As she sips an excellent cup of searingly hot coffee in the inn’s kitchen, it occurs to Cat that if she’s going to have peace and quiet, she should probably avoid the front porch. Apparently Tru walks the grounds a lot and she isn’t shy about grabbing hold and dragging a person along while quizzing them on the way. At least this time, any questions remained notably non personal.
She takes another sip, sighing softly as the warmth seeps in. It really is a superb blend, the coffee dark and pleasantly bitter, lightly sweetened and enriched with a healthy dash of rich hazelnut. The dollop of real cream is nice too. And when Tru, who by then is bustling around the large, semi-professional kitchen into which she has dragged Cat, shoves a salty-sweet piece of candied bacon into her hand, Cat’s decides to just go with it.
"Wicked good, isn't it?" Tru enthuses and looks Cat's way with enough of a suggestive leer that it takes a moment to be certain she's just talking about the bacon.
"Right, wicked," Cat mumbles as she notes with some relief that Tru is definitely looking at the bacon. Still, it's enough of a near miss to remind her that she was right the first time. She really does need to be careful about the front porch in the future. Not that the future is some huge thing she should be obsessed with. After all, it’s not like this is the beginning of some long lasting friendship with her and Alex visiting on regular weekends or taking in the seasonal whale watching from a private balcony. This is temporary, just a thing to offer some comfort in time of need and...and...and something. Okay, so she’s not quite sure what, but she is comfortably certain it’s not a permanent kind of thing one should start planning on or trusting in.
“So what do you think?” Tru suddenly asks, her tone more serious than usual.
Cat blinks, chewing on the bacon to buy herself an extra moment as she searches her memory for the thread of the conversation.
Tru, meanwhile, is busy prepping the breakfast trays her husband, Jerry, cheerfully picks up every few minutes to deliver to various rooms. He’s sweet and smiling, but quiet. Which is fine. Tru talks enough for two and she’s eager to pick Cat’s brain.
Speaking of which, it’s a brain functioning at less than half capacity. Even without a night of rambling sex and the resulting lack of sleep, mornings aren’t her best time. And while she’s learned to appear coherent while semi-comatose, it’s mostly an act.
“I think you’re overthinking things,” Cat says at last, barely noticing the tiny hand that tugs on the bottom of her shirt, though she automatically reaches down and lifts the small figure up to snuggle comfortably against her chest and left shoulder. “To advertise with a company like CatCo, you’d end up spending more than you’d make in profits, particularly since your business is so seasonal and dependent on the whale watching. The contracts run in six month blocks and they aren’t cheap. plus you'd need a professional artist to put an ad together.”
Tru tenses and Cat can see how much she wants to argue, so she just keeps talking.
“A better option would be getting someone to publish a news piece,” Cat continues, her knowledge deep enough that she can lecture even while half asleep. “To do that, you need an interesting article and some good press contacts—”
“I tried that,” Tru snaps. “Spent a small fortune and got no responses.”
Cat sighs. “Probably used a service to write a press release and distribute it.” She’s careful to tamp down any impatience. She’s aware of Tru’s nod, but she already knows the story. “Most of those are written to a formula and everybody ignores them.” She could add that they’re usually little more than a scam, but that seems too cruel even for her.
She sees Tru’s shoulders fall and knows she’s already figured it out anyway. Seeing a mistake laid out so clearly is rarely easy.
“What you need to do is get your hands on a travel reporter,” Cat says quickly, wanting to offer some hope. “A good freelancer who can spend some time on the project. You shouldn’t have to pay them, but comp them room and board for a few days, so it doesn't cost them anything to get a real feel for the place.”
Despite any disappointment, Tru’s listening. It’s there in the way she angles her head as she works.
“But you need a hook, so it's a real article, not just a description of what a perfect place this is to relax and watch the whale migrations,” Cat explains. “That's an interesting experiences, not an interesting story.” Seeing the way Tru frowns, she tries to explain, “Travel writing is storytelling. It can be history, science, whatever, but it’s more than just showing pretty pictures. It needs to be interesting to someone who has no intention of coming here. So talk about the history of the place, or the lighthouse, or if there’s science work being done with the whales. I don’t know enough to tell you what would work. I can only tell you that you need to find something.” As she’s speaking, she hears and feels a presence at her back, then a hand reaches past her to snag a piece of bacon from the nearby plate. She doesn’t have to be told to know it’s Alex, especially when a warm hand settles on her hip. Normally, she wouldn’t allow the presumption, but this time, she pushes into the light touch, something she hasn't done much for at least a husband or two.
Tru’s eyes light up. “The inn and the cabins were built before the turn of the century. There are old records, letters, even some photos that came with the place when we bought it. Some of it’s pretty interesting.”
“That’s the idea. To sell a piece, a writer needs a story that will capture the reader’s imagination and to get a writer here, you need to give them the barebones to do that.” Cat nods, offering an encouraging smile. “Put your information together, then if you need help finding someone, I can probably lend a hand.” She knows a lot of writers who are always hunting for an idea. Throw in a few free days in a place like this and it should be possible to get somebody good who will really work to sell it.
Tru’s eyes light with gratitude. Then she’s running again as her husband returns and they hurry off to deliver the last of the breakfasts. “You can just drop Ruthie in her playpen in the other room,” Tru instructs on the way out. “Collie’s in there and she’ll look after her sister until we’re done.”
As the same time a small hand tugs on the collar of Cat’s t-shirt and she turns her head to peer into sleepy blue eyes as the little girl in her arms lifts her head. “You’re not Carter,” she says, a bit confused. Though she does have a faint memory of picking the child up, she was still more asleep than awake.
“Isn’t your son in his teens?” Alex drawls and reaches out to ruffle the girl’s ginger curls even as she offers a quiet, “Heya, Ruthie.”
“That’s the last time I remember picking up small children,” Cat huffs. “When he was little, he liked to be carried.” Her lips twist into a soft smile as she remembers the days he was desperate to see the world from her arms, where he could be as tall as she was, but still safe and protected. “Apparently muscle memory kicked in when this one tugged on my arm.”
“So you were a hands on parent, huh?”
“I didn’t go through the pain of giving birth to see a nanny raise my child,” Cat confirms, and boops the little girl on the nose to a chorus of giggles. “He all but lived in the CatCo offices with me until he went to school.” She pivots in time to see Alex raise an eyebrow.
“Sooo,” Alex stretches the single word out before questioning, “Baby in one arm, copy to edit in the other and issuing orders throughout CatCo?”
“Pretty much,” Cat admits. It was a good time in her life. After the pain of losing Adam, she’d needed it.
“I can almost see it,” Alex says through a grin. It fades to a shy smile when Cat reaches out to settle her free hand on Alex’s chest.
“I’m sorry about not being there when you woke. I hope you didn’t think—”
“I didn’t,” Alex says before she can get any farther. She covers Cat’s hand with her own, her touch warm and soothing. “After last night, I knew you wouldn’t do that to me.”
“I woke up early and stepped onto the porch to see what the weather looked like—” She leaves off the need to think.
“And Tru caught you, huh?” Alex more states than asks. Clearly, she knows her friend.
Cat nods. “She wanted to know if it would help to advertise this place with CatCo.” She shakes her head. “I tried to explain that it’s too small. She needs something different.”
“I heard some of the discussion,” Alex admits. “Thank you for trying to help my friend.” She looks around. “She and Jer went ass deep into debt buying this place. I think they’re making ends meet, but it hasn’t done as well as they hoped.”
Cat shrugs. “It’s easy enough for me.” Publishing and advertising have been her life for a lot of years. “It’s second nature.”
“Thank you anyway,” Alex murmurs as she leans in to steal a quick, bacon flavored kiss.
They earn a grumpy sound from the child in Cat’s arms.
“Apparently Ruthie does not approve.” Alex chuckles and ruffles ginger hair again, while Cat snuggles the little girl close, enjoying the feel of a toddler in her arms after so many years without. Not that she’s longing for more babies. She did that and got it right, but it makes for a nice moment to hold one knowing she gets to give her back.
Besides, if she focuses on the little girl, she doesn’t have to come up with anything to say or pay too much attention to the expression on Alex’s face or the tightness in her own chest when dark eyes swing her way. She knows what’s going on, has been through enough flings to understand the effects of hormones on emotions. As she resists the urge to look at Alex, she knows how easy it would be to make more of this than there is, knows too that Alex is probably even more vulnerable, damn near a virgin as she is.
She wonders if she’s doing the younger woman any favors by not running like hell.
Then Alex brushes gentle fingertips along her free shoulder, the skimming touch enough to send a shiver down her spine. Whatever she should do, she won't be running.
“So I was thinking about today,” Alex begins after a moment. “I wondered if you’d be up for a bit of an inland jaunt.” It’s a statement, but the question is implicit.
Cat focuses on the child in her arms, but she’s listening. “Inland?”
“Mmhm, San Jose’s—”
“Oh, god no,” Tru interrupts before Alex can say any more.
Cat’s chin snaps up as she notes the other woman’s return. She’s standing in the doorway, hands on her hips, glaring at Alex. Clearly she knows what Alex's plan is and disapproves.
“You do not take a woman like her there,” Tru insists.
Cat’s gaze swings back to Alex, who’s lost color.
“It’ll be fun,” the younger woman insists, her tone defensive.
“Maybe if you took her kid, but c’mon, Alex. Cat Grant is not a woman for bad ghost stories and—”
Cat has no idea what’s in store, but she is very aware that Alex looks hurt and while she likes Tru, she’s not going to let that continue. Even if Alex’s plans are a misery, she’ll damn well, smile sweetly and deal. It can’t be any worse than sitting through a certain ex president’s dissertations on his art and she’s managed that trick. Twice. “Actually, I think Alex’s idea sounds like fun.” Her tone makes it clear that the only expert on Cat Grant’s preferences is Cat Grant herself.
Tru’s brows shoot up, her expression full of doubt. “Really?”
“Really.” Cat peers at Alex, her voice low, her look serious enough that she hopes it conveys utter trust. She’s trying, even if trust and good communications skills are not normally her default unless it’s for worldwide publication, or on very rare occasion, when the world’s on the verge of annihilation.
Alex’s hand is still wrapped around Cat’s where it rests on her chest and she gives a light squeeze.
Cat takes it as a silent affirmation she’s gotten the message and nods. It’s a private moment that blocks out the woman silently watching them.
“So you’re really going to do this?” Tru asks after a beat.
Eyes still on Cat, Alex nods as a tiny twist of a smile curves her lips.
Somehow they've become co-conspirators in this and Cat finds herself enjoying the moment. She hasn't felt this way in ages.
“Then you’d better get moving or you won’t be back until midnight.”
Cat is almost sure she hears an undertone of barely suppressed glee in the other woman’s voice even though she’s being openly sarcastic. She has it in her to wonder if they’ve just been played, but decides not to worry about it.
Tru pins a sharp look on Alex when a moment passes. “Unless you’re planning on staying in a motel,” she snips, leaving Cat with the impression that would be an unacceptable sin.
Alex is smart enough to throw up her hands in surrender. “Wouldn’t think of it,” she says quickly.
Mollified, Tru nods as she plucks Ruthie from Cat’s arms. “I’ll pack you a lunch and—”
“You don’t have to—” Alex begins.
“It’s one of the services the inn offers.” Tru waves her hands, shooing them along.
Which is how they wind up tooling along, sipping coffee from insulated travel mugs and singing along to whatever comes up on an oldies radio station.
Alex has a lovelier voice than Cat would have predicted, the timbre low and smoky and easy on the ears. As the song ends and the radio flips over to a commercial, she turns the sound down and glances over at Cat. “You know Tru’s trying to con you into doing an article on the inn, right?” She smirks and hooks a thumb toward the box lunches in the back seat. “Though it does mean the free lunch is probably amazing.”
Cat laughs and nods. “I guessed.”
They’re both wearing the least hideous of their ill gotten gains from Target. In Cat’s case it's a surprisingly pretty tie-dyed shirt swirled in shades of wine and blue with enough misspellings in the stoner themed motto that the unique interpretation of the word marijuana seems the mildest of the literary sins committed on the front. It pairs nicely with a pair of white cargo pants that sport a heart-shaped purple stain right on her ass. Hideously ugly lime green deck shoes clash with all of it, but are comfortable enough that Cat goes with it.
Alex, meanwhile, winds up in a sky blue shirt that’s notably short in the body and emblazoned with a giant, screaming green face and the words, Warcraft: the Movie. It’s ugly enough that Cat threatens to deny she knows her, though she can’t take her eyes off the sinfully tight, black jeans that mold nicely to slim hips. Once tucked into her combat boots, the three inch difference in the length of the pants legs isn’t terribly noticeable. Pink sunglasses with heart shaped lenses finish out the ensemble.
As she peers at the other woman from the passenger seat, Cat catches a glimpse of tights abs revealed by the too short shirt and decides she can tolerate orcs if that’s the tradeoff, though she has zero intention of admitting she knows what an orc is or that she saw the movie with Carter. She’s managed to look like she’s never seen a Star Wars movie. She means to keep it that way for anything related to World of Warcraft as well.
Still singing in that low, sexy voice, Alex glances over and winks.
Well, if nothing else she seems to be getting a bit of confidence. Cat still has no idea where they’re headed, and while it tugs at her control freak nature, she grits her teeth and concentrates on how pretty the drive is, not to mention Alex’s laughter and singing. She can do this. It’s all good.
Cat doesn’t want to think too hard about just how good, so it’s a relief when Alex continues speaking.
“I thought we’d take the faster route to get there,” she explains. “It’s pretty, but not very dramatic, mostly rolling hills and scrub pine.”
Cat nods, uncertain where this is headed, but glad for the distraction.
“But I thought if we’re both still doing well, we could come back the long way through Las Plumas.” Alex must sense Cat’s confusion. “Las Plumas Forest...redwoods,” she quickly adds. “It’s amazing, especially at night.” She glances over. “I’m guessing you haven’t seen it and I think you’d like it.” There’s a note in her voice that sounds dangerously like hope.
Cat wonders about the wisdom of what’s happening, but this is the first thing that’s offered any comfort in entirely too long. No matter what a part of her argues she should do, she lacks the ability to walk away. “Sounds wonderful.” They share a smile and she pushes off her fears in favor of enjoying herself. They’ve both earned it.
Besides that glimpse of taut abdominals really is quite pleasing.
“You’re not from California, are you?” Alex asks after another song goes by.
“Nope,” Cat responds without elaborating. “But you are, right?”
Alex glances over, her expression thoughtful. For a moment, Cat thinks she’s going to ask, but she doesn’t. Good choice. Discussing her childhood home will not improve the mood.
“Yep, born and raised in Midvale,” Alex says, the good cheer sounding a bit forced, as though she knows she’s skated too close to a painful topic and needs to make up for it. “My mom still lives there, right on the beach.” She grins and thumps her chest with one hand. “Beach chick born and bred.”
Cat takes a cue from the light tone. “So you could surf before you could walk?”
“Not quite, but I wanted to.” Another grin lights up Alex’s expression. She’s momentarily distracted as she turns onto a broad highway that immediately starts to climb.
“So tell me about it,” Cat says when things settle back down.
Alex glances over. “Surfing? I’d think you’d be tired of that subject by now.”
Cat shakes her head. “You haven’t really talked about surfing. You’ve talked about the ocean and its rhythms, and how to read them, but not the actual sport. For instance, how do you actually stand up on the board, and how in god’s name do you keep your balance?” Cat shakes her head in disbelief. “Always seemed like a magic trick to me.”
“No magic. It’s timing and knowing the water. A good sense of balance helps too.” Another quick look. “You seriously want to know?”
“I do.” Also, it’s a safe, neutral topic and that seems best.
Alex flashes a vaguely perplexed look her way as if she can’t quite believe the curiosity is genuine.
“I’m a reporter,” Cat explains with a shrug and a lighthearted chuckle. “I want to know everything.”
A dark eyebrow quirks upward. “Promise you’ll tell me if you get too bored.”
So Alex starts to talk about surfing, the words coming and going, speeding up when the memories are good, slowing when she’s not sure how to explain something. As they travel, the explanations about the technical side give way to funny stories, which gradually merge into tales of her college years and more current events.
Cat’s always been a good interviewer. She knows how to throw out a question to relax someone, then just let them talk. Despite what most people assume about her, she also knows how to listen. She's hearing so many things, both said and unsaid, that she has no desire to end the interview.
It’s easy and friendly and Alex shows an unexpected ability to laugh at herself along with some nice comic timing. As a result, the trip is fun and passes quickly and they’re both laughing as they hit the edge of the city. They wander a bit—Cat doesn’t know the city at all, and has no idea where they’re headed. Finally Alex pulls into a parking lot in a surprisingly populous area.
As they wander in search of a parking spot, Cat can’t contain a smirk. “Really?” she drawls doubtfully before remembering her decision to be utterly positive in the face of Tru’s attitude. “I mean, sounds like fun.”
Alex chuckles softly as she pulls the SUV into a slot. “It’s okay.” Once parked she pivots in her seat. “But I think if you’ll find it’s not what you’re expecting.” She eyes Cat from head to toe. “Besides, it might be good for you to let someone else be in charge for a change.”
“That sounds like a challenge.”
Alex shrugs, her smile puckish, eyes sparkling. A beat passes, then Cat nods. “The Winchester Mystery House it is.” She’s heard of the place, of course. The Victorian monstrosity is a California landmark and tourist trap. Cat’s too much of a history buff not to be aware of the story. After all, tabloid journalism has always loved its tales of wealth, madness, and haunted souls. Built over thirty years starting in the late 1800s, the huge, sprawling mansion was once the home of one Sarah Winchester, sole heir to the fortune created by her husband's invention, the Winchester repeating rifle. With no surviving family or children, she supposedly went a little mad when her young husband died, investing the inherited fortune in crackpot mediums and fortune tellers. Supposedly, they told her the ghosts of those killed by her husband’s guns were after revenge. They sent her west and told her she was doomed if she ever stopped building. She started with a small farmhouse and spent the rest of her life supervising the workmen as it expanded in every direction until it was one-hundred and sixty rooms large, seven stories tall, and so full of puzzles, mysteries, and oddities that it's still enough of a draw to make unsuspecting tourists shiver and insist they had their own 'supernatural' encounters.
In short, it’s utter and complete twaddle, thought up by crooks and con artists to separate a lonely woman from her treasure. It’s bad National Enquirer fare from before the National Enquirer existed.
But Alex is excited for reasons Cat can’t quite fathom, and she can see from the expression in dark eyes that this means something to her. Cat silently vows not to laugh at the younger woman as she straightens her shoulders, smooths down her godawful clothes and vows to play the happy tourist and enjoy it. As they climb out of the SUV, Alex’s too short shirt rides up and she gets another pleasant look at tight abs.
Okay, so there are definitely some pluses to any plan that includes that view.
Besides, she decided with a wicked grin, there are always ways to make something fun. She tips her head to one side and checks out Alex's ass. This could be fun, she decides and hooks her arm though the other woman's. "Shall we?"
Alex just nods.
* * * * * *