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. Lyrics belong to the Beatles.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Betaed by Jen, Little Dorritt and Kaatje.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part Sixty One

On Thursday February the tenth, Karen walked into work with a feeling of nervous anticipation. Her promotion board interview was scheduled for eleven o'clock that morning, and she didn't know how she was going to get through the next couple of hours. She held the usual officers meeting first thing, with them all wondering just why she was wearing what looked like a brand new, extremely professional looking suit. She told them that she wouldn't be available from ten thirty onwards, which only served to further fuel their curiosity.

"You off somewhere nice?" Gina asked, observing Karen's clear inability to relax.

"Nowhere particularly exciting," Karen responded, not quite meeting Gina's eye. Telling any of them about her interview, would only be tempting fate. You liar, Gina thought to herself with a little smile. But at about ten o'clock, when Karen was staring at her computer screen, running through all the possible questions she might be asked, there came a knock on her door. It was Gina, and she was carrying what looked like a flower, wrapped in cellophane.

"This just got left at the gate for you." Undoing the wrapping, Karen revealed a single, beautiful red rose standing in a tiny pot. Karen couldn't prevent a broad smile from spreading over her face. Removing the florist's card from the envelope, she read the three simple words, "Good luck Darling," and knew instantly that this just had to be from George.

"That's nice," Said Gina in genuine pleasure. "It's ages since anyone sent me flowers."

"Yes, I was beginning to forget what they looked like," Karen said fondly.

"Is it from George?"

"Who else?" Quipped back Karen, Gina's insatiable curiosity making her smile.

"Good luck for what?" Gina asked, taking a quick peek at the card.

"None of your business," Karen said good naturedly. When the realisation of what Karen must be up to clicked in Gina's mind, her eyes widened in astonishment.

"I don't believe it," She said in awe. "You're going after Grayling's job, aren't you."

"You certainly keep your ear to the ground," Was all Karen could say, neither confirming nor denying Gina's assumption.

"Oh, don't give me that," Gina said in excitement. "Everyone knows he's moving on, but we've all been wondering who would take his place."

"Well, it's only an interview, so don't get too excited, and don't for god's sake tell anyone. I don't want the likes of Sylvia gloating if I don't get the job."

"Well, just show them what you're made of," Gina said with a smile. "This place would be in good hands if you were at the top." This compliment had been very understated, but Karen knew that the depth in Gina's words was absolutely genuine. When Gina had first come to work for her, just after Jim had been stabbed, she'd been obnoxious, confrontational, and a real wild card when it came to dealing with prisoners and officers alike. But since her miscarriage, Gina had mellowed, softened, and had lost some, though not all, of her Italian temper. She had become someone whom Karen could trust implicitly when it came to managing the wing, keeping both prisoners and officers in line, and generally maintaining good practice when Karen wasn't available to keep an eye on her.

"Any problems while I'm out," Karen continued. "Go to Grayling. He knows where I am. Believe it or not, it was Grayling who recommended me for the job."

"Jesus," Gina said with impressed amazement. "If he thinks you're good enough, then you might just get it."

When Karen arrived outside the main headquarters of the prison service, she took a moment to glance at her reflection, before getting out of her car. She'd had her hair cut the day before, and the new suit she'd treated herself to, made her look utterly professional, with just a hint of femininity to show that she was in fact human. After briefly touching up her make up, and splashing on a little of her favourite perfume, she locked her car, and walked in through the double doors of Cleland House, in the Millbank area of Westminster. So, this was where Neil wanted to work, was it. She couldn't help thinking that these surroundings would be far more preferable to the dingy decor of Larkhall, yet without an inkling of personality. As a secretary showed her up the wide, carpeted staircase to the main boardroom, Karen wished she'd had a last cigarette before coming here. She exchanged a brief smile with the secretary as she was shown into the boardroom, needing some form of human contact before the coming ordeal. At the sight of the green baize covered table, Karen had the slightly wild thought that she was about to engage in a game of poker, with just as many attempts to derail her, as this interview would hold. Sitting on the opposite side of the table to herself, were Alison Warner, her immediate area manager, and who would be Grayling's future boss, together with the operational director, and a representative from the home office. Karen slipped a notebook out of her handbag before sitting down, which told her interviewers that she was prepared and would no doubt have some questions of her own. Declining the offer of coffee, Karen simply wanted to get on with it.

"Miss Betts," Alison Warner began. "You have been a governor of grade four rank, for just over a year. What makes you assume, that you are ready to take on the responsibilities associated with being a governor three?" Trying to quash her immediate dislike of this woman, Karen replied.

"I see Governor four as a stepping stone, as the inevitable rung on the ladder that must be traversed, before I can take on the greater responsibility I am ready for. Governor grades four and five, only permit one to be a wing governor, and this I have been for some years now."

"You were promoted to governor of G wing, by Simon Stubberfield, were you not?" Karen thought she could detect a hint of steel in Alison Warner's tone, and decided that this woman was not going to give her an easy ride.

"Yes. I was made Wing Governor in 2000, as a result of the former wing Governor's resignation. I feel that whilst I have fulfilled my task of managing G wing successfully, I have the potential and the drive to take on more responsibility."

"Yes, we'll come to that," Alison Warner said dismissively. "But first, I would like you to cast your mind back, to four particular incidents, all of which have occurred during your tenure as governor of G wing." Karen thought she knew what was coming. "The stabbing of James Fenner by an inmate, the escape of three inmates, the murder of an inmate, and the construction of a bomb by yet another inmate. Does the succession of these four incidents, strike you as the result of good management on your part?"

"Whether or not my management of G wing at the time of those incidents, was or wasn't satisfactory, does not have a bearing on their actual occurrence."

"But have you learnt anything from the way you have dealt with these incidents?" Asked the representative from the home office, wanting to get Mrs. Warner off one of her soapboxes.

"I have learnt that not all prison officers can be trusted," Karen said a little icily, thinking of how she'd vindicated Fenner after the stabbing. "And I have most certainly learnt that if an officer makes a decision whilst I am unavailable, on holiday for example, that I must revisit their decision and make any appropriate alterations on my return."

"In your current position," Broke in the operational director. "Do you see yourself as ultimately responsible for the behaviour of both officers and inmates alike on G wing?"

"I believe that on a day to day basis, the buck ultimately stops with the wing governor, but that the overall responsibility for the prison clearly rests with the governing governor. I may be responsible for the behaviour of my officers, and to some extent the behaviour of my inmates, but I do not think that this ought to detract from the governing governor's having the final word. A wing governor's duty can only be extended so far."

"If you were to take on the position of governing governor of HMP Larkhall," He continued. "How would your view of duty, responsibility, and the governing governor's general obligation to be at the helm, affect the way in which you might see those who worked under you?"

"I would expect all my wing governors to take responsibility for the general management of their wings, as well as the continuing professional development and good practice of their officers. As regards the behaviour of any inmate, the wing governors are also responsible for any adjudications and subsequent punishments. Though I should qualify this assertion, with the fact that where an incident of transgression is particularly serious or violent, it is the governing governor's duty to oversee the way in which an inmate's sentence is extended and managed, after such an event has taken place. I have worked my way up through the prison service, starting out as a basic grade prison officer, after several years of nursing. I believe that this experience, combined with my degree in Sociology, will stand me in good stead for continuing to deal with a wide range of inmates and their problems."

"How useful do you see your previous nursing experience, to the duties as a wing governor, and as a potential governing governor?" Asked the man from the home office.

"Far too many officers, only see the word jailer in the job description," Karen replied, immediately thinking of Sylvia. "And whilst maintaining a high level of security is a very important aspect of the job, I do feel that any prison officer must have the mental and emotional capability to care for the inmates. I see this as the only way forward towards any form of rehabilitation. If we don't care, to some extent, about the inmates we are looking after, we cannot possibly hope to rehabilitate them in any way, and therefore, cannot entertain the hope that they will not re-offend."

"But do you not see the possible risks of becoming too emotionally involved with any particular inmate's case?" This was Alison Warner back on the attack.

"Of course there are risks," Karen replied, finding it increasingly difficult to keep the scorn out of her voice. "I wouldn't be worthy of my current status, if I didn't realise that there are inherent dangers in becoming emotionally involved with an inmate, and I believe that you may have misconstrued my use of the word care. Every person who becomes a prison officer, needs to care for their job, to have a vocation for caring for people, and to be able to show some level of compassion, whilst maintaining an adequate professional distance. This is not a skill that can be taught at prison service training college, but one that must be learnt over years of experience. I believe that I have learnt that skill, and that I would be able to support officers of a lower rank in learning the same."

"What do you see, as the most important steps towards an inmate's rehabilitation?" this came from the operational director.

"Initially, it is vital for each and every inmate to receive a detailed medical, psychological and socioeconomic assessment, in order to determine their physical and mental health, and to enable prison staff to help the inmate maintain any contact with their family, and in particular, their children. If an inmate is discovered to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, they must be provided with the relevant detox, counselling support and if necessary, cognitive behavioural therapy to help them find and hopefully eliminate the source of their problems. Currently, only inmates who are serving twelve months and over are allocated a personal officer. I would like to see this level of support accorded to all prisoners, and especially to those on remand. Over a third of all female prisoners are remand prisoners, which means that they do not receive the support, through the personal officer scheme, that they most require. Many women come to us in need of medical treatment, a substantial amount of them requiring terminations of pregnancies, and though they may be able to obtain such medical treatment, they are not provided with the emotional support that such a difficult decision demands. Why, for example, are the previous medical records of every prisoner not immediately transferred to us, when the person in question is given a custodial or a remand sentence? This should be a matter of course, not a matter of red tape, finances, and inept, outdated, organisational procedures. Over ninety percent of prison inmates have a mental health problem, and what do we do, we confine them to segregation when they become unmanageable, and leave any mental and emotional difficulties to be dealt with by their fellow inmates. I would propose a radical overhaul of the prison health system, and in particular, the provision of psychological and psychiatric treatment for those who need it. How can we expect an inmate to stay out of prison, if we don't attempt to cure their underlying problems? This brings me to my final point concerning Larkhall's inmates, education and training. Time and time again, we are told that there isn't enough money to provide adequate basic skills training for even half of the prison inmates who require it. Over half the prison population has significant difficulties with reading and writing, yet what is the continual answer we receive from both the governing governors and area management? That as education is not an essential part of prison life, such as healthcare for example, it is not being allocated the necessary funding, to make it a viable option for those inmates who do wish to better themselves. This is ridiculous! Education and training must be considered an essential part of a prisoner's rehabilitation, if we are to have any success. If an inmate became involved in crime, for the sole reason that they were unable to obtain work, perhaps as a result of a lack of simple communication skills, it is our responsibility to provide them with the opportunity to obtain those skills, and to do everything in our power to ensure that they do not re-offend. In the current situation, little if any thought, is going into the life a prisoner is likely to lead once they are released from custody. If we simply plunge them back into the life they were in prior to being apprehended, a life with no hope of a job, in many cases no home, and absolutely no prospects, all we are doing is setting them up to repeat the process, again and again and again. If I were to be given the chance to prove myself as a governor of Larkhall," Karen slackened off slightly, for a moment climbing down from her soapbox, "I would immediately begin a serious redistribution of resources, possibly a re-sorting of officers and inmates, to provide each wing with the right combination of officers. This would undoubtedly mean separating the old school officers who run to the POA at even the slightest reprimand, and segregating those inmates who currently hold positions of seniority, mainly through threats and bullying. I do my best on G wing, but I feel that this philosophy of routing out the small handful of inmates, who are intent on causing us problems, is the only way forward. A custodial punishment should mean simply the loss of freedom, not the loss of sanity, self-respect and self-esteem. Far too much bullying goes on in Larkhall, and as a wing governor, I can only do so much to combat the problem. But, if I am given the opportunity to prove myself, I believe that I can, by the implementation of new policies, make a dent in the current hierarchy among the inmates. I do not claim to be perfect, but I do believe that I have the willingness and capability to drag Larkhall in to the twenty first century, and to transform a custodial sentence into an innovative, thorough, and successful rehabilitative process."

When Karen at last became silent, the three others simply watched her. Alison Warner was forced to admit that Neil Grayling might just have something here. Karen Betts certainly made an impressive speaker. She had the style, but did she have the substance.

"Miss Betts, when I spoke to Governor Grayling, almost a fortnight ago now, he said that you had the drive, the vision and the energy to make Larkhall a prison the service could be proud of. Do you agree with him?" Karen was momentarily stunned. She couldn't believe Grayling had voluntarily said something like that, about her of all people.

"I think that's something I can only find out in time," She answered carefully. "But I would like to think so." The operational director smiled at her.

"Larkhall is a difficult prison, Miss Betts, it always has been. If it is decided that you are the right person for the job, your task will not be an easy one."

"I didn't come into this profession for an easy life," Karen replied, with an edge of defensiveness in her tone. The operational director rose to his feet.

"We will let you know in due course as to our decision, though I must tell you, that your performance today was outstanding. If you do not receive your promotion on this occasion, do not be disheartened. You clearly have a lot of untapped potential, which I am sure the prison service will come to appreciate one of these days." As Karen followed him to the door, after shaking hands with the other two at the table, Alison Warner found herself briefly thinking of George Channing. Karen Betts' feisty, unabashed, confidence in her own ability was not unlike that of the barrister who had saved her skin all those years ago.

As Karen walked towards her car in Page Street, she felt a brief moment of freedom. This interview, this round with the Spanish inquisition that she'd been preparing for, was finally over. She wanted that job so badly, but she could do nothing more now. She'd done her best, she knew that. The operational director had certainly been impressed with her, and Karen thought that Alison Warner was being forced to eat her words, but that meant nothing really. On an impulse, she drove the fairly short distance from Westminster to Knightsbridge, to where George's office looked out on the paradise of all those in need of vastly expensive retail therapy. Parking her car, Karen just hoped that George wasn't too busy, and did actually want to see her. They'd seen quite a bit of each other, on and off since the trial, George becoming more confident every time they slept together. Karen was happy with what she had with George, because she was getting some utterly sensational sex with a divinely beautiful woman, without the headache of constant maintenance that a committed relationship always demanded. Walking through reception and up the stairs, Karen was relieved that it was lunchtime, and that there was nobody in reception to ask her what she was doing. As she traversed the long, expensively carpeted corridor, she remembered the last time she'd been here. It had been the day after Fenner had been killed. Jesus, they'd all come such a long way since then. When she reached the strong oak door, with the brass name plate engraved with George Channing, she could hear George's voice coming from inside. Hoping she was on the phone, and not with someone, Karen knocked. George bade her to enter, and smiled when she saw it was Karen, holding up a hand because she was talking to someone on the phone. But when George returned to her conversation, Karen was treated to something else about this beautiful woman that she hadn't previously known. Karen had no idea who George was talking to, but whoever they were, they were French. As George rattled familiarly away in this incredibly pretty language, Karen couldn't help but smile. It made a change to hear George without her gloriously upper class drawl. When George put the phone down, she turned to Karen and smiled.

"I wondered if I might see you today," She said, coming over to where Karen was sitting. As Karen rose, and put her arms round George, she said,

"I seem to learn something new about you every time I see you."

"I quite like being a woman of mystery and intrigue," George said, kissing Karen lingeringly. "How did it go?"

"Alison Warner tried to make mincemeat of me, but she didn't get very far."

"Alison Warner?" George asked in surprise. "You mean the Alison Warner who works for area management?"

"Yes. She might be looking over my shoulder on a daily basis very soon. Why?"

"It's a small world," George said with a sly little grin.

"Do you know her?" Karen asked suspiciously.

"Oh, Mrs. Warner and I go back a long time, only our relationship seems to be made up of professional advice, and latterly of blackmail."

"Why blackmail?" Karen asked, not liking the sound of this.

"Oh, well, when you presented me with everything for that case that almost kicked area management out of touch, Alison Warner's name hit me like a slap in the face. I'd had dealings with her before, quite a while before she started working for the prison service. As you know, that case didn't ever come to anything, but that didn't mean the matter was closed. During Lauren's trial, Jo asked if I would make use of my slightly dubious contact at area management, to get her a copy of Di Barker's personnel file. So, with the help of the threat of that case that still resides in the bottom of my filing cabinet, I did."

"You're very silly, the pair of you," Karen said trying not to laugh. "Why go to all that trouble, when I could have obtained a copy of Di Barker's file very quickly and very quietly." George looked very sheepish.

"That possibility didn't actually occur to either of us," She admitted with a blush of utter humiliation. "Anyway, it was probably better that you didn't have anything to do with that," She finished, trying to claw back some of her self-respect.

"Well, next time, try the obvious before you start breaking the law," Karen said a little sternly.

"Darling, in the legal profession, blackmail is not seen as breaking the law. In fact, it's positively encouraged as a part of a barrister or solicitor's job description."

"Clearly," Karen said, beginning to kiss George again and therefore silencing her.

"Before I get thoroughly carried away," George said, regretfully detaching her lips from Karen's. "How did it go apart from the delightful presence of Mrs. Warner?"

"Well, I think I got on my soap box a bit too much. But I suppose that might have been expected. The operational director was impressed with me, he said so. But, I'll have to wait and see."

"I'm proud of you," George said quietly, looking deep into Karen's eyes.

"Save compliments like that until I get the job," Karen said, not entirely comfortable with such words of praise.

"All right, but you will get it, I know you will."

Part Sixty Two

On the Monday morning, there was a little more excitement than usual on G wing, with the event of Valentine's Day, and the hopes for cards or other tokens of affection from loved ones.

"Shame there ain't no one to send me piss all," Denny said gloomily, knowing that there wouldn't be any post for her. The last time she'd even bothered to acknowledge Valentine's Day, was when Shaz was here. They'd pretended to be making their cards in secret, as if any privacy for doing such things could ever be had in Larkhall. They'd sneaked into the potting shed when they'd been allowed out for exercise, using the confined, warm, homely little place for a brief space in time for each other. Julie Saunders received a card and some flowers from David's father Trevor, and Julie Johnson received a very pretty card from her daughter. Selena spent the whole morning smiling secretively to herself, and Sylvia stated that real, long-lasting love, appeared to be an outdated institution that didn't seem important to the women of today. But Denny found herself returning again and again to the place where they'd planted the rose of Sharon, as though this might bring her closer to the one she still missed so badly. Karen could see the exercise yard from her office window, and when she saw Denny return to the tiny memorial a third time, she left her desk and went down to the wing.

Karen found Denny, stood in front of the now considerably larger rose bush, with tears running down her face. Taking her hand, Karen tried to lead her over to a bench to sit down, but Denny wouldn't move.

"I want to stay here," She said through her tears.

"All right," Karen said gently.

"Apart from the day she died," Denny said miserably. "That last Valentine's Day was one of the last really special days we had. You know what this place is like, you can't get a minute to yourself." Karen suddenly heard Gina calling her name. Turning, she saw her striding across the paved area towards her.

"Sorry to interrupt," She said, reaching them. "But there's a John Deed here to see you. He's at the gate lodge." Inwardly cursing John's timing, Karen asked Gina if she would go down to the gate lodge herself, and escort John to the wing.

"Bring a bloke in amongst this lot on Valentine's Day?" Gina said with a smirk. "I hope he can look after himself."

"Oh, he'll be perfectly safe," Karen replied. "You'll recognize him, it's the judge who presided over Lauren's trial."

"Oh," Gina said in a meditative drawl. "Given what day it is, I might just have a crack at him myself."

When Gina had gone, Karen returned her attention to Denny.

"What did you do," She asked. "On that last Valentine's Day you had with Shaz?"

"Bloody stupid question," Denny said, grinning lopsidedly through her tears. "Shaz still had the gardening job then, so we took advantage of the potting shed having a lock on the door during exercise. You know something, no matter how shit everything got in this place, Shaz always made me smile. Life was a bit of a laugh to her. She had the odd screw loose, just like most of us in here, but most of the time, she kept us cheerful. You don't know how precious something like that is in this place. I can't remember the last time I smiled and really meant it. Everything gets so dark and pointless, that you don't want to get up in the morning. It gets like there's no point in existing. Let's face it, what've I really got to stay around for?"

"Denny," Karen said slowly, always uneasy with providing fabricated evidence to stop someone feeling so desperate. There are a lot of people who care for you, Yvonne for one. She loves you as if you were her own daughter."

"Yeah, well, she won't need to in a few months, will she?"

"Denny, did Yvonne care for you in the way she does now, before Lauren ended up here?"

"I know it felt like she did, but sometimes it's hard to see it. Everyone, who ever said they loved me, always ended up leaving me. My mum, Shaz, Shell. So how do I know Yvonne ain't going to do the same?" Karen tried to find an appropriate response to this, but John's steady approaching footsteps distracted her.

John had been surprised to see Gina Rossi coming to meet him instead of Karen, but inwardly told himself that Karen did have a busy job to do.

"She's busy with an inmate at the moment, so she asked me to come and get you," Gina said, smiling at him. "I've been asked to take you down onto the wing. But I ought to warn you, it is Valentine's Day, and I can't promise you'll get away totally unscathed. Dominic's already had to put up with more than his fair share of attempts to pull him." John grinned in heartfelt sympathy.

"Do female officers ever come in for the same sort of treatment?" He asked, liking the slightly wild, tempestuous look about her.

"Well, over half of them switch sides, just so they can get a bit of the other. So yeah, an inmate trying to lull you into breaking one of the oldest rules in the book, is pretty normal really. But today isn't a happy day for some of them. It's one of the times they all want to be somewhere else and with someone else. When I left Karen, she was talking to Denny. You remember Denny, she spoke at Lauren's trial."

"Yes, I remember," John interjected, thinking that no, this woman would never be his type, because her constant chatter would no doubt infuriate him after a while. "Denny lost her girlfriend in Snowball Merriman's fire, I believe."

"Yeah, that's right," Gina said with surprise. "Don't tell me you did that trial as well?"

"Yes. This prison doesn't go looking for trouble, trouble just seems to find it, and far too frequently."

"Don't let Grayling hear you say that," Gina said with a wink. "He shies away from all the bad publicity this place has had, enough as it is."

As John walked across the exercise yard with Gina, he could see Karen talking to Denny, and that Denny was clearly upset. As they approached, John caught the tail end of Karen's words. Moving to stand on Denny's other side, he gave her a new focus for her attention.

"I know Yvonne's always been like a mum to me," Denny continued, ignoring John's presence for the moment. "But it ain't like she ain't already got one daughter, is it. Why should she bother with me, once Lauren's out of here?"

"Denny," John broke in quietly. "I got to know quite a lot about Yvonne during the trial, and one thing I have learned, is that if Yvonne Atkins sets out to care for someone, she doesn't ever give up, no matter how hard it gets." Karen was briefly touched at John's all too accurate description of Yvonne.

"Yvonne got this brought in," Denny said, gesturing to the rose bush that in a few weeks, would begin flowering again with the arrival of spring. "When Shaz died. It's called the rose of Sharon."

"Did Shaz like flowers?" He asked.

"Yeah, she used to have the gardening job. She got given it after Nikki left."

"Then it's a very fitting memorial."

"But she shouldn't need a memorial," Denny said bitterly. "She shouldn't be dead."

"Denny, if Shaz was here now," John continued gently. "She wouldn't want you to be hurting like this, would she." Oh, no, Karen thought resignedly, that was the worst thing you could have said, John Deed.

"What would you know?" Denny asked furiously. "You're just a bloke who thinks he knows best, because he's one of the pricks in wigs who gets to say yes or no, to someone like my Shaz ending up in a shit hole like this!" Karen laid a warning hand on Denny's shoulder, only just managing to hide a rueful smile.

"I neither convicted, nor sentenced Sharon Wiley," John persisted, trying to calm her down and patently failing.

"That's all they are to you, isn't it," Denny replied scornfully, really getting into her stride. "All the poor bastards you send to a place like this, they're all just names, just a load of facts on a bit of paper. Every person you give time behind bars, is a person, a life, with feelings and fears, just like you have. Just because you ain't ever committed a crime, don't mean you know everything about how to survive." As both Karen and John stared at Denny, wondering just where all this had come from, Lauren and Tina appeared, each taking one of Denny's hands and drawing her away.

"Well," Karen said dryly. "I haven't heard such a thought provoking piece of rhetoric since Nikki Wade was here." When Gina reappeared, having observed the entire scene from a short distance away, she said,

"I think you got more than you bargained for, didn't you," Looking straight at John.

"You could say that," John replied.

"Gina, can you put Denny on fifteen minute watch?" Karen asked seriously.

"She's liable to do absolutely anything today, and I'm not taking any risks." As they walked back over to the door that led inside, Karen caught sight of Al deeply kissing one of the new girls.

"McKenzie," She called in passing. "Either knock it off, or take it somewhere else."

"For God's sake," Al shouted in disgust. "It's Valentine's Day. Just because your very own piece of dick came to see you at work," She gestured to John. "Doesn't mean the rest of us are going to get any today. So lighten up for once." Al hardly ever exchanging more than two words with her, and only when necessary, Karen knew that something was different about Al today.

"McKenzie, come here," Karen said calmly, and when Al slouched disdainfully up to her, Karen looked at her closely. "Stand still," She said, but al couldn't stop moving from foot to foot. When Karen moved to put a hand on her shoulder to keep her in one place, Al objected vehemently.

"Keep your bloody hands off me," She snapped.

"Look at me," Karen demanded. "And keep still." Then, after scrutinizing Al's expression carefully, she said, "Are you on the speed again?"

"Think I'd tell you if I was?" Al replied scornfully.

"Well, you're definitely on something, I can see it in your eyes. Gina," She called, gesturing to Al. "Take McKenzie for a drugs test, please."

"Jesus, not again," Gina muttered resignedly.

"Can't it wait till lock up?" Al pleaded pathetically.

"Now!" Karen replied, the firmness in her tone calling for no argument.

Karen walked with John across the association area, and out through the main gate of the wing.

"Do you think Denny's right?" John asked as they walked down the dingy corridor.

"Yes," Karen said simply. "Though I wouldn't have put it quite in the way she did. But yes, sometimes you do think you know the answer to everything, and you don't." What did he expect, John thought ruefully. He always got the occasionally brutal, but thoroughly unvarnished truth from Karen, and he doubted that she'd ever give him anything less. When they were sitting opposite each other in her office, Karen took a cursory glance out of the window, just to make sure everything was going smoothly out there, and lit a cigarette.

"So," She said, after taking a long and grateful drag. "To what do I owe the unexpected pleasure?" The slight edge to her words told him in no uncertain terms that she knew exactly why he was here, and that she wasn't going to make it easy for him.

"I think you know why I'm here," He said quietly, watching her as she tapped an ash.

"I haven't seen or spoken to you for three weeks, John. You could be here for any number of reasons for all I know."

"I can't go on like this," He said with a trace of emotion behind his words. "I know what I said on the last day of Lauren's trial hurt you, and I'm sorry for that, really I am. But I don't like not talking to you, not being able to just drop in and see you, not being able to ask for an opinion, even though I know the truth will probably hurt. I miss you, Karen. When you're not my friend, I miss you." Karen sat in silence for a moment, thoughtfully smoking.

"John," She said eventually. "I haven't been spoken to like that, not for a very long time." Her thoughts briefly drifted to Mark's initial disbelief, when she'd told him about Fenner. "What you said to me, it hurt like hell. You know I couldn't tell you about George, because that had to be her decision. I would like to think, that you know me well enough, to know that picking someone up and throwing them away when I get bored, isn't how I do things. I thoroughly understand why you are so protective of George, but that isn't going to stop me sleeping with her. Just like you, she's a pretty well-adjusted adult, who is perfectly capable of making her own decisions." John took a breath to speak, but Karen held up a hand. She hadn't finished yet, and he was going to sit there, and listen to every single word. "I don't expect to be spoken to like that by anyone, John, and especially not by possibly my closest friend."

"I am, really, truly, sorry," He said, spacing out his words to give them better emphasis.

"I know you are," Karen said with a smile. "It's taken you three weeks to pluck up the courage to apologise, so I know you're serious about it. Just, please try not to do it again, because believe it or not, I've missed you too." Getting up from her desk, she walked round to stand in front of him. When he rose to his feet, she put her arms round him, needing the friendly, masculine hug that she'd missed far more than she cared to admit.

"What made Denny say everything she did?" John asked into her hair, bringing them back onto a safer topic of conversation. Drawing back from him slightly, Karen smiled.

"To quote one of the immortal lines in this place, you're just another paid up member of the 'All men are bastards' club."

"Charming," He said with a broad grin. "Now I know where you get your, at times, thoroughly unlady-like vocabulary from."

"What do you expect?" She said ruefully. "When you consider that I work day in day out, with women whose vocabulary is mainly made up of one-syllable, four-letter words, I think I do very well."

"I suppose so. As it is Valentine's Day, are you seeing George tonight?"

"Yes, I am," Karen said with a soft smile. "Are you seeing Jo?"

"Yes," He replied, thinking that at least now, he would be able to tell Jo that he'd apologised to Karen.

"I won't hurt her, John, I promise," Karen said quietly, knowing that he needed to hear her say it.

"I know you won't," He said, realising that she deserve nothing less than his faith in her integrity, both as a friend to him, and as a lover to George.

Part Sixty Three

John's grey convertible sped through the traffic towards his favourite florist, the one place where the tangible ability to demonstrate love was made manifest. He prided himself on the bunch of red roses that he would take to Jo. He was looking forward to her soothing company after the recent mental experience of being cross-examined under hot lights. He never knew that a friend like her could be so tough on him as Karen could be. She had that disconcerting knack of seeing through all the elaborate disguises which he fondly thought placed some distance between himself and the world. It was ironical when he compared her to the friend that Roe Colmore used to be. The man had spent a lifetime climbing his own particular ladder in the police force of all institutions and yet he used to enjoy a fuzzy cameraderie with him. In fact all John's male friends sprang from a shared easy familiarity of some kind, whether it be the string quintet of which he was the acknowledged leader or of any of the friendships over the years. There was a sense of cosy adjustment to each other and a sense of comradeship in one activity or another. Karen was different. She was intellectually challenging but she did not give quarter in the same way that he was used to and yet there was a sense of compassion about her. It came in strange and unfamiliar guises, that's all.

In contrast, his etched defined relationship with Karen never let anything past her and this was disturbing. After all, it was his profession to hand down precisely crafted judgements. He shook his head in wonder as it was only inadvertently that he had started a friendship with Karen which had progressed of its own momentum by no process that he could define, except that he respected her. A random train of thought made him ask himself exactly what he felt about the nameless women with whom he had slept over the years. By chance, the traffic lights suddenly turned red and he had to brake sharply to avoid running into the back of the car ahead of him.

The young receptionist behind the desk was utterly charming and soon found him the selection of flowers that he was after which he carefully laid on the passenger seat. It was no time at all that he stood at Jo's front door as he always had done, for so many years. Jo's house on Valentine's day was a special day to be set aside for her, no matter what irregularities there were in his life. He prepared himself to be ready to slip into the familiar mould of the past where the unsettling experience of a few hours ago would be soothed away.

After Jo's effusive greeting and a hug and a kiss, he made his way into Jo's front room and sank into the comfortable settee, which he could remember of old. The candlelit dinner with John's flowers in pride of place brought on those dreamy feelings for a simple uncomplicated life. His Valentine card occupied pride of place on the mantlepiece. After all, he had sleepwalked his way through life and why had he not just done the simple straightforward thing of simply proposing marriage to her. Why not indeed, his fuzzy mind grappled with something insoluble? Both ate the delicious meal in a calm atmosphere of old friends who could enjoy a companionable silence. While the front room curtains were drawn, John could imagine that the world was shut out and didn't exist and at that moment, it didn't.

"Life seems strangely peaceful and undramatic with the trial I am involved with at present," Jo said inconsequentially when they lay back on the sofa, comfortably full up. "It is cut and dried with the inevitability of the ticking clock of Big Ben."

"Are you complaining, Jo?" John's smooth melodious tones wrapped themselves round Jo in the same comforting way that his arm encircled Jo's shoulder.

"It's not that, John. It's that I'll always have warm memories of all those women from Larkhall. I've never come across that sort of warmth and strength before. They make the rest of chambers seem pale and colourless in comparison, that everything in life has been handed to them on a plate."

"I've had more recent experience than you, Jo. I just happened to pop into Larkhall today," John said in far too elaborately casual manner for Jo to pass that one up.

"Oh, and how is your favourite Wing Governor these days?" Jo teased.

"My relationship with Karen is purely platonic," John said a little stiffly. He was a little tired of the assumption that when he happened to mention a woman's name, he must have a sexual interest in that woman. He sipped at the glass of wine to the side of him and ruminated on the day he had spent there. He needed to talk about it to get everything properly in proportion.

"I've visited Larkhall before but today was a real eye opener."

John started the conversation and stopped not knowing how to proceed.

"I've been there recently. It is a different world and I can remember Karen having to physically restrain Denny from setting about Al McKenzie. 'These little spats breaking out all over the place,' as it was explained to me."

John opened his eyes wide as he struggled to get his head round that one.

"At least the highlight of your visit didn't directly involve you. I was being subjected to Denny Blood's very frank expression of her views."

Jo sighed inwardly at John's studiedly detached shorthand description of the scene, which was far too much the male approach to storytelling. It got the essence of the story right but it missed out on all the dialogue and the description of feelings. It was like the collected works of Shakespeare being summarised down to a cheap novel on sale at a British Railway station bookshop.

"And?" Jo enquired with a half smile and a raised eyebrow.

"Well I only tried to help her by advising her that her late partner wouldn't want her to be hurting inside," John admitted sheepishly.

"John darling, full marks for compassion but two out of ten for sensitivity and timing. On Valentine's Day of all days, when Denny would miss her most."

"I just wanted to do something practical to help. I couldn't stand around and ignore her as if she didn't exist," John protested, looking visibly discomforted.

Jo wrapped her arms round John and gave him a big hug. That impulse in John however expressed in his measured tones was at the source of all the good that she ever saw in him. She never forgot the way he had helped out her father many years ago. Walking on past a human tragedy in the main street of life was alien to him. John visibly relaxed as Jo held him.

"What was Karen's opinion?"

In a discomforted voice, John slowly articulated the words.

"Her precise words, as far as I recall were, 'Sometimes I think that I know the answer to everything, and I don't.'"

"So the reason you went round to see Karen at Larkhall was to be criticised for your lack of technique as the Florence Nightingale of healing words?"

Jo grinned impishly at the way that John stared in shocked surprise. She knew John of old. When he has something to talk about that he feels uncomfortable with, his invariable approach was to ample his way into a learned discourse on the distantly related aspect of it which he was most comfortable to talk about. The more impersonal he is, the more uncomfortable he was. Jo had long learnt to give him so much rope and to gently draw him in.

"Well, there was a reason why I called and you ought to be proud of me. I apologised to Karen for the way I had behaved to her about George."

John's curt throwaway description was capable of two interpretations. Either he was shutting off the feelings that were really there or else his apology was typically throwaway. For the good of his soul, this must be pursued with method.

"Oh you apologised? In your normal throwaway style?"

Jo's dry ironical manner provoked a far stronger reaction in John than she expected. He sprang to his feet and his face was flushed.

"For God's sake, Jo, I told her that I was really, truly sorry. I meant every word. What kind of man do you take me for? Do I have to get on my knees and beg over and over again for forgiveness?"

For a sickening moment, John thought that Jo might actually ask him to beg for forgiveness in such an ungainly, undignified fashion that he had himself described. He had never had to apologise in such an abject way to Roe Colmore. Is this what a friendship with a woman amounted to? He felt as if he were a stranger to a foreign land and struggling with an alien language.

"John, I believe you. I'm sorry for doubting your word. Come here."

It was the way that she said those words and her body language, which led his mouth to seek out hers and their tongues to deeply explore each other's. The faint smell of her perfume and the delicate pattern her fingertips traced on his shoulders persuaded him that he was finally home as the card smiled down gently on them…

…….By contrast, Yvonne moodily fidgeted her way round her house in a disconnected way. She turned the telly on occasionally but the sunbronzed young kids who presented daytime television were not only talking about bloody valentine's day but were shouting it out at the top of their lungs. Stupid wankers. She wasn't sure if it was her getting old and grumpy or everyone else getting brain dead. She wouldn't wish her back in Larkhall with all the bastard screws around but if she was down, the Julies or Nikki or someone would come around to cheer her up. She had had a brief flavour of that again when everyone was all together for her Lauren. They all promised each other to stay in contact after the trial but it hadn't happened yet. It may happen in future but not when there were so many couples amongst them, Babs and Henry, Crystal and Josh, Helen and Nikki, Cassie and Roisin. So where did that leave her, Yvonne and…….. that brutally truncated cutting short of what should have been there really got to her at that moment. She didn't want to be bleeding smothered or feel joined at the hip but without anything, she felt like some kind of a freak. They'll all be at home or going out to some fancy restaurant or whatever. Everyone but her.

She glanced at the empty mantlepiece, which stared back at her like an accusation.

In a fury of activity, she tore round the house to at least stop the place turning into a dump. She owed it to herself to keep up appearances that way in the same way that she put on her makeup to feel better.

She sipped at her generous measure of alcohol that was at her side as she stuck on a CD. She didn't even know what it was but she thought she'd take pot luck and let chance take over. Out of her sound system, there came the sweetly flowing guitar sounds and the high pitched sounds of a man in love started to sing.

"Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
I don't want to leave her now
You know I believe………"

It got right on her tits and sounded too bleeding sickly sentimental and the guy was sounding as if he was deliberately trying to rub it in. Yvonne clicked the remote control on and another more nasal voice sounded as if it had really got it on him.

"Help me if you can, I'm feeling down

And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me."

For Christ's sake, he's really down in the dumps and I can't be doing with having that rubbed in my face, Yvonne groaned and had one last shot at the remote control. Hey, this sounds a bit more promising, she thought, this guy was talking about human sympathy that means something to her.

"Hey Jude, don't make it bad.
Take a sad song and make it better.
Remember to let her into your heart,
Then you can start to make it better.

And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain,
Don't carry the world upon your shoulders.
For well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder.

So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin,
You're waiting for someone to perform with.
And don't you know that it's just you, hey Jude, you'll do,
The movement you need is on your shoulder...

Yeah, that part of the song as the crazy exhaltation with which the song drove through all the shit and despair and Yvonne jumped to her feet and danced around as the band steamrollered its way through to the end and that barrage of sound lifted her out of herself. The group was with her to give her the help that she needed. She just needed something to carry her through to the end of the bloody day and life would get normal. Visiting Lauren in prison for a start………

Cassie and Roisin's house was a riotous assembly of activity. They were crouched on the floor while Michael and Niamh were busy as only children can be. Michael was cutting out shapes in coloured paper while Niamh was impatiently urging him to hurry up so that she could glue the shapes onto the huge stiff cardboard of the greetings card.

"Have we got to wait a year till Auntie Lauren gets out of prison. A year is such a long way off," Niamh urged Cassie and Roisin.

"That is what the court said, kids. It may be less than that if she gets time off for good behaviour," Cassie said.

"What sort of good behaviour? Won't some of those horrible people in charge of the prison stop her?"

"It's not so bad these days. There are nicer people around these days."

"Don't ask us to make any promises we can't keep, kids. You know that she'll do her best to get out as early as she can but its not in our hands or Lauren's. As soon as we know for definite, we'll tell you. We promise that one."

Cassie stood up suddenly as she was getting stiff, crouched on the ground. She looked round the room where two huge Valentine cards took pride of place. This was a time of the year when they could openly admit their love for each other in front of the kids. It was always there in a pervasive form in the simple human affection that Roisin and Cassie showed each other. Roisin knew that the children were all the more stable because of it from the way they were when they came out of prison. at that stage they were very clingy as if they were both afraid that she was going to suddenly disappear out of their lives and Aiden's heavy handed parenting hadn't helped.

Cassie stretched her back and saw the children start to colour in the card with felt-tip pens with huge bubble writing.

"Cassie, have we got the prison bars right?" Michael asked

They were portraying a smiling Lauren being seen through a huge window with vertical bars.

"You've got them exactly right," Cassie's invariable encouragement answered them brightly. Too exact for comfort, Cassie reflected with an inward shiver.

"What does Valentine's Day mean, mum?" Niamh asked quite out of the blue like children do.

"It's the day when two people in love remind themselves what they've got between each other. You take people for granted if you don't watch out."

The children nodded in understanding at the straightforward explanation.

"How about 'We love you and we'll wait for you, Auntie Lauren."

"That's lovely," Roisin exclaimed enthusiastically.

The children worked furiously away until they were tired out at bedtime. By that time, Cassie and Roisin could resume their vows of love with each other in the mysterious darkness of night in the bed that they shared. It was the physical expression, the tender touch and the intensity of the love that they felt for each other. It would be nice one day to have a romantic candlelit dinner for two at the Ivy but since Larkhall, Cassie had learned to put her love of material things second place to the rounded lifestyle that mattered most of all to them.

Part Sixty Four

A wintry sun was ready and waiting for Yvonne to gradually open her eyes on a day which had some mark in her life. Even revisiting Larkhall was something different, she reflected as she smoked her first cigarette. If the Yvonne Atkins who had been banged up by the screws had seen herself thinking that way, she would have thought that she needed her head examining. It was February the fifteenth and thank god the bleeding annual hearts and flowers crap is out the window and everything returned to normal, same as her Charlie used to. A calm feeling of self-acceptance bathed her as she had got over the worst of yesterday and the future lay out in front of her like an endless highway. When she was down in the dumps at Larkhall, it was only a matter of time before she got over it. It was funny that, at her lowest, she could never believe that there was a way out of it and the next day or so, she looked backwards and it always seemed only a matter of time before she got back to her old self-confident ways.

In that frame of mind, she drove her car up to the familiar sidestreet that led to Larkhall and parked the car outside. She stared up at the high wooden gates while the wind ruffled her hair and stung her cheeks. She grinned to herself, imagining Bodybag inside huffing and puffing and dragging out giving the order to unlock the front gate. Prisons would be fine to her way of thinking if it weren't for the dratted prisoners. Sure enough a few minutes late, a door opened inside the gates and she and a few other women trooped through.

"Hi Ken," Yvonne called out to the stolid man whose clipboard seemed to be attached to him.

"Back again? I see more of you since you got out than ever before," His amiable banter greeted her.

"Excuse me, but which way do we go?" a very nervous middle class middle aged woman asked Yvonne. It was plain that this was all new to her. She was clearly bewildered by the sight of the high walls and the forbidding prisoners block which towered into the sky.

"Is this your first time you've visited this place?" Yvonne asked gently. The other woman's manner reminded her vaguely of Monica Lindsay, the same posh motherly type who was clearly like a fish out of water.

"I've come here to visit my daughter Rita. I've never seen a prison in my life. I never thought I would live to see the day when my little girl ends up in a place like this."

Yvonne put her arm round this woman's shoulders. She was obviously so caught up in her own nightmare that she was compelled to reach out to the nearest stranger to hand who looked sympathetic. What could she say about herself that would make her feel that this woman could relate to her except that she was another mother? She had to trust to that and her own instinctive sense of sympathy. All her own moaning about being alone on Valentine's day seemed bloody stupid in comparison.

"I've visited this place before. My daughter's on G Wing and if your Rita is there, she stands a good chance of being looked after. I mean it."

Yvonne's soothing tones took the edge off the woman's fears of her daughter being metaphorically dumped into a tank full of sharks and torn. She could see it and feel it.

"You follow Yvonne and she'll show you where to go," Called out Ken.

While another prison officer went on ahead of Yvonne, the other two women followed Yvonne's lead. Old instincts died hard or not at all as the case may be.

On the other side of the prison walls, Lauren was keyed up with excitement and was attending to a last minute adjustment in her makeup. Female Atkins values dictated this at all times. She turned round and glanced round at Denny.

"Hey Denny, wish me luck."

A vague mumble came from the vague huddled shape in the upper bunk. For some inexplicable reason, Denny had taken herself there immediately after mornings activities the first chance that she got. It was becoming a noticeable habit, so unlike the positive caring big sister who had sustained her all this time. After the tremendous news of the trial, Denny ought to be happy for her as she had nursed her unselfishly right from the first day she had entered Larkhall. She couldn't understand it.

"I'll pass on your love to Yvonne, Denny and tell her how you're getting on."

"Do what you want, man. I just want to be left on my own."

The Julies were manhandling mops and buckets but they stopped when they saw Lauren heading for the visitor's room.

"Tell us how Yvonne's going on and give her our love."

"Our love, yeah," Julie Johnson echoed.

Lauren grinned with all the confidence in the world and turned and waved in general to the others. She had taken a couple of paces when Gina appeared and smiled in her friendly fashion.

"I expect you and Yvonne will be feeling more cheerful since she saw you before the trial."

Lauren's big smile was answer enough for her.

"Well, don't go upsetting Sylvia. You know how easily she gets upset by you and your mother within fifty miles of her."

Lauren was about to move on when a thought struck her mind. There was no better time than the present.

"Is it all right if I ask you a question, Miss Rossi?"

"Go on," Gina answered warily. Though the kid was friendly to her without an ounce of harm in her when you got to treat her properly, her look of angelic innocence looked a little too good to be true.

"Is there anything in the rumour that Miss Barker isn't coming back to G wing?"

How do Atkins women always find out the news round Larkhall almost before it's happened, Gina wondered to herself?

"Now that would be telling."

Gina started to move away as she spoke but her broad grin from ear to ear told Lauren exactly what she wanted to know.

In the meantime, Yvonne made her way along the corridors towards that very familiar room which, a lifetime ago, she had always seen from the prisoner's viewpoint, sitting at the table and waiting for the first sight of Lauren. She was chatting to the other woman

To prepare her for what was to come.

"You go into this big room and your daughter, like mine, will be wearing this bright orange bib. There will be a prison officer or two on duty at this big desk and they'll tell you what the crack is. If you're lucky, you'll get a decent one. All of them are a bit iffy about all that hugs and kisses sort of stuff only as it is used as a way of getting drugs brought in."

The woman nodded, trying to take it all in while the prison officer let Yvonne go ahead with her explanation. He was new to the prison service and what Yvonne said sounded pretty reasonable to him but he was glad that Sylvia wasn't with them, as she would have blown a fit on principle.

"….Oh yes, they'll frisk you before you go in."

The other woman turned visibly nervous when she heard this news.

"Don't worry, love. It will be all right."

Yvonne's gentle voice reassured her as she did to anyone she took under her wing. It was what she did best at Larkhall and this entirely random meeting reminded her of something she was best at. Soon they milled around in the anteroom as other visitors filed in behind them. The prison officers methodically searched them all, one at a time, in a correct and businesslike fashion. Selena was one of them who took part and she exchanged a brief word with Yvonne. Now was the moment of truth as the doors opened up.

"We're out of luck. That's Sylvia Hollamby in charge over there." She gestured to the scowling woman whose fixed gaze picked out Yvonne immediately.

"What's wrong with her?"

"Oh, nothing much. It's just that if she had her way, prisoners would be locked up twenty four seven and only let out to break rocks on Dartmoor. As for home visits, that would be right out of the window. They're not all bad though. There are some decent prison officers among them."

The other woman was slightly reassured at the end, the way Yvonne's cynical tones softened at the end. In Yvonne's mind, old loyalties died not at all.

"Hi Dominic," Yvonne added, smiling in return at his unfailing friendly presence.

"He's one of the good ones."

The room suddenly became a cacophony of echoing voices, which disorientated the other woman. At the same time that Yvonne spotted Lauren waving at her, Rita was sitting a few tables away and spotted her mother.Rita was this rock of certainty to cling to in this whirlpool of strange crowded humanity.

"You look great, Lauren."

Yvonne admired the glowing look of the younger woman who looked so like her old self, the Lauren that she always liked to remember.

"Yeah, everything's fine now, mum. I know that I've got another year inside, with luck less than that and at least I know where I am."

Lauren went on to chatter away about all the everyday little incidents and Yvonne could see her as the mirror image of herself, only younger. She had an eye for everything round Larkhall, the same way that Yvonne used to be.

"Guess what, mum, I've got some good news."

Yvonne leaned forward into safe whispering distance and smiled in anticipation.

"I think Di Barker is off G Wing for good. Gina told me in not so many words."

A huge grin split Yvonne's face. Revenge is sweet even if exacted by proxy, care of Karen. At that point, Bodybag stared round suspiciously at her number one enemies and sensed trouble.

"So that's why she's got a face like a smacked arse?"

Yvonne deliberately kept her voice pitched low but enough to entice Bodybag to interfere

and walk right into the trap as she always did.

"Hey, Sylvia, Miss, I haven't seen much of Miss Barker.I so much wanted to talk to her about old times."

"Humph. None of your business, Atkins. You're just a visitor these days, don't you forget it. You don't run this place."

"No but Karen, sorry, Miss Betts does," taunted Yvonne.

"Just because you were once in Madam's bed, doesn't mean to say she'll go soft on your daughter."

"Jealous are you ,Sylvia?"

Yvonne's smirk drove Bodybag to promptly hide herself very conspicuously behind a women's magazine. Prisoner's friend down the far end of the room could look after everything. Dominic's gaze and his cheery smile met Yvonne's in mutual conspiracy as the days of verbal fencing at his expense were long past.

"How's Denny?" Yvonne enquired.

Lauren's face clouded over.

"I don't know, mum. She's changed overnight since the trial ended. Up till then, she was the supportive one, always propping me up when I went through one of my depressions. Since then, she's taken to her bunk when she gets the chance and is down in the dumps. She won't talk about it or anything much these days."

"Is she using?" Yvonne asked bluntly.

"Not that I know of. I haven't seen anything that's obvious."

Yvonne's eyebrows were furrowed in deep thought. Ain't it just her luck when one daughter is going up in the world, the other suddenly plunges down to rock bottom.

"Is it anything to do with the two of us?"

"Unless I've missed something that's right under my nose, I'd say not," Lauren replied with slow convincing certainty.

"Well you keep…." Started Yvonne when Bodybag surfaced to loudly announce the end of visiting at the precise second.

"Love you, mum. You look after yourself while I'm away. It won't be for ever."

Impulsively, Yvonne hugged Lauren and kissed her on her cheek. Lauren saw through her and knew very well how Yvonne had been getting on, or not as was the case. It was very strange to be on the outside waiting on the day that your nearest and dearest gets free. In the past, she was that nearest and dearest.

As Yvonne left the waiting room, tut tutting at the defective vending machine much to Bodybag's exasperation, her temporary amusement was clouded over in worrying about Denny. She needed to get to the bottom of it.

Part Sixty Five

Karen had planned to spend the Friday evening and hopefully the night, with George. Karen would be cooking, which meant they would be in her flat for a change. She was perfectly well aware that neither her living space, nor her cooking, could ever come up to George's standard, but that didn't matter. It was a rainy and freezing February night, and they would be warm and content in her flat, which was really all they seemed to need. George arrived just after seven with a bottle of red wine, which provided a perfect accompaniment to the chicken casserole Karen had thrown together. She was pleased to see that George ate a good-sized helping of the very warming, pretty filling dish. They washed up, and were sitting snugly close on the sofa, drinking the Merlot and listening to some soft music, when the phone rang. Karen ignored it at first, letting the answer phone take it for her. But when she heard Dominic's voice, telling her to pick up, she did.

"I am here," She said, switching on the cordless to interrupt his message.

"Thank god for that," He said, sounding relieved. "You know I was supposed to be doing the night shift with Gina?"

"Yes," Karen replied, not liking where her thoughts were taking her.

"I can't do it."

"Why the bloody hell not?" Karen demanded.

"I've got food poisoning."

"Dominic, is this real food poisoning, or Sylvia's kind of food poisoning, just in time for the weekend."

"Come on, Karen," He insisted. "You know me better than that."

"Yes, I know. I'm sorry. But you could have let me know before now. You're on duty in less than an hour," She said, glancing at her watch.

"I thought it would be gone by tonight, but there's no way I'd be any use to anyone."

"You do realise, that Colin, Selena, Sylvia and Paula, have all been on duty all day, and so can't cover for you?"

"Could you do it?" He asked tentatively.

"Shit, Dominic," Karen said in alarm. "I've been drinking."

"How much have you had?"

"About half a bottle of red wine."

"Oh, that's nothing for you," Dominic said confidently.

"Dominic, your faith in my tolerance of alcohol is commendable, but I just hope you're right. Just because Fenner used to periodically drink on duty, does not mean that Grayling would thank me for doing the same."

"So you'll do it?"

"I don't have any choice, do I?"

When she'd replaced the receiver, she turned to George with an apologetic look.

"I'm sorry, but I expect you got the gist of that."

"Your staff don't know when they're well off," Was George's only comment.

"I didn't know this was going to happen," Karen said quietly, feeling unutterably guilty, even though she knew she had nothing to feel guilty about.

"I know," George said, trying to hide her disappointment and failing.

"If there was the remotest possibility of an alternative, I wouldn't be doing this," Karen insisted.

"That's the point though, isn't it?" George said in slight irritation. "There ought to be an alternative for a situation like this, and you shouldn't have to do it."

"I'll have to phone Gina," Karen said, wanting to change the subject a little. "She can pick me up. I'm not losing my licence in the midst of waiting for a promotion." After phoning Gina and putting her in the picture, Karen made herself a cup of very strong coffee, in an attempt to sober up slightly, though she didn't in any way feel incapable of doing her job.

"Do you mind if I stay?" George asked, not really wanting to go back home to her empty house. "Because you're not the only one who's had a little too much to drive."

"No, of course I don't mind," Karen said, putting her arms round her. "You can keep the bed warm for me. I'll hopefully be back some time early tomorrow morning, but you never know."

"I wish you didn't have to do this," George said quietly.

"I know," Karen responded, gently kissing her. "But when all else fails on my wing, I draw the short straw. That's how it's always been, and I suspect that's how it always will be. That's what my life consists of, Larkhall taking up the vast majority of my time. If I can fit in a beautiful, funny, argumentative, stubborn and at times addictive, woman, then I do. But just occasionally, she may have to play second fiddle to my job. That's not how I want it, but for the moment, that's how it is." Karen had said all this in a calm, gentle but firm voice. George turned her gaze away from Karen, not wanting her to see the brief tears that had risen to her eyes. She felt utterly stupid. She knew that Karen's job always had done and probably always would come first, and she knew that she had absolutely no right to demand more of Karen, than Karen was prepared to give. Karen didn't say anything for the time being, because she knew that George was finding this all a little difficult to deal with, but when the doorbell rang, she turned George's face back to her.

"If I can get home earlier than planned, then I will."

"I'm sorry," George said in a slightly strangled voice as they kissed each other.

"I know," Karen said softly.

When Karen dropped into the passenger seat of Gina's car, she said,

"Thanks for this."

"That's okay," Gina replied as she started the engine. Then, taking a closer look at Karen's face, she said, "Apart from the red wine, are you all right?"

"Not really," Karen found herself admitting. "This job doesn't do much for the home life, does it?"

"No," Gina agreed ruefully. "Was that George's car in your driveway?"

"Yes, and I don't think I'm going to be forgiven for occasionally having to put my job first."

"The thing is," Gina clarified, "Even though someone like her, or the Judge, or that other barrister, the one who defended Lauren Atkins, might do a bloody hard job, it's still only got a nine to five, or Monday to Friday level of commitment. This kind of job, like nursing I suppose, isn't just a way of earning a living, it's a vocation, a way of life, and if you're destined to work in a job like this, it's going to take over your life from time to time. That's just how it works. If you're not prepared for that from the start, you'll never last the course."

"That's pretty much what I said at my interview last week," Karen said with a smile.

"Well, there you are then. Your commitment to your job is something George and whoever else, is just going to have to get used too."

"Did you find it easier, being in a relationship with someone who did the same job as you?" Karen asked, clearly referring to Mark.

"No way," Gina said scornfully. "It was a bloody nightmare. But then you'd know that, after constantly being caught in the rows between Fenner and Helen Stewart." Karen neither acknowledged nor denied this assertion. They didn't speak again on their drive to Larkhall, Karen being lost in her thoughts, and Gina wondering if she'd said too much.

When they walked into the officers' room on G wing, they found Sylvia and Colin maintaining a stony silence.

"Oh, where's Dominic?" Asked Sylvia on seeing Karen.

"He's got food poisoning," Karen replied curtly.

"Typical," Sylvia said disdainfully, conveniently forgetting all the times she'd said the same thing. "Oh, well," She added with the edge of spiteful pleasure in her tone. "I suppose this'll remind you what it's like to get your hands dirty." Karen was about to give Sylvia the first impolite retort that came into her head, but Gina got there before her.

"Sylvia, why don't you do us all a favour and give it a rest? It's a bloody awful night, so just be glad that you can leave this place and go home. Now, preferably." Taking the hint, Sylvia picked up her coat and her handbag and left the office.

"How's it been tonight?" Karen asked Colin, who didn't even bother trying to hide his smile at the way Gina had dealt with Sylvia.

"All's very quiet," He said, taking a quick look at the report book. "But everyone's cold. If this wind gets any stronger, you might want to give some of them extra blankets. You know how drafty those cells can be. Oh, and I might be wrong, at least I hope I'm wrong, but I think Denny Blood might be on something."

"Oh, you're joking," Karen replied in dismay.

"Like I said, I might be barking up the wrong tree. But she seemed a bit out of it in association, and was already crashed out on her bed by lock up."

"Which really isn't like Denny," Karen finished for him.

"The drugs problem seems to be a hell of a lot worse lately," Gina observed.

"Which makes me wonder if they're getting some inside help," Karen said gloomily.

"Try the people who work in the officers' club," Suggested Gina. "Or the blokes who do the deliveries."

"Well, you need to find out where Denny scored, if she did," Colin finished, as he shrugged into his jacket. "Because it wasn't from Al McKenzie, because she's been down the block all week. If you want my opinion, I'd put my bets on Darlene."

When he'd gone, Karen and Gina began to make a thorough walk round of the wing, making some attempt to tidy up the association area, both of them thinking that Sylvia had left this on purpose. They walked along the landings, starting with the 3s, checking on every cell. The howling wind echoed along the open landings, giving the place a far more eerie and haunted feeling than usual.

"Jesus," Gina said with an almost imperceptible shudder. "I wouldn't like to be doing a shift on my own tonight."

"The place is full of people, Gina," Karen said with a smile.

"Yeah, half of them killers, and the rest of them either out of it on drugs, or hell bent on making mincemeat of themselves. Doesn't exactly fill you with confidence, does it."

"Not put like that, no," Karen was forced to agree. "But fortunately for us, they're all behind locked doors."

"Yeah, Sylvia's always said that happiness was door shaped, I'm beginning to know what she means." They gave extra blankets to those who asked for them, and it didn't go unnoticed that several inmates were sleeping in the same bed tonight, presumably to share body heat. When they reached Lauren and Denny's cell on the ground floor, Karen went in this time, instead of simply looking through the spy hole. Denny was fast asleep on the top bunk, but Lauren was reading by the light of a candle.

"Where did you get that?" Karen asked.

"Oh, hi Miss," Lauren said, looking up with a far too innocent look on her face. "I couldn't sleep because of the cold, and because Denny keeps dreaming and calling out all sorts of bollocks."

"Where did you get that candle?" Karen persisted, not wanting a fire tonight on top of everything else.

"Good, isn't it?" Lauren said, trying to get Karen off the negatives of the situation. "The only thing is, the draught keeps blowing it out."

"Well, just be careful," Karen admonished, seeing that she wasn't going to get anywhere with this. "Just make sure you don't set fire to something."

"Cheers, Miss," Lauren said with a winning smile. "Any chance of an extra blanket?"

"Suppose you'd like a mug of hot chocolate as well, would you?" Gina said dryly, handing a blanket over from the stack she'd been carrying.

"Well, if you're offering," Lauren said flashing a cheeky smile over at Gina.

"What did your last slave die of?" Gina asked in disgust.

"Boredom," Lauren quipped back as Karen moved towards the door. But before she could leave altogether, Denny began murmuring in her sleep, her voice becoming more frantic and desperate with every second. Walking over to her, Karen reached up to the top bunk and shook Denny's shoulder. But this only seemed to make Denny worse. She began struggling, and calling out all manner of indecipherable pleas.

"Denny, come on, wake up," Karen gently cajoled. When Denny eventually opened her eyes, the blind terror in them made Karen flinch. Denny was crying now, her whole body shaking, her arms clinging to Karen to stop herself from falling back into her nightmare. Karen gently rubbed her back, almost rocking her like a child, feeling powerless in not knowing the cause of Denny's dream. Leaving them for a moment, Gina soon returned carrying two mugs of tea, handing one to Lauren, and holding the other until Denny was ready for it. Lauren slid out of bed and handed Denny the box of tissues that was on the table.

"Are you all right now?" Karen asked as Denny blew her nose.

"Why do all the shit things come back to haunt you all at the same time?" Denny asked bitterly.

"Sometimes, if we're especially tired, or depressed, the bad things are all we can think about," Karen replied gently. "And, if we take dodgy drugs, to try and make ourselves feel better, that's only going to make it worse." Denny looked her straight in the eye, seeing in an instant that there was no point hiding it because Karen already knew.

"Shit," She said miserably.

"Go on, get that down you," Gina said, handing her the mug of hot, sweet tea. "That'll do you a lot more good than shoving pills down your gob." When Denny had drunk the tea, Karen picked up a spare blanket and tucked it round her.

"I'm going to keep checking on you tonight," She said gently. "Until whatever it is has gone out of your system, and we will be talking about this some time soon. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Miss," Denny said quietly, knowing she'd let Karen down. The deal she'd made with Miss Betts, all those months ago, would have been great if Fenner had really got what he deserved. But she couldn't really see the point now in keeping her nose clean. What reason was there for her to even think of getting out of prison? Sure, Yvonne came to see her every fortnight, but she would have Lauren back soon enough, and then she wouldn't need her.

When Karen and Gina returned to the office, Karen turned the radiator up high and put the kettle on for some coffee.

"Are you going to go official about Denny?" Gina asked.

"I don't want to," Karen admitted.

"It ain't like you to go soft on an inmate," Gina observed.

"I know. I'm just not sure that punishment will achieve very much in this case. I think this needs a more personal approach."

"Is this because of how close Denny is to Yvonne?" Gina asked wisely.

"No," Karen replied, seeing just where Gina's thoughts were heading.

"Denny always manages to get to you," Gina observed quietly. "Ever since I came back, I've noticed that. You're different with her."

"I'm not sure I'd agree with you," Karen said conversationally, though she knew that in some ways, Gina was right.

"Yeah, well, you wouldn't, would you," Gina said succinctly.

"Gina, if you're trying to say that I'm getting too emotionally involved with Denny's case, then just say it."

"Hey, calm down," Gina said persuasively. "It might be understandable if you were. Let's face it, the bloke you were seeing, was part of the cause of Denny's girlfriend being burnt to death. If that doesn't make you feel slightly more responsible for someone, then I don't know what does." Karen just stared at her. She'd never previously even entertained such an idea, though she knew that this was because she'd avoided looking too closely at her interest in Denny.

"Look," Gina said, trying to reassure Karen. "Until just lately, Denny's been getting on with it, sorting herself out. So, whatever you said or did to make her do that, was all to the good." Karen laughed mirthlessly.

"Do you want to know why she's been almost a model prisoner for quite some time now?" Karen asked a little cynically. Gina just waited.

"As a result of the flapping ears and gossip in this place, Denny, as well as a number of the rest of them, was aware of what had happened with me and Fenner, just before Mark left. I agreed to pursue a case against Fenner, if Denny would keep her nose clean and make an effort to get her parole."

"Jesus," Gina said in awe. "That's some deal."

"Yeah, and it's not as if it came to anything, is it," Karen said bitterly.

"Mark told me about what happened with Fenner," Gina said quietly.

"That was nice of him," Karen said a little acidly. "Do you still hear from him?" She asked, wanting and yet not wanting to know.

"Yeah, from time to time. He usually writes, but occasionally he'll phone me. He got back in touch with me, not long after he left here."

"I'm glad he had someone to talk to," Karen said, some of her residual guilt over the way she'd treated Mark beginning to resurface.

"He usually asks after you," Gina said gently.

"I don't know why he should," Karen answered miserably.

"Karen, what happened with you and Mark, wasn't your fault, same as what happened with me and Mark wasn't mine. Di bloody Barker was what did for me and Mark, and Fenner was what screwed things up for you."

"I wasn't very nice to Mark when that happened," Karen admitted regretfully.

"No, and neither was I when I lost the baby."

"Does he still blame me?" Karen found herself asking, though she wasn't sure that she really wanted to know.

"No, of course not. He felt terrible about the way he reacted when you told him, but that's Mark all over. When I found out that he'd been shagging Di, all he could do was focus on what he thought I'd been up to with Josh. Then, when I lost the baby, I know part of him thought it was my fault for picking a fight with Di. He never actually said so, but I'd known him long enough to see it in his eyes. Mark has to find a reason for everything. If he can't immediately find some way of explaining all the bad things that happen, he has to find someone to blame. With me, it was easier for him to blame me, because he knew that in blaming Di, he would have to look at his own behaviour where she was concerned. With you, I suspect he couldn't immediately blame Fenner, because you two were supposed to be in something resembling a relationship, and yet you'd gone to bed with Fenner. Mark has quite simple boundaries for right and wrong, and that just confused him."

After Karen had gone, George had sat drinking the rest of the red wine and listening to music. She could relax in Karen's flat; the stylish yet homely surroundings making her feel incredibly comfortable. She'd put a new CD on, and soaked for a long time in a hot, scented bath, allowing her senses to take her through what they might have done had Karen been here. They might well have taken a bath together, soft, soapy hands caressing each other's skin. Her nipples turned hard at this thought, even with the heat of the water. But after eventually dragging herself out, she wrapped herself in a big, fluffy towel, and went to examine Karen's bookcase. She didn't feel like watching a film, and the comforting softness of Karen's goose-feather duvet was calling to her. When she lighted on the line of six Jilly Cooper novels on the second shelf, her face broke into a smile of pure, unadulterated pleasure. It was years since she'd read one of these, the illustrious reprobate, Rupert Campbell-Black, having provided her with many hours of light, trashy entertainment. Selecting the one that had always been her favourite, she snuggled down under the thick duvet and began to read. Even though she must have read this book at least half a dozen times, it still made her laugh. 'The Man who Made Husbands Jealous', with the boyish and hopelessly inefficient Lysander Hawkley, the musical genius and sexual predator, Rannaldini, and the thoroughly wayward Flora Seymour, who reminded George of herself at sixteen. She lost herself in the first few chapters of this well-remembered novel, her imagination and fondness for the characters taking her away from the sound of the weather outside. But at around half past one, her eyes began to grow heavy, the end of a long week's work finally catching up with her. Putting the book down on the bedside table and switching off the lamp, George lay listening to the howling wind and the pounding rain outside the window. Her thoughts drifted to Karen, probably sitting in the officers' room on G wing, drinking coffee to keep her awake and smoking. George knew that she would hate to have to be in a place like Larkhall on such a night, and snuggled deeper into the folds of the duvet, heartily grateful that she was George and not Karen.

Karen and Gina had continued talking about Mark, the escalating weather outside providing the perfect background to such a soul-searching conversation. The wind shook the ill-fitting windowpanes from time to time, but they had steaming mugs of coffee, a good supply of cigarettes, and a thankfully functioning radiator.

"I didn't intend to go to bed with Fenner," Karen found herself saying. "It just happened. But when Mark realised that's what I'd done, it was like he thought I'd deserved what I got."

"I bet he came over all holier than thou, didn't he?" Gina said knowingly.

"Part of me couldn't really blame him," Karen said reasonably. "And the rest of me was hurt and furious with him for not believing me."

"I think he couldn't believe you," Gina said slowly. "Because he thought you didn't believe it yourself."

"He wanted everything to be so cut and dried," Karen said miserably. "And that's not how things are after something like that."

"Look," Gina said gently. "What happened with Fenner, that wasn't your fault. Mark knows that, and you should too. Mark wasn't anywhere near strong enough to deal with me after I lost the baby, so there's no way he would have been for you either. You're like me, you push everyone away when something goes badly wrong, because you think you can deal with it better on your own."

"You've become very wise and philosophical in the last few years," Karen said with a wan smile.

"Yeah, well, grief and guilt all in one go does that to a person. I did that, I pushed Mark away because I only had room for what I was feeling, not everything he was going through as well. He told me about Buki's kid, and how he'd gone a bit over the top trying to find out what had happened to him. I think he did that, because it was his way of dealing with losing his own kid."

"Yeah, I wondered that at the time," Karen agreed meditatively. "He was so single-minded about it."

"The point is," Gina continued. "We all deal with stuff like that in different ways. Mark threw himself into helping Buki look for her son, I moved prisons and worked as many shifts as I could, and you had a fling with Ritchie Atkins." Karen looked a little uncomfortable. "I was in court for most of Lauren's trial, Karen," Gina said quietly.

"I know," Karen said, hating the fact that her officers always seem to know everything about her life, no matter how hard she tried to keep it separate from her job. "How much does Mark know about that?" She asked, thinking that now was as good a time as any to learn the worst.

"He's read the papers, just like everyone else," Gina said matter-of-factly. "And yeah, especially whenever you or Larkhall's been in them. So I guess there ain't much he doesn't know. You definitely gave him a surprise or two, but nothing he won't get over."

"I didn't mean to hurt him," Karen said, turning her face away from Gina's all too penetrating gaze. "But it would have been impossible to stay with him. It's been hard enough for me to move on from what Fenner did to me, but I know I couldn't have coped with Mark's feelings about it as well."

They progressed on through the long, dark night, doing rounds of the entire wing, keeping a regular check on those prisoners who were considered to be at risk. They returned intermittently to the subject of Mark, perhaps taking advantage of the opportunity to get everything about him out in the open. Karen knew she had stamina, but she'd been awake for almost twenty-four hours now, and the strain was beginning to tell.

"Jesus," Karen said at about half past five, lighting what felt like her hundredth cigarette. "This reminds me of when I was nursing, and had to do double shifts to make ends meet."

"Don't you have a son?" Gina asked, suddenly remembering.

"Yes," Karen said with a smile that went soul deep. "Ross, I had him when I was eighteen. It was crazy for a few years. I couldn't always afford to be at home and read him a bedtime story myself, but I could just about afford to pay someone else to do it for me."

"I take it he wasn't planned," Gina said with a smile.

"No," Karen admitted, wondering just where that eighteen-year-old girl had gone. "It was bloody hard at times, but I wouldn't change any of it for the world."

"That's what I wanted," Gina said, a slight catch in her voice. "For me, and Mark, and the little one to be a family. I didn't care how hard it was going to be I just knew it was what I wanted. Then, when I found out just how much Mark didn't care about our relationship, I knew I couldn't do it on my own. I might be strong, but I'm not as strong as you." There were brief tears in Gina's eyes, and Karen took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

"Just because you've had one miscarriage," She said gently. "That doesn't mean you'll have another."

"I know, that's what the hospital said at the time."

"Don't give up hope, Gina. That's all any of us have got."

Not long after six, they heard the distinct sound of the gate being unlocked and somebody coming onto the wing.

"Sounds like we've got company," Gina said hopefully. A moment later, Dominic walked into the office, looking tired, pale, but basically healthy.

"There's a sight for sore eyes," Karen commented dryly. "You feeling better?"

"I stopped throwing up at around midnight, so I thought I'd come in."

"Now that is dedication for you," Karen said on a yawn.

"Go on," Gina said with a tired smile. "Go home, go to bed, and give that woman of yours a reason not to whinge." Karen grinned lop-sidedly at them as she shrugged into her coat.

"Thanks for doing this, Karen," Dominic said as she passed him.

"As you've come in to finish your shift, I'll forgive you," She said with a smile.

"I'll call you a cab," Gina said as Karen walked out of the door. Gina being as good as her word, there was a cab waiting for her by the time she reached the outside, ready to take her home to a warm flat and hopefully a still occupied bed.

When Karen let herself through her front door, all was silent. But it wasn't the empty silence that spoke of no other presence. It was an occupied silence, a quietness that told of contented sleep. Karen smiled as this observation struck her. She liked having George here, in her space, in her bed, waiting for her to come home. Slipping her shoes off, she padded into the bedroom, to see that George was still asleep, her soft, steady breathing the only sound, apart from the still falling rain. Pulling her clothes off, Karen took a quick, hot shower and cleaned her teeth. The combination of exhaustion and caffeine high was making her jittery, and she knew that only a soft, warm cuddle would calm her down. Sliding under the duvet, she found herself submerged in a soft, warm bed, with George's slim, pretty legs stretched over to her side of the bed. Karen smiled. George would be the type of person to hog the entire bed if she was the only one in it. At Karen's first contact with her skin, George groaned softly and put her arms out instinctively. As they came together, George began to wake up.

"What time is it?" She asked in a drowsy, sleepy voice.

"Not quite seven," Karen said, gently kissing her.

"You're back early," George deduced, sounding pleased.

"Dominic felt better, so he came in. I haven't been awake for as long as twenty four hours for quite a long time," She said with a yawn.

"How was it?"

"Fairly quiet. But Denny's started taking drugs again."

"Oh, no," George said with feeling. "I thought she was doing well, after you'd made your deal with her."

"Yes, so did I. But I think everything's just got a bit too much lately. That's a conversation I'm not looking forward to on Monday."

"Darling, I'm sorry I behaved like a spoilt adolescent last night," George said soberly.

"You didn't really," Karen said fondly. "And I know how infuriating it can be sometimes."

"Am I forgiven?"

"Of course," Karen said with a smile. "Would I really be doing this if you weren't?" She asked, deftly stroking one of George's breasts. George laughed deep in her throat.

"If doing night shifts puts you in the mood, I might be in favour of you doing them more often," George said with a smirk.

"Bloody cheek," Karen quipped, grazing a thumb over George's nipple. "When have I ever not been up for this?" George would have answered, but the feelings Karen was inducing in her, were taking her over. As their kisses became deeper, and their hands began to wander at will, Karen eased a leg between George's, her thigh rubbing up against her soft, warm centre. Their hands progressed down the path of mutual, combined ecstasy, bringing each other to a shuddering, gasping orgasm. They clung to each other as their simultaneous climax approached, thrilling in the reactions of each other's bodies and the celebration of how happy they were. As they lay afterwards, huddled together in the cosy haven of their bed, George wondered how she could ever have reacted the way she had the night before. Karen's job was her life, at least for the most part, and her total dedication to it was something to be praised, not discouraged. They gently kissed each other from time to time, occasionally talking, but mostly taking simple comfort from being in each other's arms.

"You look exhausted," George said after a while.

"Being awake for over twenty four hours, and making love with a beautiful woman, might account for that," Karen replied, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth.

"That's interesting," George mused with a smile. "You used to say 'sleeping with' when you talked about me, and now it's 'making love.' I like that."

"Good," Karen said, kissing her again. "I liked coming home, and knowing you were here." As they lay there, both taking in the meaning of their words, they drifted gently to sleep, the wintry, Saturday morning sun peeping through the bedroom curtains.

Part Sixty Six

As Karen drove into work on the Monday morning, she found herself praying to some unknown deity that Denny wasn't about to go through what Roisin had all that time ago. She knew that Denny had used and dealt drugs before, but she'd perhaps mistakenly thought Denny was passed all that now. But Denny was clearly in a very bad emotional state, and it was up to Karen to try to do something about it. When she'd woken at around eleven on Saturday morning, George had gone, but she'd left a note on the table in the lounge, saying that she had a lot of work to do and thought she may as well leave Karen to sleep. Karen half smiled as she thought of George's reaction to her having to work on the Friday night. But then her smile faded. If work was encroaching on her personal life now, what would it be like if she got the job of Governing Governor? But G wing was her immediate priority, with Denny taking centre stage.

"How's Denny Blood been over the weekend?" Was one of the first things Karen asked at the early morning meeting.

"As jumpy as a monkey on a stick," Was Sylvia's curt reply.

"Quite jittery and unpredictable," Colin clarified.

"Clucking from something if you ask me," Sylvia finished off. "But then you'd know that if you did a decent day's work like the rest of us."

"What did it look like I was doing on Friday night?" Quipped back Karen, really not in the mood for Sylvia's antics, but never quite able to resist rising to the bait.

"Hmmm! Do half a night shift and you think you know it all."

"Well, I have done a decent day's work, week in week out, when I was a prison officer like yourself, Sylvia. I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't, now would I?" Karen was trying to keep her voice steady, but Sylvia always managed to make her furious, and always on a Monday morning too.

"And there aren't many Wing Governors who'd do night shifts just like the rest of us, Sylv, so give it a rest," Dominic interjected.

"Yeah, I bet you didn't do any in your short stint as Wing Governor, did you, Sylvia?" Gina put in quietly, immediately having the desired effect.

"No, Sylvia just hid dead bodies in the chapel," Selena reminded them.

"You weren't even here then, Geeson," Sylvia said angrily.

"Okay, folks," Karen said, trying to calm everyone down. "We don't have time for this. Sylvia, can you bring Denny Blood to my office at eleven, please?"

"What for? If she's back on the nasty, she ought to be tested and punished just like the rest of them."

"Just do it," Karen said smartly, inviting no argument.

After putting herself to sleep with a downer on the Friday night, Denny had attempted to stay clean all weekend, but it was an uphill struggle. It was amazing, how easy she'd found it to start taking drugs again. But all she'd had to do was to do a little bit of trade with Darlene. But Miss Betts had known, she'd known exactly what Denny had done, and when it came to Monday morning, Denny knew the time had come for her to face the music. Denny wasn't stupid, she knew she'd screwed up, but didn't everyone? Didn't everyone, just once in a while fuck things up? She'd been doing it all her life, so why stop now. When Bodybag had come to let them out first thing, she'd looked down her nose at Denny, even more than usual.

"The Governor wants to see you at eleven o'clock, Blood, so make sure you're back on the wing, because I'm not chasing all over the prison looking for you."

"Yes, Miss," Denny said quietly.

"If I had my way, you'd be back in segregation, but Madam always has to do things differently," Were Sylvia's parting comments.

"Karen will go easy on you," Lauren said, as they made their way towards the servery for breakfast.

"Ain't no reason why she should, is there?" Denny said miserably.

"So you've had one little lapse, that's nothing compared to some in here," Lauren tried to reassure her.

"I made a deal with her, Lauren, and I went back on it. That's all there is to it."

When Denny was shown into Karen's office at the appointed time, she didn't know whether to hold her head high in her usual belligerent attitude, or to avoid Karen's gaze like the guilty one she was. Karen saw this moment of indecision on Denny's face, and could see plainly that Denny did know she'd done wrong.

"Sit down," She said kindly, moving out from behind the barrier of her desk. To Denny's amazement, Karen asked her secretary to bring them some tea. "How are you feeling?" She asked, taking a seat near Denny and offering her a cigarette.

"Not bad," Denny replied, gratefully taking the proffered cigarette. "It ain't like I haven't done cold turkey before."

"And what we need to talk about," Karen said slowly. "Is why you've had to go through it again." Denny went and stayed very quiet. "Talk to me, Denny," Karen persisted. "Because this isn't like you, not any more. A few years ago, I'd have put it down to the way you were, but not now. You've been doing so well over the last few months."

"Yeah, and for what?" Denny demanded angrily.

"Denny, don't you want to get out of here one day?" Karen asked, trying to keep her voice as calm as possible.

"I'm not sure any more," Denny replied dully, showing Karen just how low she really was.

"If you could do anything in the whole world, what would it be?" Denny spent a moment or two thinking about this.

"If Shaz was still here, then I'd want to be out there, making a life for the two of us, for when she got out. That was all I ever wanted. A long time ago, I used to think that about my mum, but you know what happened to her. She preferred the bottle over me, and ended up dying in the gutter. But with Shaz gone, I don't really know what I want."

"Don't you want to get out, to be with Yvonne?"

"Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't. Yvonne couldn't have done better by me, I know that, but I don't want her to keep being good to me, just because she feels she has to. I've got to know Lauren really well over the last year, and Yvonne couldn't want for anything better in a daughter." Karen just managed to bite back the comment that Yvonne could have done with a daughter who didn't feel the need to commit murder. The fact that Denny saw Lauren, the woman who had killed a prison officer, to be all that Yvonne could want in a daughter, was something Karen thrust to the back of her mind to be dealt with later.

"Denny, if you thought you had a reason to get out of here, would that make it easier?"

"Maybe," Denny conceded. "I'm sorry I did drugs again, I'm sorry I went back on our deal."

"It didn't exactly help that Fenner wasn't around to get what he deserved, did it?" Karen said quietly.

"No," Denny said miserably. "I couldn't ever slag off what Lauren did, but Fenner should have suffered, I mean really suffered for what he did to Shell, and to you," Denny added, remembering just why the deal had been struck in the first place.

"Where do you want to go from here, Denny?" Karen asked. "Because I'm at a loss as to how to stop you going down your old self-destructive path." Denny thought long and hard about this. Why wasn't Miss Betts doing what the screws normally did when someone took drugs? Why wasn't she just giving her days down the block and washing her hands of the situation? Denny didn't know.

"Miss, why are you being so nice to me?" Denny asked in a small voice, feeling as though she really didn't deserve it.

"Because coming down heavy on you almost certainly wouldn't work, would it," Karen stated, knowing it was true. "From your record, I know that it hasn't worked in the past, so maybe it's time to try something new. You usually need an incentive to do something, which in this place is perfectly understandable. The prospect of Fenner being punished for how he'd treated Shell, that was an enormous incentive for you, which is why you tried so hard to keep your nose clean. But now, that's gone. I want to help you, Denny, not punish you again and again, because we both know that isn't what you need. You will get your parole one day, and that time shouldn't be too far away. But you won't get it, if you slide back in to shoving any narcotic substance up your nose or down your throat, just to blot out how miserable you feel. I also know that you've heard every word I'm saying, at least a dozen times before." After first raising her eyes to Karen's in question, Denny took another cigarette from the packet and lit it from the Zippo Karen held for her.

"Miss, would I be able to see Shell?" Denny's question was certainly like a bolt from the blue, not something Karen had been expecting at all.

"I'm not sure. Why?"

"If it was something that was possible at some point in the future, it might give me something to work towards. I haven't even been able to write to Shell since she's been in that place and it would just be nice to see her again. No matter how much shit Shell managed to get us both into, it was always me who got us out. I know you went to see her before Fenner was killed, but that was the last Shell saw of anyone from Larkhall. It's just something I'd like to do, for me and for Shell." Karen looked at Denny through the cigarette smoke. She just might have a point here. Karen had exchanged the odd letter here and there with Shell, telling her about anyone she asked after, trying to keep her in touch with something normal, something she'd once regarded as home. But if Denny could have contact with Shell, that might do them both good. It would give Shell a link back to Larkhall, to the one place where she'd been liked and cared for, to a certain extent, and for Denny, it would give her something new to focus on.

"I'm not promising anything," Karen said slowly. "But I'll look into it. There'll be a lot of red tape for me to wade through, in order for this to even be considered, and in the meantime, you need to stay off the drugs. I'm going to enroll you on the frequent testing programme," And at Denny's attempt to protest, she added, "And this isn't negotiable. Denny, I can't ignore the fact that you've become involved with drugs again, you know that. I want to make sure you stay off drugs, and going by this weekend's performance, your word obviously isn't enough."

"I won't do it again, Miss, I promise," Denny insisted.

"Say that to me at the end of this week, when you're desperate to get to sleep because of all the thoughts running round in your head that you can't control," Karen said challengingly. "I know how it is, Denny, and I know that your word to me is going to be sorely tested over the next few weeks. You might have got through the last couple of days, but time can go very slowly in this place, and I know just as well as you do, that time is something you really don't need when you're trying to escape from everything that's going on in here," She finished gently, tapping her forehead. "So, just take it one day at a time, and the frequent testing programme will keep me informed as to whether or not you really are staying off the Benzos."

"I'm sorry," Denny said in a small, quiet voice.

"I know," Karen said gently. "Now, the other thing I need to talk to you about is whether or not you want Yvonne told about this."

"No," Denny said hurriedly. "Please, don't tell Yvonne. She'd be so ashamed of me," She finished quietly.

"Denny, Yvonne knows how it is in this place," Karen tried to reassure her. "And she might be able to help you. She can almost certainly help you better than I can."

"No, please, Miss, you mustn't tell Yvonne. Please," Denny begged, with the wide, frightened eyes of a fox, caught in the proverbial jaws of the hound, and about to be shaken to death.

"All right," Karen said gently, trying to calm her down. "But please try and talk to her, about wanting to visit Shell, if nothing else."

"Okay," Denny conceded. "And Miss, thanks, for not sending me down the block."

"Well, I may not be so amenable next time," Karen said firmly. "Just remember that. I'm trying something new with you, but only because any previous punishment hasn't worked. So yes, you are being given a chance, but I will punish you in the usual way if your current behaviour continues. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Miss," Denny said meekly, leaving the office a little while later, with the knowledge that somehow, she had to get through this without going back on any drugs. How successful this would be, she didn't know.

When Denny had gone, Karen walked up to Neil's office. She knew that she couldn't make this type of decision on her own. Denny had specifically said that she didn't want Yvonne informed of what was going on, but Karen knew at the same time, that Denny needed some proof from Yvonne that she had something to get out of prison for. Neil was on the phone when she knocked on his door and entered, so he held up a hand, and gestured her to take a seat. Karen took the opportunity to take a good look at his office. If everything went to plan, this might be hers in the not too distant future. When he replaced the receiver, he gave Karen a smile.

"That was the accounts department at area, to inform me that we've over spent on our annual budget for the third year running, as if I didn't know already."

"I need to make a decision," Karen came straight to the point. "And I think it needs your input."

"I'm all ears," Neil replied, folding his hands in front of him on the desk.

"Denny Blood has started taking drugs again. I've talked to her, put her on the frequent testing programme, and warned her as to her future conduct, but I think Yvonne needs to be put in the picture about this. Denny needs some kind of proof that she's got a reason to want to get out of here. Denny has specifically begged me not to inform Yvonne about this, but as Yvonne is the closest thing Denny has to a next of kin, I think I ought to tell her." Taking a moment to assimilate the facts in front of him, Neil took in a deep breath.

"If you were sitting in my chair, and I was a Wing Governor, having come to you with a similar problem, what would you do?"

"I would get to grips with all the facts of the case, find out exactly what the person in question intended doing about it, and if I agreed with them, leave them to it."

"Well, there you are then," Neil said succinctly. "I don't need to tell you what to do, do I?"

"I just wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing," Karen said quietly.

"And in this instance, informing Yvonne Atkins is the right thing. Karen, in two months time, you hopefully will be sitting in this chair, having to make these kinds of decisions, without any support or hindrance from above."

"Neil, I wish you wouldn't bank everything on my getting the job," Karen said tartly. "It might never happen, you know."

"I know, I know," Neil said placatingly. "But what I'm doing, is trying to prepare you for the possibility that it might. Holding the position of Governing Governor, means that you will have to make decisions with this level of magnitude on a daily basis. The sooner you get used to it, the better."

"I'm sorry," Karen said quietly. "I just want to get this right, that's all."

"Why does Denny Blood get to you so much?"

"You're starting to sound like Gina," Karen replied dryly.

"Then, if two of us are saying it, don't you think there might be something in it?"

"I suppose I feel a little responsible for the fact that someone I was briefly involved with, was indirectly to blame for the death of her girlfriend."

"Which is precisely why," Neil said slowly and quietly. "You need to step back from the situation, and re-examine it from a purely professional perspective. Karen, other than the fact that she is one of the inmates under your care, Daniella Blood's problems are not your responsibility. However, on this occasion, I agree with your judgment, that Yvonne Atkins may be the key to Getting Ms Blood back on track." Karen stayed quiet for a moment, just watching him. Neil was absolutely right, she knew that. So why did she always let it get to her? It wasn't her fault that Snowball Merriman had blown up the library, taking Shaz Wiley with it, but that didn't mean she could always stand back from Denny's case, and deal with it from a purely professional angle.

Back in her office, she reached for the phone. Yvonne had to be informed about this, but it had to be done gently. Yvonne sounded pleased to hear from her, but Karen didn't know how long this was going to last.

"We need to talk," She said slowly. "About Denny."

"So, I was right," Yvonne said gloomily. "She is using again."

"You knew?" Karen sounded surprised.

"No, I just wondered. I asked Lauren when I last saw her, but she didn't know."

"Yes, she is using again, and I really shouldn't be telling you this. But I think you're the only one who might be able to get through to her."

"Go on, fill me in," Yvonne invited, briefly taking Karen back to the times when they'd exchanged confidences without a second thought.

"She doesn't think she's got anything to get out for," Karen said slowly. "She thinks that once Lauren's release date arrives, you won't need her any more."

"But that's ridiculous," Yvonne insisted.

"Oh, I know," Karen agreed. "She's just losing faith in everything at the moment."

"I know how she feels," Yvonne said dryly, hurting Karen far more than she'd intended to.

"I've put her on the frequent testing programme," Karen continued, trying to ignore Yvonne's innocent twist of the knife. "And I haven't given her any days in segregation. I asked her what she might consider an incentive to stay clean, and she said that she wanted to see Shell."

"Dockley?" Yvonne asked in surprise.

"The very same. So, I'm going to see what I can do on that score, but I've made her no promises. I don't want to come down heavy on her, Yvonne, but I'm going to have to if she doesn't improve. The thing is, she specifically asked me not to tell you, so if you do talk to her about it, she mustn't think you already know."

"Okay," Yvonne replied, hearing in Karen's voice that the throwaway jibe she'd made hadn't gone unnoticed. "I'll see what I can do. I'm coming in to visit her on Sunday, so I'll talk to her then. Thanks, for not washing your hands of her." As Karen ended the call, she reflected that short, brief relationships always did make a difference to friendships, no matter how much you didn't want them to. She and Yvonne were different with each other now, and Karen realised that she would give anything to go back to the way they'd been before that bloody game of spin the bottle.

Part Sixty Seven

Trigger felt a little happier with himself on the last Sunday morning in February, as he opened a sleepy eye. He was curled up in his large basket padded by an old duvet, situated in his favourite spot in the downstairs living room. He normally felt cheered up by the thoughts of guarding the house after the humans had gone to bed but, of late, even this didn't work. He carried a secret sadness inside of him from when his favourite mistress had disappeared suddenly after those two members of the enemy human pack invaded his territory. He could sense their evil nature and made no bones of concealing his anger. Nobody could explain to him why she had suddenly gone. It was part of the sad side of a dog's life and helped to give it such a name. To make it worse, his other mistress nearly almost equal favourite wouldn't play with him as much as she used to. Oh yes, she never lost affection for him, but there were times when she didn't seem to notice him, not even when he gave her the sad eye, which never used to fail him. Life didn't feel the same and it had been getting him down. True, there was the occasional highpoint when some friendly members of the human pack came round and the one with short straight hair made such a fuss of him as if she had known him all his life. He wished she would come back and that made him sad.

He rolled around on his back, flailing his paws in the air to squash that itch on his back and because he felt like it. At moments like these, he was lord of the manor no matter how much humans pretended otherwise. This morning, some sixth sense told him that life would get better but he hoped that his breakfast would be served on time.

That day at Larkhall had given Yvonne the kick up the backside that she needed. Bright and early, she bustled round, tidying clothes away, which she had left strewn about and cleared out old makeup. She enjoyed that sense of well being that came from feeling more centred in the world about her. Outside her window, the bright sun shining low over the horizon cast long shadows on the ground. What she needed was a good long walk and who best as resident silent walking companion than Trigger?

He could not believe his very sharp ears when he heard the faint sound of the leash and immediately trotted over, ears perked up before he heard the magic words "Walkies, Trigger." He was leader of the pack once again.

Yvonne made her way out of the drive and drove to the clear open spaces of the nearby park where she could clear her head. Was it the lousy weather, feeling depressed of late or the trial which had cut across everything and separated her from simple life renewing experiences which were so easily to hand?

Trigger pulled enthusiastically on his leash with immense feelings of satisfaction of a gourmet sat in front of his favourite meal. In his eyes, endless possibilities opened up of fascinating smells, and of company, both human and canine. Presently, Yvonne let trigger off the leash and he gamboled happily approximately next to her, occasionally chasing his tail with a friskiness which he should have outgrown but hadn't. The cold clear wind whipped through the bare trees and over the open spaces.

Presently, Yvonne saw the distant shape of a tall stranger, wearing a long dark elegant overcoat and accompanied by a thin, lithe whippet, also off the leash Totally unselfconsciously, both humans let themselves be guided so that their paths converged.

From opposite directions. As Yvonne got closer, there was something familiar about the man's wind blown grey hair and chiseled features.

"Judge," Yvonne called out, her sharp eyes filling in the identity breaking into John's self absorbed drifting thoughts. At the same moment, Trigger bounded excitably up to the smaller dog, joyfully thinking that his luck was in very approximate parallel to John's very much more guarded reactions in a similar situation.

"Be nice, Trigger," Followed Yvonne's carrying voice after Trigger. John nervously gauged the relative sizes of the two animals, feeling as defensive as if a lion were rapidly closing in on a nervous gazelle.

To his surprise, Trigger slowed down at the end while Mimi turned her back, proudly and disdainfully on him and trotted casually up to a park bench and sniffed at its various angles and the surrounding clumps of grass. Both Yvonne and John studied with an anthropological eye, the rituals of canine interactions. It was curious to see the way that trigger did not think to push his way in front of Mimi as he would any much larger human being. Instead, he slavishly followed every nonchalant twist and turn that Mimi paced out. He followed her round as she sniffed at nearby trees.

Suddenly, he lunged forward right up close to Mimi close enough to sniff her, laying aside any sense of discretion. In a flash, Mimi twisted herself round and lashed out with one of her front paws, smacking him on his nose. Immediately, the much larger dog shot away in horror back to his human protector and sat with his back up against Yvonne's knees, as if begging his mistress to look after him.

John burst out laughing at the utterly unexpected spectacle. Words came rushing back to his mind of the recent trial and the policeman's absurdly melodramatic description of the savage beast, which confronted him. The psychiatric report detailing trigger's personality was proved to the hilt except that he realised that it didn't exactly exist but that he had dreamed it.

"You soft sod," Yvonne called out while she bent over and comforted the dog.

John shook his head repeatedly in disbelief and stared as Mimi remained proudly aloof and triumphant. It had the unfortunate effect of putting the ball squarely in Trigger's court in terms of wondering what to do. And the day had started so promisingly.

"You wouldn't think he'd been trained by Charlie Atkins, would you."

"Kipling was right when he said that the female of the species is deadlier than the male. Personally, I thought it was a very vague generalisation," John's melodious voice answered with a trace of amusement.

"And does that apply to me, judge?" Yvonne answered challengingly, a smirk on her face. When he was seen closer up in an ordinary park, this man's perfectly ordinary appearance was the most striking aspect of him. Correction, she added, all he had done was to not wear the august robes of his office and not to sit on his throne, the seat of his power. He wasn't one of those stuck up posh blokes who, if you stripped them of their uniforms, were no different from the average member of the 'all men are bastards' club. There's no difference except that they are weak. This bloke had natural class and, for the first time in a life which had been so long immersed in the criminal world, she found a man who was different.

Trigger made his tentative way over to Mimi who graciously waited for him to make a gradual approach. Now that Mimi knew that she was boss, she allowed him to get closer to her, but all the time maintaining the boundaries she was comfortable with, her being a very small dog compared to Trigger. He continued to follow her wherever she went, as lovestruck as a fifteen-year-old boy with his first crush.

John turned to face Yvonne directly, sensing the physical proximity of the woman. He had seen her from afar throughout two trials when he had learned to admire her strength. She had unexpectedly touched him with the heartfelt emotion with which she had expressed her undying thanks after he had sent down her daughter.

"Kipling was wrong in your case, Yvonne. You're strong but I know that you're not dangerous for me."

This was the first really personal conversation where they were outside their normal lives and he had met her challenge far better than Trigger had faced Mimi's with all the finesse that came natural to him. In a companionable way, they strolled past the children's swings and slides where past incarnations of themselves took their turn to push their offspring on the swings and to watch them as they slid down the slides, laughing and giggling. It was all a long time ago, they thought and always there in their minds but they were living in the present and not the past.

"It seemed ages ago, judge, when I used to take my Lauren and Ritchie on the swings. It was the only time I felt free."

"I used to do the same with my daughter Charlie. I hope you don't mind me asking but I've always wanted to ask you, why you call me judge?"

John's shared memory shifted into a very tentatively asked question, a faint smile crinkling his face.

"It seems the right thing to call you." Yvonne's off the cuff reply was accompanied by a shrug of her shoulders before a thoughtful pause led her to add more slowly.

"It's like a word of respect, and as you might guess, with my background I've not exactly been used to hobnobbing with the law."

"I would rather you called me John," came the answer with all his natural charm of personality.

What else could Yvonne say to answer this man but yes?

Trigger and Mimi trotted in the rough direction that the two humans took, still tentative in their relationship. They made their way along the narrow tarmac track which ran alongside the empty football pitch. The wind grew in strength and intensity and began to cut its way through even the stoutest winter clothing.

"I don't know about you, John, but I could murder a warm drink."

"Regrettably, the average English park has only ice cream and tepid coffee at the very most."

It was interesting the way that faint turns of phrase always accompanied John wherever he went, Yvonne thought, but this is a natural part of the man, not the judge. They sipped at thin polystyrene mugs of bitter coffee which was only drinkable as they were outside.

"Do you want to come back later for something stronger?" John asked.

This man can turn on the charm, Yvonne thought but, for once, duty clashed with her increasing anticipation of pleasure and duty very regretfully won out.

"I can't, not right now. I'd promised Denny Blood that I was going to visit her at Larkhall. She's got problems and I've got to talk to her. You know that she's as good as my daughter."

"How about this evening?" He persisted, giving her the old, irresistable charm he hadn't used since his pulling days.

"Well, John Deed, Mr. respectable high court judge, if you come and see me this evening, I might just cook you dinner."

As his eyes met hers, he saw the spark of what could only be sexual attraction, with a hint of challenge in their depths. He hadn't been seducing women for the best part of forty years, not to instantly recognise the clear invitation Yvonne was giving him.

"It would be a pleasure," He replied, his sotto voce response caressing her like the tips of his long masculine fingers. As she told him where she lived, Yvonne's spirits lifted as the conflict between duty and pleasure was so neatly resolved. It was time she treated herself.

In the meantime, Trigger kept an eye on what was happening and had John pegged as another dog owner. That familiarity with his species was the great divide in his world in the two species of humans. His day had been an up and down affair and it baffled him the distance he was obliged to keep. It was all very confusing and perhaps life at home did have its simplicities. Now if only he and Mimi could keep the humans in the park a little longer by pretending to forget the way home and go back by the wrong park exit, that would make them happy though not as happy as he thought he was going to be. As he thought again, it's a dog's life.

Part Sixty Eight

By the time Yvonne had popped home briefly and was off in her car to Larkhall, ugly grey clouds churned their way rapidly across the sky. In no time at all, squally gusts of wind threw sheets of rain directly at her car, steaming up the windows and, even going full blast, the windscreen wipers were barely keeping up with the assault on them from the elements. Despite all this, she was happy, the hard driving gutsy singing coming from her Heart CD matched her spirits, even with the tricky prospect of seeing Denny at Larkhall.

"Back again so soon?" Ken at the gatehouse greeted her amiably enough.

"I've come to visit Denny Blood this time. Mrs. Hollamby told me herself, personally that she couldn't wait to see me again soon. What else could I do when she put it that way?"

"I bet," Laughed Ken. "You'll get made an official prison visitor at this rate."

"Yeah and I'd show off my nice new shiny badge to her. She'd love that."

A few laughs and jokes with Yvonne brightened up his day. On an endlessly weary Sunday shift, he was tired all the way to his bones and dying to get back to home cooking, his armchair and the sports on the television. He was staying in his draughty gatehouse window, which was better than the rain lashed square, which the visitors had to cross.

"It's nearly visiting time, Denny," Lauren called out anxiously. "You know you've got to look your best."

Instantly, Lauren heard her mother down the years saying those very same words. Big mistake. Denny's way of facing the day was that uncertain mixture of doubts, sudden blind instinct in any direction, irrational fear, the after effects of whatever chemicals were in her system and periods when chance placed her into the role of Big Sister. Most of all, whoever was strong for her and could influence her, either good or bad. Lauren knew enough that her ability to be that influence for good was very hit and miss.

"I don't give a fuck what I look like, Lauren. You should know that by now."

"Look here, Denny," Lauren reasoned patiently. "Think, what's your best way of facing the day?"

"A fist full of jellies," Denny answered morosely.

"Well, you're not bloody well going to do that. You're going to see mum and you're not backing out of this."

"What's wrong with jellies. They calm you down."

"Yeah, right. So calm that you're out of it and depressed so you end up taking whizz to cheer you up so you don't eat, you can't sleep and it makes you paranoid. I've seen some of the other girls go that way."

Denny scowled at Lauren's ruthlessly precise description of the drugs cycle, which she had fallen into ever since the trial. It was far easier to resort to this physical crutch than face the fear, which had paralysed her ever since the trial. The longer time went on, the more she had tried to block out that fear and the more impossible it felt to face it. She knew she was acting badly and it wasn't just the picture of Yvonne's silent reproach that drove her into a hole. Lauren was beginning to behave more and more like Yvonne and had the same sort of glamorous looks that she thought she was painfully lacking.

"Your family made all its money by selling stuff to people on the street like me," Denny glared.

Lauren turned white as the verbal knife thrust went home. She couldn't deny the fact that far too many women around her had bought their drugs from dealers before they ever came to Larkhall. Somewhere out there, the suppliers for the dealers were the likes of Charlie Atkins who were rich and prosperous and safely cuckooned from the consequences of their actions. It had provided the luxury lifestyle in which she, Ritchie and, yes Mum, had grown up in and had taken for granted.

"All right, Denny," Lauren exhaled the words at last, breathing out deeply as she spoke as if trying to get rid of the feelings of guilt from her body at the same time. "A few days at Larkhall rammed that home. It didn't take rocket science to work that one out when it surrounds us, day in day out in this dump. That's one reason why I was so down for so long, something I could never tell you. I finally realised that I can't do anything about my past, much though I would love to. That's what I finally learnt from all the shit I dumped on everyone around me from killing Fenner. I couldn't undo all that but I could stand in court, day in, day out, while my guilt was being fought on around me. That's what got me out into the witness box which was the most horrible experience of my life, at least one of them. Don't ever think for one minute, Denny Blood, that I was just trying to save my own skin."

Lauren's reply built up into a passionate, heartfelt crescendo that opened up the first crack in Denny's numb shell behind which she had walled herself off. She had grabbed Denny by the scruff of her neck and also her full attention.

"Go on, Lauren."

"That's why as soon as Charlie, that's my dad, was banged up, I got rid of all that shit and stuck to the car hire business. It was just as well that he was killed on the day he was let off all the charges, by bribing the jury I might add, as he wouldn't have liked what his protege had done with the business……..."

At that point, Lauren's voice faltered and her eyes looked downwards in fear of having betrayed the one event in her past which she wanted to remain as surely buried as was Charlie. Fortunately, Denny didn't spot that one. Quickly, Lauren picked up the thread of what she was saying and plunged on.

"The day Charlie went inside was the first time that I began to get some control over my life. I thought stupidly that I could put all that shit behind me in one go but I couldn't be further wrong. That Meg Richards who came to see me that day who I talked to for ages got it absolutely right. The other guy only got half the picture."
"OK so you're cured or getting that way. What about me?" Denny asked impatiently. What Lauren told her about herself was fine but she really wanted Lauren to talk about herself.

"You're not going to tell me that you were an innocent child that some evil drug dealer forced you to take stuff. Yeah, the guy was evil, or stupid or drugged up or all three but you can't blame him for everything. From what mum told me, you weren't exactly the woman you'd want to meet down a dark alley."

"That's because Shell made me that way," Denny cut in self defensively.

"It's more likely you wanted her attention," Lauren added shrewdly to Denny's discomfort.

"Wanting attention isn't wrong," Lauren added kindly after a couple of seconds, which were painfully long to Denny.

"You have to know that there's a lot you have to come to terms with same as I have to do, right. But the Denny Blood who kept me going all those months is the Denny Blood that matters, the one who acted as Big Sister, who is a sister of mine. You can't get away from it, when I get out of Larkhall, I'll be waiting for the day when you get out but you're with us already. It's that there are prison walls in the way, only that. Now are you going to get yourself ready, Denny?"

"All right, but don't hassle me, sis."

Impulsively, Lauren slipped her arms round Denny's thin shoulders. For one instant, she flinched, as it was a long time that she had that sort of physical contact. She wasn't used to being held, except long ago by Shaz. Instinctively, she felt that this was Lauren's warm-hearted sisterly way and it tipped the balance inside her to give way to this good feeling. She hadn't grown up feeling good about herself.

"If I send you out to see mum looking like that, I'm going to carry the can and I'll get a right ear bending when she gets home. You know what she's like so please help me out."

For the first time in ages Denny laughed and a big smile lit up her face revealing the big kid she still was. Shaz would have been proud to have seen that.

In the split seconds before the door to the visiting room opened, a rush of ideas for what she might say to Denny churned around inside Yvonne's head with feelings of uncertainty as to what she would find. What was Denny like since she had heard about her from Karen, correction, what Denny had said to Karen before that and how right was Lauren when she had talked to her? At one time, her instinctive feelers knew unquestioningly what was going on around her, prisoners and screws alike. Everything was stored in that faultless memory of hers and was bang up to date. Now it was brought home to her that what she remembered was fading into history. It made her painfully aware of how really distant she was from Larkhall and frustrated her that she was dependent of other people's eyes and ears, not her own. Her stomach lurched as the door opened, not that anyone could see into her mind.

Once the doors were flung open, the usual frantic sense of movement and echoing voices in a confined space spelt out the rush of mothers and daughters and boyfriends and girlfriends to find each other. A few little children, wide eyed with fear, tagged on to the grownups. This time at least, Colin and Selena were on visiting duty and proved that talking nicely and politely could achieve as much order as Bodybag's loud, hectoring style.

A rapid glance through the room picked out a rather nervous Denny with at least a faint smile on her face, which her downturned eyes told Yvonne that she was making a tentative peace offering. Yvonne acted in the way that came naturally to her and gave Denny a quick hug before even Dominic and Selena might pick up on what they were doing. Yvonne wasn't their problem but they would feel compelled to observe a universal rule designed to stop drugs getting into Larkhall. Denny's smile was slightly wider but she was still reluctant to speak.

"You know that if I had time, I would give you my typical mum type lecture about using drugs. You have been, haven't you."

Yvonne cut to the chase in her best tough/tender, no bullshit fashion. Their privacy was tenuously secured by the background chatter of others trying to cram as much of the pent up conversations in one stream before visiting time ended.

"Lauren has beaten you to it in straightening me out. She doesn't leave anything out, does she?"

A big grin split Yvonne's face from ear to ear at the picture it conveyed to her and a huge sense of relief that part of her task had already been completed.

"I mean, she can bang on a bit though I suppose she's right."

"I don't need to grill you as to exactly what you've done but I want to know why you did it. You're my daughter, ain't you and I love you as much as Lauren. There ain't any difference between the two of you.

There was something in the hoarse melting tones in Yvonne's voice which soothed the upset child inside Denny but another side of her felt defensive and edgy for letting down the people that she loved, herself most of all. It made it far too easy for her to hate herself. When she got that way, she was apt to try and sound tough and hard to cover up the way she was hurting inside.

"I know all this stuff you're telling me but you know what it's like when you're stuck on your own in some poxy cell at night and you've got something under your pillow to take all the pain away."

Instant warning bells rang in Yvonne's mind as Denny had conveniently left Lauren out of the picture. She also left out the fact that she would have had to trade her spends with whoever was the local dealer like Al McKenzie. Drugs don't grow under pillows like bleeding mushrooms.

"Anyway, I'll knock all that on the head. There's no chance anyway now Lauren's on the case."

Yvonne let that go. It wasn't perfect but it was something.

"You're looking really good, Denny. You becoming a makeup expert as well?"

Denny shrugged her shoulders far too self deprecatingly for Yvonne's liking.

"Ain't much. Just a bit of Lauren's makeup and her choosing something that was stuffed at the back of her wardrobe."

"It really suits you, Denny."

"Like the way I normally look doesn't?" Denny snapped back with sudden aggression.

A light of sudden understanding dawned on the one little puzzle, the one thing right under her nose, which she'd never spotted.

"So that's the problem."

"Problem, what problem?"

Denny's edginess and conspicuous self-denial was becoming more and more painfully obvious to Yvonne. In Denny's mind, fear rose up and blotted everything out around her. To make it worse, she was trapped in her seat, trapped under Yvonne's all knowing gaze and trapped by the screws and everyone else round her.

"You don't have to be afraid. Not of me."

Yvonne spoke these words with all the gentleness in her nature that she could summon up. Denny was hers and she would look after her. She knew what she wanted to say but she didn't know exactly how to say it. The only problem was that time was running out with seconds to go.

"I've seen you try and make out how hard and tough you are, and I always knew it was an act to cover up how hurt you are inside. Remember that time when I got you to punch your mattress and really let it out before you could cry, yeah……."

Denny could not help but nod her head and squeeze back the tears and let Yvonne continue. Yvonne knew that she was holding Denny's attention and starting to feel confident that she was doing fine as long as she didn't stumble in her words.

"……. So when Karen and I got you that day out at my house, I could tell that it was a real eye opener and looked like fairyland. You knew that I had a few pounds stashed away but not as much as I have. I'm not bragging about it, I never have done but I'm trying to explain how you might have seen it. The truth is that you've always felt that Lauren and I have the glamour and the money and where do you fit in? I know by the way you dress and those tattoos of yours that you somehow don't love yourself the way you should, and the way Lauren and I do. It's about looks, isn't it."

Denny's emotions were pouring out of her, making her breathe in and out and tears started to run down her face. It brought home how little she thought of herself and how kind and understanding Yvonne was. Nobody else had tried so hard for her. Something in her was afraid that she was so emotionally naked, that everything was on display but she clung to her refuge in front of her even though she was the other side of the formica table, which, like the chairs was fastened down. Nothing existed in the crowded smoky room but the two of them.

"So how do I compete with Lauren? I mean, she's great and all that stuff and she's been looking after me since the trial but I can't tell her that I want to be like her and never will be."

"So what about when she got jealous and hauled me away? Can you believe it, she was scared that you were closer to me than she was. Don't think that she hasn't got her own

scars, the sort that you keep inside. That's why the judge decided this was right for her."

Denny's face was a picture. Her face was frowning in deep concentration as she tried to make real in her mind what Yvonne was saying.

"I don't get it. I mean, I'm hearing what you're saying but it doesn't seem real."

"I didn't expect it to, Denny. You and Lauren have a long way to go but you'll make it. I know 'cos I'm your mum. Mums know."

A foolish smile spread over Denny's face. She didn't get everything Yvonne was saying but this much she did. She would have to try and remember Yvonne's words, to picture her face and imagine her words and she wouldn't mess up for the future.

"One thing I owe you and that is that you looked after Lauren when she was facing the trial. She would never have faced court if you hadn't been there. I couldn't do it from outside but you did. I'll never forget that and Lauren won't. Not in a million years."

"Did I really do that?" Denny asked questioningly.

"Who else?" Yvonne smiled with all the tenderness there was in her heart.

"I'll straighten up. I promise. Or at least I'll try to."

"That's what I want to hear from you. No fancy promises but something I know you'll do."

There was a thoughtful pause between the two of them as a realistic picture of the future started to unfold, one they would all have to struggle for.

"You're taking on a lot with looking after the two of us," Denny added with a grin of the prospect of all three strong-minded women under the same roof. For once, she allowed herself to look to the future knowing that the everyday grind of Larkhall would soon bury it but it would not be forgotten. This was a big step for a woman like Denny, who life had taught her to be eternally distrustful since she was born. She had found it better not to expect too much of life, of other people so that when she was let down, she didn't feel the pain so much.

"That's what I'm here for."

Yvonne's simple, softly spoken words hung in the air just long enough before there came the inevitable call of "Times up."

As Yvonne drove away from Larkhall, she was drained from the sheer mental concentration but it left her thinking tenderly of the two women in her care, even if it was at a long distance. She was getting ready to settle down to a satisfying drive back home and put her feet up for a well deserved rest when it hit her totally by surprise that John was coming round for dinner. It was time to slip into carefree single woman mode especially in view of what she was sure was in store for her. She grinned at the thought of her choice of company, a high Court judge, and hoped that it would make that bastard Charlie Atkins choke on the thought. It raised two fingers to his memory.

At that precise moment, John laid aside the court papers that he had diligently ploughed through. He fondly thought that after such devotion to duty, he had earned the right to indulge himself. Surely a little pleasure was in order?

He stared into his mirror as he finished shaving and studied the face which looked back at him. He had always been handsome and age and experience had only added to his attractiveness to the female species. Not for him, the undignified overcompensating of some vulgar application of anti greying treatment to his hair that others of his generation desperately resorted to. He knew that age added a certain something to his finely chiselled features and, added to his natural charm, the combination had never let him down. At moments like these, he was a man and not a judge.

It was extraordinary what happened when he set out to have a perfectly innocent walk in the park and had a chance encounter. Somehow, the woman that he had somehow overlooked all this time jumped out at him. Everything logically followed from there. What was intriguing was that she was not his usual type of woman. He usually favoured the younger blonde waitress who aped his sort of accent. There was something exotically different about Yvonne with her Eastend accent and her very challenging personality. As they say, as he finally approved of himself, variety is the spice of life.

Part Sixty Nine

When Yvonne returned from the prison, she had a long soak in the bath, mentally and physically preparing herself for what she hoped would come to her that evening. Not since Karen, had Yvonne had anything like a decent orgasm, and nearly eighteen months was far too long for Yvonne Atkins to go without a screw. But just what had possessed her to ask him over for dinner, she didn't know. Yes, John was a very good-looking bloke for his age, which she guessed was a few years older than her, somewhere in his mid fifties. He also had a voice that she knew could turn her to jelly if used in the right way, and on top of that, he had fully understood her meaning behind the euphemism of dinner. But what about Jo? Yvonne couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt when she thought of Jo, the woman who was becoming a friend, the woman who had saved her Lauren from a life sentence, a woman who certainly didn't deserve to have John cheating on her. Don't even go there, she told herself sternly, or you'll back out before you've hardly begun. You know this will only happen once, and what Jo doesn't know won't hurt her, or anyone else. But standing in front of the wardrobe, Yvonne was presented with a quandary. What in God's name should she wear? With any other bloke, her leathers would have been the obvious choice, but she didn't think John would be that kind of guy. He probably liked his women to be feminine, instead of shouting from the rooftops that they knew the ins and outs of a gun as well as a food processor. Finally selecting a very clingy, very understated black dress, knowing that whilst this was undoubtedly feminine, it wouldn't make him think she'd had a personality transplant. Looking at herself in the mirror as she applied her make up, she was forced to admit that she really did look rather good, for someone who would be fifty in August. Then it struck her; it had been almost three years since she'd had sex with a man, not since Ajit Kahn to be exact. Flashing her teeth at her reflection, she just hoped that she hadn't lost her touch.

As John pulled up in Yvonne's drive, his eyebrows soared. He knew Yvonne had money, but he had thoroughly underestimated just how well she'd invested it. Even from the outside, her house looked incredibly well maintained, and the sort of pile that one would hold onto at all costs. He recognised Yvonne's Ferrari, from when he'd seen it outside court, but who did the silver Jag and the sleek, black Mercedes-Benz belong to? What he didn't realise, was that Yvonne had scaled everything down since Lauren had been arrested, getting rid of all but both hers and Lauren's personal cars, and Charlie's Jag. It had seemed to be her way of acknowledging that money wasn't everything, and that she would far rather have her daughter back, than all the possessions Charlie would have bought her. But she couldn't quite make herself get rid of his Jag. She didn't know why, and she knew it was ridiculous, but Charlie had lavished almost more affection on his Jag than he had on his children, and maybe she needed that proof that there had been a normal facet to Charlie's personality, an innocent pride in his favourite car. When she opened the door, she smiled to see him.

"I wasn't sure you'd come back," She found herself saying, inwardly kicking herself for revealing her insecurity.

"I never, ever, go back on my word," He said, his deep, thoroughly masculine tones creeping over her senses. "Would you mind if I let Mimi out of the car?"

"No, of course not." As he walked back to the car to fetch a delighted Mimi, Yvonne scrutinized his figure. Whatever he did to keep in shape, it certainly worked. Recognising a friend, Mimi bounded up to Yvonne, and gave an excited little bark, bringing a surprised Trigger ambling into the hall.

"Whose is the Jag?" John asked, as he went in and she closed the door behind him.

"It used to be Charlie's," Yvonne replied, leading him towards the kitchen. "It sounds stupid, but it's the one thing of his that I couldn't quite bring myself to part with." If he had been impressed with the outside of her house, that was nothing compared to the interior. Yvonne had the same eye for decor, furnishings, and simple, though expensive, taste as George. This might have been where Charlie Atkins had once lived and ruled supreme, but he could tell that Yvonne had made this house her own. The stone flagged kitchen with its scrubbed wooden table, and faint, February sun creeping in through the windows that looked out onto the garden and swimming pool.

"Would you like a glass of wine?" She asked, moving over to the well-stocked wine rack. Saying that yes, he would, John looked her over. She looked incredible, very simply dressed, but stunning. When he was on the pull so to speak, he didn't usually go in for women so close to his own age, but Yvonne intrigued him. She was different from the women he usually made a play for, with an inner poise, a self-confidence that told him she knew exactly what she wanted, if not from life itself, then definitely from him.

"So," He said contemplatively. "That's how you keep in such glorious shape." Yvonne, seeing that he was looking out at the pool, smirked at him.

"Every day of the year, even if it's raining."

"That's just torture," He said with a smile.

"Oh, I don't know," She said with a wink. "It's really just an extreme version of a cold shower, which you look like you could do with right now," She added, running her hand suggestively over the neck of the bottle of red, before picking up the corkscrew. He knew she was playing with him, pushing him to the threshold of his restraint, and he loved it. The compliments that were rolling off his tongue with total ease, they weren't things he'd come out with since the old days. He'd been totally and utterly faithful to his three-way relationship with Jo and George, devoted to them and only them for nearly sixteen months, a lifetime in the matter of his previous sexual activity. He had no idea what had possessed him to suddenly break his word, but here he was, slipping so easily back into his old familiar self.

"Yvonne," He said carefully, trying to get a grip on himself. "I shouldn't really be doing this."

"I know," Yvonne said gently. "And with Jo being a very good friend, neither should I." After removing the cork from the bottle, she laid the corkscrew down on the table and walked over to him. "But I'm not wrong," She said, resting a hand on the collar of his shirt. "To suggest, that this is still what you want, no matter how much we both know we shouldn't be doing it."

"No," He said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "You wouldn't be wrong in the slightest." When her lips touched his, she thought they were the softest, most pliable lips she'd met in a long time. With the manly texture of his skin, and the pleasant though not overpowering fragrance of his aftershave reaching her nose, he was as far removed from her memories of Karen as he could be. When his arms gently went round her waist, and hers reached up to go round his neck, she felt the comforting strength in his hard, well-muscled chest.

"Shall we allow the wine to breathe?" He suggested quietly.

"Decent red wine should always be given time to breathe," Yvonne replied, taking his hand and leading the way upstairs.

Once in her gloriously opulent bedroom, his hands began moving over her as if of their own accord, peeling off her clingy, black dress, followed by the simple black, lace bra, and an almost non-existent pair of black, lace knickers, whilst she was simultaneously undoing the buttons on his shirt, and eventually reaching his belt which she undid in a trice. When their clothes had been discarded, they simply stared at each other, Yvonne seeing the well-defined muscles of the man who looked after himself, and John seeing the toned, healthy body of this woman who swam every day, come rain or shine. He watched in amusement, as her eyes dropped fleetingly and assessingly to his cock, taking in its fairly impressive size.

"Everything comes to she who waits," John said mockingly, tilting her face, and therefore her eyes, back up to his.

"Is that right?" Yvonne replied, as they moved as one under the duvet.

"Well, I've never yet disappointed a woman on that score, so yes, I should say so. Is it your usual practice to visually assess the people you are about to sleep with in such detail?"

"I haven't been this close to a bloke for nearly three years, so I was just finding out how much I'm likely to enjoy it, that's all."

"Oh, and do you think you will, enjoy it, that is?" He asked, grinning wickedly at her as their hands began to wander.

"Oh, I think I'm going to enjoy this, considerably," She replied, laying particular emphasis on the word considerably, at the same time laying a hand on his cock.

"Well, if you would like me to live up to your expectation," He said between kisses. "Don't do much more of that."

"Jesus, a bloke who is actually eager to please," Said Yvonne in surprise. "That's a new one."

"Oh, I thought Ajit Kahn was perfectly eager to please," John said with a smile.

"Yeah, well, he was being paid for it."

"Has it really been that long?"

"With a bloke, yes," She confirmed, briefly reminding them both that she had slept with Karen, had been in love with and was possibly still in love with Karen. Laying his hand on one of her breasts and gently fondling it, he said,

"Tell me what you like."

"Oh, I'm open to suggestion," Yvonne said languidly. "Karen's still talking to you after sleeping with you, so you can't be into anything too weird." His hand freezing on her in mid caress, John moved slightly back from her and just stared. "Oh, don't look like that," Yvonne admonished a little unsympathetically.

"How do you know about that?" He asked carefully.

"It's obvious," Yvonne replied with a fond smile. "I'd always suspected it, but when you defended her honour so forcefully in court, I was certain. You weren't just defending her as a judge, you were defending her as a friend."

"So, why did that lead to the conclusion that I'd slept with her?"

"Because I think she slept with you, as a way of getting over me. It's how Karen deals with things that hurt her, and there's a closeness between you two that wouldn't be there if you hadn't."

"It only happened the once," He tried to reassure her, though not really knowing why he was.

"I know," Yvonne said gently. "Karen, though this probably applies to you too, would have needed to get any sexual attraction out of the way, before she could be as close a friend to you as she is."

"So, it doesn't bother you that I have slept with Karen?"

"No, why should it? I know she didn't do it while she was still with me, so it doesn't matter." John didn't tell her that there had only been a matter of days between when Karen had ended her relationship with Yvonne, and when she had slept with him. "Hey," Yvonne said affectionately, to get them back on track. "You're not supposed to stop."

Taking her at her word, he began kissing her again, and moving his hand over her delightfully constructed cleavage.

"Seeing as you haven't slept with a man in quite a while," He said between kisses. "There must be something you've especially missed." She knew he was goading her, seeing just how open and relaxed she could be. Sod it, she thought with an inward shrug. Here was a man, and a very good-looking man at that, who was at least prepared to consider doing anything for her. A chance like this probably wouldn't come along again for a very long time, so she may as well take the bull by the horns.

"I do love being given oral," She said, looking him straight in the eye to gauge his reaction. So many blokes didn't like doing that, and whilst Yvonne might badly want him to do that for her, she wasn't about to pressure anyone into doing anything.

"Ah, well," He said with a broad smile at her slight shyness. "It's a good job I very much enjoy giving it then, isn't it."

"Thing is," Yvonne said, avoiding his gaze and looking a little uncomfortable. "I'm not especially in the mood for doing that to you." John was touched by her honesty. Many women would have taken all he had to give in that respect, before telling him that they weren't prepared to do the same.

"That doesn't matter," He said gently. "It just so happens that giving pleasure, is without doubt one of my favourite pastimes." Yvonne laughed.

"Isn't it for everyone?"

"Ah, but I am purposefully making the distinction between giving and receiving." As he said this, he trailed his hand down, until he could slide it between her slim, extremely well toned thighs.

"I must be doing something right," he said with a smile, on discovering how aroused she was.

"Definitely," Yvonne confirmed, her kisses becoming far more intense as John's hand moved between her legs. Regretfully detaching his lips from her utterly enchanting mouth, he began kissing his way down her body, making sure to give both nipples some prolonged attention on his way down. This meant that when he finally arrived at her clit, Yvonne was twitching with extreme arousal, coupled with a desire not to entirely lose control. It had been so long since she'd had a man do this to her, that the effort needed to maintain her self-control, was testing inner reserves that she'd forgotten she had. Of course she wanted to enjoy everything this wonderful man might do for her, but that didn't mean it paid to totally let go with one. He seemed to sense this thought, and whilst his mouth was otherwise engaged, all he could do was to vow to give her an orgasm she wouldn't forget.

As Yvonne felt John's tongue gently tease at her entrance, she gasped. This was perhaps the first sign that her control was slipping, and he was pleased by it. He hadn't doubted in the least that she was loving what he was doing to her, but John was well aware that since Charlie Atkins, she had probably made it her mission to never entirely lose control with anyone. He understood this, because it wasn't very far from his extreme desire to keep a hold on his emotions. But even though both he and Yvonne knew that they would make love once and only the once, he wanted to make her trust him, to let go with him in the way she only had done with Karen. Moving his tongue back up to her clit, he inched three fingers inside her, grazing her G spot with every thrust. Yvonne's breath was coming in quicker and quicker gasps, and John knew she was getting close.

"Just let go, Yvonne," He murmured, feeling her internal muscles begin to contract around his fingers. Yvonne couldn't help it, she just had to obey his words of encouragement. This man was far too good at what he was doing, and it was the first orgasm of oral origin she'd had since Karen. She couldn't help crying out as she came, but the vocal reaction to the intensity of her feelings simply burst out of her, her body going rigid, her internal muscles almost squeezing the life out of John's fingers.

When John gently removed his hand, and moved to lie back beside her, she stared at him in amazement.

"I think I'd forgotten how good it could be," She said, her breathing gradually returning to normal. When she leaned over to kiss him, she could taste herself on his lips, this briefly reminding her of doing the same to Karen.

"So, did I answer your question?" Yvonne looked momentarily baffled. "Of what Karen saw in me?" He clarified, making her look very uncomfortable at being found out.

"That wasn't just why I did this, you know," She said with a slightly hesitant smile.

"Oh, I know," He replied confidently. "But that was part of it, wasn't it?"

"You can't blame me for being curious."

"No, of course not."

"To answer your question," Yvonne admitted, her smile slipping a little. "I think you might have helped Karen get over me a bit too successfully." Ignoring the veiled compliment for the moment, John said gently,

"It wasn't an easy decision for her to make, by any means."

"That's debatable," Yvonne replied, beginning to kiss him again, because she knew that if she wanted an answer to the question that had been haunting her for months, she would only get it when he was in a state of post-coital relaxation, where his guard would be well and truly down.

This time, when she laid her well-practiced hand on his cock, he didn't discourage her. Good God, he thought after a while. Her hand is far more sinful than it looks on first inspection. Yvonne gasped when he finally entered her, it having been so long since she'd been in this age-old position. So, it was true, she thought, it really was like riding a bike, something you never ever forgot how to do. This wasn't any ordinary screw, though. This man had class, style and an abundance of finesse when it came to straight, almost primeval fucking. She wrapped her arms and legs round him, reveling whilst she could in the sheer luxury of having a strong, sturdy man to cling to. When he inched a hand between them to touch her clit, she knew he was close, and she took a certain amount of pleasure in making this judge, this embodiment of legal and moral integrity, actually lower his barriers and lose that self-control he held so dear. She kissed him long and hard as they came, gripping him to her, for that one point in time, feeling that all the hurt this may cause would be worth it.

As they lay afterwards, their arms loosely draped around each other and feeling completely boneless, John reflected that even if this was the first time he'd strayed in sixteen months, and even though he knew he would feel guilty, it had been worth it. Yvonne was stunning, she was fantastic in bed, and he knew that she wouldn't go all soppy on him and expect either a repeat performance, or any kind of recognition that it had happened.

"You're beautiful," He said softly, dropping a kiss on her shoulder.

"That's lust talking," Yvonne said with a smile. "I haven't been beautiful for more years than I care to remember. Besides, most blokes think every woman is beautiful when they've just slept with her."

"No, you've got it the wrong way round," He said with a smile. "It's immediately after they've slept with her that reality tends to set in. If a woman isn't beautiful before you sleep with her, then she certainly won't be afterwards."

"Was Karen?" Yvonne found herself asking.

"Yes, she was," John said fondly. "But then you know that."

"It's different," Yvonne told him. "There's something so special about sleeping with a woman, that you just can't get with a bloke, no matter how good he is," She said, smiling at him.

"You really miss her, don't you?" He said, seeing a brief flash of intense longing in her eyes.

"Some days more than others, but yeah. That ended before it'd really had chance to get going. But then, we both know why it did end, don't we?" Her statement was said in the same afterglow tone of voice, but he could feel an underlying intensity that ought to have given him warning of something a little more sinister.

"I know it was partly to do with Lauren," He said carefully.

"Oh, that's funny," Yvonne said quietly. "Because I thought it was you who managed to get the identity of Fenner's killer out of her. You, Jo and George." John stayed perfectly still, just managing to school his face into its typically blank expression. Just what had he walked into?

"What makes you say that?" He asked, wondering how in hell's name she'd worked it out.

"All you will be doing by telling me," Yvonne tried to reassure him. "Is confirming what I've thought for a long time. Karen put an end to our relationship, on the afternoon of the day she'd had a session with the legal profession's answer to MI5. I doubt if I could have kept quiet under that sort of pressure, so Karen had no chance."

"By giving you a direct answer to that question, Yvonne, I would be breaking my word, and we all promised Karen we wouldn't do that."

"And by saying such a thing, you've done exactly that," Yvonne replied with a lopsided smile. "But I take your point."

"You weren't there, Yvonne," He persisted. "George really did think Karen had killed him. I knew she hadn't, and Jo was somewhere in between. We had to know."

"I know," Yvonne said, seeing that she had well and truly thrown him by doing this.

"Yvonne," He continued, desperate to make her see how serious this was. "She thought you would want her dead."

"I know that an' all," Yvonne said bleakly. "Karen could never quite accept that I'm no longer the person I was before Larkhall. I don't blame her really, with what happened with Lauren, but it didn't make it any easier. Karen was, is, the most precious thing that ever happened to me, and I would never want any harm to come to her, no matter what she did."

"To give Karen her due," John said gently, seeing such strength of feeling in Yvonne, that he knew Karen would always be perfectly safe where she was concerned. "She didn't give up without a fight. I'm used to seeing George as furious as she was that day, but I'm not used to seeing anyone match her as well as Karen did. She gave George just as good as she got, and only began to crack when George began questioning your involvement. George thought that if Karen hadn't killed Fenner, you might have done, because of what Fenner did to her."

"Well, she wasn't far wrong," Yvonne said ruefully. "I did consider it, briefly, but not even for Karen was I prepared to go back inside." They lay there for a while, just taking in everything that had been said.

"Karen mustn't know that you know," John said eventually.

"No, she won't. She feels guilty enough as it is for being with George, so I'm not about to make it worse."

A while later, when they'd had a gloriously sensual shower together, they went downstairs, to find Trigger and Mimi happily ensconced in the lounge, playfully fighting over a knotted rope, one of Trigger's favourite toys. He was lying on his front, with the rope draped across his front paws, softly nosing Mimi away whenever she tried to steal it.

"Are you hungry?" Yvonne asked, prompting an immediate reaction from Trigger, though the question had been meant for John.

"After that incredible bit of exercise," He said with a smile. "I certainly am." Smirking at the compliment, Yvonne moved into the kitchen and began rummaging in the fridge, emerging with a couple of fillet steaks, that she'd taken out of the freezer to defrost before going to Larkhall. As she peeled and then began sautéing some potatoes to go with the steak, John made himself useful by chopping some salad, and pouring them both a glass of the red wine which had been given ample breathing time.

"So, if I swim every day," Yvonne said, throwing some herbs into the frying pan. "What do you do to keep that extremely good body in shape?"

"I fence," John replied, taking a sip of the wine, which he had to admit would be a very good accompaniment to the steak.

"You what?" Yvonne looked round at him in surprise.

"I fence," He repeated. Yvonne looked at him assessingly.

"Yeah, I could see you with a sword, jousting at dawn over some woman." John laughed.

"It has been known," He said, thinking of the numerous occasions he'd fenced with Row Colmore, more often than not over Jo. "Though never at dawn."

"Boys and their toys," Yvonne said in faint amusement.

"How was Denny when you saw her this afternoon?" John asked, as he watched Yvonne put the steaks under the grill.

"Not brilliant," Yvonne said despondently. "She's started taking drugs again."

"Oh, I'm sorry," John said in sympathy.

"Well, drugs can be an occupational hazard when you're inside," Yvonne said matter-of-factly. "But Denny going back on them after all this time isn't a good sign."

"I saw her a couple of weeks ago," John enlightened. Then, at Yvonne's raised eyebrow, he clarified. "I dropped in to see Karen about something, and I was fairly forcefully put in my place by Denny." Yvonne couldn't help smiling.

"What did she say?" She asked, hoping it wasn't something too outrageous.

"A lot of things, but ending with the assertion that just because I hadn't committed a crime, didn't mean I knew everything about how to survive."

"That sounds like my Denny," Yvonne said fondly, showing John in those few precious words, just how much Denny meant to her.

"It was on Valentine's Day, and I don't think she was very happy."

"No, she wouldn't have been. Valentine's Day used to get most of us like that. There'd be a few of the girls who'd get flowers or cards sent in, which kind of hammered it home to the rest of us that we didn't. I'm surprised Karen let you anywhere near the wing on that day of all days. The Julies must be losing their touch if you got away completely unscathed."

As they ate, Yvonne filled him in on some of the slightly scurrilous stories from her days in Larkhall.

"Were drugs ever a problem for you?" He found himself asking, his curiosity continually peaked by the brief insight he was being given of that other world.

"No," Yvonne said firmly. "Never. I might have got the odd miniature of scotch smuggled in here and there, but that was it." Trigger came up to Yvonne, and sat next to her chair, gazing up at her with the saddest, most doleful eyes he could muster.

"Sod off," Yvonne said smartly, flicking him on the end of his nose. "Lauren might feed you from the table, but you know I don't." As Trigger slunk away into the lounge with his tail between his legs, Mimi followed him.

"I think Mimi's a little awestruck with him," John said with a smile.

"Where did you get her?" Yvonne asked, pouring them both another glass of wine.

"My daughter likes to push my patience to the limit, by illegally rescuing dogs from research laboratories. You would think that with both her mother and father working in the legal profession, she might know better, but not so far." John might be casting doubt on his daughter's dubious activities, but Yvonne could see that deep in his heart, he was proud of her.

"I can't picture George having a kid," Yvonne said contemplatively. John looked up surprised. "George told us all that she was your ex, on the first day of the trial," Yvonne filled in.

"George couldn't picture herself with a child for quite a long time," He said, wondering just how this woman seemed to drag confidences out of him, almost by telepathy.

"I know you obviously still see her through what you both do, but what about outside court?"

"It's complicated," He replied slowly, and she could see that this was a bit of a forbidden topic. As they finished eating, and put the plates in the dishwasher, they tried to talk about anything that wasn't either George or Karen related. Yvonne badly didn't want him to go, for once in her life thoroughly enjoying having a man in her house again, but she did her best not to let it show. Walking into the lounge, they found Trigger, sprawled contentedly in his basket, with Mimi curled up against him.

"She's changed her tune since this morning," Yvonne said with a smile. "Do you mind if I take a picture? That's just too good to miss."

"Be my guest," John replied, seeing that Mimi was completely ignoring him, in favour of her new canine friend. When Yvonne returned with her camera, she took a couple of snaps, both dogs seeming to pose with all the natural charm of someone well used to the pointing of the lens.

"I'd better go," John said regretfully.

"Just one thing," Yvonne said, looking him straight in the eye. "Don't feel guilty about this. We both know it ain't going to happen again, so what Jo doesn't know, won't hurt her." With a surge of gratitude at her understanding and sensitivity, he instinctively put out his arms and drew her to him.

"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," He said, gently kissing her.

"No, me neither," She replied, kissing him back. As she stood at the front door, with Trigger at her side, the two of them watching John back out of the drive, Yvonne vowed to hold onto the memory of that afternoon, to treasure it somewhere safe, because men, or women, like him, were one in a million, and might not be likely to look her way again for some time to come.

Part Seventy

On the morning of Tuesday the eighth of March, Karen was sitting at her desk, wading her way through the usual morning's post. The circulars from area, the requests for accounts, and the letters from the concerned relatives of various inmates wanting some sort of a response from her, it was all the same as every other day. It was funny, Karen mused to herself, but the more experienced and the higher up the profession one rose, the more time one had to spend dealing with nameless, pointless admin, when what she actually wanted to do was to be left to get on with the job in hand. But right in the centre of the pile, was a very official-looking letter that bore the Prison Service logo, plus her name and the words "Private and Confidential," stamped in black ink on the envelope. Slipping her thumbnail under the seal, she opened the envelope and removed the letter. Her shout of "Yes!" brought her secretary's head round the door.

"You are looking at your new Governing Governor," Karen told her in explanation, her grin spreading from ear to ear.

"Congratulations," Sheila replied, seeing the sheer pleasure on Karen's face. Walking out of the office with a spring in her step, Karen almost danced towards her wing, except that it wasn't just her wing anymore. In a few weeks time, on the twenty-ninth of March to be exact, this would be her prison, her very own, bloody, prison! Seeing Grayling ahead of her, she called to him. When he turned round, he knew instantly what she had to tell him. The look of pure, unadulterated happiness on her face was really a sight to see. Karen held out the letter and watched him read it through.

"Well done," He said, a broad smile spreading across his face. "I knew you'd get it."

"I didn't want to count my chickens," She said seriously.

"You really deserve this, Karen, more than anyone. I'll be proud to hand this place on to you."

"Bloody relieved more like," Karen said with a smile, not feeling entirely comfortable with his words of encouragement.

"I mean it," He said, laying a resting hand on her shoulder. "You'll do things with this prison, I know you will. Now, go and tell everyone, because I can see that's what you're itching to do."

"Thank you, Neil," Karen said seriously. "I don't know all of what you said to area, but whatever you did say clearly made a difference."

"And one of these days," Neil said in mock exasperation. "You will begin acknowledging that you got this job on merit and merit alone. Is that clear?"

"Crystal, sir," she quipped back with a smile as she walked away towards the wing.

As she locked the gates of G wing behind her, she stood and surveyed the scene. Denny was playing Pool with one of the new inmates, whose name Karen couldn't immediately pluck from the recesses of her mind. The two Julies, G wing's longest serving veterans, and two of the fixtures and fittings, who would be sorely missed when they eventually left, were wiping down the servery. The Costa Cons, Karen knew that she shouldn't really accord them that title, were sat smoking, clearly plotting as to how to come by their next supply of gin and tonic. Al McKenzie and Darlene Cake, looked to be in the midst of an argument that may or may not turn nasty. Kris Yates, who reminded Karen of Nikki at times like this, was standing off to one side and also smoking. She was a woman who tried to remain on the sidelines, taking in everything around her, and avoiding any involvement with most of the other prisoners. Of Natalie Buxton, there was nothing to be seen, and Tina Purvis was sat at a table, writing either a letter or an essay for her education class. A broad, fond smile spread over Karen's face as she took in these familiar surroundings. Walking up to the Julies, a grin plastered on her face, she spontaneously put an arm round each of them, and began doing a mock imitation of a waltz.

"Something good happened, has it, Miss?" Julie Saunders asked with a smile.

"You could say that," Karen replied dryly.

"Are you on something, Miss?" Denny asked with a cheeky little grin.

"Only success," Karen told her, finally letting go of the Julies. "When Mr. Grayling leaves, at the end of this month, I will be taking over as your new Governing Governor."

"Oh, that's brilliant, Miss," Julie S said, her smile broadening.

"Yeah, well done, Miss," Julie J chimed in.

"We never knew you was going for Grayling's job," Julie S put in, as if truly surprised at this turn of events.

"Well, you don't know everything that goes on in this place, Julies," Karen said fondly.

"Oh, you'd be surprised," Julie J replied. "There ain't much we don't know."

"Aren't you pleased for her, Denny?" Julie S asked, looking over at Denny's glum face.

"Being made queen of this shit heap, that ain't exactly something to be proud of, is it." Denny's harsh words cut Karen deeply. She'd mistakenly thought Denny would be pleased for her, but apparently not.

"Just give her time," Julie S said as Denny walked away.

"Yeah, she'll come round when she's got used to the idea," Julie J added. Then, as Sylvia came over to see what was going on, she said, "Eh, Miss, have you heard the latest, Miss Betts is going to be the new number one."

"Oh, Marvellous," Sylvia said gloomily, as if all her nightmares had come at once.

"I thought you'd be pleased," Karen said with a smirk. "You'll be getting rid of me at last."

"Not far enough if you ask me." When Sylvia had stomped off in disgust, Karen couldn't help smiling.

"Do either of you remember that song in the late eighties?" She asked. "I think it was called 'I love to hate you'. That could have been written about me and Sylvia. She's never so happy as when she's got something to moan about, and it's usually me." Julie J burst out laughing and Julie S grinned at the approaching figures of Dominic and Gina.

"Are you two laughing at me again?"

"No, at Bodybag, I mean Mrs. Hollamby," Julie S replied, her slip up making Karen grin.

"I don't know," Tutted Gina with a smile. "Inciting inmates to mock your fellow officers. That's practically a sacking offence."

"Not today it's not," Karen replied. "I got the job, so I'm allowed to be as outrageous as possible."

"I said you'd walk it, didn't I," Gina responded, sounding incredibly pleased.

"Well done," Dominic said, his boyish grin spreading from ear to ear. He stepped forward and gave Karen a quick impulsive hug. "You deserve it." A little while later, when Karen was about to leave the wing and go back to her office to actually do some work, Denny came up to her, looking extremely apologetic.

"Miss," She said, coming to stand in front of Karen. "I'm sorry, about what I said. I am pleased for you, honest."

"Thank you, Denny," Karen said quietly. "I won't be going that far away, I promise." As Karen let herself through the gate, Denny called after her.

"Well done, man," Which made Karen smile.

When she phoned George at lunchtime, Karen hoped that she didn't have anything planned for that evening.

"Are you busy this evening?" She asked, before enlightening her.

"I don't think so. Why?" George sounded interested, though not overly intrigued.

"Do you feel like celebrating?" Karen couldn't help teasing her slightly.

"I might do. Why?" George asked suspiciously.

"I got the job."

"Oh, darling, well done!" George's pleasure came singing down the wire. "When do you officially take over?"

"Tuesday the twenty ninth of March," Karen said, quickly glancing at the letter. "The day after Easter Monday."

"So, what would you like to do this evening?" George drawled, in a voice that made Karen want to instantly drive to George's office, and screw her wherever they landed, no matter whom was watching.

"Oh, I don't know," Karen mused, to give her a moment to come back to Earth. "I wouldn't mind getting slightly drunk, with you and only you, then who knows."

"And a combination of ice cold Champagne and gloriously erect nipples, is the most intense feeling you'll ever have in your life," George purred, making Karen's eyes widen in anticipation.

"I'll hold you to that," She said in sultry invitation.

"Oh, believe me," George drawled as she stretched luxuriously. "It's incredible." After arranging a time to meet that evening, they said goodbye, Karen wondering how she was supposed to do any work that day, with the probability of an intensely satisfying evening ahead of her. As she replaced the receiver, George smirked wickedly at the Munnings above her desk. It was nice to know, that she could still make someone sexually aroused with her voice and voice alone.

Later that evening, George and Karen were lying side by side along the sofa in George's lounge, listening to some soft music, and drinking Champagne.

"I haven't drunk Champagne as good as this for a long time," Karen said appreciatively, as George replaced her glass on the coffee table.

"Ah, well, I didn't actually buy it," George admitted with a smile. "I went home and raided Daddy's cellar. On an occasion like this, you should only ever drink the real thing." At these words, Karen found herself remembering the time she'd drunk Champagne with Yvonne, on the Saturday in the middle of Ritchie's trial. But here, with this stunningly beautiful woman, the crackling log fire, and the large bowl of deliciously ripe strawberries on the coffee table, she couldn't be further removed from that summer evening party.

"Are you happy?" She found herself asking George, definitely confirming the theory that she'd had too much to drink.

"Very," George replied without any hesitation. "Are you?"

"Yes," Karen answered softly. "Apart from the sporadic relationship I have with my son, things couldn't be better."

"How often do you hear from him?"

"Usually when he's run out of money," Karen said dryly. "Ever since he dropped out of college, Ross has only seen his mother as something that dispenses cash and unwanted advice in ever dwindling quantities. He'll probably be delighted when he hears about my significant rise in salary," She ended bitterly.

"I think that's what Charlie sees me as sometimes," George said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. "The one and only time she came to me for real help, was because John wouldn't give her what she wanted. I doubt if she'd have so much as told me if he'd supported her."

"What happened?"

"Charlie was sleeping with one of her lecturers and got herself pregnant. John behaved like the archetypal Victorian father, demanding to know what her lecturer was going to do about it. When Charlie told John she wanted a termination, he was furious. So, she came to me, as if suddenly remembering I existed. I think she assumed that I would help her get what she wanted, because it was what John didn't want. But Charlie was even less ready for the responsibility of a baby than I was when I had her."

"Ross hasn't really ever forgiven me for getting involved with Fenner," Karen continued. "But then I think he's always seen it as his duty, to object to any of the men I've had in my life."

"Charlie objected to Neil's politics more than anything. The arguments she had with him over the trade of live animals were monumental."

"John told me once, that when he watched Charlie doing a presentation at College, she was the spitting image of you."

"Oh, I hope not," George said with a smile. "Poor Charlie."

"Telling Helen about my job's going to be an interesting conversation," Karen said dryly.

"Why, do you think she won't be pleased?"

"I'm not sure. It just might bring back some of the endless rows we had when she was Governing Governor, that's all."

"Why don't we ask Helen and Nikki over for dinner?" George suggested. "At least then you'd be in relaxing surroundings, and have Nikki and I to referee."

"Are you serious?" Karen asked, incredibly touched that George had thought of this.

"Yes. Besides, I haven't seen much of your friends since the trial." Plucking a strawberry from the bowl on the table, George dipped it in her glass of Champagne, and ran it invitingly across Karen's lips.

"You do like to live decadently, don't you," Karen said, after eating the strawberry.

"It's the best way to live, occasionally," George replied, kissing her way along Karen's jawbone, until she could taste the Champagne on Karen's lips.

"You're so good for me, do you know that?" Karen said between kisses.

"Oh, am I now," George drawled, thinking that she wouldn't mind a few more compliments like that. As they continued kissing, George began caressing one of Karen's breasts through her blouse. This made Karen smile, because it was usually her who instigated any sexual contact, not George, and this seemed to say that George was becoming far more confident with the situation. Whenever they did touch like this, the first, initial contact seemed to set a match to their passion, making them almost frantically begin removing clothes, to be skin to skin as quickly as possible.

"You're insatiable," George said between kisses, as her black lace bra was discarded and unceremoniously shoved under the sofa.

"I'm just looking forward to seeing proof of your promise," Karen replied, as they moved as one to the softness of the enormous rug in front of the blazing log fire.

"Who said that was a promise?" George asked, knowing Karen was referring to what she'd said about Champagne on naked skin earlier in the day.

"And here I thought I'd found a woman who was definitely all talk and all action," Karen quipped, knowing George was teasing her.

"Well, I suppose I do have a reputation to maintain."

"Have you made love here often?" Karen asked, enchanted by the way the firelight played over George's body, giving her skin a rich, sensual glow that only served to make her look even more beautiful.

"Almost as much as I have upstairs," George confirmed, as their hands began to wander at will. "I dread to think how much bodily fluid there is in the depths of this rug."

"Yeah, too much information," Karen said with a laugh.

"Well, you did ask," George said with a smirk.

Karen was languorously caressing George's breast, warmed by the heat of the fire, when the phone rang. George was all set to leave it, when she heard Jo's voice leaving a message on her answer phone.

"George, are you in and otherwise engaged?" Came Jo's voice from the machine in her office across the hall.

"Yes," Karen responded, though knowing that Jo couldn't hear her.

"Or are you really out?" This was too much for George, whose curiosity rivalled even John's. Gently disentangling herself from Karen, she reached for the cordless on the table, and interrupted Jo's message.

"I am here," She said, interrupting Jo in mid flow. "And yes, I am otherwise engaged, drinking Champagne and eating strawberries, and not remotely in the mood for talking about work."

"Oh, any special occasion?" Jo asked, sounding intrigued.

"Karen has just been made Governing Governor of Larkhall," George said, her voice filled with pride.

To get her back for answering the phone, Karen continued touching George's breast, grazing her thumb over an already erect nipple.

"Tell her I said congratulations," Jo said, thoroughly pleased at Karen's success.

"I will. You could talk to her yourself," George replied. "But she's got her hands full right now." Karen laughed silently, wondering if Jo would get George's meaning. But as Jo and George continued talking, Karen thought it was time to play George at her own game. Reaching for one of the glasses of Champagne on the coffee table, she dipped her finger in the icy, bubbly height of snobbery, and trailed her finger over the nipple she hadn't previously been touching. George hurriedly tried to stifle a gasp, and her eyes widened in shock. But as Karen took a swig of the Champagne, and began delicately sucking on said nipple, the feeling of her ice-cold lips, and the bubbles of the Champagne bursting on her skin, was driving George absolutely wild. Karen noticed with sincere enjoyment, that George was finding it increasingly difficult to carry on anything like a normal conversation with Jo, though she had to admit that George was putting on a BAFTA performance. As Karen continued her merciless ministrations, alternating between nipples, George screwed her face up in to any number of contortions, that only made Karen grin even more. But when Karen abandoned George's nipples, in favour of taking another mouthful of Champagne, George spared a thought to wonder just what Karen would do next, and to pray that she could keep her response to it from Jo. But what George wasn't prepared for, was for Karen to begin kissing her way down, until she was mercilessly swiping an extremely chilled tongue across George's clit. Her gasp was well and truly audible this time, but Jo didn't appear to notice. As Karen inched her still cool tongue into George's entrance, George decided that enough was enough. She just couldn't go on maintaining this level of detachment in the face of what Karen was doing to her.

"I'm sorry, Jo," She said, trying not to groan in delight with every breath she took. "But I've got to go, to, to," She searched for a plausible excuse. "To turn the oven down. I'll talk to you tomorrow." Not waiting for Jo's reply, she switched off the cordless and sent it skidding across the carpet.

"How could you?" George asked, half in laughter, half in mortification, tugging on Karen's shoulder until they were at eye level again.

"I didn't feel you complaining," Karen mocked, replacing her recently occupied tongue with her long, slender fingers.

"That's not the point," George said between kisses, tasting a combination of herself and Champagne on Karen's lips. "I won't be able to look her in the face again after this." Further conversation was thwarted as Karen increased the speed in her wandering hand, causing George's breathing to quicken.

"I'm sorry, darling," George gasped out. "But I'm not going to last very long."

"Oh, go ahead," Karen encouraged, her hand moving even faster as George pulled her down to lie half on top of her. George couldn't believe it, all Karen was using on her was her hand, yet she knew she was approaching one of the most explosive orgasms she'd ever had in her life. As her pulse began to race, and her gasps to become almost frantic, she flung her arms round Karen, kissing her long and hard to prevent herself from actually screaming. When she actually came, she almost crushed Karen to her, internally squeezing her fingers, and letting out a strangled sound that in any other circumstance, would have meant she was in a great deal of pain.

As they lay afterwards, George attempting to bring her breathing under control, she briefly held Karen to her, momentarily enjoying the feeling of having most of Karen's weight resting on her, as she might with John in similar circumstances.

"I'm sorry I didn't wait for you," George said drowsily.

"That's perfectly all right," Karen said with a smile, dropping a kiss on George's shoulder as she moved to lie next to her. "I take it that withholding your reactions until the last minute, is worth it once in a while."

"Just a bit," George admitted dryly. "Though I don't know if I could keep up an act like that very often."

"Ah, well, the performance was marvelous," Karen said slowly, with the weight of an approaching bombshell. "But your excuse for getting rid of her left a lot to be desired. Telling Jo that you needed to turn the oven down, when you'd already told her you were on dessert. Do I need to say any more?"

"Ah," George said in realisation, and then burst into a fit of giggles.

"Oh, well," She said, quite unable to stop laughing. "If I'm going to well and truly fail at keeping her in the dark as to your nefarious activities, I may as well do it in style." As they continued making love, both in the lounge and upstairs in George's bed, Karen reflected that laughter suited George, and that it was something she should do more often.

Jo was a little puzzled by George's abrupt departure, but she didn't think any more about it until she was lying in bed that night. Then, just as she was drifting off to sleep, it dawned on her exactly why George had been slightly inattentive during their conversation. When George had said that she was otherwise engaged, she really had been. Groaning in sheer embarrassment, Jo felt as though she was blushing all over. Briefly hiding her head under the duvet, her moan of mortification became a slowly growing peal of laughter. Oh, dear, poor George. Karen must have been persistently teasing her whilst they were talking. George had said that Karen had her hands full, the double entendre being a perfect cover up. As she finally fell asleep, she vowed to have some fun with this.

The next morning, when Jo was doing her make up in the ladies' before court, she kept grinning at herself in the mirror, at how George had clearly dropped herself in it. Right on cue, George walked through the door. They made polite conversation for a little while, as George tugged a brush through her hair, the brisk March wind having left her looking like the wild woman of the west, and touching up her own make up.

"Call me conventional, George," Jo said, thinking that the time had come. "But I always thought dessert came after dinner, not before." Whirling round to face her, mascara wand poised to apply an extra layer, George just stared at her.

"Oh," She said eventually, a faint blush staining her cheeks. Jo's bright, warm smile left her in no doubt, that Jo had seen right through her feeble excuse of the night before. Jo began to laugh quietly. "Can I just die now?" George responded, also seeing the funny side. "With a request for no flowers or letters please."

"You didn't have to answer the phone, you know," Jo persisted, her smile putting George at ease.

"Yes, thank you, Karen was kind enough to make me aware of that last night. She said that my curiosity level is even higher than John's."

"I hope I didn't entirely ruin your evening," Jo said, turning serious.

"Oh, no," George drawled, a hint of flirtation in her tone. "On the contrary, it proved to be an added bonus. You've no idea just how explosive having to hide any vocal reactions can actually be."

"And for you, that must have been incredible," Jo said dryly, but not missing the clear suggestion in George's voice.

"Oh, yes," George replied with utter conviction, and as she dropped the mascara wand into her handbag, and strolled nonchalantly out of the door, Jo was left with the feeling that a line had been crossed.

Part 71

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