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Standard Disclaimers - I don't need any for this story. All the characters are mine. (laugh) I should probably disclaimer my use of my own company, but I won't, unless temptation gets too great, and I name the big boss "Les." Whoops.. I did that, but any resemblance to anyone real is coincidental. (the real one is one of the nicest people I've ever met, honestly)

What this is: This is an Uber story. (Oooo... that Uber stuff!) You get a general physical description likeness of the two gals in the story that will remind you of two old friends we all know well, but that's about it. The time period of this Uber is right now, and the place is Miami, Florida.

Why Miami? Well, I live here. Not only do I live here, but I've lived here for thirty years. That means I know all the stupid little quirks of the area, and since I'm going to give this Uber a stab, I might as well not overstress myself with doing research on an area I don't know. (Right? Right.)

The world my Uber darlings inhabit is my personal world - not that I'm a dungeon master or anything silly like that, but I do work for a company called EDS, and we do Information Technologies - we outsource IS to other companies, and absorb their own IS facilities and staff. In other words, we are the EDS Borg - you will be assimilated - Resistance is Futile. (I'm not making this up) The two characters will work and play in an area that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole however - so they're not autobiographical. I do technical and network support - I stay away from the business end of EDS, because that's the end you get stuck with, and not in a friendly place, if you know what I mean.

This isn't specifically EDS, but I've tried to maintain the flavor of our hierarchy though...and the goofiness that sometimes goes on behind the running of a megalithic corporation. The descriptions of our mainframes, however, are fictitious, along with any names of persons involved, and the various office locations with the exception of Plano. EDS does have its corporate HQ there.

Fisher Island, the place where Dar Roberts lives, is a real place. I used to work there. The descriptions of it are circa 1990 though - it's been built up a lot since then with more condos and stuff. All the places, and restaurants, and streets, and causeways are real. I didn't see any need to make them up, when Miami is a colorful enough place in real life without me doing that. It's kind of a tribute to my hometown - because I happen to really like it here.

Dar and Kerry are not super spies, or undercover agents, or renegades of any kind. They're not running from the law, or taking over third world countries (EDS runs a few, though) or anything like that. You might find their lives boring... I can't help that.. there's not going to be a lot of car chases, or gun battles, though this is Miami, and we're a pretty tough city, so anything can happen.

It's just a story about two people, who meet under very usual circumstances, and happen to change each other's lives.


Tropical Storm - Part 13

By Melissa Good

Dar threw energy into finishing her worklist, clearing out several items in a row and keeping half an ear on Kerry, who was puttering around in the kitchen. She knew Kyle's visit had unsettled the blond woman, and she impatiently answered some of the dozen or so urgent mails she had waiting, anxious to get them out of the way so she could go back to...

Go back to what, Dar? Playing around? Her lips quirked. Yeah. So much more interesting than telling Jose he had to go back to the drawing board on two accounts and typing in an official answer to the complaint lodged against her by Peter.

Jerk. She sighed, and rubbed her forehead, considering how to phrase the response. "He screwed up the account, and Les sent me out there to bail him out, and I did. What's the problem?" She drummed her fingers on the keyboard and then backspaced. "No.. she'd kill me if I said that."

"What's wrong?" Kerry appeared, resting an arm on her shoulder. Her hand had a soft cotton mitt covering it, and she was carrying a mixing spoon which smelled very distracting. Dar immediately licked it, and grinned at the smaller woman's squawk of surprise. "Dar! Cut that out!"

"Mm.... Whatever that is tastes great." The dark haired woman replied. "This.. Peter filed a formal complaint against my conduct and I have to answer it...I'm trying to find a politically correct way to say 'bite me' and not have Mariana pull her hair out."

"It's meatball sauce... I'm trying a new recipe for spaghetti and meatballs." Kerry answered absently, peering at the document. "I figured that was pretty safe."

Dar's eyes brightened. "Haven't had that in a while." She stated. "I don't usually order it in restaurants...the meatballs generally taste like pressed oatmeal."

Kerry nodded in agreement. "Yeah....hey, listen...why don't you say that you were asked to evaluate the situation, and the client decided they wanted to negotiate with you directly." She glanced at Dar. "That's what happened, right?"

"More or less." Dar acknowledged. "Truthfully, Gerald Easton is an old friend of my father's...he's known me since I was a kid." She sighed. "He just really didn't like Peter's style, so he called and bitched at Les."

"Hmm." Kerry exhaled. "Okay.. you can say that you had prior experience with that contract, and the client felt more comfortable dealing with you."

A faint smile curved Dar's lips. "You're pretty good at this stuff."

Green eyes twinkled. "Debating, remember? You have to sometimes state the same thing four different ways in order to get your point across."

The dark haired woman laughed. "I'd love to have seen you up there...nothing I like better than a good debate."

Kerry blushed a little, and grinned. "The contest I won was the one thing my father came to.. it was pretty high profile, and he had such a good time doing the chip off the old block thing in the audience." She looked a little sad. "It felt good to win that."

"You ever think of going into politics yourself?" Dar inquired.

A soft snort. "No thanks.. if I'd wanted to spend my life deceiving people I"d have gone into marketing, thanks." She gave Dar a wry look. "You're not going to tell me you think public servants do it for the pleasure of serving their fellow countrymen, are you?"

"No."

"Whew... I didn't want to burst that bubble for ya, let me tell you, Dar." Kerry informed her. "It's a disgusting business."

Dar stayed quiet, wondering if her young companion knew exactly how disgusting. "Tell you what... why donít you type up an answer for me, and I'll go stir your sauce." She slipped out of the chair, and plucked the spoon from Kerry's hand. "Fair trade?"

Kerry sat down, the chair warm from Dar's body, and glanced up. "Try not to eat it all, okay?" She teased, getting a flash of a smile in return, as she turned her attention to the screen.

Dar padded into the kitchen, lifting the cover off a cast iron pot on the stove and releasing a moist cloud of garlic and spices into the air. "Ooo... " She stirred the sauce gently as she thought about the report that had come back about Kerry's father.

The usual, mostly. Minor kickbacks, some reported bribery.. nothing concrete. But there were two anonymous bank accounts she was investigating further, and a very strange series of transactions from what looked like a private credit line in his name only. No sense, she'd decided, in letting Kerry see the report until she was finished, and had something concrete.

And then what? Dar exhaled. Despite everything, she suspected Kerry still loved her parents, and her family... doing something to hurt her father would hurt her as well, and as much as Dar wanted to slam the man for what she considered a disgusting persecution of her friend... would that really serve a purpose?

Maybe the information would come in handy to her, though, in her arguments for staying here. And she wanted to give Kerry all the ammunition for that she could, right?

Of course, there was always the possibility it wouldn't work. That Kerry would allow herself to be persuaded to leave. That's what your afraid of, isn't it? Dar's eyes closed as she absently stirred the sauce. You've only known her for a month, Dar.. the thought of living without her can't possibly hurt you that much.

But it did.

She felt so comfortable with Kerry, that's what it was, she decided. Her usual wariness around people seemed to evaporate around the blond woman and she found herself basking in the warmth of a true friendship for the first time in a long while. She hadn't suspected she missed that quite as much as she did, apparently, and now something was threatening that.

She didn't respond well to threats. They made her want to do crazy things like beg Kerry not to go home. Or go home with her. Oh yeah. She laughed uneasily to herself. That would win a popularity contest.. you just show up at her parent's house. Let's see... um... 'Hi.. the company is instituting a new program.. supervisors must visit all of their employees at least once over the holiday, and I'm starting with Kerry...do you mind?'

Yeah.

She was so involved in her thoughts she didn't even hear Kerry calling her name until a warm hand touched her back and she jumped. "Wh.. oh.. sorry." She stepped away from the stove and handed Kerry back her spoon. "Here... I was just.. um... "

"A million miles away." Kerry supplied, gazing at her curiously. "You all right?"

"Yeah.. I was just thinking, that's all." Dar chuckled. "You finished in there?" She was a little embarrassed to have been caught daydreaming. "I.. um...I'll go take care of that other stuff."

Kerry gave her a worried little frown, but nodded. "Okay.. yeah, take a look at what I wrote, see if you like it." She patted Dar's side. "Do you like garlic bread?"

Dar nodded.

"Silly question.. I guess...I've got some of those breadsticks in the freezer.. I'll put them up too."

The taller woman chuckled. "You like doing this, donít you?"

Kerry shrugged. "I guess.. I mean... I don't think I'd bother for myself.. in fact, I know I wouldn't. I generally just come home from work and grab some carrots or something.. but it's nice to take trouble for someone who appreciates it."

Dar regarded her seriously. "I do appreciate it." She replied quietly. "Very much so."

That got her a big smile "I know....I noticed your kitchen doesn't get used much." She teased gently. "I have nightmares thinking of you there with your Egg McMuffins and chocolate milk."

Dar laughed in pure reflex. "Nah... you've got me all wrong." She shook her head solemnly. "It's Croissanwichs or nothing."

A poke. "You should take better care of yourself." Kerry mock scowled. "That's going to catch up with you one day."

"Play hard... die young." Dar half joked.

"I'd rather you didnít" Kerry replied, very seriously. "I'd like to have you around for a long time." An awkward silence fell, as stunned blue eyes looked at her. "I'm sorry." Kerry finally muttered. "That's an incredibly presumptuous thing for me to say." She turned back to the stove and bent over the pot, only to feel hands grip her shoulders gently.

She went still, and didn't resist as Dar turned her around, and she met the pale blue eyes now gentled as they studied her face. "You know... when you came in here, I was wondering what in the hell I was going to do if you did decide to go home." She murmured softly. "And I was trying to figure out how someone I've known for less than a month could become so important to me."

"Oh." Kerry replied.

"So, no.. it wasn't presumptuous... it's nice that you care." Dar added shyly. "It feels kind of strange, but I think I like it."

The blond woman let out a relieved sigh. "That's good." She reached up and interlaced her fingers with Dar's. "Because I can't help feeling that way.. and I'd hate to be driving you crazy or anything."

Dar gave in to the insidious craving and hugged her. "Nah..." She released her and stepped back, then smiled. "Let me go finish." She turned and left the kitchen.

Kerry sucked on the end of her spoon in thought, as she turned back to her sauce, and a small, incredulous smile slowly inched it's way across her face.

Dar went back to the desk, and dropped into the chair, propping her chin onto her hand and peering at the screen. She let her eyes scan over the words three times before any of them penetrated. Then she let her eyelids flutter shut, and just took a moment to collect herself, feeling a wealth of conflicting emotion battering at her.

Half of her was scared shitless. The other half, which was this strange, new, alien from outer space half, wanted to drop to her knees, and pledge lifelong devotion to this poor woman she barely knew. "I'm a little old for this hormonal crap, aren't I?" She muttered to herself wryly. "I haven't felt like this since I was twelve, and had my first crush."

She rubbed her eyes, then forced herself to concentrate on the screen, this time actually reading it. "Oh.. nice job." She complimented the absent Kerry. "Yeah.. I like it..." The response was very reasonable and politely worded. "Of course she's gonna know I didn't write it." Dar chuckled softly. "But that's okay.. the mark of a good manager is knowing where to use their resources, right?" She raised her voice. "Nice work."

"Thanks." Came floating back, and Dar could all but hear the smile in the word, as she hit the send key and sent the reply on it's way. Then she settled down and plowed through the next several issues, trying to ignore the intriguing scents wafting in from the kitchen, only stopping for a moment as thunder rolled over head. "Hmm."

Kerry entered, also listening. "Sounds nasty." She leaned on the back of the chair. "You finished? Dinner's ready."

"So I smell." The dark haired woman agreed, as she straightened. "Yep.. I told off six people, canceled three meetings, and sent two scathing replies to people who should have known better." She sighed. "Not a bad day."

"Did you really?" Kerry gave her a look.

Dar nodded wryly. "Yes, I did." She stood up and stretched. "But donít' worry.. everyone's used to it. If I didn't do that, they'd think something was wrong with me." She advised the blond woman. "You want everything out here on the table?"

Kerry hesitated, then grinned. "Well.. I've got this big platter thing.. I thought it might be fun if we just use that, and share it.. it's got little legs.. we could bring it over to the couch and watch the movie."

"Hmm....." Dar's voice dropped to a low, speculative growl. "I think I like that idea." She smiled abruptly. "I wonder if we can do that Lady and the Tramp thing."

"The wh... " Puzzled blond brows knit, then cleared. "Oh.. oh.. you mean with the spaghetti?" Kerry's eyes lit up. "Well.. sure.. we could try it." She laughed. "C'mon."

They went into the kitchen together, laughing.

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

"It was a cop out." Dar mumbled, gazing at the screen "Bee, my ass."

Kerry giggled. "C'mon.. they couldnít have them kiss... the world would end.. monsters would explode out of everyone's chest.. the Cigarette Smoking man would quit... " She tilted her head back and accepted a gentle assaulte on her lips. "Glad we don't have the same problem.. "

"Me too." Dar agreed, with a chuckle as she leaned back against the couch with Kerry's body cradled against hers as they watched. "God, I'm stuffed.. that was really good."

Kerry stretched back against her and sighed. "Me too... and thanks.. that recipe really worked out." She glanced up, then laughed, and reached up to wipe a bit of sauce off her companion's face. "Except that spaghetti thing was messy."

"Mm... so what was the secret of those meatballs? " Dar inquired. "They were so light... did you put feathers in them?" She gave the smaller woman a squeeze, then rewrapped her arms around Kerry's middle.

A soft snort. "You won't believe it.. but the secret is milk." Kerry admitted with a laugh.

"MILK?" Dar protested. "You put milk in meatballs?"

Kerry rested her head back against the soft cushion of Dar's breast and smiled. "Yep... you mix a half a cup of milk into the pound of hamburger.. then add the Italian breadcrumbs to it to soak it all up." She stated smugly. "And an egg." A pause, and a glance at Dar. "And.. um.. a little brown sugar."

Dar laughed. "Milk, eggs, and brown sugar.. sounds about my speed." She sighed. "Whatever it was... it was great." She turned her head as the phone rang, and they exchanged looks.

Kerry turn the sound down and picked up the cordless phone. "Hello?"

Her mother's voice echoed in her hear. "Hello.. Kerry??"

Like who else would be answering, hmm? "Hello, mother." She kept her voice somewhere between cordiality and wariness.. after all, the woman had hung up on her the last time.

"Dear, I've been thinking."

That's a first. "Yes, mother?" She held the phone so Dar could hear, not hard since the taller woman was practically wrapped around her.

"Perhaps I was hasty the other night... I've spoken with your father.. and while he's very upset, he says he's sure you'll calm down and be able to talk with us about this when you come home.." Her mother's voice sounded smug. "I'm sure we can come to an arrangement... we understand you must have gotten attached to your new friends down in that place."

Attached? Kerry glanced down to the strong arms cradling her. "Well, yes mother.. you could say that... and I am wrapped up in some really interesting things right now."

Dar snorted in laughter, burying her face into Kerry's neck for a moment and tickling her.

Kerry bit her lip to keep from giggling.

"Certainly.. certainly... we're all grown up here... and we're so looking forward to seeing you... Brian misses you terribly."

Really? He hasn't called once since August. "I'm sure he does, mother." She replied.

A momentary silence, then her mother cleared her throat. "You seem distant, dear.. am I interrupting anything?"

Kerry tilted her head back as a nibble touched a nerve. "No.. no.. um.. I was just watching a movie.." She swallowed, then closed her eyes as Dar's hands wandered up her belly, exposing her skin to the cool air conditioning.

"Oh.. well, we're watching War and Peace." A sigh. "Your father does so love that one."

"I'm sure he does." Kerry managed to answer. " I'm watching the X-files."

"Kerry.. you know what I think of that show." Her mother's voice was disapproving. "Disgusting... so disrespectful of the government.. why, did you know your father once wrote a letter to that horrible man who puts it on, and he got a note back telling him to go and take some drugs??"

Mental note. Dar decided. Send fan mail to Chris Carter.

"Well, mother.. " Kerry let her head go limp against Dar's chest as the gentle nibbling reached around her throat. "It's um... just a tv show." The roaming fingers traced teasing circles around her breasts, and she let out soft, incoherent sound.

"What was that, dear?" Her mother's voice nudged her.

"Um... just something I was watching..."Kerry replied, giving her lover a beseeching look. "Nothing you'd want to hear about... oh yeah. .did Kyle get home all right?" She put a twist into her voice. "It was so nice of him to stop by while he was down here."

An awkward pause. "Was he there, dear? I didn't....well, I'm sure if he was in the area, of course he stopped into see you.. you know how fond of you he is." There was a muffled sound. "Roger, did you know Kyle was in Florida? You did.. oh.. well no.. Kerry was just mentioning it... what?"

Blue and green eyes exchanged conspiratorial looks.

"Oh.. goodness.. the poor man." Kerry's mother came back to the phone. "Poor Kyle.. there was a mix up at the airport... his reservations got lost somehow, and he had to drive to Tampa in order to catch a flight up here... he's waiting in Houston right now."

"Gee. That's awful." Kerry intoned sincerely. "Only connecting flights, huh?"

"Apparently so... well, I'm glad he had a chance to see you." Her mother sighed.

"Oh.. yes.. it was wonderful." Kerry replied softly. "He even got to meet my boss."

"Really?"

"Um hm... she was over here working with me on a project... she gave him her business card.. make sure daddy gets it, okay?"

"Oh.. well, of course.. " A pause. "Is that normal, dear? I thought you worked in an office."

"I do." Kerry replied. "But I had this extra thing going.. and Dar takes a very... " She flicked a glance at the tanned face peering over her shoulder. "Personal interest in things." The grip around her tightened, and she winced, covering the receiver. "Not so tight... I'll lose my dinner." She whispered softly, sucking in a breath as the hold loosened, then Dar's hands playfully unbuckled the thin belt she was wearing, and undid the button holding closed her jeans. "Better?" A ghost of a word reached her ears, as fingers started a gentle, soothing massage.

"Mm." Kerry relaxed and pressed the phone to her ear. "What was that, mother?"

"I said, did you get the tickets?" Now her mother sounded a bit annoyed.

"Yes." Kerry replied. "I got them the other day."

"All right.. well, I've got to go make some coffee for your father... we'll see you on Wednesday, dear."

"G'night, mother." Kerry replied politely, then hung up, and put the phone down as she reached behind her and tangled her fingers in Dar's hair. "You're a troublemaker."

A low, sexy chuckle made little shivers go up and down her spine. "You betcha." She captured a tasty earlobe and bit down on it gently. "Was that an apology from your mother?"

Kerry shrugged. "I guess...she hates conflict."

"Hmm." Dar rested her chin on Kerry's shoulder. "Hell of a way to spend Thanksgiving."

Kerry wrapped her arms around Dar's and sighed. "I get a stomach ache just thinking about it." She admitted. "I wish I could pack you in my suitcase and take you with me... it's going to be the longest five days of my life." She thought about not going, again.. and spending the holiday with Dar instead. Oh boy. It was like a little puppy inside her started wagging it's tail, and she had to stifle it. "It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion."

Dar fought off an almost overwhelming desire to protect her lover from the anger and strife she knew she was walking into. "I wish you could pack me in there too." She quipped wanly. "I'd love to see their faces when I popped out."

Kerry started laughing. "Jesus.. that's a mental picture." She paused. "So.. tell me about this place you're going to?"

"Well... like I said, Gerry's an old friend of the family.. he's the one who gave me those two contracts that saved Associated, by the way." She informed her. "He invited me up for the weekend.. he's got a son I get along with really well.. his family's sweet, in an old fashioned, service family kind of way.. I don't know."

"Is his son cute?" Kerry inquired curiously.

"Mm... yeah.. if you like the crewcutted earnest type... he's a navy pilot who just got assigned carrier duty." Dar replied. "We more or less grew up together.. I know Gerry would like it if we were closer, but... " She chuckled. "You know how that goes."

"Mm.." Kerry sighed. "I think you're going to have a much better time than I am.."

I doubt it. Dar mused silently. I'll be worried about you the whole time. "Well, next Thanksgiving, we'll have everyone over at the Island... how's that?" The words came out before she could really think about them, and all they entailed, and she bit her tongue as she realized what she'd said. Was she actually assuming they'd not only be together a year from now, but... Suddenly the thought of Kerry living with her splashed into her conscious mind like an enthusiastic duck in the rain. She managed to clamp her jaw down on urging immediate action, though.

Kerry paused in silence for a moment, then she turned her head, and regarded Dar with a shy smile. "All right." She agreed. "That'll give me something to think about while I battle through my parents plans." She half turned and snuggled into Dar's chest, playing with the taller woman's buttons idly. "Damn, I wish this coming week were over with already.. I'd give anything for it to be next Sunday night.. with all that behind me.. and.." A sigh. "I'm so dreading this."

Dar stroked her hair awkwardly. "I know... hell, it's almost even giving me a stomach ache." She responded. "But hey.. it'll be over in a week.. then.. we can.. um.. " She cast around for something she knew Kerry would like. "Plan a Christmas party.. okay?"

Kerry slid her eyes up the long, firm neck, and over the bump of Dar's jaw, up until she was meeting those pretty blue eyes. "Mm... how about a birthday party?"

Trapped. Augh. "Bu.." Dar nibbled a lip. "Ke... " The green orbs gentled and pleaded with her. "Oh.. okay." She sighed, defeated.

Kerry smiled, and patted her chest. "Nothing on earth would make me miss that." She hugged Dar close. "To hell with Thanksgiving."

Dar grinned fiercely to herself. Now that was worth having a birthday for.

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

"Dar?"

Maria's voice penetrated her thoughts, and she looked up, a little startled. "Yes?" She stopped turning the pencil in her hands over and exhaled.

"Here are your tickets for tomorrow." The secretary bustled across the carpet, and put the folder down near her hand. "Did Kerry go all right?"

"Yeah.. I dropped her off before I came in ." The dark haired woman replied. "Her flight was at 8am." She checked her watch. "She should be there in a little while."

"So nice." Maria smiled, then her expression changed a little. "No?"

Dar looked up from where her attention had been drawn to her new fish. "Oh.. yes.. I'm sure it's fine... I was just thinking of something else.. sorry about that." Her body was, actually busy remembering the fierce hug Kerry had given her before she'd gone off to her gate, and the quiet, whispered 'I'll miss you.'. With a sigh, she pushed the thought aside and smiled at Maria. "So.. how do you like Bert and Ernie here?" She'd just brought them in that morning, having given the two fractious fish a few days to settle in at Kerry's apartment before she introduced them into the office.

Maria studied the fish. "Is pretty." She admitted. "I was thinking to get a goldfish for me, but Iím always to dropping things around my desk.. I would be spending too much time in fishing them out. " She knelt to examine the tank. "This is nice ."

Dar propped her chin up on one hand. "I thought so." She agreed. "Um.. I've got an executive committee meeting after lunch today.. is there anything pending I need to look at before then?"

"Si." Maria handed her the other folder she had been carrying. "The new building plans." She told her. "You have first meeting next week."

Dar flipped open the folder and studied the cover sheet. "Right... the lease is up on this building next year, and Jose thinks he found us a new location... hm... " She studied the document. "Well... I don't... ah." Her lips twisted sardonically. "Now I see the picture.. his brother in law owns it."

Maria rolled her eyes. "Dios mio.. does it always have to be games?"

The executive sighed, and shook her head. "And I hate the location... looks like another battle royale in the making." She glanced at the fish wryly. "Maybe I should have called them Dar and Jose.. what do you think?"

"Si." Maria smiled. "I am going out to the bank during lunch, Dar.. you want I should bring you something back? It is turkey in the cafeteria.. I think you will have enough of that this weekend"

The dark haired woman leaned back and made a face. "No.. thanks.. my stomach is kind of upset today... something I had last night maybe." She advised her secretary. Truth. She hadn't been able to swallow so much as a cup of coffee since the morning, and even thinking about it made her stomach churn. She swallowed hard against the sensation and sighed. It had been a tough week, all the more so because she hadn't seen much of Kerry, who had been busy packing herself. Monday night she'd been tied up in meetings until past eleven, and last night she'd had to force herself to be present at a business dinner to work on new client of Jose's.

So she'd shown up a little early that morning to pick Kerry up. Well, okay, a lot early.. and had been treated to the sight of sleepy green eyes that brightened perceptibly when they recognized her. Kerry had dragged her back into the bedroom and they'd spent an hour snuggling before the rising sun nudged them awake again in time to go to the airport.

Dar sighed, then glanced up at Maria. "Maybe I"ll take a walk downstairs and get some club soda or something." She stood and stretched, then settled her Jacket over her shoulders and headed for the door.

At the elevator she bumped into Duks, who was also headed down. "Morning." She commented, leaning back against the elevator wall. "Ready for the meeting this afternoon?"

"Don't ask me that." Duks rubbed his eyes. "I've been going over financials for the last two days... I have such a headache, I can't tell you." He complained grumpily. "What about you? They're going to hit you with those facilities additions, you know." He studied Dar's face, noticing that the tense lines and faint shadows that used to characterize it had faded, replaced by a noticeably more relaxed expression. "Let me guess.. you have all the answers already."

Dar shrugged. "I have some of them... and enough evasions to get by with on the others... " She held the door open as they reached the bottom floor. "You headed for the cafeteria?" She inquired. "I'll buy you a cup of coffee.. how's that?"

"I never turn down that kind of offer." Duks laughed, as he followed her through the line, glancing at her choice. "None for you??"

The dark haired woman waved him off. "Must have picked up a bug or something.. my stomach's bothering me." She set the bottle of club soda down, then nodded at Duk's steaming cup and handed the cashier a bill. They took their drinks and went to a corner table, away from the early lunch crowd. Dar noted the eyes following her, and saw the veiled interest. Idly she wondered what list of rumors were currently making the rounds. "So." She leaned on her elbows, and twisted the top off the bottle, taking a small sip and grimacing as it hit her empty stomach. "What do you think Jose will try?"

Duks took a swallow of coffee and pondered the question. "He's been quiet... too quiet." He mused. "You'd better watch your back, my friend...I think whatever he's up to, it's got you in the center of it."

Dar nodded. "Probably." She agreed.

"You don't look worried." Her friend remarked. "My assistant overheard Eleanor's two poodle girls talking about Kerry... seems Eleanor is convinced she can turn her."

"Well." Dar had to smile. "She's welcome to try... but um... " She waggled her hand. "I think I've got a pretty good handle on her loyalties."

Duks smiled back. "Feels good, doesn't it?"

The dark head tilted in question. "What.. having one up on Eleanor?"

Steady eyes regarded her, as a slight grin quirked Duk's lips.

"Oh." Dar felt a faint blush creeping up her neck, and she studied her bottle, turning it over and over in her hands. Finally, she looked up. "Yes.... Yes it does."

He leaned forward, dropping his voice. "Dar... please believe me when I say that I am so.. so.. happy for you." He watched her eyes flick around the room in obvious discomfort. "I really like her.. I think you picked a good one, this time." Pale blue orbs fastened on him intently. "A blue chip." He winked.

Dar covered her embarassment by taking a long swallow of fizzy liquid. She appreciated the sentiment, and Lou had been a good friend for many years, but still. She cleared her throat. "Glad you approve." She managed to keep her tone droll, but she knew her lips were twitching into a helpless grin and she felt awkwardly exposed. Her cellphone's beeping was a welcome interruption. "Excuse me." She pulled the instrument out, and flipped it open. "Yeah?"

"Hi." There was a world of tension in the voice.

"Hey." Dar responded, instinctively gentling her own. "Flight okay?"

"Right up until it pulled up to the gate." Kerry replied, with a sigh. "I'll call you later."

"Okay.. take it easy." The dark haired woman replied quietly.

"I'll try." Came the answer, then a momentary pause. "I love you."

Dar closed her eyes, and conciously blocked out her surroundings. "I love you too." She spoke the words clearly and intently. "If you need anything, you call me, okay?"

She could hear the smile right through the phone. "I will... bye."

Dar folded the phone closed, and opened her eyes, grateful that Duks had found something desperately interesting in his coffee cup, and gave her a moment to compose herself before he looked up.

They looked at each other in awkward silence for a moment, then the financial officer smiled reflectively. "You know, Dar... times like this.. times when I see something in us so beyond the animal...are when I come closest to giving in and believing in the grace of something higher than myself."

And he stood, putting a hand on her shoulder for a gentle squeeze, before walking off into a rising hum of lunchtime chatter.

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

"Is that one yours, Kerry?" Her mother's voice echoed in her ears, and she turned.

"Yes.. I've got it" Kerry reached over and grabbed the handle, hoisting it clear of the belt and setting it down next to her feet. "That's it.. just this and the carryon." She attached the strap to the rings on the duffle bag and slung it over her shoulder. It seemed curiously lighter than it usually did, but she put that down to her own nervousness. "Let's go."

"Do you have that? Let me get a sky cap, dear." Her mother eyed her. "Goodness, you've put on weight, haven't you."

Kerry let the memory of Dar's voice wrap around her like a comfortable Jacket. One with a ducks feathers on it that the words simply rolled off of. "Yes I have... thanks.. I feel great." She replied. "Are we ready?"

Her mother looked like she wanted to say more, but instead simply nodded. "Yes... I wanted to stop at the store on the way.. is that a new Jacket?"

Kerry shifted her shoulders a little. "Yes...it comes with this zip in liner.." She opened a flap as she walked, knowing it would distract her mother. "We do get the occasional cold day down there.. I can take the liner out for that." The softly textured, chocolate colored leather smelled wonderful and if she concentrated, she could get a whiff of a familiar scent.

Dar had looked at her in question when she'd asked her to put the thing on... the sleeves only coming halfway down her tall friends long arms, and the fabric tight over her broader shoulders. But she had, and had handed it back, watching in bemusment as Kerry then buried her nose into it and broke into a smile.

And she did again, watching the dull brown brick walls of the airport go by, and taking a breath of cold air as they exited from the terminal into a cloudy November day.

A thin drizzle was falling, dusting them with moisture as Kerry glanced around, taking in the gray and brown landscape, where trees had already shed their leaves, and the grass it's color. It struck Kerry's eyes as strange.. almost alien, so used to the vivid colors of the subtropics was she. She followed her mother to the car, where a driver was waiting, pulling open the door as they approached. He took Kerry's bags from her and she slid in after her mother, leaning back in the soft seat and folding her arms over her chest after she put her laptop case between herself and the car door.

Her mother spoke to the driver, and she let her thoughts drift back to that morning, before she and Dar had left the apartment. She'd found the taller woman gazing at the sunset lithograph in her living room as she'd come out of the bedroom, and crossed to her.

"Dar...I.. " She'd held something in her hand. "After that break in.. I... would you hold on to something for me?"

Startled blue eyes had turned to her. "Sure."

She'd held out her hand, and by reflex Dar had lifted hers to meet it, and she put a small, round object in it's palm. "It's been in my family forever... my great aunt gave it to me."

The ring was ancient, and delicate, a traced filigree with a barely visible round inset. It was a very simple design, a bird's head in profile on a darker background, but she'd always loved it. "Just hang on to it till I get back, all right?" She'd asked Dar.

Long fingers had closed gently over it. "All right." And Dar had understood what Kerry was trying to tell her, by giving her something to keep that was so important.

"Kerry?"

She turned and gazed at her mother. "I'm sorry? I was just thinking."

Mamma Stuart was a thin, aristocratic woman with pinched features, and wavy, silvered brown hair. Her eyes were the same green as Kerry's, but that's where the resemblance stopped, and she stood several inches taller than her eldest daughter. "Now, listen to me, dear.. I want you to promise me you'll hold your tongue on this nonsense of your staying in Miami... your father has some definite plans, and I don't want him upset over the holiday."

Kerry simply stared at her. "Mother, I have no problem with not saying anything... as long as you understand I have no intention of moving back here."

Her mother sighed. "Kerry.. I don't understand what's gotten into you."

"Maybe I've just grown up, mother." Kerry replied, in a gentler tone. "I'm twenty seven.. I think I've got a right to a say in my own life."

"It's all a question of what's best for you, Kerry.. why can't you see that?" Her mother's voice became upset. "You're down there in that dangerous place, with no family around you.. what if something were to happen to you?"

Well, let's see.. I bumped my head, and that got me a personal visit from a corporate vice president. "I have a lot of friends there.. "

"Friends are not family, Kerrison.. you know that.. and what about Brian?"

Another subject. "What about him?" She looked at her mother.

"Honey.. you're getting married to him in the spring... or have you forgotten that?" Her mother was getting more upset.

Bite the bullet time. "Mother, I like Brian very much.. and he's always been one of my best friends.. but we havent spoken since August...I just don't think we have much in common anymore."

Her mother stared at her in shock. "Donít' you dare say that." She snapped. "Don't you dare... do you know how long we've been planning this?" She fussed with her purse, slamming it open and shut. "You had just better not say that to your father."

Kerry leaned back, and closed her eyes. "Fine."

"Give me one good reason why the two of you can't be married." Her mother went on. "It's ridiculous."

I could answer her honestly. Kerry mused. 'Well, mother.. here's a good reason.. I'm gay, and I'm hopelessly in love with my boss, who's much better looking than Brian is. Not to mention one hell of a better kisser.' She glanced at her mother's face and decided giving her a heart attack was probably not the best idea at the moment.. "Mother.. let's talk about this later.. all right?"

The older woman's hands were shaking. "You make me very upset."

Kerry sighed, and gazed out the window at the rows of winter grayed trees. It was going to be a very, very long weekend.

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

It was, Dar decided, too quiet. She closed the door to her condo behind her, and moved into the living room, setting her gym bag down on the couch and letting out a long breath. She was tired, having just spent the last three hours at the gym, teaching the beginner's class as she'd promised, and then taking two hours to spar with John, giving her body a workout that was probably a little more than it really was in shape to handle at the moment.

But she hadn't been as rusty as she'd been afraid of, which was a pleasant surprise, and had even managed to deliver a combination kick at the very end of the session that had amazed her, and knocked poor John flat on his butt on the mat.

That had felt pretty damn good... given that the man was five years younger than she was, and in better shape on top of that. A faint smile curved her lips. She'd almost forgotten how much she liked that feeling. How much she liked the physical competition, and the satisfying release of a pent up aggression that left her feeling a lot more relaxed.

But not totally. There was still that knot of worry in her gut that had Kerry's name written all over it, and she found herself wondering, as she had all day, how her friend was faring. With a sigh, she trudged into the kitchen, stretching out the stiffness that had settled in her shoulders during the drive home and reaching into the cabinet for a mug as she glanced at her terminal. Mail. Of course. "Mail, Read." She poured milk into the mug and added chocolate to it.

"Mail, Sixteen Items, three urgent."

"It's the day before Thanksgiving.. what in the hell could be urgent?" Dar queried wryly, as she stuck her mug in the microwave and turned it on. "Display."

The list came up, and she scanned it. "Read six."

Stuart, Kerry Sent 6PM

Hi.

They were wrong, Dar... Hell isn't a fiery pit. It's a two story ranch home in Michigan. I've been here six hours, and I want to kill everyone already. My sister's due here any minute, then we get to have the first of the family dinners. Lucky for me, I don't get to see Brian until tomorrow.

So far we haven't talked about the situation.. but I've gotten criticised for just about everything else.. one more round of that, and I just may lose it.

I miss you. Gee, that sounds goofy, doesn't it? Well, I'm going to go change...I may put on that Navy sweatshirt you gave me just to annoy my parents. Might as well take my fun where I can find it, right? Wish me luck.

K

"Reply." Dar said, softly.

"Hey...glad you dropped me a note. I've been thinking about you all day, and wondering how things were going." Dar paused, as the microwaved beeped, and she removed the mug. "I just got home... I taught that class tonight.. missed having you in it." She took a sip. "Then I worked out with John for two hours, and boy am I feeling it.. I'm going to take my hot chocolate and go sit in the whirlpool for a while" She smiled at the screen. "Wish you were joining me."

"Send." Dar watched the message process, then she sighed, and reviewed the rest of the list. "Read ten."

Roseanthal, Les - Urgent - Sent 9:56

Dar -

What the hell is this:

<<Attached message ->>

Mr. Roesanthal,

In the interests of promoting and maintaining excellent relations between our two companies, I find myself forced to bring a matter to your attention, in hopes that you will address it in the proper manner.

While at our facility this month, one of your officers was observed in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, and we feel that this is not a good indication of how your company deals with discipline and presentation.

Please review the attached at your discretion, and take whatever action you deem appropriate.

 

Michelle Graver

<<End text attachment>> <<photo1.jpg>><<photo2.jpg>><<photo3.jpg>>

Dar exhaled. Bitch. "Reply."

"Hi Les." She paused a moment, considering. "What the hell is this? Michelle Graver want me to sleep with her, and I woudn't." She drummed her fingers on the counter. "We already have those pictures.. they're in this month's division newsletter... and anyway, you wanted to see a picture of my new assistant. Is there a problem?" She reviewed the files. "I like the middle one best."

"Send." She stewed in anger for a moment, the smiled." Compose, to meisner@disney.com. "

"Ready."

"Mr. Eisner,

First off, a happy Thanksgiving to you, and your family. I had the pleasure of being in the Orlando property during a business meeting not long ago, and I want to compliment you on the quality of your product, and tell you how much I enjoyed my visit there.

One thing which did concern me is the photoimaging system you seem to be using for your surviellance cameras. As you can see by the attached examples, the graininess is really quite prononced, and the auto focusing seems to be off by several degrees. Since we produce a system for driving and controlling these cameras, I'd like a chance to put in a proposal to aquire and replace the system on your behalf.

Thanks for your time, and be sure to drop a word of thanks to your excellent manager down there, Michelle Graver, who was nice enough to forward these pictures for my attention.

 

Best Regards,

Dar Roberts,

She added her sig at the end. "Send."

Fuck with me, will you? Kiss my ass, Michelle. Dar snarled silently. She checked the two other urgent messages, from Duks and Mariana, both on the same subject seeing as how Mariana had been copied on the original message.

"Compose, to Lou Draefus." Dar chuckled. "Duks.. relax, tell Mari to relax.. it's handled. Don't worry about it... Happy Thanksgiving." She shook her head. "Send." She wondered briefly why they hadn't just paged or called her cell phone, then realized it was because she'd turned the damn thing off at the gym.

"Incoming Netmeeting request, Les R." The computer chirped.

Shit. "On." Dar leaned agaisnt the counter.

Les was in his study, a bright orange sweater almost making her flinch and adjust the contrast. "Evening, Les."

He propped his cleanshaven chin up on one hand. "She wanted to sleep with you?"

Dar chuckled. "That was her plan, yes... first there, then she visited her the other day."

"IS she ugly?" Les inquired.

"No... she's pretty good looking, why?" The dark haired woman asked.

Les blinked at her. "I've never known you to have scruples about that... what's up?" He leaned forward. "She could be trouble..when it comes to renewal."

Dar stared back at him. "I'm not your corporate whore, Les." She snapped. "So you can take you your assumptions and shove them up your ass."

A hand. "Whoa...whoa...take it easy, tiger." Les protested. "You're the one who always brags about that, lady... don't take it out on me if I remember that."

Dar fell silent, knowing it for the truth. "Maybe I'm getting too old for that crap." She let a concilatory note enter her voice. "Or maybe I'm just smarter now."

Les smiled wryly. "I'd vote for two, there...you've gotten pretty smart the last few years... and frankly, Dar.. if the woman isn't smart enough to outfox you without getting you in bed.. than the hell with her.. she's not going to be able to get around you in the boardroom either."

Dar relaxed a little. "Sorry... it's been a long day. I just got home, and got hit with that." She offered an oblique apology.

"Mm." Les folded his hands on his desk. "Well, I just wanted you to know not to worry about the whole thing.. I sent an answer back, wanting to know why pictures of two tourists would be of a concern.. and that you'd been under my orders to take time off there, so what was her problem?" He paused. "Only in a little nicer language."

"Thanks." Dar replied quietly.

"No problem, Dar... you're a valuable employee, and though I don't say it a lot, I do appreciate all you do for me, you know that, right?"

Dar nodded. "I know."

"Cute kid."

Dark brows contracted. "What?"

"Your assistant."

"Oh... oh, right. Kerry. Yeah." Dar waved him off. "She's all right... a little too nice sometimes, but.. she's new."

Les nodded. "You'll change that." He winked. "Well, happy Thanksgiving, Dar.. you staying in town?"

I'll change that? No.. she's changed me. Dar wryly admitted. "No..I'm heading out tomorrow morning..I'll be back on Sunday."

"See ya..." Les waved an amiable hand and the connection cut off.

Dar shook her head, and picked up her mug, taking it with her into the living room. She set it down, then went into the bathroom, changing into her bathing suit and throwing a towel around her neck. Moments later she was submerged up to her neck in swirling, soothing warm water, and regarding the canopy of stars overhead.

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

Kerry watched the mail send, then she closed down her laptop, and turned to the bed, where her bag was resting. She sat down next to it with a sigh, then unzipped the top, and pulled out the sweatshirt, which she'd packed last. As she pulled it out something came with it, and she grabbed at the item in puzzlement.

It was a small, blue green stuff animal, and she peered at it in half recognition. "Where have I seen you before?" She mused, to the tiny salamander. "Oh... I remember...you were at the Rainforest... but how did you get here?" She glanced at the suitcase, and remembered who had slipped it into the back of the car for the ride to the airport. "Oh.. did you follow auntie Dar home?"

The salamander winked at her. Kerry gave him a kiss on the nose, and detected Dar's familiar scent on the fabric. She was setting him back into the suitcase when a soft knock came at the door, and she looked up. "C'mon in."

It opened, and she was relieved to see her sister's face. "Hey."

"Hey yourself." Angela slipped in, and crossed over to her. Kerry stood as she did so and held her arms out, smiling when her sister threw her arms around her and hugged her. "Bet you're glad to see a friendly face."

"Oh.. you know it." Kerry sighed, releasing her.

"Let me see you." Her sister held her at arms distance and studied her. "Mom went on and on about how much weight you'd put on, but Jesus Christ, Kerry.. you look fantastic."

Kerry's eyes flickered in surprise, not expecting that. "Think so?"

"My god yes... "Angela smiled. "I thought she meant... you're working out, aren't you? And would you look at that tan?"

Kerry smiled. "Yeah.. I spent all day Sunday out on the water.. I'm still a little sunburned. " She admitted. "And I"ve been doing a lot more stuff outside, and at the gym... I've been really busy."

"I bet... so, tell me about the new job?" Angela sat down on the bed as Kerry untucked her short sleeved shirt from her jeans and started to unbutton it. "I heard dad say your boss was actually at your apartment the other day?"

"Well.. " Kerry folded her shirt and put it away, then slipped the dark blue sweatshirt over her head. "I really like it... I'm learning so much, and there's so much opportunity.. I've got this big office with a window, and great benefits.. it's fantastic." She turned and sat down next to Angela. "And I really like my new boss... she.. um... she got me interested in doing a lot of stuff."

"Really? From what dad was saying, I'd have thought she was tough to work for." Her sister commented. "I'm glad you like her, though." She leaned closer, and dropped her voice. "So.. you found someone, didn't you?"

Kerry glanced at her. "What makes you say that?" She countered warily.

"Mm.. let's just say, I'm your sister, okay?" Angela smiled. "C'mon, spill it... did you bring pictures?"

Kerry folded her hands together and studied them. Of all her family, her sister was the only one she was willing to at least try to tell. Paradoxally, Angela was the one ally she had, and chances were, this would ruin that. No good choices. "Ar, you don't want to hear this."

Her sister was silent. "What do you mean?" She asked, in a puzzled tone. "Of course I do... I could hardly wait for you to get here."

"It's.. not what you think." Kerry started, very carefully. "It's not what you expect."

Angela glanced towards the door again, then reached out and folded her hands over her older sisters. "Ker... whatever it is, you can tell me. I'm your sister, remember?" She paused and waited, watching Kerry's face remain closed and silent. "Did you finally figure out you liked girls, and not guys?"

Green eyes widened in utter shock, as Kerry turned to look at her. She couldn't speak for a moment. "You knew?"

"Duh." Angela had to laugh at her expression. "Close your mouth, sis.. you'll attract gnats." She squeezed Kerry's hands. "Listen.. I should have talked to you about it before.. I was just... I don't know.. maybe it's all that indoctrination we got growing up."

Kerry lifted a hand and rubbed her temple, feeling a mixture of relief and shock. "I..."

"Hey.. take it easy." Angela put an arm around her shoulders. "Just because I live a stereotype, doesn't mean I donít' have a brain, sis."

"I know.. I... " Kerry laughed weakly. "I was just expecting a different reaction."

Angela sighed. "I know.. but Richard got this computer last year.. and you know he's never home? Well, I took it upon myself to wander out onto the Web.. it's really changed a lot of the things I used to think."

Her sister smiled wryly. "The wonders of modern technology."

"So.. did you bring pictures?" Angela's dark eyebrow lifted up.

Kerry studied her for a moment, then she got up and went to her laptop bag, unzipping the document pocket and removing a folder. She handed it to her sister and gave her a tense smile."That's her."

Angela willingly took the folder and flipped it open, peering at the pictures inside. After a moment, she looked up at her sister. "Jesus...she's gorgeous."

Kerry felt a big grin stretching her lips. She resumed her seat on the bed, and peered over Angela's shoulder. "Yeah, she is.. isn't she?... I like that one." It was a nice shot of Dar on the boat, leaning against the cabin front on the bow, one knee raised, the sunlight glittering off the droplets of seawater that beaded on her skin. The bathing suit left very little to the imagination, and once you stopped looking at that, you looked up at her face and were caught by those startlingly pale blue eyes.

'Oh wow." Angela turned it over and caught the next one, a picture of the view from the condo. "Where is this?"

Kerry cleared her throat. "Her place... the boat's her's too." She gave her sister a very wry look. "It's a private island off the tip of South Beach."

A soft whistle. "Wow... where'd you meet her?"

An awkward pause. "Um... she's.. my boss."

Angela looked up in utter shock. "That's Dar?"

Kerry nodded. "Yeah... I know it seems weird.. but we just hit it off from almost the first... I mean, it was a great opportunity and all, becoming her assistant, and at first I ... I thought it was just me, you know.. just a silly crush."

Angela shook her head. "You know, sis.. corporate VP, boat, pricey condo...except for one small detail dad would cream his shorts to get you involved with someone like that." She peered at her sister. "How serious is this?"

Kerry picked up the picture she was looking at, one where she'd actually gotten Dar to smile at the camera for. She smiled back in reflex. "It's serious."

"You know dad's going to flip out." Angela stated quietly. "I don't know if you should say anything.. maybe just put them off for a while, and get the heck out of here."

Before Kerry could answer, they heard their mother's voice. "Girls! Come on now, dinner's being served."

The two sisters glanced at each other. "Thanks for understanding." Kerry told the younger woman softly. "You don't know how much it means to me." She stood up. "C'mon..let's go and get this over with."

Angela stood, and hugged her. "Ker... whatever you do.. I'm with you, okay?"

Kerry hugged her back. "Likewise... I hear I'm going to be an aunt again."

Her sister sucked in a breath, and gazed at her. "Yes... but the baby isn't Richard's."

Kerry's jaw dropped. "Oh boy." She muttered.

"Girls!" Their mother's voice had a hint of impatience in it.

Angela smiled tightly. "We'll talk later."

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

They stepped into the dining room side by side, Kerry pushing up the sleeves on her sweatshirt, and Angela running her fingers through her curly brown hair. Richard was already there, sitting next to her father, and Kerry had a chance to look at them before they saw her.

Her father. A stocky man of middling height, with silver hair, and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, he gave the impression of sophisticated power. Seated next to him was her brother in law Richard, who was half his age, but taller, with thinning brown hair and a rugged, but slightly off centered face. His nose had been broken several times during his football playing days, and they'd never really gotten it just right.

Her father looked up and saw them, fixing his eyes on her as he leaned back.

Kerry called up the image she held in her mind of Dar, entering that hostile room in Orlando, and she lifted her chin a little as she crossed the parquet floor and took one of the remaining seats at the table. "Hello, Richard." She remarked quietly, as her sister took the chair next to her. "Dad."

"Good to see you, Ker." Richard gave her a friendly smile. "Nice shirt."

"Didn't know they had a base down there.." Her father commented. "You're looking.. healthy.. Kerrison."

Kerry smiled precisely at him. "Thanks.. and no, there's no base... a friend of mine gave it to me." She took the napkin at her place setting and opened it, settling it on her lap neatly. "How are things going for you?"

"Pretty good... you know how it is in stocks." Richard laughed a bit. "You're up, you're down.. right now, we're trying to hang on while the international stuff dies down." He peered at her. "We all don't get to sit out in the sun all day like you guys down in Miami."

Kerry pushed her hair behind her ear and accepted the jibe. "It definitely has it's advantages." She cheerfully agreed. "This past Sunday I was swimming in the ocean...it was beautiful weather."

"Thought that job would be keeping you too busy." Her father snorted.

"It does." His daughter replied. "I'm at the office before eight am, and I usually don't leave until after seven... after that I usually go to the gym, or out roller blading by my complex."

"I heard you work on Saturdays." Roger Stuart gazed across at his daughter.

"Occasionally." Kerry responded. "Depends on what projects I'm working on." She glanced up as her mother came in and seated herself. "My system at home will connect up to the office if I need it to."

Her father grunted. "I hear your boss pays you visits."

Nothing like getting right to the point, and before the soup's served, eh? Kerry sighed inwardly. "Sure... we work very closely together on stuff... and you know, despite all the stories I heard about her, I really like Dar."

Her sister hid a smile.

Senator Stuart glanced up as his soup plate was put down, then he picked up his spoon and pointed it at her. "That's a dangerous woman... you'd best steer clear of her." He took a spoonful of soup and tasted it. "More pepper, damn it."

Angela silently passed him the salt and pepper dishes.

"She can be, that's true." Kerry answered his comment. "But I consider myself lucky to have gotten the position under her.. and that's the main reason it just wouldn't make good sense for me to just up and leave." She tried to keep her voice calm, and reasonable. "The potential to learn, and to advance... I can't find that here."

"Why do you need that?" Her mother objected. "When you're married, and settled down.. what difference is it going to make?"

"C'mon, mother.. it's a great opportunity." Angela disagreed. "Once Kerry spends a little time in the position, she can move anywhere, and get the same kind of work., at the same level.. of course she wants to spend some time doing that...I bet she got a pay raise, didn't you?"

Kerry gave her sister a smile. "Boy, did I." She laughed. "I was surprised.. I thought they'd keep me at my previous salary while they tried me out, but no.. it was a thirty percent increase."

Even her father looked impressed.

"But you don't have to worry about that." Her mother persistently objected. "Brian's going to make you a very good living, dear."

"He's just out of school, mother." Angela dove back into the fray. "It's going to take a while... and besides, you can never have enough money, right dad?"

Roger Stuart grunted.

An awkward silence fell.

"So.. how about those Lions?" Richard asked, with forced cheerfulness. "That was some game the other day, huh?"

Kerry dove into her soup, glad the conversation had been directed away. So far.. so good, but looking at her father's closed face, she suspected he had another plan already in place. At least, she sighed, Kyle wasn't there. Facing his smug arrogance over the table would have made the dinner even more aggravating.

The door way nudged open, and the family cook, Elena poked her head in. "Everything all right here, ma'am?"

Cindy Stuart glanced up. "The soup's a bit on the bland side, Elena, the Senator likes more pepper in it."

Kerry caught the cook's eye and smiled at her. "I think it's great... I've missed your cooking, Elena."

The elderly woman smiled back at her. "Glad to hear you say so, Miss Kerrison." She pulled her head back and the door closed behind her.

Kerry took a roll from the napkin covered bread basket and split it open, enjoying the rich, warm smell, and ignoring her mother's scandalized look as she cheerfully covered it with butter. "Did you know my old account is supporting the IRS computers, dad?"

Senator Stuart glanced at her. "What?"

Kerry took a bite of her roll and chewed it. "Mmhm... that big website they use so people can get forms and information."

"What.. you mean they do their own taxes?" Richard laughed. "I haven't been able to do that since I left college."

Figures. Kerry refrained from rolling her eyes. "I file mine electronically.. just go to the transmitter's website, fill in a few fields, and click. It's gone." She took another bite of her roll, and a spoonful of the potato soup. "And my refund gets deposited automatically."

"Ah.. the simplicity of an unencumbered life." Richard smiled at her. "Wait until you start investing."

Kerry smiled right back. "I let my 401K do that for me, thanks...we have a company that handles that, and the stock options.. and the retirement fund." She chewed her roll and swallowed. "I just do my job, they take care of the rest."

"Wow.. that's a great benefit package." Angela commented, sipping a spoonful of the soup. "That's better than the one you had at the other place."

Kerry nodded. "Much.. but then, it's a much bigger company...it's a nice building, too. I have pictures if you want to see them later." She finished off her soup. "Including a shot from my office window.. wait until you see the view."

"Easy come, easy go." Her father commented. "From what I hear of your boss, she could just cut you loose anytime." He picked up a roll and took a bite out of it. "I don't like her way of doing business, and I'm going to get them out of our state contracts if it's the last thing I do."

Kerry bit her tongue to keep from leaping to Dar's defense. "Does the account not do what it's supposed to do?"

Senator Stuart looked. "How in the hell should I know? All that mixed up mumbo jumbo you people spout like garbage.. all I know is we asked for some simple things, and got told it wasn't going to happen, and nobody tells me that." He slapped a hand on the table. "Especially not some god damned smart mouthed woman."

Another awkward silence fell, as Kerry refused to rise to his baiting. Finally her mother cleared her throat. "Tell us about the Church bazaar you ran the other week, Angela."

They finished, and Richard gamely took on the Senator in a debate about offshore fishing rights, which the older man was reviewing as part of his work, while the Mary and Elizabeth, the two house maids silently cleared off the table.

Kerry sat back, and folded her arms across her stomach, wishing for an excuse to leave. Considering, she turned as Angela put her napkin down. "Wow.. that was great, wasn't it.. you up for a walk?"

Angela pursed her lips in amusement, then nodded. "Yeah.. we can head up towards the lake.. I think they're starting to string the Christmas lights up." She stood up. "We're going to go for a walk to the lake, Richard.. are you all right here with daddy?"

Her husband looked up blankly. "Huh? Oh.. oh.. sure, honey.. you go on.. have fun." He patted her knee condescendingly. "I know all this business talk must be boring you."

Kerry got up and retrieved her jacket from the closet, patting its pocket to make sure her cell phone was inside. Then she lifted her sister's jacket from its hook, and handed it to her as Angela met her at the door. "Thanks." She whispered.

"No problem.. that crap does bore me." Her sister replied softly. "Oh.. not that I don't think offshore rights aren't important, I do.. but I've heard this same argument six times already.. Richard's got some money in fishing futures, and he thinks he can influence daddy into voting the measure in."

They walked through the hall, and out the front door, closing it carefully behind them and exiting into a cold, clear night. Kerry tugged her Jacket shut, watching her breath appear before her eyes and chuckled softly. "Not used to this anymore."

Angela glanced at her. "Already?" She teased gently. "That old blood thins fast, huh?" She reached up and pushed her curly brown hair out of her face.

"You got that right." Her sister admitted. "I like being able to go out to pick up the paper on Christmas morning in a T-shirt, thanks." She kicked a rock out a head of her as they moved away from the house, and onto the path that would take them up towards the lake. "Dar was telling me the funniest stories of the first time she had to drive in snow and ice.. she ended up almost getting stuck in a washout gully."

Angela laughed. "I can imagine... heck, I almost did that when I first started driving.. and if I recall, you did some pretty horrible things yourself." She prodded Kerry's shoulder. "Remember the time you hit that cow?"

Kerry covered her eyes. "Oh.. god.. don't remind me of that... those pathetic brown eyes...it took half the debating team to get the car out of that field and lift her up." She sighed and rocked her head from side to side to loosen the muscles of her neck. "I needed a walk.. I'm stuffed."

Her sister chuckled. "Did you do that just to piss mom off?" She queried. "I thought she was going to have a coronary, watching you chow down like that."

That surprised a laugh out of Kerry. "No.. I didn't really.. I was just hungry. We didn't get anything on the plane except for peanuts, and I was too nervous to eat this morning." Actually, she reflected, she'd traded breakfast time with snuggling time, and hadn't regretted it. "I should have thought about that, about mom, I mean, but.. " She sighed. "I've guess I've gotten out of the habit of denying myself in the past month" It was always tiny portions at her mother's table, she remembered belatedly. No seconds, and tiny bites. Oh well. "One more nail on my coffin, right?"

Angela laughed. "I thought it was great.. I haven't seen you eat like that since we were kids.. and to be honest, sis..I thought the last time I saw you, on the Fourth.. that you were really too thin."

"Mm.. that's what Dar said." Kerry acknowledged soberly. "And.. that's what all my friends were telling me.. and I think I knew that, deep down, but.. I kept hearing that harping.. I didn't think it was worth fighting about." She admitted, with a sigh.

"I told mom that... she's got that weird Spartan mentality, though." Angela commented wryly. "So.. how did Dar manage to convince you?"

Kerry smiled. "Convince me? She subverted me." She laughed. "After I started working up in her building, I would find these cookies and god only knows what else on my desk all the time.. and I finally cornered her on it, saying, like, what is up with this, Dar?"

She reached down and picked up a rock, then tossed it to one side. "Then she told me she was worried I'd blow out the window if they opened the storm doors upstairs...I mean, she was really kind of cute about it, all embarrassed and everything.. so.. " Kerry shrugged. "I kind of chilled out about it." She reflected. "It was...harder than I thought at first, I kept wanting to do stupid things...like come back after we'd had dinner and make myself throw up... but my brain took over, and I didn't.. and then we went to Disney World, where I couldnít have gotten away with that if I tried, since Dar was with me every single minute practically, and after that.. " She chuckled softly. "And besides, I had so much more energy.. I mean, before, I would go to work, come home.. maybe one night or two I'd go out skating with Colleen, but mostly I'd just crash, because I was so tired.. now it's different.. I either go to the gym, or go blading, or I'm out with Dar.. or.. I'm hardly ever tired."

"In case I hadn't said this before, by the way.." Angela glanced at her. "You really do look fantastic, sis.." She watched Kerry hop from rock to rock down the path. "It's like you're a different person.. like you're more alive.. and your eyes sparkle like crazy.."

Kerry stopped and faced her. "Iím pretty sure that's not all chocolate chip cookies." She commented wryly, as she hopped off the last rock and trotted over to Angela. "For the last few weeks, I've felt better than I have in my entire life." She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath of the cold air, then let it out in a satisfied puff, watching the cloud gather around her head.

Angela shook her head a little. "I always knew when you finally fell in love, it'd be a doozy." She gazed at her sister. "That's what it is, isn't it?"

Kerry spread her arms wide, and threw her head back, drinking in the stars hungrily. "Yes." She breathed. "And it's wonderful." She let her arms drop, and cocked her head at her sister. "It was like I was waiting for this to happen all my life... and it was so strange, because the minute I saw her, I could feel it." She had to laugh. "And it was the most horrible of circumstances, too... but... oh my god, Angela.. I had no idea it was possible to feel this strongly about anything or anyone.. but I do."

Her sister put an arm around her shoulders. "I'm really glad to hear that.. it makes what I have to tell you a lot easier."

Kerry slid an arm around her waist and cocked her head. "What's that?"

A wry, half embarrassed smile crossed her younger sister's face. "The baby's father.. " She rested a hand on her still flat stomach. "It's Brian."

Kerry's jaw dropped, and she stared at her in amazement. "Holy cow!" It was a moment of shock, a moment of almost betrayal, then she laughed. "No wonder he hasn't called me since August."

Angela peeked at her. "You're not mad?"

Her sister sighed. "How could I be? You know how I feel about Brian.. he's sweet, he's one of my best friends.. I love him like a brother." A pause. "Period."

"He was so scared you weren't ever going to talk to him again." Her sister advised her. "That's why he's not over here tonight.. we made it up so that I would kinda.. um.. "

"Break the news?" Kerry hazarded.

"Eeyah... something like that." Angela nodded. "And if it looked like you were going to go ballistic, he was going to find some way to be recalled to college for the week."

"Chicken." The blond woman laughed. "Not that I blame him.. talk about awkward situations... " She paused, and glanced at the path they were still walking on. "What are you going to do?"

Angela steered them towards a bench overlooking the somber lake, and they sat down side by side. A light wind rustled the dead leaves around them, and whispered through the bare branches overhead. "I don't know." She finally answered. "You know I never wanted to marry Richard."

Kerry nodded. "I know... dad bullied you into it.. just like he was doing with me and Brian, but I got lucky."

Hazel eyes turned and regarded her. "It's not luck.. you're smart, Kerry.. really sharp, and you had a chance to go places.. I never did." Angela's college degree was in Literature. "Oh.. I could teach, you know.. but still." She sighed. "There wasn't any reason for me to go anywhere... and it wasn't so bad.. I mean Richard's not a bad guy, you know?"

"I know." Kerry gazed at her in quiet compassion. "And there's Sally." Her two year old niece.

"Yeah.. she really loves her daddy." Angela sighed. "I sure wish I did." She turned her eyes to Kerry. "Brian makes me feel so special.. he listens to me, and it's like... " She stopped and blinked. "He really likes you, Ker.. he doesn't want to lose you as a friend."

Kerry smiled. "How could he?" She rubbed her sister's back in gentle compassion. "He's just saved me from a task I've been really, really dreading."

Angela looked up. "Telling him?"

Kerry nodded. "I didn't want to hurt him.. I'm glad it's not going to be an issue." She paused. "Did you tell him about me?"

Angela hesitated. "I told him... that I thought you'd gotten involved with someone down there." She answered, cautiously. "I didn't get into specifics.. because I didn't have any, right?"

"Mm." Kerry nibbled her fingernail. "You think he'd freak out?" She asked. "We've been friends for a long time, but that's... I don't know.. for someone who's been brought up like he was, that's a tough thing to explain."

Angela considered. "I don't know.. we never talked about it." She answered honestly. "I'd like to say he'd be fine with it.. but I don't know.. he is pretty conservative."

"Mm." Kerry sighed. "Well, I'll have to feel him out.. what I don't want is Kyle finding out about it." She leaned back and gazed up at the clear sky. "Pretty night." She reflected, glancing at her watch, then pulling her cell phone out of her pocket and dialing a number. It rang twice, then picked up. "Hi there." She drawled into the receiver.

"Hi there yourself." Dar's voice rumbled back, a warm, velvety sound. "How's it going?"

"Mm.... Better than I expected, actually. " She glanced at her sister, who was listening with interest. "There are some... um.. complications... that I wasn't expecting.. apparently my sister here has taken Brian away from me, and is having his child."

She heard a startled squawk, and splash. "What?" Dar's voice came back, incredulous.

"Where are you?" Kerry inquired, curiously.

"In the hot tub.. what did you say?" Dar replied. "I thought your sister was married."

"She is." The blond woman answered solemnly. "Why are you in the hot tub? It's ten thirty at night, Dar."

A sigh answered her. "Because I went and drilled with John for two hours after teaching that class, and I'm regretting it." Dar replied. "That is a complication... what's she going to do?" More splashing. "Did you tell her?"

"Uh huh." Kerry replied, giving her now giggling sister a push. "She wasn't.. um... surprised."

"Really? Points for her." Dar laughed. "Hey.. I'm glad to hear it... sounds like things are going pretty good up there."

"Yeah.. yeah.. not bad... " Kerry sighed. "I'll survive, I guess... hey, you better get out of there before you turn in a raisin."

"Dried grape."

Kerry stared at the phone, a strangle tingle going up and down her spine. "What did you say?"

Splashing sounds, then the soft hiss of the sliding door opening and closing. "My mother always used to have that argument with my father.. he used to say, 'damned dried apples is dried apples, dried peaches is dried peaches, I ain't calling no pansy assed dried grape a raisin."

"Oh." Kerry laughed. "Sorry.. it sounded so weird..." She paused, just listening to the comforting sounds of Dar moving around, going in to the kitchen and pulling out, Kerry was sure, a glass for some milk. "Well.. I should let you go towel off... just wanted you to know things are going all right." She heard the refrigerator open, and the soft hiss of the milk dispenser and she smiled. "Enjoy your milk."

A chuckle. "You can hear that?" Dar asked, amused. "I'm glad you called.. I was just looking up at the stars and wondering what you were up to."

"Funny.. I was just doing the same thing." Kerry admitted. "It's cold up here.. Iím glad I got that new Jacket.. I've got your sweatshirt on underneath it." She related. "Oh.. and I found this little lizard in my bag.. any idea where it came from?" Her voice turned teasing.

"Lizard?" Utter innocence in Dar's voice. "What lizard?" Then she chuckled. "Been hanging on to that for a while... listen, Michelle struck again today.. she sent copies of those pictures up to Les."

"What?" Kerry's eyes widened. "What did you do?"

"I forwarded them to her boss, and offered to put in a bid to replace his camera resolution software." Dar replied dryly. "Don't worry.. I talked to Les.. it's okay." She added. "You might want to pick up mail if you get a chance... some idiot put me in charge of arranging entertainment for the Christmas party at work.. and I need some advice."

Kerry muffled a giggle with one hand. "Oh.. okay.. I will." She promised. "Listen.. have a good flight tomorrow, okay? Be careful."

"I will... you be careful too." The soft response came back. "Call me if you need anything."

"Count on it. Night, Dar." Kerry smiled. "I love you."

A soft chuckle. "I love you too.. and you nearly got me into some hot water with that today... you know where I was when you called?"

"Um.. no." Kerry bit her lip.

"In the cafeteria.. having coffee with Duks." Dar replied. "I think it warmed the cockles of his atheistic little heart."

"Eep. Sorry." Kerry squeaked, not really sorry at all.

"I'm not." Dar replied quietly. "Go get some rest so you can attack the turkey tomorrow."

"I will.. night." Kerry answered, folding up the phone as the line disconnected. and tucking it into her pocket Then she leaned back against the bench and gazed up at the stars again, remaining reflectively silent for a moment. "She's so different from me.. and yet, when we're together, it's like I've known her all my life.. I don't understand it sometimes."

Angela watched her in silence, then she reached over and covered Kerry's hand with her own. "I know it's not really what... " She stopped. "Well, last Sunday in church, the pastor was talking about how everyone out there, somewhere, has someone who completes them. Who are their other halves.. their soulmates. " She paused, seeing Kerry's body stiffen. "Maybe that's what you are."

Soulmates. The word echoed through her mind, turning corners and tearing through shuttered doorways of understanding. It finally settled home, draping over her heart like a silk handkerchief and she closed her eyes as she accepted the truth of it. "You may be right." She whispered. "I never thought of that.. I remember Pastor Robert talking about it when I was in college."

Angela nodded. "He still does... and when he talks about it, it always makes me wonder if he has found his, because his face lights up so." She rubbed Kerry's fingers. "Maybe you should go talk to him... Kerry, he's always been so fond of you. He asks about you all the time."

Kerry turned toward her, serious. "I don't think he'd understand, Angie...he's a pastor."

Wise, hazel eyes warmed her. "I think he'd understand a lot better than you think, sis." She studied Kerry's face. "You don't go to church down there, do you?"

A shake of the blond head. "No.. there isn't one of our denomination around.. at least where I live. There are a few up in Broward, but... " She glanced at the ground. "I miss that sometimes.. maybe I will go talk to him." She stifled a yawn. "Dar's right.. it's been a long, aggravating day.. are you guys staying over?"

Angela nodded. "Yes... Sally's with Richard's mother... hey, what about I toss Richard over for the night, and we share the room you're in like we used to.. how about it?"

Kerry smiled at her. "You know.. I'd really like that." She stood and held a hand out to her sister. "C'mon.. I'll snitch some hot chocolate out of the kitchen, and you can see the rest of my pictures."

Angela allowed herself to be tugged upright by her shorter sister, then she wrapped an arm around her and they started back.

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 Continued in Part 14