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 Eleven

It was a hung-over, guilty and miserable Helen Stewart who regarded the teetering pile of crockery in the sink from her seat at the kitchen table. The unwashed dishes seemed to admonish her, as did the empty vodka bottle on the worktop.

Sean still hadn't risen and for that she was glad. She was sure that when he did finally emerge he would see the truth in her eyes. She felt naked, exposed … positive that when she looked in a mirror, the word TRAITOR would be written across her forehead for the whole world to see.

'At last!'

Helen looked up and tried to focus on Sean as he waved an envelope in the air excitedly. 'What's that?'

'It's a letter from the registry office confirming the date of our wedding,' Sean replied, smiling as he bent down to kiss her. 'Well Miss Stewart, how does it feel to know that this time next month, you'll be calling yourself Mrs Parr?'

'I don't know,' Helen said, trying not to cringe away when Sean kissed her on the back of the neck. 'I've already told you that I'm going to be keeping my own name.'

'I thought we'd talked about that.'

'Correction, Sean, you talked about it,' Helen snapped, beginning to lose her patience. 'As I recall, all I did was listen.' With a great deal of effort, she pulled herself up off the kitchen chair and walked over to the sink, not wanting to look at the puzzled look on Sean's face.

'What's wrong with you, Helen?' Sean asked, frowning as he wandered over to join her by the sink. 'You've been in a foul mood ever since you got home last night.'

'Nothing's wrong. I'm just a bit hung-over, that's all.'

'I'm not surprised.' Sean picked up an empty vodka bottle from the worktop and waved it at Helen disapprovingly. 'If you're not careful you'll be joining the winos on the park band-stand.'

Five minutes later, Helen sighed with relief when Sean disappeared for a shower.

The more she thought about it, the more she became convinced that she was an actor in some bizarre TV sitcom. Here she was, about to get married to a man who had spent the whole of the previous night lying awake, worrying about the bloody wedding list. He'd been completely unaware of the fact that his fiancé was feigning sleep beside him and was actually awake, burning with desire as she relived an earlier sexual encounter with another woman.

This wasn't just bizarre, this was farcical.

Helen was now no longer under no illusions about what she felt for Nikki. This was no longer a case of struggling to come to terms with the fact that she wanted another woman … the deed was already done. No, this was all about working out what the bloody hell she was supposed to do next.

Helen looked at her reflection in the window, a gesture totally without vanity but rather an effort to confirm her own identity, to check that she was indeed Helen Stewart and not the crazy woman who was considering throwing her whole life away because of fifteen minutes of thwarted lust.

Helen suddenly had to make a grab for the worktop as she thought about what it had been like with Nikki. The truth? Amazing … fantastic … electrifying … and no matter how brief and inconclusive, absolutely the best sex of her entire life. It hadn't been just about sex though. When Nikki had touched her, it had sparked emotions within her she hadn't realised existed. Emotions that were deep, intense and heartfelt. That was what was what was truly terrifying.

The IT Department was silent for once and Shaz took advantage of this by settling down with her feet up on her desk to peruse that month's issue of Viz. She had been really pissed off to discover that the juicy video stream she had been expecting of Nikki and Lorna having it off in the computer room was conspicuous by its absence, and reading the comic helped her formulate a plan of attack.

Lorna, tired and extremely irritable after a sleepless night, was not amused when she walked into the office and was almost immediately pounced on by an overexcited Shaz.

'Did you turn the webcam off last night?' Shaz gabbled. 'I switched the motion sensor on before I left the office last night and …'

'I couldn't give two tosses about your stupid webcam!' Lorna snapped. Pushing her way past Shaz, she dumped her rucksack on her desk.

'Ooooh!' Shaz held an invisible handbag to her chest and laughed. 'Someone didn't get it last night.'

Lorna stopped and turned round, regarding the spiky-haired teenager with disdain. 'What's that supposed to mean?'

Shaz smiled, totally misreading the expression on Lorna's face. 'You and Nikki ended up working late in the computer room again didn't you?'

The last thing Shaz was expecting was to be taken by the scruff of the neck and then pushed, face first against the wall.

'Listen, my love,' Lorna hissed through gritted teeth. 'I've had enough of all this crap about me and Nikki …'

'What the bloody hell's going on?' a voice howled.

Lorna dropped Shaz when she saw Nikki standing in the doorway.

Nikki looked terrible. Her eyes were bloodshot and her complexion tinged with grey after a futile attempt to drown her guilt in a gin bottle.

'Bloody hell!' Shaz exclaimed. 'It's the dawn of the living dead! Which skip did they drag you out of this morning?'

'The same skip I'll push you into if you don't watch it!' Nikki managed to convey enough menace in her voice to send Shaz scuttling out of the office. She watched the teenager disappear and then turned her attention to Lorna. 'What was all that about?'

Lorna shrugged and returned to her desk.


'Nothing,' Lorna replied, struggling to keep her tone even. 'Stupid cow was getting on my nerves, that's all.'

'Are you okay?' Nikki asked, receiving a curt nod in response. She considered the other woman in silence for a second and then realised that she was too tired and too hung-over to push the matter any further. 'Well, if you're sure?' Nikki started to walk in the direction of her office and then reconsidered. 'Shit!' she hissed, snapping her fingers. 'I almost forgot. Lorna, could you do me a favour?'


Nikki blinked, startled by Lorna's hostile tone. 'Are you sure there's nothing wrong?' Again, a shake of the head. 'Okay,' she said slowly. 'I … er … I wondered if you'd be able to cover for me tonight? I'm going to a party and I forgot all about being on call.'

'Sorry, Nikki.' Lorna said in a tone that suggested the exact opposite. 'I'm busy tonight.'

'Okay … well thanks anyway.' Wondering what the hell was wrong with her assistant, Nikki backed into her office. In a way, she was glad that Lorna was unable to cover for her. In fact, she had half a mind to sabotage something in the computer room … anything to get her out of having to go to Helen's sodding engagement party.

Dominic looked across the table at Di Barker and fantasised stuffing the bacon sandwich he was holding into her mouth to shut her up. She had been wittering on about his motorbike for more than ten minutes now and he was on the verge of screaming.

'It's a lovely bike,' Di continued. 'I'd love to have a ride on it sometime.'

Dominic was only slightly aware of the tomato sauce that splattered all over his white shirt as he dropped his sandwich.

From across the room, Zandra's eyes were burning holes in Di's back. If looks could kill, the Trade Sales Supervisor would be lying on the floor, stone dead. 'Look at her!' she hissed to the Julies. 'All over him like a bloody rash! No wonder the rest of us can't get a look in!'

'You know what you need, don't ya, Zan?' Julie J said, looking up from her Empire catalogue.

'A twatting shotgun,' Zandra replied, still shooting daggers in Di's direction.

'No, a wonder-bra,' Julie J continued. 'It could do wonders for your … er …' She looked down at Zandra's chest, floundered and then turned to Julie S for assistance.

'Well let's face it Zan,' Julie S said matter-of-factly. 'You're as flat as an ironing-board ain't ya?'

'Yeah,' Julie J agreed, her friend's intervention giving her courage. 'I've seen more meat on a veggie burger! Course, you could always have enlargements.'

'Well you're hardly Dolly frigging Parton are you?' Zandra snapped, folding her arms self-consciously. 'Anyway, at least I don't need brain enlargements!'

Julie S sniffed haughtily and then reached over to tap Crystal on the shoulder. ''Ere, Crystal. What does the Bible say about breast enlargements?'

'Vanity is a sin,' Crystal replied, pausing to wink craftily at Zandra. 'Only I think he'd make an exception in your case.'

'Why's that then Crystal?' Julie S asked brightly.

'Because you two need as much help as you can get, innit?'

Just then, Nikki walked up to the serving counter and nodded at Dawn.

As usual, Dawn blushed when she saw Nikki. 'Bacon sandwich, Nikki?'

Nikki thought for a moment. 'Actually, I think I fancy sausage for a change.' She whirled around when Zandra and the Julies suddenly erupted into hysterical laughter. 'What?'

Zandra made a concerted effort to control her giggles for long enough to explain. 'I bet you can't remember the last time you fancied sausage.'

'Oh ha, ha bloody ha! Remind me to laugh next time!' Nikki grabbed the sandwich that Dawn held out for her, replaced it with a pound coin and then stormed straight through the door leading to the back stairs.

Julie S watched the door swing shut behind. 'Who stole 'er sense of humour?'

'The same person who stole her brain and replaced it with a cabbage,' Zandra observed. 'Didn't you notice that her shirt was all buttoned up wrong?'

Across the room, Dominic felt his heart stop beating as Helen Stewart walked into the canteen and strode purposefully over to the vending machine. Today, she was wearing a red silk blouse under a sober black suit, and to Dominic this combination suited her personality exactly … all that obvious passion lurking just beneath the professional façade.

Dominic cursed himself silently as he quickly tried to decide what to do. The last thing he wanted was for the woman he had a thumping great crush on to see him in a shirt covered in ketchup, but at the same time, he couldn't resist the urge to talk to her. Leaving an outraged Di mouthing furiously in his wake, he shot out of his seat and tapped Helen on the shoulder.

'Oh, hello, Dominic,' Helen said brightly, although her smile lacked its usual sparkle. 'What can I do for you?'

'I wanted to arrange a time to speak to you, if that's all right? After that conversation we had the other day, I've decided to check out those Open University courses you were … Helen?'

But Helen was completely lost.

The reason for Helen's sudden distraction stormed through the door to the back stairs and strode over to the counter, where she pushed a sandwich into Dawn's hands.

'What the bloody hell is that?'

Dawn looked down at the sandwich, examined it for a few seconds and then regarded Nikki with puzzlement. 'It's a sausage sandwich, Nikki.'

'No it's not!' Nikki hissed. 'It's a bloody death-trap!'

'Mad' Tessa suddenly erupted from the walk-in fridge, furious at the slight on her culinary skills.

'What you on about?' Tessa barked, eyes glinting dangerously. 'There's nothing wrong with that sandwich. I made it myself.'

'Well next time turn the bloody gas on. That sausage is raw!' Refusing to be intimidated by Tessa's menacing glare, Nikki leaned over the counter. 'Do you have any idea how much of a health risk that is?'

'Bollocks! You eat steaks rare don't you? What's the fucking difference?'

'I dunno, I'll let you know when I'm puking my guts up later!' Nikki countered, her face now only inches from Tessa's. 'You should be bloody sacked!'

'Yeah, I'd like to see you friggin' try!'

For a moment, the canteen stood still. Everyone was transfixed by the confrontation between the two women. Zandra was wondering whether or not to open a book on who was going to break the deadlock by leaping over the counter first, when Helen intervened.

'What's going on here?'

Nikki glared at Helen for a second and then stepped away. 'Well, looks like the cavalry has arrived.'

'I said, what's going on?' Helen said again, this time injecting a bit more steel into her voice.

Nikki nodded towards Tessa. 'Why don't you ask Doctor Crippen here? It seems that she's determined to poison everyone in the building.'

Helen, aware that everyone was watching, pulled Nikki in the direction of the back stairs. She propelled her through the door and then closed it firmly behind them. 'Do you have any idea how unprofessional that was?'

Nikki looked down at the floor, suddenly contrite. 'Sorry, it's just one of those days.'

'You too?'

Nikki nodded. 'Hung-over, feel like shit, want to crawl into a hole and die ...'

'Look, Nikki, can we meet up at lunchtime?' Helen reached over to touch Nikki's arm, an action that elicited a sharp gasp before the limb was pulled away. 'I think we should talk before the party tonight.'

'Yeah, I'd hate to show you up in front of Sean.'

'Just like I'd hate to show you up in front of Trish.'

'And what's that supposed to mean?'

'Oh work it out for yourself, Nikki!' Helen snapped before flinging open the door to the canteen.

Nikki jumped when the door slammed and then sat down on the stairs, finding that her legs were now too unsteady to keep her upright. She was no longer under any illusions about what she felt about Helen. Physically, she was locked on target and emotionally, she was only a hair's breadth away from squeezing the trigger.

Nikki now knew that she had to get out. The only way to avoid temptation was to remove it completely. The only problem now was how in the hell she was going to do it.

That afternoon, the topic of conversation on the sales floor was still the confrontation in the canteen.

'Well I reckon Nikki had a point,' Zandra said. 'I found a used plaster in my shepherd's pie the other day, how long before we find a frigging finger or something?'

'If Wade don't watch it, it'll be 'er fingers in the pot,' Shell said, seemingly excited by the idea. 'Served up with fava beans and a nice Chianti!'

'Oh stop it, Shell!' Julie J shuddered in response to Shell's Hannibal Lecter impression. 'That ain't funny.'

'I should bloody well think not!' Zandra exclaimed, repressing a shudder of her own. 'No one knows what Tessa gets up to in that kitchen. For all we know she could have a stack of dead bodies in the freezer.'

'I was only 'aving you on, you daft twat!' Shell cackled, shaking her head. 'Anyway, no wonder Wade kicked up a fuss about that sausage. She's obviously decided she prefers the taste of haggis these days!'

The Julies exchanged a puzzled frown and then turned to Shell for clarification. 'What you on about?' they chorused.

Shell rolled her eyes impatiently. 'Stewart, innit? It's bleedin' obvious that they're shaggin' …' She paused when she realised that she'd lost her audience. 'What?'

The reason for the sudden increase in productivity became clear when Yvonne leaned over Shell's desk.

'I'd watch it if I were you, Shell,' Yvonne said in a low, menacing voice. 'From the way you keep going on about Nikki's love-life, anyone would think you were jealous.'

'Yeah right! I'd rather rip me own tits off!'

Yvonne leaned in closer to Shell, aware that people were listening. 'Listen to me. I hear one more peep out of you about Nikki and I'll rip the bleedin' things off meself, got it?'

After leaving the sales floor, Yvonne made her way to Nikki's office.

Following her lunch with Trish, Yvonne had meant to have a word with Nikki about the Helen situation. However, a last-minute crisis with one of her biggest accounts had forced her put it off. Now that Dockley was shit stirring, it seemed like the perfect time to make another attempt at talking some sense into her.

Finding that Nikki's office was empty, Yvonne popped her head around the door into the main office.

'Is Nikki about?' she asked Lorna.

'She's gone to the airport,' Lorna replied in a shaky voice. 'Said she'd be there all day.'

Suddenly, Lorna burst into tears and it took a lot of persuasion and reassurance on Yvonne's behalf to find out what was wrong.

After an argument about Nikki's decision to wear jeans instead of the suit Trish had asked her to wear, the fifteen minute walk from their flat to the nightclub was uncomfortable, to say the least.

Just as they reached the door to the club, Trish grabbed hold of Nikki's arm.

'For God's sake!' Nikki howled. 'What's up now?'

Trish had been planning to apologise for her earlier behaviour but felt her temper flare again. 'I hope you're not going to be propping up the bar all night.'

'What's it to you? You don't normally stop for long enough to notice me anyway.'

'What's wrong with you today?' Trisha snapped. 'You were in a shit mood when you left for work this morning, and you've been hell to be with ever since you got back.'

'Nothing's wrong with me.'

'You could've fooled me.'

'Just leave it will you, Trish?'

Mercifully for Nikki, Liz pulled Trish away as soon as they walked into the club. This left her free to skulk off in the direction of the bar, where her plan was to crawl inside a bottle of gin and stay there for the duration of the night.

Nikki was halfway down her third gin and tonic by the time Trish returned.

'You wouldn't believe what I just heard.'

Nikki lit a cigarette and turned to regard Trish through the smoke. 'You're right, if it's something that daft tart told you, I probably wouldn't.'

Trish frowned as Nikki drained her glass and signalled to the barman for another. From the look of the glass, she was hitting the gin, and Nikki and gin just didn't mix. 'How many of those have you had already?'

'Not nearly enough.' Nikki replied. 'Can I get you one, darling?'

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

Nikki nodded at the barman and then turned back to Trish. 'So, what did Liz have to say that was so interesting? Have they finally developed a microscope powerful enough to find her brain?'

'Why do I even bother?' Trish sighed as she took her drink from the barman. 'You've obviously decided that you're going to be a complete arse tonight.'

'Maybe you should leave me alone so I can be an arse in private then.'

Trish was about to reply but became distracted when she spotted Helen and Sean. 'Come on,' she said, tugging on Nikki's arm. 'We'd better go over and say hello.'

Nikki mumbled something under her breath but nodded her assent.

Bored rigid by the plans that Sean and his mother – a pushy nightmare in a Dior suit – were making for the wedding, Helen looked around for a distraction. She wished she hadn't when she saw Trish and a very truculent looking Nikki approaching.

'Trish! Great to see you!' Sean smiled warmly and leaned over to kiss Trish on both cheeks. His expression was less accommodating when he turned to Nikki. 'Hello, Nikki.'

Nikki nodded brusquely and offered him her congratulations in a voice that conveyed the exact opposite before looking over at Helen. 'Hi, Helen.'

Helen found that she had been temporarily rendered speechless by the sight of Nikki in a skin-tight, black T-shirt. 'Hiya, Nikki.' She managed to say eventually.

'Nikki and Helen work together,' Sean told his mother. 'And of course, you've met Trish already.'

'I certainly have.' Mrs Parr had been regarding Nikki with distaste but she warmed up considerably when she turned to Trish. 'Darling, how wonderful to see you again,' she said, taking Trish's hands. 'I couldn't believe it when Sean told me he'd met up with you again. You know, I always had high hopes that you two might've …'

'Honestly, Mum!' Sean exclaimed, embarrassed. He jumped slightly when Nikki suddenly yelped in pain. 'My God! Are you okay there, Nikki?'

'I'm fine,' Nikki replied through gritted teeth, eyes watering with pain after a swift kick in the shin from Trish. 'Well, as much as I've loved meeting you all, I have a drink losing its chill over at the bar.' She smiled in Mrs Parr's direction. 'Nice meeting you. Love your hair, is it on purpose?'

Luckily, Sean and Mrs Parr had already been skilfully distracted by Trish. They were both completely oblivious to the murderous look she flashed in Nikki's direction.

A few minutes later, Nikki was safely back at the bar and chatting amiably with one of the bar staff when she felt a tap on her shoulder.

'My hero,' Helen said, pretending to swoon. 'I think I finally understand the reasoning behind all of those awful mother-in-law jokes.'

'One tries one's best.' Nikki smiled and gestured towards the neighbouring barstool. 'Can I buy the blushing bride-to-be a drink?'

'I'd be offended if you didn't,' Helen replied, choosing to ignore the attempt at sarcasm. 'What are you drinking?'

'Gin and tonic. Lots of it.'

'Then you can buy me lots of vodka.' Helen frowned when Nikki ordered another drink for herself at the same time. 'How much exactly is "lots"?'

'Oh don't you start. I've already had Trish nagging me. She's got it into her head that I came here with the intention of getting drunk and obnoxious.'

'And did you?'

'What do you think?' Nikki asked in a bitter voice, relenting almost immediately. 'So, how are you going to spend the rest of your life coping with the mother-in-law from hell?'

'Invest in some arsenic I think.' Helen looked over at Mrs Parr and then turned back to the bar, pulling a face. 'She never has approved of me. Not that I really care.'

'Something else we've got in common then,' Nikki said, lighting a cigarette. 'Trish's father offered me fifty thousand pounds to stay away from his darling daughter.'

Helen nearly choked on her drink. 'You're joking! Does Trish know?'

Nikki shook her head.

'Does she get on well with your parents?' Helen asked.

'She's never met them.'

'In ten years?' Helen exclaimed.

'Well I haven't seen them myself in eighteen years.' She smiled, amused by the look at astonishment on Helen's face. 'I left home when I was sixteen. They didn't exactly approve of my lifestyle. Bet you wish you'd never asked now.'

An uncomfortable silence set in, broken eventually by Helen. 'I wanted to speak to you this afternoon, only Shaz said that you were at the airport.'

Nikki nodded. 'I've been sounding out some of my contacts there. British Airways are recruiting for a systems manager and …'

Helen was shocked by the sudden wave of panic that hit her. 'You mean you're going to resign?'

'I honestly think it's for the best.'

'But why?'

Before Nikki could reply, Sean ran up and literally pulled Helen off her seat.

'Bloody hell, Sean!' exclaimed Helen in outrage. 'What the f …?'

'You haven't danced with me yet,' Sean said reprovingly. 'Excuse me, Nikki but I'm going to have to borrow my fiancée for a while.'

'Just as long as you don't bring her back.' Nikki muttered as she turned back to the bar.

A couple of hours later, Helen finally managed to escape from Sean for long enough to track Nikki down to the toilets.

'Nikki, what did you mean before?'

Nikki looked up from the hand-drier and frowned. 'About what?'

'About resigning.'

'Well, I haven't decided one hundred per cent yet. Trish and I are away on holiday for the next couple of weeks. I'm going to make a definite decision when I get back.'

'But what about us?'

'Helen, what do you think is going to happen here? You dump Sean, I dump Trish and we run off into the sunset together?' Nikki sighed hopelessly, and then walked over to talk Helen's hands. 'The thing is, Helen, I can't control what happens to me when I'm close to you. I really can't take the risk that what happened last night might happen again. Do you understand?'

'But if you leave …' Helen paused and swallowed heavily. 'Nikki, isn't there another way around this?'

Nikki shrugged. 'I could get a cold shower installed in my office I suppose.'

'Nikki, be serious,' Helen said sharply.

'Serious?' Nikki took another step closer to Helen and looked straight into her eyes. 'I want to make love to you all night long, Helen. Is that serious enough?'

Helen gasped, stunned when sudden and savage surge of desire liquefied her insides.

'You see?' Nikki forced herself to back away. Dismayed by the sheer amount of willpower she had to exercise. 'We just can't be left alone in the same room together. There's just no way that we can carry on trying to fight the inevitable so …'

'But why, Nikki? Why is it that I can't seem to hold a rational thought in my head for longer than five seconds whenever I see you? I've never even been attracted to another woman before, and I ...' Helen raised a shaky hand to her forehead and started to pace the room, frantically trying to find the words that would explain. 'Nikki, the way I feel about you. I don't think …'

Both women looked up when the door opened and Trish walked in.

Trish frowned at the tension she encountered. 'This looks like rather an intense conversation.' Her eyes flashed between Helen and Nikki in an effort to gauge the situation. 'Nik, what's going on?'

'We were just discussing the DJ's taste in music,' Nikki said quickly, amazed at the speed with which the lie flew out of her mouth.

'That would be about right,' Trish said, suddenly reassured. 'Nik's taste in music hasn't evolved since University,' she added for Helen's benefit. Placing a casual arm around Nikki's waist, Trish looked up at her beseechingly. 'What do I have to do to get you on that dance floor?'

'Short of knocking me out cold and dragging me onto it you mean?'

Helen found that she was unable to bear the sight of Trish touching Nikki, and had to fight the urge to drag Nikki away from her. Then Trish looked directly at her and she felt a sudden understanding pass between them. Trish smiled and moved closer to her lover.

Helen broke eye contact first. 'Right, I suppose I'd better go and find Sean.'

'You do that,' Trish countered. 'We wouldn't want him feeling neglected now would we?'

Helen was aware of Nikki's eyes following her as she left the room.

It was nearing the end of the night, and the DJ started to play slower music to entice couples onto the floor. Nikki, who had never been one for mushy love songs, fought the urge to throw up and then turned to order another drink.

'You know, sometimes I wonder why I work here.'

The voice came from the barmaid Nikki had been chatting to on and off all night. Handing Nikki her change she leaned against the Guinness pump and stifled a yawn.

'So why don't you look for a job in another club?' Nikki asked.

'Well, in the village they won't employ you unless you're gay, and in most of the other clubs you just end up getting mauled by drunken idiots.'

'And that doesn't happen here?'

'Other than the private parties this is a student club, and your average pissed student couldn't maul his way out of a wet paper bag.' She smiled and leaned over to take the cigarette that Nikki offered. 'Nah, it's not that bad I suppose, at least they play decent music on Saturdays and Sundays, I can't stand this romantic crap.'

'Tell me about it.'

'Although I wouldn't turn down the prospect of a slow dance with him.'

'Who?' Nikki looked over her shoulder and frowned when she saw that the barmaid was pointing at Sean. 'He's the one whose party this is.'

'Just because he's taken doesn't mean I can't look.' She grinned at Nikki and then headed off to serve another customer.

Now that she'd lost her distraction, Nikki found that her eyes were drawn to the dance floor. Sean was holding Helen close, his hands moving slowly over her back as they drifted around the floor. Then Helen looked directly at her, smiling ruefully before allowing Sean to pull her into a kiss.

Salvation arrived in the form of her pager vibrating in her pocket and an urgent call back into work.

The following morning, Nikki dragged her hangover into the office to finish off whatever loose ends needed tying before she left to go on holiday.

On arriving in her office, she found an unmarked envelope propped against the photograph of her and Trish. Not knowing what to expect, she opened it and frowned, puzzled when she drew out a white feather. Nikki sat down and turned the feather over in her hands before letting it go, transfixed as she watched it drift down to her desk where it settled on the top of her overflowing in-tray.

'Good morning," Helen said.

'Is this anything to do with you?' Nikki asked, not looking up.

Helen walked over to the desk and looked down at the feather. 'It's obviously someone's way of letting you know that you're a coward.'

'But it's nothing to do with you?'

'My methods are more direct.'

Nikki picked the feather up and reached over to drop it into the bin. 'I'm not a coward.'

'Of course you're not.'

Nikki finally allowed herself to look up at Helen, smiling slightly when she saw the all too obvious signs of a hangover. 'What are you doing in on a Saturday?'

'I needed to get out of the house for a while.'

Nikki suddenly noticed the ring Helen was now wearing on her left hand, a conventional diamond just the wrong side of ostentatious. 'That's some rock,' she commented, gesturing for Helen to show her. 'Why didn't he just hang a sign around your neck saying "taken"?'

'Much in the same way you drive that Jag and wear that Rolex you mean?'

Nikki looked down at her watch and grinned. 'Touché.' Releasing Helen's hand, she leaned back into her chair. 'I thought you got engaged a couple of weeks ago. Why did it take you so long to put the ring on?'

'Sean wanted to wait until the party,' Helen explained. 'You'd already gone by the time he gave it to me.'

Nikki bit back a sarcastic reply and settled for smiling apologetically. 'Sorry about that. I got called back here.'

'Anything serious?'

Nikki shook her head. 'I got back here to find out that the problem had sorted itself out. Afterwards, I couldn't face going back to the club so I went for a walk … sorry,' she added with a shrug.

'So am I,' Helen looked down at the floor, 'for that stupid display on the dance floor I mean.' 'It doesn't matter now,' Nikki said softly.

'Doesn't it?' 'I phoned the airport this morning and arranged an interview for that job.' Helen nodded, accepting the inevitable. 'I think that's probably for the best.' 'Believe me, it is.' Helen was still looking down at the floor. She didn't realise that Nikki was standing in front of her until she felt a hand on her shoulder. 'Nikki …' Nikki silenced Helen by pulling her into a soft, brief kiss.

'Right,' Nikki said, her voice breaking as she pulled away. 'I'd better go. If I'm not back before lunchtime Trish will go nuts. See you when I get back.'

A few minutes later, Helen walked into her own office. She hung her coat up on the hook and turned, letting out a gasp of surprise when she saw that Yvonne was sitting on her desk.

'Helen,' Yvonne said with a humourless smile. 'I think it's time we had a serious talk, don't you?'


Chapter Twelve

Helen closed the door to her office and then turned back to look at the woman who was sitting behind her desk as if she owned it. There was an icy glint in Yvonne's eyes and it unsettled Helen. For some reason, she got the idea that she was about to be on the receiving end of more than just a disapproving lecture.

Yvonne leaned forward and picked up the picture she kept of Sean, she turned it over in her hands, smiled and then leaned back into Helen's chair. 'Nice bloke your Sean, ain't he?'

'Pardon me?'

'I phoned your house this morning and he told me I'd find you here.'

Helen regarded Yvonne in silence for a second and then took a seat opposite the desk. 'What can I do for you, Yvonne?'

'Like I said, I think we need to talk.'

'About what?'


'Ah, Nikki.' Helen sighed, and ran an agitated hand through her hair. 'Look, Yvonne, we've talked about this before and I told you there was nothing going on.'

'Bollocks!' Yvonne spat.

'Excuse me?'

'You 'eard!'

Helen watched Yvonne as she stood up and walked over to the window and felt her temper snap. 'Excuse me, but what gives you the right to come into my office and start accusing me of …'

'Who said I was going to accuse you of anything?' Yvonne turned from the window, smiling slightly. 'I must say, Helen, you certainly don't strike me as the sort of woman who'd be up for a quickie in the computer room.'

Helen felt her heart leap into her mouth as every ounce of breath suddenly left her body. Yvonne's words had been like a swift kick in the stomach. 'What …' She took a deep breath, trying to control the obvious tremor in her voice. 'Yvonne, I have no idea what you're talking about.'

'Oh come on, Helen! I ain't as green as I'm cabbage looking you know! You were seen.'

Helen was gripped by a wave of panic so strong she nearly blacked out. She looked up at Yvonne and her panic turned to outrage when she saw the predatory grin on the older woman's face. 'Nikki and I are both adults, Yvonne. Whatever happened between us is none of your business!'

'So you admit it then?'

'What's the point in denying it? You obviously think you've got me over a barrel here, but like I said, whatever happened is none of your business!'

'Like I've already said,' Yvonne walked over from the window to the desk, towering over Helen with menace, 'Nikki and Trish are friends of mine and I ain't gonna stand by and watch you screw them up.'

Helen shot out of her seat and confronted Yvonne angrily. 'I don't really think I owe you anything in the way of assurances, but if it gets you off my back then I can honestly say that I have no intention of taking this any further.' She took a step closer to Yvonne in an attempt to show that she wasn't going to be intimidated. 'Now, I'd be grateful if we could consider this matter closed.'

Yvonne glared at Helen for a second before taking a step back. 'I think I'll consider the matter pending,' she said, nodding towards Sean's photograph. 'Nice bloke, be a shame to break his heart.'

'Are you threatening me Yvonne?'

'I don't do threats,' Yvonne said as she walked over to the door. 'Let's just call it a friendly warning.'

Helen's temper was already been straining at the leash. This parting shot released it. She moved swiftly over to where Yvonne was standing and grabbed her arm, preventing her from opening the door. 'Listen to me. don't think for one minute that I'm going to let you intimidate me.'

'Rather touchy ain't ya for someone who refuses to be intimidated?' Yvonne ripped her arm away from Helen, eyes glittering dangerously. 'Just think about what I've said. We wouldn't want anyone getting hurt, would we?'

Yvonne left the office and Helen watched the door swing shut behind her. Returning to her desk, she tried to immerse herself in paperwork but at regular intervals, the photograph of Sean caught her eye. She studied it for a few seconds before placing it, face down, into her desk drawer.

Monday morning after yet another heavy Sunday night before. The empty Chardonnay bottle and the face reflected in the mirror were the evidence of the crime. Who was that woman in the mirror? The woman who looked hung-over, frayed around the edges and more than a few years older than her actual age. Helen sighed. Whoever she was, she looked like shit.

After one last despairing look at her appearance, Helen looked down at her watch, not entirely surprised to find that she was running late.

'Helen? You still here?'

Helen heard Sean's voice as he walked down the stairs and grabbed her bag in an attempt to make a quick getaway.

'There you are.'

Too late.

Sean smiled and leaned down to kiss Helen on the cheek. 'Morning, darling.' He reached past her for the pile of post she'd placed on the hall table. 'Bills,' he muttered, flicking through the envelopes with a disinterested sigh. 'Oh, I meant to tell you, I got a call from Nicky yesterday.'

Helen looked up, feeling her heart suddenly start thumping against her rib cage. 'Nikki?'

Sean looked up and smiled. 'Not the Nikki you work with. Nicky and Claire.'

'Oh.' Helen felt her pulse resume its normal pace and returned her attention to the mirror. 'What did they want?'

'They asked if they could use the house for a few days while we're on our honeymoon.'

Helen felt a burst of irritation. Sean was forever making plans without consulting her. 'So what did you say?'

'I said fine, it's not a problem is it?'

'Whatever you say.' Helen observed Sean through the mirror for a second, grabbed her bag and then headed for the front door.

Sean reached out and grabbed Helen's arm as she walked past. 'Hang on, Helen. What's wrong?'

'I'm late.' Helen wrenched her arm from Sean's grip and left the house.

Zandra looked up from the copy of TV Quick she was reading as a bright spark caught her eye. There was another … then a wisp of smoke before her computer screen blinked off.

'What the frig?' Zandra overturned her chair as she jumped away from the desk.

'Jesus bloody Christ!' Julie J exclaimed, cutting off the customer on the other end of her phone in her own attempt to get away.

'Don't take the Lord's name in vain woman!' Crystal growled.

'That's frigging easy for you to say!' Zandra countered, reaching forward gingerly to pick up her phone. 'Bloody computers!'

Dominic, disturbed by the raised voices, ran over from the supervisor's desk. 'What's going on?' He paused, nose wrinkling when he detected the smell of burning plastic. 'What happened?'

'Zan's screen just threw a wobbler,' Julie S explained, looking up suddenly when Zandra banged her phone down. 'You okay Zan?'

'Bloody Lorna Rose!' Zandra hissed. 'Stupid cow just had a right go at me! Anyone would think it was my fault all the computers in here are twatted.'

'That don't sound like Lorna.' Julie J said with a frown. 'Mind you, she 'as been in a bit of a funny mood for the past week, ain't she Jue?'

Julie S nodded wisely. 'Well you know why that is dontcha? Nikki's away ain't she?'

'Okay, Julies, take some calls please,' Dominic said, swiftly putting an end to the gossip when he spotted Helen approaching. 'Zandra, what did Lorna say?'

'She's sending that Josh bloke out to take a look,' Zandra replied. She looked up at Helen and smiled. 'Morning, Miss Stewart.'

'Morning, Zandra,' Helen replied before turning to Dominic. 'Dominic, can I …?'

'Oh hello, gorgeous!' Julie J exclaimed suddenly, eyes drawn to a figure approaching the table.

'Bleedin' nora!' Julie S gasped. 'Sex on legs or what?'

Josh Mitchell, the new IT technician, approached the spur of desks cautiously. 'Hi … er … which one of you is Zandra?'

'I am.' Zandra raised her hand, smiling slyly at the Julies. 'Lorna sent you to sort me out did she?'

Now that Zandra and the Julies were occupied with Josh, Helen turned back to Dominic. 'I've got that information for you about the Open University,' Helen announced, smiling slightly when she saw that Dominic was blushing. 'Why don't you pop down to my office a bit later and we'll go over it.'

'That would be great,' Dominic replied, face breaking into a huge grin. 'Thanks, Helen, thanks a lot.'

'No problem.'

The Julies smiled at each other when they saw Helen and Dominic walk away in different directions.

'Ere, Zan.' Julie S said. 'Looks like biker boy's got a bit of a crush on Miss Stewart.'

'Piss off, you twat!' Zandra countered. 'Anyway, he's not gonna get anywhere is he? Have you seen the size of that engagement ring she's wearing?'

'This is dead as a dodo.' Josh said, stepping back from his examination of Zandra's monitor. 'I'm going to have to …' Josh's words trailed off when he noticed Crystal sitting on the other side of the desk.

'Got a problem there?' Crystal inquired haughtily, irritated to find that she couldn't drag her eyes away from Josh's.

'I ain't got no problem.' Josh replied, stumbling slightly as he backed away from the desk. 'I'm gonna go and get you a new monitor, Zandra. Back in a minute.'

'Thunderbolt city!' Zandra exclaimed, cackling as she returned to her chair. 'His name's Josh by the way.' She added, smiling over at Crystal.

'I don't care what he's called.' Crystal snapped. 'The only man in my life is the Lord, innit?'

'Oooooh! Hark at the Virgin Mary!' The Julies chorused.

'The Lord got you lined up for the Second Coming has he Crystal?' Zandra asked.

Crystal shot out of her chair and grabbed her coffee mug. 'Heathens!'

Helen looked up from her perusal of Shell Dockley's personnel file and frowned at the employee in question. 'Shell, Miss Barker has already given you three verbal warnings so far this year. Do you want to tell me why?'

Shell shrugged and resumed her examination of her crimson nail polish. 'She's jealous, innit?'


''Cause she's an ugly, dried up, old cow and I ain't.'

Helen sighed and returned her attention to the file, making a mental note of the fact that the only senior employee with anything favourable to say about Shell was Jim Fenner.

The phone rang and Helen reached for it, conscious of Shell eyeing her with disdain.

'Helen Stewart.'

'It's me.'

Helen closed her eyes when she heard Sean's voice. 'Sean, what…'

'What were you trying to tell me this morning?'

'Sean, can I call you back please?'

'No you can't! I don't care what you're doing. I want to know where you're coming from.'

Helen sighed and looked over at Shell who was smirking back at her. 'Shell, would you mind leaving please? We'll continue this later.' Helen waited until Shell had closed the door behind her before resuming the call. 'Sean, do you mind not doing this to me at work?'

'Well if you talked to me at home I wouldn't have to, would I?'

Dominic had forced himself to wait for a reasonable amount of time before making his way down to Helen's office for their meeting. He wasn't sure what to think when he encountered Shell Dockley with her ear pressed up to Helen's office door.

'What do you think you're doing?' Dominic asked, outraged at the invasion of Helen's privacy.

'I'm listening to the 'uman Resources manager 'aving a row with 'er fiancé,' Shell replied. 'Right bleedin' ding-dong they're 'aving too!'

'Come on Shell, back to the sales floor please.'

Shell moved away from the door and laughed. 'You never know, she might give 'im the push and you can move in.' Her eyes narrowed as she moved closer to Dominic. 'Desperate to get in 'er knickers ain't ya?'

'I don't know what you're talking about,' Dominic stammered.

Shell looked up and down the length of Dominic's body, smiling slightly. 'Must be difficult trying to keep that 'ard-on under control when she's around.' She turned around and headed in the direction of the lift. 'See ya, Dom.'

Dominic took a few moments to compose himself and then knocked on Helen's door.

Helen parked her car in the driveway and reached for her bag, pausing when she saw Sean through the living-room window prowling around with the phone glued to his ear. She threw the bag onto the passenger seat and leaned forward to rest her head and hands on the steering wheel.

It had been two weeks now, two weeks without hearing anything from Nikki other than a postcard in Trish's handwriting proclaiming that the two of them were having a 'wonderful time'. Originally, Helen had been glad for the breathing space that Nikki's holiday had provided, recognising it as an opportunity to reassess her feelings and get her relationship with Sean back on track.

Not for a second had she imagined how hard it would be.

The simple fact was that she missed Nikki. Her dreams were haunted by the memory of that evening in the computer room, and the majority of her waking moments were tortured by thoughts of Nikki and Trish together.

But did she love Nikki? Could she end her relationship with Sean to be with someone so volatile, stubborn and annoying?

Helen sighed and leaned back into the car seat.

Was she in love? That was the question, was she in love with Nikki and, more importantly, was she in love with Sean? At that precise moment, she didn't know the answer to either question.


Helen looked up, startled when she saw Sean peering at her through the windscreen. 'Don't get out of the car we're going out,' he bellowed, running over to the passenger side and opening the door. 'Jamie and Lucy called to see if we're on for a cheap and cheerful, is that okay?'

Helen rolled her eyes and then reached for her seatbelt. 'Fine.'

Sean climbed into the passenger seat and leaned over to kiss Helen on the cheek. 'You should speak to Lucy about your hen-night.'

'I don't want a hen-night.'

'Well I'm having a stag-night … you know, maybe you should wait until Trish gets back at the weekend, she's bound to …'


Helen had been fumbling with her car-keys; she dropped them at the mention of Trish's name.

'Helen? Are you okay?'

'For God's sake Sean!' Helen snapped, reaching down to pick the keys up. 'I'm fine, okay?'

'Okay.' Sean frowned at Helen for a moment and then sat back into the passenger seat. 'Forgot to tell you, I'm having my suit fitted tomorrow lunchtime. Why don't you pop down for a sneak preview?'

Just then, Helen's mobile began vibrating in her pocket, she fumbled it out and felt a sudden rush of blood to her brain when she saw the word Unknown on the caller display. 'Hello?'

'Helen, it's me, Nikki. Can you talk?'

Helen glanced over at Sean and began fumbling with her seat belt. 'Yes, hold on.'

'Sean's there isn't he?'

'Yes, that's right.' Helen finally freed herself from her seat belt and then climbed out of the car. Finally, she closed the car door and leant back against it. 'It's okay, I can talk now.'

'I don't have long. I just wanted to say … well … how are you?'

Helen closed her eyes. There were so many things she wanted to say in reply to that question. She wanted Nikki to know exactly how much she was missing her … how hearing her voice had suddenly made everything so clear. The fear that Nikki might not be feeling the same way stopped her.

'I'm fine, how are you?' She replied after what seemed like an age.

Nikki sighed and in doing so, managed to communicate exactly how she was feeling. A loaded silence hung there between them for a moment and Helen closed her eyes as intense waves of longing engulfed her body.

'Nikki, I … I miss you.'

On another continent, Nikki found that she was blinking back sudden tears; the need to be with Helen now was so strong she felt it physically. 'Me too.' she said, her longing turning to panic when she heard the door opening. Trish was back early. 'Hold on.'

Helen heard muffled voices and then a click before the line went dead.

Karen Betts leaned back in her chair and stifled a yawn. She was in the midst of probably the most boring meeting in the airline's history and was finding it increasingly difficult to keep her eyes open. She became aware of Helen shifting in the chair to her immediate right and glanced over … she was checking her mobile phone again. During the meeting, Karen had noticed that Helen had checked her mobile phone at least fifty times, and her curiosity was beginning to get the better of her.

Mindful of the National Training Manager droning on about the upcoming IIP assessment, Karen leaned over and whispered into Helen's ear. 'Lucky you. Something tells me that you're waiting for an excuse to get out of this meeting.'

Helen's eyes flickered over to the National Training Manager and then back to Karen. 'If only!' She smiled slightly and leaned closer to Karen. 'You know, if they worked out a way to package him in pill form it would be great for my insomnia.'

Karen turned to look at Helen, noticing for the first time that the Human Resources Manager was looking decidedly ragged round the edges. 'Pre-wedding nerves?'

Helen's smile disappeared. 'Something like that.' She looked down at her mobile again, willing it to ring.

At the end of the meeting, Karen caught up with Helen in the corridor. 'Are you okay Helen?' She asked, concerned. 'You don't look at all well.'

Helen's mobile phone began to ring.

Karen noticed that the sound of the phone seemed to rejuvenate Helen, but the huge grin on her face disappeared when she lifted the phone to her ear.

'Oh hi, Sean … yes, I said I'd come didn't I? I'll be there in ten minutes.' Helen rolled her eyes at Karen as she ended the call. 'I'm about to marry a man who can't get through a suit fitting without me being there to hold his hand.'

Karen raised an eyebrow. It didn't sound like Helen was in the midst of pre-wedding nerves. It sounded like she was having second thoughts.

Helen looked down at her watch and sighed. 'I'd better go, see you later.'

Helen caught the lift down to the ground floor and shared a very uncomfortable thirty seconds with Shell Dockley and Lorna Rose, both of whom stared at her with extreme distaste. Helen could understand the reaction from Shell. She had after all given the bleached blonde telephone agent a final written warning for bad conduct the day before, but the hostility in Lorna's eyes was unexpected and extremely unsettling.

Just as the lift door opened, Helen glanced back towards Lorna and caught her breath as a number of different thoughts suddenly slotted into place. It was Lorna who had seen her and Nikki! With that revelation spinning around her head, Helen left the building and set off to meet Sean.

To say that Shell Dockley was in a bad mood was indeed an understatement.

After that Scottish slag, Helen Stewart, had given her a written warning, Shell had gone straight to see Jim Fenner who, even after a blowjob, had refused to put a word in for her. A while later, as she swilled her mouth out with Listerine, she reflected on the fact that she should've asked him before she crawled under his desk and saved herself the effort.

Shell's mood was not improved when her eyes alighted on Shaz and Denny as she walked into the canteen.

Across the room, Denny looked up and nearly choked on the forkful of chips she'd just crammed into her mouth when Shell suddenly loomed over the table she was sharing with Shaz.

'Oi, midget!' Shell hissed at Shaz. ''Op it!'

Shaz made a show of getting comfortable in her chair before smiling up at Shell. 'I ain't going anywhere.'

'I said piss off before I ram your teeth so far down yer scrawny neck that you'll 'ave to stick yer toothbrush up yer arse to clean yer teeth!' Shell glared at Shaz for a second and then turned to Denny, smiling sweetly. 'I need a word wiv you, Denny me darlin'.'

Denny swallowed her mouthful of chips as she looked between the two women who were both staring at her expectantly. 'I'm gonna go and …' She stood and picked her plate up. 'Er … yeah, red sauce, innit?'

Shell watched Denny scurry off to the servery in search of tomato sauce and then turned back to Shaz who was grinning back at her. 'I don't know what you're friggin' grinnin' at!'

Shaz stood up, undaunted by Shell's hostile stare. 'Michelle Dockley, you are the weakest link, goodbye!'

Shaz blew a raspberry at Shell and then wandered off to join Denny at the servery.

Helen parked in Sainsbury's car park and ran over the road to the tailors. Just before she reached the shop, her heart jumped into her mouth when she saw a tall woman with short, dark hair coming out of the hairdressers next door. Helen was on the verge of calling out, but then the woman turned around and she felt an intense rush of disappointment when she realised it wasn't Nikki. She stood there unable to move, barely aware of the fact that the people who passed her were regarding her with puzzled stares. After a few moments, she turned to look through the show window and saw Sean trying on his suit.

Could she do this to him? Could she allow him to enter into a marriage with someone who was already guilty of cheating on him once? At one time she was sure that she loved him, but it took falling in love with someone else to make her realise that everything she felt was a lie.

Helen walked into the shop, almost bowled over with guilt when Sean looked up and smiled when he saw her.

'Here she is, just in time for the verdict.' Sean held his arms out and turned around, showing off the suit. 'So what do you think?'

'Sean …'

'I can't decide on the waistcoat though.' Sean turned back to the mirror, regarding his reflection intently. 'I think this one might be slightly too loud.'

'Sean, can we leave this and go and get a drink?'

Sean frowned at his reflection. 'It's the waistcoat isn't it? You don't like it do you?'

Helen suppressed a howl of irritation and instead laid a tentative hand on Sean's shoulder. 'Look, I need to talk to you … can we just go?'

Sean turned around, puzzled by Helen's agitated tone. 'What's the matter?'

'Will you just change?'

'No!' Sean replied petulantly. 'I like this suit. Why don't you like it?'

Helen raised a hand to her head in a gesture of desperation. 'Sean … please.'

'Will you just tell me? What's the matter?' Sean reached forward and tried to take Helen's arm. He felt his temper beginning to fray when she pulled it away. 'Come on. I said tell me, Helen!'

Helen looked around, conscious of the fact that they were attracting the attention of the other people in the shop. 'Sean, I can't marry you,' she said softly. 'I'm really sorry but …'

'What are you talking about?'

Sean's voice rang around the shop. The sales assistant stopped her conversation with the tailor. The couple standing at the back of the shop stopped arguing … everyone turned to look at Sean and Helen.

Helen found that she was blinking back tears, shame suffusing every part of her body as her mind went totally blank. She didn't know what to say to Sean. All she knew was that she had to get out of this shop.

'Look, can we get out of here?' She turned, trying to back away.

Sean grabbed hold of Helen's shoulders, the look on his face one of angry disbelief. 'What you do mean you can't marry me?' he said through gritted teeth. 'Why not?'

Helen looked down at the floor, the tears now beginning to roll down her face. She hated what she was doing to Sean but at the same time, she hated him for making her do it in a public place.

Still looking down at the floor, she pulled away from him. 'Because I don't love you.' Still avoiding looking at his face she stepped back. 'I'm sorry.'

Sean made another grab for Helen, pulling her round to face him. 'There's someone else. Isn't there?'

The question was so unexpected it elicited a strangled intake of breath from Helen.

Sean let go of Helen. The fact that she hadn't even bothered to deny his question was a moot point … the guilt on her face was obvious. 'Who is he? Someone you work with?'

'Sean I'm sorry,' Helen stammered as she started to back away. 'I'm so sorry.'

Helen left the shop. Her life was now in tatters but for the first time in weeks, she finally knew what she wanted.

Shell stood outside puffing furiously on a cigarette, her brain working fifteen to the dozen as she thought of, and then rejected, multiple schemes that would enable her to get even on every single twat in her life. Just as she was about to give up, an expensive looking black car pulled up beside her and a furious, but incredibly good-looking bloke climbed out. Shell watched him as he stormed around to the boot of the car and took out two bulging, black rubbish bags. Curiosity well and truly stirred, Shell sidled over.

'Hiya, gorgeous!'

The man looked up and dropped one of the bags. A variety of very feminine looking underwear spilled onto the floor.

'Nice knickers,' Shell commented, bending down to help him pick them up. 'You don't look like a tranny though.'

'They're not mine,' the man replied as he took the underwear Shell handed to him. 'I'm just dropping them off for someone.'


'My fi … my ex, Helen Stewart,' Sean looked up and considered Shell for a second. 'Don't suppose you'd know where I can find her.'

Shell stood up, smiling as a multitude of possibilities flashed through her head. 'I saw 'er on the sales floor just before I came out for me fag,' she replied. 'I can take you up there if yer want.'

Sean nodded. 'Thanks.' He gestured towards the bin bags. 'Could you give me a hand with these? Oh, and I'm Sean by the way.'

In the lift, Shell decided to make her move.

'You found out about Miss Stewart and Nikki Wade did ya?'

Sean turned to stare at Shell as if she'd just grown a second head. 'Pardon me?'

'Oh come on!' Shell leaned her back against the wall and laughed. 'They're at it ain't they? Everyone's been talking about it.'

Sean continued to stare at Shell. 'That's rubbish! She wouldn't, I mean …' His voice trailed off uncertainly.

Sean started to think back to all the times that Helen had immediately changed the subject whenever Nikki was mentioned … her irrational dislike for Trish … but surely not? Sean almost smiled, the idea was so ridiculous. Then a scene played through his head … the memory of kissing Helen on the dance floor at their engagement party. Spotting Nikki out of the corner of his eye and the look of pain and anger on her face and …

Shell saw Sean's look of disbelief turn into one of outrage and grinned. Maybe today was going to turn out to be a good one after all.

Helen had intended to drop some OU literature off with Dominic and then return to her office, but Karen, who had been engaged in what looked like a heated conversation with Yvonne, took one look at her face and pulled her off to one side.

'Helen, are you okay?'

Helen nodded and looked down at the floor. She'd been on the verge of tears all afternoon and she didn't trust herself to speak.

'Didn't it go well with Sean?'

Helen took a deep breath and forced herself to smile up at Karen. 'Karen, I appreciate what you're trying to do but …'

'You'd rather not talk about it at work?' Karen smiled and laid her hand on Helen's arm. 'Look, do you want to go for a drink later? I'm a good listener if you need to talk.'

But Helen's attention was elsewhere.

The door to the sales floor flew open and a furious looking Sean stalked in with a smirking Shell Dockley.

Sean walked up to Helen and dumped the bin bags at her feet. 'Don't bother coming home to pick the rest of your stuff up. I'll send it on to Nikki's place.'

The mention of Nikki's name elicited a gasp from Helen. 'Sean … what …?'

'Well you are fucking her, aren't you?' Sean spat the words out with distaste.

Immediately, the sales floor fell silent and all Helen could do was stand there and wish that the ground would open up and swallow her.

Help arrived from an unexpected quarter.

Yvonne stepped in front of Helen and grabbed a very surprised Sean by the arm. 'Listen to me, sunshine. I think you should take this outside.'

'Oh really?' Sean pulled his arm away from Yvonne and tried his best to stare her down. 'And why should I do that?'

Yvonne leaned forward. 'Because if you don't I'll rip your bollocks off and wear them as earrings,' she whispered. 'Okay?'

Sean took a step back. Something in Yvonne's steely tone told him that it wasn't an idle threat. To regain some face, he turned to glare at Helen. 'I don't think there's any point in discussing this any further. My solicitor will contact you about the house, but in the meantime, I'd like your keys.'

Now twice humiliated by Sean in public, Helen felt a red mist of anger descending as she pushed Yvonne out of the way in order to confront him. 'Legally that house is half mine,' she snapped. 'If you honestly think I'm going to …'

Yvonne laid a restraining arm on Helen's shoulder. 'Listen, Helen, I don't think you should be washing your dirty laundry in public …' She nodded towards Shell who was still smirking at Sean's side. 'You don't wanna make this any more embarrassing than it already is.'

Helen considered for a second and then nodded, accepting Yvonne's logic. 'Sean, can we go to my office and discuss this?'

Sean responded by stormed off the sales floor, slamming the door behind him.

'Well, well, well,' Shell said in delight. 'Who'd've thought it? Mr McAllister is gonna be so upset when 'e finds out you swing both ways.'

'I'll bleedin' swing for you in a minute!' Yvonne barked at Shell. 'Go and do some work!'

'Friggin' charmin', innit?' Shell grumbled as she walked away.

Helen turned to Yvonne who was regarding Shell's disappearing back with disdain. 'Thanks for that, Yvonne.'

'Don't get excited love.' Yvonne replied. 'It weren't your reputation I was trying to protect.'

'Oh shit!' Helen exclaimed. 'Nikki! We have to get in touch with her before Sean manages to get hold of Trish.'

'Trish knows,' Yvonne said, her eyes boring into Helen's as if she held her solely responsible. 'She's been suss for a while now and forced it out of Nikki. She rang me in a right state last week, but luckily they've decided to give things another go.' Yvonne looked up and frowned when she saw Shell gossiping with the Julies. 'I'd better go and chop Barbie off at the knees before the 'ole bleedin' place finds out.'

During her exchange with Yvonne, Karen had collected together the bags that Sean had left. She handed them over to a now, completely stunned Helen with a sympathetic smile. 'Come on, let's go and put these in your car and then go for a drink.'

Helen nodded and followed Karen out to the lift. She hadn't the energy or motivation to protest.

Just before Sean's eruption onto the sales floor, a peaceful scene had been unfolding over on the Direct Sales desk. Julie S was plaiting Julie J's hair while they joined Zandra in her perusal of November's issue of Larkair's in-house magazine, The High Life.

'That's not bad,' Zandra commented. 'Two weeks all-inclusive in Barbados for two hundred quid.'

'Let's have a look, Zan.' Julie J leaned forward and took the magazine from Zandra. 'That ain't bad at all' she said after studying the article. 'What d'ya reckon, Jue?'

'Nah,' Julie S replied. 'My David can't go abroad. 'E's got a sensitive stomach.' She sighed and returned to plaiting her friend's hair. 'Remember when we went to Torremolinos that time, Jue? That paella went right through 'im. He spent the rest of the 'oliday sat on the bog.'

'Oh yeah.' Julie J sighed. 'Oh well, there's always Rhyl again.'

Julie S leaned back and considered Julie J's plaits. 'There you go, Jue. Bloody fantastic.'

Julie J picked up her compact and studied her new look. 'I like it.'

'Knocks years off ya, Jue,' Julie S said, smiling reassuringly. 'What do ya fink, Zan?'

Zandra looked up and laughed. 'Who do you think you are?' she sneered. 'Poca-frigging-hontas?'

Before Julie J could think of a suitable response, a man banged through the doors of the sales floor. Trailing a very self-satisfied looking Shell behind him, he dumped two bulging bin bags at Helen's feet.

'That must be Stewart's fiancé,' Zandra said, standing up to get a better view. 'Doesn't look too happy though.'

The three women remained silent while the scene unfolded. Then Nikki's name was mentioned and the Julies exchanged a gasp.

'Well you are fucking her, aren't you?'

The words rang out around the suddenly silent sales floor, causing Zandra to sit down heavily.

'Shit!' she hissed. 'So they are bloody shagging.'

Crystal, the only telephone agent on the sales floor who hadn't abandoned her customer, glanced up. 'What's it got to do with you what them sinners get up to?'

'Because, Crystal, I let Shell talk me into putting a fiver on it,' Zandra explained. 'Bollocks! Well, that means I'm staying in to wash my hair tonight.' She looked up and pulled a face when Shell sidled over.

'So, turns out that Wade is shagging Stewart,' Shell declared, grinning over at Zandra. 'I bleedin' told ya didn't I? That's a fiver you owe me, Zan.'

'Yeah, yeah.' Zandra reached for her purse and handed the note over to Shell. 'You should watch it, Shell, you're already on your final warning. If they catch you gossiping you're gonna be for it.'

'I couldn't give a flyin' fuck!' Shell laughed as she rolled the five-pound note up and pushed it down her cleavage. 'They ain't got the bollocks to sack me!'

'That right is it?'

Shell turned around to see Yvonne staring at her coldly.

'If I hear you've been spreading gossip, Shell, you'll be out of here so fast your bleedin' head'll spin.' Yvonne smiled and then moved closer to Shell. 'And don't think Fenner'll protect you either. Word is he's got someone else giving him blow-jobs under his desk,' she said softly into Shell's ear. 'I want you out of here, Dockley,' she continued softly. 'And I'm gonna be watching your back every single minute of the day until you slip up and give me a reason to kick your scraggy arse out the front door.'

Shell backed away, not wanting to lose any more face than she had already. 'I'd better … er …'

Yvonne watched Shell as she sloped away and then turned to look over the faces of Zandra and the Julies, all of whom were looking up at her incredulously. 'Same goes for you lot. If I hear one word of gossip I'm gonna come down on you like a ton of bleedin' bricks, got me?'

The women around the desk silently nodded their assent and Yvonne stalked away.

Once Yvonne had gone, Zandra let out a deep breath. 'Very touchy about Nikki all of a sudden isn't she? Maybe she's shagging her too.'

The Julies rolled their eyes at each other. 'Give it a bleedin' rest, Zan!' they said in unison.

After Sean's appearance on the sales floor, Karen had taken Helen straight to the nearest pub, where, over a large vodka and tonic, she'd explained the whole situation.

'Well,' Karen said, lighting what became her fifth cigarette since the beginning of Helen's version of events. 'Now that I think about it, I can't say I'm that surprised.'

Helen choked on a mouthful of her drink. 'Really?'

'There always seemed to be something there whenever I saw you together, only I couldn't quite put my finger on it.' She smiled wryly and shook her head. 'Well, until now anyway.' She leaned across the table towards Helen, her face suddenly serious. 'Helen, are you sure about what you're getting into here?'

Helen nodded. 'I've done nothing but think about it for weeks now. I don't know what's going to happen between Nikki and me but I do know that I can't marry Sean.' She paused, crestfallen. 'Not that he'd take me back now anyway.'

Karen considered this for a second and then nodded. 'Listen, I've got a spare room. I don't mind putting you up until you get things sorted.'

'You sure?'

'No problem.' Karen smiled reassuringly and then gestured at Helen's empty glass. 'Ready for a refill?'

Later that night, Helen lay awake in Karen's spare room. Now that the relief of finally being able to confide in someone had worn off, the full implications of the day's events finally began to hit home.

She rolled over and clutched the pillow to her chest, finally surrendering to tears as she thought back to the humiliation Sean had forced on both of them … and the thought of Nikki so far away and lying in someone else's arms.


Chapter Thirteen

Nikki parked her hired Fiat Seicento in the car park and rested her head on the steering wheel, stifling a yawn against the palm of her hand. She didn't feel like someone who'd just returned from a two-week holiday in the sun. She felt like someone who'd been run over by a steam-roller, kicked in the teeth and then spat on for good measure.

For the first three days of her holiday, Nikki had been unable to stop thinking about Helen. Trish had picked up on this and had cross-examined her until she'd been forced to admit the truth.

Two days of screaming, tears, cold silences and plate throwing had then followed.

Just when Nikki had been on the verge of booking a flight back home, Trish had calmed down and suggested that they talk about it rationally. Following the consumption of a bottle of brandy of questionable origin and a night of drunken guilt-sex, things finally seemed to calm down. The only problem was, Nikki still couldn't stop thinking about Helen.

On the second week, in a moment of weakness, Nikki had called Helen on her mobile phone, only for Trish to stumble across her. The ensuing argument lasted until the end of the holiday. By the time they boarded their flight back to the UK, they weren't speaking. Trish had even insisted on being allocated a seat on the other end of the cabin to Nikki's.

Being alone gave Nikki a chance to think rationally. She loved Trish … that was in no doubt at all … but she was no longer sure if she wanted to spend the rest of her life with her. The more Nikki thought about Helen, the more she wanted her … but Helen was about to be married to someone else and totally unattainable.

With that thought in her head, Nikki had made a conscious effort to sort things out with Trish and as a result they were at least on talking terms now.

She looked up, startled, when someone rapped on the passenger window. It was Yvonne.

Nikki smiled and opened the door. 'Hi, Yvonne.'

Yvonne nodded and stood back to study the car. Her grimace at the sight of the bright yellow paintwork turned into laughter as she observed Nikki struggling to climb out of it. 'Friggin' 'ell, Nik! You sure they didn't have any smaller cars?'

'It was the only one they had on such short notice,' Nikki replied as she locked the car door. 'I'm going to give them a ring later and see if they've got anything bigger.'

'Make sure you do. You look like bleedin' Noddy in that thing!' Yvonne smiled for a second longer and then moved closer to Nikki, her face suddenly serious. 'How's things with Trish?'

'Bloody awful.' Nikki sighed, gesturing to the car. 'That's why I'm driving this thing. It doesn't feel right driving the Jag after …' Her words trailed off and she looked down at the ground.

'Serves you right,' Yvonne said unsympathetically.

'Sorry, Yvonne but I've spent the last fortnight getting earache and dodging flying crockery. The last thing I need is a lecture.'

Yvonne considered Nikki for a moment and then nodded. 'Come on then, let's go and have a brew in my office. There's a lot I've got to fill you in on.'

With less than two days to go until the annual conference, the atmosphere on the sales floor was one of expectation and excitement. This excitement increased when Denny arrived with a surreptitiously photocopied schedule for the Stars in Their Eyes competition.

'Oh my God!' Zandra exclaimed as her eyes rapidly moved down the list. 'Fenner's doing Elvis!'

Julie J gasped and grabbed the list from Zandra. After a second, she looked around and rolled her eyes. 'You twat!'

Zandra leaned back in her chair and laughed. 'Had you going though, didn't I?'

Julie J shook her head and returned to the list. 'Shell's doin' Madonna. I wonder what song?'

''Like a Virgin' she said,' Zandra replied, leaning over to join Julie J in her perusal of the schedule. 'She's frigging cracked she is.'

Julie S looked up as she ended the query she'd been dealing with. 'Why's that, Zan?'

''Like a Virgin' my arse!' Zandra scoffed. 'She's gonna be buried in a twatting 'Y' shaped coffin!'

Julie S reached over for the list and put her glasses on to study it. 'Don't say nuffing about Nikki and Yvonne on 'ere. Fort they was doin' somefing.' She reached out with her arm and grabbed Denny who was passing with her trolley. 'Den, are Nikki and Yvonne still in the competition?'

'Yeah, only Yvonne won't tell anyone who they're gonna be,' Denny explained. 'Bettsy's s'posed to be doin' somefing too.'

'Who? Cruella?' Zandra looked up and laughed. 'Can't wait to see that!'

Out of nowhere, Marie appeared and ran over to whisper something in Julie S's ear. The shock was evident on her face when she turned back to the others. 'You wouldn't believe what Marie just told me.'

'Nikki's shagging Crystal!' Denny said with a snort of laughter.

Crystal sucked her teeth, not looking up from her computer screen. 'I'd rather lie down with Satan,' she said coldly.

'Do ya wanna 'ear about this or not?' Julie S snapped, fidgeting excitedly in her seat.

'Nikki's shagging Fenner!' Zandra called out before joining Denny in a giggling fit.

'Nah! She's shagging Dawn, innit?' Denny countered.

Julie S raised her eyes to heaven and sighed. 'Will you two put a bleedin' sock in it?' She waited until Zandra and Denny had made a concerted effort to keep their giggles under control before continuing. 'Fenner's 'aving it off with that new girl, Rachel.'

Zandra raised her eyebrows sceptically. 'Pull the other one, it farts Elvis!'

Denny looked over at Julie S. 'Who's Rachel?'

'Rachel 'Icks,' Julie J replied. 'You know, one of the ones who started last month.'

'He's a filthy bastard that Fenner,' Zandra hissed, grimacing. 'She's only eighteen.'

'Well one thing's for sure, Shell won't like it,' Julie S said wisely before reaching over to take another phone call.

Yvonne waited until Nikki was sitting down with her cup of coffee before launching an attack. 'What the friggin' 'ell were you thinking about, Nikki?'

Nikki placed her cup on Yvonne's desk and then leaned forward, putting her head in her hands. 'I can really do without this now, Yvonne.'

'Tough shit!'

Nikki sighed, leaning back into her chair. 'What happened … I couldn't help it, it's … all I can say is that I can't control what I feel for her.'

'You telling me that you love her?'

'Yes, no … shit, I don't know, Yvonne.' Nikki took her 'Zippo' lighter out of her pocket and began opening and closing it distractedly. 'All I know is that when she's anywhere near me I can't control myself. There's just something about her.' She raised her head and looked straight at Yvonne. 'Have you ever met someone for the first time and right from that moment, you know?'

'Know what?' Yvonne shook her head and leaned over the desk towards Nikki. 'I really do hope you ain't gonna start going on about destiny and fate and all that bullshit! I know you, Nikki. You ain't never been into all that romantic crap!'

Nikki looked down at her lighter and frowned before slipping it back into her pocket. 'I don't want to get into an argument with you, Yvonne and I'm old enough to do without the motherly advice. So, why don't you just trust my judgement on this one and tell me what's been going on while I've been away.'

Yvonne considered Nikki for a moment. She could tell by the determined set of her jaw and the direct stare that she wasn't going to get any further. Nikki was as stubborn as a mule when she wanted to be.

'Okay.' Yvonne nodded, conceding. 'Helen's dumped her fiancé.'

Nikki gasped. 'Sean?'

'Yeah, and then he turns up on the sales floor with all her worldly goods in a couple of bin bags,' Yvonne continued. ''Course, that jumped up slapper Dockley stuck her bleedin' snout in, and told him that you two were shagging.'

Nikki gasped. 'And he believed her?' She let out a long breath when Yvonne nodded. 'Is Helen okay?'

'She's staying with Karen as far as I know,' Yvonne replied curtly. 'She's been off sick since. Don't know why. She made her bed she can friggin' well lie in it!'

'It takes two to tango, Yvonne,' Nikki countered. 'Shit! This is all my fault!'

Yvonne looked up with ill-concealed irritation when Karen walked into the office without knocking. 'What do you want?'

Karen nodded at Nikki and then strode over to the desk. 'I just wanted to let you know that we've had some more entrants for the competition.'

'Remind me, Karen, why should I care?'

'Because you're the one who said you'd organise it in Helen's absence.'

Nikki looked up at the mention of Helen's name. 'How is she?'

Karen turned around and raised an eyebrow at Nikki. 'Heart-broken, humiliated and permanently hung-over.'

'Very nice, Karen.' Yvonne said, winking at Nikki. 'Bet you can't say that when you're pissed.'

'When you die, Yvonne and they do your post-mortem, they'll find a stone where your heart should be,' Karen responded.

'Oooh, 'ark at Lord Byron!'

'Oh for Christ's sake!' Nikki howled. 'Will you two pack it in? I've had it up to here with bloody arguments!'

Karen and Yvonne stared at each other for a second. Karen was the first to back down.

'Here,' she said, sliding a piece of paper onto Yvonne's desk. 'Larkair have arranged a job-swap. A group of our Manchester airport staff have gone to New Zealand for a month, and a group of our Auckland staff are working in Manchester.'

'And what's that got to do with the competition?'

'They're staying in the same hotel as we're holding the conference in,' Karen explained. 'Bella, the airport manager, just e-mailed me and asked if we could include them in the evening's … entertainments.'

'And some of them want to enter the competition do they?' Yvonne nodded as she studied the piece of paper. 'No problem.' She looked up at Nikki and grinned. 'What do ya reckon, Nik?'

'Maori, Maori quite contrary,' Nikki replied as she stood up and drained her coffee cup. 'I've got a feeling this year's conference is going to be interesting to say the least.'

The day of the conference dawned in typical Manchester style … cold, grey and pissing it down. The conference wasn't actually due to start until one o'clock that afternoon, but Stubberfield had insisted on the entire management team assembling at nine-thirty for a last minute pep talk. At ten o'clock in the morning, a hung-over and irritated Nikki unfurled herself out of her Fiat and sprinted across the hotel car park to avoid the torrential rain.

After a row with the receptionist who seemed to take an age to check her into her room, she spent the next spent ten minutes running blindly up and down burgundy-carpeted corridors. Finally, she managed to flag down a passing chambermaid who pointed her in the direction of the conference room.

'Sorry I'm …'

Nikki's voice trailed off when she noticed Helen sitting next to a smirking Fenner.

Nikki didn't believe in God, but at that moment she cursed him silently for the fact that it was the first time she'd seen Helen in a fortnight, and she resembled a dripping tomato after her sprint around the corridors.

'Ah, Nikki,' Stubberfield said, glowering with disapproval as Nikki slid into the empty seat next to Yvonne. 'Trouble getting here?'

'Got blocked in by a Land Rover this morning.' Nikki replied, still out of breath. 'I had to knock on every door in our apartment block before I could find someone to shift it.'

'You talking about the banana-mobile?' Fenner asked, still smirking. 'I'm surprised anyone could block something that small in.'

'Ain't that what Marilyn says when you unzip your trousers, Jim?' Yvonne countered, placing a restraining hand on Nikki's arm.

Fenner grumbled something under his breath but otherwise, remained silent.

Yvonne smiled and turned back to Stubberfield. 'You were saying, Simon?'

Across the table, Helen found that she was unable to take her eyes off Nikki. The IT Manager was wearing a beige linen trouser suit. The white blouse she'd combined it with contrasted perfectly with skin tanned a deep brown by the sun. After two weeks with only faded pictures in her head, Helen was unprepared for how vital and alive Nikki looked.

'Helen!' a voice whispered harshly.

Helen looked around to see Karen regarding her with concern. 'Sorry … what?'

Karen hid a smile behind her hand. 'If you two carry on staring at each other like that, I'm going to have to throw a bucket of water over you.'

Helen shifted uncomfortably in her seat and concentrated on the table top for the remainder of the meeting.

The afternoon passed quickly.

Nikki's speech had been a resounding success, as had Yvonne's and Karen's. Fenner's had been greeted with good-natured booing and Helen's had been afforded rapt attention. Just as Stubberfield took the stage, Helen became aware of Nikki fidgeting in the chair next to her.

'You okay?' Helen whispered.

'Just getting myself comfortable,' Nikki replied, rolling her eyes. 'Last year Stubbsy droned on for so long I fell asleep. Nudge me if I start to snore.'

Just as Nikki predicted, Stubberfield's speech rivalled War and Peace for length and was so dry that Helen also found that she was struggling to keep her eyes open. Mercifully, the end came and Stubberfield announced the winner of the 'Employee of the Year' award.

Helen hadn't actually heard of the woman who won – Nellie Snape – but she could tell something was wrong by the astonished look on Stubberfield's face and the loudness of the cheers. Surely if she was that popular, she would've come across the name before.

She turned to Nikki and found her shaking with silent laughter. 'What's the joke?' she asked.

'The sly bastards have block-voted,' Nikki replied. 'I did hear a rumour about it, but …' She started to laugh again. 'My God! Look at the expression on the Fat Controller's face!'

It took a few seconds for Helen to realise that Nikki was referring to Stubberfield. She smiled at the nickname and then began to understand the joke when she saw Nellie weave onto the stage. 'How the hell has she managed to hang onto her job?' she wondered out loud. 'She looks like she's been dragged through a hedge backwards.'

'And she's three sheets to the wind,' Nikki said, still laughing. 'She's a bit of an institution is Smelly Nellie. Always pissed by midday, but the customers love her.'

Julie S, who was sitting on the row of chairs behind, reached over to tap Nikki on the shoulder. ''Ere, Nik,' she said. 'Fanks for that tip about this place. We've just scored two hundred quid off Shell.'

'Yeah, bleedin' 'opping she is too!' a jubilant Julie J added.

After congratulating the Julies, Nikki turned back to find Helen regarding her with a questioning stare. 'What?'

'You want to tell me what all that was about?'

Nikki considered her reply for a second and then shrugged. 'I honestly have no idea.'

Later, at dinner, Helen found herself sharing a table with Nikki, Zandra, the Julies, Dominic, Crystal and Josh.

Throughout the first course, Helen made a conscious effort to talk to Nikki, but every time she opened her mouth, the Julies and Zandra managed to drag her into their conversation. Helen sighed and began tearing a bread roll into pieces in a gesture of frustration. After a few moments, she became aware of Dominic, who was sitting on her other side, studying her intently.

'I was sorry to hear about your fiancé,' he said softly.

Helen shrugged. 'These things happen I suppose.' She took a long swallow of wine and then sighed heavily. 'You mind if we change the subject?'

'You gonna tell us what you and Yvonne are doing for the competition yet?' Julie S asked Nikki.

'In a word, no,' Nikki replied. 'Talking about the competition, have you two decided who's going to be the blonde one yet?'

'Oh don't twatting ask!' Zandra snapped, leaning over to pinch one of Nikki's cigarettes. 'They've been arguing about it for weeks now. It's been like world war frigging three at our desk.'

Nikki smiled. 'So what about you, Zan? Sorted out a Posh yet?' She raised her eyebrows when Zandra nodded. 'Who?'

Zandra winked and tapped the side of her nose. 'You've got your secret, we've got ours.'

Just before coffee was served, the Julies and Zandra disappeared to the toilets. It gave Helen the opportunity she'd been waiting for.

'How are you?' she asked Nikki softly.

Nikki had been lighting yet another cigarette, she looked up and smiled. 'About the same as you by the sounds of it,' she replied.

'You heard did you?'

Nikki nodded. 'I'm really sorry about that … I …'

'How are you and Trish?'

'Not that great.' Nikki shifted uncomfortably in her chair. 'I'd rather not talk about … well, there's not much to say really.' She leaned forward, studying the end of her cigarette intently. 'I missed you, Helen.'

'I missed you too.'

For a moment they stared at each other. Helen gasped when she felt Nikki's hand on her knee and found that she was unable to stop herself from moving closer.

'God, Helen,' Nikki whispered. 'I can't believe what you do to me.'

'Ditto,' Helen replied. She closed her eyes momentarily as she tried to fight the overwhelming urge to drag Nikki under the table. 'Listen, Nikki, we should talk about this …'

'You ready, Nik?'

Helen looked up and nearly screamed with frustration when she saw Yvonne standing there.

Nikki glanced down at her watch. 'God! Is it that time already?'

Yvonne grinned around the cigarette she was lighting. 'Showtime!'

Denny headed into the toilets to change into her Scary Spice outfit. She jumped out of her skin when a long arm snaked out of one of the cubicles and pulled her inside.

'Bleedin' 'ell, Shell!' Denny gasped. 'You just scared the crap outta me!'

'Sorry, Den.' Shell smiled and moved closer. She draped her arms over Denny's shoulders. 'Miss you, Den.'

Denny looked down and realised that Shell was in her underwear. It took all of her willpower to resist. 'What do you want?' she asked, pulling away.

'I want to know who Fenner's shagging,' Shell replied. Her tone became business-like as soon as she realised that Denny wasn't going to be won over. 'I know you know.'

'I don't know nuffing.'

Shell pushed Denny up against the cubicle door. 'Give, Den!'

Denny considered her options. On the one hand, she didn't wish Shell's wrath on anyone, but on the other hand, she didn't owe Rachel any favours.

'Well,' Shell said impatiently. 'I'm waiting.'

'Rachel Hicks.'

Shell let Denny go and stood back, her face a mask of hate. 'The bitch! I'm gonna friggin' kill 'er!'

Denny took the opportunity to open the cubicle door, hoping to make a quick getaway.

'And where do you fink you're going?' Shell hissed as she reached out to bang the door shut. 'You're gonna do me a little favour, Den,' she said, reaching down to retrieve a small square of folded paper from her bag. 'I fink it's about time I got even with that psycho bitch, Atkins.'

Denny regarded the wrap suspiciously. 'What you gonna do, Shell?'

'I was just coming to that.'

Yvonne adjusted her hat and then frowned across at Nikki who was fidgeting beside her. 'Will you stop hopping around like that? You're making me friggin' nervous!'

'Why the bloody hell did I let you talk me into this?' Nikki whined. 'I must need my bumps feeling.'

'Well don't say that in front of Helen,' Yvonne commented. 'I'm sure she'd feel 'em right there in front of everybody.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

'Don't matter.' Yvonne shook her head and reached out to straighten Nikki's tie. 'You'd better put your shades on. Fenner's gonna announce us any minute.'

Nikki complied, feeling more ridiculous by the second. 'I can't see in these bloody things!'

'Oh for Christ's sake!' Yvonne barked. 'Stop belly-aching!'

Out in the audience, Helen was supposed to be elsewhere, but couldn't resist hanging around to see Nikki and Yvonne's act. Hit by a sudden wave of nerves, she walked over to the bar and ordered a vodka.

'Ladies and gentlemen.'

Helen turned to face the stage when Fenner's voice boomed out of the PA system.

'Our first contestants in Larkair's' Stars in Their Eyes competition are Nikki Wade and Yvonne Atkins. I'd like to suggest that all make sure you've all got a drink, because I think you're going to need it …'

'Pompous bastard!' a voice said in a New Zealand accent.

Helen turned to look at the source of the voice and encountered a tall, good-looking woman with long dark hair. She raised her glass at Helen and grinned, revealing perfect white teeth.

'So …' Fenner continued. 'First through the doors tonight, performing 'Everybody Needs Somebody to Love', are … The Blues Brothers!'

Nikki and Yvonne erupted onto the stage, wearing identical black suits, hats and dark glasses. As the song progressed it became clear that neither of the women could carry a decent tune in a bucket, but the combination of Yvonne's 'cool' and Nikki's ambivalence worked incredibly well.

'Tell me I'm dreaming!' the New Zealander said. 'She is gorgeous!'

Helen felt a sharp stab of jealousy. She looked around at the woman and saw that she had been joined by a shorter, but equally as good-looking red-head.

The red-head rolled her eyes. 'Will you keep your hormones under control, Vicky?'

Vicky punched her companion lightly on the arm. 'I'm telling you, Katie, what I wouldn't do to her …'

'Doesn't bear thinking about.' Katie finished her friend's sentence with a wry grin.

A passing Shell Dockley, who for some reason was wearing only a silk dressing gown, grinned at both women. 'You might get yer chance,' she said. 'Wade's the airline bike. Everyone's 'ad a ride!' She smirked at Helen and then moved on.

The song finished then. Ignoring the cheers, Nikki jumped down from the stage and made a beeline for the bar. By the time she arrived at Helen's side, she'd removed her hat, glasses and tie.

'Bloody hell!' Nikki groaned as she signalled to the barman. 'I am never, ever … ever going to do anything like that again. I was crapping myself up there!'

Helen smiled and reached up to squeeze Nikki's shoulder. 'You were great.' She nodded covertly towards Vicky. 'Something tells me you've picked up some fans already.' She caught sight of a signal out of the corner of her eye and moved closer to Nikki. 'I've got to go.'

Nikki let the handful of change she'd fished out of her pocket to fall onto the bar with a clatter. 'Already?'

'Don't worry, I'll be back.'

'Where are you going?'

Helen smiled and winked cryptically. 'You'll find out soon enough.'

Next up on stage were the Julies, who, despite falling over each other during a complex part of their dance routine, managed to dispatch 'Waterloo' with so much enthusiasm that they received even a bigger round of applause than Nikki and Yvonne.

Several more acts followed, before the favourites to win were called onto the stage.

Nikki, who had been chatting with Vicky and Katie, looked up when Fenner made his announcement. She'd been looking forward to this one.

'Ladies and gentlemen,' Fenner said. 'Our next act only managed to complete their line up yesterday, so you might want to turn away now if you're easily offended. Next through the doors, with 'Wannabe', are the Spice Girls.

Nikki dropped her gin and tonic when she recognised Posh Spice.

'Bleedin' Nora!' Julie S exclaimed. 'Ain't that?'

'It flamin' well is!' Julie J gasped.

Nikki was still staring open-mouthed at the stage when Yvonne tapped her on the shoulder.

'That's …' Yvonne began.

'Helen!' Nikki said in a strangled voice. 'Bloody hell! She can sing too!'

Nikki then became so transfixed by the sight of Helen wearing a skin-tight, low-cut black dress that it was several moments before she could speak again.

Yvonne meanwhile was almost killing herself with laughter.

Zandra, as Ginger Spice, was the star of the show in her Union Jack dress and bright red wig, closely followed by Shaz as Sporty. Despite the fact that she was showing off more tattoos than a building-site worker, Denny was great as Scary. Lorna also managed a passable Baby, even though she was obviously so nervous, it looked like she was going to throw up.

But Helen stole the show completely as far as Nikki was concerned.


Nikki turned around and took the drink that Yvonne passed her. 'Thanks, Yvonne.'

Yvonne meanwhile had noticed the new faces standing with Nikki at the bar. 'You lot the Kiwis?'

'I'm sorry,' Nikki said. 'You must think I'm terrible, Yvonne, meet Vicky and Katie.'

During this exchange, nobody noticed Dawn sidle up to the bar. She unfolded a small square of paper and poured the white powder it contained into Yvonne's drink.

Yvonne reached for her drink a few minutes later. Just as she was raising it to her mouth, Stubberfield puffed his way up to the now crowded bar.

'Damn!' he said in irritation, looking in vain for a way to push through.

'Here, 'ave this.' Yvonne handed her still untouched drink to Stubberfield. 'You drink whisky don't ya? I've just realised I've gotta drive to Sheffield tomorrow morning.'

As soon as she left the stage, Helen was collared by Dominic. As he droned on about the Open University course he'd just signed up for, she glanced over at the bar. She felt her heart sink when she saw that Nikki was now deep in conversation with Vicky.

Mercifully, Di Barker arrived then and made it clear to Helen that she intended on monopolising Dominic. Helen was more than happy to let her.

As Helen approached the bar, she noticed Nikki place her hand on Vicky's arm, and was hit by a wave of jealousy so strong it nearly knocked her over.

'Hiya, Nikki.' Helen said as cheerfully as possible, forcing herself to smile.

Nikki turned to her and smiled. 'Kia ora, Helen!'

'Pardon me?'

'It's Maori for hello,' Nikki explained, winking at her newfound friend. 'This is Vicky.'

Helen nodded curtly. 'Nice to meet you, Vicky.'

'Vicky! Get your backside in gear!' Katie called. 'We're on soon!'

'Coming!' Vicky rolled her eyes and then grinned. 'See you later, Nikki.'

'They better be good,' another New Zealander said to Nikki. 'Katie spent the whole afternoon dragging us around Manchester in search of Afro wigs.'

'Who are they doing?' Nikki asked.

'The Jackson Five.'

Nikki smiled at this and then turned back to Helen. 'Well done. You were amazing.'

'Zig a zig ah,' Helen replied. She laughed and shook her head. 'I still can't believe I let Karen talk me into it.'


'She bet ten pounds on the Spice Girls to win, and then found out that they might be pulling out because they couldn't find a Posh. It seemed a like a good idea after half a bottle of vodka.'

'Ten pounds! Honestly!' Nikki exclaimed. 'I told you she was tighter than a duck's backside.'

Yvonne, now on orange juice, tugged on Nikki's sleeve. 'Karen's on now,' she announced. 'Jesus! Look at the old slapper. Talk about mutton dressed as lamb!'

Karen, aka Barbra Streisand, walked slowly onto the stage dressed in a black velvet dress that left her shoulders bare. Nikki ignored Yvonne's comments, as far as she was concerned, Karen looked gorgeous.

Fenner obviously felt the same. As Karen walked over to the microphone, he placed an overly friendly hand on her backside. 'Break a leg,' he whispered.

'Touch me like that again, Jim and I'll break both of yours!' Karen snapped before reaching for the microphone.

Nikki exchanged a look of astonishment with Helen as Karen began to sing 'Cry Me a River' in a flawless voice. 'Bloody hell! She can really sing!'

Yvonne nodded. 'Wish she'd taken it up for a living, she's a pain in the jacksie at work.'

Nikki turned back to the stage, the hairs standing up on the back of her neck as Karen started hitting the high notes. The level of emotion in her voice surprised Nikki, as did the fact that her eyes kept darting over in the direction of the bar.

Nikki's mind began working overtime, and then completely stopped doing anything much when Helen's hand slipped into hers.

Nobody was surprised when the Spice Girls were awarded with first prize. Nor when upon hearing the news, Shell stormed off in a strop.

Rachel Hicks had managed to avoid Shell for most of the evening. It was unfortunate for her that she decided to check her make-up in the toilets just as Shell erupted out of a cubicle.

''Ere, 'Icks!' Shell hissed. She grabbed Rachel by the throat and pushed her up against the hand drier. 'I want a word wiv you!'

Rachel, now completely terrified, started to sob. 'What have I ever done to you?'

'I'm only gonna warn you once so shut the fuck up!' Shell slapped Rachel around the face and then slammed her against the wall. 'If I 'ear that you've so much as touched Fenner again, I'm gonna rip ya tits off and feed 'em to me dog, got me?'

Just then, the door to the toilets banged open. Shell dropped Rachel when her eyes focussed on Yvonne.

'What's going on in here?' Yvonne barked, walking over to help Rachel to her feet. 'What's she done to you, love?'

'I ain't done nuffing!' Shell howled.

'I weren't talking to you, so shut yer bleedin' pie 'ole!' Yvonne glared at Shell for a second and then turned back to Rachel. 'What's going on?'

Rachel looked over at Shell and watched her draw her finger across her neck slowly. 'Nothing,' she said to Yvonne. 'Nothing happened.'

Yvonne watched Rachel run out of the toilets and then slammed Shell up against the sink. 'If I find out you've been bullying 'er, I'll 'ave you Dockley!'

'Yeah? And I'll tell Mr Fenner that you've been threatening me.'

'You honestly think a cheap slapper like you can scare me?' Yvonne smiled and moved closer to Shell. 'I don't do scared.'

Dominic was praying for a miracle, praying for someone … anyone to rescue him from Di Barker. Just as he was about to give up hope, salvation arrived in the form of a drunken Zandra. Pausing to flick a 'V' sign at a furious Di, she dragged him off to dance.

Also on the dance floor, Shaz and Denny were snogging, and Crystal and Josh were holding each other awkwardly.

'So, can I take you out one night Crystal?' Josh asked her.

'As long as you know you ain't getting anything,' Crystal replied. 'If that's what you're after then you're wasting your time with me.'

'Is that a yes then?'

Crystal smiled despite herself and nodded. 'It's a yes.'

Meanwhile, Yvonne, who was lounging against the bar and wearing Vicky's afro wig, nudged Nikki in the ribs. ''Ere, Nik, have you seen the Fat Controller?'

Nikki followed Yvonne's gaze and laughed when she saw Stubberfield jiving energetically around the dance floor with Sylvia Hollamby. 'Bloody hell! It's Fred and Ginge!'

'I don't know what's got into the old git,' Yvonne commented. 'He's not been off the dance floor all night. If I didn't know better I'd swear someone had slipped him an E.'

Just as the words came out of Yvonne's mouth, Stubberfield collapsed, clutching his left arm.

'Shit!' Nikki exclaimed, realising immediately what was happening. 'Yvonne! Call a bloody ambulance! He's having a heart-attack!'


Chapter Fourteen

The natural reaction of most of the people on the dance floor had been to back away when Stubberfield collapsed. No one really knew what to do and they all threw guilty looks at each other as they waited for someone to take control of the situation. Luckily, they didn't have long to wait. Within seconds of seeing Stubberfield collapse, Nikki was by his side.

It had been nearly a year since Nikki had taken her last First Aid refresher course and she was appalled to find that when it came to the crunch, she could hardly recall any of it. Her mind began working overtime as she observed the blue tinge to Stubberfield's lips, and felt the cold, clammy feel of his skin as she lay a tentative hand on his forehead. Making sure he was lying flat on his back seemed the right thing to do, as did tipping his head back to clear his airways … but where on the neck was she supposed to feel for a pulse? What was that trick the paramedic had taught the class?

As she fumbled with hands that were numb and shaking, Nikki became aware of someone standing over her.

'Ambulance is on its way,' Yvonne said. 'They're sending one from the airport. Said it would be here in a couple of minutes.'

Nikki looked up at Yvonne and nodded before returning her attention to Stubberfield.

Things weren't getting any better. No matter how hard she tried, Nikki couldn't find a pulse, and when she placed a hand on his chest and moved her face close to his, she was even more dismayed to discover that he wasn't breathing.

'What's happening, Nik?' Yvonne asked, disturbed by the terrified look on Nikki's face. 'Is he okay?'

Nikki ignored Yvonne and swallowed over the panic that began to surge up from her insides. The crowd were gathering closer now and she was only dimly aware of them as she took a deep breath to calm herself The adrenaline was now coursing through her body, her heart pounding against her rib cage. Performing CPR on a purpose-built dummy was one thing, but on a human being?

Amongst the onlookers stood Shell and the Julies.

Shell smirked when she saw Nikki begin mouth-to-mouth. ''Ere, bet that lezzie bitch can't remember the last time she snogged a bloke!'

The Julies sighed in tandem and exchanged a disdainful glance. ''Eartless bitch!'

Nikki began CPR. The way his mouth felt, the strange sound as his chest deflated … it didn't register. The only thing that seemed real was the voice in her head – two inflations, check pulse, fifteen depressions. Within minutes, Nikki was breathing heavily with the effort, and by the time the ambulance crew arrived, she was exhausted.

'What happened?' the paramedic asked as he took over from Nikki.

'He just collapsed,' Nikki replied. 'One minute he was dancing and the next he was flat out. I think it might have been a heart attack.'

'Okay, we'll take over from here,' he said, looking over at his colleague. 'Let's get the monitor on him.'

Nikki stood back and watched the paramedics in action. She felt Helen's hand on her shoulder and was glad of it as she saw them produce a defibrillator.

'Are you okay?'

Nikki shook her head. 'Not really. Bloody hell, I know I knock the guy but …'

The second shock produced an output, and within seconds Stubberfield was on a trolley. Nikki, Helen and the rest of the management team followed the paramedics out to the ambulance.

'We should get 'old of Stubbsy's missus,' Yvonne said to Helen. 'You got a number?'

But Helen was staring at Nikki who was visibly shaking and grey beneath her suntan. 'Nikki?'

'I'm going with him,' Nikki declared.

The paramedic nodded and Nikki jumped into the back of the ambulance.

'Here.' A very shaken looking Jim Fenner stepped forward and handed Yvonne his mobile phone. 'I've got his home number programmed in.'

'We'll be taking him to Wythenshawe,' the paramedic announced as he closed the ambulance doors.

Helen walked through the doors of the A&E department, feeling more than a little conspicuous in the low-cut dress she hadn't had the time to change out of. She eventually found Nikki pacing up and down by a vending machine, a solitary black-suited figure in a stark, white corridor.

'What's happening?'

Nikki looked around, stopped pacing and frowned at Helen before replying. 'He's critical. They won't tell me any more than that.'

'Did his wife turn up?'

'She's in there with him now.'

Nikki sat down in a nearby chair, leaning forward to put her head in her hands.

Helen sat down beside Nikki, placing a hesitant hand on her back. 'Are you okay?'

'I'm fine,' Nikki replied as she leaned back into her chair. 'It's just … when I did that first aid course I thought the most I'd ever do was stick a plaster on someone's finger, but that … what I did tonight …' Nikki reached into her pocket for her cigarettes, her hands still shaking. 'Shit!' she said as the packet slipped through her fingers.

Helen bent down to retrieve the packet from the floor. 'You look exhausted,' She observed as she handed it back to Nikki. 'Maybe you should go back to the hotel … try to get some sleep.'

'The bloke who took the class told us that doing CPR for any length of time was knackering. He was right, I feel like I've just gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.' Nikki looked down at the packet of cigarettes and considered it for a second before returning it to her pocket. 'Shouldn't be smoking in here anyway.'

'Nikki, I really think you should go back to the hotel.' Helen repeated her earlier suggestion, unsure of whether it had registered first time.

Nikki shook her head. 'I should stay.'

'What's the point? You said yourself that they're not going to tell you anything,' Helen reasoned, reaching for Nikki's hand. 'We can go back to the hotel and call them in the morning. I'm sure …'

'Hold on a minute,' Nikki interjected, looking at Helen with disbelief. 'We can go back to the hotel? You can't honestly think that …'

'I didn't mean that.' Helen tightened her grip on Nikki's hand. 'I just don't think you should be on your own tonight … unless of course that's what you'd prefer.'

'No.' Nikki shook her head and returned the pressure. 'You're right. I don't want to be on my own tonight.'

Stubberfield's departure in the ambulance had brought the party to an abrupt end. Standing in a dimly lit corner of the conference room, Shell was sharing an illicit joint with Denny, who was waiting for Shaz to return from phoning a taxi. Glancing over at the bar, Shell let out a low growl of frustration, when she saw that Yvonne was yawning as she ordered a drink.

'That friggin' Marie!' She hissed. 'There's more E up Hollamby's arse than there is in that bleedin' powder she sold me! That psycho bitch should be trippin' 'er bollocks off by now!'

'Nah, I sold some to Tracy, innit?' Denny replied. 'She said it was wicked.' Her face broke into a huge grin when she saw an extremely drunken Hollamby totter out of the toilets. 'Have you seen the state of Bodybag? I fort she was gonna have the 'eart attack the way she was flinging 'erself around the dance floor before …'

Denny realised she had lost her audience. Shell had noticed Fenner coming out of the gents and had flown off to intercept him.

'What do you want?' Fenner snapped when he saw Shell. 'If you're here to bend my ear about Rachel Hicks again you can forget it. I'm not in the mood.'

'Course not,' Shell said innocently, realising by the sombre look on Fenner's face that a certain amount of tact was called for. 'You okay, Jim? Heard anyfing from the 'ospital?'

Fenner shook his head as he lit a cigarette. 'Probably won't find anything out until the morning.'

'You got a room?' Shell asked, smiling seductively.

'Give it a rest, Shell.'

Shell was left mouthing furiously when Fenner left her to join Yvonne at the bar.

'Any news yet?' he asked.

'Nikki phoned a few minutes ago,' Yvonne answered after taking a swig of orange juice.


'She's on her way back with Helen. The docs won't tell her nothing.' Yvonne's eyes narrowed suspiciously. 'Worried that you might be out on your ear if he don't come back, Jim?'

'You honestly think I'm that low?'

'I think you're lower than a snake's arsehole, mate, but my personal opinion don't count does it?'

'It might do.'

Yvonne had been in the process of lighting a cigarette. She paused and frowned up at Fenner. 'What you on about?'

'I'm the longest serving member of the management team,' Fenner replied with a smile. 'So I'd be careful what you say to me, Atkins, or you'll be the one out on your ear.'

'Bollocks!' Yvonne resumed lighting her cigarette and nodded towards Helen, who had just walked into the room. 'Why would they leave a gorilla like you in charge when they've got a trained chimp?'

Fenner stared at Helen for a second and then turned back to Yvonne, his disbelief obvious. 'Stewart? No chance.'

'Why do you think they sent her up here from Head Office in the first place? She was always gonna end up taking over. It just turns out that she's gonna be taking over sooner rather than later.'

Fenner considered this for a moment and then slowly shook his head. 'You're talking complete crap, Atkins.'

'Tell you something, Jim, for once I wish I was.' Yvonne spoke out of the side of her mouth, conscious of Helen approaching them and then smiled in greeting. 'You alright, Helen? Where's Nikki?'

'She went straight up to her room,' Helen replied, waving to attract the barman's attention. 'I need a drink. You want one?'

Yvonne shook her head. 'I'm off up to bed myself in a minute, got an early start in the morning.' She spotted Karen stumbling out of the toilets and pulled a face. 'Look at the state of her! I told her not to drink that tequila but would she listen?'

Karen weaved her way over to the bar, bumping into several chairs and tables in the process.

'I jusht got propositioned by a rather dishy waiter,' she announced as she attempted to sit down on a high barstool. 'If my heart wasn't engaged elsewhere I would've …'

Yvonne managed to catch Karen as she wobbled off the barstool. 'Come on, Patsy. You're in no fit state to get a taxi, you'd better sleep in my room.'

Helen smiled at Yvonne and Karen's departure and then turned back to the bar, slightly startled to find that Fenner was studying her intently.

'This has all worked out well for you, hasn't it?' he said, smiling humourlessly around the cigarette he was lighting.

'Why don't you just spit it out, Jim?' Helen replied irritably, taking her drink from the barman. 'I'm not in the mood for games tonight.'

'Simon,' Fenner continued. 'I suppose you've already worked out how you're going to redecorate his office.'

Helen stared at Fenner, completely disgusted, before knocking her vodka back in one. 'Goodnight, Jim.'

Fenner smiled back at her, completely unrepentant. 'Goodnight, Helen.' He leaned forward until his face was only inches from hers. 'Give my regards to Nikki.'

Having taken a long shower to rid herself of the smell of the hospital, Nikki pulled on a T-shirt and pyjama bottoms, and then settled down on top of the bed. She was idly flicking through the channels on the TV when she heard a knock on the door. Pausing to put the TV on standby, she got up to answer it.

'Jim Fenner is a complete bastard!' Helen snapped as she stormed into the room.

'You've only just worked that out have you?' Nikki commented as she closed the door. She turned around and saw that Helen was now relentlessly pacing the room. 'What did he say?'

Helen shook her head and continued to pace. After a few moments, she looked over at Nikki and saw that she was grinning. She stopped pacing, suddenly self-conscious. 'What?'

'Nothing.' Nikki continued to smile and crouched down to peer into the mini-bar. 'You want a drink?'


Helen's voice was low and carried more than an edge of warning. Nikki concentrated on the mini-bar, trying desperately not to laugh. 'Do you want a drink or not?'

'I know what you're trying to do and it's not going to work.'

'Really?' Nikki extracted a bottle of brandy and stood up, reaching for a nearby glass. 'And what exactly am I trying to do?'

'You're trying to distract me.' Helen realised that the anger she had felt only a few moments ago was draining away. She smiled as she walked over to Nikki. 'I don't like being patronised.'

Nikki put her glass down on top of the dressing table and took Helen's hands in her own. 'I wasn't.'

'Oh no? So what are you grinning for?'

'Look, it's just …'

'Just what?'

Nikki found that she was looking down at the floor, knowing that she was on the verge of crossing a line. She let go of Helen's hands, suddenly unsure of whether or not she wanted to step over it. Then she looked up into Helen's eyes and the intensity she found there made her decision for her.

'Just that you're gorgeous when you're angry,' Nikki said softly. 'I thought that the very first time I saw you … in the club, remember?'

Helen nodded, her face suddenly serious. 'I might have forgotten everything else, including who I am, but I'll never forget that.'

'Who you are?' Nikki raised an eyebrow. 'What do you mean?'

Helen took a deep breath and walked away to sit down on the edge of the bed. 'Nikki, until I met you I knew who I was. I thought I knew which way I was going. I was committed to the man I loved … about to get married and …'

'Oh, and it's so easy for me isn't it?' Nikki said, throwing up her hands. 'I mean, it's not as if meeting you has completely fucked up my life is it?' She picked up the discarded glass of brandy from the dressing table and downed it in one. 'I'm the one who's been in a relationship for the past ten years.'

'As if I was any danger of forgetting that,' Helen said acidly. 'Yvonne's only taken it upon herself to remind me on a daily basis.'

The resentment Nikki was feeling about her own situation evaporated as she watched Helen stand up and stride over to the door. 'Where are you going?'

'I'm going home,' Helen replied matter-of-factly. She paused when she reached the door and turned around to face Nikki. 'It obviously eases your conscience to make me out to be the one in the wrong, but it takes two to tango Nikki. I didn't force you into anything.'

'I know you didn't.' Nikki watched Helen open the door, and with a calmness she certainly didn't feel, walked over to close it. 'I'm sorry.'

Helen leaned against the wall, completely unmoved. 'And an apology is supposed to make everything alright is it?'

'No it's not.' Nikki reached out to smooth a stray strand of hair from Helen's face, not entirely surprised when she flinched away. 'I understand how hard this is for you … believe me I do, but it's been hard for me too. In the ten years I've been with Trish I've never even looked at another woman. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her … until you came along.'

'What are you saying, Nikki?'

'I don't know.' Nikki shook her head and shrugged, a defeated look on her face. 'I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I just can't stop myself. What's scaring me to death is the fact that I don't even want to try anymore.'

Helen's heart was leaping after hearing Nikki's words, but still, the rational part of her, the part that still feared rejection wouldn't allow her to believe them and she dropped her head, unable to maintain eye contact.

Nikki gently laid her hand against Helen's face. 'Look at me, Helen.'

Helen obeyed, the air between them crackling with static electricity as she stared up into a pair of dark brown eyes that almost burnt her alive with the heat they possessed. She was unable to stop herself pressing her face into Nikki's hand, feeling faint with desire as a thumb gently traced the line of her cheekbone.

'I want you Helen,' Nikki said. 'I can't control this anymore.'

Those words, whispered in a low, husky voice, and with such emotion, completely overpowered Helen, causing her to arch her body into Nikki's, every part of her yearning to be touched.

'Are you sure about this?' Nikki whispered, her lips now only millimetres from Helen's. 'Only I don't think I'd be able to stop now if I tried.'

'I didn't think you wanted to, stop I mean.'

'I don't.'

Finally, their lips met, slowly and tentatively at first before all of the pent-up desire and passion of the past few months erupted into a kiss that completely consumed both of them

Nikki was overwhelmed by a sense of rightness as they moved over to the bed, never breaking the kiss as clothes were removed and they collapsed together onto the starched, white sheets.

Outside in the car park, Dominic was surprised to find that he couldn't actually stop kissing Zandra. He wasn't sure if it was because of the vast quantity of alcohol he'd consumed, the jealousy he'd felt at the obvious closeness of Helen and Nikki, or a combination of both, but he had to admit that there were worse ways of getting over heartbreak.

After a few minutes, Zandra broke the kiss. 'I should order a taxi, it's freezing out here,' She said, shivering as if to prove her point. 'Pity you've not got your bike with you. I've always fancied having a go on the back of it.'

'Do you want me to go in and call you one?' Dominic asked. 'I was going to call for one myself, anyway.'

'Where do you live? Maybe we could share one.'

'Stockport. What about you?'

'Stretford,' Zandra replied, sighing with disappointment. 'Totally the opposite direction.'

'Listen, I … er …' Dominic blushed and looked down at the ground. 'Do you fancy going for a drink sometime.'

'Forget that.' Zandra grinned and pulled Dominic back towards the hotel. 'Let's go and get a room.'

Yvonne growled with irritation and pulled a pillow down over her head in a futile effort to drown out Karen's snoring. A few minutes later, the snoring stopped. Yvonne sighed with relief and began drifting into sleep … until she felt a warm hand on her thigh, and even warmer breath against her neck.

Yvonne's first instinct was to jump out of the bed, either that or beat Karen to a pulp.

Stay calm, she's pissed as a fart and she probably thinks you're someone else, Yvonne reasoned.

She tried to ease herself away from Karen and towards the edge of the bed, but it was like being tangled in seaweed – the harder she struggled, the tighter it weaved its way around her body.

Then Karen mumbled a name, and Yvonne felt her blood run cold.

Helen felt as though she was floating as Nikki slowly progressed down her body, her caresses gentle and sensual on her face and neck, over her breasts and stomach, growing in passion but always slow and unhurried. The desire she felt seemed to erupt inside her as Nikki moved lower … wanting her, needing her, enslaving her … every touch driving her closer. Almost immediately, it was within her grasp and she reached for it, intense waves of heat shuddering through her as the world exploded into flame.

Almost an eternity later, she became aware of Nikki smiling down at her and clung to her, revelling in the warmth of her body as she slowly drifted back down to earth.

'You're amazing,' she said eventually.

Nikki smiled and gently dropped a kiss on the top of Helen's head. 'So are you.'

'So what …?'

Helen's words were interrupted by a knock on the door.

Nikki pulled away from Helen and sat up. 'Who the fuck's that?'

'Leave it, Nikki.' Helen made an attempt to pull Nikki back into the bed. It had taken her long enough to get Nikki on her own tonight, she wasn't about to relinquish her now. 'Ignore it. They've probably got the wrong room.'

Just as Nikki was about to comply, she heard another, louder knock. Then, a muffled voice.

'Nikki! For frig's sake! I know you're bleedin' in there!'

'Shit! It's Yvonne!' Nikki jumped up from the bed and wrapped herself in one of the crumpled sheets. Her eyes darted to the door, and then back to Helen in panic. 'Shit! You're going to have to hide in the bathroom!'

Helen sat up, totally outraged. 'Don't be ridiculous!'

The knock on the door became more insistent.

'Nikki! Open this fucking door! Now!'

'Oh for God's sake!' Nikki snapped before running over to the door.

Yvonne pushed straight past Nikki into the room. 'You wouldn't believe what's just …' She came to a complete halt when she saw Helen sitting up in the bed. 'Well, looks like someone's been having a good time.'

Helen nodded at Yvonne and pulled the sheets tighter around her body. 'Hello, Yvonne.'

Yvonne looked over at Nikki who was standing silently at the foot of the bed. 'You stupid cow!'

'Yvonne, this is none of your business.'

'And what about Trish? I take it this ain't none of her business either?'

Nikki heard the venom in Yvonne's words but her resolve never wavered. 'I appreciate your views on this, Yvonne, but like I said, it's nothing to do with you. It's up to me, Helen and Trish to sort this out, no one else.'

Yvonne thought about this for a second and then nodded reluctantly. 'I just hope you know what you're doing, Nik.'

Nikki glanced over at Helen. The reassuring smile she received in response, allayed any momentary doubts she may have been feeling. 'I'm sure, Yvonne,' she said firmly. 'Now, what the bloody hell are you doing here?'

Yvonne motioned Nikki over to the door. 'Karen's just made a pass at me,' she whispered.

Nikki almost heard her jaw hitting the floor in disbelief. 'Do what?'

'Keep your friggin' voice down,' Yvonne hissed. She glanced over Helen who was flicking through the room-service menu, trying to look pre-occupied. Gritting her teeth, she turned back to Nikki. 'Look, she's smashed out of her skull, so I said she could sleep in my room. I was just drifting off to sleep when she started groping me!'

'Well maybe she thought you were someone else.'

'I thought that too until she whispered my name in my ear.' Yvonne frowned up at Nikki who was now shaking with hysterical laughter. 'I don't know what you're laughing at!'

Nikki made a concerted effort to keep her laughter under control. 'So, what does Karen say about all this?'

'She's still flat out, drunken cow!' Yvonne replied. 'You just wait until she wakes up. Her hangover won't be nothing compared to what I'm gonna …'

'For God's sake, Yvonne, why embarrass the poor woman?'

'Embarrass her?' Yvonne exclaimed, totally outraged. 'What about me?'

'Exactly. Look, can you imagine what will happen if this gets out? Fenner will have a field day.'

'Good point.' Yvonne considered this for a second and then shuddered. 'Christ! When I think about all the times I've shared a room with her. I thought she was straight. I had no idea she was one of your lot.'

Nikki thought about this for a moment and then shook her head. 'I don't think she is, and knowing Karen, this is something she'd probably never admit to herself. You know what she's like.'

'Miss frigid knickers you mean?'

Nikki smiled. 'I wouldn't quite put it like that, but yeah.'

'So why do something about it now?'

'Yvonne, Karen's drunk me under the table more times than I care to mention, but I've never seen her pissed before tonight.'

'Yeah, well you ain't never seen her hit the tequila have you? Nik, what am I gonna do about this?'

'Like I said, you're best off just acting like nothing's happened.'

'No, I meant about tonight. I can't sleep in there can I?'

'Well you can't sleep in here.' Nikki looked over at Helen and felt a wave of lust so strong it nearly knocked her over. 'Look Yvonne, I'm tired and …'

Yvonne raised her eyebrows in disapproval. 'I get the message.' She opened the door, pausing before she left the room. 'Like I said, I just hope you know what you're doing.'

Nikki locked the door after Yvonne and walked straight over to the mini-bar.

'What was all that about?' Helen asked. She watched as Nikki opened another bottle of brandy. Not bothering with a glass, she fumbled the top off and knocked it straight back. 'Are you okay?'

Nikki grimaced and dropped the empty bottle into the bin. 'Sorry. I just wasn't expecting Yvonne to walk in like that.'

'You're worried about Trish, aren't you?'

Nikki nodded, suddenly unable to look at Helen. 'I don't know how she's going to take this.'

'So you are going to tell her?' Helen was unable to keep the hope out of her voice. 'Whatever I feel about you, Nikki, I'm not going to be able to share you. You know that don't you?'

'Yeah, of course I do.' Nikki sat down on the edge of the bed and took Helen's hands. 'I just need a bit of time. This isn't something I can drop on her out of the blue.' She paused, blinking back sudden tears. 'I do still love her, Helen.'

Helen took a deep breath, shocked by the surge of jealousy that rose insides like acid. She forced herself to remain calm, knowing that the last thing she and Nikki needed was another argument.

'I know I'm going to have to tell her though,' Nikki continued. 'Whatever I feel about her, I want to be with you. What happened here tonight has proved that.'

They made love again and with every kiss and soft caress a feeling of inevitability began to overtake Nikki, no matter what happened with Trish, this was meant to be.

Afterwards, Helen was holding Nikki close and luxuriating in the heat from her body. For a while, she was sure that Nikki had drifted off to sleep, but then she shifted slightly and sighed.

'Nikki? Are you okay?'

'I've imagined this so many times, I can't believe it's actually happened.'

'You don't regret it?'

'How could I?' Nikki replied before moving up the bed until her face was level with Helen's. 'I never thought I'd feel this way about anyone else.'

'Neither did I … about another woman anyway.' Helen smiled and ran a hand through Nikki's hair. 'But now I've given it a go, I can definitely see what I've been missing.'

Nikki blushed as she remembered back to that conversation in Liz's restaurant. She'd been so knocked for six by Helen, that she'd retaliated by trying to make her feel uncomfortable. 'You were flirting with me.'

'Was I?'

'Yes you were,' Nikki said, pausing to rest her lips against Helen's forehead. 'And if I remember correctly, that was the night I fell for you. What about you?'

'I don't know,' Helen answered. She thought for a moment longer. 'That first night on the team-building weekend probably.' She pulled away from Nikki and sat up. 'You made me feel like such a coward.'

'I know, I'm sorry. I should've realised how hard it was for you.'

'But you were the one who ran away.'

'I've stopped running now,' Nikki said, also sitting up as she realised something. 'You left that white feather, didn't you?'

Helen shivered when she felt Nikki's breath, hot on the back of her neck and a soft finger as it gently traced its way down over her backbone. 'Nikki …'

'Didn't you?'



'Because you really pissed me off!' Helen snapped. 'One minute you were challenging me about not admitting to how I felt about you, and then the next minute, you were resigning because you couldn't handle what you felt about me.' She turned around, letting her hand drift across Nikki's cheekbone. 'I got you in the end though, didn't I?'

'Yes you did.' Nikki smiled mischievously and reached for her cigarettes. 'I have to admit though, that little black dress you wore tonight had a lot to do with it.'

The obvious attempt at teasing had no effect on Helen. 'Well if I'd known that I would've worn it sooner.' She reached out and took the cigarette that Nikki had just lit, smiling at the look of astonishment on her face. 'I gave up when I met Sean. He hated the smell.'

'It's a filthy habit,' Nikki admonished, retrieving the cigarette after Helen's first drag resulted in a coughing fit. 'I'm sorry about what happened with him by the way.'

Helen shrugged and looked down at her hands, which began pleating the sheet pooled around her waist. 'I feel terrible for hurting him like that, but if I had married him I would've ended up hurting him even more in the long run.' She sighed deeply. 'We've both made such a mess of everything.'

Nikki saw that Helen's eyes were shining with tears; she quickly put her cigarette out and then and moved across the bed to hold her. 'What was it you said to me that time? Shit happens?' She pulled Helen closer, burying her face in her hair. 'It'll be okay, I promise.'


Chapter Fifteen

Helen woke, vaguely aware of music in the background as she opened her eyes and tried to focus in the dim light of the hotel bedroom. Eventually, her eyes made out the shape of Nikki, who was sitting at the end of the bed and watching MTV.


Nikki turned and grinned. 'Morning.'

Helen rolled over and retrieved her watch from the bedside table, surprised to find it was only six o'clock. 'How long have you been awake?'

'Couldn't sleep.' Nikki silenced Coldplay by switching the TV off. She threw the remote control onto the floor and then crawled back up the bed and into Helen's arms. 'Good job really what with your shameless behaviour last night. Not to mention the early hours of this morning.'

'I didn't hear you complaining at the time.'

'I'm not complaining. I just didn't realise you were so insatiable.'

'Do you want to think about your behaviour last night and rephrase that?'

Nikki mumbled something and buried her face into Helen's shoulder.

Helen smiled and pulled Nikki closer, feeling a body she thought was well past any further arousal beginning to respond to the sensation of the soft, warm skin pressed against her own.

None of her wildest dreams or fantasies had prepared her for the way her body had reacted to being with Nikki … her touch, the feel of her skin, the taste of her … the way all of her five senses had heightened, inducing pleasure that had been almost frightening in its intensity. Between bouts of fitful sleep, the passion had reclaimed her again and again, increasing in magnitude every time until the tangled and twisted sheets on the bed had become damp with perspiration.

In all the desire and naked lust, she'd felt an emotional connection that had never been there before and she knew that Nikki had felt it too … she'd seen it in her eyes, had heard it in the ragged breath that had quickened against her ear and the voice urging her to carry on and not to stop. She had never believed in the romantic notion of two people being made for each other, but she did believe in the electricity she and Nikki created between them. Whatever happened in the future, this was meant to be.

Helen tightened her grip on Nikki. In a matter of hours, this innocent looking hotel room had become their world and as long as they were in it they were safe and protected from their lives outside. She wasn't sure she was ready to cope with what might happen when they checked out.

Nikki sensed that something was wrong and looked up. 'You okay?'

'That story about Persephone returning to the underworld, do you know it?'

Nikki nodded. Persephone was the daughter of the goddess Demeter. Hades, god of the underworld fell in love with Persephone, but Demeter refused to let them marry. Angry, Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her back to the underworld. As Demeter wandered in search of her lost daughter, the land grew desolate and famine devastated the earth. Finally, Zeus demanded that Hades return Persephone, but before he did, he asked her to eat a pomegranate seed, knowing that when she did, she would be compelled to return to the underworld for one-third of the year. Demeter was overjoyed at being reunited with her daughter. However, her sorrow returned each autumn when Persephone had to go back to the underworld.

'I know it,' Nikki said. 'Why?'

'I feel like Demeter.'

'Well don't. No one's going to force me to eat a pomegranate seed.' Nikki smiled reassuringly before snuggling back into Helen's body. 'I promised you that everything would be okay, didn't I?'

Helen sighed and steeled herself to ask the question she'd been dreading. 'When are you going to tell Trish?'

Nikki responded by rolling away. She reached for her cigarettes and lit one. 'Helen, I want to be with you more than anything and I promise you, nothing's going to stop that. I just can't make any guarantees about how long that's going to take.'

'I suppose I'm just going to have to live with that, aren't I?'

Nikki placed her cigarette in the ashtray and then leaned over to take Helen's hand. 'Don't imagine for a moment that walking out of this room isn't going to be the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.'

Helen nodded and looked down at the bed. 'I'm sorry, I just …'

'Please don't doubt the way I feel about you, Helen. Just the thought of what it's going to be like without you tonight is enough to drive me crazy.' Nikki leaned forward, looking deeply into Helen's eyes. 'I love you.'

Those three words were spoken in an urgent whisper and with so much meaning that they elicited a gasp from Helen. When she looked up and saw the sincerity in Nikki's eyes, she felt a shiver travel down her spine.

'I love you too.'

Nikki reached over and pulled Helen into her arms, she was dreading the moment when she left the room and wanted nothing more than to hold on and never let go. They lay there like that for a few minutes until she felt a warm hand moving down over her stomach with lazy intent. She pulled away to regard Helen with a raised eyebrow.

Helen smiled when her hand slid between Nikki's legs. 'What? I just don't want to waste any of the time we've got left.'

Yvonne woke after a night spent hovering in and out of consciousness, whilst perched precariously on two chairs pushed together. As she rose from the makeshift bed, slowly rotating her neck to ease the stiffness that had settled in overnight, she frowned over at the huddled figure on the bed. Karen was totally cocooned in sheets and blankets, and completely unaware of the trouble she'd caused.

It wasn't very often that Yvonne was completely at a loss about what to do next. Her natural instinct was to kick Karen out of the bed, but the conversation she'd had with Nikki the night before held her back. What was the point in turning a one-off incident that was a product of too much tequila into something that could make them both a laughing stock?

But drunkenness aside, what on earth had possessed Karen to behave like that?

She's lonely.

Yvonne acknowledged the internal voice, knowing that Karen hadn't exactly had much success with men since she'd split up with her husband. This thought caused Yvonne to smile. She hadn't exactly been putting it about recently.

You're lonely too.

Yvonne had been in the process of lighting a cigarette. Her hand paused, the flame of the lighter flickering a few inches away from her face. For a moment, she returned her attention to the figure on the bed, her mind a whirlwind of irrational thoughts.

The crisis only lasted for a few seconds until she was able to grab hold of the offending notions and push them into the furthest part of her mind. Discarding the cigarette, she retreated to the bathroom, not sure if it was disgust with herself, or with Karen, that caused her to slam the door so loudly.

Finally, Helen had to give into the inevitable. Regretfully, she eased herself out of the comfortable entanglement of Nikki's arms. 'I've gotta go,' she announced. 'I've got an appointment with an estate agent to view some flats.' Helen smiled and leaned over to drop a quick kiss on Nikki's forehead. 'Listen, about last night. I just wanted to say that … well, I've never felt anything like that before.'

'Me neither,' Nikki said softly. 'Don't go yet.'

Helen felt Nikki's hand on her breast, and only by exercising almost inhuman self-control was she able to pull away. 'Sweetheart, I can't. I've really got to go.'

Nikki sighed and settled back on the bed, resting her hands behind her head as she watched Helen gathering her discarded clothes. 'So where are these flats then?'

'Two in Brooklands, one in Altrincham,' Helen replied as reached for her bag. 'Karen's said I can stay at her place for as long as I like but …'

'You want your own space?'

Helen nodded and pulled clean underwear and a pair of jeans out of her bag. 'I want my own space that's modern, doesn't need a thing doing to it, and takes a miniscule amount of time to hoover.'

'Good plan. So what are you going to do about the house?'

'Put it on the market I suppose. I don't know,' Helen replied, feeling her shoulders slump. 'Sean's not exactly in the mood to talk to me about it at the moment.'

Nikki sat up, concerned. 'You okay?'

'Well the bank have arranged a bridging loan for me, and Karen's recommended a good solicitor so …'

'That's not what I meant,' Nikki said sharply. 'Are you okay?'

'Me? Oh I'll be fine,' Helen said with a dismissive shrug. 'You mind if I take the first shower?' She raised her eyebrows when Nikki responded with a lascivious grin. 'I take it that means you're offering to scrub my back?'

Down in the dining room, Dominic was only vaguely aware of the huge grin on his face as he watched Zandra loading a plate with sausages, bacon and eggs.

Before that first kiss, he hadn't even looked at Zandra before. But after a highly energetic and incredibly enjoyable night spent utilising every available surface in a hotel room, he found he couldn't take his eyes off her. Lost in the memories of the body that had spent most of the night entwined around his, Dominic wasn't expecting the bread roll that flew across from the neighbouring table and bounced off his head.

'Oi! Plank features!' Yvonne snapped.

Dominic looked up at Yvonne. 'Did you throw that?'

'I've been trying to attract your attention for the past five minutes! Pass us your salt will you?'

Dominic nodded and leaned across with the saltcellar. 'You okay, Yvonne? You look a bit pale.'

'He's right, you know,' a voice commented. 'You're really looking your age this morning, Yvonne.'

Yvonne scowled up at Jim Fenner. 'Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! I could pack for a fortnight in those bags under your eyes.'

Fenner ignored this and sat down in the chair opposite. 'Mind if I join you?'

'I don't know why you're bothering,' Yvonne said, returning her attention to her breakfast. 'I didn't see bananas on the menu.'

'Funny, I didn't see grass on the menu but they still served an old cow like you.'

Yvonne pushed her plate away. 'What do you want Fenner?'

'I've been thinking about that conversation we had last night at the bar.'

'Oh yeah? Thought I smelt burning last night.'

Fenner looked around shiftily and then leaned across the table towards Yvonne. 'I know we don't exactly get on …'

'Hate the sight of each other you mean.'

'I think we should make an attempt to bury the hatchet, albeit temporarily.'

'And why should I want to bury it anywhere other than in your thick head?'

'Because neither of us wants Helen to take over as General Manager.'

Yvonne thought about this for a moment and then slowly shook her head. 'I'd rather have her in charge than you.'

'I was actually thinking more along the lines of …' Fenner looked up when Karen appeared, looking rather the worse for wear. 'Heavy night, Karen?' he asked loudly.

'Jim, please.' Karen groaned as she collapsed into the chair next to Yvonne's. 'One more loud noise and I'm going to start bleeding from the ears.'

'Shoulda thought about that before you got stuck into the tequila last night,' Yvonne chided as she rose from her chair. 'I'm off.'

Karen raised an eyebrow watched Yvonne leave. 'What's got into her?' she asked Fenner.

'Recently? Nothing much I should think. I can't see any bloke being that desperate.' Fenner smiled at the look of disgust on Karen's face. 'Unless of course you two decided to sample the delights of Lesbos last night.'

Karen shook her head and stood up. 'You know, Jim, I don't know what's worse, the smell of that cheap aftershave you insist on wearing or the smell of the constant flow of bullshit from that sewer you call a mouth.'

At the neighbouring table, Zandra witnessed this exchange with glee. 'Someone got out of bed the wrong side this morning,' she observed.

'She's not the only one,' Dominic said around a huge yawn. 'I really could do without working tonight.'

'You're on the late shift too?'

Dominic nodded, took a long swallow of coffee and considered Zandra at length. 'Listen, do you fancy going for breakfast after we knock off tomorrow morning?'

'Yeah,' Zandra replied brightly. Then her face fell slightly. 'That's if you're okay with being seen out in public with me.'

'Why shouldn't I be?'

Zandra looked down at her plate and began tearing a piece of bacon apart with her hands. 'I wasn't sure whether or not last night happened because you were drunk.'

'It did.' Dominic leaned across and put his hand on Zandra's wrist. 'But I'd like to see you again. That is if you …'

'Yes I would.' Zandra leaned back in her chair and grinned. 'Only if I get a ride on the back of your bike though.'

As soon as she left the hotel room, Helen was aware of a dark depression settling over her. By the time she stepped into the lift it threatened to engulf her. Nikki had promised to call her later that night, but the thought that she would be going to bed with Trish afterwards, caused a tight knot of anxiety to form at the centre of her chest. Helen found it hard to breathe as she fought to suppress the all-consuming feelings of jealousy – Nikki had promised her that they would be together, she just had to trust her.

Pressing the button for the ground floor, Helen leaned back against the wall of the lift. Last night had been amazing but it had drained her physically, not to mention emotionally. She closed her eyes as tears blurred her vision, so intense was her longing. She remembered with a stab of pain the way that they had clung to each other in the hotel room. Nikki not wanting her to leave until, regretfully, she'd had to almost tear herself away.

Helen stepped out of the lift and in her confused state, it took several seconds for her to realise that the tearful and distraught looking woman she bumped into was Trish.

For a few moments, the two women stared at each other. Helen felt a rush of blood to her head as she wondered if somehow, Trish had discovered that she and Nikki had spent the night together. A feeling accompanied by guilt when she realised that Trish looked destroyed. Her eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed from the tears that ran down her face.

'Helen,' Trish said in a choked voice. 'Do you know if Nikki's still in her room? I've been trying to call her all night, but her phone's switched off.'

'No, I haven't,' Helen replied. 'Have you checked with reception?' she asked as Trish pushed past her, into the lift. 'Are you okay? Has something happened?'

Trish seemed to visibly crumble. 'I just need to see Nikki.'

Helen nodded and stepped back, allowing the doors to close. For a moment, she stared at the digital display on the lift as it climbed the floors. She took out her mobile phone and considered it momentarily, wondering if she should alert Nikki to Trish's impending arrival. Deciding against it, she dropped the phone back into her bag.

Nikki woke suddenly, pulled out of a deep sleep by loud and frantic knocking on the door. For a few seconds, she looked around, confused by her surroundings until she finally placed herself in the hotel room.

The volume of the banging on the door increased and she rolled off the bed, groaning at the fatigue that had settled into her limbs while she slept. Pausing to pull on the T-shirt she'd been wearing the night before, she walked over to the door and peered through the spy-hole. Panic washed over her when she spotted Trish, but the sensation was replaced by protective concern when she saw the look of devastation on the other woman's face. Quickly, she opened the door.

'Trish? What's wrong? What is it?'

Trish replied by pressing her face into Nikki's chest. She wrapped her arms tightly around Nikki's body, shoulders shaking with violent sobs. At a total loss for what to do next, Nikki gently guided Trisha over to the bed and sat her down, holding her in silence until the sobs tapered off into ragged, hitching breaths.

'What the hell is it?' Nikki asked.

'Mum called last night, from Paris,' Trish explained, voice muffled by Nikki's T-shirt. 'I've been trying to get you on your mobile but you had it turned off.' She paused, pulling away to look up at Nikki accusingly. 'She and Dad are over there at the moment and … Nikki, he had a stroke last night.'

The sudden onslaught of guilt and shame was so acute it elicited a groan from Nikki. 'Oh shit … shit! I'm so sorry.'

'I tried to contact you through reception too, but you'd put a block on the phone,' Trish continued. 'I needed you last night, but… ' Her words trailed off as she was suddenly transported back to the lift by the faint smell of perfume on Nikki's T-shirt. As she looked around and saw the rumpled sheets on the bed, things began falling into place. She jumped up from the bed. 'My God! You were with her … weren't you?'

'Trish, I …'

'You smell of her perfume Nikki!' Trish grimaced and began backing towards the window. 'I needed you so much last night and all the time I was trying to contact you, you were up here shagging her!'

Nikki couldn't reply, nor could she look directly at Trish. All of the pleasure she'd felt at finally being with Helen was fast disappearing into a spiral of remorse. When she finally forced herself to look up into the eyes of the woman she'd loved for the past ten years, the depth of the anger and pain she found there made her despise herself.

Trish smiled bitterly at Nikki's continued silence. 'I'll take that as an admission of guilt then shall I?'

Nikki took a deep breath and stood up. 'Trish, I honestly didn't want you to find out like this.

'Oh, you mean you were actually planning on telling me?'

'Yes I was.' Nikki moved over to where Trish was standing and placed a hand on her arm. 'What happened last night …'

'Don't you dare tell me that it was just something that happened. That was the excuse you used last time and I don't want to hear it again!' Trish snatched her arm away from Nikki and pushed past her. Nikki responded by grabbing her waist. 'Let go of me, Nikki!'

'No, I'm not going to let you walk out like this. Not without talking about it.'

'What is there to talk about? I warned you, Nikki. I've forgiven you once, I'm not going to do it again.'

Nikki released Trish, paralysed by her words. 'What are you saying?'

'I'm saying that right now, I really don't know what hurts more … the fact that you fucked another woman, or that Dad was right about you all along!' Trish paused and turned just before she reached the door. 'I'm booked on a flight to Paris in a couple of hours. When I get back, I want you the fuck out of my flat and out of my life!'

Nikki had been on the receiving end of Trish's temper more times than she cared to remember. She'd seen her shout, scream, even throw things, but not once had she ever heard her say anything she didn't mean.

She flinched when Trish slammed the door behind her.

Yvonne returned home from her meeting in Sheffield to find Nikki sitting on her doorstep.

She remembered returning home from work one time years ago, to find a thirteen-year-old Lauren sitting in the same position, tears running down her face unchecked as she grieved the loss of some spotty teenager. Obviously the circumstances were different but the look of abject misery on Nikki's face was exactly the same.

'I take it Trish knows?' Yvonne deduced.

Nikki looked up and nodded, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt. 'Just don't tell me you told me so. That's the last thing I want to hear right now.'

'You stupid, stupid cow.'

'Believe me, Yvonne. Nothing you could possibly say could make me feel any worse than I already do.'

Yvonne sighed and shook her head. 'Come on, let's go and get you a stiff drink. You look like you need one.'

After settling Nikki down in an armchair with a glass of brandy, Yvonne poured herself a vodka and tonic and then sat down on the sofa. 'So come on then, what happened?'

'Trish turned up this morning just after Helen had left. Turned out she'd been trying to call me all night … her Dad's had a stroke.'

'Shit, Nikki! You don't half pick your moments!'

'I didn't tell her, Yvonne. She guessed.'

'Couldn't you have denied it?'

'Believe me, not even you could've talked your way out of that one!' Nikki exhaled heavily and leaned forward, staring into the depths of her glass. 'And anyway, I didn't want to deny it.'

Yvonne's eyes narrowed as she realised the implications of this. 'You were going to tell her?'


'So that's it then? Ten years down the pan and you don't give a shit.'

'Of course I bloody do! I just didn't realise that … shit! I keep seeing the look on her face when she put two and two together. She just looked through me like she didn't know me. Like all those years just didn't matter to her.'

'Well what do you bleedin' expect, Nik? For crying out loud, can you even begin to imagine what she's going through right now?'

'Oh I feel like the lowest form of life right now, Yvonne. Don't you worry about that.'

'Isn't there any way you can sort this out?'

Nikki shrugged. 'To be honest, all we've been doing is staggering along from one row to the next ever since the holiday. The strangest thing is that when I walked into that hotel yesterday I'd convinced myself that it wasn't worth it anymore, because all that seemed to matter was seeing Helen.' Nikki closed her eyes over more tears. 'Through all that, I could never picture what it would be like without her, not after all this time.'

'So why, Nikki? Why did you do it if you knew this was going to happen?'

'There was no way I could've stopped it happening. I love Trish, but at the same time, I can't control what I feel about Helen. There's something about her I just react to.'

'Do you love her?'

Nikki sighed deeply. 'Yes.'

'And is she worth it?'

'Yes she is, and that's the worst thing about all of this. I hate myself for what I've done to Trish, but at the same time it … it just feels so right with Helen. I know I can't live without her.'

Yvonne lit two cigarettes and handed one to Nikki, appalled by the defeated look on her friend's face. 'Nikki, what are you going to do?'

'I honestly have no idea. It's not exactly sinking in right now.'

'Yeah, well sooner or later you're going to have to think about the nuts and bolts of this. I mean, you're not going to be able to carry on living in the flat are you?'

'Trish told me in no uncertain terms that she wants me out of there.'

'Right, well you can get over there tomorrow,' Yvonne said purposefully. 'Pack your stuff and bring it back here. I've got plenty of space since Lauren moved out.'

'Are you sure?'

'Nikki, believe me when I say that I feel kicking you from one end of Manchester to the bleedin' other, but right now you need somewhere you can sort your head out.' Yvonne took a long drag of her cigarette, considering Nikki through the smoke. 'Unless of course you're planning on moving in with Helen?'

Nikki shook her head. 'No. Whenever I think about Helen I see that look on Trish's face, and I can't get past that at the moment.'

'It's called guilt I believe.'

Nikki nodded and knocked back her drink, grimacing at the taste. 'Serves me right, doesn't it?'

Helen switched the radio on and then leaned back into the car seat, stifling a yawn against the back of one hand as she reached for her mobile phone with the other. She hadn't let the phone out of earshot all afternoon, but still, she held onto faint hope as she looked downing at the display. Nothing. She sighed, frustrated, and dropped the phone onto the passenger seat.

Get a grip Helen, she told herself firmly, she said she'd call you tonight. It's only mid afternoon.

With effort, she cleared her mind of Nikki and then picked up the brochure containing the details of the flat she was just about to see.

Today's viewings hadn't exactly been a great success. The first flat had been above a dentist's surgery and Helen had been sure she'd been able to detect the faint whirr of the drill through the living-room floor. She hadn't even bothered to view the second place – which overlooked a pub car park – and the third had obviously belonged to someone who was colour-blind. She'd only had to glance at the hideous orange carpet and green walls in the hallway to know that it would cost her a fortune to redecorate.

The estate agent, seeing a possible commission flying out of the window, had made a hasty call back to the office. Afterwards, looking slightly calmer, he told her about a flat that had gone onto the market that morning. He gave her the address and then headed off to collect the keys, arranging to meet her there later that afternoon.

Helen looked down at her watch. He was ten minutes late already. While she waited, she looked up at a large Victorian house that had recently been modernised and divided up into six flats. The house itself was situated on the tree-lined road just outside the centre of Sale, making it convenient for work and the gym.

Helen nearly jumped out of her skin when someone rapped on the passenger window. It was the estate agent.

'I've got the keys,' He announced as Helen climbed out of her car. 'Shall we go in?'

The flat consisted of a large open-plan kitchen and living area, a bedroom and a bathroom. The rooms were all spacious, airy and had high ceilings. Helen liked it immediately. However, what really swung it for her was the bathroom, which sported a large bathtub with enough room for two. Helen felt her stomach flip almost painfully as she thought about the prospect of sharing it with Nikki.

After a moment's consideration, she turned to the estate agent. 'Do you think it'll go quickly?'

'The flat downstairs went for the full asking price the day after it was put on the market,' he replied.

Helen nodded and walked through to the living area, already with a good idea about how she would decorate and furnish the place. Running a hand across the solid pine mantelpiece, she made some calculations in her head. 'Okay,' she said eventually. 'I'll offer the asking price.'

The estate agent beamed back at her and reached into his pocket for his mobile phone. 'I'll give the office a ring and ask them to get in touch with the vendor right away. Hopefully, I should have an answer for you tonight.'

Outside, Helen looked up at the apartment building and smiled, sure that she'd made the right decision. Without thinking, she retrieved her mobile and frowned down at it.

Ring for God's sake!

Five minutes after their shifts were supposed to start, the Julies stood outside the Larkair building sharing a cigarette. Di Barker emerged from the building at the end of her shift and spotted them.

'Aren't you two supposed to be upstairs?' she asked.

The Julies looked at each other, but just as they were about to come up with an excuse, Dominic's motorbike screeched to a halt a few feet away.

Out of all of the three women, it was debatable who was the most surprised when the woman riding pillion removed her helmet.

'Bleedin' 'ell, Zan!' Julie S exclaimed. 'You d'int waste much time, did ya?'

Zandra smiled over at Dominic who was removing his gloves. 'We fell asleep on my sofa.'

'We were watching a video,' Dominic explained, blushing as the Julies stared at him with eyes like saucers. 'Aren't you two supposed to be on the phones?'

'We was just going up,' Julie J said. Hurriedly, she dropped her cigarette and ground it out with her shoe. 'Weren't we, Jue?'

Dominic relieved Zandra of her helmet and gestured towards the front doors. 'Go on, you'd better get up there too. If Sylvia asks why you're late, tell her it was my fault.'

Zandra reached up to kiss Dominic on the cheek and then ran into the building.

Dominic watched her go and then turned to Di who was staring at him with a strange expression on her face. 'You okay, Di?'

Di nodded, erupting into a smile that threatened to split open her face. 'You are a dark horse aren't you, Dominic?'

For some strange reason he couldn't quite fathom, Dominic felt incredibly uncomfortable. 'Um yeah, listen, I'd better go. Sylvia will be having kittens. Goodnight, Di.'

Di watched Dominic as he sprinted up the stairs and into the building and then walked over to his motorbike. She allowed her hands to caress the seat that was still warm from his body. 'Goodnight, Dominic,' she whispered.

Nikki had put off this moment for as long as she could, but after a full day of Yvonne pestering her, she'd finally worked up the courage to go back to the flat and collect her belongings.

It was late evening and the crowds were beginning to gather on Canal Street. Nikki was vaguely aware of the greetings from familiar faces as she pushed her way through the gathering outside Metz and made her way over to the entrance to the flats.

She remembered the day that she and Trish had moved into this particular apartment. Before that they'd lived in a renovated warehouse over in Castlefield and before that, in an apartment in Salford Quays. Trish had never been one for putting down deep roots. By the time they moved into a new place she was always looking forward to the next. However, this flat, situated amongst the bright lights and bustle of the Village seemed to have satisfied her need for variety and finally, Nikki had felt able to settle.

As always, Nikki was struck by how empty the apartment seemed without Trish's personality to fill it. Her footsteps were loud on the wooden floor as she walked into the kitchen area and took a bottle of beer from the fridge. Almost without thinking, she dumped her keys in the steel bowl on top of the breakfast bar just as she always did, before collapsing into an armchair.

She couldn't remember feeling this helpless since the day she'd run away from home … a scared sixteen year old sprinting through the rain. She'd only regained the security and safety she'd lost when Trish had come into her life and yet here she was, right back at square one … an unknown and frightening future stretching out before her.

Suddenly, the silence in the apartment became overwhelming. Nikki leaned forward to pick the TV remote up. She switched to a random channel before leaning her head back against the chair.

'I never meant to cause you trouble. I never meant to do you wrong.'

Nikki looked up. The last time she'd heard that song she'd been watching Helen as she slept. The sense of contentment and joy she'd felt then suddenly came flooding back to her. She desperately tried to hold onto it, but in a matter of seconds it was gone … crushed by the oppressive guilt that ate away at her. It would be so easy just to climb into her car and go to Helen. But could she honestly allow herself to be happy? The remorse Nikki felt was already needling her with doubts. How long before it ended up coming between them?

The song was beginning to grate and Nikki reached forward to switch the TV off. She caught sight of her reflection in the black screen … a scared thirty-four year old surveying the tattered remains of her life while a piano hook around her head.

Fighting the urge to cry again, Nikki curled up into a ball and closed her eyes.

By Sunday afternoon, Helen was frantic for news of Nikki. Later that evening, she received a welcome distraction in the form of a call from the National Telesales Manager. Informing Helen that Stubberfield had indeed suffered a heart attack, he asked her to take over as General Manager in his absence.

As much as she relished the challenge of being in charge, Helen couldn't but feel anxious as she entered Simon's office for the first time. She immediately felt calmer when Monica greeted her with a warm smile and a mug of freshly brewed coffee.

Helen set her briefcase down on the edge of Simon's desk and looked around nervously. 'What did Simon have planned for today?' she asked.

'There's the management meeting at ten o'clock, but after that, nothing,' Monica replied.

'Great, I can get on with some of my own work then.'

Monica's eyes widened. 'You've got to do your own job, as well?'

'Oh please! Do you honestly think Larkair would bring in another manager, when they can have two for the price of one?'

'I hope they'll be paying you senior grade while you're covering for Simon.'

'Don't worry,' Helen said with a grin. 'I'm mad, but I'm not certifiable.'

'I'll leave you to it then.' Monica smiled and moved towards the door, pausing just before she reached it. 'Oh, before I forget, Nikki phoned in this morning to say that she'd probably miss the management meeting. Urgent appointment at the airport apparently.'

Helen waited until Monica had closed the door behind her before picking up the phone. She dialled a number she now knew off-by-heart, and was told that the Vodafone she'd called was switched off.

Helen growled and slammed the receiver down. This was getting ridiculous.

The management team had taken the news of Helen's appointment in a variety of ways. Karen, who already knew, was smiling at her supportively, and Yvonne was regarding her with a totally unreadable expression on her face. Helen knew the woman well enough by now to take this as a sign of trouble ahead.

Fenner, meanwhile, was absolutely fuming. As the longest serving member of the management team, the job should've been his. Instead it had been given to a stupid tart who hadn't been off the graduate training scheme for longer than five minutes. Earlier that morning, he'd tried to recruit Yvonne to help him discredit Helen, but she'd refused, telling him she'd rather work under 'the lesser of two evils'. It didn't matter though. Either he'd pull the rug out from under Helen's feet, or she'd screw everything up herself.

Well aware of his scheming, Helen was determined to start as she meant to go on. The first thing on her list was to show Jim Fenner that she meant business.

'Jim, I've been looking over the monthly call stats.'

Fenner raised an eyebrow. 'And?'

'Did you realise that on average we lose at least two hours work a day from most of the telephone agents?' Helen asked. 'Do you mind telling me why?'

'Come on, Helen. You know what the girls on the phones are like.'

'Women, Jim, this isn't a Swiss finishing school!'

Fenner rolled his eyes and exhaled heavily. 'Helen, what you've got to realise is that the only way you're going to get most of this idle lot to do a full day's work, is by getting someone to stand behind them with a cattle-prod!'

'Jim, the efficiency of our operation is being brought into question,' Helen persisted. 'And as that's your department's responsibility, would you mind telling me what you're going to do to remedy it?'

Yvonne hid a smile behind her hand. This was proving to be a lot more interesting than she'd expected. 'Yeah, Jim, what are you gonna do about it?' she asked. 'I suppose you could always get Sylvia to walk up and down with a whip.'

'Please, Yvonne, if you haven't got anything constructive to say I'd rather you didn't bother,' Helen said coolly.

Yvonne was aware of Karen smiling smugly in her direction as she returned Helen's glare.

Having made her point, Helen returned her attention to Fenner. 'I've been doing some research into the phone system.' She began distributing sheets of A4 paper around the table. 'If you read the section I've highlighted, you'll see that we can re-program the present system to enable us to track the activities of the telephone agents.' She paused to allow the others to digest the information. 'That way, when an agent isn't taking a telephone call, they're forced to specify their reason for not doing so.'

Yvonne scanned through the section quickly until one of the options caught her eye. 'What's this option here … bio break?'

Karen laughed. 'Think about it, Yvonne.'

Yvonne stared at Helen in disbelief. 'You mean they've gotta let everyone know when they're going to the bog? Stone me! Talk about friggin' overkill!'

'Do you have any idea of the trouble this will cause?' Fenner protested. 'If the union get even the slightest whiff of this, we're going to be up to our necks in shit!'

'I've checked it all through. There's nothing about this that contravenes any of the regulations.' Helen studied the horrified look on Fenner's face for a moment and then relented. 'Okay, I'll give you a month to rectify the situation. But if I don't see a significant improvement by then, I'll take it out of your hands and ask Nikki to re-program the system.'

The meeting was drawing to a close by the time Nikki arrived. Helen, after having had to referee the constant sniping between Fenner and Yvonne, was feeling the beginnings of a tension headache.

Just as Nikki entered the room, Fenner stalked out and very nearly collided with her in the doorway. Pushing past her, he slammed the door behind him.

'What's up with face-ache?' Nikki asked.

'Got a fire lit under his arse,' Yvonne replied, nodding towards Helen who was gathering her papers together. ''Welcome to the New Order.'

'Ah, Nikki,' Karen said, looking up from the files she was placing in her briefcase. 'You've arrived just at the right time. I see the IT Department have drastically overspent their overtime budget yet again.'

Nikki rolled her eyes. 'Why do we have this argument every month?'

'If you stayed within your budget we wouldn't have to.'

Predictably, Yvonne was quick to jump to Nikki's defence. 'Have you seen the state of some of the computers in this place?' she asked Karen. 'It ain't surprising they keep breaking down. Maybe if you took your finger out your tight arse and gave Nikki some money to buy some new ones, she wouldn't have to keep fixing 'em.'

Nikki saw the opportunity and chimed in. 'As it is, Karen, you might as well give me a pot of paint and tell me to paint the Forth Bridge.' She shrugged. 'Anyway, it's not going to be my problem for very much longer. I handed in my resignation this morning. As from now I'm working my notice.'

Helen was the first to break the stunned silence that followed.

'Yvonne, Karen … can I have a word with Nikki in private please?'

Karen complied in silence, but Yvonne shot a poisonous glance in Helen's direction as she hovered by the door.

'You better not have plans for lunch, Nik.'

Nikki shook her head. 'I'll meet you in the Waggon and Horses at twelve-thirty.'

After Yvonne's departure, Helen looked on in silence as Nikki walked over to the window. She had so many questions, but didn't know where to start.

'And when were you planning on telling me about this?' she said eventually.

'It was a spur of the moment decision,' Nikki replied.

'Spur of the moment?' Helen raised a hand to her forehead, desperately trying to digest this revelation. 'Nikki, why?

'You remember me telling you about that job with BA? Well, I had an interview this morning and got an offer.' Slowly, Nikki turned away from the window. 'Does it really matter where I work?'

'No, I suppose not.' Helen replied, deflated. She sighed. 'I thought you were going to phone me on Saturday night.'


'You're sorry? Nikki, I've been trying to get hold of you since yesterday morning. Do you any idea how worried I've been?'

'I've had a lot on my mind.'

'You spoke to Trish?'

'Oh, I spoke to Trish alright,' Nikki replied with a bitter smile. 'Or should I say, she spoke to me.'

'She found out?' Helen gasped. 'How? Did Yvonne tell her?'

'No, she smelt your perfume, spotted the state of the bed and put two and two together.'

'Hey, at least she knows now,' Helen said. She walked over to the window and reached out to place her hand on Nikki's arm. Changing her mind when she saw the anguished expression on the other woman's face. 'What did she say?'

'What part do you want to hear first, Helen? The part when she told me that her Dad had just had a stroke? Or the part where she told me to get the fuck out of her life?'

Helen placed her hand on the taller woman's arm. 'Nikki, you had no way of knowing …'

'Knowing what? That while I was having the time of my life rolling around that bed with you, she was going through hell on her own? I should've been there for her, Helen.'

Helen saw a tear rolling down Nikki's cheek and reached up to brush it away. 'Sweetheart, I understand that you feel bad right now, but you honestly had no way of knowing.'

Nikki shrugged. 'Doesn't stop me feeling like the biggest shit alive though, does it?'

'I do know what it's like you know. How do you think it was for me when Sean found out?'

'Yeah, I know,' Nikki said, furiously wiping away her tears. 'I'm sorry.'

Nikki allowed Helen to pull her into her arms. For a moment she felt relief, but it wasn't long before the guilt hit her again and her body stiffened as she pulled away.

Helen looked up, confused. 'Nikki, what is it?'

'I can't … Helen, I can't do this right now.'

'Do what? What do you mean?'

'I mean I need time to get my head round what's happened,' Nikki explained. 'I can't do that and carry on seeing you at the same time.'

Helen felt her heart sink. 'Nikki, what are you saying? That Friday night was nothing more than a one-night-stand?'

'No, I'm not saying that, I …' Nikki let out a growl as she tried to find the right words. 'Helen, I really don't like myself very much at the moment. I love you and I want to be with you, but if we try to move forward with this hanging over us I know I'm going to end up screwing the whole thing up.' She reached out and placed her hands on Helen's shoulders, looking directly into her eyes. 'Do you understand what I'm trying to say?'

Helen could hear the logic in what Nikki was saying, but there was also a part of her that saw it as rejection. And even though she saw the love in Nikki's eyes, the fact that this hesitation was directly because of Trish was already beginning to eat away at her.

Nikki could sense the turmoil Helen was experiencing and moved closer. 'Can you please just try to trust me? Trust the way I feel about you?' she said softly. 'All I'm asking for is some time.'

Helen sighed, resigning herself to the inevitable. 'If that's what you want.'

Nikki seemed to sag visibly with relief and for the first time Helen realised just how much she'd been punishing herself with guilt.

'I'm sorry, Helen, but I just can't believe what we've done to her,' she said. 'If you just could've seen her face, the way …'

The anger Helen thought she'd managed to smother suddenly erupted 'What we've done to her?' she howled in disbelief.

'Well I didn't do it on my own, did I?'

'Oh and it's so easy to transfer all of that guilt you're feeling onto me isn't it?' Helen snapped. 'I was so right about you, Nikki, you are a coward. And if running away from the consequences of your actions makes you feel better then go right ahead.'

'I've ruined her life, Helen!'

'What about my life, Nikki?' Helen persisted. 'Why don't you take a good hard look at it and tell me what you see?'

'Helen, I don't want to argue with you.'

'Oh that's right, because this is all about you isn't it? How you're feeling. You don't care about how all this is affecting me, do you?'

Nikki felt a burst of annoyance. 'I can really do without this right now,' she said, throwing her hands up.

'Yeah, well so can I!' Helen glared at Nikki for a moment longer before backing away. 'You know what? Sod you, Nikki!'

Nikki kicked a nearby chair in frustration. When was she going to learn to keep her mouth shut?

Part 16

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