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 Six

Helen climbed out of her car and was then forced to quickly jump back in and slam the door behind her as a bright orange sports car swerved into the neighbouring parking space.

Helen squeezed out of her car for a second time, slamming the door furiously as she came face to face with a very sheepish looking Nikki.

'Sorry about that,' Nikki said, smiling apologetically, nodding toward Trish who was standing on the other side of the car. 'Touch of PMT I think.'

'I heard that,' Trisha replied, walking around to the boot.

Nikki winked at Helen and then walked over to join Trish.

'So, adventure girl,' Trish said, as she helped Nikki drag her rucksack out of the boot. 'Are you sure you've got everything?'

Nikki nodded. 'You did pack that toilet roll I gave you, didn't you?'

Trish looked up at Nikki quizzically. 'Yes, but I don't know why.'

'I've got a feeling that facilities aren't going to be provided. So, while you're sitting on a clean, comfortable toilet seat at home, spare a thought for someone who's most probably going to be digging her own hole.'

Helen smiled as she opened her own boot. 'It's not going to be that bad, Nikki.'

'I'll believe that when I see it.' Nikki tied her anorak round her waist and turned to Trish. 'I'll give you a ring when I get there.'

'Oh no you don't,' Helen said as she shouldered her rucksack. 'Mobile phones are definitely not allowed.'

Trish stuck her tongue out at Helen's back. 'Bit of a sadist, isn't she?'

Nikki shook her head as she watched Helen stop to talk to Karen who had just arrived. 'She's just a bit too keen.'

Trish raised a surprised eyebrow. 'You've had a bit of a change of heart haven't you? Mind you, you were rather close at the restaurant last week.'


'Don't worry, Nik. I think she's a bit of a babe too.' Trish looked over at Helen who looked disturbingly sexy in a pair of faded jeans. 'Very nice arse.'

Nikki, aware that she was being baited, decided to surprise Trish with a grin. 'I'll ask her back one night for a threesome, shall I?' She jumped back and flinched when Trish punched her, hard, on the arm. 'What the bloody hell was that for?'

'Maybe I get the impression that she'd accept the invitation.'

'Oh don't be so bloody daft!' Nikki shook her head and slammed the boot of the car shut. 'Right, I'd better go.'

'Here.' Trish said, holding out her hand. 'You'd better give me your mobile. We don't want Cruella sentencing you to six of the best.'

Nikki patted her anorak pocket and smiled. 'I'll take my chances, thanks. Like I said, I'll give you a call tonight.'

Helen wasn't the only one who watched Nikki and Trish say their goodbyes.

'Look at that!' Fenner exclaimed. 'Two women kissing in public. It's disgusting!'

Yvonne, who was lounging against the side of the minibus, raised an amused eyebrow. 'Well don't look then you, bleedin' pervert! You're just jealous 'cause your wife sees you off to work with the rolling-pin!'

Fenner glared at Yvonne and then climbed into the minibus.

Karen looked over at Yvonne and shook her head. 'I don't know why you have to bait him all the time.'

'Because he asks for it,' Yvonne replied, smiling at Nikki who was walking over to join them. 'Alright Nik?'

'Yeah.' Nikki nodded towards Fenner who was glaring at her from the minibus. 'What's up with him?

'Who, face-ache?' Yvonne laughed and lit another cigarette. 'Pay no attention to him.'

Nikki took the cigarette that Yvonne offered and looked over at Helen. 'Have I got time for a cigarette before we go?'

Helen nodded. 'Don't be long.'

Nikki watched Helen board the bus. 'And what's up with her face? She looks like she's just sucked on a lemon.'

Yvonne thought for a moment and then shrugged noncommittally. She didn't see any point in embarrassing Nikki by telling her that Lorna wasn't the only one with a crush on her.

Helen found herself sitting across the aisle from Nikki and Yvonne, who were whispering to each other and obviously plotting something. After a while, Yvonne fell asleep and Nikki produced a very weighty looking novel from her rucksack, settling down to read it with a sigh.

'What are you reading?'

Nikki looked up to see Helen leaning across the aisle towards her. Instead of answering, she showed her the cover of the book.

'The Histories by Herodotus.' Helen raised her eyebrows. 'I'm impressed.'

'Why? Oh, I get it, you thought the closest I'd get to literature was page three of The Sun or a Unix manual?'

'No, I'm impressed because I tried to read it myself and didn't get past page twenty.'

Nikki smiled and returned the book to her rucksack. 'It is fairly heavy going.'

'I never marked you as someone who read the classics,' Helen commented

'I used to be an English Lit teacher.' Nikki laughed at Helen's shocked expression. 'It's true.'

'Oh I believe you. I just can't imagine you with the patience to teach a classroom full of unruly children.'

'Why do you think I gave it up?'

'So you've got an English degree then?'

'For what it's worth.'

'Where did you study?'


Helen's eyes widened with surprise. 'My word. You are a dark horse, aren't you?'

Nikki shrugged but stayed silent.

Helen regarded Nikki incredulously. 'You know something? I don't think I've ever met anyone so unassuming in my life.'

'I just don't like talking about myself, that's all.'

'I'd noticed.'

'Well, what's the point? It's not as if there's anything particularly interesting about me.'

'I think you're interesting.'

'No, you just see me as another puzzle to work out.'

Helen, who had sat back in her seat, suddenly leaned forward. 'What do you mean by that?'

'Well, you're one of those people who are never satisfied unless they can box and categorise everyone they meet.'

'Stereotyping you mean?'

'No.' Nikki smiled and leaned across the aisle towards Helen. 'I just think you're lavishing all this attention on me because you can't quite work me out.'

Helen laughed uncomfortably. 'Attention? Don't flatter yourself, Nikki.' Helen's face was now only inches from Nikki's. Finding it hard to meet the challenge in the dark eyes, so she slouched back against the upholstery. 'I honestly don't know what you're talking about.'

Nikki smiled triumphantly and settled back into her seat. 'Of course you don't.'

Helen turned to look out of the window, wondering what it was about Nikki that always left her feeling slightly uncomfortable. She sighed, now wishing she'd kept silent and allowed the other woman to read her book uninterrupted.

'Right, so, we've got team activities here at the centre today and we'll be staying here tonight. Tomorrow will consist of an orienteering exercise in which both teams will be expected to complete a certain amount of on the spot tasks before being allowed to set up camp for the night. On Sunday morning, both teams will be expected to make it back here without the help of their instructors. The first team back here wins.'

Yvonne nudged Nikki who was listening to Helen with her mouth open. 'What do you reckon?'

Nikki shook her head incredulously. 'I reckon she'll be bloody lucky.'

'Yeah, well.' Yvonne motioned Nikki closer. 'I've checked this place out and there's a pub just a mile or so down the road. How about we take a little trip down there tonight? Karen's up for it.'

'You've asked Karen?'

'Course I bleedin' have. if she comes with us she ain't gonna grass on us, is she?'

Nikki nodded towards Renee Williams who was staring over at Helen with utter contempt. 'What about her? She's going to be in the same room as us tonight.'

'Don't you worry about her.'

Nikki regarded Yvonne suspiciously. 'Why? What have you got planned?'

'The less you know the less you've got to worry about.' Yvonne nodded towards Helen. 'What about Helen? You reckon she'd be up for drinkies?'

Nikki considered for a moment. 'Ask me later. I'll drop a few hints, sound her out.'

'Well don't make your hints too obvious. If she ain't up for it, I don't want her stopping us.'

Nikki nodded and turned back to listen to what Helen was saying.

'Now, we've got half an hour to change ready for the first activity …'

'Hold it there a second Helen,' Karen interrupted, frowning. 'Did you say change?'

Nikki exchanged a horrified glance with Yvonne as Chris Marshall, Helen's counterpart at Birmingham, produced a holdall from the back of one of the minibuses.

'I tell you something,' Yvonne said out of the side of her mouth. 'If that bag's got tracksuits in it I'm going to stuff them up her bleedin' arse.'

'Not if I get to her first,' Nikki replied whispered back. 'There is no way on earth anyone is going to make me wear a bloody shell-suit.'

'Each team will have a different coloured T-shirt,' Chris explained. 'Red for Manchester, blue for Birmingham.'

'Red just ain't my colour,' Yvonne protested.

Renee Williams laughed. 'You look bleedin' ugly whatever colour you wear, Atkins!'

'Yeah, well I ain't never gonna look as ugly as you am I?'

'Oh I wouldn't say that,' Fenner chipped in as he moved over to Renee's side.

Yvonne scowled at Fenner. 'Oh go and get a face transplant!'

Fenner nudged Renee and nodded towards Nikki. 'You'd better make sure you don't turn your back on her tonight.'

Renee nodded. 'Yeah, I don't much like the idea of sharing a room with some lesbian.'

'Oh do me a favour!' Nikki snapped. 'Even if I was available I wouldn't touch it with a cattle-prod.'

Helen sighed with exasperation and suddenly began to regret ever coming up with the idea of a team-building weekend in the first place.

Helen surveyed the faces of her team as they assembled for the first exercise. For once, Yvonne, Fenner and Karen united as they stared at her as if she'd just grown a second head. Only Nikki smiled, seemingly looking forward to the challenge and Helen had to suppress a sudden, grateful urge to hug her.

Karen was staring at the obstacle course incredulously. 'You've got to be kidding! Have you seen the size of that cargo net?'

'That's nothing, have you seen Renee Williams? She's got a face like a busted arsehole!' Yvonne grinned and then turned back to Helen. 'If I'm going to nearly kill myself doing this, I hope you're going to be killing yourself too.'

'Come on, Yvonne,' Helen said. 'Have you seen the state of their team? We'll walk all over them.'

Yvonne frowned when she noticed that Nikki was smiling. 'Don't know what you're bleedin' grinning at. Anyone would think you were looking forward to this.'

'I am,' Nikki replied. 'I've wanted to do something like this for ages.'

'Sometimes, Nik, I wonder if the midwife dropped you on your head after you were born.'

'Come on, Yvonne. Like Helen said, we'll slaughter them.'

Helen motioned the team into a huddle. 'Now, I know that Chris is going first for their team. He's the only one to worry about, so, Nikki, I want you to go first. You'll get a twenty-second head start because you're a woman and …' Helen noticed that Nikki was studying her intently and completely lost the plot.


'Sorry …' Helen shook her head to clear it. 'Yvonne, you go second. You'll be up against Renee Williams. Jim, you go next … then Karen, and I'll bring up the rear.'

Fenner, for once, decided to forget that he wasn't a team player. 'Nikki, if you can finish ahead of Chris then we've got them. The only other one to worry about is Eddie, their IT Manager. He plays Sunday league football. Helen, who's up against him?'

'I am,' Helen replied. 'So, it's up to you lot to make sure that I start ahead of him.'

As the teams started to assemble on the start line, Nikki took Helen to one side. 'I must say, I'm very impressed. Putting Yvonne up against Renee Williams was inspired. She's really up for it now.'

'And what about you?' Helen asked on a whim. 'Are you up for it?'

'Oh, I'm always up for it.' Nikki looked directly into Helen's eyes and smiled. 'Given the right encouragement of course.'

Helen looked down at the ground to hide the fact that she was blushing. 'Well it's nice to know that I'm appreciated.'

'You are.' Nikki started to walk towards the start line. She paused and turned back to grin at Helen mischievously. 'You should wear red more often, Helen, it suits you.'

Nikki turned out to be a revelation on the obstacle course, proving that she didn't need the twenty-second head start by beating a very flustered and embarrassed Chris with at least forty seconds to spare. Next up was Yvonne who was fired-up by being in direct competition with Renee Williams, she practically zipped through the course. Karen was slower, but steadier, and as a consequence the lead shrank to less than thirty seconds by the time she reached the finish line. Fenner lumbered through the course, but luckily was up against someone even slower and managed to extend the lead again.

Helen started the final leg a full forty seconds ahead of her opponent, but by the time she reached the cargo net, he had managed to eat into half of her lead.

Nikki watched from the finish line and expected Helen to panic, especially when Eddie drew level when they reached the balancing wall, a daunting six feet above the ground. Helen kept her composure, even when Eddie forged ahead.

'Shit!' Yvonne hissed. 'That's bleedin' torn it.'

'I don't think so,' Karen said. 'He's trying too hard … look.'

Eddie's speed proved his downfall and he wobbled off the wall and had to go back to the start again. Even after this, he was catching up again when Helen jumped from the final obstacle and started the four hundred metre run to the finish line.

Helen was aware of Eddie drawing level, and mindful of the others urging her on, found one last burst of speed. She practically fell across the line and into Nikki's arms.

'Sorry,' Helen gasped, out of breath.

'That's alright, I'm not complaining.' Nikki smiled and made sure Helen was steady on her feet before she stepped away. 'Well done by the way.'

The unexpected burst of team spirit had clearly dissipated by the time the groups assembled for the next exercise.

The second task required that the teams utilise four oil-drums and a number of planks of differing lengths to ford a river. All was going well until Fenner suddenly remembered that he hated Nikki and started sniping at her, Yvonne immediately jumped to Nikki's defence and the three of them became so intent on swapping insults they completely lost track of the project.

When she saw the Birmingham team having similar problems, Helen was still hopeful of victory. That was until Fenner found himself standing on the same oil-drum as Karen who was bent-double, trying to pull a plank across. Fenner couldn't resist putting his hand on her backside and subsequently ended up coughing and spluttering in the river and disqualifying the whole team.

It was one-all at the start of the third activity.

This exercise was designed to build up trust. One team member was blindfolded and then vocally guided through an obstacle course by another team member. This ended up even more of a disaster. Yvonne was paired up with a blindfolded Fenner and couldn't resist directing him straight back into the river. Helen, who was being directed by Nikki, found that she was so flustered after Nikki's hand had strayed briefly across the back of her neck on the start-line that she completely misheard all of the instructions and was easily beaten by the Birmingham team.

Helen was in a foul mood for the remainder of the day and ended up storming off for an early night.

An hour or so later, she was woken by Karen, Yvonne and Nikki, who, amazingly were carrying Renee Williams to bed. 'What the hell happened to her?'

'Tired out,' Yvonne replied. 'Poor love. I think it's all the fresh air and exercise.'

Helen grabbed Nikki's arm. 'What really happened?'

Nikki shrugged. 'I don't know,' she said innocently. 'One minute she was sitting there, and the next minute she was face down on the table.'

'You lot are planning something, aren't you?'

Yvonne frowned at Nikki who shook her head, and then turned back to Helen. 'Listen, we're tired and pissed off and we're going down the pub. You can come with us if you like, but if you even think of squealing, we'll hold you down and I'll slip you the same Mickey I slipped Renee here.'

Helen didn't need to consider. She jumped down off her bunk and reached for her jeans. 'How are we going to get in and out without the key? As far as I know they lock the doors at eight.'

Nikki pointed over to the open window. 'You game?'

'When there's a night at the pub involved, you joking?'

It turned out to be Karaoke night at the local pub, and after downing a couple of brandies Yvonne wasted no time in dragging a very reluctant Karen up for a duet.

'I really don't get those two,' Helen commented. 'I mean, one minute they're at each other's throats and then next minute they're the best of friends.'

'I told you that Karen was different when she was out of work.' Nikki frowned at the bottom of her glass and signalled to the barman. 'You want another?'

'Yeah, why not. It's far too late to start worrying about a hangover now.'

'You know, despite my reservations, I've actually enjoyed today.'

'You have?'

'Yeah, especially when Fenner ended up in the river.' Nikki laughed and nudged Helen playfully. 'Seriously though, I'm glad you went to all the trouble now.'

'I don't think I'm going to achieve my ultimate objective though.'

'Cohesion you mean?'

'There's a definite fly in the ointment.'

'Oh, let me guess, this particular fly is called Jim Fenner?' Nikki smiled when Helen nodded. 'There's not much you can do about it I'm afraid. Stubberfield thinks the sun shines out of his backside.'

'I'm surprised you haven't made an official complaint about him. Some of the things he says about you contravene every equal opportunity law known to man.'

'No point, I'd just come out looking petty. Anyway, I always give as good as I get.'

'It must get you down sometimes.'

'It goes with the territory I suppose.' Nikki paused and sipped her drink reflectively. 'I used to get really wound up about it, but I just can't be bothered anymore.'

'Yes but …'

'Helen, can we drop this? I've lost count of the number of times I've had this conversation.' Nikki looked at her watch and hopped off her barstool. 'I'd better go ring Trish.'

Nikki returned a few minutes later looking very pissed off.

'Oh dear,' Karen commented. 'Looks like someone's just been on the receiving end of an ear-bashing.'

Nikki slumped on her barstool and drained her drink. 'She seemed to take great exception to the fact that I was slurring my words, and an even greater exception to the "bloody racket" in the background.'

'Never mind.' Karen patted Nikki's arm consolingly. 'We got you another drink in.'

Helen waited until Yvonne and Karen fell into a heated discussion about Big Brother before tapping a very depressed looking Nikki on the shoulder. 'Are you okay?'

'Yeah, we've just been going through a bit of a bad patch recently.'

'Anything you want to talk about?'

'Not really.' Nikki sighed and then pocketed her cigarettes. 'I'm going back. Suddenly I'm not in the mood anymore.'

'I'll come back with you.'

'Yeah, whatever.'

They walked back most of the way in silence until Nikki suddenly stopped in her tracks.

'Bollocks to this!' she snapped. 'Why should I feel guilty about having a good time?'

'Do you want to go back?'

Nikki shook her head and started walking again. 'It's not worth it … but I have got a flask full of gin and tonic and a pack of cards back at the ranch if you're partial.'

An hour later and Helen was having a hard time trying to focus on her cards. 'It's a good job we're not playing strip poker. I'd be down to my knickers before you knew it.'

Nikki raised her eyebrows. 'Fancy a game then?'

Helen laughed. 'I knew you were going to say that then.'

'So why give me the opportunity?'

'I honestly don't know,' Helen replied, frowning at her cards. 'That gin and tonic's too strong. If I didn't know better I'd swear you were trying to get me drunk.'

'I don't waste time on lost causes.' Nikki smiled triumphantly and laid her cards down on the duvet. 'Gin.'

'Fuck! How many's that you've won now?'

'Six in a row.' Nikki appraised Helen's pyjamas and dressing gown. 'If we were playing strip poker you'd be down to less than just your knickers.' She began to collect the cards that Helen discarded in disgust. 'Fancy another game?'

'No, I'm bored now.' Helen leaned back against the pillows and yawned. 'Talk to me.'

'About what?'

'About you.'

Helen leaned forward intently. 'You never talk about yourself and I'm a naturally nosy person.'

'You never talk about yourself.'

'You never ask.'

'Well I'm not a naturally nosy person. I'm not interested in what makes people tick.' Nikki sighed and leaned back against the other end of the bed. 'I've always believed that the less people know about you the less they have to hold against you.'

'That's the sort of thing people with a past say.'

'Don't worry. I've not got much of one … a past I mean.'

'Oh come on!' Helen exclaimed. 'Everyone has a past.'

'And I don't like talking about mine.'

Helen sighed. 'I'll shut up then shall I? I don't want you going all miserable on me again.'

Nikki looked down her watch. 'The others should be back in a minute.'

'You're uncomfortable, aren't you?'

'Well maybe I'm having a hard time trying to work you out.'


Nikki shook her head and made a move as if to jump off the bunk. 'I'm tired, drunk and confused and this conversation seems to be heading somewhere I don't think you really want it to.'

Helen leaned forward and placed a restraining hand on Nikki's arm. 'So tell me … where do you see this heading?'

Nikki looked round and found that her face was only centimetres away from Helen's, so close that she could feel Helen's breath, so close that she could see her own reflection in Helen's eyes. Nikki felt her stomach flip almost painfully and realised that she was only a whisper away from losing control. 'I don't like being played with, Helen,' she whispered. 'You want this, then it's up to you to take it.'

The decision was made for both of them when Yvonne fell through the window.

Nikki jumped down from Helen's bunk and managed to catch Yvonne before she landed on top of Renee.

Yvonne righted herself and squinted up at Nikki in drunken confusion. 'You still up are ya?'

After guiding Karen through the window and helping both her and Yvonne into bed, Nikki climbed into her own bunk and looked over at Helen. 'Goodnight.'

Helen stared at Nikki accusingly for a moment and turned over without a word.


Chapter Seven

Helen awoke and groggily raised her head from the pillow as she became aware of voices in the room. After a few seconds, her eyes focussed and she noticed Yvonne, still dressed in her pajamas, leaning out of the window. She whispered something to someone outside, receiving a grumbled response.

'You got them, Nik?' Yvonne asked.

Helen heard another grumble from outside before Yvonne stepped back from the window.

'Oh, she's gonna bleedin' hate these!' she crowed triumphantly.

Helen caught her breath as Nikki climbed through the open window, still clothed in the white vest and cotton shorts she'd been wearing the night before.

'Look at the bloody state of me!' Nikki hissed, holding up her filthy hands for Yvonne's inspection. 'Honestly! I don't know what you were so scared of. Next time, you can get them yourself!'

Helen was intrigued as she noticed both women looking down at whatever Yvonne was holding.

'So who's going to put them in her rucksack?' Nikki whispered. She looked over at Yvonne and frowned. 'Oh come on, Yvonne! I got the bloody things. You can't expect me to do all your dirty work for you!'

Helen's curiosity finally reached its limits. 'What's going on?'

Nikki and Yvonne looked up. Faces like a pair of schoolchildren caught with their hands in the biscuit tin. 'Nothing,' they said in unison.

Mindful of her hangover, Helen slowly clambered down from her bunk. 'I want to know what's going on,' she said firmly.

Nikki exchanged a panicked look with Yvonne and then ran over to nudge Helen out of the room with her elbow. 'Come on. You can talk to me while I'm cleaning up.'

Helen realised that she felt too fragile to argue and allowed herself to be propelled into the nearby bathroom.

Nikki immediately locked the door behind them and then started to wash her hands. 'We need to talk.'

'What about?' Helen sat down on the lid of the toilet and put her head in her hands.

'What about? Jesus Helen! I'm talking about what nearly happened before Yvonne and Karen got back last night.'

Helen winced. Every one of Nikki's words sent a red-hot poker through her brain. 'I can't remember anything happening last night.'

'Oh, so you're going to use the good old "I was pissed last night and I didn't know what I was doing" defence are you?'

'Nikki, I honestly have no idea what you're talking about.'

Nikki wiped her hands on a paper towel and then tossed it into a nearby bin. 'No, of course you don't, Helen. People like you never do!' Nikki stormed out of the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.

Helen knew exactly what Nikki was talking about but couldn't admit that, not when she still had a problem trying to admit it to herself. She got up and stood in front of the sink, staring at her flushed reflection in the mirror, and hating the look of the tired and confused woman who stared back at her. Resting her hot face against the cool glass, she tried to remember when it had all begun.

The truth was that Nikki had gotten under her skin. From their very first meeting she had been challenged and intrigued by the passionate and headstrong woman with the bottomless dark eyes that looked so deeply into her, it sometimes felt that they read her every thought. Helen flashed back to the moment when she'd first felt the physical attraction … when Nikki had taken her hand that day. That first initial skin-on-skin contact had quite literally taken her breath away.

It was obvious … she was attracted to another woman. The signs were clear … the stomach-flips and the loss of any rational thought when Nikki was in the vicinity, the sudden and completely irrational jealousy she'd felt when she'd watched Nikki and Trish say their goodbyes yesterday morning. And last night, when her face had been so close to Nikki's and her lips had itched to be pressed against those lips and …

Helen pounded her fist against the mirror. She stared at her reflection in the mirror and repeated the words to herself like a mantra … it's not going to happen, it's not going to happen … and after a few minutes, managed to convince herself that she believed it.

As they began the hike into the countryside, Nikki got into a deep discussion with Karen about holiday destinations. Jumping on the chance to confront Helen while Nikki was distracted, Yvonne fell into step with her, shortening her stride to match the smaller woman.

'Can I talk to you in confidence, Helen?' she asked.

Helen frowned at Yvonne's icy tone. 'What's on your mind Yvonne?'


'What about her?'

'Do you know she's having a rough time with Trish at the moment?'

'I gathered, but I don't know what all this has to do with me.'

Yvonne raised an eyebrow. 'I saw what was happening when me and Karen got back from the pub last night.'

'I don't know what you're talking about, Yvonne.' Helen got the impression that she was about to be on the receiving end of a lecture and sighed. 'Look … Nikki's a big girl. Surely she can take care of herself.'

'She's my friend.'

'And of course, you're very protective of your friends,' Helen commented sarcastically. 'Yvonne, I don't know what you think is going on here but I have actually got a partner, who by the way is male and …'

'Do you know they very nearly split up about six months ago?'

'Who? Nikki and Trish?'

'No, Posh and bleedin' Becks!' Yvonne snapped. 'Yes, Nikki and Trish.'

'Was it to do with Nikki's job?'

Yvonne nodded. 'We were having really bad system problems at the time and Nikki wasn't getting home until about two in the morning every night … if she got home at all. You can't blame Trish really.'

'The way she treats Nikki, I'm surprised they've lasted as long as they have.'

'You're being a bit previous, love seeing as you've only known Nikki for a couple of weeks.' Yvonne paused and lit a cigarette, shielding the flame of her lighter from the wind with her anorak. 'Nikki has the ability to give people the impression that she's hard done by, but in reality she's a right sod to Trish when she wants to be.'

'Know Trish well do you?'

'Yeah I do, actually.' Yvonne replied, choosing to ignore Helen's acerbic tone. 'And despite what you think, Nikki really loves her. Take the Christmas do last year for instance. Some guy tried coming onto her and Nikki ended up giving him a black eye.'

Helen exhaled heavily, losing patience. 'I'm sure there's a point to all this.'

'My point is that you want to make sure that you're serious about what you want to get into with Nikki. I know her well enough to know that she's too straight to have an affair.' Yvonne stopped walking and grabbed Helen's arm. 'So, if you really feel that you can break up a ten-year relationship and live with the consequences, then it's up to you.'

Helen pulled her arm away from Yvonne, suddenly furious. 'Look, I've told you once … I don't know what you're talking about! I'm not even slightly interested in women and I resent the insinuation that I am.'

Yvonne looked Helen straight in the eye, refusing to be intimidated. 'Look, love, I'm just saying what I see, that's all.'

'Well if I were you I'd get my eyes tested!'

Yvonne smiled knowingly and then walked off to catch up with Karen and Nikki.

Yvonne, Nikki and Karen had moved on to comparing holiday disasters by the time the team stopped for lunch.

'Ere, Nikki,' Yvonne said. 'Didn't you get stuck somewhere in the back of beyond during the pilot's strike last year?'

Nikki looked up from her examination of the sandwich she'd been given and nodded at Yvonne. 'Yeah, Accra,' she replied. 'Twelve hours in an airport without any air-conditioning. I think I lost about a stone in bloody perspiration.'

'How was the holiday?' Helen asked, aware of Yvonne staring at her.

'It was great, actually,' Nikki replied in a frosty tone. 'The beaches were something else … the beer and fags were cheap and there weren't that many tourists. We're going back there next month.'

Yvonne smiled triumphantly at Helen and then turned back to Nikki. 'How did you end up getting back?'

'We eventually managed to get a flight to Paris. Spent the night there and then flew back to Manchester the following afternoon.' Nikki smiled nostalgically. 'Would you believe, the toilets in the airport in Accra were actually cleaner than the ones in Paris.'

Karen laughed and shook her head. 'Trust you to notice something like that.' She glanced over at Fenner who was taking a discreet sip from a hip flask. 'What about you Jim? Had any holiday disasters?'

Yvonne managed to jump in before Fenner could reply. 'Well there was that time he got turned away at the gates of Disneyland because they thought he'd scare all the little kiddies!'

'At least I'm not made to travel in the hold with the rest of the dogs,' Fenner retorted.

Everyone looked around when the theme from The X-Files drifted out of Nikki's rucksack.

'Ooops!' Nikki smiled apologetically and retrieved her mobile phone. She was acutely conscious of Helen's disapproving glare as she glanced down at the display. 'That's strange,' she said. 'It's Eddie.'

Yvonne cackled. 'I bet that dozy Birmingham lot have got lost.'

'I thought I said that phones weren't allowed,' Helen said indignantly. 'Chris told me that he was going to ban his team from bringing them too.'

'Get real Helen!' Yvonne scoffed. 'You've got more chance of seeing an IT Manager without their pants than their mobile phone!'

'Oh shit!' Nikki nudged Yvonne and handed her the phone. 'It's Renee Williams.'

Yvonne laughed and took the phone from Nikki. 'Wotcha, Renee! How are ya, love?' Yvonne held the phone away from her ear so that everyone could hear Renee cursing her extensively. 'Don't think she liked the little surprise we left her this morning, Nik.'

'What on earth was all that about?' Karen asked when Yvonne came off the phone.

'We put some worms in her rucksack this morning,' Yvonne explained. 'And from the sounds of it she weren't that happy about it!'

'We put some worms in her rucksack did we?' Nikki raised an affronted eyebrow. 'From what I remember you refused to touch the … how did you put it? Slimy little bastards?'

Helen spoke over Yvonne's reply. 'So that's what you were doing this morning was it?'

Nikki nodded. 'Fraid so.'

Karen sighed and shook her head disapprovingly. 'I sometimes think you two left your brains in the playground.'

The naughty look on Nikki's face was so adorable that Helen found herself giggling. 'So you got up early this morning to dig for worms?'

'Yeah.' Nikki smiled around the cigarette she was lighting. 'I haven't done it since I was a kid. Nice to know I haven't lost my touch.'

Despite Helen's fears, the team managed to pull together at regular intervals to complete the on the spot tasks that Brad set them. Although she believed that this was more to do with the fact that they were all too tired to argue with each other rather than because of any sense of team spirit.

Finally, Brad pointed to the small brook they were approaching and announced that they would set up camp on the other side. The relief that they were able to set up camp led to a reopening of hostilities, this time between Yvonne and Karen who were arguing about Karen's decision to refuse to provide a budget for Yvonne's latest marketing strategy.

Brad looked up from the tent peg he was hammering into the ground and waved his mallet in Yvonne's direction. 'Yvonne, swap with Helen.'

'Do what?' Yvonne looked over at Karen and frowned. 'I ain't sharing a tent with that cow!'

Brad sighed and stood up. 'Look, this weekend is all about team building and as far as I can see, you already work well with Nikki. Similarly, Helen works well with Karen. Now, I've picked up on tensions between you and Karen and also between Helen and Nikki, so, I think this would be a useful exercise.'

Yvonne threw her mallet to the ground in disgust and walked over to Karen's tent. 'You bleedin' snore all night and I'm gonna smother you with your sleeping bag!'

'For the last time, Yvonne, I do not snore!'

Brad rolled his eyes and then returned his attention to his tent peg.

Helen wandered over to Nikki's tent and smiled apologetically. 'I'm really sorry about this, Nikki.'

Nikki shrugged. 'He has got a point I suppose.' She sighed and held out her hand. 'Can you pass me the mallet, please?'

Helen picked the mallet up and handed it to Nikki, for the briefest of moments, their fingers touched and Helen felt a bolt of electrical energy surge up her arm. She looked over at Nikki; shocked when she saw her own emotions reflected back at her in a pair of eyes that blazed with awareness. Then the moment was gone. Nikki took the mallet and returned her attention to the tent.

Dinner consisted of packets of freeze-dried, concentrated food.

'This is the same stuff they eat on the space shuttle.' Brad announced.

Yvonne, grimacing around her first mouthful, swallowed with distaste. 'Now I know why I never wanted to be a bleedin' astronaut!'

'It's not that bad,' Nikki said reflectively. 'Heinz pea and ham baby food, now that's disgusting.'

Karen was startled into laughter. 'I'm almost afraid to ask.'

'I ended up babysitting Trish's niece one day and that's what I was left to feed the poor little bugger. Anyway, she refused to eat it, so I thought I'd encourage her by eating some myself.' Nikki grimaced and shuddered at the recollection. 'Then I realised she had a point so we ended up sharing a tub of chocolate mousse and a banana.'

'You know, I can't imagine you with a baby,' Karen commented.

'Neither can I really,' Nikki replied. 'I almost fainted when I had to change her nappy. Somehow, I don't really think I'm cut out for motherhood … and when I think about childbirth, Jesus!'

'You 'ave got a point, Nik.' It was Yvonne's turn to shudder. 'The best way I have of describing it is saying that it's like trying to spit out a watermelon.'

Karen nodded in agreement. 'Did you have stitches?'

'I bleedin' did! Felt like a I'd been shagged by a cactus!'

Karen laughed. 'Well if that hasn't put you off Nikki, then I'd be surprised.'

'Quite right too,' Fenner piped up. 'Her type shouldn't be allowed to have children!'

Nikki glared at Fenner over the campfire, the intensity of the flames nothing in comparison to the fury in her eyes. 'My type? I suppose you mean deviants do you?'

Fenner returned Nikki's glare, refusing to be intimidated. 'Well it's not natural, is it?'

'Jim,' Helen said sharply. 'I think you should apologise.'

'I'm not apologising for having an opinion.' Fenner sneered at Nikki through the flames. 'Like I said, it's not natural.'

'Oh, and what's natural?' Nikki snapped. 'Kids being raised by a bigoted wanker like you?'

Yvonne placed a restraining hand on Nikki's arm. 'Cool it, Nik, don't give the sad twat the satisfaction.' She stared over at Fenner icily. 'You know something. I'd trust a kid of mine with Nikki before I'd ever trust an evil snake like you!'

Nikki shrugged Yvonne's hand away and jumped to her feet. 'You know Fenner, you were born in the wrong era. I can just see you in a Nazi uniform forcing perverts like me into the showers!'

Helen stood up when Nikki turned to walk away. 'Do you want me to come with you, Nikki?'

'I was going for a piss,' Nikki replied. 'But if you want to watch it's up to you.'

In actual fact, Nikki was gone for over half an hour.

Yvonne squeezed Nikki's shoulder when she returned to her place around the fire. 'You okay, Nik?'

Nikki nodded, choosing to ignore Fenner totally. 'I'm fine, why shouldn't I be?'

Fenner, totally unrepentant after an ear bashing from Yvonne, Karen and Helen during Nikki's absence, was now holding court on working mothers. 'Take my Marilyn. As soon as she found out she was pregnant she stopped working. Why should my kids lose out just because she wants a career?'

'Yeah, that's alright for you to say,' Yvonne said, rolling her eyes at Karen. 'What about when my Charlie pissed off? I had no bleedin' choice. I had to work to feed Lauren.'

'And me,' Karen concurred. 'I was in the same position when Steven and I split up.'

Fenner leaned back against his rucksack and lit a cigarette. 'Well maybe if both of you had paid more attention to what makes men happy then you wouldn't have been left in that situation.'

'When Sean and I have children I'm going to go back to work,' Helen declared suddenly. 'I don't see why I should have to give up my career.'

Nikki shook her head dismissively. 'I don't know why you're all bothering. Fenner thinks that all women should be barefoot, pregnant and chained to the kitchen sink.'

'For once, Wade, we're in agreement.'

Brad looked up from his copy of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'. 'It's getting late and you've all got an early start in the morning. I suggest we all turn in for the night.'

Yvonne sighed and looked over at Karen. 'Come on then. If you promise not to snore, I'll share my Yorkie bar with you.'

'For the last time, I do not snore!'

Nikki was already in her sleeping bag and reading her book by torchlight by the time Helen returned from seeing to a call of nature.

'Thanks for the loan of the toilet paper,' Helen said, smiling as she manoeuvred herself into her sleeping bag.

'No problem.' Nikki smiled in return but didn't look up from her book. 'Want a chocolate biscuit?'

'Yes please.'

Nikki put her book to one side and reached into her rucksack. 'They're probably crushed.'

'I don't care.' Helen took the packet that Nikki offered. 'You did come prepared. Something tells me you used to be a Girl Guide.'

'Yeah right.' Nikki laughed at the thought. 'You can really see me in one of those uniforms can't you? No, I just remember what the camping trips at school were like.'

Helen took a biscuit and handed the packet back to Nikki. 'I've never slept in a tent before.'

'I've never slept in one this small before. We used to have these huge things at school that housed twenty people. It used to be bloody awful, I always used to get told off for trying to read.' Nikki smiled nostalgically and wriggled down into her sleeping bag, propping herself up on one elbow. 'Of course then it was James and the Giant Peach or something like that.'

Helen laughed. 'I used to love his books. Fantastic Mr Fox was my favourite.'

'God! I remember that one too!' Nikki smiled and reached for her cigarettes. 'Do you mind?'

'Not at all. Just try not to set fire to the tent though.'

Suddenly a loud snore rent the air, followed by a loud 'fucking hell' from Yvonne.

Nikki laughed and turned over to look at Helen. 'Hope I'm not going to have the same trouble from you.'

'Well Sean hasn't complained so far so I think you're safe. Looks like I had a lucky escape though.'

Nikki raised an eyebrow. 'Oh you think so do you?'

'You don't do …' Helen punched Nikki lightly on the arm when she realised she was being teased. 'Somehow I don't think I'm going to get that much sleep anyway.'

'How come?'

'I always have a problem sleeping anywhere but my own bed. I had a terrible night last night.'

Nikki crawled out of her sleeping bag and pitched her cigarette out into the night air. 'I must admit, I didn't sleep well last night either.'

'You sound surprised.'

Nikki wiggled back into her sleeping bag and sighed. 'Trish always says that I'd be able to fall asleep on a clothes-line.'

'So why couldn't you sleep last night?'

Nikki rolled onto her back and let out another sigh. 'I had stuff on my mind I suppose.'

'That argument you had with Trish you mean?'

'No, that's not what I mean.' Nikki turned her head to frown at Helen. 'You know very well what I'm talking about.'

'I don't.' Helen said indignantly.

'I'm talking about what nearly happened before Yvonne and Karen got back.'

Helen sat up and looked up at the roof of the tent, feeling the internal battle begin to start up again. The armies were denial and the truth and at that moment, denial was winning. However, Helen knew that if they didn't talk about it then it would always be hanging around between them. 'Look, last night, we were both drunk and …'

'Bollocks, Helen!' Nikki sat up, suddenly furious. 'You'd been flirting with me all day.'

Helen gasped. 'I'd been flirting with you!'

Nikki leaned forward and grabbed Helen's hand. 'Yes, you had. So why don't you admit it? If Yvonne and Karen hadn't interrupted, you would've ended up sticking your tongue down my throat!'

Helen tried to pull her hand away from Nikki's grip but found that she was too strong. 'Let go of my hand!' she hissed.

'Not until you admit it!'

'I said, let go of my hand!'


Helen stared at Nikki, incensed when she saw amusement in her eyes. A sudden wave of anger strengthened her and she finally managed to reclaim her hand. 'Don't fucking flatter yourself, Nikki!'

Nikki angered Helen further by laughing. She flopped onto her back with a self-satisfied smile. 'Goodnight, Helen. Let's just hope you don't float too far down the river tonight. You know, that Egyptian one … de Nile!'


Chapter Eight

Nikki leaned over the side of the brook and immersed her face in the icy water.

It was just after 6am.

After more than a few hours of tossing and turning, shehad finally fallen into a restless sleep that had culminated in a hugely erotic dream about Helen. Waking up to find the woman in question lying beside her and looking absurdly adorable in a sleeping bag had been enough to blow the mercury out of the top of her internal thermometer.

She was attracted to another woman. Yes … it had happened in the past ten years but not to this extent before. But it wasn't just about attraction. it was about a woman who got under her skin, challenged her … irritated her to such an extent that she lost her ability to think coherently.

The signs were clear … she wanted Helen.

Nikki slicked her wet hair back from her forehead, the cool breeze drying the icy water on her face helped to make her think more logically but did nothing to quell the fire inside.

About half an hour later, Brad emerged from the tent he was sharing with Fenner. 'Morning,' he said, seemingly surprised to see that Nikki was already up and about. 'Sleep okay?'

'Not really.' Nikki smiled and pointed towards the fire she'd built. 'There's some hot water if you want some coffee.'

Brad shook his head. 'No thanks, I don't drink coffee. Anyway, I'm going to leave you to it now.'

Nikki looked up and frowned. 'You mean you're going to leave me to wake the rabble on my own?'

''Fraid so.' Brad reached into his rucksack and produced a plastic envelope. 'Here's your map, compass and instructions.'

Nikki took out the map and peered at it closely. 'How far are we from the meeting point?'

'Eight miles. So, if you make good time it shouldn't take you that long.' Brad reached over Nikki's shoulder and pointed this out. 'The obvious short-cut is over those hills. I've got no doubt that you and Helen will be able to make it, but as for the others …'

'They might not be up to it you mean?'

'Well, strictly, I'm not supposed to be providing any instructions, but I'd recommend that you go the long way round. From what I've seen of the competition you should still be able to make it with time to spare.' Brad stood up and shouldered his rucksack. 'If I was you, I'd get the others up now. You've still got the tents to pack away.'

'Oh great.' Nikki rolled her eyes. 'I suppose that means I'm going to be saddled with waking Fenner.'

Brad smiled, showing a mouthful of perfect white teeth. 'Don't worry. I made sure he was awake when I got up. I'm not that much of a sadist. Right, I'll be off then. Good luck.'

Nikki waited until Brad had crossed the brook before heading back into her tent in search of her cigarettes. Unfortunately, Helen seemed to have shifted in her sleep so that she was now lying diagonally across the tent.


Nikki noticed that her cigarettes were lying on the other side of the tent. inaccessible unless she reached over Helen.

Nikki had been planning on waking Karen and Yvonne first and asking one of them to wake Helen for her, but now she was stuck with a choice: wake Helen herself, or try and reach the cigarettes without disturbing her. Nikki considered for a few seconds and then carefully manoeuvred herself so that she was able to make a quick grab for the cigarettes. She stopped suddenly when Helen turned over in her sleep.

When Helen turned over, she encountered Nikki's outstretched arm and wrapped her arms around it, pulling it towards her. The momentum sent Nikki crashing down on top of her.

'What the f …?' Helen yelped.

'Shit! Sorry!' Nikki tried to pull away just as Helen sat up in shocked surprise. 'I was just …' Nikki grabbed her cigarettes and held them up. 'My cigarettes … my arm, you grabbed it when …'

Helen laughed at the panicked expression on Nikki's face. 'Calm down. It's okay.'

Nikki smiled, conscious of the fact that she was blushing. 'My lighter, can you …?'

Helen picked up the lighter, still laughing. 'You should see the look on your face!'

Nikki, incredibly embarrassed, took refuge in annoyance. 'Well, after last night I thought you might get the impression that I was trying to attack you!' She grabbed her lighter out of Helen's hand and flew out of the tent.

Fenner, bleary eyed and unshaven, was coughing over his first cigarette of the morning. He looked up and sneered when Nikki emerged from the tent. 'Had a row with your girlfriend?'

'Fuck off and die, Fenner!'

Yvonne popped her head out of her tent, disturbed by the raised voices. 'What the frig's going on out here?'

'Wade's lost her personality again,' Fenner replied.

'Oh go and iron your face, Fenner. I wasn't bleedin' talking to you!' Yvonne spat at him before looking up at Nikki. 'You alright, Nik?'

Nikki, aware of Helen emerging from her tent, forced a smile as she lit her cigarette. 'I'm fine. Is Karen awake?'

'Who? Miss Piggy?' Yvonne grinned when a faint 'I heard that!' drifted out of the tent. 'She's awake.'

'Good,' Nikki said briskly. 'Let's get these tents down.'

Nikki was acutely aware of Helen's close proximity as the five of them scrutinised over the map. She looked around and realised that Helen was not only close, but also within kissing distance. Helen smiled, seemingly aware of the effect she was having.


Nikki looked up to see Karen regarding her with concern. 'Sorry, where was I?' She stared down at the map and forced herself to think. 'Oh yeah … the quickest way to the meeting point is over these hills here, but I think, given the fact that we've got three tents to carry …'

'Not to mention Fenner,' Yvonne piped up.

Nikki sighed heavily. She was at the stage where she just wanted to get the hell out of the whole situation and back into the world of the sane. 'As I was saying, that route is the quickest but I seriously doubt that we'll be able to do it. So, what I think is that we should take the longer route. If we can keep up a good pace then we should still be able to get there first.'

Karen nodded in agreement. 'I think that's the best way to go. What about you, Helen?'

'I'll go along with the majority,' Helen replied diplomatically.

Yvonne was still studying the map. 'Now, Nikki, you ain't gonna get us lost are ya? I don't much fancy the idea of spending another night out here, especially seeing as we ain't got no food left.'

Nikki smiled as she folded the map. 'Don't worry Yvonne. I don't think we're going to have to resort to eating each other.'

'That's alright then,' Yvonne said, eyeing Fenner distastefully. 'Who's stupid bleedin' idea was this anyway?'

Nikki winked at a suddenly disconsolate Helen and turned to grin at the others. 'There's a pub on this route we're going to be following. If we make good enough time we'll be able to stop for a quick one.' She glanced at Helen, daring her to disapprove.

Helen surprised Nikki by nodding. 'I don't know about everyone else, but I could murder a drink.'

A few minutes later, they were on their way.

'What was that film?' Yvonne said suddenly. 'You know, the one when the plane crashed and they ended up eating each other.'

'Alive.' Nikki answered. 'No offence to you lot but I think I'd rather go veggie.'

Fenner, predictably, smiled at Helen and Karen lasciviously. 'I wouldn't mind.'

Yvonne rolled her eyes at Nikki. 'You know, I would've put money on him saying that then.'

By midday, they'd reached the halfway point.

Nikki, a hundred or so metres ahead of the others, stopped at the top of the hill they were climbing to check the map.

'So how come you've got so much experience of map-reading?'

Nikki had been so intent on the map that she hadn't noticed Helen's approach. 'Sorry, what was that?'

'I was just commenting on your orienteering skills.'

Nikki shrugged, returning her attention to the map. 'We had a bastard of a geography teacher at school. He used to get us lost on purpose during field trips.' She motioned Helen closer and pointed at their position. 'The good news is that we're about halfway there now, and even better, we're only about a mile away from that pub I mentioned.'

'Christ!' Yvonne reached the top of the hill and leaned against Nikki as she got her breath back. 'Talk about climbing every friggin' mountain.'

'Good job we didn't decide to take the tough route.' Nikki nodded towards Fenner and Karen who were still struggling up the hill. 'Wonder how the other team are getting on.'

'Well with any bleedin' luck they're lost. I've got a feeling that Renee's got something brewing in that evil brain of hers.' Yvonne lit a cigarette and coughed out her first lung-full of smoke. 'All this fresh air and exercise ain't natural.'

'She can't take her eyes off you for a second, can she?'

Nikki handed a twenty-pound note to the barman and then turned back to Yvonne. 'What's that?'


'What about her?'

'She keeps looking at you.'

Nikki decided to bluff it out and winked at Yvonne. 'I can't help being irresistible.'

'Don't wink at me like Anne friggin' Robinson!' Yvonne looked around shiftily and motioned Nikki closer. 'She's got the hots for you.'

'Don't be bloody stupid!' Nikki whispered. 'She's straight.'

'Bullshit! She might be so deep in the closet she's in fucking Narnia, but I know the hots when I see them.'

'You're talking out of your arse, Yvonne.'

'Am I?' Yvonne frowned, suddenly serious. 'Look, Nik. I saw what was happening when Karen and me got back from the pub the other night.'

Nikki decided that it was wise to concentrate on the end of her cigarette. 'Oh yeah? And what did you see?'

'I saw enough to know that you're in danger of making one bastard of a mistake.'

'It's just a bit of flirting, that's all.' Nikki sighed and ran an agitated hand through her hair. 'Like I said, she's straight. And anyway, I think I'm big enough and ugly enough to look after myself, don't you?'

'Talking of big and ugly.' Yvonne nodded towards an approaching Fenner. 'What do you want?' she snapped at him.

'I was just wondering whether we're going to have to die of thirst before you bring those drinks over.'

Nikki saw this as her way out and tapped Yvonne on the shoulder. 'I'm off to the loo. Back in a minute.'

Ten minutes later, Nikki was staring into the bathroom mirror. She looked up and frowned when Helen walked in. 'What's up?'

'You've been in here for ages. I was worried.'

Nikki turned around and studied Helen intently. 'Why?'

Helen smiled uncomfortably, extremely unsettled by the intensity of Nikki's stare. 'I honestly don't know. Look, Nikki, I don't know what your problem is but …'

'Problem? I haven't got a problem.' Nikki turned to leave the room. 'I think you have though.'

Helen grabbed Nikki's arm, preventing her exit. 'Oh no you don't! I want to know what all this is about.'

The feel of Helen's hand on her arm made Nikki gasp, a sudden arousal ripping through her like serrated knife, tearing at every fibre. She looked into Helen's eyes, seeing her pupils dilate with sudden awareness.

This wasn't just an attraction. This was something else. This was seeing the passion this woman had and wanting to take it for herself … to touch it, taste it … amplify it to heights it had never reached before. This was flashing red lights, danger signs, every ounce of sense she had screaming for her to pull out before it was too late.

Nikki felt Helen's body pressing against hers … saw the unquestionable want in her eyes … oh God! Those eyes: intense, passionate and so full of desire that she just wanted to drown in them, to forget everything else but this moment.

Then Helen began to move away.

Nikki felt a sudden rage infusing her body, rage against this woman who had forced them both to this point yet had the strength to pull back and leave her teetering over the edge. This was it as far as she was concerned. Helen was going to finally realise the full implications of what she'd done.

Nikki pulled Helen into a tight embrace, a position she tried to struggle out of furiously.

'Let go of me, Nikki!'

'No Helen, you wanted to know what it was all about didn't you?' Nikki pulled Helen closer, dipping her own head so that her mouth was now only millimetres away from its target. 'It's about this.'

The feeling of Helen's lips against hers was enough to ignite every cell in her body, and, totally undaunted by the initial resistance she met, she pulled away slightly, gently letting her tongue travel across Helen's lips. It seemed like a lift fell fifty floors in her stomach as Helen let out a low moan before returning the pressure, opening her mouth, finally giving in to what was happening. Nikki felt Helen's tongue probing lightly, fingers entwined in her hair as she was pulled deeper into the kiss and began to concentrate her whole being into extricating herself.


Nikki smiled and trailed a finger across Helen's cheekbone, relishing the way that Helen seemed to tremble under her touch. 'So now you know.'

Nikki, aware of the fact that her legs were threatening to give way, walked out of the toilets without looking back.

By the time they were in sight of the meeting point, the sullen silence between Nikki and Helen was almost deafening. The tension between them was so palpable, that conversation around them had dwindled to occasional grumbles of complaint from either Yvonne or Fenner.

'Well I can't see the Birmingham lot,' Karen said. 'Maybe we've beaten them.'

'Course we have.' Yvonne reached out and clapped Nikki on the back. 'Cheer up, Nikki. You look like you've been slapped in the kisser with a wet trout.'

'I don't know what you're so bloody cheerful about all of a sudden,' Nikki grumbled. 'The way you've been moaning for the past hour, anyone would think you'd just had your legs chopped off.'

'I wish they bleedin' had been. They might not hurt so much then.' Yvonne grinned and nudged Nikki with her elbow. 'With any luck, some wild animal got scared by Renee's ugly mug and she's been eaten.'

'Wild animal!' Nikki exclaimed. 'A sheep's about as wild as you get round here.'

'Well I don't friggin' know, do I?'

'Oh look, there's Brad.' Karen suddenly declared, pointing over at the two figures standing with the mini-bus. 'Tell you something, I wish I'd been sharing a tent with him last night.'

Yvonne rolled her eyes at Nikki who shook her head. 'I wish you'd been sharing a tent with him too, I might've got some sleep then. Anyway, he's weird.'

'Weird?' Karen raised an eyebrow. 'You mean weird as opposed to your normal?'

Yvonne chose to ignore Karen's comment and ploughed on regardless. 'Didn't he say that he was a Buddhist last night?'

'There's nothing wrong with having a spiritual side.'

Yvonne laughed, nudging Nikki again. 'Spiritual side! 'Ave you heard her? Closest she gets to spiritual is a bottle of bleedin' scotch!'

Eventually, they reached the meeting point. It quickly transpired that they had indeed beaten the Birmingham team.

Nikki ignored the congratulations from Brad and the other instructor and crossed to the other side of the road. She lay down on the grass and used her rucksack as a pillow.

Helen watched Nikki in silence for a few minutes, debating with herself about whether or not to confront her.

The incident in the pub had left Helen feeling absolutely furious. Not only with Nikki for forcing her into the kiss, but also with herself for feeling so compelled to get one over on the other woman that she'd completely lost control of the situation … and herself.

But that kiss! Even just thinking about it sent her heart ricocheting around her chest and caused a steady, throbbing pulse between her legs. In the tumble of emotions, guilt began to surface … not only because it felt like she'd betrayed Sean but also because he'd never been able to unleash such a torrent of raw passion inside her. It had been as if a living, breathing entity had suddenly possessed her body and beaten her into breathless submission.

Helen stared at Nikki who was seemingly oblivious to the turmoil she was causing. This observation only served to infuriate her further. She had played the game and lost, and whatever her feelings to the contrary, Nikki had to know that Helen Stewart was not a woman who liked to lose.

Decision made, she walked over to where Nikki was lying.

'We need to talk,' she said briskly.

Nikki didn't need to open her eyes to identify the voice that made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. 'What do you want, Helen?'

'Well I would've thought that was obvious,' Helen replied, voice literally dripping with anger. 'Look Nikki, you'll understand if I'm blunt. Now, I know that you're a lesbian and you're comfortable with that, but I'm a heterosexual and I'm going to get married soon …'

Nikki opened one eye. 'Married?'

'Sean and I have been talking about it, yes.'

'Knows you swing both ways does he?'

'For God's sake Nikki! Do you have any idea of how inappropriate your behaviour was?'

Nikki sat up suddenly. 'My behaviour? If I remember correctly, you kissed me back!'

'You forced me into it!'

'You gave me no choice!'

Both became aware of puzzled stares from the rest of the group. Helen grabbed Nikki's arm and pulled her closer.

'Listen to me, Nikki. What happened before is never going to happen again. Even if I was attracted to you, nothing could come of it. You're in a relationship, I'm in a relationship …'

'Stop right there!' Nikki hissed, livid with Helen's patronising tone. 'Now, regardless of what happened, who started it and who bloody finished it, it certainly didn't mean anything to me.'

'Then why did you do it?'

'Look, just forget it, okay?'

With one final furious glare, Helen walked away.

Nikki lay back down on the grass and sighed hopelessly. The anger that had carried her through from the incident in the pub was beginning to fade away and now, she couldn't stop thinking about how stupid she'd been. This was all about wanting to get one over on Helen, wanting to prove to her that there was something happening between them.


Why had she felt so compelled to kiss Helen? Not just once but twice. What had possessed her? In the ten years she'd been with Trish she'd never felt the urge to do anything like this before. Guilt began sweeping over her in waves. How could she be so stupid as to jeopardise the best thing she'd ever had in her life just because she'd gotten carried away in the moment?

Nikki knew that she could alleviate the guilt by just chalking it up as 'just one of those things', it was a kiss – it wasn't as if she'd actually made love to another woman – but she knew she couldn't do that. In reality she might've only kissed Helen but in her mind, she was guilty of a hell of a lot more.

In the end, they'd been kept hanging around for a full hour before the Birmingham team finally arrived. By the time they all climbed into the minibus, Nikki was so miserable that all she wanted was for the ground to open up and swallow her.

Meanwhile, a full-scale war was being fought behind her.

'I'm gonna fucking get you for that, Atkins!' Renee screeched.

'Get me for what?' Yvonne howled. 'You are a bleedin' worm, Renee. I thought they might adopt you!'

'That was so funny I forgot to friggin' laugh!' Renee fixed Yvonne with an icy-cold glare. 'Just you wait until the end of the month. My sales figures are gonna crap all over yours!'

'Yeah, and Fenner over there's just won Miss World!'

This gave Fenner an excuse to jump in. 'Hey Yvonne, didn't I see you winning best of breed at Cruft's this year?'

Renee laughed. 'Bleedin' worst of breed you mean!'

Yvonne decided to ignore the comment and instead, turned in her seat to gloat at Renee across the aisle. 'Heard about the nominations for salesperson of the year did you, Renee? I see none of your lot are up for it this year.'

'So who did you end up shagging to get Lauren's name put forward? It certainly ain't because of anything she's done.' Renee exchanged a smug smile with Fenner. 'Word is she's just as useless as her mother.'

'You're just jealous. Your lot couldn't sell water in the friggin' desert!'

'Okay, you wanna put your money where your big fat gob is?'

'Hah! 'Ark at the Blackwall bleedin' tunnel here! Come on then, how much?'

'Fifty quid says my figures are better than yours at the end of the month.'

'Easiest fifty quid I'll ever make.'

'You fucking wish!'

Nikki, feeling the beginnings of a headache, turned to look out of the window. Her mobile phone rang and her heart jumped into her mouth when she saw Trish's number come up. As she raised the phone to her ear, she was aware of Helen's scrutiny.


'At last! Christ, Nik, I've been trying to get hold of you all day.'

'It's probably because we've been out in the middle of nowhere all day. Bad signal, you know.'

'Any news on when you'll be back yet?'

'Yeah, hold on.' Nikki leaned across the aisle towards Helen, trying not to react when the other woman cringed back into her seat. 'Helen, any idea of what time we'll get back to Manchester?'

'Is that Trish?' Yvonne sprang out of the seat behind Nikki's and plucked the phone out of her hand. 'Alright, Trish? Yeah, not too bad …'

Nikki made an abortive grab for the phone. 'Yvonne! For fuck's sake!' She groaned when Yvonne sat down in her seat. She glanced over at Helen. 'Well?'

'We'll be back at the centre in a couple of minutes, then dinner and then home.' Helen's voice was calm and controlled and not once did she look directly at Nikki. 'Hopefully, we should be back by about nine.'

'Thanks.' Nikki made an attempt at a smile and then stood up to retrieve her phone.

Yvonne, however, was deep in conversation with Trish about something. 'Yeah, no problem. Give me a ring tomorrow and we'll sort something out … hold on, I'd better hand you back to her before she bites my hand off … yeah, speak to you tomorrow.' Yvonne smiled and held the phone out for Nikki. 'There you go.'

'About bloody time too!' Nikki grabbed the phone and slumped back into her seat. 'What was all that about?' she asked Trish.

'New promotion for the club. I wanted to ask Yvonne's advice.' Trish replied. 'Anyway, any news on when the wanderer will be returning?'

'Yeah, about nine apparently.'

'Shit! I've got a staff meeting with security at eight. I'm not going to be able to pick you up … sorry.'

'That's okay. I think I can manage to get myself home. You at the club all night tonight?'

Trish laughed, a low, seductive sound that never failed to send a delicious chill down Nikki's spine, She was relieved to find that tonight was no exception.

'Are you joking, Nik?' Trish said huskily. 'I've got serious plans for you tonight.'

'Yeah, well just don't get too carried away. I've walked eight miles today.' Nikki, aware that everyone on the minibus was listening, decided to wrap up the call. 'Look, I'd better go. I'll give you a call when I get in, okay?'

'Okay, love you.'

'Yeah, me too.'

Nikki placed the phone in her pocket and leaned back into her seat. Maybe, just maybe, things were going to be okay.


Chapter Nine

'It takes the body thirty-six hours.'

A hungover Helen was waiting for a Berocca tablet to dissolve in a glass of water. She looked up into the cheery, and slightly smug, face of her fiancé of less than eight hours and felt the urge to strangle him.

She sighed sulkily and picked up her glass, deciding to humour him. 'To do what?'

'To get rid of the alcohol from a glass of wine.' Sean smiled and reached past Helen for a coffee mug.

Helen took a swallow from her glass, grimacing. 'How long does it take to get rid of the shit from a day on my job?'

'Christ, Helen!' Sean raised his eyebrows as he opened the lid on a jar of coffee. 'It's only Monday morning. You've not even been in yet.'

'I have just spent a weekend traipsing round the back of beyond with four people who only open their mouths to insult each other. Honestly, Sean! I felt like a teacher escorting a bunch of eight-year-olds on a school trip!' She paused to exhale heavily. 'Next time I come up with any ideas about team-building weekends I want you to take me outside and shoot me.'

'Not a chance.' Sean put the jar down and wrapped his arms around Helen from behind. 'If you get that horny every time you spend a weekend outdoors, I'm going to start locking you out in the back garden at night.'

Helen sighed irritably and pulled away when she felt Sean nuzzling her neck. 'Pack it in, Sean. I'm not in the mood this morning.'

'Serves you right for drinking that bottle of wine last night.' Sean moved away and picked up the jar of coffee, frowning at the label. 'Why haven't we got any proper coffee?'

'Because you didn't get off your arse and go shopping this weekend,' Helen replied before forcing herself to drain her glass.

'I was busy.'

'Doing what?'

'Planning our engagement party.'

Helen dropped her glass into the washing-up bowl and then whirled around, unsure of whether she'd misheard. 'Pardon me?'

'I've been planning our engagement party.'

'Bit of a presumption seeing as we only finally agreed to get engaged last night.'

'I knew you wouldn't be able to resist me in the end.' Sean smiled and handed Helen a mug of coffee. 'Anyway, I had a bit of a brainwave on Saturday morning and rang Trish.'

Helen nearly spat out the mouthful of coffee she was in the process of swallowing. 'Trish? You mean Nikki's Trish?'

Sean nodded. 'She recommended a nightclub we could hire out for the night. Got us a discount too.'

Helen found that she was clenching her fists in anger. 'So not only did you jump the gun by presuming that I'd agree to get married, you also went ahead and booked a party?'

'Would you rather wait for my parents to organise something?'


'So what's the big deal then?'

Helen shrugged and turned to the sink, busying herself with rinsing out her glass.

What she couldn't tell Sean was that although she wasn't too happy about the prospect of a party in principle, her main objections sprung from the fact that Trish had helped him book it. It was obvious that Trish would be invited, and if that were the case, Nikki would be coming too. To Helen, it seemed like someone up there didn't like her. How on earth could she celebrate her engagement in front of the woman who had shaken her life to its very foundations?

After three glasses of wine, agreeing to get married had seemed like a good idea. It was the perfect way for her to demonstrate that all was right with the world … she was one hundred per cent straight, getting married to the man she loved, and Nikki Wade was nothing more than a momentary lapse of sanity.

It had been easy to kid herself at the time, but then, after finishing the bottle, memories of that kiss had resurfaced, and had spurred her on to such an extent that she'd ended up practically dragging Sean up to bed. The union had seemed more like a physical challenge than an expression of love, an attempt on Helen's behalf to exorcise her desire for Nikki as she writhed above and beneath a very overwhelmed and slightly confused Sean.

Helen's physical relationship with Sean had always been satisfying, but on this occasion, it felt like she was trying to quench a frantic thirst by taking huge gulps of seawater. Afterwards, totally unfulfilled and almost overwhelmed with guilt, Helen lay there watching the room spin while trying to convince herself that marrying Sean was the right thing to do.

Helen sighed and placed the glass in the dish-drainer.


Helen looked up irritably. 'I'm sorry, what?'

'I was just saying, we should really go to see Mum and Dad tonight, they'll be made up.' Sean looked up from his examination of the contents of the fridge, his face suddenly serious. 'You'd better phone your Dad.'

'Why?' Helen exhaled heavily and shook her head. 'He's never approved of anything I've done, why should he be jumping through hoops just because I'm getting married?'

'You are going to invite him to the wedding aren't you?'

'Sean, I can really do without this now.' Helen looked up at the kitchen clock and howled. 'Fuck! I'm going to be late!'

Nikki stepped into the shower and turned the thermostat up to hot, hoping that the heat would help to soothe away the stiffness that had settled into her body overnight.

Last night, already tired from her exertions over the weekend, she'd embarked on a sexual marathon with Trish, something that wasn't exactly a rare event, but certainly infrequent enough to cause Trish to comment. Nikki knew that the whole exercise was her way of proving that her feelings for Trish hadn't changed. Maybe that was why she'd tried so hard. She'd almost needed to drown herself in Trish in an effort to reach for the emotional towrope that would bring her home.

What had been hardest to bear was the fact that despite exercising extreme self-control, Helen's face kept appearing in her head. Kissing Helen was one thing, but thinking about her while making love to Trish felt like cheating to Nikki. Even more so when she realised that her failure to achieve that emotional connection had made her feel more than a little isolated from the woman she loved.

Nikki turned the thermostat down to cold and forced herself to stand under the spray. She endured the icy sting of the water, hoping that it would extinguish the fire in her head.

Nikki returned to the bedroom to find that Trish was awake.

'I'm sorry,' Nikki said, her voice muffled by the towel she was using to dry her hair. 'Did the shower wake you?'

'Don't worry. I had to be up early anyway,' Trish replied around a huge yawn. 'I've got the accountant coming in this morning. I tell you something though, I hope these outward bound weekends aren't going to become a regular thing. You almost killed me last night.'

'I didn't hear you complaining at the time.' Nikki smiled and then started to pull her trousers on, nearly flying across the room when a sudden yawn caused her to overbalance. 'Shit!'

'My God!' Trish exclaimed. 'Who let the hippopotamus in?'

'Piss off!' Nikki snapped as she collapsed onto the bed. 'I never thought I'd be saying this but I feel like phoning in sick today. I could sleep for a week.'

Trish leaned over and ran her hands through Nikki's hair. 'So why don't you then? I think they've had their pound of flesh this weekend.'

What Trish was doing was so soothing that Nikki had to fight to keep her eyes open. It was with extreme effort that she managed to sit up. 'Thank God I'm off tomorrow. I think I'm going to spend the whole day in bed.' She frowned when Trish smiled at her seductively. 'No chance.'

'We'll see.'

Nikki smiled and pushed herself off the bed. 'Right, I'd better get off. I'm running late as it is.'

'What time are you home tonight?'

'I have no idea,' Nikki replied. 'I'll call you.'

'Make sure you do.'

Nikki leaned over the bed and dropped a kiss on the top of Trish's head. 'See you later.'

'Christ! It's the bride of flamin' Frankenstein!'

An extremely hung-over Zandra aimed a lethargic 'V' sign in Julie S's direction and then staggered over to join her and Julie J by the vending machine.

'You alright, Zan love?' Julie J asked, putting a concerned hand on her shoulder. 'You don't look well at all.'

'They had a Southern Comfort promotion in The Gorse last night.' Zandra groaned and clutched her head. 'If I manage to get through today it's going to be a frigging miracle.'

'You know what you need,' Julie S said, gesturing over to the serving counter. 'You want a greasy bacon sarnie.'

'Yeah.' Julie J smiled and nodded in agreement. 'Nice bit of greasy bacon to soak up the alcohol.'

Both Julies cackled when a green-faced Zandra sprinted off in the direction of the toilets.

Nikki, who had nearly been knocked flying by Zandra, looked over at the Julies with concern. 'Is she okay?'

'Oh yeah,' Julie J replied.

'Yeah, she's just gone off to see Hughie,' Julie S explained. ''Ere Nikki, you don't look that great either.'

'Thanks,' Nikki replied sarcastically. 'You really know how to make a girl feel good about herself.'

'So how did yer camping weekend go?' Julie S asked.

'Bloody knackering.' Nikki yawned as if to prove her point. 'I don't think I've been this tired in my life.'

'You should see Mr Fenner, eh Jue?'

Julie S grinned and nodded. 'He looks really stiff. Walking around like Captain Scarlet. 'Ere, Denny said something about him ending up in the river twice.'

Nikki raised her eyebrows. 'How does Denny know?'

'Yvonne told 'er.' Julie J looked round at Julie S, nodding when her friend nudged her. 'Nikki …'

Nikki smiled at Julie's wheedling tone. 'Before you ask, the answer is no.'

Julie S exchanged a scandalised expression with her friend. 'But you don't even know what we were gonna ask.'

Nikki sighed, folding her arms as she shook her head. 'Come on then. What do you want?'

Julie S looked around shiftily and motioned Nikki closer. 'Do you know where the conference is gonna be 'eld yet?'

Nikki frowned. The annual conference was a chance for all of the call centre staff to get together. During the day, awards were presented and sales strategies were announced. In the evening there was a formal dinner, which usually degenerated into a wild piss-up that lasted until the early hours. The conference was always held at a hotel and, because the behaviour tended to be wilder when staff were able to book rooms, the exact location was always kept a secret until the last possible moment … even from the management team. Although Nikki didn't know exactly which hotel had been booked, a few speculative conversations with Yvonne had given her a fair idea.

'No I don't,' Nikki replied eventually. 'Why? Do you know something?'

The Julies shook their heads.

'So why ask me then? You know that even if I did know, I wouldn't be able to tell you.'

'Shell's running a book on it,' Julie S whispered.

Nikki nodded, suddenly comprehending. 'And you wanted to know if I could provide you with some inside info?'

The Julies nodded, smiling hopefully.

Nikki thought for a moment. She'd heard on the grapevine that Shell had been the one who'd started spreading rumours about her so-called 'affair' with Lorna Rose. Nikki was also pretty certain that if Shell did know anything, it would've come from Fenner, meaning that whatever money Shell made from the book would be split with him. Nikki wasn't usually vindictive, but the prospect of Fenner and Dockley ending up out of pocket appealed to her.

'Come on then,' Nikki conceded eventually. 'What are the odds?'

'Well, most of the money's going on The Midland, and then there's The Portland and The Britannia … oh, and that place in Didsbury,' Julie S whined. 'Come on, Nik, you know something. I can tell.'

'Yeah, come on, Nikki,' Julie J pleaded. 'It's for us.'

'You know you love us.'

'Okay,' Nikki relented. 'But all I'm going to say is that it's doubtful that it's in the city-centre. After we got banned from The Ramada last year the word's gone out on us. But, what a lot of people don't know is that about a week ago, we made a corporate deal with that new hotel at the airport. Now, is it okay if I go and get my breakfast?'

The Julies nodded distractedly, already making plans. Nikki set off to buy her bacon sandwich before they decided to pester her further.

Just as Nikki took the first bite out of her sandwich, her office door was knocked on before being opened. Nikki stared at her visitor for a brief second before looking down at her desk. Nothing had prepared her for the sight of Helen looking pale and fragile beneath an obvious hangover. Nikki felt an overwhelming surge of protective concern.

'Are you okay, Helen?' Nikki asked, pushing herself up out of her chair. 'You look like you've had a heavy night.'

'You could say that,' Helen replied, smiling slightly. 'You've got tomato sauce on your chin.'

'Have I?' Nikki blushed and wiped the sauce away with her hand. 'So, how's the blushing bride to be?'

Helen felt herself bristling at Nikki's sardonic tone. 'I told you that Sean and I were talking about getting married. I don't remember telling you that we'd gotten engaged.'

'Well according to Trish, she helped Sean book a place for your engagement party over the weekend,' Nikki explained. 'Got him quite an impressive discount too.'

'You know, I get the strangest feeling that for some odd reason it seems to upset you that Sean and I are getting married.'

'It doesn't upset me in the slightest,' Nikki said, her tone dismissive. 'Why should it?'

Helen found that Nikki's mocking smile was unnerving her to the extreme. 'Why are you doing this?'

'Doing what?'

'Going out of your way to make me feel uncomfortable.'

'Why would I do that?'

Helen sighed and ran an agitated hand through her hair. 'Look, I'm not in the mood for games this morning and …'

'Games? That's a good one.' Nikki laughed. 'Okay, so you're obviously still trying to fight it, so, why don't you tell me what you're doing here? Or is it just a social call?'

Helen's felt her temper beginning to strain at the leash but realised that it would be prudent just to explain her reason for being there so that she could return to her own office as quickly as possible. 'Sharon, the industrial placement is in the outer office. I wanted to give you a chance to meet her before the management meeting.'

Nikki nodded and gestured towards the door. 'Let's get this over with then.'

After another emergency trip to the toilet, Zandra slumped into her chair, clutching her head in her hands.

Julie J patted Zandra's shoulder. 'Ahhh, how's our vomit fountain then?'

'Twatting awful!' Zandra groaned in reply. 'I'm dying!'

Crystal arrived back from a trip to the canteen and handed Zandra a plastic cup. 'Drink that.'

Zandra peered into the cup suspiciously, wrinkling her nose at the smell. 'What the frig is this?'

'Peppermint tea,' Crystal answered. 'It'll settle your stomach.' She sighed and returned to her own seat. 'Not that you deserve it.'

Zandra took a tentative sip and smiled. 'Thanks, Crystal.'

Crystal shook her head disapprovingly. 'God didn't give you a body for you to abuse it with alcohol.'

Julie S laughed. 'Bleedin' 'ell, Crystal! You were just as drunk as the rest of us at the Christmas do last year.'

Crystal sniffed haughtily. 'I was celebrating the birth of the Lord, innit?'

'Oh, and the bible says that you 'ave to do that by dancing on the table does it?'

Crystal's reply was forestalled by the arrival of Shell Dockley.

'Hiya, girls!' Shell said cheerfully.

The Julies frowned at each other suspiciously. It was rare for Shell to be this chirpy on a Monday morning. 'What do you want?' they chorused.

Shell looked around shiftily and then crouched down between Zandra and Julie J. 'I've 'ad an idea about the conference.'

'Oh yeah?' Zandra smiled and leaned back into her seat. 'If this is anything to do with Nikki and Lorna Rose then you can stick it up your arse.'

'It ain't nothing to do with that pair of lezzies,' Shell snapped distastefully. 'No, this is to do with the vote for employee of the year.'

The Julie S exchanged another suspicious look with Julie J. 'If you're planning on opening another book Shell don't bother.'

Shell shook her head impatiently. 'No, listen, we're gonna block vote for Smelly Nellie to win.'

Zandra was shocked into sudden laughter. 'Smelly Nellie! You've got no twatting chance! No one'll share a frigging desk with her. What makes you think anyone's going to vote for her?'

'Listen bitch!' Shell snapped. 'Just imagine the look on Stubberfield's face when he finds out that he's gotta kiss her when he makes the presentation. Come on, it'll be better than the usual boring bollocks.'

Zandra considered this for a second and then nodded. 'Okay, count me in.'

Shell grinned and turned her attention to the Julies. 'What about you two?'

'Yeah, okay,' Julie S sighed eventually. ''Ere, Shell, while you're 'ere, me and Jue wanna put a bet on.'

Shell spotted that Sylvia Hollamby was hovering nearby, and began to back away from the spur of desks. 'Later,' she whispered. 'I'll see ya in the bogs in about fifteen minutes.'

Hollamby watched Shell disappear and then ambled over. 'You lot are paid to answer them phones, not to gossip.'

Zandra smiled sweetly at Hollamby. 'But, Miss, if we're not allowed to gossip, how come I saw you and Miss Barker chatting in the corridor about ten minutes ago?'

Hollamby glared at Zandra and then stormed off.

Denny had always dismissed love as something that happened to other people. Being placed into care at a young age and growing up in a succession of children's homes had certainly taught her that. But, on that particular morning, she pushed her trolley into the IT Department and was hit by such a thunderbolt it felt like her heart was going to crash through her ribcage. The person in question was sitting in front of a computer, laughing at something Nikki was saying to Helen. She had short, spiky blonde hair and probably the warmest smile and most infectious giggle that Denny had ever encountered.

She looked up and smiled when she saw Denny enter the room. 'Hiya.'

Denny felt her stomach jump out of her body and fly down the corridor as she grinned back. 'All right?'

Nikki rolled her eyes when she noticed the way the two younger women were unable to stop staring at other. 'Is it just me or has the temperature risen?' she whispered to an equally amused Helen.

'Looks like a definite case of love at first sight to me,' Helen whispered back.

'Poor buggers,' Nikki muttered. 'Denny, meet Shaz Wylie our new industrial placement student. Shaz, this is …'

'Denny,' Denny said, almost tripping over her feet as she stepped forward, holding her hand out for Shaz to shake. 'I deliver the mail.'

'Cool.' Shaz shot out of her seat and shook Denny's hand enthusiastically. 'I bet you get to hear all the gossip.'

'Nah, it's a pile of mince,' Denny replied dismissively. 'Boring as f …'

Nikki cleared her throat, obscuring Denny's reply. 'Denny, that parcel on your trolley. Make my day and say that it's for me.'

Denny managed to drag her eyes away from Shaz for long enough to read the address on the parcel. 'Yeah, Nikki. It's for you.'

Nikki took the parcel from Denny and tore it open excitedly. 'Brilliant. I thought it would never get here.'

Helen's curiosity began to get the better of her. 'What is it?'

'Voyager. The last four episodes of series six,' Nikki explained, pulling a video from the parcel. 'A friend in the States taped them for me.'

'Star Trek!' Shaz exclaimed, grinning up at Helen. 'And you honestly expect me to work with someone as sad as that?'

Helen found that she was smiling too, then laughing when she saw Nikki's scandalised expression. 'I think she's got a point. Star Trek Nikki?'

'It's not Star Trek, it's Voyager,' Nikki protested.

'And the difference is?'

'Captain Janeway. She's the difference.'

'So you're telling me that you watch it because there's an attractive woman in it?'

Nikki looked up from her examination of the videos and frowned. 'So you're never swayed by looks then?'

'Well, I wouldn't say that but …'

'So you never watched a TV show because you fancied one of the characters? Never liked a pop band because you fancied the lead singer?'

'Did you?'

'Oh yeah.' Nikki nodded, smiling nostalgically. 'The Pretenders, what about you?'

'Spandau Ballet,' Helen replied, nodding regretfully when Nikki snorted with surprised laughter. 'I had such a thing for Tony Hadley.'

'Have you heard these two?' Shaz said to Denny. 'Working here's going to be like working in an old folk's home. They'll be discussing incontinence pants next!'

Yvonne pulled Nikki to one side after the management meeting. 'The conference is definitely being held at that new hotel at the airport,' she whispered. 'I've checked and they've got rooms available if you're thinking of stopping over.'

Nikki thought for a moment and then nodded. 'I think I better had. Last time I ended up wandering around the centre of Manchester for hours before I managed to remember where I lived.'

'That's right!' Yvonne laughed, remembering. 'Didn't you end up phoning Trish and asking her to pick you up from a strip club?'

'I was tired. I wanted somewhere warm and dry to sit down, and that was the only place I found open.'

'So how many nights did you spend sleeping on the sofa after that one?'

'Don't ask.'

'I'd better leave you to it.' Yvonne nodded towards Helen who was standing by the door. 'Looks like your fan club is waiting to speak to you.'

'Yeah, see you, Yvonne.'

Helen frowned. The look that Yvonne had given her when she'd left the room could've turned milk sour. 'Is Yvonne okay?'

'Time of the month I think,' Nikki replied dismissively as she sat down on the edge of the conference table. 'What can I do for you, Helen?'

'I think it's about time we talked about this, don't you?'

'About what?'

Helen took a deep breath, staring down at the floor. 'You kissed me.'

'And you kissed me.' Nikki folded her arms and sighed. 'Look Helen, can't we just forget it ever happened? You're getting married soon and I'm in a relationship. As far as I can see, there's really no point in us analysing why it happened or who was to blame, is there?'

Helen found that she was unable to read the expression on Nikki's face, but recognised that she was offering them both an easy way out of the situation. 'You're right,' she said eventually, trying to fight the irrational waves of disappointment. 'So, what now?'

'We just put it down to experience … one of those things.' Nikki made an attempt at a smile. 'Can we start again?'

Helen thought for a moment and then nodded. 'Yes, I think that's probably the best thing.'

Both of them left the meeting room, under the impression that they'd convinced each other but all the while struggling to convince themselves.


Chapter Ten

Trish woke suddenly, cold and shivering from a nightmare forgotten as soon as she opened her eyes. The last vestiges of fear slipped away as she settled back into the bed and encountered Nikki's warm body.

Trish smiled when she saw that Nikki was still sleeping peacefully, oblivious of the nightmare that had caused her to wake so abruptly. She carefully rose up on one elbow, taking the opportunity to study Nikki in the dim light of the bedroom, feeling an incredible tenderness rushing through her as she saw how slumber robbed Nikki's face of all animation and afforded her a vulnerability only rarely seen when she was awake. Nikki was usually first to wake, which made this a rare moment for Trish to savour before the demands of everyday life intruded and dragged them both - all too eagerly in Nikki's case - out of bed.

Trish chastised herself mentally. Over the past couple of weeks, Nikki seemed to have been making more of an effort to cut back on the normally punishing hours she worked. Because Nikki's absences were less of a factor, the constant arguments ceased and things between them were better than they had been in a long time.

Ten years, sometimes even Trish couldn't believe it, let alone the friends and members of her family who had immediately dismissed Nikki as a gold-digger. Ten years, full of the most amazing highs and lows, interspersed by passion, arguments and the odd piece of flying crockery.

Almost as if she knew she was being studied, Nikki growled irritably in her sleep and rolled over, unconsciously pulling Trish into her arms. Lying back and luxuriating in the feel of Nikki's skin against her own, Trish felt the sheer warmth of her love for this passionate, independent and sometimes infuriating woman resonate through to her very bones.

Nikki began to stir, mumbling something unintelligible as she nuzzled into Trish's neck, her body taking over and working on automatic pilot as her lips locked on target, drawing Trish into a sweet kiss that deepened the more conscious she became. Trish felt Nikki raise a hand to her cheek, the contact igniting a fire in her stomach, which began to spread throughout her as the hand began to travel downwards.

After a few more blissful moments, Nikki's mouth left hers, her lips sparking tiny flames in her skin as they worked their way down over her neck and across her shoulders. Trish took a sharp intake of breath when she felt Nikki's mouth fasten over her nipple, gently at first, and then more passionately as she alternated between flicking her tongue and biting gently.

Then, Nikki's tongue started a downward journey, leaving behind a trail of searing heat as it travelled down over Trish's torso. Trish's head was reeling as she felt soft lips nuzzling the sensitive skin of her inner thighs before Nikki was there, devouring her totally with a desire that never seemed to lessen in its intensity, even after all this time. All too soon, she felt her body explode into orgasm.

As always, Nikki was there to catch her, bringing her down and cradling her gently. Finally she was able to open her eyes, alighting immediately on a pair of smouldering brown eyes that gazed down at her with total love and adoration.

'Good morning.'

Trish smiled and buried her face in Nikki's shoulder. 'A damn sight too good. I don't think I want to let you out of bed now.'

Nikki looked up at the digital display of the alarm clock and groaned. 'I'm afraid you're going to have to. It's nearly seven.'

Trish let her hand stray over Nikki's stomach, grinning as she felt muscles jumping appreciatively under her touch. 'You sure about that are you?'

Nikki replied by grabbing Trish's hand. 'I can't be late today. I've got a budget meeting with Karen at nine.'

'Karen can bloody well sod off.' Trish growled with frustration and began to nibble Nikki's ear lobe. 'Come on, Nik. It wouldn't hurt you to be late for once.'

'I can't,' Nikki protested, trying not to surrender to the rising sensations Trish's attentions were causing. 'I'll make it up to you tonight though.'

'I'm at the club tonight.'


'I'm meeting up with Yvonne.'


'She's helping me out with that new promotion remember?'

'Shall I ring your PA and make an appointment then?'

Trish looked up and raised an eyebrow. 'No one likes a smart arse.'

'You obviously do.'

The alarm began to beep then and Nikki leaned over to turn it off. As she did so, she was forced to relinquish her grip on Trish's hand, allowing it to resume its downward descent.

'My God!' Trish laughed huskily when she encountered Nikki's arousal. 'And just what were you planning on doing about that then? Cold shower?'

'Well you've started now …' Nikki moaned when she felt two fingers slide inside her. 'So you'd better finish.'

Nikki arrived back from her budget meeting to find Lorna, Shaz and Denny in fits of giggles. They were huddled around Shaz's computer monitor, too intent on the screen to notice her standing in the doorway.

'Look at them!' Lorna said, snorting with laughter. 'Who do they think they are?'

'Bleedin' mad twins, innit?' Denny put a tentative hand on Shaz's shoulder, the contact making her blush wildly. 'We're gonna kick their arses at the conference.'

'Course we are.' Shaz nodded with agreement and then leaned forward to study the screen. 'If that's the competition then that two hundred quid is as good as ours.'

'Only one problem,' Lorna said. 'We still need a posh.'

Denny jumped from foot to foot excitedly. 'Maybe we should ask Nikki, she …'

'Ask Nikki what?'

All three looked up, each with contrasting expressions. Lorna was blushing, Denny was agape and Shaz was smiling, eyes twinkling mischievously. Predictably, she was the first to speak.

'How's your singing voice, Nikki?' she asked, exchanging a sly grin with Denny.

'Crap,' Nikki replied. 'Why?'

'Well you know they've got this Stars in Their Eyes competition at the conference?'

Nikki nodded, suddenly comprehending. 'And you're planning on entering are you?'

Denny jumped in before Shaz could answer. 'We're gonna do the Spice Girls,' she announced proudly. 'I'm Scary, Shaz is Sporty, Zan's gonna be Ginger and Lorna's Baby.'

Nikki hid her amusement behind a hand, aware of the mortified expression on Lorna's face. 'So who's doing Posh?' Nikki shook her head when three pairs of eyes looked towards her expectantly. 'No way.'

'Told you. Anyone boring enough to watch Star Trek isn't gonna want to be a Spice Girl,' Shaz said, dismissing Nikki by turning back to the screen.

'It's not because I'm boring,' Nikki countered. 'It's just … well, if you must know, Yvonne and I are already doing something.'

'Oh yeah? What?'

'I'm sworn to secrecy. Anyway, what are you lot up to?' Nikki moved over to Shaz's desk and peered towards the screen, surprised into laughter when she saw the Julies dancing in front of a mirror. 'What on earth are they doing?

'Practising their dance routine for the competition,' Lorna explained, trying not to react to Nikki's close proximity. 'They're doing Abba.'

It had just dawned on Nikki that she was looking at the inside of the ladies toilets. She frowned down at Shaz. 'How come you've got a camera in the ladies loos?'

'We're testing out the new webcam,' Shaz explained. 'Here, have a look at what we've already got.'

After a couple of clicks of Shaz's mouse, Nikki found herself looking at a video stream of Sylvia Hollamby on the toilet.

'Cool, isn't it?' Shaz said, laughing at the shocked expression on Nikki's face. 'We've decided we're going to do a Larkair Big Brother, see if Miss Stewart wants to show it at the conference.'

'Yeah and Fenner's Nasty Nick,' Denny chipped in. 'We've already caught him picking his nose. Ain't we, Shaz?'

Shaz nodded. 'This is the best one though.'

Another series of mouse clicks followed, and Nikki saw a video of Shell Dockley walking out of the toilets. She paused and lifted her mini-skirt to scratch her left buttock.

'Slapper's not wearing any underwear look,' Shaz hissed.

Denny, who wasn't very happy about this particular shot, felt compelled to defend Shell's honour. 'She's wearing a thong.'

Shaz wrinkled her face in disgust. 'I'm surprised they're not crotchless. From what I've heard, her knickers are up and down like a yo-yo.'

Denny winced at the computer screen. 'Shell ain't gonna like that.'

Nikki was torn between managerial disapproval and hysterical laughter but was unable to stop the smile from appearing on her face. 'Better make sure you've got your trainers on, Shaz. You're gonna need to run like Linford Christie to get away from Shell when she sees that.'

After an unsuccessful attempt to change the toner cartridge in her laser printer, Helen discovered that she was covered in ink from the elbows down. Despite this, she found herself smiling when she encountered the Julies, tunelessly belting out 'Waterloo' as they danced in front of the mirror.

'All right, Miss Stewart!' Julie J called out. 'We was just practising our dance routine.'

'Yeah, we're doing Abba,' Julie S added. 'Only we can't decide who's going to be the blonde one. What do you …' She paused when she noticed the state of Helen's hands. 'You been digging for coal or somefing?'

'I was trying to change my printer cartridge,' Helen replied as she turned on the hot tap. 'Unfortunately not very successfully.'

'You should ask Nikki to look at it,' Julie S suggested.

'Yeah, Nikki'll sort it out for you.'

'I'm perfectly capable of sorting it out myself!' Helen snapped. 'Haven't you two got work to do?'

The Julies frowned at each other and left the toilets in silence.

In the two weeks since their return from the team-building weekend, Helen had avoided thinking about and speaking to Nikki as much as possible but it was like a sprained ankle … no matter how tightly you strapped it up, you still knew it would hurt like hell if you walked on it.

At the moment, her life seemed totally out of her control, her destiny completely in the hands of other people. First there was Nikki, who obviously didn't give a damn, and then there was Sean, who couldn't seem to get his head out of the wedding plans for long enough to notice that his fiancée was in the midst of a crisis, the enormity of which was terrifying.

'Shit!' Helen exclaimed. Even something as simple as washing her hands was proving impossible. The hot water and soap only succeeded in spreading the toner around.

The door to the toilets banged open and Lorna ran in, having agreed to retrieve Shaz's webcam. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Helen. 'Oh, hello.'

'Where's the fire, Lorna?' Helen asked.

'Oh … I … er.' Lorna stammered, completely lost for words until she noticed that Helen was frantically scrubbing her hands. 'Is that printer ink?'

Helen nodded. 'I can't shift it.'

'Well you won't with hot water and soap,' Lorna said, leaning over to pull the plug out of the sink Helen was using. 'Believe it or not, cold water's the only thing that'll shift that.'

'Cold?' Helen frowned sceptically but followed Lorna's instructions, amazed when she found that the ink was disappearing. 'It's working.'

'Told you.'

Helen finished washing her hands and then reached for a paper towel, puzzled as to why Lorna was hovering in the background. 'Are you okay Lorna? Is there something you want to talk to me about?' She frowned when Lorna shook her head, seemingly distracted by something. 'Is everything okay with you and Nikki?'

Lorna blushed and looked down at the floor. 'Oh that's all forgotten. It was just me being stupid.'

'Did Nikki tell you that?'

Lorna looked up, disturbed by Helen's hostile tone. 'No of course she didn't,' she said, shaking her head. 'Nikki's been really great about it … really understanding.'


'You know, she's not the Rottweiler everyone thinks she is. You just haven't seen her good side yet,' Lorna said as she stepped into one of the cubicles. She paused to look over at Helen and saw that the other woman was already gone.

Yvonne leaned back into her chair, sighing wearily. 'I don't normally work this friggin' hard at work.'

'I do appreciate it,' Trish said with a smile.

'I should bleedin' coco.' Yvonne shook her head. 'You know what you are, don't ya?'


'A slave driver. No wonder Nikki looked so knackered this morning.' Yvonne smiled around the cigarette she was lighting. 'How are things between you two?'

'Fine … great in fact,' Trish replied.

Yvonne took a deep drag on her cigarette, exhaling the smoke heavily. 'I wish the same could be said for everyone.'

Trish raised an eyebrow. 'Has Renee Williams been giving you hassle again? Nikki said something about you getting a pile of manure delivered a few days ago.'

'Yeah well it'll take a lot more than a pile of cow-shit to scare me, no, I'm talking about Karen. She's been a right git for the past couple of weeks.' Yvonne paused and took a long swallow of her drink. 'Now I think about it, she's been that way ever since we got back from that so-called bleedin' team-building weekend.'

'Sounds like that Helen Stewart has got a lot to answer for.' Trish leaned forward, concerned when Yvonne started to choke on her cigarette. 'You okay?'

Yvonne nodded, still coughing frantically. It wasn't actually the mention of Helen's name that had disturbed her so much but rather the way Trish had said it. The other woman's voice had literally been dripping with venom and it made Yvonne wonder if she had suspicions about Nikki and the Human Resources Manager too.

Yvonne was pretty sure that despite her warnings to both Helen and Nikki, something had occurred on the team-building weekend. For the past couple of weeks, both women had been obviously going out of their way to avoid each other, and during the last couple of management meetings, the tension between them had been so thick it was almost possible to cut it with a knife. Yvonne knew that Nikki loved Trish more than anything, but at the same time, she seemed irrevocably drawn to Helen. The fuse was lit now and Yvonne had the feeling that there was one hell of a huge explosion in store. The question was no longer if … it was when.

'What do you mean by that?' Yvonne asked eventually.

'About Helen?' Trish thought for a moment and then shrugged. 'I honestly don't know, it's just that there's something about her I just can't put my finger on, crazy really, I've only ever met her a couple of times. Anyway, the worst thing is, Sean's invited Nikki and me to the engagement party.'


'Helen's fiancé. He's an old friend,' Trish explained. 'Nikki's really not too happy about going though. In fact at one stage she flatly refused.'

'Did she say why?'

Trish shook her head. 'It's strange. I got the impression that she was getting on really well with Helen and then all of a sudden she can't seem to change the subject quick enough whenever I mention her.'

'When is this party?'

'Tomorrow night, and knowing Nikki, I'm sure she's going to spend the entire time sulking in a corner.'

The last person Helen wanted to see that afternoon was sitting on the edge of Monica's desk and laughing as she looked through a pile of photographs.

Monica was the first to look up. 'Hello,' she said cheerfully. 'I'm afraid Simon's not back off his lunch yet.'

'That figures, I saw him putting his golf-clubs in the boot of his car about an hour ago,' Nikki announced. 'I should think you're in for a very long wait.' She smiled ruefully at Monica who tapped her reprovingly on the arm and then raised her head to look at Helen for the first time. 'Afternoon.'

'Hello, Nikki.' Helen said.

There was something in the way that Helen and Nikki looked at each other that troubled Monica immensely. Something intensely private that made her feel more than a little uncomfortable. She quickly cleared her throat to intrude on whatever the two women were sharing. 'Helen, you must come and have a look at these.'

Helen walked over to the desk and took the photographs that Monica held out to her. She was so conscious of Nikki sitting less than a foot away that it took her a few moments to focus. The shots were of a parachute jump and didn't really arouse her interest so she flicked through them politely until she reached a series of group shots of the jumpers. One of them looked extremely familiar.

Helen gasped and looked up at Nikki. 'This is you isn't it?'

Nikki nodded. 'Me and a few of the gang from the airport did a sponsored jump about a month ago. The photos have been doing the rounds there ever since. This is the first chance Monica and I have had to see them.'

Monica laughed at the expression of horror on Helen's face. 'Oh don't worry, I was only there to take the photos. Wild horses wouldn't have been able to drag me out of a plane at that height.'

'Yeah. Well I thought the same, especially when I was up there. I was absolutely crapping myself,' Nikki said, grinning at the memory. 'I very nearly backed out, but then someone pushed me out of the bloody plane and I had no choice!'

'Really?' Helen handed the photographs back to Monica. 'I was under the impression that you didn't allow anything to scare you.'

'I don't normally.' Nikki smiled briefly and gestured to Monica for the photographs. 'Mind if I borrow those, Monica? Trish'll want to see them.' She glanced over at Helen. 'See you at that conference meeting later, Helen.'

Monica watched Nikki leave the office, smiling fondly. 'She'd kill me if she knew I was saying this, but you wouldn't believe how scared she was. She hates flying at the best of times.'

Helen raised her eyebrows. 'I must say, I'm hearing a lot about Nikki's good side today.'

'Nikki's got a heart of gold,' Monica said protectively. 'Something else she like to keep well hidden.'

'What's the deal with her?'

Denny followed Shaz's stare until her eyes encountered Lorna who was standing over by the vending machine. 'What do you mean?'

'How come she jumps about six feet in the air whenever you mention Nikki's name?'

Denny grinned. 'Most people reckon that Nikki and Lorna is having an affair, only no one's managed to catch 'em at it yet.'

Shaz thought for a moment and then smiled excitedly. 'Aren't they both working late tonight?'

Denny nodded. 'Yeah, Lorna was moaning about it before.'

Shaz looked around to make sure no one was listening and then motioned Denny closer. 'I've got a really cool idea.'

Helen took a deep breath as she walked into the IT Department, not knowing whether to be relieved or disappointed when she saw that apart from Lorna, the office was empty.

'Hi,' she said, smiling apologetically when Lorna jumped out of her chair in surprise. 'I was looking for Nikki. Has she gone home already?'

'No, she's in the computer room,' Lorna replied. 'Do you want me to let you in there?'

'No it's okay. I know the code for the door.'

Meanwhile, inside the computer room, Nikki was literally shaking with anger.

Earlier that afternoon, the management team had been called together to run through their presentations for the upcoming conference. Nikki's presentation had elicited laughter from Yvonne and Karen and … amazingly, even from Fenner in parts … it had therefore been a huge surprise when Helen had viciously ripped it to pieces.

Nikki looked up when the door opened. When she spotted Helen, she jumped out of her chair in disbelief.

'What the hell do you want?' she snapped. 'Come to criticise me some more?'

'I actually came to apologise," Helen replied. Nikki's presentation had been just the right blend of humour and seriousness … perfectly designed to get her point across without boring her audience to tears. But for some reason, the confusion and fear she felt over the intensity of her feelings for Nikki had caused her to pull the whole thing apart. "I shouldn't have criticised you like that in front of the others. It was unprofessional and I'm sorry."

Nikki laughed bitterly. 'So basically, you just came by to tell me that it was crap in private? Why the hell did you bother?'

'It wasn't crap,' Helen said in a small voice.


'I said it wasn't crap.'

'Yeah, I thought that's what you said.' Nikki smiled wryly. 'So why didn't you do the same hatchet job on any of the others?'

Helen just stared up at Nikki. How could she explain that she had been unable to give Nikki's presentation the praise it deserved? Scared that if she had, her feelings would have been laid open to everyone in the room? Helen jumped when she felt Nikki's hand on her arm.


'What is it you want to know, Nikki?' Helen found that she suddenly felt oddly calm as she looked up into Nikki's eyes. "That I'm scared to death of what I'm feeling right now? That I've fallen for another woman and I'm absolutely terrified of what it means?'

The force and unexpected nature of Helen's words had left Nikki spellbound. She could only stand and stare as Helen closed the distance between them.

'I want you,' Helen whispered, reaching out to touch Nikki's face with a shaky hand. 'I don't think I've ever wanted anyone so much ...'

Helen's words were lost in a kiss that left her breathless. She was unable to resist when Nikki pushed her back against the wall … didn't want to resist as lips devoured her and hands descended from her shoulders and slid over her breasts.

She found that her own hands seemed to have developed a mind of their own. Desperately, they tore at Nikki's shirt until finally, she was able to slip her hands inside. Helen groaned aloud into Nikki's mouth as she encountered soft, warm skin. From that moment, she was gone … totally lost in the electricity that arced through her body. Rationality was ruthlessly pushed to the back of her mind. The only thing that mattered was Nikki.

Lorna reached for her coat, stopping suddenly when a red light caught her eye. On top of Shaz's computer was a grey box … the remote receiver for signals from the webcam. When the light glowed red like that, it meant that the webcam was recording.

'Where the bloody hell has she put it now?' Lorna mused aloud as she reached over to switch Shaz's monitor on. 'Oh my …'

Lorna felt the power of speech desert her as she saw Nikki locked in an embrace with Helen in the computer room. They were kissing passionately, bodies pressed together, hands touching, and clothing in complete disarray. Lorna watched as Helen reached down to fumble with the front of Nikki's trousers. As her hand slid inside, Lorna felt her heart shatter into a million pieces.

Leaping forward, Lorna cut the signal. Almost without thinking, she immediately deleted the recording. With a tear sliding down her face, she turned to leave the office.

The sound of a door slamming in the corridor brought Helen and Nikki down to earth.

Wrenching herself away from Helen, Nikki backed away. She reached for her open shirt, closing it over her body as she staggered over to the door. Tentatively, she opened it and peered out into the corridor.

'No one's there,' Nikki said. She turned around and felt her head spin as she watched Helen desperately rearranging her clothing. The enormity of what had just happened immediately hit her between the eyes like a thunderbolt. "Oh God!"

Helen looked up. 'Nikki?' she whispered, startled by the look of abject horror on the other woman's face.

'Oh Christ!' Nikki said with a groan. Reaching up, she ran a trembling hand through her hair. 'What the fuck have we done?'

'Do you regret it?' Helen asked, feeling a stone settle in her chest as Nikki's shoulders immediately slumped in response to the question.

"Yes … no … I don't know …" Nikki stuttered. She looked down at her gaping shirt and quickly pulled her bra back down into place. Hurriedly, she tried to do up her shirt, howling with frustration when she realised that her hands were shaking too badly. 'My fucking hands won't work now!' She looked up, fixing Helen with an accusing glare. 'Shit, Helen! What the fuck have you done to me?'

'I don't know,' Helen replied truthfully. 'Probably the same thing you've done to me.' She was surprised by how calm she felt as she started to button her own blouse. 'Nikki, what happens now?'

Nikki shrugged. 'I go off in search of a gas-oven to stick my head into?' She sighed hopelessly when Helen's eyes narrowed angrily. 'Helen, I've never felt anything like that before. Not even with Trish. I … I'm sorry, but rationality is sort of beyond me right now.'

'Tell me about it,' Helen muttered as she watched Nikki zipping up her trousers. My hand was just in there, she thought, my fingers were … Feeling her knees begin to give beneath her, Helen quickly sank into a nearby chair and buried her head in her hands as she was swept away on a tidal wave of powerful feelings … frustrated desire … guilt … horror.

Nikki stared over at Helen in silence for a moment before swinging around to punch the wall … hard. The pain was enough to bring tears to her eyes, but it helped to stop the tumble of confused thoughts rushing around her head. She brought back her fist for a second time and felt a hand closing firmly over her wrist.

'Don't,' Helen said softly.

'What else am I supposed to do?' Nikki howled, frustrated. Angrily, she pulled her arm out of Helen's grip and then looked away, defeated. 'This is so shit,' she murmured.

Helen reached up to brush away the solitary tear that rolled down Nikki's face. 'Shit happens,' she whispered, her soft touch belying the harsh words. Then, stifling a sob, she fled the room.

Nikki was left on her own, wishing to God that she'd never met Helen Stewart … either that or never been born at all.

Part 11

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