Disclaimers found in part 1

Chapter 8

Reluctantly Janice walked away from the large upstairs window overlooking the Pappas' long driveway. Pensively she rubbed her shoulders fighting down a sudden feeling of alarm. Where is she?

The blonde had immediately left off her cleaning upon hearing the front door open, but now she started back into her room to finish moving a set of books into the attic. She had located an access to the third floor storage space in the ceiling over her closet.

She would have to find a chest or several boxes to more permanently store the unneeded items, but the ability to remove them would keep her room from being cluttered unnecessarily. Janice put a foot on the lowest rung of a drop ladder and one hand on the side while the other cupped books against her chest.

"Miss Janice?"

The quiet voice coaxed the blonde down. As she turned she answered, "Yes, Vida?"

She watched Vida draw a long breath before speaking. "There'll be dinner downstairs in a moment."

"Melinda hasn't returned yet." A fact that knotted Janice's stomach suddenly more than the idea that she might have to eat dinner alone with Brenda Pappas.

"No, miss. She hasn't." Vida rubbed her hands on her apron and Janice realized that the diminutive woman was also disturbed by the brunette's long absence.

"Well, let's go down and eat. We'll keep something warm for her." Her firm injection of a confidence she did not feel must have worked.

Vida brightened considerably. "You think she's all right, Miss Janice?"

"Melinda has surprised me before with her resilience." She put her arm around Vida's shoulders. "She'll be more upset that she caused us all to worry."

Brenda was already seated when Janice entered with Vida, having let the older woman lead the way down the stairs. Both of them had kept one eye on the front door, wishing Melinda to walk in with an apologetic smile. Two sets of shoulders had dropped when the wished for entry was not forthcoming.

"Have a seat, Miss Janice. I'll get the first course." Vida nodded to Mrs. Pappas and then quickly pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen.

"You've been busy the last hour I see." Brenda lifted her napkin and set it across her lap.

"How... oh, you mean..." Janice glanced down at herself and realized she was liberally spotted with dust and dirt. "I was moving some things into the attic from my room." She considered that perhaps the older woman would not approve. "Is it all right? I needed to make something of an office out of the guest room."

Brenda brushed her hair back from her cheeks as Vida appeared with soup and salad. "So, you will be remaining for a while?"

"I've accepted a position to teach classes for a professor going on sabbatical." Janice knew her excitement was already creeping into her voice, despite her attempts at a calm factual response.

The older Pappas began eating as she composed a reply. Janice was surprised when she replied only mildly, "Sounds like you have everything settled."

Janice breathed, only then realizing the relief she felt. "Thank you."

"Does Melinda know yet?"

"Not all the details, but I mentioned it to her before lunch."

"That was hours ago. Do you have any idea what might have kept her?"

Janice recognized the worry in Mrs. Pappas's voice. "She must have had a late appointment, or a sudden late meeting was arranged."

Brenda must have found that an acceptable answer since she fell to eating her salad in earnest. Janice did also though she glanced over her shoulder toward the front door as Vida arrived with the dishes for the main course. She set the bowls toFwXC1YJ7 0 i V)$'$ b!AxFͫ|{c)l̨"ʬ2D FE Z&#>[4 " J°ȰJp81F\ ! 1-j 6bՄ.S="0w D$0 ۰?~c7̬>:O$%q p BQb>GaȈʈE$H (b w1L*Ҳ@0 |D4ÙT)D !0?!Y{|uuwıXu6̣J00pRiGc W@^ p1`"oG%n""+eѫJݬd@eɋQ(d]vPwh%1NPQي4uxfQ `-w(5`v$j̃*DBkEQ+ E@<~ؼMVPi.AP{hMlE @VLH8a`/O)fFq ^~p-*hǐzDTZGߝb hXJ Co.'K?@bPTGqUCQ`e:h)fDYDpB.g(eixXMBfq/9_08F`-~*Z' {<y|Xͅ?H!H:g!A7uOgHPF7->>]>O K0) uF^4؀J(o $ P6,p>"-FAɨ (Z+ v>LYb!d+/bZ3-h^%,E {2`elo!YTXa E5Lr. With a hard yank, she had the driver door open and reached inside to drag Melinda upright.

Instantly the woman's battered face, bloody lip, and torn clothes were evident. "Oh God! Mel!" She pressed the woman's face gently into her shoulder and soothed her fingers through the disarrayed dark hair.

She moved her palm away spattered in blood. "What the hell happened?"

"Dear God," Brenda's voice interrupted from the other side of the car. Janice only peripherally took note of the woman's reaching arms as she focused all her attention on the brunette's face, brushed her fingers tenderly over the numerous bruises. She felt the sponginess of Melinda's left cheek. What had she hit this hard?

"We have to get her into the house," Brenda's voice intervened again.

In complete agreement, Janice told her, "I'll move her. Clear the way, all right?"

Brenda backed out of the car and hurried back to the house. Janice heard Brenda scream for Vida and shook her head. "Okay, Mel. Come on, open those baby blues for me?" She brushed the dark short locks out of Melinda's face and gingerly traced a bruise on her right temple.

Taking a deep breath, she soothed her hands over Melinda's arms, ribs and legs, seeking out all the warm spots and dishearteningly finding several. How in the hell had the woman driven home?

A softly blurred voice stirred her hair where Melinda's head rested against her shoulder. "Hi."

Janice blew out a breath and had to restrain herself from pulling back quickly in her relief and excitement. "Mel? I'm glad you're awake. Come on. We've got to get you into the house." From the confused look in washed out blue eyes, Janice realized that Melinda wasn't registering probably even half of what she had just said. So she brushed the brunette's forehead, drawing the eyes up to hers, then leaned forward and pressed her lips to Mel's. "You're home," she breathed.

"Home," came back, breathy and uncertain.

Levering herself up from the awkward crouch while her arms kept Melinda upright, Janice raised Melinda so she could shift the brunette's long legs from the car to the drive.

"All right. Up." She lifted again, pulling Mel forward over her right shoulder. Loud groans from both women accompanied the project, but finally Melinda was standing outside the car, leaning heavily against Janice as well as the rear door of the sedan.

Janice looked up as she closed the door to the car and saw Vida and Brenda backlit by the open doorway. "Come on. Your mother's waiting."

Melinda moved with shuffling steps, frequently stopping with Janice's help. The pair negotiated the steps and finally gained the doorway where Melinda winced at the bright light, then moaned from the involuntary muscle contraction in her battered face. Her left arm would not respond to instructions to block the light and she breathed a request, "Too bright."

Janice shifted so she could support Melinda as well as shade her eyes. "I don't think we'll make it up the stairs," she admitted to Brenda. "Any place else we can lay her down?"

"The drawing room has a long couch."

Melinda faded in and out against Janice's shoulder. The blonde could tell each time the brunette awoke. Her grip around Janice's waist would momentarily tighten as she assured herself of her location. Occasionally too, Mel would nuzzle her hair, and despite calm reason which had taken over from the initial panic when Janice found Mel, the blonde realized she was becoming painfully aroused.

Finally they reached the couch. With Vida and Brenda behind, and Janice in front, the three women lowered Mel gingerly to the cushions. "Bandages, gauze, warm water. Some antiseptic too." Janice looked to Vida.

"I'll be quick." The small black woman hurried off.

"What happened to her?" Brenda asked. "Was she in an accident?"

Janice caught up Melinda's palms and turned them over, brushing her fingertips over the scabs and deeper cuts. "A car accident wouldn't have caused this. Besides the car looked intact."

"Attacked," Melinda breathed.

"Who?" Janice held Mel's gaze steadily. "Who did this Mel?"

"Train." Melinda swallowed painfully and closed her eyes. "The man from the train."

Brenda looked at Janice as the blonde eased away from Melinda, dropping the brunette's hands back on her stomach. "What man?"

Janice ignored her as her brain played one night in her mind over and over again. The flash of a gunshot and the sound of cracking bone and the muscle strain of a final desperate pitch off the back of a train crowded her head for a long moment.

"Someone I thought I had killed," Janice said slowly, turning back. Settling her gaze again on the couch, she asked, "Mel, are you sure?"

Cracked, bloody lips and a purpled cheek moved faintly. Swollen eyelids blinked. "Yes. Sure."

"Someone did this to my daughter because of you?" Brenda pushed to her feet. Vida's appearance with the bandages and water did not give her pause. Janice found her way to Mel's side blocked by stormy blue eyes and shaking fury.

Vida, Janice saw, knelt next to Melinda and began treating the numerous wounds. She winced when Mel did and felt the slap Brenda Pappas delivered to her own face as if it were no more than a bee sting.

Pain washed out both green and blue eyes as gazes met and warred for a long moment.

"Jan... Janice?" The softly uttered name from the couch shattered the blonde's icy feeling and shocked her into movement. She pushed past Brenda and immediately went to Mel's side.

"I'm here, Mel. It's all right. I'm here."

Chapter 9

Janice cleaned more blood from the scrapes in Melinda's palms being careful around the deep bruising across the knuckles and delicate wrists. Vida and Brenda worked quickly but gingerly to remove Melinda's torn shoes and shredded hose, the nylon fabric catching in her numerous cuts on her knees and thighs.

Melinda squeezed Janice's hands each time a movement particularly hurt and Janice's heart lurched. Damn, she thought. The man who had tracked them down on the train should have been dead. How had he survived a point-blank gunshot?

"We'll need to take the swelling down on her face," Janice suggested.

"I'll fetch some of the meat cuts." Vida handed off the task of bandaging Melinda's ribs to the brunette's mother.

Brenda took the tape and gauze and looked at it for a long minute.

"Put pressure there," Janice indicated a sluggishly bleeding spot between two of Melinda's lower ribs.

"I can tend my own daughter," the older woman snapped, carefully bending to clean it and then applying and taping down a gauze pad.

"I didn't mean--" Janice cut herself off, remembering the way the woman had cut into her earlier.

"Don't think I didn't hear what Melinda said. What you said. This is your fault." She glared at Janice. "It's the same with all of you," she accused, shaking her hand with the alcohol-wet rag in the blonde's face. "So caught up in your fanciful dreams you don't care who you drag into trouble with you!"

Janice stood up, unwilling to bear the woman's shaking hand directly in her face. Instantly she let go of Melinda's hand when the movement pulled a groan from the injured woman. "Am I going to finally get to the heart of this? I'd love to know exactly what it is you have against me!"

Brenda did not recoil. "I saw her when you both came to this house. Her injuries had barely recovered from that. Now this! Irresponsible. Flighty. All you Covingtons are alike!"

"But I haven't done anything to you!"

"You already have! Look at her!" Janice looked down on Melinda's face.

The brunette's face was a tight mask of pain. Various cuts and bruises stood out in stark relief against very pale skin. Janice swallowed the painful lump in her own throat as she imagined the beating endured to cause those kinds of injuries. "I know she's hurt," Janice admitted. "I know it's my fault." She raised her eyes to Brenda's daring her to challenge the conviction she felt. "I will fix this." The clearest vision passed before her eyes, of repeatedly stabbing the Nazi bastard who had done this. She swore.

"You can't fix this! You never could. Just left me to pick up the pieces every time you swept through."

Janice's brow furrowed in confusion and she realized what the problem was. "This is about my father? What the hell did he ever do to you?"

"He stole my husband's future!"


Vida appeared then with a cut of meat on a plate from the kitchen. Janice brushed Melinda's face free of loose hair and took the steak from the diminutive woman's hands. "Thanks." She turned to Brenda. "We will finish this later," she promised in a sharp voice. "I don't take crap about my father."

"You wouldn't. You're just like him. Rotten to the core," Brenda sniped back.

Janice stood abruptly and only just managed not to strike out as instinct commanded. She took several deep breaths and saw the fear in Mrs. Pappas's wide eyes. "I will tend to Mel," she said finally sharply biting off each word.

"I'm not going anywhere," Mel's mother replied, crossing her arms and glaring back.

"I suggest we wait until Melinda's well," Janice countered.


Janice sighed. "Fine." Why did life have to be so difficult?

Vida tucked Melinda under a blanket while Janice carefully applied the raw meat to the worst side of Melinda's bruised face.

Other than her explanation of the attack, Melinda had said nothing more. Her eyes remained closed more than open and the woman's groans as they treated her had finally trailed off.

"I think she'll sleep all right now," Vida thought aloud. "The doctor should be here any moment. I called him. I can watch her while you both get some sleep."

Brenda and Janice looked at her as if she had lost her mind. Stubbornness finally edged the rail-thin servant from the drawing room. Brenda took one chair, Janice another. Blue and green eyes locked in silence over Melinda's sleeping figure.

Vida returned, offering coffee. Both women declined.

"Go on to bed, Vida," Brenda said, finally.

"Yes, ma'am. Will you?"

"Not yet, Vida."

"Miss Janice?"

"No." Janice put her head in her hands and rubbed her temples. Mentally and physically exhausted, as if she had suffered Melinda's beating herself, Janice desperately wanted space to be alone with Melinda, to hug her and assure the brunette and herself that she was going to be all right.

But Brenda would not leave. Okay, then I'll ignore her, Janice thought. I need this. Mel needs this, she added. She reached out and lightly grasped Melinda's bandaged hand. Her own tension eased a little with the innocent contact. Her fingertips smoothed over the satiny skin of the backs of Mel's hands, careful of the bruises on her knuckles. Lacing her fingers among Mel's she brushed the scabs on her palms and bent her head, unwilling to let Brenda Pappas see her weakness as tears gathered in her eyes.

Vida nudged Brenda. "Coffee will help you stay awake, ma'am," she noted as the woman jerked, startling back from being half-asleep.

Casting a sidelong glance at Janice and Melinda, Brenda rose unsteadily on her feet. "All right."

With Vida alongside, Mel's mother left the drawing room.

Janice took a small breath, then another deeper one. By degrees she released her tension and eased closer to Melinda. Finally she crouched at the brunette's side, cradling the dark head in the crook of her elbow.

"Mel?" she whispered, brushing her lips lightly over each bruise. Sleepy cobalt eyes fluttered open and focused on her. Hot tears tracked down the blonde's smooth cheeks. "I'm so sorry you got hurt," she whispered.

"How did I get here?"

Janice quietly answered. "You drove home, but that seems about all you could manage."

Melinda's eyes roamed a little around the room's ceiling. "Where am I?"

"On the drawing room couch." Janice brushed Mel's hair carefully. "Are you all right? You did get hit in the head."

"Drawing room, hmmm?" Melinda's voice was raw, quiet, but ruminative like she was analyzing something. "Okay, that explains the unfamiliar perspective."

Janice's brow furrowed.

"I've never been on my back in this room," the brunette answered the question left unasked. "Otherwise I would have repainted the ceiling in here already. It looks horrible." She gradually moved her hand, until her fingers were over her eyes, pinching lightly at the bridge of her nose. "Where are my spectacles?"

Janice shook her head. "I don't know. You didn't have them on." That gave her pause. "Then how did you drive home?" She sat up. "Mel, what do you remember?"

"I remember getting knocked to the sidewalk." She lifted her hands. "I scraped my palms."

"What about the bruises on your face? Or your knuckles?"

Melinda blinked and focused on her hands, seeing the bruises with wide-eyed disbelief. "How?" Her expression grew perplexed.

"I think we have another rescue to thank Xena for," Janice said. She leaned close and breathed warmly over Mel's lips intending to claim a kiss to soothe them both.

"Xena again!"

Janice jerked up and spun around. Cornflower blue eyes narrowed just a few feet away.

"Fantasy! Crock! You're filling her head again with nonsense! There is no Xena!"

Melinda had been distinctly looking forward to Janice's kiss, enough that she could still taste the woman's breath on her tongue. "Mother," she breathed.

Eager and hopeful, Brenda Pappas hurried to her daughter's side, nudging Janice away, who could only move a short distance since Melinda refused to relinquish her hand. "Yes, dear?"

"Please. Go away." Mel's voice was a whisper but she might as well have shouted for the sudden silence that her words caused.

Brenda's words cut through the silence at last, in protest. "But Melinda dear, you aren't well."

"Then... we can... talk when I'm feeling better. Please. The shouting... is really hurting my head."

Brenda stepped back, her face reddening as she reined herself in. "I'll... I'll see you ... in the morning, then." Her head down, she walked quickly from the room.

"Your head hurts? Can I get you something for it?" Janice asked. "Powder?"

Melinda breathed carefully, aware that Janice was trying not to upset her either. "Can you help me upstairs to my own bed?"

"Are you sure?"

"I'll get a cramp in my neck if I stay here."

"All right. Upstairs, then I'll get you some powder and tuck you in."

Being careful of Melinda's tender ribs, Janice helped the tall brunette to her feet and the pair shuffled slowly up the stairs and down the darkened hallway to the woman's bedroom on the end.

They both heard the door chime and Vida opening it to admit the doctor.

"Why do I feel like this isn't the first time or the last I'll be helping you like this?" Janice asked, trying for amusement as she maneuvered Melinda with close to practiced ease. She helped the woman lie down amid the comfort of her own sheets and tucked in the thick comforter around her body.

Melinda grasped Janice's hand and rubbed her fingers between her own. "It's all right."

Janice detected a definite strain and hesitation in the woman's voice, which still managed to sound soothing, like melted caramel. "I'll get you something for your headache and then I'll let the doctor in to see you."

"Getting too mushy for you, Covington?" Mel joked, coughing a little at the end.

Actually Janice now felt bad about the way Mel had dismissed her mother, recognizing now that Brenda had only been fiercely protecting her family, a feeling Janice knew she shared tenfold for this particular Pappas. "Something like that." She wanted to talk to Brenda before her brain shut down from sheer exhaustion. She bent forward and kissed Mel's forehead. "I'll be right back."

Janice met the doctor in the hallway. The middle-aged man was trimly dressed in a loose suit jacket and carried a small bag. "Where's Miss Melinda?" he asked.

"In there," Janice gestured. "She's complaining of a headache and has a lot of bumps and bruises."

"I'll check her for a head injury and find a way to make her comfortable," he said.

"Thank you, Doctor...?" Her voice trailed off in question.

"Spaulding. Who might you be?"

"Janice Covington. I'm a friend."

"Covington, hmmm. Well then, Miss Covington, excuse me. I'll be right back."

A quick search of Melinda's medicine cabinet turned up a small box of the headache powders. She ducked into her room, returning with the small whisky bottle Vida had provided her earlier for her coffee.

This ought to knock the edge off Melinda's pain quickly and let the woman get a comfortable night's sleep. She returned to the bedroom and stood back a little, watching the doctor examine Melinda's eyes, listen to her chest and talk briefly with the brunette who offered only a mild description of her accident.

Spaulding stood and gestured for Janice to come forward. "I can't see anything terribly wrong. Keep an eye on her tonight though. Do you have something for headache?"

"I found this in the medicine cabinet." He examined the box and nodded. She dispensed the powder into a cup and poured a little whisky after it.

Melinda drank down the contents in a quick gulp. "Lord Almighty!" She gasped as the alcohol burned a fiery trail to the pit of her stomach. Lassitude followed quickly and she settled back quietly.

The doctor nodded. "You'll be fine in the morning, Miss Pappas. Get some rest." And he left.

"How on earth do you enjoy that vile drink?" she murmured as Janice tugged the covers up and tucked them in snugly around Mel's shoulders.

"Burns away the pain," Janice said frankly. Melinda's eyes drifted open at the simple answer and Janice watched them flutter shut again. "Good night, Mel."

"Good night, Jan." The brunette reached up a hand and pulled down against the back of the blonde's head drawing her lips closer.

Janice tasted the whisky as their mouths met. She shivered when Melinda's tongue began a sweet exploration before she dragged herself away.

When she turned around, still shaken by the depths expressed in that single kiss, Janice found Brenda Pappas standing in the doorway, a storm brewing in the cerulean eyes. Nudging Mrs. Pappas back, Janice pulled the door partly closed.

"Damn you," Brenda accused. "Get out!"

Fiercely, Janice shook her head. "I'm not leaving, Mrs. Pappas." She let her feelings for the woman's daughter show fully in her face. Her eyes brightened and her lips softened into a smile of almost child-like unfettered joy. "I can't."

She took a deep breath, praying for guidance that this was the right thing to do, right here and right now. "I love her."

Chapter 10

"Don't you dare pollute this house with that lie!"

Janice felt a warm presence at her back at the same moment she felt the air shift and Brenda's right hand sped toward her face. The woman's hit did not land, instead intercepted by long fingers seizing her wrist.

Cobalt and cerulean eyes locked over Janice's shoulder. "That's enough."

The voice was so low it was almost nothing more than the vibration Janice felt through her back where Melinda's body leaned. When Brenda pulled her wrist away, rubbing it lightly and turned her back, Janice nudged herself back inside the door and spun, grabbing for Melinda instantly.

"Dear God, Mel. Don't ever do that again."

"I thought you could use a little help."

Janice paused, bracing Melinda with her hands around the brunette's back. The woman's voice was all wrong. She looked up once again almost releasing the heavy body in her hands in her surprise. There was a harder edge to Melinda's bearing, a stunning vibration of power off the slim form that made her seem more primal somehow. Janice had seen the look before, but was still surprised to see it again. "Dear God! Xena!" She realized how loud that came out and tried again, more quietly. "Xena?"

"Yes." The body sagged a moment, then gradually there was a change in the woman's demeanor once more. She straightened to her full height, disentangling herself from Janice's grip.

"What... How..." Janice blundered about for a way to express her confusion and was contained only when a pair of firm hands wrapped themselves around her upper arms and pushed her onto the bed nearby. "Howinthehelldidthishappen?" Finally her thoughts rushed out falling over themselves.

Searing cobalt eyes captured her gaze. "You needed me," she said simply. "Melinda let me help."

"Is she able to do that? Just ask and you pop out? Did you... come out... before? To help her get away from the Nazi I mean?"

Xena chuckled. And it was, Janice realized, Xena not Mel. The southerner had a considerably daintier laugh, whereas the Greek warrior's amusement was more a vibration in her chest that came out in a low rumble.

Janice tried very hard to grasp the idea that Xena's spirit and Melinda's could occupy the same space, namely Melinda's body. "Where... Where does Melinda go when you... um... borrow her?"

"I'm here, Jan," came back in a tired voice, strained and breathy. When Janice focused on the brunette's face, she was thunderstruck by the difference. The jaw was softer, the gaze from the eyes no longer as piercing.

"Incredible." The blonde reached out and grasped the long fingered hand that rested next to Melinda's hip. "Mel?"

"I'm... tired," the brunette admitted.

Instantly Janice stood and coaxed the brunette under the covers and helped her slide back against the pillows on the bed. "I think I have to go smooth things over with your mother. You should get some sleep."

"Don't let her hurt you, Janice."

"I think she's hurting too," Janice said finally.

"You always did try to fix things," came back softly in a stronger, more vibrant voice.

Janice sat back from where she had been brushing her fingers over Melinda's cheek. "Geez, Xena. I was talking to Mel."

The brunette's cobalt eyes lifted to meet her gaze and the lips quirked into a bemused smile. "Sorry."

"Just don't make it a habit, all right? Now, can I have her back?" The playful smile left slowly and Janice saw the faint glow recede once more. "Get some sleep. I'll be back in a little while to check on you."

Mel's voice answered vaguely tired. "All right."

Janice leaned close and searched the soft features for a long moment before finally lowering her lips to Mel's for a kiss. Beautifully the gentle touch deepened and Janice caught herself sucking in Melinda's sweet breath as the injured woman's arm slipped around the back of her head, long fingers lacing through her hair and Mel's heartbeat sped up under her palm where it rested on the woman's chest. "Good night, Mel," she finally offered, pulling back and settling Melinda's hands once more against the covers.

"Good night, Jan."

Vida stood in the hallway, alone, when Janice emerged from Miss Melinda's room. The blonde woman looked around. "Miss Janice?"

"She's sleeping easily now, Vida. It's all right."

"You should get some rest too, miss."

Janice shook her head. "I think I ought to talk to Mrs. Pappas."

"You can't, miss."

"I don't like issues hanging, Vida. It's just not my style. She needs to understand that."

"No, that's not... What I meant is the missus isn't here."

Janice stepped back. "What? It's nearly midnight. What on earth?"

"She put on her coat and left out the back door just a little while ago."

Taking a deep breath, Janice put her hands on her hips. She studied the floor as if looking for answers in the long hallway rug, a vaguely oriental design in burgundy. "I guess she didn't leave the property then. I didn't hear a car."

"No, miss."

Janice lifted her gaze to chocolate eyes. "Does she have a place she likes to go, Vida?"

Vida considered the question. What she knew of Melinda's mother ran counter to telling the young blonde where she had gone. Mrs. Pappas was fiercely devoted to that particular place, and it was only by chance, since she had once been looking for the woman, that Vida herself had discovered the older Pappas's personal hideaway. But then she took account of the woman before her. There was an unshakeable devotion in the compact body, one she suspected might be able to heal more than just young Miss Melinda, but perhaps the mother as well.

Odd that, she thought. One tears it asunder. The next might put it back together. Shaking her head of the far too profound thoughts, Vida then nodded. "Yes, miss. She does. Head out past the stables. You'll see a copse of trees. There's a... little cove tucked against the side of the lake."

Janice grasped her hands briefly and then hurried down the corridor, down the stairs and Vida peeked in on Miss Melinda sleeping as she heard the back door open and close again, heralding Miss Covington's departure from the house, who certainly earned high marks for bravery in the servant's estimation.

The rain had cleared away the cloudiness of the day and now faced with a clear sky the moon cast its reflected light against the slumbering earth. Janice thought the description fanciful the moment it popped into her head as she stepped clear of the large house's circle of light. She stepped out onto a cobbled stone path leading toward the lower land and the river north of the plantation property. The lake Vida spoke of must be the spring source of the river and lie between here and the end of Pappas land.

The world was cast in variations of pale blues and the spectrum of gray. The outline of a hay barn rose like a mammoth off the path to her left. The ground dipped and swayed sloping down and away on the right, and she glanced down at the split in the path scanning the dirt.

Nodding she moved quickly down the right path, following the slight indentations left behind by the elder Pappas. She shivered in her thin shirt but doggedly continued forward.

The ground sloped upward slightly and when she reached the top, Janice saw the shimmering still waters of the lake reflecting the half moon crystalline clear.

As she neared the edge of the copse Vida must have meant, Janice slowed as she considered what to say. Or even if the older woman would let her say anything, which was very unlikely. I must be crazy, the blonde thought, coming to a stop and leaning against a tree, staring out at the lake.

She caught movement off to her right, out of the corner of her eye. Not looking directly at the older woman, Janice stood briefly, shoving her hands into her pants pockets to keep them warm. Then she leaned back against the tree and finally spoke. "You ought to come inside where it's warmer." Janice groaned. For all that she hated dissembling in others she found herself frequently engaging in it. She avoided looking to see what reaction her words caused, and shook her head. "No. Never mind. That's not what I came out to say."

"What do you want?"

Janice looked down at the dirt bank leading down to the lake and stuck the toe of her shoe behind a small rock, nudging it out and kicking it into the water, rippling the surface. "I want what most people want, Mrs. Pappas. Someone to love, and someone to love me."

"And your behavior," she spoke the word distastefully, "is acceptable nowhere. My daughter was meant for better than this."

"She probably does," Janice replied honestly. "But for reasons I can't understand entirely she loves me." The blonde pulled her hands in exasperation from her pockets and combed her fingers through her hair. "She's intelligent, compassionate, dedicated, settled. So many things I never thought I'd find."

"Gallivanting everywhere, you certainly weren't looking very hard. And the moment the opportunity presents itself you goad my daughter into taking a horrifying, dangerous trip."

"Actually, I wrote Mr. Pappas the telegram, Mrs. Pappas." Janice hazarded a glance toward the older woman to see she wasn't looking toward the blonde either. She softened her voice in direct proportion to the stiff set of Brenda Pappas's jaw. "She chose to answer me herself."

"But she was hurt. Badly."

"I protected her as best I could, but her choices put her in dangerous situations. Her quick thinking in several circumstances saved our lives in quite a few of them."

Brenda Pappas must have changed locations. When she next spoke her voice came from a slightly different direction, up and behind to Janice's right. She had left the water's edge. "Why didn't you send her home?"

Janice turned. "I tried, when we first met. She is a very stubborn woman," she admitted.

"So you're saying that none of this is your fault. How convenient for you."

The blonde stiffened. "I never said that. I will absolutely, positively take blame for the things I've done wrong against Melinda." She took a step toward Brenda who consciously took a step backward. "But what I will not do is take responsibility for something I had no control over." She put her hands on her hips and then slashed them in opposite directions each time she covered a point. "I will take responsibility for sending the telegram. I will not take responsibility for Melinda's decision to answer the telegram by traveling to Greece. I will take responsibility for the injuries she received when I did not effectively protect her. I will not take responsibility for the things my father did or did not do to you and your family a decade ago."

Brenda frowned, taken aback by the rapidly fired off list. "Harry Covington was a no good dreamer."

"Whatever else he was, Mrs. Pappas, he was my father. I gather that he did something to you or Dr. Pappas, and I'm sorry for it, but I won't pay for my father's mistakes. Melinda's well being and my desire to make sure she is happy and remains so mean that I have to find a way to make you understand this. The tension between us is driving Mel into hard choices I'd rather she didn't have to make... That you weren't forcing her to have to make."

"I? I have done no such thing."

Janice strode up the embankment until she was even, eye to eye with Brenda Pappas. "Whatever your original intention, Mrs. Pappas, nevertheless, you have forced her to weigh her family loyalty against her love for me."

"She will not love you."

Remembering her parting kiss with the brunette lying upstairs trying to sleep, Janice shook her head. "It's not a matter of 'will', Mrs. Pappas."

The woman became red-faced and she mumbled about 'tarnation' and 'unnatural things' as she turned her back on Janice.

"Mrs. Pappas, did you love your husband?"

The woman turned abruptly, flashing blue eyes settling on the blonde with disdain. "Yes, but you would know nothing of that kind of love," she charged.

Janice accepted this answer without rancor. "And did he love you?"

The older woman stood silent, a sentinel on the higher ground for a long, long moment. She did not answer, and only walked away, pulling her cape closer around her head as the tail fluttered in the night breeze behind her.

Alone on the copse overlooking the lake, Janice swallowed hard, wondered if she ought to continue trying, and turned her face up into the light rain that once again, began to fall, as she walked a circuitous path back toward the house.

Chapter 11

The dimly lit cavern exploded with light and a vibrating crash. She felt the wave slam her body through the air and the crush of rocks and dust against her palms and face when she hit the cave floor. Startled, she could find no voice to scream before she blacked out.

Surging upward from the darkness, Mel wondered where she was. Her body ached; her head pounded a rhythm to match her pulse. She flexed her hands, the long fingers sinking into softness instead of the unyielding ground. Disoriented, she opened her eyes carefully and dimly identified that she lay in a pool of sunlight.

The warmth seeped into her skin, easing aches and waking her brain by degrees. She blinked in annoyance as she suffered a brief ringing in her ears. As she was moving an agonizingly pained arm and shoulder, to put her hand over her exposed ear, the ringing stopped. Gradually she rolled onto her back and looked up to see the ceiling of her bedroom.

The muted colors of her room diffused the sunlight from the windows and she lay quietly. Contemplatively she consciously muted the feedback from numerous points of pain.

Melinda realized the fleeting dream images that had awakened her had been her recollection of Ares Cave. It always stopped just short of any awareness of Xena's arrival in her body. The old memory must have been triggered by the attack the night before. Gingerly she guided both palms over her eyes and directed a query inward. Was Xena still present? The brunette felt a brief twinge in her chest in response.

The realization that she had the spirit of a long-dead warrior pushing around her insides should have bothered her, she knew. Then again, she thought, the woman was a relative. A wry chuckle escaped her bruised lips. Deep in her psyche Melinda felt an answering vibration and drew momentary comfort from knowing that her unique bond saved her life last night.

Vividly, if a bit second-hand like she'd been standing off to the side, she recalled the Nazi's attack. She rolled onto her side, facing her bedroom door. Only vaguely did she remember getting home. She wondered if she had managed to warn Janice that the dangers in Europe followed them still.

She had both legs off the side of the bed, bent over searching for her slippers, when she heard footsteps.

"Mel! What are you doing out of bed?" A firm, small hand grabbed her shoulder and she lifted her chin, wincing at the pain in her neck and back as she looked up into the inquisitive green eyes of Janice Covington.

Her brain moved a little faster than her throat. "...talk to you," she mumbled.

"Well I'm here now. Lie back down and we'll talk." Solicitously Janice's firm hands guided her back down, adjusting the covers. Then the blonde's fingers trailed through Mel's hair and the brunette realized the woman's fingers were shaking. "God, Mel! You scared the hell out of me."

"I apologize," she responded, working her throat and jaw carefully.

"Why? It's not your fault you were attacked." Mel arched her neck slightly to meet Janice's gaze, watched it grow troubled and drop away. "It's mine." Steeling herself through Janice brought her eyes back up.

Mel felt a brief surge and volubly countered Janice's stark self-castigation. "It's not your fault either."

For a long silent moment the two women exchanged stubborn looks. Then Janice turned away. "How's your head?" she asked, avoiding the discussion.

"Fuzzy," Mel admitted.

"Your ribs?" Janice's hands lightly skimmed the bones in question.


Hands moved over her arms and cheeks. "Your arms? Face?"

"Stiff," Mel responded quietly.

Slowly Janice smiled a barely noticeable curve of her lips up on the left side. "How's your stomach?"

Mel responded with a smile of her own. "Positively empty." She felt Janice's hand slide over hers on her chest. "Is it too late for some breakfast?"

"It's just past lunch," Janice replied. "Vida figured you would want something. We both figured it ought to be light." She squeezed Mel's hand. "How does chicken soup sound?"

"Like a start."

Janice nodded. "All right. I'll be right back up with two bowls." Patting Melinda's hand, she rose from the bed. Mel tracked her light tread down the hall, then the back stairs.

Following her light lunch, Melinda moved out of her bedroom, despite Janice and Vida's protests. In deference to them she only moved to the porch on the second floor which gave a beautiful view over the back acreage of the vast property.

Janice settled in a woven chair and Melinda relaxed gradually in a folding lounge. The companionable silence stretched as each woman worked on her own quiet thoughts. The afternoon sun and breeze filled the late autumn day with a pleasant feeling.

Melinda felt her head grow heavy and must have dozed a little. Next thing she heard was Janice's voice, softly calling her name. "Mel? Hey?"

She blinked and met emerald eyes. "Hmm?"

"You want a blanket or something?"

Slowly she shook her head, feeling the pain shift through the muscles in her upper back and neck, and finally easing. "I'm all right." She cocked her head toward the sun briefly. "It's nearing supper," she guessed.

Janice glanced down at her wristwatch. "Yep. Almost four o'clock."

"I had better start getting ready for dinner."

The blonde stiffened up. "You... don't have to go down tonight. I'll... bring a tray up."

"Mother will give --"

"No she won't."

"Janice, I know that she--"

"She left." Just like that. No inflection, no skirting the issue. Janice laid the fact out.

Mel took a deep breath. "When?"

"This morning after breakfast. She... came up to look in on you. I... saw her leaving your room. Next thing I heard the front door... and then... the car started." Janice looked down at her hands. "I'm sorry that I drove your mother away." Green eyes glistened when she looked up again. "I... was trying... I didn't mean..."

"Did she say something to you?" Mel felt the fever of quicksilver fury course through her and half rose off the chair.

Janice stood up, shoulders rounding, and walked over to the porch railing, leaning heavily on it as she turned into the breeze, letting it lift her blonde curls off her face and neck. "No, she didn't say anything. She didn't have to... I... know."

"She could have just as easily left because of what I did," Mel countered. "It's not your fault."

"It is my fault," Janice retorted. "I should never have written and drawn you to Greece. I shouldn't have dragged you all over the Mediterranean. I should have been more responsible. I got us shot at, beaten, the plane crash..."

"Stop it!"

Mel's sharp tone snapped Janice's head up and around.

"Janice, come here." The brunette's voice was soft, but her tone was firm and her words even.

The blonde nibbled her bottom lip for a moment then she moved to stand at the foot of Mel's chair. Green eyes traced up the battered body until their gazes connected. Blue eyes held hers with a touch of angry fire. She winced.

Mel reached out her hand. Tentatively the blonde's fingers met her own. She tugged the woman to sit. "Now, I'm only going to say this once." She waited until she had the other woman's complete attention. "I do not now, nor have I ever blamed you for anything." She squeezed the hand held lightly in her grasp.

"I do not regret one minute of your presence in my life. I think I have loved you from that first moment when you appeared and told Smythe's men that wasn't a way to treat a lady. You were so self-assured, so cocky."

Janice remembered the bravado that had immediately sprung to her lips in a bid to protect the delicate looking woman who had entered her camp. She took a deep breath, tired and worn out. "It was an act," she said, finally, unburdening herself. "I just knew that I couldn't let them hurt you."

The air between them became charged with silence. Finally, Melinda lifted Janice's chin, probed her gaze and said, "I know."

Janice's expression collapsed with those words, certain that now that her lie was known Melinda would send her away.

The brunette's next words however surprised her. "I did not fall in love with you because of some damsel in distress notion of a knight in shining boots and khaki, Janice Covington. Or do you really think that little of me?" Melinda could feel the resentment rising in her voice, but couldn't stop it.

Janice didn't understand; she had failed Melinda in a very primary way; a failure of protection. Why wasn't she angrier? She could hear the resentment in Mel's voice, but the words suggested that Mel wasn't angry, but hurt instead. "Why?"

"You have the most remarkable streak of compassion, dedication and quick-witted intelligence I think I've ever met. You are at times willfully stubborn and other times I can feel you are so alone and lost. All I want to do is hold you and tell you it's all right to cry." Melinda caught Janice's surprised reaction. "Right from the beginning when you insisted you had to go back for the chakram and scrolls," she explained. "I could see it. I wanted to help, but you wouldn't let me."

"Again. Why?"

"Because you taught me how to be strong, Janice. You showed me."

Janice shook her head. "It wasn't me. It was Xena. Inside you."

Melinda could feel inside herself another consciousness briefly sit up and take notice. She shook her head though and the sensation quieted back. "No, Janice. Xena allowed me to be strong enough physically. You showed me the desire to give it a try. Because you have that same desire. At first I thought nothing frightened you, but then I saw... some things do... yet you fought through them anyway. That's courage, Janice. I... didn't... possess that... until you showed it to me. Because you wanted to be my friend."

"Yeah, now look what that did. Some friend I turned out to be. Your mother left you same as mine left me."

Melinda released her hands abruptly. "I see. You figure you need to fix my life." She pushed away from Janice and struggled to her feet from the lounge. "Janice, I had a bad relationship with Mother years before you came along."

Janice reached out for Mel's shoulder, but the brunette shrugged off the touch without looking at her. "But she's your mother."

"Yes. She is. My mother. My problem. Don't try to fix my life, please. Just... be my friend." She turned around, leaning heavily on the outside wall of the house as she steadied her gaze on Janice, within arm's reach. "I love you, Janice. But I need to run my own life."

"What about the rest?"

"You mean the Nazis and the rest of it?" Janice nodded. Mel took a deep breath. "You are still a much better shot than me." She grasped Janice's hand when it lifted toward her own. "Will you just... stick by me?"

The blonde woman's eyes teared over and she nodded, swallowing back the lump gathering in her throat. "I... promise, Mel." There was a touch of wonder in her voice.

Mel bent close and pressed her lips carefully over Janice's cheek, tasting the tears, and then, tenderly, tasting her lips. The blonde groaned; Mel groaned in response and the kiss deepened.

"I... should tell you something," Mel murmured as Jan's mouth left hers and the small blonde burrowed carefully against the taller woman's chest.

"No. No, it doesn't matter," Janice protested. "I'm... so sorry... I was acting stupid." She pressed the back of Melinda's head gently down so she could taste the soft lips again.

"No, it does matter. I..." She swallowed wondering how, after seeing how torn up Janice was about this... "How could I have ever been jealous of Cuthridge?" she murmured.

The blonde pulled her head back. "What?"

"I... you were so excited. I... went back to talk to him... that's... why I was late coming home."

"You went back to the campus?" Melinda nodded. "And after dark... Jesus, Mel... that was... You were jealous of Cuthridge?" Her voice held another note of wonder. Melinda nodded again. "Do I still have a job?"

"That's the other problem. The university board might make him drop you for their candidate."

Janice pulled away from Mel. "I... think you had better start at the beginning."

Chapter 12

Vida set the tray with its platters, cups and silver, on the table between the two women. "Will you need anything else, Miss Melinda?"

Janice glanced up from the dinner, inhaling the aromas of roasted chicken and sweet basil corn. "Smells wonderful, Vida."

"I'll tell cook you said so, Miss Janice."

Melinda's gaze left the petite black woman's figure and drifted to Janice. "Vida, why don't you take the rest of the week off. Tell Millie that Janice and I can manage."

Janice remembered that the next day, Thursday, was the same day last week that Vida had taken off. Probably a regular occurrence she thought.

"Are you certain?"

The blonde could see Mel settling herself with a bit of stiffness. "I'll be fine," she insisted to the housekeeper/cook.

"You know my mother's number," Vida replied. "Call if you need anything."

Melinda smiled. "All right. I promise."

With that settled, Vida returned inside as the evening breeze picked up.

Janice dipped her fork into her chicken and flaked off a bite, bringing it to her mouth with a savoring groan. "So, are you going to tell me what that was all about?" The brunette looked up from her own plate in surprise. "Come on. I know tomorrow's her day off, but the whole week? What's up?"

Cleaning her fingers unnecessarily with the napkin, Melinda leaned back and remained silent for a long moment. "I want her safe." Melinda put aside her fork after another bite. "Janice, the attack... They're here. And it is foolish to think they aren't going to find their way here very soon."

"So... you want her safe elsewhere." Janice nodded in understanding. "Come on, finish up. I'll tuck you into bed."

Melinda returned to her plate. "I'd rather have a bath. I feel... filthy."

Janice nodded. "That can be arranged." She nodded at the brunette's plate. "Finish. I'll go start the water and then take our dishes down to the kitchen." She reached over and rubbed her fingers over the back of Melinda's left hand. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For... making me see reason. Old habits die hard I guess."

"Which one, accepting blame for things that have nothing to do with you? Or being overprotective?" There was a smile on Mel's lips even though the words stung... just a little.

"Being overprotective, I suppose first. But the blame... has been around a long time too." She accepted Melinda's nod. "I guess my grandmother had an influence on me after all." She forked another bite of chicken then lifted her drink to her lips.

Melinda's fingers changed position, now rubbing the back of Janice's hand. "Formidable lady?"

"Yeah. Dad and she... There were always sparks in the room. She thought he was so beneath my mother... but then when my mother... left... It was his fault. My fault too, I always thought. If I had been a little... I don't know... more of a balance between them... Maybe... I could have... I don't know..."

"Janice, you were a child."

"Yeah, all of eight years old. Then suddenly even Daddy wasn't around anymore. I... hated my grandmother for that... for driving him away."

They fell silent and finished their meals. Janice collected the tray of dishes and silver, leaving briefly to take it all downstairs. She decided to do the actual washing after she had the brunette safely sleeping.

Melinda moved slowly to her bedroom, sitting on the bed and carefully sliding her feet from her slippers before unbuttoning her pajama top. Janice entered to find her struggling with her hair, unable to hold her shoulders in the higher position for very long.

"I'll get that," she offered, sliding onto the bed's mattress behind the brunette. Gently she nudged Mel's hands out of the way and released the clip and pins. The silk texture of Melinda's fine dark hair wrapped itself around Janice's fingers and the heat from her skin awakened the suppressed desires of the last two weeks. Abruptly she released Mel's hair and slid off the bed, going to the bathroom. "I'll draw the water."

"Janice?" Melinda remained on the bed, a little worried about the blonde's reaction. She worked off her pajama bottoms and wondered what to do next.

"Yes?" The archaeologist's clear tone was partially drowned by the sound of running water. Then she stepped out of the bathroom to stand in the doorway.

Mel's breathing quickened as she studied the petite form clad in the soft white blouse and tan slacks. They really had to do something about the woman's depleted wardrobe. But right now all Melinda could think about was the curves the clothes hid. It had been a very trying two weeks and from Janice's tentative behavior now that they were alone, it was clear the blonde didn't quite know where they stood.

"Will you... help me wash?" Melinda was uncertain if she could recapture the easiness of their relationship from the trip home, but with her mother's presence no longer an issue, her own desires clearly demanded she try. Janice had yet to return to her usual self despite Melinda's reassurances.

Janice nodded tightly. "All right." She walked across the room to the bed and offered her hand, palm up, to Melinda. "I'll help."

The brunette slipped her left hand into Janice's right and pushed off the bed, coming wobbly to her feet. The blonde's arms quickly caught around her nude waist and steadied her. "Thank you."

"No problem." The hands fell away and she walked beside Janice to the bathroom.

The bathroom boasted a huge claw-footed ceramic tub. The mirror over the small counter and sink was already coated with a thin film of steam and the air was warm and moist. Janice offered her a hand again and she lowered herself into the water, sighing as her skin and muscles twitched in the heated water. Carefully she fully submerged, letting the heat relieve some of the headache she was experiencing as she tried to think what to do next. "Would you wash my back?" she voiced as she finally lifted her head and shoulders above the surface.

Without a word, the blonde moved around behind her. She fished a wash cloth from a drawer and then soaped it. The cloth's texture moving over her back awakened Melinda's nerve endings with a happy jolt. She shifted so the blonde had access to as much of her back as possible and the attention continued.

Janice felt the taller woman's tight muscles and soon worked over Mel's back and shoulders with firmer fingers and the heels of her hands, in small massaging circles. Her own shoulders and arms tingled after a little while and she realized it had been some time since she had engaged herself in purely physical activity. "I've got to get back to exercising," she murmured to herself.

"What?" Mel prompted only vaguely hearing her.

"I was just thinking I should probably find some time to exercise." Janice's hands moved over Mel's arms. "I shouldn't be getting this tired from just giving you a back rub."

"It's been an odd couple of weeks for you. No dig to keep yourself occupied."

"There's been plenty to do," Janice protested.

"I know." She paused as Janice came around and leaned over the side of the tub gesturing for Mel's foot. She obliged and sighed as the blonde's sinewy fingers prodded through the tensions in her feet, ankles, and calves. "But you're used to physical activity. What... if I told you I was thinking of refurbishing more of the house? Ripping out flooring, replacing the baseboards, painting, sanding, the works."

Janice paused, rubbing her thumb over Melinda's instep. "Which rooms?"

"I was thinking we'd start with your room."

"Why? My room is fine."

"You need an office don't you?"

"What if I don't get the job?" Janice eased away from the tub and settled on the commode seat, hunched over, hands pressed together pensively. "You said the board had another candidate in mind."

"I thought he might be using you as a pawn to get between the board and the rules. But Cuthridge seems sincere in wanting you in the position. I convinced him to talk to John... Smith, the university president," she clarified. "Maryann--that's his wife--suggested I try." The brunette rolled her shoulders and started to reach for the shampoo. Janice caught the movement and reached it first, passing the bottle to her, which she waved off. "Would you?"

Janice moved around behind her once more and Melinda felt a little easier explaining when she couldn't see the blonde's face directly. Sudsy fingers massaged through her hair and over her scalp. Closing her eyes she sighed. "If you meet Maryann," she murmured, "she's going to bombard you with a lot of questions I think."


Melinda nodded, closing her eyes as she felt the water start sluicing down over her head rinsing away the dirt and grime. "I... couldn't stop thinking about you. Finally I told her I'd met someone in Europe... to explain my distraction. She... thought I met a fiancé."

She could feel Janice shifting behind her and for a precious moment she wanted to see Janice's face, but resisted. Guess that was a bit unexpected of me, Mel thought.

When Janice did finally speak, it was to change the subject. "Did a lot of people know you were going to Europe?"

"No. Vida knew. But I didn't tell anyone else. I just went to find you. A lot of people never considered me that impulsive, so there's been a few shocked looks."

"Melinda, I know you and I know you're not nearly that impulsive. So what exactly was it about my telegram that did it?"

"It wasn't... well not entirely anyway. After I received it, I couldn't get it out of my head. I left it on my father's desk for almost two weeks unopened. The... thought of someone... I'd have to tell them about Father's death... It... Well, anyway, I read it because the curiosity got to be too much."

Janice chuckled and eased around, leaning quietly, arms folded, on the side of the tub, listening. "I'll believe that. You are positively the most curious woman I have ever met."

Mel accepted the comment. "Anyway, the... your message... intrigued me. I... started to research some of the answers for you, planning a reply which would just fill in your answers, and then I was going to tell you about Father's death. I had no idea how close you were... or even if you really knew him... But I knew I would have to tell you."

"But why in person?"

"The reason for that... came later." Melinda closed her eyes, thinking back and continuing her narrative. "After I had been researching things for about a week, I... started dreaming... At first it was ordinary dreams, wondering what a dig was really like, wondering what this J. Covington was like... Then I had a nightmare... terror really. I saw weapons, fireballs, gunfire... felt a sense of... urgency, and a sort of... helplessness." She looked at Janice. "There was a crystal clear vision of you... and I had never met you, but it was you... in a cave... Ares's cave I know now... I saw you take a knife in the chest." Melinda took a deep breath. Janice's hand slid up her arm to quietly knead her shoulder. "You... died. I woke up panting and in a sweat. I told Vida I was taking the first plane out of the country that night. Her brother drove me to the airport. I flew into Rome first, and booked passage on a small fishing ship. They dropped me in Tunis then I made my way to you. It took me six days. I kept thinking I'd get there too late... for what I wasn't sure, but I was terribly concerned about not arriving in time."

Janice puzzled through this. "What do you think now?"

"Well Smythe was the one who took the knives. I remember seeing that just before I blacked out."

Nodding, Janice's fingers drifted through the water. "So... you were coming to my rescue."

There was a long silence as Melinda stood up in the water, letting the excess sluice off her body as she accepted a towel from Janice's hands. She stepped out and wrapped it around, tucking in the corners. Janice's gaze drifted up to meet hers. "Always."

The blonde's breathing hitched and she stepped back. Melinda stepped past her and exited the bathroom, going to her wardrobe and retrieving a clean nightshirt. Pinioning the towel with her elbows, she eased it over her head and the towel dropped as the clothing replaced it.

Janice moved to the bed and pulled back the covers, helping Melinda onto the bed. As she backed up though, Mel slid her hand up Janice's arm and tugged her down. Settling on the edge of the mattress, the blonde brought her green eyes up to Mel's blue. "Janice, I... want you to stay." The blonde's breathing hitched. Melinda could feel the change in her pulse under her fingers on the smaller woman's wrist. "Will you?"

"You need your sleep. To get well."

"I need you," she countered.

"But you're injured."

"I know." She tugged Janice down next to her, and brushed her fingertips through the edge of blonde curls. "But I'd rather fall asleep in your arms." She accepted the surging desire in her stomach and channeled it into her expression. "It's been a long time."

"I know." Their gazes held for another several heartbeats and finally Janice dropped her eyes. "All right."

Melinda smiled. "Go change." She kissed Janice's fingers after grasping them and bringing them to her lips.

Janice nodded, bending over as she slid off the mattress. She brushed her lips over Melinda's briefly before departing for her own room briefly.

Melinda watched the door and her smile was quick when the blonde reappeared. Her blonde hair was wonderfully mussed and the soft green of her eyes was now more verdant. She held out her hand and lifted the covers in invitation, rewarded with Janice's warm body soon nuzzling against hers.

Their arms eased around each other and both women breathed deeply of one another's scents. Janice nudged her nose into Melinda's damp hair and Melinda inhaled the spicy aroma of Janice's skin. She squeezed gently and felt Janice squeeze in return. "I love you, Janice Covington."

She felt the blonde swallow as the muscles of her throat moved against Melinda's head. A soft kiss was pressed into her hair. "I love you, too, Melinda Pappas." There was a hitched pause. "More than I thought possible."

Cocooned in each other's warmth, the two women fell asleep in one another's arms for the first time in more than two weeks. From Melinda's balcony window, the autumn breeze brought the sounds of cicadas, frogs and grasshoppers instead of Spanish fiesta music.

But it was just as wonderful.

Chapter 13

Janice rolled over, stirred by the sunlight warming her cheeks and nose. When she moved though, she bumped against something. Opening her eyes, she let her gaze trace over the smooth chin and throat of her companion. She was possessively sprawled across Melinda's chest, her left arm wrapped around Mel's peacefully rising and falling ribcage. She kissed the collarbone invitingly displayed by the neckline of the buttoned sleep-shirt. The warm weight of an arm across her back shifted and fingers lazily brushed over the crown of her hair.

"Good morning." Melinda's voice was a rumble under Janice's ear.

She raised herself and smiled down into gradually focusing azure eyes. The brunette's hand nudged at the back of her head, so slowly she lowered to receive a kiss. "Mmm... Good morning."

"Feeling better?"

She lightly poked Mel's ribs, pleased to not see any indications of pain in the beloved face. "Hey, that's my question."

An eyebrow lifted in reply. Then Janice became the object of an intense sensual assault as full lips captured hers, nibbling, parting and finally tasting her mouth, chin and throat. She could not help the groan that escaped as finally the Southerner's lips moved from hers.

"All right." She drawled out the words and then chuckled. "You're fine. I'm fine." Then she surrendered to the wash of love and passion Mel had awakened, and now continued to stir, as their hands explored.

Mel was still tender in places but apparently her strength had returned as a result of the full day's rest. Rising up, she rolled over the smaller woman and sensuously moved their bodies together, mouths exploring.

They shed their nightclothes and heated skin was soothed with cool intimate touch until urgency replaced languor. The waves carried them both, depositing them to rest once again, the taller now sprawled over the smaller.

The sound of their heartbeats pounding in their ears faded gradually. A distant ringing replaced it. Identifying it as the telephone downstairs, Melinda abruptly kissed Janice and dragged herself from the bed. "I'll get it," she said, pulling on and belting her robe before quickly disappearing.

Lying back and throwing her arm over her eyes to focus inward on relaxing, Janice listened to the hurried steps that moved down the hall, to the front entry where the phone continued to ring. She sat up and pulled her fingers through her hair, listening as the phone stopped mid-ring and caught Melinda's gentle voice, "Pappas residence. Hello?"

She retrieved her nightgown from the floor and pulled it back on before taking herself down to join Mel.

"I see," Melinda was saying as Janice arrived. She was brushing her fingertips over her forehead. Distracted she only glanced toward Janice on the stairs once before returning her gaze to the phone base and her attention to the voice on the other end. "All right. I understand." Pause. "Yes. She's right here." Melinda lifted the phone away from her head. "It's Dr. Collier, from the board."

What? Janice took the phone carefully, scanning Mel's face for a sign what this was about. "Hello?" she asked into the receiver. "Yes, this is Dr. Covington. What can I do for you, sir?"

A gentleman's burr responded, a Carolina southern accent smoothing the edges of his words. "Dr. Covington, I am Beauregard Collier, on the university board. My colleagues and I would like to meet with you."

Janice looked up to meet Mel's gaze. The brunette's forehead was slightly creased and she reached out to grasp the long-fingered hand worrying at the belt of her robe. "May I ask... Is this about the position in the history department?"

"Yes. Can you meet us in about an hour? The board room."

Janice looked up, seeking the mantle clock in the drawing room. "About 10:30? Yes, sir. I'll be there." She paused. "Thank you, sir."

"See you in an hour, Doctor. Good day." The line closed and Janice felt her arm go a little numb. Melinda grasped the phone and set it back in the cradle. "I-- need to be at the campus in an hour," she summarized.

The brunette nodded. "All right. You go upstairs and shower. I'll fix us something to eat and we'll go." She circled around behind Janice and squeezed both shoulders as she guided her back to the stairs.

The couple arrived at the campus administration building with a minute to spare. The president's secretary, a heavy-set woman of middle years and a carefully coifed bun of brown hair, settled her skirt and blouse carefully when she stood from behind the desk and escorted them to the conference room on the second floor.

"Miss Pappas, you go right in. Doctor Covington, the president has asked for you to remain here until you are called." She indicated a small couch across from the boardroom's double doors.

With Mrs. Melvaney between them, Mel offered Janice only a quick smile before letting herself inside the other room.

"Good morning, Melinda," greeted her before she had fully turned around. She located Cassidy Zeigmacht seated next to President Smith at the head of the table.

"Thank you for coming on such short notice." Smith stood, holding out his hand and gesturing to an empty seat. "Coffee? Or tea, Melinda?"

She settled into a chair next to Tyler Jameson. "Nothing. Thank you. I'd rather not keep anyone waiting."

"Good morning, Melinda," Jameson offered quietly as they both turned their attention to the other side of the table.

Harold Gobal pushed back his chair and stood. "Good, now we can get down to business."

Sardonically, the president said, "Of course, Harold. Why don't you call the meeting to order?"

Gobal however was unfazed. "We've got a problem, ladies and gentlemen. I asked for this meeting in order to resolve it." He set his jaw and his voice was stern, unpleasant when he spoke. "We have a professor out there who didn't trust us enough to do a thorough search for his replacement. So he brings in his own." Gobal's gestures grew more emphatic with each word. "That is unacceptable."

Melinda winced but kept her thoughts from her face with difficulty. Mrs. Zeigmacht pointed out, "So what do we do? Fire him? Seems a little harsh to me."

Smith volleyed, "He's leaving in January regardless. So we still have to arrange instructors for his classes."

Gobal slapped his hands together. "So you're in favor of his choice? Just like that? Sight unseen? This... girl?"

"Covington is not a girl, Harry. She's as much an expert in her field as you are in yours."

Beau Collier turned to Melinda, who met his gaze evenly as he questioned, "She mentions your father among her research references, Miss Pappas. What do you think of her skills?"

Lacing her fingers together, having considered that this question might come up, Melinda answered carefully. "Doctor Covington's experience marks her as a dedicated archaeologist."

He seemed a bit taken aback by her brief statement. "That's all you have to say?"

She did indeed feel a desire to say more, but carefully squelched it and shook her head. "I don't believe I should, sir. Doctor Covington is... a guest in my home."

Zeigmacht nodded. "So you know her well?"

"We have worked together before; yes, ma'am."

"Then I'd like to meet this Covington woman at least," Cassidy remarked. "Certainly that's reasonable, Harold?"

"You want to run her through another interview?" Smith asked looking around at the gathered faces.

Along with Zeigmacht, four others forming a simple majority also nodded. Gobal looked positively green. "This is highly irregular," he intoned, sitting back down with barely concealed ire. "We have a candidate who went through the process." He tried another tack. "This will set a precedent."

Tyler nodded. "Perhaps we were wrong to leave Cuthridge out in the first place." He looked over at Melinda who was carefully trying to keep her expression neutral. Trying to draw one out in her, he let a small smile play on his lips briefly. "At least we can hear her out."

Melinda nodded. "All right."

Gobal looked around the table. "Smith?"

The president shook his head and then stood. "I'd like to have everyone participate in the evaluation."

Already shaking her head, Melinda remarked, "Sir, I shouldn't."

"Are you withdrawing yourself?"

"It's only proper, sir. I'll wait in the corridor."

"I'd really like to have a history person," he replied. "I'm already withdrawing myself," he admitted. "Maryann, I think, hoped I would summarily decide in Covington's favor."

"You wouldn't, sir."

He shrugged. "Perhaps not. But I want this resolved. And no further contention to come of it." He turned to Gobal, who was silently fuming at his own fingers fisted on the table. "You, Harold, and the rest can hash it out without me."

Gobal was disturbed by the president's decision to remain out of the process. "I trust you to be fair, Jonathan."

"Then may I suggest a fairer solution?" Smith's gaze drifted from face to face. Several nodded. "I would like to question both Lipton and Covington together, if you are all agreeable?" He sat down at the table of nods. "All right, Melinda," he sighed. "You're excused. Send Covington and Lipton in."

Mrs. Dumont caught Melinda's hand as she passed. "You're a wise young woman, Melinda." She gave the slender hand a brief squeeze. "I promise we'll be fair."

Mel wondered which candidate Mrs. Dumont would eventually choose, then shook her head. She would say nothing. In a couple of hours more than likely, majority would rule. She let herself out of the room, listening as conversations started up within.

In the corridor, she found Janice sitting talking with a young, unfamiliar blond man. She cleared her throat and gained their attention. "Are you Doctor Theodore Lipton?"

"Yes I am." He stood and offered his hand. "Please, call me Ted." His voice suggested a decided disdain for his formal address. A year, perhaps two, younger than Janice, his face held a bookish intelligence. His handshake was soft and his tone colored by an accent notable for its absence. He must be something of a linguist, Melinda thought. Exposure to so many languages and dialects tended to blunt one's natural accent.

"The board would like to talk to both of you," she said. "I'm going to get some coffee." Carefully she avoided Janice's questioning look, stepping back instead and gesturing the other two toward the conference room. "Through there."

When the door closed, Melinda pressed her hands to her eyes, rubbing the bridge of her nose as she sat down to wait. She distinctly felt someone approach from the right. Peeking she noted men's shoes then sat back and looked up into the concerned face of Basil Cuthridge.

"You look like you could use this more than me," he suggested, offering the cup. "It's tea."

She shook her head. "No, thank you. I think you've done enough."

He noticed a faint bruise on her temple and tentatively inquired, "What happened to you?" He gestured to his head to identify the location of the injury on hers that he had noted.

"I had an accident," she replied quietly.

When nothing else was forthcoming, Cuthridge decided the pleasantries were over. He sipped the tea sighing as if to brace himself. "So... what's the verdict?"

She told him about the decision to re-interview both candidates. "Gobal conceded a lot agreeing to that," she commented. "He wanted you fired, Lipton hired and Janice dropped."

"You were very persuasive then."

Again, she shook her head. "No." She sat up carefully and leveled her gaze at him. "Janice gets this on her own. Or she doesn't. I can't influence the decision. It wouldn't be fair to her."

"You..." he said quietly. "Are better than I."

Eyeing him with aggravation, so much of her body screaming to go in there and demand Janice take the position over the less-qualified Lipton, Melinda nevertheless kept her own counsel. She resented him for putting Janice, her, and the board, in this position. She remained pensively silent until Cuthridge moved away, getting lost in his own thoughts.

Chapter 14

Janice realized, as they crossed the threshold to the conference room that the unassuming young man, who had said he was here to see a Mr. Gobal, was the other candidate--the board's candidate--for Cuthridge's position. The realization made her edgy and she scanned the nine unfamiliar faces seated around the table.

"Welcome." He offered introductions. "This is Doctor Janice Covington and Dr. Theodore Lipton." The man at the head of the table stood and walked around toward them.

"Please call me Ted," Lipton suggested, firmly taking Smith's offered hand.

"I'm Dr. Jonathan Smith," he introduced himself, and offered his hand to Janice. She took it, feeling a light squeeze and smiled into dust-brown eyes.

"Thank you for seeing us, Dr. Smith."

Stepping back, Smith turned to make a gesture taking in the whole of the room's occupants. "Our pleasure, Doctor." He indicated the man who sat in the chair to his right. "May I introduce the rest? Mister Harold Gobal."

Gobal stood briefly and nodded to both, but then quickly sat down before either could offer their hand. Instead he took his spectacles off his nose and cleaned them distractedly.

Janice followed Smith's movements as he continued around the table. He now stood behind a woman with a warm smile and bright gray eyes. The eyes twinkled and the smile gave the older face a very young look. "Mrs. Cassidy Zeigmacht," he introduced them, his voice warm.

"Glad to meet you both," Cassidy Zeigmacht said in a voice that was both strong and soothing. Janice caught Gobal casting Mrs. Zeigmacht an aggrieved look. The older woman cast one right back. Interesting, the blonde thought.

Then her attention was drawn around to others. Smith moved further down. "Mrs. Rachel Dumont. Mr. Tyler Jameson."

"A pleasure to meet you," Jameson said, half-rising from his chair to shake both Lipton's and Janice's hands.

Finally, Smith moved around to the man who appeared the oldest of those at the table. With a warm hand on the gray-haired man's shoulder, Smith introduced, "Professor Emeritus of English, Doctor Beauregard Collier."

Such a strong voice, Janice thought, remembering the phone call. "Dr. Collier," Janice greeted warmly.

The older gentleman stood, taking her hand with 19th century grace and bending over it smartly. "A pleasure," he offered. Then he offered Lipton a firm handshake. "Dr. Lipton, thank you for coming." He looked back to her and stepped back. "We appreciate both of you coming out on such short notice."

Janice smiled, truly charmed. "The unexpected is what makes life exciting, sir." She realized, as he smiled, that somehow she had said exactly the right thing.

Smith interceded and introduced the remaining board members. "You are here because we have decided to conduct new interviews... for both of you."

Lipton settled into an empty chair at the far end. "This is highly irregular," he remarked, but laced his fingers together on the table in front of him.

"What would you like to ask?" Janice exchanged brief glances with Zeigmacht and Smith. She recognized the abrasive reaction not quite concealed in Gobal's face. A shot of adrenaline straightened her spine. He wants proof, she thought. Well then I'll give him proof.

"Which of you would like to go first?"

Dr. Lipton inquired, "What exactly are we going to do?"

Zeigmacht regarded him for a moment. "We are giving each of you one hour to teach us on the topic of your choice. A demonstration of your talents if you will."

"A lecture? Without any preparation at all?" Lipton said it, but Janice also had thought the surprised comment.

Cassidy Zeigmacht nodded. "Well?"

Lipton looked from Zeigmacht over to Gobal and then to Janice's face. He seemed to decide gallantry in this case forced him to put his foot forward first. "Any topic at all?"

Smith nodded.

"I will go first," he said finally.

Janice settled back. "If you're certain?"

His dusty blonde hair shifted slightly on his ruddy cheeks. "Of course." He pushed to his feet and all eyes watched him examine the room then take up pacing before a portable chalk board. His head was down, his hands clasped behind his back as he thought quickly.

Finally he looked up, stopped and announced, "I will discuss the impact of the Norwegian migrations to the Danelaw on Celtic culture."

Having conversed with him at length in the waiting area about a tangent to this topic, the condition of Danelaw archaeological finds, Janice realized the topic for what it had to be: an abridged version of his doctoral thesis. She began to examine quietly what she would choose.

The position they were both trying for was in British history. So the topic would probably be most appreciated if it was keyed to the island nation's extensive history. Thankfully, its longevity meant that, at one time or another, almost every other culture on the European continent had affected, or been affected by, Britain.

With half her attention, she listened as he laid out key names and dates outlining his premise and was impressed with his level of detail on such short notice. In the analysis portion, he drew the threads together into a surprising, but supported theory on early British government and jurisprudence influences by the Danelaw examples.

As he was drawing his analysis to a close, Janice noted a perfect opportunity for a question and almost forgot herself, leaning forward to speak. She glanced at the others and dug her hands into her thighs.

President Smith raised a hand quietly. It took Dr. Lipton only a moment to notice and he asked, "Yes?"

"Wasn't the matter of restitution developed prior to this period?"

Without skipping a beat, Lipton nodded. "Yes. However, Danegeld was the first structured "fine" arrangement in the Isles." He looked around and caught sight of a clock. "Are there other questions?"

Collier and Gobal leaned together for a moment, Janice, and likely Lipton, wondering what was said.

Just then Collier pulled back and noted, "Excellent presentation, Dr. Lipton. And informative. Thank you."

"Yes, sir." He set the chalk down and then dusted his palms on his trousers. "Excuse me please?"

Gobal nodded. "Of course."

Janice stood as Lipton exited the conference room.

"Dr. Covington?" Gobal studied her for a long moment as she returned a measured look of her own.

"Yes, sir?" Again, she felt a ramrod straightening in her back. She walked up to the chalkboard and continued to think about her topic, debating the pros and cons of her choice as she methodically erased Lipton's work.

The angry mob assembled in the tavern barely let her through; she pushed and shoved diving through openings as people jostled to get a look at the object of their hatred. She broke into the open space in front of them sparing not a glance at their victim as she spun and raised her hands to ward them off. The faces were worn, tired, angry, sad even, dark and light eyes trying to drill right past her. They looked to her for an explanation. The air was smoky, filled with the acrid scent of burning wood and the musty smell of wet peat.

Janice blinked. Her confidence surged and she took a sure step, bringing herself around to focus on the faces of the university board members. She cast her gaze on each one creating a moment of eye contact. Several backs straightened.

Then she started to speak. "Today's discussion is town life during the Norman and Saxon conflict for overlordship of Britannia--Britain." She sketched several names, dates and places on the board.

"Commonly and somewhat incorrectly called 'The War of the Roses', the period was characterized by a fracturing of the masses, led by propaganda on a scale not seen before. Every city had an alliance with one House or the other. Neutrality was not an option. What then did a city gain from allegiance?" She directed everyone's attention to her lists.

On each side of the board she listed the same five words: trade, labor, protection, religion and education. At the top of each list she wrote the family name of each house: Lancaster and York.

Stepping back she engaged Tyler Jameson first. "Mr. Jameson, what do you think of when you look at these five categories?"

Jameson seemed a little surprised to be directly addressed, but she smiled and gamely he ventured, "Each group had a different way to answer those questions?"

"Exactly." She then gestured toward Cassidy Zeigmacht. "You're on the Raleigh city council, ma'am. How do you answer the first question for those who live here?"

Zeigmacht leaned forward and commented, "That's business, economy. We have a system of supports, taxes, regulations for fair business, that sort of thing."

"Does everyone on the council address the problem the same way?"

Here Cassidy chuckled. "Hardly. Folks like Harold... businessmen... want as little input from us as possible. But consumers should be protected from shiesters."

"Good point," Smith interjected. He turned to Janice. "What does this have to do with the topic?"

"Everything." She spent the next few minutes detailing each leader's positions and systems for dealing with each concern. Gradually she saw her point getting across.

Jameson at one point murmured the words she was writing under one column, having picked up on the 'opposition' theme.

"Right, Mr. Jameson," she encouraged again. "Now..." She turned back to the group. "Choose your leader."

The board balked, but she called them each by name and had them select. Five to four, Lancaster edged York.

Then she pointed out where, as they sat at the table, a York supporter sat next to a Lancaster supporter.

She shook her head. "If you can't come to an agreement, neither leader will protect the group. Now, decide."

She watched Harold Gobal frown. "Mr. Gobal? You're for York, correct? Mrs. Dumont is not. Convince her to your point of view."

"Go ahead, Harold," Zeigmacht, who had chosen Lancaster, needled him.

The man laid out his reasons for choosing as he had, and Rachel Dumont countered two of the statements, using the knowledge sketched on the board.

Several others got the idea and began debating among themselves. Janice circled the table, answering questions and clarifying one House's position or the other. She refrained from claiming a position of her own. "This is your exercise," she pointed out with a smile.

After ten minutes, she called a halt. "Now, that's it. You have an army marching to your gates," she put a hand on the table. "What's your decision?" she challenged.

The group had not reached a consensus and looked distinctly bothered by the prospect. Gobal asked, "Which army is it?" His face was hot and his voice strained.

She stepped back and smiled the smile of a cat who had just snared the canary. "It won't matter. Those who disagree will be put to death. Those who agree will be suspect. What have you done to protect yourself or your family, Mr. Gobal?"

There were gasps around the table.

"But all the choices--?" Collier countered.

"Now you can see the life of the lower classes in Britain and how it wasn't a person that ruled England, but a rivalry. The mindset from this extended conflict led to what?"

Zeigmacht ventured a guess. "A weakening of the ruling class?"

"Well, its absolute power at least." Janice nodded. "What would rise in its place? Society abhors a vacuum."

"Self-sustaining towns!" Jameson excitedly got to his feet.

"Cause and effect. Yes. Is it any wonder at all that within another generation the House of Commons strengthened in Britain's government?"

She stepped back from the table and glanced up at the clock. "I seem to have run over. Any questions?" She felt a sudden rush of lassitude as she studied the quiet faces around the table, most absorbing what she had said. The lapse in concentration made her lean on the back of a nearby chair.

The board members finally exchanged looks. Gobal seemed uncharacteristically subdued. Zeigmacht was pushing to her feet, and the action drew Janice's attention. "May I be the first to say I am very impressed, Doctor Covington." She chuckled. "I haven't had such a good debate in weeks."

"My condolences," Janice chuckled in reply as Cassidy's hand closed over her. "A good debate is healthy. That's been true for centuries."

Smith nodded, as he also came to his feet. "Human nature hasn't changed much in a thousand years?"

"That, sir, is a lesson very few students grasp quickly. Congratulations."

Gobal and Collier stood. She turned to face them and her smile evaporated. Neither man was smiling. "Sirs?"

"Your lesson was... enlightening, Dr. Covington." The gravity in Collier's voice drew all the board members' eyes.

"Thank you, Doctor," Smith smoothly interjected. "Could you wait outside?"

Numbly she nodded. "Yes, sir. Of course." A pit of unease formed in her stomach. Maybe she had been too unconventional for them.

You did the right thing. You were yourself. The voice in a soothing feminine tone brought her up short at the door. She hadn't thought she'd spoken aloud. She turned, with her hand on the knob, looking for someone, perhaps Mrs. Dumont, over her shoulder. No one was near. Must be nerves, she thought, quickly exiting into the corridor.

She was still absorbing the various expressions on the members' faces, trying to judge her chances, when a hand slid over her crossed forearms. The sensation made her jump.

"Relax, Janice."

"Oh. Mel, don't do that." Her head shot up and her gaze fell into inquisitive blue eyes. Taking a deep breath she let it out slowly. "I'm all right." She looked past the brunette's shoulder and saw Cuthridge leaning against a wall, hands in his pockets.

On an opposite wall, Lipton stood a little straighter but he too leaned with one hand against the wall, head down. Patting Mel's hand, Janice pulled away and crossed to him, watching his head come up as he heard her approach.

"Dr. Covington."

"Dr. Lipton." She realized he looked as drained as she felt. Even though it had been an hour since his lecture. She tossed a thumb over her shoulder. "They're deliberating." She offered her hand out. "You did an excellent job," she complimented. "They made an excellent choice."

He shrugged. "I heard you too." He shook his head. "They really were involved."

"Might have been a little too radical," she countered, looking at the imposing double doors.

"It was engaging."

Melinda came up as Cuthridge crossed from the other side. "I'm sure both of you did an excellent job," she said.

The doors to the conference room opened. Cuthridge, from his vantage, was able to see it first, though they all turned in the silence. "Looks like we're about to find out the decision."

Continued in part 3

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