BOTH Legally Yours by agouderia (BHM, BBW, MWG)

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fatmac

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I did not mean soap opera addiction in anything but the best possible manner! I am addicted to the passion of the players and the wonderful way in which you portray them.

Thank you
Mac
 

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
Soap makers could only wish to produce something that was such a pleasure :)

(Yeah, ok, I probably tried stretching that too far.....so as a back up: love the new instalment!)
 

ashblonde

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I missed this, have been so MIA this summer, but very much enjoyed your latest installment :bow: which inspires me to add on to mine. Thanks for keeping the FFA-BHM story torch burning!
 

Ashley1985

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Yes, please continue this great story ... keep the BHM/FFA fiction torch alive!
 

agouderia

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[Author's note: Time for an update on this one - sorry for the delay, but life has been rather demanding of late.]

Mixed messages

The heavy metal thunk accompanied by the low screech of hinges worn down by the weight of the closing security door, echoing loudly against the bare concrete walls, the amplified turning of the big key made Louisa shiver with cold dread despite wearing her warmest business layers. It also reminded her why she had always avoided criminal law as far as possible – the ambiance in prisons, the fate of the inmates aroused her pity and left her with a sick feeling. In her opinion there were few crimes that were so heinous that they merited such treatment of human beings. The guards did not so much radiate security for her, but had a menacing quality – even though she had to admit they treated her as a young female lawyer significantly better than they did the visitors of other perpetrators in custody. What made it even worse was that for the first time she had to visit someone in a jail to whom she had a real personal connection, a friend.

Ryan looked even worse than she had expected. The orange jail jumpsuit underlined how ill he looked, possibly starved, with red-rimmed, sore eyes, grayed and thinned hair. As he stretched out his arms to hug her, the guards pulled him back.

“Louisa, I’ve never been happier to see anybody in my life,” he whispered hoarsely.

“How are you doing Ryan?” her voice was choked with compassion, feeling as if the uncomfortable issues in her bag were like live bullets that might kill this helpless man sitting across from her.

“Trying to survive, stay halfway sane…” he shrugged.

As soon as the guards left, only monitored them through the window, she took his hands and rubbed them – they were even colder than hers. “Ryan – I’m so sorry. This talk isn’t going to be easy. You know I’m here as your attorney – and as your friend. We have to try to find a way to get you out of this affair. But we also have to make sure the firm is not damaged either. There’s so much at stake – for all of us. To make that happen I need your help….”

“I don’t know how I can help you from here…”

“Is this what everybody is really looking for?” she pushed the print out of the MercuryScutum file over to him, her finger underlining the name. There was a flicker in Ryan’s eye but he didn’t say anything, only hung his head. “Ryan – is this a cover up, a phantom subsidiary of HermesShield for some of their more shady transactions?”

“Don’t remember the details….”

“Please Ryan – right now we don’t need details. It’s enough if you tell me the basics you remember, where I need to look for material and evidence so we all can assemble a convincing case for you,” it was like coaxing a sick puppy to drink its milk. “It’s obvious, as far as I see: HermesShield in Greek-English is the same name as MercuryScutum in Latin – so there’s a logical connection.”

Ryan looked up at her in surprise. “I never knew that…”

“It dawns on those of us who have some mythological knowledge sooner or later … oddly nobody at the NSA seems to be aware of it, since they didn’t take the small file you have on the issue with them. Where’s the rest of the material?”

“I can’t tell … never was supposed to be disclosed…. can’t remember…” He sounded unspeakably forlorn.

“Well it’s only been disclosed in so far that HermesShield is involved in something illegal. The NSA must have some leads against you – what’s in the firm’s official HermesShield files doesn’t warrant you being in custody, not in the least. Now we have to cooperate, make sure the firm is not harmed.
Nobody in the firm is or ever has been in on the MercuryScutum aspect of HermesShield, have they?”

Ryan shook his head. “No, nobody knows….”

“Okay, that will hopefully make it easier for me to document that there was a Chinese wall between any MercuryScutum business and everything else at Palmer Associates.” Louisa sighed involuntarily and swallowed. “Please Ryan try to remember whether there is anything I need to know about MercuryScutum that will get you out of here. Or things I should watch out for…?” to only get more head shaking and para-verbal noises. “Think about it though, will you? Any information you can give me is good, helpful information ….” She swallowed even harder and took a deep breath, knowing what had to come now.

“Ryan, there’s something else we have to talk about…” he looked up at her expectantly. “Palmer spoke to me about … about …..,” she couldn’t get the words to come out.

“About what?”

“That you talked to him … about …. about … about us. That you were considering asking me…” again she got no further. But this time Ryan responded, showed something like a smile, took her hands in his again.

“Well …. I wish he’d kept this to himself …. I naturally wanted to ask you first … and in another setting, under better circumstances….,” now he really smiled, looking her deep in the eye, making her blush and look away. “Louisa, wonderful Louisa, would you consider marrying me? Not right away … but when …. When this is over…. I’ve got my normal life back? Would you wait for me?”

This sounded so much like a very cheap, cheesy romance novel; Louisa’s first impulse was to laugh. His helpless situation though prevented her. “I know it might seem like a solution Ryan, maybe let me do more for you. But that’s really not necessary, client-attorney privilege is totally sufficient ….”

“Louisa dear, this is not about client-attorney privilege. I’ve been meaning to ask you for months. The ring is at home in my safe. This case just got in the way… and you’re always so shy. I love you Louisa.”

She couldn’t believe her ears. “But why do you love me? You never showed any signs of caring more for me than just friends. And I totally don’t fit the bill; I’m not another version of Savannah…”

“You never let me show you how much I care,” he squeezed her hands tight. “I understand that it was difficult lately working together …. And your shyness and innocence is one of your charms. If only I could take you in my arms now … I’d show you how much I love you…” before a long silence settled in the room.

“You don’t love me … you only love that I’m useful for you…” Louisa finally muttered, looking half under the table. “You love slim leggy brunettes … I’m fat and ugly, you can’t…”

“Why do you say something like that? That’s not true! You’re not fat … you’re … you’re a bit rounder … and so fresh and cute. You could always lose weight…”

“No – that’s one thing I can’t!”

“Anyway … it doesn’t matter! You’re cute and caring; I’ve never met anybody who gave me such a feeling of loving security. When you smile, you light up a room. Everybody admires how intelligent and hard-working you are, how well you work with everybody… My parents love you too…. Why don’t you want to understand that I’ve come to love you? Haven’t you always shown me how much you care? Can’t you see us together … I mean not in the present situation of course….?” As she didn’t answer again for a while, he insisted. “Louisa, I don’t need an answer today … some hope you might say yes …. would be wonderful now …. Help me through this….”

The latter was getting closer to the truth in her opinion: Ryan wanted more help, more support from her no matter what happened in this crisis. Anger and resentment rose in her though – wanting to marry her to ensure that, putting her in this embarrassing situation was overdoing it. “Ryan, you know you can count on me, I’ll always do my best to help you. Especially in this situation, I know I wouldn’t be at Palmer Associates without you. You don’t need to promise me anything. I’ve always been a reliable friend, haven’t I?”

“Yes you have… only I’ve been wishing for a while you’d let me show you more than friendship….”

“It’s okay Ryan. We don’t need to talk about it now. Our time is up … I need your signature on these papers before I go….” Louisa felt she was suffocating; she needed to get out of there as fast as possible. She felt insulted, wronged, exploited – wished she wasn’t so polite and friendly, could yell her anger out, show him she saw through his hypocritical moves.

“Louisa, I’ve never hidden anything from you … I’ve always left all information with you …. Please believe me…. also that I love you…,” these were the last fading words from Ryan she heard as she hurried out.

The entire way back, through the long corridors, she almost ran, impatiently tapping her foot as the guard locked and unlocked the many doors. Once outside, she took deep, gasping breaths of air, walking over to her car. Hurt, resentment and vicious hunger cursed through her. Why was Ryan putting her in such a situation – this was no better than back in high school when guys asked her out only to make fun of her afterwards for being so gullible to believe anybody would go out with the fat girl.

Her fingers were shaking as she opened the door of her car, throwing her handbag and blazer in. She was so hungry, her mouth was watering, she needed to eat something instantly – fill the aching void left by the mix of prison atmosphere, lack of appetite beforehand, guilt and fear. Returning to the office now was out of the question, she needed distance downtime and food.

Stopping at the small turkey burger shop on the way to the grocery store, she on automatic mode ordered a cheese burger, an Italian style tomato burger and cheese country fries with a green tea. Without thinking, she munched them down in a few minutes in the protection of her car, feeling slightly calmer afterwards, but by no means satisfied. In the supermarket she stocked up on staples, but also bought her favorite rosemary salt chips, some dark chocolate, ice cream and ingredients for all her preferred comfort foods.

At home she slipped into sweats and started cooking, boiling pasta, stirring a rich 4 cheeses sauce while snacking away on the chips. As soon as the sauce had blended and the pasta was boiling, she quickly measured the ingredients for the best blondie recipe she had into a mixing bowl, turning the oven-dial with her left hand to preheat it. It was crazy, but right now she felt as if she’d instantly disintegrate if she didn’t have something eatable between her fingers and in her mouth. She didn’t want to think about the calories or consequences right now, how simplistic it was to have food as such an important comfort or anchor – right now she compulsively had to eat.

The blondie dough was in the pan and swept into the oven as she with the same motion drained the pasta, stirred the cheese sauce under it in a big bowl and settled at her dining table. While watching a brainless show, she concentrated on the warm, cheesy softness that filled her mouth to slide down to her stomach, pleasantly heating and swelling it. Although she could feel how overloaded it was getting, she couldn’t, didn’t want to stop. Breathing heavily, she finished everything in the bowl – what must’ve been a good 3 normal portions.
Afterwards she was only capable of staggering back into the kitchen, pulling the blondies out of the oven to let them cool before collapsing on the sofa to massage her bloated belly. The juicy fat over her stuffed hard stomach was soft to touch and rubbing it back and forth was so pleasing for her fingers and for her belly.

Half dosing off, she concentrated on being warm, full, satisfied and safe – a feeling she had almost forgotten what it was like lately. The last time she had felt like this was after that wonderful pizza dinner in Florida, lying in Henry’s arms. With the turmoil of the past weeks, she’d been eating irregularly, sometimes too much, sometimes nothing at all – the main content of her stomach had been a cold, anxious ball of fear what might come out of this HermesShield case. The consequence probably was that she wouldn’t put on as much weight as she normally did in this season – but for once that didn’t necessarily make her feel any better. It was almost Christmas now, this time of her year was filled with baking and decorating, visiting friends, gourmandizing and having a good time. Given the situation at work, all holiday cheer and activities had fallen flat – in business and in private.

Squeezing the upper and lower of her belly rolls hard, she sighed: Why was everything so complicated? Why did she feel so much better, when she indulged herself –even though she knew it was bad for her, made her even fatter? Why didn’t she have the discipline to finally diet down to the small size required for woman today – so people would finally take her seriously, personally and professionally? Did these luscious bulges she was kneading this moment really make her so repulsive, that even men she thought were friends like Ryan or Henry took themselves the right to treat her so badly? There were no answers to these questions – this evening though, the only answers she needed were sugar and distraction. Putting a new romantic comedy DVD Amanda had left with her into the player, she turned off her phones, cut up the pan of blondies, scooped caramel and strawberry cheese cake ice cream on it and arranged herself in front of the TV set.

In the days before Christmas, she set up a plan for further investigating the MercuryScutum case, discussing and clearing every step with Palmer. Since HermesShield hat completely refused any communications with him, for the criminal proceedings had even hired a different firm, they needed to find the evidence on their own. Since it proved difficult to do this in writing and by phone, where contacts remained unresponsive or evasive, it was agreed upon that Louisa should go see them on location as far as possible right in the beginning of the New Year.

The entire uncomfortable, insecure situation let her spirits droop and even her visit home for the actual Christmas days didn’t help much – although her parents were particularly considerate.
“Be careful LouLou dear; don’t let Ryan exploit your helper syndrome. True, he’s supported you int the past – but you’ve always done more than enough in return. I can’t believe he got himself in such a mess,” her father gently took her in his arm.
Her mother had already surprised her by cooking all her favorite dishes and encouraging her to eat up: “Darling, I made the mushroom-herb stuffing extra for you, please finish it! You had so little to eat – and no second helping – what’s wrong?”

“Momma – you always tell me to eat less, that I’m too fat…” she grumbled.

“LouLou darling – it’s Christmas, this is not the time to diet. You need some holiday cheer with Ryan in jail and that awful investigation…,” her mother handed her plate and glass. “Have some more red wine, you’re so pale, you need to relax…” letting her despair that her life currently only consisted of mixed messages.
 

agouderia

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“What a wonderful way to start a New Year!” Amanda scanned their brunch table with a wide yawn, looking like a scalded underfed cat in her pajamas.

“Yes, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you here for at least a day to talk – the last weeks have been worse than limbo!”

“Talking to you is one part of a wonderful start for the New Year. Actually I was just admiring the brunch you’ve whipped up – I’m not awake enough yet for complex thoughts.” Amanda giggled. “Mind if I stay in my PJs with un-washed hair?”

“Make yourself comfortable. I only got dressed to go to the French bakery to pick up our bread.”

“Your abundant build and hair gives you such an unfair advantage…,” Amanda grumbled into her coffee. “After weeks of stress, getting to bed in the early hours of the New Year – all you need to do is rake through your hair, put on a touch of makeup and go into the fresh air for half an hour to look like the pretty picture of healthy living. Look at me, I’ve had a week of vacation, went to a spa, got my hair styled, primped yesterday evening – and this morning I look like a bag lady who hasn’t eaten or washed her hair in weeks.”

As always, most of what Amanda said after the first sentence was lost on Louisa. Swallowing with hurt, she arranged the bread in the basket and fretted why Amanda started the New Year with the dreadful issue of her size, reminding her of that infinite resolution she made every single year – finally lose enough weight to fit into maximum size 8.….

”You’re not listening at all to what I’m saying…,” Amanda took her hand, hugged her and sat her down. “You zoned out the moment I mentioned your size, mentally plunged into an abyss of self-pity, isn’t that so?” she lifted Louisa’s chin. Feeling uncomfortably exposed, Louisa shrugged hesitantly. “All I was talking about was how jealous I am of your build and looks in situations like these. Because of them you manage to look like your normal pretty self even under extreme stress.”

“Amanda please I don’t have the nerve for discussions like this right now….”

“A normal person doesn’t need any nerve to accept a plain compliment…”

“Some compliment …” she could feel a lump in her throat rising.

“You have to finally recognize them for what they are. Stop putting yourself down, seeing the negative in everything, perceiving only criticism. “ Hearing Louisa sigh, she hugged her tighter. “Promise me to make a new New Year’s resolution, will you?”

“A new New Year’s resolution?”

“I’ll bet an arm and a leg you make a New Year’s resolution every year to get down to a size 6 or so…,” making Louisa turn scarlet. “Aha, I knew it. I want you to repeat this New Year’s resolution after me: This year I will not torture myself. I will not diet or try to starve myself. I will work on seeing my life and myself realistically. I will think positive about myself. ”

“I can’t say that…” she muttered, cringing at how Amanda seemed to see through her, feeling somewhat ridiculous.

“Yes you can. You must actually. I’m tired of watching you make yourself unhappy. Repeat after me… I, Louisa Grenburgh, will not torture myself this year….”

After a few further failed attempts at protest, she muttered the phrases Amanda stated, shame coiling her guts in painful knots. Her brain though sent her reluctant signals that Amanda was right, she needed to be positive, keep her sanity and health intact to concentrate on all the real challenges she was currently facing.

“Good girl! I’ll check regularly whether you’re working on this resolution,” Amanda winked at her. “Now to this delicious brunch – I’m starving! You need to tell me in detail what happened with Ryan. I can’t believe he’s in custody, they haven’t let him out on bail!”

While they started eating, Louisa filled Amanda in on what had happened with Ryan as far as she could without breaching confidentiality; also hinting that she had made some discoveries that would hopefully get him to finally give in with a full confession, cooperate with the authorities to figure out a deal and also get Palmer Associates off the hook.

Amanda shuddered and took a big bite of brioche with chocolate-ginger spread. “That sounds really, really scary. There always was something about Ryan that was a touch dubious, but I never would’ve expected this.”

“What do you mean- a touch dubious?”

“Hmm - all of us who worked in his project groups quickly agreed that we were brighter than he was. That he often tried to overstretch his not overwhelming intellectual capacities, use others talents to shine himself, make the most of his prime qualities which are discovering talent and delegating tasks…”

“Yeah, that’s true. I’ve felt exploited more than once. But he always made up for it with really good projects, or well-paid ones …. or now my job.”

“From what you’ve just told me, you’ve been more than paying him back by trying to save his ass from jail. I hope that isn’t getting you in trouble in the firm.”

“No, so far it isn’t. I’m being real careful, checking everything with Palmer, our boss, - and truly keeping the firm’s interest and future foremost in mind. There’s only so much that can be done for Ryan as long as he doesn’t want to cooperate.”

“Why doesn’t he cooperate?”

“Beats me. I guess he hopes somehow his family contacts will get him out of this one again too. You’re spot on what you said about his delegating skills – his main forte actually is getting the best out of everybody else. I’ve thought a lot about this lately, of course. Somehow Ryan never found a way to reconcile the privileges his background brought with them – uncle Supreme Court judge, father Pulitzer Prize winner – with the high expectations facing him and his limited academic potential. He would’ve been fabulous in sales and marketing, or media relations – no idea why it had to be law for him too.”

“There might be something to it. Still – no reason to get into criminal activities. How’s his family taking it by the way?”

“From how I see it, agreeing to this cover up deal was the only way for him to get HermesShield as a client – and of justifying his becoming partner so early. Nevertheless, you’re right, that’s no reason or justification. His father is devastated. I’m worried he might fall seriously ill. He’s always been skinny, now he’s really feeble.”

“There’s currently no wife or fiancée in the picture, is there? Girlfriend?” Amanda asked the question Louisa had been hoping for and dreading at the same time, sensing her cheeks grow hot. She didn’t want to talk about the issue, yet sensed a need to unburden herself and knew nobody except Amanda who would be a meaningful audience. “Why are you blushing?”

“Ryan asked me to marry him…”

The unsurprising reaction Amanda showed was a coughing fit, as she half choked on a slice of baguette. “You’re kidding…,” she exclaimed and wheezed. “When, how, … I never imagined you two… did you say yes…?” her expression changing to concern.

“No, I said no. Ryan and I …. I could never imagine that either. We’ve been friends … but more… wouldn’t work … on both sides,” Louisa shook her head and slowly told Amanda what had happened. “The worst situation was Palmer telling me that he knew Ryan wanted to marry me while I was clueless. I sat there like the world’s biggest idiot. Having to talk to Ryan about it in custody, having to say ‘no’ there wasn’t much fun either. The whole thing was a shock – I had no idea. Did you ever think Ryan might be interested in me, as a…. woman? “ she ended lamely, not finding another word that wouldn’t sound even more absurd.

“Loulou, I can’t answer that question. The last time I really saw you and Ryan interact regularly is over 7 years ago by now. Then he was married to Savannah. Granted, he always did treat you better than the rest of us. You got the better paid projects, co-authored in name more – he always seemed genuinely fond of you, was clearly in awe of your abilities. Although his woman type did appear to be clearly cut out – the ultra-thin leggy brunette, which you admittedly aren’t….”

“See, I knew it – he’d never consider someone like me …. if he weren’t in such a mess right now….”

“You’re making the same mistake again already! What did I just tell you?”

“Which mistake?”

“Thinking too negatively about yourself, especially your looks. You don’t even give Ryan the benefit of the doubt that he might have matured, his fondness for you might have grown to love, that he in contrast to you sees what a lovely person you are, on the inside as well as the outside…”

“Nobody who was married to Savannah can – if in his right mind – want to be together with me…” Louisa unhappily poked the swelling flesh of her thick thigh.

Amanda groaned and rolled her eyes. “What did he say why he wanted to marry you?”

“Ummm… he said he loved me…. that I could bring out the best in him….,” her voice faded in embarrassment as the scene re-ran in her mind.

“But you don’t believe him.”

“Of course not! How can him….” Amanda interrupted her: “That’s your problem Louisa! You don’t listen to people, let alone men who say something positive to you. You don’t give anybody a chance to be nice to you! You’re caught in this endless loop in which you still see yourself as the poor plump victim of crude high school pranks. Wake up! Everybody except you has grown up since then! You’re a highly successful lawyer with a PhD, you’re loved by your friends, you’re the very definition of plump and pretty…”

“That’s an oxymoron!” she sniffed as tears had started to well up in her eyes.

“An oxy.. what?”

“An oxymoron – Greek for contradiction in itself. Plump plus pretty doesn’t exist! ”

“Oh yes it does! Look into the mirror! I can’t believe someone as intelligent as you so totally falls for the simplistic standard regurgitated by beauty magazines! You always tell people to think something through from different perspectives! For pity’s sake, do it for yourself for once!” Seeing Louisa take a deep breath, Amanda went on quickly: “When you forget to obsess about the supposed deficiencies of your appearance and are just your charming responsive self, smiling, laughing, in one of your cute outfits – you’re so gorgeous! You have such a glow, a very sensual allure – but you never notice how that comes across. You only register negative responses, or those you perceive as such.”

“That’s because there are no positive responses! Nobody except you has ever said anything nice about the way I look! And you only do it because you’re my friend and you pity me!” Her voice cracked as the tears started spilling.

“The only pity around here is your self-pity!” Amanda sounded angry as she pushed a tissue over. “You act as if the world treated you like it does a 700 pound unemployed, ailing, high school drop-out! Your attitude is beyond ridiculous! I’m sick and tired of having these senseless discussions over and over again! If you don’t finally some to terms in the course of this year with the fact that you’re a beautiful size 16, then I’m going to talk to your parents!”

“Talk to my parents about what?”

“That you need professional help. That you should see a therapist about your self-image and –esteem issues.”

Her words left Louisa instantly deflated and defeated. If there was one thing in the world she didn’t want – that was to discuss her body image issues with her parents. She knew they meant well, but their caring yet non-comprehending approach to her size had been torturous for as long as she could remember. So she said dully, wanting to end the discussion: “I promise I’ll work on that New Year’s resolution, not worry so much about my size anymore.”

“That’s the attitude! I’ll check on it, you can be sure of that! I finally want you to move on – and us as friends as well!” Amanda waved her coffee cup, asking her to pour more. “Now back to the actual issue of you and the men in your life. I would like to tell you two stories to show you how blind you are – not only as far as not registering the nature of Ryan’s affection for you.” She took a long sip of coffee as Louisa shifted uncomfortably in her chair, dreading yet another painful analysis of her obsessions. “If you paid only a little better attention, where more responsive, then you could be married to Andy today – like I’m married to James.”

“Andy? We were only friends. And he’s married to Eunice.”

“He’s only married to Eunice because he gave up on you. Because you never acknowledged his huge crush for what it was, took him only as a friend. And now don’t come with that she’s maybe 2 dress sizes smaller than you! She’s definitely not slim, and in contrast to you is decidedly plain as far as looks go.” Louisa shook her head doubtfully but didn’t say anything.

“Now fact number 2: My James loves me, I know that. We’re a good couple; we have so much in common. He’s proud to show me off in size 4 mini dresses,” sending the familiar painful knife of envy through Louisa’s insides. “But I also know I’m definitely not his erotic dreamboat. He’s much more turned on by someone with your boobs, your wavy, thick hair and your soft skin.” This time Louisa couldn’t swallow a derisive, incredulous sound. Amanda raised her eyebrows. “You remember when we moved into our first condo, don’t you? When we tried to set up that closet that half collapsed?”

“Yeah sure. James and I were stuck trying to keep it from crashing into the window until the movers came back for half an hour.”

“Exactly. Half an hour in which James could feel that hair draped over his arm might have a shiny weight to it. How great the texture and softness of a full breast is. I could tell he obsessed for weeks about it afterwards. Got me that perm as a new hairstyle birthday gift that ruined my longer hair forever. Talked about breast implants. I’ve had more fun conversations in my life before too.”

“I’m sorry about that.” It didn’t sound right, but Louisa was at a loss of what else to say; Amanda’s stories had such an unreal quality to them.

“You don’t have to be sorry; it’s my problem, not yours. All women have one or the other body insecurity, no woman is perfect – except if airbrushed beyond recognition. I’m just trying to show you that you can’t let that be the essence of your life.” Louisa sighed and took another piece of cheese. “Now let’s see, which male options might there be in your life? I agree Ryan wouldn’t be a good one, for I do see that at least part of his affection for you is exploiting your helper syndrome. What about that colleague of yours we met at the mall, with the little boy? Harry? He has a gigantic crush on you, kept eyeing you from behind his glasses. All you did though was banter with his son…”

“His nephew.” Louisa automatically set that right, inwardly despairing at Amanda’s talent at fishing for the most uncomfortable subject matters.

“Whatever. You should’ve concentrated on the colleague though, he seemed really nice and totally into you…,” she paused, scanning Louisa intently. “Loulou, why are you looking away and slowly turning magenta? Is there more about this Harry I should know?”

“Henry.”

“So what’s with you and Henry?”

“Nothing.”

“That expression looks like a whole lot of nothing. What’s up? What happened since we met him at the mall?”

Louisa sighed, rolled some prosciutto around a breadstick, spread Roquefort cream on a second before she answered. Maybe it would help her resolve this problem if she talked to Amanda about it. “Ummm… I can’t really tell. We got along in the office very well at the beginning. Then I badly freaked at the partner’s reception event and he had to take me home half asleep. Afterwards he started avoiding me, but later apologized for it. We went on a one week business trip to Florida, contracts for foreclosure buy-outs. It was a great week, professionally …. and I guess personally too. I felt we had a really good time together. Ummm … well…. on our last evening we ended up in my bed after pizza on the balcony…” she rattled off the last part.

“Wait a second … just so I get this straight: You and colleague Henry had sex on a business trip to Florida? Was it worth it? And then?”

“Yeah … it was… something special at least for me….,” she swallowed hard. “Palmer called me back the next morning because the HermesShield-affair erupted right then …. Henry was totally mean and cold when he came back, acted like I was some kind of rotten one night stand…,” she couldn’t hold back her sobs any longer. After bottling this up for weeks, vocalizing it was too much.

“Oh sweetie, come here. No wonder you’re so upset – that on top of Ryan ….,” Amanda moved her chair over and hugged her tight, stroking her hair. “That’s all there’s been so far?”

Louisa shook her head and continued crying, in gulps telling of Jill’s visit, the written apology and Christmas camellia. “Hmm… what kind of person is his sister?”

“Pretty, slim, great legs, good mom.”

“Aha. Otherwise, professional, caring, interventionist?”

“Don’t know. She must have a lot on her plate. Lost her husband somewhere in Afghanistan? Iraq? That’s why Henry’s helping her with her kids. And why he hates all defense stuff.” Louisa sniffed as she bit into a slice of brioche with a very consolingly thick layer of dark chocolate ginger spread. Looking at the packed muffin top bulging out under her breasts, she realized how much she had already ingested this morning. Not finishing it now would lead to another debate with Amanda though, an even worse idea than a few calories more.

“Loulou dear, all I can tell you from experience: If a nice, normal grown up sister goes out of her way to tell you that her brother has a crush on you, and she would appreciate it if you talked to him about it, to prevent him from a stupid, professional move – you have to do it. If you care only 5 cents for this Henry, which you obviously do, talk to him. Tell him you have feelings for him too. Many guys can’t articulate theirs; we girls need to make the first move. Will you do that? For your own sake?”
 

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
Sorry that life has crashed down on you so hard lately :(

On the other hand, these new chapters were entirely worth waiting for :)
 

agouderia

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[Author's note: Thanks for the patience dear readers - here's a long overdue update.]

Interferences

It had turned into his new seasonal morning ritual: At the end of breakfast, no matter what else he ate, he’d have one slice of good bakery toast with a tablespoon of Louisa’s wonderful apple preserve. Alone its taste let all the warm sentiments of Christmas wash over him: the sweet apples, cinnamon, a touch of cloves and raisins all juicy with some alcohol. Imagining Louisa cooking it, tying the pretty red& gold ribbon around it just for him, made it taste even better. Against his usual habits he hadn’t eaten it up right away but had that only one slice of toast every morning to make it last as long as possible. Without fully admitting it, it was like maintaining some form of physical connection to Louisa as long as possible.

“Henry, can I please taste some of Louisa’s preserve today?” Jasper’s well-phrased question tore him out of his daydream, letting him snap harshly: “No!”

“Mommy, Henry won’t let me have any of Louisa’s apple preserve!”

“It’s Henry’s Christmas present Jasper….” Jill raised her eyebrows at him, urging him to offer some.

“You always say we’re supposed to share our presents, not be selfish …” Jasper wouldn’t let it rest. “Louisa would certainly let me taste some.”

Despite inwardly conceding that Jasper’s line of argument was 100% true, he was being selfish and childish, he couldn’t bring himself to give any away. Instead he was unable to stop himself from protectively wrapping his hands around the large jar. Jill’s expression turned to one of sincere compassion that made him lower his eyes in embarrassment.

“Yes, Jasper, you’re supposed to share presents,” Jill ruffled her son’s hair. “But this preserve is only for Henry, only for adults. It has alcohol in it, doesn’t it, Henry?” He nodded energetically. “So that’s why you can’t have it …”

“But Louisa…”

“No Jasper, end of discussion. You’ve finished your breakfast, now go play. Don’t you still need to answer the e-mail questions from your summer soccer academy coach?”

Seeing his defeat, Jasper left the table grumbling letting Henry finish his coffee and have another bite of toast. He gave Jill a short glance expecting some talk but she only poured him more coffee and handed him the milk to then start clearing the kid’s dishes. Of late Jill had refrained from giving him any more pep talks regarding Louisa and his love life, had respected his privacy and seemed quietly understanding. One reason for that might be that she now had relationship issues of her own to deal with, didn’t need to interfere in his non existing ones.

Accidently some preserve slipped off the toast onto his t-shirt. Wiping it off with his finger, he with a sigh noted how big and round his belly rested in his lap. Maybe that was the problem, the underlying reason why Louisa – despite having hopped into bed with him in Florida – was so reluctant to give him a real chance. Next to Hannerston, or Clayton, or whoever from the office he looked like a big fat uncivilized ogre. No wonder lovely, polished Louisa didn’t want to put up with that, could only see him as a colleague maybe neutral friend. Was there anything he could do about that?

Growling under his breath he got up, put his plate and mug into the dishwasher, called the dogs and was out the door grabbing his parka before Jill was back. Going for a very long walk with the dogs was the best way to be alone, get fresh air to restore some of his sanity. There were way too many things right now he needed to think about, he didn’t know where to start.
Christmas time always was difficult – not only because it coincided with the anniversary of the most awful days of his life. But also because of the overload of emotions all around, people going on endlessly about love & joy & cheer … it got everybody all soppy and confused. Even his mind had been seriously warped this holiday season. Letting him believe Louisa’s homemade Christmas present might mean something, kept him continuously day dreaming about her, how lovely their life together might be. This had never happened to him before. He had always been able to keep his cool and stay detached from the holiday love-fest, limiting it to doing nice seasonal activities with the kids. Now all he could think about was how it would be to snuggle with Louisa in front of the fireplace sipping tea with rum listening to festive music.

Throwing more sticks for Tata to fetch and the small tennis ball for Squeaks, he contemplated that having Jill float around in a romantic cloud, smiling and humming all the time didn’t help matters either. For her it might be good – for him it was an additional mental burden. It had been a most unpleasant surprise when Jill had settled on the sofa next to him to ask very carefully if he’d mind if she went on a date with Clayton Barner, who had invited her to a Christmas party. Although it was nice to see Jill happy and excited about something for herself, not the kids, he wondered why it had to be one of his colleagues. Sure, Clayton was an okay guy, but he was he really good enough for Jill, would he keep her happy, not hurt her, get along with the kids?

He also wasn’t comfortable with the fact that Jill of course knew that Palmer had offered him the partnership while she was starting to date Clayton. Not that he didn’t trust her, but such information might easily slip in an intimate conservation. The same or even worse, because it was so touchily personal for him, was the issue of his crush on Louisa. Clayton would laugh his head off and mercilessly tease him if he found out. On the other hand, he didn’t want to be a spoil sport for Jill, who knew how to be discrete, and for whom some fun and attention was overdue after these past difficult years more than anything else.

Whistling to the dogs, he headed home, relieved that he would spend the last two work days of the year at a client in Chicago to finish their annual international tax forms, returning only on New Year’s Eve. That would give him more time to himself, the possibility to think about Louisa and becoming partner and how this might be interrelated in peace. Plus he could maybe try to eat less, make an effort to shrink that enormous gut of his a little, to look a bit more presentable in Louisa’s eyes.

Coming in through the back door, a pleasant spicy scent greeted him in the kitchen, along with a smiling Jill in a quiet house. “Like the smell? I made us some mulled wine instead of tee ….”

Although it sounded and smelled lovely, his suspicions were aroused, because such a scenario often meant Jill had something, often uncomfortable, to tell him. Sure enough – after three sips she asked: “What are you plans for New Years Eve?”

“Mmmh … nothing special … stay here …. Play cards with Jasper, who’ll want to stay up….”

Jill leaned against him, her face hidden in his chest. “Clay asked me to come to a New Year’s Eve party with him…”

After a long draught of wine, he tried to say as casually as possible. “That sounds really nice. It’s good you’ll have fun with Clay. I’ll keep an eye on the kids, as usual.”

“That’s really sweet of you, Henry,” Jill raised her head to look at him. “But I don’t want that.”

“Hmmh?”

“I don’t want to abuse you as my babysitter on the party night of the year – when you should be out and having fun. There is…”

“Jill honestly, it’s no problem. I’m not a party person – at all,” he stressed the latter. “I’m fine with staying here … you go out.”

“That’s not my point. I don’t want you staying here at home. It’ll do you good to interact more with other people outside of the job, that’s why…”

“Come off it Jill, I won’t go to any party with you and Barner! I don’t want to!”

Pouring him some more mulled wine she rubbed the back of his neck. ‘It’s not about you going out with Clay and me. I want all of us to have a good time, go to a fun party on New Year’s Eve. Celebrate a good New Year together. The Heilbergers, the Tyrolean couple in Jas’s soccer club have invited all parents and kids over – parents upstairs, kids in the basement, big party for all age groups. I’d like all of us to go. Please?” she had that puppy dog look, telling him this was sincerely important to her.

“Hmmh …. If you really want me to come….”


Sitting in the quiet solitude of his hotel room in Chicago, overlooking the river and to the right with a glimpse of the lake, he regretted giving in to Jill’s wheedling. Maybe he could use the bad weather as an excuse to stay, not go back home for New Year’s – but as many delays as there were, O’Hare hadn’t shut down yet. The weather though was bad enough to make him do something he hadn’t done in ages: go to the hotel gym. Normally walking his daily 2-3 hours with the dogs, he felt like a caged animal sitting inside all day – given the icy down pour, indoor exercise was the only option. He hated gyms, the smell, the self-important body fascists, the brainless talk of miles, minutes, pounds, calories all reminded him of his father, who had regularly dragged him along, exasperating at Henry’s lack of runner talent. The only thing he was reasonably good at had been the weights – but he still preferred chopping wood for the fire to exercise only for the sake of exercise.

Thanks to the terrible weather and the lowest of seasons, the hotel gym was empty and he first vented his cooped up energy by pummeling a punching bag around to then try the rowing machine. Learning to row on the lake, this really getting him away from everybody had been the upside of his father’s last posting in remote Montana. The rowing machine was something different – its dimensions were tiny, nowhere near had a normal row boat – and his belly at least doubled in size since then. Squeezed in, it reminded him uncomfortably that losing some weight might help his chances with Louisa. Once he had the cramped machine going though, it did work off some of his steam. Afterwards as he went to shower, a shiny scale stood in the corner. Before a straight thought had the chance to emerge, he closed his eyes and stepped on it. Squinting without his glasses and leaning over, he could make out the number ‘336’ resulting in a deep groan. Okay, he had been somewhat north of 300 for as long as he could remember, but not this far north. That had to be a good 20-25 pounds more than normal. And how far north of what might be acceptable for Louisa?

Taking the last banana from the fruit bowl along with 2 apples up to his room, he threw himself on the bed, listing to the springs groan. If there was one thing in life he was totally incapable of, then it was dieting. Counting calories, thinking about what he was not allowed to eat, an empty, growling stomach drove him crazy and made his ability to concentrate implode. There was no way he would ever be thin, or a male model body type like Hannerston or Barner. Yet it would make things easier if he could find a way to at least be in better shape than he was right now – not only would he be more convincing to all as partner candidate, his slim chances with Louisa might also improve a bit. Throwing the apple core into the trash, he decided to ask Jill whether she might be able to help him somehow.


His flight back had so much delay that he almost was able to skip the New Year’s Eve party. He had barely entered the door when Jill shoved him into the bath room: “Shower quick – shirt, etc. etc. are on your bed! Hurry up – Clay is picking us up in 30 minutes!”

On his bed he saw what must be fashionable shirt with burgundy pin-stripes and tucks hemmed in burgundy with a semi-choker collar and a short of trucker vest in black with burgundy to his best black trousers. Shaking his head his walked over to Jill’s room: ‘What’s this? I can’t wear this – I’ll look ridiculous!”

“No you won’t! You’ll look great – it’s a casual chic party… so I thought…”

“You’re taking one male model with you, that’s enough. You don’t need a dressed up ogre – I’ll only ruin the picture. Look I’m tired, I’m staying …”

In this moment Jasper stormed in, flapping a blue-white button-down shirt angrily. “Mom, I’m not wearing this! Everybody’ll laugh at me! I’m staying in my soccer jersey…”

“No, you’re not! It’s party, not a soccer game. You’re wearing the nice new shirt I bought you … just like Uncle Henry is wearing his..” she looked up at him sternly. Sighing, he knew sabotaging Jill’s efforts at introducing Jasper to the more refined sides of life was a bad idea, so he nodded: “Sorry Jas, we guys have to acquire a sense of dress too. If it wasn’t for your mother, I’d still be living in a swamp and wearing hides wouldn’t make any money to send you to soccer camp.”

“I don’t believe you … you’re making that up..” Jasper eyed him skeptically, but meekly let himself be buttoned into the shirt seeing Henry was putting on his.

Trying to retreat strategically to his room, Jill held him back. “Henry, it’s really important for me to have you in the picture. I’m so proud of you – all you’ve achieved, now becoming partner so early after the double-strain you’ve had of work and family. I want you with me not only during the rough times – you more than anybody deserve to celebrate the good times…. I want everybody to see what a great successful, even if unconventional family we are!”
He felt his cheeks grow very hot and looked away as she lightly hugged him before giving him a playful slap. “I need your help as a guy once again. What does your guy sense say? How do I look in this dress?”

Now he gave her the first real look since his return, noting she had had her hair done so it fell in shiny big open curls onto her shoulders. These were bare since the dress in question, a rather bright blue with some sequins, had a halter-neck and was somehow wrapped around her, oddly flat yet loose at the top, tight and narrow at the bottom ending at half thigh. Unwittingly he looked at her in his opinion underdeveloped cleavage, remembering that Louisa often wore those wrap tops too and how extremely appetizing they looked on her.

“Aha – thank you for that expert opinion. So this is a big boobs only dress…,” Jill groused, make his face burn again, before pulling it off, slipping into another one. This one was a bit darker blue, with small sleeves, very slim cut, the material at the top and back sheer with scattered sequins and at the high hem of the narrow skirt about 5 inches of some sort of fluff in the same color, out of which Jill’s graceful legs emerged most elegantly.

“Looks great!” he tried to put real enthusiasm in his voice, because Jill warranted it. “It makes your legs look even more elegant and.. and … well, you seem so young, with that hair, … like back in college…” Jill flew around his neck giving him a big smooch on the cheek. “You’re the best guy ever Henry..”

Jill was true to her word, showing them off as a family when getting to the party, her arms linked between Henry and Clay, who conveyed the casual chic lawyer perfectly, making him feel like a lumberjack beside him. But as often when one expected the worst, the party was actually pretty good. Decent wine, a wonderful spread of pot luck snacks, he and Jasper won the father-son soccer trivia game, because Jas had a memory for the oddest details and his general historic knowledge was better than the others. One soccer mom had a brother over who taught English lit at Cambridge, offering interesting conversation.

Right before midnight, the little kids were getting restless and worried about messing up the big moment. One self-important pre-teen, the older sister of a boy from Jasper’s team, told Jacqui: “Oh, you’re too little for really doing New Year’s Eve. You’ll only have a good year if you are in the arms of the man you love most when the clock strikes 12…” letting her immediately run to him and jump in his arms beaming: “I love you most Uncle Henry. Now we’ll have the best New Year!”

The bells started to chime and he could feel himself getting truly emotional, Jacqui hopefully was right. Looking around the room, he did have the sweetest most loving little female in his arms – Jill had dressed her up like a doll – it had to be a good omen for the year to come.

As Jacqui scampered off with the other children to dance, he was a bit put off by seeing Jill and Barner in a deep embrace out on the terrace. The bleeping of his cell phone at 12:08 distracted him. A picture of 2 glasses of pink champagne being clinked: Happy New Year Henry! May it bring you only the best of personal & professional happiness & success, Louisa.

Was that another omen? The first well wishes were from Louisa! Though unfortunately with only a picture of the glasses, not of Louisa herself holding a champagne glass.

“Happy New Year Henry!” Jill had come over, slipped her arm around him and kissed him softly on the cheek. “First good news of the year?” making him nod energetically. “This is going to be your year Henry, I know it. Great things will happen – if you only start believing in them!”
 

agouderia

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The first days of the New Year seemed to endorse all the good omens.

In his first official business meeting he received an unexpected sizable bonus for saving a client a much higher than average sum in taxes, letting Palmer congratulate him and suggest, that this could be the down payment on his capital contribution. That would not only be beneficiary for his personal taxes, but also lessen his headache about managing to come up with the sum.

Jill promised to help him eat healthier and get into a bit better shape, although she was surprisingly reluctant as he asked her. Questioned his motives, wanted to know whether this was his own free decision or more that someone had pressured him – and told him to be careful, only do things in a way he was truly comfortable with.

In the afternoon of the second work day, he saw Louisa downstairs across the glass atrium stairwell: she smiled at him and waved over – even sent a short e-mail. “So sorry Henry I couldn’t take the time to talk – things are crazy here. Am leaving in 2 days to try and collect more evidence with known MerSc partners. Keep your fingers crossed I find something to help get us out of this mess. Looking forward to catching up afterwards, L.”

Then came day 7 of the New Year – and he was totally blindsided by the recent positivity, entering his office unsuspecting around noon after a morning meeting. It was a particularly bleak day, so the splash of color in the corner by the window caught his eye immediately. A pink potted plant, a camellia, in a silver pot. Getting closer, the room temperature dropped about 40 degrees. Surveying the pot in detail – it was indeed the one he had given to Louisa for Christmas, which a delicate art deco design. Although she had politely thanked him, she didn’t want it, she had returned the gift. Why would she do that? What had he done wrong? Who could be so impolite among colleagues?

As if paralyzed, he stood there staring at the plant for what he later realized was over 10 minutes. Shaking himself, he decided to ask Melissa, maybe she knew more about this, maybe it was some sort of misunderstanding.  

“Ahemmh Melissa….,” he swallowed to try and get the words out.

“Yes Henry? Is there anything you need?”

“There’s, … a … well …. a .. a … flower pot in my office…”

“Oh yeah, Louisa put it there.” Melissa’s phone rang. “Sorry, have to get that. Don’t bother – I’ll take care of it… Palmer Associates, Melissa Black speaking ….yes Mr. Gattuso, I have your file here from Mr. Barner….” with a leaden weight on his shoulder, he turned and walked back to his office.

So it was true – Louisa personally had returned her Christmas present to him. What had happened? Which mistake had he made? Had Hannerston convinced her that she couldn’t accept personal gifts from other male colleagues? Why now – after all she had returned the gift with the apple preserve? What had changed her mind? If she didn’t like it after all, why couldn’t she have just discreetly thrown it away at home? These questions only surfaced to try and suppress the agonizing pain of rejection he felt. How could he have let himself be deluded so much by everyone, by supposed ‘happy’ omens to believe he of all people might find something not only professional success, but also something like personal happiness? Hadn’t he learned early that you couldn’t trust even the most sincere seeming people close to you? Why had he forgotten that? Even Jill couldn’t be trusted anymore, now that she was canoodling with Barner….

Returning presents was the worst though. His father had always forced him to return all sweets he had gotten as presents because he was fat. The unbelieving, embarrassed or later jeering reactions of children and their parents when he handed back the chocolate presents, with a mumbled explanation, fading with mortification under the iron gaze of his father. Mimi had put an end to that, saying it was no way to raise a child to be a responsible, self-respecting adult. The compromise she had found with his father was that she would ration the sweets, giving them to him in small portions. This worked – but disregarded the fact that he was already too old for that approach by then.
Louisa here had chosen the really easy way – returning the present clandestinely to immediately disappear overseas.

Sitting at his desk staring into space let the day end someway, sometime, somehow – by the time he reached home, he was feeling almost sick. Jill placing a plate heaped with backed vegetables, feta and brown rice in front of him didn’t help either – the smell of the cheese made his stomach turn.

“Sorry Jill, don’t feel well tonight,” he pushed the plate away.

“Henry, even if you want to cut back, that is a healthy dinner portion you should eat..”

“I really can’t, sorry….” He got up; Tata instantly at his heels went out the back door and put on his parka and shoes outside, just to get away. The idea of facing Jill again made him feel even worse, he walked for hours aimlessly – to Tata’s great pleasure – and didn’t return home until way past midnight, when Jill had already gone to bed. The endless walk did have the positive effect that he was so exhausted he fell into instant sleep and even overslept the next morning.


The first thing he did in his office the next day was try to throw out the camellia, in an act of misguided vengefulness shaking the pot until it rattled. Seeing the dainty blossoms quiver in terror, some petals falling, he flinched in guilt as if he had beaten one of the dogs. Carefully he set the pot back down on the stool, collected the petals and threw them away in the men’s room where Melissa couldn’t see them.

Despite telling himself mantra-like, that he needed to get over it, that Louisa had shown several times that she couldn’t be trusted, was on Hannerston’s and not his side, the awful hurt and confusion wouldn’t go away. He berated himself endlessly that he had allowed himself to establish any emotional connect with Louisa at all – after his initial reaction to her occupying his office, he should have had her removed as he had done with everybody else before. Or at the latest after their one-night-er in Florida he should have left the firm, taken another job, gotten away from potential harm. What was he going to do now? He couldn’t stay on here at Palmer Associates as a partner, seeing Louisa almost every day, letting her treat him like shit.

In his office, he couldn’t concentrate on work, so he went down to their legal library room, worked from there on the most complicated case aspects so his brain went into cognitive overload, no room for affective, emotional issues. Home was just as uncomfortable, he couldn’t stand having anyone near him, he even started to find Tata’s liveliness irksome, let alone the kid’s demands. Jill’s worried eyes followed him, but it was not until the weekend that she tried to talk to him, only letting him barge out on her again, this time to the office to continue working. There the most uncomfortable surprise was waiting for him – an email from Louisa, from the Emirates. With a list of financing and tax construction questions – but also some personal prattle about her experiences in the Arab world and, he couldn’t believe it, a picture. A picture of Louisa all covered up in floor-length flowing garments, with sun glasses – only a honey colored curl bouncing out of a head-scarf and her smile gave her away.

Shuddering, he copied her legal questions into a mail he forwarded to Tim Brewer so he could answer them before deleting the rest. Then he got so caught up in re-writing the minutes of a strategy meeting – something the clerks could or should’ve done – that he almost forgot he had promised Jill to babysit for her and Clayton’s movie night. Arriving home the very last minute, with Clay and Jill already waiting in their coats.

Since Jasper was at a birthday slumber party, he fortunately only had to put Jacqui to bed, continuing with the next chapter of the children’s biography of Elizabeth I. he had bought for her. Reading the sad and dangerous part after Edward VI. death, his intonation must have made it sound even worse because Jacqui asked: “Why are you sad Uncle Henry?”

“Why do you say that?” he was touched and hurt at the same time.

“You sound so sad … even sadder than the story. Mommy and Jas think so too.” Looking into her wide, questioning blue eyes, he sighed. “Yeah – I don’t feel so good right now…”

“You must talk to Mommy about it … Mommy always knows how to make me feel better…”

Her innocent psychology made him smile despite himself. “You’re right, I’ll talk to Mommy. Good night, little darling!”


Deep down he knew Jacqui was right; he needed to talk to someone about his dilemma, get a different perspective on it to maybe find a solution. Tomorrow he’d make an effort to ask Jill’s opinion. He stood in the kitchen indecisively. Eating also wasn’t the source of comfort and relaxation it had always been for him either. The past week he had taken to skipping family and colleague meals, not eating anything until he was literally starving to then eat like a pound of cheese with no bread – or a whole pack of turkey cold cuts on crackers with 3 yoghurts. Right now though he could only get liquid into his stomach, so he made himself the best consolation drink he knew of: Russian hot chocolate; a quart of very chocolaty hot chocolate laced with a good third of a bottle of vodka. The combination of warm sugar and alcohol did the job; let him fall into comatose sleep.

When Jill came back the next afternoon, he did make an effort to tell her what was bothering him, with little success. “Wait a second – do I understand what you’re trying to tell me correctly? Louisa returned your Christmas present? Sorry Henry, I don’t believe that – you must’ve misunderstood something!”

“Of course you don’t believe me! It was your stupid idea that Louisa might like me, that I should give her a Christmas present. Well not all of us are like you, who everybody immediately likes! All you have to do is come into the office, smile at Barner – and there you have a love affair!” her critical disbelief made his muddled anger boil over. “This isn’t going to work – I’ll need to find a new job! I can’t stay there, be partner, with you dating Clay & … oh f*** ….” As quickly as possible he grabbed his shoes and parka and headed out. It was no use discussing this issue with Jill any more.


Work didn’t get any better - Palmer intercepted him Monday early afternoon asking: “Mr. Conrads, I don’t want to pressure you – you of course have time until the announcement at our New Year’s reception. But it would be great if you would make up your mind earlier, let me know sooner. You can come anytime if you would like to discuss the issue – also regarding the capital contribution.”

That was exactly what he didn’t need right now. Especially since he was aware that if he seriously wanted to turn down the offer of becoming partner, then he should make finding a new job his top priority – something he subconsciously knew he currently was not capable of.

The next morning he found a cross-reference in a file that made him try to evade any personal contact with anybody in the office even more, hiding in the back room of the legal library, letting appointments coincide with office meetings, coming home very late and the like.

It was a potential new client, who wanted to contest the result of their IRS audit, claiming not all deductions had been recognized. Looking through some of the memos, he noticed they did IT services for a consultancy called Liberty Progress ominously based in Langley, Virginia – well who might have thought about that? He rolled his eyes – so-called ‘intelligence’ was almost as bad as defense and armament in his book. Thumbing through the pages, he sat bolt upright when he saw a bill from a sub-contractor ‘Tell><Vigilanti’ – offering international security services from a place called Hintergeissboden in the Canton of Zug in Switzerland, well-known for some of the most lenient tax laws on planet earth. Companies and people could actually negotiate their individual tax rates with the authorities there.

‘Tell><Vigilanti’ – he was almost positive he had seen the company name in that blasted HermesShield file; also because of their absurd apple&cross bow logo reminiscent of Swiss mythology. Putting it aside, he worked on something else until everybody had left the office and he could go look through the HermesShield evidence alone. In the end he even needed his special key to check the strictly confidential material – and there, at the bottom of a folder, he found material on business transactions between MercuryScutum and Tell><Vigilanti, something about security training schemes.

“Pffff..” he slumped into a chair. The most obvious explanation for that in his opinion was that Hannerston in his stupid vanity had gotten himself messed up in some inter agency operational mess, with CIA and NSA tangling at odds in some scheme.

The right thing for him to do now, as colleague and aspiring partner would be to inform Louisa and Palmer, show them his findings to incorporate these in her investigation, use it to help exonerate Hannerston. Yet that was the one thing he couldn’t bring himself to do right now. Hannerston deserved to rot in some NSA detention - and Louisa to work her ass off getting nowhere, becoming more and more embogged into that messy affair. A most vindictive gloating took possession of him – imagining the others struggling to defend Hannerston, him being convicted in the end, Louisa in tears, while he himself could sit smugly on the sidelines with his superior knowledge.

His cell phone bleeped – Jill asking him where he was, whether he was okay and when he was coming home. “Need to finish something here at work. Don’t wait, will be late.”

His discovery and mentally painting a tableau of doom for all others raised his spirits to a lately unprecedented high, combined with a roaring appetite surfacing. It was as if he had something to celebrate. So he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to ‘We,the Pizza’, had 3 of their delicious pizzas with a whole bottle of red to ride home by Metro whistling all along. Stuffed and tipsy he fell asleep to most pleasing mental blue movies of feeding a naked Louisa pizza and teasing her how he had outsmarted her, letting her investigation fail, let Hannerston be sentenced.


In the clear light of day the next morning, shaving with a major headache which spoke against the quality of the red, he uncomfortably realized that yesterday’s revenge fantasies were most unprofessional. And that he owed Palmer, the firm, even Louisa and his own professional reputation, future and sanity to inform them immediately. Even if he decided to leave the firm, it was impossible not to do so. If anybody ever found out, he’d face a law suit over damages, an investigation by the bar association, whatever.

“You okay this morning?” only Jill’s nose tip was visible in the bathroom door.

“Yeah – I’m fine.”

“Shall I make you blueberry pancakes for breakfast?”

“Hmmh … don’t bother..” although it sounded appetizing.

When he came down to the kitchen, Jill was there alone, the kids had already been picked up by the car pool. She placed the pancakes in front of him, worry and something like fear in her eyes.
“Henry please, tell me what’s really wrong. No matter what it is – I can handle it. We’ll find a solution, we always have together. Whatever it is, I don’t want to be left in the dark.”

Her words wiped away his appetite again, letting him only poke the pancake. “Nothing is wrong – just leave me alone, will you. Fuss around with Barner, he wants that,” not knowing where that nasty jab came from.

“Is it about becoming partner? Have problems in that respect materialized? Do you have a financing problem with the capital contribution?

“What part of leave me alone don’t you understand?” he barked at her. “Delete the whole partner issue from your brain, will you! I’m not the partner type, okay? I’m not any type you ever wished me to be!” Jill looked at him stricken, bit her lip, then turned off the coffee machine, wordlessly cleared the counter and sidetracked to leave.

“I understand. Whatever is bothering you has left you emotionally totally blocked, unable to think half way reasonably. I won’t try and talk to you again. Should you need me though ….”


Her reaction continued to let him fume, albeit with a disagreeable undercurrent of realization that she had all the good arguments on her side. Coming to the office, he tried to channel this moment of rational insight into writing the memo with his findings and suspicions about Tell><Vigilanti and the back-story to MercuryScutum down for Palmer and Louisa. However he only got 3 paragraphs written before the specter of revenge reared its head again, letting him save and close the file, go get a coffee and start working on something else.

Throughout the entire working week he continued to fluctuate between aggressive resentment against everything and everybody, starting with Louisa, and rational, professional moments when he could make a short-lived attempt to finish and inform Palmer about his newfound evidence. Oppressive was also that the day of the firm’s New Year’s reception was coming closer and closer, forcing him to come up with a decision regarding his professional future. Latently apprehensive of the fact, that nobody, who knew what he currently was doing, or not doing, and which mental and emotional state he really was in, would give him any professional future at all.


On Friday early afternoon his stomached grumbled louder than usual, noticing it was the smell of barbecued chicken that let his hunger voice itself. Looking up, Clayton was standing in front of him with a cardboard box, out of which several take-away bags were sticking.

“Lunch time Conrads!”

“I didn’t invite you for lunch….”

“No, I’m inviting you. Brought it here, since I doubted I could get you to leave the building,” making his defenses go up even further.

“Yeah, thanks … but I don’t need lunch right now.”

“Of course you do. Maybe part your problem is some diet – that’s not good for a big guy like you,” Clayton spread napkins on the table, set open boxes on them, pushed some ranch potatoes his way which his fingers instantly dived into without him being able to control them.

“Ummhgh … you’re right, thanks for the spread,” relieved he could bridge the silence in chewing.

“Henry, I need to talk to you about Jill,” it sounded quiet and ernest.

“That’s none of my business.”

“Well it’s my business if I see my girlfriend insanely worried and very unhappy about how her brother, who also happens to be my colleague is treating her,” he couldn’t believe his ears, horror streaming through him imagining what Jill might have told Barner.

“Whatever Jill told you, that's none of your business, you’d do better to forget it right away. Now please leave – here’re $ 20 for the lunch.”

Clayton stayed seated, put 3 more chicken wings on Henry’s plate and poured sauce over them to state calmly: “Jill didn’t say anything. She’s just as bottled up about personal issues as you are. I can only see how incredibly worried and pre-occupied she is. I have no clue as to the real reason. You’re also behaving weird enough around here in the office for everybody to notice….” He bit into a drumstick as Henry flared.

“All of that is none of your business…”

“I love Jill, she’s a wonderful woman in every respect, I want to see her happy. And she won’t be happy again until whatever is going on with you is over.” Clayton sighed and then got up to leave. “Look – I don’t like having to talk to you. But I feel I have to, try and get you to set everything right with Jill. Because whatever’s wrong with you, I’m 105% sure it has nothing to do with her. I know you think I’m some sort of legal underling compared to you. But at least I don’t go around blaming and hurting people’s feelings who are totally innocent of whatever … Think about it, try to get everything back on track.”
 

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
Huzzah for a new installment!

I hope life takes it easier on you for a while--for all the good reasons, and selfishly so that you have time and energy for writing :p
 

bayone

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OK, I want more of this. Also, please, Henry, wake up and be sensible!
 

bayone

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Also, the Henry/Jill relationship is interesting, rather old-fashioned in a way -- does Henry live with her and help raise the kids because that's what the people in the books he loves would do?
 

Grundsau 11

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Also, the Henry/Jill relationship is interesting, rather old-fashioned in a way -- does Henry live with her and help raise the kids because that's what the people in the books he loves would do?
You are writing this very well. It'll be as long as it's meant to be; ignore this "old-fashioned" label.
Any further installments will be as greatfully devoured as their predecessors were. Thanks
 

bayone

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Clarification and apology — I didn’t mean “old-fashioned” as an insult to you or to the character. I just thought, given his love of 19th-century literature, that of course Henry would consider it his responsibility to help his sister raise her children; I considered it a subtly appropriate plot point.
 

agouderia

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Thank you for your interest in my charachters and debating their motivation.

Henry's issue is that he never had any credible, convincing role models as far as loving, trusting relationships go in real life. That's also why he's so afraid of trying to establish one for himself.

With Jill it's different - together alone they had to face a very difficult situation. Becoming orphans as teenagers today isn't a very common situation anymore. So Henry did to a certain degree follow the patterns he had read of in his beloved books. He saw Jill as much as a victim of the circumstances as he was and he didn't want her to suffer for it.
Also - Jill is the only family he has, and it's a tie he subconsciously cerishes because he half-realizes that she in turn has always helped him in many social aspects.

Now to the next chapter.....
 

agouderia

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Encrypted Information

Getting ready on the first Monday morning of the New Year, Louisa sighed in front of the mirror. She couldn’t stand looking at all her roundness, how wide the pants in her hand seemed. Her conscious brain though insistently repeated to her that Amanda was right: She needed all her mental, physical and emotional energy right now to help clean up the mess Ryan had made. Issues like a new diet or talking to Henry would have to wait; it was time for a fresh start as soon as this nightmare was over. Right now she’d concentrate on staying sane and healthy, make sure she did her part in salvaging her own job. The upside of the lousy, more or less cancelled holiday season was that she had not put on much, if any of her traditional festive extra poundage since she hadn’t had the time to cook and bake as much. So her cloths fit smoothly as she slid into them, letting her close her eyes in relief.

In the office, she had a final talk with Palmer on the focal points of her investigative trip before she cleared her office, handed over her plants to the care of Melissa, packed all the necessary files before taking the evening plane to Geneva via Amsterdam. The following two weeks led her into a world she so far had believed to exist only in espionage fiction: Meeting on secluded benches arranged by pre-paid cell phone, everybody wore dark sun-glasses and spoke at least 4 languages, dinners were always in separées with the cost for menu and particularly champagne and wine bottles sometimes amounting to the monthly salary of her entire section at Palmer’s. The ubiquitous use of private helicopters and jets as means of transport. The fact that her hotel room was almost immediately upgraded to a suite that unfailingly had something in the line of a marble bathroom with golden faucets.
Although she was used to large sums of money from her regular legal contract work and its public tenders, she found the ease with which 9-12 digit sums in dollars or Euros were moved around in this business scary.

Not surprising was that this was a completely male dominated world: Even assistants, secretaries and interpreters tended to be men &#8211; her coming in as a younger woman not only raised eyebrows but led to several odd reactions. The legal counsel in the first asset management firm in Geneva blankly stared at her exclaiming: “Mon Dieu! It was not misspelled! You are a Louisa …. not Louis A. Grenburgh… what are we going to do now?”

After her first meeting in Abu Dhabi, where she had dressed very demurely in her opinion, her interpreter Bilal bowed to her all flustered and insisted: “Madam, please, you must let my sister talk to you! She will come to your hotel! Please listen to her!”

His sister Nabila had come and Louisa had almost thrown her out again after she handed her a selection of long wide flowing coat like dresses she apparently should wear: “With your figure, you must cover up more.”
Louisa almost gagged with insult, so it took Nabila some time to calm her down: “You do not understand at all. Men here are not used to seeing real women at all &#8211; even less doing business with them. Especially not women who look like you &#8211; any typical tribesman would pay 300 camels for you!”

“300 camels?”

“At least! You’re the traditional ideal, the woman of milk and honey, like the beautiful odalisques of the old harems!”

Although the story sounded just as fictional as many she had heard in the course of this investigation, Louisa followed the advice because she sensed it must be important if her interpreter went to such lengths to convince her.

The floor length, wide flowing dresses with high collars and long sleeves, made of a light silky material worn with a scarf draped over her head were incredibly comfortable. Plus they were oddly liberating for her &#8211; she no longer needed to think about how something might fit or look, everything was covered and obscured. It led to a schizophrenic situation though, with long, shapeless covering gowns freeing her from the life-long worry that her figure was a big negative stand-out. Simultaneously she was keenly aware of the dark flipside of this comfort: In combination with the various head concealments from hijab to full body burqa they in reality were the outer symbol of incredible discrimination and oppression for the vast majority of women who had to wear them, keeping them from living independent, self-determined lives.

Despite having the hunch that particularly assistants, office staff, spokespeople and the like tended to underestimate her and be more honest and open with her, she was a bit frustrated that she was getting no-where. From all she could find out, MercuryScutum was some kind of run-through operation, only disseminating funds, booking and buying equipment, personal or services. The actual beneficiaries, the operation behind it, which objective the entire set-up had remained opaque. What the entity or subsidiary of HermesShield did remained completely in the dark; everybody claimed not to know the name.

Despite the sunny, warm weather and a lovely hotel pool at hand, Louisa felt incredibly cooped up and restricted in Abu Dhabi, always being chaperoned everywhere by the driver, interpreter or the colleagues from the partner firms. Yet with all the people constantly around her, there was no one she felt she could trust or speak to openly. With the eight hour time zone difference casual phone calls to friends, family and colleagues back home didn’t work all too well as an outlet either.

Food and eating also weren’t really available as her usual sources of comfort and a means to relax. The plethora of oriental dishes she was served were all delicious, but with the constant scrutiny from everybody she was facing, Louisa found it impossible to eat with relish and in the quantities her appetite demanded. Smiling at the delicacies that were constantly pushed her way; she struggled to swallow at least the necessary amount for politeness sake with all the eyes around the table fixed on her. Room service wasn’t an option either, since then everybody would see on the bill how much she was eating in secret. After she had insisted on the way back from a meeting to stop and go into a supermarket alone, the amount of almost physical attention she was hit with there from everybody had her fleeing the scene as fast as possible in high heels and billowing coat.

Even in the hotel she mainly stayed in her hotel room when she didn’t go for a real sporty swim with goggles in the pool. The single Western woman on business here still had a bit of a unicorn quality. Many men from all over the world tried to chat her up &#8211; simply because she was the only prey far and wide aside from the professionals. One must have assumed as much when he asked her whether she was the &#8216;new Ukrainian country girl’, and how much more like classy farm she looked than her predecessor. Some were blatantly obvious about it, looking at her figure with disdain but almost starting to slobber when focusing on her chest. Others were more suave, asking her professionals questions first before getting very hands on. The nicest encounter was with a young Greek engineer who had fled the crisis to earn a living for his family in construction here and who was only in need of a sympathetic ear and verbal comfort against his homesickness.

The only thing that remained was the lovely warm sunshine at her third destination for the investigation - the Cayman Islands. The situation on the ground couldn’t have been more different. On Grand Cayman, it seemed nobody would’ve cared if she had walked down the street naked. Life seemed to consist of beach time, boat lunches and in between transferring obscene amounts of money from account A to account B, E and M. It took her three days alone to get hold of the official HermesShield representative, only to find out that he represented another 327 companies and had to be reminded which company she was referring to. He handed her down to one of his three assistants, who was in charge of managing 163 companies, but who alas, was out on a fishing trip. She would need to wait three more days for him to get back &#8211; why didn’t she come along to a beach barbecue in the meantime?

In George Town she was alone and on her own too, but here it was a carefree, peaceful solitude, no oppressive, alien loneliness. Walking on the long beaches, swimming in the turquoise blue sea, letting the waves tumble over her body, eating so much raw fruit her mouth went sore &#8211; Louisa wouldn’t have been unhappy if this odd professional limbo continued forever. Her guilty pleasure increased as the worst January snow storm in 15 years hit the Mid-Atlantic, the ensuing flight chaos making her prolong her stay for at least another 48 ours.

When Fred, the 1/163-rd in charge of HermesShield returned, he only shook his head, looked through several files and tapped his computer convincingly for seven minutes. “We honestly only have official HermesShield accounts here with very regular, transparent movements. Try the Virgins,” was his only advice, “I see one small trail there, dating from over 2 years ago.”


Ironically, the best and in every respect most rewarding of her investigative travels were not those to the luxurious sunny beaches, but the unplanned last leg into a seriously cold Alpine winter. Sitting on the balcony in the evening sun, typing up her latest insights, the beauty of the scenery took away the edge of frustration from her lack of finding hard evidence for anything. No matter what, she’d enjoy this weekend before she looked into return flight options to the wintery office. The pling announcing an incoming encrypted e-mail tore her out of her report drafting &#8211; it was from Palmer himself. “Read this carefully. Conrads found a lead in an unrelated case file. If you too think there’s anything to it, you need to check it out personally in Zug. Come back immediately.”

The message had her packing to leave the next morning - and 36 hours later she found herself dead tired, yawning and shivering uncontrollably from the drop in temperature of nearly 50 degrees on early Monday morning at Zurich-Kloten with snow lightly falling. Her odyssey had lead her via Houston and Atlanta to Reagan National, were 2 wash loads waited, 1 brunch with Palmer, repacking of files and clothing &#8211; and dozens of vain attempts to get Henry out of her head. Palmer’s mail and the file had let all the hurt, longing and rejection of Henry’s most recent behavior resurface.

After their exchange over the holidays, she had been pretty optimistic that they might get back into real friendly mode or maybe even more. So she had sent him 2 definitely personal e-mails from the Emirates &#8211; only to get technical answers back from Tim Brewer. Palmer now said that Henry hadn’t joined them for brunch because he had a bad cold &#8211; which sounded like a very lame excuse.

Their partner firm with its stiff-necked representatives raised many of the usual objections, yet drove out to Zug, only a little than half an hour away, on her insistence. On arrival, despite having the confirmation for a meeting, they were not let onto the premises of &#8216;Tell><Vigilanti’. They waited for over an hour, before another team of lawyers appeared, invited them to their offices and there read a pre-edited statements. None of her questions were answered; they claimed to have no knowledge of MercuryScutum. She found the discussion very difficult to follow, not only because her eyes were constantly falling shut with sleepiness, but also because the Swiss accent in their English was so strong.

On the way back in Zurich, she was surprised that Chantal Prüssli, the only woman on the partner firm’s team, insisted on accompanying her to the hotel.

There she did not let Louisa check-in but sat her down for a cappuccino in a secluded part of the lobby. “You are not going to get anywhere here. You need to try a different path. I can give you a contact.”

Louisa folded her arms defensively and yawned. “Why are you suggesting that?” Chantal physically represented the body-type that intuitively filled her with seething jealousy and let her keep her distance: A petite, skinny page-boy brunette, always impeccable in miniscule Chanel skirt suits and patent heels who never uttered a word in meetings.

“Because I think what you try to do is right. We have the same interests, not like all the old boys do.”

“I don’t think we have very much in common….” It sounded as grumpy as she felt.

“Yes we do. We’re the only younger women here. We’re the only ones with more than national legal experience on our teams. I know we here in Switzerland need to rethink some aspects of our business models. So I try to do my part.”

“Okaay … what is your suggestion?” she was surprised, saw Chantal’s point although her gut reaction remained negative.

“You need to talk to Martin Selbhofer.”

The name didn’t ring any bell. “Who is he?”

“He’s the general manager of ARGE, the Austrian security and defense industry association. I…”

“But that’s Austria …. Tell><Vigilanti’ is here in Switzerland….”

“Martin used to work for the European Association, still does the liaison to the Swiss association here. He’s incredibly well connected,” Chantal seemed to register her disbelief. “Believe me, he’s your best chance. Nobody here will tell you anything. Martin is very helpful, believes in open business dealings, wants to make the industry more transparent.”

“Well … if you say so, why don’t you try to contact him…,” by now Louisa only wanted her bed, would’ve agreed to almost anything.

“Oh … I already sent him a text in the car. He’ll meet you. There’s a conference fair right now in Innsbruck … you can go join him there immediately.”

“I’ll see whether there’s a plane or maybe train tomorrow morning…”

“Oh it’s a train &#8211; only a 3 hour ride. There’s one in 45 minutes … I’ll take you,” before Louisa could say or do anything she was on the platform of Zurich main station with a ticket in her hand. Chantal shook her other one warmly. “Trust Martin. Let him help you. He’ll really like you.”



Chantal Prüssli’s odd parting words came to her mind the next morning again and made her blush deeply over her poppy-seed croissant and sip more coffee. “Chantal told me you’re a type of Baroque Madonna - she was right,” Martin Selbhofer grinned at her over the table, brushing bread crumbs off his broad belly. “Maybe pale with jet lag, not rosy enough…. We’ll take care of you with fresh air and sunshine here, Louiselle, good Austrian cooking….”

The funny, endearing way her pronounced her name made her smile in spite of her herself. To take care of her … that felt like the Leitmotiv of the past good 12 hours. Martin had picked up her at the train station, looking like a theater director in a dark green velvet jacket with silver buttons and a red ribbon bow tie, excusing himself that he had an official dinner, to which she could of course come if she wished, but he assumed she needed sleep more than anything. Nodding gratefully, an assistant had taken her to the quaint chalet hotel where room service unprompted served her a delicious chicken-noodle soup and apple Strudel with creamy vanilla custard. Right afterwards she collapsed under the fluffiest feather duvet to sleep like a log until the alarm clock rang.

“Baroque Madonna’s are not exactly the style…,” she muttered, frustrated by the comparison.

“Hey … you’re in Austria … we love our Baroque Madonna’s here,” he took her hand to kiss it with a flourish. “Relax … now I need to go moderate the last 2 morning sessions… come along, get a better idea of our industry…”

The first session was in German on some technical standards, so Louisa put on her head phones and set to expand her impression of Martin Selbhofer. Well &#8211; if he thought she was Baroque, he certainly was too. Type 17th century Baroque ski instructor &#8211; if such a thing existed: Tousled hair a bit bleached by the sun, tan, full rosy cheeks, a very broad body with bulges of blubber rounding the torso out at all angles. The local Alpine jacket, now in fine wool with trousers held up by leather suspenders that had an H-strip just above the belly underlined its jiggley fullness. His lively movements and gestures during the discussion exuded a comfortable, laid-back confidence.

The second session was in English on joint European defense procurement, where the content was much more interesting for her. Right afterwards Martin’s assistant came to get her for lunch - simple tasty pea and sausage soup. In passing, Martin gave her hands a warm squeeze: “Do you have snow boots?”

“Eh … no… why?”

“Go buy some. You need them this afternoon for the Biathlon.”

“Biathlon? What? Why?”

“Up in the mountains &#8211; it’s our show event. Go buy some, Anna will tell you where.”

Acknowledging that she had to do no matter what to finally get Martin Selbhofer to speak with her about the actual reasons for her being there, she walked downhill through the bright winter sunshine to the sportswear store on the small village square. It beckoned her from afar by having the most beautiful snow parka on the sales rack outside &#8211; a silvery jeans blue, softly quilted with fur dyed the same shade around the hood. Fingering the size tag &#8211; EU 46/48 &#8211; she knew from experience it might fit. An eager sturdy salesgirl came out, held up the parka to her neck, pushed her to look at herself in the reflecting shop window and nodded enthusiastically. Inside, in front of the real mirror, she couldn’t help beaming at her reflection with idiotic delight. This was h e r blue, no doubt, the parka fit well and the hood framed her hair very becomingly; her critical self didn’t manage to come up with anything negative.

The shop girl brought her matching ski sun glasses and mittens as well as on her request dark blue snow boots laced in the lighter blue. Even though she only needed the boots, the whole ensemble filled her with such a ridiculously happy buzz, she bought it on impulse &#8211; topping it off with a cute matching embroidered felt handbag she saw on exiting.

“Ahhh … we have a snow princess…” Martin gave her a hug and cheek kissed her as she stepped out of the shuttle bus after a 30 minute drive up into the mountains. The event there at the end of a small mountain valley turned out to be a show Biathlon &#8211; cross-country skiing with intermediate firing on target at several shooting ranges. The special effect this time was that the contestants &#8211; junior championship teams from several European countries &#8211; didn’t shoot with their own rifles they normally carried on their backs. Instead they found firearms from different manufacturers at each range they were supposed to test shoot.

Standing in the mountain sun, blinking up at the bright blue sky, kicking the powdery snow at her feet her good mood made her fleetingly question her sanity. She was supposed to be working hard here, find any evidence she could, getting back to DC as quickly as possible. Not inexplicably enjoying herself, going on shopping sprees, drinking hot chocolate and some tee laced with liquor in the winter sun, chatting casually with all sorts of people. Martin had introduced her as a lawyer from DC who was working on an international comparative survey of different armament regulations &#8211; so she was bombarded with highly diverging views on US gun control laws or lack thereof.

Even that couldn’t make that warm fuzziness go away, because most of the debates were actually interesting and she sensed that especially the younger crowd took her opinions seriously. Yet she knew she needed to make some progress regarding her actual issues, so she accepted Martin’s offer to drive back with him.
After a few miles, she carefully asked: “Martin, thank you for such a lovely, interesting day. I’ve learned and seen a lot, enjoyed myself in every respect. You know why I’m here …. When would you be free to talk?”

“Good &#8211; I want you to enjoy yourself,” he interrupted hitting the accelerator to bypass a milk truck.

“So when do you think…”

“Louiselle, I want you to first get to know our industry better. Where we come from, why we do what we do. We’re not all bad guys &#8211;most of us are normal guys in a special business. Then we can talk.”

“I see that &#8211; and really appreciate everything you’re doing for me. Time is not on my side though. I need to get back to DC … help end this investigation, help get Ryan ….”

“It’s good they sent you instead of Hannerston,” Martin grunted.

“Oh &#8211; I didn’t know you knew Ryan.”

“Met him maybe two times &#8211; was enough.” Martin looked at her from the side and changed subject abruptly. “Do you have something to wear for the big dinner tonight?”

“Um … yes….think so …. sure,” Louisa hesitated, before deciding her velvet jacket with pencil skirt and the lace top should pass as formal enough. Standing at a traffic light, Martin turned to her, scrutinized her intently from the side, a devilish grin spreading over his face. Instinctively, she sucked in her belly, sat straighter and wrapped her jacket more around herself. As the light turned green, he started chuckling, letting his full belly role in his lap jiggle.

“What’s so funny?”

“You will see…” now laughing outright.


After several more miles, he stopped, opened the door for her, took her hand to lead her into a shop, one that offered racks and racks of local Alpine dress.

“You must have a Dirndl … you’re perfect for it!” Martin waved a saleswoman over and they started talking in rapid Austrian German. From her time in The Hague, Louisa had learned some Dutch and found that it made the gist of normal German relatively easy to get. With the Swiss or Austrian versions of the language it was hopeless though.
The saleswoman took Louisa’s arms, spread them a bit, turned her side to side, nodded, said something and left.

“Look &#8211; I really have something to wear. I don’t need a dress for one occasion. They won’t have my size anyway…” her voice wobbling a bit at the end, as she studied the tiny waist of a baby pink model with a puffy short skirt, a lacy petticoat peeping out underneath.

“Pah … that’s fake. We want a real one. “ Martin wrapped a big arm around her, cuddled her slightly, pushing her towards a partitioned fitting area.

The saleswoman brought an entire rack of multi-colored dresses: all with a fitted bodice &#8211; some buttoned, some laced, some with zipper &#8211; a full skirt, some with floral patterns, all with a colored apron. On the side of the rack was an assortment of short blouses, mostly white, many with lace and puff sleeves. Louisa was desperately trying to develop a strategy of how to get out of this mess; she had never tried anything on in front of a man before, not even her own father. Additional horror - a fitted waist, how shameful was that when none of them would close over her belly? All this was 1000-times worse than maybe having to buy a dress she didn’t need. How would she be able to speak professionally to him again?

In the meantime Martin quickly brushed through the rack and pulled out 2 dresses, one in ultramarine and forget-me-not blue, the other in various berry shades. The saleswoman took them smiling and shoved Louisa into the fitting stall. She was stunned; Martin’s choice was spot on as far as her favorite color blends was concerned &#8211; could he be gay?

Briskly helping her out of her clothes, the saleswoman shook her head as she saw Louisa’s sports bra. Only to come back with a fancy underwire bra. “Oh, I have one like that … in the hotel…, yes”.

The saleswomen, who herself was wearing one of these dresses, forced her to put it on anyway. Closing her eyes and sucking in her belly and backside for dear life, Louisa gave up and let herself be dressed like a doll, the outfit completed with a white blouse all seams trimmed in the forget-me-not blue satin ribbon. The curtain being pulled signaled her to open her eyes &#8211; and she couldn’t believe what she saw.

“’s perfekte Dirndl im perfekten Dirndl,” Martin clicked his tongue in appreciation.

Staring at her reflection, Louisa was too perplexed to decide whether this was great or awful. She had always seen to it that most outfits had nice neckline because she knew it emphasized her best part. This dress though pushed her boobs onto absolute center stage, the tight bodice underneath slimmed her waist notably and the full skirt hid hips and thighs, putting her slender ankles into focus at the bottom.

The curtain of the next cubicle opened and out stepped a girl in one of those mini-Dirndls. Seeing how tiny that girl’s waist was in the bodice, the familiar lump in Louisa’s throat made it difficult to swallow. Her waist was big as a cow’s next to her… how humiliating was this? The slim girl shook her head and sent the saleswoman off. Martin scanned both of them with narrowed eyes. Louisa shook herself, blurted &#8216;No’, trying to head back to her cubicle.

A firm grip of her arm prevented her. “Come here. You do not understand ……,” Martin clasped her in a bind from behind. His hands ran up her sides, masterfully cupping her breasts on both sides. “This … this is how this dress must look like …. Not like that…,” he jutted his chin over to the slim girl, who nodded and said something.

The intense touch on her breasts in public froze Louisa, all the while making a tingling heat between her thighs spread, preventing her from wanting to squirm out of his hold. “What did she say?” she asked instead.

“That you have the right &#8216;wood in front of the hut’ for this type of dress.”

“Wood in front of the hut?” This entire situation was beyond bizarre.

“It’s a saying &#8211; you need a good stack of wood in front of your hut to make a
Dirndl look good.” The slim girl’s saleswoman underlined the point by shoving some gel cushions into her client’s bodice to create the semblance of breasts.

At a loss of what to say or do and to end this crazy episode of standing in a costume dress with her breasts being publicly fondled by a business acquaintance, Louisa nodded and said: &#8216;Okay, I’ll take it, wear it tonight.”

As she disappeared into her cubicle, she heard Martin groan and say something about &#8216;idiot’. While she was carefully hanging up the dress, her saleswoman brought in 3 more, these now longer and obviously fancier, with silk or velvet bodices and silk with lace aprons. They looked like fresh from a theater production.

“Sorry, this for party,” her saleswoman indicated she should try one on, holding up one in black and silver.

“Martin &#8211; what is this supposed to mean?”

“I’m so sorry, it was my mistake. You need an evening Dirndl for tonight of course, not a day one. You can wear the first one tomorrow; you’ll be perfect for the meetings. For tonight you need one of those, try them on, hurry &#8211; it is getting late. I must be there for the opening.”

Looking at the price tags, the purple evening Dirndl was the cheapest &#8211; on sale still &#8364; 180. With a sigh Louisa tried it on. It was as if something in Martin’s commanding touch in her breasts had left her spineless; she wanted that feeling again, how it made her get all hot and tingly. It reminded her of her affair with Peter &#8211; he had been the only other man ever who had just grabbed her like that, as if there might be something worthwhile about her.

Her behavior was as unprofessional as possible, but right now she was incapable of not going forward with this. Especially as she saw that the purple dress with its genuinely laced bodice fit just as sensationally as the blue one.


It was not until breakfast on her own the next morning that she had a little chance to think what was going on with her. Until then it was a whirlwind of dressing up, shaking hands, chatting, beer, pretzels, roast meats, mountain cheeses until her bodice was suffocatingly tight, followed by music and dancing. For much of the time, Martin’s warm, heavy hand was on her side or back, steering her through the evening. Back in her room, she had trouble keeping her eyes open to brush her teeth before instantly falling asleep. Now, spreading some wonderful plum stuff on a fresh raison-almond roll, she tried to explain her own behavior to herself. Here she was, not doing the job she had been entrusted with, instead she was shopping, partying, trying on cloths in front of a fat guy she hardly knew, letting him fondle her abundance in public. Oh yeah &#8211; and of course she was eating too much, frowning at the sizable assortment of cheeses, cold cuts, bread, cake and fruit on her plate. Why was she letting this happen without any notable opposition? And what more &#8211; why did she feel so outrageously content with all this?

 

agouderia

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“Aaah …. so Austrian sexy this morning…,” Martin bent down so far that his nose brushed over her bare cleavage as he cheek kissed her in greeting, hot flush spreading over her face.
It made her guiltily aware that she had put on the blue dress this morning against better reason – it was actually too cold for a cotton dress with relatively short sleeves and the style was most un-business-like – simply because she craved more of his appreciation, only briefly wondering whether it was genuine.

“My meetings are over … now I am all for you,” he stated, sitting own across from her and grabbing a piece of bread with the mountain-style bacon from her plate with a grin.

“You say ‘I’m all yours’…,” blushing almost feverishly as she realized what she had just said.

“I hope so very much …,” Martin’s grin went diabolic as he cut a corner off her cherry crumble cake before putting a fancy bag closed with a ribbon in front of her. “First I have something for you… open it…”

Grateful that fumbling with the ribbon let her hide her eyes, Louisa opened the bag, to pull out a felted short jacket in the forget-me-not blue of her apron, trimmed in dark blue, the perfect match to her dress. “Oh … it’s beautiful … and so soft and warm ….Thank you ……,” smiling she stroked the soft fabric, before the reality of the situation hit her. “…err … this is really very useful…. I wanted …. With the dress…. it’s actually not warm enough now in winter ….thank you … how much do I owe you?”

“Nothing …. It’s a present,” Martin waved away her protest. “Put it on. I didn’t think logically yesterday …. you distracted me….,” he licked his lip and winked at her. “It’s too cold for a normal cotton Dirndl … so I got this on the way back from the meeting…”

“It’s lovely .. so warm and fits perfectly … don’t know if I can accept ….,” Martin put his finger to her lips. “Okay … then … thank you so much. All these local cloths are really gorgeous, the fabric and tailoring is so good, such great quality…”

“Yes, tailoring and quality is important … is preserving the tradition, but making it modern and comfortable… I knew it would be just your style,” he leaned over and straightened the jacket she had put on, flared the lapels, buttoned it further down under her cleavage, pulling out the ruffle of her blouse so once more a bolt of heat shot through her nether parts.

“One question only … why do most of the men at our functions wear those leather breeches … and you never do?” inwardly chiding herself that she once more hadn’t been able to give the discussion a professional twist.

“Too many Christmas cookies,” Martin reddened, but stuck out his belly and slapped it unabashedly. “I’m too fat now for my Lederhosen. But the cookies were very good …. Now come, we have to go,” he pulled up a mortified Louisa, who shuddered with lust and shame at bringing up the subject of his weight.

They spent the entire day visiting different small and medium sized companies, factories and manufacturer’s producing rifles, other weapons, all sorts of security devices. The welcomes were always personal and hearty, most companies were family owned so there were invited to coffee, soup and cold cut lunches, or strudel, shown the achievements of generations or the newest training methods for apprentices.

In the late afternoon on the way back to Innsbruck, Martin stopped at a parking lot on the road side. “Put on your boots, we’re going for a walk…”

They hiked diagonally uphill, the setting sun making the world turn pink-white as they threw snow balls and goofed around. After about half-an-hour they reached a chalet with a wide terrace that offered a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and the snowy Inn valley down below.

“Oh wow – this is beautiful … thank you for bringing me here!”

“Wait till you taste their Kaiserschmarrn…”

Although she was pretty full since they had had snacks all day, she couldn’t resist the fluffy, rich, shredded pancake with rum raisins and cinnamon sugar, served with home-made apple sauce and roast prunes as sides.

“Oh … I’m so full …. But it tasted so good, “ she leaned back to have more breathing room for her overfull stomach. Martin seemed to feel the same way, for he pushed out his gut, unbuttoned his pants and loosened his belt two notches.

“Louiselle … what did you see today… these past days?”

Despite the very casual situation and their overfed state, the tone in Martin’s voice showed that they now would finally be talking about serious business.

“Well, I found out very much about the traditions you have here in Austria in the security and defense industry. I was surprised that we saw so many SME’s, true family companies, with even employees working there for several generations.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted you to realize. These companies started out in poor mountain regions where farming alone couldn’t feed a family. They worked on the side, inventing tools, all sorts of mechanical devices, also weapons and security equipment. The companies in our association are normal decent businesses, not ruthless, anonymous conglomerates or the evil empire! It’s not about billion dollar deals”

“I understand that Martin, thank you for showing me so much,” his words made her aware how different the past two days had been from her previous experiences regarding atmosphere, life-style and everything had been. “You know though that I have a different problem – need to sort out how our firm got into the sights of the US security authorities for being involved in some sort of security or armament deals.”

“The companies you’ve visited today all did deals with Tell><Vigilanti… all of them also with HermesShield, probably two with MercuryScutum…”

“Oh … I greatly appreciate that … but are you sure you can tell me that?”

“They came to me right after they heard Hannerston was arrested. We did our own small investigation, checked their files. They have export licenses for the goods – small firearms, basic dual use system components, things like that. But we believe the licenses are fake.”

“They faked the licenses? I can’t imagine Grandfather Huber faking licenses to sell his protective vests…”

“No – he didn’t fake them. He received a fake license, claiming the destination was a NATO country from Tell><Vigilanti as intermediary. My guess is that it was Hannerston who was in charge of handling those fake licenses, setting up the legal façade. What else is more likely than if the license originate directly at a DC agency?”

Louisa took a deep breath – this was indeed new information. “What do you want to do with that information?”

“My job is to protect my member companies, their business, their reputation … and mainly the jobs of the people who work there. You met them – none of them did anything wrong. They produced and sold their product – to what they thought was a licit purchaser. They had as little idea that they had stumbled into a large scale international graft as you did.” Martin looked as hard and angry as she hadn’t seen him yet.

“What can I do? Those fake licenses would help me a lot, would be a major piece of evidence.”

“As I said, I think they would be a piece of evidence against Hannerston. You should try to make him name his contact, who actually issued the fake licenses. If you can get that proof, which exonerates our member companies, then I’ll give you the papers.” He looked at her sadly, took her hands and kissed them. “I wish I could help you more, but making sure our member companies don’t lose their credibility and export licenses is my job.”

“I understand, alone telling me this is very helpful. Now I have concrete items I need to prove, get Ryan to clarify. Maybe we can finally get him to do a real deposition.”

“Louiselle, that’s what I was talking about. Weapons and armament are as old as humanity, even the Stone Age had them. The problem is that so many people turn it into a dirty, corrupt business. We need arms control – but what’s more, we need to stop the shady people on the sidelines of the business corrupting it. You’ve probably seen it – how much of the business are surcharges, kick-backs, bribes and the like. It’s people like Hannerston who think that a Porsche is an okay compensation for one phone call that ruin it for the decent businessmen.”

She gulped softly, but knew he was right in essence. “Yeah, I saw that.”

“I have something else for you. You don’t know what MercuryScutum was really working on yet, do you?” making her shake her head.

“Well – I have no direct information on that, but I think our hacking team might have.”

“Your hacking team?”

“Well – we don’t really have a hacking team,” Martin chuckled for the first time again in their conversation. “I work together with a hacker club to test the reliability of all sorts of systems. It’s cheaper than having official cyber security firms do it – and also more efficient. Those guys do it for the thrill, always more reliable than for money or with own business interests. Anyway, one of those guys told me they’d hacked into a registration satellite program – and the data from some equipment came from other sources than where it should be registered… you know further Middle East…”

“That also sounds extremely interesting and helpful. Could I talk to them?”

“That’s only possible if you come to Vienna with me…”


“Oh, it’s dark outside … it won’t be that easy to walk back through the snow…,” it was a lame attempt to bridge the silence after they had finished their tea.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t do that to you,” he helped her into her parka and then wrapped his arm firmly around her leading her away from the chalet in the other direction. “It’s only 10 minutes to the cableway station.”

The bench in the cableway was narrow so they sat cozily squeezed together and the drowsy warmth took hold of her again. Getting into the car she asked: “Why are you so nice to me Martin? Why are you so willing to help me?”

“Hmm, I told you – we need more younger people, more women, more people with real international training to make the industry more transparent, more accountable – better, safer for employers and employees.” He placed a thick hand on her knee. “Chantal told me you were good at your work. So you had a good entrée with me.” With a deft movement he lowered her seat and leaned over her. “And … you’re really my type …. Baroque Madonna’s have an instant entrée with me…” his lips moved very close to hers.

“But you know Baroque isn’t…”

“There’s nothing wrong with being Baroque …. Don’t let anybody tell you anything else ….. Look at me…. Baroque is fun …. It’s a classic, renowned art form …it’s round, it’s abundant, it’s sexy …” With every word he had undone one of hooks of her bodice, pushed one of his hands over her breasts before his mouth reaching hers, softly persistent forcing her to open up, let his tongue play with hers. The leisurely warmth gradually turned into heat, her hands digging into his middle, undoing his belt and his heavy doughtiness spilling into her.

Resistance once more seemed impossible, futile, even superfluous, so Louisa mindlessly let wave after wave of sizzling comfort engulf her. It was not until she felt Martin’s fingers deftly working in her panties that her brain switch went on again and she pushed him half off, freeing herself.
“I’m so sorry Martin, I can’t. I … we shouldn’t have gone so far. It … you feel wonderful … but I can’t. Not with this investigation going on…. It’s totally unethical… I can’t…” she tried to cover herself with her jacket.

Martin pulled back puffing, sinking back into his car seat. “What if there was no investigation?”

“Then we should have another discussion about the merits of Baroque as a sensual art form….”



“Ms. Grenburgh – somehow I have the feeling you’re much less satisfied with your results and findings than I am…,” Winston Palmer gave her a bit twisted smile over his half-reading glasses.

Louisa sighed involuntarily. “Thank you for being so kind sir. I don’t know … yeah … we found out many details. The money is siphoned off through fake or inflated invoices, or are non-declared profits from HermesShield channeled to MercuryScutum. There also is another flow of money, as far as I can see directly originating in the USA, some institution which is difficult to trace. Much of the money comes, goes and stays in the Emirates – HermesShield has kept their accounts on the Cayman Islands clean, as well as the ones in the US. They even re-transferred their Swiss accounts back to the US, as a pre-emptive goodwill measure. Additional funds needed go through Panama and the Virgin Islands, from what Tim Brewer and H.. Conrads found out,” she couldn’t bring herself to say Henry’s name, she was still too wounded from him immediately turning his back and escaping to the men’s room when he had laid eyes on her this morning in the hallway.

“‘Tell><Vigilanti’ does the organizing of mainly equipment from small producers in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. All of it is dual use or small weapons and armaments exempt from or with only a low level of export controls. It is then transferred to the Emirates, where the equipment is handed over to intermediaries, personnel is recruited and other services booked. We know who does that, even though they so far haven’t admitted it. Ryan Hannerston became involved because he arranged the legal cover for all these hidden transactions and took care of obtaining necessary licenses. What we don’t know is who the real originator and who the final beneficiary is and what they did with the resources. Although thanks to the Vienna Hack Club we’ve gotten closer to their exact geographic location. But it still leaves the most decisive questions open.”

“Those are many well-documented findings. Any ideas, speculations who or what could be head or tail of the operation?”

“Well sir, I think we agree when we assume the trail leads to an outfit based in Langley – that somehow crossed paths and intentions with the NSA and Homeland Security. On the other end – I strongly assume money and equipment stay somewhere directly in the Gulf region, be it Syria, Iraq, Yemen, whatever. But who exactly, to do what – I can’t narrow that down any further.”

Palmer nodded. “Makes sense, I’m with you on all points. I was thinking – I would like to get you, Conrads and Brewer for the financial side and two people from the Arab desk at the State Department to get together as a working group and try to find clues for the missing links. Would that be an approach?”

“We can definitely use more expertise on the region …. from people we can really trust, though…,” Louisa fidgeted in her seat.

“One of the young experts from State is my wife’s godson – we can definitely trust him. What else …. you look like there’s a ‘but’ on the tip of your tongue?
“Hmmm… it’s only …. Conrads has been very elusive; I haven’t gotten any responses from him. I don’t know whether he would want to work on that,” she cringed at how small her voice sounded.

“You’re not the only one. He hasn’t been too communicative with any of us here either,” Palmer’s small grin was twisted, shaking his head. “I haven’t even….,” he closed the folder. “Now you go home, rest and be back for the reception this evening.”

“Sir, it’s only 11:15. I have so much work … mail …. to catch up….”

“That can wait. You go come and take a good long nap. You must be totally worn out after the past weeks, alone the constant time zone shift. Also – don’t you women always need extra time to get ready for a reception? Now go home!”


After a long nap Louisa had trouble motivating herself to get up, only wanted to stay in bed and hibernate. Yet she knew Palmer wouldn’t believe her if she called in sick now and the last thing she wanted was to lose her credibility in his eyes. Procrastinating in getting ready, she cancelled her hairdresser appointment – people fiddling around with her was just too much. Because of the chilly winter rain, she only smoothed some curl control over the springing waves – who cared if it looked like her hair instead of a hairstyle.

Fingering the purple evening Dirndl that hung on her closet she sighed – how much easier would it be if she could put in on, simply go to a concert or dinner with someone as easy-going and hedonistic as Martin. The past days had been a respite from her normal life, that things could be easier, less complicated, that she could be herself and that it was okay to be Baroque.

Martin’s parting words that he would be happy to look for a job for her at their European association or the OSCE still spooked through her head.

With reality biting she pulled on spanx and then the purple waist drape dress with some sequins she had bought with Amanda – it fit nicely since the slim pickings of most of her travels had made up for the past days of overindulgence in Austria.

Arriving at the firm, she didn’t want to wait in the lobby with everyone else, went to her office to be alone and started sorting her mail. A knock interrupted her –it was Jill, Henry’s sister.

“Hi… happy New Year … if I may still say so. How are you?”

“Fine, thank you. All the best for this New Year to you too.”

“You look lovely – that purple is beautiful on you…”

“Errr … thank you…” Louisa was uncomfortable. Why did Jill say something like that – she looked like a purple sofa next to her little black mini dress. All the old resentments and insecurities bubbled up making her feel tired and queasy.

“Louisa … I know you’ve been on the road for weeks …. It’s probably an awful time … but please, I need your help.” She glanced up at Jill in astonishment for the first closer look, noticing that she was pale and worried looking, her flawless make up and that sexy LBD couldn’t hide it.

“As you said, I’ve been out of the loop here for a while – doubt I can be of any use.”

“Henry has been going crazy since you’ve been gone … he hasn’t been talking to me …. And now I’m so worried he’s just ruined his chance of partnership…”

“Partnership?” that was a true surprise.

“It’s off the record, Palmer offered it right after Christmas – Henry was supposed to decide and the announcement should be today. But he hasn’t decided, he’s been totally beside himself… I don’t know how to get him to think straight …” Jill wiped some tears out of the corner of her eye.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Louisa knew she was hopelessly soft hearted in the face of tears. “He deserves partnership; he’s excellent at his job.”

“I know – I don’t know why he’s harming himself like he currently is. He muttered something you had a fight over Christmas presents?”

“No – not at all. I thought we were doing just fine over the holidays,” she sighed. “Jill – he’s been incommunicado with me too, not answered my emails – I’m not really up to date what’s going on here, I don’t think I can help.”

“Please, all I ask is that you try to talk to him … tell him he needs to make a rational decision. He cares so much for you,” making Louisa blush furiously. “It’s the last thing I can think of.”

“Oh alright, it can’t be more than useless,” she was astounded at her own words. Why did she give into something she felt was meaningless and potentially very embarrassing so quickly? Sleep deprivation, jet lag, Jill’s tears … or feelings for Henry resurfacing? “Where is he now?”

“Ummm … I was told he should be in his office. Thank you so much! I can’t tell you how much it means to me!”

Taking the stairs up to her old office, she wondered by Jill was there for the reception but didn’t know exactly where Henry was. Sure enough, he wasn’t in his – or their old – office. Once more she enjoyed the view, before checking on her camellia in the corner. It seemed fine, only a few leaves and one blossom needing plucking. She half-kneeled to do so, as she was snapped at from behind: “What do you think you’re doing there?”

With a start, Louisa lost her balance and landed on her cushiony backside ……
 

bayone

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I went back this week and read "525." I think one of the things I enjoy about your stories is that the misunderstandings between the characters are believably grounded in their past histories and personalities, rather than the "I suddenly became jealous because the plot required it" one sometimes encounters.:)
 

Grundsau 11

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I owe you an apology. It was merely an ill-considered knee-jerk reaction; the word old-fashioned is misused so blasted often these days to mean a negative quality. I might have seen that if I'd read better between the lines. It was an honest mistake, given today's current vocabulary. (or lack thereof!)
 

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