Part One: The Set-Up
Darcy brushed her hair out of the way to fasten the choker around her neck. “What time is it, JARVIS?”
“Perfect. I don’t want to be late.” She looked around her bedroom for her shoes and found them under the corner of the bedspread. Sliding into them, she tweaked the covers back in place. The apartment she and Jane shared in Avengers tower was generally a mess at best.
Yes, their boyfriends had their own floors. Yes, all overnight trysts were held on their floors, not the apartment. Yes, all ice cream/wine fests during missions were held here. It was a perfect combination of personal space and convenience.
She squinted at the choker she’d found in a little shop off Fifth. It looked like topaz and diamonds. Darcy really hoped it was great costume jewelry. “Hey JARVIS? Did Tony sneak in and replace this with real diamonds, because these are awfully sparkly.
Darcy interrupted, “Nevermind. I don’t want to know. Because if they are real, I’m going to freak and not wear it. Either way, I look fabulous.”
“Very good, Miss Lewis. Shall I let the Captain know you are ready for the Avengers party?”
“Nope. I’ve got to get Jane out of her lab first. Please tell me she hasn’t spilled anything on her outfit. I know it’s just the Avengers and their plus ones, but we’re still supposed to dress up and everything.”
“It appears Dr. Foster is still intact and looking quite attractive tonight.”
“You would have a thing for the science types,” Darcy teased the AI as she slipped her lipstick into her dress pocket. (Yay, for designers and sensible designs!)
“I am rather fascinated,” he agreed.
Darcy gave herself a critical once-over and decided she needed a touch more blush. Her short stint as a lingerie model had taught her all sorts of makeup techniques and ways of tricking out her ample assets. She wasn’t sure if the dress or what was underneath was going to knock Steve’s socks off more, but as long as they came off later, that was just fine.
As she dusted on the powder again, she nodded to herself, more than pleased by what she saw in the mirror. The taffeta dress hugged her curves, was short enough to dance in, and showed off her fabulous legs. The V was low enough to peek at her girls without anyone being in danger of falling out while she was shaking her tailfeather, and the sleeves would keep her just warm enough that she could skip a wrap altogether. And it had pockets. Score.
The shoes were just as fabulous, closed toe, close fitting, and just a little band on the top to dress it up for the holidays. These were so comfortable, she’d be able to dance for a good while. Steve was tall enough that she liked the extra inches. It made kissing that much easier.
Finished with time to spare, Darcy glanced around the flat, looking for her cell phone. “Ah ha!” she found it on the kitchen counter. She slipped it into her pocket, just as it began to vibrate, as if on cue.
“I swear I’m ready, Steve,” she grumbled as she pulled it out again. He was a stickler for time and she was plenty early.
But the number was one she hadn’t seen in a good two years, and she punched it with glee. “Amy?”
“Hiya, Darcy! How’s the love life of a pseudo-Avenger?”
“Who cares? Holy shitballs, how are you? Happy Holidays and all that crap. What’s up?” Darcy covered the phone. “JARVIS? Tell Steve I’ve heard from an old college friend. Ask him to dig Jane out of her lab, and I’ll meet them at the party.”
Amy was babbling on about her new job and new boyfriend when Darcy refocused her attention. “That sounds awesome!”
“So, uh, Darce, the, uh, old crew has been working on a little project.” Whoops. Funny how one thinks on things (lingerie model stint--check) and then they pop up moments later. Fate? Karma? Wyrd? Who knows.
“Hold on.” Darcy flicked a glance upward. (Why? she wondered, it’s not like JARVIS was in the ceiling.) “JARVIS, be a love and go to privacy mode. No recordings until I tell you otherwise.”
“Of course, Ms Lewis.”
Darcy sighed as she returned to the call. “So who’s messed with one of our girls and who are we going to embarrass? And why are you calling me?”
“It’s bigger than that, Darcy. We’ve finally got evidence on Quartermain. There’s just one piece left.”
Darcy jerked upward to pace across the hardwood floors, heels clicking as she walked. “You know, I know people now. Let me get them on board.”
“No,” Amy insisted. “ We’ve spent--hell, Genevieve has spent three years getting high enough in his agency. Nobody gives a shit about a bunch of college girls making a shitload of money as models; it’s not like it’s national security. And three separate reporters have “broken” news stories on this asshole. You know what’s happened? Nothing. Because the girls are too young and too scared to say anything. You know what modeling does to your head.”
Yeah, Darcy knew. The six months she’d spent as a lingerie model for a company in Baltimore that recruited young students at Culver University had screwed with her head. Six months smoking, starving, and listening to the absolute filth about body image spewed at her. Nobody gave a shit if she had a period, a test, or had eaten in three days. At the end of six months, she’d been hospitalized for a week for dehydration, and tsked at by the hospital staff for her choice of professions. Not a single person from the agency staff had visited her, and when she’d been released, she’d found a campus job as a receptionist where she could study as she worked.
The surprise came as other models contacted her, one by one, to find out why she hadn’t come back. Two were obviously plants by the agency--company girls, so to speak--but several of them had been clearly stressed out messes.
Several of them became her close friends. That’s when Darcy discovered that most Culver girls washed out in the first year, mostly because they were taught to be engineers and scientists, not beauty queens. Modeling was only a means to an end, rather than the end game as it was to some girls who didn’t feel like they had any better prospects.
That was Quartermain Agency’s first mistake, coming to Culver in the first place.
By Darcy’s second year, she, Amy, Daroline, and Genevieve had formed a quiet support group for the Culver models, making sure they knew they had a place to vent their frustrations with the agency.
Not only that, the group bonded when the models inevitably ran into assholes who decided the girls were easy lays. Darcy had hacked into one of the idiot’s servers and made his research vanish overnight. He’d spent four days in an absolute panic before the Queens left it on a thumbdrive, hanging from a tree in the center of campus, along with screenshots of his cell phone texts to his various girlfriends proving he’d been stringing along three or four of them at the same time. All the girlfriends had received mysterious phone calls at dawn and appeared at the tree. Thirty minutes later, the asshole received another mysterious phone call telling him where his research could be found. The ensuing scene was the subject of the school newspaper and memes had been made of the fallout. He graduated, but not a single student would go out with him after that.
The best part? No one tied it back to the Queens. That became the hallmark of their quiet crusade. Jerks who messed with the Queens found themselves dealing with much bigger problems. Assholes who insulted or tried to take advantage of pretty young women always had other fish the Queens could fry. And fry they did.
With the modeling agency, most of the jobs were legit catalogs and paid well for the shoots. But even when Darcy was there, there were rumors of private sessions, with pictures that ended up in private collections, not catalogs, and the girls had to sign non-disclosure agreements before taking the jobs. They were paid more than double the usual rate--high enough that even the most dubious model would take a second look at the contract.
But the real scoop came when the Culver Queens learned that girls who made it more than a year with the agency were “promoted” to take jobs in New York City, where the the agency’s headquarters were located. Not many Culver models stayed that long, but when two of them abruptly quit school after one of those shoots, the Queens did some digging. One had disappeared back home on the West Coast, and the other was still in therapy in Georgia. Neither of them would talk to the Queens, other than to tell them to pass the word not to go on those kinds of shoots.
Darcy had been a junior by then, and Amy took point on the investigation. Hard evidence had been scarce, and the Queens needed witnesses willing to testify.
“So tell me about Genevieve,” Darcy said, vaguely remembering the young woman who had been picked up by the agency almost as soon as she arrived on campus. Darcy had been a senior and in New Mexico for a semester, so she’d been out of the loop even before graduation and moving with Jane to London and then New York.
“She’s just pretty enough that the agency panders to her, but not unique enough to be picked up by the headhunters for the big agency. She’s been offered a couple of those shoots and turned them down, but she’s older now and made friends with Quartermain’s wife. So she gets invited to his house a lot. Two months ago, she picked up a gig for his wife serving drinks. It wasn’t a modelling party, it was a business party, and she overheard Quartermain making arrangements for the agency’s services--not the above board kind. Darce--we’ve suspected he pushed some of the models into escort services, but Genevieve heard him talking numbers. So many girls for X amount of dollars. More money if the girls were willing to be ‘overnight’ guests. Those are his words. So now we have a witness.”
“None of that means shit if we don’t get proof of the contract,” Darcy insisted.
“And now we know it exists,” Amy offered. “Genevieve happened to be looking over a contract in the agency the next day, when she heard Quartermain setting up the next event. The dates and times corresponded exactly to what she heard at his house. His assistant wrote up the contracts and filed them in his office. That was a month ago. The shoot happened last week. One of the models was a Queen and came to us. During the shoot, she’d been outright ordered to sleep with one of the party guests. She refused and was fired from the agency the next day for being overweight. She broke the NDA to talk to us. That makes two witnesses.”
“What else?” Darcy prompted.
“The model took pictures. Marion sorted through them with facial recognition software. We’ve got names--big names.”
Darcy mused. “So, let me guess, you want to break into the agency, get the copies of the contract. Pair that contract up with girls that were hired, match that up with the names of the guests, and then?”
“Quartermain pissed off someone at Vanity Fair. They’re offering $50,000 for anyone who gives hard evidence on this asshole. We can take the whole thing down because anonymous tips can be submitted in court as legit evidence. The trick is to make sure the information doesn’t stay buried.”
“Okay, hold on a second. Let me think.” Darcy had been around Tony Stark enough to realize that the man was a master at manipulating the media. She’d learned a few tricks that she wished she’d known in college. “All right, Amy. I think we can do this. Our backup plan is to give Vanity Fair a specific amount of time to break the story, or we give it to someone else… like Anonymous ... to release to the public. That means Vanity Fair has to act on it to get the scoop, or they lose the opportunity. Which means they’ll be out fifty g’s with nothing to show for it.”
“Wow, that’s brilliant,” Amy added. “And that’s playing hardball with the big boys.”
Darcy snickered. “I play hardball with the big boys everyday. Quartermain doesn’t scare me. So, what’s the plan?”
“Quartermain is hosting a holiday party for the office at the Marriott tonight.”
“Which means this is a perfect time to break into his office. Who’s taking down the security system?”
“Ekaterina’s mom just found out she has cancer. Ekaterina flew out yesterday because they put her mom straight into the hospital. They’ve already started chemo,” Amy told Darcy.
“Shit. I hope she’s okay. But that means you need a hacker.”
“We need a hacker,” Amy agreed. “I tried to get Dionisha, but she’s too far away to get to Manhattan in time. We’re already en route and can pick you up. We’ll be in and out in less than an hour.”
“You know I’m already dressed for a party,” Darcy retorted as she bolted for the elevator.
“Then that’s perfect. If anyone catches you, you won’t look you’re involved.”
Darcy swore under her breath. Steve was going to be pissed. Maybe. Maybe not, she decided. But she wasn’t about to get the Avengers involved in this. If anyone would go down, one Darcy Lewis wasn’t like taking down Captain America. “What have you got for me to work with?” she asked as she rode down. Slowly. She kicked the side of the elevator. “Stop stalling, JARVIS. Just get me to the ground floor.”
Reluctantly, the elevator picked up speed, depositing her on the ground floor in a reasonable amount of time.
“Sorry, Amy, that last part wasn’t for you.”
Her old friend laughed. “That’s okay. We still have your old laptop. Ekaterina and Dionisha just finished upgrading the shit out of the motherboard. You can’t have it back.”
“Damn. I liked that laptop.”
“No dice. See you in five.”
Darcy sprinted for the front door of the Tower, calling out, “JARVIS, stall for me. Tell Steve I’m in the bathroom or something. I just need an hour. He won’t even have to know.”
JARVIS, of course, would not consider such a thing. Most particularly not when Darcy was without a coat or purse, and a small white Mitsubishi Lancer stopped outside just long enough for a young man to pull Darcy into the backseat of the car.
The Avengers had already assembled at the party. JARVIS killed the music, and was quite irritated when it took a full 4.2 seconds to get their attention.
“JARVIS--” Tony started.
“Sir, I believe Miss Lewis has been kidnapped under false pretenses.”
Part 2: The Infiltration
“Okay, like, hands off the dress, asshole.”
Darcy eyeballed the young man--nineteen or twenty at best as she peeled apart her cell phone and removed the battery, dropping both into her pocket. “Amy, take the battery out of your cell phone since you used it to call me. And who are you?” she asked the new guy.
Amy jerked a thumb over the back of the driver’s seat. “My boyfriend, Alex. He’s an honorary adjunct of the Queens. You should see what he did to infiltrate Cassady Hall last year.”
Darcy gave Alex a second glance, and he held up his hands in apology. “Cool. Got the laptop?” she demanded. He dug in his bag and passed it over as Darcy leaned between the seats to wave at Daroline, her former roommate who was now working on her Masters in Physics.
“Hey girlfriend,” Daroline said, with a wide smile. “We’ve missed you. When do we get to meet your boyfriend? Or Thor? I’d be happy to meet Thor.”
“He gives great hugs,” Darcy agreed as she sat back and settled the headset over her ears.
“Thor?” Alex muttered. “Who’s your boyfriend?”
Alex’s eyes popped wide open. “Aw hell, we’re going to land in jail forever.”
Darcy shook her head. “Hell, no. Steve’s going to be pissed I didn’t ask him to come along. But B&E isn’t really his thing.” She groaned. “Nat’s going to kill me. B&E is definitely her thing.”
“Natasha Romanova?” Alex squeaked. “You know her personally?”
“Even smelled her perfume and I’m still breathing, dude,” Darcy quipped. She brought the laptop online. It only took her a few seconds to bring the CCTVs up. “Amy, give me a course. I want to block the road cameras.”
As Amy gave her the street names, Darcy looped cameras, timing them as they drove along so that their car wouldn’t show up on the feeds. She only had to loop the data for ten or fifteen seconds, so it wasn’t likely anyone would notice, even if they were looking. In between tracking the cameras, she prepped for the break-in. Ekaterina had already done some of the preliminary work, so it was easy enough to log into the agency’s security software.
“Hey, where are the schematics of the office? This will be easier if I can take a peek.”
Daroline passed them back. “Take a look. It’s our only copy, so you can’t have it.”
Darcy handed over her phone to Alex. “Take pics for me. Good and up close. Don’t miss anything. How much time do I have?”
“Twenty-two minutes gives us the biggest window to find the contracts.” Amy tapped her earpiece. “Ashleigh and Marion have eyes on the building and they’re scanning for heat signatures. There are three security guards, all bored and watching the Texas high school football playoffs. Marion’s pissed she can’t see the score.”
“Shit. That was tonight?” Daroline complained. “Got a niece in one of the bands.”
“They never show halftime anyway,” Darcy soothed. “We’ll catch it on YouTube.” She brought the security grid online and set about looping cameras throughout the building. That would keep the guards from seeing what they were up to. “Who is getting inside?”
“Amy and I are going in,” Daroline insisted. “Alex is our backup.”
“Good. If this goes Tango Uniform, we don’t want our star witness compromised,” Darcy muttered.
Daroline poked her head around the seat. “That sounded awfully professional.”
“Comes from hanging out with people who do black ops for a living. I’ve learned few tricks. Guess I’m driving the getaway car?”
“You’re the best, Darce,” Amy insisted. “Ashleigh and Marion will scram as soon as we’re clear. You’ll call the op.”
Darcy nodded. “Okay, let’s get everyone online then.” Alex and Daroline reached up to touch their earpieces, while Darcy turned her headset on. “Queen Bee online. Give me a check in, ladies. Gentleman.”
When Ashley called in, she and Darcy did an electronic handshake to tap into the live data from Ashley’s laptop to Darcy’s. A little box popped up with the building and three red figures huddled over a desk on the ground floor. Another box popped up with the building’s schematics as Alex send the pics over.
“Okay, I’m live and in. Cameras are secure. Marion, tell Amy where to park,” Darcy ordered. “I’ve got backdoor ready to pop open on my command if you can find something on the south side. I need a key card.”
Alex held one up. “From Genevieve.”
“Okay, when you get to backdoor, scan it once. It’s going to fail, but that will transmit the code to me so I can activate it throughout the building. Wait for me to clear it, and then you’ll have full access.”
“Won’t the security guards see someone is trying to get in?” Alex asked.
Daroline and Amy laughed, as Darcy grinned at him. “Nope. I’ve already suppressed the cameras, and I’ll block the signal from going to the guard station.”
“You can do that?”
“There really isn’t anything Darcy can’t do with a computer, Alex.”
“Why aren’t you working for the FBI or something,” he wondered.
“Because I seriously have the coolest job on the planet, dude.”
“What do you do?”
“Dr. Jane Foster is my boss. I keep her software happy. She writes the equations, I dream up the programming to talk to her equipment.”
Alex whistled. “Yeah, okay. I can see that.”
Amy pulled into a tree-covered spot on the road. At Darcy’s command, Amy, Daroline, and Alex headed for the building, pretending to be slightly drunk college students as they wandered down the block.
Darcy crawled into the front seat, locked the doors, and pretended to be watching a movie. The laptop had a privacy filter on it, reducing the glare and preventing anyone from peeking in on what she was doing. Two keystrokes would flip her screen into something innocuous--yup, Ekaterina had loaded “The Holiday” for the back up and the player was set to about a third of the movie in. Good cover.
“It’s show time, Bees. We’ve got a window of opportunity and we don’t want to waste it.”
The Avengers, plus Jane and Pepper, piled into the war room, where JARVIS had pulled up everything he could find on Darcy.
Steve really wanted to punch something. This was his biggest fear, that someone--anyone--with a grudge against Captain America would go after Darcy. He fisted his hands on his hips, waiting for intel.
JARVIS had the brief video of Darcy being jerked into the car on a loop to one side.
“What do you know, J,” Tony demanded.
“Ms Lewis received a phone call at eighteen-twenty-eight, as she was preparing to retrieve Dr. Foster from her laboratory. The phone is registered to an Amy De La Torre, currently a PhD student at Culver University. At eighteen-twenty-nine, Ms Lewis engaged the privacy mode on her apartment, to which I complied with her request. At eighteen-thirty-six, Ms. Lewis entered the public corridor.” JARVIS played the video from the ground floor of the Avengers Tower, showing Darcy sprinting through the empty lobby. “JARVIS, stall for me. Tell Steve I’m in the bathroom or something. I just need an hour. He won’t even have to know.”
Steve flushed as everyone stared at him, baffled and more than a little worried. “I have no idea. Has she really been kidnapped?”
JARVIS played the video of Darcy being pulled into the car, adding, “I was only able to track Ms De La Torre’s cell phone until the battery was removed at eighteen-thirty-nine, at the same time as Ms Lewis’ cell phone also deactivated. I’ve been unable to track either one since.”
“Why aren’t you tracking the car, JARVIS?” Tony demanded.
“The street cameras have been looped, Sir. It appears that whoever is doing so is also laying down several paths through the city of compromised cameras. I am unable to determine which path Ms. Lewis might be on, and I cannot locate the vehicle at this time.”
“Damn. We’ve got a hacker,” Natasha decided.
“Okay, what do we know about this ‘Amy’ that Darcy was talking to?” Clint said. “Nat and I will check the S.H.I.E.L.D. files--legally. JARVIS, if you’ll scan for any info on the web.”
Thor crossed his arms, clearly worried about Darcy. “Jane? Did you know this person from Culver?”
She squinted. “No. Amy was one of the ‘Queens,’ I think. Had a room on the same floor as Darcy, that I know for sure.”
“Queens?” Steve prompted.
“Um, Culver students who did lingerie modeling for catalogs. Darcy started it, I think--the Queens, not the modeling gig. Sort of a support group for the models. The industry can be pretty brutal. She didn’t talk much about it.”
Steve frowned. Darcy hadn’t mentioned it at all to him. He firmly squelched any jealous impulses. It was inappropriate. It was also inappropriate the way his brain went skittering off into rechecking its memories of Darcy clad in lingerie. She had a lot of it, and he appreciated her wrapped in every last scrap of lace and silk. He firmly set aside those thoughts to glare at the feeds JARVIS played on a loop on the far wall.
Tony stared at the stream of data. “That one.” He stabbed a finger at a hologram.
It was an article about the Quartermain Modeling Agency and their recruitment techniques. Culver was mentioned, as were rumors of inappropriate modeling gigs.
“I’ve got nothing on Amy, Queens, or any link to known issues with Culver from S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Clint said. “But Quartermain has been investigated several times for prostitution, though there’s never been any hard evidence.”
“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted. “Several of the street cameras outside the Quartermain Modeling Agency have been looped. Rather well, I might add.”
Nat flashed a look at Steve. “Was she kidnapped? Or does she have a mission?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything at all. But I sure as hell am not leaving her out there on her own.”
Tony opened a cabinet and pulled out a handful of communicators. He scanned them all. “There. Stay in touch. We’ll keep you posted.”
Nat huddled behind Steve as they took the motorcycle, as it was easier to navigate the crowded Manhattan Streets. Thor flew Barton to a nearby rooftop, where they settled in to get eyes on the scene.
It wasn’t long before Barton radioed, “I’ve got the car. Parked on the southwest side of the building. Appears to be one person in the driver’s seat, but the screens are shielded. Driver has a laptop.”
Tony’s voice came over the com. “JARVIS is scanning the transmissions in the area.”
Steve parked the bike on the sidewalk around the corner from where the car was parked, just as Tony gave a little victory cry. “JARVIS hacked into what definitely appears to be a B&E op. Equipment isn’t half bad either.”
Steve ordered, “Let’s listen in. If anyone needs to go private, switch to the secondary channel.”
“Time to wrap up. Our guards are on the move.”
Steve blinked. That was Darcy on the coms.
“We’re clear….. now. Locking up and heading out,” a softer female voice reported.
Darcy gave a running commentary. “One guard at Station one. Two splitting up on the elevators. That’s lazy. Take the stairs and you’ll be fine. Oh, shit, okay, Bee Two reporting front door is compromised. Looks like three persons entering. Bee Three is walking to the car now. Time to move. Take the south stairs and head straight for the exit. I see you on the monitors. Bees Two, Three, you’re clear to bug out. Meet you at the rendezvous point. Okay, opening the back door in three-two-one-go.”
The white car’s engine fired up, made a U-turn to pick up the people--none of whom were Darcy. Was Darcy the figure in the car?
Natasha slipped off the bike to blend with the light crowd of pedestrians moving toward toward the car to see for herself.
Steve ordered, “Thor, follow the black Civic to wherever they are going. Stark, come get Barton and meet us there. Banner, hold down the Tower and stay with JARVIS. Romanoff and I have the white Mitsubishi.”
“Roger that, Rogers. Was that really Lewis on the coms?” Stark wondered.
“Yes, Stark. That was Darcy.”
Part Three: Reckoning
Darcy turned two corners and figured out she was being followed. The little car darted neatly through traffic and zipped around potholes with ease, but there was no doubt that the motorcycle eight or nine cars back was following her.
The rendezvous point was in the Bronx, and with holiday traffic, Darcy wasn’t having much luck losing the tail until she crossed the river. After that, a couple of sneaky alleys and a side street or three seemed to do the trick.
Unless, of course, JARVIS had tattled.
Thor waited outside the diner where Marion and Ashleigh were already sitting at a table. Stark dropped in, full armor, with Clint, dressed in purple silk shirt and black slacks, just as Steve, still wearing his dark grey silk suit, pulled up on his motorcycle with Natasha, clad in a flared red dress that somehow stuck to her thighs (how does she do THAT), on the back.
Shit. They hadn’t even changed out of the party clothes. Darcy really, really didn’t know it was her boyfriend following her. She raised her hands as she got out of the car. “I can totally explain all this.”
Amy, Daroline, and Alex got out of the car too, all looking to Darcy for a cue as to what in the hell to do.
She heaved a sigh. “Look, I’ve got a phone call to make. We’ll all go inside the diner, I’ll make the call from there, and I can fill you guys in.”
Marion and Ashleigh looked up in shock from the table they’d saved. Darcy thumbed over her shoulder. “Queens, the Avengers minus the Hulk. Hulkless Avengers, meet the Queens.”
Darcy set her laptop on the table while Clint and Alex tugged a couple of extra tables in place. The waiter’s eyes popped as he saw who his illustrious customers were for the night. Out of the corner of her eye, Darcy saw Tony slip the manager enough cash to warrant flipping the “OPEN” sign off for the night.
There was no mistaking the cold fury in Steve as he sat down across from her. Yep, thaaaaaaaat’s why she wanted JARVIS to stall for her. “Guess I’m not on JARVIS’ BFF list,” she grumbled. Amy took one side, and Nat plopped down on the other as Darcy opened her laptop. “Who’s got the burner phone?”
Alex held it up. “Take pictures of the contract and send it to me," Darcy told him. " Give me a minute to set up an email address and find an IP to send it from. Don’t want anybody tracking it back to us.”
Tony eyeballed Darcy. “How did I miss that you’re a hacker?”
“You get distracted by my boobs, Stark. Even Pepper’s noticed,” she countered as she typed. “Amy, give them a rundown of what we’ve been doing these last few years while I get the package ready for delivery.”
As Amy sat up a little straighter, seemingly unconcerned about making a full disclosure to the Avengers, Darcy smiled to herself. No superhero would intimidate a Culver Queen.
In spite of Darcy’s occasionally snarky interjection, Amy smoothly laid out their discoveries and the evidence they’d finally obtained. It was easy for Darcy to see the way Steve’s ire changed from worry about Darcy to righteous anger for injustice.
About the time Amy finished, Darcy had sorted the evidence they’d accumulated into two parts. Daroline picked up the tale, laying out the evidence for the Avengers piece by piece.
Tony and Natasha exchanged a long look when she was done. Nat shrugged. “It will hold up in court. Even with the NDA’s.”
“By the time it gets to trial, Quartermain will have dismantled the company and he’d be a fool not to try to intimidate the models,” Tony added.
Natasha flashed a smile at the Queens, ending with Darcy. “Give us ten. We’ll put S.H.I.E.L.D. on protection detail. We’ll catch anything Quartermain does on that front. I’ll need a list of names of who might be affected.”
Darcy pulled up the list of current and former models and sent it to Nat, who sent it … somewhere.
“There,” the assassin said in satisfaction. “They’ll be in place within a couple of hours. There’s enough junior agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. to cover every one of them. “Make the call.”
Hoo boy. When the Black Widow gives an order--without a word, Marion passed Darcy the phone number to Vanity Fair.
It took ten minutes for the magazine to get their senior editor out of her own holiday party and on the line. It took Darcy another twenty minutes to lay out the story, send the first packet of evidence as proof, and ten more before the editor started giggling with outright glee.
When the editor asked where to send the money, Darcy put her on hold.
“Which charity?” she asked the Queens. When Amy and Daroline hesitated, Darcy frowned. “Hey, you know we can’t split that kind of cash. We’ll be outed in a heartbeat.”
“Ekaterina’s mom is in the hospital fighting cancer,” Amy reminded Darcy. “Her mom works for a little company. She’s got one of those high deductible health insurance plans, and the hospital isn’t in her network, so it’s going to have a thirty percent co-pay on everything. There’s no way they have the money for that.”
Darcy shot a look at Stark and fumbled for the clasp of her choker. “How much is this worth?” she asked as she held it out.
“Twenty thousand,” he answered without hesitation. “Consider it done.” He pulled out his phone and began tapping keys.
“I’ll get Ekaterina what she needs. The Queens can take care of their own.” Darcy swallowed hard at the sentiment and the worry for a friend.
Clint piped up, “Ekaterina’s mom is at Memorial?”
“How did you know,” Daroline demanded.
He grinned. “That’s my job. Now, Memorial has an Angel Fund for people who can’t pay. You can designate the money go there.”
Darcy glanced around the table, meeting the eyes of the other Queens. “We vote. All in favor?”
The vote was unanimous, and Darcy got back on the line with the editor to insist that the reward money be anonymously donated to Memorial. There was a three-way call to Memorial, and when Darcy received confirmation the money had been sent, she released the last of the evidence, consisting of witness statements and the rest of the pictures, to Vanity Fair, with a promise that the story would break before the New Year, or Darcy would release the same evidence to the hacker group “Anonymous.”
When Darcy set the phone down and closed the laptop, Tony rose to his feet, clapping. He was joined by the other Avengers. Clint let out a soft whoop, and Thor held up his fist in victory as they too, stood with Tony.
Steve rounded the table to kiss Darcy on the cheek. “Careful. I hear Tony’s hiring,” he whispered in her ear. She laughed in relief as the Queens scrambled out of their seats, exchanging happy tears and long hugs.
When the noise became outlandish, Tony whistled to get their attention. “You know, I’ve got a perfectly good spread going cold. Shall we move this party?”
Part 4: Fallout
“I am seriously not dressed for this, Darcy,” Amy said in hushed tones as she drove down Park, following Steve to the Tower.
“No biggie. We’ll stop by my place when we go up,” Darcy assured her.
With bright scarves, borrowed heels, and a blouse or three, the Queens were outfitted for the party. Clint even contributed a fedora for Alex with red ribbon pinned to it when Darcy begged for help, and then she led the Queens into Tony Stark’s penthouse, where the Avengers had regrouped and Pepper had champagne waiting.
Marion’s eyes popped wide as she looped her arm into Ashleigh’s, hanging on for dear life. “Seriously?” She gaped at Thor.
Jane snickered and held out her hand, introducing herself as a Culver alumni. She waved over Bruce, and soon the students and grads were bonding over the Culver experience. Thor hovered on the edge of the crowd, perfectly aware that he functioned as eye candy for the evening.
Between Pepper’s innate ability to host a fabulous party, Natasha and Clint--hey, spies, they can blend anywhere, and hell, Tony could hang with anyone with a brain, it wasn’t long before the atmosphere grew festive with animated conversation and the occasional impromptu dance.
Steve was patient, knowing Darcy would want to see to her friends first. But he linked hands with her as she introduced him around. After the fifth or sixth Culver story, Darcy pulled him to the side and stepped close. She wrinkled her nose. “Ever had a normal day turn a little weird?”
With a gorgeous smile, he laughed. “A time or two.” His hands skimmed along the back of her dress to tug her close. “Lingerie model?” One brow arched upward.
Darcy snickered. “There’s a reason I know all those pin up poses you like.” She slid her hands under his jacket to rest on his perfect ass.
She thought he would tease her again, but instead, Steve rested his chin on her head. Against her hair, he murmured, “I know what it’s like to be seen as something you aren’t. To have others criticize you because your body doesn’t fit a mold. What they think doesn’t matter.” He tipped her chin up and dropped a sweet kiss on her lips. “I love you. You amaze me. Every day.”
The compliment floored her, but she didn’t blush, didn’t stammer. Nope. She was a Culver Queen. “Thank you.”
A sparkle danced in Steve’s eyes. He darted a glance behind her as he stepped away. Following his look, she turned to find her best friend frantically making a circling motion. “What did you do?” she asked as she turned back to Steve.
He was on a knee. Holding a ring. Giving her the pleading puppy dog eyes. There might have been a question in there somewhere, too.
“Holy shitballs. You’re serious?”
He rolled his eyes the tiniest bit, and she was sure he’d bitten back about eight retorts. “Yes," he affirmed.
She licked her lips, appreciating the nervous bob of Steve’s Adam’s apple as he swallowed. Waiting.
Darcy plucked the ring out of his hand and slid it on her finger. “Yes, Steve Rogers, I’ll marry you.”
She hardly heard the shrieks and whistles behind her as her fiance swept her up in a dizzying hug.
There was champagne. Dancing. And Darcy giggled as the Queens cornered Captain America to give him a sternly worded shovel talk. Steve blushed at their admonishments until Bruce gently rescued him and nudged him toward Darcy.
Nat and Clint flanked her. “Not bad, girlfriend,” Clint said as he lightly kicked her shoe. “Next time? We want in.”
Darcy flashed them a smile as Steve made his way to her. “Well, now, doesn’t that give a girl ideas.”