been beaten severely and had later been taken to the hospital to be treated. She told emergency personnel that she was pregnant. All three of the young women tested positive for alcohol and cocaine in their bloodstreams.

“His arraignment is Monday morning. He’s not leaving here until then.” The officer stared defiantly at her.

“He can stay or go for all I care. I’m resigning from this case. Let the little bastard rot.” She turned on her heel as the clipboard clattered onto the formica countertop. The uniformed policeman watched her walk away as a knowing smile crept onto his face.

Once she had reached the parking lot, Sterling dialed the hastily scribbled numbers. She was trying to control the anger in her voice when Bob Hall came on the line. “I shouldn’t wonder that your wife is heartbroken over the situation with Ricky.”

“What do you think? Can you have him out today?” Hall sounded casual.

“You do realize that they have him on possession felony, contributing to the delinquency, possible rape in addition to the DUI?” She waited, knowing what was coming before the words left Hall’s mouth.

“Boys will be boys, huh?” The little laugh at the end caused Sterling to lose all control.

“That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard from you and I’ve heard some pretty sick things. I am not in the business of bending the law to save junior pricks like Ricky.”

Hall interrupted. “Hey, wait a minute. That’s my son you’re calling a prick.”

“Yes, it is and it’s an accurate description I would say. Get yourself another lawyer Bob. I’m done with you and all of your dirty dealing.” She hung up on him before he even had a chance to protest.

Sterling dialed her answering service and instructed them to hold all of her calls until further notice. A police cruiser was pulling into the lot as she was leaving. The prisoner in the back seat caught her eye. He was young, probably in his late teens. Sterling was saddened by his plight, remembering her own crime filled youth. Providence alone had kept her from ever having seen the inside of a jail cell until she did so during a client interview.

She stopped to let the patrol car pass and as it did, the young prisoner moved to within a few feet of her window. Her eyes followed him, full of compassion until he stuck his tongue out, flicking it, snakelike in an obscene gesture.

Sterling chided herself for having been so gullible. She knew better.

*******

The doorbell rang again before Peter could even introduce the last group of guests. Samantha offered to greet the new arrivals for him. When the door swung open, her breath caught at the sight of the figure that filled it. The smile drew her in first. It was crooked, warm and sensual.

Sterling had chosen tailored slacks with deep pleats. Her leather jacket was open to reveal a collared shirt of deep burgundy teasing with the preview of deep cleavage it offered. Sam’s mouth went dry at the raw attraction she immediately felt.

“Hi. Come on in.” Sam stood back and allowed Sterling entrance while she struggled for something to say.

“Looks like a good crowd.” The attorney scanned the high ceilinged living room before removing her jacket and asking where she should put it. Sam offered to show her and Sterling followed down the hallway.

“In here.” There was a beautiful old iron bed in the center of the room, piled high now with every conceivable type of winter wrap. Sterling tossed her coat among them before turning to compliment Sam.

“You look incredible Samantha.” The glance was casual but made Sam feel naked. Their eyes met and held for a moment before Sterling broke the contact by speaking. “Shall we?”

They joined the other guests and Sam played hostess. “This is my friend Sterling Hayes.” The graceful beauty looked directly into their eyes as she spoke to each one remembering names and oozing charm. Several appraising stares caused Sam to assume a proprietary attitude. She didn’t allow her friend to linger very long with any of the other guests.

Peter appeared in front of the couple and extended a limp hand for Sterling to shake. “We’ve already met at the office, but it’s very nice of you to join us today.” She was only inches taller than he, but he felt like a kid in the principal’s office until her face lit up. Peter was rendered speechless, and stood pumping the handshake until Sam cleared her throat.

Sterling went to find herself a drink and Peter began his appraisal for Sam. He fanned himself. “My God, what a presence. Her eyes are incredible and she is so…”

“Electric? Unnerving? Erotic?” Sam supplied.

Peter was all concern. “Are you sure you can handle this one?”

Sam let a small smile creep onto her face. “I think it would be a great challenge. I hope I get the opportunity.”

“Are you kidding? The way she is looking at you, I’m surprised she didn’t molest you in the coat room. You better watch out.” He grinned, knowing his observation would make his friend happy.

‘I should be so lucky.’ Samantha watched the dark head of hair approach her, slightly above most of the others in the gathering. Sterling handed her a wine glass and offered a toast.

“To new friends.” Their glasses clinked and they drank.

Seated side by side at dinner the two women lingered at the table after the others and talked about the neighborhood and Sterling’s new house. The attorney found that she was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to move into it and explained to Sam that this was a new feeling for her. “I’ve never really had that home base you spoke of when I was younger and never wanted it after that. Until now.”

“I know you lost your parents early.” Sam’s comment was the perfect lead in for Sterling to explain some things about her past. Neither of them knew if she would grasp the opportunity or not until she spoke.

“I’ve had an unusual life, Sam. I haven’t been too quick to tell you much about myself, because I wasn’t sure you would want a friend with a past like mine.”

Her voice was soft and the invitation in it was impossible to refuse. “Talk to me.” Sam reached over and took Sterling’s hand, pulling her up and out of the dining room. The realtor knew Peter’s house as well as her own, having spent many hours there, visiting her friend. She led her captive into the cozy den at the end of the hall and closed the door.

Sterling, afraid to begin, stalled for time. “Get comfortable. This may take a while.” Sam kicked off her shoes, pulled her feet up under her and nodded for the other woman to begin.

Samantha listened spellbound to the tale. Sterling watched a spot on the carpet the entire time, unable to look at her listener. At one point, the attorney began to tear up, but she stopped to take several deep breaths, then continued. In all, the story took less than an hour. ‘It doesn’t take very long to screw up a last chance does it?’ Sterling sat quietly, waiting.

“I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone so courageous.” Sam breathed the words.

Blue eyes snapped around to see if Sam was kidding. Surely, she had to be.

“How can you say such a thing? It doesn’t take much courage to turn a blind eye to what’s going on around you. Being an adulteress doesn’t exactly qualify me as a good candidate for friendship either.”

“That was a long time ago, Sterling. You did what you had to do to survive. Why do you insist on beating yourself up about it?” Samantha took the hand that rested on the sofa arm into both of hers. She looked it for a long moment before bringing it to her lips.

Amazement weakened Sterling’s defenses. A single tear escaped and tracked down her cheek. “I tell you that I have done terrible things, slept with a criminal for money, defended known murderers and you show me tenderness that I never knew existed. Who are you?” Deadly serious in her question, Sterling brought her face close to Sam’s, and waited for an answer.

Sam was confused and the nearness of this breathtaking woman, made it difficult for her to form thoughts at the moment, but she concentrated hard and found a response. “I’m someone who could be falling in love with you.” The risk factor of her confession equaled the one Sterling had exhibited moments before. Now it was Sam’s turn to stare at the floor and wait.

Sharp movement on the couch in her periphery swung Sam’s attention around. Sterling was on her feet, pacing rapidly in the minimal space of the room. “I’ve explained it all wrong, I must have. Did you understand that I’m wealthy at least in part because of the blood money Gino left me? Do you think you could walk through my house now and admire the works of art that adorn the walls, knowing that drug deals paid for them?”

“It sounds to me like you’re asking yourself these questions. I’m not in the judgement business.”

Those words were so familiar. Sterling grimaced at the memory of hurling the accusation at Samson during the trial, all those years ago. ‘“I see you’re in the judgement business now,” Sterling had flung the words at him like a dagger. She found herself in the present day again. ‘Yeah, I guess I’ve always been afraid of judgement by the people who really count in my life. Here I am again,..’

“It’s up to you to forgive your own past actions. You are the one that perceives them to be sins. I say again, I admire your instincts for survival and your obvious ability to rise above the circumstances of your youth. Why do you carry so much blame on your shoulders? Surely you could divide it among the other people whose business it was to protect you and provide for you.” Sam harbored a deep rooted anger for a man she would never meet, Sterling’s father. He was the real coward in this scenario as was her aunt. How could they let a vulnerable young woman, a teenager, live that way?

The pacing stopped abruptly as the tall beauty’s suddenly boneless body slumped onto the sofa next to Samantha. Sterling leaned her head back and closed her eyes hoping this ready acceptance was not a dream. She felt warm lips on her eyebrow and resisted the urge to open her eyes. An arm went around her shoulder as Sam pulled her into an embrace and kissed her again, this time on the lips.

Reaching out the attorney returned the embrace with an unexplained urgency and initiated a series of kisses herself, each longer than the last. Finally, each needing a breath of air, they broke apart. Samantha felt the gentle caress of fingertips against her cheek. “Where did you learn to be so tender?” Sam asked involuntarily.

“I’m improvising, believe me.” Sterling smiled and leaned in, closing her eyes at the last possible second, and kissed welcoming lips again and again.

Laughter in the hallway reminded them both that they had been a tad rude to their host and his other guests. Disappearing in the middle of a party was not quite respectable. Sam realized the faux pas and blushed a little as she broke away from warm, searching hands. “We really ought to resurface before everyone leaves. Peter is going to give me a very hard time already.” Sam’s tone was apologetic. Neither of them wanted to be anywhere except where they already were.

“You’re right. We have been incredibly rude. I should go and apologize for monopolizing your time. Maybe I can get you off the hook. After all, that is what I do.” Sterling smiled warmly and stood, extending her hand to help Samantha up from the sofa.

It was unplanned, but as soon as Sam was on her feet, Sterling pulled the young beauty to her again, this time with all of her considerable strength and found her mouth immediately. The invasive velvet tongue was welcomed and Sam sucked on it gently.

“Ungh,” Sterling’s lips vibrated with her response as her hands dropped low on Sam’s back pulling the willing hips into her own. All gentleness vanished as Sam sought urgently to devour Sterling’s lips and tongue. In answer the attorney dropped her large hands, lower still and pulled a remarkably firm ass to her.

A whimper rose up as Samantha backed Sterling up two steps so that the attorney was wedged between her own body and the door. Her breathing quickened as her hands rested on Sterling’s rib cage, just beneath the swell of her breasts. The blonde could feel the evidence of her building lust at her moist vortex.

“Where did you get to Sam?” Peter’s distinct voice was echoing down the hall. It brought Samantha crashing back down to earth as she quickly broke contact and stepped back. Straightening her clothes unnecessarily, green eyes searched Sterling’s face for clues as to what had just transpired between them.

Trying to make her voice sound as casual as possible under the circumstances, Sterling broke the silence with a lame suggestion. “Maybe we could continue this at a later date, huh?” Her wistful request was answered with eager agreement.

“Absolutely. Sorry things got a little crazy there.” Sam blushed which only served to embarrass her more.

Sterling placed a finger under Sam’s chin and raised it up so that their eyes met and held. “Don’t dream of apologizing to me. I have never wanted anyone so much in my life.” Sterling’s eyes were burning with heat generated elsewhere.

“Me either.” Sam’s confession brought another flush to her face. Peter’s approaching footsteps prompted her to call out to him. “In here, Peter.” As she opened the door she spoke to him, while looking at Sterling. “We were just sharing some deep dark secrets.” The smile that lit her face rendered the big, bad attorney defenseless.

*******

“Fasten your seat belts please. We will begin take off momentarily.” The disembodied voice floated through the airplane cabin. Sterling hated to fly. It had always seemed unnatural and no matter how much of it she was forced to do, that never changed. This short trip to Dallas had been promised to a good client for months. Otherwise the attorney would never have left Atlanta. Not now.

Sterling had hated to leave home and Samantha Hilliard. Now that she thought about it, they were pretty much one and the same. Their parting on Saturday night had been perfectly respectable. With Peter keeping an eye on the two women, it couldn’t be anything else and remain within the parameters of good taste. Sam had promised to stay and help clean up and was stuck. Sterling had used every excuse in the book to stall, but it was two in the morning and she had an early flight out of the city.

They had been forced to settle for a fairly chaste kiss and a very long hug. Now Sterling, normally the picture of confidence and control looked so distraught that the flight attendant had twice asked if she was all right. “I just hate to fly,” the attorney had finally told her. It seemed to satisfy the flight attendant for the time being.

Sterling closed her eyes and tried to sleep, thinking that might help pass the flight time quicker. She went over in her mind the offer her client was going to be considering. It was fairly simple and she didn’t understand why it couldn’t have been accomplished with a phone call, but she had made a promise. ‘My appointment is at ten. I’ll be out of there by mid-afternoon. What’s the big deal? In thirty-six hours I’ll be back in Atlanta.’ The big deal was that she wanted to brush aside everything in her life. Her practice and its clients, business obligations and personal ones had become an inconvenience.

‘Samantha Hilliard.’ Just her name started the wanting again. Sterling had never experienced this kind of feeling and wasn’t sure what to do about it. She couldn’t just take Sam hostage and lock her indoors for the next three weeks, making love to her over and over, but it was what she wanted to do. Sterling’s rational mind told her to drop the ‘what if’ and try to get a grip on what she could do about the situation.

‘I guess the first step is to call her and ask her over to my house. I could hire someone to come in and cook for us. God knows, I can barely burn steaks on the outdoor grill.’ It seemed like a good plan and had a calming effect for about ten minutes. Then the panic started up again, the urgency to hear her voice. Sterling lifted the receiver of the air phone in front of the vacant seat beside her. Dialing the number she had memorized the attorney grew impatient waiting for the call to connect to the phone lines on the ground. It seemed like forever, but in truth was only a couple of minutes when the familiar but sleepy voice came on the line.

“Hello. Hello? Anybody there?” Sam started to hang up but her instincts stopped her.

‘I woke her up. I am such an idiot. Of course I woke her up, it’s only eight thirty and it’s Sunday!’ “Hi, it’s Sterling.” Sam’s heart rate increased noticeably. She sat bolt upright in bed, eyes wide.

“It sounds like I woke you. I’m really sorry.” She wasn’t though. The mental image of Samantha curled up in bed, all warm and soft made Sterling close her eyes and fight to control her imagination.

“I thought you were leaving for Dallas this morning. I certainly didn’t expect to hear from you. What a nice surprise.”

“Do you always say exactly what you mean?” Sterling laughed. “There are women in the world who would not admit under torture what you just freely told me.”

“They must be idiots. I have no intentions of playing games with you. Not now and not ever.” There was no trace of amusement in her tone.

“Remember you said that. You may regret it later.” Sterling laughed again. “I am on my way to Dallas. In fact the captain just announced that we are arriving on time in another forty minutes. I tried to wait to call you, but…”

“Now who’s being totally frank? You missed me, huh?” Sam was kidding, but only just.

“In fact, I do miss you.” The admission startled them both.

“How nice,” the blonde breathed and pulled the pillow beside her to her chest, an unconscious comfort. “You didn’t really say when you would be back.”

Sterling did not tell Sam that she had been scheduled to stay in Dallas until Wednesday. “I’ll be home tomorrow afternoon if I can get a flight out. Will you come to my house for dinner? I’d really like to see you.”

“I didn’t know you could cook.” It was a stall tactic. Sam knew her answer, but needed to pull herself together before she agreed. She was fairly certain that more than dinner was involved in this invitation. Otherwise they would be going out somewhere. Wouldn’t they?

“I can’t cook, but I know people who can. I promise you won’t go hungry.” Sterling waited, afraid that she was about to be turned down.

Samantha decided there was no point in being coy and took the plunge. “I’d love to have dinner at your house Sterling. It’s about time you allowed me into the lion’s den. You can learn a lot about people from the space they live in.”

“So I am told. I am not totally comfortable with another expose’ so soon, but I don’t guess it can be avoided. I’ll call you when I get in tomorrow and we can decide what time, ok?”

Sam readily agreed and let out a deep sigh as she replaced the telephone in its cradle. ‘This is bad. This is really bad. I’d go along with any plan she could come up with right now. Any plan.’ The realtor rolled over and out of bed just as her alarm sounded. Normally she would have slept late, but Peter had extracted a promise of her company at the early church service this morning. It was her punishment for being rude last night he said. In point of fact, he would probably grill her for information the entire time that they were together. Sam laughed and headed for the shower.

********

‘I feel better now. At least I know I’ll see her tomorrow. In the meantime, I need to get some work done and pull myself together. I’m way too old for a school girl crush.’ Sterling shook her head in disbelief. ‘Wait until I tell Samson.’ She smiled at the prospect anxious for an opportunity to introduce him to Samantha. Maybe they could take a trip to Boston together.

The papers on the fold down tray before her were no longer her enemy and the attorney was able to give them her undivided attention. With the proper attitude, Sterling had the facts committed to memory before the landing gear touched down in Dallas.

Slidell had sent a driver to pick her up in the baggage claim area. The young man held a sign that bore her name with a Stetson hat sitting askew atop the letter ‘H’ in Hayes. Sterling could not stop herself from laughing. “You’re looking for me and I see Ralph still has his sense of humor. The driver broke into a shy grin and took the baggage claim ticket handed to him.

The ride from the airport was pleasant enough. Sterling had never been west of the Mississippi River and the flat, arid land of Texas was quite a change from the lush green of Atlanta. She settled back into the deep seat cushions and watched it fly past her window, an unending stream of browns and beiges. The next thing she remembered was waking up at the extravagant entrance of the Slidell ranch. Ralph had insisted over her protests that his guesthouse would be considerably more comfortable than a hotel room. He also claimed that his best thinking was done during the chauffeured commute to the city each morning. If Sterling was his guest at the ranch, she could join him for the ride.

The car pulled into a circular drive fronting an imposing structure of cypress and stone. The sprawling u-shaped house was surrounded by lush gardens of exotic plants and magnificent greenery. The intercom came alive with her driver’s voice. “Here we are. I’ll take your bag in and leave it with the maid to unpack. Would you like to freshen up or shall I take you on up to the house?”

“I would like to change, please. Can I walk from here so that you don’t have to wait for me?” His laughter was loud enough to penetrate the privacy window between the front and rear seats. His voice came over the speaker again.

“Sorry Ma’am, but its six miles to the main house. I don’t think you want to go that far on foot. I can return for you, or you can take one of the guest cars in the garage if you prefer.”

Sterling opted to drive herself and the chauffeur quickly came back to open the door for her. He smiled and escorted her to the front door, opening it without any announcement. A beautiful young woman with dark eyes and hair greeted Sterling and showed her down a long hallway to the master suite. “I’d like to take a quick shower before facing Mr. Slidell. It’s been quite a long day, considering that it’s only breakfast time here.”

By the time she stepped back into the bedroom wearing a fluffy terry bathrobe she’d found hanging on the outside of the shower doors, her suitcase had been emptied and the young woman waited by the door. “All you have to do is buzz me if you require anything at all,” she offered and was gone.

Finally alone, Sterling looked around her at the luxurious appointments of ‘the guest house’. It could have been home to a family of five with no trouble. She toweled her freshly shampooed hair and pulled back the floor length curtains to reveal a picturesque vista. Moving to the bed, she sat and then lay back, wishing she had the time for a short nap. The cool satin of the comforter was a sensuous embrace on the exposed skin of her legs and she closed her eyes. A ringing off in the distance startled Sterling. She lifted the phone to her ear and recognized the drawl of Ralph Slidell, admonishing her for being late to breakfast.

“Sorry Ralph, but I’m practically on my way. I assume I simply follow the drive?” He laughed and made a comment about ‘the yellow brick road’ that made no sense. Sterling laughed politely, too and hung up. Grabbing her hair dryer from the marble vanity top in the dressing area, Sterling started getting ready to greet the Slidells.

*********

Brunch at the Flying Biscuit was a welcome treat after church and one Sam always looked forward to. She and Peter had arrived early enough to beat the crowd and were anxiously awaiting the scrumptious sounding menu items they had ordered.

The conversation was mostly a rehash of events from the dinner party. Peter had already asked Sam twice where she and Sterling had disappeared to during it. Both times Samantha truthfully told him that they had been talking in the den. When Peter made his third inquiry on the same topic, she realized he was testing her to see if she told the same story every time.

“I feel like I’m being questioned by the police. My story’s not changing, Peter. We were talking.”

“Ah, but were you using a spoken language or some other means of communication?” His eyebrows moved up and down in a suggestive manner.

Sam swatted his arm, but had to laugh at her friend too. “I realize that you have a great deal of experience with sluttly behavior, but don’t try to initiate me into your club.” Sam tried to keep a straight face, but the look of righteous indignation on Peter’s face caused her to lose her battle. He helplessly joined her in laughter. An attractive woman at the neighboring table was eyeing Sam’s shapely legs. Peter watched, expecting his friend to be miffed, but instead she smiled at the woman and re-crossed her legs to afford a better view.

“You’re certainly in a great mood today,” he observed as the waiter placed their food on the table. “Why so flirtatious?”

“I feel good. Yes, I feel really good.” She beamed at him, stirring his endless curiosity once again.

“Do you have plans with her later or something?” He took a bite of a multi-grain pancake and closed his eyes briefly to savor its taste.

“No, but I’m having dinner at her house tomorrow night. I can’t wait to see where she lives.” Sam’s dreamy expression told Peter a great deal. He only hoped his friend’s expectations weren’t too high.

“I suppose taking some pictures of her house would be out of the question? Yes, that would be tacky.” He answered his own question. “Don’t forget a single detail, though. I want to hear all about this art collection, especially.”

The art collection. Sam knew that Sterling was ashamed to own it on some level but couldn’t make herself be rid of it. ‘Just another enigma. The woman is a smorgasbord of intrigue. I can’t wait until tomorrow night.’

“Who was that handsome guy in the green shirt you had cornered in the kitchen during dessert last night?” Peter launched into a full-scale biography.

************

Ralph Slidell was tall and leathery. To Sterling he was a perfect representation of what a Texas millionaire should look like. He had made his money in oil like many of his fellow statesmen, but Ralph had made the decision to distribute his own product. So far, he had opened seven gas stations around the Dallas area and the idea was working well for him. Ralph was ready to try his concept in other states, which is why he needed Sterling’s legal expertise.

Slidell had liked the young woman the moment they met at a party in Charleston. He recognized something of himself in her demeanor. Sterling was a rainmaker.

“Where the hell have you been? We start the day early here! ” Slidell chided her good naturedly.

“Of course you do. It takes an hour just to get to the end of your driveway.” Sterling shook the hand offered her. She sincerely liked Ralph and his open manner.

“Leave her alone dear. Sterling is probably not in the mood for your antics this early.” Robyn Slidell glided across the room and took her seat at the breakfast table. “Good morning my dear. I trust you found everything alright at the guest house.” Robyn graced the dark haired attorney with a smile. She had been a stunning woman in her younger days, no doubt and she still possessed a timeless beauty of sorts. Her eyes crinkled as she appraised the younger woman sitting beside her.

“That’s quite a guest house. You must be accustomed to entertaining oil sheiks and their harems.” Sterling shook out the linen napkin and placed it on her lap. An elderly woman in a starched white uniform poured coffee for her.

“My husband still believes in tasteless displays of wealth. After all of these years you would think that I would have taught him to do things differently.” The look that Robyn gave Ralph belied a deep devotion between the two.

“Robyn grew up filthy rich and wild, with a true disdain for wealth. I grew up scrapping for my next meal I was so poor. She has learned to forgive my vulgarities when it comes to spending money.” His affectionate glance also spoke volumes about the feeling between these two improbable lovers of twenty years.

Sterling sipped the rich coffee and studied them before remarking. “I suspect that you have required a truckload of forgiveness from this lovely woman Ralph. It appears to me that her only character flaw is this inexplicable fondness for a certain weather beaten cowboy.” Robyn met Sterling’s eyes for a moment before nodding.

Ralph started to protest the charge, but was quieted by his wife. “Your breakfast is getting cold and Matilda will chastise you harshly if you don’t eat dear.”

As the three were finishing up their leisurely breakfast, Robyn announced her plans to head into town later in the day for some shopping. She extended an invitation to Sterling, merely as a courtesy. “No thanks. I suspect Ralph has other plans for me. I was ordered to bring riding apparel but after pointing out that I have never been on a horse, he agreed to show me around the place in a car.”

“Don’t be fooled. He probably plans to take you out in that ratty little jeep of his. I hope you have a good chiropractor back home. You will need it.” She laughed and swept out of the room.

Slidell looked after her. “She is the most amazing woman.”

“Yes, Ralph, she truly is.” Sterling could not help but agree. Robyn had a self-possessed zest for life about her.

“Everything was put on this earth for her amusement you know, most especially me.” He smiled the smile of a smitten teenaged boy. “I am the luckiest man I know,” he said as he turned to Sterling. “We can head out now, if you’re ready.” She nodded and they were off on their excursion.

By late afternoon Sterling was exhausted. They were on the skeet range out behind the main house when she finally admitted to Ralph that she had under slept a little the previous night and was all in. He suggested a rest, explaining that Robyn had planned a Texas barbecue and invited a few friends for dinner. The lawyer raised an eyebrow at the mention of ‘a few’ friends.

“Nothing elaborate, really. Just twenty people or so, don’t worry. Pull!” He cleanly broke his next three targets, beating her score by a close margin. His competitive nature satisfied, he allowed Sterling to slip away for some much-needed rest.

The cool darkness of the bedroom in the guesthouse was a welcome contrast to the bright Texas day in progress. Sterling had stripped down to her underwear and donned a well-worn tee shirt that she slept in often. Comfortable under the light sateen sheets the attorney expected sleep to claim her immediately, but was pleasantly surprised to find her mind inhabited with a flock of ‘Samantha memories’. More and more the attorney found her thoughts wandering back to the shining eyes, peeking seductively from underneath blonde bangs.

‘I’m not supposed to miss her this much. What in the devil is so different about this woman that I can’t think her off of my mind?’ The dark beauty rolled over onto her stomach and pulled the pillow into her face, willing herself to think of something else, or better yet, think of nothing at all. She pondered the deal she was putting together for Ralph Slidell for a few minutes until she felt herself getting sleepy.

Sterling never even realized that she was once again remembering a smiling Samantha, kissing her goodnight the previous evening when she finally succumbed to sleep. “Goodnight,” she mumbled.

********

Monday was a busy day at Sam’s office, which was not generally the case. Everything that could go wrong did. “The inspector is on the line about the Elm Street checklist.” Sam dropped her head into her hands in an effort to wish away the beginnings of a headache.

With the inspector taken care of, Sam made her way into the kitchen, swallowed two aspirin and drank an entire glass of ice water to chase them down. ‘Surely to God I am not getting sick. Please tell me this is just a sinus thing or something.’ She would allow nothing, under any circumstances to interfere with her dinner plans. ‘I’ll go in an ambulance if I have to.’ Sam laughed at the mental image her thought inspired. She heard a faint announcement on her intercom and realized that Peter was transferring a call to her desk. Sighing deeply the realtor headed back into her office to put out the next fire.

“This is Samantha, can I help you?” Sam shuffled the papers on her desk into a neater pile.

“How about forgiving me long enough to have dinner with me.” Beverly’s voice registered and Sam was immediately uncomfortable.

“It’s good to hear from you, Bev. Everything going to suit you?” Small talk was not really called for. Sam had no intention of agreeing to dinner, but wondered if she should mention her reasons. By the time Beverly gave her a synopsis of her life’s events since their last meeting, Sam had decided to confront the problem head on.

“About dinner, Bev. I would be glad to meet you somewhere.” Samantha was trying to clearly offer friendship and nothing more without causing the further pain of saying so in exact terms.

“Not eager to go out with me are you? Maybe you would change your mind if we spent some time together. I heard your message the last time Sam.” Beverly sounded sincere, but the realtor had no intention of letting any misconceptions take root.

“I enjoy your company immensely, Bev, you know that. I’m glad you do understand how I feel, because I’m seeing someone and I wouldn’t want there to be any misgivings on anybody’s part.”

Beverly’s spirits crashed to earth. She tried to control the disappointment in her voice. “Congratulations. Is it anyone I know?”

“Yes, you took her loan application.”

Suddenly, Beverly knew who the object of her ire was. “Sterling Hayes. You never mentioned that you were interested in her.” Her voice held an accusatory tone.

“Well, I didn’t really know I was at the time,” Sam responded defensively. “It’s just one of those things Beverly. Don’t take it so personally.”

“You’re sleeping with her aren’t you?” The outburst was a surprise to both parties.

“That’s none of your business Beverly.” Samantha’s response was clipped.

“I guess I have my answer then. I hope you two are very happy.” The banker was being sarcastic of course. Sam decided to pretend that Beverly’s good wishes were sincere and return them, but the line suddenly went dead. She felt a sinking feeling as she hung up the phone. Fortunately the chaos of her office didn’t allow her to dwell on it for long.

*******

Ralph’s office was appropriately lavish in its furnishing. The décor, although very masculine, had a real flair and Sterling told him so. Slidell attributed it to his wife’s influence, explaining that she had fired the decorator on the third day and taken over the considerable task herself. She smiled and passed through the door to the conference room ahead of him to begin their meetings.

Ralph had been disappointed to learn that Sterling would be flying out that same afternoon but he admitted that they could conceivably handle the necessary paperwork by mail. As long as things went smoothly at the conference table this morning, Sterling would be home in time for her much anticipated dinner date. Nothing on the planet could have deterred her from her course as she plunged into the explanation of the documents she was presenting to the conference attendees.

*******

Driving home in the rush hour traffic had left Sterling’s nerves frazzled. She sent a prayer of thanks skyward for having had the presence of mind to call Sally earlier. The lawyer had planned on use of the “Three B’s”, bullshit, bribery and begging if necessary. To her surprise, Sterling’s secretary had willingly taken on the task of planning dinner at home for Ms. Hayes and her guest.

Finding a willing chef on short notice had been less of a challenge than expected. It turned out that a number of qualified men and women worked in restaurants that were closed for business on Monday. Sally chose a consultant for a national catering concern who was a graduate of the prestigious Chicago Cooking Institute. His fee equaled two weeks salary for the secretary, but she had been instructed to hire the best.

Sterling’s housekeeper, a diminutive woman of very few words, coordinated the arrival of the grocer, florist and ultimately the chef. By the time the barrister swung through the rear door of the kitchen, the house was filled with delicious smells.

A handsome young man turned to greet the new arrival and realized that she was not a part of the service group. Wiping his hands on his apron, the chef greeted Sterling and assured her that everything would be perfect for her evening. She had to walk through the dining room to reach the stairs and stopped in her tracks when she saw the table.

Elegant floral arrangements adorned the table and sideboard. The Waterford crystal that Gino had insisted on buying for her in her law student days shot reflections of blue light from the chandelier at her. The china and linen, she didn’t recognize but approved of instantly. ‘Does this make me look good or what?’ Rubbing her hands together in excitement, she continued through the entry foyer and swung herself up the stairs using the banister to help launch each leap of three steps. Only when she turned the hot water handle in the shower room did she realize she was whistling.

*********

The housekeeper was about to open the front door in response to the ringing doorbell when Sterling stopped her. “No! Let me get that, please.” The quiet woman shrugged and headed to check on things in the kitchen.

Samantha stood in the warm glow of the porch light, an absolute vision. She wore a Navy pea coat that hung open to reveal a midnight blue, lacey camisole over threadbare blue jeans and sneakers. “You look about sixteen years old. Thank God you’re not, I could get arrested for my reaction to that outfit.” Sterling smiled her most winning smile, took Sam’s hand and pulled the blushing young woman through the door, into a brief hug.

Taking her coat and hanging it on a coat rack in the entry, Sterling led her guest into the den where a fire was blazing on the hearth. They decided on a glass of wine before dinner.

“The trip was a success, I assume.” Sam sipped the dark vintage and approved with a nod.

“Yes, I got Ralph squared away in record time. I was glad to get out of there. The wide open spaces of Dallas really didn’t appeal to me much.” They made polite conversation until the housekeeper announced dinner and they went in to enjoy it.

Samantha closed her eyes and savored the delicious blend of flavors in the delicate sauce. “I don’t know who you had prepare this meal, but it is heavenly.”

Adhering to her new policy of total honesty with Sam Sterling confessed. “My secretary hired the chef. He took care of all the rest.”

Sam was astonished and flattered that so much care had been given to a simple dinner at home. “I feel underdressed for such a grand gesture. I wish you had told me what you were up to.”

Sterling started to protest but decided against it. “Tell me about your day, why don’t you?”

The two women talked together over the elegant dinner. The subtle flirtation between them overshadowed the food. Sterling would never be able to recall tasting a single bite of it. Samantha was animated in the telling of her day’s events. The attorney sat back and enjoyed every syllable from the vibrant young woman.

Just when Samantha became aware that she was monopolizing the conversation, Sterling spoke up. “You are positively beautiful.” The remark was stated as an indisputable fact. Sam colored with embarrassment. “It can’t be a surprise to hear that.”

Stumbling suddenly for words, Sam reluctantly answered. “No, I admit that I’ve heard that a few times. It sounds so different when you say it though.”

“That’s because I understand and appreciate beauty. I’m not just making conversation when I make such a pronouncement. If you’re done with dinner I’ll show you what I mean.” Sterling waited for the shake of Sam’s head and pushed her chair back from the table. She took the smaller hand in hers and guided Sam through the archway and up the winding stairway to the gallery above.

As soon as they reached the top step, the lighting changed and Sam was disappointed at the loss of the warmth as Sterling freed her hand. There, on the walls, each under its own mini-spot light hung the art treasures Samantha had heard about. She studied the portraits and still life’s, occasionally asking questions that Sterling answered in a low voice. The attorney stood behind Sam, allowing her to focus totally on the art.

“Phillip Pearlstein.” The tall beauty named the artist for Sam, who stood spellbound. The study of a young woman lounging in an oversized chair dressed only in a half-open Kimono was powerfully seductive.

Sam turned a corner and exclaimed over the grouping she found. “Oh. This is incredible.” Sam admired a charcoal sketch by John Ottis and another by Beardsley.

“I’m afraid the collection of styles is a bit eclectic,” Sterling apologized. Sam faced her hostess, wide eyed. She opened her mouth to speak but spotted another grouping over Sterling’s shoulder. The realtor moved past the tall figure as if Sterling was not even present and studied each of these new discoveries.

When Samantha finally ran out of wall and art, she found herself in front of the open door of a beautifully appointed bedroom. She realized that not only was she staring, she was being watched.

“Too fancy for me. It’s a guest room, although I don’t think it has ever been used,” Sterling explained. “I sleep over there.” Sam’s eyes followed as she pointed across the gallery to a closed door at the very top of the stairs. An uncomfortable silence followed as both of the women entertained thoughts they dared not share.

Sam was the first to beat a hasty retreat down the staircase and into the den. Confused with her own feelings of reluctance, she refused the brandy offered her. Instead, she shed her shoes and curled her feet under her on the leather sofa. “This must be the couch you told me about.” The young blonde ran her fingers over the well-worn surface.

Sterling laughed. “Yeah. That’s the one. How could you tell?” She moved to sit opposite her guest and swirled the dark liquid in the glass she held. “You sure?” She held the snifter up to indicate that the offer of brandy was still open.

“No thanks.” Sam turned her attention to the dancing flames in the fireplace. She was struggling to maintain some kind of composure. Having Sterling so close to her made it hard to focus.

The attorney was experiencing similar problems. She gulped, rather than sipped her brandy. “I’ve been wanting to ask you…” Sterling hesitated. She looked up and found Sam studying her intently. “…How you felt about the other night.”

Sam’s gaze dropped to her hands immediately. This was a topic her mind had worn out for the last two days, but she was not comfortable opening the conversation about their mutual combustion in Peter’s den. Her eyes came up to confront Sterling’s again. “I guess I’m a little uncertain. I’ve been replaying it over and over.” A blush rose up her cheeks with this admission. Sterling smiled and came to her rescue.

“Don’t feel badly. I, myself, have re-played it non stop and have only come to one conclusion.”

“Which is”?

“There is definitely some chemistry between us, Sam. Surely you feel that, too.” Samantha studied the beautiful face as if she had never seen it before either in reality or in her dreamscape.

“I feel it. I feel it so much it scares me.” Sam’s voice was a whisper. Her eyes were huge with honesty under shaggy blonde bangs. The attorney thought that Sam had never looked more beautiful.

Sterling reached her hand out and waited. It was the barest of moments before a smaller hand responded and locked fingers with her own.

Sterling sat her glass on the table and scooted over, closing the distance between them. She slowly reached out her free hand and caressed Sam’s cheek, causing the green eyes to close slowly. A soft murmur rose up as their lips met gently again and again. This was different than what had gone on in Peter’s den. Instead of the rush of heat, steady warmth began to tingle inside both of them.

Still sitting with her knees pulled up, Sam laid her head against Sterling’s shoulder and felt completely at home with the steady, deep throb of the heartbeat she both felt and heard beneath her ear. Sterling circled Sam’s shoulder with her arm and pulled her close.

Together they watched the flames wordlessly. Small fingers stroked the fine, dark hair on Sterling’s forearm where it rested on top of Sam’s knees. Unknowingly, Sterling circled Sam’s shoulder with light caresses over and over. Their breathing was somehow synchronized and a perfect content settled over the two figures.

They sat together just like that for a long while. The logs in the fireplace burned down to nothing more than undulating red coals that spilled across the hearth inside the fire screen before Sterling stirred and broke the spell they were under.

“It’s getting late.” Long legs stretched out, but Sam did not move. Sterling looked down into the upturned face, expecting a question or the demand of more kisses.

Samantha didn’t hesitate in her reply. “It is. We should get to bed.”

Here were two women who made their living by their command of language and the concepts it represented. A total of ten words had expressed everything necessary between them. The irony of the situation struck Sterling. They stood and approached the stairs again. Sterling stopped Sam on the fourth riser.

“Are you sure about this?” Clear blue eyes were pleading for the truth.

“My head answers no, but all of my instincts cry out in favor of it. Let’s not put ourselves under too much pressure by analyzing this, OK?” Sam smiled and started up the steps again.

***********

Trembling fingers struggled with the simplest of button closures. Slowly, the pile of clothing on the floor began to grow. Soon Sam wore nothing except the dark blue camisole and a whisper of brief satin panties in the same hue. Sterling took a step backward to take in the entire vision before her. “Wow,” was the only response she could manage before running her fingers over ample curves of soft skin.

Sam had been able to peel away slacks and shirt to reveal a black lace bra and high cut matching panties. “Who buys your underwear?” she murmured into Sterling’s neck as she nipped and sucked gently on the hollow of her throat. “I’d like to send them a thank you note.” A low rumble of laughter answered her remark, but the attorney was too busy with her exploration to respond further.

The two women found themselves stretched out on top of the satin comforter that covered Sterling’s bed. Naked skin broke into Goosebumps at first contact with the chilling fabric. Soon enough they generated enough heat to counteract the effect. Sterling rolled them over so that Samantha was stretched out on top of her own long frame. The smaller woman briefly raised herself up to study the face beneath her own and smile. “I’m going to let you think you’re in control of this situation for the moment.” The hand that cupped the back of her head drew her down and into a searing kiss that literally stole her breath.

“What makes you think anybody is in control of this situation?” Sterling returned the smile now with a very sexy smile of her own. Thinking herself clever, she reached for the firm roundness of Sam’s butt and pulled to intensify the contact of pelvis on pelvis. The soft moan that broke from her own lips surprised Sterling, as did the wash of heat that rose up her torso from the place where their bodies met.

Sterling wove arms and legs around her partner and pulled Sam fiercely into her own body, needing all the touch of skin they could produce. The mind numbing kisses started up, accompanied by a subtle rocking of lower regions. Sam thought she might pass out from the intensity of feeling flashing over her nerve endings, through her body and to her malfunctioning brain. “God, that feels so good,” was all she could think, not even realizing that she was whispering the thought into Sterling’s ear simultaneously.

Just as the hooks on Samantha’s bra gave way to skilled fingers and its satin straps began to slip from her shoulders an explosion of glass could be heard on the first floor. The instincts of her youth intact, Sterling rolled both of them off the bed and positioned Sam’s smaller body behind her own. Squatting between the bed and the wall, she quietly slid the drawer of her nightstand open and produced a pistol. Its dark surface reflected very little light, but Sam was sure of its identity none the less.

“Stay here.” Hot breath accompanied Sterling’s whisper as it reached Sam’s ear in the darkness. A blonde nod was unseen as the attorney, pulling on her discarded slacks and blouse Sterling once again hefted the weight of the pistol and stepped stealthily out of the room onto the landing.

The flicker of light was immediately identifiable as fire in the lower level of the house. Sterling threw on the light in the upstairs hall and located the panic button on the alarm pad. Pushing the fire button, she retreated swiftly into her bedroom to collect Sam.

“Come on, there’s a fire downstairs!” Sterling waited impatiently until Sam stood by her at the bedroom door. The taller woman took Sam’s hand then and led her quickly down the curving stairs to the entry foyer. “Wait here!” Sterling commanded and flew to the arched opening that led into the living room. Thick smoke was beginning to roll out onto the marble floor. The threat of intruders forgotten, Sterling jammed the pistol into the waistband behind her.

“I’ve got to get you outside. We can go through the kitchen!” Sterling took Sam by the arm and propelled her through the house and out the back door into the dark night.

“The fire department will be here in a minute. You wait out front for them, OK? I’m going to make sure the flames don’t spread to the gallery.” She pointed to the second floor, indicating the collection Sam had been shown earlier. The thought of fire consuming the treasures that she had immediately come to appreciate made her slightly nauseous. Sterling didn’t wait for her reply, but ran back into the house and began jerking open doors in search of a fire extinguisher.

Sam stumbled down the steps, clutching her thin camisole to her naked chest. She had just turned the corner and managed to put it on when the motion detectors of the spotlights responded to her presence and flooded the front yard with yellow light. A siren in the far distance began its grinding scream. Sam jumped when the heavy drapes on one front window crashed down inside the dining room. Billowing smoke subsided long enough for her to recognize Sterling’s powerful body stomping out the flames on the curtains, then using them to extinguish the fire that had claimed an armchair.

She watched, terrified as flames licked across the rug and onto a sofa positioned in the center of the room. The unmistakable whoosh of a fire extinguisher filled the window casement temporarily with a cloud of flame choking chemical. When it cleared a little, Samantha could no longer see her friend, but the flames seemed to be scattered now about the room.

The closing siren turned the corner near Sterling’s house and screeched to a halt at the curb. An immediate assessment of the situation called for the huge truck to pull down the lengthy drive while several firemen sprinted across the lawn and through the front door. Within a few minutes, glass began to shatter as flat fire hoses were passed through the openings. A signal from the fireman standing at Sam’s elbow started the opening of gleaming chrome valves on the side of the pumper truck and the hoses jerked as they filled with water to quench the fire. A pair of unidentified hands wrapped her shivering body in a blanket and disappeared into the night before she had a chance to offer her thanks.

Anxious minutes went by. Samantha tried to stay out of the firemen’s way as she waited for a glimpse of her tall friend.

Sterling came from around the side of the house limping, her face smudged with soot. In her rush to get Sam to safety, the attorney had forgotten to grab her shoes. The shards of broken glass on the living room floor had cut up her unfeeling feet. When she was close enough to be certain that Samantha was all right, the pain finally penetrated her brain and she sunk to the lawn. Samantha was immediately by her side, covering Sterling with her own blanket and reassuring her. An emergency medical technician ran from the curb carrying a large black satchel. She knelt in the damp grass beside her patient and began her assessment of Sterling’s condition. “Allergic to anything?” she wanted to know. Pulling medical supplies from the bag beside her, the young woman tried not to notice the looks passing between the two women on the lawn.

Clear blue eyes darted over Sam’s face momentarily, closing for an instant of pain as a jagged piece of glass was plucked from her right heel. “Thank God we heard it,” she said softly, grasping the smaller hand offered her and holding it to her blackened cheek. Sterling suddenly realized that Samantha was wearing nothing but her silky camisole and struggled to free the blanket tucked around her. “You must be freezing, not to mention how distracting that outfit has to be for the firemen. No time for underwear, huh?” The EMT added her agreement with a subtle smile as she worked to stop the flow of blood from the wound.

They had been in the emergency room for over an hour and no one had told her anything about Sterling’s condition. Worry was wearing out her judgement as she paced, the blanket now falling loosely from her shoulders, like a cape. Sam was just about ready to storm the treatment rooms to find the object of her affection. The double doors that Sterling’s stretcher had disappeared through swung open now and the young EMT who had allowed Samantha to ride with Sterling in the ambulance walked toward her.

“Your friend is fine. She has some pretty nasty burns and needed a few stitches in the worst of those lacerations on her feet.” The uniformed woman fought to keep her eyes from drifting to Sam’s partially exposed cleavage.

Samantha, obviously relieved, became preoccupied almost immediately. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to keep her in bed until she heals,” she said softly.

The EMT emitted a short burst of laughter and smiling eyes confronted Sam. “Somehow I don’t think that will be a problem. You take care of yourself, too.” She bade Samantha a good evening and walked away shaking her head in amused appreciation for Sam’s predicament.

“Miss Hilliard?” The sound of her name spun Sam around and she almost collided with a woman in pale green scrubs. “Come with me, please.”

“Is Sterling alright? Can you tell me anything about her condition?”

“The doctor has seen and treated her. She inhaled a good deal of smoke but is going to be fine. We really need her to stay here overnight.” The woman turned to face Sam now who was so relieved she went limp. “Dr. Redmond asked me to see if you would help us convince her. She has asked for you a dozen times in the last hour. We assume you have a powerful influence with her.” Sam could read nothing in the woman’s expression.

“I’ll try, but I don’t know that she’ll listen to me either.” Sam blinked, wondering if she did in fact have any influence with her ‘almost’ lover. The question started up a mental newsreel of the minutes that preceded the fire. Samantha’s breath came a little quicker and she pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders when she realized that her nipples were plainly visible in their suddenly aroused state.

“Room number three. Right behind that curtain.” The woman pointed at a huge curtain that covered the exposed opening of a glass-fronted cubicle. Sam made the trip in three quick steps and pulled aside the curtain cautiously. Sterling was lying, still and pale under the bright light of the raised examination table. Samantha instinctively reached out beside her for the light switch that was indeed at her fingertips and shut it off. Dark eyelashes fluttered as the attorney, instantly alert, struggled to focus in the sudden brightness around her.

“It’s me.” Samantha reassured her friend as she moved to take Sterling’s hand in her own. “How are you feeling?”

The dark head of hair was in total disarray as it fell back onto the pillow of the exam table. “I’m fine. I just wish they would hurry up and let me out of here. I need to take care of the fire damage. The house is sitting there wide open to burglary or another attack.”

Sam’s eyes opened wider. “Is that what happened? I wondered if it was the fire from the den fireplace, but I couldn’t see how it would spread so fast.”

The clear blue of the sky was mimicked in the eyes that gazed down at the fragile looking young woman. “Somebody did it on purpose. The arson expert from the fire department has been called in on the case.” She waited a moment to let the information sink in. “I’ll be hiring us a body guard right away. Do you mind?”

Sam shook her head but she was frightened. “Who would want to harm us Sterling?”

“Not us. Me. Unfortunately, plenty of people would just love to hurt me.” Her face was all apologies as she told Sam the grim truth. She raised the hand that she held to her lips and kissed the knuckles. “I am so sorry to involve you in this.”

There were a host of questions that the realtor wanted to ask and intended to do so, but the woman in green scrubs came into the room. “Did you make any progress convincing her to stay with us tonight?”

“Not yet, I haven’t gotten that far. Surely she wouldn’t do something to jeopardize her health though. Not when she knows that it would upset me terribly.” Sam gave Sterling a searing look and leaned in closer to whisper to her. “I need you to get healthy as soon as possible. We have some unfinished business.”

A slow burn started in Sterling’s nether regions while she stared hungrily at Sam’s mouth, willing the nurse to leave them alone. Samantha plainly read the look. “I need a minute alone with my friend,” Sam requested. She turned and thanked the departing nurse with a nod of her head. Her voice dropped low as the woman passed close to her. “Let me see what I can do. I’ll be out in a few minutes and let you know.” The woman in green nodded and whisked past the curtain.

“Now, where were we?” Sam asked innocently. She leaned down for a much needed kiss and was surprised at the urgency with which it was answered.

“Yow! I thought you were supposed to be injured there, hot stuff.” They both laughed but a grimace formed on Sterling’s chiseled features from the effort and she coughed deeply.

“What is it?” Sam was frightened by her friend’s sudden reaction.

“Nothing to worry about.” Her argument was not convincing and she knew it. “I just need to rest for a day or two.”

“Don’t think so friend. Miss Congeniality there,” she indicated nurse in green, “says they need you to stay here tonight. The smoke, the stitches, the burns…well, you’re just a mess.” Sam laughed. “I think it’s time to consider a mandatory vacation. What do you say?”

The green eyes that held hers were only inches away. Sterling could feel Sam’s warm breath against her neck. The gentle rhythm of it was lulling the attorney into a trance. Her voice formed words without bothering to consult her mind. “Whatever you think, but I’m not staying if you don’t stay with me.” Sam kissed her softly and grinned at her success.

“You are a very big baby aren’t you?” Sam squeezed Sterling’s hand and went looking for someone who could arrange the transfer of her friend to a room for the night. When she returned, Sam was surprised to find Sterling awake and watchful.

“I thought you might be resting by now. Are you sure you’re comfortable? Are you cold?” Sam started to pull the blanket from her shoulders but Sterling stopped her.

“I’m not cold at all, besides you’d start a riot in that outfit.” She touched the hem of the silky top, then grasped it and used it to pull Samantha close to her. Sterling placed her hand against the fabric that covered the taught skin of Sam’s abdomen and closed her eyes in appreciation of the feeling. Massaging gently with her fingers, the attorney felt the young woman lean into her touch and moaned, involuntarily. “I’m suddenly in favor of getting the hell out of here and finding a private place to do some ‘healing’.” Sterling’s wistful face studied Sam.

“You’re not supposed to over-exert yourself, remember?” Sam leaned closer as not to be overheard. “I’m not about to settle for less than your full potential when we finally get to make love.”

The injured woman opened her mouth to speak, but the chance was lost as the curtain swept aside and the nurse re-appeared. A young man pushing a gurney came up behind her.

“You’re transferring to 206. He’ll take you there.” The curt woman placed Sterling’s clipboarded records in a basket at the gurney’s end and left.

“Thanks for taking care of my friend,” Sam said sarcastically to the back of the woman who was already retreating way down the hall.

“She’s a bitch.” Sterling’s automatic response caught the young man off guard. He spat out the breath he didn’t know he had been holding and introduced himself.

“I’m Steve. Welcome to Piedmont Hospital.” He smiled at both of the women respectively. “She better hope she never gets sick. There are a number of people who work here who would like the opportunity to see her on the receiving end of some customer service.” Sam laughed and gathered her friend’s clothing from where it had been tossed under the exam table.

“Can you help me move you over here, or should I call for some help?” Steve studied Sterling trying to assess her injuries.

“We can manage.” Sterling started the painful process of shifting her weight onto the mobile stretcher. Samantha walked quietly beside her down the long corridors and into the elevator that would carry them to their accommodations for the evening. A friendly blonde nurse met them at the assigned room and helped Steve settle her patient.

Watching Sterling swallow the plastic cup full of pills and chase them with water the nurse promised to check up on them both throughout her shift, which ended at 8 a.m.

Once Steve had brought Sam a hospital scrub shirt and had told them where the ice machine was hidden, they were finally alone.

Sterling lay with her eyes closed, breathing evenly. Sam, nesting in the room’s one uncomfortable chair, assumed she was asleep and so was startled when the deep voice resonated from the close walls. “I should have handled Ricky Hall differently.” She looked to Sam who shifted under the weight of her hospital blanket and waited for an explanation.

“A client’s son. Last Saturday his father called me to get him out of jail. Bob’s been a client of mine since I came to Atlanta. His son needs to be in jail, for a long time.” Sterling shook her head to eradicate the memory of the charges she had read on his sheet at the jail.

Looking up to capture Samantha’s gaze she went into detail, feeling that her friend deserved a candid explanation of why her life had been threatened earlier in the evening.

“He was just trying to scare you, right?” Sam’s face had paled considerably. Intellectually she knew the kind of clients Sterling had become involved with over the years, but it was hard for her to understand a business vendetta that included firebombing. Her only frame of reference was the monthly Board of Realtors luncheon, which involved nasty gossip, and backbiting from some of its participants, hardly enough to prepare for the blackened shell of Sterling’s elegant living room.

“Probably so. I assumed Bob would just call another lawyer. He was probably pissed because he had to tell his wife that her precious son would have to sit tight in his cell until he could figure something out.”

“This attack took you by surprise, didn’t it?” Sam waited.

“Totally. It’s been a very long time since I’ve even thought about this kind of violence and retribution and several lifetimes since I’ve been this close to it personally.” Sam had a question mark on her face and Sterling figured she might as well tell the troubled young woman the whole story.

She quietly explained the circumstances of the explosions that left Gino without a lawyer and Sterling without a job. She related the tale of hiding out in a remote beach house while her lover struggled with his sons for control of the family business. She left out nothing except her tryst with Gino’s daughter Anna. That was something that the dark woman had almost convinced herself was imagined anyway and definitely not anything she wanted to share with the current object of her affection. Her sexual involvement with Gino for all of those years was enough for Sam to have to digest.

The attorney settled her head back into the bank of pillows behind her head and closed her eyes. Breathing a heavy sigh she finally spoke again. “I started looking over my shoulder when dad moved us to the projects and I’ve never really stopped. This time, I simply let myself be lulled to sleep by time and distance. I could have gotten you killed Sam and I’m sorry.” She looked at the beautiful young woman sitting at her bedside. Her face smudged with soot, and her blond hair tousled, Samantha looked like a kid who had spent the afternoon playing and was due for her nightly bath. Sterling voiced her thought and Sam leaped up to see herself in the mirror above the inset sink.

“Why in the heck didn’t you tell me I looked like a prisoner of war?” Sterling laughed richly and raised her arms to protect herself from the playful jabs Sam threw at her.

“I thought you were going for the innocent waif look. It’s mighty appealing to me.” The attorney grabbed the hand that once again teased at hitting her. She held it to her cheek and studied the mysterious green eyes that watched her. “I really am sorry I brought you into all of this, but I am going to take care of it. I promise you that no one else will threaten your safety.” She kissed the palm, letting her lips linger a moment before releasing the warm hand.

Reaching for the telephone, Sterling punched the digits of a memorized number and talked in low tones for several minutes. “That was a private investigator I use for my law practice sometimes. Charlie’s an ex-low life, but good at his job. I’ve asked him to line up some protection for us temporarily. He’ll put his ear to the ground, too and try to verify that this was Bob or Ricky Hall’s doing.” The tall body stretched under the sheets, bringing a grimace to Sterling’s face. “Guess I’m a little sore.” Sam nodded and scraped her chair closer to the bedside so that she could hold the long, slender fingers of the hand that rested on top of the sheets.

A yawn escaped from Sterling’s surprised mouth. “Apparently they have sedated me? That wasn’t your idea was it?” she accused Sam.

“No, but I wish it had been. You need to rest. We both do.” She leaned over the lowered bed rail and kissed Sterling’s grateful lips twice. A third kiss would have prevented sleep instead of heralding it. Sam settled beneath her blanket again and propped her feet up on the bed platform. Within minutes, both women were sleeping soundly.

*********

As promised, Sterling woke to a multitude of aches and pains, not the least of which emanated from a burn on her forearm. Covered with bandages, the attorney had never even had the opportunity to see the wound that was causing so much pain that her teeth were on edge. She reached for the button to summon the nurse, but her movement woke Sam who was instantly on her feet.

“What do you need? What can I do?”

Unable to resist, Sterling assumed a painful countenance. “I think it’s my heart!”

Samantha stared, wide-eyed on the verge of panic, until she realized that Sterling was being a smart-ass. Embarrassed by her response, she balled her fists and beat them against the mattress at the tall woman’s feet. “You are so exasperating sometimes! My God, you scared me half to death!”

Realizing that she’d gone too far with her joke, the attorney apologized before summoning the nurse. The sting of an injection in her hip was a small price to pay for relief from the pain she was experiencing. Sam watched with great interest as Sterling’s hospital gown was lifted to reveal the dark, sexy panties she had seen earlier in the evening. The nurse obscured Sam’s view just as the fabric was pulled aside for the injection, disappointing the realtor. Sterling noticed the look on her face and raised a dark eyebrow. As soon as the nurse left the room she commented.

“Pervert! I saw you trying to look up my dress! How can you take advantage of a pitiful, injured woman that way?”

Samantha laughed quietly.

Twenty minutes later, the injection kicked in and Sterling’s pain faded enough for her to return to sleep. Sam stayed seated in her chair, but now lay her torso across the mattress and rested her head on Sterling’s shoulder. That’s the way the nurse’s aide found them the following morning.

******************

Charlie Stevens had almost gone down the wrong road in his life. A punk from his high school days on, he got involved with a ‘bad element’ as his father called it and nearly spent his twenties serving time. Fortunately the old man didn’t give up on him and Charlie had managed to turn himself around. He still had a penchant for women, who were on the sleazy side, but his work was legitimate and he was good at his job.

Finding Sterling Hayes a bodyguard was easy enough. Unlimited funds, one home and her own office made the job simple. He scrolled through the list of possibilities and began the elimination process. A brief knock on his door announced the entry of his secretary.

“You never wait for me to say ‘come in’. What if I was in here naked or something?”

“Well, I can always use a good laugh chief. Watch your ashes.” As soon as she said it, the long ash of Charlie’s cigarette fell into the keyboard under his fingers.

He looked up sheepishly, knowing that he would now receive another scolding. He had ruined three keyboards with cigarette ash and spilled coffee in the last nine months. Cheryl was forever cautioning him about his sloppy work habits.

“I’m not even going into the ninety-sixth lecture about that.” She indicated his ash-covered keyboard. I’ve talked to the Security Company.” She read the notes she had scribble on the pad in her hand. “Constant taping, starting over every six hours, two hundred and thirty five degree pan on both corners. He’ll leave the paperwork here and go over it all with you in the morning.” Upgrading the security system in the rental house would cost Sterling a bundle, but she had no choice now.

“Good work. Now, if I can find an appropriate bodyguard, we’ll be all set.” He returned to the names listed on his screen and double clicked on one of them. Scanning the qualifications, Charlie felt Cheryl’s presence behind him as she came around his desk to read over his shoulder.

“Not that one, boss. He’s too hot tempered. Miss Hayes said on the voice mail she left that she specifically wanted someone low key.” Charlie had talked to Sterling the previous evening, but she had called his office twice during the wee hours before dawn with additional instructions. Both of the additional calls pertained to security precautions at Sam’s home and office, which were probably unnecessary, but Sterling was taking no chances.

“How about this woman? I know one guy she worked for…that wrestling celebrity.” Charlie struggled for a name while Cheryl vetoed his applicant.

“Not! She’s not classy enough for this job, boss. She had a plum rinse on her hair and a pierced eyebrow the last time I saw her! Must think she’s a teenager or something,” Cheryl mumbled.

“Where do you hang out that you ran into somebody fitting that description?” Cheryl ignored him as her eyes read quickly down the page.

“This guy!” She put her finger on the name of her pick for the job. “He’ll be OK with the girlfriend, too.” Sterling had been candid about that part of her situation, wanting to be sure Charlie hired someone who would not have a problem with her romantic interest.

“Yeah. I remember him. It says that he’s available. Why don’t you see if you can get him on the phone for me?” Cheryl picked up the receiver by his hand, letting out a huge sigh.

“Right. I can see that you’re disabled.” She punched the numbers and waited.

“I thought you might go to your desk and make the call. No need to maintain a level of professionalism now, is there?”

“I don’t know, is there?” She pointed at the overflowing ashtray and littered desktop around his computer terminal. “John Warren, please.”

**********

Samantha was less than cheerful when she awoke the next morning. Having slept a few scant hours sitting in her hospital chair with her upper body draped over the lowered bed rail onto the hospital bed by Sterling’s side, her compact frame was screaming. “Ughhh!” was all that she could manage.

“Good morning.” Sterling’s smile snapped Sam to attention. It was hard to believe that the twinkling blue eyes belonged to the same woman who had voiced grave concern for their welfare a few hours previously. There was no evidence of physical pain or discomfort either. Sam was amazed.

“How come I seem to feel worse than you do?” The realtor stretched her back and loosed a major yawn.

Sterling laughed and threw back the covers, revealing her fully dressed figure. “I had the bed, you had the chair. Sometimes it pays to be the sick one.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed as a look of growing alarm appeared on Sam’s face.

“Hold it! You can’t get up yet! Where do you think you’re going anyway?”

“The doctor is expected here on rounds in the next few minutes. I’m going home as soon as I get his signature on my release.”

Samantha noticed the crutches leaning against the wall between the bed and rolling nightstand. Before she could question her friend, Sterling explained that the nurse had brought them at the barrister’s request.

“I never even heard her.” Sam looked sheepish. “Here, I’m supposed to be looking out for you and I must have just passed out.”

“Well, you’ve been through quite a lot, young lady and you were sleeping soundly. There was no need to wake you for a trip to the bathroom.” The brilliant smile distracted Sam from the content of the message she had just received.

“Wait. You mean you called the nurse who brought you crutches, got out of bed and went into the bathroom all while I was sleeping?”

“Then I got dressed.”

A smirk formed on Samantha’s face. “Sorry I missed that.” She stretched again and stood up, pushing the uncomfortable chair back against the wall. “Gosh, I really need to brush my teeth.”

Sterling opened the drawer of the rolling stand beside her bed and handed Sam the miniature toothpaste tube and damp toothbrush she had used earlier. “If you don’t mind using mine…” Sterling offered.

“It seems foolish to object under the circumstances.” Sam was studying the lawyer’s mouth when a soft knock announced the young doctor, complete with lab coat and stethoscope who walked through the door.

*********

“Charlie, I want you to find out who did this.” Sterling was seated in her second story home office, talking to her now full time private detective. She smiled at her memory of the conversation she had enjoyed a few hours earlier. In her naiveté, Sam had expressed horror when she considered what might have happened if Sterling had not been there when the explosion took place. Her home and all the possessions that she valued would have been lost.

Sterling had almost said aloud what she was thinking. Thankfully, she had not voiced her suspicion that the bomber specifically waited for the attorney to come home. Sam probably would not have been comfortable with the knowledge that they were being watched. Nor would she like hearing what Charlie was confirming with the opinions he expressed.

“Would have tossed it through the upstairs window if they wanted you dead, boss. It’s a simple enough target to hit.” He lounged gracelessly in a chair that faced her desk.

“What worries me is that I never saw it coming. I used to better at spotting a tail.” The barrister shook her head slowly, disturbed at her inability to protect Samantha. ‘I know she thinks she understands what I used to be, but there is no way I can tell her how evil that world was. Maybe I should back off for a while until Charlie can confirm my suspicions about that crazy bastard, Ricky Hall.’

Sterling was well aware that Ricky’s father, Bob was probably still slightly burned by her refusal to get Ricky out of jail, but now that she’d had time to think about it, her instincts decried their innocence. It was too radical a retaliation and not many people had as good a read on criminal activity as the dark beauty did.

“When does the bodyguard start?”

“John will be by to talk to you this afternoon at five. I told him you had final approval, in case you have a personality conflict with him.” Sterling gave Charlie a questioning look. “He’s a good guy, boss, but I wasn’t taking any chances hiring him without your seal of approval.” He grinned sheepishly. Charlie was a good detective partly because he was such a great judge of character. He understood, too well the way this woman he was working for clicked.

Her eyelids closed as she concentrated on a plan of action that might guarantee some modicum of safety to her lovely young friend. Her stalker would have to be aware of her attachment to Sam and that placed the realtor in danger. “Call in some favors Charlie. I have to know if it was Hall. If it was, I’ll sit down with him and straighten this out. My gut tells me that it isn’t that simple, though.” Charlie was inclined to agree with his employer. Uncovering the identity of her attacker among all of the clients she had opposed or lately, dropped would be tough.

*********

The police conducted a half-hearted investigation. Even though she had taken drastic measures to disassociate herself with the entire criminal breed, many of the detectives in the downtown division were not convinced that her turnaround was legitimate. They were patiently waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile they weren’t about to expend any extra effort on her behalf.

Sally, Sterling’s secretary, had raised an eyebrow a time or two, upon meeting clients of the firm. Fiercely loyal to her employer, Sally would never have voiced an opinion of the crass individuals that had occupied the waiting area outside Sterling’s office periodically. Now, she was being asked to think back over the past six months and isolate any incident or individual that might had led to Sterling’s weekend arson attack.

A staff meeting had been called immediately. Sterling had decided to make her people aware of the situation and enlist their help in solving the mystery of her attacker. “I know I can trust your discretion in this matter. It is important to determine the source of this vendetta before it effects you in any permanent way.” Sterling watched as some of her staff members blanched at this remark. Apparently they hadn’t considered themselves to be in any danger up to that point. She realized that some of them might quit when the full weight of the realization registered. It had amazed the barrister over the years, that her people could work closely with her and take their paychecks without examining the source of the income her practice generated. It had represented some dangerous and powerful individuals since coming to Atlanta. Although she had striven to ‘clean up’ her client list, her staff would have to be blind not to recognize the larcenous mentality of many.

“The police are investigating, but I suspect we will be more successful in uncovering the source of this problem. You all need to give some thought to the events of the past few weeks and months. If anyone recalls anything unusual, anything at all out of the ordinary, please bring it to me, even if you doubt the significance of the information. We have nothing to go on here.” Sterling dismissed the meeting.

All of the individuals leaving the conference room seemed deep in thought. Sterling retreated to her office to catch up on the work that had accumulated in her absence. Sam had been adamant that she remain at home for an additional day before reporting back to her office. Sterling had used the time to make a dozen inquiries among her remaining contacts in the less than legitimate world.

Samson hadn’t heard about the incident until Sterling related it to him in sketchy detail. “How did you keep it out of the local papers?”

“The cops here wouldn’t give them any information and I denied all interviews. It’s not big news unless you know the official charge of arson and the papers don’t.” Sterling doodled on the pad lying on her desk.

“It’s good that the department is clamming up for you.” That relieved Samson at least. He understood too well how hard it would be to solve the case if what little evidence they had became public.

“They’re not doing it for me. They don’t want anyone to see me as a victim. That might gain me some public sympathy. What they would LIKE to see is me crucified on the courthouse steps.” Sterling chuckled and continued to draw bold strokes.

“I still think you should let me come down there. I’ve got months of vacation time saved up and maybe I could…”

Sterling interrupted him. “There’s nothing you can do here Samson. I promise you that if I need you, I’ll call. I started not to tell you about this at all. I was afraid this would be your reaction. You can’t be my protector all my life, man. Besides, I’m a big girl now and I have a good private detective on the case.” She could hear Samson heave a lengthy sigh.

“OK, for now. But you had better keep me informed or you’ll find me on your doorstep.”

She returned her phone to its cradle and let her mind wander over the events of the last few days, never quite consciously acknowledging the name written and re-written on the paper before her. It seemed a travesty to Sterling that she had finally found something worth fighting for in her life and could not discover who her opponent was. Her secretary buzzed and announced a much-awaited call from Bob Hall. “Put him through, Sally.” She shifted into her most businesslike persona and retrieved the telephone from her desk.

“Bob, how are you?” Sterling gave him an opportunity to respond to the question with more than a cursory reply.

“I’m doin’ great Sterling, and you?” Hall sounded confused.

“Listen, Bob. I ought to come right out with it. I’m not much good at beating around the bush anyway.”

“That’s an understatement don’t you think?” Hall laughed quietly on the phone line.

“I know I probably pissed you off when I walked away from Ricky, sitting in jail, but…”

“Hey, I was hot for a while, but the little shit deserved worse than he got if you ask me. You were right, Sterling. His mother will scratch your eyes out on sight if she ever sees you again, but as for me, I think you were right to walk away.”

Sterling was relieved and surprised at Hall’s candor. “Thanks, Bob. We’ve known each other a while and I know you draw a line on the dirty stuff.”

“That’s all behind me, kiddo. I’m too old for all that.” Sterling considered his response and decided to go with her instincts. They were telling her that he was sincere in his lack of malice.

“I guess I’m asking for a favor then.” The barrister told Hall the sketchy details of the attack on her house. A low whistle was his only reply for a few moments, before he began offering council to her.

“Nobody does that kind of thing anymore. High drama gets you too much publicity and besides, they can screw you eighteen different ways with this new technology so why risk it?” Hall grew quiet.

“It was supposed to be a message, I’m sure, but I don’t know what message. Somebody has to know something about this Bob. Can you help me out for old time’s sake?” Sterling waited, knowing it could go either way.

“I can be a son of a bitch kiddo, but an attack like this reminds me that we’re all vulnerable. I don’t like it.” ‘My family is only a couple miles away from where this happened,’ He thought to himself before making his offer. “I’ll ask around and let you know. Give me a couple of days, huh?”

Sterling offered him her gratitude but hung up feeling no better about the situation. It would have been obvious, but logical for Hall to come after her. Convinced of his innocence in the matter, she now had to determine who else was suspect.

********

The office had been a mad house for the past two days. It was near the first of the month and all of the real estate company’s clients were trying to close on property at the same time. ‘It never fails. We’re always swamped just when I could really use some time off. This self-employed stuff is not what it’s cracked up to be.’ Sam grimaced as her phone rang. She was already holding for a mortgage company loan officer on another line. Instructing Peter over the intercom to get the needed information, she pressed the blinking button to connect her caller.

“I’ve missed you.” The greeting was met with silence. Sam recognized the banker’s tone as much as her voice and it took a second to recover and respond.

“Hello Beverly. How have you been?” Sam tried to be casual.

“I’m fine, but I hear you’ve had some lumps and bumps. Are you alright?”

Sam wondered how the banker could know about the incident at Sterling’s home. “Sure, just great,” was all she offered.

“One of the paramedics is dating our head teller. I just heard about it.” Beverly paused, giving Sam a chance to add details.

“There wasn’t that much damage, really. It was probably just kids or something.” Sam knew she sounded lame.

“The tough kids in that neighborhood use credit cards, not bombs, Sam. What have you gotten yourself into?” Bev’s concern sounded genuine enough, but it irritated Samantha none the less.

“Nothing I can’t handle, Bev. The police are looking into it and Sterling has a private agency investigating as well. It’s fine, really.” Her reassurance was a bit too emphatic.

The banker backed off a little. “I was worried about you, that’s all. I just hope you’re being careful, Sam. How much do you know about this woman, anyway?”

“Enough,” was Sam’s only response. They talked briefly. The realtor shook her head as she hung up, unable to understand Beverly’s refusal to let go of a hopeless situation. Peter’s voice woke her from her revelry.

“Line two boss. It’s tall, dark and gorgeous!” His laugh was infectious and Samantha matched it with her own.

Sam was aware of her quickened heartbeat as she murmured a breathless “Hello.”

“Whatever you’re selling this morning, I’m buying.” Sterling’s rich voice gave Sam as much of a tingle as her remark did.

********

Three days into a new month, the smoke had finally settled at Hilliard Realty. Samantha had a late lunch date with her Aunt Jane and looked forward to spending the remainder of the afternoon shopping with her. It had been almost four months since Jane had visited Atlanta and a year since Samantha had trekked to Savannah to visit her favorite aunt. The young woman checked her hair in the mirror above the bathroom sink and satisfied that she looked fine, started down the hall to retrieve her purse. One of her agents spotted her and told her about a caller holding for her.

‘Great. This always happens when I’m already running late. I don’t want Aunt Jane to panic and she will if I’m late. She always assumes that I forgot or something, which is ludicrous. I’ve never forgotten a meeting with her in my life.’ Sam laughed a little to herself as she picked up the phone.

“Hello beautiful. I thought you might like to spend the afternoon at the new house with me. I understand it’s vacant as of this morning.” Sterling had tried to cool down her relationship with Samantha until she could determine the source of the violent attack on her home. Although she had called several times a day for the past 5 days, they had not actually seen each other and Sterling was missing Sam in a big way.

“Gosh, I don’t believe this. You’ve been too busy to get together all week and now you’re free just when I have plans with Aunt Jane.” Her disappointment was overwhelming, but she could not cancel on her aunt at the last minute. Jane was only in town for the day.

“Oh yeah. I forgot about that. Sorry Samantha. I just thought it might be nice to spend some time together.” Sterling was crestfallen, too. “Maybe tomorrow evening? I can call you.”

Both of the women were reluctant to hang up, but finally were forced to when Sterling’s secretary summoned her to a telephone conference.

“You look like you just got bad news on a loan application…or a pregnancy test.” Peter was in her doorway studying her expression.

The realtor picked up her purse absently without even responding to his jibe. “Conflicting plans. It seems like my timing is lousy these days.” She looked up at him with a half-hearted smile and patted his shoulder as she swept by him and out the door to meet her Aunt Jane.

As much as she had hated sacrificing an afternoon with Sterling, Samantha lit up when she recognized her aunt, waiting for her in the lobby of the agreed upon restaurant. “My gosh, you are as beautiful as ever!” Jane was truly impressed with the vibrant appearance of her niece.

Sam was blushing a little. Never one to mince words her aunt often overwhelmed Sam with her praise and appraisals. “So are you Aunt Jane. How have you been?”

Small talk occupied them until the waiter arrived and took their lunch order. Jane studied her niece, as they talked, aware of some subtle change in Samantha, but unable to pinpoint what it was. “Yes, they are all fine. Your uncle is still watching football, basketball and baseball on his television in the den.” They laughed at the never changing patterns of Sam’s uncle Al. “I talked to your father this morning. Sam says he hasn’t seen you in a while but that the two of you talk often.” Jane knew that the relationship between her brother and Samantha was tenuous at best. She hurt for what both of them had lost as a result of Mattie Hilliard’s stubborn refusal to accept the facts.

“Dad met me for dinner last month. Although it’s nice to talk to him, nothing replaces seeing him in person. I wish he could come to the house more often.” Sam shook her head in confusion. Jane knew that her brother would have liked nothing better and would have risked the ire of his judgmental wife. It was the young woman across the table who would not create trouble for her father by allowing his visits to her home.

The table conversation needed a subject change, as both women were beginning to feel a bit down. “So, how’s your love life?” Jane was half-kidding until she noted the startled look on Samantha’s face. Slowly the realtor’s features formed into a glacier-melting smile.

“Actually, I do have a bit of news on that front.” Sam fingered the unused silverware beside her plate nervously. “I’ve met someone, Aunt Jane.” The older woman waited. “Her name is Sterling Hayes. She’s a lawyer.” Nothing Sam could say to her aunt would reveal her feelings any more than the expression on her face when she pronounced Sterling’s name.

“I met her a while back, during that law suit about the office?” Sam waited until her lunch partner nodded, indicating her recollection of the matter in question. “Anyway, later on, she came to my company to look at houses and I happened to be the only one available to show her.”

Jane still said nothing. She wanted this confession to unfold, unaided by her own conjecture. Samantha, less embarrassed now that the ice was broken, began to speak in earnest about her new friend. “She is so incredible, Aunt Jane. She is brilliant and beautiful and so strong. You wouldn’t believe what she went through when she was young. At least I had parents, even if we couldn’t agree on who I was to become.”

The older woman couldn’t wait any longer to make the remark that kept replaying in her mind. “You’re in love with her.” It wasn’t a question and they both knew it. Sam, however, had never actually allowed herself to consider her feelings in those terms. It was too frightening even now, coming from someone else’s lips.

Samantha stammered, obviously shaken by the statement from her aunt. “I…I guess I…I must …be.” She felt relief when the admission was made, then fear overtook her. Jane was the closest thing to a mother this young woman had and could read her face like a book.

“You’re not sure how she feels about you are you?” Sam shook her head, eyes wide with this new admission. “You could ask her Sam. I’m sure you could just ask her. If she wasn’t a principled person, you wouldn’t be drawn to her. And I’m sure you have nothing to fear. After all, you are pretty wonderful yourself.” Jane reached for her niece’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I’d love to meet her, dear. Can you arrange that?”

“Sure, Aunt Jane. I’ll bring her to Savannah as soon as she gets settled in the new house.”

“I take it the two of you found one then.”

Sam grinned. “Yes, in fact she’s there this afternoon, taking a good look around. The previous owners moved out yesterday.” The young woman remembered the food in front of her and picked up her fork to address it.

“I don’t suppose it’s nearby?” Jane smiled at the speed with which Samantha’s gaze flew up to meet hers. “Yes, I’m serious. I’d really like to meet this mystery woman and it would be nice to see her new house, too. I presume you’ll be spending some time there in the future.” Jane laughed and attacked her lunch with vigor, now, too.

A quick call on her cell phone confirmed that Sterling was indeed out of the office and enroute to the new house. Sally promised to contact the attorney and tell her to expect guests shortly. Sam was beaming when she put away her phone. “All set. I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

********

Samantha was so busy chatting that she never noticed the silver-grey Oldsmobile following them. The man behind the wheel had been in the restaurant for two hours when they arrived. The hundred-dollar bill he handed the proprietor covered the booth rental and made up for lost business through the latter part of the lunch rush. Besides, the owner had no intention of crossing the man with the coldest eyes he had ever seen by asking him to relinquish his table.

The afternoon traffic wasn’t bad at all, and the two women pulled into the drive within fifteen minutes. Sterling’s convertible was parked in front of the massive entry bringing a smile to Samantha’s face.

Sterling heard them pull up and greeted them at the door just as the Oldsmobile passed in front of her house. It had been moving at a crawl until she appeared on the stoop. It sped away before she had time to get a good look. Trying to convince herself that she was wrong, Sterling shook her head. Her instincts were on full alert and the fine hair on the back of her neck was standing at attention. She wished that she was wrong, but knew that she wasn’t.

The lawyer shifted gears mentally, quickly turning her attention to Sam and her Aunt Jane. They were totally unaware of her concerns and she felt no desire to open the subject. Samantha greeted and surprised her with a strong embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Sterling recovered enough to extend her hand to the older woman who waited with an amused expression on her face.

“Sterling Hayes. You have to be Sam’s Aunt Jane.” The lawyer radiated an obviously heartfelt smile. “I’ve heard rave reviews about ‘Aunt Jane’ and nothing else.” They all laughed as they went inside. Sterling entered the house last, giving one last look over her shoulder for the suspicious automobile.

Samantha showed her aunt around the first floor of the spacious home. The lawyer followed at a discreet distance, pretending to study the various rooms, but in fact watching the interaction between the two women. Their connection went way beyond the obvious love they felt for one another. The ease with which they communicated and made each other laugh fascinated Sterling, who had never had that kind of relationship with a woman. She felt a rush of envy.

“Sterling has asked me to help her decorate.” The young blonde turned now and smiled at her friend, bringing the barrister into the here and now.

“Yes, I need all of the help I can get.” She returned Samantha’s smile and locked gazes with her. Jane looked from one to the other and discreetly walked ahead to the staircase and up to the second floor.

Sterling continued to stare hungrily at the young woman posed in the doorway before her. She approached slowly, shoving her hands deep into the pockets of her slacks, knowing that if she answered temptation they would do something inappropriate of their own accord. Besides, Aunt Jane was only a few feet away… or at least she had been.

“You look very professional,” Samantha remarked. Her eyes took a slow tour of the figure before her. The attorney stopped with several feet of space remaining between them.

“I wish I could say the same, but you don’t look professional at all, more like irresistible.” The color that rose in Sam’s cheeks made her more so and Sterling acknowledged the fact. They talked quietly, unaware of the straining ears at the top of the landing. Jane smiled to herself, recognizing the bite of the love bug.

‘It’s less of a bite than a munching, actually.’ Jane laughed, amused at her observation and continued toward the line of open doors that needed investigating. She thought that a few minutes alone might be welcomed.

Samantha berated herself for wanting to rush into Sterling’s un-offered arms. The dark beauty rocked slightly on her feet, fighting her own internal battle. Finally, they spoke at once.

“You go,” the attorney insisted.

“I just wanted to …”. Sam hung her head and released a huge sigh. “No. The truth is, I neither appreciate, nor understand this small talk we’re feeding to each other. I thought we were past this, Sterling.”

The attorney stammered, mentally scrambling for an acceptable response to the candid confession. “Your aunt. I thought we ought to maintain some proprieties for her sake.”

“Aunt Jane would react if we started going at it like weasels on the carpet but it’s like we’re on a blind date or something. We can’t manage to communicate suddenly.”

Sterling had to laugh at the imagery of her friend’s first remark, but she was bothered by the accuracy of the last one. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m preoccupied with your safety and this whole business with the fire. I feel lousy about it, Sam. I seem to have put you in danger and I am disgusted with myself for doing that.” She pulled her fists from her pockets and pounded one against the nearest doorjamb.

Samantha slowly approached and began to weave her arms around the taller woman’s slim waist. Sterling tried to turn away, but Sam wasn’t having that and tightened her hold. “Wait just a minute, here. What do you hope to accomplish by pulling away from me? That’s what this is all about isn’t it?” She waited, green eyes narrowing.

Finally, the dark head nodded and the arms surrounding her jerked away angrily. “Don’t you think it might be nice to consult me about MY life? Where do you get off making those decisions for me?” Her hands went to her hips, accentuating her anger among other things.

“You’re berating me for trying to protect you, for caring about what happens to you. Is that really fair?” Sterling was a tiger when on the defensive in a courtroom. Here, she was warring with herself, wanting to keep Sam safe by pushing her away and at the same time wanting to bring her close in answer to her own need.

“I’m a fully grown woman. I realize there are some unusual circumstances surrounding your past, but you can’t deny us a chance Sterling. Besides, this is a decision we should make together. You won’t even talk about it, or what you have found out. Don’t you think I realize how careful you have been to avoid the topic?”

Sterling looked contrite. Even for an attorney with her talent for argument, there was no defense against Sam’s remarks. “I’m not dealing with this very well, Sam. It’s not something I’ve had any experience with, but I promise that we will sit down together and talk about it in the very near future.”

They each took a step to close the distance between them. The kiss they shared was deep and full of passion. The solid presence of the warm body she held against her left Sterling breathless. Heat began to build in her belly and she knew she had to be careful not to let it consume her. Quick images, a slide show of Sam, half naked and lying on the satin comforter of her bed caused the barrister to pull the smaller woman closer and begin again the assault on her mouth. When they broke apart, Sterling automatically looked up the stairs to see if Sam’s aunt was anywhere around. The blonde laughed.

“Don’t want to get caught, huh?” She pulled Sterling’s solid body to her for another embrace, laying her head on the taller woman’s chest.

“Who is doing the decorating for you Sterling?” Aunt Jane’s voice preceded her down the staircase. She had carefully timed the question as a warning, having stumbled into plain view of her niece a few moments previously, she had witnessed the women kissing. Jane had been surprised at herself for lingering a second to watch. She had often wondered what it must be like for Samantha to live outside the norm and love a woman. Now, she had seen first hand that love had no defining parameters. It was simply love radiating in waves between the two figures downstairs.

The barrister’s amused reply surprised Jane. “Your niece has graciously agreed to handle that for me.”

Samantha was quick to amend that she had only agreed to help out, not take on the entire project herself. Aunt Jane offered her services to Sam as an assistant’s assistant. In fact, the afternoon shopping trip that had been planned was expanded to include Sterling and adjusted from random shopping to seeking out furnishings for the attorney’s new home. Three very happy women set out together.

It was very nearly dark when they returned to drop Sterling at her car. Jane stepped out of the car too. Extending her hand, Sterling said her good-byes. She was startled when Jane bypassed the offered hand and pulled the tall woman into her arms. Once she finally let Sterling go she spoke in a low voice to the bewildered woman.

“I suspect that you are going to become a fixture in Samantha’s life. She is my daughter for all practical purposes and I want her happiness above everything. You seem genuine enough in your affection for her and I like you on your own merits.” Sterling was feeling a bit embarrassed by the praise when Jane continued. “Don’t be lulled to sleep by my calm exterior, however. I will hunt you down if you don’t treat her well. She deserves to be happy in her life. If you take on the responsibility of loving her, you had better not stand in the way of her happiness.” Jane smiled sweetly as she completed her lightly veiled threats and backed away. Sterling could only wave as they drove towards Sam’s office to retrieve Jane’s car.

*************

Sterling’s shoulders were slumped with fatigue when she returned to her office from court. She hadn’t slept well since the incident and it was taking its toll. Everyone had long since gone home and the halls were dark. Half way across the room her feet stopped, sensing a presence. Her eyes widened in anticipation as the high backed desk chair began to turn and reveal its occupant.

“Hello Sterling.” The voice was soft but unmistakable. The lawyer sucked in great volumes of air trying to counteract the effect of the apparition before her. The low burn of her desk lamp was all that illuminated the office interior. It mimicked subtly the amber glow of the setting sun that day on the Cape. The years fell away and Sterling felt her pulse rate getting stronger. Her lips finally formed the only word her mind could locate among its massive stores of vocabulary.

“Anna.” It was a benediction.

“Anna Bertilini.” When the attorney said it this time it was an accusation.

“Yes, it’s me. The years have befriended you.” Her voice softened. ” You are as lovely as I remembered.” Anna’s dark eyes roamed over the lines of the powerful body before her. The seated woman folded her hands in her lap and rocked backwards a little, perfectly at home in her strange surroundings.

Sterling was trying to guess what this visit could be about. Her mind raced over scenarios finding none that made any sense. ‘Why?’ she wondered, alternating with ‘Why now’?

Anna’s smile was pulling the dark attorney closer, luring her as Gino’s had done once upon a time.

“I didn’t realize how much I have missed you. You apparently made your mark on me all those years ago.” Only Anna knew how accurate her statement was.

“I can assure you Anna, YOU marked ME. I never understood why you did it.” Sterling slowly approached her desk and the seated woman. The surprise of finding Anna in her office was slowly subsiding. She approached the desk cautiously, trying to analyze the situation.

Anna chuckled before a cloud of seriousness settled over her features. “You have no idea what I felt for you, what I feel for you now. You are the kind of careless beauty who careens through life, a string of broken hearts in your wake.”

“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, Anna. Actually, I’ve been on my own since Gino.” Her eyes fell to the carpet. The accuracy of her statement confounded her. Was it true? It had been, until Samantha came along. Sterling’s gaze flew to Anna. Some deep instinct told her that this had something to do with Sam and it sickened her. Sterling swallowed back the rising bile and struggled not to tip her hand.

“Oh, I know where you’ve been believe me. I’ve paid an army of spies to let me know. Charleston was easier than Atlanta. It’s so wrapped up in tradition, including gossip. It’s probably best that you left when you did. Honestly, Sterling. Sleeping with the governor’s daughter was foolish.”

Sterling’s face grew hot with embarrassment as questions began forming inside her head. ‘Why were you watching me? I was no longer representing your family or any of its far reaching businesses. I left all of that in Boston. What did you hope to gain?’ Suddenly the facts flew at her. The bomb had been tossed into her living room by a member of Anna Bertilini’s organization.

“Can’t link it up can you? Why should I give a damn what you were up to? It’s so simple and that analytical brain of yours can’t solve the riddle.” Anna was smug as she folded her arms across her chest.

“I suspect that you’re about to tell me. Why don’t I sit down?” Sterling looked a little shaky all of a sudden so Anna acquiesced and indicated the chair facing the desk.

“On second thought. Why don’t you fix us a drink first? This could take a while.”

The tall attorney pressed the panel that hid a small refrigerator and its door swung open. Tossing ice cubes into two glasses, she raised the scotch bottle from the shelf above it, in unspoken question. Anna nodded then turned her attention to the plush office surrounding her.

“I was admiring your taste. This is impressive, particularly considering where you came from. But then, the people here in Atlanta probably don’t know your history.” Her smile turned sinister and Sterling felt a trickle of sweat start to slowly descend down the ridges of her spine.

“My background wouldn’t inspire much confidence in my client list, that’s true. Is that what you want, my practice?” Sterling eagerly hoped it was as simple as that.

Anna’s laughter was musical. “Heavens, no. You’re a fine lawyer and I admire your decision to move away from a dark past. It was lucrative in Boston, but so dirty, wasn’t it?” Anna paused, but not long enough to let the woman across the desk from her answer.

“I want a clean start, too and you’re going to give it to me.” Anna’s eyes scanned the ceiling briefly then came swiftly down to ground level to meet and hold Sterling’s. She continued. “I’m tired of my bumbling brothers and of the traditional aspects of running the family business. It’s all so old fashioned and I’m pretty tired of gun toting goons with broken noses who can’t understand words of more than three syllables.”

“You’re still not allowed to take control because you’re a woman.” Sterling didn’t realize she was saying it out loud.

Anna reacted visibly to the observation. “That’s one of many problems,” she snapped. My father at least had some class about him. Sal and Joey act like nouveau rich hoods with all that goddamned tasteless jewelry and high-priced toys. Sal thinks he’s the picture of success because he has an entire wall of big-screen TV’s to watch the WCW on. Joey… well, Joey always was stupid. Between his drug habit and the cheap women he surrounds himself with, he proves daily that he’ll never be a grown up.”

Sterling waited for Anna to continue. Nothing in the remarks she had just spoken gave the attorney any hint as to the purpose of the fire or this visit.

“I’m tired of it. I want a better life, a fresh start, like you got by coming here.” Anna studied Sterling’s face to see if she understood before continuing. “I will need legal council that I can trust.” Brown eyes shone, giving the attorney a moment to digest her proposal in small bites. “I want a confidante and advisor that understands my business and you certainly do.”

Sterling was silenced by disbelief. It gave Anna time to formulate the correct wording for her next statement. “My father loved you above all others. No amount of therapy will ever make me accept that gracefully. Believe me, I have tried.” She emptied the glass of its amber liquid and walked across the office to refill it. The distinct walk with its sultry movement of Anna’s hips caught Sterling’s attention. The lawyer could not help but cast an appraising eye from the glossy hair cascading to a slim waist, then flaring hips over shapely legs. Anna had chosen her dress with care. It revealed every physical asset that she possessed.

“I feel your eyes on me.” The dark menace’s voice spoke, unnerving Sterling. “I always could. Did you know that?” In her state of shock, Sterling hadn’t even realized she had been staring and could not comment. Anna swung around and rested her backside against the counter top of the bar, studying her adversary.

“What do you want from me Anna?” Tired now of the cat and mouse game, Sterling came straight to the point.

“I told you once that I was jealous of the love my father felt for you.” Sterling remembered the afternoon in her apartment when Anna had brought her the message from Gino that had instructed her to flee to Cape Cod. She confirmed her remembrance with a nod.

Anna spoke so quietly that the attorney had to strain to make out her words. “I didn’t really know how deep that went until after he died.” Gino’s daughter assaulted Sterling with her eyes now. “I was so angry and my desires kept revolving around that anger like the ball around a roulette wheel. Finally my needs dropped into that little slot and came to settle, on you.” The last was spoken almost as a curse. Anna raised her glass in a mock toast and Sterling automatically mirrored her actions.

The attorney seized the moment and spoke. “You know your father loved you, Anna. He loved his family above all else.” She entreated Gino’s daughter to believe what she knew to be true.

“Yes, but only out of a sense of obligation. It is the way of our ancestors. You, he loved with his whole heart and I can’t forgive you that.” She waved away further objections. “I’ve been patient for a long time. I’ve watched and listened and now I’m told that you have found someone.”

Blue eyes clearly registered panic. Sterling tried to counter her facial expression by bluffing. Her laughter was pretty convincing to her own ears. “You’re kidding, right? I’ve peopled my bed with a lot of meaningless toys. That has never changed.” They stared each other down. “Besides, why do you really care so much?” Anna smiled quietly, ignoring Sterling’s bluff.

“I didn’t know which of my many motivations took precedence for a long time.” Anna continued her explanation. “I seduced you long ago to punish my father, to vindicate my mother, to prove that my brothers were wrong about you. They said you cared about Papa, but you fell into bed with me easily enough. I almost told him in anger once, but it would have hurt him deeply.”

Desperate to connect with this mad woman on some personal level, Sterling gambled with her next statement. “I was there and there was something genuine in your eyes when you made love to me.”

“Oh, yes. It was very real, what I was feeling, but not in the way that you thought. My Papa saw himself in you, Sterling. He saw the core of his soul mirrored in yours. It is why he loved you so.”

Sterling whispered. “So you wanted me because I was his prize?”

“No, I wanted you because you were the closest thing to Gino Bertilini that I could bed and live with myself afterwards.” Shock and understanding bloomed together on the attorney’s features. Anna’s face was a mask of pain. Sterling began to recognize the depth of disturbance in this woman’s twisted mind. The realization doubled her fear.

Anna seemed amused. “It was years before I understood how pivotal that one night, that one incident really was in my life. I had his whore, his love and his twin in my bed, all at once.”

Until now, Sterling didn’t understand why Anna thought she would be interested in any of this outrageous proposal. The Bertilinis had shed no tears when she left Boston. She had thought herself an embarrassment to them after Gino’s death. Expecting Sterling to sacrifice her career was ludicrous. The lawyer was unclear as to the rest of it. “It seems that you are already seeking professional psychiatric help. I should think that would be the best course for you. What on earth do you expect me to do about all of this. Gino is lost to both of us now.”

“Professionally, I want you to help me re-invent my family’s business here in Atlanta. Your brilliant mind will make a vast difference in the length of time it takes me to get established here. You also have some valuable contacts that I can make use of.” Anna sipped from her glass. “Personally, I want you to shrivel up inside and watch the one you want love someone else. I want you to think of her in another’s bed and writhe in the agony of it.” Anna paused for effect. ” I want you to walk away from Samantha Hilliard.”

The name hung between them like a prize suspended on invisible wires. Sterling made the mistake of rushing to it.

“If you hurt her Anna, I’ll…”

“Don’t forget…” dark eyes interrupted. “My family invented threats of violence generations ago.” Laughter spilled from the twisted features before her and Sterling clenched her fists.

Struggling to maintain her composure, Sterling spoke in an even voice. “How can I convince you not to do this? What will it take to make you leave us in peace?”

“As long as you leave her alone, she will not be harmed. I will be totally relocated here in a few weeks. I expect you to be at my disposal twenty-four hours a day. If you don’t agree to my terms I will make one phone call and your little friend will be dead within the hour. If my technician doesn’t hear from me shortly to call it off, he has orders to kill her now. You see, it will do no good to kill me, although I know you are capable of it. Remember too, that my spies are everywhere, so don’t consider duplicity. You are to stay away from this woman.” Anna smiled a contented smile.

Sterling was stricken. Associating herself with criminals again would be paramount to losing her practice but she could easily manage that in order to protect Samantha. The real problem was the hurt she would be inflicting by walking away from Sam with only some lame explanation. The irony of the situation did not escape Sterling. In order to protect the only person she had ever really loved, she had to give her up. She swallowed the emotion that threatened to spill over into her voice. Without hesitation, her answer sprang from her lips. “I’ll do as you ask.” It was a solemn promise.

“You love her as much as that then?” Anna was surprised.

Her question got no response. “I am sorry for you Sterling. I know what it is to suffer such a fate.”

Sterling had given the sick twist seated before her the only thing she had ever valued and she felt nausea rush through her. “I’d like you to get the hell out of my office now, Anna. I have nothing more to say to you.”

Anna rose and eyed the barrister closely. “Yes, I believe I am finally getting what I have wanted for so long.”

The taller woman spat acidly. “Take it and get out then! Leave me in peace.”

Anna left quietly.

Part 4

Eyes closed, Sterling threw her head back and tried to think. ‘What in the hell just happened here? I must be dreaming.’ She reached for the telephone and dialed two digits before replacing it on the receiver. It had suddenly occurred to the lawyer that her phones were tapped. Her computer had probably been compromised, too. Deciding the calls could wait, Sterling moved to her desk and sat down in the chair that Anna Bertilini had so recently vacated. She pressed her fingers to her temples where a dull throbbing had begun.

Pulling a sheet of heavy stationery from her desk drawer, Sterling began a letter, a very important letter to Samantha.

You have encouraged me to let go of my past, and I honestly have made tremendous strides in that direction, until now. I have found out tonight that someone I knew long ago is trying to hurt us. More specifically, they are threatening to hurt you if I continue to see you. The why’s and the how’s are too complex to go into now, but believe me, this is a serious threat, coming from a seriously sick individual.

I considered keeping the truth from you Sam, but my heart wouldn’t let me. I don’t want to scare you with all of this. I only want you to know that I would not walk away if there was any other choice left to me. I realize it is a very poor time to say so, but I love you. In the parallel world that I used to inhabit, that’s a dangerous liability.

I’m making no sense, but I’m still reeling from the blow of losing you. The hardest part is realizing that my motivation for seeking decency is the very thing that will drive me back into the blackest corner of my past. Don’t worry. I am still a survivor, Sam.

You may hear things about me from time to time. Believe them and try to get on with your life. I say again what I should have been whispering in your ear over and over again. I love you with all that I am.

Sterling

The lawyer sealed the note in an envelope and placed it inside a bubble mailer with instructions for Charlie to send it to Peter. Sterling wanted no traceable tie from herself to Samantha. She grabbed the mailer and pulled her keys from her desk drawer. During the short drive to the post office, Sterling concentrated on the road, not trusting herself to think quite yet. Once the bulky envelope had been dropped down a chute inside the building, Sterling assumed her message to Sam would be delivered unmolested and could breath again.

Sterling gripped the steering wheel of her stationary BMW. She had parallel parked in front of a line of retail shops in Decatur two hours previously. The sky was beginning to lighten as she recapped her plan of action and checked it for flaws. It was risky on many levels, but a plan that would work, she believed. Her mind made up; she turned the key on the steering column and started her journey.

************

Sam had waited all evening for Sterling’s call. It never came nor did she call the next morning. Finally, the realtor caved in and called the law office. She was informed that Ms. Hayes was in court at the moment. Sam left a message but the unfamiliar voice reported that Sterling was leaving town on business by day’s end and might not pick up her messages for several days.

Puzzled, Sam hung up the phone. ‘Why didn’t Sally answer the phone? She always picks up Sterling’s private line.’ Cold crept slowly up her spine. Something was wrong. ‘I need to drop all of this cloak and dagger stuff. She’s just very busy. After all, the fire, the new house and her practice all require her attention. She’ll call when she can.’

*****

Sterling had showered and changed before heading back to her office. Stopping at a phone booth, she dropped some change in and waited for Charlie to come on the line. The detective was obviously groggy from sleep. Sterling rattled off instructions for several minutes before allowing him to speak. “You are getting all of this, aren’t you? I can’t call you from the office until you arrange for a sweep. Even then it’s probably best if I move around some. Have your electronic whiz check the old house and the new one, too. Be sure that bodyguard understands that he has to maintain a discreet distance. I don’t want Sam to know anyone is watching her.”

“I want you to contact an old friend of mine. His name is Samson.” Sterling gave Charlie the numbers he would need and told him to ask for anything Samson could uncover regarding Anna’s takeover of the Bertilini family business. Next, she placed a call to her secretary’s voice mailbox and left instructions for Sally to meet her at a diner within walking distance of the office. She was sitting in the corner booth drinking coffee when the older woman spotted her.

Once Sally had been seated and served coffee, too Sterling began her explanation of the clandestine meeting. “I don’t have time to go into everything Sally, but I’ve got a serious problem. I’m fairly certain that someone has bugged the office, so I couldn’t talk to you there.” The lawyer explained some of her needs without going into the ‘why’ of the situation. Sterling had wrestled with herself over how much information she should impart to the woman across the table. Sally was trustworthy without a doubt, but involving her could place her in danger, too. The attorney didn’t want to risk that for the time being.

“I’ll be putting the canvases into storage for now and moving what little furniture that actually belongs to me into the new house as soon as the papers are signed. I need to push my caseload hard and try to clear up most of the ones I’m working on personally. Anything new coming in, I will try to assign.”

Sally watched her boss’ eyes, hoping to achieve some glimmer of understanding. Sterling’s features changed noticeably as she issued her next instructions. “I’ve disassociated myself with Ms. Hilliard. Suffice it to say that we have nothing further to communicate about at this point. I don’t want her calls put through. In a few days, I imagine they will stop altogether.” The secretary made no comment, but she was saddened immeasurably by the news.

“What shall I tell her as to your whereabouts?” Sally would never have asked this question under normal circumstances. She’d have made up some viable story to tell. The fact that she had posed it made Sterling aware that her secretary must like Sam very much.

“You aren’t much of a liar Sally.” Sterling smiled for the first time. “I planned on having someone else answer my personal line for a few days. They can tell her that I’m leaving town on business, some emergency or another.” The attorney reached into her pocket and tossed some folded bills onto the tabletop to pay for their coffee. “There will be some security people sweeping the office regularly. Charlie will clear everything with you. No one is to be left unattended there. If you don’t recognize the technician, you don’t let them in, just call me.”

Sally had been nodding continuously. “Any questions?” Sterling waited for her secretary to respond.

She had many, many questions, but none that it was her right to ask. Sally shook her head again. “OK. I’ll see you in the office shortly.” She reached out and placed her hand lightly on Sally’s arm, stopping her. “I know this makes no sense, but I appreciate your help and your trust. Everything will work out, I assure you.” Sally smiled her slow, special smile that was reserved for the rare occasion when she allowed herself to be less than professional with her boss.

“I have no doubts,” she said softly. Those words spoke volumes to Sterling and brought tears to her eyes. Until now, she had allowed nothing to evoke the bubbling emotions in her to the surface. The tall woman nodded and followed Sally out of the establishment.

********

Samson asked a lot of questions when he was contacted. He ultimately insisted that Sterling call him directly, needing to know for certain that she was unharmed. No one was to know about Anna’s visit except the detective and Sterling. The attorney placed the necessary call.

“What is this all about?” Samson was irritated. He hated the mysterious way in which he had been approached for his help.

“Sorry. I’m pretty sure someone’s watching and I’m moving around a lot.” Tonight she was staying in a hotel on the fringes of the city. “Did Charlie tell you what I need?”

“Hell yes, but I want to know why the sudden interest in that family? Please don’t tell me that you’re getting involved with the Bertilinis again, Sterling.” The pain in his voice touched her deeply.

“Nothing like that. I’m trying like hell to get uninvolved with that family. I just need some information to figure out how to go about it.” Over twenty minutes of her protests, Samson insisted that he would collect what he could and deliver it to her personally within a week. Sterling hung up the phone knowing that she would have to tell him everything when he arrived, or she couldn’t expect him to help her.

Checking her watch, Sterling chastised herself for being awake at a late hour. Knowing that she had a court appearance the following morning, she buried her head in the flat hotel pillow and tried to relax. She hadn’t slept much since Anna’s visit and there didn’t seem to be any help for it.

The image of glistening green eyes formed in her mind’s eye. She groaned at the sensory assault that accompanied the picture. ‘How on earth am I going to do what I have to do to her? What would I give to be holding her right now instead of this pillow?’ Nothing she could think of in association with Samantha brought her anything but heartache, so she shifted her train of thought to the unfinished details of a plan she was formulating. It was going to be a long night.

*****

“Councilor! Have you any questions for this witness?” The judge was addressing her. Her assistant on the case nudged her arm, bringing her mind into the courtroom.

“Sorry, your honor. I would like to hear that last statement again, please.” The court reporter read the words of testimony back to her and she automatically responded in full attorney mode. Sterling stood slowly, unbuttoning her jacket as she approached the witness stand. The sleaze that waited there for her was obviously lying and more obviously unconcerned with anything except eyeing her breasts. The attorney deliberately stretched to her full height, bringing them close to eye level for his perusal.

‘You slime. As if I would ever let you lay a finger on me.’ His concentration on her caused him to fumble his rehearsed testimony. Sterling managed to catch him in one lie, which led to another. Before he stepped down off the stand, his character had been assassinated.

When the judge called for a lunch break, Sterling went rapidly to the bank of public phones at the end of the marble hallway. Punching numbers, hurriedly, she was relieved to find Sally still at her desk. “I was afraid you would be at lunch. Anything from Charlie, yet?” She listened while here eyes scanned the people milling about in the hallway and wondered which one might be reporting to Anna.

“Nothing yet, but they were in here this morning. Everything is fine.” Sterling was relieved that the second sweep had uncovered nothing. When the initial check had turned up a listening device near her desk, she had arranged with Charlie for someone to search her offices for electronic bugging devices every few days. They had also installed a closed circuit camera system that filmed her office interior twenty-four hours a day. The monitors had been set up in a basement room with someone on duty, watching them.

Hearing that everything had come up clean, Sterling felt that she could speak freely with her secretary. “Has she tried to reach me?” They both knew that the attorney was referring to Samantha. The written message had been delivered to her over a week ago, but she still called Sterling’s office daily.

“Yes, early this morning. No one was here but me and I made the mistake of picking up the phone. Reflex I guess.” Sally hesitated to tell her boss how Sam had sounded. The concern in her voice had been rivaled by hurt. The message she had given to Sally needed to be conveyed, but the secretary wavered. Sam was right to feel the way she did, but something told Sally that Sterling had her reasons, too.

Sighing heavily, Sally decided to just plunge in. “She wanted me to tell you that you shouldn’t make these kinds of decisions for her. She’s ‘worried and aggravated’ I believe she said.” Sterling smiled, able to hear Sam say the words, then realized the desperate nature of the situation and her spirits fell once again.

“I hesitate to ask, but did she say anything else?”

“She mentioned coming to your house looking for you.” Sally waited.

“Yeah, well, she won’t find me there. Neither will anybody else. I need you to get the rest of my clothes picked up and brought to the office. I won’t be going back to the rental house.” Sterling thought for a moment then made a request that surprised Sally.

“Call for me and RSVP that cocktail reception at the Dixon’s would you. I’ll be bringing a guest.” Sterling hung up thinking about who she could call to go with her. She had often attended social events that related to her business. Some of them required her to appear with the traditional male escort. Others, like this one at the Dixon’s were less rigid and allowed her to openly bring a female date with her. Sterling knew there would be a lot of people at this event and it was important that she create a stir.

********

The room went quiet, which was quite a feat considering that there were over a hundred people in it. The crowd had automatically responded when the beautiful pair of women came through the door and paused in the raised entryway. Sterling was stunning in oriental silk the color of old ivory. The pants, cut in flawless lines to fit her tall frame were covered to the knees by a long shirt, split high enough on the sides to reveal her midriff. The bear claw closures that held it together in the front were designed to lie on top of an underblouse, which Sterling had elected not to wear. Instead, the satin cord did little to reveal the fact that she was wearing no bra. This point was stressed further when the strikingly beautiful woman with Sterling turned to her and ran her hand up the attorney’s arm while whispering in her ear. The warm breath contacting the skin of her neck, causing Sterling’s nipples to tighten reflexively.

Sterling’s mystery date caused quite a stir. She looked familiar to many of the other guests, but it took over an hour for the pasty-faced wife of a wealthy stockbroker to place her face. Once she realized the sultry beauty was the soon to be ex-wife of a local real estate magnate she had the attention of every gossip in the place. Although the guests at this gathering prided themselves on being open-minded enough to accept a same sex couple, they couldn’t ignore the juicy twist of a thwarted millionaire losing his wife to another woman. This was too good an opportunity for the jealousy of the lesser rich to be vindicated.

The attorney’s choice of women had been no accident. She’d specifically wanted someone high profile. It would get the word out and help convince Anna that she was carrying out her part of the bargain. It would hurt Sam, as would her many future phantom couplings. The thought sobered Sterling who had been enjoying the effect she and Jeri were having on the crowd until then.

Throughout the evening Sterling was attentive to her date, bringing her drinks before her glass had a chance to be emptied. Although they had made a fashionably late entrance at ten o’clock, by midnight Jeri was slightly slurring her words and Sterling recognized the need to get the woman out of there. Getting her to her house was no problem, as Jeri fell asleep soon after leaving the party and only woke up when they were pulling up to her house.

Sterling should have predicted the woman’s behavior. Jeri took Sterling’s hand and pushed it underneath her shamelessly short cocktail dress, into her crotch. This entire evening had been about pissing her husband off and although Sterling was not flagrant with her sexuality, her penchant for beautiful women was public knowledge. Jeri felt obligated to offer herself to the woman beside her and since Sterling had shown no evidence of interest in that vein, the drunken woman elected to do something about it herself.

The attorney gently tried to withdraw her hand, while reaching across Jeri to open her car door.

Jeri looked stricken. “Don’t you find me attractive?” That was one scenario she hadn’t figured on in her quest for vengeance against her husband.

“You’re breathtaking, believe me, but you’re also a little high and I don’t think it would be a good idea to take advantage of you in that way.” Sterling turned her charm up another notch as she helped the woman from the car.

Jeri, in a whiskey fog felt the need to make one more attempt before allowing Sterling to leave her at her door. She locked her hands behind Sterling’s neck, hitting the attorney in the back of her head with the beaded purse she was holding. Oblivious to the fact she pulled Sterling’s mouth within reach and proceeded to deliver a kiss that would have incited a riot in the attorney’s body had it been the right tongue in her mouth, the right breath, sounding ragged and irregular. Jeri was all over the taller woman, pressing herself against Sterling’s body all along its considerable length.

“Whoa there,” Sterling was having trouble remembering who was in her arms. It was too easy to fantasize that it was Sam and she couldn’t afford to let that happen. “I think I better get out of here before your neighbors call the police on us for indecent behavior.” Jeri laughed a little. Having enjoyed an evening of public humiliation for her husband she decided to let Sterling off the hook for the time being. She had to admit she was a little high and more than a little tired. Jeri also suspected a roll in the hay with the incredibly sexy attorney would be something she would need all of her faculties to really enjoy.

“I want to voice my objection for the record councilor, but I concede your point. I am a little out of it. Next time for sure though?”

Sterling quickly nodded her agreement, knowing full well there would be no next time. Jeri had been the initial name on a long list of women who would be seen in public with Sterling Hayes over the weeks to come.

**********

The obnoxious hum of the alarm clock eventually forced Sam’s eye open. She couldn’t believe it was time to get up when she felt that she’d only been sleeping a few minutes. Then she remembered that she HAD only been sleeping a few minutes.

For weeks, the young blonde had been unable to rest, to eat, to concentrate on work. Sam had tried to contact Sterling at first, but even she had too much pride to continue that effort after days and days of listening to lame excuses and recorded messages. Besides, rumors had been circulating for a while that Sterling was seeing someone, several someone’s in fact.

Sam kept the note that Peter had relayed to her close at hand. She still read it several times a day, believing less and less its declaration of love. ‘Why won’t she just talk to me? Is that so damned much to ask? If she could just tell me, if I could hear her voice…Uugghh! Why won’t she talk to me?’ The anger and frustration had built in direct proportion to the lessening of belief.

The previous week Samantha had attended the closing on Sterling’s new house, assuming incorrectly that the lawyer would have to be there. She had nervously anticipated seeing the beautiful barrister for several days only to be disappointed when the paperwork was handled by another lawyer in the firm, using a limited power of attorney to sign for Sterling. He handed Samantha a pile of papers that included her commission check before shaking her hand and rising from the closing table. The young man’s next order of business was to confirm Sterling’s absence from the meeting to Anna Bertilini.

‘She looks so tired. My God, what am I doing to her with all of this insanity?’ Sterling had dismissed the security guard in the basement an hour ago. She sat before the monitors watching Sam as she had been from the moment she entered the law firm lobby. Per her instructions, Sally had greeted the young woman and situated her in the conference room where one of Sterling’s new associates had met them and handled the paperwork on the purchase of the new house. Sterling couldn’t take her eyes off the young woman. ‘I knew this was a mistake.’ The attorney scolded herself, pounding her clenched fist on the arm of the chair she occupied. Sterling had debated for several days whether it would be better or worse to see Sam on the newly installed monitors. Now she knew for certain that it was worse. Much worse.

As Samantha was being escorted out of the law offices Sally, who had never left her side shook the young woman’s hand, holding it a bit longer than was necessary. Sam searched the secretary’s eyes for understanding, knowing that any question she asked would be rebuffed, as all of her calls and inquiries had been. It was Sterling’s wish apparently and Samantha was well aware of Sally’s loyalty to her employer.

The blonde seemed to hesitate and look around her briefly as she turned to leave, giving the lawyer a close up of her cherubic face. Sterling realized that Sam must be feeling the pull of being watched and she was ashamed of herself for being such a coward. There were no safe circumstances under which the lawyer could confront Sam and talk with her. Anyone could be watching them at almost any time, regardless of the precautions that had been taken. It went beyond the lawyer’s concern for safety. Sterling was feeling guilty for her weakness in needing to see Samantha in any form available to her, even on a black and white security monitor.

Sterling stretched out in the chair, letting her head fall to one side, as if she had been struck. She HAD been assaulted after a fashion. Sam’s eyes were vivid, even without the benefit of color on the monitor. Sterling could see so many emotions swirling in them and the longing that she, herself, had worked so hard to conquer rose up within her again. Her breath caught as the realtor took one last look around the lobby and went through the door.

Closing her eyes against the surge of despair rising in her, Sterling emitted a sob, a half-howl of undiluted agony as the closing door obscured Samantha’s image. In her entire life she had wanted nothing so much as she wanted now to hold Samantha in her arms and murmur assurances, apologies, declarations of feeling. The rush of emotion translated itself into physical pain as Sterling’s body tensed, tendons straining to contain the raw energy that burned through her.

She rose to leave her basement vantage point, knowing that the one camera located in the parking lot behind the building would afford her no further view of her love. It was a mixed blessing that the young blonde had chosen to park her car on the street. Sterling didn’t have any way of knowing that Samantha had consciously done so to avoid spotting the lawyer’s BMW thereby verifying her fear. She suspected that Sterling was not out of town, as she had been told. No, she very much imagined that Sterling was in Atlanta, if not sitting upstairs in her office, casually avoiding Sam.

Sally returned to her desk, shaking her head. She had been briefed by her boss concerning the closing. The secretary had anticipated the presence of the seller and Sam as his representative. What she couldn’t have known, was that the young realtor would be so lovely, that she would like her immediately, or that the pain in her face would be so obvious. Sally’s immediate response was the need to take her boss by the shoulders and shake her until she had her attention. The secretary would like to tell ‘Miss tough as nails attorney’ that she was blowing a chance that not many people ever got. Sally would like to cry, heartbroken for both of them.

********

Sam’s mouth was drawn into a thin, grim line when she returned to her office. Peter knew her well enough to read her face and her body language. He simply put her message slips on her desk, asked if she needed anything and left her alone in her office. As soon as the door closed behind him, Sam dropped her head to her desk. Shoulders shaking she cried, her body a broken column of frustration and anger. She was fighting an invisible enemy and it was killing her.

A soft knock on her door a half-hour later brought her into the present. Her tears had already dried; her resolve was firmly back in place when she responded. “Come on in Peter.” There was no doubt as to her visitor’s identity. He placed a mug of tea on her desk and searched her face. Sam avoided looking at him, aware that she must look haggard after her emotional outburst of a few minutes earlier.

“You OK? Want to go to lunch with me later? Or maybe you’d like to go home early today and rest, huh? I can handle things here easily enough. Just hand over your whip and chair.”

She laughed softly in spite of herself. Samantha recognized what a treasure she had in a friend like Peter. “That last suggestion sounds pretty good, actually. If I’m gonna have an emotional breakdown, I’d at least like to have it in private. Everybody that walks by my door acts as if they’re looking at an exhibit.”

“They care about you, too, Sam. Frankly I don’t think anyone around here realized that you were capable of such total devastation and unhappiness.” He smiled, hoping she had taken his remark as the joke he had intended it to be. “You ought to consider going out dancing tonight. Why don’t I get hold of Janet and…”

“Not yet Peter. Soon maybe, but please, not yet. I just need a little time.”

******

Samson had been in town for three days before he actually got to see Sterling in person. She was still moving around quite a lot, staying in hotels, which she paid for in cash. Gino had taught her many things in her youth. The strapped stacks of cash in her office safe had come in very handy. Anna and her goons couldn’t trace her whereabouts through credit card receipts at least. It would give her an opportunity to research her opponent without Anna’s knowledge. It would also allow Sterling to get reports on Sam without placing her in jeopardy.

The sky was just turning pre-dawn pink when the Boston detective entered the institutional interior of the Waffle House Sterling had dictated. She stood as soon as she saw him and waited patiently for him to approach. When he got close enough to see the trouble in her eyes his footsteps faltered, but she went the last steps to meet him and circled his slim shoulders with her arms.

Samson’s eyes closed involuntarily at the feel of the woman he held against him. Chastising himself for his reaction, he tried to pull away but was surprised to find that Sterling would not allow it just yet. When she was able to, she backed away, staring at the floor, embarrassed by her need. The detective made a lame joke to ease the tension between them, before talk turned serious.

“You look like shit,” he threw at her. She laughed in response.

“Yeah, well, you always look like shit. I guess we’re on even ground here, huh?” She smiled at him and the emotions evident in her eyes broke his heart. Samson had known that Sterling was in a bad situation, he just hadn’t realized how bad, until now.

Samson waded right into the problem. “She’s crackers.” It was the simplest of statements, but it confirmed her suspicions and her head dropped.

“When the old man died, Joey and Sal took over the business. Joey was, well… you know Joey. He’s still an idiot and Sal isn’t much better. Neither of them had any real aptitude for business. Anna quietly began running things from the shadows. When the old lady died, Anna stopped the pretense by declaring herself the head of the family.”

Sterling’s only reaction thus far had been a slight grimace when Samson referred to Gino as ‘the old man’. The detective had meant no disrespect, but it still elicited an automatic response from the attorney.

There was more information. The two old friends ordered breakfast and drank many cups of coffee, while Samson related the rest of his news.

“Her dead brothers’ widows have splintered off and moved away. Joey and Sal are still on the scene. Anna’s got free rein and no sounding board. No husband, no boyfriend…nothing.”

“You might try looking for a girlfriend.” Sterling was matter of fact in the delivery of the information, which surprised Samson. He would have thought that Anna’s preference for women would have surfaced in his investigation of the Bertilini matriarch.

“Charlie told me she was after you. I don’t get it, though.” Samson was running every possible scenario through his brain and coming up blank.

“It’s complicated, but she has a personal vendetta against me. More accurately, she refuses to allow me my happiness.” Sterling was concentrating on some unspoken idea. Samson studied her features, unnoticed.

“If she planned to kill you, you would be dead.” Samson’s statement caused a chill in her.

Her years of association with the Bertilinis seemed a lifetime ago. This thing with Anna was most frightening when she considered that the woman did not want her life, only her misery.

Samson scanned the scribbled notes in his palm-sized notebook. “She’s moving some of their operation down here. They bought a restaurant in town somewhere. There’s a condo on Lenox Road that is titled to one of her dummy corporations. The Feds still keep a pretty close eye on that whole bunch. They’re setting up a sting, in fact. Maybe you could help out?”

Sterling was very unhappy to hear that Anna was local, at least part of the time. Working with the Feds to put her behind bars was her only option besides murder. Even that might not solve her problems. There was always the possibility of retribution. Sterling could only hope that Anna had pissed off enough people on her rise to power.

“They found one bug at the office,” she related. I’ve moved out of the rental house, but I’m staying in a different hotel every third day or so and it’s getting old. Once I get a plan in place, there won’t be as much of a need for secrecy. I want you to supervise the security people. They’re supposed to beef up the system that’s already in the new house.” She shook her head, upset and confused by what he had told her. “I’m playing by her rules, but this whole thing is scary as hell.”

Samson had heard about Samantha soon after her first dinner with Sterling. In his conversations with the attorney since then, Sam’s name came up with increasing frequency. It didn’t take a detective, although he was one, to see Sterling’s growing feelings for the blonde realtor. He had looked forward to meeting her on his next vacation trip to Atlanta.

“You can’t even see her for a few minutes?” He could see that the separation was killing his friend.

“No, they’re following her all of the time.” She looked up at him for a long time before pulling a stack of newspaper clippings from her pocket and dropping them on the table. “I also have a bodyguard following her, but she doesn’t know it. I wish you would check on that for me while you’re here. I can’t let them find anything out.”

Samson nodded his understanding as he glanced at the photos of Sterling in the clippings. She was joined in every one by a different beauty. He realized immediately what she was doing to protect her friend.

“By the way, there is no ‘while I’m here’. I’m here until this thing is over, one way or the other.” In a rare show of emotion, Samson reached across the table and covered her large hand with his larger one.

“Thanks,” she breathed. ” This whole business is scary as hell. I have to say, I feel a lot less alone with you here.”

“You are a lot less alone, and don’t you forget it.” His smile was reassuring.

***********

Beverly was holding on line one. She was probably calling to report another ‘sighting’ as Sam had come to think of them. Every time Sterling appeared in public with some stunning woman the banker couldn’t seem to wait to let Sam know about it.

‘I don’t know why she won’t give this up. It wouldn’t matter if Sterling was determined to be an ax murderer, it wouldn’t change my feelings…about either one of them.’ The thought surprised her. Somehow in spite of the pain she felt, a part of her had already started to forgive the dark attorney for her disappearing act. Each incident caused less pain as the numbness in her heart spread.

“Hi Bev. What’s up?” ‘Straight to the point might get this over with a little quicker.’

“I’m fine thank you. Thanks for asking,” the banker responded sarcastically.

“Sorry, just a bit rushed today. How are you?” They both knew it was a moot point now.

“I’m great. I just heard through the grapevine that your lawyer friend has her picture in Southern Voice this week. Thought you might want to check it out.” ‘For your scrap book’ Beverly thought to herself.

“Oh yeah I heard,” Sam lied. “You get the idea that she has hired a publicist what with that thing last weekend and now this.” Sam was referring to the photograph in the Atlanta papers. A big color picture shot at the ‘Aids Walk’ had been reproduced on the front page of the Lifestyles section. Sterling, arm draped casually over the shoulder of a drop-dead gorgeous brunette made quite an image to go with her quoted remark in the news article. Samantha had seen the photo despite Peter’s efforts to keep her from it. She had caught him sneaking down her driveway with her Sunday newspaper and demanded an explanation. He sheepishly showed her the offending item. Sam had gritted her teeth and turned on her heel in retreat, Peter following quietly behind her into the house.

Samantha became aware of Beverly’s voice droning on. She hadn’t heard a word, but just as she was rejoining the conversation caught something about a dinner date.

“Sorry Bev, I’m not going out much anymore.” Having lost patience with the banker’s attempts at villainizing Sterling, Samantha added to her response. “To tell you the truth Bev, I’m trying to decide between joining a convent or dating men. You just don’t figure into that at all.” Samantha excused herself, feigning an early arrival of her two o’clock appointment and hung up. ‘I’m too old and too tired to work so hard at sparing that woman’s feelings when she obviously damned and determined to hurt mine.’

She buzzed Peter and requested a copy of the newspaper Bev had mentioned. Peter started objecting immediately, and her request turned into an order. Within ten minutes, he was standing in front of her desk with a copy, garnered from the lobby of a local restaurant.

“You asked for it. Just remember that,” he said before dropping the offending article on her desk and leaving her office.

Slowly, Samantha opened the paper and began scanning it. There, on page seven was a beautiful likeness of Sterling, seated at a benefit. She was accompanied by a high maintenance woman who looked familiar. It took a second for Sam to realize that she was an actress of some celebrity who had been born and raised locally. The woman returned to Atlanta for a visit at Sterling’s behest the article said, to help raise money for charity. Sam didn’t even bother to read the details. It didn’t matter why she was there. What mattered was the look on her face as she gazed up at Sterling. The attorney was looking away, unaware of the worshipful glance targeting her. Sam’s stomach clenched as she studied the two women in the picture and thought about how their evening might have progressed. She crumpled the paper hurriedly and tossed it into her wastebasket.

She held out her hand to cut off the questions and/or conversation Peter was obviously about to hurl at her. “Going home. I’m not feeling well. Cancel my appointments. I’ll call you about tomorrow.” This last was literally said over her shoulder as the door swept closed behind her. Worried and dejected, Peter sat down heavily at his desk to do his boss’ bidding.

**********

Sterling was finally sleeping soundly, but it had taken hours of tossing and turning. Exhaustion had finally pulled her down into unconsciousness. Thoughts of Samantha and what she might be doing haunted her thoughts.

During the day, Sterling had plenty to do to occupy her mind. Between overseeing her office and the periodic appearances in court that were required of her, the attorney had little time to enjoy the wide expanses of her new home. In fact, nothing about the house gave her any feeling of comfort except the battered sofa downstairs in the den. Even the bed she slept in was new, picked out by Sam and her Aunt Jane on the shopping afternoon the three enjoyed just weeks before.

The dark head stirred, some thought or dream was again plaguing the sleeping woman. Rolling over in the pre-dawn greyness of her bedroom, Sterling opened one eye to check the time. ‘Five o’clock? I need to sleep a while longer.’ She pulled the sheet over her head and the softness of both pillows to her face. Relaxing into the feel of full arms, the semi-conscious attorney had a smile playing across her lips. Then she remembered and it came crashing down on her.

Sterling threw back the covers in anger and pulled her long legs over the side of the bed. The tee shirt she’d slept in was twisted around her torso and she fought to pull it from underneath her. Stretching for a moment, she stared at the empty space around her. The bedroom furniture had been ordered and was due for delivery in another few days. Sterling winced at the memory of the fun and laughter she had enjoyed the day it was selected. Shaking her head to dissolve the memory, she stood, considering the events of the day ahead of her.

All of the attorney’s considerable wardrobe had now been moved into the new house. She absently selected a tailored trial suit in charcoal grey with a red pinstripe. Tossing it onto the bed, she made her way into the bathroom to start the shower. While it was getting hot, Sterling picked up her toothbrush and started her morning routine. She glanced at the mirror and caught her own reflection, stopping her stock still. ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy? You’re actually going to take on the Mob for the sake of a woman who probably wouldn’t speak to you now if you were literally dying!’ The pain of the last part wounded her. The attorney knew it was probably true, although she had little to go on except the reports coming back to her from the bodyguard following Sam. Even those were filtered through Charlie and held very little information of a personal nature.

Her head dropped in defeat, the foaming toothbrush in her mouth forgotten. Weeks of this charade had taken a huge toll on the attorney. Sterling’s work was lackluster at best. She had apologized to a half-dozen clients, refusing them the expected personal handling of their business, naming illness as her excuse. They accepted the situation graciously, all but Ralph Slidell. Sterling had to tell him more than she had wanted to in order to make him understand her need for a hiatus from her practice.

“Why don’t you go to the police?” Ralph cared for the woman on the other end of the secured telephone line.

“It’s too complicated to go into on the phone, but believe me, I have considered that and discarded it as a viable possibility for the time being. Look, just treat this as a medical leave of absence, call it a mental illness. I promise I’ll be back at work full time as soon as it’s settled.” Sterling had in fact, gone to the FBI but could not tell Ralph Slidell that and endanger him.

When she had offered him all of the reassurance she could muster, she hung up the phone, closed her eyes and whispered a prayer. The latter was not a customary practice for Sterling who only recently reacquainted her intellect with the existence of a higher being. The years of her youth left her faithless and later she had been guilty of so much darkness that she assumed no god would claim her. Many things changed with the introduction of Samantha Hilliard into her life. Now, she often found herself asking God for help, strength and understanding on a regular basis. Mostly she entreated him to maintain Sam’s safety through this current mess she had involved the beautiful young woman in.

*********

Anna flew home to Boston each weekend to handle various details of the move. Sterling had refused to accompany her on these trips. The lawyer never really knew how long Anna would be gone and simply anticipated her return with dread through her entire absence.

When Sally buzzed her on the intercom and identified the caller on line one, Sterling let go a lengthy sigh. Her luck had just run out.

“I just got into town. How about meeting me for dinner?” Anna Bertilini had started making a habit of these short-notice invitations. It pleased her to have Sterling at her beck and call. The attorney had no life outside the office anyway and at least it eliminated the necessity of an ongoing string of women, who it was getting harder to fend off at the end of the evening. By now, Anna was perfectly sure that Sterling was not seeing Sam. The realtor, Anna assumed, had heard or seen enough of Sterling’s escapades to move on. Of course, Anna Bertilini could not understand the depth of the love Sam felt for Sterling since she, herself had never experienced anything close to it.

“Sure, why not?” Sterling sounded more enthusiastic than she felt. Maintaining the charade was wearing her down.

“Plan on staying at the townhouse for a few days.” It was a statement, not a question and the lawyer felt her temper flare. Anna seemed to sense through the silence that she had overstepped and softened the command. “I’d really appreciate it, Sterling. I have a lot to talk with you about and it would be so much easier if you were with me in the evenings.”

Some of the matters Anna was working on didn’t bear public discussion, even in the restaurant that she herself owned. Her suggestion made sense, but it still riled Sterling to be ordered about like an employee.

‘Hell, I AM an employee. Who am I kidding? Why shouldn’t she treat me any way she wants to? What difference does it make anyway? I have no life anymore.’ The dark attorney had fought depression from her loss of Samantha. That coupled with this alliance had her drowning in despair. ‘I have to go along, it’s the only way I’ll get the information the bureau needs for the sting. I can spend a few more evenings with her even if it does make my skin crawl.’

“Whatever. I’ll meet you at eight. I have a lot to finish up here first.” Sterling hung up the phone without saying goodbye.

Anna fairly beamed when she saw Sterling’s tall figure enter the intimate dining room where they usually met. It was apparent that she was still deluding herself and believed that something personal was possible in the relationship between them.

Seeing Anna’s reaction to her arrival made Sterling wonder many things. ‘Maybe she’s just lonely. Certainly a woman in Anna’s line of work wouldn’t have a lot of close friends. Then too, she IS crazy. That probably runs people off in droves.’ The attorney let go a twisted laugh as she made her way between the sparsely scattered tables to the corner of the room.

“Hello.” Dark eyes glittered in the light of a candle burning on the table between them. Their server appeared within minutes with a generous scotch on the rocks for the lawyer and smiled at her as he sat it on the table. “Thanks Tony. You’re the best. How did you know that I really needed this?” She lifted the glass and saluted him with it before taking a substantial drink.

“How are things in the Land of Oz?” Sterling had relaxed into her role and took great liberties with her attitude towards her dinner partner.

Anna began a half-hour monologue that covered the events of her recent trip to Boston. She claimed that it would be her last one for a long while, since everything was now in place for the Atlanta office. Sterling listened, but just barely as she moved salad around on her plate. Soon the waiter would take it away and she could move something different around on the next plate.

A judgement had been reached in Sterling’s last case earlier in the day. The calendar pages on her desk held little now in the way of legitimate business. Sterling Hayes had begun her descent into darkness once again. She wondered if Samantha knew what was going on, that she had begun representing the Bertilinis again. The attorney wondered, too, if Charlie would have anything interesting in his next report about her. A new wave of misery swept through the attorney at the thought and Sterling raised the glass of scotch to her lips again.

Dinner was finally over and the two women left the establishment. Anna arranged for one of her people to drive Sterling’s car to the townhouse so that the two of them could ride together. Anna’s car and driver stood waiting. As always, he parked illegally at the front door. The short ride was quiet and neither passenger’s cell phone rang for a change. They entered the dimly lit foyer and Sterling sat her briefcase at the base of an entry table. A glance in the mirror above it reflected a stranger. She turned away, just as Anna came up behind her and pulled her into a kiss.

Startled, Sterling stiffened and backed away. Anna laughed and began to embrace the taller woman again, but the lawyer was having none of it. Anna smiled seductively. “I just wanted to greet you properly.” Anna’s smile was reminiscent of Gino the predator’s. “I thought a seduction scene was in order.”

“Let’s get something straight between us right now Anna.” Sterling held her hands out in front of herself, clearly indicating that an invasion of her space was unwelcomed. “I’ll give up Sam, ruin my business, present a united front to the world between you and me, but I won’t sleep with you. Ever.” She let the words hang between them for a moment. “You are already getting my soul, Anna, leave me my body, please.” The taller woman went into the living room to pour herself another stiff drink before hurling herself onto the sofa.

Anna studied her while she processed her own reaction to the rebuff. ‘She just needs a little time to get used to the idea,’ the younger woman thought. ‘I’m in no hurry. I can wait.’

*********

Samantha was late for a closing. She alternated between glancing at her watch, willing the hands to move slowly and studying the red light hanging over the intersection. Neither object was cooperating. Motion in her periphery drew the young woman’s attention and she casually looked over to check out the car moving up beside her. Sam instantly recognized the sleek body of a silver BMW. Sterling was at the wheel, but was concentrating on something and had not seen her. The realtor started to touch the pad on the steering column to sound the horn, then lost her courage.

‘My God, she looks terrible,’ was all the reaction that Sam allowed herself. A wave of sympathy crashed over her as she studied the tired features of the familiar face. As Sam’s face twisted in anguish, Sterling suddenly looked up and recognized her. The attorney’s mouth dropped open to let a breath escape as her eyes searched Sam’s. To her surprise she found no hatred there, only hurt. Sterling had an automatic and overwhelming need to mouth three words across the distance separating them, but knew that they would blow Sam’s world apart and start the processing of pain over again. Instead, Sterling watched helplessly while Samantha responded to the honking horn behind them and drove away.

The realtor made a sharp left at the next intersection, insuring that Sterling couldn’t follow her. Sam had no reason to believe that the attorney would even try, but she was taking no chances. At the moment, her pulse was throbbing triple time and tears were starting to track down her face, taking her mascara with them.

Samantha pulled to the curb and struggled with the knob that would start her emergency flashers. Taking deep breaths, she tried to order her thoughts, but nothing helped. After five full minutes, chaos still prevailed and she called Peter. Sam told him to relay the message to the closing attorney that she had been in a collision, but would be arriving shortly. Peter went berserk, assuming she was hurt. She explained that it wasn’t that kind of a collision, but wouldn’t go into details.

He was reluctant to accept her story, but promised to do as she had bid him. Sam put her cell phone back into her purse and pulled out a wadded kleenex to wipe her face. As she strained to see the damage to her makeup and repair it in the rear view mirror, Sam’s mind raced. She had wished for weeks, just to see Sterling’s face again. She had convinced herself that it would be enough, just to look into her eyes one more time. Samantha now knew that theory for the total lie that it was. Her heart was beyond broken and she hadn’t thought it possible to want something so much as she wanted to understand what had happened between them.

‘I can’t! I simply CAN NOT think about this right now. I have to walk into that attorney’s office in twenty minutes and act like a professional business woman.’ Sam scolded herself until she was able to regain control of her emotions.

**********

The barrister was stricken. She pressed the accelerator and steered her little car toward her office, but remembered none of the trip later. Sterling’s imposing figure crashed through the outer offices of her firm, looking neither left nor right. Sally, who had been expecting the arrival knew instantly that something was terribly wrong. She watched her employer storm by, her face pale and drawn. No words were exchanged as Sterling swept through the massive door to her office and hurriedly pushed it closed behind her.

She rested there, her back against the solid wood, some kind of comfort in her reeling world. Sterling could not close her eyes, because each time she did, a picture of Sam’s face as it had looked at the stop light came screaming back at her. ‘I thought I was past this. My God, but she is beautiful. I thought my heart would stop.’ Random thoughts flashed through her quick mind as Sterling stood there, trying to regain some control. The barrister had recognized several things in Sam’s eyes during their brief encounter and chief among them was pain. It was one thing for Sterling to endure suffering, but she could not allow Samantha to be subjected to it any longer.

Slumping into her desk chair, Sterling understood with perfect clarity what she had to do. The plan that she had so carefully implemented wasn’t set to go into action for several more weeks, but the attorney knew that she couldn’t perpetuate her charade with Anna any longer. Sterling would have to convince her new friends at the bureau that they had to move on the Bertilinis immediately.

It no longer mattered whether Sterling survived the sting and its aftermath. Even death was preferable to her current predicament.

****Showered, dressed and impeccably groomed, it was time to go into the theater of Sterling’s world and give the performance of her lifetime. Background music floated from the open top of an ebony grand piano. It wasn’t the kind of music that distracted or evoked thought but the pianist producing it caused a stir. A shimmering cape of white-blond hair covered the shoulders of a black cutaway tail coat. The traditional black pants were in evidence as were the cummerbund and bow tie adorning her torso, but no shirt. Instead, she had onyx studs and cufflinks attached to skin in the appropriate places by some unidentifiable means. Her bare breasts were in easy view and many in the crowd were amused by this fact. Others were appalled.

Judging by the reaction, Sterling determined the crowd to be a standard mix of progressive and conservative art lovers. This was an important show for a new artist and many among the gallery’s regular patrons were in attendance. The people at this gathering represented a huge amount of wealth and did not want to fend off entrepreneurs looking for investors all evening. Nor did they feel comfortable with the unknown commodity of novice collectors.

Sterling had worked with Sally to pepper the relatively small guest list with enough of her own supposedly distant relatives and ‘European art critics’ to explain away the presence of the unfamiliar faces belonging to the FBI agents in attendance. The attorney had carefully rehearsed the four men and two women on the finer points of the art show they were pretending to attend. Surprisingly, most of them displayed an aptitude for understanding the subtle themes of the exhibit. The artist was unaware of her participation in a government sting. She had been thrilled at the opportunity to show her work, and willing to demonstrate for Sterling just how much. The attorney had extricated herself from the young woman twice already and looked up from sipping the pale liquid in her glass to see the artist bearing down on her again.

That was the moment that Samson chose to appear in front of her. Sterling hooked her arm through his and led him into the gallery office which had been secured for her private use for the evening. She gratefully led him inside and closed the door, silencing the sounds of talk, music and laughter.

“I am so nervous man. Has everything been checked out with the microphones?” Samson nodded, amused that she had slipped back into the vernacular of her youth. He lifted the glass the lawyer sat on the edge of the desk to sniff its contents. He made a sour face and put it back.

“Everything has been double and triple checked. Are you OK with everything?” She nodded and sat down behind the desk. “Anna call you tonight?”

Sterling indicated with a nod that she had in fact. “Yes, she’s going to be fashionably late, but she wouldn’t miss this opportunity for the world. The woman wants to rub shoulders with the acceptable wealthy so badly that she is walking into this blind.” Sterling leaned forward to snag her glass and drained the champagne from it in one gulp. “Hopefully they can get enough tonight to wrap this up. I’m ready for this to be over, if it ever can be.”

There was a plan in place to arrest and prosecute Anna Bertilini on a list of Federal charges. Sterling and Samson had worked together to collect documents, tape conversations and locate witnesses willing to testify against the powerful woman. Anna, in her flight from her home base of Boston, had stepped on a lot of toes. Additionally, she had been so eager to establish herself quickly in the south that she had treated her employees badly, showing no respect for their loyalty to the family. Some had begun to doubt her abilities at first and later, her capability to make decisions that effected all of them.

More than anything else, Sterling’s survival would depend on the help of Carlos, Gino’s bodyguard for almost three decades. He was hard to locate, secreted as he was in his Florida retirement retreat. Sterling had prevailed, though and asked permission to meet with him. The lawyer had been surprised to see that Carlos looked younger with the passage of time instead of older. He recognized her reaction immediately and laughed as he shook her hand, inviting her to sit in the cozy conditioned air of his den.

His smile seemed genuine and Sterling realized that she had never seen it before today. The retired mobster’s explanation was brief. “I have no stress in my life since I retired. Not many of us get an opportunity to walk away from all of that.” The obvious question from this man of few words had to come. “Why would you go back to it after you made a clean getaway?”

She studied him carefully, knowing that her respect for him and his respect for Gino might be the only thing to keep her alive after their meeting. “I need your help and I have no right to ask for or expect it. That puts me in a bad position to negotiate.” He studied her without interrupting. “Gino’s daughter has decided to relocate in Atlanta and is using me to get her foot in the door.” She hesitated for only an instant before continuing. “I’m helping her only because I have no choice. She’s blackmailing me, Carlos and I have to come up with enough evidence to get her put away.”

The attorney was asking Carlos to give somebody up to the authorities, something that totally violated the moral code of a man who had managed to leave the mob while still alive. Not only that, but Sterling was delivering Gino’s daughter to the FBI and wanted him to help carry the tray.

“I’ve heard things. She’s made a lot of people unhappy.” He nodded his head, agreeing with his own statement. Carlos was weighing something in his own mind. “What’s she got on you?”

He had asked casually, used to the exchange of this kind of information just as other people conversed about the items on their grocery lists.

“She’s threatened to kill someone very dear to me…” Sterling looked him squarely in the eye and added “…someone I love.” There was silence as Carlos considered this new information.

The aging bodyguard ran his fingers through his now greying hair, thinking hard. “I thought she might still be pissed about you and Gino. She was you know.”

“She only told me recently, but …”

Carlos assured the young woman that she needn’t go into details. He had been well aware of Anna’s unnatural attachment to her father and the jealousy that Sterling caused when she came into the picture. Sterling had hoped to spare the loyal man these truths, rightly fearful that he would interpret them as a slur on Gino’s memory.

“He wouldn’t see it, although it was plain enough. It’s no wonder she got bent in here.” He touched his chest. “Her mother was always harping and damning Gino. Her brothers were torn between worshipping the man and wanting him dead. None of them could see her in the role of a partner in the business even though she’s really smart.” He watched his feet as he passed the only judgement on Gino Bertilini he had made in his entire lifetime. “The Boss spoiled her, I think.”

The attorney was experiencing pain right along with Carlos. The whole situation was so bizarre and related to a lifetime they had both purposefully but not successfully forgotten. “I’ll make some calls. You better not come here again, though.” The attorney realized that to do so would place Carlos in danger. Just then, two of his three grandchildren ran through the room, chasing each other. The old man shouted for them to stop, then demanded they apologize before he introduced them to his guest. Sterling looked at him in amazement. It had never even occurred to her that he had ever married much less spawned grandchildren. He smiled as he granted permission for the children to go outside and play.

“I do know what it is like to love someone and to fear for their safety. It has always been an unbendable rule to leave a man’s family and loved ones out of the affairs of the business. She has broken it.”

Later, he stood looking out at the rolling surf and remembered the promise he had made to Sterling as she left. “I will not allow her to dishonor what my friend stood for.” Carlos didn’t kid himself, Gino Bertilini had been a gangster, but a gangster with a modicum of integrity and a man who valued and understood loyalty. Carlos would have to stop Anna somehow.

*******

A passing tray slowed long enough for the attorney to lift a crystal flute from it. The champagne was expensive, she noted and wondered how much it had cost her. It didn’t matter, really. If tonight’s events didn’t unfold as she predicted, her wealth would be meaningless as would her life.

Samson knew as well as Sterling did that Anna might not go quietly when the sting started and that this could be the last hours of their lives or their friendship. The detective winced at the thought of having to bury the woman before him. He would gratefully give up his life instead. Light tapping on the door interrupted the hushed conversation between the two old friends. “Showtime,” she whispered and giving her friend a long, meaningful look, she swept from the office.

An overly enthusiastic kiss was planted on her jaw before she could back up enough to avoid it. “You look lovely, as always,” she greeted Anna and took her coat. “I’ll be right back,” and she was, carrying with her two full flutes of champagne. Handing one to her guest, Sterling turned to study the crowd and give Anna a chance to acclimate. The attorney needed for her guest to be comfortable tonight.

Sterling hooked her arm loosely around Anna’s back and steered her through the exhibit, introducing her to the other guests as they went. Occasionally Anna would glance at the paintings she was actually here to see, but she made no comment. The young artist came over, interested in this new guest and obviously close friend to her patron. Anna spoke briefly with the young woman, distracted the entire time by the people moving about the gallery.

“They don’t dress formally for this kind of thing?” Sterling had answered a multitude of questions for her tormentor in the past weeks. Anna still had trouble understanding the principle of millionaire’s eccentricities as well as the casual grace that substituted for formality here in the south.

“Not unless the spirit moves them. There is everything here from fur coats to painter’s paints.” The combination of stress and the press of bodies around her made Sterling start to perspire. She whispered into Anna’s ear, the need to get some air and started to move away from the younger woman.

Anna took Sterling’s hand, an inappropriate gesture, and commented that she would go along for the ride.

‘She went for it.’ The lawyer enjoyed relief as Anna followed her into the office and sat down. “I’m having a wonderful time.”

The attorney bit back the sarcastic remark before it sprang from her lips. This was the moment when Sterling needed to make a believer out of Anna, not antagonize her. Sterling stretched out her long legs and appeared to relax into the upholstery of the desk chair she sat in. “How is everything going with the distribution set up?” It was a casual inquiry but it pleased Anna that she had asked it. More and more lately, Sterling seemed to be taking a genuine interest in the details of her family’s business.

“It’s not developing as fast as I would like, but then I’m interviewing a lot of new people. I don’t want this product handled by thugs.”

“You think there’s such a thing as a white collar drug dealer, huh?” The attorney chuckled then turned to face the young mob boss head on. Her smile melted Anna’s irritation at the remark.

Anna had angered a lot of the usual distribution people by either cutting them out all together or minimizing their involvement. Most of the staff that she had relocated with her was relegated to less profitable undertakings or plain old grunt work. A lot of people were pissed off and no amount of talk could persuade Anna to detour from her course. Her attitude about the situation had yielded yet another hand full of individuals willing to talk to the FBI.

“I don’t worry too much about the color of their collars, but I would like bring people into my organization with IQ’s that are in triple digits at least.” Sterling waited, less amused by the exchange than she appeared to be, and hoping that Anna would continue to talk.

“The nice thing about being in the south is that I am so much closer to the entry site. I can be in Savannah in five hours if I am needed and I might just oversee all the deliveries personally. Savannah is, after all, a beautiful city. Maybe you can find the time to let me show it to you?” She reached for Sterling’s hand and stroked its palm in a gesture of intimacy. When the attorney swallowed hard, Anna assumed her response was based on desire. It was in fact an effort not to vomit and blow the whole set up.

Gino’s daughter began to lean across the desk and Sterling quickly knocked a ledger to the floor with her elbow. While retrieving it, she brought the conversation back to business. “How often will you be going to Savannah?”

“Once every six weeks should be adequate. I need to keep the money moving, but I’m not greedy like my brothers.”

Sterling straightened up and placed the ledger back on the edge of the desk. She laughed convincingly. “Who’s really taking care of things in Boston now that you’re gone? I know damn well Sal and Joey aren’t capable.”

Anna reeled off a list of names that had the FBI agents in the recording booth below them laughing and high-fiving each other. It wasn’t enough. Sterling wanted this woman buried deep. More questions were forthcoming and her feigned interest in Anna’s work swelled the mobster with pride. A steady stream of incriminating information began to pour forth. Talk of crimes old and new went on for a half hour before the rude interruption of a fire horn caused both women to jump.

“What the hell…?” Sterling was confused as she rose quickly from her chair. She hadn’t even made it to the office door when one of the female agents posing as an art critic burst through it. Her eyes communicated panic to the attorney and together, they raced down the hallway to find the source of the problem. The FBI had planned a diversion to separate the two women but it involved a call on Anna’s cell phone. Few people had the number or would dare to call it when she had issued orders not to except in an emergency.

Anna had remained behind. She reached into her clutch bag and retrieved her phone. A single digit activated the speed dial and her personal bodyguard, whom she had asked to remain outside, was on the line.

The patrons quickly filed out of the building onto the sidewalk across the street, chattering noisily among themselves. No smoke was evident, but they assumed they would be notified if and when it was safe to return to the gallery. While they sipped champagne and made jokes about the panic of the previous minutes, Sterling rushed through the empty maze of half walls and rooms that comprised the facility. Fearful for the paintings and other art treasures collected under the same roof as she brought a certain feeling of déjà vu. As the attorney was reliving the terror she had felt that night at her house with the smoke rolling towards she experienced a sudden shattering of light inside her eyelids and then nothing.

************

Voice were mumbling unintelligible words off to her right side. Sterling lifted her head a little and was rewarded for her effort with a shock of nauseating pain. She fell back into the rough cot she had been placed on.

“She’s waking up. Bring her over here and put her on this chair.” It was Anna’s voice, calm and in charge, issuing orders as Sterling was lifted and half dragged across a dirty concrete floor and dropped carelessly into a ramshackle wooden chair. A monumental headache was throbbing behind her squinting eyes as she held her hand up to shield them from the bright light. Looking around her for the first time, the attorney tried to pinpoint her whereabouts but did not recognize her surroundings.

Anna finally completed her conversation with the distinguished looking man she was speaking to. Surprisingly it was him and not Gino’s daughter that approached her.

“My name is Shawn.” His smile was sincere and Sterling began to respond in kind when a lightening fast fist came up from his side and caught her under the chin. Light exploded in her head once again and she slumped forward. The sticky warmth of blood ran down the attorney’s jaw from her split lip to the top of her collar in seconds. The man who had introduced himself as Shawn carefully propped her up and broke a capsule under her nose to rouse her to full consciousness.

Sterling jerked awake and started to rise reflexively out of the chair to defend herself. He pushed her down with a warning look. She decided to cooperate for the moment and give herself a chance to get her bearings. The attorney could not stop the question that sprang from her lips.

“What in the hell is going on here?” Anna laughed loudly and Sterling noted that the woman had taken a seat at a table just outside the wash of light her own chair was located in.

“You are once again my entertainment for the evening dear.” The dark eyes danced as she raised a toast to the lawyer before continuing. “I am disappointed in you Sterling. I thought you were a worthy adversary until you brought in the FBI. They are so crude in their techniques and execution. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t expect me to find out about your little plot to hand me over.” Anna was acting. The attorney had played the game well and Anna had learned of the plan only hours ago. She had very nearly walked right into the trap laid for her.

Sterling was trying to think, which was difficult with the cloud of pain hovering above her shoulders. She wished now that she had agreed to a microphone hidden on her person, but had refused the FBI team, unsure if Anna might try to put her hands on Sterling and discover it. ‘You’re on your own, kid. Think!’ She tried to focus her eyes into the darkness and ascertain the number of people present at this little soiree. Besides Shawn and Anna, there seemed to be only two other attendees, one standing at attention on each side of their boss. The three men were definitely armed but Anna usually carried her 380 automatic in her purse, which was not in view.

Shawn was talking to Sterling now in low tones. The attorney studied his features and tried to concentrate on his words.

“You are a beautiful creature. It is such a shame that you have sacrificed yourself.” He rammed his fist into her face, and turned to watch a satisfied smile spread over Anna’s countenance with the crunch of Sterling’s breaking nose.

Blood ran in ropes down the attorney’s chin and stained the front of her elegant outfit. Sterling fought for consciousness as waves of pain threatened to take her out. Almost everyone had the tendency to bleed freely above the shoulders, but even as a teenager she had been a copious bleeder when hit in the face. She hoped that would work in her favor now.

Her assailant stepped back to give Anna a better view of her prey. She studied Sterling, her head cocked to one side as if trying to determine if the damage was acceptable. “Yes, I think we are almost ready to start asking questions now.” The dark eyed woman rose from her chair and strolled with casual grace to where Sterling sat.

“It is a forgone conclusion that your life is forfeit. I will give you a chance to spare the lives of your little blond cunt and that moth eaten remnant of a cop you have befriended. Don’t toy with me though, my dear. I have run out of patience with you.”

The lawyer reached up and wiped at the mess on her face, succeeding only in smearing the blood over a greater area. It was the first step in her emerging plan.

The first question came from behind Sterling as Anna circled her chair. “How much information have you given them?” When the attorney hesitated to answer, Shawn stepped up. He was holding something down beside him which Sterling did not recognize until it smashed into her right knee cap. The well used Louisville Slugger did its job and the attorney cried out for the first time.

“Let’s try this one more time my dear. What do they know?” Anna watched as Sterling breathed slowly trying to control the shock of unbearable fire running through her knee. At that moment, she could not speak. Knowing or not knowing wasn’t even an issue.

Sterling’s tormentor was already walking towards her. He looked to Anna for instruction and was surprised when she waved him off. “Give her a moment to think about what she is about to sacrifice.” She turned to the lawyer and narrowed her eyes. “The next pain will be exquisite my dear and will equal the pain your blonde slut will suffer at Shawn’s hands if you do not cooperate.”

There was no reason to assume that Anna was bluffing, Sterling just needed time to think, which was nearly impossible with the twirling cloud of pain that engulfed her. Shawn walked into the light once more and sneered in anticipation of his next action.

The attorney was hurt, but not as badly as her torturer thought. Her survival instincts were in high gear and she remembered that the biggest adversary in the world would go down with a broken knee. When Shawn passed by the side of her chair, Sterling smashed her foot into the side of his knee with all the strength she could muster in her injured leg. It was enough.

Shawn started to go down, but the tall attorney sprang up from the chair and grabbed him from behind. By jerking his right wrist high on his back and positioning her arm under his chin, Sterling was able to hold him in front of her as a shield while choking him just enough to keep him in her control. The two gunmen at Anna’s side drew their weapons instantaneously and started firing.

Bullets caught Shawn’s body right in the chest, splattering blood and turning Sterling’s shield into literal dead weight within seconds. She pushed the lifeless body in the direction of the gunmen as they charged her and managed to knock one down.

Grabbing the chair, she hoisted it over her head and brought it down on the other gunman’s head, knocking him out. Anna’s screaming voice threatened all kinds of retribution to all parties present.

At that moment, Carlos stepped quietly through the door of the warehouse. He stared at Anna, seeing so much of his friend Gino in her features. Ever the professional though, Carlos was able to detach himself as he had done the day he ended Gino’s life out of love for his friend. He was doing the same today. This death was motivated by his love for the friend he had served so faithfully.

Anna recognized him immediately and registered surprise and confusion. The hand that came up holding the gun at eye level brought confusion, but no fear to her face.

“For Gino,” were the only words spoken before the tiny blasts of air sounded from the silencer and Anna slumped in her chair.

Carlos knew from experience that she was dead. He exited the building as quietly as he had entered, needing no further assurance. When the first FBI agent located and entered the abandoned warehouse they immediately recognized Anna sitting in a very ladylike pose, staring wide eyed in the direction of Sterling’s unconscious body. Except for a small icicle of blood on her temple, Anna looked untouched. Frozen by his discovery, the FBI agent was now joined by two of his colleagues who had needed a moment to catch up. They all stood, mouths agape and looked from the dead woman to Sterling and back again.

The lawyer’s hands were empty, yet Anna’s had obviously suffered a mortal gunshot wound. The agents stepped forward and looked closely at the cooling corpse. The dead eyes had an eerie effect on all of them and a chill ran up their spines. More people came rushing into the building then and the scream of a siren closed in the distance.

**********

It had only been two days since Sterling arrived home from the hospital. Several cracked ribs, a broken nose, severe trauma to one knee and various lesser injuries were healing nicely. Sally was running the office in her usual efficient manner and Sterling had only to communicate with her secretary by phone periodically to stay abreast of matters regarding returning business.

Samson, who had barely left her through the entire hospital stay, now slept on the sofa in the downstairs den of the new house. The attorney had made some purchases on the phone and there would soon be a bed in the guest room for him to sleep in.

The Boston detective had refused to go home. It had been his responsibility to watch her back and he had let harm come to his friend. Samson was determined that no one would hurt her further. Unconscious for most of three days, his was the face she saw when Sterling’s eyes fluttered for the first time.

“I really wasn’t sure if I’d wake up dead or not.” A weak smile was all that she could manage before drifting off to sleep again. Samson held her hand and wept. He hadn’t been too sure either.

Charlie tapped on the door casing before entering her bedroom. Sterling sat propped up in her enormous bed and watched him as he rifled through her mail as he crossed the carpet to deliver it. “Bills, junk mail, bills…”

“You know it’s a federal offense to tamper with the U.S. Mail don’t you?” She grinned at the private investigator, noting that he still insisted on wearing his shoulder holstered weapon, even in the house.

“It’s OK boss. I know a good lawyer if I get into any trouble.” A small, square envelope rose to the top of the stack of mail and Charlie studied it closely. He tried not to give anything away with a change in facial expression, but Sterling could tell something was up.

“What have you got? Here, give me that and go make yourself some lunch or something. How can you eat me out of house and home if you’re up here underfoot all of the time?” He handed her the stack of envelopes and quietly left.

Sterling realized immediately that the address on the front of the envelope had been written by Samantha. Samson had already told the barrister of Sam’s daily visits to the hospital. Although Sterling hadn’t been allowed visitors, the realtor refused to stay away and it became routine for Samson to meet her in the downstairs lobby to pass along an update.

Frightened eyes studied the envelope that dangled between her fingers, trying to illogically predict its contents simply by touch. Many scenarios came to mind before the lawyer finally slid her finger under the flap to open it.

“Sterling” it said. She took a deep breath and continued slowly. “I am so relieved that you are home and recovering quickly. Please call me. We need to talk.” The message caused a warmth to spread over her as she continued to read. “I tried my best to stop loving you, to no avail.” It was signed simply “Sam” and why not, the attorney thought. How could you follow a remark like the one preceding Sam’s signature. It said it all.

All kinds of thoughts played through the mind behind blue eyes. So much had happened and so much more unseemly negotiation would be necessary before Sterling could finally put her connections with the Bertilinis behind her for good. Could she make Sam understand that and would she be willing to wait, knowing that Sterling might not be able to make things right and bargain with the underworld to let her live in peace?

“I don’t know what you’re reading, but could you tear off a corner for me? You look like a kid at Christmas.” Samson yawned and stretched a bit. Sterling automatically smiled at her friend.

“It’s a note from Sam.” The smile of content on her face told the detective all that he needed to know.

“It doesn’t surprise me. What are you gonna do about it?” He pointed at the card that now lay on her lap.

“I think I’ll do what she asked and call her. Do you think now would be too soon?” She was seriously concerned and suddenly very nervous about the situation.

“I’d say that could work out just fine.” He picked up the portable phone, laid it in her lap and turned on his heel. The detective closed the door behind him as he left her alone.

**********

“Hello?” It wasn’t enough to determine what frame of mind she might be in, but Sterling recognized Sam’s voice.

“Hi. It’s Sterling.” The barrister heard an intake of breath.

“Thank God you’re alright! I’m so glad you called.” Sam was suddenly out of things to say.

“I got your note just now. It was a wonderful surprise. Frankly, I wasn’t even certain that you would still be speaking to me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” The subject was dismissed just that simply. “Samson told me some of what happened. I think he was afraid to tell me everything, but I have a friend with the police department.”

“Really? I had no idea. Did you sell him a house?” Sterling was trying to get comfortable enough to talk about things of consequence.

“Actually we went out a few times last year. Turns out that I’m not into uniforms.” Sam laughed easily and Sterling’s heart melted at the sound.

They talked for ten minutes working the conversation in circle after circle until Sterling finally interrupted the realtor in mid-sentence and made her request.

“I don’t suppose you could come over for a little while. I sure would love to see your smiling face.” She waited, prepared for disappointment.

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Make that twenty, I look like hell.” Sam hung up without even saying goodbye. Sterling’s heart soared. She yelled so loud in celebration that Samson and Charlie both came charging into the room. Charlie still had a paper napkin tucked into his shirtfront.

“Calm down fellas, I’m just happy and had to holler about it a little. Can you guys give me a quick hand? I’ve got company coming over in a few minutes.” The two men looked at each other and broke into matching grins. Their palms met in a high five salute that brought laughter to the tall woman as she struggled to get out of bed.

“Either of you ever give a woman a shower without looking?” Both turned sheepish and stepped back. A coin toss earned Charlie the dubious privilege of sitting on the closed lid of the commode in case Sterling became dizzy while bathing. She managed nicely and was dressed in clean pajamas and drying her hair at her dressing table when the front doorbell rang.

Grabbing the crutches propped against the wall, the attorney made a mad dash for her bed, wanting to strike an attractive pose before Samantha entered the room. She had just managed to do so when a small hand reached through the door opening and lightly tapped out a request for entry.

“Come on in!” Sterling said too anxiously. Her voice was unpredictable at the moment, so she went with a smile that was brilliant enough to light the face across the room.

Sam greeted the lawyer shyly. For days she had rehearsed this moment, the one when she would once again be looking into the depths of the blue pools that Sterling possessed for eyes. Every speech left her, every thought flew away and she simply went to Sterling’s bedside and sat in the chair that was obviously there to serve visitors. Sam picked up the larger hand in hers, without ever breaking eye contact. Sterling drew the joined hands to her lips and placed a gentle kiss on Sam’s warm fingers, causing both of them to close their eyes and relish the intensity of the contact for a moment.

“I’ve missed you.” It was Sterling’s voice that finally cut the air. “We have a great deal to talk about.” She waited.

“Yes, but we don’t have to do it all in one visit. Can’t you just be quiet and let me get my fill of looking at you first?” Sterling smiled tenderly at her visitor. Sam had many questions. “Is your leg broken? What about that wound, will it scar you permanently?”

The bedridden woman held out her hands to stem the flow of questions. “One issue at a time, please. Yes, it’s broken, but not badly. No, the scar will disappear in a few months the doctor says. Its not as bad as it looks, you should have seen the other guys.” Sterling hoped Sam would never know the bloody aftermath of her short stay in the warehouse that night.

“I wanted to see the pictures, but Melissa refused. Said she couldn’t get access, but I could tell she was lying to spare me.” Sterling breathed a sigh of relief and sent Melissa a mental thanks, hoping she would have the opportunity to repeat it in person one day.

“It was nothing that warranted studying, Sam. A scene like that could haunt you all of your life. It only matters that it’s over and I survived it. More importantly, you didn’t have to suffer at the hands of that crazy bitch.”

Sam had an expression of deep hurt on her features. “Oh, I suffered alright, friend. I may have suffered silently, but never think that I was unscathed.” A flood of tears swam in Sam’s eyes but she fought them back. She had promised herself that she would keep her emotions in check through this visit.

“I didn’t mean that you didn’t…I just meant…Hell, Sam, I’m not so sure of what I meant or anything else right now except that I am positively aching for you to kiss me.”

The blonde closed the distance between them instantly and delivered a chaste brush across Sterling’s waiting and astonished lips.

Obviously disappointed at the brevity, the barrister scowled. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but then I am in no position to make demands.” She looked resigned to what she knew to be the truth.

“You can make all the demands you want, but there are too many injuries present to the eye. I’m sure there are even more that I can’t see and I’m not about to risk hurting any of them. Besides, you said yourself that we have a lot of things to talk about. I’m prepared to give the whole situation some time and see what unravels.” Sam squeezed the larger hand that she held and Sterling grimaced, proving the realtor’s point for her.

**********

Samantha was still groggy from sleep. Never a morning person, this particular morning was going to be tough as she had been up most of the night. Seated at Sterling’s bedside, their quiet conversation had gone on for hours, with only the occasional brief interruption of Samson or Charlie, looking in to see that everything was alright, then moving off down the stairs to the rooms below.

There had been so many things to talk about, so many explanations to hear. Sam wondered now, how much she had cried. Her eyes felt like they belonged to someone else, scratchy and swollen. The toneless words that came from Sterling’s mouth were stinging and the crystal gaze that held Sam motionless broke her heart. Samantha would have liked to crawl right into bed alongside the dark beauty who held her heart, but a reluctance born out of the hurt visited on them by circumstance kept Sam still.

The tale was an incredible one, the whole of which Sterling would have to tell over time. Sam could only hear so much of her love’s suffering and she would begin again, the torrential tears. Green eyes closed slowly and Sam’s thoughts drifted. ‘What an amazing woman she is. How very lucky I am to have her.’ The realtor found herself circling her fingers over the back of her hand. Sterling had done that through the hours that they sat, picking their way among the emotional land mines of the last few months.

“Where do we go from here? This is somewhat of an unorthodox beginning, don’t you think?” It had been Sam’s fearful question. She hadn’t been sure when she asked it if she really wanted an answer, but the light in Sterling’s eyes had helped her to form the words.

“As I see it, we have the rest of our lives to figure that out. I only need a bit more time to negotiate the peace with the remaining crime franchises. Carlos, God love him, has intervened on my behalf and begun the talks for me.” Sterling turned her gaze for the first time, and stared past the curtains, into the day beyond them. “Make no mistake, he has done all of this out of love for Gino, not me.”

Sam reacted immediately. “I suspect it had a little more to do with you than you think. After all, he could have stayed in retirement, and given lip service to his loyalty for his friend Gino. No one could have questioned that after all those years of service.”

“I guess I’ll have a chance to ask some questions soon enough. He’s meeting me here in a few days. We will travel together to Boston.”

Sam’s look of alarm came instantaneously.

“He’s offered to stand with me when I ask to be released from all ties with the families. His presence will make all of the difference in the world. He is, after all, one of them and I am not.”

“I think he must have been a little in love with you himself, Sterling. Have you ever considered that?” It was Samson’s voice and both women looked up to see him crossing the room with a tray. “Here’s a snack for the two of you. You do realize that it’s four in the morning, don’t you?” His eyes shone.

“Nuh Uh! Where has the time gone?” Sam looked at her watch and verified this new piece of news. It fell into the miasma of things already swirling inside her overtired brain. “I need to get going and let you rest. After all, you aren’t anywhere near recovered yet.” She started to rise and Sterling took her hand in a firm grip.

“Please, stay a little longer. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I’m half way afraid that if you leave, you’ll never come back.” Her entreaty was so touching that Sam sank back into her bedside chair without a thought. Samson left the two women as quietly as he had arrived.

They sat for long, quiet minutes, simply looking at each other. Finally, Sterling picked up an apple slice and began to feed it to her guest. Eventually, it evolved that they were feeding each other from the tray that Samson had prepared. No words could have communicated the tenderness between them, anyway as they watched and waited for the appropriate minute to offer the next bite. Shy smiles laced the ceremony of nourishing that they shared until the feeding tapered off leaving only the soft touch of Sterling’s fingers against Sam’s face.

The bed shifted as Samantha was gently pulled from her chair and seated next to Sterling. “I never thought I’d have the chance again, so forgive me for rushing things.” Sterling pulled the warmth of her love to her and held tightly to the reality. The sky had begun to lighten when Sam finally tore herself away from the tender embrace. She placed a light kiss on the lips of the sleeping woman in her arms before she quietly disentangled herself from Sterling and went down the stairs.

Samson was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee when she found him. “She’s doing OK physically, I can see that, but is she going to be able to straighten this out with …” Sam’s voice faded and her face remained a question that she could not put words to.

“The mob. That’s who she has to get straight with. The FBI isn’t happy, but they’re the ones who blew the collar on Anna. It was one of their guys that leaked the sting. Sterling is very lucky to be alive.” His face grew pale as he voiced the realization once again.

“Can she do that Samson? Will they let her go, do you think?” Sam had so much fear in her expression that Samson rose and crossed the kitchen to take her in his arms. As soon as her face hit his shoulder, the tears began afresh. Uncontrollable sobs came wave after wave and Samson just stood there, embarrassed at the intimacy of the moment they were sharing, but unwilling to withdraw his support of this woman.

“You know what Samantha? That crazy woman upstairs loves you so much, that I believe she could talk herself out of the devil’s grasp if she had to. There is no way she is gonna let you get away now. I almost feel sorry for you.” He looked down into Sam’s upturned face and smiled warmly at her. Pulling a linen handkerchief from his back pocket, Samson dabbed at the young woman’s eyes in a clumsy gesture. Ultimately, he handed the soft cloth to her so that she could dry her own face and he stepped away, turning his back to hide his emotion.

“I can’t imagine how all of this has effected you Samson. I know that you love her and that you are a good friend. Being a detective, I’m sure that you had a better grasp of the danger she was in than anyone.”

He nodded quietly and finally when he felt more in control he turned to face Sam. “I do love her Samantha and I always have. She deserves to have the kind of love you can give her. I can see it on your face every time you look at her.”

Sam blushed slightly and started to speak, but he quieted her with his next remark. “Don’t give her a chance to get scared and push you away again. Make her accept what she feels for you, Samantha.”

****************

The room was paneled in walnut, its floor of exquisite dark marble was veined with copper looking almost like arteries pumping life to the furnishings that sat upon it. The faces at the conference table were unfamiliar. Sterling thought that might work in her favor. Her stride was off-balance, the pain in her knee rising up, but she had shunned her crutches thinking they might project a weakness she could not afford to exhibit. Opting for a cane instead, the young woman made her way slowly to the table.

Taking the seat offered her, the attorney looked up into the coldest eyes she had ever seen and realized the serious nature of this meeting.

“Carlos has asked us to hear you today Miss Hayes. He is a trusted member of our family and we are willing to accommodate you based on his recommendation.” The man at the head of the table waved his permission for her to speak.

Sterling found her voice and began. “Gentlemen, I am a woman in the debt of this man.” She indicated Carlos, who sat casually in the chair beside her, his solid presence a great comfort as she spoke.

“My association with the Bertilini family started when I was very young. As most of you know, I made a clean break with them after Gino’s death with no wish to create any hardship for his wife and children. My respect for Gino led me to leave the Boston area and start a life elsewhere. The events of three weeks ago, and the months preceding that were none of my doing. Anna Bertilini had some serious psychological problems and I was forced to do her bidding under the threat of death to someone I love very much.”

“All of you know, I am sure, what it is to have your loved ones’ safety threatened. I experienced that at Gino’s side once upon a time.” Sterling paused for effect. “It exposed the only moments of weakness I ever witnessed in the man.” Carlos nodded his agreement and heads around the table began to bob up and down in agreement as well.

“My loyalty was never questioned by Gino Bertilini. I never gave him cause to and even when his own sons went against him, Gino’s belief in me never faltered. He was the only family that I had until now.”

Taking a deep breath, Sterling slid her chair back from the table and used it to pull herself up to her full height. She was well aware of the advantage it gave her to be looking down into the eyes of the men at the conference table.

“My part in the sting of the Bertilini’s southern operation did not extend beyond that. I made it very clear at the outset that I would not dredge up ancient history and I have kept my word. In fact, no one in this room, or elsewhere for that matter, can name a single incident when I have not been above reproach in conducting my business. I will grant you that I have defended some unsavory positions, but it was done honorably.”

“Gentlemen, I ask only that you give me the opportunity to quietly walk away. I promise you on the grave of Gino Bertilini that I will never betray his legacy, or the life I had with him.” Sterling looked from one pair of eyes to the next, holding each man’s gaze in her own for a few seconds. Unlike jurors, these faces were impossible to read. She was grateful when Carlos indicated his desire to speak and she could sit down again.

Carlos was a man of few words, but his message was powerful. “He was my friend. He trusted this woman above everyone in the world and I do too. I ask you to grant her request in his name.” Carlos pulled Sterling’s chair out for her when he stood, signaling their dismissal. The left the conference room and went into a sitting area where they were to await a private audience with Anthony Chioda, the chairman of the group. He would deliver the verdict.

The minutes ticked by slowly and Sterling fidgeted in her uncomfortable chair. “Do you think it will be much longer?” She turned to Carlos, who sat, relaxed with his eyes closed, humming softly to himself.

He looked at her. “The decision was made within five minutes, less if there wasn’t much discussion. They have other business to take care of before the meeting breaks up and Chioda is free to meet with us.”

“Oh.” Her eyes were huge. Following her companion’s example, Sterling sat back into the soft cushions of the sofa and let her head fall back a little. She’d had little sleep the past two days. Between concern for today’s meeting, and spending every possible minute renewing her relationship with Samantha, there had been little time to rest. Now, with her life literally hanging in the balance, the barrister would have never supposed that she could sleep, but she drifted off.

“Wake up Miss Hayes. It’s time to speak with Mr. Chioda.” The voice was unnaturally soft coming from the hulking figure of Carlos as he leaned down to wake her.

The dark head stirred and her eyelids opened slowly. Looking around, she slowly recognized her surroundings. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me Carlos. You must think me some kind of imbecile, sleeping when my life hangs in the balance.”

He surprised her. Instead of his usual noiseless laugh, his voice burst forth in a belly laugh. When he had composed himself he offered an explanation. “The outcome will be no different whether you twist your handkerchief or sleep soundly, guarded by an old man.” He waited for her to stand and they passed through an incredibly large door into a private office.

Once they were seated Chioda wasted no time in coming to the point. “Miss Hayes, there were no men in that room who did not know Gino Bertilini, at least by reputation. Consequently, they are all aware of the type of retribution he was capable of when confronted with disloyalty. His willingness to trust you and release you from his family business is extraordinary but unfortunately his voice has faded with the passage of time.”

“Your presence however my friend, is as solid as it ever was.” He acknowledged Carlos with a bowed head to show his respect. The business that Chioda headed had been built on the accomplishments of capable men like the one before him. “You must have a great deal of respect and affection for this young woman to come away from your retirement and mingle with the likes of us again.” His smile was genuine, but did not effect the look on Carlos’ face.

“We have no quarrel with you Miss Hayes. The vote was unanimous, something that rarely happens among us I might add. Go and live your life with no fear of interference from us.” Sterling let go the breath she had been holding and Carlos finally looked at her and smiled.

Walking down the hallway to the underground parking garage, Sterling stopped and turned to face the gentle giant beside her. Tall as she was, it required standing painfully on tip-toe to deliver a kiss to the ruddy cheek, which he allowed. A slight blush rose out of the collar of Carlos’ white shirt as she linked her arm through his for support and to show her affection for the man. They stepped through a glass door and found the car she had leased waiting for them.

Carlos stepped back after he helped her into the back seat. Sterling looked at him in question. “I’m gonna stay over a day or two, kind of a reunion I guess. Chioda will speak with Gino’s remaining sons, but I would like to talk to them as well.”

Sterling nodded. “I know you will have a lot of laughs remembering some of the good times.” They both knew that the bad and bloody times would not be brought up. “Thank you for giving me my life back. Twice.” He returned her smile. “Gino had a very good friend in you, Carlos and so do I. If there is ever anything I can do for you…”

“I know. Call you. I will too, believe me. Have a safe trip.” He was gone, just that quick and the car was moving into traffic toward the airport.

*********

A very nervous realtor answered her own office phone. Peter was nonplussed, having been out-drawn in answering the phones all afternoon. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, but understood that it was serious enough to warrant his boss’ silence on the subject.

“Hilliard Realty,” her voice was expectant.

“Hey beautiful.” Sam closed her eyes and offered a silent prayer of thanks.

“Where are you? How are you? Are you coming home?” The questions rolled out like marbles.

Laughing, Sterling did her best to answer all of them. Her tone of voice revealed the outcome of the meeting, but Sam wanted to hear it solidly stated. “Everything is OK then? Nobody is gonna jump out of a bush and snub you out are they?”

“That’s snuff me out not snub me out, but no. They’re happy just to let me be as long as I remain quiet about my sordid past.” Sterling frowned, wishing that it had never touched Sam, but knowing that she could never change what was behind her.

“How about having dinner with me. I should be home by six.” The lawyer was pretty sure that Sam hadn’t made any other plans, but she didn’t want to start this relationship off taking anything for granted.

“I’ll meet you at the door.” Sam was beaming as Peter walked into her office. “Samson will let me in I assume.”

“No doubt. I think he likes you better than me anyway. I’ve never seen him be so gentle and attentive as he is with you. It’s kind of strange. I think he’s going to stay after all, did I tell you?” Sterling had been trying to get the detective to take early retirement and get the hell out of Boston’s inner city. She had discussed setting him up in the investigation business and he had agreed to give it a shot that very morning.

“That’s fantastic! I can’t believe you talked him into it.” Sam was ecstatic. She had liked Samson instinctively from the moment she met him. He was turning into a friend and probably the kind of friend that Sam would have for a lifetime.

“You don’t seem to have much faith in my powers of persuasion. I’m hurt, particularly since swaying peoples’ decisions happens to be what I do for a living.” Sterling pretended to pout, but her heart was bursting with the happiness she felt. There was a chance for her, one final chance to be happy and to have love.

“We’re pulling up at the terminal entrance. I’ve got to scoot if I’m going to make my flight. See you at home.” Sterling was about to hit the disconnect button when she heard a faint declaration. “What did you say?” She asked hoping that Samantha would repeat her remark, which she willingly did.

“I said I love you. I didn’t say be careful, but I should have. You’re already nearly crippled.” She laughed in an effort to negate some of the intensity of the moment.

“I love you too.” The words shot back, then the line went dead. Sam hung up, the light in her eyes shining brightly enough to light Peter’s too.

“You eavesdropping again?” He tried to look contrite, but she laughed at his ineffectual effort.

“I’ve been your dartboard for so long, I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever see you like this again.” He grinned at his dear friend. “I couldn’t be happier for you Sam,” he said in hushed tones. A beat went by before he added, “Now, when can I see her house? Do you have a key yet?”

Samantha cracked up at his blunt request. It was a very ‘Peter’ thing to do. She suddenly realized that no, she did not have a key and picked up the phone to make sure Samson could let her in to await Sterling’s homecoming.

*************

The doorbell rang in the heart of the house. Sam could barely make out the sound, but could tell at least that it had rung. She waited impatiently for Samson to open the door and leaped into his startled embrace as soon as he had accomplished it.

“Can you believe it? God, I am so excited.” Suddenly Sam pulled back and looked into Samson’s eyes. “You don’t think they’ll go back on their word do you?”

The detective laughed and led her through the foyer into Sterling’s den. “They wouldn’t dare. Besides, she could have caused them grief at any time if she had chosen to. Sterling’s not that kind and they know it. If she was that kind, none of this would have ever happened to her.”

Samantha would have liked to ask a dozen questions and she knew that Samson would answer them, but she hesitated. Only one had really been eating at her and she heard herself ask it as she sat down into the welcome comfort of Sterling’s old leather sofa.

“Anna was in love with her, wasn’t she?” The question posed, all the young blonde could do was wait for the answer that she didn’t want to hear.

“In my opinion, yes, she was but no one really knows that answer but your lady friend.”

Sam smiled at the term. It wasn’t a familiar one to her. “I guess she is, isn’t she? My lady friend, I mean. I can’t wait for dad to meet her. Aunt Jane thinks she’s just terrific. Of course, she was a little miffed over that abandonment thing, but I explained it all to her and she’s with the program now.”

Samson sat and listened to the young woman rattle on, her nervousness obvious to his practiced eye. She congratulated him on his decision to move south and quit the job that had been sucking his soul dry for so many years. Finally at a break in her one-sided conversation, he stood and stretched, announcing his intention to leave the house for the evening to meet Charlie for dinner and drinks.

“Now that we know she’s safe from a sneak attack, there’s really no reason to maintain the high security. It will be nice to get out,” he admitted.

She rose from the sofa and hugged him before he could leave the room, surprising and befuddling him. “I guess I’m gonna have to get used to all of this mushy stuff if I’m going to be living here, huh?”

Green eyes looked up into his knowing dark brown orbs. “Absolutely. I refuse to maintain a distance with people that I love.” That remark blew him totally away and he left the room hurriedly.

The blonde realtor checked her watch. ‘Five fifteen. Forty-five minutes to kill. I wonder what’s in the kitchen.’ Sam bent to the task of investigating the refrigerator’s contents. She hoped Sterling wouldn’t mind her helping herself, but the realtor had been so intent on the outcome of the meeting in Boston that she had forgotten to eat. ‘She mentioned dinner, but I don’t feel like going out. Maybe I should just cook something. Hmmmm.’

So it was that Sterling found Samantha, in her sock feet, dishrag tucked into the waistband of her dress slacks, blazer dropped over a chair back. Intent on stirring the contents of a bubbling pot, she did not even see the tall figure come into the kitchen and take up a position directly behind her.

“I had no idea you looked so lovely with a dishtowel wrapped around you.” Startled, Sam didn’t even have time to turn before Sterling placed her hand around the smaller woman’s middle and hugged her from behind.

Turning from the stove, Sam wiped her hands on the dishrag in question and smiled warmly at the sight before her. Sterling hung the cane on the counter top to free both of her hands and once again drew Sam against her for a long, long moment. Finally, able to turn loose at least briefly Sterling investigated the contents of the pots on her stove.

“I heard a rumor that you could cook, but you know how gossip is in this town.” The cool blue of her eyes reflected Sterling’s joy in the simple interaction taking place in her kitchen.

“There are many things that I can do, that you have no first hand knowledge of. We will just have to make a point of going down the list until you are acquainted with all of them.” Sam pulled the smiling mouth within reach and feasted on it for several minutes. When the two separated a few inches Sterling had to reach for her cane to help support her.

“You make me dizzy,” she admitted causing Samantha to blush, then laugh and return to her task at the stove.

“Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes. Why don’t you sit down at the table and tell me all about the meeting while I finish it up?” her suggestion was gratefully accepted and the taller woman moved to the nearest chair. There was a familiarity in the scene she was participating in and Sterling liked it.

“There isn’t much more to tell than what you already know. The conference room was imposing, the men around the table had on the most expensive clothes, collectively, that I have ever seen in one place, including at fashion shows. The atmosphere was tense. Carlos was wonderful.” She shook her head, realizing that if she wasn’t careful, she would cry at the memory of his generosity.

Samantha instinctively closed the short distance between them and put her arm around Sterling’s shoulder. The lawyer looked up into her gaze and recognized understanding and compassion there. The realtor leaned down so that their eyes were level and continued to stare.

“There has to be some reason that this Carlos person was willing to go to bat for you. You have neglected to say so, but he must hold you in very high esteem.” Sam tasted the irresistible lips in front of her briefly, before returning again to her task. “You’re very distracting, do you know that.” The remark wafted over her shoulder as she searched the cupboards for dinner plates.

“He loved Gino, that’s all.” Sterling appraised the shapely figure of her chef for the evening. Sam turned and caught her looking, but her smile invited the barrister to look all she wanted.

“And Gino loved you, right?” It wasn’t necessary to get an answer. “You’ve never really admitted that to me. I don’t know why you think I couldn’t understand him loving you. After all, I do, very much. There is no shame in it Sterling.” The blonde crossed her arms over her chest and waited for a reaction.

“He would never say so, but I could feel it. Things turned out all right, that’s all that matters. Fate threw you and me together, Sam and the past is finally agreeing to go down quietly.”

Dinner was brought to the table and both of the friends welcomed the distraction of eating. There were many levels to their feelings at the moment. Sterling particularly wanted to look forward and said so. Sam pondered the request as she chewed and agreed that there was nothing that warranted saving in their past. “With the possible exception of the evening we spent sharing your art collection.” Sam didn’t elaborate by mentioning their interrupted love making.

“And the Saturday at Peter’s when you let me pour out my soul to you.” Sterling smiled in remembrance.

“And of course the afternoon shopping spree with Aunt Jane. You were so funny that day. I never knew you had such a sense of humor until then.” Sterling thought only of the stolen kiss they had shared in the downstairs foyer.

“Most of the house hunting was fun,” Sterling interjected. They both went back to dining quietly, each lost in her own thoughts, and moving food around on their respective plates.

Sam spoke first, breaking the spell of silence. “Actually, we do have some good history don’t we? I just never thought about it until now.” Her expression challenged Sterling to deny it as she laid her fork down on the edge of her barely touched plate.

“Yes, we have shared a great deal, to have never shared a great deal.” Sterling watched her companion to see if she understood the insinuation. Sam looked at her questioningly. The attorney took Sam’s hand and pulled her into her lap. A slight grimace as the blonde came to rest on top of fragile knees reminded them both to be careful of Sterling’s injuries.

Sterling reached up with the trembling fingers of her right hand and stroked Sam’s cheek. Green eyes closed involuntarily at the tender assault. Before long, warm breath on Sam’s collarbone announced Sterling’s nearness as their lips met, then parted to allow the gentle exploration of tongues. There was no need to be coy. These two had waited a long while to reach the place where they could let down their guard.

The two women rose, steadfast in their intent and walked wordlessly through the house and up the magnificent staircase to Sterling’s inviting bed. They stood together, watching, tasting and touching exposed flesh. Each enjoyed the response of the other as they craved a wider range in which to explore and divested themselves of restrictive clothing. When they were both naked, Samantha pushed Sterling back onto the satin comforter she remembered from her last visit to the barrister’s bed. The sensory memory of cold meeting her skin caused her hormones to kick into overdrive and Sam felt herself beginning to lose control. Her kisses became more urgent.

Sterling sensed the escalating desire in her partner and tried to slow things down a bit. “Hey, would you massage my shoulders for a few minutes? I’m so tense and I want this to go well.” She gave her partner a pleading look .

“Of course, here let me see…” Sterling rolled onto her stomach and Sam straddled her hips, reining in her passion in order to bring comfort to her love. It was a good plan, for a short while. Within minutes Sterling began to feel the increased pressure of Samantha’s crotch against her own ass with each rhythmic stroke of the massage. The obvious wetness that accompanied the contact had the lawyer breathing heavily in no time. She tried to concentrate on the loving fingers that were ministering to the roped muscles in her shoulders, but each time the wet heat returned, she fought to withstand it without reacting.

“That better?” Sam leaned down and whispered her question into an available ear and punctuated it with a damp, but not exactly wet kiss. A groan rose up from the pillow that Sterling’s face was smothered in. “Something wrong?” Sam asked, all innocence.

Sterling forgot for a moment that she was still a somewhat injured individual and rolled under Samantha so that she was facing her. She drew the smaller woman into her naked chest and felt the thrill of hardened nipples rubbing against her ribs. Large hands roamed down the curve of Sam’s back and found the willing temptation of firm buttocks just waiting to be caressed. Now it was the blonde’s turn to vocalize her growing excitement and Sterling reacted by drawing Sam’s body closer still.

It took a couple of tries to communicate her intention, since neither woman would let go of the searing kiss long enough, but finally Sterling got Sam to spread her knees. In the moment when her throbbing center contacted the hard thigh between her legs Sam thought she might honestly faint. She grew still, concentrating all her energy on staying in the moment. Finally, reasonably sure that she would not blow apart, the young blonde began to tentatively move her wetness against Sterling, who responded in kind from her place below.

“How long?” came Sterling’s whisper and Samantha knew exactly what her question meant. A rush of want swept over the two figures as they strained and pressed against each other, mouths once again meeting and fusing.

It was Sam who finally pulled back enough to let her eyes focus as she memorized the face of the woman she loved. It was painted with the accumulated longing of a lifetime. She had never seen anything more beautiful.

Sterling was trying to swap positions with her but the realtor had no intention of relinquishing the lead, not tonight. With surprising agility and an iron will, Samantha remained where she was and began trailing kisses across her lover’s collarbone and down the powerful torso beneath her. Sterling’s head rolled slowly from side to side, eyes closed, lost in the sensations that the lips on her skin were causing.

Sam liked the moans and little sighs that rewarded her for her efforts and continued moving downward until she dipped her tongue into the depression of Sterling’s navel and felt the lawyer’s hips rise up sharply off the bed. “You OK?” Sam asked innocently, looking up into pools of deepening blue.

“Yes, but I need you, I want you.” The words were carried by a deep voice that made Samantha’s pulse race.

“You want me to do what?” The blonde was pushing her luck, She had fantasized so many times about hearing Sterling’s voice begging her for relief and now she took the opportunity to tease a little, making that fantasy a reality.

“Touch me, please,” Sterling breathed. Sam retained her position between long legs as she experimented. She ran her thumbs along the vee of tender skin outside the bristling black carpet beneath her chin. Sterling writhed involuntarily as tiny kisses were peppered through her sopping curls. Finally Samantha showed some mercy by snaking her tongue out and letting it flick gently once, then twice at the sensitive skin of her lover’s outer lips.

“Unngghh!” Sterling’s response was totally intelligible to her tormentor. Sam repeated the action and felt the length of her partner’s body stiffen for a moment. Looking up she was being glared at by eyes that were now the color of the night sky. If Sam had been capable of thinking, she would have realized that Sterling was tired of playing. As it was, she continued to lap at the seeping slit before her, drowning in the assault on her senses brought about by taste, smell, sound and sight.

“Ohh! Yesss!” Was the welcomed response when the center of Sterling’s universe finally came into contact with Samantha’s torturous tongue. The blonde gently sucked the hardened button between her lips and flicked her tongue over it, surprised at her partner’s response. The cool, calm and collected Sterling Hayes had vanished leaving a writhing, primal creature.

“My God!!! Please, you’re killing me Sam…I’ll get you for this!” was the last remark Sterling made before letting her head collapse back into the pillows in total frustration. That’s when Samantha realized that she had better cut to the chase, lest Sterling make good on her threat later on.

Working Sterling’s thighs over her shoulders, Sam reached around her lover’s slender hips and grasped the larger hands that were clutching the bedsheets. The squeeze Sam gave them promised that help was indeed on the way as she began in earnest to find the proper tempo and intensity to trigger Sterling’s much needed release. Sterling’s hips began to rise from the bed, rhythmically pumping against Samantha’s knowing teeth and tongue.

Nothing had ever sounded so beautiful to Samantha’s ears as her own name sounded, being shouted over the top of her tousled head. Sterling screamed it over and over as the waves of her release rolled up her body from the place where she and Sam were joined.

Finally, when the lawyer’s breathing had quieted some, Sam climbed the listless body to lay beside her lover and hold her close, reveling in the tiny aftershocks that spasmed through Sterling periodically. Sam cupped her hand over the glistening curls and applied gentle pressure there.

“I love you.” Sterling could manage nothing more, but hoped that Sam understood how deeply she really felt the sentiment.

“Show me then,” Samantha said quietly into Sterling’s neck and the attorney seemed to be instantly infused with energy, her hands and mouth everywhere at once. Samantha for her part, held on for dear life, tingling to her very soul with the feel of loving hands seeking to claim and free her all at once. Long fingers worked through her slickness, leaving her gasping for breath.

Grabbing Sterling behind the neck, she pulled the dark head within inches so that she could whisper her request. “Come inside, please.” The tall woman increased the pressure of her one armed embrace as she slid long fingers into liquid silk. “Oh yes!” Sterling enjoyed the last intelligible words she would hear from her lover for some time and closed her eyes with the intensity of her joy.

Sterling allowed Sam to set her own pace, gauging by the blonde’s response when to increase the depth and speed of her thrusts. Concerned that she would hurt her lover if she allowed things to get too frenzied, Sterling spoke loving nonsense into Sam’s ear to keep them grounded. Long before either of them would have wanted it, Samantha jumped from the ledge of wanting into the dark abyss of orgasm. Tearing through her like electric current, release left Sam paralyzed and crying quietly.

“It’s just so intense,” she was finally able to say into Sterling’s breasts where she had lain her head, seeking solace. They held each other, trying to accustom themselves to the texture of belonging. Finally Samantha apologized, or tried to over Sterling’s protests for her emotional outburst.

“Never, ever apologize to me for feeling deeply about anything,” she told her and Sam responded by kissing the closest part of her partner which happened to be her breast. Before long, one thing had led to two things and the sighs and whispers of her new love drifted down the staircase of Sterling Hayes new home.

*************It might have been two in the morning, could even have been three but the lighted dial of the clock was hidden by the blonde head against her shoulder. Sterling Hayes had no desire to stir and wake the precious woman who slept within her embrace. Exhaustion had overtaken the pair after hours of discovery and reveling in the feel of being in love. Holding, touching, the intense reaction in her soul from the softness of her partner’s sigh, all these things had brought Sterling back into wakefulness. She was afraid to miss even a moment of the bliss that charged through her body.

The dark beauty could not think rationally, nor string together words from her immense vocabulary to express in her own mind, what she was feeling, but she knew that she could never live without this feeling again. Sterling stroked the blonde hair at her fingertips and smiled into the darkness until pink dawn was evident through her bedroom window. Only then did she yield to sleep.

**********Samantha slept the deep slumber of fulfillment. The dark nights of worry and soul searching she had endured along with the separation from her love were gone from her memory. Even in sleep the corners of her mouth curled slightly.

Blinking slowly Sam allowed the sensuous feel of the warm flesh beneath her fingers to penetrate her consciousness and her smile was enhanced. A careful glance up at the face of her partner confirmed the suspicion that Sterling was still asleep. It was a treat to study her undetected.

‘My God, is it possible that she is even more beautiful in this light? I could look at her, honestly just sit and look at this woman for endless hours. The richness of her features, the proud profile of a Greek goddess… I’m gonzo before she ever even opens her eyes and then I am really lost. How can I ever deny her anything? How could anyone?

As if she had read Sam’s thoughts, dark lashes fluttered briefly before raising to reveal the blue eyes in question. A brief kiss was offered and accepted soundlessly. Sterling tightened her hold and sank back into the pillows, letting go another in a growing number of contented sighs between them. Sam snuggled closer, or enjoyed the pretense of trying to do what was not possible.

Wrapped in a cocoon of total content the new lovers greeted their first day together.

The End

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