A trace of mist covered the pasture, rolling over the greenery like a gigantic spider's web. From atop the hillock, a peaceful almost surreal feeling filled the woman as ice blue eyes gazed at the early morning reception of a new day. A faint smile tugged at the thin lips of the horse rider. As the rider's gaze extended, her vision, though impaired, made out miniature structures over the flat landscape. They finally rested on one particular myriad of buildings that brought an all out smile to her face.
With a leather gloved hand, the rider reached down to stroke the neck of the horse and whispered, “I guess that's our peace and quiet for today Tralargon. It's time for me to go home to the noisy family and you to the comfort of your stables. I almost envy you Tralargon…but only almost.” She chuckled as she drew her gaze back to the marvellous scenic view before her.
The horse whinnied softly and the warm air from its nose floated around them.
Catherine Warriorson felt the tension of the previous week's away reach inside her gut. Thankfully, she was alone and could frown at the instinct, without someone, asking what the matter was–Jace in particular. At times, she treated her like a child, particularly when she was sick. It wasn't that the ministrations were ever unwelcome but she felt like she was under a microscope. “You know she's never forgotten that bout of pneumonia I had last year. Anyone would think she was going to lose me. Yeah like I'd let that happen.”
Her eyes flew upwards as she realised she was talking to herself again. She wasn't technically and Tralargon was better than a close friend–she listened without judging. She'd been home from her US trip only a day and still hadn't found the time to talk to Jace about the future. It was going to be hard, but it would work out just like it always did…Jace made sure of that. “Ok girl let's go home.”
Moments later, they were cantering toward the homestead and her date with a woman she would love until the end of time.
+ + +
As Catherine removed Tralargon's bridle and saddle, she ran the previous weeks like a movie through her head, particularly that last meeting that would shape her life along with that of Jace and the children in the near future.
Catherine alternately glanced at the two dark suited men and the three senior executives at the New York offices of Xianthos. Her expression was devoid of emotion while her lips were a thin yet determined frontier for any attack. Her ice blue eyes seemed to glint as the weak afternoon sun occasionally caught them. A shift in the demeanour of one of the men seated to her left had her hair flicking her shoulders as she turned her head to concentrate on them.
“If I ignore what you're saying to me as overly cautious then what do you think will happen?”
The man who had moved in his chair rubbed the darkening stubble on his chin and frowned. His watery brown gaze wavered under the tightening grip of the blue eyes. Then he cleared his throat and replied, “The IRS is sure to prosecute and I'm not sure you'll escape a jail term.”
A gasp from the others in the room had Catherine's expressionless face turning toward them. It was painful to see the bland expressions and very little sympathy–it wouldn't have been like that a few years earlier. The faces she saw before her were strangers. Up until recently, they were merely names on reports and the odd face to face confrontation by video link. Things had changed over the years. She might technically still handle the helm of the corporation, but it was crystal clear that she'd spent too many years allowing her company to drift instead of listening to the subtle rumblings that forewarned of danger in the business. In much the same even tone she asked, “Is that all?”
Puzzled glances shot her way and her adrenalin rushed–something she'd forgotten. In the past when she'd cut, thrust and in some cases murdered the corporate foe, the feeling was the same.
“Not exactly…unless you can come up with solid proof that someone has been sabotaging your returns over the past three years and systematically siphoning off millions, to god knows where, you could lose the assets as well. I doubt you have a personal fortune to pay the back taxes and the costs attributed to the defence in the court case…particularly if you lose. I take it you will defend the accusation?”
Catherine glowered as she curled her lip in scorn. “Most might have considered I'm out to pasture now with my farming interests at home. However, trust me; I will defend what's mine on any battle ground. There's no question that I will take this ridiculous situation to the bitter end and win.” The words held the strength and arrogance of the old corporate Catherine.“I want you to arrange a meeting with the IRS. It's in both our best interest to resolve this amicably.”
The other dark suited man who hadn't spoken said, “Once you arrange this meeting they'll probably want you to remain in the country until the issues are cleared up. That won't be a short visit it might take months…even years.”
“You're my attorneys, make it happen and I'll be here for however long it takes.”
“We'll talk again when the meeting is arranged. Good afternoon Mrs Warriorson.” The men left the room with the only acknowledgement from the woman, a slight nod and raised eyebrow.
That left the three other executives and Catherine walked over to the conference table were they sat. Like a giant prowling cat, she leaned over and placed her palms flat on the polished table and stared at the two men and one woman. Fear and nervousness oozed from them and Catherine saw trepidation on their faces.
“I was given the impression that you three were the best in the city. How is it that I'm now in this position? Unless of course, one of you or, perhaps are all in cahoots,” Catherine said with barely discernable anger.
No one spoke.
“What's this? Am I paying top dollar for silence?” Her eyes went from man to woman to man as she waited for an answer–she received none. “Right now the three of you are as responsible for the theft and fraud in this company as the felon perpetrating this fiasco. From today on I expect each of you to work twenty-four seven sorting through every invoice, tax return and any other financial slips of paper that has ever gone through this corporation in the last five years.”
“That's ridiculous it might take years!” John Carson exclaimed as his black moustache twitched on his upper lip.
Catherine let out a cynical laugh. “You'd better get on with it then. Do you two have anything to say?”
Shaun Roberts, merely shaking his head, gazed at her in disbelief and said nothing.
The willowy woman blinked rapidly in an almost hypnotic effect, through the thick lenses of her unfashionable spectacles. In a quiet, studious voice she said, “Why five years? It should be three…isn't that when things went wrong?”
Catherine gazed at the woman. She'd read her personnel file and it was glowing. She was young and amazingly enough head of accounting for mergers and acquisitions. “At last,” Catherine said, “someone with a reasonable question. Well Ms. Franks, it's like this…Five years ago we were ok, now we aren't. If you familiarize yourself with what was above board then you might filter out the moment everything went wrong and track the culprit.”
“That makes sense,” Gwen Franks acknowledged. “I guess we'd better get to work then.”
“Finally, something I do understand. Get out of here and don't let a word of this get out. If it does, I know where it came from,” Catherine said as she moved away from the conference table to her desk.
Within seconds, the room was empty and her office was silent once again. Walking over to the window, she glanced down at the tiny beings coming and going about her business. It finally sunk in to her consciousness that for the foreseeable future this was going to be home. “Crap how am I going to tell Jace…not to mention the kids.”
She strode back to her desk, sat down in the leather chair, and contemplated what was happening with her company. Her eyes flicked to the report that she was given in a briefing less than forty-eight hours earlier–it didn't paint a pretty picture. According to the IRS her corporation owed millions in defaulted taxes and there was even an unqualified investigation on mergers and acquisitions that had been completed in the last three years. If they were all faulty then she could say goodbye to a healthy retirement. She'd lose most of her personal assets, including Destiny, and do a stretch in prison.
The one thing that kept repeating in her mind was when exactly had it all gone pear shaped? The easy answer was to blame others. Constance Waverley, her president, had left the company around that time. Clare, Constance 's partner and her private assistant at the company, gave the woman an ultimatum. Her inability to have children had placed the onus firmly in her court and it was either her career or a baby. Baby and family life had won over being a corporate giant.
They didn't need the money, their personal salaries and bonuses in the previous years would have kept most couples and small families in a comfortable position for many years. Then there were the shares they had in Xianthos. In essence on a comfortable budget they didn't need to work and that's exactly what happened. They'd bought a place in the France and were bringing up their two year old son happily there–who could blame them. In reality, she'd done pretty much that herself in the last decade.
Jason Bardley, Jace's father had taken the helm until his heart attack three years earlier. For several months, he was incapacitated. After that, he only came in the office for major board meetings. Jason had allowed things to lapse in certain areas. He'd asked for her help with the workload and she'd ignored him. Her assumption was it would get it better–it didn't. Jace had hauled her over the coals for placing so much work on a man who should be retiring not heading a major corporation.
“Ah yes Jace, I really don't know how I'm going to tell you that we have to leave Destiny…or that it might be permanent.”
The phone rang and her secretary, Cynthia Reynolds, another new face on the block, dragged her from thoughts of home. “Yes?”
“Ms. Bardley asked if you were free to see her,” Cynthia said in an efficient somewhat nasally tone.
“Send her in.” Catherine as she contemplated the arrival of her sister-in-law.
Seconds later, the door to her office opened and Lucy Bardley walked inside. As she moved further into the room, Catherine watched the woman and marvelled how the green-kid from ten years ago had turned out to be a poised and able businesswoman. “Good to see you Lucy. Did you get the information I wanted?”
Lucy gave the older woman a long cool glance. Her jaw tightened slightly before she said, “Yes.” Opening her purse, she pulled out a pen drive and slid it across the desk.
Catherine glanced at the small device and wondered if her sister-in-law had come up with the goods, “Is it what I asked for?” Her tapering fingers picked it up and idly twirled it in her hand.
“The information you wanted…yes?” Lucy informed her.
“Sit Lucy…I don't bite,” Catherine said annoyed with Lucy's belligerent stance.
Lucy snorted and sat in the seat on the right side of the desk. “It's all there.”
“I don't doubt it.” She twisted the small device in her fingers again and then placed it on the desk before giving her full-attention to the younger woman. Then with a heavy sigh she said, “I know you and I haven't always seen eye to eye. In fact, I think in other circumstances we'd be darn right vitriolic with each other. However, for the sake of the family ties we've set aside our differences and agreed to at least be polite. This can't have been easy I want to thank you…”
Lucy put her hand in the air. “Don't say it. If you do, I might have to reciprocate one day. Until the day I die I'll hate you Catherine and we both know why.”
“Look, your sister can make her own decisions and she did when she came to live with me. I'm damned if I'll allow your petty misconceptions to haunt me. We've been together a long time now. Can you see her running back to the bosom of her family because I'm cruel to her or the children? Can you?” Catherine said savagely.
“Jace made her bed and I understand that. But my hatred of you isn't about Jace and you know it,” Lucy said in a deathly quiet voice.
Catherine dragged a hand through her hair.. “For an intelligent woman, and we both know you are, you never did understand that situation. Get over it Lucy, he was scum and you're well rid of him. I only did what anyone would do for family.”
“You're not my family! You're so damned selfish that if the world around you was collapsing you'd save yourself and leave everyone including your precious Jace and children to fend for themselves.” Lucy stood up and her pent up anger manifested itself in the movement of her body.
Catherine stood up too. Lucy had always managed to get under her skin. She gritted her teeth and said, “You don't know anything about me if that's the opinion you have. Are you travelling back with me for Jace's party?”
“I'd sooner swim! Look you know where to find me if you want more information. Next time it will cost you more than a favour to my dad who intervened on your behalf. I'd like to say it was great to see you but I'd prefer to keep it as we do with thousands of miles as a barrier between us,” Lucy retorted with a sneer before she left the room.
Catherine stood where Lucy left her seething. Her mind meticulously going over ways of making Lucy pay in the most gruesome manner. Then she looked down at the object in her hand and called her secretary.
The woman entered her office she was barely five feet tall but had an administration head on her shoulders that made her giant in the office. “Yes Mrs. Warriorson how can I help?”
Catherine held up the device. “There's some sensitive information on this drive and I want to ensure that only you and I have access to it. Will you secure the files for our eyes only?”
For the first time since they'd met three weeks earlier, Cynthia Reynolds glowed at finally getting something responsible to do. “Why of course. Is there a particular password you'd prefer?”
“No, in the first instance you decide. When you've transferred the data, we'll discuss it and I'll choose my own password. Thanks.” Catherine nodded to the woman who left for her office.
A few minutes later, the pen-drive had deposited the information on to her laptop.
Cynthia Roberts returned and asked, “Do you need the data again Mrs. Warriorson? We can delete it now if you want?”
“Deletion is good. Thanks Cynthia. Will you get my tea please…and make it strong I need it.” Catherine gave a small smile then focused on the computer file in front of her. “Oh and bring a drink for yourself we need to discuss this information now.” When the woman had left, she opened the file and began to read the contents. What she found there had her hanging her head in shame that she'd neglected her responsibilities for so long.
Lifting her head, she glanced over to the wall that held the portrait of her father. “I guess my back is against the wall again Dad. I wonder what you would do…fight or give it all away.” Then she turned her attention to the information Lucy had supplied and made a decision. “I'm going to fight. That's the only thing I know how to do.”
She continued to read the report Lucy had complied waiting for her private assistant to return.
+ + +
“Nathan, leave Mrs. Snow be. She can't make every meal one of your favourite dishes,” Jace remarked as she swiftly turned to her youngest daughter. “Allison what have I told you about not washing your hands after touching the dog. If mamma catches you…well,” Jace said admonishing the twins. Then seeing their crestfallen faces she gave them a wink. “Both of you go wash up. Mamma promised to be home before five and Allison, remind Elena it's almost time for dinner.
There was a chorus of oks as the twins left the kitchen area and the noise level diminished. The only sound was the indulgent chuckle from the middle-aged housekeeper.
“Oh the wee ones what would we do without them,” Mrs. Snow said in a softly spoken voice. She smiled then returned her attention to her cooking.
Jace shook her head as she walked to the kitchen window–no sign of Catherine. Frowning she sat down at the large kitchen table and said, “Do you need a hand Mrs. Snow?”
The woman grinned with pleasure. “No dear I have everything under control. I'm making Steak and kidney pudding one of Catherine's favourites. I hope she's not late.”
Jace smiled. “She was only gone a month but it seemed like a year. We have to provide the little things she loves or one day she might decide not to come home.” It was an absent remark and the housekeeper clucked reprovingly under her breath. “I was only joking. Catherine and Destiny can never be separated. I swear she loves this place more than she does me.” Although the older woman laughed and nodded, Jace wasn't so sure that her statement was out of the question.
There was a strained atmosphere when Catherine had returned home. Initially she'd put it down to jetlag but when Catherine had shown her in a very physical way that she'd missed her she knew that wasn't the case. She could tell there was something that Catherine was holding back. Until it came out into the open misunderstandings usually occurred. Unfortunately, that happened more often than she wanted to admit these days. She wondered if it was her fault since her mood swings had been volatile in the past few months. There was something she desperately wanted to talk to Catherine about but when she thought the time was right it never was. How could the time ever be right for what she had to tell her wife? “God life can be such a mess!”
The sound of a horse cantering into the cobbled area of the stable yard was like a magical tune to her ears. “I think she must have heard me.”
“Yes, I've noticed that about you both.”
Jace frowned. “You have?”
The woman didn't turn to look at Jace as she carried on with her cooking. “Why yes. If either of you talk about the other who isn't there…well, it's almost like telepathy. Either you turn up or she does. I've always found that quiet endearing.”
Jace was speechless as she pondered that little gem. Do we really do that? After about fifteen minutes, Catherine opened the outer door to the laundry and Jace stood up and walked toward the inner door of the laundry area to meet her wife. As she did, she saw Catherine struggling to remove a heavy sweater, which was half way over her head.
With a smile, Jace silently walked to Catherine and placed her hands around the woman's midriff. “Need any help?” her fingers began to trace the underside of the breasts that pulsed against Catherine's shirt.
“Oh now if I thought being blindfolded would entice this reaction from you I'd do it more often.” She felt the buttons of her shirt open and warm flesh touch her bra moving to the nipples that had grown when Jace touched her.
Jace grinned as she dealt with the only barrier to her touching what was hers. “I love you,” she said in a thin thread of a whisper before she placed her lips against the thin fabric.
Catherine groaned at the sensual touch and closed her eyes as she reached up and threw off her sweater. She fastened her gaze on the blonde head that nestled into her chest. “I suppose it's too much to hope that can we delay dinner?”
There was a muffled exclamation as Jace trailed her tongue over the nipple showing through the bra.
“Hmm, I thought so…how about an early night instead.” Catherine began to play her own pattern with her fingers on Jace's rear as she pulled the smaller body closer to hers.
Then just as they began a closer inspection of each other, they heard shrill voices. “Later,” Jace huskily said before she kissed Catherine long and hard.
“Most definitely later.” Catherine held Jace away from her and gazed at the woman who'd entered her life fourteen years earlier. There were lines at the corner of her eyes–laugh lines, which were endearing. In fact, her lady was ageing nicely including the few extra pounds she carried that added to the appeal.
Jace reluctantly withdrew. “I'll see you in the mad house in a few minutes.”
Catherine shook her head and chuckled as Jace left with the blowing of a kiss. “God I love that woman.” Catherine felt her spirits soar as she buttoned her shirt before she washed up and then entered the fray that was their normal family dinner time.
+ + +
The bedroom had that smell about it–sensually erotic.
Catherine lay with Jace pillowed on her chest as a happy murmur emanated from the smaller body. They were both satisfied.
Unexpectedly, Jace moved to peer into Catherine's sated features. With a penetrating gaze she asked, “Now are you going to tell me what's bothering you?”
Taken aback by the question, Catherine remained silent as insistent fingers traced patterns on her collar bone–why spoil the moment. “Absolutely nothing could be wrong with me after the hour we've just spent. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, that little thing called intuition where you're concerned.” She stretched her naked body until her fingers could touch the blank features of her lover. “It's the tiny frown that appears when you think I'm not looking and the way you look off into the distance that tells me that you need to be anywhere other than where you are.”
Unconsciously, Catherine drew her left eyebrow to her forehead to meet the lines that had formed there. “I think you're seeing things Jace.”
“Nope! I'm Catherine Warriorson's number one fan and I know when something's up. We both know once you tell me the worry will disappear like magic…right.” Jace's face slightly serious, wishing she could take her own advice and tell Catherine what was worrying her. She placed a delicate kiss on the lips that had pursed at her words.
“It can wait until tomorrow Jace…right now I have more interesting tasks for those luscious lips of yours.” Catherine bent her head and sucked the willing lips into her mouth quickly replaced by a tangle of tongues.
When the passionate kiss ended, Catherine's hands began to wander rather deliciously over Jace's breast she sighed in both pleasure and frustration. “I have a better idea. You tell me what I want to know and I'll make it worth your while.” Her hand moved to the pulsing mound of her lover–two could play the same game.
Catherine's resolve not to have the conversation was gradually slipping from her grasp. In many people's minds, Jace might seem as though she submitted to the subservient role in their relationship, but in reality, Jace held the aces–all of them. “Ok, you wanted to know. Don't blame me if it places a wet rag over your ardour.”
Jace chuckled as she kissed the collarbone next to her lips. It tasted of salt and the musky smell that was Catherine. “Nothing could do that love.”
The confidence of the response had Catherine silently shaking her head before she drew in a deep breath and began. “Xianthos is having some financial troubles,” Jace's sudden jerk of her head to catch Catherine's eyes. “Don't worry, everything will be ok. I just need to spend some time there sorting it out.”
Jace rolled her eyes. “Oh is that all. Why didn't you just tell me?” she said as her lips attached like a limpet to Catherine's throat.
Groaning at the exquisite agony of the touch, Catherine hoarsely said, “Because it will mean I have to leave Destiny for some time, in fact we all will.” There it was out in the open and Jace would understand just as she always did.
The lips slowed and then stopped their demanding ravages of Catherine's throat, as the words slipped through Jace's subconscious into reality. She lifted her head and gazed perplexingly into the blue eyes. “What do you mean some time and we all will?”
Clearing her throat with eyes that never wavered, Catherine said, “The work will probably take me away for a year maybe more. As a family we've always discussed that a short time away is acceptable but if it was a longer time we would go together.”
Jace moved away from the warm inviting body and lay like a statue next to Catherine. Leave Destiny…that's ridiculous. “A year or more? You want me to take the children from the only home they know and go half way round the world for a year or more?”
Catherine felt the atmosphere of indulgent sex move to one of mild anger and disbelief. “I take it the proposal isn't to your liking. I thought you would be pleased. It will give you more time with your family. The kids will love it…it will be a new adventure.”
Jace felt her irrational annoyance with Catherine start to mount. It had been something that had been developing for several months and she knew why but was too much of a coward to tell the woman who lay quietly next to her. One bombshell for another maybe this was the perfect timing.
Instead, she sighed heavily and retorted, “I'm sorry Catherine, but the children are at a critical stage in their education. Elena is just coming to terms with her high school and the twins are in their final years of their primary. You've always said that business would never interfere with our family life. Why has that changed all of a sudden?”
Catherine bit her bottom lip. “Things change…we do…and the world does. What I thought a few years ago just doesn't apply. We adapt or …”
Jace moved like lightening to lean over Catherine, her gaze piercing the blue orbs. It was very clear sex had nothing to do with her intentions. “Or what?”
“Look, Jace, let's talk about this tomorrow. In the light of the day, everything will be ok. Trust me.”
“Trust you? When do you care what others think? If I categorically said that I wouldn't go and the kids will stay here what will you do then?”
A hurt expression flickered for a few moments across Catherine's face. “I care. What makes you think I don't?”
Catherine's injured look permeated Jace's irrational attitude but it made no difference. “Look at your hairstyle for one. I loved your hair longer for it was who you were and the woman I loved.”
“You don't love me because of a change in my hairstyle? Wow, who have I been kidding all these years?” Catherine bit out in frustrated anger.
“That wasn't what I meant or said. I was merely pointing out that you don't always think about others. That's all. You're right…we'll talk about this tomorrow.” Jace flopped back on the bed with her mind in a whirl.
“Yeah I just bet we will. Well tomorrow, I'm going to announce it to the kids. I'm sure they will react with a little more excitement than you have.” Catherine closed her eyes and hoped that Jace would nestle back into her body–she didn't. The smaller woman rolled on her side away from Catherine in aggrieved silence.
+ + +
Catherine sank down on her knees next to the well-manicured graveside of her husband and first born son. The gravity of her situation had her, instead of discussing the situation with Jace, as she knew she should, talking as she always did in times of extreme emotional crisis with the dead. Her left hand dragged itself through her short hair that she'd sported on her return home. Jace had taken one look and hated it. Of course, her wife hadn't verbally stated as much until a day later and she'd seen what a mistake she'd made at the aggrieved bewilderment in Jace's expression. The kids had liked it when they finally noticed.
However, the change in hairstyle had been the tip of the iceberg in the changes that were to present itself to the family. The question was how to go about such a traumatic event without suffering backlash. That question already had an answer–impossible.
Since Jace had insisted on knowing, she had been icy cold for days. The kids didn't speak to her unless spoken to and she had a feeling that her horses knew she was abandoning them too. I'm not! Why don't they understand my point of view? The one person in the world who should have given her the opportunity to explain properly was Jace. But, all she received was the look that told her nothing she could say would change anything. It was going to happen, one way or another, with or without her family's support.
They were bold words and ones she had voiced at the top of her voice angrily only half an hour earlier. That set in motion her need to have her opinion and thoughts voiced if only to the macabre silence around her.
“I can understand the kids in part not wanting to leave here and move to a strange country but Jace. She's American for god sake! She should welcome the chance to go home. Her parents are there. Her sister would only be a car ride across town and she could do anything she wanted. Look up old friends, show the kids around her country and….dammit, the list is endless. But oh no, Jace doesn't want to go back and certainly she doesn't want the kids to leave their environment here. I wonder if there's something she's not telling me…no she can't keep a secret to save her life.” Blowing out a hot breath of air that the cooling wind tossed back to her like a returned tennis ball, she stared at the headstone of her son.
Something caught her attention and her gaze swung to the darkening skies. When she'd left, it had been vaguely cloudy and she recalled hearing there was a threat of rain. Now, the panorama overhead was like her thoughts, grey and black overshadowing any blue that had previously been there. She had to get home. If she waited any longer, she wouldn't be able to negotiate several of the tricky dirt tracks that lead from the grave site to the safety of the lower pastures. She chose the horse she was riding at random and she realized that the newer gelding would not be able to negotiate the unfamiliar territory without her guidance.
A spot of rain landed on her duster hat and within seconds, the spot became a deluge. “Can anything else go wrong? No matter what they all think I have to do this. If I don't, we might lose it all and I'm not going to allow my kids and Jace to spend the rest of their lives without the things they've become to accept as normal. It isn't going to happen…not on my watch.” She stood up and gave the gravestones one last look. Sighing heavily, she said, “It's going to be a while before I'm back but I'll never forget you.”
Catherine untethered the reigns and carefully mounted the horse. The rain was a veritable storm as she steered the skittish horse toward the dirt track leading down to the valley.
+ + +
Jace had spent, a lifetime it seemed, adapting to Catherine and her mood swings. For the first five years, much of the changes involved the arrival of children. The upheaval that caused was understandable and they would have to make sacrifices. Although, having a nanny when the twins came along and a housekeeper had been a luxury that most folks never had.
Catherine's attitude in the week since she'd arrived back from her sudden and obviously unsuccessful trip to America and the Xianthos Corporation was the worst. There were times when not all the love in the world would plaster over the cracks that needed renovation or eradication. When Catherine told her the news, she'd almost had a heart attack. Along with her wife's new hairstyle, it had all been too much to take. Her mind drifted to the image of Catherine's hair threading through her fingers when they cuddle together on the sofa or made passionate love. It had always been an added turn on for her. It was obvious that Catherine hadn't even considered her in the decision process.
She knew that the cracks had begun to show in their relationship months before. It had been her fault and she accepted that but was it too late to make it right. However, admitting it publicly was another thing altogether. The hours they usually spent together had dwindled into snatched conversations and meal times with the rest of the family. Somewhere over the months, probably in minute ways over the years, they'd forgotten to spend quality time alone. They had both spent more time with other people than each other. Catherine with Colin on their trips to other properties and she…shaking her head she closed her eyes and pondered where it all went wrong as she considered a particular episode that happened six months earlier.
“Hey Jace did you find that book Henry was looking for?”
Jace chuckled, as her voice, muffled from inside the large cupboard in the Vicar's home. “Nope it isn't in here.” Then spied the book and excitedly shouted to the vicar, “I've got it.”
The Reverend Gillian Jacobs walked over the monster piece of furniture. “You're a wonder Jace.”
Jace shook her head, moved upwards suddenly, and hit her head against the door. She cried out as the wood hit her just above the eyebrow. “Darn that hurt.”
Gillian took hold of Jace's hand and half dragged her over to the light of the window to check the injury. “Superficial. I'm afraid that means you still have to come to church Sunday.” The woman smiled and gently touched around the skin.
“Yeah, I'm only good for the odd bruise or two. I'm never sick,” Jace cheerfully replied. She suddenly had an odd feeling as the vicar's fingers gently massaged the area.
“I'd call that lucky. How about tea it's good for a shock. Take a seat and I'll make us a cuppa.” Gillian left her at the window and gingerly Jace traced her finger over the area and shook her head at her previously odd feeling. It must be that Catherine's away again I'm missing her.
Fifteen minutes later with the tea drunk, Jace stood up from her seated position and looked at the clock. “I need to go, I've promised the twins a visit to the cinema tonight, and with Catherine away it's one of their many treats until she gets back.”
Gillian nodded. “When will that be?”
Jace barely heard the softly spoken words. “Who knows? Probably end of next week,” was her pragmatic reply.
“She's away a lot these days I noticed.”
“Oh is she? I never thought about it really. We both have interests that keep us busy. Take me for instance. I'm around your place more than I am mine when we're working on the orphan projects and the kids are in school.” Jace smiled as she collected her purse fishing inside for her car keys.
Gillian sighed and nodded, “I know. It gets kind of lonely when you go home.”
Jace heard the melancholy in the vicar's voice. We've known each other for almost eight years…surely Gillian isn't interested in me…that's ridiculous! “Yeah I have that feeling too when Catherine's away. Well I have to go Gill, see you Sunday.”
“I'll look forward to it,” Gillian remarked quietly.
Jace ran to her car. “Do I dare jokingly tell Catherine that the vicar might be interested in me? Not a good move. Oh well, it was probably my imagination anyway.
Jace drew her thoughts from that episode to the beauty of the scenery from the special porch Catherine had added especially for her, which called to her heart. Here she was home. The area had been a place to have some quiet time away from the rest of the family if she needed it although everyone was welcome there. She knew that they'd go away calmer than when they entered. It was because of the magic of the surroundings she thought. The mountains stood majestically ageless and tolerant of all that moved below. They seemed to curve around her special area protectively with the tops of the highest covered in a sprinkling of snow that added a sense of well being.
As she continued to gaze heavenward, Jace noticed the cooling temperature and the darkening clouds–rain. She shivered as the temperature change sent a finger of ice down her back. Standing, Jace headed for the warmth of the main house and encountered a tall child with dark curly hair at the door.
Jace sighed inwardly as she saw Elena's furrowed brow and the consternation on her pretty features. If a stranger came to the door and she asked them to name the child's mother they would say Catherine. Other than green eyes, her daughter looked like the spitting image of her adopted mother did as a child.
Catherine's aunt Constantia had provided that link with Catherine's past. The passing of the woman five years earlier had been heart wrenching for them all. Had it not been for the twins, Jace suspected Catherine might never have gotten over losing the last of her blood relatives.
Her attention turned to her daughter as she heard an accusing voice. “Mom, if you hadn't been so…so angry, Mamma wouldn't be out there in that.” She pointed to the steadily increasing rain fall.
“Oh, so it's my fault now. This morning you hardly had a nice word to say about Mamma. Why the sudden change?” Jace passed her daughter who moved slightly to allow her to enter.
Elena scowled. “You know she's not good out there in the dark. Her eyesight is crap.”
Jace's expression changed to annoyance. “You will not speak like that young lady. Her eyesight is only impaired in one eye…she can see well enough. Besides the horse will bring her home, they all know the way.”
Muttering something under her breath Elena belligerently said, “Well she didn't take one of her usual horses she took one of the new geldings. They haven't a clue.”
Jace growled and shook her head. There were times when Catherine didn't use the intelligence she was born with and this was one of those times. Then she returned her attention to her thirteen year old daughter. “I'll call the foreman at the stables to send someone out to check.”
“I'll go,” Elena said. “By the time you do that and they find someone to go it will be dark. You know Mom…if you'd learned to ride like Mamma always wanted, you could go and sort this all out.” With a surly expression, the teenager curled her lip.
Constantia told her about Catherine's temper tantrums growing up and Elena was following a parallel line. “I'll deal with this! Go back to doing whatever you were doing before and thanks.”
“Like you care,” Elena said with snort of anger before hastily exiting the room.
Closing her eyes, Jace felt a headache developing as she slowly shook her head. Is this what we have in store for the next few years? No wonder Catherine, wants a change of scenery. Then her mind travelled to the memory of a kiss and the real reason she was angry all the time.
“I see Catherine is conspicuous by her absence,” Reverend Gillian Jacobs remarked quietly as she and Jace finalised the orphanage plans for next year.
Jace nodded, “Yep, a problem with one of the smallholders down south. I don't envy her and Colin. At this time of year it's freezing there.”
Gillian and Jace walked to the door of the church hall and opened the door. As Jace was about to leave through the swinging door, the reverend's hand snaked out and caught her arm–the door swung shut.
“Yes Gill?” Jace's face scrunched in question. “Do you need me for anything else?”
The innocent remark held a whole new meaning for Jace as the reverend placed her arms around her in a gentle yet firm hold. Then she kissed Jace deeply.
It wasn't that she reacted to the kiss…or did she. On one level, she supposed she did, but as soon as her mind registered that the woman wasn't Catherine, Jace forced her body away from Gillian and ended the kiss.
“What, what are you doing Gill?” Jace's face mirrored shock and surprise in almost the same instant as her voice.
Gillian stared at Jace almost accusingly as she breathlessly replied, “I love you Jace and I want to spend my life with you.”
Jace astonished and bewildered by the turn of events said, “Gill you can't be serious. You know I love Catherine. She's my partner in everything. I don't think of you in that way. How could you think I would?”
Swallowing hard, Gillian shook her head.“She's never around and you're always here…what else am I to think.”
Jace burst out, “But…but you're my friend. We've known each other for years. We have similar interests but I don't love you Gill…not like that!”
“I could make you love me like that Jace. Why should we both be lonely? Catherine doesn't know what she's missing leaving you for so long. She's damned selfish.”
Jace drew in a deep breath and moved closer to the woman who had before her eyes, literally changed her spots. Her anger at being in this position fuelled the fire that burned at Gillian's accusation. “You will never ever speak of Catherine that way again Gillian. She's the most giving person I know. She loves the children and me so much that she would sacrifice her life for us. I will not have anyone disrespect her that way. Now, if we're done here Reverend I have a family to go back too.”
The words echoed off the thin walls. Gillian moved backwards as if Jace had struck her as a look of shame filled her face.
Jace shook her head. “I'll see you in church Sunday Reverend. Good afternoon.” With her head held high, Jace left the building. Once she was inside her car, she felt the tears of mortification of what had happened overtake her. “God, how am I going to tell Catherine? She'll kill Gill!”
She never did and it now was eating her alive and with it, the bond she had with Catherine.
+ + +
Entering the main hallway of the house, Jace noted that except for the noise of the rain on the metal roof, it was remarkably quiet. The twins were in town with friends. The two week school holiday meant that since they lived so far away, they didn't see their friends often. She'd taken them to visit friends for the day that morning so they could take part in a planned sleepover. Walking over to the hall phone, she connected to the manager of the property and told him of Catherine's possible predicament. She asked him to send someone to check on her discreetly.
Having made the call, she speculated on the events of the next day. Tomorrow would be special and even Catherine might manage a smile. Jake and Lisa were coming home. The thought of her eldest children brought a tender smile to her lips that eased the tension of her encounter with Elena.
Entering the kitchen, she allowed her smile to linger as she saw Faith Thornton standing at the stove and stirring one of her delicious dishes. Grace's mother had been worth her weight in gold since she officially moved into the home ten years earlier.
The older woman looked up and smiled when she saw Jace. “I thought tonight we'd have one of my specialties. A lovely beef stew before I leave to see Grace and the family.”
“Thanks Faith, we'll appreciate you cooking for us while Mrs. Snow is off for her evening of bingo.”
“I love it and you know that. There's nothing much else you need me for around here, except the odd weeding session.” Faith smiled as she continued to check on her dish.
“You're family Faith. Catherine wouldn't have it any other way.” The thought of Catherine wrenched at her gut. She desperately needed to tell her about the kiss. Then she dragged her mind to what Faith had said moments earlier. “I can't wait to see Grace and the family again. I wish they hadn't moved from Destiny. I suppose we all have to move on eventually.”
“Oh, I just saw Elena riding like a bat out of hell toward the valley…is there a problem?” Faith asked with a frown. “The weather has changed so suddenly…do you think it is wise for her to go out riding?
Jace closed her eyes at what could happen next. She rushed to the phone and called the manager back. “John, Elena is out too.”
After John told her they saw her go out, she finished the call and shook her head. “I don't know what to do about that child. Sometimes she's so wayward. Did we have all this trouble with Jake and Lisa? God I hope they're both ok. Do you think we should go and search for them in the car?”
“Don't worry Jace, they'll be fine. Elena takes after Catherine. She's a superb horsewoman. I'm sure the men will bring them home safely and if we haven't heard in half an hour we'll go out and look for ourselves.” Faith tried to ease the worry on Jace's face. “Let me get you a cup of some coffee,” Faith said as she patted Jace's shoulder. They've been out in worse conditions with no trouble.”
Jace nodded slightly. She was appeased but only slightly as she felt the knot in her belly tighten. “Ok, but once I've drank it we're going to find them.”
A few minutes later, she looked at the steaming cup of coffee placed in front of her. “Thanks Faith. What would we do without you?”
“You'll do just fine in America and you know it. The children will too. It's just a question of getting them used to the idea,” Faith said as she sat opposite Jace.
Green eyes darted around the kitchen as she took in all the familiar lines and items in the heart of their home. “I want to believe that Faith, but why now? The children are happy in school. Catherine can do most of her work from home just as she's always has since the children came along. It's beautiful here. We have everything we want. I just don't understand why suddenly we have to give up all of this. It doesn't make sense to me.”
Faith sighed. She hadn't been around for seventy years not to know when things were bad in a relationship. If the two women who she knew loved each other a great deal didn't talk, what they had could be broken beyond repair. “Perhaps if you and Catherine went out together alone, dinner maybe and discussed things. You know she doesn't usually do anything without a good reason, especially when it involves her family.” That was true-normally, but even she had doubts since Catherine hadn't been very open on her arrival back from her last business trip.
“That's what worries me Faith. This time around, she isn't even considering that any of us have a view point. It's her way or the highway. The choices of mine or the children aren't important.”
“You could always ask Grace to speak with Catherine. I know she'll be upset if anything spoils the celebrations. It's not every day you turn forty.” Faith sighed knowing that there was nothing more to say on the subject. It was up to Jace and Catherine to figure out.
Jace shook her head and smiled. “I feel more like eighty. Yeah, maybe we can have a dinner out.” She sipped more coffee and glanced at the clock. Catherine had been gone over an hour and she missed her. Ten more minutes and she was going to find them herself.
Then she heard the clatter of hooves on the gravel. She got up and disappeared into the darkening evening to find her wife and child.
+ + +
Catherine felt the horse tugging her away from the path that she was certain took them toward the valley and home. The gelding wasn't used to the area or being out on a rocky outcrop in rainy conditions. She listened intently and thought she heard the faint sounds of another rider. Pulling her horse to a standstill, she waited. Then a faint smile creased her lips as she heard the distinctive voice of Elena shouting her name. She shouted back and waited for her daughter to appear.
Elena and her mount Diamond appeared in the ever decreasing light. “There you are. I thought you might need help.”
Catherine bristled at the censure in the young voice and felt the anger of the week mounting but she held her tongue. “What makes you think that?” Catherine retorted in an icy voice.
The girl laughed. “Because if you'd let that horse lead you any further to your right you'd have gone over the edge of the embankment. You can't see a damned thing out here can you Mamma. I told mom so.”
“Less of the clever talk young lady, I see well enough. What did your mom say?” Catherine felt her heart race as she realised how close she'd come to losing her mount and perhaps more.
“I said I'd come out for you. She wanted to send one of the guys from the stables. You could have been in trouble by the time they found you,” Elena said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Catherine knew she was right but at the same time to disobey Jace was wrong and she couldn't let it go unpunished. At least Elena cares. Why, didn't Jace bring the Landrover and come looking for me? “She is the cat's mother Elena. Don't be so disrespectful. Right, you lead I'll follow.”
Half way home, they met the other riders. Catherine acknowledged the men before they all headed back.
As they entered the Destiny courtyard, the stable hands volunteered to take care of all the mounts. Elena said she'd prefer to take care of Diamond herself and rode her mount toward the stable. Catherine relinquished her mount to one of her employees with a brief thanks and headed to the house. Who knew what kind of reception she was going to receive. With a quick glance at the sky that was heavy with rain, she wondered if it would be a less icy reception outside than in.
The smell of cooking and the warmth of the outer-room leading to the kitchen made Catherine feel better as she shrugged out of her light jacket and kicked of the boots. She fingered her blouse. It was soaked and her jeans were clinging to her like a second skin. Cursing the clothes, she shook out her hair and was pleased with herself as she easily towelled dry the short hair. The long hair was a major disadvantage in this type of weather.
Padding toward the door leading into the main kitchen, she sucked in a deep breath and opened the door. She wiped her hand across her face trying to stop the moisture still in her hair from dripped down her face.
Oh great! No how are you dear, just where's the child. “She's taking care of Diamond. What did you think…that I'd left her out there,” Catherine gruffly said.
Jace heard the anger in the Catherine's voice. There was never any mistaking when her wife was upset. “It wouldn't be the first time you've done that if I recall. Look, I didn't mean it that way and you know it. I was worried about you both.”
“Do I? Really? Well you could have fooled me. I'm not your adversary Jace but if you want another fight go ahead.” Catherine answered wanting to leave the room and take a shower and change her clothes.
Faith didn't wait to hear more and left the room with a few softly spoken words that the other two women didn't hear.
“I'm not your adversary either Catherine. I just want to know why?”
Catherine sighed. “Isn't that obvious? You and I don't fight fair Jace we never have. I needed the air.”
Jace shook her head. “I didn't mean you going out for a ride…I meant leaving here.” Jace walked over to within inches of the woman she loved. She could smell the faint perfume that permeated Catherine's skin any time of the day. It had the ability to increase her heart rate dramatically.
There was a poignant silence between them. Catherine leaned forward slightly and tipped Jace's face upward. She noted the subdued and uncertain expression. A nerve flickered in her jaw as she felt the magnetic pull of the smaller body next to hers. “Won't you just for now, not ask that question? When I can tell you the full story, I will. You need to trust me Jace…can you do that?”
Jace felt her legs weaken and she drew in a deep breath to steady herself. “We don't want to go Catherine.”
Catherine pulled Jace close to her wet body and kissed the top of her head. Tears sparkled in her eyes as she said, “I know and I promise you that as soon as we can come home we will. I …I don't want to go alone Jace…it would tear me apart to leave you and the children behind. We once said we'd do this together, is that still true?”
Jace turned in Catherine's embrace and caught the troubled look on her partner's face. She only had one word. “Yes…yes it's still true. Look, let's talk about this later and we'll work something out.”
Catherine felt her world that had been hanging on by a thread suddenly repair itself. Bending her head, she kissed the trembling lips of her wife. The kiss moved from thanks to passion as tongues intertwined and breathing became laboured.
When they broke apart, Jace rested her head against Catherine's chest and felt the wet fabric for the first time. “You need to get out of those clothes before you catch a chill.”
Catherine chuckled and then caught Jace's concerned green eyes with her sultry blue ones. “Want to help?”
The low sexy question had moisture developing in all the right places. “Sure we can't be too careful now can we?”
They headed out of the kitchen with their arms around each other as they rapidly mounted the stairs to their bedroom.
+ + +
Jacob Patterson drummed his fingers impatiently on the café table, where he waited for the rest of his party. One, the love of his young life, was paying a visit to the bathroom. The other, he'd definitely call a pain and she was late. The café bar on the strip in the centre of Christchurch had been a good idea he originally thought but now he wasn't so sure. Why is it taking so long? He glanced idly at the ducks sailing by on the river barely a hundred yards from his position. Several people–he speculated they were tourists waiting in line for a trip on the punt that had just pulled up.
“Can I get you a refill?”
Jacob took his gaze from the laughing people trying to foolish climb into the punt without looking. His smile reflected his amusement as he turned his attention to the young woman who'd asked him a question. He suspected the fresh-faced woman was even younger than he was. He'd missed the vital and healthy outdoors complexion of people. Living in London for the past two years had made his skin pale in comparison. “Sure, I'll have a Speight's this time around.”
A haughty English accented voice from behind the waitress said, “I'll have a pinot noir and this time make sure it's from a new bottle. The last one was vile!”
The waitress didn't flinch at the caustic words and managed, as far as Jacob could see, to allow the criticism to wash over her. With a swivel on her heels, she smiled at the woman who had come up behind her, “No worries,” she said before leaving with a flip of her notepad against her hip toward the bar.
Jacob didn't say anything allowing the woman to retake her seat beside him. He gave her a measured look and shook his head. “Helen that wasn't necessary. I asked you earlier if the drink was ok and you didn't say one way or the other. You drank it.”
Helen Banks tilted her doll like head to one side and pouted at the man at her side. Then in a little girl lost voice she said, “Oh Jacob she was only a waitress I'm sure I didn't hurt her feelings.”
He was about to say more when he heard a voice that was as familiar to him as his own. His sister had finally arrived.
A young woman in a flowery print blouse and equally colourful pants, accompanied by a large Celtic buckle belt and a woollen multicoloured scarf around her neck approached the table. Her red hair moved wildly as she let a smile of genuine affection cross her face for the man seated at the table. “Jake! You're home at last. Our parents are really looking forward to your visit. I can't believe you've been gone for three years.”
Jake stood up and grinned. Lisa was a pain in the ass sometimes but she was his and he loved her and the frustration element that always surrounded their relationship. He held out his arms and hugged the petite woman to his broad muscled chest. Then lifted her easily off the ground and kissed her cheek. “Hey Princess it's good to see you. You look…great.”
Lisa grinned. Her warm welcoming smile seemed to make her eyes twinkle as she looked at her brother. “Yeah I finished the herbalist course at Uni last semester with honours. Mom agreed to stump up the deposit on the lease for the shop if I did that. You'll have to visit it before you go back. By the way, how long are you staying…we all wondered?” Lisa cast her gaze in the direction of the sullen featured woman at the table. There was no doubt that the woman was beautiful in the china doll fashion. It would be interesting to see how the rest of the family looked on this new liaison of Jake–he never mentioned he had a serious girlfriend.
Jake chuckled and it was so deep that the sound sent shivers down Lisa's back. Her brother had grown into a man, a very handsome one at that. “You never change Princess, you always did have twenty questions.”
A less haughty voice interrupted the conversation. “Jacob, aren't you going to introduce me.”
Jake nodded as he realized that for a few seconds he'd forgotten the woman he professed to love. He had so enjoyed the reunion with his sister who went down the same path he had at an earlier age. Neither one of them ever regretted taking that road for it was filled with so much opportunity and love. “Yes of course darling…sorry about that. Helen Banks, this is my sister Lisa Simeon.”
Lisa felt a chilly blast as if it came from around the street corner. She smiled at the woman and held her hand out in welcome. “Hi Helen.”
Helen gave the hand a cursory look and ignored it. “Pleased to meet you Lisa. I didn't know you were married?”
Puzzled Lisa asked, “I'm not…what gave you that idea?” She looked down at her hands there were three rings on her fingers but none on the wedding finger.
“Different surnames of course,” Helen said in a condescending tone.
“Oh, well that's easy…”
Jake intervened. “Hey ladies sorry to spoil the chat but we need to order if we are eating here or do you want to stop on the way?”
Lisa gave her brother a concentrated gaze then shrugged. “I'm easy. The car is in the hotel parking lot. All you need to do is collect your stuff and we can leave now if you want.”
Jake made a quick decision. “Be back in a second.”
Lisa knew that Jake wanted to go so she didn't sit. It was interesting to her that Jake hadn't mentioned that strictly speaking they weren't blood kin. That idea of course begged the question of what else he hadn't told the woman about their family. She silently chuckled. Our parents are going to have a field day with this stuck up bitch…especially Catherine. All Jake told that was that he was bringing home a friend. There was no mention that it was a female friend, therefore everyone assumed it was a man. Turning her attention to the woman who was watching her with a less than friendly expression, she asked, “Is it your first trip to New Zealand Helen?”
The woman flicked back her shiny and beautifully cut blonde hair that was swinging around her head in perfect harmony with every movement she made. That movement was a twist of the head to one side so she could look closely at the woman who had asked her a question. “I was impressed with the shopping in Dubai . There isn't much here other than tourist junk is there?”
Lisa had to prevent herself from taking a swing at the woman. Christchurch was a beautiful city. It had charm, beauty and enough shops to cater to most needs. True, the centre was filled with tourist shops but wasn't that the case in every major city that was influenced by tourism these days. “You can't really compare here to Dubai , Helen. Do you enjoy nature at its best? If you do, you'll love the South Island ?”
“I'm more of a city animal. I've lived in London all my life. It's the only place to be if you want twenty-four seven entertainment.” Helen moved her gaze from Lisa down to her well manicured fingernails.
“I love it here and so does Jake…we all do. In fact, we wouldn't live anywhere else,” Lisa said as she quickly realised she'd made a mistake in making the statement.
Helen gave her a cursory almost bored look. “I think Jacob sees things differently now.”
The mention of the man's name coincided with his arrival back at the table. “Ok, we're good to go. The sooner we leave the sooner we get there.” He smiled at the two women. It appeared to him that they were getting along fine.
“Darling, does that mean I'm not going to have that wine I ordered?”
Lisa rolled her eyes at the pout on the thin lips and under breath said , “God help us all…a whining Pom.”
“What was that Lisa?” Jake asked.
Holding up her hands, Lisa gave him a smile. “Oh I was just saying it's going to be great to see the oldies.”
Helen stood up from the table and Jake whispered something in her ear that made her smile. She attached herself like a leach to Jake's arm and with a backward glance in Lisa's direction, walked away with her possession.
Lisa stood there for a few seconds and realised that in a short space of time she'd actually come across someone she hated. Tucking her scarf around her neck securely, she followed them out and whispered to the trees on the bank of the Avon River , “Oh joy, this is going to be fun. I hope it's not going to be a car journey from hell.” She trudged after them and caught them as they reached the Crown Plaza Hotel.
+ + +
Nathan and Allison Warriorson-Bardley gave each other a conspiratorial glance then ran down the hall shouting at the top of their young voices. The sound echoed off the wood panelled walls and resonated loudly inside the house. Nathan almost reached the kitchen door when his twin grabbed him and pushed him to one side. He wasn't taking that lying down. He slipped out a foot and sent Allison flying into the door, which she hit with a thud.
Then all hell broke out as the girl began to wail which sounded worse than a cat on heat. Then she gave her brother an accusing look as she wiped at the crocodile tears. A faint smile curved her lips as they both heard a door slam until they realized that the door was their mamma's study door. Both of the children's eyes opened wide and they held their breath.
“What on earth was all that noise about and who is crying?” Catherine's face held a thunderous expression as she gave the twins a hard gaze and waited for the reply.
“Nothing Mamma…we were playing that's all,” Nathan said as he pointed at his sister. “She slipped.”
“I never did, you pushed me. He did too Mamma and all because he wanted to beat me down the corridor.” Allison realised what she said too late and waited for the wrath. Time and again, their mother told them not to play in the hall and running was definitely out of the question…especially if their Mamma was home.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Catherine gave each of them one of her stern looks then raised her left eyebrow. “Who won?”
The twins glanced at each other and they both gave her an identical, butter couldn't melt in their mouths, smile. “We both did.”
“Ah, so it was a draw huh?”
“No Mamma it wasn't. We both won in our own way,” Allison pointed out fluttering her dark eyelashes for effect.
Tapping her fingers on her forearm, Catherine nodded. “I see. Where is your Mom and Elena?”
Nathan held out his arms. “Don't know…haven't seen them since lunch.”
“We were watching an Indiana Jones movie,” Allison supplied.
Catherine considered the information. The twins loved watching TV, but it had to be in measured chunks or they'd sit in the lounge indefinitely. “Is it finished?”
“No were hungry. We thought Snowy might make us a bowl of popcorn.” The twins replied in unison before they giggled.
“Mrs. Snow has better things to do than make popcorn. Besides, you've only just had lunch.” Catherine silently felt her anger melt as she conversed with her youngest children. My god is it really ten years since they were born, it doesn't seem that long ago. Opening the door to the kitchen, she held it open and allowed the two pint sized humans inside. No one was there. Mrs. Snow had taken over the housekeeper duties from Judy Schmidt eight years earlier. Judy went back to her chosen profession of teaching. They did see her occasionally when she visited Faith but for the most part, she had her own life to live with her husband and daughter.
“Aw, Mrs. Snow isn't here…can you make us popcorn Mamma. We promise to be good.” Allison flashed another saccharine filled smile.
Glancing at the clock, Catherine saw it was two o'clock. She listened to a brief phone message from Lisa saying they should arrive by five. Catherine decided that dinner would probably be delayed so what the hell. “Popcorn in ten minutes. Now go watch the movie.”
Nathan rushed forward and wrapped his slender arms around her long legs. “You're the best Mamma.” He grinned widely and shot out of the room while his twin, with a wave, followed closely behind.
“You're the best…yeah right, only because you're getting your own way, Catherine said as she pulled out a saucepan from the cupboard. She then checked the larder for the popcorn. A few minutes later, it was popping away and her eyes flashed in surprise as the delicacy began to overflow the pan. “Oh crap, I've done too much!” She watched in fascination as the popping corn left the pan to fly into the air landing all around like a sea of yellow white foam.
“Catherine!” Catherine swung around guiltily to stare into two pairs of green eyes. One was amused the other not.
Switching off the heat on the pan, Catherine scratched the side of her neck and gave what she hoped was one of her austere stares that brooked no questions–it didn't work.
Jace marched into the kitchen followed by Elena who was attempting to hide the smirk that pulled at her lips. “What on earth are you doing? We've only just had lunch. Why are you popping corn of all things…you hate it?” Jace pulled a face as she crunched on several kernels and rolled her eyes.
“Yeah Mamma, how are you going to explain this to Mrs. Snow ,” Elena said only to be given a look of censure from Jace. Her scowl replaced the amusement as she sat down at the kitchen table muttering something the adults couldn't hear under her breath.
Catherine considered what to say next and then sighed. “Sometimes it's just good to do something out of character. I'm sure you've done that once or twice Jace. Anyway, this is my house and I can do what I want when I want or is that a criminal offence now? ” It would have been so easy to explain the true reason but she was annoyed that she couldn't do something and not have to explain herself.
Jace heard the building frustration in Catherine's tone. She kept her temper relatively in check for years. However, in recent months, she had a short fuse and before long, they'd have another difference of opinion. Once again, her own frustration surfaced as Catherine's comment about doing something out of character hit a nerve. “I'm sure I have. Catherine, we need to clean this up before Mrs. Snow sees this and has a fit.” Jace didn't want to argue in front of Elena for they'd done enough of that recently.
“I made the mess and I'll clean it up when I'm done.” Catherine crossed her arms over her chest and crushed a few more kernels under her foot to emphasis her point.
Oh so that's how it's going to be. Jace moved forward slowly as she crushed more kernels to face off with Catherine. With her head tilting upwards in defiance, she said, “I guess you will…good luck.” She stomped on several more to make a point as she left the room and went into the laundry area to collect the cleaning materials.
Catherine felt a tug in her belly at the despondent expression on her wife's face. Then she stared at the silent teenager still in the room. She took out a few pieces of popcorn from the now cooling pan and playfully threw them at Elena.
The corn hit the girl's head and she glared at Catherine. “That's not fair.”
“Hey, who said life was fair…besides, you love popcorn.” Catherine grinned as the child lightened up somewhat. She was way too serious these days.
With her face clearing of the scowl, Elena stood up and moved to within inches of her mother. “You made this for the twins didn't you?”
Catherine winked and turned around to place half of her golden treasures in a couple of small bowls to save arguments over who had the most out of the same bowl.
Elena picked up a few kernels from the floor and asked, “Why didn't you just tell her.”
“I will…eventually.” She felt several small pings against her hair and knew Elena was throwing popcorn at her. Placing the two smaller bowls on the bench top she turned and grabbed hold of her daughter and began to tickle her.
Elena giggled and tried to squirm out of the tight hold but couldn't. Then she began to scream, “No, Mamma no. Stop, stop.” Their feet crunching even more kernels into the floor.
The door to the hall opened and two faces looked inside. In seconds, two squealing children joined in the fun and within seconds, it became an all out popcorn fight with Catherine as the main target.
Allowing the kids to get the better of her, she landed on the floor as a giggling teenager sat on her belly with the twins sitting on her legs. “Here you go Mamma…we kids win.” Elena popped a piece of corn in Catherine's mouth.
With an exaggerated expression of distaste, Catherine rolled her eyes at them. “Ok I surrender…I surrender.”
The children laughed and cheered in delight as they allowed their mother off the floor . Seconds later engulfed her in a family hug.
“We love you Mamma,” they chorused.
Catherine grinned and nodded her head above the children as she hugged them gently to her. With an emotion filled voice, she said, “I love you too…never forget that. Now who's going to help me clean this place up? I don't want Mrs. Snow mad at me as well as your mom.”
Jace having heard the commotion had watched from the laundry doorway unseen by the others. The happy, if messy, scenario went on without her. Her lips pulled into a sad smile as she felt left out and suddenly all alone. “I'm not mad at you Catherine. I love you. I just wish I knew how to tell you my problems and you not take a hammer to solve the issue,” she whispered. Then with a deep breath, she breezed back into the kitchen mop and bucket in hand. She marched like a drill sergeant major over to Catherine.
“I think you said something about cleaning up?” She gave her best military style voice.
Catherine tilted her head slightly and a knowing smile creased her lips. “Yes ma'am I most certainly did. I'd best get the troops in order shall I ma'am?” Jace suppressed a giggle and handed over the mop to Catherine and the bucket to Elena, “I'll be back for inspection in ten minutes, and then we're going to the movies, your Mamma's treat.” Jace winked at her wife who shook her head with a wry smile.
“Right troops let's get on with this or we'll be late for the first showing.”
Delighted screams from the twins filled the room and once more, they gelled like a family does.
+ + +
Lisa swung the car around another tight bend and heard Helen Banks moan again about her driving. As she'd done for the last two hours, Lisa ignored it. One thing she knew about was driving at speed and control. She'd taken her advanced driving test and passed with flying colours when she turned eighteen. At no time would she place her passengers not to mention herself in danger. However, she did push the speed limit when a clear road and wide open spaces presented itself. It wasn't a responsible thing to do and in town, she tried to keep to the limits but on the open road, it was a temptation. She wished they'd taken up Catherine's offer of the helicopter home for it would have saved listening to the continuous whining of the English woman. Jake didn't help for he was so attentive and on her side. Men!
“I'm taking the short cut over Cutter's pass Jake. We can shave half an hour off the journey,” Lisa announced as they neared the guarded gate of the Destiny homestead.
Jake frowned. “Do you think it's a good idea? It looks like rain and you know how that rack can be…even the horses struggle.”
“If it's a short cut Jacob let's take it…I'm fed up with green fields full of sheep. Those mountains look scary,” Helen said.
“Two to one Jake,” Lisa threw back over her shoulder and pulled up at the gate.
“Hi Danny, how are you doing?” Lisa grinned at the guard who was a middle aged man with a bald head and a ready smile.
“Good and you Lisa?” The man's eyes scanned the other passengers in the car–he didn't recognise them.
“Great thanks Danny. This is my brother Jake and his girlfriend Helen. Catherine will have informed you of their arrival I suspect.” Lisa waited for him to check the board for visitors.
The increased security had been a contentious between their parents for years but Catherine always won. Home had to be safe, end of story. No one entered the property unless they were on the board and that meant family as well.
The man tipped his head. “Oh yes, I have them noted. The family all back together again…your parents are excited I know.” He opened the electronic gate.
“Yeah, big day on Saturday. You'll be busy. See you later Danny.”
“Have a good one Lisa. Do you want me to inform the house you're on the property?”
“No, we want to surprise them.” Lisa set the car in motion as Danny waved them inside and closed the gate immediately behind them.
The Toyota Land Cruiser set off with a squeal of tyres and headed up the main drive toward the homestead, which was a tiny speck in the distance. In minutes, Lisa turned the vehicle off the main road onto a dirt track that led up to Cutter's ridge.
+ + +
Jace sat quietly at the kitchen table and watched Mrs. Snow prepare the buffet they were going to have later after Lisa, Jake and his friend arrived. Catherine's impromptu supplemented snack for the kids that afternoon had solved the problem of them groaning about being starving around their normal dinner time. Then they all trooped off to the cinema in town, including Elena, to watch the Spiderwick Chronicles. It had been a fabulous family afternoon out. Tonight was special and even the kids were excited. Elena in particular decided to shower and find something different to wear other than a grungy T-shirt and ripped jeans. Maybe one day, her eldest birth child might actually supplement her wardrobe with a dress or skirt. She could dream.
Sighing heavily, Jace steeple her fingers together and contemplated her birthday in two days time. It was the big four o. She hadn't wanted anything fancy but she did want her family together again. Catherine had been as good as her word and arranged everything. They ordered the marquee, booked the band, and arranged for the food. All she had to do was to turn up and bask in the glory. Her gut wrenching agony over her deteriorating relationship with Catherine overshadowed her excitement for the arrival of friends old and new.
The only thing she could say that was still functioning at a high level was their sex life. Somehow, no matter what the argument they managed to still end up in bed making love. It had happened the day before and probably would happen that day too. She wondered if she could call it making love when neither of them said I love you while they were in each other's arms. Passion was great but love was even greater for it made the good things that happened even better and the bad things less dire.
The big question was when would be a good time to give up being a coward and face Catherine with her own admission. Not that she felt guilty or anything. Yeah right !
“Jace, are you ok?” Mrs. Snow asked. She had discreetly watched the woman as she prepared the savouries for the buffet.
Dragging herself out of her miserable thoughts, Jace gave the older woman a smile. “I'm fine Mrs. Snow. How are the preparations going? Do you need any help? I'm sorry I'm just sitting here doing nothing.”
“Oh, I'm fine dear. Why don't you take this coffee and sandwich to Catherine? I'm sure she'd welcome the break especially from you.”
Pulling a hand through her hair, Jace stood up and nodded. “I'll be back shortly and give you a hand.” Taking the plate with the sandwiches and the pot of coffee on a tray, she headed to Catherine's study. Moments later, with the tray precariously wobbling in her hand, she knocked on the door. A muffled voice shouted, “enter', and Jace with her knee helping to stabilize the tray opened the door. She entered the room that immediately attacked her senses with Catherine's smell. You couldn't deny whose study it was when you met Catherine. She had that exotic musky kind of smell that sent tingles down Jace's spine and always would. The Reverend Gillian Jacobs had no chance against the evocative Catherine Warriorson.
Jace quickly announced her reason for invading the study when Catherine was working. “Mrs, Snow sent you a tray. I thought I'd bring it and save her the time. She's busy with the buffet for this evening.”
Catherine gazed at Jace and felt her heart swell at how much she loved the woman who just by being in the room brought a freshness and peace to it. “Thanks, do you want to join me?”
The smile that Catherine shot in Jace's direction had her heart beating rapidly at its effect on her system. “Sure, if I'm not disturbing you.” Jace moved to the sofa in the room and placed the tray on the coffee table there.
A minute later, Catherine was sitting next to her pouring them both a cup of coffee. “For the record Jace, you can disturb me anytime…it's a given.”
Jace contemplated the words and rolled them around in her head for a second then replied quietly, “I had a feeling lately that wasn't the case.”
Passing the coffee cup over to Jace, Catherine sighed heavily. “If I've given that impression I'm sorry. Look I know what I'm asking is a big thing of you and the family Jace but I do have to go and I'm serious when I say it will be with you or without you. I have no choice.”
“Please just tell me why? Is it so difficult a question to answer? I don't understand the secrecy.” Jace looked up into the intensity of the blue eyes that had captured her heart and bound her soul to this woman over fourteen years earlier.
Frowning, Catherine sipped on her coffee, hoping the caffeine injection would help. Then she replaced the coffee cup on the table and took Jace's cold hands in hers chaffing life into them as she spoke. “I have some problems with the corporation. When Constance left with Clare for France and with your dad spending more and more time in California things haven't been going so well.”
“Surely Dad checks everything and then you do. How could things be getting into a mess?”
Catherine pursed her lips, it sounds so damn easy to her and in truth, it is with the right people at the helm. “Jace for a long time now I've allowed things to drift. Yes, I check things but not as thoroughly as I used to do. The twins and Elena have been quite a commitment.”
Jace's eyes widened at the mention of the children. “Are you implying that it's the kids fault…my fault? My dad's not capable?”
“No, no of course not! You know I'd give everything up for the kids if it came to the wire. Xianthos is like a kid too. It's a large corporation that needs to have someone at the helm twenty-four seven. That someone has to be competent. Between Constance leaving and your dad, having the heart attack, along with me not paying attention to the smaller things that go on, things have been drifting and…” Catherine sighed heavily and wiped her hand across her brow. “Bottom line Jace, someone is manipulating the corporation into the brink of bankruptcy.”
“Bankruptcy? That's impossible you would have known,” Jace said immediately.
“Yes, in the old days at the helm I would have known. Technology has moved on and someone can manipulate things to say that aren't strictly correct. The only reason I know now is because Jake, who works for one of the economic analyst companies we use in London , passed on some information that had been circulating the market place.”
“That's why you left in a hurry?”
“Yes darling, that's why I left so quickly. The worse thing is he was right. The company has been hemorrhaging cash and business assets for over eighteen months. The IRS is suspicious. I have a meeting with them on Tuesday. I leave Destiny on Monday morning.” Catherine's words rang out in the study with a foreboding tone.
“But, but the party is Saturday! We have guests staying for the week. How can you just up and leave?” Jace‘s frustration and her lack of real understanding of what was going on fuelled her irrational annoyance.
“I know Jace. If there were any other way, I would take it. It just isn't that easy.” Catherine's anger over the situation began to resonate in her tone.
“Sell the monster Catherine. Get out and let us just live here in peace as a family.”
Catherine rolled the heady statement around in her mind for a few seconds. It was so easy for Jace to say that. It was also naïve and irresponsible. Drawing in a deep breath, she quietly said, “If this was the children or a friend or your family would you abandon them so easily?”
Jace frowned. “It isn't the same thing Catherine.”
“Isn't it? Xianthos allows us to maintain the homestead here. The luxury travel we enjoy. The kids generous trust funds and the charities we support. When the kids need braces, we don't have to worry about where the money is coming from. When our friends are in trouble, we can help and support them until their back on their feet. Everything we do Jace has an element of Xianthos running through our lives. It might be just a name to you but it's more than that to me. In a way, its family and I do not abandon family. Lots of people depend on Xianthos Jace and I won't abandon them either.” Catherine felt that a weight had shifted to another, more manageable point while she tried to sum up what Xianthos was to her.
Jace shook her head slowly trying to visual exactly what Xianthos meant to Catherine and her perception of the giant corporation. “That isn't strictly true is it Catherine.”
“What do you mean?” Catherine's expression as she faced Jace was a blank mask.
“Stephen.” Jace said one word and saw the flinch on the side of Catherine's left cheek. Her wife knew exactly what she meant.
There was a deafening silence in the room as Catherine stood up and marched over to her desk. “I have work to do. I need to make plans for my leaving on Monday.”
There it was again, the wall built years before they'd met and no matter how many bricks Jace managed to break down another layer surfaced. “Ok, as usual you're shutting me out. One day you'll regret doing that Catherine. There are only so many times you can do this and expect me to unconditionally understand and stick around.”
Catherine's back stiffened as she heard the words. In a way, she deserved them but that didn't mean they hurt any less or that she was prepared to do what Jace asked and give Xianthos up. Perhaps all those years of keeping Jace from her business life was detrimental. If she'd done things differently would Jace take the road she was currently on…she hoped not. A voice cursed her. You're so damn stubborn that you will jeopardise what you have for what's out there. Will a bunch of ledgers ever kiss you, hold you or love you like the woman you just turned your back on? “As I said, I have plans to finalise. You can take the tray back…I'm done with it.”
Jace was angry and curled her lips in irritation. “Take it back yourself. I'm sure Mrs. Snow is going to be upset that you haven't eaten. I'm taking the kids out to walk the dogs.” For effect, Jace slammed the door on the study as she left. She knew Catherine hated the sound of slamming doors and her action would set her wife's teeth grinding.
+ + +
Lisa smiled slightly as she heard the groaning of the English woman in the back of her vehicle. Yep, it worked every time. Cutter's Ridge was notorious in wet conditions for making the journey treacherously exciting in her book. The woman had almost been sick three times, as they negotiated some of the tight bends with a heady drop below. Even Jake had cursed her under his breath a few times. They were going to have words once they arrived at the house but she'd been there before and knew she would be again. It was the order of their relationship; contentious at times but they cared about each other.
“I can see the lights of the stables. We'll be there in five minutes,” Lisa announced in an upbeat voice as she negotiated the final bend and landed them finally on the flat track toward the road to the drive of the house.
A few minutes later, the car pulled up with a squeal of brakes outside the house and there was a sense of relief from them all. They sat there for a few seconds in silence as they all tried to gather their wits.
Lisa popped the truck and swung her small body out of the car onto the tarmac. Surprisingly enough, no one came out to greet them. That's a bit odd.
Jake helped Helen out of the car. The girl's face was as pale as the white picket fence around Jace's herb garden. “Darling we're home now. I promise it will get better from here on in.”
Helen didn't say anything. She stood there with her china doll face puckered in misery.
Lisa dragged out the smaller bags and waited for Jake's help. When he arrived, the look on his face said it all.
In a whisper for only for Lisa to hear he said, “If you ever pull a stunt like that again so help me I'll do something you'll regret.” He began to pull out one of the larger suitcases.
“She agreed to the short cut. I was appeasing the majority,” Lisa tartly said as she collected a couple of the bags. “I wonder why it's so quiet. I expected the twins to at least to welcome us home like they normally do.”
There was no reply as she walked up the steps to the porch and she felt the weariness of the journey slip away like magic. She was home! Opening the wooden door, she briefly touched the stained glass windows that allowed a kaleidoscope of colours to flood the hall when the sun streamed through. It had always fascinated her as a child. There were times when she simply sat in the hall surrounded by their shoes and watched Mother Nature's free show.
“Are you going inside or do we have to stay out here all day?” Helen acidly remarked behind Lisa.
For a second, Lisa was about to retort in a similar manner but decided against it. At least now that they were home the rest of the family could diffuse the irritating woman's invasion of her personal space. Maybe she'd go home early to save herself the grinding journey back with that woman. “Sorry,” Lisa stepped into the highly polished hallway and glanced at the area set aside for their regular outdoor shoes and coats. Surprisingly, there were only two pairs. She knew Catherine's distinctive leather footwear immediately. The other smaller pair were definitely not the twins and they were scuffed–Elena was home.
“Anyone home,” Lisa bellowed.
“Well this is a fine welcome,” Helen announced as she glanced depreciatingly around the hall.
This time, Lisa turned to the woman and scowled. Her temper was showing in the glow of her blue eyes and the red hair that flared around her shoulders. “Give it a rest Helen…not everything is about you.”
Helen didn't say anything as her eyes transfixed on a figure moving down the corridor toward them.
“I see nothing changes.” The figure stated quietly as a smile hovered around full lips and ice blue eyes that seemed to twinkle with love.
Dropping the bags, Lisa grinned and squealed much as she'd done as a child. “Catherine,” she said as she hugged the taller woman affectionately.
Catherine let an all out smile flood her face as she held the girl close and hugged her. “We missed you Princess, how are you doing?” She kissed the red head before releasing her and gave her a once over.
“I'm great thanks. It's wonderful to be home again.”
Catherine nodded her head and felt the love she had for her children bath her in the warm glow they always emitted. “It's good to have you home. You're earlier than expected.”
“That's because my sister decided to take the short cut,” Jake said. His muscular body framed in the doorway an unfathomable expression in his serious features.
Allowing her eyes to drink in the sight of her boy…boy you could hardly call him that he was definitely a man as she saw the breadth of his shoulders filling the doorway and his confident stance. She desperately wanted to rush over and hug him after such a long absence but refrained out of politeness to the stranger standing between Lisa and Jake. “I'm sure you suitably chastised her. It's good to have you home Jake.” Her eyes filled with unshed tears at the unexpected but extremely welcome sight of their eldest son.
She turned her attention to the woman with a cool expression on the china doll features who was standing between her children. So this is H Banks! “Hello, I'm Catherine, welcome to Destiny, Jake's family home.” She held out her hand to the tiny woman.
Helen, with an expression of chagrin for not being the centre of attention, sniffed the air. She took Catherine's hand and gave it a wimpy handshake. “Helen Banks …pleased to meet you. You must be Jacob's mother.”
The words appeared cordial enough but Catherine had experienced enough aloofness to recognize it. The woman had about as much warmth as a cold fish.
“Yes I am. Now, let's get you inside. I'll have Mrs. Snow make you a snack of whatever you want. Dinner will be in about two hours.” Catherine's smile slipped a little. “Jace has slipped out with the twins for some fresh air. She's really going to hate not being here when you arrived.”
“I'll show Helen, her room,” Lisa volunteered. “I'm sure she'll want to freshen up after her journey. Come along Helen.” Lisa knew Catherine wanted to welcome Jake properly. She hadn't missed the slight expression change when Catherine spoke of Jace.
Helen, who was about to say she'd wait for changed her mind when she saw the cool intimidating stare from Jake's mother. “Thanks, I'll see you up there Jacob.”
Jake grinned and nodded. Then dropped the suitcases he was holding on the wooden floorboards. For a few seconds the mother and son maintained their distance. Then, Jake moved toward Catherine and engulfed her in a loving hug while kissing her on the cheek. “I missed you Catherine,” he whispered.
Tears did flow this time as Catherine hugged her son as hard as she could. It had been too long. “It's good to have you back Jake. We all missed you.”
The young man nodded and then looked into the eyes of the woman who had given him everything including love, even if she didn't say it that often. It was in all the things she did including the little things. He saw the tears and didn't say anything. If it were Jace, he'd tease her, but with Catherine, no way. “Sorry I didn't tell you about H Banks being my girlfriend. I figured it would be a surprise.”
Catherine laughed. “Jake it isn't me you owe an apology to. Can you imagine what Jace is going to say? Rather you than me son.”
Jake chuckled. “Yeah you're right. How are things? Did you sort out the problems in New York ?”
Catherine's face dropped a fraction before she shrugged. “How about you go freshen up and settle in then we can talk about that kind of stuff tomorrow.”
Jake nodded. “It's good to be home,” he repeated as he picked up the suitcases and headed for the stairs.
“Oh and Jake…you should dropped your head around Elena's door. She's going to be annoyed if she finds out you're here and she didn't know. Believe me…you don't want to see that! Teenage rage is the pits.”
“I'm surprised she didn't come down. Lisa isn't exactly the quietest person on the planet.”
They both laughed. “Have you forgotten so soon being a teenager and loud music?”
Jake grinned and said, “Ah that phase…it's wonderful.”
Catherine watched him go and closed her eyes. It was good to have them all home. This was going to be one family birthday party to remember.
+ + +
Jace had a headache, partly due to the twins bickering on their impromptu walking of the dogs. Two feisty children when you were feeling depressed didn't exactly go together. If it hadn't been for the dogs, Rio and Charlie, Jace would have been tempted to march them over the hill and back again. One good thing about their walk was that the rain held off. As the children ran up the steps of the rear deck, she shouted for them to rub down the dogs before they got ready for the evening. They reluctantly tugged the dogs into a small hut that was more like a mini hotel than a dog kennel.
“Don't forget to feed them,” Jace shouted and heard a muffled reply as the children entered the kennel.
Jace stood at the bottom step of the deck and looked at the small building. The first Rio had been a house dog. Catherine's guide dog became a beloved family pet. His death two years earlier had been a blow to everyone. Catherine had taken it the hardest and somehow never quite got over it and Jace never understood why. Even today, she rarely entertained the dogs physically and no amount of gentle persuasion to engage her with them worked.
Two months later Lisa had arrived home from University with two squirming handfuls of life and presented them to the twins. Rio the second and Charlie had arrived. They were boisterous dogs and eventually the housekeeper Mrs. Snow gave an ultimatum–her or the dogs. They both couldn't live under the same roof. So the two dogs moved to the kennel outside. It was no ordinary kennel. Catherine had purpose built a hut that had every possible dog convenience she could think of, even heating if the weather became cold. Now, it was doubtful the dogs would want to live in a house full of humans when they could have the peace and quiet of their own abode. The thought made Jace smile and she felt a little more upbeat.
Walking onto the decking, she looked at the sky. It was probably going to rain again but the forecast for the next day was sunshine and progressively better weather for the weekend. Entering the house, she heard voices and it didn't sound like any of the familiar voices she'd left behind an hour earlier. Puzzled, she kicked off her shoes and walked in socking feet that had a hole in the left toe, toward the voices. Opening the door to the hall, she didn't see anything amiss but the voices grew louder then she felt her heart racing as she began to pick up the tones. Lisa and Jake had arrived. With a beaming smile, she rushed into the lounge and stood at the threshold drinking in the sight of her eldest children arguing. Nothing has changed there.
“You're early!” Jace exclaimed as she moved forward.
Lisa grinned at the small woman in the door. Jace was actually a couple of inches taller than she was but after being in the presence of Catherine and Jake, everyone was small in comparison. “We made good time,” Lisa said as she rushed to kiss and hug Jace.
“I can just about work out why that was…you drove right?” Jace whispered into the young woman's ear.
Lisa giggled and nodded as she withdrew from the hug. “You look great Mom. The wee ones haven't been too much for you I see.”
Jace chuckled. “Thank you Lisa and we both know I need a shower and a change of clothing.” Her eyes looked down at her faded jeans and aged woolly sweater. She made a mental note to throw away the socks.
“You always look great Jace, no matter what you wear. Anyway look who I picked up on the way here.” Lisa moved away slightly so that Jace could see Jake.
Jake smiled and the serious expression he sported lifted slightly as his face filled with warmth. He moved forward and engulfed his surrogate mother in a bear hug. “It's good to be home Jace, I missed you.” He kissed her cheek and then moved back slightly so that he could look at her closely. He saw the beginnings of dark circles and a pinched expression around the eyes. The lightness he usually associated with the woman wasn't evident and he had an idea why.
“We've missed you too Jake. Why did you leave it so long?”
Jake smiled and shook his head. “I was busy…you know how that is.”
“Yes, yes I do. You take after Catherine.” She hadn't meant the words to sound harsh but they must have since Jake had a startled expression.
“Must run in the family,” he replied gently.
Jace nodded. “Yes I guess.”
“Jacob, aren't you going to introduce me?” A cultured voice similar to Catherine's without the sexy undertones filled the room.
Lisa moved off to the side and watched the scene enfold as Jake stiffened slightly and then with a forced smile turned to look in the direction of the patio door where the other occupant of the room had been hiding.
“Jace, I'd like you to meet Helen,” he said. “Helen this is Jace.”
Helen drifted forward and gave the woman a once over. It was clear that she didn't like what she saw, especially when her gaze fixed on the sock with the toe popping out.
Jace felt the scrutiny and it made her skin crawl. There was something distasteful about the woman. She always told the kids not to make quick judgements about people but she'd made one–she didn't like the woman.
“Yes Jacob,” Jace gave her son a wink when she used his full name. “Welcome Helen. It's a pleasure to have a friend of Ja…cob's visit in our home.” She held out her hand and she felt that Helen took it reluctantly. She was certain once the woman left the room she would immediately go and wash her hand. In its own perverse way, Jace found it amusing.
The cool retort had Jace biting down fractionally on her lower lip.
Silence invaded the room as no one spoke for a few seconds then Jace with a bright smile asked, “I take it Catherine and Elena know you're here?”
Jake chuckled. “Yes. Elena is quite the grown up these days. She reminds me of a certain person not that far away.” His gaze flashed to Lisa who was trying her level best to sneak out of the room unseen.
“Yes, well Lisa was a handful at the time. Believe me…Elena is making the idiom of teenage parody come to life. Just ask Catherine.” Jace felt her buoyancy fade a little at the mention her wife's name.
“I actually meant Catherine, “Jake drawled. He smiled and then placed an arm around Helen‘s shoulders in intimate possession.
Jace watched and wondered if he knew he did that. My but they grow up fast . “Look I need to change and make the twins presentable before they meet you. Have a drink, chill, we'll all be down for dinner in about half an hour…Mrs. Snow has out done herself.” Jace flashed them all a warm smile and fled the room for the safety of the hall. Helen Banks made the room claustrophobic.
She turned and headed back in the direction she came, intent on speeding up the twins. She had a feeling Helen was one of those people who didn't like being kept waiting. Poor Jake what has he gotten himself into?
+ + +
“Look, I'll leave you too it and be back shortly. Jace might need help with the twins,” Lisa announced seconds after Jace left. She didn't wait for anyone to reply. Jake and Helen were so intent on looking into each other's eyes that it made her feel ill.
When the door slammed shut behind Lisa, Jake broke his concentration on Helen. He looked around then immediately back to the woman who was barely inches from him and pulled her unresistingly into his arms. “What do you think of the family so far?”
Helen gave him a slight smile. “You never told me it was so large. I thought you had parents and maybe a sister or two.”
Jake frowned slightly. “I guess with the trip being a spur of the moment decision on your part we never quite got into that kind of detail. What do you want to know?” He led her to the large armchair, sat down, and pulled her onto his lap.
“Where's your father and who is that other woman? I've just met, Jackie or something?” Helen said. She snaked her arms around Jake's neck before nuzzling into the expensive cologne smelling skin.
A part of Jake wanted to react to the indifferent way Helen spoke of Jace, but his body responded to a more primal instinct. “My father's dead. Catherine and Jace share responsibility for us all.”
Helen knew what she was doing to Jake. He was a push over when it came to her sexual wiles just as most men were. “Catherine's your mother…so the other woman is a cousin of hers?”
“No, they're friends…good friends. Can we talk about this later? Right now I have other tasks for your lips.” He bent to crush the thin painted portion of her body, effectively silencing her as they indulged in a passionate kiss.
The sound of the door opening had Jake feverishly looking in the direction of the door. The teenager standing there had an expression of disbelief and betrayal in her eyes. Struggling up from the chair, he almost bounced Helen on the floor as he held out his hand to the newcomer. “Elena, come on in and meet Helen.”
Elena felt like her world had caved in when she saw her hero kissing a stranger. It isn't right…it isn't what was supposed to happen. Jake was hers and always had been! She finally channelled her anger that had been mounting with every passing second. With a passionate that equalled the as the kiss she witnessed, she said, “I hate you Jake! How could you! She's no more than a tart! I hate her too!” With a muffled cry of pain, she shut the door and charged up to her bedroom.
Helen who had watched the girl's tirade smirked at the reaction. “Now tell me Jacob, exactly who was that spitfire?”
Jake dragged a hand through his short hair and shook his head. “My sister Elena. Sorry, about that…she has a temper when things upset her. You know what teenagers are like. At the drop of a hat the whole world is against them.” He turned to look at the woman he'd fallen in love with and had a bewildered look on his face.
Nonchalantly Helen said, “I wouldn't know. At that age, I was in boarding school where I learned decorum and how to speak in company. Perhaps your mother should consider that for her. She's obviously out of control.”
The words seemed to insinuate themselves into Jake's subconscious and he didn't particularly like the inference but felt there was a kernel of truth in them. His frown deepened. “Helen I need to sort this out or there'll be hell to pay with Catherine. Have another drink I'll be back shortly.” He gave her a quick kiss and left the room in three easy strides.
Helen, with an irritated expression on her face watched him go. To the empty room, she bitterly said, “God I hope this isn't what life is like in the outback. If it is, I'm leaving after the party on Saturday and taking Jacob with me.”
From the decking outside the room, a figure sat in a chair and heard everything said while imagining the scene and the people in it. Silently, the figure moved out of the chair and walked quietly through the patio door to another room in the house. The thunderous expression on the figure's face grew deeper.
+ + +
Jace checked her room but no Catherine.- Typical of Catherine. When I need her the most, she isn't around. With a heavy sigh, she padded out of the room toward the twins rooms. Opening the door to Allison's room, she spoke decisively. “Ali, take a quick shower…no half hour under the steam. Don't forget to put on your good clothes. You have fifteen minutes tops.” Jace shut the door after being satisfied that her daughter had heard her.
Then she proceeded to the door opposite where Nathan's room was. Knocking on the door, she heard a high pitched ‘yeah' from inside. Jace allowed a tender smile to cross her lips. His voice was going to break sooner rather than later. Opening the door, she glanced at the mess on the floor where he'd thrown the best part of the week's clothing. No amount of censure from her or Catherine had any effect. “Nat clean your teeth ok. Jake's girlfriend won't let you within a hundred feet of her if you don't.”
Nat, still dressed in his outdoor trousers emerged from the bathroom. “Is she pretty Mom?”
Jace pondered that for a few seconds then with a smile she nodded. “Yes she is. I want you ready in fifteen minutes. If you're not, I'll have your Mamma collect you and you know what she'll say about this mess.”
It was a threat his Mom used from time to time and mostly she didn't do anything but occasionally she did. When that happened, we grounded him or took his computer privileges away. He looked around his room and it didn't look all that bad to him–he still saw some of the floor space. “I'll be ready, if you let me.”
Jace shook her head at his cheeky grin. “No smart talk from you Nat. I'll see you downstairs in fifteen. Oh, and bring your sister. You know how she dawdles when dressing up.” Jace left the room but heard him groan as she shut the door.
Then, Elena, who with tears running down her cheeks and a heavy scowl on her face, rushed by her and almost bowled her over. Elena darted into her bedroom and slammed the door shut.
Blowing out a breath, Jace closed her eyes and tilted her head heavenward. “I can see it's going to be one of those nights.”
Catherine stood at the top of the stairs where she'd heard someone running up them like a bull after a red flag. “Who was that running?”
Jace turned to the voice in irritation and said, “Elena. Where have you been? I need to have a shower and change for dinner, but the kids needed supervising. I could have done with your help.”
Catherine, with a voice that was tinged with ice, said, “I'm here now. What do you want me to do? Besides it's a family homecoming not a formal party.”
Unable to decipher if the coldness was aimed at her or something else Catherine hadn't found palatable that day, Jace sighed. She is becoming as touchy as Elena these days. “Catherine I have two words for you and one task.”
Catherine raised her eyebrow at the testy tone and asked, “And they would be?”
“Be good and check on Elena. I think she's going to announce that dinner isn't part of her world right now.” Jace opened their bedroom door and shut it behind her rolling her eyes and wishing she could take a nap instead of attending dinner. At that moment, climbing Mount Everest would be easier.
From her place at the top of the stairs, Catherine saw Lisa coming up and said, “I'd stay down there if I were you Lisa. It's probably more amenable right now.”
The redhead chuckled. “Trust me Catherine, no matter what happens up here I'd rather I was here than in the room with those two.”
“Ok. Will you check on the Allison? You know what she's like when she can dress up. All frills and bows along with the time it takes.” Catherine allowed a smile to crease her lips at the thought of her youngest daughter's penchant for pretty clothes. She was all feminine. No worn out drab work clothes for her. Even her outdoor clothing was serviceable but colourful and fashionable. It cost them a fortune. If only Elena had a little of that temperament. With a heavy sigh and a frown to match, she headed for Elena's room.
Lisa shook her head when she saw Catherine's expression. “Good luck Catherine.”
Catherine this time allowed a grin to settle and remain on her face as she knocked on the door and entered.
A tear stained faced looked up at the intruder and scowled. “I didn't invite you in.”
Sucking in a deep breath, Catherine chose to ignore the angry censure for the moment. “Yes, well I wasn't sure you would hear me.” She moved further into the room until she was close to the child sprawled on the bed. The room was tidy and everything had a place, which quite amazed Catherine that any child of Jace's could keep a room orderly. Her wife was notoriously chaotic if allowed any latitude in that department.
“Well I hear you now so please leave.” The childish anger vented into the warm, almost stale, air of the room.
“Do you ever open your window? This room could use some fresh air..” Catherine's eyes never left those of her daughter's eyes.
Like rabbit caught in headlights, Elena felt some of the pain leave her at the gentle tones of her Mamma. “I don't like it open…besides it's been raining.”
Catherine smiled. “Yes it has perfect timing,” Catherine said as she walked over to the closest wind. Once she opened the window, Catherine said, “Come here Elena I want to show you something.”
Elena reluctantly moved and stood at her mother's side and looked out of the window. It was dusk, the sky was clear and she saw nothing out of the ordinary. “What?”
“Take a breath of air Elena and look at the stars with me. Somehow taking the time to sit and ponder nothing in particular under the stars helps when I'm upset. Try it,” Catherine said softly. There was a thread running parallel that told her daughter it was more of a ‘you will' rather than a request.
Elena stood side by side with her Mamma with no words spoken. Surprisingly, she did feel a little better. “I hate her.”
Catherine felt a satisfied smirk lurk at the corners of her lips but declined to let them visit her face. Instead, with a face devoid of any intense emotion, she said, “You do. Who exactly do you hate…your sisters, me or your mom?” She knew exactly who Elena was talking about but the child had to say for herself. Second guessing a teenager usually ended up with the wrong result.
“You know…her! Why did Jake bring her here? He was supposed to come home to us.”
“Jake's getting older Elena he has friends and thought we might like to meet one of them. No matter what Elena, he loves us and always will. His friends might change over the years but we won't.” Catherine didn't really know what to say for she felt the same way about Helen.
Elena digested the words for a few moments. “You think he'll move on to another girlfriend?” Her face brightened at the prospect.
Catherine shrugged. “He's young. I'm sure he isn't intending to settle down just yet. Are you going to shower and have dinner with us? You know Jake will be upset if his favourite girl isn't there on his first night home.”
With a round eyed expression, Elena looked at the tall woman silhouetted against the window. “You still think he calls me his favourite girl?”
Turning, Catherine hugged Elena. “Yes, I'm sure he does. What are you going to wear? Allison is going to wow us with one of her party dresses…what about you?”
“Oh no, Mamma…how gross! She can sit next to that Helen person. I'm going to wear my trousers but I will find a decent top. Is that ok?” Elena asked. Her anger dissipated as quickly as it had arrived.
Catherine kissed the top of her head. “Perfect just like you.” She checked her watch and pulled a face. “You have ten minutes according to your Mom, but what do you say, fifteen?”
With a beaming smile and a sparkle that seemed to flow from her green eyes, Elena said, “Thanks Mamma. You know if it had been Lisa he was interested in I wouldn't mind because we all know she loves him a lot.” Elena went to the bathroom and closed the door.
Catherine stood there her mouth dropping open like a guppy.
+ + +
Jace had one of the quickest showers in history. Once in the shower cubicle she allowed the water to spray over her body before liberally adding her shower gel and soaping up. She didn't wash her hair for it would take too long to dry. Minutes later, she was standing naked beside her bedroom mirror contemplating her body. There was the faint scar from her caesarean of the twins and a sagging of her muscles in the stomach wall. Once she'd been trim, now she had the telltale signs of letting her body go. Excess pounds that never seemed to move and she didn't have the inclination to try to remove them. In the past and now when she felt stress, especially if it had to do with Catherine, her solace was her special goodie cupboard. Fourteen years later, Catherine still religiously stocked it for both her and the children. In part, if her wife complained about her weight gain, she could legitimately say Catherine had contributed to both the cause and effect.
“You look beautiful.”
The heady voice that always sent goose bumps up her arms and over the rest of her body, didn't disappoint her as she felt tell tale signs rushing through her bloodstream. Spinning around, Jace looked at her wife and felt the love she had for the woman who was standing silently watching her with a quirky smile.
“Even though I've put on weight and it shows?” Jace asked breathlessly as she felt her breathing grow shallow as Catherine walked like a panther toward her. The intensity of her gaze sent thunderbolts through her body.
“As I'm usually the cause of your indulgence and I do support your addiction to the chocolate regime, is that a fair question.” Catherine closed in on the petite woman and bent her head to kiss the skin at the corner of Jace's neck and collarbone.
Jace's heartbeats increased and she could feel Catherine's responding in a like manner. It didn't matter what disagreements they had, they could always rely on the primitive responses of their body when in close proximity. Jace hoarsely said, “Are we having Elena's company for dinner?” Her own lips attached to Catherine's throat, which was the only part of Catherine that was naked flesh.
“Yessss,” Catherine hissed as her blood fired at the lips cruising along her throat. Her hands reached around Jace to cover the hot flesh of her wife's bottom and she felt the quiver of sensual reaction to her touch, which ignited her own passions even more. Then Catherine moved her lips to the creamy channel between Jace's breasts. “God I love you.”
Jace felt the flood of desire dribble down her thighs and she lost all sight of any previous assignations except the need for her lover. “I love you too.”
From deep inside, Catherine looked into the green eyes that were so close to her own and breathed raggedly. “We can't do this right now…we'll be late for dinner.”
Jace was damned if she was letting the moment of desire pass her by–dinner would have to wait. “It won't be the first time or the last. Now where were we?”
Catherine laughed softly before taking a pert nipple in her hot mouth and began an oral assault that had them both breathing heavily for some time.
+ + +
Jake introduced the twins to Helen and gave a more formal introduction of Elena who managed to remain remarkably calm during the process. From Elena's point of view, it was all worth it as she glowed with pleasure at Jake's wink and encouraging smile.
“Well, that's all the intros. I wonder what's keeping Catherine and Jace.” Jake asked his eyes watched the door expecting them to walk through it at any second.
No one answered. Allison took the opportunity to sit on the floor beside Helen who was sitting in the armchair and began an animated conversation with the visitor. Helen seemed to thaw at last to someone other than Jake.
Jake saw Lisa, who looked like she was lost in thought, holding back the chintz curtains and peering out into the darkness. He joined her and whispered, “Do you know where they are?”
Lisa had been so absorbed in her own thoughts that she jumped slightly when he spoke. . Frowning slightly, she shook her head. “Last I saw was Jace going to their bedroom to change. Catherine was despatched to talk to Elena, who was upset. Did the bitch you brought with you do that to her.”
Lisa said the words so quietly that it was hard to imagine any real emotion behind the–Lisa found a way.
Jake retaliated immediately. “Why do you always do this? You always want to pick a fight. What's Helen done to you or anyone else that you think you can call her that? You barely know her.”
“I'm glad I don't. She's a stuck up cow and that's being detrimental to the cow,” Lisa hissed.
Jake, furious at her attitude, grabbed her arm. “I never have understood you Lisa. Ever since we started living here, you've always found fault with my friends. Well for the record, I'm going to announce something tonight and your opinion isn't welcome…not that it ever was.”
“Go for it Jake! There's nothing you can say that can hurt me in any way shape or form,” Lisa shot back. Their eyes caught and for a split second, they were the only ones in the room until a door opened and the connection was lost.
Two contrite figures entered the room. “Sorry we're late,” Jace said.
“Thank god your here,” Jake said as he moved swiftly to Helen's side.
Lisa remained stationary locked in a moment she didn't understand and Jake's next words slammed into her like a freight train.
“Now that everyone is here, Helen and I want to tell you the real reason I came home and she came with me.” He glanced at the small woman by his side and gave her a loving look before taking her hand in his. “Helen and I are getting married. We're engaged,” he proudly announced.
For such a joyous announcement, there was a pitifully sad response until Jace who had seen Catherine imperceptibly wince at the words, moved forward and kissed Jake and gave Helen a small peck on the cheek. “Congratulations,” she said. That galvanised everyone else into the congratulatory round and Catherine finding she needed some personal space left the room in the ruse of finding champagne. She returned ten minutes later suitably bearing the champagne and several flutes on a tray.
Dinner followed and although there was an undercurrent of laughter in the room, it was hardly a merry event. Elena had a scowl fixed permanently to her face that no one not even Jake could remove.
The twins seemed to be happy with the news but mainly they were happy to indulge in all the goodies Mrs. Snow had provided for dinner that evening.
Lisa and Catherine had been quiet. Jace had watched them both eyeing the happy couple whenever they thought no one would notice.
Jace sighed inwardly as she moved closer to her wife. “Why don't you and Lisa have a chat? She looks kind of left out and it is her homecoming too.”
Catherine, disinterested in its contents of the champagne flute, twirled it in her hand before downing the contents. “Good idea Jace. Want to join us later in the study when the kids go to bed?”
“What about Jake and guest?” Jace asked. She looked at the couple engrossed in each other and oblivious to everyone else.
Catherine tossed Jake and Helen a look. “They won't notice that you're gone. Besides, we go to bed early in the country right.”
Jace chuckled softly. “Yeah right. Go on, I'll catch up with you two later.”
Catherine caught Lisa's attention and with a quick goodnight to the Jake and his lady friend, left the room on the pretext they had something important to discuss.
Jace watched them go and wished she could go with them. However, she walked over to Elena who hadn't said a word all evening and sat next to her. “Hey darling, how are you feeling?”
Elena scowled. “I want to go live with dad.”
Jace blinked and wondered where that idea had come from–it was definitely out of left field. Peter Adamson Elena's father and her ex-husband usually had to beg his child to visit him and his family in Italy . “You do? Have you discussed this with your dad? Is it something new that happened like the news this evening?”
“My dad says I can live with them anytime. They have a cool place in Rome and I think it will be good for me to get to know my half sister better,” Elena announced.
Jace pondered her daughter's words. Elena's demand rather than a request had hurt. Right now, she could do without her daughter adding another problem to the melting pot. “Can we talk about this tomorrow with your Mamma too?”
At the mention of Catherine's involvement, Elena's scowl moved more to a pensive frown. “Ok, can I go now?”
Pursing her lips and nodding her head slightly, Jace quietly said, “Sure darling. Why not take a few snacks on a plate to your room. I noticed you didn't eat much. I'll be by later to say goodnight.”
Elena stood up and nodded, then made her way to the door ignoring Jake's warm smile. When she left the room, the young man turned to Jace who merely shook her head.
Half an hour later, she rounded up the twins and headed them off to their bedrooms. Jace looked at the two remaining people in the room. “I'm going to have to excuse myself. It's been a long day. Let's catch up over breakfast in the morning."
After Jace left, Helen gave the comfortable, if a little shabby, furniture the once over before she whispered something in Jake's ear that made his pulse fire.
“Oh yeah, an early night sounds like a great proposition to me. We'll have to sneak around…your room or mine?” He gathered her close and kissed her passionately. They disengaged long enough to make it up the stairs and into Jake's room with their laughter filling the otherwise somber unusually silent house.
+ + +
Catherine sat at her desk as Lisa strolled in an agitated fashion toward the window completely obscured by the heavy drape. She flicked it back and peered outside.
Taking a few moments to study her eldest daughter, Catherine decided to give Lisa a few moments of personal space before she broke the silence. “That was a surprise,” she said softly.
When there was no reply from Lisa, Catherine scratched the underside of her chin in what to say next. “I'm going back to the US for a while on Monday. I've asked Jace to go with me along with the younger. She's not happy.”
Still no reply.
Catherine stood up, walked over to her daughter, and drew back the drapes so they could both look outside. It was surprisingly a clear beautiful night. The rain had duly served its purpose and cleared away the heavy clouds that obscured the magnificent light show of the stars at night. “You're not listening to me Lisa,” Catherine softly said close to Lisa's ear.
With a startled jump, Lisa looked at Catherine. “Oh I'm sorry Catherine…I was miles away. What did you say?”
“I said Jace isn't happy.”
“Oh really…well I'm not surprised. Who would be having that bitch affiliated to our family?” Lisa spit out.
The venom in the words was so unlike Lisa. She was headstrong and annoying at times but rarely did she find malice in anyone. It was quite the opposite usually. Catherine didn't understand the undercurrent Lisa was projecting. “Well actually, I meant with me. What do you know about Helen Banks that would elicit such a strong feeling Princess?”
Lisa sighed and ran a hand through her already wild red hair. She shrugged and in a half-apologetic tone said, “Other than meeting her earlier today I don't know her. Let's just say some people get up your nose immediately and the smell isn't one of roses.”
“To be honest I'm not that taken with her myself but I have to give it a go for Jake's sake. If what he says is true she may well be his future bride.” Catherine saw Lisa flinch slightly at her words.
“Well I don't have to be nice. It's not like she's nice to any of us. She barely acknowledges that Jake has a family and who the hell calls him Jacob! He could have done heaps better,” Lisa said in irritation.
“It's his given name Princess.” Catherine reminded her gently.
The young woman grunted something inaudible to Catherine as she tried to decipher exactly what was going on. Then she recalled Elena's innocent statement earlier. You know if it had been Lisa he was interested in I wouldn't mind because we all know she loves him a lot .
“Yes well currently he thinks he's doing pretty well right now. If you had to choose do you have a candidate in mind?” Catherine asked as her eyes fixed on the stars rather than her daughter.
With a startled look in her eyes, Lisa flicked her glance to Catherine thankful she wasn't looking directly at her. It was hard to keep things from those ice blue eyes, even if she only saw out of one of them. “No. I think it's too soon. He's too young and should wait until he's about thirty.”
“Maybe he should. Is that what you're going to do?” Catherine let a half smile cross her lips.
“Yes, although I probably won't marry. I don't think I'm cut out for marriage,” Lisa said. All her pent up anger was gone and her words spilled out in a forlorn manner.
Catherine nodded and stifled a chuckle. “Really…I thought that about myself once after Adam died. Now look at me…totally henpecked and with a load of kids. You never know what fate has in store for you Lisa. Don't shut the door on life too early. It's a rather wonderful state of being…even the bad times. It makes the good things all that much more wonderful. Trust me I know better than most.”
Lisa nodded and then caught Catherine's look and saw the love and safe haven where it always was and always would be. With a sob, she threw herself into Catherine's arms and broke down much as she did as a child.
Catherine hugged her close and whispered words of comfort. When Lisa eventually stopped crying she gave Catherine a chagrined expression. “Sorry about that. It must be the wrong time of the month.”
“Yes, I'm sure that's the answer. How about we open a bottle of wine to celebrate what you've achieved,” Catherine didn't wait to hear a reply as she quickly departed the room and minutes later came back with three glasses and a bottle of white wine.
Catherine popped the cork, filled the wine glasses and gave one to Lisa before raising her glass. With a bright smile, Catherine said, “To our Princess and her success.”
Half an hour later, Jace appeared and when she saw Catherine and Lisa laughing, a loving smile filled her face. “Is there room for one more?”
Lisa giggled and waved Jace over. “For you Jace, we'd part the pacific ocean to make room…right Catherine?”
Catherine drank in the sight of Jace, as she stood silhouetted in the doorway. With a smile, she nodded and quietly said, “Absolutely.”
Walking inside the study, she shut the door behind her as she recalled the last time she was there and the less than friendly visit. Squaring her shoulders, she crossed the room and sat next to Lisa. “What are we celebrating…other than the obvious?”
Catherine remained silent as she poured Jace a glass of wine and handed it to her. Her eyes hooded and speculative as she listened to Lisa reply.
“Catherine and I are celebrating my success…at least my dreams.”
Jace grinned and squeezed Lisa's hand as she raised her glass, “To dreams, old, new, and those yet to be revealed.”
Catherine kept her gaze on Jace as she felt the years they'd had together flash by, along with the numerous hopes and dreams they'd built a life on. “Without dreams where would we be?”
Lisa felt undercurrents in the room. It hadn't been the first time in the short time she'd been home. Something was wrong between her parents and she wanted to find out what it was and help them. “Jace, what do you think of the announcement?”
Jace sank back in the sofa she shared with Lisa and curled her legs under her body. With glass in hand, she stared into it as a contemplative expression crossed her face. “I wasn't surprised.”
Both Catherine and Lisa gave her a surprised look and in unison asked, “You aren't?”
Chuckling at the expressions on her companion's faces, Jace shook her head. “Jake isn't like you Lisa…he doesn't bring every friend home including boyfriends…well of course in his case girlfriends.”
Lisa interjected, “Oh Jace that's unfair. I don't bring every friend home.”
“Really? You could have fooled me. When you were sixteen I swear we were feeding the whole school at one stage,” Catherine softly added.
“That's my name.” The amusement on her face increased as she settled back in her chair enjoying the ease in tension of the day–the week.
“Ok, so what do you mean about Jake?”
“Jake only brings home people who are important in his life. I think you can count on one hand his friends and the only girl he brought home back in high school was Maya. I always knew the next girl he brought home would be the one.” Jace said.
With a snort of disgust, Lisa gulped down half of the contents of her wine glass. “He should have stuck with Maya she was lovely.”
“Because we might not approve of his choice doesn't mean it isn't the right one for him. We have to respect that he can make up his own mind. He's a man now.” Jace looked down into her own glass of wine and with a heavy sigh sipped some of the contents.
Catherine considered Jace's words and a small smile began to generate around her lips as she twirled the amber liquid around in the glass.
“What are you smirking at Catherine?”
Raising her eyebrows in an exaggerated fashion, Catherine gave her best impression of surprise. Then she chuckled before her low sexy voice answering the question. “Can't think of why we all don't like the woman.”
“I never said I didn't like her. It's just…”
“Just?” Catherine prompted.
Jace shook her head and then with a pained expression said, “She's the coldest woman I've ever met. Do they coach English people as part of the curriculum to be like that?”
Catherine grinned. “No it's all in the genes.”
Jace moved slightly so that she could reach across and touch Catherine's knee. “Except for you my love.”
Lost in the wave of emotion that Jace caused by the tender touch she felt her breath lock inside her chest. She could barely breathe. Finally, using all the strength she could muster, she placed her hand on Jace's and replied, “I have my moments.”
Lisa watched the two women. It was like a screening of a romance in 3D. Clearing her voice, she stood up. “It's been a long day. I'm going to bed. I need my beauty sleep and I have a feeling that it's going to be a heck of a weekend.”
Jace smiled as she stood up, hugged Lisa and kissing her cheek. “Goodnight darling, sweet dreams.”
“Thanks Jace,” Lisa murmured. When Jace whispered in her ear she was startled.
Moments later, she was saying goodnight to Catherine in much the same fashion but without the whispered words.
As she left closing the door behind her, Lisa mulled over the words, Jace said. He'll understand one day and come back to you .
Catherine and Jace stood opposite each other both silent until Catherine moved to take Jace in her arms and pull her gently to the sofa. She held Jace across her chest without breaking the silence.
Jace turned slightly to kiss the bare flesh that the open buttons of Catherine's she revealed. The musky scent invaded her as she felt lips caress her hair as the jolts of excitement crashed through her body.
“I love you Catherine,” Jace said against the flesh.
For a second Catherine didn't respond and then she hugged Jace tightly to her. “You are my dreams. You always have been always will be.”
With a muffled cry, Jace disengaged from the bear hug and reached up to kiss the woman who with a minimum of words made everything in the world ok. A thought traversed the swirling sexual excitement building in her body. How can I even think of letting this go and still feel alive?
+ + +
Breakfast had been a mishmash of comings and goings while others stayed in bed. As usual, Catherine woke up early with Jace curled around her like a limpet. The fact that she hadn't indulged longer in the warm flesh that enclosed her in a cocoon of love was remarkable. Their sexual appetite for each other hadn't waned. Other obstacles like living together the rest of the time no longer glowed. The thought of another intense discussion about her new plans caused bile to settle in the back of her throat and make her feel sick. It was easier to get up and see Jace when others were present. They didn't argue then, especially in front of the children.
As Catherine sat at the kitchen table, she allowed her thoughts to wander as she relished her first cup of tea of the day. Her eyes automatically tracked to the almost silent appearance of her youngest son as he tried and failed to pull out a chair quietly.
“Good morning Nathan.”
Showing slightly crooked teeth, the boy grinned. His dark blue eyes seemed to glow as he snatched the cereal box and began to pour some into his bowl. “Morning Mamma. Can I have sugar on my cereal…please?” His infectious grin brought a likeminded twist to Catherine's lips as she nodded.
“Not too much or your Mom's going be mad at both of us.” Catherine mentally noted that his teeth needed braces sooner rather than later.
With a wink, the boy placed two heaped spoonfuls into his bowl and lavishly poured in milk before he began to eat with gusto.
With his mouth half full, he gazed at the sad expression on his Mamma's face. She'd been sad a lot lately and he was sorry for her. He still didn't want to go to America to live not even for a little while. “Do we really have to go to America and live with Gran and Grandpa?” he asked.
Catherine's left eyelid rose at the question. Puzzled she asked, “Who said anything about living with your grandparents?”
Scoffing down more cereal he replied in a slightly muffled voice, “I just thought we might. If you and Mom don't agree, it's what happens with families when they break up sometimes…isn't it?”
In shock at the child's revelation, Catherine contemplated what to say next as she looked at the mug of tea suspended half way between her mouth and the table. Placing the mug down she watched her son demolish the last of his cereals and then with her head to one side to concentrate on him and his reaction she asked, “Mom and I have differences of opinion Nathan. It doesn't mean that we aren't happy. Do you think we are?”
The boy nodded. “Since you came home this time you and Mom have been upset with each other. The other times you and Mom worked it out and it was over quick. This time is different…I've seen Mom crying in her garden and you are always sad.”
The words sounded like some she'd expect to receive from an adult not a ten year old boy. Had they been so transparent that it had permeated into their children so quickly and disastrously? Catherine squared her shoulders and felt the tears prick at her eyes. Since the children…since allowing Jace into her life to be exact, she vowed she'd place them above everything. She promised herself that she would never do anything to make them unhappy. It looked like yet again, one of her goals in life had been shattered and she was the perpetrator.
“Nathan, sometime adults don't always see eye to eye but your Mom and I love each other a great deal and we love you and your brothers and sisters way too much for anything to split us up.”
Nathan gave her a bright smile. “Does that mean you're not sad anymore and Mom won't cry?”
With tears forming rapidly in her eyes, she blinked them away and brushed a hand over her eyes to wipe away the moisture. “You got it Nathan. I'll talk to Mom and you'll see everything will be like it was before.”
His whoop of joy had Catherine shaking her head as a wry smile twisted her lips. “Good as gold Mamma. I'll go wake Ali she'll be happy it means we don't have to go to America now.”
Before Catherine could haul him back and say it meant nothing of the sort he was gone like a whirlwind.
The door to the laundry opened and Mrs. Snow stepped inside. “Are you ready for your eggs now Catherine?”
Catherine startled by the older woman's appearance had to shake her head before replying, “Yes, thank you.” Her thoughts were on Nathan's admission and his enthusiasm over not leaving the family home. In a whisper she said, “Christ this is harder than I thought.”
Jake stood on the decking and watched as Catherine cantered off toward hills for her personal time alone. As he did, a figure silently approached and was startled when a voice quietly interjected his thoughts.
“She's like clockwork. Even after all these years at four o'clock, weather permitting, away she goes off on her travels.”
Jake smiled and turned to the petite woman at his side and slung one of his much longer arms around her shoulders and hugged her close. “Yeah, somehow it's weirdly comforting. I always figured one day you'd join her.”
Jace grinned. “You have got to be kidding me Jake. Horses are gigantic there's just something about them that doesn't enamour me.”
The young man chuckled and steered Jace toward the wicker chairs and they sat down. “I'm sorry about springing my little surprise on you. I had it all worked out to mention it after the party but…”
Jace smiled warmly and shook her head. “Are you happy Jake? Does Helen make you as happy as Catherine makes me?”
Considering the question and the way Jace posed it, had Jake at a loss for words. Then he solemnly said, “I'm happy Jace. Helen is a very special woman once you get to know her. She can be a little standoffish with strangers but once she gets to know you all I know you'll love her as I do.”
The one thing Jace notice that had the most impact on her was his hesitation. There shouldn't be any hesitation when it came to loving someone you just did, end of story. Or was she so engrossed in her own good fortune that she didn't understand that there were all kinds of love and some not as strong as the bond she and Catherine shared. “Lisa mentioned this morning that she thought Helen didn't quite understand Catherine and my relationship. Is that true?”
Jake fidgeted in his chair and his head dropped a fraction as his eyes refused to meet Jace's green eyes. Then he angrily said, “Lisa should mind her own business!”
A gentle chuckle was his initial reply then Jace said, “Lisa cares about you Jake. She'd never do anything that would hurt you.”
“Oh don't give me that Jace. From the moment she met Helen, she's been giving off bad vibes. I wish I'd never taken her up on the offer of giving us a lift here,” Jake said as his temper rose.
There had never been a time when Jake and Lisa hadn't created sparks growing up, but those were harmless sparks. Now, they gathered momentum and had developed into what Jace thought was irrational anger. Jace again asked, “I take it that Helen knows that Catherine and I are partners in every way?”
This time Jake stood up and walked over to the wooden balustrade, which covered the full length of the decking along the front of the homestead. His gaze fixed at a point far away.
“I suppose she's right then,” Jace said with a note of sadness. “Is there a problem with your fiancé knowing Catherine and I are lovers?” Jace's face turned serious as she waited for an answer.
Jake gazed out over the scenic landscape of green luscious fields and the animals that grazed them to the backdrop of the beauty of the mountain range that held the property in a valley of protection. Here he always felt that he could be himself, he loved the place and intended to return one day once he'd made his own fortune. Finally, he said, “I intended to tell her when I got back. She wasn't originally supposed to come with me. Somewhere along the line, time just defeated that prospect. I guess as it's natural to me I figured it wouldn't be an issue. I hope I'm not wrong.”
“I see,” Jace said as her eyes stared at the rigid profile of the young boy who had turned into a very handsome young man. His dark features accentuating a broody, yet decisive nature. He was like Catherine–waters ran deep within him.
Jake turned to face Jace and nodded his head. “Do you? Helen's beautiful and she loves me. Of all the people she could choose, she chose me…a hick boy from a country on the other side of the world who has nothing to offer her but his love.”
Jace smiled. “A hick boy. Have you looked in the mirror recently Jake? Trust me you look very sophisticated even in the casual look.” Her eyes took in the designer jeans and shirt he wore, money oozed out of each seam.
“What have looks to do with it?” Jake asked with a rising tone.
“Well believe me, for most women their heads are turned by a handsome face just as men do. It isn't a male trait Jake, it's human nature. Besides, you make a decent salary from the clothes you wear and the apartment you rent. I'm sure you're not in the poverty line and Helen understands your current circles. I think she knows she's onto a good thing.” Jace felt her heart harden when she considered that Helen Banks might actually be a gold digger. “Catherine knows her father…is that right? They've done business together for several years?”
Jake moved back to the seat he'd taken earlier and sank down in it. “Actually she doesn't know Helen's father. He's a silent partner in the company. He attended the annual party and that's where I met her. He leaves the business to the other partners. Her father is associated with property development in Europe .”
“Independently wealthy,” Jace said seriously. “Then perhaps you've hit a good thing?” Jace's eyes seemed to twinkle and Jake fortunately saw that before he bit her head off for the remark.
He felt the tension leave him and he grinned back at her. “Catherine's going to kill me if she finds out I haven't been very forthcoming on the family front isn't she?”
Jace chuckled. “I could with the right incentive help you there.”
With a cautious glance in Jace's direction, Jake shook his head. “I'm going to live to regret this I know, but what incentive?”
“Be nice to Lisa. She's missed you. I know she wanted to share her good news about her business and future with you. Now she feels like you've no time for anyone but Helen.”
Jake considered her request then, with a wide smile, he nodded, “for you Jace anything.”
With that said, they both stood up and Jake impulsively hugged the petite woman. “I love you Jace, thanks.”
“I love you too Jake. Now is a good time to consider telling the love of your life the real set up here before one of the kids innocently lets the cat out of the bag.”
“I will. She's taking a nap. It's a good excuse to wake her…dinner will be in a couple of hours anyway.” He kissed her cheek and left the deck with a spring in his step.Jace stood there for a second completely motionless then moved to stare much as Jake had to the mountain range ahead of her and the person who drifted as she always did into every waking moment of her life. “Now how do I tell Catherine that little snippet of information without her losing the plot? Although my own admission might be wilder, it's an interesting conundrum. I wonder if I can induce Grace to do it when she arrives tonight.” Jace frowned in concentration and then turned away from the tranquil scene to the sound of arguing children. Oh the joys of parenthood.
+ + +
Faith Thornton smiled at the excitement on her only granddaughter's face. Georgina was looking forward to spending the weekend with the Destiny children. She loved being with the twins but she had a girly crush on Elena, who ignored her most of the time. That didn't stop George, as they fondly called her, from trying to copy her heroine. Jace's fortieth birthday was going to be interesting and that was a lukewarm word for it.
“Now wee one collect your bag your father is almost ready,” Faith told her granddaughter who with a wide smile rushed off to do exactly that.
Grace Montgomery had been watching her mother with the eleven year old and it warmed her heart. When her daughter had been born all hell had been let loose with her hormones and her mother and daughter had taken the brunt force of them in different ways. Thankfully, everyone had rallied and by the time Georgina was a year old, her peace of mind had settled down and she was able to parent, as she should. However, her mother's help and that of her friends had been a huge bonus in the early days. She had doubts that her marriage would have survived and maybe even her own child.
Shaking her head from her morose thoughts, she said, “Are you packed Mother?”
Faith looked at her child and clucked. “I was only here overnight Grace. What about you and Colin?”
“All done. I think Colin is looking forward to being on Destiny again. He wants to check that the manager is doing what he's instructed, more than going to the party.”
Both women laughed. Colin Montgomery's remit had increased over the years and he was now director of operations of the Destiny Holdings. Catherine had astutely bought into several farms and prestigious properties over the years, which meant Colin, had to travel extensively in the year to check on the management. Even Catherine had developed a keen interest in the properties so much so she often travelled with Colin.
Grace glanced around her brand new home finished only three weeks before. They were steadily unpacking their belongings. The ten acres of land they'd bought five years earlier and had planted in sustainable trees and olives would next season begin to bring in a profit. It was now Grace's hobby to run the small-holding with the two horses for Colin and Georgina, a donkey they'd rescued from an owner who didn't understand that donkey's were sociable animals and loved the company of their equine fellows. That along with a multitude of chickens roaming the property and a couple of ducks who'd quite by accident stumbled upon the ten metre pond and never left. The one drawback had been that the property was twenty miles from Destiny. Catherine originally owned it but she'd settled a sweet deal with Colin on his acceptance of a more pivotal role in the holding company.
“Grace, don't be surprised if you see some changes with Catherine and Jace I think they're going through a troubling time. And we both know you meddle.”
“I don't meddle mother! I'm upset that you even think that. You never mentioned a problem yesterday when you arrived. Do you know what's wrong?” Grace asked her smile taking away any indication of anger from her words.
Faith bit on the bottom of her lower lip slightly then nodded. “They'll tell you themselves in their own way. I'm sure but Catherine wants to move the family to the US for a time. Jace isn't happy about it and the kids are adamant they won't go.”
Grace blew out a low whistle. The news wasn't as surprising as she'd expected. Colin had indicated a month earlier that Catherine had business worries elsewhere and she was taking less and less interest in the properties here. “I thought Jace would jump at the chance of having the kids taste her American culture along with her parents being closer by. The kids I understand. I bet Elena is causing a stink. It's bad enough for teenagers going through all the trauma of the changes they do and be in a settled environment. Going half way round the world isn't a settling force.”
Faith grimaced. “That child is a mystery to me. She's so willful and at the same time she can be so loving. I'm hoping Jake's presence will be a good factor for her while he's home. I'm looking forward to seeing him again along with Lisa of course.”
Grace smiled. Elena from her birth had been a time bomb waiting to explode. Jake's influence was usually a wonderful soothing thing for the teenager although it had been three years since he'd been home and things do change. She hoped he was still the same generous young man he had always been.
“So am I. I know I saw Jace and the kid's a week Monday but it seems like forever. Oh, I'm soooo looking forward to a party. Come on Mom let's go.”
Faith chuckled. She was looking forward to her orthopedic chair in the library and finishing off the book she'd started along with a glass of wine. With a smile and a spring to her step, she followed her daughter into the hall.
+ + +
Catherine climbed out of bed as the door to the bedroom opened and Jace stomped in, her facial features less than happy. With a concealed sigh, Catherine tried a smile and asked, “Anything wrong?”
“Anything wrong…you have the nerve to say that to me after the conversation I've just had with the twins. First, you demand we go to America with you and now you've changed your mind. Exactly what's with you these days Catherine?” When she saw the crestfallen expression of the taller woman's face, Jace knew her riled up emotions spilled out more venom than she wanted.
Catherine drew in a short breath and walked over to Jace. “It's not what it seems. The twins have it all wrong. I was talking to Nathan yesterday morning at breakfast and …”
“And you were talking to our ten year old son and not me? For goodness sake give me strength.”
“It's not like that Jace, as I was saying…”
“It's not like what? I've put up with your mood swings and obstinacy and tempers for the last fourteen years! Do you know how difficult you are to live with?”
The room fell into a shocked silence as both women traded eye contact. The blue gaze shocked and disorientated by the admission and the green annoyed and out of patience.
Moving backwards a few steps, Catherine tried to make sense of what Jace had said. “I didn't realise living with me was such a chore. You've never indicated that before. Besides, you've managed in the last few months to mirror me exactly.”
Jace realised that Catherine misconstrued her words. It was too late. She'd said them and she believed them. Why do I always have to be the one to compromise? It isn't fair. “It isn't a chore…I love you. Look Catherine, I've been thinking about this whole moving business…”
“Forget it. You and the children can remain on Destiny. I wouldn't want to inflict any more onerous duties on you. Besides, I'll be busy and you'd be bored.” Catherine's words had a hard edge to them as ice liberally chilled the room to the freezing point.
“Catherine I didn't mean what I said the way you think I did. Let's talk about this…please.” Jace moved forward and then stopped dead in her tracks as Catherine's gaze froze her to the spot.
“Did you mean what you said?”
Jace rolled her eyes as her patience wore thin. “Like I said, not in the context you've taken it.”
“But you meant them whatever the context?” Catherine belligerently said.
Jace frowned. “Yes, but I can explain.”
Catherine held her hand in the air and with a low guttural tone to her voice said, “No, enough…I've heard enough. We have nothing to talk about. I'll be leaving on Sunday morning after the party.” She turned away and a small hand shot out to grasp her arm.
“You will not turn your back on me or behave like the twins. Grow up Catherine. This isn't a business deal where you can walk away…it's our family…our relationship. Doesn't that mean more to you than some idiot corporation?” Jace, angry with Catherine's attitude pleaded her case.
With a cynical laugh, Catherine threw back, some of Jace's words. “Idiot corporation, yeah, you would think like that. You live in a fantasy world Jace. I've cosseted you from the moment I met you and frankly, I'm done with it. Get real or we seriously have nothing to talk about anymore.”
Jace silently stood in the centre of the room completely pole axed by the seriousness of the words. Catherine, for all her faults, never said anything she didn't mean. “Are you saying, if I don't agree with how you think right now, we're over,” She snapped her fingers, “Just like that?”
“Take it in whatever context you want. You're good at jumping to conclusions. I need a shower.” Catherine angrily pulled off her bed-shirt and threw it in a ball on the bedroom floor then proceeded to the bathroom slamming the door behind her.
Jace remained transfixed to the spot. Her mind was a jumbled mess of emotions but the crumpled shirt Catherine threw in the corner of the room fascinated her. Never in all the time she'd been with Catherine had her lover ever been untidy.
A few minutes later, she tentatively walked to the bathroom door and opened it. A swirl of steam and the sound of running water greeted her.
Softly she said, “Hey love, look…we can work this out why don't I join you?'
There was only the sound of running water that greeted the offer. The naked silhouette behind the glass shower door remained in one position.
“Look, we both said things we didn't mean Catherine. Baby this is us, we are meant to be together, and no words can change that.” Jace entreated attempting to have her voice heard above the water.
Silence once more greeted her plea. With a heavy sigh, Jace shook her head and made a decision. “You think I've been uncompromising. Well let me tell you the reason I'm upset…it isn't about going to America . It isn't about moving the kids…they'll do what we say because they love us. It's because I need to tell you something and I'm scared. So scared you'll lose it that I can't tell you.
The cascade of water ended and Catherine opened the shower door and asked, “You can tell me anything.”
Jace sighed and then drew in a deep breath, “Gill kissed me...”
+ + +
Lisa gazed at the early morning sky. It was barely seven and the fiery red skies filled the view from every angle she looked. It was particularly effective over the mountain range–a little piece of heaven here in the backyard. That's how Destiny felt to her, especially now. Living in a small township these days, she had beautiful views but none as spectacular as this one –it was home.
The night was different! For the first time that she could ever remember she hated being in the same room as her family–not the family–but that bitch Jake brought home as his fiancé. Who the hell did she think she was anyway? The woman looked at them as if they were a freak show–especially when she met Jace. Her mom was one of the most loving and supportive of people she'd ever met–it oozed out of every pore. The bitch hadn't even noticed. Lisa speculated that the bitch was as cold in bed if they way she spoke were any indication. It was like a freezing breath crossing over the body.
Taking a seat on the porch, her stare followed the driveway through to the stables and beyond. Her memories of days growing up filled her with happiness as she recalled her first pony Diamond. Jake taught her and Elena the basics of riding. It broke both of their hearts when the old pony finally decided he wanted to rest for good. Catherine had duly bought a couple more ponies for the twins and Elena her own horse, which she aptly named Diamond–it wasn't the same though not for her. In fact, her interests were more diverse as in the horse power of an engine.
However, Destiny was where she had her heart put together again after her mother died in a terrible accident caused by Jake's parents who also died that day. When their surrogate parents had felt it was time, they'd taken them both out to dinner and explained the situation–she was sixteen and Jake was almost eighteen. It had been a shock, but hadn't hurt as much as she expected. Jake, on the other hand, looked devastated. He'd left for University shortly afterwards and since that time they'd spent barely more than a few hours in each other's company. She'd often wondered if that was because he felt guilty or… There was no use speculating–what was done was done. Now, it looked like Jake was moving on and living in New Zealand wasn't part of his long term plan. She didn't see Helen Banks as a countrywoman in any shape or form.
“Hey, you're up early?”
Lisa felt the hair on the back of her neck stand to attention as she reflected on the deep voice that since puberty had always managed to do that–she'd missed it–secretly she'd missed Jake more than she thought possible. “Morning Jake, I thought you'd be having a lie in.”
The young man slid into a chair next to her and scanned the sky above him evoking happy memories. Ignoring Lisa's remark, he quietly replied, “I'd forgotten just what it is like to wake up to this.” His hand circled the mountain view as his thoughts traversed the grimy skylines and tower block buildings he viewed in London .
“Yeah, I was thinking the same myself. Although in my case, it's a very small township with good views, though not as spectacular. It's good to be home.” Lisa turned her head a fraction, caught the handsome profile of her adopted brother, and inwardly sighed. She had to remember that even though they weren't related by blood it was all he ever could be.
Jake turned suddenly and caught Lisa's gaze and his lips curved to a tiny smile, “I never told you yesterday that I was proud of you. Catherine has been telling me of your progress. Good on you.”
Lisa almost collapsed at Jake‘s quiet praise of her current endeavours. With a slight shrug, she laughed softly, “Catherine helped. I couldn't have done it without her financial support.”
Serious, Jake replied, “Yeah, but she made you pay the price first right?”
Lisa nodded and chuckled. “Yeah, straight A's at Uni or I was doomed.”
They laughed together as they both stared of into the distance. That was Catherine–she was generous but you had to work for it.
“How are the riding skills these days?” Jake asked.
Lisa gave him a long stare. “Better than yours I'd wager. Want to go for a ride?”
Towering over Lisa, Jake stood up and held out his hand. “I thought you'd never ask. Let's go Princess it's time we did justice to being home.”
Under her breath Lisa whispered, “Amen to that.” She allowed her hand to linger for a few extra seconds in Jake's before dropping it and quickly racing toward the stables. Laughingly tauntingly, she said, “Last one there gets the new horse.”
Jake shook his head. “Now I really do know I'm home,” he said before racing after her.
+ + +
Jace paced the bedroom Catherine had left her in alone. She'd not said a word even after her admission. In fact, the whole scene had a surreal event about it.
Jace saw Catherine's stunned look. “Did you hear what I said Catherine?”
Catherine blinked rapidly and reached for her robe before drawing it around her naked body, which had suddenly gone tremendously cold, like ice water had doused her. Her tongue attempted to wet her dry lips before she could speak. When she tried, she didn't have any words.
Jace saw the pain in her face. She could ever recall seeing that expression only once before. It was all those years ago in LA after Hudson had done what she thought was her worst and she told Catherine she never wanted to see her again., God what have I done. Reaching out a hand, Jace attempted to touch the statue-like Catherine who stood close to her. Her hand shrugged off as Catherine shrank from her touch.
“It didn't mean anything,” she whispered. “In fact, it was a shock to me.” She closed her eyes as her tears began to fall. I should have told her weeks ago. “I love you.”
Catherine felt the muscles of her legs move, she wasn't sure where she was going or that she had any control. However, with lifeless fingers she retrieved her clothes that she'd earlier laid out on the bed and rapidly put them on. All the while, her mind was turning cartwheels. Still, words refused to exit her mouth as she turned to look at Jace while she buttoned up her shirt. The one thought that was getting louder kept going through her mind and was getting louder each time it did. This was why Jace doesn't want to leave here . It all makes perfect sense now .
“Catherine we need to talk about this. This reaction is exactly the reason I didn't mention it earlier. I knew you'd blow a gasket.”
Jace watched as a silent Catherine walked out of the room shutting the door with ominous quiet behind her.
“Except I didn't know that's how you'd react. I expected fireworks and you wanting to kill Gillian but not the silence or the bleak expression of profound loss on your face.” Jace knew she needed to fix the damage she'd done–the question–how.
Walking into the bathroom, she cleaned her teeth automatically and then drew in a deep breath. If her life was turning into custard before her very eyes, she wanted to have a say in it. With a strength she didn't know she had, she exited the bathroom pulling on old dog walking clothes and made a decision. First, she'd tend to Catherine, and then the dogs and kids.
“Today they'll have to wait.”
She exited the bedroom and made for the study. It was Catherine's bolthole when things went pear-shaped–otherwise she'd take a ride on Tralargon's daughter Largo . It wasn't light enough yet for the ride so she knew she'd find Catherine in her study. Ignoring the usual knock on the door for politeness sake, she opened the door and found Catherine standing at the window. It brought an ache to her heart as she recalled yet another memory of years ago at this very spot. The day she'd returned and her world had begun to shine again. Biting the top of her lip, she walked inside and stealthily walked up to the tall figure silhouetted against the rising of the sun.
“Will you talk to me now?”
Catherine's back arched at the softly spoken words. Sucking in a deep breath, she composedherself before saying, “Is there anything to talk about.”
Jace sighed heavily as her mind flicked over how Catherine could be belligerent just like the kids. Right now, she was acting like one. “If you've got it into your thick skull that I'm having an affair think again!”
“What else am I to expect Jace? You don't want to go to America with me and you tell me you and the good vicar were carrying on in my absence. At least I assume it's when I'm gone or is it anytime?” Catherine's frigid response set the tone and the room temperature around them.
“For God's sake Catherine, I love you. It was a mistake a one off…at least.” Jace tried to answer and caught the flicker of painful judgement with the twist of Catherine's lips.
“Apt words for the vicar. I guess you're going to tell me that God is on your side and that it's meant to be.”
“You are so…so judgemental Catherine. Will you at least hear me out before you judge me? This is exactly what I expected…well not exactly, but now you know why I was worried.” Jace had the distinct feeling she was digging a bigger hole for herself. She stopped speaking and waited for a response.
Catherine turned to fully give her attention to Jace and looked her over as if she was seeing her for the first time–she didn't like what she saw. “You will not take my children Jace. I vowed that a long time ago and I'll make it my vocation in life to see that you don't.”
Frowning and suddenly scared at Catherine's words, she wondered if she had thought about this scenario before. Surely not!
“I don't want to take your children from you, why would I? You're my wife, lover, my best friend and the one person in the world who is more important to me than the children. It wouldn't have entered my head. Don't you trust me Catherine?”
“Trust,” Catherine spat out as she glared at Jace. “Give me a break. You tell me you and the veritable vicar are sharing intimate moments and you expect me to trust you? I'd be a fool to trust you ever again.”
Jace felt her cheeks sting with colour. She wanted to scream that Catherine had gotten it all wrong but she didn't. Instead, she quietly replied, “How did we get so screwed up Catherine that you can immediately think this about me. I expected you to be mad sure, but you're accusing me of having an affair without the facts. That's not the woman I fell in love with. Has our world changed so much that we can destroy what we have with a few words and an omission? I'm not guilty of anything. That's not what I said?” Jace, felt the sting of tears and with it the life that she knew drifting away out of reach.
“Speak for yourself Jace. I'm not the one going around kissing other women. My only crime is that I want to save our current lifestyle. I have work to do before Grace arrives for breakfast. I'll see you there. Now I want to be alone.” Catherine effectively closed the conversation as her eyelids dropped down and her long lashes hid her blue eyes that were shutting Jace out.
It was pointless to try to argue with Catherine once she'd made her mind up. She needed to cool her jets. Once she did, they'd work through it–they always did. However, a part of Jace felt like her world had been ripped away and she was unable to repair it. God help me but I want to kill you myself Gillian!
“Ok, have it your own way. Isn't that what usually happens anyway.” Jace turned on her heels and left the room.
Jace closed her eyes as the door of the study shut on her and she had to salvage what little composure she had. She heard the twins racing down the stairs and kniew that in a few seconds they would come into view .
“Are you two ready to walk the dogs before Aunt Grace arrives.”
“Cool Mom. George is fun and we miss her nor being here all the time.” The twins grabbed their walking shoes and minutes later left the backdoor open as they raced to the dog kennel.
Jace watched them silently and shook her head. “She wasn't serious. There's no way she would deprive me of my children. She can't do that.” Shaking the despondent thoughts away, she followed her children.
+ + +
There were certain curveballs in life that simply pulled the rug from under you and you never quite recovered. No matter how hard you tried or showed the world how you dodged the ball it was never the same.
Catherine didn't understand her present predicament. Her eyes continued to gaze at the dawn that was beginning to break. She didn't know how long she stood there until she heard the familiar laughter of two special people in her and Jace's life–Lisa and Jake. They were chasing each other across the drive toward the stables.
“If it hadn't been for them, I doubt Jace and I would be together now.” Even to her ears, the words sounded strangely fateful. Shifting her gaze slightly, she looked toward the east side of the house and kept her gaze concentrated there. It didn't take long for three figures to emerge along with two four legged friends. It made her heart swell with love as she saw the younger part of the family blissfully ignorant of their parent's unhappiness.
“We have to keep it like that. I don't want to upset them unnecessarily.”
Then, she turned back to the room and moved toward her desk that was tidy as always. The paper trays neatly stacked with in', out's and to-do's, along with a holder for her pens and pencils, the blotting pad, which was old fashioned to some these days. She still enjoyed using the fountain pen, which belonged to her father, on special letters and documents. The phone, another traditional piece of equipment, some considered out-dated with advances on mobile technology. It was the heart of her empire. The one place she knew was her safe haven. Looking around the room, she wondered if it was still her refuge. She'd fooled herself long ago that she could live without love and people around her and then she'd allowed one person, then three and now every man and his dog, it seemed at times, to invade her personal space and become important to her.
Jace had always been that kind of personality–giving and loving–she wasn't. It had taken time and energy mainly from Jace to make her see and understand that people like her could forge relationships that lasted and were good for her.
“Why is it every time I think things are going well someone or something puts a spoke in the wheel. The vicar situation…I don't understand that at all. What a damned blasted fool I was to trust that woman! She even helped me arrange the party for Jace tomorrow. How can she look me in the face and be all pious? It isn't god damn fair! I want to kill her.” Her expression became thunderous as she swiped her arm across the desk and sent everything tumbling into disarray over the polished wooden floor. As she peered at the mess, she closed her eyes and whispered as tears began to fall, “I love you Jace. Why did you do that of all things? Why have you betrayed me?”
+ + +
Jake and Lisa stopped their mounts at the top of cutter's ridge and surveyed the valley with the waterfall in splendid working order after the rain of the last few days. Taking in a deep breath, Jake turned to Lisa with a wide grin. “There's nowhere like this in the world Lisa, we're really lucky.”
Lisa looked at the landscape now that the blue was clear and the early morning sun shimmered on the dew of the grass all around them. “Yes we are and we owe it all to Jace and Catherine. I hope everything goes well for the party. She deserves it. Gran and Grandpa are arriving around lunch. I think Lucy is coming along too though you can't be too sure with her. Grace and the family are due for breakfast and who knows what happens after that. Jace has a lot of friends around the area. I think Catherine roped the Reverend into helping as well. Gillian and mom are great friends.”
Jake nodded absently. “It will be good to see everyone again. When was the last time we were all together?”
Frowning slightly, Lisa recalled the event. “I guess it must be at least five years ago. We had that humdinger of a party when you turned eighteen. Do you remember when you and Ian tricked Jace and Catherine into dancing with them to that weird retro music? It was hilarious. Grandpa said he'd never seen Catherine so disconcerted in his life. Have you contacted Ian recently?” Lisa asked casually.
“I was always going to call…you know how it is.” He looked far into the distance. His best friend was still a sore point to him. If only Ian had told him, he was in love with his teenage girlfriend and first love, Mia, instead of going behind his back.
Lisa saw the distressed expression on Jake's face. She'd kept in touch with Mia over the years. Ian and Mia were married and had a six month old son. Ian had become a physical education teacher at the local high school and after finishing her art courses, Mia had produced some terrific pieces for the local craft fairs–they were happy. She wondered if Jake and the bitch were going to be as blessed–she doubted it.
“Yes I do. Want to visit them today? What about lunch? I can arrange it.” Of course Jake didn't know she already had. All she needed was Jake to take the offered olive branch.
Jake squared his shoulders and turned to look deeply into her eyes. “You never do give up do you? I always thought you were sweet on Ian,” Jake said with a smile. “You used to hang around us like a groupie.”
“Yeah, like you'd allow your little sister tagging along. It just so happens that the dirt track for my quad bike was next to the football fields. Mom always said I had to wait to come home with you.”
Lisa pulled out her tongue knowing he was right in part. Although truthfully when she'd reached fifteen it had been Jake, she followed like a love sick teenager not Ian.
Jake shrugged. “If Grandpa and Gran are arriving won't that be rude?”
Excuses, excuses he'd had them since he found out about Ian and Mia that last summer before he went to Uni. She was sure that was another reason he'd been overly enthusiastic about leaving to travel to London and study.
“We can have an early lunch and be back by two. Jake it's time, besides you have Helen now…you've moved on.”
Jake considered the words. Lisa was right, when wasn't she when it came to relationships. She'd been his rock when he'd found out that Ian and Mia were a couple shortly after he returned from his first trip to London to check out universities. He'd always thought when he came back that he and Mia might become an item again. He'd even cried once on Lisa's shoulder.
After Catherine broke the bombshell about their parents, he'd never been quite as comfortable with Lisa since. She'd said it was a long time ago and they couldn't pay for their parents' mistakes. He wasn't so sure for he felt as guilty as hell.
Lisa was again salvaging part of his life. He did miss Ian. Before their falling out over Mia, they'd been best buddies for years. “I need to check that Helen is ok with that arrangement. I'll let you know.”
Rolling her eyes but turning away so he couldn't see the action, she replied, “Sure. Come on, let's go see if the kids have been keeping the area clear of weeds.”
Jake knew what Lisa meant–Catherine's first family's burial area. “I'll race you.” He turned his horse toward the direction of the lower slope.
“Yeah right city slicker.” Lisa chuckled as they sped off down the steep slope.
+ + +
Jace trod the same path she had for numerous years walking the dogs and the kids. Here she had never felt that she had to be anything other than who she was. In the early years, Catherine had joined her when Rio the first had accompanied them. They would talk, laugh and reminisce about the past and speculated on what the future might hold. They would walk hand in hand and let the dog roam free. When Elena was small, she rode in a backpack on Catherine's back. Even the twins had just been that extra loving burden on the morning walks.
Then, it all changed. At first, the transformation was slow but by the time the twins were five, things were different. Catherine had to take care of business at either at Xianthos or at Destiny and, as the years passed, the other small holdings she involved herself with needed her attention too. There was no doubt about the love Catherine had for the children and her–until today.
Her disclosure about losing the kids had been a momentous moment in their life together. She'd known telling Catherine would be difficult but the way she took the information was totally out of context. A few years ago, her wife would have laughed at the absurdity of someone thinking they could be parted. Now, it looked like Catherine had always thought it might happen. It was strange to think that you know someone yet when things went pear shaped you discover that you really don't know them at all.
Catherine was as much an enigma today as she had been the first time they'd met… That rainy blustery day on Cutter's ridge, a horse and rider driving through the rain like a Valkerie. Even more than a decade later, she felt that twist in the stomach as she felt the piercing blue eyes capture her green ones for the first time. Life had never been the same again. Catherine was the love of her life and wherever Catherine was she would be beside her, or, waiting in the wings even if she was unwanted.
A verse ran through her mind as she looked over to where the children were throwing sticks for the dogs to chase.
If love is but a feather bouncing on a windy day
Let that feather glance a blow my way
For when it does I promise faithfully
To be in love with thee through eternity
“And I am forever Catherine,” she whispered. “It will take a lifetime and beyond to change that.” She felt the prick of tears at the sorrow of her situation. If she really delved deep enough, she knew it was all her fault.
“Mom, are you ok? You're crying.” Nathan had surprised her when he showed up by her side.
Jace dashed away the errant tears and smiled at her son. “Of course I am Nat. It's the wind getting in my eyes,” she said as she ruffling his fair hair.
Nathan wasn't convinced as he peered up at her and frowned. “You and mamma have had another argument haven't you mom? No one but mamma makes you cry. I'll talk to her about that if you want.” His serious grey eyes never left her face.
Jace felt her heart swell with pride and sadness as she realised that her youngest children were growing up. They weren't babies anymore. Placing an arm around the thin shoulders of her son, she hugged him gently to her side. “Mamma and I don't agree on everything Nat. It's what adults do. We'll be ok…besides can you see your mamma making me upset on my birthday.”
The young boy blinked rapidly and then grinned. “No way. Mamma loves giving the best birthday parties. My friends talked about my birthday for ages afterwards. She'll make it great for yours Mom she always does. I remember when she sang just for you…even though it wasn't very good. We kids thought it was sappy.”
Jace had no chance of allowing the negative emotions get the better of her, not while she had a son like Nat to remind her of what she had in her life. Most importantly, what she had to fight for. Kissing the top of his head Jace softly replied, “Thank you Nat.”
The boy looked perplexed. “I haven't done anything.”
“Oh, but you have Nat. Yes, you have. Now go find Alli…she's bound to be leading the dogs astray.” Jace marvelled at how lucky she was, how lucky both she and Catherine were. All she needed now was to find a way to get that message across and she would.
+ + +
Helen Banks awoke to the thunderous noise of footsteps on the stairs, which sounded more like the charge of a herd of elephants. With a groan, she looked at the clock on the bedside table. “Oh no, it's only ten am.” She pulled the pillow over her head and tried to get back to sleep again.
Then the door to her room opened and she groaned more exaggeratingly this time until sure hands moved over her body and even through the duvet that covered her she knew who it was. “I hope you're not going to tell me that I have to get up.”
Jake grinned. Helen wasn't an early bird. In fact, you could say she was not a morning person at all. “We've been invited out to lunch with one of my best friends and his…his wife. We're due to meet them at noon. Can you be ready in an hour?”
“Oh Jake do we have to?” Her baby doll like eyes rolled his way.
“No, we don't but I'd like to show you off to everyone I know. Will you go for me? What do you say?” Jake asked.
Working on her vanity worked every time. She lifted her hand and pulled his head down for a long deep kiss. “If I'm the star of the show…when have I ever passed the opportunity over.”
“Thank you. Look, my aunt is due any second for breakfast.” He glanced at his watch. “Ok brunch, I need to meet them and…” He didn't say any more as Helen snaked her arm further around his neck and began a passionate exploration that dissolved his original resolve–he was all hers.
+ + +
Destiny bustled with noise, either from the arrival of Grace and her family to the trotting along the cobblestone drive of the horses returning from their morning exercise. Added to the mix, were the crescendo of children laughing and arguing as barking dogs were jumping and running around happily with their young human friends.
Mrs. Snow wiped an imaginary bead off sweat of her brow as she turned to Jace with a grin. Her hands covered in flour as she finished off another batch of baking before popping it into the oven. “Oh it's lovely to have the house filled with joy don't you think Jace?”
Jace preoccupied with other less joyous thoughts didn't answer immediately and then after prompting her again, Jace let a small apologetic smile cross her face. “Yes, it is. Although, I think that later today, you might not quite be calling it joyous but more like hard work. Are you sure you don't want me to ask Janie to help until the guests have left?”
“Oh dear me no, I can cope. Although I promise if it becomes too much I'll ask for help. Besides, Faith can't help herself…she loves to beat me to the kitchen from time to time.” The older woman turned back to the AGA stove and began her breakfast preparations.
Frowning slightly, Jace asked, “Does that bother you Mrs. Snow? I mean Faith wanting to cook some of the meals. If it's a problem…”
“Oh goodness me not at all. Faith is a good cook and she always knows the best times to take over when I'm swamped with laundry.”
“I guess if we went to America for a while it would be like a holiday for you,” Jace softly said not meaning to express her thoughts aloud.
The older woman stopped her preparations and gave the younger of her employers a keen glance. “Oh, I couldn't possibly stay around here if the family was gone. Whatever would I do with my time.”
Although Mrs. Snow genuinely meant her words, Jace thought she heard a tinge of worry attached to them. It was probably true as well. A move on the scale that Catherine wanted affected everyone and not just the immediate family. “Don't worry Mrs. Snow the house will not be closed up…it wouldn't be right somehow.”
Jace turned to the voice that had entered the kitchen area and her smiled beamed out as she closed the few steps toward her friend and hugged her hard, “Grace, at last.”
Grace's eyebrows twitched a little as she felt the fierce hug and the heartfelt words. She knew her mom was right–there was trouble in paradise–again. “Well good morning to you too Jace. How's the birthday girl feeling? Are you all set for the festivities?”
“It isn't until tomorrow but I'm fine. All the better for you arriving.”
“I'm flattered.” Grace smiled as she released herself from hug.
Jace grinned. “Well actually it's Georgina really…the twins have been constantly asking when you were getting here. They miss her.”
Grace sighed. “Usurped by my own off-spring. George is as happy to be with the twins again too and Elena of course.”
Rolling her eyes, Jace moved toward the coffee pot and poured out three cups. She handed one to Mrs. Snow who smiled her gratitude and then passed one to Grace before they sat opposite each other at the kitchen table. Both savoured the caffeine fix of the day.
Grace smiled as she looked around the kitchen. Although the fixtures had changed over the years since she'd first arrived at Destiny, over twenty plus years it still had that homey feel about it. ‘The heart of the house' she'd used to say.
“Of all the things I miss about Destiny this has to be the one place above all.”
A cynical voice of another entrant to the room said, “Really, I guess the rest of us are chopped liver then.”
“Catherine you old scoundrel, you know I didn't mean it that way.” Grace chuckled and stood up and felt the brief embrace of her friend, in marked contrast to the previous one she'd shared with her partner.
Over Grace's shoulder Catherine's eyes briefly met Jace's and the room seemed to cool distinctly for a few seconds then Catherine's gaze shifted to the housekeeper. “I'm sorry Mrs. Snow, but I have a conference call that will probably be around the time you serve the main breakfast. You'll have to count me out.”
Grace sought a sneak peek at Jace's crestfallen features at Catherine's words–definitely trouble. Well, her mother didn't call her a meddler for no reason and she'd done it before and recovered the situation. “Oh you mean you're deserting me before we've even said hello properly. How about you have a cup of tea with us before you take that call?”
Catherine hesitated for a few seconds and then nodded. “Sure. I'll take coffee if tea isn't available. I don't want to cause Mrs. Snow any more trouble.”
The housekeeper shook her head. “It isn't any trouble to make you tea Catherine you know that.” About to undertake the task, Jace retrieved of the teapot.
“I'll make it and you carry on with breakfast.” Jace didn't turn around to look at Catherine–she'd see a scowl.
Grace rolled her eyes and then remarked, “Colin tells me he'll be away a lot more now that you're heading to the States for a while. Is that really fair Catherine?”
A dark expression clouded Catherine's face and the barely discernible scars she still carried from her horrific injuries in a fire years earlier suddenly became more pronounced. “He didn't say there would be a problem. If there is…”
“No, I was joking Catherine. He wouldn't say that. Anything that gets him out of gardening is a god send. He's been dreading having time on his hands to help me with the vineyard.” Grace chuckled, as she recalled her husband's unguarded pleasure at telling her he was going to be even busier than before and wouldn't have much time to help on the home project front.
“Ok, he did say that you were creating a list of chores for him to undertake when he had any free time.”
Grace laughed. “Yeah, well I said if he wasn't careful I'd be taking on a toy boy who could do things around the place.”
Catherine's back stiffened. Jace let out an audible gasp and almost dropped the teapot as she brought it to the table.
“I'm sure he knows you wouldn't do that.”
“Yep, it's not my style. Besides, I've got him all trained now so I have no reason or need to train another guy to take his place.” Grace sipped her coffee her smile remaining as she thought about what she said.
Catherine nodded and briefly acknowledged Jace passing her the tea cup of the steaming beige coloured liquid she loved. “Look I'll catch up with you later, Grace, ok. It will probably be at dinner this evening I need to prepare for my business trip.”
Before Grace could say anything, Catherine took her tea and left the room.
Turning to Jace, Grace quietly asked, “Is she going away soon?”
“Yes, early Sunday morning.”
“Sunday morning? The party might still be in full swing. I thought you and she would be going away on vacation not a business trip. Are you going too?”
Jace took a moment to consider her words before she quietly replied, “No. not this time.”
There was a telling silence in the room before Grace said, “Hey, how about you and I go for a stroll in that garden of yours. You can tell me how to grow those darned figs that keep dying on me.”
Jace understood what Grace was trying to do but her nerves were raw at Catherine's indifference. She needed time alone to think. “Can we do it a little later? I need to do something before breakfast?”
“Yes we can, anytime.” Grace reached across and gently squeezed Jace's shoulder before she turned to Mrs. Snow. “Ok, Mrs. Snow, how, can I help?”
Jace smiled at her friend and quietly walked out of the room, she headed up the stairs and seconds later closed the door to her bedroom and threw herself on the bed the tears she'd been holding now spilled down her cheeks and she didn't care if anyone could hear her, right now she felt like her heart was breaking.
+ + +
Breakfast had been a noisy affair with welcomes filled with laughter and general chitchat amongst family members that hadn't seen each other for a while. Grace had felt like she was home when Jake and Lisa arrived famished after their ride on the mountainside.
Jake was turning into a handsome devil and the quiet confidence about him made her realize that he truly was a grown man who Jace and Catherine should be proud of. She knew Colin would be when they met up later in the day. He had been Jake's older male mentor in the early years and even now she suspected that Jake called Colin for the odd male sensitive chat not that her husband would ever divulge such a thing.
Lisa looked like Lisa. She was maturing into a well rounded young woman. Their little princess, as she'd been from the day those blue sad eight year old eyes had set foot on the property, was a credit to them all. The only dark cloud over the whole proceeding had been Jace's quietness and her eyes going to the door whenever she heard a sound. Damn, Catherine can be and always will be the most stubborn person I know.
Sucking in a deep breath, she knocked on the study door and waited. Initially there had been no answer then the door was yanked open and Catherine stood tall inside the doorjamb with a glower on her face.
“I see that nothing changes around here, you can still be as grumpy as hell if you haven't eaten a proper breakfast, which is why I'm here.” Grace looked at the tray she carried. “Of course if you're too busy to eat I'm sure that…”
“No, I can eat. Come in Grace. Not that it would stop you if I said go away would it?” Catherine morosely said as she moved away from the doorjamb allowing Grace inside.
“So true my friend. We've know each other way too long for me to be put off by a stern look from you. Remember, I was the one who had to put up with all your tantrums when you were recuperating after the fire in Rio .”
Catherine closed her eyes for a fraction of a second as the memory of that night, which had changed her life, blazed in her mind much has it had physically. Lifting her hand, she traced the fine scars that were one of the legacies of that fateful evening. “Ok get on with it.”
Feigning ignorance Grace placed the tray on the desk and smiled innocently. “What makes you think I have something to get on with? Though, of course, I have and it's a person very dear to us both. Let me see now…hmm…do I give you a clue or a hammer. I think she has a momentous birthday coming up tomorrow and if she carries on the way she did at breakfast everyone is going to know that things are not rosy in this garden called Destiny.”
Catherine shook her head, sat down at her desk, reached for the pot of tea, and poured two cups. In a way, it made her inwardly smile that Grace was so sure she wasn't going to be ejected from the study that she'd brought along another cup. “Jace is fine. It's probably just the excitement of the visitors and family turning up. You know how she gets.”
Grace sat down opposite Catherine and accepted the cup of tea with murmured, “thanks.” Then, she quietly said, “You might get away with that remark to someone else but to me not a chance. My mother, as you well know, is part of your family as well as mine and even she commented.” Holding up her hand at the thunderous expression that crossed Catherine's face, she added, “Don't say it…you know my mother isn't a gossip. All she said was she was worried about everyone with this proposed trip to America .”
“It isn't a problem anymore…you can tell Faith that,” Catherine said in a calm even voice.
Grace nodded. “I will. Is that the reason you and Jace aren't talking? I know it's nothing to do with me and you can rightly tell me to stop right here and say no more. I love you both and right now all I see is you both hurting and hurting each other. I wouldn't be much of a friend if I didn't at least try to help.”
Catherine moved the bacon and egg on the plate around a few times and then sadly replied, “It's over Grace.”
The words drifted inside her brain but Grace wasn't quite sure if she heard it right and with an open mouthed expression asked, “It's over? As in you and Jace or that your fight is over?”
This time Catherine toyed with a piece of toast and idly looked at the rapidly drying butter on it. “Jace wants someone else in her life–it's not me anymore. My leaving for the States on Sunday is apt in the circumstances.”
“Your joking me right? Jace wants someone else…who for christ's sake? To the best of my knowledge she hasn't looked the other side of any one else in years not since you and she got together.” Grace was flabbergasted at the news. Surely, Catherine was exaggerating and had it all wrong. From the brief time she had watched her friend, it was clear Jace didn't perceive the situation that way.
“Perhaps before you left she hadn't. In fact, from the information she gave me recently it might well have been happening under your very nose and you didn't realize it either. We have been duped my friend well and truly.”
The calmness of Catherine's voice and the way she factually spoke had Grace puzzled. “Ok give me the bottom line…are you saying Jace is having an affair and wants to end your relationship?”
A feral looked crossed Catherine's expression and she swallowed hard before she replied. “Apparently she and Vicar Jacobs have been getting a little more intimately involved than anyone could suspect. Jace apparently doesn't want to end our relationship and even tells me it didn't mean anything. I can't believe her gall.”
Wiping a hand across her chin Grace was in shock. Gillian as the other party is incredible! “Catherine, I know this is painful, but exactly what did Jace say?”
A shutter came down on Catherine's emotions as she quietly said, “I'm going to eat my breakfast now Grace and I'd rather keep it down if you don't mind. Talking about it makes me feel sick. If you want the gory details you'll have to ask Jace.”
For a moment, Grace was inclined to pursue the point but knowing Catherine as she did, that would be futile. “Ok, you got it. Look, Catherine, later do you want to chill like we used to. I know a great porch with two chairs and a beer just waiting to be consumed.” In the early days, she and Catherine had put the world to rights many an evening when things had been going wrong and this was a major disaster looming.
“I'll see what I can do, later Grace.” Catherine bit into the toast and grimaced at the cold offering.
“I'll have Mrs. Snow send in another tray.” Grace picked up the tray and left the room shaking head.
There was only one thing to do–find out the truth–she knew exactly where to go.
+ + +
Jake nodded approvingly as Helen seemed to float down the staircase and reach his position in the hallway. For him, it was like being greeted by a vision of an angel. Snaking his muscular arms around the tiny body of his fiancée he bent his head and kissed her passionately.
A younger voice whistled and said, “Wow way to go Jake.”
Jake moved away from Helen slightly and flashed a mock threatening look in the direction of Nathan who had walked into the hall.
Nathan grinned as his thin body shook all over while he laughed before sliding out of the hall via the kitchen door..
Helen stared at the boy. Unfriendliness was embedded in her features until Jake turned back to her with a loving smile. “Hey, let's get out of here. I know a great deli on the way into town that you'll love. We'll stop there for coffee before we visit my friends.”
Delighted with the offer, Helen smiled and snatched a delicate kiss. “What about your sister?”
Shrugging, Jake grinned. “Oh, Lisa wants to make her own way there. She'll meet up with us later.” He wasn't sure she would show. He had the distinct feeling she set up the meeting with Ian and Mia and was going to bail.
With a soft giggle, Helen linked arms with Jake. “Excellent, about time I had you all to myself again.”
Jake gave a deep chuckle and led her out of the house to the waiting jeep that Jace had loaned him on one condition–it came back in one piece without a scratch–he told her he wasn't Lisa.
+ + +
Lisa discreetly flicked back the curtain in her room and watched Jake drive away with the she-devil muttering as they left the house behind them. “Good luck to him.”
Opening the window to let in some fresh air, her facial expression, which was partly filled with annoyance, now beamed with happiness. As she saw the sun over the mountains and the green fields rolling out around them, complete with either sheep or horses, it really was a magical place to be brought up in. The sound of laughter filled the porch below was the unbridled joy of children. With a smile, she left her room and moments later she was entering the porch where Elena was sullenly leaning against one of the posts. Nathan, Allison and Georgina were arguing about who was going to hold the leads of the dogs on the next walk.
“Hey guys, what's happening?”
Everyone turned to Lisa who cocked her head to one side waiting for a response.
Allison quickly supplied, “Mom said we could all take the dogs for another walk but we can't decide who is going to walk them with the leads…we all want to. Well except her.” Allison pointed in the direction of Elena.
Lisa nodded. “No worries, I can fix that easily. Elena don't you want to walk the dogs?”
Elena scowled slightly as she saw the gentle expression in her elder sister's eyes and the genuine smile on her face. No one could be mad with Lisa. She liked her sister…she was cool. “Dogs are ok it's walking the brats that I'm not happy with.”
Nathan puffed out his bony chest and replied, “Well we don't want you around either El. You only moan all the time.”
Georgina , who thought the world of Elena, face dropped at the elder girl's remark. However, she looked down at the table instead of saying anything.
“See what I mean Lisa? She doesn't want to go with us and we don't want her around either but Mom said she had to come otherwise we couldn't go and it's boring around here waiting for gramps and grandma to arrive.” Allison sank down on one of the porch chairs a heavy sigh leaving her small athletic frame.
“Well don't worry about it because soon I'm leaving here anyway.” Elena dramatically pointed out as she moved to stand on the top step of the porch, her back to everyone.
Lisa didn't say anything to the older child's remark but smiled at the others. “I have a better idea. I'll borrow the people carrier and we'll go dogs and all to the river. It's a great day and we can all paddle. What do you say?”
There was a crescendo of shrieking and giggling. Even Elena looked mildly interested at the prospect.
“Ok everyone, back here in five. Allison and Georgina you can get the dogs. Elena you go and tell Mom where we're going. Nat you're with me we have to get the transport.
“Yeah,” the younger kids shouted and headed off to Mrs. Snow and the search for towels.
Elena looked at Lisa, gave her a small smile, and whispered, “Thanks.”
Lisa nodded and wondered as Elena left the porch exactly what she meant by her statement that she was leaving here. Well she'd certainly go on a fishing trip to find out and the river expedition was the perfect place.
+ + +
Jake paused before he switched off the engine of the vehicle and looked at the house where his old school friends, one his best mate the other his first love now lived. It was a traditional single story wooden house, painted white, with a blue tin roof. Initially, from a distance, it looked presentable, as he drove closer, he saw that the paint was peeling and the roof needed repair. The old fashioned picket fence needed sprucing up and the garden required attention.
Rolling his eyes, he felt thankful that this was a fleeting visit. He knew Helen wasn't going to be happy about going inside. To her, this home would be no different than a slum. Even he had to admit his own relatively modest apartment in London would have the upper hand.
“Is this it?”
Helen's scathing remark had Jake almost retract what he was going to say next and drive away. Lisa would think him a coward and he'd pay for it and that wasn't going to happen. They didn't have to stay long anyway. “Yeah this is it. Look if you'd prefer you can stay in the car?”
Helen peered at the building. It wasn't much more than a shack as far as she was concerned. “No, I'll come inside. I've never been inside such a quaint place before.”
Jake knew she was being facetious but refrained from commenting. Instead, he turned off the engine and exited the vehicle. Helen climbed out of her side and walked up to him and took his arm possessively.
Before they could reach the door, it opened and a tall thin young man stood there a beaming smile on his face. “Jake, you haven't changed a bit.” He held out his hand in welcome.
Jake, for the first time since reluctantly agreeing to come visit his old friends, smiled. The years seemed to fall away along with the rift that had separated them. This was his friend, his best friend and someone he'd never replaced in his life. He placed his hand in his friend's and shook it enthusiastically. “Great to see you Ian. You haven't changed a bit yourself.”
Ian chuckled,. “Oh, I think I've put on a few extra kilos and I certainly can't afford to dress the part anymore,” he shrugged, “nappies you know.”
Jake nodded and felt the pressure on his arm, “Ian I'd like you to meet my fiancée Helen Banks. Helen this is Ian Thompson one of my oldest friends.”
Ian smiled at the petite beautiful woman next to his friend. She wasn't what he was expecting when Lisa had mentioned a fiancée. “Hello Helen. It's awesome to meet the woman who finally caught him.”
“Oh, I think it was the other way around. Don't you darling.” Helen briefly shook the hand Ian offered and moved her gaze over his tall frame for a few seconds then returned it to Jake.
Jake grinned and Ian moved away from the door. “Sorry Mia's going to be mad at me keeping you at the doorway. Come on in. She's just settling the baby down and she'll be right with us. He's a good boy at this time of day.”
Helen looked over the shabby interior of the room and her raised eyebrows as her sour expression clearly indicated her distaste. Jake pulled her to the sofa where she gingerly sat down.
Jake glanced around the small room. It was homely and though the furniture had seen better days, it was comfortable. “Great house…lots of character.”
Ian laughed. “Yeah, it's lots of work but we'll get there in the end. With Mia's dad being a builder, he's going to help me with some of the major works to cut down costs. My mom and dad are great with a paint brush.”
Nodding, Jake smiled as he recalled Ian's dad he had been one of the coaches of the local youth soccer teams. “How is your dad? Is he still coaching soccer?”
Before Ian could answer a female voice said, “Would he do anything else in his spare time.”
Jake felt his heart stop for a fraction of a second as he felt that voice wash over him then he stood and turned to face the woman who had been his fist love. “Mia you look wonderful. Motherhood suits you.” Mia appeared to have an inner glow to her that made her even more beautiful.
Mia smiled as she gazed at the handsome man who if she hadn't fallen for Ian might well still be in her life. Then her eyes turned to Ian and she felt that special spark and gave him a wink. She knew he'd been worried about this moment. “You look very well Jake. Obviously London is being good to you.”
“Yes it is.” He continued to stare and then as a voice cleared behind him he remembered Helen. “Mia I'd like you to meet Helen…Helen Banks my fiancée. Helen this is another old school friend, Mia.”
Helen didn't stand instead she waited for the woman to move further into the room and with a slight smile murmured pleased to meet you.
Mia smiled warmly and then sat on the arm of the chair her husband was sitting in. “Ian have you offered our guests a drink?”
Ian smote his forehead and chuckled deeply. “Sorry guys. What can I get you?”
Jake grinned. “Unfortunately we can't stay long. My grandpa and gran are due to arrive after two and we are expected to be part of the welcoming committee.”
“That doesn't mean we can't have a beer to celebrate you being home. What about you Helen?”
Helen tilted her head slightly and then with a narrowed look replied, “I'll have a pinot noir if you have a decent one?”
Mia looked down with a smile creasing her lips, and then quietly said, “Sorry Helen the best we can do is a cheap Sav or Chardonnay.”
“I'll have the Chardonnay.”
Ian stood up and placed a gentle hand on his wife's shoulder. “And, what can I get for you love?”
Mia grinned up at him. “A ginger beer would be good.”
Ian grinned and left the room leaving them to talk.
“I thought Lisa was coming over with you?”
Jake smiled. “Oh, you know Lisa, she changes her mind like the wind. Always did as a kid and I suspect she always will.” Although the words sounded damning the tender way he spoke them made Mia give him a long look. She felt eyes boring into her body and quickly shifted to find Helen Bank's eyes glittering savagely at her. Opps, she's the jealous kind. No wonder Lisa didn't come .
Mia reflected on her friend. “Oh, I think Lisa is more settled than you think Jak. She certainly isn't as changeable these days. We went to her place for a break before the baby was born and found that she's quite the little businesswoman now.”
Jake gave the words some thought then wiped a hand across his face. “Yeah, I guess with Catherine behind her she would have to be.”
Mia nodded. “True, but Catherine was only there for support. I don't think she ever asked for any help in running her business to date that is.”
Helen broke into the conversation. “Jake why don't you tell Mary about the things we do and have in London , I'm sure your sister can talk about herself another time.”
Frowning, Jake gazed at Helen, “It's Mia not Mary,” he corrected quietly. When he saw her pout of disapproval, he rolled his eyes. “Why don't you tell Mia? It's always more interesting coming from a woman.” Ian saved the day as he arrived with the drinks and he was able to peel himself away to talk to his old friend as Helen began to do what she loved–talk about her.
An hour or so later Ian and Mia watched the couple drive away.
“What do you think of Jake these days? He's changed don't you think?” Ian said as they lost sight of the car.
Mia didn't reply immediately. “No, actually he's still the same. Sure he has the confidence and clothes to match…even down to the accessories.”
“Yeah, the pretty debutante who's all me-me-me,” Mia informed.
Ian snickered and placed an arm around his wife's shoulders. “Do I detect a little envy there?”
“You've got to be joking. I love my life, the man I'm with and the son we have in the other room. I don't envy anything they have because I don't think she'll make Jake happy and I'm supremely happy thank you.”
Ian grinned and felt the love he had for the woman at his side swell even more. “Oh Mia you can't say that you hardly know the woman. Besides Jake loves her you can see that she walks all over him just as you do me,” he teased lovingly.
“Yeah, he probably thinks he does but there's someone better out there for him I know it.”
As they closed the door Ian said, “Don't tell me you have someone in mind…I wouldn't put that past you. Trying a little matchmaking are you?”
“Oh, I didn't need to be matchmaker this person has been in love with Jake probably from the first moment she met him.”
For a second Ian felt his world shift. Is Mia talking about herself? “Ok, well I've know him longer than you have and other than you he's never taken any girl seriously and certainly didn't date anyone but you and I'd know.”
Mia felt Ian's recoil at her earlier words and she smiled and cupped her hands around his face to bring his head closer. “It isn't me darling. I've met the love of my life and he's right next to me.”
Ian kissed the lips that beckoned him and as they drew away when the baby began to cry. “So tell me who is it?”
Mia grinned as she headed toward the bedroom where their son was crying. If she was lucky, he might go back to sleep. “Later, I'll tell you later.”
“Mia, please tell me now?” he cajoled.
“Men are so dense. It's Lisa of course.” She opened the bedroom door and stealthily stepped inside. As she did she looked at her husband and saw his mouth gap open–definitely dense.
+ + +
Grace rapped on the master bedroom door and didn't receive an answer. She debated what to do next. It had been a long time since she had to intervene between her friends. A small smile appeared as she recalled the early days and that gigantic Taz soft toy that Catherine had sent when Jace was ill because of Catherine's thoughtless neglect the first time she and Jace met. However, after that event Grace had never considered them ships that passed in the night. No, they had moored alongside each other. Although they had been through rocky seas and pirates intent on sinking them, they had managed, because of their love for each other, to always arrive safely in the harbour of Destiny .
Catherine's devastating admission of an affair had sent even Grace off course when she viewed their relationship. She knew that love had kept them together but it could also break them apart. When something as onerous as that particular situation manifested all they had battled for could easily turn into a catalyst of hate.
Drawing in a deep breath, she heard the faint sounds of sobbing and knew what she had to do. Knocking on the door again, she opened it and stepped inside. There she saw the prone figure of Jace on the bed, her head pressed close to a pillow.
“Hey Jace it's me. Do you want to talk about it?”
There was a shift in body language on the bed as the figure stiffened but had no other response.
Grace perched herself at the edge of the bed and quietly said, “I've been talking to Catherine.”
This had the desired effect as a red puffy face turned toward her the green eyes filling with unshed tears with the expression on the usually friendly face infinitely sad. There was a hiccup like sound from Jace as she brokenly asked, “What did she say?”
Grace eyed the forlorn woman on the bed. Oh, the memories she had of this woman and tears. But today, she dare not tease her about them. “She's upset, angry with all the works…you know Catherine.”
Moving to sit on the bed Jace nodded. “I know, it's all my fault.”
Grace frowned. “She told me that she thinks you're having an affair with Gillian.”
The words floated in the room–if ignited in truth they would explode. Ironically, the bedroom reflected the opposite–the love that her dear friends shared there. She could see it in the furnishings, photos and paintings on the walls–the allegation of an affair just didn't stack.
Jace quietly replied, “I see.”
“You don't deny it then?” Grace asked as a furrow appeared on her forehead.
Jace felt the anger begin to fuel again as she thought of the mess she'd created. “Grace, Gillian kissed me. I didn't reciprocate but I made a fatal error–I didn't tell Catherine immediately.”
There was a low whistle from Grace. “Well I never knew the Rev had it in her. I know she's had the hots for you ever since she arrived but …” Unable to help herself, Grace laughed at the absurdity that the Reverend had a snowballs chance with this woman.
“It isn't funny Grace! Catherine thinks the worse and no matter how hard I try to explain to her that it isn't what she thinks she doesn't believe me. I think she's decided it's all true and she's going to leave me.” Jace felt her heart bleed at the devastation of her life as she now saw it without Catherine. Bitterness, anger, terror were all rumbling for a voice. “If she leaves me Grace I don't know what I'll do.” Tears began to well in her eyes as she brushed them away in a dramatic wave of her hand.
Grace stopped laughing, though inside she allowed herself a few more chuckles. The Reverend and Jace was a ridiculous notion–not when you saw Catherine and Jace together.
“Ok, sorry, Jace. Why didn't you tell her immediately when it happened?”
“I didn't want her to go all ballistic on me. Besides, we were both busy and it wasn't the right time and nothing happened anyway.”
Grace shook her head. “Ballistic? More like atomic Jace. I can understand in part what you mean, but keeping it from her and then allowing her to find out was always going to be worse. She wears that honesty streak like a badge of honour.”
Jace dropped her gaze to the picture of her and Catherine with their arms entwined looking adoringly at each other. Would that ever going to happen again?
“I told her in a fit of anger, Grace, because she wants us to up sticks and move to America without discussing it…so I told her.” She climbed off the bed to stand next to her friend.
Grace pulled a face at that confession. “Wow. I know you and she have humdingers of arguments at times but that would have been a big smack in the verbal face. Have you told Gillian that Catherine knows what she did?”
The silence told its own story.
Grace was astonished at Jace's lack of understanding.
“Oh, Jace, Gillian needs to know. The woman's coming over early to help Catherine with the preparations for the birthday party and you haven't told her that Catherine might be mad…and that's putting it mildly.”
“It's been happening so fast I haven't had the time. All I want to do is make sure Catherine understands and she doesn't leave here with the thoughts she currently has. I can't lose her Grace. I won't…it would kill me.”
“Ok, ok, don't panic. Catherine is an astute woman and she'll finally put the pieces together and know she's added a few extra that shouldn't be there. We'll work it out. Don't worry Jace. How can she not be convinced if we both work on her?”
Jace moved like a flash and hugged her friend. “Oh thank you, Grace. Am I glad you've come…we really miss you around here.”
Chuckling, Grace nodded. “Yeah and I guess I never knew it but I miss you guys too. Especially with all the trouble you get into when I'm not around.”
“Shall we go speak with her now?”
“No, not a good time. I've a tentative date with her and a few beers later that might help.”
“Please don't get her drunk, Grace. You know she doesn't drink much these days.” Jace pleaded–she'd seen the two women drinking together in the past.
Grace laughed and directed a finger to the centre of her chest. “Who me?” She then winked. “Jace, I have one question and I want you to hear me out and not get mad. Ok?”
Jace nodded and waited for the question.
“Was there ever a time when you might have been tempted by Gillian's overtures?”
It was a stark question and one Jace had been dreading being asked. Now that it was asked, there was only one answer. “No, there will never be another person that can make me feel the way I do except Catherine. She's everything to me Grace…everything.”
There was no need to say more. There was a knock on the door and Elena popped her head in. “Mom, Lisa is taking us and the dogs to the river, see you later.” She was gone.
For the first time, her own worries were left behind, as she shook her head and faced Grace. “You know, I really need to do something about her attitude these days.”
Grace laughed. “Teenagers. Well at least it is one thing that runs in the family…she's got a few of Catherine's traits. Maybe you should have them pit it out together and see who wins.”
Jace smiled slightly. “Yeah, maybe I should.”
+ + +
Jace's parents, Jason and Allison Bardley, arrived on time. Their flight was on time and the helicopter journey had been equally as timely. As the helicopter dropped onto the helipad, Jake's vehicle rounded the drive and the people carrier with Lisa and the children and dogs arrived seconds later. From a relatively quiet existence, all hell was let loose in a nice way.
Laughter, welcomes and generally shouting and talking filled the driveway and then the mass exodus to the house even brought Catherine out of her silent mode as she helped the Bardley's with their bags and generally helped them settle in. An hour later, when drinks were poured at the table on the porch, things gradually settled down.
“Looks as lovely as always here. I never can get over the spectacular views of the mountains.” Allison sighed in satisfaction as she picked up her wine glass and sipped the beverage relishing the cold drink with its soothing alcohol effects after her lengthy journey.
Jace smiled, having replaced her sad expression with one of joy when her parents arrived. She knew she had to show that everything was ok for them or they would worry and after her dad's heart attack, they didn't want to place any strain on him. A silent pact she and Catherine would maintain indefinitely. “Yeah, it's beautiful.”
Catherine didn't comment as she took a mouthful of beer and motioned for the older couple to look toward the farm buildings. “We added another stage to the stables a few months ago. Now, we can think about the horse stud business in more detail.”
Jason grinned. “Sounds like you've ditched the company status and are becoming a true farmer Catherine.” Catherine had always planned on a stud farm and now it looked like the plans were coming to fruition.
Grace chose that moment to enter the area and grabbed a seat next to Jason. “Yeah, you don't need to tell me. I'm like Jace. We end up work widows with Catherine and Colin disappearing here there and everywhere with the farming business.”
“I bet you love all that time to yourself. Allison hates me under foot everyday.” Jason let a smile wreath his lips. “I wish I could be that active again.”
There was a melancholy to his words and the younger women saw Allison reach for Jason's hand and squeeze it gently and winked. “You're never under foot darling. If you were, I'd have swept you under the carpet by now.”
Catherine gave her father-in-law a shrewd glance and then quietly said, “While you're here would you go over a few documents for me?” Her eyes flashed to her mother-in-law as she held up a hand. “I promise it isn't anything that he'll stress over.”
Jason beamed at the offer. “Sure I will. It will do me good. I've been beginning to feel useless at times over the last couple of months.”
Allison remained silent and then sipped her drink again as the side door slid open again and this time four children entered.
Nathan moved closer to his grandfather with a pleading expression. “Grandpa, will you take me fishing on the lake? Please. I've been waiting for you to come. No one but Colin likes to fish around here.”
Jason smiled and hooked an arm around the thin shoulders of his grandson. “I will. You and I can fish anytime you like son. I've been waiting to come back here for that too.”
Nathan's expression grew bright as he sat on the arm of his grandpa's chair.
Allison looked over at the three girls and smiled. They grew up so fast she'd almost forgotten what it was like. “What plans have you for me girls?”
Allison, her namesake, grinned. “Grandma, we thought you could take us into the city to shop maybe make a weekend of it…”
“Now, Allison, don't be rude.” A gentle hand on her arm by her mother stopped Jace.
“I think that's a wonderful idea. It's been a while since I've been shopping with young women. Not since your mom and Aunt Lucy were teenagers.”
The girls giggled except for Elena who looked bored.
“Where's Aunt Lucy?” Elena asked abruptly.
Jason and Allison looked at each other sheepishly then Allison peered at Jace, who merely nodded. Catherine frowned but also refrained from saying anything though she sorely wanted to do so.
“Your aunt was tied up with business darling. She promised if she could get away she'd be here.” Allison said gently.
Elena moved to the steps of the porch. “Yeah, like the last five Christmas'. She hates us and I don't blame her.” The young woman rushed down the steps toward the stables.
Allison moved to get up, but Catherine was faster and stood towering over them. “I'll sort that out. She's been a little out of sorts lately.” Her long legs took her down the steps after her errant daughter.
Grace snorted. “Yeah out of sorts is right. Wow, now I know what I've got to put up with in a couple of years.” Her eyes went to her daughters and she winked at the hurt in the child's eyes, which cleared immediately.
Jace sighed as she watched Catherine go after Elena. Although she wasn't technically Catherine's child, they did so have a lot in common. If anyone was going to sort Elena and her mood swings out, it would be her partner.
“Do you want me to show you all the new fishing tackle I have grandpa?” Nathan said diffusing the awkward silence.
“Sure I do, Nat. Let's go.” He allowed the young fellow to take his hand and drag him toward the steps and a totally different direction to where Elena went.
Allison watched them go with a tender expression in her eyes. “He always wanted a son you know.” She whispered to no one in particular.
Jace heard and smiled. “Yeah, he always did. He's done well. He had Jake and now Nat, plus he has plenty of time to spend with them now that he's retired.”
“Mom, George and I want to go to my room and watch the new show on Disney is that ok?” Allison asked with a cheeky smile on her face.
Jace chuckled. “Sure, go. I want you cleaned up and ready for dinner on time ok?”
“Awesome, lets go George.” Allison and Georgina disappeared into the house.
“What new show is that?” Allison asked curiously.
Grace laughed and Jace smiled. “Mom it's a kids show with some teenage singing star. All I know is that when we go shopping if there's something new out we have to buy it. Not that we always do. Catherine is pretty good at giving the kids what they want but she draws the line at all the gimmicky stuff.”
“Yeah and if George gets something Alli wants then there's all hell to pay,” Grace added with a chuckle. Looking at her watch, she saw the time. “I need to call Colin and find out when his train will get in. It's due in the next couple of hours if it's on time. I'll need to go and fetch him then.”
“No worries, Grace. Hopefully he hasn't got held up.” Jace smiled as her friend left the porch area.
Reaching over, Allison took one of Jace's hands and smiled. “Well dear, you'll be forty tomorrow how do you feel. I must say you look well.”
Jace looked down at the gentle hold of her mother's hand. Right now would be a good time to fall apart and say that things weren't all that rosy but she didn't. “I don't feel any older than I did when I first arrived here. It keeps me rejuvenated.”
“So it appears. That was a bit of a surprise Jake's engagement. She's a very beautiful young woman.”
Jace remained silent for a few seconds. “Yeah, she is. Not sure she likes it here though…not enough for a city slicker to do.”
“Do I detect a little animosity Jace?”
“Me,” she said placing a finger on her chest. Then she grinned. “Perhaps she's to high and mighty. But, if she makes Jake happy that's all that counts.”
Allison laughed softly then the door to the house opened and Lisa flopped down between them. “Where did everyone go?”
After the explanation, Allison looked at her eldest grand-daughter and smiled warmly. “What do you make of Helen, Lisa?”
Lisa raised her eyebrows and then laughed. “What's mom been saying?” She looked at Jace and winked.
All three generations of the family began to laugh until they couldn't stop. Jake, who was about to enter the porch area, made a wide u-turn to the stables. He figured it was a much safer place than with the three cackling women.
+ + +
Catherine followed Elena, allowing the child a few minutes inside the stables before she entered. Then her gaze transfixed on the spot where her child had stopped–outside her horse's stall. She waited and watched as Elena allowed her horse to nuzzle her in the neck and saw that rarity these days on Elena's face–a smile. She lowered her head and shook it slowly. In spite of DNA results, there was no doubt whatsoever, that Elena was one hundred percent her child.
She stealthily moved forward and her long steps took her to her daughter's side within moments. Catherine took a deep breath and quietly said, “Hey, how you doing?”
Elena's back stiffened and she tightened her grip slightly on the horse's mane, more for her own sense of security than to spook the horse. “What do you care?”
Catherine held her breath. Even though she sorely wanted to, now wasn't a time to chastise the child. Her current behaviour was becoming intolerable and needed nipping in the bud.
“I care. However, if you think I don't or your mom or anyone else around here doesn't then there isn't much we can do about it is there.”
Elena moved slightly and released the horse she'd been holding to turn and face her mother. A sullen expression soured her features. With green eyes flashing, she replied, “I was right about Aunt Lucy. She doesn't like us, does she? I know she hates you.”
Frowning, Catherine pierced the green eyes with her blue as their eyes locked in a battle of wills. “Your aunt and I don't get on that's true. Although, I think hate is a rather harsh expression, Elena. This isn't just about your aunt though is it? Mom told me that you wanted to go live with your father, is that true?”
The sullen expression on the teenager's face became more intense. “Yes.”
Scratching the side of her cheek, Catherine mentally sucked in a deep breath–the words hurt. “Have you spoken to your father about this?”
“It's your mom's birthday tomorrow. Leave it until after that before you tell her that you're calling your father to arrange to go live with him,” Catherine flatly replied.
Elena was stunned as her expression changed suddenly. She'd expected her mamma to react totally different. If she thought her aunt hated her mamma, she knew her father had a similar disposition to her too. She was right about one thing, they didn't care it–it was all about them and their stupid arguments.
“Ok, is that all?”
That was the last straw. Catherine glowered at her daughter. “Actually, no it isn't. I want you to be at least civil to your mom, our guests and your brothers and sisters. Do I make myself clear?”
Elena answered smartly, “You missed yourself out of the list.”
“I don't need you to be civil to me young lady because if you're not I'll personally have you on the next flight out of here to your father's and there won't be a discussion.” Catherine knew she'd allowed her temper to flare and she wished the words unsaid as soon as she'd spoken them.
“There, I told you…what do you care. I'll go after mom‘s birthday. I'd never hurt her like that, unlike someone else I know.” Elena scowled as her anger burst and she spit out the words vehemently.
The meaning of the words took Catherine's breath away as she allowed the message her daughter was saying to permeate. For all her teenage faults, Elena could be the voice of reason at times. The only sound was the movement of hooves and the soft neighing from Elena's horse. For once, she was at a loss what to say.
Elena watched her mamma's expression, expecting the worse but instead she saw only sadness cross her face. She hadn't really meant it, not like that but she hated being goaded and it sounded as if they wanted rid of her–at least her mamma did.
The waiting was proving hard to take and she was about to say ‘sorry' when her mamma spoke quietly. “I think you'd better go back to the house and your bedroom, dinner is at six sharp.”
“Mamma I…” the rest of the words cut off as Catherine held up her hand.
“You've said quite enough, Elena, please go.” Catherine turned away. In the space of a week, her whole world was crashing down around her and she had no control of any of it.
Elena knew it was useless to argue. As she slouched toward the stable door and had to listen intently as Catherine spoke so quietly, she held her breath at the words.
“I love you, Elena, even if you think I don't from time to time.”
Elena felt the tears welling up and instead of leaving, she gave a small cry and shot back to her mamma. Shr wrapped her arms around the tall frame. Sobbing, she said, “I'm sorry, Mamma. Truly I am. I love you too.”
Catherine held Elena close and whispered soothing words into the dark head of hair cradled against her chest. “I know baby, I know. Everything is going to be ok. I promise.”
Green eyes filled with unshed tears looked up into the profile of her parent and asked tremulously, “Promise?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.” Catherine exaggerated the crossing of her chest. Once Elena moved out of her hold, she smiled down at her daughter.
“Don't ever say that Mamma. I don't want you to die–ever.” Elena said dramatically.
Catherine felt tenderness flood her heart at the words. “I can't promise that Elena. We all die sometime. Although, I promise not to do anything foolish to might make it happen sooner rather than later. Is that a deal?”
“Deal.” Elena hugged her mamma again and then blinked back the tears. “I'll apologise to mom and gran when I get back.”
Catherine grinned. “That's my girl.”
The door to the stables opened and Jake strode in and gave them an apologetic look. “Hey, sorry I didn't know you were having a little personal time together. I'll go for a walk.”
Catherine chuckled. “Jake don't be silly. I have a better idea…why don't you and Elena go for a ride together. I'm sure you're both itching to get away from the boredom of gossip.”
Jake's smile made his dark features brighter and even more handsome. “I'm game. What about you El?”
Elena felt her world was brightening by the second then she peered around him to check for Helen Banks. Tentatively she replied, “Ok.”
Jake saw her less than discreet look over his shoulder and surmised the reason. “Just you me and the horses then kiddo. Want to come with us Catherine?”
Catherine smiled as she kissed the top of Elena's dark head and gently pushed her toward her horse's stall. “Sorry, my guests await. I'd be a poor hostess if I didn't make a little effort. You two enjoy yourselves.” She walked toward the young man and patted his shoulder before whispering, “Thank you.”
Jake smiled and nodded his head. “Any mount you think I might try?”
Catherine studied the horses in the stable and chuckled. “Sacha could do with a run out. He's just come back from stud in South America and needs to become acclimatised again.”
Jake sucked in a breath. Sacha was Tralargon's off-spring and the brightest hope for Catherine's future stud. Only Chaterine and the stable manager were allowed to ride him. “Are you sure I wouldn't want…”
“Absolutely positive Jake. I know you'll take great care of him. See you at dinner.” She strode out of the stable and glanced toward the house and the porch area. She saw three women, all who she loved in differing degrees. Their laughter floated toward her. A part of her wanted to go there, and allow the merry atmosphere to permeate and bring her the joy this occasion should merit. However, she decided to walk in the opposite direction. Hidden behind the stable building, she relaxed against the fence of the riding paddock and simply lost herself in thoughts –some good and some bad.
+ + +
Dismounting her horse, Elena ran over to her mother, grandmother and Lisa and gave them each a hug and an apology for her earlier actions. She then politely asked if it was ok if she went for a ride with Jake–there was no dissension. Amazed at the transformation, Jace stood up, walked a few steps and smiled at Elena before she beamed with pride as she watched her child rode away.
As usual, Catherine had worked her magic on the child and even if it didn't last at least for the next couple of hours, the wilful child of theirs would be happy. Her eyes scanned the paddock, stables and area in between and did not see Catherine. She hadn't returned to the house for she would have seen her go by. If she'd gone for a ride on Tralargon, Elena would have said something–she didn't.
Where is she?
Glancing in the direction of the stable, Jace mused over where Catherine might be. She moved back her chair smiled at her mom and Lisa. “Do you mind if I leave you for a few moments?” she asked. Once she saw the two women nod she said, “Thanks I won't be long.”
When Jace had left the porch, Lisa whispered, “A few minutes…it's more like an hour or more with those two. At least that's one thing in life that isn't going to change.” Both women smiled as they watched Jace begin to enter the stable before she went around the building.
+ + +
Jace purposely moved toward the stable, perhaps Catherine needed some alone time after her talk with Elena she knew she always did. Where better for her than with the beloved horses who at this moment in time probably were higher in her esteem than she was. A faint scuffling noise caught her attention from the vicinity of the equestrian ring that Catherine had upgraded recently–it sounded like footsteps. She turned away from the stable door and headed toward the sound.
As she rounded the building silently she saw Catherine slightly stooped over the fence rail with one booted foot resting on the lower rail. Her partner looked lost in thought as she stared into the empty arena. At the sight of the woman she loved, Jace sucked in a breath. After fifteen years, it never failed to amaze her that she still found this woman the most thrilling person she'd ever met. There was an aura about her that she suspected only she saw. It never faltered. Even after arguments and disruptions there was always that un-denying element that stuck them together–love. At least it was that way for her–she wasn't so sure now about Catherine's feelings. How had they gone so wrong in such a short space of time?
Without looking, a low husky voice quietly said, “You don't need to just stand there. You can speak to me. I'm not going to bite you.”
Jace felt a smile that she couldn't smother as Catherine had unerringly known she was there. “Hi, thank you.”
This time Catherine looked at her as she unhooked her foot from the lower rail and faced Jace, her blue gazed fixed on her partner's face in silent scrutiny. “For what exactly, allowing you to talk?” She waved a hand. “To the best of my knowledge that's a prerogative for everyone around here.”
These days, the low drawl of sarcasm would normally have Jace retorting with a similar remark. However, she decided against it. “Elena has gone for a ride. Although she and Jake had already saddled up, she came to ask permission. She apologised.”
Catherine inclined her head slightly. “Good.”
Silence filled the abyss between them as the cold intensity built–neither woman was prepared to speak.
Jace shook her head. “Before you leave, we do need to talk Catherine.”
Catherine's jaw tightened as she spat out, “No, no we don't…you've said quite enough to last me a lifetime.”
The intensity of the venom in her partner's voice washed over Jace so she moved slightly hoping to be out of the direct line of fire–it didn't work. The words punctured her heart and she felt mortally wounded.
Finding a voice in a dry mouth, she quietly replied, “From the first moment I saw you I've loved you. I've shared a wonderful life with you and I won't let you destroy it because of a foolish act that meant nothing and one I didn't instigate. After all these years, you still can't quite make that final leap. You can't trust me with your heart, soul and body can you?”
Catherine felt humble by the explanation. Jace was right about everything even her accusation. She had never trusted not completely anyone. Yes, they spent years getting to know each other on a physical level and that was perfect to the point where they almost talked for each other at times. Inside her mind, she had never been totally open. She knew that she tried. God knows how she tried. On the surface, everything between them looked as though they had the perfect harmony of a couple well suited. Nine times out of ten they were. She withheld that final barrier and now, on reflection, she'd been wise to do so. The pain she felt was devastating–how much worse would it have been if she'd allowed Jace to conquer her completely.
Jace could tell that Catherine was thinking. It was the twitch of her forehead and the narrowing of the eyes as her thoughts generated to fever pitch. Yet, now there were no words from Catherine and that, in a nutshell, told its story.
“I guess there really isn't anything more to say except…do you still love me?”
Catherine's head jerked at the question. She demanded the truth from everyone around her. Now, she was she going to be a hypocrite and give the question lip service and not her honesty.
“Yes, I love you I always will. I'm just not sure if I can trust you and that makes living with you impossible. I guess my going away is providential.”
A solemn bell rang out in Jace's heart at the quietly spoken words. “Will you at least keep up appearances until you go?” The flow of blood that surged within her felt like a river of tears.
Jace turned and was about to leave with her heart broken into small pieces. How the hell was she going to keep it together until everyone had left?
Then Catherine spoke again. “I told Elena that we would contact her father and arrange her trip to see him after your party.”
The frustration she felt at her own circumstances flowed into the statement and she turned with glittering green eyes toward Catherine. “I'm losing you and my daughter! Why don't you take the rest of the kids with you and make it a clean sweep.”
Catherine didn't speak initially and then she traded glance for glance with her partner. “Perhaps that comes later.” Once the words were out, Catherine immediately wished that she could wind back the clock. She saw the pain on Jace's face and the tears, that usually melted her resolve, flowed freely down her cheeks.
“Go to hell, Catherine! I wish I'd never met you.” Jace stormed away fleeing to the safety of the house ignoring the cheery waves from Allison and Lisa on the porch.
Catherine watched her go along with the happiness they had created in this place. Everything they had built together seemed to shred before her eyes until they were like ashes being blown away by the light wind that billowed around her.
“I'm already there Jace. It was always you that allowed me a foot in the door to heaven.”
+ + +
Catherine watched the festivities with a heavy heart. There was laughter, music, food and drink. The whole barn was buzzing–it was a party to remember. For Catherine, it would be forever etched in her mind. Instead of being with the party girl enjoying herself, she was morosely sipping the lager she'd been indulging in since the first guest arrived. Needless to say, she wasn't far from being drunk. At first, she figured it would help. However, as usual, that was a fallacy for it only made the situation even graver in her fuddled mind.
After her bitter words with Jace, the day before she locked herself in her study and only came out for dinner. It was hard to discreetly look at the pale features of her wife and not know who was responsible. Although no one commented, it was clear from the odd expressions that pretty much everyone around the table knew something wasn't right.
She'd even slept in the study and around four in the morning had ventured to the master bedroom and left her card and gift by the bedside. Then, for a few minutes had watched as Jace slept. She looked just as she did the first time they'd met. Her quiet understated beauty was still evident. There was the odd line or two and she'd put on a little weight but that all disappeared in sleep. This was the Jace she loved and would always love no matter what. Perhaps, it was time to get over her own ego trip and simply listen to what Jace had to say. It would be so easy and the pain would go away–or would it? Jace's movement in bed had her venturing back into the darkness. Moments later, she retreated to her safe haven–the study.
Breakfast had been a boisterous affair of present giving and general laughter. For the space of an hour, it had actually felt like the life was back in the old house. When everyone had left them alone for a few minutes, Jace had caught her glance and their eyes locked.
As sadness enveloped her features, Jace softly said, “Thank you for the present and the card. Although, under the present circumstances, I suspect the sentiment isn't quite what it once was. I haven't opened the present as we usually do that together…I guess I might have a long wait.”
Catherine tried to ignore the voice of her heart, longing to reach out and hold Jace close and say it really didn't matter that all that did was them being together. As usual, she allowed her mind to control her and gave Jace an imperceptible nod.
Jace swallowed and a tiny smile of understanding crossed her lips. “I'm going with mom and the girls into town…we're having a girl's day out…I'd have asked you if…” she saw the frown, “No, I figured you'd rather be here or out riding. Will you entertain the boys and Helen until I'm back? Though it could be an all day session, don't worry I'll be back well before the party starts. Mom wanted to shout me a make-over.”
“Didn't Jake say he and Helen were going out for a drive today? Colin and your dad want to take Nat fishing and they said they didn't want to be around while we preen the place unless we needed the help…we don't…the caterers have it all in hand.” Catherine felt herself rambling, which was an unusual occurrence.
“I guess that let's you off the hook. I hope you enjoy your day.” Jace stood up from the breakfast table and started to leave.
Catherine closed her eyes for a second then reopened them and quietly said, “Happy birthday Jace.”
Jace's back stiffened. Normally she would have been in Catherine's arms and being kissed–it wasn't going to happen. “Thank you,” she whispered before leaving the room.
“Hey good-looking why do I get the impression that you look like a wallflower?” Grace's cheerful voice broke through Catherine's musings.
“Hardly a wallflower, Grace. Are you enjoying the party?”
Grace chuckled. “You have got to be kidding me right? What about this party can't you enjoy? You did yourself proud, Catherine. I haven't seen Jace have this much fun for…well you know what I mean.”
Was that the truth? Had they become boring with no fun left in their relationship? That would make it so easy to jump to conclusions and, on reflection, she had a feeling it might be the case. “I know what you mean.”
“You know people will begin to talk.” Grace wished she'd brought a drink with her as she attempted to get through to her stubborn friend. She'd had all intentions of having a sensitive chat with Catherine last night but things had a habit of turning up and they never quite managed any time alone.
Dark eyebrows lifted quizzically. “About what. You just said Jace looks happy. I believe the party is going well so what more can anyone want?”
Grace cast her glance across the sea of friends and family, who were indeed enjoying themselves. “You normally get up and do a speech on these kinds of occasions. I've heard the odd murmur around the barn that it didn't look like you were going to or had any intention of doing anything but get blind drunk.”
Hackles rose at the remark. “And who would have the balls to say that about me?” Even though it was true, she hated people talking about her behind her back.
Grace sucked in a deep breath. “Me…because that's exactly what you're doing…or…in your case right now, leaning against the wall because you can't stand without swaying. Is that so totally off the mark?”
Catherine allowed some of her anger to dissipate. Grace was perfectly correct she couldn't actually stand up straight without the room swaying. She also knew that her speech was probably impaired. What the hell. Who cared anyway? “You know me too well Grace. As it happens I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said.”
“Oh that's cold Catherine. What turned you into a callous spectator? Anyway, I'm surprised at one person who is a no-show. According to Jace she had to leave town urgently as someone in her family was sick,” Grace said casually as her eyes tracked Jace who was dancing a rather interesting version of the waltz with Nathan.
“Yeah, it's providential.”
Catherine's wavy vision followed Grace's path and she allowed a tender smile to curve her lips at the sight of her wife and one of their youngest children. Their antics were bordering on hilarious as Nathan stood on his mom's toes more often than the floor. Jace she was going to have sore toes but her expression was one of patience and love as she smiled down at her son.
“It's a misunderstanding Catherine and if you looked beyond that damned pride of yours you'd see it for what it was. Jace has never looked at anyone as she does you and I doubt she ever will and you know it.” Grace cheekily took the bottle of beer from Catherine's hand and took a long swig–she deserved it.
“Hey, that's mine…get your own…it's a free bar.”
Grace laughed. “Exactly, what's yours is mine.” She winked at her friend and the frown that had begun to drive deep ruts into her friend's forehead vanished as she smiled.
“I guess I'd better do my duty.” Catherine moved from her wall position and felt the room sway and she reached out and Grace grabbed her arm to steady her. “I might need some discreet help to get on the stage.”
Grace shook her head. She needed help in more than one direction. “Tell you what, I'll take you to your room and you can have a short nap…it's still early. I'll come and get you before the last revellers have left. Deal?”
“That would be rude, especially tonight. I can sober up as quickly right here,” Catherine replied belligerently.
Grace frowned and then gently persisted. “Do you want the kids to see you like this? Unhappy and drunk.”
The mention of the children was catalyst enough as she allowed Grace to lead her out of the barn by a little used door. Within minutes, Catherine was on the bed of the master bedroom.
Catherine allowed the softness of the mattress and Jace's perfume to envelope her in a safe cocoon. She slurred, “You promise to wake me Grace.”
Grace looked down at the prone half asleep woman and shook her head. “Remember, I promised.”
“Good, or Jace will kill me.” Catherine's eyelids slid shut and her breathing indicated she was asleep.
Grace waited for a few minutes and then turned as she heard a sound at the doorway and Jace stood there looking over her shoulder at Catherine asleep on the bed.
Quietly Jace said, “I see you're still picking up her broken pieces.”
Grace moved toward the door. “Yes, it looks like that. She's the most pig-headed woman I know. In fact, the most stubborn person I know and I've met a few that can give her a run for her money.”
“She's missing a great party. Even Elena and Helen are enjoying themselves, at least they are both smiling.” Jace moved toward the bed and pulled the coverlet over the sleeping form. She reached down to tenderly move the hair that had fallen over Catherine's eyes. “I love you, you stubborn woman.” She bent and kissed Catherine's forehead.
Catherine mumbled, “I love you too.”
Jace cocked her head, certain of Catherine's words. A part of her felt the power of those few words melt any animosity she felt at their current situation. Straightening her body, she turned back to Grace. “Let's go enjoy the party. Dad wants to do a speech. He said it was time he did one and was sure Catherine wouldn't mind.” Jace cast a glance one more time at the sleeping woman. “I guess she won't.”
Grace silently thanked God for small mercies at that piece of news. They shut the door both knowing there was no chance that Catherine would surface again until tomorrow.
“You know you're going to have people asking where she is.”
Jace nodded. “I know and I'll do what I always do. I'll explain in the most appropriate way possible to eliminate any chance of her suffering embarrassment.”
Grace shook her head again. “I guess we're both apt at picking up her broken pieces. I wonder if she realises that.”
They wandered off back to the barn and as they entered, Jace felt the swell of happiness of the party goers. For the next few short hours, Catherine and their problems were forgotten.
+ + +
The clock ticked ominously loud by the bedside table as it flicked to three forty-five in the morning. Jace, sitting in one of the easy chairs in the room, she'd partly dragged toward the bed, her eyes moved to watch the sleeping profile of the woman she thought she knew–now she wasn't so sure.
Her party had been a resounding success and Catherine wasn't the only one she suspected had tied one on and would wake with a headache or worse in the morning. A tiny smile curved her lips as she recalled other times that Catherine had woken with a hangover. It wasn't often and it was always associated with an event or good news. Most times, she had a couple of beers at the weekend when they chilled out on the front porch, but nothing excessive. From the moment she met Catherine, they had created memories, good, bad and definitely memorable in all shapes and sizes. Now, it was just another time of experiences and new memories even though she knew they'd end up in the bad category.
A yawn almost broke her jaw. Her day had started early as it did most days–taking the dogs and the younger kids for a walk and then whatever else was pencilled into her day. The day of her birthday had been totally different. She and her mom had dragged everyone into the city for a day of shopping. It had been hectic, but satisfyingly so. For those few hours, everything was normal in her life, she was enjoying her birthday and the planned party until the thing she had been dreading happened.
It was true she was worried about Catherine talking to Gillian, regarding that kiss, but it had been something she knew she could eventually handle. No, her real dread had been turning forty. She'd never said anything to anyone, not even Catherine, as her eyes traced the faint scars now softened in sleep on her partner's face. She had hated turning forty it felt like a death knell of her youth. Her fear was unsubstantiated but it still made her edgy. Coupled with her other problems, the whole turning forty business was a change she didn't want to happen. It made her want to stick a finger in the dam of time and stop the flow of years, much as the folktale about the boy placing his finger in the dam to stop it flooding the village below. Yet, the reality was that she was getting older and nothing was going to change that.
A rustle of covers and a murmur dragged Jace from her wandering thoughts and she moved out of the chair and sat at the edge of the bed. Catherine was muttering and that meant she was dreaming or worse having a nightmare. The nightmares thankfully were few and far between these days but in the first year of their relationship, it was every night before it gradually receded to almost never.
Jace reached over and touched Catherine's forehead–she was hot but not excessively so. Then she bent and gently placed a kiss on the slightly lined skin. Catherine looked great for fifty-four and she hoped that she would look the same–she highly doubted it. As she glanced at her fuller figure, she groaned inwardly. Over the past few years she'd let herself go and it showed.
Tracing a soothing pressure over Catherine's cheek, she felt her lover move toward her touch and knew at least that hadn't changed. Closing her eyes, she wondered why things had to change. Why couldn't things stay as they are? All she wanted was to have Catherine's unconditional love. Was that too much to ask for?
“I love you. I wish you'd believe me.”
There was no answer from the woman asleep in the bed.
Jace moved away and went over to her desk at the far end of the room. As she sat in the chair, she looked at the contents on the desk top. Pens, paper, dictionary, a couple of photo frames, which showed her and Catherine taken on the Island of Xianthos and then one as a family group before Jake went away to University in London. Softly she said to the relatively silent room, “Time really does fly. Look at Jake, he's a man now, engaged and ready to settle down.” Her finger touched the image of their eldest son and then traced to Lisa. “You captivated us all and it hasn't changed even today you still do.” Then she looked at Elena who couldn't have been more than eight. “How precocious you were then and still are now. I'm not sure I'm ready to let you go to stay full time with your father even if Catherine is.”
Startled Jace swivelled around in the chair and looked over to the bed sure she was hearing things. Catherine was sitting up right and looking remarkably attentive.
“I'm sorry if I woke you.”
There was a moment when they simply looked into each other eyes and words were needless.
Finally, Catherine said, “I thought it best that Elena decided her own fate. She hasn't been happy for a long time.”
“She's a teenager, Catherine, they go through those fazes and it doesn't mean that we have to let her go!” Jace replied sharply and then looked away at the shocked surprise in Catherine's eye.
“You can't hold onto something that makes people unhappy even if it rips you apart inside.” Blue eyes located green and as they connected and something more was communicated.
Jace drew a deep breath and replied evenly though through gritted teeth, “I guess that's that then.”
Catherine moved to extract herself from the bed clothes and seconds later stood towering over Jace at her desk. She looked down at the blonde hair and the woman who had made most of her dreams come true, just by being in her life. Wanting to reach out but steeling herself from that emotive action she shrugged. “Things change Jace, people too.”
Jace felt like her world was dissolving around her and the tall figure hovering over her like a hawk ready to take its prey didn't help. “Do you love me? No bullshit now, Catherine. It's just you and me. Do you? Enough to get us through whatever you think I'm guilty of?”
Catherine stood like a statue and frowned several times.
For Jace watching, it was that flicker of emotion across Catherine's face working through a problem, similar to being in school and the weird maths problem that eluded you. “I guess that's my answer.”
Jace stood up and moved to Catherine's left. “It's late…no early I need some sleep before the kids and dogs need me.”
Catherine forestalled the movement, as they were inches away from each other. “Jace.”
Jace stopped in her tracks. “Yes?”
“When I come back we'll talk about it,” said Catherine quietly.
“As always, Catherine, you're hedging your bets. One day you're going to fall foul of that tactic. I'm going to bed.” She walked away toward the bathroom. Then turned and said, “Remember that not everyone is your enemy some of us love you. Also, remember that those that love you won't wait forever.” Jace walked quickly to the en-suite and shut the door.
Catherine, with her head hammering like a train, wasn't quite sure what that meant. All she knew was that no matter how many times she tossed the coin the answer was still the same–she was damned either way.
With a heavy frown, she glanced at the desk where Jace had been sitting and saw the birthday card she'd left for her along with the present. What caught her attention was that the small package. She wandered over to the desk and picked it up. It was just as she'd left it–unopened. Then it occurred to her that considering their current circumstances, it was as well she hadn't. She picked up the package and dropped it in her pocket before looking at the still closed bathroom door. She shook her head and left the room. She needed aspirin and water, her head was beginning to protest her overindulgence.
+ + +
Jake rubbed the stubble around his chin and looked at the magnificent sunrise that Cutters Ridge always awarded the patient. Here was the only place in his life that he felt he totally belonged. He had a niggling doubt that his feeling was detrimental to his relationship with Helen. After all, he should feel that for her–she should be his centre not Destiny. However, it had captivated him at ten years old and now fourteen years later it still held that binding magic. Except there was something primeval missing and at this moment he couldn't put a finger on it.
The party a week ago had been great but he had noticed that his parents hadn't spoken at all during the festivities and for Catherine to retire drunk so early had been a surprise. Jace always tried to make Catherine's absence as innocuous as possible, but those who knew them the best, could figure it out. Even after being away so long, he knew something wasn't right. Catherine doted on Jace to the point of obsession. It was noticeable at the party and the more he thought of it, he knew it wasn't there before that too. Maybe he could do something but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what.
His thoughts moved to Helen. She was sexy, moderately intelligent and her father was the major shareholder of the company he worked for. It was the perfect match for a young up and coming professional.
“Am I that and is it enough?” His eyes traversed the sunrise and he knew it wasn't.
Catherine was gone and Jace looked lost. Elena was on her way to Italy to her biological father. The twins were bewildered. And Lisa, there could never be any words for Lisa and that puzzled him.
Then it suddenly occurred to him. “Catherine needs help but won't ask for it. If Xianthos goes belly up, which is what the forecasters are intimating, then she might lose everything. That could mean Destiny too! We can't lose Destiny! Destiny is what our family is all about.”
At that moment, everything slipped into place and made perfect sense.
“Mamma needs us, no matter what she thinks.” He turned the horse back toward home he knew what he had to do regardless of the consequences.
+ + +
“Mrs Warriorson, this is Raleigh Benedict the senior administrator we've assigned to you for the duration of the investigation.”
Catherine turned her blue gaze to the woman who entered the room as if on cue. She was a willowy brunette with shades of red weaved into the, what can only be described as spiky, hairstyle. Her eyes were a warm brown, which now looked at her with passive interest.
“Mrs Warriorson pleased to meet you.” A thin hand held out on an equally slender wrist and Catherine shook it briefly.
“Ms. Benedict.” Catherine's eyes shot to the bespectacled man at the desk, his chubby cheeks reminding her off a gerbil that had recently fed. “Is this really necessary? I can assure you that I'm not going to run out of the US Federal jurisdiction.”
Joe Cregan lifted his head and peered at her out of his heavy framed spectacles with his watery blue eyes showing little emotion. “It's a normal procedure, Mrs. Warriorson. Raleigh here will be your right hand shall we say in your business dealings. You will give her access to anything pertaining to the running of your financial affairs.”
“My financial affairs, you mean of course the Xianthos Corporation and not my personal fortune.” Catherine silently ground her teeth at being in this position.
The balding man stroked his clean shaven chin and said, “Your financial affairs are now an open book, Mrs. Warriorson, isn't that what you agreed with my superiors to allow you a short time to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you had nothing to do with the tax evasion. If, of course, you've changed your mind we can proceed to freeze your assets and begin the judicial process.”
Catherine sucked in a breath she had sold herself to the devil before but it never felt this bad. Her eyes darted to the woman who had remained standing with her back to the wall of the tiny office completely silent. Her expression was unreadable. “If that's the deal then yes, how long do I have before you freeze the assets?”
“ Raleigh will decide.”
Catherine resented the intrusion into her life. “She's barely out of school how the hell can she decide my fate or my companies and the people I employ.”
There was a slight movement from Raleigh as she moved away from her position and she came into the line of Catherine's vision. “I'm twenty-eight, but that's irrelevant, Mrs. Warriorson. I not only can shut you down, but I'm your voice here and trust me my opinion goes a long way good or bad.”
Catherine grimaced as she fought her anger. The woman who held her life, her employees and the lifestyle of those she loved was only a little older than Jake. God, she suddenly felt old. Finally finding her voice, she ground out, “I'm sure it does.” Catherine scraped back her chair. “I guess I'll see you in the office tomorrow, Ms. Benedict. Good morning, Mr Cregan.” She didn't wait to hear anything else as she opened the door and left the room–she needed air, fresh air.
Raleigh sat down in the chair vacated by Catherine Warriorson and look at the man opposite her. “She looked pissed.”
Joe Cregan rolled his eyes and snorted. “Those types don't like you prying into their financials. She's as guilty as the rest of them. I'd bet my next pay-check on it. She would have been better off staying in New Zealand . At least she might have salvaged something out of this. These kinds of people think they are so rich they can pull the wool over our eyes.”
Raleigh 's eyes scanned the tiny office. She was glad she had a corner office for this one was claustrophobic. “Some do, we shall see on this one. Have her file sent to my computer within the hour.”
Joe Cregan frowned. “I have it here.” He offered her the folder.
It was Raleigh 's turn to frown. “I don't do paper, Cregan. You should know that by now. Besides, I still need to see the director about that last case.”
“Great work, Raleigh . You nailed them…they didn't stand a chance in court and will end up in jail where they belong,” the man replied in awe.
“Everyone has a chance in court, Cregan. That's our mantra–some just have a miniscule chance of success that's all.” The woman stood up and left the room.
+ + +
Jace collapsed on her bed and closed her eyes wearily. The twins had been even more troublesome than usual. They had been nagging her constantly about when they could talk to Catherine and why hadn't Elena called. It wasn't fair that they were left behind and everyone else could go away and have fun. It hadn't helped when Jake had announced he and Helen, who had been like a hole in the head and moaned even more than the kids about nothing, were leaving for London the next day. Lisa was the only one she could rely on but she didn't want to inflict her burden of what ever was happening on her daughter. At least, she was great with the twins and took them out and about when they came home from school. She too was due to leave at the weekend.
Her parents were still there for another week which under different circumstances would have been ideal but their constant questions about when Catherine was calling and why she hadn't, irritated her more than she allowed them to see. Thank god for a patient personality.
Her thoughts traversed to the early morning that Catherine left.
“Were you going to leave without saying goodbye?” Jace stood in her pyjamas at the bottom of the stairs, her eyes moving over her wife, who was standing at the front door clad in travelling clothes a briefcase in hand and a suitcase on the floor beside her.
“It's barely four AM, I didn't want to disturb you.” Catherine dropped the briefcase next to the suitcase and a wave of pleasure washed over her as she looked at her wife standing there–maybe all wasn't lost.
Jace shook her head. “That's your excuse? Give me a break, Catherine. I've seen you off on trips earlier than this and stayed up all night to welcome you home. You're not the woman I know Catherine. Something has changed and it isn't about Gill, me or the kids.”
Catherine pondered the words and finally said, “You're right…you are always right, Jace. I've changed and right now I need this time to sort out who I am and what I want.”
“You know what you want you've always known. All I want to know is, are we part of that, me and the kids?” Jace sucked in a breath and waited.
Catherine looked down at her baggage and then back at Jace before she finally said, “It's integral Jace. I have to go the car is waiting.”
Jace moved like lightening and flung her arms around Catherine's much taller frame desperately whispering, “I love you and I'll always be here for you no matter what.”
Catherine fought the urge to forget her promises to herself and others and sink into the embrace. She could simply say it was someone else's problem but she didn't. Instead, she hugged Jace tightly to her for a few short seconds and whispered, “I love you too.” Then, she extricated herself from the tight hold and opened the door. She motioned for the ranch hand allocated to take her to the airfield to collect her bags.
As the man stowed away the luggage, Catherine turned to Jace. “This is something I have to do Jace. I know you don't understand and I really wish you did because something tells me this is the hardest thing I'll ever do in my life. I really could have done with my wife and family behind me but I understand why that can't happen. I guess sometimes we live in a fantasy world.” Catherine heard the slamming of the boot of the vehicle. “I'll call.” She turned away and was about to leave when a tornado overtook her or at least that's what it felt like.
Jace raced across the few feet that separated them and flung her arms around the woman she loved as she sobbed almost incoherently. “We do understand. We love you. Be careful, be safe and most of all come back to us.”
Catherine bent her head and captured the lips she'd crave until the end of time and found a moment or two of complete happiness. As they broke apart, Catherine, with tears shimmering in the ice blue depths, brokenly said, “Take care of the kids and yourself as long as I know you are safe then I know we are.” She broke the embrace and retreated to the car knowing if she didn't she never would.
Jace pulled the pillow around her ears and sighed heavily. “Whatever it is, Catherine, we'll beat it…we always do.” She then attempted to count the numerous sheep she needed to lull her to sleep.
+ + +
Catherine's narrowed eyes gazed out of her top storey window to the street below as she considered her options. Six weeks had passed and they were no closer to proving she was innocent of the scam the government believed she was involved in. Her employees were getting the jitters at having everything they did double checked or worse, rescinded.
It was becoming a nightmare and she really didn't know what to do. She'd almost holed herself inside her office and except for her secretary and Raleigh Benedict, she saw no one else. All she read in the reports were dire or worse. Right now, she had to accept that she might end up in prison and come out of there with nothing. Who would care? That was an even worse fate as far as she could see and really she didn't. Her perspective was lost when she thought of Jace with someone else–she was floundering without a life saver.
The phone ringing on her desk startled her since it was ten and well after closing time. No one else was in the building except the security guard. Hell, she even knew his name since she stayed so late at the office. Picking up the receiver, she barked, “Yes?”
The distinctly male and familiar voice asked and Catherine felt a smile tug at the straight line of her lips that had been like that since she'd arrived here. “Jake, it's good to hear from you.”
“It's good to hear you too, but from my calculations shouldn't you be at home and I say that tongue in cheek.” Jake chuckled slightly he'd tried the apartment several times in the last hour and always got the same message. Mrs Warriorson wasn't in can I take a message.
Catherine looked at the clock on her desk and inwardly groaned. “Yeah, I suppose I should. Although that isn't why you called right?”
“It's Destiny isn't it, Catherine?”
The bald words had Catherine drawing in a deep breath before she answered. “Actually, no, not now. Good deduction though. I could do with you here.” As wistful as it sounded she really did think that way. God I need…Jace .
Jake gave a heavy sigh before he replied. “Mamma, you wouldn't bullshit me right?” As he said the words, he frowned at the temerity of his bravado. He'd never spoken to either of his adoptive parents in such a way.
Catherine smiled openly for the first time in what seemed like a decade. She answered quickly. “Absolutely not, Jake. Destiny is safe and the rest is debateable.”
“Mamma, do you need my help?” Jake asked knowing the first reaction would be a negative but he had to try.
About to say no emphatically, Catherine hesitated. She needed new blood. Someone who would understand today's business dealings and takes chances. It could be Jake–how easy would that be. Then she realised that this was something she needed to do alone. No way was she going to implicate another member of her family in this mess.
“Jake, you have a job along with a new fiancée with a whole new life to discover together. Trust me everything will work out…it always does…right.”
Shaking his head, Jake felt the corner of his lips curl. “Don't belittle me Mamma. You and I know Xianthos is in trouble and that by definition means you are. I can help. Please let me.”
Catherine felt a sense of pride revolve around her as she heard the words. Her eldest son had indeed become a man. “I wouldn't do that Jake. Xianthos is in trouble that's true but I'll work it out.”
“Some things you can't work out, Mamma. Does Mom know?”
“Sure she does. Your mom approves what I'm doing.” Catherine closed her eyes and almost crossed her fingers at the untruth.
Jake shook his dark head again. “I just bet she does…if you talked.”
The silence that encompassed his words had Jake on the back foot. He knew he'd hit a nerve. “Look if that was out of order…”
“No, no it wasn't. Your mom doesn't know the extent of the problems. I'm hoping that you don't enlighten her. She doesn't need to know…at least for now.”
Jake felt the anger rising with the irrational attitude of his parent. At the same time he knew he wouldn't do different for those he loved. “When you need me, Mamma, I have a feeling you will call me. You gave me the chance to be what I am today. Allow me at least the opportunity to use the knowledge I have to help you. You owe me that, Mamma.”
Catherine sighed heavily. “You have my word I'll call. How is Helen and the wedding plans?”
“Helen and I have decided to take a break and review what we want out of life,” Jake reluctantly admitted.
Catherine heard the sadness and disappointment in his voice and quietly said, “I hope that it works out Jake if you need…” She didn't finish for how could she give advice when her personal relationships were hardly solid these days.
“Yeah, I know. Mamma, you don't have to do this on your own. Please remember that. Go home and get some sleep.”
The door to her office opened and Raleigh Benedict breezed in. In her calm controlled voice she said, “Cat you promised dinner if I could find some information that didn't implicate you in fraudulent behaviour. Opps, sorry I'll be outside.” The brash young woman backed out of the door.
“Who was that?” Jake asked alarmed that his mother wasn't alone. No one shortened Catherine's name not even Jace.
Catherine heard the alarm in his voice and she smiled. It softened even more of the lines above her forehead if there had been anyone to see the change. “It's no one that you need worry about. I have to go…who knows I might have good news for a change.”
Jake didn't labor the point but it was sure interesting that whoever the woman was she was working late and was allowed to be so familiar with his mother. “Get some rest, Mamma, I love you.”
“I love you too son,” Catherine replied softly as the connection was severed.
Sinking back in her chair she looked at the clock –it was ten-thirty. With a heavy sigh, she closed up her computer and wondered what Raleigh had found. Dragging herself from the chair, she felt as though Jake's call had invigorated her if only for a short time. Then, she opened her office door and looked at the government official who was now lounging with her feet on her private secretary's desk. Catherine knew that her secretary would have a fit if she saw that.
“I keep my promises, Ms. Benedict. What have you found?”
+ + +
Jace gazed unseeingly out of the study window and wondered what went through Catherine' mind when she did the exact same thing. Her wife had been gone a long six weeks and she had the distinct feeling that she wasn't coming back to her. Destiny, she'd come back to that and the kids without a doubt. But, coming back to her was doubtful. Their relationship it was gradually slipping beyond recognition. In the time Catherine had been away, they'd talked for less than an hour all totalled. It was hardly the foundation to make everything right. True, Catherine had said when she was home they would talk but she was finding the long wait interminable.
The perplexing thing was, the call she'd received from Jake the night before. He'd told her in no uncertain terms that it was time she went to see Catherine. He didn't make it exactly plain what he was trying to say, it was more of an innuendo. He'd also asked her if anyone had ever shortened Catherine's name and she'd adamantly stated there was no way Catherine would allow it. In that simple question, she'd received the biggest hint on what might be happening away from home.
Catherine had thought she was having an affair but in reality, it might be the other way around. She wasn't going to sit by and allow that to happen without a fight. Even if her stoically well brought up partner would be as embarrassed as hell, she wouldn't let what they had go quietly.
She'd asked Jake what was going on and pleaded with him to level with her telling him he owed her that. Finally, she was in possession of details that explained in part what was going on with Catherine and why she had been so damn crazy.
Over the years, Catherine had cosseted her so much that her partner forgot that she wasn't without her own particular intellectual niche–albeit she hardly used it these days. Now, perhaps it was time for her to do what she should have all along. She would no longer allow Catherine to take the financial burden of their life together.
As her eyes traversed the view of the mountain that flanked the property before they turned left to the entrance to the stable yard. Finally, they came to rest on her garden. It was a great central point of their homestead and now she understood why Catherine locked herself away so much when she was stressed.
Closing her eyes, Jace considered her options. Like a general devising battle plans, she decided on her own strategy to help Catherine and win her back. Her thinking at that moment was that the winning might back might be harder than the actually helping to save her financially. She would do whatever it took to make things right.
“What the hell was that name? Cat-yeah Cat!”
Walking over to the desk, she pulled open Catherine's personal phone and address book. There were numbers to call and favours to ask and she'd go down on her knees if necessary. As she focused on the desk waiting for her first call to connect, she noticed that two photos were missing from the desk. A tiny smile hovered over her lips as she reflected on which ones they were.
Jace shifted her mind to the voice. “ Constance it's Jace I need a favour…”
+ + +
Grace paused over the washing up and motioned for Colin to join her –he groaned.
“Can't it wait Grace? The rugby's just about to start.”
“No, it can't wait. You can do all that pause and replay stuff can't you? Isn't that why we pay all that money for the pleasure of you being able to watch sports whenever you want.”
Colin Montgomery shook his head and pressed the pause on his satellite box. “Yeah and you and George don't have to fight over channels when I'm away.” Sauntering over to his wife, he picked up the tea towel and began to dry the draining pots used for their evening meal.
“Where is our daughter anyway?” Grace asked as she looked around the family room expecting their daughter to appear at any moment.
“Xena's expecting her cria any day now and she wants to be there for the birth.
Grace snorted slightly but at the same time had to admit that inwardly their first attempt at breeding the Alpaca. They fondly called her Xena, after watching a marathon session of the old TV series when George had flu last winter. It was something she wanted to do too.
Colin gave his wife a discreet look. He knew that Grace wanted to be there at the birth as much as their daughter but she wasn't going to admit it. He did wonder at women sometimes and living with two, he hoped to understand them better but he still didn't. Women were nature's early warning to men to take notice of the small mistakes in life and take care of them early–even if you didn't understand why. For sure, as eggs were eggs they'd break over you like a tsunami if you ignored the signs just like women. There was one plus point, he loved them both and it grew exponentially each day no matter what.
“Ok, what is so urgent that you actually disturb the sacrosanct harmony of my rugby match?” he asked with a grin.
“Tomorrow we need to go out and buy more beds.”
Colin blinked and refrained from saying anything for a few seconds as he expected more. When more wasn't forthcoming, he asked, “Why is there something you haven't told me?”
Grace frowned and turned to him and saw him looking at her quizzically in the area of her abdomen. She chuckled, “I'm not pregnant silly. I've agreed to take care of Allison and Nathan for a few weeks maybe for the whole of the summer break. Jace is going to America to be with Catherine.”
Colin nodded. “I'd have thought she'd have taken the kids too.”
“Under normal circumstances she would have but I think they need a few weeks alone without the distraction of kids,” Grace admitted sadly.
The undertone wasn't lost on Colin. “I had an idea it wasn't going so well for a while now.”
Grace glared at her husband. “You knew and never told me? Men! I might have straightened them out before it got to this stage.”
Colin held up the tea towel. “Hey, I'm just a dumb bloke right. What do I know?”
Grace gave him a disparaging look. “My mother is coming too so we'll have to do some major change around in accommodation. Alli can sleep in George's room and Nat can have the study. Mom can have the guest bedroom. God we might have to buy some decent bedroom furniture if mom's coming. Can you imagine her living out of suitcase after bring at Destiny.”
Colin heard the panic beginning to build in his wife's voice. He dropped the towel on the kitchen bench and touched her shoulder. “Your mother won't mind. She loves you and the kids and except for that easy chair she has and the expensive wine she drinks we can accommodate her.”
Grace looked up into her husband's face and saw his teasing although his mention of the easy chair and wine wasn't far short of the mark. “I love you and ...”
“And?” Colin asked easily as he looked into the warmth of the brown eyes of his wife.
“You're not a dumb bloke. Now go and watch your rugby.” Grace grinned as she saw the smile etched on his face.
Colin bent his head and snatched a quick kiss. “I love you too, Grace. Are you going to join me?”
“Maybe for the second half. I think I'll go and see how George is doing with the Xena watch.” Grace grinned as he headed for the lounge.
“Ok, I'll bring you both a hot drink when the game's over. We can take the kids camping to Lake Tekapo for a couple of weeks. I'll hire us a boat. Nat and I can go fishing while you girls do what you girls do.” He disappeared into the TV realm and she knew she'd lost his attention.
Looking at his head, which was now balding at the centre, she smiled and whispered, “I really don't know what I did to deserve you but I'm glad I did it.”
+ + +
“Jake, Calvin wants to see you now.”
Jake nodded. “Thanks Sally. My ten-thirty is due anytime. Will you cover for me? Hopefully I won't be gone long.” He strode off toward the senior executive's office.
Calvin Frobisher frowned as he looked at the memo from his sleeping business partner. He didn't like it and the only reason he was partially willing to go along with the recommendations was that with the current financial crisis, he had no choice. If he didn't, Daniel Hunt was going to bail on the company.
The knock on his door had him barking, “Come in.”
He looked up as the door opened and Jacob Patterson stood in the threshold. He was a keen young man and intelligent too. Clients liked his brisk and no nonsense attitude to business. Though he wasn't sure if that wasn't partly due to his New Zealand accent and the romanticism that had some clients, especially the elderly women with nest eggs to invest, enthralled. However, that didn't detract from his orders. Perhaps order was too harsh a word. Suggestions might be better–no, it was definitely orders.
“Jake, good that was quick.”
“Mr. Frobisher, how can I help?” Jake smiled. He liked the old man who spent the best part of forty years in the business and was the best. He couldn't see the old man in any other profession although with the volatile economy it was tough. There was no way of knowing who knew what and who it was going to effect.
“Take a seat Jake.”
Jake frowned slightly. The old man was looking uncomfortable and Jake took it as a bad sign.
“I have to tell you I have Mrs. Rissen arriving for a ten-thirty appointment.”
Calvin sighed heavily. Emily Rissen was one of their biggest accounts and was taken with Jake. He'd made her portfolio rise higher than anyone else in the last ten years.
“You of course know that we are going through a terrible time with the collapse of the economy generally.”
“Yeah, but were doing quite well regardless of the trend,” Jake countered equably.
Calvin pulled at his long chin and allowed his grey gaze to look anywhere but at the young man. “I have to let you go Jake.”
Initially, Jake didn't take in the intonation then as he looked at the man he held in great respect he understood perfectly. “I understand.” He stood up and turned toward the door he'd earlier entered.
“Jake this isn't personal,” Calvin said distinctly.
Jake knew where letting him go was coming from. “I know it's not you personally. I can hazard a guess…a good guess as to where though.”
Jake's anger almost took control when he remembered what his mamma had taught him about not showing the whole deck of cards. Holding out his hand, he tightly said, “It was a pleasure working with you, Mr. Frobisher. I hope things work out for you and the company. I suspect you want me to go now?”
Calvin Frobisher wanted desperately to rescind his words for the young man was genuine and he hated this type of manipulation. “Personally, I'd like you to stay, but my hands are tied…there are other parties involved.”
Jake shook his head. “I just bet there are.” He left the office and as he closed the door with full force, the sound reverberated around the area causing a few heads to fly up in response.
Heading toward his office, he remembered his appointment. Turning, he gritted his teeth and quietly said, “I no longer work here. You'll have to find another young pimp.” He walked into his office and fifteen minutes later headed out of the office suite with one thing on his mind –he was heading to his mother and New York .
+ + +
Lisa grinned, as the customer she was serving finally understood what she was talking about –at least partially. “Wonderful Mrs. Smith we'll see you next month then.”
Ten minutes later, she was alone in her small shop and she looked around proud of what she had accomplished. But had she? All this was Catherine not her. She had been bent on being a petrol head and doing the circuits–she wanted that– it was her dream. True, she had an aptitude with the herbs and potions and was almost witch like at times with some. Now, she was going to spend the rest of her life doing this. It was great for later, but right now she wanted to be someplace totally alien to this and never more so since Jake's engagement.
“Damn, I hate you Jake Patterson for making me feel like I do!” She slammed her hand on the granite top and winced at the pain.
She looked at the shop and all it represented. It wasn't her and she had foolishly allowed people to think it was. She had two choices, Jace or Catherine. Jace had never fully approved of her racing around the circuit as a child or a young woman. She was hardly likely to approve the decision now. No there was only one person she had to convince to prevent a war breaking out in the family. She needed at least have ally in the camp.
“I'm going to New York and confront Catherine and tell her that I'm grateful but it isn't me, not yet anyway.”
Decision made the burden of being something she wasn't somehow made her feel ridiculously light headed-but oh so good.
+ + +
Catherine frowned. “Exactly what do you want me to do Ms. Benedict? For the life of me, I'm at a loss as to what you're actually telling me?”
Exasperated, Raleigh shifted in her seat and shook her head. “Your problem, Cat, is that you've been away too long from this kind of environment. Technology and practices have moved on you seem to be stuck in a time warp refusing to go forward.”
Ignoring the annoying shortened version of her name, Catherine wondered if young people learned and polite etiquette nowadays.
The younger woman placed a hand on top of her head to check that the hairstyle she sported was still in shape. Then she pressed the bridge of her nose and felt the slight scar there, which she received as an eight year old in a fist fight with a bully girl twice her size.
Catherine asked, “Are you implying that I'm old fashioned?”
“I'm not implying, Cat, I'm telling you flat out we need this data correlated by an expert and then deciphered. I can have my office do it but that could take a while and then you'd be stuck with us for even longer. I'm not saying that this is your out of all this, however, it looks promising.” Raleigh peered down at the reams of paper that were a fraction of the information that she'd stumbled upon. She hated paperwork always had.
Closing her eyes, she heard a commotion in her private secretary's domain outside her office door. It had been going on for a while now and the voices were getting louder.
“Give me a minute,” Catherine said as she walked across to the door and opened it. “Cynthia what's the problem?” Her gaze shifted from her tall angry looking secretary to the other person in the room and her jaw dropped in shock.
“Hi,” a sheepish looking Lisa stepped toward her mother. The fist thing Catherine noticed was Lisa's hair hanging limply. It looked like it needed a good wash. Her clothes were crumpled and she looked like a gypsy, which was totally alien in her current environment.
“Lisa what are you doing here?” Catherine moved forward and hugged the young woman. A smile shadowing her features for a few seconds at the light relief of seeing one of her children.
“I need to see you…it's important.”
“So important you flew here instead of calling me? What has Jace to say about this?” She peered at the tired expression on Lisa's face and saw the frown form at the mention of her partner. “O kay , we'll talk as soon as I can get out of my current meeting.”
Catherine schooled her features and turned to the woman in the office. “Cynthia, why didn't you inform me immediately that my daughter was here?”
The coldness of the voice covered everyone within reach with a film of ice.
Lisa felt sorry to the older woman for she was only doing her job. It had been foolish not to have at least called Catherine first. Before the woman could reply, Lisa interceded. “It's my fault…I burst in here and…” Lisa looked at the name on the door of the outer office that still remained ajar, “Ms. Reynolds was being cautious that was all. I guess you don't get many visitors dressed like me up here do you.”
Visibly relieved, the secretary moved to sit down and take the call that had been buzzing all through the short conversation.
“Reynolds…yes, who is it again?” The woman flicked through the appointment book, “I'm afraid she doesn't have an appointment perhaps…”
Frustrated Catherine barked, “What now?”
Cynthia Reynolds looked slightly flustered as she said, “Ms. Bardley is in reception and is insisting that she see you as soon as possible.”
“For god's sake what the hell does she want?” Catherine vented her anger of her own shortcomings of the day on the fact that her sister-in-law had appeared unexpectedly. It was so unlike the woman.
Lisa heard the frustration in Catherine's voice. Over time, she'd heard it usually when Catherine was about to explode about something, though it was normally in regard to a situation rather than people. “Why don't I go chat with Lucy and when you're done, you can see us both.”
Raleigh, who had followed Catherine out of the office, stood relaxing against the doorjamb fascinated by the unfolding events. “Take a break, Cat. It looks like a good time to me.”
Catherine glared at the younger woman. She knew Lisa was going to ask pertinent questions about the use of that name. She wondered if things could get any more interesting. “I'll be back shortly.”
“Cynthia, have the canteen provide my daughter with anything she wants and you'd better arrange lunch early. It looks like it's going to be one of those days.” Turning back to Lisa, she smiled faintly. “Be back shortly kiddo. It's good to see a friendly face.” Catherine left the office and headed for the elevator and her sister-in-law.
Lisa grinned at Cynthia Reynolds. “I'm fine Ms. Reynolds.”
Raleigh watched the younger girl for a few moments then gestured toward the conference room. “Why don't you keep me company until your mom gets back?”
“Sounds good. Exactly who are you and how have you cornered the market on calling Catherine Cat? I'm dying of curiosity.” The two younger women chuckled as they shut the door to the conference room.
Cynthia Reynolds snorted in disgust. She was about ready to quit and if the day got any sillier, she just might. Angrily, she picked up the phone on her desk and called the canteen.
+ + +
Catherine arrived at the reception area looking her for Lucy assuming her sister-in-law would be waiting impatiently by the desk. It was late morning and the place milled with people coming and going, quite normal for that time of day. Arriving at the front desk, Catherine waited for the young man to finish the call he was on.
“Mrs. Warriorson, I'm really sorry about allowing Ms. Simeon to the executive suite. I promise it won't happen again.” The man had a bead of sweat on his forehead and his owl like eyes furtively shifted as he avoided eye contact.
“Forget it, Gerald. Where is Ms. Bardley? Did she leave already?” Catherine snorted under breath, “Typical.”
The young man's face transformed after being let off the hook for his earlier error of judgement. He smiled indicating three people standing together with their backs to the main desk. They appeared to be looking at the fountain in the forecourt.
Frowning, Catherine briskly walked toward them. “Lucy, you should have made an appointment I can't just leave everything …” The words caught in the back of throat as two women turned at her initial words. Finally finding her voice, Catherine whispered, “Jace?”
Jace nodded as she moved forward slightly. “Hi Catherine.”
“Jace you should have called me…I could have had a car come for you and…” Catherine thought her heart was going to burst it beat so quickly at the sight of her lover. Her one thought– ‘thank god she was there'.
“No problem, not that it wouldn't have been appreciated. I'm here on business.” Jace smiled slightly thankful she hadn't totally lost it at seeing Catherine again.
Catherine blinked rapidly. “Business? I don't understand?” Her eyes lingered on every feature and generous curve of her partner. She was dressed in a red rust tailored skirt suit with a pristine white silk shirt that was open slightly at the neck, revealing a hint of the creamy flesh underneath.
Jace stepped back and gestured to the two others that flanked her.
Then Catherine realised that she knew the woman at Jace's left–Clare Fallon, one of her ex-employees and the partner of Constance Waverley the last full-time CEO of the company.
“Clare, I thought you were in France ?” There was genuine welcome in her voice as she moved closer and uncharacteristically hugged the woman.
Jace felt part anger and desolation at the lack of welcome she had. Her eyes watched as the two become reacquainted.
“Hi, Catherine. It's wonderful to see you again. Constance sends her best. She wished could be here too, but Jack's teething and we didn't both want to be away. She said you'd understand.”
When Jace had called them, they had both immediately agreed to Jace's strategy and would meet her in the airport terminal. They'd planned to bring Jack and have him spend some time with her parents. Then his temperature went through the roof and they'd decided that Clare needed to stay home with him.
Catherine nodded. “Yeah, I do.” She pulled away realising she had warmly welcomed this woman but had been only polite with her wife– I'm really losing it .
“Catherine, this is Kevin Victor. He's the son of an old friend.” Jace paused slightly over the words as she saw Catherine flick the young man who was barely out of school a cool assessing glance. Then, she slowly held out her hand. “Kevin, good to meet you.”
Kevin Victor merely nodded as he nudged his spectacles back on the bridge of his nose. He moved his tall gangly rather than athletic back frame slightly.
Catherine stepped back and shook her head. Maybe Benedict was right and she was too old fashioned or maybe even too old for sort of chit-chat. “I'm currently in a meeting that I really can't delay. As soon as I'm done I'll be right with you and we can talk…business.”
Jace heard the incredulous inflection on the word business. It was so like Catherine. What wasn't like Catherine was the air of stress around her. She looked out of her depth. Just how much trouble was her partner in? “That's ok, we can wait. We'll take a seat.”
“Ridiculous,” Catherine barked and several heads turned in her direction. She calmed herself and then motioned to a security officer. “Take my visitors to my private dining room and ensure that they are comfortable.”
As she swivelled her gaze back to Jace, she saw an incredulous expression on her face and her mouth open as if to say something but no words were forthcoming. Switching her gaze to the direction Jace was looking, she gasped as standing the front of the desk and being told to look in their direction was another unexpected yet familiar figure.
“I knew I was having a bad day. Has my reception just become a family circus ring?”
A figure approached them and Catherine groaned. “For god's sake Jake, what the hell are you doing here? I told you I could handle it.”
The young man chuckled. “Now that's what I call a warm welcome. I figured as I'm unemployed you might be able to use me?”
Catherine snorted and wanted to disappear into the bathroom in hopes that when she came out all would be normal. Instead, she had a maelstrom of unanswered questions and reasons why everyone, particularly those she loved, all turned up at the same time.
“We'll talk about that later young man.” Catherine hugged her son and shook her head.
Jace moved forward. “Jake, what do you mean unemployed?”
Jake grinned. He was delighted at Jace being there. He wasn't surprised after his last call home. “Yep, Mom, I'm unemployed along with being footloose and fancy free.”
Catherine moved toward the elevator and then remembered Lisa. “Jace, as if this isn't surprise enough, Lisa walked into the building a short while earlier… maybe you'll catch up with her too.”
“Lisa?” Both Jace and Jake mouthed at the same time in surprise.
“Yes, a real family affair,” Catherine replied.
The steel door of the elevator closed shielding Catherine for a few short moments from the world in general. All she could think about was Jace. She was here and somehow that gave her the added boost she needed to see this through. Then her thoughts shifted. “Crap, thank god the younger kids and dogs aren't going to show up then it really would have been a circus.”
+ + +
Lisa sat down opposite the slightly older woman and gave her a long assessing look. She wasn't Catherine's type. As she considered that, it made her laugh and she didn't realise that it was out loud until she caught the other woman giving her a quizzical and amused glance.
“Sorry Ms. Benedict a private joke. So how did you breach Catherine's wall of polite etiquette to call her Cat?”
Raleigh smiled slowly. “My name's Raleigh or Leigh if you want to be real friendly. One of the things I do is shorten names…can't help it. I've done it since I was a kid. Besides, she never said anything to me and she always responds to it.” Which wasn't strictly true. Initially, Catherine had almost snarled at her and ignored her repeatedly. However, that had only made her use the term more…it was her perverse logic.
“Jace is going to have a fit.” Lisa shook her head as she thought of her gentler parent.
“Jace?” Raleigh asked her head perking up in interest. She knew everything there was to know about Catherine Warriorson on paper and financially but her private life wasn't anything to do with her and she'd refrained for the moment in delving in too deep. However, someone close to the woman had opened the door and she was polite enough to go inside.
Lisa felt the tug at her lips as she smiled recalling her mom's face. “Oh, she's important to us all. She'd be amazed at the term. She'll be ribbing Catherine every opportunity she gets when she finds out.”
“I don't see anyone teasing Cat. She isn't the type,” Raleigh observed wryly.
Lisa chuckled. “That's because you don't know her in her true environment. Not many do really. She likes to keep certain parts of her life private.”
Raleigh asked, “The important things huh?”
“Yeah the important things,” Lisa answered quietly. “Incidentally, what do you do for her company?”
“Oh, I do a little of this and a little of that. Shall we say I'm currently shadowing her in the best interests of the business,” Raleigh calmly replied.
Lisa gave the answer some thought then responded, “I'm glad she can trust someone with the business. I don't think she likes this kind of world any more. It just isn't her.”
“From what I know about her, she was excellent in this kind of field some years ago. Now that she's back it's like getting on a bike after a long absence. You never forget.”
“Maybe not, but she might have changed her outlook on life and want something different,” Lisa remarked softly, knowing that's exactly what prompted her own visit.
“I can't argue with that. Cat was surprised to see you. I guess this is a spur of the moment trip?”
Lisa looked down at the highly polished desk and then returned her gaze to the other woman who was quietly observing her. Lisa felt that if she chose not to answer then the conversation would move right along. “Yeah, it was a spur of the moment thing. I haven't visited New York since I was a child.” She refused to say more as the image of the rat infested building she was held in the last time she in the city managed to resurface. The recollection of that time made her feel sick.
When Raleigh saw the change in the pallor of the younger woman, she started to ask what the problem was when the door crashed opened. “Ah, Cat, thought you'd left us for good.”
Catherine snorted. Her spectacles, dangled dangerously around her neck on the silver chain, seemed to arrive in the office before she did. “Hmm, I thought about it. Lisa, it seems you're not my only surprise… I've had more and I'm going to share them with you.” Turing to her secretary, Catherine asked the older woman to take Lisa to the executive dining room and have refreshments sent there.
Lisa stood up and her legs felt shaky after the resurrection of the horrific old memory. To her it was more like a terrible nightmare than reality. She nodded at Raleigh and moved toward the door.
Catherine had left a buoyant young woman, now as she moved up close she looked decidedly upset. “Hey princess, what's wrong?” Catherine scowled at Raleigh assuming she'd upset her daughter.
Raleigh ignored the daggered look. She watched a much softer Catherine reach for Lisa and hug her tight.
“I'm ok, Catherine, I promise.” She brightened appreciatively with the security of Catherine's arms around her. It worked just as it had all those years ago when her mamma had saved her from that horrible place. Just like magic, it still did today, even if she was old enough to understand that it was over. “Besides, if you're sharing it has to be good, right?”
Catherine allowed Lisa to find some solace in her arms and she felt her daughter shake. Something had upset Lisa. If Catherine found out the Benedict woman was responsible there would be hell to pay. “Always princess. I'll be with you shortly and you can tell me what's going on ok?”
Lisa nodded into the comforting shoulder. “Thanks, I love you, Catherine.”
“And I love you too kiddo, now go.” She gentle lifted the auburn head up and winked. “Ms Reynolds will take care of you…she's good at that…right Cynthia?”
Cynthia Reynolds who had watched the scene equally as fascinated as the IRS investigator, nodded. Perhaps there was merit in sticking around for it was certainly a new side to the focused boss she'd come to partially understand if not actually like.
The two women left the room and the door, in contrast to earlier, shut whisper quiet. Catherine glared at Raleigh . “Ok, now tell me how you managed in the space of a few minutes to have my daughter in the state she's in? I haven't seen her like that in years.”
Raleigh didn't reply immediately. Instead, she considered her words carefully and then replied, “Precisely.”
“Precisely? What the hell kind of answer is that?” Catherine spit out. Her anger clearly turned up to the maximum.
Raleigh moved to take a seat back at the conference table where her papers and computer were. “It's the correct one. Look, I'm not here to debate your family and its problems. I'm here for business and that's it. Let's get on with it since it looks like you'll be otherwise engaged during lunch and I suspect beyond that.”
Catherine felt like she was spitting feathers for she was at a loss for words. Her gaze scrutinized the woman who calmly took a seat opposite her. Her thoughts were chaotic enough and sparring with Benedict wasn't on the menu today. She needed to stay focused at least in one area of her life. The rest…well Jace was here and she had to be grateful for that at least. However, Jace's calm announcement that it was business troubled her. “You got that right.”
+ + +
Jace and her party including Jake were escorted into the executive dining room a place she'd never ventured in before. As she did, she allowed her eyes to travel over the classic mahogany dining table and the matching, ornately crafted, chairs that accompanied it. There was a distinctive pattern on the backs of the chairs and as she looked closer, it was the Xianthos emblem and that made her smile.
The furniture was probably as old as the company. Stewart Devonshire, Catherine's father, the original founder of the Xianthos Company, must have commissioned it in the early days. Catherine wasn't the type to have such an opulent and old-fashioned taste. At least she didn't think so, but then what did she really know about this part of Catherine's life. It was exactly the reason she was there along with the Benedict woman who was trying to steal Catherine away.
She cast her glance to her fellow comrades and smiled. Clare had been right when she'd turned up instead of Constance . The woman's take on Xianthos was from the operational side and that had to be invaluable even though Catherine hadn't heard her proposal.
Jake was a bonus and Catherine would employ him anyway. She'd always wanted him in the business but he had to choose his own path. This looked like the perfect opportunity to have them both get what they wanted.
Then, her glance drifted to Kevin Victor. Instead of taking a seat like the others, he was staring at the portraits on the wall. She moved to him and tapped him on the shoulder. “How are you doing?”
They gangly young man removed his glance from the portraits to the woman at his side. His blue eyes caught hers as he replied, “It's like going back in time to one of those old movies. Do they really still use places like this? It's a mausoleum.”
Jace chuckled. She guessed to someone as young as Kevin it would be. As she looked at the portrait he had been looking at she sighed. “I don't know. If we lose all our traditional values where would we look for our living history.”
“I suppose you could look at it like that. She was very beautiful back then. I wonder what she makes of it now that she's older.” He stared back at the portrait of Catherine when she was probably in her early twenties.
Jace considered the comment as she tried to look at the portrait objectively but that was impossible. “She still is very beautiful. They captured her eyes perfectly. I think if you looked at it close enough you could even see the faint chips of ice that she projects from time to time. Back then, her reputation was ice all the time.” Jace chuckled. To prove a point, she reached up and briefly outlined the light that had been added to that particular part of the portrait. “See.”
“Hey Jace, she's down the corridor I'm sure she'd prefer you to feel the real thing than a cold hard canvas.” Jake watched his mother's reaction to his words. “Got to admit she looks like her dad in that one though?'
Jace and Kevin gazed at the portrait on the opposite wall and walked to the one of the founder Stewart Devonshire. He had either sat for the portrait or it was from a photo when he had been in his late forties or early fifties.
“Yeah, it's the eyes I think,” Jace admitted.
She wondered what her partner's father would have made of the hotchpotch of family she and his daughter had created over the years. From the stern line of his thin lips and the unsmiling countenance, she figured he'd disapprove intensely. The more she looked at the man's features the more she saw of her partner.
“Although you have to admit she gets the dark colouring from her mom.” Jace chuckled as they drew their collective gazes to the final portrait of a young woman, beautiful with a vivacious spark about her features that had you smiling along with the young woman in it. Her classically swarthy features of her Greek ancestry were evident along with the tender brown eyes. There was no doubt that the woman in the portrait had been happy. It was true, Catherine had that sternness about her, which she'd obviously inherited from her father but she knew when Catherine allowed her guard was down, her inheritance from her mother shone through.
“Who is that?” Kevin asked as he felt the magic of the woman captured in oils flow over him. He'd be happy to have the portrait in a room for she was truly beautiful.
“It's Catherine's mother. She died when Catherine was young. I wish I'd met her,” Jace whispered, knowing in her heart that she had in part, when that side of her partner allowed itself to shine. Tears welled up in her eyes and she brushed them away as the door to the room opened again and the new visitor made her tears flow. She flew across the room and hugged Lisa. “What are you doing here, Lisa?”
Lisa chuckled. “Thanks Mom.” She'd needed Catherine's hug earlier for security but now in Jace's tender hold she felt that the old nightmare were locked back behind the doors where they could stay. Jace had that soothing and loving effect on her and everyone else she loved.
Pulling away, Jace grinned. “Why are you here? What about your business?”
“I could say the same about you Mom.” When Lisa saw Jake she felt her heart beat jump significantly. “Jake?”
Clare who had been quietly instant messaging Constance at home from her laptop joined the moment. “ Constance says ‘hi' and wishes she was here now. I just told her that Lisa and Jake have arrived unexpectedly.”
Jace smiled. “Tell her ‘hi' back.”
Lisa then noticed the strange young man who was staring at her quizzically. He wasn't bad looking in a nerdy kind of way. “Hi, Clare, it's been ages. How's Jack?”
Beaming, Clare replied, “Jack's great. At the moment he is teething so he's no one hundred percent but he will be.”
“I take it Catherine is aware of your presence?” Jace closed her eyes fractionally. She knew Catherine must be going crazy not knowing why everyone was there and what was going on. Come to think of it, she was too. What the hell was going on with their two eldest children?
“Yes, she knows and she said she'd be here shortly. I think she's grooming some woman called Raleigh to take over the business. She's kind of cool.”
Now, Jace was worried even more. If Lisa thought the Benedict woman was cool then she knew she was in real trouble.
“Wow, look at that Mom. Isn't Mamma the spit?”
All eyes travelled to where Lisa was looking and each for their own reasons wondered about the observation–she was staring at Elena Devonshire.
+ + +
“Talk to me Raleigh .” Catherine said exasperated at the silence from the young woman. They had been going over and over the same information for the past hour and, in her opinion, they were getting absolutely nowhere.
There was no response from the young woman except if you looked closely a frown of concentration appeared on her forehead. With Catherine's limited knowledge of the woman, it meant she was working something out. Except in this particular instance, it had been going on for over ten minutes.
“We need a techie and a good one,” Raleigh finally announce. “Oh and one that can be trusted implicitly…I'll talk to the IT manager and see if they can recommend anyone.” She stood up and a smile of satisfaction covered her face.
“You obviously don't trust my people and you said yours are otherwise engaged…do we go outside of both of our organisations?” Catherine asked with her own brow furrowed in concentration.
Raleigh gave her attention to the older woman and considered that maybe she wasn't as out of it as she appeared. “Probably, but who and where…I'll think on it and talk to some people I know. Time for a break and I'm sure you're interested in why your family have arrived unexpectedly. It's lunchtime I think.”
Glad of the opportunity to find out exactly what was going on with her family Catherine stood too. She politely said, “You're welcome to join us.”
Raleigh gave a small smile. “Thanks, but no thanks. Family reunions don't come under my remit for this place. Look, I'll not hound you if you need the rest of the day to sort your family out. I'll go back to the office and confer with my people about our discussion. I think it's time they had an update anyway. I'll see you tomorrow at eight-thirty.”
Catherine was surprised at the offer, unexpected but she would take the benefit of it. “Thanks, I'll see you in the morning.” She watched as Raleigh picked up her computer and papers and with a nod left her alone in the conference room.
A heavy sigh escaped Catherine as she contemplated what was next on her list of things to sort out. It begged the question as to what Jace had done with their younger children. She would find out soon enough if she asked. Her legs felt leaden as she moved from the chair and for the first time in a long time, she felt afraid. It was an emotion and word that she could honestly say rarely applied to her, but, deep down she was afraid of the ‘business' that Jace wanted to discuss. Swallowing hard, she shook away the feeling and headed out of the door.
Entering the office area where Cynthia sat studiously going over her shorthand notes of an earlier meeting, she cleared her throat and the other woman looked up.
“Can I get you anything Mrs. Warriorson?”
Catherine calmly said, “I'm having lunch with my visitors and I'll probably be busy the rest of the day. Cancel my two appointments and reschedule for seven-thirty and eight respectively. If they don't like it they can look for work elsewhere.”
Cynthia nodded, knowing that the two parties concerned would be put out but weren't going anywhere. “Of course. Do you need me to arrive early tomorrow as well?”
“No, that won't be necessary, Cynthia. Will you leave a short list of respected computer outsourcing companies in the city on my desk? Looks like we might need a heavyweight genius in that area,” Catherine absently said as she headed for the elevator.
“We have an excellent computer department here Mrs Warriorson. Not that I need to tell you that of course.”
“I know, however, the work needs to be done now and not next week. Besides, Shaun has already reported the area is stretched to the limit. We might be able to poach someone from another company to fill in the gaps if we're lucky.” Catherine jabbed the elevator button and waited for the steel doors to open. When they did seconds later, Catherine went inside she leaned back against the cold stainless steel surface and pressed the appropriate floor. With a swish of the doors closing, she was heading to the third floor where her family was waiting.
+ + +
A young woman with a cheery disposition opened the door to the dining room and with a warm greeting handed out a simple menu to the five people in the room. Then she walked over to a large oak table at the back of the room and began to take cutlery and other items from inside the piece of furniture. Moments later, she began to set out the utensils for six people.
As Jace watched, she heaved a sigh of relief that Raleigh Benedict woman wasn't going to be joining them. At least that's what she suspected when there were only six places set.
In no time, the table was set beautifully with polished cutlery and crystal glasses ranging from tumblers to three types of wine glasses. The serviettes were pure white linen and held in silver holders with the Xianthos crest as the pattern. Side plates in a beautiful floral pattern in bone china complimented the setting.
When the woman left, Jace turned to Clare and asked, “Did you use this room often to entertain, Clare?”
Clare smiled. “Nope, Constance wasn't into formal lunch and dinners she preferred her favourite restaurant and the informality it gave away from the office. To be honest, it's usually only used for very special occasions. I can count on one hand how many times it was used in the ten years I worked here. Maybe Catherine has resurrected the old traditions. I must say it makes you feel kind of special…doesn't it.” She glanced at the menu, which had two choices of starter, main meal and dessert.
Lisa, overhearing the conversation grinned before piping in, “I agree with Clare. It feels like we should be all dressed up.”
Jake snorted. This kind of formal lunch and dinner was part of the London set he was involved in or had been. He agreed with Clare. It did make people feel special, and in his mind, it should be used more than it was. Especially when you had a big client in, or, in Xianthos' case, a major author to be wowed.
Kevin Victor was silent as he continued to look at the portrait of the family dynasty that had created the company. His gaze caught by the dominant almost overbearing image of Stewart Devonshire.
Jace had to chuckle as she looked down at her attire. “Believe me, I'm as dressed up as I want to be. I can't remember the last time I went to this trouble.”
A voice from the open doorway quietly said, “I can.” Catherine entered the room and walked over to the table that had been set for lunch. “Lunch will be served in a few minutes.” She glanced around and saw the menu at each place setting. “Good, have you already chosen or is Andrea waiting for me?”
Jace didn't speak all she could do was gaze at Catherine. When she'd seen her earlier she looked wiped, but now she looked even worse with the circles under her eyes heavier than before. “She didn't take any selections. I suspect she was waiting for you.”
Catherine caught Jace's green all seeing eyes when it came to her and nodded. “Fine, she'll be back in a moment or two then. I thought before we got down to business we'd eat first if that's ok with everyone?”
Jace knew it wasn't a question really. It was more of a directive and hoped the others in the room, Clare and Kevin in particular, weren't intimidated. The kids knew Catherine's ways much as she did.
+ + +
Two hours later, replete from the delicious meal not to mention the younger ones chatter it had been a nice way to spend an extended lunch as Catherine saw it.
“Why isn't there a portrait of your brother Catherine?” Lisa asked as she'd seen Catherine's eye's transfer from her father to her mother. It almost looked as if she was communicating with them.
Jace sucked in a silent breath at her eldest daughter's question and waited. She'd like to know the answer too. It had puzzled her when she entered the room and didn't see the young man's portrait.
Catherine didn't reply immediately as her gaze swung from the portraits of her parents to Lisa and her frank innocent question.
“My father had the portrait of my mother in his office, when he died I moved it here along with his. The executive board had a portrait of me commissioned for the anniversary of my father's birthday, the first year I took over after his death. My brother's portrait is in the lake house my father owned in New Jersey .”
In all the years they'd been together, Catherine had never mentioned a lake house. Maybe she sold it but surely not a personal portrait of her beloved brother. Not that she could say anything for that was almost ten years before she met Catherine. The slight hesitation and quiet tone that Catherine used to explain still held pain of memories she still had difficulty with. Jace suspected she always would.
Lisa openly gushed, “Cool, I bet he was handsome if he looked anything like you.”
Catherine nodded. “He was handsome and much better looking than I ever could be. Now we've finished lunch who wants to start on why I have the pleasure, and I say that with tongue in cheek until I hear the facts, of having my eldest children arrive unexpectedly.”
Jace had been about to speak when she stopped and listened carefully–Catherine wasn't interested in her, Clare or Kevin at that moment. She wanted to know about Lisa and Jake and Jace remained silent for she wanted to know too.
Clare stood. “Kevin, want me to show you around…if that's ok with you Catherine? Just a quick tour none of the sensitive areas.”
Catherine smiled at Clare. She'd always liked her from the first day they'd met and had a rather interesting conversation about promotion in the company when she'd come back for a short time. It was the same year she'd met Jace. She sighed at the memory that was bitter sweet in lots of ways. They'd had a tough start and even today things were never that easy though they should be and it was probably all her obstinate fault.
“Is it ok Catherine?” Clare asked again as she waited for a reply.
Catherine shook herself mentally and saw all eyes in the room on her. That would teach her to get lost in old memories. “Sure go for it. See my secretary for authorization badges. Clare as far as I'm concerned there's nothing sensitive in my company that you can't see. You own part of it remember.”
Clare beamed at the words. It was a trust that she knew she'd earned many years ago but things did change but obviously not that. “Will do. Come on, Kevin, you'll love this.” She verbally dragged the man out of his chair and they left the room.
Catherine steepled her fingers together and inadvertently cracked the knuckles and gave Jace an apologetic look. She knew how her partner hated that. “Ok who's first?”
Lisa swallowed sure she would have to go first–it had always been the case from day one with her and Jake. However, she was surprised when his deeper voice spoke up.
“The company let me go and I figured that I might be of help. Some say I'm pretty good at what I do.” Jake announced his gaze never wavered from Catherine's intense scrutiny.
“I'd offer you a post here any day of the week Jake you know that. Is that what you want?” Catherine asked.
Jake considered the carefully chosen words and pulled at his lip. “Yes, you've done so much for me I want to help you if I can. You know what I'm capable of so put me to work where I can do the most good.”
It was true Catherine did know what he was capable of she'd followed his career path in silent pride. The London job was a strategic move that should have been the catalyst to pushing his reputation into the top tier. So why did they let him go?
“I don't want you to work here because you think you owe me something son. I love you you're as much a son to me as one I could have had biologically. I want you to be happy in what you do and not saddle yourself with a guilt complex. What about your fiancé does she approve this move?”
“There is no fiancé,” Jake coldly stated.
Jace gasped in shock and Lisa felt a sense of exhilaration at the news. When she looked at the sad expression on Jake's face, she felt a little shamefaced.
“Because of losing your job? Or, did you lose it after your break up? Her father is a shareholder isn't he?” Catherine inwardly seethed. If there was an iota of truth in what she had just said then by god she'd make it her business to shut that firm down.
Jake's face pulled into a tight expression. “That's my business Catherine. Do you want my help or not? If not, I'll go back home and find work.”
Catherine felt proud of her son. Not that she wasn't always but at that moment, he had defined his own path and he was right, his personal affairs had nothing to do with her. “Ok, you're too good to go to any competitor of mine. Good to have you on board Jake.”
Catherine's gaze switched to Lisa who was still taking in Jake's news. “Now princess what's your story?”
Lisa bit her lip and then drew in a deep breath as she blurted, “You've both said to us that we have to chose her own path that no one else can do that for us. Well, I want to go on the race circuit for a year or so and do what I love.”
Both parents were speechless as they stared at Lisa in shock.
Jace was the first to speak. “What about your new shop and all the work you've done to achieve what you have, Lisa? You can't be serious.”
Lisa gave Jace a pained expression. “Lance and Patty are going to keep the shop open. I can still do some of the work but not stay in the shop all day. I'll still practice my profession Jace but I need to do this. It's in my blood and until I get it out of my system I can't settle down.”
“I disagree.” Jace was adamant as she stood up and with her frustration at her daughter mounting. She turned to Catherine and said, “You tell her she can't do this! Forbid her to do it Catherine…she could get herself killed.”
Lisa stood up to face the woman she knew as her mom from the age of eight. The woman had replaced her own mother and had loved and taken care of her ever since. Surely, she could see that it was what she had to do. Initially she'd expected this kind of triad from Catherine but Jace with such an outburst was unheard of.
Catherine saw the face off with the two women she loved. Interestingly enough, she had always known that Lisa was going to rebel at some stage. It seemed that now was her time.
“I can't forbid her Jace. She's old enough to know what she wants and needs to make her own way in life. If Lisa feels that her current path isn't right then at least being aware of that is important.”
Lisa closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer of thanks. “I won't get killed Mom I promise.”
Jace didn't look at her daughter. Instead, she glared at Catherine. “If anything happens to her so help me I'll never forgive you Catherine.” Then, Jace stormed out of the room.
There was a heavy silence between the three left standing in the room.
“That went well.” Catherine finally said. Then, with a tight smile, she looked at her children. “Hey look it will all work out. Jace is upset that's all…there's a lot going on right now. Why don't you both go to the apartment and rest up after your journey. I'll be home with Jace later and we can all have dinner together.”
Jake nodded grateful to get away. Jace hadn't looked happy and Catherine looked like she could do with a good night's sleep instead of having to deal with even more problems.
Lisa flung her arms around Catherine and whispered, “I'm sorry for causing trouble.”
Catherine hugged her tightly. “Don't be sorry…just keep your promise or I might end up dog meat.” Although she chuckled, she wasn't so sure it might not happen.
They left her shortly afterwards and she gave the debris of the meal a long hard look. The door opened and Rachel the waitress came in. “Can I clean up now, Mrs. Warriorson?”
“Yes, thank you, Rachel.” Catherine didn't move as the young woman self-consciously cleared away the plates and cutlery. Ten minutes later, Catherine was alone again. At that very moment, the idea of playing hooky was very appealing. She walked over to the portrait of her father and gently she traced the curve of his firm jaw and the grey moustache that he always sported. “Did you ever play hooky in your life Father? Somehow I hardly think so.” Then she moved to the opposite side of the room and the glowing countenance of her mother. “I wish you were here Mother. Right now, I need to save not only my business but my relationship with Jace and just talking to you would help. You always did understand me.”
There was no reply. It was foolish to think that her mother after all these years was going to speak up now from the grave. “Crap, I really am in trouble if I'm expecting you to appear and sort out the mess of my life. You know the older I get the more I wish I'd done some things differently. But, you can't change the past you can only move forward and that's exactly what I'm going to do.”
Her main task right now was to track Jace down and find out exactly what this ‘business' was all about.
+ + +
Jace had been so angry she rushed out of the Xianthos building and almost ran into the road. If it hadn't been for a young woman stealthily grabbing her arm at the last minute, she'd have gone under the wheels of a taxi that pulled out.
Profuse thanks later and a derisory look from the taxi driver had Jace carefully taking the pedestrian signals to the park on the corner of the block. It wasn't a big park by any means, but it served the purpose she was out of the claustrophobic atmosphere that had been strangling her. She'd been crazy to think that her plan was going to work. The news that Jake lost his job and he broke his engagement was disturbing although she had to admit her son could do so much better than Helen.
Lisa had upset her the most. As far as she was concerned, what her daughter wanted to do–race around in one of those powerful go-kart type machines was far too dangerous. It could cost her life. “Did she even think of that?”
Racing had always made her nervous and now what Lisa wanted to do made her downright sick to the stomach. “How can Catherine approve such a change in lifestyle?”
Taking a seat on the only free bench, she sat down heavily. It was hard enough to communicate with Catherine without these bombshells that sent her into even more turmoil. The more Jace thought about what she'd said in a moment of emotional anger, the more she regretted it. She'd never blame Catherine if anything happened to Lisa. However, now that she said the words they would always be there coming out to haunt her if the situation did go wrong.
Gazing at the neatly row on row of consecutive blooms in the park creating a geometric pattern, she felt a little more settled and though it was probably because it was outside in a larger open space. She smiled slightly as she recalled Catherine's moans about big cities and her gentle chiding that it couldn't be that bad.
Concentrating her gaze on the Xianthos building itself, it was much like others around it–dominating the skyline. Except, this one held the love of her life in its clutches and she wondered if finally the good luck they'd been blessed with since meeting had finally run out. On reflection, there had been that terrible shooting and kidnap attempt in the early days and then of course Lisa's kidnapping from the apartment here. Ah, that was why she was upset those terrible memories . Then, Hudson, her old boss, attempted to kill the whole family in Greece , and then finally her parents and sister were in involved in another incident with that boy Luke Cruisal. That was the final straw of Lucy's hate campaign against Catherine. Her sister blamed Catherine for it all. She laughed derisively. How could she believe that there life together had been good.
“There are good things…we got together against the odds. We've been blessed with five children although at times that's debatable.” Jace's thoughts travelled to her daughter Elena who was in Italy visiting with her father and his family. The more she thought of good things the more her mind created negative emotions. When she looked back on the last five years, she realized it wasn't easy bringing up a family. They both kind of accepted that when the other was away they would take over the role completely. She closed her eyes and tried to think if there ever a time in recent years that they were home together and having some private time.
Jace let out a low groan unaware that an elderly man in shabby, but well fitting clothing had settled on the bench next to her.
“For such a pretty young thing that was a mighty heavy sigh.”
Caught in surprise, Jace turned to the voice and saw a wizened man that reminded her of a homeless person. His clothes were patched in places and his shoes were covered in mud. His features were heavily lined and the pale grey of his eyes only extenuated his age. The smile he gave her was in total contrast. His teeth were pearly white and she chuckled inside knowing she'd have her work cut out for her to have teeth as white.
“I was thinking.”
The old man nodded and pulled at the string that laced his jacket together. “I've done a fair bit of that in my time…although these days I leave the thinking to others.”
“Do you live around here?” Jace asked.
A flash of white made Jace smile as the old man answered, “I've lived on this block for sixty-three years. I've seen them come and I've seen them go but old Joe sticks around. I always will until it's my time.”
Jace smiled. It was something about those that were less fortunate then herself that called to her heart. “I bet you've seen a lot of changes over the years and people too.”
“I have,” he said nodding. “Take that building you were staring at. A publisher owns it now and I believe it's in dire straits…so they say on the streets. I remember when I first came to the city it was after we won the war against that bastard Hitler.” The old man stopped speaking as if lost in memories of long ago.
“How old are you Joe? You can't have been in the army at that time…surely you look too young for that.” Jace was fascinated at the history that was within everyone's' grasp if only they took the time to see listen.
Joe grinned and his teeth shone out. “I'm celebrating my eightieth year on Friday missy. I was in the army. I lied about my age. Private Joseph Pettigrew at your service.” He moved his head as if donning a cap and smiled warmly at Jace.
“Wow, how old were you when you joined up?”
“Fifteen it was over in two years but I saw a little action in Europe . Got to give them Brits a medal…they stopped that German monster from taking over the world. Yes, they were interesting times.” Joe Pettigrew sighed sadly.
“You said you knew who had the building across the street before the publisher…who was that, Joe?” Jace found talking about something totally different than her own problems cathartic.
“I did. Lassiter was the name and insurance was his game.” The words seemed to rhyme from the old man as he grinned at her. “I worked for the company for twenty-five years before the son lost everything gambling in Vegas. Hot-headed young man his father would have been turning in the grave. When the publisher came, he took on as many staff as he could and I did work for him until his daughter took over. She streamlined when business wasn't so hot and I along with a few others had to go. Five of the original workers who came from the old insurance company are still working there. I suspect they'll be retiring soon. Probably just as well… the reports say that it might close its doors soon…what with the recession and all.” Joe sighed heavily.
Jace felt guilty at making the old man sad and she instinctively placed her hand on the worn thin coat he wore. “I don't see any houses around here, Joe, where exactly do you live”
The old man chuckled. “Why you're sitting on my bed right now missy.”
“You mean you don't have proper shelter at night? What about food?” Jace felt her irrational anger rise once more against her partner–this was all her fault.
“Oh don't fret missy… believe me I'm well taken care of. There's one or two of us who live here and truth be told it's like one of those swanky gated community properties we get locked in at night all safe and sound like.”
Jace had to chuckle at that observation. There was an appeal to living out in the open–hadn't she in part wanted to feel the breeze rather than the artificial air she was exposed to in the building. “I have to go, Joe. Perhaps I'll see you around here again?”
The old man nodded. “I'd be happy to talk to you again missy.”
“Bye. Joe. take care of yourself.” Jace shook the old man's hand and began to walk away then she turned and smiled warmly at him. “I'm in town for a few weeks…if I have the time I'll bring coffee next time.”
“I take mine black.” Joe grinned with a smile almost as dazzling as the sun.
“Black it is then.” This time, Jace didn't look back. She had to do what she set out to do and try to help Catherine if not for them then for all the others that might lose their jobs. Catherine had been right–sometimes you had to look at the bigger picture. She'd forgotten that over the years and meeting Joe was a timely reminder.
+ + +
Jake hailed a taxi and as it screeched to a halt, he stowed away the two bags that he and Lisa had brought with them in the trunk. He glanced up to see Lisa's auburn hair in the back of the car–it felt comforting in a weird kind of way. Climbing in next to her, he gave the address of Catherine's apartment to the driver and they sped off into the traffic.
“That was some bombshell you hit the parents with Lisa…are you serious?” Jake asked an uncharacteristically silent Lisa.
Lisa didn't comment immediately. When she turned to him, she said, “As serious as you are about working for Catherine.”
Jake blew out a breath. He wasn't actually sure that taking a position offered to him by Catherine was what he wanted to do forever. For the short term, it was good. “I guess we both gave them a shock. On top of everything else that's happening, our timing could have been better.”
“I think they're going to split up,” Lisa said blandly.
“Who…Catherine and Jace…you've got to be kidding? It's not possible.” Jake knew something was wrong at home but he refused to believe they were splitting up.
Lisa remained silent as the car began to edge into the main road.
Jake frowned and placed a hand on Lisa's arm. “It won't happen, Lisa, they love each other…they'll work it out.”
A tear dropped onto Jake's hand as Lisa moved her head fractionally. She whispered, “Things change Jake just look at us.”
“Not that kind of thing. Lisa... trust me.” He'd had his fill of emotional entanglements. His break-up with Helen had been acrimonious to say the least. Instinctively, he pulled Lisa to his shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “I give you my word. They'll be back on Destiny blissfully happy before you know it.”
Lisa didn't reply for she felt safe nestled in Jake's hard shoulder. Her heart spoke, “Please don't ever leave me Jake.”
+ + +
Catherine inwardly seethed as she dragged a hand through her hair. The day bordered on nightmare in some ways and pretty good in others. There was one thing that wasn't working out and that was her relationship with Jace. It was crazy. With the misunderstandings that were occurring, it was almost as if they'd never been together at all. At times, she felt lost in a fog regarding Jace's moods–hers weren't any better. She had security check the building when she hadn't found Jace nearby after leaving the dining area–there was no sign of her.
“I understand her misgivings over Lisa's choices but she could have been less vocal about it. It only made someone like Lisa that much more determined to do it. Hell, it used to do that me when I was her at age.”
Flipping the folder that Cynthia had complied open, she stared down at the four company names–she never heard of any of them. Perhaps Raleigh is right. Maybe I'm too old fashioned and I don't know the business well enough to run it anymore. The thought didn't upset her as she thought it might.
Her internal phone buzzed and she answered it automatically. Seconds later, she was out of her chair and dragging open the door–Jace stood in the middle of the outer room.
Composing herself to a degree that didn't allow outsiders to see how wired she was, Catherine schooled her features. “I believe you have a business proposition you wanted to pass by me.”
“I do,” Jace replied quietly.
Catherine said, “Cynthia, hold all my calls and anything else that might want my attention until this ‘business' is completed.” Catherine waved to the open door and watched Jace walk toward her. Catherine stepped back into her office and Jace followed.
“Take a seat, Jace.” Catherine didn't really want her to take a seat. She wanted to wrap her arms around her wife and kiss her until they were both breathless–she'd wanted to do that from the moment she saw Jace in the reception area.
Jace blew out a breath. “I'll stand thanks.”
Catherine took a seat behind her desk, picked up a pen, and began twirling it between her fingers to counter the sudden jolt of nervousness she felt. “As you wish. I guess you'd better tell me why you're here…it obviously isn't why I thought you came.”
Interested, Jace asked, “Why did you think I was here?” She was finding it hard not to stop the foolhardy distance between them and just beg Catherine to kiss her and then everything would be o kay again.
“It really doesn't matter. Let's get to business shall we. What is it I can do for you?”
The coldness of the words had Jace's heart stutter for a second and then she softly replied, “It's more what I can do for you or rather we can. Clare, Kevin and I.”
“Go for it?”' Catherine was fascinated on how Jace, who had never worked in this industry ever could possibly help. Perhaps Clare could. The younger man was a mystery.
Jace felt her lips go dry and moistened them with the tip of her tongue, feeling Catherine's eyes on the action. It made her weak in the knees. “Jake told me what was going on here and I figured if you would allow it we could do some internal digging for you. Clare knows a lot of people still from her time here and she was well liked and respected. Kevin is a computer geek he's been head hunted by the best but can't decide what he wants to do. I figured since you've had a computer breach he could be very useful.”
Catherine could see Clare being a great asset and if the kid was as good as Jace was making out he might be the answer to the problem she currently he had–if he could be trusted. “And, your role in all this?”
This time Jace didn't reply immediately because her main reason had been to be there for Catherine. She wanted to be by her side and provide a sounding board if she needed it. Now, she suspected that the Benedict woman had effectively taken on that part. “I was good with people and finding resources. It was long time ago, that's true. Perhaps, there's a niche for me that can help in that department. I'm a pretty good character assessor.”
There was silence in the room for a short time as Catherine contemplated the talents on offer. It was a tempting package and she'd certainly consider it in depth. “I'll let you know tomorrow.”
Jace frowned before she asked, “That's it?”
“What did you expect me to do bite your hand off at the offer of more personnel that can screw up what already is a sensitive arena. You know me well enough to recall I don't make impulsive decisions.” Catherine remarked as she gazed at the pen twirling around between her fingers.
Agitated, Jace asked, “You think this is impulsive?”
“Of course…impulsive is your middle name Jace we both know that. By the way, what have you done with the twins,” Catherine asked curtly.
This time Jace felt her anger flow even stronger. She sarcastically said, “Did you think I was that impulsive that I just left them alone to fend for themselves?”
“Right now, I don't know what to think about you. I asked you to come here with me you categorically vetoed that. Then, I find out you and the vicar are exploring more than religious learning's.”
“That is absolutely uncalled for Catherine and you know it. You have yet to allow me a moment of your precious time to explain that situation and from the way you're talking that will never happen.”
“We'll table that for when you can throw something at me for being inconsiderate shall we?” Catherine watched Jace's frustration mount and a part of her relished a fight it might finally clear the stagnant air that was surrounding them.
Jace shrieked, “I can't believe you said that. I've been worried about you, about what's happening to the family. I came here and asked Grace to help me out with the kids until we know everything is o kay . All you do is throw it in my face. Isn't that like the pot calling the kettle black?”
“At least I know the younger kids are safe. Grace will take care of them.” The more she heard the anger in Jace's voice the more she felt it fuelled her own frustration in their current predicament.
“That's it! It's over I'm out of here. If you decide to take up my offer let me know by nine tomorrow or we all go home.” Jace stormed out of the office and for effect slammed the door hard behind her.
Catherine watched the display in fascination and a part of her was turned on. Jace had never looked so beautiful in full anger mode. As the door shut behind her, Catherine realised that she didn't know how to contact Jace unless she appeared at the apartment–that was unlikely. Standing, she walked over to the door and opened it hoping Jace might still be there so they could talk…really talk–she wasn't.
Cynthia looked up and smiled at her boss. “Ms. Bardley left this for you.” The woman offered her a business card.
Catherine took it and peered at the details, It was a hotel card, one of the high end ones but not the luxury she would have chosen for Jace if she knew she wasn't going to be at the apartment. Flicking over to the back, she saw the faint scrawl of Jace's handwriting, it was the room number.
“What time is it Cynthia?”
“Fifteen after three. Can I get you anything?”
“Yes, I want you to locate Clare Fallon and Kevin Victor and have them come to my office. Oh, and tea, it looks like I have another heavy day still ahead me.”
Returning to her office she looked at the card again and smiled., “I'll call you when you've calmed down Jace. My god are you sexy in a rage.”
+ + +
Raleigh Benedict surveyed the street below from her office window. It afforded her a vast bird's eye view of the buildings surrounding hers along with the people walking below. Being on the twenty-fifth floor, they were nothing more than matchstick like figures so she was unable to decipher who the people were. They moved like ants at certain times of the day. Pretty much like an ant farm that she had knowledge of from the fifth grade.
Her perusal of the street was cut short with a knock on the door and it being opened slowly. A woman in her thirties with bleached blonde curly hair appeared. “I have that information for you Raleigh.”
“Hey Gina thanks. Before you just leave it on the desk as I know you were going to, what's your professional opinion?” Raleigh asked with a genuine smile.
Gina Rand flicked her brown gaze at the folder she carried. A warm expression crossed her face as she considered the question. “I'd rather we did the work but I can see that waiting a few weeks isn't a smart option. Taylor Enterprises are the best of the bunch. They have a set of geeks that are highly recommended for sensitive information…we've used them before. I'd personally consider using insiders from the company…I assume nothing is available.”
Raleigh frowned. Gina was the head of the IT division and if things had been less tight, she'd have asked the woman personally to do the job but it wasn't an option. If they wanted to catch whoever was creating the mayhem at Xianthos by siphoning off funds, they had to strike now.
“According to Warriorson no one inside is available.”
“Do you trust her? She might be involved up to her neck and leading you away from the source.”
“I've considered that. Working as closely with the woman has I have in the past few weeks I'd stake my reputation and say she's not involved.” Raleigh nodded as if agreeing with her own conclusion.
Gina Rand also nodded. “Well, you know your own business Raleigh . I've got to go. The fraud department has been on my tail continuously for the past five days on the Demarco case. Want to catch up for coffee tonight at the usual place?”
“Can't, I'm going to have to work tonight. I'll take a raincheck though. Thanks again Gina.”
“You're welcome Raleigh , see you later.”
The door closed softly behind the departing IT manager. Leaving Raleigh to contemplate her street view below then turned to her desk and picked up her phone dialling a number she knew by heart. After waiting through several rings she ended up on voice mail and spoke rapidly, “I know you might have other plans, however, we need to meet up tonight. I'll book us a table at Remo's for eight. Don't be late Cat.” She disconnected the call and opened the folder on her desk that Gina had supplied her with.
+ + +
Jace returned to the hotel suite she'd booked and as she opened the door she looked around it became almost claustrophobic. Everything was in its place the bed made the furniture tidy, a bowl of fruit was the centre piece to the table, with four chairs. Walking inside she felt the pressure of the last few hours and in particular seeing Catherine again. She had the overwhelming feeling that another barrier that had come down between them.
When Catherine left home, they'd at least said ‘I love you'. At Xianthos, there was no emotional display of love–they could have been strangers. All she'd wanted to do was help. She'd thought that it would please Catherine. Obviously she was way off target once again.
Her steps took her to the entertainment system and she switched on the radio and tuned it immediately to an oldies station. The singer was familiar, but the name eluded her as she listened intently to the lyrics. The more she heard the more she realised it could have been written for her. Then the singer's name came to her. It was Judy Garland and the song was ‘Smile'. Sure as the tears fade you, smile. She'd been doing that all day. She wanted was those tears to flow and allow her to mourn the passing of what she thought was her future with Catherine.
The phone rang and she automatically answered it. “Yes?”
That voice could melt any of her resolutions and it did there and then everything was open even her heart to more heartache. “Catherine, I wasn't expecting you to call me.”
“I know, look have dinner with me. I won't take no for an answer.”
Catherine's words washed over her as she contemplated a romantic dinner and clearing the air so they could go back to what they did best together…love. “Does that mean I have no choice?” Jace heard the heavy breath blow out from Catherine.
“No, you have the choice. Jace will you please have dinner with me this evening.”
The softly spoken words didn't fall on deaf ears. “I will, where?”
There was a heavy silence at the other end of the line then Catherine spoke again, “I'll be at the hotel at six…is that too early?”
“No, that's perfect, until six then.”
The call ended shortly afterwards and Jace cradled the receiver to her chest. Judy Garland was right–a smile worked every time.
+ + +
Catherine felt like the cat who'd stolen into a creamery as she finished an impromptu meeting with her senior executives. The only one worth their salt in her mind after listening to them whinge and whine for the last couple of months had been Gwen Franks the accounting executive for mergers and acquisitions. Catherine had watched her closely as she'd toiled often for long hours into the night helping her and Raleigh correlate the information that might, just might, finally vindicate her and her company. Initially, the woman had been fearful of what could happen if she was in the mess once the IRS sent in Raleigh . However, the two women had worked surprisingly well together.
It left, of course, the other two executives, who had initially balked at helping Raleigh and if obstacles could be placed in her path, they'd done so. Perversely thinking it would help the company cause–it hadn't.
John Carson her most senior executive who prized himself on his suave and often to Catherine's mind glib talking, had the auspicious marketing and sales under his wing. In recent months, their profits had plummeted and even some of their most stalwart authors had been voicing that they might go elsewhere with their creations if things didn't pick up. His expensive suits and aftershave wouldn't save him when she had the luxury of reviewing appointments in the future. For the last four weeks he'd gone out of town on a sales trip the report she'd received from the other Xianthos operations he'd visited around the world hadn't been complementary. He'd done nothing but bemoan the current economic depression and that things were changing in Xianthos but not for the better.
That kind of talk would be leaked sooner rather than later and it had their worth in the market place was gradually being eroded along with the money that still trickled in obscene numbers from the company. She'd curtailed his travel plans and told him that unless he brought in credible stats on sales he could look elsewhere for employment.
That left Shaun Roberts, who controlled the operating part of the organization. His fingers were in so many pies that Catherine had groaned at the effort of trying to equate them all to the mild mannered shy man who rarely spoke during meetings.
Once she'd fathomed exactly what he did, she found that he might not talk much but his work in the operation certainly spoke volumes for his professional attitude. He was one of those people who you needed to look closely at to understand that there was a gifted individual under the rock. Raleigh seemed to have a soft spot for him too and why not, he was perhaps not handsome for his face was too long much like a horse, with a large flaring nose. She'd covered for his miss management of her initial visits calling it stress related. Perhaps she was right.
Her news to them had been concise and set in stone. She'd told them that a consulting team was arriving in the morning and they would have access to whatever they wanted…particularly the IT professionals.
John Carson had turned red, wanting desperately to speak out in outrage at even more interference. hHe did eventually find his tongue.
“Does this mean that you don't trust us? Isn't it enough of a blow that we are being investigated. Who are these people anyway?”
Catherine knew he'd be the one to voice his opinion. She could have placed a side bet on that and won easily.
“You might recognize one of them. Clare Fallon, she used to be…”
“Oh please, she was a secretary and sleeping with the boss. How can she consult for god's sake?” Carson derided the woman's talent.
Internally Catherine seethed but she held her breath for a few short seconds and then replied, “Clare will be foremost helping Ms Reynolds and I and anyone who has that access becomes a part of me. They are my eyes and ears. Besides, she owns a part of this corporation and as a shareholder she had every right to check the situation. Can you say to have the same interests John?”
John Carson scowled heavily, his boyish face showing the lines of his forty-five years. “I wasn't aware she was a shareholder. I thought you…”
“Something else you don't know then, John. I guess you need to stay in the office more instead of socialising on my money and understanding my business in more depth.” The scathing remark sent a wave throughout the room.
Finally, from the cold silence, Shaun Roberts quietly asked, “Who else can we expect?”
Catherine gave him an assessing glance then nodded. “Kevin Victor. He's an IT whiz kid. He of all the consultants will have access to every piece of information he requests immediately. There will be no delays.” She fixed them with a glare. “Do you all understand me?”
“You're putting a kid in charge of our information technology? We have a good people here?” Carson splutteredt.
“That kid apparently is being sought after by some of the biggest computer companies in the world so don't be surprised if he isn't the Bill Gates of the next decade.”
John Carson sighed heavily. “Is that it?”
Catherine debated her answer for a few seconds then shook her head. “No, there is one more in the team you'll meet her tomorrow.”
The executives looked bemused as Catherine motioned that the meeting was finished.
It had been an interesting meeting. She'd hoped it would be one-sided but Carson couldn't hold his tongue no matter how hard he tried–he'd have to go. Her meeting with Clare and Kevin Victor had been interesting. She knew Clare's abilities and welcomed the woman's lighter personality in her outer office. Cynthia Reynolds was exemplary professionally but a smile was rare. If Clare brought that lightness back into her office area then she was worth more than anyone else on her staff. Kevin Victor was an unknown to her professionally. She studied the letters and qualifications he'd handed her and from the accolades he'd received from college and companies he'd worked in for his degrees saw he was every bit the whiz kid. Her one question–could he do it–could he help end this nightmare.
The young man didn't say much except for one word. “Yes.”
That was all she wanted to hear and told them both she'd see them at nine in the morning. They'd wondered where Jace was but she'd warded that off by saying she needed some personal time and that tonight over dinner she'd discuss things with Jace and finalise the arrangements.
Her call to Jace had been the icing on the cake and she couldn't help the smile, which had formed on her lips talking to Jace, from remaining long after the call ended.
Cynthia Reynolds knocked on her door and the woman entered. “You left your cell phone in the dining room and catering have just sent it up.”
Catherine thanked her and looked at the screen there were several messages on it and one was from Raleigh Benedict. She listened too it immediately and for once she had wished she hadn't. “Crap what do I tell Jace?”
Her upbeat mood disintegrated as she sighed heavily as she wondered if she would ever catch a break.
+ + +
Jace felt her heartbeat increase at each uneven movement of the elevator has it moved down toward the lobby of the hotel. Thankfully the elevator was empty it gave her the chance to purse her lips and check her lipstick and flick the stray hair that had moved out of place, in the shining stainless steel that enclosed her. Her thoughts full of first time she and Catherine had met in a hotel lobby. It had been fifteen years ago...
(Extract from the novel Define Destiny)
Looking around the lobby, Jace saw the woman who would always hold her attention no matter where she was or what she as doing. The tall, dark, and quite intoxicatingly beautiful Catherine was only yards away from her, and she felt the magnetic pull of attraction acutely. Walking over to Catherine, Jace smiled at the anxious look she saw on her love's profile. “You know if you keep that expression on your face much longer it's going to stay for good and mar that beautiful face,” Jace said. She saw Catherine's back tense.
Turning, Catherine drank in the lovely sight that appeared like a spectre to her. It had seemed so unattainable, yet it was within her grasp at last. “Have you been talking to Grace recently?” Catherine nonchalantly replied belying the true feelings coursing through her veins.
“Hello, Catherine,” Jace said. Her eyes never left the ice blue gaze she had longed for.
“Hello, Jace.” Catherine couldn't stop herself from putting out a hand and gently touching Jace's cheek. She is definitely real.
Jace was entranced. This was the woman she had professed her heart and soul to, and all she wanted to do was drown in the emotions of being with her again. “I love you, Catherine.” Her voice cracked emotion.
Smiling, Catherine gently grasped one of Jace's hands and pulled it towards her lips. “I love you more than life itself, Jace.” The emotional charge around them was electric.
They stood there totally absorbed in each other not wanting to move.
“Where do you want to have supper?” Catherine asked as her ice blue gaze tracked green eyes.
“Supper, you're hungry?” Jace asked her in frustration.
“Well, there are alternatives to that, of course. What would you prefer to do?” Catherine gave her a cautious look.
Jace saw the guarded look and decided that having a meal was a start. “Okay, we'll have dinner. How about at my place?”
Catherine's smile changed to a grin. “Maybe tomorrow. How about we have a meal here and we talk? What do you say?”
“Well, I guess we can, but wouldn't you rather go back to my place?” Jace asked.
Catherine saw the disappointment on Jace's face and dipped her head to place a tender kiss on Jace's lips. “Patience, my friend, patience. Let's have something for dinner first.” She then gently took the younger woman's arm and guided her towards the hotel restaurant.
Jace savoured the feel of Catherine's lips on hers. Without any shadow of a doubt, tonight is going to exceed all my expectations.
(Extract from the novel Define Destiny)
Where had the time gone? The memory had been sweet and she hoped that the events tonight would end up the same way. Except for one thing, of course she'd learnt her lesson well that day all those years ago and this time they would talk. The elevator stopped in a jolt that hadn't been particularly sudden and her stomach jerked at the action. Breathing in deeply she adjusted the coral cocktail dress she wore, a simple a-line with a suggestion of bosom showing, as the doors slid open.
Jace walked with a confident gait and a smile touching her full lips. As always, her eyes scanned for a tall beautiful woman with the most compelling blue gaze and found Catherine immediately. She was standing quietly with her back turned watching the street. In seconds, she was at Catherine's elbow.
“Hi, sorry to keep you waiting.” She wasn't sorry but the words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them. For some ridiculous reason her nerves were racing inside her body.
Turning at the voice, Catherine smiled her eyes piercing Jace's green gaze deliberately with a sensual gaze that scorched a path to both women's heart.
“You're not late.” Catherine's gaze moved to the dress and the generous curves it enclosed and she felt that rush of sexual adrenalin Jace always created inside her. Then her smile dropped slightly as she saw the effort her partner had made–her next conversation wouldn't go down well. “You look beautiful but then you always do to me.”
Jace had taken a moment to make her own appraisal of Catherine. Clearly she was still in the same clothes she wore at work indicating that she probably come straight from the office. Looking closely at Catherine's face she saw that it was drawn and had an ageing quality to it. It was obvious that the stress of her current situation was clearly taking its toll on her lover.
“I guess we have a mutual appreciation society because that's what I think about you.”
“Jace, dinner this evening…”
Jace held up her hand. “If you're tired Catherine we can have a snack here and take it to my room…we can talk there.”
The temptation to say screw you Raleigh was great. The opportunity to be alone with Jace and have her voice sooth away her problems if only for a few hours was enticing…but. She knew they we so close to proving her innocent of the accusations and preventing her company from failing altogether. She didn't dare take the chance of ignoring Raleigh 's request for dinner and pissing her off.
“It isn't that Jace. Raleigh Benedict the IRS agent called me and set up dinner–a business dinner. I can't say no…it's too important.”
There was a strained silence as Jace found the words hard to digest never mind understand. Darn you Catherine, I bet it isn't business it's that woman who calls you Cat. Finally, she found her voice and croaked out, “You're dumping me for a…a…stranger?”
The words sounded incredulous to both women and seemed to float between them bouncing off their inner ears. The reverberations created different nuances for each.
“It isn't like that Jace. Look we can have dinner tomorrow. In fact…”
“Don't! Don't you dare place me second in your list of things to do! I will not be treated that way…ever.” Jace felt the tear welling in her eyes, but wouldn't let that happen. She needed to make her stand and right now even as abhorrent as it was in a public place.
Catherine felt the weariness that had been threatening to engulf her for some days now finally take a hold–she closed her mind and body to further stress. She'd work it all out tomorrow even if she had to kidnap Jace to do it.
With Catherine's silence, Jace became even more enraged. She hissed, “As of now, Catherine, until you're out of this mess everything between us will be business. When it's over…well I'm not sure right now if there will be an ‘us' anymore.” Jace swung around and moved speedily to the elevator indicating to the young man to hold the doors for her. She was gone in a swish of heavy steel doors closing behind her.
Catherine stood rooted to the spot unable to decide what to do next. Her heart told her one thing her mind the other–her mind won–it it always did in this kind of situation. Dejectedly, she exited the lobby, hailed a taxi, and left for her dinner with Raleigh . The one overriding thing in her mind–Raleigh would be dead meat if the meeting wasn't legitimate.
+ + +
Jake sat in the lounge of the apartment and looked toward the stars that glittered in the clear night sky. He was alone and thankful for it. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he saw it was ten after twelve. Lisa had retired shortly after ten. She looked all in and wouldn't hazard a guess at the number of times she yawned during their impromptu dinner.
He smiled as he thought of the bubbly young woman sleeping soundly in the room at the end of the corridor. Some things never changed. Lisa had always been gutsy, even as an eight year old, when he'd met her for the first time at the orphanage. Then they were shipped out of that place and into the life changing journey called Destiny.
Fifteen years of love and security had paid dividends and he knew that he'd never have the same opportunities had his birth parents still been alive. Over the years, he's speculated at what his life would have been like. Then Catherine had asked him one day when he was seventeen what was bothering him and he told her. In a meaningful conversation Catherine told him that parents don't chose his future for it was all up to him and the goals he set he set for himself. Success was measured in lots of ways and it wasn't all about how powerful or rich you were. He'd taken that ethos on board although knew that Catherine's powerful connections had opened doors not to mention the exclusive education her money had allowed for college. He wanted to be just like her.
That was the very reason he choose to make his life in London and attempt to make his own fortune albeit with a little help on the first rung of the ladder. He thought he'd achieved a reasonable amount of success in a short time through his own efforts–even down to the woman he loved and wanted to marry. His thoughts tripped to the woman he thought he wanted to share the rest of his life…
It all started to go wrong once he and Helen had arrived back in London . During the flight, he told her that Catherine and Jace weren't related by blood but by marriage, as in they were married to each other. He'd seen her expression change to one of distaste, but she hadn't said anything. He should have known things were wrong.
Helen had in the time he'd known her never been at a loss for words. When he'd called her the next day she was out and remained out to his calls for two weeks. When he finally went around to her apartment to track her down one of her house mates said they thought she was with her parents holidaying in the South of France. He waited it out, but the days dragged on and he knew in his heart that it was over. However, he needed to hear the words and know the why.
He didn't understand how love and being in love could be destroyed by the fact that others were in love. He'd never understood the mentality of people over his adopted parent's life together. Gradually people who gave them the chance found that their lives differed little from what was considered a ‘normal' marriage. They ate, slept, worked, and loved their families just the same. If that wasn't normal what was.
Eventually Helen arrived back in the city and he'd finally managed to corner her at a party of a mutual friend only five days earlier.
Jake had watched with jealousy and rising anger as Helen swagger around the room flirting with any single man there. Keeping discreetly in the background, he finally found an opportune moment when she went to the bar for a drink to ask what had been bugging him for a month.
Helen Banks turned to the voice and gave Jake a critical appraisal and a blank expression crossed her features effectively delegating him as a stranger. “I don't need to explain myself to you.”
Jake moved to within inches of the petite woman and wanted to shake her. His anger fuelled by her indifference. “We're engaged, Helen, and you walked out without a word for a month. What kind of relationship is that?”
“You and I are over, Jacob. I told Daddy that it was impossible.” Helen drank liberally from a glass of wine as she stared directly into his eyes–hers never faltered.
Unable to contain his inner anger any longer, Jake burst out, “Impossible?”
Helen visibly shrank back against a counter top at the pent up violence in that one word. “Yes, it's over, Jacob, now run along. I don't want you here…you cramp my style.”
Jake felt the words crashing around him as she effectively dismissed him as if he were a schoolboy. Taking a controlling breath, he slowly replied, “A few weeks ago you wanted to spend the rest of your life with me and suddenly I'm tossed into the garbage. Tell me why? I deserve that much, I took you home to meet my family what will they think.” Then he saw her expression change and knew, as he had deep down, the reason why. “You don't like what my parents lifestyle represents do you, Helen, that's it? It has nothing to do with me at all. Can you at least be honest about that?”
Helen gave him a half smile. “Jacob, face reality, people tolerate having the token gay friend, but in the family. My god Daddy would have a heart attack. Now, I need you to go home like a good little Kiwi and take what we had as a pleasant diversion. I know I will.” Helen moved away from the counter.
Jake felt the outrage of her attitude take control as he seized her arm in a vice-like grip. “You're nothing but a homophobic supercilious spoiled little rich girl. I'm better off without you.”
The conversation was so loud several people had gathered to listen and a round of applause greeted his words.
“You'll regret that, Jacob Patterson…big time,” Helen whispered in a tight voice as she pushed past him and the others watching.
Jake closed his eyes as he felt his heart breaking. He really had thought he was in love. What a fool he'd been. It was a mistake he wasn't going to make again–no woman was ever going to humiliated him like that again.
He heard the door to the apartment open, dragged himself out of his woeful thoughts, and switched on the table lamp.
The door to the room opened shortly afterwards and Catherine stood there looking bone weary. She gave him a genuine smile and it placed salve on his wounded heart.
“Hey you're late. That must have been some dinner with Jace.” He looked beyond his mother. “Where is she?”
Catherine's smile wavered slightly as she walked further into the room and over to the window. She strained hoping to see the stars above–there were none and that reflected her life. “I didn't have dinner with Jace.”
Jake frowned as he stood up and walked to stand next to her. “I thought…at least that was the message Lisa gave me. Work then…I take it.”
“Yes…it was work,” Catherine quietly responded.
Jake had often pondered the puzzle that was Catherine Warriorson. He wanted to be like her. his heroine in a world full of sharks or so he'd perceived as a child. Yet, it wasn't just as a child. Even now, as an adult, sharks of all descriptions surrounded him. Helen was a piranha. It was her father who delivered the biggest bite by pulling the rug from his budding career .He'd never forget that and one day there would be payback.
“Jace, didn't want to go with you? I thought she was here to help…why isn't she here with us anyway?”
Catherine turned with look of vulnerability etched deep into her features. Only those that knew her well could see that type of expression and understand it–or at least try to.
“Jace and I are having problems Jake. I'm sure you and Lisa have noticed. The sooner this business is over the sooner I can salvage my life with her.” She sighed. “If she allows me.”
“She loves you, Catherine. What's happening now is a blip on the landscape from some of the things that you've been through together over the years. Watch, tomorrow you'll be as thick as thieves again.” Jake wasn't convinced his words were true. He learned first hand that love has a way of turning nasty when least expected.
Catherine chuckled softly. “As thick as thieves…hmm. I'm not sure Jace would like to be tarred with that kind of brush. Now, tell me why you're here again?”
Jake remained silent for a few seconds then gave Catherine an intense look. “If I said it could wait until tomorrow because you look shattered would it work?”
“Absolutely not. I'm always tired these days…must be the fact that I'm getting older. Now spill young man and not about the job either I want to know how is it your suddenly a free man again.” Catherine walked over to the recliner and settled in relaxing slightly for the first time that day.
“Helen decided that we weren't suitable that's about it.”
Catherine watched the stiffening of his back and knew there was more to it than that. “I take it finding out that Jace and I were together didn't go down well. When did you eventually tell her?”
Jake swung around in surprise. “You knew I hadn't told her when we arrived? How?”
Catherine laughed sardonically. “I've been a freak show in one way or another for too many years not to notice when ignorance is bliss. Besides, I know the type of woman your Helen was. Shallow and full of her own sense of importance. She needed a hammer blow to take any notice of anyone else. Besides, I'd have expected her to stare occasionally…people do.”
“That's it, she shouldn‘t! What's so wrong with the love you and Jace have.”
The vehemence that exploded into the room had them both surprised.
“You can educate people to believe one thing but you can't change their hearts, Jake. This isn't the first time friends of yours have been upset about our lifestyle and it won't be the last. Although, I congratulate my son on having the balls to stand up and defend me and your mom. I guess saying that, you're better off without her wouldn't help?”
Jake shook his head. “It hurts, Catherine, it hurts real bad. I thought she loved me. How can you switch love off like that.”
Catherine sighed heavily and moved out of her chair to walk the few steps to the young man who was as tall as she was. Taking him in her arms, as she had several times when he was growing up, She hugged him close and whispered, “I know it does son. I know.”
Jake allowed the hurt and despair of his lost love wash over him allowing the tears he'd held back for weeks overtake him. Here, in this room with the one woman he knew he could do this with and it would never be spoken about he cried like a baby.
+ + +
Catherine allowed a satisfied smirk to cross her lips for a few seconds then it was gone. She watched Clare and Cynthia depart her office in what she thought was companionable terms. Cynthia had smiled at least. Clare was her usual bubbly self so that helped.
Kevin Victor remarkably had been impressed with Shaun Roberts and his status in the company, especially when they began to discuss the computer network at Xianthos. Catherine had been somewhat overwhelmed by the conversation although she hadn't let it show at least that's what she thought.
That left Jace, who if looks could kill, Catherine would have been dead at least ten times by now. It hadn't stopped that feeling of excitement, which clamoured to be free and take her wife in her arms and kiss her senseless.
Now, alone with Jace, she watched the side profile of her partner and considered her options. “I talked with Jake last night he was…”
“I'm not here to discuss our domestic problems. It's strictly business, Catherine. What is the role you want me to fill?” Jace asked with her chin jutted out determinedly as she continued to look down on the street below.
Domestic problems…that is all Jake is to her? The thought was positively frightening as was hearing Jace make such a comment.
“O kay , I have personnel problems. I wondered if you could take a look in that area. If I remember rightly, people are your thing.” You got through my bolted doors easily enough this should be a piece of cake. The stray thought made her smile and now she wished she hadn't as at that moment Jace turned and observed her expression.
Angry with the smile and what she thought was behind it, she lashed out and said, “You think I'm a joke? That I can't do anything to help you. Is placing me in HR in the best you can do?”
Catherine breathed in deeply. Her conversation with Jace wasn't going so well. Removing her glasses, she rubbed her eyes. She finally got to bed at one and was up and gone by six. Her first meeting scheduled for the morning was at seven-thirty and was tougher than she expected. It was now eight-fifty and she already felt like she'd completed a day's work.
“Whatever happened to all that energy I used to have?”
“What did you say?”
Catherine hadn't realised she'd spoken out loud. “Nothing. Look, Jace, HR is one of the most important roles in my companies. I've found in the last few weeks the old regime I used to have regarding how personnel, in particular executives to run my company, are selected is severely lacking. I was told it had something to do with political correctness crap and that doesn't wash with me. You're either good at what you do or you aren't…end of story.”
Jace took in a shaking breath perhaps she shouldn't have said what she did. She, more than anyone, knew that personnel could make or break you in business.
She recalled her meeting with the old man Joe Pettigrew and was unable to stop her scathing retort, “I thought you were the iron hand that controlled everything, Catherine, Surely a little thing like HR isn't a problem for you. Fire them…you've done it in the past.”
“I don't fire people indiscriminately, Jace. There is always a reason and I pride myself on it being fair.” She frowned slightly, replaced her glasses, and, looked at a folder on her desk. “I could propose you look at...”
The door to Catherine's office opened without any notice and Raleigh breezed into the room.
“Morning Cat, want to go over the stuff we never got time to discuss last night?” Her eyes suddenly caught the figure that had turned away from the picture window in the office to look in her direction. “Opps, sorry. I thought you despatched the new troops. I'll be back later say around nine-thirty.” Raleigh threw a file on Catherine's desk and turned to leave.
“ Raleigh stay.I'd like you to meet,” Catherine hesitated for a few moments then continued, “Jace Bardley the head of the consultation team I've hired. Jace, this is Raleigh Benedict the senior investigator for the IRS .”
In a blur, hands were shaken and polite greetings given.
Jace wanted to scream. Why hadn't Catherine told her that they were life partners? That surely was more important than any business consultation. Closing her eyes for a second, she resisted the urge to gouge the young woman's eyes out in frustration.
“Great, so you'll be our liaison for whatever your team correlates?”
“Yes, although we tend to express ourselves as individuals. It makes more sense especially from the IT professional.” Jace gaze never wavering from the brown warm eyes of the willowy spiky haired woman.
“You're going to do what exactly? Cat indicated last night it would probably be in HR. She needs fresh eyes in that area. Kind of old fashioned is our Cat here.” There was an expectant look in the brown eyes fully expecting Jace to just agree.
Inside Jace seethed. Cat this Cat that and they discussed me last night what else did they do together I wonder . “Catherine has asked me to look at that area, although I might be of help elsewhere. Isn't that what consultants do? Mingle in and find things out.”
Raising her eyes at the tone of the voice, which would have made many an ice-skater happy, Raleigh replied, “I'm sure you can offer her more help. Is that all then?” So this is Jace and she's an important cog in the Warriorson family network according to the daughter. Interesting body language.
Catherine had been watching the scenario with silent fascination. Jace was angry, almost jealous maybe, but that might be a stretch at this point. Raleigh was her usual self–confident and to the point. Now, both their eyes were on her and they obviously needed an answer to something. However, she hadn't been listening only looking at facial expressions since they often told a totally different story to the words spoken.
“Catherine you and I…” Jace began and didn't finish.
“Yes that's all. Jace if you ask my PA she'll introduce you to the team in HR. Maybe we can catch up at the end of the day regarding what your team has discovered…if anything.”
Jace's hackles rose at the remark and she nodded curtly. “You'll have my report on your desk by the close of day.” Then with as much dignity as she could muster, she left the room.
“Wow, she's a feisty one. Are you sure she comes well recommended?” Raleigh commented casually as Jace left the room.
Catherine smiled inwardly. “Oh, yes, she comes highly recommended. I'd stake my life on her.”
“That's a bit steep Cat. Okay, let's get on with this report I had made up overnight.”
Catherine let Raleigh mumble away as she considered her words. you don't know the half of it. She is my life.
+ + +
It was lunchtime. Jace, having spent a trying morning listening to the moans and groans of several of the human resources team, needed a break. Catherine had arranged for a buffet style lunch in the executive dining room if they chose to take advantage of it–Jace didn't. What she needed right now was a totally different environment to think. Not just about what she'd heard this morning but about what was going on in her personal life. Her eyes drifted to the park across the street and old Joe. With a lighter step, she picked up her purse and jacket and left the department floor. On her way out, she picked up two coffees and set off to find old Joe.
It didn't take long. Joe was sitting reading a two day old newspaper on his home bench.
“Hi, Joe. Coffee if I recall.”
The old man looked over the top of his paper and seconds later waved to the seat beside him and grinned making his face appear almost angelic. “Black?”
“Oh, yes, black. Of course, I take mine with all the frills.” Jace laughed as she passed him the Styrofoam cup with the hot liquid before sitting beside him.
There was an agreeable silence as they both relished the aroma and taste of decent coffee.
“Ah, now that's good coffee. Whoever made it needs congratulating.” Joe sighed appreciably.
Jace smiled as she silently agreed. “I'll pat the machine on the back when I go back.”
Joe nodded. “A machine…that figures. Do people do anything any more without the help of a machine?”
“Some do. Take you for instance, you don't use a machine and apparently still enjoy life.” Jace gazed around at the immaculate gardens. A lot of work went into the park and she wondered who paid for it all.
“Oh, I live in the open but some things I do need help from others and machinery is included in that. What about you? By your accent you're not a New Yorker.”
Jace felt at ease with the man. In a way, simply talking about trivial general details helped her wade through the morass of feelings she was going through. “I'm from California , Santa Barbra. Although, I currently live in New Zealand with my family. I'm here on business and then I'm going home to them.”
“I thought such a pretty little thing like you would have a husband and kids. How many?” Joe looked directly into her green eyes and waited for a reply.
“I have five children.” At his look of surprise she chuckled. “Our two eldest are adopted and then we had a daughter and twins. The numbers soon mount up.”
The warmness of Jace's words and the tender expression on her face had the old man nodding. “I would have liked a large family…just didn't happen.”
Jace felt the man's melancholy and tentatively asked, “Have you ever been in love, Joe?”
There was a far away expression in the old man's eyes. “Sally, yes Sally James. We were childhood sweethearts. I joined up and with one thing and another I never went back home. I was brought up in the south a small town everyone knew everyone's business back then. I told her what I was going to do and she didn't want me to go, said if I did that was the last time she'd ever talk to me. I sent her letters for the first couple of years. When I asked her to meet me at the dock when I came home I found out she meant what she said so I stayed here.”
Jace felt tears welling up and she tried to shrug them away as she asked in a dry voice, “You never went home to check Joe? Why she could have been waiting for you?”
“Oh, you women won't wait .She probably married that Bobby Lamb who was always sniffing around her. You never forget though the love of your life and I have memories of that time that I cherish. It means a lot to me.” There wasn't a sad expression on his face, but more of a resigned understanding of what wasn't to be.
“You're right…you never forget a love like that.”
Joe smiled and patted her hand. “I take it you found the love of your life.”
Jace nodded. “Yes, I did. Sometimes it isn't enough though is it? To love someone so much.”
“It's all that matters missy. It's the most important aspect of life. The young folks haven't worked it out yet with all these divorces and separations.” Joe flexed his fingers.
Jace listened to the words it's the most important aspect of life and knew the truth of them. She needed Catherine to know how much she loved her and that it would work out between them. “Thanks for the conversation, Joe. I need to get back. I'll drop by again soon. Take care of yourself.”
Joe smiled as Jace stood up to leave. “You do the same missy.”
With a determined step, Jace headed back to the building across the street with a new ultimate goal in mind.
+ + +
Kevin Victor checked his screen and the numerous pages of data supplied to him. He wasn't surprised someone had breached the protocols and security. Any first grade hacker could do it. He wondered why someone didn't see the enormity of the funds going missing and make some simple enquiries of the IT team. He'd met them they seemed a decent bunch but there was a drive lacking enthusiasm that was alien to him. He loved computers and all that they could do and what he could make them do–it fascinated him. He flexed his long fingers and began to type at such a speed that anyone watching had little chance of understanding the information he was processing.
Shaun Roberts watched the ‘wiz kid' as they'd dubbed him sit for hours at the screen his face barely showing any emotion except for the odd scowl or smile of satisfaction.
“Are you ok, Kevin? Do you need anything?”
Kevin looked up with owl like eyes that peered at the man through wire framed spectacles. “Thanks, Shaun, I'm good. Who is responsible for looking at the dump log and how often do they do that?”
Shaun frowned. “That would have been Colin Westerman.”
“Can I meet him…I don't recall the name from earlier?” Kevin asked as he furiously typed data.
“Is that a problem?”
“Yeah it is. Colin died in a car accident eighteen months ago. Prior to that, his wife left him he was strung out for a while.”
Kevin stopped his typing and asked, “Are you saying that for two years no one has monitored the logs and prior to that he wasn't the most attentive employee?”
Shaun rubbed his chin. “I guess. Look HR were working on a replacement but the more time that went by the less of a priority it became. In the end, we promoted within and made a couple of the techics more senior than the others. They took over most of his work.”
“Not the dump log though?”
“I can't say for sure. Let's ask them.” He turned to the others in the room and said, “Barry, Dave which one of you checks the dump log?”
Both men looked up from behind their consoles and then at each other. In unison they replied, “I haven't/not me.”
“Well that answers that question then. God, the timing was perfect. Someone must have been attempting to attack the network for years just waiting for a chance.”
Shaun sighed heavily. Ultimately, he was responsible for the department and he should have insisted that someone check the logs instead but cutting corners to meet targets for Casters.
“I'd better inform the boss. She's going to want heads rolling and mine is probably first on the list.”
Kevin frowned. “Let's see what else I find. It's an error but not necessarily the one that was the fatal blow.” He turned back to input data.
Shaun moved away and closed his eyes for a few seconds. He loved his job but he'd known for a few weeks now that his time here was going to be over. He'd allowed John Casters to take charge and the guy wasn't up to it. “Damn, how could I be so stupid?”
+ + +
John Casters stared at the interloper in his office. A consultant was checking his record. Who the hell did Warriorson think she was?
“I appreciate that this might be slightly uncomfortable for you but…”
“Save the platitudes for someone who needs it. Unless you're pulling teeth there's nothing about your questions or you that make me uncomfortable.” He flashed white teeth as he completed the sentence.
Jace drew in a steady breath. After a call from Clare, with a directive via Catherine, she was to interview John Casters after lunch. Jace had wanted to see Catherine immediately after her discussion with old Joe. However, the brief message had been clear and it had been her insistence that this was business. Sometimes things said in anger bite you back big time.
“Let's get on with this then shall we.”
Casters gave Jace a narrow look and then sat at his desk. He motioned for her to take the seat opposite him.
Reluctantly, Jace did as her gut told her she didn't like the man. However, that wasn't professional and although she didn't have qualifications in HR she had experience in meeting people and gauging with initial meetings if they had the ‘balls', as Catherine would say, to adequately do the job.
“When did you start at Xianthos, Mr. Casters, and in what position?”
Bored with the conversation and the consultant, John asked, “Can't you read? It's all in my personnel file.” He gave Jace a disparaging glance as he idly flicked over the folder on his desk.
Jace cleared her throat. “I haven't read your personnel file, Mr. Casters. That's private information. If you agree, I'll leave now and do that and we can continue later.”
With a cynical laugh he said, “Forget it. I've worked here ten years. I began as a sales executive, worked my way up the ladder.”
Instead of taking notes, Jace watched his expressions. All she had to decide was if the man was in the right place. She was making critical decisions for Xianthos and the people who worked there.
“It's a meteoric rise then from where you were ten years ago. You must be proud of your accomplishments.”
“I am. The results until recently have shown that.” Casters returned his attention to this woman. She looked undisturbed at his slightly aggressive stance. Her facial expression had that tolerant look, as if she'd seen it all before.
“Do you intend to work here until you retire or have you a wider portfolio?”
“If you're implying I have anything to do with the money being siphoned from here you've got it all wrong lady! If that bitch upstairs thinks that way too then I'm out of here.”
Jace almost rose from her chair to defend Catherine–she held herself in check. This is business was the mantra she had to say constantly to ensure she could be of help. “There has been no indication that you're involved in that area at all. However, you are quick to assume the worse. Why is that?”
“Lady you don't have a clue about what is going on here do you? I've worked with consultants before…you get a half-cocked story of what's happening and then you're usually out of your depth after the first day. You rely on people here to give up gossips and secrets. How true they are is immaterial since you won't be here long enough to find out.”
John had said his piece and let the woman say what she wanted for he really didn't care. From the moment the boss lady arrived back in town, he'd been looking elsewhere for employment. While she was away from the board room, he was happy and now that she was back, he realized that just didn't see eye to eye.
Jace didn't say anything but knew in part the guy was right on the money. She herself had allocated three weeks to her hair-brained plan and then needed to be home. The kids needed one of their parents around and ultimately they came first.
“I guess the bottom line is I have to trust people like you to tell me the truth and then I can relay that to the interested parties. Does that sound fair to you?”
Casters shuffled the papers on his desk. “Whatever you say. What else do you want to know?”
“The old executive committee system was effectively removed when the last president of the company left several years or so ago. Was that your choice?”
Casters gave her a hooded glance and then with a slight smile said, “That's where I know your name from. Are you related to Jason Bardley? If you are that means only one thing.”
Disconcerted by the question, Jace knew it would naturally lead to the inevitable that she was living with Catherine.
“I'm the one asking questions.”
John Casters stood up and bellowed. “That sounds like the police. You come in here asking me a dozen questions and when I ask one you switch off. This is over. I'm not going to allow you to bate me or anyone on your team. I knew it was suspicious when they brought you in. God, the bitch even brings in her sleeping partner to help…she really must be desperate.”
Jace drew in a shaky breath as she realized that she failed dismally. Without another word, she left the office and received a sharp glance from Casters secretary. In a short time, it would be all around the building that Jace was Catherine's lover. What would Catherine say about that? A part of her wished she'd never begun this folly.
+ + +
Catherine drew her eyes together as Raleigh related yet another piece of information that took them tantalisingly closer to the perpetrator. It was like a picture out of focus with the fine detail subtly missing.
“I hope your new IT jockey can salvage this, Cat, for I'm all out of ideas. Anyway ,my superiors want me on another case in forty-eight hours. Technically, I'm done here.” Raleigh announced stroking gently the spiky protrusion of hair that stuck out on the left side of her head.
Catherine snapped back her head. “You're leaving? What does that mean exactly?”
“I'm done. We won't be personally prosecuting you for a felony. However, your back taxes are going to bankrupt you unless you can find who's doing this operation and shut it down. I hope you can retrieve some of the stolen funds but that is highly unlikely. The fed's are taking over the investigation in the next few days so expect more questions.” Raleigh sat down and pulled a bottle of water on the desk toward her.
“We'll track it down and get the funds back,” Catherine hissed through gritted teeth.
Raleigh frowned slightly before she quietly said, “I‘m sure you will.”
Catherine looked at the young woman. In a way, she reminded her of Lisa, especially the way she dressed and her damned hair. Still, she had been competent and Catherine knew she wouldn't have been this far down the track without her.
“Have you ever thought of a career change?”
“Me?” Raleigh touched a finger to her chest. “No, I enjoy what I do. It isn't all doom and gloom. We do actually try to help people.”
“Pity, I could do with someone like you here.”
“Are you offering me a job? Wow, and there was I thinking you didn't like me Cat.” Raleigh chuckled and leaned back in her chair negligently.
The door to Catherine's office swung open and for the second time in as many days, Jace stood there. It didn't take much to see that she was distressed.
Catherine stood up, strode across the room, and gently took Jace by the arm. “What's wrong?”
Jace didn't speak at first as she felt tears beginning to drip from her partially closed eyelids. “I've made a mess of it Catherine and I've only been here half a day.”
“Hey it's ok, Jace, you should see the messes I've made recently…and I've been here a couple of decades,” Catherine softly said.
Jace blinked back the tears although her eyes clearly showed distress. “I'm sorry. I've just made things worse and you warned me that would happen.”
Catherine chuckled. “Hey, when did that stop you in the past.” One of Catherine's fingers slid down the right side of Jace‘s cheek gently wiping away the odd stray tear. “Trust me, whatever it is it will be fine.”
Jace stared this time into the unwavering gaze of her partner and knew in an instant it was all going to work out, Catherine would see to it–she always did. “I've trusted you from the day we first met.”
A weight seemed to drop from Catherine's shoulders as she heard those words. “Good, now tell me what this is all about?”
Raleigh cleared her throat. “Look ,I'll be in the next office whenever you need me.”
Catherine had completely forgotten the other woman in the room for she simply wasn't important. “Thank you.”
Jace felt her old hackles rise that again Raleigh was with Catherine. Didn't she ever go away. Wiping back her tears, she drew in a deep breath as embarrassment took over when she realized that a stranger was watching her breakdown. “No, I'm the one who needs to leave. Can we catch up at dinner this evening?”
This time not wanting to promise something she couldn't Catherine smiled slightly. “We'll talk now. Raleigh and I can take care of our business later.”
Raleigh nodded and picked up her folder and laptop. Then with a slight smile in Jace's direction, she exited the room.
“I don't like that woman,” Jace announced as the door shut.
Catherine scratched her head and bit at her lip to prevent an all out grin–Jace was jealous. “ Raleigh is a necessary evil I'm afraid, Jace. She'll be gone in a couple of days that's what we were discussing when you came in.”
Jace dropped her gaze as her lip trembled and she replied, “I'm sorry Catherine. I seem to be doing everything wrong. I'll fly home tomorrow and leave you in peace.”
“Is that what you want?” Catherine felt deflated at the thought.
Jace lifted her gaze. “I meant what I said…I trust you and this flying in here thinking I could solve all your problems isn't the answer. You don't know how so…”
A gentle finger stilled the words. “I loved the way you flew in and tried to save me from the evils of business. I adore the fact that you think I'm still attractive enough to have a woman who could be my daughter interested in me. For the record, no matter what, I simply love you. There will never be anyone else and that's a promise I'll take to my grave.”
Jace didn't want to speak as she threw her arms around Catherine's neck and locked them in a kiss that repaired all the hurt on both sides.
Several feverish minutes later, Catherine rested her head on top of Jace's blonde head. “If things weren't so dire here I'd swing you up in my arms and like the true knight in shining armour, I'd whisk you away to my castle and make love to you completely.”
Breathlessly Jace replied, “Do I get a raincheck on that?”
Catherine smiled. It really didn't matter anymore if she left this situation penniless because she had a wealth of love in the woman in her arms and the family and friends they both loved. “For the rest of our lives.” Moving away slightly so that Catherine could look deep into Jace's features, she asked, “What upset you darling?”
Jace haltingly told her about her meeting with John Casters and his observations.
Catherine chuckled. “Oh, is that all. The guy's a pain in the rear that's for sure. However, he has excellent results with some of our bigger authors and clients.”
“No, I meant about us and the link between us?” Jace exclaimed.
Catherine shook her head slowly. “Did you think that no one would know who you were? Within an hour of you entering HR, it was on the gossip circuit.”
Jace's eyes flared wide. “It was? How? And who told you?”
“I have spies everywhere my darling.”
“It was Clare wasn't it?”
Catherine chuckled. “That woman is one fine interloper without anyone knowing. She had an ear on every floor within ten minutes of sitting next to Cynthia. With a PA like that no one is safe.”
“I'm sorry Catherine.”
“For what? Darling I'm equally as sorry for being such an idiot at home. I spoilt your birthday and thought things about you that I knew deep down weren't true. Will you forgive me?”
“Only if you forgive me.”
“That's a given, Jace, besides, we are allowed to change a little don't you think, as long as we remain together.”
“I guess it's true. We've both changed and somewhere we lost that unconditional trust and I want that back, Catherine. I really do. Without it I'm not sure I can keep it all together.”
“There is only one thing that you can do to keep that Jace.”
Jace waited and held her breath. “Anything.”
“Don't ever leave me.”
The stark announcement held a scenario of darkness she never wanted to venture down. “I promise you that I'm stuck like glue. You'll never shake me.”
“And what will it take to get back your unconditional trust?”
This time Catherine waited as a worry frown appeared between her eyes. Jace saw it and smoothed it away when she whispered, “Always love me.”
Catherine smiled. “That's a given.” She captured Jace's lips and they lost themselves in exploration for sometime until there was a knock on the door.
“I swear I'm in a circus.” Catherine drew in a steadying breath. “Yes?”
Jace moved away from Catherine with a smirk on her face. She knew what she did to her partner. The flush of her cheeks and the heartbeat pounding under her hand was testament to her own body's reaction.
Cynthia Reynolds dropped her head around the door cautiously. Clare had informed her of the relationship between the two women and she'd been loath to disturb them, not knowing what she might find. “Mr. Roberts and Mr. Victor have asked to see you urgently.”
Suddenly, Catherine's manner was all business. Jace she had to smile as she saw her lover take back the mantle of head of her company. Catherine could compartmentalise her actions and thoughts like an army regiment. It had always fascinated her how she did that and always would she suspected.
“O kay , are they here now?”
“Send them in, and have Ms. Benedict join us too…she needs to hear this.”
The door shut behind the PA. Catherine apologetically turned to Jace with her hands spread out in apology.
Jace stepped forward and gave her a light kiss. “I know, I'll leave you to it.”
“No. Mr. Victor is part of your team and you head it so you need to be here too.”
There was a smile of delight so bright that had Catherine thinking sunshine had suddenly descended on her office. At last, I've done something right.
Moments later, the two men entered the room and Shaun Roberts gave Jace a surprised look. Catherine saw the expression, and just as Raleigh entered, she said, “Shaun, let me introduce formally my civil partner, Jace Bardley.”
Raleigh with a low whistle remarked, “Now, that figures.” She leaned against the wall as Catherine gave her a narrowed glance at the comment and received a wink in return.
“You have some urgent information for me?” Catherine asked as her eyes flicked from one man to the other.
Shaun proudly pointed to Kevin and in awe said, “Kevin has blocked the hacker and he was able to trace the route back to the original source. I have to tell you that what he did was magic. There were so many bounces and firewalls that to someone else the task would be so daunting that they never would have found out where it originate. Catherine we might find the bastards who did this.”
Catherine looked across at Kevin who seemed to be somewhat overawed at his current spotlight status.
“Is that so Mr. Victor?”
Rubbing his chin, the young man nodded. “It wasn't that difficult really.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Catherine sarcastically said, “Is that so. Are you saying that my people are incompetent?”
“Well, not exactly…it's more overworked than anything. When a key member from the IT team, who had been ineffective for a long time before, dies it created an opportunity that someone took.” The young man looked decidedly uncomfortable.
Jace almost intervened and decided against it.
Catherine felt that there was more. “And?”
A perplexed expression crossed Kevin's face. “It would have been a chance in a billion for them to find the gap. I think you've been monitored for sometime before that and …”
“What do you think?” Catherine glanced to Raleigh .
Raleigh shifted slightly. “Plausible. We need to have the Fed's look at the information Kevin found and get the bastards as your colleague rightly expressed.” She switched her gaze to Shaun and grinned.
Catherine concentrated her stare on Kevin and moments later nodded. “Don't let me stop you.”
Raleigh motioned for the two men to follow her and they left the room.
Jace saw a puzzled expression cross Catherine's face and she had an idea why. “Is something wrong Catherine?”
Catherine shook her thoughts away and turned to Jace. “No, everything is absolutely perfect.” She held out her arms and Jace flew into them. Somehow, everything at that moment was prefect.
+ + +
Catherine silently watched the faces around the dinner table in her executive private dining room. She'd arranged for the best of everything to be available hours after a federal agent had announced that they had used the information Kevin Victor had given them and traced the route to a Cayman Island account effectively closing it. Though not all the money was found at least Xianthos would be saved. Trimming the fat of excess people would be prudent in the near future.
The people who had been part of the investigation were all there. Her personnel, Jace and Raleigh 's teams, along with a couple of FBI agents who had spent the most time on the problem sat around the table.
As she scanned the room, she felt a pair of eyes on her and she looked immediately in the direction of Jace at the opposite end of the table. They'd decided to remain as far apart as possible since being close had the tendency for each of them to reach out–hold hands or kiss. It had been that way for the last week after they appealed to each others better judgement and agreed that what had been happening between them was a faze that wouldn't happen again or at least until they were eighty. A wink from her partner had her smiling and tipping her glass of wine slightly in her honour.
Tomorrow evening they were going home for good.
“It's been a wonderful dinner, Catherine,” Cynthia Reynolds blurted out. She was slightly, or perhaps a little more, tipsy, from the wine she'd consumed over the duration of the meal.
“I'm glad you enjoyed it, This isn't the end. I've arranged for several cars to take us to an exclusive club in town for the rest of the evening. I think you'll see the odd celebrity if you like that kind of thing.”
Catherine resisted the laughter that screamed for release at the excited face of the woman who she heard on the grapevine gossip channels rarely cracked her face.
“Oh my, I've never been to a nightclub.” Cynthia turned to Clare seated next to her.
Catherine placed a hand over her mouth as she heard Clare say, “We'll have a great time Cy.”
Lisa spoke up, “Mamma is it ok if I don't go clubbing with you? That flight I was telling you about might be early and I don't want to miss it.”
Catherine frowned. “Yeah, it might I suppose. Never mind, there will be other parties and I'm sure many clubs in the future.
“You got that right. I can't have Jake having all the fun.” Lisa grinned as she stood up to leave.
“It's the twin's birthday in three months. You will come home from your speed adventures and celebrate with us won't you? We'll work out the kinks with Jace.” Catherine had seen the look of doubt at the mention of speed and Jace in the same sentence.
Lisa hesitated. Jace had been formal to her over the past week after she moved back to the apartment. It had been cordial but there was definitely a barrier. Jake's own pain over his break up had helped in a weird way. At least Jace couldn't concentrate solely on her. “If there isn't a meet I will.”
Catherine smiled. “That's my princess. By the way, have you heard from Elena?”
Lisa winked. “Yes, she wanted to come home after the first week but wouldn't admit it.”
Catherine chuckled. “What can I say? Another daughter who takes after me.”
Lisa felt the problems of Jace's acceptance of her new way in life might not be as insurmountable as she thought. “I'll drink to that.”
After Lisa began making her way in the direction of Jace, Raleigh had moved from her seat she and laid a hand on Catherine's shoulder. “Great way to end this. I wish all my successful clients had this much class.”
Catherine shook her head. “Class doesn't come into it. Knowing I'm not broke makes a big difference in this world. Reputation and the scent of money can go a long way without having to reach inside the pocketbook.”
“Hmm, I'm not so sure. This is a great gesture though, Catherine.”
“You called me Catherine not Cat…why?”
“Oh, I only called you Cat because it riled you and people like you need that from time to time. Besides I like you, Cat.” Raleigh laughed out loudly. Drawing the attention of several others including Jace.
Catherine shook her head. “Surprisingly I like you too Raleigh . Are you going to consider my offer?”
“Nope, but if you keep Shaun on I might be persuaded to keep a sensitive ear to the ground for you in my area.” Raleigh 's spiky hairdo seemed to have a life of it's own as the woman moved her head from side to side.
Catherine stood up and uncharacteristically pulled the woman into a hug, whispering for Raleigh 's ears only, “Thank you. I owe you big time and I mean that.”
Raleigh was disconcerted for the first time in her career history and grimaced at the show of affection. “Have you grown two heads or something, Catherine? This is so unlike you. What will your partner think?”
Catherine laughed. “She'll think you want to jump my bones.”
Spluttering, Raleigh announced more loudly than she thought, “I'm not. You're definitely not my type.” She pushed Catherine away and her eyes immediately tracked to Shaun's who had a smirk on his face.
Catherine chuckled. “Touché, you're not my type either.” She winked at Raleigh then announced, “If were done here folks the limos are downstairs. Let's see what the New York club scene is like these days.”
There was a loud murmur of approval and people filed out of the room at the announcement.
Five minutes later, after Catherine thanked her canteen staff, she came back into the dining room and saw that only Kevin Victor was there. Her eyes tracked to the portraits he was staring at.
“Something you find fascinating, Steven?”
“Oh, nothing much really,” the young man replied absently.
“You have the same eyes,” Catherine retorted quietly.
The young man turned around and stared at the woman who was his half- sister. “You called me Steven. Jace told you I suppose?”
“No, she didn't. In fact, you have to let me tell her that I knew…it's important.” Catherine assessed the man who was her brother and all his efforts on behalf of the business–she was impressed.
“O kay , she wasn't sure you would accept my help if you knew.”
“She was right. Jace normally is. Why did you want to help?”
Steven hesitated. “It wasn't just my eyes that you found familiar was it?”
Catherine felt like she was trading question for question but rightly so. “No, I've been monitoring your progress since I knew I had a brother.”
“Why didn't you make yourself known to my family then?”
“Because, sometimes you're better off by not being associated with me. You had a great family life…why complicate it.”
“Is that all it was?”
“Yes, if you'd been in trouble I would have been there like a shot. But, you have good parents who love you and a family that will support you no matter what. That's the most important thing in this world, Steven. Not the blood but the people who care and love regardless of anything else.”
Steven nodded. “Jace said you'd say that. That's why I agreed to help because of what she said about you putting your freedom at risk for strangers.”
Catherine frowned and felt a deep gratitude to her partner. She really did know her better than she knew herself. “Jace is right.” Catherine held out her hand. “Good to meet you finally Steven?”
Steven shook the hand and then moved his gaze back to the portrait. “What was he like?”
Catherine didn't know what to say at that moment, and then she said the only thing that meant anything, “He would have been proud of you.”
Steven visibly grew several inches at the compliment. Then he gave Catherine a shrewd look. “You hate my birth mother don't you?”
“Yes, she isn't someone I'd have on my Christmas card list. Why do you ask?” Catherine knew he deserved honesty.
“My mom hates her too. Dad probably as much. Will you tell me about her?” Steven inflicted his gaze directly into hers.
Catherine she felt like her father was actually staring at her and she found that disconcerting. “I'm sure you're mom and dad can do that much better than me.”
“No, no they can't…they think I don't know anything but I do. I had a letter from her when I was sixteen at least I think it was from her.”
Catherine wanted desperately to ask more questions. If he got a letter at sixteen it meant that Hudson might still be alive. “Hey, let's not worry about that now. We have a party to attend. Jace will be after my hide if we don't meet her soon.”
Steven gave Catherine a long glance. “You don't hate me do you?|”
Catherine frowned. “Kid, you just saved the family business whatever I think doesn't matter.”
With a patient expression on his face, he wait for what seemed like an eternity for the answer. “It does to me.”
“No, I don't hate you. Far from it.” She slung an arm across his shoulders. “Let's go or they will send a search party out for us.”
+ + +
“You knew all along Kevin was Steven didn't you?” Jace asked quietly as she sat next to Catherine on a low sofa to the side of the dance floor.
Catherine visibly relaxed as she glanced in the direction of her half-brother who was chatting to one of the federal agents. She shrugged and flashed an exaggerated expression at her partner and playfully pulled out her tongue.
“If Cynthia saw you do that or even Raleigh they'd definitely think you'd been replaced by a clone or something.” Jace chuckled as she saw the strain of the previous months had disappeared like magic.
“I really don't care what they think…only what you do.” Catherine flashed a bright smile and then lost herself in the green eyes hovering in her line of sight. Tentatively, she reached out and stroked the minute lines that formed around Jace's eyes.
Jake chose that moment to take a seat next to them. He looked happy. “Hey, take a room you two.” His voice held a teasing quality.
“Are you enjoying yourself Jake?” Jace asked with a shake of her head at his comment.
“Yeah, I am. Pity Lisa couldn't come out to play this last week has been fun catching up with her.” He seemed to be speaking to himself more than the two women next to him who shared a brief rising of the eyebrows and a smile.
“Well, you can catch up again at the twin's birthday party in three months time. I suspect you'll need a break by then,” Catherine remarked as she slid her hand under the table and captured Jace's in hers.
Jace felt her breath catch in the back of her throat as Catherine's finger gently massaged her palm. It was sending all the right signals–they might need that room. “You haven't told me exactly what you'll be doing for Xianthos, Jake?”
Jake gave Catherine a long look. “Catherine hasn't told you?”
“The official announcement is tomorrow and then we have the formal lunch and I can safely take my leave of New York . Hopefully, this time I can retire properly.”
“I didn't know you were retiring Catherine?” Jace exclaimed and sat upright disengaging their hands.
Catherine chuckled. “Well, retiring might be a stretch with the economy the way it is. However, you'll know what I mean tomorrow. Now, I think if everyone is enjoying themselves I'd like to go home and get some sleep. It's been a hard slog these last few months.”
Jace smiled and stood up at the same time as Catherine, “yeah me too.” Stifling a yawn.
“Really, o kay I'll hold the fort but don't be surprised at the bill when we're all done,” Jake said before he winked at the two women who excused themselves. “Oh, and I'll try not to wake you when I do get back.”
There was a general wave in his direction as his parents walked away.
“I just need to speak with Raleigh . It will only take a minute,” Catherine said as she saw the young woman draped over Shaun Robert's body.
“No problem. Go ahead and take your time.” Jace hadn't felt that Raleigh was a threat after a long chat about the woman and now as she saw her with a man it was clear she'd worn jealous specs whenever she'd looked at the younger woman. Jealousy was a bitch.
Catherine watched the spectacle of Raleigh flinging herself at Shaun, it was a side to the woman she hadn't seen before and probably never would have if things hadn't gone the way they did. Clearing her throat, she startled Shaun who almost dropped Raleigh in his surprise and embarrassment.
“Don't mean to be a party pooper but I need a quick word with Raleigh before I leave.”
“You're leaving? It's still early!” Raleigh exclaimed as she snatched a kiss from Shaun and withdrew from his tentative hold. “O kay , a quick word…I'm timing you.”
Catherine felt her lips tug into a smile. The woman sounded like her kids. “This may well be the last time we meet Raleigh and I'd like to thank you for your help even if I was a little irascible at first.”
Raleigh raised her eyebrows. “Oh is that what you call it. Never fear, I have thick skin. Besides, it was interesting to baste you. I wonder how many people will call you Cat from now on.”
“I suspect that honour will be yours alone. If there is anything I or the company can do for you…”
“Don't say it, Cat, you might be hauled in for trying to bribe a government officer.” Raleigh smiled and tweaked her spiky hair.
“Right, point taken. I can't say it was always a pleasure but you do know your work and I admire people who stick to the bottom line and are honest. Perhaps we'll meet again Raleigh .” Catherine held out her hand.
However, in a flash, Raleigh moved in and hugged Catherine tightly. “Take care of yourself, Cat.” Then she grinned at the bemused look on the older woman's face and turned back to Shaun. “Now, where were we?”
Catherine stood there for a few seconds and then shook her head. Spinning around she found Jace staring at her with an amused look on her face.
“O kay what?”
“Nothing…absolutely nothing darling. Now, come on and take me to bed I think I remember something about you being tired.”
Catherine growled softly. “Tired has nothing to do with it.” They left the club for the waiting car outside.
+ + +
Jace watched the features of her lover relaxed in sleep. Even though Catherine dismissed the idea of being tired, she certainly had been. Usually, they managed a decent workout together in the sex department but tonight, Jace had taken the lead and when she was finished Catherine had been sated, satisfied and exhausted. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. Her own sexual gratification had been in making her partner happy and she knew that she had.
Her glance shifted to her left hand and her lips curved into a tender smile. When they'd arrived in the apartment, Catherine had insisted there was one more task she had to do before they could go to bed.
Jace groaned. All she wanted was to rip the clothes off Catherine and make love to her. Draping her arms seductively over her taller lover she purred, “Are you sure, Catherine? I know a task you'd much rather be on the receiving end. Her lips sucked at Catherine's ear lob and she felt her lover tremble at the touch.
“No, we have to do this. I promise it won't take long. It's important, Jace.” Catherine extracted herself from Jace's clasp and moved to the buffet unit on the side of the wall. Within seconds, she was back with a package.
Jace frowned and took the package held out to her. “I don't need a present darling you're all the gift I need.”
Catherine smiled. “I know, but I was going to give you this for your birthday but what with the way things were it didn't seem right somehow.”
Jace tore opened the wrapping paper it revealed a small box as she opened it she opened her eyes in surprise. There, nestled in the velvet was a ring, it was clustered with diamonds and opals in differing shades.
“Do you like it?” Catherine normally knew Jace's reactions, but this was different. She hadn't squealed in delight or kissed her in thanks–she was silent.
“Why didn't you think it was right?” Jace turned tremulous eyes to her partner.
Catherine frowned. “I was being pigheaded over that…you know.”
Jace knew. It was the supposed affair with Gillian. Though they'd discussed it when she came to live at the apartment a week ago, it obviously still hurt Catherine, as she couldn't say the words.
“Come on sit down and let's talk shall we.”
“O kay ,” Catherine replied tentatively. The ring was still in the box and that caused her to worry.
“Gillian made a grave mistake when she made a pass at me. I made it worse by not telling you immediately. Then, you compounded it all by thinking I could do such a thing to you and our family. Somewhere, we allowed the mistakes to tarnish what we have together. I can apologise until I'm blue in the face but the bottom line is, do you really accept my apology and believe me?” It was a stark comment on their relationship. The only determining factor was Catherine.
Catherine bit at her lip hoping she understood Jace's reluctance to put the ring on her finger, knowing its significance. Picking up Jace's left hand, she kissed the ring finger and then took the ring out of the box.
“When I had this eternity ring made I had no doubts whatsoever about why I wanted you to wear it. Now…”
Jace felt the world had stilled waiting much as she was. “Now?”
The ring was slipped on her finger. “Now even more so.”
This time Jace did the usual she shrieked in delight and kissed Catherine passionately. They didn't need any other words as Catherine picked her up and carried her to bed.
Tracing the finger that had the ring slowly and looking down at Catherine's sleeping features, she revelled at being close to her again. She relished the scent of her skin, the beat of her heart and the living pulse of the body close to hers. They said unpleasant things in the last couple of months and she had even indicated they had no future together in a fit of anger. It wasn't true. It never could be. They were intrinsically woven together forever in her mind and she now knew Catherine thought the same way.
Over the last week they'd spent several hours discussing where it had all gone wrong and the bottom line had been they'd stopped communicating somewhere along the line and lost their way. Little things became blown out of proportion and jealousy grew out of that scenario for both of them. They couldn't promise it wouldn't happen again but they both were going to make an effort in the future to prevent it growing on the scale it had. In fact, one of the reasons they were not travelling home now was because of something Catherine had planned for tomorrow.
With her thoughts filled with whatever it could be, a strong yet infinitely gentle hand stilling hers that had progressed to Catherine's left breast startled Jace.
“You let me snooze.”
There was a teasing element to the words and Jace smiled as she turned to prop herself up and look down at the naked woman next to her. “Go back to sleep darling you're tired.”
Catherine bared her teeth in a show of a growl at the words but instead of speaking gently pulled Jace closer to kiss her lips. The heat between them grew as Jace moaned at the onslaught.
“I guess I needed a breather…being older and all that. Now shall we take up where we left off?” Catherine's arms tugged the smaller woman to her body and placed her hands on Jace's firm bottom in a show of possession.
Jace didn't speak. She couldn't for she was losing herself in the woman who moulded her perfectly to her like a second skin.
Then the hands moved in a rotating pattern as lips captured hers again and then she was flipped to lie on the bed and have the much larger frame of her partner towering over her. One hand remained in the lower region of Jace's body gently stroking as her other came up and fondled first one breast then the other. Nipples protruding and wanting greeted her actions and Jace lost herself in the one primal act that she and Catherine would always be equal in–their sexual response to each other.
+ + +
Surprisingly, when Jace woke the apartment was silent except for the ticking of the clock on the bedside table. Catherine was no longer in bed beside her and the shower wasn't running. The fresh scent of water mingled with perfume indicated that Catherine was up and ready for the day. There was nothing new there. She was always the early riser in the household. Climbing out of bed, Jace stretched and yawned as her body still tingled from their lovemaking that went on long after Jake arrived home.
Checking the time, Jace nodded, it was seven. Surely Catherine hadn't gone to work yet…not without a morning kiss. Dragging on her robe to cover her nakedness, she padded to the kitchen. There wasn't a sound or any delicious smells indicating breakfast might be on offer.
The kitchen was empty, except for three mugs on the drainer and then she saw a note propped up the kitchen table. It was in Catherine's flowing script.
Sorry darling had to leave for the office and the final details before we leave for home. Jake is undertaking a few errands for me. As much as I'd love to bring you breakfast in bed waking you at six would have caused that scowl on your pretty face and I'd rather remember the more sultry expressions of last night for the day ahead.
Can you meet me at the office at noon? We'll have lunch together. Go shopping Jace and treat yourself to whatever you want. Take advantage of one of the best shopping centres of the world.
Jace flicked on the coffee pot as she read the note and smiled. Then she glanced around the room. Catherine was right about one thing, New York City was the shopping capital of the world so why not indulge.
Having decided on her morning, she considered what to have for breakfast. She smiled as she poured a cup of coffee. She'd get a shower and then go shopping. Why make breakfast when someone else could do it for her.
Catherine and looked at her watched as she pressed the internal intercom. “Is she here, Cynthia?”
“Sorry, Ms. Bardley hasn't arrived yet. I've asked reception to inform me as soon as she does.”
“O kay , thank you.” She was about to end the transmission when she asked, “Is everyone who should be in the dining room there?”
Cynthia wanted nothing more than to tell her boss that she'd asked this question several times in the last half hour and the answer was always the same. “Yes, except for you and I.”
Catherine ended the call and allowed an irritated expression to cross her face. Now, she wished she'd never mentioned a shopping trip to Jace. There was every chance that her partner would forget the time and end up hours late. And, what she had planned was so going to be a surprise. She looked around the office and allowed herself a few moments of quiet reflection of the past twenty-five years since she'd taken the reigns of Xianthos in one way or another.
Things had changed, people, the business and even the street below. When she'd arrived to take over from her father, back then she'd been over-confident, there wasn't anything she couldn't do, and for a couple of years she made that a reality. Then, her life changed and with it a maturity she hadn't wanted at twenty-five. Her family heartaches fuelled her business brain, somewhere there had been a compromise, and she'd remotely given her life to making Xianthos the global company her father had begun.
Then, things changed again fifteen years ago on a cold wet mountainside when Jace entered her life. The memory had her smiling as she clearly recalled those innocent green eyes pleading with her to understand their position. She chuckled recalling the meeting and her words all those years ago. There were simply etched into her memory because although she hadn't known it at the time, that had been a defining moment in her life.
The door to her office opened and that same gaze stared back at her sparkling almost in a flushed face. Jace stood there hands filled with packages of all descriptions.
“Sorry I'm late, Catherine. Finding a cab was hell.”
Catherine stood there quietly just reflecting in the presence of the woman in her life. “We travel separately to the other sides of the world twice now and you still manage to beguile me whenever were together. I never want to take my eyes of you again.”
Jace was stunned at the whispered words. She dropped her packages, walked toward Catherine, and tenderly reached out to touch her cheek. “And, I never want to take my eyes off you ever again.”
Yes, things had changed but the one constant in a world of turmoil was the look of trust and love in the green eyes that had seared her soul years ago and would until the end of her days. A tear began to roll down Catherine's cheek for what she felt somehow it didn't seem real.
“Darling why are you crying? What's happened?” Jace asked anxiously as she attempted to wipe away the tear.
“I am?” Catherine asked puzzled and then blinked away the moisture. “Must be dust in my eye. Are you hungry? I think I promised lunch.”
“Starving,” Jace replied as she reached up and kissed Catherine lightly. Explanations could wait or might never come at all–it was the nature of her relationship with Catherine. No matter what, she loved every minute and always would.
“Let's go then…I would hate to be blamed for you starving.” Catherine wrapped her arms around Jace and hugged her tight. “I love you.”
Jace melted into the embrace as she felt a tremor of unexpected emotion from her partner. “I love you too Catherine.”
Ten minutes later, they entered the main dining room and were almost deafened by an explosion of applause. Catherine smiled tightly for this kind of show of emotion inside her business environment was hard to take but she accepted it equably.
Jace was surprised and it showed then she looked around the sea of faces. Was everyone in the building there…old and new. What was going on? Catherine walked confidently toward the table placed at the side of the room overlooking all the other tables and as they moved closer, she got the shock of her life.
“Mom, we're here too isn't it great.” The twins squealed as they left their chairs and bolted to their parents.
Catherine and the satisfaction of seeing the shock and glow of love emit from her partner. It was priceless.
“How?” Jace mouthed as she hugged the children tightly.
Nathan supplied the answer. “We've been with Gran and Granddad for a week. El is over there?” He pointed to a seat next to Jake and Lisa and sure enough, Elena was there too. The same question came rushing back, “How/”
“Later darling. Right now you said you were starving and so are all these people…you were late you know?” Catherine teased as they took their seats at the head table.
Waiting for their meal, Jace could see several faces she knew but couldn't get her head around what was going on. Catherine was busy chatting to Jake and her executive team.
Jace smiled at Elena. “Hey baby did you enjoy your trip to see your dad?” She'd been disappointed that Elena hadn't greeted her like the twins but then, that was her teenager.
Elena frowned slightly then replied, “My sister can come visit us next time can't she Mom?”
Wondering what had gone on with the trip, she waited for more. “Sure if your dad agrees.”
“Will you and Mamma promise me one thing Mom?”
“What's that baby?”
“Never send me to a Catholic school it's horrible.”
Catherine muttered, “Over my dead body.”
Although that wasn't the answer she was going to give, it was pretty darned close. “I think you've got that promise darling.”
As the meal completed, John Casters brought a hush around the room. A few moments later Catherine stood up.
“Thank you John. As you all know, the retirement of some of our senior employees is an annual event. However, today is rather special in two ways. First, we finally have to say goodbye to the last of the old retainers from when my father first purchased the building back when.” She cast her eyes to her children and smiled. “I was their age. Hmm, now that was a while ago.”
Laughter filled the room.
“It's been an interesting ride for them they went through a tough time when the insurance business closed unexpectedly and they had to learn new skills when they came to work for my father. In a way, it reminds me of me. When my father died and left me Xianthos, I was inexperienced and young. About the age of my eldest daughter.” This time she looked at Lisa and winked and a warm smile greeted her. “Times were hard much like now and some people had to go when I first took over. However, the people we are celebrating today have stayed the course and managed a respectable forty plus years in this building.”
There was general applause and some even stood and turned to the end of the head table where five people sat looking slightly embarrassed at the accolade given them.
Jace was listening intently. She hadn't even realised what they were celebrating but now it all made sense except for the children but she was sure there was a simple explanation. Her head turned in her partner's direction as she began to speak again.
“I said there was a two fold reason behind today. Well, not only are we seeing some of our employees take their leave, I've decide it's the perfect time for me to retire too.”
There was a stunned silence in the room and Catherine scratched the back of her neck and peered at Jace who looked like a guppy her mouth wide open. Hmm maybe this was more of a surprise to people than I thought.
Then Allison piped up and broke the silence, “Aw, Mamma, does that mean you get to take us to school every day?”
There was a burst of laughter and some applauded her youngest daughter.
“Perhaps, Allison. Well, I've held the reigns for twenty-five years and decided it was time to have younger blood take over much as I did at my father's death.”
John Casters' face puzzled as he asked, “Have you sold us?”
Catherine didn't like the man but his point was valid. “No, Xianthos is a family business and will stay that way while I'm still alive. To reiterate my families continued involvement I've appointed a new president of the Corporation.” Catherine turned and motioned for Jake to stand.
Jace gasped at the news. Was she ever out of the loop, But the news was marvellous.
Jake moved to stand at Catherine's side. “Now ladies don't faint but this is my son. Jacob Patterson and he prefers to be called Jake. He has more experience than I ever did at that age.”
There was a whoop of excitement form the younger children and Catherine cast them a frown. They stopped with a grin at their mamma.
“Jake will take over the day to day running of the Xianthos Corporation from this evening. I'm still effectively Chairperson but being retired, I only need to attend two board meetings a year and that I can cope with.”
John Casters face fell a mile off a cliff at the announcement. “Congratulations.” He held out his hand Jake.
“There's more.” Catherine smiled as she scanned the room for a going away present she'd certainly hit the mark.
“Oh my god, how much more can there be?” Jace hadn't realised she'd said it aloud until Catherine turned to her and when their eyes met she felt a wave of love encompass her. Go for it Catherine .
“I said I wanted to keep the business in the family and with that object in mind I've settled my majority shareholding in Xianthos. Baring a ten percent holding, there is equal amounts in trust funds for my five children who are here today.” She waved her hand in the direction of the children. “The rest will be allocated to Georgina Montgomery a family friend, Jace Bardley my partner who has taken the extremes of my life with the same decorum she has the easy parts.”
There was a stunned silence in her family and then some giggles from the kids with Nathan commenting, “Wow, George is as rich as we are Alli…can't wait to tell her.”
It made Catherine shake her head. She continued, “Finally, there is one more in the equation. A long time ago, someone once said to me that I should accept another for what they were not what you knew about their background. I ignored it for a long time now I'm hoping this will make amends. A man who has solved the problem that threatened to take us down and who richly deserves his share of the family fortune, my half brother Steven Victor.” Catherine pointed to Steven who nervously sat next to Clare who had already discussed that the shares she and Constance held would be willed to their son rather than sold on the share market.
After a few seconds pause, The room erupted in applause and general conversation as Catherine sat down next to Jace, fully satisfied with her speech.
“You knew?” Jace accused in awe.
Catherine chuckled as she took hold of the closest hand in her reach. “Absolutely, “
“He looks like my dad.”
Jace didn't say anymore as they sat both bemused in their own way at the events that had transpired.
The room settled down as Catherine finished her personal speech then in the next hour did the honours with the retirement gifts. After that, she sat quietly contemplating the occupants of the room in particular her family regarding her new decisions.
Jace discreetly watched Catherine and saw the look that said all was well in her world. The worry lines etched into her features several weeks ago, and the more she thought about it probably months when her partner had been hurting mentally with the problems that had overtaken her, were gone. The real revelation had been Catherine's acceptance so easily of Steven. She'd been so adamant in the past that there would be no contact at all. Biting on her lip until finally curiosity got the better of her, she asked, “How long have you known about Steven?”
Catherine moved her gaze from the room to the eyes of her partner and smiled slowly. “Is that a trick question?'
“No, please, Catherine, it's important to me. I don't want you to think that I've lied to you again.” Jace had done so, but for all the best intentions. Would Catherine see it that way or would they go backwards in their relationship again. She answered herself–never.
Catherine gazed into the worried features of her lover and winked. “You didn't lie to me, Jace, you just didn't tell me that you knew Steven personally. I, on the other hand, did keep the truth from you.”
“What are you saying?”
“Look, let's go for a walk in the park across the street and talk there. We'll come back for the final goodbyes in an hour.” Jace didn't protest as Catherine talked to Jake and Lisa and within minutes, they were heading toward the park. On the way out, Jace remembered old Joe.
“I need coffee.” She raced to the machine and returned moments later with a steaming coffee.
Catherine flicked up one eyebrow in surprise that Jace only had one cup but didn't say anything. Navigating the busy afternoon traffic, they entered the park. Catherine looked around for a bench to sit on and was surprised when Jace headed in a direction confidently and eventually satg on an empty bench.
“O kay , we're here you can tell me now,” Jace said as Catherine took a seat beside her.
Catherine nodded. “I found out where my brother was and how he was living when Hudson first informed me of her ‘love child' with my father. I was alone in Rio with time on my hands and …well, needless to say, I have been aware of his life since that moment. I've even orchestrated a few subtle changes to his father's work place to ensure that he never came under the clutches of that woman again.”
Jace gasped at the memory of that time for she was the reason Catherine had been alone. Wide eyed, Jace asked, “If you knew so much and cared, why did you allow me to think that you didn't? Why for heaven sake haven't we met up? You've lost all those years getting to know him.”
Catherine considered that aspect. “At that time my life was a mess. Involving others in the mix especially anyone to do with Hudson wasn't an option.”
This time there was a strangled cry from Jace as her own part in that ‘mess' as Catherine called it reared up like a haunting nightmare.
Catherine placed her arm around her partner and soothed her. “It's ok, Jace, we've been through this numerous times. It really isn't important now. You're here beside me and have been for almost fifteen years. That's in the past and it can stay there.”
Jace knew she was right but the stark memories still hurt and would until the end of her days. “Go on.”
Catherine kissed the top of Jace's head and replied, “When I look back at the decision I made it was the right one, Jace. Because of his birth mother, I became, for a time anyway, half the person I was. I'd lost you and almost my life. There would have been no sense in my bitterness crossing over to Steven. As the years went by, I followed his progress and even gave the odd helping hand, especially when he needed to go to college. No brother of mine was going to miss out on a decent education because of money.”
Jace perked up as she heard the pride that was evident in the timbre of Catherine's voice, much as she used with the children when they received good reports from school.
“I decided to let things take there course and if he looked me up I was waiting.” Catherine finished quietly. “You haven't drunk your coffee…it will be getting cold.
Absently trying to take in what Catherine said, she replied, “It isn't for me.”
“It's for me?”
“No, no sorry. I've visited the park everyday since I arrived here. There's a man,” she looked around and her smile widened, “just in time.”
Catherine looked in the direction of Jace's stare and stood up.
Jace did the same as the old man came up close to them. “Catherine, I'd like you to meet a new friend of mine Joe Pettigrew. Joe this is my partner Catherine.”
Joe grinned widely, and then chuckled. “Oh, I know who Mrs Warriorson is missy.”
Catherine smiled at the old man. “Joe, how's it going? Have you finally come up with the perfect rose yet?”
Jace shook her head. Does Catherine know everyone and everything around here? Obviously. “I didn't know you were that well acquainted. I gathered from our conversation that… ”
“Oh you shouldn't jump to conclusions missy,” the old man said with a laugh.
“Has Joe been less than honest about what he does around here? Jace here is smitten by lost puppies or anything that might fit into that category. You haven't been giving that old sob story that you haven't a home again have?”
The old man looked chagrined at the comment. “Not exactly. I told the truth to a degree.”
“You old rascal…Joe is my head gardener in the park. Has been for almost twenty-five years. He lives in the cottage at the back of the grounds. I can't persuade him to give it up and take up the luxury of the retirement village next to it. He prefers his independence.”
“Is that for me?” Joe eyed the coffee.
Jace nodded and passed him the beverage. “I feel like I'm in a time warp and nothing makes sense anymore.”
Catherine saw the bewildered expression on Jace's face and felt pity for her. Today had been eventful that was certain.
“We'll be back next year and I want to see that…okay, Joe.” Catherine moved to leave and took hold of Jace's hand, reluctantly releasing it when Jace tugged away and moved closer to the old man.
Characteristically, Jace threw her arms around Joe and hugged him hard. “Take care of yourself, Joe. I want to see that rose too.”
The old man grinned. “I wouldn't expect any other especially as it's going to be named after you–boss' orders.”
Catherine shrugged and Jace bemusedly followed her in silence. When they reached the elevator, she turned to Catherine and asked, “You're having a rose named after me?”
The doors slid shut and Catherine smiled. “Yes.”
It really was that simple and Jace felt herself glow inside as her stomach churned at the emotions she was feeling. Then she turned to face Catherine. “I love you.” She placed her arms around the much taller frame and pulled her head down for a deep kiss.
When they came up for breath, the elevator had stopped but the doors hadn't opened. “Are we stuck.”
Catherine chuckled. “Nope, I pressed the stop button. It's a privilege of the chairwoman of the company to get to know her fellow shareholders on an intimate footing.” Catherine this time initiated the kiss and it went on longer than before.
Breathlessly Jace lifted her head and sought the blue gaze above her. “It really is a world of change isn't it?”
“It really is. Except for one thing.”
“You and me.”
“Amen to that.”
They lost themselves in the magic of the moment, ignoring the alarm that had been actioned when the elevator had stopped for more than ten minutes.
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