DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions, a division of Shed Media Group, plc. The author implies no ownership of these characters, and they are used in the stories without permission solely for entertainment and not for profit. Similarly this applies to any copyrighted fictional characters either from literature, broadcast media or film.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was originally posted on my old website, ZanWeb back in 2000-2001 (during the break between Series 2 and Series 3) so it might contain a few cultural references from that time. This story was originally named 'What If II' (after quite of bit of thought, I've come to the conclusion that 'What If 1' is way, way too bad every to see the light of day again) and is intrinsically the same story, minus most of the original grammatical errors and cringeworthy cliches ... I hope!!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To filbertfox.redux[at]gmail.com

What If (Redux)
By Filbertfox


Chapter One

It was a Saturday night when it all began. A normal Saturday night down Canal Street. Nothing unusual … or so it seemed to Nikki at the time.

Nikki found herself doing all the normal things she would do on a Saturday night: five minutes spent chatting to the bouncers outside Via Fossa before pushing past the sea of combat trousers and leather outside Rembrandts. As always, friends were greeted and acquaintances nodded to, appreciative glances rewarded with a warm smile … again, nothing unusual.

Nikki pushed her way through the usual young crowd outside The New Union and took her life into her own hands as she crossed Princess Street and then walked straight past the huge queue outside Heaven, ignoring the accusing stares of the people who'd been stood there for ages.

The oppressive atmosphere inside the club hit Nikki like a sweat-soaked brick and by the time she managed to push her way through the manic crowd on the dance floor she looked like someone who'd been pushed into a swimming pool fully clothed.

At the bar, it took her a full five minutes to attract the attention of a member of the bar staff.

"Where's Trish?' she shouted.

'In her office.' the barman yelled back.

Nikki backed away from the bar, straight into someone carrying two pints of lager. She turned around to rip the head off whoever it was and ended up staring into a pair of furious hazel eyes.

'Look where you're fucking going!' A Scottish voice shouted at her. 'Stupid cow!'

'Oh stick it up your arse!' Nikki replied before she tried to walk away only to be foiled by a strong grip on her arm. 'What's your fucking problem?' Nikki whirled around to confront the woman and found herself looking up at an angry looking man with floppy hair and the sort of arrogant face she always felt like slapping.

'Excuse me,' he said. 'I really don't appreciate you talking to my girlfriend like that.'

Nikki looked from the man down to the woman who was plainly outraged by his knight in shining armour routine. 'Try straight clubs in future then.'

Nikki pushed through the couple and headed over to the stairs leading up to the upper level of the club and the offices.

Trish was on the phone when Nikki walked into her office. 'Hi, Nik,' she said, banging the receiver down. 'I wasn't expecting you.'

'Obviously not,' Nikki said, regarding Trish suspiciously. 'Who was that?'

'Oh no one,' Trish replied. 'Oh, did I tell you, I managed to book Dr T for Mardi Gras?'

'Dr T the DJ?'

'No, Dr T the ukulele player from Rochdale,' Trish said sarcastically, smiling at the stunned look on Nikki's face. 'Yes, Dr T the DJ. She didn't come cheap though.'

'How much?'

'We can afford it.'

Nikki frowned. 'You mean you can afford it.'

Trish stood up and walked over to Nikki, casually putting her arms around her waist. 'Don't start all that again.'

'You know I sometimes wonder what you see in me,' Nikki said, reaching out to touch Trish's face.

'You know very well what I see in you.'

'Oh yeah? Well maybe I need you to remind me.'

'Come here and I will.'

Nikki leaned in for the kiss, pulling back at the last minute when she felt her pager begin to vibrate. 'Sorry babe,' she said, reaching into her pocket to retrieve it. 'It won't be anything important.'

Trish groaned with frustration and returned to her chair. 'I'm going to chuck that bloody thing down the loo one of these days.'

'Shit!' Nikki said as she read the message. 'Everything's down.'

'Everything apart from my knickers by the sounds of it,' Trish snapped. 'I don't know why you have to work anyway.'

'I do it because I enjoy it,' Nikki said, walking over to peck Trish on the cheek. 'And I don't like the idea of being a kept woman, now, keep that knicker idea on ice and I'll be back as soon as I can.'

Crystal Gordon shook her head disapprovingly as she watched Zandra Plackett almost garrotte herself on her headset as she swivelled around in her chair to watch the new Direct Sales Supervisor walking past the spur of desks they were sitting at.

'Frigging Nora!' Zandra exclaimed. 'Did you see the arse on that?'

Crystal sucked her teeth in reply, a noise that always signalled her displeasure. 'I got no time for sinful thoughts.'

Julie Saunders, who was sitting at the desk next to Crystal's pressed the 'Hold' button on her telephone. 'Take the cork out of your arse will ya, Crystal? E's gorgeous.' She leaned over the desk to tap the arm of her best friend, Julie Johnston. 'What do ya reckon, Jue?'

'I'd eat him alive,' Julie J replied, completely forgetting about the customer on the other end of the phone. 'No,' she said quickly. 'I didn't mean you, Sir.'

Zandra laughed at Julie J and then turned back to Crystal. 'Zandra McAllister.' She sighed. 'How does that sound, Crystal?'

'You might as well change your name to Jezebel,' Crystal replied, rolling her eyes. 'Or the Whore of Babylon.'

'Is there a problem here?'

All four women looked up at Dominic McAllister, the new Direct Sales Supervisor.

'No, Dominic,' Julie S said, batting her eyelashes. 'We'll never have a problem with you. You're much too gorgeous!'

Dominic walked away, blushing.

'Awww, inny sweet?' Julie J sighed, watching him as he walked away. 'Di Barker were telling me he drives a motorbike. Ooooh, imagine that in leathers.'

'Biker boy,' Julie S said. 'Blimey, Jue, I've come over all peculiar.'

Meanwhile, Zandra was trying to amend a flight reservation on her terminal, without much success. 'Come on you twatting twat!' She howled, banging her monitor. 'Bastard computers are all spastics!'

'Calm down, Zan.' Julie J said as she removed her headset. 'One of the computer bods will be here in a while. Who's on call tonight?'

'Nikki,' Zandra replied, banging her 'Escape' key in frustration. 'Poor sod! Fancy having to come into this shit hole on a Saturday night.'

Nikki arrived at the reservations centre for 'Larkair UK' twenty minutes after receiving her page.

Ten years ago, if anyone had told Nikki that she would be working as a top IT manager for a major UK airline she would've sent them off to get their head tested.

Nikki had left University with a first class honours degree in English Literature and had then gone straight on to teacher training college. It wasn't until she graduated that she realised that English teachers weren't exactly in demand, and the few supply jobs she managed to get had just reinforced the fact that she wasn't suited to teaching. Three years later and Nikki was unemployed and living in a London bed-sit when she met Trish.

Trish was the sort of woman Nikki used to see when she went window shopping in Knightsbridge; immaculately dressed in a Chanel suit and always yakking into a mobile phone or gossiping with their friends over lunch between shopping trips to 'Harvey Nicks'. On their first date, Trish had rolled up in a Ferrari and at the end of their first week together she had presented Nikki with a gold Rolex that was worth more than Nikki had earned in three years as a supply teacher.

After a year, Trish had declared that she was bored with London and had bought a dilapidated old warehouse near Canal Street in Manchester. The warehouse eventually became a nightclub called Heaven which was now one of the trendiest nightclubs in the country.

Nikki had always hated the idea of sponging off anyone but had been pulled into Trish's affluent lifestyle before she even realised what was happening. Nikki had tried to get involved in the club but Trish, even though she didn't realise she was doing it, had always made her feel like she was in the way.

One thing led to another and an extremely bored Nikki decided to attend an open day down at the local college and had signed up for a computing course because the teacher was good looking. She very nearly didn't go back after her first lesson, which ended in her nearly throwing her computer out of the nearest window, but persevered because she never let anything beat her, let alone a hunk of microchips.

Seven years ago, Nikki had got herself a job with Larkair at Manchester Airport, her stubbornness and refusal to be beaten by anything making her into one of their best trouble-shooters, even though she still felt like throwing her computer out of the window on disturbingly regular occasions.

Nikki had received a promotion and a move to the reservations centre a year ago, a move that pissed Trish off to the extreme because the centre had a twenty-four hour operation and Nikki was often called out at the strangest hours.

Tonight for instance, it was just after midnight when she walked onto the sales floor to find out what the problem was.

The floor supervisor was a guy Nikki had never seen before and he regarded her jeans and T-shirt suspiciously. 'Can I help you?'

'I would've thought it was the other way round actually,' Nikki replied. 'You paged me about twenty minutes ago.'

'Oh right,' he said, blushing as he realised who she was. 'You must be Ms Wade.'

'Nikki.' Nikki held out her hand for him to shake. 'And you are?'

'Dominic, Dominic McAllister.' He shook Nikki's hand and then pointed towards his computer terminal. 'LARS seems to be down, we can't process any reservations.'

Nikki nodded. 'Looks like something needs kicking in the computer room. I'll go and take a look.'

Nikki returned a few minutes later and frowned at Dominic. 'Nothing wrong at our end. I've phoned London and they're checking it out at their end.'

'What do you think the problem might be?'

'Probably one of the routers, the one in Birmingham is really dodgy at the moment. Hopefully it shouldn't take them too long to fix it.'

'So what do we do until then?'

'Carry on taking calls and tell everyone to call back later.'

'And how long before its back up?'

'How long's a piece of string?' Nikki replied. 'I've got to stick around now until they sort the problem out. You mind if I go over and speak to the girls while I wait?'

Nikki plonked herself down on a chair between Julie J and Zandra and put her feet up on the desk. 'Hope you lot have got some decent gossip to keep me amused.'

'Not really, Nikki,' Julie S said. 'Apart from the fact that Zandra's in love with biker boy.'

'She means Dominic,' Zandra explained. 'Di Barker told Julie that she saw him arriving on a motorbike today.'

Nikki looked over at Dominic who was studying the call stats as if they were a best-selling novel. 'Can't see the attraction myself.'

'That's because he's got a dick,' Zandra said.

'Like I said, can't see the attraction myself.'

Julie J swivelled round in her chair and regarded Nikki silently for a moment. ''Ave you never been with a bloke then?'


'Well how do you know you don't like them then?' Julie S asked, leaning forwards intently.

'Well have either of you ever been with a woman?' Nikki countered, smiling at the two heads that shook violently in unison. 'Well there you go then.'

'She 'as got a point I suppose,' Julie J said, still looking at Nikki. 'So what's it like then?'

'What's what like?'

'With a woman.'

'Oh, you mean what's it like to have sex with a woman?'

Two heads nodded in unison.

'I don't know,' Nikki replied. 'I only believe in making lurve.'

'Honestly!' Crystal startled everyone by shooting out of her chair. 'Now I know how Daniel felt stuck in the lions den.'

'Nice girl that Crystal,' Julie S said, watching her walk away.

'Nice girl,' Julie J agreed.

'But she don't 'alf bang that tambourine.'

'Oh she's alright when you get to know her,' Zandra said, turning her attention to Inside Soap magazine.

'Heads down girls!' Julie S hissed suddenly, turning round to look at her monitor. 'Bodybag's back off her break.'

Nikki looked around to see the squat form of Sylvia Hollamby, the most hated supervisor in the entire airline. She walked with a gait that always made Nikki think of a wounded hippopotamus lumbering over to a waterhole.

'I'd better go and update her on the situation.' Nikki sighed, standing up. 'Wish me luck girls.'

Bodybag was too busy griping to Dominic about the canteen food to notice the situation, in fact, it was a good couple of minutes before either Nikki or Dominic could get a word in edgeways.

'… not a patch on my Bobby's braised meatballs, I offered the chef the recipe but she just wasn't interested, don't know why. Ooooh, my Bobby's meatballs, I'll be salivating for the rest of the night now … and when I think …'

'Er Sylvia.' Nikki said, cutting her off in mid flow. 'The systems are down in …' Nikki paused when she heard a beep from Dominic's terminal as the system came back online. 'Panic over, it would appear. So I'm off home.'

Nikki stopped at a set of traffic lights just near St Peter's Square. The last thing she was prepared for was a shunt up the backside from another car.

Nikki leapt out of the car just as the driver and passenger of the other car got out to inspect the damage.

'You stupid bastard!' Nikki snapped, stopping dead in her tracks when she realised that she recognised the couple from somewhere. 'Have we met before?'

'Yes,' the woman replied. 'You gave me a beer shampoo in the club earlier on.'

'Maybe you should get your eyes tested,' Nikki said as she bent down to inspect the damage on her car. 'You seem to make a habit out of running into the backs of people.'

'I'm really sorry,' the man said. 'Listen, I don't suppose there's anyway we can sort this out without me having to claim on my insurance is there?'

Nikki looked down at the dent in the boot of her car. 'You a panel beater are you?'

'No, I thought that maybe we could exchange addresses and you can send me an estimate.'

'Oh yeah? Do you think I was born yesterday or something? What's to stop you giving me a false address?'

'Oh for God's sake!' the woman exclaimed. 'Sean, show her your driving license.'

'It's got the old address on it.'

Nikki looked over at their car – a top of the range Lexus – and decided that they didn't really look like the type of people to give anyone a false address. 'You got a pen and paper?' she asked.

Sean disappeared into the car in search of something to write on, Nikki turned back to the woman, taking in the sleek dark hair, intelligent face and the generous lips that were made for kissing. Nikki felt the first stirrings of attraction and mentally kicked herself.

'Sorry about that,' she said, her Scottish accent making the hairs stand up on the back of Nikki's neck. 'We're new to the area and got into a bit of confusion when we realised we'd taken the wrong turning.'

'Where are you trying to get to?'

'Sale,' she replied. 'Don't suppose you could point us in the right direction could you?'

'I was on my way back from there,' Nikki said. 'So basically, you want the opposite direction to the one you were driving in.'

Sean emerged from the car and started scribbling on the back of a piece of a piece of paper. 'What's the house number, Hel?'

The woman looked up at him and shook her head. 'We've been there for a week now and you still can't remember the house number? It's forty-seven.'

'There you go,' Sean said, handing the piece of paper to Nikki. 'I've written our home address and my mobile number on the back.'

Nikki pocketed the piece of paper and nodded. 'I'll take it round to the garage tomorrow and get an estimate.'

'Sorry about that,' The woman said. 'It's a lovely car.'

'Yes it is.'

Nikki drove home, picturing how hurt Trish was going to be when she found out that Nikki had pranged her birthday present after less than a week in possession of it.

'Bleedin' 'ell Nikki!' Yvonne exclaimed, watching Nikki climb out of her dented car. 'What the fuck have you done?'

'Oh, some stupid twat ran into the back of me on Saturday night,' Nikki replied. 'Trish was not amused.'

'I bet she weren't,' Yvonne said, walking over to inspect the damage. 'I dunno, brand spanking new XK8 and you total it within a week.'

Nikki shrugged and opened the boot to retrieve her laptop. 'Don't know why she had to buy it for me anyway. I was just as happy with Trevor.'


'My Fiesta.'

Yvonne smiled and held the door open for Nikki. 'You ready for the meeting today?'

'I'm never ready.' Nikki replied. 'Hey, doesn't the new Human Resources Manager start today?'

'Yeah, another woman for Fenner to make a pass at!'

Nikki smiled, wondering how the hell Yvonne always managed to get the information ahead of everyone else. 'Do you know anything else about her?'


They had reached Yvonne's office; Yvonne opened the door and hovered for a few seconds, looking around furtively. 'Listen, Nik, this don't go no further but the word around Head Office is that she's being groomed to take over from Stubbsy.'

'About time too,' Nikki said. 'It'll put Fenner's nose out of joint too, which is always good news.'

'Too bloody true. See you later, Nikki.'

'Yeah, see you, Yvonne.'

Yvonne Atkins was the Regional Sales and Marketing Manager, from South London originally and with a line of patter that seemed more suited to a market stall in Peckham than an international airline. Nikki had found out quite quickly that Yvonne was brilliant at her job, possessing all of the traits that made a good salesperson, wit, charm, intelligence and enough ruthlessness and bloody-mindedness to force her way to the top.

Yvonne was the sort of woman you needed to keep on your side. If you earned her respect then you had a friend for life and gained an ally who would back you up whatever the situation. The people who crossed her learnt very quickly that Yvonne Atkins was a very bad enemy to have.

Yvonne was currently involved in two long running feuds. The first was with Renee Williams, her counterpart in the Birmingham call centre. Both women went out of their way, using the dirtiest means possible to get one over on each other. The second feud was with Jim Fenner, the call centre's Operations Manager.

Over the year that Nikki had been working at the reservations centre, she had come to the conclusion that Jim Fenner was a conniving shit with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. From what Nikki had been told by Yvonne, he was a serial womaniser, a back-stabber and capable of selling his own wife and children if the money was right. The whole situation was made worse by the fact that Nikki's job as IT Manager meant that she had to work very closely with Fenner – her department's performance having a direct impact on his. For some reason, Fenner had taken it upon himself to make life as difficult for her as possible, taking every opportunity to drip poison into the General Manager, Simon Stubberfield's, ear. Fenner's behaviour only served to harden Nikki's resolve though, and heated arguments during management meetings were now a weekly event.

Nikki enjoyed the extra responsibility afforded to her by her new position, but if there was one thing she could do without it was the weekly management meetings.

Each meeting ran to the same formula: Nikki would give her systems report only for Fenner to pick holes in it, Nikki would argue with Fenner and Yvonne would jump in to back her up. Then the Finance Manager, Karen Betts, would make her report and chastise Nikki for over-spending on her department's overtime budget. The resulting arguments would then continue until lunchtime. Nikki always left these meetings with a tension headache behind her eyes.

Karen Betts was a woman who Nikki had never been able to work out. She was friendly, good-humoured and great company out of work, but as soon as she walked into work she became cold, calculating and sarcastic enough to strip the paint from the walls.

Today's meeting was no exception to the rule. Nikki was aware of Karen raising an eyebrow as she gave her report.

'We've got some engineers coming in next Wednesday night to install two new routers on our end. They're also replacing the Birmingham router on the same night, so LARS will be down for most of the night. I've had to arrange to have all of our calls diverted to London.'

'I take it you're going to have to be in on that night?' Karen asked. 'More overtime?'

'It's coming off Head Office's budget,' Nikki replied defensively. 'I had a feeling you'd object.'

Fenner didn't waste the chance to stick his oar in. 'So we've lost another night?' He threw his pen down on the table in frustration. 'Bloody great! That's my figures blown for another month.'

'Hold on Jim.' Simon Stubberfield, the General Manager, leaned forward and regarded Nikki intently. 'My understanding is that this upgrade is long overdue.'

Nikki nodded. 'That's because every time Head Office schedule it, he,' she gestured towards Fenner, 'comes up with a reason why it can't go ahead.'

'Right, well, I think we've put it off for long enough,' Stubberfield said. 'Jim, get admin to jig the rosters for next week. There's no point in bringing any staff in that night if they can't use the system.'

Fenner managed to smile at Stubberfield and glare at Nikki at the same time. 'Yes, Simon.'

Nikki was about to move onto the next item on her report when there was a knock on the door.

Monica Lindsey, Stubberfield's PA popped her head around the door. 'Simon, just to let you know, Helen Stewart has arrived.'

Stubberfield nodded at Monica who disappeared almost instantaneously. 'That's the new Human Resources Manager. I'll be back in a moment.'

As soon as Stubberfield left the room, the sniping started.

Fenner launched straight into a typically intelligent attack. 'Give him a blowjob under his desk last week did you, Wade?'

'What you talking about, Fenner?' Nikki snapped. 'Just because your head's so far up Stubberfield's arse you're in danger of disappearing, it doesn't mean mine is too.'

'Oh, please,' Karen said, getting up to pour herself a cup of coffee. 'Do you two have to degenerate to playground mentality every time he leaves the room?'

'Put a sock in it, Karen,' Yvonne said. 'You're just as bad.'

Karen turned around and regarded Yvonne with a cold stare. 'And so speaks the woman who let Renee Williams' tyres down after the national sales meeting last week.'

Nikki laughed and looked over at Yvonne. 'Did you?'

'Course I did,' Yvonne replied. 'Evil bitch coughed all the way through my presentation.'

Fenner stood up and wandered over to the window that looked out over the car park. 'See you've bashed your car already, Wade. Oh well, you can always get your girlfriend to buy you a new one I suppose. Must be nice being a kept woman.'

'Yeah,' Nikki replied. 'It is actually, jealous?'

'Of you?'

'Well, it must be awful for you to have to park that clapped out old banger of yours next to mine.' Nikki stood up and walked over to stand next to Fenner. 'Look at those lines, Fenner. You can just imagine the attention I get from the women.'

'I don't need a car like that to attract women.'

'No,' Yvonne said, winking at Nikki. 'You could start with a face-lift though.'

Fenner was about to reply but was thwarted when the door opened.

'Everyone,' Stubberfield said. 'I'd like you to meet our new Human Resources Manager, Helen Stewart.'

Nikki looked straight into the eyes of the woman whose boyfriend had smashed into the back of her car on Saturday night.

Helen stared at Nikki, a smile flickering around her lips as Stubberfield introduced her around the table.

'And this is Nikki Wade.' He said, gesturing at Nikki. 'Our IT Manager.'

Nikki moved forward and shook Helen's hand. 'Nice to meet you.'

'Again,' Helen said with a smile. 'It seems we're bound together by fate.'

'Well.' Nikki sighed, ignoring Yvonne's questioning stare. 'You know what they say, don't you? First meeting is happenstance, second meeting is coincidence …'

'And the third?'

'Enemy action.'


Chapter Two

To really get to know how an organisation really works, the person to ask is the person with all the gossip … the person who manages to float around the organisation and who is largely ignored … the person who manages to overhear everyone's conversations because they are considered insignificant. This person is the foot soldier, usually the one on the lowest rung of the ladder, and with the least amount to prove. As far as Larkair's Manchester reservations centre was concerned, the person to ask was Denny Blood.

Denny was in charge of the post-room and her responsibilities included delivering the mail, sorting the mail and posting the mail … not exactly the most interesting job in the world, well, as far as most people were concerned anyway. What the majority of people didn't actually realise was that Denny was always the first to know what was going on. Being invisible to the management certainly had its benefits as far as picking up interesting pieces of gossip was concerned.

On this particular day, Denny was loading her trolley with the latest delivery of internal mail when Shell Dockley popped her bleached-blonde head around the door.

Shell was an enigma as far as the other telephone agents in the building were concerned. She was rude to the customers, rude to the supervisors and bullied the new staff unmercifully, yet she always managed to hang onto her job. What the other telephone agents didn't realise was that behind the Barbie doll from hell façade, there was a sharp brain that was always planning some scheme or another.

Shell, being more manipulative than Alexis Colby in her prime, had realised pretty quickly that there were two people she needed to keep on her side in order to keep her job. The first of these people was Jim Fenner. Shell had taken one look at him and the way his eyes crawled all over her mini-skirted body and realised immediately that if she offered up the odd sexual favour, her job was secure. The second of these people was Denny, who always heard the best gossip and wasn't averse to steaming open the odd interesting looking envelope.

After two years of providing Denny with the occasional clumsy fumble in the post-room, Shell was reasonably secure about her devotion and now got her to carry out her dirty work. Knowing that if anything ever did go wrong, it would be Denny who got the blame and not her.

As always, Denny's face lit up when she saw Shell. 'Hiya, babe.'

'Alright, Den?' Shell checked that the coast was clear before closing the post-room door behind her. 'Anything interesting in the post today?'

Denny frowned and looked down at her trolley. 'Not in the post, but I did meet the new 'uman whatzits manager today. Bit of alright actually, wouldn't mind givin' 'er one.'

Shell rolled her eyes and walked over the window. 'Well she's 'ardly gonna fancy you, is she?'

'She was nice actually. Wonder if I should talk to 'er about going on the phones?' Denny mused, acting as if she hadn't heard Shell's comment. 'I'm sick of this bleedin' post-room.'

'I can't see her putting a thick twat like you on the phones.' Shell said dismissively, raising her eyebrows when she saw the dent in the back of Nikki's car. 'What happened to the lezza's car?'

'Who, Nikki?'

'Well how many lezzas do you know who work in this shit hole?'

Luckily for Shell, Denny didn't possess a sense of irony. 'Nikki's all right. Don't know why you 'ate her so much.'

'Never mind that.' Shell said, walking over to the door. 'Meet me in the canteen at four o'clock. We've got business to see to.'

'What sorta business?'


Denny's first stop was the IT department.

Usually, the big open-plan office resembled a mad professor's lab … bits of computers lying all over the place, software manuals hanging off overflowing bookcases and enough dirty coffee mugs hanging about to earn the place an environmental health warning. Today, Denny walked in to another world: clean, tidy and without the usual lingering smell of takeaway pizza.

Denny looked over at Lorna Rose who was flicking a duster along the bookshelves. 'What the bleeding 'ell's happened in 'ere?'

Lorna looked up and frowned at Denny. 'Nikki happened, that's what.' She gestured over towards Nikki's closed office door. 'She came back after the management meeting in a right strop and screamed at us to tidy the place up. Bit rich coming from her though. Have you seen the state of her office?'

Denny looked over at Nikki's closed door and noticed that she'd also closed the blinds on the glass partition that separated her office from the rest of the room. It was a well-known fact that if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders, the last thing you did was speak to Nikki after she'd returned from a management meeting.

Lorna noticed Denny hesitating with the bundle of mail she was holding. 'Leave it here, Denny. I'll take it in later when she's calmed down a bit.'

'I can't.' Denny said. 'I got somefing here I need her to sign for.'

Lorna considered for a second and then held her hand out. 'Give it here. I'll take it in.'

Nikki was sitting with her feet up on her desk and staring into space when Lorna poked her head around the door. She looked up, seemingly furious at the interruption.

'Sorry, Nikki.' Lorna stammered, forcing herself to step into the office. 'It's just Denny's here with the post and she's got something she needs you to sign.'

Nikki smiled and Lorna nearly fell over. 'Here.' She held out her hand for the mail. 'It's probably just the Windows 2000 disk I asked for.'

'We upgrading to 2000 are we?'

'Dunno yet.' Nikki scrawled her signature onto the form for Denny and handed it back to Lorna. 'I'm going to get some lunch. If anyone calls, just tell them I've gone off in search of a loaded shooter.'

Lorna watched Nikki as she stormed out of the door that opened out onto the corridor and felt her knees begin to trembe.

Apart from the fact that she was extremely temperamental at times, Nikki was considered a good boss and was very well liked by her staff. She was fair, hugely protective of her team and usually a good laugh. The main difference between Lorna and the rest of the staff in the department was that her initial respect for Nikki had developed into a crush, and then deepened into total adoration.

Lorna had been dating the same man, on and off, for the past five years while all the time fighting a pitched battle against her sexuality. A battle finally lost when she'd got to know Nikki. Not that Lorna held out any hopes of even attracting Nikki's eye … especially after she'd been introduced to Trish at last year's Christmas party. There was no way that Nikki would ever want to ditch someone so rich and good-looking for someone like her.

What Lorna didn't know, and what she would've been mortified to find out was that the rest of the staff in the IT department were well aware of the fact that she seemed to spend more time staring into Nikki's office than she did concentrating on her work. It was a source of great embarrassment to Nikki, and the main reason why she'd got into the habit of closing the blinds when she was in her office.

Lorna closed Nikki's office door behind her and then handed the form that she'd signed to Denny who was smiling back at her knowingly. 'What's up with you?'

Denny shrugged and stuffed the form into her pocket. 'Nothing's up wiv me,' she said. 'Laters.'

Denny left the office and smiled to herself as she pushed her trolley down the corridor. Who ever would've thought that Lorna and Nikki were having an affair? The gooey look on Lorna's face when Nikki had left the office had been so obvious that even Denny hadn't been able to miss it. This was the type of information that might just get her a proper shag out of Shell.

Yvonne found Nikki in The Waggon and Horses, sitting on a barstool and staring morosely, into a pint of lager. She walked over and tapped her on the shoulder. 'I thought I might find you in here. Lorna said something about you disappearing in search of a loaded shooter.'

'So you thought you'd try here?' Nikki smiled and shook her head. 'You're too bloody smart for your own good sometimes. What can I get you?'

'I'll have a vodka and tonic, thanks.'

Nikki signalled to the barman and ordered Yvonne's drink for her. 'So,' she said with a sigh, turning to face Yvonne. 'What's up?'

Yvonne smiled around the cigarette she was lighting. 'I've just heard from Head Office about the nominations for sales rep of the year.'


'Lauren's been nominated.'

Nikki smiled. Lauren Atkins, Yvonne's daughter, worked under her mother as a sales rep. Yvonne, being the woman she was, hated the thought that someone might accuse her of nepotism so drove Lauren twice as hard as she did her other staff. No matter how much Lauren moaned about it, the results spoke for themselves.

'That's great, Yvonne. Only thing is, why aren't you celebrating with her instead of me?'

'She's up in Cumbria this afternoon. I'm going to take her out for a meal or something tonight I think.' Yvonne smiled triumphantly. 'This is going to piss Renee Williams off big style.' Yvonne turned around when she heard the door. 'Bleedin' 'ell, he don't hang about!'

Nikki turned around to see Helen walk into the pub with Fenner and then quickly turned back to the bar. 'Fuck!' she groaned. 'That's all I need.'

'Yeah, I got the impression from the meeting that you two have got a bit of a history.'

'It was her boyfriend who smashed into the back of the Jag on Saturday night.' Nikki frowned as she watched Fenner guide Helen over to a table. 'I thought he was shagging Shell Dockley.'

'He wants to watch Dockley.' Yvonne spoke out of the side of her mouth, conscious of Fenner approaching the bar. 'She'll bite it off one day, well, if his wife don't beat 'er to it.' She smiled at Fenner. 'Wotcha, Jim! You work fast don't ya?'

Fenner smiled smugly. 'Told you I didn't need a smart car to attract the women.'

'If she's attracted to you Fenner then she needs her head testing.' Nikki lit a cigarette and regarded Fenner through the smoke. 'Anyway, I've seen her boyfriend. I think her standards are slightly higher than the gutter.'

'Jealous are you, Wade?' Fenner gave his order to the barman and then leaned closer to Nikki. 'Shame actually, poor woman has left Head Office with a very good impression of you. Totally misguided of course. Wonder what she'll think of you when she finds out you're a rug muncher?'

'Oh piss off, Fenner.' Nikki said in a bored voice. 'Go and get yourself some new material.'

'Yeah,' Yvonne added. 'And don't forget about that face-lift I suggested.'

In the canteen, Julie Johnston and Julie Saunders peered over the serving counter, trying to identify what was on offer.

''Ere, Dawn.' Julie J said, pointing to a vat of something that looked like nuclear waste. 'What the flaming hell is that?'

'Mongolian lamb casserole,' Dawn replied, reaching for a plate. 'You want some?'

The Julies exchanged a grimace.

Zandra wandered over to the counter and leaned into the cold cabinet for an apple. 'Stick us a tuna melt on will you, Dawn?' She frowned when she noticed the casserole. 'What the frig is that?'

'Mongolian lamb casserole,' Julie S replied. 'I think Mad Tessa's been watching that Jamie Oliver again.'

'More like twatting Casualty. That stuff looks like a road accident.' Zandra leaned over the counter and picked up the ladle, peering into the casserole suspiciously. 'Knowing Tessa, she's probably left the sheep's eyeballs in it.'

'Oh yeah.' Julie S nodded in agreement. 'Remember that African thing she made that time, Jue?'

Julie J pulled a face and shuddered. 'What, that thing with all the horrible bits in?'

'That's the one. Ear'oles, eye'oles …'

'… and arse'oles, yeah, I remember, Jue'

Zandra looked up when she spotted Tessa emerging from the walk-in fridge. 'Delia frigging Smith she ain't! Hey Tessa! Where do you get your recipe ideas from?'

Tessa regarded Zandra icily. 'Fuck off!'

Zandra cackled and took a bite out of her apple. 'Hey, I saw Dominic on his bike this morning,' she announced, turning back to the Julies.

'So did we,' Julie S said, looking up from her examination of the battered cod. 'Easy rider or what Jue?'

'Ooooh.' Julie J sighed dreamily. 'Easy.'

'Yeah, Dopey Di thinks so too.' Zandra stared over at the table Di Barker was sharing with Dominic. 'Look at her, daft cow. The only way she could be more obvious would be if she flashed her tits at him.'

'Talking about obvious, did you see Fenner all over the new HR Manager before? E's taken 'er out for lunch,' Julie S said. 'He'd better 'ope that Shell don't find out.'

'Better hope that Shell don't find out what?' a voice said.

Julie S found herself staring up at Shell Dockley and was forced to think quickly. 'Nuffing, Shell.'

'Bollocks!' Zandra spat. 'Julie was just saying that your Mr Fenner was all over the new Human Resources Manager. He's taken her out to lunch, apparently.'

'I'll bleedin' take 'im out to lunch when I catch up with 'im.' Shell stared at Zandra angrily for a second and then waved at Dawn who had returned with Zandra's tuna melt. 'Dawn, it's chocolate pudding today, innit?'

Dawn nodded. 'With chocolate custard. You want some Shell?'

'No I bleedin' don't,' Shell replied, leaning over the counter to hand Dawn a small foil packet. 'Bodybag's on her way for lunch and the fat cow's bound to want some pudding. Stick this in it.'

Julie J's curiosity got the better of her. 'What's that, Shell?'

'Chocolate laxative.' Shell pulled a face. 'Stupid bitch put me on nights next week.'

'But chocolate laxative, Shell,' Julie S said disapprovingly. 'That could do 'er some damage that.'

Zandra laughed. 'Yeah, she'll be shitting through the eye of a needle by tonight.'

'I couldn't give a shit!' Shell snapped, totally without irony. 'Just make sure you mix it in properly, Dawn.'

Dawn picked up a bowl of chocolate pudding, preparing to follow Shell's orders.

'Bleedin' 'ell, Dawn!' Julie S exclaimed. 'You ain't gonna do it are ya?'

'Too bloody right she is!' Zandra shook her head as she watched Shell stalk out of the canteen in her platform flip-flops. 'Who knows, the next bowl might have your name on it, eh Dawn?'

Helen Stewart returned from her lunch with Jim Fenner feeling like she wanted to take a very long shower. He'd been charm itself, but to Helen it seemed that he was covered in a light coating of slime and when he'd leaned over and put an over-friendly hand on her thigh she had fought to resist the urge to throw her glass of wine into his smarmy face.

Her first impressions of the management team were mixed. Karen was cold on the surface but very professional. Yvonne was a bit of a Del-boy, but obviously shit hot at her job and Fenner was a backstabbing crawler if ever she met one. It was Nikki she was unsure about.

Helen had received nothing but good reports about Nikki from Head Office. She was a bit of a law to herself and tempestuous at times but she was very well regarded by the National IT Manager. The consensus of opinion at Head Office was that the sky was the limit as far as she was concerned. Personally, Helen wasn't sure what to make of Nikki. It was obvious that she was incredibly good at her job but personality wise … well, that was another story completely.

Nikki was on the phone when Helen walked into her office, which gave Helen time to look around.

Helen held a great belief in the idea that you could tell a lot about someone by the way they kept their office. If that was true then Nikki Wade was disorganised, sloppy and didn't give a damn about people's opinion of her.

Nikki's office was a square twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot cube, most of it taken up by two desks that were set in an L shape. On the desks were three computers and a laptop, an avalanche of paperwork and the innards of what looked like at least two more computers. Most of one of the walls was taken up by a huge bookcase, overflowing with software manuals and computer disks. Helen noticed a framed photograph on one of the shelves and wandered over to take a closer look. It was a signed publicity shot of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

Helen looked around at Nikki when she heard her finish her call. 'I'm impressed,' she said, pointing at the photograph. 'Did you meet them?'

Nikki shook her head. 'A friend of a friend,' she replied. 'What can I do for you?'

'Do you mind if I sit down?' Helen looked around the office and noticed that a large stuffed gorilla occupied the only other chair.

'A birthday present from my staff.' Nikki explained. 'Just chuck it on the floor.' She waited for Helen to sit down before asking, 'can I get you a cup of coffee?'

'Yes please,' Helen replied.

While Nikki was in the other office making the coffee, Helen noticed another framed photograph amongst the chaos of her desk. She picked it up and found herself staring at a photo of Nikki and a blonde woman with their arms around each other, both smiling into the camera.

'That's my partner in case you're wondering.'

Helen put the photo down and looked over at Nikki who was standing in the doorway with two mugs of coffee. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be nosy.'

Nikki handed Helen a mug and returned to the chair behind her desk. 'Before you ask, yes, I am a dyke. I suppose Fenner filled you in during your cosy little lunch together.'

'He didn't actually. He spent the whole time talking about himself.'

Nikki's smile was half grimace. 'That would be about right,' she commented as she returned to her chair. 'Now, what can I do for you?'

'I wanted to speak to you about the interviews you've got lined up tomorrow.'

'For the new technician?' Nikki frowned and leaned back in her chair. 'Why is that of any interest to you?'

'Because interviews fall under the remit of human resources. I'd like to sit in on them with you if you don't mind.'

'Sit in or participate?' Nikki asked sharply.

Helen found herself bristling at Nikki's confrontational tone. 'Participate,' she replied. 'Well, it would make sense really …'

'Because you're trained in these things and I'm not?' Nikki sighed and shook her head. 'Look, Ms Stewart …'


'Helen, I'm interviewing for a computer technician. All I'm interested in is whether these people know their way around the inside of a computer. I couldn't care less about whether or not they have a sparkling personality.'

'I do actually have the right to participate in those interviews.'

'Wow, first day in the place and you're already jumping over my head.' Nikki picked up a file and tossed it over to Helen. 'Here. Although I don't know why you even bothered to ask me if you have the right to demand to take over.'

Helen bent down to retrieve the application forms that had fallen out of the file, this done, she sat back in her chair and looked over at Nikki who was staring back at her sullenly. 'Look, I didn't demand anything.'

'People like you always have a talent for splitting hairs.'

'And what's that supposed to mean?'

Nikki shrugged and turned her attention to the window.

Helen only just resisted the urge to leap over Nikki's desk and throttle some sense into her, she settled for sighing heavily. 'Look, Nikki, I understand that you might have a problem with me after what happened to your car but that's something I can't do anything about. I also can't do anything about the fact that we've got to work together.'

'You're right.' Nikki turned round and smiled. 'I'm sorry.'

Helen raised an eyebrow. 'Bad day?'

'The worst.'

Denny was walking out of the toilets when she was almost knocked flying by Bodybag. Denny watched with amazement as Bodybag zipped straight into the nearest cubicle. She had never seen her move so fast before.

Still shaking her head in astonishment, Denny walked down the corridor towards the canteen and her meeting with Shell.

Shell was standing by the vending machine and talking with a hugely fat woman who Denny vaguely remembered being called Flossie or Frances … or something.

'Den.' Shell looked up and nodded when she saw Denny. 'This is Felicity.'

Denny nodded at Felicity and wandered over to stand by Shell's side, surprised when the other woman slid an arm around her shoulders. 'You'll never believe what I've just seen.'

'What's that Den?'

'Bodybag running into the toilets like a bat outta hell.'

Shell smiled. 'That'll teach the dried up old bitch,' she said with a cackle before turning back to Felicity. 'Now, Felicity here, not surprisingly, has been prescribed some diet pills, ain't ya?'

Felicity nodded, Denny looked from her to Shell, confused. 'I don't understand.'

'Well that ain't nothing new.' Shell sighed with frustration. 'Denny, do you know what's in diet pills?'

'Course I don't. I ain't never needed to go on a diet.'

'They've got speed in 'em,' Shell explained. 'You know, Billy whizz.'

'Oh right.' Denny nodded, finally beginning to understand what Shell was getting at. 'And we buy the pills and flog 'em?'

'Blimey Denny! We'll get you a spot on Mastermind yet.' Shell smiled and shook her head. 'Now, Felicity and I have been discussing a price. Twenty quid weren't it?'

'Twenty-five,' Felicity corrected.

'Christ! You don't 'alf drive a hard bargain, Felicity. Okay, so twenty-five it is. Give 'er the money Den.'

'What?' Denny stared at Shell, open-mouthed.

'You got paid today didn't ya?'

'Yeah, but me rent's due.'

Shell tightened her grip on Denny's shoulder. 'Give!'

Denny sighed and reached into her pocket, she counted out five £5 notes and handed them to Felicity who handed Shell a brown pill bottle.

Shell pocketed the bottle and smiled at Felicity. 'Nice doing business with ya.'

As soon as Felicity had gone, Denny looked up at Shell beseechingly. 'Shell, where are we gonna sell 'em?'

'Don't you worry about that, Denny me darlin',' Shell replied. 'And don't you worry about your rent either. You can stay at my place tonight.'

Trish was making herself a cup of tea when Nikki arrived home. She looked at her watch and raised an eyebrow. 'You're home early.'

'Crap day.' Nikki dumped her laptop bag on the sofa and then wandered into the kitchen. 'Anyway, you complaining?'

'Not at all, I'm pleasantly surprised.' Trish smiled when she felt Nikki's breath on the back of her neck. 'My, my, home early and gagging for it. My cup runneth over.'

'Like I said,' Nikki whispered, her breath hot in Trish's ear. 'You complaining?'

Trish turned around and reached up to unbutton Nikki's shirt. 'I'm warning you now, Nik, your pager goes off and I'm going to stick it where the sun don't shine.'

'Don't worry, Lorna's on call tonight.' Nikki smiled and leaned in for a kiss.

Trish quickly pulled away. 'Lorna? You mean the one who fancies you.'

'She might not be the sharpest knife in the rack but she has got good taste.'

'Oh yeah?'

'Yeah.' Nikki took hold of Trish's hands and pinned them to her side. 'Now, I'm giving you five seconds to get up those stairs and get into bed.'

'That's what I love about you, Nik, you're so romantic.'

'Oh, so its romance you want is it? Well, how about you sack the club tonight and I take you out for dinner?'

'So it's okay for you to drop everything and sod off to work, but I'm supposed to ask how high when you tell me to jump?'

Nikki let go of Trish's hands and stepped away. 'Just forget it, okay?'

'Forget what? Forget the fact that I can't remember the last time we woke up together or the fact that we haven't made love in over a fortnight?' Trish sighed and reached out for Nikki's hands. 'I'm sorry. I just miss you being here, that's all.'

'My job's important to me Trish. Apart from you it's the only thing I've got.'

'I know.' Trish smiled and reached out to touch Nikki's face. 'So, why don't you take me to bed and then I'll ring the club to tell them I'm taking a night off.'

'Hmmm, I'm not sure I'll want to take you out now. I might want to keep you in bed for the night.'

'Oh no you don't,' Trish said, pulling away. 'If you honestly think I'm going to let you wriggle out of buying me dinner you've got another thing coming.'

Nikki smiled as she watched Trish start to undress as she walked over to the metal staircase leading up to the mezzanine. By the time she reached the third step she was naked. She turned around and smiled provocatively. 'You coming then, or what?'

'Bloody nearly,' Nikki replied, walking over to join her. 'It has been over a fortnight after all.'


Chapter Three

Nikki stood in the car park, smoking a cigarette furiously while she tried to calculate how many years in prison she'd be sentenced to for strangling Helen Stewart.

Nikki and Helen had been interviewing for the vacant computer technician post all morning, a process not aided by the fact that Nikki had the hangover from hell. Every candidate Nikki had expressed a preference for had been reduced to a nervous wreck by Helen's probing, psychological questions. After eight interviews, Helen had rejected all but two of the applicants and it was now up to her and Nikki to decide who would be offered the job.

Nikki dropped her cigarette end and stamped on it furiously before heading back into the building.

Zandra Plackett and Shell Dockley, both on their way out for a cigarette, were nearly knocked flying by Nikki.

Zandra looked over at Shell and frowned. 'Who slapped her tits?'

Shell lit a cigarette and dropped her match on the floor. 'I think she's had a row with 'er girlfriend.'

'Who? That posh bit?'

'Nah, Lorna Rose, innit?'

Zandra nearly choked on her cigarette. 'Nikki and Lorna Rose? You're kidding me! What would Nikki see in that stupid cow?'

'I dunno do I? How do I know what the daft bitch sees in 'er.' Shell looked around shiftily and then pulled Zandra over towards the wall. 'You alright for whizz Zan?'

Zandra regarded Shell suspiciously. 'You got some?'

'Well I wouldn't be bleedin' asking you if I didn't, would I?'

Zandra considered for a second. 'No, downers are more my style. Got any jellies?'

Shell was about to answer but realised she'd lost her customer when a bright orange sports car screeched to a halt in front of them.

'Frigging hell!' Zandra exclaimed. 'It's an Opal Fruit on wheels!'

The car door opened and a blonde woman got out. She removed her sunglasses and smiled at Zandra and Shell who goggled at her, open-mouthed. 'Do either of you know where I can find Nikki Wade?' she asked.

Zandra nodded and pointed towards the building. 'Top floor, just opposite the lift, you can't miss it.' She regarded the woman for a moment. 'Wait a minute, aren't you Nikki's…'

'Partner, yes I am.' She smiled at Zandra. 'Thanks.'

Zandra and Shell watched her disappear into the building.

'Wonder what rich bitch'll do when she finds out 'er bit of rough's been screwing around,' Shell mused as she took a bunch of keys out of her pocket and gestured towards Trish's car. 'Look at the bleedin' state of this thing!'

Zandra watched with amazement as Shell scored along the length of the car with her keys. 'Shell you twat! She'll know it's one of us!'

'Well as long as you keep yer gob shut, there won't be a problem, will there?' Shell smiled at her handiwork and then put the keys back into her pocket. 'Dunno why she's got a car like this anyway. Stupid flash cow!'

Nikki stared at Helen and only just resisted the urge to leap across the desk and throttle her.

'Look Nikki, we're going to have to come to a decision sooner or later.'

'The only thing stopping us from making a decision is you!' Nikki snapped, running a frustrated hand through her hair before standing up to pace the room. 'I want the guy with the technical knowledge and you want the guy with the A 'Levels.'

'Further education shows that he can make a commitment …'

'I want to employ the guy not bloody marry him!' Nikki sighed and leaned against the filing cabinet. 'Look Helen, I'm the one that's going to have to work with him, not you.'

'Okay, okay, so let's make a list of good and bad points for both of them and I'll see if I can let you persuade me.'

A while later Nikki was leaning over Helen who was scribbling on a notepad. They both looked up when the door opened.

'This looks very cosy.'

Unconsciously, Nikki stepped away from Helen and the desk. 'Trish, what are you doing here?'

'Sorry darling.' Trish sighed and reached into her bag. 'I would've phoned but you forgot to take your mobile this morning.'

Nikki took the mobile and then looked over at Helen who was trying to pretend that she wasn't listening to the conversation. 'Helen, this is Trish. Trish, this is Helen Stewart, our new Human Resources Manager.' Nikki frowned when Trish and Helen nodded at each other coolly and suddenly got the impression that something was going on in the room that she wasn't party to. Deciding quickly that it was in her head, she shrugged and turned back to Trish. 'So why didn't you ring me on the switchboard?'

'Because I was driving past anyway and thought I might as well pop in,' Trish replied, looking around the office with distaste. 'Nik, this place is a pig-sty! Maybe I should send the cleaning lady down to muck it out for you.'

Nikki sighed. 'As much as I'd love to stand around all day discussing my slovenly behaviour, I do actually have work to do.'

'I also wanted to remind you about the opening tonight,' Trish continued.


'Liz's restaurant.'

'Shit! Is that tonight? I'm on call.'

'Well you'd better un-call yourself because I promised her we'd be there.'

'Why can't you go on your own? It's you she wants there, not me.'

Trish sighed, irritably. 'Because I quite fancied the idea of having a drink. I can only do that if you drive.'

'So get a taxi.'

'Come on Nik, please?' Trish walked over and took Nikki's hands. 'I want you to be there.'

Nikki stared at Trish for a moment and then nodded. 'Okay, leave it with me.'

Helen suppressed a smile and tried to concentrate on the notes she was making. Despite appearances to the contrary, it was obvious who wore the trousers in that relationship. No wonder Nikki was so irritable at work.

The Julies were discussing necklines in the canteen while Crystal looked on disapprovingly. 'Fashion! Is that all you two can talk about?'

The Julies rolled their eyes at each other and then returned to their perusal of the Freemans catalogue.

Zandra, not bothering to stop to get some food, joined them at the table and sat down. She regarded the Julies with ill-concealed excitement. 'I know something you don't know.'

'If this is anyfing to do with Nikki's girlfriend 'aving a go at Bobby when he tried to stop 'er at the desk then don't bother,' Julie S said, not looking up from the catalogue.

'Yeah, don't bother,' Julie J added, flicking the page over. 'Bodybag's been chuntering on about it for the past 'alf hour.'

'She nearly burst a bleedin' blood vessel,' Julie S continued. 'The way she goes on it should be 'er on the security desk and not 'im.'

'She's bloody scarier alright!' Zandra nodded in agreement and then started flapping her hands excitedly. 'No, listen, a little bird told me that Nikki's having an affair.'

This caught the attention of both Julies. 'Who with?' They chorused.

'Lorna Rose.'

'Oh don't be so bleedin' stupid, yer slack divvy!' Julie S said, dismissing Zandra's revelation by turning her attention back to the catalogue. 'Nikki don't even like Lorna Rose.'

'How do you know?'

Julie S sighed and removed her glasses. 'Because Zan, we 'eard 'er telling Yvonne that Lorna got on 'er tits.'

'Well there you go then.' Zandra snapped.

'Not on 'er tits in that way you plonker! I meant getting on 'er tits as in doing 'er head in!'

'Yeah.' Julie J nodded and then looked over at Crystal. 'What do you reckon Crystal?'

'I reckon that they won't be so hot for each other when they're burnin' in hell,' Crystal replied. 'Anyway, I don't see why what they get up to is any of your business.'

Zandra sat back in her chair and folded her arms. 'Well, I think they're at it. Haven't you noticed the way Lorna goes all flustered when Nikki's in the room?'

The Julies looked at each other for a moment.

'Maybe she 'as got a point, Jue,' Julie J said. 'What d'you reckon?'

'Could be.'

Both Julies leaned over the table towards Zandra. 'Convince us.'

On of the first things Helen did after she accepted the job in Manchester was to check if there was a health club nearby. Head Office had its own sports complex, complete with gym, squash courts and swimming pool and over the years, Helen had fallen into the habit of utilising it on her lunch break. Thanks to a chance conversation with Karen Betts, she'd found out that there was a health club less than five minutes away that offered a discount to Larkair staff.

After a frustrating morning spent cooped up in an office with Nikki, a swim sounded like just the thing she needed to calm her down in preparation for a budget meeting with Karen that afternoon.

The pool was deserted except for a solitary swimmer who was powering her way through the water like a nuclear submarine. By the time Helen had completed two lengths with in her sedate breaststroke, the other swimmer had completed six. Feeling more than a little inadequate, Helen decided to give up when she reached the shallow end.

The other swimmer completed two more lengths, gliding through the water with an economical but flashy looking crawl until finally she stopped and rested against the side of the pool, slicking her short, dark hair back with her hands.

'We must stop meeting like this.'

Nikki looked over in the direction of the voice and almost did a double take when she spotted Helen. 'Jesus! Is nowhere safe?'

Helen laughed. 'Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.' She looked over at Nikki who was smiling back at her. 'You should smile more often.'

'You calling me miserable?'

'Miserable no,' Helen replied. 'Intimidating yes.'

Nikki smiled apologetically. 'I'm sorry for being an arse this morning.'

'Don't worry about it. I think we just got off on the wrong foot.'

'You're right.'

'So how about we try again?' Helen smiled and held her hand out to Nikki. 'Fresh start?'

Nikki waded over and took Helen's hand for the briefest of moments. 'Okay, I promise not to spill your beer if you promise not to shunt my car.'

'It's a deal.'

Both women smiled and settled back against the edge of the pool.

'So what are …?'

'Do you …?'

Helen nudged Nikki with her elbow. 'Go on, I wasn't about to say anything earth shattering.'

'I was just going to ask you what we're going to do about the personnel situation.'

Helen sighed. 'Well, I think I'm going to phone Josh Mitchell tomorrow and tell him he's got the job. You're right. You're the one that's going to have to work with him, you should have the casting vote.'

'Thank you.' Nikki smiled cautiously. 'I suppose I should also apologise for Trish barging in like that before.'

'Does she make a habit of it?'

'No, it was the first time she's ever been anywhere near the place. She doesn't exactly approve of my choice of career.'

Helen raised an eyebrow but resisted her natural curiosity to ask why. 'What does she do for a living?'

'You know that nightclub you were in when we had that accident with the beer? She owns it.'

Helen looked at Nikki, almost in disbelief. 'You're joking? She owns Heaven? Christ, Nikki! Now I understand how you can afford a car like that on Larkair wages.'

'From what I remember, your car isn't exactly an old banger either,' Nikki responded defensively.

Helen raised an eyebrow at Nikki's confrontational tone. 'You mean the Lexus? That's Sean's car, I drive a Peugeot.'

'And I used to drive a Fiesta. The Jag was a birthday present.' Nikki stood up and pulled herself out of the pool. 'If I was that mercenary I wouldn't be working, would I?'

All Helen could do was curse herself silently as she watched Nikki walked away.

In the admin office, Barbara Hunt looked up from her computer screen and regarded the Julies suspiciously as they studied the IT department roster. 'Is there something I can help you two with?' she asked.

The Julies turned around and shook their heads.

'No, you're okay, Babs,' Julie S replied as she nudged her friend. 'We was off now anyway.'

Julie J nodded. 'Yeah, we got what we came for.'

Zandra was waiting for them outside the admin office door. 'Did you find out?'

Julie S looked around shiftily and motioned Zandra into a conspiratorial huddle. 'You was right, Zan. Only Nikki and Lorna are working this afternoon.'

Julie J frowned. 'But I don't understand, Zan. What we gonna do, catch 'em at it?'

'Don't be twatting stupid!' Zandra hissed. 'They might be at it but they're hardly gonna be at it on Nikki's desk, are they?'

'Well you never know,' Julie S said reflectively. 'Anyway, what's the plan, Zan?'

'Ere, Jue, you're a poet and you didn't know it,' Julie J said with a giggle.

Zandra sighed with frustration. 'Look, what we do is sabotage one of the computers on our desk and call Lorna out to fix it. Then, we can get Marie or someone at the other end of the room to nobble their computer and call Nikki out.'

Julie S exchanged a puzzled look with Julie J. 'Yeah, but if they ain't gonna be stupid enough to do it in Nikki's office, they're 'ardly likely to rip each others clothes off on the sales floor are they?'

'I should bleeding well hope not!' Zandra said distastefully. 'No, this is an observation exercise. We scope them out, see how they look at each other.'

'Who do you fink you are? David bleedin' Attenborough?' Julie S sighed and shook her head. 'Look, Zan, no matter how gooey-eyed Lorna Rose goes when she sees Nikki, we still ain't gonna have proof that they're at it, are we?'

'Well we …' Zandra paused when she caught sight of Helen approaching out of the corner of her eye. 'Afternoon, Miss Stewart,' she said brightly.


Julie J nudged Zandra as they watched Helen disappear down the corridor. 'Ere, Zan, you don't reckon she 'eard what we was on about do you?'

'Nah.' Zandra considered for a second and then shook her head. 'Anyway, we'd better sort out how we're going to do this.'

Zandra nudged Julie J when she saw Lorna walk out onto the sales floor. 'Here we go, girls.'

Lorna frowned suspiciously when she saw three faces looking up at her expectantly. 'What's up with you lot?'

'Me keyboard's not working, Lorna.' Julie S replied, banging on the keys as if to prove her point.

'I'm not surprised if you hammer away at it like that.' Lorna wandered over to where Julie S was sitting for a closer look. 'Well, I don't think you're going to get very far like that, my love,' she said, picking up the loose keyboard lead. 'Your keyboard's not plugged in to the back of your computer.'

'Well I'll be buggered!' Julie S exclaimed. 'How the 'ell did that happen?'

'Well it usually …' Lorna's words trailed off when she saw Nikki walking by. 'I … er.'

Zandra bit her lower lip against a fit of giggles. 'You okay there, Lorna? You look like you're on another planet.'

'Yeah, planet Nikki,' Julie S said, completely forgetting herself.

The mention of Nikki's name brought Lorna back down to earth. 'What was that?'

'Oh nothing,' Julie J replied, also fighting a giggling fit. 'We was finking earlier, it must get a bit lonely for you.'

'Yeah, what with you and Nikki all alone in that 'uge office,' Julie S added.

Lorna looked from Julie J to Julie S and then over at Zandra who was shaking with laughter. 'Would someone mind telling me what the joke is please?'

Crystal, who had up until now been ignoring the conversation, sucked her teeth and looked up. 'They reckon you and Nikki is having an affair.' She shook her head disapprovingly, totally unaware of the bombshell she had dropped. 'Although what business it is of theirs only the Lord knows.'

Zandra and the Julies stared up at Lorna who was blushing furiously.

'Hey, Lorna!' Zandra said. 'Is that steam I can see coming out of your ears?'

'I don't know what you're talking about,' Lorna blustered. 'I've got a boyfriend.'

Julie S looked up and smiled sympathetically. 'Ahhh, never mind, Lorna, your secret's safe with us.'

'What secret?' Lorna was incredibly agitated now, moving from one foot to the other, her eyes flickering around the room. 'I don't know what you're talking about, I'm straight.'

Lorna backed away from the desk and almost ran for the safety of the IT department.

Julie S groaned. 'Oh shit! What about me bleedin' keyboard?'

Zandra watched Lorna disappear and shook her head. 'Straight? Yeah, and the Pope buys French ticklers from Tesco's!'

'Leave the woman alone,' Crystal said. 'She ain't never done nothing to you.'

Julie S rounded on Crystal angrily. 'What did you 'ave to go and tell 'er for?'

'Yeah.' Julie J joined in the attack. 'Stupid cow!'

Zandra leaned back in her seat and folded her arms. 'You carry on the way you are Crystal and you're going to find your reward in heaven sooner than you think!'

Nikki had plugged Marie's keyboard back into the back of her computer and was about to take the back stairs back up to her office when she saw Lorna fleeing through the doors on the other end of the sales floor. After a moment's consideration, she changed direction and set off after her.

Zandra and the Julies watched Nikki sprinting past them with great interest.

Zandra smiled triumphantly. 'There you go, what did I tell you?'

Nikki arrived back in the office to find Lorna sitting at her desk with her head in her hands. 'Lorna?' she said, putting a tentative hand on the other woman's shoulder. 'Are you okay?'

'I'm fine,' Lorna replied, trying not to react to the feel of Nikki's hand on her shoulder. 'Just a bit stressed out. Time of the month, you know.'

'Yeah, tell me about it,' Nikki said, relieved that it wasn't anything serious. 'Trish usually turns into a cross between Jack the Ripper and Attila the Hun! Are you sure you're okay? You don't have to cover the on call tonight if you're feeling off.'

'No,' Lorna said, smiling up at Nikki. 'I'll be okay.'

It was unfortunate for Nikki and Lorna that just at that moment, Helen was walking past on her way to the lift. Through the open office door, she saw Nikki with her hand on Lorna's shoulder. Helen pressed the lift button and thought back to the gossip she'd overheard in the corridor earlier. If Nikki wasn't careful, Helen reflected, she was going to end up losing that smart new car.

Later that night, Nikki sat rigid in the passenger seat of Trish's Lamborghini as she practically broke the land-speed record.

'Jesus Christ, Trish!' Nikki exclaimed. 'Bloody well slow down!'

'We're late.'

'Well that's no reason to try to get us both killed!'

'I don't believe it!' Trish snapped. 'One day I've had this car and already it's scratched!'

Nikki rolled her eyes, Trish had been in a lousy mood every since discovering the scratch that ran the complete length of the car. 'Change the bloody record, Trish!'

'It's one of those nutters at your place, I just know it is.'

'Look, I'll get Bobby to check the car park security video for you, although why he should do that after you had such a go at him I don't know.'

'Stupid tosser wouldn't let me up to your office!'

'Well you didn't have to call him a stupid tosser to his face! I've been getting grief from his bloody wife about it all afternoon!'

The argument continued until they reached Wilmslow and Trish swerved into the restaurant car park.

'This is it is it?' Nikki asked, peeling herself off the windscreen. 'It doesn't look that impressive.'

'Well just make sure you don't say that to Liz. You wouldn't believe how much money she's poured into the place.' Trish checked her make-up in the rear-view mirror and then reached over to take Nikki's hand. 'Sorry about being a pain, Nik.'

Nikki squeezed Trish's hand and then released it in order to undo her seat belt. 'It's alright. Christ! I've just remembered that I've got to get through the whole night without a drink.'

'I'll make it up to you later.'

'I'll bloody well make sure you do, don't worry about that!'

Nikki climbed out of the car, a serious feat of agility seeing as she was so tall and the car was so low and nearly fell on top of the car in the neighbouring parking space. Nikki frowned when she noticed that the car was a black Lexus with a dent in the bonnet.

Nikki allowed Trish to take her hand and pull her in the direction of the restaurant, and once inside, she wasn't at all surprised to see Helen Stewart and her boyfriend standing over by the bar.

'Shit!' Trish said. 'Isn't that …?'

'Yes,' Nikki replied. 'Yes it bloody is.'


Chapter Four

Helen gasped when she spotted Nikki and Trish.

'Isn't that the woman whose car we crashed into?' Sean asked in a shocked voice.

'Yes it is,' Helen replied. 'Nikki Wade.'

Nikki and Trish were pounced on almost immediately by Liz, the restaurant's owner. She also happened to be Sean's cousin, hence his and Helen's invite to the opening.

Helen was surprised to see that Nikki was wearing a charcoal grey suit instead of her usual trouser and shirt combinations. She had combined this suit with a sky-blue silk shirt, and the cold colour was a direct contrast to the passionate dark eyes that suddenly locked with Helen's own.

Helen found herself trembling under Nikki's intense stare, feeling a sudden something flash between them, something she couldn't understand or explain. Then the moment was gone and Nikki turned to speak to Trish. Helen was left with a tight, tingling sensation at the back of her neck and a strange sense of disquiet.

She looked up to see Sean regarding her with a puzzled stare. 'You okay, Hel?' he asked, concerned. 'You look like you're about to throw up or something.'

Helen nodded, realising that she did indeed feel slightly nauseous. 'I do feel a bit odd,' she stammered. 'It must be something I've eaten.'

'You sure you're okay? We can go if you feel …'

'I'm fine, Sean,' Helen said quickly.

'Well if you're sure.'

'I'm sure,' Helen soothed, trying to make her tone as reassuring as possible. 'I'll be okay.'

'You know,' Sean said, gesturing over at Trish. 'I'm sure I've seen her somewhere before.'

'She owns Heaven.'

'The nightclub?' Sean raised his eyebrows. 'Bet she's worth a bob or two.'

'Well she managed to afford to buy Nikki that XK8 for her birthday.'

Sean frowned when he noticed that Nikki and Trish were holding hands. 'Are they?'

'Together? Yes they are.'

'What a waste.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

Sean didn't get chance to reply because Liz decided to drag Nikki and Trish over for an introduction.

'Trish, this is Sean, my cousin. I think you'll find that you've already met.'

'Sean Parr?' Trish frowned up at Sean for a moment before she smiled in recognition. 'Of course, I remember you.'

Sean grinned. 'My God! Trish Clarke. Now that's a blast from the past.'

Nikki looked from Trish to Sean, eyes narrowing suspiciously. 'Do you two know each other?'

'We once had a torrid affair,' Sean replied, drawing a shocked gasp from both Helen and Nikki.

'Relax, Nik.' Trish reached up and squeezed Nikki's shoulder reassuringly. 'We were both about ten at the time.'

Liz laughed at the look on Nikki's face. 'From the moment Sean here pulled Trish's ponytail it was love at first sight. Anyway, Nikki, Trish, meet Sean's girlfriend, Ellen.'

'Helen.' Helen corrected Liz with ill-concealed irritation. 'Hi, Nikki.'

Nikki grinned. 'Hi, Ellen.'

Liz frowned up at Nikki. 'You've met before?'

'We work together,' Nikki replied, still grinning at an extremely embarrassed Helen. 'Don't we, Ellen?'

Liz, completely missing the joke, grabbed hold of Sean's arm. 'Well, you won't mind if I borrow Sean for a while, will you, Helen? This lot haven't seen him since he moved down to London.'

As soon as Liz and Sean had disappeared into the crowd, Trish took Nikki's hand. 'Come on, Nik, I saw Simon and Abby when we came in, I haven't seen them in ages.'

Nikki smiled at Helen apologetically. 'I'll catch up with you later.'

Helen turned back to the bar and ordered another glass of wine from the barman, who now that Sean had gone, made a concerted effort to chat her up. Feeling a bit neglected, she allowed him to flirt with her until a new influx of guests pulled him away.

Helen turned round, tried, unsuccessfully, to spot Sean in the crowd, and then smiled when she spotted someone who looked just as awkward and out of place as she did.

Nikki was being pulled around the room by Trish and obviously bored rigid by the constant flow of conversation and introductions around her. Trish stopped again when she encountered another group of people she knew, Nikki hung around in the background like a thundercloud. Helen watched her as she fidgeted, shifting from one foot to the other, looking increasingly bored and uncomfortable with every passing moment.

Nikki looked up and for a moment her eyes met with Helen's, then Helen was tapped on the shoulder by the barman and by the time she managed to pull herself away, Nikki was nowhere to be seen.

'Of all the gin joints in the world,' a voice said.

Helen smiled. 'That is the worst Humphrey Bogart impression I've ever heard,' She said, turning round to see Nikki grinning at her. 'And if you call me Ellen you'll be wearing this glass of wine!'

'I was very impressed by your self-control actually,' Nikki said, signalling to the barman. 'I've lost count of the number of times I've nearly throttled the stupid woman.'

'I thought she was a friend of yours.'

'Friend of Trish's, well, all of these people are friends of Trish's. I'm just the one who gets dragged along in her wake.'

'Won't she be wondering where you are?'

Nikki sipped the tonic water the barman had given her and shrugged. 'Not really. Christ! I hate these things. I always end up either propping up the bar or making myself scarce in the kitchen.' Nikki sighed and lit a cigarette. 'So what do you make of the Cheshire set?'

'Sean never got the chance to introduce me around.'

'You're not missing anything, well, unless you're into talking about horses, money and who's having an affair with who.'

Helen looked over at Trish who was having what looked like a very serious conversation with Liz. 'Trish seems to fit in very well.' She turned back to Nikki who was staring into her drink. 'How did you two you meet?'

'We bumped into each other, literally, in a bar one day and after I helped her try to mop the spilt tomato juice off her blouse, she asked me out on a date.'

Helen laughed. 'Sounds like you have quite a talent for bumping into people.'

'I've got quite a talent for bumping into you,' Nikki replied dryly. 'I can't seem to turn a corner these days without finding you on the other side.'

'Sorry about what I said earlier … about your car.'

Nikki shrugged. 'A lot of people see Trish and then automatically assume that I'm a kept woman. The irony of it all is that if Trish had her way, I would be.'

'How long have you been together?'

'Ten years.' Nikki looked around and noticed that Trish was talking to Sean. 'Looks like we've got something in common after all.'

'What do you mean?'

'Well, from the looks of it, Sean's not exactly on the breadline himself.' Nikki turned back to the bar and took another sip of her drink. 'I know a made-to-measure suit when I see one.' Reaching into her pocket for her cigarettes, she lit one. 'What brought the two of you up to Manchester?' she asked Helen.

'Sean's a solicitor,' Helen explained. 'His father's been after him to join the family practice up here for years, so when I got asked to apply for the job up here, everything seemed to fall into place.'

'Do you think you've made the right decision in moving up here?'

'I'll let you know after my first proper management meeting next week,' Helen replied. 'Can I ask you a question?'

'Go ahead.'

'What's your opinion about the rest of the management team?'

'You asking me to be a grass?'

'No, I'm asking your opinion.'

Nikki thought for a moment and then nodded. 'So who do you want to start with?'

'Jim Fenner.'

Nikki laughed around the cigarette she was lighting. 'He got transferred to Manchester from Birmingham a couple of years ago. According to Yvonne, he's known as Preparation H down there because he's always up someone's arse. You'll find that out for yourself at the next management meeting … he's oilier than a mechanic's overalls.'

'I get the impression he's a bit of a womaniser.'

'I suppose you could say that, I don't think there's an attractive woman in the place he's not made a pass at.'

'Including you?'

Nikki nearly choked on her drink. 'You're joking aren't you? He clocked me as a dyke the first time he saw me. Anyway, he's rumoured to be shagging one of the telephone agents, a particularly nasty piece of work called Shell Dockley.'

'What's he like to work with?'

'Sheer hell, I mean IT and operations have to work pretty closely together which I could cope with if he didn't take every opportunity to moan about me to Stubberfield.'

'Why does he do that?'

'Because he's a back-stabbing, shit-stirring wanker with the morals of an alley cat.' Nikki laughed at Helen's shocked expression. 'I was actually paraphrasing Yvonne. She's got a way with words I just can't compete with.'

'You get on well with her, don't you?'

'She's the only one to fight in my corner during management meetings, I idolise the woman! Seriously though, don't be deceived. She's very tough. One of those people who you never know what's going on in their head, know what I mean?'

Helen nodded. 'I've picked up on a lot of tension between her and Karen.'

'There's a lot of tension between Karen and everyone, basically because she controls the purse strings and is usually tighter than Ebeneezer Scrooge on a bad day.'

'They like her down at Head Office.'

'Yeah, well that's because Manchester is the only call centre to consistently under spend its budget.' Nikki sighed and shook her head. 'I've never really known what to make of her, I always thought she was a bit of a cold fish but then we got sent to a conference together and I found out that she's a really different person away from work.'

'In what way?'

'Well, there wasn't much to do at the hotel in the way of evening entertainment so we started talking, and while she drank me under the table I found out that she's got a really great sense of humour.'

Helen laughed. 'She drank you under the table?'

'Ended up giving me a fireman's lift back to my room …' Nikki frowned when Helen smiled knowingly. 'Where she left me, fully clothed on top of the bed before returning to her own room. Whatever you've heard to the contrary, we don't jump on every straight woman we meet, well, I don't anyway.'

'You don't?'

'It's very rare that I get the inclination.'

'And when you do?' Helen, unaware that she was doing so, leaned closer to Nikki. 'Do you ever act on it?'

Nikki swallowed to lubricate a mouth that was suddenly dry. She felt warmth spreading throughout her body when she detected the invitation in Helen's words, unsure of whether it was done deliberately or unconsciously. The one thing that Nikki was sure about was that the woman standing next to her was having a serious effect on her heart rate and breathing.

Nikki managed to drag her eyes away from Helen's. She forced herself to look over at Trish, an action that was the mental equivalent of a bucket of cold water in the face. After a moment, she turned back to Helen, avoiding her eyes. 'I'm a one woman woman.'

Helen, totally unaware of the turmoil she was causing in Nikki, found that her curiosity was overriding her better judgement. 'Have you never been interested in men?'

Nikki shook her head slowly. 'No, they do nothing for me.'

'So you've never …?'

'No, and it's not just because I've never met the right one, I just … I've never felt the inclination, that's all. Like I said, they do nothing for me.'

'How can you be sure?'

'The same way you are, if you are.'

Helen laughed uncomfortably, detecting the challenge in Nikki's words. 'I'm not interested in women, not that way.'

Nikki couldn't help but smile at Helen's obvious embarrassment. 'You should give it a go sometime. You don't know what you're missing.'

'Give what a go?' a voice asked.

Nikki turned around to see Trish standing there, an agitated look on her face. 'You okay, darling?'

'Not really no,' Trish replied. 'I've just had a call on my mobile. There's been some trouble at the club. Some TV celebrity, coked up to the eyeballs decided to stab someone with a broken beer bottle. The press are all over the place. Nik, I'm going to have to go back there. I would drive myself but I'm over the limit.'

'Yeah no problem.' Nikki picked up her cigarettes from the bar before smiling apologetically at Helen. 'I'll see you at work tomorrow.'

Trish was silent for the entire drive back into Manchester. Not that Nikki minded, she was too busy trying to concentrate on her driving. The XK8 was one thing, but driving Trish's Lamborghini was like trying to control a herd of stampeding elephants. The slightest touch on the accelerator was enough to send it surging forward with enough power to scare the pants off her.

It was with some relief that she pulled up in the car park outside the rear entrance of the club where a crowd of policemen and journalists were gathered.

Trish put a restraining hand over Nikki's to stop her from undoing her seat belt. 'There's no need for you to get involved in this. Why don't you go home? I won't be long.'

'But …'

'Please Nik, it's probably all been sorted out now anyway,' Trish continued. 'Look, if it makes you feel any better, I'll get security to stay on until the police have gone and I'll get one of them to walk me back to the flat, alright?'

Nikki sighed. 'Okay, but ring me as soon as you know what's going on.'

Trish nodded and placed her hand on Nikki's thigh. 'I won't be long, I promise.'

Helen was in bed, making notes for her meeting with Stubberfield the following morning. Sean emerged from the en-suite and took a flying leap onto the bed, the impact causing Helen to nearly stab herself in the leg with her biro.

'Sean!' she howled. 'Do you have to?'

Sean responded by laughing at the outraged look on her face. 'God! You sulky bitch! You need a damn good thrashing!' He tried to grab the notepad out of her hands but when she held it out of reach he settled for tickling her.

'Sean, stop it! Helen snapped, pushing him away. 'I've got to get this done for tomorrow.'

Sean sighed wearily and flopped onto his back. 'You're no fun.'

'Better than being an irritating arsehole!' Helen countered, moving away from the kick that was aimed at her.

Sean rolled over onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow. 'What are you doing anyway?'

'I've got a meeting with Simon tomorrow.' Helen replied, not looking up. 'I'm making a list of all the things I need to ask him.'

'You seemed to be in rather a deep conversation with Nikki tonight,' Sean commented. 'I thought she was your nemesis. You've come home cursing her for the past couple of days.'

Helen stopped writing and looked up. 'We got off on the wrong foot, that's all. Anyway, what's all this about you and Trish?'

Sean smiled and raised an eyebrow. 'Jealous?'

'For some reason, I don't think I have to worry about her, do you?'

'Because she's a lesbian you mean?'

Helen considered Sean for a second and then put her notepad down on the bedside table. 'Have you got a problem with her being gay?'

'Well you have to admit, it is a bit of a waste.'

'Waste of what?'

'Waste of a rich, successful and good-looking woman,' Sean replied, his tone dismissive. 'Did you know her father's one of the richest men in the country?'

'Who? Trish's father?'

Sean nodded. 'He owns a newspaper group and a couple of TV companies. Like I said, it just amazes me that someone who is as eligible as that can end up with someone with practically nothing going for her at all.'

'Like us you mean? Posh git with the silver spoon in his mouth meets working class girl from a council estate in Stirling.'

'That's not what I mean and you know it! You worked your way out of that. Look how successful you are now.'

'The same goes for Nikki,' Helen protested. 'It would be very easy for her to live off Trish, but instead, she works fifty plus hours a week when she doesn't have to. '

'You admire her, don't you?'

'I admire the fact that she's extremely good at her job, even though she is a pain in the arse to work with.'

Sean smiled and reached out to run his hand along Helen's thigh. 'So I don't need to worry about her then?'

'Oh do me a favour Sean! Just because she's gay it doesn't mean she pounces on every straight woman she meets.'

'Thought you said she was having an affair with one of her staff.'

'I'm not sure about that now,' Helen replied. 'I think I might have got the wrong end of the stick. She seems too straight to be having an affair.'

'Straight? Strange choice of words.' Sean smiled and pulled Helen down into the bed. 'Anyway, I've had enough of talking about other people. Fancy a shag?'

'God Sean! You're such a romantic!'

'Oh and when was the last time you refused the offer of a shag?'

'I can't remember.'


The following afternoon, Nikki sat at her desk and struggled to keep her eyes open. Trish hadn't returned from the club until gone four o'clock in the morning and her explanation of the night's events and their subsequent argument meant that Nikki had only managed to grab two hours sleep on the sofa. Nikki shifted uncomfortably in her chair, thinking about the sofa sent another spasm of pain down her spine.

A while later, Denny woke Nikki up when she arrived with the mail delivery. 'Bleedin' 'ell, Nikki!' She exclaimed. 'You okay?'

Nikki grimaced and took the pile of orange internal mail envelopes that Denny held out to her. 'There's nothing wrong with me a good nights sleep won't put right.'

When Denny had gone, Nikki flicked through the envelopes until she found one that was marked urgent and addressed in Karen's handwriting. It took her three attempts to digest the contents.

Everyone who passed Nikki in the corridor as she stormed towards Karen's office could swear that they saw steam coming out of her ears.

Karen had been talking with Helen when the door to her office nearly flew off its hinges and Nikki erupted into the room.

Nikki walked straight over to Karen's desk and threw a piece of paper at her. 'What the bloody hell is this?' While Karen was reading the letter, Nikki smiled at Helen who was staring at her, wide-eyed. 'Hi, Helen.'

Karen sighed and handed the letter back to Nikki. 'It's the authorisation form for the new servers you put a request in for.'

Nikki leaned over the desk and opened the letter out, placing it, face-up, in front of Karen. 'So we both agree that it's an authorisation form? Okay, now you're going to have to help me out here. What I don't understand is how an authorisation that has been signed by the General Manager can be returned to me with 'Not Approved' scrawled all over it in your bloody handwriting!'

Karen looked over at Helen and smiled apologetically. 'Sorry about this Helen, manners have never been Nikki's strong point.' She stood up and regarded Nikki with an icy stare. 'In future would you mind checking whether or not I'm alone before barging in here like a hormonal adolescent?'

'Oh come on Karen, this is totally out of order!' Nikki snapped, refusing to be intimidated. 'You can't go over Simon's head like that.'

'Simon's aware of it. I wouldn't have done it otherwise.'

'Then why?'

'Because the money has been diverted into staff training.'

Nikki stared at Karen in disbelief. 'Do what?'

'Actually, I think that might be something to do with me.'

Nikki turned to confront Helen. 'Pardon me?'

'Head Office have told me to get more staff enrolled on the NVQ scheme as part of the IIP award.'


'Investors In People.'

'Fine! Bloody marvellous! So while you've got a nice little logo to put on your headed notepaper, we're running a multi-million pound business on four call servers that only just scraped through the Year 2000 compliancy test? You people really do make me laugh.'

Helen stood up, feeling a red mist of anger descending over her. After a night of very confusing dreams and very little sleep, she felt tired and irritable. 'Look Nikki, I can understand that you're upset …'

'Too bloody right I am!'

'Will you give me a chance to explain?' Helen raised her voice for the first time, shocking Nikki into silence. 'Now, I actually have no choice in this matter, Head Office have made getting the IIP award a top priority. I had no idea that the money would be taken off your budget.'

'Yeah right, of course you didn't.'

Helen took a step closer to Nikki and looked her straight in the eye. 'No, I didn't.'

'Helen, I couldn't give a shit!' Nikki grabbed the letter from Karen's desk, walked over to the door, and opened it. 'You know something? People like you really piss me off. Straight off the graduate training scheme and you waltz in here like you own the place. Well I'll tell you something, the next time Fenner has a go at me about his call stats, I'm going to tell him to go and talk to you.'

Helen and Karen flinched when the door slammed and nearly fell off its hinges for the second time.

Karen sighed and returned to her chair. 'Sorry about that. I often think that we should get an alarm installed to warn everyone of her impending arrival.' She looked up at Helen who was staring at the door. 'Are you okay?'

'I just don't understand how someone so obviously intelligent can be so obtuse.'

'She's got a very short fuse,' Karen replied. 'And if she's not careful it's going to get her into very serious trouble one day. Now, where were we?'

Helen tried to listen to Karen as she outlined the budget for the new staff-training scheme but found that she couldn't stop thinking about Nikki.


Chapter Five

Everyone looked up and stared at the figure that shambled into the room. She was dressed in dusty black jeans and a skin-tight white T-shirt with the legend 'Wash your mind out' written in small black letters on the front. This attire would suit someone reeling out of a nightclub in the early hours, but not the Regional IT Manager, ambling into a management meeting she was already half an hour late for.

Yvonne Atkins was the first to comment. 'Bleedin' 'ell, Nikki, you look like you ain't slept in a fortnight!'

Nikki grimaced in reply and then nodded at Stubberfield. 'Sorry I'm late, Simon. The primary domain server crashed at eleven o'clock last night and I've had to completely rebuild it. Didn't have chance to get home and change.'

'Don't worry,' Stubberfield replied, motioning for her to take a seat at the table. 'Jim's already filled us in.'

Helen studied Nikki as she lumbered over to take the vacant seat beside Yvonne, noticing the deathly white face and the tired shadows under her red-rimmed eyes.

'So is everything up and working now?'

Nikki nodded at Stubberfield while she worked her way through a huge yawn. 'Lorna and I managed to get the last user account back on about fifteen minutes ago.'

Helen frowned when she heard Nikki's reply. 'But surely you keep tape back-ups?'

'The tape drive packed up a month ago.' Nikki yawned again and nodded in Karen's direction. 'You do realise that the cost of the new one I put a request in for is nothing compared to the cost of the overtime we put in last night?'

Stubberfield looked up from the notes he was making. 'Karen, put that request through as a matter of urgency will you please?'

'Yes Simon.' Karen made a brief note and then looked over at Nikki with rare concern. 'Are you okay? Maybe you should go straight home after this.'

'Don't worry I'm going to.'

Helen watched Nikki as she leaned back in her chair and stretched, locking her arms above her head. As she did this, her T-shirt rode up and revealed a tanned and enviably flat stomach. Helen felt her colour begin to rise, especially when Nikki realised that she was being studied and folded her arms, staring across the table at Helen with tired confusion.


'Sorry ... what?' Helen turned around to see Stubberfield frowning at her.

'I was going to ask you to carry on with your report.'

'Oh yes, right.' Helen, truly flustered, flicked through the pages in her notebook. 'I've just got one more thing, and this will affect the IT Department more than anyone.' She started slightly when she noticed Nikki sit up to attention. 'Er … we have an industrial placement student arriving next week. She's going to be working on the creation of the UK Reservations Webpages for the Intranet. I'd like you to take responsibility for her if that's okay, Nikki?'

Nikki nodded. 'No problem. What's she going to go for a computer though? I'm not paying for a new one off my budget.'

'That's all being sorted out. I'll speak to you about it before she arrives.' Helen closed her notebook and turned to Stubberfield. 'Simon?'

'Thank you, Helen.' He paused and regarded the other face around the table for a moment. 'Now, Helen's had an idea that has been approved by Head Office. She seems to think that as a management team we lack cohesion, so …' He shifted uncomfortably in his seat under intent stares from Nikki, Karen, Yvonne and Fenner. 'Helen, I think I'd better let you explain.'

It was Helen's turn to shift uncomfortably as four pairs of eyes shifted target. 'Basically, we've decided that we're going to take part in a team-building weekend. This will take place in the Lake District and will be in direct competition with the management team from Birmingham.'

'Oh great!' Yvonne sighed after exchanging an incredulous expression with Nikki. 'So not only do I get to freeze my tits off navigating my way around the middle of nowhere with a bleedin' compass, I also have to put up with competing against Renee Williams!'

Nikki groaned and shook her head. 'Jesus Christ! Please tell me you're having us on, Helen.'

Helen, mindful of similar groans coming from Fenner and Karen, felt herself begin to bristle. 'Look, I know that spending a weekend in a tent isn't everyone's idea of fun but …'

'A tent!' Yvonne exclaimed. 'You'll be telling us we've got to wipe our arses on leaves next!'

The idea was just so ridiculous that Nikki found herself shaking with hysterical laughter. 'So when is this miracle going to take place?'

'This coming weekend.' Helen replied. 'We've managed to get a cancellation.'

'I'm supposed to be going fishing this weekend,' Fenner protested. 'I'm sorry, love but I've been promising this to my boy for weeks now …'

Karen jumped in over Fenner. 'Yes, and I've got a bathroom to tile.'

This revelation from Karen sent Nikki into another fit of laughter.

'What's so funny about me tiling my bathroom?' Karen asked in an outraged tone.

'I'm sorry, Karen.' Nikki said in a voice weak from laughter. 'I'm just having a hard time trying to picture you in a pair of overalls and up to your elbows in grout!' She turned back to Helen. 'Anyway, there's no way I can drop everything I've got planned this weekend.'

'Nor me,' Yvonne piped up. 'I've got a new bottle of shampoo I want to try out.'

This time, Nikki, Yvonne and, remarkably, Karen collapsed in laughter.

Stubberfield raised his eyes to heaven. 'This weekend is compulsory I'm afraid. I'm sorry, but you're all going to have to alter your plans.'

Yvonne nudged Nikki. 'Bet he's not going to alter his plans to be on the golf course while we're running around the back of beyond,' she whispered.

'Now, I have a very important meeting at Head Office to attend,' Stubberfield announced. 'So, unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to join you.'

Nikki rolled her eyes and shook her head. 'So, its five go mad in the Lake District then?'

Helen, unable to see the funny side, began to pass out sheets of A4 paper. 'I've compiled a list of items you'll need to bring with you.'

'What's this crap?' Yvonne barked, frowning as she read the list she'd been given. 'Walking boots, waterproof anorak …'

Karen was also reading the list aloud. 'Jeans or other sensible trousers … sleeping bag.' She looked up from the list and raised an eyebrow. 'Does this remind anyone else of school camping trips?'

Yvonne shook her head. 'The only trips I had at school were playing hooky down the local market.' She reached the end of the list and looked up at Helen. 'So we don't have to provide our own tents then?'

'No, tents will be provided by the instructor.'

'That's alright then.'

'Right.' Stubberfield stood up. 'I'm going to leave you to thrash out the nuts and bolts amongst yourselves.'

Yvonne waited until the door had closed and stuck two fingers up at it. 'Straight down the bleedin' golf club!' she said before looking across the table at Helen. 'So, Helen, are these one man tents or what?'

'No, two man.'

Karen looked up from her list. 'You mean we'll be sharing?'

Helen nodded. 'Is that going to be a problem?'

'Well I ain't sharing with her,' Yvonne said, pointing at Karen. 'We had to share a hotel room at a conference last year and she snores like a bleedin' pig!'

'I do not!'

'Do too!' Yvonne countered. 'Really, Karen, you should go to the doc's and get it checked out. It sounded like a serious sinus problem to me.'

'It's okay, Yvonne,' Nikki said, laughing at the look of outrage on Karen's face. 'You can share with me.'

'Nice one, Nik.' Yvonne looked over at Fenner who remained strangely silent. 'Looks like you're gonna be sharing with Karen then, mush.'

Fenner favoured Karen with an oily smile. 'I don't mind, Karen.'

'Actually, Jim, you'll be sharing with the instructor,' Helen said, feeling more like a schoolteacher with every passing moment. 'Looks like that leave you and me, Karen. That okay with you?'

Karen nodded. 'It's definitely the lesser of four evils.'

'Better make sure you bring a pair of earplugs with you, Helen,' Yvonne suggested. 'We all better had really. That snore's loud enough to travel for miles.'

Karen began to lose her temper. 'I'm warning you, Yvonne!'

Fenner looked over at Nikki. 'Hey, Wade. Shame your little friend, Lorna Rose, isn't coming with us. Would've been nice for the two of you to cosy up in a sleeping bag.'

'What you talking about, Fenner?'

'Mind you, at least you got to spend the whole night together last night,' Fenner continued.

'Fenner, I'm warning you, tell me what you're on about or I'm going to stomp on your head.'

Yvonne shook her head dismissively. 'He's talking bollocks, Nikki. Don't give him the satisfaction of rising to it.'

'Thanks, Yvonne, but I want to know what he's getting at.'

Everyone turned to look at Fenner who was smiling smugly. 'Didn't you know, Wade? Your little indiscretion with Lorna Rose is the talk of the sales floor.'

Nikki stood up and rolled her eyes. 'You know, Fenner, you talk so much shit I'm surprised you don't need a sewage attachment on your gob.'

Helen was the first to her feet when Nikki stormed out of the room. 'I'd better go and talk to her.'

'Leave her, Helen,' Karen said. 'She's tired. She'll calm down.'

Fenner, meanwhile, turned to Yvonne. 'You'd better watch out if you're sharing a tent with her, Atkins.'

Yvonne rounded on Fenner angrily. 'Oh go and boil your head, you sad twat!'

During this exchange, Helen had left the room. She caught up with Nikki in the car park.

'What do you want?' Nikki snapped, struggling to locate her car keys.

'Nikki, you're in no fit state to drive home. Come back into the building and I'll call you a taxi.'

Nikki sighed dejectedly. 'Helen, did you know anything about these rumours about me and Lorna?'

Helen nodded. 'I overheard a conversation in the corridor last week.'

'But why? Yeah, I know she's got a bit of a crush on me but I'm just not interested. Anyway, even if I was, there's no way I could cheat on Trish. I love her for God's sake!'

If Helen had any doubts about the situation, they disappeared when she noticed a tear sliding down Nikki's face. 'Hey, are you okay?'

Nikki wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and nodded. 'I'm just tired. I've been up for over twenty-four hours now.'

'Come on then. Let's go inside and I'll call you a taxi.'

Later that afternoon, Zandra was surprised when she was called to Helen's office. 'Wonder what she wants,' she mused.

'You never know, Zan.' Julie S said. 'She might want to promote you.'

Bodybag was walking past the desk at that moment. 'There's about as much chance of her offering you promotion as there is of Cliff Richard inviting me up to his hotel room for cream cakes and sex.'

Zandra waited until Bodybag had walked away before giving the finger to her retreating back. 'Piss off, you stupid fat cow!'

Shell Dockley was also walking past. She stopped when she saw Zandra taking her headset off 'What's going on 'ere then?'

Julie J pressed the 'Hold' button on her telephone. 'That Miss Stewart has asked to speak to Zan.'

'I bet I know what that's about,' Shell announced, folding her arms. 'Wade knows that her little secret's out.'

'Oh shit!' Zandra howled. 'Stewart must've heard us talking about it in the corridor.' She exhaled heavily. 'Right, I'd better go and face the music I suppose.' Zandra reached into her bag for her cigarettes. 'Might as well have a fag while I'm down there.'

Shell reached out and grabbed Zandra's arm. 'Mention my name, Zan and I'll rip your tits off and make curry out of 'em, gottit?'

Zandra returned to her desk about half an hour later, looking extremely shaken.

Julie S, accidentally on purpose, cut off the customer she was speaking to. 'Ere, Zan, 'ow did it go?'

Julie J looked at Zandra, concerned. 'Zan? Are you okay? You look a bit pale.'

'I'm not frigging surprised!' Zandra snapped. 'I've just had the bollocking of a lifetime!'

'Serves you right.' Crystal said, leaning back in her chair with a triumphant look on her face. 'Gossip is the Devil's work. You sinned and you were punished, innit?'

'Oh kiss my arse, Crystal! I've had enough of your twatting God bollocks!'

Shell Dockley listened to this exchange with amusement. 'You tell 'er, Zan!'

Zandra glared at Shell. 'I don't know what you're frigging smiling at. Thanks to you and your crap information, I've just had a verbal warning.'

'My information ain't crap!' Shell hissed, leaning over the desk towards Zandra, staring at her menacingly. 'You just better make sure you keep yer bleedin' gob shut, got that?'

'You're gonna get it one day, you twat!'

Shell laughed. 'Yeah well it's gonna take someone a lot cleverer than you.'

Julie S looked from Zandra to Shell and then back to Zandra. 'I don't understand. So are Nikki and Lorna 'aving an affair or not?'

Zandra shook her head. 'It's just something Shell made up.'

Julie J gasped and looked up at Shell. 'Did you?'

'Course not,' Shell replied waving a hand. 'It's management innit? They all stick together.'

'Yeah, well Miss Stewart was convincing enough as far as I'm concerned,' Zandra said with a shudder. 'I thought she was gonna frigging twat me one at one point.'

Shell considered this with great interest. 'Sounds like she might be jealous. Maybe she's got a thing for Wade 'erself.'

'Oh don't talk bleedin' crap, Shell!' Julie S exclaimed. 'If you 'onestly think we're gonna believe another fing you …'

'Yeah!' Julie J interjected. 'What you got against Nikki anyway? She's alright she is.'

'Didn't stop you bleedin' gossiping about 'er, did it?' Shell countered.

The Julies exchanged a guilty look and decided to stay silent.

'Anyway, I got stuff to do,' Shell said. 'I can't stand around all day talking to you sad twats.'

'You're gonna burn in Satan's fire, Shell.' Crystal declared, not looking up from her computer screen.

'Is that right, Crystaaaal?' Shell grabbed Crystal's chair and spun it round so that the other woman was forced to look up at her. 'I've been 'earing things about you … things I don't like. You'd better keep that grassing gob of yours shut, okay?'

'I ain't scared of you, sinner,' Crystal said defiantly. 'I got God to protect me.'

Shell smiled a cold smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. 'Around here, I'm God … remember that!'

Helen found Nikki staring out of the window in her office the following morning.

'Nikki?' Helen found that she was approaching Nikki's desk cautiously. 'Are you okay?'

'I'm fine,' Nikki replied, continuing to stare out of the window.

'Did I just see Lorna leaving the building?'

'I gave her a few days off … just until things start to die down.' Nikki turned and favoured Helen with a reassuring smile. 'She's okay, I think. We had a long talk.'

'What did you say to her?'

'I'd rather not talk about it if you don't mind. She was embarrassed enough about it as it is.' Nikki reached down to her desk and picked up her coffee mug. 'I need caffeine. Want one?'


Helen followed Nikki into the deserted outer office and watched as she tried to remove the lid from a jar of coffee. If it was possible, Nikki looked even more exhausted than she had the night before.

'Here.' Helen reached out and took the jar from Nikki. 'Let me do it.' She raised her eyebrows when Nikki allowed her to take the jar and stood back without protest. 'Something tells me you didn't manage to catch up on your sleep last night.'

'I made the mistake of telling Trish about our impending camping trip this weekend.'

'She wasn't happy?'

'To say the least. She had a weekend in Madrid planned as a surprise.' Nikki yawned and rubbed her eyes. 'Needless to say, the resulting argument meant that I didn't get much sleep last night.'

Helen looked up, forgetting that she was in the process of pouring hot water into the mug she was holding. 'I'm sorry … Ow! Shit!' Helen dropped the mug as the hot water overflowed the mug and scalded her hand. 'Shit!'

Nikki was over by Helen's side in a second. 'Here, let me have a look.'

'It's okay,' Helen said, cradling her hand. 'I've done worse at home.'

'Helen, give me your hand.'

Helen complied reluctantly. 'See, like I said, it's nothing.'

Nikki frowned when she noticed that the skin on the heel of Helen's hand was lobster red and already beginning to swell. 'That's going to blister. Come on … you need some cold water on that.'

The pain from the burn was instantly forgotten. Helen was only aware of the way her stomach was fluttering. That initial first contact when Nikki had touched her hand had sent electricity shooting through her body.

Nikki looked up, astounded when Helen ripped her hand away. 'Helen?'

Helen tried to smile reassuringly around her confusion. 'It's okay … honestly, I'm fine.'

'Well at least let me put some ointment on it or something, the First Aid kit's around here somewhere …'

'Nikki, for Gods sake! Will you please stop fussing?'

Nikki sensed that Helen was extremely uncomfortable. Assuming that she had objected to her hand being taken, she found herself blinded by sudden anger. 'Oh for fuck's sake!'


'I really thought you were different you know? Jesus, Helen! What did you think I was going to do? Stick your hand down my trousers or something?'

The force of Nikki's anger made Helen take a step back. 'Nikki, I don't …' She looked down at her hand and suddenly everything became clear. 'Oh shit! You thought I took my hand away because I thought you were …'

'Trying to make a pass at you? Oh please!' Nikki smiled bitterly and shook her head. 'Look, darling, even if it was on offer I wouldn't want it. I'm taken remember.'

'I'm sorry, Nikki. Honestly, it was nothing to do with you.'

'Well, you could've fooled me.'

'I just thought you were making a fuss about nothing.' Helen stepped forward and reached out to put her uninjured hand on Nikki's arm to prove her point. 'That's all it was. Nothing sinister, I promise.' She looked up and noticed that Nikki's anger was abating and risked a tentative smile. 'I really am sorry if I gave you that impression.'

Nikki stepped away from Helen's hand, her eyes suddenly narrowed in anger. 'Oh, so you think it's funny now?'


'I know when I'm being patronised, Helen.'

Helen suddenly felt herself snap. 'You just love playing the martyr, don't you, Nikki?'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

'Oh work it out for yourself. I've had enough!'

Nikki waited until Helen had left the room before returning to her office, slamming the door behind her with such a force it rattled in its frame.

Yvonne walked into Nikki's office just as she was slamming the phone down. 'Problems?'

'Just a "sod off" from my other half,' Nikki replied. 'Let me give you a piece of advice, Yvonne. Never ever get involved with someone more stubborn than you are.'

Yvonne raised an amused eyebrow. 'I've got a feeling that this might be something to do with this weekend.'

'Got it in one.'

'Well if it helps in any way, Denny told me she overheard Fenner getting a right bollocking from his wife on the phone this morning. Oh, and he's clomping around in a pair of walking boots he's trying to break in.'

Nikki smiled. 'I hope he gets blisters!'

'He already has. He's limping round like Long John bleedin' Silver!' Yvonne sat down on the edge of Nikki's desk and picked up her copy of Helen's list. 'You got any of this stuff yet?'

Nikki shook her head. 'What about you?'

'That's what I'm here for really. Wondered if you wanted to take a walk into Sale and have a shufty round the Army and Navy stores?'

'Yeah, why not?' Nikki reached over and took the list from Yvonne. 'You know, this stuff's going to cost a bloody fortune.'

'Don't worry about that, Helen told me that all this stuff's coming off her budget. She said to put it on the company credit card and when the bill comes through, give it to her.'

'Right, well if that's the case, let's go to Black's, it's more expensive there.'

'Do I detect the ever so slight whiff of sour grapes there, Nikki?'

'You've heard about her commandeering half my budget then have you?'

'I think half the building heard you slamming Karen's door last week.' Yvonne smiled and stood up. 'Come on then. Let's go and break Helen's budget. Oh, do you mind if we do stop off in the Army stores? I fancy getting a pair of those combat trousers.'

Nikki laughed, trying but not quite succeeding to picture Yvonne in a pair of combats. 'Why don't we get some of that camouflage paint too?' Nikki said sarcastically. 'That'll really put the wind up Renee Williams.'

'Nah, I've got something a bit more special in mind for her.'

'What do you reckon to these then?'

Nikki looked around from the anorak she was trying on. 'What's that?'

'These,' Yvonne said, holding out a pair of Caterpillar boots. 'What do you think?'

'I think you'll end up having a heart attack if you try trekking round the countryside in those. You want something lighter.' Nikki smiled and shook her head. 'Honestly, Yvonne, combats and boots? Do think we're going on a military exercise or something?'

Yvonne leaned forward to inspect the anorak Nikki was wearing. 'That's all right. How much?'

Nikki checked the price tag on her arm. 'Just over a hundred and fifty. I think that's expensive enough. What do you think?'

'I think Helen will be the one having the heart attack when she sees your credit card bill.' Yvonne considered for a second and then shrugged her leather jacket off. 'What size is that one?'

'Large,' Nikki replied. 'if I go for anything smaller the arms are too short.'

'They got any mediums?'

Nikki turned around and checked the rack. 'Not in the same colour. They've got a couple in purple though.'

'What shade of purple?'

Nikki reached up and pulled one of the jackets off its hanger. 'Here.'

Yvonne unzipped the jacket and tried it on. 'What do you think?'

'You want my honest opinion?'


'You look like a grape.'

Yvonne looked down at the jacket and shrugged. 'I like it.'

Nikki resisted the urge to comment and instead, reached into her pocket for the list. 'I think we've got everything apart from your boots now. Oh, and remind me, will you? I've got to stop at a florist on the way back to the office. I've got some serious creeping to do when I get home tonight.'

'Flowers normally work do they?' Yvonne asked.

'Well let's put it this way, it distracts her from the plate throwing.'

Nikki arrived back at her office to find Helen sitting behind her desk.

Nikki frowned and dropped her carrier bags by the filing cabinet. 'What are you doing here?'

Helen nodded towards the bunch of flowers Nikki was holding. 'Are they to put on my grave?'

'They're for Trish,' Nikki replied, totally unmoved. 'What are you doing here?'

'I'm wondering why this computer here has a sticker on it that says Gillian Anderson.'

'It's a joke that started back at the airport,' Nikki explained. 'Someone suggested that if I named it that way, whenever it crashed I could always say that Gillian Anderson had gone down on me.' Nikki found herself smiling when Helen blushed. 'Bet you wish you hadn't asked now.'

'I asked for it I suppose.' With a shrug, Helen rose from Nikki's chair. 'Look, I thought I'd better apologise for what happened earlier.'

'That's okay, it was my fault. I totally overreacted.' Nikki threw the bunch of flowers onto the nearby chair and sat down on the end of the desk. 'As you've probably already noticed, my mouth does have a tendency to run away with me. How's your hand?'


'Serves you right.'

'I should've known better than to come to you for sympathy.' Helen gestured towards Nikki's carrier bags. 'Stocking up for this weekend?'

'Yvonne and me took a walk into Sale.' Nikki replied, smiling guiltily. 'Ended up spending a fortune.'

'Oh don't worry about that, Head Office are paying for everything.' Helen smiled and walked over to Nikki. 'So if your plan was to break my budget then you've had a wasted journey.'

'I'm that obvious am I?'

'I don't blame you. I would've done the same thing.'

'Would you?'

Helen smiled cryptically and then walked over to the door. 'See you later, Nikki.'

Nikki watched Helen leave and then sat down in her chair, the same chair recently vacated by Helen that still carried the residual warmth from her body. Nikki leaned forward and switched her computer on. Somehow, she got the feeling that she had an interesting weekend ahead of her.

Part 6

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