DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.

The Gunpower Plot
By Kristine and Richard

One Hundred And Twenty One

On the Tuesday morning, Karen received a phone call from Helen, certainly not a person she was expecting to hear from. The police hadn't been around since early last week, and after her date with John on Friday, Karen was slowly beginning to relax. She smirked wickedly at her reflection in the monitor of the computer as she thought of Friday night. No matter what did or didn't happen to her in the coming months, the memory of that evening was something she would cherish for ever. She was under no illusions about John whatsoever. What had happened between them on Friday would almost certainly never be repeated, but she thought they would stay good friends, which would be a first for both of them. He had probably never had a female friend that he didn't sleep with, and she could probably say the same with regards to male friends. but the note he'd left for her on the Saturday morning had made the probability of a continuing friendship extremely clear. Picking up the phone, she was surprised to hear the familiar Scottish lilt.

"Karen, it's Helen."

"Helen," Karen said in surprise, "I wasn't expecting to hear from you, though I can probably guess what it's about."

"I thought you could probably do with a chat," Said Helen succinctly. "I think we both could." Realising that Helen too would have some unfinished business with regards to her feelings about Fenner's death, Karen capitulated. Agreeing to meet in a wine bar after they'd both finished work, they ended the call, both thinking that it might be time for them to regain the friendship they'd tentatively begun, back in the days before Karen had fallen under Fenner's spell.

At around six that evening, Karen locked her office door and walked out to her car, and drove to where they'd decided to meet. When she appeared in the wine bar they'd agreed on, Helen was already there waiting for her. She waved Karen over to a corner table.

"Hi," She said, "Thought I'd get them in as I was here. Scotch, isn't it?"

"Yes," Said Karen gratefully, "And oh, how I need it," She groaned theatrically as she sat down.

"That bad?" Asked Helen with a small smile, remembering what a day on G wing could sometimes be like.

"Well, Di and Sylvia can't make their minds up as to which ex-con was responsible for Fenner's murder," She replied as she got out her cigarettes. "And I could swear that the Julies are taking advantage of the serious shortfall of officers to come up with some new scam."

"It never changes then," Said Helen with a smile. "Is Sylvia still refusing to even contemplate the idea of change?"

"Oh, yes," Replied Karen, "When we computerised the canteen over a year ago, Sylvia was so clueless, that the inmates managed to fiddle the stock right under her nose."

"So," Said Helen, helping herself to one of Karen's cigarettes, "How are you really?"

"Would it sound stupid if I said I was trying to keep a brave face on things?"

"No, of course not. Have the police been all over Larkhall?"

"No, not really. They were there for a couple of days, but not much longer. You remember those two dithering idiots that tried to pin Renee Williams' death on Shaz Wiley? Well, we had the joys of those two again. I don't know what Grayling said to them, but they seemed to go away perfectly happy about something."

"And how are things with Yvonne?"

"You say that like you already know the answer," Replied Karen dryly. Helen looked slightly sheepish.

"Yvonne did come to see Nikki, at the end of last week. I called you, because it struck me that she had someone to talk to, and you didn't." Karen was incredibly touched by this quiet admission.

"Well, thank you," She said. "Did his death come with as much shock to you as it did to me?"

"No," Replied Helen, signaling to the barmaid for refills, "But then, I'd never lived with him. Jesus, I never even liked him. But you did at one time, whether you like it or not." Karen briefly stared at Helen, suddenly seeing everything she'd missed when Fenner had forced their blossoming friendship apart.

"You always were a straight talker," Said Karen with a small smile.

"About the only thing about me that was, or is," Said Helen with a little smirk, attempting to lighten the situation. Karen laughed.

"You and me both, though Yvonne wasn't quite the first woman I'd looked at in that way."

"Nikki was," Said Helen fondly, "And she did her damnedest to make me believe it."

"I wish I could stay with Yvonne, but it's not as simple as that. I can't just put aside what she was prepared to do and did do after Lauren told us what she'd done."

"I know," Said Helen gently. "There wasn't much Nikki didn't tell me, and what she didn't fill in I can work out for myself. I'm guessing it was Yvonne's immediate reaction to get rid of as much evidence as possible."

"And I understand why she did that," Said Karen vehemently, "But I don't know if I can be in a relationship with someone who can go back to breaking the law at the slightest sign of crisis."

"You can't call finding out that your daughter's killed someone the slightest sign of crisis," Said Helen fairly, "But I do know how you feel."

"Do you?" Asked Karen, the despair at anyone knowing how she felt all too clear.

"Of course I do," Replied Helen. "Listen. When Nikki escaped on the night of Sylvia's party, it gave me the biggest fright of my bloody life. I don't know who I was expecting to see at that time of night, but it wasn't her. At first, I shut the door in her face, I wouldn't let her in. But you know Nikki, she doesn't go anywhere quietly." Karen smiled. "That turned out to be the best and the worst night of my life."

"That's why you were so close to the prison when I called you," Said Karen in sudden realisation, "You were on your way back with Nikki."

"Got it in one. Driving through the gates with her hiding in the back of my car was not an experience I'm eager to repeat. But it was all too much for me. Realising that Nikki and therefore Barbara knew that I'd broken the law, I couldn't deal with it. So, I took some space because I needed it, and that's what you're doing with Yvonne. She won't hold it against you, or if she does, she needs her bloody head testing."

"Maybe not," Said Karen ruefully, "But she would hold sleeping with someone else against me."

"What, and you think that's what I didn't do with Thomas Waugh?" Said Helen, not missing a beat. "When I called it well and truly off with Nikki after the riot, I needed something normal, something that couldn't possibly be construed as wrong, either legally or professionally."

"Jesus," Said Karen, looking thoroughly relieved, "Do you have any idea how it feels to know someone else can make sense of all this."

"Was it worth it?" Asked Helen, intrigued.

"Oh, yes," Said Karen firmly, "I wouldn't have missed that for anything. I do feel guilty, for having done that so soon after finishing with Yvonne, but at least I didn't actually cheat on her."

"Who was it?"

"Strange as it sounds, the Judge who presided over Snowball and Ritchie's trial. You could say I've got to know him pretty well since."

"A High court Judge, eh," Said Helen, sounding impressed, "You're going up in the world."

"Yeah, well, I doubt it'll be happening again. He's got at least one woman permanently on the go, and possibly his ex-wife at the same time, and I know both of them." Helen laughed.

"Karen Betts, you're incorrigible."

"I know, terrible, isn't it."

"No, not in the least," Said Helen, becoming serious again. "Like with me and Thomas, you needed to do something normal, something that you wouldn't have hesitated about doing before all this happened. With Nikki, I knew that I couldn't even think about pursuing anything with her until she was free. If you want some advice, though it doesn't sound like you need it, I'd wait until this thing's run its course before you even consider going back in to a relationship with Yvonne. What Lauren did, isn't going to go away. I have no idea how long it will take the police to work out the obvious, but they will, they nearly always do."

"why the obvious?" Asked Karen, wondering if Helen could possibly have guessed the real state of play.

"Fenner gave evidence at Ritchie's trial, which may or may not have helped to get Ritchie sent down. Lauren is Ritchie's sister, and may have wanted to settle her mother's score with Fenner once and for all." Karen gaped at her.

"You sure you're not working for the CPS?" She asked dryly.

"I wish I was," Said Helen regretfully, "They get paid more than I do. Working part time for an NHS psychology practice, and part time for an NHS drugs rehab clinic, certainly doesn't pay as well as area management used to. But at least in this job I feel like I'm doing some good for once." As Karen went to the bar to get another round, she wondered if she would ever feel like that about her job. Being a wing governor in one of Her Majesty's prisons, meant juggling ever increasing expenses with ever dwindling budgets. It meant coping with fractious inmates and surly officers, none of whom really wanted to be there. Looking back at Helen, Karen wondered if her life would ever achieve the same fairly happy existence as Helen's. A partner who loved her, a job she felt held at least a modicum of worth, and that oh so enviable feeling of being settled with who she was. Karen didn't feel like she would ever get to that stage in anything she did. Everything she seemed to touch just fell apart in front of her.

"Don't look so gloomy," Said Helen when Karen returned to the table with their drinks. "You will get there, believe me."

"Now I know why you spend your days deciphering other people's thoughts," Replied Karen dryly. "If you can interpret my rambling sparks of brain activity across a crowded room, I guess you can sort anyone out."

"For a start, it isn't that simple and you know it," Said Helen, half smiling half serious, "And second, you're not half as tangled up as you think you are."

"I'll take your word for it," Said Karen, lighting another cigarette. "What did you think when you initially heard about Fenner?" she asked, bringing them back to the discussion not far below the surface of either of their thoughts. Helen took a contemplative drag of yet another of Karen's cigarettes. "You didn't used to smoke," commented Karen dryly, when Helen didn't immediately answer. Helen grinned.

"blame that on Nikki. It's a Larkhall habit she's never quite left behind. I tell myself that if I don't buy them, then I'm not a smoker."

"The first step on the slippery slope," Karen confirmed.

"When we saw it on the news," Said Helen, returning to the subject, "At first, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I think Nikki's words were, someone's finally got the bastard." Karen smiled ruefully. "But I think I just knew that there had to be more to it than some random killer. What about you?"

"I was stunned. Lauren had just strolled in to the house, as high as a kite, and casually carrying a gun for all to see. I felt like I was watching some far too real horror film. when she told us what she'd done, I think part of me couldn't quite take it in. Watching Yvonne clean that gun isn't something I'm going to forget in a hurry. She did that like it was second nature to her, which in a way I suppose it was. She reverted to her pre-Larkhall days without a moment's thought. She knows I can't deal with what she was prepared to do for Lauren, and right now that's hurting her more than I ever thought it would. But, as you said, this isn't going to go away. Lauren will have to account for her actions at some point, and there's nothing anyone can do to prevent that." As they sat there a good while longer, drinking, smoking, and catching up on nearly two years of missed friendship, they both felt that in spite of Fenner's determination to separate their combined will to make the prison service a better place, they could and would pick up where they'd left off.

One Hundred And Twenty Two

"Have you seriously considered that George may be heading for a serious breakdown?" Jo asked, straight out of the blue as she served the meal for the two of them at her house.

John was completely unprepared for this as he felt that going to Jo's to spend the night with her represented his striving for the safe, for the normal, for the familiar side of life which at this moment he wanted to get back to. The front of the mews house was built of the sort of rose red brickwork which seemed to grow out of the earth of Old England and the flower garden round the back spoke of the sort of care and nurturing which he needed right now. It was not just the carnal pleasure of nights spent in Jo's bed which he had so forcibly denied at the PCC hearing as Jo was his best friend. John glanced out of the back window and the view represented a three dimensional version of a painting of an English country garden, so perfect, everything in its place. In the foreground, a couple of large sturdy hollyhocks waved in the wind while first a brilliant autumn sunshine and then dark clouds illuminated then darkly shaded the world outside.

"Nonsense, Jo. You saw her at Legover's - I mean Monty Everard's party. She was the very life and soul of the party."

"Careful, John. One of these days, you'll say that in public and there may be a part of you who secretly wants to be found out like the bad school boy," Jo grinned, perceptibly lifting the veil on a side of him that secretly asks for trouble while loudly proclaiming that he acted out of his principles.

"Seriously, John, I don't agree with you about George," Jo's blunt rejoinder as she pursued the main point caused John to raise his eyebrows. He wanted to come to Jo's for some peace and quiet from the turbulence of his life. "It's quite possible for anyone who won't or can't admit some deep-seated problem to go to extraordinary lengths to pretend normality at social functions and keep that mask on their face. Take my father, for instance, who was a past master at the art of that particular performance."

"I remember him well, poor fellow and hearing from you about his alcohol problem." John's voice melted in sympathy.

"My father was an alcoholic," Corrected Jo who had long since learnt to apply that clinical and ruthlessly defining word to the accumulated past memories. "That is only one form of addiction, you know."

"You've made your point," John cut in with a touch of impatience at Jo stating the obvious. "But you know very well that the person who is best able to help is their nearest and dearest. There are too many barriers, too many hurts for me to be able to help George as my ex-wife."

"Addict or otherwise, the only person who can help themselves is that person. Other people around can help out at the most. I'll drop it, john, but let me tell you that I spent an evening at George's and it showed quite another side to what you see on the surface."

Jo secretly smiled to herself at the way she had pushed her point that little bit further while apparently doing what he wanted.

John turned away to make a cup of coffee for them both as she felt that they were getting into this conversation too deeply. It was a habit of his when he felt uncomfortable.

"Why are we discussing George on this occasion when I am with you. I should be telling you how beautiful, how intelligent and level headed you are," The honeyed words rolled off his tongue.

Typical John thought Jo, with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. When he's really cornered, he gets out of a tricky situation by being an outrageous flirt. When she thought about it, she remembered a reprobate friend of Mark who used to be around here a lot. When Mark was about fourteen, he took up with this impetuous slightly older friend who dominated him a little too much for his liking. The two of them got into all sorts of adolescent scrapes and Jo remembered getting infuriated beyond all reason when she tried to impose a measure of order on them. She hadn't got any time with the sort of older generation cliches like, 'well, they are only lads' as she had to come home from a hard day's work at court. For a reason which she couldn't explain at the time, she reserved the greater force of her anger at her own son while this other lad always got off lightly and it was only later that she realised that it was the same sort of little boy/bad boy appeal which had held her back. She was mightily relieved when Mark broke up this friendship as he had had enough of him and went on to become again, the steadily working Mark whom she knew today. It was just as well that it happened as Mark was becoming more and more independent these days which left her with more room for herself, or at least mixed the opportunities of freedom with the perils of which life choices she had now yet to make. When she thought about it, this lad and john had a lot in common except that John Deed was a High court judge and a paragon of virtue in the public arena.

John Deed had this remarkable ability to make conversation with Jo on one level and his thoughts to operate on quite a different level and also to arrange his personal relationships into a particular pattern. On periodic nights, he would pursue his amateur calling as a virtuoso violinist in a quintet which was kept rigidly distinct from anything in his daytime job, or as distinct until Jo Mills found out about it. Another part of him was given to the ancient art of fencing with his favourite sparring partner Roe Colmore which was a hobby which he had maintained from the public school he had attended. His base in the judge's digs gave him the facility to find the particular woman to whom he was attracted at that moment. Jo was his friend, sometime lover and someone, as she said repeatedly, kept her distance as she had come to know the sort of man he was.

It was his fixed habit, whenever he had casual sex, never to think of what that woman might be doing with her life the moment after he drove his car away from the woman's flat. After all, it was the influences on his generation that had played a part in his development. He had been a child of the sexual revolution that, with a fanfare of trumpets, blew the Last Post on the traditional concept of marriage. That had professed expectations that a man would eventually settle down with his childhood sweetheart, walk up the aisle together, bear children and live happily after. True, it might have been the case that the traditional wedding and the birth of the firstborn might be separated by somewhat less than the nine months that custom and biology dictated.

A generation was born into the heady atmosphere of sexual liberation when it became publicly accepted that the woman might not be backward in coming forward in the matters of sexual relationships. In his time at Oxford University, he started questioning the rationale behind the university, the first institution in his life, which he came to oppose. It was here where he learnt the true underlying meaning of the much-quoted lines of Shakespeare.

"Whether it is nobler in mind

To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or by opposing, end them."

In common with like minded more intellectually precocious students who had the questioning mind that universities professed to encourage, he opted for the second alternative. When the bolder students proposed a sit in, he ardently joined the cause and found that the communal sleeping arrangements suited perfectly the more carnal side of his nature. John Deed took to this new culture like a duck to water and the fallout of this came many years later when he met and slept with many women who aimed to be as footloose and fancy free as he was. He understood that this was what they wanted as, after all, none of them had gone out of the way to contact him again after the first night. This proved conclusively to his mind that his view on casual sex coincided with theirs.

"It's a shame that the civil court case that George was preparing against the Prison Service area management has come to nothing. I suspect that when George started digging, more skeletons would come out the closet than there ever is in the Lord Chancellor's Department."

He mulled over the fact that he had broken the pattern of a lifetime in first of all, leaving a note, and secondly insisting on remaining friends with Karen Betts who was a singular woman who he genuinely liked and for whom he had real respect.

"It is indeed a pity as I would have liked to get to the bottom of the tissue of lies and corruption that has undoubtedly taken place. But, alas, it is not to be. I suspect, from my limited experience, that each prison is a closed off world from the public thoroughfare of life and who knows what could happen if, as I suspect, there is insufficient accountability."

He had no idea in what real way Karen would become if only a minor part of his life as a walk on part. Now he came to think of it, the idea of a female friend was something that was new in his life.

"You seemed very positive at the end when we questioned Karen Betts that she had nothing to do with Fenner's murder," Jo said with a slight smile. "It was very chivalrous of you to stand up for her against George's best prosecution attack."

He remembered saying to Charlie that, if only he could divide himself into several parts then each part of himself could enjoy a long term relationship with each of the women in his life that he had most in common with. Charlie laughed at his fantasy and suggested that next time, he engaged the services of a male therapist. That did not appeal to him as laying bare his emotions and innermost feelings was not the sort of thing he did with another man. They belonged to a different world marked out by the men he was closest to, who he fenced with, whom he played the violin with.

"Karen?" He said in his most nonchalant, dismissive tones. "I remember when she was first before me in chambers when she was a woman who I promised to do my utmost to put right the most appalling injustice. There is no ulterior motive and anyway, she was able to take care of herself under cross examination most capably. Now can you have the goodness to talk of matters that concern only ourselves in the precious time we have together."

Jo raised her eyebrows at the way he seemed a little rattled while John thought of that night of passion with that remarkable woman who had appeared as an alien in his mental landscape. He might have asked Karen to remain in touch purely as friends, but never would he forget the feel of her soft, utterly responsive body under his ministrations. He would honour his promise, and remain as only friends with her, but the memory of that night would give him something to dream about during those nights he was forced to spend alone at the digs.

One Hundred And Twenty Three

On the Wednesday evening, Karen was sitting alone in her flat, listening to some soft music and working her way through a stack of incident reports, adding her own comments as to provisional punishments for the inmates concerned, and as ever trying to juggle the numbers of well or otherwise behaved prisoners with the basic, standard and enhanced cell spaces on her wing. She'd discovered some time ago that moving the pieces round on a chessboard often achieved quicker results than attempting to do it by names on the computer. The white pieces represented the prisoners due to be moved either to or from enhanced, the black pieces basic, and the pawns of both colours those on standard as they had the greater number. If the pieces were on black squares, this indicated a cell for more than one prisoner, and the white squares signified single cells. She would write the names of inmates who required a move of cell for whatever reason, and balance them in front of the relevant chess pieces. It was a system that had never yet let her down. Her computer was in the corner between the kitchen and the balcony doors, and the chess board and all her papers were laid out on the small table surrounded by four chairs which wasn't far away. She was drinking white wine, and that together with the music was helping her concentration by slightly relaxing her brain. Rolling her eyes at the brevity of Sylvia's report, because Sylvia hated using a computer at any time, Karen wondered just what she was going to do about the serious shortage of officers on her wing. Grayling's response had simply been to say that if any new officers applied, G wing would be given priority, but that didn't help the immediate situation. Picking up the phone, she dialed Helen's number.

"Helen, it's Karen. I need a flash of inspiration."

"Sounds interesting."

"Not really. Now that Fenner's gone, I've got no one to even make the pretence of helping me to keep the officers on my wing in order as well as the inmates. I could do with definitely one but preferably two experienced officers. I wondered if you had any ideas." Helen thought for a moment.

"Have you ever thought about Dominic McAllister?"

"Dominic? But I thought he was in Greece."

"It might be worth finding out," Replied Helen. "He had the same ambition as both of us, to make the prison service a better place. It was a bloody awful waste when he resigned. If he is back in the country, you might be able to persuade him, especially if you could make it worth his while." Then, breaking off to listen to something Nikki was saying, Helen came back with, "Nikki says, what about Gina?"

"Gina Rossi," Karen said, digesting the idea. "I'm not sure she'd work on the same wing as Di Barker again. Besides, she was firmly sticking to working with men the last I heard."

"That figures," Said Helen, "But which would you rather have, Di Barker who goes after everything in trousers, or Gina who won't take shit from anyone."

"Good point," Replied Karen, "And if I could persuade Dominic to come back, that'd be another reason for getting Di transferred. I always suspected he left because she was ruthlessly pursuing him without any sign of being deterred."

"Let's not forget that you thought I was interested in Dominic," Said Helen with a laugh. Karen joined her.

"Put that down to my initial wing governor phase of naivete."

"We all go through it," Said Helen. "When I first took over G wing, I thought that giving inmates the opportunity to anonymously report drug users and drug dealers was a good idea."

"Jesus," Said Karen with a sardonic smile, "Not with Shell Dockley on the scene."

"No, not my most successful attempt to get the inmates on side," Replied Helen. "But give Gina and Dominic a try. You never know." Ending the call, Karen wrote both names down and wondered if she would be able to persuade two good officers to come back to her wing.

At about half past eight, the doorbell rang. Wondering who would be calling on her on a Wednesday evening, she got up to answer it. Standing on the doorstep was Cassie.

"Hello," Said Karen, looking pleased to see her. "Come in."

"Nice flat," Said Cassie, as they walked in to the lounge.

"Would you like a drink?" Said Karen, "Because I really shouldn't drink an entire bottle of white wine when I've got to work tomorrow." Saying that a glass of wine would go down a treat, Cassie watched Karen move in to the kitchen to get Cassie a glass.

"Is this the Luddite way of assigning prisoners?" Asked Cassie, looking at the name cards dotted all over Karen's chessboard.

"I'm no stranger to computers," Said Karen, handing Cassie a glass, "But this way has always achieved better results." Karen took a seat on the sofa, whilst Cassie sat in an armchair near her.

"How are you?" Cassie asked, after drinking some wine.

"I'm existing," Said Karen ruefully, "Doing nothing but work and worrying about Yvonne. How is she?"

"Miserable," Said Cassie succinctly. "But I think she'll be okay. Let's face it, she'll have to be."

"I didn't want to have to do that to her," Said Karen, "But I had to."

"I know," Said Cassie gently. "I haven't come here to try and persuade you to go back to her. If that happens, it'll only happen when you're ready for it. I probably shouldn't have, but I told her a few home truths last week. With hindsight, I don't really think that telling her to grow up was such a good idea." Karen couldn't help first rolling her eyes and then smiling. "I know," Said Cassie, "Typical me, foot in gob as always."

"I bet half of central London was privy to that little exchange of views," Said Karen dryly.

"Yes, not the quietest row I've ever had. But she'll get over it."

"I feel a complete cow for breaking it off with her, just when she's likely to need someone there," Said Karen, turning serious again. Cassie lit a cigarette.

"Breaking the law, or being involved with someone who does, isn't something most people do lightly. When I pulled my stunt with the bank I worked for, I really thought I wouldn't get caught. But Roisin knew better. She tried to make me put back the money I'd taken, but by then, the damage was done. She was horrified by what I'd done, and for a while, I think she blamed me for her being in prison and away from her kids. If you don't know whether you can deal with what Yvonne did for Lauren, then being in a relationship with her would only lead to disaster."

"When did you become so wise?" Asked Karen with a smile, remembering the mouthy young woman who'd accosted her on her return from holiday, demanding answers to all sorts of questions about when Roisin would be coming back to the wing.

"Being in prison and seeing Roisin getting hooked on heroin made me grow up," Said Cassie. "It made me alter my values, the way I saw things. It made me realise what was important."

"That's sort of what I need to do about Yvonne," Said Karen, taking a swig from her glass. "I need to make my mind up as to whether it's more important to me to stay on the right side of the law, or whether I can love her at the expense of pretty much every principle I've ever had."

"Don't make that kind of a decision in a rush," Said Cassie, "Because if it's the wrong one, you'll only end up regretting it. If the police catch on to Lauren, Yvonne's going to have to make a few decisions of her own. It's not only you who's got to decide what their priorities are, Yvonne's got to do that as well. She'd be missing out on something really special if she can't try and really put her past life behind her. She's always made this pretence of hating everything Charlie represented, but it hasn't stopped her from falling back on it when nothing else seems to make sense. She knows we'll all be there for her, and so does Lauren, but there's only so far that we can all go with them. Lauren might not have meant it like that, but they're in this together." Karen shuddered.

"I don't want Yvonne going back behind bars. It'd kill her to go through all that again."

"I know," Said Cassie, "Which means that they're both going to have to be extremely careful about what they say if the law start poking their noses in." Karen felt torn. On the one hand, she felt fear and confusion and worry for Yvonne, and on the other, she was good friends with a Judge, and had maintained a working relationship with two barristers until all this had happened. She found that she didn't know whose side she was on any more, or even if sides could be determined so clearly. She felt like the bridge between good and bad, right and wrong, and considering the final conversation she'd had with Jo, she might very well mean the difference between freedom and captivity. A while later when Cassie left, she gave Karen a hug and said,

"Please don't stay away just because of what's happened. You're welcome for dinner or a drink any time."

"I'll take you up on that," replied Karen with a smile, thinking that some occasional normality might just do her good. When she stood in her doorway downstairs and watched Cassie drive away, Karen marveled, not for the first time, about how possible it was for a person's opinion of another to change. Before she'd got to know Cassie and Roisin through Yvonne, she would have thought of them simply as two inmates who'd saved Grayling's life and got out on a pardon as a result. But they were people, with lives and children, and a home and who loved each other. Cassie had said that prison had made her grow up, and Karen wondered if Lauren would, at some point in the future, be subjected to the same inexorable process of change in personality as Cassie and Roisin had been.

One Hundred And Twenty Four

"Do we really have to go to Grandma's?" Niamh pleadingly caught Roisin's attention. "We love her but………."

"What's wrong my, ba__, I mean children," As Roisin recovered herself in time, old habits dying hard.

"It's just that we really miss you and Cassie while we're away and her house isn't so comfortable. She makes us get up early on a weekend only because she wants to," Michael weighed in, in a positive whinging tone.

"She only wants you to come over because she loves you and when both of us were away, she never got to see either of you…"

"It could be worse, kids, you could be going to Aiden's mother," Called out Cassie.

"Yeucch," They both called out, their faces twisted in disgust. Roisin's mother was traditional at heart but had come to accept Cassie remarkably well. She couldn't really understand this same sex parenting, as this was not the way anyone she knew behaved in Ireland many years ago. She had held judgement until she visited her daughter and, seeing Cassie being such a capable and loving parent, accepted Cassie for who she was. What also helped was that she had never got on with Aiden's dogmatic, fundamentalist approach to the family and still less liked Aiden's mother especially when she had monopolised the children while Roisin was inside prison. On the infrequent phone calls that she had received from the children, they were clearly unhappy being brought up in a harsh, unfeeling atmosphere. The combination of that had shifted Roisin's mother to becoming more open minded, less sympathetic to the values, which she had been taught.

"All right, we'll go," They grudgingly said.

Cassie and Roisin both drew an inward sigh of relief that they had been able to mediate between the two generations and made everyone happy.

Just then, the phone rang and Niamh picked up the phone being the nearest.

"Yes, Grandma, I'll pass the phone to Mummy," She said with an exaggerated display of good manners, which could only mean one thing.

"I want to see my grandchildren and so does Aiden," Came the peremptory tone of that voice which Roisin had hated so much when she was in prison and was helpless on the inside of the prison walls to look after them or have any say in how they should be brought up. That memory made her all the more determined that she and Cassie should never be in a similar situation.

"Mrs Connor," and Roisin clutched the phone fiercely in her hand. "I'm not against either you or Aiden seeing the children so long as they come back home and aren't upset by the way you treat them. That has happened before on a number of occasions. This weekend, it is quite impossible as my mother has asked them to stay for the weekend. The arrangement has already been made and we're not prepared, Cassie and I," And here Roisin caught Cassie's expression, "to put my mother off when she has equal rights with you and where they enjoy themselves."

Michael and Niamh had caught the drift of the conversation and both clung to Cassie and Roisin in mute approval.

"What does Cassie have to do with the children?" Roisin replied in raised tones. "Because she's my partner and the children look to her as their parent far more than they ever did to their blood parent, your son. We've gone through this matter over and over again and there's an end to it."

On that note, Roisin put the phone down on that female version of Dr Ian Paisley, the type of person who made her blood boil when she was growing up in Ireland. She knew no better when she was young and all she could offer then was an inarticulate resentment mixed with a sense of Catholic guilt which had been deep rooted in her right up till the stressful period in her time at Larkhall when Cassie, that most irreverent of women, had lovingly made her see that there were alternatives to guilt and she could go out and live that alternative.

"We'll stop moaning about grandma," Michael and Niamh chorused. To them now, there was only one grandma in their lives. The other was some sort of ogre who seemed to get some sort of pleasure in being horrible to them. It still amazed Cassie and Roisin how much Aiden and his mother had dropped out of their children's world and how secure Cassie was in the centre of their world.

It still left them with that 'all ready to be dressed up and nowhere to go' at the back of their minds, as they performed the daily family rituals that made the day fit around them. On other occasions, they both felt like spare parts except that they could be more unrestrained in their lovemaking. It was the rest of the time unless they came up with the idea of heading for the pleasure garden of decadent dreams over at Yvonne's house. Since Fenner was killed, they were more reluctant to go round.

After the children were tucked up in bed for one last time, their bags were ready packed complete with the assortment of Niamh's favourite dolls, all of whom just had to be packed and the sort of games that Roisin's mother would tolerate that weren't too noisy and disruptive.

"What will we do, Roash?" Roisin asked. "Go out clubbing?"

Cassie shook her head doubtfully. It wasn't what she really wanted but she didn't know what she did want.

Just then the phone rang.

"That better not be Aiden's mother wanting another argument," Came Roisin's tight-lipped response to the harsh jangle of the phone.

"Hi, it's Lauren," Came the quiet and rather hesitant voice and thrice blessed familiar tones.

"Lauren, how lovely to hear your voice," Roisin exclaimed in jubilant tones.

"You know what we nearly did last Saturday," Lauren's tentative voice started off and stopped.

"How could we forget? And Lauren, we quite understand how you feel," Roisin's warm tones reassured the uncharacteristically nervous, tongue tied woman. Cassie's sharp ears picked up on the train of conversation and her face was split from ear to ear with a wicked grin.

"Felt," Lauren said briefly. "I've been thinking and if the time came for the three of us to be alone together again, I know I would feel differently only I know that there aren't many times when the kids are away. I don't want to get in the……"

"Why don't you come over tomorrow night. By sheer chance, the kids will be over at my mothers. The timing couldn't be better."

She had smoked cigarette after cigarette that afternoon and had taken trigger for a walk twice round the block. He naturally lapped it all up, as his philosophy was the more attention he received from humans, the better and this day was exceptional. To be extra specially good, he took the lead and dropped it in the special place for the lead.

"You ought to go out more, Lauren," Yvonne's voice called out. The atmosphere was claustrophobic and Lauren was doing no good as she was, fretting for no good purpose.

That decided it. There was nothing to be lost by phoning Cassie and Roisin, so she reasoned, there was nothing lost by phoning.

"That will be great, Roash. I'll be specially looking forward to coming over.

Lauren felt a moment of total shock that swept through her system with a flood of libido and anticipation and a huge feeling of satisfaction that she had done the right thing.

"Don't worry, Lauren. We certainly will," Cassie's seductive tones with an audible grin in her voice gave Lauren all the final reassurance that she needed.

"If Aiden could see me now, and especially tomorrow night," Roisin laughed, marvelling at what her ears were telling her and how much she had changed for the better in her life.

"I know that Aiden is a total nobbing idiot but I didn't think he was a peeping Tom. We won't need any bloody spectators tomorrow night."

Roisin fell about laughing in a totally unrestrained way which brought back the moment when she had first been attracted to Roisin. Her laugh that day was only a restrained hint of what she had come to love about Roisin.

Three women went to bed that night with the promise of the next night of future pleasures. It had taken only a few phone calls to change their lives.

One Hundred And Twenty Five

It was on the dull, gray Friday morning that Jo found herself for the fifth day running, driving in to the car park of the Old Bailey. Again, she was standing for the prosecution and George for the defence, with John seated on his throne on high. We seem to be making a habit of this, thought Jo as she brought her car to a stand still. But George hadn't been her usual argumentative self this week. Yes, she'd stood up for her client, but the spark of anger that always fuelled George's objections was missing. It only took the half-minute of Jo running through the wind and pouring rain, for her hair to look like she hadn't brushed it that morning. Pushing open the door of the ladies', Jo wasn't surprised to see George pulling a brush through her own hair. The high wind had brought a rosiness to Jo's cheeks, but when she joined George at the mirror, Jo could see that there wasn't any hint of colour in George's face. Her skin was as white as alabaster and there were dark circles under her eyes.

"George, you look terrible. Are you all right?"

"Good morning to you too," Replied George drily. At the beginning of the week, Jo had thought George looked tired and as though she'd lost weight, which was something George could hardly afford to do, but this was different.

"You look like death warmed up," Said Jo, sounding too concerned for George's brittle grip on sanity to stand.

"And you look like you've just got out of bed," She said, smirking at Jo's tousled hair. Pulling a brush through her offending blondness, Jo took the hint that George wasn't about to offer an explanation.

All through the morning session, Jo kept a discrete eye on George who looked to be fading with every objection she raised. But somehow, she kept going. It might have taken all her reserves, but not for anyone was she about to lose any respect with her client by crying off. When it finally came to lunchtime recess and after watching her client being taken back to the cells, George uncharacteristically rested her folded arms on the table in front of her and briefly leaned her head on them. Jo was about to go over to her, when she thought better of it. She knew her well enough to know that there was only a certain amount of friendly interest George would take. Collecting her papers together, Jo made her way up to John's chambers. Seeing that Coope had obviously gone to lunch, Jo knocked. When he let her in, they exchanged a hug and a kiss.

"Your ex isn't looking so good today," Jo said without preamble.

"Yes, I noticed," Replied John.

"If I didn't think George knew better," Went on Jo conversationally. "I'd wonder if she was pregnant." John kept his face utterly blank, but Jo didn't miss the slight flicker of his eyelids.

"She hated motherhood the first time round," Replied John, trying to cover up the shock at Jo's innocuous remark. "I doubt she'd do it again."

George looked slightly better at the beginning of the afternoon session, but that was probably only because of the hour and a half's break and a cigarette or three. As it was her turn to cross-examine the witness, she stood resolutely at the defence bench ready to play her part. But only half of her was concentrating on the witness. On the outside, she appeared confident, her strident tones firing question after question at the witness, trying to unsettle him as much as possible. But the other half of her brain was slowly urging her body to shut down. George wasn't stupid. She could feel the fog gradually insinuating its way in to her mind. But she had to keep going. If she could just manage to keep this up for another hour or so, she could go home and sleep. But this wasn't to be. It hadn't gone unnoticed by Jo that part way through the afternoon, George's hand had begun casually resting on the back of the chair that stood at the defence bench. As time went on, her grip on the chair visibly tightened. George could feel it now, that buzzing in her temples that told her she was using up every ounce of energy she had, which was precious little. George had listened to the witnesses answer to her question, and was summoning up the strength to keep going.

"Any further questions, Ms Channing?" Asked John, wondering at her silence and all the time fervently hoping Jo's suspicion was wrong. George took a breath to speak, but her body and her brain had put up with quite enough. As she slid almost silently to the ground, her world went black. Rising swiftly to his feet, John called,

"Court is adjourned," Before rushing over to George, closely followed by Jo. As the defendant was escorted away and the few in the public gallery made their way downstairs, John deftly picked up George in his arms, deciding that she felt far too light.

"Open the door," He said to Jo, gesturing to the door behind the Judge's bench which led to his chambers. As Jo held the door open and John walked passed her, George began to stir.

"Put me down," She grumbled weakly. Walking over to the couch that ran along the back wall of the room, he laid her down on it. Coope had appeared, wondering what the commotion was.

"Could you get us some tea, please?" He asked.

"Does Mrs. Channing need a doctor, Judge?" Asked Coope.

"No, I don't," Replied George, clearly becoming more alert with the old obstinacy creeping back in to her voice.

"If she's arguing, Coope, she'll be fine," Said John. When Coope left them to get the tea, John asked, "What happened, George?"

"I fainted," She replied bluntly, "What did it look like."

"Are you pregnant?" John asked, locking his gaze with hers. George laughed mirthlessly.

"Of course not," She said scornfully. "Just because some people forget about that possibility, doesn't mean I'm stupid enough too." Praying that Jo didn't get the underlying meaning of George's words, John said,

"Then I am forced to assume that your old habit has raised its ugly head again."

"John, please don't do this," Said George, sounding more defeated than Jo had ever heard her.

"You can't keep doing this, George. You absolutely can not keep starving yourself to the point where you're collapsing in court."

"Yes, thank you," Said George curtly. "I've heard it all before. You should know, you've said most of it." John rolled his eyes.

"Then for once in your life, listen to me." Jo stared at her in total realisation. So this was George's vice, the thing in life that kept her going. She had been slightly concerned about her ever since that business with Neil, but she'd had no idea it went this deep. But if she thought about it long enough, George was a perfect candidate for anorexia. George had always been a high achiever, always desperate to prove herself both as a barrister and as a woman. She'd always taken everything far too much to heart. The prospect of failure had always eaten away at George like a corrosive substance, until Jo supposed the anger and the loathing had finally turned inwards.

"How long has it been, George?" Jo asked gently. Then, at George's questioning look, she added, "Since you last ate." Immediately the shutters seemed to come down, as if to protect her soul from their penetrating gaze.

"Almost a week," She said, not looking at either of them.

"And I bet you were hardly eating a sufficient amount before that," Said John in disgust. Jo glared at him. "Don't look at me like that," He said, turning on Jo. "She has to realise that she can't keep doing this. He turned back to fix his gaze on George. "Because one day you'll go too far."

"I think George probably knows that, John," Put in Jo quietly. George had heard quite enough of them talking about her as if she wasn't there. She sat up and made to get up from the couch.

"You're not going anywhere," Said John firmly.

"Why?" Asked George, her old strident tone not sounding quite right in her weakened state.

"Because someone has to keep an eye on you," Replied John.

"You can't keep me here," Said George, her voice rising with indignation.

"Try me," Was John's only response. It was time for Jo to put her two pennorth in.

"Would you like me to drive you home?" She asked.

"I'm perfectly capable of driving myself home," George said, her gaze swiveling to Jo, but not focusing on her directly. Jo moved forward and held up two fingers.

"How many fingers am I holding up?" She asked, knowing that malnutrition could temporarily effect a person's eyesight.

"Three?" Jo shook her head.

"Which is precisely why you're not going anywhere near your car," Put in John.

"Come on," Jo cajoled. "I'll take you home."

"Fine," Said George standing up. "Anything to get him off my case." She swayed slightly as she walked towards the door with Jo, and John was immediately at her side pulling her arm through his. George didn't protest at his support, which was to him the first sign that she might just be taking this seriously.

When they reached the carpark, Jo opened the passenger door of her car and George sank gratefully in to the seat. When John had shut the door, he followed Jo round to the other side.

"Thank you," He said quietly.

"Wait and see how far I get first," Replied Jo.

"You don't have to do this," He added.

"I know, but I think this needs a different approach from your criticism and bluster."

"And what else am I supposed to do?" John asked, the still pouring rain keeping his quiet yet irritated voice from reaching George's ears.

"You won't get her to give this up by constantly sticking in the knife."

"This isn't the first time she's done it."

"Thank you, but I managed to work that out for myself."

"Don't you be cross with me, too," He pleaded. She gave him a soft smile.

"She'll be okay," Said Jo softly. "Just leave her to me."

"I'll come over later," He said as she opened the car door and got in, immediately turning on the engine and switching the heater on full.

George was utterly silent as they drove, almost transfixed by the windscreen wipers monotonously moving back and forth. Jo didn't attempt to make conversation because she wasn't about to introduce what she knew would be a difficult subject whilst she had the driving to concentrate on. When they reached her house, George let them in and draped her coat over the chair in the hall.

"Tea?" She said, moving in to the kitchen and filling the kettle. Hanging her own jacket over the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen table, Jo said,

"I think you should eat something."

"No," Said George firmly.


"Because I'm not hungry. What other reason is there."

"After a week of not eating, George, I find that hard to believe."

"The body becomes accustomed so that eventually you don't feel it."

"Well, I'm not even going to think about leaving until you do, so please eat something if only to get rid of me."

"You're more persistent than John, and I didn't think that was possible." Under Jo's unwavering gaze, George dug some bread out of the freezer and put a slice in the toaster. Pouring the tea, she plonked two cups on the table and sat down opposite Jo.

"Why are you doing this, George?" Asked Jo, not wanting to frighten her off but knowing that she had to begin somewhere.

"Don't beat around the bush, do you," Replied George, getting up to retrieve the piece of toast. Returning to the table, she stared at the plate in front of her, the smell of the toast almost more than her senses could stand. "It's actually very easy to do after a while," She said conversationally.

"How long have you been doing it?"

"On and off since I was fifteen." George reluctantly began eating the toast.

"Why?" Asked Jo, still watching her. George took a swallow of tea.

"I don't know," Said George, clearly clamming up.

"Yes, you do," Said Jo softly, trying to prod George in to opening up. George finished eating her piece of toast and lit a cigarette.

"I don't want to talk about this."

"What are you scared of?"

"Isn't that obvious," Replied George scornfully. "You are the last person I want to see what a total wreck I am. Ever since John met you, I've had it made pretty bloody clear to me just how much of a failure I am compared to you. Having you firstly witnessing the mess Neil made of my face, and secondly being made aware of what is probably the biggest skeleton in my cupboard, is just a bit too much." Jo helped herself to a cigarette from the packet George had left on the table.

"Taking the evidence on face value," Jo said, taking a long drag. "Did I for one moment judge you when I saw what that creep had done to you?"

"No, but..."

"No. Therefore, I'd say it's fairly likely I'm not about to judge you now. Yes, I was surprised to say the least, and yes, I think you need help, but that doesn't mean I'm about to belittle what you feel or your reasons for doing it." George stared at her for a moment.

"Why?" She asked.

"We all have skeletons, George. The secret is to realise that occasionally, keeping them hidden isn't always the way forward. Anorexia isn't something you can fool around with."

"Please don't give me a lecture. John did that years ago."

"George, whatever you do to your own body is entirely up to you, but if you don't do something about it, one day you will take this too far."

"I know," Said George, suddenly looking utterly drained. "It usually happens when everything else in my life appears to be out of my control. Lately, I just seem to be losing my grip." It was with these words that Jo could finally see the breaking of the brittle eggshell, exposing the tender, vulnerable flesh of the soul underneath.

"Neil giving you a black eye got to you more than you thought it would, didn't it."

"Yes," Said George, "Apart from finding out I was pregnant with Charlie and my mother dying when I was ten, it was the biggest shock of my life. He took away my pride, made me question just what I was. Only John had ever done that before, and at least he had more style about it." Jo began to wonder at her own part in what George had gone through on previous occasions.

"I take it you did this not eating thing when you were married to John."

"Yes, he wasn't amused to say the least. He was delighted when I discovered I was pregnant."

"And you weren't?" George lit another cigarette.

"No. I hated every minute of it," She said, a flash of pain crossing her face.

"It happens," Observed Jo, wondering where this was leading.

"I bet being pregnant was one of the happiest times of your life, wasn't it," Said George bitterly, her self-loathing clearly turned up to maximum.

"Not always, no," Jo replied, and George was surprised to see a dark flash of memory appear behind her eyes. The words seemed to stick in George's throat, making her unable to continue. "What happened after Charlie was born?" Jo prompted, receiving a distinct vibe that this was the heart of many of George's feelings of guilt and weakness.

"I, er, I couldn't love her, not for quite a long time," She said in a strangled voice, the pain radiating from her like heat.

"That doesn't make you a bad person, George," Jo said softly. There were tears in George's eyes, and Jo could see the inner struggle that had so far prevented them from spilling over.

"Of course it does," Said George, her tears finally beginning to trace their parallel paths of despair down her cheeks. "Mothers are supposed to love their children, unconditionally and absolutely without question. It took me months before I could look at Charlie with anything more than apathy." George reached behind her for the box of tissues she always kept on top of the fridge. "John's always been the perfect father. When Charlie was very small, he couldn't do a thing wrong. I was a useless mother." I stopped eating for a while after Charlie was born, because I think it was about the only thing I understood. I didn't have the first idea about how to bring up a child, and I felt a constant failure for not having the normal feelings for her that a mother should have." Now she'd started, George didn't seem able to stop. "And John made it worse by never once reproaching me for it, not seriously anyway. He was so bloody nice to me when I really didn't deserve it."

"Did you stop eating as a form of punishment?"

"Probably. I didn't think about it like that at the time, but then starving oneself isn't actually a conscious decision, you just slide in to it until it eventually becomes a natural reaction to stress."

"So, if you know what to expect, why do you still let it happen?"

"It's like smoking, Jo, the habit's hard to kick."

"So, you punished yourself for not loving Charlie the way you thought a mother should love her daughter," Said Jo, trying to fit the fragments of this five thousand piece jigsaw together.

"It wasn't just that. Everything I did after Charlie was born seemed to make me feel guilty. The fact that John was far better at looking after her than I was, going back to work as soon as possible because at the time it was the only thing I was vaguely successful at, not remotely enjoying bed because I couldn't relax, you name it. That's probably why he went looking elsewhere. Believe it or not, he didn't stray once before Charlie was born, at least I don't think he did. For a while I tried to convince myself it didn't matter. He wasn't getting enough from me so it was almost expected that he'd get it from someone else. I did get back to a vague resemblance of my normal self, and occasionally he would stop chasing women and come back to me. I used to make the most of it when he did, probably to try and make him stay. But he'd got the taste for it. You saw how impossible it was for him to give it up last year when he was having therapy."

"Yes, only John could have therapy because he can't stop picking up women, and then sleep with his therapist."

"We did have some good times after that, but things were never quite the same." Jo looked thoughtful.

"During the Diana Halsey case, I remember how you looked when you were questioning her about the stress of being a single mother and having to make every decision on her own. You were so tense, as if you were ready to bolt at the first opportunity. You almost looked as if you were questioning yourself, not her."

"When Charlie was very small, it sometimes felt like all the big decisions were mine and mine alone. They never were in reality, if anything, John had far more of a hand in things like that than I did. But it felt like it was just me, because it was me and only me who had the problem with Charlie. I think that was because I couldn't tell John about how I was feeling. It would have meant I'd failed, when that's what I did anyway." George suddenly shivered and if possible looked even more tired. "I'm sorry," She said, yawning, "I was up most of last night working on today's defence. My bed is calling me."

"Go to bed if you wish, George, but this conversation isn't over."

"Still determined to succeed where John has failed, are you?" George asked with a wan smile.

"Not quite," Replied Jo, "But I think talking might just be doing you some good."

"What, baring my soul to the woman I've spent half my life envying? But then I suppose anything's worth a try." George stood up and moved towards the kitchen door.

"Would you like some more tea?" Jo asked, also getting to her feet. George turned back and picked up her cigarettes.

"Please." As Jo refilled the kettle and watched George walk out of the room, she wondered just what she was doing here. Before the Merriman/Atkins trial, her and George had been like a match and petrol, put them together and you get fireworks. They had always rubbed each other up the wrong way, both in and out of court. But with the event of their working together on Karen Betts' case against Fenner and area management, it seemed like George had shed her outer skin, only to reveal just how vulnerable she was underneath all that glamour and scorn. Jo also thought it might be time for her to tell George why she, Jo, was not the perfect angel George seemed to think she was.

When Jo appeared upstairs carrying two cups of tea, she found George wearing a plain blue cotton nightie and sat up in her enormous king-sized bed, which made her look all the more tiny in comparison. Jo thought that this was possibly the most decadent bedroom she'd ever seen, but glamour was George's middle name. The carpet was a deep, rich red, and was the type that a person's feet would sink in to on first contact. There were small, very stylish wall lights here and there, which gave the room a warm, rosy glow, perfect for seducing anyone. When George thanked her for the tea, Jo asked,

"How do you feel?" George put the tea down on the bedside table and snuggled down under the thick goose-feather duvet.

"I feel like I've smoked some really rough dope, which isn't something I've done since the seventies," She said. Jo sat down in the enormous rose plush armchair in the corner.

"Can you answer me one question?" Began Jo, "Why did you have those pictures taken of me and John?" Much to her mortification, George couldn't help blushing.

"I think that was one of the lowest stunts I've ever pulled," She said.

"Yes," Said Jo drily. "It almost got me taken off the road." George was quiet for a moment.

"I know it sounds ridiculous," She said, "But I think I wanted some proof that you weren't as perfect as I've always thought you were." Jo walked over to the dressing table and returned to her chair with George's cigarettes and an ashtray clearly kept there for her first thing in the morning fix. After lighting one, she said,

"I think it's about time I shattered some of your illusions about me."

"Oh?" Jo took a long drag.

"You seem to be under the impression that I am the embodiment of everything John didn't find in you."

"That about sums it up," Said George, knowing that said like that, it did sound a little ridiculous.

"If we're talking about being the perfect lover, I'd say that this has been fairly successfully contradicted by the fact that John has chased other women as much with me as he did with you. He always has, and I suspect he always will. I'm certain he's been sleeping with someone else recently and it might even be two." George schooled her face in to as blank an expression as possible, but she hadn't had anywhere near enough practice, unlike John.

"Sometimes I think John would have been better marrying and having children with you," Said George trying to change the subject slightly.

"He nearly did once," Said Jo, saying it now so that she wouldn't back out.

"What?" George sat up sharply and immediately regretted it. The sudden movement had made her head spin and set her stomach churning.

"I had a termination," Said Jo quietly. George slumped back on the pillows and just stared at her.

"I'm sorry," Said George, "I didn't know."

"There's no reason why you would. So you see, I haven't always been the perfect mother."

"It's hardly the same," Said George, remembering the time Charlie had got herself pregnant, also by her tutor.

"It feels like it sometimes," Replied Jo. "You dream about it, wake up seeing it, and all you're left with is the what ifs."

"When did this happen?" George asked softly, and Jo was introduced to a new quality in George, a new timbres in her voice that signaled sympathy.

"A while after you and John split up," Answered Jo, knowing that although John's and George's marriage had been on the rocks anyway, she had been the final catalyst that had forced them apart.

"Did John know?" Asked George gently.

"He drove me to the clinic. My husband was terminally ill, and I had two young children to look after. For a while after the termination and after my husband died, I didn't think I could cope with Mark and Tom. I was so depressed and so exhausted, that I asked my mother to have them, but she wouldn't. I certainly wouldn't say I was a good mother then."

"When Charlie was growing up, I just didn't seem to have that ability to bond with her that most mothers find so easy. She's always worshipped John, and I've always felt like I couldn't even come second. The only reason she came to me when she discovered she was pregnant was because John was so against her having a termination. At the time, I thought it was just his usual adverse response at work, but now it makes sense."

"I remember telling him that he couldn't change the past through Charlie," Replied Jo.

"It's funny," Said George, "But..." She suddenly sat up, stayed perfectly still for a moment then, clapping a hand against her mouth, swung her legs out of bed and flew towards the door to the en suite. Hearing the sound of violent retching, Jo moved to the bathroom doorway. Seeing that George was struggling to keep her hair out of the way with one hand, Jo knelt down beside her, gently took hold of her hair and began rubbing small circles on her back to try and calm her down. But this clear evidence that Jo was witnessing her total humiliation brought a fresh surge of tears to George's eyes. Murmuring vague words of comfort and still rubbing gentle circles on George's back, Jo could feel the spasms slowly decreasing until they ceased altogether. As George flushed away the minimal amount of food she'd eaten that day, she reflected that this just had to be as bad as it could get. Her rival, some would say her old arch enemy had just seen her in the most degrading, submissive position possible. As she splashed her face with cold water and cleaned her teeth, she knew that she no longer had anything to fight with. It was only when she caught sight of her unhealthily flushed yet hollow cheeked face in the mirror that she realised she was still crying. Still standing in the bathroom doorway, Jo simply held out her arms. At first George hesitated, feeling so near rock bottom that she thought any sign of sympathy from another human being, especially this one, might undo her completely. But when Jo held out a hand, George found herself taking it. Jo led her back in to the bedroom and pulled her down to sit next to her on the edge of the bed. Jo held George as her body shook, feeling every last ounce of poise and self-respect being torn from her as if never to return. George made very little sound as she wept, but her breath came in deep, shuddering gasps.

"I'm sorry," She said after a while, trying to bring herself back under control.

"What for?" Asked Jo softly.

"For being so bloody feeble."

"You're not," Said Jo simply. "Letting yourself go this much takes courage."

"Why are you being so nice to me?" Asked George, moving slightly away from Jo and reaching for the box of tissues on the bedside table.

"I've been asking myself that ever since I brought you home," Replied Jo. "There's one thing you can tell me though, because there's one piece of this jigsaw that's still missing."

"There's a lot of pieces missing, but go on," Said George, finally managing to suppress her body's awful shaking.

"It wasn't just the fiasco with Neil that made you get in to this state, was it."

"What makes you say that?" Asked George, as ever keeping her cards close to her chest.

"The last time things got quite as bad as this was over Charlie, though I'm guessing you might have regressed somewhat when you discovered my existence and John left. But the main feeling you've associated with starving yourself is guilt. So, what I'm asking is what do you feel guilty for now?" George went utterly still for a moment and then withdrew from Jo completely. She walked across to the small table by the armchair where Jo had been sitting and picked up the cigarettes. As she lit one and held out the packet to Jo, she felt an incredible reluctance to come clean about having recently slept with John. George thought that she could grow to see Jo as a very close friend. Jo hadn't so far uttered one word of criticism or derision for anything George had said or done this day, and it wasn't many people who could be so supportive. George was all too aware that if John had driven her home, they would have yelled at each other and things would have been no different when he left. But Jo had listened to her, divulged one of her own painful skeletons, had watched her humiliate herself in one of the worst ways possible and had comforted her afterwards. George hated what she was about to do.

"Come on, George, it can't be that bad," Said Jo, still watching her with that soft yet penetrating gaze that made George feel as if Jo could read her every thought.

"I slept with John, twice in the last month," Said George, as she perched on the arm of the chair as if ready to run. Jo felt a cacophony of feelings which at first seemed to swamp her. First there was the initial anger that George and John had done this to her. Then she asked herself what else she expected from either of them. Then she was hit with a wave of sadness that almost engulfed her. George had starved herself to quite literally within inches of her life because she felt guilty for betraying Jo. Back in September, on the morning after Neil had blacked George's eye, Jo had for the time being abandoned any differences they'd once had, purely and simply because she could see the hurt and bewilderment emanating from her every pore. But when George had slept with John, for whatever reason, Jo's having been something of a friend to her had caused George to feel inexorably guilty for helping John to do the thing he did best. With a flash of irritation Jo realised that John didn't actually need any prompting to chase other women in the first place. But Jo couldn't feel hurt by George. She'd clearly been in a very vulnerable state for some time, and had maybe gone to John looking for some sense of normality, and John being John would never turn down the advances of a beautiful woman, especially one whom he already knew so intimately.

"Why?" Jo asked quietly.

"Why did I sleep with John?"

"No, why did it make you feel so guilty." George took a long drag of her cigarette.

"Before the Merriman/Atkins trial, you and I didn't used to be able to say one civil word to each other. During that trial, something changed, not just in me but in you too. I finally had my eyes opened to the way Neil and his cronies were prepared to use me to get the type of supposed justice that suited them. I think that with you, it was getting closer to Karen Betts and perhaps slightly too emotionally involved with her part in that case and the one you offered to prosecute for her. Those two weeks softened you up slightly and made me question just what I was doing with my life. Then when I found out in no uncertain terms exactly how far Neil could go if provoked, you listened. You didn't care that at first I shouted at you, made you the point on which to focus my anger. Then we started working together on Karen Betts' case, and even though you never actually said it, I knew that if I wanted someone to listen to me rant about Neil, you would. The first time I slept with John, I woke in the morning to find your picture staring at me from the bedside table. It reminded me fairly forcefully of how much I couldn't have done without your olive branch and yes, I know that this ought to have stopped me from sleeping with him a second time, but we both know how hypnotic he can be."

"Some might call it poetic justice," Said Jo ruefully.

"That's hardly an excuse," Replied George.

"That's what you couldn't tell me, wasn't it. The time you got pretty drunk, two days before Legover's party."

"Yes. When you apologised for breaking up my marriage, that almost finished me off. Virtually everything you said that night just made it worse. I've never felt guilty for sleeping with someone before, and I've certainly never felt guilty about anything concerning you. Sliding back in to my old habit seemed the only way to deal with what I didn't understand." Jo's eyes began to widen in realisation.

"The day after you went to Larkhall, we were starting a pretrial hearing. When I saw you two, before we went in to court, you were in the middle of an argument. That's what it was about, wasn't it."

"Yes. I'd had an attack of conscience, and I was trying to make John listen to me, which you'll know at the best of times can be impossible."

"The night after your visit to Larkhall," Jo didn't need to finish the sentence for George to understand what she was getting at.

"That was the second time. But Jo, knowing any details won't help."

"That's where you're wrong," Replied Jo, "The bare essentials help me to make some kind of sense of it. If you woke up to see my picture the first time, that must have been at the digs."

"Yes. That was the Tuesday night, two days before my few hours behind bars." George watched a frown, slowly creasing its way over Jo's face, as if she was trying to work out the last bit of the puzzle. Suddenly, it dawned on George that Jo was attempting to work out why it had happened a second time. Jo's eyes briefly drifted to the bed whose edge she was sitting on, and immediately slid away, as if contemplating John and George making love here was taking her analysis of the situation a little too far.

"Why a second time?" Jo finally asked the question. "If once made you feel guilty." Remembering all too well precisely why John had come looking to repeat and improve on the first occasion, George blushed, and hurriedly said,

"You really don't need to know that. Please, just accept that there was a second occasion. Please don't ask why." There was such a desperate quality about George's plea, that Jo immediately became interested, seeing that this hadn't been purely to fulfill a temporary reawoken urge. To avoid Jo's unwavering gaze, George stood up and began pacing, eventually standing in front of the full length mirror on the outside of the wardrobe door.

"Good god," She said, taking in her pallid, waif-like reflection. "I do look ugly."

"You've never looked ugly in your life, George," Replied Jo, moving to regain her seat in the armchair, not taking her eyes off George who didn't seem able to keep still.

"Today, I do," Affirmed George. Jo knew that if she waited, she would be rewarded, George's urge to talk was always too strong for her own good.

"John came looking for a repeat performance," She eventually began, "Because I'd questioned his ability by faking it on the Tuesday." A look of dawning realisation came over Jo's face. George had said this with her face turned away from Jo, totally unable to look her in the eye. "I felt so ridiculous" Went on George, the real hurdle now cleared. "I'd gone looking for it, and in the end I couldn't even enjoy it. I wasn't going to let him know that, especially after all my persuasion, and I thought that after all these years, I'd be able to fool him. But this is John we're talking about, and he never misses a trick where women are concerned. I don't really know why I didn't enjoy it, I was probably too wound up, and I think I wanted it too much. I think it shocked him that I'd done that. When we were married, and I was going through my periodic phases of feeling utterly flat and miserable, bed was the last thing I really felt like. It never entered my head to hide it from him. Bed of one form or another, is really how John shows he loves someone. He used to, and probably still does, find it incredibly hard to actually say what he feels, so he follows the philosophy of actions speak louder than words. It hurt him enormously that I quite often wouldn't get any real pleasure out of anything he did, mainly because I didn't feel I deserved it. It's stupid really, but I didn't think I deserved to be happy, and yet it was probably my reluctance to forgive myself for my almost complete failure to really love and care for Charlie that drove him away. I don't really blame him, not now. At the time, I was too angry with everything, his infidelity, my being a useless mother, everything, to be able to see his side of it. But I know I was impossible to live with a lot of the time. He probably went looking elsewhere to get a bit of peace." This briefly made Jo smile. Seeing this, George said, "Did he ever say that to you, in the beginning I mean." Jo looked a trifle sheepish.

"Occasionally," She admitted.

"I'm hardly surprised," Said George, "If I wasn't taking out my anger and sheer self-loathing on me, then I was taking it out on him. To be honest, I'm amazed he stayed as long as he did, but then it was me who eventually said enough is enough, not him."

"You still love him, don't you," Said Jo, after a short pause.

"I'm not sure," Said George, taking a long, contemplative drag of what felt like her hundredth cigarette that day. "I suppose part of me does. I think I'd got to the stage of being totally numb, and scared of what I knew I was doing to myself again. My food intake, or lack of it, was the only thing I seemed able to control. It was the one thing I could hold on to with utter certainty, yet I couldn't even get that right."

"George, if your sole aim was to become as thin as possible and yet manage to keep it from everyone who knew you, and continue to function in court, then you almost accomplished it too successfully. When I saw you this morning, I thought you were pregnant." George shuddered.

"Good god, no. I was a terrible mother the first time round. I won't be making that mistake again." George shivered and Jo realised that George was only wearing a very thin nightie and that with her decreased size must be cold.

"I think you should get some sleep," Jo said, looking at George's clearly exhausted face. George moved back in to the bathroom and rummaged in the cabinet above the sink, emerging with a bottle of sleeping pills. Filling a glass with water, she took two of them. Jo walked in and plucked them out of her hand.

"You don't seriously think I'm about to take the entire bottle," Said George, sounding more exhausted than scornful.

"I don't know, George, are you?" Said Jo, rapidly reading the instructions on the label.

"I might be pretty close to it, but I'm not quite that far gone. Anyway, the wonderful thing about Temazipan is that even if you get tempted, the whole lot would simply make you sleep for a couple of days."

"You'll probably sleep for about fifteen hours on two of these," Said Jo, handing them back.

"Hopefully," Replied George, crawling back under her thick feather duvet and switching on the electric blanket. Jo sat back down in the armchair.

"I like that picture," She said, pointing to the beautiful illustration of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that hung over the bed.

"It used to hang downstairs," Said George, the drowsiness of drug-induced sleep creeping in to her voice. "But I needed something to look at when in bed with Neil." Jo laughed softly. George turned on to her left side so that she was facing Jo across the room. "Thank you for coping with me today," George said, the sedative giving her the courage to voice such a thought. "I know I'm not the easiest person to deal with when I'm like this."

"George, you never have been easy to deal with," Replied Jo, raising the first smile she'd seen today on that normally beautiful face. Just as George was falling asleep, she murmured,

"I'm sorry."

"What for?" Asked Jo gently.

"For everything." Jo stood up and gently reached over to rest a hand on George's bony shoulder.

"The feeling's mutual," She said, close enough to see the long eyelashes finally lie still on the cheeks that had seen too many tears this day.

Observing that George was finally asleep, Jo went downstairs and made herself a coffee. Yawning, she realised just how much today had taken out of her too. It wasn't just the emotionally crippled who could get exhausted, Jo thought, but the people who spent time with them. About half an hour later, she heard John's car draw up outside. When she went to let him in, he said without preamble,

"How is she?"

"Asleep, I didn't want you to wake her with the doorbell."

"You look done in," Said John coming in to the hall.

"You could say that, which is why I'm going home to bed. I take it you're staying here?"

"I think that'd be a good idea. When she wakes up, it's time me and her had a little chat."

"Well, just go easy on her," chided Jo. "I've learnt more about her today than I ever have about you."

"Okay, calm down. I'll be good, I promise."

"You said that to me on the night you made such a fool of yourself with Francesca Rochester. You didn't mean it then and you don't mean it now."

"Hey, what's got in to you?" He asked, still keeping his voice down at the same level as hers. Jo took a deep breath to bring herself back under control.

"John, I could quite happily strangle you tonight, but I won't because I'm too tired. I've not achieved much today, but I'd really rather you didn't unravel her completely and put her back at square one. Do you think you can manage that?" John was looking at her a little oddly.

"Jo, are you feeling all right?" He asked, never having heard her stick up for George like this.

"I will be when I've had some sleep," She said, moving towards the door.

"Will you do me a favour?" Said John, following her. "I've got Mimi in the car. Will you take her home with you and keep her till tomorrow for me."

"Of course," Said Jo with a small smile. "Mimi I can cope with, it's you I'm not in the mood for." Starting to dread just what George might have told her, John lifted Mimi out of his car and ensconced her on Jo's backseat. When he tried to give Jo a hug and she simply got in to her car, he said,

"What've I done?"

"How long have you got?" Replied Jo. Then switching on the ignition, she said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

One Hundred And Twenty Six

Lauren pulled up outside Cassie and Roisin's house at about seven O'clock. She was surprised she'd managed to get there in one piece - her hands were trembling uncontrollably and her breath was coming in short, shallow gasps. She could barely believe she was actually about to do this. She, Lauren 'straight-as-an-arrow' Atkins was about to go to bed with not one but two women. Two women who happened to be very close friends both of hers and her mother's. She closed her eyes briefly and took a deep, satisfying breath, holding it for as long as she could manage.

"Okay, Lauren, you can do this," she muttered to herself. "You want to do this."

And it was true. Cassie and Roisin hadn't pressured her in any way - she'd called them of her own free will. She was in control of the situation. But right at that particular moment, she didn't feel particularly in control of herself.

"We were wondering when you were going to come in," Cassie said ten minutes later as she opened the door to a quiet and nervous Lauren.

A small pink flush crept up Lauren's chest. "You, uh...you knew I was there then?"

"We don't get many cars as flashy as yours in this neighbourhood," Cassie replied with a wink. Lauren smiled nervously and Cassie slipped an arm round her shoulders. "Don't stress, babe," she said softly. "It's just us."

Lauren felt a little of the tension drain out of her body and she leaned into Cassie a little. "Thank you, Cassie," she said.

Cassie smiled and squeezed Lauren's shoulders a little tighter. "Come on through," she said. "Dinner's nearly ready."

Lauren allowed herself to be led through to the living room where she was presented with a glass of red wine. "You didn't have to cook..." Lauren began to say but was cut off by a low chuckle from behind her. Roisin emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishcloth.

"Don't you want to be romanced, Lauren?" she said, coming up and kissing the brunette on the cheek. Lauren found herself blushing again.

"I- I didn't...I mean, I wasn't..."

"Sssh, it's okay," Roisin hushed her, running her hand down the younger woman's arm. Her voice lowered slightly. "Relax. We're just having dinner for now."

Cassie nodded gently. "Yeah," she agreed.

Lauren nodded tightly and managed a small smile. "You both look nice," she said.

Cassie and Roisin simultaneously ran their eyes down Lauren's body, taking in the tight leather trousers and fitted white button-down shirt. "You too," Cassie breathed, her pupils widening slightly.

Suddenly the atmosphere turned heavy. Lauren took a single step forward, planting herself firmly in Cassie's personal space. Her breathing was slightly shallow as she extended a trembling hand and curled it around Cassie's shoulder. She had the presence of mind to put her wine glass down on the coffee table before she found herself folded up in Cassie's arms.

With a gentle exhalation she buried her head in Cassie's neck, nuzzling slightly and running her hands down her friend's back. Fingers trailed gently through her hair and it took her a second to realise that they were Roisin's. Turning her head she met the Irish woman's eyes. An unspoken question passed between them.

"It's all right," Roisin whispered in answer to that question. Her lips curled in a smile. "You've done it before, remember?"

Lauren looked down. "I know," she whispered. "But...I just wanted to be sure..."

"We want this to happen, Lauren," Cassie interrupted, tilting Lauren's chin upwards so their eyes met. "Do you?"

An endless instant passed before Lauren answered by pressing their lips together. A low sound bubbled up in Cassie's throat as her lips parted and their tongues began a slow dance to music that only they could hear. Roisin's body moulded itself against Lauren's back, her hands resting on the brunette's hips.

Lauren pulled back with a gasp, arching into Roisin but keeping a firm hold on Cassie's shoulders. Roisin's lips found her neck easily, trailing over soft skin and leaving goosebumps in their wake. Lauren let out a small yelp as Roisin nipped slightly at her thundering pulse. She felt Cassie move her lips to the other side of her neck and mirror Roisin's actions. A haze began to build up in her mind and she was glad she was sandwiched so tightly between her two friends or she would have slumped to the ground.

An unwelcome and deeply annoying beeping noise interrupted the moment and the three women broke apart. Roisin looked at the other two, flushed and breathless, and grinned sheepishly. "That's the timer for dinner," she explained.

Lauren took a deep shaky breath and nodded. "Dinner sounds like a really fantastic idea," she said. She needed some time to collect herself. It seemed like every time she was with these women lately she felt so completely dismantled. It wasn't an altogether unpleasant feeling, however, and she couldn't help but wonder what shape she'd eventually take when she put herself back together.

"Why don't you two go through to the dining room?" Roisin said softly. "I'll just go and see to the food."

Lauren nodded thankfully and took Cassie's hand. The dining room was dimly lit and dotted with candles. The table was beautifully set with the best china and a gorgeous floral decoration. "Wow," Lauren breathed. "You're really going to romance me?"

"Mmm," Cassie replied, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. Her lips moved to Lauren's ear. "You deserve this and a hundred times more," she whispered, the tickle of her breath causing a shiver to run down the length of Lauren's body.

"I'm already seduced from before," Lauren muttered, causing Cassie to laugh low in her throat. She broke away from the brunette's side and pulled out a chair for her.

"If you'd care to have a seat, dinner will be served shortly."

Lauren took her seat with a grin. Her eyes fluttered closed as she felt a pair of soft lips press into the crown of her head from behind.

"I'll just get the wine," Cassie whispered in her ear and Lauren nodded, swallowing hard.

She wasn't sure how long she was left alone in the room but her friends re-entered together, Cassie with the wine, Roisin with their meal.

"I hope you like lamb," Roisin said. "We wanted dinner to be a surprise so we couldn't ask you what you'd prefer."

Lauren opened her eyes and smiled. "Lamb sounds lovely," she said.

Roisin distributed the food and they sat down to eat in silence. Gradually though, the awkwardness dissipated and they began talking and laughing, momentarily ignoring the heavy sexual tension. Lauren found herself telling them stories about her childhood, and they laughed in all the right places. It reminded her that the three of them were friends first and foremost, and that was a comforting thought.

"Refill, Lauren?" Cassie asked, picking up the wine bottle.

Lauren put her hand over her glass and shook her head. "No, I think I need to be sober tonight." She'd already had two glasses and she knew a third would go right to her head.

"I'd have thought that tonight of all nights you'd like to be tipsy," Cassie replied.

Roisin smiled softly, and covered Lauren's hand with her own. "She just wants to be able to remember it, that's all," she said. Lauren looked at her thankfully, and knew she understood the real reason behind her desire to stay sober. Cassie had never had the slightest confusion about exactly who she was and who she wanted to love - she didn't get that Lauren wasn't sure how she'd feel in the morning. She didn't think she'd regret it, but if she did she didn't want to be able to blame being drunk. She'd made this decision and she'd take responsibility for it, whatever happened.

She squeezed Roisin's hand slightly and smiled. "What's for dessert?" she asked.

Roisin looked down at their joined hands and let out a low chuckle. "You," she replied, looking up through her eyelashes.

Lauren's breath caught in her throat and she felt her entire lower body turn liquid. "I...uh...I mean...I..." she spluttered.

"I think you broke her," Cassie quipped as she collected their empty plates.

Roisin laughed as she got up from her chair and stood in front of Lauren. She took her other hand and squeezed gently. "It's all right," she whispered soothingly. "Just breathe."

Lauren tried to take her advice, sucking in a lungful of calming air. Roisin waited till Cassie had left the room and then looked down at the younger woman. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to, sweetheart," she said kindly.

Lauren nodded and leaned forward slightly, slipping her arms round Roisin's waist and resting her cheek against her stomach. "I do want to," she said.

Roisin's hands found the top of her head and smoothed through her hair. "But you're scared?" she said.

Lauren was quiet for a moment and then she nodded. "Terrified."

Roisin smiled as she tilted Lauren's face up to meet her eyes. "I know exactly how you feel," she said.

Lauren wasn't sure who moved first but the next thing she knew she was standing with her arms round Roisin's neck and they were kissing.

"Mmmm," she groaned, a low sound that originated deep in her throat. Lauren's fingers combed softly through Roisin's hair.

"Starting without me?" came a soft amused voice. Lauren tore her lips away from Roisin's and looked over, slightly glassy eyed, at Cassie. The blonde was standing right at her girlfriend's shoulder. Lauren kept one hand in Roisin's hair but curled the other round Cassie's neck, pulling her closer. The three of them moulded together as Cassie and Lauren kissed and Roisin ran her hand down Lauren's back.

"Jesus," Lauren muttered as they parted, though she could barely hear herself over the pounding of her heart.

"Don't worry," Roisin replied. "I don't think he's watching."

Lauren let out a strangled laugh and buried her face in Cassie's neck.

"You ready for your dessert yet, Roche?"

Lauren held on to Cassie a little tighter and whimpered softly.

"Hey," Roisin said. "It's okay, darling."

Lauren looked up into Roisin's dark eyes. She knew Roisin knew exactly what she was going through right now. With only a slight hesitation she reached out for the other woman's hand and placed it gently over her chest, letting her feel the thudding of her pulse. Roisin smiled softly. "You too?" she whispered, bringing Lauren's other hand up to her own chest and letting her feel the answering rhythm of her own heart.

Lauren's smile of gratitude nearly lit up the room.

"I think your dessert's ready," she said.

The bedroom was lit by a single lamp which cast long shadows across the room. The three women were standing at the foot of the bed, smiling at each other nervously. In the end Cassie was the one to make the first move.

"Take off your shirt," she said to Lauren, smiling when that familiar pink flush crept onto her cheeks. Nonetheless, she complied with Cassie's request. Her fingers fumbled over the buttons.

"Let me, darling," Roisin murmured, taking over. Her hands glided down Lauren's sides, leaving a trail of goosebumps. When the shirt buttons were finally undone Roisin smiled gently and dropped to her knees.

Lauren's stomach muscles clenched when Roisin's lips pressed against her skin. Her hands drifted to the other woman's head of their own accord, threading through silky soft hair. Roisin trailed an erratic path over Lauren's flat stomach, dipping her tongue briefly into her navel. Lauren shivered. "Roisin..." she whispered.

"Mmm?" Her lips never broke contact with Lauren's skin.

"I don't know if I can stand."

Instantly Cassie was behind her. "I'll hold you up," she said, slipping her arms around Lauren and burying her face into a curtain of dark hair. Lauren groaned softly and leaned into Cassie.

Roisin's hands were busy with the fastenings of those gorgeous leather trousers. "What is it with Atkins women and leather?" she wondered aloud when she finally managed to get the buttons undone.

Lauren was a little preoccupied with Cassie's lips on her neck and didn't answer. Roisin smirked. Gently she slid Lauren's trousers down towards the floor, exposing her long, perfectly tanned legs. Lauren found the presence of mind to kick off her shoes and step out of the leather when it lay puddled on the floor.

Cassie pulled back far enough to slide the unbuttoned shirt of Lauren's shoulders. "Much better," she said, raking her eyes over the nearly naked girl in front of her. Lauren shivered.

"Cold?" Roisin whispered, drawing herself up to her full height.

"No," Lauren replied. "Just lonely." With that she reached out and pulled Roisin's shirt up over her head. "Much better," she murmured, and leaned in to nuzzle into the newly exposed flesh.

Roisin threw her head back and groaned in pleasure as Lauren's tongue trailed into the hollow at her clavicle. She wrapped her arms tightly round Lauren's shoulders, running her fingertips down the raised curve of her spine. Her hands found the clasp of Lauren's bra and she took the opportunity to undo it, letting it hang loose on her shoulders.

"Feeling a little left out here girls," Cassie purred close to Lauren's ear. Lauren broke away from Roisin and turned, her breath catching in her throat when she realised that Cassie had taken the opportunity to undress.

"Cassie," she croaked, running her eyes down her friend's body. "You're beautiful."

"She really is," Roisin agreed, smiling warmly. Cassie opened her arms and Lauren sank into them, drinking in the feeling of being skin to skin with her friend. Gently she felt herself being nudged onto the bed and she fell onto it gratefully, not sure how much longer she could have remained standing anyway.

"Cassie," she muttered, and then her lips were otherwise occupied.

After a moment or two she felt Roisin crawling onto the bed. She tore her lips from Cassie's with a genuine effort and glanced over at the other woman. It seemed she'd also been busy divesting herself of clothes. "Oh God," she whispered, letting her head fall back onto the pillow.

"What's wrong sweetheart?" Roisin asked, running her hand tenderly over her forehead.

"Just a little vertigo," Lauren muttered as she leaned into Roisin's touch.

"Don't be scared to fall," Cassie breathed. "We'll catch you."

Lauren sighed gently and closed her eyes. A soft pair of lips pressed against hers ever so briefly and when she opened her eyes Cassie an Roisin were both there, looking down on her kindly. She brought her fingers to her lips.

"Who...?" she whispered.

"Does it matter?" Roisin replied.

Lauren thought about that for a second. "Maybe not," she admitted eventually and Cassie's face split in a wolfish grin.

"Then you won't mind this then," she said.

Lauren frowned as Cassie opened the bedside cabinet and rifled around in it for a second. "What...?" she said.

"You'll see darling," Roisin assured her, kissing her softly.

Cassie reappeared a moment later, a triumphant grin on her face. "This," she said, holding out a rectangle of dark velvet, "is for you."

Lauren frowned and ran her hands across it. "What is it?"

Roisin smiled. "Let me show you sweetheart."

She took the material from Cassie and placed it gently over Lauren's eyes. Lauren felt her entire lower body turn liquid as she realised just what was going on. "Oh God," she whispered softly as Roisin tied the blindfold gently, but securely, behind her head.

"We're going to make love to you, Lauren," Cassie whispered close to her left ear.

"Both of us," Roisin added in her right.

Someone's lips pressed against her left shoulder and she groaned softly. She was surprised she hadn't melted into a puddle of pure arousal yet.

A sharp gasp was drawn from her as she felt her arms being pulled above her head. "Can't have you touching back yet," Cassie's voice said. "Later," she added as she wrapped a length of silk round Lauren's wrists and tied the other end to the headboard. "But not yet."

Lauren tested her bonds briefly but found them to be strong enough to hold her. "Cassie," she growled. Cassie silenced her with a breath stealing kiss. "Relax, babe," she said when they broke apart. "Just enjoy."

And then there were no more words, just two sets of lips, two tongues, two pairs of very talented hands working their magic on her body.

Her back arched as a mouth closed over a diamond hard nipple and suckled gently, alternating between teasing nips and soothing licks. "Oh Jesus," she murmured. A low laugh reached her ears but she couldn't decide who it belonged to. Someone's hands were drifting over her stomach, and another pair of lips found her other breast, treating it to the same attention as the first. All she could do was moan softly.

"Someone should have told me..." she gasped. "That women are this good..."

Neither of her lovers made any audible reply but one of them trailed her lips down from her breast and over her stomach. Lauren had the feeling she was about to find out just how good women could be.

She arched her hips a little to allow her lover to slip her underwear off and throw it over to join the rest of their discarded clothing. A strangled noise bubbled in Lauren's throat as fingers trailed across her ultra sensitive skin, just teasing her. Gradually she realised that the touches were coming from different angles and, therefore, there were two hands. Maybe even two different women.

"Oh, Jesus fucking Christ," she muttered, the thought sending a renewed flood of wetness to her centre. She was close already and they'd barely even touched her.

One of the hands left her and trailed up her side to cup her breast. She felt warm breath on her face and she opened her mouth to accept the hungry kiss almost before it was offered. Her hips arched into her other lover's hand.

When that hand was replaced with lips and a very talented tongue she knew she was lost. "Oh God," she groaned, tearing her lips away from the kiss. "I'm going to..."

She couldn't complete the thought; her lover's touch was drowning out all coherent brain activity. "Who are you?" she whispered, not even aware she'd said anything.

Her hips arched one final time then a cry was torn from her throat as her lover's tongue brought her a much needed release. Images of Cassie and Roisin flashed through her mind, jumbled up together like an unmade jigsaw. She couldn't think, she could barely breathe. The world had condensed into the three of them, this bed, this night. Everything else felt like a dream.

When she came back to her senses she realised there were tears pricking behind her eyelids. "God," she breathed. A pair of hands was cupping her face and two soft lips were kissing her cheek.

And suddenly she didn't care which lover was kissing her and which was wrapped around her torso. She didn't need to know which one had given her that incredible orgasm because they were so inextricably linked in her mind that they may as well both have done it. Cassie and Roisin, Roisin and Cassie, the names rolled off her tongue like they were glued together. She couldn't imagine one without the other. And her feelings for them both were likewise mingled.

"Untie me," she said hoarsely.

She felt her hands being untied immediately. When she was free she pulled off the blindfold, looking into the concerned faces of her two lovers with slightly cloudy eyes.

"Are you all right?" Roisin asked with a frown.

Lauren looked between them for a moment, then broke out in a grin. "God yes," she muttered, and pulled them both into a tight embrace.

One Hundred And Twenty Seven

John had slept beside George on the Friday night, gently soothing away the dreams she wasn't aware of that made her call Charlie's name. He had no idea of the extent to which George and Jo had talked yesterday, but he guessed that Charlie had certainly been a part of that conversation. Waking at around seven on the Saturday morning, he observed that George was still sound asleep, and still looked utterly exhausted. Pressing a soft kiss to her forehead, he got out of bed and grabbed a quick shower. Leaving a hastily scribbled note on the bedside table to let her know where he was, he left the house, and caught the tube back to the Old Bailey to fetch George's car. She was still asleep when he got back, so he made himself a cup of tea and investigated the fridge. Finding only a couple of lemons, a lettuce that should definitely be certified as extra terrestrial, a box of dubious looking eggs and some condiments, he rolled his eyes and made a rapid dash round the nearby supermarket, picking up some of George's favourite foods to try and tempt her in to eating again. When he returned, it was just before ten. Making himself a cup of tee, he went back upstairs, and seeing that she was still asleep, he sat and read the morning paper. She began to drift in to the realms of consciousness around eleven o'clock, pretty much fifteen hours after she'd gone to sleep the night before. Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she looked over at him.

"What are you doing here?" She asked, her voice still husky from sleep.

"Waiting for you to wake up," He said, looking over the top of the paper. George gradually persuaded her reluctant body in to some semblance of movement, and turned over to reach the clock on her bedside table. Picking it up, she squinted at it. Putting it down again, she caught sight of his note and brought it closer to read it.

"Gone to fetch your car, and to find something edible to inhabit your fridge. If you wake before I come back, don't move. John." She looked up. "Find something inedible to inhabit my fridge, bloody cheek."

"Have you looked in your fridge lately?" He challenged.

"Not so as you'd notice, no," She replied, gently moving in to a sitting position.

"I think we need to talk, don't you?" He said quietly.

"Absolutely not," She replied, "I had quite enough verbal purging yesterday to last me a lifetime."

"Tough," He said gently but firmly.

"Really," She said, slowly getting out of bed. "Well, we'll see about that, but not until I've had a shower." As she walked towards the bathroom, she coughed.

"Oh, god," She groaned, "I think we must have smoked an entire Cuban tobacco harvest."

"You and Jo are a bad influence on each other where that's concerned," He replied, "At least Houghton made you give it up." Standing in the bathroom doorway, she swiveled round to glare at him.

"If all you're going to do is whinge at me, then you can disappear right this minute, because I am really not in the mood for it." Stalking in to the bathroom, she closed the door, not seeing the slight smile on his face. She was reacting, she was arguing with him, that was always a good sign.

When George emerged from the hot shower about twenty minutes later, she found a cup of tea waiting for her on the dressing-table. Wrapped in a towel, she stood in front of the mirror, brushing the tangles out of her wet hair. Whilst she was giving it a going over with the hairdryer, she watched through the mirror as John appeared in the bedroom doorway. Ignoring him completely, she finished drying her hair. After replacing the dryer in the drawer, she was about to make an attempt at deciding what to wear, when he moved forward and said,

"I'd like to weigh you first."

"Please don't," She said, but knowing of old that he would. John walked to the bathroom, and dragged out the scales from under the sink. Silently capitulating to his request, she approached this all too familiar piece of machinery.

"Hey," he said, as she lifted a foot to stand on the scales, "Lose the towel. That probably weighs a kilo all by itself."

"Fine," Said George, draping it over the radiator, "But don't you dare criticize what you see, because I can assure you, you won't like it."

"Have I ever criticised the way you look?"

"No, but there's a first time for everything." When she stood on the scales, he had to try extremely hard to keep the shock out of his face. She was literally skin and bone, her ribs far far too prominent, and with a waist he could probably span with his two hands. Baring her entire weight, the scales stood at five stone ten. George briefly glanced down at the glass plate between her feet, and then up at John's face.

"Do you know something," She said, stepping off the scales and resuming her outer layer of sarcasm, "I've never once heard you swear in the whole time I've known you, yet right now, you look like you could cheerfully utter the most vile word that ever existed."

"Yeah, well, get any thinner and I just might," He replied, slipping far too easily back in to their usual sparring. Then he softened slightly. "George, you haven't been this thin since..."

"I know," Replied George, pulling on a clean nightie followed by a thick dressing-gown, "Not since after Charlie. Five stone seven, wasn't it? So, I've still got a way to go." She knew she shouldn't antagonise him, but it was the only way she could maintain her guard.

"That isn't funny," He said sternly. Hating to give him any satisfaction at having the last word, she stalked downstairs ahead of him and made for the kitchen. On the table, there was a plate of grapes and sliced apple, and she was touched that he'd remembered that this was usually what she preferred to nibble on when she was getting back in to eating again. She hated this. First, he'd make her angry, and then he'd do something like this that reminded her of how much she still needed him. Opening the fridge, she was further thrown to see that he'd done exactly what he used to do in the old days to get her to eat again. Strawberries, smoked salmon, kiwi fruit, and that disgusting French cheese that she liked to eat when it was virtually walking off the plate, together with numerous other things, all with long sell by dates because he knew how long it took her to develop normal eating habits again. Pouring herself a glass of grapefruit juice, she closed the fridge door, knowing that she wouldn't be going near most of it for a day or two.

"Did you eat anything yesterday?" He asked, watching her from the doorway.

"For all the good it did me. I don't know who's the least subtle out of you and Jo in that line of persuasion,"

"Why for all the good it did you?" He asked, not immediately remembering the perfectly normal reaction to reintroducing food to a stomach that has got used to doing without.

"Throwing up in front of one's rival, can never, ever be called an aid to ego enhancement," She replied dryly. "Though I must say, your leading lady does have heights of sensitivity that I wouldn't previously have guessed at."

"You call Jo my leading lady as if I'm putting on a better act than you," He commented. She laughed, her smile very determined.

"Oh, Do I. Well, if you think that I'm the only one who will be having their script well and truly rewritten, you are very much mistaken. I'd say it was about time that your defenses were thoroughly dismantled, wouldn't you?"

"That wasn't my original idea, no," He said warily. Picking up the plate of fruit, she walked towards him.

"Well, I can assure you, I'm not going down on my own. This was your idea, so you're coming with me." Then, her tone becoming gentler, she said, "You've got just as much redirecting of thought to do as I have."

Following him in to the lounge, she saw that he'd lit the fire, which was now crackling gently and emitting a welcoming warmth. John had drawn up the largest armchair and placed it at right angles to the fire. He took the plate of fruit from her and put it on the coffee table, and when she moved to take her usual place on the sofa, he took her hand and they moved towards the armchair. In the old days, they'd often snuggled close together in this chair, it being large enough to take the two of them. It seemed almost natural for them to slip in to their old position, each with an arm around the other with her leaning against him. It occurred to her that they hadn't done this for years, but she didn't voice the thought. There were far too many things, simple, little, wonderful things they hadn't done for a very long time. He had moved the coffee table so that the plate of fruit, plus her cigarettes and an ashtray were in easy reach of her right hand. For a while, they simply sat there, John painfully aware of how thin she was, and George suddenly quiet, now that the time had finally come.

"Tell me what you talked about with Jo yesterday," John eventually prompted.

"Mostly about you, and Charlie. Jo's like you, she has a way of making you talk when it's the last bloody thing in the world you want to contemplate. We established the fact that I have more guilt festering away inside me than an entire congregation of Roman Catholics. What more is there to it." She picked up a slice of apple from the plate and stared at it. John simply watched her. He made no comment when she put it back down, knowing that she would eat it eventually.

"We'll come to why you did this again in a while," Said John, "But I think we ought to go back to what happened the first time." He felt her stiffen. "When Charlie was born," He continued, "You hid everything about the way you felt from me."

"And are you surprised?" She asked in disgust.

"No," He said patiently, "But I'd like to know why."

"John, you know why. For some wholly unfathomable reason, I didn't or couldn't love my own daughter." He felt her recoil from her own words. "How was I supposed to tell her utterly besotted father, that I didn't love the child he'd given me. The day you dragged that confession out of me, was without doubt the worst day of my life." In thought, John was forced to admit that it had certainly been one of his. "I felt like the most evil woman who'd ever existed," She said in a strangled voice, the pain being gradually dragged out in to the open like the excision of diseased tissue. "Charlie was, is, beautiful, but I was so bloody self-obsessed that I couldn't make room in my life for her."

"But you did," He said gently, "You cared for her far better than you ever thought you did. Outwardly, you never once let Charlie know how you felt, and that was what mattered."

"And we both know that only lasted until she was of an age where explaining my absence became necessary," Said George bitterly. "Charlie isn't stupid, John. She knows she lived with you most of the time because I couldn't deal with the responsibility, because that normal, maternal instinct never quite got turned on. Charlie knows that for years I only really tolerated her presence, and that even now, that what I feel for her is so mixed up that I couldn't ever begin to explain it. Whether she worked that out on her own, or whether you enlightened her, I don't know."

"George, I may have done a lot of regrettable things in my time," He said firmly, "But I have never been disloyal to you where Charlie's concerned. What Charlie may or may not have discovered about why things were the way they were, has never come from me."

"That's what I don't understand. Why have you always protected me in that way. It isn't as if I deserved it. Why will you never blame me for failing at the most natural thing in the world." Her voice had taken on a slightly hysterical quality and she turned her face away from him in an effort to hide the tears that had risen to her eyes. "I really can't do this, John," She said, aware of the ongoing mantra in her head that said, I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry.

"Yes, you can," He said slowly, feeling the familiar physical and emotional tension in her that meant she was about to flea, about to run as far and as fast as possible from the inevitable crumbling of her walls that was steadily catching up with her. She reached desperately for a cigarette, knowing that the breathing action necessary for smoking would bring her body back under control. She considerately turned her face to blow the smoke away from him, and the deep intake of every drag did have the desired effect of allowing her to temporarily regain her equilibrium.

"Why the frantic desire not to cry?" He asked, knowing exactly what she was doing.

"Because I loathe losing control with anyone, but especially with you. I'm not entirely sure that I'll be able to stop."

"Would it surprise you to know that I felt exactly the same with my therapist?"

"No, it wouldn't surprise me in the least, because I suspect that's why you then slept with her, to regain the reins so to speak."

"That's very astute of you," He said with a wry smile.

"I know you a lot better than you think I do, John," She said seriously. "You hate losing control just as much as I do. The difference is that I maintain the appearance of control by not eating, and you do it by screwing." He flinched at her last word, and she said, "Don't look at me like that. You don't make love to most of those women, because you don't hang around long enough to even possibly love them. Taking some random woman to bed is sometimes the one thing in your life that you understand, the one thing you almost always succeed at. For anyone who knows you, it is noticeable that you will pick up someone new when a part of your life is out of your control. Take that waitress friend of Charlie's for example. The only reason you started seeing her, I've forgotten her name."


"That's it, Carol. Well, I think you only started seeing Carol because Jo was getting to you by having the appearance of a fling with Roe Colmore. Then, with your therapist, she all but forced you to lose control, which I suspect isn't something you've ever done with anyone except perhaps Jo. The only time I've ever seen you cry was when Charlie was born because you were so happy. So, pursuing and eventually seducing your therapist was your way of reasserting your control. I'd even go so far as to say that that's why you came looking for a repeat performance with me. It got to you that I didn't enjoy it, especially when you'd discovered why I came looking for it. But it got to you even more that I'd attempted to hide that from you. You're not used to not being able to satisfy any woman you sleep with, and you wanted to prove that you could still do it for me." He looked at her with a contemplative gaze.

"I've never thought about it like that," He said, "In the old days, you'd never have even thought about faking it. If you didn't enjoy it, you said so."

"And I have memory enough to know that it hurt you whenever I said that. It didn't occur to me to lie to you about it, but sometimes I wish I had. For you, making love is how you express your love for someone."

"Isn't it for everyone?"

"Yes, most of the time it is. But for you, it's more important. Making someone writhe in total ecstasy is far more acceptable and far safer than admitting to your real feelings. I didn't know that when we were married, but I've worked it out since."

"I used to think you didn't love me," He said, slightly astounded that these words had been uttered.

"I know you did," She said softly. "It was me I didn't love, for want of a better way to put it, not you. I was so eaten up with guilt that I couldn't enjoy anything. I think part of me thought I didn't deserve to be happy."

"Will you tell me something?" He asked.

"What?" She replied, never willing to agree to something before she knew what she was committing herself too.

"Will you tell me exactly how you felt when you first found out you were pregnant?"

"I'm not sure you'll really want to know, but yes, okay." Detaching herself from John, she stood up and began pacing, occasionally eating a grape or a slice of apple. From her clear inability to keep still, he could tell she was incredibly afraid of what she was about to say to him.

"I remember," She began hesitantly. "I didn't go in to work that day, because I felt so awful." He could remember it like it was yesterday. The way she'd come downstairs as usual, and he'd put a mug of coffee down on the table in front of her. She'd stared at the coffee, all the colour draining from her face. The memory of the scrape of the chair over the stone flags in the kitchen, followed by her frantic dash upstairs to the bathroom, brought back flashes of the life they'd once had. "After you'd left for court," She continued, "I went back to bed and slept till lunchtime. I felt all right when I woke up, and I started thinking. John, you know how often we used to..."

"Make love?" He supplied, amused at her difficulty in finding the right phrase.

"Yes. The 'Just come in from work quickie' always had a certain extra frisson about it." He smiled, vividly remembering the urgency with which they'd sometimes greeted each other after a hard day's work. There'd always been something slightly naughty, yet incredibly sexy about that form of instant gratification for both of them. "What I'm saying is," Went on George, observing the smile that had lifted the corners of his mouth, "That even though I was on the pill, it wouldn't really have mattered how careful we were. We made love so often that it was bound to happen some time. But it wasn't something we'd really ever discussed. Okay, we knew that a family was something we both wanted some day, in the future, maybe, but other than that, it had never really come up as something to worry about." George lit another cigarette and kept on pacing. "I felt like time had stopped," She said, feeling the dread creeping over her like a thousand tiny butterflies. "When I realised the possibility, I felt detached, as if I was looking down on myself. The slightly crazy half of me wanted to run away, to hide. But the vaguely sensible, adult part of me knew that I needed to know. I couldn't wait, to allow my body to make its mind up. One way or the other, I just had to know. So, I went out and found the nearest chemist and bought a testing kit. I sat upstairs for hours after I read the result, just staring at it. I felt numb, confused, as if I was in freefall without a parachute. Even then, even at the beginning, I felt like my life was spinning out of my control."

"I remember," Said John slowly, "You waited till late that night, till we were in bed. That's when you told me."

"And you were so happy," Said George, her voice breaking and tears again rising to her eyes. "The last thing I could do was to even suggest that it wasn't what I thought I wanted. I couldn't do that to you." Tears had begun running down her face at this point. "How could I shatter the one dream you hadn't so far been able to fulfill." She moved to sit on the sofa, needing to keep her distance from him, but desperately wanting the comfort that being in his arms would provide. "I felt overwhelmed," She continued, "This thing that was growing inside me had taken over my entire life. Everything I did, everything I thought was tied up with a perfectly natural process that I didn't want to be any part of. For the last three months before Charlie was born, I barely looked in a mirror. I couldn't handle how much I'd changed. I knew that what I felt was wrong. I was supposed to be happy, to feel the same glorious sense of achievement and anticipation that I knew you did." John was aware of a lot of the feelings she'd had, from the first time they'd talked about this, but he could see that she needed to say it, so he let her continue. "The first time I looked at Charlie, the first time I held her, I knew. I knew that I didn't love this child who was part of me. I tried so hard to love her. Over the next few months, everything I did was in a desperate attempt to make myself love her, and all the time, I could feel the guilt becoming heavier, gradually pressing down on me till I thought it would flatten me altogether. You didn't know it till then, but starving myself has always been my reaction to stress, ever since I was fifteen. After Charlie was born, I didn't think I knew who I was. Not eating was my way of regaining something I knew, something I understood. I had to hide how I felt from you. I felt enough of a failure without you knowing what an utterly evil woman I was. I loathed everything I was in those days. I couldn't love my own daughter, I was going quietly crazy with all the feelings associated with that and what I was doing to myself, and I couldn't even maintain a vague sense of normality by sleeping with you. It hurt you so much that I didn't want you to touch me, that I couldn't even bare to have your arms round me. You tried to hide it, but I could still see it. I thought that any sign of love or affection from you would break me up all together, and I'd have to tell you what was really wrong with me, and in the end, that's what you did anyway. You're not as good at hiding your feelings as you think you are. When you finally forced me to tell you that I didn't love our daughter, the pain in your face almost did me in. It made it worse for a while, because I knew I'd hurt you immeasurably. But you didn't even reproach me for it, not outwardly anyway." She went quiet for a moment, her words seeming to have dried up in favour of the increased flow of her tears. "I'm so, so sorry," She said eventually, the grip on her control inexorably slipping, like that of a person's fingers after hours of clinging to a cliff edge. She looked so vulnerable, so defenceless, that he had an overwhelming urge to hold her close, to attempt to take some of the pain away.

"come here," He said, but she shook her head, feeling as she had all those years ago, that she didn't deserve any comfort from him. "come on," He said gently, not taking no for an answer. She got up, and slowly walked over to him, still not altogether sure if she should. He took her hand, and pulled her down beside him, wrapping his arms round her.

"I, I promised myself that, that I wouldn't do this," She said between sobs, her whole body wracked with the pain that had been festering for too long. He just held her, stroking her hair and allowing her the freedom to really give way. He didn't attempt to calm her down at first, knowing that she needed to do this, that she needed to fall apart completely before she began putting herself back together again. She clung to him, as if fearing that he would let her slip below the surface, never again to be truly sane. George had been close to cracking for a long time now, and he knew that this forceful breaking open of her soul was just the beginning. Only in time would she be able to gather together the fragments of her self-respect in order to start replacing her outer shell. When she began to show signs of calming down, he lifted her face from where it rested against his chest, and said,

"George, listen to me. You must stop blaming yourself for what happened with Charlie, you really must. No one can help the things they feel. You couldn't help feeling the way you did about her." He said all this in a slow, gently firm voice, which had the added bonus of slightly decreasing the level of violence in her gasps.

"I wanted to love her," She said, "I really did."

"I know you did," He said quietly. "But it doesn't always work like that. Just because you didn't, doesn't mean you failed."

"don't be so bloody ridiculous!" She replied, utterly unable to accept his affirmation.

"George, my real mother gave me up for adoption, either because she didn't want me or because she couldn't keep me. Either way, I don't blame her for it. You cannot force yourself to love someone, you just can't."

"Why are you being so nice to me?" She asked, unconsciously uttering the same words she'd said to Jo the day before.

"Because right now, you need me to be," He answered, "Because you are in serious danger of going right under, and I don't want you to do that. Don't hide from me, George. If nothing else, that's what I'm here for, it's what I'll always be here for. We didn't go through nearly nine years of marriage for nothing."

"I don't deserve you," She said miserably. He turned her face towards him, and forced her to look him in the eye.

"George, you went through an enormous amount of heartache for me, for the sole reason that you didn't want to deny me the opportunity to have a child. I'll always be indebted to you for that."

"Please don't," She said flatly, "I don't want to hear it."

"Maybe you don't, but you do need to hear it. You've beaten yourself up about this for far too long. It has got to stop. This form of punishment that you insist on putting yourself through, ends, now."

"It's not quite that simple, John."


"It's like your addiction to women," She said, her voice becoming angry. "I stop eating because it makes me feel good, in a weird and twisted kind of way, and you go to bed with numerous, nameless women because it makes you feel good. You don't like thinking of yourself as an addict, do you," She said, observing the retreat in his face, "But that's what you are, that's what both of us are. Anorexia for me is a fallback, a prop, the one thing I can lean on when the rest of my life is out of sync, and if you are remotely honest with yourself, you'll admit that that's what having more one night stands than you've had hot dinners is for you. I'm not passing judgment on you, because I know that what I do is just as screwed up, if not more so. I introduced you to the need to pick up women, because I couldn't let you love me. You went through the motions of loving them because I was so consumed with everything I felt or didn't feel for Charlie that it didn't occur to me that I was hurting you in the process. But once everything did come to a head, and I discovered that it was okay to be loved again, you'd already got the taste for it. It was too easy for you to do. You liked a bit of nameless skirt because it was uncomplicated. I got used to it after a while, because I thought you'd always come back to me. When I was aware of your playing away, it hurt like hell, and when you came back, I tried to make the most of you. But I couldn't hold you anymore, and part of me thought it was my punishment for not loving the child you'd given me." She reached for the box of tissues on the coffee table and blew her nose. An inextricable feeling of sadness came over John when she said this. He had hurt her so much, by not trying to understand hard enough as to why she hadn't been able to let herself be loved by him.

"I'm sorry," He said after a long silence.

"I know," She said gently, "But if I've got to stop blaming myself for being such a failure as a mother, then you've got to stop pushing away the woman who loves you, in favour of instant, temporary gratification with every other woman going. Jo desperately wants to be the one woman in your life. You've just got to let her."

"I didn't come here to talk about Jo," He said, feeling that George's probing was getting way too close to base.

"I know you didn't, but I think you should. Jo told me about her termination." He visibly flinched, never having wanted George to know about this.

"Not my finest hour," He said, and she could see the pain in his eyes.

"No, not hers either," George replied. "I think that part of why she puts up with you," George continued after a short pause, "Is because maintaining a link with you, somehow allows her to maintain a link with her unborn child. She didn't say so, and I doubt whether she ever would, but I think that the feeling of not quite being able to let go is mixed up with how much she loves you."

"I think she blamed me for it, for quite some time," Said John, "Even though it was her who had a husband and children, and it was her who really made that decision."

"At the time, blaming you was probably far easier than blaming herself, and though I hate to have to point this out to you, she does, or did, have the fragment of a point." At his look of outrage, George held up a hand. "Just listen to me before you get on your high horse. Did what happened with Jo, ever have any effect on the way you were with other women? I mean, did it ever make you think that actually, there are, or at least can be consequences of going to bed with someone, no matter how brief the fling might be."

"No, not really," He said, utterly shame faced. "Unless the woman I'm with brings it up as a problem, it's not something I ever really think about." George rolled her eyes.

"Do you not perhaps think that there is the slightest possibility," She said slowly, as if to a child, "That what happened to Jo might easily have happened to any one or number of your subsequent conquests?" John went quiet.

"If I started thinking like that," He replied eventually, "I'd wonder about every one of them, and that's something I can't afford to do. You're right, most of them don't mean anything to me. It's almost purely physical, like the normal, natural urge to consume food very occasionally," He said sternly, fixing her with his unwavering gaze, and attempting to transfer the focus of the conversation back to George. To shut him up on this subject, she ate the last slice of apple on the plate.

"The baby you nearly had with Jo," Said George slowly, "Was the reason you objected so vehemently to Charlie's having a termination, wasn't it."

"Yes, probably," He admitted, the force of the regret he'd felt at Charlie's decision hitting him anew. "Jo said that I was trying to make up for the past."

"And were you?" She asked gently. He heaved a big sigh.

"Yeah, maybe I was. I couldn't be strong for Jo when she needed me. You and me were getting divorced, I was trying to deal with looking after Charlie on my own, and because of Charlie, I'd moved in to teaching law rather than practicing it, which is how I met Jo in the first place. Taking on another commitment, just wasn't possible. Jo had a terminally ill husband, and two very young children plus her career to keep going. So, when she said she was thinking of having a termination, it seemed to be the obvious solution to a problem. I think I accepted the situation too easily. Jo's never said so, but I think she resented the matter-of-fact way I accepted what she decided to do. But it was her decision, George, I had to let her decide what she wanted. It was her body, not mine. I remember, she didn't say a word when I drove her home afterwards. We sat in the car outside her house. I tried to put my arms round her, but she wouldn't let me. She told me not to even think of trying to comfort her, because she didn't deserve it. For a long time after that, she did her best to avoid me, and would only give me the minimum amount of polite communication whenever she did have to speak to me. When her husband died, I tried to talk to her, just as a friend, but she told me to grow up and get over it." George couldn't help briefly smiling at this. "But as far as Jo is concerned, I never have," He said, and she could see the beginnings of him also coming apart at the seams. "I failed with Jo so spectacularly," Said John, "That when Charlie announced that she was going to do exactly the same thing, I had to fight for it, in the way I hadn't fought for Jo's baby."

"You do understand why I had to support Charlie, don't you, John," Said George seriously.

"I'm beginning to," He replied, not wanting his thoughts to continue down the path they were currently treading.

"I remembered from when I discovered that I was pregnant, that above everything else, I was frightened, terrified that I wouldn't be able to look after this child that was growing inside me. So, when Charlie said that she wanted to have a termination and that she'd really thought it through, I knew that if there was one thing I could do for her, it was to help her through it. That wasn't an easy decision for her to make, but it was her decision, and if that's what she thought was right for her, then I had to support her." John's inner turmoil which had started at the introduction of the subject of terminations came to a head.

"Did you ever think of doing that when you found out you were pregnant with Charlie?"

"No, of course not," replied George, but perhaps a little too quickly.

"Let me put it another way," Said John, wanting and not wanting an answer to this. "Is that what you wish you had done." George drew back from him slightly to examine his face.

"I don't know," She said eventually, "I really can't answer that. At the time, that wasn't an option for me. You wanted a child so much, that I couldn't have taken that away from you. But yes, you could say that I supported Charlie because I wanted her to have the choices I didn't have."

There was a long, awful pause, whilst they both digested what she'd just said.

"I wish you'd told me how you felt at the time," He said, referring to when she'd found out they were expecting Charlie.

"John, let's not go over all that again. You know why I didn't tell you, so let's just leave it at that." He played with a tendril of her blonde, slightly tousled hair. he could see that she was emotionally as well as physically exhausted, but there was still one area of painful memories that they hadn't yet touched on, and he knew it would be the most heavily guarded of all her "no go", areas.

"There's something, that in all the time I've known you, you've never once talked about," He said conversationally, trying to keep all signs of gravity out of his tone. But she wasn't to be fooled. She went almost rigid, as if inwardly retreating from him, but she didn't speak, for fear of confirming what she thought he was talking about. "Tell me about your mother," He said gently. Even though she'd been half expecting it, she recoiled as if he'd slapped her. When she attempted to stand up, to move away from him, he kept his arms tightly round her, not allowing her to put any distance between them.

"No, John," She said, her tone filled with frightened determination. "You are not making me do that."

"Well, I think it's about time, don't you? After all, it must be thirty seven years since she died, and I've never once heard you voluntarily mention her."

"John, I said no!" She asserted, with perhaps as much terrified frustration as Karen had pleaded with Fenner.

"George, you have to," He said firmly. George capitulated, feeling thoroughly defeated, but with still one card to play.

"Fine," She said icily, "I'll make you a deal. I talk about my mother, you talk about yours. Take it or leave it." Inwardly cursing himself for not having thought she would do this, he frowned, and after a moment's silence, said,

"Okay, you have yourself a deal. But I must be crazy for agreeing to it." George was furious. She'd banked everything on him not wanting to remotely discuss the most painful memory he had, but he'd called her bluff. Wanting to get this over with as soon as possible, she said,

"Well, quite what you want me to say about her, I don't know. My mother was killed in a car crash when I was ten. No one else involved, nobody's fault. Something I believe they call an accident. My father couldn't quite handle the thought of bringing me up alone, so when I was eleven, he sent me to boarding school, which was probably something of a relief to both of us. What more do you want?" Her tone was curt, emotionless, giving away nothing but the essential facts.

"How did you feel?"

"How the hell do you think I felt?" She demanded scornfully. "My mother was dead, and both me and my father wanted nothing to do with the constant memory that being around each other day after day would provide. He sent me to boarding school because he couldn't deal with the continual sight of me turning in to a replica of my mother, and the last thing I wanted was to stay in that house a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. I needed to be around new people, to be in a new place, anywhere that didn't persistently remind me of what I no longer had. My father doesn't know how to show affection, which is probably why I don't know how to do the same with Charlie."

"You're still very angry about that, aren't you."

"No, what I'm angry about, is that my mother wasn't there when I really could have done with her." George's voice had taken on the strangled quality that always heralded tears. But having started, she found she couldn't stop. "When I was growing up, I needed someone who could tell me what being a woman entailed, and when I was pregnant with Charlie, I needed her to tell me that it wasn't wrong to be frightened. for virtually the whole of my life, I've had to work all this out for myself. For the first four or five years after she died, I had no outlet for all the anger. It stayed inside, eating away at me, and sometimes making me feel like I'd never enjoy anything again. Then, when I was fifteen, I discovered that not eating gave me almost a sense of euphoria. Suddenly, I had control over one of the most fundamental parts of my life. I didn't do it in a big way back then, but starving myself for a couple of days here and there kept me going."

"Did your father ever know about it?" he asked, feeling as though he was intruding on a private exhumation.

"No, of course not," She said, the tears raining down her cheeks once again. "I think he might have suspected, over the years, but he's never said so. But do you know what hurts the most? She was a wonderful mother to me, I couldn't have asked for any better. But what happened with Charlie made me feel like I'd not only failed you and Charlie, but that I'd failed my mother as well. She did her best for me, and yet I couldn't do the same for my own daughter." She finished this outpouring in a flat, dead tone of voice that told John she'd reached rock bottom. Her far too visible ribcage no longer shuddered with the force of her grief, but she didn't seem able to stop the flow of tears. There wasn't anything he could say to her. It hadn't at all been her fault that she'd felt the way she had about Charlie, but he knew that asserting this one more time wouldn't go any way to making her feel better. He had no idea what George's mother would have thought of the situation, because he'd never met her, and he wasn't about to give George a whole load of empty platitudes, because he knew that she wouldn't listen to them. As she rested her head against his chest, he gently ran his fingers through her hair. After a significant silence, though she still couldn't stem her tears, she said,

"Well, now it's your turn." She had both arms round him now, and could feel his flinch. "don't back out on me, John," She persisted, knowing that she didn't have the energy or force of will to make him do it. She sat up slightly, long enough to reach for some tissues from the box on the coffee table.

"I was ten," He began, "And my sister was twelve. Mum was depressed, over what, I still don't know. She killed herself, with half a bottle of scotch and a whole load of sleeping pills." His voice had taken on the brittle quality George was only used to hearing in her own. He'd raised a hand, hovering in front of his face, as if to prevent her from seeing his torment. Gently, she lowered his hand, keeping it imprisoned in her own, softly caressing his knuckles with her thumb. She simply watched him, her soft, gentle gaze encouraging him to continue. "Dad, cut himself off from us. He was still there, but not somehow. You know how it is, when something like that happens, you seem to grow up over night."

"What did you miss most about her?" Asked George quietly, and now it was his turn to be under the spotlight.

"I, erm, I remember, there was a cupboard, under the stairs, where me and mum used to go when there was a storm. I can only have been about five or six." He turned his face away from her, half ashamed of revealing how vulnerable he felt.

"Did you ever go back there, after she died?" He laughed mirthlessly, trying to avoid the onset of tears, but failing utterly.

"I didn't ever want to come out," He said, the sorrow hitting George with the force of an oncoming train. He could no longer restrain his clear need to let out some of the grief which had been repressed for too many years. His whole body shuddered violently, as he fought for the control which was slipping through his fingers as sand falls through the hour glass of time. George reached up and wiped away one of his tears with a finger. Then, putting her arms round him, she did her best to offer him the kind of comfort he'd given so much of to her this day. "That's why I wanted Charlie so much," He said unsteadily. "I wanted to go back to that feeling of security and happiness I'd had before mum died." George really didn't know what to say. John had desperately needed to feel complete again, to have the type of family-orientated contentment that he'd lost with the death of his mother. But her lack of real love for Charlie, had meant that he couldn't achieve this. If she'd known all this at the time, George knew she would have been in a no win situation. If she'd said that she didn't want Charlie, then she would have been depriving him of the thing he craved. But in trying to give him his dream, she'd taken it away from him even more.

"I'm sorry," She said, her tears joining his. "I just wish I could have given you what you wanted."

"Hey, come on," He said, his voice slightly hoarse. "You did your best, and so did I. These things just happen." He knew it was a pretty feeble attempt to lighten the load for both of them, and they both knew it wouldn't help. When both their tears had dried, they sat close together, both immersed in private, self-destructive thoughts.

A good while later, George shivered, and realised that the fire had burnt low. Looking up at the clock on the mantelpiece, she saw that it was early evening. They'd been circumnavigating the treacherous landscape of their emotions for some hours, and they were both exhausted.

"You should go and see Jo," George said, feeling as though all positive feelings had left her for good.

"Are you chucking me out?" He said, lifting an eyebrow at her.

"Not as such," Said George, getting up to put another log on the fire. "But I think you need to be with someone who isn't a complete emotional wreck."

"I'm not sure I want to be with anyone," He replied, also feeling distinctly shell-shocked after the day's revelations.

"John, being alone is without doubt what I need right now. But it wouldn't do you any good, trust me."

"If I do leave you alone," He said carefully, "I want a promise from you."


"Promise me that you'll never do what my mother did." She had been standing by the fire, warming her chilled hands in front of the blaze. But she turned to face him, the guilty expression all too evident on her face.

"I wouldn't," She said, a slight tremmour present in her voice. "And I can't believe you just said that."

"Yes, you can," He replied dully, "Or you wouldn't look as guilty as you do." The thought of ending her miserable existence hadn't actually occurred to her as yet, but she knew that she was certainly low enough for it to have done eventually.

"I'm not going to make you a promise I might not be able to keep," She said, all the desolation as prominent as her ribcage.

"Then you can forget my leaving you on your own," He replied, just as skilled as her at digging his heels in. George rolled her eyes at the Monet above the fireplace.

"John, please. I haven't got the energy to do anything more drastic than sleep." He studied her, taking in the enormous, terribly expressive eyes, the Channing bone structure, and the way the dressing-gown and nightdress seemed to drown her. She didn't look capable of anything more than sleep, and he just prayed that she wasn't fooling him.

"fine," He said, deciding that even George wouldn't do something like this to him after what he'd just told her. "But I'll be checking up on you."

"If you must," Said George wearily. When he stood up, she could see the patch of his shirt that had become stiff with the salt from her tears. As they were walking through the hall, he turned, and put his arms round her.

"I love you," He said in to her hair.

"No, you don't," Said George gently but firmly. "You love Jo, or at least, you should." But as he drove away, continually hoping that she would go straight back to bed and to sleep, he thought that yes, he did love George, and yet he knew he loved Jo. He couldn't help it, he loved both of them. George stood by the open front door, and watched his car disappear down the road. When she returned to the lounge, she reflected on what she'd said to John. Part of her wished she did have the energy and the willpower to end her fraught, struggling existence once and for all, but she knew she couldn't do that to John. She doubted whether or not he'd really meant it when he'd said he loved her, but she knew he thought he did.

"You complete and utter bastard!" She said miserably in to the empty silence, knowing that yet again, she was doing what he wanted her to do, or in this case not doing what he didn't want her to do, because of how much she loved him. She couldn't bare the thought of hurting him even more than she had done already. But it was this and only this that prevented her from taking such a desperate course of action.

One Hundred And Twenty Eight

John was barely conscious of the twists and turns in his journey back to Jo's house, still less of the traffic on the road. The car was taking him from one destination to another, always travelling and never arriving, least of all under his direction. It had been his habit to gently slide the shutter down in his mind on everything that was contained in the woman's house he was leaving after the pleasures of the night were satisfied and to return to the welcoming soft arms of safety and security. When the mistress concerned happened to be George and his nearly wife was Jo then his neat compartmentalised way of thinking gave him some trouble in accommodating the new situation. But he was married to George, once and he had never placed a wedding ring on Jo's finger.

His feelings were disturbed when the enormous cinemascope effect of the pain that George had lived with for years was played out before his eyes. He looked at himself as the lead actor who never understood his own lines, far less his leading lady's. Yet this was the name that George had used for Jo so why were the aristocratic cadences of George's voice echoing round in his head like a CD track that he couldn't switch off?

"……….because I loathe losing control with anyone, but especially with you. I'm not entirely sure that I'll be able to stop crying……….." George had said to him.

Just before his footsteps trod the last few paces to Jo's familiar front door and he let himself in, Mimi started barking joyfully at her master's return. John's spirits were lifted by this display of uncomplicated affection from Mimi, between the human and his pet, which his anchorless existence needed right now.

As Jo followed after Mimi, she looked at John for the first visual cues of what had gone on. From long experience of John, she could always get a rough idea in those first few seconds, John was never as inscrutable as he fondly imagined himself to be. More than ever before, Jo could sense that she was John's shelter from the storms of life outside in the way that he stumbled in.

"I hope that you kept your promise to go easy on George," Came that cool self-possessed voice that broke in on George's words.

"Just don't ask, Jo," John's weary voice beseeched her with an accompanying hand gesture as he made his way to the nearest armchair in the straightest line possible. "I'm tired."

He slumped down in its all embracing softness, his head thrown back against the high back of the very welcome support as the cushion served to begin the process of relaxing him.

Jo moved soundlessly to the kitchen and made a cup of strong black coffee and placed it on the delicately carved mahogany side table beside John's armchair and waited for John to speak first. She would allow him just that amount of grace.

"You know, Jo, there's so much about George that I really never knew," The words came at last. "Still, I think she's safe now."

Jo sat silently sipping her own steaming hot cup of coffee while John gazed blankly at the geometrical symmetry of the overhead lamps, devising mental patterns that might mean something and bathing his eyes in the gentle glow as if he were seeking enlightenment.

"…………You hate losing control just as much as I do. The difference is that I maintain the appearance of control by not eating, and you do it by screwing….." George's accusing words crowded in on his thoughts.

"John, I think we need to talk," Jo's quiet voice stole its way into his half dreams.

"What about?" John said guardedly. From his experience of women, these words had the deceptive appearance of the first wind blown fluffy white clouds before the storm clouds blew up from nowhere and obliterated the sun. He wasn't about to cut any deals after his experience of George's ruthless bargaining, even at her most emotionally down and out.

"About you, about me and about George."

"That would take half a lifetime," John's measured tones reflected a surface sheen of empty humour as a conversational decoration. "I have argued a mere quarter of a lifetime with George and have never got anywhere. He wished she would stop talking. Why do women always pick the worst moments, he groaned inwardly to himself. Outwardly, his self-deprecating smile kept his real feelings at bay.

"That's because neither of you have stopped replaying the same stuck record. I've talked a lot to George recently and I may know things you don't know that I know."

Ordinarily, such flights of logic would be easily within John's mental dominion but not today. Jo's words seemed to slither and slide their way inside his brain with no discernable pattern.

"Why do women talk so much?"

"Why do men talk so little?"

The metaphorical clash of metal of sword glancing against sword rang round the room with this lightning thrust and parry.

"We ought to discuss this in a civilised manner as I'm sure you agree, Jo. You appear to have something on your mind," John spoke at last after draining the last drops from his coffee. Something told him he was going to need something to rally his flagging energies.

Jo smiled to herself as she saw John try to shift the agenda away from the emotional, the disagreeable. Very good John, but it doesn't quite work this time.

"There are no law books or precedents that we can hide behind this time, John. It is insidious the way that our profession can affect our private lives. It makes us combative, very fluid in our thinking, but afraid to face the world when stripped of our props like the gown and the wig," Jo stated in her understated manner.

"That would be a very entertaining fantasy come true, Jo, and not just these outer garments. You are engaging my enthusiasm and interest," John's voice became firmer and more confident being thankful that the one faculty within him could be roused when all else failed him and, in doing so, enabled him to get a grip on his ability to argue.

"Not everything can be reduced to sex, John. Save that line for your casual flings," Jo sternly admonished John in the tones of a more than averagely bossy governess.

Being stuck in his armchair while Jo stood foursquare facing him brought an uncomfortable change in spatial relationships from the normal Monday to Friday roles of judge's throne and Jo's and George's positions on the opposite wing of the same common bench below him while John was elevated up on high. An armchair was a place to relax in, listening to music and not a rampart from which to defend his honour, or himself.

"For a start, John, do you really know and can you really feel for George, the full extent of the guilt she has felt from when you slept with her recently to the point of becoming anorexic?"

That opening first shot that started the battle brought John up short especially the ugly sounds of the consonants of the last word and the way it brutally named it as an illness, not George's eating problem.

"I didn't know you knew that. I would not normally consider George the confiding type, least of all to you. The word you use is perhaps going a little bit too far," John pitched his reply in a manner too calm, too measured and dispassionate as if he were drawing conclusions from forensic evidence in a court case in a summing up speech.

"Why did you sleep with George in the first place?" Jo's equally calm reply changed tacks to asking one question at a time rather than three.

"George came round to see me totally out of the blue. Quite why she did so is unclear as she can be inscrutable."

"Are you talking as a lover or as a judge?" Jo pursued, shaking her head without thinking. She was not buying this from John of all men and the sense of incredulity in her voice accentuated as she continued. "I really wonder about you, John, considering the way you are able to almost intuitively plumb your way to the depths of any criminal case where no other judge can penetrate. Are you saying that your powers deserted you in personal matters, not with some stranger, but with your ex wife who you lived with for many years."

"You know I'm not good in the matters of the heart. In the law, everything has its place. It is all circumscribed and defined, as well you know, but the emotional world manages to drag me down and I cannot secure a grip while I'm falling." John's voice shook slightly under this confession as he stood up and made his way to the drinks cabinet where Jo's eyes could not follow him.

"Can I pour you a drink, Jo?" He asked politely in his best drawing-room manner.

"Nothing for me, John. You've said those very words before to me about your feelings and I've ended up feeling sorry for you." Jo's voice shook as she recalled that rare past fleeting moment of John showing his vulnerability. "but this time, I'm entitled to consider my own feelings also. You're not escaping from me this time," She finally warned in a harder tone of voice than John was accustomed to hearing at rare moments like this.

"I remember when you said those words, John, when you were in danger of being ensnared by Lady Rochester and you were falling head over heels for her. All the time, she was carrying on an affair with Giles Rowley who pretended to be only her cousin and both were using you for their own ends."

"That was an entirely different set of circumstances, Jo. That precious pair of conspirators were engaged in fleecing the publishing company of Dorothy Lomax. With your help, we ensured justice for her and the full restitution of the proceeds of the property that was stolen from her." John's far more relaxed, confident decisive tones unreeled the relevant facts from his memory and his words were lined up in perfect formation like the changing of the guards outside Buckingham Palace. He had hit his stride and his mind was sharp and clear again.

"Coming back to the matter of George, you do know that she has an intermittent history of anorexia," And here Jo laid careful stress on the word before pausing and giving John the chance to disagree with her choice of word. "I am talking from what she directly told me herself. It only takes a particularly stressful event to bring it on. She reacted that way when Charlie was born when she felt as if she were some monstrous and evil freak of nature because she felt that she couldn't love her child and everything and everyone around you tells you that it is expected of a woman to be glowing and radiant after the birth of a child. I know the reality of that, believe me, except that I was luckier than her in my experience and of the support that I got at the time."

At that point, Jo's eyes looked straight into his and paused as distant memories of stumbling out of bed feeling half dead while her baby was crying in his cot for whatever her senses worked out would comfort this new creature she had brought into the world, nappy change or wind. It was not like how the magazines made it out to be and perfect mothers do not spring into existence from nowhere. She was never more grateful for undisturbed nights as in those years so she could easily imagine how a stressed out, self-hating George would react.

"…………and you were so happy. The last thing I could do was to even suggest that it wasn't what I thought I wanted. I couldn't do that to you." George's absent voice took up the attack on John's conscience where Jo had left off.

"Coming back to the present, it's a fact that George reacted the same way after she slept with you. In a strange way, I'm not about to complain about George or go to scratch her eyes out as I might have done. We both know very well that you are the last man to pass up the chance of going to bed with an available, beautiful woman, no matter what ties you may have elsewhere. Or as tied as much as you ever feel that you can be," Jo finished on a sarcastic, accusing note.

John's feeling of discomfort or something like that was welling up inside him but the flow of emotion pulsing through his system washed up against the unbreakable, insoluble dam of the very thing that made him function best in the world, the ability not to show his emotions. After all, he had explained to a court once that judges feel emotions the same way as any other human being, it's just that they don't show them. It was life's irony that this quality that made John such a fine judge made it hardest for him to deal with matters of the heart. The source of his discomfort, no, pain was that this was the second woman who charged him of this in a very short space of time. Both women were the closest to him and the most real to him of all the sycophants at Monty Everard's party. There was swelling in him, a pain so intense that he could not utter or even give it a name. He could only give shape to the irrelevant thought that this was the first time in his life that he realised what a formidable barrister Jo Mills was, this being the first time that he had appeared before her and it would be interesting to speculate how she would appear if she became a judge. Unfortunately for John's reputation, the expression on his face remained fixed in the faint half smile.

"You know what I'm like, Jo," He pleaded with Jo for mercy. "I have a problem in forming long term relationships. That's why I went to see the………"

"We shall come to the matter of Rachel Crawchek later on, John. It's your singular lack of remorse in the casual way you slept with George that I just don't understand," Jo led off in her firmest inquisitorial manner, which conveyed a very ominous sense of what she had in store for John. A split second later, she tried an exaggerated version of her act as prosecuting council, which fell apart as the hurt in her as a woman overtook her.

"I don't understand why your sense of justice extends only as far as your belt buckle," She finished in a harder tone as years spent, sometimes in wonder, other times in hurt and frustration in trying to work out the enigma that was John Deed suddenly took human form in a flash of enlightenment.

"You've been spending far too much time with George," John muttered in a low voice, not daring to look at Jo.

"Too much time, John? In what way?" Jo articulated softly and calmly. She felt all right again but she did not know how long this would last. She felt driven by some compulsion to see this matter through to the end but could not say what that end looked like, felt like or described itself as. Only intuition was her uncertain guide.

"It's just that I can imagine George coming out with a crack like that but not you. I've not known you to indulge in cheap humour."

"John, this is a side issue," Jo firmly closed off that tempting detour which she knew that John was deliberately tempting her with. "As judge, you are the most chivalrous, honourable, upright, incorruptible man who will stand up to injustice to the point of recklessness that makes me feel afraid, even protective for you," and here Jo let the armour drop for a split second, smiling softly and fondly at him with all the admiration and love she had ever felt for him. "I see the man before me, who will dare take on whatever fire breathing dragon there is around. I hear you give your word as a judge and that means more to me than anyone in my living memory. I see that very same man in my private life, and if I were naïve enough to ask you to give your same word not to chase after another woman and you gave it, I wouldn't believe it not even if you swore over half a dozen bibles. So I ask you, John, why are you like that?"

To Jo's eyes, John visibly closed off within himself. To John, he was throwing up the ultimate safety defence from when he was back at his first boarding school and he was taunted about being the "baker's boy" with the funny accent before he assumed the languid assured tones of those around him and became with the others but not of them. Nobody could get at him when he dug down into his deepest, most secure emotional bunker.

"Do you have to talk about this right now, Jo? I was rather looking forward to seeing you. Coming to your home is a haven for me, for the ideal woman in my life…….."

"………I love you," the memory of his voice came to temporarily haunt him as that other well known voice of George pursued him, saying "No, you don't. You love Jo, or at least, you should………."

"……….beautiful, intelligent, honourable, compassionate…."

"If you really consider that I am so perfect, then why do you need to chase after other women?" Jo accused him.

"If I am as incorrigible as you seem to suggest, I wonder then why you continue to put up with me. I have considered that you see me as a link between the child we could have had together, something to hold onto through me."

"You're not being fair, John," the hurt in Jo's voice and tears in her eyes came immediately to the surface and reproached him, unafraid to expose her emotional nakedness. This had unsettled her as she was not expecting the one question which had sneaked its way through her guard at a time when she was at her most emotionally open to sense the first glimmerings of her rescue attempt on John's humanity through his impossibly well guarded reserve.

"All of us at times, regrettably have to face questions that make us feel uncomfortable. I learned that lesson recently," He bit his tongue off to stop referring back to the ill-starred therapy where he had in reality picked this gem of wisdom up from.

"All right, John, it's confession time for me now," Jo exclaimed with the sensation that she was blindly jumping off a bridge and hoping that an invisible hand would catch her and save her. "There aren't many days when I don't think of the child we could have had together and how it would have changed our lives, for the better, I would like to think. What he or she would have been like, I have absolutely no idea. I still get those dreams even after all these years, so, yes, this is part of the reason why I haven't given up on you yet as I could have done. The other reasons are what you meant to me as a young woman, that hero, that exemplar, to use those words, of what I could be. That goes far deeper than casual sex or any other kind of sex."

Jo paused while she regained her breath and impatiently pulled back a stray lock of hair, which had flicked into her eye.

At that point, unknown to Jo, the absent George came to the rescue.

"………..But if I've got to stop blaming myself for being such a failure as a mother, then you've got to stop pushing away the woman who loves you, in favour of instant, temporary gratification with every other woman going. Jo desperately wants to be the one woman in your life. You've just got to let her……….."

"I want to talk about everything now to make up for what we should have talked about after all the years we've known each other. Part of the story involves George and she can't be frozen out of it. I can see that now I've got a perspective on her side of the story which I never knew before. So, to answer your earlier question, john," and here, Jo lit a much needed cigarette and exhaled deeply. "We have to talk because there is no time like the present. Now it's your turn," Jo finished on a hard, determined note.

It was the first time like this that john wished that he had the same handy theatrical prop like Jo and George had of the cigarette ritual. It enabled the actor to play for a brief pause to think in the middle of a confrontation while the cigarette was lit and the smoke slowly inhaled and exhaled. He started to feel very naked and uncomfortable, an unwelcome first for him. His effortless assurance that his facility with words and lightning quick mental reflexes was being tested and strained to the limit. It was ironical that his opponent was his sometime girlfriend, the woman who had been his pupil, who had been schooled in his values, his style, and his visions.

"You risked your career, everything you had worked for in securing justice for the woman and children that that James Brooklyns had casually knocked down and killed, hoping to walk away thanks to friends in high places in the Home office. Yet when you told me that you had slept with your therapist you sounded equally casual, so cold, not even apologetic. What were you thinking about when you were speaking? It's about time you explained it to me because that really hurt, John, more than anything you have ever done."

Jo's blue, intense eyes were edged with tears and her lower lip was trembling as she relived in that moment all the pain she had felt that day. Of all the pain she had gone through, that was the worst, as she never expected that one. John had an expression on his face of a wry twisted grin of embarrassment. Then, he raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders and the blue eyes which had fearlessly looked Attorney Generals in the eye, fell to the floor. It was as if a cold stranger standing behind him was the dispassionate observer of his own confusion, gagging him in the name of some undefined sense of honour. The chaos within him was indescribable and unable to be pinned down by mere words. Uppermost in his mind was the fear that held him in its grip that, if he gave way to emotion, the flood of emotion would carry him away and he would be lost.

'I am and I am not- freeze and yet I burn
Since from myself, my other self I turn

My care is like my shadow in the sun-
Follows my flying- flies when I pursue it
Stands and lives by me, does what I have done."

These words he had read in a book when he was young, came crazily back to his mind from nowhere. They were attributed to Queen Elizabeth the First but he could never make sense of them at the time.

"I merely wanted to tell you the truth and to not deceive you but the wrong words came out. Not just wrong but inappropriate," John uttered very slowly, artificially and painfully.

"Why did you pick an attractive therapist?" Jo asked very slowly and softly. "Was it to give you a get out if it became too tough?"

John breathed deeply many times as if his lungs couldn't get enough of the air he needed to stop him choking on himself. Finally, he nodded very emphatically, as he was incapable of getting that one word to pass out of his mouth until the bottled up pressure was gradually released out of him and the tension eased.

"Yes, Jo," Came the merest sigh from him but it was enough.

"Typical. All that talk about 'the foundations being laid.' You really convinced me at the time."

John looked round the room in bewilderment. Was it only a few hours since he'd driven here from George's house? The intensity of the confrontation had derailed his sense of time and any other mental structure that bound him to his sense of place in the world around him. The woman who so terrifyingly confronted him with parts of himself that he had never wanted to face was this very familiar woman whom he had known for a lifetime. Just like George, when he came to think of it.

"So what went wrong, John? Come on, you can tell me. I'm not that frightening, surely."

"Tell that to the opposing barristers and witnesses you have cross examined in your time," John laughed, a little shakily but at least all that nightmare tension had eased.

"She made me lose control, Jo," John volunteered and, as Jo noted unprompted for once in his life. "She made me talk about the death of my mother. I wasn't ready for it and she ended the session just at that point."

"So you were left dangling?" Jo asked, all the soft and gentle kindness in her voice expressing all the natural sympathy in her nature.

John nodded emphatically part of himself hating himself at this confession of an innermost feeling that his enormous intellect had conspired so brilliantly to keep at bay yet being intensely relieved at the same time.

"You should let a woman look after you occasionally when reason is not enough," Jo said gently, sitting on the chair arm and her fingertips gently brushing his forehead. It felt clammier than she had expected even from the time that she knew him.

It came to him that he had not let a woman do that for him since his mother died but he forebore to mention that one. He had confessed that very painfully to George and once was enough in one day.

"Perhaps we should get married, after all," John said, half a question in his voice.

"Not so fast, John," Jo said, detaching his outstretched hand from her. "You forget George. I know only too well enough from my father's alcoholism to be wary of believing in quick cures and instant therapy."

"You're my therapy, Jo," John announced, some of his smugness returning.

"That is because you're feeling randy, John. It's as if you are either addicted to sex, or else your word on anything south of your belt buckle can't be trusted. So you can take your choice," Jo gently scolded him but her body language not breaking that fragile sense of intimacy but presented him with a very tricky 'either/or' formulation which brought him up short. Not the least reason for this was that this was one of his best ploys as a barrister that he had ever taught her.

"It's like your addiction to women," the absent George echoed. "You go to bed with numerous, nameless women because it makes you feel good. You don't like thinking of yourself as an addict, do you? But that's what you are, that's what both of us are.

"There's a few more things in my mind before I've done with you, John Deed. For a start, George is still very obviously in love with you and always has been however much she's denied it. She's a bit like you," Jo said with a hint of flirtation and playfulness as surface softening for the very serious point that she was getting across. "There's one thing I was going to ask you. When you went to the hospital when Charlie was born, how did you feel?"

An unrestrained whole souled soft smile illuminated his face and expressed the full depths of his very real love for Charlie.

"That was one of the best things that ever happened in my life. I vowed to myself that I was going to make up with Charlie what was missing in my own upbringing. Was there anything wrong in that?" John asked with a touch of suspicion.

"Nothing wrong in that at all," Jo's tender voice stroked the fretful child within John that wanted to be reassured. "You've done very well in bringing up Charlie. She's pretty stable and any parent who can say that about their child must have done very well. The only question I was going to ask you is, how did George react to the birth?"

John searched his memory but this was a long ago detail, which his normally faultless memory failed to retrieve. Mind you, he used his memory very largely for obscure points of law that he had researched at some time or other and was less used for personal matters.

"She was very quiet afterwards and didn't have much to say while her father and I talked nine to the dozen. Couldn't get a word in edgeways, I should think."

Jo's playfully mock scornful glance milked the vast improbability of George being ever crowded out by two men from loudly and forcibly expressing her feelings on any aspect of life, profound or trivial.

"And what was George like during the birth?"

"I think I was called every name under the sun including some I hadn't heard of. For a barrister, she has an amazingly extensive gutter-bred vocabulary."

A wide grin spread across Jo's face, all the wider for the release of all the tension that had built up inside her. She could imagine George cursing the nurses, the sisters, the administration of the hospital from top to bottom, John most of all for getting her into the situation, conveniently forgetting her very willing and eager assistance, but most of all for being the concerned and very modern father to be. She judged that the noise level would have carried up to the next floor of the hospital or two. The sheer force of her cursing would have pushed Charlie out into the world in her desperation to get her figure back to where she wanted. Joe Channing would, needless to say, have taken positive advantage of being a 'die hard, stick in the mud' and would have resolutely stayed away until after the birth.

"I suppose she didn't take to motherhood," John added in a halting fashion as he rewrote yet another part of his past history.

"I rather think that you're right at that, John," Jo retorted in her best exaggeratedly understated fashion.

As the conversation petered out and an enormous stillness descended which seemed to gently heal the psychic wounds, John's eyes blinked and his head slid sideways into a comfortable corner of the armchair. He was hugely tired from passing through an emotional combine harvester which had threshed him and beaten him all over.

"You told me at the beginning that George was safe. How convinced are you?"

"She said she wanted to sleep," John's mumble drifted half in, half out of his sleep.

"And how convinced are you that she meant what she said?" Jo asked sharply.

"Not very, but it was the best I could get out of her. You know what she's like," Came the frank but not very audible answer.

Even though John's more tired than I've known him ever to be, he is learning at last to own up, Jo grinned to herself feeling satisfied with her handiwork.

"Tell you what, John. I'll tuck you up in bed and I'll phone George tomorrow. You look totally done in."

John let himself be led down the wobbly, endlessly long winding corridor to Jo's bedroom and by a process which he couldn't remember afterwards, he found himself lying in Jo's bed with the cool feel of the bedclothes tucked round him. Jo climbed in next to him and held him in her arms while he started to slide gratefully down into sleep.

"I love you, Jo," John sleepily mumbled into her ear.

Jo felt incredibly touched and elevated by the half conscious John as this was the first time that he had uttered these words without it being part of a post-coital ritual for John and especially after what she had put him through.

One Hundred And Twenty Nine

After John had left on the Saturday night, George had banked up the fire, put on some extremely soppy music and curled up on the sofa. She'd felt empty, flat, as if all her emotional and physical energy had been washed away. She didn't even have the energy to keep on crying. She'd peeled and eaten one of the kiwi fruits John had bought her, the juicy, green flesh delicately flecked with tiny black seeds. Did this represent the colours of her soul, she wondered idly? Did it show how she had been trying to live through the guilt and the pain for years, but how the black peppering of despair overshadowed what was underneath? Her thoughts drifted, as if tossed here and there at the whim of the tide, but always returning to what she'd said to John. She'd all but given him an assurance that she wouldn't go the same way as his mother had done, but oh, how she wanted to. She craved a release from the lifelong torment of being a failure as a mother, a failure as a daughter, a failure as a human being. Time and again she traced the inside of her left wrist, mapping the far too visible network of veins and arteries, both feeling and seeing the beat of the force of life spreading through her. These pathways of her body were so prominent that she could see the steady pulsing of the one and only thing that was keeping her alive. It was slightly quicker than it really ought to be, probably as a result of the enormous amount of cigarettes she'd smoked in the past couple of days. It's a well known fact that nicotine increases the heart rate and George had smoked enough recently to bring one back from the dead, never mind keep her own beating throughout her period of not eating. If there was a quick and simple way of burning away the guilt and the pain in the same way a surgeon will cortorise useless but still living blood vessels, she would grab it with both hands and hold on to it until she felt able to deal with life again. But as far as she could see, there wasn't. The only real solution to how she was feeling now was to irrevocably say goodbye to the world that she didn't want to be part of any more. But she couldn't do it, not to John, to Charlie, to her father, and not even to Jo. Was that it then, was there really no end to all this? But she considered that maybe this was her final punishment for every bad thing she'd ever felt or said or done, to not be able to find any reprieve, any cure for the emotional cancer that was gradually eating up her insides. On this worst of all her realisations that evening, she switched off the music, put a guard round the fire and went upstairs to bed. George had never spent much time thinking about whether or not there was a god, too many bad things had happened to make her think there really was such a being. But as she drifted to sleep in her enormous, lonely bed, she offered up a prayer to whoever was listening, pleading with them to allow her not to wake up.

But George wasn't to get her wish. She was dragged abruptly back in to the land of the living about twelve hours after she'd gone to sleep, by the insistent ringing of the phone. Blindly stretching out a hand to the cordless that lay on the bedside table, she said,

"Hello?" And Jo realised that she'd woken George from a much-needed sleep.

"George, it's Jo. Did I wake you?"

"Yes, you did," Replied George on a yawn. "What time is it?"

"Nearly midday," Said Jo, briefly glancing at her watch.

"That's all I seem to be able to do lately is sleep."

"It's probably not a bad thing," Said Jo, realising that whilst George was asleep she wasn't thinking. "I just phoned to see how you are."

"No," Replied George flatly. "You phoned to see if I was still alive."

"Yes, partly," Conceded Jo.

"He doesn't trust me, does he," Stated George in almost resigned despair.

"No, not entirely," Replied Jo gently, neither of them needing to explain who they were talking about.

"Well, you can tell him that I'm still here, still ticking, just utterly exhausted. How's John?" She asked tentatively.

"He probably feels a bit like you do this morning. We had a very long overdue talk when he came here last night."

"Oh, no, poor John," Said George, in sympathy with him, after having experienced Jo's version of the confessional on the Friday night. "Did you finish what I started?"

"Yes, I think so. But it had to be done. He's been fairly quiet this morning but he's taken Mimi for a walk. Some thinking time might do him good."

"Thinking's a very dangerous thing," Said George dryly, though Jo could hear the telltale hint of sincerity that told her just how scared George was of herself and her feelings.

"Why?" Asked Jo gently, all the time aware that she was treading the thin line between persuading George to talk to her and pushing her away altogether by forever frightening her off.

"I was being facetious."

"George, I've seen you in court, remember. I know what you sound like when you're really being facetious. Tell me why thinking's a dangerous thing."

"Jo, please don't do this," George pleaded, sounding as though she really didn't have the energy to fight any more.

"George, let me make something clear to you," Said Jo, gently but firmly. "You have almost certainly ended up feeling as low and afraid and alone as you do, because you haven't talked anywhere near enough, if at all. Oh, if you're thinking literally, you do talk. Sometimes you say far too much, but never about what's really important." George was quiet for a moment, and Jo wondered if she'd gone too far.

"It isn't quite that easy," George eventually said. "As you said, talking, or at least talking about what's really going on in my head, isn't something I do. I'm not sure that I've ever really known how to. No one even tried to get me to talk when my mother died, and not letting any of it out just became second nature to me. I'm sorry," She said, suddenly realising that she'd strayed in to the most heavily guarded area of her life. "I didn't mean to talk about that."

"You should," Said Jo gently, sensing the raising of every barrier George could muster.

"No," Said George, the fear in her voice all too evident.

"Is that what John made you talk about yesterday?"

"That, and just about everything else. But I don't think he'll be doing that again in a hurry."


"I made John a deal, a deal that he thought he could wriggle out of because he made the mistake of thinking I'd forget about him fulfilling his side of the bargain. He made me talk about my mother, so I made him talk about his."

"Ah," Said Jo in realisation. "So that would explain why he looked so shell shocked when I saw him last night."

"Yes." George went quiet for a moment, and Jo had the feeling that George badly wanted to say something to her, but that she either couldn't find quite the right words, or that she didn't have the courage to say it.

"How do you feel now?" Jo asked gently, trying to prod George in to talking again.

"Jo, you really don't want to hear this," Replied George, desperately trying to avoid putting her feelings in to words. Jo tentatively took a stab in the dark.

"John told me," She said, reaching for a cigarette, "About the promise you wouldn't give him."

"Oh," Said George, but retreating again in to silence. But she eventually said,

"I, erm, I don't really want to be here." Jo couldn't help briefly rolling her eyes at the way George had avoided saying the far too real, far too frightening words, I want to die.

"Why?" She asked, though she was fairly sure of the answer.

"Because I'm so tired," She said in total despair. "I'm tired of being so depressed that it's an effort to get up in the morning. I'm tired of carrying around so many feelings that I just don't know how to deal with, and I'm tired of living," She finished on a somewhat angry note.

"And the fact that John's already been through losing someone like that makes it harder, doesn't it."

"Yes," Said George furiously. "Because I could never do that to him. So, I'm torn, because that's the only way I can see of finding some sort of release from all this, and yet I know I've got to stay. John would never forgive me if I did that to him, or to Charlie. After you made me talk for so long on Friday," She said, calming down a little. "I felt sort of cleansed, because I knew it had done me good. But now I just feel empty and full to cracking open all in one go. I feel like part of me doesn't have any feelings left, and the rest of me has too many to keep under control."

"And that's why you stop eating, to have control over at least one part of your life."

"I know, crazy, isn't it."

"No, not really," Replied Jo. "It actually makes some kind of sense. But the only way you're going to get through this, is to learn to let what you're feeling out, rather than keeping it inside, where it'll only do you more harm."

"I am so scared of doing that," George said in a slightly strangled voice.

"I know," Said Jo gently. "But you've got to learn that it's not wrong to cry, it's not wrong to get angry, and it isn't wrong to need people. Sometimes, being held in a pair of strong, male arms is all it takes to make you feel sane again. But sometimes you need someone who's just that little bit removed, someone you can shout at, someone who won't automatically tell you that you shouldn't feel the way you do." After a short pause, George said,

"Thank you. If that was meant as an offer, I might take you up on it some time."

"You do that," Replied Jo. "But don't leave it too long. I will be keeping an eye on you."

"What with you and John," Said George dryly, "I'll have no choice but to stay on the straight and narrow."

"I hope so," Said Jo seriously. "What are you doing about work this week? Because I think you need some time to recover."

"And it wouldn't exactly be fair to my clients if I'm only functioning on barely one cylinder. I can probably leave the rest of the current trial in the hands of one of my juniors, but I'll have to be back for the one that starts on Friday."

"Okay, and George, please promise me something."

"I don't do promises."

"You will be able to do this one. Promise to call me if you just want someone to listen." After a moment's thought, George said,

"I will." When George replaced the receiver a few minutes later, she thought that never, in her entire life had she ever felt so surreal. Jo, the woman whom up until very recently, George had loathed with a vengeance, had been transformed in to what George could only call a close friend. Like Karen, George had never especially gone in for female friends, maintaining her emotional independence at all and sometimes catastrophic costs. But here she was, in her late forties, finally beginning to open up to someone, and with the help of this someone else, to begin examining the dark recesses of her mind.

When Jo put the phone down, she stood for a while, just looking out of her kitchen window at the back garden, attempting to marshal her thoughts. George had been thoroughly ashamed of feeling so low, and Jo just prayed that she could help her through it. George wasn't going to survive this latest downward spiral unless she learnt to ask for help. Jo filled the kettle for a cup of tea, and heard John returning with Mimi. As he opened the front door, she called,

"John, is that you?" Mimi ran in to the kitchen, thinking that she could get to like this house. John followed at a more leisurely pace.

"Hello," He said, putting his arms round Jo and giving her a kiss.

"You look better than you did earlier," Jo observed.

"Fresh October air is very invigorating, and I did need some time to think."

"I phoned George," Said Jo, pouring them both a cup of tea.

"How is she?" John asked guardedly.

"I believe her words were, tell him I'm still here, still ticking, just exhausted."

"Well, that's something, I suppose," He said dryly. "Do you think she'll be all right?"

"In time, yes. But there's an awful lot about herself that she needs to come to terms with, like you," Jo finished, turning to face him and putting her arms round him.

"I love you," He said in to her hair.

"And though it's given me more heartache than I ever thought possible," she said, between kisses, "I love you too."

"Can we go to bed?" He asked after a little while.

"Oh, you feel that good, do you?" She quipped, a light dancing in her eyes.

"I need you," He said, his voice deep with arousal.

"I'll have to see what I can do about that then, won't I," She replied, leading his hand to the buttons of her blouse. Clothes were rapidly discarded as they progressed from kitchen to bedroom, both of them craving some kind of release from the tension that had been building up since Friday. It had only been a few days since they'd last made love, but they were hungry for each other, desperate to reclaim the part of their relationship that had never been called in to question. Their passion for each other was almost furious, John wanting to prove to Jo how much he loved her, and Jo wanting to show John that she was just as good in bed as George. When he finally entered her after some extensive foreplay, she wrapped her arms and legs round him, as if afraid he would leave her.

"I feel like you're putting your mark on me," He said, angling his hips to hit her G spot which made her gasp.

"How do you know I'm not," she countered, with a squeeze of her internal muscles that spurred him on to further endeavour.

"Do that again and I won't last much longer," He said, reaching a hand in between them to give her clit some attention. When they eventually went over the edge together, Jo found herself crying out his name, not something she usually did, normally being fairly quiet when it came to bed. But she couldn't help it. She loved this man, no matter what he did, and she knew she always would.

As they lay afterwards, their breathing gradually returning to normal, Jo wasn't the only one who knew there had been something different about that time. John had felt it too. The way her body had been laying its claim on his, the way she'd called his name, and the slightly wicked grin on her face when he'd told her to stop squeezing him, which had reminded him fleetingly of George. After a while, he traced a finger delicately over her breast and said,

"You're beautiful." A soft, lazy smile crossed Jo's face.

"Ah," She said, her voice resonating with the kind of deep, utterly assured serenity that only ever follows particularly good loving. "But was I more beautiful to you when you were having an affair, and when being with me was wrong." He stared at her.

"No, not at all," He said, after a moment's deliberation. "I've always thought you were beautiful. Why do you ask?"

"Because sometimes," She said, turning on to her side and facing him. "I think that's why you stray so much. Being who and what you are, means that you have to always uphold what is good, what is right, both morally and legally. But occasionally, you need to experience the feeling of being bad, which is why having a fling or a one night stand with someone you shouldn't, is so attractive to you."

"And where did you dig up that little piece of wisdom?" he asked dryly.

"I didn't," She replied succinctly, "It just occurred to me. That's why I think that whilst you're not, professionally, allowed to be involved with me, I'm still attractive to you."

"You, will always be attractive to me," He said, putting his arms round her.

"I'd like to believe it, John," She said, "But your word on this isn't enough. You've still got so many unresolved feelings about a lot of things, but especially George, and until at least some of that is sorted out, I couldn't expect you to make any kind of a commitment to me, whether official or otherwise."

"Can we not talk about George when we're in bed," He said firmly, which made Jo smile.

"Why," She asked with a twinkle in her eye, "Haven't you ever talked about me when you've been in bed with George?" John was about to open his mouth to say no, when he remembered the very last time he had been in bed with George and they had talked about Jo.

"Hmmm, I did wonder," Said Jo dryly, on receiving no answer from him. "For that," She said, kissing him, "You can go and pour me a glass of wine." Grumbling about being under the thumb, never mind how unofficial this relationship was, he got out of bed and strolled towards the kitchen. When she heard him laugh, she called,

"What?" He returned to the bedroom in a few minutes, carrying two glasses of wine.

"I'm glad Mark didn't come home unannounced," He said, a wide grin on his face. "Mimi was obviously bored, because I found her lying in the hall, chewing up your bra." Jo laughed and took her glass from him.

"Typical," She said, "Notice how she didn't chew anything of yours."

"She wouldn't dare," Said John, getting back in to bed. "She knows who feeds her."

A couple of hours later, when she was cooking dinner and John was in the shower, Jo put on a CD, the music heightening the post-coital glow which made her feel lighter of heart than she had done for some time. Yes, she was still very worried about George, and all three of them still had a lot of ground to cover before any semblance of normality could be reached. But for now, Jo felt content. As she chopped some vegetables, the words of one particular song caught her ear and she stopped to listen.

"You know you could've been a gambler,
Whose luck was running low,
Or just another drifter,
Without a single place to go.
You could have been a broken dreamer,
Without a penny to your name.
I would've loved you, I would have loved you,
Just the same."

This perfectly described how she felt about John. She loved him, for all his faults, and with a blinding flash of clarity, she knew that she was prepared to try anything to keep him. She didn't know if the possibility that had just occurred to her would work, but if it did, she might at last be able to trust him. If she could pull this off, they might one day all be happy.

"No it really didn't matter,
Who you'd been or what you'd done,
Where we met or when it happened,
You'd still be the one.
There's no way to know the future,
But one thing will never change.
I'm gonna love you, I'm gonna love you,
Just the same."

One Hundred And Thirty

The blustery weather outside the warmth of Lauren's car and the bareness of the criss cross winter pattern of bare branches whipping backwards and forward could never transmit the bleakness of the weather into her soul, not the way she was feeling.

Slow moving, luxuriant images floated past Lauren's dreaming mind of her weekend with Cassie and Roisin, which were irrevocably woven, into her flowering senses. For the first time in her life, she felt at ease with herself and with her body. She marvelled at the one good choice and chance in her life where she had reached out deliberately and consciously to drink of the heady sapphic sexual cocktail which half jokingly, half nervously, she had merely sipped at in the past. It made all her past life seem like some manic, fast moving charade of Atkins hardness and control. She saw her normal everyday routine as one that was powered on cranked up feelings of aggression that pulsed through her to keep control of herself and others and be in command at all times. Such a life held no sway, had no meaning for her for the gentleness and softness of the two women with whom she had shared their bed. She thought tenderly and affectionately of her two friends who had been so patient of the past crazy actions, who had been there for her and had gently and lovingly eased her half willing entry into a new life. On the second night, she was bolder in expressing her desires, in words spoken or unspoken and the lovemaking was as soft and gentle as the texture of their skins, rising naturally to a climax which made her feel as good about feeling loved as she did about making love to the others.

It was as if she had an 'out of body, out of mind' experience which had taken her to a different planet somewhere that the street tough Lauren Atkins had never been before.

Yvonne's sharp ears picked up the faint creak of the front door opening and Lauren's distinctive footsteps clicking on the tiled floor. To her surprise, the sounds made straight for her direction rather than fade away as she headed upstairs to her bedroom. The slightly dishevelled woman who carelessly flung herself onto the settee, sprawling generously across it was not the very tense, constrained Lauren of a few days ago who sat bolt upright, keeping to her space in a tight, constrained manner.

This woman had the faraway look in her eyes of someone who had been on a long journey and indeed she had been.

"Been out on the town, Lauren?" Yvonne asked after having given her the invisible 'once over' from behind her guarded eyelids. It paid her, she thought to herself, not to rush Lauren but to wait for her to spill the beans.

"Only at Cassie's and Roisin's," Lauren volunteered lightly. She peered all round her in a totally unhurried fashion as she gradually absorbed the details of the main living room, which ought to have been familiar and everyday to her. Instead, everything looked as if it was viewed from looking the wrong way through a telescope, appearing infinitely far away from her. For the first time in ages, she smiled at Yvonne.

"A bit of normality round there will do you some good," Yvonne nodded approvingly. "There's something like the two of them and their kids that takes me back to when you and Ritchie were younger."

"Something like that, Mum," Lauren responded straight-faced. She hurried on to say the words she knew that she had to say.

"Don't ask me why but after that, I feel we should talk some more about Fenner's death. Let's face it, first time around, the way I was talking sounded like I should have been certified. The two of us have kept our mouths shut since I told you about it and it's not doing either of us any good."

Yvonne was pleasantly surprised by the very leisurely, level tones in which Lauren spoke to her which was a million miles away from the tense, staccato tones of before. The indefinable change in the expression on Yvonne's face gave Lauren the encouragement to continue.

"All I'm worried about is that you've done something which you'll feel like kicking yourself for later on," Said Yvonne in her softer more protective tone. A tiny part of her reproached herself that that was all she had thought of at the time and she felt more than a twinge of remorse that Karen had been left out of her area of concern. Still, there was no time for that now.

"Fenner ain't worth killing, not if you go down for it and you end up behind prison bars instead of me. I don't want you to go through the same shit that I went through in my time at Larkhall. You've been close to what was going on there but not close enough. Believe me."

"I'd better show you the last note I got from Ritchie which may explain a few things you didn't know and why I set out to kill Fenner."

The words came out of Lauren's mouth without her thinking about it as the thoughts formed themselves, ready made, in her mind. She had locked tight into her mind the knowledge of that note and now was the time for opening it up.

While Lauren dashed upstairs to fetch the note from her bedroom, Yvonne looked around in the depths of the bureau for the letter that Ritchie had written to her. Her fingers eased out the folded over note on 'prison issue' paper and found it right at the bottom of a small drawer she thought ruefully ought to be marked 'happy memories' as a spasm of pain ran through her as it hit her what she had lost in Karen. She could see before her very eyes the alluring sight of her mane of tousled, golden hair, those perfectly carved cheekbones and that challenging quizzical smile. The tough side of her crushed her eyelids tight to blind herself to what was too painful to deal with. This was no time to dream of what might have been.

"Dear Lauren,

……………I can't ask Mum for what I need you to do, because she won't do it. She never was a real Atkins, only in name. But you and me, Lauren, we've got Charlie Atkins' blood in us all the way. Lauren, I need you to get rid of Fenner for me. ………………. Lauren, Fenner did rape Karen, I know he did. You don't sleep with as many women as I have, without knowing when something just isn't right. Lauren, a bit of me loved her. I know that's not how it was supposed to be, but I did, probably still do. She didn't deserve what I did to her. But I can't put any of that right now. This is why I'm asking you to get Fenner out of the picture for good. I can't put right the things I've done, but if you'll do this one thing for me, I can take away one of the worst things that's ever happened to her. You know that Fenner deserves a dose of the Atkins justice as well as I do. Please do this for me, Lauren, please. Don't tell Mum I've asked you. She's stayed on the straight and narrow since she got out, and we both know she won't be in favour of doing what's right. But you're still my sister, and you weren't Charlie Atkins' protégé for nothing. The best shooter in the East End is my little sister.

I'm proud of you Sis,


Ritchie's last words from beyond the grave caused a violent wash of cross cutting emotions to flood through Yvonne's whole heart and mind. She could picture him in his solitary cell writing these words only hours before his life had ticked away when he swallowed the lethal dose of pills. He had really done what he thought was right in trying to make amends for his life but had unleashed as much mayhem as when he helped his murdering tart Merriman so many months before. If only Lauren had just talked to her, if only she wasn't so preoccupied with loving Karen that she hadn't noticed Lauren working long hours as she had thought, if only……if only…if only.

"The stupid sod really meant to do something right for the first time in his bleeding life," Yvonne's hoarse voice reflected the battle between her surface hard dismissiveness and a deeper bittersweet texture of her love for Ritchie which had gone wrong.

"You'd better look at my letter, Lauren," Came the only words that Yvonne could utter right then.

"Dear Mum,

" I've written this letter, not only to try and put the record straight once and for all, but to ask you to do something for me……………….. Fenner did rape her, I'm certain of it. There's things you learn about women, like what's normal, and what isn't, and the way she was with me that first night really wasn't normal, in any sense of the word. A woman asking you to be rough with her, that's nothing new, but this was different. I asked her afterwards what it had all been about, and she said she was laying a few ghosts. Mum, she was trying to punish herself for what had happened with Fenner. I'm guessing she thought it was her fault, but he's the biggest shit going and deserves nothing but a dose of the Atkins justice. You're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this. I've got to say it now, because after tonight, I won't ever get another chance. She was sat in the public gallery with you all through the trial. Mum, please take care of her for me. She's still hurting after what that bastard Fenner did to her, and she needs looking after. I ain't asking you to finish Fenner off, because I know you won't. But I need you to keep an eye on Karen for me. I hate what I did to her and to you, and I can't ever put any of that right. But if somehow, you can see that she's all right, I'll feel like I've at least tried to put something right.

I love you Mum,


Lauren stared with unbelieving eyes to see a side of Ritchie, which he had kept concealed from the world, from the Atkins family and even from himself. Her brother Ritchie was the most bigoted homophobic man who had ever walked this earth apart from Charlie. In his world, gay men were still poufs and gay women were unnameable and did not exist outside the tabloid expose in the Sun, which informed his view of the world. Nowhere in his limited imagination could he possibly imagine that his sexually 'straight up and down' mother could feel the remotest attraction to Karen Betts, the same woman whose sexual manners in bed were those of a panthress and, who by definition, was the sort of normal woman whom he slept with. Yet Ritchie's words, unknown to Lauren, gave Yvonne the licence to enter a new life with Karen which Lauren now realised, all too late. If only she had known that at the time, Lauren reflected, as her fingers loosely held the note which should have also been destined for her. Firmly, she put a stop to this very suspect, self-flagellating morose train of thought. Ritchie had engineered the situation and kept both of them in the dark from each other and she had killed Fenner. The fallout from that one act was quite enough to deal with, she concluded to herself.

"I'm really, really sorry that I've caused all this shit for you in killing Fenner," Lauren's thoughts suddenly found voice out of nowhere and her dark eyes also pleaded for forgiveness from Yvonne that she denied to herself.

"I know that you and Karen wouldn't have split up if it hadn't been for me but please don't tell me not to worry because everything will be alright in the end because I know it won't. I've just got a bad feeling about it, about everything. It did me good to get away to Cassie and Roisin's for a few days," Lauren ended on a happier note.

"What's done is done, Lauren. I know now what you did and why you did it and I ain't blaming you. How could I? I'll be here for you."

"But what about you and Karen?" Lauren asked with real concern for her mother in her voice.

"I don't know. It ain't up to me to decide what happens between Karen and me," Yvonne sighed, a twinge of pain hurting her to hear the names, once so entwined and now far apart. "I'll still be friends with her whatever happens. Somehow, we could never be enemies but don't bloody well ask me why that should be so except that….we've gone through too much together."

"If ever you want to talk to me Mum, about anything. Remember, I'm here for you."

As Lauren gave her a big hug of reassurance, Yvonne wiped a solitary tear out of her eye and wondered at a new tranquillity in Lauren's manner despite the sort of a confession which an Atkins did not make lightly and of the way she openly clung on to Yvonne, seeking the security which she had denied to others and herself. Not everything in her life had turned to shit.

Part 131

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