DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank my intrepid beta readers Isobel, Kate and Mary, without whom this story would have been of far lower quality. Any remaining mistakes are the responsibility of the author. All original characters and situations are the product of this author's fevered imagination and the beta readers have no responsibility for them.
SPOILERS: This story refers to some events in seasons 1-3 of Bad Girls.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
"So how are you finding it?" Monica asked, as she brought in the coffee.
"Good," Nikki said, sitting forward to make space on the coffee table in front of the sofa. "Strange, but good."
"You never mentioned strange," Helen said from the other end of the settee where she was curled up with the remnants of a glass of white wine.
"Yes, I did," Nikki told her, indulgently, "you just weren't listening."
"OK, when was this?" Helen said firmly.
"My first day at the centre. Remember, I went on to the club afterwards. I got back in the small hours of the morning and you were waiting up for me. Even though you had work that day."
"I wanted to support you," Helen said with considerable dignity.
"You did. It's just you were dozing through most of the conversation. And every time I suggested going to bed, you sat bolt upright and asked me to tell you more."
"I don't remember that!" Helen protested.
Nikki grinned and put her hand on Helen's knee. Monica looked at the two women and discreetly busied herself with adding cream and sugar to the cups of coffee. She turned back after a suitable interval, catching the end of what had undoubtedly been an unspoken conversation of glances and facial expressions.
"So what was strange, Nikki?"
"The kids. They kept following me around because I was new and different."
"Has that worn off yet?"
"Oh yeah. In fact I was working on the fence the other day and I think I got used as a goal post."
"You're not sure?" Helen asked.
"There's a language barrier," Nikki said, "and you know ... ankle biters. Not my thing."
"Pull the other one," Helen said. She turned to Monica. "I walked in on Tuesday and she was teaching them how to play leap frog."
"So?" Nikki said. "Kept them out of my hair for the rest of the day, while I sorted out the leak in the roof. You were the one who was reading with them all afternoon."
"Hey, I'm upfront about liking kids," Helen told her softly. Nikki rolled her eyes but didn't say anything. Monica got the sense of an ongoing, silent, negotiation and filed the impression for future reference.
"Well the committee are very pleased with you," Monica told Nikki frankly, "the service users like you ... ,"
"Spare me the jargon. You mean the mother's mafia," Nikki said, "that happened the first week."
"Oh?" Monica said.
"No big deal. I spotted some of the master race hassling the kids on the way back from school and I intervened. Made it clear they weren't welcome and they buggered off."
"Was that why you started going there mid-afternoon for a while?" Helen asked.
"Yeah. Did a bit of hanging around the school gates. Meeting and greeting, I think they call it. Just till the local filth got involved. Then I faded into the background."
She shrugged, unaware that Helen was looking at her with focused, intent love.
"That's the only fly in the ointment, really. I wish the local morons would just vanish. But it isn't going to happen."
"Nikki ... ," Monica said carefully.
"Oh, don't worry, I get it. I get that they feel like they've been crapped on from a great height, because they have; and that the system doesn't care, because it doesn't. The system has delivered schools that don't qualify them for anything they want to do and a society where there aren't any of the factory jobs that used to connect them to the nine to five and give them a decent living. They're just old enough and just intelligent enough to work that out for the first time and some bastard has come along and sold them an ideology that says they're worth something because of the colour of their skin. I just don't get where that makes it OK to make children who show me drawings of helicopters bombing their villages and troops murdering their families afraid to go and play outside."
There was a short silence. Nikki cleared her throat.
"Sorry. Open gob, insert foot. You know me."
"It's OK to care, Nikki. I even agree with some of what you say," Monica said, "you might want to keep those thoughts to yourself if the local MP comes around, that's all."
"I don't think he will. No votes."
"You're probably right," Monica said thoughtfully, "oh, I almost forgot. The committee have given the go ahead for the garden project."
"Really? That's great!"
"Garden project?" Helen asked, puzzled.
"There's a piece of waste ground next to the school. I want to convert it into a garden. Somewhere for the women to sit," Nikki told her.
"What about plants? Equipment?"
"Equipment I've got. Plants I can grow from seed or get donations. The older kids can help me. All I'll need at the moment is muscle, to clear the rubbish and get the ground ready."
"I suppose they can help you design it as well."
"I've got a design," Nikki said, abruptly tight lipped.
"Yeah. Woman I knew in Fellgarth did it."
"Well, I imagine she'll be pleased to know her plan will be used," Monica commented, "are you going to write and tell her?"
Nikki closed her eyes briefly and shook her head. "She didn't make it out. Suicide."
"Oh, I am so sorry."
"Yeah. Me too."
"Let it go, darling," Helen said softly. She put a hand on Nikki's arm.
Nikki nodded and stood up abruptly, walking away to stare out of the window. After a moment she came back and sat down again, closer to Helen this time. They linked hands. Monica frowned thoughtfully.
"You know, it might well be possible to finance a small plaque. Once it's all finished."
"Really? I was going to plant a tree."
"We can do both. A garden needs a name, after all. And I've sometimes wondered who remembers those women who didn't have a guardian angel on hand when they needed one."
"Pretty bad tempered guardian angel," Nikki said ironically.
"Oh, I know. You didn't pull any punches the next morning. I hadn't been told off like that in years."
"You scared me. Should have heard the things I called you behind your back after lock up. You got the cleaned up version."
"I'm glad of that. Your vocabulary could be quite ... colourful, especially when you were really angry."
"Well, that's certainly improved lately," Helen said, "she has to watch it around the kids."
"You make it sound like I swore all the time," Nikki protested.
"I'm an ex-con. Sue me."
"Emphasis on the 'ex'," Helen reminded her, "you don't have to talk like you're in Larkhall for the rest of your life."
"I suppose not. It's just there are words that need a swear word with them. You know, like 'screw'."
"Fine if you're discussing prison officers. Not so good when you're talking about home maintenance."
"She never lets me get away with anything," Nikki informed Monica.
"Yes, I can tell you're really unhappy," Monica said dryly.
They smiled at each other.
Nikki was clearing up after the evening ESOL class when she became aware that there was someone else in the building. Carefully, she put the text books away - they were expensive and hard to replace. After she had locked the cupboard she went to the classroom door, opened it, and turned towards the deepest shadows within the dining hall, raising her voice. "You going to show yourself?"
There was a moment's silence and then a familiar figure walked into the classroom. A dark skinned African teenager, broad shouldered and solid, the stocky build holding the promise of great strength when he got his full height. He was wearing his usual track suit and trainers, a baseball cap covering his shaven head. Deep set eyes in a round face accentuated his wary stare.
Nikki grinned, recognising Ochen, and relaxed. The boy was an Ugandan refugee who had been attending the centre for a few months. For whatever reason, he had Nikki had really hit it off; they had been working together on Nikki's garden area project and swapping pirated rap and hip hop tracks while they did it.
Nikki suspected that it was the fact that they had both lost contact with their families, though for different reasons. Ochen's had been killed; it had made Nikki aware that being thrown out was not the worse thing that could happen between a person and their family. She didn't know the details and she didn't ask.
She was aware, from some of Ochen's actions, that they shared a hypersensitivity to what was around them and a wariness of strangers. They had similar habits, like checking spaces out before they went into them and the tendency to have something that could be used as a weapon close to hand. Their common behaviours gave them a connection on a non-verbal level that enabled them to work smoothly together; a lot of their assumptions were the same. Nikki carefully didn't allow herself to wonder where Ochen, at the age of fifteen, might have learned them.
"What's happening?" Nikki asked.
"They are here," Ochen said.
"What d'you mean?"
"Yesterday, they came to look. Tonight, they will attack."
"The enemy," Ochen said. He favoured her with a dazzling smile. "I am ready."
Nikki's skin started to crawl as he produced one of the bigger meat knives from the kitchen. She took a deep breath and made sure her voice was calm. "You have to put that back."
"Because when the pigs .. the police arrive, if you're carrying that, you'll be blamed for whatever happened."
"I am not afraid."
"I know that," Nikki said, "but why take responsibility for something you haven't done?"
"I will not be blamed. I will stop them."
"You don't want to go to prison in this country. Take it from me."
"Because you're better than that. And because they'll deport you at the end of your sentence. Come on, Ochen. Put the knife down."
"You do not understand."
"Don't I? OK, you may understand more about fighting, but I understand about how things work here. Yes or no?"
Ochen thought about it, then bowed his head. "Yes," he admitted.
He put the weapon down readily. Nikki realised that he was afraid and had been looking for a reason not to have to fight. She felt the responsibility settle on her; Ochen would pick up the knife again if he felt the centre to be threatened and he was trusting her to find another way. Nikki hoped she could.
"OK," she said, "what did you see?"
"Yesterday, one or two were watching, after dark. The one with a face like a rat and the one who has a spider web tattooed on his elbow. Tonight, there are more of them and there are men I do not recognise. They are in a white van, two streets away. They are smoking and drinking. One of them got out to relieve himself and I did not know him."
"Yeah, well, they've probably got a few mates round. Courage in numbers," Nikki said contemptuously, "did you see if they're armed?"
"I think they have baseball bats and maybe machetes. Nothing more."
"Right. I'll go round and check the outer doors are locked. You make sure there's no one left in the building."
"We call the police and tell a few lies."
"I'll say I've seen an intruder. If the Old Bill turn up it might put them off."
"Is it not better to face them and fight them?"
"Not if you don't want us to be looking at an assault charge. How many of them do you think there are?"
"Hard to say. I had to be careful when I watched them. But I think between five and eight."
"Shit, so we're outnumbered. Fighting is definitely a bad idea."
"They were talking about a party in Rostock. They had cans of petrol."
Nikki closed her eyes. "You do like leaving the best for last, don't you? All right, never mind about checking the building. You keep a look out. I'm calling the police now."
"They're going to try and burn the place down."
She hurried into the office and picked up the phone, dialling 999. "Come on, come on ...."
"Hello, which emergency service do you require?"
"Police and fire, please."
"Nikki, they are coming!" Ochen shouted.
"Try and keep them out!"
"I'm sorry?" the operator said.
"We've got a mob of people with petrol cans attacking this place," Nikki said tightly, "I need the fire brigade and I need the police and I need them here now."
"OK," the operator said reassuringly, "try to stay calm. I have to take some details, OK?"
"Fine, just hurry up!"
Nikki heard the sound of running feet outside and then the thudding of missiles against the building. Windows began to smash. "Just hurry the fuck up, will you!"
In the next room, Ochen screamed. Nikki swore under her breath, dropped the phone and sprinted out of the office. She grabbed the long pole they used to open the top windows as she skidded into the dining hall. There were three of them with baseball bats, wearing balaclavas; one of them had just hit Ochen and he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead. Behind the ones with weapons a couple more were busily emptying petrol on all of the curtains and soft furnishings they could find. The stink filled the air. Nikki felt her heart beat accelerate. The palms of her hands started to sweat.
"Ochen!" she shouted. He glanced back and took the pole as she handed it to him. The men with baseball bats spread out and Nikki, desperate, grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall, pulling the pin and directing it full force at one of them. He screamed as white foam hit him in the eyes and Nikki followed up by smashing the metal cylinder into his chin. He fell to his knees, the club dropping from his hand. Nikki picked it up and swung it into the side of his head, laying him unconscious on the floor.
She moved up to stand beside Ochen, helping him face off the other attackers. They were making small lunges at him, trying to goad him into range, but he was standing back, letting them come to him. When Nikki joined him they began to move forward, coordinating their actions without saying a word.
One of the men spreading petrol got out a lighter and started methodically setting the curtains on fire while the thugs with baseball bats held Nikki and Ochen off. Nikki swore aloud - there were just too many of them to fight and she daren't risk leaving Ochen on his own to go back for the fire extinguisher, especially with his makeshift weapon.
She was so focused on what was going on in the hall that she wasn't listening to anything else. One of the skinheads suddenly shouted.
"Old Bill's here!"
They all scattered and began to run away, dropping their stuff in their hurry to escape. Nikki listened and heard sirens. She gave them another few seconds to leave, then handed Ochen her bat and pointed at the unconscious skinhead.
"Get him out."
"What about you?"
The curtains were well ablaze now and thick black smoke was filling the hall. Ochen hesitated.
"Just do it!" Nikki said and ran for the fire extinguisher, desperately hoping that the petrol cans were all empty. She could feel the heat searing the skin on her face and crisping her eyelashes. She fought panic as the visibility dropped, making it hard to see where the exits were, and grimly persisted with her efforts.
She battled the flames for what seemed an eternity, choking on the smoke as the curtains flared and guttered and the pools of petrol on the floor began to catch light and burn. She was still emptying fire extinguishers and pulling down curtains to smother the blaze when the fire engine arrived. Almost immediately afterwards she felt a hand on her arm and turned, dazed by smoke, to see a fire woman in breathing gear gesturing that she should get out of the hall. When she hesitated the woman and a colleague stopped waiting for her to move and dragged her out, pushing her away from danger.
Nikki staggered out into the blessedly cool night air and collapsed to her knees, retching. She felt a sudden pain in her hands and looked at her blistered palms, trying to process where she might have got hurt. One of the crew was shaking her and she tried to focus on what he was saying.
"Is there anyone in the building?"
He jogged off, leaving her to the paramedics, who gave her oxygen and treated her hands. Ochen ghosted out of the darkness and stood nearby, watching them. Nikki got the distinct impression that she was being protected. She grinned at Ochen and gave him the thumbs up, then spoiled the good impression by having a coughing fit that felt like it might detach a lung.
"Smoke inhalation," the paramedic said, "we should get you to a hospital."
"No," Nikki rasped, "I'll stay. This building ... my responsibility."
A slim young man in plain clothes who had been talking to the uniformed officers controlling the scene looked up when he heard her speak and came over. He showed her his warrant card. "DS King. I'd like you and your friend to come to the station with me."
"What for?" Nikki said, trying to hold back the fear. She was glad that she was already pale with pain and exhaustion. Otherwise she knew all the colour would have drained from her face. She fought hard to stop her voice from shaking.
"Well, we need to get witness statements. Thanks to you, we've got one of the arsonists but I'd like to try and pick up the rest." He shrugged dismissively. "If I know that type, they'll be driving round panicking because it went wrong. Then they'll debrief in a pub somewhere or maybe somebody's house, but alcohol will be involved. The point is they won't think about forensics until tomorrow. If I can pick them up tonight, I've got a much better chance of making my case stick."
"And what am I going to be charged with?" Nikki asked bluntly. She could hardly recognise the sound of her own voice as it croaked from her damaged throat.
"You? You're a witness," DS King said, confused. Then he looked at her again. Recognition dawned in his eyes. "You're Nikki Wade, aren't you?"
"OK. Well, look, you're not a suspect. But, given the history, if you want to come in tomorrow instead and have your statement taken with your solicitor present, I won't object to that. You were inside, right? You didn't see the van?"
"No. But what about Ochen?"
"He saw it all. I have to speak to him tonight."
"You can't just take him to the station. He's underage. You'll need an appropriate adult."
"Fine. Where are his parents?"
"Not in this country."
Nikki shook her head.
"Damm it! The chances of getting social services out for something like this ..."
"Nikki," Ochen said.
"I will go if you will come with me. We have to catch these men, or their friends will return with the same intention."
"He's got a point," DS King said, "I'd like to nip this in the bud, if I can. I don't like hate crimes on my patch and these bastards have been working up to something like this for a while."
Nikki sat in the rear hatch of the ambulance, hands hurting fiercely, feeling the air catch in her lungs as she tried to breathe, and wished that she was heading for home and a hot bath and a sleep that would last about three days. 'Later,' she promised herself and stood painfully upright.
"Thanks. I really appreciate this," DS King said.
"I need to phone my partner. She'll be worried if she doesn't hear from me."
"Do you want to do that while I'm bringing the car round?"
Nikki nodded. As she contemplated getting into a police car and being taken to the station she was finding it harder and harder to speak. DS King seemed to understand and left her alone. Nikki got on the telephone to Helen and after reassuring her that she was all right, gave her a brief outline of what had happened.
"I'll come and pick you up afterwards," Helen said immediately.
"I could be a while."
"That doesn't matter. Look, are you going to be all right? Your voice is all over the place."
"I have to do this. I can't let Ochen down. And if I'm there, I might as well give my witness statement while it's all fresh in my mind."
"I'll be fine," Nikki said, with a false sincerity she hoped Helen couldn't see through. She terminated the call, her hands shaking so much that she found it hard to get the mobile phone back into her pocket. She could feel cold sweat on her forehead and could see the police at the scene watching her intently. She turned away so that she didn't have to look at their uniforms. 'One minute at a time,' she told herself. 'One breath at a time.'
DS King came up to her.
"We're ready," he said.
Thankfully, it was an unmarked car and a fast journey to the police station. Nikki sat in the back, not speaking, eyes closed, screening out the presence of the PC in the driving seat. When they got to the station they had to go in through the main custody area, though, and that was hard. She staggered a little and thought she might actually faint as they walked past the custody sergeant.
She wasn't taken down to the cells but through a locked door to the interview rooms. That, and Ochen's worried presence beside her, gave her enough self-possession to make it to her chair. Somebody brought tea and she listened while Ochen gave his account and hesitantly picked out some photographs from a selection DS King showed him. They went straight into taking her statement; the detective seemed to realise that she was near the end of her tether and that the only reason that she wasn't banging on the door and demanding to be let out was because she felt too exhausted and intimidated to do so.
Finally, though, it was over. She signed the last sheet and stood up quickly, feeling detached and unreal, as though it wasn't really happening. "Is that it? Can we go?"
"Of course. Thanks for your co operation."
"Any time," Nikki said, smiling falsely.
They turned a different way out of the interview room and were taken to a reception area, where a couple who turned out to be from Ochen's care home and Helen were waiting. Nikki was stumbling over her own feet by then but she managed to keep it together long enough to make polite conversation with the youth workers and reassure them that she would call them tomorrow and give them a full account of what had happened. She got a dry throat and started coughing, which turned into a fit of retching and Helen stepped in and insisted that they had to go home immediately.
They walked out of the police station and Nikki stumbled again. Suddenly she was numb. Only the pain in her hands seemed real. Helen took her arm.
"Bad day. Night. Whatever."
Helen led her to the car and belted her in, before getting into the driver's seat. After a while, Nikki became aware that the car was not moving and looked across at Helen. The other woman sitting, unmoving, her forearms braced on the steering wheel, staring through the front windscreen. Nikki reached across to her, stroking her cheek.
Helen took a deep breath and looked at her. Nikki couldn't make out all the components of her expression. Grief and overwhelming pride and a certain rueful exasperation mixed in with all of it.
"What are you, Nikki Wade? I knew you had guts. But that? Going into that police station, after what happened to you before? I think that's the bravest thing I've ever known anyone do."
She put the car into gear and drove Nikki home. When they got there she helped her out of her clothes and, getting into the shower with her, washed her gently and thoroughly. Once the smell of smoke had gone Helen towelled them dry and re-dressed and bandaged Nikki's blistered palms before taking her to bed and holding her warm and safe while she slipped into an exhausted sleep.
Nikki was working in the office, doing some of the endless paperwork that came with running a centre that worked on government grants. She had been forced to switch to a more desk bound role while her hands healed up; she was looking forward to going back to her old job but she knew that Helen, who quizzed her mercilessly about her day every evening, wouldn't let her do that until the doctor gave the all clear. Since she had also enlisted Trisha as her main informant at the club, Nikki couldn't even do much there.
There was a knock on the door. She glanced up absently, only to rise to her feet, a broad smile crossing her face, as she saw who was visiting.
The former gangster's moll, resplendent in her usual tight fitting designer outfit, matched the smile and reached out to hug Nikki. "Let me look at you, girl!" She held Nikki at arm's length and studied her. "Talk about a sight for sore eyes! You're looking good. Freedom suits you."
Nikki smiled at the other woman, who hadn't changed except to get more glamorous, her skillfully applied make-up and expensively cut hair accentuating her toned figure and well preserved good looks.
"I could say the same about you. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"It's my manor, isn't it? Though I'd check this place out. Specially when I heard you were working here."
"Volunteering. I work at the club, most evenings."
"So you back with ... Trisha, was it?"
"No. Just good friends. Anyway, d'you want a cup of tea?"
"You got time? You look like you're busy."
"That stuff can wait. It's all bollocks, anyway. I make most of it up."
"Bet that goes down great."
"Oh, they just send it back. I signed up as a helper, not an administrator. Monica does the important paperwork."
"This one of hers?"
"No, it's a committee she's on. She pulled a few strings for me." Nikki shrugged. "They're used to her banging the drum for her ex-con charity cases. They didn't give it a second thought."
"You're not on probation, are you?"
"No, free woman. Second conviction got quashed. But, you know, mud sticks. Some of them cross the road to avoid me, metaphorically speaking."
"Is that cause you're a murderer or cause you're a dyke?"
"I've never asked. Come on, let's get that cup of tea."
Nikki led the way out to the serving counter in the main dining area, with its lingering smell of fresh paint, and took her place in the queue. Yvonne peered through the hatch into the small, functional kitchen and raised her eyebrows at the food on offer.
"What?" Nikki asked.
"Thought it'd all be foreign stuff. That's spaghetti Bolognese, isn't it? And curry?"
"Yeah. The tea's black, though, with milk and sugar. Is that all right?"
"It's mostly Somalis at this centre, some Ugandans, Afghans, Kurds. It's like the United Nations most days."
"Right. Do you always wait in the queue?"
"It's only polite," Nikki said, taking a couple of mugs of tea from the server with a nod of thanks.
"Bringing back memories, that's all. Speaking of which, who's the big black kid giving us the evil eye?"
Nikki glanced across at the broad shouldered teenager who had been watching Yvonne since she came in and raised a hand.
"Ochen. Come and meet my friend."
The boy stalked across and reluctantly returned Yvonne's handshake.
"Nice to meet you, Ochen. Been here long?"
"Three years," he said quietly, "Nikki?"
"She's OK. Don't worry."
"I am not worried. If she has come to bring trouble, she should worry."
"Well, I haven't," Yvonne said, "I'm here to see my friend. So back off, all right!?"
Ochen retreated into sullen silence and slouched off.
"He's charming," Yvonne said as they sat down at one of the tables.
"He doesn't mean anything by it."
"Yes he bloody does."
"No offence, Yvonne but the people who came in here to torch the place spoke exactly the way you do. He's jumpy, that's all. If he hadn't backed me up I wouldn't have been able to stop them."
"Yeah, I've been hearing about that," Yvonne said, "you and three skinheads with baseball bats. Were you out of your bloody mind?"
"I just lost my temper, OK?" Nikki said. "Fascist scum like that wind me up."
"Yeah. They break knee caps and all."
"We were all right."
"Well, I suppose he's a big bloke, but ..."
"He's an ex child-soldier. I nearly felt sorry for the morons who tried to attack us when I found out."
"The Lord's Resistance Army, in Uganda? You heard of them?"
"You don't want to. They're scum. They abduct children, force them to kill their own families, torch villages, murder civilians. The girls get taken as sex slaves, the boys get forced to fight the government forces. Ochen was lucky to get away."
"So how did he end up here?"
"I don't know. People trafficker, I expect." Nikki grinned suddenly. "He's very confused at the moment, anyway."
"Why?" Yvonne asked, sensing a story.
"Well, after the attack, Helen came to fetch me one day and he walked in on us in the office. He's still trying to get his head round it."
"Don't they have ladies who love other ladies in a special way where he comes from, then?"
"I don't know, I've never discussed it with him. I don't plan to either."
"So you are seeing someone, not just shagging your way through the nearest women's rugby team."
"No. That's pencilled in for next week."
"How long you been with this Helen woman?"
"That depends on your point of view."
"Don't get all cagey with me. I want the gossip. Besides, one of the reasons I came here was to invite you to Lauren's wedding. It'll be nice if you can bring someone. I'll get all the details then, even if I have to get her drunk."
"You might have a problem. She doesn't drink a lot."
"Oh, I have my ways. Ask Bodybag."
"The thing is, Yvonne ...."
"Helen works for a charity that has contracts with the prison service. She's a consultant. She might not be able to come to the wedding if every villain in the East End's there."
"You don't have to worry about that. Lauren's been taking the businesses legit. She's ninety percent legal now. After seeing me inside she decided she didn't want to risk it. She's marrying a bloody solicitor, would you believe it?"
"If you can't beat them, join them."
"That's what Lauren says. So, you bringing your bird?"
"What's she like, then?"
"Gorgeous, Scottish, temper like you wouldn't believe. Puts up with me when nobody else would. Pretty much the perfect woman."
"You said she works for a charity. Does she know you're an ex-con?"
Nikki watched the cogs turning in Yvonne's head and spotted the precise moment when the penny dropped. Yvonne's eyes widened. "Helen Stewart. You're talking about Helen Stewart."
"Bloody hell, Nikki, you were shagging the bleeding Governor while you were in the nick! No wonder you kept it quiet!"
"You want to say that louder, Yvonne? I don't think they heard you in South London."
"Well, were you?"
"No. I was up for it but she wouldn't while I was 'an inmate under her care'. When I got out it was a different story."
"So you two were an item when you went back inside."
"That must have been tough."
"Yeah. We got through it, though."
"Well, good for you. Don't let the bastards grind you down."
"I tried not to," Nikki said thoughtfully, "got difficult towards the end."
"You and me need to get together with a bottle of wine and talk bollocks one day soon," Yvonne said cheerfully. She had the old, shrewd look in her eyes and Nikki suspected that the other woman had realised more than she was saying. Nikki let it pass, unwilling to get into the subject in the middle of a working day.
"We do. Look, let me get you my address and phone number. Have you got a business card?"
"Course I have. I like to keep my hand in. Here you are." Yvonne presented Nikki with the card and an engraved invitation to the wedding. Nikki ran her thumb over its surface and whistled.
"Nothing but the best for my Lauren."
"So, you planning on entering any glamorous granny competitions when the time comes?" Nikki asked, grinning.
"Piss off, Wade."
Nikki went to the office to write down her phone number and address. When she came back she found Yvonne smiling at Ochen, apparently taking advantage of his unwillingness to let her out of his sight. Nikki walked up to the other woman and nudged her forcefully. "Oi. Leave him alone. He's underage," she said softly.
"Really? Well you'd better send him my way when the time comes, then," Yvonne said, favouring Ochen with another flashing smile. "He's a very well developed boy. I could probably show him a thing or two."
"I'm sure you could," Nikki said, putting her address into Yvonne's hand. "Right now I'm going to show you out before you start offering him bags of sweeties."
She walked Yvonne out to her car and hugged her. "Thanks for coming round. It's good to see you."
"You too. One more thing ...."
"When this place got attacked, did the filth do anything?"
"They got the foot soldiers but not the bastards who sent them in," Nikki said, "it's just a matter of waiting for the next time, and hoping one of them squeals under pressure."
"Right," Yvonne said. "Don't worry about it any more."
"Told you this used to be my manor, didn't I?"
"So I'll make a few phone calls when I get home. Some of my friends from the old days. They'll put the word out. Nobody will touch this place after that. Or if they do, I'll want to know the reason why."
"Thanks, Yvonne. I owe you."
"Don't worry about it. You've done me a favour today."
"Yeah! You lezzas keep converting the straight birds like that and there'll be more blokes for the rest of us!"
Nikki sat in the window seat of her hotel room, looking out across the grounds, watching the sunshine on the trees and the river. The marquee was in place and she could see the staff bustling around, setting up for the reception buffet.
It was a glorious day, with perfect weather. Of course, Nikki was forced to admit that if it had been sleeting all day, drought conditions, or a Biblical rain of fire and brimstone, the weather would have still have been perfect as far as she was concerned. So long as Helen Stewart agreed to stand with her in front of their friends and make the legal commitment that reflected their relationship, Nikki Wade didn't care.
She was musing about how conventional she was turning out to be in her (very) late thirties when there was a knock at the door. She went to open it, revealing Trisha, who was sporting a self-satisfied grin. She nudged Nikki in the ribs.
"How are you feeling after last night?"
"Great. No thanks to the entertainment."
"Oh, come on!" Trisha said. "I thought she was very tasteful,"
"The stripping was," Nikki confirmed, "burlesque, I think she said. It was just the part where she tried to get into my knickers afterwards."
"She did?" Trisha asked, dismayed.
"So what did you do?"
"Told her I'd already had a better offer from a fiery Scot and put her in a taxi."
"Don't be. Helen laughed like a drain when I told her. Scolded me for not taking my opportunities while I could."
"You're not supposed to see each other!" Trisha said, scandalised.
"Whoever came up with that rule had obviously never heard of mobile phones. Anyway, talking to Helen was a side effect. You can't expect me not to check up on Calum."
"How was he?"
"Fine. Pleased to have his mam all to himself."
"I'm sure he'll be pleased to see his mum later."
"And his dad."
"All the way from Stirling," Nikki confirmed.
"I thought he was a hands off father?"
Nikki shrugged. "We wanted him to be here. He's not just a donor, you know. He's one of Helen's oldest friends. We were lucky he agreed to help us."
"I don't know," Trisha said thoughtfully, "Gareth doesn't want children and he runs that household. I always got the impression Malcolm was pleased to be asked."
"Wouldn't suit their jet set lifestyle, would it?" Nikki grinned.
"Spoil their image," Trisha agreed, "doesn't mean he can't get a warm glow from knowing there's a version of him running around. And he hasn't had to change a single nappy."
"I picked him because he was intelligent. Anyway, let's go and eat."
"Are you nervous?"
In the restaurant, Trisha eyed Nikki's smoothie and herbal tea as she tucked into her own bacon and eggs.
"Aren't you going to indulge yourself a bit?"
"This is indulgent. I don't want anything too heavy."
"You're living like a bloody nun these days. No alcohol, nothing that isn't whole food, organic and grown by weird communes halfway up a mountain somewhere, no caffeine .... I hope you're going to have a drink today."
"Of course I will. It's my wedding. I'm planning on a glass of champagne."
"One glass," Trisha snorted, gesturing to the waiter for a refill of her cafetiere. Nikki just smiled and sat back, enjoying her smoothie with an air of quiet contentment.
"You're glowing," Trisha commented affectionately.
"Are you surprised?"
"You've got a kid together, you co-own a house and a business and you're sickeningly, disgustingly in love with each other. Why does a civil partnership ceremony make any difference?"
"It just does."
"Insecurity, thy name is Nikki," Trisha teased.
"It's not about that."
Trisha believed her. In the last two years Nikki Wade had changed. Some of her qualities, like her fierce reaction to any sort of injustice and her warmth and integrity were very much the same, as was her business brain; the events management company she now ran was one of the most successful in the South East. But the happiness that came from her relationship with Helen had mellowed her, driving away some of her insecurities and helping banish the demons that her time inside had created. She could still be jealous; Trisha remembered a particular instance at a garden party last month, but she had learned to curb the angry reaction that had once been almost instinctive and to reassure herself in more subtle ways.
"Anyway, you're next," Nikki pointed out.
"I've told you, I'm not the marrying kind," Trisha protested.
"Anne 'll wear you down."
"No, she won't."
"Come on. You're totally under the thumb."
"Says Nikki "Yes, Helen." Wade," Trisha retorted. They smiled at each other, both enjoying the old argument.
"I'd better go and get changed. The celebrant's due soon and I'll have to go over the ceremony with her."
It was a joyous day and almost perfect. There was some unhappiness; Nikki knew that Helen would have liked her father to be there but he had never reconciled himself to his daughter falling in love with another woman and had refused to attend the ceremony. He was the only significant missing face, however. Everyone else who was important to the two women had accepted their invitation and the event was filled with laughter and emotion as they made the fact of their relationship legal and official and, more importantly, spoke their vows in front of their friends and community.
Some of Helen's family who didn't share her father's attitudes had come and Nikki hoped fervently that that would go some way towards consoling her partner for his behaviour. It had taken a few late night conversations before she had brought Helen to understand that, for her, it didn't matter that none of her blood relations were there. The people she had chosen to be her family were attending and that was enough.
Afterwards they danced together and mingled with the guests through a long, sunlit afternoon. Trisha came upon Nikki sitting at a table, a glass of orange juice in her hand, watching Helen with a sort of distant protectiveness as she sat chatting to Yvonne and nursing a sleeping Calum in her arms.
"You look happy," Trisha said.
"Yeah, well, just when you don't think it can get any better ...."
"Oh, stop it! I'm going to need insulin if you carry on like this."
Jack Harvey raised a glass of whisky at the other side of the table and took a bracing swallow. "I still say it's a fucking waste."
"Not in front of my son, Jack," Nikki said tolerantly.
"He's asleep. He can't hear me."
"Yeah, but Helen might. And I'm too relaxed to rescue you."
"Don't know why. You're not drinking. Woman's supposed to drink at her wedding. If only to drown her sorrows."
"Don't judge everybody by yourself," Nikki said. She and Jack had developed a strange friendship since he had shown up to split a bottle of malt with Helen shortly after their return to London and kept coming back to repeat the experience, though these days they tended to drink tea while arguing heatedly about the rights and wrongs of the criminal justice system. Nikki supposed that he was a male role model and was resigned to the fact that he and Calum seemed to get on like a house on fire, which she put down to them being at the same mental level.
She reached out and snagged Malcolm's arm as he passed by. The tall, easy going accountant stopped.
"We need to have a talk, somewhere private."
"Yes. Calum 'll be in a better temper once he's had his nap, anyway. Then you can play with him without him screaming his head off."
"Fine," Malcolm said, shrugging. Trisha glanced at Helen and saw that she was watching the exchange carefully while still listening to Yvonne. She gave Nikki a small thumbs up sign and the taller woman nodded.
Trisha filed the conversation away for future consideration and settled down to chat to the ex-copper. Later she was coming back from the bar when she saw Nikki and Helen, heads together as they sat by the river, holding hands. She glanced around and veered off to talk to them. Nikki looked up as she joined them and Trisha was struck by her air of suppressed excitement.
"OK, give," she demanded, "you can't fool me. Something's going on."
Nikki glanced at Helen, who shrugged. "We were going to ask her to be a godparent, anyway. You might as well tell her."
"Tell me what?"
"All right," Nikki said. "You know I haven't been drinking?"
"I had noticed."
"Well, I've also been clean for six months."
"Clean? Nikki, you don't even take aspirin!"
"I was on some other drugs, though. Prescription stuff. I'd been tapering off for a while and I quit properly at Christmas."
"You're not sick."
"It was for the after effects of what happened in prison."
"Oh," Trisha said soberly.
"I went to see the doctor last week and had a medical. I got a clean bill of health, physically and mentally."
"I still think you were being paranoid," Helen commented, "you've been fine since before we decided to have Calum."
"Yes, but it doesn't count if you're using a chemical crutch," Nikki said stubbornly.
Helen sighed and let it pass. Trisha got the impression that it was an old argument. Nikki squeezed her partner's hand. "Anyway, the point is that Malcolm has agreed to make another donation. For me, this time."
"Really!" Trisha said. "That's great news!"
"Yes. You can see why it's not a conversation I wanted to have in front of Jack, though. Turkey basters would have been mentioned sooner or later."
They laughed together and watched the sunlight on the water for a while before the midges got too bad and they went back to mingling with the guests.
Afterwards Nikki and Helen strolled back across the grass. Nikki was pensive. Helen tugged gently at her arm.
"Penny for them?"
"It's been a long, strange road. I wouldn't have made it without you."
"Yes, you would."
"No. There would been a bitter, angry con with my face and my name rotting in a cell somewhere. I might even have been dead by now. Prison's bad for your health."
"Well, if it hadn't been for you, I would have been a unhappy divorcee, probably blotting out the world with a combination of work and the vodka bottle."
Nikki turned and embraced Helen, kissing her passionately. She looked down at her partner's face, intense love filling her and seeing the same emotion reflected back.
"I prefer this."
Hand in hand, they walked into the hotel together.
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