Becker was in his office, deeply buried in paperwork and the everyday minutia required to keep twenty troopers in gear, ammo, weapons, training and all the other assorted other bits and pieces of keeping a squad in the field.
They were just outside London, but they were very much in the field. Convergence had been fewer than eight weeks ago and so far the only result he had seen from the disaster and publicity was a slightly bigger budget and that extra six man squad he had been requesting for ages.
Lester was still fighting to keep as much as possible about the ARC classified, and the high-ups that cared more for good soundbites on the evening news wanted it all made public. If he heard the hysterical words, 'the public has a right to know' chanted one more time by one more nosy journo that turned up on a shout, he'd do something very undignified. Like accidentally shoot them.
Except the paperwork on an accidental-on purpose discharge was even worse than the paperwork for keeping reporters away from the anomaly sites. Anomaly sites that were still popping up with distressing regularity.
Such was Captain Becker's cluttered state of mind late Friday afternoon. He was engrossed in forms, but a delicate floral perfume tickling his nose drew his attention away. He looked up, already knowing who he was going to see. Jess was standing in the doorway, one hand raised to knock on the doorjamb.
His attention was drawn away from how cute she looked in the deep blue skirt and matching top to how nervous she was. Her forehead was creased with worry, and she was nibbling on her lower lip. Both were troubling signs.
"Are you all right?" Becker asked, very concerned. She shook her head, sharply and if possible looked even distressed.
"I... can I talk to you?" she asked timidly and stayed in the doorway.
He stood up and walked around his desk. "Sure, always. Come in."
She flashed a brilliant smile at him and stepped into his office, swinging the door shut behind her as she started to pace nervously. "It's silly really, I shouldn't have put it off like this but I don't really want to go and-"
Becker reached out and gently held her still by her shoulders, lightly running his fingers down her arms. "Jess, calm down. What's wrong?" He looked down at her and smiled as he felt her take a deep breath and relax under his touch.
"It's my cousin. She's getting married and I'm expected to go. I don't really want to. I don't exactly get on with my family - well, we're not exactly estranged either... I just would rather not go." Jess broke away from him and started to pace again, annoyed.
Becker perched on the edge of his desk and watched her pace her worry out. Now that he knew her nerves were from family drama and nothing was seriously wrong, he relaxed and allowed himself to be amused.
"So don't go," he suggested with a shrug.
"I can't not go!" Jess finally dropped heavily into a chair. "My grandmother called and said she was looking forward to seeing me. I told her I'd find a way to get time off work. Damn. Why can't I lie to my grandmother?"
Becker actually laughed. "Because you're a good person?" he suggested cheekily. "How horrible can it be?"
"Miserable." Jess glared up at him and Becker only chuckled as she tried out her version of a death-glare. It was rather like being glared at reproachfully by a fluffy kitten. "They've got a date ready for me. I told them I could find my own date, thank you very much."
"A date? Is that a bad thing?" Becker put his hand on his chin and pretended to think, to disguise how his guts clenched at the thought of Jess with another man. Surprised, he managed to distill the strange feelings down and identify them as equal parts possessiveness and jealously.
She was oblivious. "Yes! That is a very bad thing! If you knew the sort of vacant, dull, idiots that my family picks out for me then you'd understand!" Jess grumbled something under her breath about social climbing insects.
Becker tried to be cool about it. "Well. I'll just have to go with you and protect you from the vacant, dull idiots." He held his breath and hoped that he had said that as breezily as he hoped, and not let the sudden burst of jealousy tip his hand. "I'll even protect you from social climbing insects. I know how you hate those."
"You'd do that for me? You would go with me?" Without even waiting for him to answer she jumped to her feet and flung herself at him to hug him. "Thank you!"
He hugged her back, enjoying the closeness of her before she stepped away, brushing imaginary creases out of her blouse while Becker took the opportunity to admire the elegant line of her neck before she looked up and caught him.
He cleared his throat and asked, "When is this wedding anyway?"
"Tomorrow. At ten. Then the reception is over lunch. We should be able to leave by two at the latest." Jess grinned at him and her whole face light up, nearly all of the anxiety that she had walked into his office erased.
"Tomorrow?" he repeated doubtfully before shrugging and jerking his shoulder nonchalantly. "I suppose I'll pick you up, then?"
"At eight. It's a bit of drive. Oh, thank you!" She hugged him again before whirling away, delighted.
At ten minutes to eight Becker pulled up outside Jess's flat and neatly parked his new truck. He made a wager with himself over if she would be ready to leave early. Ten quid on 'no'. He gathered up the fast food wrapper that was all that remained from his breakfast and got out of the truck.
Jess answered the doorbell with her hair done in very attractive curls and make up. She looked ready to leave, if she was planning on wearing a bright purple bathrobe to her cousins' wedding.
While he was staring at her, she was staring right back at him. Self-consciously he looked down, to make sure he hadn't spilled any grape jelly on himself. Nope. Black suit, black waistcoat, dark blue shirt. He'd even worn a tie for the occasion. He thought he looked impeccable, but she was staring at him like something was wrong.
"What? Is it too formal? I can take the waistcoat off."
She seemed to get a grip on herself and blushed. "Nothing... just... you look really nice in that. That shade suits you. I've got to pick another dress or we'll match."
"My dress. It's that exact shade of blue."
That was handy. "Wear it anyway." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "I'm sure it will be fine. We're almost running late."
"Right. Right." Jess seemed a bit flustered. "Come in, I've just got to put my dress on. Well. Obviously."
He smiled at her, enjoying how flustered she got. But she then decided to stop talking altogether and waved him towards the sofa.
She went back towards her bedroom and Becker took the chance to look around her house. It was bright and sunny, just like her. He wandered into the kitchen and threw his breakfast rubbish away before settling in on her sofa. The whole place felt homey, and comfortable. It wasn't the worst way to spend a Saturday.
Jess appeared in the corner of his eye. He looked, and felt his mouth fall open. She was wearing a deceptively simple dress of midnight blue and as she had warned, it was exactly the color of his shirt. The thin straps set off her delicate neck and she had pinned some of her hair up, creating a cascading effect over her shoulders.
"You look absolutely gorgeous." The words were out before he could stop them. Curiously enough, he found he didn't regret saying it, not with the way it brought that delighted look to her face.
She blushed again and ducked her head. "Yes, well... we'll really look like a couple now," Jess replied with a rueful little giggle. She did a little twirl that had her skirt flying out briefly before floating back in to rest against her ankles. "Shall we go?"
"Of course." He followed her out the door, reaching up to rest his hand on her back briefly before he remembered himself. Becker was chanting the word 'colleague' over and over in his head, but he was still man enough that he couldn't quite resist checking out that dress from the back. Subtly.
Jess pulled the invitation out of her little matching bag and punched the address into his Sat Nav. Becker looked at the fussy little piece of paper in her hand. It was three pieces of paper actually, folded into a card with a tiny pink ribbon on the front above some etched doves. There were bells scattered on the edges of the papers.
The words were written in very fancy, very tiny calligraphy that was too elaborate for him to read by just glancing over at it. Jess noticed him looking anyway.
"It's my cousin Marissa on my mum's side. She's marrying -" Jess flipped the invitation up and looked quickly. "A man named Bruce. I've never met him." She looked over at him. "I'm sorry I dragged you into this. I should have just stood up to them."
He brushed it off. Seeing her in that dress was worth the price of a fussy, formal event. "Don't worry about it."
Jess started chewing on her lip lightly, and idly twirling her bracelet as she pondered something.
He commented idly, "Jess, I really hope you don't ever play poker."
She glared briefly at him with her fluffy kitten glare, but he only grinned back and then she cracked a smile.
Becker took the chance to pry. "What's still bothering you? Don't you dare say nothing."
"What makes you think something is still bothering me?"
He snorted, and wasn't about to point out all her tells that he had spent months working out. "I just have this feeling. Come on, out with it."
Jess made a grumbly noise and sagged back into the seat. "I haven't exactly been honest with my family. They think I work on a help desk for I.T. support."
"Help desk? As in, my email isn't loading? My internet won't connect? This computer won't see that printer? That sort of help desk?"
"Jess! The ARC has been declassified, whatever you told them before doesn't matter. Why haven't you told them the truth?"
"It's hard," she protested. "They don't think much of me, really. I mean, they did... when I was graduating so early and all... but then I got the job at the ARC and told them I worked on a help desk and they just... well..." she wrinkled her nose up at the memory. "They got really snotty about it, frankly."
Becker sensed the emotional minefield he was walking into, but he liked to live dangerously. He couldn't resist probing, very carefully. "Snotty how?"
She sighed, and went back to chewing on her lip for a minute before she finally answered him. "It's hard to explain... my whole family is very competitive, especially my siblings. My parents encouraged it, really. All of us started and finished school early. All of them -"
Becker interrupted her. "How many 'thems' are we talking about?"
Jess giggled. "Two brothers. One sister. All of them have more prestigious job than I do. Or at least, they think they do." She furrowed her brow as she elaborated.
"My sister is a lawyer, another bright shining star in the civil service, one of my brothers is a surgeon and he landed an internship at London Bridge hospital before he had even finished school. The other one is a banker working for the biggest financial firm in London. All very high achieving, all very brilliant... and I told them I worked on a help desk."
Jess could obviously see that he still didn't understand why that was such a problem and she tried to make him understand. "To them it's like I got my masters and then went to work in a chippie."
"Exactly. Ah. I really don't want them to find out what I really do. They would be insufferable. Right now they leave me alone - mostly."
Jess stared out the window and Becker let her brood while tried to pick a subject that might give him a little more intel on what he was walking into.
"Do these siblings have names?" Becker asked her lightly as he carefully merged on the road that would take them to Hailsham, leaving the London traffic behind them.
She seemed grateful for the change to something a little more factual and less emotional. "Tiffany is my sister -"
"I would hope so," Becker interrupted her, and then wished he hadn't, but it was too late for Jess to ignore that perfect opening.
She jumped on it immediately and shot back, "You would hope that, wouldn't you? Hilary."
He sneered at her name-related nonsense. "Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest -"
"So did Matt."
"Matt was lying." Becker caught the skeptical look she tossed at him. "No, really. I checked. He lied on his CV. Or whoever made up his documents did."
"You actually checked Matt's claims about Everest?" Jess sounded incredulous.
Becker tried to bluff it off as just doing his job and not specifically trying to find something to make his alpha male rival squirm. "Of course. I'm the head of security. I had to." He grinned at the memory, "He lied like a dog, and why am I the bad guy for finding it out? He's the one that lied. About more than Everest."
"So what happened?" Jess asked curiously. "Did you tell Lester?"
Becker pouted as he remembered how anti-climatic that had turned out to be. "Lester didn't really care. It seems Matt's not the only one with a padded CV."
Jess laughed cheerfully and Becker succeeded in getting her to relax and not worry so much about her family. How bad could it be? He checked his thought process right there. That was the forbidden sentence. Becker hoped that he hadn't just jinxed himself.
At twenty to ten they pulled up outside a lovely old stone church. The car park was full and they had to park alongside the road in the grass along with several other latecomers. Becker gave a low whistle as his careful eye picked out the various expensive sports cars that were scattered through the car park.
"Nice wheels," he commented in a low voice as he cast a particularly covetous eye towards a classic Jaguar, gleaming in candy apple red. Jess snorted as she watched him indulge in lust for hot cars.
She giggled at him, and stiffened up abruptly as she saw someone. "Game on," Jess whispered as they walked toward the church. "Family incoming."
That was all the warning he got before an elderly lady with her hair tinted red and a cane slung uselessly over one arm tackled Jess in bear hug, squealing like a girl. "Jessica! My Jessica! Let me look at you, I've missed you so!" The lady stepped back, still holding onto Jess's hands.
"Granny!" Jess grinned at her, then looked up at Becker to introduce them. "This is my Grandmother Jessica -"
"She was named after me," Granny Jessica told Becker, gleefully, before she seemed to notice that they were wearing matching blue. She turned to Jess, "You didn't tell me that you had a boyfriend, and such a handsome one!"
Granny Jess baldly eyed him up and down, blatantly admiring how well the suit fitted him. "If I was sixty years younger I might have to give you a run for your money with this one, Jess, my dear."
Jess was scandalized, and blushed furiously. "Grandma!" she exclaimed loudly enough to draw the attention of the people on the church steps. "We work together. This is Becker. He's -"
"Security," Becker filled in smoothly. "I work security. We work in the same building."
"Oh?" Another person joined them. Even before Jess said anything, Becker could tell that he was looking at her sister. Same delicate build, same eyes, same beautiful brunette hair. Except that Jess's face was always crinkled in a smile or a giggle. The sister, Tiffany, Becker suddenly remembered her name, looked like she made a point not to smile. Probably to avoid wrinkles. She was also at least a decade older than Jess.
"Jessica," Tiffany said in an annoying simpering tone. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your date?"
"No need," Becker said, offering his hand. "You must be Jess's sister. Tiffany, is it?"
Tiffany shook his hand, and checked him out just as thoroughly as Granny Jess had, but much more subtly, with the barest flickering of her eyes betraying her gaze lingering lower than it should. "And you really just work in the same building?"
"Yes," Becker replied, not letting any of his unease show on his face. There was something cold about her, the cheerful little spark that made Jess, well, that was completely missing in her sister.
She didn't seem to pick up on his reluctance to keep holding her hand, and he casually tugged it back. "Just working then? Not dating?"
Becker stayed quiet and gave her the same inscrutable look he used on Jess when he wanted to keep her off balance. It seemed that it worked on the older Parker just as well. Jess was on one side of him and Granny Jess was on the other. Granny was looking rapidly between the three of them before she scooted off, cane still slung over her arm.
Jess watched her grandmother disappear back in the church. "So... I suppose we ought to be getting inside then?"
"Right," Tiffany agreed with her instantly before continuing in her syrupy sweet voice. "Only Lewis is going to be so disappointed you brought a date, he arranged for a colleague of his to come and meet you."
"I told him not to!" Jess snapped sharply. "I've no interest in whatever -"
"Jess, Jess, Jess," Tiffany talked over her rudely. "You know he only wants you to be happy -"
A man on the steps shouted at all of them to come inside before Jess had a chance to reply back. Tiffany gave Becker one last lingering look before she hurried towards the church, giving Becker and Jess a moment of privacy.
"Do you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend?" Becker said quickly, leaning down to whisper in her ear in the few seconds they had alone. "I will, I don't mind. I think I understand why you didn't want to come so badly."
She was back to chewing her lip. "No. I don't want to lie about that on top of everything else. Just... don't get too far away. I don't want to know what slug Lewis has dragged up this time. Probably his boss's son or something."
They walked inside, last and that presented a problem in that everyone else was seated or standing near their chosen pew. He chased dinosaurs, he wasn't going to blush at walking down the aisle, matching Jess perfectly, and having all two hundred plus guests staring at them for being nearly late.
By dint of severe effort and a decade of military training, Becker managed to maintain his cool. Jess blushed as red as a fire engine at being the subject of so much casual attention. The usher at least had the grace to walk fast as he led them to the front of the church, to the pews for family.
Jess slipped in beside her parents, and hastily introduced them to Becker. He noticed that she her exact words were, 'My friend, Becker'. Her father was the same height as he was, and squeezed his hand extra hard when they shook. Becker smiled at him and ignored the impulse to squeeze his hand as hard as possible right back. Getting into a pissing contest with a sixty year old wasn't really dignified.
Her mother indulged herself in the same meat-on-a-hook appraisal that Tiffany had used, and he was starting to get tired of being stared at in just that way. It wasn't so much, 'so this is the man my daughter is sleeping with', and much more, 'I wonder if I can get him alone and exactly how impressive he would be...'
The first, he could handle, even if he wasn't actually dating Jess. The second... was getting annoying. Still, he was a professional and he could ignore a few rude ladies. God knows he'd done his fair share of checking women out a bit more blatantly than he should have in his younger days.
Becker drew his attention back to the conversation as they sat down. Both her brothers were in the wedding party, so he hadn't had the dubious pleasure of meeting them yet. Tiffany was seated on the other side of Jess's dad and various other cousins and extended family were pointed out to him quietly as they waited for the ceremony to start.
"So, Becker, is that your first name or your last? What do you do again?" Jess's mum, Angelina Parker, asked him rapidly. "Do you repair computers also?"
"It's my last name." Becker replied, rolling out the charm and not bothering to mention the 'Captain' part. "I'm a security guard." Or the 'head of security' part. "We work in the same building." He wasn't going to mention the 'ARC' part either.
"Oh." She seemed disappointed, and then dismissed him entirely. "Jess, Lewis has brought the most delightful young man he wants to introduce you to-"
"No," Jess whispered severely. "I'm absolutely not interested."
"But..." Mrs. Parker looked back and forth between them rapidly. "I thought you said you were only friends?"
"We are," Jess snapped. "That doesn't mean that I have any interest in -"
The organist chose that moment to segue from the medley of hymns that she was playing into the traditional bridal song. Jess shut up instantly and stopped fighting with her mother. Like everyone else, they stood up and turned to see the bride walk down the aisle.
Only Becker was close enough to her to catch the nearly silent whisper that Jess let out upon seeing her cousin, "Oh, she looks so lovely!"
They sat down and watched. Becker was hyper aware of the heat from Jess's body right next to him. He had to fight the impulse to rest his arm on the back of the pew so that she could lean against him- but they weren't dating, she didn't want to pretend they were dating, it wouldn't be right. He did decide that enjoying her perfume was entirely allowed, given the situation.
The ceremony was lovely, if a bit over-long in Becker's humble opinion. There was a bit too much lovey-dovey nonsense but that was the whole point of weddings. They had several scripture readings, listened to the priest talk, read more scripture and then lit a candle together. All in all, Becker was quite bored by the way they were dragging it out. Something of his boredom must have been picked up by Jess because she nudged him sharply with her elbow at one point.
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and saw her looking back, head tilted just a little to betray her smugness. She jerked her chin significantly towards the front. Her message was loud and clear. Becker pursed his lips and tried to focus. Now they were reading vows that they had written themselves. Why would anyone have such a long ceremony? He had been on anomaly shouts that hadn't lasted this long!
Even lengthy, drawn-out, extra fussy ceremonies had to end sometime. It was with real relief that the priest finally told them to kiss and be done with it. Except he used far nicer language. He was a priest, after all.
The new husband and wife did their triumphant galloping back up the aisle together while the whole church stood and applauded their ability to remain focused during the ceremony - or that's why Becker imagined they were applauding anyway.
In the bustle of greeting, gossiping and chatter, Jess and Becker ended up at the front, against the wall in a corner. Her parents were ignoring them and chatting up someone from across the aisle that Jess didn't know. Her grandmother was nowhere in sight and Becker had no particular desire to run into Tiffany again. He was quite content to wait for the church and car park to clear out as people headed to the reception hall down the road.
Jess seemed to have much the same feeling. She leaned against the wall and looked out across the room, expression carefully neutral. Becker thought back, the only time she'd seemed glad to see anyone was her grandmother, and it was her granny Jessica that convinced her to come in the first place. Her sister hadn't even said hello before she'd started sizing him up for a loincloth. Her parents had been interested in him... mildly.
Until he said he was a security guard.
This was completely stupid. He wasn't an attention whore, but they were both so much more than what Jess was solidly bent on convincing her family they were.
"Jess, this is stupid. Why don't you just tell your parents what you really do?"
Becker whispered to her.
"No," she said sharply. "I'm an underachieving disappointment to them, and they're unimpressed with you. Trust me, that's the best way for them to be. Just a few more hours and we can leave." Jess caught his look and chided him, "Don't pout."
"I'm not pouting."
"You are. You should do it more often, actually. You look cute when you pout," Jess told him cheekily.
Becker glared. She grinned. It was at that moment that two men walked up. Neither one was as tall as himself, Becker was very shallowly gratified to note as the pair stopped purposefully in front of them. He gave them both the casual once over he gave everyone.
One was dark and one was blond, but their matching paunchy bellies, ostentatious man-bling necklaces and rings didn't scream 'dangerous' at him. He decided that he could take them both in a fight. Possibly with one hand behind his back. He didn't allow any of that assessment to show on his face.
"Jess! My darling little sister!" The man on the left, the blond, exclaimed. "I wasn't aware you were bringing a date, until Tiffany told me." The man sounded a little put out with her.
That must be Lewis then. Becker took a closer look. Yup. He was still confident he could take him. Was this one the accountant or the lawyer? No, Tiffany was the lawyer. Becker gave up trying to remember what she had told him and focused in on the man in front to him.
The dark-haired one with the receding hairline and the recessed chin must be Jess's blind date. He really regretted not getting her to agree to perpetrate a romantic ruse on her family. Maybe she would change her mind if he just kept quiet as she introduced them.
"Lewis, this is my friend, Becker."
Maybe not then.
Lewis offered his hand politely and Becker confirmed his initial impression of soft hands. Lewis's hands were even a bit on the slimy side, and Becker manfully resisted the urge to wipe of the excess lotion and perspiration off on his trousers.
Like the rest of her family, once Jess said 'security guard', Lewis's interest in Becker completely vanished. He acted as if Becker had literally vanished as he introduced his friend with some pomp.
"Jessica, this is Mortimer Reginald Palmer." Lewis said the name as if it should mean something to them both. It didn't.
Mortimer offered his hand. "Please, call me Mort. You are just as lovely as Lewis said you were."
Jess was too polite to refuse to shake, but Becker could tell she was extremely annoyed. "Hello." He didn't even rate a 'pleased to meet you'. Since she wasn't, obviously.
Mortimer raised her and up and kissed her fingers. "Sei così bella, la mia dolce."
She didn't seem to know what to say, and tugged her hand back. "Right."
Mortimer seem to mistake her annoyance with desire. "I will dance with you at the reception. Afterwards... we will see what happens. Until then, my sweet."
Jess's mouth dropped open, and even Becker was appalled at his arrogance. Before she could correct his attitude with the sharp side of her tongue, Mortimer was called away by a group of men on the groom's side of the room. Lewis watched him go, while keeping a cautious eye on his sister.
Jess started sputtering as she watched Mortimer walk away confidently, as if walking up to strange woman and calling dibs on dances was part of his everyday life.
"That arrogant twit!" Jess burst out, and then Lewis grabbed her upper arm, cutting off her tirade.
"Jessica, don't ruin this for me, he's my boss's nephew and I need this promotion!" Lewis whispered frantically in her face while squeezing her arm.
Becker had enough. "One moment," he said softly, dangerously.
He reached out and mimiced the hold that Lewis had on his sister, except he squeezed just a bit harder. "Jess, give us a second."
With two stout yanks Becker had pulled Lewis out of sight into a hallway and after a quick glance to make sure they were alone, he slammed Lewis up against the wall and got up in his face, letting the anger he felt towards her family out.
"Listen to me, I don't know what sort of thing you have planned and I don't really care. You do not grab Jess like that." Becker gave him an extra hard squeeze that was certainly going to leave a bruise before releasing him and making a show of brushing the other man's coat off.
"What the fuck was that!" Lewis exclaimed and shoved Becker roughly away. "You can't handle me like that! You're nothing but a security guard! I play golf with the minister! I'll have your job for that!"
"Lewis!" Jess spoke up from the entryway. "Drop it. Drop it right now and don't ruin Marissa's wedding with your social climbing bullshit. I told you on the phone I didn't want to meet him and now I really don't want to meet him. I'm certainly not dancing with him!"
Lewis looked from her to Becker and back again and plainly decided that groveling was his best option. "Jess, baby, I'm sorry I grabbed you, I was overwrought, but this is important. Will you please be nice to him at the reception? Please? For me?"
He was actually trying to make puppy eyes at his sister. To Becker, it looked as if he was trying to trigger an aneurysm.
Becker rolled his eyes at Lewis's bad acting. "Oh god, tell me you aren't falling for that."
"Falling for what?" Lewis snapped angrily before appealing to his sister again. "I'm in real trouble here!"
"And whose fault is that? I told you not to bring him," Jess snapped back harshly and crossed her arms. If Lewis had two brain cells to rub together, he would have shut up then, but he didn't.
"Jess, baby, his dad's the branch manager! They've got a place in Italy, a place in France, he can really take care of you -"
"You mean he can really take care of you!" Jess shot back at him.
"Well, you're my little sister! I've got to look out for you!" Lewis protested before moving on with his argument. "What other prospects have you got? I mean, we had such high hopes for you when you graduated at 19, then you got that dead end job working on a help desk!"
Lewis glanced up at Becker briefly. "There's still time for you to really accomplish things with your life, Jess baby. I can get you a job working at my company if you would just put that intellect to work!"
'Jess baby' was starting to really grate on Becker's nerves. He stepped away long enough to see that most of the church was empty now. "Jess, the crowd's gone. Shouldn't we be going?"
"Yes. Yes, we should." Jess looked as if she wanted to respond to her brother's overwhelmingly patronizing manner, but all she finally said was, "You'll never change, will you?" After a moment she shut her mouth and walked away.
Becker followed her, trying not to radiate his anger to the few people that remained. He kept it contained until they got to the car park. "Is your family always like that? Or is this a special occasion? Treating you like that, I mean?" The 'like a piece of crap' went unsaid, but thought very loudly.
Jess just shrugged, and looked sad. "Pretty much. I didn't realise how much of a trophy piece they see me as - or see each other as, until I told them I worked on the help desk of a very minor government agency. That's when the sniping and the put-downs and the match-making really started."
She caught Becker's expression. "This isn't the first time they've tried to pimp me out under the guise of just setting me up with a friend, who always happens to be a well-connected, rich friend in search of a trophy wife."
The casual way 'pimp me out' rolled off her tongue made Becker wish he'd planted his fist in Lewis's face instead of just squeezing his arm.
Jess reached out and patted him on the chest, distracting him from the bloodthirsty track his mind had taken.
"Don't worry! I mostly just stay away from them all. Nest of vipers, the lot of them."
"Jess! Jess!" Becker looked around to see Granny Jessica hurrying towards them, still toting a cane that she obviously didn't need. "Jess, are you going to the reception? I'd like a chance to catch up with you, and get to know you a little, young man." She used the cane to prod at Becker's leg.
And just like that, Becker watched Jess light up, the fight with her brother pushed aside. "Of course we're coming. Will you sit with us?"
Granny Jessica grinned, and Becker got a sudden impression of Jess, and realised that she had inherited her smile from her grandmother. "Naturally! I know they've put me at the table with the creaky old people, but they're no fun. I'll move whoever I have to." The older woman declared, pleased.
"You're my favorite granddaughter you know."
Jess hugged her. "I know. You're my favorite family member, at this moment."
"Ignore those selfish bastards. I don't even know what they did, but I can tell you that it isn't worth getting upset over. I swear I don't know how you turned out normal."
"It must have been your genes, Granny." Jess joked weakly. "I got all the good ones."
After they got in the car Becker reached over and grabbed her hand. "Next time you say you don't want to go to a family function, I'll help you flee the country to avoid it. It can be arranged. Italy is beautiful this time of year."
Jess giggled and stroked her thumb along the side of his hand, slowly. "Thank you. They weren't this selfish... what am I saying? They've always been like this. When I was younger I enjoyed the attention of being the brilliant computer genius. It wasn't until I was older that I realised they only cared what I could do for them and their careers."
"That's why you don't want them to know about the ARC?"
"Exactly. Except Lewis has convinced himself that we live in Victorian times and he can marry me off, since I'm useless to him any other way."
"Emily would have a few things to say to him about that." Becker commented ruefully.
Jess laughed. "Emily would cut his nuts off. She hasn't got much tolerance for that type of attitude."
"I have noticed that Matt is very careful how he phrases things sometimes."
Jess almost collapsed with laughter in the seat beside him.
"What? You and Emily are thick as thieves. What has he done?" Becker's mind was flooded with all the juicy possibilities, hopefully that he could tease Matt mercilessly about. If he could just get Jess to tell him...
"I can't... tell you... girl talk..." Jess could barely breathe she was laughing so hard.
"What? Come on!" Becker protested vainly. "Share!"
Becker watch her giggle helplessly and he couldn't help but notice how clingy the fabric of that dress was. "Did Matt learn the hard way to phrase things carefully?"
Jess eventually got her breath and she answered, "Let's just say that Emily doesn't like her buttons being pushed and leave it at that. Everything else is protected under the sacred bonds of girl talk, wine and ice-cream."
"So you two are throwing wine and ice-cream parties?" He was very intrigued. "Are these boy-girl parties? Can I come?"
Jess started giggling again. "No! What Emily, Abby and I get up to is none of your business!"
"So you get up to things? What sort of things?" Now he was thinking of an entirely different sort of possibilities, grinning.
Naturally, Jess saw right through him. "Not that sort of thing!" she protested insistently.
"Jess, hope is the greatest gift of all. That and a very vivid imagination."
She laughed again. "You're impossible."
They were almost through town by now and approaching the reception site, the reminder from the Sat Nav that they were approaching their destination seemed to subdue Jess a little.
"We don't have to stay that long." Becker said softly as he noticed her withdrawing back into herself a little. "We can see Granny Jessica and then leave."
"I know," Jess replied. "I just wish my brother wasn't such a self-centered twat."
"I can show him the error of his ways," Becker offered generously. "Look!" He pointed up the lane at the reception building. It was an enormous old wooden barn that had been converted into a hall. He bit his tongue for a second, but he couldn't resist making the offer. "I could take him behind the barn."
Jess tossed him a cool look and sighed. "As tempting as it is... no."
"C'mon," he cajoled her. "They already think I'm an uncultured brute!"
"No. I do wish I knew what Mortimer had said to me in Italian. It might give me some warning as to what they're going to try."
"He said, 'you're so beautiful, my sweet,'" Becker filled her in helpfully.
Jess looked at him surprised while Becker parked his truck. "How do you know that? You speak Italian?"
Becker flashed a grin. "You didn't know that?"
"I do. In fact, Il suo accento era atroce, con una punta nasale che lo contraddistinguono come nient'altro che uno studente della lingua. Mi sono cresciuto parlando italiano. Forse lui sa solo quanto basta per tentare di impressionare le ragazze. Idiota."
Jess looked impressed. "What?"
"He's an idiot." Becker condensed it helpfully. Then he saw the pair of idiots in question walking into the barn and his eyes narrowed. "So you're certain you don't want me to beat them up? I like to be the muscle. Even Connor needed me to educate an idiot once."
"Really? I've never heard about that." Jess got out of the truck and waited for Becker to join her. "What happened?"
Becker stepped neatly beside her, too close for a friend but he didn't care. "Well, it started when Abby's brother, yet another idiot, lost Rex in a card game..."
Inside, the barn was decorated heavily, with flowers and candles everywhere. Every table had a small round mirror on it with a goldfish bowl filled with pebbles that complimented the color scheme. Someone had even climbed up into the rafters far overhead and drapped gauzy mosquito netting fabric over the beams running the lengh and breath of the building.
Becker admired the effort and money that had gone into it. It was far too fussy for him, but someone had spent a lot of time on it. Jess grabbed his hand and led him over to her grandmother.
Granny Jess was just putting the finishing touchs on her rearranging of the placecards. She took the last two in her hand and bustled over to the next table, neatly switching them out.
"There you are!" She exclaimed happily when she saw them. "Just as I thought, they put me in with the boring old people and seated you next to someone with far too much name. Becker darling, there wasn't even a card for you. So I made us our own table." Granny Jessica was remarkably proud of herself for her little bit of event sabatoge.
"Wonderful." Jess hugged her grandmother again and they all sat down, joined in dribbs and drabs by the few people Granny Jessica had dubbed interesting enough to be included at their table of rebels.
Becker kept an eye on the room, easily picking out Jess's siblings from the crowd. Tiffany was flitting everywhere, trying to talk to everyone. Lewis and Mortimer were much the same. The annoyance on Lewis's face when he discovered that Jess was no longer at the table with them brought a little warm feeling to Becker's heart.
Then the bride and groom entered, with much pomp and ceremony. They stood, applauded again, cameras were flashing everywhere. Any other man would have been distracted enough not to notice Lewis taking advantage of the chance to sneak around to Jess's side. It was a good thing Becker wasn't any other man.
He deftly stepped a little behind Jess, and pinned Lewis with a glare before he could get Jess's attention. Mortimer was two steps behind him. Becker jerked his chin to the far wall towards a small door and started walking. Mortimer ducked his head mulishly, but the pair of them followed him outside.
Lewis started in the minute they were alone. "I don't know who the hell you are but my sister says you're not her boyfriend. So stay out of our private family business!"
"Your sister has made it perfectly plain to me that she has no interest in you setting her up." Becker was very proud of how calm and even he managed to keep his tone.
"She owes me a dance," Mortimer spoke up smugly. He turned back to Becker, "You're just a stupid guard. I'm a senior manager at the best investment company in London! We're both close personal friends of very senior people, very powerful people!"
Becker wondered what Lester would have to say about that if he got him involved in all this. If they really started playing whose connections are better then he was certain that with Lester's help, he would win.
He no longer had any doubt at all of why Jess wanted to be as low profile as possible. He doubted Lewis gave a damn about his sister as a person at all.
"She isn't going to dance with you," Becker repeated slowly. "Stay away from her."
"Or what?" Mortimer sneered. "What exactly do you think you'll do? She's hot, and even if she's a failure, I saw her school records, our children will be brilliant and beautiful -" Becker slammed him up against the wall before he thought better of it. Then he did think about it and pressed a little harder.
Where exactly they would have gone from there Becker didn't know, but he could guess, if Jess and Granny Jessica hadn't poked their heads out the door and seen them.
"Becker!" Jess yelped before turning on her brother, outraged. "What the hell is going on?"
Lewis gaped at her for a second. "Your friend just attacked Mortimer! And he attacked me earlier! I'm going to call the police and have him arrested!"
"Shut up, Lewis!" Granny Jessica snapped at him with absolute steel in her voice. "You will do no such thing! It would completely ruin Marissa's wedding. I don't know what's going on and furthermore, I don't care. Now we're all going to go back inside and enjoy the reception. Are we clear on that?" Her tone booked no argument.
Becker was the first to say 'Yes ma'am,' but the other two agreed, eventually, in the face of her determination.
Silently, they all filed back inside. The waiters were already bringing salads out. Lewis and Mortimer vanished to the front to relay their version of events to Jess's immediate family while they sat down on the opposite side of the room at the table Granny Jessica had organized.
Just when Becker thought things couldn't get worse... they got worse. Tiffany was glaring at him from across the room, and then she started frantically texting someone. Oh hell. What was she up too? Probably researching him. That could get interesting.
At his side, Jess was angrily spearing her lettuce onto her fork. Becker had a sudden burst of empathy for Matt. Just try to do something nice and get in trouble for it, it was hardly worth getting out of bed in the mornings sometimes.
Next time Jess wanted out of a family function, they'd both flee the country, Becker decided resolutely. If she was still speaking to him. This was a two chocolate bar problem. Maybe three. Judging by the thin line of her mouth... this might even be a four bar disaster.
She couldn't be all mad at him. Her stupid brother had started it by trying beyond all bounds of sense and decency to set her up with his lecherous friend. Becker started swearing in Italian in his head, it was such a useful language for profanity.
Now Tiffany was watching something on her phone, and going pale. Shit. What could she be watching? It couldn't be good. Jess still had another brother that he hadn't even met yet, although judging by events so far, Becker was positive he didn't want to.
Now Tiffany was showing the video to everyone at her table, her brothers, Mortimer, her parents... they were all crowded around and watching her smart phone.
Now the whole Parker delegation was tromping over to their table. Jess noticed them coming. Becker reached under the table and grabbed her hand. "Do you want to leave now?"
She squeezed his hand back and watched the whole family weave between the tables, making a beeline right for them. "I have a feeling it's too late for that. Fuck."
The unexpected profanity had him whirling his head to look at her and even granny Jessica noticed that they were coming.
"You lied to us," Tiffany said rudely as they stomped up to the table. "You aren't some stupid security guard, you're Captain Becker, you run the ARC!"
Triumphantly, she held her phone up to show the video. Becker already knew it. It had been taken by CCTV during convergence and it showed him and two of his men valiantly battling creatures in the street.
Some internet joker had slowed the more dramatic moments of the video down and set it to rock music, so Becker watched himself jump up on a car in slow mo, dodge a creature and then shoot it in the face while he was leaping backwards and it grabbed for him before it collapsed on the car. All in perfect time to the beat.
It was a completely outrageous piece of shooting that looked as if it belonged more in an action film than in reality. His own men were still taking the piss out of him for that action man manoeuvre.
Granny Jessica burst out laughing, and somehow that broke the tension. "I knew you were military! I knew it! I thought you were just retired when Jess said you were a security guard!" The old lady chuckled gleefully to herself.
Lewis and Mortimer looked... greedy. "You work at the ARC, Jess baby," Lewis said, wheedling. "You've been holding out on us!"
Mrs. Parker looked at Becker again, "So it's Captain Becker? We got off on the wrong foot earlier... perhaps we could just start again?"
Becker looked up at them, so self-centered that all they cared about was the revelation that their daughter was connected to the infamous ARC project. He looked over at Jess. She looked defeated, slumped down in her chair. Becker gave her hand a hard squeeze and stood up.
"No actually," he said very politely, aware that their loud voice had drawn the attention of all the nearby tables and people were whispering the news to each other. That damned video had got millions of hits. Probably all of them had seen it.
Becker gently pulled Jess to her feet. "I think we got off on exactly the right foot early. It's better this way. No misconceptions. I think we'll be going now. Do give our regards to the happy couple."
Confidently, he started to walk towards the exit. Jess followed him for a few steps, and then stopped. "Wait, I have to say goodbye to my grandmother."
Becker waited and ignored the stares while Jess embraced her grandmother. Granny Jessica was whispering something in her ear, something that made her blush before she stepped away.
Jess walked back towards him and then seemed to remember something. "Oh wait..." Then she walked directly up to Lewis. Becker was half-expecting it, but Lewis certainly wasn't when her hand flashed out and she slapped him, hard.
He even had the gall to demand, "What was that for?" in a very injured tone as he rubbed his cheek.
As if he didn't know!
"Next time I tell you to back off, you back the fuck off, Lewis. Clear?"
Dazed, he nodded. Then she turned to Mortimer, who revealed exactly how much character he didn't have by diving for cover behind Tiffany.
Jess snorted at his retreat. "Pitiful."
Becker chuckled and held his hand out to her. "Shall we go?"
"Absolutely," Jess replied as she led him to the exit.
"I'm sorry I subjected you to that," Jess said quietly. "I should have just told my grandmother that I would meet her for lunch or something."
"No, no it's fine." Becker reached out and took her hand again. "It's fine. You're not the only one with a screwed up family. Although your brother does take the award for oblivious idiot."
Jess snorted, "Lewis takes all the awards for oblivious idiot. Did you see his face when I finally slapped him?"
"That was a thing of beauty."
"I was slapping through the target," Jess told him smugly. "See, I do pay attention to the things you say."
Jess threaded her fingers through his and settled back to enjoy the ride home, holding his hand and watching him out of the corner of her eye.
"Will you have dinner with me tonight?" Becker asked quietly.
"I thought you would never ask."
Becker pulled her hand up to his mouth and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. "I was afraid."
"You? Afraid? Of what?" She sounded shocked.
"That you would say no," he confessed quietly, without looking at her.
"Becker..." Jess leaned over against him and he suddenly had to focus on the road. It would be most embarrassing if he crashed the car just because she was whispering in his ear, with her hand sliding up behind his neck.
"Find a place to park."
He parked the car outside a shopping centre and faced her. He started to ask exactly what she intended, but then Jess was in his arms, leaning against his chest, looking at him very intensely.
She leaned up at the same time he bent his head downwards and asked, "Are you going to kiss me now?"
"I thought you'd never ask," Becker breathed her words back at her and did exactly as she requested. Some orders he was very good at following.