DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions, a division of Shed Media Group, plc. The author implies no ownership of these characters, and they are used in the stories without permission solely for entertainment and not for profit. Similarly this applies to any copyrighted fictional characters either from literature, broadcast media or film.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To nikki.wade[at]ymail.com

8th World Wonder
By CrashxBurn



"Oh, come on, Helen… you can't stay here all week with your nose in a book. It's Spring Break for heaven's sake! Live a little!"

Claire Walker pleaded with her best friend and roommate, who had adamantly insisted all month that she would not be partaking this year in the traditional college shunning of responsibility and careless drinking binges.

Helen Stewart was a control freak and she detested the thought of loosening her inhibitions around a bunch of hormonal students she'd have to come back and face for the next several years. She'd learned her lesson well enough in her Freshman year and had skipped out on Spring Break ever since.

She winced as she thought back to that March when she'd so foolishly tagged along with her friends and pushed her pride aside, only to wake up after a week of alcohol-induced haziness to recall the embarrassing antics she'd performed under the influence.

Dancing on top of a bar was not what her father would consider a good investment of his money. She was at Cambridge to get an education, and she was walking a fine wire in getting him to agree to that – he never approved of anything she did with her life if it didn't include getting married and having children, and she knew she needed to stay focused on her BA in Psychology if she was going to get anything resembling a stable career in the future.

Claire grew increasingly frustrated as Helen shot her a venomous glare and went right back to reading her Psych textbook. She plopped down next to the Scottish beauty on her single bed and sighed loudly. Helen snapped her book shut and arched a challenging brow at the dirty blonde sitting beside her.

"Claire… you know how I feel about Spring Break. It's just an excuse for a bunch of adults to get pissed and act like bloody adolescents."

Blue eyes narrowed on her and she said, "Well you'd know all about that, wouldn't you? Or do you think I've forgotten?"

Fiery green eyes burned with fury as she looked at her best friend, who could truly bring out the worst of her temper at times.

Immediately sensing that she may have hit a nerve and crossed a line, Claire backtracked with an apologetic expression on her face, "Look… I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I just think you need to relax a little. You haven't done anything fun in years now and I hate seeing you holed up in here all the time. I've seen the way you've become more withdrawn lately."

She reached over to touch Helen's arm and said sincerely, "I miss my best friend, Helen. I just want her back for a week. Then you can come back here and be as boring and depressing as you want. Please?"

Her blue eyes pleaded so genuinely that Helen was finding it hard to stay mad at her. She sighed softly and clasped her hands in her lap, trying to find a way to talk herself out of this situation, but Claire wasn't giving up so easily. The Scot figured it was part of her legal training that made her so relentless.

She was in her third year working toward a BA in Law, and she had interrogation and persuasion down to a subtle art. She feared for the people who would eventually be under her scrutiny in court, should she become a successful barrister as she dreamed.

The icing on the cake was when Claire grabbed her hand and chirped excitedly, "Besides, my brother is coming and he's expressed in no uncertain terms that he hopes to see you there. You know he fancies the pants off you."

She nudged Helen's shoulder playfully and it elicited a small grin from the green-eyed beauty. She'd been aware of Michael Walker's interest in her for some time now, but they'd never taken their acquaintance beyond anything but a tentative friendship. It had been years since she'd allowed herself to get entangled in the complications of romantic interaction.

Again that pleading puppy dog look was on Claire's face and Helen found herself hard-pressed to deny her anything. In the three years she'd been studying at Cambridge, Claire had been her one constant and her emotional rock.

She'd been there for Helen through everything mundane and harrowing, even when the Scot faced the shame of being pasted on the front page of a local tabloid for her drunken escapades. She'd crawled into the bottom of a bottle after that and it was Claire who'd dragged her out.

Her shoulders sagged in defeat as she quietly acquiesced, "Fine… but I'm not getting drunk. I'll leave that to you hooligans."

A small grin curled the edges of her lips and Claire knew she'd won. She squealed happily and threw her arms around her best friend, crushing her in a tight hug and then jumping off the bed.

"Great! I'm going to tell Michael and the others. They'll be so pleased you're coming."

Helen rolled her eyes as the long-haired blonde excitedly departed to pass on the news. She picked up her Psych book again and thumbed through to where she'd left off, thinking reluctantly to herself, 'Maybe it is time I had a little fun… it's been too long.'

The shrill ringing of a phone permeated the late afternoon air in a small flat in Soho, London. A groggy, grumbling raven-haired woman reached a hand blindly out toward the night table, fumbling with her eyes closed for the offending object, but her groping fingers came up empty and the ringing continued. She groaned in complaint and slowly opened brown eyes to the harsh light of day.

She snatched the receiver off the hook and mumbled sleepily, "Hello…"

"Nikki! Where the hell are you? I thought you were going to help me set up the bar this afternoon? We open in two hours and there's a ton of shit to do here. I could really use your help."

Nicola Wade, preferably Nikki to anyone who wasn't part of her snobby, rich family that had disowned her six years prior, absolutely did not want to be partaking in this conversation at the moment. She recognised the voice on the other end of the line as belonging to Brandy, a blonde bartender she worked with at Thirst, one of the new and popular night clubs in the Soho district of London. The money was great on the weekends and allowed her to rent a small flat with her roommate Laura, who was an exotic dancer by night and college student by day.

She glanced blearily at her bedside clock and said with as much sincerity as she could muster, "Sorry, I overslept. I'll be there in half an hour."

She hung up without waiting for an answer and dragged herself out of bed, wearing nothing but her skin. She stumbled into the bathroom she shared with her roommate and covered a yawn with her hand. She turned on the shower and brushed her teeth as she waited for the water to warm up.

Ten minutes later she was pouring herself into a pair of tight jeans and a black vest that was nearly skintight, her towel-dried, damp hair sticking up in places. She quickly made up her face with thin black eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick just a shade darker than her natural colour.

She tugged on a pair of fashionable leather boots with a low heel, adding another two inches to her already impressive stature. At 5'10" she could easily pass for a model if she'd wanted to pursue that option, especially given her lanky frame and elegant bone structure, but Nikki had never seen the appeal of being famous and having her personal life displayed in the pages of magazines. She much preferred a low-key lifestyle outside of public scrutiny where she could work hard to earn her money.

That was exactly what she'd been doing since her rich-shit parents had kicked her to the kerb at age sixteen, after she'd been expelled from her boarding school for deviant activities. Her proud and archaic father, a celebrated Navy officer, refused to have a lesbian for a daughter. He gave her the choice between conforming to normal behaviour or leaving the house, and Nikki had chosen to leave. She would never lie about who she was and she would never force upon herself the misery of pretending to love a man to make her family happy.

The fifteen-minute walk to the bar gave her time to clear her head of those memories after they unpleasantly reared up in her mind's eye. Sometimes all it took was to look in the mirror and realise how much she was growing to look like her father, and everything would come rushing back: all of the screaming, venom, and hatred he'd bestowed on her six years ago.

At twenty-three years old, she'd come leaps and bounds from the defiant, naïve sixteen-year-old who'd so boldly declared that she would make her own way in the world and that she didn't need her father's money. She knew now that it wasn't as simple as that, it was hard work to be independent, but she didn't regret it for a minute. Given the chance to go back and change it she knew she wouldn't.

She rounded the exterior of Thirst and entered through the back at the 'Employees Only' door, stopping inside as she saw all of the new boxes stacked in the storage room behind the bar. She sighed and steeled herself for an afternoon of lifting and shifting, restocking and organising, and then a long night of serving obnoxious customers with a false smile on her face.

Most of the people who came in didn't cause any trouble, but there were always those rowdy few who liked to shake things up. On more than one occasion she'd had to get security to escort an overzealous male admirer out the door, with him clearly not understanding that she wasn't interested in his drunken affection. The women who hit on her were much easier to deal with. Some would bitch and sulk and pout, but they generally understood the concept of the word no.

Brandy often teased her about being a prude, but they both knew that wasn't the truth. Nikki liked sex just as much as anyone else her age with a normally functioning libido, but she didn't go looking for it in a group of intoxicated, bi-curious women. The dazzling blonde bartender she worked alongside would often flirt with her for the hell of it, just to see if she could get a rise, even though she was completely straight and due to be married soon, and sometimes Nikki would even indulge her to amuse herself, but their friendship was platonic and rock solid.

Brandy must have heard the door shut because she popped her head out of the storage room with a relieved smile and exclaimed, "Finally! I was worried I was going to have to move all of this by myself. Tony called and said he won't be here for another hour."

The blonde rolled her eyes and Nikki had to chuckle quietly at her antics. She strolled into the room and opened one of the boxes nearest her, discovering that it was a case of bottled beer.

"Right…" she said, more to herself than to Brandy, "…best get started then." With that, she lifted the top box and headed behind the bar to start restocking it for the night to come.


Chapter 1

10 Years Later… HMP Larkhall

"Nicola Wade… for the murder of DS Gossard I hereby sentence you to life in prison…"

The words echoed in her mind as she sat on the small, uncomfortable bottom bunk bed in her cell, staring aimlessly at the grimy walls of her little brick box. Most days she managed to scrape by in the monotony of prison life without giving her past much thought, but when she was alone in the confines of her own personal hell, sometimes the memories popped up unbidden. She lit a cigarette and pulled on it angrily, hoping that the nicotine would soothe her frazzled nerves and chase her demons away.

Today she was having no such luck as other thoughts began to swirl uncontrollably to the forefront of her mind. She slammed her head back against the brick wall with her eyes scrunched tight, trying to ignore the voices in her head, reminding her all too vividly of the life that had been taken from her.

Nikki Wade was a complex creature to understand. She had a volatile temper and a razor sharp wit that was quick to cut anyone down to size. That combined with her infamous reputation as a cop killer meant that everyone pretty much steered clear and didn't try to pick a fight with her.

She had her occasional spats with Michelle Dockley, the resident psychotic bitch slag, but even the blonde tramp wasn't stupid enough to get into a down and dirty fist fight with her, not since the last time she'd tried it and ended up in the medical wing for a week. Over a year behind bars had hardened her to the ways of prison and she'd quickly learned the rules of survival.

Before she'd been locked up in Larkhall she wasn't particularly violent in nature. In fact, most of her old friends would say that she wouldn't hurt a fly. She had occasionally had to escort drunken patrons from her nightclub, but it never came to blows. That all changed when a certain pig, DS Gossard, attempted to rape her partner Trisha after hours at Chix.

It was fortunate that she'd been on her way to pick her girlfriend up from work, or the end result would have been very different. Maybe she wouldn't have ended up in prison, but her girlfriend would've been scarred for life. She couldn't find it in her to regret what she'd done; even though she hated that she'd taken a human life, she had come to grips with the fact that she'd been doing it to defend Trisha from an absolute bastard.

Memories hit her like a tidal wave as she thought about that night and the implications of what might have happened if she hadn't arrived when she had. It reminded her all too well of the one she hadn't been able to save, the ghost that haunted her dreams and occasionally crept into her waking nightmares. She could see it all painted clearly in her mind, a macabre portrait of the worst night of her life.

Most people would think that stabbing a man in the neck with a broken bottle would be the worst, feeling his blood gushing over her hands only moments after he'd laughed in her face, and she would never acknowledge that that wasn't the case. She would never admit to anyone but herself that a lingering torturous memory plagued her far more that. It was perhaps that recollection that had prompted her to act so violently against Gossard, to save Trisha from the fate she'd been unable to prevent all those years ago.

She swung her legs over the edge of her bed and gripped the metal frame tightly, her knuckles turning white as the blood left her fingers. Her eyes were sharp with anger, brown razors slicing through the dim lighting in her cell. She pushed herself up and moved in fluid strides to the sink, quickly splashing cold water on her face. She gripped the edges of the basin as tremors of horror passed through her, her mind unwilling to let the gruesome pictures fade.

A knock at her cell door broke her out of her trembling reverie and she looked up as the green partition swung open, revealing the last person she wanted to see at the moment. She glared at the smug man standing in the entrance of her cell, and he sneered contently as he noticed her state of distress.

"Come on, Wade. Up and out."

He chuckled to himself as he turned on his heel and left. She could hear the jangle of keys and the footsteps resounding on the grated metal floor as he moved along to unlock the other cells on G2. She wiped her face dry and grabbed her prison issue plastic cutlery before making her way toward the breakfast queue in the dining area.

The two Julies were standing behind the counter in the Servery doling out thick spoonfuls of goopy porridge. Nikki pursed her lips and said nothing as a large dollop was placed in her own bowl. The two blondes suddenly chirped at her, striking up a scattered conversation.

"Hey, Nikki-"

"We was wonderin'-"

"Do you know anything 'bout-"

"'bout the new Governor?"

Nikki arched a brow and intoned boredly, "Pardon?"

Julie J and Julie S exchanged a furtive glance, realising that they now had hold of a new piece of juicy gossip.

"You mean-"

"You 'aven't heard?"

The tall brunette sighed wearily and said, "No, I haven't, and if it's all the same to you I'm going to sit down now."

She noticed the glares being shot her way by the other inmates in the queue, eagerly awaiting the morning's pathetic attempt at sustenance. The Julies seemed disappointed to cut the conversation short, but let her go without another word.

She turned and marched determinedly toward an empty table in the corner, but before she got there she caught sight of something that made her freeze up and lose all control of her motor functions. She was vaguely aware of her breakfast tray slipping out of her fingers and falling with a loud clamour to the ground, but her attention couldn't be swayed from the woman on the other side of the bars.

Ten years of pain welled up inside of her, her throat constricted painfully, and tears threatened the backs of her eyes. Locked in her horrified gaze were the most powerful, beautiful, hauntingly expressive green eyes she'd ever seen, eyes she could never forget.

She came back to herself, startled, by senior officer Sylvia Hollamby demanding to know why she was standing there like an idiot and not cleaning up her mess. She ducked her head and inhaled sharply, clenching her fists at her sides and trying to regain control of herself. She knelt to the ground and began picking up the tray and the varied plastic utensils that littered the area. Porridge and bland tea had spilled and converged into a disgusting puddle near her feet.

The Julies rushed over with a mop and a bucket of soapy water.

"Are you-"


"She don't seem too good, does she, Ju?"

"Nah, Ju, not too good."

She looked up from where she was crouching and nodded before replying tersely, "I'm fine, thanks."

As the blondes took over the cleaning, she clutched her things to her chest and hurried off to her cell without a backward glance. She'd known that coming to prison wasn't going to be fun, but now she was trapped in a completely different kind of hell.

Helen Stewart, the new Governor of G-Wing at HMP Larkhall, truly was a master of denial. She'd perfected the art of personal repression and covered for her flaws with an unmatched sense of focus. It was that focus that had seen her through her university degrees, landing her on a fast-track course for the prison service.

Ten years prior she'd been an idealistic young mind in her third year of university, only weighed down by the passing of her mother and the stony indifference of her minister father. Now she was a cold shell, only a fraction of the happy woman she'd been.

Ten years could change a lot for a person, and events beyond her control had swiftly done just that. It had taken years of therapy and burying herself in her studies to get to where she was now, but finally she'd convinced herself that she was a semblance of normality with a dash of possible happiness.

The only bump in the road on the way to kidding herself had come a year and a half ago when she'd been listening to the evening news. She'd been standing in her kitchen sipping on a cup of tea when the high profile murder case was aired in her living room.

The volume was loud enough that she could hear every word, so when the newswoman announced that one Nicola Wade had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a police officer, she had no need to see the television. She recalled how the mug had slipped out of her fingers and ceramic shards had showered the kitchen floor, room temperature liquid splashing everywhere.

Sean had come running in to see what had happened, but she'd been unable to speak at all. She'd just stood there shaking her head and swallowing over the lump in her throat, trying desperately not to cry as images of the past assaulted her. He'd insisted that she go see the doctor, but she'd finally found her voice and adamantly insisted that she was fine, she just had a headache and needed to take a nap.

She'd scurried upstairs in the blink of an eye and locked herself in the bedroom, needing to be left alone as she buried her face in a pillow and began to cry. It was all too sudden for her to deal with, a horrible, painful reminder of her past that she hadn't been expecting.

The next day she slipped back into the guise of "normal" Helen Stewart – the calm and collected university graduate working on her Masters in Psychology, already with a BA in both Psych and Criminology under belt. In just a year she would be finished with her third degree and she would be offered a very coveted position in one of Her Majesty's prisons.

It was needless to say the last thing she'd expected was to land herself in the very same prison as Nicola Wade. Her first day in her new job she'd shown up promptly at the front gates, trying to break her perpetual habit of being late for everything, dressed in a smart skirt suit with a red button-up blouse underneath. She'd been given a set of keys and had her prison ID made before following one of the guards to G-Wing.

She'd been greeted by Simon Stubberfield, the Governing Governor of Larkhall, just outside of the Officers break room. He'd introduced her to the staff on her wing and had volunteered Jim Fenner to give her a tour of the place. Her first impression of him was that he was an unpleasant, very slimy bastard and she didn't want him near her.

The way his eyes raked over her appraisingly and the fake, toothy grin he shot her way made her skin crawl. Nonetheless, she'd put forth a polite persona and had followed him out of the room to see the wing. As they were approaching the bars she noticed that the cons seemed to be milling about and sitting down to breakfast.

What she hadn't been prepared for was the sight of an instantly recognizable inmate walking in her direction. As soon as the other woman had noticed her, everything seemed to go in slow motion. Her chest constricted painfully as she looked into those deep brown eyes she'd never thought she would see again, and reality hit her like a ton of bricks.

She couldn't breathe as they engaged in a stunned staring contest, careless of the porridge and tea dribbling onto the floor from the dropped dishes. The moment was abruptly broken by Officer Hollamby demanding that the inmate clean up her mess.

Helen found her tone of voice and general attitude toward the women to be appalling, but she was still too much in a state of shock to comment on it. Instead she turned quickly and muttered an excuse about paperwork to Jim, stating that they should reconvene later to finish the tour. She made her way towards her new office on shaky legs and sank into the leather chair behind her desk.

She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths to try and calm down. Losing her cool wouldn't help anything in this situation. The best thing she could do would be to forget everything about the past so she could find a way of working here. No one was to know that she already knew Nikki, or about the events that had transpired between them, that she promised herself. She would keep a lid on it and treat her just like every other prisoner in her care. Denial was, indeed, a fine-crafted art.


Chapter 2

A week into her new job, Helen was quickly discovering that forgetting the past and remaining indifferent was a lot harder than she'd convinced herself. At every turn it reared its ugly head and smacked her in the face. Every time she caught a glimpse of the tall, dark-haired lifer her head swam and she had to fight off a flurry of conflicting emotions.

That alone was enough to make her consciously avoid being anywhere near Nikki Wade. Since their unexpected sighting on her first day, she'd been very careful to make herself scarce, and she hadn't spoken a word to the inmate since she'd started her job.

Some part of her realised that it was a bit childish, really, but she simply couldn't face the woman yet, not after all the years of no contact and all of the things she'd suppressed and pushed back into the darkest corner of herself. There was no room in her detached, logical persona for weakness or self-doubt, and unfortunately Nikki had been a witness to the best and the worst nights of her life.

She was reviewing prisoner files in the seclusion of her office on Monday after lunch when a sharp knock came at her door.

"Come in," she responded automatically, though she wasn't really in the mood to see anyone at the moment.

It was all part of the job, she told herself. She couldn't escape human contact when she worked in a prison, so why bother trying? It was this line of thought that had looped incessantly in her mind for the last week. She didn't know if she was an idiot for accepting this position when she wanted minimal interaction or more for the fact that her subconscious had been craving it, needed it even, like a dying animal in a barren desert needed water.

Sean was wonderful, caring and attentive, but he didn't fulfill her needs the way she'd thought he would. He didn't chase away the darkness that always threatened to consume her and he didn't evoke that spark of passion and fire in her soul.

Only one person had ever managed to do that. It was this, perhaps, that had led her to seek out work in the prison service, because she honestly wanted to do some good and because she was desperately seeking a reprieve from the emptiness she felt inside.

Her reverie of oppressive thoughts was broken as her office door opened and a smug-looking Jim Fenner stepped inside.

"Ma'am," he greeted with a nod of his head and that infuriating smirk. He knew well enough by now that she hated being called that.

She sighed and said with irritation, "Jim, I'm not the bloody queen."

He smirked and she felt her ire rise a notch. She folded her hands on the desk in front of her and raised her brows.

"Can I help you with something?"

He shifted his feet and seemed to remember why he was there, coming out of whatever thoughts he'd been distracted by, and he said with some satisfaction, "I've just had to put Nikki Wade on report. It's all in here."

He brandished a manila folder and dropped it in front of her. She glanced at it and fought the urge to close her eyes in frustration, thinking to herself, 'Shit.'

She looked back up at him and said dismissively, "Thank you for letting me know. If that's all, Jim, I've got work to be catching up on."

He nodded and left her office with a self-satisfied grin, nearly whistling as his inner self said, 'That'll teach Wade to try and cross me.'

Helen reluctantly picked up the folder and began to thumb through the report, scowling as she read over the events penned on the page. It seemed a stark contrast to the woman she'd met so long ago, this bitter, hateful attitude she was displaying now. The Nikki she'd known had been warm and affectionate, if not a bit cocky and sure of herself at times. She'd been a real charmer.

The woman she was getting a glimpse at now was completely alien to Helen, like someone from another life entirely. Resigned to the fact that her job demanded she deal with this situation, she picked up the phone and dialled the Officers Room.

Lorna Rose answered on the second ring and she said evenly, "Lorna, it's Helen Stewart. Please bring Nikki Wade to my office as soon as possible."

Getting confirmation from the PO on the other end, she hung up and moved to stand in front of her office window, wrapping her arms around herself as she stared blankly at the prison grounds before her.

'Best get this over with,' she told herself, 'like ripping off a plaster.'

Two Hours Earlier

It was just after lunch and all of the inmates on G-Wing were enjoying their allotted time for association. Some wandered the grounds while others exercised in the fitness room or watched television in the main hall. A few attended a handful of classes the prison had on offer, and some, like Nikki, simply sat back and enjoyed the spectacle happening at the pool table.

Shell and her sidekick Denny Blood were facing off in a pool match against PO Rose and PO Chisom, and so far the inmates were winning. Murmurs and whispered wagers were floating around the wing as the game continued, packets of fags and phone cards used as currency. Nikki didn't partake in any of this as she sat against the wall puffing passively on her cigarette.

One of her only friends on the wing, really the only person she could stand to have much of a conversation with at all, was sitting beside her. Carol Byatt was a sweet woman and she'd instantly taken a liking to Nikki upon entering the prison, even though the older woman was stand-offish at first and didn't speak much in general.

It hadn't taken long for them to form a tentative but relaxed friendship, once Nikki realised that Carol wasn't expecting anything or trying pull something over on her, and soon after Carol had discovered that she'd gotten pregnant just before being sentenced. Nikki took it upon herself to watch her back and make sure that no harm befell her while she was locked up in this shit hole.

It was easier said than done with all of the manipulative, backstabbing bitches inhabiting the place. While Carol was quiet and introverted, and never did anything to deliberately piss anyone off, that didn't stop the likes of Shell Dockley from trying to bully her.

The match ended before long with Shell and Denny victorious and the screws looking none-too-pleased with the matter. Some of the inmates whooped and made cat calls, while a sour-faced few reluctantly gave up their loot to the winning bidders. Nikki stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray and stood, stretching slightly to release the tension from her shoulders and back.

Carol stood also and Nikki stuck by her side as she walked back toward her cell, intent on having a short nap. It was normal for Nikki to escort her safely back before wandering off to do a spot of reading while the sun was still high in the sky, providing an adequate although insubstantial amount of light through the bars in her cell window. Unbeknownst to either of them, they were being watched.

Nikki parted ways with Carol at the door and headed back downstairs to G2 where her lonely, sparse accommodations awaited her. She lounged on the lumpy mattress on her bunk with a thick book open on her lap, scanning the pages restlessly and trying to absorb the words. The lines seemed to blur and run together as her overworked brain ran a mile a minute. Whenever she was alone these days her mind wandered persistently back to one thing, and one thing only: Helen Stewart.

It was getting such that she often felt irritable and like she was losing her sanity. Thoughts of the small Scot overwhelmed her at random and unexpected times, sometimes causing a spot of embarrassment if she was in the middle of doing something and paused abruptly, causing others to stare at her questioningly. She felt like she was well and truly losing it since Helen had shown up a week ago.

It hadn't escaped her notice that the other woman was avoiding her. That much was blindingly obvious. Nikki warred with a mixture of anger and helplessness. She was angry with herself for being a failure and angry with Helen for avoiding her. She felt helpless against the tide of emotions the Scot evoked in her, unbidden, after all these years.

Overriding everything else was the powerful guilt that was slowly eating her up inside. She was so ashamed of herself and she was so angry that she felt this weakness. She'd learned to be strong and cold because she had to be in this place. How would she survive if the other inmates found out she was actually quite vulnerable? It was simple – she wouldn't. It was something that would be taken advantage of and preyed upon by menaces like Dockley and Fenner.

Her pity party was cut short by Fenner, speak of the devil, entering her cell without even bothering to knock. He pushed the door to behind him and immediately alarm bells rang in her head. She closed her book with a glare and sat up slowly, trying to assess the situation while staying alert for danger. He approached her with a purpose, leaning against the top bunk with one arm, a greasy smirk pasted on his face.

"I'm disappointed in you, Wade. I know you dykes can get desperate in here, but picking on a defenseless, pregnant woman? That's low even for you."

He chuckled to himself then stooped down so his face was only inches from hers. Suddenly he seemed to reconsider his words and grinned cruelly.

"Actually, what was I thinking? A murderous bitch like you… I don't think there's a low that's too low for you. You know what your problem is?"

Nikki felt her blood begin to boil over the top with every malicious word that escaped his lips, and her body was coiled tense, a cornered snake ready to strike, her fists clenching the thin prison issue sheets so hard she thought they might rip any second.

She tilted her head, her eyes glinting coldly as she regarded him, and she responded with a sneer, "I'm guessing you're about to tell me, but I don't particularly care what you think, so why don't you just piss off?"

His expression suddenly shifted from one of cocky self-satisfaction to one of loathing and hatred. He leaned closer and whispered viciously, "You'd better watch that lip, Wade, or I'll have you."

She crossed her arms and angrily retorted, "In your dreams, Fenner."

He laughed suddenly and invaded her personal space once again. "See? That's exactly what I mean. Your problem is that you've never been with a real man. If you don't watch your step in here, I might have to straighten you out."

His lecherous gaze raked over her slowly and she felt her temper spiralling out of control. His tone and his meaning were not lost on her, and her internal alarm bells were now screaming shrilly. She was reminded unpleasantly of something very similar Gossard had said on the night she'd killed him.

A haze of red came over her and she spit in his face, hissing, "You even try it, and you'll regret the day you were born, Fenner. Unless you've forgotten, I am a murderous bitch after all."

He straightened up and took a step back from the bunk, wiping his face on his sleeve. His face was red with anger as he grit his teeth and seethed.

"You're the one who's going to regret this. I'm putting you on report for that little stunt, and you best watch your back from now on. You never know… accidents happen all the time in prison."

He left in a huff and Nikki hurriedly lit a fag, trying to calm down her anger and her nerves, both of which were bursting at the seams. She was so worked up that she was literally shaking as she sat there and smoked, any hope of reading now dashed out the window.

She sat in solitude and chain-smoked through the rest of association, not daring to make an appearance outside of her cell lest she give away her state of mind to the other prisoners. Dockley would just love this if she could see it.

She was so startled by the knock on her door later that she nearly jumped out of her skin, managing to burn her forearm with the lit cherry of her cancer stick and bumping her head against the bottom of the top bunk. She winced on both counts as Lorna Rose popped her head into the cell.

"Come on, my love, the Governor wants to see you."

Physical pain forgotten upon hearing those words, another kind of agony instantly gripped her. Why now? What did she want? Was she about to get a severe bollocking for events of which she'd had no control?

Then the rational part of her brain kicked in and she remembered the incident with Fenner and that he'd said he was putting her on report. 'That must be it, then.'

Dread filled her as she stubbed out her cigarette and rose to follow the PO to the Governor's office, a place she was quite familiar with from Helen's predecessor as she had a history of trouble-making since she'd been in prison.


Chapter 3

The second encounter with Helen was like a bucket of freezing water and made Nikki's blood run cold, filling her veins with ice. Lorna had showed her into the office and left after receiving a dismissive nod from the Gov. The woman who looked at her now seemed cold and calculating, devoid of emotion and showing no signs that she even knew the inmate.

"Take a seat," she intoned blandly.

Nikki felt like her feet were rooted in cement as her mouth went dry and her eyes swept questioningly over her jailor. How could she know this woman so intimately and yet apparently not know her at all?

Upon not having her order followed, Helen raised her voice a little as the first spark of any genuine emotion showed in her grey-green eyes. "Sit in that chair!"

Nikki moved forward as though she were walking through molasses and she dropped into the aforementioned chair, her shoulders slumping in defeat as she responded morosely, "Don't you wish it was electric?"

Helen regarded her in silence for a long moment and Nikki couldn't quite tell what she was thinking. Was it surprise? Disgust? Hatred? All of the above? She could see the annoyance flicker in the governor's eyes, along with something she couldn't pinpoint; she didn't dare believe it was sympathy. Helen disregarded her comment and folded her hands neatly in front of her.

She cleared her throat and segued directly into, "I've brought you here to discuss the incident you had earlier with Mr. Fenner. Would you care to explain why you felt the need to spit on him when he came to ask you about Carol Byatt's condition? His report says that your actions were unprovoked and that you spoke to him in a vicious nature. What do you have to say for yourself, Nicola?"

White hot anger surged through the con at the injustice of the situation, and it was heightened by the use of her full name from the one woman besides her mother she'd ever allowed to call her by it. She couldn't suppress it any longer and she exploded, shooting forward in her seat and shouting angrily, "Is that what he said happened!?! The lying, piece of shit bastard!"

Helen was taken aback by the sudden display of rage and the conviction behind the words, but she struggled not to show it, trying to keep her face an impassive mask. She frowned and said, as calmly as she could manage, "I would appreciate it if you would watch your language, especially in regards to my prison officers. I could put you on report again for that. Now, why don't you tell me in your own words what happened earlier?"

Nikki scoffed and shook her head slowly, not really believing what was happening before her very eyes. "You really don't get it, do you? You really don't see what's happening here? He's a complete prick, Helen. Christ, I thought you'd be able to tell that much. It doesn't matter what I say anyway, you'll believe what you want. So go on, put me down the block. Do whatever you like, I don't care."

She leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms defiantly, challenging Helen with her eyes to prove her wrong. Helen sighed softly as a sinking sort of acceptance wedged its way into her thought process. She knew on some level that Nikki was right about Jim. She'd known since she'd met the man that something was off kilter.

She decided to soften her approach and try a different tack, realising that she was getting nowhere with the difficult inmate. She still couldn't believe this was the same woman she'd known ten years prior. The two versions of Nikki, the one in her memory and the one in reality, were night and day. So far neither of them seemed willing to address the huge elephant in the room, and that was fine with her as she really didn't know what to say on the matter.

"Nikki… please, tell me what happened. I would like to hear it from you."

That was as close as she would come to outwardly admitting that she didn't trust Fenner and that she had her own suspicions about him. It was also an olive branch of sorts, a backhanded way of saying that she wanted to trust Nikki and that she valued her opinion.

The lifer's gaze lost some of its wrath and her posture relaxed a bit as she considered Helen's words and the options she was left with. She could continue to be difficult and defiant for the hell of it, or she could cooperate and give Helen a chance to prove that her words were more than just empty sound. That would also be giving the Scot the opportunity to hurt her again, though, if she rejected what she said and took Fenner's side. She wasn't sure she could handle the humiliation and the pain if it came to that.

She'd thought she was well over Helen Stewart, but as she sat staring at her now she knew that was complete bollocks. Even having been with Trisha for the last nine years, there was no one else in the world who'd ever made her feel that depth of emotion. Knowing she was fucked either way, she resigned herself to making a leap of faith and hoping she didn't regret it.

She began to explain the events of the last few hours, starting at the pool match and culminating in the grand finale where Fenner basically threatened to sexually assault her and she retaliated in the heat of the moment. Helen's eyes flashed with emotion, ranging from shock to dismay and ultimately cold, hard anger.

She sat in silence for several minutes, her jaw clenched and her hands fisted, working through everything Nikki had said in her head. The words rang true enough and she had the chilling feeling that her initial reservations about the man had been spot on. However, she hadn't expected him to be quite this horrid.

As she imagined Fenner saying what he had about straightening the con out, her thoughts shifted to a similar, horrifying, earth-shattering event that had effectively ruined her life a decade ago.

Nikki studied the small woman before her with apprehension as she seemed to absorb the full impact of what she'd revealed, and they seemed to simultaneously draw the same parallels of the situation to the past. There was no mistaking the haunted look that entered those green eyes and suddenly it seemed that Helen wasn't looking at her, but through her, at nothing in particular.

She was as pale as a ghost as she sat on the other side of the desk, a world away in several ways. Nikki suddenly felt the full weight of her guilt as she took in the pallid and drawn appearance of her former lover, who was undoubtedly reliving something horrible right in front of her.

She wanted to say something, anything, to comfort her and draw her back to the present, but the words seemed stuck in her throat. She didn't know what to do as she looked on helplessly at the woman she loved struggling, as much as she'd tried to deny it to herself.

All she could do to break the silence was to ask in a quiet, strained voice, "Helen?"

There were so many questions in that one word that she couldn't bring herself to ask, and there were so many answers in the green-eyed gaze that fixed on her that Helen couldn't bring herself to give. The governor swallowed noisily and her eyes darted around the room, suddenly nervous and unsure of herself. She knew that her little trek down memory lane had been witnessed, and by the one person who could fully appreciate the horror of it.

Her hands shook as she stood suddenly and turned to face the window, hugging her midsection and trying to cocoon herself into emotional safety, away from the understanding brown eyes that were watching her. She was so lost in the turmoil of her thoughts that she didn't hear the taller woman move around the desk to approach her. She flinched when she felt a gentle hand on her arm and startled green eyes met soulful brown.

Nikki, seeing her distress, quickly removed the offending hand and took a step back, not wanting to crowd Helen's personal space and make her more uncomfortable. She wanted to tell the Scot that she would listen if she wanted to talk about it, but she sensed that wouldn't be welcome so she dismissed the thought as soon as it occurred. They weren't the people they used to be and they didn't know each other anymore. They weren't friends and they weren't lovers. They were a prisoner and a prison employee.

Helen could tell that Nikki had something she wanted to say, but she was holding back, and she felt decidedly uneasy about where the conversation might possibly lead, so she changed the subject before it could come into being.

"I'm going to have to put the report in your file. I believe you, Nikki, but it's your word against his and without evidence there's nothing I can do right now."

She seemed genuinely regretful and her eyes showed remorse as she looked at the tall, raven-haired beauty. Nikki ducked her head and nodded, staring at the floor intently. She understood, and though it made her angry, she knew that Helen's hands were tied in this situation. Fenner would just lie his way out of it if she made a fuss, and he was right up Stubberfield's arse so there wasn't a ray of hope that he wouldn't be believed.

She ran a hand through her hair and asked, "So how many days am I getting this time?" She chanced a glance up at the Scot and was surprised by the depth of sorrow she let slip into her gaze.

Helen shielded her emotions quickly and replied, "I'm not putting you down the block, Nikki. He may have got away with this report, but I'm not going to punish you for this. I understand."

The unspoken words they shared in that glance were deafening and made the office seem ten times smaller and more stifling than it was. They were both battling inner demons and they both knew very acutely how the other was feeling.

The lifer nodded slowly and said quietly, "That's all right then. Can I go now?"

Helen regarded her for a moment before answering simply, "Yes."

Neither of them was prepared to talk yet. It was an agreement that didn't need to be verbalised. Helen picked up the phone on her desk to call an escort to take Nikki back to the wing while the con made her way to the door in contemplative silence.

She stopped with her hand on the doorknob and glanced over her shoulder as the phone was placed back in its cradle. Just before she walked out, she managed to say quietly, "If things had happened differently, I probably would've been here ten years ago. I'm sorry, Helen."

She left quickly without waiting for a response, the sound of the door closing softly seeming impossibly loud to the stunned wing governor. She sank into her chair and almost immediately broke down in tears. The floodgates had opened and they didn't stop until her eyes were red and puffy and she couldn't cry anymore.

When evening rolled around and Helen pulled her red Peugeot into her driveway, she was emotionally drained and she wanted nothing more than to take a hot bath with a glass of cold wine, perhaps the entire bottle. She let herself into her flat and the smell of potting soil immediately assaulted her olfactory glands.

A heavy sigh escaped her lips as she hung her coat up by the door and dropped her briefcase in the hallway. She entered the living room to find Sean sitting on the couch with an array of pots spread across the coffee table, which had been liberally lined with old newspaper pages.

He was shovelling soil into one of the small containers and a few others had already been planted with what looked like small saplings of some sort. Helen had no idea what he was doing as she was completely useless when it came to anything green, and frankly she didn't give a crap except that he was making a mess in her living room.

"Sean… I thought we talked about this. Can you not do that outside?"

He glanced up from his work, noticing that she was home for the first time, and as he took in the state of her appearance he realised that she was definitely worse for the wear. He could tell that her voice was strained and that she was in no mood to accommodate his green thumb tonight, and he wasn't particularly in the mood for a row at the moment, so he put on his best apologetic face and said, "Sorry, Hels. I didn't think it would take this long. I thought I'd already be done and cleaned up by the time you got home."

This seemed to only aggravate her further as she responded, "Oh? So that's okay, then? It doesn't matter that I don't want potting soil in my living room as long as you do it while I'm not here to see? Is that it?"

Sean sighed and tried to appease her, "You know that's not what I meant. I just ran out of daylight and I thought I could finish this relatively quickly inside. I don't understand why this upsets you so much."

That was also the wrong thing to say, apparently, as she screwed up her face and exclaimed, "Sod you, Sean!"

She strode to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of already open red wine from the fridge and a glass from the cabinet, slamming it shut pointedly before heading upstairs to the bathroom.

She ran a hot bath and added bubbles and scented oil before sinking into the water. She took a large swallow of wine as she leaned back in the tub and closed her eyes, allowing her mind to drift away to happier thoughts and easier times.

"What can I get for you?"

A tall, stunning, dark-haired beauty addressed her as she stepped up to the bar, but she was so struck by her presence that she found herself unable to speak at first. Her eyes must have glazed over because suddenly an amused smirk crossed those perfect lips and chocolate eyes danced with merriment at her plight. She regained her bearings and her cheeks flushed hotly as she cleared her throat.

"Um… vodka and tonic, please."

The lanky, but well-toned, bartender moved off to fulfill her order and she couldn't stop herself from staring and giving her the once-over.

Her eyes drank in the sight of a firm, athletic body poured into black leather trousers and a skintight white top, which was sheer enough that she could see the outline of a black bra beneath. She clearly worked out a lot but she hadn't lost any of her womanly curves. She was thin, but not overly so, and Helen found herself more than a little jealous of her overwhelming beauty.

More than anything, though, she was instantly enthralled. If someone had asked her before that if she'd ever been attracted to a woman, she would have denied it wholeheartedly and truthfully, but in that moment something shifted inside of her, something powerful and nameless that would change her forever.

The woman returned with her drink and she forced herself to stop ogling as she pulled out her money to pay. She slid the bank note across the bar and grabbed her drink with a smile. She looked around the club and noted that it was already packed and it wasn't yet past ten. She looked back into those deep brown eyes as she accepted her change and she felt an inexplicable need to strike up a conversation.

"Is it always this busy in here?"

The stranger smiled back and answered, "Not always, but we've been slammed since Spring Break started. I'm guessing you're a student?"

Helen found herself nodding as she sipped on her drink and then she extended her hand with another thousand-watt smile, her tongue touching the back of her teeth.

"I'm Helen Stewart and I go to Cambridge University."

The bartender looked impressed as she shook her hand and replied, "I'm Nikki Wade, and I just work here."

The two shared an easy laugh and their hands stayed connected a bit longer than necessary, but neither seemed in a hurry to remedy the situation.

The moment was broken as Claire came bounding up to the bar, demanding that Helen come and dance with the rest of the group. The Scot shot an apologetic glance back toward the bar as she was dragged away, sorry to have cut her conversation with Nikki short.

She hadn't gone there expecting to make a new friend, but she could see herself easily getting to know the other woman. There was just something about her that was totally intriguing… and she couldn't put her finger on it.

The water had gone cold and the wine bottle was empty by the time Helen dragged herself out of the tub. She towelled off and pulled on a comfortable, oversized t-shirt before slipping straight into bed, wet hair and all. She didn't feel like going back downstairs to confront Sean and she definitely didn't feel like having sex with him tonight. She closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep, visions of a different life swimming behind closed lids.


Chapter 4

It had been a little over a week since Nikki had been called into the Wing Governor's office after her disagreement with Fenner, and in that time they'd barely seen each other. Nikki knew Helen was back to avoiding her and she couldn't honestly blame her. It's not as if knowing her had brought Helen any kind of good luck.

In fact, it was knowing her that had probably ruined her life. She blamed herself for everything the Scotswoman had had to endure. If Helen had never met her, if they'd never gotten involved, then none of it would have happened. She wouldn't have been at the bar that night after hours, waiting on Nikki to close up, and she would've been safer for it.

As she lay on her bunk on Wednesday afternoon, book and ashtray abandoned beside her, she reflected fondly on the happier times before that, like the night they'd first met. She recalled a line from Casablanca with some amusement as a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

'Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…'

It had been the beginning of rush as all of the uni students on holiday had come swarming into the club, eager to experience the famous night life that London had to offer. Nikki remembered watching her walk in, but she hadn't gotten a proper look until she'd approached the bar. She must have been all of 5'4" with a perfect, curvy, womanly body and eyes so gorgeous-green that she'd wanted to melt on the spot. It had taken all her years of practice working the bar to look and sound unaffected as she asked the stunning stranger for her drink order.

The woman faltered for a moment and Nikki saw, with great amusement and pride, a flicker of more than platonic interest. The soft Scottish lilt that reached her ears knocked her for six and it was all she could do to concentrate on making the drink. Then they were introducing themselves and she felt an immediate spark when they shook hands.

She was very reluctant to let go when an energetic woman with dirty blonde hair joined them and dragged Helen away. She didn't miss the look the green-eyed beauty sent back at her and she felt it tugging on her heart strings all night long.

She caught glimpses of the Scot as the hours flew by in a flurry of drunken university escapades, but she didn't come back to the bar. She seemed to be surrounded constantly by a group of her friends and, to Nikki's utter dismay, a tall blonde man who seemed intent upon touching her all evening.

The dark-haired bartender went about her work on autopilot and tried not to dwell on it. Of course she would have a boyfriend. She was far too beautiful to escape male attention and she was in uni. The result was inescapable.

At closing time she helped Brandy wipe down the sticky, alcohol-laden bar and clear it of empty shot glasses while security ushered the crowd of twenty-somethings out into the rain. The storm had kicked up just over an hour before and Nikki knew it was going to be like this all week. The weather report she'd heard on the radio the previous day had promised seven days of heavy rain and thunder.

She finished her half of the bar and grabbed her large umbrella from the storage room, making her way out front to find a throng of drunken party-goers still fighting to get taxis to take them home. She spotted Helen immediately, shivering and soaked to the bone as she stood away from the melee, obviously not thrilled with the idea of getting involved.

Nikki took pity on her and approached her with a smile, gesturing to the canopy of her massive umbrella as she said, "You can stand under here if you like."

Helen looked up at her, momentarily startled, and then a grateful, toe-tingly smile crossed her face. Nikki found herself tongue-tied as she stared at the Scot, and it wasn't lost on her that when she smiled she tucked her tongue up behind her teeth.

It was the most adorable thing she could ever remember seeing and she felt like butter on hot concrete. Helen stepped under the edge and wrapped her arms around herself, shaking like a leaf as a gust of wind and rainwater hit them.

Nikki nodded her head in indication that they should start walking and spoke over the wind, "It'll be easier to find a cab if we get away from this place. A few blocks down should do."

They began to walk side-by-side and Nikki wondered if Helen was always this trusting of strangers. She glanced at the shorter woman as they drew away from the crowd and she said, "You should be careful who you wander off with around here. It's not the best place to be after dark."

Helen looked surprised and uncertain now, so she offered a reassuring smile and said, "You don't have to worry about me, but I wouldn't advise repeating this with anyone else you don't know already."

The Scot nodded and huddled closer to her as another bout of icy wind assaulted them. They came to a halt two blocks down, near the corner of an intersection, and Nikki hailed a taxi with practised expertise.

As they piled into the backseat she suddenly realised her presumption and asked, "Sorry, do you mind if I share with you? I can always get another…"

Helen gave her another one of those heart-wrenching smiles and responded, "I don't mind at all. Thank you for rescuing me out there. It's the least I can do to save you from standing out in the rain any longer."

Satisfied with Helen's logic, she smiled back then gave the cab driver her address. She learned that Helen was staying nearby at The Z Soho hotel, which was closer to the club than her flat, and they made idle small talk on the way over, covering the basics like age and where they grew up, what kind of food they liked and what their favourite hobbies were.

The ride wasn't nearly long enough in her opinion, and if Helen's hesitance to get out of the cab was any indication then it was an opinion shared. She was saved the dilemma of asking the Scot if she would see her again when the brunette asked if she'd be working the next night. She confirmed that she would and was treated to another of those trademark smiles, before being told that she would see her the following evening.

Heart pounding wildly in her chest from sheer giddiness, Nikki waved through the cab window and watched as Helen ran for the automatic double doors of the hotel lobby to seek refuge. Her thoughts and dreams that night were filled endlessly with the adorable woman who'd somehow effortlessly managed to make her feel like a fifteen-year-old girl with a crush.

Tea time unlock brought Nikki back to the present and she got off her bed with a sigh. She knew she shouldn't be pining over the past like she was, because it wouldn't change anything and it wouldn't do her sanity any favours, but she couldn't help thinking about Helen. It came as naturally to her as breathing, and not doing so was as painful as she imagined drowning to be.

An hour later she'd eaten and was leaning back against a brick wall, arms crossed over her chest and a bored expression on her face, as she watched the fashion show rehearsal. At the end of the previous week it had been announced that the entire prison would be involved and presented to the Chair of Visitors, as well as some VIPs and nosy snobs from the Home Office.

Nikki had adamantly refused to take part in it, despite all of the begging and pleading from the two Julies (she wouldn't be caught dead in the dress they'd tried to get her to wear), but most of the wing was in an excited tizzy over it. Shell, in particular, was prancing around with a renewed sense of self-importance, like she was God's gift to Larkhall.

The brooding lifer watched disinterestedly, with a hint of disgust, as the airhead in question shook her bits and flounced around on the makeshift practice stage. The lights came on then and she began to whine in protest, pleading with Fenner to give them five more minutes just for her. When she was denied she whipped the wig off her head and stormed away, flinging an insult over her shoulder.

Nikki rolled her eyes and pushed off the wall, heading back towards the wing with the thought in mind that she needed to check on Carol. She hadn't seen her at all since lunch and she wanted to make sure she was okay. Her attempt was thwarted by Hollamby on the stairwell, the ever-present sour face and puckered mouth pursed in displeasure as she greeted the con.

The grumpy PO insisted that Carol was fine and sent her marching with the threat of putting her on report, to which Nikki quipped, "You'd gas us in our cells if they told you to." Shell's passing jab about getting her goodnight kiss didn't serve to ease her irritation any, but she didn't let it show on her face as she descended the stairs and went back to her cell.

Thursday morning found Helen running late, as usual, and attempting to apply her makeup whilst driving, which resulted in raccoon eyes and a peculiar look from the PO at the front gate. Upon inspection of her face she had to laugh at herself as she hurriedly fixed her smudged mascara. Once satisfied with her appearance, she grabbed her briefcase and coffee and made her way inside.

She greeted the PO's in the Officers Room before settling in at her desk to complete some paperwork and look over incident reports. She was interrupted by Jim Fenner and she forced herself to appear friendly and at ease in his presence, even though the recollection of his words to Nikki made her stomach turn.

More to distract herself from feeling sick than anything, she questioned him on the fashion show rehearsal and was pleased to find that it had gone off without a hitch. She mentioned that the Minister would be in attendance and made a flippant remark about having more VIPs out front than Vivienne Westwood. The conversation was steered onto the topic of Rachel Hicks, a new YO sentenced to thirteen months for possession and intent to supply.

Jim pointed out that she had victim written all over her and said he was prepared to bet his own money on her, suggesting that Helen mark her up to a red band and let her work in the office. She thought it a bit odd that he was showing so much interest and compassion, wondering if it was all an act and he had some ulterior motive, but she agreed nonetheless and turned back to her paperwork as he left.

It wasn't much longer until he was back in her office with Senior Officer Hollamby, sitting in front of her desk as she grilled the woman on Carol Byatt's miscarriage, which had been discovered at first unlock. Helen felt her quick Scottish temper flaring up and threatening to boil over as Sylvia sat there and fed her a bunch of bullshit about it happening "out of the blue" and being shocked.

Several minutes of excuses and denials later, her voice could be heard out in the hallway shouting. She dismissed them both with instructions to call a wing meeting as soon as possible, knowing she was going to have to address the matter with the women. They would all know about it by now because of Sylvia's ill-conceived decision to involve the cleaners.

After an inconvenient phone call from Sean, she gathered herself together and straightened her skirt suit before walking onto the wing. She wasn't looking forward to the confrontation that was likely to follow. She felt like a lamb wandering into a den of lions. The women were upset and she didn't blame them at all. Sylvia's nonchalant and dismissive negative attitude were to blame for this, as well as an obvious neglect of her duties.

Unfortunately she had no substantial proof and was left, again, with the word of a prison officer against the word of a con, something the Old Boys Network of the prison service would take with a grain of salt. Only in her second week as Wing Governor, she was already becoming quite frustrated with her job. How was she supposed to do any good around here if lazy and bent officers got away with whatever they wanted?

"She was calling for a doctor!"

"We heard 'er!" the Julies exclaimed with equal amounts of anger and indignation.

There was already a near riot on the wing by the time Nikki began descending the stairs, disbelief and incredulity overtaking her common sense. That Helen had put it down to "a tragic set of circumstances" and an "accident" was beyond infuriating. The woman she knew was more compassionate and sensible than this, so she couldn't reconcile her previous beliefs with the picture of denial and bureaucracy in front of her.

This only fuelled her anger and forced words out of her mouth before they could be censored by her brain. She pointed angrily at Officer Hollamby and shouted, "So did that cow there! So how come she didn't lift a finger?"

Helen tried to interrupt the chorus of random shouting that followed, but it only ceased when Fenner loudly demanded that everyone quieten down. She started to speak only to be cut off again by Nikki.

"No let me say it for her. Well what she's telling us is we're none of us safe in here, isn't she?" Vehement affirmations sounded from the women behind her and she continued to jab the proverbial knife in a little further, driving the point home, "'Cos even if we're bleeding to death we don't get believed. Well I'm telling her from us, you lot can't run this prison unless we help you."

At this point Helen looked quietly furious but she didn't speak a word, her lips pursed and her eyes dancing with outrage. Nikki pressed forward in contempt, trying to elicit a reaction from this woman she loved so dearly but in that moment despised with a passion.

"And if we don't get respect from your screws then don't think we're gonna make you look good in front of your VIP visitors, 'cos we're not." Laughter rang out behind her and prompted her to deliver the final blow, "So you can shove your stupid fashion show up your arse."

Finally she got a reaction, though it wasn't what she expected. Helen strode up to her and addressed the wing while not breaking eye contact, conveying without words how truly pissed off she was. And Christ she looked glorious when she was angry.

Nikki knew that she should be more focused on the matter at hand, but a furious Helen was a very arousing Helen. She was so absorbed in that fact that she almost missed what the Scot said. Almost.

"Fine. Consider it cancelled. This wing will not be taking part, and you," she paused long enough to point a finger in Nikki's face, "are on Rule 43."

She looked at Jim then and said without hesitation, "Lock them up," before turning and striding away. Jim followed her like a kicked puppy and begged her to reconsider her decision, but she forcefully told him that when she made a decision, she stuck to it.

As Nikki was escorted down the block by two POs and Senior Officer Hollamby, she couldn't help wondering how Helen could have her head so far up her arse. Her rage only intensified when she was shoved into a cell and Hollamby ordered she be put in strips. She received a blow to the stomach when she struggled and that only served to incense her further. She certainly didn't make their jobs any easier after that. 'Bastards.'

A short while later Helen found herself facing off with Jim in the Officers Room, having just had her authority undermined when he went behind her back to complain to his buddy Simon. He tried to play it off like he had no idea what she was getting at, but her continued prodding revealed that he had, in fact, been the nark in question.

If it wasn't bad enough that she'd had the entire wing turn against her, including Nikki (which was an especially painful point of recollection), now she couldn't even trust her own officers to have professional integrity. His parting shot of, "Maybe we could meet and discuss it over a drink sometime," made her want to punch the wall, but as she wasn't prone to displays of physical aggression all she could do was clench her jaw and mutter, "Bastard!"


Chapter 5

The worst part about being down the block wasn't the lack of a proper bed or other in-cell amenities. It was the silence, an all-encompassing, stifling shroud that smothered her sanity. She could deal with the night calls and sounds that reverberated through the wing, but left in complete solitude all she could concentrate on was her thoughts.

Tonight the dreams were worse and she drifted uneasily in and out of sleep, waking up at times sweating and shaking as grotesque memories filtered through her subconscious mental barriers; the pungent metallic smell of blood and the taste of bile rising in the back of her throat; the sight of ripped clothes and limp limbs; dazed, glassy eyes staring unseeing at nothing in particular.

It was an escape to another reality she wished she could achieve, but alone at night all she could do was remember. Tremors overtook her in the middle of the morning as silent sobs wracked her frame, and she welcomed the sharp stabs of pain that wrenched her heart into a broken, mangled mass. It was a reminder that she was still alive, at least on the outside.

Dawn broke through the bars of Larkhall on Friday morning and the scant first rays of sunlight woke Nikki, lying curled up in a ball on the cold, hard floor. She couldn't be bothered to sleep on what was jokingly deemed a bed; it was just as uncomfortable. She pulled her aching body into a sitting position with her back against the wall, knees drawn up to her chest and arms wrapped around herself, the body blanket provided for strips being the only barricade between her flesh and the biting cold of the concrete.

It was several hours before the breakfast trolley came by and she had to endure taunts from a sneering Shell. She dismissed the blonde with a, "Piss off, Dockley," and ended up with an empty stomach. Again.

She stared blankly at the wall to her left and ignored the rumbling of her stomach as she wondered how long she was going to be stuck down here this time. She'd already accumulated an impressive number of days down the block on her file, so why not go for the home run and make a new record?

Her line of self-destructive thinking was interrupted by the entrance of Helen, which caused another myriad of emotions to rip through her. What was she doing here? She was due an adjudication and she was very familiar with the process by now. It never included a personal visit by the wing governor. She wanted to ask, but she found it easier to stay bitter and angry.

The Scot seemed honestly dismayed at her current condition as she shouted out the door to the PO on duty, "What the hell is she doing in strips?" No answer. "Well go and get her clothes here immediately!"

A mumbled, "Yes, ma'am," was followed by the officer scurrying off and Helen pushing the door closed.

Helen looked sincere enough as she said, "I'm sorry, this should not have happened," but Nikki could only muster a resentful retort, "Happens all the time, didn't you know?"

The naïve nature of the new wing governor was not lost on her. She seemed to have this optimistic view of what prison was like, which was colossally out of sync with reality. She felt a burning desire to correct that illusion, however harshly she had to.

"Well it won't in future," the Scot replied in a tempered tone.

The brown-eyed lifer almost laughed at this and bit back mockingly, "Why, you gonna let us lot out now and lock up your screws instead?"

Helen's eyes flashed with a mixture of sympathy, defeat, annoyance, and defiance as she moved to sit on the bed adjacent to the shivering inmate. "Look, Nikki, I intend to make a lot of changes here but I need cooperation."

At this the dark-haired con nearly let out a snort of indignant amusement. "Cooperation," she intoned slowly and fixed Helen with a steely gaze.

Helen's shoulders slumped momentarily, seemingly in defeat as she silently calculated the situation and how to best remedy it. "You're right. I can't run things here without your help."

At this point Nikki wanted out of the conversation and away from the small Scot who was permeating her senses. She couldn't stand it when Helen looked at her like that, pleading with those gorgeous eyes that cut like a knife straight through her cold exterior.

In the interest of self-preservation she wrapped her arms more tightly around herself and said disdainfully, "Listen darling, I don't even know how people like you can sleep at night if you believe in a system that locks up pregnant women."

Helen met her scornful gaze evenly and said, with a firm edge to her voice, "Well you're just gonna have to trust me. I don't."

Nikki broke eye contact and swallowed hard, trying to force back the tide of emotions threatening to drown her, while her overwhelmed mind whispered, 'There's no one else in the world I trust more, and no one I trust myself with less.'

In that moment she couldn't even trust herself to speak so she remained mute. Realising that she was getting the cold shoulder, Helen got off the raised concrete slab that passed for a bed and knelt down in front of Nikki, forcing herself directly into the con's line of sight. Brown eyes full of pain flickered over her face and she felt her heart break in her chest, aching to comfort this woman who was trapped so unjustly in this place.

Her own inner conflict swelled to a crescendo and she consciously had to refrain from reaching out to stroke her fingers down the angled contours of Nikki's face, wanting to convey wordlessly that she felt the intensity of those earth-shattering, bone-crunching emotions she'd run away from a decade past. She couldn't, though, and not just because Nikki was a prisoner in her charge and it would be professionally and morally corrupt.

Her life had complications beyond the prison walls that prevented her from acting on her impulses toward the raven-haired con. There was Sean, for a start. She loved him to an extent, and she was content to remain in denial and blissfully ignorant that he could never satisfy her the way Nikki had. He'd never been anything but good to her, albeit a bit whiny and condescending at times.

There was no logical reason she should hurt him and throw away everything they'd shared for the last few years. Then there was the agonising fact that being around Nikki brought too many torturous memories to the surface. She was the one link in her present to a past she'd buried with the intent to never relive it.

She stayed crouched in front of the taller woman as she explained the situation with the fashion show, including the fact that Fenner had run behind her back to Stubberfield, and that she felt like every bit of good she was trying to do was being sabotaged. Nikki grudgingly had to agree that she had a point, but she was thoroughly confused at the moment and her decision-making skills seemed to be encumbered by Helen's proximity.

She was grateful when the PO returned with her clothes, unwittingly breaking the tension, and she breathed a quiet sigh of relief as Helen stood and distanced herself, taking with her the tantalising scent of her perfume and the temptation to stroke her fingers through that silky brown hair. Why couldn't she bloody think straight when it came to Helen Stewart? Why couldn't she treat her like any of the other screws instead of having hormonal fantasies whenever she was near enough to touch?

Her irritation returned tenfold, this time with herself, as she grabbed her clothes and turned to get changed, keeping her back to the infuriating Scot who'd taken up permanent residence in her psyche. She shouldn't even be thinking along these lines. She had Trisha waiting for her on the outside, for Christ's sake.

Helen faced the window and tried to give Nikki some privacy as she changed, even though the urge to glance over was nearly overwhelming. She bit her bottom lip hard and wrapped her arms around herself as a distraction, rewinding her thoughts and repeating the million reasons she couldn't go down that road in her head. Maybe if she repeated her internal mantra enough she would actually start to believe it.

In a last ditch effort to bring Nikki around to her way of thinking, and to save them both a lot of hassle on the wing from the screws and cons alike, she reiterated her view on the fashion show mess, "It's up to you. Either we both climb down together and make something positive out of this…"

She trailed off and Nikki turned to challenge her, now fully dressed, "Or?"

Helen looked over her shoulder and lost steam as she finished her statement quietly, "Or we'll all lose out to the Old Boys Network."

Nikki couldn't fault her logic and she had to admit that it would be a good payback tactic by stealing the credit from Fenner, so she acquiesced to the plan and they briefly discussed how they would go about telling the women. It was agreed that Nikki would make the announcement during lunch and that rehearsals would start up again that evening, provided the inmates all behaved themselves and promised to give it an honest go.

A week later the fashion show went off without a hitch and the visitors were visibly impressed, mostly the men, though Helen got the feeling it had more to do with the way Shell had been shimmying her chest than any real talent presented that evening.

Personally she couldn't see the appeal of the blonde wearing a horribly cheesy gold outfit with nipple tassels. It screamed a lack of class and Helen's tastes were geared toward something darker anyway. A shiver went up her spine when she got back to the wing and saw the object of her desire about to ascend the stairs to G2.

She approached the lifer at the base of the stairwell and offered a grateful smile as she said, "Nikki, listen, I just wanted to thank you again for helping me out."

The taller woman paused with her hand on the rail and looked down at the Scot, inwardly cursing her for looking so damn delectable all the time. As a direct defiance to her own wayward thoughts, she smirked and quipped casually, "Don't think I did anything for you, Miss."

The following week brought a new set of problems about for Helen. Firstly there was the matter of Carol Byatt being shipped out to prevent her from suing the prison, a decision which had gone over Helen's head but that Nikki obviously blamed her for. The arrival of Monica Lindsay and Zandra Plackett caused another stir on the wing.

Mrs. Hollamby complained constantly about the posh woman, who was having a great deal of trouble adjusting to prison life, and Helen hadn't been able to assuage her concerns. The revelation that Monica had a son with Down's Syndrome only furthered her aggravation with the English justice system. How was it just that they were separated and he was unknowingly serving a sentence as well?

Zandra brought a different string of problems in the form of heroin. It was no secret that she'd walked onto the wing with a stash inside of her. It was a slap in the face to Helen's anti-drugs campaign which thus far seemed to be going nowhere.

Then, to make matters worse, someone had written to the DST with a tip-off and Nikki's cell had been trashed, along with the embarrassment of being strip-searched with the door wide open. Helen hadn't been there to witness the debacle but she knew what the procedure entailed, and she was none too happy about it to say the least.

She knew with unfailing certainty that Nikki didn't take drugs, even if she had tried to wind her up the other day outside the shower room. When she went to check on the humiliated lifer she received only scathing reproach and shouting in response to her concern. She'd tried to reassure the frazzled woman that some good would come out of it, but that only seemed to enrage her further.

"Well, fantastic, I'm really glad you're convinced you're doing the right thing. Now just piss off out of my space!"

Helen replied regretfully, "You really let yourself down, Nikki," and swallowed the bitter pill of defeat as she left the trashed cell and returned to her office.

Why could things with Nikki never be simple? And why did she get the niggling feeling that the con's words held more than a grain of truth?

The visiting room was more packed than usual, but Nikki was lucky enough to get a table near the front so she could watch the door. When a tall, slender, immaculately dressed blonde entered the room, Nikki stood and her face lit up with delight. They shared a hug and a kiss and then sat across from each other. Conversation flowed easily between them until Helen entered the room.

Nikki couldn't stop her eyes from following the Scot's movements, despite her efforts to ignore her jailor. She decided an introduction was in order, if only to cause momentary pause in her blatant staring. "That's our new commandant, by the desk." Nikki indicated with a nod of her head.

Trisha twisted in her seat to have a look, and when she turned again her brows were raised in surprise. "Is that her? You never said she was a babe."

Nikki ducked her head with a frown and fidgeted uncomfortably, all too aware of how true that was and why she'd neglected to mention it. Trisha picked up on her tense stature and reached across the table to touch her hand, her voice laced with concern as she asked, "What's wrong, Nik?"

The dark-haired lifer sighed quietly and avoided the questioning blue gaze of her girlfriend, knowing that her eyes were her most expressive feature and that she couldn't lie to a woman who'd had nine years of practice reading them. She shrugged and fiddled with a packet of cigarettes as she tried to sound nonchalant in her response.

"It's nothing. I'm fine. Just been a bit of a difficult week."

Her answer sounded lame even to her and she could feel Trisha's eyes boring into her in a calculating manner, obviously discerning whether or not there was more to it than she was letting on.

The blonde released her hand and said, "I know there's something you're not telling me, Nik. Whatever it is, just spit it out. Don't you know you can trust me?"

That made Nikki feel even more guilty, because here was Trisha being her usual loving, trusting self after nine years of ups and downs and two years of being separated by prison, and all she wanted was the same level of commitment from her partner. The lifer ran a hand through her ebony hair and she knew she had to tell Trisha the truth. She owed her that much at least.

"Her name is Helen and I met her ten years ago, before you and I started dating. I may have spoken about her once or twice."

The blonde's expression was pensive for a moment and then realisation dawned as she connected the dots. She sat ramrod straight in her seat and asked in an alarmed whisper, "Helen? THE Helen?!? The one you were absolutely mad about and pining over for years?"

Nikki groaned and rubbed her hands over her face, knowing she should have expected this kind of reaction, but unsure what to say to ease her girlfriend's worry. After all, it wasn't completely unfounded. She would be lying if she said she didn't still have feelings for Helen, and she would be completely barmy if she tried to convince Trisha that she'd not been as "mad" about her as she'd seemed in the first place.

All she could do was nod guiltily and try to apologise, "Look, Trish, this doesn't change anything. We barely speak to each other and we're not exactly on good terms in here."

Trisha fixed her with an even stare and said matter-of-factly, "That doesn't mean you wouldn't like to be. I know you, Nik, probably better than you realise, and you are still totally in love with that woman."

Their conversation was interrupted quite suddenly when the DST decided to pounce on a couple in the corner, causing quite a spectacle and sending Monica's son Spencer into a near panic attack. He grabbed at his head and wailed, begging his mum to make them stop, but all Monica could do was wrap her arms around him and try to calm him down. By a stroke of sheer brilliance, the Julies began to clap and soon the whole room was following suit.

Within a few short minutes Spencer was calmed down and clapping happily along, convinced that the whole thing had just been a staged performance. Visitors began clearing out of the room and the POs rallied the cons back toward the wing.

Trisha gave Nikki a lingering hug and whispered into her ear, "I'll always love you, Nik, but if you love her half as much now as you did then, you can't let her get away."

She planted a chaste kiss on the taller woman's cheek and then left with a sad smile. Nikki walked back to the wing in a daze, beyond confused by the turbulent undertow of her emotions, churning violently beneath her otherwise calm exterior.


A fortnight passed in which Nikki didn't hear a peep from Trisha. It seemed the blonde was now ducking her calls and she wasn't certain how she felt about that. A large part of her would always love Trisha and it saddened her that they'd fallen apart right in front of her eyes, all because she couldn't get over a one-week affair she'd had ten years ago. It was ridiculous when viewed in that light, so she made it a point to avoid Helen whenever possible.

She intentionally made her attitude more difficult in hopes that it would keep the wing governor away. It appeared to be working thus far and she felt triumph for having some control over her life, even if it was minute, but on the other hand she felt a sense of gut-wrenching agony because now she'd lost both of the women she'd loved in her life. That she should be miserable and single really was the icing on the cake to prison life.

She was in the library reading, after another confrontation with Fenner, when Monica came bursting in looking distressed and out of breath. "Nikki, I need your help. It's Zandra. I don't know what to do."

Nikki closed her book with a sigh and raised an eyebrow. She was half tempted to make a comment about getting the screws, but she remembered Monica's vehement response when she'd said that last time, after Zandra had been de-crotched by Shell and Denny. She got up and followed the older woman onto the wing, resigning herself to the fact that she wouldn't be finishing her book today.

When they entered the four-bed dorm Nikki knew immediately that the blonde drug addict wasn't okay. She appeared to be unconscious and barely breathing, and her skin was a ghostly pallor.

"Shit," Nikki muttered as she went over to check her pulse. She shot a worried glance to Monica and said, "Ring the alarm. There's nothing we can do for her."

The older woman hurriedly slammed a palm down on the button by the door, alerting the whole wing that trouble was underfoot.

She came to sit on the end of the bed and asked, "Is it drugs?"

Nikki frowned and replied distractedly, two fingers on the side of Zandra's neck under her jaw, "I think she's taken an overdose."

She had a hard time believing that it was unintentional, because someone as experienced with smack as Zandra would know how much to take. "Did she seem upset earlier?"

Monica wrung her hands in her lap and thought for a moment, a frown creasing her brow with worry. "A bit… she had a visit from her fiancé and found out he's gone into rehab. Do you think she did this on purpose?"

She looked horrified at the thought, recalling the time when she'd told the junkie she was going to kill herself if she kept using, to which she'd been asked why she cared. Any further mulling over the predicament was halted as the screws came barreling through the door.

Nikki moved out of the way quickly and Monica addressed Mr. McAllister, "I found her like this after lunch."

Lorna got on her walkie-talkie and called for medical assistance and an ambulance, while Dominic scurried off to the office to look up Helen's contact number to call her in. The Scot was lounging in bed after a shower while Sean looked over garden plans, enjoying the rare Friday off work. The phone rang and she rolled over to grab the receiver off the night table.


Sean glanced up from his drawings when she bolted upright and let out a startled, "What? Yeah, okay, I'll be there as soon as I can."

She hung up the phone and sprang from the bed, hurriedly discarding her towel and pulling an outfit out of her closet. Sean rolled up the papers he'd been studying and enquired, "Hels? What is it?"

She tugged on a pair of grey trousers and reached for a white button-up shirt as she answered distractedly, "Overdose on the wing. I've got to go."

She dragged a brush through her wet hair, pulled on her matching grey suit jacket, slipped into a pair of shoes, and grabbed her purse from the top of the vanity. Sean looked as though he was about to protest, so she dropped a quick kiss on top of his head and said over her shoulder, "I'll see you later," before sweeping out of the room in a hurry.

Twenty-two minutes later Helen pulled her Peugeot into the hospital car park and found a space near the A&E entrance. Dominic had told her on the phone that an ambulance had been called to take Zandra to St. Martin's, so she'd agreed to meet the POs there to discuss the situation. She dashed inside and found Lorna and Dominic waiting in the reception area to the left of the double doors.

She greeted them with a slightly breathless, "Well? What's her condition?"

Dominic was the first to answer, "They've got her stable, but it was a close call. She took an overdose of heroin."

Helen sank down onto one of the plastic chairs and muttered, "Shit," as she ran a hand through her damp, un-styled hair. "Do we know if it was deliberate?"

Lorna shrugged and said, "Not sure, but Nikki Wade thinks it was."

Helen's head snapped up and she asked, "Nikki? What does she have to do with this?"

"She and Monica were the ones who rang the cell alarm."

Helen ran a hand over her face and sighed heavily. 'Fantastic,' she thought sarcastically. This meant she would have to talk to Nikki later to get a statement. Things had been tense between them lately and she wasn't looking forward to it.

An hour later a doctor approached them to let them know that Zandra was awake and had been moved to a secure room, where she was hooked to an IV and heart monitor and handcuffed to the bed. Helen went in first to talk to her and was startled by how fragile the woman looked.

She pulled a chair up to the edge of the hospital bed and asked quietly, "How you feeling, Zandra?"

Resentful blue eyes glanced over at her and the blonde replied tiredly, "Been better. I'd be a lot better if your twatting screws hadn't interfered."

This confirmed Helen's suspicion that the overdose had been intentional and she sighed wearily. "Why did you do it? If you're having trouble with something why didn't you come to me?"

Zandra laughed then and asked incredulously, "Are you taking the piss or what? Come to you for help? In that place? I'd rather off myself."

Helen's gaze was sympathetic as she studied the weak figure in front of her. "Well I can't help you if you won't talk to me. You'll be staying the night here for observation and then you'll be brought back to the wing. I'm going to have to keep you in solitary for a while, if only to prevent further self-harm."

Zandra huffed and rolled her eyes before turning onto her side and mumbling, "Don't shitting bother."

Helen got up and moved to the door with a final look at the frail blonde on the bed. There didn't seem to be anything else she could do for her at the moment, so she turned and left to update Dominic and Lorna on the situation.

Just after tea Nikki was in her cell trying to read, again, when a soft knock sounded on the other side of the green door. She set her book aside with a frustrated sigh and called out, "Come in."

Helen popped her head in the door and hesitated for a moment before saying, "Hiya, Nikki. Can I talk to you for a minute?"

The dark-haired inmate folded her arms over her chest and refused to look at the governor as she replied tonelessly, "Sure. Why not?"

Helen entered the small room and pushed the door shut behind her, moving to sit on the edge of the bed. She was at a loss for words as she studied the brooding con, and she got the distinct feeling that her presence wasn't entirely welcome.

An anxious, uneasy silence stretched between them until Nikki looked up and asked, a bit more harshly than she intended, "Well? You wanted to talk, so talk."

Helen fidgeted and fixed her eyes on the opposite wall, anything to avoid the intense, enquiring gaze now settled on her face. "I wanted to ask you about Zandra Plackett. It's unlikely there will be a police enquiry but I've already gotten a statement from Monica and I spoke to Zandra in hospital. She all but admitted that the overdose was deliberate, but I thought it best to speak to everyone involved."

Nikki sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bunk, fumbling with her pack of smokes then lighting up. She took a long drag and exhaled before answering, "I'm sure it was intentional. A long-term drug user like her would know how much to use, and Monica said she was upset earlier about her boyfriend. I really don't know anything else so I'm not the best person to ask."

Helen nodded slowly and replied quietly, "That's my conclusion as well. Anyway, thank you for your input."

She moved to get up but stopped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. "Is that really all you wanted to talk about?"

The small Scot turned her body to face the lifer, so they were knee to knee, and her hazel gaze moved to study the darker woman. Her throat closed up when she tried to speak, ready to dismiss the question and leave, but something in those concerned brown eyes caused her to pause and rethink her answer.


The words died on her lips and she shook her head slowly, unable to form a coherent response as she was swept into the trance of warm brown pools of liquid chocolate. Before she could blink, slender fingers were sliding through her hair and around to the back of her neck, and soft lips were pressed against her own. Her eyes shut of their own volition and a small moan escaped the back of her throat.

Gentle pressure melted her initial resistance and she found herself leaning in closer, parting her lips and allowing Nikki's tongue entrance to her mouth. Her restless fingers flitted over the con's shoulders and up to tangle in the raven curls at the base of her neck. Lips and tongues explored gently but eagerly as they reconnected, and the fierce mountain of emotions that ripped through her brought the Scot to tears.

She withdrew with a shuddery gasp as salty rivulets streaked down her cheeks. Nikki realised that Helen was crying and gently brushed away the tears with the pads of her thumbs.

"Darling, what's wrong? Talk to me."

She knew logically that she shouldn't have done that, but she couldn't find it in her to regret it, or to apologise. The intensity of the kiss only confirmed what she'd already suspected: they both still felt it.

Helen stood suddenly, on shaky legs, and backed away from the bed. "I can't… Nikki… it's too much. I can't do this again."

Nikki stared at her with such vulnerable helplessness that Helen felt like her heart was being ripped out of her chest. She covered her mouth with a small whimper and fled from the cell, leaving a confused, emotionally broken woman behind.

Nikki grabbed her book and threw it angrily across the room, barely holding in the scream she felt rising in the back of her throat. She leaned back on her bunk and hugged herself tightly as silent tears coursed down her face. Everything good in her life always turned to shit and everyone she loved always left her. When would this vicious cycle be broken? Would it ever?


Chapter 6

The weekend dragged by at a snail's pace and Helen couldn't get Nikki off her mind, no matter what she did to try and distract herself. The feel of their lips touching was burned into her memory and it sent shivers down her spine, lighting a fire inside her that was difficult to extinguish.

She made a point to sleep with Sean in an effort to erase the feel of Nikki's skin from hers, but when she closed her eyes all she could see was the dark-haired con and her sexy smirk. All she could hear was that husky voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear, and every time she imagined it she got an all-too-familiar ache between her thighs.

It was getting to the point where she couldn't achieve sexual satisfaction unless she imagined that it was Nikki touching her. She felt insurmountable guilt for using and deceiving Sean that way, but she was without an alternative solution as she wasn't ready to face her feelings yet. She certainly wasn't ready to break off her relationship on a whim, however deep-seeded it was in her previously dormant emotions.

Nikki faced a similar problem in the days between the kiss and when Helen returned to Larkhall. For two days she practically couldn't function from the thoughts running rampant in her head. Touching Helen in any capacity was sheer bliss and it had reawakened a part of her that had been sleeping for so long, forced into her own personal Pandora's box by the instinct of self-preservation.

Now she had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, because her feelings had barged out and smacked her right in the face, and they were refusing to retreat. They'd set up camp in the forefront of her thoughts and whenever she shut her eyes she was faced with that dazzling smile, and those glimmering green eyes dancing with remembered mischief and desire.

Slowly bitterness crept up inside her and consumed her like a plague, because she wanted nothing more than to forget. If she couldn't have Helen then she didn't want to be haunted by the memory of her. It seemed neither was an option at the moment, so her ire built until she was nearly at boiling point.

On Monday morning Nikki spotted Rachel sitting alone on a bench in the garden, and the younger girl looked decidedly distressed and worse for the wear. She approached with a worried frown and sat down beside her, already having sussed out what the problem was likely to be.

"All right, Rachel? Thought I'd warned you about Fenner."

The girl flicked a quick glance at her then replied sullenly, "Look, I don't wanna talk about it."

Nikki decided to stick it out and try to appeal to her common sense, if she had any, "Listen, the man's a pig. He's got a wife you know, and children."

This seemed to cause a slight stir of discomfort, but the strawberry blonde clearly wasn't absorbing the enormity of the situation.

"It's none of your business," she insisted.

Nikki wasn't giving up that easily and tried a different tack, "I don't care what he's told you, but once your time's up in here, that'll be it. If he don't get sick of you sooner."

At this point Rachel looked at her squarely and actually tried to defend the prick, "Look, Mr. Fenner's done a lot for me. He talks to me like a human being for a start, unlike most people in 'ere."

Nikki sighed and tried again to reason with her, "Face it Rachel, all you are is his bit on the inside, 'cause in here he can control you and do what he wants. As long as you play ball there's no comebacks."

Again, no sign of understanding or impact. "Yeah whatever."

Realising that she could sit there all day and lecture the girl, and still not make a dent, she decided it wasn't worth her time. If she didn't want to know then there was nothing more she could do.

"Christ, Rachel, you know you're not the only one in here." With a shake of her head she got up and muttered, "Shit, it's your life."

At lunch the inevitable happened as Nikki turned to sit down with her tray and bumped straight into someone. "Watch what you…" she trailed off as she realised that someone was Helen.

It was nearly impossible to avoid her completely within the confines of the prison, but quite literally running into her wasn't something she'd been counting on.

"Sorry," she mumbled in apology, not wanting to cause a scene in the middle of the cafeteria.

"No, my fault." The Scot offered her a forced smile and then glanced down at the book on her tray. "Oh, you finished Middlemarch."

Nikki was quickly growing impatient with standing there like an idiot and being forced into an awkwardly polite conversation, so she got right to the point. "Something you want, Miss?"

Helen faltered, taken aback by Nikki's brisk tone, and then responded evenly, "No, I don't think so."

The taller woman offered a mocking half-smile and said, "Then if you don't mind, I'm hungry." She brushed past the wing governor and moved to take a seat at the furthest table she could get.

Fenner witnessed the exchange and obviously felt the need to add his two cents. "Oi! Let's have some respect. That's no way to speak to your Governor."

Nikki glanced up from her tray and awarded him a death glare before concentrating back on her unappetising meal. Jim turned to Helen and commented smugly, "Respect. Doesn't know the meaning of the word. Right hard case if you ask me."

Helen arched a brow as if to say, 'Oh really?' and then asked, "A hard case?"

He waved a hand and clarified, "Ah, you know, just difficult for difficult's sake."

Her irritation was barely concealed at this point as she cut off any further discussion of the matter, "Jim, I don't need a bodyguard. I can handle the prisoners myself, thank you."

She walked away before he could say anything else and she retreated to the solitude of her office. Her clash with the dark-haired lifer had jolted her and reminded her of everything she was gallantly striving to ignore.

Later that afternoon she'd run out of paperwork to polish and could no longer stand to stay ensconced in her office. She'd ruminated for hours over her options and she'd concluded that it was best to face the issue head-on.

When she arrived at Nikki's cell, however, she found that her preconceived conversational strategy had abandoned her. To avoid a stilted and clumsy display at fumbling for intelligent speech, she blurted out the first thing that came to her mind, "More George Eliot… it's good to see the women using the library."

Nikki was clearly unimpressed by this observation and retorted indignantly, "People in here aren't stupid you know. They're a lot brighter than your screws anyway."

Helen felt an inexplicable need to defend herself and her inferiors, even though she wasn't the one directly under verbal attack. Perhaps it was the reprimanding tone of voice the lifer had used that had made her feel so inadequate.

"My officers are trained professionals."

Nikki smirked and astutely quipped, "Well if Fenner's anything to go by, you'd be better off training chimpanzees."

That brought a smile to Helen's face as her natural penchant for disliking Jim flared in agreement. Recalling his earlier words in the cafeteria, she stepped further into the cell and couldn't resist teasing Nikki a bit, "He reckons you're a tough nut. Difficult for difficult's sake he says."

The sable-haired woman regarded her with raised brows and replied with a hint of ill-disguised abhorrence, "Yeah, well, I'm not in his fan club am I?"

Helen's forehead crinkled in bafflement as she queried, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Nikki focused back on her book and answered unhelpfully, "You work it out for yourself."

Helen had an inkling that something severely unsavoury was happening right under her nose, and she was determined to get to the bottom of it.

"If Mr. Fenner's conduct is less than professional you better tell me, Nikki."

Her tone brooked no argument, but Nikki seemed content to wind her into a right tizzy at the moment. She had her nose buried in her book and offered no reply.


The con looked at her with barely concealed amusement and asked sardonically, "Yes, Miss?"

The Scot's jaw clenched visibly and her eyes sparkled deeper green with growing irritation.

"Nikki… tell me what the hell is going on."

The lifer sighed and implored her to understand, "Look, I'm nobody's nark. Even if I wanted to tell you half of what goes on in here, doing so would be an open invitation to get myself maimed. Personally, I don't fancy the idea of suffering grievous bodily harm for being a grass."

Regretful brown eyes fixed on the wing governor and she found herself apologising, even though she hadn't done anything wrong, at least in the strictest sense.

"I'm sorry, Helen. Just… keep an eye on him. I have full confidence that you can figure it out."

The smaller woman's expression softened and she released a quiet sigh of acceptance.

"Okay, Nikki. I better go. I'll see you around."

Nikki nodded silently and watched the woman leave, and for the millionth time in not so many days she found her desolate heart aching.

It was a week before Helen felt comfortable letting Zandra out of segregation. In the times she'd been to visit the recovering junkie, the blonde had repeatedly begged her to allow a wedding for her and her boyfriend Robin. Helen had placated the woman by agreeing to set up a meeting in which they would discuss it.

During the meeting she stipulated that Zandra join the detox unit on the wing, and if she succeeded in staying off of drugs then she would consider putting in a good word to the Number One to okay the wedding.

Another wrench was thrown in the works when Crystal Gordon, an extremely religious repeat shoplifter, came onto the wing. The induction meeting was something of a shock to the wing governor as Crystal was a bit... eccentric.

She had extreme concerns about the drug problem on G-Wing, and while Helen had tried to address the issue and assure her that she was doing all she could to minimise the presence of narcotics, the con insisted on calling the prison a circus, stating that she and the guards were the clowns. Needless to say it wasn't a favourable first impression.

Jim and Sylvia continued to give her a hard time whenever she asked for reports, and she couldn't fathom why they were fighting her tooth and nail to fulfill the simple duties that were part of their job description. She was getting sick to the back teeth of lazy, negligent officers but the place was awash with them.

The only saving grace was that Dominic seemed eager to please and got on with his work without a fuss. He tended to back her up in wing meetings and she found his support to be a great comfort. Lorna wasn't as wet behind the ears, but she didn't cause a negative stir either, for which Helen was grateful.

When the weekend arrived she was mentally exhausted and looking forward to the time off, even though it meant being stuck in her flat with Sean when he wasn't off tending to his plants. Their relationship had become increasingly tense since she'd started her new job, and she knew a good deal of it was her doing. Try as she might, she couldn't prevent an emotional wall from erecting itself in his presence.

She was intrinsically aware that it had everything to do with what she felt for Nikki, but she stubbornly refused to do anything to rectify the situation. Acting on her feelings, one way or the other, would mean acknowledging that they existed. That would shatter her carefully constructed system of denial.

Friday night found Helen able to relax alone with a bottle of wine as she sorted through excess paperwork that she'd brought home; Sean was off on some gardening venture and he wouldn't be back until the middle of the morning. By the time he got in she was already fast asleep and he didn't bother to wake her, which was a small miracle for him as she would've been temperamental and argumentative if he had.

Saturday morning she had a lie-in and then a long shower to wash away the stress of the previous week, but she noticed that Sean was behaving in a strained and dodgy manner.

When she questioned him over breakfast he got the strangest look on his face and then asked without preamble, "Who's Nikki?"

She paused in the middle of buttering her toast and stared at him with a deer-caught-in-headlights expression.

"What?" she sputtered, and then tried her best to appear calm and collected.

Had she mentioned Nikki in some discussion she'd had about work? She couldn't remember saying anything about her, as she'd kept a very tight lid on the subject.

He set down his fork and reached for his glass of orange juice as he explained, "You talk in your sleep, Helen. You were calling out "Nikki" last night and from the sound of it, it was a very interesting dream."

Her cheeks immediately flushed with embarrassment and shame, and she struggled to recall what she'd been dreaming about, but her memory was totally uncooperative. The one time she needed to recall an important fact about the lifer, she inconveniently couldn't, and yet her subconscious insisted on repeatedly playing the devil on her shoulder when she least expected it.

She buried her face in her hands and sighed heavily, racking her brain for a reasonable explanation. How could she possibly begin to tell him the truth? She heard the scraping sound of metal on ceramic and she knew he'd resumed eating his eggs, giving her another few precious moments to come up with an excuse. Unfortunately, she was drawing a blank.


She looked up over her fingers, her cheeks still flaming pink, and she did a great impression of a fish out of water as she searched for words.

He arched a brow impatiently and she mumbled, "She's someone I met during university."

It wasn't a complete lie, but it also wasn't the complete truth.

The look on his face said it all, so she wasn't surprised when he asked with disbelief, "She? Helen... is there something you've not been telling me?"

She fiddled with her glass of juice and took the opportunity to clear her throat, speaking a little more clearly as she answered, "Yes, Sean, she... I met her ten years ago and we have a bit of... history."

He nearly dropped his fork at her confession and he stared at her in stunned silence. Finally he shook his head and asked, "So... have you run into her or something? I mean, why would you start dreaming about her now if it's been ten years?"

She pinched the bridge of her nose as she felt the beginnings of a headache coming on, and she quietly implored, "Can we not talk about this right now? I just want to have a quiet, stress-free day off work and the situation with Nikki is... complicated."

He frowned, obviously not content with her answer, and pushed for more information, "No, I need to know Helen... do you have feelings for this woman? Are you seeing her?"

She stood abruptly from the table and moved to take her plate to the sink. Her movements were jerky and her tone was short as she replied, "No, Sean, I'm not seeing anyone but you. I've had enough of this conversation now."

She soon realised that he didn't want to let the matter drop and that staying in the flat wouldn't be conducive to the relaxation she craved, so she grabbed her purse and car keys and headed out for a few hours, telling him she would be back later and they could order take-out and spend some time together.

While she was gone his curiosity got the better of him and he took to looking through her work files, hoping for some kind of hint as to who this woman was. He knew that Helen didn't have any time for socialising these days, so if she had contact with this woman it had to be through the prison service. Normally he would never invade her privacy without her permission, but the fact that she seemed so unwilling to discuss the matter was unnerving him.

When he came across a file containing a stack of handwritten notes and reports, the name Nikki Wade jumped off the page and he began to read. It seemed familiar for some reason, though he couldn't immediately place it, and as he scanned the words written in Helen's neat scrawl, realisation dawned and he swore loudly.

Nikki Wade, or rather Nicola Wade, was a prisoner at Larkhall serving a life sentence for the murder of a police officer two years prior. It didn't take much to jog his memory and he recalled with vivid clarity the day her case had been broadcast on the news. It had been a very high-profile case but that wasn't why it stuck out in his mind.

He remembered hearing a crash in the kitchen and running in to find Helen standing there with an expression like she'd seen a ghost, her tea mug shattered across the kitchen floor. She'd refused to tell him what was wrong, but now he understood all too well and the knowledge twisted his stomach in knots. Now he had to decide whether or not to confront Helen with his discovery.

He was more than a little confused by this revelation and he was hurt that she hadn't confided in him. Whatever their history was, it must be pretty serious, and he couldn't say he was at all comfortable with her being in such close contact with this woman again. Besides the fact that she was a convicted felon, there were obviously some unresolved feelings between them, and her secrecy only lent credence to his belief that it was a threat to their relationship.

For all of her faults, he loved Helen dearly and he wasn't ready to give her up to some con. He would just have to get her to talk everything through with him, and then he could help her cope in whatever way she needed. He glanced at the clock above the fireplace and surmised that it would still be several hours until the Scot returned; her earlier mood indicated that she was in need of alone time and he wouldn't encroach upon that by calling her and asking her to come home. It was best if they discussed this when they were both feeling calm and reasonable.

He rearranged her files neatly as she'd had them on the coffee table, and then he went to change into a faded pair of jeans and one of his gardening shirts. He would have to take his frustration out on the weeds in the backyard while he waited for her.

In the meantime, Helen had driven to a small coffee shop near Covent Garden and sat down to enjoy a cappuccino. The familiar scenery was soothing and the constant mill of people didn't bother her. Instead it made her problems seem less significant, as it gave her the opportunity to indulge in one of her favourite pastimes: tourist watching.

It was easy to distinguish between the locals and the avid vacationers. The way most of them dressed was an obvious sign, and she found some of their outfits and outlandish behaviour extremely amusing. When she'd finished her caffeine consumption she took a long, lazy stroll through the streets, allowing the sights, sounds, and smells of bustling London to invade her senses and bring her to a state of peace.

Helen turned up at her flat in time for a late lunch, clutching a large brown paper bag full of Chinese take-out. She hadn't bothered to pick up any wine as she kept a large supply of it on hand in the house. She dropped her keys on the table just inside the door and then made her way through to the kitchen.

She set the food on the counter and called out, "Sean?"

When he didn't answer right away she peered through the kitchen window to the backyard, and a smile tugged at her lips as she spied him covered in dirt and fighting a losing battle with the weeds in the hedges. She poked her head out the back door and managed to get his attention, announcing that she would have a plate ready for him by the time he got cleaned up.

Much to her surprise, he dropped a kiss on her cheek before going to get showered. She made up a plate for each of them and opened a fresh bottle of red wine, taking everything to the living room so they could relax on the lounge. She started up the fireplace and picked out a soothing classical CD, unwilling to let go of the inner serenity she'd managed to find.

Sean made an appearance ten minutes later, freshly showered and dressed in clean clothes, and he sat beside her with a smile. "How was your day out?"

She was surprised at how warm he was being considering her attitude toward him earlier, but she wasn't in the mood for another fight so she readily accepted it.

"It was very pleasant, actually. I grabbed a coffee in town then took a walk through Covent Garden. It's been a while since I visited and I'd forgotten how much I like it there."

He smiled at her again and dug into his food, seemingly content to eat in silence for the time being. She snuck glances at him as she ate, wondering if he had some ulterior motive with his disarmingly casual demeanour. She knew Sean well enough to know that he didn't usually let things go when he wanted answers.

The more she thought about it, the more she suspected that this was his way of getting her guard down so he could get the truth out of her. She shifted uncomfortably as she finished off her food and poured herself a large glass of wine.

She leaned back into the fluffy sofa cushions as she sipped at the blood red liquid, closing her eyes and letting the gentle thrum of the music ensnare her, and just when she was almost convinced he wasn't going to reopen the subject he dropped the bomb.

"I know who Nicola Wade is."

Her eyes snapped open and she bolted upright, nearly spilling her drink in the process. She set the glass on the coffee table and pursed her lips, unsure where to start now that the subject had been broached.

Deciding to get the simplest question out of the way first, she looked over at him and asked, "How did you figure it out?"

She got the feeling that she wasn't going to like his answer and she was right.

"I looked through your work files."

It wasn't what she'd been expecting, but it was enough to send her flying off the handle. "You what?!? Sean... I don't go through your personal things. You had no right!"

He looked like a little boy who'd just been caught with his hand in the biscuit jar as he tried to mollify her.

"Hels, you know I'd normally never look through your things, but I was really worried about you, and about us. I just wanted some answers and you weren't willing to talk about it. I'm sorry if you feel like I've betrayed your trust. I just want you to talk to me."

She rose from the sofa and began to pace in front of the fireplace, running a hand through her short brown hair as she tried to allay her anger and behave reasonably.

Finally she came to a halt and asked in a resigned voice, "What do you want to know exactly?"

She moved to sit back down and clasped her hands in her lap, staring intently at the floor as she waited for the onslaught of questions. An hour later she'd relayed most of the story about how she'd met Nikki and in what capacity they'd been involved, leaving off the bit about why their passionate love affair had suddenly come to an end.

She preferred to let him believe it was because she'd had to return to school and she hadn't been comfortable with carrying on a long-distance relationship. There was no need for him to know how damaged she really was. By the end of her story he was shaking his head and rubbing his hands over his face.

"Jesus, Helen, I can't believe you never told me any of this. We've been together for nearly three years now. Why keep all of this a secret?"

She swallowed around the lump forming in her throat as she considered the real reason she hadn't told him, but her answer was a far step to the left of the truth.

"It never really seemed important. It was a long time ago and until I started working at Larkhall I hadn't seen or heard from Nikki in ten years. I didn't see any reason to dredge up the past."

He accepted her answer at face value and moved on to his next question, which was clearly the pièce de résistance that he'd been dying to ask since they'd sat down.

"Now that you're seeing her again on a daily basis, is there any temptation to relive the past? Was it just a phase, Helen, or were you in love with her?"

Until that morning he'd never been aware that his girlfriend had even been remotely interested in women, let alone that she'd previously had a relationship with one. The startling possibility that she could be in love with a woman was wreaking havoc on his nerves.

She took a deep breath as she considered how to answer his questions, and how much of the truth she should reveal. As she studied his face she recognised a mixture of curiosity, apprehension, and hurt evident in his expression, and she knew in that moment that she could no longer keep up the charade. It wasn't fair to either of them.

He'd always treated her with love and respect, and to continue to lie to him would be a greater betrayal than having feelings for someone else and being honest about it.

"Sean... I was in love with her."

She swallowed hard and added in a much quieter voice, "I think I still am to be honest."

He let out a breath he hadn't realised he was holding and his shoulders slumped in defeat. There was a pregnant pause and then he stood and announced, "I need some fresh air and some time to process this. I'll be back in a few hours."

He grabbed his coat from the hook by the door and left the flat, leaving Helen alone in the living room with her turbulent thoughts. Now she'd finally admitted the truth, but where did that leave her?


Chapter 7

It was nearly three hours later that Sean returned, and in that time Helen was well on her way to getting pissed. It was clear by the way he staggered in the door that he'd also been drinking, so the night was sure to be more interesting than either of them could have predicted that morning. She was still lounging on the sofa when he walked in, nearly finished with her second bottle of wine. She set it down on the table and studied him with a slightly glassy gaze as he sunk down beside her, the cushions threatening to swallow him whole.

He let out a long sigh and slurred, "I was going to ask you to marry me."

He turned his puppy dog gaze on her and asked despondently, "Will you marry me, Helen? Do you still love me?"

Her expression was entirely sympathetic as she stared at him, mentally weighing her options. Her alcohol-addled brain was slower to process things and it took her twice as long to formulate a coherent response.

No matter how she tried the scenario on for size, it came up wanting every time. She tried to picture herself married to Sean with little mini-Seans running around, but her heart lurched in protest and her inebriated, emboldened inner voice told her that if she was going to have children someday they should have soft black curls and soppy brown eyes.

The thought brought a dreamy smile to her face and Sean mistook it as a positive response to his proposal. He leaned over to try and place a sloppy kiss on her lips, but she turned her face at the last second when she realised what he was doing.

"No, Sean... I can't marry you. I'm sorry. I do love you, but I'm not in love with you."

She never would've been able to say those words so plainly without a bit of liquid courage, but the relief she experienced after she uttered them made her feel like she could fly, but perhaps that was the copious amount of wine talking. He collapsed in defeat and his head lolled onto her shoulder.

A childish pout distorted his face and he murmured in a whiny, broken voice, "Why don't you love me anymore, Helen?"

It was obvious he'd had even more to drink than she had, and he couldn't seem to get his mind around what she'd told him. She tried to think of a way to make him understand without completely crushing him, but nothing was coming to mind. She'd already laid the facts bare but she got the feeling that they would be repeating this conversation the next day, when they were both sober and in their right minds.

She threaded her fingers through his hair and swept it off his forehead in a gentle repetitive motion, trying to ease the pain she'd caused him. This was all her fault. If he'd never met her or gotten involved with her, then he wouldn't be slumped against her on the verge of tears. He resembled a child more than a grown man right now, and it killed her to know she was the reason for his suffering.

She eventually managed to calm him down and coax him into sleeping on the sofa. She covered him with a blanket then turned out the lights, fumbling her way toward the bedroom where she collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.

She was too tired to think properly and still a bit too intoxicated to fully grasp the enormity of what she'd done. She slipped into an easy sleep, the calm before the storm, and she didn't waste her energy worrying about what she'd have to face in the light of day.

It was agreed the following afternoon that Sean could continue living with her until he'd sorted out a place of his own, but he would be staying in the guest room from that point on. Though bitter with a side of resentful, he didn't argue with her or try to change her mind.

When he took a step back and peered through the proverbial looking glass, it was clear to him that Helen wasn't his, and maybe she never had been. Perhaps he was just the poor sod who was lucky enough to have her company for a short while, always destined to lose her in the end.

When Helen left for work on Monday morning, it was with a newfound clarity and peace of mind that she hadn't felt in years. It was like leaving a polluted city to breathe in the fresh air of the countryside.

Her heart jumped in her chest when she walked onto the wing and spotted Nikki in the breakfast queue, but she didn't approach the dark-haired inmate. Things were still very much up in the air between them, and she knew she had to get everything permanently settled with Sean before she even entertained the idea of having anything with Nikki, if the con even still wanted her.

She was a complicated piece of work and she wouldn't blame the other woman if she turned tail and ran as fast as she could in the opposite direction. She stayed confined to her office for most of the day, catching up on paperwork and making various phone calls. She escaped her desk in the afternoon and made the trek to the visiting room, deciding to pop in and see if things were running smoothly.

The sight that greeted her was Nikki being tightly embraced by a gorgeous blonde, and that stopped Helen dead in her tracks. They looked very cosy and familiar with each other, so there was little doubt as to the nature of their relationship. Suddenly the prospect of overseeing the visiting session didn't seem so appealing and the Scot made a hasty retreat.

She didn't want to stick around long enough to witness them playing tonsil hockey. At least now she knew what she was up against, and she also knew she didn't stand a chance in hell. The only thing she couldn't figure out was why Nikki hadn't mentioned that she was seeing someone. If she was otherwise involved, then she'd had no business kissing her the other week.

Was it all just a game to her? The Nikki she thought she knew would never play with someone's emotions, but maybe ten years had changed her more than Helen had realised. She desperately wanted to believe that wasn't the case.

It was just past lock-up when Helen finally worked up the nerve to confront Nikki. She'd spent the better part of the afternoon and evening contemplating their situation and she couldn't take the uncertainty of it anymore. She needed answers either way, if not for the sake of happiness then for the sake of her sanity.

She slipped past the night patrol guard, who only had eyes for the magazine he was reading instead of the security monitors, and she discreetly made her way onto the G2 landing and stopped outside Nikki's cell. She hesitated with her fist raised to knock, and then she cursed herself for not just getting it over with.

She rapped on the steel softly, trying not to alert the entire wing to her personal business. She was well aware that the prisoners loved fodder for the gossip chain. It wouldn't matter what actually happened in the cell if she was known to be going in it alone after dark.

She heard movement on the other side of the door and whispered, "Nikki... I need to talk to you. Can I come in for a minute?"

There was a moment of silence and then a soft whisper answered back, "Sure, Helen."

She glanced surreptitiously around her once more, making sure there were no POs patrolling the landing that would be privy to her comings and goings, and then she slid her key into the lock and gave it a firm twist. The thick door yielded under her fingertips and she slipped inside quietly, gently pushing it closed behind her.

Nikki was sitting on the edge of her bed with a lit cigarette in one hand and an ashtray in the other. Helen was aware of the darker woman's gaze fixed upon her as she strode over to the window and stared out of it, her arms wrapped protectively around her midsection.

Neither of them broke the silence for several minutes, until finally Helen turned and asked bluntly, but not in a hostile tone, "Why didn't you tell me you were seeing someone? I stopped by the visiting room earlier and saw a blonde woman with you. She's your girlfriend, isn't she?"

Nikki's face reflected her surprise, but if she was upset by the question she didn't show it. She exhaled slowly, a plume of smoke released through her nose, and then she answered firmly, "Was... she was my girlfriend. Trisha and I have split up."

Helen rubbed her arms and fidgeted, a nervous habit, and glanced around the darkened cell, illuminated only by the faint light of the moon sliding in through the bars. "Why? What happened?"

Nikki's eyes pierced through Helen's external façade, laying her bare and vulnerable to scrutiny, as she said slowly and earnestly, as though savouring the taste of the words on her tongue, "I told her that I'm in love with you, and she said she already knew."

She paused to let the information sink in and then she continued, "We've agreed to try and be friends, though I'm not sure if that's going to work very well."

Helen marvelled at how furiously her heart was beating and she wondered if Nikki could hear it, because the thrum of it in her ears was overwhelming, but not half as much as the taller woman's words. They were a collective knife that shredded through the last vestibule of self-control and hesitation to which she'd been clinging.

She crossed the small space in two strides and took Nikki's face in her hands. Before either of them could question what she was doing, she closed the last few inches of separation and planted a firm but undemanding kiss on the lifer's lips. It was chaste but passionate, strong but gentle, a study in contradictions.

When she pulled back her eyes glinted in the moonlight with unbridled joy, and she could read the awe and wonder on Nikki's face like the pages of a large-print book. She brushed her thumbs softly over the darker woman's cheekbones and awarded her with a reassuring smile, saying without words that she'd finally decided what she wanted and she wasn't changing her mind.

After running scared for the better part of a decade she was coming out of hibernation to face the world, and the only thing that gave her the strength and hope to do so was the knowledge that Nikki would be there for her. That wasn't to say she expected an easy journey. She was sure she would stumble and fall a few times along the way, but real happiness was something that had to be worked at.

She sat down on the bed beside Nikki and broke the moment of reflection by saying, "I suppose if it's the time for confessions I should tell you that I was recently seeing someone, a man named Sean. We've been living together for about two years now, dating for three, and we split up this weekend after I told him about you. He asked me to marry him and I said I couldn't do it because I'm not in love with him."

Nikki was dumbfounded as she tried to soak up this latest bit of information. Suddenly a grin split her face and she couldn't stop the laughter that bubbled up.

"If that isn't irony, then I don't know what is."

Her mirth was contagious and soon Helen was chuckling along with her. She stopped suddenly and a loopy, happy expression dominated her face. Nikki stopped and studied her with quiet curiosity, wondering if she would share what she was thinking.

As if reading the lifer's mind, she reached up to brush her fingertips down the side of Nikki's face, and she whispered reverently, "I was just thinking about how happy I am right now, here with you, and how beautiful you are when you smile, and how I love you even more when you laugh."

Nikki's eyes misted over with emotion and she didn't bother to hide it. Helen kissed her softly and murmured against her lips, "It's okay, sweetheart, I'm here. I've made my choice and I'm not going to walk away from you again."

Tears slipped from under Nikki's closed eyelids and she pressed her forehead against Helen's, drawing in a shaky breath and whispering, "I can't believe I've finally got you, after all this time."

Their lips and tongues sought each other as fingers wove through silky strands of hair. Their bodies pressed closer and an inferno of heat swelled between them, no stranger to the passion they could ignite when joined together, but they both knew the moment couldn't last, at least not in this time or place. Helen was the one to withdraw first as reality reasserted itself in her conscious mind.

She brushed her thumb over Nikki's lower lip and said apologetically, "I'm sorry, sweetheart, but I've gotta go. If I were to get caught in here..."

She didn't have to finish her thought because they both knew what would happen, and it would mean that they wouldn't be able to see each other for a very long time. Nikki nodded her understanding and left a chaste kiss on the Scot's forehead before the smaller woman stood and moved towards the door.

She spared a brief, longing glance at the woman on the bed before exiting as stealthily as she could. Luckily the guard was still entranced in his magazine - probably a trashy porno edition - when she made her way through the gate and exited the halls of G-Wing. It was a stroke of sheer luck and she made a mental note to be much more careful and meticulous in her planning in the future.

Uninhibited bliss was, unfortunately, short-lived and nigh impossible when hindered by the gloomy surroundings and oppressive regulations of prison. Their romance may have rekindled within the walls of Larkhall, but it certainly wasn't a nurturing environment for it to thrive and flourish. They had limited time alone together and discretion was of the utmost importance. If Helen was found out she would be sacked, and if Nikki was found out she might get the shit kicked out of her by the other inmates.

The paranoia of being caught was a better mood-killer than a bucket of ice water, and it was slowly driving them both insane. Only a week into their new relationship Nikki already wanted to pull her hair out by the roots. The smell of Helen's perfume tended to linger on her shirt after every kiss they shared, and it was making her completely mad not being able to touch the small Scot the way she wanted.

Fate had a crude, grotesque sense of humour when it brought about Rachel's suicide to complement all of the other problems happening on the wing. Nikki felt personally devastated by the young girl's untimely demise, because she'd tried and failed to be helpful and she felt guilty that she hadn't done more. The 'what ifs' and 'maybes' were piling up inside her until she felt ready to snap. Shell's tasteless joke at breakfast was the final straw that pushed her over the edge.

She leaped over the servery counter in one fluid motion and attacked the blonde tart, screaming, "You sick bitch!"

She was making good progress on strangling her to unconsciousness when she was roughly hauled away by a prison officer. She kicked and screamed in protest, to no avail, as she was dragged down to the block, but in all honesty she didn't care where was going. All she wanted to do was go back and beat Dockley black and blue, because she had a gut feeling that the tramp had more than likely been part of the reason Rachel killed herself. She and Denny were always picking on the poor girl and it was no secret amongst the inmates that Shell had been jealous of Rachel and Fenner.

Helen proved to be Nikki's saviour, once again, when she pulled her from the block and demanded an explanation for her behaviour. Nikki reluctantly relayed the cause for her attack and in light of the circumstances Helen only gave her a warning. The lifer knew that the Scot couldn't risk giving her unfair advantages or treating her differently than the other prisoners, lest they rouse suspicion, so she was sufficiently surprised when she wasn't given more of a punishment.

She left the office in a daze and was escorted back onto the wing, where her presence quickly wiped the smug look off Shell's face. She had a full-blown temper tantrum as Nikki bypassed her and headed back toward her cell. She could hear her screaming at Fenner all the way across G2.


Chapter 8

Flashback, 10 Years Prior, Night Two

It was just after 9pm and Nikki was entertaining a cluster of eager university students with her impressive drink mixing skills. Her hands flew with practised ease as she whipped up several complicated concoctions, spinning bottles and filling glasses in a showy fashion. She earned a round of applause and several tips from the patrons at the bar. She turned to dig out a bottle of beer from the icebox and when she turned back, Helen was standing there wearing a friendly smile and a jaw-dropping little black dress.

It stopped mid-thigh with a split up one side, almost to her hipbone, and the thin straps and plunging neckline offered a provocative view of ample cleavage. Nikki swallowed hard and forcibly moved her eyes north to more appropriate territory. She saw Helen's smile turn into a knowing smirk and she knew she'd been caught. She gulped again and thought frantically to herself, 'Shit. Is she doing this on purpose? Does she know what she's doing to me dressed like that?'

She mindlessly passed the bottle of beer to the customer who'd ordered it and then her attention fixed back on the small Scot who'd rattled her composure. She smiled and said playfully, "Fancy seeing you here again. What can I get for you, darling?"

Helen's eyes twinkled in the low lighting as she leaned forward slightly against the bar, giving Nikki an even better look at her twins, and she answered huskily, "I'll have a Sloe Comfortable Screw."

Nikki's eyes darkened perceptibly and her jaw slacked a bit as she thought, 'Jesus Christ.'

Helen licked her lips and grinned, seemingly unable to stop herself from flirting, even though she knew she shouldn't be leading this woman on. Inwardly she questioned what the hell she was playing at, but this dark-haired almost-stranger was so alluring and she was actually having fun. The opportunity was too tempting to pass up.

Nikki nodded wordlessly and set about making the drink that consisted of Sloe gin, Southern Comfort, and orange juice. Her hands shook a little as she tried desperately to ignore the throbbing between her legs. She couldn't understand how one small woman she barely knew could get her this worked up with a look and a few whispered words.

'Control yourself, Wade. You're not a teenager anymore and she's straight. She's just being playful.'

That's what she repeated to herself over and over as she slid the finished drink across the bar. She forced a smile onto her face and refrained from running her gaze over Helen's figure, as much as she wanted to, as she took the order of the next customer. Helen wandered off to join her friends and Nikki was so busy making drinks that she hardly had time to keep track of her. Nearly two hours passed before she caught sight of the Scot again.

She was sitting on one of the long cushioned benches near the bar, chatting and drinking merrily with her friends. Nikki observed her between pouring shots and felt a sharp stab of jealousy when the blonde man from the previous night placed a hand on the inside of her knee. She turned away from the sight as he began to slide it further north, partly to avoid being caught glaring and partly to prevent herself from going over and punching his lights out.

She knew she was being completely irrational and that she had no claim on Helen whatsoever. He was probably her boyfriend, and if that was the case then she really couldn't go making a scene about it. She was so wrapped up in her haze of jealous thoughts that she missed Helen removing his hand and giving him a smack to the face. She stalked moodily to the other end of the bar counter and asked Brandy to cover for her so she could use the restroom.

She splashed water on her face and ran her hands through her short black hair, mussing it and causing it to stand on end. She dried her cheeks with a paper towel and tried to tame the dishevelled locks framing her face. The bathroom door opened behind her and brown eyes met green in the mirror above the sink. She froze and unknowingly held her breath as Helen walked closer to her with a smile.

"Hiya, Nikki."

Nikki tossed the balled-up paper towel in the waste bin and faced the small Scot with a pained smile.

"Hi, Helen."

She ran her hand nervously through her hair, messing it up once again, and for lack of anything intelligent to say she mumbled, "Looked like you were having a good time out there. Didn't want to bother you."

Helen tilted her head and studied her for a moment, before pursing her lips and replying, "If being felt up constitutes a good time then I've been having a blast, but I don't think Michael would agree. He's got a pretty pink handprint on his left cheek now."

Nikki must have looked as stunned as she felt, because suddenly Helen was giggling and pointing at her face. The darker woman's cheeks flushed with embarrassment and she ducked her head, not wanting to reveal exactly how relieved she felt with the outcome of the situation. Soft fingertips touching her forearm brought her gaze up from the tiled floor.

Helen stepped closer so that their bodies were almost touching and she teased quietly, "Don't tell me you were jealous."

Nikki's body was on fire from the gentle contact on her arm and the closeness of Helen's curves to her own. Arousal zinged across her nerve endings, creating goose bumps on her skin and a slow, burning, pulsing sensation between her legs. It seemed that she wasn't even in control of herself anymore, as she closed the distance between them and trapped Helen against the cool tiles of the bathroom wall.

She leaned in and whispered huskily into the Scot's ear, "Okay… I won't."

She stepped back quickly when the door opened and she smirked to herself as she took her leave to go back to the bar. She had drinks to make and an adorably flustered Scot to expel from her brain. Apparently that wasn't in the cards for her, because no sooner had she gotten back to the bar than said Scot showed up to order another drink.

She didn't say a word as she quickly made the Jolly Rancher and passed it over, but Helen caught her hand and tugged her torso over the bar top, getting her own revenge as she whispered into Nikki's ear, "Then I won't tell you I wanted you to be."

She released the bartender from her grasp and delivered a flirtatious wink before flouncing away with her drink in hand. The taller woman didn't have time to think about it for long as a large influx of customers provided plenty of distraction.

She got her half-hour break at eleven after Brandy returned from hers, and the first thing she did was to make herself a large glass of rum and Coke. She found a place to sit in a dimly lit corner and she sipped on her drink as her eyes scanned the crowded establishment. Spring Break was definitely good for business and she knew she'd be thankful for the bonus in her next pay packet.

Her perusal of the club was suddenly interrupted when a slender and obviously drunk blonde sat on her lap. She tried to lift the woman off of her, but she was doing a fantastic impression of an octopus as she tangled herself even tighter around Nikki. She felt even more helpless when a very miffed looking Helen marched over and raised a brow.

"I was going to ask you to dance, but I can see you're preoccupied."

The blonde on her lap stopped licking her neck long enough to slur, "Who's she?"

Nikki took advantage of the glassy-eyed woman's distraction and easily manoeuvred her onto the bench, freeing herself from her suffocating clutches. She stood quickly to discourage a repeat performance and grinned sheepishly at Helen, who was looking very unimpressed with the whole display.

"Um… I don't actually know her. She just came over and sat on me."

The blonde in question was now snoozing quietly on the cushions, and Nikki shrugged before adding, "I think she's had a little too much to drink."

Helen looked at the sleeping woman for a moment before she covered her mouth with her hand and started to giggle. "Well, Miss Wade, I'd say you have a gift for getting customers to flirt with you."

Nikki quirked a brow as a grin crossed her lips. She moved closer to Helen and asked, "And who else does my presence affect exactly? I'm sure you'd be able to tell me with your keen observational skills."

They were standing very close now and Helen could feel her temperature rising, her body reacting to Nikki's proximity in a way she wouldn't have expected just two days ago. Now it seemed to be a regular occurrence.

She smiled demurely and feigned ignorance, "I don't know. I'm sure there are plenty of women in here who want you."

Nikki smirked and her eyes appraised Helen from head to toe, taking her time to absorb every little detail and not bothering to disguise what she was doing.

"Hmm… I'm sure. But, if the offer still stands, I'd like to dance with you. It might keep the hordes of horny women off my back for a while."

They shared a little laugh at that and then navigated through the sea of people to the dance floor. Strobe lights bounced overhead and the steady thrum of the music vibrated through the floor. An electrifying, up-tempo beat was resonating from the large wall speakers as they began to move together.

Helen had her backside pressed to Nikki's front and she expertly gyrated her hips in time with the music, causing the woman behind her to close her eyes and inhale sharply, barely withholding the whimper rising in the back of her throat. The darker woman's long, slender fingers gripped the Scot's waist and stroked slow, sensual patterns over the soft fabric covering her abdomen.

Helen closed her eyes and allowed her head to loll back onto Nikki's shoulder as they continued to move as one, their bodies melding together with ease. She felt the gentle caress on her ribs and her nipples hardened instantly under her dress. Her lips parted and her breath hitched as those fingers swept lower to tease her hipbones. She couldn't prevent the pooling wetness in her thong or the soft moan that echoed against the side of Nikki's neck.

God how this woman affected her… She couldn't recall anyone that had ever aroused her this much with a simple dance, and certainly never a female. This was a night of firsts for her, but she was quickly learning not to expect anything normal when it came to Nikki Wade.

Sooner than either of them liked, Nikki had to break away and take up her position behind the bar. It was with forced, tense politeness that she served the blonde man, Michael – she remembered Helen calling him that, and his buddies when they ordered a pitcher of draught beer. It was all Nikki could do not to hop over the counter and pummel him when she caught a snippet of their conversation.

One of the guys clapped Michael on the shoulder and goaded him, "I saw you trying it on with Stewart earlier. Looks like you got put in the reject pile. Doesn't surprise me. She's a cold fish, mate. You're not going to get anything out of her."

Michael shrugged off the hand and replied confidently, "She just needs a bit of heating up. I'll have her in my bed by the end of the week, just you watch."

Nikki slammed the pitcher of beer down on the bar, startling the lads, and she offered them a sickly sweet false smile as they paid and left. Her bad mood hovered like a rain cloud for the rest of the evening, mirroring the relentless downpour outside the club.

Closing time arrived and Nikki was thoroughly relieved when the crowd of drunks dissipated and a semblance of peace and quiet descended on the club. She hurried through her list of tasks to tidy the bar and then she grabbed her umbrella and exited through the front. The thought of running into Helen again flickered briefly and was quickly dismissed.

That all changed when she spotted the dripping, shivering Scot leaning against the wall of the club. Nikki wondered momentarily if she'd been waiting for her, but she snapped back to her senses and quickly went over with her umbrella.

She smiled at the shorter woman and teased her, "This is becoming a regular thing. You're going to make yourself sick if you don't learn how to catch a taxi."

Helen swatted her arm with a playful glare and retorted, "Or maybe it'll be because I keep waiting on this gorgeous bartender I know."

The mood quickly shifted as Nikki realised there was a note of seriousness in their banter, and she cleared her throat to diffuse the growing tension. She tried to get the conversation back on a lighter foot as she said, "Well, I'll just let Brandy know you were looking for her then."

Helen smacked her arm again and laughed as she said, "Let's just get a taxi, yeah? I'll let you do it since I'm so incapable."

Nikki grinned and looped her free arm through Helen's in response, holding the umbrella over their heads with the other. She flagged a cab down on the same corner as the previous night and they climbed into the backseat together. Helen gave the driver the name of the hotel and then rested her head on Nikki's shoulder as they started off.

The off-duty bartender glanced down at the brunette leaning against her and an affectionate smile tugged at her mouth. Helen had closed her eyes, probably due equal parts to alcohol and exhaustion, and she'd snuggled in closer to the dark-haired woman.

Less than ten minutes later the car came to a stop and Nikki nudged the slumbering Scot into consciousness. Sleepy green eyes blinked up at her and her heart skipped while she struggled to catch her breath. It suddenly felt like all of the oxygen had been sucked out of the taxi. She slowly became aware of two things: first, Helen was holding her hand, and second, she was asking her if she wanted to come up for tea or coffee.

Overwhelmed by an onslaught of foreign emotions centered on the small Scot, all she could do was nod silently in agreement. A blinding smile was her reward as she was tugged out of the backseat and toward the hotel lobby.

Helen had already paid the driver and dragged her through to the lifts before she managed to speak, "Won't your friends think it's a bit odd that you're bringing home the bartender?"

Helen laughed in response and pushed her playfully into the lift that had just opened. After mashing the button for her floor, she leaned against the sleek metal panel behind her and answered, "Well, I'm not really taking you home, am I? Besides, we have separate rooms and I don't comment on who they bring back. It's not like I'm having a gangbang or anything."

Nikki coughed as her cheeks flushed from that mental image, and Helen was sent into another fit of laughter by how adorable the display was. She hadn't figured Nikki to be the modest type at all, but it was very endearing. The elevator dinged and opened onto the fifth floor, where Helen led Nikki to the right and down a long hallway before coming to a stop in front of her room. She slid the plastic key card into the reader and a green light blinked as the lock clicked back.

She fumbled with the light switch on the wall as she entered and then she shivered as the chilly air pricked her damp skin. Her hair was drenched and dripping onto her bare shoulders and down her back, and her dress was clinging possessively to her every curve. She rubbed her hands over her arms and strode over to the window to fiddle with the heating unit beneath it.

She sent Nikki an apologetic glance and said, "Sorry I didn't think to turn it on before I left. You can take a warm shower if you like and borrow a robe while your clothes dry."

Nikki became aware of her own wet attire the second she stepped into the cold room, but she was already beyond nervous being up here. She figured that being naked one room over from Helen probably wasn't conducive to rational thinking and responsible behaviour, so she took a seat by the table and shook her head in the negative.

"I'll be all right, thanks. But if you'd like to get warmed up I can leave, or wait here, or whatever…"

She realised she was beginning to ramble on so she quickly shut her trap and glued her eyes to the tabletop. Now she was wishing she could take it back as she began to imagine a very naked, very wet Helen separated only by a wall and a curtain. The Scot was about to brush off the suggestion when another shiver coursed through her, reminding her that she was freezing and soaked through. She grabbed a pair of knickers and her silky night robe from her suitcase before going into the bathroom.

She popped her head back round the door with a smile and said, "Don't go disappearing on me. I'll only be a minute and then I promise to be a better host."

She vanished from view and Nikki dropped her head into her hands, letting out a frustrated sigh that had nothing to do with waiting and everything to do with pent-up sexual tension. True to her word, it took Helen less than ten minutes to shower and join her dark-haired companion at the table. She set some water to boil and then sank into the chair opposite Nikki, propping her cheek in the palm of her hand as she considered the woman across from her.


She racked her brain for something to say and finally settled on asking a generic question to kick-start the conversation.

"Is Nikki short for Nicole?"

This seemed to come as a surprise to the taller woman, because she arched a brow and let out a short laugh.

"Well… no. It's short for Nicola, but I don't let anyone but my mother call me that, and I haven't seen or heard from her in almost seven years."

Helen seemed keenly interested in this revelation so she began to elaborate on the situation, walking the Scot through the highlights of her childhood and the "delights" of her family's social circle, up until the time they kicked her out of the house because she was tired of pretending she wasn't a lesbian.

The smaller woman reached across the table and laid a comforting hand on top of Nikki's, brushing the back of it with her thumb.

Her eyes were sympathetic, but not pitying, as she said quietly, "I'm really sorry, Nikki, but you should know it's their loss. I don't know you very well, but I can tell that you're a wonderful person. It's a shame they couldn't see past their small-minded views to discover that. And… Nicola is a gorgeous name."

Nikki sucked in a breath and fought the moisture gathering in her eyes. She wasn't used to opening herself up, especially to people she barely knew, and she was even less used to such heartfelt compliments.

She turned her hand over to brush her fingertips against Helen's palm as she whispered, "Thank you."

They sat in comfortable silence until the water boiled and Helen got up to pour it into two mugs. She dunked the tea bags in and set them on the table to steep. For the next hour and a half they sat and talked about anything and everything that came to mind, while sipping on tea and stealing shy glances at each other.

It was when Nikki glanced over at the digital bedside clock that she bolted upright and mumbled, "Shit."

Helen scrunched her brows questioningly and the taller woman offered by way of explanation, "It's getting really late, or… early. I should be going."

The Scot ducked her head to hide her disappointment and nodded as she got up to walk Nikki to the door. She paused with her hand on the door handle and turned to look up into those captivating chocolate eyes, which were fixed on her in silent enquiry. She searched for the right words to express how she was feeling, but nothing eloquent came to mind.

Instead she simply said, "I really enjoyed talking to you, Nikki. I feel like I've known you for ages. Maybe we could do it again sometime?"

Nikki was floored by the request and the accompanying smile on Helen's face. The woman actually seemed nervous that she would refuse. As if she could! She got the distinct feeling that if Helen asked her to jump off a bridge she'd do it in a heartbeat.

She ducked her head and let out a quiet, nervous chuckle before shrugging and muttering, "Yeah… I'd really like that."

Helen opened the door and Nikki moved to brush past her, but a small hand on her stomach stopped her progress into the hallway.

"Thank you for keeping me company, Nikki."

So much was left unspoken; thank you for showing me a good time, thank you for the dance, thank you for letting me have fun without pressure… thank you for making me feel alive again. Warm fingers cupping her cheeks brought Helen's eyes up from studying the beige hotel carpet. She swallowed noisily as she stared into the impossibly dark and telling eyes of Nikki Wade.

"You're welcome," the raven-haired beauty murmured, only inches from the Scot's lips, "and Helen?"

An emerald gaze fixed firmly on her face, Nikki faltered for a second before finishing in a quick breath, "You can call me Nicola if you like."

She pressed a soft kiss to the shorter woman's forehead, and then reentered the real world as she stepped into the hallway and walked toward the lift. It was quite clear that the attraction was mutual, but for once Nikki was determined not to turn this woman into a one-night stand.

She was worth more than that. She deserved more than that. She would take this slowly and keep her fingers crossed that she didn't get her heart broken. She knew with disturbing clarity that she'd never felt this intensely for someone, and after just a few hours of conversation and a heated dance.

Helen was frozen in place for two whole minutes after Nikki left, and then she raised her hand and brushed her fingertips over her forehead, her heart palpitating wildly in her chest. Whatever she was feeling now, and however it had happened, she knew it wasn't going to go away easily. Nikki had managed to get under her skin and drag unfamiliar emotions out of hiding.

She crawled into bed and closed her eyes, nearly moaning aloud as her mind played a video reel of possibilities and a tingle of excitement set her on fire. The part of her that was a minister's daughter was scolding her for entertaining those thoughts, but the part of her that was simply Helen was dancing with elation and anticipation. It was no secret that Nikki liked her, so now it was in her hands to do something about it.

With a smile of contentment plastered on her face, the Scot slipped into a pleasant and electrically charged sleep, already plotting ways to get the dark-haired bartender into her bed. To hell with her father and to hell with Michael. For once she was going to be honest about what she wanted, consequences be damned.


Chapter 9

After a frustrating morning in which Helen met with the grieving Mrs. Hicks, spoke to Dockley about the package Rachel had asked her mum to pick up, and gave Nikki a warning for attacking Shell, it was only natural that things would continue to go downhill. She gathered the POs in the Officers Room to discuss the investigation into Rachel's suicide, only to be cut off by Jim Fenner. Typical.

A somewhat heated debate ensued over Nikki Wade being taken off the block and put back on the wing. Jim aired his disapproval and called her professional integrity into question, though not directly enough for her to file a complaint for slander, even though she was itching to put him in his place.

The only person who gave her verbal support on the matter was Dominic. He agreed with her idea of taking a new approach with Nikki since nothing else had worked so far, though Helen secretly predicted that the lifer wouldn't be giving them much more trouble. She had full faith in her persuasive powers to keep her girlfriend in line.

Part of her felt guilty at the idea of using their relationship to convince Nikki to behave, but she knew that overall everything would run more smoothly with the inmate's cooperation. Besides, the thought of putting her down the block frequently for troublemaking didn't sit well with Helen. The two times she'd dragged her out of segregation since starting her job had been hellish. She wished for once Nikki would learn to keep her gob shut and control her temper.

Helen barely managed to control her own Scottish temper when Fenner made the flippant remark, "Oh, I've heard it all now. Sod the rules because some lesbian's gone and dumped her girlfriend!"

At that moment she truly wanted to break all professional protocol and smack him in the face. Hard. If only he knew…

'Prick,' she thought with extreme distaste.

She steered the meeting back to its original course, making it clear that the subject of Nikki was no longer open to debate, and she briefed everyone on the progress of the investigation. So far she'd not uncovered anything useful, but she told the POs to keep their ears close to the ground and report to her immediately if they heard anything, however insubstantial it might seem.

Hopefully soon they would be able to put together the puzzle pieces and find out the true motive behind Rachel's suicide. Helen had a hard time believing that she'd been so desperate simply because her child had been put into care. It seemed an entirely too convenient excuse to sweep everything under the carpet.

Dominic followed her out of the meeting and revealed his decision to resign, a decision with which she was extremely disappointed. He was one of the hardest working, most morally incorrupt officers she had, and he genuinely seemed to care about helping the women. It was a rarity from what she'd seen of the prison service to date, and an invaluable one at that.

She decided then that she would do everything in her power to get him to change his mind. She couldn't afford to let her wing be overrun by the Jim Fenners of the world, not if she was going to do any real good for the women.

It was a double-edged sword when Helen found out that Denny had been bullying Rachel on a regular basis, at least according to her cellmate Crystal. Everything she knew about Denny's history in prison backed up the claim but the victory was bittersweet. Even if bullying had been part of the reason the girl had hanged herself, getting justice for it now wouldn't bring her back.

She sent Denny down the block and went to have a quiet brood in her office before the memorial service began. She sat at the front of the chapel and sang along sadly with the hymns. The service was beautiful and a real testament to how many people had cared about Rachel, but Helen couldn't shake the feeling that she should have tried harder, done more, deciphered whatever it was that Rachel hadn't been telling her before it was too late.

It was with a heavy heart that she delivered a short speech to the inmates and officers gathered there.

Helen hadn't thought her day could get any worse after the depressing service, but once again she was proved incorrect. She was in an unforgiving mood when she sat down for Denny's adjudication, and the con's remorseless excuses and forced apology only set her even further on edge. She sentenced the tattooed girl to a week on the block and, of course, Fenner had something to say about it.

He accused her of showing favouritism to Wade and it was all she could do to grit her teeth and not remark on his apparent favouritism of Michelle Dockley. She'd had her suspicions since she first saw how cosy they looked together, but Nikki's words about him having a fan club had made her pay even closer attention to their interactions. It had seemed such an odd thing to say. When she removed her metaphoric blinders and took a step back, it was blatantly obvious what was going on, but proving it would be a tricky feat.

She used the weekend to try and unwind and not focus on Larkhall, but every time she closed her eyes it crept back in like a nightmare she couldn't shake. The only saving grace was that Nikki phoned her on Saturday night and they managed to have a semi-private, albeit slightly coded, conversation. Monday morning found Helen trudging back through the prison gates like a woman off to the gallows.

She was her usual few minutes late and she felt like the weight of the world was resting squarely on her shoulders. Out of habit she glanced up toward Nikki's cell, where the lifer usually waited to greet her entrance with a smile, but this morning she was absent. A pang of disappointment resonated in the small Scot but she quickly pushed it aside to focus on her work. She was informed straight off by PO Rose that Denny Blood was requesting a second meeting with her, claiming she had some previously undisclosed information about Rachel.

Nothing could have prepared her for the con's accusations about Fenner having it off with the young woman. She could certainly believe it of Dockley and Fenner, they were practically made for each other, but the thought hadn't occurred to her that Jim would take advantage of the desperate girl or that Rachel would have let him.

She dismissed Denny with a severe verbal warning about making unfounded allegations about her staff, though she didn't wholeheartedly believe the words coming out of her mouth. There was only one thing left at this point. She had to get Nikki to confide in her. She obviously knew something worth keeping quiet, but now wasn't the time for kid gloves and a softly approach. She needed answers and somehow she needed to obtain proof of Fenner's misconduct.

If she could snap her fingers and get him sacked on the spot then she would, but the world didn't work that way. There was no magic wand she could wave and without hard evidence there was no way Stubberfield would listen. She didn't think she'd ever seen two people further up each other's arses than Jim and Simon.

She found Nikki in the garden, pruning rose bushes, and she approached with a conflicting combination of happiness and apprehension. Seeing the raven-haired inmate was usually enough to brighten her day, but in this instance she felt uneasy about the conversation they were about to have. Regardless of what was said, there was sure to be a rocky road in front of her, paved with uneven cobblestones of seemingly endless obstacles.

Nikki looked up when she heard footsteps coming near and she offered a smile and a, "Hi," to the wing governor.

"Hi, how're you feeling?"

Helen greeted the taller woman sombrely, not bothering to hide her mood from the perceptive lifer. Nikki had always had a way of getting under her skin and sussing out the truth anyway, so there was just no point in pretending. Nikki picked up on her tone and expression right away and frowned in concern.

"So, so," she replied distractedly, studying Helen for a clue.

None was forthcoming as the Scot asked to speak to her in strict confidence about something, but Nikki didn't hesitate in agreeing.

"It's about Mr. Fenner. You once said he had a fan club. Can you elaborate on that?"

The taller woman sighed and tilted her head back, looking up at the sky as she thought to herself, 'Here we go again.'

"What do you mean?" she asked, trying to figure out what exactly it was that Helen was trying to get out of her.

"Well, what form this fan club took for instance. It seemed an unusual thing to say."

"You're asking me to be a grass."

It wasn't a question, but a statement that carried with it an air of resignation and slight irritation. Helen knew what Nikki's reservations were about trading prison secrets with an officer, but she felt that this situation merited an exception.

Her own irritation rose at the lack of help as she replied, "Nikki, a young girl has hanged herself. Now I promised Rachel's family I'd investigate her death. I did expect a bit more cooperation from her friends."

She turned to leave but stopped in her tracks when the con called out behind her, "I can't prove anything, and I'm not naming any other names, but I did warn Rachel off Fenner."

The Scot turned back around as Nikki finished her statement, "Thought he was taking advantage."

Helen nodded slowly as her mind became a flurry of questions and ideas on how to catch the dirtbag. The say-so of two difficult cons wasn't going to be enough to put him on his arse. The governor strode back over to the lifer and glanced around the prison yard before touching her forearm lightly and discreetly.

"Thank you, Nikki. I'm going to do everything I can to nail the bastard. Unfortunately, Rachel isn't around to testify against him and Shell seems to be wrapped around his finger."

Nikki snorted at that and muttered what sounded like, "She's wrapped around something, all right."

Helen sighed heavily and swore under her breath, "Shit… So I'm right about that as well…"

The lifer frowned and said seriously, "You'll never get either of them to admit to anything."

The governor mirrored her expression and replied, "I'm just going to have to find some other way of proving it. Maybe catch them in the act."

She looked around the prison yard and realised that she'd been touching Nikki's arm quite long enough. She didn't want people to start staring and whispering rumours about them.

She stepped back a respectable distance and said loudly enough for only Nikki to hear, "Thanks again, Nikki. You've been a big help. I'll see you later."

Her eyes held an unspoken promise that sent a shiver of anticipation through the tall lifer. She watched with a smirk as Helen walked away, her eyes glued to the wing governor's shapely arse. She couldn't wait to get her hands on it. She got back to work on the roses but she couldn't get the shit-eating grin off her face all afternoon.

When Helen brought her suspicions to Fenner's attention, he discarded them as 'a piece of shit', understandably trying to cover his arse. The conversation ended with Helen: 1, Jim: 0, as she made it clear that threatening her only made him sound more guilty. A trip up to Simon's office took away any sense of victory she'd begun to feel, however, as it seemed Fenner had gotten to him first and managed to reinforce his golden halo in the Number One's eyes.

As an added jab to an open wound, Stubberfield went as far as to say she should go home and seriously consider whether she should be doing her job. Another run-in with Fenner left her bitter and seething by the time she made her way to Nikki's cell before lock-up, clutching a file folder full of papers as an excuse should anyone ask. She'd already decided that sneaking in again after dark was terribly risky and would be kept to a minimum.

Nikki was washing up at the sink in her bra and knickers when the knock came at the door. She called out, "Just a minute," and grabbed a hand towel to begin drying off enough to put her clothes on.

She heard from the other side of the door, "Nikki, it's me."

A grin slowly formed on the lifer's face and she decided to have a little fun with the governor, tossing down the towel and not bothering to put her clothes on after all.

"Come in!"

She went back to her evening wash routine, running wet, soapy hands down her torso as the green slab of steel opened and Helen entered. She paused as she saw the state of the con's undress and her bad mood immediately dissipated, replaced by overwhelming desire for the slender, toned woman clad only in lacy black knickers and a matching bra.

She fumbled with her key as she removed it from the door and slammed it shut. Nikki smirked to herself as she wiped away the soap suds with a wet flannel and turned to face her flustered girlfriend.

"Can I help you with something, Miss?"

She raked a lascivious gaze over Helen's body and paused suggestively while staring between the Scot's legs. The tension in the room thickened perceptibly and could have been cut with a knife, and Helen felt more like she was in a sauna than a prison cell. Her pulse was racing and a persistent throbbing made itself known between her thighs.

She sucked in an unsteady breath and mumbled unconvincingly, "No."

Nikki arched a brow in amusement and walked toward the shorter woman slowly. "Really? Then why are you here, Miss?" She put a playful emphasis on the last word and noted how Helen shuddered slightly where she was standing.

Unable to resist goading the obviously aroused woman further, she leaned in and whispered, "Are you sure there's nothing I can do for you?"

A half moan, half whimper was the response as Helen's eyelids fluttered and her breath hitched.

In a flash, Nikki had the Scot pressed against the door and squirming as her lips and teeth trailed down her neck, seeking out all the sensitive spots and giving each one a gentle bite. She tongued the hollow at the base of Helen's neck and was rewarded with another quiet moan, and then the governor's fingers were tangled in her hair, dragging her upward to engage her in a steamy kiss.

They drank each other in like starved animals that had found a Thanksgiving feast, the sound of heavy breathing and tongues twining bouncing off the brick walls. Helen dropped the file she'd been clutching to her chest and moved her free hand to the bare skin of Nikki's lower back, scraping her perfectly manicured fingernails up the lifer's spine.

The con shivered at the touch and moved her own idle hands into action, easing open the buttons on Helen's crisp white shirt as she nibbled the Scot's lower lip. She pressed a thigh between the shorter woman's legs and applied gentle pressure, eliciting another desperate whimper from between their joined mouths.

Helen broke the kiss and her head lolled to the side, a whispered, breathy plea escaping her lips, "Nikki…"

The darker woman's eyes were nearly black, they were so dilated in desire, as they fixed on the Scot's flushed face. She pushed the unbuttoned shirt over the brunette's shoulders and littered soft kisses on every inch of skin she exposed, starting at the collarbones and working south between the soft mounds encased in silky, white fabric.

Her lips brushed against the curve of one globe while her wandering fingers found purchase on the other. Her thumb traced teasing circles around the raised peak straining against its silk prison, and Helen made her frustration known with a soft growl as Nikki avoided touching her where she needed it.

"Please…" she begged breathlessly.

The lifer took pity on the shorter woman as she swept both palms up the curve of her back and unhooked the offending garment. It was tossed aside unceremoniously and the raven-haired woman's lips latched onto a dusky nipple, sucking it like a piece of hard candy and teasing it with her teeth.

Helen's eyes shut and her head thudded back against the door as the sensation rippled through her, zinging straight to her swollen clit. She began to feel as though she was severely overdressed for the occasion and she was nearly itching to get her pants off, but Nikki seemed to have other ideas as she doted on the Scot's breasts, taking each in turn to further arouse and frustrate the woman in her captivity.

Sensing Helen's desperation and wanting to draw it out just a little while longer, the infuriating prisoner began to rub her thigh against the wing governor's sex in a slow, controlled rhythm.


The brunette tried to wiggle against her and increase the contact, but Nikki was having none of it. Helen's hands had, in the meantime, come to grip the con's lace-clad backside, trying to gain leverage and push the taller woman more forcefully against herself.

Nikki's own arousal prompted her to slide her hands under Helen's arse and lift her away from the door in one swift movement. The Scot locked her legs around Nikki's hips as the con carried her over to the bunk and deposited her gently on the mattress. She tugged Nikki down on top of her and kissed her fiercely, breathing heavily through her nose as she rubbed her lower body against the taller woman.

Nikki pulled out of the kiss with a grin and began to lick her way down Helen's torso, her nimble fingers deftly undoing the button and zip on the Scot's trousers. She made quick work of getting them down Helen's shapely legs, while the shorter woman kicked off her shoes and lifted her hips to help. Immediately afterward Helen unhooked Nikki's bra and pulled the straps down her shoulders.

The con placed a series of open-mouthed kisses along Helen's pantyline as she swept her thumbs along the brunette's inner thighs. She was dragged upward by fistfuls of her ebony hair and an eager mouth reclaimed hers. Bare breasts brushed and stomach muscles quivered as pebbled nipples hardened further at the contact.

Their heated sexes surged together and they panted as their hips undulated desperately. The material between them did little to dampen their desire as they could both feel their arousal soaking through.

Helen moved her mouth to Nikki's neck and she nipped at an earlobe before whispering huskily, her accent thickened by excitement, "I want you… inside me."

Nikki's body reacted to the statement with a violent shudder and she moaned audibly. She wasted no time in hooking her fingers under the sides of Helen's knickers and pulling them down. The Scot reciprocated the action and both of them wriggled to dislodge the garments from their tangled legs.

The inmate threaded the fingers of one hand through Helen's silky hair and she demanded eye contact as the other found its way to the governor's slick folds. Her fingertips stroked gently, teasingly, without making contact where the smaller woman wanted it the most.

After a few torturous moments of lingering caresses, the darker woman relented and slid two digits inside as far as she could. The woman beneath her arched her back and sighed through parted lips, her hips churning eagerly against Nikki's palm. Her thumb came into play then, rubbing small circles against the Scot's clit and evoking a string of guttural moans from the petite brunette.

Helen's hands, previously engaged with stroking the inmate's breasts, re-familiarising herself with the weight in her palms and the nipples straining into her touch, now slid south over a smooth, flat stomach to the patch of damp hair below. With her right hand she squeezed Nikki's well-formed bum and with her left she stroked slippery hot flesh, finding her target swollen and pulsing in anticipation. They rubbed and thrust simultaneously, furiously working each other into a fine frenzy.

Nikki added a third finger and latched her mouth onto Helen's neck, sucking and biting firmly, as the smaller woman finally penetrated her centre. Her hips bucked sharply and her teeth clamped down, causing the woman beneath her to squeak in surprise. She released the creamy skin, now marred with an angry red mark, and awarded Helen a sheepish grin.

She kissed Helen's cheeks and nose then rested her forehead against the Scot's as they both neared the precipice. Their lithe forms glistened with a light sheen of sweat and their fingers were drenched in liquid arousal, plunging repeatedly and curling into each other. They shuddered together and muffled their moans with a deep kiss as they came, a sense of unity overwhelming them and heightening their passion.

When their laboured breathing returned somewhat to normal they curled up and held onto one another, sharing gentle kisses and stroking each other's arms affectionately.

"God… after the day I've had, that was just what I needed," Helen remarked with a satisfied smile. She cuddled closer in her girlfriend's embrace, cherishing the limited time they had together before she had to leave.

Nikki smiled adoringly and dropped a kiss on Helen's forehead, murmuring cheekily, "Glad to be of service, Miss."

Helen shot her a faux glare and smacked her upper arm playfully. Then she nuzzled her face into the crook of Nikki's neck and sighed in contentment. The lifer almost didn't hear the words that were whispered lightly against her skin, they were spoken so quietly a slight breeze would've carried them away.

"I love you, Nicola."

But there was no breeze and she did hear them, and in the dark, dank cell suddenly everything seemed brighter. Her heart skipped merrily in her chest and she felt like there was a reason to breathe again, a reason to live and be happy. The small, lumpy mattress and horrible ventilation ceased to matter as she held in her arms the best thing that had ever happened to her: her hope.

They stayed wrapped up in each other for as long as they could afford, and then Helen donned her rumpled clothes and Nikki slipped into her dressing gown, both silent and regretful that their time together was being cut so short. Before leaving Helen remembered the file she'd brought with her, which was lying in a scattered heap by the cell door. She picked it up and straightened the contents before withdrawing a sealed information packet and passing it to the confused lifer.

"I was hoping you might take a look at this. It's the prospectus for an Open University course in English. I really think you would enjoy it, and it would benefit you in the future," the Scot answered the unspoken question on Nikki's face.

The con fingered the plastic wrap and then chuckled before saying, "In ten years' time I'll be a 43-year-old ex-con with a General Studies degree. Companies will be crying out for that, won't they?"

Helen was unfazed by her attempt at humour and asked, "I'd like you to think about it. Please? As a favour to me?"

So she was playing that card… not that Nikki would deny her anything she asked. With a smile and a nod of resignation she conceded, "Okay. For you."

Helen refrained from doing a victory dance as she swooped in and rewarded the lifer with a firm kiss on the lips. Before they could get carried away again, the wing governor retreated towards the door.

"I'll see you tomorrow, sweetheart. Thanks for everything," she said, before exiting and leaving Nikki alone with her thoughts and a soppy smile on her face.

She set the prospectus on the table and leaned back in her bunk as she thought, 'No… thank you, Helen. You've made my life worth living again.'


Chapter 10

Friday morning at Larkhall had Helen feeling both jubilant and despondent; she was overjoyed at the thought of seeing Nikki and forlorn because it would be the last time in two weeks she laid eyes on the sexy con. She was due to start her holiday after the day's shift ended and she wasn't nearly as excited about it as she should be. Never before had she so looked forward to coming to work each morning.

Her friends, the few she had anyway, would think it incredibly sad if they knew she was reluctant to leave the prison walls, but then they also weren't aware of her secret relationship with one of the inmates. No one could be privy to it whilst Nikki was still serving time at Larkhall and Helen was still an employee there.

The consequences of being found out weighed more heavily on her mind than the strain of keeping her romance hidden. The best that could happen would be her getting sacked. The worst was that she could end up behind bars herself, and she was sure it wouldn't be in the same nick as her lover.

She didn't have to wait long for an excuse to call the raven-haired inmate to her office. When the post arrived there was a large envelope from the Open University in regards to Nikki's new English course. Helen wasted no time in completing her daily paperwork and freeing up a time slot so she could meet with Nikki. It was just gone 10am when she finished and penciled in her plans for the remainder of the day into her diary.

She gave a copy of her meeting schedule to her secretary and made it very clear that she wanted no interruptions for the next hour, unless there was a dire emergency on the wing. With that taken care of, she settled back behind her desk and picked up the phone to have an officer retrieve the lovely Miss Wade and escort her over.

Helen put down the phone with a smirk on her face, deciding that now was the perfect time to get a little revenge on her favourite prisoner. She removed her suit jacket and unbuttoned two extra buttons on her pink blouse then slipped off her stockings, stashing them out of sight under her desk before sliding back into her black stilettos and reseating herself as she awaited Nikki's arrival.

She tapped her fingers anxiously on her desktop until the knock came at her door. She stood and crossed the room with a neutral expression as the door opened and the lifer walked in, a PO on her heels.

She shot a friendly smile at the uniformed brunette and said, "I'll take it from here, thanks. I'll call for an escort when I'm finished with her."

Her tone didn't give anything away to the unsuspecting officer, but Nikki wasn't ignorant to the fact that her outfit was more revealing than usual. Her eyes were glued to Helen's pert breasts, barely concealed by the thin fabric of her blouse, and it was obvious to the con that she wasn't wearing a bra beneath it.

Helen reached over and flicked the lock on the doorknob before saying casually, "Have a seat, Nikki."

The dark-haired inmate found it difficult to move, let alone listen, as she gave the Scot a lusty once-over, her gaze lingering on the black skirt that was shorter than usual, borderline unprofessional as it ended mid-thigh, and then there were the bare legs and sexy heels…

She gulped and plopped down into the chair in front of Helen's desk, her mind buzzing as she tried to figure out what the governor was playing at. Was she intentionally driving her insane? Was this payback for the little scene in her cell the other night? A light clicked on in her head as everything suddenly became clearer, and her lips twitched into a smug smirk as she eyed the shorter woman, who was now leaning back against her desk.

"I need to have a word with you about your behaviour the other night. You had no right taking advantage of me."

Her words were said sternly, but any implication that she was upset was nullified by the fact that she was now slowly unbuttoning her shirt. Nikki's lips parted as her eyes greedily followed the movement, wishing it were her fingers doing that instead. She shifted in her seat and shot the short brunette a questioning glance, but she was held in place by a playful hazel gaze.

Helen's lips quirked as she parted the sides of her shirt and slowly scraped her fingernails up her abdomen, until her hands came to rest on her full breasts. She squeezed them gently and then began to rub her nipples into hardness, closing her eyes as she let out a quiet moan.

Nikki was on the edge of her seat now, ready to pounce, but Helen opened her eyes and shook her head, signalling for her to stay put. As the sexy Scot began to roll her nipples firmly between her fingers, biting her lower lip and gasping as she did so, Nikki felt the corresponding throb immediately at the juncture of her thighs.

"Bloody hell…" she mumbled under her breath.

This only spurred Helen to continue with her tantalising display, as she released her breasts and smoothed her hands down over her skirt. She hooked her fingers in the hem and drew it slowly up her thighs, revealing inch by creamy inch of delicious looking skin. Nikki licked her lips and stared wantonly, wishing her tongue was now making that same path toward Helen's sex.

The Scot spread her legs a little wider as she dipped one hand between her thighs, using the other to hold her skirt in place around her hips, and she began to gently rub her fingertips over the sheer black material of her thong. Her face flushed and her breathing deepened as she dragged the fabric over her sensitive clit, again and again and again… until she was panting and her knickers were soaked through with moisture.

Nikki gripped the arms of her chair so fiercely that her knuckles turned white, in an effort not to jump out of her seat and ravage the governor right then and there. Helen was clearly enjoying her little game and Nikki would let her have at it… for now. The Scot's hazy, aroused gaze fixed on the lifer and she held her eyes in a steady staring contest, as she slipped her fingers under her thong and coated two liberally in her wetness.

She withdrew them and brought her hand to her mouth, rubbing the slick residue across her lips and then licking it away slowly. Nikki gulped and clenched her thighs together, trying to ease the pressure that was building down south, but she gave it up as useless when the shorter woman straddled her lap and offered her fingers to Nikki's lips.

The taller woman groaned with pleasure as she sucked them clean, savouring the taste of Helen's essence on her tongue. It was a taste she'd been denied for the past ten years and now she was determined to have it again.

Sod all the lark about ambrosia… Helen was the food of the gods. She released the Scot's fingers and whispered urgently, "Helen, please, I need to taste you. It's been too long."

If possible, Helen's eyes darkened even further at the request, and she found herself nodding in agreement before she'd even fully processed it. Nikki grabbed her hips and stood from the chair, with more than a little difficulty because of the awkward positioning, and she placed the governor on the edge of her desk. She spared a glance at the paperwork spread across the surface before sending it flying with a sweep of her hand.

"Lie back," she commanded.

Helen didn't hesitate to obey, anticipation causing her to quiver as she did so. Nikki hooked both of the Scot's legs over her shoulders as she began to trail light kisses up the inside of the other woman's thighs. Helen squirmed and bit her lower lip to keep from begging. Nikki was taking her sweet time and it was frustrating, but she knew the con wouldn't make her suffer for too long.

A dark chocolate gaze drank in the sight of the wing governor lying there, dishevelled and panting, chest heaving, flushed from head to toe in arousal. She edged the thong down slowly and it came to rest on the floor beneath Helen's feet. Ebony hair disappeared beneath the Scot's bunched black skirt as Nikki lowered her mouth to Helen's sex, her tongue darting out inquisitively to seek refuge in the petite woman's folds.

The heady aroma of womanly musk enthralled her and the first taste was a divine shock to her senses. The sound of fingernails scratching against grained wood rang in her ears as she began to lick slowly. Helen's hips bucked in time with her movements as her tongue danced in a steady rhythm up and down the Scot's womanhood. Slow lick up, circle, suck, slow lick down, plunge, wiggle, withdraw, repeat…

It wasn't long before Nikki felt inner walls contracting around her tongue, so she retreated hastily and replaced it with two fingers, curling them upward as she sucked Helen's clit into her mouth. The small Scot exploded beneath her and released of gush of liquid as she bit into her hand to stifle her yelp of pleasure. Just as the waves of her powerful orgasm were beginning to subside, she felt Nikki's fingers moving inside of her once again.

She attempted to raise herself off the desk with a halfhearted protest on her lips, but it died in her throat as an unexpected wave of pleasure ripped through her. Nikki didn't relent as she firmly stroked Helen's g-spot and skilfully manipulated her engorged nubbin, sending her crashing straight into another orgasm not even half a minute after the first. The Scot lay shuddering and boneless for several minutes afterward, as Nikki licked her fingers and lips clean like a cat with a bowl of cream.

When she regained her senses and control of her motor functions, she sat up and began to pull herself together. She re-buttoned her blouse with shaky fingers and pulled her skirt down over her hips. She smoothed it out as best she could and retrieved her thong. It was too wet to wear comfortably now and she had better ideas for it anyway. Nikki was watching her with a smug smile and Helen blushed self-consciously.

The lifer cupped a smooth cheek in one hand and asked throatily, "Do you have any idea how sexy you look right now? Knowing that I've just fucked you senseless makes me want to take you all over again."

Helen swallowed hard and wrestled down her renewed arousal. She took Nikki's hand and guided her behind the desk, before forcefully pushing her down into the plush leather chair.

A wicked grin emerged on the Scot's face as she leaned in to whisper in the con's ear, "Now just relax, sweetheart, while I return the favour…"

When the allotted hour was almost at an end and both women had managed to get their clothes to look somewhat presentable, Helen suddenly remembered why she'd called Nikki to her office in the first place, other than her intention to ravage the sexy con thoroughly before her two-week holiday separated them. With Nikki's help, she picked up the various papers and folders strewn across her office floor and reorganised them in neat stacks on her desk.

She turned her attention to the envelope from the Open University and opened it while saying, "As much as I've enjoyed this meeting," her green eyes flicked upward to the inmate in a flirtatious manner as she paused for effect, "there is another reason I called you in here. I received this in the post this morning."

"It's the paperwork that needs to be filled out for your OU courses if you're going to proceed."

She slid a few pages across the desk and set a pen on top of them.

"You'll need to read through these and sign them so that you're officially enrolled. You'll be able to attend classes starting next week."

Nikki nodded in acknowledgement as she sat down and began thumbing through the pages that outlined the requirements and expectations of the course, as well as the materials she'd be required to read and the dates of the examinations. She signed and dated the bottom of the last page and pushed the packet back across the desk.

Helen retrieved a blank envelope from her file cabinet and sealed the papers inside before addressing it for the post. She would see that it was sent out before she left. A glance at the clock told her they had just five minutes before an officer would be along to collect Nikki and take her back to the wing, so Helen knew she'd have to be hasty if she wanted to say a proper goodbye to her girlfriend.

She scooped up her discarded thong from the desktop and rounded her desk with a smirk. She leaned over Nikki's chair and stuffed the soaked lacy garment into the lifer's jeans pocket, and while doing so she nipped at the soft flesh of the inmate's neck and whispered, "Something to remember me by while I'm away."

Nikki was at once aroused and disappointed as Helen reminded her that she would be leaving for two weeks. The taller woman gazed forlornly at her lover, just short of a childish pout, and said seriously, "I'm going to miss you. It's going to be hell not seeing you for two weeks."

One would think that after ten years of separation the two women would be able to handle it better, but their reunion had only served to strengthen their previous feelings and neither wanted to let the other go, even if only temporarily. Helen reached out to stroke Nikki's cheek with the backs of her fingers and she placed a soft kiss on the lifer's lips.

"I know, sweetheart. I feel exactly the same, but I promise you that I'm coming back this time."

Trying to lighten the mood a little, she attempted a joke, "It's not as if I can escape this place, is it? I think I'll be stuck with you lot until I'm old and grey."

Nikki appreciated what she was trying to do and offered her a small smile. The governor straightened where she stood and withdrew something from the right pocket of her suit jacket, and the con was gobsmacked when she was presented with three new phone cards.

The Scot smiled warmly as the inmate pocketed them and she said, "I expect you to call me every day and that is a Governor's order."

Nikki's eyes watered slightly with emotion and she nodded mutely, already knowing that she would only get through the following days by hearing that soft Scottish lilt on the other end of the phone. It would be a poor substitute for her girlfriend's warmth and touch, but it would have to do. In the few minutes they had left alone, they kissed softly and held onto each other, dreading the moment they would have to part.

A knock sounded on the other side of the office door, so Helen pressed a last, quick kiss to Nikki's lips before moving to unlock and open it. A sour-faced Sylvia Hollamby stood there waiting, obviously in her usual mood about being at work and dealing with the prisoners. Helen honestly couldn't understand why the woman chose to be in the prison service at all. It was clear she held only disdain for her job and the inmates with whom she dealt.

The wing governor made a show of turning to Nikki with a pleased smile and saying, "I'll see that your paperwork is sent off by this afternoon and that you're provided with the necessary reading materials in my absence. I'll have an officer fill you in next week on which classes you'll be attending, and we can meet again when I return to discuss how you're getting on with them. Does that sound good?"

Nikki stood and nodded politely, responding, "Yes, Miss."

Helen heard Sylvia scoff behind her and she resisted the urge to turn and strangle the woman. Did she really have to be so damn contemptuous in the face of education and welfare? It wasn't just Nikki she treated this way and her attitude was beginning to grate on the Scot's last nerve.

She clenched her jaw as she turned to face the senior officer and she said, in a tone that brooked no argument, "You may take Miss Wade back to the wing now, and I'll expect you to treat her with a little more respect than you have just shown. Furthermore, since you don't seem to understand the importance of education to the women here, you can be in charge of escorting Nikki to her classes next week and you can personally sit in to monitor her progress. You might learn something."

Sylvia looked affronted at the notion, but she was able to recognise that tone of voice that meant it was an order, not an option, and it wasn't up for discussion.

She pursed her lips and forced a curt nod of her head, replying with barely veiled contempt, "Ma'am."

She spun on her heel, clearly expecting Nikki to follow her, and in doing so she missed the look of extreme amusement that passed between the other two occupants of the room, as well as what occurred after. Nikki pinched Helen on the rear as she moved past the shorter woman and she winked flirtatiously before leaving the room.

The Scot grinned to herself as she moved to sit behind her desk and carry on with her work until her scheduled wing meeting, however she could barely focus on anything other than the recollection of what she'd been doing on that desk and in that chair for the better part of an hour.

By the end of the day she was exhausted and frazzled, having dealt with difficult inmates and officers alike for the last few hours. As she walked through the courtyard toward the exit gate, she stopped to look up at Nikki's cell and she took small comfort in the sad brown gaze that watched her. It was going to be the longest two weeks of her life.

Only four days into her holiday, Helen was already a miserable wreck. She missed Nikki terribly and she'd tried, unsuccessfully, to take out her frustrations on assembling flat-pack furniture. Unfortunately she wasn't particularly talented at putting together bookshelves and end tables, so most of her efforts resulted in a struggle that ended with her sweaty and irritated. She cursed herself for the umpteenth time for not buying pre-assembled furniture and having it delivered.

She'd thought it would be a fun project and something to keep her occupied and distracted, but it was apparently all for naught. Sean wasn't much help, either. He was still looking for new living accommodations and as such hadn't moved out yet, but he was often away playing professional landscaper. She had a feeling it was as much his way of avoiding awkward tension as it was an actual need to work.

She spent her days cleaning and lounging around the house, waiting anxiously for darkness to fall because she knew that was when she'd get to hear Nikki's voice. Their conversations varied in length, according to how long the phone queue stayed empty and the inmate had some privacy. More than once since they'd started their secret relationship, Nikki had abruptly changed her tone, pretended to be addressing her solicitor, and broken off the call.

Helen was inwardly grateful because the last thing she needed was the staff or prisoners knowing an inmate was phoning her at home. It was completely out of line with the rules of her job, but then so was sleeping with one of the cons. Guilt sometimes overwhelmed her when she concentrated on how terribly she was abusing her position.

Professional integrity was always something she'd valued and strived for, but now she was practising a stunning lack of it. Something about Nikki had always made her lose control and being a wing governor didn't change that. She briefly entertained thoughts of resigning to spare herself the moral dilemma, but she knew she didn't have the strength to do it.

That would mean walking away from Nikki once again, and that was something she'd promised both of them she wouldn't do. Now wasn't the time to start running from her feelings when she'd only just begun to face them. There was still a lot for her to work through, but she trusted Nikki to help her along the way until she was comfortable again in her own skin, not just pretending to be okay and putting on a happy façade for the benefit of others.

Before and after her evening conversations with Nikki it had become customary for her to curl up in the lounge with a glass of wine and a good book to read, until she was too tired to keep her eyes open. Currently she was re-reading Sophie's World and she wondered if her girlfriend had ever read it. She made a mental note to ask her just as the shrill ringing of her house phone permeated the living room and broke her focus from the printed words in front of her.

She slipped a bookmark between the pages and set the novel on the coffee table next to her wine. She grabbed the receiver with a smile and sank back into the cushions of her sofa.

She couldn't keep the excitement out of her voice as she answered, "Hiya, sweetheart. How was your day?"

And thus the spell around her heart thickened and constricted, as her lover's sultry southern accent answered down the line, blanketing her in warmth and sending tingles down to her toes.

Nikki was faring no better in Helen's absence. More than one person had noticed her unusually sulky behaviour and brooding demeanour over the last few days. It had seemed of late that she'd gotten over her quick temper and moodiness, but she'd now reverted back to her former ways. She was neutral at best, volatile and sullen otherwise.

Her fellow inmates took to sidestepping and avoiding her whenever she was near, not wanting to be the recipient of her latest mood swing. She'd already given Dockley a very public verbal lashing on Monday morning, thoroughly embarrassing the usually cocky blonde into shocked silence. The laughter that had erupted at Shell's expense had caused the blonde to storm off and Nikki went about eating her breakfast in smug silence.

'The bitch deserved it,' she justified in her mind.

Monday night had left Nikki sitting at a table by the phone with a face like a kicked puppy. The queue had been holding steady for the last hour and didn't appear to be dying down soon. She waited and waited, but the opportunity to talk undisturbed didn't present itself before lock-up. It was with great irritation that she trudged off to her cell without having been able to speak with Helen. Her foul mood only lessened the next evening when she realised that the heavy Monday night foot traffic meant fewer people were waiting to use the phone than usual.

'Probably used up their phone cards last night taking for-bloody-ever.'

She quickly dialled the now-familiar number from memory and listened with bated breath as the line rang, and then she expelled it with a smile as her lover's voice assaulted her senses.

"Hi, darling. It was hellish. I've been a right moody cow without you here. Gave Dockley a hard time at breakfast yesterday. I'm sorry I didn't call last night… The entire wing was using the phone."

She heard her girlfriend chuckle in response and it warmed her entire being. She listened with a smile as Helen regaled her with tales of uncooperative furniture, and she got a tug on her heartstrings when the Scot admitted to missing her in an unimaginable way. Nikki mirrored the sentiment with one of her own and proceeded to whisper down the line just what she'd like to do to counter their plight.

A quickly drawn breath and a shaky sigh were her reward. She felt the stirring of arousal as she imagined what Helen would look like just then, glassy green eyes and full lips waiting to be kissed. Her mind's eye conjured up a string of breathtaking images and she swallowed hard as she tried to quell her raging hormones. It was with great difficulty that she managed to focus on their conversation and steer it away from dangerous ground.

Women bustling along the wing toward their cells and officers locking doors alerted Nikki to the fact that it was lock-up and her call would have to end. She pushed down her feeling of disappointment and tried to maintain a positive attitude. She knew logically that she would likely get to speak to Helen in twenty-four hours or less, and that the Scot would be back in touching distance in just over a week and a half, but the wait was still excruciating.

"I'm sorry, Helen, but I've got to go now. I can't wait to see you when you get back. I'll call you tomorrow. I love you, darling."

She hung up with a shaky hand and took a moment to compose a neutral mask on her face, carefully hiding her emotions from view as she ascended the stairs towards her cell on G2. She was unaware of the presence lingering on the opposite side of the stairwell, having just eavesdropped on the end of her conversation.

Fenner stood out of sight with a smirk slowly growing on his face, half disbelieving what he'd just heard and half gleeful that he had a new weapon in his arsenal.

'Things are going to get interesting around here,' he thought with smug satisfaction.


Chapter 11

Flashback, 10 Years Prior, Day Three

After a night of peaceful sleep and Nikki-filled dreams, Helen woke to the sound of her room phone ringing on the bedside table. She stretched slowly and let out a yawn before picking up the receiver and mumbling, "Hello?"

An exuberant Claire answered on the other end and told her to be ready in fifteen minutes, because they were going shopping and exploring before meeting Michael for lunch. Helen had completely forgotten that they had plans for today and she felt like smacking herself on the forehead.

A glance at the bedside clock told her it was just past ten in the morning. She assured Claire that she would be ready at the appointed time and meet her down in the hotel lobby. After hanging up the phone she stretched a little more, her aching muscles unused to night after night of dancing and walking around in heels, and she dragged herself out of bed for a quick shower. She kept her choice of outfit casual with a pair of faded jeans and a soft crème cashmere sweater.

Thoughts of the night before invaded her mind and brought a smile to her face as she left her room and went to meet up with Claire. The blonde lawyer-to-be noticed her best friend's happy grin and faraway expression and nudged the Scot playfully with her shoulder.

"What's got you so happy this morning? Did you get lucky last night?"

Helen blushed furiously at Claire's implication and quickly denied any such thing. They both knew that Helen didn't go in for casual sex or one-night stands, but the blonde couldn't resist the temptation to tease her slightly uptight friend.

As far as she knew, Helen hadn't actually ever slept with anyone, but it was something that hadn't been openly discussed. Her curiosity was starting to get the better of her as they strolled along the busy London streets side by side, and she found the urge to ask getting stronger with each stride.

"So, Helen…" she began nervously, her hesitance not unnoticed by the Scot, "have you ever actually had sex?"

Helen stopped immediately in her tracks, stunned and blushing once again. Claire took one look at her and instantly knew the answer. She chuckled lightly and looped her arm through the brunette's, pulling her along past a row of shops so they wouldn't draw undue attention to themselves.

"I thought not. You don't know what you're missing, though."

Claire shot a playful wink at the baffled brunette and tugged her into a high-end clothing boutique. She let the topic drop and moved onto more neutral ground as they perused the various styles and bright colours on display. This shop offered the latest in London fashion for young adults, and there was plenty of party-worthy clothing available.

The two friends spent over an hour running back and forth from the changing rooms with different outfits in hand. When they left they both had bags in hand and Helen was very pleased with the selections she'd made.

She already knew that one of the dresses she'd bought would come in handy for going to the club that night. A smirk grew on her lips as she imagined what Nikki's reaction might be, but her thoughts were broken as Claire pointed out that it was time to meet Michael for lunch at a nearby café.

Helen was quite enjoying the warmth of the sunshine and the break in bad weather that was supposed to last for the remainder of their stay in London, so it was with some reluctance that she allowed herself to be led into the small coffee shop that also served sandwiches and salads.

Michael was already there waiting for them, having procured a table near the front window, sipping at his coffee as his blue eyes raked appreciatively over Helen's figure. This didn't go unnoticed by the Scot and she shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other as she stood in line next to Claire.

She knew that her best friend had designs about setting her up with her brother, but she was going to have to put a stop to this, sooner rather than later. His adoring gaze followed her all the way until she sat at the table across from him, and he didn't miss the look of slight irritation that crossed her features as she raised an eyebrow at him. He took another sip at his coffee as she started to dig into her sandwich, and he knew that he had to apologise for his behaviour the previous night.

"Helen… I'm sorry about the way I acted last night. I'd had too much to drink and I really shouldn't have pawed at you that way. Can you forgive me?"

He looked hopeful as he covered her hand with one of his, but his expression fell as she quickly removed her hand and busied it with her cappuccino.

She swallowed the food in her mouth and took a drink before answering firmly, "I accept your apology Michael, but I won't pretend I'm happy about the way you behaved."

He nodded eagerly, happy to have even a crumb of hope. He pushed on excitedly, a new plan in mind now, "I'd really like to make it up to you. Would you come to dinner with me tonight?"

Helen's startled gaze flew up to meet his and she knew immediately that he was asking her on a date. She knew just as immediately that she couldn't accept and lead him on, not when her affections already lay elsewhere. She'd gotten past the point of kidding herself now and she'd accepted that her flirting with Nikki had been born of more than just idle curiosity.

She sighed quietly and said, "I'm sorry, Michael, but I can't go out with you. I know you mean well and you're a great guy, but I'm just not interested. I also, um, already have plans tonight," she hedged vaguely, not certain she wanted to voice the exact nature of those plans yet.

While she was perfectly okay with her attraction to Nikki Wade, she wasn't sure how her friends would react to it. That was a bridge she planned to cross if things got more serious between them.

Claire seemed put out by this information and interjected, "But I was hoping we could all check out a different club tonight. We've spent the last two at Thirst and I thought a new venue might be interesting."

Helen again looked apologetic as she reluctantly admitted, "Actually… that's where I'm going tonight. I'm meeting someone there."

Claire was obviously more observant than Helen had given her credit for, because a look of realisation immediately dawned and she accused, "It's that bartender, isn't it?"

Helen's refusal to meet her eyes and the slight flush of her cheeks said everything.

"Oh my god! Helen! I had no idea you swung that way."

Helen was thoroughly embarrassed and would have taken offence to the statement if it hadn't been said in a playful manner with a hint of laughter. She fiddled with her cappuccino and swallowed nervously as she tried to think of something to say, finally deciding that honesty was the best policy.

"I didn't either, honestly. I don't even know if it's going anywhere. I just know that I'm… drawn to her."

Claire nodded, listening intently with an excited expression on her face. She honestly didn't give a toss if Helen was gay or straight, as long as her friend was happy, and she hadn't seen the Scot this carefree in years.

"Well I think it's great that you've met someone. Does she feel the same way about you?"

Helen looked up in surprise, clearly having expected some kind of judgement and relieved to have acceptance instead, and she shrugged with a small smile playing at the edges of her mouth.

"I think so. I invited her up to my room last night and we spent hours just talking. I thought she was going to kiss me before she left, but she did something even better."

She grinned widely at the memory of the soft kiss to her forehead and Nikki's parting words, giving her permission to use her elusive full name.

Through this latest revelation Michael had been decidedly silent and withdrawn, a stony expression on his face as he kept his opinion to himself. Helen glanced at him worriedly and Claire then took notice of his demeanour as well.

The Scot touched his hand and pried gently, "Is something the matter? You're very quiet."

He withdrew his hand like it had been burned and he stood quickly from the table. He grabbed his jacket and finished his coffee in one gulp before saying scathingly, "No, of course not. I just found out the girl I like is a dyke. Why would that bother me?"

Helen recoiled from the venom in his voice and Claire looked aghast and then furious at his words. Before either woman had a chance to make a retort, he'd turned on his heel and exited the shop. Helen looked across the table at her best friend with confusion and hurt mingled in her hazel eyes.

Claire could see the struggle she was going through and rubbed her arm gently, soothing in calming voice, "I'm sure he didn't mean it to come out that way. I think he's just surprised because he always fancied he had a chance with you. I thought the same until today. He'll come around, don't worry."

Helen nodded and finished off her sandwich and now-cold drink, lost in a sea of thoughts that were raging in violent waves and causing a hurricane of confused emotion inside her. She walked silently out of the café after disposing of her trash, and she shivered as the temperature dropped and a light drizzle of rain began to descend from the darkened sky. She glanced upward at the rolling grey clouds and thought that they reflected her mood perfectly. Claire didn't push her to talk as they walked back to the hotel, thankful that it wasn't yet pouring as neither had brought an umbrella.

Helen ran through everything in her mind, from meeting Nikki to the talk they'd had last night in her room, to her own feelings about the alluring bartender and what she hoped might grow between them, to what other people would think and say about their relationship if it came to that. Part of her was very conscious of what others thought and worried about the repercussions should her father find out she was involved with a woman. He would surely cut off all funding for her education and she'd be forced to fend for herself.

Another part of her realised that this was inevitable anyway, as it was part of growing up and being an independent adult. She knew she couldn't rely on anyone else permanently and, furthermore, she couldn't allow someone else to dictate her life and her happiness. So what if she liked Nikki and wanted more than friendship with her? So what if she ended up falling madly in love with a woman and decided to pursue that lifestyle? If it meant she would be happy in the long run, surely that was worth fighting for. With a newfound determination she strode into the hotel lobby and mashed the call button for the lift.

Claire stepped up beside her and noticed the change in her attitude, made apparent by the confidence in her body language, and she was secretly pleased that her brother's ignorant opinion hadn't broken the fiery Scotswoman. She really did want Helen to be happy and in her eyes it didn't matter with whom she found that joy. She privately agreed that Nikki was very attractive and she could see why Helen would be interested. If she was that way inclined she might have given it a go herself.

As they stepped into the lift Claire asked, "Have you got anything planned for the rest of the afternoon? I was thinking of visiting the House of Commons but I don't really want to go alone. Besides, the club won't be open for hours and you can't just stay in your room all day."

She turned pleading eyes on Helen and the Scot smiled. "Yeah. That sounds fine. I've never been there before but I've heard it's quite a show."

Claire gave her a one-armed hug and enthused, "Great! Well I'm going to put these," she gestured to her shopping bags, "in my room and then I'll meet you at yours. Oh! And don't forget there's a party tonight in suite 1203. You should invite Nikki to come with you."

She winked at the Scot as she stepped out of the elevator and wandered down the hall to her room. Helen shook her head with a laugh as she found her door and let herself in, dumping the numerous bags on the end of her bed and sinking onto the mattress with a sigh. One thing was certain: whatever happened later, it was going to be an interesting night.

While Helen and Claire spent the afternoon touring London and taking in the sights, Nikki was trapped at the club training the new bartender and growing more frustrated by the hour. This wasn't how she wanted to spend her day. She'd planned on sleeping in and doing some cleaning around her flat, but Tony had called to inform her that he'd hired more help and he needed her to train the new girl. Apparently Brandy had some sort of family emergency and had to go out of town, and Spring Break was too busy a time for Nikki to handle the place on her own.

The blonde bartender had assured the owner that she would be back before the end of the night, but he was concerned she might not be there in time to help with rush. He'd already been doing interviews all week in an effort to give Nikki and Brandy more time off, so finding a suitable candidate was a piece of cake. Tony had assured Nikki that Kim was quite capable of handling the bar and experienced with mixing drinks, but it quickly became obvious to the seasoned bartender that this was not the case.

Kim was a slip of girl, even shorter than Helen and extremely slender, so much so that she barely had any curves. She had waist length straight chestnut hair and wide hazel eyes. She was very attractive in a preppy cheerleader kind of way, and Nikki was now convinced that that was why she'd been hired, not because she had any real experience working at a nightclub. A quick glance at her file confirmed this, as she was barely nineteen. Nikki tried her level best to have patience and show the younger girl the ropes, but it was wearing thin because she was as thick as a stack of bricks and seemed more fixated on flirting with her coworker than mastering the job she'd been hired to do.

By the time the club opened at five o'clock, Nikki was in a decidedly foul mood. In the last few hours Kim had tried to back her up against the bar and seduce her, had blatantly ignored half of what was being said in favour of staring at the taller woman's chest, and she'd pinched Nikki's bum as she was walking into the storeroom. Enough was enough, damn it. The only thing that made the night seem a little more bearable was the prospect of seeing Helen again. She just hoped Kim could keep her hands to herself around the small Scot or she wouldn't be responsible for her actions.

A flash of green caught Nikki's attention in the strobe lights and her head snapped toward the entrance, just as Helen entered amongst a group of her friends and several eager club-going strangers. She was so fixated on the marvellous sight of Helen Stewart that she completely missed the order for beer the frustrated man in front of the bar had given.

Fingers snapping in front of her face drew her focus back onto the irate gentleman in front of her. She had the grace to look embarrassed as she mumbled a quick apology and went to fill a pitcher with draught beer, giving him a discount for the trouble and wallowing in relief as he quickly made his way off to join his buddies.

Her breath caught in her throat for the second time that night when Helen came up to the bar and stopped directly in front of her. Nikki swallowed hard as she slowly drank in the short silky number Helen had poured herself into. It was an almost perfect match for the color of her eyes, which were glinting emerald in the low lighting and filled with mischief and amusement at the way Nikki's gaze clung hungrily to the sight of exposed cleavage.

The taller woman shook her head slowly to clear it of lusty cobwebs and she offered a sheepish smile as she greeted the sexy Scot, "Hi, Helen."

A beaming smile complete with tongue pressed against teeth nearly made Nikki's knees buckle and an inaudible groan passed through her lips. It was unthinkable really, the way this woman affected her. She'd thought she had more self-control than this, but lately she was no better than a hormonal teenager. Something about Helen completely unwound any semblance of control she had left, and made her want to ravage the shapely brunette until they were both unconscious from sexual exertion.

"Hiya, Nikki," broke her out of her heated reverie and she found her face flushing pink with the realisation that she'd been caught daydreaming… again.

Helen was also suffering from a similar strain of the lust virus. The second she'd laid eyes upon Nikki she'd felt a tingle start up in her nether regions, and it was growing into a steady and insistent throb the longer she stood there staring at her. She'd seen the way the dark-haired woman had undressed her visually and it only spurred her on to make her own assessment. It seemed Nikki Wade always looked good enough to eat, no matter what she was wearing, but tonight she was exceptionally delicious in a pair of black leather trousers and a scarlet satin button-up blouse.

Black eyeliner rimmed liquid chocolate eyes darkened by and filled with desire, only intensifying the feelings Helen was barely keeping in check. She had every intention of letting Nikki know exactly what she wanted, but this wasn't the place for it. She wanted to get the bartender on her own and then all bets were off. The thought of what might happen between them both scared and thrilled her to bits.

Her inexperience made her nervous as she wasn't quite sure how to go about seducing a woman, but if Nikki's reaction to her was any indication then she wouldn't have to try very hard. The obvious electricity and heat between them was absolutely tantalising and she couldn't wait to see where it led.

A throng of impatient customers shoved their way up to the bar and broke off the mutual appreciation staring contest happening between the two women, Claire and Michael among them. The blonde law student squeezed herself in beside Helen and eyed Nikki with a grin as the taller woman moved rapidly behind the bar, filling order after order in haste to keep the clientele happy.

Neither of them saw the way Michael hung back and looked upon the situation with clear disdain. He couldn't believe this dyke was stealing his girlfriend, or at least she would've been if it wasn't for that interfering lesbian. He ordered a pint then quickly moved off to join his football mates, not wanting to stick around to see any more disgusting displays of homosexual affection.

When he got to the table where his friends were sitting, he plopped down with an angry huff and began gulping his beer. One of his newer mates, whom he'd only met since he'd been in Soho and who didn't go to the same university as the rest of them, noticed his mood was off and questioned the reason. Michael was in a state of bitter resentment and relished in the opportunity to rant to someone, so he spilled the beans over several more pints until he was slurring drunkenly about dykes stealing what was rightfully his.

In the meantime, Claire and Helen had procured their own drinks and moved off to join a group of their girly friends, but not before the Scot noticed the new bartender on shift who was doting endlessly on Nikki. Helen could see clear as day that the raven-haired woman was paying the younger girl no mind, but it didn't prevent the green-eyed monster from rearing its ugly head.

She too sat down with a huff, unknowingly mirroring the earlier actions of Claire's older brother, and she grumbled about barely-legal tarts making a move on her woman. Claire found the whole situation quite amusing and did her best to make Helen see reason, pointing out that Nikki wasn't giving the young girl the time of day and that she only had eyes for Helen, also mentioning that technically Nikki wasn't hers.

This only served to further incense the small Scot as she thought determinedly, 'Yet.'

As the night progressed the club got increasingly busy and Kim got more and more overt in making passes at Nikki, much to Helen's mounting frustration. It didn't help that the bar was constantly crowded so they didn't get a chance to speak to each other, apart from Helen refilling her drink. At a quarter to eleven there was a lull in drink orders and Nikki was excited at the prospect of speaking to Helen properly for the first time that evening. She had just stepped from behind the bar, however, when Kim stopped her with a hand on her forearm.

The young bartender peered up at Nikki with open admiration and lust as she leaned in closer and suggested in a silky voice, "I was hoping we could get to know each other better. Do you want to dance with me?"

Before Nikki had a chance to decline, a distinct and clearly irritated Scottish voice growled from over her shoulder, "No, she doesn't."

Helen appeared beside the taller woman and her green eyes flashed dangerously at the girl still holding onto Nikki's arm. Kim gulped and quickly let go, backing away with a nervous laugh and saying, "Sorry… I didn't know she was involved with anyone."

Helen bit down on her tongue and cursed herself for the fact that, actually, Nikki wasn't spoken for and she really had no right to interfere if she wanted to dance with someone else. Nikki, being her usual perceptive self, noticed the change in Helen's expression and hurried to remedy the situation.

"I am. Sorry, Kim, but I'm not interested. I've got my hands full with this one."

She wrapped an arm around Helen's shoulders and gave the small woman a squeeze, reassuring her as much with the gesture as she had with her words. Kim nodded sullenly then slunk back behind the bar to serve the slow trickle of customers.

The club was still packed and the music thumping, but most of the inhabitants were already heavily inebriated and dancing the night away, leaving the bar fairly uncrowded. For this Nikki was immensely grateful. After Kim's departure, the brown-eyed bartender fixed Helen with an amused gaze and a smirk.

The Scot shuffled her feet nervously and mumbled, barely loud enough for Nikki to hear over the music, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. It wasn't my place."

Nikki reached a hand up to cup Helen's cheek, urging her eyes upward to meet her own, and she said in all seriousness, "I'm glad you did, and it's yours if you want it to be."

Emerald orbs danced with shocked delight as she absorbed the full weight of what Nikki had said. She stepped in closer to the taller woman and looped her arms around a toned, slender waist. She tilted her head up and stood on tiptoes as she brushed a nervous kiss against the corner of Nikki's mouth.

The raven-haired woman was at once surprised and overjoyed at the seeming acceptance of her offer. She threaded the fingers of one hand through silky brown tresses while the other pressed into Helen's lower back, drawing her even closer so their bodies were touching. She dipped her head and brought her lips down to meet their shorter counterpart, slowly exploring and barely touching at first.

Any initial hesitance died almost immediately as Helen moaned and pressed further into the kiss. Lips mashed hungrily and tongues darted out to taste and claim ownership of what they had both been wanting so desperately since they'd met. Only when they were both gasping for lack of oxygen did they break apart, Nikki with her forehead resting gently against Helen's.

They shared a grin and then a lighthearted chuckle after Helen whispered, "Wow…"

Nikki dropped a light kiss on the tip of that adorable button nose and then another on the Scot's swollen lips, courtesy of their passionate embrace. Wolf whistles sounded behind them and broke them apart once again.

Helen blushed and Nikki noticed, quickly becoming nervous that Helen was regretting her decision already.

She ducked her head and released Helen with a sigh, mumbling dejectedly, "Sorry. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

The next second she felt fingers tucked under her chin, urging her to look up from the floor. She was met with a smile as a thumb smoothed across her cheekbone in a soothing motion.

She smiled back as Helen said, "Don't worry. I was a little embarrassed, but it's not because of you. I'm just not used to being so affectionate in public, but this doesn't change anything."

The Scot gripped Nikki's hands firmly in her own, twining their fingers together as she continued hopefully, "If you meant what you said, I'd very much like that. I… want to be with you, Nikki," she finished in a nervous rush and waited with baited breath to hear a response.

A flurry of activity in the middle of the club cut their conversation short. It quickly became apparent that a brawl was in progress amongst a group of drunken men. What started as an argument between two guys over a scantily clad woman had progressed to a full-blown bar fight. The hired security officers quickly descended and dragged the disorderly patrons out of the establishment, before things could become more heated and out of control.

Brandy arrived on the scene as they were being forcibly escorted outside into the rain, already looking frazzled as she hurried over to the bar. Nikki shot Helen an apologetic look that said 'We'll talk about this later' before going to meet up with her drenched and dishevelled coworker. The blonde apologised profusely for her absence and explained that her fiancé's mother had been involved in a terrible car accident, and was now residing in intensive care. Nikki quickly quelled her friend's rising panic by insisting that it hadn't been a problem and that she hoped the woman would recover quickly.

Kim continued to serve drinks as Nikki briefed Brandy on the happenings of the afternoon and evening, including the fact that they'd gotten a new bartender. Introductions were made and then the three settled into an easy routine working together. In the meantime, Helen had been cornered by a slightly drunk Claire and informed that their group was moving on to another club until it was time for the hotel party to start. Helen stated that she would be staying, as she hadn't yet finished talking to Nikki, so she took a seat in a cushioned booth by the bar and waited until her companion had a free minute to spare.

It wasn't long before Brandy pulled Nikki aside and suggested that she take an early evening, since she'd been at the club practically all day covering for her and training Kim. Nikki was hesitant to agree at first, but a sweep of the club revealed that business had died down a good deal since the fight, and a glance at Helen had her stomach fluttering with anticipation, so she gave Brandy a grateful hug and went to join the seated Scot with a wide smile plastered across her face.

The darker woman slid into the booth and wrapped an arm around Helen's shoulders, as she leaned in to give the Scot a peck on the lips. When she went to pull back, two small hands gripped the collar of her shirt and dragged her in for a more insistent kiss, stalling any conversation for the next few minutes. When they separated they were both wearing soppy grins as they stared into each other's eyes, feeling at once like lovesick teenagers, though neither could say she minded a bit. Helen suddenly remembered the upcoming party and that she'd yet to offer an invitation.

"I was wondering if you'd like to come to a party with me tonight, at the hotel? My friends have invited me and I don't fancy going by myself. You could keep me company and make sure no one paws at me," Helen teased with a thousand-watt smile and Nikki's heart beat wildly in her chest. How could she refuse?

She nodded dumbly then found her voice, "I can do that. As it happens, I've been relieved of my bartending duties for the rest of the night, so I'm free to leave whenever."

Helen awarded her with another toe-clenching kiss and then dragged her from the booth. "In that case, Miss Wade, I think I'd like it very much if you bought me another drink and then we can get out of here."

Nikki eagerly obliged and walked hand-in-hand with Helen towards the bar, where an amused Brandy shook her head and offered them a grin. Forty minutes later the pair stumbled out of the rain and into the hotel lobby, giggling as they hurried toward the lift, making it inside just before the doors closed. They were both slightly intoxicated and therefore didn't mind the intrigued glances they garnered from those around them.

Helen, oblivious and uncaring about the other people in the moving metal box, pressed Nikki into the back corner of the lift and proceeded to plunder her mouth with a demanding tongue.

When the elevator came to a halt, a pointed cough to the left brought them back to reality. A gentleman in his mid-thirties, wearing a soaked business suit, nodded at the lift doors as they opened and asked, "Is this your floor?"

A sheepish looking Helen glanced at the illuminated number above the doors and nodded, mumbling her thanks as she dragged Nikki out by the hand. They broke into another fit of laughter as the doors closed behind them and the rumbling departure of the elevator sounded in the quiet corridor.

Helen opened the door to her room and checked the time on the bedside clock, noting that they still had about an hour before the party was due to be in full swing. Most of her friends would likely still be out and come stumbling in around one in the morning. Helen glanced from Nikki to her bed and back again, blushing and shy as she seemed to realise where they were for the first time.

The taxi ride and the short jaunt in the cold rain had sobered her up somewhat, and now the situation was hitting home. All night they had been in a crowded club surrounded by people and now they were alone in her room. She swallowed nervously and Nikki picked up on the change of mood instantly.

She didn't miss the Scot's furtive glances and she rushed to reassure the smaller woman that they didn't have to do anything besides talk. An embarrassed and relieved Helen sat opposite Nikki at the small table, and they held hands as they spent the rest of the hour in deep conversation, learning even more about each other and reaffirming on both ends that there was a definite attraction, and that they each wanted to see where things could go between them.

The party was alive with music and drunken laughter when the pair entered the suite. Somehow the guys had managed to smuggle in a keg past hotel security and plastic cups littered every available surface.

Nikki arched a brow and offered Helen a wry smile as she said, "So this is what I've been missing of university."

Helen swatted her on the rear playfully and stated over the music, "This isn't even half of it, or so I'm told. I don't normally frequent these types of social functions."

Her taller companion shot her a questioning glance so she admitted, "I had a bit of an embarrassing stint my first year during Spring Break, so I've avoided drinking and going to parties since then. I'll just say that table dancing was involved."

Nikki now looked even more intrigued as she smiled lecherously. Helen blushed but chuckled softly at the expression on her girlfriend's face. As the thought occurred to her she froze and the need to ask became overwhelming.

"Nikki… um… does this mean we're an item… officially, I mean? I know I'm new to all of this, but I guess I'm trying to say, well, if you'll have me, I'd like to be your girlfriend?"

Helen looked down at the carpet and clamped her mouth shut to avoid further rambling on her part. Nikki pulled the shorter woman into a tight embrace and kissed her with barely restrained passion, and then she whispered against her lips, "I'd love to have you, Miss Stewart."

The double-meaning in that statement wasn't lost on either of them as corresponding throbs shot down to their sexes. They were jostled out of the moment by a couple of intoxicated males sloshing beer around and pushing past them. As they scurried off to find a corner where they wouldn't be disturbed, neither of them noticed Michael and an unknown man watching them from across the room with matching glares.


Chapter 12

The remainder of Helen's holiday went by at a snail's pace, with both herself and Nikki in miserable moods near-constantly. Helen caught up on more reading in a bid to distract herself, spending almost every free second of her time immersed in a new book or scrubbing her flat to perfection. Sean's presence was scarce but she managed to corner him one evening and convince him to give a gardening lecture at the prison.

She honestly thought the women would appreciate it; at least she knew that Nikki would. It was with a certain amount of reluctance that he agreed to the ordeal. He seemed to have some strange fear of going into the prison, as if the women were going to rip him to shreds. She assured him that it was perfectly safe and the most he should worry about was a difficult time in getting them to pay attention.

Nikki had started her Open University classes, much to Hollamby's dismay, and she was up to her eyeballs in course work. It was a welcome distraction but inevitably thoughts of Helen would creep in when she wasn't preoccupied, and then she would get stroppy with anyone and anything around her. More than once, inanimate objects in her cell were thrown at the walls while she chain-smoked herself closer to an early death.

Fenner took great delight in winding her up while Helen was away, trying to get her to slip up and say or do something that would land her in a heap of shit. She steadfastly refused to take the bait and did her best to stay out of his way, otherwise ignoring him when she couldn't. He made it part of his nightly routine to listen in on their phone calls, but since the first time he'd tuned in he hadn't been able to glean anything useful from the one-sided conversation.

They must have realised they were being reckless because now everything Nikki said was guarded, and she was careful not to name the person to whom she was speaking. This frustrated him to no end as it meant he couldn't prove anything. It would be his word against theirs and outwardly they'd shown no indication they were involved inside the prison walls, meaning none of the other officers were likely to back him up.

It would probably be put down to paranoid fantasising and he didn't want that kind of reputation. No… he would just have to do some digging and find proof. Hearing Nikki's lovesick tone of voice and seeing the look of sheer joy on her face each night made him more determined than ever to squash her under his boot. He had a score to settle with that stupid cow. She'd brought it upon herself with her pigheaded defiance and refusal to obey him like a good dog.

The wing was largely absent disruption with very few incidents to report, so Jim had plenty of time on his hands to carry out his private investigation. The problem was that there didn't seem to be any evidence, or even a hint that the two knew each other at all apart from being prisoner and governor. For now it seemed he would have to bide his time and keep a close eye out.

Something was bound to turn up eventually. If not, he would just have to catch them in the act, because he was quite positive they were screwing like ferrets. The thought made him sick to his stomach; he wholeheartedly shared Sylvia's opinion that lesbians were unnatural. What Helen obviously needed was a real man to show her what she was missing.

He would be more than happy to be that man, in fact. She was quite a looker and the thought of getting into her knickers made him hard, even more for the fact that he'd be stealing Wade's play toy out from under her dykey nose.

The love-struck couple was unaware that, once again, someone had intentions of splitting them up and that they were being closely watched upon Helen's return. The Scot found Nikki indulging in a bit of sunbathing out on the grounds, and a blinding smile crossed her face as she drank in the sight of her illuminated lover lying on the grass.

When the con spotted her she quickly jumped up with a matching grin, and it was with great disappointment that they stood several feet apart, unable to openly embrace as they longed to. The first thing Nikki noticed when she looked Helen over was that she'd lightened her hair to a dark blonde and had it parted differently. The new look definitely agreed with the Scot and made her even cuter than ever.

Nikki's heart sped up and she looked around to make sure no one was in hearing distance before she commented on it, followed by telling Helen that she was absolutely gorgeous and she was completely in love with her. The shorter woman blushed and tilted her head with a dazzling smile of gratitude, before quietly agreeing that she felt the same.

They took a moment to stare at each other through eyes filled with love, unaware that they were being watched from one of the windows, and then they struck up a light conversation. Helen found out that Nikki hadn't read Sophie's World and urged her to do so, even saying that she would sneak a personal copy in for her.

A joke passed between them about it being against prison regulations, to which Helen playfully replied, "Well, I won't tell if you won't," before walking off in such a good mood she almost considered whistling.

A mostly uneventful morning followed in which Helen caught up with the POs and demanded all of the incident reports from her absence. Fenner, of course, couldn't pass up the opportunity to give her a hard time, but she walked out of the Officers Room with a bounce in her step, feeling victorious and vindicated, and sure that he was cursing her name.

A few hours later she caught up with Dominic on his own, only to discover that a new inmate, Jessie Devlin, had been sick all over his uniform. He seemed to be unwavering in his belief that he wasn't doing any good in the prison service and still determined to pack in his job, but with a little friendly persuasion, and perhaps a touch of flirting on her part, she managed to talk him into meeting at the pub on Friday to discuss things further.

She knew it wasn't right to use her feminine wiles to persuade him, but she also knew it wasn't right to let such a good officer go without a fight. Besides, it was harmless flirting and nothing would ever come of it.

More catch-up meetings and paperwork saw Helen well through lunch and into the afternoon, and then, when she had a free moment to spare, she called Lorna Rose to bring Nikki to her office. She had promised the inmate that they would discuss her Open University courses to see how she was getting on.

She had high hopes for her girlfriend's success and she already had the beginnings of a plan forming to set her free. All she had to do was make sure that Nikki kept her nose clean, and that she made every effort to better herself and appear in a positive light. Then Helen could contact her long-time lawyer friend Claire and they could begin an appeal process, if she could get Nikki to agree to it…

That would likely be the difficult part, but Helen had a few tricks left up her sleeve. She was sure the con would do just about anything to make her happy, and nothing would make her happier than to have Nikki released from prison so she could take her home and start their life together. Too much time had been wasted and she didn't want to lose another second.

A knock on the door twenty minutes later had Helen tingling with anticipation from her head to her toes. Finally they would get a few minutes alone, out from under the prying gazes that always surrounded them. She'd noticed that Jim in particular had been watching her like a hawk since her return. He seemed even more smug than usual, like he had some kind of secret advantage that she didn't know about.

It unsettled her but she was determined not to let him pull one over on her. She wanted him out of the prison service and by God she was going to make it happen. She just had to catch him in the act of doing something nefarious.

She rose from her desk and called, "Come in," a smile firmly planted on her lips as the door opened to reveal Nikki and Lorna.

"Thank you, Lorna. I'll call you to collect Nikki once we've finished discussing her courses."

Lorna, not the brightest crayon in the box, seemed almost painfully unaware of the tension between the governor and the inmate, and so she left with a smile and a nod of her head.

Nikki's eyes glinted mischievously as she reached behind her and clicked the lock into place, effectively shutting them in from the outside world. Helen rounded her desk in record speed and they fell into each other with desperation. Lips, tongues, and teeth battled for dominance as hands flitted eagerly to touch and to hold, to re-familiarise and to make up for lost time.

Nikki was in the process of unbuttoning Helen's crisp white shirt when two small hands firmly gripped hers, halting her movements. Brown eyes questioned green silently and Helen released a regretful sigh.

"Nikki, we need to talk."

The inmate's smile was wicked and playful as she teased, "Talking's what you do after." She went to kiss the shorter woman and once again was met with rejection.

"I'm serious," the Scot insisted, resignation evident in her tone. There would be time to play later, but for now they had to get reality out of the way.

A short nod and a frown accompanied Nikki dropping her hands and stuffing them in her pockets. "Okay. What do you want to talk about?"

Helen smoothed the frown lines away with her fingertips and whispered, "Och, sweetheart, don't worry… we'll have time for that later. I just have a few things I need to discuss with you first. Okay?"

Helen rubbed her thumb gently against Nikki's cheek, imploring with her gaze for cooperation, and the inmate's stance relaxed as she nodded and responded quietly, "I know, and I'm sorry for being moody. I just missed you so much. I love you, Helen."

The Scot's heart turned into a puddle of goo upon hearing those words and her eyes sparkled a magnificent green. She rewarded the lifer with a gentle kiss on the lips before murmuring, "I missed you too, sweetheart, and I love you more than I ever thought possible. Now come sit down and we can have a chat, and then if you're a good girl I might let you have your wicked way with me."

She winked playfully as she retreated to her side of the desk and reclaimed her seat of power, that which inevitably and unfortunately created a barrier between them. Her heart constricted painfully at the realisation that while Nikki was a prisoner they couldn't be equals. It hurt more than she cared to admit, because in her heart and mind Nikki was, and always would be, her equal; her partner; the love of her life.

Nikki took her seat and stared expectantly across the great divide, waiting almost patiently to hear what her lover had to say. The conversation started about OU classes and Nikki wasn't hesitant to admit that she actually enjoyed them, even going as far as to thank Helen for pressing the issue until she'd agreed to take them. They shared a laugh over Sylvia's plight in having to escort the inmate to and fro, and her obvious distaste for being forcibly involved and made to sit in at the lectures.

Nikki casually mentioned that Fenner had been more of a pain in the arse than usual and that he seemed extremely intent upon winding her up as of late, which caused a sinking feeling of dread to grow in the pit of Helen's stomach. His behaviour toward Nikki coupled with the smarmy, knowing grins he'd been shooting Helen all morning caused fear to bubble up, as she tried to rationalise with herself, 'He can't know. There's no way he could know. We've been so careful. He can't possibly know.'

No matter what she told herself, the bad feeling clung to her like a shroud and she had to fight off a full-blown panic attack. She clasped her hands in front of her and interrupted Nikki mid-sentence, "Nikki, sweetheart, I need you to listen to me very carefully. This may just be my paranoia talking, but I think Fenner might be onto us. He's been behaving strangely toward me as well, like he knows something that he shouldn't. We're going to have to tread very carefully from now on. That bastard has eyes and ears everywhere."

Nikki nodded slowly in agreement as the cogs in her head turned rapidly, dissecting random bits of information and stringing together occurrences in a logical order. Her eyes widened suddenly and she bolted upright as she remembered something, seemingly inane at the time and now apparently crucial.

"I thought I saw him hanging about by the phone last week as I was headed toward my cell, but I didn't think anything of it at the time. What if he's been there for the last two weeks?"

A short pause followed and then the penny dropped, Helen's posture becoming rigid as her lips tightened into a thin line.

"Shit," she exclaimed vehemently, jumping up from her chair and beginning to pace by the window, muttering a litany of obscenities under her breath.

How could they have been so careless? She pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, feeling the beginning of a headache as she tried to remember every word that had been exchanged between them over the telephone, wondering what he might have heard and if he would be able to prove anything.

It was a small miracle that the calls weren't recorded, and she was filled with insurmountable gratitude for the short-comings of the prison due to budget cuts. The Scot was so caught up in the turmoil of her thoughts that she didn't hear Nikki approach, and so she jumped in fright when two strong hands came to rest on her shoulders. She reprimanded the con with a stern look and then relaxed with a heavy sigh.

Nikki's hands kneaded her tense muscles as the con pressed closer to whisper in her ear, "It's going to be all right, darling. We won't let him get anything over us. We'll just be even more careful and keep things strictly professional when we're not behind locked doors. Don't let him get to you like this. It's what he wants. He wants to get us wound up so we'll slip and give him proof. He's not going to win, okay?"

As unusual as it was for Nikki to be the voice of logic while Helen was being irrational, everything she said made perfect sense. The governor found herself nodding in agreement as she turned in her lover's arms and embraced her tightly.

Several long minutes passed in silence as they clung to each other, neither wanting to be the first one to break away. Then Nikki kissed her and effectively shut down the worrisome train of thoughts speeding through her brain. Nothing else existed in that moment but soft lips and strong fingers, the meeting of souls as they devoured each other.

Buttons popped, knees scraped on carpet, and papers scattered as they took each other fiercely, savouring the gift of alone time with painful awareness that it might not be repeated for a long while to come. It was a perfect moment captured in time, and the memories they made that day would carry them both through the trying times ahead, when feelings had to be concealed and even a brief glance was a risk of revealing too much. The eyes were the windows to the soul, according to some, and when they looked at each other they bore everything openly for the world to see.

Their love was so pure and incandescent that it shone as a beacon of hope in the darkness of repression, but that light had to be dampened because its freedom would mean their downfall, so with heavy hearts they closed off their feelings as they straightened their clothes and Nikki left Helen's office to return to her cell, where bitter tears streaked down her cheeks and trembling fingers lit a lone cigarette.

She wished with all her might that life wasn't so brutally unfair. If there was any justice in the world she wouldn't be stuck in this place, left to rot with only a morsel of hope to get her through the day. Tendrils of smoke wafted through the confines of her cell and found freedom through the bars on her window, escaping where she couldn't follow.

For hours she sat in silent thought, occasionally lighting up as she fought to suppress new tears, and as darkness began its descent on the outside world she extinguished the cherry of her cigarette, mimicking the death of her happiness as she buried her feelings in a box, shoved it in the farthest corner of her heart, and curled up on her thin mattress to wait for sleep that was hesitant to come.


Chapter 13

Friday night found Helen and Dominic in the pub, all part of her plan to get him to change his mind about resigning. Though he'd jokingly accused her of using alcohol to ply him earlier in the week, that wasn't her intention at all. Rather, she was banking on the informal setting and talking to him as one caring human being to another. She was hoping to appeal to his sensitive nature and convince him that he could do a world of good for the prison service. Alcohol was just an added bonus, and one that she regularly indulged in. She blamed her Scottish blood for the inclination.

She questioned him about why he'd wanted to become a PO in the first place and he tried to brush it off as the money and job security, but then he admitted to wanting to help people. Bingo! If she could just get him to focus on that, then this thing would be in the bag. When she brought up Rachel's suicide it immediately put a damper on the mood, and then she let slip that while he had integrity as a prison officer, the same couldn't be said for some of his colleagues.

'Oops. Best not elaborate on that…'

They continued to talk and drink for several hours after that, moving the conversation from work to their lives outside of Larkhall, so that Dominic wouldn't feel overly pressured to change his mind, and as the beer flowed freely he became much less inhibited in his admiration of the wing governor. More than once Helen found his eyes sweeping over her and lingering at her cleavage, making her feel uncomfortable with where he seemed to think things were going between them. In a bid to put some distance between them she stood and suggested a pint for the road, but the bell rang and announced that the pub was closing before she could get to the bar.

A glance at her wristwatch confirmed that it was the middle of the morning and she exclaimed, "Shit, can't believe it's that time already! Right, back to my flat."

A short time later they were both settled on Helen's sofa with fresh drinks, and she steered the conversation back to what Dominic had been about to tell her before the pub had closed. She'd gathered that he was wavering in his decision to resign, but something seemed to be holding him back. She was determined to find out the problem and resolve it.

"So, you were about to tell me something in the pub."

He fidgeted nervously and sipped at his drink as he replied, "Yeah, yeah…"

"Well, go on. Can't be that bad."

He took another gulp of liquid courage and a deep breath to steady his nerves before responding, "This is really difficult. I should have told you a long time ago. When we took Zandra to the abortion clinic, remember, me and Lorna? She did a runner. She got away from us and went to see her boyfriend."

It took Helen a moment to process what he was saying and then she dropped her head into her hands with a heavy sigh.

"Shit, Dominic."

"I know. We looked everywhere for her but just before we phoned for backup she waltzed back in. Lorna wanted to report it, but it was my fault so I suggested we keep schtum."

She looked at him with disbelief and asked, "How could you've been such an arse? You know you can be sacked on the spot for not reporting an escape!"

He was appropriately shamed and nodded his understanding as he replied, "Why do you think I decided to quit? I didn't want to keep on lying, especially to you."

She winced inwardly at the 'especially to you' part, as it further confirmed his misguided interest in her. "Well, at least you told me now. You know I'm going to have to put a report in to the Number One."

There was a pause and then came the million dollar question, which he'd been waiting to ask all night. "So you don't want me to withdraw my resignation?"

She sighed and shook her head before taking another drink. He apparently hadn't been paying attention to anything she'd said if he was still under the impression that she wanted him gone.

"Of course I want you to withdraw it. I told you, I want you to stay. And if you do stay I promise I'll put in a good word for you, for you and Lorna."

He looked like a kid on Christmas morning as he grinned and said, "Thanks, Helen, really that's... that's a big weight off."

She cast a wry smile in his direction and replied, "Yeah, well don't be too relieved. The hard work's still to be done. Still, I have been known for my persuasive powers."

She immediately kicked herself for how flirtatious that last sentence had come out. She didn't want to lead him on, but the goofy grin on his face told her she'd done just that. 'Fuck, fuck, fuck…' How was she going to fix this? Her unwitting saviour came in the form of Sean entering the flat, toting a large and cumbersome plant and boasting about how he'd won it.

She got off the sofa and began to clear away the drinks as she introduced them. She saw in her periphery how Dominic's face fell and she realised this might be just what she needed to dissuade him, even if it wasn't entirely truthful.

She would let him believe for now that Sean was still her boyfriend, because it beat the alternative of having to confess that she was involved with a prisoner. He was a good man but she didn't know him well enough yet to trust him with a secret of that calibre.

After Dominic left and Sean went into the guest room, she sought solace in her own bed as exhaustion and alcohol won over. Before she slipped into blissful unconsciousness, she resolved to talk to Nikki on Monday morning and explain everything, lest she get the wrong impression from inevitable prison gossip, and she hoped that her little white lie wouldn't be their downfall.

Saturday morning unlock propelled Nikki's already-glum mood into a full-on bout of angst and depression, with a good dose of confusion and anger on the side. Helen had mentioned earlier in the week that she'd invited Dominic out to the pub to try and convince him not to quit his job, but what she hadn't mentioned was that Sean was still living in her flat.

While making her way down the stairs toward breakfast, Nikki had overheard Dominic talking to Lorna about his night out with the boss. Apparently they'd had quite a lot to drink, and then something about Helen being angry but they were in the clear (for what Nikki had no idea), and then he stated forlornly that Helen's boyfriend had come home in the middle of the morning.

Nikki froze on the stairwell as Dominic carried on, completely unaware he was being overheard, "I mean, I didn't even know she was seeing anyone. She's certainly kept it quiet. Anyway, that's my chance ruined. I really like her and that Sean bloke seems like a bit of a tosser…"

His voice faded in volume as he and Lorna walked further down the wing. How could Helen still be living with Sean if they'd broken up? And why was Dominic so convinced they were a couple? Had they made a show of it or had he just assumed? Either way, something wasn't right here. Nikki remained frozen in place until one of the inmates bumped into her angrily for blocking the way.

Right… it was time for breakfast, and then back to her little brick box that festered insanity and reeked of inhumanity. She couldn't think about Helen just now, or the implications of what she'd heard, because if she focused on them then she really would go mad.

Helen, similarly, was having a terrible Saturday morning. She woke up with the mother of all hangovers and was faced with an overly chipper and sober Sean, who proceeded to ramble incessantly about his plants and what he'd won the previous night at the garden show. It was far too much excitement for her alcohol-battered brain to take, so she slunk off with a glass of orange juice and some aspirin to watch TV with the volume turned almost to mute.

Later in the afternoon she had a lengthy chat with Sean and pleaded with him until he agreed to pretend they were still dating, at least when he gave his lecture at the prison. She didn't reveal her concerns about Fenner's possible knowledge of her relationship with Nikki, but she did say it would be best not to rouse any unneeded suspicion about her love life.

The last thing she needed to contend with at the moment was losing her job, and though Sean didn't like being used as a cover, he still loved her and didn't want to see her suffer, so he said he would play the part temporarily, but then he'd be moving out as soon as he could. He'd already been looking at a few places that were within his budget and he calculated he could be gone by the next weekend, making life a little easier on both of them.

On Monday morning Dominic announced to all the POs that he would be staying and Sylvia pitched a mini-tantrum at having to return the going-away gift she'd bought. Helen was running a few minutes late and wasn't sure when she'd get a free moment to talk to Nikki, and Nikki was in an all-around foul mood.

Having had all weekend to stew over what she'd heard, she'd convinced herself that Helen was lying to her and using her. Unfortunately, meetings kept Helen tied up all morning and she didn't get a chance to speak with her favourite inmate. She saw a window of opportunity after Sean's gardening lecture in the afternoon, but things quickly went on a downward spiral when she entered the room.

The prisoners were leaving in a steady trickle and Helen could see that Nikki and Sean were having what looked to be an amicable discussion at the front of the room, but Fenner was hanging about in the doorway so she couldn't make a proper introduction or ask what they were talking about.

She knew that Sean would recognise Nikki from the picture he'd seen and would put two and two together, but she was equally sure that Nikki wouldn't figure out who Sean was until it was too late to say anything. Helen approached the pair with her stomach in knots, and the sick feeling worsened when Sean slung his arm around her shoulders.

"Home time, and you're doing the cooking."

The sound of the proverbial penny being dropped echoed through their minds.

Helen, angled away from the doorway, closed her eyes and clenched her jaw to keep from forcefully shrugging him off, knowing he was only doing as she'd asked because they had someone else watching them.

Nikki, not yet privy to the real situation, took Helen's actions as a sign of guilt. Anger bubbled up inside her like a dormant volcano awakening after years spent in hibernation. Helen tried to meet Nikki's eyes with her own, but the con was pointedly avoiding her gaze.

"So, how did you enjoy the class, Nikki?"

The taller woman finally looked at her with outrage and defiance glinting in her chocolate eyes, and Helen felt the sharp sting of her response, "Well, you learn something new every day."

Without another word, the con stormed out of the room angrily, leaving behind a confused Sean, who assumed she was aware of the plot, a sad and aching Helen, desperate to chase after her lover and explain, and a gleeful Jim Fenner with a shit-eating grin on his smarmy mug.

Stirring trouble in paradise was one of his absolute favourite hobbies, and it was clear from where he was standing that Wade had just been passed over for the posh gardening git. He was going to relish sticking the knife in and giving it a good twist whenever he got the chance. With a quiet chuckle to himself, he turned and stalked off toward the wing, whistling merrily under his breath.

As soon as they were alone, Helen moved out of Sean's one-armed embrace and fixed him with an angry glare. He backed up with his hands raised in surrender and she sighed heavily, running her hands over her face and muttering to herself, "Shit."

This was not how she'd foreseen her Monday going. She'd wanted to get Nikki alone that morning to explain everything, and now they were in a terrible mess and she didn't know how to fix it. She desperately hoped that when she offered her version of events she would be believed. She knew from experience that Nikki had a huge jealous streak and a temper to be reckoned with. She left the room and headed straight for the prison garden, intuition telling her that's where she was most likely to find her angry girlfriend.


Chapter 14

Nikki was taking out her frustrations on an unsuspecting batch of potting soil, stabbing angrily with her spade as she replayed the memory reel of Sean putting his arm around Helen, and that's how the wing governor found her in the potting shed.

"Nikki, please, let me explain…"

But Nikki had had enough of talking for now, and with fire in her eyes she tossed aside the gardening tool and sent her lips to plunder Helen's in a furious spell, as she pushed the Scot back against the wooden door and pinned her there with a strong grip. Passion born from anger and misunderstanding swelled between them and flames of ecstasy licked their skin, burning them from the outside into their souls.

One hand tangled roughly into the silken strands of Helen's hair, tugging with just enough pressure to inflict pleasure with a little pain, while the other hand deftly undid the fastenings of her suit trousers. As tongues continued to parry and hot breaths mingled, Nikki shoved her hand down into the fabric and past a soaked, lacy barrier, sliding through folds thick and swollen with want, and she claimed her prize swiftly with two fingers, delving deeply to their capacity as she marked her territory.

Helen, never one to stand idle, wasted no time in reciprocating with equal vigour. The act was almost feral in its roughness; primal instinct drove them both to the brink in a bid to possess one another. Moaning, gasping, clawing, biting, demanding, seizing, taking, and giving… there was no space left between them when they piqued and collapsed together almost fully clothed, both looking and feeling thoroughly fucked.

As cooling sweat caused clothes to stick to skin they both drew back a fraction, shuddering and locking eyes in the aftermath of their fierce coupling. Disentangling fingers and limbs, and then straightening clothes in sudden realisation, Nikki finally noticed the blood on Helen's lip. She brushed her thumb against it tenderly with regret shining in her eyes. The fight drained out of her and her shoulders slumped. She fixed Helen with an equally apologetic and questioning gaze, though it lacked her earlier accusation and animosity.

"I'm sorry, Helen, but I got so wound up seeing him touching you. I just snapped."

She hung her head and asked in a childlike voice, "Are you two still seeing each other?"

Helen immediately cupped her face in both hands and forced her gaze upward, warm and reassuring hazel eyes gripping her heart and squeezing it into shambles. Without this woman she was only a shadow of herself, only a half of a whole. Helen's love meant everything to her, and to see it reflected so clearly was like breathing after being held underwater.

"No, Nikki! He's been staying in the guest room until he can sort out a flat of his own. I know it didn't look good earlier, but I didn't have time to explain. I was in meetings all morning and then Fenner was standing there, and I couldn't very well profess my love for you in front of him."

The pads of her fingers stroked Nikki's cheeks in gentle sweeps as she continued sincerely, "I'm sorry, sweetheart, but I promise you nothing untoward is going on between Sean and I. He was only playing a part I asked him to, to cover our tracks where Fenner and the other officers are concerned. I really wanted to talk to you first, but as I said I didn't get a chance. Are we okay?"

Nikki's eyes welled up with tears and her chest hitched as she struggled to breathe, the avalanche of heart-stopping relief nearly burying her alive. She nodded and hugged Helen tightly to her, still unable to speak for several seconds.

She nuzzled her nose against Helen's neck, breathing in the comforting scent of her delicate shampoo and feminine perfume, and she mumbled dejectedly, "I'm so sorry, Helen. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions like that. I just love you so much. Without you I can't breathe…"

The shorter woman held Nikki in a bone-crushing hug as sobs began to wrack the con's lithe frame. Her hands flitted everywhere at once, trying to reassure her lover through touch as she murmured into her ear, "Shhh… Sweetheart, it's okay, I'm here… I told you before that I'm not leaving you again and I meant it. We're in this together. We're just going to have to do a bit of acting, okay?"

They pulled apart and Helen gripped Nikki's shoulders firmly in both hands, staring her straight in the eye as she reiterated, "There is absolutely no reason for you to be jealous of Sean. I've never felt for anyone what I feel for you. Ten years and a walk through my own personal Hell couldn't change my feelings, so what makes you think a posh git banging on about plants is going to?"

A smile began to twitch at the corners of Nikki's mouth as Helen's stab at lighthearted humour penetrated her glum mood, but then the first half of her comment registered and her face fell again. This was the first time Helen had ever verbalised anything to her about the incident, however vague her hint may have been. This was something they'd yet to find the right time to discuss, as Nikki hadn't wanted to push her into anything too soon and Helen hadn't found the courage yet to broach the subject.

Needing no help to interpret the shift in atmosphere, the Scot distracted her brooding lover by claiming her lips once again in a forceful kiss. This time they managed to find the self-control to pull apart before they got carried away, both aware that their luck was holding on by a thin string, and the slightest shift of the wind could bring them crashing down. They parted ways reluctantly with whispered promises to see each other soon.

Nikki was enjoying a quiet smoke in her cell after tea when Fenner decided to pop in and goad her. She watched him through narrowed, suspicious eyes as he stepped through the door, the shit-eating grin on his face alerting her that this wasn't going to be a pleasant exchange. Anything that made Jim happy definitely wasn't going to be good news for her.

"What's the matter, Wade? Can't handle the fact that your girlfriend's gone and dumped you? It's too bad, really… I was enjoying the idea of showing her what it's like to be with a real man. But you never know, I might still get the chance. I doubt that wimp she's with will know how to give her a good seeing-to."

He chuckled evilly and shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, clearly basking in the delivery of his speech. It took every single ounce of self-control Nikki possessed not to fly off her bunk and choke the life out of him, especially in the face of his none-too-subtle sexual threat. She couldn't, however, keep the threat of bodily harm from glinting in her eyes, as clear and menacing as if she was holding a blade in her hand.

She took a deep drag off her cigarette and held the smoke in her lungs for a few seconds longer than necessary, trying her best to calm down and not react in the manner he expected. She closed her eyes as she expelled a cloud of carcinogens and played Helen's voice over and over in her mind, imagining the Scot telling her to breathe deeply and think before she spoke, remembering that they weren't supposed to be together in appearance.

After a beat she tilted her head and put on a mask of cool indifference, shrugging as she answered flippantly, "I've no idea what you're talking about, Fenner. I can assure you that my girlfriend hasn't chucked me, and she wouldn't let a man touch her with a cattle prod. I'm in here for killing the bastard that tried. Remember?"

She made a mental note to call Trisha and fill her in on the situation as soon as she could. Helen was right… they were going to have to do some serious acting to throw him off his game, and they would need to enlist all the help they could get. If they both appeared to be occupied in other relationships, then maybe he would lay off and give them some peace. Though, she reflected, that was unlikely. He liked causing trouble too much.

His bravado faltered momentarily at her seeming indifference and outright denial of what he'd accused, coupled with the reminder of why she was currently behind bars. He'd been hoping for more of a reaction from her, something he could use to his advantage. He'd even momentarily thought he could get her to take a swing at him. An excuse to send her down the block was like Christmas morning coming early to him.

He regained his composure with practised ease and let another smirk contort his oily features, and then he remarked pompously, "You think you're so clever, don't you, Wade? Just wait… I'll have you and your precious wing governor, and there won't be anything you can do to stop me. No broken bottles lying around here to save you."

He strode out without giving her a chance to reply, leaving her seething with undiluted hatred as her cigarette burned down to the filter, unnoticed. She tossed it aside as an afterthought and clenched her fists tightly, trying to reign in her rage as she dug her short fingernails into her palms. His last comment seemed ironically fitting to her mindset. What she wouldn't give for a broken bottle and an hour alone with that bastard in a locked room…

Lunch the following day was a routine affair until Denny stood abruptly from the table she was sharing with Shell, seemingly worked up about something and clutching a plastic knife firmly in one hand. Nikki was too far away to hear the conversation preceding the outburst, but it was clear the younger inmate was in a strop about something.

The lifer watched on in shock as Denny grabbed one of the newer cons by the throat and threw her onto the floor, a short-timer and alcoholic named Jessie Devlin. It wasn't anything new to see Shell's sidekick playing the part of prison bully, but the attack seemed completely unprovoked and it wasn't like the younger girl to pick on someone older and so much weaker than herself. Usually her bouts of violence were drug-related and on Dockley's instructions.

The cavalry arrived in the form of Sylvia and Dominic and they managed to get the enraged girl off of the terrified woman, who was now huddled on the floor, shaking and crying, probably wondering what the hell she'd done to deserve that. The truly mystifying bit was that until that point the two had seemed to be getting along just fine. Nikki shook her head as she got up to dispose of her tray, knowing that sitting around and watching wasn't going to do any good. It was in the screws' hands now, and Denny had just landed herself firmly in the shit.

"I'll ask you again. Why did you attack her?"

Helen stared across her desk at the two inmates standing before her. She'd been briefed on the fight in the cafeteria and then had had them brought to her office to get to the bottom of it.

"Felt like it," Denny answered nonchalantly, all false bravado and outwardly cold.

"That's your explanation?" Helen asked with disbelief and mild irritation.

Then she switched her gaze to the other prisoner and asked gently, "Have you any idea why this happened, Jessie?"

The older woman seemed nervous and confused as she answered, "I smiled over at her and she come at me, with a knife."

"I should have cut your face up," the younger con spat contemptuously.

Helen interrupted another possible argument with a sharp, no-nonsense reminder, "You're up on a very serious charge, Daniella."

"I want her kept away from me," Jessie exclaimed, clearly fearful that she was going to be attacked again. With the statement Denny had just made, Helen couldn't blame her.

Denny turned to face the older woman, face distorted in disgust, and asked, "You think I'd come anywhere near you after what you did to me?"

"I never done nothing to ya!"

"You bloody did," Denny insisted with clear outrage.

"What? What have I done?" Jessie was obviously very confused at this point, along with everyone else in the room.

Helen decided it was time to cut the crap and find the root of the problem. Something else was going on here that she wasn't privy to, and she wanted to get it sorted before the situation got out of hand.

"Is there something that you're not telling us?"

Then came the revelation that threw the room into stunned silence, "She's my bleedin' mother! All right?"

Nikki was hanging about on the stairs leading down to the prison garden, enjoying the afternoon sunshine and a nicotine fix, when she spotted Jessie on a nearby bench with her face buried in her arms. The lifer tossed aside her cigarette and approached, concern for the other woman radiating in her expression as she sat down beside her. She reached out and touched Jessie's shoulder gently, getting her attention.

"Jessie? Are you all right? You want to talk to someone? I can go and find a screw."

The other woman looked up at her miserably and mumbled, "I thought she'd stand a better chance. I really did. What could I offer her?"

"Have you told her that?"

Jessie shook her head emphatically. "She don't want to know."

Nikki ducked her head to catch the other woman's eyesight, squeezing her shoulder reassuringly. "I would if it was me."

"She'd finish me off for good, and I wouldn't blame her." Her tone was so hopeless and resigned that Nikki wanted to grab her and shake some sense into her, but she refrained.

The lifer reasoned quietly, "She needs you to tell her why you left her."

Jessie shook her head again and looked as though she might cry. "I can't face it. Just can't."

It was obvious that she regretted the way the things were between her and her daughter, but that she wasn't quite sure how to cope with the situation or make amends. Nikki couldn't fathom being stuck in that scenario as she wasn't a mother herself, and at that moment she was thankful not to have to endure the wrath of an abandoned child. There were two sides to every story and this seemed to be a case of misunderstanding and good intentions gone wrong.

An idea came to her then and she persisted gently, "Have you tried writing it down?"

Jessie glanced at her with mild surprise and then shook her head in the negative. She hadn't thought of that, but it was a good idea…

Back in her cell later, after association had ended, she sat down with a pen and a small notebook and began to jot down her thoughts. They weren't particularly eloquent or well thought out, but they got the point across. She hoped it wasn't too late to repair things with Denny. Her biggest regret in life was being too drunk and self-absorbed to take care of her daughter properly, and it had caused them both many years of misery and hard times.

Nikki, in the meantime, had managed to track Denny down and tear her away from Shell's side long enough to have a serious conversation with her. At first the youngster was confused and sceptical, inherently suspicious of the lifer's motives in seeking her out. She quickly assured the younger con that she just wanted to have a civilised chat and that she wasn't looking for any favours.

Denny warmed up to her noticeably when she began to talk about her history with her parents, about how they'd kicked her out without a thought or a backward glance and hadn't bothered to contact her since, even though they'd had ample time and opportunity, and she begged Denny to consider hearing her mother out and giving her a chance.

The tattooed girl tried to brush off the suggestion at first, saying she didn't want to talk about it, but Nikki calmly reiterated that she knew what it felt like to be abandoned, and that she'd give almost anything to have a decent relationship with her parents and to know that they loved her. She urged the younger girl to grasp the opportunity with both hands and not let it slip by, knowing that she'd regret it later on if she didn't make the effort.

When she felt as though she'd gotten her point across and that Denny was giving it serious consideration, she took her leave and went to complete some work for her English course, allowing the younger girl time to stew in her thoughts and hopefully make the right decision.


Walking back toward the wing after one of her English classes, books clutched to her chest and Monica at her side, Nikki reflected on the turbulence of the last few days. Things had been in a near-constant state of disarray since Helen had returned from holiday, and the lifer wished for the millionth time that there was something she could do to ease some of the governor's stress.

She had a heart of gold and she tried so hard to make things better for the women in here. It wasn't fair that she single-handedly had to clean up the aftermath of chaos and bear the possible repercussions from above. Any sign of lenience or favouritism would bring her ability to do her job into question, while being too strict would bring about the same result.

Nikki was well-acquainted with the Old Boys Network and she knew for a fact that Stubberfield and Fenner were first-class members, prime examples of sexism and old-fashioned views at their finest. Days spent playing golf and nights spent sipping expensive Scotch had bonded the two into one of the most epic ass-kissing relationships of the century. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. That was their mentality to a tee.

Her reverie of bitter thoughts was broken as Monica questioned her about Trisha. She forced herself to mentally rejoin the conversation as she answered the older woman, careful not to give too much away. She'd already spoken to her ex on the phone and the blonde had reluctantly agreed to the charade of pretending they'd gotten back together. Monica had been overjoyed when she'd shared the news and Nikki felt horrible for lying to her.

Luckily the conversation took a turn onto safer grounds as Monica enquired about her parents. The lifer went on to explain that she'd left home at sixteen because they didn't like her lifestyle. The older woman was baffled by their disinterest in her life and her prison sentence, and assured her that it was their loss, stating that she was 'a lovely girl'. Nikki couldn't help the affectionate smile that crossed her face at the compliment.

Helen had done a lot to melt her ice queen exterior in the last month, and she'd recently found herself making a number of friends amongst the other inmates, Monica being the most prominent. It turned out that trusting people wasn't always such a bad thing after all. She was certainly a bit less miserable now that she had frequent company to keep her mind off darker thoughts.

"…Right, now I see that we've got a vacancy on G3. I'd like to put Nikki Wade up there."

Helen's statement was met with deafening silence as all eyes in the room turned to her, all except Lorna Rose, who was clearly distracted in the far corner. She'd barely muttered a word throughout the entire meeting. The Scot could feel the tension growing thicker by the second as Sylvia looked at her like she'd grown a second head and Jim stared with open disbelief.

"Well, don't all talk at once."

Fenner barely kept himself from exploding as the situation sunk in. "Wade, on Enhanced? Are you joking?"

"Obviously I'm not, Jim," she answered coolly, before turning her attention to the distracted PO. "Lorna, you're Nikki's personal officer. What do you think?"

"Yeah, fine," Lorna answered vaguely, only briefly glancing up at the wing governor.

Sylvia couldn't resist putting in her two cents, "Fine? She's worse than ever since she was put on that university course."

Helen was quickly growing frustrated with the lack of support she was receiving, and though she didn't agree with her next statement, she figured it might placate a few of the more sour lemons in the room.

"No one is denying that Nikki is difficult."

"So Helen, what exactly are you trying to prove?"

Fenner's tone immediately put Helen on edge and caused her defences to rise. He was giving her that knowing smirk again and she found herself wanting to smack it off his face. He didn't have any right to judge her with the sordid things he'd been getting up to lately.

Just because she couldn't prove anything yet didn't mean she doubted their truth. For one, she'd had her own suspicions based on watching his interactions with Michelle Dockley, and two, she knew Nikki wouldn't lie to her.

A few more sniping comments followed between Jim and Sylvia, with Lorna being completely silent and Dominic pitching in briefly. Jim's flippant comment about the Number One not liking it made the Scot grit her teeth, knowing all too well his inclination for going behind her back and making her job more difficult.

She couldn't resist her retort, "Once you get round to telling him all about it, I'm sure he won't."

Dominic, ever the faithful and supportive PO, albeit with a hopeless crush on the wing governor, jumped in to offer his support on the matter, effectively ruffling the feathers of his bitter colleagues. Helen decided that continuing the discussion at this point would be a waste of time; she had Lorna's agreement and her mind was already made up.

"Well we're going round the houses a bit here. Let's move on to the next item…"

Nikki was in her cell reading Romeo and Juliet with Monica in the background, quietly keeping her company as she worked on Spencer's jumper. A sharp rap on the cell door interrupted both of them and the lifer looked up with a frown.

Hollamby had her usual sour expression in place as she said with obvious disdain, "Get your stuff together. You're moving."

"Why? What the hell for?" Panic flared briefly in Nikki's chest as she wondered if she was being shipped out for some reason. But that couldn't be right, could it? Helen wouldn't do that…

If possible, Sylvia's face twisted into an even more unpleasant grimace. "You're moving to G3."

Shock warred with relief as Nikki made sure she'd heard correctly, "G3? You winding me up?"

Sylvia sniffed and muttered unhappily, "Miss Stewart's instructions. You've obviously made a very favourable impression in certain quarters."

'If only she knew.'

Inside Nikki was smirking like the devil, but she kept her face schooled into and unreadable expression as Hollamby continued, "Well maybe you can fool Miss Stewart, but you can't fool me. I've been in this job too long to have the wool pulled."

Elation bubbled up inside the lifer at the news – she made a mental note to thank Helen later – and she couldn't resist getting a jab in at Bodybag, "Fifty years now, isn't it?"

Hollamby scowled in response and snapped, "Never mind comments. Just hurry up." Patience never had been one of the older woman's virtues.

Nikki stood with a grin to begin collecting her things, shoving them eagerly into the prison-issue plastic bags. She didn't have much to her name these days, at least inside these walls, so it would only take one trip to move everything. She couldn't believe that she was finally getting moved to Enhanced.

Throughout her time in prison she'd always managed to keep herself in trouble one way or another, so the highest up she'd ever been on the ladder had been G2, where she was presently residing. She supposed that Helen's good influence on her behaviour was finally paying off. She really would have to thank her later, and she already had a few ideas on how to do that…

Sylvia, it seemed, wasn't content to let her leave without a warning, as though Nikki actually needed reminding that the senior officer didn't trust her. "I'll be watching you, Wade. One wrong move." The threat dangled in the air between them but the lifer ignored it, refusing to rise to the bait.

After Nikki finished gathering her belongings, Monica pulled her into a tight hug and the taller con found herself happily swearing, "Bloody hell."

It would be a nice change to have more privileges and weekly spends, and as an added bonus she knew her presence was liable to drive Dockley up the wall. She hated any threat to her territory, and it was highly unlikely that she'd be thrilled at sharing "her" landing with Wade.

She followed the two POs out of the cell and up the stairs to G3, and as expected Dockley had something to say as soon as she'd spotted her.

"What's goin' on?"

Nikki allowed a smug victory smile to cross her lips as she quipped, "Say hello to your new next door neighbour."

Sylvia prodded the dark-haired lifer along impatiently as Shell's protests rang out behind them. She entered her new living quarters and took the room in all at once, conceding that it was much nicer than her previous cell. She deposited her bags on the bed and began going around the room, mockingly admiring the added luxuries as the indignant bottle-blonde murderess stood in the doorway, whining to Hollamby like a petulant child.

"Don't whine at me, Dockley. As if it's my bright idea," was the screw's response.

Nikki snickered inwardly and silently agreed that Bodybag wasn't bright enough to find her way out of a paper bag, let alone anything that required actual brain power. She put her hands on her hips and gleefully rubbed the blonde's nose in the situation, "Seems like it's the governor's decision, Shell."

Dockley didn't miss a beat as her face scrunched into a sneer and she deduced, scarily accurate for her lack of wit, "You must be shaggin' her."

Nikki's face dropped any hint of playful antagonism as she eyed the other woman with careful contemplation. 'Shit,' she thought, 'shit, shit, shit. Does she know or is she just winding me up?'

The last thing she wanted to have to worry about now was the possibility that Shell was onto them as well as Fenner, though the likelihood of that wasn't farfetched as the pair was, to the best of her knowledge, still shagging like rabbits.

Hollamby, reinforcing Nikki's assessment that she wasn't the quickest hand in the draw, was making no such assumption, and apparently she wasn't one to tolerate slander against her superiors, despite the fact that she obviously didn't support Helen's reign as wing governor.

"That's enough, Dockley. Clear off."

"Well she must be. How else-"

But she didn't get a chance to finish her sentence as Sylvia cut her off irritably, "Any more of that and you're on report. Scram, now."

'Thank God for small miracles and stupid screws.'

The annoying duo left and Nikki listened to the sound of Shell's footsteps on the landing, until she was sure the blonde was back in her own cell. She leaned against the wall and called through the bricks to joyfully taunt the irate lifer, "See you later, Shell!"

She started to unpack after that, enjoying the sliver of relative freedom she'd been awarded and the increased power she had to piss off her blonde nemesis. She'd have to watch her step, though, if Dockley's remark about shagging Helen hadn't just been made in the heat of the moment.

If she actually suspected, or worse knew, that something was going on, then getting time alone together was going to be virtually impossible. She didn't relish the thought of being watched from both sides of the bars. She was going to have to talk to Helen about this, no matter how unpleasant the thought.

As though she was psychic, the object of her deliberation appeared at the cell door with a friendly knock on the green steel. Nikki's head popped up and she paused in organising her books, a smile blooming slowly on her face and causing her to positively glow.

"Hiya," she chirped cheerfully.

"Hi. How you settling in?"

The governor stepped further into the cell and pushed the door closed so they had a bit of privacy.

While Nikki appreciated the idea of getting alone time with her girlfriend, she was also wary of her previous thoughts and worries. She'd just have to keep her hands to herself until they sorted this mess out.

"Fine. Great view. Feels different being up here… officially."

She tried to relax her posture a bit so she wouldn't set Helen on edge. She didn't want to put a damper on the mood just yet. For now she wanted a moment to drink it all in and be happy.

"Nikki, I'm sure I don't need to spell it out, but being on Enhanced does have its responsibilities. You know that, don't you?"

Nikki felt her playful side coming out as she smirked and replied sarcastically, "Yeah. I promise to behave myself. And say my prayers before I go to bed, all right?"

Helen chuckled, her eyes lighting up with delight, and she stepped closer to the inmate with a warm smile. "Oh I love you."

Nikki's expression turned serious as she moved in to cup Helen's cheek in her hand, stroking the smooth skin with her thumb as she whispered, "And I love you, so much I feel like I'm going out of my mind sometimes. What have you done to me, Stewart? Why can't I think straight whenever I'm around you?"

Helen felt a familiar rush of emotion flooding her chest, causing her heart to skip a beat and her throat to constrict so she couldn't breathe properly. She gazed deep into her girlfriend's chocolate eyes and basked in the love she saw there, the warmth of it blanketing her and making her more content than she'd ever been, despite the fact that they were standing in a cold, dirty prison cell.

She covered Nikki's hand with hers and sighed softly, her words barely more than a breath, "I don't know, but you've done the same to me since the day I met you. I haven't been able to think straight since I saw you in those leather trousers."

The sudden humour of the remark consumed them both and they collapsed in a fit of laughter, breaking the intensity of the moment and providing much-needed comic relief. They were both gasping for breath with tears streaming down their cheeks before they managed to get a grip. The taller woman dropped a soft kiss on the Scot's lips before she sighed regretfully and moved toward the bed.

She sat on the edge and said darkly, "Helen… we need to talk. I think there's someone else we need to be worried about, besides Fenner."

Having been on the lookout for unusual activity, or anything that could be used to her advantage, Shell had taken immediate notice when Stewart had ascended the stairwell and headed straight for Wade's cell.

She leaned against the railing with a slow-growing grin as she thought to herself, 'My, my, Stewart… you are a dark horse.'

The sound of laughter rang out from behind the closed door and reverberated through the landing, causing several inmates to pause and glance in that direction, all wondering what the governor found so amusing in Nikki Wade's cell.

Shell's smile grew even wider as she pushed off of her perch and went to find Mr. Fenner. This was one juicy piece of gossip she just had to share. She'd only set out to wind Wade up earlier, but it now seemed there might be more than a shred of truth in her accusation.


Chapter 15

After Helen left Nikki's cell to finish some reports, both of them agreeing that they needed to be doubly careful now that they were under suspicion by two people, both of whom seemed particularly interested in dropping them in the shit, Shell made haste to the Officers Room and knocked with barely contained excitement.

Fenner answered with a frown and enquired distractedly, "What do you want, Dockley?" He'd been busy plotting new ways of catching the pair of lesby lovebirds and he wasn't keen on the interruption.

Shell was practically bursting at the seams as she smirked and said confidently, "I have some information I think you'll want to hear, for a favour in exchange."

He scowled irritably and asked, "What do you know that I could possibly want to hear, Shell? I'm a bit busy at the moment."

The blonde smirked and brushed past him into the room. "It's about Nikki Wade and Miss Stewart."

Fenner grinned slowly as he shut the door so they could speak in private. "In that case, I'm all ears…" He had the gleeful feeling that his day was about to improve exponentially.

Twenty minutes later Shell left the Officers Room with a smug smile and orders to keep a close eye on Nikki and Helen, and to report back to Jim immediately if she noticed anything suspicious. They were confident that between the two of them they could catch the couple in a compromising situation, and Fenner promised Shell a hefty reward if she succeeded in helping him.

Helen was on her way out of the prison, arms loaded up with files and paperwork, when Fenner caught up with her by the gate. She cast a wary look in his direction as he shot her an oily smirk and stepped into her path, effectively blocking her from leaving until he'd had his say.

"So how was the reunion?"

"What are you talking about, Jim?"

"You and Wade. I have to admit, Helen, I didn't know you were that way inclined. The signs were there, I suppose…"

She gritted her teeth in an effort to kerb her temper and she said evenly, "I don't know what you're talking about, Jim, but you're treading on dangerous ground if you're implying what I think you are. Not that it's any of your business, but I'm happily involved in a long-term relationship. With a man. I suggest you find a new focus for your boredom."

His face clouded over with anger and turned red as his blood pressure rose. He hated being made to look a fool, especially by some arrogant dyke. 'She thinks she's so clever… I'll show her.'

He covered quickly and pasted on a smarmy smirk as he shoved his hands in his trouser pockets. "Well, if that's true then I guess you have nothing to worry about, Helen. Just know I'll be watching you."

She glared and pushed past him, muttering disgustedly, "I've had enough of this conversation."

She longed to taunt him with her knowledge of his affair with Dockley, but she knew that would be akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull. It wouldn't be wise to wind him up any further and give him more cause to come after her.

The only sensible course of action would be to avoid him as much as possible at work, keeping their contact limited to necessary meetings and nothing more. She would also have to sit down and have a think on strategy. She and Nikki were going to have to come up with a miraculous ploy to get him off their trail.

A stroke of luck occurred the following day when Shell was caught with drugs in her cell. Now it would be a lot more difficult for her to spy on them from Basic, and her limited privileges meant she was on a stricter schedule and couldn't wander about as she pleased.

Nikki couldn't keep the smug grin off her face when the blonde inmate was escorted down the stairs from G3, complaining and swearing revenge the entire way.

"Off on your holidays, Shell? Send us a postcard, won't you?"

She was met with a steely blue-eyed glare but it didn't faze her. She'd long since learned not to be afraid of Dockley, knowing from personal experience that she could hold her own in a fight. The rest of the wing, minus Denny, joined in with her laughter as Shell was shown to her new cell. Things were definitely looking up. Now they just had to worry about Fenner poking his nose in.

Helen, in the meantime, had been cornered by Dominic in the Officers Room. He seemed fidgety, more-so than usual, and her curiosity got the better of her so she stayed behind to speak with him.

"What's the matter, Dominic? You seem a bit on edge today." She pushed the file cabinet closed and turned to face him.

"Are you going to speak to the boss?"

She couldn't help feeling a little pleased that he was still squirming over the matter. He should've known better than to pull a stunt like that and keep it quiet for so long. A lot of hassle could've been avoided if he and Lorna had been honest in the first place.

"I'll talk to him at the next catch-up."

He was clearly rattled about the whole thing and worried about losing his job, and she wished she could reassure him with a definitive answer but that wasn't in the cards just yet. They would have to wait and see how Simon took the news. She knew, however, that the bigger she made it, the bigger the Number One would make it, so she told him to be patient and hope for the best.

"Helen, um, can I ask you a favour?"

She'd been about to step out of the door when he spoke, and she turned with a raised brow and answered noncommittally, "Depends."

"Could you keep my confession quiet from Lorna? At least until you speak to the boss. It'll just freak her out."

She had a bad feeling about his request, always having thought honesty was the best policy, but the hopeful puppy dog look wore her down and she found herself hard-pressed to deny him. He was visibly wound up and the last thing she needed was for Lorna to be in the same state.

With a sigh of resignation she replied seriously, "And then I'm going to call you both in for the biggest bollocking of your lives."

She turned again to leave and he stopped her once more. "Helen… I… Thanks. How is Sean, by the way?"

Hearing her ex-boyfriend's name on top of everything else she was dealing with at the moment, mainly with Fenner and Dockley, caused her temper to boil over. Stress had been piling on steadily since she'd taken this job, and this latest bump in the road was her breaking point.

She rounded on the young PO with an angry glare, much to his wide-eyed surprise, and snapped, "Dominic, while I appreciate your concern for my love life, I'd appreciate it even more if you'd mind your own bloody business. Don't you have work to do?"

He ducked his head with embarrassment and confusion and mumbled an apology as he shuffled past her. She let out a heavy sigh and immediately cursed herself for treating him that way. He didn't deserve her taking her problems out on him. She made a silent promise to apologise to him later.

For now, though, she had plenty on her plate. A glance at her wristwatch told her that she was dangerously close to running late for an appointment with Monica. She'd set it up to discuss the possibility of the older woman being granted a home visit with her son Spencer. She knew the inmate was in the process of filing for an appeal, but Helen knew the process could be lengthy and that the separation was especially difficult for them because of his Down Syndrome, and she wanted to do anything she could to ease the hardship.

It wasn't fair that Spencer was vicariously serving a prison sentence through his incarcerated mother, when he'd never done anything to hurt anyone. He simply wasn't capable of it. In her eyes this was a prime example of how corrupt the British justice system was, and it made her even more driven to make changes where she could.

She genuinely wanted to improve things for the women in her care and to help their families on the other side of the bars. She never could understand how old school officers like Jim and Sylvia were content to just lock people up and throw away the key without batting an eyelash. Whatever happened to human decency?

Opportunity didn't arise for Helen and Nikki to see each other on Friday without stirring suspicion, so they went the entire weekend without any contact, both practically crawling out of their skin with anticipation. Sean stuck to his word and moved out on Saturday morning, having found a flat to rent for a reasonable rate.

While Helen didn't hold any negative feelings for Sean and their breakup had been amicable, she was glad to have him out of her house. She knew that his presence bothered Nikki because the con wished so desperately she could be the one Helen came home to. The last thing the Scot wanted was to further complicate their relationship.

Monday morning found Helen well-rested but anxious. She'd spent the whole of Sunday pottering around her house, cleaning and reading. She'd remembered to stow her copy of Sophie's World in her briefcase to give to Nikki, and now it was just a matter of finding the right time to meet the lifer discreetly. She couldn't be seen to make a habit of visiting that particular cell with regularity.

A phone conference with Area Management kept her busy for most of the morning and then she had a catch-up meeting with her POs before lunch. She would be leaving in two weeks' time for a week-long conference in Oxford. A few dozen wing governors from around the country were being pulled together to discuss upcoming changes in the prison system.

The Home Office had requested her presence after rumours of her progressive outlook had somehow reached important ears. This was the first time she'd felt truly hopeful that she might make a difference. It seemed that cracks were starting to appear in the solid foundation of the Old Boys Network.

She informed the G-wing staff of her plans and reluctantly told Fenner that he would be in charge during her absence. It was either him or Sylvia, as it had to be a senior officer, and he was slightly more competent and less lazy than his female counterpart.

During lunch Helen made her way around the canteen, stopping at several tables to talk to the inmates, partly because she was genuinely interested in how they were doing and partly to avoid making a beeline to where Nikki was sitting. Fenner was leaning against the wall near the servery and she could feel his eyes burning into the back of her head.

When she reached Nikki's table she offered a polite smile to Monica and then turned her attention to the book on Nikki's tray.

"What are you reading?"

She fingered the top cover of the book as the lifer answered, "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit."

There was barely concealed amusement in Nikki's eyes as Helen picked up the book and studied the back summary. The governor made a show of flipping through the book curiously as a cover for slipping a note inside the pages.

She put it back down with a smile and said, "It looks interesting. I'll leave you to it."

She nodded at both of the women before wandering off to another table. She could only hope that Nikki would find her note and meet her in the art room as requested.

An hour later Helen felt like climbing the walls. She'd managed to sneak past Fenner's watchful gaze during afternoon association and now she was waiting in the vacant art room. Most of the inmates rarely visited this place unless they were taking an art class, and a session wasn't scheduled to occur until the following day.

She felt fairly certain that they wouldn't be interrupted. A soft knock caught her attention and a smile blossomed as Nikki's dark head poked around the door.

"Hiya. I was hoping you'd get my note."

The lifer approached her with a sly grin and dropped a kiss on her lips. Long fingers slid through her short, dark blonde hair and she released a sigh of contentment. They broke apart and spent a moment simply gazing at one another.

"I missed you," Nikki whispered, moving one hand to cup her girlfriend's cheek.

Helen leaned into her touch and kissed her palm lovingly. "I missed you too, sweetheart. I've been going mad not being able to see you without sneaking around."

Nikki's jaw clenched and she muttered, "That bastard Fenner."

Helen smiled sadly and pulled out of the embrace. She retrieved Sophie's World from a stack of files she'd been toting around and she pushed it across the table.

"I finally remembered to bring this in for you."

Nikki's face lit up with delight and she thumbed open the front cover, taking pause as she discovered the handwritten note under the printed title. She blinked back tears as she re-read the inscription over and over again.


She glanced up to find the Scot staring at her with pure adoration. The lifer reached over and threaded her fingers through Helen's, giving them a squeeze as she said passionately, "I love you."

Helen rose from the table and moved to sit sideways on Nikki's lap, looping her arms around the taller woman's neck and planting soft kisses all over her face.

She nipped playfully at an earlobe and whispered, "And I love you."

Nikki turned her face into Helen's neck and began torturing her with kisses and nibbles. The Scot tightened her arms and shifted restlessly, closing her eyes as she suppressed the urge to moan. When she felt the lifer's palm cover one of her aching breasts and a thumb brush over the straining nipple, she whimpered and tried to regain control of herself.

"Nikki… stop… we can't."

An enthusiastic mouth paused mid-bite against her jugular and Helen groaned with frustration. She didn't want to stop. That was the last thing on her mind right now, but she knew she had to be responsible. They needed to be a lot more cautious than they'd been of late.

Nikki sighed with resignation as she removed her hand from Helen's breast and rested her forehead against the Scot's collarbone.

She rubbed the petite woman's back in a soothing caress as she murmured dejectedly, "I can't wait to get out of here. I hate not being able to touch you."

Helen pressed a kiss to the top of her girlfriend's head, brushing her fingers through the raven hair in gentle strokes.

"I know, sweetheart. It's hell for me too."

She shifted again and tried to ignore the throbbing wetness between her legs. Being this close to Nikki had already had a profound effect on her physically, and she knew she'd need to remove herself from this situation soon or it would get out of hand.

"I've got to go. Think of me later, when it's dark and you're alone, and know that I'll be thinking of you too."

They shared a languid kiss before Helen gathered her things and left the room, drawing on the last dregs of her willpower to not turn around and go back.

She shut herself in her office for most of her remaining shift, filling out paperwork and making preparations for the Oxford meeting. She'd been asked to draft a proposal of changes she wanted implemented in the system. It would require hours of research and careful thought, plenty to keep her distracted from the ache of missing Nikki.


Chapter 16

Seven more days of monotony passed within the walls of Larkhall, during which Nikki only briefly managed to lay eyes on the object of her desire and distraction. There had been no opportunity for secret rendezvous and stolen moments with Fenner watching their every step. He was on Helen's heels so often she began to think of him as a pet dog, albeit a very mean one with a nasty temper and a penchant for wreaking havoc.

It was with a sorrow-filled glance up at Nikki's cell window on G3 that Helen left the outer courtyard of the prison on Friday evening. She wouldn't be seeing the tall lifer again until she returned from her week-long Area Management conference in Oxford, and she hadn't even had the chance to bid her a proper goodbye.

With a resigned sigh and a heavy heart she climbed into the driver's side of her little red Peugeot and pointed it in the direction of home, however empty the place now seemed. She could only hope against hope that her plans for the future came to fruition.

The cogs in her mind had been working overtime for the last week and she'd decided on a course of action that would hopefully cover all the bases on her to-do list and gets things set in motion for reforming the corrupt prison system, and also to bring Nikki the justice she'd been denied two years ago in court.

After parking her car in the driveway and entering her modest house, she dropped her briefcase in the hall and headed straight for the kitchen to grab a glass of wine, which she desperately hoped would serve as adequate company while she packed a suitcase for the upcoming week.

Monday morning dawned bright and early with a wake-up call from the hotel's front desk, rousing Helen from a deep sleep filled with images of erotic memories and new fantasies blended in a swirl of titillating colour and sound. She grunted a half-coherent acknowledgement into the mouthpiece before returning the phone to its cradle.

She'd checked into the Oxford Thames Four Pillars hotel the night before, her stay fully paid for by Area Management, and had only explored as far as the bar before retiring to her four-star luxury room for a much needed kip. She'd thought that driving from London would be a much more pleasant mode of travel than flying, but by the time she'd arrived at the massive hotel she'd been tired and looking forward to a bit of alcohol and rest to recuperate.

After showering and dressing at a leisurely pace she began her trek downstairs to grab some breakfast at the River Room Restaurant, preferring to stretch her legs on the stairwell rather than ride the lift down from the third floor. Upon inspection in the light of day, she found the old architecture and fine fixtures and furnishings of the building to be rather charming.

Her stay here would be a comfortable one, indeed, but it wouldn't entirely compensate for the dull ache in her heart at not being able to see Nikki every day. Even though they were toeing the line of caution and practising a commendable amount of discretion at present, it was better to see and not touch than to not gaze upon her love at all.

During the lunch break between presentations on Wednesday, Helen wandered up to her room to take advantage of room service and privacy to make a phone call to Claire, her long-time friend from University and the now-successful solicitor she hoped might be just the helping hand she needed to free Nikki.

The soft-spoken dirty blonde answered her call on the second ring with an unusually chipper tone. Helen felt a pang of remorse hit her in the chest as she realised how little attention she'd been paying to her dear friend lately. She immediately apologised and enquired after her and her partner Simon. Helen cringed inwardly at the name, as it reminded her of her boss at Larkhall, the old pompous git, but she didn't allow her distaste to be relayed in her voice.

Claire's boyfriend Simon was the complete opposite of her boss and really a rather nice man. Therefore, it came as a bit of shock to hear that they'd split up and that Claire had started seeing someone new in the last two months, in which she and Helen hadn't spoken at all. Helen pressed her for details with renewed enthusiasm, missing their little chats and the chance for some friendly gossip, but Claire said she would rather discuss her new romance in person.

Helen, though disappointed, agreed and said she, too, had some things she would need to divulge when they next met up. All she would offer as explanation on the matter was that she'd split up with Sean and that he'd moved out to his own flat, officially cementing the end of their three-year partnership.

Never one to waste time, a quick glance at the bedside clock told Helen she had just thirty-five minutes left to finish her conversation and order something to eat, before she was due back in the conference room for the afternoon session. She turned the conversation to her original objective and asked Claire if she remembered a high-profile murder case from a few years back, concerning the death of a policeman named Gossard that had been ruled foul play.

Claire's silence told Helen that she was searching through the mental files she kept in close reach and then she heard an affirmative answer from the lawyer on the other end.

"Yes, I remember. A woman named Nicola Wade was sentenced to life imprisonment for it. What always struck me as odd was that the defence claimed she had killed him while trying to protect her partner from being raped, but the judge never allowed that theory to be explored during the trial, probably because Gossard was a respected member of law enforcement. Why do you ask?"

Helen fiddled with the corner of the hotel's luxury duvet as she drew in a sharp breath at the mention of the word 'rape' and then she let it out slowly. Thinking about what Nikki and Trisha must have gone through on that night rattled her to the core, for more reasons than one.

Shoving those thoughts into the deep recesses of her mind, she tried admirably to focus on the here and now, and better yet what she hoped to accomplish for the future.

"Well… the last time we spoke I told you I was about to start working at HMP Larkhall, yes? Nikki is one of the lifers in my care."

She heard a surprised gasp on the other end of the line and she knew Claire was probably dying to ask her an endless string of questions.

Obviously tempering her excitement and intrigue, the solicitor merely queried, "So what brings you to ask me about her case? You've not gone and decided to play hero for the wrongfully imprisoned now, have you?"

Helen could hear the teasing note in her friend's voice so she didn't take offence to the suggestion.

She chuckled and replied, "Actually, yes, though this time it hits a bit closer to home. Do you recall the bartender I had an affair with in university, when we went to Soho for Spring Break?"

"Of course I do. You were absolutely smitten with her, Helen. How could I ever forget how you pined after her like a lost puppy dog? Her name was Nikki something…"

Sudden silence came over the line as Claire started connecting the dots and then Helen heard muffled English swearing on the other end.

"Wow… I never thought… It just didn't occur to me… I mean, wow…"

Helen laughed again at her friend's sudden difficulty in forming a complete sentence. It was so unlike Claire to be inarticulate that she had to find it amusing.

"Yeah… wow is right. She shouldn't be in there, Claire, so I was hoping you might help her to formulate an appeal."

"I'd love to help, Helen. I always thought the case should've been handled differently in the first place, all aspects explored and not swept under the carpet because of who the victim was. It's entirely possible that Gossard was corrupt and that she was saving her partner when he died. I, for one, would like to know the truth. I remember Nikki, however briefly I knew her, and I can't imagine that she would hurt someone without just cause. Of course I'm on board. When do we get started?"

A smile broke out unseen on Helen's face and she thanked God that she had such a wonderful, enthusiastic friend with plenty of passion for justice and the legal knowledge necessary to see it done.

"I was hoping we could have dinner this Saturday night when I get back from this bloody conference. It's only day three and I could pull my hair out, Claire. Some of these governors honestly don't seem to give a toss about improving things in their prisons, but there are a few who do seem keen on change."

"I'm hoping my presentation tomorrow will help to put things in perspective. Area Management seemed awfully set upon having me here to express my views. I think that some of the suits in the Home Office would also like to see things change for the better."

They chatted on for only a few more minutes until Helen, regretfully, told Claire she'd have to say goodbye if she'd have any chance of eating before the next round of talks. They hung up with promises to speak again soon, time permitted, and to see each other on Saturday night.

Helen immediately put down her mobile and replaced it with the room phone so she could order something from the room service menu. Her mouth watered and her stomach grumbled as she replaced the receiver and waited for her Chicken Korma to arrive.

Helen's new and idealistic approach to prison reform had gone over splendidly with the hosts at the conference and the suits sitting in to listen. All but a few of the older prison governors had made the rounds after her presentation on Thursday morning to congratulate her on a well put together speech, and a few had even stopped to chat about some of her ideas to show their support.

All in all, she was glowing from the inside out by the time she took her lunch in the outside dining area. The conference had been put on hold until the following morning, so all of the attendees had the afternoon free to explore Oxford and do a bit of shopping if they wished. After a light lunch and enjoying the pleasant sunshine outdoors, she decided she wasn't quite ready to go back inside yet, so she took to exploring the grounds and quickly found the path leading down to the Thames.

It was a peaceful day and she eagerly soaked in the sunshine and greenery surrounding her, breathing in the smell of nature as she walked toward the river. Her thoughts drifted to Nikki, as they were so wont to do whenever she had a free moment, and she thought with sadness, 'I wish you were here to enjoy this with me, sweetheart.'

She returned to her room a few hours later and changed her conference clothes out for a black bikini hidden beneath a white vest and matching white drawstring shorts. She slipped on a pair of sandals and grabbed her towel before heading downstairs to check out the indoor pool. After a nice warm afternoon of strolling by the river she was in need of a cool dip in the water to refresh her senses.

Saturday arrived not a minute too soon in Helen's opinion. She was more than ready to get back to her flat and unpack before her scheduled dinner with Claire. She hadn't seen her friend in even longer than they'd spoken properly, and she knew that was mostly her fault as she'd allowed Sean and her heavy workload to keep her preoccupied.

That was about to change. Sean was no longer a burden and she was determined to find a way of balancing work and play so that her personal relationships wouldn't suffer more than they had to. With a lot of effort and any luck, before too much longer Nikki might fall under the latter instead of the former category.

By six o'clock Helen had unpacked her suitcase and suitably tidied up her flat to receive company, even the informal company of her best friend, and she had a lovely lasagne bake in the oven and a few bottles of chilled white wine in the fridge to accompany their feast. By half past she had donned her oven mitts and was carefully removing the glass dish with a smile on her face.

The main course was baked to perfection and it would have done her mother proud. She placed the dish on two square wicker coasters on her worktop and beamed even brighter as the doorbell chimed. She slipped off her protective mitts and went to answer it, immediately throwing her arms around her petite friend and ensconcing her in a heartfelt hug.

"It's so good to see you again, Helen," Claire enthused as she returned the warm embrace.

When she pulled back she eyed the Scot up and down and said sincerely, "You look amazing for a woman who just ended a three-year relationship. I think you have some explaining to do."

They both grinned and moved inside to shut out the chilly evening air, and as they did Claire sniffed the air and exclaimed with surprise, "And you're cooking! You must be really happy. All the times I've been over here since you moved into this place we've always ordered take-out."

She grabbed Helen's hand and dragged her to the kitchen amidst a peal of mutual laughter.

"Now… you better pour us both a glass of wine and start talking."

Helen smirked and replied teasingly, "Yes, Ma'am."

She uncorked a fresh bottle of crisp white Sauvignon Blanc and filled a flute for each of them, and then as they sat side by side at the wooden island stools she began to tell all, starting with her first day at Larkhall and skipping no detail she could recall, especially where it concerned a tall, dark, and sexy lifer.

Claire listened with bated breath and gripped her wine glass tightly as she listened to her best friend of fourteen years speak of the woman who'd captured her heart so completely, and the challenges they faced within those oppressive walls. By the time Helen took a break in her eulogy to make them each a plate of still-steaming five-cheese lasagne, Claire was discreetly wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.

She'd already begun digging up any and all information about Nikki's case that she could get her hands on, but now she was more determined than ever to see this appeal through with a positive result. She couldn't bear to see the heartbreak etched on her friend's face as she spoke of the love of her life behind bars and so far out of reach, even though they'd managed a few scattered moments of privacy.

Furthermore, it seemed that this Fenner fellow was determined to do everything in his power to drag them through the mud. Anger filled her to the brim at the thought of anyone being so obdurate and unfeeling toward the Scot with the heart of gold. As long as she'd known Helen, she'd always been kind and selfless and would do anything to help another in need, regardless of the personal cost.

With a new sense of resolve, Claire took a swallow of wine and dug into her lasagne, silently plotting ways in which to see the bastard's crimes righted. From what Helen had described thus far, his shady activities were many in number and often in frequency, so it was only a matter of time before they could find some proof and have him chucked on his arse, if not imprisoned for a nice stretch of time.

When their plates were cleared and deposited in the sink, they retired to Helen's lounge with the second bottle of wine and finally the conversation turned to Claire's personal life. With no way to escape now that Helen had bared all of her secrets of late, Claire slowly began to disclose a few of her own, leaving Helen stunned and open-mouthed as she viewed her friend in a brand new light.

"Claire Walker… you little hussy! Why didn't you tell me?"

Helen laughed heartily and swatted the blushing solicitor on the shoulder nearest her.

Though pink-cheeked and slightly embarrassed, Claire was tipsy enough from the wine they'd consumed to be bold in her response, "Probably for the same reason you didn't call me straightaway to tell me you were seeing one of the prisoners at your new job."

Helen snickered and answered unashamedly, "Touché."

It seemed that Claire's terminology earlier that week had been a bit ambiguous. Not only was she seeming someone new after her split from Simon, but apparently she'd been seeing several someones, and to top off the great reveal, they'd all been women. Now that she'd stopped snickering at her friend's obvious discomfort, she prodded for further information with a cheeky smirk.

"So… who are you currently seeing?" She used two fingers on each hand to make air quotations as she said the word 'currently'.

"Well, if you mean my latest conquest," Claire couldn't help giggling nervously at the description, "she's a nightclub owner in Soho. I met her when I went into Chix two weeks ago and we've been shagging since."

Helen nearly spit out her wine as she snorted with laughter upon hearing Claire say 'shagging'. Little Miss Prim-and-Proper wasn't so prim and proper after all. She wiped her chin on the back of her hand and said with as much seriousness as she could muster, while still holding back a fit of giggles, "I can't wait to meet her."

Then a thought struck her and she added, "If you two end up being a long-term thing and not just," more air quotes, "'shagging' then when Nikki gets out we can start going on double dates."

Claire gave an exasperated eye-roll and hit Helen with a sofa pillow before asking, "You're not going to let the shagging thing go any time soon, are you?"

Helen smirked and replied seriously, "Not on your life, Walker. Now drink your wine and tell me more about this woman. What's her name?"

A dreamy smile crossed the tipsy solicitor's face and she settled back into the cushions as she continued speaking, "Her name's Trisha Harris, she's blonde, blue eyes, absolutely gorgeous… tall, slender, an amazing dress sense…"

The rest of what Claire might have said was cut short as Helen bolted upright from her relaxed position, spilling a bit of wine over her hand as she did so, and exclaimed, "Wait! Did you say Trisha Harris? And she's blonde and she owns a club in Soho?"

Confused and a bit miffed at being interrupted so suddenly, Claire nodded slowly with both eyebrows raised. "Yesss," she said slowly, "Why?"

Helen downed the last of the wine in her glass in one gulp and stood up. "I think we need another bottle to continue this discussion. Trisha is Nikki's ex-girlfriend of nine years."

Helen headed off to the kitchen with a sea of thoughts splashing around in her muddled brain, or maybe that was just the wine…


Chapter 17

Flashback, 10 Years Prior, Day Four

Helen woke slowly to the pounding beat of pain against her temples, and she quickly shut her eyes against the bright sliver of sunlight streaming in through the crack in the thick curtains. She groaned quietly in dismay as her sleep-addled brain reminded her that this was the consequence of drinking heavily. As she journeyed further back into consciousness from the world of slumber, she struggled to remember everything that had occurred the night before.

She knew she'd met up with Nikki at Thirst and then later they'd gone to the hotel party seven floors above that her schoolmates had thrown. She remembered them kissing and dancing, and then drinking more, and then it was all a bit of a blur. She cracked her eyelids slowly and her sensitive pupils protested the invasion of light, but she knew she'd have to get up eventually.

She became aware suddenly that she wasn't alone in bed and for a brief moment she felt a surge of panic, but after rolling quickly onto her other side she breathed a sigh of relief. Nikki was still passed out cold next to her, the peaceful expression of deep repose softening the hard angles of her face.

A smile tugged at the edges of her mouth and she reached over to brush a tendril of raven hair off the sleeping woman's forehead. Nikki unconsciously leaned into the contact of Helen's gentle fingertips and the Scot felt her heart beat a little faster. How was it possible to feel so much for another person in such a short amount of time? She leaned over carefully and placed the gentlest of kisses across Nikki's lips.

A few moments later she felt the lips beneath hers twitch into a smile as sleepy fingers tangled languidly into her brown tresses, stroking the base of her neck as she pulled back a fraction. Helen let out a soft sigh of contentment as she stared into the deep chocolate gaze of her girlfriend, and then she winced as Nikki used her free hand to shield her eyes from the scant amount of sunshine, understanding all too well how she was feeling.

"I've got some paracetamol tablets in my bag. I'll just fetch a few and we'll be right as rain in no time."

Nikki smiled through the agony of her hangover and Helen dropped another kiss on her lips before getting up to rummage through her suitcase. Two minutes later she returned to bed with a glass of water and two tablets, having already downed hers in the bathroom. Nikki took them gratefully then pulled Helen down on top of her with a mischievous grin, causing the Scot to chuckle quietly.

As their clothed bodies fitted together on top of the duvet, laughter died on Helen's lips as her eyes darkened with unfulfilled desire. They'd obviously returned here the night before and sunk into alcohol induced unconsciousness before anything had been able to happen between them, but now there was nothing stopping her from exploring her newfound feelings. Nikki recognised the look in her eyes immediately, but a glance at the bedside clock halted any further proceedings.

She flipped Helen onto her back and stretched out above her, using her forearms to support the majority of her weight. She allowed one of her thighs to press gently between Helen's legs in a teasing manner, as a wicked glint entered her eyes.

In a husky voice she murmured, "Darling… I know what you're thinking and it's not that I wouldn't love to, but it's almost noon and I was hoping to show you around Covent Garden before I go to work."

She shifted her weight to one arm only and brushed the back of her other hand down Helen's cheek. "When we make love, I don't want it to be rushed and clumsy. I want to take my time getting to know you."

The hand stroking the Scot's cheek moved further down to trace a collarbone and Helen bit her lower lip. Even though her hormones were raging like never before, she could see the sense in what Nikki was saying, and though they hadn't yet discussed this and Nikki didn't know she was a virgin, in every sense of the word, she knew she wanted her first time to be more than a quick fumble. Nikki was right. They would just have to wait.

She nodded her agreement and brought both hands up to cup the taller woman's cheeks. She drew her into a kiss that started out measured and leisurely, relishing the slow exploration and taste of each other, but which quickly built steam and ignited the passion lying just beneath the surface. They ended it by mutual consent before it got out of hand and laid there in a simple embrace as their breathing calmed to regularity.

A short time later, Nikki stood and announced her need to return to her shared apartment for a shower and a change of clothes. Helen agreed to do the same in her hotel room and then catch a taxi to meet her there. Nikki scribbled her address and telephone number on the pad of paper by the room phone, and then kissed her girlfriend before exiting.

Helen spent a few moments luxuriating in the yellow-cream sheets beneath the white goose down duvet, and then she forced herself up to get showered and dressed. She spent a few extra minutes shaving and moisturising before applying light makeup and picking her outfit, which consisted of snug-fitting faded blue jeans and a light tan vest with a mocha coloured cashmere cowl-neck sweater.

She topped the ensemble with a pair of matching mocha wedges and pulled her hair into a high ponytail. She smiled at her appearance in the mirror and then went to call Claire, to let her know her plans for the day. She felt guilty for spending so much time with Nikki and neglecting her best friend duties, but she vowed to make it up to the lawyer-to-be.

She hung up with a promise to have dinner with Claire while Nikki was working that evening; they were both eager to investigate the delights of Andalucia, a Spanish Tapas bar and restaurant. She grabbed her handbag and key card and left the hotel with a little extra pep in her step, very much looking forward to the fun-filled day ahead of her.

She hailed a taxi at the street and read off Nikki's address from the notepad now residing in her handbag. A few short minutes later the cab pulled to a stop in front of a red brick building and she paid the driver. She tried to will her heartbeat to slow as it raced in anticipation. She entered the building and climbed the white stairwell to the first floor. She found Nikki's door to the left and rapped on the painted white wood three times.

To her surprise and horror, it wasn't Nikki who answered the door. Instead she was greeted by a curvy woman with a deep tan, luscious black wavy hair, and eyes even darker brown than Nikki's… in lacy black boy short underwear and a black vest. The woman smiled brightly, revealing a set of perfectly straight, pearly white teeth and Helen felt her jealousy rise another notch.

"Can I help you with something?" she asked so innocently that it set Helen's nerves on edge.

Of course this woman had no idea who she was, and that fact rankled her. She set her jaw to hold back the first reply that came to mind, and her green eyes flashed with barely contained rage when Nikki approached over the woman's shoulder.

Nikki must've already deduced from her expression exactly what she was thinking, because she quickly held her hands up and said, "Helen… it's not what it looks like. She's just my roommate."

The tan woman suddenly chuckled, a deep, throaty laugh that seemed to make her even more attractive, and she said, "Ohhh… so this is the girl you won't shut up about."

She extended a well-manicured hand and introduced herself, "Hi, I'm Laura, and I've heard all about you. You've got Nikki absolutely smitten."

Helen felt her agitation abate and she offered an apologetic smile as she shook Laura's hand. "Sorry. Had an attack of the green-eyed monster. Nikki seems to have turned me into a madwoman."

Laura grinned as she looked from one to the other and then she said chirpily, "Well… I've got things to do so I'll just leave you two lovebirds alone."

She winked cheekily in Helen's direction before walking down the hall and disappearing into a room, her full hips and rounded arse swishing as she went. The woman was a natural seductress and even Helen found herself taking a second glance. She felt herself turn beet red when she caught sight of Nikki's knowing smirk.

The taller woman leaned down with one hand clutching the doorframe and whispered into the Scot's ear, "It's not polite to stare."

Helen chuckled in embarrassment and asked, "That obvious, huh? I never thought I'd be staring so much at women's arses as I have been the last three days."

Nikki's smile widened and she moved in to deliver a soft welcoming kiss. When they parted they each took the time to finally admire the other. Helen drank in the sight of Nikki wearing tight, dark blue jeans with a collared white linen shirt buttoned up halfway over a black vest. Her ebony hair was spiky and glistening, still damp from her recent shower.

The off-duty bartender ducked her head with a rare shy smile and mumbled, "I'll just go grab my wallet and we'll be off."

She returned clutching a black leather billfold and a key ring with two keys. She locked the door to her flat with one and then stuffed them in her front pocket. The walk from Nikki's apartment on Dean Street to the Tottenham Court Road tube station was a pleasant one. Helen stayed on the lookout for all of the shops and bistros she wouldn't mind exploring later or dragging Claire to another day.

The streets were lined liberally with flourishing businesses of every kind. There wasn't a single uninhabited building that she could see, besides the few signs advertising flats available for rent. After descending to the underground station they used their Oyster cards to gain access to the tube. The eight-minute journey went by in a blur for Helen and then the voice on the intercom announced their destination.

They stepped off the tube at Covent Garden station just in time to catch a quick lunch if they hurried. They made their way through the throng of people coming and going to the street above. Helen grabbed Nikki's hand and laced their fingers together, shooting her girlfriend a reassuring smile in answer to the look of surprise she received. Nikki was clearly expecting her to be a lot more withdrawn in regards to her displays of public affection, based on her embarrassment at the bar the previous night.

However, Helen was quickly becoming used to being out of her element, and she was enjoying this newfound freedom to express herself without being reprimanded. In a sea full of strangers who were more interested in their own itineraries, she no longer felt any qualms about touching the woman she loved, for she'd spent the last hour and a half mulling over her feelings and she was certain that that's what it was: love, even in its infancy.

Nikki had never experienced this kind of simple and all-encompassing happiness before and she decided to savour it for every minute she could. When Helen returned to university it was going to be very difficult to see each other. She couldn't bear to think of the separation to come, so she didn't.

She gave the Scot's hand a squeeze as she led her with expert ease through the scattered crowds of locals and tourists to a restaurant called Café de Amis, the very best and most authentic of French cuisine in the area.

She paused outside the entrance and asked, "Is French all right? There's Italian down the street, or a burger joint if you prefer?"

Helen smiled and tugged her inside the café. "French is fine. I haven't had the real thing in a long time."

Nikki grinned and said with a touch of amusement, "Well this is as real as it's going to get without a longer trip."

They were seated at a small table for two near the front windows, silverware wrapped in white linen already sitting atop the matching tablecloth. A waiter in formal attire approached with menus and Nikki ordered them a half bottle of Barros ruby wine. With a polite nod of his head and a practised smile he left them to mull over the menus in hand.

Helen bit her lower lip as she scanned the list of entrees on offer. "What's good here?"

Nikki glanced across the table and folded her menu back into place, setting it at the edge of the table for the waiter to collect. "When I eat here I usually get the duck or the sea bass, but it's all quite good."

The waiter approached again, with a half bottle of wine this time and two glass goblets, and he set about pouring them each a measure of the bittersweet red. He then plucked their abandoned menus off the table and asked in a surprisingly convincing French accent if they were ready to order.

Nikki started off by saying that she would have the duck and Helen, taking her advice to heart, followed with an order of the sea bass. They then resumed small talk as the waiter disappeared and they waited on their food to arrive.

Thirty-five minutes later Helen was halfway through her pan-fried sea bass with creamy gnocchi and bohemian vegetables, while Nikki was similarly working on her duck breast with prune and Armagnac sauce with roasted squash.

They were both on their second glass of wine and their talk had turned to Covent Garden and all the sights there were to see in the vicinity. Helen admitted rather sheepishly that this was actually her first venture into the famous area. Nikki's brows shot upward toward her hairline and her fork paused halfway to her mouth.

Helen snickered and justified with playful defensiveness, "Well I've only been living in England for three years now whilst I've attended Cambridge. I think my Da would've had a coronary if I'd suggested we do anything as fanciful as take a vacation to Soho when I was younger. Especially if he saw all the gays and lesbians around here."

As she said the last bit, Helen rubbed a stocking-clad foot up the inside of Nikki's leg under the table, grinning mischievously all the while. The raven-haired bartender nearly choked on the bite of succulent duck she'd only just gotten to her mouth, shooting a mock glare across the table at her playful companion.

She swallowed and washed down her food with a gulp of wine, and then she said with a chuckle, "That's not fair, Helen."

Helen drew her foot up a little higher to tease Nikki's thighs and the taller woman stared with darkening eyes as her body reacted. The waiter broke the spell as he returned to enquire whether they would be having dessert.

Helen dropped her foot quickly as her cheeks turned a lovely shade of pink, and Nikki smirked wickedly as she answered, "Yeah, I think we'll have the caramelised apple tart and ice cream to share."

He acknowledged her 'excellent choice' and retreated once more, just in time to miss the two women bursting into a fit of laughter as Helen's face was still flushed from being caught out. After finishing the last of their wine and the apple tart with vanilla ice cream, they strolled hand-in-hand toward The London Film Museum on Wellington Street.

Later that afternoon they wandered down the street to grab a treat from Starbucks and Helen remarked in a tone of awe, "I can't believe there's so much history here and I've never even heard about that place. It was incredible."

They'd spent almost two hours wandering through the film museum, observing the walls covered in an array of black-and-white photographs and the glass cases housing precious props, most from the private collection of the museum's founder, Jonathan Sands. The largest rooms of the converted cellar were long and open, with the ventilation shafts in the ceiling still exposed.

On the upper levels near each lift there were lounge areas with consistent patterns of green and white, however each had life-size models of a different theme. On one floor Helen recalled seeing a statue of Batman; on another the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars. The 'Magnum on Set' exhibition had been a delightful inside look at the world of photography and lighting, but Helen's favourite part had been the Marilyn Monroe corner.

Another short stroll brought them to the entrance of the Phoenix Garden. Unlike Covent Garden's misleading name, this was a garden in every sense of the word. With steaming drinks in hand they walked through the wrought iron gates and past an olden wooden sign, with black painted letters stating: 'No Drugs. No Alcohol. No Bikes.'

They ambled along the brown brick path at a leisurely pace and admired the vibrant greenery of the varied trees and the electric reds, purples, and yellows of the flowers in bloom. They came to a wooden bench and halted as they sipped their heated drinks, Helen with a cinnamon dolce latte and Nikki with a green tea.

A few moments of silence followed as they each stared at the scenery around them, and then Nikki admitted in a soft whisper, paying her respect to the quiet of nature, "I've always liked coming here."

Helen smiled and nodded her agreement. "Yeah… it's perfect. When I have a house of my own someday I don't imagine I'll have anything more complicated than a few window boxes. I don't have what you'd call a green thumb."

Nikki nudged her shoulder playfully and teased, "That's all right. You can always call me round and I'll tend to the garden for you. Plants are a small hobby of mine."

It was meant to be a joke and they both knew it, yet neither of them could stop the inevitable thoughts and questions about the future from popping to mind. Would they still be together a few years down the line? Would they have a house and a garden together or would they live apart?

They lost themselves in thoughtful silence for a while, until Nikki noticed that the sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon and she checked the time on her wristwatch.

"I hate to cut our time here short," she sighed regretfully, "but we best get going if I'm to make it to work on time. Brandy's been there all afternoon doing inventory and paperwork, and I imagine Kim has been getting right on her tits. I don't want to stress her out, what with her future mother-in-law still in hospital."

Helen reached over to squeeze her hand in a reassuring gesture. "That's very thoughtful, Nikki. I've known you for so little time but I know without a doubt that you're an amazing person, and a very good friend."

She set her empty drink cup aside and moved in closer, taking Nikki's face between her palms. She commanded all of Nikki's attention with her intense gaze and whispered words of promise, "And soon… I'm sure I'm going to find out what a talented lover you are as well."

She kissed Nikki then, with all of the pent-up passion and frustration she'd been holding inside. A mutual moan echoed in the backs of their throats, as fingers weaved through locks of hair and tongues writhed and danced in exploration. All too soon the kiss was over, and with swollen lips and glassy eyes they rose to make the trek back toward the tube station.

'Soon indeed,' thought Nikki, as she fought down her raging hormones and tossed her paper cup in the nearest bin.


Chapter 18

Helen had spent all of Sunday recovering from her hangover after Claire had woken and left her flat, and her mind remained in a constant murky state as she entered work on Monday morning. Her best friend was seeing her lover's ex. She wanted to tell Nikki, mostly to gauge her reaction for peace of mind, but she wasn't sure when that opportunity would arise.

As soon as she stepped into her office and sat down with her morning cup of coffee, she was immediately bogged down by piles of paperwork. The women had been kicking off again over the weekend and she had at least a dozen reports to sort through. She was only thankful she didn't find one about Nikki. She'd felt sure that Fenner would stir up trouble in her absence.

Helen's next stop was her catch-up meeting with Stubberfield, where she knew she had to make the big reveal about Zandra's escape. She sat down on the other side of Simon's desk and got all of the usual updates out of the way: the latest inmate reports, how she'd handled them, the results of the monthly piss tests on G-wing, DST searches, who was down the block and what for, etc.

When that was all covered she hesitated, trying to find the right set of words to convey the situation in the best light possible. She didn't want to lose a good officer like Dominic, and Lorna wasn't a bad officer either. She didn't have the best judgement in the world, but everyone made mistakes. It was part of being human and heaven knows Helen had made enough mistakes of her own.

During the lag in the conversation, as Helen sorted her thoughts, Simon surprised her by asking how the conference had gone. For him to show interest in something that didn't directly affect his paid hours at Larkhall, or the possibility of promotion, was astounding. She answered that it had gone very well, though a bit tedious at times, and that her presentation had been a huge success.

She expected Area Management to be in contact with her to start the process of implementing some of her changes. This got Simon's interest piqued even further, and finally she realised why he'd asked. He was worried that things in Larkhall would change beyond the realm of the Old Boys Network.

Helen assured him that it was probably going to be a while before any drastic measures were taken. These sorts of things took time. He seemed to relax then and she dove right into the next topic, the one she'd been dreading. However, Stubberfield reacted much like she'd predicted he would. He was so easy to read it would have been comical, had she been anywhere besides the receiving end.

He ranted and raved and asked how something like this could happen on her wing without going reported, as though this was entirely her fault, and she bore it all with commendable stoicism. Then, as she expected, he deflated like a hot air balloon and grudgingly admitted that the budget wouldn't allow for them to hire and train new officers at the moment, so the two would get a one-time pass on their misconduct and a notation on their records.

She exited the office and breathed in deeply, not to darken his doorstep for another fortnight, barring a major incident on the wing that required his administrative attention or reprimand. She couldn't help but to think that he enjoyed having someone to shout at, and lately G-wing had been giving him endless reason to. She found Dominic pacing up a storm in the corridor, but he stopped as soon as he saw her, practically jumping in his haste to hear the news.

He asked eagerly, "How'd it go?"

Helen pinned him with a look. "Well I can't say he was too pleased. In fact he was bloody furious."

A resigned sigh escaped the young PO as he geared himself up to hear the worst. "I knew it."

He looked so downtrodden that she couldn't torture him anymore. "All I can say is, you can thank government funding that we're so short-staffed."

A ray of hope glimmered across his face. "Yeah?"

She smiled then, for the first time in almost an hour. "He doesn't want to lose two good officers over a stupid mistake."

A relieved grin broke out across his face and Helen had a sudden mental picture of a dog wagging its tail at its owner. He was like an adorable puppy dog that one couldn't help but to love.

"Thanks, Helen, thanks a lot."

She forced herself to remain serious and not laugh at her thoughts. "So I'll see you both tomorrow to read the riot act."

'Oops. Forgot about that. Still got a royal bollocking coming,' he thought.

Outwardly he simply responded with a nod and a murmured, "Yeah."

He stood there for a moment, staring at her as though he expected something else to be said, so she didn't disappoint, "Well haven't you got work to do?"

He nodded and replied, "Yeah, of course," before hurrying off down the hall.

Nikki was having a much more enjoyable morning so far. The opportunity to taunt Dockley presented itself while she was standing in line at the breakfast queue, brightening her day instantly.

"You enjoying life back on Basic, Dockley? Looks like it."

Actually, Shell looked a bit rough around the edges and seemed to be perpetually pissed off, but that was part of the joke.

Shell screwed up her face in outrage and declared angrily, "I'm going to be back on the threes sooner than any of you wankers think."

Nikki smirked and couldn't resist winding her up a bit more. "Yeah? Well us wankers won't bother holding our breath, all right?"

She seemed to have hit a sore spot, because Shell threw down her tray and screeched, "I'm only down here because of that bitch Lorna Rose!" She finished her tantrum by storming off without any breakfast.

Nikki resisted the urge to chuckle and said, just loudly enough for those around her to hear, "My arse."

She moved along with the line toward the servery window where the Julies where cheerfully doing their duty, and then she sat down and waited for Monica to join her. When her tablemate was settled, Nikki launched an enquiry, genuinely concerned about the older woman's state of mind being locked up in this place and separated from her son.

"How are you doing, Monica? Have you heard anything from Spencer since the last visit?"

The older woman smiled then, a real smile that wasn't forced, and it warmed Nikki's heart.

"Yes, I spoke to one of the Sisters yesterday. She's bringing him in to see me again this Friday, and I have an appointment to see Miss Stewart later today. She mentioned the possibility of arranging a home visit, so I may have that to look forward to. I just hope this visit goes better than the last and that the nuns have been looking after him. He's still got that nasty cough."

A flash of concern crossed her face and her shoulders slumped, but she covered with a resolute smile. "Don't worry about me. I'm slogging through."

Nikki covered Monica's hand with her own and gave it a gentle squeeze. "That's all right then. What about your appeal? Did you get in touch with your lawyer?"

Monica gave a small chuckle before responding. "Yes, and I pestered him until he agreed to come in and see me next week, though I didn't put it quite the way you did."

They both grinned at the memory of Nikki's urging her to tell the man to 'pull his finger out'. Now it was Monica's turn to do the questioning and she quickly turned the tables.

"What about you and Trisha? Have you spoken to her since you got back together? It's an awful shame that you two had a falling out. Nine years is a long time to throw away."

Nikki flinched guiltily at this, knowing she couldn't give Monica the real reason for their split or tell her that they weren't actually back together.

Her smile was strained as she said, "There's a lot to work out, Monica. Things came to their natural end between us and we're not enemies, but we are trying to give it a go. That's something, at least."

Everything she'd said was almost entirely true and she was pleased with her tactful wording. She'd managed to convey the truth without giving away the pièce de résistance. They were, after all, giving it a go as friends.

Their conversation moved along to various happenings amongst the cons as they finished their breakfast, and then they separated with an agreement to speak at tea time. Nikki went to her cell to read and Monica resumed toiling tirelessly on the jumper she was knitting.

"Three and a half weeks? I had hoped it would be sooner."

Monica's dejected demeanour was heartbreaking and Helen felt the need to apologise, even though it was out of her hands. She was merely square one, the person who put in the request and waited for approval, not the orchestrator of when and how.

"I know. I'm sorry, Monica."

The older woman, ever-wise, tried to be optimistic. "Well at least I've got a definite date, something to look forward to. As long as I know I'm going to be able to spend some time with Spencer, that's what matters."

"Well, look, if I can speed the process up I will, but I'm afraid it's unlikely."

"Well," Monica reasoned, "it'll give me a bit longer to finish his jumper."

She smiled and the wing governor returned it, but in her head Helen was cursing the bloody system.

That evening over tea, Monica filled Nikki in on the latest news. It was music to her ears and she sent fate a silent thanks for bringing Helen to Larkhall. Her stalwart attitude and unwavering moral conviction were the remedy needed for a system so corrupt. She'd only been in the job a few months and already Nikki could see changes everywhere she looked on the wing. Even though some were small, it was a good start.

Thinking of Helen lifted her spirits but dampened her mood in equal measure. She had still yet to see the Scot since her return from Oxford. She was eager to know how the conference had panned out, but even greater was her desire to kiss her girlfriend and be near to her again.

She didn't get her wish until just before lockdown. A soft rap emitted from the other side of her cell door and then Helen appeared, looking harried and fatigued. Nikki immediately set aside her book and stood to greet her.

"Come here, darling," she soothed.

Helen rushed into her arms without hesitation and buried her face in the lifer's shoulder. Nikki stroked the back of her head and closed her eyes, breathing in the familiar scent like a long-lost traveller finding her way home. After several minutes filled with lush, fervent kisses they sat together on the edge of Nikki's bed, holding hands and gazing at each other with feeling that couldn't be described by words.

Nikki stroked Helen's knuckles reverently and expressed gentle concern, "You look exhausted, Helen."

The Scot agreed readily, "Aye, I'm bone-tired, but that's to be expected. I had a heaping pile of paperwork waiting for me when I got in today, and then I had to face Stubberfield with an update that wasn't exactly positive."

Nikki nudged her shoulder and smiled encouragingly. "But you've got something to feel good about, Helen. Monica is over the moon about her home visit. You've already done so much to improve this place. Never forget that."

Helen smiled her trademark smile and pressed a soft kiss to the lifer's lips, whispering, "That is one of the reasons I love you. You always know just what to say when I'm down in the dumps."

Nikki wrapped an arm around Helen's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "I'm glad. I hate seeing you upset. How did your presentation go down with the suits?"

A smirk appeared on the Scot's face and she replied, "You know… you're the second person to ask me that today, but the first one to actually give a toss. Simon only cares how it might affect his promotion. It went really well. I have high hopes that it was the gateway I needed to start some serious policy reform. Area Management certainly seemed pleased at any rate."

"See? You're doing your bit, Helen. Most of the girls in here know that deep down."

Nikki was stroking Helen's upper arm now and it sent a shiver down her spine. She forced herself to concentrate and remember that she was here to tell Nikki the other things she'd accomplished and learned in her absence.

"Nikki," she paused, hoping her news would sit well, "I met up with Claire Walker over the weekend. You remember my best friend from Uni?"

Nikki's eyes lit up with recognition and Helen pushed forward, "I told her about you being in here, and she's agreed to help you formulate an appeal. Please, sweetheart, take this opportunity so we can try and get you out of here. Claire's a great solicitor and an even better friend. She doesn't want to see you in here any more than I do."

The con was silent as she mulled over the information and her girlfriend's request. Helen's eyes were pleading with her to agree and not make a fuss, and she'd still not found a way to refuse the Scot anything, so she nodded and put on a forced smile.

"Sure, Helen, but she better be as good as you say. I don't want to spend the next ten years living in false hope."

Helen took the lifer's face in both hands to command her full attention and asserted, "It won't be false hope if we make it happen."

She eased her hold and caressed her lover's face, sighing as she warred with herself whether or not to divulge the next bit of information. Openness and honesty, with a good dose of curiosity, won out. Nikki would find out sooner or later, and she preferred to deliver the facts so she could see her reaction firsthand.

"There's something else I've got to tell you, Nikki. While we were eating, Claire told me she's started seeing someone, and that someone is Trish. Are you going to be okay working so closely with her?"

Nikki blinked stupidly several times, at first thinking she'd heard incorrectly, but then she registered the last part of the question and she was too befuddled to answer. She floundered for a way to verbalise the myriad of emotions, thoughts, and questions that possessed her.

The part of her that had spent nine years with Trisha was unreasonably jealous that she'd moved on so fast, despite the fact that she'd done the same, only faster. The part of her that cared as a friend was elated that she could finally move on. She didn't want Trisha to suffer in the wake of their failed relationship.

That's when the questions started flooding her mind. How did Trisha and Claire even know each other? How had they met? How long had they been together? Were they serious? Were they happy? Claire was gay? Since when was Claire gay? She came to the conclusion that as long as they were happy and Claire didn't hurt Trisha, she was happy for them.

Helen watched the emotions play out across Nikki's face like the changing of the seasons. She held her impulse to interrogate at bay as she waited for Nikki to speak in her own time.

"When did this happen?" The lifer spoke finally, more to herself than to Helen, but she got an answer nonetheless.

"Claire said they met about two weeks ago and it was sort of… instant."

Nikki knew without having to ask what that meant, and she couldn't stop a chuckle and a grin from escaping her. "Trish always did like to jump the gun."

Her grin faded and she said seriously, "I'm pleased for them, Helen, as long they're happy and they treat each other right. Working with your friend isn't going to be a problem. I remember her being very kind to me when you and I first got involved, though I had no idea she was this way inclined."

Helen snickered and remarked, "Neither did I. She kept it as well hidden as I did, though I think she's only discovered this side of herself recently. Regardless, she seems really chuffed about it, so I fully intend to support her decision."

Nikki was filled with even more admiration for the small Scot. She was brimming with so much pride to call this woman her partner that she thought she might burst.

"She's dead lucky to have a friend like you."

She reached over to brush a lock of silky blonde hair behind Helen's ear and then she used the same hand to pull her into a kiss.

Their lips met just as it was time for lock-up and Helen was forced to pull back regretfully. "I've gotta go. Sweet dreams, darling."

She pecked Nikki goodbye and took her leave, aware that she'd already spent a suspicious amount of time in the lifer's cell. If Jim got wind of this she would never hear the end of it. As she walked through the wing, the POs were ushering stragglers into their cells and locking doors. She comforted herself with the promise of a quiet, work-free night, a large glass of wine, and some much-needed sleep.

Nikki stared forlornly at the green door barring her freedom and thought miserably, 'Another day gone and I'm still here.'

She lay back on her mattress and folded her hands across her stomach, staring up at the ceiling from atop the duvet. She could think of nothing else but what she would rather be doing at that moment, and hope flared in her chest as she remembered Helen's promise to procure her freedom.

When the lights went out some time later, she crawled between her sheets and closed her eyes, her last waking thought, 'Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow I'll get to see Helen again. Things could be worse.'


Chapter 19

Flashback, Ten Years Prior, Night Four

At half past eight Helen and Claire were sitting at a table in Andalucia, a Spanish Tapas restaurant, sipping on Crianza Rivallana (a rich, fruity, red wine from Rioja, Spain) while they waited for the main course to arrive.

"So, Helen… tell me about Nikki. How are things going so far? Have you done the deed yet?"

The solicitor-to-be wiggled her eyebrows and Helen chuckled quietly, her cheeks reddening ever so slightly.

"No. Not yet. She's great, though. I really, really like her Claire." She resisted the urge to say she loved her, as she knew it would sound silly to her friend after only three days of courting.

"She has this way about her. I don't know how to describe it exactly. She makes me feel so safe, comfortable in my own skin. I know when we do get around to the deed it will be wonderful."

Claire smiled over the rim of her wine glass. She couldn't be happier for Helen if she tried. While she hadn't seen this coming, it didn't make a damn bit of difference to her that Helen was gay. She would always be her best friend regardless.

"What about you, Walker? What have you been up to whilst I've been otherwise engaged? Any new romance on the horizon?" Helen dramatised with a playful grin.

It was Claire's turn to blush as she leaned over the table and confided in a whisper, "Actually, there is a guy I fancy, an English bloke named Thomas. He's in medical school in Oxford, training to be a psychologist. I met him through my brother the other night. They clicked right off the bat apparently."

Helen racked her mind and recalled the dark-haired man in question. She'd barely spoken two words to him and hadn't known his name, but she remembered him and Michael being thick as thieves wherever they went.

She smiled and said, "Good for you. He's quite a looker, if memory serves."

Claire smirked and avowed, "Gorgeous is the word, don't you think?"

Helen laughed and acceded her point. "If I still had my eye on men, I suppose he'd do all right. You're awfully keen, aren't you?"

The food arrived, delaying Claire's answer, and they tucked into steaming plates of Paella Valenciana (seafood, vegetables, and chicken) with a side of Pan Fresco (fresh bread and marinated olive oil). The dish consisting of shrimp, snails, chicken, butter beans, artichoke, tomatoes, short-grained white rice, rosemary, and olive oil was a pleasant shock to their taste buds.

Claire swallowed a mouthful of chicken and rice and urged, "You should take a break from snogging your bird and come check out Floridita with me tonight. It's this really popular Cuban bar me and some of the others are going to."

Helen's only response was a coy smile and a halfhearted maybe. After an authentic Spanish dinner the thought of going to a Cuban bar was appealing, but she had to set eyes on Nikki at least once more that evening. The raven-haired bartender was fast becoming an addiction she didn't want to fight.

One hour later, Claire and Helen separated on the sidewalk lined with Soho's busiest bars and nightclubs. The Scot broke away from the group bound for Floridita and joined the queue for Thirst, wearing a short, fitted, blue cocktail dress. She paid the small cover fee and entered, pushing her way politely through the throng of patrons until she reached the bar. Nikki, Brandy, and Kim were all on duty that night, busily filling drink orders at every turn.

Helen caught Nikki's eye and shot her a saucy wink, then waited for her girlfriend to have a free moment. Unfortunately, the crowd didn't seem to be dying down at all. Club-goers were packed in four-deep around the bar. Helen signalled with her head that she was going to slip off to the restroom while she waited, which Nikki acknowledged with a nod.

Upon returning from the loo, however, she caught sight of something that wiped the smile off her face and stopped her in her tracks. Kim had Nikki pressed up against the bar and was mauling her with open-mouthed kisses. A group of men were whistling loudly in appreciation and Helen saw red.

She stomped toward the scene just as Nikki pushed Kim off of her angrily, shouting loud enough to be heard over the raucous, "What the hell do you think you're playing at? I've got a bloody girlfriend and I've told you I'm not interested, so piss off!"

Helen was positively fuming as she reached the bar, ignoring the 'Employees Only' sign on the entrance and moving behind it. Nikki spotted her just before she reached Kim and had the presence of mind to move between them.

Helen's green eyes were flashing with fury as she growled, "Nikki, get out of my way."

Nikki turned her back on Kim, who was now being ushered to false safety by Brandy, who'd had to stop mid-pour when the argument arose and who proceeded to threaten Kim in a low tone to leave Nikki alone if she valued her job. The raven-haired woman faced Helen and placed both hands gently on her shoulders, pleading with her chocolate eyes for the stubborn Scot to listen.

"Helen, come on, it's not worth it. She's been told off and if she tries it again I'll see that she gets thrown on her arse. Please leave it."

Nikki moved in closer and whispered, so only Helen could hear, "As much as I'd love to see you take a swing at her, darling, I don't want you coming up on an assault charge. She's just a stupid kid."

Helen relaxed in her girlfriend's grip and used every ounce of willpower she owned to rid her mind of anger. She couldn't even resist a small grin upon hearing Nikki's latter statement. Somehow the taller woman always knew just what to say. It was almost frightening how in tune they were with one another.

She tilted her head and pursed her lips, eyes now back to a pleasant green, and she acquiesced quietly, "Fine, but if she does it again there'll be no stopping me." She pushed her tongue to her teeth and Nikki laughed heartily, pulling her into a tight embrace.

Without thinking, the Englishwoman professed in a whisper, "Damn it, I love you."

Helen's body stiffened and she pulled back, uncertainty shining in her eyes. "Do you mean it, Nikki? You're not just saying that to calm me down, are you?"

Kim and Brandy had resumed serving their customers so they had relative privacy, aside from the few curious patrons still watching the scene. Nikki looped her arms around Helen's waist and pulled her close once more.

Bodies touching, she assured the Scot, "Of course I mean it. I would never say that if it wasn't true. Helen, you're the first one woman I've ever felt this way about. I've had my share of crushes and botched relationships in the past, but it was never like this. The way it is with you, I just can't say it any other way."

Helen's face broke out in a glowing smile and she declared reverently, "And I love you, Nikki Wade." She crushed her mouth to Nikki's and they shared fervent kisses to a background of renewed wolf whistles.

They broke apart laughing and then the smile died on Nikki's face as she spotted Tony, the club's owner, standing over Helen's shoulder. The tall man with average looks, thinning brown hair, muddy brown eyes, and a slight beer belly did not look pleased.

"What the hell's going on, Nik? We've got a full house tonight and she shouldn't be back here," he insisted in clipped tones, which immediately prompted Nikki to release her girlfriend and assume an apologetic guise.

"Sorry, Tony, you're right. I'll make sure she stays on the other side from now on."

The man nodded and said sombrely, "Be sure that you do. I'd hate to have to ban such a pretty woman from this establishment."

Helen looked ready to object, but luckily went unseen by Nikki's boss as he turned on his heel and departed toward his office. "Well… I guess I'd better go. I don't want you getting in trouble on my behalf. Why don't you come round to my room later?"

She pecked Nikki quickly then made her own retreat with haste, deciding that now would be a good time to join Claire and the others down the street at Floridita. Upbeat Cuban music and strong liquor seemed just the thing to stop her sulking.

Just after midnight Helen stumbled into her hotel room and headed straight for the bathroom, grabbing her travel-size mouthwash and gargling half of it straightaway. She spit it out and looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was mussed and sticking to her neck and shoulders with drying sweat and rainwater. Her eyes were glassy from alcohol consumption and her eyeliner and lipstick were smudged. She grabbed her makeup remover wipes and began scrubbing angrily at her face, removing the black and red smears and leaving her skin raw and pink.

She brushed her teeth and peeled off her soaked dress, leaving it on the tiled floor as she stepped into the shower, turning the temperature to near scalding. She closed her eyes and pressed her palms to the tiled wall under the showerhead, letting the heat saturate her pores and wash away the salty coating of sweat she'd accumulated from dancing the last two hours away. A vivid reel of images flashed through her mind as she stood there.

"Can I have this dance?" Michael Walker held out his hand to a drunk Helen and she took it, deciding it couldn't hurt to humour him. They were friends, after all, and he was Claire's brother. He wouldn't try anything inappropriate.

Helen barked out a humourless laugh as she remembered her assumption. She grabbed her bottle of shampoo and squeezed some into her palm, attacking the tangles in her hair as she continued to recount the night in her head.

He led her onto the dance floor and they began to move in time with the salsa music. After the first song he pulled her closer and moved his hands down to rest on her bum. She moved the offending digits up to the middle of her back with a stern warning glance and he left them there with a smile.

Helen rinsed the shampoo from her long brown tresses and slathered them with conditioner, rubbing her scalp as if to erase the thoughts assaulting her.

They were on the third song when he spun her away from him and then back again, so that her body was pressed tightly to his. She felt the evidence of his excitement against her stomach and she recoiled, but he pulled her back to him and kissed her roughly, trying to stake his claim.

Finished with her hair, Helen soaped up a flannel and began to attack her body, punishing herself for her ignorance and trying to demolish the feel of him against her.

Helen began to struggle in his grasp as his tongue forced its way into her mouth, but he held her tighter and moved one hand to squeeze her backside as the other slid up her stomach toward her chest. She bit down on his tongue then, drawing blood and causing him to release her with a yelp.

She pushed through the crowd toward the exit as quickly as she could, fighting back tears as she tasted the coppery saliva in her mouth. Claire caught up with her, wearing a worried frown, and shouted over the music, "Are you okay? I saw what happened…"

The blonde grabbed her arm gently, genuinely distressed on Helen's behalf, but the Scot wasn't in the mood to be questioned and comforted. She wanted to wash off the taste of him, the feel of him grabbing her. She jerked her arm away and growled, "Just let me go, Claire."

She dashed outside into the pouring rain and was thankful for it. It provided the cover she needed to hide the tears running down her cheeks. She hailed the first cab she could and ordered the driver to get her to The Z Soho as quickly as possible.

She rinsed the soap off quickly then turned the tap to stop the flow of water. She grabbed a plush white towel from the rack and began to dry herself, using it afterward to wrap turban-style around her dripping hair. She rubbed a circle in the steam-fogged mirror and assessed her appearance. She became increasingly agitated as she noticed the faint bruises that were now visible on her sides.

'I'll kill Michael if I ever see him again,' she thought angrily. She was equal parts hurt and furious that he'd done something so callous; they were meant to be friends for fuck's sake. But more than either of those emotions, she was afraid.

What would Nikki do when she found out? How would she react to the bruises? She didn't know how she knew, maybe she was capable of premonition, but she was certain that her girlfriend had a hell of a temper. She wasn't someone you'd want to piss off, she was sure of it.

She decided that rather than tempt fate and risk the bartender going off in a rage to track down the little twerp, she would cover her battle wounds for the time being and tell Nikki in the morning, if she showed. Helen hoped she would take the offer, because she wanted more than anything to be wrapped up in those strong arms right now.

She picked up her rumpled, waterlogged dress and hung it over the shower, before flipping off the bathroom light and going to her suitcase. She chose a pair of simple black satin knickers, black sleep shorts, and a mint green vest. She dressed quickly and checked her arms thoroughly for bruises, but luckily there were none.

A look at the bedside clock told her it was only gone one, so she had two hours to kill before Nikki would be off work. She poured herself a hefty measure of vodka from the mini bar and sat sipping it, gazing out the window at the busy city below. The Soho nightlife was still in full swing by the amount of people wandering the sidewalks.

She felt herself growing sleepy and left the half-filled vodka glass on the round table to crawl into bed. She snuggled up under the duvet and her eyes closed instantly, her breathing evening out as she drifted off into an alcohol and stress induced slumber.

She blinked blearily into awareness as a steady knocking sounded on her door. At first she'd thought it was part of her dream, but then it had grown louder as the cobwebs of sleep began to recede. The clock's illuminated face showed 3:47am. Remembrance struck and she bolted out of bed to let Nikki in.

The raven-haired woman smiled as the door flew open and she took in the sleep-mussed appearance of her partner. She stepped inside and pushed the door closed with her heel, taking Helen into her arms and kissing her soundly.

When she drew back she drawled, "Hello, gorgeous. Sorry I woke you."

She slipped her fingers through Helen's hair and wasn't surprised by the soft sigh of pleasure the Scot emitted. She'd already learned in the three days they'd been together that Helen loved to have her scalp massaged.

The shorter woman grinned and retorted cheekily, "I'm not sorry," then began pressing hot, open-mouthed kisses against Nikki's neck.

They moved backward toward the bed and Helen moaned in earnest when one of Nikki's thighs brushed against her centre. She bit down on a particularly sensitive bit of flesh and it was Nikki's turn to moan. She hadn't been planning this when she'd answered the door, but it felt damn good and she wasn't in any hurry to stop it. That is, until she remembered the bruises hidden under her vest.

They fell onto the mattress together with Nikki on top, running her palms slowly up Helen's shapely legs as she possessed the Scot's mouth with slow, deep, purposeful kisses. Sex dripping with desire and clit throbbing, Helen was loathe to halt the proceedings, but she knew it would be better to tell Nikki what had happened than to give her a nasty surprise.

The horny Scot groaned with frustration as she ended the kiss and braced her palms against her girlfriend's shoulders.

"Nikki, wait…"

She'd wanted to do this in the morning after they'd both had a good sleep, but things weren't going according to plan.

"There's something I need to tell you. Well, two things actually."

Nikki, eyes darkened to charcoal and lips bee-stung, grinned and quipped playfully, "Don't you know talking's what you do after?"

Helen released a breathy moan as Nikki nipped at her jugular, and she swatted the distracted woman's arm impatiently.

"Nikki, seriously, I need to talk to you."

But as she said it she didn't sound very serious, for at that moment Nikki had found just the right spot on her neck to make her breathless.

"Ugghh… Oh God."

She bit her lip hard, bringing her mind back into focus, and blurted the first thing she thought of to get her girlfriend's attention, "I'm a virgin."

There. That did the trick.

Nikki's neck snapped up and her jaw slacked, speechless for a rare change. Helen took a few deep, calming breaths and tried to get her raging libido under control.

She arched a brow and said, "I can't believe you're this surprised."

Nikki closed her mouth and took a moment to gather her wits before replying, "I'm not surprised because I think you jump into bed with random blokes or anything. It's just… I mean… you're gorgeous, Helen, and I'm totally in love with you. I can't believe I'm so lucky."

Helen positively melted into the mattress upon hearing Nikki's whispered words, and her core throbbed soundly to remind her what she'd interrupted.

She brushed her thumb across Nikki's lower lip and assured her, "You've got me, sweetheart. No one else. That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about."

The Scot sighed heavily and steeled herself for any possible reaction.

"Earlier, after I left you at the bar, I went and joined Claire and the others at Floridita. I drank and danced for the better part of two hours and had a great time, but then something happened and I left early."

Nikki was listening intently, her weight supported by her elbows and knees as she hovered above Helen, her brows furrowed in confusion.

Helen stroked her spine through the red vest and continued, "Do you remember Michael, Claire's brother?" A nod. "He asked me to dance and I said yes because I thought we were friends. Only, he didn't just have dancing in mind. He grabbed me and kissed me, which is why I left."

She scooted up into a sitting position and slowly lifted the hem of her vest, revealing the pink handprints under her ribs. Nikki did a marvellous impression of a volcano as she processed the information. She stood abruptly and balled her fists, her jaw clenching and unclenching. Helen ducked her head to hide a smile and waited for her to erupt, chuckling on the inside at how accurate her prediction had been.

"That bastard!"

The irate Englishwoman began to pace beside the bed with a face like a thundercloud. Helen bit her lip as she watched, becoming more and more amused as Nikki worked herself into a right state.

"Nikki," she struggled not to laugh, "Sweetheart, stop pacing and come here."

She held out her hand in invitation and the taller woman caved, rejoining her on the bed and letting the anger disappear from her face.

Helen smoothed out the dark eyebrows with a satisfied smile and murmured, "There. That's better."

She paused and added seriously, "It'll be taken care of. Claire saw it happen and if I know her at all then she'll give him hell. But for now, I don't want to think about him or her."

Helen rolled on top of Nikki and her tone turned seductive, "I want you inside of me, Nicola."

She rubbed her body slowly against the woman beneath her, causing them both to whimper with want as their breasts touched, nipples hard and aching for attention.

Helen's eyes shut of their own accord and her mouth dropped open as Nikki pushed a thigh between hers, putting sweet pressure on her most sensitive region. The taller woman groaned at the sight then flipped the Scot onto her back. She tugged the mint green top over Helen's head and discarded it carelessly, her attention drawn to heaving breasts that were full and round, topped with perfect dark nipples.

She filled her palms slowly, curving her hands against the undersides and then moving slowly upward, until her thumbs were stroking the hardened peaks in a delicious rhythm. Helen bared her throat as her head lolled back and her breathing deepened, her hips churning restlessly against her captor. Nikki honed in on the slender column of creamy skin and devoured it hungrily, biting and sucking until Helen was squirming and digging her short fingernails into Nikki's shoulders.

"Nikki," the Scot panted, swallowing a loud sound of satisfaction as it rose in her throat.

Nikki's fevered mind registered the need in Helen's voice, so she trailed her lips progressively lower, covering collarbones, sternum, the curve of a breast, stopping to suckle a taut nipple and draw out more noises of desperation from its owner. A glistening trail of saliva was left in her wake as she licked a path down Helen's abdomen, pausing to dip into her navel, and then continued toward the top of the black sleep shorts.

She hooked a finger under the elastic on each side and drew shorts and knickers down in one swift move, Helen lifting her hips eagerly to assist the action. She then took the Scot's hips in her hands, staring upward into stormy green eyes as she moved her mouth dangerously lower, her tongue drawing teasing circles as it neared the patch of dark curls.

She blew across them softly and Helen could no longer keep eye contact. The brunette's cheeks flushed hotly and she felt the sudden urge to wriggle away from such close inspection. Nikki sensed her dilemma and eased her palms gently down to the undersides of Helen's thighs.

"Trust me," she intoned sincerely, reassuringly.

Helen glanced down at her, aflame with embarrassment, and nodded her consent slowly. Nikki parted her thighs with reverence and Helen looked away again, biting her lip and staring at the ceiling, anything to avoid thinking about what was about to happen. Her body was pulsing and ready, but she was inexperienced and shy.

The first sweep of Nikki's tongue down her slit sent a shockwave through her, and seconds later she jolted and cried out as the flexible organ found her bundle of nerves. Her virgin body was already overly sensitised from the brief foreplay, and the unexpected oral assault tipped her right over the edge. She felt a burning like none she had ever experienced shoot straight down to her clit.

"Nikki…" she tried to warn, and then her inner walls clenched together and released a gush of fluid.

She went rigid, head thrown back, eyes open yet unseeing, lips parted, sweat glistening on her chest, blood pounding as never before, and she clamped her thighs around Nikki's head like a vice.

The raven-haired woman was stunned by her partner's quick response, but not by any means disappointed. She allowed the small Scot ample time to regain her breath and then she began again, using her tongue to lap up the creamy result of Helen's orgasm. She circled the entrance of her womanhood with tantalising strokes but didn't enter. Not just yet.

Helen's thighs had relaxed now, giving Nikki room to breathe and continue, but when she felt that magical tongue coaxing her toward another climax, she grabbed a fistful of raven hair with one hand and bunched the sheets in her other. Nikki felt the pressure on the back of her head and smirked, before continuing on her mission to bring Helen back to the brink of ecstasy.

Releasing one smooth thigh from her grip, she used her fingers to pick up where her tongue had left off, as her mouth occupied itself with Helen's clit. She used the tip of her tongue to tease the outer edges with languid strokes, alternating with gentle flicks at the underside. Her index finger caressed the Scot's entrance with loving gentleness and then slipped inside, stopping at her virginal barrier.

She closed her lips around the pulsating bud as she pushed past the hymen and buried her finger deep inside her lover, distracting her as best she knew how and claiming her as gently as she could. Helen's back arched off the sweat-soaked bed and she gasped in a mixture of pain and pleasure. She felt another rush of hot liquid escape her core but she knew this time it would be her blood.

She looked downward as Nikki's mouth eased off her clit, the taller woman having felt the sharp, involuntary tug at her hair as Helen's body reacted to the pain. Sad, loving brown eyes stared up at the Scot and she moved her fingers to cup Nikki's cheek, now slick with evidence of their passion.

She smiled at her lover and drew her upward, whispering, "I'm okay," before pulling her into a kiss.

Nikki nodded and whispered back, "Let me know if I'm hurting you, darling."

Nikki's finger began to move, very slowly at first, as their mouths joined and their tongues danced. Helen tasted her essence for the first time and drank it in greedily, wondering if that was how Nikki would taste. Then, as the Scot's hips began to move in tandem with her partner's thrusts, Nikki built up speed and pressure, eventually sliding a second finger in to join the first.

When she felt the telltale trembles begin in Helen's thighs, the raven-haired woman curved her fingers in a come-hither motion, seeking out the spongy patch of nerves that would push Helen over the edge. Just as the Scot thought it couldn't get any better, Nikki found it and stroked it insistently.

Helen nearly blacked out, such was the intensity of her release, and she clung to Nikki's neck like a child until she regained her senses. For a moment there, she had simply floated away and left her body behind. When she returned, she kissed Nikki contently and the Englishwoman withdrew her fingers from Helen's core.

That's when the Scot pulled back and noticed something that started her laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. For her part, Nikki was knocked for six and it showed on her face. She had absolutely no idea what was so funny.

Helen proceeded to tell her, gasping for breath and trying not to laugh, "Nikki… you're still… fully dressed."

This time they both started going, tears of laughter springing forth as they clutched their sides. When the amusement died, passion was reborn and took hold of them with a vengeance. Now it was Helen's turn to explore, and explore she did for the next several hours, until they both collapsed, sated and exhausted, into a tangle of flesh bound for sleep.

Helen's last waking thought was that she'd been correct on all counts. Nikki was a very talented lover and 'the deed' had been wonderful.


Chapter 20

"Missed you."

Jim paused long enough in kissing Shell's neck to murmur into her ear. He had her pressed up against the corner of a toilet cubicle as they settled into their usual routine of using one another.

"Yeah, well you should have thought about that when you let that shit parcel put me back on Basic."

Shell felt her irritation growing by the second, her recent loss of status and privileges putting an instant damper on her hormones.

"That was your fault, darling. There's no point in blaming me."

Fenner resumed his pawing, leaving slobber all over the side of Shell's neck and feeling his trousers begin to tighten. While he didn't have any feelings for Dockley besides those of lust, she certainly knew how to turn him on.

"You got to get me back on Enhanced. Fast." Her tone was urgent as she tried to make her point, no longer interested in their frenzied grope session.

"You'll be lucky to get a sniff of Enhanced this side of Christmas. You've got me to thank you didn't get shipped out."

He knew he was stretching the truth a bit, but he really wasn't interested in her wants at the moment. He had his own agenda in mind and it didn't involve catering to her whiny whims.

"Yeah?" It was clear she didn't wholeheartedly believe him, but she gave him a chance to dig himself in deeper.

"Oh yeah. You came this close." He put his thumb and forefinger together to illustrate his point.

"Yeah, well it's still your problem mush, 'cause I ain't up for any more of this until I'm back on the threes."

Her words stopped Jim like a bucket of ice water and he stepped back with frustration clear on his face.

"Fine. That's what you want, that's fine by me." He ran a hand over the back of his neck.

"I mean, obviously I'm disappointed Shell but, uh, if that's the way it is."

He tried his best to sound unaffected by her decision, though inside he was furious that he wasn't getting the result he wanted. She was supposed to be his to control, to use as he wished when and how he wanted.

"It's so unfair! Them jellies were Lorna Rose's." Shell's words fell on selectively deaf ears.

"I've warned you Shell! I don't want to hear that crap."

'Jesus, not this shit again,' he thought with further frustration.

Even if it were true, there was no way to prove it and it wouldn't sound good if he openly took Shell's word on something like that. Going against a fellow officer in favour of a con would tarnish his carefully polished reputation. That he wouldn't allow, no matter how much pleasure the con in question gave him.

"But Jim, you don't know how upset I get. That bitch Wade queening about on my landing and I'm stuck down here with these shits!"

The blonde murderess was gradually working herself into an irate state. She couldn't believe the tables had been turned this quickly. Only last week she'd been the top dog, the one all the cons respected and feared, and now she'd been demoted to Basic and people were laughing at her instead. To make matters worse, Nikki Wade was like a pig in shit up on the threes, and all because of her precious little wing governor.

Jim lowered his voice and said, "She won't be for long, not if I have my way. I'm going to make that bitch pay, just you wait Shell. And if you help me, let's just say that'll work in your favour."

They'd already been through this when she'd initially approached him with her information. He'd shared his suspicions with the blonde lifer and told her to keep an especially close eye on the wing governor and her pet dyke. It was going to be a lot harder now that she was on G1 and couldn't come and go as she pleased.

"I know but I can't do sod all from Basic. If you move me back to the threes I can keep a better eye out, can't I?" She decided that would be a good tack to try since nothing else had worked.

Fenner sighed and braced a palm on the wall beside her head, his mind going a mile a minute as he considered his options. He couldn't reasonably request that Shell be moved back to Enhanced, not so soon after the discovery of her drugs, but he did want to catch Wade at it…

"Shell… I can't get you moved back right now. That bitch Stewart is constantly pulling rank and I can tell she's got a bone to pick with me. It looks like I'm going to have to do the dirty work on my own. If I can get her out on her arse, then the job's mine and you'll be back on Enhanced before you can say Jim. Problem is, that pair of dykes are damn good at covering their tracks."

He trailed off into speculative silence and Shell rolled her eyes. "Yeah, fine, whatever. What am I s'posed to do 'til then?"

"Look, the only thing you can do right now is behave yourself, keep your nose clean. Be a good little girl guide. Now come on… give us a kiss…"

Fenner leered lecherously at the blonde, hoping this whole conversation hadn't been a complete waste of time.

Shell pouted but reluctantly gave in, letting him resume his earlier attentions as she considered what he'd said. No matter, she was also determined to get back at Wade, through whatever means necessary.

"Three and a half weeks. 23rd."

Monica was sitting across the table from Spencer and the nun who'd brought him in to see her. This was only their second visit since her sentencing, the last one having been cancelled due to his chest infection.

The older woman was delighted to be able to see her son, however briefly, and to pass on the good news she'd received from Miss Stewart. As she sat staring across the table she sent a silent prayer of thanks up to God for Helen's perseverance and good nature. From what Monica had seen of the screws in Larkhall thus far, Helen was a godsend. The young wing governor was obviously put here to right the many wrongs and she was just tenacious enough to succeed.

The nun broke her contemplation, "Oh, Spencer can write that in his diary, can't you Spencer?"

"Yes," the young man replied, fumbling with the book in his hands to find the date.

"You thought it might be sooner?"

The nun's question made Monica feel instantly guilty. It was inconceivably unfair that Spencer was caught up in this mess. He couldn't understand it and she hated lying to him, but it was better than him believing she didn't love him anymore.

Monica decided to try and skirt around the question with an indirect answer, anything to pacify the overwhelming anguish that was eating her up inside.

"Well. I'm knitting a certain someone a jumper. Looks as if he needs it. He's still got that cold."

Spencer's cough had not gone unnoticed by his worried mother. If anything, it sounded even worse than it had the last time she'd seen him.

"Yes," the nun replied, then turned her attention to Spencer. "Have you found the page?"

"Yes. 23rd. It's ages away. You'll be home then."

He was looking at his mother with such a mixture of sadness and hope that Monica feared her heart might break in her chest.

"You never know."

The older woman covered his hand with hers and gave it a squeeze, forcing the same hopeful smile onto her face. She thought about what Nikki had told her on more than one occasion – not giving up was the most important thing. She had to be strong for Spencer.

Nikki was lost in her own world as she wandered towards the potting shed. She hadn't seen Helen in three whole days and she hadn't touched her in even longer. She knew they had to be more cautious than ever now, but it was a trying exercise in patience and endurance. She was so caught up in her own torment that she didn't even notice the two Julies approaching her until they'd fallen into stride directly behind her.

She spared a brief glance at the odd pair and asked, "What do you want, Julies?"

Julie S glanced furtively at Julie J then spearheaded the proposition, "Well… we was wonderin' if you could help us with some'ing."

Nikki raised her brows as a motion to continue, inwardly wondering what crazy scheme they'd cooked up this time.

Julie J picked up the slack in the conversation, "Winemaking. David thought it would be a present for Ju, what with her birthday coming up and all."

Julie S explained further, "We asked Monica and she gave us a recipe. We just need a place to hide it."

"So we thought of your shed," Julie J finished.

Nikki's footsteps faltered briefly as she absorbed the request. "You're mad, why me?"

"It was just an idea," Julie J defended.

"You're cleaners!" Nikki resumed walking as she asked, "Why can't you use the kitchens?"

"No, well we did think of that," Julie S explained.

"It's warm, it's clean," Nikki persisted, mildly exasperated that they saw fit to drag her into this.

"Yeah, but it's too obvious, they'd find it," Julie J countered.

"All I can offer you is filthy and freezing."

"Be perfect," Julie S stated, clearly set upon the idea.

"They'd never think of looking here," Julie J insisted.

The trio reached the door of the shed and Julie S looked down at the green plastic water pot in Nikki's hands.

"Here, d'you ever use that watering can?"

"Yeah, thanks, I do," the lifer replied defensively, hugging the plastic container closer to her chest.

"Oh it's only for four weeks, Nikki," Julie J began, a pleading note entering her tone.

"Please!" Julie S carried on, her expression now begging.

"Go on," the taller blonde nudged.

"It is for us," Julie S seemed to have realised she was onto a winning tactic and was milking it for all it was worth.

"You know you love us," her twin urged, having gathered the same conclusion.

Nikki sighed and barely resisted a petulant eye roll. She did have a soft spot for the eccentric duo and they knew it.

"How you going to keep it the right temperature?" she finally asked, conceding defeat to their matching cow eyes.

Julie J leapt in with a handy explanation, clearly not sussing how ridiculous it sounded, "Well, what we thought was, we could take it in turns to come out and hug it."

Nikki raised her brows and intoned flatly, "Pardon?"

Inside she was bursting with near hysterical laughter. They couldn't be serious…?

Julie S continued calmly, as if the notion made perfect sense, "Body heat, you know. Thought we'd take it in turns."

Nikki allowed herself a snort of amusement then remarked, "You can count me out. What about at night? Doesn't it have to be kept warm permanently?"

That, they evidently hadn't considered. "Does it?" Julie J questioned.

The shorter blonde followed up comically, "Oh shit!"

"Hang on," the lifer said, staring at the compost pile beside her shed.

"What?" the taller Julie asked quizzically.

"There might be a way," Nikki muttered thoughtfully.

"Yeah?" Julie S asked, renewed hope apparent on her face.

"Yeah, I'll tell you later," Nikki responded, noticing that Bodybag was strolling down the path toward them. "What do you want me to do with this watering can?"

"Sterilise it," answered the shorter of the pair.

"Yeah? What with?"

This conversation would have to be brief in conclusion. Time was running out.

"Sterilising tablets." Julie S opened a pack of fags and offered it to the dark-haired lifer. "All right?"

Nikki discreetly palmed the tablets as she withdrew a cigarette and lit it.

"Everything's got to be sterilised," Julie J added helpfully.

"Where'd you get those from?" Nikki asked, before sucking on the filter of the cigarette.

"Mother and baby unit," chirped Julie J. "They chucked them out the window at us."

"Yeah, we got loads of them," her twin added.

"Yeah, we thought it was snowing," the taller blonde chimed in.

Officer Hollamby had now arrived at the gathering and was surveying the trio dubiously. "All you girls gainfully employed?"

"Yes, thanks miss," Julie S replied, putting on an award-winning smile.

"Yes miss," Julie J agreed, matching her twin's expression.

"Yeah. All right," Nikki said, not bothering to appear as chipper or polite as the other two. It would be out of character anyway.

"Nice, mind how you go," Julie S said flippantly, moving to make a departure.

Julie J took the hint and pushed off the shed's outer wall. "See you later."

"See you later," Julie S repeated.

The pair left the scene with haste and Bodybag stared at Nikki with open contempt. The lifer ducked her head to hide a grin and opened the door to her shed, making her own retreat before the grumpy senior officer could question her further.

The following day the Julies began collecting ingredients for their winemaking project and Nikki went to sterilise the watering can in preparation, already kicking herself for agreeing. She was supposed to be keeping her nose clean. She had to admit, though… no one was going to check the compost pile to see if it had been converted into a brewery.

Nikki was in her shed and had just filled her watering pot with cold water to dissolve the sterilising tablets when the door opened behind her. The slight smell of chlorine was already filling the air and she nearly jumped out of her skin as she turned around. She relaxed visibly when she saw Helen in the doorway, but she kept her back pressed to the workbench to hide the watering can.

Helen went to speak but stopped when she glimpsed the guilty expression on Nikki's face. She stepped inside the shed and pulled the door closed, tilting her head as she studied her girlfriend. Something was going on here… Why else would Nikki be acting this way? She stepped closer to the lifer and tried to glance inconspicuously over her shoulder, but Nikki caught her movements and countered them, firmly blocking the view.

"Nikki," she said, her tone that of amusement, "what the hell are you doing in here?"

The taller woman swallowed and laughed, a little more nervously than she'd intended, and replied nonchalantly, "Nothing out of the ordinary. Why?"

Helen narrowed her eyes and stepped even closer, now invading the con's personal space.

"Really?" she drawled slowly.

She could smell the disinfectant and she wondered what on earth Nikki would need chlorine for. It would kill her plants, surely?

The petite wing governor moved in so her body was touching Nikki's and tilted her head up to look into those chocolate eyes, which were darting to and fro in an edgy manner. She placed her hands on Nikki's waist and then moved them down to stroke the con's hipbones under her white vest.

"Sweetheart," she purred throatily, "were you doing something you shouldn't be?"

"No," Nikki croaked, on the edge of distraction as Helen's skilful fingers teased the flesh beneath her green gardening trousers.

She made to protest but Helen captured her lips forcefully and, pressing her advantage, managed to shift the lifer out from in front of the bench. The Scot released her with a triumphant smile and moved to inspect the watering can, a bemused frown crossing her face as she peered inside.

Nikki fidgeted and tried to think of some kind of excuse, but none was forthcoming. 'Shit. Fuck. Damn. What am I going to tell her?'

Helen raised her eyebrows and asked, "Nikki, what on earth are you sterilising this watering can for?"

The lifer ineloquently blurted the first thing that came to mind, "Bugs! I mean… there was, um, a nest of some sort. So I thought it would be a good idea to, uh, sterilise it," she finished lamely.

Helen's brows threatened to recede into her hairline and she barely contained her growing mirth. Winding Nikki up was too much fun. She couldn't really see the harm in the situation other than the fact it seemed unnecessary and her girlfriend's behaviour was on the dodgy side.

"Right," the Scot mused with a wide grin.

She smacked Nikki on the rear and said, "I just came to say hi. I've gotta go. Be good," she warned, before retreating the way she'd come.

Nikki released a sigh of relief and muttered, "Bloody hell."

Out in the exercise yard, Denny caught up with Shell as the blonde puffed on a cigarette.

"I know something you don't," the younger girl declared.

Shell spared her an irritated glance. "So what." She had other things on her mind at the moment, like plotting revenge on Wade.

"Mad twins are brewing up some jungle juice and I got a share in it 'cause I gave 'em an apple." Denny stuck her hands in her trouser pockets with a proud grin as she delivered her news.

Shell paused in the middle of inhaling and looked at the curly haired brunette with renewed interest. "What d'you mean?"

Denny went on to explain the covert operation and Shell's mouth twisted up into a sneer. 'Jim's gonna love this,' the blonde thought with concealed glee. Just as she'd been giving up hope on dumping Nikki in it, the perfect opportunity fell right in her lap.

She finished her cigarette and pecked Denny on the cheek by way of thanks. She decided to wait until the stuff was ready to confide in Fenner. It would get Wade in more trouble that way.

"Are you sure this is going to work?"

Almost twenty-four hours had passed since Nikki had agreed to the Julies' latest ploy, and she now found herself hovering over Julie S's shoulder as she readied the ingredients to put in the watering can. Julie J had taken up sentry duty outside the shed.

"Huh!" Julie scoffed, confident in her improvisation abilities.

She began plonking bits of apple, lemon, and orange into the plastic container then poured sugar in from an envelope. When she finished with those ingredients, she demanded simply, "Yeast."

Nikki handed over the plastic bottle filled with cloudy liquid and asked, "Where'd you get that from?"

The blonde answered over her shoulder as she began pouring the concoction into the mix, "Shell."

Seeing the lifer's eye roll she elaborated, "Oh, she got it off the doc for us. Said she got heartburn, could she have some yeast tablets."

She'd just finished when a distressed whisper sounded from the other side of the door. "Hurry up."

Julie J was definitely not the sharpest tool outside the shed. Her idea of keeping watch had been sweeping the grass, quite conspicuously. Hollamby spotted her immediately while she was making her rounds and made a beeline for the tall blonde.

Now alarmed, Julie S whispered fervently, "Shh!"

They could hear the conversation taking place through the wooden walls. Hollamby's voice asked, "What's going on here then?"

Julie J responded, "Nothing, Miss," but the look on her face said it all. A closed book she was not.

Sylvia huffed, "You must think I was born last week, girl."

The taller Julie was starting to get desperate now as she barricaded the door of the shed. "No, really Miss! I just, I was just tidying up-"

"Get out of my way!" Bodybag shouted.

Nikki could hear the latch being fumbled with amidst Julie's protests, so she decided to do some improvising of her own. She whipped her shirt over her head and tossed it to the ground, an idea already formed.

"What you doing?" the shorter blonde asked, not cottoning on straight away.

Nikki frantically gestured for her to do the same and she complied, getting the gist just in the nick of time.

Sylvia pulled the door open and stopped abruptly, staring from Nikki to Julie and back again several times before she spoke, "I knew you were up to something yesterday!"

Nikki, standing there in her bra and gardening trousers, put on a performance worthy of a BAFTA as she gesticulated and pleaded, "Oh, please, Miss! You're not going to report us, are you, Miss? W-we were only having a quick feel!"

Hollamby's face was frozen in an expression of horror as she said, "You two shouldn't even be here."

The older woman's eyes darted between them once again, stopping briefly at each bra-clad chest, and she became quite flustered.

Julie S took her cue and apologised profusely, "Oh, I know, I'm sorry, Miss."

Sylvia blanched and spit out, "Turns my stomach, your sort. Come on, get out. You're lucky I don't put you on report, the lot of you. Disgusting."

Nikki and Julie picked up their shirts and got dressed hastily as Julie J watched from over Hollamby's shoulder, her face overrun with shock and bewilderment. The lifer knew she would have to leave the watering can where it was on the workbench. She could only hope it wouldn't be disturbed until she had a chance to conceal it.

After clearing out of the shed, Nikki went straight to her cell on G3 and the Julies found a spot of cleaning to do on the wing, anything to prevent further suspicion and keep them out of trouble. Sylvia headed straight for the Officers Room and sunk into her favourite chair with a hot cup of strong tea, just what she needed to soothe her frazzled nerves.

Fenner came into the room looking tired and stressed. A glance at his colleague told him she was in the same boat.

"What's the matter, Sylv?"

He moved to pour himself a cup of tea before sitting down in his usual spot.

Hollamby glanced out the window to make sure no one was in hearing range, then she confided in a loud whisper, "I've just caught Nikki Wade and Julie Saunders groping each other in the potting shed. The cheek of those two, touching each other like that… Honestly, Jim, I don't know what the world's coming to."

Jim nearly choked on his drink and managed to spill a bit on his uniform trousers.

"Wade and Saunders? You're kidding?"

He schooled his face to show the appropriate amount of surprise and compassion for the older PO.

"I can assure you I'm not, Jim. I still feel sick. You should've seen them standing there."

Hollamby shuddered and sipped at her tea.

Jim concealed a wicked grin behind the rim of his mug, a plot already forming to get Helen off her game. He would track her down after his tea break and delight in rattling her cage.

"Helen… Can I have a word?"

Jim sprinted to catch up to the wing governor as she was about to unlock one of the many gates between the wing and her office. When she turned to face him he could see that she was distressed. It even looked like she might have been crying.

She clenched her jaw and said, "This isn't a good time, Jim."

Not paying any mind to her statement, nor caring about her feelings in the slightest, he pasted on a smug smirk as he delivered his blow, "I just thought you should know what your pet dyke's been getting up to. Mrs. Hollamby caught Wade and Saunders indisposed in the potting shed. They're lucky the poor woman was too stunned to put them on report."

Helen's spine stiffened unconsciously and she frowned. "Excuse me?"

"Oh yeah," Jim gloated, rocking on the balls of his feet, "Apparently they were interrupted just before they could get down to it."

Helen stared at him with open disbelief as she processed his words, and then her expression morphed to one of distaste as she finally registered his 'pet dyke' comment.

"Are you having me on, Jim? I'd hate to think you were making this up to try and get at me, all part of whatever twisted vendetta you've got against me. It wouldn't be very professional, would it, Jim?"

She took a step closer to him and said evenly, "For the last time, my interest in Nikki Wade is strictly professional and I don't appreciate your ill-disguised hints that it isn't. If you have serious evidence of misconduct I suggest you file it with the Home Office. Any further harassment on your part and I'll make a complaint myself."

Fenner stood there with fists clenched and face slowly reddening. The nerve of her, speaking to him like that. 'Catty bitch,' he thought angrily.

She unlocked the gate and stepped swiftly through, shutting it in his face and continuing to her office without a backward glance. Inwardly she was seething, both at his taunts and the information he'd given her. What the hell was Nikki playing at? Her original purpose came back to her as she sat behind her desk. She would have to deal with this later.

She dropped her head into her hands and rubbed her throbbing temples, praying her headache would pass quickly. She picked up the receiver on her desk phone and quickly dialled the Officers Room. It rang three times before Sylvia answered, sounding very much like her mouth was full of biscuits.

'Should've known she'd be sitting on her arse,' Helen thought unkindly as she kerbed her impulse to sigh in irritation.

"Mrs. Hollamby," she thought quickly and asked, "is Mr. McAllister busy? I need to speak with him please."

Sylvia was the last person she would choose for the upcoming task, so she breathed a little easier as the lazy PO answered in the negative and went to fetch him. He came on the line a few seconds later and she asked him to find Monica Lindsay and bring the inmate to her office. She received an affirmative response from the young PO and then the line went dead.

She dropped the receiver with a heavy sigh and began to compose herself for the upcoming conversation. It wasn't going to be easy. She couldn't even imagine what it would be like to lose a child. It must be devastating. She picked up the telephone once more and asked her secretary to send the waiting nun into her office. They'd already spoken before her run-in with Fenner but she felt it best that the woman be present when she broke the news of Spencer's death.

Forty minutes later, Helen and Dominic, accompanied by the on-duty NHS nurse, let an exhausted Monica back onto the wing. The older inmate had broken down into hysterics when she'd realised her son was dead. She'd cried and shouted for the better part of thirty minutes until Helen had called the nurse in to give her a sedative.

They reached Monica's cell on G3 and she hurriedly unlocked the door. Dominic and the nurse waited in the doorway as Helen got the miserable woman into bed. Helen sat beside Monica and stroked a hand gently against the side of her head, cradling the broken woman in her arms.

She kept her voice low and soothing, as though she were speaking to a frightened child, "I want you to try to get some rest, Monica. Hmm? Try and sleep."

"Sleep? How can I sleep?" Monica mumbled, nearly incoherent.

"Look, what the nurse has given you will help."

Helen looked toward the doorway and mouthed silently for the other two to leave. Monica didn't need any more spectators than necessary at the moment, no matter how good their intentions.

Monica began to protest weakly, trying to no avail to move out of Helen's arms. "I don't want to sleep. No, I need – I need to talk to people. People need to be told."

Helen felt like her heart was breaking all over again. There was nothing she could do or say to ease this woman's pain. There was no way she could truly understand. All she could do was try and make her comfortable.

"Shh. There's plenty time for that later, once you've rested."

"I can't ... rest..."

Monica's voice trailed off as her body gave into the effects of the sleeping tablets. She slumped onto Helen's shoulder and the Scot moved her gently under the duvet, tucking it around her and then dropping a gentle kiss on her forehead.

She sat there for a long while afterward, stroking the sleeping woman's hair and praying for God to give her strength. She'd not always found it easy to stick to her faith, especially after certain events transpired in her past, but she'd always come back to it at the end of the day. She had to believe that there was a reason for everything, and that God would guide people where they were meant to go and give them strength.

She found comfort in her beliefs and prayers, making a stark contrast with Nikki's lack of belief in a higher power. She'd never pushed her girlfriend to become religious, not when they'd first met and not now. It was something they simply agreed to disagree on.

When Helen left Monica's cell, regretfully locking the door behind her, the first place she went was the Officers Room. She'd already told Dominic to call all of the POs together once they'd gotten Monica settled, so she was pleased to find everyone present and accounted for.

She took a seat and started without preamble, "Monica Lindsay's son Spencer died of a heart attack sometime before nine o'clock this morning. Needless to say, it was entirely unexpected. Monica's in a state of shock. She's been sedated. Now I want everyone to treat her with the utmost respect, is that clear?"

Helen looked around the room to make sure everyone was paying attention before continuing, "Any reasonable requests that she makes, like using the phone for instance, I want you to make sure that they're granted. Can we keep an eye on her? Every 15 minutes. Okay, that's all, thank you."

The officers began filing out of the room one by one, but Fenner stayed behind. He looked at her in silence for a moment then asked, "Do you think she's a suicide risk?"

Helen hadn't forgotten their earlier encounter and was still miffed, but she decided to put that on the back burner for now. There were more important things to worry about than petty personal squabbles.

"I'm not taking any chances."

An awkward, tense moment of silence followed, during which she and Fenner stared one another down, then Helen stood and departed without a word. She knew that now would be an ideal time to go and see Nikki, not to confront her as she'd originally planned but to ask for her help. No matter how jumbled her personal feelings were at the moment, she knew she could count on Nikki above anyone else to support Monica through this tragedy.

She found Nikki's cell door wide open and she only spared a brief courtesy knock before entering and pulling it to. The lifer was sitting on her single bed, back against the wall and book abandoned in her lap. Her brown eyes were red-rimmed and it was obvious she'd been crying.

"They'd never been apart. Not once in thirty years."

Nikki's voice was low and calm, but there was an underlying edge of despair and accusation. Helen sighed and moved to sit beside her girlfriend.

"I know, I know! I know everything that you're going to say, and I agree. You're going to tell me that Spencer was serving a sentence too, and now he's dead because of it. I know that, I do know."

The Scot's shoulders slumped as her eyes welled up with tears of grief.

"How can you do it?"

Nikki sat forward and began lashing out at the only target she had, "How can you go home at night knowing that that woman is banged up in a little brick box miles from her son's body? I mean what the shit kind of torture do you think she's going through?"

Helen's tearful eyes pleaded with Nikki for understanding.

"I know what she's going through. That's why I've come to see you, to ask you to be a good friend to her because she needs one just now. All right?"

"You amaze me."

Nikki shook her head and mentally cursed the whole damned situation.

"I didn't come here for a debate," Helen countered, a hard edge entering her voice.

She'd expected a certain level of difficulty in speaking to the lifer, born of sympathy and despair for her friend's loss, but there was a limit to the amount of personal abuse she could tolerate. As if a switch had been flipped, Helen's attitude stiffened noticeably as she reminded herself of Jim's earlier revelation.

'Now's as good a time as any, since we're already arguing,' the Scot thought bitterly.

"I heard an interesting rumour about you earlier," Helen remarked flatly, all emotion carefully withdrawn and disguised.

Nikki felt a different kind of dread wash over her. It was enough to distract her from Monica's situation and to concentrate on her own. Knowing immediately what Helen must have heard about, her face softened into a countenance of pleading with a hint of panic.

"Helen, I swear, it wasn't what it looked like. Bodybag just barged in and that's the first thing I could think of to distract her."

"Distract her from what?"

The Scot's eyes were sparkling with fury but she kept her tone flat and her face expressionless.

Nikki fidgeted and muttered, "We may have been doing something we shouldn't have, but I swear it wasn't like that. It was a cover, that's all. I'm not remotely interested in Julie that way and I'm pretty damn sure she's never been interested in any woman at all."

Helen's logic asserted itself between her warring emotions and she accepted that as truth.

"Fine, I believe you, but you're gonna have to tell me what you were doing in there, Nikki. I'm guessing it had something to do with that watering can you didn't want me to see?"

The lifer exhaled heavily through her nose then looked at Helen with her very best cow eyes.

"If I tell you, will you promise not to put any of us on report? I won't say a word if you can't keep it to yourself. I'd rather you be pissed off at me then have the Julies get in trouble because of my gob."

The wing governor crossed one leg over the other and pursed her lips, her eyes narrowed slightly as she considered the terms.

Finally, reluctantly, she relented, "All right, you have my word."

Nikki leaned forward and clasped her hands between her knees.

"Winemaking," she said simply.

Helen blinked slowly and replied, "You're joking." A pause. "Please tell me this is a wind-up?"

"Not joking and no, it's not. We were just putting it together when Bodybag interrupted. Bloody good job I can think on my feet or we'd all be in a shitload of trouble."

Helen shook her head in disbelief. "You know I can't let you contribute to the manufacturing of alcohol in this prison, Nikki."

The lifer scooted closer and was inches from the governor's face in a second, emitting an aura of extreme amusement.

"It looks like you're going to have to, Helen. You gave me your word."

Dropping the playful tone, she continued, "Besides, if you say anything then everyone will know I grassed and will begin questioning the motive behind it."

Growing ever more grave, she added, "I have a reputation in here. I don't sell secrets to the officers and everyone knows it. So why would I suddenly change my rulebook for you? Fenner would make quick work of ensuring that all and sundry were aware of our relationship, even if only by rumour. It would be enough to ruin us, Helen."

The Scot's face reflected begrudging comprehension as she processed the lifer's logic.

"Shit," she muttered.

Her eyes were filled with concern as she said, "If you get caught, that also means I can't protect you, sweetheart. Can't you convince them to call it off?"

Nikki put a hand on the shorter woman's shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"It wouldn't do any good. When those two make up their minds, the best thing to do is duck and cover. They'll carry on with their shenanigans with or without me. You needn't worry, darling. I've got the perfect hiding place. No one will ever think of looking there. And before you ask, no, I'm not going to tell you."

Helen was quiet for a long while, wringing her hands as she accepted that there wasn't much else she could say on the matter.

Finally she looked up at Nikki and asked curiously, "Just how indisposed were you, by the way?"

The darker haired woman couldn't help but to laugh then, a hearty relief for the tension in the room.

When she'd calmed her mirth, eyes still dancing with delight, she replied, "We had our tops off. I don't think Bodybag's face could've been more horrified if she'd tried."

The Scot's mind immediately conjured up an imagination of the scenario and she snorted, breaking into a fit of chuckles. Her laughter was cut short when Nikki flipped her onto her back and pinned her wrists above her head. Her standard grey suit jacket and trousers were in danger of being wrinkled as Nikki stretched out on top of her, fire blazing in her chocolate eyes.

Helen bit her lip to withhold a moan. Merely being on the receiving end of that look was enough to turn her blood to molten lava. Nikki's hands released the wrists they held captive and moved down to part the sides of Helen's jacket, exposing the red button-up blouse she wore beneath. Dipping her head, the con's mouth eagerly sought out the slender column of Helen's neck, causing the Scot's breathing to deepen noticeably.

A firm hand on her sternum delayed Nikki's actions as she pulled back questioningly. Helen sat up slowly and ran a hand through her dishevelled honey blonde locks.

"We can't," she stated needlessly, beyond frustrated with the situation.

It was a frustration shared.

Nikki resumed her earlier position leaning against the wall, sulking petulantly and lighting up a cigarette as Helen stood and smoothed out her attire.

A regretful glance and a kiss on the cheek preceded Helen moving towards the door and saying softly, "I'll see you soon, sweetheart. I love you."

The Scot left then and the open door felt like an unwelcome intrusion to the brooding lifer. She blew out a smoke ring and allowed her tears to fall silently, for her, for Helen, for Monica, for this whole blasted place filled so unjustly with women who needed help, not more punishment.


Chapter 21

It was a Wednesday morning when Nikki was collected from her cell; she had a visit from her solicitor. Antsy and a bit queasy, she was nonetheless elated that things were moving so quickly. She followed the PO to a private room where Helen and her friend were already waiting.

Nikki recognised Claire from years past and noted she hadn't changed much. Her hair was still dirty blonde and she had it pulled back into a loose ponytail, but her eyes were a warmer hazel than she remembered. She could've sworn they were blue… A lot of people's eyes shifted slightly over time. Or maybe her memory was playing tricks?

Claire stretched out a hand as she greeted sincerely, "Pleased to meet you again. It's been a long time."

Nikki shook her hand heartily and agreed, "You as well. Though I have to admit I thought your eyes were blue."

Claire laughed daintily and disclosed, "They were. That was my coloured contacts phase. I stopped wearing them after university."

Helen smiled, pleased that everyone appeared to be getting on well. "I'll come back in half an hour," she said, moving toward the green door.

"She'll be fine," Claire assured, then the Scot let herself out and the inmate and solicitor took a seat.

"I'm grateful you know, for your interest in my case," Nikki said genuinely. Her nerves had abated somewhat and she was now eager to see what Claire had disinterred.

"Well you are the only woman in Britain serving life for murdering a police officer. It's very high profile," the solicitor divulged, before leaning in a bit and adding, "Besides, when Helen told me who you were, I couldn't have refused."

"Well I look forward to seeing you interviewed on the telly," the lifer grinned.

Becoming serious and getting to the matter at hand, Claire asked, "Why did your defence not make you take the stand?"

"I'm not known for my diplomacy," Nikki confided sombrely.

"What does that mean?" Claire asked.

"They reckoned I'd end up mouthing off about the pigs. Police," the lifer revealed.

The solicitor was calm and matter-of-fact as she began her interrogation. "Have you ever had a conviction for violence?"

"No convictions for anything," Nikki responded.

"Doesn't sound like somebody who can't control herself. I think they were wrong not to call you. It always makes you look guilty," Claire summarised thoughtfully.

"Too late now," the lifer remarked, her usually proud stature subdued.

"I've been doing some preliminary enquiries about the dead police officer, Detective Gossard."


Nikki was nearly indifferent. She didn't see what difference that would make. Nothing had turned up the first time.

"Your defence team were denied access to some important information about him. A year before he died, his wife left him, citing mental and physical cruelty as her reasons. Seems Detective Sergeant Gossard was a man with a violent history. Did you know that?"


Nikki shook her head slowly, contemplating this newest piece of information. She was overwhelmed by the calibre of her relief as it sank in. Part of her had always worried she'd killed an otherwise good man, someone who'd simply made a tremendous and hideous mistake. To hear that he had a prior disposition of violence shifted a considerable weight from her conscience.

"Your statement to the police didn't help you much. Kind of gives the impression you couldn't have cared less."

The solicitor implored with her eyes for Nikki to say otherwise, to prove her original statement to be false.

"When I saw him lying there I was totally shocked," the lifer asserted, "but the police wouldn't believe me or Trisha that the guy was trying to rape her. No matter what we said. They questioned me for hours. I just lost it."

"Now, I know you're not still in a relationship with Trish," Claire blushed a smidge as she uttered that fact, both of them knowing full well that the solicitor was in fact seeing Nikki's aforementioned ex, "but I've asked her and she said she'll testify again on your behalf."

"I wouldn't expect any less. She's been very supportive," the lifer avowed.

"It's nice when you can still be friends, eh?"

The solicitor looked at her client with a question mark clearly written in her gaze. The implied query was whether or not they could all remain friends if and when Nikki was released.

Before Nikki had a chance to answer, the door opened and Helen stepped inside.

"Hi. So how'd it go?" the Scot asked, approaching the seated pair.

"We were just finished," Claire replied, beginning to pack up her paperwork.

"I can't thank you enough," Nikki reiterated affably, pulling Claire into a quick hug.

"Pleasure," the solicitor declared, as she shared a congenial smile with the tall inmate.

"Lilah'll see you to the gate," Helen interrupted softly, hating to break the moment but knowing it was time for them all to get a move on.

"I'll be in touch," Claire whispered, leaning in to give Helen a peck on the cheek.

"Thanks," the Scot murmured, hugging her friend with one arm.

"Take care, Nikki," Claire well-wished the lifer before departing.

Helen set her shoulder briefcase down and crossed her arms, smiling as she looked up into her girlfriend's grinning face.

"Well, you look pleased enough."

"I am. The guy I killed, turns out he had a record of violence. First I heard of it. She's really good, your friend."

Nikki's eyes were sparkling with unbridled joy as she realised fully that her chances of getting out had skyrocketed.

"Yeah? I'm glad she's putting her schooling to good use."

The Scot's grin widened further and she tucked her tongue up behind her teeth.

The raven-haired con stepped closer to her diminutive partner and she tilted her head, still grinning like a fool as she teased, "So you and her… you never, uh…? After university, I mean."

"Tch… Nikki," Helen smirked, "I've told you before, you're the only woman I've ever been with."

"Hmm… Let's keep it that way," Nikki purred, drawing her girlfriend into her arms.

"Och, stop being jealous," Helen admonished quietly, "I should think I'd be more worried about you. You've got a wing full of women to choose from, most of them interested. Besides," she pressed a forefinger to Nikki's sternum, "it was you who was caught undressed with another woman last week, not me."

Nikki snorted and dipped her head to brush Helen's lips with her own. They kissed gently and the lifer's hands sought purchase, first grabbing the lapels of Helen's leather jacket, and then worming underneath to cover soft breasts over green cotton. Footsteps and jangling keys echoed from the hallway and they separated abruptly, both struggling to exude an air of normality.

Dominic poked his head in the door and paused as he noticed the tension in the room.

"Everything all right?" he questioned, opening the door more fully. "I was just coming to lock up."

"Yeah, fine," Helen replied, "we were just leaving."

He watched them go with a puzzled frown then locked the door, preventing the room from being used without the aid of an officer. God only knows what would happen if doors were left open all the time. Cons could be hiding around every corner getting up to all sorts. He'd seen it happen enough times before, and had heard about even more incidents from a very bitter Sylvia Hollamby.

She was always spouting off about finding Denny Blood and Shaz Wiley in compromising positions in broom cupboards and such. Not to mention the flak he'd had to hear of late concerning Nikki Wade and Julie Saunders. When he'd first caught wind of the story, he couldn't help wondering if she'd had one too many cream cakes and had started hallucinating.

He'd decided it didn't really matter one way or another. He was more of a live and let live kind of fellow. He didn't judge based on sexuality or race and he preferred to base his opinions on personal merit. Nikki Wade wasn't always the easiest prisoner to deal with, but she had a strong set of morals and she'd been a lot tamer recently, he had to admit.

He was at a loss for the cause behind her personality swap and that got him thinking about the ever-present tension between her and Miss Stewart. Whenever he walked into a room and found those two alone together, there always seemed to be something hanging in the air. He stopped between gates as a thought occurred to him and his hand stilled where it had been fumbling with his keys.

'Nah… couldn't be,' he decided, shaking it off as some kind of delusion.

Nikki sent Trisha a VO later that same day and then went to see Monica. She found the grieving inmate alone in her cell, clutching the jumper she'd knitted for her dead son. Her face was wrought with woe and her demeanour desolate.

The younger prisoner sat on the end of the bed and greeted her quietly, "I can't start to imagine what you're going through, Monica."

"No. You can't," Monica replied despondently.

"No, I know. But you've got to give into it and let yourself cry. Doesn't do you any good just bottling things up. I'm going to get you some flowers from the garden, all right?"

Before Nikki had a chance to get up, Julie J entered and knelt down on the bed, asking in a whisper, "How is she?"

"She'll be fine," Nikki responded gravely.

"Can't stop, supposed to be busy."

Julie turned her attention and addressed the older inmate, "I just brought you some thins. These are from me and Julie. They're ten denier look with a sheen.  Well you want to look your best, don't you, at - at the…" she trailed off awkwardly.

She made a valiant effort to pep herself up and continued, "Anyway, Monica, we decided we're going to have a little wake for Spencer, tomorrow tea time, when you come back from… from the place."

The blonde ducked her head once more, unable to bring herself to say funeral.

Once more she strived to cheer the older woman up, "And me and Julie, we decided we're going to crack open the Chateau Larkhall, specially in honour of Spencer. And seeing as you helped us make it. Because we all love you Monica, and we want you to know that we care."

Julie dropped a kiss on Monica's forehead then said regretfully, "I got to go."

The blonde left and Nikki scooted closer to Monica, placing a comforting hand on her forearm.

"See, Monica, there are loads of us who care about you. You know where to find me if you need someone to talk to. I'll just nip out and get those flowers now."

The lifer retreated and made her way down to the garden without incident, immensely grateful that it was association time and that she was on Enhanced, meaning she could roam freely during this period. She collected a small array of flowers she'd planted only months ago, now in full bloom, and organised them into a bouquet. On her way back to Monica's cell on G3, she came across Helen.

"How is she?" questioned the Scot.

"Still not speaking. I'm taking her some flowers." Nikki held up the bunch for Helen to inspect.

"That's nice."

The wing governor seemed more withdrawn than usual and Nikki thought to ask what was bothering her, but Helen seemed to be in no mood for speaking at length.

"Well, if I'm allowed to," Nikki said instead.

"What do you mean?" Helen asked, having lost the plot.

"Flowers. Usually they're banned from cells, aren't they?"

"Nikki..." Helen just shook her head, wondering if her girlfriend was being intentionally obtuse.

Regardless, she had other things on her mind at the moment. Namely Jim Fenner and the vicious rumours he was spreading. She continued on her way without another word and Nikki watched her go, feeling that something was definitely amiss.

The lifer turned and resumed her journey toward Monica's cell, but was set upon immediately by Mrs. Hollamby.

"Hey! Where do you think you're going with those?" the officer demanded.

"I've got permission, from the governor," Nikki goaded. "So you know what you can do, don't you?"

She smirked as tauntingly as she felt she could get away with before moving past the PO. She arranged the flowers in her friend's cell as best she could without the aid of a vase. She ended up using a plastic cup for a base and a piece of string to hold the bunch together. When she still couldn't elicit a single word from the disconsolate woman, she left her in peace and returned to association.

Meanwhile, Helen made her way to her office to have a good think. Dominic had approached her shortly before her run-in with Nikki and had informed her that Fenner was going around spewing vitriol about her relationship with the prisoners. His caustic remarks specifically targeted suspected over-friendliness with Nikki Wade. Helen had thanked him for letting her know but brushed off any concern by saying that he'd been at her for weeks and that she wasn't worried about it.

She decided to take her tea in-office and ordered her secretary to screen her calls for the remainder of the afternoon, claiming she didn't want to be disturbed short of an emergency. As she sat back in her cushy leather chair she released a heavy sigh and tapped her pen rhythmically on the desktop. What the hell could she do about Fenner? The man was more slippery than an eel. Somehow she had to find a way to nail him by the bollocks…

If he beat her to the punch and found evidence of her unprofessional relationship, then anything she came back with wouldn't seem plausible. It would look like she was just covering her arse. No, she had to get there first. But how? This train of thought circled viciously in her brain and she found she couldn't get any work done. No matter how hard she scrunched up her eyes and rubbed her temples, the headache that was Jim Fenner would not go away.

Two days later Helen got a call from Claire, letting her know that the solicitor had formally filed a motion to appeal and was now awaiting a response from the CCRC. The Scot expressed her gratitude repeatedly then hung up with her friend to track down Nikki. She found the lifer perusing the bookshelves in the library. The shorter woman stealthily approached the con and ended up startling her into dropping a book.

"Christ, Helen! I almost swung for you."

Nikki picked up the discarded book and returned it to its shelf, deciding she would rather read something else anyway. A quick glance around the library told her that they were alone.

"To what do I owe this visit, milady?"

She did a horrible impression of a curtsy that sent Helen into a fit of laughter.

"Stop it, Wade. If I laugh much harder I'll end up crying, and that would spell disaster for my mascara. I already scared the guy at the gate a few months ago by showing up with raccoon eyes."

Nikki snickered at the visual her mind provided and then became marginally more serious, itching to figure out why Helen had sought her out.

"So why are you here?"

"I just wanted to let you know that Claire filed a motion to appeal this morning. She's waiting for a response from the CCRC, but this is a big first step. If it's granted, it could only take a few months to get you out of here."

"If," Nikki repeated grimly, aware that things involving the Criminal Cases Review Commission were never as fast or straightforward as one might hope.

A bunch of bureaucrats deliberating over her past and future didn't sit easy with the lifer. She had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a long and harrowing process.

Helen admonished her with a look and grabbed onto both sides of her blue cotton collar, almost shaking her as she insisted, "You need to stay positive, Nikki. This is the best chance you've got for an early release and I don't want you to go around moping."

"Yes, Miss." Nikki smirked, suitably chastised but still owning her sense of humour.

Helen shot a furtive glance around the vacant library then leaned in closer.

"I love it when you call me, Miss," she purred.

"I know." Nikki grinned wickedly and admitted, "That's why I do it so often."

She braced a palm against one of the metal shelves and leaned in to invade the governor's personal space, confiding in a husky whisper, "See I have this whole fantasy involving handcuffs…"

Helen sucked in a sharp breath, owed in equal parts to Nikki's proximity and her naughty suggestion.

"Oh really…" the Scot drawled slowly.

"Mm," Nikki nodded, her lips just inches from Helen's. "Yeah, it involves an in-depth cavity search as well."

Helen swallowed and glanced from Nikki's lips to her eyes and back again, knowing they shouldn't and telling herself they shouldn't. She'd never once considered using her handcuffs in a sexual way before, but damn it this woman did strange things to her hormones.

The lifer smirked as she watched her lover grow more and more flustered by the second. She took advantage of the Scot's distraction to close the distance between them, tracing the tip of her tongue along the shorter woman's lips.

Helen felt tingles zinging straight from her mouth down to her sex, causing her core to clench and her clit to pulsate in want. Coupled with the erotic imagery Nikki had conjured, Helen felt herself becoming unreasonably excited. She switched their positions quickly and pressed the taller woman against the bookcase, out of view from the door.

She ravaged Nikki's mouth with her own, plunging her tongue between the lifer's lips to taste and possess her. When she felt Nikki's hands slip underneath her white shirt, she moaned around the other woman's tongue. A warm palm covered one of her aching breasts and teased the nipple through a thin barrier of white lace, and simultaneously a set of short nails scraped down her spine.

Helen groaned as she felt a visceral reaction ricochet through her, landing squarely in her nether regions. Nikki made quick work of removing her suit jacket and shirt, all ideas of caution and abstinence flying straight out the window. A hungry mouth descended upon the Scot's neck and teeth sank into the flesh just behind her ear, causing her to cry out in pleasure and cling tighter to her partner.

That mouth began to bite and lick its way downward, leaving angry red marks and a trail of saliva over her neck and collarbone. Somewhere in the far reaches of Helen's mind, she recognised that this was not a good idea, but her willpower paled in the shadow of her desire. Nikki's greedy mouth latched onto a straining nipple through the lacy fabric and Helen felt herself quiver in anticipation.

She threaded her fingers through Nikki's raven locks and pressed her closer, willing her to increase the pressure of her tongue. The lifer impatiently tugged the Scot's bra upward to reveal twin globes of golden skin with distended peaks of dark toffee. She drew one of the pebbled buds between her lips and tasted, teased, nibbled, and flicked.

Helen had to remove her hands from Nikki's hair as she began to feel unsteady on her feet. She braced both arms against the bookcase and closed her eyes as the lifer continued her efforts. A ball of tension was already building in her abdomen and she released a throaty moan as Nikki lightly bit down on her left nipple.

For the second time in three days, the sound of footsteps echoed in the corridor directly beyond, encroaching upon their isolation. This time, however, Helen was reasonably more horrified. She pulled Nikki off of her roughly and began to reassemble her clothes in a panic. She tugged her bra back into place, snatched her shirt off the floor and crammed her arms into it, her fingers shaking as she struggled to do up the many buttons.

Nikki retrieved the fallen suit jacket and offered it with a look that spoke volumes. Her cinnamon coloured eyes held apologies, promises, and undiluted passion as she stared at the distressed wing governor. Helen grabbed it out of her hands after finally managing the last buttonhole. She shrugged the starchy fabric on just as the door opened.

Nikki grabbed the nearest book and rounded the shelving unit first, giving Helen some much needed time to regain her composure. When Helen reappeared, it was with well concealed surprise and dismay that she found Dominic standing by the door. He seemed to be making a habit of unwittingly intruding upon their personal moments.

That fact harshly reminded her why they'd decided to exercise caution in the first place. They'd been doing so well until this week, but now they were starting to get sloppy. She could almost feel Dominic's eyes on her lightly flushed skin as he took in her semi-ragged appearance. She ran a hand through her hair as casually as she could and smoothed out her shirt self-consciously.

"Hiya, Dom. I was just asking Nikki how her Literature class is going."

Helen blurted the first thing that came to mind, which luckily turned out to be realistic. He nodded in acceptance but still surveyed her carefully, his eyes slightly squinted in suspicion. He couldn't fail to notice the red bite marks on her neck and he was fairly certain they hadn't been there earlier…

Glancing from officer to inmate, he also couldn't miss that neither woman seemed able to hold his gaze for longer than a few seconds.

One final look at Helen's rumpled attire had his cheeks turning pink as he stammered unsteadily, "Um… y-you missed your top button."

She looked down and, indeed, she had missed the top button. A good bit of flesh was on display along with a hint of white lace. Dominic coughed in embarrassment and turned to leave the room, Helen hot on his heels after giving Nikki a venomous look. The lifer dropped her head on her folded arms atop the table and she released a considerable groan, bemoaning the fact that they were always interrupted.

Helen caught up with Dominic in the corridor, hurriedly buttoning her blouse the rest of the way as she jogged up beside him.

"Dominic, a word. In my office, please," she demanded briskly.

The young PO was still obviously nonplussed, but he agreed with a muted nod and followed her through the rest of the gates. When they reached the Wing Governor's office, Helen took her customary seat of power and waited for Dominic to settle across from her.

She folded her hands in front of her and began tensely, "Look, I know it might've seemed a bit… strange," she said, for lack of a better word, "but I was just asking Nikki about her Open University courses."

Dominic stared at her wordlessly for a long while before looking pointedly at her neck and arguing quietly, "I know you didn't have those bite marks when I saw you this morning."

She touched her throat self-consciously and hissed under her breath, "Sod you, Nikki."

She continued cursing vehemently in her head, using language that would make a seasoned whore blush.

Luckily Dominic couldn't quite hear what she'd said, but when she failed to repeat herself or elaborate, he decided to railroad her with a direct question, daring her to lie outright to him.

"Are you having a sexual relationship with Nikki Wade?"

Helen's face said it all, and she knew he'd seen the crack in her veneer so there was no point denying it, lest she come across as an untrustworthy floozy rather than a respectable wing governor.

"So it's true then… what Jim's been saying."

Helen's stoic façade crumbled in an instant as she rushed to explain herself to her most promising officer, not wanting him to grab hold of the wrong end of the stick before she had her say.

"No, Dominic, it's not like that, I swear. I knew and was involved with Nikki Wade ten years before she came to this prison."

Hastily rummaging through one of her larger desk drawers, she withdrew her handbag and dug through its contents. Seizing her wallet, she quickly opened it and pulled out a faded photograph that was folded in half. She slid it across the desk and watched as he opened the only picture she owned of Nikki and herself. It had been taken in a small photo booth near the London Eye when she and Nikki had gone to ride it. It was one of the happiest times of her life.

Dominic fingered the edge of the photograph as he stared down at the two smiling faces. It was obvious they were much younger than the women he knew now, so he was forced to accept the truth in her statement.

He looked up into Helen's pleading eyes and said, not unkindly, "So you two got back together when you started working here."

"No… I mean yes, technically, but not straightaway. That's not why I got the job here. In fact, I didn't even know she was a prisoner here until my first day on the wing. I hadn't seen her in a decade and let me tell you it was quite a shock."

Helen tried her level best to relax but she found the whole situation quite unpalatable.

"I know I don't have to tell you that sleeping with a prisoner is against regulations, Helen, whatever the reason. If anyone found out, your career would be finished."

Dominic leaned forward and returned her photo with an air of sadness. He could tell simply by looking at the snap that they'd been very happy together, and he couldn't help wondering what had gone so horribly wrong to separate the couple for ten years.

"Shit, Dom, do you think I don't know that?" she asked, a little more harshly than intended.

She breathed deeply and apologised, "I'm sorry. It just… it sounds so tawdry when you put it like that, and what Nikki and I have together isn't some kind of fling. We're in love with each other."

Helen stared at her officer with deep regret as she admitted, "I know that my actions have been unethical and a disgusting affront to professionalism, but I can't help the way I feel about her. I would have resigned already if I hadn't made her a promise to never leave her again."

Dominic bit his lower lip and carefully considered everything she'd told him. He could see that this situation wasn't black and white, and it certainly didn't seem to be an abuse case, but he was still duly concerned for where this was headed. If anyone were to suspect that Fenner's remarks held the weight of truth, then her position at Larkhall would be irrevocably compromised.

After much deliberation he decided that all he could do was offer her support and warn her again about the consequences.

"I'm not going to tell anyone, Helen. I've always thought you make a really good wing governor and I stand by that now. That's not to say I'm comfortable with your decisions, because I'm not, but I can understand where you're coming from."

He put his hands together like he was praying as he begged her to consider her actions, "Please be more careful, Helen. We both know where this could lead and I, for one, don't want to see you out of this job. You're doing a lot of good here. If prison gossip is to be believed, then you and Nikki are having some kind of ignoble affair. It's only a matter of time before people start listening and try to investigate."

He stood then and offered genuinely, "If you ever need someone to talk to, you know where to find me."

A feeble smile preceded his departure, then Helen collapsed back into her chair, wishing the ground beneath her would open up and swallow her whole.

Spencer's funeral arrived on a sunny day, the weather making a direct contrast to the mood of the mourners. Helen had volunteered to personally escort Mrs. Lindsay to the service and she felt like an absolute shit when protocol dictated she handcuff herself to the grieving mother.

"Monica. I'm sorry," sounded lame and inadequate, but it was all she could find to say.

In the servery, the Julies were sitting across from Nikki at a table away from prying ears. They had deemed it time to crack open the wine a week early and this struck Nikki as being rather precocious.

"Still and all, it's only been brewing three weeks," she explained, as though speaking to a child or someone quite dense.

"It smells gorgeous," Julie J professed, nearly swooning.

Julie S hopped straight on the one-way worry express, "Here, you ain't going to let us down now, are you Nik?"

"It's for Monica!" the taller blonde insisted.

Nikki threw her hands up. "Ah, I don't believe this. Why can't you fetch it yourself? You get about as much as I do."

A strange source of reason, Julie J protested, "'Cause it'd look suspicious, us hanging around your shed."

"Have you got a plan?" the lifer requested warily.

The universe realigned when Julie S offered up her suggestion, "Oh yeah, you do a relay, backwards and forwards, filling up your flask until everyone on the wing's got some."

Nikki sat forward and declared vehemently, "Oh, piss off. That's the biggest pile of bollocks I've ever heard."

"Well you think of something then." The original scheme thwarted, Julie J was at a loss.

"Why should I?" Nikki asked with no small amount of exasperation. "It's your stuff!"

"You got to help us," the smaller blonde resorted to pleading once again.

"Nikki!" her twin joined.

"Oh please," the shorter Julie used her most pitiful voice.

"Please!" Julie J iterated, desperate now.

A dramatic eye roll from the lifer preceded a huff as she relented.

"Fine! But I will not be running relays. I'll bring it to your window. Have a swinger ready."

Her company now relieved, she deserted her position and made way for the potting shed.

Helen and Monica arrived at the church in time to see Spencer's coffin being moved along the path toward the building.

"Spencer!" Monica cried, her voice an octave higher than usual, desperation and heartbreak bared for all to hear.

"Monica." A woman approached the handcuffed pair with disdain.

"I'm Monica's sister. For God's sake, is that necessary?" If looks could kill it would've been Helen's funeral.

"Look at her," Mary demanded angrily of the jailor.

"Come on, Monica."

The Scot, rendered helpless by the metal bonds, followed closely in the sisters' footsteps.

Back at Larkhall, a cocksure Shell Dockley had a trump card up her sleeve, she was certain. She entered the Officers Room with an air of pretentiousness, believing herself with this knowledge to be an aristocracy of one. Fenner did not share this belief, however.

"What do you want?" he demanded wearily, his demeanour gruff and face unshaven.

"I want to see the governor," Shell announced evasively, effortlessly pulling his string.

"She's not here. She's gone with Monica to the funeral." He looked intrigued now.

"I want to see whoever's in charge, then," the blonde contended, blowing her trumpet a little louder.

"Well, fire away," Fenner invited, spreading his palms in an open gesture.

"I don't know whether I should, seeing as you don't believe a single word I say," she baited.

"Try me," Fenner challenged, falling hook, line, and sinker.

"If I had some information about something, about something going down…" she trailed off, dangling the cliffhanger in his face.

A vexing notion of old ground covered occurred to Jim and he thought to specify, "This better not be about Lorna Rose, 'cause if it is Shell, I don't want to hear it."

Shell cast off his warning carelessly and reassured, "It's not about her, it's about someone else, one of the cons. And if I was to bring it to your attention, would that help me get back on the threes?"

Her agenda now clear, he did some baiting of his own, "Well, certainly wouldn't do you any harm."

Shell sneered in triumph and unveiled her winning hand, "Nikki Wade is making alcohol, and I know where she's got it stashed."

Fenner's lips curled dangerously and he nearly rubbed his hands together. This was going to be a good day after all.

Forced to invade her charge's personal space, Helen felt even more uncomfortable on the wooden pew they shared. The service was now underway but the governor found concentrating difficult. This should be a time of solitude and reverence, not a time for strictness and rules handed down by heartless policy makers.


The priest's words echoed vaguely in the forefront of the building as Helen released her prisoner from the biting restraints. She received barely a glance of acknowledgement and she again appreciated what a dreadful burden Monica was being forced to bear.

"Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am the life. He who believes in me, though he die yet shall he live. And whoever lives and be-lives in me, shall never die. We brought nothing into the world and we take nothing out. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Nikki had made it to her potting shed undeterred, but association provided no privacy upon arrival. She doctored her plants distractedly as the minutes passed and she awaited an opening. None was forthcoming and then Fenner arrived to dampen her day just that little bit more.

He hovered in the open doorway and promulgated without preamble, "Right Nikki. There's two ways we can do this. Either you tell me where it is, or I pull the place apart."

"Do I know what you're talking about?" The lifer feigned ignorance and disinterest at the drop of a hat.

Fenner grinned, trying to call her bluff. "There's nothing I don't get to hear about. You should know that by now."

She blinked stupidly. "Sorry, still not with you."

The ageing prison officer continued to smirk all-knowingly. "Little bird told me you'd gone into the brewing business. I said to myself, 'Nah. Nikki wouldn't be so stupid, not now she's got herself on Enhanced.'"

The concept of taking away said privilege lit him up like an overgrown version of Tinkerbell. It was disgusting, really.

Nikki chanced an eye roll and remarked intuitively, "And what little bird would that be, eh? Dockley?" She knew instantly she'd hit the nail on the head.

Fenner's thin patience betrayed him as a flicker of doubt darkened his face. "Have you got anything in here you shouldn't have?" His routine question nearly bored her to tears. Alternately, he was so far off hot it was comical.

"Like what?" she intoned flatly.

"Just wait here," the PO ordered, done playing useless word games. Wade's defences were more impenetrable than Fort Knox.

"Oh, be my guest." Nikki once again demonstrated her disregard with exemplary aplomb. Her passive exterior belied the vigilance to which she clung.

As Fenner and the other officer entered the wooden space, she allowed herself a small smile of victory, casting a covert glance at the bubbling mass buried in the compost heap. She lit up a fag and leaned back against her shed, preparing herself for a long wait.

In another part of the prison yard, overlooking a concrete ravine used to catch debris, the two Julies were standing at their cell window, peering out anxiously and growing more nervous by the second.

"Where the hell is she?" the shorter blonde asked rhetorically.

Nikki remained at her chosen post against the outer wall as item after item was ejected from the shed, finding rest on the grassy patch outside. She called out to the searching officers, "I been thinking of sorting the old shithole out myself."

A frustrated Fenner emerged and promptly hit his head on the low doorway. "Oh, god," he groaned, clutching his scalp with a grimy hand.

This time, Nikki did a poor job of hiding her amusement. "That it then? You finished? Thanks very much, much obliged." She crossed her arms and a smirk touched her lips.

"Where is it?" Fenner demanded, his ire rising a notch upon seeing her merriment.

Nikki grinned wider, taking great joy in rankling him. "Seems to me your little bird's been taking the piss, Sir."

Fenner wiped his hands together and sniped in a sickly sweet tone, "Tidy that lot up, will you? Sweetheart."

She allowed herself a private chuckle and another glance at the compost heap as the empty-handed officers marched away.

Standing as a black cloud around the graveside, the funeral goers hung their heads as the priest continued his sermon.

"I know that my redeemer liveth and he shall stand at the last day upon the earth. We have entrusted our brother Spencer into God's merciful keeping. Now we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…"

Helen held back her tears and stood as a silent sentry beside Monica, who had finally torn down her barriers and was weeping openly against her sister's shoulder. A river of grief flowed forth and Helen prayed that it would bring the woman some peace in the aftermath of its destruction.

Near the end of association, Nikki finally managed to haul up the watering can without being seen. She raced over to the concrete combe that alighted from the prison yard and bordered a span of cell windows.

"Julies!" she hissed upward.

With any luck the other inhabitants of the row were enjoying the last dregs of free time in the main atrium of the wing.

Julie J popped her head through the bars and whispered harshly, "'Bout bleedin' time!"

The blonde lowered the knotted brown sheet out the window and Nikki caught it deftly. She looped the end through the plastic handle and tied it off, giving it a firm tug for good measure. Having withstood her test, she released the watering can and the taller Julie began raising it quickly.

Nikki departed the scene casually, hands stuffed in her green trouser pockets. She didn't see anyone lingering about in the yard so she upped her pace and made for the safety of the wing. After the close shave earlier, the last thing she wanted was to be spotted at the scene of the crime.

"To the only wise God, our saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. May God in his infinite love and mercy bring the whole church, living and departed in the Lord Jesus, to a joyful resurrection and the fulfillment of his eternal kingdom. Amen."

The priest finished out his sermon and people began filing away from the graveside. Monica remained frozen in her loss, staring down into the open grave as fat tears slid down her cheeks.

"No. I want to stay with him," she sobbed.

In a moment of delirium, the despondent mother threw herself down into the pit. She stroked the coffin lovingly and continued to cry huge, heaving, choking sobs that were painful even to hear.

Her sister watched helplessly and called out to her, "Monica!"

Monica was deaf to all and seemingly ensnared in an alternate reality. She pressed her cheek to the muddy wooden surface and promised, "I'm staying with you, Spencer."

"Somebody help her, somebody do something!" Mary's plea was rather as useless as she was, standing there making no effort to move herself.

"I'm staying with you now. I shan't leave this time."

Monica's cries filled the air as she continued to speak to Spencer, eliciting many tears from those who still remained. Helen watched on with painful sorrow as Monica chanted, "I shan't go away."

It took two burly relatives to drag the poor woman out of the grave, and then Helen proceeded to clean her off as much as possible. She couldn't do much about the mud that was soaking into Monica's suit, but she used her handkerchief to tidy the woman's face, sparing her a last shred of dignity.

"Monica, I'm sorry, it's time to go," Helen lamented.

She cuffed their wrists once more then they trudged toward the waiting prison car. Just as they managed to shuffle into the vehicle, the sky above opened up and released its fury upon the earth.

The cons were all gathered in the servery for their evening tea and an excited clatter was beginning to echo amongst certain factions.

Denny was sitting in her usual spot across from Shell and she aptly summed up the situation. "Party time."

The blonde lifer pushed her food around on her plate as she wallowed in self-pity. "Yeah, well I think I might just give this stupid stinking party a miss."

"What for?" Denny was remiss in understanding Shell's change of mood.

Nikki eyed the pair with open distaste as she approached the Julies to receive her meal. "Guess what? I had a visit from Fenner earlier. Some bastard knew and told the shitbag where to look."

"Who?" asked Julie J, displaying her usual amount of cluelessness.

Nikki scoffed and explained the obvious in one word, "Dockley."

The shorter Julie waved a hand and dismissed, "No, she wouldn't do that."

"No, she got us the yeast," the taller Julie chipped in, believing her reasoning wholeheartedly.

Having overheard the brief exchange, Denny leaned toward Shell and demanded in a whisper, "You never, did ya?"

Shell glanced up in irritation and sniped, "Shut up, of course I never."

Nikki made a beeline for the table and stated matter-of-factly, "You're losing your grip, Dockley."

"I don't know what you're talking about," the blonde tried to play up to her hair colour.

Nikki stared at her evenly and said, "You ought to get your facts straight next time."

Julie J interrupted the staring contest between murderers as she called out to the raven-haired lifer, "Hey, Nikki. You coming to the wake, ent ya?"

Nikki thought to refuse but changed her mind at the last second. There was nothing Fenner could do about it now, anyway. "Yeah, Julies, I'll be there."

On the other side of the room, Fenner was explaining to the night shift the deal he'd struck with the Julies. "So anyway, I said they could have half an hour, but keep an eye on them."

"Yeah, no problem," Dominic agreed easily, not seeing the harm.

Sylvia, on the other hand, only saw more work cutting into her relaxation time. "Oh dear!" she griped with her trademark sigh.

The so-called wake was well underway by the time Monica arrived, having been delayed by the traffic which had been delayed by the rain. Helen escorted Monica up to her cell, ignoring the loud night calls coming from downstairs. Some kind of ruckus was emanating from one cell in particular and Helen crossed her fingers that Nikki wasn't involved. That's all she needed on top of everything else.

Nikki had, in fact, stopped by the impromptu wake long enough to raise two cups to Spencer. After downing the strong, bitter liquid in a few gagging swallows, she'd left and returned to her cell, preferring to give the more exuberant festivities a miss.

Through the thick walls she could still hear the sound of footsteps coming upstairs and Monica's cell door being opened, so she knew that Helen and the older prisoner had finally returned from the funeral. The alcohol had already begun to take its toll on her very low tolerance level, so her ceiling swam slightly as she lay back on her bed and stretched out, a dopey smile crossing her face as she thought about the wing governor.

Helen stood in the doorway of Monica's cell as the prisoner walked over to the window, her back turned to her jailor and her arms crossed protectively.

"You've been very brave," Helen offered by way of support.

"It isn't as though I've got any choice, is it?" The older woman's voice was withdrawn and weary, resigned to her plight.

"You've still got your appeal," the wing governor reminded.

"Not much point now. Might as well stay here and rot."

Monica had apparently decided to lay down and wait at death's door, with no more will to survive than a comatose patient.

"Monica, you will feel differently. Just give it time." The Scot tried her best to be reassuring, but from where she was standing things looked pretty bleak.

"I'll see you tomorrow."

"Oh yes. I'll be here," the prisoner sighed bitterly.

Helen closed and locked the cell door in time to catch the last of the show downstairs. A livid Sylvia Hollamby was struggling to usher straggling prisoners into their cells. The women were weaving this way and that and laughing raucously, obviously under the influence of something. Helen would bet her pay packet she knew what.

"Come on, hurry up. Watch it Jones! Johnston, Saunders, you get back in there. Come on! Come on, Dockley, Blood, move it. Come on, just keep it down! You're all screaming abdabs. Wake indeed. Wake my backside!"

Helen stifled an inappropriate chuckle behind her hand and moved across the landing toward the stairs. As she was passing Nikki's cell she heard the inmate call out to her.


The governor's footsteps faltered and she found herself looking around quickly, trying to surmise whether anyone else had heard. She moved rapidly to the door and unlocked it, slipping inside while Sylvia and Dominic were distracted dealing with the wayward women on G1.

Whatever she had expected, it wasn't what she found: Nikki standing by the window holding a lit cigarette and swaying unsteadily on her feet. The ash had burnt down to almost halfway and yet it was being ignored by a madly grinning Nikki. Helen shook her head in disbelief and closed the cell door as softly as she could.

"Are you pissed?" she demanded quietly, approaching her girlfriend and grabbing her with steadying hands.

She guided the lifer to her bed and sat her down forcibly, frowning as the raven-haired woman grinned even more goofily.

"Helen, my darling Helen," the con said, her speech a bit slurred, "I love you, you know. I was hoping to see you in bed. 'Course I can't actually see you in bed, but I want to anyway."

The Scot rolled her eyes and shoved aside the duvet before pushing her drunken lover down onto the sheets.

Nikki looked up at her with a leer and said, "Goody. You going to put the cuffs on now? Oh please… I really want you to."

The lifer held her wrists up and dropped a considerable amount of ash on her black sleep vest. The taller woman frowned down at it and attempted to wipe it away. A valiant effort, but a failed one nonetheless. It left a smear of grey across the black fabric and the con pouted sulkily.

"Bugger. Need to take this off now," she mumbled.

Suddenly she brightened and waggled her eyebrows at Helen. "You gonna help me?"

Helen sat on the edge of the bed and shook her head, her lips pursed as she fought for her disapproval to reign over the amusement she felt brewing inside.

"Nikki… you need to get some sleep."

The lifer sat up and almost dropped the lit cigarette on her chest. Helen snatched it away from her as she slurred, "You gonna sleep with me? Not sleep. We could get up to all sorts in 'ere."

The Scot stared at her lover with exasperation and tried not to raise her voice as she said, "I bloody well am not! Do you remember what happened earlier?"

She released a breath through her nose and muttered, "Forget I asked. We'll talk about it tomorrow."

"Fenner thinks 'ee's soo smart," Nikki remarked suddenly. "But 'ee's not. Lil' birdy told 'im wrong."

Her voice was becoming thicker from alcohol consumption and Helen had to struggle to understand her meaning.

She finally gave up decryption as a useless venture and asked outright, "What do you mean?"

"I meeannn… silly bird told 'im t'look in m'shed. But it wasn' in the shed!"

Nikki exclaimed this proudly with a raised finger. Helen was finally able to unscramble the garbled message and found herself filled with equal parts dread, relief, anger, and amusement.

She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed tiredly as she chastised, "You've got to be more careful, Nikki. The bastard nearly got you."

The flirtatious con wouldn't be deterred so easily. "But 'ee didn'. No one gez me 'cep you. You do 'ave me don'cha? I rilly wan'ya ta 'ave me righ'now."

That salacious leer reappeared and Helen resigned herself to a looping, pointless conversation if she stayed. She stroked her fingers gently down one side of Nikki's face as she dropped a soft kiss to the lifer's lips. Nikki's eyelids were drooping now and she barely heard Helen's whispered goodnight.

Helen let herself out of Nikki's cell and descended the stairs with a mild headache. As she strode toward the gate she called out to her senior officer, "Night, Sylvia."

Sylvia looked even grumpier than usual but managed a polite, "Night, ma'am."

Helen shook her head and walked through the gate, held open for her by a member of the night staff.

"Helen," she mumbled under her breath. She hated being called "ma'am".


Chapter 22

Flashback Continued, Ten Years Prior, Day Five

As the city swam slowly beneath them, Helen and Nikki peered out the window to their right, the Scot wrapped comfortably in the bartender's arms.

"This is amazing," the brunette commented, leaning back against Nikki's taller frame.

Nikki smiled as she rested her chin on Helen's shoulder. "Yeah it is. I've only ridden this once before, but the company wasn't nearly as good that time around."

It was Friday morning just after eleven and they were safely ensconced in one of the capsules of the London Eye. Mindless of the other passengers around them, they stared into the distance over the River Thames and past the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben to Buckingham Palace.

The view spanned a good forty kilometres and they were fortunate to have a brief repose from the bad weather. They knew it wouldn't keep long, so they enjoyed the clarity of their surroundings while it lasted.

When they'd left Helen's hotel room after showering, it had been pouring great buckets of rain. Helen had grabbed a large brolly from her suitcase and they'd made the short tube journey from Leicester Square to Waterloo. After purchasing standard tickets at the ticket office, they'd proceeded to stand in line for over an hour to make the thirty-minute rotation on the famous structure.

It was well worth the wait. Helen sighed contently and stroked Nikki's forearms, thinking this was a perfect moment in time. If she could freeze it and savour it forever, she would die a happy woman. One-hundred and thirty-five metres in the air, at the highest point of the Eye, she'd never felt so peaceful.

The clouds above began to swarm angrily and covered the sun, and the sky let out a great belch of thunder, signalling the end of their unhindered view of London.

When they exited the pod it was raining again, so they huddled together under Helen's umbrella and made their way to the Zen Café for a light lunch. When their appetites were sated, Helen tugged on Nikki's hand with a wide grin and declared a need to visit the photo booth at Waterloo Station.

They emerged with a snap each and caught the tube back to Leicester Square. There they met up with Claire to do some light shopping and sightseeing in the heart of Soho.

"Hi," Claire greeted the pair, awkwardly clutching at her own umbrella.

"Hi," the couple chorused back, holding hands as they took shelter from Mother Nature.

"Uh, shall we?" The solicitor-to-be gestured to the row of shops across the street.

"Yeah, of course," Helen answered, giving Nikki's hand a squeeze as they followed her friend.

"So…" Claire began conversationally, "I kneed Michael in the bollocks for you."

"Och… thanks, Claire." Helen stopped walking and pulled Claire into an awkward hug, their brolly rims clashing.

"Best mate ever," the Scot declared.

Nikki grinned and chimed in, "I hope it bloody hurt him too. Wanker."

"No problem," the blonde smirked, "he deserved it. I can't believe he acted like such a twat."

"Hmm…" Helen hummed in agreement. "Let's just forget about it and enjoy our day."

Their first stop was at Nigel Williams Rare Books, as per Nikki's request. The quaint shop was filled with rare and precious literature from the nineteenth and twentieth century, including a few first editions and signed copies. Nikki was delighted when she spotted a leather-bound first edition print of The Green Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. Unfortunately it was well out of her price range.

Thirty minutes later, with assistance from the elderly shopkeeper, she had chosen A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, published by Penguin in 1945; The Chimes by Charles Dickens, a hardcover bound in green cloth, published by Chapman and Hall in 1903; and Jabberwocky and Other Poems by Lewis Carroll, published by Faber & Faber in 1973. Her purchases totalled at £120.75 and she was quite satisfied with her selections.

The next shop they visited was Poste Mistress shoe shop on Monmouth Street, a higher end sister shop created by Office that offered brands such as Dries Van Noten, Stella McCartney, and Chloe Sevigny. Claire and Helen had to practically drag Nikki into the shoe store, but her hesitance was all in jest.

"Girls and their shoes," Nikki mumbled with a playful grin.

Helen swatted her on the arm then hurried over to a display of Vivienne Westwood heels. Finding nothing that particularly suited her, she joined Claire at the Miu Miu collection. Nearly an hour was spent trying on shoes and by the time they'd decided on their purchases, the young sales girl was looking rather frazzled.

Helen left with a pair of green suede open-toe platform heels by Miu Miu, a whopping £237.48 that set back her savings by several months, while Claire opted for gold glitter peep-toe platform pumps by the same brand, which happened to be on sale at the time.

Nikki shook her head as she grabbed her girlfriend's hand and laced their fingers together. "You're going to break your neck in those heels. They must be at least five inches."

Helen grinned and kissed her lover on the cheek. "Five-and-a-half," she corrected playfully.

The rain had slowed to a very light drizzle so the trio opted not to use their umbrellas for the time being. They visited several more shops here and there, culminating with a visit to Godiva, the home of luxuriant Belgian chocolates that made all their mouths water. As they headed back to The Z Soho hotel, laden with their purchases, they all agreed that it had been a day well spent.

At a quarter to seven that evening, Nikki collected Helen from her hotel room, the Scot wearing a ruched black salsa dress with a halter neck and a ruffled asymmetrical hem. They proceeded down the street to The Red Fort, a restaurant that offered the best in authentic Indian cuisine. Dressed in snazzy black trousers and a scarlet blouse, the bartender ushered her date inside the establishment and had their seven o'clock reservation confirmed by the maître d'. They were led to a small table for two with a cream coloured tablecloth and cushy brown chairs.

The lighting was low and the ambience romantic, the perfect start to an evening they planned to fill with dancing. They took their seats and ordered Garlic Naan, Hara Kebab (spinach patties filled with cheddar, onion, and coriander), and Portuguese Red Wine to begin. After much bread nibbling and deliberation, the pair decided on their main courses: Zaafrani Lobster for Helen (Scottish lobster grilled with saffron, garlic, and cheese) and Nalli Rogan Josh for Nikki (slow-cooked Scottish lamb shank in nutmeg, cinnamon, and bay leaf sauce).

Their food was slow to arrive, as it was cooked by order, and they filled their time with pleasant conversation, trading thoughts and dreams on the present and future. Nikki admitted that she would like to own her own bar one day. The last few years working as a bartender had shown her that it was something she could do enjoyably for a long period of time. Helen hoped to finish out university with a few degrees in psychology and criminology so she could work with the prison service, helping women understand why they committed crimes and how to avoid doing so in future.

As they finally tucked into their steaming plates of meat and spices, an erotic staring contest ensued across the table. They hadn't touched each other intimately since the early hours of the morning, and it would be several more hours before they were given the opportunity again. They topped off the hearty meal with Gulab Jamun (Indian doughnuts in a warm cardamom-infused syrup). When the bill was settled, they loaded into a black cab and made their way to La Pollera Colora Latin Nightclub, situated beside the London Bridge.

Nikki had had the foresight to book them in a few hours before, ensuring that they gained access to the thriving establishment. It was already hopping when they paid the cover fee and stepped into the brick building. Coloured strobe lights were jumping around the room, illuminating the dance floor as it throbbed to a Latin beat. The pair made their way to the bar and ordered spicy cocktails before moving to join the throng of dancers.

Helen swished and wiggled her hips in time with the sounds of salsa and Nikki quickly got lost in the feel of her lover, and the pulse of the music surrounding them. Around midnight the pair was beginning to tire, so they decided to prop up the bar for a bit and watch the merengue dancers who'd taken over the middle of the floor. Drinks in hand, they watched the women in elaborate flowing dresses tap their heels to the beat in one of the oldest forms of Latin dance.

Two hours before closing time they left the nightclub and hailed a taxi in the pouring rain, cursing their lack of foresight to bring portable shelter. Nikki gave the driver her address and they huddled together in the backseat as the cab made its way to Dean Street. Soaking wet and feeling sluggish from exertion on the dance floor, the couple entered Nikki's apartment and headed straight for her bedroom.

The floorboards and furnishings were done in dark, polished walnut, and the duvet was a solid charcoal grey with silver sheets and pillow casings. Too tired to do much else, Nikki and Helen shared a quick shower before falling into bed. They held each other tight and drifted off quickly, any thoughts of sex long gone as exhaustion took over.


Chapter 23

The aftermath from the Chateau Larkhall scheme was surprisingly dull and nonexistent. Sylvia grumbled for a few days about unruly cons kicking up a ruckus on her watch, but the dim-witted PO never sussed the real reason behind it, and Helen was highly relieved that nothing more had come from the incident. She'd received Fenner's report about searching Nikki's shed and she recalled the way her pulse had quickened with panic when he'd confronted her about it, obviously trying to figure out if she knew anything, but she'd managed to keep a cool exterior firmly in place.

Everything had been eerily calm in the week following, only accented by Lorna's return from her holiday and Shell's odd decision to take up religion and kick her drug habit. Helen was certain it was some kind of ploy to get back on Enhanced, and she was having none of it. She'd seen enough in the last four months to know that Shell was devious and cunning, and that anything she did was carefully plotted with an ulterior motive.

Fenner's insistent support of the blonde lifer only concreted this conclusion in her mind. The only saving grace was that he'd seemed distracted lately, and with it he'd been on her case less frequently, making fewer and fewer caustic remarks at her expense. She had a slow sinking feeling in her gut that it was the calm before the storm. Things couldn't be this easy, surely? Nevertheless, she and Nikki kept up their cautious vigilance, reducing their alone time even further to the point where it became painful to catch glances of each other across the wing.

Chaos erupted when Crystal somehow managed to sneak out a letter to The Guardian newspaper, boldly baring the faults of the prison service and putting special emphasis on the drug problem on G-Wing. The backlash saw Helen in Simon's office more than once, receiving stern reprimand from the pompous bureaucrat on the other side of the desk. He was so uncaring about the actual issue at hand that she found it difficult to hold her tongue. All he concerned himself with was the PR disaster that had landed on his shoulders, and he was all too happy to pass that burden onto her with his patronising words.

All in all, it was a storm in a teacup. Tension amongst the inmates and officers rose even further when Lorna Rose was apprehended smuggling perfume into Shell Dockley's cell after lock-up. The unwitting PO was so clueless that Helen actually felt sorry for her. What she had thought to be an innocent bottle of perfume turned out to be the end of her career, and likewise her dreams of becoming a member of the DST, as the cardboard packaging had been lined with a bag of heroin. Helen saw her out of the prison with bitter regret, conceding one more loss to the cunning deceit of the blonde murderess.

Nikki, in the meantime, had had her hands full trying to get Monica to reconsider her appeal. The older inmate had become increasingly morose and withdrawn since the death of her son. It was nearly unbearable for Nikki to see her in such a state. She tried her best to cheer the woman up and raise her spirits, but it all seemed to be for naught. Adding that with everything else that was going on, and the lack of time she'd been afforded to see Helen, the lifer was quite tightly wound by the time Lorna was duped by Shell.

The following day, when it was announced that closed visits were being put into effect, Nikki could have very happily strangled Shell. She wasn't monumentally affected by this news as she rarely had any visits anyway, but she sympathised with all the mothers on the wing who wouldn't be able to hug their kids.

The situation was made even worse in her eyes when Helen got the blame from the inmates. Nikki knew that it wouldn't have been her decision to implement such a strategy. Helen was too smart for that. No, it was likely down to the Number One. She'd only met Simon Stubberfield one time during her incarceration, but that one time was enough for her to clock him as an arrogant sod with little to no concern for the prisoners.

She spent her morning association period out in the garden as usual, and then after lunch she went to the library to find new reading material. She'd finished Sophie's World and had surprisingly liked it, even though it was a stark contrast to the type of book she usually read. She was perusing a section of battered paperbacks when the door opened and Helen made an appearance, looking quite worse for wear.

Nikki's concern was immediately piqued so she took a quick glance around, ensuring that they were alone, before stepping closer to the Scot and observing, "You look a bit pasty, Helen. Heavy night?"

The shorter woman's shoulders slumped noticeably and she released a sigh of desperation. "I may have hit the voddy a bit too hard last night, but I'll survive. How are you doing with all of this?"

Nikki closed the distance between them and placed her hands lightly on Helen's waist, staring down into her troubled green eyes as she soothed, "A lot better than you, by the looks of it. What's wrong, darling?"

Helen's jaw trembled slightly as she held back a wave of tears. "Everything. It's just shit, Nikki. Sometimes I feel like I won't last another day in this place."

The lifer immediately moved her hands up to cup Helen's face, demanding eye contact as she insisted seriously, "You mustn't think like that, Helen. I know things have been difficult lately, beyond that even, but I know you're strong enough to handle this. I've never met anyone with your courage and conviction. And I'll always be here to help you through."

Tears slid slowly down the Scot's cheeks and she pressed her mouth firmly up against that of the taller woman, reaching up to thread her fingers through those dark locks. The embrace was desperate and fervent but short-lived. All too soon they separated, aware that they were taking a huge risk in snogging so openly. Helen stepped back a pace with a regretful glance cast toward her lover. Nikki nodded her understanding wordlessly and tucked a tendril of blonde hair behind the Scot's ear.

Helen offered her a smile of gratitude and said, "I should probably get going. I just had to see you. Thank you for being so understanding, sweetheart. I know it's not easy being in this situation. It's hell on me too, but we'll get through it. I don't know what I would do without you. Oh, and if you see Monica, tell her I'm looking for her."

The wing governor gave her girlfriend a last peck on her lips and then left, Nikki staring after her with sad brown eyes. The lifer found the library incredibly uninteresting after that point and abandoned her literary search in favour of having a cigarette.

"I knew Shell was up to something with that religious carryon. I said it was all eyewash," Sylvia declared, tooting her trumpet and airing her opinion as she sipped at her tea.

Dominic shook his head sadly and put his own two cents forward, "Well Jim was all for it."

The young PO couldn't keep the hint of bitterness out of his tone. More and more lately he'd found himself disagreeing with the actions of his colleagues. He also wasn't remiss in seeing what a hard time Jim had been giving Helen and Nikki, and that didn't sit well with him at all. For all of the wing governor's faulty decision making, he still had faith that she was the right woman for the job and he admired her for her stalwart attitude in the face of opposition.

Fenner took offence to Dominic's comment and piped up, "I said I'd give her the benefit of the doubt, that's all."

Sylvia spared him a sideways glance and asked, "And now?"

Even she couldn't fail to see that his loyalty had been misplaced with the blonde lifer. Jim was saved from answering by the entrance of Simon. All of the POs immediately stood up as the Number One addressed them with a grave expression.

"So what's going on? Can any of you tell me?"

Sylvia was the first to speak, "We think one of the prisoners was blackmailing Miss Rose, Sir."

Simon pinned her with a frown and asked, "Over what?"

Fenner jumped in with an inadequate explanation, "We're not quite sure what happened yet, Sir. There's a lot of rumours flying around."

Simon became exasperated then and insisted, "She must have done something wrong if it was blackmail."

Fenner sensed an opportunity to take Helen down another notch and didn't hesitate. "The wing's having problems generally at the moment, Sir. I haven't seen anything like it before."

Sylvia was only too happy to jump on board. "No, nor me. And I've been in the service twelve years."

Simon's expression was even more displeased as he absorbed their opinions, especially in light of recent events. He was quite clearly aggravated with the performance of G-wing's governor, feeling that she'd been making a botch job of it lately.

"Does anyone here know where Miss Stewart is?"

The POs all stared at him blankly so he turned on his heel and left, determined to find Helen and get to the bottom of this. He spotted her beyond the gate to the main atrium and made a beeline for her. The look on her face was one of resignation as she fell into step beside him and listened to his latest view of her incompetence. She bore it all with grace but inwardly she was seething.

'The arrogant prick,' she thought uncharitably as she made her way back to the wing.

Her day worsened further when she had the bad luck of running into Fenner on the G2 landing. He stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets as he came to a halt in front of her. His expression was oddly sincere and his tone lacked its usual acidity when he spoke, immediately putting her on edge. There was no way Fenner had magically turned over a new leaf and decided to be nice to her. She could smell a rat in the vicinity and she knew just who it was.

"Could be worse," he offered, trying to butter her up.

Helen arched her brows and replied sarcastically, "Could it?"

He shrugged and conceded falsely, "At least you're showing Simon you're on the case, nabbing Lorna like that. You'll be putting Shell back on Enhanced after that, will you?"

The true purpose of the conversation had now come to light. She'd known it was too good to be true. She stared at him with open disbelief and shook her head. Was he really so thick to underestimate her in that way?

"After what, setting up one of your fellow officers? I don't think so."

She shook her head again in disgust and pushed past him, more than ready to be finished with the conversation. She'd still yet to find Monica and she was growing increasingly disquieted by the daunting depression that had befallen the grieving woman.

Up on the G3 landing, Nikki and Monica were standing side by side at the railing, staring down at the other inmates milling about on G1. Nikki looked sideways at the older woman and struck up a conversation in hopes of drawing her out of her shell.

"You're gonna miss all this."

Monica's reply was subdued yet guardedly acerbic, "Yes. How will I cope? To think, I'll soon leave it all behind."

Her tone rattled Nikki in an instant but she tried to take the lighter approach to her statement, desperately hoping there wasn't more to it than the obvious.

"You're confident all of a sudden."

Monica realised her slip-up and quickly backpedalled, "No, no, I was just… thinking positive, like you said."

Nikki allowed a small smile of relief, though she wasn't entirely convinced by her friend's explanation. She had a niggling feeling that something more sinister was lurking beneath the surface of Monica's calm, controlled appearance. For now, though, she pushed those thoughts aside and went with levity.

"I thought there was something you weren't telling me for a minute."

The older woman cast a wry smile at the well-meaning lifer but said nothing. Nikki picked up the slack in the conversation as she remembered why she'd approached Monica in the first place.

"I almost forgot to tell you… Miss Stewart was looking for you earlier. I think she's worried about you, Monica. You should speak to her."

Nikki was careful not to give away too much information in regards to her closeness with the wing governor. Monica hummed noncommittally and moved off towards her cell, leaving Nikki standing behind with a pensive expression. 'Something is definitely wrong here.'

As Helen made her way up the stairs to G3, she spotted Nikki looking grim and approached the lifer cautiously. The taller woman nodded her head in the direction of Monica's cell.

"She's in her cell. You should go and talk to her. I think there's something wrong, Helen. I don't know what… but I've just got a bad feeling."

Helen pursed her lips, feelings a similar sensation settle in her stomach. She nodded her thanks and lightly brushed her hand against Nikki's lower back as she passed. She approached the cell with apprehension bubbling up and popped her head around the doorframe, greeting the inmate softly, "Monica?"

Monica was standing by the sink fiddling with a tube of toothpaste but turned immediately upon hearing her name.

"Okay?" Helen asked simply.

"Yeah, fine," Monica answered evasively.

Helen moved to sit down on the woman's bed and segued directly to her purpose, "Nikki said that she had a word with you."

The older woman replied vaguely, "That's right."

Helen raised her brows and enquired, "Any more thoughts?"

Sensing that yet another person was worried for her welfare, and that the matter wouldn't be dropped without an adequate response, Monica slowly acceded, "Well, I think she talked some sense into me actually. I've decided to go ahead with the appeal. I don't know what came over me. Well… I do."

Helen's face fell into a sympathetic expression as she consoled, "You've been very depressed. I understood you wanting to drop it, strangely enough."

This concession seemed to come as a surprise to the older woman. "Yes?"

The wing governor sighed and elaborated, "Well, when it's uphill all the time there doesn't seem much point."

Monica glanced at her and asked, "You've been there?"

Her tone conveyed that she was hoping for some kind of intrinsic understanding and empathy, that someone else could know what she was going through and offer some real advice on how to cope. That turned out not to be the case and she was left feeling empty once again as Helen answered her.

"No, but I've been in the prison service for two years. I've seen some women go through Hell. Sometimes you've just got to get a grip of yourself."

Monica nodded her acceptance, putting on a front of strength that she didn't really possess. At this point she would do just about anything to get the wing governor to leave so she could be alone with her thoughts again.

Helen stood up and offered a last smile as she enthused quietly, "Anyway, your solicitor seems very confident about your chances. Downhill all the way."

The Scot left the older woman in peace then, knowing there was nothing else she could say at the moment. The conversation had honestly been a bit one-sided and the feeling of dread still lingered within, but she was encouraged by the improvement in Monica's attitude, however marginal it seemed. At least she was going through with her appeal. That was a huge weight off.

Senior Officer Hollamby walked toward the gates of G-wing with an even more miserable countenance than usual. She'd been having a rough time of it lately, if truth be told. The cons were growing ever more rowdy and disrespectful at every turn, making her life just that little bit harder as her monotonous routine was rudely interrupted. She'd come to enjoy the peace of a quiet, routine existence and now that was being disrupted in one giant upheaval after the next.

First there had been the horror of finding Nikki Wade and Julie Saunders indisposed in the potting shed, coupled with the constant shenanigans of Denny Blood and Shaz Wiley, and then the ridiculous behaviour at that so-called wake. Crystal Gordon's letter had seemingly been a godsend when it had resulted in Mr. Stubberfield ordering closed visits, but her relief was short-lived as the women started kicking up even more.

To top it all off, Shell Dockley had blackmailed one of her fellow officers right out of a job, now possibly facing legal repercussions if the set-up couldn't be proved. And just when Sylvia didn't think she could take any more irregularity, they had been strapped with Yvonne Atkins, the infamous gangster's moll. She'd been personally burdened with escorting the inmate to G-wing, a task about which she was severely displeased.

"I've read about you in the papers," Hollamby commented, a snide hint in her tone.

Yvonne merely grinned and quipped back, "I've read about you in the papers. Or about this place. Seems like I've come at a very interesting time."

Indeed Yvonne had read about Larkhall just before her sentencing hearing. She was intrigued to learn more about her new accommodations and muck in with the other women. She just knew that she would come out on top somehow. It was in her nature.

Sylvia huffed contemptuously as she unlocked the main gate and ushered Yvonne through. She scowled sternly and tried to put the inmate in her place, "Yes, well, just so as you know, you might be famous on the outside, but you won't be in here."

Yvonne grinned rakishly and asked, "Wanna bet?"

She halted her footsteps near the stairs and observed the small cluster of women gathered there. A striking, tall, dark-haired woman was standing just behind an extremely odd looking blonde duo, and on the other side of the quirky pair was a very pregnant blonde. Finally there was a fourth blonde, dressed and made up like a tart, who was visibly sizing her up with disdain, and next to her a younger girl with an abundance of tattoos and frizzy brown hair.

"Are these my new neighbours?"

Yvonne tilted her head as she studied the group, instinctively getting a feel for who she would later be able to count as a mate, and likewise who she couldn't trust. Top of the list in her possible enemies column was the blonde trollop. The tattooed girl beside her was staring eagerly and she could sense some potential there. She would just have to wait and see.

"Any objection?" Shell sniped.

"None at all, sweetheart." Yvonne flicked her gaze over each woman's face as she introduced herself, "Name's Yvonne. Hope you like a good party, girls."

She carried on walking down the wing then, driven by her irritated escort. She was shown to her cell and immediately set about unpacking her things.

Back at the stairwell, Zandra stared after the newest addition to G-wing and asked, "Who's that?"

"That's Yvonne Atkins," Nikki supplied helpfully.

Julie S jumped in to add, "It's Charlie Atkins' wife, innit."

Nikki folded her arms in front of her as she elaborated on her brief knowledge of the gangster's wife, "Someone tried to muscle in on him. She got a hit man to bump him off; hit man grassed."

Denny was, by far, the most curious of the bunch, "What did she get?"

"Four years," answered the dark-haired lifer.

"She can bump me off any day." Denny grinned like the cat that ate the canary and it didn't go unnoticed by a scowling Shell.

The blonde lifer sensed a threat to her territory and she didn't like it one little bit. She was going to have to find out more about this Atkins woman and discover her weakness. She wouldn't let some newbie invade her precious prison patch.

Near the end of her shift, Helen wandered up to G3 to find Nikki. She was feeling rough after the harrowing day she'd had. She wanted nothing more than to gaze into her girlfriend's eyes and hear words of comfort spill from those captivating lips. She reached the landing and then moved quietly towards the cell she was seeking.

She pushed the door open and entered, closing it behind her softly as Nikki sat up and took notice of her appearance. The lifer set aside the book she'd been reading and patted the space beside her on the bed. Helen swiftly strode across the small space and plopped down beside her, leaning into the embrace as an arm went around her shoulders.

She swallowed noisily and buried her face in Nikki's neck, inhaling the scent of her and wishing they could be transported somewhere far away, anywhere but here. Strong, slender fingers twined through her silken strands of honey blonde and she released a sigh of contentment.


"Don't let the buggers get you down," Nikki murmured comfortingly.

Helen smiled against the lifer's neck and asked, "What you reading?"

Nikki grinned ironically as she quipped, "Little Dorrit. It's a story about a terrible prison."

Helen let out a humourless laugh and lamented, "Thank goodness we've got rid of all of those."

The lifer gripped her girlfriend's shoulder a little tighter and dropped a kiss on top of her head. "You've already made loads of improvements for the girls in here. They know that, they do. I know they can be ungrateful at times, but you can't let that get to you. You're doing everything you can, darling."

"Yeah, but for how much longer?" Helen's voice nearly broke as she said it.

Simon had been putting more and more pressure on her of late. She wasn't sure how much longer she would be allowed to keep her job. She was holding on by a string.

That struck Nikki as an unusual question. Helen had promised not to leave her again so she immediately wondered if her job was being threatened by someone higher in rank.

"Is this down to your wanker of a boss?" the taller woman asked, filled with righteous indignation.

Helen let out a shaky sigh and nodded almost imperceptibly, tears filling her eyes as she raged against the unfairness of it all. But since when was life fair? Her life had certainly been filled with numerous occurrences of angst and she was no stranger to pain. She'd thought that finally she might be getting a break though, that she would be allowed to breathe easy for a change.

"I'm just getting it from both sides, Nikki, you know? From above and below. It just would be so much easier just to give in."

Nikki twisted to face her girlfriend and cupped her face firmly, but gently, as she said, "Listen to me, Helen. You're better than all of them put together. You have to know that, sweetheart. I can't bear to see you like this. It rips me up inside when you're hurting."

Helen's watery eyes stared at her intently, breaking through to her soul as she continued, "I need you to be strong for a little while, darling, because you're the only hope I've got of getting out of here and being able to love you properly, the only hope we have for a life together. If you give up now… I can't see a way out of this. Please, Helen, don't stop believing in yourself. Don't let the bastards win."

A choked sob emitted from the Scot's throat as she processed the words of praise and faith bestowed upon her by the most wonderful woman she'd ever known. There truly was no one else in the world like Nikki Wade. Their lips crashed together by mutual resolve as they crumbled to the behest of their shared desire, recklessly risking everything for the chance to hold and taste each other, to wallow in the comfort found in one another's arms.

Helen felt herself being pushed back onto the thin mattress as Nikki melded the length of her body against that of her lover, the shadow of her lithe form looming beside them, echoing across the brick wall in the light of the moon. Quick fingers slid up the smooth skin of her calves and delved beneath the hem of her skirt, nimble as they slipped beneath the scrap of lace covering her sex.

The Scot found her back arching of its own accord as two digits entered her unceremoniously, pushing against the slick heat of her throbbing core, ripping a low moan from the back of her throat. Nikki honed in on full lips parted by desire and captured them with her own, drowning out the sounds of satisfaction that arose as her fingers built up a steady, unrelenting tempo, working furiously to bring her lover over the edge.

They broke for oxygen at the same instant as those dexterous fingers curled deliciously upward, rubbing insistently at just the right spot. "Ni-" Helen's whispered plea was cut short on a hitched breath as a strangled cry escaped her, her body tensing and shuddering in release.

Nikki held the shorter woman close to her as she rode the waves of orgasm, and then afterwards as they basked in the afterglow. To Nikki, Helen's pleasure was just as fulfilling as if she'd received the same, such was her love for the woman beneath her. She smiled lovingly and kissed the Scot's swollen lips in the darkness, finding a brief reprieve in that moment from any sense of misery.


Chapter 24

Zandra waddled over to a breakfast table and plopped down in a free seat. Before tucking into her food she looked across at Monica and asked, "All right for you, innit, Monica? Soon be eating out in posh restaurants again, won't ya?"

Monica smiled nervously and put on an uncertain air, covering for the decision she'd already made in regards to her fate, "Well, I don't really dare look too far forward yet. I mean, it's not cut and dry."

Zandra scoffed. "You'll win it, easy."

Monica frowned slightly and reasoned, "Well not necessarily. I mean, if these appeal judges are anything like the one I had at my trial…"

An eye-roll from the pregnant blonde and a muttered, "Yeah, yeah," was her response.

Julie S approached the table then, excitedly clutching a piece of paper. She offered it up to Zandra first with a smile. "Here, sign this, Zan."

"What is it?" The blonde looked sceptical.

Julie grinned widely and explained, "It's a petition to Miss Stewart, sayin' we want our open visits back."

"Like bloody right," Zandra agreed, reaching for the biro to add her name to the list.

Julie turned to face Crystal and warned icily, "And you… you just better stay out my way, 'cause I could smack your face for what you said to that newspaper."

Crystal looked affronted at the notion and defended herself haughtily, "Drugs is evil. I was doin' God's work."

If possible, Julie looked even more offended than the religious shoplifter. "So like, God don't want mums to cuddle their own kids?"

Crystal relented then with apology written across her face. "Yeah, well I didn't mean that, did I?"

Julie leaned towards her and scolded, "Yeah, well ya should have stopped to think, shouldn't ya? You stupid cow."

Crystal rolled her eyes and picked up her tray, taking her cue to leave. Julie moved to sit down in the seat she'd just vacated as Zandra passed back the petition.

"Got a good load of names on this, haven't ya?" the blonde enquired.

Julie's irritated expression morphed to one of accomplishment and hope. "Yeah, Nikki's gonna take it up to her." She turned to look at Nikki and asked, "You think she's really on our side, don't you, Nik?"

Nikki looked like a deer caught in the headlights for a moment, unprepared for being put on the spot like that. 'Shit. Time for some acting.' The lifer shifted in her seat uncomfortably and said, "I don't know. Can't you get someone else to take it?"

Julie just looked confused now. "Eh? But I thought you really liked her."

Nikki swore in her head, mentally cringing as the next words left her mouth. "Yeah? Well think again."

She hated saying anything against Helen, but they'd been reckless the other night and she needed to put on a damn good show to assuage her guilt.

Julie's mouth dropped open and then she retorted with righteous upset, "But what about the petition? I mean, me and Ju was countin' on you to get her to take it to the top."

The lifer effected a heavy sigh as she moved to get up, tossing out nonchalantly, "Well coming from me, all she'd do with it is rip it up."

'Well played, Wade. You deserve a pat on the back,' she thought as she headed up the stairs toward G3, leaving Julie, Zandra, and Monica staring after her with disbelief.

After Nikki's departure, Julie S got up again to make her rounds with the petition. She was surprised by how quickly Yvonne was settling in amongst the inmates and how friendly she was being in general. She had such a hard exterior and such an infamous reputation, but she seemed to be a good person at heart.

"Cheers, Yvonne." Julie smiled winningly at the gangster's wife after she'd added her name to the petition.

Yvonne shrugged and insisted, "No, it's nice to be signing something you want to for a change."

Julie nodded and lamented, "Yeah. I just wish a few of the screws would sign it, though."

Zandra waddled over and picked up a cigarette packet that was lying on the table. "Yvonne, you couldn't lend us one of these, could ya?"

A smile curled up the edges of Yvonne's mouth as she said, "Help yourself. There's plenty there."

The pregnant blonde seemed taken aback but she asked quickly, "Can I have a couple then?"

"Yeah, go on," the older inmate answered.

"Cheers, Yvonne." Zandra pulled a few out before replacing the packet. It was a big change to have someone on the wing who didn't mind sharing. Usually it was every con for herself.

Yvonne looked over at the table where Denny was sitting. She was in a charitable mood and she thought this might be a good opening gambit to get the younger inmate on her side. She could see some real potential there if the tattooed girl could get out from under Dockley's thumb.

"How about you, Denny love? You want a few for later?"

Denny was just as shocked as Zandra had been. "What, for real?"

Yvonne grinned and waved her hand at the packet. "Yeah, they're there for the takin'."

Denny wandered over with a big smile and Julie S asked, "Does that go for us all then?"

Yvonne leaned back in her chair and said, "Help yourselves, girls."

Denny passed Julie the packet and the blonde smiled eagerly. "Cheers."

Nikki was roaming the G3 landing with a cigarette in hand, thinking about everything that had been troubling her lately, when Fenner called out to her and broke her concentration.

"Snuff it, Wade. Stewart wants to see you."

Nikki looked up sharply, wondering immediately what had happened. "Why, what for?" Is Helen okay? She let the last question remain muted.

Fenner gave her an impatient look and said, "Get along and you'll find out, won't you?"

She stuck two fingers in her mouth then snuffed her fag out between them, ignoring the brief pain as she wandered down the stairwell to the PO who was waiting at the gate. An uncomfortably silent walk and several unlocked gates later, she found herself being let into the Wing Governor's office.


Helen was standing when they arrived and she shot a quick smile to the PO. "Thank you, Glen."

The PO nodded at her then closed the door. Helen released a weary sigh and moved around to sit behind her desk. "Take a seat," she addressed Nikki, "It's about your exam. Now, I'll arrange for an invigilator to come in."

Nikki sat down with a speculative frown. Was that all? She'd been so worried for a moment. She leaned forward and said honestly, "I thought something might've been wrong, Helen."

Helen looked at her for a long moment and then shook her head slowly. "No. I'm sorry I worried you. I'm a bit stressed but that's all. I did actually call you here to talk about your exam. I got this in the post this morning."

She indicated the Open University envelope on her desk and Nikki nodded in comprehension. They got stuck into the details and then the lifer threw a curveball at the Scot, "I missed you, darling. I know we were careless the other night, but I wouldn't change a thing."

Helen looked into her girlfriend's eyes with sorrow and apprehension. "I know, Nikki… but… we can't go on like this, not at the moment. That has to be the last time. You know that, don't you?"

Nikki felt like her heart was breaking in her chest, but she knew that Helen was talking sense. She nodded very slowly, fighting against the tears and the pain welling up inside. "I know." Her whispered answer was barely audible.

Helen reached over and gave her hand a squeeze, offering silent comfort where she couldn't offer words. Anything she said now would sound like an empty platitude, and they'd already been over this at least a dozen times in the last few months. Nonetheless, the situation felt more daunting than ever now.

Meanwhile on G-Wing, Mrs. Hollamby walked over to a small gathering of inmates to see what all the fuss was about. Naturally, Yvonne was at the center of it.


Sylvia pinned the leather-clad inmate with a glare and asked huffily, "Are you giving out cigarettes?"

Yvonne effected a blank look and responded cluelessly, "Cigarettes, Miss?"

Sylvia tried to have patience but it was wearing desperately thin. "Don't come all clever with me, Atkins," she sniped grumpily. "You know it's against the rules to give away your property."

Yvonne straightened her spine and looked up at the senior PO with a curious frown. "Oh, and is it against the rules to show some Christian charity, Miss?"

Hollamby, apparently, was in no mood for charity. "I'm warning you… If I catch you again, you're going straight on report. So think twice."

Yvonne put on her best poker face as she answered, "I'll do that, Miss." She raised two fingers to scratch her nose and deadpanned, "Twice."

Hollamby rushed off with a huff and Yvonne's veneer cracked as she let out a laugh, followed by those around her.

Sylvia stomped into the Officers Room, grabbed a cup of tea, and plopped down in her favourite chair, immediately griping, "That Atkins woman. I knew she was trouble as soon as I saw her."

Dominic frowned, not following her nonsensical logic. "How's that?"

Hollamby explained as though it was obvious, "Too much money. Too much having life her own sweet way."

Dominic shrugged and acceded, "Well she certainly likes her early morning lie-ins."

Earlier that morning he'd had to put up with Yvonne flirting with him when he'd gone to wake her, but he didn't mind her really. He was used to it with working in a women's nick.

Sylvia sipped at her tea and then said conversationally, "I tell you, where she was on remand, did you know this? Twenty-two pairs of shoes they found in her cell."

The young PO was genuinely stunned as he echoed, "Twenty-two?"

Sylvia nodded. "That's what we're up against."

Helen happened to be stopping in at that moment and heard the tail-end of the conversation. She added with a small smirk, "Twenty-two pairs of shoes and a shelf-load of Chanel, according to her file."

Hollamby twisted in her seat to look at the wing governor. "Oh?"

Helen shrugged and continued, "Anyway, I was gonna say… can you book her in to see me today? I haven't had time to do her induction yet."

The older PO nodded and agreed, "Right," though her tone implied that she couldn't have cared less.

'Oh, revenge can be sweet at times,' Helen thought wickedly, preparing to deliver her next news and knowing it wouldn't sit well with the senior officer. "And I'll need to allocate her a Personal Officer."

Helen hid a smirk as she turned on her heel and left, Sylvia staring after her with a horrified look on her face as realisation dawned.

"Oh, no…" the distressed woman mumbled.

Later that morning, Dominic brought Yvonne up to Helen's office and they settled in to go through the standard induction process.

Helen folded her hands in front of her and asked, "So, how are you settling in, Yvonne?"

The inmate studied her silently for a moment then shrugged. "All right. Some of the girls are friendly enough. Don't much fancy Shell Dockley, though."

Helen had to hide a smile as she thought to herself, 'No, most people wouldn't.' Outwardly she said, "I'm glad to hear it. On to the first order of business then. Every prisoner serving over twelve months is allocated a Personal Officer."

Yvonne raised her brows. "What, you mean like I get one for meself?"

The wing governor had to suppress a chuckle at that. She was surprised how humourous she was finding the inmate's company to be. She certainly seemed to be a character…

"Well, the idea is that you have a particular officer looking out for your interests, and to help you make the best use of your time in custody."

"Oh, really?" Yvonne leaned forward with a shark-like smile. "Well can I have that Mr. McAllister then, please?"

Helen did laugh this time. "Strangely enough, you don't get to choose."

"Eh?" Yvonne cocked her head, brows furrowed.

"Well, on the basis of availability, I've allocated you… Senior Officer Hollamby." Helen nearly cringed as she said it. She hated allocating Sylvia to any of the inmates, but it had to be done.

"Hollamby?" The inmate in question did not sound pleased. Not that Helen could blame her.

Instead of agreeing, the wing governor asked, "Is that a problem?"

Yvonne smirked once more and said, "Well, it's lucky I get all the help I need from my husband and kids."

While the Scot concurred with Yvonne's apt assessment of the situation, and the lack of help she would be receiving from her Personal Officer, she couldn't be seen to show disdain for her employees.

"Well, I'm glad you've got a supportive family, Yvonne."

"Oh, I've got the best, love. Don't worry about me."

Yvonne was grinning like the cat that ate the canary as she said this. She was already plotting ways in which she could make her stay here more pleasurable. Wealth did have its benefits, after all.

Helen felt a nagging bit of irritation swim to the forefront of her mind and she couldn't resist warning the strong-willed inmate, "Well, as long as you don't think they can help you by being rich. You start in here on the same basic regime as every other new inmate; £2.50 a week, private cash, and that's your limit."

She spread her palms out in front of her and continued, remembering a complaint made by Officer Hollamby earlier, "I also want you to be clear that we're very strict on property here. So if you can have a very careful look at your 'In Possession Of Property' list at the back of your handout."

"Oh, I know that off by heart," Yvonne reassured.

Helen was not in any mood to brook insolence, so she stated sternly, "Then make sure that you understand that there are no exceptions allowed."

Yvonne quirked a brow and quipped sarcastically, "Well I kind of gathered that by the three exclamation marks you got put there."

Helen pursed her lips. "So there's nothing that you need clarifying?"

Yvonne frowned as she speculated thoughtfully, "Well it still don't make a load of sense. I mean like this bit here…" She opened her booklet and indicated a certain page, tapping it with her finger. "I mean, does this really mean that every prisoner can have a guitar?"

Helen was nonplussed. 'What an odd question…' she thought. All she could think to respond with was, "It means exactly what it says."

Up on the G3 landing, Nikki was leaning against the wall next to her cell and having a good sulk. She wasn't going to be able to touch Helen again for a long time. Suddenly the tunnel in front of her seemed endless and dark. She could only hope that the appeal would be granted and that the process would go by quickly, but realistically she knew that was unlikely. The CCRC was notorious for taking for-bloody-ever.

Monica approached her then and said, "Bathroom's free."

Nikki spared her only a brief glance and answered distractedly, "Oh, right."

Monica studied her more closely and realised she wasn't her usual cheerful self. "Are you okay, Nikki?"

Nikki turned big brown eyes filled with sadness on the older inmate. "You're so lucky, knowing you're gonna get out this shithole."

"Well…" Monica started to say it wasn't a done deal, but Nikki cut her off.

"San Francisco. That's where I'd be headed. Just start a whole new life." Mentally she added, 'A life with Helen. Finally.'

Monica sighed before encouraging, "Then why don't you put your mind to it, Nikki? Call your solicitor and see if any progress has been made on the appeal."

Nikki barked out a humourless laugh. "Yeah, 'cause that's likely. They'll probably turn me down out of spite. Lesbian cop killer released from prison? Very tabloid-friendly, that."

Nikki turned and went into her cell, effectively ending the conversation to hide the tears of bitterness that coursed down her cheeks. Monica stared after her sadly then walked away. She was worried about Nikki but she didn't know how she could help. She wouldn't be here for much longer, anyway…

After the weekly visit to the canteen, Crystal and Yvonne began setting up chairs in a circle on the G1 landing. This was to be the first practice for the Larkhall Tabernacle Gospel Choir; a sure way to drive the screws up the walls until they signed the inmates' petition for open visits.


"Kum-Ba-Yah?" Julie S asked incredulously, looking at the blackboard covered in chalk instructions.

"Well everyone'll know that, won't they?" Yvonne explained patiently, moving another chair into place.

The shorter Julie elaborated on her disappointment, "But we wanted to learn something from…"

"…Easy Rider," the two Julies chorused together.

The shorter blonde continued, "Then we could play it to…"

"…Biker Boy," the pair finished simultaneously.

The two blondes looked over at Dominic pointedly and the shorter of the pair called out, "'Cause it's your birthday tomorrow, innit, Sir?"

Dominic looked startled. "How do you know that?"

"Oh, we know everything about you, Sexpot," the shorter blonde declared.

"Yeah, Sexy." Julie J shot him a playful wink.

The duo turned their attention back to Yvonne and Julie S elucidated further, "Typical Cancer, see."

"Typical," Julie J echoed.

"Hard shell," the shorter blonde started.

"Soft inside," the taller blonde finished.

Yvonne snickered, thoroughly amused with their finishing each other's sentences, then she queried quizzically, "Why do you call him Biker Boy?"

Julie S raised her brows and enquired, "Haven't you seen him in his leathers? I mean, easy ride or what, eh, Ju?"

Julie J was practically drooling as she thought about it. "Ooh, easy."

As the chords of "Kum-Ba-Yah" began to blare dissonantly from G1, Nikki entered Monica's cell to see how she was holding up. She wasn't expecting what she found, however. Monica looked pasty and sweaty, and overwhelmingly exhausted.


"Monica?" the lifer questioned with an obvious note of concern, approaching the older woman slowly.

"Oh. Hello, Nikki," the older woman answered wearily.

The lifer frowned as she looked around the cell. "All packed up for tomorrow then?"


Nikki took another glance round and commented, "You really are, aren't you? Even your toothbrush." She was beginning to get a horrible feeling in her gut, but she couldn't pinpoint what it was.

"Nice and normal," Monica insisted tiredly.

A scowl grew on Nikki's face as she peered into Monica's prison issue bag. The older woman's suit was folded up at the bottom and it didn't make sense. "What about your suit? You're not going to court like that, are you?"

Monica was feeling decidedly uncomfortable as she realised her mistake and fumbled for an explanation, "No, no, I was going to erm…" Yet she couldn't think of anything to say. She was tired now. So very tired…

Alarm bells began to ring in Nikki's head and she asked adamantly, "Monica, you are going through with this appeal, aren't you?"

"Why are you asking me that? Of course I am." Monica came across indignant but unconvincing.

"You're lying. Why do I know you're lying to me, Monica?"

"I'm not lying." Monica's whole body seemed to be weighed down by an invisible force and her voice was growing fainter, more strained with every reply.

Near panic now from Monica's half-hearted responses and physical appearance, Nikki demanded, "Then why's your suit in the bottom of that bag? You're not planning on wearing it at all, are you? So what are you planning on tomorrow? Tell me."

There was no response. The lifer reiterated desperately, "Monica?"

"You're too late, Nikki." Monica used the last of her energy to make that statement.

She slumped down on the bed and Nikki rushed over to her, muttering, "Shit!"

A quick check of the older woman's pupils confirmed what Nikki now suspected. Her heart beat wildly as she raced out the door to get the two Julies. She knew she was grasping at straws with her plan, but it was the only thing she could think of to remedy the situation. Getting Dr. Nicholson was not an option.

Nikki was in her cell smoking cigarette after cigarette, vainly trying to calm her nerves. It was almost too much to take in. Monica had tried to kill herself with an overdose of her medication and she and the Julies had only just reached her in the nick of time. It was a close call and she was cursing herself for her recklessness.

Nevertheless, if she had to make the same decision all over again she wouldn't change a thing. They'd been lucky and gotten a positive result, and Helen's job wasn't on the line now. Everything had worked out as she'd hoped. That didn't stop her from feeling like shit, though…

She heard the unlocked cell door open and soft footsteps coming near, not turning around as she knew instinctively who it would be. Helen approached the lifer after pushing the door to, and she came to stand just behind her shoulder.

Skipping any kind of pleasantry, she went the direct route as she asked, "Did Monica take an overdose?"

Nikki stared out the window and sucked on her cigarette. 'Damn it, Helen,' she thought petulantly. She played dumb as she answered off-handedly, "What?"

Helen felt her aggravation rise another notch and she demanded angrily, "I want a straight answer, Nikki!"

"Straight?" Nikki snorted, overcome by an irrational sense of humour in such a serious moment.

Helen, however, was not in the mood for levity. She was royally pissed off now and she directed that anger at her girlfriend.

"She could have died and you took that risk with her. I don't understand you. How could you have been so irresponsible?"

"Oh, Jesus." Nikki rolled her eyes.

Helen moved in closer and asked with clear exasperation, "Look, what the hell were you thinking of?"

Nikki turned her head to look at the Scot and said simply, "You."

Her eyes held so much compassion and pain, but Helen had lost the plot. "What?"

"I did it to protect you," the lifer explained.

There was so much in that simple statement that Helen found herself taking a step back, recoiling from the intensity of the conflicting feelings it stirred within her.

'Christ,' she thought, 'What the hell am I supposed to say to that? Thanks for saving my arse, even though you nearly let someone die?' The voice in her head laughed hysterically and she couldn't find any words that were adequate to express her thoughts, so she turned and left in silence.

While all of this was going on, no one noticed that Fenner had slipped out early, leaving Sylvia and Dominic in charge of the wing. An idea had been brewing since Sean's gardening lecture and it was high time to put it into play. As soon as he reached the privacy of his car he pulled out his mobile and called Directory Enquiries. Obtaining Sean's business number was a piece of cake. He wrote the digits hastily on the back of a pub receipt and then punched them into his mobile.

The line rang three times before it was answered by a female voice, "Parr's Landscape Gardening."

Jim cleared his throat and gripped the steering wheel. This was his big chance. He couldn't cock this up. "Yes, hi. I'm looking to speak to Mr. Parr, please."

The woman on the other end replied, "Just a moment."

A minute passed and then a male voice came over the line, "Sean Parr speaking."

"Hi," Jim began, putting on his very best friendly tone, "Jim Fenner here. I work with Helen at Larkhall? I was looking round my backyard yesterday and I realised it could use a bit of work. So I thought of you naturally. I was wondering if we could meet for a drink? That is, if you're accepting new clients at the moment."

There was a moment's pause and a rustling of papers, then Sean answered happily, "I can certainly handle a few more at the moment. It's not a problem. When did you have in mind?"

Jim had to suppress his all-encompassing glee as he pretended to think for a second. "Well, anytime in the evening is good for me, whenever I'm not working obviously. I just finished a shift actually and I was about to head home. I don't suppose you'd be up for it now?"

Another pause and then, "Sure, why not? I've been working from home today so I've got some free time. Where did you have in mind?"

Jim made a snap decision and blurted the first place that came to mind; his favourite local. "How about The Kennington? Do you know it? It's on Camberwell New Road."

"Yeah, I've been there before. I can meet you in say, half an hour?"

"Great. I look forward to it." For added authenticity, Jim quickly added, "I don't suppose you could bring along a few sample plans of your gardening designs? Only I was hoping to get a better idea of your work before we got stuck into it."

Sean was only too happy to oblige. "Certainly. We can go over a few of my recent designs and you can tell me what you're looking for."

They hung up then and Fenner gunned the engine of his car with a bigger smirk than he'd worn in a long while. This was just too easy. Everything was going according to plan, better even than he'd hoped for. Now all he had to do was get Sean drunk and hopefully he'd sing like a canary. Jim found it difficult to believe that he wouldn't know anything useful.

On the other hand, Sean was very much looking forward to this meeting as a means to further his landscaping profits. His business had really taken off recently, allowing him to move into a flat on Abbey Road in St. John's Wood. He was delighted to be entirely self-sufficient since his split with Helen, but likewise he was conscious that he couldn't let any good business opportunities pass him by.

There was one thing about the impending meeting that gave him cause to be wary, however. This Jim Fenner was a coworker of Helen's, and that meant he would have to keep a lid on the fact that they'd split up. 'Ah well,' he thought, 'it's not as if it's a personal meeting anyway.'

Twenty-nine minutes later, Sean had successfully found a parking space and entered The Kennington wearing casual khaki trousers and a black t-shirt, with a roll of landscape designs tucked up under one arm. He scoured the tables for the face of the off-duty prison officer and found him propping up the bar with a pint of Guinness.

Sean slid onto the stool beside him and extended his hand in greeting. "Sean Parr. I don't believe we've ever been formally introduced, though I have seen you about in Larkhall."

Fenner shook his hand firmly and replied, "Jim Fenner. No, I don't believe we have. Anyway, why don't you get settled in with a drink and then we can look over those designs, eh?"

Sean ordered a pint of Foster's and unrolled his plans on the bar top. They spent a further half an hour looking over the designs he'd brought with him, with Fenner chipping in now and then with what he liked and might be interested in. Sean asked him about his backyard and Jim left no detail unshared – his garden did actually need a bit of work.

After an hour they'd both polished off several pints and Jim moved the conversation onto more personal grounds, sensing that Sean was just inebriated enough to broach the subject comfortably.

"So… how are you and Helen doing? I haven't gotten much chance to catch up with her this week. It's been hell on the wing what with closed visits and the inmates kicking up a stir. They've even got a petition going to get their open visits back. If signing it'll stop them yammering then I'm only too happy to do so."

He effected a boyish chuckle and propped his chin on his palm, coming across as genuine and sincere. Sean relaxed slightly but was careful not to give too much away. "We're doing fine. I know she's been really busy these last few weeks and I haven't been able to spend much time with her."

'Points for truth,' he thought, relieved. 'This is easier than I imagined.'

Jim hopped right in with the sympathy card. "Yeah? That must be stressful, though, having so little alone time, if you know what I mean." He wiggled his brows playfully and they shared a good laugh.

Sean shrugged his shoulders and conceded, "Yeah, it can be difficult, but sex isn't the most important thing."

Jim nodded as he waved over the bartender for a refill. "I know just what you mean. Marilyn and I have been married for a long time and we rarely get down to it anymore, what with the kids always underfoot, but I still love her. That's what's important."

He carefully neglected to mention the fact that he derived his sexual pleasure from other sources. Sean seemed like a decent bloke, after all, even if he was a bit thick, so he didn't think cheating on his wife would be a welcome topic of conversation, and it certainly wouldn't be the right way to butter him up for his next few questions.

"Anyway, I'm glad things are working out between you. For a little while there I thought…" He hesitated purposefully and then waved his hand in a dismissive manner. "Nah, never mind. It doesn't matter."

Sean looked intrigued now as the bartender filled up his pint glass. "Why? What did you think?"

Jim put on an uncomfortable expression and made a show of fidgeting. "Well, I just thought… what with her and Wade."

Sean nearly choked on a swallow of his beer and he gasped, "Christ! You know?"

Then the last of his mental faculties kicked in and he began to grow mildly suspicious. Did Jim actually know the full details of the situation or was he fishing for more information?

He covered quickly by saying, "I mean it was ten years ago. I didn't think anyone would find out they knew each other before… But I love her and I'm willing to work past any residual feelings that might be there. Helen is a professional and she wouldn't allow her work to be compromised."

At this point Sean was feeling like he deserved some kind of medal for his tactful wording and skirting around the issue. He hadn't said anything that wasn't true, after all. He did love Helen and he was willing to work it out; she was the one who couldn't be bothered. And he knew that even if she was pursuing her relationship with Nikki, she still wouldn't allow that to compromise her professional integrity.

Jim leaned back slightly and raised his brows, his look of surprise matching that which he felt inside. 'Ten years? What the hell is going on here?' he thought, baffled beyond reason. He had to think fast, though, lest he give the game away. Doing some quick calculations he worked out the obvious.

"Yeah, well… rumours do have a habit of getting around. They met in university, didn't they?"

Sean took a gulp of his beer and offered vaguely, "Well Helen was in uni, yeah, but Nikki was working as a bartender."

Jim snapped his fingers with a grin and nodded, like he'd only just remembered. "Right… And then they had some kind of falling out," he hedged, taking yet another guess and hitting the nail at just the right angle. Clearly something had happened or she wouldn't have been with Sean.

Sean looked over at Jim through his floppy fringe and his face fell. "Yeah. I'm not sure what went wrong. I think they just lost touch when she went back to uni. She told me it had been ten years since they'd seen each other when she started working at Larkhall."

Jim mulled that information over carefully, his mind working furiously to draw conclusions. Finally he offered sympathetically, "That must be a hell of a burden on you, them being so close to each other again. I mean the tension is blatantly obvious. I just thought they might've picked up where they left off."

Sean nearly choked on his drink once again. "No," he croaked unconvincingly.

'Shit,' he swore to himself, 'I've said too much already. I need to get out of here.'

Thinking quickly of an exit strategy, he put forth an apologetic smile and said, "Well, I've enjoyed the drinks and the chat, but I should be heading home. Helen will be in any minute now and I want to grab us a takeaway. I'll call you next week and we can set up a time for me to come over to yours. That way I'll be able to get a hands-on feel of the landscape and I can draw up some sketches."

Fenner nodded and acquiesced, "No problem, mate. Thanks for meeting with me."

They shook hands once more before Sean left, stopping for a takeaway just as he'd said. He'd been fibbing when he'd said he had to get home to Helen, but after leaving he'd thought that might actually be a good idea. He needed to run everything that had just happened past her.


Chapter 25

Flashback Continued, Ten Years Prior, Day Six

Nikki woke to the feeling of fingernails scraping gently down her back, coursing a trail from the space between her shoulder blades, down the dip of her spine, and finally coming to rest on her bum. She hummed in appreciation with her eyes still closed, and then she felt a soft brush of lips against her collarbone. She was lying on her side and she could feel a warm, feminine body pressed against her own. That body moved away a fraction and their curves parted as that mouth continued its journey to her sternum.

She pried her sleepy eyes open as a pang of arousal stirred below her navel. Helen's shiny brown tresses were mussed with sleep and her soft pink lips were wreaking havoc on Nikki's nervous system. She let out a shaky breath as Helen's tongue flicked against a bare nipple. They hadn't bothered to get dressed again after their shower the previous night, even though they'd done nothing more than sleep in the bed they now shared. She was grateful for this oversight now, as Helen's mouth closed around her breast unhindered.

The Scot's hands did not stay idle while she busied her mouth with suckling softly on the distended, pebbled flesh. The fingers that weren't squeezing Nikki's rear were toying with the nipple not in her mouth's possession. The taller woman let out a gasp as the Scot's teeth came into play, nibbling with just enough pressure to send shudders through her lithe frame. Helen released her breast and grinned like the Cheshire cat as she said, "Good morning."

"Mmm… yeah," Nikki agreed breathily, now in a state of absolute arousal that made forming coherent sentences a difficult feat.

Helen chuckled in that deep, throaty way that Nikki loved, and then she captured the bartender's lips in a possessive, lingering kiss, probing past her teeth to explore the contours of her mouth, twining their tongues together in a battle for dominance. The Scot scratched her fingernails back up the way they'd come and her other hand drifted slowly downward, tracing ribs and hipbones before coming to settle at the juncture of the taller woman's thighs.

Nikki broke her mouth away with a quiet moan as Helen slipped her fingers further downward, rubbing slick flesh for only a brief second before entering her swiftly. The brunette stared at her intensely as she began moving those fingers in a rhythm to match their earlier kiss. Nikki found it difficult to keep her heavy-lidded eyes open as pleasure ripped through her, but she didn't want to break such an enthralling gaze. Helen's eyes were so expressive as she studied Nikki's face in the morning light, the way all those hundreds of tiny muscles twitched and shifted according to how much pleasure she was feeling.

Suddenly Nikki found herself being rolled onto her back with a petite yet voracious woman on top of her. The Scot's fingers left her core and she felt bereft for a fleeting moment until Helen parted her thighs and moved south. Nikki flopped her head back on the pillow and could only groan unintelligibly as a hot, wet tongue snaked out to explore her womanhood. She busied her hands by threading her fingers through the shorter woman's hair, letting it slip between her fingertips and alternately massaging Helen's scalp as the Scot's mouth devoured her.

As those wonderful lips closed around her clit and sucked, she felt spasms race through her. It wasn't long before she was swept away by a powerful orgasm that left her feeling like a puddle of goo. When the tremors subsided and she came back to her senses, she found herself gazing into a pair of desire-clouded green eyes. She cupped her fingers around the back of Helen's neck and drew her in for a heady kiss, licking away the remnants of her essence from the Scot's lips and tongue, drinking in the taste of the woman she loved combined with the flavour of their lovemaking.

Strong hands gripped Helen's hips and shifted their position, bringing their mounds into direct contact. A whimper sounded from somewhere deep within the Scot as their heated flesh melded and became one. Nikki's hands rounded to her front and nudged her thighs further apart, slinging one leg over her own hip so their pulsating clits could touch. The kiss broke then as Helen released a ragged breath. Locking eyes and not blinking, they began to move as one.

Lips were parted and breaths were drawn sharply, moans echoing through the room as they built a delicious tempo between them. By the time they reached the peak of their mutual desire they were both glistening with a light sheen of sweat, the concentration and physical exertion required to keep such precise contact having exacted a toll. They collapsed into one another as they shuddered and gasped, riding the currents of climax as one being instead of two. As they came down from the natural high they remained boneless for several minutes, simply relishing in the sweet afterglow.

With her head buried in the crook of the taller woman's neck, Helen smiled and sighed contently before whispering, "I love you, Nicola."

Nikki brushed her fingers through sweaty locks of tousled brown hair and pressed a kiss to the Scot's temple, a matching smile gracing her lips as she answered, "And I love you, Helen."

It was a long time before they found the willpower to drag themselves from bed and share a shower, and even longer before they dressed – Nikki in clothes for work and Helen in the dress she'd worn the night before. They parted at the street with a lingering kiss, and then Helen took a cab back to the hotel while Nikki walked to Thirst to begin her afternoon shift.

The Saturday night crowd was already in full swing by eight o'clock when Helen and Claire entered Thirst, flanked closely by Michael and Thomas. The four of them had met up for dinner at Signor Zilli, an Italian restaurant on Dean Street. Helen had happily joked with Claire that she'd been spending a lot of time in the area that day, much to the ill-veiled displeasure of their male companions. Helen had come to the conclusion that they wouldn't be happy with the situation no matter what she said, so she did her best to ignore them instead of trying to appease them.

Now, as she eased her way through the throng of club-goers to reach the bar, dressed in a simple pair of jeans and a ruffled purple halter top, a grin lit up her face upon spotting Nikki. The bartender shot her a wink from across the room and she felt her heart palpitate wildly. She grabbed Claire's hand and giggled like a teenager as she pulled her friend toward the bar. Brandy was absent that evening, which meant Nikki and Kim were working furiously to meet the drink demands of the many patrons.

When it was their turn to be served, Helen leaned across the bar and planted a chaste kiss on Nikki's lips. The impatience of the other customers meant she couldn't linger as she'd have liked, but it was nice to even be in the same vicinity as her girlfriend, so she took what she could get without complaint. A few minutes later the group moved toward a section of seating that had just opened up, Helen with a Cosmopolitan, Claire with a Blondie, and the boys with a pitcher of draught Heineken between them.

Claire pointedly slid in beside Helen, forcing Michael to sit on her other side and away from the alluring Scot, and it was with some inexplicable trepidation that Helen allowed Thomas to sit on her other side. She didn't know what or why, but something about him made her supremely uncomfortable. She knew that Claire was sweet on him and she didn't mind his company – he seemed like a nice enough fellow – but sometimes she got the feeling that his eyes were lingering on her a bit too long.

Claire started the conversation by whinging that their school holiday was almost over, declaring that she was dreading the return to her studies. Helen snorted over the rim of her drink as her best friend rambled on about 'bloody law students' and 'professors with broomsticks up their arses'.

Michael nudged his sister's shoulder good-naturedly and reassured her, "Ah, buck up, Walker. You'll be grateful for it when you get the career you've always dreamed of. And you know dad'll be proud with both of us going into law."

Claire nodded her acceptance and teased back, "Yeah. Wouldn't want to disappoint His Honour, would we?"

The siblings shared a laugh at their father's expense then, poking fun of his esteemed reputation as a judge. Helen just shook her head as she watched them, a smile playing at the edges of her lips. She was still angry at Michael for what he'd done the other night, but she found it easier to let go of that anger when she saw him like this, joking around with his sister like he hadn't a care in the world. This was the side of him that she liked and wanted to be friends with.

Thomas had been silent throughout and only spoke up once Claire asked him about his medical studies. He revealed that he'd studied at London South Bank University for three years and had acquired a BSc Honours (Bachelor of Science) in Psychology, before moving on to the University of Oxford to do his postgraduate studies, where he was now in his third and final year studying for a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.

Afterward he would be attending the Oxford Foundation School to complete a two-year programme with the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, which would be the final training required to be chartered.

Claire listened to all of this with her jaw slackened and her eyes wide. It was painfully obvious that his professional ambition only made him more attractive in her eyes. Unfortunately for the smitten solicitor-in-training, Thomas seemed far more interested in Helen.

"So, Helen…" he asked, "what is it that you're studying at Cambridge?"

Helen flushed and fidgeted, uncomfortable again with his acute interest in her. "Well, I'm in my third year studying for a BA in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences. Then I hope to obtain a Master of Philosophy in Criminology. I'd like to work for the prison service one day, helping women to understand why they commit crimes and how to cope with the issues from which that that criminal behaviour stemmed."

"Hmm…" He nodded and seemed to be studying her even more carefully, a hint of respect flashing in his eyes. "That sounds like a good goal to me." He raised his pint glass toward her and said, "Cheers!"

She offered him a weak smile and toasted him half-heartedly, wishing she could slip away without appearing rude. Her opportunity arose when she'd finished her Cosmo. She declined his offer to get her another, opting to go to the bar herself so she could see Nikki and escape his suffocating company. She was pleased to note that Kim had kept her distance from the taller bartender all evening, only interacting with her in a professional manner.

She pushed her way through to the bar and immediately caught Nikki's eyes. The dark-haired woman approached her with a wide smile and greeted her with apology. "Hiya, darling. Sorry I haven't been able to spend any time with you. We've been absolutely packed since we opened."

Helen leaned against the bar counter and pressed her tongue to her teeth. "I know. It's okay, Nikki, really. I don't want you to start slacking off on my account and lose your job. Still, is there any chance of you taking a break in the near future? I want to dance with you."

Nikki grinned back and teased, "I think I might be able to arrange that. Wait here a sec."

The taller woman moved down to the other end of the bar and had a quick word with Kim, receiving a nod in response. She gave Helen a 'thumbs up' motion and moved around the bar to join her. "She can hold down the fort for a song or two, but then I've got to get back to work."

"That'll do." Helen leaned up and sealed her mouth over Nikki's for a slow, languid kiss, gripping both sides of her black collared shirt to pull her closer.

When it became necessary to breathe they broke apart, only to get lost in a different kind of embrace as they moved onto the dance floor and wrapped their arms around each other. Helen closed her eyes and rested her cheek against Nikki's shoulder as a slow number came on and resonated through the speakers. The music was soft and sensual and made her wish they were back at Nikki's flat, rolling around in bed with the freedom to touch each other intimately.

All too soon the moment was over and Nikki had to get back to work. Helen ordered a second Cosmopolitan before rejoining her friends at their table. As soon as she sat down Thomas pinned her with a look and offered his opinion, unbidden, "I don't understand it personally. You know, the whole lesbian thing. Surely you'd rather have a man?"

Helen felt all of the enjoyment she'd gained from dancing with Nikki drain away as he spoke. Anger and defensiveness were her first reactions as she answered, "No, I wouldn't. For your information, Nikki makes me happier than any of the men I've dated. Just because she doesn't have a penis doesn't mean she doesn't satisfy me sexually, or that she doesn't fuck me. Because let me tell you, she does."

Three pairs of eyes landed on her with evident shock. Michael blushed and coughed before looking away. Claire snickered slightly and busied herself with her drink. Thomas looked a bit like a goldfish out of water as he floundered for something to say in response. Finally he settled on asking, quite rudely, "Have you ever actually had sex with a man?"

Helen huffed and was tempted to snap his head off. "No, and I'm beginning to be very grateful for that decision." The barbed retort wasn't nearly as subtle as she'd have liked, but it did the trick.

Thomas looked away with his jaw clenched and a red hue creeping up his neck. No one spoke for several minutes and the tension could've been cut with a knife. Helen finished her drink quickly and excused herself with all the grace she could muster, promising Claire she'd see her the next day and spend some time with her.

She wandered back to the bar to tell Nikki that she was leaving early, only to have the bartender press a key into her palm with the suggestion that she pack an overnight bag and wait at her flat. Helen happily acquiesced and left her with a kiss. As she stepped outside into the onslaught of rain and wind, she breathed a heavy sigh of relief and allowed the torrents of rainwater to drench her skin and cleanse her soul.


Chapter 26

The morning of Monica's court date, and the morning after her suicide attempt, the older inmate woke feeling very haggard, and yet strangely hopeful. She dressed herself for court before wandering down to get a spot of breakfast. Her nerves were bubbling up and threatening to rise in her throat, but she forced herself to calm down and remain hopeful.

Sometime during the nearly-sleepless night before, she had come to the realisation that she wanted to be alive. There were still things she had to do and see in this world, and people she had to help. She was more determined than ever to get out of this place now, so she could set up a halfway house in honour of her son. After filling her breakfast tray she joined Nikki at their usual table.

"Hello, Nikki." She sounded wary and weary as she greeted the lifer; she wasn't sure Nikki's reaction to her this morning would be a positive one.

"How you feeling?" Nikki surprised the older inmate by being compassionate where she should've been resentful.

Monica sighed and placed her palms down on the table, knowing she should apologise for her behaviour . "I'm sorry to have put you and the Julies to so much trouble."

Nikki tilted her head and asked with quiet intrigue, "Why didn't you do it after lockup if you didn't mean to be saved?"

Monica shrugged and fumbled for a response, realising she hadn't actually done much thinking about her reasoning to date. Finally she took a gamble on her heretofore unconsidered thought process, "I started worrying they might do a last minute cell-search or, if I didn't get on with it, I'd lose my nerve. I don't know what to say."

The first crack appeared in Nikki's calm façade then, "Well, how about starting with, 'I feel bloody ashamed of myself'? Look around you, Monica. Look at all these women stuck in here. They'd give anything to be in your shoes today. Look at the Julies. Julie J, she's lost her three kids to that bastard husband. Zandra, you've seen what hell she's been through: beaten up, dumped by her fiancé. What a great start for a baby. Denny, she's had her whole life wasted; she'll be in and out of here forever."

Frowning now, Nikki continued, imploring the older woman to stop and think about what she was saying, to really absorb the meaning behind it, "And me, Monica. Do you know what it feels like having to face another ten years of this? But we all struggle along, trying to make the best of things. And when someone like you says you'd rather be dead than free… I'm sorry, everyone who gets out of here gets out for all of us."

She paused for a second then continued, "Anyway," she plucked up a handmade card from the chair beside her, "the girls wanted to give you this… a good luck card."

Monica took the card from the outstretched hand with shaky fingers, tears welling up in her eyes. "Oh, Nikki," she mumbled, her voice holding a tremor of emotion.

"Shut up, you'll spoil your face." The lifer smiled weakly at her friend, possessing no more energy for scolding, and knowing from the emotion written across her face that she was considering Nikki's words; she wasn't discarding them with disregard.

Helen approached then and addressed the older woman, "Monica, are you ready?"

Monica nodded and stood up to follow the wing governor. Nikki smiled once more and said, "Stay safe."

Julie J pulled Monica into a tight farewell embrace as Helen turned her attention to the dark-haired lifer. "Nikki… look, don't think that I condone what you did last night, but I am grateful."

Inexplicable anger swelled in Nikki's chest at this and she found herself retorting, "Oh, don't bother," before she stood and walked off, dismissing Helen's thanks and leaving her standing there, confused and hurt.

After everyone had finished a hearty round of well-wishing, Monica and Helen headed through the gates of Larkhall, and then made way for the Court of Appeal in one of the standard prison cars.

A few hours later on the G1 landing, Nikki glanced at the television and realised that the results of Monica's appeal were being aired live.

"Julies! Shh, everyone, this is it!"

She rushed to the TV and turned up the volume as most of the wing gathered round.

A newsreader promptly began the announcement, "In the Court of Appeal today, Monica Lindsay, the former financial adviser to businessman John Law, was freed from prison." A round of loud cheers broke out amongst the inmates upon hearing this. "She served seven months of a five-year sentence, imposed for laundering stolen funds on Law's instructions."

The video feed cut from the newsreader to the courthouse steps, where Monica was standing with a slew of reporters' cameras and microphones in her face, Helen and the court officials standing on the steps behind her.

"Look, it's our Monica!" Zandra exclaimed.

The camera panned to a close-up of Monica's face and the wing remained deathly silent as she began speaking, "I'd like to make a brief statement. Before I went to prison, I imagined that criminal women were monsters or lunatics. I was wrong. Most of the women I met, and without whom I could not have survived, are warm, intelligent, funny…"

"Many will have been separated from their children," she continued, "Some, like me, will lose them forever. Many are drug addicts who need rehabilitation. Many women are the victims of abusive men. They need love and support, not strip searching and bullying. In my opinion… prison, as punishment, only makes bad situations worse. Thank you."

She finished gracefully and turned to hug Helen on camera, as another bout of cheering, hollering, and applause broke out amongst the residents of G-Wing. By this point Nikki had tears coursing tracks down her cheeks. She was indescribably happy that her friend had been released; she could do so much more good on the outside and she deserved the chance to live again.

She was also immensely touched by the speech Monica had made. It illuminated many of the problems incarcerated women faced daily, and would hopefully garner attention from people who could make a difference; people like Helen. She found herself being swept into a hug by Julie J and she returned the embrace wholeheartedly, crying tears of relief and joy.

When Helen returned to the oppressive walls of Larkhall it was with a bounce in her step, and a feeling of accomplishment that she hadn't yet had during her time working there. Seeing Monica go free had lifted her spirits tremendously, and with it had renewed her hope that she would one day see the same happen for Nikki. Even the talk she'd had with Sean last night wasn't enough to dampen her outlook, for the time being.

She would have to worry about it later, she knew, because she was certain that Fenner wouldn't let this information lie idle. She'd been utterly surprised when Sean had shown up on her doorstep with a takeaway curry, claiming he needed to speak with her urgently, but that surprise had paled in comparison to the shock that had reverberated through her when he'd unveiled his news. She'd honestly felt, in that moment, that she could've happily strangled the life out of him.

Now, back in her office, she settled into her chair and pushed those thoughts aside, still smiling like a fool as she picked up her desk telephone. She rang down to the wing and asked Dominic to escort Nikki Wade to her office, saying she needed to speak with her about her appeal – which was only a small fib, as she did intend to talk to Nikki about that, among other things.

She'd had a lingering uneasy feeling in her stomach since their disagreement the night before, only solidified by their further altercation that morning. It was the only thing capable of dragging her mood down at the moment and she felt the need to clear the air between them. She couldn't stand having tension between her and Nikki, or knowing that the lifer was upset with her, no matter how unreasonable that upset was; by all rights it should be she who was angry.

Not even a second after she'd cradled the receiver, her office door flew open and Fenner barged in, wearing a smug, triumphant, shit-eating sneer and looking like he was about to bring her world crashing down around her. For a fleeting moment she wondered how he'd gotten in, and then she remembered that her secretary, Sheila, was on her lunch break.

'Great,' thought Helen, 'Just what I need to ruin a perfectly good day.'

Her look spoke volumes of supreme impatience as she stared up at him, but his expression did not waver from that of the confident glee he was projecting.

"Good afternoon, Helen." His tone told her that he thought it was, indeed, a very good afternoon.

'Bastard,' her mind spat viciously.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Fenner?" She decided to go the formal route and ignore his taunting leer.

"Quite a bit, actually." He stuffed his hands in his pockets and appeared to be rocking merrily on the balls of his feet as he replied. "See… I had the most interesting chat over a few pints last night."

She cut him off immediately, "Yes, Sean told me he'd met with you to discuss gardening designs. He also told me that you were taking a fair bit of interest in my personal life. Not that it should concern you, Jim."

Fenner's grin grew even more wicked then. "Oh, but it does, Helen… You can only imagine my surprise to find out about your past with Wade. Naughty. Your little boyfriend was only too happy to sing like a canary after a few beers, though he didn't tell me anything useful in regards to your current affair with her. Keeping him in the dark, are we?"

Helen's glare turned steely as she spoke, her tone frigid and unaccommodating, "There's nothing to keep in the dark, Jim, and I don't like your tone. You'd do well not to threaten me."

Fenner chuckled then, a deep, hearty laughter than rose from his belly. "That's where you're wrong, Helen. Even if I can't prove it, I know you've been carrying on with Wade these last few months. I'm even willing to let it go… on one condition."

He withdrew his hands from his pockets and leaned forward over the edge of the desk, bracing his palms on the wooden surface. "You resign, effective immediately, and hand over the job to me, and I'll forget I ever knew anything about you and Wade. If you don't, I'll make sure your career is finished. Even without proof I can put a heavy stain on your character. I've got friends in high places, Helen, people who could make sure you never work for the prison service again."

Helen's entire being trembled with rage, her fists balled so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. Through clenched teeth she hissed, "Just try it, Jim. I'll be sure to return the favour with what I know about Shell Dockley and Rachel Hicks."

That devious leer reappeared as he declared, confidently and quite jovially, "No one'll believe you, Helen. I've got twelve years of service without a blemish on my record. What have you got? A miscarriage, a suicide, a condemning letter to The Guardian newspaper about drugs on the wing… You don't stand a chance, love."

She stood from her chair and was around the desk in a flash, her face only inches from his as she vowed, "If I leave this prison, I'm going to drag you all the way down with me."

Fenner bit his lip and studied her in silence for a few, long, excruciatingly tense seconds, and then a dangerous glint appeared in his eyes. "Do you know what your problem is, Helen?"

He grabbed her shoulders quicker than she could blink and forced her back against the edge of the desk, pinning her body with his larger frame. His voice was low and menacing as he growled, "You don't know your place, you little bitch."

Terror shone clear as day in her eyes and for one horrifying second she froze completely, transported to another time and place and rendered helpless by the onslaught of gruesome memories. She was snapped viciously back to reality by the sound of him undoing his belt buckle, but before she could scream he'd clamped a hand down over her mouth.

She bit into the fleshy edge of his palm but that only seemed to drive him further. He unfastened the button and zip of his pants then roughly pushed up the edge of her skirt with one hand, keeping the other firmly pressed to her mouth, muffled screams and sobs echoing throughout the room. She struggled against him with everything that she had, but he was bigger and stronger, and she felt the suffocating weight of him move on top of her as the edge of the desk bit into her lower back.

He'd just managed to tug down her knickers and move into position when the door flew open behind them. He spun around quickly, releasing Helen as he did so, and he was horrified to find Nikki standing in the doorway with Dominic just over her shoulder. Everything that happened next went by so quickly he could hardly focus.

Nikki had been sitting in her cell, reading and smoking a cigarette to pass the time, when Dominic had knocked on the doorframe and told her that she was being summoned to Miss Stewart's office. Apprehension and elation warred within her as she stood to follow him. Was she about to get a royal bollocking or did Helen want to make things up with her? She could only hope for the latter result, as she wasn't in the mood to ruin such a happy day by fighting with her girlfriend.

They'd walked through the wing and the hallways, and the many gates barring their passage, at an unhurried pace with a comfortable silence between them. Nikki found she didn't dislike Mr. McAllister and so she made a special effort to be civil, even friendly at times, with the young PO whenever she saw him. He was one of the few good ones and she would prefer his company any day to that of Fenner or Bodybag.

As they'd approached the Wing Governor's office, she'd become aware of a series of strange sounds permeating the otherwise silent atmosphere. It took her a moment to realise she was hearing muffled screams from the other side of the wall. For a few hazy seconds there had only been an inkling, a subconscious nudge pointing in the direction of understanding. As the cobwebs of confusion cleared, however, they were replaced with a wave of terror.

Before Dominic had time to reach the same conclusion, she burst through the office door and froze in her tracks. Looming over the desk, with his back turned to her, was Jim Fenner, and underneath him was the struggling, frightened form of Helen Stewart, her skirt pushed up around her hips and tears streaking down her face. When asked later what had moved her to take her chosen course of action, she wouldn't be able to explain it as anything other than primal instinct.

As Fenner turned to face her with his trousers undone, consequently releasing his grip on his terrified hostage, she was on him in a flash. She threw her weight fully against him and sent him toppling down beneath her, too stunned to react straightaway as he sprawled across the floor. Somewhere in the corner of her mind she registered the sound of someone retching and sobbing, but that was outweighed by the undiluted rage coursing through her veins.

She rained blow after blow against Fenner's face, managing to bloody it before he came to his senses and started fighting back. He managed to throw her off of him and reverse their positions, pinning her down as his hands closed around her throat. Flecks of black and white danced in front of her eyes as he strangled the oxygen from her lungs, and then he released her suddenly, without warning. She drew in ragged gasps of air and tried to figure out what was going on, but the room was spinning horribly, making her feel sick and dizzy.

Dominic had remained still in the doorway, watching the scene play out in front of him like the script of a horror movie; Helen crumpling to the floor and being sick on the carpet; Nikki tackling Jim and punching him; Jim throwing her off and squeezing his hands around her neck… He forced himself to move then, realising that the consequences would be dire if he didn't act quickly. He came up behind Fenner and locked him in a chokehold, thanking the prison service for his defensive training as the larger, heavier man slipped into unconsciousness and slumped back against him.

He let Jim's body slide down to the carpet as he moved to check on Nikki first, making sure she was able to breathe unaided and was largely unharmed. When he got a faint nod and a whispered, "Helen…" from the lifer, he moved over to the sobbing wing governor and attempted to check her injuries. She let out a frightened yelp as he came near her, not yet registering who he was, still stuck in her fearful frame of mind. He backed away slowly with his hands raised at his sides, a sign of surrender, and she calmed marginally, though she wasn't really seeing him. It was only some baser instinct that told her he'd moved away.

Realising he wasn't going to be able to assess her just now, and that standing there doing nothing wasn't helping the situation, he grabbed his radio from his belt and called for back-up, shakily stating the nature of the emergency and choking over the phrase 'attempted rape'. Nikki had managed to get her breathing steady at this point but tuned out his words, her focus only on one person in the room: Helen. She crawled across the carpet to her scared girlfriend and called out to her in a soothing tone, hoping that the familiar sound of her voice would be enough to calm the hysterical woman.

She was mindless of Dominic's presence in the room and didn't censor her words as she softly said, "Helen… darling… it's me… Nikki… you're safe now… he can't hurt you…"

She scooted closer to the crying woman and slowly, carefully, placed a hand on her shoulder, still rambling on as she did, "Helen, don't be scared. It's Nikki… your Nikki. He can't hurt you, sweetheart. I'm here."

Helen flinched slightly at her touch but didn't push her away. The sound of her lover's voice was slowly breaking in through her hysteria and she found herself calming down. She blinked blearily at Nikki through the tears still swimming in her eyes, but she recognised that face, even blurry as it was. She let out a choked sob and gasped, "Nikki…"

The lifer's own tears were swelling uncontrollably as she observed the state of her girlfriend. Her heart was beating wildly and she found it difficult to breathe, realising she'd only just gotten there in time. She crushed Helen to her in an awkward hug, both of them still kneeling on the carpet, and she ran her hands repeatedly over the back of Helen's head, stroking the silky blonde bob and whispering nonsense into her ear.

Her voice was uneven and frequently cracked by emotion as she spoke through the torrent of tears cascading down her cheeks. "God I'm s-sorry, Helen. I love you. I'm so sorry. I love you s-so much. Forgive me, Helen. I should've b-been here s-sooner."

Dominic watched the two women as they cried and held each other tightly, feeling like an intrusive spectator on such a private moment. 'This is the aftermath,' he thought, still unable to fully comprehend what had gone on here, what he'd seen with his own two eyes. He couldn't believe that Jim would do something so horrible, but the evidence lay right in front of him, undeniable.

Three POs came barreling through the door in quick succession and scanned the room. Two of the burly men grabbed hold of the unconscious form of Fenner and hauled him up from the floor. The third came over to talk to Dominic in a hushed whisper, having seen the state of the women by the desk and not wanting to startle them. Dominic quickly relayed what had happened, starting from the call he'd gotten from Helen and finishing with the chokehold he'd used to incapacitate Jim.

While this was happening, Nikki shifted the angle of her body to conceal Helen's semi-nudity from the prison officers. "Helen, I need your help to get you fixed up," she whispered.

She hooked her fingers through the sides of the wing governor's underwear and pulled them gently up her legs, murmuring encouragement to the rattled woman, "Come on, baby, lift up so I can get these on you. That's it, nice and easy."

She smoothed the rumpled skirt over the Scot's thighs and said, "There you go. Can't even tell now." She used her thumbs to brush away the tear tracks on her lover's cheeks, and Helen offered her a weak, watery smile in thanks.

Nikki pressed a quick, chaste kiss to Helen's forehead then stood and helped her up with both hands. The Scot was unsteady on her legs at first and had to lean heavily on the dark-haired woman, but eventually she got her bearings and pulled herself together.

Fenner was woken up and led from the room in handcuffs by two of the POs, while the third stayed behind to talk to Helen and Nikki. The police had been called and would be arriving shortly to take statements from everyone, but for now all they could do was wait. Dominic thoughtfully had some tea and biscuits brought up to the office, and then they sat in silence until one DC Williams arrived and introduced himself.


Chapter 27

Just over an hour after the police arrived, DC Blake Williams and DS Cassandra Edwards had managed to get statements from the victim and the two main witnesses. It had been a tense process in the beginning, as communication between the prison officers and police had been sketchy at best. They'd been told there was an attempted rape on one of the wing governors and that an inmate and prison officer had been injured, but not much else.

When they'd first sat down, Dominic in one room and Nikki in another, Helen still waiting her turn with PO Di Barker trying to comfort her, the police had drawn their own conclusions.

"How did you and Mr. Fenner happen to be in the right place at the right time to save Miss Stewart?" DC Williams questioned.

Dominic could only stare at him like he'd grown three heads. Then the penny dropped. "Nikki wasn't trying to rape Helen!" he exclaimed. "Jim was! It's damn lucky that I was escorting Nikki to see her or Christ knows what would've happened."

DC Williams looked back at him with no small amount of shock and took a moment to get his bearings. "So you're saying that Miss Wade assaulted Mr. Fenner in the course of protecting Miss Stewart?"

"Yes," Dominic replied, his tone that of impatience and righteous anger.

DC Williams folded his hands and said, "I just need to make sure I have all the facts, Mr. McAllister. We weren't told who had done the attacking. You'll understand my surprise to learn that a prison officer was in such heinous breach of the law and his moral compass. I've had the pleasure of working with Mr. Fenner in the past and this doesn't seem like the kind of thing he would do. Have you any idea what drove him to it?"

Dominic could only shake his head hopelessly. He was beyond being able to understand what motivated Jim to do the things he did.

In the next room over, DS Edwards was proving to be a bit more sympathetic than her male counterpart. She, too, had jumped to conclusions based on the vague information given, but they were different conclusions than those of her colleague.

"Miss Wade," she began, only to be interrupted by Nikki.

"Call me Nikki. Please."

The DS canted her head with a faint smile of acknowledgement and continued, "Nikki, what brought you and Mr. McAllister to Miss Stewart's office at the time of her attack?"

Nikki didn't hesitate in answering, "Helen, Miss Stewart," she corrected herself, "summoned me to discuss my appeal. I don't know what's happened yet, before you ask, because we didn't exactly get the chance to talk about it."

"When we got to the corridor outside the office… I heard these noises. I couldn't figure out what they were at first, but then something clicked. I remembered them from… from the attack on Trish." She drew a shaky breath.

The DS scribbled down a few notes and Nikki clenched her fists on the tabletop, jamming her short fingernails into her palms as her eyes became watery. Coloured memory snaps were flashing before her eyes as she sat there, trying her best to describe the scene to someone who hadn't been present to witness the horror firsthand.

"Anyway, I rushed in to see what was happening. I wasn't prepared, though, no way I could be. Not for that. Not again… It was horrible." Twin tear tracks now lined her cheeks as she struggled to speak through her rising emotions.

"He had her pinned against the desk… with his hand over her mouth… I could tell she was terrified." Nikki sniffled and forced herself to continue, casting a grateful half-smile to the DS as she pushed a packet of tissues across the table.

The lifer dabbed at her eyes as she spoke mutedly, "He turned to face me and I could see that his trousers were undone. And… and her skirt was pushed up. He had her… her… he was about to…" She choked over her words then and found she couldn't say the word 'rape' aloud.

The DS nodded her understanding and jotted something down on her notepad. Her sympathetic blue gaze met Nikki's troubled brown eyes and she did her best to reassure the woman, "It's okay, Nikki. Just take it in your own time."

It took a further fifteen minutes for Nikki to get everything out, but then the interview was over and she was told she was free to return to the wing, that an officer would be ready to take her. She'd begged to see Helen again but had gently been rebuffed, and told that it was now Miss Stewart's turn to be interviewed so she would have to wait a while.

She found PO Barker in the hallway waiting and cursed her luck for getting Dippy Di, as some of the inmates and officers called her behind her back. The woman seemed nice enough but it always appeared that she was playing with only half a deck. As they were walking back toward G-Wing, Stubberfield let himself into the room where Helen was waiting to be interviewed.

Simon took in his wing governor's appearance and let out a heavy sigh. "Can you tell me what's going on, Helen? I've just heard some extremely unsavoury allegations about Jim Fenner, and apparently he's been escorted from the prison in handcuffs. Tell me this is all some kind of misunderstanding."

Helen looked up at her boss and found it very difficult to kerb her mounting anger at his ignorance. "Misunderstanding?!?" she barked. "Oh, I'd say there's been a big bloody misunderstanding, all right! You've continued to let that bastard get away with abusing his position for years now, always turning a blind eye, and now look what's happened. Look at me!"

Her voice was near hysterical as she lifted her skirt and forced him to look at the bruises on her legs. He flinched visibly and turned away, walking over to a window that overlooked the prison yard. The inmates were milling about on afternoon association, some doing yard work while others simply relaxed. He didn't know how to respond so he remained silent, mulling everything over in his head.

It was true that many people had had reason to complain about Fenner's behaviour over the years, but none of the complaints had ever received due attention. He'd always considered Jim to be one of his best officers, and so had been disinclined to believe he could behave in such a manner. Now, however, it seemed that faith and trust had been severely misplaced. He couldn't even begin to think how he was going to deal with the backlash from Area Management and the storm from the press that was sure to kick up over this.

His thoughts were interrupted when the door opened and DS Edwards appeared. "Miss Stewart, I'm ready to take your statement now. If you'll come with me, please."

Helen nodded her assent and followed the detective sergeant from the room, only too happy to get away from her boss.

"It's shit, I tell you!" Jim raged at the DI who was holding him in custody, a vein throbbing prominently in his forehead. He'd been led away from the prison in handcuffs and was now residing in an interview room at Albany Street Police Station.

"She was begging for it! She's just changed her mind now so she can carry on with that dyke," he spat. "They've been at it for months. Just ask her boyfriend, Sean Parr. That's who you need to speak to, not me."

DI Roger Acker blinked across the interview table at the enraged prison officer. He'd gotten a call from his DS a few minutes prior, letting him know that she and her colleague had finished getting statements and were on their way back to the station. She'd also painted him a portrait of events that was somewhere between a watercolour and an ink sketch.

He'd begun his interview process with Jim Fenner immediately following that call, in the hope that they could get this taken care of quickly and get him booked in for the weekend at HMP Pentonville, a closed Category B&C prison about ten minutes up the road. It was likely that, because of his status as a prison officer, Jim would be allowed to see the judge first thing on Monday morning, but until then he would have to reside there in protective custody.

Feeling his patience with the pompous, obdurate man wearing thin, DI Acker folded his hands and pinned him with a stare. "Really?" he asked, his tone clearly sceptical. "Because Miss Stewart claims you were attempting to force yourself on her, and that you were only prevented from doing so by the arrival of Miss Wade and Mr. McAllister. Their statements strongly corroborate this series of events."

Fenner fumed silently across the table for a long while before he spoke, teeth gritted, "I'm telling you, that cow is having an affair with Wade. She's only saying that to cover it up, 'cause I threatened to tell Stubberfield, didn't I? She was trying to convince me otherwise when those two arrived."

Acker shook his head in disbelief and enquired, "So you're claiming that Helen Stewart was trying to seduce you out of blackmailing her. Is that correct?"

The vein in Fenner's forehead twitched a little more at this and he clenched and unclenched his fists rhythmically, his brain working furiously to try and find a way around that statement. No matter what he said, the detective inspector seemed determined to take his version of events in a negative light. How the hell was he going to get out of this? He was calling himself every kind of bloody idiot as he drew a few deep breaths, willing his heart rate to slow and his temples to stop pounding.

"I wasn't blackmailing her," Fenner finally said. "I was only doing what I felt was right. I have a lot of respect for Simon and I didn't want him to continue to employ someone who was so grievously abusing her position in the prison. I have twelve years' experience in the service and surely I would be a better candidate for wing governor than that little tart."

Acker raised a brow at this and started making notes on a piece of paper. When he looked up again, there was a glint of condescension shining in his eyes. "Well, I can't speak for Mr. Stubberfield, but if I were in his position I wouldn't want to entrust someone like you with a wing full of women. It's becoming quite clear to me that it is you who have abused your position in the prison service. Now, if that's all you've got to say on the matter, I think this interview has reached its conclusion."

Acker stood and gathered his papers together, leaving Fenner sitting there gaping like a goldfish, unable to get a grasp on intelligent speech as he ruminated on the unfairness of the situation. Acker left the room and went to confer with his colleagues, who should've arrived by now to hand in their reports from Larkhall. A PC took his place in the interview room and led Fenner out to a waiting police car in preparation for the journey to HMP Pentonville.

'Bloody hell,' thought Jim, 'I'm bloody well finished now.'

It was only after the police officers left that Helen allowed herself to relax. Her relief was short-lived, however, as she began running through the events of the last few hours in her mind. A new kind of dread filled her as she realised that her employees were likely to have seen the closeness between her and Nikki.

'Shit… How much did they see?' she thought desperately.

Unbeknownst to the harried wing governor, this was actually unfolding as a topic of conversation several floors below her.

Dominic McAllister was sitting down for a cup of tea with the three POs who'd come to his aid earlier. Larry, Gavin, and Mike were good men, good officers, but in this instance he found himself cursing the fact that he couldn't credit them with being overly thick or oblivious.

"Bloody awful day," Gavin offered conversationally. The others nodded their heads in agreement.

Dominic rubbed a hand over his forehead and muttered, "I still can't believe it. I mean, I didn't always agree with the decisions Jim made on the wing, and I knew he didn't like Helen, but this is just… madness."

The other officers nodded sympathetically and Mike clapped him on the shoulder. "None of us were expecting it, mate. You did everything you could, though. Probably saved them both."

"Speaking of," Larry interjected, "am I the only one who noticed something happening there, between Miss Stewart and that inmate?"

"Nikki Wade," Gavin added helpfully.

Larry nodded, "Yeah, Nikki… that's right. I heard about her case when she was sentenced but I never met her before. To be honest, I always thought she deserved what she got. Now I'm not so sure…"

There was an awkward pause as everyone contemplated this statement, then Larry continued, "Anyway, it seemed to me that those two were awfully close. I mean… Miss Stewart looked really shaken up by the whole thing and she wouldn't let any of us near her. Maybe I'm imagining things."

Gavin and Mike nodded their heads in agreement, but Dominic cut off whatever the PO might have said next. "I didn't see anything like that," he insisted firmly. "To me it just seemed like… Well, after being attacked by Jim, Helen wouldn't really wanted a man crowding her, would she? Nikki's a woman and she rescued her from the attack. That's got to have earned her a fair bit of trust in Helen's eyes."

The other three men thought over this silently, sipping at their tea, and the subject wasn't broached again. Dominic inwardly heaved a sigh of relief and thought, 'Nice save, Dom.'

Helen made her way onto the wing during tea time and was instantly met with an ear-splitting round of applause. Her stomach flipped when she caught sight of Nikki standing by the servery window, chatting to the two Julies. The dark-haired lifer turned to look at her and gave her a silent nod in greeting, a smile curling up the edges of her mouth. That smile said everything. It spoke of hope and redemption. The events of that afternoon had, in the lifer's mind, rectified some of the guilt she'd been clinging to from years past.

Helen cleared her throat and wrung her hands together. "I'd just like to make a small announcement," she said over the raucous. The women quieted and she continued, "Now I'm sure you've all heard what happened by now, or some version of it at least. I'd just like to say…"

Tears welled up in her eyes and she swallowed over a lump in her throat. "I'd just like to say thank you to Nikki Wade and Dominic McAllister. They both deserve a tremendous amount of respect for what they did this afternoon. I'd also like to request that anyone who has a complaint about Mr. Fenner come forward and report it to the police. That's all, thank you."

She looked directly into Nikki's eyes as she said the last bit and then her gaze flicked over to Dominic, who was standing just outside the Officers Room next to Di and Karen. She made her way over to the POs and reiterated quietly, "Thank you, Dominic. You saved us both."

She knew that he would understand the depth of meaning left unspoken in her words, how grateful she was to him for saving Nikki's life. He offered her a genuine smile and tried to downplay the seriousness of the situation, "No problem, Helen. All in a day's work."

She laughed lightly, surprising herself, and she touched his forearm for a brief second. Karen caught her attention by saying, "I'm really glad you're okay, Helen. I've known Jim for years and I never thought…" She trailed off uncomfortably, then smiled and continued, "Anyway, I'm just glad you're okay."

"Thanks, Karen." Helen offered her a watery smile, overcome by the amount of support she was receiving from her employees and inmates alike. Finally the clouds were lifting overhead and the sun was shining through. Jim Fenner would hopefully never again be a problem for any woman.

She left the wing and packed up her briefcase to take an early evening, having already cleared it with a distraught Simon, who was now busy fielding calls from Area Management. She was eager to get home and take a hot shower, followed by downing a bottle of wine. She knew she should call Claire to fill her in on everything that had happened – she would need legal representation, after all – but just for now she wanted to relax and clear her mind.


Chapter 28

It was already the beginning of October and the leaves had begun changing colours, from lush, vibrant greens to rich golds, reds, and oranges. Sean sipped at a steaming mug of coffee as he sat in his tiny backyard, which was walled in on three sides and had cobblestone flooring. It wasn't much of a garden, and as a gardener that was slightly disappointing, but the inside of the flat more than made up for the lack of exterior space.

The sliding glass door opened behind him and he turned his head to see Vivian Caulfield, his secretary of the last two months, standing there looking adorably sleep-rumpled with a cup of coffee in her hands. "Morning!" she chirped, making an effort to sound more lively than she felt.

They'd been up late into the night sorting through business papers and client contracts, and eventually she'd fallen asleep on the cushy sofa in the lounge. While he thought she was cute and he found himself growing to like her more and more, he was hesitant to start up something new so soon after Helen. For now he was content to let their involvement remain at light-hearted flirting.

"Morning," he answered quietly, finishing off his coffee in one gulp. He stood and stretched, then walked past her into the flat. He was just about to refill his cup when a knock sounded on the front door. The digital clock on the coffeemaker showed it was 9:30am, so he knew he didn't have any business meetings he'd forgotten about. The earliest he ever scheduled them was 10:30.

Curiosity piqued, he went to answer the door and found an attractive policewoman standing there. Doing his best not to stare at her bright ginger hair and slender frame, accentuated by the uniform she wore, he pasted on a smile and asked, "Can I help you?"

The policewoman smiled back and said, "Yes, I'm looking for Sean Parr. This is his address, correct?"

Sean nodded and held out his hand. "Sean Parr, and yes it is."

She accepted his hand and introduced herself, "Detective Sergeant Cassandra Edwards."

They shook hands formally and then he stepped aside, silently inviting her to enter his home. He knew he hadn't broken any laws since his pot-smoking days in university, so he wondered why on earth she was here. 'It must have to do with someone I know,' he thought.

But that thought only kicked up more questions, so he decided to put a pause on speculation until she'd stated her reason for stopping by. He offered her some coffee and she gladly accepted, and then they moved to sit in the lounge. When Vivian came back inside, she eyed the pair with evident surprise and then quickly made herself scarce, collecting her handbag and claiming she would return later after she'd had a shower and some breakfast.

"So, what's this all about then?" Sean asked.

The DS cleared her throat and started with, "I just need to ask you a few questions about your girlfriend, Helen Stewart? It's in regards to her work for the prison service."

Even as she said this, Cassandra had her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Having tracked down his address that morning with the intent to question him, she'd discovered that he and Helen no longer lived together. Furthermore, the blue-eyed blonde who'd just left definitely wasn't Helen Stewart.

Sean fidgeted uncomfortably and mumbled, "Ex-girlfriend, actually. We haven't made a big fuss over it, though. She likes to keep her private life separate from her work."

Cassandra nodded and scratched a few notes onto the pad of paper she was holding. "What can you tell me about her relationship with Nicola Wade?"

Sean choked on a gulp of coffee and asked, "Excuse me?"

The DS arched an eyebrow and repeated, "Her relationship… with Nikki Wade. What do you know about it?"

Sean shook his head slowly and blinked a few times, wondering what the fuck was going on here. Then he answered, "As far as I know, she doesn't have a relationship with anyone called Nikki Wade."

The DS hummed speculatively and scribbled another note down. She pursed her lips in thought and then asked, "Why do you think Jim Fenner would tell the police to speak to you about it?"

The truth of the situation was coming out now, bit by bit, and a blurry watercolour was beginning to form in Sean's mind, but he was still clueless as to the whole picture.

"I have no idea, Ms. Edwards. I was only properly introduced to Mr. Fenner last week, when we met for a drink to discuss gardening plans. I was under the impression he wanted to become a client of mine."

He pretended to think for a moment and then said, "Actually, he did seem a bit obsessed with Helen's personal life. Kept asking me questions. It was a bit odd, if you ask me."

DS Edwards jotted down another note and then asked, "Do you know what happened yesterday afternoon at HMP Larkhall, Mr. Parr?"

Sean's utter befuddlement was clear on his face. "No… I don't even know why you're here. I don't see how any of this has anything to do with me."

Cassandra bit her lower lip and realised she couldn't divulge too much information about the case, no matter how confused he was. If Helen hadn't told him or didn't want him to know, then telling him would be a strict violation of confidence.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss the details with you, but you should talk to your ex-girlfriend, Mr. Parr. She can tell you more about what's going on than I can. The reason I came here is because we have Mr. Fenner in custody and he seemed to be under the impression that you would support some of his allegations against Miss Stewart. That not being the case, there's nothing more I have to ask you, so I'll wish you a good day now."

She stood and shook his hand politely once more before letting herself out. She couldn't help feeling secretly pleased that Fenner's character witness had just dug him into an even deeper hole. The man was a creep and a disgrace to law enforcement officers everywhere. She wouldn't be sorry to see him go down for what he'd done.

By contrast that Saturday morning, Helen was having a much needed lie-in. She finally dragged herself out of bed around 11am, first taking a shower before she wandered into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. While it was brewing, she used the home phone line that was strategically placed in the kitchen, with the other set residing in the lounge, to call her best friend.

When Claire didn't answer her home number and it went to the answerphone, Helen frowned and dialled her mobile, wondering if she'd gone into work to put in a few extra hours. This time the solicitor answered on the fourth ring, sounding very sleepy and only half-coherent. Helen blushed all the way down to her toes when she heard a female voice in the background, realising that Claire must've spent the night with Trisha.

Clearing her throat and trying her best not to stammer, Helen quickly said, "Hi, Claire. If it's a bad time I can call you back later."

Helen heard a muffled laugh in the background before Claire answered her, "No, Helen, it's fine. Really. What's up?"

Helen sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "I was actually hoping you'd be able to make it over for lunch. I need to talk to you about something. It's… it's kind of important."

Picking up on the serious note in her friend's voice, the solicitor was quick to agree, "Sure. I can be there in about an hour. Just make sure you've got plenty of coffee ready and waiting."

They hung up then and Claire relayed her plans to Trisha, reluctantly stalling any morning romp they might've had between the sheets. She got showered and dressed, picking out a fresh outfit she'd stowed in the wardrobe, and then left her girlfriend with a steamy kiss to tide her over.

Fifty-eight minutes after receiving the phone call, Claire pulled up in her best friend's drive and cut the engine. When Helen answered the front door, it became immediately obvious that she'd been crying. Claire swept her into a hug, after stepping inside, and queried, "What's the matter, hun? You look upset."

Helen sniffled back a wave of re-emerging tears and grabbed the blonde's hand, pulling her towards the kitchen. "Let's sit down and then I'll tell you."

"Jesus Christ, Helen," Claire reiterated for the third time, still shaking her head.

Helen had spent the last twenty or so minutes explaining what had happened the previous afternoon, forcing herself to work through the tears that popped up at irregular and frequent intervals.

"I know," the Scot answered dismally. "I keep thinking… what did I do to deserve this? What is it about me that makes men want to…" she choked at the end of her sentence and trailed off.

Claire was out of her chair and around the table in the blink of an eye, wrapping both arms around her friend's shoulders and squeezing her tight. "Don't you dare even think that, Helen. It's not your fault. The world is full of wankers and I have no idea why they keep coming after you, but I know it's not because of anything that you've done."

The solicitor brushed away the tears that were running down the Scot's cheeks and forced her to meet her eyes. "You are a wonderful person, sweetheart, and you're so strong. I hope you know that. To have made it through what you have, and to come out on the other side the person you are today… you're the strongest person I know. Don't let bastards like Jim Fenner make you doubt yourself for a second."

Helen nodded slowly, new tears working their way down her face, but this time tears of relief and love; love for her best friend who, like Nikki, always knew just what to say. "Thank you, Claire. I don't think I would've gotten through it if it hadn't been for you… You and Nikki are the only two people in the world who know, besides…"

She found she still couldn't say the name, even after ten years, so she quickly changed the subject. "Anyway, I promised you lunch, didn't I? Sit back down and I'll whip something up. What do you fancy?"

Claire refrained from saying what she would actually fancy at just that moment – a nice big bite of Trisha Harris – and went with a diplomatic answer, "Whatever you feel like making."

Helen put together two plates of sandwiches and then rejoined her friend at the table. Almost as if she was reading her mind, Helen smiled and asked, "So, how is Trisha? I couldn't help but notice that you weren't home earlier. Spending a lot of time with her these days, aren't you?"

There was a teasing twinkle in the Scot's eyes that caused the solicitor to blush furiously, fidgeting in her seat. "Um… Yeah, actually, I have been… And she's fine."

"Hmm… She certainly is," Helen agreed, raising her coffee cup playfully.

They both giggled until they had tears in their eyes, and then they made an effort to continue their conversation more seriously. Claire fiddled with the handle of the ceramic mug in front of her and dropped her eyes, wondering how to broach this particular subject.

"Actually, Helen… Trish and I have been considering moving in together. Well, I would be moving in with her since she's got the bigger house."

Helen's brows furrowed as she clarified, "You mean the house she and Nikki bought together."

Claire nodded and raised her eyes from the tabletop. "She's going to talk to Nikki about that the next time she visits. She wants to buy her out so they can both get on with their lives. And we were wondering… well, if Nikki agrees, would you like to come and get some of her things and bring them here? That way she'll have somewhere to call home when she gets out. If she were to go back to the house she shared with Trish… it would be awkward for all of us."

Helen blinked stupidly at her friend for several minutes, completely gobsmacked by the request that had come out of left field. Finally she managed to find her voice and answered uncertainly, "I don't know, Claire… I mean… I would love to have Nikki here, living with me, but I don't think I should say yes until Trisha talks to her about it."

With a knowing smirk on her face, Claire summarised aptly, "So, what you're basically saying is that it's a yes as long as it's a yes."

The Scot snorted in amusement in response and nodded her head. "Yeah… I suppose that would be a fair description."

Suddenly the solicitor bolted upright and nearly sloshed coffee over the edge of her mug. "Oh my God!" she exclaimed, startling Helen, "I forgot to tell you!" Seeing the slightly panicked look on her friend's face, she hurriedly elaborated, "The CCRC has approved Nikki's motion to appeal. It's going forward!"

Helen squealed and jumped up from the table, Claire meeting her halfway as they did a little victory dance. "That's the best news I've had in weeks," Helen avowed. "Well done, Claire. Thank you so much. I can't wait to tell Nikki."

Claire grinned devilishly and murmured, "I'm sure you can't."

In the meantime, Jim Fenner was not having nearly as fabulous a morning. After being rudely awakened at the crack of dawn by one of the guards, he got out of bed and joined the inmates headed for the shower block. Breakfast wouldn't be on for another hour yet, so he wagered he had time to get cleaned up a bit.

There was a nasty split in his lower lip and a clump of dried blood had matted the hair at the back of his head. Only having been at HMP Pentonville for one night, he already knew that he was in Hell. The inmates and the guards disliked him with equal fervour, and they weren't shy about showing it.

Being the fairly large man that he was, and having worked in the prison service for more than a decade, he could hold his own in a one-on-one hand-to-hand fight. The problem was, the rules of fair combat didn't seem to apply in here. In fact, he seemed to be the only one concerned with this particular dilemma; his fellow inmates were just as happy to gang up and kick the shit out of his as they were to eat breakfast.

Upon reaching the shower block, he was horrified to find his main attacker from the night before already there. To add insult to injury, the PO who'd been escorting them promptly turned and left, making it blatantly clear he wasn't going to offer aid should they get into a scuffle.

By the time his induction meeting with the governor of C-Wing rolled around, just after lunchtime, Fenner was sporting a fresh black eye and walking with a limp. His torso was covered in bruises and he was worried he might have dislocated or sprained something. He was in terrible pain, but all of his requests to see the SMO had been denied thus far.

As soon as he was let into the wing governor's office, before he even took a step to sit down, he blurted, "I want Rule 43. Since I've been here I've been attacked four times. I know the rules and you can't keep me in the general population. I demand you put me in segregation."

Stewart Milburn sat silently on the other side of the massive executive desk, studying Fenner like he was something horribly nasty on the bottom of his shoe. Clasping his hands in front of him, he said without preamble, "I understand you attacked your wing governor at Larkhall yesterday. Attempted rape, wasn't it? How very unfortunate."

Jim got the creeping feeling of dread trickling down his spine as he stood there and absorbed the older man's words. Whatever his greying temples might suggest, he was obviously not a fully paid member of the Old Boys Network. Fenner gritted his teeth and repeated his earlier statement, "I want Rule 43."

Wing Governor Milburn smiled in a shark-like way and apologised falsely, "I'm sorry, Mr. Fenner, but the seg block is full right now. I'm afraid we don't have any room to accommodate you. However, if you wish to be put on cellular confinement that can be arranged."

"Fine!" Fenner spat. 'Anything to get away from those lunatics,' he thought desperately.

Milburn nodded and gestured to one of the chairs in front of his desk. "Have a seat and we can get this process finished quickly."

Jim reluctantly sat down, wincing as he did so. Through clenched teeth he growled, "I need to see the doctor. I think something might be broken."

Milburn arched a brow and said, "I'll have the SMO book you in at his earliest available appointment. There are people who've been waiting for weeks to see him, so don't think you're entitled to special treatment."

'Christ,' thought Fenner, 'could this get any worse?'

"You're going where?" Nikki wasn't sure she'd heard correctly. She pressed the phone more firmly to her ear and glanced around the wing, mindful to keep her volume low.

"I'm going home to Stirling for a week and then I'm going to visit my cousin Tanya in Italy. From there I'll be catching a flight to Reykjavik, Iceland," Helen repeated. "I'll be spending a week in each place… I'll miss you, sweetheart, but I've got to do this for me."

Nikki shook her head, even though Helen couldn't see her, and said softly, "I understand why you're doing it, Helen. I'll miss you, too, but I wouldn't ask you not to go. I was just surprised by where you're going. You're seriously telling me that you're going to visit one of the most gay friendly cities in the world without me?"

"What?" Helen laughed, having no idea what her girlfriend was on about.

Nikki sighed and teased the adorably clueless Scot, "Helen… the place is practically covered in rainbows everywhere you go."

"Is it really?" Helen was intrigued now and grinning like a fool.

Nikki rolled her eyes on a chuckle and asked playfully, "Should I be worried then?"

"Hmmm…" the Scot pretended to ponder the question. "Not unless I meet a gorgeous woman with short black hair and eyes the colour of cinnamon. Oh, and she'd have to about five-foot-ten."

"Ah, well that's all right then. I was worried for a minute," the lifer joked.

An irritating beep signalled Nikki that her phone card was running out of minutes. With Helen about to be gone for three weeks, and with no way of contacting her during that time, the taller woman began to get anxious. Eager to make every last second count, she declared throatily into the mouthpiece, "I love you, Helen. Please be careful and remember to have fun. Drink a glass of champagne for me, eh?"

On the other end of the line, Helen's eyes swam with tears as she whispered back, "I will. I love you, Nikki."

Then the card ran out and the line went dead.


Chapter 29

Helen spent her Sunday morning packing for her upcoming trip, bearing in mind the different climates she would be exposed to and filling two suitcases accordingly; medium-warm clothing for Scotland, expecting temperatures to be between 41°F at night and 58°F during the day; thinner, cooler attire for Italy, with lows around 57°F at night and highs around 75°F in the afternoon; and a few of her thickest outfits for Iceland, having researched the weather and predicting it would be between 33-48°F.

When her suitcases were full to bursting, Helen wandered into the kitchen for a bowl of dry cereal and milk. Before sitting down at the kitchen table she grabbed a pad of lined A4 paper and a Biro, intending to draught her Victim Personal Statement over breakfast. It was something Claire had suggested to her after lunch the previous day, a way to put down her feelings about the attack and relay her concerns in regards to Fenner's sentencing to the CPS, who would then present it for the judge's inspection at his bail hearing.

She put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into writing it, and by the time she was finished her corn flakes had gone rather soggy. She read it through twice to make sure she was satisfied with the end product, and then she folded it in three and enclosed it in a plain white envelope. She used the kitchen phone to call Claire's mobile and quickly jotted down Trisha's address before hanging up. It would be her first time visiting the club owner's house and that fact made her incredibly nervous, but it was nearby so she knew she couldn't excuse herself by saying she'd had trouble finding it.

She showered and changed into jeans and a lilac cotton tee for her impending road trip, grabbing a light denim jacket for later, and then she hauled her suitcases outside and managed to stuff them into the tiny boot of her Peugeot 206. After grabbing her handbag and locking up her flat, she made the short three-minute journey from Springfield Road to Elm Tree Road, where Nikki and Trisha owned a detached seven-bedroom house right by Lords Cricket Grounds.

Helen felt herself momentarily immobilised by shock as she stared up at the house, her vantage point hindered by a tall brick wall, a wrought iron gate, and a thick smattering of trees and vines. This was no ordinary home… it was a fucking mansion. She dialled up Claire's number on her mobile to announce her arrival, finding it preferable to honking her horn in the quiet neighbourhood, and not even a minute later a tall, gorgeous blonde stepped through the front door, dressed casually in jeans and a brown jumper. Helen recognised her immediately and felt her nervousness manifest itself in the form of nausea.

Trisha offered her an award-winning smile as she opened the security gates to let Helen's car into the brick driveway. The Scot returned a forced smile through the windscreen and pulled through, parking up behind Claire's silver Lexus IS 200. Further ahead in the drive were two more vehicles, the smaller, flashier of which she assumed belonged to Trisha; a black 1997 Porsche Boxster convertible. Standing idle and unused beside it was a teal-green 1994 Chevrolet Silverado in the Z71 design, obviously an American import as the steering wheel was on the left side. She knew without having to ask whose truck that was.

Claire came rushing out of the house just as Helen was getting out of her car, the solicitor hurrying towards her and crushing her in a tight hug.

"I'm going to miss you," the dirty blonde declared, squeezing Helen even tighter.

The Scot smiled and murmured, "I'll miss you, too, but it's only three weeks."

As they separated and refilled their lungs with oxygen, Helen pulled the white envelope out of her handbag, handing it over to Claire with a simple explanation, "I wrote my VPS like you suggested. I was hoping you could get it in to the CPS before Fenner's bail hearing."

Claire quickly drew a cross over her heart and promised, "I'll make sure the prosecutor gets it this afternoon. I have to find out who I'm going to be working with anyway."

Trisha had been standing back silently, watching the interaction between the two friends, but now she spoke with a smile, addressing Helen directly, "Would you like to come in for a cuppa before you leave?"

Helen looked over at her girlfriend's ex and for a split second she was very tempted to accept the invitation, wanting to get to know her and see the interior of the house, but then her nerves reappeared and she found herself politely declining, "I'm sorry, I can't. I've got a long drive ahead of me and I'd like to get in before tea. Another time, certainly."

For all of her admirable qualities, Helen wasn't nearly as subtle as she'd hoped. Trisha immediately picked up on the underlying discomfort in Helen's voice and posture, so she rushed to reassure the shorter woman, "It's okay, Helen, I understand. No harm done, eh?"

The Scot smiled gratefully and hugged Claire once more before getting back in her car. She turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the drive, plotting a course to the motorway to get her six-and-three-quarter-hour trip to Stirling underway. It was just gone 10am and by her calculations she would arrive at her father's house slightly before five, just in time to sit down with him for an evening meal.

By 3pm Claire was pulling up in the car park of the CPS London Westminster location on the Old Bailey. She was directed to the second floor office of Julia Brannon, the specialist prosecutor with whom she'd be working. The CPS had graciously given Claire permission to be part of the case, since it was specifically at the victim's request, but she was grateful to have the legal support and knowledge of someone who regularly dealt with these types of cases.

The one thing the young solicitor wasn't counting on was the physical appearance of Julia Brannon. She couldn't have been more knocked for six if she'd jumped out of a plane. The 47-year-old prosecutor with a soft Irish accent, warm brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, and jet black hair streaked through with silver, was all of four-foot-nine. Claire, being only five-foot-three, rarely dwarfed anyone she met, certainly not the other lawyers with whom she worked.

They shook hands politely before seating themselves on opposite sides of the large executive desk. Julia dived straight into the deep end with her opening statement, "I understand you have a close personal relationship with Helen Stewart. That can be both a good and a bad thing when working on this case. The defence may try to use it against Miss Stewart in the court room, to discredit any information directly retrieved by you as painting the defendant in a purposely negative light, so we're going to have to play this by the book."

Claire nodded her understanding and pushed the envelope Helen had given her across the desk. "Helen gave me this earlier today. It's her Victim Personal Statement. I thought we might able to use it at Mr. Fenner's bail hearing."

Having already read the statement for herself, Claire knew that it was very condemning for Jim. She could only hope the judge wouldn't take it with a grain of salt. Julia reached for the envelope and slid out the letter enclosed within, reading it thoroughly before replacing it. She folded her hands together on top of the envelope and let loose a rare smile.

"This is very good. I think Mr. Fenner's solicitor is going to find it difficult to work around this, especially given the short notice."

There was a glint of mischief in the older woman's eyes that surprised Claire further, causing her to let out a slight chuckle before she asked, "Do you know which judge will be overseeing the hearing yet?"

Julia opened a manila folder at her elbow and quickly scanned through the pile of papers within. "It looks like… the bail hearing is set for tomorrow morning and being presided over by District Judge Fitzpatrick, Sr. not Jr."

Claire breathed a sigh of relief and let her posture visibly relax. Judge Gerald Fitzpatrick was notorious for his take on respect and honour, and he was much more stern in his rulings than his son. This was a very good thing, so long as he could be convinced of Fenner's guilt.

The younger woman smiled widely and proclaimed, "That's excellent news! Maybe you can even use some of that Irish charm on him," the solicitor teased.

Julia stared at her for a second and then burst out laughing, finding the notion ludicrous but highly amusing all the same. When she'd calmed down a bit, still wearing a huge smile, she flipped through a few more pages in the file. She withdrew a handful of papers and passed them across the desk.

"I thought you might want to take a look at the statements and photographs taken by the police on Friday afternoon. The detective in charge of the case dropped them off earlier. It would seem the investigation is moving along rather quickly. As I'm sure you're aware, it's very rare that instances of rape or attempted rape have eye witnesses."

Claire nodded and perused the selection of photographs first, cringing as she realised she was looking at pictures of Helen's bruised thighs and wrecked office. Next she read the wing governor's initial statement, finding herself nauseous by the time she was halfway through. She forced herself to finish reading it then pushed it away with a deep scowl. Reading the three accounts provided by Helen, Nikki, and Dominic made her feel like she'd been in the room at the time of the attack. It was a very disquieting sensation and it left her stomach in knots.

They discussed strategy for a short while and made extra copies of everything before Claire left the office, promising Julia that she had a surprise up her sleeve that would win them the case. As soon as she was seated in the driver's seat of her Lexus, she pulled out her mobile and dialled a familiar number she knew by heart.

The line was picked up on the second ring and a male voice answered on the other end. Claire smiled into the mouthpiece of her phone, unseen, as she said, "Michael, hi… I need a big favour."

After a brief and vague phone conversation, Claire put her car into gear and made the twelve-minute trip to her brother's house on Park Village West by Regents Park. She hadn't stopped in to see her brother in a few months and, if she was to be honest, she really missed him and her nieces. He and his wife Aimee had an eight-year-old daughter named Astrid and twin six-year-old girls named Carmen and Chloe. The last time she'd seen Aimee, the Soho hairstylist had already been a few months pregnant with their fourth child, so she imagined her sister-in-law was probably ready to burst any day now.

She parked up in front of the modest white house with the bright red door, smiling as she recalled the time when she'd helped her brother paint it. They'd both ended up with more paint on themselves than the door. She'd not even fully exited her vehicle when the front door opened and Astrid came running out, her strawberry blonde hair pulled back into pigtails and swinging wildly behind her. The solicitor grinned and met her niece halfway for a hug, the little girl squealing, "Auntie Claire!"

Claire smiled down at the eight-year-old and asked, "How are you, pumpkin?"

Astrid gave her a gap-toothed grin and chirped, "Good. Mummy said I'm about to have a new brother to play with. I bet he'll be more fun than Carmen and Chloe. All they ever do is play with Barbies."

The little girl scrunched up her face at the mention of her younger sisters. Claire laughed and wrapped an arm around Astrid's shoulders, steering her towards the house. "Well I'm sure he'll appreciate having a big sister like you, but it's not nice to make fun of your sisters. Not everyone can be as grown up as you."

Claire pinched Astrid's cheek playfully as Michael appeared in the doorway, his hands stuffed in the front pockets of his khaki trousers. He smiled toothily at his sister and called out, "Long time no see, Walker! Where've you been hiding?"

Claire put on an exaggerated expression of annoyance and declared, "I've been completely snowed under with case files for the last few months. This week I finished most of them and I thought I was about to get some holiday time due, but that's not going to happen anytime soon."

The solicitor gave her brother a hug and teased, "Besides, you know where my office is and you know where I live… Barrister Walker. You could've dropped by any time."

Michael ran a hand through his thick blonde hair and winced. "Sorry, Sis… I've been pretty busy too. And with Aimee being eight months pregnant…"

Claire nodded her understanding as Astrid ran past them into the house. The solicitor tilted her head and asked, "Speaking of, where is the Missus?"

Michael tilted his head back towards the stairwell just over his shoulder. "She's upstairs having a kip. Come on in and you can tell me what's so urgent. I was just getting ready to cook dinner."

"Ohhh! What are we having?" She shot him a cheeky grin and he laughed.

"Spaghetti with meatballs. It's the kids' favourite and since it's the weekend I'm indulging them."

"Sounds scrummy. Please tell me you have some wine. I could really use a glass or two for the conversation we're about to have."

Michael nodded his head with a curious frown and led his sister through to the kitchen, only stopping to poke his head into the family room on the way. The kids were entertaining themselves with a cartoon on the telly so he figured they had a good while to speak privately.

"Yeah, of course. Red or white?" As he spoke he moved over to the wooden wine glass rack suspended above the kitchen island.


He nodded and retrieved two Bordeaux glasses from the rack, possessing larger bowls than the others to allow more oxidation. Claire seated herself at the kitchen table and slipped her handbag off her shoulder, digging through it to produce a manila folder with copies of all the relevant files. She spread them across the table in front of her as Michael grabbed a bottle of San Felice Chianti Classico from the wine cellar and popped the cork.

He joined her at the table after filling their glasses and she pushed some of the papers toward him. "Now I know I don't need to ask if you remember Helen Stewart…"

He picked up one of the photographs and frowned. "What does this have to do with her?"

Claire bit her lip then said, "These photographs were turned over to the CPS earlier today. Helen was attacked at work on Friday, by one of her prison officers, and I need your help, Mike. I want her to have the best possible representation. Please say you'll do it?"

He couldn't have been more surprised if he tried, but he nodded quickly and agreed without hesitance, "Of course I'll help. Does she know you're asking me?"

Claire shook her head and sipped at the full-bodied ruby wine. "No, but I'm sure she'll be fine with it. She forgave you for your obnoxious behaviour a long time ago."

He cringed as he recalled that time in Soho so many years ago when he'd tried to have his way with the gorgeous Scot, only to end up being kneed in the crotch by his sister. He couldn't blame her, really. He'd acted a total prat.

He flipped through the photos with a deep scowl and muttered, "Christ… Tell me he didn't manage to…"

The shorter Walker sibling shook her head in the negative and explained quietly, "No. Another prison officer escorting an inmate arrived just in time. You remember Nikki Wade…"

She sipped at her wine as she casually dropped that bomb, knowing full well that Michael would remember and that he would have no idea of the current situation.

Sure enough, he choked on a swallow of the rich red and spluttered, "I beg your pardon?"

Claire snickered at him over the rim of her glass and divulged, "Nikki's been serving a life sentence for murder at HMP Larkhall since June of '97. Helen started working there a few months ago."

Michael blinked a few times and shook his head, having difficulty processing all of this information that was being thrown at him. "Jesus Christ…" he muttered.

"Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction as well, though I used language of a more colourful nature."

They shared a chuckle and then he plucked up the first of the three main statements taken by the police, scanning over it quickly and swearing under his breath, "That bastard."

Claire arched a brow and revealed with evident bitterness, "Apparently he's been in the prison service for some twelve years now, and this is the first time anyone's had sufficient evidence to nail him. I'm determined to see him with a custodial sentence, for this and everything else he's done to abuse his position. Hopefully a nice long stretch at that."

Michael nodded his agreement and vowed, "We'll get him, Claire. We just need to go over everything and figure out a strategy. Since you're in possession of these files I'm assuming you've been to see the CPS prosecutor who's in charge of the case?"

"Yep. Just came from there, actually… The CPS gave it to Julia Brannon so officially it's her case, but she seems very keen to work with both of us. Fenner's bail hearing is tomorrow morning at the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court and he's appearing before Judge Fitzpatrick."

"Father or son?" Michael's brow furrowed.

"Ah… I was hoping you'd ask. It would seem Mr. Fenner's luck has run out recently. He's going before Gerald Fitzpatrick, Sr."

The barrister's answering grin was wide and mischievous. "Excellent. He hates bent coppers and screws, thinks they tarnish the reputation of law enforcement, and he's a stickler for the rules. This is going to work in our favour."

They pored over the remaining paperwork together and got stuck into trial strategy until Aimee appeared at the doorway, grey eyes sleepy and burgundy hair ruffled. Her very pregnant belly and five-foot-ten frame cut an imposing figure, but her personality was so bubbly that anyone who spent more than five minutes in her company would be hard pressed to find her intimidating. Claire stood and immediately enveloped her in a hug.

Aimee embraced her sister-in-law happily and joked, "Haven't seen you in a while. What brings you to our humble abode?"

"Work," the solicitor answered. "I've just recruited Michael to help with my latest case. I can tell you that it's going to be huge, headline material even."

Aimee laughed and said, "Figures. Can you two hold the lawyer talk until after we've eaten, though? Zane's been kicking up a storm and we're getting pretty hungry." She rubbed her swollen belly and took a seat beside her husband, leaning in to give him a quick peck before he stood up to start cooking.

Claire couldn't hide her look of surprise. "Zane? You've already decided on a name?"

Aimee grinned and explained happily, "Well we named our three girls from the front of the alphabet, so we decided to name this one from the end of it."

Claire could only shake her head and chuckle at her sister-in-law's crazy logic.

Just as the Walker family was sitting down to eat, Helen's Peugeot was pulling into the drive of her father's house, which was really more of a villa made of tan brick with Parisian balconies and French doors visible from the front, secluded on a private road spanning between Easter Cornton Drive and Chattan Avenue. She parked on the mono-bloc driveway in front of the double garage and sat in her car for several minutes, gathering the composure necessary for the impending reunion.

She hadn't come to visit for a few years now and her father had sounded stunned when she'd phoned him up two days ago to ask. Eventually Helen dragged herself out of her car and made the short trek up the four wooden steps to the front door. It appeared to have been recently repainted, a blinding stark white, and contained a large pane of glass above the black letterbox, flanked on either side by thin rectangular windows.

She knocked twice and only seconds later the door flew open. Helen looked upon the wrinkle-lined face and blue eyes of her father with no small amount of trepidation. He stood four inches taller than her with grey peppered liberally through his brown hair. She stood silent and stock still, expecting some kind of reprimand from the older Stewart. Therefore, she was thrown for a loop when he pulled her into a tight hug. She could count on one hand the number of times he'd done this in her entire life.

"Och, Len! It's guid tae see ye. I misst ye, hen."

Helen hugged him back tentatively and answered in a muted tone, "It's good to see you, too, Da."

After the awkward hug her father pulled back and asked, "Whaur's yer suitcase then?"

"I brought two. I left them in the car boot." Helen shrugged noncommittally as she was still trying to process this unexpected reception. Her relationship with her father had been quite frosty for most of her life, so to be greeted so warmly was screwing with her equilibrium.

"Ah… well nae matter. Gae an' get 'em."

Helen retrieved her two suitcases and left them in the entrance hall by the stairwell. The light wooden floors were clean and shiny and perfectly set off the beige walls and oak doors, which lead off to the downstairs toilet, sitting room, television room, L-shaped kitchen and dining room, and the extended family room at the rear of the house, which housed a cosy brick fireplace.

She followed her father through to the dining room and stopped abruptly in the doorway, seeing the table laid with homemade cheese scones, love apple soup, potato salad, and a whole roast chicken glazed in clear heather honey. It was her favourite meal from childhood. To top it all off, he had a bottle of Thirstly Cross Original Cider sitting in an ice bucket and two wine goblets sitting beside the fine china plates.

Helen clapped a hand over her mouth and felt tears springing up in her eyes. Aodhan noticed her reaction with some degree of alarm. He walked over to her and placed his hands gently on her upper arms. "Whit's the matter, bairn?"

"You cooked for me," she mumbled breathlessly, overwhelmed by dormant emotions that were crawling out of the woodwork.

"O' course I did. I haen't seen ye in a lang time," Aodhan answered, confused and concerned by his daughter's crying.

Helen only sobbed more at that and buried her face in her father's shoulder. "Oh, Da…"

He steered her towards the table and guided her into one of the wooden chairs, patting her on the back gently as he sat beside her. It took her a few minutes to rein in her emotions and during that time Aodhan sat quietly next to her. He offered her a white handkerchief and she dabbed at her eyes before blowing her nose.

"The food looks lovely, Da… Thank you."

He waved his hand dismissively and passed her the plate of scones. "Eh, think naethin."

They slowly filled their plates and soup bowls with food and then he poured them each a glass of the cider. They made it halfway through the meal in surprisingly companionable silence, before the elder Stewart asked the question that had been plaguing him since his daughter's emotional outburst.

"Sae, are ye gonny tell me whit's botherin' ye, hen?"

Helen looked up from chewing a bite of the succulent honey-chicken and her eyes widened, unprepared yet to divulge her true purpose for taking this trip. She looked back down at her plate and fiddled with the thick stem of her wine goblet.

"Um… It's just some stuff at work, Da…" she offered lamely.

Aodhan's blue eyes narrowed and he growled, "Is it tae dae wi' that nurlie boyfrein o' yers? Has he upset ye, lass?"

Helen choked on her swallow of cider and pounded a fist against her chest. When she'd managed to get her trachea cleared she had to fight against a fit of laughter. "No, Da… Sean and I split up months ago. I'm sure you'll approve of that, at least."

The underlying hint of bitterness was clear as day and Aodhan adopted a guilty expression almost immediately, knowing that his emotional distance and lack of overt affection had wrought consequences on his relationship with his daughter. It was plain to him now that Helen had interpreted his stand-offish parenting method as disapproval of her choices.

He reached over and covered the hand she wasn't using to sip at her cider with his own. "Helen… A'm sairy ye feel that way. A ken it's ma fault fur ne'er bein' more supportive. A want ye tae know, though… A'm verra proud o' ye."

Helen took a deep, shaky breath and released it on a sigh. As shocked as she was by this revelation, she was more relieved than she could've imagined possible. Only upon receiving such approval did she realise how much it meant to her, and what a heavy burden she'd been carrying for so many years under the misconception of not having it.

She squeezed his hand with a watery smile and decided that it was time to return a little of the faith and trust he was showing to her by his admission. "Thanks, Da. You don't know how much that means to me. Now, I'm gonna tell you something and I want you to listen without interrupting."

As they finished their meal she slowly told him everything that had happened since Friday afternoon, leaving out some of the more distressing details and painting only a general picture of the assault. By the time she'd finished speaking his hands were clenched tightly and his face was red with rage. He looked about ready to blow a gasket as he stood from the table and began pacing the length of the kitchen.

"Jist wait 'til A get ma hauns on that scoundrel. A'll wring his neck 'til he's a deid!"

Helen felt a confusing mixture of exasperation and pride that her father was so angry on her behalf. She stood quickly and moved to stand in front of him, halting his pacing as she slipped into her Scots vernacular, "Och, Da… dinnae fash yersel. The eejit is in gaol an' he's nae gaun onywhaur."

There was a pregnant pause as the elder Stewart tried to calm his temper, only broken when Helen grinned and transitioned back to her regular speech, asking, "Now, what's for afters?"

Aodhan puffed up proudly and declared, "A made some chocolate, orange, an' whisky mousse."

Helen smirked as she moved towards the fridge, stating firmly, "Let's get pissed."


Chapter 30

Claire awoke to a blaring alarm clock at 7:30 on Monday morning. She groaned as she rolled over and slapped her palm down on the snooze button. As she drifted towards consciousness she remembered why she was waking up this early and bolted upright in bed. She didn't have time to moan about not having a lie-in or waking up without Trisha beside her.

She was on a tight schedule and she would have time to see the blonde later. She got herself showered and dressed in court appropriate attire, a black pencil skirt and matching suit jacket with a white blouse, and then she left her Portman Square apartment to meet with Michael and Julia for coffee before the bail hearing.

She arrived at the café just before 8:15 and spotted her brother immediately. He was sitting on the farthest side from the door and across from him sat Julia Brannon. They looked to be having an in-depth conversation, so she snagged a spot in the queue and ordered a strong cappuccino before joining them. It was obvious they'd already started going over the case without her and she felt her chest swell with pride. These two were hard-working, knowledgeable, tenacious, and morally righteous. She couldn't ask for a better team to help Helen.

As the three lawyers were chatting over coffee, Jim Fenner was being led into an antechamber at the Horseferry Road Magistrates Court (City of Westminster). One of the two burly male POs escorting him undid his handcuffs and ordered him to put his hands out in front of him. He did so and the cuffs were replaced and locked, giving him the freedom to sit more comfortably at the little metal table with the cold metal chairs. The POs left the room and Fenner sat down with an irritated huff.

He had expected to hear something from Marilyn by now but there hadn't been a peep all weekend, and his calls had been unanswered. Now he was supposed to be meeting with his court appointed lawyer because he couldn't afford to pay for one, and it seemed that Marilyn wouldn't be giving him a cent of her father's money to aid in his defence.

The door opened a few minutes later, giving Fenner ample time to stew in his misery, and a young solicitor entered carrying a briefcase. Fenner clenched his jaw as he got a good look at the younger man, who didn't look a day over eighteen. He was dressed in a slightly wrinkled suit and he kept pushing his thick black-rimmed glasses up his nose.

Fenner scoffed and shook his head as the youngster introduced himself as Rory Pettigrew. "What are you, twelve?" Jim sneered unkindly.

The younger man flushed brightly as he sat down, fiddling with the latches on his briefcase. "No… twenty-five," he answered, sounding a bit uncertain.

Fenner barked out a humourless laugh and said, "Great… That's just fabulous. I'm being represented by a kid almost half my age."

Forty-five minutes later the door opened again and one of the POs poked his head inside, signalling that their allotted time was up and the hearing was about to begin. The lawyer hastily gathered up his mess of papers and retreated, leaving Fenner to be escorted to the dock on the far side of the court room, flanked on both sides by a prison officer and facing the vacant judge's seat.

As he scanned the large room he saw that it was packed with people he didn't know. This didn't come as a great surprise considering the seriousness of the case and the reputation he had within the prison service. Public interest was definitely going to be piqued either way. What did surprise him was that he couldn't find Helen anywhere in the room.

Every person in attendance rose to their feet as the judge stepped through from the chamber at the front of the room, being introduced to the court as 'His Honour, Judge Gerald Fitzpatrick, Sr.' The court stenographer followed behind him and seated himself in a box on the judge's right hand side. The audience took their seats in the gallery while the solicitor and two barristers sat at the front of the room, Rory Pettigrew on one side with Julia Brannon and Michael Walker on the other.

The judge thumbed through a stack of papers in front of him and then addressed the court room. "We're gathered here today at 0900 hours, on Monday the fourth of October 1999, to decide on the matter of bail for James Ramsey Fenner, charged with the attempted rape of Helen Eirica Stewart. I'll hear from the Crown Prosecution first."

Julia stood and began with, "Your Honour, the CPS have already found the case to meet the requirements of both the evidentiary and public interest stages. We find this case to be indictable only and so ask that it be handed over to the Southwark Crown Court following this hearing today. Furthermore, the police have handed over sufficient evidence to support the fact that Mr. Fenner has been grievously abusing his position in the prison service. Through the course of this trial we will provide witness testimony to support this from prison officers and inmates alike. The CPS would now like to hand over to Barrister Michael Walker."

Michael stood and straightened the lines of his suit jacket, clearing his throat to begin. "Your Honour has been presented with copies of the case files we've amassed over this past weekend. On page 5 you will find the Victim Personal Statement of Helen Stewart. We concur with Miss Stewart's reasoning that Mr. Fenner should be denied bail on a number of grounds. Mr. Fenner has been working closely with Miss Stewart for the last four months and as such has extensive knowledge of her routines and whereabouts on any given day. We believe it is not outside the scope of reason that Mr. Fenner might interfere with the victim if released on bail."

"Furthermore, Miss Stewart has expressed a fear of returning to work at HMP Larkhall if Mr. Fenner is not remanded and prosecuted on this charge. We believe it is in the best interest of the victim, the public, and the prison service if Mr. Fenner continues to be remanded at HMP Pentonville until the time of his trial. Given his work history in the prison service, we also believe he may be a flight risk if released. Certainly a prison officer will not wish to be imprisoned with those he's spent twelve years locking up."

Judge Fitzpatrick nodded subtly in agreement as he scanned through a few of the pages in front of him. Having spent over an hour poring over the files that morning he was already decided on the matter, but court proceedings mandated that he also hear from the defence before finalising his decision. He looked up and stated, "Thank you, Mr. Walker. I'll hear from the defence now."

The court appointed lawyer stood as Michael sat down, and he fidgeted nervously with his own set of files. "Your Honour," he began in his high-pitched voice, "the defence would like to point out that Mr. Fenner is a respectable family man with strong ties to the community. He has a wife and two children and he's a member of the school board. There isn't a mark on his record with the prison service and he should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Also, the defence would like to point out that Mr. Fenner's treatment thus far in HMP Pentonville has been unlawful and abhorrent. I move to have him released on bail for his own protection."

The judge looked over at Fenner and really studied him for the first time. The man had clearly had the shit kicked out of him at some point in time, because even at a distance Fitzpatrick could see the colourful bruising that decorated his face. Folding his hands together, the judge turned his attention back to Pettigrew. "And is Mrs. Fenner present here today? Does she wish to speak on behalf of her husband's character in this matter?"

Pettigrew flinched noticeably and almost stuttered as he answered. "No… no she doesn't."

Fitzpatrick nodded thoughtfully and said, "That will be all, Mr. Pettigrew. Thank you for your input."

In the audience gallery, Claire had to suppress a smile at how magnificently the defence had botched up its side of the hearing. It really was too bad that Mrs. Fenner had received a visit from Detective Sergeant Cassandra Edwards on Saturday afternoon, questioning her on her husband's character and informing her of the charges being brought against him.

Judge Fitzpatrick spoke then and the hushed murmurs ringing throughout the courtroom immediately quieted. "I find the defence's argument for bail to be insufficient and the evidence provided thus far to be condemning on Mr. Fenner's behalf. I'm ordering that he be remanded at HMP Pentonville until the time of his trial. However, I am also ordering that he be segregated for his own protection. In light of the seriousness of this offence, I'm granting the prosecution's request to hand this case over to the Crown Court. A trial date will be provided in the post within a week's time. You are dismissed."

Fitzpatrick banged his gavel once and stood, his robes billowing behind him as he exited the room. Fenner's face was purple with suppressed fury as the prison officers on either side of him grabbed his arms, hauling him to his feet and forcing him to limp out of the room towards the prison issue van at the back of the courthouse.

Michael shook hands with Julia before gathering his briefcase and going to meet Claire at the rear of the courtroom. The younger Walker swept her brother into a tight hug and squealed, "You did it! I knew you would… Helen's going to be so pleased. I can't wait to call her and let her know."

Michael frowned curiously and asked, "Yeah? How are you gonna do that? I thought you said she wasn't taking her mobile with her."

Claire smirked as she linked her arm through her brother's and lead him out of the room. "She didn't, but I have her father's home number in case of emergency."

The Walker siblings shared a chuckle as they wended their way through the massive halls and corridors of the courthouse. Upon reaching the front steps they were immediately accosted by the flashing bulbs of reporters' cameras with microphones shoved in their faces.

At HMP Larkhall G-Wing, a near riot was breaking out as the women watched the news on the telly. A newsreader was standing in front of the Horseferry Road Magistrates Court announcing live, "Following a bail hearing this morning, former prison officer James Fenner has been remanded into the custody of HMP Pentonville until the time of his trial."

The rest of what the newsreader said was drowned out by the cheers of the inmates. Nikki was grinning like a fool with tears of joy streaking down her cheeks. Helen was safe, at last… Surprising herself and Dominic McAllister, she spun toward the young PO beside her and ensconced him in a bone-crushing hug.

Further down the wing, standing back from the ruckus, Shell Dockley leaned against the stairwell with her arms crossed and a triumphant sneer on her face. Ever since Jim had decided to use her face as a punching bag she'd been looking for a way to get revenge. In her mind, the corrupt English justice system was finally paying up some of its debt.

It was just after lunchtime at HMP Pentonville when Fenner was collected from his cell, where he'd been relegated to cellular confinement for his protection following the judge's orders. PO Trask escorted him wordlessly through the gates to the medical wing.

'About bloody time,' Fenner thought with contempt.

Jim was told to wait in the reception area and seated himself on one of the uncomfortable blue plastic chairs, wincing as a stab of pain shot through him, starting at one of his damaged ribs and resonating outward. The clock on the wall told him that almost ten minutes had passed before he was called back to see the SMO.

He shuffled into the office at the back of the room and was met by a tall, thin man with brown hair and brown eyes, a plastic name badge on his white coat declaring him as Thomas Waugh, M.D. He looked to be in his early thirties and had the customary stethoscope around his neck.

"Have a seat on the examination table and remove your shirt," the doctor said, "I'm going to take your blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate, and then I'll have a look at those injuries."

Fenner moved to do as he'd been told and studied the doctor with curiosity. He seemed to be the consummate professional but there was something unsettling about him that he couldn't pinpoint.

Thomas went through the set of standard procedures with practised proficiency, informing Jim that he was in good health for a forty-two-year-old, and then he began to examine the array of bruises that littered his torso.

Jim cringed as Thomas pressed two fingers against his rib cage, between his third and fourth rib, a scowl etched upon the doctor's face. "Have you been having trouble breathing since this happened?"

Fenner shook his head and said through gritted teeth, "No. It just bloody hurts."

Thomas nodded and continued probing the area. "It looks like you've definitely got a cracked rib, but I don't think it's broken. I'm going to prescribe you some pain medication and it should heal on its own in about six weeks."

The doctor moved away to open a locked medicine cabinet and retrieved a bottle of oxycodone hydrochloride. "I'll have a nurse bring you one of these extended release OxyContin tablets every 12 hours." He emptied a tablet into his palm and replaced the bottle, relocking the cabinet before retrieving a paper cup and filling it with water from the sink.

As he handed the tablet and the water to Fenner, he said, "When you lie down you may find it easier to breathe if you lie on your injured side. I know that sounds contradictory, but it's been proven to help. I also want you to concentrate on taking a few deep breaths every hour. That should keep your left lung properly inflated and discourage the development of pneumonia or collapse of the lung tissue."

Jim nodded and tilted his head back, quickly swallowing the pain medication. "So, are you gonna tape me up or something?"

Thomas shook his head 'no' and explained, "That's actually a common misconception. It would do more harm than good to tape your ribs, even though that would probably lessen the pain. Your lungs need room to expand to their full capacity or you'll experience quite a bit of trouble breathing."

Fenner nodded his understanding silently and stood from the metal table, shrugging his shirt back over his shoulders. As he was buttoning up the front, Thomas leaned back against the sink counter and said conversationally, "I heard you're being charged with attempted rape on your old wing governor."

Jim looked up sharply and his hands stilled on the second to last button. He frowned and said defensively, "Yeah, that's what she's claiming. It's a load of shit, though. I wasn't trying to rape the silly cow. She was trying to get me to keep schtum about her affair with a prisoner."

Thomas tilted his head and scrutinised Fenner with a look. There it was again… that unsettling factor. Jim finished doing up his buttons as the doctor asked, "What's her name?"

"Helen Stewart." Jim turned to move toward the door and missed the look of shock that flitted across the doctor's face.

"Thanks, Doc," he called over his shoulder, "I feel better already."

Indeed, the oxycodone had already started to kick in and he was feeling on top of the world. Thomas, on the other hand, was feeling like he'd been hit by a bus.

Helen was tossing and turning, her pyjamas soaked through with sweat and the bedclothes twisted around her body. She was fighting to get free, struggling in the grip of a monster. She could taste blood in her mouth and her vision was going in and out of focus. Pain like none she'd ever known was ripping through her, tearing her in half.

She tried to scream but a hand was covering her mouth, muffling the cries that would've resonated against the dingy brick walls of the alley. Sharp rocks and broken glass cut into her backside as a heavy weight pinned her to the filthy tarmac, suffocating her in its clutches.

Helen awoke, screaming, at the touch of a hand on her shoulder. She lashed out violently with a closed fist, and Aodhan Stewart barely managed to move out of the way in time to avoid it. As the cobwebs of terror began to fade, chest heaving from deep, unsteady breaths and heart racing in panic, Helen blinked several times and brought herself back to the present.

Her entire body was covered in perspiration and she was shaking like a leaf in a strong gust of wind. She swallowed hard and found her mouth dry, her tongue thick and uncooperative, her throat hoarse like sandpaper from screaming in her sleep. She wiped a trembling hand across her brow and let out a deep sigh that was half a whimper. She hadn't had the nightmares in such a long time.

She looked at her father through bleary eyes and choked on a sob. He immediately moved to her side once more and pulled her into a hug, running a hand through her sweat-soaked strands of tangled hair. When he spoke it was in a quiet, soothing tone of voice. "Twas jist a wee nichtmare, hen."

Helen leaned into her father's embrace and sighed, not knowing what to say in response. It was one thing to tell him about what had happened on Friday. It would be another matter entirely to reveal the atrocity that had occurred ten years prior. She found she didn't yet possess the strength to do so, so she remained silent and allowed him to comfort her in the aftermath of her remembrance.


Chapter 31

Friday, October 8, 1999

Trisha blinked slowly as she awoke, slivers of faint light seeping in through the gap in the closed curtains and spilling across the plush beige carpet in her bedroom. Snuggled into her side was the slender form of Claire Walker in a state of peaceful repose. The taller blonde smiled to herself and stretched slowly, allowing her limbs to intertwine with those of the solicitor. She kissed Claire gently, careful not to wake her, and spent several minutes observing the smaller woman's face.

When her full bladder demanded she exit the warmth of the bed and her sleeping partner, Trisha grumbled quietly as she extricated herself from the solicitor's grasp. She used the en-suite loo and washed her hands before returning to the bedroom, walking to the far side to peak through the cream coloured curtains. It was still quite early and the sun was barely over the horizon, so she decided to afford her girlfriend the luxury of a lie-in.

After pulling on a white satin robe, Trisha wandered out to the grandiose staircase on the landing, allowing her fingertips to brush over the intricate metal railing as her bare feet descended the wide steps of polished wood. Even though she'd been living in this house for a four years now, it still amazed her at times how magnificent and ornate her surroundings were. She made her way into the large kitchen with light wooden flooring and turned on the coffeemaker, popping a few slices of wheat bread into the toaster for good measure.

She collected the morning post and newspaper before returning to the kitchen, pouring herself a mug of strong black coffee and slathering raspberry jam on her toast. She took her breakfast out to the back patio via the glass doors in the dining room, and she sat down on the wooden bench at the front of the garden. She flipped idly through The Guardian newspaper as she sipped on her steaming coffee, pausing as she read the headline of the featuring article: "Governing Governor of HMP Larkhall Sacked After Attack."

Trisha read through the article quickly then bounded upstairs to wake her girlfriend. Claire wasn't best pleased at having her lie-in interrupted, but her irritation morphed to intrigue when Trisha waved the paper in her face.

"You're not going to believe this," the club owner declared, wearing a huge grin as she handed over the newspaper to her sleepy lover.

Claire's eyes widened comically as she read the printed words. "Holy shit," she said succinctly.

"I know!" Trisha agreed, still grinning. "This is fantastic. Nikki's always said that Stubberfield was a useless prat. It seems the big bosses have finally seen the light."

The solicitor, now fully awake and excited by the news, asked, "You're going to see her today, aren't you? Don't forget to ask her about her stuff."

Trisha smiled and pulled Claire in for a deep kiss, mumbling against her lips when they broke apart, "Don't worry, darling. I won't forget."

Five hours later, Trisha was seated across from Nikki at a table in the Larkhall visiting room. She'd just explained her proposition to move the lifer's things to Helen's flat, and the inmate was staring at her with a confused mixture of dismay, happiness, and amusement.

After gathering her thoughts into some semblance of order, Nikki's lips quirked into a smile as she asked, "So you and Claire are getting pretty serious, then?"

Trisha's shoulders slumped with relief and she avowed, "Yes. I love her, Nik, and we both know it would be awkward if you came to live with us when you get out. Does this mean you agree?"

Nikki fiddled with her pack of fags, suddenly uncertain, and she answered quietly, "I don't mind. Of course I'd love to live with Helen, but what does she have to say about this? Have you asked her?"

Trisha smiled brightly and reassured the nervous woman, "Yeah. Claire brought it up before she left on her holiday. Apparently, Helen said she'd love to have you there as long as you said yes. It looks like you're not the only one who didn't know how this conversation would go down."

Nikki had to chuckle at that, realising that she and Helen were both being silly about this. It was only natural to have certain doubts after being separated for so many years, but they loved each other unconditionally and this was the next big step in their relationship… if Nikki got released from Larkhall.

The rest of the allotted visiting time was spent catching up on other current events outside the prison walls, and speculating about who would take Stubberfield's place as Governing Governor. Nikki even went as far as to venture that Helen might be offered the position. She wasn't sure how she felt about that, having always believed it was the screws against the cons and that the Number One was nothing more than a glorified screw with a pay rise, but she knew that Helen would probably be ecstatic if that was the case. It would certainly be a step up the career ladder.

Monday, October 11, 1999

It was 3am and Helen was loading her luggage into the boot of her Peugeot. She had done her laundry over the weekend and repacked her suitcases, and now she was preparing to make the fifty-minute drive on the M80 to Glasgow International Airport, where she would be catching a flight out to Italy with a connecting stop in Amsterdam.

Her flight would depart at 6am and span over the course of four hours and forty-five minutes, and taking into account the one-hour time difference her expected arrival time in Florence was 11:45am, just late enough to grab an early lunch with her cousin.

Just as she slammed the lid of the car boot shut her father made an appearance, bearing a travel thermos of hot coffee and a homemade butter croissant, illuminated in the pre-dawn hour by the light above the front door. Helen went to hug him tightly, stunned when she felt tears springing up in her eyes. In just a week's time they had managed to make immeasurable progress in mending the rift in their relationship.

"I'll miss you, Da."

He squeezed her tightly and whispered gruffly, "A love ye, bairn. Hae a guid journay an veesit yer auld paw ae day bylins."

Helen grinned and responded, "Aye, I will. I promise."

The shorter Stewart kissed her father on the cheek and gratefully received his parting gifts before climbing into her car. He watched her back out of the drive before going inside to have breakfast. He, too, recognised that things had improved for the better between them. It had taken him a lifetime of unhappiness and emotional distance to realise the damage that had been done. Now all he could do was work to fix it.

Upon arriving at GLA via the M8, Helen drove to the Long Stay Car Park on Abbotsinch Road, which boasted security fencing and CCTV monitoring meant to put its customers at ease, and she booked her car in for a two-week stay. From there she took an airport coach to the international departure terminal and found the appropriate check-in desk for KLM airline.

A bubbly brunette named Samantha greeted her and asked if she wished to book a flight or if she had already done so. She informed the brunette that she'd booked her flight over the telephone and the woman began happily tapping away at her keyboard.

Ten minutes later she had a boarding card in hand, her two suitcases had been weighed and set aside for checked baggage, she'd stopped at the cash point and withdrawn a sizeable amount of spending money, and she was on her way to the first floor security checkpoint.

She made it through quickly and without incident, having only a large handbag in place of regular hand luggage. Then she followed the signs in the departure lounge to her boarding gate and seated herself wearily, unused to being up this early and wishing she'd stopped at Starbucks.

By 5:15 passengers were being shuffled aboard the Boeing 737 bound for the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. After taking her aisle seat one row behind the middle emergency exit, she was dismayed to find there was no television to occupy her time. Resigned to spending the flight reading, she pulled her brand new copy of Stephen King's latest novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, out of her handbag.

It wasn't in the usual vein of her reading selections, but she'd seen good reviews since its release in April and she was willing to give it a shot. Within five minutes of takeoff she was fast asleep and the book lay forgotten in her lap.

Helen was woken by a flight attendant ten minutes before touchdown in the Netherlands, surprised to find she'd slept straight through the flight. Flying had always made her slightly uneasy and she'd only travelled via aeroplane three times in her life, this being the third.

After landing at AMS she was forced to go through international customs and provide her passport for inspection, and then she found her way to the departure gate and read for the remainder of her stopover. Since everything around her was entirely in Dutch, her book was about the only thing she could read. Just before 9:30 she boarded the Alitalia Airbus that would take her to Florence, this time with a large coffee from the coffee bar in hand.

Her arrival at Amerigo Vespucci Aeroporto di Firenze was quite unlike anything she had expected. She'd imagined that it would be a mammoth airport, to accommodate the massive number of tourists that visited the city each year, but instead it was a small-ish building with only a few runways outside.

Helen went through customs and reclaimed her baggage before wandering down to the ground floor. She found a money conversion kiosk and changed out her British pounds for Italian lire. Even though Italy had joined the European union earlier that year and agreed to convert to the euro currency, lira denominated coins were still being produced and euro coins and banknotes wouldn't be available for another few years.

Through the sea of people waiting to greet their family and friends in the public arrivals lounge, she finally spotted the excited face of her younger cousin. Tanya Colquhoun was a slip of a girl, only an inch taller than Helen, with green eyes to match her cousin's. But unlike Helen, she had fiery red hair and alabaster skin.

"Tanya!" Helen screamed, as she began to fight her way through the crowd. She rushed toward her cousin and wrapped her in a bear hug.

Tanya laughed and squeezed her back, proclaiming, "It's so good to see you! The last time had to be right after uni."

As they pulled apart, Helen winced guiltily and hastened to apologise, "I know, I'm sorry, Tan. I meant to come visit you four years ago. I've just had a lot going on lately… but that's not a very good excuse, is it?"

Tanya smiled and nudged Helen's shoulder with her own. "You're forgiven. Now let's get a move on. I've booked us a table for lunch."

Helen grabbed the handles of her suitcases and scrunched her nose. "You had to book a table for lunch? Where, a five-star restaurant?"

Her cousin grinned and quipped vaguely, "You've obviously never been to Italy."

The shorter Scot shrugged and admitted, "Well, you've got me there."

They made their way to the hourly car park and Helen once again wrinkled her nose. "Why didn't you just park at the kerb? Surely you'll have to pay to get out of here."

Tanya answered as they stuffed Helen's suitcases into the boot of her bright yellow 1995 Fiat Punto, "I wanted to make sure I was here in case your plane landed early. I've been here less than an hour, so it'll only be 2060."

Helen arched a brow and enquired, "What does that mean when it's at home?"

"A little under a pound," Tanya replied, getting in on the driver's side.

Once Helen was seated in the roomy passenger's seat, she turned to face her cousin and asked sceptically, "You're telling me that two-thousand-and-sixty lire is less than a pound?"

"Yep. The money system over here is really confusing until you get the hang of it. I'll be glad when they start producing Euros."

Helen shook her head as she buckled her seatbelt and Tanya backed out of the parking space. "So where are we eating? You never said."

Tanya smirked. "I know, because it's a surprise. I'll just tell you that it's a small local place with absolutely scrummy food."

Helen turned her attention to the road as they pulled out of the car park. She realised with a sense of panic that they were driving on the right-hand side. Gripping the edges of her seat, she sat rigid as cars flew by in the opposite direction on the left.

More as a way to distract Helen from the traffic than anything else, Tanya asked flippantly, "Did I ever tell you that I'm dating women now?"

That did the trick. Helen snapped her head round so fast she nearly got whiplash. "When? How? What?"

Tanya laughed loudly and chided her cousin gently, "Don't play all innocent with me. I know you like chicks, Stewart."

Helen's response was a fabulous impression of a goldfish. Finally she managed a meek, "How did you know?"

Tanya shifted gears and swerved around a slow-moving Volkswagen, causing Helen's stomach to lurch and her heart to beat frenetically. "Do you remember that friend I brought with me when you graduated uni?"

It was no small effort required for Helen to pause her traffic-related panic long enough to recall the person in question. "Um… Jo? Or Joanne? Something like that?"

Tanya grinned wryly and nodded her head. "Jo short for Joanne, actually. Anyway, it was hard to miss the way you stared at her."

Helen clicked her fingers and said without thinking, "Right! She reminded me of Nikki."

The redhead frowned and turned her attention to her cousin for a fraction of a second, making Helen even more nervous as her eyes were no longer focused on the road. "Who's Nikki?"

"Um…" Helen fidgeted. "I'll tell you as long as you promise to watch where you're driving. I've never even seen traffic like this before. It's totally manic!" Her voice was rising in near hysteria and Tanya had to fight down the urge to laugh.

"Okay, okay… If it'll make you feel better, I'll keep my eyes on the road. But I'm sensing a big revelation is coming so you'd better start talking."

"Nikki's a woman I dated when I was twenty-one, my third year of uni."

Shock was a gross under-exaggeration of the emotion that played out across Tanya's face, but she kept to her word and concentrated on the road packed with lunatic drivers of all sorts. Helen spent the remaining twenty minutes of the car ride telling her cousin about how she'd met Nikki and how they'd come to be an item all those years ago.

It was a nightmarish affair trying to find parking on the jam-packed streets of Florence, right in the heart of a major business district at that. Finally they managed to snag a space that had just been vacated by a mini BMW, but Tanya forewarned Helen that they would still have a short walk ahead of them to reach the restaurant.

As they strolled through the busy streets filled with tourists and locals alike, Tanya explained that they were in the old Santo Spirito district and that they would be dining within the Piazza della Passera, which often got a humourous response when discussed amongst locals – apparently 'passera' was also a term for a woman's genitals, and combined with 'piazza' for square…

They arrived at Trattoria dei Quattro Leoni just in time for their 12:30 reservation, and they were shown to a secluded table in one corner. As Helen soaked in the rustic décor she mused that this was a very cosy place, indeed, niftily tucked away in the square and unheard of by many tourists. It was with some amusement that the shorter Scot realised the waiter was doing his utter best to keep them away from a menu. He recommended a pasta course and a wine to go with it, and feeling quite adventurous, Helen readily agreed.

After he'd returned with a bottle of wine and poured them each a glass of the 1995 vintage Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore – a deep, rich, Bordeaux-style red, Helen leaned on her elbows and propped her chin on her clasped hands. "So… you started to tell me earlier that you're dating women. Anyone in particular?"

Fiddling with the stem of her wine glass, Tanya smiled brightly and didn't hesitate with her response. "Actually, yes… Her name's Raven and we've been seeing each other for almost a year now. She does fashion modelling for local companies and catalogues, that sort of thing. She's away at a photo shoot right now, but you'll be able to meet her tomorrow."

Helen tilted her head curiously and asked, "How on earth did you end up dating a fashion model?"

To some that question may have sounded rude, but both cousins knew that Tanya didn't have any trouble in the aesthetic department. By most people's standards she was definitely better than good looking. What Helen had meant, and what Tanya had interpreted, was how she'd managed to meet someone in that line of work when her job was so far in contrast.

She worked as a painting conservator for the Galleria degli Uffizi, famous for displaying the works of Botticelli, Lippi, and Caravaggio, such as the Birth of Venus, the Madonna and Child with Two Angels, and Bacchus.

"Funny you should ask…" Tanya took a sip of her wine with a small smirk curling up the edges of her mouth. "She came into the museum with a tour group one day. The guide pulled a sickie and no one else was available, so I got stuck with it. When I introduced myself she got all cheeky about the fact that my name wasn't in the brochure, asking where the proper guide was. I thought it only fitting that we meet up later so I could show her my credentials."

Helen couldn't help it – she burst out laughing. "Well… it sounds like… she's… a good match."

Tanya sighed and got a faraway look in her eyes. "She is… I love her to bits."

Further conversation was delayed as the waiter appeared with their order: steaming plates of Fiochette al pera – pasta stuffed with cheese and bits of pear, covered in a creamy cheese sauce with bits of asparagus. Helen stared at her food with raised brows after her cousin explained what was in it.

"Pear? In pasta?"

Tanya snickered. "Go on, try it. I promise you won't regret it."

And she didn't. As a matter of fact, it was the best pasta she could ever recall eating.

They finished off their meals and settled the bill, deciding to split it in half, before making their way down the street to the Gelateria della Passera. They ordered limone gelati and devoured the icy treats as they made their way back to Tanya's Fiat. The drive took almost an hour but it was well worth the wait.

Helen found herself wandering away from the car as soon as it came to a stop, not bothering with her luggage as the view surrounding her cousin's apartment had thoroughly ensnared her. It was a quaint split-level stone cottage surrounded by rolling hills and overlooking the Chianti vineyards, only a short distance away from the small town of Castellina in Chianti. Halfway between Firenze and Siena, the scenery more than made up for the commute Tanya drove daily.

An exploration at the back of the cottage revealed a gorgeous swimming pool that was obviously well-maintained, but unfortunately far too cold to use this time of year. Helen walked back to the car in a daze to find Tanya pulling her suitcases out of the boot.

"How on earth do you afford this place? It's gorgeous."

Her cousin smiled and said, "You'd be amazed… It's actually really inexpensive. I guess a lot of people don't like living in the middle of nowhere, but I prefer it. It's so much quieter here than in the city centres."

Helen nodded and rapidly conceded, "After seeing that traffic earlier I don't blame you."

They took a suitcase each and hauled them into the cottage, which held two double bedrooms and one bathroom on the first floor, with a kitchen and modest family room on the ground floor. Helen left her luggage at the foot of the bed and followed her cousin down to the kitchen. Keeping British tradition well and truly alive, even in the heart of Italy, Tanya made them each a cup of tea before they sat down to talk.


Chapter 32

Flashback, Ten Years Prior, Day Seven

After spending the morning with Nikki, visiting various shops and galleries Soho had to offer, the main highlight being Elms Lesters Painting Room, they'd met up with Claire to have lunch and then continued their afternoon excursion with the solicitor-to-be in tow. When it came time for Nikki to leave the duo and head into work, Claire and Helen decided to amuse themselves by taking in an evening showing of La Bayadere at the Royal Opera House.

After the show the two friends had gone on to a local night club and had a few rounds of drinks and a few spins on the dance floor. Just before closing time, Helen made her way to Thirst and told Nikki she'd wait for her out back. Thirty minutes later she was puffing on a fag and staring up at the sky, wondering when it was going to resume raining. She heard a light shuffle of footsteps to her left and turned her head in surprise.

"What are you doing here?" Helen asked, stamping out the butt of her cigarette on the pavement. She rarely smoked but she'd gotten one off Nikki earlier to pass the boredom while she waited for the bartender to get off work. The club was closed and the patrons were gone, but Nikki had stayed behind to clear up and lock up.

Thomas stepped further out of the shadows and said with a blank expression, "I came to find you, Helen."

The Scot frowned in puzzlement and asked, "Why? Has something happened to Claire?"

Thomas laughed then and shook his head. "No… Claire's fine."

Beginning to feel unsettled by the way he was staring at her, like a lion eyeing up a grazing gazelle, she began to back away slowly, her steps faltering from her nervousness. He made to move toward her and she turned on her heel to run, but he grabbed her arm and yanked her back, pushing her against the grimy brick wall of the alley and pinning her upper arms in a steely grip, a vein pulsing on his forehead and his eyes bulging in a manic craze.

"Please… don't do this," Helen begged in a broken whisper.

Thomas tilted his head and chuckled. "I'm only giving you what you deserve, Helen. You need to be taught a lesson. I know you've been carrying on with that dyke, engaging in sin and perverting God's intentions. You need to be put in your place."

Terrified beyond words, she couldn't muster the strength or the words to respond. She shook her head desperately in silent protest, but that only seemed to spur him on further. Releasing one of her biceps from his iron grip, he brought his forearm up and pressed it to her throat, cutting off her air supply sufficiently to keep her in place. He used his other hand to open his trousers and push up her dress, tears now running down her cheeks as she sobbed and gasped for air.

"No…" she tried to scream but she didn't have enough oxygen in her lungs.

Sharp pain split through her and she nearly blacked out, her surroundings going in and out of focus in a dizzying swirl of colours. It was all she could do to hang onto consciousness, but a part of her said to let it go, to drift away to a better place where he couldn't hurt her. As she slipped into the comforting darkness her heart cried out for Nikki. Where was Nikki?

Nikki had just finished doing the last of the inventory in the stockroom after having cleaned the bar counters and swept the floors. She double checked that all the doors were locked before grabbing the full bin bags and turning out the lights. She let herself out the back door that led into the alley and the dumpster that resided there. She locked the door in an awkward half-handed move, juggling the keys and bags of rubbish.

When she turned around and got her first full view of the alley, she froze in horror and a strangled cry of despair mixed with disbelief arose from her throat. The bin bags slipped from her fingertips and spilled onto the tarmac as she lost all the strength in her limbs. She couldn't consciously recall how she'd forced her legs to move and carry her over to the crumpled, dishevelled form of her girlfriend lying by the dumpster, obviously unconscious.

Her eyes darted quickly over the bruised frame of her lover and she noted with tremendous dread that Helen's knickers were tangled around her ankles, the hem of her dress raised high on her bloodstained thighs. Kneeling down on the dirty ground, mindless of the broken glass and pebbles digging into her knees through the fabric of her trousers, she used a shaky hand to gently brush the tendrils of hair out of Helen's face.

"Christ," she muttered in a terrified whispered, "what did he do to? Who did this?"

Helen's eyelids began to flicker and Nikki quickly cradled the smaller woman's body to her torso, beginning to sob from relief as the Scot woke up. Coming slowly out of her hazy state, Helen was first met with a sense of confusion, and then pain, incredible pain. Wincing, she struggled to recall what had happened. Bits and pieces flew by in her mind's eye and caused her to go rigid as she began to struggle in the arms that were holding her.

"No!" she yelled, though her voice was hoarse and her throat felt like sandpaper.

Nikki choked on a sob and tightened her grip on the broken woman, whispering as soothingly as she could manage in her own tremulous state, "Shhh… it's okay, Helen. It's Nikki. I'm h-here."

Her voice cracked on the last word and it was all she could do to maintain some semblance of composure. Helen stopped struggling and burst into tears, clutching blindly at her girlfriend's shirt and mumbling unintelligibly. Nikki allowed herself to cry and began rocking the Scot back and forth, like she would a frightened child. When, after a long, indiscernible amount of time, Helen seemed to calm down a fraction, Nikki lifted her cheek from the top of the Scot's head and brushed her fingers through the tangled brown tresses.

"Helen… I'm going to let go of you now and call the police."

Helen flew into a state of panic at the thought of Nikki leaving her, of not being there to protect her. She clutched the fabric of the bartender's shirt in a death grip and whimpered through another wave of tears, "Please don't go!"

Nikki closed her eyes and clenched her jaw, wishing with all her might she could find the bastard who'd done this and kill him. In that second she knew with certainty that if she'd caught him in the act he would now be dead. Rubbing a hand gently across Helen's shoulders, she squeezed her reassuringly as she spoke in a quiet tone.

"I'm not leaving you out here, Helen. I'm taking you inside the club so I can use the phone in Tony's office."

Helen's fractured mind struggled to process and comprehend this line of logic, but eventually she nodded her consent and tried to stand on wobbly legs. Nikki helped her up and wrapped an arm around her waist, half carrying her to the rear entrance of the building though it was only a few metres away. She unlocked the door and re-locked it behind them, and then the pair made their way slowly to the office, Helen struggling greatly and nearly stumbling several times from the shaky unresponsiveness of her body.

She sat Helen down in Tony's oversized leather chair and picked up the landline receiver, quickly dialling 999. When she was greeted by the operator and asked to state her emergency, she only just managed to get the words out.

"I need an ambulance at 17 Moor Street, Soho. My girlfriend's been… she was… raped."

Fifteen minutes later Helen was loaded into the back of an ambulance and being checked over by a paramedic. Nikki sat beside her holding her hand as the rear doors shut and the vehicle sped off towards the nearest hospital in the area.

Two hours later she was cleaned up and booked into a hospital room for overnight observation; the doctor wanted to make sure she hadn't sustained a concussion when she'd passed out and fallen to the ground. There was a substantial amount of tearing and bruising down below, but other than that she seemed to be okay, physically anyway. Because of the time she was brought in, she was told Nikki wouldn't be allowed to visit her until later in the morning.

As Helen lay there in the elevated bed and stared at the ceiling, the sound of heavy rain pattering down on the window pane, she found herself adrift in a turbulent sea of thoughts, and she forced herself to make a difficult decision. She'd allowed the doctor to do a rape kit but she'd refused to press charges or name her attacker. She didn't think she could bear the shame of going to trial with this. What would Claire say if she knew? How would she react? Would she even believe her? Helen knew she was sweet on Thomas and she didn't think she could stand being called a liar by her best friend.

Then there was Nikki… sweet, wonderful, loving Nikki… How could she go on in this relationship after what had been done to her? She feared that every time Nikki touched her in the future she would be reminded of this night. She didn't want to put her lover through that ordeal, that emotional stress. No… she would bear this trauma on her own.

Nikki was at the hospital promptly at 10am, the time she'd been given by the nurse only a few hours earlier. She'd showered and changed and had a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee in one hand, a vibrant bunch of flowers in the other, but her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot from crying and lack of sleep. She'd tried to snag a few hours of rest at her apartment, but she'd only managed to toss and turn as her mind played back a vicious reel of atrocious images; Helen lying on the ground unconscious, Helen's underwear around her ankles, Helen's blood caked on her thighs…

It made her sick to think of what had happened, but it seemed she couldn't prevent herself from doing so. Her love for the smaller woman was such that it felt like the attack had happened to her as well. She'd wept and screamed for the Scot over and over again, until Laura had come home from working the late shift and found her that way. Unable to relay the gruesome events of the past few hours, she'd merely buried herself in her roommate's arms and sobbed until her tears ran dry.

She navigated her way through the maze of hospital corridors and approached the nurse's station with grim determination. A thirty-something brunette smiled at her kindly, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the start of her shift, and Nikki attempted to smile back at her, though it failed to meet her eyes.

"I'm here to see Helen Stewart."

"And you are?" the nurse enquired politely.

"Her girlfriend, Nikki Wade. The nurse on duty last night told me I could come in at this time."

The nurse nodded and flipped through a chart by her elbow. Finding the correct page, she scanned down a list with her fingertip then frowned.

"I'm sorry, Miss Wade, but she discharged herself an hour ago. It says here she left something for you with the nurse who was doing her observation. I'll just go and find her."

Beyond confused and getting a bit agitated, Nikki began to pace back and forth in front of a row of plastic chairs. She longed to run her fingers through her hair like she always did when she was stressed, but the items in her hands prevented her from doing so. Letting out a massive sigh of frustration, she plopped down on one of the chairs and waited.

A few minutes later the brunette returned, clutching in her hand a folded letter. A sinking feeling of dread settled in the pit of Nikki's stomach as an invisible fist squeezed her heart in a vice. She took the letter with numb fingers and flipped it open, barely able to read the words written on the page. She recognised Helen's writing and her jaw trembled, tears filling her eyes as she predicted what was coming.


I want you to know that you mean everything in the world to me. I love you with all my heart and soul, with everything that I am and everything that I'll ever be. Nothing can take that love away from me. But I can't stay here and put you through the hell I'm going through. I know it would only destroy us in the end. I always want to remember the good times without creating the bad. I want to cherish the memory of our time together and not have it tainted by bitterness. I don't ever want you to hate me, darling, and I fear that might happen if we continue down this path. I'm going to have a lot to work through right now, and I know you'd want to shoulder the burden for me, but I have to overcome this on my own. I have to do this for me. Maybe someday, after I've lain my demons to rest, we might meet again. Who knows what will happen in the future? I'll never stop hoping and I'll never stop loving you. Goodbye, sweetheart.

Yours forever,

Helen x

Nikki re-read it three times before it actually sank in. Her tears splashed down over her cheeks and onto the paper in her trembling hand, threatening to mar the only memory she had left of the love of her life, preserved for her in delicate black ink. She wiped at her tears angrily and folded the letter, sliding it into one of her coat pockets for safekeeping. Standing up, she gathered together every ounce of strength she possessed and left the hospital without looking back.

Out of respect for Helen, she wouldn't try to find her. She knew she could if she wanted to, having in her possession the knowledge of the Scot's university campus, but her girlfriend – ex-girlfriend, she corrected herself – had expressed in no uncertain terms that that wasn't what she wanted. All she could do now was try and get on with her life. Perhaps one day fate would bring them together once again.

Three Months Later

"Helen, I swear, if you don't get your arse out of that bed voluntarily, I will drag you to class in your pyjamas. I refuse to stand by any longer and let you throw your life away. You've been drinking nonstop, you haven't done your laundry in over two weeks, and I'm not sure you've had a shower in about that long either."

Claire was on a roll now and getting angry with her friend's irresponsible behaviour and general disregard for everything she'd cared about just a few months prior. Hearing no kind of response from the woman in question, Claire yanked the duvet off the Scot and was met with a steely green gaze.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, the dirty blonde dropped her head in her hands and sighed in frustration, mumbling through her fingers, "Please, Helen, tell me what's going on. You've been weird ever since we got back from Soho."

Seeing the Scot wince visibly at the mention of their Spring Break location, Claire softened and shook her head slowly. She'd asked her friend if something bad had happened between her and Nikki, but Helen maintained that it had been an amicable split, that they simply didn't want to try long distance.

Claire found that very difficult to believe considering how happy and obviously in love they'd been the last time she'd seen them together, and she felt that there was something else at the root of this, something bigger, more profound.

Growing tired of the silence that hung in the air, the solicitor-to-be clenched her jaw and counted to ten. Finally she spoke in a calm, controlled manner, "Fine, you can stay here and waste your life away if you want… but I know you'll regret it one day."

She stood up and gathered her book bag from the end of her bed, calling over her shoulder as she got to the door, "By the way, I won't be here at the weekend, so you'll have to look after yourself. I'm going to see Thomas."

Helen bolted upright and shouted, "No!!!"

Startled and bewildered, Claire dropped her bag off her shoulder and moved slowly toward her best friend's bed. Until now she hadn't spoken of her on-going relationship with Thomas because Helen always seemed to freeze up whenever she mentioned anything to do with Soho. Approaching her clearly rattled and terrified friend, Claire knelt down by the edge of the bed.

"Why, no? I thought you didn't mind Thomas. I mean I know he got on your nerves at dinner that one time, but I didn't expect this kind of reaction."

Helen shook her head, eyes wild with panic, and she pleaded desperately, "Please, Claire, don't go near him. You can't. He's not safe. I don't want you to… get hurt."

Seeing the sheer terror and rising tears in her friend's eyes, Claire could only stare at her in confusion. Something small and niggling was eating away at the edge of her awareness, but she couldn't quite grasp it. She needed something more solid, more lucid, to go on.

Reaching a hand out to cover Helen's, which was tightly balled into a fist around a clump of bedclothes, she asked somewhat unsteadily, "Helen, did Thomas… did he… do something to you?"

Unable to look her best friend in the eyes as she answered, unable to lie there and witness the judgement that was bound to be in her gaze, she turned her head and stared at the wall as she whispered a single word, "Yes."

Covering her mouth with her hand, Claire rocked back on her heels and whimpered. It all made sense now – the strange behaviour, the heavy drinking, the break-up with Nikki, the refusal to talk about Soho, the hiding away from the world…

Regaining her wits and realising her friend must be hurting more than she could ever hope to understand, Claire crawled onto the tiny bed and hugged Helen tightly, her tears falling silently and soaking into the shoulder of Helen's pyjama top.

In the otherwise quiet atmosphere of the shared room, the law student's voice could be heard mumbling over and over, "I'm so, so sorry, Helen… I didn't know… I didn't know…"



One Year Later

Helen had returned from her peaceful retreat in Reykjavik to be approached by Area Management. She was informed that Stubberfield had been sacked and that they were seeking a replacement. She was their first choice of candidate and she was initially overwhelmed by the prospect of running Larkhall. It was a great achievement to be so highly sought after and to have her views recognised. She made the decision over the course of a week and took the job with the intention to start implementing real change. Over the last year she'd managed to do just that.

Karen had been promoted to G-wing governor and the wing was finally shaping up to be a model for every other prison in the country. The two women worked together closely to see Helen's vision and strategies put into place. Positive drug tests were at an all-time low and enrollment in education classes was at an all-time high. More and more women were formulating appeals and preparing themselves to lead productive lives upon release.

The only loose end was Nikki Wade. After being given the job of Governing Governor, Helen steadfastly refused to have intimate physical contact with the inmate. It was not only risky but unethical, no matter how strongly she felt for the prisoner in question. It was a hellish year filled with tension and bitterness, and frequent spats that threatened to ruin their relationship. They always managed to make amends, though, realising how precious it was that they'd gotten a second chance and unwilling to let it slip away.

Today was the day they'd been waiting for since that afternoon in October when Claire had told her that Nikki's appeal had been approved by the CCRC. Nikki's final court appearance was scheduled in just two hours' time. Helen busied herself with a final batch of paperwork until half past one, then she packed up her briefcase and made her way out of the prison gates. She arrived at the courthouse and met up with Claire, finding a seat in the public gallery just before the hearing began. Today was judgement day. Today they would be hearing the verdict.

Helen sat with baited breath and resisted the urge to bite her fingernails as the judge took his seat. A glance over to the side of the room saw Nikki in a similar state of nervous apprehension. She felt Claire's hand on her arm, squeezing in excited anticipation, as they stared toward the front of the room and the judge began to speak. At first it seemed incredibly daunting, almost hopeless, as the judge commented that nothing he'd heard had disputed the fact that Nikki's crime had been vicious and unlawful.

Then he uttered the magic words and Helen found she could breathe again.

"Nicole Wade… you are free to go."

Nikki looked absolutely stunned and uncomprehending as she stood there in the box at the far side of the room. Di Barker nudged her and repeated the verdict, telling her she was free, and on her other side Dominic moved to shake her hand in congratulations. Finally understanding swept through her and she felt tears building up behind her eyes. Happy tears, at long last. After shaking the young PO's hand and thanking him briefly for all his support over the last few years, she made her way out of the box and found Helen.

The Scot rushed into her arms with an excited squeal and did her very best to hug the oxygen out of her lungs. The ex-con grinned as she let her tears roam freely down her cheeks, clutching her girlfriend like her life depended on it. When the heartfelt embrace finally ended, Nikki managed to give the customary handshakes to her legal team, giving a special thanks to her barrister, Marion, for her wonderful support during the course of the trial. After being swept into another tight hug by Claire Walker, Nikki and Helen made their way out of the courthouse arm-in-arm.

Just before they departed to the front steps, knowing reporters would be waiting with cameras to blind them, Nikki paused and asked uncertainly, "Are you sure you want to go out there like this? The whole country is going to see it live on television, and I don't think your bosses at the Home Office would approve somehow."

Helen grinned then, an ear-to-ear dazzling smile, and she proclaimed happily, "I handed in my resignation last week, effective this afternoon. Karen's going to be the new Number One at Larkhall now. And guess who's taking her place on G-wing?"

Nikki cocked her head to one side with a smile of astonishment. "Who?"

"Dominic. I think he's more than proved himself capable lately. I look forward to seeing him continue what Karen and I started."

Nikki laughed and shook her head, delighted beyond words that everything had worked out so splendidly. Eyes still dancing with merriment, she wrapped her arms around Helen's waist and said, "You know what this means, don't you? We can finally start living the life we should've had ten years ago. And with Fenner's trial over and him behind bars for the foreseeable, there's nothing to stand in our way."

Helen nodded in agreement and pressed a kiss to the ex-con's lips. The sable-haired woman ended the kiss with a wide grin as she fished around for something inside her suit jacket. Pulling out an old piece of paper, she opened it and handed it to Helen.

"I asked Trisha to find this a few weeks ago and mail it in to me, just in case. Do you remember writing it? Maybe you're psychic, Miss Stewart," Nikki teased. "We did meet again, after all. Let's not waste this opportunity."

Overcome by a swell of emotion, Helen could only choke out, "I love you."

Nikki captured her lips in a final deep kiss before pulling back and pushing open the doors that led to the front steps, and her freedom.

"And I love you, Helen. Always."

The bright flashing bulbs that greeted them on the steps captured forever the happy smiles that adorned their faces as they walked into their future hand-in-hand.

Across the street Thomas Waugh stood unseen amongst a group of avid spectators. After seeing Jim Fenner's trial pasted all over the telly and newspapers, he'd decided that approaching Helen was far too dangerous. He'd initially had designs on getting a job as Larkhall's SMO, but after Fenner's sentencing hearing he'd changed his mind. He didn't want to end up on the wrong side of the bars that poor schmuck and ruin the sweet life he'd built for himself.

As he stared at her now from a respectful distance, he knew this would be the last time he ever saw Helen Stewart. He smiled to himself, stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets, and walked away.

The End

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