The week passed in a blur of work for Camryn: lots of enlargements for a family reunion, a shoot for one of the local theatres, and a new assignment from the Zoo. The baby Panda was completely adorable, and the photographer had a wonderful time in her private session with the cub and her proud mom. The pictures would wind up on postcards, posters and the like.
And now here she was taking publicity photos for Taylors pub. The enigmatic owner was currently tending bar, so Camryn snuck a few candid pictures of her smiling at customers and pulling a Guinness, deftly drawing a shamrock in the head of each pint. She smiled as the blue eyes caught her pointing the camera in the direction of the bar, and couldnt help but laugh when Taylor quirked an eyebrow at her and promptly stuck out her tongue.
The blonde marveled in the study of contradictions that was Taylor Jameson. One minute her eyes held sorrow or violence, and the next she was grinning foolishly and sticking out her tongue. What put that sorrow in her eyes? And how can someone who seems so kind and gentle also seem to have such violence lurking beneath the surface. Fascinating.
Then before she got caught staring again, she turned her lens again to the patrons, aptly capturing the festive atmosphere of the Friday night crowd - the shy couple obviously on a first date; the table of women dressed in business suits apparently out for happy hour straight from work; the heated, intense game of darts in the corner - Camryn froze each in a timeless instant.
Behind the bar, Taylor continued to surreptitiously watch the small photographer; and wonder at her sure hands and quick eye that seemed to move instinctively from shot to shot.
On the small stage at the other end of the room, a local musician was leading the crowd in what Camryn started to think of as "interactive bar songs." The regular customers seemed to know all of the words and clapped and shouted just at the correct time to old Irish tunes like "Whiskey in the Jar", as well as some bowdlerized versions of more recent songs like "Sweet Caroline." Camryn chuckled at that one, thinking Neil Diamond might not be too pleased to hear the audience chiming in with their own risqué lyrics and attempts to sound like various musical instruments.
Still. The place is fun, the food great, the beer freely flowing, and the crowd lively. Just what one hopes for in a neighborhood pub. Camryn turned and caught T.J. looking at her, and the photographer smiled at the barkeep, realizing that much of the success of the place was due to the owner herself.
When T.J. motioned to her, Camryn wound her way through the crowd back to the polished oak of the bar.
"Are ya enjoyin yerself?"
"Absolutely! Although I dont remember Kenny Rogers singing you bitch, you slut, you whore during his version of Lucille."
Taylor laughed. "Aye? Didnt ya get that one over here in the States? Back home 'tis an Irish tradition."
"Hmmm. What I wouldnt pay to see Mr. Rogers doing that version live."
The two women chuckled and Taylor nodded to Camryns camera.
"Are ya about done then?"
"Yep. I think Ive got some great shots for you tonight. Mixed with the ones I took outside yesterday around sunset, and I believe, Ms. Jameson, I just might be finished here."
That caused Taylor a small, unexpected pang to think that the blonde was finished with her work and she didnt have a reason for coming into the pub again. Unless she just wants a Guinness and some company, you old fool. Taylor scolded herself for being stupid. Youve known the woman for a week and suddenly the thought of her leavin bothers ya? And it actually did, Taylor realized with a start.
So, once again acting on instinct, she handed the blonde a menu. "Well then, find yourself a table and Ill buy ya dinner. I happen ta know someone who works here, so I think I can get it for cheap."
Camryn took the bill of fare and quirked a half grin at her blue-eyed friend before heading towards an empty, out of the way booth. She barely glanced at the menu, already really knowing that she wanted to try one of the Boxties that had her mouth watering the night of the charity contest. She noted the forest green of the material that covered the seats of the booth, the dark wood table and the candle placed in an old crockery jar that gave the area a small intimate amount of light. Nice. Cozy. And she idly wondered if Taylor did the interior design herself. It had her stamp - subtle yet strong, and very, very Irish.
Cami glanced up as the tall woman approached the table. "This is what I call service. The owner herself waiting on my table."
Taylor chuckled and slid into the booth opposite the smaller woman. "Its not everyday that I get a celebrity in my humble establishment."
Camryn snorted. "I hardly qualify as a celebrity."
"Sorry ta contradict ya, but anyone who has three books published and has work hangin in galleries on three separate continents, well, I think that rates celebrity treatment."
The photographer was surprised. Pleased, but surprised. "I believe someone has been checking up on me." She teased to cover her own slight embarrassment.
"Aye, of course. Did ya think Id ask just any Joe Schmoe shutterbug ta come in here and immortalize my pride and joy?" Her tone held a mixture of indignant embarrassment and a hearty helping of laughter. "In case ya havent noticed, lass, I settle or nothin but the best of everythin."
Actually, Camryn had noticed. The stamp of wealth on Taylor was very subtle, but it was there if you were looking: the Rolex on her wrist, the expensive leather loafers, the silk blouse, and beautiful silver Celtic necklace. All of it said money. Class and money, Camryn decided. She briefly wondered what T.J.s husband did for a living or if all of her wealth came from the bar. Hmmmm. This place is relatively new, so she cant have made that much money on it yet. Yet another piece of the puzzle that was T.J., which was already shaping up to be one of those genius level 5000 piece puzzles that didnt come with a set of instructions. But the picture was certainly lovely to look at.
The photographer decided that her best course of action was to simply change the subject. Their friendship was still way too new to be prying into closets that T.J. might not want opened. "I sincerely hope the best of everything includes your food, because Im starving."
T.J. grinned and motioned for Katie, one of the waitresses, to come and take their order. The tall woman recognized the subject change, and was actually rather pleased that Camryn hadnt pushed her on the money issue. Some things were better left alone, and T.J. wasnt sure she wanted to lose her new friend by revealing all about her rather despicable past.
So she was grateful for the interruption when Katie sauntered over and smiled at her boss. "Hey T.J. The usual?"
"Aye. And Ms. Wells here will have -?"
"A rasher and cheese boxty, and a pint of Harps." Cami recited without even glancing at her menu. Taylor quirked a brow at the order and nodded at Katie who took the menu from the blonde and left to place the order.
"I see yave eatin in an Irish pub before if ya know about boxties."
Camryn grinned. "I spent a month in England during college, and I found out pretty quickly that you had to eat pub food for self preservation."
With a chuckle, Taylor picked up the thread. "Aye. Unless ya want Indian food or what passes for a McDonalds burger, pub food is the only way ta go in England."
"And I actually developed a taste for Harp in college. There was this bar just down the block from the apartment I rented and the owners were three Irishmen, so they kept the place stocked with Harp, Guinness, and Newcastle."
"Aye, so ya spent your best drinkin years in an Irish pub, did ya?"
"Well, I wouldnt call it a pub exactly." She looked pointedly around the room. "I mean, this looks and feels like a pub. No, McCaffertys is, well a dive bar. They just happen to serve Irish beer."
"At least ya dont drink any of that yellow water that ya Americans call beer."
Camryn snickered. "I actually dont drink beer much at all these days. But I figured, Irish pub, Irish beer."
"Like when in Rome?"
The two women locked eyes over the table and something subtle passed between them - a shadow really, of a memory long past. But before either of them could grasp it, it was gone like the echo of thunder fading away in the distance. Both women wondered if the other had felt it, but neither had the courage or words to comment on it, so they let it pass.
The salads were served and the conversation eventually turned to college and careers. At T.J.s inquiry, Camryn conceded that a degree was rather unnecessary for her chosen profession.
"So did ya major in art or photojournalism at least?"
"No, actually English," she looked sheepish. "My parents wanted me to go to college and I always loved reading and especially writing, so I thought English was a good course of study. But I always knew that Id make my living with my camera. I mean, besides teaching, what exactly can you do with an English degree?"
T.J. chuckled, absently reaching for a piece of bread from the basket that Katie had left them and using it to sop up the excess salad dressing. "I suppose, ya could have become a writer, journalist, something like that. Although it seems youve done well for yourself as it is."
"I love writing, and I keep a journal, but somehow I could never write a story as vividly as I could capture it with my camera. But at least my parents were appeased - I have the fairly useless piece of paper that says I went to college." Camryn paused and took a sip of her beer. "Did you go? To college, I mean?"
T.J. hesitated. How much of herself to reveal was the question. Cami was an open book, sharing her past quite willingly, and Taylor felt a twinge of guilt for firmly keeping her polite filter in place. Trust was not high on Taylors list of traits, but she somehow felt she could trust the small blonde woman - it was something about those amazing green eyes. So she made the decision to give the blonde something of herself, just nothing too damning.
"Aye. Ive a degree in Business Administration from Trinity College." True enough; although she didnt admit that she had dropped out during her junior year and only just finished her remaining course work on-line about three months ago.
"So why a pub? Or actually, I guess a better question would have to be, why a pub in San Diego? Is your family here or still in Ireland?"
Now they were treading on thin ice, and T.J. inwardly flinched at the half-truths she felt pushing to the surface.
"I chose a pub, cause its my heritage. Gran and Gramp ran a pub in Galway long ago. Theyve long since passed however. My cousin Mick runs the place now."
So far all the truth, now comes the hard part. "I guess I just decided one day that San Diego always looked like a nice place ta live, so I up and moved here. That was a few years ago. Sure and its a damn sight nicer weather here than in Belfast." Pretty close to the truth, just leaving out the fact that she had to leave Ireland. And the fact that she was running from her guilt and sorrow over the loss of Colin. But only one other person knew about that, and her mother was still in Belfast, staunchly refusing to leave her native land.
Cami noticed that her friend left out the question about her family, but she also sensed the hesitation and read discomfort in those expressive blue eyes across the table from her.
"Wow. Belfast. Rough neighborhood. I can see why San Diego would be appealing to you then." She smiled at T.J., keeping her tone light, with an unspoken offer to change the subject.
"Aye that it is. Tis a lovely place. I enjoy the notion that a body can spend the morning swimmin in the ocean and the afternoon playin in the snow."
"Well, the mountains are close enough," Camryn put a hint of teasing in her voice. "But for snow it would have to be winter, and no native is dumb enough to climb into the Pacific until at least April. I always get a good laugh at the people on the beach in February - the natives are wearing sweaters and the tourists are dressed in bikinis."
T.J. smiled at the image, and sighed in gratitude that the topic had shifted away from personal issues. "Ive been here for several seasons now and Ive never seen it get below 60 degrees. But at 60 the natives are all runnin round in ski jackets complain. Ive seen thicker hides on an onion."
They were interrupted by Katie who brought their main course and took away the salad plates. Camryn noticed that T.J. was also eating a boxty, but hers appeared to have chicken in it rather than the bacon in her own. And her meal was complimented with a pint of Guinness instead of the lighter Harp that Camryn preferred.
"How do you drink that stuff?" She gestured to the dark beer with her fork. "I always feel like I should be chewing it instead of just swallowing."
The look T.J. shot her was full of patience for the unlearned. " Tis an acquired taste. I think ya have ta have the blood of the Celts ta properly appreciate it."
They chatted amiably about nothing and everything as they devoured their meals. When she was finished, Camryn pushed her plate away and groaned. "Oh, that was delicious. I shouldnt have had those last few bites, but I couldnt help myself."
The compliment was received with a charming smile by T.J. who waggled her eyebrows and tempted Camryn. "Aye, and ya havent even seen the dessert yet."
When Camryn puffed out her cheeks and motioned that she was going to explode, T.J. indulged in a deep hearty laugh, that brought a corresponding grin to Camis face.
"Why do I suddenly feel like a character in a Monty Python movie? You know, the one with the guy who eats so much he explodes all over the restaurant."
"Aye and what a fine image that brought ta mind." T.J. grimaced. " Tis called The Meaning of Life, that one."
"Right. Would you care for just a thin, wafer mint?" Camryn did a fair British accent.
"Well and tis a fine English Trifle that my chef made today. Ya can take some home if yave a mind."
"Home?" Camis lip pouted sweetly. "Cant I have some here too?"
T.J. laughed again, surprised at just how much she enjoyed the blondes company. "Aye, of course. But Ill have ta have Katie bring out the mops and buckets first." And she motioned for Katie to bring them their desserts.
Camryn finally looked around and realized that the place had quieted down some. She had been so taken with their conversation that she had lost track of the time, and glancing down at her watch she was surprised to see that it was nearly 2 a.m.
"Almost closing time."
"Im sorry ta have kept ya out so long."
"No, not at all. I was actually just surprised at how quickly the time went. Im really a night person. Sometimes I work all night in my dark room without realizing it."
"How does your family feel about that? Ya being occupied with your pictures so much and all." T.J. finished lamely. Well. That was subtle. How about ya just come right out and say, "Are ya married? Engaged? Living with someone or otherwise attached?"
But if Camryn thought anything more by her question, she surely didnt show it. "I thankfully live by myself, so I havent heard any complaints." she smiled. "My parents are in the South of France, and my sister is...well, I think shes in Phoenix at the moment. Weve never been really close."
Ok, T.J. No husband. But that doesnt mean shes . . .Oh, get over it will ya. She staunchly refused to pry about that question.
They polished off their desserts and an Irish coffee apiece, before Camryn stifled a yawn and decided it was time to let T.J. get home to her husband. Again she idly wondered how the paradoxical woman across from her ended up with a guy she heartily called a "snake." Yeah, well. Love is blind Cam. And in my own case, also deaf and dumb. With a small shake of her head at what seemed to be her permanently single status, Camryn put her napkin on the table.
"Id probably better take off. Dinner was lovely, thank you so much. Now I know where to come when I have a craving for boxties."
The two women slid from the booth, both stretching after sitting for a few hours.
"Most certainly welcome - it was right good craic."
"Excuse me? Crack?" Her nose wrinkled, trying to pronounce the unfamiliar word.
"Oh, sorry, my Irish was showin. Craic means fun."
"Oh, then youre right. It was good craic." Camryn felt a tingle as T.J. lightly laid her hand on the small of the blondes back to walk her to the door of the pub.
At the door, Cami paused. She had a craving to hug the taller woman, but opted for a handshake instead. "Ill develop those pictures and call you next week so you can see the proofs."
"Sounds just fine. Drive safely."
When the photographer headed for the parking lot, she was completely unaware of the sharp blue eyes that watched her carefully to make sure she reached her car safely.
Her instincts were on full alert; skin prickled, and sharp hawk-like ice blue eyes swept the darkened parking lot, as she appeared to walk casually. But appearances could be deceiving.
Despite the nonchalant gait, every muscle in her body was tense, and years of fighting with the F.E.P. in the streets of Belfast came flooding back into her like a familiar nightmare. Taylor Jameson was lethal. And some fool was stalking her.
Here? In my own damned parking lot? More than the fact that someone was apparently following her, it disturbed her to no end that they had come here. To her pub - her home, really.
Self-preservation caused her brain to whir as she finished "strolling" from her car into the cheerful lights of the pub. But instead of feeling relief as she cleared the entryway, she felt rather than saw, that something was wrong in here as well. One didnt survive nearly 15 years of wading through the scum of the streets without listening to that inner voice that warned you of danger.
Taylor had left Ireland a little over two years before, swearing an oath never to return. Although she had agreed to her exile, it was really for her baby brother, and her own tortured soul that she left behind her native land.
Her Da had been a high ranking member of the I.R.A., but when he was killed by the police in a raid gone bad, Taylor had stepped up to follow in his footsteps and honor his memory. She was just 15 years old.
But her age was certainly no deterrent to her success. She quickly advanced in the ranks of the Free Eire Patriots (F.E.P.), a small sectarian group that had splintered away from the I.R.A. Driven by her deep sense of nationalism and the pride in her Da, Taylors idealism was fuel enough for her rise in power.
She discovered that she was a skilled soldier, with a shrewd mind and clever plans. It also didnt hurt that she was a stunning woman. Despite her tall, muscular frame, most people just didnt expect the lethal force that was lurking beneath that gorgeous face and those deep blue eyes.
On the eve of her 21st birthday their commander lost his life in a knife fight and Taylor Jameson suddenly found herself leading a group of men, some half her age, some twice it. Out of affection, and in some cases pure lust, they called her "Jamie" in a clever shortening of her last name. She was their rock: beauty, brains, passion, and strength. She had all the best qualities they could hope for in a leader, and she was drop-dead gorgeous to top it all off.
But somewhere along the line Taylors good intentions were put aside; "for a Free Ireland" was lost in the muck of corrupt politics and awash in an incarnadine sea of the life-blood of "patriots" just like herself. To finance their cause, Taylor found herself immersed in the shadowy underworld of gunrunning and international terrorism. Her men gamely followed where she lead, with barely a grumble along the way, for the new ventures were far more profitable than simply harassing politicians.
Now, what seemed like a lifetime later, Taylors face was still relatively the same, save for a few small lines around her eyes that were symbols of the difficult life she had seen in only 32 years. She was still the stunning, gorgeous woman who broke her fair share of hearts along the way. But her eyes...if the eyes are truly the windows to the soul, Taylors were currently empty. The devastating events that led to her banishment from Ireland had left her void of emotions; she simply couldnt afford them.
She had spent the past two years building a solid, reputable business, staying within the law, and even paying her taxes. But most importantly, she had started a journey to reclaim herself.
Deep inside though, in a place she seldom liked to visit, lay the fear that she would never be anything more than a black-hearted mercenary. She still awoke each morning with her hand firmly searching under the pillow for the gun that was no longer there. And anything that was even a bit out of the ordinary was highly suspicious to her.
No, with a background like hers, when your hackles rose, you listened. Right now her senses told her something was brewing.
She quickly glanced around her pub, but didnt see anything out of place; happy, Friday night patrons crowded the booths, Joe sang on the stage - it all seemed normal. But something was surely wrong. She caught Tommys eyes as he drew a Guinness, and he jerked his head in a motion towards her office. Whos in there?
As she smiled at a few customers who were being harassed by the singer to chug their drinks, she sidled up to the polished oak bar and waited patiently for Tommy to finish helping a customer.
"Hey boss lady."
"Whats up, Tommy?"
"I tried to get him to leave, but your - um . . .I mean, Frank is in your office. I even told him you werent expected in tonight. But he said it was important and he would wait for you." Tommys brown eyes were hard and his jaw worked a bit in contempt for the man currently parked in T.J.s office.
"Thanks mate." Squaring her shoulders she took a few steps towards the office before Tommy stopped her.
"Boss, do you want me to - I -" He froze mid-sentence as he watched those incredible blue eyes before him light with a violent fire he had seldom seen in his two years working for Taylor.
The message was clear. She could handle Frank. But Tommys protective streak nudged him enough to risk it. "Im here if you need me."
A nod of the sleek, dark head acknowledged the gesture of friendship and she turned on her heel to deal with the slime.
Damn. I knew he was up to something. What the hell does he want? Was the bloke in the parking lot waiting for Frank or me? Well - only one way to find out.
She slung open the door of the office, catching him off guard. He was sprawled on the comfy couch that resided along the opposite wall of her office, and he nearly fell off the edge when she came in the room.
He quickly recovered his composure and offered her a lazy, seductive smile. Crossing his feet, T.J. noted his expensive Italian loafers and his well-cut clothes. Hmmm. Already spent that money, eh Frank?
"Good evening, honey. Surprised to see me?"
" Surprised isnt the word Id use."
He smiled at her quip, and ignored the fact that although she had closed the door to keep the customers from hearing the scene, she was still standing in all of her intimidating presence in front of the office door.
"Thought you might like to buy me dinner. For old times sake."
With a pointed look at his expensive clothes, and strong, muscular body, she replied, "Ya dont look like youre missing many meals, Francis." Ice dripped from her tone as she used his given name. "Im not up ta bein polite with ya tonight. So want do ya want?" She folded long arms across her chest and leaned a shoulder against the door.
He sat up and crossed the room with a cocky, rolling gait, planting one hand on the wall next to her head and leaning down until they were nose to nose. "Would you believe me if I told you I wanted your company?"
Every muscle in her body screamed at her to drop him like a stone, but she refused to let him see her barely leashed temper. Instead, one black brow shot skyward and she looked amused. "No. So what else are ya sellin?"
He trailed a finger of his free hand down her clenched jaw and nearly touched her lips with the tip before thinking better of losing it to strong, sharp teeth. "Awww, cant you just be friendly to your husband?"
"Ya keep forgettin that we are no longer married. Nor were we ever really married, in the true sense. The word annulment comes ta my mind."
"Ah baby, you didnt give me a chance to show you what a good . . .husband I can be."
"Aye, tis true. Cause ya showed me first what a ruthless bastard ya are, and that marriage is better left to business arrangements." Her eyes were glittery, shards of blue flint. "Ya agreed ta the bargain, Francis - and the bargain didnt include my body, just my money."
"We could...renegotiate." He oozed charm and innuendo.
"We could," she amicably agreed.
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Really?" He asked with veiled hope.
"Aye, really." He started to smile, until she held up a hand. "Here are the new terms. Ya leave my pub right now and never come back, and I promise ta continue ta make the payments."
He blinked. "Or? Come on honey, what are my other options."
"Yer only other option is ta have me beat the livin crap out of ya, and make it so ya never will have the need for a woman again." Blue eyes shifted with a purpose to the area of his crotch, before returning to steadily and calmly meet his gaze.
There was no doubt in his mind that she could, or would do such a thing. He instinctively knew if she was angered, there was nothing Taylor wouldnt do. Better to live and fight another day was his motto.
So he stepped back and raised his hands in mock surrender. "Ok, ok, baby. I get it. Ill go."
T.J. stepped away from him and around behind her desk, so he could reach the door. But instead of leaving he eased himself back to the leather couch and promptly sat down. "But there is one thing Id like to clear up first."
Stifling a heavy sigh, she dropped into her desk chair. "What? I paid ya in cash, so ya cant tell me the check bounced."
"No. The payment was fine." He was hedging now, she could tell. Nervously he played with his expensive watch and refused to meet her eyes.
"Spit it out, Frank."
He cleared his throat and stumbled ahead. "Wheres the money come from?"
She waited a beat and blinked at him. "Excuse me?"
"Where did you get so much money? Not from this place. Ill bet its profitable, but not that profitable."
She managed to keep her voice calm. Barely. "How is that any business of yours?"
Now he was really stammering, fumbling for the right thing to say. "Well, I - I just- Im starting up a business, you see, and I dont - I cant - I dont want any dirty money."
If it werent for the fact that he was nearly right, she would have laughed at the absurdity of his comment.
Leaning forward in her chair, she placed her elbows on her desk and clasped her hands together. "Let me get this right. Ya want ta start a business with money ya got from me as payment for an, if not illegal at least reprehensible, arrangement. And youre wonderin where it came from?"
He lifted his chin in an arrogant gesture. "Yes."
"What in the bleedin hell difference does it make to ya? Ya werent worried about that two years ago when ya signed our agreement."
"Two years ago I was so broke I would have sold my soul to the devil."
"Maybe ya did." She shot him a feral grin, her eyes alive with an ominous glint.
He had the good sense to lean back a little, as if putting more physical distance between them might make a difference. "Look, Taylor, all Im saying is - I agreed to help you -" He held up a hand as she started to interrupt, and to his surprise she allowed him to continue. "Yes, I know, I also agreed, No questions. But, I needed the money. Im still not asking why you left Ireland, or why you didnt want to go back. All I want to know is - is this money you are giving me..." he hesitated and swallowed. "Is it drug money?"
Well. At least she could not only give him the answer he wanted to hear, in this case it was the absolute truth. "Frank, Im not a drug dealer. Nor was I ever. The money dinna come from drugs. Satisfied?"
But peering at the dark-haired man across from her, Taylor watched a rather strange expression flit across his face. Theres more, isnt there, Francis. Her mind whirred at the possibilities. What does he know? Anything? Or is he just fishin?
"Thank you, Taylor. I just wanted to make sure." He stood and straightened his cuffs. "I really appreciate you being honest with me."
She stood as well and headed towards the door, an unmistakable clue to him that the question and answer period was over. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and looked back over his shoulder. "But youre sure you wont reconsider the offer of company?"
She said nothing, but then again, she didnt need to. Her look said it all.
"All right. Your loss."
Ill bet. "I run a pub, Im never at a loss for company." She gave him a knowing smile that didnt quite reach her eyes.
"Oh, say - on the subject of company.... I wanted to ask you -"
She sighed in exasperation. He really was looking to get the crap beat out of him. "Now what?"
"Who was that luscious little blond coming to visit you when I was here last week?"
Warning bells sounded in Taylors head. What the hell?? But her face remained impassive. "Why?"
"She was hot, is all. I was wondering if you could hook me up?" A look crossed his face that was part understanding and part perversion. "Oh, unless of course, shes one of your...er.... special friends?"
Is that it, Frank? Looking for a date? Or a threesome? Why do I find that hard to believe? And more than a little disgusting. Something more here.... "She is a business associate, not that it is any of your business. She is handling some publicity for me." All true.
She could tell by the look on his face that there was something else. However, for the first time that evening, he had the good sense to drop the subject. "Oh, I see. Well, if shes single - let me know. Bye, baby." He raised his hand in mock salute and sauntered cheerfully out the door, closing it firmly behind him.
She waited until she thought he was well out of hearing range before she threw the glass on her desk against the door. It slammed into the dark wood surface with a tremendous force, creating a satisfying tinkling sound.
Bugger! That ruttin, bloody bastard!!
She stalked around the office, oblivious to the shards of glass that crunched under her pacing feet. All right, Jameson. Take stock. The cool, keen mind of the ex-commander shifted into high gear, as Taylor began to evaluate what she actually knew versus her speculation.
It was evident to her that Frank was suspicious about her past. But does he know anything? Possible, but not likely. It wasnt as though he could just research her - her past was as shadowed as a moonless night. Few records even documented that she existed, save for a birth certificate. She would be listed as "Jamie" in any obscure reference to her time as a revolutionary. Plus she doubted that Frank had the wherewithal to dig up such information in the first place. He wouldnt know where to begin to look.
So why is he so concerned about the origin of the money? And what is the business venture he was starting up? Above board or not? Knowing Frank, it was likely something illegal or immoral...or both.
So Taylor did what any good commander would do in her place. She requested more information in order to formulate a proper plan of action. Picking up her cell phone, she punched in a number and continued pacing while she waited for it to connect.
When no one answered, she heard the sound of the gruff male voice on the answering machine. Impatiently she waited for the tone.
"Its Taylor. Call me. I have a job for you." With that concise, yet cryptic message she snapped the disconnect button and thoughtfully began tapping the cell phone against her chin.
So it startled her when it rang in her hand a minute later. That was fast.
"Aye, Jacob? That was quick."
"Im sorry?" The voice was clearly feminine, and clearly confused. "I was calling for Taylor..."
Taylor instantly recognized the smooth voice on the other end and stopped pacing. "Ah, Camryn. Tis me. Sorry, but I was expectin someone else." She hadnt spoken with the younger woman since dinner the previous week.
"Oh," the photographers voice lost the hesitant sound. "Nope sorry, Im not Jacob."
"No, that youre not." The adorable image of the small photographer leapt into T.J.'s mind and she smiled as she crossed to her desk and flopped wearily in the chair. "What can I do for ya?"
Now theres a loaded question.
"Oh, I.... your proofs are ready." When the barkeep failed to respond, she rambled on. "Of the photo shoot last week - Anyway, I was wondering when you might be free to come by and take a look at them. You can choose which ones you want for a brochure, the web page, and whatever else you need."
T.J. focused in on the soothing quality of Camryns voice, "Aye? Well, then - I.... um ...well I work mostly at night, so I can be free most days...."
"Yeah, being your own boss is great that way, isnt it? Long lunches and no staff meetings."
"Humph - and long hours of paperwork, and schedules, and taxes and the like. Oh, aye....tis great." Although her tone held sarcasm, there was also a glimpse of humor underneath.
"Well, yeah, when you put it that way.... but I still wouldnt trade what I do for a desk job."
"Uch, no.Tis bad enough ta do paperwork, but I canna imagine doin such work all for someone elses profit. Naw, I willna be a slave ta none but myself."
"I knew thats why I liked you, T.J. You seem to have that stubborn streak of independence in you." Both women paused - T.J. unsure how to react to the admission, and Camryn unsure how the friendly statement might be construed.
T.J. finally cleared her throat and tried to keep the mood light. "Aye - that I do. My ma wasnt always so happy with the stubborn part, but . . ."
"Oh, Ill bet you were a sweet kid."
Camryn was treated to a snort from the other end of the phone. "Are ya familiar with the term terrible twos?"
"Aye, ya see- I had the terrible threes, fours, fives and on up ta the teens."
Camryn laughed. "Well then, your mother must be a hell of a woman to put up with a handful like you."
Ruth Jamesons merry eyes swirled into Taylors head and she found herself smiling involuntarily, her voice taking on a wistful quality. "That she is."
"Why am I not surprised." came the soft reply. "Well, T.J., I have to take off for a job, so Id better get going. Are you free tomorrow to come and look at your proofs?"
"Ya work on Saturdays?"
"Yeah. Another one of those perks about being your own boss. Setting those long, grueling hours for yourself."
A soft chuckle. "Tomorrows fine - what time?"
She heard the photographer flipping pages, as she apparently consulted a calendar.
"Lets see. Ive got a shoot in the morning, but I should be clear by 3:00 in the afternoon."
"3:00 it is - see ya then. Goodnight, Cami."
Gently pushing the button to disconnect the call, Taylor set the phone on the desk. She was mildly surprised to discover that in spite of her episode with Frank, she was now calm and more relaxed. I must be getting tired...
Camis house was gorgeous, a strong reflection of its petite owner. Taylor stared at the framed copies of a Renoir, Van Gogh, and Kinkade. Eclectic taste in art.
She also noted a few large, framed photographs of various exotic locales, that obviously were Camryns own work. T.J. recognized Rio, London, and a castle that might be from Austria or Germany. But the large black and white photo of an older woman really caught Taylors eye. The camera had captured the most intriguing expression on her weathered face - as if she knew something everyone else didnt, long years of living had divulged lifes mysteries. Fascinating. Taylor could see how Cami had become famous for her photography. They werent just pictures, they were a 400 page novel in one shot.
The furnishings were mostly antique, in darker woods and brass, with elegant throw rugs on a highly polished hard wood floor. Two overstuffed couches faced each other over a well-used coffee table, and a plush chair in the corner near the window practically invited you to curl up in it and read a book on a rainy day. It was warm, and cozy. And it feels like a home.
Taylor felt a stab of envy, as she wandered into the next room, lightly tinkling the ice in her glass of iced tea. In the bright sitting room she caught sight of a few framed pictures on top of the old upright piano.
A happy shot of Camryn, Vicki, and a small, redheaded woman Taylor didnt know, all in their graduation caps and gowns. Another showed a young Camryn laughing up at an older couple that held her firmly and lovingly between them. The woman in this picture was a slightly younger version of the intriguing face from the large black and white. Too old to be her parents - Grandparents maybe? The affection between the three of them was obvious and Taylor found it curious that the adult Camryn had lost a touch of that joyful smile, and her eyes now held . . .What? It wasnt grief, but something more shuttered, as though she had sealed her soul up tight and wasnt letting it show so brightly from those expressive moss colored eyes.
And just who hurt ya Cami, ta make ya shut down like that? Then T.J. mentally slapped herself. Aye and you are a fine one ta ask that, my dear. Talk about pots and kettles.
Camryn came into the room and leaned on the doorframe as she spotted Taylor peering at her family photos on the piano. She was struck by the innate grace of T.J.s movements; she was sleek and moved like a large jungle cat. Now theres an image. Camryn smiled to herself before commenting quietly, "Thats my family."
Taylor turned around and offered a shy smile, feeling like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. "Sorry. I was just . . ." Snooping around your house?
Camryn didnt usually have clients to her house to look at proofs. She had a large studio and office downtown for that. But she had decided, much to her bemusement, that she genuinely liked the dark-haired woman. Enigma she may be - Cami figured that T.J.s contradictions just added mystery and charm to the whole package. So it seemed natural to invite her to her home on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
"No, no problem. Im sorry I took so long putting together the proofs." She had left the barkeep in the living room while she gathered up the contact sheets, and apparently T.J. had gotten bored.
"Naw, I shouldnt have been poking around. Tis rude, my ma would say."
Camryn smiled, enjoying the melody of Taylors accent. "You werent being rude. Thats why I put the pictures up, for people to look at them. Besides, were friends, right?" The photographer gestured to the couch and started to spread out the proofs in front of her on the coffee table.
Her tone was so bright and breezy that it made T.J. smile. She wasnt asking if they were friends, just stating a fact. The acceptance made a warm curl in her stomach as she joined Cami on the sofa, placing her glass on the nearby marble coaster.
The pictures were, of course, perfect. Taylor was almost a bit disappointed that they all came out so good. She was sort of hoping that Cami would have a reason to come back to the pub soon. During the week that had passed since they had dinner,
T.J. was shocked to discover just how much she missed the younger womans bright presence.
"Sure and theyre great Camry -" she caught herself. "Cami. Dinna know the old place could look so bright and happy!"
Cami smiled in response. "Its a cheerful kind of place. I meant to tell you that before. It is really a great spot to hang out and feel well . . .at home almost. Does that make sense?"
And suddenly it did make sense to Taylor. She avoided that permanence in her personal life, but in her business she poured her soul - found her home. She leaned forward and took a long pull on her iced tea to cover her personal revelation before answering.
"Thanks. I was a wee one the last time I saw my Grans pub in Galway, but what I really remember of the place was the feeling ya got when ya went there. It was like bein in the livin room of your best friends house. Ya know, the friend ya have known for years? The place where ya felt like ya could help yourself ta what was in the icebox and put your feet on the furniture if yad a mind ta."
The photographer digested the image and gave T.J. a sweet smile. "What a great picture you paint. Yes, thats exactly it. Thats what your place feels like. Not home, but the next best thing."
A flash of white teeth. "Aye. And the sounds and the smells, well, they are all just part of the whole picture." She picked up one particularly lively shot of a table of laughing customers. "And thats what ya captured here as well. Bloody marvelous."
Blue eyes met green and the women paused for a moment - taking time to enjoy the mutual admiration of each others talents, and passing another quiet smile between them.
Camryn was the first to break the reverie. "So, T.J. " she gestured to the stairs, "would you like the nickel tour?"
The tall woman readily agreed, and openly admired the grand old house. Upstairs were four bedrooms, one of which had been converted into an office space, and two large baths. The master bathroom sported a huge claw-footed tub and freestanding sink, although both modern, they were still designed to look as though they were straight from the early 1900s.
Camryns room held an enormous dark wood four-poster bed, with a handmade quilt in hunter green and burgundy.
"Sure and a little thing like ya must get swallowed up in such a monster as that!" T.J. teased, indicating the bed with a nod of her dark head.
"Oh, well, I only got lost once, and since then I just use bread crumbs."
"Bread -?" The dark brows knit in puzzlement before she began to laugh. "Aye, like in the fairy story with the two kids and the old witch."
"Nice quilt. Windmill pattern, if Im not mistaken."
Green eyes glanced swiftly up in shock, trying not to let her mouth gape open. "You know quilt patterns?"
"I have many skills," Taylor replied enigmatically and offered a lazy, self-satisfied smile.
Camryn measured her silently for a moment. "You really are full of surprises, arent you?" When Taylor just shrugged, the blonde continued. "My Gram made this one, and I have another one in that trunk over there that was made by my great-grandmother."
"My Gram quilted as well. Mines the flying geese pattern." She idly reached a strong hand down and admired the handicraft. "Your Gram did nice work on this one."
Cami came and stood beside her, so close that she could smell the distinctive soap that T.J. used. "She was a talented woman." Spoken with a softness in her voice that had Taylor glancing over at the younger woman, who was lovingly stroking the pattern on the material.
"And ya miss her." T.J. quietly observed. "She was the one in those pictures downstairs?"
"Yes." The lump in her throat was hard to swallow, and her misty green eyes filled with emotion.
"Has it been long?"
"No, um . . .she . . .uh . . . about two months or so. I she raised me, was like a mother..." Her voice trailed off and unbidden tears began to flow freely down her smooth face.
Before T.J. could think about it, a long finger gently reached up a brushed the tear from the blondes cheek. The gesture was sweet and incredibly intimate. It was given freely, comfort from one friend to another.
Cami ducked her head, trying not to show her embarrassment at crying in front of her new friend. Nor just how much she wanted to feel those long arms wrap around her and hold her close - tell her everything was going to be fine. The simple touch of those fingers on her wet cheek had nearly undone her, and Cami spent a moment collecting herself, while T.J. quietly waited.
Gathering the courage to look up and meet her deep blue gaze, Cami was pleased to see compassion written on T.J.s face instead of . . .What? What did you think, you moron? Shes just being a good friend. Did you think shed be pissed or something?
"Sorry. I sort of... um . . ."
Although Taylor ached to hold the younger woman, she resisted. Finally conceding the need for her touch by taking a small hand in her own.
"Shhh.....ya never have ta apologize for showin ya are human. Tis in our nature to grieve." A strong thumb absently chafed the back of Camis trembling hand.
In a voice husky with tears, Cami inquired, "You sound as if you know."
"All too well." The finality in her tone kept Cami from asking the next question that fluttered to her lips. She opted for a quick squeeze of the larger hand instead.
Blue and green gazes swirled with conflicting emotions - compassion and friendship, sorrow and grief. In that timeless moment, a connection was forged. Or re-forged?
Each woman privately wondered how it was possible to feel so much for someone they had just met. It was ridiculous if you really stopped and thought about it. So they tacitly agreed not to.
As she felt the incredible softness of the skin beneath her fingers, T.J. became very aware that she was holding Camis hand and they were standing inches from a giant, comfy looking bed. The intensity of the moment stole her breath and she gulped in a lung-full of air to clear her head.
Camryn, too, was fighting the power of the bond she felt between them. How absurd - Ive known her what? Two weeks?
So, ignoring the truth that lay buried in her heart, she listened to her cowardly, logical brain instead.
"Thanks. Its just still kinda raw, I guess." Taking a deep breath she gestured to the set of French doors. "Want to step out on the balcony for some fresh air? Its a nice view."
T.J. obediently followed the smaller woman, and had to admit, that the view was lovely. The harbor and the skyline were stretched out before her in all of their tourist-pleasing glory.
Chatting about San Diegos naval history gave each of the women the much-needed time to step back from the force of emotions they had felt. Neither cared to examine the feelings too carefully, and as a result, neither mentioned the moment again.
Camryn pointed out the Coronado Ferry, gave T.J. a run-down on the names of the aircraft carriers, and smiled as the dark-haired woman nearly dropped her jaw at the ancient Star of India.
"Youve lived here how long and you havent seen the Star? Shes one of the few remaining tall ships. There are some reproductions around, but the Stars the real thing. They sail her around the harbor every Fourth of July."
"Well, I think it would be a grand adventure ta sail on her." T.J. mused, wondering why she suddenly felt like a sail on such a ship would be a wonderful idea. And why I feel like I've been on one before?? That's odd.
The sun was setting, leaving the sky burnished with copper and pink, as T.J. walked down the driveway, turning around to walk backwards before she reached her car in order to compliment the photographer on her lovely home. Or just to savor a few last glimpses of the gorgeous owner?
Once T.J. left, Cami wandered aimlessly through the house, feeling the tall womans absence. A sleek black cat followed her into the bedroom, yawning and stretching from her afternoon nap on the windowsill. Cami absently scratched behind her ears. "Hi, Diva. Where have you been all afternoon?"
The cat looked at her noncommittally. Diva had belonged to Camryn's grandmother, but when the older woman fell sick, she and her human moved in to this nice house with plenty of room to roam around and lay in the sunshine. Now her human was gone and Diva turned to the small blonde woman for the occasional tummy rub and, of course, food.
Cami hugged Diva close as she hopped on the bed, burying her face in the soft black fur and fighting back the tears that came unbidden into her eyes.
The tears were surely of grief - what else could they be? Cami asked herself. However, as thoughts of Grams were strangely joined by thoughts of a haunting pair of blue eyes, Cami closed her eyes in resignation. God. Did she feel that too?
Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse