Taylor decided that she must be the only human being in the world that hated Sunday afternoons. Most people loved the day, especially living here in what the travel magazines dubbed "Americas Finest City": plenty of sunshine, plenty to do, and a whole lazy day to do it in.
But not Taylor. Running a bar kept her at work late on Saturday nights, which meant she should have enjoyed the day to sleep and relax. She just wasnt the relaxing kind of person. At least on Saturday afternoons, you could anticipate the crowded, noisy evening ahead at the pub. But Sunday?
She never saw herself as being a lonely person, until those indolent afternoons with nothing to do and no one to do it with. Those were the days that her fierce streak of independence disappeared, to be replaced by that quiet, inner voice that mocked her solitude.
So she was both amused and mystified as to why she had said yes to Camis charming offer for today. She had been woken up a short while ago by the cheerful blondes phone call.
"Good morning, T.J., its.... um.... this is Camryn."
"Aye. Tis morning?" Taylor had clearly just woken up.
Camryn smiled. "Thats usually what that bright, hot glowing thing in the sky means." The photographers voice carried the slightly husky sound of having just recently woken up herself.
"Oh, aye? Here I thought that was just an elaborate device used for creating sunsets." She responded drolly.
A chuckle from the other end, "Well, that too. Listen, sorry to bother you at home "
Taylor sat up in bed a little, curiosity now getting the better of her usual grumpy morning persona. "No, tis no bother at all, Cami."
"I meant to ask you when you were over yesterday, but...um.... I have this photo shoot to do today, and well . . ." the blonde suddenly felt rather shy.
After all, while it was true they were acquaintances, they were hardly close enough friends to call each other at home just to chat. Yet, anyway. But if the intense flood of emotion that surged between them at Camryns house yesterday was any indication For some strange reason, Cami felt like she and T.J. would be great friends, if only she could get the prickly woman to open up a little.
While she usually took Vicki or Jo to ball games with her, this morning inviting T.J. had seemed like a good idea. After all, she was relatively new to the area, and might enjoy seeing American Baseball. Besides, if the truth were told, Cami rather enjoyed the enigmatic womans company, feeling that she always left with more questions than answers about her new friend.
Taylor was patiently waiting on the other end of the line.
"I was wondering if you liked baseball," came the blondes tentative question.
Taylor paused before answering, a bit puzzled by what seemed like a non sequitur. "Baseball? Tis a sport here, aye?"
"Yup. The one where guys swing wooden bats and chase around a little white ball Anyway, Im doing a job for our local pro team before their game today and I was wondering if youd want to go." Camryn hurried on, hoping that Taylors silence meant she was curious. "I ...um.... I have to shoot the team picture, but then they always give me great V.I.P seats to stay for the game. So I figured, you might not have ever been, and I have this extra ticket . . ."
Before she could continue her adorable invitation, Taylor responded. "Aye, sure. Id like ta go. Sounds interestin."
It does?? Taylor was rather surprised at herself. It sounded like her voice, but she didnt remember consulting her brain before she answered.
So an hour later, she was zipping down Interstate 5 towards Camryns house. She had the top down on her convertible, and the combination of the picture perfect day and the wind whipping her hair around made her grin foolishly behind her dark Ray-Bans.
While it was true that she had never been to a baseball game, she wasnt entirely sure that her curiosity about the sport was the whole reason that she had said yes. Face it old girl, you like Camryns company. Whats wrong with that?
Indeed, Tommy was the closest thing Taylor had to a friend, and he was her employee. She knew that her lack of companions had nothing to do with her relocating - she didnt have many back in Ireland either. No, when Taylor was truthful with herself, she just wasnt an easy person to be around - she didnt make it simple for people to get close. Her sometimes abrasive, always stubborn and self-reliant attitude had served her well in her dark, violent past. A friend was a liability, someone who could betray, or worse, become a target for your enemies.
But here in California?...She no longer had the excuse of keeping people at arms length for their own protection. Here... She grinned again at the careful, even tenuous hand of friendship that the petite photographer was extending. No, when she was downright honest with herself, watching a baseball game was the least of the reasons that she had agreed to the invitation.
White teeth flashed in a wider grin.
It was a glorious, sunny Sunday afternoon, and for the first time since arriving in San Diego, Taylor Jameson wasnt going to spend it alone.
"Wow! Nice car!!" A low whistle punctuated the photographers statement as she ran her hand down the leather interior of the door.
Taylor smiled in acknowledgment. Her sleek, black BMW Z3 had been one of her few indulgences when she arrived in Southern California. "Aye. Ya cant live where the sun shines year round and not own a convertible." She piloted the two-seater, rag-top towards the stadium.
Enjoying the feel of the warm breeze blowing past her face and the sun streaming down on her mostly bare shoulders, Camryn studied the vehicle in question. "Isnt this the car James Bond drove in that last movie?" Her pert nose wrinkled as she squinted against the sun and began digging through her backpack to find her sunglasses.
A soft chuckle. "Not sure. Is it?" Pulling to a stoplight she glanced over at the blonde next to her. "Didnt figure you for a James Bond fan though."
"Hey - whats not to like? Fast cars, pretty people, international espionage, and plenty of explosions." Having rescued her dark glasses from the disarray of her pack, the photographer plopped them firmly on her nose.
"So whos your favorite Bond guy?"
"Oh, please! Do you need to ask?? Connery, of course! Although I think Brosnan is doing a great job too." Camryn glanced over and offered a dazzling smile to the tall woman driving the Bond-mobile.
Taylors brain registered again just how cute her new friend was. Today she was dressed in cut off denim shorts and a white tank top that showed well-defined shoulders and arms. On her head she sported a baseball cap that was emblazoned with a tiny embroidered chubby monk swinging a baseball bat.
Giving in to an odd impulse, Taylor reached forward and wiggled the brim of the blondes ball cap. "Whos the little chap on your hat, then?"
Green eyes swept upwards as if she could see the crown of the hat without taking it off. "Little..." Then she realized what Taylor meant. "Oh! Thats the swinging friar. Hes the team mascot."
"Are ya a big fan then? I mean, wearing the mascot and all...."
"Sure. Although I dont get to as many games as Id like." She readjusted the brim of her cap. "I was raised going to games with my grandparents. Grampa was a really big fan, and it was a great family outing. Every Sunday you could find us watching the game, stuffing our faces with hot dogs, while Grampa shouted out to the umpires to get glasses or an eye exam."
The last part of Camryns description made no sense to Taylor, but she was too caught up in the enthusiasm evident in the smaller womans demeanor to pay much attention. It was obvious to Taylor that Cami had a lovely childhood with her grandparents, and just as obvious that she missed the loving parental figures.
Taylor pulled the BMW into the parking lot at Qualcomm Stadium and was directed by Camryn towards the media parking lot. The general parking lot was already beginning to fill with tail-gaiters and people arriving early to watch batting practice.
Camryn tried to object when Taylor shouldered the large camera bag, but the taller woman won out claiming that since she was along for free, the least she could do was make herself useful.
They passed by the guard at the inner gate with a flash of Camryns Press credentials and took an elevator to the depths of the huge cement edifice. Taylor glanced at the various signs pointing to training rooms and offices, as well as colorful murals depicting various players in action. Camryn had been the photographer for the team for the past few years, so she found her way through the underground maze of rooms and passages quite easily. As they passed from a cool, dark tunnel into the bright summer sunlight, the two women found themselves standing on the field.
Taylors jaw dropped as she turned a slow circle, taking in the enormity of the stadium. "Bloody gigantic." She said in quiet wonderment.
The photographer chuckled and reached for her equipment bag. "It looks bigger from down here on the field. Im not sure why. But..." she smiled at Taylors awe-struck expression, "if it makes you feel any better, that was my first reaction to being down here too."
The stands were still empty save for vendors and security, but T.J. could imagine the roar of 60,000 people and gave a small shudder at the thought of having so many people watching you all at once. Talk about nerve wrackin.
Quickly recovering her usual cool, collected appearance, Taylor crossed long arms and leaned casually against the wall of the dugout. "Looks smaller on the telly."
"Oh, so youve seen baseball?" Gotcha. Thought youd never been before.
"Aye. They sometimes had the World Series on the TV in the pub I used ta hang out in. But I canna say that I know how the game is really played, nor have I seen it in person."
They were interrupted by an efficient looking woman wearing a polo shirt with the team logo neatly stitched on it, who took the two visitors out towards the right field wall where the photo would be shot. Several players were sprawled in the grass, stretching and tossing a ball lazily about, and quite a few of them keenly observed the striking pair of women in their midst.
Although Taylor had seen Camryn work before on several occasions, she was still struck by the change that came over the younger woman when she put a camera in her hands. Camryn twisted the bill of her cap backwards to get it out of her way and tucked her sunglasses into the neckline of her tank top. With an ease born of long habit she deftly set up her equipment, shading her eyes and squinting into the sun to choose the correct angle, film and exposure.
Once she was set, the team was rounded up and put in position by sharp, green eyes that seemed to be lit by an inner joy as she laughed and joked with the men. It was clear to anyone who paid attention that she loved her work.
Taylor, of course, was paying attention.
So were many of the playful team members. Some of the veterans of seasons past called out personal greetings to Camryn, and some of the braver souls shot appreciative looks at her tall, sexy companion.
"Hey, Camryn! Good to see you!" The famous right fielder smiled.
"Hi Tony! Looking good this year!" She crinkled her face into a grin for her favorite player.
"Be careful you dont break your camera on these ugly faces!" He quipped, which brought a round of self-deprecating laughter.
Another voice piped up. "Whos your assistant?" Accompanied by several wolf whistles.
"Yeah, take a picture of that!" Another round of laughter.
Camryn turned to see what the men were pointing at and grinned at Taylor who was now calmly perched nearby in the outfield grass. The sun gleamed off of her dark, free-flowing hair, which slightly ruffled in the afternoon breeze, and her long, partially bare legs were stretched out in front of her as she leaned back on her hands. Dressed in navy blue shorts and a sleeveless button-up, white shirt, Cami had to admit that Taylor did make quite a picture. God, she really is just drop-dead gorgeous. The most amazing thing to Camryn was that her friend didnt even seem to be aware of her appeal. Thats part of the charm - complete lack of self-consciousness. Her appearance made you look twice, and her astounding self-confidence made you look yet again. Stunning.
With an impish grin, the photographer twisted the camera quickly on its tripod and snapped a few pictures of Taylor, much to the delight of the team. Through the camera lens Camryn saw the perfectly shaped black brow rise into her hairline and knew shed been caught. Whoops!
Taylor reached up slowly and pulled her sunglasses down on her nose until she was peering over the top of the lenses. Pinned by those impossibly blue eyes, Camryns breath caught in her throat. Then her heart stopped as Taylors face creased into a lazy, sexy grin and she winked at the blond. With fingers that worked separate from her now non-functioning brain, the photographer clicked one more shot of the grinning Taylor, before turning quickly back to the whooping and laughing ball players, trying to calm the unbidden flush that painted her face. Whoa. Easy there, Cam.
She efficiently went back to work, using the good humor of the moment to snap a few lively, merry shots of the team. When she was sure she had a usable shot, she waved at the men. "All finished guys! Go out there and kick some ass today!"
She was rewarded with shouts of agreement and joy from the team. Several lanky, very young players that Cami recognized as being rookies stopped by to smile and flirt with her. She indulged them for a few minutes before she caught their gazes shift from her face to over her shoulder.
Glancing back she realized they were scoping out Taylor who was now approaching the small cluster around the photographer. "Sorry to disappoint you guys, but shes already taken."
With murmured grumbles, they turned hopeful gazes at the blonde. "What about you?"
Camryn stifled her laughter and with dry humor eased them down without damaging their egos. "Oh, sorry guys. I play for the Senior League and you rookies would be too much for an old veteran like me." She saw the young faces smile at her jest.
"But I tell you what," they leaned in conspiratorially. "Go out there today and win, and Ill see if I cant get my friend to come to some more games with me to cheer you on. Cant hurt to know that two good-looking older babes are in the stands rooting just for you!" They laughed and agreed, offering the usual protests of liking women with "experience."
Tony came by and shooed the youngsters away before offering a smile to Cami.
"Hey, saw that photo you did of the baby panda for the zoo. It looked really great! My daughters been bugging me to take her down to the zoo now."
Cami peered up into his jolly, grinning face. "How about I send her a framed copy? Will that hold her off long enough for you guys to win the pennant? Then you can take her to the zoo in the off season."
Tonys face lit with a merry laugh. "Yeah, that just might work. Thanks! Oh, and sorry about those rookies before...theyve just got all those excess hormones flying around." He trotted off to the locker room, leaving a slightly star-struck Cami in his wake.
"Who was that?" Came the husky voice in her ear that made Camryn jump.
"Geez! You scared me!" Turning around to squint up at the taller woman.
"Sorry, dinna mean ta. Thought ya knew I was there." But by the mischievous glint in her eyes, Taylor gave away the fact that she had deliberately snuck up on the blonde. She had been curious as to what her business was with the young players who looked barely old enough to be away from home, and the bloke that seemed to cause her friend to blush furiously.
"That was Tony - our right fielder. The guy is practically a god in this town." She smiled in adoration after the player in question. "Best contact hitter in the history of the game, and hes sure to be in the hall of fame once he retires."
"Oh, I see." But Taylor really didnt. She had no clue what a right fielder was, or anything about the hall of fame, but it was obvious that her friend idolized the man.
"Hes a great guy off the field too. Always working for charity and stuff."
"So, what did ya mean when ya told the chaps that Im taken?" Taylor inquired. Tired of watching the smaller woman squint up at her, Taylor absently reached down and plucked Camis sunglasses from her shirt, settling them firmly on the blondes face.
Camryn wrinkled her forehead in confusion. "Well, I didnt think your husband would think much of you bringing home a couple of boys for dinner." She smiled at the dark woman, but was clearly puzzled.
But not as perplexed as Taylor. "My.... husband?"
"Yeah, your husband." She stated dryly. Uh oh. Maybe I . . .maybe they have what the heck?? "Frank. I met him at your pub a few weeks ago. Listen, Im sorry I didnt have an extra ticket today or you could have invited him."
Taylor gaped at the smaller woman and just blinked without saying a word.
Reaching up to touch her forehead, Camryn asked, "What? Do I have a big zit up there or . . .?"
The photographer nodded and quirked a half grin at her friend.
Is she putting me on?
"My - husband?" The throaty voice held a dry tone of sarcasm.
After another nod of Camis head, Taylor burst into laughter.
"Ok, listen here Madam Publican...." the dark head was doubled over now in deep, belly laughs. "Yeah, yeah.... ha ha...oh sure, tease the blonde girl. Just because I have blonde hair, dont you dare underestimate..." but she stopped mid-sentence as
Taylor stood upright again, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"Oh, aye, Im sorry. I dinna mean ta be teasin ya...." she gasped out, between chuckles. Camryn folded her arms across her chest in mock indignation, and spoiled the image by smirking at the laughing woman in front of her.
"Why would ya think Frank was my husband?"
Blonde brows knit in consternation. "Is that a trick question? Um...well...duh... because he called himself that when I met him.... and he called you love and . . ." Now she trailed off, completely unsure of herself. She had just assumed. But come to think of it... Green eyes shot swiftly to Taylors left hand. No ring. "Wait a minute...."
The tall woman took pity on her. "Franks my ex-husband," she offered. Gently laying a hand on Camryns shoulder, she steered the photographer towards her equipment bag and began helping her quickly stow the camera away.
A swift blush of embarrassment. "Oh god! T.J., I am so sorry. I just figured...."
She was stopped as Taylor held up a hand in protest. "No, no harm at all. Of course you might think.... I didnt even realize he said that ta ya. We got an annulment a few months back." And were never truly married to begin with... She wanted to add, but stopped herself. This current bit of news was enough for her new friend to digest at the moment. No sense divulging the lurid details of her mercenary marriage of convenience to that jerk, Frank. No, not just yet, Taylor thought with a twinge of guilt. She was enjoying her new found friendship too much, and a part of her feared that if Camryn were to see even part of who she really was it would destroy the tenuous footing of their relationship.
"Oh, I see," Cami replied quietly. "Im really sorry. That must be.... well, at least I can understand why you called him a snake that day." She offered a hesitant smile to Taylor and was pleased when the barkeep reached out a hand and twisted the bill of her cap back around to the front, lightly ruffling her hair in the process.
"Naw, twas nothin so horrifying as that." Her tone clearly indicated that there was much more to the story. "No harm done."
Cami was once again reluctant to push too hard, so she opted for a little light-hearted humor instead, "Well, then Im sorry that I told those players you were taken. You want me to go give them your phone number?" She took a few steps in the direction of the team dugout and swiftly ducked the playful swat that T.J. aimed her way.
"Aye, and what would I do with boys? Theyre probably too young ta even get into my bar," cleverly she changed the subject, before her response could be scrutinized too carefully. "I think ya mentioned something about hot dogs, and men swatting at each other with wooden sticks??"
A snort. "No, no..... they swat the ball with the sticks..."
The two women strolled off to their seats, by way of the concession stand, as Cami continued to entertain her companion with the intricacies of the game. But privately Camryn couldnt figure out why she was suddenly so pleased to hear that Taylor wasnt married to Frank. Well, he didnt seem like her type anyway....
Taylor hummed along to the sweet, Celtic strains of The Corrs, as the music wafted from the stereo into the twilight of a balmy summer evening
Camryn was curled up in the passenger seat of the car, her eyes closed, as she seemed to doze off since they had been sitting in the typical after game traffic for the past fifteen minutes. The older woman smiled at the sight, and reveled in the contentment she felt as her thoughts lazily drifted back over the day.
To her amazement she had a bloody marvelous time. The game was interesting, and Camryn had kept her entertained with a combination of rule explanation and colorful stories about the history of the sport. The blonde woman was a veritable encyclopedia of facts, figures and tales; and she was a great storyteller, smoothly blending facts and embellishments, with wild gestures and an expressive face. It had touched T.J. to see tears in Camis expressive eyes at the playing of the National Anthem. A small, simple thing, yet it spoke volumes about her friend.
T.J. had stuffed herself with a variety of horrifying, yet delicious foods, ranging from hot dogs and cracker jacks, to fish tacos and her new personal favorite, churros: a tasty pastry covered in sugar and cinnamon.
Reaching up, she adjusted the cap she now wore on her dark head, and smiled thinking about the photographer insisting on getting the hat for her.
The late June sun had been beating down on the two women in their seats above the home teams dugout. "Uh, T.J.? You should put on some sunscreen or something. Youre looking a little pink." It was true; from her time in San Diego, the Irish womans complexion was lightly golden and heading towards a tan, but due to her heritage she was susceptible to sunburns with too much prolonged exposure.
"Naw, Ill be fine," she stubbornly insisted.
With a half-smirk, Cami had gotten up without a word and returned some ten minutes later with the dark blue tweed baseball cap, embroidered with the white interlocking S and D that was the team logo.
"Its your first ball game so you need to have at least one souvenir to commemorate the event," she explained. Plunking it down on her friends head, Cami stepped back to scrutinize her. "There. Now you look all-American." Well, at least she didnt get me one of those giant foam fingers. Taylor mused. She could just imagine what the chaps back home would have done with one of those.
A soft touch on her arm pulled her out the reverie, and she glanced over into sleepy, green eyes. "Hey. You're awake." She smiled gently. The traffic was clearing and the car was now headed down Friars Road away from bright lights of the stadium.
"Ummmm...yeah..." Cami stretched a little. Cocking her head to the side to listen closer, she reached out and turned up the volume on the stereo. "Nice music," the photographer mused.
"Ya know The Corrs?" Taylor was a bit surprised as the band was Irish.
"Oh sure, we heathen Americans get all sorts of culture over here." Cami affected a Southern drawl that had T.J. laughing delightedly. "Yup. We-uns know all sorts of good stuff like that there."
"Hmmm....culture, eh? This coming from the country that puts that annoyin bloke, Jerry Springer, on the telly every afternoon."
A snort from the blonde. "Uh.... yeah.... well, someone once said that you should never underestimate the stupidity of the American public. Guess that applies to what we watch as well as what we buy." She glanced curiously at T.J. as she turned the car North on Interstate 5, the opposite direction from Camis house.
"Are you kidnapping me?" she teased.
"Well...." the barkeep scratched her jaw thoughtfully. "Would ya bring a good ransom?" T.J.s tone was light, yet for some strange reason it caused goose bumps to ripple down Camis arms. Its as if she...hmm...thats odd...
"No, fraid not. Nobody would rightly care I think...." then realizing how pathetic that sounded, she amended her statement. "Well, except Vicki and Jo."
"Uch, I wont be kidnapping ya then...the last thing Id want is ta have Vicki breathing down my neck. For some strange reason I get the idea shed be worse than havin the banshees chasin ya." Cami smiled at the apt description of her stubborn, tenacious friend.
"Naw, I hope its all right, but I thought wed drop by the pub for a minute. Ive got ta pick up some papers."
"Yeah, sounds great!"
"And I thought ya might want ta try that new Baileys Chocolate Cheescake I just put on the menu."
Cami bolted upright. T.J. had her full attention now. "Oooh yum!!"
"That is if ya arent too stuffed from all that junk ya kept feedin us at the game," the barkeep teased, reaching over and patting Camis stomach. "Im ready ta explode, and ya had an extra helping of nachos."
Capturing T.J.s hand in both of her own, Cami squeezed the long fingers to make sure she had the tall womans attention.
"T.J., be serious. There is always room for cheesecake." She looked over at the laughing driver and winked before letting go of T.J.s hand.
Cami was pleased to see that even though the sun had set a while ago, T.J. was still wearing the ball cap she had bought for her at the game. She had gotten it mostly to protect her friend from the sun, but she had to admit that the cap looked great on her. She grinned inwardly as she recalled the child-like pleasure on T.J.s face when she handed her the hat. The photographer had helped the taller woman pull her hair back in a ponytail and thread it through the back of the cap. The effect was lovely - she looked fresh and cool, and the hat had kept her from sun burning her face too badly.
In the twilight Cami noticed that a few stray tresses had escaped T.J.s ponytail in the swirling breeze of the convertible. Giving in to a beguiling urge, Cami reached up to tuck the strands behind T.J.s ear, delighting in the silky texture of her friends hair.
That T.J. hadnt reacted was horribly astonishing to the barkeep. Any body else reaching for her head would have caused Taylor to jump, lash out, and likely the person would have ended up with a broken finger or two. But she was completely unaware of the impending gesture until she felt affectionate fingers brushing her hair back. Two years off the streets and youre losing your touch, Taylor. Or is it the company? Face it, as odd as that is, youre comfortable around the kid.
She glanced swiftly at the younger woman next to her, wondering about the innocent gesture, and was disarmed by the sweet smile on the photographers face. "Sorry, you had some loose hair there."
"No, um...." she cleared her throat a bit, calming her suddenly quickened pulse. "Thanks."
"Youve got great hair, by the way. I meant to tell you that earlier when I helped you with your ponytail." The dim light of the dashboard hid the faint blush that crept up T.J.s cheeks.
"Umm. Thank ya." She reached over and ruffled the short, blond hair next to her. "But I think yours is probably much easier ta handle - and it looks really cute on ya."
That got her a rueful smile from the photographer. "Uch. No, mines got a really fine texture, which is why I wear it so short. Well, that and the fact that I save a lot on shampoo."
T.J. chuckled. "Oh, aye. That giant shampoo bill every month can be a killer," she supplied drolly, causing Cami to laugh.
The BMW eased into the parking lot of the pub and two women got out of the low-slung automobile, and strolled towards the pub, still chuckling at T.J.s image of ten-gallon drums of shampoo. Cami glanced up at the merrily lit sign over the door.
"So, why is your place called C.J.s if you are T.J?"
The good humor drained from Taylors face and she lightly clenched her jaw.
"I ...um...well it...." She sighed. The truth is always the best, Taylor. Just spit it out. Besides, she didnt have to give Camryn all of the details. Not just yet. But looking down at the open, friendly face she knew that it was just a matter of time before the photographer began to break down all of T.J.s walls. The blonde had already sweetly, yet persistently begun doing just that.
"C.J. stands for Colin Jameson. My younger brother."
"Oh," the two women were nearly in the pub now. "You have a brother? How cool! Has he come over here to see the place?"
The jaw worked again. "No," she began flatly. "Hes dead."
Cami watched the rigid set to her shoulders as T.J. continued into the pub, and for a moment all she could do was blink after her retreating friend, not knowing what to say or do. Removing her ball cap, she ran her fingers through her already disheveled hair.
Then, obeying an instinct she didnt understand or question, she followed the taller woman into the cheerful pub. T.J. went to the bar, presumably to place their dessert order, so Cami eased up beside her and placed a comforting hand on the barkeeps arm. She could feel the muscles tense beneath her fingers, but Cami refused to allow that to cause her to remove her hand. Rather, she began absently stroking the smooth skin of T.J.s forearm and continued to quietly remain a warm, compassionate presence, until the barkeep decided to speak.
They stood there for a few moments, T.J. clenching her jaw against the swirling emotion, staring straight ahead, unseeing. She refused to examine the fact that she felt absurdly comforted by the small, strong hand resting on her arm.
Finally, she swallowed the lump in her throat. "Dont. Please. I canna . . ." Then she stopped, not sure what to say - how to explain that she didnt want to talk about it.
"Shhh. Ok." The smaller womans gentle voice was apologetic. "Its...Im so sorry. I didnt know.... but...." She hesitated, not sure where to go next, and unwilling to let the woman completely shut her out. "Ill be here if you ever do want to talk, ok?" The dark head bowed for a moment, jaw clenching again and releasing, but she still refused to look at the blonde next to her.
Taking a swallow, Cami continued. "T.J. if youd rather, I can go . . ."
T.J. was torn. A part of her wanted desperately to tell Cami to leave so she wouldnt have to explain anything about her brothers death - the grief and the vulnerability were too much. But another part, the part of her that was enjoying the delicious, soothing sensation of Camis touch - that part wanted to hold the smaller woman close and weep on her shoulder, unburdening years of pain and sorrow.
Glancing down to look at Cami proved to be her undoing. The solemn green eyes, and open, understanding face made T.J.s knees nearly buckle with need - a need born of years of denying herself any close friendships. This was the first person in her life she wanted to open up to. But that makes you vulnerable, old girl. And what if she hears who you really are and then walks away? How would you survive that?
T.J. was unwilling to tell her everything, yet she was equally as terrified of pushing her friend away. She quickly opted for a compromise. "Please dont go." She said gently. "After all, I promised you dessert."
A quick smile brightened Camis face. "Ok. Shall I . . .um . . ." she glanced around the establishment; grateful that it was rather quiet since it was a Sunday night. "Shall I see the owner about a table?"
T.J.s face shifted half way between a smile and a choked back sob, before she nodded at her friend and turned away.
Cami wisely gave her a moment alone and headed for the table in the corner that they had occupied during dinner a week ago. Wow! Was that only a week ago? For the life of her she couldnt figure out why it felt that she had known T.J. for much longer than that. Cami had no way of knowing about her brothers death, but she felt bad that she had dredged up the obviously painful memories.
T.J. joined her moments later, bearing a slice of cheesecake and two mugs of coffee. As she slid into the booth, Cami noticed that the barkeep had calmed herself, yet the tension was still clearly evident in the stiff set to her shoulders. Cami cocked her head slightly when she saw only one dessert, but she chose to remain quiet.
"Colin was killed a bit over two years ago. Just before I came here." T.J. began without ceremony, her voice a bit thin, but steady.
"T.J., you dont have to . . ."
"No. Its all right." Besides, I think I need ta say this out loud. She swallowed a gulp of her coffee, which Cami was fairly certain was laced with something stronger, before she continued. "He...um.... a pipe bomb he was building exploded on him."
"Oh, god! T.J..... That...thats horrible."
The barkeep narrowed her eyes a bit when the blonde didnt comment any further. Dontcha want ta know why he was building a bomb?
"Um...I think the... hard...hardest thing was that I dinna get to say goodbye. I.... I didnt go to the funeral, cause I was already over here. But I hear twas a closed casket, due to the explosion and all."
A myriad of questions swarmed into Camis head, but she clamped down on her own curiosity. "I know its tough to lose someone you love. Tougher still, I imagine, when you cant say goodbye." Without thinking she reached across the table, pushing aside the untouched dessert and took a hold of T.J.s hands. "Im sure your brother knew you loved him."
Crystal blue eyes swam with unshed tears. Oh, god! If you only knew... Her vision swam and she took several large gulps of air to steady herself. Those bastards still made me leave the country...at that point the contract was meaningless, yet they couldna have me back on Irish soil...
In her mind's eye she flashed back to her laughing, charming younger brother, and the dark woman she had been then...the one her men called "Jamie"...
It had been a simple decision at the time - her life for her brothers. When Colin was framed for setting a bomb that killed 37 people in a crowded restaurant, she tried to intervene, hiring the best lawyers in Ireland. When legal channels failed to save him, it looked like he would be condemned to die for the crime.
Taylor searched for the real terrorist, but in the end, she had decided that the only thing that would save Colin was for Taylor to offer up her own life in exchange for his.
Jimmy Lynam, the detective in charge, was a man that the Jameson children had grown up with. So it was no surprise that "for old times sake" he agreed to meet in secret with Taylor. The cop and the terrorist, an unlikely pair, sat down and struck a deal that would free Colin Jameson, and forever change Taylors life.
Taylor offered to be charged in her brothers place, knowing full well he would be found guilty despite the circumstantial evidence. The government needed a scapegoat to appease the public.
But Jimmy Lynam was too sharp for that.
"No. I willna have ya imprisoned for your brother. Ya would become a martyr ta the cause and be twice as powerful in jail as ya are now."
Taylor knew he was right. Her men would move heaven and hell to see her released from prison. But damned if shed give Jimmy the satisfaction of agreeing with him. "I think ya overestimate my power, old friend. I may be a patriot, but Im simply a woman after all."
The cop had snorted in disbelief. "Simply a woman?? Blessed St. Patrick, Jamie! Ya may be many things, but ya arent simple. Least wise simply a woman. Ya happen ta be the most gorgeous, powerful, dangerous woman in all of Ireland."
"Then if ya wont let me take his place Jimmy, what is it ya want? Why did ya agree ta meet with me?"
In truth, Jimmy Lynam agreed to meet with Taylor, because from the time they were children, he had been in love with her. But he was also a shrewd cop who had fought his internal battle between love and duty and had somehow found a compromise.
"As I said Jamie, I canna put ya in prison, nor see Colin die. But there is a way Ya leave Ireland. Forever."
He outlined a plan that included her brothers freedom and her own exile. The plan was calculating: Taylor would sign legal papers divorcing herself from her homeland, claiming personal responsibility for all of the illegal actions she and the F.E.P. had committed in the past five years, in exchange for permanent exile.
Jimmy was killing two birds with one stone: appeasing the public by naming the responsible individual, and at the same time stripping Taylor of any power she might have as a revolutionary. For if she went to prison she'd be a martyr and become twice as powerful. But by signing the papers, in essence her men would see her as a traitor, and even if she somehow returned to Ireland, she would become a marked woman with a price on her head so high that no mercenary could resist. As repugnant as the idea of turning traitor was to her, all in all it was likely her best option to free her brother.
"All right, Lynam. Ill sign on two conditions. First, my brother walks - today, and completely free, no strings, nothing on his record. And second . . .ya can only use my name - I wont turn in my brothers. Tis bad enough youll be branding me a traitor, but I willna have ya capturing my loyal men and making them pay for what Im about ta tell ya."
Lynam agreed to her terms, so Taylor had signed the papers Jimmy provided, vowing she would never return to her native land, or risk capital punishment. And the day after she boarded the plane for America, Colin was killed in an explosion.
She shook her head to clear the terrible memories, and found patient, steady green eyes staring back at her. "Aye, he knew I loved him."
Cami squeezed the strong hands, green eyes crinkling slightly in acknowledgment.
Their gazes held for a few silent moments, T.J. drinking in the comfort offered by the photographer.
"Ya continue ta surprise me, ya know?" She finally continued, tilting her head to the side a bit, still holding tightly to Camis hands.
Blond brows contracted in curiosity. "Why is that?"
"Well, first of all, ya havent even touched that cheesecake." Her tone was light, so Cami chuckled. Then the barkeep turned serious again. "But also because ya dinna ask me any of the questions I expected ya ta ask."
Cami thought about that for a moment. "Hmmm....well.... I.... I just figured that whatever you wanted me to know, youd tell me." She replied simply. "Were friends, T.J., Im not the Inquisition." She quirked a half-smile. "Besides, Ive always believed that what is past, is past. We shouldnt dwell on bad memories, because they shaped us, made us who we are, you know?"
T.J. listened intently, unsure if she was hearing Cami correctly.
"The person that we have become today is a direct result of those experiences from our past, be they good or bad." She offered a shy smile to the intense, dark-haired woman across from her, knowing she what she was about to admit, and not caring how corny it sounded. "And I kinda like the person you are now. So, it really doesnt make a difference how you got here, just that you did."
It was T.J.s turn to blink at Cami. This loving, unquestioning acceptance was a foreign thing to the Irish woman. Everybody wanted something, everybody judged you, had the potential to betray you. But her gut told her that Cami...well.... somehow, in some incredible twist of fate, somehow despite all she had done wrong in her life, Taylor
Jameson had found a true friend.
"Ya make it sound so simple. Friendship, I mean."
A genuine smile. "It is that simple. If you let it be." When she saw that the older woman was a bit at sea with the concept, she elaborated. "Believe me, I have known some real bastards in my life, whose pasts were as spotless as a monks. So, a persons past history is no real indication of who they are now."
She paused briefly, organizing her thoughts. "Dont get me wrong, T.J., I dont have thousands of friends. But I dont go around telling my hopes and dreams to just anyone I meet, hoping naively that I can trust them, that they wont hurt me. No, a few close members of my extended family is more my style."
She paused again and took a deep breath before continuing on, realizing the trust T.J. had placed in her, and making a conscious decision to give her some of that back. "No, you have to trust your instincts...and mine tell me...my heart tells me, you are a good person, with a good soul. No matter what secrets your past holds."
A single, lone tear had found its way down T.J.s cheek, and Cami let go with one hand to reach up and gently brush it away. They locked eyes, each reading the truth in the other. The moment they shared was so intense that for a few lovely seconds, Cami forgot to remove her hand and let her fingers gently caress T.J.s cheek. My god! I could drown in those eyes!
Finally, both women leaned back, both aware of the power of the connection between them. Both afraid to go that one step more - that might prove too far.
So, to break the tension, Cami reached down and broke off a piece of the cheesecake, offering the fork across the table to T.J.
"Here, help me eat this will you? Im still stuffed from the crud I ate at the game."
T.J. sighed and then shyly smiled, snapping even, white teeth at the bite of cake on the fork Cami held.
It was in this rather intimate position that Frank caught them. Although, truth be told, he had been interestedly watching their intense conversation from across the room for the past ten minutes.
"Well. Sorry to interrupt." Although his sarcastic tone made it clear that he wasnt sorry in the least.
Through the hand that Cami still held in one of her own, she could feel the tension slam into Taylors body as though she were a tightly wound spring.
With clenched teeth, Taylor spit out, "What the bloody hell do you want, Frank?"
He gave an impish smile and glanced pointedly to their clasped hands. "Hmmm....Hows business?" He maliciously inquired.
He slid into the booth next to Cami as she gracefully let go of T.J.s hand and instinctively moved to avoid being squashed by Franks bulk.
Taylor hadnt even realized that she still had a hold of Camis hand until she felt the chill when the warmth of the photographers hand was removed from her own. Then the barkeep tried unsuccessfully to keep the blush from flooding her cheeks as she realized how their position must look to Franks juvenile brain. And just how much you enjoyed holding her hand, eh Jameson? She mentally slapped herself.
He neatly took the fork from Cami and sampled a bite of the cheesecake himself. "Tasty. Trying to sell Taylor on your...uh.... product? Are you a baker then, Ms....umm...oh, Im sorry we havent been properly introduced. Im Frank Silva, Taylors husband." He held out his large, manicured hand to Cami who had the good sense to look at it as though he were handing her a live grenade.
Refusing to shake his hand, she instead crossed her arms in front of her and answered. "Im Camryn Wells. But I think, Mr. Silva, that you meant ex-husband, didnt you?" Her tone tried for sweet, but fell just short.
He tried for charm and also missed the mark. "You see, Ms. Wells...just because we signed a little piece of paper doesnt change the fact that I still care for Taylor. Want to see the best for her and her...um.... business?" He finished in a questioning tone as he cocked an eyebrow at Taylor, who made it obvious that she was not going to clarify her relationship with Camryn for his benefit.
He helped himself to another taste of cheesecake. But the bite never got to his mouth. His wrist was caught mid-air by Taylors strong grip.
"I asked ya what ya wanted, Francis." She hissed.
"Relax, baby. Just stopped in for a visit and to talk about a few things. Saw you and your... business associate here enjoying some dessert, so I thought Id join in." His smile never reached his eyes as he stared across the table at Taylor who still had a hold on his powerful wrist.
"Get out. I told ya not ta come back here."
His voice lowered and lost all trace of the earlier attempt at charm. "You dont want to cause a scene, do you? Bad for business and all...."
She released his hand and stood. "We were just leaving ourselves. Finish the dessert if ya want, but then leave."
But he refused to budge in order to allow Camryn out of the booth. He continued the path of the fork and savored the bite of cheesecake as though it were ambrosia. Then he licked his lips and draped a casual arm over Camryns shoulder. His eyes stared intently at the blonde. "Gee, Taylor, your uh friend here is kinda cute."
"Get up, Frank, and let her out." She tried unsuccessfully to keep her anger from showing, but it boiled just barely below the surface.
"You know, you are one adorable little thing." He tapped her pert nose with one long finger. "Yes sir, perhaps you two might be interested in . . ."
But he never finished his lascivious proposition. Instead he found himself being hauled from the booth by the back of his shirt, and then dumped unceremoniously on his butt.
Taylor calmly lifted out her hand to Camryn to help her step over Franks prone body. Once she had safely placed herself between Frank and Cami, Taylor leaned down and got right in his face. "If ya know what is good for ya, ya wont come back."
He rose swiftly, causing her to leap backwards. "Hey, baby. I meant no harm. If shes...taken, all you had to do was say so." His eyes flicked over her shoulder to Camryn, who stood passively behind the barkeep. "I mean I didnt see a ring on her finger or anything...." He elaborately dusted off his gray suit jacket and glanced again with purpose to the blonde and then back at Taylor.
She blithely folded her long arms and tried to appear casual, but it was a stretch. Still hiding something, arent ya, ya little weasel. Cause I know you arent stupid enough to pull this little stunt just to get laid. "Uch, I see...well, sorry ta disappoint ya, Frank. But Camryn here, well, she is way outta your league. And I doubt shed take my sloppy seconds."
She reached for his tie and he flinched at the sudden movement. But she merely straightened the knot.
"Talk to ya later, Francis." She patted his cheek with a bit more force than necessary and strolled out of the bar, with the photographer at her side.
Taylor didnt speak until they were safely tucked in her BMW and headed down the freeway.
And true to her earlier statements about refusing to judge her friend, Camryn put a lid on the questions she felt bubbling to the surface. How did they ever get along in the first place? Why is there such animosity there? What was with the business stuff? And was he insinuating that we.... that she & I.... that I was more than just her friend? Does that mean....
"Sorry bout Frank. I sometimes think he never left puberty." T.J.s low voice floated into the darkness of the car.
"Thats ok. Not the first time Ive been hit on by a horny guy." She answered carefully. "Thanks for um.... coming to my rescue."
"Ya didnt really need rescuin from Frank. Hes basically harmless."
"Harmless enough for you to drag him outta that booth like he was made from paper or something." Cami was still amazed at the strength of her friend, since Frank outweighed her by a good fifty or seventy-five pounds.
"Aye. Well..." T.J. was a bit embarrassed at her show of temper. "I just didnt think ya wanted him ta be pawin at ya anymore."
Sometime in the past thirty minutes or so, a niggling question had started to form in Camis brain. And this question needed an answer before the photographer could begin to decipher the intense feelings between them. Ah well, you can always say you mixed up your clichés... So, Camryn dug down deep and took a chance, "Well, and like you said - he and I play for different teams." She looked mildly out the window, biting her bottom lip as she waited to hear T.J.s reaction to her subtle admission.
Questioning blue eyes shifted quickly from the road to the blonde next to her. The euphemism was not lost on the barkeep, but.... Did she just say that wrong, or does she mean...? Naw, just wishful thinkin on your part, old girl. So no sense getting your hopes up.
"Aye, ya are too good for the likes of him." She deliberately ignored the subtext in Cami's statement.
"Thanks." Camryns blush was hidden in the darkness of the vehicle, and was not entirely due to the compliment. Ok. Struck out on that one. But that still doesn't confirm it one way or the other. Camryn heaved a mental sigh.
The car pulled smoothly into the driveway of Camis Victorian. "Well, thank ya for the game today. Twas most entertainin."
"Youre welcome. Glad you had a good time." Cami ducked her head, suddenly feeling rather shy.
"Right good craic...." Taylor quietly cleared her throat, before she stammered on. "And thank ya for...well.... for listenin and all."
"Hey, thats what friends are for." Before she lost the nerve, Cami reached over and pulled the taller woman into a friendly hug.
T.J. held out for all of five seconds before giving in and squeezing Cami back, neatly tucking the blond hair under her chin. She sucked in a large breath, smelling the clean, slightly jasmine scented shampoo that Cami used, and carefully stifling the large sigh she felt burst to the surface. God that feels good.
As Cami pulled back, T.J. chucked her on the chin. "Talk ta ya soon, Cami."
As she watched the photographer head up the walkway and safely enter her house, T.J. realized she was in deep trouble. Youre really taken with the kid, arent ya? Oh bloody hell...
When the door shut firmly behind her, Cami methodically turned the locks and plopped her keys on the table in the hallway. Unthinking, she habitually headed straight for the kitchen and poured a glass of iced tea before climbing the stairs to the balcony off of her bedroom. Kicking off her shoes, dropping into a deck chair and propping her feet on the small, patio table, she stared blindly at the cheerful harbor lights below her for a few minutes before she allowed her brain to kick in.
Oh god! You are in such trouble here! She could still smell the distinctive scent of T.J. lingering on her clothes, her crisp perfume mixed with the leather of her jacket. Closing her eyes against the remembrance of the feeling of those strong arms wrapped around her, Camryn shook her head, as though it would clear away the residual intensity she felt from the emotions of the evening. No such luck. Instead it served to allow her mind to conjure up the image of those amazing blue eyes, those high, sculpted cheekbones....
All right, Wells. Youve got a crush. She admitted to herself. So... Not the first time... But if she were really being honest with herself, she would admit that this certainly was the first time she had felt anything so strongly for anyone. And to make matters worse, she couldnt even be sure if the dark-haired woman would even be interested in anything more than just friendship. Taylor had missed the lame clue that Cami had lobbed at her. But that still doesnt mean.... or it might mean...Oh crap! She knew she was over-analyzing but she couldnt help herself.
She allowed the earlier conversation about T.J.s brother to drift back into her mind. She had already pieced together some of the obvious bits. T.J. was from Belfast, notorious for its unrest and militant activities, and her brother, Colin, was killed making a pipe bomb. Since the police hardly have any real use for pipe bombs, that would put him in the "revolutionary" category. All right. Her brother was an activist of some sort. Terrorist? Or something less aggressive or subversive?
The real reasons why her friend had come here to San Diego, and why she had married Frank were still not clear. But what was clear was that she was still grieving for her brother. So, why didnt she go back for his funeral?
Then she shut down her over-active imagination, realizing that what she had told T.J. earlier was really the truth. Her past didnt matter to Camryn. The photographer was smitten by the woman who existed here and now. And Cami didnt know what in the hell she was going to do about it.
She had barely left Camis street before T.J.s cell phone buzzed.
"Hey, boss. Sorry to bother you, but I thought you might want to know..." Tommys deep baritone held a hint of annoyance, mixed with a healthy dose of what might have been apprehension.
"Whats up, Tommy?" She growled, automatically turning the car towards the bar.
"Frank just left, but with two guys that came in right after you left."
"Yeah, I told him he could stay and finish dessert." However her hackles began to rise, as she realized that Tommy wouldnt call her unless there was something else going on something important.
"Yeah, well. These two guys...they.... they didnt look like your average yuppies from around here, you know?" Now his tone was clearly filled with suspicion.
"How long ago did they leave?"
"'Bout twenty minutes."
"Thanks, Tommy." She clicked off the connection and hit a speed dial number on her small phone.
A deep male voice answered, with a light Boston accent. "Jake here."
"What have ya got for me?" She asked without even bothering to identify herself.
"Oh, hey, Jamie. Not much Im afraid. Cept it seems hes been spending a lot of time with two guys named...uh...." She heard the man pawing through some papers. "Here it is, the Reynoso brothers. Miguel and Carlos. Couple of shady dudes, although Im not yet sure what they are in to, or why Franks hanging with em. Except around here.... well it smells kinda heavy of drug trafficking." He finished his report with a steady, efficient manner.
"Thanks, Jake. See what you can dig up on our two baddies, and let me know."
"Gotcha. No problemo."
"Oh, and Jake?"
"Quietly, huh? I dont want them ta even have an inkling about what hit em."
"Hey, Jamie its me yer talking to..."
"I know Jake. Just be careful, huh? This ones personal." She gripped the steering wheel tighter.
"kay. Ill get back to you. Night, Jamie."
She severed the cellular connection and grimly steered the car towards her house. Drugs. In my pub. She seethed inwardly. Not even in her darkest days with the F.E.P. had she ever resorted to the drug trade to make money.
For now, she would gather information and bide her time. Resolutely she pushed aside the warm feelings from her day with Cami, vowing she would take out the memories later, to be savored in private. But for now, she reluctantly became "Jamie" and donned the cold, hard mask of what her detective pal, Jimmy Lynam, had deemed the "most gorgeous, powerful, dangerous woman" he had ever met.
"So, right in the middle of the test, the kid leans over and pukes. In technicolor."
Twin groans, accompanied by chuckles from her two dinner companions had Vicki Ward grinning. The curly-headed teacher was regaling Jo and Cami with war stories from her recently finished semester spent trying to convince high school seniors that English wasnt so horrible after all.
"Oh, god! Thats disgusting! Was he sick? Or did your final exam make him that nervous?" Cami inquired.
"Neither, actually. Although my tests have been known to make nearly grown boys weep." Vicki laughed wickedly. "No, he.... um.... well lets just say he started the party for graduation one day too soon."
"No way!" Jo countered. The petite redheads face was a study in surprise. "He was drunk??? Isnt your class in the morning??"
"Yup. 9 a.m. to be exact. Must have gotten an early start, cause boy, did he reek of tequila!" Vicki smirked. Sure...it was amusing now. But it hadnt been quite so funny at the time. Especially since the janitor was really slow in getting around to cleaning up the mess. "And when the vice principal took him away to the office, I heard him saying Mr. Janecek! Im not drunk. Some guy poured a bottle of tequila on me on the way to school this morning."
The three women laughed. "Well, at least he was a creative drunk." Cami quipped.
It was Camryns 29th birthday and her two best friends had, as promised, taken her to dinner. They were at their favorite French restaurant in the historic Gaslamp Quarter of downtown. The place was decorated to give the appearance of a quaint
French country chateau, with exposed beams and wooden tables, and despite the fact that it was July 1st and about 85 degrees outside, a cheerful fire was crackling in the stone fireplace that graced the far wall.
Amid the myriad of new shops, clubs and restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter, the redevelopers of this district had neglected one fundamental detail - the parking was lousy. So people walked everywhere they went, and traffic was usually bumper-to-bumper during peak hours. But that didnt stop thousands of San Diegans from flocking to the place every weekend for fine dining, dancing and shopping. Besides which, it was within walking distance from many of the high rise office buildings that dotted the downtown skyline, so it was a great place to congregate for happy hour. And there was something there for everyone, from eccentric little shops that sold priceless antiques, to the pulsing music and flashing colored lights of the nightclubs.
Their table looked out onto Fifth Avenue, one of the main drags in the Quarter, and the women watched and commented with some curiosity on the endless variety of people that paraded by on the bustling street.
"So, Vicki," Jo asked, "Cami tells me that there were no tap dancing midgets at that charity thing you conned her into working a couple of weeks ago."
The teacher laughed, "No. Not this time. But when I work with Tiny Toes aTapping again Ill be sure to let you know."
Camryn nearly spit her wine across the table. "Tiny Toes . . .what the hell?"
Jo grinned, "I wasnt kidding when I asked you about that, Cami. Vicks here told me that they were the entertainment at the last Teachers Union dinner/dance she went to."
Green eyes shifted incredulously to Vickis brown, amused ones. "Get serious, Vick!"
"Shes not lying. The last union dance had this group to entertain - a group of ten or so midgets, all dressed in sparkly, sequined outfits, on the stage tap dancing their little feet off. It felt like an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos. A room full of the most respected educators in the county began looking under their tables and in their centerpieces for the hidden cameras. But the tap dancers were serious."
Cami and Jo were laughing now at the image. "And the worst thing was about five minutes into the routine, someone at my table started to giggle, and then someone else, until pretty soon, the whole room had our faces buried in our napkins, bright red from trying so hard not to laugh at the little guys."
"Were they any good?" The photographer spit out between chuckles.
"Actually, no. They were terrible."
"Geez, Vick, that sounds worse than the time they took all of you guys to a retreat and made you throw shoes at each other." Vickis stories of "staff development" days were legendary with the trio.
"Yep. Ahhh...staff development days.... Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside about seeing your tax dollars hard at work, doesnt it?"
The meal was superb and the company even better, as the three friends spent some time catching up on the latest in their careers and personal lives. As Camryn finished up the last bite of her Coq Au Vin, she set down her fork and sighed. "God, that was delicious."
"So Cami, hows business?" Jo inquired, pushing away her own plate bearing the demolished remnants of her dinner.
"Great. I did that fun job for the Zoo, and I just did the Padres shoot on Sunday."
"Oh, how was the game?" Vicki asked.
"Lots of fun! I took T.J. with me and it was her first live baseball game. So I had a good time explaining the rules and such to her." The blonde was totally unaware of the silly grin that suddenly lit up her face and the animation that crept into her voice, but her delight in speaking about her new friend was not lost on Vicki and Jo. "Shes really cool, and she caused quite a stir with the guys on the team, cause shes really gorgeous."
Vicki sat up straighter, a mischievous twinkle suddenly lighting her brown eyes.
"Whos T.J.?" The redhead glanced to Vicki, catching the smile on Camryn's face and the shift in Vicki's body language, and realizing that there might be something more here.
"Oh, um T.J. is short for Taylor Jameson, the woman who owns the bar that Vicki had her charity thing in." Cami replied, glancing out the window to hide her blush as her mind quickly leapt to the tall, dark haired woman who had dominated her thoughts since the baseball game three days ago.
Vicki and Jo took a long look at their friend and then met eyes with each other, before Vicki continued. "I didnt know you guys were friends, Cami. Did you know her before the Talent contest?"
The photographer glanced back, "No. We...um...Im doing some publicity work for the pub. And I just thought she might like to go to the game, being new in America and all."
Hmmmm....Vickis romantic little heart perked up. New to America? Nice try Cami, but Taylors been here for a few years now...So.... you land in her lap and now youre taking her to ball games...lets see here.... Her brown eyes flicked to Jo and she gave her a look indicating that she should play along.
"Hey! That gives me an idea. Lets skip dirty, old McCaffertys and take Jo up to Taylors pub instead. Its so much nicer, and Ill bet they have great desserts."
Jo picked up on the Godzilla-sized clue that Vicki had tossed out. "Oooh!! That would be cool! Im getting tired of Mcs anyway - especially since Ned isnt singing there anymore." The redhead offered a big, pleading grin to Cami, who was just starting to catch the subtle by-play between her two friends. She opened her mouth to defend their old, college hangout.
But Vicki continued on, not allowing her to protest. "Yeah, C.J.s Pub isnt too far, we could swing by - unless the old lady birthday girl here is too tired."
"Who are you calling old, Amazon woman?" Cami playfully growled.
"Ooooh! Amazon!! I love it!!" Jo clapped her hands in delight.
Vickis eyes narrowed in teasing friskiness, "Yeah? Well watch it, pixie, or we might just start ganging up on you."
Vicki and Cami burst out laughing at Jos expression, for the petite red-head did look an awful lot like a pixie at that moment. She was an actress, and her hair was currently cropped rather short for a role she was playing at one of the local theatres.
"Well. The old lady, the amazon, and the pixie, huh? Quite a combination...." Jo smirked and then waggled her eyebrows. "Lets go see what kinda trouble we can get into!"
With her dark hair loose about her shoulders, dressed in black jeans, a black silk blouse and a black leather jacket, Taylor Jameson looked like Trouble.
Taking a deep breath and feeling the old familiar, killer instincts flood back into her body; Taylor pushed aside all pleasant thoughts of laughing, green-eyed blondes. Glancing into the mirror she gave an inward shudder at the sinister image she conveyed.
The cold, blue eyes staring back at her couldnt be hers.... couldnt be the same ones that smiled at Cami, that wept over the touching show of trust and friendship from the small photographer.
No. These were someone elses eyes. The eyes of the woman she left behind in Ireland on that cold day two years ago. These were Jamies eyes. And she had business to take care of.
She had not made any attempts to contact Frank during the past few days, instead hoping to lure him into a false sense of security - alternately hoping that he would return so she could kick his ass for bringing trouble back into her life, and hoping that he would disappear from her life altogether. Both choices had merit, but only one caused her to once again don the mercenary persona that she had foolishly hoped was buried for good. So each night she prepared for his arrival, and as each day passed without it happening, she got wound up tighter and tighter waiting.
The phone on her desk buzzed and she silently picked it up.
"Frank's back, boss. Should I get rid of him?"
Blue eyes narrowed and grew as cold as chips of ice. "No. Ill handle it, Tommy."
Replacing the receiver, she headed for the locked cabinet in the corner. She quickly retrieved her Sig Hauer and checked the rounds. Tucking the gun into the waistband of her jeans at the small of her back, she straightened her leather jacket so the outline of the weapon was not visible. She leaned down and double-checked the knife tucked neatly into her boot, and then headed towards the office door, pausing before she entered the pub. Her fingers gripped the doorknob with an intensity that turned caused the veins in the back of her hand to stand out.
Ya were wrong, Cami. A persons past does matter...it all catches up ta ya sometime.... With one final clench of her heart, she glanced at her image in the mirror and put on a frigid, emotionless mask. Taylor blinked back for one final split second. But then it was Jamie who turned on her heel and headed into the pub. Look out, Frank. Here comes trouble.
"So, Cami...tell Jo how you ended up in trouble and nearly breaking your neck at the Talent contest." Vicki innocently stated, her sweet brown eyes taking a sideways glance at the small redhead in the seat next to her. Jo stifled a grin at the knowledge that Vicki was tweaking Cami.
The three women were in Vickis Four-Runner streaking down the highway, and Cami was currently in the back seat holding steadily on to the "oh shit" handle to counteract Vickis wild driving. At the comment by the teacher, Cami raised an eyebrow. Just what are you up to Vick? Tsk, Tsk....well, youre not gonna get anything new outta me...
It wasnt that she was ashamed to talk to her friends about her crush on the tall, blue-eyed bartender - after all, they knew she was gay. No....it was just...that Cami had never had a girlfriend before really. There was a brief fling in college that had left her heart-broken; yet sure of her sexual preference, but other than that career and family dominated her life. At least until recently. So, she didnt have any practice in talking to her friends about such matters.
Blushing furiously, she took a deep breath and decided that honesty was always the best idea. "It was really funny, Jo." She began to relate the events that led up to her plunge from the bar stool and right into T.J.s life. Leaving out her physical reaction to the barkeep, though.
"So, I nearly crushed the poor woman, and destroyed my camera lens in the process. And after that - T.J. hired me to do her publicity.... apparently she thought I had a flair for the dramatic." She finished blithely, enjoying the chuckles from her friends in the front seat, and this time catching the two women as they exchanged what could only be described as "knowing" glances.
"And here I thought I was the drama queen of this little trio." Jo laughed. "So thats how you and T.J. became friends? You broke her lap?"
Vicki laughed, but Cami was quietly pensive. Yeah - I broke her lap, and in all likelihood, my heart. She took a large breath, unable to divulge anything further to her pals, although she knew instinctively it would make her feel better to talk about it. Raising a well-shaped eyebrow at Vickis questioning gaze in the mirror, Cami finished, "Yeah, thats about it," her tone making it evident the story was over.
"Well I, for one, cant wait to meet her, and thank her for saving your neck..." Jo nearly sang in the front seat.
"And I, for one cant wait to get an ice cold pint of Newcastle." Having read something of Camis struggle in those expressive green eyes, Vicki gave in to the blondes unspoken desire to change the subject.
"Yeah, a drink sounds really good right now." came Camis response, as she turned to stare at the dark scenery passing them by. Her mind drifted and she briefly tuned out the chatter from the front seat, lost in her own world that was dominated by blue-eyed bartenders.
Miguel and Carlos Reynoso were impeccably dressed in well-tailored suits, but for some reason that didnt help them blend in. Their Hispanic heritage was evident in the richness of their complexions, the dark hair and the deep brown eyes. But the Reynoso brothers gave off an air of danger lurking just below the surface. Neither was someone any sane person really wanted to mess with. Indeed, beneath the expensive clothes and the handsome faces, were the leaders of the most deadly drug cartel in all of Tijuana. And now they were expanded their empire North to include San Diego.
They were perched in an out of the way booth where the lights were dimmer and no one could come up behind them. Frank sat with them, trying in vain not to look nervous in their intimidating presence.
They had just made a drop a few days ago, so tonight they were just here to discuss some financial arrangements - where, and when, and how much. It was all a new game to Frank, and a dangerous one for him to be playing without really knowing the "rules."
But, a lucrative business nonetheless. Methamphetamine. He laughed as he recalled his conversation with Taylor about where her money came from. Not from drugs, eh baby? Well. You missed out then. He had asked her about her possible drug connections to make sure they would not run into any opposition here. For Frank knew, if Taylor were dealing, he, for one, would not want to get in her way. For some insane reason he was more scared of Taylor than the dangerous men that currently flanked him in the booth.
He set up rendezvous between the Reynosos and competent dealers who took the Meth out onto the streets and sold it for their own cut of the profit. And since Taylors pub was quiet, and in a respectable neighborhood, it seemed the safest place to use as his base of operations. The cops were rather sparse in this part of the county, due to the recent growth in the area. The sheriff's department handled this area, and they were spread rather thin as it was. The best part for Frank was that he was really just a go-between, helping with the laundering of the money, so he seldom handled the stuff. That way if the enterprise should ever collapse......well....he figured he had nearly enough money to take off to South America and stay there. Should the need ever arise.
His only real problem, and he was unaware of just how large that problem really was, was Taylor. She was an uncooperative bitch who would likely blow a gasket if she found out what he was doing. But, he had hopes of handling her in another way, should that become necessary.
"So, amigo. Where is this new mans territory?" Miguel asked Frank.
"Uh. He.... he works out of Ocean Beach. Lots of college kids and surfers and stuff." Frank replied, trying to sound knowledgeable.
"Bueno. Have you found a new distributor for the East County yet?" Miguel twisted his pinky ring. Carlos merely sat impassively, his sharp eyes scanning the room for any hint of trouble. There was a distinct division of power between these two men - Miguel was the brains and Carlos, the muscle.
Frank nervously licked his lips, deciding he should probably order a drink to help calm himself down. The last East County dealer in question had been stabbed seventeen times by the local gang of White Supremacists, who were firmly entrenched in that part of the county. They had dumped the barely recognizable body by the side of the road in a remote part of Jamul, but not before they had branded their stylized swastika into the mans forehead. The warning was unmistakable.
"Um...no. I.... um...havent. Thats rather ...um...difficult territory. The skinheads own that area, so..."
Miguel held up one perfectly manicured hand. "Bad for business, Frank. If customers think we cant deliver on time...." He offered a sly grin that made Frank squirm. "Perhaps you need to personally look into this little problem."
Little Problem?? Is he kidding? But Frank was saved, if he could call it that, from answering Miguel by the arrival of Taylor. The dark-haired vengeance entered the pub from her office and headed behind the bar.
Frank grimaced. Damnit! Not yet. Cant deal with her right now! Miguel caught the direction of Franks pained gaze and -his dark eyes swept over the gorgeous woman behind the bar.
"Dios mio, muy bonita, no?" He grinned and turned back to Frank. "You know this one? She is.... quite a woman."
"Shes my ex-wife. The one I told you owns this joint." Frank supplied.
Miguels grin broadened. "Ah, I see. You were one hell of a lucky man, amigo. But...." He turned to smirk again at the supple form that was now moving around behind the bar. "She looks like more woman than you can handle."
Carlos chuckled and allowed himself to be momentarily distracted from his watchdog duties to openly admire Taylors stunning form.
Taylor had taken a position behind the bar to collect her thoughts and weigh her options. While it was true that the last thing she wanted was to have these men dealing drugs in her pub, the information that Jake had supplied her with yesterday made it clear to her that she could not just use muscle on these two. They were backed by a large and loyal "family" and she was seriously outgunned, should it come to that. No, her better option was to find their weakness and exploit it. Always look for the soft spot, darlin. Her Das words rang in her ears. She smiled at the customer who signaled for another Guinness and began drawing the beer, one eye still watching the dangerous men in the corner.
"You gonna let them stay, boss?" Tommy queried.
"Well. Im not gonna go piss them off so as to have them start breakin up the place. Fights are bad for business, Tommy." She tried to keep her tone light as she surveyed the men in the corner.
From Jakes description, the big one is Carlos. All muscle, no brain. That means the slick one is Miguel. Looks like a bloody attorney. She snorted at her own random thoughts. "Ill speak to Frank after they leave." She quietly assured the lanky bartender, as she offered up a smile in the direction of their booth.
Miguels grin instantly became a leer. "Perhaps you should introduce us, Frank."
"Uh...er...probably not a good idea. Taylor, she...um...isnt really thrilled about the business were in." He tried to temper his answer, because "not thrilled" was a serious understatement.
Miguels dark eyes quickly swiveled back to the sniveling man next to him. "Is this another problem, amigo? Carlos and me, we dont like problems." To which Carlos grunted in affirmation.
"No! No." Frank recovered quickly. "No problem at all. I can handle her. She...um...it would just be better for us to keep this business between us, is all." Frank wasnt at all sure he could handle Taylor. But.... he had a few ideas he was saving up for a rainy day.... and right now he didnt like the look of the storm front moving in.
"Bueno. Then, if we are finished here...." Miguel stood up and shot the cuffs on his jacket, Carlos right behind him. "Find that East County replacement, Frank. Pronto." With that he and his gargantuan brother sauntered towards the door, both turning to smile at the gorgeous bartender.
Taylor played the game in return and offered the two departing men a dazzling smile and a suggestive eyebrow quirk, before turning to Tommy. "Divide and conquer, mate. Divide a man from his sensibilities with a smile, and...." She shrugged noncommittally. Something familiar about that phrase buzzed in her head, but after a moment she shook her head to clear away the random thought. That was weird.
"Yeah. Well. Be careful, boss." Tommy watched her purposefully head around the end of the bar.
Intent on her goal of dragging Franks ass outside and kicking it clear to the Pacific, Taylor missed the entrance of the trio of women and slammed headlong into the one person that she had most wanted to see...just not here and now.
Camis green eyes went round with shock as she crashed into the tall barkeep. "Oh, shit! T.J! I'm sorry."
T.J.s hand went instinctively to the blondes shoulders to steady them both. "Cami...oh...I...I dinna expect ta see ya here." Bloody Hell! T.J. had been dreaming about the petite photographer for days, but her timing in coming here couldnt have been worse.
Vicki stepped forward and interrupted. "Its Camryns birthday, so we thought wed drop by here for a pint or two." She reached out her hand to the barkeep, smirking as she had caught the imperceptible softening of T.J.s blue eyes the minute she noticed Cami. Yup. Theres something there. In her mind, Vicki broke into a dance of glee.
T.J. took the proffered hand automatically and slipped on her polite social mask. "Good evenin ta ya, Vicki."
Gesturing to the small redhead with them, Vicki made the introductions. "This is our friend, Jo Peterson. Jo, this is Taylor Jameson. She owns the place."
Taylor glanced down at the small woman and shook her delicate hand, offering another polite smile. "Tis grand ta meet ya. Uh.... welcome..."
Jo broke the ice. "Well. I wanted to come and meet the woman who swept our little Cami here right off her feet."
Vicki nearly doubled over trying to suppress her laughter as both Cami and T.J. gave Jo a startled look.
"Jo, What the hell...." Cami started to protest, before Jo clarified her statement.
"Wait. Cami? I thought you told me this was the woman that saved you from the whole bar stool incident the other night...." She feigned an innocent, puzzled expression.... she wasnt an actress for nothing.
Twin expressions of surprise instantly cleared only to be replaced by the faint flushing of embarrassment.
"Oh. I see then...Aye. That would be me." Taylor smiled. "And Ive still got the bruises on my lap ta prove it."
Cami playfully punched her arm. "Thought you were tougher than that. Pansy." She teased.
Taylor narrowed her eyes, and Cami once again caught that hint of danger lurking beneath the surface, that caused a shiver to run down her spine. When she answered, her voice was a low growl. "No ones ever before accused me of bein a flower, Cami. But since its your birthday, Ill let ya get away with it."
A shy smile from Cami. "Gee, thanks."
Then it finally dawned on Taylor that she still had to deal with Frank, so she quickly excused herself, slipping back into her cool, dangerous demeanor. "Well. Nice ta meet ya, Jo. Have a seat, ladies, and the first round and dessert is on me, in honor of Camis birthday." She gave the photographer a half-smile and started for Franks booth. "If youll all excuse me then...."
Cami blinked after her retreating back, wondering at the swift change in her friend, and the difference in her eyes. Theres something.... sometimes it is almost as if shes.... not even in there. At that odd thought, Cami shrugged and turned back to her two friends who were smirking at her. "What?"
"Nothing. Not a thing." Jo grinned and started for a booth.
"Vicki, what?" Cami grabbed the teachers arm.
With a sweet smile she patted Camryns shoulder. "Come on my little lap breaker. Lets get you a drink, shall we?" And she gave Cami a small push in the direction that Jo had just taken.
Joining their smaller friend, who was already seated, Vicki glanced after Taylor. "Whos the guy, I wonder?"
Cami turned to look, a bit surprised to see Frank in the pub, after the way Taylor had dumped him on his butt a few days ago. "Thats Frank. Hes ...um.... T.J.s ex-husband."
Jo shot a look at Vicki who just shrugged before responding. "Oh, well. They must get along all right though, I mean if they have drinks together and all."
Taylor caught Frank just as he was getting up from the booth.
"Not so fast, Francis." He voice was as smooth as glass. "Id like a word with ya."
Frank blinked, feigning surprise before answering. "You want to talk to me Taylor, I was just leaving. I know how it upsets you when I.... overstay my welcome."
"Sit down." She commanded and the tone caused him to instantly obey.
"Whats wrong, baby?"
Taylor got right to the heart of the matter. "Why did ya bring two drug dealers into my bar?"
Frank had the good grace not to let his chin hit the ground, but he couldnt entirely hide his consternation. "Drug dealers?" He paused for a moment as if trying to decipher her meaning before continuing. "Oh, you mean my friends?" He laughed, a shallow completely fake sound coming out of his mouth. "Why on earth would you think Id associate with drug dealers? Much less bring them here?"
"Thats what Id like ta know." She pinned him to the booth with another steely gaze. "Are you in some kinda trouble, Frank?"
He smiled at the thought. "Gee, Taylor. I didnt know you cared." When an arched eyebrow was her only response he continued. "No. Im not in trouble. Those were my business associates and I brought them here for a drink, ok?"
"No. Not ok. Dont bring them back, Frank."
"Hmmmmm...Business is so good that you are turning away paying customers?" He looked pointedly around the restaurant, which was rather quiet on this late Thursday evening.
"Frank. Listen." Despite her anger, she couldnt let the stupid idiot walk into danger. She reached a hand out and took a strong grip on his forearm. "You willna ever bring those men back here, understand? I dinna think ya know exactly who ya are dealing with there."
Suddenly his grin became sinister and he slowly removed her fingers from his arm. "On the contrary, baby. I dont think you know who you are dealing with." Twisting her hand into one of his, their eyes locked in a battle of wills. Frank was not a little shocked to see the intensity in the gorgeous blue eyes boring straight through him, but he was bolstered by the knowledge of just how powerful the Reynoso clan was.
Her voice lowered, with a tone bordering on deadly. "Do ya mean ta tell me, ya know who those men are? And ya brought them here anyway?"
"I know exactly who they are. I told you, we are business partners." His eyes were narrow slits now, his meaning perfectly clear. "So. Youd best leave us alone to conduct our business...if you know whats good for you."
The tension sang through her body and she willed herself not to just toss him to the ground and beat the hell out of him right there. "If I know whats good ? Ya wouldnt be threatenin me, now would ya, Frank?" The low, dangerous growl took on a hint of amusement.
"No, baby. I know where my money comes from. I wouldnt want to see anything happen to you." His evil leer nearly caused her to shudder in revulsion.
She released his grip and leaned back in the booth, crossing her arms in front of her. "Good. Cause I really wouldna want ta show ya just how stupid ya really are."
Frank stood, and dropped a few bills from his money roll on the table to cover the drinks his partners had consumed. Then cocking a hip on the table, he leaned over and stifled an urge to run his fingers through Taylors long dark hair. Instead, he opted for a charming smile.
"Like I said. I sure would hate to see anything happen to you. But, I see your um...business associate is here. So Ill let you go." He shifted his gaze to the table where Camryn was seated with her friends, and then met Taylors ice blue eyes.
"Pretty little thing. Good thing for you its just business, baby. Friends can be such a...liability." His meaning was clear to Taylor, who hesitated only a split second before leaping to her feet and slamming Frank into the nearby wall, instantly choking him with a strong forearm.
The three women at the nearby booth had been oblivious to the volcano that was about to erupt behind them. Certainly Cami had sensed the tension in her tall friend, and had even glimpsed the danger in those expressive blue eyes. But none of them would have predicted that they would be witness to Taylors quicksilver show of violence.
All three leapt up from their booth to pull the dark-haired fury off of Frank. But that was easier said then done.
Taylor saw only the haze of red in front of her, felt the twisting of her gut as Frank had tacitly threatened Cami. Her only thought was to kill him. Kill him and the threat is meaningless. Damn the consequences.
She ignored the tentative touch on her back and the yelling around her as she pressed her forearm harder into Franks throat. Customers crowded around and both Vicki and Jo tried to pull the stronger woman away from Frank. Tommy joined them an instant later, however even he wasnt strong enough to budge his boss.
So Cami tried a different approach. Acting on instinct alone, Cami ducked under T.J.s arm that was holding Frank, breathless, against the wall. Everything slowed as though she were watching the scene in stop-motion photography.
She grabbed T.J.s chin in one hand and placed the other flat on her chest. Then she began to plead, "T.J. Please! Stop! Dont do this!"
Squished in between the two struggling bodies, Cami was startled to realize that she actually felt no fear of T.J. hurting her. Her only thought was to keep her friend from killing this man. She began stroking T.J.s smooth cheek with the palm of her hand, hoping against hope that would calm her friend. By some miracle, it worked.
Blue eyes tracked from the goal in front of her to the gentle green ones that were mere inches from her own. Through the veil of violence she saw Camis face swim before her, felt the gentle, soothing touch of her hand, heard that sweet voice calling to her. And as quickly as she had snapped into her violent rage, something clicked inside of her and she dropped Frank from the wall. With one final glance at Cami, T.J. turned without a word and walked out of the pub.
Vicki and Jo knelt beside Frank, as Tommy went to get the gasping man a drink of water. But Cami just stared after T.J., and fought her own internal battle - torn between wanting to follow and comfort her friend and wanting to allow her the space to calm down on her own.
She took one hesitant step towards the door before Vicki wrapped a hand around her arm. "Let her go, hon. Let her cool down." The teacher reasoned with her.
Although logically she knew Vicki was right, something deep inside Cami rebelled at the idea of leaving T.J. alone when she was upset like that. Dammit! What the hell happened? She knew that T.J. and Frank had a rather hostile relationship, but what caused her to go after him like that?
She turned back to the still gasping man in question and began firing questions at him. "What the hell did you do to her? Why was she so pissed at you?"
Frank narrowed his eyes and choked out. "What did I do? That bitch attacked me!"
Cami didnt usually see herself as a violent person, so she was rather surprised at the urge she had to slap Frank right at that moment. Instead she folded her arms across her chest, tucking her hands away to keep them from reacting on their own. "Well obviously you said something, Frank."
He had finally regained a bit of his composure, and glanced around as the crowd around them began to disperse. "It was a family matter, Ms. Wells. Nothing for you to be concerned about." He drew himself up to his full height, towering over the tenacious little blonde.
Cami instantly felt herself being flanked by Jo and Vicki, both of whom looked ready to take the man out if he should so much as lay a finger on their friend. She was grateful for the backup, and it triggered her response to Frank. "Taylor is my friend, Mr. Silva. A concept obviously lost on you. So, I think whatever you did to upset her does concern me." She lifted her chin a little in a defiant attitude.
Glancing from the tall teacher to the smaller blonde and redhead, Frank looked disgusted, and began walking away from the trio before he responded. "Jesus, you dykes are all alike. Sticking up for each other no matter what...What are you, a fucking tribe?" And with that he was gone. Leaving a stunned trio of women in his wake.
Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse